Tunin' the motor, like a weekend boater
Stereo Sisterhood / Blog Graveyard:
- After The Sabbath ; All Ages ; Another Nickel ; Bachelor ; BangtheBore ; Beard (R.I.P.) ; Beyond The Implode (R.I.P.) ; Black Editions ; Black Time ; Blues ; Bull ; Cocaine & Rhinestones ; Dancing ; DCB ; Destination:Out (R.I.P.) ; Did Not Chart ; Diskant (R.I.P.) ; Dreaming ; Dusted in Exile ; Every GBV LP ; Flux ; Free ; Freq ; F-in' Record Reviews ; Garage Hangover ; Gramophone ; Grant ; Gunslinger ; Head ; Hopper ; Jonathan ; KBD ; Kulkarni ; Last Days (R.I.P.) ; Lexicon Devil ; Lost Prom ; LPCoverLover ; Midnight Mines ; Mutant Sounds (R.I.P.?) ; Nick Thunk :( ; Norman ; Oddbox ; Peel (John) ; Plan B (R.I.P) ; PSF ; Quietus ; Science ; Still Single ; Teleport City ; Terminal Escape ; Terrascope ; Tome ; Transistors ; Ubu ; Upset ; Vibes ; WFMU ; XRRF.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Things of Interest # 2:
The Dykes sing "Because I'm Bored".
These screengrabs are taken from "Debt Begins At 20", Stephanie Beroes' 1980 short film about the Pittsburgh punk/new wave scene, which you can watch in a pop up window on this page.
Needless to say, the Pittsburgh punk/new wave scene looks like it was pretty wild, favouring a confrontational drums n' ranting approach, and favouring no wave-inspired anti-musicianship, open participation and general arty chaos. The film is great too - partly a standard-ish scene documentary, and partly a semi-fictional day in the life of Mr. Bill Bored, drummer for The Cardboards. Well worth watching while you've got the chance!
Saturday, March 27, 2010
Things of Interest # 1:
Delia Derbyshire Documentary on Radio 4.
“Sculptress of Sound: The Lost Works of Delia Derbyshire”, it’s called. I listened to it whilst having my tea this evening. Pretty great programme actually – tends to resort to a few generalisations and obvious observations etc, as you’d expect, but the bits where they break down the construction of the Dr. Who theme and “Blue Veils & Golden Sands” track by track is pretty mind-blowing, as are the brief extracts from unreleased tapes, bits of music presented in their original context as part of radio shows etc.
Available on the BBC iPlayer for another seven days here.
And while we're at it:
Thursday, March 18, 2010
1950 - 2010.
Fuck I hate it when news like this comes through first thing in the morning when I get to work, when I sneak a quick look at my blogger updates bar and see the RIP posts piling up, at the exact same moment somebody’s talking over my shoulder about some rubbish, and my paycheque demands I pay attention and respond, rather than melodramatically fleeing the room.
I mean it’s not like I just got news about a family member dying, is it? It’s not like I can tell everyone I want to go home and deal with things in peace, just because, well what…? Some weirdo failed rock star nobody’s ever heard of who I’m not even related to just kicked the bucket on the other side of the world? What kind of crazy, unreliable employee would that make me for christssake? There’s shit to be done this morning, and I’ve got to be polite and friendly and coherent. Fuck it.
Give me a minute here - Alex Chilton just died. Alex Chilton, man. Just writing his name is like a cipher, saying more things to more people than any obit’s gonna reflect. I’ve spend untold hours listening to his voice, but I couldn’t draw you a picture of his face, I don’t know whether he was tall or short, what kind of clothes he liked to wear – but speaking via my earphones, he’s still blown my mind, knifed my guts, saved my soul more times than I care to remember. “Invisible man with the invisible voice”, as I think that song by that other guy that everyone else is quoting in their RIP posts puts it.
Yeah, even in his own obituaries, a line from somebody else’s song gets the last word. Truly one of the great tragic heroes of rock n’ roll – failure, reticence and self-sabotage raised to the level of the highest art. His life’s work plays like some tangled swamp full of traps and wreckage and nasty surprises, studded at intervals with some of the most staggeringly beautiful recorded music of the twentieth century. But if you think those bits are any less part of the swamp than the bits you play once and never wanna hear again, you’re fooling yourself.
Of course, as soon as you’ve got used to surly-drunken-disaster Chilton, you go accidentally pick up a record by the guy where he’s making ghastly, studio-tweaked muso blues-rock, but…that’s just the way he rolls I guess – fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.
Fuck perfection, fuck the industry, fuck the label – open your eyes in the afternoon, take exactly what you feel like and make it into sound, and if you’ve got it down, some of it’s gonna stick, and the people with the heart to care will care A LOT. That’s what Alex Chilton’s all about.
If the Big Star records failed to make anyone rich back in the ‘70s, the people who DID hear them went as far as to make road trips to Memphis to try to find out who’d made this music, and to form their own bands expressly to pay tribute to it.
The whole trajectory of his career has been so perverse, so subject to strange accidental forces and mercurial personal whims, it’s almost like some modern myth – the kind of thing that would make him a minor legend even without his central participation in some of the best records ever made.
If you’ve not got The Boxtops’ “The Letter” in your collection, you really should - and if you’re in any way a fan of ‘60s bubblegum or blue-eyed soul, you’ll get a hell of a kick out of their albums too. Of course, Chilton was the only “Boxtop” who actually played on those records, with sessionmen taking care of the rest, but the results are more varied and enjoyable than you might imagine, with at least a couple of nuggets to file alongside their smash hit.
It’s a rarely repeated story even though you’d expect it to be pop cultural dynamite, but The Boxtops pick-up band toured at some stage with the Beach Boys, and when the group wound up, Chilton ended up being taken under the wing of Carl and Dennis Wilson, who helped him develop his song-writing and encouraged him to take a shot at a solo career. Apparently, Chilton claimed he was staying at Dennis’s house when the Manson family moved in, and that he split for New York cos he didn’t like the atmosphere. Good move. (All of that, and most of the other questionable blather found in this post, culled from Rob Jovanovic’s Big Star book.)
Personally I’ve never been overly keen on the subsequent recordings Chilton made during his brief quest to make it as a New York folkie, but once he headed back to Memphis and Big Star got together at the dawn of the ‘70s, it’s straight down to business.
Clearly, the first two Big Star albums are some of the best rock records ever made, no question. I shouldn’t have to elaborate on that too much at this stage. If you value such things as brilliant songs, killer production, sky-scraping guitars, raw emotion … well you’re probably listening to them already.
“#1 Record” is sheer perfection, but “Radio City” just about beats it I think, just because that’s the one where we can hear Chiltonism as we’d later understand it first creeping through, that strange weight of darkness and cynicism sneaking its way gradually into the Beatles-obsessed pop romanticism, in the unbearable post-teen angst of “What’s Going Ahn”, the weird vamping on “Oh My Soul”, the slurred, buried vocals on “Daisy Glaze” and “Morpha Too”, the odd coded song titles – we’re now on the outskirts of Chiltonville. And then there’s “September Gurls”.
Christ. To think the guy who made “September Gurls” just died. I mean, if he’d never done anything else in his whole life except play that guitar solo…. what else would he need to do? It’s all there.
I don’t know if there’s a straight answer to what happened to Alex Chilton during the making of the third album, whether it was one definitive personal issue or just a slow-burning combination of disillusionment, commercial failure, girl trouble, cynicism, substance abuse and depression, but whatever it was, the results are plain to hear, captured forever on the record and the stumbling digressions of his subsequent career. Clearly Chilton was staring into some kind of chasm at that point in his life, and it sounds like he just closed his eyes and bellyflopped spectacularly.
The result is Third/Sister-Lovers/Beale St. Green/whatever else you want to call it – one of my absolute favourite records of all time, and probably the main reason I’m writing all this. I don’t know what to say about “Third”, I love it so much, I could talk about it for weeks and still not get to the heart of it – if I were to put three months aside and write the equivalent of one of those 33 ½ books, “Third” would be the one, assuming it didn’t kill me in the process.
The tracks that make up “Third”, in the form the eventually emerged from Ardent studios after initially being deemed unsalvageable, are a musical record of total collapse. Within them, you can hear the band collapsing, relationships collapsing, Chilton’s state of mind collapsing, musical syntax collapsing, communication with the outside world collapsing, the finances of their record label collapsing… they could only really have bettered things if the studio was literally collapsing around them.
There are enough strange and terrible stories about the making of “Third” to make it sound like the album-recording version of “Apocalypse Now”, but none of them can really get beneath the essence of the mysterious, desperate SOMETHING that Alex Chilton threw into the heart of these recordings. From the empty spaces where Alex allegedly broke into the studio at 3am and deleted all the vocal/guitar tracks recorded by his girlfriend after an argument, to the leering, post-trauma vocal inflections that completely twist the meaning of “Thank You Friends”, every song on “Third” tells a story, and it’s usually a beserk and ugly one, audible somewhere between the mistakes, the missing instruments, the improvised lyrics, the arcs of feedback, snare drums replaced with basketballs, random saxophone solos played by god knows who – it’s the sound of Chilton tearing his band apart from the inside out and not knowing whether to laugh or cry as he collapses in the wreckage.
And maybe we couldn’t care less thirty-five years later, only the songs he’s singing to us are so inexplicably beautiful they defy description, and the mismatched mass of noise the album presents us with carries such wordless poignancy, it’s almost unbearable. What more can I say? I should probably stop talking about it now before I embarrass myself further.
Apparently one of the last things they recorded for the “Third” sessions was a drunken, early morning jam on “Whole Lotta Shaking Going On” featuring Chilton and a crew of his drinking buddies, ending on a bummer as an unidentified wino sat in the vocal booth, weeping uncontrollably. And somewhere in that scenario, you’ve got the essence of Chilton’s whole solo career, neatly defined.
Somehow, “Third” always seems like his last stand, even though he kept going. Since then he’s seemed almost undead – a chuckling, inscrutable zombie Chilton, operating from the corners, doing his best to piss off anyone who might take an interest, even as the world starts to catch up and give him the plaudits he deserves.
“Bach’s Bottom”, “Like Flies On Sherbert”, “Lost Decade”, “Dusted in Memphis” – all an acquired taste, but all masterpieces of fucked up, belligerent, wrong-headed rock n’ roll. I guess he’d been banging out that stuff for so long, it’s hard to realize what a wonderful thing it was for a ‘60s ‘legend’ of vast songwriting/production/vocal/musical talent to just shrug his shoulders, get some brews in, and restrict his musical output to just making a bunch of utterly wasted, bad-tempered punk trash whenever he feels like it. These days, I listen to “..Sherbert” all the time, and absolutely love it. Reading the brilliantly negative review of it on AMG always cheers me up; but then I listen to all kinds of rubbish, so I wouldn’t necessarily take that as a recommendation.
You’re a braver fan than me if you want to take more than a cursory delve into his ‘80s and ‘90s output, but early solo tracks like “My Rival” and “Bangkok” are just as indisputably genius as his Big Star-era stuff – exultant proof that no matter how many terrible records might result from rounding up a bunch of guys, throwing them at some instruments, letting them make it up as they go along and releasing the first take your new single, occasionally inspiration will strike, everything will come together *beautifully*, and you’ll emerge with a jittering, misshapen Picasso of a cracked rock n’ roll song, making all the trouble worthwhile.
And like I said earlier, it’s flat out hilarious that as soon as people started to get to grips with that idea in the wake of Pussy Galore, Royal Trux and Chilton’s own work with Panther Burns, The Gories etc. (and I haven’t even mentioned that this dude produced most of The Cramps best records yet!), he changed his tune again and started making pro-tooled local bar-band rock. What a card.
I was never really much into the idea of the Big Star reunion, and I never saw them play. Seems perhaps Chilton thought similarly, as he didn’t even seem to be sufficiently bothered to turn up for press shots. Still, money in the bank right? Apparently he was reduced to washing dishes in the New Orleans hotel sometime in the eighties, so can’t blame him for that, and those Posies guys are pleasantly enthusiastic fellas whom I’d imagine were happy just to be playing great music with one of their heroes. I’m sure tunes from the first two records went down a storm too, although having seen a few of their set-lists, I know that personally I just couldn’t handle the idea of “Kanga Roo” or “Stroke It Noel” being butchered (or rather UN-butchered) by a live rock band.
I’ll really miss having Alex Chilton around, lurking somewhere in the background. I thought he was gonna be one of those guys who’d just keeping going, cockroach-style, defying the occasional rumours of his death and wondering around the Deep South with his Gretsch under his arm indefinitely, looking for trouble.
A sad fucking day, etc.
So many songs I could upload, but in case you missed any of ‘em thus far, here’s a quick highlights reel of Alex Chilton’s trip to oblivion, in roughly chronological order:
The Boxtops – The Letter
Big Star – Thirteen
Big Star – In The Street (demo)
Big Star – September Gurls
Big Star – O, Dana
Big Star – Stroke It Noel
Big Star – Nightime
Alex Chilton – My Rival
Alex Chilton – Bangkok
Alex Chilton – I Can’t Seem To Make You Mine (Seeds cover)
Alex Chilton – Waltz Across Texas
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
I Like The Beets... I think?
This Beets record is a strange one. Initially I thought it was garbage. Just a loada muffled, slovenly, unremarkable mumbling songs with nothing much going for them at all. But somehow it just keeps coming back at you, and sticking. Clearly an investigation is called for;
I think if you’re able to temporarily abandon all expectation that pop/rock music should be big and brash and lively, The Beets have stumbled across a very pleasant way of making music, and humbly presented it to us like a big, dopey dog returning a stick. There’s five Beets, but they don’t make much of a noise between them – just some simple strumming on acoustic (or acoustic-sounding) guitars, a thump from a snare drum and a bunch of guys with really weedy voices all singing along. In addition, they sound like they recorded their album by setting up a single microphone at the opposite end of an empty school gymnasium in which they happened to be practicing. So vast is the distance between recording apparatus and performers here, you’re forced to listen closely just to recognise the fact that there are songs happening. But when you do, the result is kinda pleasing. In fact, if you’re feeling zonked and tired out, the whole muted distantness of it works wonderfully. I had no idea I needed music that sounded like this until I heard it, and even then I thought it was shit the first three or four times round, but need it I do.
Once you get tuned into what they’re doing, I guess The Beets maybe sound a bit like The Fugs, only not annoying. Or a bit like The Moldy Peaches, only not annoying. Not being annoying is a big part of what The Beets do, and I appreciate that. Nothing in their music is shrill, or surprising, or grating. The flattened out sound stops any of it from becoming belligerent or demanding attention.
The Beets’ songs are short and have big, simple, pleasing chords and rhyming lyrics about god only knows what, with which they all sing along like a sloppy nerd choir. That’s the key to it I think: all singing along, and asking no questions. Not singing along in an ostentatiously enthusiastic revival tent manner though – quite the opposite. These are more like lethargic, stoned-ass work songs for weakling mid-twenties white guys who’ve just been staring at that Mac screen too damn long and need to get some sunshine.
The Beets sound like they don’t write songs, they just get together and start doing them – a cardigan-wearing chain-gang, singing their sorrows on the way to the photocopier. I know this sounds like just about the worst music ever, but bear with me here. I don’t understand it either. Once you get used to the fact that it sounds like it was recorded through a wall, by accident, I defy you to actively dislike this record. It really is kinda great.
NOTE: I wrote this in one sitting a couple of weeks ago, and have not subsequently listened to The Beets.
John Darnielle seems rather overly keen on this video, featuring The Beets:
Sunday, March 14, 2010
I Like The Spits.
The Spits aren’t new by any stretch of the imagination. Anecdotal evidence would tend to suggest they’ve been around for years, and they have a tangled discography fulla live EPs, split singles and the like to keep the wouldbe Spits fanatic busy for, ooh, hours. But for whatever reason, The Spits had flown beneath my radar until this January, when their ‘Vol. 4 / School’s Out!’ album effectively BECAME my radar.
Eight or nine weeks later, I’m still listening to it every single day – no kidding. Thankfully that doesn’t require much of an effort, because it’s only fifteen minutes long. Such conciseness of purpose immediately puts The Spits on my Christmas card list. Music aside though, I still don’t really know where The Spits are coming from, whether they’re polite book-smarts guys playing dumb or just a gang of big, angry lummoxes from the middle o’ nowhere, so the card might remain unsent pending an address. But whoever they are, they SPEAK RAMONES, and that means we’re talkin’.
The Spits have a human drummer who sounds like a drum machine and they have big, distorted Jerry Only type bass. They have toxic, monotone fuzz guitar and a vocalist who sounds like a surly drunk from a Lenny Bruce sketch. They have cheap wavo/Devo keyboards and Liquid Sky sci-fi/horror shenanigans to liven things up too, but that’s all gravy. I appreciate that they are probably working to whims of a relatively small audience who consider this sort of thing The Most Perfect Music Ever, but if that audience ever get together to start a formal organisation, I’m gonna try and run for treasurer or entertainments secretary, so the hell with ya if you think different.
During the brief run-time of ‘Vol. 4’, The Spits make their platform abundantly clear. The Spits like: parties, beer, aliens, petty crime. The Spits dislike: teachers, the police, girls who dump them, living in a van. And like The Ramones and The Misfits before them, they have a beautiful and persuasive sense of melody with which to sell us on these emotionally sound but sometimes ethically impractical proposals, for at least as long as those robot-drums keep thrumming away. Truly a band who speak for the heart & soul of the common man. Hallelujah!
So make sure to listen to “Tonight” and “Life Of Crime” on their myspace each day, and I hope that soon you’ll be onside as we join The Spits in pursuit of an all round better life for everyone.
Their live shows certainly look like... an experience:
Thursday, March 11, 2010
I Like Best Coast.
Ok, so it seems I’m late arriving at Best Coast. The premium towel-space is already taken, and the volleyball has long been in progress. But hey, the more the merrier, right? Bethany Cosentino has been out and about doing things as Best Coast for quite a while now, getting name-dropped in all the right place (and some of the wrong ones), but something – I don’t even remember what – always discouraged me from checking her/them out. Maybe it was cos they seem to get tied so neatly into that whole “deteriorated tapes going to the beach” jive that was/is doing the rounds? Maybe Pitchfork et al seemed to be sidling up a little too strong a little too soon? Maybe the fact I’m writing this crap which will mean zilch to anyone reading this in the archives in years to come is case in point? Anyway, forget all that, all that matters now is that I’m here, I’ve found a parking space, I’ve got Best Coast’s “Something In The Way” single on the stereo, and it’s a flat-out WINNER – brilliant in a way that needs no explanation or aesthetic pigeon-holing from anyone. The three songs here are fifty years-worth of yearning tough-girl pop refined to perfection, immaculate of melody, rough of execution, raw and sweet of feeling, sounding so compelling and naturalistic you won’t even clock the extent to which they're a pastiche of the greats ‘til you’re on your eighth listen.
Sure, it’s got that drowsy, just-got-outta-bed, faux-four track feel to it that’ll have everyone who still has the good grace to write something before posting the link reaching for those easy invocations of spliffs at the beach and sad, sexy ‘70s polaroids and leaving it at that. And yeah, why not, it’s a nice sound - but it’s the SONGS that are carrying this one. Maybe they’re not all special and unique, but you know what? Fuck ‘special & unique’ songs – these ones are happy just being GOOD, sewn from the same tri-chord cloth of happy/sad formalised joy and heartbreak as rest of their noble lineage. I’ll take “Something In The Way” over the other (‘special’, ‘unique’) songs that share that name any day, and “Wish He Was You” speaks for itself from the title on down – a song maybe a bit too lyrically near-the-knuckle for any girls to have sung back in the ‘60s, but dammit, it’s probably what they were thinking as they knocked out their nth ‘tears in the rain’ style number.
This is not music that’s new and overhyped and to be feared. This is music that’s been here forever. I know I’ve already referenced the ‘60s a bit, but you know what? Cut away all the drowsy, gauzy boombox shit (WE NEED NEW DESCRIBING WORDS), put Best Coast in the studio with some reformed hippie production guy, make her do twelve songs instead of three, put some colour-saturated photo of a flower on the front, sell the damn thing in Sam Goody for £12.99 and you’ve got yourself one hell of a good Juliana Hatfield record. It’s not music for jumping up and down and making a fuss to, but if you like to shimmy then it’s good enough shimmying music for you to shimmyyourself half to death, beach or no beach.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
I Like… Week: Introduction.
Well, I’ll be honest with you, I’ve not had as much time as I’d like to get any decent (ha) writing done thus far in 2010, but still, great new bands/records/songs/live shows keep pilin’ up week by week at unprecedented speed as the big ol’ “hey, slapdash punk rock is back and it’s GREAT” roll of ’09 continues into the new year, adding further credence to my highly subjective belief that those of us who inexplicably pursue an eternal ideal of smart kids banging out stupid racket in 4/4 are living through a truly golden age for the appreciation of such things.
Clearly I’d love to put time aside to fight the anti-word count cause and get characteristically verbose about all of these brilliant little sherbert-bomb bursts of song that people are throwin’ around the internet with only an oblique sentence or something by way of commentary, but… but… y’know, it’s not gonna happen man. Far better if I just take a deep breath and blast through as many as I can for you this week, before it all gets forgotten and blows away into digital fairy-dust and saddos like my circa-2025 self reminiscing on whatever fora circa-2025 saddos use to talk to themselves in thinly-veiled self-deprecating monologue – “gawd, remember that whole Male Bonding/Pens thing – what a laugh – I’ve still got all the 7” filed away in one of my shoeboxes somewhere – I’ll row out to the shed some time in my radiation-proof canoe and have a look”.
And so forth. None of us want that, so let’s get it out of the way now. GOOD STUFF, no particular order, spread across the next week or so, starting tomorrow.
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
The Stereo Sanctity Interview # 1:
Carl Simmons speaks…
The first Carl Simmons song I heard was “Scotty Guffy sings”, which was included on the CD that accompanied issue #7 of Yeti magazine. I had no idea who Carl Simmons was, or Scotty Guffy for that matter, but the song really stood out as something special.
The vocalist sang in an unnaturally high-pitched male voice, sounding kind of like a big, wise, sad baby. The recording was clearly pretty lo-fi, with weird echoes and bits of distortion around the edges, but the song’s basic folk guitar still sounded beautifully clear and bright, carrying a melody so perfectly formed it was hard to believe it didn’t belong to a million songs already – as instinctive and calming as “Dem Bones” or “Goodnight Irene” or “Ring Of Fire”, yet wholly new. And the lyrics that this big, sad baby voice was singing over the top of this tune seemed strange and fascinating and kinda alien, certainly residing on a wholly different plain from your standard folk/blues themes. “Now I know secret science schemes / and I know snakes don’t float,” I heard him sing, “and I enjoy invisibility / even when I don’t / lay down down / in the arms you’ve found / slip away the waterfall / slip away the ground”, before returning again to the hypnotic chant that runs through the song: “skeleton bone, bone, body / my body takes me home”.
Sequenced on the CD in-between loads of whacked out garage/punk groups, noise artists and rediscovered Mississippi blues dudes, “Scotty Guffy Sings” sounded like something from a different world entirely, simultaneously far more naive and gentle, yet also far more emotionally involved and involving, than any of the stuff that surrounded it. It was clear that whatever this guy was singing about, it mattered to him a great deal.
Mystery is hard to maintain in this day and age though, and a quick web search led me straight to the Sacred Bones label, who recently (re)issued Carl Simmons’ album “Honeysuckle Tendrals”(sic) as a limited edition LP with eight songs, and as a 70 minute CD with over twice that number. A brief press release explained that the songs were recorded straight to tape by Simmons in 1999, and initially distributed in a homemade cassette edition in his home town of New Bedford, Massachusetts.
I proceeded, er, acquire the songs on the LP version of the album (the CD subsequently ordered and recieved), and what can I say? “Honeysuckle Tendrals” completely blew me away. It is simply one of the most wonderful records I’ve heard in years.
Over a background of garbled conversation extracts, echoed sound collages and fragments of mysterious verse, weird, over-dubbed vocal harmonies and that same slow and methodical guitar picking, Simmons’ distinctive voices sings a whole series of beautiful, multi-faceted songs, each of them anchored to a melody as undeniable as the one gracing “Scotty Guffy..”, equal parts atavistic folk, revival tent hymnal, anthemic FM rock. Each song seems to celebrate moments of cosmic splendour or deep sadness, with the lyrics veering freely between science fiction, folklore, turn of the century pop culture and everyday trivia, like psychedelic hymnals from a world where imagination, history and human relationships exist together in one eternal now.
The songs on “Honeysuckle..” move with a stream of consciousness fluidity that makes it hard to pull a straight narrative out of them, but their flow of mismatched imagery rings truer with each listen, leaving you free to pull out and create different narrative threads and mental pictures from them endlessly.
Similarly, I could continue in my praise indefinitely, but I think an mp3 example will suffice far better:
Mp3> Kaspar Hauser
Anyway, it soon became clear that whilst he remains an unfairly obscure figure in the music world at large, Carl Simmons is far from some lost enigma sinking into the whispered tapetrader folklore. He’s got a myspace page that says he is currently based in Providence RI, and he’s got an email address, and he plays gigs sometimes backed by a full band, The Human Orchids.
I’d been thinking anyway of branching out with this weblog and doing some interviews with great/interesting bands who haven’t got a lot of press attention, and in this case it occurred to me that I know NOTHING about the man who made this incredible music, and I was genuinely interested in finding out more, so, y’know…. one thing led to another, and the results of my email conversation with Carl Simmons are below.
So to begin at the beginning, because I know nothing other than the music on the album: Who is Carl Simmons? Where are you from, what do you do, when did you start playing music, etc?
I was born in New Bedford Massachusetts and have lived there most of my life. My mother’s side of the family is Norwegian and my ancestors were farmers until my grandparents moved to America and my grandfather became a fisherman. I started playing music in my early twenties. I started by making mix-tapes and then layering tracks with multiple boom boxes and, eventually singing over that and then playing guitar and, singing and things turned into songs.
How did you record ‘Honeysuckle Tendrals’? – it sounds amazing, with all the textures of sound and background noises and things…
Thanks, 'Honeysuckle' was the first album I recorded on my Tascam 424 4-track. It was recorded in my bedroom. I played a two-string guitar, plucking it back and forth like tick-tock-tick-tock. I borrowed a set of effects pedals but I don’t know what type or brand or anything. There are old recordings that my family made in the early 70’s that I used as backing tracks and some recordings of my friends having fun that I made with a handheld tape recorder.
Do you alter the pitch of your voice on your songs? It sounds very unusual…
On those songs I did alter the pitch. There is a knob for that. I think I was just not really confident with my singing voice yet. It would have been really odd to not speed up the vocals back then. That was the only album I did that on, however.
Are there any stories behind the songs on ‘Honeysuckle Tendrals’ that you’d like to share? They sound as if they’re full of personal details, but the imagery is also really fantastical, and I find myself making up stories when I listen to some of the songs.
The overall story behind the album was that I had just moved back home after abandoning a rented house on Lake Wendel in western Massachusetts. I wouldn’t say I had a nervous breakdown, but I got really scared of the woods and couldn’t live there anymore. So Honeysuckle is the product of returning to the safety of my boyhood home.
I’m of the impression that something close to a common mythology is somehow expressed when someone sings truthfully from their unique imagination. And the more personal that expression is, the more universal it somehow is.
Stream of conscious writing and a forgiving ear when it comes to performance and production are also nice.
Your myspace page says you’re currenty based in Providence, Rhode Island. What’s life like there? I’m a big H.P. Lovecraft fan and I’ve always wanted to visit.
I don’t know Lovecraft that well, but I read a Poe story recently: William Wilson. Poe, like Lovecraft, also had ties to the Providence Anthenaeum. I mention him often when I describe what it’s like walking around near my neighborhood. There are brick sidewalks uprooting all around and grand estates with the only old-growth trees around that have shaded centuries of mysteries for sure. You should visit; there is a macabre presence here to be certain.
Your songs are full of references to music and movies and popular culture. Do you have any favourite records / books / films that you think everyone should go out and listen to / read / watch?
You know what album I really like? The 1947 abridged version of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s 'Four Saints in Three Acts'. I put that on a tape with that as the A-side and Edith Sitwell’s “Façade” on the B-side; they make a really nice pair.
I didn’t know anything about Kasper Hauser until I looked him up after hearing your song of that name – how did his story influence the song?
The influence really came via Herzog’s film “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” which is one of my favorite sounding films. When I think back on that film I hear the wonderful tones of all the actors’ voices and the immaculate soundtrack choices. There is a scene in which Florian Fricke of Popol Vuh sings and plays the piano that turned my head inside out. I made a tape recording of a lot of that film …actually while I was making that tape recording my brother and his girlfriend came home from going to the Fort Wayne Zoo for the first time and they didn’t know I was in the middle of recording and my brother is talking about how awesome the zoo is and that how he had lived there for eight years and had never once gone to the zoo and he was totally blown away by the experience. I love that recording.
Who is Scotty Guffy? What is he singing about?
He is a good-ole-boy I met while living in Indiana. I think he was the kind of person that the last two songs on Kristofferson’s 'Silver Tongued Devil and I' seem to be about. That’s what he is singing and singing about as I remember.
How did the reissue of the album come about with Sacred Bones? Are there plans for any of your other tapes to get reissued? If not, do you have any copies of them left that people can buy?
Keegan Cooke, who did the beautiful screenprinting and packaging, is really responsible for the re-release of this album. We met years ago in New Bedford and aside from being a good friend he loves my music and has been a strong source of confidence for my continuing to write and record. I’ve been giving him mix-tapes of unreleased material and forgotten albums for some time now. He’s always talked about how great it would be to press an album of mine on vinyl and when he moved to New York and began working with Sacred Bones, this was all of a sudden a tangible thing. I don’t know many other details but I’m really grateful for all the work he has done and to Caleb for taking a chance on this record. I’d love it if I could keep on releasing on Sacred Bones. Keegan and I have talked about pressing my 2001 CD 'Anthology Folkaltone Music' on vinyl.
I love the line “bobby learned the bible, but the bible changed” in ‘Corporation Sunday’, and ‘The Child Delivers The Stone’ sounds like a really beautiful religious song – does religion play a part in the album’s songs?
Thanks, that line was written thinking about the album 'John Wesley Harding', or the way Anthony Scaduto dissects it in his biography of Dylan.
There is something I envy about religious music. I’ve struggled with the concept of performance and ego a lot and I find it so appealing that some people make music in order to please, or show praise to, a supernatural being.
Religion plays a huge part in this album, religion and mythology both. This was, after all, 1999 and I honestly believed there was a strong chance The Apocalypse was going to occur. I think there is a conflict, or I think my spiritual conflict is illustrated in these songs. Looking at the lyrics, there is as much content about bones and evolution and death as there is about reincarnation and redemption. I would dare say, with the benefit of hindsight, that the use of the recordings of my family, from around 1972, is a form of ancestor worship.
The myspace also says that you get together with a band to play live sometimes – how’s that going? I watched some videos on youtube, and it looks like you’ve got a real rockabilly kind of thing going on! Do you do any of the material from ‘Honeysuckle..’, or is it all newer, more rock n’ roll stuff?
Yeah, all the material that me & The Human Orchids play is newer. Sometime, a few years ago, I really began to question why I would write a song and then want to sing it in front of people. I could no longer wrap my head around why I needed to “express myself.” So I stopped writing and performing. Then I started listening to Buddy Holly and Little Richard. It occurred to me that I was overthinking things. I also think I have finally found a harmony with my sense of humor and my music. So I am thoroughly enjoying rockin’ out with my friends as of late and really get a kick out of the bold odd few who can’t help but dance at our shows.
What kind of activity would you like to see your music soundtrack?
Something out of Raymond Roussel’s book “Impressions of Africa,” an unfolding ceremony completely masked in mystery, where nothing is revealed; somewhere where artifice and anthropology meet. Music the way Paradjanov’s “Color of Pomegranates” looks.
What are your plans for the future? Have you got any new creative
type ventures in progress at the moment?
I ‘m finishing up a documentary film I am directing about my brother’s attempt to walk across the United States. I ‘m also doing the soundtrack; a lot of incidental music as well as a handful of songs. I also hope to record with & the Human Orchids, soon - once I can figure out how to record more than one person at a time. I ‘m also trying to piece together a passable Spider-Man costume for as little money as possible.
Many thanks are due to Carl for talking to me, and providing such an intriguing set of answers.
“Honeysuckle Tendrals” can be bought straight from Sacred Bones here.
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