Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I haven't made a big deal about it here, other than posting a link in the right-hand column, but I'm the editor of an intermittent journal of the arts called Burning Ambulance. We call it a "quarterly," but the first one came out in late February and #2 is out, well, now.

The idea's a pretty simple one: I gather a bunch of smart, funny, talented writers and talk them into long-form pieces about subjects that interest them. I write one or two myself. That's it. No consideration for what "everyone" is talking about this month; no worries about timeliness; nothing but love.

This issue features a cover story, by me, on alto saxophonist Darius Jones; a profile of the New Orleans metal band Eyehategod by "Grim" Kim Kelly (plus a half dozen poems by their vocalist, Mike IX Williams); an exploration of the music of Cris Aflalo and Heloisa Fernandes, two neotraditionalist composer/performers from Brazil whose work is much more interesting than a lot of what comes out of that country these days; a fantastic essay on Hollywood's attempts to come to grips with (and exploit) punk rock in the late '70s and early '80s by Phil Nugent, whose blog should be a daily stop for you and everyone you know; a beginner's guide to J-pop; and a tribute to Bill Dixon by musicians who worked with him, including William Parker, Alan Silva, Barry Guy, Rob Mazurek, Warren Smith, Joe McPhee and others. You get all that for just $10 (plus shipping), or $5 if you want a digital download instead of a handsome, perfect-bound hard copy. Interested? Click here.

Monday, August 30, 2010


So I saw this video at The Awl, posted as part of some absurd non-story about the writer's inability to understand his own attraction to violence; he writes, apparently in total seriousness, that "watching my five-year-old son shoot imaginary bullets out of a cardboard paper-towel tube or a wooden flute with flowers painted on it or, when there's nothing else available, his fingers, reminds me of when I did the same at the same age, and of the futility of my parents' refusal to buy me toy guns, and of my refusal to buy them for him." It's like nothing in the world ever happened until it happened to this dipshit. Anyway, here's the video. Thoughts to follow.

Yelawolf is a guy whose name I've been hearing for a few weeks now, always spoken/typed by a small clutch of folks whose self-appointed purpose in life is to know the month's buzzworthy rapper and insist that he (it's always he) is the most important thing to happen to "the game" since...I don't know. I don't give a shit. I'm not gonna listen to Gucci Mane, I'm not gonna listen to Lil B, it took me a year or so to download Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III (I think that was the one—it was a two-CD "mixtape") after everyone started blogging (and even writing articles in print publications, for money) that it was the greatest hip-hop event of the decade. I know these names because the websites I visit make these names unavoidable. I don't care, but I know, just like I know the names of all three Kardashian sisters.

Moving on. Yelawolf. He's not a particularly deft rapper, at least not based on this song. The chorus is unimpressive—when he chants "Don't make me go pop the trunk on you" it actually diminishes the momentum and suspense he's built up during the verse. Each verse rises to a crescendo, and then the chorus kind of staggers to a halt, forcing the song to basically start all over again. Imagine someone running up a ramp holding a bucket. You're thinking when he gets to the top of that ramp, he's gonna throw whatever's in that bucket and it's gonna fly everywhere. But when he gets to the top of the ramp, he swings the bucket and it's full of a thick, soggy substance—congealing oatmeal, say, or tapioca pudding—and instead of flying out it just kind of slops onto the ground.

What's interesting to me about Yelawolf is that like Eminem, he's got a lot of (maybe subconscious) Goth in him. Listen to the piano in this song. OK, it's not Goth per se, it's more like a Nine Inch Nails ballad—"Hurt" or "The Day The World Went Away" or any of a half dozen others. This song doesn't match up with its video; the visuals remind me of the opening credits to Justified, which featured a kind of hip-hop/bluegrass blend that was a) much more interesting than "Pop the Trunk" and b) worked perfectly with the images on screen.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


I went into Takers with my brain clenched. I was expecting it to be terrible. I considered the casting of T.I., Chris Brown, Paul Walker and even Idris Elba to be warning signs. I've seen former castmembers of The Wire popping up in hip-hop videos lately, and Elba's done some other movies aimed at urban blacks—he co-starred with Beyoncé in 2009's Obsessed, remember, and he did a Tyler Perry movie, Daddy's Little Girls, too. So I was expecting it to be a 90-minute version of one of those hip-hop videos that finds the rappers and their friends and hangers-on reshooting one of their favorite gangster movies—an imitation of an imitation.

Well, Takers is much better than that. It's not original—it's a genre picture, a heist movie. Genre movies have rules, and Takers only breaks one, and when that surprise comes, it's a solid choice on the filmmakers' part.

There are two basic heist-movie stories, the "one last job" story and the "job too big to pass up" story. Takers is the latter, with some twists thrown in. Elba plays the leader of a five-man, high-end heist team; they pull off a Heat-style bank robbery as the movie begins, getting away by hijacking a news helicopter. Then they're contacted by T.I., the sixth member of the crew, who went to prison following a 2004 job. He comes out early, and returns offering an even bigger job than the one we just saw them complete, albeit on a rush schedule. It's an armored car robbery, not unlike the one in the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, a fact that's explicitly acknowledged in dialogue. There's about 30 seconds of "it's too quick...can we trust him?" dialogue within the group, before they're all in. As you knew they would be, 'cause otherwise there's no movie.

Meanwhile, there's a parallel narrative about the obsessed detective, played by Matt Dillon, who's tracking whoever was behind the movie-opening bank job. That's all pretty much straight out of Heat, except Dillon doesn't shout as much as Al Pacino. (In fact, he delivers most of his dialogue in a sullen mutter.) And while that story's not as interesting as the criminals' preparations for their big job, it's handled better than many writers would have done. Dialogue between Dillon and his partner is expository but not clunky. There are some decent twists along the way, too.

What I like best about heist movies is the part where the team does the actual physical work of preparing—dressing up like city workers and crawling through the sewers to lay charges, jackhammering through the floor of the building next door to the one they're going to rob, tapping into the alarm system and stealing the passcodes, that stuff. Takers does that stuff well. Some of the things it doesn't do well, like showing us how all the members of the crew save one get away from the second-act climax, or doing more to establish the power of a love triangle (it doesn't help that two-thirds of the characters involved in said triangle are given almost no motivation...not just to be together, but to exist at all), are forgivable in my eyes because the important stuff is handled efficiently and without showiness. The filmmakers also keep the thing I was most worried about having to endure—music video-style passages where the thieves stand (or sit) around looking cool, drinking expensive liquor with anonymous and underdressed women draped over them—to a relative minimum. Oh, and in general the movie is very well shot and edited—it's digital, but since it takes place in 2010, that's not a mood-shattering distraction the way it was in Michael Mann's Public Enemies, set in the 1930s but seemingly filmed on a Flip video camera.

Ultimately, to me, the most interesting character in the entire movie is played by, of all people, Paul Walker. He's an underrated actor, because he doesn't ever seem to be working very hard, and he allows everyone else in a scene to out-shout him, when they're not physically throwing him around or otherwise making the viewer forget he's there at all. Put him next to a cartoon character like Vin Diesel in the first and fourth Fast & the Furious movies, and he comes off like a paperweight. Put him next to Jessica Alba and her absurdly undersized bikini, in Into the Blue, and his presence is once again an afterthought. Here, he plays Idris Elba's #2 man, and while T.I. and Chris Brown and Hayden Christensen (playing his latest in a long line of smirking d-bags, this time with the addition of a silly hat and paint-on tattoos) are making spectacles of themselves, he hangs in the background and is silently competent. To paraphrase Mark Wahlberg's character in The Departed, he's the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy. And sure enough, when the movie reaches its final confrontation, it's Walker who emerges unscathed and...well, I'll let you go see it for yourself.

Like I said, Takers is a heist movie. Heist movies, like all genre movies, have rules, and this one plays by them, until it doesn't. It also nods to its predecessors in various ways, big and small, obvious (and acknowledged) and not. If I had to compare it to anything, I'd compare it to Heat, but without the pretentiousness that makes stretches of that movie a slog. Heat wants to be grand opera; Takers wants to be exactly what it is—a good genre movie, worth your ticket and your time if you're a fan of the genre. Period.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Los Tucanes de Tijuana, 2006:

Los Tucanes de Tijuana, 2009:

Sunday, August 22, 2010


I was really nervous about talking to Weird Al. I wasn't sure whether he would respond well to my questions; most journalists seem to set him up to deliver one-liners, and I was much more interested in talking to him as an artist, getting an idea of his comedic philosophy and working methods. But he seemed to enjoy that, so I wound up with much, much more material than I could ever fit into an 800-word feature for the Cleveland Scene. I'll provide a link to that when it runs. But in the meantime, here's the full transcript of our conversation.

What do you make of the quote from Michael O’Donoghue, the Saturday Night Live writer who said “Making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy”?
[Laughs] Hm. Michael was an interesting guy. He was very antagonistic and he liked to get a rise out of people, and his satire was probably some of the darkest satire that existed at the time. I loved it. He was a guy that would jam needles into his eyes on Saturday Night Live and do an impression of somebody that had just jammed needles in their eyes. I don’t know if I can agree with that statement totally—I see why he said it and I understand the point he was trying to make, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making people laugh. I think there’s a need for that. I think escapism is a valid goal, something valuable to offer people. I know that my music has helped people out of some rough patches in their lives and there’s no shame in making people laugh. But I understand Michael’s point as well.

Your material is very family-friendly and rooted in pop culture and everyday life. Do you have a personal taste for darker satire or edgier comedy at all that doesn’t make it into your own work?
Well, I’m a fan of many different kinds of comedy. I’m a fan of a lot of different comedians whose work I love and admire but I wouldn’t be doing that kind of material myself. It’s just not the kind of comedy that I personally would feel comfortable putting out into the world. Especially because my fan base expects a certain thing from me now, and if I were to alter it tremendously I think a lot of people would be offended or disappointed, so my comedy doesn’t necessarily describe my entire musical or comedic tastes.

Was there ever a time when you considered moving to a dirtier or harder-edged act?
Not really. I mean, you know, my act always was and is an extension of who I am. So I’m not really holding anything back, let’s say. My act is exactly what I feel like putting out there. So it’s not like I feel restrained in any way, really.

Do you feel like comedians who do “zany” material get less respect from their peers than those who go the more abrasive route? Or have you always found yourself welcomed as a performer?
It’s an interesting question. There are artists that work clean, and I guess I would fall into that part of the Venn diagram, and sometimes they’re viewed as being softer or less biting or even by some people less funny. You know, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to work clean, I don’t have any problem with people that don’t want to work clean. It’s just my personal choice. I think that people that use profanity for a cheap laugh are kind of going the easy route and I always think it’s better to really earn the laugh instead of getting them through shock value, necessarily.

Some comedians have said there’s no subject they wouldn’t joke about, no matter how serious. I’m curious if you’ve ever rejected material for the opposite reason—that it’s too easy, too banal.
Yeah. Not that I haven’t made the obvious joke on occasion. Sometimes it’s inescapable. But whenever possible, I try not to go the obvious route, make the obvious joke, make the obvious choice. And it’s usually funnier to try and surprise people and come up with something that they weren’t expecting.

Yeah, one example of that approach that really leaps out for me was your use of "American Pie" for the Star Wars song "The Saga Begins." Can you tell me how that piece came together?
For that particular song, I knew that I wanted to write a song about the upcoming Star Wars prequel, and I was trying to think of what song would be the best vehicle to tell the story, and I was considering a lot of songs that were popular at the time but they all seemed just of the moment and very ephemeral, and Star Wars as a franchise just seemed a lot weightier than that. So I thought it would be great to maybe pair that with a real classic, iconic American rock song. And when I was going through my head some of those kind of songs, I happened to think about “American Pie,” which I had just heard recently at a club, and I thought of the first line of the song, “A long, long time ago,” which was kind of echoing the beginning of Star Wars. And I thought, well, that’s great, not only does it have the same kind of beginning, but it’s a long song, it really lends itself well to the kind of narrative structure that I’ll need to be able to tell this story. So it just seemed to work very well for me.

Your last full-length album was released in 2006; what’s the current plan for the next full-length? Will it be out by the end of this year?
I don’t know when. There’s a chance it could come out later this year, but it’s just as likely if not more so that it’ll be next year sometime.

Do you feel like the approach you took with the Internet Leaks EP, putting songs out one by one as inspiration strikes, then compiling a half dozen or so, was a good way to go?
Yeah, I don’t know if I’d do it again, I might, but it was a noble experiment. I wanted to try it out because the whole recording industry has sort of been falling apart in the last decade or so and everybody was just trying new things. And I just thought it would be kind of fun, for me particularly, to just put songs out one at a time because that focused attention on just that one song, instead of a song perhaps being lost in the context of an entire album. And also, the whole iTunes distribution system allowed me to be a lot more topical than I would have been conventionally. With my T.I. parody, “Whatever You Like,” I was able to go from concept in my head to having it for sale on iTunes within, I think, two weeks. It was an insanely short turnaround period. And I was able to get my parody out there in the marketplace the same week the original was still Number 1 on the Billboard charts. I don’t you’ve ever had that happen, either. So even though it may not have been as big a commercial success, Internet Leaks did get nominated for a Grammy, and I think it kind of kept fans satiated last year, because otherwise they wouldn’t have had any new product from me. So I think it accomplished everything I needed it to accomplish.

It does seem like that model would work for somebody with your career. Because now it’s three or four years between albums, industry standard, where in the '70s acts like Kiss and Ted Nugent would put out two albums a year sometimes…
In the '80s I was about one every year. That’s just kinda not the way it works anymore.

So it seems like the quick, “Here’s a new thing, click here to buy the song for 99 cents” model would seem to be ideal for you.
Yeah, it seems like it would be a great model for me to pursue, so I’m trying to learn from my experience last year and hopefully build on that.

How much time do you spend writing? Are you constantly working on material?
I’m not always writing. I kind of turn my brain off for long stretches of time. I’m always kinda open to inspiration, like if I get a song idea that can come at any point, and I’ll write that down in the notebook. But once I’m actively writing a song I focus pretty intensely on that until it’s done. I’ll spend a week or two just coming up with ideas for a particular song. It’s something that I really spend a lot of time on, because I do comedy music and I have a lot of fun with it but it’s sort of serious business for me, because I know that I have to live with these songs for the rest of my life and I want to make sure they’re as good as they can be.

So do you generally have a concept and then match it to a song, let’s say, if you’re gonna do a parody, or to a musical style—is it lyrics first and music later, or vice versa, or something else?
Are you talking about the parodies or the original songs?

The song parodies and the style parodies as well—are those typically concept first, and then figure out in what style you’re going to perform it?
A lot of the time with the style parodies it’s sort of mix and match, because I’ll have a list of styles that I think will be fun to try to tackle and also a list of subject matter that I think would be fun to try to do my take on. And often times I’ll look at the two lists and draw imaginary lines between things and see if anything kind of amuses me. Like on Internet Leaks, I’d always wanted to do a Doors pastiche, and I just saw the word “Craigslist” next to the Doors and I thought that was funny because it just seemed so anachronistic and just so totally wrong that I thought it would be kinda funny.

That one really struck me, when I saw it on YouTube. I was astonished by your resemblance to Jim Morrison, for one thing.
I had to channel the very soul of the Lizard King. It was very difficult.

How much of the music are you responsible for? Does your approach—not just the song parodies but the style parodies—demand that you become expert on multiple instruments, or do you just learn how to do what you need to do?
I have the absolute minimum amount of skill required to be Weird Al. I do write all the original songs. I don’t play the guitar, I play only keyboard instruments, but I’m able to make demos for the band which are sufficient to give them an idea what the songs should be like. Often times I’ll also give them copies of other songs that are meant to sound like my songs, so they can more get the feel for it, especially if it’s a guitar-dominated kind of song. But I give them enough direction and allow them to have whatever kind of musical input they’re willing to give and together, mostly by working with people much more talented than myself, I’m able to get my material together.

Your studio albums frequently have a large number of musicians on them to work out the arrangements—horns, strings, stuff like that. Do you use tapes live, or do you re-arrange things in a more stripped-down, live-band way?
We do all of the above. Sometimes we’ll strip it down, sometimes my keyboard player will play the horn parts, and sometimes if it’s a really complex song the horns will be part of the video track, if we have video playing behind us onstage. We try to make it a full production, and that sometimes will involve pre-recorded tracks, but if we can pull it off at all, we try to do everything live.

How do you decide to drop something from the live set—is it when the cultural relevance of the original dips beyond a certain point? And does the Internet, on which everything lives forever, make that a more difficult call?
Well, it’s largely personal taste, whatever gets dropped from the set list. There’s a half dozen or so songs that I think I’m going to be required to play for the rest of my life, because they’re my biggest hits and fans would be, I think, fairly disappointed if we stopped playing those songs. Other than that, I try to mix up the set list as much as I can from tour to tour. But of course, part of that decision revolves around whether or not I think a song is getting dated. We’d been playing “It’s All About the Pentiums” on every tour since that song came out, and I finally decided to give it a rest on this tour because, among other reasons, it had references to Y2K and computer systems which ten years ago would have been pretty happening and now they’re pretty pedestrian. So without changing the lyrics, I thought it’d be easier to give that song a rest for a while. What was the second half of your question?

Does the fact that everything lives forever on the Internet make it a tougher call? Like, maybe people are still laughing about stuff you think is dated?
Yeah, and there’s the whole nostalgia factor as well. I mean, people like a lot of songs that I did early in my career that conjure up great memories for them and bring them back to their childhood, but the songs themselves maybe even aren’t all that good or they’re dated in terms of their pop culture references or for any number of other reasons just wouldn’t be appropriate to continue to play live. But people can continue to enjoy them on their CD collection or online and I’m not taking it away from them.

Does pop-cultural atomization represent a challenge for you? It doesn’t seem like there are many truly broad-based popular musicians anymore.
Well, yeah, that’s been a pet peeve of mine for a while. I often talk in interviews about how when I was starting out, the mainstream hits were pretty well delineated. You knew who the superstars were, you knew what the big hits of the day were, and now with all the genres and subgenres and compartmentalization of our culture, it’s kinda hard to figure out what the mainstream hits are. Certainly there are still major stars, there are still hit songs, but I don’t think they’re as easy to recognize as they were fifteen or twenty years ago.

And the stuff that is hitting is Autotune R&B, which doesn't seem like it would be particularly fertile ground...
Yeah, I mean...yeah. I’d have to say it’s become a challenge.

Obviously at this point you’re a known quantity and people are coming to your shows to see you—you’re not springing yourself on people the way you were in the beginning. But back then, how did you deal with hecklers and stuff like that?
Well, I had the advantage because I have a musical act, and I didn’t have a whole lot of patter between songs, so if you could yell loud enough to be heard over the electric guitar, more power to you.

Your music is filled with pop-culture jokes, so what do you think of the current wave of comedy movies that are just a string of pop culture references, with almost no jokes attached to them?
You’re just hitting the nail on the head. That’s another one of my absolute pet peeves, is all these so-called parody movies which are not really parody movies so much as reference movies. If you want to look at how to do a parody movie, go to Airplane!, go to Naked Gun, go to Top Secret!. The Z-A-Z [Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker] team knew how to do it right. Even they seemed to have lost their way a bit in later years, but they gave us the template for how to do those kind of movies correctly. And what that devolved into over the years was a string of movies that are just filled with pop culture references that don’t really do much other than point out various pop culture things. I never really understood the appeal of those kind of movies, but apparently they make enough money so that they continue getting made.

You have a screenplay of your own in the works, yes?
I got to my fourth draft of a screenplay. I was doing it for Cartoon Network, they had commissioned me to do a screenplay and a couple of months ago they had a major policy change where they decided they’re no longer in the business of making live action feature films. So my screenplay along with a half dozen or so other projects went into turnaround. I got the screenplay back and hopefully I’ll get it produced elsewhere, but right now it’s sort of in limbo.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Ten more reviews up at All Music Guide. Enjoy!

Chimaira, Coming Alive
Grief, Come to Grief
In This Moment, A Star-Crossed Wasteland
Inherit Disease, Visceral Transcendence
Les Rallizes Denudes, Blind Baby Has Its Mother's Eyes
Óðmenn, Óðmenn
Gilberto Santa Rosa, Irrepetible
Stratovarius, Polaris Live
Trúbrot, Trúbrot
Wolvhammer, Black Marketeers of World War III

Saturday, August 14, 2010


Jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln died this morning. She was 80.

I admit it; I don't generally listen to jazz vocalists. Scat drives me into a rage, and the ballads are usually just boring. But Lincoln at her best had a fiery fervor that could keep even the most anti-vocalist listener from just wondering when the saxophonist was gonna come back in and rescue the piece.

I don't know much about her career, so I'm curious why there was such a huge gap in her discography—Wikipedia doesn't list any records under her own name between 1961's Straight Ahead and 1973's People in Me. What was she doing for twelve years? Somebody fill me in in comments if you know the story.

Anyway, here's some footage of her performing "Driva Man" from 1960's We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, an amazing album by Max Roach, to whom she was married for many years.

And here's Burnt Sugar's version, from 2006's Black Sex Y'all Liberation & Bloody Random Violets, featuring Vernon Reid on guitar:

Thursday, August 12, 2010


This is one of those times when you shake your head, wipe away a tear (either of laughter or despair) and don't know whether you're being disappointed by cultural ignorance, or shameless avarice. Because either a) the customer and the artist were equally misinformed, neither one knowing the difference between Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley, or b) the customer didn't know, but the artist did, and took the money anyhow. The latter's actually the worst case scenario, right? (Surprisingly, this image isn't part of this gallery of wretched music-related ink.)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Last Thursday, I spent some time on the phone with Jon Spencer, former Pussy Galore mastermind turned leader of the Blues Explosion. The bulk of the group's catalog is being remastered and reissued by Shout! Factory this year, including the once promo-only live disc Controversial Negro. Anyway, he had a fair amount to say, and MSN Music (the outlet that commissioned the piece) didn't have room for all of it. You can read their version here; below is a fuller transcript of our conversation.

In retrospect, would it have been easier to deal with critics if you’d left the word Blues out of the name, and just been the Jon Spencer Explosion?
Maybe it would have been easier, but you know, when I thought up the name, I thought, “Wow, what a great name! It’s crazy!” And, you know, I’ve never shied away from doing something that was crazy or doing what was in my heart, certainly not with this band. So perhaps things would have been easier, but it probably wouldn’t have been as good. You know what I’m saying? It has been unfortunate that some people have been so tripped up by the word “Blues” in the band name or some of the sounds we employ, some of the records we’ve made, the shows we’ve done. Like I said, we are kind of a crazy band, and we definitely take influence from a lot of different kinds of music, and yeah, sometimes the band has been misunderstood and unfairly and even bizarrely judged. I think that does seem to be a problem with the blues thing for some people, sure.

And my follow-up to that is, you were just the Pussy Galore guy at that point, so what made you think you had sufficient name recognition to put yourself up front that way?
Just balls, just chutzpah. I had no good reason. It was just rock ’n’ roll.

There were a lot of “alternative” or indie rock bands in the ’90s, from Pavement to the shoegaze acts from England, that really didn’t bring it live. Were you challenging them to step their game up, in a way?
Well, I think so. I think that the live concert was very important to us. It was extremely important that we play a great show—that we put on a show, you know, and not just get up and shuffle around onstage and look at our feet. Showmanship was very important to us. And I think that came from some of our peers. Some of the bands around at the time were up on stage giving 110 percent, bands like the Jesus Lizard for instance, but most of it came from our love of older acts, older rock ’n’ roll bands, older rhythm ’n’ blues acts, older soul acts. For example, James Brown was a huge touchstone for the Blues Explosion. So I think that yeah, when we started and were going, the kind of high-energy showmanship was not so common in the indie or underground scene, and I don’t think it was because we wanted to throw down a challenge to the other bands, I think it was just because it was in us and it was something that we believed in. It was and still is very, very important to us.

How clear was your vision of the band when it started? Because the sound changes radically between the tracks on Year One and the stuff on Extra Width.
Yeah, from Year One to Extra Width to Orange, you can really hear the progression and the band sort of coming together, forming, gelling and solidifying. I think when we started, there was a great rush of ideas, and a great rush of energy, and I think the roles within the band became more defined and more focused over the course of those three records. We never would talk about what we were trying to do, we just did it, you know? So I think through many shows, many, many concerts, and a lot of touring, we came to better understand who we were and what the band could be.

A lot of the Blues Explosion songs, especially on the first few records, aren’t traditional verse-chorus structures; they’re riffs, beats, and collections of cues, almost like conducted improvisations. What was your songwriting process like then, and what was your studio process like?
The songwriting process was pretty much always the same. Pretty much all the songs were written by the three of us just getting together and we would play. We’d each play our instruments—Russell [Simins] played the drums, Judah [Bauer] played the guitar and I’d play the guitar, and I would sing. And through my singing, I would cue the band and…I was not only the lyricist but also the bandleader, I suppose. So yeah, we would just get together and play. And yeah, not all of the songs were traditional. Some of them were more traditional than others. Some of them did lean towards a more standard arrangement, familiar kind of structures, but for me and for us, we were interested in a lot of different kinds of music. Some things like No Wave, definitely punk rock, even free jazz, but one kind of music that really influenced us was rap, was hip-hop. And the thing that was most liberating about hip-hop was the way in which some of these producers and artists would construct songs by cutting and pasting and sampling and stitching things together. That was a really big influence on us.

On the live album, Controversial Negro, I feel like I can really hear the influence of Lux Interior of the Cramps. How big an inspiration was Lux for you, as a performer?
Sure, Lux was an influence definitely. Yeah, the Blues Explosion shared something with the early Cramps in that we had no bass player. Lux was definitely a thing for me, and rockabilly was, and is, for sure. You know, I also think a big influence for us was the Stooges, in particular their live record Metallic K.O., which is a pretty extreme record on its own.

The Rolling Stones are clearly important to you, also. The song “Magical Colors” sounds like something from Goats Head Soup or It’s Only Rock 'n' Roll. What’s your favorite period of the Stones?
You know, I think around ’65, I guess, after they’d been going for a bit and the songwriting really started happening and coming into flower. I mean, the early records are pretty great too, but they’re pretty much all covers. I thought it was nice when they really started writing songs and before they got too psychedelic, but they had a little bit of that pop and psychedelic stuff happening.

A lot of the material on the Year One CD was released on a bootleg called A Reverse Willie Horton before your official debut album or Crypt Style came out. Was that something you put out yourself?
No. I did not put that out, the band didn’t put it out. We were playing around and had done that first session, that Kramer session that ended up on Reverse Willie Horton, and I passed some cassettes around and I think one of those cassettes found its way into the wrong hands.

You had a lot of collaborators on the various records. Why was that important?
It’s great to play with some of these people, to have the opportunity to meet, let alone play with people like R.L. Burnside, Rufus Thomas, Andre Williams, these people who are just heroes, gods to us. To be able to make music with them was out of this world. And it wasn’t just giants from many years ago whose records we had fallen in love with and studied, but also some of our peers, people that were around at the time. A good example is Money Mark, the keyboard player, who’s all over Now I Got Worry. To be able to play with these people – why did we do it? I don’t know, I guess because it felt good, and it was a thrill. And it was for the good of the songs, you know, I think it helped the songs.

As time went on, there started to be a much wider gap between the experimentalism of the studio albums and the rawness of the live show…
Yeah, the early records are much more straightahead, you know, a band playing live in a room. And as the years went by and we continued to make records, we would for the most part still start with a band recording live in a studio, but I began to get more loose, more free, more creative. Some of it just comes from having the money to be able to do that. It’s a bit of a luxury, if you will. And some of it comes from just knowing how to do it. Knowing what you want and having the wherewithal to do it. And I think what’s important for me to point out is yeah, the Blues Explosion had and still does have tremendous respect for the live concert and we work very, very hard to put on a good show, there’s a tremendous amount of hard work and discipline that is involved, but at the same time these records which have been reissued, there’s an incredible amount of hard work that went into these albums. And yeah, some of it was a lot of experimentation. There was a lot of thought, a lot of deliberation, a lot of hard work that went into making these albums. And a concert is one thing, a studio album is another thing. But in no way was either taken lightly. These albums were not done quickly and they certainly weren’t tossed off.

There’s an incredible amount of B-side material, outtakes, live tracks, etc. on these reissues. Were you guys just in the studio constantly?
We spent a lot of time in the studio, but no, not constantly. I think more importantly, we just wrote a lot. We were very busy, we had a lot of ideas and a lot of songs and we were in the studio enough to get them all down on tape. Yeah, it is striking what a busy band we were. For every record we released, we probably recorded and mixed at least two albums’ worth of material, if not more. There was a lot of stuff, a lot of material, and when it came time to do these reissues, I thought it would be best to try and be as complete as possible, make this material available.

Whose decision was it to release the reissues out of chronological order, and why this particular sequence?
On some things I defer to the label, but there was a bit of back-and-forth about the order. The label felt very strongly about not just releasing them all together, all at once, so there did have to be some sequence, and I can’t remember exactly why, but at some point we decided not to do it chronologically. And that’s okay with me.

What are your plans beyond this current batch of tour dates? Will you be going back into the studio, or returning to the road in a more extensive way?
I think we’ll probably continue to play shows here and there in the immediate future. We don’t have any plans for a full-blown tour, but it’s felt very, very good to play live again. So we’ll be doing a bit more of it.

You recently played the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, and it seems like indie rockers are putting on weak shows again. What’s up with that?
That was a very hectic day for us, we got in just a little bit before we had to play and just had to do the show and then left after the show, so I didn’t see too many of the other bands. But I think that, as much as I hate to say it, I think that music scene is not much better today than it was in the early ’90s. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good bands out there, but there’s a lot of people that could be doing something more, could be more creative and yeah, could be working harder.


"Placebo C'est Si Bon" (feat. Yukihiro Takahashi & Taeko Onuki)

I'm really becoming addicted to this guy's stuff. He's a producer who brings in guest vocalists to float atop his immaculate arrangements. A lot of them are lush '70s pop, but then other tracks are pure Donald Fagen worship, like this one. It's from his second album, Shiplaunching, the only one of his three discs to date that I don't have. I need it.

Monday, August 09, 2010


[Recently, Alternative Press did a feature called "Class of 2000," wherein they looked back at several important/influential albums that are now 10 years old. One of them was At the Drive-In's Relationship of Command. So I interviewed guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez for the third time, to get his thoughts on that record and the disintegration of ATDI soon after its release. Some of the Q&A didn't make it into the magazine, for space reasons, so here's the full transcript.]

What was your relationship with producer Ross Robinson like?
On that record, Ross basically ran the show. I was very eager to be learning at that time. I always say I’m still in training. I’m still learning, but the root of my training was from [producer] Alex Newport, who came before Ross. Then Ross and then Mario [Caldato Jr.], because De Facto—the other band Cedric [Bixler-Zavala] and I had—recorded with Mario C right around the same time. Then of course, there was Rick Rubin. My schooling was watching those guys and seeing what pieces of gear they had and asking questions about why they’d choose to use that particular gear. Ross, at that time, had the reputation for being the wild guy who would throw things or drive you around, doing things like method acting, but for whatever reason, he didn’t really do that with me. I know he threw a trash can a couple of times, and he took Paul [Hinojos, bass] and drove him in an SUV really fast through the hills in Malibu, where there was no barrier, to get his adrenaline going and recorded him that way. But with me it was a very different type of relationship.

How did Iggy Pop wind up on the record?
That was by way of Ross Robinson. He had been talking to Iggy because they were gonna work together. I don’t know if they ever did, but they’d sort of been chatting, so Ross had passed him our previous records and he liked them. So, of course I brought up the idea, “Why not [have Iggy] come and do something on the album?” Ross mentioned it to Iggy, and he was completely open to it. He came down to the studio for a whole day in which he sang [on “Rolodex Propaganda”] and did the ransom note on [“Enfilade”].

When you were making Relationship of Command, was the band already divided into you and Cedric versus the other three?
It was always like that. You see, that’s a thing people don’t understand because we never really talked about our internal affairs. There wasn’t the “reality show” approach to bands like there is now. It was like that from the beginning. It was always me and Cedric. We were in tons of bands before At The Drive-In and we continue to be in bands after At The Drive-In. It was always sort of us against particularly Jim [Ward, guitar] and his candy-coated way of doing things. For example, people always say we broke up out of nowhere and we imploded because of the popularity, and that’s something that always makes us laugh. We’re all good friends now. We all talk now. I invited Tony Hajjar [drums] and Jim and Paul [Hinojos, bass] down to my house in Mexico and had them over. I flew them down here. We’re all good friends, and we still laugh about that [rumor] because [the break up] had nothing to do with that. It was just that I felt it was our time. I felt that the lifespan of the band was over and I broke the band up. It was all personal affairs. It was very much a life thing, it had nothing to do with external pressure and all those theories. Going back to this point again about the way people say that we imploded out of nowhere, they don’t understand the context that we broke up at least three or four other times before we finally broke up. There were three or four times where I or Cedric or Cedric and I both talked about leaving the group because our desires were so different [from the rest of the band]. Looking back on it, it’s part of the beauty of that band and what made it work. It wasn’t what we wanted versus what they wanted. It was a really special dynamic, even though it was volatile in that way. It was what made the band what it was. I don’t regret it at all.

If the band hadn’t broken up, what do you think the album after Relationship Of Command would have sounded like?
It would have been a heartless piece of garbage. I mean, I can only assume that because I wouldn’t have been doing it for the right reasons, and I don’t think that expression or art should come second to anything else. I think the only reason to [play music] is expression—getting out the thing you have inside that can’t be conveyed through any language, whether it be English, Spanish, Japanese or German. So I think when something isn’t real, people will perceive it. Even if they don’t, I just think we would have imploded. I would have been very unhappy; Cedric would have been very unhappy doing it just to do it; and then a true resentment and a true hatred for each other would’ve grown. That’s what happens in a normal human psychology—you start blaming each other. Even though I would have only blamed myself for not leaving, that would be the true blame. It would’ve been easy for me to blame someone else and be like, “Oh, they’re the reason this record sucks.” When in actuality, I would have been the reason—for not being honest. You know, it’s like I always say when people ask me about the breakup: It’s like staying in a relationship with a woman you’re not in love with. It doesn’t work for anybody. You’re lying to yourself, you’re hurting yourself and in the process you’re hurting the other person. You know the way life is. Life is not gonna make it easy for you when you’re living a lie.

What’s your least favorite thing about the album?
In a heartbeat I could tell you, one of my only regrets out of anything I’ve ever done is the way that record was mixed. That record was ruined by the mix. Up until I moved to Europe in 2005, I had the rough mixes that we made on the console [for reference]. Those CDs that I kept were so much more potent and raw. People think that was a raw and energetic record, but what they’re hearing is nothing compared to what it truly was before it was glossed over and sent through the mixing mill that was Andy Wallace—who is a wonderful person and a very talented mixing engineer and has done great albums—I’m not trying to offend him… And I understand he had the pressure of the label and all the people who had dreams of it being this grandiose thing, and being played on the radio, which it was, [but] that record was ruined by the mix. I just find it the most passive, plastic… It’s the one record [I played on that] I still to this day cannot listen to. The mix ruined it for me.

The cover art has a lot of Trojan horse imagery—was that related to the lyrical content, or was it that you guys felt the band were sneaking into the mainstream or something?
It was a running concept that Cedric had going through his lyrics that we all noticed. It wasn’t even a conscious thing for Cedric, but it was more looking at the overall thing that we had created and seeing the lyrics and the music and the themes we talked about at the time. We realized that, first of all, it’s a nice story. It can also be seen politically. I think we always thought of it conceptually more as ideas or a passion. You’re surrounded by something that’s passionless and you bring a heart inside. I don’t think it was ever as grandiose as us sneaking into the mainstream world. We had no idea what that record would end up doing. We were just happy to be making our album. I think it ended up taking on that context for people, but at the time, being in the middle of it and making the record, it was way more of a personal thing. In all of our music, whether it’s evident or not, our politics are in that music. At the time, we toured a lot with other bands and were exposed to a lot of people. For me in particular, I just became completely disillusioned and saw what bullshit the music scene was. It’s why to this day, I don’t have opening acts. It’s like the term “Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.” Rock ’n’ roll, which is supposed to be the musical aspect of it, comes last—sex and drugs are first. It was the sort of thing where you run into other bands and they talked about anything else but the things that were actually important. So it just seemed like a lot of the illusion of what art was and why you do music were shattered when you met all these bands who were really just interested in partying and girls. They put very little time or effort into their craft. So what that means to me is that it’s something without soul and something without heart, and that’s what I relate about coming in with heart and being surrounded by a sea of things that don’t have anything truly to do with the path of healing.

How did the album come to be released by Grand Royal?
That was our dream come true. We used to put out our records ourselves, and then we did them on Fearless and Flipside. When the idea first came that labels were asking about us, we had the conversation with our manager about what would be the ultimate label for us. This was years and years before [Relationship of Command], but we said Grand Royal. It just seemed like the perfect thing. They had the right attitude and seemed to be doing it for the right reasons, yet they were sort of considered a major. They had some push behind them, tour support, all that kind of stuff. So if we could dream, it would be Grand Royal. Then years later, when we got signed after Fearless, we signed actually to a company called Den, and they were really ahead of their time, actually. It was sort of like this internet label. In fact, that was kind of the weight that crushed them. They were making TV shows that were gonna be strictly on the internet. They gave us a digital camera when we first signed with them that was nicer than our own. We kept filming everything and cut them up and with that we made these little programs. But at the time, most people’s internet connections weren’t fast enough, so it didn’t work. You’d sit there to watch the TV show and you’d give up. Then Den crumbled under some sort of scandal, I don’t know what it was. I wouldn’t wanna start a rumor, but one day the owners told us, “Den is closed. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that you’re gonna be on Grand Royal.” It literally happened from one moment to another. We couldn’t believe our ears. So the same core of people we were working with remained the same, just all of a sudden now we were talking to [Grand Royal owner and Beastie Boy] Mike D. Mike went on to put out a De Facto record, and we never asked him to. We never pushed it on him and said, “Oh, by the way, we have this [album from our other band].” He sort of just heard about it and put it out. Once I broke up [ATDI], I drove straight to L.A. and he was the first person I told. He was kind enough. I expected him to be mad at me and never want to talk to me again because they had gotten distribution with Virgin based purely off At The Drive-In. But instead of being mad at me, he said, “Well, whatever you do next, I definitely want to put it out.” So he was gonna put out the first Mars Volta record, and then Virgin pulled out completely and he decided to close Grand Royal.

Any more solo albums coming this year?
There’s four that have already come out and there’s six more coming this year. Then I’ll be releasing another film that hopefully will be in the winter festivals and then one that I’m making now that’ll hopefully be in the spring festivals. And touring in between all that, of course.

Saturday, August 07, 2010


Stuff I bought or received in the mail today:

Thomas Köner, Nunatak/Teimo/Permafrost 3CD set
Macc & Dgohn, Some Shit Saaink
Neurosis, Live at Roadburn 2007
Plastikman, Kompilation
The Qemists, Spirit in the System
Roots Manuva Meets Wrong Tom, "Jah Warriors (Feat. Ricky Ranking)" single
The Sword, Warp Riders
US Christmas, Run Thick in the Night
Various Artists, Dark Matter: Multiverse 2004-2009 2CD set
Various Artists, Ninja Tune XX: 20 Years of Beats & Pieces 4CD set
Scott Sigler, Ancestor
Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski: A Film Legacy 6DVD set incl. Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Nosferatu; Fitzcarraldo; Woyzeck; Cobra Verde; My Best Fiend

Friday, August 06, 2010


Phelps "Catfish" Collins, older brother of William "Bootsy" Collins, has died of cancer at age 66. I don't know what I can write that won't be better expressed by this clip, which is a different version of one I've posted before. This was the best band James Brown ever had; the Collins brothers' unbelievable rhythms combined funk with the raw energy of punk before punk, and Robert "Chopper" McCullough's damn-close-to-free-jazz saxophone solos put the whole thing over the top. Check it:

The CD version of the above show, Love Power Peace: Live At The Olympia, Paris, 1971, is one of those life-changing albums. You really should own it. I have a question, though: The YouTube footage above shows a Bootsy Collins bass solo, and a James Brown organ solo, that are not present on the Love Power Peace CD. So clearly the CD was edited down somewhat (it's only about 65 minutes long). I want that extra music. If anybody knows of the existence of a bootleg of the complete Olympia show, with all the solos and any other songs that may be shortened on, or totally excised from, the CD, please, please, please (sorry) let me know.

Thursday, August 05, 2010


(Title of image file: Satanic_Illumination02.jpg. No, really.)

Direct quote from a press release I got today:
"The forthcoming SARGEIST album took us more than five years to make. After two albums, the standard we had raised was needed to be met with a liturgy surpassing the previous works, and for that reason alone, it took such a long time to complete the new work. Finally, when everything started to fall in place, it didn't take long. Lyrically, Let the Devil In is a continuation of the heinous path we had chosen - that of black magic, necromancy, and worship of Satan. The result is definitely the strongest of SARGEIST yet, taking all the assets of our past with a new Satanic illumination."

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


I'm listening to the BXI EP, four songs recorded by Japanese rock band Boris with vocals (on three tracks) by Ian Astbury. The usual wave of hype that surrounds anything and everything Boris does is slowly building. It will crest in a week or so—the disc comes out on August 17, the same day as the new Iron Maiden album, which I also wrote about today, over here.

Anyway, BXI. The first song, "Teeth and Claws," sounds like Sonic Youth circa Daydream Nation with Astbury on vocals. The guitar riff is slightly "off" and distorted/fuzzy in that way SY perfected on "Teen Age Riot." But the histrionic Cult vocalist doesn't really fit with the music. Things get quirky when a small child begins reciting lyrics toward the end of the song. (I think it might be the daughter of Boris guitarist Wata and drummer Atsuo, whose name I can't remember. Nice kid; I met her when Boris were having their photo taken for Metal Edge.) The second track, "We Are Witches," is fuzzier and more in the hard psych-rock vein of Boris's Pink album. The drums are heavily effected for a sound that reminds me of late '90s "alternative metal." The third track is a cover of the Cult's "Rain," sung in a very breathy voice by Wata. Based on this evidence, she should sing more Boris material. They become quite a convincing shoegaze/dream-pop act with her up front. The fourth and final track, "Magickal Child," starts with Astbury imitating Bruce Springsteen as Wata makes enraged-hornet guitar noises like John McLaughlin on Miles Davis's "Go Ahead John," minus the speaker-switching effect. There's a big crashing sound when the whole band comes in, but they disappear again. This is the pattern for the whole track, which isn't a song so much as five minutes of music.

If this EP was by a band you'd never heard of, and you randomly slotted it into your CD player or streamed the tracks from MySpace, you'd probably quit about halfway through the first song. It's occasionally pretty, but it's not compelling stuff, and Ian Astbury's vocals are, if possible, even more of an acquired taste than they were in the late '80s, when his ultra-earnest attempts to be Jim Morrison won the Cult a medium-sized following and got them on Headbanger's Ball during the hair metal era. And frankly, the songs are underwritten. It feels like the band said, "Hey, it'd be fun to work with Ian Astbury!" and he said yes (because Cult records aren't selling, and the version of the Doors he fronted isn't on the road), and nobody thought it was necessary to invest more than ten minutes in writing material.

I don't get why people like Boris as much as they do. I saw them a few years ago, and thought they were deadly dull live, despite Atsuo's over-the-top theatrics (he's got a big gong, and he likes to use it). Their albums are almost always middling, wedded to a concept or a conceit rather than being built around a collection of strong songs, and have a rushed feel like they're already impatient with the concept, and can't wait to get to the next one, even as they're recording the material. And yet, they've somehow become a cult band, and a brand. So people are gonna buy this record out of brand loyalty. Which disappoints me, but I'm sure it pleases them, 'cause it means they don't have to change their strategy to hold onto their fan base.

Monday, August 02, 2010


Video of the day: "Stupid Boy" by T. Mills. Culled from Stuff You Will Hate, a blog that will either fill you with joy or the kind of rage that ends with a news reporter standing in a Taco Bell parking lot saying "...before turning the gun on himself."

I can't really explain this any better than SYWH's own Sergeant D did, so here you go:

When I interviewed him the other day for Substream, he made it sound like they filmed the video in some sick mansion like you would see in a high-budget porn movie, but this looks like they filmed it at my girlfriend's sister's apartment in Ontario, CA (only hers has a pool, whereas this one just has a dirty little walkway behind it where you probably put your trash for them to pickup or whatever). But that's actually perfect, because it captures the vibe of an Inland Empire house party to a tee, even down to the details like the off-white carpeting and cheap blinds on the windows.