He has been called the hardest working musician in the world. With over 7 albums 4 complication records (With an abundance of originals and covers), 2 books and numerous other side projects including hardcore band Mongol horde, Frank Turner has established himself as one of the most relentless artists of our time.
The closest England has come to producing their own Bruce Springsteen, Frank has a knack for blending his ideas, interests, passions, anxieties and personal life into fantastic sincere rock/folk/country/punk records. The kind of record that can be hard to find on the mainstream market in recent years.
His accomplishments include selling out Wembley Arena and playing at the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony in London.
The man is a master of his craft and owns the stage. Having played over 2000 shows and counting, he has no plans of slowing down.
If I haven’t made it painfully obvious yet, I’m a fan (A word he doesn’t like). So even though it is early days in my career, I thought I would reach out to ask Frank for an interview and try to allow him to introduce himself.
Liam: Hey Frank, how are you?
Frank: Good thank you. Happy to be home at the end of the year.
Liam: First of all, thank you for doing this during the busy holiday season.
Frank: A pleasure. It’s good to be home from tour and winding down for the year, if not the decade.
Liam: Awesome, well let’s get started. So, you’ve just got off the Mongol Horde tour, this past summer you came out with an amazing new album No Man’s Land, your second book and a lot more touring, the album Be More Kind just a year earlier, as-well-as getting married! Where did you learn to have that kind of work ethic?
Frank: I come from two families. My father’s family is characterised by impatience, my mother’s by practicality. It seems to be a good mix.
Liam: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be more productive?
Frank: There are 24 hours in each and every day, you can use them all.
Liam: On top of all this, you still make time to meet and chat with fans, and leave your email open for them to write to you. I know we have met on a few of these opportunities you create.
However “ Fan” is a word I hear you don’t really enjoy using. Can you elaborate on that philosophy?
Frank: The word “fan” implies a permanent divide between the people who make music and the people who listen to it, and I’m uncomfortable with that. My early exposure to live music was through the London hardcore punk scene in the late 1990s, and it was a scene that was very much characterized by egalitarianism. When bands finished their set, they’d jump over the barrier and watch the next band. It’s ingrained in me from back then. I want my music to be part of a wider conversation between equals.
Liam: Speaking of fandom, you were recently name-dropped by the Boss (Bruce Springsteen) himself, on a list of more contemporary artists he enjoys. What was that like for you?
Frank: That was pretty surreal, but something I can be proud of for sure.
Liam: Eton College is a place that hung around your neck for years. Not the most punk rock place on earth. What is your relationship with your secondary school and are there positive things you have you have to say about it?
Frank: I don’t have a current relationship with my secondary school, I’m in my late 30s, that would be weird.
I didn’t enjoy it much at the time, and certainly didn’t choose to go there. I got out as soon as I could and started making my own choices. The education was, obviously, pretty incredible, and I’m grateful for that. But the social milieu was vile, and it’s something I’ve been trying to distance myself from since I first got there.
Liam: On your most recent tour, you did an unplugged set with the Sleeping Souls as well as a solo set for the No Man’s Land songs. In the unplugged set, you opened up about your past and created as sit down storytelling experience from songs across your discography. Why was this important for you to do?
Frank: I’m not sure I can say it was important as such – more that it struck me as interesting, as different, as a refreshing approach. I try not to repeat myself as an artist if I can avoid it. I’ve never tried that approach to a show before, so I got into it conceptually, and found it really inspiring actually. It’s given me a lot to think about going forward, both as a songwriter and as a performer.
Liam: Forgive me if I’m wrong, on No Man’s Land, it sounds like each song is sonically and lyrically tailored to stylistically fit the time period of each song’s story as-well-as tonally match the subject matter. Personally I find sounds incredible and incredibly, sonically diverse as a result (Jinny Bingham sounds like it could be ripped from Sweeney Todd, and Dora Hand sounds like it was being played by an actual cowboy). Was it difficult to write in various styles and learn so many new ways of crafting a song, all for one project?
Frank: That wasn’t the case on every single song – there’s precious little link between the music of “The Lioness” and the life and cultural world of Huda Sha’Arawi. But where I could make it make sense, I did. Trying to write a jazz piece for Nica Rothschild was a major challenge for me, and one I enjoyed. I always want to try my hand at pushing my own boundaries a little, every time I make a record. I guess it was just more at the forefront this time around, given some of the subject material.
Liam: Have you ever thought about writing a musical?
Frank: I can’t say I’m a huge fan of musicals alas. That said, I have friends in that world more recently who’ve given me a deeper appreciation of the artistry involved. Still, not really for me.
Liam: Sierra Leone charity group WayOut Arts, is something you’ve been working with for a few years now. What can you tell us about them and how it’s inspired you?
Frank: They’re a group who use music as a conduit to reach some of the poorest and most marginalized people in the world. It’s really quite mind-boggling, visiting the slums and the camps, but then also meeting a lot of the people involved and hearing their stories, and seeing how much of an impact a group like WayOut can have on individuals’ lives. It’s a small group, they’re not going to change the world, but then again their size makes everything they do more personal. I like to think I have some genuine friends out there now, which is a lovely thing, and the fundraising I do for them enables them to make a huge impact.
Liam: Known for being always on tour, you are finally making the rounds in South America. What took so long? and how does it feel to finally get over to that area of the world?
Frank: Touring in South America is, it turns out, not the easiest thing to organize, the scene there is still pretty wild west, there are a lot of sharks and you have to be careful about committing to travelling so far. Thankfully I finally found the right promoter, so I’m going at last. I’m excited, it’s a completely new part of the world for me. There are people excited about the shows, which is cool, and I hope to learn something new while I’m there too.
Liam: Author/Critic Clive James recently passed away. You often plugged him, and his writings as an inspiration for Be More Kind. Care to say a few words on his work and how it impacted you?
Frank: I was aware of his work as a television critic, but it was only comparatively recently (the last 10 years or so) that I became aware of his work as a cultural writer and poet. His erudition and wisdom blows me away, he might be my favourite prose writer ever, and he’s certainly hugely broadened my cultural horizons. The book “Cultural Amnesia” pretty much changed the way I think about everything.
Liam: Your catalogue is huge and a lot has been released in a short amount of time especially compared to other artists. What in your career are you most proud of? and/or what would you like to be remembered for?
Frank: In a way, the thing I’m proudest of is still being here, still standing. It’s a rare thing to sustain a career at this level for more than a decade, to release 8 albums, and still be selling tickets and making some kind of an impact. It was unlikely enough that I’d ever succeed, but to continue to do so after this long feels like a real achievement to me. Spending your time considering how you’ll be remembered strikes me as a slightly foolish thing to do, it’s quite narcissistic, plus I won’t be here then anyway by definition, so I can’t see why I should care that much.
Liam: The roaring 20s are about to begin! As I understand it you’re a man of history and learning as much as you are a musician. You went to University for 20th-century history, any reflections/analysis on the past decade and anticipations for the next?
Frank: I feel like we’ve lived through a decade that has seen a lot of political fragmentation and division in the west and north. That’s pretty worrying. But from a statistical point of view, we’re still living in the wealthiest, healthiest, most peaceful moment in the history of our species, and that’s something to consider and cautiously celebrate, in my view. There are huge challenges ahead, not least the state of the climate, but then I think we’re discussing that more than ever before, which is some small kind of progress
Liam: What does the next decade look like for you? and any plans for next year, that you are at liberty to reveal of course?
Frank: I have no idea how the decade as a whole will go – in 2010, I’d have been surprised to see myself here, I’d imagine. Next year will be about touring, but also finishing off a new record for 2021. So there’s that.
Liam: Frank, thank you for joining us, it been a pleasure.
Frank: The pleasure was all mine.
So there you have it!
Frank will be on tour in 2020 and a new album 2021!
Not many people get to say their dad was a “super-producer”, but in the case of Stephan Plank, son of Conny Plank, it turns out to be true.
Who Is Conny Plank?
While “super-producer” might seem a rather nebulous term to apply to someone, it’s hard to think of a better-fitting way to describe Conny Plank, considering that musicians from around the world to record with him at his abode in Germany, where he had his studio for many years.
Many might call Rick Rubin, or Mutt Lange, two of rock’s big super-producers. Producers like Timbaland or Dr. Dre may have been referred to in such a way as well. Of course, what makes each of these producers “super” is different from one another, as they all have their fortes.
Conny Plank, and his motives for making music at the time that he was fervently doing so, are altogether different again from all the rest.
Conny, in his own way, is surely in the same stratum of certain legendary names in the music business, except he is less associated with mainstream music, never aiming for fame and glory so much as experimentation and purity of sound, so he has, as a result of not playing “the game”, a bit more mystique surrounding him, and credibility as an artist for endless miles.
In his home studio, Conny recorded some of the most sonically expressive, idiosyncratic, and experimental recordings ever to be pressed to vinyl, including many great krautrock albums by the likes of Neu!, Kraftwerk, Guru Guru, Night Sun, Can, and many more, some of whom were native to Germany.
Here’s an example of one of the many ground-breaking albums that Conny worked on, by Cluster (formerly Kluster). It is but one in an long lineage of albums with Conny Plank’s unique stamp of sonic engineering wizardry.
In addition to having a big impact on Krautrock and rock in general, Conny Plank was responsible for some of the earliest “ambient” albums (before the term was coined for such music) as Cluster & Eno, Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, and his wife Christa Fast even sang on Music For Airports by Eno, which could be considered one of the first, if not “the” first, album of this kind.
Conny recorded with many musicians who made their way to his studio from all corners of the globe, and then, from there, these musicians went on to have a deep and lasting impact on music and future musicians.
I’m referring to the likes of Devo in their early years, as well as the Eurythmics, Ultravox, Killing Joke, The Meteors, Kraan, Hunters & Collectors, A Flock of Seagulls, and dozens more artists, some more obscure, some more well-known.
One might wonder how Conny Plank was able to have such a prolific output for so many years and still manage to capture so much lightning in a bottle. To many, it is still somewhat of a mystery, and understandably so.
The recording of various artists went on until Conny’s untimely death in 1987 of laryngeal cancer.
Conny’s Son, Stephan Plank
While Conny lived, he worked tirelessly with band after band at his home studio, while his wife and only son watched him work, and provided a home life, if a somewhat unconventional one.
His son, Stephan, grew up in an atmosphere both strange and interesting, making playmates out of some of the odd house guests who would arrive, stay a while, and then eventually leave, perhaps never to return.
When Conny died suddenly in December of 1987, it was difficult for anyone to process; most of all his family, who was used to Conny being a rather indomitable spirit. Now he was gone.
Stephan was barely a teenager when Conny died, and so it took him a long time to process his death, and reach any kind of closure.
Indeed, it wasn’t until his 40’s that Stephan finally had the urge to look back at who Conny was, and make sense of his legacy as a creative force in the music industry.
This reflection lead him to the creation of his own documentary, called The Potential of Noise, which features interviews with a slew of musicians who knew Conny best, from working with him in the studio.
Here’s a trailer for the documentary, The Potential of Noise.
I caught up with Stephan on October 1st, 2019, to ask him questions about the documentary, his father and his music, and what his life his like now.
YC: Why did you make this documentary?
SP: In a sense, I was liberating myself of my father.I was 13 when my father died, and I grew up in the music industry.My mother then continued renting out the studio, and soon people were approaching me saying, “You’re the son of Conny, wow!”and I would think to myself, “…but I don’t know what he did. How should I reply to this?”
In a way, I made this film to clear this up this mystery, and give myself a chance to talk about it, and also reach a better understanding of my father.
YC: Did you know about his impact at that time?
SP: I suspected the impact. Growing up in the studio, all the people knowing about it…for me, it was not knowing what a producer did and how he worked that bugged me.”
YC: So you didn’t really know this – the extent of Conny’s influence – until you started making the documentary?
SP: Yes and no, growing up in the studio, I had seen how producers worked with different bands, but i didn’t know how Conny worked with bands and how he liberated their thinking. The interesting thing about the work of my father was that he did a lot of “first” albums, so he was an integral part in constituting the bands avatars or egos where his own ego became fused with the bands’ ego.
YC: Were musicians and bands just randomly coming to his studio, or did he somehow advertise for musicians to come to see him?
SP: His records were his calling cards. Lots of people at this time who were looking for a producer, would look at their record collection, and see that Conny had made many of their favourite albums, so they would come because of this.
YC: Was this localized to your area of Germany or were people coming from all over the world?
SP: Everywhere. For instance, Devo from America, Hunters & Collectors from Australia, and many others from around the world…they would hear something like Kraftwerk and Neu! and they wanted to come see him and learn his methods.
He was a lightning rod for bands who wanted to approach music differently.For instance, Devo first wanted to work with David Bowie, and then Brian Eno, who was a friend and frequent collaborator with Conny, so he brought Devo with him to visit Conny.
Ultimately, Brian Eno was thinking to shape Devo to be a little more pretty-sounding, but when Devo realized that Conny was like-minded to them in terms of anti-melody and embracing noise, they decided to work with him instead.
YC: How did Conny come to know Brian Eno?
SP: This was through Neu! that he met Brian, who came to our farmhouse to work on Music For Airports, which featured my mom singing some of the vocals on that album.
YC: All this happened obviously after Brian Eno’s Roxy Music days, but how was the connection made?
SP: Brian Eno heard Conny’s work through Neu!’s first album, which had an appeal to many British musicians.Some of these new Krautrock sounds that my dad was making were very interesting to many British musicians who were looking for a new type of sound at this time.
These Krautrock albums weren’t about “hit” singles, but more about a new mentality towards music.For instance, Michael Rother was in Kraftwerk and Neu!, and collaborated with Cluster, which lead him to Eno, and Music for Airports.
YC: There was not much like Eno’s Music For Airports at the time, really, right?This was a truly groundbreaking album.
SP: If anyone should be found guilty of launching “ambient” music, it should be Brian Eno and Michael Rother.
YC: Did you or do you now listen to any ambient music yourself?
SP: I listened to a lot of it growing up, and I think it’s very interesting to see how it all started.My father was born in 1940 and he grew up in the time of the 2nd World War.
He grew up in Kaiserslautern, or K-town, and this was a place which featured a lot of troop entertainment.My father was friends with a couple of G.I.’s so they’d take him to see some of this entertainment.There is a term in German – “icht” – and he said he was icht when he listened to this troop entertainment.
YC: So he appreciated this type of music a great deal.
SP: Yes, a lot. He loved big band music like Duke Ellington. There is actually a story about Duke Ellington involving my father, where Duke Ellington came to Cologne to do a concert, and he needed a rehearsal space, and my dad didn’t have his recording studio at the time (because he wasn’t yet a sound engineer), but he was working in one.
He asked the studio owner if he could have the Duke come to the studio and rehearse. Conny happened to be able to record this session, and then when Duke finished, he asked my father if he could hear the recording he made of his band, and when he heard it, he told him that he was doing “good sound” and that he liked what he heard.
This was the point where my father heard his hero say he was doing a good job, and then he felt like he could be a sound engineer – this encounter boosted his confidence.I wasn’t sure i this was a tall tale or not, because these things can be exaggerated, but then I went through the archive of our studio, and I found the Duke Ellington tape, which I then made into a vinyl release, and this is now available.
YC: When was this released?
SP: 4 years ago now.
YC: Did it see a big release?
SP: We released it worldwide, but the audience for obscure Duke Ellington releases now is a very specific group of music fans.Some people have even called me to tell me jokingly that Duke Ellington sounds even a bit Kraut-y on this release.
YC: Is there any truth to that?Does it sound sort of Kraut-y?
SP: I can’t hear it, but I like the idea.
YC: This would have been at the beginning of Conny’s career, and the end of Duke’s?
SP: Yes.This was recorded July 9th, 1970.Now it is available on Spotify.
YC: Ok, well I’ll have to check that out.So, once the studio became active and Conny had gone into the business of sound engineering more officially, at this point you were just there running around, being a kid.Did you think the environment you lived in was normal?
SP: Everything your parents do seems normal to you, because at first you have nothing to compare it to.For me, these slightly strange guests being around all the time was normal to me.And, as musicians are, they were very playful people, so they made good playmates for me.
YC: And these musicians would stay there for days, or weeks, while your dad worked in his studio?
SP: Yes, he worked constantly.
YC: Did you see him much?
SP: Well, he was right next door, but it was clear that this is where the big boys played.You have to realize, this was a time before digital looping was possible.
So they had to use tape loops, so they’d be setting up microphone stands all over the studio, which was very interesting-looking to a 5-year-old.So I wasn’t allowed to touch anything, or their work could be destroyed.Therefore, I wasn’t allowed in very often, or very rarely.
YC: At what point did you realize what was going on in there?
SP: Between 10-12 years old, I started to understand the concept of work.But there was no time to really ask my dad about the finer details of his work.
At that time, it just made more sense for him to focus on his work, rather than explain everything to me.I was aware that something interesting was happening, and I was aware that people wanted to meet my father, or to see some of the famous musicians who came there, like the Eurythmics, and to get their autograph.To me these were just normal people working with my father, not stars.
YC: Were you an only child?
YC: So were you very well-behaved then, or more of a brat?
SP: I was basically a brat.I was fighting for the attention of my parents. By the time I was becoming a teenager, although we did not know it, my father had cancer, and would die soon.He died December 6, 1987.
At the start of 1987, around Easter holidays, we went with the Eurythmics to records their Japan Live tour.I was taken along, because my father was very aware that his time with his family was becoming limited.Still, he was working like a madman.
YC: At what point did you realize he was nearing the end of his life?
SP: My parents were optimistic until the last second.I remember I was with some friends, because my father with in the hospital again, and on that Sunday I got a call saying my father had died, and so I came to the hospital to see my mother and brother.It was horrible.
YC: What happened next?
SP: My mother continued to rent out the home studio, and musicians continued to come there to record.It was a nice place, and had a lot of analog gear, and so it was still very attractive to musicians to come there.
Recording studios can often be a stressful place for musicians, because they may have gotten a record deal, and suddenly the pressure is on to make their greatest music in a limited amount of time. In other words, they would feel like the meter was running.
My father and my mother together built this place to ease musicians of this feeling.It wasn’t a fancy place.It appeared a little bit squalid, but this was by design, because it would release some of the musicians’ tensions about being in a studio in the first place.
And then, musicians could let go and really inhabit the music they were making.
YC: Was Conny a fan of live-off-the-floor recording?Is that the scenario musicians were in at his studio?
SP: Conny was a fan of live recording, and he had some movable walls on wheels which he could turn and move so musicians could see each other.He was also very adamant that bands recorded their first version of a song live.
They could do overdubs after, but the live feeling had to be captured.And he was very avid about sound quality.There was a particular way the my father liked the cords in his studio, to be the exact right length with no cable wasted or lying on the floor tangled up.
YC: He was just very organized with his cables?
SP: This was the magic of my father, the way he made the musicians less aware of the recording process just by arranging the cables in a particular way.My father’s goal was to help musicians to let go during their performance, and then he would catch these results, and he made it all seem easy.
YC: I guess Conny was always listening and tuned to the music even if the band didn’t think he was?
SP: Yes, Conny seemed relaxed and the band would also be relaxed, but if he heard a synthesizer reach a point where he knew it was the perfect tone for the song, he would stop the band and tell them to make sure to leave that synth at that setting, because he knew it sounded great.
He would say “Stop, don’t touch the knob again.You are precisely at the hot moment!”In other words, he could always recognize when the band was at the peak of their performance.
He wasn’t trying to force them to get there, but when they got there, he knew.If a band was not getting better as they continued, he knew they’d reached their peak at that point.
He was simply good at hearing when a band was playing their best, or if something special was happening.
YC: So he didn’t intimidate anyone like some producers might?
SP: My father was a little bit like a psychologist, who would ask you questions, and then not tell you anything.He was able to get a band to think about a concept, and then they would get ideas based on what he said.
He didn’t need to tell them anything, just get them thinking about things they weren’t thinking about before.This way, they could conceive an original idea.
YC: Was he trying to guide them, or manoeuvre these bands?
SP: He wasn’t trying to control them. He was just trying to get them to think about what they might want to become, but he didn’t tell them what was, because he himself didn’t know.
YC: Would you say most bands liked his methods as a producer?Were there any bands who didn’t appreciate his methods and left the studio?
SP: Most bands did like his methods, and after his death, he became more of a superhero of german production, and so it was hard to find anyone who would say anything remotely negative about him.
This is why I was thankful to Holger Czukay, who told me “Well, he probably wasn’t the perfect father…”Most people treated him, in the interviews, in a very reverent way, but Holger had the guts to just say exactly what he thought, the way he experienced it.
YC: Why did Holger do that?
SP: Well, Can and Holger were all about authenticity, and Holger realized who was asking him, and to be true, he had to say it like he felt it.He was afraid of nothing, basically, and you learn to live with the consequences.
YC: Did he witness it personally or was he just speculating?
SP: Holger just saw that it was him and my father, and then me and my mother.He knew the band was disturbing family time, but he also knew he wanted to do it because it was so much fun.
YC: How are you now with work?Has any of your father’s famous work ethic affected how you approach work?
SP: I feel like my parents gave me a gift.We all seem to rebel against our parents in some way, and luckily, I am able to rebel by reading night time stories to my daughters every night.
YC: So you are reacting to your parents mistakes in some way?
SP: Yes, I feel like we all, as parents, try to not make the same mistakes as our parents, but mistakes are unavoidable, so even if we avoid some of their mistakes, we will make new, original mistakes.
YC: Are there any qualities of your father you feel like you do exhibit?
SP: Well, I am still quite obsessive, especially with my work, but the fun thing about making this film was to see how my father became almost a spiritual father to some of these bands, because whereas their parents may no have been pleased that they were pursuing music as a career, my father was always very supportive, telling them how amazing he thought they were.
He said “Let’s make this great!” and they would accept him as a father figure.Whodini came to see my father from New York, and they met him, and they met me, and they told me they felt like I was their little brother.So, in a way, the interaction at the studio was one big family.
YC: Was there ever any band that your father didn’t particularly want to work with?
SP: He refused to work with U2.
YC: Why, because he didn’t like their music?
SP: My father said that he worked best as a medium between the artist and the tape.And he wouldn’t know what kind of consciousness he’d have to transfer with Mr. Bono.
YC: What does this mean?
SP: I can only say his words, I don’t know.I just think it’s interesting he called him Mr. Bono.
YC: Well it sounds like maybe your father couldn’t relate to the way that U2 approached him?
YC: Conny obviously had his own specific tastes when it came to sounds he liked, and he also helped to define certain tastes as well.
SP: Yes, and when he died, his life’s work was not compromised.He never reached a stage where he had to make recordings to make ends meet.He was 47 when he died, so this was early enough that he had yet to make any compromises.
YC: Basically it’s fair to say everything was going well and then he met an untimely end due to unexpected health issues.
SP: Yes.Conny is a bit of a mystery because most producers focus on one particular sound, but Conny’s favourite flavour was innovation, and he was thinking in terms of “If this is innovative, I will do it…”
YC: What became of all of his gear, like that mixing desk he made?
SP: It’s in London, and still earning its money at the moment.The last Franz Ferdinand and Hot Chip albums were recorded with it, so it’s still in use, with Dave Allan.I had the choice to put it in a museum, or I could give it to someone to work with it.So I chose to find someone who would use it.
YC: Was it a sentimental thing to have to take the rest of his studio apart?
SP: It was done out of need.When Conny died, we were 4 million euros in debt, and, in 2005, when my mother fell ill, we were 400 000 euros in debt.She somehow managed to fall out of the German health care system, so I had to pay for fixing her brain tumour in cash.
So things needed to be sold, and it eventually was mostly sold.There’s a shop in Hamburg, Germany, and it still has some of my dad’s gear, including our Hammond B5.Sometimes people want to buy it, and I will talk to them.If they are good people, I will sell it to them.
My father was never the sum of his equipment, but he was the sum of the ideas he planted in other musicians minds, which means he’s still out there in a way. I think that today my father’s idea of a nice setup might be a nice laptop, and some good converters.
He’d probably travel with a flight case.He might even have been glad to get rid of the studio eventually, because, to be honest, maintaining all of that analog gear can be a pain in the ass.You constantly need to tinker with it to keep it running.
YC: Like you said, he was into innovation, so he probably would have embraced phones and computers fully.
SP: My dad was really into technology, and he bought the first Macintosh computer available.
He bought it under the impression that he could record a musician in New York, and the quality would be good, which obviously wasn’t the case, but at that stage, people told him it would be possible. He was really on the cutting edge, always curious about it.
He had the first emulator, and he always said stuff like “Reset The Preset”to get the machines to go to the fringe places, the red part of the meter so it would groan a little bit.What happens when you get to the place where they’re not supposed to be.
YC: What would he think of the crappy production work out there today?
SP: He always liked well-producedmusic, and hated badly made music.I think the ratio of good to badly produced music has always been about the same.
YC: So he wasn’t really a snob then?
SP: No, not at all.There a german tradition called Karneval which is 4 weeks before easter. It’s a very christian / catholic thing, where everyone dresses funny and gets blind drunk.
There is a certain kind of music which goes with it.Very basic, in a good way.Conny loved the authenticity of it.He recorded Bläck Fööss, who only did carnival music.He really loved this music.
YC: It sounds like German party music… like polka?
SP: Yes. He loved the identity-finding moments, and he liked Europe a lot – the idea of it.Many bands from Europe would come to him and try to record something in English, and he would try to encourage them to sing in their own language.
These bands give identity to a whole country.When my dad had bands recording at our home, we would sit down to eat dinner, and I remember one of the sins was when a band said they wanted to sound like another band. This was not cool.My dad would say you are not born to be a copy.
YC: What would your dad do if a band really wanted to sound like another band in the studio while they were recording?
SP: Conny was very good at figuring out if a band wanted to sound like another band before they came in, and then pre-emptively not work with them.His goal was originality over anything else.
YC: Yes, which is why I like many of the bands your father had worked with – so many original bands. I was surprised at how many of these exceptional bands there were, when I saw the documentary you made.
SP: As a producer, Conny was very ego-less.Many producers have their particular flavour that they give to a band.Conny was called “Mr. Sound”, because his flavour was that the band sound like the band.
He said that every band gets the sound they deserve.My father really loved Prince, and his album Dirty Mind, and one of the musicians who came to the studio said he wanted to sound like Prince.
So my father said, if you want to sound like Prince, you need to sing like Prince. This musician really couldn’t pull of Prince.
YC: What is your job now?
SP: I do management for Nina Hagen and I’m making 2 more films. One is a documentary called The Truth About The Truth.
YC: Sounds cryptic, what’s it about?
SP: In your brain you have two buckets, one which holds information and one which holds truth.There’s a switch in your brain that decides where it goes.If the info gets into the truth bucket, we’ll be able to debate about it.I want to make a documentary about this mechanism that decides this.
YC: How’d you think of this idea?
SP: There’s a german word “zeitgeist”.In a way, this idea has been explored a lot already.Ad companies think they know how to implant the truth in someone’s mind, and I think that it’s interesting to make people more aware that someone is trying to do this.
I am working with Reto Caduff again, and we are currently gathering funds to help make the movie happen. I also have a start up company that I co founded called Re2you and we are trying to liberate people from technology, since Google and Apple sit on top of all the ecosystems.So we want to emancipate people from this.
YC: All that sounds good and I look forward to seeing the new films when they arrive. Thanks for chatting with me!
SP: Thank you!
Thanks for reading, if you have any comments or questions, pose them below!
As a fan of Twin Peaks, and specifically the music the show has produced over the years, Season 3 had me wondering, like many fans, about some of the musical acts that were featured at the Bang Bang Bar (commonly referred to as the Roadhouse). Many of these performers were indie acts, with a few exceptions.
The full list of musical performers who performed at the Bang Bang Bar during Season 3 include: Chromatics, The Cactus Blossoms, Au Revoir Simone, Trouble, Sharon Van Etten, Nine Inch Nails, Hudson Mohawke, Rebekah del Rio, Moby, Lissie, The Veils, Eddie Vedder, and Julee Cruise.
The Twin Peaks Season 3 Soundtrack expands on the above list with many other tracks from the show, with the overall musical effect of the entire track list being that of a tour de force.
The music of Twin Peaks has always been exceptional, with the main theme song written by Angelo Badalamenti even winning a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance back in 1991.
The music of Twin Peaks remains unique. In this article, I had the chance to interview one of the members of Au Revoir Simone, Heather D’Angelo, now a Bang Bang Bar band alum, and ask her about her own personal Twin Peaks experience. (skip to the interview)
But first, a bit of context…
About The Bang Bang Bar (The Roadhouse)
In Twin Peaks Seasons 1 and 2, the Roadhouse was established as a location on the show that fit into the nuanced plot written by David Lynch and Mark Frost, and would tie into the overall arc of the show sporadically, with drama between the shows’ characters playing out there from time to time.
The concept of the “Bang Bang Bar”, as it was referred to as more so in Season 3, was also the show’s musical center in seasons 1 and 2. However, Julee Cruise and her band were the only act we see play there during the first two seasons.
As viewers, we can only assume that Julee Cruise was only one act of many to pass through there, but we never get to see any other acts play. Perhaps this is something Lynch sought to correct in this latest season of Twin Peaks.
During the first two seasons, Julee appears there several times throughout the entire run of the show (including the movie prequel, “Fire Walk With Me”), playing her soft, angelic music juxtaposed against some dark, depraved drama taking place in the plot, creating a juxtaposition of both tranquility mixed with violence – an unsettling combination to be sure.
With the Roadhouse being such a seedy juncture in the Twin Peaks world, the idea of such a pure and unfettered sound of one such as Julee Cruise performing in such a dark place was and still is an unlikely proposition.
Fast forward 25 years…
Enter: Twin Peaks, Season 3
Enter Twin Peaks: Season 3 (The Return), aired in 2017. The plot picks up almost literally 25 years after the finale of Season 2, where Cooper becomes possessed by Bob and delivers his famous line: “How’s Annie?”
This final episode (called “Beyond Life and Death”) to a beloved TV series was not the ending many fans were hoping for, but that’s the way director David Lynch chose to end the show, when this final episode of Season 2 first aired on June 10, 1991.
The reasons for this ending to Season 2 were perplexing to fans, but no less perplexing than the entire run of the show itself up until that point, really.
Still, while hardcore Lynch fans always appreciate a good Lynch-ian twist, more casual (and probably less fanatical for absurdist cinema) fans of the show were left with mild cases of PTSD from watching their beloved Cooper become possessed by the ultimate evil, and then: roll credits.
Perhaps it had something to do with David Lynch not directing the majority of Season 2, and walking away from the show until the final episode, where he comes back with the express purpose to, in his own special way, put an end to the show he started.
As has been reported by various sources (ie. Vanity Fair), David Lynch hates Season 2 more than anyone else could, with the tousle-haired cinematic maverick having been quoted publicly as saying it flat out “sucked”.
Fans would have to wait until 2017 when Season 3 of Twin Peaks finally reached airwaves to see how things would get resolved, and many were likely hopeful that such a gut-wrenching finale would indeed see some sort of satisfying resolution, once Season 3 finally concluded.
Fans of Twin Peaks might have thought a positive outcome to be particularly imminent, considering this was David’s chance to right any directorial and plot-related wrongs done to the show throughout Season 2.
Well, did he? To answer this question would take us well beyond the scope of this article, and so at this time, let’s now return to the topic of…The Bang Bang Bar, and the music we hear there throughout Season 3.
Back To The Bang Bang
One thing that seemingly had not changed much in the world of Twin Peaks was the Bang Bang Bar.
In the world of Twin Peaks: Season 3, it was still the place in Twin Peaks where various seedy drama and nefarious subplots play out. But this time around, we’re treated to a variety of diverse musical acts.
It was as if the Bang Bang Bar was perhaps doing better business these days, busily booking more bands, and becoming an increasingly hipper place to be, which we, the viewers, we privy to seeing who would turn up week to week. For nostalgic fans, Julee Cruise and James Hurley both come back to the Bang Bang Bar to perform.
Otherwise, we were treated to some fresh faces at the good old Twin Peaks Roadhouse.
Cue: Au Revoir Simone, playing their tune, “A Violent Yet Flammable World”, from Season 3: Episode 9.
Au Revoir Simone
Some of the choices for bands who performed at the Bang Bang Bar during the run of Season 3 seemed to be more in line with the world of Twin Peaks that fans know, while other performers were more unexpected.
Au Revoir Simone, who perform on two episodes of the entire Season 3 run of the show , were at once a fitting, and yet somewhat unusual, choice.
Why fitting? Well, here we have, not 1, but 3 silky-voiced chanteuses playing ethereal, melancholic music in a slow, pulsating manner. This is enough, perhaps, to qualify them as a good fit for the rather happening, and yet fictional, venue.
Why unusual? It seems that in the intervening years between Seasons 2 and 3 of Twin Peaks, the always and forever-to-be stuck-in-the-past environs of the show have been forced to admit that yes, even in a seemingly timeless setting, time is passing.
Hence, Au Revoir Simone have their synths in tow, and there is no particular attention drawn to their synthpop nature. Perhaps now Twin Peaks is a world that has caught up to as far as the 1980’s, rather than being a throwback to the ’50’s or ’60’s.
(The interview begins…)
Interview with Heather D’Angelo of Au Revoir Simone
It seems that curiosity got the better of me. I felt the need to reach out to the bands who played at the Bang Bang Bar during the run of Twin Peaks: Season 3, in order to satisfy my fan-boyish urge to know more about these bands, and how they managed to appear on the show.
And so, here is my conversation with Heather D’Angelo, who is one third of Au Revoir Simone, discussing the bands’ appearance on the show and how it all came to pass. Enjoy!
When did you start writing music?
Au Revoir Simone started out as a cover band, actually, working on covers of 80’s and 90’s songs from different genres.We were just doing this for fun, as friends getting together and seeing how it went.
Back in the early 2000’s, we (Annie Hart, Erika Forster, and I) used to jam together, when we were all living in Brooklyn, and decided to form an all-girl keyboard band, since all of us played keyboards and we thought that all of us playing synths would be pretty entertaining. Eventually, each of us was armed with multiple synths – sometimes we’d have 9 going at once!
As far as our covers went, it turned out that our covers were too idiosyncratic to be just covers – they had their own sound – so that gave us the notion to start doing our own songs.And it all began there!
Eventually, we got enough material together for a little EP called Verses of Comfort, Assurance & Salvation.
Weirdly enough, a Japanese label and a British label picked up the EP, but we didn’t get any attention in the US – no one cared.
Funny thing was that the Japanese label had an english name – Rallye, and the English label had a Japanese-sounding name – Moshi Moshi.
Moshi Moshi already were a well known indie label in England at this point, with bands like Hot Chip on their roster.They were the ones that kind of operate on a new level, by saying “Ok, you guys are going to work with this PR company, etc.”, giving us tips on how to be a bit more professional.
So how did these labels come across your music, which then lead to your encounter with David Lynch?
They became aware of us through an indie music blog from the early days of the internet.
My good friend, Matthew Perpetua, is like the godfather of the music blogs.I think he actually had the very first music blog out there on the web in the late 90’s, called Fluxblog. There may have been one other one at the time, as these things tend to pop up in the zeitgeist at around the same time, but he was definitely one of the first.
Fluxblog was very popular for indie music and Moshi Moshi used to read his blog. Matthew used to write about our band when we first started, as he was a big fan of synthpop, and indie acts, and so Moshi Moshi read one of his features on us.
Steven Bass and Michael McClatchey then got a hold of our EP, which, at the time, was something we were screen printing ourselves in Annie’s bedroom and trying to distribute ourselves.
By the time we got to our first actual mature album, The Bird of Music, that was put out by both Rallye and Moshi Moshi, which had proper artwork and distribution.
The Bird of Music is what eventually ended up in the hands of David Lynch in 2007.
How did that come about?
There was a really cool event going on at Barnes & Noble in New York for some time, where they’d promote an author and then pair that author up with a band.
A music supervisor for Barnes & Noble would seek out a band that they felt would match the author, and the author would do a reading from their new book, and a band would play during the reading, or between chapters.It was pretty cool.
The music supervisor at Barnes & Nobles was trying to get us to do one of these events for some time, but it wasn’t working out, as we were always on tour, or the timing just wasn’t right.
But one day the music supervisor called and told us that David Lynch was promoting a new book, at the time, called Catching the Big Fish, and she thought that our music would pair really well with his work.
The book was about meditation, and she thought we could play some of our more dreamy material.
So we said “yeah”, because this time it worked with our schedules, and plus, it sounded really cool, so we did it!
But it wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for David’s sound supervisor, Dean Hurley, hadn’t heard our music, liked it, and passed it on to David, who also liked it.
So, we then met David at the actual Barnes and Noble event, where we played, and he read from his book.
(cue: a short clip from that show in 2007)
This was the beginning of your collaboration…which would have been about 10 years before Twin Peaks: Season 3 aired.
Yes. Back in 2007.
That’s pretty cool that you encountered him that way. His output is very varied, so to connect with him on a book reading is very cool. Were you aware of all of these things that he does at the time? For example, the books, the albums, the artwork, and so forth.
We were aware of him, generally speaking, but we didn’t know just how many things he was involved with.
The event at Barnes & Noble was amazing. That particular location of Barnes & Noble was something else – it was huge, like 4 or 5 storeys, and jam packed with people. Just a massive, massive, MASSIVE building.
And when he was there, it was unbelievable – every floor, just shoulder to shoulder people, all trying to catch a glimpse of him.
For those who weren’t on the top floor, there was kind of a play-by-play being piped through their sound system, like one big listening party, and everyone was there just soaking it up. It was then that we clued in to just how huge his fanbase actually is.
Were you into his stuff prior to this show?
Yeah, I really liked Blue Velvet, and his movies in general, but I wasn’t really a fanatic. Same with Annie and Erika – we just knew of him, as most people do. I had not watched Twin Peaks, though. It just never crossed my radar. I guess I was just too young.
I didn’t catch the show when it came out either, but a friend of mine recommended I watch Twin Peaks when I was in high school, so around ’95, as he thought it would be up my alley, and it was. Had you seen any of his other movies?
Some of them. I saw Mulholland Drive, which I enjoyed, and I was going to watch Inland Empire, but a friend of mine saw it and he was so traumatized by it, I didn’t really feel like watching it.
Yeah, Lynch seems to be very good at making very unsettling films that confuse and disturb people, as well as anticipating peoples’ expectations (especially fans) and then defying them. I couldn’t make it through Inland Empire either! That’s why I was wondering how Season 3 of Twin Peaks was going to turn out, considering his work seemed to be getting progressively more abstract.
Well, we have had the opportunity to collaborate with David several times over the years, since 2007, and so we were getting comfortable trusting his creative and aesthetic choices. For instance, we worked with him on a retrospective he did for his work in Paris at the Foundation Cartier.
(cue: video clip from that exhibition)
(interview…continued) He had rebuilt a setting from Eraserhead at the gallery, and we were to perform in this setting. So, he managed to incorporate our music into this production, and we were like, “Hell yeah!” and so we did it, and it was great!
Another time he invited us to play at Silencio, his private club in Paris. Again, this is a beautiful club with a red-draped stage, and he was gracious enough to invite us into his world, which we have always been more than happy to do.
(cue: Llorando scene, from Mullholand Drive, filmed at Silencio)
(back to the interview…)
Over the years, we’ve remained friends, and would visit him in L.A., checking in from time to time. He’s been very encouraging, incredibly sweet, and a great mentor to us.
Prior to the return of Twin Peaks, he was mentioning it would be good to work on something together, and we thought that would be great, although we weren’t counting on it.
We knew that historically, David has worked with Julee Cruise, Angelo Badalamenti, and so we weren’t really expecting to work on any major projects with him, per se. He seemed to have his inner circle of collaborators, and so we thought it was nice of him to suggest a collaboration, but, again, we weren’t expecting anything.
But then, we got the call from Dean Hurley, David’s longtime musical collaborator, who informed us that David was going to re-launch Twin Peaks, and was seeking out bands to be part of the show, and he was hoping we’d take part. Before we knew it, we’d said “yes” and we were part of the production.
We’d never really worked with David before in terms of being part of one of his movies, and so we didn’t really know what we were in for.
None of Au Revoir Simone were actors, but we flew to L.A., and we arrived at this house, that looked like a community center from the outside, and we found that they had recreated, in minute detail, the Bang Bang Bar. It was like, “Oh my god, I’m in the Roadhouse!” Even though, outside it was hot and sweaty, this set made you believe you were in the Pacific north west, like Washington state. It was insane!
There were extras everywhere, and everyone was dressed up like it was the ’90’s. There were a few other bands there, like the Chromatics, and the Cactus Blossoms, who were playing that day.
We had no idea what was going on. We didn’t know who was playing, or when, or how to dress. We had no guidance of what to wear, which was particularly odd because the fashion of Twin Peaks is so particular. We didn’t know which decade we were supposed to appear to be from. ’80’s? ’90’s? Now? Rock stars, or not? We didn’t know. We decided to just go with a “classic” look.
We knew he was going to ask us to do two of our songs, which we did. It was lip synched. This wasn’t like Saturday Night Live. We performed our songs, it didn’t take too long, and then we left. Time passed, we didn’t hear anything at first. Eventually, we heard from David, and he said “Great job!”, so we thought “Great!”
We were still very confused as to how this would all play out. We still didn’t know if he was going to be using the footage of us playing, or just use our recordings on the soundtrack. Would it be both songs, one song? Just a snippet?
We didn’t see how any of it turned out until the show aired. Eventually, we were told to keep our eyes open for Episodes 4 and 9. We saw it on TV like everyone else.
(cue: band playing their song, “Lark”, from their album, “The Bird of Music”, during Season 3: Episode 4 of Twin Peaks.
(back to the interview…)
For both episodes, I had Twin Peaks’ parties in San Francisco, but I told my friends that if I didn’t show up on screen, not to be surprised. We weren’t promised anything, so then when we did appear, and we had a fair bit of screen time, I was shocked!
Both songs were edited, but that made sense, for the purpose of the episode sequencing. Still, it was entirely a surprise that we even made it on the show at all!
I guess you didn’t get to sit down and watch the “dailies”, huh?
No, we are not from the film industry, so that didn’t even occur to us. There wasn’t even hair and make-up, so how we presented ourselves was completely up to us. Had there been a hair dangling in the wrong spot, I don’t know if David would have brought it up or not. It all happened so fast.
We had been on photo shoots before, where people fussed over our appearance a lot more than this instance. So that’s surprising, that we were now committed to tape for an iconic show like Twin Peaks, which will be seen by our children and children’s children, and we weren’t really prepped in any way for this. I just knew that we were performing, and David was there, behind the camera, capturing every bead of sweat.
Was the lip synching difficult? What kind of direction did he give you?
We weren’t given any direction, so we just tried to channel our best collective Julee Cruise vibe. We had basic instructions as to when to start lip synching, and that was about it.
You were saying there were other bands there at that point?
We saw some of the other bands, but we didn’t really see too many other bands. For the most part, we were just in and out. We heard there was a shoot for the other bands on another day, but we weren’t there for that.
Are any of you particularly influenced by Julee Cruise, what with the hushed, angelic vocals, and all that? Were you told to emulate her in any way for the show?
No, not at all. We are fans of hers, for sure – especially Erika – but there was no mention of us sounding like her, or us trying to sound like her.
Our influences are Stereolab, Bjork, Pavement, Air…Broadcast is a huge influence. I personally am very into Air and Stereolab.
Definitely, I love Pavement.
Are you guys formally trained musically in any way?
No, we’re all self-taught.
How do you come up with your songs, as a band?
We all have input in each others songs, although usually, someone writes a song, initially, and brings it in. That’s when we begin to shape the songs to fit Au Revoir Simone. Nothing is really off limits for discussion, and it ends up being an equal process in the end. No one has more representation in the band – it’s equal parts all three of us.
No creative differences? Wow, nice.
There are differences, but as a trio, there can always be a critical voice if someone is strongly against something, and we like it that way. We can push and pull the songs until we are all happy with the result, but it’s not always easy to come to a consensus. For instance, if someone doesn’t like a bassline, or some other musical element, we talk about it, until we can all agree on something.
How do you feel now that you are on the Lynch fan radar? Do you consider yourself to be on that radar?
Yes, we are aware that his fans are now paying more attention to us, with many of them being very passionate. It’s cool.
And how has that balanced out with your entire fanbase overall?
Well, our old school fans are the best! Like, if ever there’s any sort of hardcore Twin Peaks fans who don’t approve of us for some reason, our old school fans will jump to our defence. It doesn’t happen much, and besides, that’s just how it is on Youtube. People debate all the time. For instance, why did we get picked for the soundtrack and not some other “dreamy” sounding pop band? Maybe someone more like Julee Cruise should have been picked, some might say. All in all, everyone has their own opinion. We encourage discussion, and we appreciate different views.
Fair enough. Did you bump into any other cast members at all while you were there filming? I happened to watch some interview with Kyle MacLachlan, where he said that he didn’t even see any of the show until it was on the air, or really knew what was going to happen overall? Kind of amazing, since he was basically the show’s star.
It doesn’t surprise me. There’s an element of secrecy to all of this. Plus, I think that everything was shot individually. We didn’t really interact with the cast very much.
Did you talk to Mark Frost (Twin Peaks co-creator) at all?
No, I didn’t.
So you never read any of this Twin Peaks books – The Final Dossier or The Secret History of Twin Peaks?
No, I’ve just heard of them. Haven’t read them yet.
They’re interesting, if you are into the sort of “bigger picture” of Twin Peaks, and the mythology and sort of subterfuge that goes into the show. They act as companion pieces, and they’re really cool if a fan wants to dive deeper into that world, as they let you in on some of the more secretive elements. For any fans out there, I’d totally recommend them! But anyway, what happened after Season 3 wrapped up. What changed for Au Revoir Simone?
I have seen David twice since the show aired. One at the Festival of Disruption in Brooklyn, and another time back in L.A., after Season 3 had aired. When I saw him last, I had just watched all of the episodes of Season 3 and I had a million questions that I wanted to ask him. So it was hard to not geek out on Twin Peaks and ask him lots of questions. I did get a few things out of him, but generally, we didn’t talk about that much.
I did, however, mention to him how much I loved Episode 8, as it was so groundbreaking and probably the best thing to be aired on television ever. I had a chance to dork out with Dean Hurley, but he really doesn’t have the inside scoop on Twin Peaks either. No one but David and Mark know the whole story. It’s always fun to speculate, though.
How did you feel about the ending of Season 3?
I liked it. I am a fan of cliffhangers, though. Besides, if you expect anything by David to wrap up with a neat little bow, you’ll probably be disappointed. So I didn’t expect the show to end in any neat and tidy way. Which it didn’t.
Welcome to YTMS! Today we interview Bill Welychka about his career in broadcasting thus far, from his days at MuchMusic to the present (2019). But first, we must set the scene…
Canadian Music in the 1990’s
To some, the 1990’s seem like the distant past by this point, while others like myself still consider that time as being “not long ago”.
Part of the reason the ’90’s stand out in my memory as bright and vibrant was the 90’s music scene here in Canada.
(Here’s a clip – Ed.)
(BTW, television wasn’t all “grainy” in the ’90’s, but a lot of people recorded stuff off of TV with a VCR, onto a cassette tape, and that’s when it got grainy…then uploading it to Youtube makes it even grainy-er – Ed.)
Basically, if you were a teenager in the 1990’s (like I was), particularly in Canada, many consider this to be a heyday for music in a variety of forms.
“Alternative” music was taking over the radio, and music videos had already conquered television in the 1980’s. Music videos were in full rotation, playing around the clock.
In America, it was MTV that was the major television station featuring music, and in Canada, it was MuchMusic, AKA “The Nation’s Music Station”.
Keep in mind, the internet itself was just coming into existence around 1995, but if you were “logging on” to it, there was no YouTube, no Pirate’s Bay to rip songs off of, no iTunes – no nuthin’!
If you lived in Canada, and you were into music, ie. bands and such, MuchMusic was the TV station that you turned to for most things. Bands and music videos of all genres were featured on this channel, which was ummm.. channel 29, on my cable TV, if I remember correctly.
Here’s a picture of the MuchMusic building, home to much musical activity as well as unique features like “Breakfast Television”, and “Speakers Corner”. This highly recognizable building is located downtown Toronto.
This building, home to MuchMusic, also known as the CHUM-City building, or 299 Queen St. West, was (and still is) a fixture known to everyone in and around the greater metropolitan area.
I’d be remiss not to share with you a sample of what went on on Speakers Corner, which was part of the MuchMusic building, and which was (as far as I know) the original “vlog” platform back in the early 1990’s. Nothing I know of pre-dates it, as far as random people talking into a video camera goes.
As I was saying, there was basically nothing like this at the time, and, wouldn’t you know, this format basically is how the world operates now in 2019 via platforms like Youtube. Crazy, eh?!
Though it still exists today, I think many would agree that MuchMusic isn’t as culturally significant today as it was in the 1990’s. Really, how could it be? The music world is completely different now, in terms of who people turn to for their music. It certainly isn’t one television station, like it was back in the ’90’s.
Back then, everyone I know that liked music turned to MuchMusic at this time for the latest news on bands, music videos, and live concert information.
Today, there’s much less of a need for “music television” as the internet has taken over that role.
That said, back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, MuchMusic built its reputation as one of the coolest places in town, and anyone in the area would stop by, stare through the windows, trying to get a peek at what was happening.
Often times, there’d be a famous band or artist in the area, and they’d swing by MuchMusic and play some songs and talk to a VJ (video jockey) or interviewer. These two roles, as I recall, were often one and the same.
It was a very cool time and place to be, and, unlike certain venues which weren’t known for their overall friendliness, MuchMusic had a fairly welcoming vibe to it that drew visitors from all around the world to it.
(Here’s Weird Al posing with well known MuchMusic VJ, Master T. – Ed.)
Here’s a typical scene you’d see at MuchMusic, with a band playing in-studio (The Refreshments), and one of the hosts / VJs (video jockeys) interviewing them before and / or after their set. (Forgive the video quality, it was probably recorded on some old VHS tape, but it’s a good clip!)
Often there’d be people’s faces pressed up against the glass to watch the band, but you can’t see that here, because sometimes people weren’t aware of who was there, or it was elsewhere in the building, ie. not the front.
So, this was back in 1995, and this was a song you’d hear on the radio all the time.
Now, the long-haired guy casually chatting with the band here is Bill Welychka, one of Much’s main VJ’s from back in the day.
And, as it happens, I got a chance to ask him, now, in 2019, some questions about his time at MuchMusic during the late 1980’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s.
Before we dive into my Q&A with Bill, I want to mention that I watched a lot of MuchMusic during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, and Bill was definitely a familiar face you’d see on there basically any day of the week.
There were many VJ’s who’d get air time at MuchMusic, and Bill, as I recall, was known for his gregarious nature and easy ability to talk to people and connect with them.
He was always laughing and doing some kind of zing-y back and forth with whichever musician or band was in town, pretty much regardless of their stature. Nothing really seemed to phase him. Even when he interviewed increasingly famous guests, he looked like he was having a good time.
To clarify, Bill wasn’t always joking around with his guests. If need be, he could buckle down and be a little more restrained, asking what seemed like un-rehearsed, topical questions that just came to him. Not sure how he did it. (but maybe we’ll find out in the interview…)
MuchMusic VJ’s, around this time, were known for “breaking the 4th wall”, as it were, and not coming across like boring straight-laced reporter-types to their interviewees, or their viewing audience.
The general feeling I got from watching MuchMusic around this time is that it must have been a blast to work there, with fun things happening all the time and lots of surprise guests.
This is kind of why I wanted to ask Bill what it was like to work at MuchMusic back at that time. Luckily, I was able to reach him and ask him some questions about his career in broadcasting, with regards to MuchMusic, MuchMoreMusic, and beyond!
Enjoy our chat!
Prior to being on MuchMusic, what was your connection to or experience with music / interviewing?
I was the youngest of six kids so from grade 2 on, I had the advantage of listening to older brothers’ records like The Who, Led Zep, David Bowie and so many others.
As I got older, starting from age 11, I began my own collection of records and into high school music became a “badge” for me.
My tastes over many years changed, but it also grew – never forgetting what I learned.
My penchant for learning about new music and styles and history encompassed Blues, Rock, Glam, Hard Rock, Gospel, Metal, Folk, Alt-Rock, Country, Pop, New Wave, Goth, Punk, and so much more.
I was never a musician but music became a best friend and escape for those sensitive teen years.
I felt by the age of 18, I was a musicologist and knew everything I could about music, songs, lyrics, album covers etc.
When did you start working at MuchMusic and how did that happen?
1988. The week I graduated from Seneca College’s “Radio and TV Arts” program, I was accepted at MuchMusic as a video-editor, dubbing commercial video breaks and dubbing new videos from all the record labels that came into the building for our vast library.
(Here’s an old picture of what MuchMusic apparently looked like in the early to mid-80’s, found online – Ed.)
Prior to that, I was volunteering for a few months…college during day, home for a nap, volunteering at Much overnight, home for a sleep and back to school.
During that period I was also working part time at a bakery. I have always been blessed with a solid work ethic. Still have it!
When you arrived at MuchMusic, what was the scene like?
MuchMusic was THE GO TO destination for new and breaking music videos and artists and live interviews when I was in high school (mid 80s).
There were some music video shows on CBC and other Canadian channels but even at ages 16 or 17 I sensed a “corporate” fakeness to it all.
MuchMusic had a sense of cool and a ground-breaking vibe to it. Even before Much was launched, I was an avid viewer of “The New Music” on Toronto’s City-TV.
The MAN Moses Znaimer became a hero to me.
When I started at Much, the main VJs were Chris Ward, Steve Anthony, Erica Ehm, Michael Williams, Laurie Brown, Denise Donlon and Terry David Mulligan.
(here’s a clip of Terry David Mulligan interviewing Sarah McLaughlan – Ed.)
I watched these people navigate through live (and taped) interviews and I was enamoured but also learned a lot about timing, good questions, bad questions, research etc.
I started there shortly after the move to a huge TV factory/ empire at City/ Much to Queen St. West from what I understand was a tiny cramped building on Queen St. East.
There was a vibe of WOW for everyone in that new building. Creativity, ideas and passion was everywhere. It was new and standards were we being broken and new benchmarks were being set.
Did you replace anyone when you arrived on the scene at Much?
My whole gig before being on-air was editing and producing taped segments and hour specials. To this very day, my favourite thing about television is editing and producing.
Every person on-air in TV has their own personal story how they got there. It is the same with Much VJs. (Although, some won a contest to be on-air.)
It was unlike the US system of broadcasting…hire an agent, go for auditions bla bla.
My personal story was while dubbing all the new videos for Much’s library, there were all these new country artists breaking through. Steve Earle, Garth Brooks, Randy Travis and so many others and many new Canadian country artists releasing videos.
I submitted a proposal for a weekly Country music video show to the head of Much at the time (John Martin.)
Eventually “Outlaws n Heroes” was born on Much.
(here’s a clip of a promo for Outlaws and Heroes – Ed.)
I helped produce, interviewed many artists and edited features.
The show’s host went away on mat-leave, I filled in hosting and interviewing (First time on-air Nationally!), kept hosting and moved over to regular flow VJ duties when the show was cancelled because a new Country music station surfaced in Canada.
That was my entry to being on-air.
At what point did the whole “VJ” concept come into being, and were you personally part of that at all?
The term and role of VJ was well established before I got there.
Chris Ward I think was the first in Canada to be a “video-jockey”…throwing to music videos, interviewing guests, providing info. To me, he was THE GUY!!!
(Here’s a clip of Christopher Ward on-air throwing to a video – Ed.)
Steve Anthony did that but added to it with his brand of humour.
Denise Donlon added to the role with professionalism and a drive for relevance and issues. (She remains my biggest influence and role-model.)
The best part is I don’t think any one of us were reigned in or told how to act or how to dress.
Moses and our bosses let us be US.
I was never the cute one, silly one, nor stupid one. My goal was to show a passion for music and let the artist shine, and always hopefully appealing to passionate music followers.
I never called the audience “fans”. I have worked with many egos and quite frankly, many media people have egos.
Some VJs I have worked with thought they were more important than the artists they were interviewing. I always fought against that.
My whole thing over 30 years of broadcasting is THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT part of the equation is the viewer.
They are doing us a favour by watching. Some in media believe they are doing the audience a favour by being on their TV screens. That attitude makes me want to vomit.
(here’s some clips of Bill Welychka on air doing his thing, a “Best of” – Ed.)
MuchMusic was known for not really being too “serious” as far as how the VJs interacted with the various guests, many of them rather famous. How did this go over, generally?
Many musicians have told me they absolutely loved our presentation of music far more than our counterparts in the US, MTV. We were less corporate and more fun. The artists knew it and so did the audience.
The best part for me was after a live interview, the artist not wanting to leave and continue to talk. Or wanting to hang out after the show.
There were a few times were the record label got mad at me on a Monday because after a big show on a Friday or Saturday, I would take the artist out after their gig…at their request! Hahahaha!!!
Collective Soul were late once for a gig after being in Toronto. I took them to a late night booze-can in Toronto. Not my fault!!!!
Was the group or cohort of VJ’s you were with basically a tight knit group who were friends outside of work, or was it not like that?
I have been asked this many times before. I think the audience would like to imagine a huge group of friends always hanging out.
No one was really like that, other than work functions. For me, I was mostly friends with behind-the-scenes people.
I have always had a close small group of loyal friends.
To this day, my best friends I have known have been for 30 or 40 years. I do still keep in touch with some Much co-workers through social media.
Who was the interviewee that most surprised you in some way, or one of?
I would hear horror stories about some interview subjects that I had to interview.
But ALWAYS, looking back I have met every single one of my heroes and have always produced great segments and even specials with every single one.
I have heard David Bowie was difficult, Madonna, Robbie Robertson, Oasis and so many others. I have interviewed these people and have spent a lot of time with them. They were absolute treasures!!!
Liam and Noel from Oasis are actually funny, entertaining, VERY SMART sweet lil puppy dogs.
(Here’s a clip of Bill talking to Noel back in ’98 – Ed.)
I have met all my idols and they were always amazing and genuine.
I am the luckiest and most grateful person I know.
When MuchMoreMusic came along, what was your thoughts on that, and did you understand the point of that?
I so welcomed MMM! A channel that played singer-songwriters, legends, adult-contemporary. Perhaps some progressive artists.
I envisioned a channel without incessant VJ chatter.
Let it be about cool music for music lovers! Age to me, didn’t matter. It’s about the music and the art and the creativity and the legends.
On paper it seemed obvious. The execution was eventually sloppy and misguided.
I jumped at the chance to be a part of it and was given that chance in 2000. I developed and created new shows while there.
I could do what I loved to do…travel, interview legends, produce, edit and host hour specials. The station went through some program directors and line producers that were out of their league.
It is a shame that MMM faded into oblivion when I left.
Hahahha…I am not saying it died when I left. I am saying I saw the writing on the wall with how music television was being presented and how new corporate bosses took over that didn’t understand music and I literally jumped ship.
That was when I left “entertainment” for good.
(Here’s a clip of Bill hosting a show with Prince as the guest on MuchMoreMusic, in 2004 – Ed.)
After leaving Much, then what happened next as far as your career went?
After leaving MM, I was at MMM for 5 years. I then took on a hosting duty in Edmonton at the newly re-branded City-TV…doing a Morning TV show.
I loved Edmonton for that year but I missed family and friends in Ontario. After a year in Edmonton, I took on a weather presenter position with A-Channel in Ottawa (a Chum owned station).
(I loved learning weather! It became a huge passion!)
A new owner for the station came in and a new manager started a major round of lay-offs. I saw many amazing talented people let go in Ottawa.
After 5 years there, after dodging a few bullets, a bullet found me. I was given a year package and could not work in TV in Canada for a limited time as per the package I agreed to.
My mother was dying of cancer that year I was off. It’s weird how things work! I had an entire year off to visit my mother in Barrie, On.
A lot of driving. A lot of spare time listening to music on long lonely drives.
A few months after her passing, I was offered a great job here in Kingston at CKWS-TV (A Corus Entertainment/ Global TV station.)
That was seven years ago and I freakin’ love Kingston! It is a beautiful, historic city with a vibrant music and arts scene.
I became a columnist for The Kingston Whig-Standard. I followed a dream of learning to pro-wrestle.
One of my favourite things about Kingston? I have renewed friendships with some of our boys from The Tragically Hip, after many interviews with them over the years…going back to 1995.
(Here’s a more recent clip where Bill takes a look at Canada’s house band, the pride of Kingston, Ontario – The Tragically Hip – Ed.)
(back to the chat! – Ed.)
I am loving life and work. For the first time in a very long time. The music industry has drastically changed since MM.
There are limited avenues for new artists to break-through and have exposure. Yes, YouTube is an avenue. But here in Kingston, it seems to me it has come full circle. I welcome new and established music acts on Global News Morning.
What I left has now come to me.
Life is grand!!!
Thanks for reading, y’all! If you have anything to add, leave a comment below, we’d love to hear from you!
Today I speak with Noam Haddad (aka Pianoam on Fiverr.com), a 21-year-old piano player from Tel Aviv, Israel who has, for a long time, been covering his favorite songs on the piano, where he now makes a nice side income by doing his favorite hobby.
Asking him about where he lives, Noam says of his home town: “Tel Aviv is a great place, being called the “city that never sleeps”. In any corner you can find bars, restaurants, museums, or something to do. It’s an amazing place to visit, and an even more amazing to live!”
I was interested to pick Noam’s brain about his techniques around covering songs on the piano, which he clearly has a talent. What’s the method to his madness? Is it easy? Can anyone do it? I set out to ask him these questions and learn more about his creative process.
Hi Noam, how long have you been playing piano?
Hey Dave! I’ve been playing piano for 11 years. I started playing when I was 10 years old.
You’ve been very focused on doing a lot of cover songs on the piano, is this true?
Yes. When I started play piano, I was learning with a teacher, who taught me mostly classical pieces.
Some years later, after I developed and became more experienced, I discovered the world of piano covers. And since then, most of my time with the piano is being dedicated for that.
Here’s an example of a song I did called “Mom” (in English), which is a cover of a parody song by Entertainment Channel.
What do you like about playing covers vs. playing original tunes?
So, one of the reasons I started making my own covers, was the simple fact that there is no sheet music for every song I want to play. I heard a song I really wanted to play, and I couldn’t play it, because I didn’t find sheet music for it.
After I progressed and learned more, I found out how great it is to give your own touch and style to the song you like. The satisfaction is seeing up the final product, which is a mix between the original song and the way your interpretation to it.
Do you remember some of the first songs you covered and why you covered them?
When I was 15 years old, I was really into rock and metal music. My favorite band was “Avenged Sevenfold”, and one of the first songs I covered was “So far away”, one of their most famous songs.
I listened to this song a lot, and also looked for different covers for this song in youtube- by different singers, all played by guitar and other instruments. One time I just decided to try and do it by my own, and I figured it- chord by chord.
In addition, I really liked some of Adele’s songs, and still, “All I ask” is one of my favorite songs to cover.
So you’re covering these songs by ear? Can you explain how you go about learning a song using just your ear and no sheet music or tablature?
Yes, I cover these songs by ear. So how do I do that? First, we need to understand that the one of the most important thing in songs, and especially in piano covers, is chords.
Chords are the driving force of the song, the thing that leads the song in a specific direction. There are different chords and different keys, and it’s really important to know most of the chords, in one key at least.
So as I said, chords are important, and the first thing I recommend in creating piano covers is finding the right chords. How do we do that?
1- If you don’t want to find it by yourself, there are some sites in internet which provides chords to famous songs.
2 – If you want to find it by yourself, or you don’t find the chords in internet, do it by yourself. I won’t explain it here, because it’s a very long topic.
But as a general recommendation, I would recommend finding the notes- in right hand- of the singer’s voice, and sometimes try to attach different chords to the right places, until you find the right chords.
It’s a long road at the beginning, but you become better and better.
So you record the melody first then, or at least find the melody first, before finding the chords?
I don’t record the melody separately. It means that I play the whole song at the same time.
About the question which thing I find first, the melody or the chords- it depends. Sometimes the chords are easier for me to find, sometimes the melody. But most of the time, it’s the mix of the two.
For instance, I can find how to play a specific part of the melody, and after that find the chords for this part. And in the next part of the song, I first find the chords, and only then find the melody related to those chords.
Aha. It sounds like you are covering all sorts of songs across many genres, both for professional and personal reasons. How long would you say the average cover takes you to a) figure out how to play it, and then b) record it?
So when I started playing covers of my own, each song took me days to cover – finding the melody, the chords, and how to play it right, was really hard and has been a new experience to me.
Now, after years of songs covering, I can learn how to play most of the songs completely after a few hours. Recording it isn’t really a problem, and it takes me less than a hour. In the record, though, it’s not so easy because you have to play it perfectly and not making any errors.
You do it all in one take? ie. one performance beginning to end? How many attempts do you usually need to make?
I almost always play it in one take, except for rare occasions where the song is really long, and I think a pause between the song parts will be better for my cover playing.
It takes me between 1-5 attempts normally.
What software are you using to record?
Actually, most of the time I’m not using any software at all. My electric piano supports usb port, which allows me to connect the hard disk to it and record songs straight to the hard disk. If, sometimes, I need to edit my piano track, I use “Audacity”.
So you’re saying you just use one track usually? Your recordings aren’t multi-tracked?
Exactly, 90 percent of the time I’m using only one track
So what tips would you suggest for people looking to get into the piano cover business like yourself?
So If someone is looking to get into the piano cover business, I would give him those tips:
*Don’t give up on classical pieces. Classical pieces are often beautiful to play, and also very educational for your music knowledge. In a way, playing classical pieces made me better at playing covers for regular songs.
*Try to find the chords by your own- at least at the beginning of your way- and not looking for it in interent. This music ability that you will require with this work will worth you a lot when you’ll progress. Look for chords pattern that you’ve already hear. You’ll see every day your progress.
*In the beginning, don’t look for the hardest songs, with a lot of chords and key changes. Cover songs that you like, make a lot of effort in them. Play the backing track with different melodies and learn how to make the same song to sound better each time.
Would you say weighted keys are a must for learning to play and covering songs? Or will any $5 keyboard do?
Well, I started learning with basic, simple electric piano. For learning the basics of music, you don’t need nothing beyond that.
Of course, if you’re already have a real piano it’s best to play at it. After you learn and progress, you will understand by your own that you need to get a better piano.
A better piano makes a better sound and provides all-around better experience. But for learning to play and cover songs? A simple electric piano is enough.
Although, keep in mind that a 5$ keyboard probably won’t be enough.
One of the single things I recommend to new players is buy a keyboard which supplies the “touch” utility, which means that with strong touch on the key you will get a strong, high sound, and with weak tough you will get a low sound. This is very important.
I guess this is similar to weighted keys, but not exactly the same. I guess the next question is, can you make a living off of doing this kind of work. I’m sure people who would want to enter this line of work are wondering that.
So Dave, this is a great question- and I’m actually asking this question for myself right now. In the last year covering songs was a hobby for me, hobby that finally is paying off. Still, I am far away from making a living off it.
Although, I am sure that every person that actually wants to to dedicate a lot for it, will be able to progress a lot and, maybe, make a living off it.
Anything else you might like to share with aspiring piano and keyboard players entering this field?
Yes. the simplest, yet one of the hardest to implement advice to you, is not to give up. You listen to amazing piano covers in Youtube, made by talented pianists which years of experience behind them, and you want to be like them.
So you start playing, and even after 2 days of playing, your piano cover sounds very basic- not similar to the cover you heard in Youtube. In this point most of the pianists give up, and comes back to their roots- playing from sheet music.
And this is what I don’t want you to do. Move on, continue to learn and develop. Before you’ll notice it, your covers will sound more amazing than you thought they could be 🙂
Today I speak with Paul Jamrozy and Graham Cunnington, of the innovative and highly-engaging UK-based musical act, Test Dept – a group which gives new meaning to the expression, “brutal honesty”.
This is because Test Dept has ever been raining blows upon inanimate objects, albeit in a percussive and poly-rhythmic fashion.
To the uninitiated, these sounds may seem disorganized and shrill, and perhaps even…maddening.
If you’ve seen the musical “Stomp”, imagine that briefly, if you will. Then, replace those happy-go-lucky performers with staunch political activists, and then invite Ogre, Al Jourgensen, and all of Einstürzende Neubauten to the party. This might give your “normal” individual, who may not get out much, some approximation of the sonic scenario here, although, that description is oversimplifying things quite a lot.
In any case, the skittish and faint of heart may be unlikely to enter a venue with Test Dept on the marquee, particularly if they are aware of the group. The sound of a rabid gray wolf baying outside their front door may prove to be more soothing aurally to such an individual.
However abstract and disjointed Test Dept’s on-stage presence may seem to people who have always tended to bathe in the jaw-slackening sounds of pop music, there is, and has always been, a game plan and purpose behind everything Test Dept does. And there are also those that know this, and appreciate their activities.
For the record, Test Dept is known globally for their impassioned live shows, and for their use of industrial “found” material (ie. scrap metal), refashioned into more purposeful instruments, with which they make their unique music.
They have been interpreting the world around them and converting it into vigorous sound since 1981, when they emerged in New Cross, London. Their mission to make music with a built-in purpose continues to this day.
With over a dozen members come and gone over the past almost-30 years, and many collaborators to speak of, Test Dept has been quite prolific, developing a formidable body of work. This is work that may certainly be deemed influential to anyone who knows how to recognize when influence has been passed along the winding corridors of modern culture, as modern culture has a distinct tendency towards wilful forgetfulness.
If you’ve seen some of Test Dept’s video output, you will know they are, in addition to being very rhythmic, visually stimulating and cinematic.
Here is a clip called Program for Progress to demonstrate what I mean.
Recently, the core members of Test Dept has re-formed in order to take the stage once again, motivated by the curious goings-on in global culture. It is they who I had a chance to put some questions to. Luckily, they responded.
So, to delay no further, here is my interview with Test Dept, where we discuss a variety of topics. We start, as logic would dictate, at the very beginning.
For those who don’t know the band or its history, Test Dept, by your own admission, emerged from a decaying culture in South London in the early 1980’s. So much so that you literally grabbed hold of pieces of that crumbling world and started making music with them. Do you remember the first time you did this, and the circumstances around it?
GC: We had been living in Amsterdam when the idea for Test Dept emerged. We relocated to the docklands of South London where we were surrounded by the inevitable consequence of Thatcher’s destruction of the heavy industry and manufacturing economic base in favour of a service economy.
PJ: Corrugated sheeting, empty beer barrels, gas cylinders, car springs, they were everywhere around us. Deptford Creekside was our playground, we wandered around the old decaying factories, rummaged on the banks of the Thames and scavenged in the scrapyards that proliferated the area.
Was your music, in the beginning, more a reaction to the music at the time, or the politics? For example, were you bothered at all by the disco duck?
PJ: It began more as a noise thing, a reaction to where we had been after punk, we had a sense of unfinished business. The post punk period, with the wide spectrum of new experimental music that poured out was all very liberating. The politics were already there but developed rapidly with the hate figure of Thatcher to oppose, The Falklands War, followed by the ‘English Civil War’ that was the ‘Miners Strike’ and the wars kept coming. Must say, Disco duck never really caught on in Deptford but must confess it is quite irritatingly catchy.
Do you feel your music is “atonal” or “noise”? For instance, do you think of it as such, or do you think of it as perhaps “nice” or “relaxing” but maybe just an “acquired taste”? Or are you more of the mindset that “yes, it’s an awful racket, but we love it!”?
PJ: I think you pass through a number of states and emotions in the performing and listening modes. Sometimes you had to go through the pain barrier to reach a crescendo or release and that was true of the audience too. Not everybody got that but those who did were very passionate about it. To us it wasn’t an infernal racket; it was co-ordinated and constructed into a giant machine in which we were all components, that sense of utilitarian unity gave us a vision of building something immense and beyond individualist egos.
Once you make an album using pieces of discarded metal and whatnot, does that metal hold any sentimental place in your heart, or do you simply shove it back into the sea or the scrapyard from whence it came? In other words, do you consider yourselves pioneers of worldwide recycling, or are you simply riding the waves of detritus and scrap as it crests, and then surfing away in the opposite direction once the wave crashes down?
PJ: Well we have had some fabulous pieces over the years but through our own transient lives, lack of a continuous space to work in, etc. Many fabulous pieces were lost such as our giant ten-foot trumpet and the sputniks (antique 1950s brewery barrels made of a very distinctive alloy); but some were just too big to keep, like the ten ton tank that nearly brought the Albany Empire ceiling crashing down. Some took a beating and were just destroyed in action.
Bands like Coil, or maybe someone like Alec Empire, seem to have taken a sound you created and distilled it into more palatable tones with some of their albums. Have you ever thought of doing something more contemplative and “new age-y” in the same way as something like Time Machines (Coil) or Low On Ice (Alex Empire)? Hell, even Throbbing Gristle made that “funk” album, right? Perhaps have a sexy female voice singing “skulls crack” could open you up to…ah, forget it.
PJ: I think we have always been diverse in working with a variety of styles including some ambient tracks, think Plastic (Beating the Retreat), Comrade Enver Hoxha (Unacceptable Face of Freedom) and female vocalists, Nadka (Terra Firma),Gododdin the album with Brith Gof and Totality the album with Katie- Jane Garside.
You have long been associated with the “art” world, whether it be performance, sculpture, concept art, and various counterculture and subversive movements within the “art” world, some dating back decades if not centuries. How comfortable are you being associated with the art world in general?
PJ: The ‘art world’ is far too general a term, we do not sell commodified work to an art market andwhilst appreciating work aesthetically, we find that this art world, as an arbiter of taste, is distasteful and totally removed from our lives. However it is true to say we have many artistic influences going back to the movements of Dada, Futurism, Constructivism in the early part of the last century; and on to the multi media of Fluxus, the political stance of the Situationists and other radical art movements in the latter part of the last century. These movements and the art produced was indeed revolutionary and critical of the society it evolved into, using art as a vehicle to expand horizons, or to create visions of a new world of possibilities.
Obviously, Test Dept has no problem making “regular” people uncomfortable with your music, both in recordings and live performance. Surely, even as new people get exposed to your music, they are still as uncomfortable now as they were when you first arrived on the scene. There will always be suburbanites and people racing down Wall Street who, at most, would cast you a disdainful and utterly fed up / confused glare. Assuming you have always enjoyed people’s squirming discomfort at what you bring to the table, do you still enjoy it today?
GC: There are certainly some artists who’s main focus seems to be on making people uncomfortable in a sonic sense, but this is not our aim. We make music that we feel reflects and comments on the world around us, which at the moment is pretty uncomfortable. Our sonic palette is partly gathered from our surroundings and not based on standard ideas of ‘musicality’ (although harmony and melody can have their place at times). There is certainly beauty, and even musicality, in noise. Sound is just vibrating air and all objects that vibrate to make a sound when hit or plucked or bowed (or simply turned on in the case of mechanical objects) are potential instruments; its just about how one perceives or places them. What is comfortable for some is uncomfortable for others – before the C20th atonal music was considered uncomfortable (if not incomprehensible), now it is accepted as a mainstream musical form. It’s all down to perception and taste.
What are your thoughts on bands that people consider to be flag bearers of industrial music who came along after you like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails? Has your influence on them been acknowledged by them, or anyone else, and what do you think of what they’re doing in relation to what you’re doing?
PJ: Trent Reznor has made positive statements recognizing our influence (in fact he has said that NiN are not industrial but rather have industrial influences) but it is not something that really concerns us. In media terms we were pushed to the periphery having not had the majority of our back catalogue available for many years. That was why it was important to publish the ‘Total State Machine’ book to show our history and all the diverse projects that took us into many unchartered waters way beyond the industrial.
I think the majority of these American ‘industrial’ bands are more akin to traditional rock bands that have incorporated electronic and noise elements into their sound, which is fine. However I think we come from a different place, a very European heritage of found sound, electronic experimentation,the classical avant-garde and noise aesthetic with a heavy load of tribal drums thrown in for good measure.
What can you say about Some Bizarre Records, in terms of how the label operated and some of your label mates. In relation to the last question, bands like Einstürzende Neubauten seem to be a more an apt comparison to Test Dept vs. a band like NIN, but is that how you see it, or do yourself as having nothing to do with any of these groups?
PJ: Some Bizarre were responsible for bringing many of the best experimental and alternative acts under one roof and were almost untouchable for a long period. All these acts were very different but shared a sense of creative adventure that is rare. We were always fiercely independent while recognizing that which we had in common with bands like Neubauten, Laibach and others, which was largely our sense of being European in the midst of the cold war.
As the world seems to get only more zany and steeped in various real and imagined conspiracies, how do you see your place in it today?
GC: We try to comment on what we see around us in the real world. Conspiracies used to be political or industrial cover-ups of power-plays or incidents involving subterfuge, mistakes or outrages; these days they are often whole world-views, propagated and expounded upon by a multitude of voices requiring little or no concrete evidence. Anything can be extracted and extrapolated to fit any theory if only limited and specific data is highlighted as proof.
PJ: We have entered a new era of what has been termed ‘Surveillance Capitalism’, where every action, every click is monitored, captured and sold. Information is on the money. Avoiding Facebook or other capture vehicles only slightly minimizes the risk. Be under no illusions the Trojan horse is already within all of our firewalls. You have been Googled.
Liberty DeVitto has done pretty well for himself as a professional drummer over the past few decades.
His success story is as inspiring as any musician could hope for. DeVitto basically taught himself how to play drums, motivated by sheer enthusiasm for the instrument, at a young age, and worked his way into the music biz, where he has gone on to become one of the most respected and appreciated hired gun drummers out there.
This might explain why he appears in the 2017 documentary Hired Gun, which is about the best of the best musicians who are called upon for sessions with some of the world’s biggest musical artists, whether it be for a recording gig, or a touring gig of immense proportions.
Having drummed on dozens of records in all manner of styles, Liberty DeVitto has drummed for and with musicians like Carly Simon, Paul McCartney, Rick Wakeman, Meat Loaf, Karen Carpenter, Stevie Nicks, and, of course, Billy Joel, with whom he played with for 30 years, give or take.
Liberty is credited as having drummed on 150 million records sold worldwide!
Although his drumming style is quite varied, which is why he’s called upon by such a wide swath of musicians globally, I think it’s safe to say that Liberty is predominantly a rock drummer, and you can hear his punchy playing on most of the records he appears on.
Here’s one of the dozens of songs you’ve probably heard him playing on with Billy Joel from the classic album, 52nd Street, called “My Life”. Dig that snare sound!
These days, you can hear him rockin’ n’ rollin’ with his current band, the Slim Kings, who can be seen on tour these days around the country.
The Slim Kings are singer and guitarist Michael Sackler-Berner, R&B bassist Andy Attanasio, and DeVitto. They perform their own originals as a rhythm and blues power trio.
The Slim Kings are a workhorse band, and they love to get their groove on. Here is one of their more recent videos, for a song called Dangerous Place.
This band loves to play, above all else, and they get around. Here are the Slim Kings playing their song, “Colombian Money”, on the Artie Lange show.
As luck would have it, I got a chance to chat with DeVitto and ask him some questions around his recent exploits, and the something which is close to my heart as well, which is DRUMMING.
Please enjoy my little Q&A with Liberty DeVitto.
I would assume you prefer playing live to playing in the studio.Do you?
I actually like the studio better. I get to be two different people. One who plays the drums and then the other who listens back and decides if it’s good or not .
Yes I do, and in about a month we are doing the gala, and I will be playing with Trombone Shorty and Paul Shaffer.
Is there a “New York” style of drumming that you are aware of?If so, what are the characteristics of that style?
There are so many different cultures in NY, they all bring their own music. It is a very aggressive city and I think that comes out in ones playing.
If there was a band you could have jammed with from the past, who might it be…and why?
Traffic, I love Steve Winwood’s voice .
Has anyone ever called you a jazz drummer?Or jazzy?And, if they did, would that be a compliment or how would you take that?
The amount of jazz I can play can be heard on the song Zanzibar.
How often do you play drums these days, and in what context?Still playing with the The Lords of 52nd Street?
I live in Brooklyn so I don’t have drums in my apartment. I play when I am with my bands. I have two right now . The Lords of 52nd street, and the Slim Kings.
Do you still practice?
I do have a practice pad in the draw of my coffee table.
When you come up with a drum part for a song, do you try to make it simply fit in with the song, or do you purposely like to come up with challenging parts just to keep you on your toes?I say this because you seem to do both – play to the song, and also throw in cool embellishments at times.
I always play to the song.
If you see an opportunity for a drum solo or breakdown or even a timely fill in a song you’re playing with a band, but have yet to attempt it, do you say to the band “Look out guys, I’m gonna do something kind of crazy at around the half-way point?” or do you just spring it on the band mid-jam and let them react?
Yes and I have tried and failed!
Who are some of your favourite drummers?Or, is there a drummer whose work you come back to again and again that has really influenced you?
There are so many from the past. Right now I’m diggin Antonio Sanchez.
Is there a record that you can think of that has a drum sound that you’ve wanted to potentially imitate, but it’s so cool you think maybe you’ll never pull it off?
If there was a crappy old beat up drumset sitting there in front of you, and you had some time on your hands, would you a) sit down and play it, b) try to tune it and rearrange it and then play it, or c) ignore it and go do something else?
I’d try to play it .
Have you ever jammed with a heavy metal band, and if not, would you want to?And beyond that, could you?
In the documentary “Hired Gun “ I played with many metal guys.
What do you think of electronic music, ie. music that uses programmed beats and loops?Like, do you think it’s cool or an abomination?Side question – is there any electronic music on your computer or iPod / Spotify?
I don’t care for it and no.
How do you listen to music these days?The latest gadgets and doodads or dusty old vinyl? Cassettes? CD’s?
I listen on my iPod, also cds and mostly vinyl.
Is there a type of music that you’d like to get more into drumming-wise?Perhaps a style you’ve neglected over the years?
I have had a recent desire to learn bebop and big band.
Are you still connected to Camp Jam?Also, what do you like about connecting with the youth over music?You seem to have a passion for it.
I am not with Camp Jam any longer but I do enjoy talking to young people about music . I am part of a panel called “The Sessions” which fulfills that desire.
Do you like lighter or heavier sticks?You rock pretty hard, so I might guess…heavier ones to give it that extra whallop?
I use to use heavy sticks but have gone down to a 5A Promark.
When it comes to modern guitar effect pedals, and music gear in general, there are quite a lot of companies out making it. Some companies are large, and some are small. Some suck, some are great. We all know how it goes.
To the end user, aka the music gear consumer, there are advantages to dealing with both big and small companies, as well as cons.
On one hand, large companies are trusted and have years of experience doing what they do, and can back up any of their products (usually) with guarantees and warranties that protect the musicians buying them from lightning storms, jam hall fires, irresponsible siblings getting their slimy mitts on your pedal board, etc.
These big, established companies that have household names make pedals that are the go-to gear of working musicians, and the cycle of rock continues.
On the other hand, you have companies that run a slightly smaller, tighter ship, but have more creative freedom, and are able to experiment.
They also have the ability to keep a meticulous eye on everything that goes on, and their customer service has the potential to be a lot better, as they can offer things the big companies can’t, and come up with technology that is mind-blowingly inventive.
A company of this sort that is small but spunky would be T-Rex Engineering, a company out of Denmark who manufacturers a number of guitar pedals, including distortion/overdrive, tremolo, looper, delay, reverb, octaver, wah, and more.
They also make power supplies, boards, bags, cables, brackets, and tape cartridges.
Basically, TRex makes a lot of what your average musician will need to get through the next show, plus a bunch of stuff that a lot of musicians wouldn’t mind getting for their birthdays if only their friends, family, and loved ones knew a thing or two about cool music gear.
Lars and Sebastian, childhood friends who both have a passion for music, and who founded the company back in 1996, always make sure the components with which they use to make their pedals and gear is of the utmost quality. They have a small but dedicated team who work together to keep on top of things.
Being music gear nerds here at YTMS, and fans of boutique guitar pedals and crazy/cool effects, we managed to set up a little Q&A with TRex, with the hopes to get a better idea how their business works, and also so we can learn more about their pedals, which we are big fans of!
You gotta figure, if their stuff is good enough for the likes of Steve Lukather (Toto), Marc Tremonti (Alter Bridge), Martin Gore (Depeche Mode), Carl Verheyen (Supertramp), Patrick Matera (Katy Perry) and Luke Potashnik (Katie Melua), they must have their shit together.
And in the following chat, we find out exactly how TRex goes about things! Enjoy!
Can you, in a nutshell, describe what TRex Engineering does?
We design and manufacture effects, amps, power supplies and accessories for guitar players, as well as other musicians that need useable tools for real-world applications.
What inspired you to get into the effects pedals business?
Lars (founder) is an electronics guy and for his graduation project, he made a switching system for pedals, so they could be turned on and off in presets. Sebastian (childhood friend, founder) did the digital part, since he was also graduating in electronics, although back then, you did either analog or digital.
They had both between the two of them, so it worked quite well.
A few players saw it and wanted to buy it, so the guys started a small production.
So really, it was as simple as a “good idea” that people bought into, which is still very much the philosophy around here – ask and listen to the players and see if you can come up with stuff that they feel is useful, not just impressive or “en vogue”.
How was the guitar effects pedal world different back when you guys started in 1996?
First of all, there weren’t that many competitors (or should I say colleagues?). The boutique thing was just happening and things were still pretty old school regarding the setups/rigs.
Nowadays, programmers can make the planet rotate the other way using a chip that costs 0.02USD, it seems.
In many ways, the pedal world hasn’t changed one bit since Hendrix tracked “Hey Joe”, because there seems to be an incredible interest in “classic” effects and sounds, but at the same time, we embrace new technology like there’s no tomorrow.
The requests we get are sometimes physically impossible to meet, but I get why the question is asked because from the outside world, it certainly looks like anything’s possible.
One guy wanted a pedal that could detect what key the band was playing in, so that he could pick the right harmonica for the song – I don´t want to put the guy down at all, but a book on music theory is 5 bucks and needs no power.
In short, we are all a lot closer to each other now and manufacturers must listen harder and react faster on the market demands.
What are some of your top sellers these days…and why?
The Soulmate Acoustic and our tape echos are doing pretty well right now. I guess they serve a purpose that players can relate to.
With the ASM, it sort of takes out all the guesswork of playing live with an acoustic, because everything is there – effects, signal conditioning, pre-amplification, D.I. box, etc.
The tape echo units seem to be “fun” and offer something completely different to what else is out there, good AND bad. But most customers like them for the exact same reasons.
Shoot, who doesn’t like to press a switch and watch stuff turn, roll, slide and blink? And then it also puts out sound!!
We all connect to our inner 3-year old child when we see such a thing, which I think complements the precise, predictive and controlled nature of a modern DSP-based effect.
These speak to the grown-up part of our brain and provides safety in use, but they are not as lively or random.
I think music that has some irregularities in it speaks a bit louder than something that’s maybe slightly too polished, and I guess that’s why there’s room for a tape echo on the market, also.
You’re obviously into more than just pedals.For those who don’t know, what other stuff do you make?
We make some power bricks called FuelTanks, that share a common topology but differ in size, total power and in the various options for powering pedals.
We also make ToneTrunk pedalboards, which are also available in various sizes.
These differ from the competition by being two-tiered, so you get to turn on a pedal in the back row without hitting knobs or switches on the goodies in the front row.
I know you take pride in your components.From where do you source the materials?
It depends. Where “standard” stuff gets the job done, we use it.
If a certain design calls for some special component, we try to track one down that might fit the purpose or simply have them made according to our specs.
So the philosophy is that the customer should only pay extra if extra is needed.
We have several custom made parts in our products – some are from Danish manufacturers, others from the US or Asia. It all depends on who can make it for us.
We source mechanical parts for the tape echo locally (because of high tolerance), we make custom knobs right at our factory in China, and our custom made transformers and coils come from our transformer supplier in Denmark.
What’s the main factor in making a more durable pedal?
Obviously, the parts have to be connected tightly and the parts that see the most stress should be up to the task.
Honestly, I don’t think there’s much more to do for mankind here – do we really need a design that can be run over by a truck and still work? I mean, who plays gigs involving running their equipment over by trucks? (I’d love to go see this band, though).
Basically, it’s about sticking to the laws of physics. Making sure that the parts stay connected during use.
As for the components, humans don’t even know how long, say, a resistor will last, because they haven’t been around long enough for us to even know.
Some drift or fail, but as a component “species”, they work forever (so far) as long as they don’t run too hot. So staying cool is always preferred.
And then you test, to try and catch the “lemons”.
Maybe if we all stopped kicking those poor circuits they would last longer?
Pedals are about the only piece of delicate electronics that are purposely made to be stomped on all the time. Food for thought.
Is there one type of pedal you feel that you specialize in?
I don’t think we necessarily excel at a certain type of effect, but I do believe we have gotten pretty good at finding the sweet spot between “one trick pony” and “it can also make you a smashing café au lait and take your kids to school”.
Musicians can’t always manage 200 choices at a gig/rehearsal when they feel something ain’t quite right, but a few choice options are quite valuable because you wanna get the music going, not fiddle around for hours on end.
But for a certain effect TYPE, I don’t know. Delay? We’ve had good success with the Replica.
What do you think is your dirtiest pedal of all?
Easy: Michael’s Mudhoney. Or his Soulmate. Both have seen numerous stages and, being Michael’s, it shows. Not even a chisel helps. It’s like a superman mix of beer and epoxy glue.
Even Mike doesn’t know how he did it…
Seriously, I would pick the original Mudhoney. Not in terms of gain levels but in terms of “sound”.
What do you consider to be your niftiest pedal?The one that strikes you as being most ingenious?
That would probably be the tape echos.
We sort of made them because we couldn’t help ourselves, but I think we managed to incorporate some not-seen-before features, making them not only a fresher version of some long forgotten technology but also something that peeked into the new millennium.
Then there was the Spindoctor, which had motorized pots for preset storage of settings. That was pretty “nifty”.
How has Danish music in general influenced your approach to making guitar pedals?
The Danish music scene has changed a lot, too, since T-Rex started out. I guess it’s not that much different from the rest of the western world.
We can’t ignore the power of “computer music” or the change in gear requirements – it´s been ages since I’ve seen a 4×12 stack in a club, for example.
But that fuels the creativity at the same time, because there´s a need for new gear.
And we’re not about to do another TS clone, so for us, it’s cool.
How often do you sell out of certain products?
It’s actually a situation that one tries to avoid, because it means you can’t send out products to your distribution chain.
But it has happened many times, mostly because we misplaced our crystal ball that we used to keep track of future orders.
It’s like buying beer kegs for your backyard party – if you don’t know who’ll show up and how much beer they can drink, how will you know how many kegs you need? And again, you definitely don’t wanna run out before midnight.
What do you think are the advantages of being a relatively smaller company in this day and age of mass production?
It’s easier to change a few little things here and there, design-wise or work-wise in the process and the very same developers that created the products are also somewhat involved in the sales/marketing side of things, which creates the glue that holds it all together.
Also, people would be surprised how many hats we all wear here.
We have to, being this small. It makes coming to work a lot more fun, because you can be an R&D guy one day, and a warehouse guy the next.
And this creates a mutual understanding of the whole organization, which I believe is a positive thing.
What do you think keeps certain artists like Martin Gore, Steve Lukather, and Carl Verheyen coming back to T-Rex Effects?
The coffee. It’s shit, but we have loads of it!
No, first of all I think the artist relationships we have ARE based on relationship rather than actual gear.
It’s not like those guys have their cases stuffed with T-Rex gear front to back, but they (and their techs) are always up for checking out our stuff and hear what we’ve got cooking.
And then we show up at shows and give them some support through our channels.
I have to give serious credit to my colleague Michael who is our A&R guy, because I think he manages to keep things on a “friend” level, and I think that is the main reason why guys like those you mention stick around. It’s all very down to earth.
Sure, they play bigger stages than the average guy, but the common interest in the biz, gear or life in general prevails.
And they are just so nice, friendly and helpful on all levels, and that´s the kind of people you want close by, right?
Chiptunes are a style of music that has seen somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, but in many ways it never really left the hearts of true fans.
As video game music from the 1980’s gets increasingly retro, the appreciation for the actual sound of this music has never really wavered. Fans that were there in the initial phases of video gaming music, for PCs such as Commodore 64 and Amiga, not to mention 8-bit gaming platforms like the NES and the original Sega Masters System, these fans fell in love with what were essentially game soundtracks, and to this day they still love these same games, as well as the music, which have taken on the moniker of being called a “chiptune”.
So, in the spirit of these old games with their particular style of sounds coming from the early days of video games, there are people making chiptunes now who are looking both forward to the future and back at the past at the same time.
Niko Igorevich of Decimu Labs (design cinemu music) is one such chiptune artist.
As well as creating his own tracks, he specializes in remixing peoples’ non-chiptune songs into new chiptune compositions, using his keen ear for melody, harmony, and arrangement.
As luck would have it, we here at YTMS cornered Niko for a Q&A to see if we could grasp some of his secrets and tricks of the trade he uses when creating his chiptunes, not to mention hear about what he’s up to in the music scene these days.
Enjoy our Q&A with Niko Igorevich!
Q: How long have you been making chiptunes?
It seems this is my 6th year in chiptune remixing, haha I had to check it. I tried remixing a song I wrote for a webseries in genesis/megadrive style. That was my first one:
Q: Cool! How did you get into chiptunes in the first place?
Well, I’ve always loved video game music, specially the Sonic the Hedgehog series for sega megadrive/genesis. I’ve been a musician for about 15 years and started becoming interested in audio production and computer audio about 10 years ago.
I worked in several soundtracks for webseries and movies and eventually started investiganting about retro chiptune music, and found several VSTIs (virtual instruments) that emulated the retro sound.
First I found one for Sega, then for othere systems (nes, old computer midi or samples like the Amiga system), and SNES.
Q: What DAW do you use, and also which chiptune VST’s do you like to use?
I started working in Nuendo and Cubase, but later realized that Reaper was the best choice for music production, despite what a lot of people say about it. I work with several VSTS, my favs are Vopm and Chipsounds, but I’ve have also used others such as Peach and Toad, which are not synth but sample based (when talking about chiptunes only)
Q: Cool. So what makes Reaper the best choice for you?
I don’t know if that is my best choice, but it’s the best software I’ve found, because it allows me to do lots of things that other don’t, such as change the fx chain order, complex channel connections, etc.
Also it is really light and makes everything work perfectly. In addition, it is cheaper than other daws, which makes it a great choice, despite of what sound pros say.
Q: Cool. Sounds like a decent DAW to use. Do you use Reaper just for chiptunes or for all your projects? Also, what other styles are you working in, ie. genres?
I use Reaper for almost everything regarding music production. I have tons and tons of VST to use.
It has english subtitles if you want to check it out!, for which I composed the soundtrack. Its mostly electronic, but I’ve also composed pop and orchestral pieces too.
Q: Very nice. Do you approach chiptunes differently than other types of music when you compose?
Yes, it has to be approached in its particular way, they have special harmonies, textures, sounds and intentions depending on each console, so they are a special way of composing.
Q: Can you describe your method of putting together a chiptune at all?
The process is quite simple, obviously it depends on the capabilities of each console sound (or sometimes it can be a free version, which is quite simple). Then, it is just writing a midi (in style) and instrumenting it with the appropiate chiptune sound. After that, just some simple mixing and mastering, and that’s all.
Q; Overall, what do you get out of making chiptunes as opposed to another style of music?
The result is really different, but the feel is similar, as they all imply midi sequencing. I would say that I prefer this kind of composing/arranging over the others, as they sound more authentic than, for example, a midi orchestra.
Q: Can you link us to one of your best (according to you) chiptunes?
Wow, that would be really difficult, but perhaps my favorite (original one) is this I made for a tv program: (it is hosted in a colleague soundcloud but it is mine)
There’s a lot of bands out there trying to make it today – maybe now more than ever.
Some of these artists are cognizant of their trajectory to where they would like to be in the scheme of things, whether it be becoming a solid live act with a local following that simply pays the bills, or aiming to be the… yes, the “greatest rock band of all time”.
This aspiration to be considered some of the greatest musical geniuses that ever walked the earth is a level of ambition that some artists seem to possess, and which is more common than the self-identified plebeians among us might imagine.
As well, there are – and these are probably the majority of artists to be frank – those that really have no clue what they’re trying to achieve career-wise or in terms of some grand artistic vision, if anything.
These ego-less noodlers are content to play a song or two in their bedroom with an old dusty guitar, or serenade aunts and uncles at family reunions. This, perhaps, is preferrable to these modest music makers. Not everyone wants to be Bono and The Edge.
Either way, there’s a lot of people making music these days, on various scales. Some care a lot about what they’re doing, considering it rather important, and some don’t care much at all, considering it transitory and trifling (even if they don’t know what either of those words mean).
Musical expression – it’s all interpreted on an individual basis, of course, just like everything else in life. I’m not here to judge!
Just kidding, I’m a bitter, jaded blogger hiding behind a screen, of course I’m here to judge. 🙂
Also, let me stress again that there are artists out there on the musical landscape who clearly have more drive than others to create forms of expression which try to say more, with bigger artistic goals in mind. Artists that think that Bono and The Edge are merely “ok”, or might even say “they suck” (gasp!).
These more ambitious people may simply have an undeniable artistic vision that they are pursuing, while still others want to make a grand artistic statement and also get handed a big bag of cash and hang out with the Robert Palmer girls (or Robert himself if you are a girl, I guess). The fame! The fortune! The cars! The yachts! Simon LeBon! Yes! Yes! YES!
In any case, there’s really no denying that some artists seem driven to achieve something on a level that perhaps few artists can muster. And kudos to those people, because without them, we would get some of our favourite albums.
Alex Gage’s Flagship Introduce “Lifeboat” EP Via Live Debut
Enter Alex Gage (pictured below) and his new musical project the Flagship, and their new “Lifeboat” EP.
Now there’s a little word called pretentiousness and you hear it when people speak of what is sometimes called “art rock”.
Alex Gage, a member of the funky trio The Magnetic Revelators who generally kick out the crowd-pleasing jams in their hometown of Kitchener, Ontario, has now crossed the line into a new realm of expression, which is…I dare say…art rock.
Could it be that Alex Gage is pulling a Prince, mic’ing his entire home, and recording a concept album on the toilet with a Tele and the red light on?
Having known Alex for a little while and spoken with him many times, I’ve really never known Alex to really ooze pretentiousness. Musically skilled, yep. Energetic, quite. Full of ideas, indeed.
But now, having revealed to me a new side of himself which I must admit is rather musically progressive and experimental in nature, there is always the fear that art rock will cast a spell of smugness on this normally beautiful, free-spirited soul who seems to love music for its intrinsic values, and isn’t hell bent on being the next Kanye West.
Curiosity piqued, I had to know what was up with the project Alex has referred to lately as Flagship, or rather Alex Gage’s Flagship, as he is the project leader of a host of talented musicians coming from diverse musical backgrounds. The more I heard about the project, the more I gathered that it was rather ambitious in scope.
Here is a recent pic of the Flagship working on material.
From the sounds of it, these people know what they’re doing. I began to wonder – is Alex on his way to creating the next “Lulu” (Metallica meets Lou Reed, if you recall), or is this going to be something really cool that will blow our minds?
With a debut live show at a venue called The Jazz Room in the Canadian university town of Waterloo, Ontario imminent this Saturday, July 14th, the time is coming to see what Alex Gage has in store for listeners in terms of his new EP.
In the meantime, I conducted an interview with Alex to see what he had to say about this new project, which he has been working on diligently with his new band, but keeping things under wraps…until now.
Enjoy our chat!
YC: So, Alex, I hear you got a new band together.What’s that all about?
Alex: Well, truth be told, it’s been a Chinese Democracy years in the making. By that I mean it was something I was theoretically getting ready for – personally – for a long time before I was capable of the business of actually pulling it off. I write a decent amount and the majority of it isn’t fit for what The Magnetic Revelators (my regular band) do. I’m only a third to a half of the personality in that group so I wanted to create something to serve as a flagship (beg your pardon) for my creative personality and this armada of compositions I’ve accumulated over time. I was craving an unmediated vehicle of expression. It started this time as a recording project. This band was – and still is – my conception of a solo project, but the ideas were bigger than what I could pull off alone – especially live now; it takes seven people to pull off this music without drastically reducing the complexity of the arrangements. I mean, I played a lot of the parts you hear on the album but, even so, I needed a rhythm section in-studio with the chops to hold my ideas together from the outside and the objective curiosity to humour flights of fancy that, honestly, only work in theory(or the fancies that make no theoretical sense but worked anyways). I guess I’m lying when I say I didn’t want my creativity mediated in any way – it is far more exciting, both in the final musical product and in the process itself as artist, to have collaborators to spark in-the-moment inspirations. But what my Flagship is about is giving me a chance to really captain the ship (again, apologies) and put myself out there artistically; to write whatever I want, for the band to play what I feel strongly about, to be uncompromising live – and to have final edit on everything! to be able to decide what kind of environment, what kind of chemistry, I want to set off. I multi-tracked the hell out of the recordings all by my lonesome but every bandmember really has contributed so much to the live incarnations of these songs. We’re not “playing the album” that’s coming out at the launch show, just its songs. I get to do the mad-scientist thing now with my pick of the elements I think best reanimate my music. Here, that means putting seven very different musicians into one cramped rehearsal space with the songs and…. seeing what happens. I still reserve the license to make executive decisions afterwards about what experiments live and which ones to take out back behind the shed to be shot and never spoken of again. That’s with respects to the “band” aspect of the project.
YC: I hear what you’re saying with recordings vs. live band – they’re two different things, really. In terms of the live band, who do you have on board, what do they do, and where’d you find them?
Alex: With one exception, these are all Toronto-based musicians, people I met in the music program at York University.
Lennox Campbell-Berzins is one of our guitarists – he’s the one doing all the structurally-necessary guitar parts on the EP – I guess you call that rhythm guitar. He’s my oldest schoolfellow, we fell in fast over prog rock in first year and have played in a few bands together over the years. He’s teaching just about every instrument now, gigging, and just recently retired his main band to work with me on the Flagship and start his new Broken Wolves band (which I am reciprocally a member of). Thick as thieves we are, even if we can’t cowrite a damn thing because of how much we bicker over musical nit-pickings.
Sarah Thawer’s the drummer – and I mean THE drummer. I met her through our other guitarist, Laurent, for a band Lennox and I tried to put together in a past life. We did manage one show together before folding. She’s one of my favourite drummers (and not just of “people that I know”) because of how deeply her inventive playing speaks. She has folded so many genres and cultural traditions into her musical voice. She played the TD Toronto Jazz Festival with her own group last month, she’s sponsored, she plays full-time around the world – actually, I think her arrival from what I believe is two weeks of touring in Portugal is only the day before our show.
Laurent Bergeron isn’t on-record but his guitar playing is indispensable to managing this beast live. I actually met him first at an IMC rock camp when I was a teenager. I was impressed by his speed with highly technical riffs, even then, and he thought I had a good voice. Him being a couple years younger than me, it wasn’t until a few years later that we tried that aforementioned band (though I did sing one show with a band he had as a high school senior the fall after that camp). He and Sarah were quad-mates in residence at York; neither minded the other’s practicing coming through the walls. I knew I needed a gunslinger and since I’d already used up Lennox, Laurent was top of list.
James Atin-Godden is another wizard I met in my first year though we didn’t start to hang out at all until later on. He’s playing bass and keyboards/piano in the live band. I knew him then as a zany piano player and composer of wonderful, quirky, rich fusion tunes for a band he had called Copycat. He’s really a stylistically versatile multi-instrumentalist. He’s savvy on the other side of the studio glass as well; he mixed “Lifeboat” and did a bang-up job, I think. To top it off, the guy loves playing bass and it just so happened that I needed somebody able to switch between piano and bass to take the instrumental pressure off me during songs that were difficult to sing. In addition to composing and teaching he also tours playing keys for The Pick Brothers Band.
Aniqa Qadir, same year at York. She’s a dedicated singer. Again, we were on good terms but didn’t hang out much outside of crossing paths in class, at shows, or on the 196 express bus between campus and subway (a commuter’s run-in which happened surprisingly many times, now that I think about it). A deft singer. As a person, she’s modest but factual, compassionate but takes no shit. Her technical ability, her ear, and her vocal range are of such breadth (how low she can sing is truly mortifying coming out of her small frame) that, since she can sing pretty well anything, she’s spends more time than most singers deciding what she ought to sing. Call it an impeccable exercise of taste rather than dumb muscle, even when she uses plenty of muscle. Recently she released two beautiful albums as the group Aniqa Dear (A project James was also central to).
Luke Griffin is the hometown exception to this Toronto roster. You’ll hear him singing, playing acoustic guitar, and even holding down a little bass. My oldest friend with whom I still maintain an active friendship with – I won’t do the math on how long. He’s basically my arch-foil. We’ve had a theoretical band for years. One summer we did actually gig as an acoustic duo; we had a residency at The Little Bean (R.I.P.) which led to me working there for a season. Most of our playing together was in high school in jazz band and the like. He’s a self-described “saxophone enthusiast,” he plays tenor and we used to take over rehearsals by inciting endless jams of Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.” Luke has an annoyingly great pitch awareness and is one of the few male singers I know who’ll follow me almost all the way up into that soprano register. Our voices are so similar when we sing in harmony it really feels as if we become a single sympathetic instrument. I lose track of which voice is coming out of my mouth. It is a difficult experience to describe but it’s a beautiful sympathy.
Clearly, I don’t feel I can say enough about the musicians I’ve roped into this endeavour. I got my first picks across the board and it’s excitement itself to witness and hear the result of them finding their individual voice’s place in the ensemble and within each composition. I approached each person for a reason and have not once been disappointed by a single member.
YC: Sounds like quite the line-up!How many shows do you plan to do around this album, and when might that happen?
Alex: So, here’s the thing about a line-up like that: It’s really hard to coordinate and schedule. Right now we’ve got two shows booked; The Jazz Room show in Waterloo to officially fire off everything with a solid hometown show (even though I’m technically from Kitchener), and one show in August about a month later…. the 18th, at Duffy’s Tavern, to introduce the band and the album to what still feels like my adoptive city – and is the legitimate HQ of 5 members. I plan on getting more shows booked in the fall but it’s a lot to manage, putting out an album independently, so I’ve pushed that task into the after-launch future. It was important to launch with this lineup for the sake of the EP and some of the live members’ contributions to it but it was always in my mind to give this music the “living document” treatment in stage conditions. For practical considerations I’ll be doing shows with varying configurations of the current band based who I can get at any given time. Otherwise, we’d never perform. It was hell just to book the first two shows and, even then, Duffy’s Tavern will see us slightly leaner and meaner! I have an LP follow-up half-baked on my computer, I was going to try and have it out in September, but I’ll probably push it back to give this album more breathing room and to keep its motif going for the live shows a bit longer. But the live set is honestly already about more than just the album. 30 minutes is long for an EP but makes for a weak live set, so we’ve extended the live show with songs you’ll hear on the LP and some carefully chosen covers, including a wicked medley I won’t spoil (but I will tell you, it’s liable to make the Grand River Jazz Society’s tech – GRJS does the sound/light at the Jazz Room – weep disdainful tears of sorrow while delighting any old prog fans in the room).
YC: I’m sure it will be quite the event!What styles / bands are you taking influence from on this whole thing?Like, is this supposed to be a jazz thing, a rock thing, a jazz-rock thing?A Yoko Ono wacky art project thing?
Alex: It’s a rock thing. I’d call it a prog rock or an art rock thing. “Prog” these days seems to imply what I’d classify as, like, prog metal – and we’re definitely not a metal band of any description. But for me, it’s always important to take inspiration or influence from as many places as you can understand and make coherent. So, I mean, more directly influences you’ll hear will be bands like King Crimson and Queen but, stylistically, you’ll hear wisps of a few “popular music” genres like soul and folk and a snatch of the Brill Building, even. You can smell jazz chops a mile away, regardless of the genre (think of To Pimp A Butterfly or Blackstar) and, like I said, I’ve got a bunch of jazz cats playing in the band. But there’s also a lot of really subtly “classical” music influence in the way some of the songs are put together on a more technical level, the way we manipulate tempo in the recordings (no click), some of the harmony stuff in voicings and voice leading; I put some very oblique nods to a few of my favourite composers and one of the songs we do live but that I wrote just too late to make it on the record makes a pretty obvious nod to Beethoven. Ha! I’ve also been told there is a part or two of the EP that sound not unlike Nobuo Uematsu, best known for his work as the composer for the Final Fantasy games. But it’s definitely a rock thing in its simplest sense, hands down. A rock blender.
YC: So, for this Jazz Room show, how did that come about again?Why the Jazz Room?
Alex: It turns out the Jazz Room doesn’t really care who you are or what you do. They just ask that your audience be thirsty and/or hungry enough to consume a grand in revenue for them. Which is alright; it’s attached to the Huether, so I for one am ordering supper towards that end. I kind of assumed there was a jazz bar (no pun intended) you had to live up to in order to play there but when I checked it out, I discovered they were really open-minded to whatever I wanted to do. I picked the Jazz Room because I wanted a venue that was geared towards live music, towards performing and listening to live music at a high level of engagement. This isn’t a band that’s going to work in a dive sports bar where half the people want to just watch the game and hear some Lynyrd Skynyrd (as much as I’d enjoy hearing some Lynyrd Skynyrd, myself), where we’re running our own sound – or off a basement or café floor where we don’t have a proper PA. There’s too many of us doing too many different things and the music is complex enough that the band cohesion would become dangerously tenuous in a bad sounding space – not to mention, I would feel like I ripped-off the audience if we came out to play some of these intricate arrangements and we couldn’t hear each other, and all the audience heard then was a gigantic fart of noise for an hour, coming in six-minute chunks. There are bands that do music that sound good anywhere and under any conditions, or sound even better in shitty conditions; where it’s way more enjoyable for everyone – the whole point really – to trash the space or make wherever the band is a dancefloor. Unfortunately, that’s not us – hopefully we can still move a few people bodily onto the dancefloor but, sound-wise, we’re needy when there’s seven of us! A place that’s experientially calibrated like The Jazz Room makes the night more fun for this kind of music, both for performer and for audience member, because everything will still be intelligible by the time the sound leaves the stage and reaches the listeners’ ears. Plus, it wasn’t prohibitively expensive for me to put a show on there!
YC: Ah that makes sense!Well, I look forward to the show then ?Anything else you’d like to add in closing here?
Alex: About this music? Nah, hopefully the rest can speak for itself in more than words on Saturday. Though, maybe in closing – can I get dense for a second? – I will say this on my own account, personally: that I hope this whole project can represent the fact that we, as individuals, must be free to be artists, and to be artists over craftsmen of cultural products (unless, of course, that is, in fact, your calling). Not unlike scientific pursuit, the best art is a manifestation of the process of asking a question, which is the earnest attempt at genuine engagement and understanding with the world and our existence within it, within ourselves, and within others – and all the vice versas of that network. The connection is a true one, an active one – whatever one says of the content transferred over it – so I think it is of the utmost importance for us to make quality art. In philosophy, East or West, the greatest questions tend, as a rule of thumb, to lack definitive answers. Therefore, I’m not saying we’ve got to have any profound solution to make quality art – just live in your question. It can be anything, so long as you mean it. It speaks to the fundamentally political element of art too: it’s not always about including pro- or protest lyrics; politics is all about the organization of relationships in society between people and resources and what-have-you. Well….so is art! so, by extension, all art is political in this way – even in its most abstract and absolute forms – through our engagement with it, (the same can be said of art’s relationship to its creator) when we encounter a work of art and ask it (as best as we can in the context of our individual matrices of being-in-the-world) ‘what the hell are you?’ There is a lot of political and existential disingenuity getting put out there – these days especially! – and that’ll really fuck a body up if you get trapped in the net of false connections that gets strung together. It’s incredibly hazardous to one’s mental, physical, and species’ health to become disconnected, insular, and unengaged (or engaged under false pretense). You don’t need a movement. Just ask good questions; make good art. This EP and our live show represents my best efforts. It’s a matter of survival.