In Greek mythology, dryads appear as tree-dwelling spirits who lure men to their deaths by seducing them into a shadowy realm of the unknown, sometimes replacing them with a doppelgänger—a sinister look alike. It’s a dark and mysterious tale that’s been repurposed in everything from David Lynch’s surreal T.V. saga “Twin Peaks” to Jordan Peele’s paranoid horror film Us. It’s a puzzling metaphor about there being more to the natural world than meets the eye. It’s also a bewitching entry point into The Book of Flowers’ debut cassette tape, Pastels.
Press play on the opening three numbers, “Foxfire & Clover,” “The Housewitch,” and “The Dryad,” and dreamlike imagery takes shape amid swathes of murky country crooning, mellotrons, and British folk-style songwriting.
“I was thinking a lot about impressionist painting and things that use a lot of pastels,” says songwriter James Andrew Ford. “I wanted the songs to have a pastoral feeling to them, with a kind of a dark feeling as well, like watching the sun set over an empty field.”
Ford is a co-founder of Atlanta’s industrial, EBM, and dark wave label DKA Records. The lingering earthly and ethereal tones that he conjures in the songs on Pastels are a far cry from the digital crunch and urgency of much of the label’s output, including that of his own former project Tifaret. But from the soft dissonance of the cover art’s pink and green colors to the balance of electronic and organic textures over Krautrock rhythms of “The White Dress” and “Watch the Stars,” Ford’s shift in style emerges quite naturally.
“During the latter part of Tifaret, I was banging my head against the wall because I was having a lot of issues trying to do a full-length,” Ford says. “I was trying to figure out how to do something that felt satisfying and cohesive, but wasn’t just eight tracks of Front 242 or whatever. How do you create a sad song using synthesizers that doesn’t just sound like old synth pop? How did somebody like Trent Reznor or Depeche Mode get around the monotony of synthesizers?” he asks. “Well, In Depeche Mode, Martin Gore wrote a lot of songs on an acoustic guitar. Trent Reznor writes everything on a piano, or at least he used to. So I thought maybe I need to start writing on acoustic guitar.”
But Ford had never played acoustic before. He hadn’t played an electric guitar in nearly a decade. So he spent much of the pandemic learning how to play an acoustic guitar. The process was a period of discovery, planting the seeds for the songs on Pastels.
“It basically taught me how to have a song there before you have any music,” he says. “With Tifaret, I always wrote the lyrics last. So I was trying to cram in syllables, melody lines, and whatever else into what was already there. Versus if you start with an acoustic guitar, you’ve got your melody, you’ve got your lines written out. You don’t have to cram everything in.”
Previously, Ford was a religious studies major at Georgia State University. With The Book of Flowers he took a deep dive into British folklore. The first two songs to emerge were “Golden Lily” and “Housewitch,” both illustrate a reciprocal harmony that finds his slow and sweeping baritone voice shape the guitar tones, while the natural resonance of the acoustic guitar guides his rich, warm voice.
The lyrics call an epic range of images to mind, from rustic to quite horrific, in one musical motion.
In “The Dryad” he sings: “There in the bed she laid me to rest and slit my throat with a willow rod. She threw me to the raven. She threw me to the hound. She cleaned my skull for her god.”
“With that song, I always thought that I was basically writing an old fashioned murder ballad, but with the positions reversed.”
It’s a scene of pagan carnage that could have been pulled straight from films such as Robin Hardy’s “The Wickerman” or Ari Aster’s “Midsommar”—channeled through a palette of dark and apocalyptic musical inflections ranging from influences such as Current 93 and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It’s quiet, it’s intense, and it’s not for the faint of heart, despite the music’s idyllic presence.
On Friday, November 18, visual artist Anna Jensen and Kevn Kinney of Drivin N Cryin host the “Trail of Seasons” art opening at 378 Gallery in Candler Park. Kevn will close out Friday evening with a live solo acoustic performance in the basement.
Current Rage’s lineup for the evening features original members guitarist John Moore, singer and percussionist Pat Kirkland, and drummer Paul Lenz performing with bass player Bryan Lilje and singer and guitar player Aaron “Oliver” Bewley. The latter is the son of Current Rage’s original guitar player Chris Bewley who died in 2018.
Jensen and Kinney’s painting will be on display through Nov. 20—just three days—and limited edition prints will be available throughout the weekend.
Friday. Free. 1-10 p.m. Saturday night. $10. Music starts at 8 p.m. 378 Gallery, 378 Clifton Rd NE. 404-530-9277.
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LPDs: Randall Frazier (from left), Erik Drost, and Edward Ka-Spel. Photo by Joep Hendrikx.
As memories of the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine-time behaviors become a distant bad memory, the era has left impressions on the collective subconscious that are both subtle and monumental. This is where one finds The Museum of Human Happiness, the latest offering from London-based psychedelic musical explorers the Legendary Pink Dots.
Since August of 1980, the group’s enigmatic leader and vocalist Edward Ka-Spel has released a seemingly endless chain of albums, cassettes, and CDs with the Pink Dots, with various side projects, and under his own name. After more than 40 years in the group, Ka-Spel’s longtime friend, keyboard player, and co-founding member of the Dots Phil “The Silverman” Knight has retired from touring. But the show must go on. In the Silverman’s stead, keyboard player Randall Frazier of Bailey, CO’s Orbit Service has stepped into the fold. Ka-Spel checked in just as rehearsals were beginning for the group’s first trek in the brave new world with its newly configured lineup to tackle what he says is the most complicated set he’s ever performed.
The last time I saw the Legendary Pink Dots play live was in November 2019 for the Angel In the Detail tour. Was that the last time you played in the States?
Yes, we played a European leg of that same tour that finished on February the 29, 2020. That was when the pandemic really broke out everywhere. That was the last time we played live. To be honest it’s been a bit nerve-wracking coming back after nearly three years. It was a long and lonely stretch. I am happy to be playing shows, but it’s a real challenge.
What have the days been like for you leading up to playing live again?
Oh, frenetic. Today was absolutely frenetic. I got up at around 7:30 a.m., and the rest of the guys went into Denver to arrange for keyboard stands, and to get some mailers. I’ve got a lot of stuff to send out to people. Basically, I’ve brought all of the stuff with me from Europe so I can mail it out while I’m here.
While the guys were out picking up things I worked on the setlist and developed keyboard parts and collages.
I have also been going through songs in my head. Lyrically, this is the most complicated set I have ever had. I didn’t realize how intense the lyrics were in some of these songs. Some of them move quite fast from the start, like runaway horses. If you drop a word suddenly you’re lost. You have to keep up with it. It’s nice to have a challenge, though, and it is a big challenge. We’re playing a lot of new songs. It’s what we’re feeling right now, so it makes sense. There are a couple of older ones in there as well, but just what we really wanted to play.
You have the lineup in place: Erik Drost is playing guitar, Joep Hendrikx is handling some live engineering and effects, and Randall Frazier is on synths, samples, and some vocals. But no Silverman this time around?
Phil is basically retired. Neither one of us are Spring chickens anymore, and, in a sense, Phil felt that it was time to hang up his keyboard. It’s a bit sad. I understand it, but I can’t do that myself.
What else would you do?
That’s exactly it! “What else would you do?” There are days when I feel a bit fatigued, but then I think about someone like Marshall Allen [leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra]. If he has the energy to do it at 98, surely, with 30 years to spare, I should be able to deliver.
This is the first Legendary Pink Dots tour without Silverman that I am aware of. Having gone through the process with him for so long, I imagine you’re sort of like each other’s support system on stage.
It’s true. It will be kind of strange being on tour without him. We have known each other for decades. We used to share hotel rooms after shows. But in some ways, I saw it coming. He wasn’t so involved in the last album, for instance. It was clear to me that he was withdrawing. It was also very hard with the pandemic raging on. He lives alone, so it was much harder for him than it was for someone like me. We were all absolutely tied to where we lived because there was nowhere to travel anyway.
I have family around me, and I had tremendous support from my wife who was always behind me. I tried to persuade him to keep going. I also asked: “What else will you do?” But he was ready to retire, and he has that right.
Are you playing the older songs differently now?
Oh yeah! But that would be the case even if he was still in the band. The songs have to grow and fit with how we feel at the time we play them. Otherwise it feels a little like karaoke, and karaoke doesn’t really fit with us.
There is always room for improvisation in your live sets.
We plan a set because it’s good to have this base, a rock that we can sit on, lean on. But we’ll decorate that rock more as we go, and find new little corners of the rock that weren’t apparent when we began. And this is a very complicated rock for this tour.
I once asked Marshall Allen about the improvisational element in his music. He described it as making music on a spiral. It’s constantly moving around and influenced by “the spirits of the day” that he encounters along the way. That’s a poignant way to explain how these songs—you know them when you hear them—are played a little differently each time.
That’s how it should be. It shouldn’t just be a “Let’s repeat the album as it is.” The album is just a starting point for the songs.
Is it the pace of the songs that makes them challenging?
The pace and the lyrics are quite complex. You have to run with the whole thing. Every song tells a story, and you have to keep up with it. Sometimes you might forget something, or have one little word dropped, and the whole thing’s off. Until it’s a part of me—it will always be a part of me— where I can just flip it out without looking at any kind of prompt, then I’ll know that I can at least relax, just a little bit.
You have released a lot of records over the years. Do you have a mental map of what’s on the records or is it just too much to retain?
There are so many records. I can’t keep up. It’s like you find a place when you’re on a tour, which is right for that moment. To dig deeper into history would complicate that moment a little too much.
Not too long ago I started writing a concert announcement for your Atlanta show and I had to stop to think about it: The Museum of Human Happiness is the proper new record. But so many releases have appeared on Bandcamp since then—both Legendary Pink Dots and your solo recordings. I think of it all as Edward Ka-spel’s music, but I lose the priority and the order sometimes.
It has something to do with the way the album was written. There were many songs in the pot when I started it. It was my wife who said, “You really want to zoom in on the songs that would create The Museum of Human Happiness. The absolute cream on the Milk. It was the same time as my solo album, Prints of Darkness. So a lot of what didn’t fit Human Happiness made it onto Prints of Darkness.
Since then, the pandemic has gone on, and I needed to keep writing and recording. It keeps you on your toes. There have been quite a few hours of that since then, and of course, there’s a new Chemical Playschool. Then there’s what I call the quarantine releases, and the 3 2s and a zero releases. There were four of those this year: Conspiracy of Pylons, The Concrete Diaries, Tales From The Trenches, and 100 Seconds To Midnight. It has all moved on since Prints are Darkness.
On the subject of The Museum of Human Happiness, do you think of it as a pandemic album? Is it a comment on social media?
It’s a place from a sad, dystopian future that I thought of. What will it be like when we literally have to live underground, and there will be reminders of what was on the surface. There’ll be this museum with all these things that reflect what was. Many songs are about the Pandemic. “Hands, Face Space,” “Coronation Street.” It’s a very British album. “Cruel Britannia” speaks for itself. I don’t like the way things are going in the UK at the moment. All of this right wing politics just sucks, to be honest.
Things aren’t a lot different in the U.S. at the moment.
I don’t understand what’s happened to the anglo-saxons. It’s like we’ve completely lost the plot. I don’t understand this kind of exclusion of whole swathes of human beings. The selfishness and the absolute hate that go along with it; why is it being stirred up by people who should know better?
I’m very fond of “Cruel Britannia” and “Nightingale.” Those two are very much like what I was going through during the pandemic. Nightingales were actually these strange hospital warehouse type things that were set up in the UK during the pandemic. It was obvious what they were. They literally were filled with hundreds of beds with ventilators next to them. But they never actually used them as far as I know. But they set them up all over the country. They don’t exist anymore. If they used them, they only used them very briefly. But it was obvious what they were—the end of the line. It’s like they expected things to get much much worse.
The lyrics aren’t about that exactly. The lyrics are about someone who’s subjected to a medical experiment.
What was the first song that you wrote for the record?
Probably “This Is the Museum.” It actually came from my daughter Alice. She came up with the idea. I think she wrote a poem called “The Museum of Happiness,” and I said wow, “The Museum of Happiness.” Do you mind if I use that, Alice?” She said of course you can use it! It’s really nice. I added the “Human” in there. Then I wrote the song, “This Is the Museum.” She really liked it and she wrote another poem which is a little bit based on my poem. It was really kind of nice. But yeah, she inspired that.
That’s why she gets a songwriting credit on the album.
Oh yeah, she’s credited on the album. When she said that, I just suddenly had the whole picture of this place, this museum, like a very modern underground.
Sometimes someone can just say something and you get this whole picture. It’s like a seed that just explodes and suddenly there’s a whole story and scenario there that you have to realize. And you have to capture it before it disappears. You dare not wait, because if you wait it’ll be gone.
I can imagine that after not having done it for so long, it has to be a rush.
Totally. And that’s just the rehearsals. To actually do it in front of people will be another thing. I’m also nervous about it, I can’t deny it.
Do you often get nervous before you play shows?
Yeah, I’d say so. It’s odd. When we’re performing, we all obsess over the little mistakes that could be made. Mistakes that, in reality, nobody hears. In the past, for example, when we’d play a song using physical sequences, they all started speeding up. So what do you do? You speed up with it! Still, nobody noticed. But how could you not notice that?
You can call it improvisation!
Yeah, really! That’s a moment when we’ve all gotta think of something to do, right in this split second.
Randall Frazier has stepped into the Legendary Pink Dots. He’s performing the duties that Phil has traditionally handled?
Sort of. We want Randall to be Randall, and to do what he feels is right for the songs. Not simply reach for a line that’s already there, but to take his own lines and his own parts because then the music becomes his as well.
He’s also a sound engineer. Actually, in this touring party there are three sound engineers in the group. So if something goes amuck, there should be a solution in there somewhere, and they’ll find it.
Way back in the ‘90s, Orbit Service was a much larger band with more members. They opened for the Legendary Pink Dots in Denver at the Bluebird Theater. Since then, we’ve played on records together and done a few tours together. To me, Randall is family, and he has been for a long time. Now he’s on the front line as well.
Atlanta has always provided the quintessentially weird and William Faulkner-esque Southern experience that Russian Circles’ guitar player Mike Sullivan hopes for every time the group passes through town on tour.
“I do and I don’t remember Russian Circles’ first show in Atlanta,” Sullivan says of the Chicago post-metal trio’s initial stops in town, supporting their 2006 debut album, Enter.
“We always played at the Drunken Unicorn back then,”he says. “I remember at one of those early shows that we played, Brent Hinds from Mastodon rolled up pretty early in the evening. He was riding a small BMX bike and he was tripping on mushrooms. That is exactly what you want from Atlanta,” he laughs. “And that was before any of us even knew Brent! He was there to say hi to someone else who happened to be there for the show that night.”
It’s fitting, then, that just over a decade later, Russian Circles’ musical trajectory carried the group from tearing up the stage for a sweat-soaked circle pit at the Drunken Unicorn to performing under the majestic stars of The Fox Theater, opening for Mastodon in 2017.
On October 29, Russian Circles return to Atlanta, this time playing a show at Terminal West supporting the group’s eighth and most recent full-length album, Gnosis (Sargent House Records).
Drop a needle into the record’s swirling orange vinyl grooves, and songs with titles such as “Tupilak,” “Conduit,” and the album’s title track weave together a rapturous opening salvo that is as heavy as it is pure.
Each song rises and falls with screaming, oceanic riffs and gut-pummeling rhythms in an ever-growing compositional sophistication that places the group on a tier that’s far beyond the post-metal continuum.
The guitars, drums, and bass swarm and move in ominous motions, as though they were guided by a hidden hand reaching out from somewhere deep within their collective subconscious. But as Sullivan asserts, these songs are among the group’s most meticulously arranged yet.
Throughout the album’s later songs— “Vlastimil,” “Ó Braonáin,” “Betrayal,” and “Bloom”—buzzing textures coalesce around massive and doom-laden imagery, painting a portrait of a society in decay.
The bleak beauty and the darkness that binds each song together eclipses all of Russian Circles’ previous offerings, delivering a record that is as furious as it is inquisitive, conjuring a mysterious aura of spiritual anxiety that takes shape as a singular work of understated impressionism.
The title itself, Gnosis, is the Greek word for knowledge, which often appears in religious texts denoting a deeper understanding of the universe that is arrived at only through direct engagement with the divine.
“And what is the divine?” Sullivan asks while pushing the conversation closer toward the album’s unrequited mystical angst. “What if we got it all wrong?” He asks. “What if we misinterpreted elements of faith and spirituality? What if we misinterpreted the Bible? What if we’re taking away the wrong message?”
In the end, there are no answers waiting to reveal themselves within the album’s monstrous roar and crushing rhythms, only a profound sense of reckoning with the unknown.
“That’s something that’s personal, and it’s different for each person, but it’s all tied to this idea of spiritual knowledge,” Sullivan says.
Russian Circles’ co-founding members, Sullivan and drummer Dave Turncrantz have been friends since growing up together in St. Louis.
According to lore, they’re both lifelong hockey fans, and they took the name for the band from an ice hockey practice drill.
Turncrantz is a former drummer with fellow St. Louisan heavy rockers Riddle of Steel.
Bass player Brian Cook is also from St. Louis. He has performed in These Arms Are Snakes, Botch, and played bass in Sullivan’s previous instrumental math rock outfit Dakota/Dakota. Cook joined Russian Circles in 2009, replacing original bass player Colin DeKuiper.
Over the years, Russian Circles has undergone a tremendous creative evolution that balances the lilting strings and metallic aggression that forms the backdrop for 2011’s album, Empros. For 2013’s album Memorial, the group enlisted the voice of gothic-folk vocalist and songwriter Chelsea Wolfe, who expands the group’s dynamic with her voice on the album’s self-titled closing track.
Written and recorded during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the songs on Gnosis turn inward, capturing a singularly troubled time for the group, and for the rest of the world.
Quarantine orders kept each of the group’s members behind closed doors, creating an environment in which no one was playing music or writing together at all: No practicing, no jamming, no happy accidents, and no opportunity for mutual organic growth. So rather than building songs out of ideas and fragments that were captured live and in the moment, fully formed demos were written and recorded in Sullivan, Cook, and Turncrantz’s respective isolation. Later, they shared their songs with each other and paired the material down to create a stylistically physical and visceral release.
“Gnosis was 100-percent written in our own worlds,” Sullivan says. “It was like, you construct a song on a blank grid, and parts are added, which is a way more immersive experience, as far as presenting a full arrangement: Here are additional guitars. Here’s how it will transition to the next part. It’s a completely different and more controlled approach for us. Before, it was kind of like, we would get together and just hope that something good would happen, which is kind of terrifying,” he laughs. “The songs on our first album, Enter, were just me and Dave jamming together in a room. Now, whenever we get together, we know what we’re working on. There are plenty of ideas to choose from. And if we don’t wanna work on one, there are even other ideas we can start hammering away at yet.”
The bass and drums for Gnosis were tracked at Electrical Audio in Chicago by Kurt Ballou, who also recorded the guitar and synth parts at God City Studio in Salem, Massachusetts. Ballou also engineered and mixed the album at God City.
Gnosis is the third record that Russian Circles has made with Ballou, following 2016’s Guidance and 2019’s Blood Year. It’s also the second album for which the group divided its time between Electrical Audio and God City.
“God’s City is great because we go there and Kurt has the home field advantage,” Sullivan says. “There are so many pedals, and so many different toys to play with, and different amps. As a guitar player, I’ll never complain about heading over to God City. It makes the record way more diverse sounding, just knowing all of the gizmos that he has to play with there. Kurt is also really familiar with Electrical Audio, and he just knows what to do instinctively, and he knows how to manipulate all the rack gear and everything,” Sullivan adds. “He has preferences for mics and compressors, and a lot of it goes off of Dave’s performances and tuning and Kurt excelling at what he does. What those two came up with is the best drum tone we could have captured.”
One of the more compelling moments of Gnosis, takes shape minutes into the album’s title track. The guitar kicks in on a delayed stereo effect, revealing wholly new dynamics and greater depths in the album’s sonic dimensions. It’s an effect that’s mirrored in the album’s closing number, “Bloom,” and was also used in the song “Campaign,” which opens Russian Circles’ 2008 album, Station (Suicide Squeeze).
“It’s interesting when you start utilizing stereo manipulation,” Sullivan says. “It opens up the field just a bit more. Just now, we were jamming during practice, and Dave had in his ear monitors so that he could hear himself playing. All of the drums were in mono whereas the guitar was stereo panned. Ideally, you wouldn’t want mono drums by any means, but having it there opened up the guitars. When some things are in stereo and some things are mono, it makes the mix deeper. The instruments hit your ear differently, and in a really exciting way.”
Back in 2008, when the group recorded the album Station, their engineer at the time, Matt Bayles, as Sullivan recalls, said ‘Let’s utilize some stereo action here,’ which is how the technique became a part of the group’s repertoire.
“That was the first time we did that, I was like, ‘Wow, this is like a little bit of stereo magic. This is awesome,” Sullivan says. “Now, we’re starting to consider how that technique is something we should be doing live, making the most of it, and not just reserving it for records.”
Part of Russian Circles appeal lies in its style and how the group adapts its brand of instrumental dirges to a more traditional songwriting style, as they do with “Vlastimil,” where the group expands upon its already colossal sound, while reinventing its own musical techniques.
The chemistry between the band’s members and Ballou is clearly on display throughout the album. His approach to production and engineering dovetails with the tension that builds throughout Gnosis’ serrated and gargantuan epics.
As such, the nature of their working relationship positions Ballou as something of a fourth member of the group. His presence has become key to Russian Circles’ creative evolution and success.
“If you find people that you have chemistry with, that’s a huge gift,” Sullivan says. “Do not throw that away.”
Together, their work has yielded a late body of work that is greater than the sum of Russian Circles’ parts, even though those parts are quite impressive, summoning a sense of the divine on their own terms as they illustrate the complexity of the group’s songs and history.
With a new lineup in place and functioning like a well-oiled machine, OFF! is back on the road supporting the group’s first album in eight years, Free LSD (Fat Possum Records).
With Free LSD, Circle Jerks’ frontman Keith Morris, guitar player Dimitri Coats, bass player and Atlanta expat Autry Fulbright II (…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of the Dead), and drummer Justin Brown (Herbie Hancock, Thundercat) have crafted a vibrant and essential art-punk rumination on the end times.
Earlier this year, I spoke with Keith Morris while he was passing through town with the Circle Jerks. This is what he had to say about the new album:
“We listened to a lot of Throbbing Gristle, Hunting Lodge, Can, Einstürzende Neubauten, Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, Miles Davis. We spent time with a character named Enid Snarb who was in Bastard Noise and Man Is the Bastard. He turned us on to some of George Harrison’s work after he visited India.
Our engineer mixer guy worked with Kyuss and he mixed over half of Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We’re Floating In Space. We went to a lot of different places, rather than the Bad Brains, Blue Öyster Cult, and Stiff Little Fingers.
Autry Fulbright is playing bass, and he co-manages Thundercat. Our drummer Justin Brown plays drums with Thundercat, so now we’ve got a jazz drummer playing rock, and you’ll hear it. There are times when he’s all over the place, and we really have to pay attention to what he’s doing to play what we’re playing.
If your mind is free enough, and you’re able to see all of the different colors that we’re using, you’ll get it. There’ll be a lot of people that don’t, but we have no control over that.”
Anyone who’s paying attention knows that Genki Genki Panic cranks out new music at an alarming pace. It can be overwhelming to newcomers, but the group’s latest proper full-length, This Is...Dungeon Surf!!!, distills the spirit of a full-throttle genre-bending haunted-house and surf-punk saga into 17 spooktacular cuts. What sets apart these Georgia-by-way-of-Tennessee misfits from run-of-the-mill Tommy Bahama shorts-wearing surf parrots is an increasingly twisted descent into the outsider fringes of the grotesque. These howlies prefer the eerie light of the full moon to the warm California sun, making their wide-eyed instrumentals all the more engaging. Songs such as “Ghouls On Film,” “Radon Chong,” and “Smells Like Teen Sewage” show off a reverence for the classic reverb and kerrang of the Ventures, Dick Dale, and the Trashmen as much as the creepy underworld soundscapes of Vic Mizzy and Danny Elfman. There’s also an undeniable sense of humor being telegraphed in those over-the-top songs’ titles. “Massive Severed Laphog In A Paper Bag” leads the firebrand charge with delay effects layered over tons of reverb, so much so that it actually sounds like the song is splashing out of the speakers. Other tunes, such as “Terror Vision” and “How Do You Like Your Hyperspace Maggots, Michael?” are utterly gritty and nasty—in the most appealing way those adjectives can be used. “Drac’d Raw Dot Com” and “Smells Like Teenage Sewage” carry the distortion of 8-bit dungeon synth sounds to horrific depths; a nod to which comes through in the album’s title, Dungeon Surf. One, possibly two songs willfully violate the rules with vocals, depending on how you’re listening to the album. The Bandcamp tracklist is different from what’s on Spotify, and the CD features seven songs that aren’t on the LP. “I Was A Teenage Were-chud” tells a wicked tale of heavy breathing and depravity in the graveyard under the pale moonlight, embracing the monster-movie nightmares that the group invokes from the cover art to the ghastly tongue-in-cheek song titles. Hainters gonna haint, but this is the essential GGP release so far.
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Has it really been three long years since the Legendary Pink Dots last commanded an evening of shadowy and psychedelic revelry in Purgatory at the Masquerade?
Indeed it has. That performance supporting 2019’s Angel In the Detail can still be felt reverberating throughout the club’s rafters. Since then, there’s been, you know, a global pandemic working in tandem with socio-political absurdity and techno-angst gripping the world. As it all unfolds, LPD vocalist and principal songwriter Edward Ka-Spel has remained steadfast in his rich, kaleidoscopic vision, navigating heaps of new music—namely two solo records dubbed Prints of Darkness and The Great Outdoors, as well as the UK-based outfit’s latest album, The Museum of Human Happiness (Metropolis Records).
This latest offering is cut from a fast-paced blend of Krautrock and industrial-grade psychedelic ambiance bearing song titles such as “There Be Monsters,” “Cruel Britannia,” and “Hands Face Space.” As such, The Museum of Human Happiness is also a pandemic record, a quintessential document that’s tailor-made for coping with the black cloud of the COVID menace which is still lurking out there, somewhere, just beyond the horizon.
For this round of North American shows, Ka-Spel’s long-time cohort, keyboardist Phil “The Silverman” Knight, has bowed out of touring. In his stead, Randall Frazier of Bailey, Colorado’s Orbit Service is pulling a double shift, opening the show and taking on keyboard and electronic duties alongside Ka-Spel, guitar player Erik Drost, and live sound engineer Joep Hendrickx.
Bob Mould is on the road for this “Solo Electric: Distortion and Blue Hearts Tour.” Before playing at City Winery on October 12, Mould took a few minutes to talk about returning to life in America after spending some time in Berlin, experiencing socio-political deja vu, and to reflect on his years with Sugar and Hüsker Dü.
Your current tour is titled the “Solo Electric: Distortion and Blue Hearts,” which sounds pretty straight forward. Are you playing a pretty comprehensive setlist?
Blue Hearts was the fifth album for Merge Records that was recorded with the same rhythm section—Jason Narducy on bass and Jon Wurster on drums—and with the same engineer, Beau Sorenson. Blue Hearts came out in September 2020. Obviously nobody was touring at that point.
In October of 2020, the Distortion box sets started coming out on Demon Records in the UK. It was a 30-year career retrospective that took from the first solo album, Workbook, all the way through Sunshine Rock, which was the fourth solo album with Merge. In the fall of 2021, myself, Jon, and Jason did a pretty quick North American tour. Since then, I’ve mostly been doing solo electric stuff, touching on everything from Hüsker Dü and Sugar and the solo albums up to Blue Hearts.
The expense of touring is pretty high right now, and tours are still getting canceled left and right because people are getting sick. So for the time being, the solo electric thing is the easiest way for me to tour.
Most of the press that Blue Hearts has received hangs on it being about your return to the States after living in Berlin for a few years, and getting an eyeful of how much things had changed in a very short time.
The first half of Blue Hearts feels like a return to Hüsker Dü songwriting form.
Yeah, I felt like the fall of 2019 was a lot like the fall of 1983. The country was pretty unhinged, and sadly it seems to have gotten worse.
Staying in the fall of 2019, I’d been spending a lot of time in Germany. I was aware of what was happening in America, but when you come back to the US and you’re surrounded by 24-hour news cycles, and just all of the insanity that is America when things get like this, it felt very similar to my state of mind and my state of being, and how I saw the world back in 1983. It made me think about what I was doing back then, what the environment was like at the time. Most importantly, I was thinking about how I approached my work and the messages at that time, and how little resources a band like Hüsker Dü had in 1983.
The songs on Blue Hearts are more influenced by the reflection of those times and how it seemed like it was deja vu all over again.
The songwriting was pretty direct, pretty political, pretty economical. The record is pretty fast and furious, so it got me thinking about how limited resources in 1983 led me to write and record—making it brief. Not dragging it out, not hiring an orchestra from Prague. Just the three of us in a room banging this stuff out?
So 1983 was the Ronald Reagan era and 2020 was the Trump era. What differentiates these times?
Through the ‘80s, we saw the ascent of Reagan, the Hollywood celebrity but, unlike Trump, Reagan was the governor of California. He had knowledge of how the political system worked. But televangelism was huge then—the moral majority. It was the beginning of HIV/AIDS, the cutting of mental health services in cities. That specific … Tony Fauci at NIH. It’s frightening to me some of the callbacks, whether it’s COVID or evangelicals, and all the sway that they hold over the Republican party. These are all things that I’ve seen before. It didn’t go well last time, and we’ve lost a million people to COVID in America.
At my advanced age, I did not think I would have to go through this yet one more time.
Did these songs come out of you pretty quickly?
Yeah. When I settled back in at the end of 2019, it did not take a lot of effort to look around and write what I know, write what I see. The song “American Crisis” had been kicking around for a couple years. That was the first track anybody heard off the album, but I actually wrote the music and the words for that in Berlin. Those lyrics took five minutes to write. There’s nothing sophisticated about it at all.
The remainder of the record; some of the music had been written in Berlin, but a lot of the words, and most of the music was written pretty quickly at the end of 2019. I went out and did about three weeks of solo touring at the beginning of 2020, tried out a bunch of the songs, and then we recorded the album in February of 2020, and had it wrapped up by the middle of March. That was when everything shut down.
“American Crisis” is the first song that you wrote for this album?
Yeah, that’s the North Star of the record. I had that one already put together in Berlin, probably later in 2018, and I just sort of followed the motif. The rest of the stuff came pretty easily.
“Next Generation” sounds like classic Bob Mold to me. Of course, I see what sets it apart from some of your other eras of songwriting.In terms of the strength of the song, though, I want to place it alongside something like Hüsker Dü’s “Sorry Somehow,” or maybe even “Hoover Dam” by Sugar. When you’re putting demos together, do you have a sense of when you’ve got a hit on your hands?
To me, that one falls closer to the mid-to-late ‘80s stuff I was writing. As a writer, I sort of look at it and go, “Oh, that would’ve been a Flip Your Wig song.”
When I’m working on stuff, I sort of know. I mean, I have x number of ways and x number of styles in which I write. I sort of know when a song is coming in that first 15 minutes if it’s going to either be a type A or a type X song. Then, it’s just a matter of wrapping it up and tucking in all the corners. I’ve got different styles of pop songs, punk songs, folk songs, songs with strings, songs that lean more on keyboards.
It’s sort of like, you get a couple free throws, you’ve rehearsed your free throws. You know how many dribbles you have, and where you’re gonna toss the ball.
Does it feel like there’s an uptick in interest in your songwriting right now?
I think people are still interested in what I do, both the work that I’ve done and the work I’m doing now. There are a lot of people that won’t be there in the future when another album comes out. In terms of politically charged punk music right now, a lot of the things that are coming out of the UK—a band like Idles being the main one that most people know, or Fontaines DC and stuff like that.
I’ve been a bit surprised that art in America hasn’t been as reactive as I thought it would be. Perhaps I’m not seeing it. Maybe it’s further underground than where I hang out, but for music specifically, it feels like more stuff has come out of the UK lately that is addressing the socio-political divisions we’re going through.
Maybe it’s because I’m in Georgia, but Mercyland recently released their long lost record, We Never Lost A Single Game. That’s been the subject of many conversations recently, and I’ve had more people talk with me about Sugar and Hüsker Dü this year than maybe ever before. Maybe that’s because people are talking about Mercyland’s record, which brings Sugar, Bob Mould, and Hüsker Dü into the conversation. Also, September was the 30th anniversary of Copper Blue.
That’s right! Hopefully I get to spend some time with David [Barbe] while I’m in town.
I think Copper Blue is just such a very disciplined, but really exciting pop record. I’m always happy that people have good things to say about it, and that every now and then it takes on a new life.
It’s tight and concise in ways that were very different from Hüsker Dü.
Oh … Hüsker Do was like a bunch of planes trying to take off the same way all at once. That was a completely different beast. Hüsker Dü was so loose and constantly rushing forward in the tempo. That was what people loved about that band. For me, discipline came my way when I started working with my recently deceased colleague Anton Fier, who played drums on both Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain. Working with Anton was where I learned how to study things. He was an amazing drummer. He was a real stickler for time and keeping things pretty strict. Sugar was the next iteration of the rhythm section, and we brought that discipline to the studio. Live, sugar was pretty wild.
What really set Hüsker Dü apart from many of the other bands of the era, like Black Flag, T.S.O.L., X, etc. was the savage tone of the guitar.
It was. And with Hüsker, with Sugar, and with Jon and Jason, it’s the power trio. The guitar tone has to cover a lot of ground and fill in a lot of spaces. That’s something that Pete Townsend had to do with the Who, and something Hendrix had to do. It’s a certain style of playing where you have to be a really good rhythm player, but also be able to sneak lead guitar in there as well, and as you said, it was a unique tone that was necessary given that it was the only guitar. The tone that I’ll be using on these solo shows is not very far away from that tone. So calling it the Distortion and Blue Hearts tour is a pretty literal description of what’s on tour right now.
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