David Yow on Book showing a different side of the band’s personalities than just their “onstage menace”:
“I think we wanted to let people know who think…like, my girlfriend likes to quote how I would occasionally be called an ‘unhinged madman,’ and that plain and simply is not the case. I’m the second- or third-nicest guy in the world. I also think we wanted to not make it any kind of snooty ‘woo-woo look at us’ thing. I do think that as far as a rock band goes, our egos were intact more than they might otherwise have been, and that’s something I’m really proud of. I think that’s a good bragging point.”
Duane Denison on Book‘s inclusion of a few pages of the band’s infamous sketchbooks:
“Some of those kooky drawings where, if you wanna put it under the microscope and say, ‘This is sexist’ and this and that, it’s like, come on! We aren’t saints. We were kinda immature adults if anything with too much time sitting in that van driving around, you know? There were notebooks full of those kinds of things far, far worse than that. That’s how people’s minds work when you’re just trying to amuse each other while you’re killing time in the van — you draw cartoons of people you know doing unbelievably awful things. That’s part of the experience and why deny that? This idea nowadays that everything has to be tolerable and you can’t offend anyone, anywhere, any time, I don’t buy it. But we’re not Motley Crue, either. We were never as bad as them. Well, maybe once in a while, but not on a daily basis, as far as how we treated each other and treated other people.
“These [drawings], now they’re in a book forever, fossilized for eternity…I think that anyone who ever saw that band play live knew there was an element of perverse humor there, and there’s no denying it. So when you’re looking at a book, you can’t re-create a performance, so maybe this is the closest thing to showing that side of the band.
“Even my mom has looked at [the drawings] and gone, ‘Oh, you boys….'”
Duane Denison on why it took more than three years to make Book:
“We were just very aware of taking our time and not rushing, not just slapping something together just to get it out. We took our time going through the photos and finding the best of the ones people haven’t seen and we went over the writing repeatedly to edit it down and distill it so it’s very concise, no mistakes, no errors. When I see errors [in books] I think, ‘What is wrong, do people not learn to write anymore?’ We thought, if we’re gonna do this, let’s do it right and take our time.”
David Yow on the process of designing Book:
“For almost two years before even designing the book I was retouching and color-correcting photographs for it. And then, you know, it was actually becoming a strain on my relationship and I don’t know InDesign well enough to do the complete job – I made a template of what I wanted to do and I spoke with [Chunklet‘s] Henry Owings and he’s really good at that stuff, so I handed it off to him and he finished it.
“You spend so much time cleaning up pictures of yourself, it’s kinda like looking in the mirror for a long time and I generally avoid mirrors. So that was kind of rough. But I think all four of us are very proud of almost everything we did and accomplished.”
Duane Denison on being associated with the Jesus Lizard more than anything else in his music career:
“The Jesus Lizard experience is a big part of my life, a defining part of my life in a lot of ways. I never wanted to be one of these types of musicians who is, for the rest of their life, that’s how they see themselves – this cartoon character where they can’t leave the house unless they look and act a certain way, you know? I don’t wanna name names, but they’re 55 and still wearing leather pants and eyeliner. I never wanted to get stuck that way. Keep moving, keep going ahead. You don’t have to negate your past and you don’t have to deny it, but it’s like, ‘OK, you did that, now maybe there’s other things you want to do.”
Members of the Jesus Lizard appear tonight (3/25, and at WORD Brooklyn (3/26) at 7 p.m. for a book signing and Q&A moderated by Johnny Temple.
It began in earnest — as Touch and Go Records co-founder Corey Rusk reminisces at the beginning of the engrossing new Jesus Lizard coffee table book titled (in typical Lizard four-letter-word fashion) Book — with 1989’s Pure EP and a debut gig that sizzling Chicago summer, alongside Slint and King Kong, inside a local Thai restaurant that hosted exactly one rock show.
It ended 10 years later. And then the Jesus Lizard jerked back to life briefly, in 2009, for a reunion run of some 40 shows (the “re-enactment tour,” as frontman David Yow characterizes it today) before going dark again.
Until now, albeit in literary form. The gorgeously crafted, 176-page hardcover Book — co-designed by Yow and Chunklet‘s Henry Owings, a long-time friend — dives deep and candidly into the Jesus Lizard’s first decade and touches a bit on that 2009 coda, too. Through many thousands of words, hundreds of photos, and collected ephemera, it celebrates the sweat, menace, humor, musicianship, lasting power, and genitals of one of the best bands ever coughed up by the rock underground.
Book was published by Akashic Books, whose founder, Johnny Temple — also the erstwhile bassist for Girls Against Boys — goes way back with the Jesus Lizard, having shared a label and many a stage with the band starting in the early ’90s.
“They were like our big brothers,” says Temple, who explains that he first broached the idea of a Jesus Lizard book with bassist David Wm. Sims during a party at Sims’s home in 2009. “He was open to it and talked about it with the other guys, and eventually they said, ‘Let’s do it.’
“I think part of the reason they were receptive to it is because books have a sort of gravitas to them that I think appeals to musicians,” Temple continues. “It also has to do with legacy. You put out a book and it solidifies your place in rock ‘n’ roll history. And since they were one of the kings of independent underground music in the 1990s, it makes all kinds of sense.”
Yow admits that he was initially as reluctant to make Book as he was to take part in the 2009 reunion. “I didn’t think it was a good idea,” he says. “You know, we broke up a long time ago; who’s really gonna care?” Yow says without a trace of false modesty.
Once Yow, Sims, drummer Mac McNeilly, and guitarist Duane Denison got on board with the project, for the next three years Temple waited to see what the book would turn out to be. “We had agreed that they’d send everything to me once it was all collected,” says Temple, “and when it finally came in, what I loved about it is that it basically functions as an oral history of the Jesus Lizard. You get this incredible sense of what happened during the life of the band.”
Following Rusk’s introductory essay, all four bandmembers deliver biographical pieces — with accompanying childhood photos — detailing their lives leading up to the formation of the Jesus Lizard.
McNeilly’s essay is the longest, owing perhaps to the fact that he was the least-interviewed member of the band back in the day, and the most entertaining and revealing. As a tween, he writes, he went through a lengthy phase where he was compelled to throw things at cars — “mudballs, snowballs, eggs, water balloons, dirt clods, hard pine cones, even a rock or two” — from ledges or cliffs. At 12, he recounts, he was struck by lightning when he went outside in a thunderstorm to feed the family’s golden retriever, metal dog bowl in hand: “I was thrown about 20 feet. I am lucky to be telling this story.”
“I love that he mentioned the lightning, I think that explains a lot,” laughs Yow. “Mac finally gets his say. I think it’s a great look into what a sweet, goofy, sideways kind of guy he is.”
Further in, amid myriad photos of the band onstage, backstage, and elsewhere, come a plethora of Jesus Lizard testimonials and anecdotes from famous friends and admirers like Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto (“The band exacted a toll on you because you could tell they were exacting a toll on themselves, and, as a result, something felt legitimately at stake when they were onstage,” he writes) and members of Pavement, Shudder to Think, The Spinanes, and Einstürzende Neubaten, as well as a legion of artists, super fans, photographers, bookers, music journalists, and others who orbited the band during its heyday.
“Like a steam engine tearing through a tornado, the drilled the music into my skull,” writes Chicago native Bernie Bahrmasel of the first time he witnessed the band he’d go on to see live 100 more times. “After about 40 minutes of drink, sweat and spit flying everywhere, they were done and so was I. My life would never be the same.”
Meanwhile, Steve Albini, who produced all of the Jesus Lizard’s Touch and Go albums, contributes a conflicted piece that praises the quartet as “the greatest band I’ve ever seen” and the “best musicians I’ve ever worked with,” but characterizes their jump to Capitol Records as “a betrayal. . . . They were so far ahead of the pack that dismissing it all to be a fourth-tier specialty act on a mainstream label seemed oblivious and destined for failure.”
“I thought [Albini] was honest. We let people say what they wanted to say, whether we agreed with it or not, and then we had our say,” says Denison.
Indeed, most of the band, and various associates, defend the deal with Capitol while also admitting the toll it took, in Book‘s later pages. There are funnier bits, too, such as Yow writing how he once, while performing in Holland after opening band Boss Hog, wore singer Cristina Martinez’s sweat-soaked dress and panties onstage (yes, there are accompanying photos).
One of Book‘s more fascinating inclusions is Sims’s frank, track-by-track breakdown of every Jesus Lizard album — from technical, song-nerd analysis to some of the thematic backstory — that are at turns funny, insightful, and poignant.
“When all that stuff came in to me, it exceeded my expectations,” says Temple. “It’s got a lot more depth than I was initially expecting. I think most people who are serious fans of the band understand that, for example, David Yow is not just some drunk guy stumbling around onstage. But I think anyone who reads [Book] will come away with a lot of information they didn’t know about their music and their personal histories.”
Or their twisted sense of humor. To that end, there are the excerpts from the infamous, near-mythic sketchbooks the band kept on the road; rudimentary, hilariously disturbing drawings with plainly descriptive captions like “Duane giving head to an Eskimo while jacking himself off wearing rubber gloves.”
The lengthy process of creating Book has brought the band much closer as friends, Yow says. “I hadn’t talked to Mac in 12 years before we did [the reunion and the book], and now it’s been a common occurrence to talk on the phone or email, and David and Duane, I talk to those guys all the time,” he says.
Still, Yow — who’s all but given up music in favor of his burgeoning acting career — says he has no interest in touring or recording with the Jesus Lizard again.
For his part, Denison doesn’t know if Book represents the Jesus Lizard’s final chapter. “I mean, we never foresaw that reunion happening, so you never really can tell for sure,” he says. “But maybe this book is a nice capper on it all, and if it works out that way, I’m fine with that.”
Members of the Jesus Lizard appear at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square at 7 on March 25 for a book signing and Q&A moderated by music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, and at WORD Brooklyn at 7 on March 26 for a book signing and Q&A moderated by Johnny Temple.
This year marks two significant Zappa family milestones. It’s the 40th anniversary of Frank Zappa and the Mothers’ astounding 1974 live album Roxy & Elsewhere — recorded mainly at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood over a three-night stand the previous December (the “elsewhere” were venues in Chicago and Edinboro, Pennsylvania).
It’s also been 10 years since Zappa’s eldest son, Dweezil, now 44, committed himself to holing up and learning his iconic father’s famously extensive, complicated, oft-breathtaking oeuvre essentially note-for-note in order to play it live, keep it alive, introduce new people to the music of one of the 20th century’s most important, vital (and weirdest and most hilarious) composers.
In 2006, two years after adopting his father’s music as his new life’s work, Dweezil hit the road with his new ensemble, Zappa Plays Zappa, to faithfully re-create those tunes. This year, the ever-mutating group is playing Roxy & Elsewhere in its entirety to celebrate the album’s 40th anniversary, and adding a second set of Frank favorites and obscurities.
We caught up with Dweezil over the phone the other day from a tour stop in the Midwest…
You’ve spent a pretty significant chunk of your life on Zappa Plays Zappa…what have you learned about yourself along the way?
Well, there’s a ton of stuff I’ve learned about the music that completely transformed my approach to guitar. My goal, initially, was to learn all of the most difficult melodies that I really liked in a lot of the music on guitar, but those things were usually written for marimba and keyboard. So in order to learn them on guitar I had to completely change my [playing] style and techniques, and some of these things don’t naturally all go together, but they’re required in order to play the music. So basically I had to take what I already knew for more than 25 years and abandon that to have a whole new approach. It was quite a lot of work to do it, but in the end it gave me a new perspective of the instrument and a completely new option for improvisation, so my own playing really came into its own. In the process of learning my dad’s music and learning to play more like him, and have more of his idiosyncrasies and mannerisms in my playing, it actually brought out my own style.
I guess with anything, some people try to follow in their parents’ footsteps and some people intentionally go in a completely different direction to form their own identity. Did you purposefully try to go your own way and not emulate his style for the first part of your career?
I didn’t specifically choose to do something different, it was just that the things that I was originally inspired to do were based on music that was already different than his music. It wasn’t a choice to say, “Oh I’m gonna be different,” it was more like, “I like the sound of this, I’ll work on this.” But I always knew somewhere in the back of my mind, you know, I wanted to learn a lot of these really hard things on guitar because I always liked hearing the music played. Having watched him do so many shows, I just knew that it required a lot of work and you had to know a lot about music in order to play this stuff. This wasn’t just four-chord songs.
So you just had to wait until you were at a later point in your life…
Yeah, that’s something I knew as a 12-year-old when I started playing guitar: “One day I’ll do that, but I can’t get that sound now.”
I was reading that the current incarnation of the Zappa Plays Zappa band, the collective age of the players is the youngest yet?
Yeah. The original goal with the band was to have a younger core band to show that this music can appeal to any audience. I think it shows that with this younger, energetic set, this is not nostalgia music. That’s one of the issues that has always come up when you try to promote this thing, people think, “Oh, it’s music of yesteryear.” People haven’t even caught on to the music yet. This is music from the future, as far as I’m concerned.
Was it comforting at first to know that because Frank did a lot of improvisation, it wasn’t just something you had to faithfully create exactly as it was when he did it?
Well, it’s like that in sections, but, more accurately, the purpose of the band was to be a repertory ensemble that’s trying to carry forward the tradition of trying to play the music as it’s written, in the same way an orchestra’s responsibility is to respect whats on the page. Frank’s music really was written more like classical music than rock music, but the distinction there is that sometime in the same song you might have something that’s very strict that needs to be followed exactly by the page, but then in the middle of it we’ll have a crazy improv section where you’re free to do stuff. That’s where it confuses people, like, “Wow, this stuff is wild and you can do whatever you want.”
Right, I get that. I meant more that when you hear Frank’s live recordings as compared to the studio recordings, there are different arrangements a lot of times, he didn’t necessarily stay true to the recorded version and there are these flights of fancy.
Yeah, and he would change the arrangements on tour based on the orchestration within the band. So when we go out to play something, we try to make sure we’re playing specific to the arrangement that we’re playing. So if we’re playing an album version of something, sometimes it’s been the case that the album version is something Frank never played live. So for example on, like, the Apostrophe album, the song “Stink-Foot, it only exists on the record, he never played that version live, so there are weird instances where the album version will be completely different than any live version he decided to do. So we will learn specific arrangements and be very careful to do exactly what that is. Occasionally we have done certain hybrid arrangements. We’ve done that with “Bamboozled By Love” — it had a slow version and a fast version and we put them together into one, but they’re still both Frank’s arrangements. So I never actually take something and just do my own thing with it from the ground up. That’s something I actually don’t like when people do. People think, “Lemme show what I can do to the music,” and they’re not really improving the music. If you’re going to have a Beethoven concert, they don’t hire some sort of a rapper to come in and modernize it and go “Yeaaaah, Beethoven, aww yeeeahhhhhhh!” You don’t need to add those things. Sometimes people get confused and think you gotta modernize the music and change it, and I just don’t agree with any of that stuff. The point of [Zappa Plays Zappa] is to play the music commensurate with what exists in the catalog, and if we’re the conduit for people to hear it, I want them to hear something that’s as close to the record as possible and show what the true content is with the intent of the composer and really be respectful to that.
What’s your overall feeling about Roxy & Elsewhere, and your favorite moments on the album?
Well, this record has such a great combo of styles. It’s probably the funkiest, grooviest record, consistently, of all of Frank’s records. I usually give people a list of a few records they should listen to if they’ve never heard his music before, and this is really high on the list because you have rock, jazz, blues, avant-garde, some comedy stuff – you have all of these elements all in one record. Sometimes even in the same song. There’s a lot to get into on this record. In terms of playing it, the hardest song on the record is the last song [“Bebop Tango (of the Old Jazzmen’s Church)”]. It’s impossibly difficult rhythmically, and the melody is so intervallic that people think that it’s just a crazy made-up thing where it’s not composed. They think, “Oh, this must just be random,” and it’s not. It’s written to be exactly what it is. And when you try to learn it, it’s like trying to memorize the phone book. It’s dense with notes and crazy rhythms, but over time, after you learn it, you start to be able to hear it as a melody. But it’s played so fast because at the time [Frank and the Mothers] were playing it, they had been playing this piece of music for about a year, and so they increased the tempo. We only had a couple of weeks to learn it before we went out on the road. It took a long time to get it up to the tempo they were playing it at the time.
What was the feeling like when you were playing it on stage the first time? Was it a feeling of terror, knowing it was looming in the set?
Yeah [laughs]. The thing about it, it’s similar to training for sports. You basically get it to the point where you have some muscle memory and you know that you can do it, but you haven’t been tested in every situation to react in the moment. And that’s the thing that gives you the nerves. But with any hard piece, it’s like the power of positive thinking — you have to know that you can do it. If you’re telling yourself you can’t do it, you’re not gonna do it.
Is it hard to enjoy yourself onstage when you’re hyper-focused on getting the music right?
Well, the thing is, everybody works really hard to get it right, but at the point where we’re actually playing it it’s fun because you know, you work so hard getting this together that when you play it you’re like, “Hey everybody, check this out, look what we learned to do.” That’s what I always remember from seeing shows of my dad’s, that they looked like they were actually having fun playing this really hard music. It wasn’t like they were all sitting there going, “Oooohhh, I dunnoooooo.” This stuff was designed to be played live and to be impressive.
Seems like after all these years of doing Zappa Plays Zappa, there’s still a lot of interest in it out there, which must be gratifying.
Well yeah, and the main thing is we’re seeing a difference in the audience makeup, there’s a lot more younger people who are checking it out. What it all comes down to is that people are thankful for the opportunity to hear the music because they wouldn’t get a chance to hear Frank play it, or a band play it as close to Frank’s music as what we do. We’re the ones that really take the time to learn it right. There are other bands out there that try to go out and play it, but they change things around and do all kinds of things that I’m not interested in.
It takes some musicians years to make just one album of 10 songs or whatever — it still blows my mind that Frank was so prolific, not only that he had all of these ideas but he had the discipline to make the albums, to bring those ideas to fruition.
Yeah, I agree. And then if you put it into perspective by saying that in Western music there’s only 12 notes, how many times he was able to rearrange those 12 notes with rhythm to have such variety that he did. It was like he had a whole box of other notes that no one else had. I don’t understand how he was able to do that, album after album and have it sound so completely different. There’s nothing like it. When people discover it, the people who really get into it, it becomes the only music they listen to because there’s nothing else like it. Once you like that stuff, you can’t find anything that comes close to it. Even as a kid, I only heard the music my dad was working on at home, so when I was 12 I started to hear the radio and my first reaction was, “Where’s the rest of it?” You know, “Why is everything so easy sounding?” The hard part is, how do you use technical proficiency and still connect with people and make it musical? Frank had the ability to do that because he really had this broad overview of music, and when he was improvising he wasn’t just playing guitar licks, he was spontaneously composing and really reacting in the moment to the music. That’s what gives it longevity, that you hear it more like a music conversation than anything.
Zappa Plays Zappa perform at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester on Feb. 28 and NYCB Theatre in Wilbury on March 1.
Valentine’s Day is upon us, and perhaps you and/or the love of your life (or love of your week) are considering taking in one of the many concerts happening in and around the city on Feb. 14. Let us help you figure out which gigs offer the best chance for romance.
Webster Hall [7pm/$35]
Ideally, just looking at your choice of Valentine’s Day performer(s) should ignite those special warm feelings deep in your loins and/or your partner’s. Skinny Puppy frontman Nivek Ogre fits that bill–sure, he’s no Ralph Tresvant, but while Ministry’s Al Jourgensen looks like a dung beetle nowadays and Trent Reznor resembles a swollen big toe, Ogre, 51, has aged like Clooney, and probably has even more charisma. cEvin Key, however…let’s just say it’s a good thing he’s usually lurking in the shadows at the back of the stage behind a bank of keyboards and monitors.
Also, the veteran Canadian terror-industrial outfit’s grooves run the gamut from aggressive noise to seductive electro-funk, and in the live setting the sonic ebb-and-flow can resemble some of the most intense (and probably weirdest) sex you’ve ever had, and will almost certainly leave you happily drained by the end. Further, what’s more romantic than men with honor and principles? Skinny Puppy find animal abusers, corrupt politicians and destroyers of the environment entirely despicable.
On the flip side, though, it might be a romantic buzzkill to have Ogre instill in your head visions of vivisection, drug-addles disintegration and mankind’s general shittiness (although those Dalek vocals do sometimes make it hard to figure out what he’s on about). And ever the horror-prop aficionado, he’s been known to spill his bloody guts onstage (I seem to remember in the old Puppy concert film Ain’t it Dead Yet Ogre pulling from beneath his shirt handfuls of “intestines” which I think were some type of sausages that even Andrew Zimmern wouldn’t eat). So that could be a bit of a turn-off. But it also cannot be understated how much gothpleathersteampunkS&Mdustrial attire and attitude will be present at this gig, so if that’s your scene, you’ll be in VD (that’s Valentine’s Day) heaven.
Le Poisson Rouge [7:30pm/$20]
What could possibly be more perfect for Valentine’s Day than a gig from recently reunited artpop/hip-hop/dub-skronk fusioneers Cibo Matto to celebrate the release of their new LP, Hotel Valentine–a concept album about love between the ghosts of a haunted hotel?! And yes, Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda remain as talented and swoonworthy as you remember them. But consider this: Even though the band is celebrating the now, reunions and the accompanying nostalgia are tricky things. Do you want your Valentine’s Day burdened by the possibility that after all this time, the present just doesn’t stack up to the past, leaving you disappointed on your special night? Also, what happens if the band launches into, say, “Sugar Water,” and suddenly you have a flashback to the spring of ’96, when you were younger and skinnier and your bones didn’t ache in the morning and you were wandering through the East Village with that old flame of yours that was so, SO wrong for you and yet so, SO right for you and you were just bursting with love and lust and life … and then you snap back to the present and you look over at your date and you say to yourself, Wow, you’re boring and you suck?
Then again, Cibo Matto’s new stuff might be so good and inspiring that you glance at your significant other and smile and think, Sure, those old times were fun, but I’m so much happier and content and secure now and getting older isn’t so bad at all now that I’m with you, and realizing that makes this Valentine’s Day extra romantic and blissful. Could happen!
KINGS OF LEON
Madison Square Garden [8pm/$49.50-$69.50]
Sorry, but there is nothing remotely romantic about seeing Kings of Leon. In a hockey arena. On Valentine’s Day. Don’t do it. But if you MUST: At least get there early for the undeniably sexy blues-rock guitar god Gary Clark Jr., who’s opening–although your lady will likely want to go home with him instead of you.
Prudential Center (Newark) [8pm/$64.75-$184.75]
Well, this one’s kind of a no-brainer. A Marc Anthony concert would be romantic on Yom Kippur, let alone Valentine’s Day. Somehow, the debonair Latin-pop superstar and perennial “Sexiest Man Alive” contender has figured out a way to put more people in the mood than all the oysters, Bordeaux wine, erotic massages and Viagra in the world combined. He makes Ginuwine seem like Jonah Hill. And if the recent celebrity gossip is accurate–AND WHEN ISN’T IT?!–Anthony just split from gal-pal Chloe Green, so now he’s single and ready to mingle and just might fix a smoldering stare on you from the stage or throw an extra hip-jiggle your way. There’s really no downside to this gig, except Newark.
Irving Plaza [7:30pm/$20]
There’s not much about dubstep, “world-class lasers” and mediocre jam bands-turned-EDM “superstars” that’s romantic, particularly, but there will undoubtedly be a lot of sexy people getting all charged up and dancing like sweaty maniacs to whatever generic beats Savoy pumps out of its speakers, so if you’re solo this Valentine’s Day and care fuck-all about romance, this could be the place to hook up.
It’s Tuesday night, and Vadim Peare — better known as the Soviet-born, London-bred, globally minded DJ Vadim — is in Philly to play a gig.
Or rather, he’s just across the river from Philly, in South Jersey, staying at the modest home of a man he’d never met before — a fan and long-time Facebook pal who offered to host Vadim for a couple of days on his current U.S. tour.
The evening before, after he arrived, Vadim and the man had a smoke, cracked open a few beers, and then the man picked up his bass, his 17-year-old son set up his drum kit, his 15-year-old daughter stepped up to a mic to sing, Vadim grabbed a tambourine, and the foursome spent the rest of the night kicking out some tunes.
Chances are good that at the same time a few thousand miles away in Vegas, some member of the latest Era of the Superstar DJ just touched down in his chartered private jet to be whisked away to his $10,000-a-night suite to rest up for a few hours’ work at a sprawling superclub that’ll net a six-figure paycheck.
Would Vadim rather be there than here?
“No, because I ain’t nobody’s bitch,” says Vadim.
“A family jam, that’s my favorite shit. That’s real life. Something spontaneous and real, where you just go with the flow. I don’t want to be part of that corporate thing. I don’t want some guy in a suit telling me, no, you can’t have a mohawk, you can’t have this, you can’t have that, do this, do that, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. If you’re making 12 million dollars, why do you have to be somebody’s bitch? I’m not anybody’s bitch.”
With that last “bitch,” Vadim starts laughing. In the background, his host is cracking up, too.
Vadim realizes he might sound bitter, or envious. But he insists it’s happiness he’s after, and for him, happiness has been making a nice-if-not-mogul-like living following his own path as a full-time musician for the better part of two decades, and being able to maintain a level of credibility and respect that allows him to weather the ever-shifting fortunes of electronic music makers in America.
“I’ve been DJing since ’89, ’90, and I can tell you I’ve seen a lot of things,” says Vadim. “I’ve been to a lot of shows, I’ve seen a lot of musicians, I’ve seen a lot of great things and I’ve seen a lot of whack things. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. I’ve seen people get huge overnight, and then five years later disappear.”
“I mean, look at Vanilla Ice — he was as huge as you can possibly be, and now I hear he’s refurbishing houses, is that right?”
When Ice was in his brief early ’90s heyday, Vadim — who was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia (then Leningrad) and emigrated to the London suburbs with his family at a young age — was just gaining his footing behind the decks and samplers, honing an experimental instrumental hip-hop sound that would get him signed to the U.K.’s venerable Ninja Tune a few years later and align him with other atmospheric breakbeat pioneers like DJs Shadow, Krush and Cam.
By 1995, Vadim, who was releasing singles, DJing in London clubs and dong club promotion, too, was still working his day job as a civil engineer — his last “proper” job — when he finally decided to take the leap into music full-time.
“The job was cool but I still remember getting to work and there was a clock right above my desk, and I’d be looking at that and thinking, I cannot wait for it to turn to five o’clock, when it turns to five o’clock I can go home and I can make music,” Vadim says. “I was living with my mother at the time so I didn’t have to pay rent. I was like, ‘OK, I’ll give myself a year to do the music thing, and if it doesn’t work out I’ll come back to this, being a draftsman.”
Things worked out.
“Yeah, it got a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger, and yeah, coming to play in NYC for the first time, Philly, Atlanta, that was exciting. Traveling around the world, doing what I’m passionate about, and getting paid to make music and put out records, it was good.”
He wishes he could remember more of the hectic ’90s and early ’00s. “I’m not no kind of guy high up to his eyeballs in some kind of drug cocktail, I really don’t do that much crazy shit,” says Vadim. “But you just forget, you experience shit and you forget about it and I’m like, damn I wish I remember that.”
Still, a batch of terrific albums — including 1999’s U.S.S.R.: Life from the Other Side and 2002’s U.S.S.R.: The Art of Listening — on which he wrapped minimalist funk, artful noise and midnight soul with the tightest of beats, and gradually incorporated more vocal tracks from a host of underground MCs stand as enduring sonic markers of that era.
But just like his compadre DJ Shadow refusing to repeat himself and latching onto the hyphy movement — to disastrous commercial and critical ends — Vadim distanced himself from his ambient/breakbeat past as the ’00s progressed, exploring ragga, dub, soul, blues and other textures (including dubstep, many years before the style got mega-popular in the U.S.).
The music remained interesting, accomplished, but some of the fans who still wanted that old sound seeped away. “A lot of people were like, ‘Why doesn’t he make another “Terrorist.” why doesn’t he go and make hip-hop,” but those times are over,” says Vadim.
“And even if I did manage to make a song now that was exactly the same as something I made 15 years ago, what’s the chance they’re gonna like it now? People were young, it was ’99, it was this, it was that. I know so many dope artists and producers who stayed true to their only vision and didn’t change and they disappeared. Creatively, if I stayed in that mindframe I would die.”
Meanwhile, in 2007, for a minute Vadim thought he might actually die. In the early part of that year, he went blind in his left eye, and was ultimately diagnosed with ocular melanoma — a fairly rare form of cancer that doctors warned would kill him if he didn’t have surgery soon. Vadim went under the knife in Liverpool and had the tumor removed, and, six years later, he says he’s in excellent health.
“My life changed after that, no doubt about that,” he says. “It was a huge wakeup call for my health, and now I eat extremely healthfully and I try to rest and sleep and as much as I can and I don’t party as much. In terms of the creative stuff, it gave me a new lease on life. Ever since I got over cancer, I’ve got creative diarrhea.”
Next month brings a soul/R&B/electronic album, Bespoke Future, from his new project Hartley and Wolfe — a collaboration with singer Greg Blackman, who appeared on Vadim’s excellent 2012 album Don’t Be Scared — which Vadim describes as “just a working man’s soul album, blue collar soul music, not fancy, not huge glitzy. Some social commentary, some love songs, some broken-heart stuff.”
And next spring there’ll be another proper DJ Vadim album, which he worked on most of this year, that’ll be primarily a reggae-soul expedition. “I’m just trying to do what I want to do, trying to enjoy life and enjoy music,” he says.
“It goes back to these huge EDM stars,” he continues. “I’d rather be happy than rich. There is someone I know, and someone you know – I won’t say their name but they’re a huge star on the EDM circuit — and everything about that person is completely corporate. That’s not where they came from. They came from doing Burning Man, they came from doing free shows in California at people’s houses, and now to get to the position that person’s in, he has fired every person who helped him start his career but now he’s just someone’s bitch.”
“If for some reason I become really popular in the States — and honestly it could happen, I saw Skrillex go from zero to hero in a year — if that did happen, the very people that supported me, I would bring them with me on my journey,” Vadim says. “Every motherfucker who’s ever let me stay at their house, sleep on their floor, cook me some chicken, driven me somewhere, you know, made me a cake — they’re the people who’ve made me, and if I make 12 million dollars, they’re each getting a bit of that. That’s a promise.”
DJ Vadim plays Brooklyn Bowl on Friday with The Polish Ambassador [11pm/$10].
On Thursday night, Scotland’s Simple Minds — which was born the same year as Sarah Michelle Gellar, James Van Der Beek and Jon “Napoleon Dynamite” Heder (1977) — wrap up its first U.S. tour in over a decade at Roseland Ballroom.
For a lot of people, the band’s usefulness begins and ends with their 1985 megahit “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” and fair enough, it’s one of the best and most memorable tunes of the ’80s and is still a lot of fun to sing along to in the car. Still, there are many, many interesting things about Simple Minds that aren’t “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” Here are 10:
10. The band got its name from a lyric from David Bowie’s “The Jean Genie,” the fourth-best track on Aladdin Sane and a song that’s about Iggy Pop: “He’s so simple-minded he can’t drive his module/ He bites on the neon and sleeps in a capsule.”
9. Simple Minds frontman Jim Kerr owns and operates one of the best hotels in the world, the Villa Angela, in one of the most beautiful places in the world — the Sicilian coastal town of Taormina, which sits on the Ionian sea, offers spectacular views of Mount Etna volcano, and has lots of very fragrant olive and lemon trees, we hear. We don’t speak Italian, but this sounds like a pretty good review of the joint: “Struttura ben manutenuta, ottima posizione facilmente raggiungibile, vista da incanto e poi… per i fan dei Simple Minds… imperdibile!!!” The Villa Angela also provides a nifty rejoinder to any U.S. journalist who rings Kerr up and asks him what it feels like to be a one-hit wonder in America: “I’m sorry, I’m sitting by the pool at my remarkable hotel in one of the most gorgeous places on the entire planet and the reception’s not that great here on top of this stunning hillside, can you repeat the question?”
8. There are several excellent anagrams for “Simple Minds” (each of which might make for a stellar band name in its own right): Mindless Imp, Slimmed Nips, I Mends Limps, Mild Men Piss and Mind Me Lisps.
7. This is a better song than “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”
6. The fact that Robin Clark — the incredible vocalist who has sung with Dylan, Bowie, Springsteen, Vandross and a million others, and was featured in the recent doc 20 Feet from Stardom — was basically Simple Minds’ co-lead singer on the band’s best-selling album, Once Upon a Time.
5. Just prior to forming Simple Minds, Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill were in the short-lived but killer Johnny and the Self-Abusers (talk about a great band name) — arguably the best Scottish punk band of all time (other than maybe The Rezillos). Kerr shaved his eyebrows and went by the name “Pripton Weird,” while Burchill called himself “Charlie Argue.” The NME, “cleverly” riffing off their name, opined that this song “jerks off aimlessly into the void…while they’re keeping their hands to themselves, perhaps they should do the same to the records.” Wrong.
Alive and Kicking (Introduced by Madonna)by ghostdancer 4. In 1985, Simple Minds were the musical guest on the Season 11 premiere episode of Saturday Night Live, hosted by Madonna. They played “Alive and Kicking” and Kerr’s outfit was sparklier than Madonna’s. Maybe not his dance moves, however.
3. Kerr was married to The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde from 1984-1990, and since Chrissie Hynde is one of the coolest musicians/humans on earth, at least a little bit of that coolness had to have rubbed off on him. Check ’em out above, along with that Silvio dude from The Sopranos and a bunch of other famous people, fighting apartheid.
2. The time Herbie muthafuckin’ Hancock played synthesizer on a Simple Minds song.
1. OK, we cheated a tiny bit, but this is classic.
Whether it’s sparking up a joint and waiting for the high to kick in or getting together with his two True Widow bandmates to make loud, ruminative, gorgeously glowering music in practice spaces or on stages, drummer Timothy “Slim” Starks says the idea, always, is to relinquish control.
“That’s when it all happens. A song will create itself if you let it,” the ultra-friendly, heavily bearded, well-baked Starks explains in his casual drawl on a recent afternoon in Austin, Texas, a few hours before showtime on their latest U.S. tour. “There’s so little that you can control in life, and when it comes to music, people feel like they’re the creator as opposed to being a brush in a larger picture. They end up with more self-conflict than they really need. But when you realize your actual place in the creation process, you realize you don’t need to control it.”
“It’s like a wild animal–why do you wanna go and tame that?” he continues, positioning himself somewhere between de facto spokesperson for the Dallas trio and ace stoner-philosopher life coach. “Just because you can doesn’t make it cool. Or make it work. It’s all about fear. And living in fear is a motherfucker.”
If letting go and waiting to channel whatever the creative ether coughs out–like a three-pronged lightning rod catching heavenly bolts of inspiration and conducting them to two-inch tape–is how True Widow comes up with devastatingly phenomenal albums like the recently issued Circumambulation (the band’s third LP), then clearly the threesome knows what the fuck it’s doing.
Theirs is a heavy kind of minimalist slowcore, or perhaps dream-pop invaded by lucid nightmares, with songs that seize on one potent, simple idea or melody and linger on them to hypnotic, atmospheric ends, refusing to clutter things up–sort of like a more crushing version of The xx. Singer-guitarist Dan Phillips’ riffs are half-Iommi, half-Morricone, and his voice leans toward the floor-gazing sad-bastard variety. Gossamer-voiced counterpart Nicole Estill, the trio’s singer-bassist, sings in a way that lets a little more light in–her reverby lead vocals on Circumambulation standout “Fourth Teeth” transforms the track into something resembling Sabbath as produced by Phil Spector (when Phillips joins in halfway through to harmonize, the effect is mesmerizing). And while Phillips’ riffs rightfully command attention, Estill’s gritty bass lines and Starks’, well, stark drumming create viscous doom-grooves that not only provide a robust spine but are often the thing that sucks you in and makes you want to stay.
Circumambulation, released on the venerable Relapse Records, isn’t much of a departure from the band’s previous LP, 2011’s breakthrough As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth (Kemado), though it is a little more stripped-down (clue: the significantly shorter title).
“Yeah, there’s not a lot of frills to it,” says Starks. “If you’re overworking something, then that part doesn’t need to be there. You strip all the bullshit away, that’s the way we like to do things. We’re not a noodly band that’s gonna, like, go into some solo. We’re not a band that rehearses regularly either, so the songs, as long as you don’t beat them to death by rehearsing the fucking life out of them, will allow themselves to be known and be what they are.”
That’s an aesthetic and vision the band’s held onto since the start, when longtime friends Starks and Phillips first began jamming with Estill — who’d been a big fan of Phillips’ previous band, Slowride — in November of 2007, Starks explains. Previously a guitarist and self-described “pedal nerd,” Starks never played drums before True Widow, but, he says, “From hanging out with Dan and coming up with these tones and the riffs after we’d tuned the guitars a certain way for this crazy low-end vibe, all of a sudden in my mind, even though not being a drummer I knew what I would like in a drummer. And we knew it was gonna be a three-piece, all our favorite bands are three-pieces, and Dan really wanted to hear a female voice in the mix doing leads and harmonies.”
The band “hid away in our little hole for quite a while before we ever peeked our heads out,” honing their sound and getting to know one another better both as musicians and as people, Starks recalls.
“(Nicole) picked everything up like a pro right from the beginning –she knows what she’s doing — but she thought a certain way, she had been playing other types of music and she never tried to do something with her voice that would be True Widow-ish, if you will,” says Starks.
“It took a little bit but we were all too busy enjoying each other’s company and making a new friend in Nicole — we spent as much time going to shows and partying and whatever as making music,” he continues. “Musically, the way we connected was a no-brainer, but I think that I’m somebody that doesn’t go out much and Dan’s a pretty reserved dude, neither one of us would force each other out of that comfort zone, and I think that Nicole, her outgoing personality was the thing for me…it was hard for me at the beginning to be in public and once we started to play more shows and stuff and people were interested in hanging out and talking, I had to break out of that and Nicole was a huge part of that. Growing with Nicole musically, I felt obligated because I loved her as a friend and to see what she’s doing to try to create something special, it’s the least I can do to put myself out there more.”
Still, in the live setting True Widow seems the opposite of outgoing — serious, stationary, heavy lidded, lost inside the songs– but it’s really the most natural, sincere way for the band to deliver its music.
The weed helps.
“We’re all pretty baked when we’re playing so we’re really just vibing,” says Starks. “It’s just about vibing. We’re not trying to fucking pose or anything.”
“Every night before we play we smoke a joint and come up with the songs we’re gonna play right there,” he says. “We don’t write set lists, we don’t play the same shit every night. I mean, anything that could potentially stifle the fun, forget about it. I guess Nicole and I like to move around some up there, Dan’s a pretty somber guy when he’s onstage. But we’re not trying to get people jumping up and down, we’re trying to create something that people can actually connect with. allow their brain to do something other than wondering ‘Geez, why’s this solo so fucking long?!’ We don’t have time for that crap. We just depend on the songs to present themselves.”
The trio also intends to present itself on stages more often going forward, as compared to previous album/touring cycles when True Widow would tour for a short while when the music world microscope was on them, usually as an opening act, then retreat to their full-time occupations in the Dallas area — Starks owns a screenprinting shop, Phillips is a furniture-maker, and Estill is a makeup artist.
But with booking agents calling and more opportunities arising in the wake of the overwhelmingly positive response to Circumambulation, including potential opportunities for headline tours in the U.S. and abroad, “I would be willing to give more time to True Widow because I feel like it deserves a little more than we’ve been giving it in the past,” says Starks. “Does that mean we’re gonna hit the road for eight, nine months straight? Probably not. But we’ll probably keep it rolling a little longer this time.”
“We’re not professionals — not saying we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing, because we do — but we don’t wanna approach music as such, as a career,” he says. “But we’ll see how it plays out. We’re open to it. You have to be open to experiencing everything at its given time, because if you try to control it when it happens, you’re gonna be miserable.”
True Widow opens for Chelsea Wolfe on Friday night at Bowery Ballroom, 9 p.m. $15.
For last week’s print edition of the Voice, I wrote about the return of NYC’s Girls Against Boys–at one time perhaps the “It”-iest of all the ’90s alt-rock underground It-bands–who are back after more than a decade of self-imposed exile.
GVSB will release their excellent new Ghost List EP on Sept. 24 via Epitonic. The band also gets live in NYC for the first time in a zillion years with a show Wednesday night at Bowery Ballroom [9pm/$20], where they’ll be joined onstage for a batch of tunes by long-time pal and erstwhile Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow (get there early, as the typically stellar Coliseum opens).
I chatted with GVSB singer-guitarist Scott McCloud for a good long time for the print piece; here are a few extra bits from our wide-ranging conversation that didn’t make it in.
On the band’s efforts to revamp their sound not long before they went on their extended break:
“I wanted to think of other things we could do. Like, I spent months just playing drums. I’m not a terrible drummer, but I’m not a really good drummer — it’s not exactly the best thing I should be doing [laughs]. Or it was, ‘OK, I’m tired of staring at my guitar, I’m gonna pick up a keyboard now and mess around with loops.’ It was very time-consuming. And after months and months of experimentation it was like, ‘I’m just not that great at this.’ My joke was always, I’d get a new Roland MC-303 [sequencer] or whatever and plug it in and I’d put on the demo and be like, ‘Well, the demo sounds fine…’ [laughs]. It all kind of felt like, well, this is where music’s going and a lot of times there’s this thing with music where new innovations create new sounds and directions for people to pursue, so I wanted to try to participate in that. And even those last records, we did have more 303 sounds — we’ve also had some of that to a degree, we’re not a traditional rock band in any sense of the term — but ultimately, all those things I tried didn’t exactly come to fruition. Basically, when we get together to do stuff, we end up sounding like what we sound like. And it was like, ‘OK, it’s 2002, where are we going as a band?’ It felt like it had run its course, to some degree, and I was burned out and needed a break.”
On getting back together and recording the new EP:
“We wanted to play again but we weren’t so into just doing a bunch of dates playing old stuff, even though that’s mostly what’s in the set. And we had these new ideas for songs, so…it’s only an EP, but it kind of gave a different weight to the concept of [getting back together]. So we started talking about doing that, and it took a while. We used to call it ‘The Battleship’: Getting four different people to move in the same direction so you can turn the battleship around [laughs]. But we managed to all get on the same page. We tried doing some things like exchanging ideas online, and that was interesting, it worked OK. It got us talking about music. I thought we could send tracks to each other and build something up and then get together and fix it all up. But it didn’t really work for us and I understand why — the best result is going to be the four of us together in a room, banging it out.”
On what it feels like to play live with GVSB again:
“Now, more than ever, when we play I’m amazed by little things about it. Like how the four of us interact onstage, and how each instrument fits together. In the old days I think maybe I didn’t really notice it that much because you’re just kinda grinding it out every night playing, you’re not thinking like, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting the way Eli plays that bass part.’ It’s just work. Nowadays I’m just reveling in how interesting it is. And it’s also great to play loud music, and fun and interesting to play these songs again, some of them have aged differently than others.”
On what it’s like now to listen back to the band’s older songs:
“A lot of these songs, I think: ‘Is that me?’ [laughs] At the time it was everything to me. I listen back to it now and I think, ‘Who was that?” When a band is in a period of recording a lot, and making records quite quickly, every one of them has this thing in my mind of not being good enough. It’s imperfect. It wasn’t what it should have been. So when I’d listen to things we’d recently done back then, I was very critical of it. And now I listen to it and I’m kind of amazed at how good I think it is. It’s a mystery because it doesn’t seem to me like the songs on these things are like a failure anymore. It seems like a lot of successes in there. Back then, some of the things that started to seem like negatives to me were the things people hailed as positives. Like, the way I sing, or the way our music has repetition, grinding loops of stuff, and there’s not a lot of melody in the music sometimes. Those things seemed like negatives at a certain point, like, ‘We need to get some more light in here…’ It was that real classic sense of going through the music grinder and being hard on yourself and beating yourself up to the point where everything that’s a positive you’ve flipped into a negative. That’s when you know you need to take a break. But I’m much less that way about it now. I don’t beat myself up anymore. We are the band we are, and there’s no reason to be apologetic about that.”
The last time I heard Scott McCloud’s voice on the other end of the phone it was in 2002. The Girls Against Boys singer-guitarist was in middle America, on tour behind that year’s ominously titled Jade Tree LP You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See, and he was talking about trying to stay musically relevant, about recommitting to keeping the quartet going, and about making sure the NYC-via-D.C. band was “something important to be doing” after a dozen years together.
Otherwise, McCloud laughed, “What are [we] doing playing Cleveland again?”
GVSB haven’t played Cleveland since. Or anywhere else, really, except for a tiny handful of European gigs over the years, and that three-day Touch and Go Records 25th anniversary bash in Chicago back in 2006.
They didn’t break up. They didn’t announce an “indefinite hiatus.” They just kind of hit the hold button and never got around to picking back up. Until now.
“After that tour we had a discussion about, ‘Are we gonna record any more?’ The answer was basically, ‘No, let’s not do anything more for now’—I think we were all kinda thinking for a while before that, ‘Who’s gonna actually be the one to say it?'” McCloud recalls. “And it ended up being a year of not doing anything, and then the years just kinda built up.”
This time, he is on the phone from his abode in Vienna, Austria, where he’s been living the expat life after decamping from New York City—where he’d made his home since moving up from D.C. in 1989—a couple of years ago.
The mood is a bit brighter compared to that long-ago conversation, as the congenial McCloud talks about the return of GVSB—with a brand new five-song EP, The Ghost List, in tow—from a self-imposed exile that lasted nearly as long as their initial run in the ’90s and early ’00s, even as he recounts some of the dark times that nearly did the band in.
GVSB is scheduled to play a long-awaited homecoming show at Bowery Ballroom on September 11, with their longtime friend and former labelmate, erstwhile Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow, set to join them onstage for a batch of songs.
“So much time has gone by, and the idea of playing again . . . I think a lot of the pressures and issues are just not there; they don’t matter anymore,” says McCloud. “Either the four of us enjoy making stuff together or we don’t, and right now we do.”
McCloud readily concedes that tension, creative and otherwise, has always been in the mix, stretching back to the end of the ’80s when he, bassist Johnny Temple, and drummer Alexis Fleisig joined forces with bassist-keyboardist Eli Janney, who had just watched Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty depart an early GVSB incarnation to devote his time to Ian MacKaye and company.
The friction made them great. They were noisy, grinding, and utterly seductive. McCloud brought his seedy, raspy sneer and malevolent guitar stabs; Janney and Temple each brought their bass lines, often distorted and menacing, and shoved them together more arrestingly than Ned’s Atomic Dustbin ever managed, locking tight with Fleisig’s muscular rhythms for relentlessly throbbing grooves. They took frustration and release and sex and death on careening late-night drives around hairpin curves, and to the shadowy dives and back alleys they painted crimson with their sonic punches, parries, and thrusts.
They made the powerhouse Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby in 1993—easily one of the best, most enduring albums of the decade—and followed that with two more stunners, Cruise Yourself and House of GVSB.
They built it all up to underground It Band status. Major labels were all but beating each other with spiked bats over who’d get to sign them. GVSB went for it. They inked a deal with Geffen Records.
“All the labels were after us, and we thought we were being even-headed and smart about which one we were choosing—’This one is the good one,'” McCloud laughs ruefully. “And then, lo and behold . . .”
1998’s Geffen-issued Freak*on*ica got a so-so reception, and then the label was folded into Interscope. Reps who’d championed GVSB, promising autonomy and more, vanished. The label wanted the band to keep making demos for songs execs thought worthy of recording. The band kept saying, No, these are the fucking songs. GVSB remained at loggerheads with the label, in limbo for nearly four years before wrestling free.
Plenty of bands from that era can tell virtually the same story.
“At some point we were just repeating ourselves, trying to write ‘Super-fire’ again,” says McCloud. “It took a lot out of the band, it took a lot out of our sense of ourselves.”
Their Times Square rehearsal space became a depressing hole where fading dreams went to finally curl up and die. “We weren’t really making music there; we were just talking about business all the time.”
Eventually, outside interests took over, and the quartet went their separate ways, though they remained friends. Temple continued to build his successful indie publishing house, Akashic Books. Janney became an in-demand producer and engineer who’s worked with the likes of Wilco, James Blunt, Nicole Atkins, and Ryan Adams. McCloud played guitar on Courtney Love’s 2004 debut solo album, America’s Sweetheart, and formed the still-active semi-acoustic outfit Paramount Styles, with Fleisig on drums; Fleisig played with several bands and is currently a member of Obits.
GVSB did that one-off at the 2006 Touch and Go fest, then a few shows in Poland and Russia in 2009 “because we never played there and it was a great opportunity,” McCloud says.
And then, around January 2012, Janney contacted him to see if he was interested in singing on some circa 2003 songs that Janney had squirreled away on his hard drive.
“They sounded like something Girls Against Boys would have tried at the time, and I was like, ‘I love this,’ so that was how we all started talking about getting back together and doing more than we’d done in a long time,” says McCloud.
The four got together at a Manhattan studio in January of this year and recorded three of those old songs and two brand-new ones, all of which appear on the new Ghost Line EP, a collection that bears all the elements of classic early/mid-’90s GVSB. Put simply: It kills. Like recent output from Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr., it augurs well for the band’s second act.
Yow—who also knows a little something about watching his well-regarded noise-rock band disintegrate and then reform a decade later—says he was thrilled that his old friends invited him to sing with them at the Bowery Ballroom show and the handful of other East Coast dates GVSB lined up. “I love those guys,” he says. “I’ve heard people say that some of the music the Jesus Lizard did was sexy—I don’t know if I necessarily concur with that, but I do think a lot of the Girls Against Boys music is sexy, and it’s sorta like a slinky, slow groove instead of fast, dumbass punk.”
They teamed up for a show in Austria in May, and in New York they’re slated to play a couple of Jesus Lizard songs, a couple of GVSB songs, and maybe a cover or two together during the set.
“I don’t want to step on their musical toes,” says Yow. “I’m not gonna knock Scott over and pour beer on Eli’s keyboard. But it’s gonna be fun and hopefully entertaining for the morons in the audience.”
The creative tension in GVSB is still there, says McCloud, and the fruits of their recent time together have him figuring they’ll keep GVSB active as a recording and touring unit going forward “as long as it makes sense to us.”
“It’s something that we invested so much time and energy in, and it felt like it kind of didn’t reach its full potential, and that’s always something that you carry around with you,” McCloud says of the past decade spent away from GVSB.
But now, having let go of GVSB as the sole vehicle for their livelihood—and with the youthful desperation of a band sweating and bleeding to make it replaced by a sort of middle-aged pragmatism and self-assuredness—”The new music’s better because we don’t have those worries, and we just do it because we love this music and missed playing it and it’s still meaningful to us,” says McCloud. “All that other stuff just falls away. It’s just to do it for its own sake, and I’m really happy that we did it.”
Girls Against Boys perform at Bowery Ballroom on Wednesday, September 11, with David Yow.
On the occasion of prog-rock titans Yes–sans singer Jon Anderson, sure, but still pretty damn Yes-sy–coming to the NYCB Theatre at Westbury Wednesday night [8pm] to play their classic platters The Yes Album, Close to the Edge AND Going for the One in their entireties, we got in touch with perhaps the most important person in Yes who actually isn’t in Yes.
Yes, that would be Roger Dean: The legendary, visionary artist (and architect, and industrial designer, and furniture designer, and set designer…) whose four-decade-plus creative partnership with Yes has led to some of the most iconic and interesting album covers ever made. Surreal landscapes and worlds alien and familiar, ancient and futuristic all at once, that enhanced–perhaps even influenced–the band’s sonic explorations.
At 68, the affable, engaging Dean still creates logos and artwork for Yes and has “three or four lifetimes” of ideas for other paintings and design work he continues to pursue. We rang him up at his home studio in the U.K. the other day; here is part of the wide-ranging two-hour conversation.
I was just on the Oregon coast a few weeks ago, at Haystack Rock, and looking at the sea stacks and just experiencing the otherworldly vibe of the place, I started thinking about your album covers and artwork.
Ah. I love landscape, most of my work is landscape. I think of myself as a landscape painter. Sometimes landscapes have such a powerful choreography about them–it’s like a prayer. They’re such a strong inspiration. It’s almost ridiculous to think of inventing something when something so wonderful is already there.
I mentioned to a friend of mine that I was going to be speaking with you, and he said that, as a kid, he’d stay up until 3 a.m. staring at the inside cover of Close to the Edge, trying to figure out where the water was coming from. He said to me, “Ask him where the water’s coming from!”
[laughs] Well, it’s funny because you were just talking about the coast of Oregon and a rock called Haystack. The inspiration for Close to the Edge was actually a mountain in England called Haystacks. I took a photograph at the top of the mountain and literally right on the top of the mountain there was a tiny, tiny lake–they’re called tarns–and when you’re up there at the top of the mountain to chill out, I was imagining this lake as something grander, you know. How could it sustain itself on the tippy top of a mountain? A lake belongs in a valley. It was brilliant. Of course, the water wasn’t pouring off on every side. [laughs]
In your world, it was.
Yes, it was. [laughs]
Can you trace a lot of your work back to specific places or experiences like that?
Quite a lot of it, actually. Surprisingly. The connection is rarely mapped out in my head in such a way as I just explained to you. Usually I spend time putting stuff in and it’s there when I need it, without me actually having a logical or analytical thought process to go along with it.
Do you ever visualize the finished piece at the start and just work toward that idea, or do you really only know what your work is at the end?
The process is different from time to time. I take a sketchbook if I’m in a restaurant or an airplane, it’s with me the whole time. Some ideas that start out at the sketch stage, the finished painting — if you saw the little thumbnail sketch — instantly you’d recognize it and you’d see it develop. Other times I work in a totally different way. I’ll work on a canvas which almost looks totally abstract, and I’m looking at it and getting feedback from the paint into what it might be, and there’s no preliminary sketch and eventually there’s a finished painting and it looks as if it was planned from the beginning, but it isn’t. The abstract quality of the underpainting is feeding back ideas all the time, and it’s an exciting way to work. I enjoy that. It’s slow, though. The best painting I’ve ever done, I started before my daughter was born and she’s 25 and I haven’t finished it. [laughs]
Is that right?
It’s true. A few paintings I’ve done that — Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth was done that way. I did a painting for Yes which was “Floating Jungle” [used for the 2002 In a Word box set] which was done that way. These paintings were done without a preliminary sketch. I might have sketched details, but the grand scheme of it evolved in the painting.
So how do you ever get the sense that anything is “finished”?
Well, I’m going to give you a joking answer here. I was asked once, “How do you get that sense of space in your work?” I said, “Deadlines — I never get a chance to fill the space.” [laughs] If I have a painting that’s around, it’s never really finished. I painted a painting for Yes’s triple album, Yessongs. The big blue painting with the spiral in the foreground and a kind of mushroomy city in the background.
Sure. Of course.
If you’ve seen the album, you can see footprints in the sky–cat paw marks. I exhibited the painting in New York I suppose two years after it was done, but it had never been exhibited since — until a couple of years ago. And people were looking at it and said, “Well where are the cat paws?” [laughs] Well, this is how things work. I have a deadline, I finished the painting, I was going to take it on the train to London to get it photographed, and overnight the cat walked over it and I tried to paint out the cat paws by adding clouds and it didn’t work. The paw marks are a little bit greasy, and it was watercolor. It was photographed and used for album covers, posters, calendars, books, everything, for years. That evening, I brought the painting home, I killed the cat, so to speak, removing the footprints. But the footprints, as it were, were fixed in time. But the painting itself, perhaps only for a couple of days it had those paw marks on it. If i’d know how famous they were going to be, I’d have kept them. [laughs]
A bit of the reason I wanted to talk to you is because Yes is out touring now and revisiting old works, playing Close to the Edge and a couple other albums in their entirety, so thinking about those albums naturally got me thinking about your artwork. You’re so closely associated with one another, but in one sense you diverge because here they are sort of going back in time and swimming in nostalgia and revisiting old glories, whereas you, from all that I know about you, you’re always forging ahead and working on new ideas and new projects.
What you said is a fair comment, except in a way it’s surprisingly unfair on them. They would enjoy nothing more than endlessly doing new material. They’re endlessly writing it. They all have new songs they want to show off, but the way their career is now, there’s a big demand for the classic pieces and milder curiosity about unfamiliar pieces. If Yes did a concert with more than a certain percentage of new material, they’d have trouble with their audience. I know it drives them nuts, but that’s just the way it is.
I get that.
Let me put this differently. Are you an opera fan?
Sure. I’m not an expert by any means, but I enjoy opera.
I have been to Madame Butterfly, in the last few years, perhaps three or four times–different productions. I would very willingly and very enthusiastically go and see Madame Butterfly again and not be in the least disappointed that I’d heard it before.
I know what you mean. Are you still close with the band?
I’ll see them in Camden, New Jersey on Thursday. I would say I’ve been a friend of Steve [Howe]’s for a very long time, I’m friendly with Rick [Wakeman]. I get on very well with Alan [White]. I would say with Chris [Squire], I’m friendly, we have a friendly relationship, I wouldn’t necessarily call him a friend, but he’s not an enemy. I enjoy working with them. They’ve been very good for me, no question about that. I hope it’s been mutual. I hope my involvement with them has been as useful for them as it has been for me, and I’ve enjoyed it to no end.
Can you describe the working relationship you’ve had with them over these past four decades?
Well, I have lots of friends who are essentially fine artists and lots of friends who work with authors, and they have art directors who presumably have read the book before them and tell them what they want. They give them the book and they have to do something that depends on the book and the art director. And I have been very aware that for me, my experience with Yes and others has been brilliant because I’m working with extremely talented people who are absolutely non-expert in the field of art [laughs], know they’re non-expert, willing to give me as much freedom as I want, and we can work together with that and it’s been terrific. The couple of times I’ve been asked by art directors to work on projects has been so disastrous — they’ve sketched out what they want me to paint and I’d say, “You’ve come up with the idea, you’ve done my job, you don’t need me. You just need someone who paints.” I hate working with art directors. Fortunately, I don’t have to! The bands are non-expert, but talented. It’s a fabulous combination.
Obviously the way music is packaged now, if people even buy it in physical form, is for the most part so vastly different from when you started working with bands.
What it was was an incredibly ephemeral experience where the world of art and the world of music combined. Both of our worlds — where the currency is, if you like, the “gift,” music is about a gift culture and art is about a gift culture –the two worlds briefly came together for a period that lasted barely two decades, at most, where you could give somebody a gift of music wrapped up with art, and it’s been almost the only time in history where you could give music as a gift. You could take someone to a concert, but then it was gone–they couldn’t experience it again the next day. But the recording and the packaging, it made the perfect gift. And it was brief. And it’s absolutely gone now and it didn’t exist that long ago, either. In the ’40s it didn’t really exist. It has that incredible quality of a gift from I guess the beginning of the 1960s until the middle of the 1980s, that was it. Then the record companies destroyed that. When CDs came along, people would say to me, “Isn’t it devastating for you that the format is so tiny?” Well not really. Tiny works. What doesn’t work is the crappy packaging. Atlantic Records put Close to the Edge out without the painting for 10 years. Can you believe it? For 10 years the CD was available in a cheap and nasty plastic jewelbox with just a single sheet of paper with no painting and the track listing in black and white. I mean, give me a break. The record companies were saying, “We’ve got no respect for the customers, we’ve got no respect for the music or the art, we’ve got no respect for what we do, we’ve got no self-respect,” and as this was a gift culture, you can’t bring that attitude to it without destroying it. It wasn’t the CDs that destroyed it, it was the attitude of the record companies — that arrogant indifference. It was hard to understand why the record companies were doing such dumb things.
Has there always been a camaraderie between artists like yourself who worked in the industry creating album covers, particularly as that era first came about and then went away, or was it more of a competition? I was thinking especially in terms of your relationship with Storm [Thorgerson, who created iconic covers for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and others and died this past April at 69 years old].
Well, Storm and I, I think of him as a good friend and I hope he would think the same. We worked together on all kinds of things, but not album covers. We tried it once and it was a complete failure. [laughs]. Storm and I lived in the same building when we left college. He was on the first floor and I was on the third floor. We had Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd living in our apartment. Storm asked me to design the logo for Harvest Records, so we knew each other. He was a filmmaker and I was a designer, I did the interiors of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. I had no idea that I might end up painting for a living, I didn’t imagine it. And I don’t think Storm had any idea what he was gonna end up doing. We weren’t really in competition at all, which made it easier for us to be friends. Later in our career, there came a point where professional graphic designers took over the business, and it didn’t really get seriously underway until CDs were around. I remember I had quite an issue with graphic designers, I used to think of them as the Helvetica zealots. [laughs] These designers would come up with these packages and they’d all be in Helvetica and I’d say “Why have you done that?” And they’d say, “It’s clean, modern and cool.” And I’d say, “That’s what YOU think. The buyers think it look corporate, gray, dull and institutional.” You know what astounded me about graphic designers?
They would think the public are wrong and they needed educating. They thought it was irrelevant whether they liked it or not, and I’d say, “You’re not in the business of education, you’re in the business of selling something to somebody and you’ve got to be a little more warm and cuddly.” Here’s the problem: Corporate and institutions are the primary buyers of graphic design. You get Helvetica shoved down your throat everywhere you go.
Well, you’ve certainly designed logos in a different way, like the curves of the Yes logo that people have savored.
And that has caused me some embarrassment. [laughs]. I did a signing one day and this kid said, sort of sheepishly, “Oh, could you draw the Yes logo on it?” And I said, “No.” [laughs]. I drew the square one and he said, “No no no, I want the classic one, the bubble one,” and I said “No, I can’t do that.” And he said, “Aww, come on, why not?” I said, “Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear — I don’t know how to do it.” He said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “I can’t remember how it goes!” He said, “That’s rubbish, I’ve done it a thousand times in my schoolbook.” I said, “Yeah, but I haven’t. I only did it once!” [laughs]
Still, what’s it like to know that that logo, and all the paintings and other things you’ve done, are such an indelible part of music history and art history, such a part of so many peoples’ lives?
It’s an odd thing, actually. It is a privilege. I don’t really know how to describe the feeling, but I guess it makes you feel like you exist in the way your parents make you feel like you exist, if you know what I mean. I don’t know if it’s necessary, but it’s a very nice existence. I know a lot of people who would work for free just to see their work in a record store. It’s an odd thing. Walking down the street and seeing it, I loved it. I still do, I must admit.