Alter Echoes, the great new album from L.A-based trio Triptides (led by multi-instrumentalist Glenn Brigman, with drummer Brendan Peleo-Lazar and bassist/guitarist Stephen Burns) is a mix of sun-soaked, ’60s-sounding, psychedelic pop – think The Byrds and The Beatles – and far-out space rock.
It was recorded prior to the pandemic, in Hollywood’s Boulevard Recording studio, which was previously the legendary Producer’s Workshop, where Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan and, er, Liberace made, or mixed, records.
“Liberace’s piano is unfortunately no longer there,” says Brigman, speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers from L.A. “But I think some of the energy from those groups still lingers. Whether it rubbed off on us… well, you be the judge!”
How is it in L.A?
Glenn Brigman: It’s a very unique place and we love it for a lot of reasons. But one of the coolest parts is the amount of incredible music that has been made here over the years. We dig the history.
How has lockdown affected you as a band?
GB: We’ve all been affected one way or another. At this point we are just trying to make the most of our time off the road – we’re writing, recording and learning more about our craft.
I’ve started learning the Sarod [Indian stringed instrument], Brendan has been working on learning more piano and Stephen has been writing a series of musical suites about his cat, Jeffrey. We had to cancel last year’s SXSW appearances and a European tour planned for last September. Hopefully we will be back in Europe before the end of 2021 to make up for it.
Are you worried about the future of live music, post-Covid? What are your hopes and fears for the rest of the year and beyond?
GB: I’m trying not to think about it too much… we’re just taking it one day at a time right now and hoping for the best. I hope that our ability to be flexible and adapt to new situations will help us pull through any difficulties that await us in the coming year.
‘I’ve started learning the Sarod, Brendan has been working on learning more piano and Stephen has been writing a series of musical suites about his cat, Jeffrey’
How have you been coping with lockdown?
GB: We’ve been coping by working on every aspect of the music, apart from the live show. Taking care of each other and staying connected to our friends and family as best as we can.
Let’s talk about your new album, Alter Echoes. When did you make it?
GB: We recorded it in the fall of 2019; long before the word Covid was part of our lexicon.
It was recorded and mixed at Clay Blair’s Boulevard Recording studio in Hollywood. How was that? What were the set-up and the vibes like? How were the sessions?
GB: Clay is a great guy. We had a blast working with him at such a legendary studio. The set-up was fantastic – a beautiful live room that looks like it’s straight out of the ‘70s. There’s a comfortable control room and a little lounge area. Everything one could need to rock.
The vibes were very good. Brendan has known Clay for years, but they sort of reconnected when Brendan moved out to L.A, so it was sort of like working with an old friend. Also, the fact that Clay is from North Carolina and Stephen and I are from Georgia made us feel even more at home. The sessions were great – we had rehearsed the material beforehand, but it still had a very spontaneous vibe to it.
‘The studio set-up was fantastic – a beautiful live room that looks like it’s straight out of the ‘70s. There’s a comfortable control room and a little lounge area. Everything one could need to rock’
The studio was formerly Producer’s Workshop, where Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan made, or mixed, records. Did any of that history rub off on you? Liberace also recorded in the studio. Is his piano still there?
GB: Liberace’s piano is unfortunately no longer there! I think some of the energy from those groups still lingers. Whether it rubbed off on us… well, you be the judge!
The new record definitely has a sun-soaked, psychedelic sound. What influenced it musically, or otherwise?
GB: There’s such a wide range of influences it can be hard to pin them all down – from Coltrane to Hawkwind. So many different groups. But I think being in L.A, working together as a band, touring together – it all influenced how the record came together. We knew each other’s strengths and made sure that we played to them.
The single, It Won’t Hurt You, is one of my favourite songs of the year so far. What can you tell me about it? It’s very Byrdsy. Where did it come from?
GB: I wrote that one in the summer of 2018. It sat around as a drum machine apartment demo for a year or so. When I presented it to the group it worked perfectly with the three-piece arrangement and we decided to record it.
Hand of Time is another of my favourite songs on the record. I think it has a slight Stonesy feel – a swagger, like Street Fighting Man, but crossed with English ’60s psychedelia. Is that a fair description?
GB: I can see that. I think Brendan was thinking about the stripped-down drum patterns from McCartney II. I was probably drawing on Hawkwind or Can. It was just one of those songs that came out of a jam. We were doing a sort of stream of consciousness demo night where we were recording everything to the Tascam 488 tape machine. Suddenly we just started playing it. Listening back afterwards we thought, well that’s going to have to be a song, isn’t it?
Was the spacey track Shining influenced by Pink Floyd? There’s a definite Dark Side of the Moon feel to it. I’m thinking Breathe…
GB: Of course! Shining is a bit of our love letter to our favorite Floyd moments. The lyrics are supposed to be from a disoriented perspective – another realm where things aren’t what they seem. There’s a line where I say, “Relax, you weren’t meant to live,” which was sort of a reference to Nightmare of Percussion, the first track on the second Strawberry Alarm Clock album, where the narrator says: “Don’t worry about dying – you were meant not to live.” I always thought that was really weird and I wanted to include some of that weirdness in the song.
Having A Laugh is one of the lighter songs on the album. It’s poppy and has a McCartney / Beatles feel. Would you agree?
GB: It is and it isn’t. I was trying to comment on how much terrible news people see and hear everyday (“If you really believed half the things they said/wouldn’t be any need to get out of bed”). And this was before the pandemic! At the same time, I was thinking how we need to start taking care of the earth, of each other before it’s too late.
‘We were going for a sort of A Hard Day’s Night meets João Gilberto thing. Something you could listen to on the beach while the sun is setting. The first evening wind after a warm, summer day’
Another lighter, poppier song is She Doesn’t Want To Know – it’s a kind of a bossa nova/ lounge/ Easy Listening tune. Laidback and quite ’60s…
GB: We were going for a sort of A Hard Day’s Night meets João Gilberto thing. Something you could listen to on the beach while the sun is setting. The first evening wind after a warm, summer day.
The last song, Now and Then, is very ’60s. It reminds me of The Zombies and also Cream’s I Feel Free. What can you tell me about it?
GB: For that tune we wanted to go all out ‘60s. We were already in the studio with Clay, who is a huge Beatles fan and an authority on their recording techniques [see video below].
Paired with Brendan, who is an authority on Ringo’s gear, in particular, we couldn’t help but do our own Help-inspired UK beat song. We actually meant to use a Hohner Pianet on the track, like The Night Before, but it was giving us issues that day, so we settled on the Wurlitzer 200 [electric piano].
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
GB: We have some tentative tour plans, but I don’t want to jinx anything. We’ve also got more music to release. Like I said, we’ve been recording quite a bit.
‘I still rock an iPod like it’s 2006’
What music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently? What’s been your lockdown soundtrack?
GB: We’ve all been listening to a ton of music over the lockdown – even more than usual perhaps. I’ve been digging a lot of UK folk recently: Fairport Convention, Michael Chapman, Bridget St John. And digging into some jazzier stuff: Horace Silver, Miles Davis and Gábor Szabó. I also went on a big Bee Gees kick after seeing that new documentary [The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart].
Finally, what’s your preferred way of listening to music – and why?
GB: Records. But driving around and listening to music is a close second. I still rock an iPod like it’s 2006.
Triptides’ Alter Echoes will be released on limited vinyl, and digital / streaming platforms on March 19, via Alive Naturalsound Records.
Like all the best bands, guitar-slinging six-piece XIXA, from Tucson, Arizona, look like a gang. In some of their press photos, they’re all wearing black and posing against a mountain range, looking like they’ve just drifted out of the badlands and are intent on razing your little town to the ground.
It’s an image that suits their sound perfectly – XIXA cite some of their influences as ‘70s Spaghetti Westerns, Gothic horror / Edgar Allan Poe, ’80s horror films, Narco cumbia – cumbia is a type of Colombian dance music, like salsa – and Peruvian chicha group Los Shapis.
Formed in the deep American Southwest, the band also has Latin roots, which can be heard amidst the dark and cinematic, brooding, desert-rock sound of their latest album, Genesis – one of Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite records of the year so far.
“We live and breathe this landscape, so with these songs we let loose and went as far into that world as we could,” says XIXA’s Gabriel Sullivan, who shares lead vocals and lead guitar with fellow outlaw, Brian Lopez. Both of them are / were also members of Howe Gelb’s alt-country rockers, Giant Sand. XIXA’s line-up is completed by bandmates Jason Urman (keys), Winston Watson (drums, percussion), Efrén Cruz Chávez (timbales, percussion), and Hikit Corbel (bass).
Genesis is XIXA’s second album. Produced by Lopez and Sullivan and recorded in Tucson at the band’s Dust & Stone studio, it follows their debut Bloodline and 2019 EP The Code. It’s an extraordinary, exotic and often intense listen – an intoxicating mix of Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western-style soundtracks, psych, rock, Latin influences, ’80s glossy pop and electronica.
‘We live and breathe this landscape, so with these songs we let loose and went as far into that world as we could’
Guests on the record include the Uummannaq Children’s Choir from Greenland, Latin singer and guitarist Sergio Mendoza from “indie mambo” act Orkesta Mendoza, and Algerian Tuareg desert-rock quintet Imarhan.
Say It With Garage Flowers took a trip into XIXA’s dark, desert-rock world and spoke to Lopez and Sullivan about the genesis of, er, Genesis.
“We have spent years tweaking the recognisability of our sound. And Genesis is the best representation to date,” they tell us.
Hi. Thanks for doing this. How’s it going? Where are you at the moment? In Tucson? What’s it like? Describe your surroundings and current mood.
Gabriel Sullivan: Thanks for having us. I am indeed in Tucson, in my Barrio Viejo home, looking out my window at my neighbour, Howe Gelb, unloading a Lowrey organ from his truck – it was from an outdoor gig we did in Tubac last weekend. That was quite a feeling – to play music for folks again!
Brian Lopez: I’m doing well, thanks. I just went for a hike with my mom at Sabino Canyon. T-shirt and shorts in February – I can’t complain.
How are you both coping with Covid and how has it affected you?
GS: Obviously Covid shoved us into very unfamiliar territory. This is the longest I’ve not toured in 15 years and I’m really starting to feel the bizarre effects of missing that routine. We’ve certainly tried to stay productive in our Dust & Stone studio and have created some great recordings with XIXA and other projects.
BL: For the first six to eight months, I was feeling great. I think my body and mind needed to recuperate from all the years of touring. I’ve remained super-productive and have had no problem staying busy – mostly with music-related stuff, which is great. I’ve been recording, writing, collaborating with others and getting more efficient with relaying musical ideas online. All the things I hadn’t had time to do efficiently before.
That said, I also miss German winters now…I miss catering and cramped green rooms with my band. I’m ready for the reboot to be over. I wanna get back out on the road.
We’re here to talk about your brilliant new album, Genesis, which is one of my favourite albums of the year so far. It’s a great-sounding record: exotic, cinematic, psychedelic, dark and menacing at times. What was the starting point for it? Did you go in with a definite approach as to how you wanted it to sound and feel? It’s an epic album.
GS: I feel like Genesis evolved and came to fruition in a very organic way. We didn’t go into the sessions with a definitive approach or sound, but we did go into this record with a few years of touring. Our sonic identity was further realised after that much time on the road together.
We wrote and recorded around 25 songs in the Genesis sessions, with many different styles and vibes from song to song. The 10 that made the record were the songs that best complemented each other for a 40-minute LP.
BL: This is definitely not an overnight “we got lucky how it turned out” kinda story. It’s a culmination of a lot of hard work, discipline, restraint…and maybe a .0003% of luck. By this point in our careers we’ve each carved out a space within this band’s organism. Everyone has an important place and job within it…otherwise this organism takes an unrecognisable shape. We need it to be recognisable. We have spent years tweaking the recognisability of our sound. And Genesis is the best representation to date.
How do you write and create the songs? What are your songwriting, demoing, arranging and recording processes?
GS: Genesis, like all of our recordings, was recorded in our Dust & Stone studio and was produced by Brian and myself. We’re big advocates of writing and recording all in the same session. We generally crank out one song per day. Some are more fleshed-out and realised than others, but at the very least we end up with solid sketches.
From there it’s Brian and I spending countless hours in the studio composing lyrics, chopping and editing arrangements, reworking songs and generally just further crafting the sonic landscapes that you hear on the record.
BL: The band will block out writing days, and whoever is available comes in and works. From there we really try to keep it moving. We’ve really become efficient at catching the initial flicker of an idea, and recording it well enough, so that when Gabe and I circle back to it, months later, that magic from the initial session is still there.
You cite your influences as including Edgar Allan Poe, Gothic horror, Ennio Morricone, Spaghetti Western soundtracks, ’80s horror films, ’80s pop and Latin sounds – Narco Cumbia and chica. It’s certainly an exotic and eclectic mix of sounds and styles…
GS: The inspirations that go into XIXA are always evolving. We started as a covers band playing Peruvian chicha and that was definitely the foundation for the band. From there each members’ personal influences and identities began to seep into the music. We’re always looking for new things to influence our music, from literature, mysticism, rhythms, guitar tones… We have no boundaries as to what can guide our music.
What were some of your main lyrical influences for this album? I sense that you take a lot of inspiration from the Arizona landscape: the desert, coyotes, wolves, etc. Is that the case? A lot of the lyrics are dark. There’s a nocturnal, shadowy and otherworldly feel to many of the songs…
GS: I see the lyrics on Genesis as Brian and I painting landscapes for the listener to wander through. There are big broad concepts pulling from religion, spirituality, mythology, mysticism…
‘We’re always looking for new things to influence our music, from literature, mysticism, rhythms, guitar tones… We have no boundaries as to what can guide our music’
Would you like to write film soundtracks? If so, what kind of movies would you like to score?
BL: I think we’ve already written the soundtracks – now we just need to find the films to accompany them. Anyone out there interested?
Can you recommend any cool films – new and old – that I should watch? Seen anything good recently?
BL: The best new movie I have seen is Mank, which is about the screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his development of the screenplay for Citizen Kane. It’s amazing. I’d recommend watching it with subtitles though, as the audio is true to 1930s film, in that it is terrible.
The best old movie I have seen recently is Boogie Nights. I mean, that movie ages impressively. It’s maybe better now than it was when it came out. The cast is out of this world and the performances are stellar. It’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s best work, in my opinion.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on the new album. Genesis of Gaea has a definite Spaghetti Western / psychedelic feel…
BL: We wanted to find a darker sort of mood for Spaghetti Western. Something that had the same DNA as a melodic/playful Ennio Morricone, but a darker, more psych feel. This is what we landed on. Lyrically we kind of get this “danger lies ahead” vibe to accompany the melodic passages. I was re-learning how to play this song recently, and I gotta say, musically-speaking, it is rather complex. More than you’d think from just hearing it.
I think Land Where We Lie sounds like Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill dragged through the Arizona outback. It has an ’80s pop feel, but it mutates into something much darker and also nods to Cry Little Sister from The Lost Boys soundtrack…
GS: I wrote this song the morning before we recorded it – it originally had a very finger picky, southwest songwriter kind of feel. When we got to the studio we started falling into this sort of Rock The Casbah vibe and just kept pushing it further into that. We were all big into ‘80s New and Dark Wave when we were doing the initial tracking and I think it comes across huge in this song. We pulled from an obvious reference here – Cry Little Sister from TheLost Boys soundtrack. The outro is sung by the Uummannaq Children’s Choir, who happened to be visiting Tucson while we were finishing overdubs. They definitely add the final haunting touch to this tune.
‘We wanted to find a darker sort of mood for Spaghetti Western. Something that had the same DNA as a melodic/playful Ennio Morricone, but a darker, more psych feel’
BL: The choir is actually a group of orphans from Uummannaq, Greenland that travel around the world and give performances. They were in Tucson, because our friend, Nive Nielsen, was in town from Greenland, and was sort of organising that portion of their trip. We had already thought to do a Lost Boys homage at the end of the song and had reached out to the local Tucson Boys Chorus to see if they were interested. And literally that same day we ran into Nive, who told us about the orphan choir. She said, “you should just have them do it. They love to sing.” So we did exactly that. And we loved it so much we put them on a couple of other tracks while we had them in our studio.
The Uummannaq Children’s Choir also appear on Feast of Ascension. What can you tell me about that song?I think it starts off sounding like Mark Lanegan doing Dark Side of the Moon-era Pink Floyd…
BL:The original idea was a demo recorded by our French bass player, Hikit Corbel. He has tons of ideas that he composes at home. Perhaps he was listening to some Dark Side… when he composed this particular one.
Anyhow, we took this particular demo, which I believe was just the intro riff on loop, and totally fleshed it out together, live, in the studio, and tracked the arrangement that you hear now.
There are a lot of lyrical references rooted in religion on this album and I thought a song based around the Feast of Ascension might find a good home on a XIXA album. So we wrote lyrics around that theme. We had the Uummannaq Children’s Choir add the final touch, singing the choruses with us: “We sit at the table, with all we have loved. We sit at the table with all that we have feared and lost.” Hearing their voices sing this passage gives me chills every time.
Eclipse, May They Call Us Home and Eve of Agnes are the most Latin-sounding tracks on the album. Are they influenced by cumbia and chichi? They’re very exotic…
BL:Eclipse is more in the vein of Mexican cumbia. May They Call Us Home is one part Spaghetti Western, one part Peruvian chichi, and Eve of Agnes is “a Turkish street market,” as one of the members of Imarhan described it to us, as we were tracking it. Now, the first two cumbias make sense, given our sonic track record, but I can’t explain the Turkish street market part, but I like it.
Soma has some great, pulsing synths on it. It could be the soundtrack to a sci-fi cowboy film…
BL: It’s a song idea I’ve had in the back of my head for a while. Jason’s synths definitely take it to a new place, along with Hikit’s soulful bassline.
GS: The intro is one of my favourite moments of the record. We had the song nearly mixed but didn’t think the intro was quite there. We ended up bouncing the intro down to a 1/4″ tape machine at the lowest speed and played it back into Pro Tools while I held the reels to get that wobbling and crunching effect. Incorporating programmed drums on the outro was a first on a XIXA record. There’s a lot of fun studio trickery in this tune.
BL: The icing on the cake, for me, is again having the Uummannaq Children’s Choir take the outro of the song. The music fades and these beautiful resilient voices remain, walking the listener to the end of side A of the vinyl.
‘That’s so funny you mention Duran Duran – honestly I was hardcore going for Bananarama’s Cruel Summer when we were getting into the production’
Velveteen shares its name with a song and album by ’80s trash-pop band Transvision Vamp. I think it sounds like Duran Duran-meets-Morricone-meets psych-rock. There’s an ’80s pop thing going on, but with some great psychedelic guitar and a Spaghetti Western feel…
BL: That’s so funny you mention Duran Duran – honestly I was hardcore going for Bananarama’s Cruel Summer when we were getting into the production on this particular one. And I remember being disappointed afterwards because I thought we fell a bit short of the mark. Now, with plenty of time between listening, I absolutely love where the song ended up. It’s definitely one of my personal favorites on the album.
Lyrically, the song’s inception came about when I was reading Richard Price’s book Lush Life. He used the word ‘velveteen’ to describe the curtains inside a dilapidated building in New York City. I just remember thinking about the strong aesthetic grip the word ‘velveteen’ has. So I wrote all the lyrics around that one word.
Are you pleased with the album?
BL: I’m definitely pleased with it. On a personal level, I feel the album’s stock will only rise when we are able to play these songs live in front of crowds, and begin making sense of it all. We haven’t even made it to that part yet. Which is both frustrating and exciting.
Was it made pre-pandemic? The record’s dark soundtrack feel suits the global mood, doesn’t it?
BL: It was conceived pre-pandemic, yes. But it certainly takes on more cultural relevance and significance in a Covid world. I’m glad we pushed the release back.
What are your plans for the rest of 2021? You’re obviously hoping to play this record live at some stage, aren’t you?
BL: I have no idea what to expect. Of course we’d love to go out and tour but that just isn’t on the cards, is it? Not any time soon at least. So we’ll just start writing new music and control what we can.
GS: We’ve played a couple of tunes from the record for some live streams and they were a blast to arrange for the stage. I can’t wait to see how songs like Soma, with its thick layers of production, translate to a live setting.
‘The album was conceived pre-pandemic, but it certainly takes on more cultural relevance and significance in a Covid world’
What’s been your lockdown soundtrack? What music – new and old – have you been enjoying?
BL: My favourite new album is Mexican Institute of Sound’s Distrito Federal. I’ve also been listening to Lowrider Oldies via a vinyl compilation called East Side Stories. I believe there are 12 volumes.
GS: I’ve been in a deep heavy music vibe lately. I’m loving the new EP from our Arizona brethren Gatecreeper and I’ve also been revisiting my all-time favourite band Pantera.
Finally, do you like the band Genesis?
BL: I prefer Peter Gabriel’s solo career. Sledgehammer was the shit. Also, the music video for Genesis’ Land of Confusion seriously freaked me out as a child. That video is fucked up.
Genesis by XIXA is out now on Jullian Records/The Orchard.
San Francisco’s Cool Ghouls(Pat McDonald – guitar/vocals; Pat Thomas – bass/vocals; Ryan Wong – guitar/vocals and Alex Fleshman – drums) turn 10 this year and release their fourth album, At George’s Zoo, in March.
It’s their best and most diverse record yet – a mix of Byrdsy psych, ’60s-style garage rock and gorgeous, Beach Boys/Jimmy Webb-inspired pop, with harmonies, piano, horns and lush strings.
“We didn’t have any expectations going into this record – we just wanted to have full control over the production and the time we spent recording,” they tell Say It With Garage Flowers.
How’s it going? What’s it like in San Francisco and how has the city handled the pandemic?
Pat Thomas: It’s going pretty good. San Francisco is a little chilly outside. It’s been raining recently. I guess the city government here has done a decent job handling the pandemic compared with other governments, but they could do more. The vaccine rollout could be more aggressive and the mayor seems too eager to “restart the economy.”
How has lockdown affected you – as people and also as a band? Have you had to radically alter any of your plans?
PT: Plans weren’t altered that much, band-wise. Before 2020 we were already factoring in a lot of downtime, as our guitarist, Ryan, is living all the way in Denver at the moment. We wanted to release At George’s Zoo in June of 2020, but had to postpone it, obviously.
Are you worried about the future of live music, post-Covid? What are your hopes and fears? How have you been coping with lockdown?
PT: I’m not too worried about the future of live music – I don’t really see how it couldn’t bounce back eventually and start to feel pretty normal. Bands will tour, people will go to shows, etc. A lot of small venues have been lost and bands will have to contend with that. Who knows, maybe people will be moved to open more venues in response. Lockdown is lonely – I think everyone feels that to some degree.
Cool Ghouls are 10 years old in 2021 – happy birthday! How are you celebrating? How does it feel to be 10?
PT: We’re not really celebrating because we’re all in lockdown. I guess releasing a record is kind of like a celebration. It feels pretty good to be 10. It’s pretty similar to being nine, except cooler.
‘I’m not too worried about the future of live music – I don’t really see how it couldn’t bounce back eventually and start to feel pretty normal. A lot of small venues have been lost and bands will have to contend with that’
Let’s talk about the new album. Was it written and recorded pre-Covid? When and where did you make it?
PT: Yep. We recorded it at our friend Robby Joseph’s house in the Outer Sunset neighbourhood in San Francisco, in the fall and winter of 2018.
What were the sessions like?
Ryan Wong: The recording environment was really important this time around. We started every session with a beer run and a family meal and talked about what we were going to do that day. Everything was recorded live and then we overdubbed what we had to. Robby laid it down on an Otari MX5050 [tape machine].
What did you want to achieve with the new record? It’s your most expansive album yet, with bigger, richer arrangements, and horns and strings. What prompted that move?
RW: We didn’t have any expectations going into it. After recording Gord’s Horse[digital-only EP from 2017] by ourselves, we just wanted to have full control over the production and the time we spent recording. Ryan was moving to Denver, so we just laid whatever ideas we had to tape before he left. As far as the arrangements, I think we’ve just grown over time and the music reflects that on this one.
Who writes the songs and how do you arrange them? What’s the process?
RW: We all write our own songs. So once the basic structure/idea is hashed out we bring it to the band to work on. Everyone has a hand in the final product.
I think At George’s Zoo is your best record yet. Where did the title come from?
RW: Thanks. George’s Zoo is a liquor store in the Outer Sunset that we frequented while recording. Robby’s neighbour was also named George and he left some feedback on his garage door a few times…Ha!
‘The recording environment was really important. We started every session with a beer run and a family meal and talked about what we were going to do that day. Everything was recorded live and then we overdubbed what we had to’
The opening track on the album, It’s Over, is wonderful. It has a great horn arrangement, a Beach Boys-style intro and some lovely harmonies. There’s also a bit of The Notorious Byrd Brothers about it – some psych-soul going on…
PT: Thanks. Yeah. The Notorious Byrd Brothers is a great record. I bought the Tibetan handbells you hear at the beginning of the song at one of those hippy gift shops on Haight St, not far from my apartment.
What can you tell me about the first single, Helpless Circumstance? There’s a psychedelic-rock feel to it, as well as more Beach Boys…
PT: It’s a pretty simple tune. One of those songs that sprouts from a dumb riff you play absent-mindedly at practice between actual songs you’re practising. Pat M was feeling lovey-dovey, so gave it some sweet and soft lyrics. He thinks the song sounds lavender in colour.
The new single, The Way I Made You Cry, is a great piece of soulful, Brian Wilsonesque piano pop, with horns and harmonies. It’s beautiful. Any thoughts on it?
PT: Thank you. No thoughts on it really. The song pretty much communicates everything about itself better than I could with words.
Land Song is gorgeous orch-pop. It has a Jimmy Webb / Beach Boys Pet Sounds-era feel. What can you tell me about it?
RW: We’re real proud of this one. The Pats actually wrote this song together. It was definitely pulling from the Jimmy Webb playbook, but we were also listening to a lot of Canterbury bands at the time. Early King Crimson was also in the mix. Dylan Edrich added the strings and Henry Baker laid down the piano. Props to those two.
It’s not even spring yet, but Surfboard is the song of the summer and I Was Wrong has a definite Pet Sounds / Surf’s Up feel. You do sound like you’ve been listening to a lot of Beach Boys…
PT: Those songs rule. They’re so good. Surfboard started out as a joke song. I was going to change the lyrics but I just kept coming back to ‘surfboard…’
The song 26th St. Blues sounds more like the Cool Ghouls of old – it’s very ’60s garage rock.
Pat McDonald: It’s ‘60s garage rock for sure. And it was inspired by the dire housing crisis in San Francisco. It’s pretty wild to see a place change so rapidly before your eyes. There’s a lot of frustration and powerlessness in the song, which gives it its rougher edge.
What music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently? What’s been your lockdown soundtrack?
PM:Fun House by The Stooges. Pretty much exclusively that.
What’s your preferred way of listening to music – and why?
PM: In my headphones at work, so I don’t have to hear my dumbass co-workers talking about GameStop stocks.
Finally, what are your plans for the rest of the year?
RW: We’re not really sure. This year kind of seems like a wash too. We’re looking forward to playing these songs live at some point.
At George’s Zoo by Cool Ghouls is released on March 12 –Empty Cellar / Melodic Records (UK).
Axiom, by singer-songwriter, engineer and producer, Steve Drizos, who is based in Portland, Oregon, was one of the first new albums I listened to this year, when I was asked to review it for Americana UK.
Drizos is the drummer for Jerry Joseph and The Jackmormons and he has his own studio, The Panther. He’s worked with artists including Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers), Chris Funk (The Decemberists), and Scott McCaughey (R.E.M., Minus 5, The Young Fresh Fellows).
Released in late January, Axiom is his debut solo album and it really took me by surprise when I first heard it. Due to his CV, I guess I was expecting an alt-country record, but it’s nothing of the sort.
The title track and album opener is a spacey and trance-like instrumental, with female vocal samples, electric piano and soaring strings, which builds to an epic climax, while Juggling Fire, which is the first song he wrote after quitting alcohol, is a shimmering, psych-folk ballad with a hint of blues.
Writing for Americana UK, I said: “Drizos isn’t easy to pin down – You Don’t See That Now is a reflective, keyboard-driven ballad with strings, and Softer, Please brings to mind soulful grungers The Afghan Whigs.
“Similarly, the moody, ‘90s-style alt-rock of Static has crunching guitars, a driving bassline and some seriously powerful drumming, but throws in a proggy synth solo that sounds like it was found nestling under one of Rick Wakeman’s old capes.
“Drizos doesn’t shy away from tackling the issues he’s had to deal with though – on Juggling Fire he sings: “When you’re all alone, begging for night.”
I added: “Axiom is a diverting and often surprising listen – the sound of a man coming to terms with himself and capturing it in an honest and strong collection of songs.”
The album was written, recorded, produced and mixed by Drizos, at The Panther. He set out to play as many instruments as he could on the record, but ended up using some guest musicians, including his wife, Jenny Conlee-Drizos of The Decemberists, and local session player Kyleen King for string and vocal arrangements.
Drizos says that making the album took him out of his comfort zone – he’s suffered from depression and anxiety, and also fought a battle with booze and drug addiction, but he started working on the record once he’d got sober. Some of the songs had been kicking around for years, but his new-found sobriety gave him the motivation to finally record them.
Having achieved his biggest goal for the album – to finish it – he says his next ambition is to have people hear it and relate to it: “If someone can find something relatable in the lyrics, especially someone who might be struggling with some of the things I sing about on the record, and not feel so alone and isolated, that’s the biggest goal.”
In an exclusive, honest and very revealing interview, I speak to Drizos to find out how he overcame his personal demons to make his debut album, and also get his thoughts on what lies ahead for live music in a post-Covid world.
“Even as I’m answering these interview questions, there’s a big part of me thinking: “Don’t they know I’m not really a singer-songwriter?” Like I’m going to be found out. That’s my insecurities yelling at me,” he says.
How’s your new year going so far?
Steve Drizos: How’s 2021 going? Well, it feels the same as 2020 so far, minus the daily spewing of our former “con-mander”-in-chief. And the constant, varying levels of anger, anxiety, and disbelief that went with it. So that’s a good start.
How has Covid affected you as a musician / producer? Has it messed-up any of your plans?
SD: It’s interesting that you worded the question that way. As a touring/gigging musician, it has obviously brought everything to a screeching halt, with little to no conversation about things moving again, at least in the States. I feel like in the beginning, everyone was trying to predict when things would open back up again and try to plan accordingly, only to be discouraged over and over again.
My bandmates and other colleagues have stopped trying to predict and just sit tight and wait. We were able to do a few live shows this summer when we could play outdoors, so that was a nice reprieve from missing the live show experience. However, I do hear a lot of my fellow musician and crew friends saying how amazing this year has been, not having to pack their suitcases and leave home on a regular basis, and being able to spend time with family and loved ones. Covid has certainly forced that hand.
As a producer/engineer, it has been very fortuitous. I finished a major remodel on my studio, The Panther, in December of 2019. I have been able to keep busy with remote recording and mixing projects, as well as safely running in-person sessions. People still have the need to create and now have the time to work up new material and are looking for a place to record them. So that business has been booming and is the thing I’m most excited and passionate about at this point in my career. So the pandemic has given me the time to really dive into it – time that I wouldn’t have had if I was still steadily on the road. I’m extremely lucky in that respect.
‘I hear a lot of my fellow musician and crew friends saying how amazing this year has been, not having to pack their suitcases and leave home on a regular basis, and being able to spend time with family and loved ones. Covid has certainly forced that hand’
What’s it been like for you in lockdown in Portland? How have you coped?
SD: Lockdown hasn’t been terribly brutal. I have an amazing wife that I love spending time with. As I mentioned, my studio has kept me busy, both with outside clients and working on my own music. And the band I’ve been with for 15-plus years – Jerry Joseph and The Jackmormons – has been doing weekly live stream shows, so I get to perform on a regular basis. We just hit week #44 I believe. It’s called Jerry Joseph’s Happy Book, every Thursday. In general, I don’t mind spending time alone. I’m a natural introvert. I definitely miss going to my favourite restaurants, seeing live shows, and hugging my family and friends. But, overall, it’s been okay.What are your main concerns for the future of live music in the wake of the pandemic?
SD: My biggest concern at this point in time is the survival of the venues themselves, especially the smaller independent rooms that I not only play in the most, but prefer to see shows at. Not just here in Portland but nationwide. And I guess worldwide for that matter.
That said, I’m actually amazed that more venues haven’t shuttered their doors at this stage of the game. Maybe things won’t be so dire as I originally thought. I also wonder how long it will take for audiences to feel comfortable gathering en masse again.
There’s a big psychological barrier that people will have to get past, vaccinated or not, to feel normal being on a sweaty dance floor with a few hundred strangers. Although I just read that an 80-person orgy got busted up outside of Paris, so maybe not everyone holds the same reservations. There’s your glimmer of hope.
‘I’m amazed that more venues haven’t shuttered their doors. I wonder how long it will take for audiences to feel comfortable gathering en masse again? There’s a big psychological barrier that people will have to get past’
Let’s talk about your debut solo album, Axiom. Why did the time feel right to put out a solo record? Some of the songs on the album have been kicking around for a while. How did you get everything together for the record? Did you have a big plan, or did it just kind of happen?
SD: The entire process of this record has been pretty organic. I have wanted to release a record of my own for some time, but I never seemed to be able to focus enough on the task at hand to reach the finish line. I have hard drives filled with half-finished ideas. Once I gained some clarity in my life, I was able to put the necessary attention and intent into getting something finished.
From the actual start to the finish of Axiom, it was about a four-year timeline. I certainly would not consider myself a prolific songwriter, and because I took on most of the performing, recording, and mixing roles, the whole thing took its own sweet time. I never felt rushed or pressured to put it out by a certain date.
Having a studio in your home presents a certain amount of obstacles when it comes to calling a song or a mix “finished.” Plus the record had stretches of being on the backburner, due to touring or other clients in the studio. The pandemic gave me the time to finally wrap things up and get it done.
You’ve battled drug and alcohol addiction, and you’ve had to deal with anxiety and depression, but you’re on the road to recovery. You’ve got sober and focused. How did you do that? Was it a challenge?
SD: That’s a big question. Let me see if I can sum it up in a relatively concise answer. To answer the how part, I reached out for help, finally, after years of knowing I had a problem.
In the music business, it’s very difficult to discern where the party stops and the problem begins. It’s an environment where drugs and alcohol are not just condoned, but encouraged. And most anything is easily available.
So after years of trying to change things on my own with no success, I finally reached out to a friend who I saw doing what I wanted to do, be sober and happy in the music industry. That started me on the long road to recovery that I continue to walk today.
My story and experience is certainly not unique, and there are plenty of resources out there to help you if you truly want it. Was it a challenge? Absolutely. It’s one of the most terrifying experiences I’ve been through, next to my wife’s cancer battle. It does get easier over time, but it’s something that I need to be aware of and work on everyday. The pay-off however is unexplainable.
‘In the music business, it’s very difficult to discern where the party stops and the problem begins. It’s an environment where drugs and alcohol are not just condoned, but encouraged. And most anything is easily available’
Has making a solo record helped you to focus on something? Would you say ithas been cathartic? What were the good and bad parts of making the album? Was it a difficult experience?
SD: The record absolutely saved my life by giving me something to focus on, especially in the early days of my sobriety. It’s such a cliché to say music can save your life, but once again, there it was for me during one of the most challenging periods of my life.
It really is an amazing thing to have this constant force with me to help get me through. The hardest part of making the record was finding the balance between believing you are making something important and, at the same time, remembering it’s just another record in a long line of records, so just get on with it. The hours spent obsessing over a snare sound or a single lyrical line is crazy. At some point, all perspective is lost and it’s hard to take a step back and hear anything with objectivity.
The best part was the feeling of accomplishment getting the masters back, and listening to the entire record from beginning to end. I will never forget that evening in May, walking around my neighbourhood with headphones on. I certainly learned a lot from making Axiom and know what I need to do to make a, hopefully, better follow-up.
‘My entire life, for a certain period of time, was nothing but recovery and facing uncomfortable truths in myself – it was pretty all-encompassing’
Lyrically some of the songs deal with personal issues you’ve faced. Was it hard to revisit those experiences when you were writing the record? What effect did it have on you?
SD: Very early on in the making of the record, I made the decision to be really honest about what I was going through. I have always been a private person and so it was really stepping out of my comfort zone to let my guard down. On the other hand, my entire life, for a certain period of time, was nothing but recovery and facing uncomfortable truths in myself – it was pretty all-encompassing. So it wasn’t that difficult to tap into those raw emotions that were right there on the surface.
You’ve said that the album took you out of your comfort zone. Can you elaborate on that?
SD: Besides what I stated earlier, about being open and honest about a very personal topic and experience, the other thing that really pushed me into unfamiliar territory was having a body of work with my name front and centre. I’ve spent my entire musical career in a supporting role – and been very happy in that position. I’ve seen first-hand the kind of pressure and stress that comes with fronting a band and it never looked appealing to me.
Even once I realized that Axiom was becoming a reality and would get released, I never had the desire to put a band together to tour the record. I’m very uncomfortable in the spotlight. Even as I’m answering these interview questions, there’s a big part of me thinking: “Don’t they know I’m not really a singer-songwriter?” Like I’m going to be found out. That’s my insecurities yelling at me.
‘I’ve spent my entire musical career in a supporting role – and been very happy in that position. I’ve seen first-hand the kind of pressure and stress that comes with fronting a band and it never looked appealing to me’
What kind of record did you want to make and do you think you’ve achieved it?
SD: I think I am came pretty close to hitting the mark on making the record that I heard in my head. I unapologetically wanted to tap into my ‘90s influences.
I started touring extensively in 1995 and feel in some ways my musical tastes cryogenically froze at that time. With the introduction of music streaming services, I was able to go back and revisit all that music, and a bunch that I missed. And that was the jumping off point.
I’m also a huge fan of “produced” records, where the studio is used as an instrument to manipulate, distort, and stretch sounds. So the expanding of my studio coincided with the making of Axiom. There’s no way I could have afforded to make the record I wanted to make in a commercial studio, paying by the hour. So I built one that would fit my needs. I’m not so sure if it was any cheaper looking back, but I know it’s a fully functioning studio space that other people seem to enjoy working in.
‘Even as I’m answering these interview questions, there’s a big part of me thinking: “Don’t they know I’m not really a singer-songwriter?” Like I’m going to be found out. That’s my insecurities yelling at me’
What’s your studio, The Panther, and set-up like? What’s the vibe like there and what kind of gear do you use? And where did the name come from?
SD: The Panther is a tricked-out basement studio in the house my wife and I own. A friend recently said: “You don’t have a home studio, you have a studio in your home.”
It’s a hybrid set-up of analogue and digital gear. My wife and I have a decent collection of keyboards, drums, guitars, etc. to cover the needs of most clients. We have a grand piano in the living room and the entire house is wired up to plug in mics anywhere. The Panther certainly has its limitations, but most people seem to be pretty happy with the vibe and, most importantly, the final results.
The name came from a black velvet panther painting that lives in the control room. When I needed a name for album credits on one of the first projects I did there, The Panther was it.
Let’s talk about some of the songs on Axiom. What can you tell me about the title track? It has female vocal samples, electric piano and soaring strings, and it builds to an epic climax…
SD: That track started with the drumbeat. It was an interesting rhythm that I had just started tapping out on my lap one day, so I tracked it on the drums, looped it a few times, and started writing the music around it. It’s in an unconventional time signature and I was having a hard time finding a melody to go over the top of it.
I wanted to call the song Axiom because I thought it was a cool-sounding word and its definition embodied a lot of the concepts and challenges about truth that I was witnessing in the world and also realising in myself. So I did a little research and found a collection of poems written on the topic of truth by Samuel Johnson. So using the text-to-speech feature on my computer, I created the samples in lieu of a melody.
The second half of the song was a complete rip off the Mogwai record Young Team that I was listening to at the time. It wasn’t until much later that I decided to call the record Axiom as well.
My favourite song on the album is Juggling Fire. What inspired it? It has a psych-folk feel…
SD: Thank you. Watching this one particular homeless woman, who was a regular in our neighbourhood for a little while, inspired the lyrics. I would watch her stroll through the streets and scavenge for the things she needed to survive.
The homeless situation is Portland is quite dire and this was not an uncommon occurrence to witness, but at that particular time I felt acutely aware of the fact that most of us are just a few circumstances away from being in that same position, especially when viewing it through the lens of addiction.
It was the first song I wrote after getting clean – it was more a test to see if I could be creative in my new skin. It came about fairly quickly. When it came time to mix it, I wanted to give it a real ethereal vibe. I’m glad that comes across.
Softer, Please reminds me of the Afghan Whigs and Static has a ’90s alt-rock thing going on….
SD: As I mentioned before, these songs are more than a nod to my rock past, but a full-on embodiment of the music I still want to hear.
With those two songs in particular I was aiming for more of a Gutter Twins-meets-The-Verve-meets-Pearl Jam kind of vibe. So the fact that you picked up on an Afghan Whigs feel is a huge compliment.
When you mentioned that in your Americana UK review, I was so stoked! With Static, I think I was trying to emulate some of the production ideas from Gomez records I love so much.
Softer, Please was just a straight up burner – Troy Stewart’s ripping guitar solo at the end just sent it over the top.
Talking of solos, there’s a great, unexpected synth solo on Static – it’s a bit prog rock. How did that happen?
SD: The synth solo was impeccably executed by Jenny [Drizos’s wife, Jenny Conlee-Drizos of The Decemberists]. I wanted a sound that was granular and well, static-y. And we both share a love for prog rock, so it was not a stretch for her at all to come up with exactly the right part for that solo. It never gets old for me hearing that section.
On the album, you set out to play as many instruments as you could, but ended up using some guest musicians, including your wife, Jenny, and local session player, Kyleen King, for string and vocal arrangements. Why did you decide you needed some help?
SD: Good question. At some point early on I realised I had to let go of my pipe dream of playing everything, and quite frankly my control issues, and bring in players much more qualified than I am on certain instruments.
Kyleen King and I had been working closely together on a few studio projects prior to the recording of Axiom, and so I knew she was going to be a perfect fit for the backing vocals and string ideas I had.
Plus we try to work in trade. I had recorded and mixed a few projects for her, under the name A Cat Named Grandpa, so I was cashing in my favour chips with her. She’s so amazing to work with and has developed quite the résumé over the last few years.
‘At some point early on I realised I had to let go of my pipe dream of playing everything, and quite frankly my control issues, and bring in players much more qualified than I am on certain instruments’
Adding Jenny to the mix was a no-brainer. Why hack through piano and keyboard parts when you have one of the best keyboard players in the world as your wife? I can’t even begin to get into the amount of support and patience she had through the making of the album. I’m also not a particularly strong bass player, so I brought in Nate Query (The Decemberists) and my long time tour mate, Steven James Wright (Jerry Joseph and The Jackmormons). I filled in the rest of the sounds as I went along, with players from the rich soil of Portland talent.
What are your plans for the year ahead?
SD: In the immediate future, I have been busy rehearsing these songs with a small acoustic band to do a few live stream shows over the course of the next couple months.
After that, my plans for the year ahead are doing more of the same as I did in 2020. Try to keep The Panther as booked as possible, keep going with the weekly Jerry Joseph live streams, hopefully be able to play a few outdoor shows this summer, and patiently wait until things open up again and see what the landscape looks like as far as venues and touring. I’ve already started demoing out some new ideas for a follow-up to Axiom.
Any musical recommendations – old and new? What’s been your lockdown soundtrack? What are you currently enjoying listening to?
SD: My musical tastes have been all over the place during the pandemic. The one new to me artist I fell in love with is Samantha Crain from Oklahoma. Her record, A Small Death, just floored me.
I’ve been listening to The Glands from Athens, Georgia a lot lately. Quilt out of Boston is a regular listen of mine. I’m really digging Michael Kiwanuka’s Love & Hate.
‘I know people complain about the evils of music streaming services, and their arguments are valid, but I can’t imagine what life would be like without it. I can wake up every morning and pick my record for the day, and dive deep into catalogues of artists – both new or long-forgotten’
As far as older stuff, I’m enjoying some ‘90s music that I missed or wasn’t that into at the time. Superchunk for one. I’ve been blasting Hole’s Celebrity Skin as of late. It’s so good!
I know people complain about the evils of music streaming services, and their arguments are valid, but I can’t imagine what life would be like without it at this point. I can wake up every morning and pick my record for the day, and dive deep into catalogues of artists – either new or long forgotten about.
Abso-fucking-lutely directly support the artist when you can, especially the indie artists. Buy all the merch. But as a fan, it’s an amazing time to have access to all of it. And I’m a music fan above everything else.
Oh, I should also note that a close friend of mine here in Portland sent me a message the other day saying his brother’s band Star Collector was on the same Best of 2021 So Far Spotify playlist you put together that I was included on. How random and cool is that?
Axiom by Steve Drizos is out now on Cavity Search Records. You can buy it here.
Have you kept yourself busy during lockdown? Ryan Allen has. The Detroit power pop/punk rock singer-songwriter, who is also the frontman of band Ryan Allen and His Extra Arms, has written, recorded and released two solo albums.
The first, which came out last year, Song Snacks, Vol.1, was a collection of 20 two-minute and under songs, influenced by The Who, The Beatles, Guided By Voices and Olivia Tremor Control, while this month he puts out What A Rip – a record that’s a homage to ’60s pop, psych and garage rock.
Allen recorded the new album himself, in his home studio, and played all the core instruments, but there are a few special guests, including his dad, Brad Allen, who plays the very George Harrison-sounding lead guitar on Only Son. The whole thing was mastered by Justin Pizzoferrato, who has made records with Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies and Sonic Youth.
Talking about the record,Allen says: “What A Rip is my tribute to rock ‘n’ roll. The influences are probably pretty obvious: The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Monkees… All the foundational stuff that you hear as a kid that just kind of sticks to your brain like peanut butter does to the roof of your mouth. Hopefully these songs stick to yours in the same way.”
They certainly do – here at Say It With Garage Flowers we’ve been cranking them up for the past few days. In an exclusive interview, we ask Allen to tell us how he’s managed to be so prolific during the pandemic, get his thoughts on the current political situation in the US and find out how he writes and records his music.
“I didn’t plan on writing a million songs, recording them at home and releasing a bunch of stuff last year and now this year, but I’m just going with the flow and trying to make the best of a shitty situation,” he tells us. “This whole thing reminds you that life is short. Why wait? “Fuck it! Get the shit out there!”
How are things?
Ryan Allen: Things are…weird, ya know?
What kind of mood are you in?
RA: If you’d asked me this around the time of the election, it would be a bit different than it is now. I’m trying to be hopeful and positive as much as I can. Some days are harder than others, but when I get into a slump, I try and remind myself of all the good around me. I have an amazing son. I have a wonderful girlfriend. My parents have been vaccinated. I’m still working. I’m writing music. I have things to look forward to. I’m just counting my blessings I guess.
We’re treading completely new waters as a collective society, and for the majority of it there’s not really been anybody around to throw us a lifejacket. But with the incoming administration in the US, I am feeling hopeful that we will be out of the darkest parts of this soon. Personally, I feel very lucky, as, touch wood, the people I’m closest to are all healthy and doing alright. But I know that isn’t the case for a lot of people, and it’s heartbreaking to think about how much loss folks have experienced since the pandemic hit.
I mean, I definitely miss playing shows and having band practice, but I can live without it when you compare that to losing a loved one. So I kind of have to put everything in perspective – this whole thing sucks, but it could be worse as well. Like I said, I feel lucky right now, all things considered.
How has Covid affected your plans?
RA: I didn’t plan on not being able to play shows to promote the last Extra Arms album, nor did I plan on writing a million songs, recording them at home and releasing a bunch of stuff last year and now this year, but I’m just going with the flow and trying to make the best of a shitty situation.
‘I didn’t plan on writing a bunch of songs, but they just kept showing up to the party, so I kept letting them in the door. Needless to say, the house was getting pretty full!’
You’ve been busy during lockdown – you’ve recorded and released two new solo albums: Song Snacks, Vol.1 and What A Rip. Did you really write all of the songs during the past year?
RA: Yeah – every song on both solo albums was written in 2020, after the pandemic hit. Like I said, I didn’t plan on writing a bunch of songs, but they just kept showing up to the party, so I kept letting them in the door. Needless to say, the house was getting pretty full! But it’s been a lot of fun, playing around with different styles, teaching myself how to make better home recordings, and just keeping my songwriting muscle exercised.
Why do you think lockdown has made you so prolific? What’s beeninfluencing and inspiring you? How have you managed to write and record so many songs?
RA: Well, I’m always working on music. Before the pandemic hit, I probably had another 20 or so songs I was working on for whatever Extra Arms was going to do next.
That’s on top of the two solo albums I’ve done and a few other projects I cranked out – a shoegaze EP with some friends, called Soft Wires, and a pandemic-inspired hardcore album called Quaranteen Idles.
I think the difference is that instead of waiting to get into a studio, I decided to use the tunes I was writing, independent of what I knew was already set aside for Extra Arms, to really try and improve my home recording prowess. I downloaded Logic and bought a few mics. I tried to home in on good guitar tones. I wanted to play drums again. I love playing bass and it gave me an excuse to do that. And, to be honest, all my demos were always rushed.
I wanted to learn more about processing and adding things like compression and other effects to improve the quality of what I could do at home. I was pleasantly surprised that I could make things sound pretty decent, so hence all of the music that may have been kept under wraps and waiting in the wings for a real studio deal has instead been tossed out into the world. Also, I should say, this whole thing reminds you that life is short. Why wait? “Fuck it. Get the shit out there,” was my thought.
‘I’m an amateur, but my crude home studio set-up is similar to what Guided By Voices were working with. They just had a four-track, a couple of SM-57s mics, a Memory Man delay pedal and a fuckton of great songs!’
What’s your writing and recording process? Do you have a tried and tested method of penning songs? What’s your set-up like at home for playing and recording?
RA:I think I just sort of go into a trance, if I’m being honest. I lose track of everything around me, and the ideas just flow.
Sometimes I feel like the songs choose me, instead of me trying to find them. They just show up. I try not to labour over things too much, and I like to start and finish an idea in one sitting if I can. The songs for Song Snacks were very much written and recorded in the same moment – some three or four at a time.
I’m lucky that I have a space in the house to make some noise. In my previous homes I had that, but not like I do now. I have a ton of space and all my gear set-up – all I really need to do is flip a few switches and I’m ready to roll. I would never be able to record anybody else here, ‘cos I don’t have any nice outboard gear or anything like that, but for what I’m trying to do it works. It still doesn’t compare to a real studio, or somebody who has amassed a bunch of great gear and knows their way around Pro Tools.
I’m very much an amateur, but I think my sort of crude set-up is similar to what a band like Guided By Voices was working with. They just had a four-track, a couple of SM-57 mics, a Memory Man delay pedal, and a fuckton of great songs! It didn’t need to sound perfect, cos the songs were so good. So that’s what I’m aiming for, I guess.
Let’s talk about some of your new songs – from both of your recent albums. I’ll pick a few of my favourites and you can tell me a bit about them…
Here Comes The Rain: This is a cool, stripped-down, Beatlesy psych-ballad. It sounds like it has a Mellotron on it…
RA: Yep – it’s very Beatles, right down to the name – instead of Here Comes the Sun… It’s in an alternate tuning, which I stole off Swervedriver’s website. When I played chord structures in the tuning it felt very drony, similar to Love You To, so I tried to channel some of that George Harrison mysticism.
‘Getting your legs tattooed and growing your hair long is something not a lot of 40-plus year-old-guys are probably doing, but as Bon Jovi sang, “It’s my life” ‘
I’m A Wizard Now: Another song that sounds like The Beatles – particularly Across The Universe. Are you actually a wizard now? Please explain yourself.
RA: Yeah – more Beatles and it’s clearly very indebted to Across The Universe, which is one of my favourite songs ever. If I was a wizard, I guess the spell I would cast on myself is to keep writing more tunes.
Leg Tattoo:You have a leg tattoo, don’t you? What inspired this song? I think it sounds like a more fuzzed-up Fountains of Wayne…
RA: I have two leg tattoos, actually. It’s a pretty dumb song, but sometimes I’ll just sing stupid stuff around the house while I’m doing things. This is kind of one of those, but I ended up turning it into a real song. I guess it’s mostly about doing whatever makes you happy, no matter what people think you should be doing.
Getting your legs tattooed and growing your hair long is something not a lot of 40-plus year-old-guys are probably doing, but as Bon Jovi sang, “It’s my life.”
Got any tattoos you regret?
RA: I’m good with all of my tattoos.
‘I was trying to channel some sweaty, coked-out Lennon session vibes à la How Do You Sleep? I think I pulled it off’
You’ve Been Electrocuted: This one rocks! Any thoughts on it? It’s a heavy stomp, with loud, crunching guitars…
RA: Thank you, man. I was trying to channel some sweaty, coked-out Lennon session vibes à la How Do You Sleep? I think I pulled it off.
Already Gone:a great nugget of noisy ’60s garage rock, but with a nice, unexpected Beatlesy mid-section…
RA: This is one of the first ones I came up with for the record. I wanted to do something with a seventh chord carrying the tune along, similar to Taxman, or something like that. But after playing the riff for a while I felt like it really needed to go in another direction entirely – it was almost like a different song was spliced-in from a different session. I like the juxtaposition and I feel like it kind of catches you off guard. I’m just trying to keep the people on their toes.
Feeling You Feeling Me: This is your new single and, once again, it’s very Beatlesy and psychedelic…
RA: This was the first song I wrote for the record, without actually intending to make another album. A friend let me borrow a Mellotron guitar pedal, and since there are no shows happening, I thought it would be fun to write something and use it on the recording.
This was a rare song that I kind of had to fight with to bring into existence, since I felt like it had to have a certain vibe for the Mellotron pedal to sound good.
I kept messing with things and then getting frustrated and stopping. I probably did that for a few hours. Then I sat down at the drums and started to play the beat that you hear on the song, and I liked the kind of wistful sway that it had going on. So I grabbed my guitar and tried to write something with that beat in mind, and then it all just came together immediately. I’m really proud of this one, for sure.
‘What A Rip is my tribute to rock ‘n’ roll. The influences are pretty obvious: The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Monkees… All the foundational stuff that you hear as a kid that just kind of sticks to your brain like peanut butter does to the roof of your mouth’
On My Mind: This reminds me of The Monkees. It’s a cool pop song and it has a Last Train To Clarksville feel, doesn’t it?
RA: Yep – you nailed it. It’s The Monkees meets Tom Petty. I just love riffs like this. There’s something about hearing that Last Train To Clarksville riff or Paperback Writer… It sounds so heavy, but it’s not necessarily intended to be. It just hits a sweet spot.
Shannon Cake: This has some nice harmonies and it’s very like The Beach Boys and The Zombies. Who is Shannon Cake?
RA: Yes – it’s very Beach Boys and Zombies. I’m probably going to go to jail for these songs, aren’t I? Shannon Cake is a real person. She’s a reporter who was interviewed in a documentary I watched about Jeffrey Epstein. I just loved the name and knew I needed to use it in a song. It was actually written in more of a Guided By Voices indie-rock style, but I re-interpreted it and gave it the Brian Wilson treatment. I also used a basketball for percussion.
‘I felt compelled to document this wild time, and do so through the eyes of my nine-year-old son, who has basically had everything taken away from him this year’
Only Son: That Beatles / Mellotron sound is back again… This song sounds like it’s a comment on the past year – the Trump situation and Covid. Is that the case? I love the feel of this track. There’s a definite Lennon thing going on – and some lovely George Harrisonesque guitar on it.
RA: Man, you’ve really got me figured out. Yes to all of that. I just felt compelled to document this wild time, and do so through the eyes of my nine-year-old son, who has basically had everything taken away from him this year. It’s kind of a sad song, but the chorus is meant to be encouraging, saying, like, “Hey, shit sucks right now, but it’s going to be okay because we have each other.”
It seems like you’ve been on a bit of a ’60s psych trip recently – as we’ve discussed, there are some very Beatlesy songs on both of your new albums….
RA: I’m just a fan of music, you know? I think I’ll always do the aggressive power pop thing for sure, but I just wanted to indulge a different side of my songwriting. Also, it’s really fun to go down the rabbit hole and discover bands that are completely new to you, even if they’re old. So if you like The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks and The Stones, you’re bound to also love The Nazz, The Creation, Fire, Les Fleur De Lys, and The Pretty Things…you just have to search a little harder to find them. I guess the plus side to Spotify is that you can pretty much listen to anything ever and discover something daily. So I kind of started doing that and, you know, being a songwriter, inspiration was bound to hit me.
What are your plans for the rest of 2021? Is there another album in the pipeline?
RA: The rest of 2021 will be pretty active. I have an EP that I recorded quickly over the course of a weekend that I’m kind of holding on to right now. It’s a totally different vibe than the last thing – kind of heavier and inspired by the songs I was writing when I was 14 and recording on a four-track.
I also have a project I’ve been working on with my friend Kathleen Bracken, where I wrote the songs but she’s coming up with vocals, lyrics and melodies. So we’re kinda chipping away at that. And Extra Arms is hitting the studio – safely – very soon to work on the follow up to Up From Here. We’re kind of piecing it together remotely and will be in the studio one or two at a time to record it. We’ve never done it this way – we’re usually in the room together, bashing it out, even if we’re working from one of my demos, so it’ll be interesting to see how it turns out.
‘It’s sad that Trump and his administration did nothing to help anybody and were happy to just let people and businesses die. It’s sick. He deserves to be thrown in jail for the rest of his pathetic life, and I hope he rots there’
What are your hopes and fears for 2021? Are you worried about the future of live music?
RA: I just hope people get vaccinated and can get the help they need – financially, mental health wise, etc. This whole thing will have such long-lasting effects – some of which we won’t even see until years and years later. It’s sad, to say the least, that Trump and his administration basically did nothing to help anybody and were happy to just let people and businesses die. It’s sick, honestly. He deserves to be thrown in jail for the rest of his pathetic life, and I hope he rots there.
In terms of live music – it’ll come back. It might not be the same, but people persevere, you know? We adapt. We figure shit out. There are a lot of idiots out there, but there are also lots of brilliant people. It will be back. And I hope people don’t take it for granted like they did before the pandemic. Hopefully people will go out and support the arts with fervour, and the musicians who do it as a full-time thing can reap the rewards of that.
Are you more hopeful now that Trump isn’t in power? How does that make you feel? Fittingly, there’s a song on your new album called Election Night, which can’t be a coincidence, and Only Son has some social commentary in the lyrics…
RA: Hell, yeah. He was this close to becoming a full-on dictator. How fucked up is that? And people wanted it! Insanity. I am just glad we are back to a place where we can trust the administration – more or less – know they are operating on facts and science, and try to get us the fuck out of this mess.
Do you have any music recommendations – new and old? What have you been listening to during lockdown?
RA: Oh man. I could go on forever. Lately I have been listening to a lot of funk – Funkadelic, Betty Davis – some Lenny Kravitz, D’Angelo, and the Little Shop of Horrors soundtrack. So not my usual Bob Mould, Bob Pollard, power-pop, Superchunk rock-type stuff. But I’m always spinning Sloan and stuff like that too.
Finally, what were your favourite records of last year?
RA: Here’s my list:
Lees of Memory – Moon Shot
The Lemon Twigs – Songs for the General Public
Coriky – S/T
Guided By Voices – Surrender Your Poppy Field / Mirrored Aztec / Styles We Paid For
The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers
Peel Dream Magazine – Agitprop Alterna
Hum – Inlet
Hayley Williams – Petals for Armor
Supercrush – SODO Pop
Fleet Foxes – Shore
What A Rip by Ryan Allen is officially released on February 5: you can stream, download or purchase it here.
Straight Songs of Sorrow by US singer-songwriter Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age) was our favourite album of 2020.
His twelfth solo record, it served as a companion piece to the gravel-voiced grunge survivor’s autobiography, Sing Backwards and Weep, which also came out last year.
The book, described as ‘a brutal, nerve-shredding read, recounting his journey from his troubled youth in eastern Washington, through his drug-stained existence amid the ’90s Seattle rock scene to an unlikely salvation at the dawn of the 21st century’ was brilliant – often harrowing and painfully honest, but shot through with black humour.
Its accompanying soundtrack, Straight Songs of Sorrow, was one of the best – and darkest – records Lanegan’s ever made.
Reviewing it last year, we said: ‘It’s a sprawling, 15-track masterpiece that takes in the folk and blues sounds of his early solo recordings, as well as the electronic influences that have dominated his more recent releases. Like the book, the shadow of death hangs over these songs, and there’s plenty of drugs and [self] destruction thrown in for good measure too.’
Earlier this month, via social media, we contacted Lanegan, who’s recently relocated from his home in L.A. to live in Ireland, told him we’d chosen Straight Songs of Sorrow as our best album of last year, and asked if we could interview him. A day or so later, he dropped us a line and told us to send him some questions.
So here’s our exclusive chat – a no-holds-barred interview in which we cover a lot of ground, including his thoughts on the Covid-19 pandemic, lockdown, the future of live music, collaborating with other artists and his approach to songwriting. He also gave us an update on some of his future projects.
“I am most settled when I’m unsettled,” he tells us… so settle down and enjoy our one-on-one encounter with Dark Mark.
How’s it going? How are you coping with the Covid crisis and lockdown? What kind of frame of mind are you in at the moment?
Mark Lanegan: I can’t complain. What can you do when shit is out of your control, except roll with the punches? My frame of mind is a surprisingly good one, given the global situation. I’m taking this time of enforced lockdown to get work done, which is what I enjoy most anyway. I am someone who has historically thrived in isolation.
As a professional musician, you’re used to being on the road a hell of a lot. What effect has Covid had on you? How was 2020?
ML: 2020 was the slowest year in my adult life – by a thousand miles. That’s one of the very few reasons why I appreciated it. When you are my age, the years just fly by, and, for me, 2020 stopped time.
Are you worried about the future of live music? What needs to be done to address the situation? What are your hopes and fears for gigs and the year ahead?
ML: Well, it goes without saying that I would like to be on the road. That’s been the lifeblood of my existence for 30-plus years and I don’t want to stop moving now. Never mind the fact that nearly all of my meaningful income is from live shows. But honestly, if I’m concerned about anything, it’s how this thing is going to impact society as a whole. Might this possibly be that moment in history where a giant global crisis is the excuse for the powers that be to finally eradicate civil rights and personal freedoms? Governments love, and have been known to create, such opportunities. I think that’s what people should be keeping an eye on, not when they can get back to normal. Because let’s face it, things might likely never be ‘normal’ again.
‘Might this possibly be that moment in history where a giant global crisis is the excuse for the powers that be to finally eradicate civil rights and personal freedoms? Governments love, and have been known to create, such opportunities’
You recently relocated from L.A. to Ireland. What prompted the move and how are you settling in? What effect has it had on you?
ML: Well, I’ve been to Ireland many times and I’d thought about moving here for years, but some commitment or another always prevented it. When it became obvious that I would not be allowed to work as I am accustomed to for an indefinite period of time, it became the ideal window for other change as well.
Has moving to Ireland inspired you musically?
ML: I don’t really need inspiration to write music, or anything else really. It’s something I’m hardwired to do. Like breathing or fucking.
Whereabouts in Ireland are you living and what’s it like?
ML: I’m in County Kerry and it’s as physically stunning a place as I’ve ever been. More so probably, but it’s the people here who make it so great. They are the best.
‘I don’t really need inspiration to write music, or anything else really. It’s something I’m hardwired to do. Like breathing or fucking’
Have you moved all your possessions and your studio etc. to Ireland, or did you just up and leave?
ML: I came with the three 70 pound bags that my frequent flyer status on United allowed. I had one bag of clothes and two bags of recording equipment, small synths and drum machines. Everything else I left in storage in California. I’m renting at the moment, waiting to get into this house I’m trying for, and if that happens I suppose I’ll get my stuff shipped over in a container. But I’d just as soon start again anyway. You don’t own things – they own you.
You’re a very prolific songwriter and artist. In the past four years, you’ve released three studio albums, a Christmas album – half of which was new recordings – and a remix album, plus you’ve collaborated with Duke Garwood on the record With Animals, and you’ve worked with other artists, like Humanist, as well as touring the world. Are you a workaholic? Do you constantly write and think about your next musical projects?
ML: I am most settled when I’m unsettled, so to speak, and there is something about being in a constant state of creation that keeps me engaged with life on a level that nothing else does, so I keep working. Most people never even get the opportunity to find out what it is they truly love. Most people are locked into a job they either hate, or simply tolerate, so they can keep eating and have a place to stay those few hours they’re not at the job.
I have been incredibly blessed to live the life I have and I feel like I would be pissing on that gift if I didn’t work everyday. And I only call it ‘work’ for the sake of answering this question. For me it’s something else altogether.
What’s your songwriting process like? How does stuff come to you? Which instruments do you write on and do you write music or lyrics first, or does it differ?
ML: I’ve only known two people whose music I love that take words written previously and then make them fit a piece of music. Simon Bonney, [Crime & the City Solution] who I consider to be one of the all-time greats as far as voice, phrasing, melody and lyrics, which in my opinion are the four keys to a great singer, and my 15-year- old nephew, David, who is advanced to a degree I never got until my forties. So I guess what I’m saying is, in my experience, it takes a genius, or someone who has developed in a different way than most guys I know, to write words first.
‘Most people never get the opportunity to find out what it is they truly love. I have been incredibly blessed to live the life I have and I feel like I would be pissing on that gift if I didn’t work everyday’
I make a melodic/rudimentary lyric map by instinct the first time I am hearing a piece of music I’m supposed to be writing, either for someone else or myself, and then I fill the words in later. It’s the music and the melody map, plus whatever words I might throw into that first round off the top of my head that indicate to me what the next words should be, and so on. My method is far from scientific – it’s more like building a fence.
You’ve collaborated with so many great artists. How do you choose who you work with and do you have any favourite collaborations? Which are you most proud of?
ML: I’m proud of every collaboration I’ve been a part of, because I have been blessed to have made music with so many artists whose work I admire, either for them, or myself.
For a guy like me who came into music by accident and who is still one of the least musically proficient musicians around, I have had incredible good luck. And my only criteria for doing something is: ‘can I get it done in the time frame required, is it something I can do to a degree of self-satisfaction and to the satisfaction of whoever it’s for, or is it outside my comfort zone and challenging?’
‘I often turn things down if what they want is a boring, rote performance. People who can’t see past the basement floor deserve to be enlightened. That low, low voice is old hat and so uninteresting. I can actually sing, if anyone wants to know’
I always say “yes” to things I initially perceive as outside my box because that is the shit I really get off on. I often turn things down if what they want is a boring, rote performance in what some people think of as my most compelling voice. But when I am asked to sing something in my lowest, low baritone I either turn it down, or do it how I think it should be done. I then give it back and come up with a reason why I can’t redo it. People who can’t see past the basement floor deserve to be enlightened. That low, low voice is old hat and so uninteresting. I can actually sing, if anyone wants to know.
Is there anyone you’d like to work with? Who would be your dream collaborator?
ML: Brian Eno. The same answer I always give to this question.
Straight Songs of Sorrow was my favourite album of last year. I gave it some very favourable reviews. I think it’s your masterpiece. How do you feel the record was received?
ML: I usually don’t pay too close attention to how a record is received because it’s really none of my business.
The only reason I really give a damn if anyone enjoys what I do is in how it impacts my ability to make another one.
What I’m saying is that because I am being given money to make these records and a large part of my personal income is a result of the music, it’s not a bad thing if a certain percentage of people who hear it connect to a degree where they are willing to put down cash to buy the next thing, or to come to a show, because that is what ultimately allows my continued existence as a pretend artist on this plane.
How did you approach Straight Songs of Sorrow? Did all the songs come quite naturally to you once you’d written your book? What was the writing and recording process like?
ML: It was all done extremely fast because it didn’t even hit my radar until a month before my previous record was to be released, and I was booked on a three-month tour for that. Jeff Barrett, the boss at Heavenly, [record company] dreamed it up and once I had agreed, it had to be done before I left on that tour, if it was going to come out around the same time as the book it was meant to be a companion piece to. Luckily I had already been writing, playing and recording songs myself that were influenced by the sort of brutal experience of writing the book, so I had a lot of the bones of the album already recorded.
Which was more cathartic – making the album, or writing the book?
ML: I don’t know if I’ve received catharsis from anything I’ve done. For me, more often the process of creating does the opposite – it brings shit out into the light I would rather not think about. But that’s the price you gotta pay I guess.
Some of the songs on your last album, and parts of your book, are very dark and harrowing. What was it like going back to those dark places?
ML: Not great, as you might imagine. As a rule I try to stay in the here and now, not looking back or future-tripping. I feel as though that’s been one of the keys to my survival.
By its nature that kind of book requires a shitload of backtracking and with it came a lot of grief, pain and self-reflection over things I had never thought about once they were done. I have pretty fierce powers of denial, but faced on a daily basis with things I had done, people I’d hurt, friends no longer here, youthful trauma, generational sickness, damage, all that, it almost buried me. I’m not gonna lie. I would never do it again.
‘I don’t know if I’ve received catharsis from anything I’ve done. For me, more often the process of creating does the opposite – it brings shit out into the light I would rather not think about. But that’s the price you gotta pay I guess’
Straight Songs of Sorrow is a very eclectic album – more so than your previous two records, Gargoyle and Somebody’s Knocking, which were mostly more electronic-based/ influenced. Was that intentional, or did it come about quite organically?
ML: I had started writing on an acoustic guitar for some of the songs, which was something I’d not done in quite a while. One of the things asked of me for this record was that I try to incorporate elements of my early Sub Pop records into it. So it ended up being sort of a combo of those old records and the records I make today. People are forever saying I should make acoustic records again and I find that to be a bit sad and short-sighted. Imagine how fucking boring your life would be if you only ever got to do the very first thing you ever did and never progressed beyond that? That would be like being Chubby Checker and only ever playing The Twist. Fuck that, thank you very much.
I really enjoyed your Black Phoebe 12in EP, which came out last year – it was a collaboration with your wife, Shelley Brien. Can we expect an album? What’s it sounding like and when will it come out?
ML: Yes and it should be out next year, sounding like more of the same. Before that, Ecstatic records boss Alessio Natalizia – Not Waving – is putting out another version of the EP, all of it remixed by him. It’s rad.
‘People are forever saying I should make acoustic records again – I find that to be a bit sad and short-sighted. Imagine how fucking boring your life would be if you only ever got to do the very first thing you ever did and never progressed beyond that? That would be like being Chubby Checker and only ever playing The Twist. Fuck that’
What are your plans for 2021? Are you working on a new solo record? What’s inspiring you?
ML: My plans are to finish the novel I’m working on and finish a book of uncollected poetry, writings, drawings and ephemera that I’m currently doing, in addition to two other poetry books I’ve finished this month. One is out next month, the other later this year.
My friend Wesley Eisold, of Cold Cave and American Nightmare fame, is the guy who encouraged me to start writing poetry. His publishing house, Heartworm Press, is putting out my next two books of poetry, in addition to the split book we did together last year, Plague Poems. When he first read these two new books, he rightly pointed out that in a way these were part two to the memoir.
‘I hope to start my own record in the summertime. I can’t say how it’s going to turn out, but I know how I’d like it to be, and that’s as fucked up as possible’
Poetry can be just as revealing as bio stuff but way more beautiful and mysterious, which is the kind of thing I most like to read, listen to in music, and write and record myself when I am able to. I’m working on a couple of records right now, as well as Black Phoebe, and I hope to start my own record in the summertime. I can’t say how it’s going to turn out, but I know how I’d like it to be, and that’s as fucked up as possible.
Are there any more musical collaborations in the offing?
ML: Yes, I’m always doing stuff with and for other people – usually one or more tunes a week.
I really like the new single you’ve just made with Wax Tailor – aka French hip-hop producer Jean-Christophe Le Saoût – which is called Just A Candle. How did that collaboration come about and can you tell me something about the song?
ML: JC got hold of me via email and sent me an early version of the music. I sent him back something – I want to say that it was the same day. Then we met up when I was doing my last tour of France, hit it off and discussed the song, music and life in general.
Over the course of several months, maybe even a year, I continued to do different versions and try different things on the song. It might seem really straightforward when you hear it, but JC and I tried a truckload of different approaches and things to finally hit upon what you hear.
I really appreciate his artistry and attention to detail. It’s a pleasure to be involved in a process with someone who cares as much as I do about making music.
Thanks, Mark. Finally, what music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently? Any recommendations? What’s been your lockdown soundtrack?
ML: Today I was listening to John J Presley and Fields of The Nephilim. Yesterday it was Iggy, Jim Ghedi and the From Brussels With Love comp. It’s always something – new, old, whatever.
Loose Canyon, the debut single from Midlands-based band The Gabriels, is one of our favourite songs of the year so far.
A gorgeous, melodic and jangly guitar pop tune that celebrates the legendary Laurel Canyon music scene of ’60s L.A, it’s a far-out and groovy trip (man), that brings a much-needed hit of California sunshine to these dark days we’re living in.
“Loose Canyon was recorded in 2020 against the obvious background of Covid,” says vocalist Gudg, aka Kate Gudgin. “The song is about escapism. This year more than any we’ve all probably felt the need to escape. As a band we love the 1960s Laurel Canyon scene and would have loved to be have been part of it. It was a time where it felt like anything could happen both socially and musically and as a band it’s a big influence on us.”
‘Loose Canyon was recorded in 2020 against the background of Covid. The song is about escapism. This year more than any we’ve all probably felt the need to escape’
All of the full-time members (Gudg /Kate – vocals; Fran Feely – bass,Leon Jones – guitar and Stuart Gray – keys) have been in other acts prior to forming The Gabriels. Gudg previously sang with Pallenberg, Fran was in Elefant Records group, The Silver Factory, Leon was in Blow Up Records’ cosmic country-rockers, Alfa 9, and Stuart played in Fence Collective band, Viva Stereo, and drone/psych act Children of Leir.
The Gabriels cite their influences as The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, C86, The Stone Roses and Teenage Fanclub, and they have a shared love of ’60s culture and soundtracks.
In an exclusive interview, Say It With Garage Flowers spoke to Gudg (Kate), Fran and Leon about the new single, their penchant for all things ’60s and their plans for this year. Sadly, due to the current crisis, we couldn’t travel to Laurel Canyon for a chat, so we made do with email instead…
How’s 2021 going for you so far?
Fran: Great. The debut single officially comes out on January 31, but it’s pretty much available now. The response has been amazing so far. It certainly helps dealing with the lockdown situation when there’s positivity elsewhere.
Let’s talk about your debut single.It has a great jangly guitar sound and it celebrates the ‘60s Laurel Canyon scene. Why does that era appeal to you so much?
Fran: It’s a real common love of all the members of the band, so it seemed an obvious subject matter to write about. We also got Robyn Gibson from The Junipers in to sing backing vocals, which has worked a treat, as he nailed it.
Kate: Personally I love music from all decades. Although the ‘60s music undoubtedly influences us, there’s tons of great music that’s been released since 1969 that you can’t ignore. That could be something that came later that’s indebted to the ‘60s like the Paisley Underground scene, 1980s jangle pop or even stuff like The Stone Roses, Teenage Fanclub or The Coral. Or something completely different… Fran and I are massive ABBA fans for example, so we hope some of that pop sensibility comes across in The Gabriels’ music.
Leon: That mid-late ‘60s West Coast sound is pretty much ingrained in my psyche. There were a lot of those records in my house when I was growing up – The Byrds, Crosby Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young – so it’s always been there for me, but I’ve never excluded bands who weren’t part of that ‘60s scene.
We decided from the start that we wanted the band to be about great songs and to concentrate on writing songs and recording, as opposed to writing and rehearsing a set of songs and going out and playing a million gigs before thinking about recording anything. That has turned out be a very serendipitous decision, as we’d recorded the bare bones of an album’s worth of songs just as Covid hit. From that we’ve been able to build the songs up, with sessions scattered over 2020, albeit slower than we’d have liked.
‘That mid-late ‘60s West Coast sound is pretty much ingrained in my psyche. There were a lot of those records in my house when I was growing up – The Byrds, Crosby Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young – so it’s always been there for me’
Tell us about how the band came together. You all knew each other socially, but what led to you forming The Gabriels, and where are you all based?
Fran: Over the years we all knew each other from club nights and playing in bands. We were all good friends and Kate asked Leon if he would be interested in playing on some songs I had written. Stu came on at a later stage, as he liked the sound and wanted to join. Fran is originally from Leicester. Stu is Scottish but based in Leicester. Leon is from and based in Newcastle-under-Lyme and Kate is from where Noddy Holder is from.
Leon: We started discussing putting something together a couple of years ago, borne out of a mutual admiration of our other musical exploits and a lot of jangly guitars.
Where did the band name come from?
Gudg: Fran and myself are massive early Genesis fans – the Peter Gabriel period – so the name came from, well, Peter.
There’s an album planned. What can we expect? Is it done and dusted?
Fran: We went about things in a different way. We have written the album already and Leon has his own studio – he is in the process of mixing all the tracks. We feel that each song is strong enough to be a single. That is our goal – to have an album where there are no fillers on it.
Leon: Yep, as Fran says, we’ve approached the release in a different way, almost old-school indie – three great singles followed by an album. We’re just finishing up mixing as we speak and looking to release the album in the summer on the usual download/streaming services and, of course, on good old vinyl.
‘Each song on the album is strong enough to be a single. Our goal is to have an album where there are no fillers on it’
There’s a real sunshiny, positive vibe to the album – hopefully everything will feel a lot more positive by the time it’s released in the summer. We’re all chomping at the bit to get out and do some gigs, but that could be ages away, so we’re keeping an open mind. Again, we’ve been lucky in that we managed to film a few videos in 2020, so we’ve got plenty in the can to put out there over the next few months.
Are you worried about the current situation for live music? What are your hopes and fears for the future? As a new band, is it harder to get exposure at the moment?
Fran: The world is definitely changing, so we will see what happens. To be honest, we are just happy making music and seeing what happens. We don’t expect anything in return, but hopefully folk enjoy the sounds. We’re pretty much making it up as we go along and just hoping people jump on board.
Leon: I think live music is something people have always enjoyed and always will, so no matter what, it will recover. However, the vast majority venues are in a desperate situation, which is heartbreaking. I just hope they can hang on in there. I’m not sure it’s any harder to get exposure at the moment – it’s always been hard! All you can do is write the best songs you can, present them in the best way you can and hope people enjoy it.
Can you tell us some of your favourite music and films from the Laurel Canyon / ‘60s counterculture scene?
Fran: The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Love. Those bands have always been personal faves.
Leon: The Byrds’ first six albums have been a cornerstone of my music taste for as long as I’ve been a musician. I seem to have been on a personal Gene Clark crusade for ever, as he never gets the plaudits I think he deserves both as a member of The Byrds and as a solo artist. I love the Flying Burrito Brothers’ self-titled album – the blue one – which is the first post-Gram Parsons album they did and is really underrated. I’m not the greatest film buff, but I love Beyond The Valley of The Dolls, which has a great soundtrack, and I still love Easy Rider, which I first saw in my early teens.
What music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently?
Fran: I really like a new band called Fur. I think they are great. I really love early Genesis and Caravan are real faves of mine. I listen to lots of music, so it changes. We have a collaborative playlist on the The Gabriels’ Spotify page of stuff we all love.
‘I seem to have been on a personal Gene Clark crusade for ever, as he never gets the plaudits I think he deserves’
Kate: I’ve been really enjoying Swampmeat Family Band’s new album, which is called Muck! It’s such a great album – I saw them a few times in the mid-2000s.
I am also on a nostalgia trip to my youth at the moment, which includes songs that I remember vividly from childhood, such as those by The Everly Brothers and ABBA. I do keep my eye out for new music – there is some great music coming out at the moment by some really talented people.
Leon: I’m really enjoying a lot of the output from Brent Rademaker’s label Curation Records, especially the recent Beachwood Sparks reissue. I really enjoyed the last Whyte Horses album and I’m enjoying La Luz at the moment as well. The latest El Goodo album is great, as you’d expect.
How have you been coping with lockdown?
Kate: I’m loving it! I’m on furlough, so every day is like Sunday for me! I read a lot. If you have a great book in hand, then you are sure to have a great adventure.
Leon: I feel really blessed that I’ve had The Gabriels to keep me occupied and that we managed to get enough material recorded in time to build on.
‘I’m on furlough, so every day is like Sunday! I read a lot. If you have a great book in hand, then you are sure to have a great adventure’
[To Leon]. Are Alfa 9 still going? Would you consider The Gabriels to be a side-project?
Leon: Alfa 9 are taking some time out. We’ve been together in one form or another for 20 years, so I think we’re due a break! We’re like family, so that will never go away. The Gabriels is definitely not a side-project and I’m really enjoying working as hard on it as I have for anything in the past. It’s really energising to work in a situation with different people, taking a new approach and with great songs.
Wandercease, the title of the latest album from Hudson Valley, New York-based singer-songwriter Ryan Martin, is very appropriate for these days of lockdown, but funnily enough, the name wasn’t intended as a comment on the Covid-19 crisis.
“I never made that connection!” he tells Say It With Garage Flowers. “The title comes from my great grandmother, who was a poet. When she found the home that she knew she would settle in and raise my grandfather in, she gave it the name ‘Wandercease’. It represents the dream that I’m always searching for.”
The record came out late last year and soon found its way on to our ‘Best Albums of 2020′ list, thanks to its stunning and infectious pop melodies, rich and layered symphonic sounds, loops and electronic touches, and occasional nods to Americana.
Epic opener, At Dusk, has a glorious ’70s AM radio/ soft rock and pop feel, I Just Wanna Die is a galloping country song, with twangy guitars, and the shuffling groove of Fathers To Daughters is fleshed-out with pedal steel, organ and horns.
The album is full of irresistible melodies, but there’s an underlying sadness to many of the songs, like the achingly beautiful chamber pop of the title track, on which Martin sings, “My love, here is the song I meant to give you long ago, but I just couldn’t find the words – a songwriter’s curse”, and the first single, Coma Kiss, which is a bouncy, soulful, retro pop tune, but was written about a failed relationship.
“I wear my songs on my sleeve, and so anything that happens in my life will come out in them,” says Martin.
Described as his ‘most musically adventurous and emotionally dynamic record to date,’ Wandercease took shape after his relocation to the Hudson Valley from New York City. It was produced by Kenny Siegal (Langhorne Slim, Joseph Arthur, Chuck Prophet) at Old Soul Studios in Catskill, NY and mixed by Paul Kolderie (Pixies, Radiohead, Dinosaur Jr.).
Siegal called on a whole host of local musicians to play on it —some of whom were fresh from working with artists such as David Byrne, Cibbo Matto, and Lana Del Rey. Guests include singer-songwriter and classically-trained harpist Mikaela Davis, who sings harmony vocals on Coma Kiss and also appears on several other songs.
“Kenny brought in Mikaela because they’re friends,” explains Martin. “Her voice blended with mine in a way I hadn’t heard before and it was exciting. She’s a massive talent and I’m grateful she was a part of this record.”
How was 2020 for you and how has the Covid-19 crisis affected you?
Ryan Martin: Things are OK, more or less. I haven’t missed a meal. I get to see my family. I have good friends around me. The pandemic made it harder for the release of Wandercease, I think. I can’t tour, so that’s a bummer, but I’m happy it came out when it did. I just hope to continue writing songs and recording, and hopefully play some shows in 2021.
Are you worried about the future of live music? Will it ever get back to normal, or will it just have to adapt?
RM: I worry, yes. I think it may take some time to get back to the way it was. I hope there aren’t minds at work trying to establish live streaming as the standard in performing – it’s a poor substitute. I’m looking forward to doing my part and playing a lot when I can and when it’s safe.
Let’s talk about Wandercease. It’s your most musically adventurous record yet – it has a lovely, rich, lush and layered sound. How did you approach the record? Did you have a definite idea of what you wanted it to sound like?
RM: Thanks. I kinda brought the songs and let the sounds come to the group and have everyone collaborate. I’ve kinda had the chance to make the records I wanted, and now I felt like opening the door to other ideas. A lot of the credit goes to Kenny Siegal and the musicians, but I think you’ll find my ideas there too, like the woodwind and strings.
‘I hope there aren’t minds at work trying to establish live streaming as the standard in performing – it’s a poor substitute’
On that note, there are some great arrangements on the album. What influenced and inspired the treatments of the songs? The record has a warm feel and is heavy on melodies. There are strings, horns, woodwind, synths, vibes, organ, pedal steel, loops, backing vocals…
RM: Yes I’m a melody guy I think, above all other things. I hear that first usually. And then you get to find other melodies within the songs, as you start to record and arrange. I think Jared Samuel [keys player ] is also great at that. He and I have a similar production sensibility – we both kept feeding each other’s enthusiasm for trying new ideas.
How were the sessions for the album? It was produced by Kenny Siegal at Old Soul Studios in Catskill, New York, and mixed by Paul Kolderie. What was Siegal like to work with? Did you enjoy making the record? Was it an easy record to make?
RM: It was a really great experience. Kenny has become a friend and I would work with him again any day. Old Soul is a special place. There’s so much there in terms of instruments and the rooms all bleed together, so it inspires musicians to play together and record live, which we did for a lot of the record. It was easy, but I also put a lot of pressure on myself to be on it and to rise to the level of talent I was surrounded by.
There are a lot of musicians on the album…
RM: Bringing everyone in for overdubs was great. Most of the musicians were Kenny’s friends and musicians from up in the Hudson Valley.
‘I like being out of the city and up in the woods to write and create – the Hudson Valley is so beautiful. I’ll sing for the foxes, the birds and the snow over the sounds of sirens and traffic and yelling any day’
You’ve relocated from New York City to the Hudson Valley. How’s that working out and did it have an influence on the new record, from a sonic point of view, or from the songwriting and the subject matter?
RM: Yeah – well the move was a part of a larger change, so I think it influenced the music and the songs. I wear my songs on my sleeve, and so anything that happens in my life will come out in them. I like being out of the city and up in the woods to write and create. It’s helpful and the Hudson Valley is so beautiful. I’ll sing for the foxes, the birds and the snow over the sounds of sirens and traffic and yelling any day.
What’s your approach to songwriting? What process works best for you?
RM: My approach is to try and keep the channel open and hope that something comes out that inspires me. Once it moves me I can keep it around and hopefully finish it sooner rather than later. Sometimes they come quick, but some I’ve been sitting on for months and years. It’s not something I can force. It loses its power to me if I try and finish lyrics for the sake of finishing a song. But at the same time there’s something to be said for completing it as an exercise, but I’m not that good at that. I usually have to care deeply to be motivated.
Let’s talk about some of the songs and get your thoughts on them. At Duskis an epic way to start the album – it feels almost like a symphonic, ’70s pop/soft-rock song, but in a good way! What can you tell us about it? It’s a big-sounding song…
RM: I’ll take that! Thanks. I think this song was about embracing the pop elements – bringing attention to the hooks and the big moments. I’m happy with how the band came together on that one and how the vocals were arranged. Also Paul Kolderie did an outstanding job realising the true nature of the song in the mix.
Coma Kiss is a great, instant pop song. Where did it come from and what inspired it musically? It has a kind of breezy, retro, soulful feel…
RM: The core of the song came out quickly and flushing out what I wanted to say came further down the road, which is usually the process. I think Kenny was big on making it feel really good and danceable, which I was on board with.
I Just Wanna Die is one of my favourite songs on the record – it has more of a traditional Americana / country-rock feel than some of the other tracks…
RM: That came about quickly – it’s a fun song that has a heavy topic. That’s kinda been my calling card I guess – you can dance to it, but if you listen to the lyrics it’s anything but carefree and easy to swallow. We experimented with the arrangement of that song – there’s a great version where we slowed it down and wrote a bridge, but in the end I thought that the fast-paced, ‘train beat’, ‘take-no-prisoners’ approach was the way it should be and it was the way it was written.
Orphan Song is another Americana-type song. What inspired it?
RM: That song was inspired by growing older and witnessing my friends stumble and fall, lose themselves and, at worst, die. Once you start entering your thirties, that’s when your behaviour and your mind really start taking a toll on you. I was in the group too, but somehow I got out.
Fathers To Daughters sticks out on the record, as it has loops and is more rhythmic than some of the other songs. Did becoming a dad for the first time inspire the lyric?
RM: Yeah – wandering around New York with my daughter, when she was two and three inspired it. Watching her experience all the joy and magic of the world, and the innocence she had. My role as her father hit me profoundly and still does. I’m gonna be a big part of this person’s life and I need to take responsibility for that. And also the overwhelming, overflowing love I have for her and creating that bond in her earliest years of life. Falling in love is the best thing in the world and it makes me wanna sing about it!
‘Orphan Song was inspired by growing older and witnessing my friends stumble and fall, lose themselves and, at worst, die. Once you start entering your thirties, that’s when your behaviour and your mind really start taking a toll on you. I was in the group too, but somehow I got out’
What music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently? Any recommendations?
RM: Yeah. I’ve listened to a lot of Mark Kozelek, Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters, and also some instrumental music like Hammock, as well as Sigur Ros – heavy, melodic, beautiful music. Right now I’m listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 a lot.
What’s your preferred way of listening to music and why?
RM: My preferred way would be to listen to vinyl records in the living room with no distractions, because it’s the best way to get absorbed by the music. A second way would be to listen to CDs in my car. I played a CD on my computer for the first time in over a year or two and after listening to MP3s for so long I was blown away by how good it sounded. I like to listen with intent and be captivated, as opposed to a passive kinda background thing. Though I do that too.
So what’s next for you in 2021?
RM: I’m gonna keep writing and finishing some songs and recording at home. Maybe I’ll tour in the fall and spend some time in Europe, when the pandemic calms down.
This year will go down in history because of the devastating effects of the Covid-19 crisis on society, but here at Say It With Garage Flowers we’re hoping it will also be remembered for a more positive reason – the sheer amount of great music it produced.
When the global live music scene had to be put on hold due to the virus, artists had to look at other ways to get themselves heard, such as holding online concerts, or streaming performances.
‘This year, Say It With Garage Flowers’s ‘Best Of’ list includes 65 albums, which is the largest amount we’ve featured in an end of the year round-up since we first started publishing more than 10 years ago’
One of the few positive things to emerge from the pandemic was that musicians had more time to concentrate on recording or finishing off albums in their home studios, so it meant that there was a glut of new material out there that we could enjoy while we were in lockdown.
This year, Say It With Garage Flowers’s ‘Best Of’ list includes 65 albums, which is the largest amount we’ve featured in an end of the year round-up since we first started publishing more than 10 years ago. I’ve written in depth about several of the albums, but not all of them (!) and have included a Spotify playlist to go with this year’s selection. Are you ready? Here we go…
Straight Songs of Sorrow by Mark Lanegan was our favourite album of 2020. The twelfth solo record by gravel-voiced grunge survivor Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age) was inspired by him writing his autobiography, Sing Backwards and Weep, which also came out this year.
The book, described by the publisher as ‘a brutal, nerve-shredding read, recounting his journey from his troubled youth in eastern Washington, through his drug-stained existence amid the ’90s Seattle rock scene to an unlikely salvation at the dawn of the 21st century’ was brilliant, yet deeply harrowing, and so was the album which accompanied it.
Talking about his autobiography and the album, Lanegan said: “Writing the book, I didn’t get catharsis – all I got was a Pandora’s Box full of pain and misery. I went way in and remembered shit I’d put away 20 years ago. But I started writing these songs the minute I was done, and I realised there was a depth of emotion because they were all linked to memories from the book. It was a relief to suddenly go back to music. Then I realised that was the gift of the book – these songs. I’m really proud of this record.”
And so he should be. Straight Songs of Sorrow is one of the best –and darkest – records Lanegan’s ever made. It’s a sprawling, 15-track masterpiece that takes in the folk and blues of his early solo recordings, as well as the electronic influences that have dominated his more recent releases. Like the book, the shadow of death hangs over these songs, and there’s plenty of drugs and [self] destruction thrown in for good measure too.
One of the songs is called Ketamine – although, amusingly, Lanegan admits that is actually one of the few narcotics he hasn’t taken… On the seven-minute epic Skeleton Key, over a moody, throbbing electronic bassline and synthesised strings, he sings: “I spent my life trying every way to die – is it my fate to be the last one standing?”
Similarly, on Hanging On (For DRC) – a pretty and delicate acoustic ballad that’s dedicated to his friend Dylan Carlson, from drone doom group Earth, who, like Lanegan, is also a survivor of the Seattle rock and roll scene, he tells us: “By all rights we should be gone, but you and me are still hanging on.”
‘Straight Songs of Sorrow is one of the best – and darkest – records Lanegan’s ever made. It’s a sprawling, 15-track masterpiece that takes in the folk and blues of his early solo recordings, as well as the electronic influences that have dominated his more recent releases’
Ballad Of A Dying Rover is very uncomfortable – a suffocating, electro-goth dirge with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones providing some eerie Mellotron. “Death is my due’ – I’m just a sick, sick man… my days are numbered,” laments Lanegan.
With its fingerpicking and mournful strings, Stockholm City Blues is stunning. A haunting ballad about heroin addiction – “I pay for this pain I put into my blood” – it sees him staring out of a hotel window in the rain-soaked Swedish capital city, full of remorse.
His wife, Shelley Brien plays Nancy Sinatra to his Lee Hazlewood on the duet This Game Of Love – it recalls Lanegan’s collaborations with Isobel Campbell, but with an electronic edge – while on At Zero Below, he ropes in The Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis to play some sinister country fiddle – backing vocals are courtesy of Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs), who was Lanegan’s partner in crime in the Gutter Twins side-project. Thanks to its electronic sounds and skittering beats, Internal Hourglass Discussion brings to mind late-period Radiohead, or Thom Yorke’s solo material – Lanegan’s current favourite instrument to compose on is a miniature computer-synth called an Organelle.
Portishead’s Adrian Utley provides atmospherics on Daylight In The Nocturnal House – adding some echo-laden, twangy and bluesy guitar to a horror-folk ballad, which also features mandolin. Jack Bates, son of Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order), plays bass on Churchbells, Ghosts – a hypnotic, ambient soundtrack for a gruelling life spent on a tour bus.
Thankfully, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. On the final song, the hopeful and spiritual-like Eden Lost and Found, with gospel organ, Lanegan says: “Sunrise coming up baby – to burn the dirt right off of me.” After accompanying him on his harrowing and emotionally draining journey, it feels good to finally emerge from the darkness. How about adopting it as an anthem for a post-coronavirus world?
Darkness also features heavily on one of our other favourite albums of this year, Wednesdays by Ryan Adams, who is also no stranger to the art of self-destruction.
A surprise release – it’s currently only available on streaming and download services, but CD and vinyl are due in March 2021 – it was understandably overshadowed by the allegations of emotional and sexual abuse which first emerged against Adams last year, but, ironically, it’s the best record he’s made in 20 years, although many media outlets have chosen to completely ignore it.
Wednesdays was essentially the album I’d been waiting for Adams to make since his 2000 solo debut, Heartbreaker – a return to his country roots, rather than the disappointing soft rock that’s he churned out over the past few years.
‘The release of Wednesdays by Ryan Adams was understandably overshadowed by the allegations of emotional and sexual abuse which first emerged against him last year, but, ironically, it’s the best record he’s made in 20 years, although many media outlets have chosen to completely ignore it’
A sad, mostly-stripped down record, it opens with the stunning and beautiful I’m Sorry and I Love You, which, with its falsetto vocals, piano and sweet strings sounds like vintage ’70s Neil Young. A classic breakup song, equally, it could also address the recent issues that have blighted Adams’s career and seen many people turn their backs on him – tellingly, in the opening lines, he sings: “I remember you before you hated me, before you traded me for someone new.”
There’s some lovely, Nick Drake-style acoustic guitar picking on the gorgeous and folky Who Is Going To Love Me Now, If Not You– once again, that title speaks volumes – and So, Anyways has some haunting, wailing harmonica that recalls Come Pick Me Up from Heartbreaker, my favourite song by Adams.
On the superb and anthemic country rock of Birmingham, which is the album’s most upbeat moment – and arguably its best song – there’s some great organ playing by Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers), which gives the song a serious swagger. If you can separate the art from the artist, which I can, Wednesdays is a truly rewarding listen.
And, on a similar note, the ever-controversial Morrissey released a strong collection of songs in 2020. I Am Not A Dog On A Chain, his thirteenth studio album, included several late career highlights, such as the dramatic and sardonic opener Jim Jim Falls, which starts with an explosive eruption of ’90s rave-like synths, and has him crooning “If you’re going to kill yourself now, then to save face, get on with it” to someone who is looking to commit suicide by throwing themselves off a waterfall in Australia. Classic Mozzer.
The jangly guitar pop of What Kind of People Live In These Houses? was laugh-out-loud funny “What kind of people live in these houses?T-shirts or blouses? Torn jeans or proper trousers” – and brought to mind Girlfriend In A Coma-era Smiths, while first single, Bobby Don’t You Think They Know? was a powerful and unusual duet with soul/ disco diva Thelma Houston, and had a crazy, ’60s-style psychedelic organ solo and skronking sax. Stop me, but we hadn’t heard Morrissey like this before…
Say It With Garage Flowers favourites The Hanging Stars released their third and best album this year, A New Kind of Sky. The London band’s cosmic country songs and shimmering psychedelic sounds owe a large debt to The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Bert Jansch and Fred Neil, as well as Spaghetti Western soundtracks.
The bulk of A New Kind Of Sky was recorded live at Echozoo studio in the Sussex seaside town of Eastbourne. The sessions were produced by Dave Lynch and took place shortly after The Hanging Stars had returned from a tour of Germany – Lynch really captured the energy of the band.
Speaking to me earlier this year for an interview with consumer magazine Hi-Fi+, Sam Ferman,bassist with the band, said: “When we started The Hanging Stars, we had a definite idea of what we wanted our first record to be like – cosmic, psychedelic, spacey country music.
“With our second album, other influences came in and it was a bit of a transitional period, as our original keyboardist and pedal steel player had both left. I love the last record for its variety.”
He added: “The new one could’ve been a completely different album – we talked about what type of band we were and what the core of the record should be. There was the potential for it to be more of an acoustic country rock album. When we did the recording sessions in Echozoo, we’d just come back from a tour of Germany – we were playing the new songs in our set and by the last date of the tour something magical happened, because we were so synced-in with playing with each other. We wanted to capture that energy from the tour, so we recorded most of the songs live at Echozoo in three days, playing as a full band.”
‘The Hanging Stars released their third and best album this year, A New Kind of Sky. The London band’s cosmic country songs and shimmering psychedelic sounds owe a large debt to The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Bert Jansch and Fred Neil, as well as Spaghetti Western soundtracks’
As I wrote in Hi-Fi+, there are several cinematic songs on the album. Three Rolling Hills has Mariachi horns and a Spaghetti Western vibe; the trippy Lonely Rivers has an electric piano-led groove and echoes of Pink Floyd, while the spiritual and hymn-like I Was A Stone opens with a church organ and has a brass arrangement reminiscent of a New Orleans funeral.
I Will Please You is a catchy, glam-rock-tinged sing-along; the stripped-down, acoustic ballad Song For Fred Neil is a paean to the ‘60s and early ‘70s singer-songwriter; Heavy Blue is classic-sounding country rock and first single, (I’ve Seen) The Summer In Her Eyes is pastoral, Byrdsian jangle-pop. The band are currently working on their fourth album – I can’t wait to see which direction it will take them in.
Duo The Lost Doves – North West-based singer-songwriters Ian Bailey and Charlotte Newman – are also no strangers to retro jangle pop. Their debut album, Set Your Sights Towards The Sun, was in thrall to The Byrds and The Beatles, as well as vintage psychedelic sounds. On the optimistic and anthemic title track, Bailey’s 12-string Rickenbacker rings out like bells (of Rhymney), and it also adds a gorgeous shimmer to the melancholy She’s Waking Up To Close Her Eyes.
There’s a country tinge to the beautiful, acoustic ballad You Stop Me From Falling, a Lennon feel to the haunting Sally Weather, a hint of Eastern mysticism on More Than I and some seriously heavy psych on the dark, trippy instrumental, The Clowns Are Coming To Town.
“I wanted the album to feel like a record you’ve had in your collection for years – warm, inviting and in the vein of the classic West Coast sound of the ‘60s,” Bailey told us, in an exclusive interview. He certainly achieved his goal… Check out his latest release, an EP co-written with former Cosmic Rough Rider, Daniel Wylie,here.
This year was a great one for releases by singer-songwriters. The daddy of them all, Bob Dylan, put out Rough and Rowdy Ways, which was his best album since 1997’s Time Out of Mind. Preceded by the surprise single, Murder Most Foul, a wry, moving and masterful 17-minute epic about the assassination of JFK and its part in political and cultural history, Rough and Rowdy Ways was at times stripped-down and delicate, but also raw and bluesy, however, it was always cryptic and fascinating – an essential listen.
On her album of Dylan cover versions, the wonderfully titled Blonde On The Tracks, Australian-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Emma Swift included her take on I Contain Multitudes, from Rough and Rowdy Ways. A reflective and stately ballad, her achingly beautiful voice is accompanied by acoustic guitar and minimal instrumentation.
Blonde On The Tracks is one of the best covers records I’ve ever heard. Swift puts her own [simple] twist on some of her favourite Dylan songs, but, unlike some artists who’ve covered his work, she remains reasonably faithful to the original versions, rather than radically overhaul them.
“Interpreting other people’s emotions is how I learned to sing and I’ve always enjoyed hearing Dylan’s songs from a female perspective,” she says. “You can learn a lot about melody and feeling by the way a singer chooses to interpret someone else’s song. You can learn a lot about words by singing someone else’s. I’m very influenced by singers like Sandy Denny, Joan Baez, Billie Holiday and Sinead O’Connor. There’s an art to interpretation.”
‘Blonde On The Tracks is one of the best covers records I’ve ever heard. Emma Swift puts her own [simple] twist on some of her favourite Dylan songs, but remains reasonably faithful to the original versions, rather than radically overhaul them’
Produced by Patrick Sansone, multi-instrumentalist from Chicago alt-rockers Wilco, Blonde On The Tracks sounds intimate, warm and inviting – Swift’s voice is gorgeous and breathy. The eight-track album opens with Queen Jane Approximately – in a nice touch, Swift gives it a wonderful, Byrds-style makeover, with chiming 12-string guitar.
She slows down One of Must Know (Sooner or Later), turning it into a pleading, haunting, late-night country song, with pedal steel. Simple Twist of Fate gets a similar treatment, but with some understated, twangy guitar licks, as does the 12-minute epic Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.
The album features guest appearances from Sansone, singer-songwriter – and Dylanologist – Robyn Hitchcock, who plays guitar, Thayer Serrano (pedal steel) and Steelism’s Jon Estes and Jon Radford on bass and drums, respectively.
Another great covers album from this year was Country Darkness by British husband-and-wife country music duo My Darling Clementine – Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish – and Elvis Costello’s keyboardist and right-hand man Steve Nieve (The Imposters/ The Attractions).
The record, which also featured members of Sheffield crooner Richard Hawley’s band, was a collection of reinterpretations of some of Costello’s country and country-soul songs. For their choice of covers, My Darling Clementine didn’t go down an obvious path. Indoor Fireworks, which they slowed down and turned into a smouldering, piano-led ballad, was arguably the most well-known Costello track on the record – it’s from his 1986 album King of America.
Elsewhere they resurrected some of his more obscure offerings, such as the Paul McCartney co-write That Day Is Done, which had a gospel and New Orleans funeral feel, thanks to the brass arrangement, and the melancholy Heart Shaped Bruise, which was a collaboration between Costello and Emmylou Harris. My Darling Clementine’s version was stripped-down, emotional and dramatic, with Nieve on piano.
Stranger In The House, a song Costello recorded as a duet with country music star George Jones, was reinvented as a rumba, while Different Finger, a tale of infidelity from Costello’s album Trust, was given a Marty Robbins, Tex-Mex treatment, with some great accordion and gorgeous, Spanish-style guitar.
The Crooked Line was the most upbeat track on the record, powered by some groovy organ from Nieve, while penultimate song, the haunting, sombre and atmospheric Too Soon To Know, was the very essence of ‘country darkness’. Majestic, country-soul closer Powerless – a My Darling Clementine original – was easily up there with the best of Costello.
Speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers about the album, Weston King said: “We had a long list of songs to choose from – some got the chop because we felt they’d been done quite a lot before, or because, lyrically, they didn’t translate so well into being done by a duo. I also didn’t want our record to be totally country – I wanted a country soul vibe.”
My Darling Clementine weren’t the only male/female due to explore country darkness this year. Black Angel Drifter, the seventh album by Spain and London-based ‘urban country’ duo Morton Valence – songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Robert ‘Hacker’ Jessett (ex-member of The Band of Holy Joy and Alabama 3) – and Anne Gilpin, was a dark, disturbing and dissonant collection of ‘gothic country’ songs, inspired by the haunting cowboy psychedelia of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, murder ballads, country, and the Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone, as well as the strung-out, feedback-laced, narcotic blues of Spiritualized.
The record also included a stunning cover version of Bob Dylan’s dramatic The Man In The Long Black Coat, which was even more sinister than the original.
Telling Say It With Garage Flowersabout how and why they tackled the Dylan song, Jessett said: “It’s a work of genius; it’s country gothic heaven and hell, and it kind of set a ridiculously high standard for what we were trying to do on this album. Taking on something of such magnitude is living dangerously, not least as Mark Lanegan does a killer version of it too.
“I guess when you cover a song, you want to leave your own mark on it, and hopefully we at least achieved that – most likely much to the horror of some Dylan purists. Having a male/female vocal takes it somewhere different, plus I spent a long time getting the discordant guitars the way we wanted them to sound.”
From The Man In The Long Black Coat to The Man In Black… Johnny Cash was just one of the characters who found themselves mentioned on Matt Hill’s album, Savage Pilgrims – a collection of story / character songs told by different narrators. It was the first album Hill put out under his own name, rather than the Quiet Loner moniker which his previous four records have been credited to.
Fittingly, it was album that saw him returning to his roots – some of the songs, like the folky Bendigo, which was the tale of a celebrated prizefighter, and the country-blues of Four Corners, were set in Nottinghamshire, which is where he grew up. Hill was born and raised in the mining town of Eastwood – the hometown of DH Lawrence. The novelist and poet actually features in one of the songs on the album, the haunting and moody, Spaghetti Western-flavoured The Exile ofDH Lawrence, although it concerns itself with the last few years of the protagonist’s life, spent wandering the deserts of New Mexico, stricken with TB.
The album’s title, Savage Pilgrims, comes from a phrase Lawrence used to describe his time in voluntary exile – he called it his “savage pilgrimage.”
Hill describes the album as “Americana rooted in British history and his own upbringing in a working class culture obsessed with America.” Savage Pilgrims is also a rootsy album musically – it’s influenced by country/Americana, folk, blues, spirituals and gospel.
‘Hill wanted the listener to feel like they were in the room, sat next to the storyteller, with people playing instruments all around them, so the performances were recorded live to analogue tape, using vintage microphones and with minimal overdubs’
It was recorded with producer/collaborator Sam Lench in an attic studio above a 19th century pub in Northern England, where George Orwell used to drink – The King’s Arm, in Salford. Hill and Lench wanted the listener to feel like they were in the room, sat next to the storyteller, with people playing instruments all around them, so the performances were recorded live to analogue tape, using vintage microphones and with minimal overdubs.
This made for a great and interesting sounding record – intimate and immersive, but rhythmic, raw and rough around the edges. Hill’s vocals take centrestage – it’s like he’s singing in your ear – accompanied by traditional folk or Americana instruments, including acoustic and electric guitars, (James Youngjohns and Lench), double bass, banjo, mandolin and percussion.
Hill resurrected one of his old songs, Get Me Johnny Cash On The Phone, for the album, but with a new title Gary Gilmore’s Last Request. It’s a country song about a convicted murderer on death row getting a phone call from his hero, the Man In Black.
Talking to me for the website Americana UK, Hill said of his latest record: ” I’m really proud of this album and especially of how it sounds. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. As a solo acoustic singer-songwriter, there is always a dilemma involved when making an album. I didn’t want it to be a full-on production that I could never replicate live. But, equally, a simple solo acoustic record can often sound a little thin, so I tried to go somewhere in the middle.”
He added: “My role was to rehearse like mad and to turn up knowing those songs inside out. The rest was down to Sam’s production skills. We both really enjoyed the process too, so hopefully that comes over. The most important part was in capturing the core live performance of me singing and playing exactly as you would see at a gig. Once we had those performances, we built everything else around it. The King’s Arms was a great place to record, with atmosphere and history, so that really helped make it feel special as we were making it.”
A band I discovered in 2020 via a connection between one of its members – bassist Scott Carey – and Hill was UK Americana act West On Colfax, from Preston, Lancashire.
Their debut single,Choke Hold, was influenced by Teenage Fanclub, Big Star, Wilco and Son Volt. Say It With Garage Flowers described it as: “Two and a half minutes of life-affirming guitar pop that sounds like a long-lost Creation Records release from the early ’90s. They may hail from Lancashire, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that West on Colfax grew up on a Glaswegian council estate, reared on a diet of Irn-Bru and Byrds records.”
The band’s album, Barfly Flew By, was one of my favourite records of 2020. From the ’70s Rolling Stones country feel of The Line, with its bluesy guitar licks and warm Hammond organ, to the late-night barroom romance of Cowgirl of the County (“She was the cowgirl of the county – she leant into me gently. We chose the songs on the jukebox – I don’t think I’ve been as happy”), the twangy Tinsel Heart, the rough and ready, battered and beaten-up road trip of Tyre Marks(“The tyre marks you left across my heart are all that’s now left…”) and the world-weary, yet, ultimately, optimistic, electric piano-led ballad, Light Again, which closes the album, it was clear West on Colfax wear their classic country, rock ‘n’ roll and Americana influences on the sleeves of their well-worn plaid shirts. These were songs that were best listened to while staring at the bottom of your glass, but they also had a reassuring warmth to them. The band describe their music as, ‘tales of love, life and hard-lived lives but with hope.’
Classic rock ‘n’ roll influences were also all over Circles – the second album by New York-based singer-songwriter Jake Winstrom. This time around, the former frontman of Tennessee band Tenderhooks cranked up the guitars and also embraced his love of power-pop and country rock.
Speaking to Say It With Garage Flowers, he said: “I think my first solo record [Scared Away The Song] suffered a bit from the inclusion of maybe one too many “serious songwriter” type songs, without enough fun, uptempo, jangly rock ‘n’roll to serve as a counterbalance, so I wanted to make sure there was room for that on this record.”
He certainly achieved his goal – the brilliant What’s The Over/Under? was an infectious power-pop song with jangly, 12-string Rickenbacker guitars and punchy, soulful horns, while on the chugging glam-rock-country-boogie of Come To Texas She Said, which was inspired by a long-distance infatuation that derailed before it could become something more, reedy-voiced Winstrom did his best Marc Bolan impression.
‘Classic rock ‘n’ roll influences were also all over Circles – the second album by New York-based singer-songwriter Jake Winstrom. This time around, the former frontman of Tennessee band Tenderhooks cranked up the guitars and also embraced his love of power-pop and country rock’
Circles was full of highly melodic, guitar-heavy tunes with a retro feel – Winstrom cites ’70s Neil Young and Crazy Horse as a major influence, which is obvious if you listen to the Zuma-style guitar solo on My Hiding Place, a song about addiction, and the brooding, epic album closer, Kilimanjaro.
Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen are also artists that Winstrom admires – his song Washed My Face In A Truck Stop Mirror, a raucous blast of rock ‘n’ roll, had echoes of both of them – while Think Too Hard was reminiscent of The Beatles, circa Revolver, as well as Detroit power-pop songwriter – and Say It With Garage Flowers favourite – Nick Piunti.
Funnily enough, Piunti also released a great album in 2020, which a title that was very apt for these days of global lockdown – it was called Downtime.
Talking to Say It With Garage Flowers about the name of the record, he said: “It’s a bit too timely. My daughter, Megan, actually came up with it after listening to the album. In the song Never Belonged To Me there’s a lyric that says: “Don’t know what to do with the downtime.”
“The word ‘time’ also shows up in a few of the other songs,” said Piunti, whose latest record – his sixth – was the first with his new band, The Complicated Men.
The album had all the usual Piunti hallmarks – raw vocals, infectious melodies, crunching guitar riffs and sweet, ’60s-style harmonies – but, this time around, the sound was fleshed out with Hammond organ.
First single, All This Time, was anthemic and urgent indie rock ‘n’ roll, the opening track, Upper Hand, chugging and New Wavey, and Going Nowhere had some breezy ‘doo-doo-doo’ backing vocals and a killer, fuzzed-up, melodic guitar solo. There were also some quieter and more reflective moments – the ballads All Over Again and Good Intentions.
English singer-songwriter and pianist, John Howard released his seventeenth album in 2020. To The Left of the Moon’s Reflection was a set of wistful, reflective and pastoral, piano-led ballads, chamber pop and folk songs, with sparse percussion and layered, atmospheric arrangements and harmonies. Howard sang lead and backing vocals and played all the instruments.
To The Left of The Moon’s Reflection was written and recorded in his home studio – he lives in a 100-year old cottage in the Murcia region of southern Spain – during the winter of 2019 and spring 2020. Talking to me about the album, Howard said: “It does have a pastoral theme, definitely. My surroundings and the simple, rural way of life here are certainly reflected in a lot of the songs. My city days are over.”
He added: “It became very clear early on that there was a wistfulness about the new songs – a reflective quality – so that drove the arrangements.”
When the coronavirus pandemic forced Canadian singer-songwriter Jerry Leger to cancel his European and UK spring tour, he turned a negative situation into a positive one by hastily putting together a brand new, digital-only album called Songs From The Apartment.
Available to buy from Bandcamp, it was made up of ‘lost’ songs from 2013- 2018 that he’d demoed and quickly forgotten about.
It was a brilliant collection of intimate Americana and Dylanesque folk-blues tracks.
The loose, raw and lo-fi recordings really hung together well as an album, and, if anything, it demonstrated that Leger’s discarded songs were better than many artists’ officially released ones.
“Basically before making an album I probably would have 30 or so songs and we’d pick 15-18 to go into the studio with and then 10 or 12 would make the cut. Some really great ones are never returned to after the initial demo and that’s because they may not fit the feel I’m going for at the time, or it’s a similar idea or sound to a different song that I prefer. For example we recorded Tomorrow In My Mind and Ticket Bought for Time Out For Tomorrow [2019 album] and I felt they both had a similar feel, so I decided on the former.”
Leger is looking to put out a limited edition vinyl version of Songs From The Apartment in 2021. He is also a fan of an artist who appears on my ‘Best of 2020’ list – legendary Southern soul singer, songwriter, musician and record producer, Dan Penn, who I was lucky enough to interview for Hi-Fi+magazine this year.
In the ‘60s, Penn, who is 78, co-wrote massive soul hits including The Dark End of the Street, Do Right Woman, I’m Your Puppet,Cry Like A Baby and It Tears Me Up. His songs have been sung by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Janis Joplin, Solomon Burke, Elton John, James Carr, Bobby Womack and Diana Ross.
This year saw him releasing his new album, Living On Mercy, which was a collection of songs written with collaborators including his long-term musical partner, Spooner Oldham, as well as fellow songwriting masters Wayne Carson (Always On My Mind), Gary Nicholson, Carson Whitsett, Will McFarlane, Bucky Lindsey, Buzz Cason and the Cate Brothers.
For the most part, Living On Mercy had a reassuring, warm, slick and smooth country soul sound, like the gorgeous, Hammond organ-led title track, which was about the intoxicating effects of falling in love, the tight and funky groove of Soul Connection, and the sad Blue Motel, which, rather neatly, namechecked one of Penn’s most famous songs, The Dark End of the Street, in the lyric.
Elsewhere on the record, Edge Of Love was a heavy, bluesy rocker with horn blasts, and One Of These Days, the final song, was a moving, reflective gospel ballad about changing your ways before it’s too late and you’ve gone to the great songwriting gig in the sky.
Living On Mercy was Penn’s first studio album in nearly 30 years – his last one, Do Right Man, was released in 1994. When I asked him about the warm sound of the record, he told me: “I tried my best do to that and it’s what makes it different I guess, because there ain’t a lot of warmth out there these days.”
‘Living On Mercy had a reassuring, warm, slick and smooth country soul sound, like the gorgeous, Hammond organ-led title track, which was about the intoxicating effects of falling in love, the tight and funky groove of Soul Connection, and the sad Blue Motel, which, rather neatly, namechecked one of Penn’s most famous songs, The Dark End of the Street’
He added: “I cut the first bunch of six songs in Creative Workshop, Nashville – it’s my friend Buzz Cason’s studio. I liked what we got – I had a fantastic band. I tried to get things back together in Nashville a month or so later, but it didn’t work out, so I finally figured it out in Sheffield, Alabama and we cut seven songs there. It was a fun record to make – everybody was loose. The album was a little troublesome to mix, but they all are.”
Soulful, warm sounds were also the order of the day on Humanism, the third record in a trilogy by Monks Road Social, a collaborative project overseen by Dr. Robert of The Blow Monkeys.
Recorded in Spain last summer, the album was a colourful collection of jazzy, folky and soulful songs, featuring an impressive list of guests, including Matt Deighton (Mother Earth), Mick Talbot (The Style Council), Sulene Fleming (Brand New Heavies) and actor Peter Capaldi. Humanism was the perfect record to listen to transport your mind somewhere else during these anxiety-ridden days of lockdown.
Fleming belts out the frenetic, jazz-funk of Said Too Much and duets with Dr. Robert on the smooth, orchestral soul of Step By Step, while Capaldi sings and plays guitar on the anthemic Britrock of first single, If I Could Pray, which he also wrote.
Keyboardist Mick Talbot of The Style Council and Matt Deighton, guitarist and frontman of ‘90s acid-jazz outfit Mother Earth, who’s played with Paul Weller and Oasis, also made the trip to Spain. Deighton sang on the warm, folky and pastoral ballad Apricot Glow and shared vocals with Dr. Robert on the gorgeous, acoustic, string-laden Egyptian Magic – both tracks feature Talbot on organ. Deighton’s daughter, Romy, lent her vocals to two songs – Stolen Road and Running Blind.
Also on the album were drummer Crispin Taylor and bassist Ernie McKone – both of whom played with acid-jazzers Galliano; percussionist and programmer Steve Sidelnyk; flautist and saxophonist Jacko Peake (Push) and Neil Jones of Midlands mod-soul band Stone Foundation.
The Spanish sunshine worked its magic, as there was a distinctly Flamenco feel to some of the songs on the record. In an interview with Say It With Garage Flowers, Dr Robert said of the album: “It was recorded over about 10 days in the summer last year – August, to be precise. It was very hot – the wind blew in from Africa.
‘Recorded in Spain last summer,Humanism by Monks Road Social was a colourful collection of jazzy, folky and soulful songs -the perfect record to listen to transport your mind somewhere else during these anxiety-ridden days of lockdown’
“My friend, the producer Youth, has a studio out here, so we did it there. I produced the record, but with so many friends involved it’s never stressful – people like Crispin Taylor and Mick Talbot don’t really need producing. We communicate with a look these days.”
On the sound of the album, he said: “The fact that it was super-hot and we were here in Granada obviously flowed into the music. Plus we had a few local musicians involved: David Heredia, the amazing gypsy Flamenco guitar player, and Juan Carlos Camacho on trumpet. Also Ibrahim Diakité from Mali played the kamalengoni. Some of the best stuff was after the session, when we were just jamming. It was an unbelievable vibe.”
For more soulful sounds, try It’s Only Us, the latest album by San Francisco-based psychedelic-soul band Monophonics. Heavily influenced by Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye, it’s a sociopolitical record that tackles subjects including violence and gun crime and mental health issues, as well as good, old fashioned affairs of the heart.
Recorded on eight-track reel-to-reel tape in the group’s Transistor Sound Studio in Marin County, it’s lush and sweet, but also dark, cinematic and edgy. First single Chances is funky, up-tempo Northern Soul, Last One Standing is an epic floor-filler in the vein of Mayfield’s Move On Up, while tracks like Suffocating and Run For Your Life were inspired by the band’s love of ‘60s psych-rock.
I interviewed lead singer Kelly Finnigan, who co-wrote, produced, recorded and mixed the album, for Hi-Fi+ magazine. He told me: “We like our sound to be warm, raw, gritty and fat, but inviting. It was a very organic and spontaneous process. We definitely had a vision from the start, but we still like to let things happen naturally and go with the flow of where the music and mood takes us.
‘It’s Only Us, the latest album by San Francisco-based psychedelic-soul band Monophonics, was heavily influenced by Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye. It’s a sociopolitical record that tackles subjects including violence and gun crime and mental health issues, as well as good, old fashioned affairs of the heart’
“We had ideas about what we wanted, but we are never married to things so much that it clouds our vision and causes us to be compulsive about what the end result is. It was influenced by love, loss, violence, heartbreak, the power struggle of our industry, personal relationships and the overall trip of life as a human living in the current world.
“Musically it’s influenced by great artists from the past like Curtis Mayfield, Rotary Connection, Brothers of Soul, Isaac Hayes, Vanilla Fudge, Pink Floyd, The Zombies and current artists like Michael Kiwanuka, Kevin Parker and Richard Swift. Our taste in music is very eclectic and we like all types of styles and genres. A lot of the band are into classic soul, but we all love psychedelic music, whether it’s The Beatles, David Axelrod, Norman Whitfield, Charles Stepney or Tame Impala.”
Classic retro influences are also integral to the sound of The Explorers Club, who released two albums this year – a self-titled album and To Sing And Be Born Again, a 10-track collection of covers of songs from 1965-68 that were originally performed by artists including The Zombies, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Herb Alpert, Frankie Valli and The Lovin’ Spoonful.
During the first Covid-19 lockdown, one of the albums that kept me sane was The Explorers Club. Paying homage to the lush orchestrations of Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach, as well as the ‘60s sunshine pop of The Beach Boys – circa Pet Sounds – The Turtles and The Association, it was an ambitious collection of songs, with gorgeous, aching melodies and wonderful, rich arrangements for strings, horns and vocals.
The bouncy, harmony-drenched first single Ruby could be the sister of Elenore by The Turtles, Mystery,Don’t Cry and Look To The Horizon are perfect pocket symphonies, Dawn has a bossa nova feel, the guitar-led Say You Will is infectious, driving beat-pop, and Somewhere Else – the heaviest moment on the album – is far out and groovy, Byrds-like psychedelia. It’s hard to believe these songs haven’t been around for years – they sound like long-lost classics.
‘During the first Covid-19 lockdown, one of the albums that kept me sane was The Explorers Club. Paying homage to the lush orchestrations of Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach, as well as the ‘60s sunshine pop of The Beach Boys, The Turtles and The Association, it was an ambitious collection of songs, with gorgeous, aching melodies and wonderful, rich arrangements for strings, horns and vocals’
In these dark times we’re living in, the record is a perfect summer soundtrack that will take you away to a different place – specifically the West Coast of America, in the mid to late ‘60s.
Speaking to me for Hi-Fi+ magazine, Jason Brewer, the mastermind behind The Explorers Club, who founded the US band in his native Charleston, South Carolina, before relocating to Nashville, said: “I have this vision of creating classic sounds that send people on a musical vacation. I’m inspired by classic records made by The Wrecking Crew [famous, LA-based, ‘60s and ‘70s session musicians], as well as vintage movies with dreamy scores and soundtracks. I’m always aiming to take the listener away from modern constraints to a place where the melody and sound just take over.”
My favourite song on The Explorers Club is the last track, Look To The Horizon, which seems like a fitting way to finish an article that’s published at the end of the year. Here’s hoping that we can look forward to yet another year of great music in 2021 and, more importantly, an end to these worrying times we’ve been living through during the past 12 months.
In the meantime, here’s my list of the Best Albums of 2020 – I didn’t include stopgap live albums, like Nick Cave’sIdiot Prayer and Vinny Peculiar’sLoot, although I enjoyed those records – and a Spotify playlist to accompany it. Please note, not all the albums I’ve chosen are currently available to stream.
As 2020 draws to a close, here at Say It With Garage Flowers, we’re compiling our best albums of the year list. One of the late contenders is Black Angel Drifter, by Spain and London-based ‘urban country’ duo Morton Valence, who are songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Robert ‘Hacker’ Jessett (ex-member of The Band of Holy Joy and Alabama 3) – and Anne Gilpin.
The record – their seventh – which came out in November, is a dark, disturbing and dissonant collection of songs, inspired by the haunting cowboy psychedelia of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, murder ballads, country, and the Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone, as well as the strung-out, feedback-laced, narcotic blues of Spiritualized.
It also includes a stunning cover version of Bob Dylan’s dramatic The Man In The Long Black Coat, which is even more sinister than the original. In an exclusive interview, we spoke to Jessett about the band’s ‘gothic country’ sound, being outsiders and receiving death threats.
“I like writing stories, and I like songs with characters and narratives, but I’ve never murdered anyone and I’ve never been much of a junkie,” he tells us…
How did Morton Valence come together?
Robert ‘Hacker’ Jessett: Blimey, how long have you got? OK, so Anne was a dancer in a quite well known contemporary dance company, where I was employed as a musician, after just having done a short stint playing with Alabama 3. We toured around all these small-town theatres, and up until this point I’d always thought that dancers were clean living – I was wrong. We developed this nightly ritual of boozy sing-alongs after the shows – Anne was clearly equally in her element singing as she was dancing.
We were both fans of what most people perceived as Okie country singers, like Iris Dement or George Jones, which was quite unusual at the time. Singing harmonies together seemed effortless. Our party piece was Iris Dement’s Our Town, and well, it kind of developed from there.
I think our first proper gig was at Come Down and Meet the Folks – [in London]. We collaborated with a guy called Chuck E Peru and before we knew it we’d morphed into a band. We played some interesting shows back then, touring in Germany with the late St. Thomas (Thomas Hansen), who had an influence on us. He was clearly a troubled soul, but there was honesty and beauty in his music that seemed unconcerned with reality, and he clearly wasn’t playing the game, like most people do when they start in the music biz.
Jeffery Lewis was another great songwriter we played with early on. Anyway, here we are seven albums later, with absolutely no plans for retirement, and hopefully album number eight coming in 2021.
You live in Spain and Anne is based in London. How does the band work? Does it make things difficult?
RJ: I moved to Madrid in 2018, after just having recorded our previous album Bob and Veronica’s Great Escape. I did so for a variety of reasons that I don’t have time to go into here.
I’m now lucky enough to live in the beautiful province of Granada. I think the last thing we did in the UK was to play some shows with The Long Ryders, back in 2019, which seems like a lifetime ago. As for the practicalities of Anne and me living in different countries, it just gives us a good excuse to travel, and actually, when we get together, it’s always really productive, as there’s a finite amount of time to get things done, which kind of focuses the mind.
How has Covid affected you as a band? Did it thwart any plans you had? How’s 2020 been for you?
RJ: The two adjectives I’d use to describe 2020 would be ‘productive’ and ‘boring’. I think boredom is a great creative motivator and gets a bad rap. So, the great vacuum that is 2020 gave us time to write a new album and make a film, so creatively, 2020’s been good.
Tell us about the film…
RJ: We describe it as an autobiographical, DIY ‘punkumentary’. It started about 10 years ago on a tour of Germany, when these two American filmmakers, both called Mike, tagged along with us with the idea of making a live performance DVD – remember them?
The tour was pretty chaotic, as they usually are, and when the Mikes got the footage back to America, they dismissed it as being unusable, due to the low-quality production values of the film stock. Eventually, we inherited the footage, and yes, it was most certainly rough and ready, but, rather than making us wince, it had the opposite effect. Paradoxically, its graininess, gritty sound and anachronistic video format seemed to essentially capture a spirit of rock ‘n’ roll that we like, so we patchworked a narrative around the footage, archives from our own film experiments and moments from some of our favourite B movies.
Even though Anne and I had absolutely no idea what we were doing, out of the chaos, somehow, we were finally looking at a cohesive piece of work that we called This Is A Film About A Band – literally no other name seemed to suffice. We didn’t want to make another rockumentary of talking heads and tour bus anecdotes and the like – in fact there’s virtually no dialogue at all, but instead it’s captioned, a bit like Top of the Pops 2.
Even though I would describe the film’s protagonist as the music, it does tell our story, and probably the story of lots of bands. Our original idea was to just stick it up on YouTube or Vimeo for our fans, but on the advice of a friend who works in the movie biz, we entered it into a few film festivals where it started to gather a bit of momentum.
We had it premiered at the Doc’N Roll film festival, which is probably the most prestigious film festival of its type in the UK, and we’ve been awarded other laurels. The feedback we’ve had has been incredible, and we’re really looking forward to seeing it on the big screen in 2021.
Let’s talk about your latest album, your seventh, Black Angel Drifter. It was actually recorded in 2016. Why has it been reissued this year and can you tell us about the vinyl version, which is due out soon?
RJ: For years we were uncompromisingly independent, and we actually passed on quite a few recording and management deals, which I guess was kind of stupid when I look back on it – this is all documented in our film by the way.
We’d had some bad experiences, but hey, who hasn’t in the music biz, right? We sincerely believed we could circumvent the middleman, which we did to a point with our own label Bastard Recordings, but there’s only so far you can go with that, and you end up spending more time looking at Excel spreadsheets than you do creating music.
‘For years we were uncompromisingly independent, and we actually passed on quite a few recording and management deals, which I guess was kind of stupid when I look back on it’
Finally, a label called Cow Pie, run by BJ Cole, Hank Wangford and Patrick Hart, came to our rescue. They completely get us – we’re not an easy fit that’s for sure. We’re kind of too country for the indie scene and too indie for country – we call it ‘urban country’, mainly because we want to have an answer when people ask ‘what kind of music do you make?’
Cow Pie are clearly kindred spirits when it comes to some of our slightly more leftfield ideas – they even put out a track of ours that’s half an hour of crickets chirping, although there is a hidden song in the middle of that one. But of course, their main thing is vinyl, which we’re dead excited about.
The new record originally started life as something by your experimental side-project. How did it end up being a Morton Valence album?
RJ: Back in 2016, we had two bands going in parallel – I guess we’re sadomasochistic… Black Angel Drifter was the name of our other band. We played one gig and recorded an album. Our plan was to make something that not only sounded auto-destructive, but actually was auto-destructive, hence the sole gig.
Songwriting-wise it’s probably the most collaborative effort we’ve put out – we’re really proud of the songs and feel they deserve more of an airing, hence the fact that we’ve taken off the mask and re-released them as Morton Valence. In 2016, Morton Valence were working on a multilingual covers album called Europa, which was a visceral response to Brexit. OK, retrospectively it was very naive – we were trying to avoid being overtly political and simply add something positive to what was an extremely toxic narrative. But we ended up getting trolled with the most sickening death threats – and worse – imaginable, which is what partly prompted me to leave the UK.
So, with everything that was going on in 2016, Black Angel Drifter was put on a hiatus. Fast forward four years, and everything that seemed so terrible in 2016 has been completely eclipsed by 2020, so it just seemed like a perfect time to resurrect Black Angel Drifter.
‘If you were to ask me what the greatest song ever written was, I would reply without any hesitation, Some Velvet Morning’
Let’s talk about the sound of the record. What were you aiming for and what were the sessions like? You produced it yourselves, didn’t you?
RJ: Much like our film, we didn’t really have a clue what we were doing, which maybe adds to its idiosyncratic nature. All our other albums have been with a producer of some description.
We recorded it partly down at [pedal steel guitarist] Alan Cook’s garage, my flat in south London and Bark Studio [in Walthamstow, London]. Our sole technical remit to ourselves was ‘does it sound shit? Or do we like it?’ If it was the latter, we just went with it. But if we were aiming for a specific feel, it would definitely be gothic country, whether or not we hit the target, I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Can we talk about a few of the songs? The opening track, Skylines Change/ Genders Blur, has a dark, menacing, twangy Morricone/Spaghetti Western-meets-country feel, but also reminds me of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, as well as The Jesus & Mary Chain…
RJ: It’s actually an old song that was co-written with Johny Brown of The Band of Holy Joy – a fantastic band that I was lucky enough to play with back in the day. Apart from me shamelessly lifting from Morricone, it definitely owes more than a passing debt of gratitude to Nancy and Lee.
‘If we were aiming for a specific feel, it would definitely be gothic country’
If you were to ask me what the greatest song ever written was, I would reply without any hesitation, Some Velvet Morning, so yes, you’re absolutely spot on about that. It being the opening gambit on the album, we wanted to go straight for the jugular – do something that would either make the listener baulk and go immediately for the eject button, or have the opposite effect. The logic being, if you live through this, you’ll make the whole album.
Black-Eyed Susanis a moody and sinister murder ballad. What inspired it? It’s a disturbing tale…
RJ: It’s another collaboration – this time with the Scottish poet David Cameron, someone who could not be more opposite than his unfortunate namesake. The plot comes from his novel The Ghost of Alice Fields, and he asked me to adapt his poem into a song. I’d never done anything like that before. I write 99 percent of our lyrics, so I guess technically that makes me a lyricist, but I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a poet. A storyteller, maybe?
I think only certain song lyrics can crossover as poetry, which to me is simply defined by whether something reads well without its given musical accompaniment. Anyway, I was really unsure at first, simply because most individuals have a particular timbre of their own.
I intonate words in a particular way that work their way around a melody, usually as I’m strumming a guitar, and it happens very naturally, so to try and shoehorn someone else’s words into that scenario felt a bit weird. But I was flattered to have been asked, so I gave it a go, and I guess my fears were unwarranted, as the resultant song works well in my humble opinion.
As far as its content goes, songs mean different things to different people. I’ve had people come up and say stuff like, ‘I love that song you wrote about such-and-such, we played it last week at me dad’s funeral’ or whatever, and I’m like, wow, I’m honoured. But I had no idea it was about such-and-such, but that’s the beauty of a song.
‘The Man In The Long Black Coat is a work of genius; it’s country gothic heaven and hell’
You’ve covered one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs, The Man In The Long Black Coat, and you’ve made it sound even more menacing than the original. Good work!
RJ: As you rightly point out, it’s a work of genius; it’s country gothic heaven and hell, and it kind of set a ridiculously high standard for what we were trying to do on this album. Taking on something of such magnitude is living dangerously, not least as Mark Lanegan does a killer version of it too.
I guess when you cover a song, you want to leave your own mark on it, and hopefully we at least achieved that – most likely much to the horror of some Dylan purists. Having a male/female vocal takes it somewhere different, plus I spent a long time getting the discordant guitars the way we wanted them to sound.
Playing in tune is a doddle, but to get the sound I was after, the guitars needed to be out of tune, but not just any old ‘out of tune’, it was actually something very precise.
I knew how I wanted the note to sound, but finding something that doesn’t actually exist in any tangible way can be problematic. I suppose I was looking for an optimised sort of disharmony that would really suit the song. You might think that sounds pretentious, but when you listen to the song, hopefully you’ll know what I mean. Anyway, we found the note we were looking for in the end, it was perfectly out of tune, and we’re very happy.
On If I Could Start Again, a man recounts his misspent life from a prison cell. It sounds like a classic, strung-out country ballad, but it also reminds me of Spiritualized at times. Where did that song come from?
RJ: Well, I’ve never murdered anyone, my dad wasn’t a butcher and I’ve never been much of a junkie. But when I look back, of course there are things I’d do differently, as would anyone, right? Of course, to look back in such a way is also an exercise in futility, which is a good place to start writing a song.
‘I’ve never murdered anyone, my dad wasn’t a butcher and I’ve never been much of a junkie’
I like writing stories, and I like songs with characters and narratives, and yes, it’s definitely got a dose of Spiritualized, and maybe a touch of Tom T Hall. I create a character, and see where that character goes. This guy is a nice middle-class kid who gets it all wrong. He could’ve been an IT consultant or an operations research analyst, but he assumes there’s more to life, he’s a romantic, and the rest is self-explanatory. There’s certainly nothing cryptic in this song, and in terms of my life in music, I’ve made every mistake there is, and if I could start again, I really wonder what I’d do, and as for real life, well I wouldn’t even know where to begin.
Sister Painis one of the bluesier songs on the album. Any thoughts on it?
RJ: It’s actually a slowed-down version of Otis Redding’s Hard to Handle, set to a sludgy spiritual blues chant, backed by an imaginary version of The Stooges as the house band, so it’s kind of like a revue show in a song.
The album features Alan Cook on pedal steel. He’s become a regular member of the band, hasn’t he? How did you get together and what’s it like to work with him? I know Alan from his work with Quiet Loner (Matt Hill) and UK country duo My Darling Clementine...
RJ: Alan provides the backbone of our sound, in particular on Black Angel Drifter, where he’s pretty much ubiquitous throughout. His sound was perfectly described in one review as something that ‘fills the void like a guilty conscience’, and without him the atmosphere would change completely. I’m not sure how we met to be honest, through mutual musician friends I suppose, but he’s been with us for quite a few years now, and he’s obviously extremely tolerant to put up with me.
‘Popularity is often synonymous with conformity and mediocrity, and in today’s world it seems to be applauded and rewarded more than ever’
Who or what are your main influences and inspirations?
RJ: Wow, that’s always a tough one. All sorts of people are inspiring to me, but very few of them are musicians or famous people. My sister and her colleagues for starters – she’s a nurse busting a gut at the NHS, which trumps everything in my opinion. And I suppose I’ve always admired people who don’t care about being popular or how others judge them.
Popularity is often synonymous with conformity and mediocrity, and in today’s world it seems to be applauded and rewarded more than ever – a world where you put one foot wrong, you’re an instant pariah. No one gets through life without someone cutting us some slack from time to time, right? Yet we’re so quick to judge and condemn others, and shout about it as loudly as possible, usually on social media.
So, I’m inspired by people who pronounce schedule with a ‘k’ and don’t give a shit, that kind of thing, and far as a main musical influence, that would be my mum for turning me on to The Beatles before I could even walk. Thanks, Mum.
You’re currently planning your eighth album, which is pretty much written and demoed. You plan to record it in London, with pedal steel guitarist BJ Cole producing. What can we expect? Any idea what it will sound like?
RJ: Well nothing’s signed and sealed yet, but the songs are pretty much there, and the provisional plan is to release it on Cow Pie, and yes, we’ve had discussions with BJ. He’s an artist we are huge fans of and who I briefly crossed paths with years ago, when I was knocking around with Alabama 3. But it’s a bit premature to talk about it at this stage to be honest.
Black Angel Drifter is a very produced album, in the sense that a lot of how it sounds was created in the studio. I’m certainly not saying that’s a bad thing, quite the opposite in fact, it’s what The Beatles used to do, but it’s just one way of doing things, and it allows you more space to experiment.
With each album we’ve always tried something different – that’s one bonus of being independent – and with the next one we plan to get the songs as tight as we can first, then go in and record them pretty much live. One of my favourite albums ever is The Trinity Sessions by Cowboy Junkies, which was of course recorded completely live. But it’s early days still, so let’s wait and see.
What are your plans for Christmas? Will it be a dark one, rather than a white one?
RJ: It will be a sunny one actually, because I’ll be in Andalucía.
Finally, what music – new and old – have you been enjoying recently?
RJ: My album of 2020 is definitely Distance is the Soul of Beauty by Michael J Sheehy – it really is an astounding piece of poetic beauty. Michael sent me a copy in the post when I was living in Madrid in the summer, and I haven’t stopped listening to it ever since. It’s one of those records where you feel like he’s having a conversation with you personally, rather than playing to an audience, which is a rare talent that very few singers are able to do.
I also love The Delines, and went to see them play just before the lockdown, Willy Vlautin is so talented, it’s ridiculous, and it was good to see Amy Boone in great form after that terrible accident. But my tastes are very catholic, I love the Fat White Family, maybe I’m biased because I’m from Brixton. They remind me a bit of The Country Teasers, who have a film on at Doc’N Roll that I can’t wait to see.
Anne and I have always been fans of John Prine, Tim Hardin and The Carpenters, as well as movie soundtrack composers like Roy Budd or Michel Legrand. These are just the first things that have popped into my head. On another day, it would be a completely different list.
Black Angel Drifter by Morton Valence is currently available to stream and download on digital platforms. A vinyl version will be released by Cow Pie in early 2021.