The New Pornographers’ “Whiteout Conditions” and my interpretation thereof.

So far I’ve refrained from writing ‘reviews’ of albums or other music or bands to this extent. I’ve written an awful lot about music, of course, (well, mostly my own, see every other blog post) and its interpretation and/or effect, but here I’m gonna just tackle one album like a rock critic, or some idea of what a rock critic could be.

The New Pornographers are a popular pop-rock band who’ve been around for about 20 years, formed from the ashes of other popular pop-rock bands. I’ve been a fan since they started. They’re kind of a supergroup, with most of the members having solo careers or other bands as well. I am a huge fan of the NP—I love a good hook in my pop music, especially when it’s combined with cool lyrics and executed with superlative musicianship and a beautiful array of tones in the recordings. These guys have pretty much consistently provided pleasure to my ears with every album release. Oddly, I have never seen them play live, though that will change this weekend, when we go to see them at Debaser Strand in Stockholm.

I also don’t know them personally, though I met Neko Case (one of the singers) when she played with her own band at our Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven Camp Out Festival, probably about a decade ago? (I can’t exactly remember.) I tried to give her one of my poppier CDs, “Edgy Not Antsy” (2003) in hopes of eliciting some sort of camaraderie on the pop rock end of being a rock band person, but to be honest I have no idea if she even took it with her when they left. At some point on tour in Boise, ID, several years later we did cross paths with the NP, as their tour bus rolled up the the Super 8 as we were leaving, though I only ended up talking with the drummer for a bit to find out what band it was, when A.C. Newman (main singer/songwriter) got off the bus, it was pretty obvious he wasn’t interested in human interaction that morning.

So, they have a new album. They’ve had new albums before, of course, but I’m finding this one to be particularly thrilling. For one thing, it’s *all* A.C. Newman-penned songs, none by Dan Bejar who was off working on his own band, Destroyer, apparently. (Or not, who knows. Their press is obviously contrived, as I will get into more later.) They’ve settled into this style that uses sequenced synthesizers with the normal retinue of guitars and synths (and bass and drums and lots of singing). The result, after an obvious learning curve on their last album, “Brill Bruisers”, is so well-honed now, and so extremely pleasing to hear with your earholes, clocked soft and hard sounds pulsating and phasing through the stereo space. The singing is still incredible, with Neko, A.C. (Carl, I guess? I don’t know him well enough to know which to refer to him as) and Kathryn Calder doing multiple interconnected parts, and without having Bejar’s sneering Hunky-Doryisms, it works much better as a whole album. But here’s the thing: the lyrics are genius. They’re just oblique enough to give a listener some words to work information out of while providing some keywords with obvious dramatic effect, while simultaneously being full of fanciness: rhythmic alliterations, internal and external rhyme schemes, smart word combinations, etc, all accented by the co-lead singer duties within any particular track. Where Bejar’s lyrics always seemed to hinge upon him finding some witty-sounding phrase (like “myriad harbor” or some thing,) Newman’s are actually clever. Or even smart. Even if neither you nor I know exactly what he’s singing about

So what is he singing about? I personally love lyrical puzzles, and the poetry of fancy wordplay, so as the melodic hooks started seeping into my brain, the pop music virus that repeats itself in your ear forcing you to listen again and again until it finally burns that earworm out, I started delving more into the lyrics. The online sites suck, many were simply plain wrong, had entirely wrong lyrics listed. Admittedly, it’s tough to understand them all (as words let alone as meaning,) but I think some of the lyrics sites use some stupid AI transcription software to get lyrics to new albums, or it seems so. This site, genius.com, seemed to be mostly correct.

And here’s what I think: This is a meta-album. It’s an album of songs about an album of songs about playing music about the music industry and being a lead singer in a popular pop-rock band therein. Now that’s my take on this, and of course, not knowing these people personally, perhaps I’m projecting my own experience on this interpretation (as one does) and reading into it everything about the music industry and being a songwriter and whatnot. Perhaps that’s one reason I like the album so much. But let me clarify my conclusions a bit, and then I’ll admit to also seeing Illuminati references everywhere, or whatever psychotic pattern-recognition thing you, the readers, might attribute this interpretation to.

Again, I love lyrics, I love interpreting them, and on some level that’s what songs are about: the interpretation in the mind of the listener. I have no idea if any of this has anything to do with what the songwriter(s) were thinking, and that doesn’t really matter. It’s not quite like trying to interpret Yes lyrics (I didn’t want to know, for instance, that “giant flying purple wolfhounds” was actually a reference to a military plane, nor that mountains coming out of the sky and standing there was just cuz Jon Anderson was stoned in the tour van in Scotland.) Nor is it important to know the writer’s intent, really. What if that love song you love is about a taking a nice dump?

Here’s one thing to keep in mind, though: nobody talks about this, the meaning of the songs. On the New Pornographers’ website, everything just says “Whiteout Conditions” is out and the band is touring. If you go to the band history tab, it only says who plays in the band and then has some press quotes about how the record sounds. In fact, even the quotes from Mr Newman are about instituting some idea of Krautrock into their sound, somehow riding the “new motorik” wave of popularity (there’s a lot of it going around) and how it doesn’t sound like Krautrock even so. Well, you know, the Buzzcocks and the Jam said the same thing, just FYI. (Well, so has everybody.) Reviews I’ve read, NPR, PopMatters, No Recess, etc. all seem to focus on the sound of the album more than what it says. I think that’s common, in general, in rock criticism nowadays. That’s all people need to know, really! That’s why we stylize genre descriptors in press releases, so that the reviewer knows what kind of music this is! Even way back when I once wrote album reviews for Puncture Magazine, I ended up not knowing what to say about music at times and just described the physical music, that is to say, how the chords and melodies were put together, what kinds of sounds were used.

And many people say they don’t even listen to the lyrics. Personally, lyrics are extremely important to me, to the point where they can make or break a song for me. I remember being really into the Smashing Pumpkins “Siamese Dream” when hearing it on the jukebox at the bar I worked at, and then one day reading the lyrics. On the other hand, I have always loved Scott Miller’s lyrics/melodies/music through Game Theory and into Loud Family, and his way of manufacturing lyric was, similar to Newman’s, ornate yet oblique, playing with words and sounds and language until it could say several things at once, lyrical depth which combines the art and the craftsmanship of poetry with a hooky melody. (A.C. Newman also wrote about being a fan of Scott’s after his (Scott’s) death a few years back.) Cagey lyrics are of course also a way to hide, where you don’t have to reveal everything about your trip in some obvious verbal way. You can be humorous and deceptive about, say, depression or other mental illness, or develop your own code for things that are meaningful but potentially embarrassing for yourself. I mean, I write that way, always have. I tried for a while (starting maybe with Jack & Jill) to be purposefully more direct, but I’ve crept sideways from there. like a crab, right.

Neko Case and A.C. both are indirect lyricists, which I personally love. Neither say things directly. Case seems to paint verbal pictures that you fill in to understand the story at hand. Newman is more a player with the sounds of the words. While I love to think of the person singing the songs as the writer of the words that they sing, and I would love to think of each singer on this album as the lyricist, the liner notes do state that all of it is written by Newman.

So what does A.C. Newman have to say?

The album starts with the song “Play Money,” which of course is not about fake play money (so much as maybe the fakeness of money—when you have it, that is) but about playing music for money. The song seems so end-of-tour to me that I automatically adjust into that mindset when I hear the starting pulsation. “I only play for money, honey. Look at what this run has done to me.”

I only play for money, honey
Look at what this run has done to me
It has me gunning for the country
Sky's memory and moonless
A vision copied from the bootlegs
We are out of tune so mostly tuneless

For a fee I'll fight any foe
For a fee I'll take any blow

I only play it cool and bruising
But only when my lips are moving
You've been careful here to keep the tempo
Only play with money, careful
Not to trigger some reversal
And to live by an obscure example

For a fee I'll fight any foe
For a fee I'll stop any show

I know -- have an eye on you to get this right
Have an eye on you to climb these heights
Have an eye on you--oops, pay-per-view

I beat the path of least resistance
Over the hills and out of wisdom
And just when I thought we beat the system
I knew a gentleman of leisure
He loved to talk about his treasure
And of how he got it for a song, song, song, song

For a fee I'll right any wrong
For a fee I'll right any wrong
For a fee I'll fight any foe
For a fee I'll stop any show

I know -- have an eye on you to get this right
Have an eye on you to climb these heights
Have an eye on you--oops, pay-per-view
Have an eye on you to get this right
Have an eye on you to climb these heights
Have an eye on you--oops, pay-per-view

Only live for happy endings
Stop them like we started
Pardon my affinity for clothes and Clueless
Never been an opportunist
I accept the prize if I somehow surprise us all 
and get there soonest

I only play for money, honey
I only play with money, honey
I only play with money, honey
I only play with money, honey

The song (the song)

…I don’t exactly know what “gunning for the country” means (beside being a nice homophonic slant rhyme) though I take it as “I need to get the fuck out and head out to the country where there aren’t so many fucking people.” Though of course, it could be something patriotic and weaponized, who knows. But they continue about the quality of what they do in playing music live, a vision copied from the bootlegs, out of tune, etc.. Then they equate to the mercenary: for a fee I’ll fight any foe. Fum, goes the guitar, fum as Jack’s giant would add to the end of that phrase, fee fie foe fum in a lovely syncope rhythm of labial fricatives (distorted, actually. The mixing/mastering has bandpassed many of the consonants on this album to a discreet upper-midrange/lower-highend  that is pushed and compressed to be almost like a percussion instrument. Useful when you’re using the vocal fricatives to propel the otherwise-clocked rhythm.)

Nor do I really get “only play it cool and bruising” except that it’s obviously cool, and perhaps a reference to Brill Bruisers,  the lead track on their previous album of the same name. “Only when my lips are moving” is the joke, you know, about when a lawyer is lying. So the focus is maybe moving off the performers… For a fee I’ll stop any show. Again, probably an internal band reference to “All the Old Showstoppers,” another song about fame-versus-numbers. As would be the outro “the song (the song)” which itself is a repeat of their first “hit”, “Letter from an Occupant” from 2000. So they are talking about playing “the song” (“that’s shakin’ me”) that makes them famous enough to tour and play “the song”. And then, just when they think they beat the system, they meet the “gentleman of leisure” who got his treasure for “a song, song, song, song, song”. Obviously Jack, who ended up with the giant’s goose that laid the golden egg. Fee fie foe fum. Who are those guys that are rich from “the song”? Well, nobody in our day and age, it’s sort of an outdated occupation for songwriters, that’s for sure. So possibly some Geffen-type industry person. Or like, led zeppelin, “over the hills.” Or more likely more the Westergren or Ek type these days. And what does that mean? All your work is for naught, peon. You’re just the music maker. You may think you can get ahead in this music biz, you’re doing so well, aren’t you? “Have an eye on you.”

Is the song itself the golden egg? Is Newman himself the goose? NP refer to “The Song” a lot, I think it’s more like the Platonic ideal. The song referred to is “the song”, the one that works, the one that catapults the band, but also the one that is the creation that they make, the one that is the craft that they work.

(As an aside, I wonder if the band makes money, actually. New Pornographers, I mean. You’d think so, right? They’re famous and great and everybody knows them. They tour all over the world. I imagine that having a couple songs in TV commercials did well for them, but I sort of think that even at their level, admittedly above mine, though I play similar sized places with Camper Van Beethoven, CVB doesn’t have the pop draw nor radio love that NP do nor tour as much. And I don’t make money. So it’s possible that they do, though again, I’m betting it’s all in sync fees and not in record sales nor touring. I mean, we’re going to see them at Debaser Strand this weekend, that’s a 8 hour tour bus drive from Oslo to fill a 300-person place. )

I only play for money, honey. I only play with money.

Title track is next, Whiteout Conditions.

Flying and feeling the ceiling
I'm barely dealing
And the faces, the faintest of praises
Are too revealing
Such a waste of a beautiful day
Someone should say
It's such a waste of the only impossible, logical way in

A fly-in in LA was open
I wasn't hoping for a win
I was hoping for freedom
You couldn't beat 'em
So you crumbled, you doubled your dosage
you wanna go, said the inhibitor blocking the passage, 
that thing is massive

And the sky will come for you once
Just sit tight until it's done
The sky will come for you once
Just sit tight until it's done

Got so hooked on a feeling
I started dealing
in a stage of grief so demanding
I got a stand-in
Every radio buzzing, it wasn't the dream of the moment
Wasn't the current that carried me, keeping me going

Only want to get to work
But every morning I'm too sick to drive
Suffering whiteout conditions
Forget the mission, just get out alive

Only want to glean the purpose
Only to scratch the surface, raise the plow
Suffering whiteout conditions
Forget your mission, just get out somehow

Everyone suddenly busy
Suddenly dizzy
You're so easy, it's pushing you over
You're taking tours
Of a treacherous strip of the badlands
You have your demands
Maybe you riot for nothing - it's just a bad hand

Only want to get to work
But every morning I'm too sick to drive
Suffering whiteout conditions
Forget the mission, just get out alive
Only want to glean the purpose
Only to scratch the surface, raise the plow
Suffering whiteout conditions
Forget your mission, just get out somehow

Flying and flat on the ceiling
I see myself
And the revival, it suddenly hits me
It's going viral
Such a waste of a beautiful day
Someone should say
It's such a waste of the only impossible, logical way in

Got so hooked on a feeling
I started dealing
But the days spent kicking the cages
Are too revealing
So committed to your misfortune
But still a cheater
Such a waste of a beautiful day
Wish you could be here

So this could be about many things, but obviously the gist is trying to deal with life. On meds, or drugs, or something. Maybe a migraine. It’s a funny combo of drug lingo and med lingo, though, the first great hook that caught me on this record is the incredibly funny “got so hooked on a feeling, I started dealing”, which, given that it’s been nearly 50 years since “Hooked on a Feeling” came out, I was shocked nobody wrote this before. But it’s so funny to reference a hit song when (ostensibly) talking about being a musician hooked on music and starting to “deal” it like a pusher. And later “kicking” the cages, he says, and days spent doing that are too revealing.

The opening verse seems just like trying to deal while either taking your brain meds or forgetting to take your brain meds (says I who takes brain meds.) What pushes me toward this conclusion is not just the language of “inhibitor blocking the passage” etc, but the whole flying/ceiling/barely dealing + dizzy/buzzing stuff that goes into the existentialism of “such a waste of a beautiful day” and “waste of the only impossible, logical way in”. I have no idea what the only impossible logical way in is. But it’s big, it’s the only impossible logical way in, after all. So are “whiteout conditions” caused by drug-drugs? Or your prescription? Impossible to know, but “only want to get to work but in the morning I’m too sick to drive”, yeah. “Forget your mission, just get out alive” —been there! Maybe it’s just an ocular migraine, a scintillating scotoma (been there too…)

The sky will come for you once? I dunno. Maybe that’s his personal experience of the scotoma or the crash itself. Or something, anyway.

But I hear a familiar depression-vesus-meds in this one. (Meds being whatever medication is needed, pills or booze or whatever.) In all these lines. And like he says, maybe you riot for nothing, it’s just a bad hand. I think Scott Miller wrote an awful lot about depression and dealing (with himself, with people, with music “business”) in a similar way, that is to say: cloaked in artifice. And later it got the best of him. I do it too, I think that writing this way, circumloquatiously, is a way to mask it, to try to save some of the embarrassment that one feels in admitting to the world around you that you are depressed, or manic, or mental in some way. I have no doubts that Mr Newman is a hyper intelligent person, (given only these songs as evidence, yeah) and I do know that that makes things difficult when it comes to either fitting in, or being who your handlers want you to be if you are the cash cow. I mean, I play in a band with David Lowery. Lowery ends up mostly writing in characters that he assumes the identity of. It’s possible that Newman does too, but I hear it as personal, especially here. I think the “you” at the end, so committed to your misfortune but still a cheater” is himself. “Wish you could be here.”

The single is next, “High Ticket Attractions.”

You can imagine all the factions
That form around high ticket attractions
High on the spirit, hopped up and mystic
After the flame baptism you’re fearless
You know the science of falling
You have your calling
You know the song

The Magna Carta, it’s underwater
We left it there for the sons and the daughters
One day they’ll find it; they’ll be reminded
When we live undersea like we ought to
Didn’t know flying from falling
Clueless the poor thing
Sad to report
Didn’t know losing from learning
Wheels were turning
You know the song

This thing could go two ways
(Won’t be another exit for days)
So pack a small suitcase
(Anything else can be easily replaced)

You feel the suction, the call to action
That will surround high ticket attractions
You want to travel, want to unravel
Take the experience to the next level
With no respect for the warning
The violence of yearning
Defiance of learning
In protected encryption
The voice of addiction
You know the song

This thing could go two ways
(Won’t be another exit for days)
So pack a small suitcase
(Anything else can be easily replaced)

You know the song
You know the song
You know the song
You know the song

You can imagine all the factions
That form around high ticket attractions
Just like the Mayans took all their science
And dumped it all in the drink and went silent
They knew the science of falling
They had their calling
You know the song

This thing could go two ways
(Won’t be another exit for days)
So pack a small suitcase
(Anything else can be easily replaced)

This thing could go two ways
(Won’t be another exit for days)
So pack a small suitcase
(Anything else can be easily replaced)

This one seems to be about, yes, high ticket attractions, those high-money touring artists. You know the song. And you can imagine the hangers-on. And trying to keep up with it on tour. Perhaps it’s about a specific diva, but I’d guess not. Also, it has that weird “vision of the world of the high class” thing that many other NP songs of the past have, implications of hanging out with the ultra-rich or upperclass, or royalty. I never really got that, even if I liked the songs that had those things in them, I never understood if it was supposed to be literal or not. Maybe the guy does hang out with countesses, I don’t know. (My brain went immediately to “I am the Countess,” My Little Pony’s take on Gaga.) I mean they went with mermaids, right?

You know the song. The suction that is felt is the pull from the buyers; to sell records, you have to create suction at the public end to pull them to the stores. And the suction of charisma, of famous personages, you’ll just do it. And the suction that is just plain old sucking. Here’s another reference to “Clueless” as well, which may be a pet phrase or maybe he’s really into the Alicia Silverstone coming-of-age movie, I don’t know. (I haven’t seen it.) I think either is possible.

Why is this the single? I have no idea. It’s a song about fame. About famous songs and the mad practice of presenting them in public. Again, songs about the business of music. Maybe the reason for it being the single is magic, it’s a spell to invoke fame by singing about it. But then there’s the video, which is horrific. I won’t include a link, you can look it up if you want. It’s the epitome of stupid, has nothing to do with the lyrics, it’s a slow-mo, hi-res high school riot that starts off with the male and female models pretending to be high school students in a fake chemistry classroom start teasing each other. It’s so slick and crass that it’s disgusting. Maybe that’s what you get when your band is from Vancouver instead of LA, you get something like the cast of The 100 faking being young and hot and ritualistically destroying their very own Riverdale High like true rebellious teens would if they could. Icky, for so many reasons, not just overblown production values. But, possibly it will get the band exactly what they want in an audience?

(And then, there’s also this video for the song, which I think is really cool.)

But, you know, “This is the World of the Theatre.”

Since they've come, I've tried to go it straight, 
but I've got no clue how to
Was gonna make it up just now, 
try to come up with some high-brow move
Kid gloves, and stranger loves you've known,
you sort it out somehow
You used to chime in quietly, you sing, but you're a moaner now
Think of all the life we're saving
Think of all the legs we're breaking

Is it too late to live in your heart, too late to burn all your civilian clothes
As you break into a million parts, too late to learn it 
yes we're all elbows

Conquerors of the daybreak
Conquerors of the daybreak
This is the world of the theatre
This is the world of the theatre

All the phantom minor notes they pass you on your way to dine
They call you from their hiding places on 
the shoulders of your chimes
Think of all the cold they're braving
Think of all the ways we'll cave in

Is it too late to live in your heart, too late to burn all your civilian clothes
As you break into a million parts, too late to learn it -- will it come to blows?

Conquerors of the daybreak
Conquerors of the daybreak

This is the world of the theatre
This is the world of the theatre
Is it too late to live in your heart, too late to burn all your civilian clothes
As you break into a million parts, too late to learn it, yes we're all elbows

Conquerors of the daybreak
Conquerors of the daybreak
Conquerors of the daybreak
Conquerors of the daybreak

This is the world of the theatre
This is the world of the theatre

Yes, indeed, it’s all theatre. You’re in SHOW biz. But it’s so important, isn’t it? Think of all the lives we’re saving. But are you yourself? Who is yourself? Can you be yourself when you are acting? I once tried to piss off some actor friends of mine when I lived in LA by going on a rant about how all actors were basically lying, never being true to who they were. It was funny at the time. Recently I’ve been in more discussions about what people represent when they’re on stage, if indeed a person can be “who they are” when they are performing. It just makes me hate politicians even more, why I would rather read politics and platforms than hear any politician speak.

I do like the referred-to phrases, though: think of all the cold they’re braving.

I do appreciate the military jargon of burning all your civilian clothes (no, forget your mission, just get out alive.) As a member of a touring band, everybody outside the world of the tour is indeed a civilian. It’s a natural way to see things. But here, giving up your identity as a civilian is predicated on “living in your heart”, i.e. secretly being yourself in the face of facade.

This also was an early adoptee song for me on this album, which started me looking for the lyrics online—and finding some incredible mishearings. Check out this take on these lyrics: Cockle, reese and poutine break? Yeah! They are Canadians after all. Yes, we’re on a boat.

Next is Darling Shade, our shadow.

When you add your voice to bad choices
Then your noise so white becomes [melted]?
It's dripping down the walls like quicksilver
Dripping down [as] slowly [as sabbath]?

And for you: the Pulitzer Prize
For stepping into traffic
Now the new: the Americas
You broke through, you're laughing

We have found a use for the profane
Searching for the gods in the corners
With the ignorance of the poet
An unbreakable focus of mortars

Darling shade our shadow
Darling shade our shadow

Was a [singer] from the bad choices
On a [sayer] without a pretense
When you give your mind to your voices
You accept the terms of your sentence

And for you: the Pulitzer Prize
For time served, you're walking
Now the new: the Americas
You broke through, it's nothing

Darling shade our shadow
Darling shade our shadow

You began to climb the new tower
Thinking you could learn a new language
That you would return a few favors
Since you left everybody hanging

Darling shade our shadow
Darling shade our shadow
Darling shade our shadow
Darling shade our shadow

Shadowed by an underworld figure? Or journalist…? Well, the music biz is infested with shades, it’s true. Darling Shade seems more like a character from a Bowie song, even with Dan Bejar not taking part in this album. Maybe the song is about him! More likely it’s singing “you” to yourself again. You broke through, it’s nothing. More military imagery (focus of mortars) and music biz cliches like the break through. But Darling Shade left everybody hanging in the end.

Second Sleep

Been awake for awhile
Going deep, going long
Rifling through what I keep

In the floats, what we found
Under glass, all the hours
Filled with Hail Mary passes
It all sort of fastens to you
As you sleep

Been awake, thinking fast, cannot sleep
Second thoughts, second rate Socrates
At dream's door, feeling flat, searching high
Left outside, like a vampire in light

At this time of the morning you'd swear it was night
It's enough living proof of the use of lights on (lights on)

Been awake for awhile

Somebody on a lyric site wrote that this was a reference to the thing going around a couple years ago about polyphasic sleep, how everybody “used to sleep two times a night, separated by a period of wakefulness in the middle of the night.” There are numerous examples in old literature, but I have to say that I always thought that this phenomenon probably had more to do with the fact that people used to drink all day, so they probably woke up after a few hours of sleep when the alcohol was detoxified in their system. This song seems more like normal (“normal”) insomnia, especially the fast thoughts and rifling through “what I keep” and “hours filled with Hail Mary passes.” Lord knows I understand that, I wrote a bunch about sleep and the lack thereof on my latest album as well. Again, though, it could also be the meds. But I bet that doesn’t account for the cool rhythms of the sung consonants. Again distorted, but cool word-cuts like ‘like a vam/pire in night’ in great rhythm.

The next track is my current favorite, “Colosseums”. Obvious, perhaps, in the context of rock music, stadium rock is really its own thing. Although probably dominated these days by country or pop stars, I tend to envision U2 or Coldplay: some crap fake-emotive singer with soaring anthems banking on the fact that the space the noise fills appears to add profundity. A Second rate Socrates could really sound wise here.

Colosseums, colosseums of the mind
An ancient con, the shadow of a song
Exhibitions, international in size
I close my eyes, I can see the lion

Colosseums, colosseums of the mind
Right on time, celebration in the ruin
Elation is moving in a wave
I avert my gaze, but still I see the lions

Say it like a soothsayer
On repeat for days
Don’t listen when the fool says
You can’t fool your way
You can’t fool your way

Colosseums, colosseums of the mind
A scalper's price, built into the design
Jubilations, laughing out the place
Look in my face, you can see the lion

Say it like a soothsayer
It will keep for days
Don’t listen when the fool says
You can’t fool your way
You can’t fool your way

Say it like a soothsayer
On repeat for days
Don’t listen when the fool says
You can’t fool your way

Say it like a soothsayer
It will keep for days
Don’t listen when the fool says
You can’t fool your way
You can’t fool your way

Here, he’s using the extended metaphor of the Roman colosseum and the whole bread-and-circus spectacle of lions eating Christians to rock it out. Complete with the entrance of the marimbas in the intro, the rattling bones (like on XTC’s “Poor Skeleton Steps Out,” though I got the impression that Paul Fox had no ideas of his own when producing “Oranges and Lemons” back in 1989 so he dug up their earlier albums’ production for ideas and settled on “It’s Nearly Africa” for this one.)

Right off the bat, we know that the spectacle can’t present the real, “an ancient con, the shadow of a song”. You can’t even play the damn song in a stadium, the size makes it into something else. (“The Song”, I mean. The ideation of “song”. The artifact of “song”. The [second rate] Platonic ideal of “The Song”.) The colosseum is huge, and its size is in your mind. The singer singing the song here is singing it in the colosseum, and closing his eyes, he sees the lions. Because that’s what the audience really wants, anyway, isn’t it?

This is also the first song with a lyrical twist, finally. Even after the second verse’s celebration in the ruin, averting his gaze he still sees the lion, but in the critical third verse we look in his face and can see the lion, he has become the lion in the colosseum.

Say it like a soothsayer, a nice alliteration, indicating the methods of sounding prophetic or holy in the colosseum. I still think of Bono here, even though the advice is obviously to oneself in the context of the song. Fake it big. Don’t listen when the fool says you can’t fool your way, because obviously (if Bono, for example, is any indication) you can. Say it like a soothsayer, on repeat for days, (“keep for days”? I hear “it will hold their gaze”, that is, if you can say it like a soothsayer, it commands the attention of the audience. Which is what you want, if you’re soothsaying.)

I would love to hear them perform this song in a colosseum!

…but. We’ve Been Here Before

Here is the quick rundown
We've been here before
It's best not to wander far
'Cause we've been here before
We couldn't find a way out
When we were here, the first time
Now it's mines we're leaving behind
Mines we're leaving behind

Didn't choose what we mean
Just hummed along with what's played
There were rules once back when
There should be rules again

Here is the quick rundown
We've been here before
It's best not to wander far
'Cause we've been here before
And we couldn't find a way out
When we were here, the first time
Now it's mines we're leaving behind
Mines we're leaving behind

And oh, to leave them behind
And gold to trade for my life
Where we end up again
The gods of bad parties reign
Chased by invasion lights
Round the same block again

So here is the quick rundown
We've been here before
It's best not to wander far
'Cause we've been here before
And we couldn't find a way out
When we were here the first time
Now it's mines we're leaving behind
Mines we're leaving behind

We've been here before

We didn’t choose what we mean, just hummed along… well, you gotta choose it now. Even if you’re stuck in some labyrinth of post-colosseum after-show parties, which sadly end up with you as the semi-famous reigning god. I’ve seen it a few times. Unfortunately. What a sad state, and I can see how after catching yourself there once, you’d wish for the gold to trade to get your life back.

But, ignoring for a moment the paradox of “if you couldn’t find your way out the first time you were there,” how could you be stuck a second time, and moving on to leaving and leaving behind mines… So, mines that destroy that entire scene? Impossible. I suppose you could leave mines that destroy your own credibility as reigning god so that you could never reliably find yourself accidentally falling into that labyrinth again. Redefine yourself and your persona.

“Juke” is the next track. I only know the word in the context of the jukebox, I assume it meant a kind of dancing. I looked it up and found that it’s a word for a quick fake, or a quick move to fake you out (or a stabbing!) and probably that quick fake move is why it got associated with dancing. Probably a Gullah/West-African based word meaning bad or disorderly. However, I have certainly never heard it used as it is here, “Juke you.” Though followed by “feels like the dawn took you out” may be a continuation of the last bad party.

Been through here, crystal ball
You crashed, shattered into [songs?] above you
There are rules here, into shapes
You can, can and so you will surrender

Juke you (Feels like the dawn took you out)

You pass through here, on the way, to call
Call to tell us, 'Stop. Surrender.'
Some of you fear it has come to pass
At last, last September, what? you lost me

Juke you (Feels like the dawn took you out)
Took you out

I been through here, some of you can run
Underneath the world beyond earth
Been through here, crystal ball
You crashed, shattered into souls above you

Some of you
Some of you get life
Some of you
Some of you get Lifetime
Some of you
Some of you will run
Some of you
Some will feel the strange cold
[?]
Some of you will run
Be [accused?]
Some will take a lifetime

Juke you (Feels like the dawn took you out)
Took you out

Juke you

It may be like a continuation of being here before, what with the crystal ball and talking about rules. I don’t know, I don’t get this one, I think. Some of you get life may refer to the poor idiots sentenced to life in the stupid scene, though, “some of you get Lifetime,” like the cable channel? I guess some of you do. Or maybe some people “get” Lifetime, I sure don’t. I don’t really get life, for the most part. Some of you will run. Indeed. Juke you. Whatever that means, you got faked out?

Next, we move another step clockwise in the story of the dealing with the life of being a singer of songs in a business of selling songs and singers.

Clockwise

We were not quite young when you called it clockwise
Go unchallenged in the light of the life
In the struggle to rule the second string
In the valley of the middle fingers
In the valley of lead singers

We are not quite done you could call it clockwise
Power surges and the backups are fried
We are live [with 'we brought from the blue'?]
In the hopeful haunts of all your dead ringers
In the valley of lead singers
In the hopeful haunts of all your dead ringers
In the valley of lead singers

We were not quite done, yeah, you called it clockwise
Hold the looking glass up to your eyes
See The Saviors are still asleep in the men's
See invaders that look like their dead ringers
In the valley of lead singers
In the hopeful haunts of all your dead ringers
In the valley of lead singers

Low
Life
Low
Low Life

We were not quite fun, you could call it clockwise
Allow me here to accept the demise
Accept it proudly on your behalf
As you oversteer -- every star turn in here
In the valley of lead singers
In the hopeful haunts of all your dead ringers
In the valley of lead singers

As he says, struggling to rule the not-quite-top level, the second string of players in a valley of lead singers and their dead ringers. Replaceable, easily. A valley of middle fingers, enough and we could have ringers sent in from the coast in a heartbeat, to quote Buddy Rich. I guess if this album is a “rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust” sort of story, this is the downfall, not exactly fatal except to one’s career. The path of the lead singer is from star to low life when they aren’t revered anymore. Awesome synth tones moving around in there, though.

For an album that is touted as being some pop interpretation of krautrock, there is surprisingly little Neu in here, but in the final track, Avalanche Alley, we finally get the full Für Immer beat promised at the beginning of the album in “Play Money”.

Cover your eyes, surprise your fate
It's only an avalanche away, you're safe
It's only a scratch, you're great
Several years after the flood
Your singularity under the gun
So late, so late to the game, so late
We thought it was wise to wait

Sent you blues from the last world
News from the future
Blues from the last world
News from the future

Several miles behind the wave
We needed to cross the ocean, we missed the ride
Lord knows we could use a ride
You summon the breath to finally say
It's only an avalanche away, feels right
And you can stay here tonight
Yeah, you can stay here tonight

Sent you blues from the last world
News from the future
Blues from the last world
News from the future

Better angels formed the cottage industry
The testimonials, warning weather
Rules of the house
Are all graffiti scrawled
Ceremony calls, the tarred and feathered
Jewels in your crown
Are loud and proudly fake
Ceremony calls, the overthrowing
Consigned to the dustbin, all good lines thrown away
Defined by the daylight waves we found in Avalanche Alley
Controlled demolitions of the times far away
In line for the festival that we call Avalanche Alley

News from the last world
News from the future
News from the last world
News from the future

It’s definitely tough to interpret this as a song, let alone as the closing track of the meta-album about itself in its own context. The titular avalanche could be the one that brings the singer to stardom, though it could be the one that wipes them out. I think hanging out in the festival called Avalanche Alley makes it more like they’d be waiting to regain that feeling of importance that comes with being a big shot on stage, that same feeling that they were so tired of at the play money beginning. This alley is next door to the valley of lead singers, I’d guess. But if the industry machine has abandoned you, maybe the cottage industry might help build you back up again, even if you’re faking the content. These lines seem like they have some specific reference (to the singer) that isn’t obvious or known to me as a listener. That’s ok, of course. It is definitely a bad thought to feel that you have been consigned to the dustbin of history, as Trotsky said, with all your good lines thrown away. I have no reference point for the “daylight waves” that define these lines. Maybe that goes with either that it’s the Kurzweil singularity he’s talking about and it’s not coming fast enough or that they “missed the ride” offworld, I mean who knows.

And the important thing here seems to be the sending of news from the future. Or the blues/news from the last world? So long as there’s something new in the damn future and not this same old shit (I don’t mean that about the album, I mean in a more universal sense). It sure is a hopeful sounding chorus, especially as the final track in the sequence.

So anyway, there you have it. I didn’t even mention how incredibly pleasurable the sounds on this album are with the ‘motorik’ beats, combos of beautifully squishy synthesizers with the pseudo-techno sequencing mixing effortlessly with a human drummer and bassist and the jangly power pop guitars. Currently it’s worming its way through my cochleae and it won’t let go.

And I concede that everything I’ve written here may be entire bullshit, of course. And don’t tell Mr Newman that I wrote this.

Whiteout

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Music, Touring

Literally, Superfluous.

It’s Monday today. Last Friday afternoon I was home waiting for a call from WORT radio in Madison WI, to do an interview about music, specifically about my latest release “Superfluity”. The phone rang and it was my wife who was walking through downtown Stockholm on her way home from work and ran into a ton of people running away from a tragedy where some person had stolen a beer delivery truck and ran down several people on a walking-mall on his way to try to blow up a department store. She was stuck at this point, walking with all of the other stunned people westward to our area of town since they had shut down the subways as soon as this happened. I listened to her in shock but had to get off the phone to get the other call and do an interview, now with that same empty feeling in my solar plexus that I had felt for days after the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland last winter.

I had to talk about music now. How could that possibly be important? And I got my wife off the phone for that. And it’s especially ironic because one of the underlying concepts on my album is that of just how superfluous music is, indeed how superfluous human beings are, life itself is, compared to the rocks and water of the earth or the solar system. A little overflow in an system otherwise heading toward equilibrium.

physics-activity-2

So I was a little shell-shocked myself, and started on the air talking about what just happened, and a little about international politics, but the Disc Jockey managed to change the subject so that we did actually get onto the topic of the album and of Camper Van Beethoven and so forth. I wasn’t brought on for news analysis, after all! I tried to shift gears and explain things like “what I bring to CVB and is it present on my solo records or what?” and “what’s it like these days?” I have no idea what I said. One thing I do remember is talking about how music is so devalued now that many people that make music (by habit or compulsion or whatever) have even less incentive to try to be commercially successful, so many just make the albums that they want to make, and fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke. I’m certainly that way these days, “Superfluity” is a huge project—I was hoping to make a followup to my very first solo album from late 1988, the one that was called “a double album art-rock horror.” Several other musicians I know seem to just be going for it (like Nathan Hubbard’s Skeleton Key Orchestra album), trying to create whatever the farthest reaches of their imaginations come up with, or maybe just diving back into their roots to dredge up all the things that gave them meaning as a musician (like Nels Cline’s “Lovers”).

Can they get meaning from doing this? I wrote an awful lot about this sort of dilemma in this blog a couple years back now, one of the main lines of thinking that ended up with me making this album (and the Sista Maj album). Yes, it’s true: for me, making and recording music, mixing it and sculpting it into some final recorded piece, is important to me, I have spent most of my adult life in the pursuit of spending the maximum amount of time doing exactly that. So it must give meaning to my life. But music itself, is it even necessary? People are killing other people for some reason or another, surely the fact that violence is happening at all is more important than making something that will be enjoyed ephemerally by few people, and isn’t even an absolutely necessary thing for them. There’s already a plethora of digital files available to everybody to excite their cochleas and get some sympathetic vibrations going in the nervous system.

Let’s look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, (as disabused as the idea may be) and we can see that it’s unlikely that art or music—both the creating of and the enjoyment of—are gonna be way in that top bit of self-actualization or self-transcendence, so they’re not gonna be so necessary if we’re not taken care of, safe, loved, respected and self-respecting people. In other words, music is superfluous. And it’s just sounds, anyway, right? What are you even saying when you play music? What are you even hearing? Surely you could live without it.

Now, I can hear many people, including some aspects of myself, saying: No! Life without music is unbearable, it’s important for the mind and the soul and without it life would not be worth living.

Well, ok, but tell that to the people down on the lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid, those struggling to survive at all, or struggling to be safe in a war zone. Even moving up in this hierarchy, people in relatively safe societies disenfranchised from their fellow humans by a lack of love or bonding or an entire lack of respect by some group within that society…and even in our relatively safe societies, these things are falling apart. People are less safe, there is more blatant racism, sexism, etc. What’s the purpose of that?

Some percentage of people in the USA seem to be in favor of their current president and his entire cabinet of corporate fascists. And their actions are causing more and more problems for more and more people, and yet, still, they continue and there still exist people who want them to continue. Why? What are they seeing as the end game? What is the racist’s end game, for example—a world where there’s only one skin color? How is that possibly a good thing? And how is causing pain and/or killing people a good thing, at all, ever? (also, if you just wait a few hundred years, to take the “Superfluity” long-view, maybe all the human races might get genetically blended together anyway. I don’t even get the “white” thing to begin with, white skin seems like a such a genetic dead end!)

I mean‚ I can sort of see the corporate fascist’s end game, but it’s usually just greedily gaining as much as they can before they die, fuck everybody else. In fact that seems to be the root motivation for most libertarianism or republicanism to begin with, personal greed. It seems idiotically obvious that most of the US/Russia/Middle East politics and war is just about making money on oil or natural gas. It’s hard to believe that anybody thinks that is a good thing. So why don’t we fix it? I guess we love our oil, need to drive them cars. Because deep down when you try to back it up with religion or creed, the entire rationale falls apart.

The search for meaning in making music must be even worse for some people.

If you have time, read this article from Feb 2016 by RFK Jr. And this article on why some points he made might be wrong (although it doesn’t really matter in the larger scheme of things, RFK Jr still mostly right.) Why is it that I, a musician, would want to know about oil politics? Is it just because I live in the same physical world as this and would prefer to survive, right there at the bottom of the needs-pyramid? Have you read “This Changes Everything”, Naomi Klein’s book on the extraction-based corporate world and its impact on our globe, our species, our lives? Are we in fact doomed now by these idiots who seem to be attempting to die with the most toys, all the while making it more and more uncomfortable and dangerous for the rest of us? How is this good for anybody…unless human people are simply in the way of the planet doing something else. Maybe we will realize our entirely superfluous nature and go extinct leaving the way wide open for a race of intelligent dragonflies hundreds of millions of years down the road. Or not. Maybe just rocks and water.

Meanwhile, we destroy our garden and turn it into an empty yard, as I sing in “Cat & Mouse”. If that’s not what you wanted, then—what? Oh did you want something else? Because there are old rich white guys out there who seem to not give a shit so long as they can get some more dollars. Let’s make sure that Europe’s heating gas is being sold by x. Or y. But we need to make sure those sources stay in our wheelhouse, and somebody is gassing civilians, let’s break something with missiles (so that the missile maker makes us some money, at least) and the next day some distraught person sees no other alternative but to kill innocent people with a truck or something. Because all of this is totally necessary, right?

People are dead. How is that good? Stockholm responded by having a “Love manifestation” where thousands of people gathered this weekend to proclaim that love was more powerful than hate. Which is great. And they believe it, which is also great. Though, cynically, I could say that they can afford to. Most of the needs of a person are indeed taken care of here. That’s good! That’s why people wanted to make a society like this in the first place. The only thing that fucks it up is when people think they should be making more money and they try to privatize something like medical treatment or the post office (both of which have been severely screwed up by several years of “moderate” government—why would you ever want things that serve the citizenry to be obligated to be profitable? That makes no sense at all, the “customer,” i.e., citizen, is then devalued in order to raise the bottom line. That defeats the purpose of having a health service, or a postal service, or whatever, to begin with.)

Etc.

Like I said, I’m not here to talk about news analysis, am I? I’m here to talk about music. Yet music is overflow, superfluity, from simply being alive. Just like being alive at all is just a slight overflow of chemicals and electricity in the physical world. It doesn’t really matter. The entire physical universe would exist just fine without either. So if you’re going to overflow, my humble opinion is that it’s gonna be better to do so with something beneficial to the people around you rather than detrimental. I’m just hoping that music is indeed still beneficial. I worry about that due to the fact that it seems like fewer people care at all about music, many can’t even be bothered these days. Many of my friends seem to listen to podcasts nowadays instead of spending those precious minutes listening to music. (It’s as if they really just would rather watch TV, but their eyes are involved in something else. How can that be good?)

…nevertheless, she persisted, as we say to ourselves these days.

Can music even say anything to people? My friend Steed Cowart, a composer whom I met when he was the only grad student in the music department at UCSC back in the early 1980s, just posted a quote from Stravinsky on FB: “For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.” From ‘Igor Stravinsky (1936). An Autobiography, p. 53-54.’  I think what he’s actually saying is “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” in so many words. Music may or may not be a language, either way it has no inherent semantics, there is no signified in a note. Nothing specific is conveyed by some arrangement of sounds. And as John Cage composed to prove, and as Pauline Oliveros lived, sound becomes music in the listening.

I’ve always been fascinated by “political music,” especially where it’s not obvious by means of lyric. How can that work? While making “Superfluity,” one of the things I got back into was late 1960s Jefferson Airplane—Baxter’s, Volunteers, Crown. Very political lyrics, very cynical as well, must have been a bad trip for some listeners. I remember being a child and listening to my mom’s copy of “Crown of Creation” and being scared of Grace Slick’s voice. But the things they said/sung were extremely incendiary in many instances, especially on Volunteers. No rock band is saying anything like that now, are they? I’m certainly not at that level of anarchism these days, even when I feel like I’ve been going for that same sound with the dual male-female vocal thing that existed here, through John and Exene in X, (and then all through Game Theory and later Loud Family, to the New Pornographers, …who are saying what, exactly?) But in the case of JA, even they themselves became disillusioned during the 1970s and the rise of the Me Generation paving its way toward libertarianism and neo-liberalism, and they just went for it themselves by the 1980s.

When I was at Mills College (2001-03) I started making a documentary film about political avant-garde music, from Cornelius Cardew, who abandoned art music for communist anthems when he thought that the entire milieu of western art music was bourgeoise and would not help ‘the people’ (as essentially Ruth Crawford Seeger had done 40 years earlier,) to groups like AMM (acronym for nothing, actually) and MEV (Musica Electronica Viva), both began in the 1960s trying to break their music free of the clutches of the universities and class systems that held “classical” music. AMM tried to improvise with no stylistic ties, to break out of genre. MEV had free-form happenings that broke the proscenium that separated performer from audience. These groups contained musicians and composers who were ostensibly trying to better the world, to bring awareness to the problems they were addressing in order to make things better for all classes and divisions of people. By making sounds.

I interviewed many people, including Fredrick Rzewski, the composer and pianist. We met in Brussels and talked, and he invited us over to the studio where he was recording a Cardew piece called “We Sing For the Future” (that I had never heard of because it was written toward the end of his life when he was supposedly not composing such music. Rzewski queried me on it, as a test I think—he probably would have gotten rid of us if I had said, “oh yeah, I know that one!”) Anyway, in the course of the conversation, I asked him how he could possibly believe that creating music based on political ideas would change anything, let alone anyone’s mind and he answered: “It’s like magic, if you believe it, it seems to work.” Soon thereafter I abandoned the entire project. He was right. I’m not much of a believer, in the end. For me, the entire idea of “soul” is firmly the same as “self” and “mind” and exists simply due to being alive. Oh, it’s amazing all right, but it’s not holy. Even that soul that cannot thrive without music.

So what am I trying to say, what’s the big idea? Superfluity, the album, has a path that it takes, from the framing songs—Equilibrium parts 1 and 2, ensconced in the physical world from which we living things are just overflow—through the human-condition psych-folk songs of “Mouse” and “Cat & Mouse,” the political in “Imply it, Deny It,” and to the frustration of just wanting to go back to bed until people can get their shit together in “Sleep for a Hundred Years” with its quotes and references to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Dorothy Parker, the Clash, and how did that make a difference anyway? Then it takes off, trying to illustrate (oh, right, music cannot actually express anything, right…) the view from a great distance in time with the gigantic instrumental sections of “Silent Notes,” “Like Mercury, It Slips Through Your Fingers” and the collage “Phenomenon and On”. When we get back we have the beauty of “The Luxury of Living” and its by-products, “Strawberry Sun” and explanations of that luxury in “Superfluity”—what difference does it make? The cat is a living thing, aren’t you amazed!? And on out with “The Luxury of Dying,” good that we’re impermanent, actually, to where it all leads with “No Backup Plan,” a sort of Doctor Who-type take on stumbling your way through [eternal] life, the universe and everything, until it’s all on its way out. “The Dying Stars” is instrumental, and “Equilibrium Part 2” bookends it. So there you have it. Get it?

BonzoDogBand

“Wow, I’m really expressing myself!” Bonzo Dog Band, also heavily referenced in “Phenomenon and On”

Simply being alive in the world at large caused me to make this collection of sounds, vibrations in the air that tickle your eardrum into producing nerve responses in the cilia in your cochlea, some overflow byproduct of existing. Big deal. Elsewhere somebody is still wanting to take something from someone else, or is hurting or killing them.

TurboAnalIsis

even worse than plain Isis.

In the end, I’m proud of the thing I made. I think it’s good, I thought it was the best way for me to do something good in the world, that maybe listening to this might help somebody to make good decisions regarding what they themselves do in this world. That’s all I can do. And it doesn’t really matter at all, in the long run. In the short run, maybe you can listen to it and decide for yourself.

 

here’s some reviews of these recent albums from this week:

Sista Maj on on DPRP, the Dutch Progressive Rock Page

Superfluity on Thee Psychedelicatessen

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Music, Philosophy, recording

On guitars, yet again (…for guitar nerds only!)

A couple weeks ago I did an interview about my recent albums “Superfluity” and the Sista Maj “Series of Nested Universes” for a Japanese blog called StarTrip. One of the questions was about equipment I used (the guy is a guitar player) and you know how I love my gear.

So I thought I should update the blog entries on guitars, The Stratocaster (part 2) and Les Paul! Les Paul! specifically, with a mention of the bass guitar as well. You know. Just because there needs to be more on the internet about old guitars and shit. By old rock musicians.

So my main guitars nowadays are the black ’62 Strat and its Strat cohorts and the Les Paul(s). I was trying to explain to my still-patient wife last night about the different ways these guitars feel to play. The ’62 is very interesting, it’s like a vintage guitar made modern (simply by means of making it playable, really) and not in the fake Custom Shop way*. The body and neck are both very old, the finish is coming off (the black [re]finish is super thin, and it’s a July ’62 neck that is unfortunately not slab Brazilian rosewood, but a laminated rosewood fretboard on top of the maple. I prefer the thicker flat-bottomed slab-board fingerboard. Too bad for me, I know. Fender only made slabboard Stratocasters from spring of 1959 to mid-1962) …but the metal is mostly new. And the fretboard is now a little flatter than the normal 7.25″ radius, heading toward the 9.5″ of the newer Strats, plus it’s got new frets, 6105 size, neck work courtesy of Geoff Lutrell at SF Guitarworks several years ago to make a twisty neck playable. Also, it has the DeTemple titanium bridge and tremolo block, so it feels super solid and very modern to play but with that old dried wood feel and weight. Kind of the perfect mix of these things. The pickups are the old ’62 pickups, now all rewound, (neck done twice now, (dammit)—recently by Lundgren here in Sweden.) I moved the Lollars to the ’62 AVRI. This one (the real ’62. I guess they need names) has some weird addenda also, some dude made these weird cast heavy metal parts that I saw somewhere, so it has skulls around the jack, and it has a 1980 “The Strat” brass knob for the volume knob (and the brass tremolo bar tip.) Just because. And I drew on it. I mean, my daughter drew on the 50s Strat, so…

Strat

the best one.

I record a lot with this guitar, on a bunch of Superfluity, (“The Dying Stars” is a good jam with it, for example) and Sista Maj (“A Very Heavy Feather” for example) and on a bunch of Øresund Space Collective starting with Different Creatures. I even brought it on tour with them last May in Europe. I figure if nobody knows it’s an old guitar, nobody will care and try to steal it. It’s all drawn on and shit, obviously not all-original parts!

IMG_7443The ’54/56 Stratocaster, on the other hand, has accompanied me on several solo shows. I like to play it if I play solo instead of an acoustic guitar. It’s so incredibly resonant, and the neck is pretty thick, it’s a lot like an acoustic guitar! Um, well, with a solid maple neck. The 50s pickups are very special, though, each very different from the others (even with the middle pickup repaired by Jason Lollar.) They have very distinct tonal characteristics, like each is the epitome of Stratocaster “neck position,” “middle pickup” and “bridge pickup” sounds. Quite intense. It’s such a pleasure to play, again with the old super resonant wood, but new frets (courtesy of Dan Erlewine in this case, who fixed the truss rod as told in the earlier Stratocaster blog post.) It has its old bridge on it which is not *quite* as stable (tuning wise) as the Callaham it had in that last episode, but is more “stock”.  I end up playing this guitar at home the most, noodling around on it the most. It just feels so good to play. Oddly I don’t record with it as often as the other one. It has its place in recordings, definitely, but usually for when I need a clean and direct sound without effects, just amp and guitar (that old Princeton Reverb, of course.)

Neither of these guitars have their original potentiometers. Which is too bad, I guess? I mean, I sure do see old pots on ebay a bunch for hundreds of dollars. These have decent post regardless, fairly new Mojotone or some CTS variety. I had some old 1962-dated 250kOhm pots for the ’62 but the knurl on the shaft wasn’t long enough (or something) to hold the knobs steady enough, so I abandoned that idea. Both guitars do have the old 3-way switches still, so does the ’72. I usually store the Grolsch bottle-cap washer/straplock on the switch when the guitar is in the case, when I got the ’62 refretted, Geoff Luttrell said, “Hey, is this to keep it in position 2 or 4? Cuz we can put in a 5-way, you know!” No thanks, I’m happy with the three-position switches. I don’t use the out-of-phase much anymore. (Also, that’s a straplock, you doofus.) I also like the standard wiring: volume pot, tone pot for neck pickup, tone pot for middle pickup. No blending, no weird neck-and-bridge pickup parallel or whatever. Come on people, if you can’t find enough different sounds with three pickups, two of which have tone roll-off, something’s not coming together for your sound to begin with. Also, no treble-bleed cap, I like the fact that the tone changes as you roll off the volume. Get off my lawn.

906785_10151855628199335_1627451415_oThe 50s Strat still has the newer anodized metal pickguard. I had a couple old broken 50s pickguards that I fixed up with bits of newer ones in the broken places, and I had one that was matte-backed like the oldest polystyrene ones (honestly I don’t know it it was or not, it’s impossible to know unless you were there) and I intended to switch the metal one out for it, but then last summer I sold a bunch of parts to Halkan from a shop in downtown Stockholm and I accidentally let that one go in the pile of parts. I’ll never get it back, nor see another, so I guess the guitar’s gonna keep the anodized metal guard.

(I was selling a pile of old pickguards and some metal parts, initially he and his son came over to get one of them, but ended up offering a bunch of money for a great big pile of stuff so I took it. Needed to pay the rent, you know. Neither my wife nor I were working at the time! I also sold a guitar that summer. But I forgot to keep the one plastic pickguard for this guitar.)

I’m still not satisfied with the repro parts that are being made for 50s Strats. The repro polystyrene (so-called “bakelite”) knobs and pickup covers are stupid, every manufacturer makes them rounded like they have been used forever, but oddly too much so, like the pickup covers all got rounded edges on all sides equally? Who plays like that? And still nobody gets the number font right, 0s are always too tall. So I eventually just put on new Stratocaster knobs (“60s style” which essentially look exactly like they looked in 1956, just made of ABS plastic now.) I have no idea where nor when the switch tip and tremolo bar tip on this guitar came from, they are hard white plastic like polystyrene, but again, if you don’t have a provenance trail, it’s impossible to be certain. More likely 70s reissue plastic, same polystyrene as the 60s model cars. I bought a Fender *official* Pure Vintage 1954 reissue set of plastic parts, made for some anniversary 1954 reissue, but I don’t like them either. Regardless, you gotta love the fact that Fender guitars are essentially modular!

But, you know… if I wanted to make these guitars accurate with correct period parts, it would cost a fortune. As they are, these guitars aren’t worth much in the collector market. Which is fine by me! With all the refinishing and alteration and repairs and replaced parts they are probably worth maybe a quarter of the price of the examples at GBase or Reverb or wherever (these links are sorted highest price first, btw.) A period correct bridge with saddles for the ’62 would be $750-1200. Replacing the plastic parts of the 50s Strat with actual 50s polystyrene (“Bakelite” as they still refer to it) would be literally many thousands of dollars—you see knobs for $1000 apiece! And over the course of the past 5 years, there are way more fake parts on eBay…well, either that or the sellers just lack knowledge. I see some people advertising “Bakelite” Stratocaster knobs for $650 or so but they are not even spoked on the backside, so not the real thing at all. And the “bakelite” pickup covers are all cracked and broken and still $3000 a set. I don’t think a 1954 polystyrene pickguard survives that isn’t super warped or broken.

So, fine, then.

Anyway, onto the rest of the guitars. I still scour for parts, just in case. Can’t help it. Ancestral junk dealer DNA. And I did find a good cheap ’66 Stratocaster neck, very used, enormous wide frets, thin nut—it was stamped with the B stamp indicating it was the normal width of 1 5/8″ but it was actually thinner than that. I got a ’65 body that had been repainted Lake Placid Blue, because I love that color, but while it was refinished with the correct paint, they didn’t actually do the white primer undercoat, so it looked a little off, especially if scratched. The ’66 neck went on my ’62 reissue (with the racing stripes and Fralin pickups) for a while, I toured with that one with Camper Van Beethoven for a year or two, then I finally decided to put it together with the blue body, fitted it with proper mid-60s ABS plastic parts, the ’62 reissue’s bridge (’62 reissue has a Wudtone bridge, from the UK, a really great design) stuck in some Abigail Ybarra ’69 Custom Shop pickups from 1999 or something, and had a new guitar. For a while. I had a love/hate relationship with this one. Not quite perfect, you know? Lake Placid Blue, but no primer. Neck feels nice and well used, but the frets are super huge, and the neck is a bit too narrow at the nut. Sounds good, a little too crunchy/noisy maybe with those ’69 pickups. So when we needed money last year, this one went. Sold for 40000kr. (probably around $4500 at the time.) The previous summer I sold a ’77 Strat that was “natural,” i.e. just wood colored and clear finish, maple neck. It was OK, pretty but not great. Fender started doing maple necks again in the early 70s, but they’re sort of sharp on the edges of the fretboard, and they had switched to polyurethane finish for necks and bodies, so it’s just not as nice, it separates the player from the wood more, feels more plastic. I only got about 10000kr for that guitar (it had been routed for humbuckers at one time.)

The ’62 reissue’s neck was on Victor’s 1984 ’57 reissue. So I got a 2012 AVRI ’59 reissue neck, but it felt too thick (I never understand Fender’s making of reissues. 1959 Stratocasters usually had very thin necks, 62/63 got much thicker, but the ’62 reissue neck is thin and the ’59 reissue was thick.) So I made Victor trade me necks last fall. (I mean, I traded my Strat neck for my Strat neck. What?) I played his ’57 reissue with the ’62 reissue neck at Camp-Out before taking them all apart and swapping necks.

 

 

 

( late Aug 2016 set at Camp-Out, using Victor’s ’57 AVRI with the ’62 neck on it!)

So the 2004 Fender AVRI 1962 guitar is back together, neck and body, now with the Lollar blackface pickups instead of the Fralins and with a Wudtone bridge. And a tortoiseshell pickguard. Tour guitar. Frets are too small, they sort of tried for the vintage-style small and flat frets. And living in Sweden, which is super dry in the winter, has made all the guitars have problems, not the least of which is the fretboards drying and sharp fret ends sticking out a bit, enough to feel like they’re cutting your hand if you slide around. So I’ve bought a Stew-Mac fret end file and slowly I’ve been trying to file the ends into comfortability.

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’62 AVRI back together.

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LPB ’66/65. Sold.

And the 1972 Strat? Still all stock, still good. Oddly, as it was the replacement and most similar guitar to the 1971 Strat that was stolen in 2004, it gets the least use now. I found an actual 1970s tortoiseshell guard for it (to match my ’72 Precision Bass) but after a couple months decided that it wasn’t right, so it’s all back to stock now. Selling that 70s tortoiseshell guard was the beginning of the sale of parts to Halkan, actually. He got some nice stuff in that deal, besides the 50s guards, there was the ’63/64 celluloid Strat pickguard (which I had on the LPB guitar for a bit, but thought it needed a real ABS plastic white 1965 guard to offset the blue, but from the celluloid one, in the process of slightly sanding the pickup holes from their shrinking in order to fit pickup covers in, I found out the truth of the Vicks’ VaporRub thing: sanding a real celluloid pickguard does give off a strong menthol smell. Weird!) Also several old metal parts, screws, tuners, one working 1965 pickup. But you know, we needed the money. I realized my mistake of including the 50s Strat’s pickguard only later and tried to get it back, but no way, he wouldn’t do it. I blame my bad Swedish. Or something.

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nice, but… I dunno. anyway, that pickguard is long gone now.

Greg Lisher from CVB got a new Stratocaster in 2014 and it’s pretty darn good, though he has a humbucker in the bridge position (and I think he’s swapped the pickups out already. I sure did after I got my 2004 ’62 reissue from Fender, and the ’99 Inca Silver Strat which is now David Lowery’s.) I haven’t tried the Texas Specials or Fat 50s or whatever are in the new Strats, but a lot of stock pickups from Fender from the previous 2 decades sucked. The newer American Standards (2008-2015) have good features, better bridge and pickups supposedly, decent finishes, 22-fret neck at a 9.5″ radius. I’m looking into one of these for a touring guitar now, especially as now they’ve dropped that model in favor of some Elite and Professional series now… (update: found a good used 2011 one, it’s white. And I have a set of Fralins. [rubs hands together with an evil laugh])

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Greg Lisher at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, photo by Lisa D Walker-Roseman

That’s Strats.

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’73 Les Paul. an old pic (when we lived in Oakland)

The Les Paul is majorly in use in recording, it’s on the ØSC “Different Creatures” album, and all over Superfluity (and Shine Out…Check “Turtles All the Way Down” for Les Paul—even though obvious Hendrix—and “Nice Tree Ice” for the black Strat.). This guitar is just cool, 1973 Standard with full sized humbuckers. Makes me feel like Jimmy Page**. All stock except I replaced the bridge and tailpiece with a locking set from Faber (I have the parts they replaced, but I think they had been changed out before I got the guitar.) The frets are low, eventually it will need new frets but I can’t bear to do it yet. Instead, I sometimes bring “The Paul” in its place, as I did on the Sista Maj recording and on the most recent ØSC recording session (of which nothing is out yet, just finished mixing all of that stuff!). “The Paul” is very non-stock now, Seymour Duncan pickups, a brass-saddled Tone-Pros bridge and a Deusenburg “Les Trem” tremolo stop piece. The Les Trem is good, actually—I tried a Bigsby on this guitar but it never worked right due to the placement of the pickup switch. I had to drill an extra hole to move the switch out of the way of the Bigsby/Vibramate footprint, eventually I gave up and took it off and put on this trem system and moved the switch back. Works well now. Strong guitar, with all that walnut and the ebony fretboard.

 

Also used on the Superfluity album was the late 90s Danelectro DC-3 that I rigged a Gotoh sitar bridge onto. It’s sort of like the Jerry Jones or old Coral electric sitar now, almost in tune enough to record with. It was a cheap guitar to begin with, now more useful as a sitar.

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Dano with sitar bridge

Of course I also use my Rickenbackers, the 450-12 is on many tracks on Superfluity, (as per usual, can’t make a record without it!) and the 481 is actually on “Sleep for a Hundred Years” for the ” I wish I could sleep…” parts. The basses on this album are either the ’72 Precision or the ‘fretless’ Musicmaster, although when I recorded basics with Mattias Olsson, I played his Hagström baritone guitar on the track “Superfluity” and some old thumpy 60s bass on “Imply It, Deny It.” I love that 60s thud bass. Need to get me one of those, like a Hohner or something. Hagström, more likely, over here.

Recording “Strawberry Sun” on baritone

In addition to all of this, I got a lap steel a few years back, some later-50s Fender Champ lap steel (exact year unknown as of yet, haven’t checked the potentiometer date) and have been playing it a bunch, it’s on many tracks on Superfluity and “Series of Nested Universes,” as well as the upcoming Øresund Space Collective music!

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Recording setup for Øresund Space Collective Nov 2016 at Black Tornado Studio in Copenhagen. Clockwise, from bottom left: pedals, Moog Theremin, Farfisa (studio’s), violin, ’62 Stratocaster, Princeton Reverb, The Paul, Fender Champ lap steel, more pedals.

So, there you go, more trivial information for your vintage guitar curiosity. Write that shit up, Vintage Guitar magazine.

Wait, not done yet, here’s the geekiest part. All the measurements of the different necks and pickups, so you can see how consistent Fender has been over the years.

 

I totally forgot to write about the Gretsch. 1964 Double Anniversary, so I guess from the dates on the pots, because the serial number sticker inside is burned! I got it about 20 years ago from a guy who rented instruments to studios in LA, who knows, perhaps it was stolen at one point and they thought burning the serial number would keep them safe (from the karma of stealing instruments?) It has Filter’trons instead of Hi-Lo’trons like it *should*, and I put a Gretsch-branded 60s Bigsby on it. It’s quite incredible, from jazzy to rockabilly, the pickups have a twang and a crisp crunch when pushed. I used to use it when I played with Victor and Alison in McCabe and Mrs Miller a decade ago, and have recorded a bunch with it. Guitar solo on “Civil Disobedience” for example, from both Edgy Not Antsy and CVB’s New Roman Times. On Superfluity, it’s the main guitar on “Mouse” and (with the Ric 12-string) “The Luxury of Living” and “The Luxury of Dying”, it had flatwound strings on it at the time.

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photo by Kevin Graft 2004 from a CVB show, I believe.

*Sorry, Fender, I’ve just never felt a Custom Shop guitar whose wood felt right, nor was the right size or weight. Though I have played vintage guitars that felt like they were recent Custom Shop reissues… at guitar shows… hmmm. And Victor had a Nash Stratocaster that was supposedly a ’63 reissue and everybody seems to love Nash Guitars. Well, I hated it, it felt super fake and way too thick to me. So whatever, my opinion.

**just like Page. Like, all strung out and drunk trying to flub your way through the intro to Stairway. (kidding.)

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Posted in Camper Van Beethoven, Guitar, Music, recording

Very Brief Tour Diary, Winter 2016-17

From Dec 27, 2016 to Jan 21, 2017, I was on tour with Camper Van Beethoven (playing with Cracker, as per usual) in the United States. Overall, this was an amazing tour, not just from the point of view of being successful (in that we filled every venue) but we played really well. Better and better over the course of the tour, in fact. And there was not one bad show. That’s gotta be a record of some sort.

One reason this tour diary is so brief is that very little happened apart from driving, flying, or playing, or trying to sleep. It was pretty packed in.

While I flew in from Stockholm—a direct flight to Oakland—to our first show in San Francisco, Chris Pedersen (Camper drummer) flew from Sydney, Australia with his family to Southern California a couple days prior, so our jet lags met in the middle. After a Thai Noodle dinner and a decent night’s sleep, got up the next day to meet some people (it’s sort of difficult being in the Bay Area for 24 hours when most of the people I know live there) so I had coffee with Rebecca Seeman who is actually occasionally in Stockholm because she’s working on a film about Izzy Young and the Folk Music Center, which he moved from New York to Stockholm in the late 70s.

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Kelly Atkins and I

Then I met Kelly Atkins for lunch, which was sort of incredible because it was the first time we actually got to hang out and talk after we had been working together for a year on my “Superfluity” album (which is out this month) remotely, all by internet. She sings with 20 Minute Loop and also Kitka, she sang a great deal on my upcoming album. Then off to San Francisco and the show.

 

I felt fine, jet-lag-wise, for that first show at the Independent, but the next day, as David Immergluck joined us in Santa Barbara for the SoCal shows I had some serious jet-laggy time-and-place confusion as I stood on stage watching Immy play the mandolin. 9pm West Coast time is 6am Sweden time. Then a daytime drive in sunny SoCal from SB to SD, which took at least six hours.

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Bam! Bam! …starting to look a bit ragged already

Our usual San Diego club is the Belly Up, but other bands had caught on to this between-Xmas-and-NYE thing and had already booked it so we played a giant box downtown. Heavy bass sound system, as you might imagine. Next day up to LA to play on the Sunset Strip (Whisky-a-Go-Go! I don’t even remember the last time I was there, it must have been when I was living in LA in the late 90s).

 

After San Diego and Los Angeles we flew up to Portland for New Year’s Eve, then drove to Seattle, after which we had a short break. I stayed in Seattle, visited friends and went ogling guitars at Emerald City and Trading Musician, also bought a down jacket at Mountain Hardware (something I had been needing in Sweden, but also for the upcoming leg in the upper midwest where it was super cold.) The Portland show was spectacular as always, at the Aladdin Theatre, as was the Seattle show at the Crocodile, where Camper’s set ended abruptly less than a minute from the end of our last song (a medley of our old instrumental SP37957, several Led Zeppelin riffs and Hava Nagila) when somebody dancing hit a glass fire alarm and set it off. It was sorted out by the time Cracker played.

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Victor, Greg and Chris, rocking the Crocodile Backstage. Rock n Roll Lifestyle!

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slightly classier…

Minneapolis at the Fine Line was also a strong show, in spite of extreme cold weather. Then we drove to Chicago and of course stopped at Chicago Music Exchange (I bought a Zvex Box of Rock pedal, something I’d been looking for in Seattle) before heading to the Lincoln Theatre down the street. This was a good show with a strange audience: several drunk people trying to talk to the band members between songs (“what kind of mandolin are you using?” really, dude..?) and otherwise all staring at the lead singer even during guitar solos. I’ve seen that sort of thing before, it usually means that they don’t know the band very well. Especially odd behavior given how intense Victor and Chris, (bass and drums,) were by this point in the tour—they were crushing it.

 

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driving that rental car to Cleveveland.

Next show was Cleveland (“Hello Cleveland” or actually, given the recent jokes about how their sports fans couldn’t even spell the name of the city, “Hello Cleveveland!”) where we played a sort of dinner theatre club next to the ice filled river. A good show where several long-time fans told us they had been waiting ages to see us play. That’s always a kick, people who have 25 or 30 year old albums to sign.

We flew down to Georgia the next day, and then drove to Athens, where we got to actually have a busman’s holiday on our night off: we went to the 40 Watt to see The Minus Five and Alejandro Escovedo. Stunning show, complete with some severe time-displacement feelings when three members of REM were onstage singing “Don’t Go Back to Rockville.”

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Minus Five/REM

We got on a tour bus the next day and headed up to North Carolina. On the previous leg of the tour, we stayed in hotels after each show, but on a tour bus, you have a bunk and attempt to sleep while the bus drives late at night and then you wake up in the next town, grungy and smelly. Many decent sized clubs have showers backstage, but not all of them. The theatre in Charlotte was a new place, just setting up for shows, but ready for action though they had yet to fly the speaker stacks above the stage (they were testing them on the ground on the sides first.) It looked like it may have been a seated theatre a long time ago, now internally stripped to the concrete with a sloping floor. It sounded pretty good, regardless, and filled up with an enthusiastic audience.

 

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From here, up to the famous 9:30 Club in Washington DC, a place with a large backstage with shower and even places to lie down. The club has some of the best crew of any place in the states, always professional, and it always sounds great. The only rival it has for great crew is the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, where we played the next night!

From Philly, we bussed to Boston, playing the Middle East in Cambridge, a place we’ve played a thousand times since the 1980s, it always rocks like an old punk rock show. Victor and I left with our friend Richard Gann, an artist we’ve known since we were at UCSC in the early 1980s (his paintings are on my Sista Maj album covers, and on the upcoming Superfluity cover, as well as the old Hieronymus Firebrain albums!) Richard lives in Brooklyn but teaches at RISD, so he and his brother were setting up a house in Providence, where we ended up that evening. The next day we drove to New York for the last show of this leg of the tour, at BB King’s on Times Square. I have to say this isn’t my favorite place to play in NY, but it’s ok, despite having to be there for a 12 noon load-in and then not sound check until after the Harlem Gospel Choir was out off the stage and it was cleared, like 5pm. Victor was flying out the next morning (back to work in SF for a few days) so he had a hotel room, I tagged along for a shower, then tried to walk over to the public library on 5th Ave and 42nd St (as I sung in “I Know You Know Me”) but the front steps were filled by a writers resistance protest against the incoming fascist regime.

The show went smoothly, we hastily loaded out on the sidewalk when the bus came around, and drove all night again, to wake up in Richmond, VA. David still lives there part-time, so he went home to take care of things, we all hung out in a day hotel room, or the bus, waiting to eat at Mamma Zu’s, the best Italian restaurant ever. And It was a sensational meal, fitting end to the moving part of this tour. The next shows were all in Athens, GA, part of our Camp-In Festival (to match the late summer Camp-Out festival in Pioneertown, CA.)

Unfortunately for me, I woke up in Athens the next day to load our gear into the 40 Watt Club feeling pretty shitty, and went immediately back to bed once we got into our hotel. I missed out entirely on a couple free days we had before the music all started up again, curled up in bed freezing and sweating and sleeping. I tried to wake up a few times to eat and managed a pack of ramen and some triscuits, and tried to do a podcast interview with Mark Linsenmeyer for his Nakedly Examined Music podcast, interviews with songwriters about the songs. This was specifically about a few songs on Superfluity, which is supposed to be out Feb 24th.

I was a mess, and I don’t think I could speak coherently, although when I suggested later that we just re-do the podcast, he said, no, it was fine. I doubt it, but we’ll see.

I missed the first day of music at our festival, the acoustic night where the Cracker duo played, Peter Case and Ike Reilly, but I managed to get up the next day and get to the Camper Van Beethoven show at 11pm. I was still pretty wacked out by the cold or flu or whatever, but after a rhythmically rocky start (for me, not anybody else) I think I managed to play the whole set pretty well. It was the only super long set of the tour, a two-page setlist.

The next day was Saturday, Cracker was headlining, but several other shows took place at other venues during the day, including sets by Johnny Hickman and Victor Krummenacher at Hendershots, and I did an improv set at the Flicker Bar with Victor on bass and Ian Werden from The Heap (also playing that evening at the 40 Watt after Cracker) on drums—Chris Pedersen had already left that morning on the long journey back to Australia. I was generally awake and alive by this point, so it went off well. I went to eat with Victor and then over to the Cracker show, stuck around for the Heap (Bryan Howard, bassist in Cracker, fronting this band) and then finally left, stopping in briefly to the Caledonia to see a bit of what turned out to be a local Christian metal band, who sounded like over-the-top 80s hair metal.

Woke up too early the next day to travel home, a van ride to Atlanta, a Delta flight to Miami (where they charged me for my bag being 8 pounds overweight) then I tried to get the local train to Fort Lauderdale airport to catch the Norwegian Air flight home, but it was Sunday and my flight had been late and I missed the last train by 10 minutes, so I just took a cab. Norwegian also charged me for the 3 kilos over, despite the fact that from Europe the limit is 23kg, but from the States apparently only 20kg. Whatever. This flight was delayed by two hours at the gate, then another on the ground, but eventually we left and I got home in time to drop my bags and go pick up my daughter from pre-school.

In all, this was an incredible experience. I’ve toured, of course, a million times in the past 35 years, but these guys in Camper Van Beethoven, David Lowery, Greg Lisher, Victor Krummenacher, Chris Pedersen, and I, are really “the band”. It’s the band I really learned to play in a band in. It’s the band that just keeps getting better. Each of these musicians is amazing, and by the end of this run, we were tight and strong, it felt incredible. It’s an honor and a privilege to play with these same people that we have played with for 30 years or so. And: not one bad show. The entire tour, not one bad show. I’m still stunned by that.

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Posted in Camper Van Beethoven, Music, Touring

A Series of Nested Universes

In a couple weeks will be the official release date for two of the three albums that I have been working on way too much over this entire year. The first is Øresund Space Collective‘s “Visions Of…” and the second is Sista Maj‘s “Series of Nested Universes“.

There’s a lot of URL linking here, take your time, have a listen!

The new ØSC album is material from a recording session in Copenhagen at the Black Tornado from 2 years ago, Nov. 2014. This same weekend session produced the albums “Different Creatures” (which I also mixed) and “Ode to a Black Hole” (mixed by Scott Heller, aka Dr Space.) There were some other pieces of music from these sessions, but probably no more albums. To solve that problem, I drove back to Copenhagen last weekend with KG Westman (from Siena Root, West Space and Love, also on several ØSC recordings) and we recorded much much more music which will probably be several more ØSC albums over the next couple of years, while Dr Space relocates to Portugal.

This album, “Visions Of…” has the 42 minute title track, and then a divided-in-two funk-rock piece called “Above the Corner” and “Around the Corner,” obviously paying tribute to Miles Davis. For any and all that liked “Different Creatures,” or indeed any other ØSC recordings!

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Here’s a nice review of both at Thee Psychedelicatessen

I’ve been writing about Sista Maj off and on here and on Facebook or wherever for a while, I’m extremely happy that this album is seeing the light of day and the earholes of listeners. Scroll to earlier posts in this weblog and you’ll see.

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It’s pretty intense. Here’s the promo text:

(“Sista Maj” is colloquial Swedish for “the last day of May”. Literally, it’s “final May,” which leaves the potential meaning that it may be the last May…ever)

The last day of May 2015 happened to be the first time that these three Stockholm musicians played together. They had played in other constellations before, but this started a new group: Sista Maj.

Mikael Tuominen comes from Kungens Män, a post-rock instrumental psychedelic band, coming from the long-standing Northern European tradition that includes both Krautrock and Swedish Progg. In this band, he played guitar, though he played bass, his first instrument, when he met Jonathan playing together in a composed/improvised group led by Einar Baldursson (Gösta Berlings Saga) for a few specific concerts in Stockholm.

Andreas Axelsson plays mostly in jazz and post-jazz improv and avant-garde groups, such as Lisa Ullén’s Group, and Eye Make the Horizon with Mikael. Mikael recommended him to Jonathan for a recording session intended for a record of songs and improvisations that Jonathan was working on for “Superfluity,” but oddly Mikael couldn’t make it to the session at the last minute, so it took another month before the three got together, this time with no agenda.

Jonathan Segel, an American living in Stockholm, has been playing violin, guitar and keyboards with numerous bands over the past 35 years, most notably the continuing Camper Van Beethoven as well as his own projects which span the genre-worlds of psychedelia, improvisation, prog rock, Americana, electronica and avant-garde. He has played with artists from Eugene Chadbourne to Fred Frith, in bands from Sparklehorse to (most recently) the Øresund Space Collective.

Sista Maj got together occasionally just for fun, but usually recorded the sessions and some were put on Soundcloud. In October 2015, Jonathan had a week booked at Mattias Olsson’s Roth Händle Studios in Sollentuna to work on his own music and generally explore. Of course, Sista Maj came along.

What happened was unexpected. With a studio and with the time to explore, they took their time to explore. The intensity that had marked their previous music in its immediacy was now able to find its way in the build-up. The studio itself had instruments that added to the sonic mix—upright bass, baritone guitar, electric sitar, percussion instruments, a Hammond organ. The pieces range from jazzy (Peony Spies) to electric intense (A Very Heavy Feather), from funky and weird (It Never Ends) to hypnotic (Series of Nested Universes), jam (Like a Diamond in This Guy) to space (Bones of Steel.) The album has an overall dark mood, another unexpected turn, but one that only adds to the heavy nature of the music.

Jonathan mixed the tracks in over a period of several months, while also working on the upcoming Øresund Space Collective album “Visions Of…”, as well as various other projects.

Now it’s here for you to explore, a Series of Nested Universes.

Sista Maj  :  Series of Nested Universes

Andreas Axelsson: drums and percussion

Mikael Tuominen: bass (upright, electric and Ashbory), baritone guitar, electric sitar

Jonathan Segel: electric guitar, violin, organ, synthesizers, bass

Disc 1

1. Peony Spies   6:39

2. Secret Cave, Secret Rat   10:30

3. Which, in Turn, Falls        13:59

4. A Very Heavy Feather     25:40

Disc 2

1. Series of Nested Universes  10:52

2. Like a Diamond in This Guy   11:36

3. It Never Ends 17:19

4. Bones of Steel 16:13

Cover art by Richard Gann

Recorded at Roth Händle Studios, Stockholm Oct 2015

mixed at the Magnetic Satellite, Stockholm Jan-May 2016

Space Rock Productions 037

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If you read the linked review on Thee Psychedelicatessen, or translate the French reviews at Agoravox*, you can get a decent idea of the music, but you won’t get how intense it is until you listen to it. The session when we recorded it was a side-trip from the making of my album “Superfluity” which will be out next year. Where “Superfluity” is as much a lyrical statement about the significance and insignificance of life, love and everything else, “Series of Nested Universes” is an auditory journey through the micro- and macrocosms of life and death. You may have guessed from the titles that it’s going to be akin to a book of death being whispered into your ear as your self dissipates, from the dissolution of the organic into dirt and flowers to the weighing of your soul against a feather and onward. You might make it through several nested universes and be happy to shine, but you know… it never ends. And oddly, those new bones are robotic. (…and even literally: no human was playing that piano.)

Enjoy it. It’s an odyssey.

In the US, you can get the CDs from me when I’m on tour with Camper Van Beethoven from Dec 27-Jan 21 (if you order on the bandcamp site and aren’t in any of the places we’re playing, I can probably mail them at some point in January 2017.)

I should have a few CD copies of “Visions Of…” on tour as well. It will be out on vinyl soon as well, though Sista Maj probably won’t be anytime soon (also it won’t fit easily.)

In Europe, get them from Sapphire Records or ask Record Heaven or your local record store!

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Oh…That third album that I’ve been slaving away on? Superfluity. Complete superfluousness. Out late February 2017 on Floating World UK. Believe me, I’ll keep you informed.

 

*Google Translate yields some amazing phrases, that obviously have to be used in promo materials:

atmospheric atmospheres made of collage of sounds whose color seems falsely freezing

The music is resolutely hovering

The end is downright enthralling

It is inventive and in addition it is beautiful music

a contemporary free rock work including the subtle play of the double bass that accompanies baritone guitar impros and other electronic tablecloths

…the production remains very neat, better than the Grateful dead live (?)

Posted in Music

An end of summer update

This is directly from my website‘s news, but I thought it should exist forever here also because I’m proud of all of these musical adventures.

Here are many recent (2016) musical additions to the world on the web:

SHALE is Tom Shad and Jonathan Segel, with some help from Ralph Carney and others. A collaboration made on the web, sharing ideas back and forth!

Another recent thing I was working on was “remixes” of the Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble for their Remix Project. Find my additions HERE, scroll down, I’m there on the lower left.  You can also find them with a couple other SuperCollider-based pieces that I rediscovered in the process in this playlist entitled

Random Electricalism:

And then there’s the one hour drone remix:                                                                                                        


Mysteries of uB episode 8 Special Guest Jonathan Segel

from das from ubuibi

Here’s a recent live set, improvised in its entirety at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace on Aug 27 2016 Victor Krummenacher on bass, Chris Pedersen on drums. It was Pajama Party night at Camp-Out XII.

Anybody that has been following this blog knows that I’m working on two things this year, plus all that extra stuff with people like the Øresund Space Collective and Camper Van Beethoven!

But let me lay it all out:

First off, there is Sista Maj. Sista Maj is currently a trio: Andreas Axelsson on drums, Mikael Tuominen on bass and other things, Jonathan Segel on guitar, violin and whatnot. Instrumental hypnotic intense psychedelic space rock in the grand Northern European tradition that runs from Krautrock to Swedish Progg. Beyond some sessions now at SistaMaj.Bandcamp.com, we recorded at Mattias Olsson’s Roth Händle Studio last fall and mixed it over this past spring. It’s done now. The album, “Series of Nested Universes” will be out this fall on Space Rock Productions! Art for this album and Superfluity are by Richard Gann.

SO, yes, the album “Superfluity“. It’s about finished, being mastered now, a double album of songs of all sorts, lots of guitars basses and drums, a little violin, and some beautiful singing from Kelly Atkins.

Still looking for that help I need to bring it to the world. Help!

“…Number three, sir.”

During this same period, I also finished mixing the upcoming album from Øresund Space Collective, “Visions Of…” also out in the fall! To celebrate, Mikael Tuominen’s band Kungens Män and special guests (I’m sitting in) will be playing at the Melody Box in Stockholm on October 21st!

What else, what else? I went on tour with ØSC through Germany, Holland and Switzerland in May. Many of the shows are online to listen to at Archive.org. Some were recorded from the board to a multi-track, two of them so far can be found on the Øresund Space Collective Bandcamp site! I mixed the Karlsruhe show, Scott mixed the Nürnberg one.

I also added a little “jazzy/ethnic” violin to “West, Space and Love, Volume II” out just now!

In the midst of all this super psychedelia, I also played some sweet mandolin and violin on Björn Brunnanders upcoming release, “Galler” on Poolhall Recordings, and mixed a nice summer song from Diipak called “The Longest Day of the Year”

These came with a few gigs sitting in with these guys, and also a nice evening improvising at Larry’s Corner with Jair-Rohm Parker Wells, you can listen to that here on Archive.org also.

On Nov. 14 2015 was my first live show with Øresund Space Collective for the release party for the new 2-CD/3-LP set “Different Creatures” which we recorded in Copenhagen and I mixed here in the Magnetic Satellite hovering above Stockholm. differentcreatures

This album set is great and is getting great reviews such as this one from Prog Archives. I’m very proud to have been involved with this album and look forward to mixing more music from these sessions, which I’ve been working on lately.

I toured with them in May of 2016, the first show was a doom/stoner rock festival in Copenhagen called Northern Discomfort, where we celebrated the release of  “Ode to a Black Hole“, then later we headed to Germany, Holland and Switzerland, as noted above, and when we came back we finalized their next album, “Visions Of…” due out this fall.

As Scott Miller wrote in his song “720 Times Happier than the Unjust Man“:

“I fill my days with work because I am lazy, the way a coward is hungry to get in any fight that he can win”

jesjuly2016

And just so you remember the recent past:

Camper Van Beethoven, still alive and kicking after 35 years, has two recent albums “El Camino Real” (2014), and its 2013 companion “La Costa Perdida.” We also have two brand new songs premiering in the SyFy film Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! You can find the soundtrack CD HERE! 

Of course, also in 2014, Jonathan Segel’s “Shine Out” came out on CD and digital. Physical copies are now sold out.

Check here for info and music: SHINE OUT

Here’s an interview and review at Music Web Express 3000!  This site is great, there are tons of great interviews, check it out! And you can learn about the making of the above-mentioned albums.

I had a vernissage for my artwork, drawings I had done while riding on the subways around Stockholm, at Larry’s Corner (Grindsgatan 35, Stockholm) in November 2015. I have soem prints that I will sell while on tour anywhere. Check them out on the ART page! Also, I played some spacey odd music while I had the space, most of it is collected here on ARCHIVE.ORG

Though admittedly not all of it may be listenable for all of you!

Almost all of my own music is on the Bandcamp page at

music.jsegel.com.

More music on its way.  I’m making a new album! Yup. More superfluous art.

Read my blog about it all!

I recorded a bunch starting April 2015, at a few different studios in Stockholm, with several different people. These included improv sessions at Eastman Studios with Andreas Axelsson on drums and Mats Burman on bass.

2015 was when the Superfluity journey began at Roth-Händle Studios with Mattias Olsson, recording some song basics and yet more improvisation, worked on since. This includes vocal contributions from Kelly Atkins!

Later, in October, I had the whole studio to myself for another week, including a day of improvisations with Andreas Axelsson on drums and Micke Tuominen (from Kungens Män). The band is called “Sista Maj”. Out Fall 2016.

Find me talking on The Partially Examined Life, episode 115, about Schopenhauer and aesthetics, and with Victor Krummenacher on episode 118 about songwriting, reality, authenticity, that sort of thing.

Omnivore Recordings, who recently rereleased Camper Van Beethoven‘s 1988 and 89 albums “Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart” and “Key Lime Pie” released an expanded verison of our 2004 ‘comeback’ album, “New Roman Times” in February!

(And check this out: there are even more extras available for download from Camper Van Beethoven.com)

Backwards in time:

I was Copenhagen October 2014 recording with the Øresund Space Collective, with many great musicians, including a couple people that I played with before in Stockholm like Alex Skepp from Gösta Berlings Saga on drums and Mathias Danielsson from My Brother The Wind and The Muffin Ensemble on guitar and pedal steel! We recorded hours of material, it make take a year to sort through it all. The first release from this session is a doom-rock piece, 55 minutes long, on LP and CD soon: “Ode to a Black Hole”. I’ve been mixing the next batch, which will be a 3-LP/2-CD set called “Different Creatures” out November this year.

The Shine Out CD and digital release is only available at the above links. It’s now on iTunes HERE. There are only a few copies of the CD itself right now, will be available on-demand from Finetunes through Amazon.

I am starting to go through Finetunes so those of you in Europe and Asia (as well as the US) will be able to find this album soon, not only digitally but on-demand CD manfuacturing!

The new “label” is called “demagnetized”. I’ll try to get more of the old Magnetic catalog available this way over the rest of the year.

There were new pressings of All Attractions and Apricot Jam, each as an individual CD in a lovely Stumptown “Arigato” pack.We should have them at any Camper Van Beethoven shows. Available in Europe (Sweden) from Record Heaven. Also available from the above links, via the bandcamp page. Not too many actual CDs left, folks!

One thing to note if ordering is that I am in Europe, so I can send CDs from here (but please include a bit of postage) but I did leave a bunch on the west coast with Victor Krummenacher, so hopefully he can send some if they go to the US.

Also recently added: Horsehoes & Hand Grenades, a “greatest hits” (or misses, as it were) digital package of songs from the past 25 years of Jonathan Segel albums… dip a toe in the water and see where it may lead you, it’s a good place to start with the 25 years of rock music. I haven’t yet made a compilation of the “other” stuff….

Camper Van Beethoven just finished a good long while of playing shows in 2013 and 2014 promoting the CDs “La Costa Perdida” and “El Camino Real” out now on Savoy/429 Records!  See here to get it on Amazon .   here for iTunes!

The newer  CD, “El Camino Real“, is the companion to “La Costa Perdida”, mostly concerning Southern California (where La Costa is about the Northern part!)…Out June 3rd 2014!

When not touring, Jonathan lives in Stockholm and is adjusting to living in Europe (see blog entries) and sits in as a guest sometimes for shows with The Plastic Pals or Gösta Berlings Saga or maybe someone else… (sat in with Built To Spill  even.)

All Attractions and Apricot Jam were both released in 2012, the physical package was a 2-disc set with both, out of print now, but I’ve printed up a new batch of the CDs as individual packages. Currently they are available from me directly at music.jsegel.com or get the digital from CDBaby or even from iTunes, or of course at any Camper Van Beethoven show.

The Jonathan Segel band has played shows at every Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven Annual Camp-Out, Numbers ONE through ELEVEN in Pioneertown, and there is audio available to listen for free on Archive.org, even some video of the 2012 show on YouTube.

jescampin2

 

Posted in Camper Van Beethoven, Music, recording, Touring, Violin

Playing music for the purpose of music.

A couple weekends ago I went to Copenhagen to play a doom rock festival with Øresund Space Collective, the release for “Ode to a Black Hole”. It was a punk rock youth center, tons of doomy bands, really quite something. We played late, starting at 1am, but were well received by the punks and metalheads. I’m going to go out on tour with ØSC in Germany this coming week, just for a week of shows. I look forward to it immensely, I need to play more than I do, and play more to entertain both myself and others in the spur of the moment, in real time. Playing improvised space rock is good for that, it’s meant to exist in that time and space that it is being played.

Here’s the gig in Copenhagen, May 6 2016

Sound is good on the video, but I’m really loud in the mix—I don’t know if it’s the camera angle or the awesome Orange amp I was using.

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I think I got caught up in the idea of being a “professional” musician of some sort over the course of the past, oh, 35 or so years. What I mean by that is that I felt like every time I picked up an instrument, there had to be some reason for it, like if I were just playing it would be that I was working toward some goal or another. As in, improvising was for the purpose of writing a new piece of music. Even when I was just sitting playing the acoustic guitar, somewhere in the back of my mind was the voice asking “Is this something that could be used for a song?”

That was definitely one of the reasons why I didn’t have any intention of making a new album. Or two. I didn’t want to have to think that way, especially when the final product has become so devalued that it’s a losing proposition to continue to make music—if you are part of the 99% of recording artists, in any case. So it’s a good thing to go out and tour with ØSC where I just get to play, make sound at the moment, enjoying it for the moment, not worrying about anything being permanent.

I mean, I do write a lot of music. Or improvise a lot of music and work it into pieces. Or both. I have tapered off writing lyrics over the years, unless I have songs that just *must be* songs, in which case I am forced to actually write lyrics for them, which I eventually do, usually later in the process—not that I don’t know what the song is about nor potentially some of the lines, I just let them linger for days, months, even years. Literally years! I have some unfinished songs lying around from 20 or more years ago. But one of the things that prevents me from finishing writing is the unspoken obligation that I feel (toward the song? toward posterity? toward myself?) to record, mix and produce the final and paradigmatic version of the song.

As an example, there is a song on “Shine Out” called “Leaving Troy” that I must have started writing in 1990 or so, had ideas of how it sounded, most of the lyrics. (It wasn’t about Victor’s life, just saying.) When I was working on the songs for that album out in the log cabin, I just felt that it was time to finish it. Similarly, there is a new song called “Walking Along the Shore of the Ocean of Things Unknown” that I started maybe 10 years ago, but really had nearly no lyrics, then when I was in Roth Händle Studios last fall, I finally decided to record it, so I made up some lyrics. Later in the batch of things that Chris Pedersen played on, he played drums on it. However, it doesn’t fit with the “Superfluity” album idea nor the rest of the songs, so I still haven’t worked more on it. I expect to finish it this summer after I get done with all of the “Superfluity” mixing and everything else, and all of the Sista Maj “Series of Nested Universes” mixing and mastering and stuff. It will probably end up in the collection called “Superfluousness” which is currently growing and only available to my Bandcamp subscribers. (heh, see, I advertised!)

Indeed, a number of things were jettisoned along the way. Some of the instrumentals from recorded improvisations, some that were compositions. One of my initial ideas was to have a giant dream sequence in the middle of the record, somewhat about the passage of time and sleep, which had small songs interrupting it, but as I worked on the piece (“Phenomenon and On,” it’s called) I ended up dividing it into only three parts, the first of which is a shorter but jarring electronic music piece (entitled “Silent Notes”) the second of which is an improvisational guitar-based instrumental entitled “Like Mercury, It Slips Through Your Fingers,” and the last part is a huge 23 minutes of electronic music. (Note: when I say “electronic music” I don’t mean dance music or techno or whatever, you know, I mean tape collage/outside synth/etc. in the tradition of 1950s-70s electronic music. I was deeply influenced by the rock band usage of this in the late 60s: Revolution 9, of course, …(which is referenced on Superfluity in a couple places, by the way) Zappa’s tape collages on the Mothers of Invention records, Jefferson Airplane’s “A Small Package of Value Will Come to You, Shortly”. I assumed every great album needed at least one (e.g. “Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart” with the latter section of She Divines Water.)

And then when I went to the university, I actually got to start creating these things. That was back in 1981, I took my first real electronic music class from Gordon Mumma. Then got to work in the UCSC studios under him and Peter Elsea for several years. You can hear bits of my electronic music forays under the tracks leading into early Camper Van Beethoven recordings, like the beginning of the song “Cowboys from Hollywood” (1986), and then of course the second and the penultimate tracks on Storytelling (1989), “Prospective” and “Retrospective”. I’ve been at it awhile, and with computers it only got more intense. I do intend to write about that sometime, the whole computer music thing…!

Anyway, in the Superfluousness collection there ended up some other things as well, acoustic guitar finger picking, doom metal, 1960s-BBC TV-theme-style tracks. I intended to make a 1980s hair metal track too, but so far it only exists as a mini cassette snippet somewhere within “Phenomenon and On”.  A few are still unfinished, but I’ll sweep it all up sometime. You’ll see.

Posted in Camper Van Beethoven, Music, recording, Touring

photo by Ian Weintraub

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