Edward Ka-Spel on the Legendary Pink Dots’ latest album, ‘The Museum of Human Happiness’

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.

The Legendary Pink Dots and Orbit Service play Purgatory at the Masquerade on Friday, November 4. $22.50 (adv.). 7 p.m. 

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Bob Mould talks Sugar, Hüsker Dü, ‘Distortion,’ and ‘Blue Hearts’

Photo courtesy Merge Records.


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? 

Social media. 

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: L’Ultimo Gigolo on the songs that make up Panther Burns latest EP, ‘Club Car Zodiac’

Tav Falco and Giuseppe Sangirardi. Photo courtesy Prime Mover Media.

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. 

TAV FALCO: Photo by Eugene Baffle

I did an interview with Robert Gordon during the pandemic, about his book, It Came from Memphis ..

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.

Tav Falco & His Panther Burns, Twisty Cats, and Georgie Harris play The Earl on Friday, September 23. $18. 8 p.m. (doors). 8:30 p.m. (show).

Catch Panther Burns again at Fleetwoods in Asheville on Sept. 24 and in Chattanooga at Cherry Street Tavern on Sept. 25.

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Catfight!

DON’T TREAD ON ME: Catfight! Jennifer Leavey (from left), Stacy Kerber, and Katy Graves. Photo by Rose Riot.

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!”

Another song, the title track from Frustrated, penned by Leavey, appeared in a season 6 episode of The WB’s Dawson’s Creek.

“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.

Photo courtesy of Catfight!

“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.”

This story appears in the September 2022 issue of Record Plug Magazine.

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Vision Video: Haunted

VISION VIDEO: Photo by Alexa Jae Eyler

Death is inevitable. It is the natural order that affects every living creature, and sooner or later, it’s coming for everyone.

No two people cope with the reality of the situation the same way. For Dusty Gannon, the singer, guitar player, and principal songwriter leading Athens’ rising goth and post-punk outfit Vision Video, death commands absolute respect.

Gannon is a former Army rifle platoon leader who served in war-torn Afghanistan, and until this summer, he has worked for five years as a metro Atlanta firefighter and paramedic. He is no stranger to death, and fostering a healthier relationship with it is the idea lying at the heart of Vision Video’s latest single, “Beautiful Day To Die.”

The song also offers the first glimpse at what Vision Video has in store with the group’s forthcoming second album, Haunted Hours, set to arrive October 14 — just in time for Halloween.


“Beautiful Day To Die,” takes shape around a simple, powerful melody that’s layered in rich musical textures that open up an emotional evocation of mortality. Gannon wrote the song by pulling together aspects from different stories that he witnessed firsthand to illustrate the sentiments that fill the air when someone dies.

“There is a bizarre energy that happens when somebody has been pronounced dead,” Gannon says. “ A lot of the time it’s terrible, and awful, and sad, but if you look closely at it, and if you don’t shy away from it, you’ll see these beautiful moments that are hidden alongside the grief.”

Pushing the idea forward, Gannon relives the details from one of his recent shifts as a paramedic, when he pronounced an older patient dead on the scene.

“There was really nothing that we could have done, and there was nothing that this patient’s daughter could have done,” he says, while walking through the steps that are taken before a person can be declared dead.

“While we were waiting for the coroner to arrive, I was sitting in the kitchen with the patient’s daughter, and she was telling me all of these stories about this person, about their kindness, and about what an amazing life they had lived,” Gannon recalls. “There was so much sadness, but there was also this small and intimate celebration of this person’s life taking place. It was painful, but it was also beautiful. That is one of the motifs behind the song.”

This is just one of the stories behind the 10 songs that make up the new record. Haunted Hours is stylish, and steeped in shadowy imagery, while remaining existentially buoyant.

Vision Video was born in the summer of 2017 when Gannon and drummer Jason Fusco started playing music together. Singer and keyboard player Emily Fredock and bass player Dan Geller joined the band soon after.

Geller is a co-owner and Chief Technical Officer of Athens’ Kindercore Vinyl pressing plant, and he has a long history of playing in Athens indie, pop, and rock-and-roll bands, including Kinkaid, the Agenda, I Am the World Trade Center, as well as the Booty Boyz DJ team.

VISION VIDEO: Photo by Mike White

The band’s name gives a nod to Athens’ once-great, but now defunct video store, bringing something that they all loved back from the dead — at least in name.

Naturally, after living through his experiences during war time, and then confronting death repeatedly in the civilian world, Gannon needed an outlet where he could exorcize the many traumas that he has endured.

In April of 2021, Vision Video’s debut album, Inked In Red, arrived as a self-released offering. Songs bearing titles such as “In My Side,” “Static Drone,” and “Organized Murder” came out blending grim imagery with a gothic snarl, paired with campy horror film imagery. 


Each of these elements coalesced around a colorful, modern take on a classic goth, new wave, and post-punk musical lineage touching on everything from Joy Division and New Order, to the Cure, Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Sisters of Mercy. Each song was propelled forward by barreling dance-floor rhythms and major-chord songwriting.

The group’s cover of “Picture Of You” adds warm tones to one of the Cure’s most charming numbers.


And, of course, not all is so austere with Vision Video. A campy song about Gannon’s affection for the felines who walk among us, titled “I Love Cats,” proved to be something of a viral hit, sporting lyrics such as: “I love cats, so much more than I love humans. They’re adorable, hilarious, and not one of them is a Republican …” and “They might keep you up all night, but they’ll never take your human rights.”


If Inked In Red laid the sonic blueprint for Vision Video’s sound, Haunted Hours builds upon its foundation by slowing down and stretching the group’s ethereal pop drive to a dark and seductive breaking point.

Songs like “Cruelty Commodity,” “Death In A Hallway,” and a muscular reworking of Joy Division’s “Transmission” are so voluptuous that their hazy textures become tangible.

Gannon’s vocals meld perfectly within a lingering atmosphere marked by reverb and space. From the sinewy title track and “Nothing Changes” to the lingering reflections in “Unwanted Faces” and “Burn It Down,” the album strikes a balance between simplicity, urgent pop melodies and contempt for the failing world.

As such, the album is an assured follow-up that entrenches Vision Video’s stature as more than a flash in the pan for Athens music.

For this album, the group returned to Athens’ SubVon Studio to write and record with producer Tom Ashton.

Ashton is, perhaps, best known as the guitar player for Leeds, U.K.’ early ‘80s post-punk outfit the March Violets. He also did a stint performing live with Xymox, the early ‘90s iteration of Dutch darkwave act Clan Of Xymox.

Ashton has also served as Vision Video’s live bass player for several shows surrounding the Haunted Hours sessions, and continues filling in when he’s needed.

Before recording, Gannon wrote most of the music’s skeletal parts including the melodies and the chord progressions for the guitar and the vocals on his own time. As a result, the rest of the group had months of lead time to consume the demos while thinking about their parts to add, which were written while they were in the studio, working out the songs.

“That allowed us to edit on the fly, and there were no set opinions about any one piece,” Gannon says. “If something didn’t work, we changed it then and there. If somebody had an idea, we would field it. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But it was crafted in a malleable way where, on the fly, we could say, ‘That part doesn’t jive, let’s change it to this,’ and that’s part of the reason it’s so different from the first album.”

Ashton agrees, adding: “It’s just a more mature and spacious expanse. Dusty brought in a different writing approach which really paid off.”

Vision Video may prove the ideal outlet for Gannon to deal with anxiety and darker subject matter, as it relates to sadness, misery, warfare, inequity, and mortality — things that he’s witnessed personally — that can be expressed through aggressive lyrics and performances. But what has garnered equally as much (if not more) attention for Gannon is the Tik Tok character that he has created, called Goth Dad.

“The idea behind Goth Dad,” Gannon says, “Is to create a pure and wholesome character who makes people feel comfortable, safe, and accepted. There aren’t a lot of good father-type figures out there. My dad’s awesome,” he adds. “I was fortunate as a kid to have a really good, positive role model as my dad.”

The Goth Dad character that he plays has gone viral on social media via a series of short video clips that touch on everything from make-up tutorials to corny jokes, such as “What do you call a goth lawyer? Siouxsie Sue!”

“I have been trying to cultivate this place where people can bond and commiserate, and speak their mind about things safely and respectfully, hopefully positively,” Gannon says. “But even if it’s not, that’s cool too. It’s about finding a place for like-minded people to feel like you’re not alone. That’s like the worst part of having post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or anything like that. When you’re feeling like you’re totally in your head and alone, and even if you understand that people are there for you, sometimes it feels like it’s impossible to relay that to anybody,” he adds. “Those are the things that I’m working toward, and I hope that I foster that sensibility.” 

Still, it’s the music, and creating a spectacle during live performances with Vision Video that encompass the most important aspect of everything Gannon does.

“It’s like the difference between Twilight as a vampire series and Near Dark,” he laughs. “They’re both about vampires, but they have very different tones, they fulfill very different purposes, but they both fulfill something that’s meaningful in people’s lives.”

Despite Goth Dad’s popularity online, it is onstage in the material world with Vision Video where Gannon is at full tilt. Live, he takes cues straight from the Cramps’ vocalist Lux Interior’s playbook, imbuing high-energy rock with elements of an undead drag cabaret show.

“Of course, I want you to be in the message of the music when we play live, but I also want it to be fun, I want it to be a party,” Gannon says. “That’s the most important thing above everything else: Did you have a good time? Was it safe?” he asks.

When dealing with so much darkness and confronting mortality, levity plays a key role in bringing such death-afflicted music to life.

Vision Video makes their Atlanta debut on Thursday, July 14, with Vincas and Blood Lemon. 7 p.m. (doors). 8 p.m. (show). $15 (advance). $18 (day of show).

This story originally appeared in the July issue of Record Plug Magazine.

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Weathered Statues: The story of T.S.O.L.

T.S.O.L. Photo courtesy Jack Grisham

Looking back over the 42+ years that have passed since he co-founded one of Los Angeles’ seminal and most formidable punk bands, T.S.O.L., vocalist Jack Grisham doesn’t miss a beat when insisting that he is not a good singer.

“I do it, but it’s very uncomfortable,” Grisham says in a matter-of-fact tone. “I sound like me, and I am what I am. But when I got into punk rock, I never actually thought about singing. You just kind of screamed it. Next thing I know, I’m still doing it, still making records. … I like a lot of soul and pop music, and I like melodic punk,” he adds. “When I’m listening to punk it’s Generation X or the Jam, things that a lot of people don’t even consider punk. … Those guys could sing!”

Despite his detached self-criticism, Grisham is an iconic vocalist of Southern California’s late ‘70s and early ‘80s punk, death rock, and hardcore scenes. T.S.O.L. forged its fiery and confrontational sound and image amid the epicenter of LA’s early ’80s punk scene, alongside Black Flag, Fear, Cheifs, and the Circle Jerks. Blasts of Marxist and anarchist political leanings punctuate the full-on contempt in Grisham’s unrestrained voice, and the blistering tones and melodies summoned by guitar player Ron Emory.

In the beginning, Grisham’s short-lived band Vicious Circle developed a reputation for stirring up an atmosphere primed for violent altercations with brutal, shotgun-style blasts of jagged punk songs bearing titles such as “I Want to Die,” “Love Of Hate,” and “Complete Kaos.”


But with the arrival of T.S.O.L.’s self-titled EP for Posh Boy in 1981, followed that same year by their debut album, Dance With Me (Frontier), lyrical poetry and haunted tones blended with a punk charge, giving rise to a proto-goth etherealism.

This year, a new documentary film, titled Ignore Heroes will chronicle the group’s early days, its triumphs, stumbles, and resurrection. Grisham, who directed the film, says it’s not your typical rock doc, and feels more like “a fucked up Ted Talk,” featuring stand-up, live interviews with people who were either with the band, who paid the band, or who tried to kill the band. … And some animation.

“No famous rock guys, no one saying we influenced them,” Grisham says.


In the meantime, T.S.O.L. (True Sounds of Liberty) is in the van, traveling across the country, powering through a career-spanning setlist touching on everything from 1982’s “Weathered Statues” 7-inch, to songs from their latest album, 2017’s The Trigger Complex.

“Before the pandemic cut our legs out from underneath us, we were playing 90 shows a year — a lot of shows,” Grisham says. “Now, we’re like those guys who play pro ball for 20 years, they make every game, and never have a problem till they slow down. Now, it’s like every injury, every fall we’ve ever taken is catching up,” he laughs.

Grisham, now 60 years old, says it was drummer and vocalist Grant Hart of Minneapolis’ avant-garde punk trio Hüsker Dü who inspired him to delve deeper into writing lyrics.

“I still have the rhyming book that Grant gave me,” Grisham says. “I’m not that much of an aware kind of guy, I just go around doing whatever, without paying attention to much of anything. Grant was the one who asked me, ‘Have you ever looked at this book?’ It’s just a little thesaurus-type of thing that’s filled with rhyming words — probably something that he got in high school.”

Couching Hart’s knack for crafting gut-wrenching melodies around simple, powerful punk charges reveals previously hidden layers of depth within T.S.O.L.’s litany of classic numbers.

T.S.O.L. circa 1981. Left to right: Ron Emory, Jack Grisham, Todd Barnes, and Mike Roche. Photo by Edward Colver

T.S.O.L. emerged at the dawn of the 1980s, in Huntington Beach. Grisham, along with guitarist Ron Emory, bass player Mike Roche, and drummer and former Vicious Circle cohort Todd Barnes bridged SoCal punk with the emerging hardcore scene by way of dark imagery, and a full-throttle guitar assault in songs such as “Superficial Love,” “Abolish Government,” “Sounds Of Laughter,” “Wash Away,” and “Code Blue.”

The latter number, which appears on 1981’s Dance with Me, is a necrophiliac love song blasting lyrics that feel tailor-made for scaring concerned parents in the Reagan era into sending their disaffected teens straight to the nearest psychiatrist — “And I don’t even care how she died. But I like it better if she smells of formaldehyde!”


“We always did whatever we wanted to do,” Grisham says. “There were times when I haven’t seen Ron or Mike in over a year, and I won’t see them until I walk onto the stage at the show and say ‘what do you want to play?’ … We’ll do that,” Grisham says. “T.S.O.L. was in Penelope Spheeris’ film Suburbia, and we played two songs — “Wash Away” and Darker My Love.” “‘Darker My Love’ wasn’t even recorded yet,” Grisham adds. “I said we wrote this one last week, let’s do it!”

While lyrics in other songs such as “President Reagan can shove it!” from “Superficial Love” place T.S.O.L’s mystique firmly in the 1980s, having songs such as “Sounds Of Laughter,” featured in the recent HBO documentary, Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off, helps bolster ongoing interest in the group with younger listeners.

“There’s always something like the Tony Hawk documentary happening for us, and there is a huge age gap with the people who come see us,” Grisham says. “We see little kids in the audience all the way up to somebody’s grandfather hanging out, and it’s because we’ve been playing for such a long time. If you were 30 years old when T.S.O.L. started in 1980, you’re 72 now,” he laughs. “If you were 40 years old back then, you are 82 now!”

On stage, it’s the physicality of performing their songs that propels each one forward. “Fuck You Tough Guy” from 2003’ Divided We Stand, is one song that Grisham says is among their most exhilarating numbers to perform.


“To move to those sounds … I play that song like I’m a fan and not a creator,” he says. “The bass starts moving, and I feel like I’m a kid listening to this band play, and I’m just dancing along to the music.”

Since 1999, original T.S.O.L.’s members Grisham, Emory, and Roche have remained in place, restoring order after a long stint beginning in 1983, during which Grisham left the band, and vocalist Joe Wood took lead the group. Eventually, the Wood-led T.S.O.L. saw a total turnover leaving none of the band’s original personnel in the group, as they adopted a prosaic blues-rock and hair metal plod. Guns N’ Roses drummer Steven Adler famously sported a T.S.O.L. T-shirt in the 1988 video for “Sweet Child O Mine,” raising their profile with MTV viewers.

After leaving T.S.O.L., Grisham released a synth-driven six-song EP under the name Cathedral of Tears, and later fronted the sophomoric hard rock band Tender Fury. Later, he rebounded with the more pop punk-oriented sound of his band the Joykiller, and he explored blue-eyed soul and alt. rock with the short-lived group the Manic Low.

In his 2011 memoir, titled An American Demon, Grisham offers a brutal, true-life account of the depravity and extreme violence that surrounded the group’s defining years — much of it at his own hands. “When the book was finished, I really didn’t want to publish it, because it is so brutal,” Grisham says. “It is an absolutely true book, and I’m glad it’s out there.”


Keyboard player Greg Kuehn joined T.S.O.L. and added opulent piano flourishes to the songs on 1982’s Beneath the Shadows LP.

Drummer Todd Barnes died in 1999 after suffering a brain aneurysm related to excessive drug abuse.

All of the original members of T.S.O.L. have battled substance-abuse issues over the years, but post reformation, they have all cleaned up and remain sober.

T.S.O.L. circa 2022. Left to right: Mike Roche, Greg Kuehn, Jack Grisham, Antonio Val Hernandez, and Ron Emory. Photo courtesy Covert Booking.

The group’s current drummer Antonio Val Hernandez joined T.S.O.L. in 2017. As the story goes, he was a mail delivery carrier in bass player Mike Roche’s neighborhood. He was a fan of T.S.O.L., and one day looked in the window and saw a T.S.O.L. photograph. He realized that he was delivering mail to the same Mike Roche. Soon, they became friends, and after some convincing, he became T.S.O.L.’s new drummer.

With post-production work on Ignore Heroes wrapping up soon, and T.S.O.L. playing shows across the country, Grisham is also staying busy with a new book.

Maturity may be a bad word when mentioned in the same breath as punk rock, but for Grisham, if anything has changed over the years, he says he’s more aware of how his words and actions are perceived, and how they affect others.

“It’s kind of trippy, man, but I’m just more aware these days — I’m less willing to be hurtful to people, inflict damage.”

Still, T.S.O.L’s extremely catchy punk melodies still rage today with just as much urgency as the day they were penned.

T.S.O.L., Skin Jobs, and Twisty Cats play the Earl on Monday, June 13.

This story first appeared in the June 2022 issue of Record Plug Magazine

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A brief history of Kirkwood Ballers Club

It’s About Time’s Nathan Emerson performing at Eyedrum. Photo by Chad Radford

What might the last few decades of Atlanta’s underground music scene look like if beer sales weren’t a factor in determining who gets booked to play a show? If the cover charge at the door was simply a donation of whatever you wanted to give? And, most importantly, performers showed up specifically to play something new that they’ve been kicking around, all for an audience that’s hungry for adventurous music — the wilder and the more challenging the better?

The Kirkwood Ballers Club experimental open mic night at Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery every third Thursday each month opens a window into just such an intrepid world of creative music.

Tight Bros. Network promoter Randy Castello christened the Kirkwood Ballers Club at Lenny’s Bar on Memorial Drive (now the site of the live-work-play condo building dubbed The Leonard) in March of 2004. But the idea was initially hatched in the late ‘90s, while hosting late-night parties in the basement at KBC co-founder Unisa Asokan’s house on Martha Ave. in Kirkwood.

“We had a sign in the door that said “Kirkwood Ballers,” Castello says. “Playing music was always the center of attention and the reason for getting together there.”

Castello even recalls one late-night gathering during Kirkwood Ballers Club’s early years in which composer and indie rock/avant-garde luminary David Grubbs (Squirrel Bait, Bastro, and Gastr del Sol) came back to stay at their house after performing at Eyedrum with cellist Nikos Veliotis earlier that evening.

“It was late at night, he was on the road, and we started playing right beneath his room, it had to be so loud,” Castello says. “It got to a point where he came downstairs — he was so cool about it — and said, ‘guys, can we just keep it down.’”

From the beginning, Kirkwood Ballers Club’s mission has always been to, “provide an open forum for experimental musicians and performance artists who’ve found it difficult to get shows elsewhere around town,” Castello says. “I also wanted to create an idea incubator that would allow others to perform and experiment with each other musically, and to create and nurture new creative ensembles.”

In its various incarnations, Kirkwood Ballers Club has created an environment where generations of avant-garde musical energy and talent has flourished throughout periods of existence and inactivity.

During its early years at Lenny’s, a parade of local punk, hip-hop, jazz, and indie rock musicians would sign up to perform including everyone from garage punks and avant-garde musicians Cole Alexander of the Black Lips and Bradford Cox of Deerhunter to Grammy-winning saxophone player Kebbi Williams of Tedeschi Trucks Band. All utilized the format to create music in-the-moment that expanded upon their typical repertoires.

Kebbi Williams. Photo courtesy KBC

“The Kirkwood Ballers Club was always a place of pure freedom,” says Kebbi Williams, who often showed up with large ensembles of musicians who lit up the room with an explosive freeform skroking jazz set.

Years later, Williams facilitates a similarly-minded Sunday evening jazz jam at Gallery 992 in West End, building upon the energy he tapped into while performing during KBC nights.

“I learned from Kirkwood Ballers Club at Lenny’s and from the scene at Eyedrum how to be free,” Williams goes on to say. “I saw some of the most original and provocative things at the Kirkwood Ballers Club, and it totally affected my life as an artist.”

Kirkwood Ballers Club has also drawn the attention of nationally touring acts who happened to be in town for the night. King Khan’s first Atlanta show was a KBC night.

“I remember introducing myself to Arish [King Khan] and he sprayed me in the face with Silly String,” Castello says. “It caught me off guard, and I didn’t know what to say, but it turned out to be a great night!”

Over the years, KBC changed locations, setting up at other now defunct venues along the way, including 11:11 Teahouse, The Highland Ballroom, and The Big House. It even settled in for a late-night incarnation at The Star Bar in Little Five Points for a stint.

Oftentimes other promoters including Matt McCalvin, Waylon Pouncy, and Matt Greenia stepped in to keep it going.

Brad Hoss of Hoss Records and Ryan Rasheed of LebLaze and Prefuse 73 launched a New York version of KBC at Brooklyn venue Zebulon Concert Cafe in 2011.In Atlanta, mashup artist Greg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, songwriter Jana Hunter, and even John Dwyer of psych-punk outfit Osees have also made KBC appearances.

Kirkwood Ballers Club host Sun Christopher. Photo by Chad Radford

In 2021, the rebirth of Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery at its current location brought with it a wholly new iteration of the Kirkwood Ballers Club. Sun Christopher hosts the monthly event as Castello settles into his evolving role as Eyedrum’s Facility Manager.

In the modern era, KBC’s spirit has been embraced by a wholly new generation of musicians, signing up for a 15-minute time slot, all under the evening’s long standing tagline: “Bring an instrument, record, beat, turntable, laptop, prepared piece, song, film score, voice, bag of blood, agenda, youth rebellion …”

Ipek Brooks at Kirkwood Ballers Club. Photo by Chad Radford

Castello adds that, in the past, he never used the term “open mic” in relation to KBC. “I was worried that it would bring out a lot of singer-songwriters playing cover songs, which has happened from time to time.”

In Eyedrum’s new home at 515 Ralph David Abernathy Blvd., a wholly new set of faces has picked up the mantle, ranging from artists reading poetry, gorgeous minimalist piano compositions, blazing industrial beats, and free-form art-rock ensembles have filled out the roster.

Of the more recent staples of KBC’s monthly rounds Mikey and Hoff of the band Upchuck perform regularly with various new outfits. Another next generation fixture is noise artist Nathan Emerson, who performs sometimes solo, sometimes with an ensemble, under the name It’s About time.

It’s About Time’s sets have taken shape as screaming, squelching displays of noise, clanging metal percussion, and feedback, punctuated by blasts of fireworks, and Emerson writhing on the floor in a half-naked state. It’s a blend of real-time catharsis cut from abstract emotions — all set to the tune of old school industrial clatter and confrontation. It is the bleeding edge of the creative spirit that KBC has always nurtured, with precisely the type of DIY pyrotechnics that wouldn’t fly in most small club settings.

“When I first pulled up to Kirkwood Ballers Club I didn’t really know how my act would come across,” Emerson says. “I actually kinda intended to rile people up and maybe stir up the audience a little bit. Which of course did happen, but I think most folks kinda dug what I was doing. It’s so surprising to have a space where someone like myself can perform an explosive act, flogging myself and screaming bloody murder, and not even receive the slightest of heckles. There is simply not a more open and accepting space in Atlanta, in my opinion,” he adds. “Literally all sorts of people can perform whatever their hearts desire there. I’m eternally grateful to have gotten my career started there and continue to perform there whenever I can.”

For Castello, it’s this engagement with the community, and the love of music that keeps Kirkwood Ballers Club coming back.

“Getting something started, getting people to come and maybe they’ll want to start a band or a new project, or just to play music,” Castello says. “That’s what we do here, and that’s what we do it for.”

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Record Plug Magazine.

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LIVE REVIEW: Ministry, Melvins, and Corrosion of Conformity at the Tabernacle, March 22

Al Jourgensen of Ministry at the Tabernacle. Photo by David Batterman

The third time’s a charm! Over the last two years, Ministry’s “Industrial Strength Tour” had been rescheduled twice due to COVID spikes. The show was billed as the 30th anniversary tour for 1989’s The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste, a landmark album that set the music world ablaze with its fusion of thrash guitars and industrial-grade synth and percussion.

Legions of imitators followed, but few lived up to the high standards set by Al Jourgensen and an evolving cast of collaborators who sprung mostly out of Chicago’s Wax Trax Records scene.

If you were hanging around record stores circa ‘88-’92, you know that Jourgensen’s influence was ubiquitous — Ministry was a dark horse rising alongside Sonic Youth, Fugazi, Nirvana, Pavement, et al. But despite many fans’ vocal disdain, each new record plunged the group’s contrapuntal rhythms and new wave leanings deeper into the dark side of metal.

Uncle Al had an angst-ridden, politically astute, and heavy as hell vision, and he’s stuck to it all the way through 2021’s Moral Hygiene. But on March 22 at the Tabernacle, Ministry opened a window into that circa ‘88 era, capturing the height of Jourgensen’s creative output when he was functioning at peak performance.

Corrosion Of Conformity opened the show while the sun was setting over Downtown Atlanta. Along the walk from the MARTA stop at State Farm Arena where Justin Bieber was performing, there was a shift in atmosphere. The banter of passersby, mostly teenaged girls dressed in bright hues of pink and yellow, faded into more world-weary and black-clad men and women migrating toward the thunderous roar of C.O.C.’s “Bottom Feeder (El que come abajo)” and “Paranoid Opioid” echoing off of nearby buildings and across Centennial Olympic Park.

Inside, the group tore through a set of middle-period C.O.C. crowd-pleasers, including “Vote With A Bullet,” “Wiseblood,” and “Clean My Wounds.” On stage, the group embodies the kind of wise intensity and earnest demeanor that only a band weaned in the original era of Southern punk and hardcore knows.

Buzz Osborne of the Melvins. Photo by David Batterman

Melvins were massive on stage. No banter. No nonsense, aside from bass player Steven McDonald’s rock god maneuvers. He tests the limits of what’s acceptable, but why fight it? His on-stage swerving and reaching for the heavens adds excitement to the Melvins slow roar, and he backs it all up with a monster sound that’s tailor-made to boost singer and guitar player Buzz Osborne and drummer Dale Crover’s surly dirges.

The Melvins are masters of evoking an ecstatic-molasses state — they create an ambiance that summons feelings that fall somewhere between confrontation and meditation. Their set was bookend by “The Kicking Machine” from Nude With Boots and “The Bit” Stag. In between, they drew out their trademark crawling, teeth-gnashing atmosphere with “Civilized Worm” from (A) Senile Animal along with “Hooch” and “Honey Bucket” from Houdini. They even tucked a cover of Redd Kross’ “Charlie” from the Born Innocent LP in there as well.

In terms of sheer power, Melvins delivered a demonic show that was a solid counterpart to Ministry’s on-stage spectacle.

Jourgensen took the stage with his bandmates — guitar players Cesar Soto and Monte Pittman, bass player Paul D’Amour, drummer Roy Mayorga, and keyboard player John Bechdel — to a glowing backdrop of “Ministry Stands With Ukraine.”

The show began with a parade of hits. “Breathe,” “The Missing,” “Deity,” and “Stigmata” — a set list pulled pretty much straight out of In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up, the live VHS tape that so many of us wore out in high school. They even brought the chain link fence back to the stage.

From there, it was the dream-come-true setlist that so many of Ministry’s fans have always demanded. First came “Supernaut,” the Black Sabbath cover that Jourgensen delivered circa 1990 under the name 1,000 Homo DJs. Then came not one, but two Pailhead songs — “Don’t Stand In Line” and “Man Should Surrender” — from Trait, an EP on which he collaborated with Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi.

Jourgensen has surrounded himself with a coterie of top-notch players. Guitarist Monte Pittman has played in Madonna’s band for ages, and even taught her how to play guitar. The rest of the group’s collective resume covers everything from Killing Joke to Prong. They delivered seamless renditions “N.W.O.,” “Just One Fix,” “So What,” and “Thieves,” and, if anything, funked them up at an only slightly perceptible level.

Al Jourgensen of Ministry. Photo by Chad Radford

Ministry’s long career is marked by extreme highs, and devastating missteps. Tales of Jourgensen’s drug-fueled debauchery and near-death experiences have not been exaggerated (just read his autobiography). Along the way, he’s released a few truly unlistenable records. Rare is the artist who can bounce back from that. Jourgensen has defied expectations in the years leading up to Moral Hygiene.

He closed the set with three numbers from the new record — “Alert Level” followed by a cover of Iggy Pop’s “Search and Destroy,” and “Good Trouble,” an ode to civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis. In the middle of the song he led the audience through a chant of “we want our country back,” which seemed to mirror a sense of getting Ministry back on track.

Revisionism aside, stepping back into the worlds created by Ministry’s The Land of Rape and Honey, The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste, the songs of Pailhead, and so on,  even if just for one night, was a refreshing and empowering reminder of just how truly brilliant Jourgensen can be. — Chad Radford

The print version of this review can be found in the April issue of Record Plug Magazine.

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John Doe explores ‘Fables In A Foreign Land’

John Doe. Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

The ambience, the tales, and the characters encountered throughout John Doe’s latest album, Fables in a Foreign Land, occupy a mysterious time and place in the imagination. They could have been plucked from the pages of John Steinbeck’s great dust bowl novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” Or they could describe the American landscape of the here and now — post the COVID-19 pandemic.

When discussing his latest solo album over the phone from his home in Austin, the co-founding singer and bass player for Los Angeles punk icons X clarifies that it’s the imagery of pre-industrialized America that lines up with his vision for this conceptual outing. According to Doe, the title for the record materialized after most of the songs had already been written, each one serving as different chapters from an unwitting hero’s journey across the country amid the late 1890s. The narrator, a 17-year-old kid, has left home because something there went horribly awry.

“There is nothing left of home to return to,” Doe says. “These songs are their adventures: what they do, what they hear, and what they see while making their way toward the West.”


All of the experiences and all of the places chronicled in songs such as “Never Coming Back,” “El Romance-0,” “The Cowboy and the Hot Air Balloon,” and “Travelin’ So Hard” are ventures into the great unknown. The narrator must keep moving forward to find food, shelter, and enough money to get to the next place.


“The reason this might resonate with what’s been going on over the last couple of years is because there’s a lot of isolation, loneliness, and hunger in these songs,” Doe says. “That was somewhat coincidental.”

The seeds for the album were planted in 2018. The song titled “Missouri” was the first to materialize, followed by the first single, “Never Coming Back.” It was then that Doe realized that he had a good song on his hands, one that could open up the rest of the stories that he wanted to tell.

And like all songwriters, there is a veiled autobiographical element hiding just beneath the surface of every note and every lyric.

“Like a lot of people, I am sick of modern devices, learning curves, and things like that,” Doe says. “I use them, I’m glad that technology is here and I can stay in touch with my friends and things like that. But I don’t think what we’ve gained through technology outweighs what we have lost. At one point, I realized that a lot of these songs could take place before there were cars, before electric lights, before all that stuff,” he adds. “I was disciplined enough to stay on that track, which became kind of an adventure in itself.”

Fables in a Foreign Land, out May 20, marks Doe’s first solo release with Fat Possum Records, following the label’s 2020 release of Alphabetland, his band X’s first album with its original lineup in place in 35 years.


For Fables in a Foreign Land, Doe is joined by bass player Kevin Smith, who’s on loan from Willie Nelson’s band, and drummer Conrad Choucroun. Together, they are affectionately dubbed the John Doe Folk Trio, crafting a sound that Doe quickly describes as his version of folk music. That’s not to say that he’s done an academic dive into creating traditional folk music by the numbers, but he does draw out a songwriting style that takes lessons equally from folk music, americana, punk rock, et al. — none of which are mutually exclusive.

THE JOHN DOE FOLK TRIO: Kevin Smith (from left), John Doe, and Conrad Choucroun. Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

Other guest writers contributing throughout the album include Shirley Manson of the band Garbage, Doe’s X bandmate Exene Cervenka, Louie Pérez of Los Lobos, and outlaw country singer-songwriter and painter Terry Allen.

One of the more poignant numbers from Fables in a Foreign Land taking place in the modern era is “Guilty Bystander.” Built around lyrics such as, “We came into town to watch the ponies race, we spoke not a word when a master whipped a slave, there was blood upon his back, he was trembling inside, we turned away from the terror and fright,” the song is a brutal account, written as a response to seeing George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020.

Doe explains, “I was thinking a lot about slavery, who’s a master and who’s a slave, and does it apply to people? Does it apply to relationships? Does it apply to the way people treat their fucking pets? That’s not to say these things are the same, but it’s about the idea of dominance, and it was sparked by George Floyd.”

“After the Fall” paints a picture of one of the album’s characters hiding in a pool of water, surrounded by reeds and cattails, and looking down to discover their own blood is dripping out into the water, and realizing that they’re in big trouble.

“Throughout the album, there are a lot of references to spirituality, leaving the earthly plane. I’m sure that’s because of my age,” says Doe, who turned 69 years old in February. “You have to confront mortality, think about what it means, and hopefully do it in a positive way.”

“Destroying Angels” is an honest-to-goodness murder ballad, the lyrics for which were mostly penned by Garbage vocalist Shirley Manson. X had done a tour playing shows with Blondie and Garbage. “At some point, Shirley said to Exene and I, ‘We should write a murder ballad.’ I thought, fuck yeah! You’re dark, why not? Then nothing happened.”

A few months later, they crossed paths again. Doe asked whatever happened to that murder ballad they’d talked about? Shirley replied, “I’ve got the lyrics,” and sent them over the next day. Originally, the song was written as more of a traditional folk-style murder ballad. Garbage layered it with chords, and imbued it with a big, heavy, gothic sound. “I wanted to reclaim it for this record, because the story was a good one, and it fit right into this, to this time, this era,” Doe says.

Over the past two-and-a-half years, the John Doe Folk Trio led the way in terms of playing numerous live-streaming shows. But now that the pandemic is receding, it’s time to take the show on the road, which is an essential next step as he prepares for the arrival of Fables in a Foreign Land. But getting back out there is easier said than done.

One of his first shows between COVID spikes was playing in the East Bay area near San Francisco, and the experience was somewhat overwhelming. “I was 30 seconds into the first song, and I had to stop playing, because I was so choked up,” Doe says. “This tsunami of gratitude and love coming towards me, and me feeling that back in the audience… It was somewhat embarrassing. But there’s a reason why people have done this for years and years,” he adds. “There’s a sense of community in music that you just can’t get anywhere else.”

Having time off and working with Smith and Choucroun to create the songs and the sound of Fables in a Foreign Land was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But the lack of scheduling and of traveling made the prospect of retiring seem all the more appealing.

“I could be very happy taking the money that I’ve got, buying a piece of land with a house on it outside of Austin, where I could fool around with my horses and just chillax. But I need to work,” he adds. “It’s a daunting task, and not having done it for so long, you get rusty. But now people can go out and see live music again, and nothing can replace that.”

This story originally appeared in the May issue of Record Plug Magazine.

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