Why write a book about Atlanta record stores? The truth is that you get a singularly unique perspective on a city’s history, its culture, and its personality when viewed through the lens of a record store’s front window. I have often said that if you want to understand a society or a culture, just take a look at its pop culture, and music has always remained right there on the frontlines.
Atlanta is world-renowned as a hip-hop mecca, but a rich underground rock scene has been thriving here for decades. The hub of that world is the city’s record stores. Featuring decades-old institutions to shops that existed just long enough to leave an impact, Atlanta Record Stores is a rock-centric take on a hip-hop town, unfurling the secret history of music underdogs—outliers living among outliers—telling their stories in their native tongue. From Jarboe of SWANS to William DuVall of Alice in Chains and Neon Christ to Kelly Hogan, Gentleman Jesse Smith, Atlanta Braves organist Matthew Kaminski, and those surly characters behind the counter at Wuxtry, Wax ‘n’ Facts, Criminal, Ella Guru, Fantasyland, and more, all were drawn by the irresistible lure of vinyl records—all found their communities and their own identities, leaving an indelible mark on the culture of Atlanta.
Click below to pre-order your copy of Atlanta Record Stores: An Oral History. $23.99 (postage paid).
Jenny Don’t and the Spurs are making their way across the country, playing songs from their brand new album, Lovesick Crawl, out now via Augusta, GA’s Missing Fink Records. Before hitting the road, the Portland, OR-based group’s founding members Jenny Connors and Kelly Halliburton took some time out of their day to talk about the Cramps, Dead Moon, Wipers, and the songs that make up Lovesick Crawl.
Catch Jenny Don’t and the Spurs when they play the Earl on Feb. 23, and Fink Fest in Savannah on Feb. 24.
Let’s talk about what you had in mind when you settled on the song and album title, Lovesick Crawl. It’s the word “crawl” that really grabs my attention.
Jenny Connors: We were listening to a lot of music by the Cramps. The cover art for the album is by Stephen Blickenstaff, who did the cover art for the Cramps’ Bad Music For Bad People, which is a really cool coincidence. We’d talked about doing something in the style of the Cramps, but nothing turned out sounding like the Cramps as it evolved. It’s essentially about being in love with someone—being infatuated—and you can imagine yourself crawling across the floor just to get their attention.
The song originally had an intro that was similar to the Cramps’ “Human Fly,” but we nixed that along the way. Then Johnny from Missing Fink Records approached us about releasing the record.
Kelly Halliburton: Stephen does a lot of the artwork for Missing Fink. Johnny contacted us less than six months before the record came out. We did the recording sessions in February 2022, and finished songwriting six months before that. The idea to channel the Cramps came to us before we knew that Johnny was working with Stephen so much. It added yet another layer to the strange coincidences surrounding this record.
How did the two of you meet and start making music together?
Jenny: I started stalking Kelly around 2008, until I finally whittled him down to date me. I was up front for a Pierced Arrows show and thought it was great. The drummer was super hot and I wanted to hang out with him, so I wrote to him on Myspace. That puts a date on it!
Kelly: Our relationship as a couple pre-dates the Spurs by about three-four years. It took a while because I was touring a lot with Pierced Arrows. The singer and guitar player Fred Cole started getting sick around 2012 or ‘13 so the band slowed down and eventually ground to a halt. Jenny and I had talked about doing something together. It wasn’t until Pierced Arrows wasn’t really a thing anymore that we had time to make it happen. Eventually all of our other bands broke up and this was the last one standing.
Jenny: Kelly and I have a pretty big age gap between us. I was just about to turn 22 when we met. He’s 16 years older than me and said, “I don’t want to date a 22 year-old.” But I said “Come on, I’m serious!” And here we are. We got married last year.
When we were talking about doing stuff together, Sam Henry and I started gigging around town playing a bunch of songs that I already had, which I used on the first album. Sam became the drummer for the Spurs.
Kelly: At first it was me and Jenny. I had an acoustic bass and she had an acoustic guitar. We wanted to keep it really stripped down, and not rely on anyone so that we could do this at any time, whether it’s on a street corner, in our backyard, wherever. It was purely acoustic and we sounded terrible. Something was missing. We didn’t have a ton of experience playing acoustically. All of our previous bands played amplified punk and garage rock. We wanted to keep it stripped down, but we asked Sam to play a snare with some brushes to keep time. Eventually there was a bass drum, then a high hat, and before we knew it, it was this loud, amplified thing with a full drum kit and electric instruments.
Jenny: Then we thought, “You know what’s really missing are guitar solos.”
Sam Henry was the original drummer for the classic Portland punk band Wipers.
Kelly: He played on the first three Wipers singles and the first album, Is This Real? They started in ‘77-‘78. He quit the Wipers in ‘80-‘81. I love everything [Wipers singer/guitarist] Greg Sage has done, but not everyone does. For most people, all you need are the first three LPs: Is This Real, Youth of America, and Over the Edge.
Sam quit the Wipers and joined Napalm Beach, which is kind of funny. Sam doesn’t play on the Wipers album Land of the Lost, but their singer and guitar player Chris Newman drew the dinosaur artwork, which is the weirdest cover, but they were all weirdos [laughs].
Jenny: When we were on tour, a lot of people would come up and say, “No way, Sam Henry from Napalm Death!” [laughs].
I was hanging around a record shop with a few older guys when the Wipers ‘96 album The Herd came out. They said, “Uh, this is gonna suck!” But I took the promo CD home, and even though it wasn’t cool to like The Herd, I loved it. The guitar playing is cosmic.
Kelly: Greg never deviated from his formula, so it’s not like anything on that record is all that different. He slowed it down, but it’s still dreamy, twangy, reverb-drenched guitar. He got more into the whole alien abduction thing. That album art has a fence around the world. That stuff follows Greg’s obsession with alien abduction. From what I understand, he firmly believes that he’s been abducted by aliens. If you look closely, that’s sort of a theme that runs throughout a lot of his stuff.
I’ll never hear “Alien Boy” the same way again.
Sam died in February 2022, but he plays on Lovesick Crawl.
Jenny: Yes, Lovesick Crawl features the last recordings that he made. At the end of our January 2022 tour, he wasn’t feeling well. We were heading to Seattle to record. His doctor said, “You need some rest,” so Sam told us he couldn’t make it. A lot went into scheduling, though, so we planned to wing it and go anyway. He heard that we didn’t cancel so he changed his mind and came with us.
We finished the recordings and were supposed to have a show in Everett, but he was in really poor shape. We canceled the show and took him to the hospital, which was the beginning of the end for him, unfortunately.
Kelly: He was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I want to say the day after the recording session ended. They gave him three months to live but he didn’t make it three weeks.
Jenny: Obviously, no one saw what was coming. We were at the end of a tour. He was older and everyone feels like shit after a tour. The doctor said, “Maybe you drank too much on tour,” which he hadn’t. But he did great during those recording sessions. He didn’t complain. He felt uncomfortable, and every day it was getting a little worse. Something was seriously wrong. In the end, it makes these recordings extra special for us.
Is there a song on the record where his performance stands out?
Jenny: The session as a whole stands out for me. But “Lost Myself” stands out because I think about when we were writing the song. He would say, “How about we try this,” or “I’m going to hit the drum like this.” I have a lot of memories associated with that song.
Kelly: It’s hard not to think about how difficult it must’ve been for him to get through those sessions. There are a couple of songs from earlier sessions: His drums are great on “Right From the Start.” We recorded that song not too long after we wrote it. Later, we did the session where the album version came from. There’s the single version and the version on Lovesick Crawl. The later version was recorded after we’d played it for a while.
Jenny: “Black Cadillac” is a good example of his ability to go all out, or scale it back. He’s mainly playing snare and the rim and clicking the drum sticks together, and adds dynamics throughout that.
Not a lot of players can entertain without playing the whole kit. They get bored. There’s a video of Sam playing that, and there’s never a dull moment.
It’s kind of a beautiful thing that he did what he loved doing till the end.
Kelly: If we’d gone to Seattle without Sam we wouldn’t be able to listen to these songs. The fact that he rallied and did it is a testimony to his dedication. He was 64 and he had a ball every time we played. He was an amazing person to be in a band with. There will never be another Sam Henry.
Jenny: After he passed away, Kelly, our guitar player Christopher, and I asked, “What does this mean for us as a band?” Collectively, we acknowledged that Sam dedicated the last 10 years of his life to this band, and wouldn’t want us to end at this point. We were all on the same page, and having that camaraderie helped with the grieving process.
Kelly: Sam was such a gregarious personality, and such an outgoing, loving person. He was a good counterpoint to someone like me who’s kind of a crab and wants to be alone most of the time [laughs]. He made friends with people all over the world. Everywhere we went there were people who knew and loved Sam. So everywhere we take this stuff when we’re out on the road it’s cathartic for people who loved and cared about him. We see a lot of teary eyes out front. There are a lot of people who are connected with Sam through this music.
A lot of what we’re doing now is for Sam. Why stop now? What’s the point in creating something that he cared so much about and letting it fizzle out.
It has to be rough for your new drummer fitting in as you move forward.
Kelly: Sam’s shoes are impossible to fill. It would be unfair for us to have those expectations for anyone. Also, the band is more than a working relationship. We knew Sam before the band existed. It worked better than any other band that we’ve been in. For someone else to jump in, that has to be hard and we respect that.
Jenny: For a new player, the songs have to fall into the structure they’ve been written in. But obviously if they bring other inspiration to it, it’s the band’s responsibility to respect everyone’s talents individually. Even though it’s called Jenny Don’t and the Spurs, we’re all equals.
Kelly: The band that came before Pierced Arrows was Dead Moon, which had an almost cult-like status. I stepped into an environment that was probably a lot like what anyone who’s playing with us is stepping into. The guy that I replaced with Fred and Toody was Andrew Loomis, who is universally loved. Everywhere we went for the first few years everyone was looking at me saying, “You’re not Andrew.”
Fred and Toody went out of their way to reassure me that I didn’t have to try to be like Andrew. I didn’t have to try to make my drumming style like his. Obviously I wasn’t going to do that anyway, but it felt good to be reassured. I want to extend that kind of welcoming courtesy to anyone who’s stepping into this band.
I joined Dead Moon in about 2007. They were on tour in the fall of 2006. They did a really long European tour and that was pretty much the end. They were all getting sick of each other. Initially Fred and Toody wanted to take a break, but Fred was always so restless. It didn’t take them long to form a new band. They called me out of the blue in March of 2007—maybe three months after Dead Moon played their last show.
I didn’t even play drums. I’m barely a bass player, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer. With so many expectations, it was terrifying at first. Not only am I not a good drummer, I’m also stepping into this kind of high profile situation where I’m in front of all of these Andrew Loomis-Dead Moon fans.
People were brutal about it. I was at a bar in Portland shortly after Pierced Arrows got going. There were fliers wheat-pasted on the bathroom wall. There was a Pierced Arrows flier with a photo of us and someone had drawn an arrow pointing at my head and wrote, “Worst drummer in Portland” [laughs].
Honestly, I couldn’t argue, but that was the level of hostility that I faced in that band. People warmed up after a while. It was also funny, because people invented a feud between Andrew and I—like Andrew was pissed because I took his spot. But Andrew and I would get together and laugh about it. He was as sick of Fred and Toody as they were of him.
Jenny: Another layer to all of these weird coincidences that lined up to where we are now: When I moved to Portland in 2008, I randomly moved into a house where Andrew hung out a lot. He introduced me to Sam, and then we started playing together. Small world! I didn’t know anything about Dead Moon and Wipers before I moved to the big city of Portland from Acme, Washington.
Kelly: In a bizarre, round-about sort of way, the existence of this band owes something to Andrew Loomis, which is awesome.
You have a new drummer now?
Jenny: His name is Buddy Weeks and we’re enjoying his presence in the band. Hopefully, if he still likes all of us after this tour, we’ll have a long relationship together.
Kelly: Playing together is one thing, but we love being on tour. Luckily he’s had a lot of touring experience. That’s almost as important as being able to play, because it ain’t easy. Putting four people in a tin can and carting them around the country for six months out of the year … There are only so many masochistic personalities that can endure that.
Jenny: You’ve gotta be able to play well and you have to be a good hang. You have to be funny. You have to be able to connect on some things outside of music a little bit, so you enjoy each other’s time together. There’s one hour of playing and 23 hours of being around each other.
Kelly: Christopher March has been playing guitar with us for almost six years. We’ve got him wearing a lot of hats. He’ll have the lap steel set up on stage, then he’ll play a baritone guitar for a couple of songs. We don’t have him literally juggling on stage yet, but we’ll incorporate that at some point, just to make his life that much more difficult [laughs].
There are moments throughout Lovesick Crawl that remind me of Hank Williams Senior’s recordings. It’s also rooted in punk rock mingling with country music—stripped down and rough-and-tumble. You roll with the mistakes.
Jenny: We enjoy it more when it’s stripped down and not super polished. We like music that’s a little rough around the edges.
Kelly: That’s certainly the music that I’m drawn to. I still own every piece of music that Discharge ever pressed to vinyl. A lot of people say that punk and country music are coming from these disparate places, but I’m not so sure their worlds are all that different.
Jenny: If the crowd is really entertaining and you mess up while you’re jumping around on stage … Entertaining is a lot more fun than worrying about perfection.
Kelly: Dead Moon was genius in their own way. No one in the band was a virtuoso musician. It was a lot more emotive than technically flawless. That resonated with people a lot more than these bands that really try to be total shredders. There’s a place for that, but there’s also a place for raw, emotive expression that comes from a different place than musical virtuosity.
That’s what attracted me to music in the first place. When I heard Black Flag for the first time I thought, this is it!
Kelly: Exactly, it doesn’t get more raw than “Nervous Breakdown.” It’s just a few minutes of raw aggression and teenage frustration. That set the template for a lot of things that are still important to me now, and I’m in my 50s!
Some of my earliest studio experiences, going back to when I was 19 years old, the drummer for Poison Idea, Steve Hanford, “The Slayer Hippy,” was a renowned producer. He did a bunch of studio work with some of my old punk bands. I learned a lot about recording while working with him. One of the things he would put into practice was if you can’t do it in a couple of takes, just ditch it and move on. Maybe come back to it in a couple of takes, maybe not. He always felt that the energy would dissipate if you ran it into the ground. I don’t know if it’s true that Poison Idea did that, but he always maintained that Poison Ideas stuff was done in one or two takes. That’s kind of our approach.
Jenny: The magic will go away if you do a solo 50 times. When I do a vocal I’ll do it three times. One warmup and two runs through it. It’s how I sound and it’s not gonna sound better if I keep doing it. On any recording you can listen and think about how you should have done something differently. When you’re in the studio you can do something over and over, but you learn to be ok with imperfections. This isn’t for us. It’s for the listeners, and they’ll make it their own.”
Ideal Conditions is an indie rock album that’s rife with layers of sonic textures, all distilled to a point of perfection, or at least Andrew Wiggins’ vision of what perfection should be for Thousandaire’s sound. “I think it all comes back to consistency,” he says over the phone while traveling from Baltimore to Philadelphia to play a show just a few days before releasing Ideal Conditions, the group’s second full-length recording.
It’s the definitive statement so far of Thousandaire’s musical DNA and the vocational drive that Wiggins has spent a lifetime honing, while maintaining control over every aspect of the music.
Wiggins is the vocalist, guitar player, and principal songwriter for Thousandaire. He is also the majordomo overseeing all creative and technical facets of the band in pretty much every situation imaginable.
In conversation, he offers a recent revelation that he’s had about leading the group, which includes bass player Chad LeBlanc and drummer Tom Bruno, while traveling up the East Coast and Mid-Atlantic states for this latest round of touring.
“We play the same, we sound the same, and we have the same amount of fun no matter what,” he says. “We’ve played in front of a hundred people and we’ve played in front of five people on this tour. We’ve played with everything mic’d up, and we’ve played with the most minimal set up, from a vocal PA in a tiny dive bar to setting up in a record store with a portable PA, and we’ve played with the same intensity. Despite these variables, it sounds just as good in any situation. That is very intentional for us,” he adds. “I have worked really hard to make that, and I didn’t want the record to be any different.”
Of course, Wiggins is pulling from decades of experience that encapsulate everything from playing and touring with a range of bands, including math rock outfit Blame Game and noisy post-punk groups HAWKS and Wymyns Prysyn. He has also spent time composing noise with his solo project Caesium Mine. Wiggins has also spent years doing live sound and mixing touring bands in venues including the Earl and 529. He also spends most of his days building fuzz pedals and repairing vintage guitars and amps at his self-run Moreland Magnetics business. “All of that experience goes into making this worthwhile for the 30 minutes we’re playing music,” he says.
Press play on Ideal Conditions and the opening number “No Good” channels an intense live band vibe, taking cues from like minded ‘90s rock acts such as Silkworm, Chavez, Dinosaur Jr., and the Meat Puppets. Asymmetrical guitar solos and fugue-like moments in rhythm take shape amid songs such as “Promise” and “Coward,” and in an older number, titled “Sgt. Billy.” Throughout each one of these numbers, extended compositions blend layered walls of sound and lyrics that are often contemplative, self-conscious, and always heartfelt.
Even at their most melodic and briskly paced moments, Thousandaire’s songs feel haunted and disquieted. Much of the inspiration behind the group’s self-titled 2020 debut album was sparked by Wiggins embracing a freshly sober lifestyle after years of consumption. Ideal Conditions reaches beyond the previous album’s blueprint as Wiggins tightens his focus on the art of crafting the music itself.
“Thousandaire was probably the best creative outlet for me to get out a lot of what I was feeling at the time, whether that was intentional or not,” he says. “I don’t need to get really personal in my songs. I have a therapist,” he laughs. “I don’t really need to use music as therapy, and all of my lyrics are hypothetical. But it is a vibe that I can’t really avoid. On the new record, there’s a little bit less of that. Time has put some distance between me and those feelings.”
In more recent years, lyrics have moved closer to the forefront of Wiggins’ mind as he has continued writing songs. The strength of the sound, the songs, the performances that keep him truly and naturally motivated.
“I used to get really frustrated about writing lyrics until one day, I was talking about it with our old drummer Adam Weisberg, after he’d moved to New York,” Wiggins recalls. “Both of us are fans of Cass McCombs, and Adam said, ‘I bet that dude gets out of bed every morning and writes lyrics all day long, whereas you get up and make fuzz pedals all day. So don’t worry about it so much, you’ve got other stuff going,” Wiggins laughs.
The raw and serrated tones and distortion of songs such as “Bar Song,” “Your Gold Teeth III,” and Ideal Conditions’ title track are instantly arresting, drawing strength from each one of their respectively visceral and emotionally stirring melodies.
“I listen to a lot of records, and I think what’s best for what I want is both consistency and intimacy,” he says. “We recorded this record as live as possible, and I want to put the listener in the room with these songs, instead of putting the listener in a balcony seat in a huge 2000-person arena where there’s a symphony that has all kinds of bells and whistles going on. There’s something to be said about those kinds of records, but it’s just not Thousandaires’ vibe.”
Wiggins owns all of the gear the band uses. He’s worked closely with drummer Bruno and bass player LeBlanc to customize each of their instruments’ singularly abrasive snarls.
Damon Moon at Standard Electric Recorders in Avondale Estates also worked closely with Wiggins to summon and recreate the sounds that Wiggins had stuck in his head, and to carve them out into real-world songs.
In this process, it’s the ability to adapt that sets Thousandaire apart.
“It’s the way we set up the equipment, the way everything sounds, the way we interact with whoever is doing sound. To me, it’s all about eliminating variables and stuff that you can’t control. If you get used to not having all the bells and whistles, like if all we did was play Terminal West where we have a huge production and a top line sound system, and then go play some record store, dive bar, or something where everything isn’t necessarily up to spec. If you can’t play your songs the same way that you play them on a big stage, then you fail.”
This extends to capturing the group’s sound on vinyl, or in the case of their latest offering, it’s on cassette. And what you hear is the culmination of Thousandaire playing under ideal conditions.
What at first feels like irony quickly fades as Upchuck’s vocalist and frontwoman KT and guitar player Mikey, laugh while explaining how spending time on the road with Melbourne’s garage punk provocateurs Amyl & the Sniffers instilled in them a sense of discipline.
“It’s true,” Mikey says. “We learned a lot from them in terms of professionalism and staying on point just by watching how they put on shows from the business end of things. We learned what it’s like playing bigger venues, how production goes, and how important it is that we show up on time.”
KT agrees, adding, “It really is a whole different game. You have to make some serious decisions if you’re going to keep stepping it up. How far do you want to take this? I learned there’s a balance between how lit do you want to get each night before you go on stage and how much do you want to deliver. I learned that there can be a natural, kinetic energy between peeps when you are on tour together, and that we can learn from each other.”
Both Mikey and KT’s voices collide, clipping each other out during a Zoom interview. Shaky connections stutter, freeze, and leap back to life—Mikey is in his car, holding his phone in his lap while driving home after a day spent working on the set of a new Exorcist film. KT keeps her phone in her hand while wandering in and out of darkened rooms in her home. For brief, fleeting moments the image of her face emerges from the glowing contrasts of the computer screen only to disappear again back into the inky darkness for the duration of our conversation. But she never misses a beat while talking, cracking herself up, laughing at her own answers, despite her sincerity. Then, a chime and another voice joins the Zoom, second guitar player Hoff announces his presence, by explaining that he’s dialing into our Zoom chat from work. “I’m listening, and I’ll might have some input here and there, but I’m running up and down stairs,” he says.
Chaos rules Upchuck—at least when viewed from the outside—following the example of their outrageous Aussie compatriots Amyl and the Sniffers, who’s early single “Some Mutts (Can’t Be Muzzled)” barked the song’s title as a primordial battle cry. Later, the same group closed out their second and most recent album, 2021’s Comfort To Me, with a song titled “Snakes,” in which singer Amy Taylor declares in her banshee howl, “Worked at the IGA, now I’mma famous cunt.”
For now, though, Upchuck’s members still punch a clock. All of this comes into perspective when parsing out the group’s hard, fast rise amid Atlanta’s disjointed, pre-pandemic local music scene.
The group came out of the gate strong in 2018, packing out DIY venues such as the Bakery’s original Warner Street location near the Adair Park and Oakland City neighborhoods, and the Drunken Unicorn on Ponce de Leon Avenue, with wall-to-wall mosh pits that sent bodies flying through the air like missiles.
The album was two years in the making, and arrived bearing a vibrant image of KT, screaming into a microphone with blood oozing down the sides of her face and hands. It is an instantly arresting image, captured by photographer Nathan Davenport, and shot only seconds apart from Marlon Garcia’s image on the cover of the group’s “Upchuck” b/w “In Your Mind” 7-inch single. It’s a pic that has become synonymous with the group’s fun and feral energy. The whirlwind of fury kicked up during their live shows as the group tore through early songs bearing titles such as “Shakin,’” “Wage of War,” and Upchuck’s fiery self-titled anthem captured the attention of everyone from the local hardcore scene to dispassionate indie rockers and beer-swilling college kids from all walks of life.
Sense Yourself is an album that’s teeming with the sounds of swaggering danger and youthful abandon, all embodying a deeply ingrained sense of innocence. It’s a celebration of intensity that reaches a fever pitch while traversing a shared, collective experience for listeners, a seemingly insurmountable task in the modern era.
Other songs such as “Boss Up,” “In Your Mind,” “Our Skin,” and “Facecard” coalesce around a forward-leaning momentum that has kept the group forging confidently ahead this year, all the while bolstering the spirit of Atlanta’s young, underground rock music scene onto the national and international radar. If ever there was a candidate for Atlanta’s 2022 album of the year, Sense Yourself is it, its thunderous rhythms reaching larger crowds from coast to coast nearly every day since it arrived. The album’s searing energy is matched only by its bounding urgency fueled by equal parts contempt for a broken society and camaraderie within the band’s ranks.
“These boys are my family, and Mikey is literally like my big bro,” KT laughs. “We all love each other unconditionally, and my POV is that this will never change. Someone would literally have to do something crazy to bring that to an end, but that will never happen because we’re all cool beings and we value each other so much.”
Aesthetically speaking, there is no realm that Upchuck does not touch. KT (Kaila Thompson), Mikey (“Spuzz Dangus”), Hoff, bass player Armando Arrieta, and drummer Chris Salado’ songs are driven by a defiantly creative blend of post-punk, hip-hop, and indie rock energy that’s channeled through a haze of distortion.
They prefer to identify themselves only by their first names, and to the ire of promoters around the country, the group’s social media presence is kept to a bare minimum. Upchuck has no Facebook page. No Twitter, and no Tik Tok. Just an Instagram account that allows them to project just enough about themselves to remain compelling to those who are genuinely interested in the music, and their numbers are growing.
“The songs are always changing when we play them live,” Mikey says. “Maybe it’s that the rhythm is different, or we’ll cut it short in a certain way. Change up the lyrics. Even the old songs we change up to keep things fresh—keep things from getting boring.”
KT continues his thought, adding that the changes are always unspoken. “Communication with us all has literally come down to just a look. We’ll all look at each other, and it’s like, ‘Aight, I know exactly what you’re saying.’ We all know what to do.”
“Hoff adds that he and Mikey have been jamming together since pre-Upchuck days, and developed the group’s shared musical instincts together. “We practiced the songs that we had for six months before we even played a show with them, so we kind of already know what to anticipate when we go into a song.”
This kind of interaction between band members during practice is one thing, but expounding upon that in front of a crowd of hundreds of people or more is something different. But it’s an instinct that the group’s members have continuously honed. “I feel like if that kind of energy and communication doesn’t happen during practice, it definitely won’t happen on stage.”
That energy translates across the board. “Perdido,” is sung entirely in Spanish by drummer Chris, and builds energy around the phrase: “Hago lo que quiero”—”I do what I want.”
The album’s title track also carries the explosive energy to a new level. The quick intro catches audiences off guard, as the rooms they play visibly come alive based on the riff alone. “That’s definitely by design,” Hoff says.
One of the album’s more introspective numbers, “Facecard,” finds KT taking on the superficiality of modern America: “The trifling yuppie fuck, comes out beyond the cut to try and low ball, low ball,” KT sings.
“It’s always on the setlist and it’s definitely a breather for me,” she adds. “It’s also one of those tracks where people hear the riff and start reacting immediately.”
The connection with Amyl and the Sniffers was born in July of 2019. The group was coming to the States and had booked a show at The Earl. Upchuck’s manager Randy Castello of the Tight Bros. Network seized the opportunity to lobby for them to open the show. He sent over a link to Upchuck’s demo tape on Bandcamp. “Amy Taylor responded almost immediately,” Castello says. “She was like, ‘Yes, definitely add them to the show!’”
Afterward, Taylor and her bandmates approached Upchuck, asking them if they wanted to play just a few more shows together. “It actually turned out to be a lot more shows together,” Mikey says,” and we both played the biggest show that either of our bands have played to date, at Brooklyn Steel in May.”
The show pushed the 1,800-capacity venue nearly to the breaking point, and opened up a whole new audience for Upchuck.
As 2023 approaches, the group is preparing to record its sophomore album for Famous Class. While the exact details as to where and with whom they’re recording remain a closely guarded secret for the time being, they’re heading to California in February to capture it all on tape.
“We’re definitely gonna keep working with Famous Class, regardless,” Hoff says. “Cyrus [Lubin] at Famous Class has given us so much creative freedom and trust, and aside from a few minor tweaks here and there, doesn’t mess with what we do at all.”
Mikey adds, “The songs that we’re recording are songs that we’ve been playing pretty much just as long as everything that’s on the first record, so the two should fit together really well.”
Teetering on the axis of punk, hip-hop, and indie rock, a sense of discovery, and the power of youthful energy, the new music contained within these songs—either live and in the moment or on record—is intoxicating to the end.
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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.
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.
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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Tav Falco is something of a renaissance man. The singer, guitar slinger, author, and provocateur began his extraordinary career in a cotton loft on the banks of the Mississippi River in 1979. It was there that he chain sawed a guitar into pieces during a performance art act. Since then, his notoriously outsider musical outfit Panther Burns has included everyone from Big Star singer and guitarist Alex Chilton to Minutemen and fIREHOSE bass player Mike Watt and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds drummer Toby Dammit.
These days, Falco calls Bangkok, Thailand his home. For Panther Burns 2022 U.S. tour, the group’s lineup is rounded out by bass player Giuseppe Sangirardi, guitar player Mario Monterosso, and drummer Walter Brunetti.
Over the decades, the Arkansas-born auteur has mastered a singularly primitive motif. Blues rhythms carry his less-than-pitch-perfect singing, creating an off-center momentum in which songs feel as though they could tumble apart at any moment. But he always reins them in, creating a marvelous avant-garde tension on the stage. In recent years, his sound has expanded to incorporate elements of cabaret and tango performances, which underscore his latest five-song EP, Club Car Zodiac.
Before his cabaret-infused blend of Memphis rock ‘n’ roll takes over the the Earl for an evening of music and mystery, Falco took a few minutes to talk about how the new EP came together.
Panther Burns are back on the road after surviving the global pandemic!
Yes, and these are the first shows that we have played since the height of the pandemic, when we played a contagion-controlled event at the Il Castello Della Spizzichina in Italy, and that was July 31, 2021. Now, we’re out supporting our Club Car Zodiac EP, which came out for Record Store Day’s Black Friday, and it’s a highly personal recording.
What makes this such a personal recording for you?
I wrote three of the songs, “Dance Me to the River,” “Tango Primavera,” and “La Brigantessa,” which I sing in English. I wrote “La Brigantessa” for a cabaret artist in Rome, Adèl Tirant. I saw her perform with La Conventicola degli Ultramoderni. When I met her I was so impressed with her that I wrote this song for her. In Italian, “La Brigantessa” translates as “a lady thief.” We got to know one another and she sings the chorus of the song that you hear on the recording. I am so very happy with how that recording turned out, and I hope people will listen to it.
The lineup on the record also includes Mike Watt playing some bass. You also have Didi Wray playing guitar. Were you all in a room playing and recording together or were these songs done remotely?
Mike Watt initiated this recording during lockdown. He said, “Let’s do a couple of songs and put out a single.” I thought, why not? So we recorded the entire record remotely. When I got into it I wasn’t happy with the vocals I was getting. So I ordered a large diaphragm microphone, and once that came the vocals started happening for me—and my software. So I said, “This is sounding pretty good, I’m gonna do some more songs for this record. I wrote one, called “COVID Rebel Girl.” It was highly electrified, but that one did not make it onto the record because everyone but Mike Watt thought my playing on the song was just way too bizarre.
So it’s just five songs, but it’s a rather dense recording. Didi Wray is a tango surf guitarist from Argentina. She plays on “Dance Me to the River.” That is a very personal song; lockdown was a very lonely period for me, and I delved into my interior life. I brought out a lot of what was floating around in the dark waters of my unconscious. That song is set in Paris, on the banks of the Seine. It’s a personal statement about separation, betrayal, unrequited love, a sense of loss, bewilderment, and general confusion. It was the end of a period of my life that had gone on for quite some time—the shattering of a relationship—and I wanted to treat it artistically. Doing that was a kind of catharsis.
Then there is “House of the Rising Sun.”
Yes, and that is a song that I have always wanted to do. In fact, most vocalists attempt their version of it at one time or another throughout their career. I thought it was time for me to do my own version. I did ok with it. I’m not unhappy with that track.
“Tango Primavera,” is the last song on the EP, and it’s a rewrite of an Ettore Petrolini recording from the 1930s, the cabaret artist from Rome.
Petrolini has a song called “Tango Roman,” which means Roman tango. I heard it performed in Rome by Maria Freitas in the cabaret La Conventicola degli Ultramoderni.
Maria performed that in the same cabaret that Adèl Tirant performs in and Mirkaccio Dettori plays the piano.
I had done a small show there with Panther Burns, and I became enchanted with this cabaret in the San Lorenzo district, which is the working class district of Rome, where Pier Paolo Pasolini lives.
I went back to Rome after the tour and said, “I would like to perform here.” They asked, “What would you like to do?” I said, “I would like to sing and dance with a dancing cane and a Matta Low hat—the straw hat, like French singer, actor Maurice Chevalier wore.
So I started working on some songs and rehearsing, and I came across “C’est mon Gigolo,” in French, by the 1930s cabaret artist Damia. So I got an English translation from some radio people in Paris, and I put together an arrangement in French and English that I brought to the cabaret. We do it in three languages now: French, English, and Mirkaccio sings it in Italian. It is the original gigolo song, not the one that Louis Prima had a hit with in the ‘50s by grafting together the original song with “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in the original, which is a very dark and expressionistic song. It’s an admonition to the gigolo of what will happen in the end.
I also brought in the Irving Berlin number “Puttin’ On The Ritz,” which has some racial overtones in today’s world. But that’s the song. I sing it, and anybody who’s heard it won’t deny that tune. And I do “Brazil,” which I do with Panther Burns, and “St. Louis Blues,” the W.C. Handy number that I recorded on Behind the Magnolia Curtain. After this tour, I will return to Rome and continue doing that under the adopted persona, L’Ultimo Gigolo, the Last Gigolo. That is my character, and I’ll bring it to America in 2023, probably as a Cabaret of Daggers, musical theater piece. We’re developing that in Memphis, with Mario Monterosso who will be the producer, as he has been the producer for my last four albums, and the lead guitar player and arranger in Panther Burns and on Tav Falco solo records.
Mario has a new record out called Take It Away on Org music. It’s a record of instrumentals from which he’ll be playing six tunes in Atlanta, prefacing the Panther Burns performance. Don’t miss that! It’s really outstanding what Mario is doing with these instrumentals.
Yes, I took the photograph that appears on the front cover of that book.
That photograph came up in our conversation. Robert said that you gave him some advice about writing, filmmaking, and anything else, and that was to just jump in and do it.
I think he’s talking about what I learned from William Eggleston. I was learning photography from William, and I asked, “How do you do this, Bill?” He said, you just have to jump in the middle and work your way out. That’s what Robert’s referencing, and that is true.
It’s good to prepare. Technique is important. Learn your instrument and learn your craft: If you are an actor you learn your body and your voice, but that will take you so far. You can learn from a mentor. You can learn in a school. You can be self-taught. You can start from the beginning of an itinerary that’s going to take you to a certain level of ability and control. Or you can just jump in the middle and figure it all out. That’s the way I did photography. That’s the way I did music and theater, and to an extent, film. It may not be the best way, but it’s one way.
In doing that you learn to rely on and to draw from intuitive sources rather than a dogmatic plan of some kind. Only now, after all this time, am I looking at music theory. I’ve started to study that because, Chad, I do not know a note from a molecule, at least not until recently.
Now I have an understanding of the concepts that go all the way back to the classic modes of music and poetry. It’s exciting, but I don’t know if it will help me as a musician or as an artist. It may help me on an intellectual level of some kind, and maybe on a subliminal secondary level. But I don’t see it having any direct effect on what I do. It might help me choose the chords that are more pleasing without having to do trial and error all the time, which is how I normally do it.
I want to communicate with musicians, and I want to do so in the language that I understand. And I want to have a better understanding of musical structure and dynamics in terms of notation, frequency, vibration, and how the musical scale and tonal parameters of music are understood. I’m making progress, but putting it into practice is not so easy.
Since 1995, Catfight! has delivered sweet and salty rock ‘n’ roll anthems, driven by three-chord charges in which their playfulness is matched only by their pedal-to-the-metal energy.
“We were never quite garage enough to be a full-on garage rock band, and we were never punk enough to be a full punk band, but we could go between the two pretty seamlessly,” says Catfight!’s bass player Katy Graves. “We fit right in playing Bubbapalooza at The Star Bar and we fit in playing Drive-in Invasion at Starlight Drive-in.”
Now, Graves, along with singer and guitarist Jennifer Leavey, and current drummer Stacy Kerber (previously of Mota-Litas), are experiencing renewed energy fueling Catfight!’s ramshackle garage-punk anthems.
Take Catfight!’s car trilogy: The songs “Blue Truck,” “My Mustang,” and “Backseat Baby” from their 1996 album, Kitty Glitter—all three have long been crowd favorites. The latter number, “Backseat Baby,” emerged as a response to a song called “Top Daddy (In A GTO),” a full-throttle psychobilly ode to a classic car and its seductive powers written by New York-based rockabilly trio Jack Black (not to be confused with the actor of the same name).
Over the years, the two groups developed a friendship after playing more than a few shows together in New York and Atlanta. Catfight!’s response is a ready, willing, and not-so-subtle reply that greatly eclipses the metaphors in Jack Black’s song in fierce and melodic high-pitched tirades.
Of course, there’s more nuance to many of Catfight!’s signature tongue-in-cheek lyrics, as other songs traverse a variety of topics ranging from more exploits with boys and fast cars to defending women’s rights.
“There is irony in the lyrics,” Leavey says. For more on this, look no further than the cover art for Catfight!’s “Panic Attack” 7-inch, which answers the question: “What would the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers LP cover look like without a bulge in the jeans?”
According to Leavey, “Some people take it straight, and don’t see the irony in what we do, which is frustrating.” Graves adds, “That’s when we get comments—like one night in Savannah, a guy came up after the show and said, ‘Y’all were great, but you would be much better if you were playing naked!’”
“We never had it that bad in the Mota-Litas, but we had a strong lesbian following, partially because we were signed to Amy Ray’s label, Daemon Records,” Kerber says. “We played with some pretty amazing people, like the Butchies and the Breeders.”
Leavey continues: “In 2001, we played Ladyfest at CBGB’s, and it was a genuine feminist gathering. I remember halfway through our set, saying, ‘All of our songs are about boys and cars,’” she laughs. “At the same festival we saw Tribe 8, and the drummer played topless. Talk about a true political statement! They had to cover all of the windows! … Here we are playing songs about boys and cars, but they are angry songs about boys and cars.”
The seeds for the group were planted in the early ’90s, when Leavey, who had been writing and performing songs steeped in the aesthetics of riot grrrl awareness and the underground grunge scene of the era in the band Bite, teamed up with Graves and drummer Ann Ciovacco who both played in Doll Squad. After releasing two 7-inches and two full-lengths, Kitty Glitter and 2000’s Frustrated, Catfight! scored a couple of minor hits.
The A-side from their 1995 7-inch, “Mamie Van Doren,” written by Graves, was picked up by Little Steven’s “Underground Garage” on Sirius/ XM, and named one of “the coolest songs in the world.” The song remains in rotation, and since “Underground Garage” is offered on airplanes, publishing payments have continued rolling in. The song also appears on the compilation CD, Little Steven’s Underground Garage Presents The Coolest Songs In The World! Vol. 4.
“I got to speak with Mamie over the phone, because Little Steven gave her my contact,” Graves says. “I got to tell her how great she was, and she sent me a bunch of signed 8x10s. She said, ‘My son Perry and I will listen to the song and we’ll just laugh!’ That was great to hear!”
“One of us will come in with song ideas,” Leavey says. “We’ll contribute our individual parts, but whoever writes the lyrics and the melody gets the songwriting credit.”
Ciovacco left Catfight! in 2000, and drummer Susanne Gibboney joined soon after.
In 2004, the group paired up with the Helgas for a split CD, titled Splitsville.
In 2005, Catfight! was tapped to create theme music for director Jay Edwards’ monster movie Stomp! Shout! Scream! about an all-girl band in the 1960s being tormented by a skunk ape — Florida’s version of Bigfoot.
In January 2020, Catfight! released a new single, “Majority Rules” (recorded with Gibboney on drums). The song brought an end to a decade- long writing hiatus, boasting lyrics such as: “Girl I want to see you get elected, girl I want to see you get the votes. You’re the one who’s writing the bills, taking care of business up on Capitol Hill. And when they try to
take our rights, you know I want to hear you say no!”
The song’s three- minute, 30-second blast revives Catfight!’s familiar rock ‘n’ roll strut, now with Kerber on drums.
“What I love about these ladies isn’t necessarily a political thing, but they’re bringing communities together—[Jennifer] designed T-shirts when she was locked in a room because of COVID, and is now selling them for a cause,” Kerber says about the Catfight! shirts being sold with 100% of the proceeds donated to Planned Parenthood and NARAL. “There’s a lot of good mojo in what she’s doing.”
While contemplating Catfight!’s nearly 30-year legacy, Leavey offers that one of the most important lessons that she’s learned over the years is to have fun. Reeling through memories of playing raucous live shows, while also recalling stories of witnessing divorces, pregnancies, and earning her PhD in Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis from Emory University, she says it’s important to always keep in mind why she’s making music in the first place.
“If you’re always thinking carefully about what’s going on around you, it’s easy to write music,” Leavey says. “When you get bogged down in life, and stop seeing what’s going on around you as an inspiration, writing music is difficult. It’s been nice getting to a place where we can talk and craft a new way of looking at things, and turn it into a song.”