‘We’ve already written the soundtracks – now we just need to find the films to accompany them. Anyone out there interested?’

XIXA – photo by Puspal Ohmeyer

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.

Q&A

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.

Gabriel Sullivan and Brian Lopez – photo by Julius Schlosburg

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 The Lost 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.

Photo by Puspal Ohmeyer

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.

Photo by Puspal Ohmeyer

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. 

http://www.xixamusic.com/

https://xixa.bandcamp.com/

‘It’s not a man’s world – women need to take their fair share of the gold’

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Gun-slinging singer-songwriter Sarah Vista’s debut album, Killing Fever, was one of our favourite records of last year.

It’s a hell of a ride, mixing Cash-like country with a fistful of Spaghetti Western songs, Mariachi brass, haunting harmonica and Morricone moodiness.

Say It With Garage Flowers invited her to an Italian café in North London to talk retribution and revenge, women in cowboy films and her favourite Western soundtracks and movies, and to tell us how her and her gang of outlaws made the album. 

We wanted to go to Nashville, Almeria or Cinecittà, but we couldn’t afford it – if only we’d had a few dollars more…

Over a cup of tea in an Italian café in North London – Mario’s in Camden – Sarah Vista is telling Say It With Garage Flowers where her love of Spaghetti Westerns and cowboy culture comes from. And, just to clarify, she hasn’t brought her guns to town…

“There are photos of me when I was three years old, sat on a rocking horse, in front of a Western film. I liked the music and I thought I was in the movies. That’s a strong memory for me. When I was a child, I used to think, ‘why is it always men in Westerns?’ It’s a little fantasy I had…” she says, smiling.

“The hero – the person who strides in and saves the day – is always male. It’s not a man’s world anymore, it’s a man’s and a woman’s world – there should be a fair amount of women taking their share of the gold…”

Q & A

Women are often portrayed as victims in Westerns, rather than heroines, aren’t they? Do you feel they’re misrepresented in cowboy films?

Sarah Vista: I do, but there are a couple of strong women, like Calamity Jane [Doris Day] and Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, who’s incredible – I was heavily influenced by her when I was a kid. There are also some softer female characters, like Helen Ramirez, who is played by Katy Jurado in High Noon, and Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon A Time In The West, who comes across as having a hard time, but is actually a strong central character [Jill McBain].

‘My songs are delivered with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek  – contrary to popular belief, I’ve never actually killed anyone!’

With that in mind, some of your songs, like Madame Moustache and Belle Starr, feature strong and violent women, who don’t suffer fools gladly and are out to get revenge on men who’ve wronged them. Should I be worried?

SV: [She laughs]. My songs are delivered with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek  – contrary to popular belief, I’ve never actually killed anyone! Putting stuff in songs is a form of therapy for me. It’s nice to be able to express myself in a fantasy way – anyone who’s been wronged or treated badly probably has those feelings from time to time. The theme of the album is about retribution rather than revenge. I’m not bitter – I’m just holding people to account for their bullshit and putting it out there.

I’ve had so many women approach me about my songs and lyrics – they get it. I had a difficult past and upbringing and with the Sarah Vista character, I wanted to set some things straight.

SVMH

When you’re performing on stage, you go into character, don’t you?

SV: Yeah – I guess so. When I was growing up, I struggled with confidence and I wanted to turn the tables on that. I’ve finally found a character that I’m comfortable with exploring and I’m going to stick with it.

When you were growing up, did your parents like music and films?

SV: My dad was a film buff and my mum was a massive music fan – she was obsessed with Elvis – and she has the most incredible voice I’ve ever heard. As a child, I used to sing with her.

Music’s always been there – when I was growing up I used to steal my mum’s guitar all the time and try and play it. I really wanted my own guitar. I started learning to play on her guitar when I was 12 – my mum bunged me a Bob Dylan album and said, ‘if you can work out how to play that, I’ll get you a guitar’. Four or five hours later, I’d worked out the chords by ear. She said, ‘four hours? I was hoping it would be four years – I haven’t got any money to buy you a guitar’. That went on for ages.

About a year later, after I’d worked out some Hendrix licks, she saw that I was serious about it and she bought me one – she saved up for a long time. I locked myself in my room for the rest of my childhood and started writing songs.

‘I had a difficult past and upbringing – with the Sarah Vista character, I wanted to set some things straight’

In the late ‘90s, I joined a band called Suck Baby Suck as a guitarist – I played with David Scinto, who wrote the scripts for the film Sexy Beast, Gangster No.1 and 44 Inch Chest.

I started writing songs with him – we were a great band. We had a good adventure together – it was garagey. I kind of outgrew it – I was young and naïve and I wanted to do more and move faster, so I walked away from it.

I tried a load of bits and pieces, but nothing came together, so I wrote my own album and I released it independently, but it fell on deaf ears – it was punk, but it had my stamp on it. We all have to start somewhere…

I also did a single with Paul Kaye called Live Sex On Stage – he did it as his character, Mike Strutter – we had a great laugh doing that.

When I first met you, five or six years ago, you were fronting a rockabilly band called Viva Le Pink…

SV: I set that up with the intention of having an all-female rhythm and blues / rockabilly band, with a horn section, but it didn’t quite pan out… I wasn’t feeling it, so I quit my own band. The Sarah Vista thing had been bubbling under for a long time.


Let’s talk about your debut album as Sarah Vista – Killing Fever…

SV: I decided I was going to make a Western soundtrack, in the style of my favourite records – the ultimate project.

Cleverly, the album is split into two different genres – Country and Western. One side is country songs, but the other is Spaghetti Western-flavoured…

SV: I didn’t set out to do that – I set out to make a Western record. I wrote about 26 songs in the space of four of five weeks! It was natural – the songs kept coming out. I was, like, hold your horses!

I see what you did there

SV: My imagination ran away with me. The Western thing was natural, but the country thing… Someone once said, ‘you don’t choose country music, it chooses you’… I thought that was lovely. I definitely didn’t set out to make a country record, but there’s a lot of darkness in country music and that fits with me… Everyone was doing country, but no one was doing the Western side of it.

‘I definitely didn’t set out to make a country record, but there’s a lot of darkness in country music and that fits with me’

You rounded up a gang of outlaws to help you make the album, didn’t you?

SV: I worked with Adie Hardy, who produced it – he’s a friend and I’ve worked with him a lot. I also found a drummer who’s a country fan [Tom Meadows] – he’s actually Kylie Minogue’s drummer – and my friend, Philip Doyle, recommended a lapsteel player called Jeff Mead. Jeff and I have started writing together.

Emma Goss [double bass] was also recommended by Philip Doyle – she’s great. I also worked with Terry Edwards [trumpet and baritone sax], who’s played with Nick Cave and Tom Waits – he’s an incredible musician and he’s really added something to the record. Johnny Trouble [harmonica] recorded his parts in Germany, where he has his own studio.

Was it an enjoyable album to make?

SV: It was fantastic! It took two years to make. I had no money, so we did it in studio downtime at Unit 2 Studios in Acton, London.

You released the album on your own label, Gallow Romantic. Are you going to put out records by other artists?

SV: That’s my plan. There’s so much good stuff that goes under the radar because the industry is so up its own arse, it’s chasing its tail.

SVRioGrandebyGB

You’ve also been working on a soundtrack for a Spaghetti Western film, haven’t you?

SV: Yes, but you’d actually class it as a Paella Western, as the director’s Spanish. He’s a guy called Danny Garcia – he did the music documentaries The Rise and Fall of The Clash and Looking For Johnny – the Johnny Thunders biopic.

A friend of mine, Ray Gange, who was lead actor in Rudeboy, got a part in a Western film that Danny was doing. I was like, ‘what the fuck? Get me on the soundtrack!’

‘For me and my music, this year is going to be good, but for my naysayers it’s going to be very bad and, politically, it’s looking pretty ugly’

He said, ‘he’s already done the soundtrack’. I said, ‘no – he hasn’t!’ So I sent Danny some short clips of three songs and he said he wanted them in the movie and he’d make room for them. The film’s called The Price of Death and my song Killing Fever is the opening track. You can see the back of my head in the film… It’s due out soon.

I got to go to Almeria in Spain, where Sergio Leone shot his classic movies – the sets from the ‘70s are still there. It’s amazing! I’ve also been asked to do something else, but I’m keeping that firmly under my Stetson at the moment…

So, is the year ahead going to be good, bad or ugly?

SV: For me and my music, it’s going to be good, but for my naysayers it’s going to be very bad and, politically, it’s looking pretty ugly. You’ve got to hold on to what’s good in the world, do cool stuff, keep people entertained and stay close to the good folk.

Can I ask you to choose your top five favourite Spaghetti Western films and Top five Western soundtracks?

SV: I can’t put them in order, but my favourite films are A Fistful of Dollars it has a revolutionary soundtrack and it created the Spaghetti Western sound; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly –  it’s a tense epic and if you don’t like it, you must have something missing; Django by Sergio Corbucci – it’s a classic – and Once Upon A Time In The West – another classic. The last film is The Great Silence from 1968 –  Jean-Louis Trintignant plays a mute gunfighter and Klaus Kinski is the bad guy – a bounty killer. He’s so creepy. It’s an epic film and it’s set in the snow.

For my soundtracks, I’m going to choose A Fistful of DollarsOnce Upon A Time In The West –  for the harmonica and Jill’s Theme, with the operatic female vocals; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for The Ecstasy of Gold; The Great Silence, which is an overlooked Morricone masterpiece –  I think it’s one of his best works – and here’s a wild card, the Django soundtrack by Luis Enriquez Bacalov. It has Rocky Roberts vocals, electric guitar and a ’60s and ’70s feel to it. Tarantino used it in Django Unchained. 

Do you think your next album will have a more expansive and experimental sound?

SV: For the first one, I had to rein it in a bit, but for the next album I might let it all hang out and disappear down a Spaghetti Western rabbit hole!

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Sarah Vista’s Killing Fever is out now on Gallow Romantic. For more info, visit https://www.sarahvista.com . See the Spotify playlist below for some of her essential Spaghetti Western soundtracks.

 

 

 

Murder ballads, magic and Morricone

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Amerikana Arkana, the debut album by The Magic City Trio, is a haunting record, in more ways than one…

Its wonderful orchestral arrangements recall the dramatic ’60s pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, (Black Dog Following Me), the moody Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone (Cousins’ War) and Mexican Mariachi music (Trav’ler), but these story songs are also steeped in the dark traditions of murder ballads, old country and folk laments, outlaw tales and hillbilly blues.

This band of London renegades comprises Frank Sweeney (guitar, vocals and fiddle), Annie Holder (guitar,vocals and autoharp), Adi Staempfli (bass and vocals) and Charlotte Burke (drums and percussion). Guesting on the album are Johnny Butten (banjo) and Eddy Dunlap (pedal steel).

In an exclusive interview, I spoke to Frank, who was a member of ’80s indie pop outfit The June Brides, and played on records by Primal Scream (Imperial) and Felt (Space Blues), to find out the full story behind this magnificent and, er, magical album…

Q & A

Amerikana Arkana is one of my favourite albums of the year. It’s a big-sounding record – I love the orchestrations…Musically, it often harks back to the lush ’60s pop of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, and the Spaghetti Western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone. There’s also folk, country, hillbilly and murder ballads.

When I first heard it, it was like someone was going through my record collection and referencing some of my favourite artists… I guess that, like me, you’re big fans of Nancy & Lee and Morricone? Why do you love them so much?

Frank Sweeney: I think Lee Hazlewood was a genre all to himself. He ploughed his own particular furrow and didn’t really care if it was fashionable. He was a great songwriter and producer, but he never felt the need to be in step with current trends or the mainstream. And he still managed to make a lot of classic hit records. Although he always maintained that his main motivation was to make money, he still managed to make great art sometimes.

Ennio Morricone uses a very ‘pop’ sound in his orchestration with unusual instruments. A whistle and a twangy guitar and you immediately evoke his western soundtracks. And loads of his soundtracks have at least one great catchy and evocative tune. I also love Nino Rota, who, in my view, is the other great Italian soundtrack composer. His stuff with Fellini is just as evocative, but on a less epic scale.

‘The amount of inter-band romances were comparable to Fleetwood Mac, and led to us going our separate ways’

How did The Magic City Trio first come together?

FS: During the tail end of indie-dance and the dawn of Britpop, I was playing viola in a band which played Eastern European music, when there were only two bands doing it in London. Adi Staempfli played bass, and Annie joined after I had left. The amount of inter-band romances were comparable to Fleetwood Mac, and led to us going our separate ways. I met Annie a few years later, and we eventually married in Las Vegas.

We hadn’t done any music together for a good few years. I was (trying to) learn Blind Blake [blues and ragtime guitarist and singer] stuff to up my game on the guitar, and from there we got interested in other pre-war music, what became known as ‘the old weird America’. From there we did a set of pre-war music (Carter Family, Hawaiian, Emmett Miller) at the Easy Come, which is a well-established open mic night in South East London. But we didn’t take it any further than that. We began including our own songs – Oliver Curtis Perry Part 1 was an early one. It was mainly so we could do stuff that other people did not have in their set. Adi returned from Switzerland and joined us in 2013.

We had a gig in Berlin – that was our first as The Magic City Trio. The name originated from a pre-war fiddle band called Dyke’s Magic City Trio. I had one of their records on a 78 rpm.

We thought that we would only use the name for the Berlin gig, as people were more likely to go and see a band, rather than just Frank and Annie. We didn’t intend to keep the name, since Dyke’s Magic City Trio are relatively famous, it would be like calling yourself The Kinks or The Who in about 2045, but the name stuck…

Let’s talk about your album in more depth. I admire your grand ambition and the fact that you’ve gone all out with the orchestral arrangements. How did you approach this album when you came to record it? What did you want it to sound like? 

FS: Black Dog Following Me was completed before our 2015 EP [A Funnel Cloud In Albuquerque]but I didn’t like the orchestral sounds, so I scrapped it all, apart from the singing. Once it was redone, we decided to follow suit with the rest of it, instead of making it just an acoustic LP.  The orchestral sounds are a mix of samples, live instruments and recordings of actual notes that are stitched together. Oliver Curtis Perry had the least amount of strings and things, as Johnny Butten playing banjo was an orchestra in itself.

‘I was looking for the Chet Atkins ‘Nashville sound’, which is stylistically unfashionable now’

The arrangements all began with a basic piano track with chords, and then we added everything else. I‘m a huge fan of baroque ‘60s pop, so a harpsichord nearly always got in there. Once all the orchestral stuff was done, we put on the live instruments, which is the opposite way it would be done with a live orchestra.

The other sound I was looking for was the Chet Atkins ‘Nashville sound’, which is kind of stylistically unfashionable now – the song 22 was my attempt at that.

Now you mention it, the album does have a lot of different styles of orchestration on there. Trav’ler is like the stuff David Angel did on Love’s Forever Changes, Down In The Willow Garden was looking for a Pearls Before Swine-type of sound, and Billy Strange and Jimmy Webb all are referenced on there somewhere.

With The June Brides and the other stuff I did for Creation Records, I was trying to do large string parts, but limited by budgets and my lack of skill on the viola. But on those records you can hear me trying to do something that I just can’t quite pull off. I nearly got there with This Town (June Brides), Space Blues (Felt) and So Out of Touch (Joe Foster).

The dramatic opening track, Black Dog Following Me, is pure Nancy & Lee. I’m guessing it’s about depression? ‘Black dog’ is a term that Winston Churchill used to describe his dark moods. What can you tell me about that song?

FS: Yes that’s it, more or less – a dialogue where one person can’t see a way through, but the other won’t let it get on top of them. The arrangement is pure Billy Strange with Nancy & Lee. I didn’t think they did enough stuff like Some Velvet Morning, so this was my addition. In the same way that Jeff Lynne didn’t think The Beatles did enough stuff like I Am The Walrus.

Cousins’ War has a definite Ennio Morricone feel, but with a country edge…

FS: Annie started that song, after reading a book about the Wars of the Roses Originally it sounded a lot more folky. I thought of it more like the Hatfield-McCoy type of scenario. I did the last verse after seeing a Twilight Zone episode where all the American Civil War dead are walking on a road. That’s why in the LP booklet, there is a picture from a Civil War bubblegum card called Painful Death. The line about the sowing the hydra’s teeth is from Jason and the Argonauts, which explains the fighting skeleton picture in the booklet.

The chorus is adapted from [folk song] Darlin’ Cory. The instrumental sections do give it that Morricone sound – it’s the low male vocals that do it I think, which are reminiscent of Story of a Soldier [from the soundtrack of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly].

I love the descending twangy riff that kicks off Dust of Mars – it sounds like a nod to Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots… and The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon…

FS: At the time, I didn’t think that sequence of notes was particularly unique to Sunny Afternoon – it must have been used in loads of other places. So I didn’t think I was taking anything from that song that hadn’t been used somewhere before. But as time has gone on, I have to conclude that the sequence is not particularly common in pop music, and is more or less unique to Sunny Afternoon. I’m glad I made it so obvious, but it’s a bit like using the opening riff from Day Tripper on a song…

Oliver Curtis Perry Part 1 has a hillbilly vibe. Where did this outlaw song come from? What was the inspiration?

FS: Oliver Curtis Perry was the first person to rob a train single-handed, in New York in the 1890s. The song tells his story, with a little bit of artistic license. The words are on our website. I first read about him when I was 11 years old, in a book by James D Horan, a noted Western writer. There wasn’t much detail given. The –  wonderfully named – writer Tamsin Spargo read the same book as a child, and years later published Wanted Man, which tells the whole story.

The song 22, which sounds like a Johnny Cash and June Carter country duet, also reminds me of Kirsty MacColl… 

FS: I didn’t think of that – I’m only familiar with her hits. It’s probably the vocal harmony that gives it that. She was a great singer and writer, with a unique voice.  This was our attempt at getting the Chet Atkins Nashville sound. The demo we did sounds like the Carter Family – we recorded it on a four-track cassette using pre-war Gibsons to sound as old as possible. The demos are interesting as they show how the song developed – each version is different. The plot is from a short story by Daniel Woodrell about someone who suspects his neighbours of murdering his child.

Talking of murders… Down In The Willow Garden is a classic, traditional murder ballad. I know it from The Everly Brothers album, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. Why did you decide to cover the song for your record?

FS: My grandmother’s name was Salley – I was looking for the origins. I came across a poem by Yeats called In the Salley Garden, which is adapted from Willow Garden, and I found the various versions. Most of which sounded a bit too jolly melodically.

The Everly Brothers recording sounded suitably bleak. So we worked on a minor key version. We had to change the harmonies as we were still smokers and couldn’t reach the notes – since we have now quit we can get there!

I wanted to do a Pearls Before Swine-type arrangement. Songs Our Daddy Taught Us is a brilliant album. They recorded it to get out of their contract without giving away any hits, and they ended up with a masterpiece.

Where did the title of the album, Amerikana Arkana, come from?

 

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FS: I always loved the album cover of Agents of Fortune by Blue Oyster Cult, with a man holding Tarot cards. Though the real agents of fortune are the 52 standard pack of cards, the Tarot decks are called the lesser and greater arcana. The greater arcana features all the well-known picture cards. The songs were going to be very loosely based on the Tarot cards – death, confusion, fortune, justice, the sun, change etc, but they all didn’t quite fit with that… I like a rhyming title like Nilsson Schmilsson. The presence of the K always implies a slightly twisted ‘bizarro superman’ type version of the actual thing. The LP booklet also has all sorts of clues and images that link in some way with the songs.

Can you talk me through the songwriting process and the arranging and recording of the album?

FS: We had not got together as a band to do our own songs – we were doing pre-war country and other songs from the ‘20s and ‘30s. We didn’t want to write songs in that style, lest they sounded like a pastiche.

In 2011 I read a biography on Blind Willie McTell and in the book he revealed his method for writing and I followed it.

Cousins’ War was started by Annie, but discarded, as we couldn’t figure out a proper narrative, but we brought it back and worked on the chords.

Trav’ler was originally called Chinese Traveller – it had also been discarded, due to the lack of a decent tune, but Annie pushed on with that because it had a good story. But it’s usually one of us kicking off an idea and then discarding it. And if it’s halfway good, Annie will resurrect it and suggest improvements. We’re not the most prolific of writers, but work in fits and starts.

I write out the orchestrations on a music score writing [software] package, which plays samples of string and brass, and we put the real instruments on top of that.

Recording at home is cheap, but it gets slow – there is no clock ticking and no budget being eaten up. So you can spend all day recording a track and edit 10 versions of a guitar part into the best one. Dust of Mars ended up with 40 tracks, which produced its own set of problems trying to mix it. Recording is the easy part…

annie and frank2
Frank Sweeney and Annie Holder

You recorded and mixed the album in London and Hove. What was that like?

FS: It was a long process. With a few exceptions, all the recording was done at home over a two-year period, which began after completing our first EP. But some recordings were started a lot earlier – Black Dog… and Oliver Curtis Perry were first demoed in 2012, with no plans to release them other than on Soundcloud.

The 2012 version of Black Dog... was stripped back to the vocals and all the other tracks replaced, and with Oliver Curtis Perry all we kept was the drums. The banjo, trumpet, pedal steel and washboard were recorded remotely and the tracks sent to me. The orchestral sounds are a mix of real players and sampled instruments, but the whole thing was written out on a score rather than played on a keyboard. Nearly all the recording was completed by the end of 2016.

I started mixing it early 2017, and gave up due to the complexity of the task. In Easter 2017, I took it to Bark Studios, in London (where Primal Scream’s Screamadelica was done), with Brian O’Shaugnessy mixing it.

So, it was mixed once, with a full set of backing tracks. Then most of it was mixed again. The mixes were much better than mine, but I wasn’t happy with the balance of some of the sounds. I thought if I went back to Bark Studios again we would end up playing whack-a-mole with the mix,

In-between that time we put the steel drum on Sun Comes Shining Through, and stuck the slow intro on Cousins’ War, so it could join up with the end of Black Dog...

So I started mixing it again myself, Having learned a thing or two from Brian, my mixes were OK, but lacked oomph. In summer 2017, I approached Paul Pascoe in Hove, for whom I had done some strings for, and asked him to master some of my mixes and the Bark mixes. Paul liked it enough to offer to mix and master it. This time I stayed away from the studio, which was a much better idea. We used the Bark version of Oliver Curtis Perry, but, other than that they are all Paul Pascoe’s mixes. Sonically there isn’t much difference. So, excluding my mixes, there are a couple of alternate mixes of the LP, plus the backing tracks and also Paul’s mix of Oliver Curtis Perry.

I admire your effort and dedication. The album is full of ambition and drama – it sounds great and it soars. Would you agree that so many modern pop records lack ambition? They just sound so bland and unadventurous when you compare them with some of the pop music of the ’60s…

FS: I think people are always going to write great songs, Pharrell Williams’ Happy is a great song, and the Curtis Mayfield sound makes it even better. But production-wise, most of the envelopes have been pushed, so commercial productions are going to end up sounding very homogenised.

It’s like the thing that Frank Zappa said, that in the ’60s, the record companies were still being run by cigar-chomping execs who were hoping to find the next Frank Sinatra. They signed bands and released music that they didn’t understand, in the hope that they would sell some records. The profit motive was still the driving force, but you had more of a chance of producing art.

Nowadays companies are releasing music that is similar to stuff that was recently successful, so it can all start sounding the same. Particularly when you have producers, accountants, advertisers and product placers having a financial interest in the music sounding attractive and familiar to the masses. It’s the same sort of thing in the film industry, where films that can be turned into a brand seems to be where the money goes.

‘Record companies in the ’60s were being run by cigar-chomping execs who were hoping to find the next Frank Sinatra. They signed bands and released music that they didn’t understand’

The common factor is that cinema audiences and music buyers have decreased dramatically over the years, so the studios are less prepared to take any risks.

In the golden age of cinema, you could release a film like The Best Years of Our Lives and it would be a blockbuster in terms of the people who saw it. Nowadays, a big studio would not put the money into a three-hour film about war veterans returning home. Cinema audiences were much bigger then, and were loyal to the stars in the film. Under the studio system everyone was on salary, so you could churn out loads of films, and sometimes they would produce art, And although the films were censored and bowdlerised, they showed a lot less but told a lot more. Look at films like Sunset Boulevard and In A Lonely Place – they were churned out under the studio system but are really dark and deep films.

American TV seems the place where you are seeing really original stuff, most of it does at least one season which is still around 13 hours of drama. If you pitched a 13-hour film called Freaks and Geeks (a much loved show that only did one season) you would not get very far. British mini-series seem to all be stuck trying to remake Prime Suspect. I digress…

So what are the band’s plans for the rest of 2018? Any thoughts on a follow-up album?

FS: We need to get more gigs, as a lot of our record sales are done in person. But a third of them have gone in a few months already, and they are still selling, so that’s encouraging. Our first EP has nearly sold out, I have to be careful to make sure I don’t sell my own copy!

As far as another LP is concerned, there were quite a few stage favourites left unrecorded. The original plan was to have a double LP, but it would have taken too long to record and we wouldn’t have a hope in selling it at gigs. We have another LP’s worth of songs, but it might be worth waiting to see if we come up with something better. Ive got to write a score without repeating myself, or other people. Ha ha ha.

our guitars

Finally, what music – new and old – are you currently enjoying?

FS:  Old music: Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, by The Small Faces, which I have recently discovered, after not being that interested in it up until now. The Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us –  the Bear Family Records reissue – and Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night: Live at the Roxy.  

New music: Boarding House Reach by Jack White and Fake Sugar by Beth Ditto.

Amerikana Arkana by The Magic City Trio is currently available on Kailua Recordings. For more information, go to http://themagiccitytrio.com/