JOVM chats with White Lies’ Charles Cave in a wide-ranging conversation centered around their latest album “Five.”
Interview: A Q&A with VALLEY’s Michael Brandolino
Last year, the members of VALLEY released the Maybe Side A EP, which featured “There’s Still A Light In The House,” a track that amassed over 1 million Spotify streams and received airplay on US College Radio. Building upon a growing profile, the up-and-coming Toronto-based indie quartet will be releasing their full-length debut Maybe through Universal Music Group later this year, and the album’s Andy Seltzer co-written and co-produced first single “Closer To The Picture” thematically deals with the vacillating and inherent cycle of anxiety and self-reflection in the deafening digital noise of 21st century living.
VALLEY’s latest single, “A Phone Call In Amsterdam is a slickly produced bit of anthemic, radio friendly pop featuring shimmering synths, a rousing hook and a tight groove that sonically reminds me Plain White T‘s “Hey There, Delilah” and St. Lucia — while thematically focusing on an experience that should be familiar to most of us — that moment when you realize that you have feelings for a dear friend, who you desperately want to tell; but you’re afraid of rejection and ruining a good relationship.
The up-and-coming Canadian band is currently touring with up and coming singer/songwriter and fellow Canadian Lennon Stella to support their most recent EP and new single, and the tour includes a stop tomorrow night at Irving Plaza, arguably their biggest area show to date. I recently spoke with the band’s Michael Brandolino via email about their new single, their tour, their influences and more. Check out the tour dates below, and the interview below the jump.
WRH: As the story goes, the members of the band met when a recording studio accidentally double- booked sessions and encouraged y’all to play together. Curiously, how does your previous project(s) differ from Valley? And when did you recognize that you had a musical and creative chemistry that couldn’t and shouldn’t be denied?
Michael Brandolino: The projects we worked on before Valley were kind of the stepping stones we needed to find our sound I’d say. We spent the years before Valley covering our favourite bands in high school and collecting our favourite sounds for the future.
WRH: How would you describe your sound?
MB: I’d say it’s very much a combination of our parents records and records that we discovered in the most formative years of our life. We’re always thinking about the overall story and how to tell it in the most honest way. We believe a lot in honesty and a freeing dynamic, while blending a lot of different sonic textures. For example, on this record we did a lot of acoustic guitar panning that sit quiet and create pads that sit under blanket under the song, which is something we learned from Coldplay but then we contrast that with a ton of drum machine samples from the 80s and 90s that glue these two different worlds together. We’re always thinking about bringing stuff like that into one headspace. It’s really important to us when shaping a record.
WRH: Who are you influenced by?
MB: We definitely have a very diverse list of influences ranging anywhere from John Mayer to Coldplay to Bon Iver and Ariana Grande. All those artists have put out records that have marked really important periods of growth for us as a band and personally. Super thankful to be living in an age where they exist.
WRH: Who are you listening to now?
MB: Currently really into Lorde’s latest record, love Bon Iver, Still Woozy, Lennon Stella of course, The Japanese House record, Fleetwood Mac, Ariana Grande! We’re all over right now. So many great albums have been put out this year.
WRH: Is there anyone in the Toronto scene, who we haven’t heard about in the States that we all should be hearing about?
MB: Hands down this band called Babygirl. They’re good friends of ours and we look up to them so much. Incredible story tellers and songwriters. We have a feeling you’ll be hearing about them soon…
Recommended first listens: “Overbored,” “Soft,” “Wish I Never Met You.”
WRH: You’re currently on tour with Lennon Stella. How has the tour gone so far?
MB: This tour has been absolutely incredible. We feel so lucky and fortunate to be on this run with Lennon. It’s our first major U.S run and we’ve been learning a ton. Watching Lennon every night and seriously has one of the most beautiful voices out there right now. Her songwriting is way beyond her years in so many ways and cannot wait to see her career unfold. So lucky to be a part of her humble beginnings.
WRH: Speaking of your tour, it includes a March 26 stop at Irving Plaza. Is it your first-time playing NYC? And what should NYC music fans expect from your set and from the show?
MB: We’ve played Rough Trade in Brooklyn before, but this is definitely our first time playing the Plaza right in the heart of the city. New York is so damn special to us. We wrote a lot of Maybein the city and lots of lyrical and production soundscapes take place throughout the album. It’s gonna be a special night, we can feel it.
WRH: Your self-produced, acclaimed EP, 2016’s This Room Is White amassed over 10 million streams – perhaps a result of “Swim,” receiving placements on radio and TV. Building upon rapidly growing buzz around you, your full-length debut is slated for release later this year. So far, the album’s first single “Closer to the Picture,” which was co-written and co-produced by the band and Andy Seltzer has received over a million streams and US College radio airplay. How does it feel to attain that kind of attention in such a relatively short period of time?
MB: It’s a pretty cool feeling, although we always feel like we could do better. We’ve been pleasantly surprised that every release does better than the last. Closer to the picture now one of the smaller songs on MAYBE according to Spotify analytics. Our most recent single “A Phone Call In Amsterdam” has performed the best, and we’re brainstorming ideas on how to exceed that number with our next single titled “Park Bench.” We feel blessed with any success we’ve had but always are looking to do better. There’s always room to grow!!
WRH: Your latest single “A Phone Call in Amsterdam” reminds me a bit of Plain White T’s and St. Lucia. What influenced the song? And what’s the song about?
MB: “A Phone Call in Amsterdam” was one of the earliest songs that we wrote for Maybe. I remember the initial idea was conceived around July/August of 2017 around the same time we also wrote “There’s Still A Light In The House.”
“A Phone Call in Amsterdam” in terms of concept came later. This one we really wanted words and feelings to flow freely in its early conception. Subconsciously the meaning came out of nowhere which kinda made me go “oh that’s what I’m writing about I know exactly where this is coming from in my life.”
It’s very much a love story set in a time and place from the perspective of a dear friend of ours. Though it’s wrapped up in distance, both physically and emotionally. The paradox of wanting someone in your life and being scared to tell them how you really feel but also not wanting to ruin something that is already good the way it is, by saying the wrong thing.
Your most current tour has you on the road for the better part of the next month, before a big festival date. After you’ve completed the tour, what’s next?
We’re planned to release another single, two music videos, and then the second half of our record MAYBE. We’ll be doing another hometown album release show in Toronto, date to be announced! We have some festivals lined up but we are also very eager to start writing and demoing again so will probably run away for a month in the summer and write.
Earlier this year, I wrote about J. Hacha De Zola, Rahway, NJ-born, Jersey City, NJ-based singer/songwriter and musician, who became a scientist and musician because of his father’s massive influence on his life. About a year within his Biochemistry, Ph.D. program, Hacha De Zola’s father died. Unfortunately, he had to quit school in order to support his mother and the rest of his family, but the situation presented him an opportunity to pursue his life long passion — music.
With the release of 2016’s Picaro Obscuro, the second of his two “urban junkyard” albums of that year, Hacha De Zola publicly insinuated that he might not continue on to make a third and that if he did, his plan was to “lighten up” the sound that he has previously described on some occasions as “boozegaze.” 2017’s Antipatico was the third album Hacha De Zola and his backing band had written and recorded in over two years — and with each successive album, Hacha De Zola increasingly found his own voice.
Hacha De Zola’s John Agnello-produced fourth full-length album Icaro Nouveau is slated for a March 29, 2019 release through Caballo Negro Records and much like his previously released material, the New Jersey-born and-based singer/songwriter and his backing band employ his “reductive synthesis” method which involves, “shooting the arrow and painting the bullseye around it.” Interestingly, the album’s material is also deeply influenced by the life and death of longtime collaborator, Ralph Carney, a saxophonist best known for working with the legendary Tom Waits. Carney not only served as a player but a spiritual guide and mentor for Hacha de Zola. “He was an integral part of this sound. He was my secret weapon,” Hacha de Zola says. “His horns were ever–present, as was his input. Not having him around for Icaro Nouveau was unsettling for me.”
Now, as you may recall, “On A Saturday,” found Hacha De Zola and his backing band drawing from old school barrio salsa but with a drunken wobble. Interestingly, Icaro Nouveau‘s latest single is the boozy and slow-burning blues, “Super Squeaky,” a track that sounds deeply indebted to Tom Waits and Bob Dylan among others.
I recently chatted with the Rahway-born, Jersey City-based singer/songwriter in an extensive and thoughtful email exchange about his science background, his eclectic influences, the “Urban Junkyard” sound, Ralph Carney’s influence on him and his work, the new single and much more. Check it out.
Photo Credit: Robin Souma
WRH: If I remember it correctly, your father had a massive impact on your life, as he had a key role influencing your decision to study Biochemistry – and that music has been a lifelong passion for you. Have your studies influenced your work and approach at all? How?
J. Hacha De Zola: My old man was both a terrifying and wonderful kinda guy. He inspired a lot of different vibes in me – some good – some not so good. But a couple of the core values he instilled in me as part of living an “observed life” is to be informed and always ask questions. To observe, learn and question everything. To think critically about things that matter to you such art, music, science, life, etc. To me these things are all part of the same cloth; the arts and sciences. Music is truly a science in of itself. The opposite is also true; science can be quite musical, particularly biochemistry, where you have this orchestrated dance of biomolecules, such as helicases, polymerases and ligases as in the example of DNA replication, all working together in a very methodical way, every component doing its own part for the benefit of the whole – in a way that’s very musical. While my music may seem to be fairly chaotic at times, there is a real methodical approach that I follow to create it. It’s the same way with approaching any kind of science where you have an idea or a question you want to flesh out, so you follow a thought-out plan to execute it as elegantly as possible. It’s a bit like playing chess at times, the fewer moves you make to reach a checkmate, and then the more elegant you are in your methods.
WRH: Who are your influences?
Hacha De Zola: I love everything – I have spent a life time studying and listening to everything that has ever passed by my ears. I felt I had to truly understand music, its place in time, and where I could possibly take it with my own approach. To me everything is relevant and possibly even useful to me in terms of musical ideas I may want to pursue. I don’t like to limit myself in any way in terms of musical styles so I have always kept my ears open to new experiences. However, the first music I ever heard as a child was Latin music, particularly Afro-Cuban music, guys like Perez Prado, Benny More, and Arsenio Rodriquez. At one point as I grew older, I started to listening to what most teens who wanted nothing to do with their parents, would listen to; rock, punk, pop, or even metal which I eventually grew out of as I wanted to learn more about music itself. I wanted to understand the most fundamental roots of all those forms and arrived at the blues. I started out as a guitar player with no interest in being a “vocalist” at all. I started lifting licks off guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Junior Kimbrough and others. From there I started getting into R&B (Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Ruby & the Romantics), soul music (Al Green, Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway), funk (Sly Stone, Parliament Funkadelic) and eventually jazz (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Moondog, etc). Later on in life, as in most recently, I have started noticed the Latin music influence on just about every genre of music today, and this has bought me back to appreciate the music of my parents, the first music I have ever heard. Taken all together, I feel that in not limiting my musical tastes has led me to be a better songwriter, musician and artist as a whole. As a vocalist and/or performer, I have some very specific influences or folks that I admire and incorporate a bit of who they are into what I do. Folks like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Captain Beefheart, Nick Cave, Eric Burdon, Lee Hazlewood, Serge Gainsbourg, Leonard Cohen and of course, Tom Waits. The guys are all very strong leading men. I hope to be one as well one day when I grow up! (ha!). Lyrically I borrow (or steal) from the greats! Poets and writers like Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Samuel Coleridge, Daniil Kharms, William S, Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, and so many others…
WRH: Who are you listening to right now?
Hacha De Zola: Let’s see what’s on my record player at the moment…
WRH: Over the course of a couple of albums and EPs, you’ve established a sound that you’ve dubbed “Urban Junkyard.” How would you describe that sound to someone, who’s completely unaware of you and your work?
Hacha De Zola: I feel fortunate to have been born and raised in a very diverse urban environment where I was exposed to many cultures and musical traditions/styles. Growing up in an “Urban” environment has enriched my life as an artist and has been a huge part of my musical journey. Cities, at least in my experience, are the most diverse of places where many different cultures, art, music and food collide to weave a truly rich tapestry. “Junkyard” because I am often selecting utilitarian forms or fragments or bits of music and disrupting them and re-constituting them in some way. Kind of like what Marcel Duchamp did with his “ready-mades” where an ordinary object is taken, reconfigured and elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist. These are composite structures or as in my case, musical compositions derived from existing musical forms – hence “Urban Junkyard.”
I like to think Urban Junkyard as my own musical movement. It’s a deconstructionist approach to not just music but also of poetry and lyricism, where I draw from the past, from existing musical or even lyrical forms, and then blow them up or break them down to their most basic forms. The resulting fragments are allowed to spontaneously or semi spontaneously re-form in order to create my own musical language. The result hopefully has a vibe, a look, a sound and a feeling that hopefully sounds uniquely like me. It’s a feeling that I have built “brick by brick”. On Icaro Nouveau, you may hear a Cha-Cha-Cha track at one moment and then a Spaghetti western-ish track to a bolero in the next. I am more interested in musical ideas than merely musical genres. This “Urban Junkyard” approach creates a new vocabulary from an older one which has lead me to another way to make records. I have always wanted to dismantle any excessive loyalty to any particular musical idea and look for the more fundamental or primal aspects that might lie just below the surface – to me that’s what “Urban Junkyard” is all about.
WRH: For the bulk of your Urban Junkyard work, you collaborated with the late Ralph Carney. How did that come about? How influential was he on you and your work? Was it difficult to continue without someone who played such a massive role in your creative process?
Hacha De Zola: I love and miss Ralph…
It was just after the release of my first record Escape From Fat Kat City, when I found myself writing furiously, losing my mind and holed up in some downtown Los Angeles motel for several weeks. The plan was to do all the writing in LA, and then meet up with a bunch of friends up in Portland, Oregon to start recording the new record which would become Picaro Obscuro. I had recently read that Ralph had just moved to PDX at the time and I thought “let me shoot him an email!” I grew up listening to Ralph’s playing, particularly on the Tom Waits records he played on, namely Rain Dogs. I also had Big Time on [a] cassette tape which I had absolutely worn out. I wanted to send him a well-placed, polite email in hopes he would actually work with me. I knew that Ralph had a particular love for bass saxophone which was all over several choice cuts on my first record. I had sent him one of those tracks to which he immediately responded via email with a single line “Is that a bass sax?!” – It was at that point I knew I had Ralph’s attention and before long we were in correspondence back and forth. A couple of weeks later, I found myself in a studio with Ralph and another longtime Tom Waits collaborator, musical saw player/multi-instrumentalist David Coulter. I was totally star struck by the experience and got a little “fanboy-ish” on Ralph who instantly made fun of me for it! Ralph didn’t like anyone making a fuss over him – He was so down to Earth and was always quick with a joke and a laugh. It was great fun meeting, working and hanging out with two brilliant musicians like Ralph and David. Ralph and I continued to become friends and got to know each other, talking online, writing and trading tracks via email over the course of the next few years. We would share a lot of our personal woes and artistic/musical frustrations. He became a bit of a mentor to me and I would always go to him when I was stuck or unsure about a particular piece of music. Ralph was my secret weapon. I could always trust him to take a track up a quantum level. I never told him what to do, he immediately knew what the track needed to truly elevate the music. There were many moments where my confidence was shaken, and Ralph would always be there to remind me to trust my instincts. “When the going gets weird – the WEIRDO gets WEIRDER!” which was something he would always tell me. He bought the best out of me and would always tell me to never be afraid of being who I am. He loved what I was trying to accomplish with this whole “Urban Junkyard” thing, he understood it and he was truly at the core of helping me develop what that idea means to me and its overall sound. I was absolutely devastated and heartbroken when I heard of his untimely passing. I lost my dear friend, collaborator and mentor. It was unsettling for me to even attempt to make a new record without his guidance. There were moments in the studio when I felt uneasy, shaken, and unsure but then I could feel him in the room. I could hear him in my head saying “Dude! Don’t be afraid to be weird! Just be yourself and the rest will come!” – The last thing he told me the last time we spoke was “Keep working on your bad self, never stop. Good things will come if you let it, keep showing up and keep doing the work! I love you Brother!” – I love Ralph, I’ll never forget him, and I think of him every day.
WRH: Your forthcoming album Icaro Nouveau finds you working with acclaimed producer John Agnello. How did that come about? How was it like to work with him?
Hacha De Zola: Oh, John’s a local guy! He’s originally a Bensonhurst, Brooklyn guy, but transplanted himself and the family over in Jersey City many years ago. The Jersey City arts and music community/scene is very close knit. Everyone knows each other, parties, and hangs out together fairly often. I remember seeing John around many of the art events in town but was always a little too shy to say hello. After my third LP, Antipatico, I wanted step up the effort production wise and thought to myself “Hell! Let’s write “Don Angello” a nice email and see if he would be interested in sitting in the producers chair for this next one!” which would eventually become this record “Icaro Nouveau”. I figured what do I have to lose? What’s the worst he could say?! No!? – To my delight, John hit me right back and was so generous with his “Sure – let’s talk!” response! John Agnello is a lovely wonderful man, to know John is to love him. He’s a real community guy, always there to lend a hand or sage advice or even rattle your cage a bit if ya need to get it together! I was pretty floored to think that the same guy who produced so many of my favorite records that I listened to during my formative years as a kid, is now producing my new record!Working with John was great! His attention to detail is amazing, I remember laying down some vocals for a particular track and he was in the control room writing down all the lyrics just for the sake of trying to get the best performance out of me as possible. He would really push me to work hard as well as all of the session guys in order to get the best out of us. He motivated us big time and in a way, you really wanted to give John the best because of the kind way he would motivate you – ya just didn’t want to let him down. After seeing the way he ran the sessions, I knew without a doubt that we were going to walk away with something truly special. Working with him was so much fun – there was never a dull moment! We have become really good friends since and go bowling on a fairly regular basis! I love the guy and lemme tell ya, the dude can roll!!
WRH: You have a unique songwriting process that you’ve referred to “reductive synthesis” in which songs aren’t fully written before you and your backing band arrive at the studio; instead, there seems to be a lot of improvisation and you kind of let the tape run, allowing the musicians (and presumably yourself) quite a bit of creative leeway. You go on to say that you’ll then peel back the various layers to fashion a song from what was recorded. How do you know when you have a finished song? And considering the unique creative process, how do you recreate that live?
Hacha De Zola: I like to inject a certain amount of uncertainty into my song writing process which can be a little risky at times because you never know what you are going to end up with. I never sit down and tell myself, “I’m going to write a song about this” or “I’m going to write a rock or a folk song.” That sort of approach bores me to be quite frank. I am more interested in musical concepts or ideas. I would rather borrow or steal a structure from an existing musical form of interest, break it up and then recombine it. I’ll sit at the board next to a producer like John Agnello and then bring in my cabal of musical associates. I honestly let the session players do whatever they want over these structures and just have them all throw the kitchen sink at it. Allow them to take ownership of the track for a moment. I am an enabler and enjoy that role! Maybe I’ll have a Jazz bebop trumpet player come in, I’ll have a Bulgarian folk music player or tuba player or a rock guitarist come in and just let ‘em go for it. While it may not sound like the most efficient way to run a recording session, efficiency is not what I’m worried about here. I never know what we will end up with and that’s part of the “voodoo” behind this approach. Sometimes you just might stumble across something special that was totally unexpected. So how is it a “reductive synthesis”? Once everyone is finished recording their parts, I’ll go back and listen. It is said that sculpture is a reductive art form where a large mass of stone is reduced or carved down to form a structure or form that is aesthetically pleasing. “I saw the angle in the marble and carved until I set her free” – I use a very similar approach when forming the “music” that will make up the “song”. Somewhere in that tangled mass of tracks, I will hear a song that wants to be set free. I don’t get to decide when a song is “done” but rather the song itself will tell me exactly what it needs – it tells me when its done. I never write a song about a subject but rather, the song itself tells me what it’s about. I will take a raw track, just full of noise and sound, and peel away the layers until the song is free to take on a life of its own. The music gets put together first, then the lyrics are completed next. I usually form the words to the harmony and melody later. In terms of the live show, most bands or musicians often have a set- live repertoire of songs that they have been playing for a long time that eventually will be taken into the studio to be recorded. I actually work in the opposite direction, the songs are formed in the studio first and from there the finished, “freed” song is then charted out and handed over to the folks in the band for the live show. I have developed two different kinds of the “live” show, solo J Hacha, which is an acoustic solo type thing performing songs that lend themselves to that kind of format, and then there’s the theatrical, full big band live show, complete with horn sections, percussive elements, live singers, etc.
WRH: Icaro Nouveau’s latest single is this slow-burning Bob Dylan meets Tom Waits-like “Super Squeaky.” Can you tell us a bit about what inspired the song and what it’s about?
Hacha De Zola: To be honest, I am never really sure what a song is about going in. I only get to know what a song is about once I begin to write it which is when it tells me what it is about. As far as im concerned, songs should always be open to interpretation. But if I had to take a guess, this is a song about being at the end of your rope. It’s about being resigned to one’s fate for better or worse. It’s a song about compunction, owning up to your own hubris, and about coming “clean” hence the title “Super Squeaky”. I have suffered a number of failed bad relationships perhaps (story of my life). I’ll go ahead and say I’m likely to blame for all of it. Ok I’m definitely to blame for all of it (lol). This song contains many of those kind of themes — heartbreak, hangovers, loss, moving on and hopefully redemption.
WRH: What’s next for you?
Hacha De Zola: I’ll never know! I take it day by day mostly! But I must say that it will likely involve developing this “Urban Junkyard” thing even further- perfecting it – honing it. I have so many artistic aspirations that I would love to explore. Some of these include film, theatre, and performance art. The music will always play a central role which comes first and foremost but I would like to do more. I am constantly writing new songs and thinking of new directions to take the music. Not too long ago I released a synthy- All Spanish dream-pop EP Syn Illusión. Maybe I’ll make a mumble rap-trap EP (lol) next or maybe even a reggaeton record (???). One of the best things about being an independent artist is that I can do whatever I damn well please! Not everyone will understand it but I’m ok with that! After the last few years, making these records and meeting so many spectacular players and artists, I have been really blessed with so many opportunities to take the art up to a new level. I would really love to take the live show on the big road, develop it further and make it as theatrical as possible. I would love to write an opera or a play/theatre piece. I would love to direct or have a hand in directing a film. As an artist, the sky is the limit, I love pushing boundaries and will keep doing so till I can’t anymore. All I can say is that I am excited about art, music and what is to come. Life is good and I’m blessed to be able to be doing this right now. Thank you!
Over the past couple of years, I’ve written quite a bit about London-based JOVM mainstays Ten Fe, and as you may recall, the act which, was founded by primary songwriters Ben Moorhouse and Leo Duncan officially expanded into a full-fledged band with the permanent additions of touring members and longtime friends Rob Shipley (bass) and Johnny Drain (keys), who are two of Duncan’s oldest friends from Walsall, and Alex Hammond (drums), who was with the band for the writing and recording of the band’s sophomore full-length album Future Perfect, Present Tense.
Written in an East London vacant driving license office, tracked in Oslo, Norway and finished with producer Luke Smith, Future Perfect, Present Tense thematically is a mediation on everything that has brought them all to the point of their sophomore album, and everything they’ve willingly (and perhaps unwillingly) left behind in actually getting there. Interestingly, the London-based act’s sophomore album is a decided sonic departure from its predecessor, as the material draws from 70s AM rock — in particular, Fleetwood Mac and others, while retaining an uncanny ability to craft slick and rousingly anthemic hooks.
I chatted with the band before their headlining Bowery Ballroom set earlier this week about their new album and more in what may arguably be one of the most fun conversations I’ve had in this site’s history. Check out the rest of the band’s tour dates and the interview.
21-Mar, Philadelphia, PA, Milkboy
23-Mar, Toronto, ON, The Drake Hotel
24-Mar, Ottowa, ON, 27 Club
25-Mar, Montreal, QC, Bar Le Ritz PBD
27-Mar, Detroit, MI, Magic Bag
28-Mar, Milwaukee, WI, Colectivo
30-Mar, Chicago, IL, Schubas
31-Mar, Minneapolis, MN, 7th Street Entry
02-Apr, Denver, CO, Globe Hall
05-Apr, Phoenix, AZ, Valley Bar
06-Apr, Las Vegas, NV, The Bunkhouse Saloon
07-Apr, San Diego, CA, The Casbah
09-Apr, Los Angeles, CA, Troubadour
11-Apr, San Fran, CA,The Independent
13-Apr, Portland, OR, Doug Fir Lounge
14-Apr, Vancouver, Biltmore Cabaret
15-Apr, Seattle, WA, Barboza
Interview: A Q&A with Mike Bell Co-Founder of New Colossus Festival
Co-founded by three New York music industry vets and longtime friends, Lorimer Beacon‘s founder and head Mike Bell, Kanine Records‘ founder and label head Lio Kanine and Kepler Events and Piano’s Steven Matrick, the inaugural New Colossus Festival, which will take place March 7, 2019 – March 10, 2019, will feature more than 100 handpicked, emerging indie bands and artists from the US, Canada, the UK and the European Union. Interestingly, the new festival takes place the week before SXSW, and that was by design: the festival’s co-founders view the inaugural run of their festival as a stopover that will give these emerging acts an opportunity to play at curated showcases at 6 different venues across Manhattan’s Lower East Side and East Village (Berlin Under A, Coney Island Baby, Pianos, The Bowery Electric, Arlene’s Grocery, and The Delancey for fans and industry professionals alike.
Additionally, the festival will feature a Kick Off Party at Piano’s that features local shoegazers No Swoon, a full kick off day that features afternoon industry panels and an opening happy hour.
As co-founder Steven Matrick told BrooklynVegan last December, the festival’s co-founders are aiming for a CMJ-like vibe. “CMJ left such a vacuum, not only for independent music venues, but for bands all over the world that used it as a way to play New York City every year,” Matrick told BrooklynVegan. “We chose a very convenient weekend to try to bring back that opportunity. We’d also been discussing a way for these venues to work together again and resurrect the collaborative aspect of Manhattan’s music scene.”
I recently got in touch with New Colossus co-founder Mike Bell by email to chat about the festival, its timing, what makes it different than SXSW and other festivals and more. Check out a playlist featuring the festival’s artists — and then the interview, below.
WRH: You’re one of the founders of NYC’s newest festival The New Colossus Festival, which begins its inaugural run next week. The timing is interesting because it’s a week before SXSW in Austin. What inspired you and your team to do The New Colossus Festival? How is it different from SXSW or from the countless other festivals that will take place over the course of the calendar year?
Mike Bell: The timing is no accident. I’ve been pretty connected with the international music community for over a decade and felt that NYC could be more “available” to artists as they pass through and head to Austin. Putting international bands together with some great local acts in a showcase set-up seemed to be the best way to be more impactful for the artists vs. booking a show on their own.
The entire idea behind The New Colossus Festival is to present great new music in a live setting. That’s really it. We don’t have brands doing activities or headliners who don’t need to be “discovered”.
WRH: What will the average concertgoer get from the New Colossus Festival and its showcases?
MB: This festival has been fully curated in-house and we truly feel the quality of the handpicked line-ups will speak for themselves.
WRH: From the flyer, there looks to be about 100 bands playing showcases during the festival’s three days. A lot of those bands are American or Canadian but there’s a fair amount of international representation. How were the participating bands chosen?
Mostly, the booking decisions were based on bands we like and had relationships with their teams.
WRH: Everyone who has gotten into music is a fan of someone. As a fan, is there anyone that you’re looking forward to see at New Colossus? Are there any dream bands you’d love to have play the festival, if you had unlimited money, etc. etc.?
MB: There are some bands I’m absolutely planning on catching. In the spirit of creating a level playing field for all the bands who are performing, I’d really rather not call any out by name publicly. Come find me and I’ll tell you who I’m going to see. 🙂
WRH: There are also a number of interesting panels during the afternoon, covering a number of topics including the importance of an indie label, finding your own formula in changing landscape, obtaining a visa to work and play gigs in the States, and mental health in music. How did you and your fellow founders find the speakers?
MB: We decided to do the panels as a way to offer the bands something more than just a stage to play on. This is for them to learn, network, and grow. The topics were chosen based on input from the industry and the panelists are mostly all friends of ours.
WRH: There are a lot of moving parts in a festival, especially one that features as many bands as yours. How long did it take for you and the team to plan, book and promote it? When will you begin work on the 2020 festival?
MB: I teamed up with Lio [Kanine] and Steven [Matrick] fall of 2017 to do a TNC day party at Pianos which happened almost exactly a year ago. This was more or less a soft launch. The event we put together went very well and so we decided to go all in for this year. Planning for 2019 began pretty soon after our 2018 event ended in March. 2020 planning has already begun.
WRH: Venues like Piano’s, Arlene’s Grocery, Berlin Under A and others will be hosting showcases. How did they get involved? With the Sidewalk Café closing, is there an even bigger impetus for keeping the festival in the Lower East Side? Do you foresee participating venues in Brooklyn or elsewhere, like what eventually happened with CMJ?
MB: We started with Pianos and went to venues who were nearby with the idea that we wanted to present great new music from around the world. We do not plan to expand beyond a walkable distance and plan to keep everything as tight as possible.
The idea with doing this on the Lower East Side made the most sense to us. It’s the most music friendly neighborhood in the city even though venue closings have been happening. Historically, this is where many people from around the world came to and lived when starting out the US. There are so many creatives who got their start there from the mid-19th century on the Bowery to today.
WRH: Where do you see the festival going in the 3-5 years?
MB: Hopefully still going! We want to grow and are looking at ways of expanding in ways that make sense while maintaining our goal of putting the music first.
WRH: What’s next for you and your colleagues?
MB: A little rest a little reflection… then onto 2020 planning\
If you’re a rabidly voracious music fan, who wants to brag about catching acts before anyone else heard of them, New Colossus may be for you — festival badges are for the entire 4 day and 3 night run are $50. You can buy a badge here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-new-colossus-festival-tickets-53519054934
I’ll be covering the inaugural New Colossus Festival. Check out the following social media outlets for my coverage, photos and more.
(Photo Credit: Tracy Ketcher)
(Album Photo: Niki Brody)
As I’ve frequently mentioned lately, over the almost nine years of this site’s history, I’ve written quite a bit about New York-based singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Kelsey Warren, a grizzled local scene vet, who has been in a number of projects as a side man, hired gun or frontman including Denise Barbarita and the Morning Papers, and Pillow Theory among others.
Initially begun in 2015 as a solo recording project with a rotating cast of players and collaborators for live shows, Warren’s latest attention-grabbing project Blak Emoji has gradually evolved into a full-fledged band that features Sylvana Joyce (keytar), Bryan Percival (bass, keys) and Max Tholenaar-Maples (drums). Now, as you may recall, with the release of “Another Club Night,” “Velvet Ropes & Dive Bars” and “Honey,” Warren and his collaborators quickly won attention from this site and elsewhere across the blogosphere for crafting slinky, 80s synth funk-inspired, dance floor friendly pop — a decided departure from Warren’s previous work.
Blak Emoji’s highly anticipated full-length debut Kumi was released last Friday, and yesterday I met up with Blak Emoji’s frontman and founder Kelsey Warren at Cadillac House in SoHo in a fun and easygoing conversation about the new album and much more. Check it out.
Interview: A Q&A with Nicki Bluhm
Over the past few months, I’ve written a bit about Lafayette, CA-born, Nashville, TN-based singer/songwriter and guitarist Nicki Bluhm, and although she began her career as a solo artist releasing two albums, 2008’s Toby’s Song and 2011’s Driftwood (which was re-released a year later), Bluhm may be best known for a six year stint as the frontwoman of Nicki Blum and The Gramblers, an act that included her ex-husband Tim Bluhm, with whom she also released a duet album, aptly titled Duets in 2011. Interestingly, Bluhm’s Matt Ross-Spang-produced full-length effort To Rise You Gotta Fall was released earlier this year, and the album, which is her first solo album in over six years was primarily written in and influenced by one of the most difficult and life-altering experiences of her life — a period in which she got divorced and her band went on hiatus. She then followed that with a seemingly spur of the moment move to Nashville.
Bluhm, who has frequented Music City for a number of songwriting sessions was deeply inspired by her time in the city, and how could she or any songwriter not be? After all Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Reba McEntire, Townes Van Zandt and dizzying list of songwriters have all claimed Nashville as a homebase at some point or another. “When I could come to Nashville on writing trips, it was just percolating . . . it was intoxicating,” Bluhm says in press notes. Around the same time, Bluhm met renowned producer, engineer and mixer Matt Ross-Spang, who was in town working on another album, and as the story goes, Ross-Spang and Bluhm quickly hit it off. “I really needed someone who was going to take the reins and have a vision for the album and he really did,” Bluhm says of meeting Ross-Spang. “My ex-husband had been my musical director, co-writer, and producer on all my records except one and I was looking for someone to step into that leadership roll, which Matt did very gracefully. I was looking for a clean slate; the only baggage I wanted to bring into the studio were the words to the songs I was singing. I wanted it to be a fresh experience; I didn’t want to even have history with anyone in the room that would pull me into old habits or ways of thinking. So we agreed we’d record in Memphis.”
Recorded at Sam Phillips Recording, the Rise You Gotta Fall sessions were primarily centered around the live tracking of a backing band of accomplished musicians that included Will Sexton (guitar), Ross-Spang (guitar), Ken Coomer (drums, percussion), Al Gamble (Hammond B3), Rick Steff (piano), Dave Smith (bass), Reba Russell (backing vocals), Susan Marshall (backing vocals), Sam Shoup (string arrangements) and a number of special guests. “We really just recorded live and we didn’t do that many takes of each song,” Bluhm says of the sessions. “The final versions we ended up with were all one take. It was really refreshing to go analog. It minimized over thinking and second-guessing; forced us all to stay in the moment and play from the heart. . . Throughout the session there was a lot of listening and trusting. Matt really spends time curating his sessions and who he decides to bring in; he knows how to keep the vibe right. What you are hearing is, as Jerry Phillips would say, ‘not perfection but captured moments in time.’” Bluhm adds, “These songs are quite personal. They are the conversations I never got to have, the words I never had the chance to say, and the catharsis I wouldn’t have survived without.”
“I had lost my partner in so many ways,” Bluhm recalls in press notes, “my musical partner, my life partner, my creative partner, and all of a sudden I was left on my own, to start my own engine. It was really intimidating and scary,” she says “but I had support from my management, my agent, my friends and family, and ultimately I just had this guttural drive that I didn’t even know I had in me. I was on auto-pilot, ready to move forward and take the steps I had to take to keep moving forward.” Unsurprisingly, album title track, “To Rise You Gotta Fall” is an effortlessly self-assured track that’s indebted to Memphis and Muscle Shoals-era soul, and as a result the single reminded me quite a bit of Nicole Atkins‘ Goodnight Rhonda Lee and Natalie Prass, thanks to a “you-are-there-in-that moment” immediacy and a fully-fleshed out narrator, who has the resiliency and determination that comes from living a complex, messy life, full of struggles, heartbreak, setbacks, small victories and crushing losses. And as the song points out, life will find a way to kick your ass in ways both large and small — and yet, you’ll always wind up in the exact place you needed to be at that particular moment.
To Rise You Gotta Fall‘s second single is the aching ballad “Battlechain Rose,” which was co-written by renowned singer/songwriter Ryan Adams and as Bluhm told American Songwriter, the song was inspired by a restless night in which her mind wouldn’t stop turning with thoughts of the past, of what she could have and should have done differently, of her inability to move forward and of her despair of knowing that relationship has become a phantom limb of regret and heartache. Coming from such a personal place, the album’s material thematically and lyrically focuses on the aftermath of the messy dissolution of a longtime relationship — there’s hurt, accusations, betrayal, anger, hatred and foolishness and yet, the album’s narrator won’t let an embittering situation change her, her outlook or anything about who she essentially is. It’s the strength and wisdom I’ve seen primarily in women, who after a breakup with someone can say “Yes, it hurts. I will cry until my heart burst — and then I’ll cry a bit more. But I’ll be okay. I’ve seen better and I’ve seen worse; but goddamn it, I won’t be fooled like that again.”
I recently spoke to Nicki Bluhm via email for this Q&A, and in typical fashion we chatted about a number of subjects — from how she got into music, her influences, how her creative process has changed with her latest album, how the writing of the album has been necessary for her mental health, writing with Ryan Adams, her tour earlier this year with The Wood Brothers and much more. But before we get to that, I will remind you that Bluhm has been touring with a backing band to support To Rise You Gotta Fall and the tour includes a July 25, 2018 stop at the Bowery Ballroom. Check out the remaining tour dates below — and then one of the most fun and honest interviews I’ve done in some time after the jump.
July 13 – Atlanta, GA @ Atlanta Botanical Gardens
July 14 – Charlotte, NC @ Knight Theater
July 19 – Scranton, PA @ Peach Music Festival
July 20 – Alexandria, VA @ Hamilton
July 22 – Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair
July 25 – Floyd, VA @ FloydFest
July 25 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
July 26 – Philadelphia, PA @ The Foundry
July 29 – Nashville, TN @ 3rd & Lindsley
WRH: How did you get into music — and when did you know it was your calling?
Nicki Bluhm: I started singing in the shower at a very early age…for my goldfish Ginger who lived in the bathroom. She had the pleasure of hearing me perfect ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ over many years of steamy rehearsals. Beyond that it was a very organic pathway. In my twenties I was encouraged to sing by a man I admired and respected musically and that encouragement brought me to where I am today; writing, singing and performing my songs. The sheer joy and catharsis that singing brings me is enough to know that it’s what I’m meant to be doing right now.
WRH: Who are your influences?
NB: There are so many. As a young girl growing up on 80’s radio, Whitney Houston‘s voice made a big impression and mesmerized me like no other. I studied every note she sang. As I got older I was turned on to other musicians like Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt and Sandy Denny (to name a few.) I have so much admiration for these women and the mark they have left and continue to leave on me.
WRH: Who are you listening to now?
NB: I have a habit of listening to the same records over and over and over. I started collecting vinyl in my late teens and 20’s and bought a lot of cheap records which turned out to be mostly records recorded pre 1970. I could listen to JJ Cale non-stop for the rest of my life and be satisfied. That said, I am trying to listen to more contemporary music. Some of my favorite artists right now are Mapache, Khruangbin, and Hiss Golden Messenger.
WRH: You spent a lengthy stint with your ex-husband in The Gramblers and To Rise You Gotta Fall is your first solo album in about 7 years or so. Hopefully, it’s the first of many, many, many more. How has your creative process changed since then?
NB: For the first time I went outside my comfort zone in all ways imaginable. I co-wrote with strangers in Nashville, recorded with a new producer (Matt Ross-Spang) and musicians I had never met in Memphis and basically forced myself to let go of anything familiar so I could invite new energy into what I was doing.
WRH: I’ve listened to this album quite a bit — maybe 15-16 times since its release, and what I find remarkable is that there’s an unmistakable simpatico between you, the session players and the backing vocalists. I know you had met producer and guitarist Matt Ross-Spang before the sessions but curiously, did you know any of the session players before that?
NB: First of all, THANK YOU! It’s funny, I felt that same “simpatico” right off the bat with the musicians and strangely enough I had never met them. Sometimes the stars align and fate brings you exactly what you need. That’s how I felt about this recording session and everyone involved. There is no denying it was meant to be.
WRH: Part of the album is influenced by your relocation to Nashville. How has Nashville treated you?
NB: What I love about Nashville is that you don’t have to explain what it is you do to anybody. Everyone just gets it. That has been a nice shift for me. The only downside is that because everyone is in the industry it’s tough to develop friendships because we’re all gone on tour all the time!
WRH: Nashville has had a long and rich history of some incredible songwriters who have lived there at some point. I can’t imagine any songwriter not being in awe of the fact that Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings walked down some of the streets they did or drank in some of their favorite bars. The city is also the home of JOVM mainstay Nicole Atkins, Ron Gallo and a long list of contemporary artists — but I was curious: are there any Nashville-based artists that the rest of the country should know but hasn’t yet?
NB: Funny you mention Nicole…we are actually texting right now…haha. There are SO many incredibly talented artists in Nashville. In my short time here I have barely scratched the surface. I was lucky enough to co-write with an incredible songwriter Simon Gugala. Writing with him has been a highlight for me here so far. I also love going to Santa’s Pub for the Sunday night country set that is put on by Carter Brallier. He had a gal by the name of Emily Nenni who just put out a record called Hell of a Woman. I haven’t listened to the record yet but her live performance was impressive and I dug her voice and vibe.
WRH: The album is deeply influenced by one of the most difficult periods of your life — with the songs detailing the sense of loss, hatred, betrayal, regret and heartache that often come about after the bitter end of a long term and significant romantic relationship, and the resolve to move on as best as you could. To me, there’s a bit of a hopeful undertone — that the song’s narrators will do more than just survive, that she’d be the type to thrive no matter what. While the album is centered within personal, it’s a universal experience. Curiously, was there any point when you were writing the album, that you may have been like “wait, maybe this is TMI?” or said “I can’t wait until that SOB hears this!”?
NB: Honestly, writing these songs saved me. I can’t tell you how important it was for me to get these ruminating thoughts out of my head. It was something I needed to do for my mental health. People have different ways of coping with trauma; what helps me is writing. I had no intention of being spiteful in the process but I had to speak my truth and remain authentic to myself and my experience. Music has helped me get through so many difficult periods of my life, it’s made me feel less alone in my struggles. This record and these songs are my contribution to that sentiment. If hearing what I went through brings someone comfort, I have accomplished what I set out to do.
WRH: The album features two co-writes with Ryan Adams, if I remember it correctly. How did that come about? How was like to work with him?
NB: We became friends through mutual admiration and began working together on some stuff. There is no rhyme or reason to the way Ryan operates. Our time together was spontaneous and could never be repeated but I am forever grateful for the songs that came out of our time together. He has a way of pulling words from the ether like no one I’ve ever known before.
WRH: “Battlechain Rose,” is one of those Ryan Adams co-writes. How did the concept for the video come about?
NB: My dear friend and neighbor Scot Sax is also an incredible singer/songwriter, video producer, and everything else creative (if there is such a thing as artistic ADD he has it) and when I played him the song his wheels started turning. When Scot has a vision he executes it and that’s what he did for the music video. We were exploring the dimensions between reality and dream realms; past and future; knowing and the unknown. The contrast of color and black and white was a way to address this dynamic. The younger heart being guided and nurtured by her predecessor. here is a lot of symbolism that is left to be interpreted by the viewer.
WRH: I saw you open for The Wood Brothers at The Vic Theatre in Chicago back in April. That was a fantastic show, too. You played a solo set in which you accompanied yourself on guitar with stripped down versions of much of the album’s material before touring with a live, backing band throughout the summer. Was it particularly difficult to re-arrange songs in such a stripped down fashion from their recorded fashion? And after playing with a backing band for many years, was it nerve wracking to be out on a stage on your own?
NB: Yes! I could sing in front of thousands of people and not bat an eye but put a guitar in my hands and I become a deer in headlights. It was something I needed to get over; something I needed to prove to myself I could do alone. It was important for me to face that fear and get past it. I’m a pretty big proponent of doing things that scare you; I’ve been scaring myself a lot these past few years. But once you’re on the other side of fear and you see that something wasn’t so scary after all, you’re motivated to keep striving and putting yourself out there. Growing is hard and painful…not much different than the physical growing pains you had as a kid. Growing pains as an adult are more emotional but none the less real!
WRH: “Things I’ve Done” is a one of my favorite songs on the album. To my ears, it sounds as though it were influenced by Bonnie Raitt in some way — I think of “Something to Talk About,” in particular. Did her work influence anything on the album?
NB: That was a song I co-wrote with Scot Sax (mentioned earlier) and Steve Poltz (both my neighbors in Nashville.) Bonnie Raitt is certainly a huge influence on me but interestingly enough was not on my mind during the creation process of this song. Perhaps she was subconsciously…the subconscious is powerful. What I love about her is the ease and naturalness she brings to whatever she does. It’s possible that Scot was channeling her but you’d have to ask him about that.
WRH: How was it like to tour and play with The Wood Brothers?
NB: Aside from being incredible musicians, The Wood Brothers are some of the kindest musicians I have met in the business. They took such great care of me when I was out with them and every night they invited me out on stage to sing with them which was a true honor. They are such humble and relatable humans, I feel so grateful to call them friends.
WRH: What’s next for you?
NB: Touring my ass off! It’s time to take these songs on the road and share them with the world. We’re doing extensive touring this summer in the US and will be going overseas this fall. All the while writing new songs as I continue to feel all the feels life has to offer me at this stage in my life. I’m curious to see what songs come out of me next!
February is Black History Month, and I recently had the privilege to be featured on Focus Camera’s Wavelength Blog as one of 3 New York City-based African American/African Diaspora photographers, who contribute to New York’s thriving artistic community. Check out my portion of the interview below — and for the full feature, featuring me and the other incredibly talented Black photographers, check out it out, here:
William Ruben Helms
The mind behind The Joy of Violent Movement, William Ruben Helms is an independent blogger and photographer who covers, among other things, the musical “styles of Africa, hip-hop, punk rock, post punk, heavy metal, psych rock, indie rock, folk, country, Latin music, [and] soul.” A photographer for over 15 years, his eclectic tastes (partially influenced by growing up in Queens, “arguably one of the most diverse places in the entire world”) drive him to document a wide variety of artists.
After working with various editors on stories ranging from nightlife to literature, Helms went live with The Joy of Violent Movement in June 2010 to cover a greater swath of musical talent from across the U.S – and in New York’s music scene, specifically. “I had a falling out with an editor over covering someone, who I thought was worthy [of being covered] – and that the editor, for some reason, didn’t get or appreciate,” he says. “And I realized that personally, I never wanted to have that conversation or argument ever again; that it was time for me to go out on my own and cover whatever I wanted with my own take.” Full of grace, beauty, and (yes) some violent movement, Helms’ stills and video are evocative, emotive portraits of artists in motion.
Gear of Choice: “I’m currently shooting with a brand new Canon 77D, which I’m still learning, and admittedly, it’s a massive upgrade from the Canon T1i I had been shooting with for the bulk of The Joy of Violent Movement’s history. In terms of lenses, I’m shooting primarily with a Canon 28-70mm f/2.8 – and while it doesn’t give me the type of zoom of my old 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6, it’s a pretty good all purpose, all conditions lens with a decent aperture size. I’ll use a 50mm whenever I’m in some extremely dark or smoke machine-filled room. I have a beaten up 70-300mm that I’ll use to create some great close ups with a gentle blurred background – or when I’m far away from my subject for some reason.”
Led by its founding member, composer and bassist Ezra Gale and featuring Rick Parker (trombone), Alex Asher (trombone), Jon Lipscomb (guitar) and Madhu Siddappa, the Brooklyn-based trombone-led dub quintet Super Hi-Fi can trace their origins to a rather unlikely beginning. Gale, who was a founding member of acclaimed San Francisco-based Afrobeat act Aphrodisia, an act that once played at Fela Kuti‘s famed Lagos, Nigeria-based night club The Shrine, had relocated to Brooklyn and was collaborating with Quoc Pham in Sound Liberation Front when Gale was asked to get a band together for Pham and Gale’s then-monthly Afro-Dub Sessions parties in Williamsburg. Much like DJ Turmix’s Boogaloo Party, the Afro-Dub Sessions Party would pair the live band fronted by Gale with the dub’s top-flight producers and DJs including Victor Rice, Prince Polo, Subatomic Sound System, the Beverley Road All-Stars and others.
When Gale founded Super Hi-Fi, the project was initially intended to translate the improvisatory mixing process of dub to the live show; however, with the 2012 release of their critically applauded debut effort Dub to the Bone, a busy touring schedule in which they opened for nationally known acts like Rubblebucket, Beats Antique and John Brown’s Body, followed by the release of their Yule Analog Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, the project began to cement its growing reputation for crafting a unique and expansive take on dub and reggae.
With the recent release of Super Hi-Fi Plays Nirvana, the Brooklyn-based dub quintet push the boundaries of reggae and dub by paying tribute to Nirvana. And in typical Super Hi-Fi fashion, the members of the band manage to create their own take on the iconic Seattle-based trio’s material with renowned dub producers, Sao Paulo, Brazil‘s Victor Rice; Venice, Italy‘s Doctor Sub; and Brooklyn’s Prince Polo — all of whom are frequent collaborators with the band — assisting to further bend and morph the band’s sound in trippy and psychedelic ways, which help take fairly familiar songs into bold, new territory.
Adding to the uniqueness of the release, Very Special Recordings, a small, boutique Brooklyn-based label founded by Super Hi-Fi’s Ezra Gale, that specializes in releases cassettes that showcase the diverse of their borough’s and city’s music scene. Interestingly, while we all live in a world of Spotify playlists and streamable music that one never really owns, cassettes have seen something of a renaissance of late with several artists and labels releasing cassette only releases — and in some way, it’s a response against not just streaming services but against the trend towards technophilia for the sake of technophilia. While being relatively cheap to make and sell, a cassette tape does require a bit of effort — you’d have to go to a physical record store to purchase your favorite band’s new record and then bring it home to play; have a label or friend mail or give you a tape; and at the very least, you’ll probably listen to the whole tape, if not an entire side once. Plus, let’s not forget, that unless your favorite song is the first song or last song of a side, finding it can be a frustrating and time-consuming experience. And yet, if you remember buying cassettes at your local record store, as I do, it’s an experience that frankly I sometimes miss very dearly.
I recently spoke to Super Hi-Fi’s Ezra Gale about Super Hi Fi Plays Nirvana, how the arranging and re-arranging process differs from Gale’s normal songwriting process, the band’s upcoming releases and more. Check it out below.
WRH: In the Q&As for The Joy of Violent Movement, we almost always begin with some fairly introductory stuff for readers. So let’s begin, shall we?
WRH: How did the members of the band meet?
Ezra Gale: I had an idea for a two trombone band and placed a Craigslist ad for trombone players which got exactly two responses, from Alex Asher and Ryan Snow, who became our first two trombone players. Everybody else I just met through other musicians.
WRH: How would you describe your sound?
EG: It’s dub, but I don’t know if it’s reggae.
WRH: Who are you listening to right now?
EG: The last album I bought was Bowie‘s last album, Blackstar, which is just incredible.
WRH: Seminal albums like Nirvana’s Nevermind, U2’s Achtung Baby, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders, R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, Superunknown and Down On The Upside, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy and others reaching important milestone anniversaries, it’s a bit surprising to me that to my knowledge more bands haven’t seriously begun to tackle them with more covers and more tribute albums, especially if you consider how many Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Beatles tribute albums have been released over the years. Why haven’t there been more Pearl Jam, U2, R.E.M. tributes and covers? And how did you come upon paying tribute to Nirvana?
EG: I really don’t know about those other bands, for us we started playing a version of “Something In the Way” a couple years ago, and we all sort of got the idea that maybe a whole album of Nirvana tunes could be interesting.
WRH: Much like your fantastic Christmas albums, Super Hi-Fi Plays Nirvana features a couple of very well-known songs such as In Utereo’s “Heart Shaped Box,” and their famous Unplugged cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” as well as some rather deeper cuts such as “Verse Chorus Verse,” their Incesticide cover of “Love Buzz” Nevermind’s “Something In The Way” and “Polly.” What inspired you to choose those songs to tackle instead of something more tried and true?
EG: Well, initially I wanted to do all really obscure ones. Nirvana is a band whose famous songs have been played to death and I don’t know if anyone really needs to hear another version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, for example. But I know them from when Bleach came out and they were just this really great, intense band from Seattle that not many people knew- my college band even opened for them then, randomly. So I wanted to spotlight some of those lesser-known songs of theirs. But then, I think i was riding my bike and I suddenly started hearing “Heart Shaped Box” in this really slow, weird way, so we ended up doing that one. Ultimately it’s just about giving each song a different treatment and finding something new to do with it, no matter how many times you’ve heard it before.
WRH: How do you go about re-arranging material that’s fairly familiar in a way that adds your particular spin to it — while maintaining something familiar? And how does the process of re-arranging material differ from your normal songwriting process?
EG: It is different than a normal songwriting process. This album was very similar to our two Christmas albums (“Yule Analog” Vols. I and II), in that the goal was to take familiar material and make it sound different. And like in arranging those Christmas songs, I made some rules for myself doing it, which were that the melody line had to be the same, but everything else around it could change. So the rhythms are obviously very different, but also, Nirvana was a band with only one singer and we have two trombones, so in a lot of these versions the second trombone part is made up- like in “Verse Chorus Verse”, “Heart Shaped Box” and “Where Did You Sleep” especially. And also the chords are quite different in some of these, “Polly” and “Where Did You Sleep” especially are pretty different chord changes than the Nirvana versions.
My attitude towards cover versions is just that there’s no point in doing them if all you’re doing is to play it like the original version. No matter how great the original song is, I don’t ever want to regurgitate what someone else has done- go listen to the original if you want that. At the same time, I think it should be recognizable as the original song, somehow. So the challenge of taking material and sort of shaping it into something different that still has echoes of the original song is something I really enjoy doing.
WRH: While doing a little research for this interview, I learned that you’re currently working on your sophomore full-length effort, as well as Beatles/Police 45 for Record Store Day. Could you tell us a little bit about those projects?
EG: Yes, we are about 80% done with the mixing for the new full-length album, which is going to be called “The Blue and White” and it will be our second LP of all-original music. It’s quite different I think, there are lots of vocals and different sounds for us. It was recorded and mixed all onto tape too, which has been a real pain in some ways (!) but is so, so worth it- it sounds amazing I think. It will be out in the springtime sometime I think, on vinyl, somehow or other, we haven’t figured out yet.
And then the single is done and will be released on Electric Cowbell Records for Record Store Day in April, it’s the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping,” which was actually recorded for our “Dub to the Bone” album but left off it, and a version of The Police‘s “Hole In My Life” which we recorded for the new album, both extremely whacked-out and different versions, I can’t wait to play it for people.
WRH What’s next for the band?
EG: We haven’t been playing live that much the last few months because I’ve been so focused on finishing these albums, so once we’re done completely with the new LP I’m looking forward to playing a lot more in the new year.
Over the course of the soon-to-be six year history of JOVM, New York-based singer/songwriter Anna Rose has developed a growing national profile with the release of a self-titled EP and two full-length efforts Nomad and Behold A Pale Horse — and of course, over that time, the New York-based singer/songwriter has also been a JOVM mainstay artist since its inception.
Officially seeing its release today, Strays in the Cut is the long-awaited follow-up to the New York-based singer/songwriter’s exceptional Pale Horse and as Anna Rose has explained in press notes, the songwriting and recording process forced her and her collaborators to look at everything differently, with a careful and deliberate attention to telling a particular story and evoking a particular period within the artist’s life with a conciseness that wouldn’t necessarily happen on a full-length album. Interestingly, because of that very conciseness the material manages to possess a laser focus — not only do the New York-based singer/songwriter and her backing band play and sing with a greater sense of self-assuredness, the material possesses a visceral and emotional weight to it, as lyrically the songs come from a much more personal, truer place.
I recently spent a few minutes chatting with Anna Rose about the new EP, her and her collaborators songwriting and recording process and how it changed for the EP, her upcoming acoustic tour with guitarist Adam Stoler, her father’s influence on her and her music, the video concept for the EP’s first single “Start A War” and much more in a revealing and very funny interview. Check it out.