Tuesday, March 10, 2009

from the vaults

several years ago i interviewed martin donald of the australian twee-pop trio the lucksmiths for a small seattle lit/culture magazine called rivet. it was pretty exciting. i was crazy about this band (still am to be frank), and very people had heard of them yet on this side of the pond. the rivet issues were conceived around central themes like "perspective," "invention," "value," etcetera. regular columns and features would reflect these themes, as would specials and illustrations, haikus and whatever else. so when the theme was announced as "luck" i thought, well, i'll shoot an e-mail to [the now-defunct label] candle records requesting an interview, they'll shoot me down, and my editor will know i tried. much to my delight however, candle's head honcho chris crouch not only hooked me up with an interview, but was nothing short of totally generous and encouraging. i was so stoked. i may as well have been interviewing tom waits or david byrne. or at least belle and sebastian. i nervously compiled my list of questions and sent them off to lucksmiths' lead guitarist and main songwriter, marty donald, in january 2005, as the band was finishing work on a new record.
a heavily edited version of this interview originally ran in rivet issue #13, the "luck issue," in spring or summer, 2005, i can't remember which. my friend andrea jean, a librarian, recently sent me a note saying how she'd come across a review of the magazine (in general) by one douglas mcclemont, of the library review service, which noted, "an interview with the possibly fictional band, the lucksmiths is a highlight [sic]." i lol'd as the kids these days say.
my mom's an editor. maybe that's why i've never liked being edited, i don't know, but i thought why not run the original, uncut interview for posterity. many thanks again to crouchy and marty for the generous sharing of their time and energy.

here it is:

matt neyens: in all your albums, there is a great mix of humor and heartbreak, sometimes combined. is there a concerted effort on your part to create that balance, or does it just happen in the songwriting process? also, how important is the humor to your songs?

marty donald: the combination of humour and heartbreak is not accidential, though neither is it entirely self-concious: i don't get to the third verse of a song and think 'this is a bit gloomy, better whack a pun in.' most songwriters i admire (and writers of all sorts, for that matter) strike a balance between the two; morrissey is probably the most obvious example of this, although david berman and bill callahan spring to mind as well. without wanting to get overly heavy-handed about it, i suppose having humour leavened with a little sadness, or sadness lightened by humour, appeals because that's largely what life is like, and artists who tend towards a more simplistic point of view generally seem to me to be missing something. a good deal of our early material seems (in retrospect) excessively jocular - favouring cleverness at the expense of emotional content - and as a result i shied away from that in my writing for a while. so i'm pleased if you feel i'm striking a good balance between the two.

matt: on the subject of songwriting, do you tend to bang things out quickly in a flash of inspiration, or do you tend to ruminate on songs over a long period of time?

marty: very much the latter. though there are exceptions (notably "the great dividing range," which i recall coming in a couple of hours), after the initial inspiration - usually just a line or a title - most songs take me weeks or months even, occasionally, years to finish. and this seems to be increasingly the case over time, which probably should be something of a worry.

matt: you write the lion's share of the lucksmiths' output. is this a comfortable relationship with you guys, first, and second do mark [monnone] and tal [white] tailor their songs to be similar to yours stylistically, are they similar naturally, or is there more of a collaborative effort musically than just bringing in a tune and saying, 'here, play this?'

marty: for me the balance of writing duties within the band is a comfortable one, although as you point out, i'm the one with the lion's share, so it might not be so for the others. but it seems to have evolved that way naturally; it's not something we've ever really had to discuss. i'm not much of a musician, as such (certainly less so than mark or tali); songwriting has always been the primary attraction of being in a band for me. as for the similarities in our writing styles, i'm constantly surprised by the extent to which this is commented on (even though i have the same problem with other multi-writer bands such as teenage fanclub and sloan). to me, there are very obvious differences between our songs. but i suppose these are disguised by the lucksmiths' sound they inevitably assume, and in this regard you're right to suggest a degree (albeit varying) of collaboration. arrangements and often individual parts are worked out collectively in the rehearsal room. and given the amount of time we've been playing together [as of this interview, about twelve years], stylistic similarities are unavoidable.

matt: i recently saw your label-mate darren hanlon (who has guest-musician-ed with you many times) perform here in seattle, and very few people knew who he was. how much exposure do you feel you and other bands from your local scene are getting, both in australia and abroad?

marty: i find it very hard to judge precisely how paltry the level of fame we have achieved is, and even harder to explain. within australia, we have been playing and releasing records for long enough to have established ourselves fairly well - an interviewer recently called us 'iconic!' - without having broached the mainstream to any real degree. as for the rest of the world, there seem to be handfuls of fans dotted here and there, and generally when we visit the handful seems at least a little bigger than last time. when we first toured to the northern hemisphere we were amazed that anyone at all had heard of us, and i suppose the novelty of hearing people on the other side of the world sing along to our songs has never really worn off.

matt: related to the last question, the lucksmiths have been kicking around since 1993. how do you guys feel about where you are as a band? you've obviously influenced a lot of the newer chamber-pop" bands, and your sound has been consistent - and terrific - over the years. are you a success? are you guys happy about how things are going for the lucksmiths?

marty: related to my last answer, i find it hard to say whether or not we're a success, although the very fact that we're still making music together must count for something. in a recent interview tali employed the frog-in-a-saucepan-of-water analogy to describe our career, which seems apt: even if it's been slow enough coming that we might not have noticed it ourselves, i do look at our (however modest) success with a degree of pride. and this is certainly so in a less careerist sense, and more an artistic one, which has always been more important to all of us: i have been happier with each successive record we have made, which is a nice thing to be able to say.

matt: you have a new single (which will be out by the time people read this) called the chapter in your life entitled san francisco. presumably this is anticipating a new full-legth[ed record] to be released soon. would you say something about either or both of these projects?

marty: i am typing from audrey studios, where we have just begun the mixing process on our forthcoming record, provisionally titled warmer corners, from which the chapter in your life entitled san francisco is taken. it's been a while between releases for us, and i'm quite excited about both the single and the album. it's distinctly more upbeat, and more fully-developed or textured than naturaliste [2003]; the songs seem (to me, at least) simultaneously more adventurous and more 'classic' than much of our previous work. (i should warn you, though, that this is the first time i've been forced to describe it at any length, so i don't yet have the pat little phrases from the press release at my disposal.) a big feature is the brilliant work of louis richter, who has been the fourth lucksmith in the live context for a year or two now, but whom we have not worked with in the studio before; he has brought to the songs an unerring ear for a jangly guitar line or a tasty organ part. ad we have again had the pleasure of working with producer craig pilkington, whose beautiful string- and organ-arrangements are the aural icing on the cake. the single, which is to some extent indicative of the direction of the record, takes its somewhat unwieldy title from a 1930s pro-californian-emigration pamphlett i stumbled across a couple of years ago in a secondhand bookshop.

matt: lastly, you're over there on the other side of the globe, and i often wonder what you guys are listening to that sounds great to you. what were your top five records from last year [2004]?

marty: my top five records for last year (already largely forsaken for the two new bright eyes albums; and including, given the geographical-remove thrust of your question, at least two australian releases) were okkervil river's down the river of broken dreams (which i think actually came out in the u.s. in 2003, so i'll include their sleep and wake-up songs ep as well); shearwater's winged life; the concrete's self-titled album; art of fighting's second storey; and our labelmate darren hanlon's little chills.

19 january, 2005; 14 february, 2005.

in addition to below:

i was racing yesterday to finish the post about the hollow earth benefit, and as time before an appointment grew shorter i was getting to the part i really wanted to discuss, but ended up barely hitting the pitch i wanted. so i thought just as a supplement i'd add something to the mix: the subject of mount eerie, specifically the album lost wisdom with julie doiron and fred squires, came up on a forum i sit in on, and after the show i posted the following:

update: overcame extreme anxiety and saw mount eerie last night (although technically it is now monday morning; so saturday night, then).
tiny vipers and a trio including lori goldston (who played cello for nirvana back in the day) opened: both acts very good.
but then phil took the stage and made the floorboards in the old church we all were in tremble and shake. there were bearded kids with flasks lying down on the floor, and people in chairs and people standing.
the stacked amplifiers practically shimmered with feedback that harkened to sonic youth and metal equally. phil 's body contorted and twisted, following the energy of his guitar like a dowser's twig on water's trail. his hands left the strings and arced throught the air like a modest diva as his body responded to both music and the emotion of his singing (slightly high-pitched, earnest and fervent).
i have seen very few performers, [the mountain goats] included whose emotional pitch reaches such an apex.
if anybody out there has a chance to see mount eerie live, i would certainly recommend it.

not really new information, since i covered most of this in yesterday morning's post, but i kinda like the phrasing in this; i was drunk at the time (highly) and tend to wax poetic in those instances. there's no real reason to add it i suppose, except that it's my blog and it amuses me to indulge myself...


Monday, March 9, 2009

mount eerie revealed

in what could become an (un)alarming trend, i went out again to a show! huzzah, my anxiety has been quelled once more. *knocks wood*

again, it was at the fremont abbey mere blocks from my home, but it was kind of special. it was the eve of dailight savings enforced sleep-loss, after a ten-hour bartending shift, and with another looming at 6:00 (no, make that 5:00) the next day. i had wanted to go to this show, a benefit for hollow earth radio with mike dumovich (who i'd not heard of) and lori goldston (who used to play with nirvana(!)), with tiny vipers (whom i had heard on the youtube but not in the desert of the real), and with mount eerie (over whom i've been mildly obsessing for about six months--this was my first oppurtunity to see him live).
i had wanted to go this show, but was convinced to the penultimate percentage that i would not be doing so. as it happens though, the restaraunt where i eat every saturday night is twenty feet away from the abbey, and as i left i thought, "oh what the fuck; i'll check it out."
i got up to the door as the h.e.r. emcee was opening the evening and found a solitary folding chair at the edge of the crowd and i settled in. i was gassy. sorry if anyone noticed...
but the show was well-worth the worry, and even worth the sleep i lost.

the dumovich/goldston/anne marie ruljancich trio was a nice solid opener, with acoustic guitar, cello and viola? violin? (i honestly couldn't see) combination taking full advantage of the excellent acoustics of the performance space to create longish lulling harmonies. goldston's cello work impressed me as much as it did when i saw her on perform with that other band a long while ago, with her proficiency creating dense sounds for her partners to ply into. anchored by dumovich's lead and ruljancich's accompanying vocals, the trio had a depth and feel that i intend to hear more of.

i first heard about tiny vipers, née jesy fortino, in the ramblings of kazutaka nomura, aka pwrfl power, when he interviewed himself for the stranger. since then she'd been on the back burner: i wanted to check it out, but hadn't got around to it. then a couple weeks ago when i was writing about cumulus, i noticed a concert bill with both of them, and i started checking out what was available on the world-wide double-yoo. i like what i heard, and that only added savor to my desire to attend this show--it also added bitterness to my surety that i wouldn't make it.
as for the show, fortino stepped quietly up to the chair set out for her, a small woman with a large guitar, which she hunched intently over, pulling back only when her songs required the full bore of her voice. she played long intense songs with a voice much older than her appearance, rich, soulfull and with a sense of fragility and damage whisping at its edges, set against the harmonics of seemingly every one of her steel strings, which seemed to resonate impossibly. i don't know if that was her sexy fender amp or the dynamics of the space, but the sound was overwhelmingly beautiful. i was pretty skint, but i bought an ep from the merch table (manned by phil (mount eerie) and genevieve (ô paon)--i felt shitty that i was buying someone else's record! but i didn't have nearly enough for his book, and i had almost all of those records already; i still felt churlish), and i'm looking forward to listening to it a few times.

as for mount eerie, phil elv(e)rum stepped up to the stage, solitary with an well-beaten electric guitar and massive amp stack, and smashed the acoustic ambience of the evening with a massive, powerfully distorted, sonic barrage. he writhed and contorted himself over his instrument, coaxing his lyrics out of himself with operatic gestures and obvious emotinal presence. his sound, a little metal, a little less folk, and just the right amount of sonic youth, was a great deal like his recorded material, but far more emotionally cohesive in person. the old church's floorboards shook and one felt almost lost. the songs were short, and many of them (apparently) new, but the immediacy and intimacy of both the songs and the singer were astonishing in their frankness and accesability. it was an awesome performance, and one of the most impressive i've seen i would even say that the ability of phil to entrance the audience was up there with john darnielle of the mountain goats. which is saying something, considering the rapid nature of his fans!

all in all, very happy to have gone. now if only i could get time off for what the heckfest...

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

still happening

when i was a kid, my parents listened to judy collins and abba and john denver.
i remember feeling pretty fucking cool in 1987 or so when i discovered this amazing band called the beatles.
there were only a few radio stations that i could get--on my brand-new magnavox am/fmradio/doubletapedeck/recordplayer stereo--in the room that i finally had to myself, away from my little brothers. one of them was not kcmu, the college radio station that was broadcast from less than ten miles away, but which was overridden by larger in-city frequencies. at least in my neighborhood.
i got the king fm, the classical public radio station, and kbsg, the oldies station, at first (technically, when i was twelve i listened to top-forty shit to try to understand girls in my class at school; in retrospect it was not worth it, and it didn't work anyways). but it was these two stations i actually listened to a lot. especially the oldies, because it was actual rock'n'roll, which mysteriously drew me in. i knew all those old songs by heart, buddy holly, herman's hermits, ritchie vallens, tommy james & the shondells, all sorts of stuff. as the eighties waned, more songs from the seventies started creeping into the playlists, but at school i was getting hooked up with period music that didn't fit into the suited and boted conformity of '60s pop product. late beatles, like "obladi-oblada" and the acid-trip psychedelia were tantalizing and taboo and i flew through generations every couple months or so.
then two things happened when i was maybe sixteen or so. 1). a friend gave me they might be giants and violent femmes tapes, and 2). the slot on fm 107.7 became kndd the end, which started playing home-grown "grunge" bands in a mix with band like iggy and the stooges, david bowie and talking heads: bands that were already either venerable or deceased elsewhere, but still raw and vibrant on seattle's shitty commercial radio, and therefore, to its young listeners. i remember being blown away by elastica without knowing how deeply they werein debt to wire and the fall. i heard L7 and thought they were the meanest sexiest things on earth.i was scared my parents would hear this degenerate noise and take my stereo away from me.
you could not see (good) live music in seattle in 1993 if you were under 21 and you were me. obviously some kids got away with it, but i was way too timid to even think about getting a fake id. i didn't even start drinking until i was twenty.
finding new and interesting music became a game for my friends and i. we felt triumphant to have discovered the pixies, so raw and smart, from exotic new england. we swooned over belly's tanya donnely, and we were amongst those fooled into thinking urge overkill was worthwhile. along the way we learned about the vaselines from kurt cobain, realized that pearl jam was less relevent than superchunk (though if you'd asked us why, we would have had a hard time answering). we were beginning to catch up with those more savvy than we, but while most of us were thrilled to have a label like subpop operating in our own downtown, only the edgiest of us (of which i was not one) knew that the real shit was happening, and had been since the early eighties just down the interstate in olympia where calvin johnson's k empire was one of the hippest enclaves outside of the bowery.
i began getting a hint about this activity on my self-imposed exile to upstate new york for my one inglorious year of college. my new jersey roommate was listening to bands from olympia, and my reaction was nothing short of shock. really? this was going on under my nose? my high school cohort barry was also getting awoken to the rest of the world, and he sent periodic mixtapes from home off to me on the east coast. so did my friend jay. things were opening up and i think we all felt like we'd been blindsided a little. or maybe it was just sheltered me...

anyway, i don't remember exactly when i first heard beat happening, but it was not1983, when they first started recording songs like "our secret" and "down at the sea." it was not even 1992, when you turn me on was released.
i often wonder how different my brain would've processed things if i had heard beat happening earlier: would i have started making music before my thirties? as it was, i first started listening to calvin, heather and bret in my mid-twenties, and they were a revelation then, years after plunging into the musical deep end head-first.
beat happening still stuns me.
the wry disregard for polishand studio tricks; the offhand lyrics, ripe with poetic import but too playful for the arty-farty folks, and far too hip to be dismissed as gimmicky; the utter contempt for anything other than emotive immediacy where recording and production were concerned; all these things make bh's music unique.
the very name is romantically hip, summoning images of some musical lovechild of the two great counterculture allens, kaprow and ginsberg.
one sees old photos of the band, heather lewis' big glasses and roni horn-haircut, calvin johnson's slouchily sensual pout, and bret lunsford's impenetrable veneer or cool quietude. a litany of borrowed drums and guitars, that sexy old archtop, the crappy sears silvertone (sadly stolen recently from bret's protegée karl blau), all these brutally yet sweetly coerced into providing the minimal support for heather or calvin's plaintive voices.

when i listen to beat happening now they summon a nostalgia that i am not entitled too, but which should have been mine.
i had the ratty sweaters, and the yearning for something simple and beautiful: rimbaud with a snare.
bat happening could have helped to fill the void that haunted me back then.
but i didn't know they were there and as happy as i am to have them now, i wish i had them then...

Monday, March 2, 2009

little grrrls are gonna rock ya

i'm just jotting this note down real fast 'cause i wanna just say something. not gonna add a picture, not gonna add hyperlinks or anything all researchy or whatnot.
a good friend and i were talking today about gender and expectation in young girls (she has two) and i mentioned my blog (below) about cumulus and about how i came of age in the era and cradle of the riot grrrl ('90s, pacific northwest) and how i have been feeling, since the ascendence of britney spears, an increased discomfort and depression about how american society tends to commodify and objectify (everybody, but most specifically) girls and young women. to get very personal, i grew up in a household where i never was given cause to assume anything other than gender equality, and most (like all but two) of my best friends have been girls (then women, natch) my whole life, and everywhere i've ever looked i've seen competant, driven and talented females achieving things in whatever sphere in which they chose to operate. when i was in high school it became evident that my friends and classmates saw the world differently, and that opened my eyes to the ways women and girls were (and are) systematically and purposefully, or carelessly and unintentionall given short shrift by society. as i've always identified strongly with a feminine sensibility (fyi, i am an heterosexual, european-american, middle class male in my thirties) i have been partcularly sensitive to these issues for some time. which, not-incidently, was why the music of cumulus and the blow affected me so strongly).

so after this discussion with my friend, she lent me this dvd she had rented called GIRLS ROCK! the movie, 2008, a documentary about an all-girls summer camp in pdx where women like carrie brownstein and beth ditto help to give girls from 6(?) to 18 the option of rock'n'roll, teaching how to play music, how to write songs, and a host of other related activities like zine-making and band dynamics, and also (positivly, but sadly) self-defense classes.
there is a horde of little girls banging away on a (mouth-watering) selection of instruments, encouraged and encouraging, allowed to succeed and fail and laugh and love each other in an accepting way that, as far as i know, is totally unavailable amongst the company of boys and men.
some of them suck so goddamn badly, but seriously, they're children, and despite all the feminist history that preceeds them, they're oppressed by unfulfillable expectations and derisions that they are far from deserving, and this fact, coupled with the simple fact that (for all the "empowering" identification of these girls as "women"--they are not, many of them) they are beautiful and difficult children allowed to access creative wellsprings within them that were sometimes previously acknowledged, but which in many cases were heretofor untapped. for all these reasons it was beautiful to behold.
and then there were kids like the ready, who were indeed ready for a fucking record deal. i'd release their record at any rate! (btw, if you are a kid in that band--seriously, you are really good, i promise).

this may be too personal (is that actually an issue for a "web-log?"), but i want to go into vulnerable territory and say how very much i empathized with these girls. as some of you readers may be aware, i suffer from anxiety of sometimes overwhelming proportions, and depression. without going into too much detail, i will tell you that body, sex and identity issues have plagued me since puberty, and the self-destructive patterns i have fallen into have been eerily similar to some present in the girls in this film. i identified with them a lot.
i found myself rapt watching this documentary, wishing that i could do something to help the project (which i intend to discreetly look into), even though men are, by and large, not allowed into camp (the filmmakers--both male--and bandmates of guest performers (like The Gossip) were exceptions), and knowing that for all my feelings of identification i would not be understood or welcome, i wanted to add my voice to the chorus telling these girls that "things aren't okay, but you will be; the world may not think it needs you, but it's mistaken; you may be fatter, or not as pretty, or not as smart, as you think you should be, and as tv says you should be, but you are beautiful and special."
i also wished i had a place like this i could've gone to as a kid.

go rent this dvd. or video. or buy it.
if you live in portland, or don't, see if you can help this program.
america fucks most of us over. it's just what it does. sometimes it makes us better for beating back our adversity. sometimes we're broken and detroyed altogether, or forced to endure with nagging, dull, narcotic pain. mostly we fall somewhere between. to see women passionately devoted to helping girls find the positive aspects of life was uplifting in a decidedly non-oprah way. not only should their efforts be supported, but imagine a day when all children, regardless of ethnicity or gender, are given pragmatic-yet-encouraging environments in which to grow.