Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Kid Koala

[This piece first appeared in The Times in late 1999, I'm reckoning... Though I could be wrong. Kid Koala is a lovely chap, and his live performances are astounding...]

A seedy bar in Everytown, America. A somewhat inebriated fella weaves over to a woman drinking by herself.

"What's a beautiful woman like you doing in a place like this?"

"Beat it, jerk!"

"Now, don't sugar coat it," he slimes, "Just what is it you're trying to say?"

"Oh, grow up!"

"You're falling in love with me!" he slurs.

"I've no time for this nonsense," she yells, as a needle scratches across the record and brings this little vignette to a close. This wasn't a scene out of film noir, but 'Barhopper', a track from 24-year old Canadian turntablist Kid Koala's remarkable debut LP, Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. A blizzard of wonky hip-hop and peculiar little narratives stitched together with the maverick humour of a post-Public Enemy George Clinton, the album is the avant-scratch negative of Fatboy Slim's beery big beat.

We are talking inside the soundproofed studio of sound-collagist legends Coldcut, within the artfully cluttered offices of their Ninjatune label, which is releasing Koala's LP. The room is icy cold, the elfin Koala (born Eric Yick-Kung in Vancouver, now resident of Montreal) vigorously rubbing his hands to stay warm. With his unblemished, unlined face, boundless enthusiasm, and infectious if peculiar giggle, Eric looks more like a cherubic/mischievous schoolkid than some venerated turntablist.

"Back in 1988, when I was in High School, I heard some records that totally changed my life," he remembers. "Coldcut's 'What's That Noise' , De La Soul's '3 Feet High And Rising', and Public Enemy's 'It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back'. When I heard those records I thought, 'Woah! I have never, ever heard anything like that! How did they make those noises?'"

With professional DJ equipment something of a rarity in late-80s Vancouver, Koala's first experiments were somewhat lo-tech. He would scratch freebie flexidisks on his sister's beat-up Hi-Fi, using the wax-paper a local fast-food joint wrapped their hamburgers in as a slipmat. "I learnt all my scratch techniques, all my chops and baby cuts, off that stereo," he laughs.

An after-school paper delivery job got Eric the cash to finally buy his own system, and he eventually moved to Montreal, a small city with a thriving, enthusiastic scene. It was there that he won the 1995 Montreal DMC turntablist finals (the only such event Kid Koala has ever entered - he's not interested in competing). As Eric pieced together his first mixtapes, he began to meet kindred spirits across the world, young DJs similarly obsessed, with similarly unique approaches to their art. "We all hang out, prank call each other," he giggles. "Whenever anyone's in town they come over, scratch around, play each other new stuff... That's what I love about fellow turntablists, we're all into playing about with records, we all have this instant connection. Any country I go to, we don't even have to speak the same language, we can trade tapes and just instantly connect, because we all spend so much time in isolation, heheheh. When we meet someone else with the same obsessiveness, its like, 'I know you!'"

The track 'Nerdball' on the album features a cut-up voice, saying "We're nothing but the nerds they say we are". A wry comment on the stereotypical DJ, perhaps?

"We are nerds in a way," reasons the soft-spoken, gently charismatic DJ. "I was never any good at basketball or anything, my parents forced me to take piano lessons, so I guess it was almost inevitable. We're all quite fanatical, we've all got our own little quirks. There's DJ Shadow's millions of records; Cut Chemist, with his crazy 7" collection; A-Track in his basement, no sunlight, inventing some crazy scratch that'd take me three years to learn; there's me and my notebooks..."

Kid Koala's notebooks are legendary, equal parts catalogue and sketchbook (Koala draws comic strips to relax; Carpel Tunnel Syndrome comes complete with an accompanying, Koala-drawn comic book). Numbering eight volumes and counting, Koala's notebooks enable him to reference and cross-reference any interesting noises or samples he can lift off the record at a later date. "I buy lots of records on the road," he explains, "Play them on my portable record player, and note anything worth using. That's how we pieced together 'Barhopper', went into the studio with a list of men's come-ons, and a list of women's retorts, and matched them together. It was a riot putting it together!"

The inspiration for this cornerstone track came from shows Koala has played in such seedy dives, with his side-project band, Bullfrog (indeed, Bullfrog recorded music featured on Carpel Tunnel Syndrome). "The crowd isn't necessarily there for the music, heheheheh. I've had no actual experience of barhopping myself, but I am around that meat-market scene a lot, perhaps too much. It really is quite entertaining for me to watch, some of those guys realy are quite, um, goal-orientated... Tongues hanging out, all that..."

And what is Koala's goal, exactly? "I like nothing better than to take a record with some chickens on it," he admits, "And speed it up and make 'em go all operatic, or slow it down and make it sound like they're about to explode, heheheheh!"

Carpel Tunnel Syndrome's release brings Koala's career full circle, being his first release on Coldcut's Ninjatune label. "Kid Koala is a true entertainer," says Coldcut's Matt Black, who signed Koala after hearing one of the mixtapes Eric would piece together and sell to record shops; tapes which are now like gold dust on the hip-hop scene. "Oldcut (sic) can happily retire knowing that the torch has been passed to a new generation of musical hooligans."

Eric, for one, is grateful. "Those guys, they had a MAJOR influence on my life," he marvels, fingering a vinyl copy of Coldcut's 'Beats And Pieces' nailed to the studio wall. "If it weren't for them, I might be working in a bank now." He screws up his face in mock-disgust (like any slacker/achiever hybrid might). "Ugh!"

(c) Stevie Chick 1999

Monday, March 21, 2005


[I've written a few pieces on the Norwegian Deathpunk hellions over the years, as my aching liver can attest. This one ran in Kerrang! in late 2003, and is my favourite: a weekend with a bunch of faux-homosexuals in San Francisco.]

“No Blood, No Fun… No Blood, No Fun… No Blood, No Fun…”

This isn’t the eerie chanted soundtrack to some riotous backstage Bacchanal, but the murmured mantra of a sulkily pouting Pal Pot Pamparius, slouched in a plush taupe armchair in the foyer of the towering glass’n’marble phallus that is San Francisco’s Parc 55 Hotel. He’s reeling from the information the band’s dour Scouse tour manager Dean just delivered: that that evening’s venue, The Great American Music Hall (a shack every bit as grandiose as its name suggests) has firmly vetoed the fake-blood and tarred-feathers usually in their stage-show. When your rapidly-skyrocketing career depends so entirely on the extravagant Rocky Horror Punk-Rock Show you deliver every single night, such frustration is entirely understandable.

“We had to play two shows in one night at the Troubadour in LA and Emo’s in Texas, because demand was so high. The two big newspapers in San Francisco interviewed us, and both said a lot of people are calling our band the saviours of rock’n’roll. It’s like a rock’n’roll coronation; this is our victory lap!”

So speaks Happy Tom of Norway’s infamous Turbonegro’s first solo sortie across the US since imploding messily towards the end of the 1990s (they spent the summer as support to Queens Of The Stoneage, playing a couple of headline shows at key cities). The bassist and founder member is usually so acerbic and wicked a wit that he speaks in perfect sarcastic soundbytes. Only, when talking about this latest twist in his band’s unlikely Fall & Rise – an acclaim and acceptance they never before enjoyed, and certainly never expected – his words aren’t so much pithy as proud. Given the grisly twists of fate his band have suffered throughout their career, we’ll forgive him the crowing. This is a band that’s spilt plenty of blood over the years, and who seem grateful that it’s more likely to be the fake variety nowadays.

“I love San Francisco, even the copssssss are GAY!” bellows Hank Von Helvete, sweaty and be-caped, from the lip of the Music Hall stage. It’s a momentary lull in the denim-clad circus of ramalama that is Turbonegro Live; seconds earlier, the stage shook with razorbladed powerchords, keyboard-player Pal Pot preening in drag like some disturbing Nazi Geisha, guitarist Rune Rebellion strumming in dungarees like a hayseed homo, lipstick’n’mirror-sunglassed drummer Chris Summers and sailor hat-wearing Tom holding down the groove, and elfin lead-guitarist Euroboy soloing ecstatically as the crowd hold him aloft the moshpit.

But while each member of Turbo swans with similarly-iconic swagger onstage, Hank easily wins the lion’s share of the fans’ affections; it’s his black teary make-up that the Turbojugend copy and tattoo on their arms, and it is upon his tenuous mental and chemical health that this reunited Turbonegro depend.

“Lasssst night, a laaaaadyboy walked up to Happy Tom,” he brays, theatrically hissing each sibilant sound like the snake from the Jungle Book, as his adoring crowd cheer him on. “And he ssssaid, I vant to take your anal virrrrrgi-ni-ty! But Happy Tom said, no! You cannot haffff my anal cherry! I am ssssssaving if for the S! F! P! D!”

As Hank slurs the good name of the San Francisco police force, the audience erupts, a capacity crowd of cool SF scenesters, tattooed-and-mohicanned punk kids, dressed-down weekend-rockers and, of course, the Turbojugend in their signature Turbo denim jackets, a motley sea of heads moshing in reverence towards this most perverse but deserving subject of rock’n’roll worship.

“There’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ Turbonegro fan,” declares Tom backstage later, having showered away the sweat and spit. “Anyone from street-punks to college professors, anyone who’s ever had a relationship with rock’n’roll can relate to us.”

“Rock’n’roll in Norway was full of closed communities, it was all pretty exclusive stuff,” rasps Hank, sweat-drenched and still wrapped in his leather cape. “After being kicked out of every subculture there, we were never gonna exclude anybody.”

“We seem to strike a chord with sex-workers,” adds Tom, noting that porno industry bible Adult Video News has interviewed them. “We’ve seen strippers dance to ‘Sell Your Body (To The Night)’. I guess they can relate to us, being whores onstage.”

“It’s like a family feeling at our shows,” he adds. “A Manson family feeling.”

For all that Tom jokes, few bands are so generous and grateful to their fans as Turbonegro; but then, few bands owe their fans quite so much. Through the fallow period that followed Hank’s heroin-induced breakdown, it was the Turbojugend, and celebrity fans like QOTSA, Dwarves, Therapy? And Him (who all appeared on 2001’s Alpha Motherfuckers tribute album) who kept their memory alive, kept them the coolest cult band you never heard. The “voiceless fuckers and system-suckers” hailed in ‘Ride With Us’ off Turbonegro’s pulverising comeback LP, Scandinavian Leather, these rock’n’roll fans have a hunger for noise immunising them from what Tom disdainfully defines as ‘The Hype Machine’.

“We aren’t obvious flag-bearers for the ‘New Rock Revolution’ bullshit, the people, the grass roots, have declared us the saviours of rock.” he swaggers. But their ranks have recently swollen thanks to some pretty stellar new members…

“Steve Jones from Sex Pistols has started up his own chapter in Shepherds Bush, and is trying to get the reformed Pistols to cover a Turbo song,” beams Tom. “Ian Astbury turned up to the LA shows in his Turbojugend jacket! All our heroes are now Turbo-fans!”

“James Hetfield said Apocalypse Dudes [Turbo’s 1999 classic] is his favourite album of recent years,” adds Hank. “Bam Margera loves our band so much that he invited us out to his home to film us playing and shooting guns at cars full of petrol. And Alice Cooper is a big fan, he couldn’t believe we were Norwegian! That was the headline, when he was interviewed by the Norwegian Daily, ‘Alice Cooper: Loves Golf & Turbonegro’!”

He smiles, but then sighs. A near manic-depressive seesaw of joy and melancholy seems uniform for the men in Turbonegro, perhaps a result of their tumultuous career, perhaps just par for the course for so theatrical a band. Whatever, a cloud seems to loom over Hank, as he muses,

“Time will show how far this goes, whether it’s just a novelty. People always chastise us for our pessimism, putting ourselves down as much as possible.”

“But at the same time, we have egos the size of the average aircraft carrier,” deadpans Tom.

“You call it pessimism, we call it realism,” broods Hank.

“You call it paranoia, we also call that realism,” adds Tom.

Castro Street is the legendary hub of San Francisco’s gay community, block after block of bars like Dirty Dick’s, The Rear End, The Purple Pickle and Little Orphan Andy’s peopled by the leather-clad and the handlebar-mustachioed. Forget ‘Out & Proud’ – Castro Street is like you woke up one morning and all the ignorant bullshit that stigmatises and closets homosexual lifestyles just disappeared. Where better than here to hang out with these reigning queens of homosexual-flavoured death-punk, the authors of such timeless anthems as ‘Rendezvous With Anus’ and ‘I Got Erection’ and ‘Screwed And Tattooed’, as their tourbus rolls into town?

Only we aren’t on Castro Street, but rather a stretch limo driven by a sleep deprived crazy from the Russian mafia, speeding towards the Golden Gate Bridge for a photo session. And Turbonegro aren’t gay, despite what their lyric sheet might pretend. It’s an open-secret that almost all of the band are married or have girlfriends; that their gay-posture is just that – an affectionate pose assumed by the band both as an unforgettable onstage persona, and also to piss off and intimidate humourless punks and murderous death-metallers at home in Norway.

“We wanted to get that sense of homosexual flamboyance into rock’n’roll again,” reminisces the majestic Hank in the limo, as Euroboy scans the radiowaves searching for a classic-rock station. “Rock’n’roll is very close to transvestism, we’re just coming out and saying it.”

“We’ve had youth workers tell us that heterosexual punk kids who could be hassling the gay kids don’t now, because they like us, and we’ve made the ‘gay thing’ cool,” adds Tom, somewhat implausibly.

Of course, even the most cursory sampling of Turbonegro suggests their gay façade is little more than a tongue-in-(ass)cheek prank, fetishising homosexuality as some lurid carnival of puckering assholes and randy sailor-boys. They’re more camp than anything, a brash and hilarious caricature of rock’n’roll’s ridiculousness, painted so much larger-than-life, anyone with a taste for sinful fun is gonna want to buy in.

“We’re a cartoon band,” admits Hank gladly, as the band pose before the glorious bridge. “A cartoon illustration of the ultimate rock’n’roll show.”

“We’re a glorious cascade of negativity!” declares Tom, with an actorly flourish.

“When you see us onstage,” adds Euroboy, “You get a taste of something that says, let’s fucking party! I feel like a total rock God.”

“We allow the idea of idolisation back into rock’n’roll,” continues Tom. “It’s a mutual game, the audience feigns submission to us rock’n’roll Gods. We let people be fans again.”

“The message those shoegazey indie-rock bands proclaimed, that they were the same as their audiences, was a necessary reaction to a lot of rock’n’roll bullshit in the late ‘80s. But rock’n’roll is very much about the rock star, he’s like a nobleman, a God to worship. That’s what feeds the rock star, and what feeds the rock fan.”

“Motorhead did so much damage with that song, ‘We Are The Road Crew’,” sighs Euroboy, the band’s resident classic-rawk scholar. “We need to write a song, ‘We Are The Artistes’!”

“We’ve been through so much shit, we’ve seen through all the hypocrisy of the ‘underground’; ‘4 Real’ is just a pose, and the only way to actually be For Real is to pose,” reasons Hank, of their gaudy and exhilarating rock’n’roll alter-egos which are still more convincing, more honest than a million humourless, factory-produced ‘punk’ bands.

At that moment, a little kid standing watching the shoot, fascinated by these painted, flamboyant rock stars, breaks from his mum’s hand and runs up to the band, jumping up and down excitedly. The band grin and pose with the boy, who can’t be more than 4 years old, as his mum takes photos. Then she pulls a candy bar out of her pocket and hands it to Happy Tom, urging the make-up-wearing sailor to pose offering the candy to the kid in the classic child-molestor style, giggling while she took more photos. Even the band themselves admitted feeling a little freaked out by the experience, afterwards.

If there’s any sense of real and disquieting darkness at the heart of Turbonegro’s painted punk-rock pageant, then it lies with Hank Von Helvete. It was Hank who paid the most severe consequences for the excesses of the 1990s, hallucinating and suicidal and hooked on heroin, effectively killing the band just as they released their masterpiece album, 1998’s Apocalypse Dudes. But in a very real sense, Hank is the heart and soul of Turbonegro, even though he wasn’t a founder member.

“The first singer got too old and got cancer, so I joined,” he says, blackly. “I used to live with him and this blind dope dealer in a squat in Oslo, hanging out with these feminist girls. It was the perfect setup for the blind dude, we’d cut up the hash for him and count the money. We ran a radio station there, as cover. We’d drink beer and get high on our own supply while on air. We became legendary, feminists and drug-pushers and fucked-up punks trying to piss everyone off! My show was called the Nihilistic One Man Front. Cops raided a local Nazi hideout and found weapons and a murder list there, and my name was on it…”

Did you truly believe in nihilism?

“I tended towards it,” says Hank, of the philosophy that rejects any moral distinctions in favour of an extreme scepticism. “I have a much stronger belief system now. But all Nihilist philosophers come to the same ultimate conclusion, that once you’ve dispatched with everything you believe in, all you have left is love, the one thing you can’t reject. And then you can rebuild your life.”

There are times when you worry for Hank, when he seems so truly troubled. In the limo earlier, as the boys discussed their earlier ‘insanity’, Hank silently and privately genuflected at that word. Interviewing him backstage at Slim’s, venue for their second San Francisco date, I switch off the fan so it doesn’t drown out our voices on my dictafone. The make-up smeared into his beard and painted under his eyelids begins to run in the heat, black ‘tears’ staining his cheeks, so he looks like some Goth inversion of the Pierrot clown.

“People think being in a band made me a junkie, because that’s where all the temptations are,” he says. “But I never took drugs with the band. Turbonegro was keeping me alive, away from the drugs.

“I was involved in this very intense project of killing myself, you see? When the band split up, it was like shedding a heavy weight off my back, so I could continue killing myself. And then I turned my back on the whole urban life. I moved to a quiet rural fishing village, worked in a library. I needed the peace and quiet. But after a while that got boring, especially as I got my strength back. I went several rounds with myself, trying to find out who I was. And I realised being a rock singer was such a huge part of my identity, and I had to start playing in the band again. Or I could give up on the whole rehab and get back to killing myself again.”

“We are the uncircumcised Ramonessss!!!”

The Slim’s show rocks even harder than the previous night, a riot from the lit-touchpaper ignition-riff of ‘Wipe It Till It Bleeds’. Towards the end of the set, comedian/actor Dave Sheridan (supporting the tour with his comedy-metal troupe Van Stone) walks onstage, as their ‘manager’. He barks into his cellphone, then urges a gleeful Hank to chuck several buckets of fake blood over front row, and the band plough into a glorious call-and-response version of ‘I Got Erection’. The moshpit just utterly explodes, slamming and skidding lustily but considerately. Turbo, meanwhile, rock out like the utter fucking rock’n’roll Gods they are whenever they daub on the make-up, assuming their role in this glam-rock S&M

They call it death-punk, but this pageant is so utterly life-affirming. The blood’s fake, but the fun is very, very real.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Mars Volta

[this piece ran in Mojo early in 2004. I love The Mars Volta, their questing sense of adventure, their music, and as people they've been among my favourite interview subjects. Always a pleasure to interview them]

Forget the fib your trusted history tomes have sold you: the evolution of rock music can’t be charted as some clear linear progression, artist passing influence unto artist, united in some utopian quest for future sounds. The truth is a more chaotic, intriguing beast, where ideas are born, explored, rejected and forgotten, then rediscovered, reupholstered and juxtaposed by later generations. The only ‘progression’ rock truly indulges is within the artists themselves, challenging not the limits of music, but of their own creativity. A challenge accepted by only a precious few.

The flaking magnolia corridors backstage at London’s Astoria echo with a most unearthly ululation, a skin-crawling howl contorting easily through octaves and decibel barriers. Eventually, it dies away, replaced by faint strains of Wilson Pickett’s I Found A Love, and the shrill metallic bark of a Dalek from TV’s Doctor Who. In the dressing room, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez cradles the toy dalek, a present from the record label for these Whovian aficionados, while bandmate Cedric Bixler Zavala, having just finished his vocal warm-ups for this evening’s show, slips on a Fela Kuti album, as per The Mars Volta’s pre-gig routine.

The two young men are of striking, similar build, almost childishly slight (onstage they wear specially tailored shirts and girls’ hipster jeans that hug their 26” waistlines, Cedric’s gymnastics often revealing a pair of Spiderman underoos). With his soft features, diffuse afro halo and loose smattering of beard, Omar resembles a younger Carlos Santana; Cedric’s fierce, focussed stare and recently-shorn mane, meanwhile, give him the air of some righteous freedom fighter. Even before they open their mouths, the bond between them is palpable.

The Mars Volta, Cedric and Omar’s polymorphous rock band, have already been tagged as some second-coming of the once-maligned genre, Prog. But while their stunning debut is a concept-album encompassing complex time-figures, tempo-changes, pockets of space-rock abstraction and flights of near-impenetrable lyrical fantasy, encased in a portentous sleeve designed by Storm Thorgerson (famed designer of Genesis’s *Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, and Pink Floyd’s *Dark Side Of The Moon), *Deloused In The Comatorium is not a prog-rock album, anymore than it is a punk-rock album, or a dub album, or a jazz-fusion album, or a salsa album, even though it draws potent influence from all these musics.

“We choose to take the ‘prog’ label literally,” offers Omar. “For us, ‘progressive’ means moving forwards, not sounding like our previous bands or our old records. When you think of it in those terms, it’s a positive association.”

“If, musically, you get in a spot where the sheets are warm and the pillows are comfy, I think it’s important to sleep on the floor every once in a while,” adds Cedric, smiling. “When I was fourteen, I didn’t want to hear anything but fast punk music. Older friends would make fun of me; ‘Oh, you’re a punk, huh?’ I wish I could’ve had the knowledge back then to say, I’m just fourteen, let me have my fun with this! Although Omar’s twelve year-old little brother asked [poet/rapper and sometimes Volta tourmate] Saul Williams what his favourite Mahavishnu Orchestra album was, which blew Saul’s mind… After a while, different things start to catch your ear, and you heed those friends saying, ‘You need to grow up a little and shed your uniform’.”

It was while dressed in those very punk-rock uniforms that Cedric and Omar first met, aged thirteen, in El Paso; a mostly-poor, mostly-Mexican city on the western tip of Texas bordering Ciudad Suarez in Mexico, infamously Johnny Cash was busted here in 1964 for possession of over a thousand amphetamine pills. It was to El Paso that the Rodriguez-Lopez family moved when Omar was eight years old, from Puerto Rico.

Cedric and Omar had been in punk-rock bands since their pre-teens, “offensive” bands in a scene awash with watery psychedelia in the wake of Jane’s Addiction and the imported ecstasies of Madchester. Their bands would cause riots, start food-fights onstage, blend the nosebleed rifferamas with noodly jamming. At first, the two enfants terrible regarded each other with wary suspicion, thinking the other was “Gay and on drugs”. Soon, though, they began a friendship they now describe as akin to soulmates.

“Usually, for two guys to be as close as we are, they have to be homosexuals,” laughs Omar. “We’ve gotten shit for it through the years, there have been rumours that we’re homosexuals. Women have relationships where they share clothes, go to the bathroom together, share secrets. Sometimes people are a little uncomfortable with that, if it happens between men.”

They continued playing in bands, together and apart, until Omar embarked upon an extended Kerouac-esque journey of self-discovery after his band imploded mid-tour. Cedric, staying at home, looked for new bandmates, musicians who, this time, actually might have the focus and commitment to clamber out of dope-clouded rehearsal rooms and into a recording studio.

“I gravitated towards Jim Ward, because I knew he was totally into the work aspect of being in a band,” remembers Cedric of the guitarist with whom he’d form At The Drive-In. “He came from a much more ‘pop’ sensibility than me; I’d never done anything so overtly pop-punk before, and it was good to try it, but then I got burnt out on it. I was longing for *White Light, White Heat, all that stuff I listened to before. All the people I hung out with in El Paso thought punk-rock was laughable, that I was dumbing down.”

At The Drive-In released a first 7”, *Hell Paso, in 1994, touring once across Texas, before falling apart. Omar, whose mystical Hitch-Hike across America had come to a messy end, joined as guitarist. Over the following months, Cedric, Omar and Jim would all leave and rejoin the band; the lineup solidifying somewhat, they recorded several albums for indie labels, before the Beastie Boys’ imprint Grand Royal signed them for 2000’s *Relationship Of Command.

Producer Ross Robinson, who fashioned Nu Metal’s template with epochal albums by Korn, Limp Bizkit and Slipknot, finessed their combustive post-hardcore sound, indebted to genre godfathers Fugazi, to the point where it seemed their righteous riot might supplant the dullard Nu Metal figureheads. But already the creative friction within ATD-I was becoming unbearable. They recorded an infamous performance on Jools Holand’s Later… show in December 2000, Omar’s flailing, electrifying contortions damaging and detuning his guitar within the opening seconds of One Armed Scissor; by the song’s end, he’d thrown his guitar offstage and was dancing feverishly with Cedric and pulverising a tambourine while Jim Ward vainly tried to stick to the script. The division between the two camps within the band was unmistakeable.

“When Omar joined, he became like my partner in crime,” explains Cedric. “We were both passionately obsessed with *Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, and that was our dirty secret in this punk-rock band! We’d get ridiculed for playing Tom Waits and dub music in the tourbus when the others just wanted to play Weezer albums. We wanted the next ATD-I album to be like Talk Talk’s *Laughing Stock, something that sounded nothing like anything else they ever did. But we never made it that far.”

In February 2001 they cancelled several tours booked for that Spring; a month later, ATD-I were declared on “indefinite hiatus”, and by August they announced their split and future plans. Ward, bassist Paul Hinojos and drummer Tony Hajjar formed textbook emocore band Sparta, while Cedric and Omar, shedding their warm sheets and comfy pillows, prepared for some nights on the floor as The Mars Volta.

“Compromise,” reflects Cedric today, shaking his head. “It’s a horrible way to live.”

*Deloused In The Comatorium is a concept album, a form that, in the realms of American underground rock, is no mere ‘prog’ relic – cf Husker Du’s Tommy-goes-hardcore classic *Zen Arcade, Neutral Milk Hotel’s folk-psyche Anne Frank fantasy *In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, even Liars’ terrifying treatise on witch trials *They Were Wrong So We Drowned. Few concept albums are quite so personal, however.

It follows the last days of Julio Venegas; one of the loose conglomeration of freaks Cedric and Omar ran with in El Paso, Julio was an artist and poet who lived life with an experiment bent; when, in 1996, he slipped into a coma as a result of a suicidal overdose, his body was covered with scars, and his arm had shrivelled up from shooting rat poison. *Deloused… dramatises the comatose Venegas’s profound and frightening dreams. At the album’s close Venegas surfaces from his coma, but chooses to commit suicide anyway. [The story is told in Bixler-Zavala’s idiosyncratic script of made-up words and oblique poetry; many Mars Volta websites host pages of fans’ own interpretations of their meaning.]

The band themselves have defended this essentially downbeat story as a celebration of Julio’s life and work. “But life isn’t always pretty,” adds Cedric. “It’s not a three-minute pop song. As surreal as the album might seem, that’s how life is; you have no control over it, and sometimes it just doesn’t make sense.”

The Mars Volta – now numbering drummer Jon Theodore, keyboard player Ikey Owens and sound manipulator Jeremy Ward (Red Hot Chili Pepper bassist Flea was a member for the studio sessions, later replaced by Juan Alderete) – wrote and rehearsed *Deloused at their house in Long Beach, California. They dubbed it Anikulapo, after Fela Kuti – the name means He Who Carries Death In His Pouch, an awful omen of what would follow.

Early on, Cedric and Omar had both subscribed to the abstinent punk-rock movement Straight Edge, coined by the Minor Threat song. “There was something really cool when all the people around you were drinking or doing drugs, and you’re not, and you feel different for it,” remembers Omar. “Eventually, though, you hit a point where you want an adventure, you want to explore; you don’t want to judge things you haven’t actually experienced.”

Cedric and Omar’s experimentations with drugs, beginning in their mid-teens, were just that: an extension of the very questing attitude they adopted towards music. They weren’t simply seeking oblivion, at least not yet. The voyage began with pot and LSD, but as heroin, cocaine and crack entered the equation, the experimentation became harder to control. Omar dropped out of high school for a tour with his band that was swiftly curtailed when some members got arrested. Stuck in Berkley, he hitch-hiked across America, selling acid at Grateful Dead shows to finance his travels; eventually, he ended up in Baltimore.

“All I did was shoot heroin,” he remembers. “That’s all I was doing. I sold my guitar. I sold everything. I called Cedric, crying, wanting to come home. That’s how I joined ATD-I. But in El Paso, it’s easy to get some every once in a while. I thought I had it all under control, though in retrospect I was doing lots of fucked up stuff to people around me. But seeing how it affected Jeremy changed our whole view on the situation.”

Jeremy Ward, cousin of ATD-I’s Jim, had been a buddy of Omar and Cedric’s for many years; the duo played alongside Ikey in Jeremy’s dub band, DeFacto, and he was a key offstage part of their sound. In May of this year, Jeremy was found dead in his home of a drug overdose, aged 27, a month before *Deloused… hit the racks.

“I was getting high off of freebase, and he came in to tell me he was having problems,” remembers Cedric, of what he describes as the “strong moment of clarity” his friend gave him. “He came in and asked for help; I’d never seen anyone look so bad, had only equated problems with drugs with a bad acid trip. It sobered me up from the freebase instantly. We talked, and I promised I wouldn’t touch drugs again if he wouldn’t. One of the main reasons I stopped was I didn’t wanna be that person anymore,” he continues. “Not everyone is geared up to be the superman Burroughs, you know?”

“Some people hear things in such a beautiful way without taking anything,” offers Omar, “Like King Tubby. He made all these great dub records, and he never drank in his life, he never smoked pot; he was completely pure. There was just something going on in his head, know what I mean?”

The link between The Mars Volta’s music and their drug use is nothing so crass as, say, Bill Hicks’ semi-serious belief that Musicians + Drugs=Good Music. Their experimentation with narcotics was itself an extension of their approach to music, to reach beyond what they already knew, to throw away the warm sheets and comfy pillows and sleep on the floor for awhile.

The excursion came with a terrible price tag, but you figure, for Omar and Cedric at least, the journey is a lesson in of itself. As a result, they have a remarkable album, a work of stealthy complexity and volcanic drama, a moving and exultant testimonial to friends they have loved and lost. They’ve already begun writing the follow-up.

“Omar’s got a lot of new ideas we need to sort through, make sense of,” explains Cedric. “I haven’t got anything yet. For the last album, I exhausted my whole notebook of ideas; I have nothing left, I have to start over totally from scratch. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

London Astoria, later that night. Even the venue’s nosebleed balconies heave with fans desperate to experience The Mars Volta live, old Prog heads rubbing tee-shirted shoulders with earnest punk-rockers and even kids so young cynicism demands their attention spans surely too shrivelled to stomach The Mars Volta’s two hour swarm of ideas and improvisation.

But the energy, the interplay, the fierce sincerity and catch-your-breath excitement with which The Mars Volta ply their art demands and rewards your attention, sprawling from lightning-flash jags of punk-riffage, to the sinewy brutality of *Agharta-era Miles Davis, to the acid-tipped ooze of prime Funkadelic, to righteous explosions of seething mutated Salsa rhythms, to bristling convulsions of drum’n’bass nirvana, to the headfuck avant-rock of 1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)-era Hendrix, sometimes in the space of a single song.

And its impossible to take your eyes off Omar and Cedric, the former spazzing across the stage like his guitar, spitting shards of crazed skronk, were shooting countless volts through him; the latter unleashing dance moves that would make a young James Brown envious, hurling himself gymnastically across the stage, snatching the microphone to unleash wails that locate the enervated strain of blue Robert Plant essayed on Tea For One, before bounding off again, his chest pulsating, sweat coursing down his body, compounding the fact that, no matter how cerebral and complex this music might seem, its essence is as primal and honest as the beating of a human heart.

It’s the kind of performance that makes you want to grab every cynic and Cassandra by the lapels and show them that, even this late in the day, rock’n’roll still harbours artists like these, lunging far before their reach, challenging their every limitation, creating music that’s desperate, that’s ludicrous, that’s wonderful. That, for all the dumbing-down of modern pop-culture, for all the supposed turmoil of the music industry, art of such passion and untrammelled creativity and sheer daredevil daring still floats to the top. As Cedric himself says, of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in LA the Volta recently played, “There’s a lot more freaks around who we feel kinship with; it feels good to see them pour out of the woodwork.”

It’s a cliché and so, by definition, shouldn’t fit iconoclasts, die-hard originals like The Mars Volta so well. But they who dare, shall win.

(c) Stevie Chick 2004

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Mark Lanegan

[This feature ran in the first issue of our Loose Lips Sink Ships, February 2004. A long one, but one of my best...]

When was your first time in jail?

“I was twelve years old... It was for shoplifting. Shoplifting booze, heh heh heh.”

Have you always been attracted to trouble?

“‘Attracted to trouble?’ No. It’s been attracted to me.”

Has it always been attracted to you, then.

“Well… Less and less, as time goes on.”

I first saw Mark Lanegan on No Nirvana: Nevermind, a Late Show special on BBC2 somewhere past midnight, in the plaid-shirted early 90s. I still have it somewhere, on ratty old videotape, his band Screaming Trees launching into their torn, noble regret anthem ‘Dollar Bill’. Lanegan haunts the foreground, leaning into the mic-stand like it’s holding him afloat through frenzied waters, the colossal Conner brothers rocking out behind him, bulky fingers squeezing barbs of melody from the melee. Adrift from his bandmates’ ecstatic writhing, Lanegan’s movements are only barely measurable, but potent; cadaverous tresses of seaweed-coarse blonde hair hanging lank, lips struggling to part with each word, and those eyes… So dark they don’t reflect any light, focussed fissure-tight and sunk so deep and sullen into his face you sense no hope resides there. The shrouded vacuum beneath his brow seemed to suggest some forbidding wisdom, some awful truth traditionally hidden in the essentially anodyne realms of modern rock’n’roll.

A penchant for regularly testing the limits of his mortality with poisons and his fractious relationship with the law have hewn a legend, thorny with whispers and gravely shadowed, about him. Beyond that infamy lies the voice, flickering tones weathering over twenty or so years into a rich and complex instrument, composing a burnished gothic grandeur for his lauded solo albums, or, for Screaming Trees’ ‘Sweet Oblivion’, absolving the heroic denim-fringed guitar workouts into the definitive treatise on a ‘blues’ that weighs deeper than mere guilt and regret; words sung like their weight was wearing bloody grooves into his spine, a fallen man nevertheless straining for some nobility in bearing what he has wrought.

“I remember working at a diner, mouthing off to these guys there that I was a better singer than Dave Lee Roth. That weekend, they screeched into the diner carpark and hollered, ‘Lanegan, you’d better not have been bullshittin’!’ They dragged me to some party where there band was playing, and I sang through a set of covers. We must’ve played ‘Dancing Days’ by Led Zeppelin a dozen times that night…”

Mark Lanegan sits in a threadbare armchair, backstage at the Birmingham Academy, where his Mark Lanegan Band are headlining tonight, cradling an iPod, scrolling through the menus to tell us what he’s been listening to of late: PJ Harvey; Greg Dulli’s Twilight Singers; (smog); Azure Ray; Cat Power; Martina Topley-Bird; PW Long, whose ‘Remembered’ album Lanegan says helped save his life this year. Of slim build, athletic almost, his hair cut short and bristly, his eyes bright and alert and his skin shades warmer than the cement pallor he used to sport, he looks nothing like the wraith he was; saved indeed. Only his hands give away the indiscretions of his past: red, blotchy and swollen like an old lady’s legs, and decorated with rows of blue stars tattooed over his knuckles and fingers.

He flashes these little smiles that you never see in photographs of him – almost conspiratorial, eyebrow arched – smiles boyish in their unguarded intimacy, mannish in that you sense they’re being rationed out, to keep people at a distance and preserve the solitude you sense a peripatetic life beset by tragedy and chaos has taught him to treasure. He has few real close friends, you imagine, and perhaps fewer every year, but those relationships run deep, to death.

The stone-faced silence Mark has greeted interviewers with in the past is absent today, maybe thanks to the presence of snapper Steve Gullick, an old and dear friend; but, also, Mark no longer has to struggle to be taken seriously, thanks to the respect garnered by his revered solo releases and commercially-consolidating sessions with Queen Of The Stoneage. But those days with the Trees, toiling in some kind of undeserved obscurity, have left their marks on Lanegan. While on this tour in support of his excellent new EP, ‘Here Comes That Weird Chill’, he’s also hooking up with old friends at Sony Europe, to hammer out details for a box-set covering Screaming Trees’ major label releases. Such respect is a long time coming.

“Sony America released this ‘Greatest Hits’,” he scowls, “It was hideous: no sleevenotes, horrendous cover, and the worst selection of songs. It’s a real shame … If you go to the Northwest and ask guys – well, most of them aren’t around now – but if Kurt Cobain was around to ask, or Layne Staley, they’d tell you we had a profound influence on the bands of the Northwest. And I feel that the fellas and myself didn’t get our due.”

Mark Lanegan and Van Conner met, somewhat poetically, while on detention in High School, in Ellensburg, Eastern Washington. In a small country town, where no-one had long hair, no-one had tattoos and, certainly, no-one listened to punk-rock, Van Conner was a misfit, physically huge and perpetually dressed in a raincoat topped-off with a U2 badge, which was pretty daring for Ellensburg. Lanegan, already a heavy drinker and dabbling in drugs and trouble, didn’t fit in either, and the two bonded over music. Soon, Lanegan was manning the lights for the band Van formed with brother Gary Lee and, after a short stint in jail for theft and drug possession, working for the Conner’s parents, repossessing TVs from trailer parks.

When the Conner brothers tired of playing covers at local dance parties, they hooked up with Lanegan, who soon swapped his initial drumstool for the microphone stand, and formed the Screaming Trees. Moving swiftly, with the aid of friends like producer Steve Fisk and Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson, the band released a slew of EPs and LPs throughout the 1980s on labels like Velvetone, Homestead, Sub Pop and, most prolifically, SST. Mark chalks their impressive work rate to poverty; “We’d come off the road and record an album for the $1000 advance SST were offering us, because we needed the money to go back on the road.”

Mark certainly doesn’t view their early days with excessive romance. “Those SST records were a mishmash,” he grumbles. “I was singing parts that the guitar player had written, in a higher register than mine; I was always walking offstage with a splitting headache. He was really into a psychedelia thing, which I wasn’t into. He hadn’t even eaten acid, which I’d been selling for a number of years.”

While he’s certainly overly harsh in his judgement of Screaming Trees’ SST years – everyone should own the brutish garage-fuzz of ‘In The Forest’, the karmic psych-out of ‘Black Sun Morning’ and the stoned, immaculate sublime of ‘Gray Diamond Desert’ – it wasn’t until the band signed to Epic that they made good on all their promise. Their first for Epic, the Chris Cornell-produced ‘Uncle Anaesthesia’, was something of a misfire – “It was dismal,” says Lanegan now – but it allowed Mark to take Screaming Trees’ creative reigns from thereon in.

“I’d made my first solo album by then,” remembers Mark. “I’d quit the band a number of times, but said I’d return for one more album, but we’d have to do it my way. ‘Sweet Oblivion’ was the first where I wrote all the words, and it ended up being our most successful one. Then things went crazy for a while, we were on the road for a couple of years; by the time we made ‘Dust’, everything was in disarray.”

1996’s ‘Dust’, produced by George Drakoulias, should’ve been the album to break the Trees ‘big’, but, for many reasons, it never happened that way. Another year or so of crazy touring followed, but the band were in a bad way; internal relations between the members were frayed beyond repair, and Mark’s drug habits were spiralling out of control (it was while touring this album that he was arrested in possession of crack cocaine). A few years of silence, save for the odd local show, followed, until, after a June 2000 show to celebrate the opening of the Experience Music Project in Seattle, they announced they had split.

“The fucking odds were against us,” Mark sighs. “It was perverse. I realised what utter underdogs we were, and that just made me wanna succeed with it, put superhuman amounts of effort into this losing battle. I came to realise in time thought that I was the only guy in the group that did that, that the other guys didn’t work as hard, and that they just didn’t care about it as much as I did.

“I had my share of personal problems as well. I kind of liken the whole experience to Fitzcarraldo, it was like hauling a boat over a mountain. I worked real hard at it for a long time, and I will probably never work as hard at anything again, nor would I want to. Some battles you just have to surrender.”

By the time Screaming Trees finally imploded, Lanegan was already four albums into a solo career that had garnered more respect and plaudits than anything Screaming Trees had released. The first, 1990’s ‘The Winding Sheet’, was originally planned as an EP of blues songs recorded with friends (and then unknowns) Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, later morphing into an unlucky thirteen sprawl of mainly-acoustic mourns, crafted by producer Mike Johnson (a molten take of Leadbelly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ remains from the Cobain session). Lanegan’s voice was a revelation, powerful yet vulnerable, something deeper than mere rock’n’roll.

“I remember photographing you in Seattle, and you said Screaming Trees were more important to you than your solo stuff,” begins Steve Gullick. “That struck me as odd; I loved the Trees, but your solo albums…”

“I wasn’t telling the truth,” murmurs Mark. “I was making a lot more money from my solo albums, but I was trying to convince myself the Screaming Trees were worth all the effort I was putting in. I probably shouldn’t have worked so hard at it…”

1993’s follow-up, ‘Whiskey For The Holy Ghost’, is perhaps the definitive Lanegan solo album, and Mark’s own personal favourite. Pieced together from sessions covering four tumultuous years of Lanegan’s life, during which time Mike Johnson quit the project, it sprawls from the epic and thunderous ‘Borracho’ to haunted fragments like ‘Riding The Nightingale’, an album etched with violins and acoustic guitars and brooding standup bass, and tempos slowed enough for Lanegan’s vocals to ooze richly from the speakers. “Felt much older than I really was,” he sings on ‘El Sol, and he certainly sounded that way too.

Lanegan waited five years for the follow-up, Scraps At Midnight. “At the time I was in a Halfway House situation in California. It was sort of like a rehab situation, it’s a structured living environment where there’re rules, and it’s halfway between jail and society. It’s meant to get you to a place where you can live outside and not break the rules. It hasn’t succeeded 100%, that’s the challenge, but it succeeded. I got out on a three-day pass and met Mike Johnson at Studio Rancho in Joshua Tree. We wrote the material on the spot, cobbled it together; it was an exercise in letting go. I hadn’t seen Mike for a couple of years and we reconnected, but that was it. The next two records, he had very little to do with.”

Around this time, Josh Homme, ex-Kyuss and one-time Screaming Trees sideman, invited Lanegan to front his new band, Queens Of The Stoneage. Sequestered in the halfway house, Lanegan had to refuse, but a crucial link was made.

“I wasn’t able to play on that first record, and in retrospect I’m really glad that’s the way it happened, because it would have been different,” reflects Lanegan, of the sylph-throated slo-mo quicksilver that was Queens’ self-titled, sublime debut. “The success of that record gave him the confidence to make ‘Rated R’, and I was glad to be a part of that. I sang backups on half that record and I was there for half of it.”

Were you reluctant to be joining a band again, after your experience with Screaming Trees?

“No, not that at all. In fact I’ve always preferred being in a band, but I didn’t want it to be an unhappy experience. I’d been in this other band for a really long time, and it was a band of people who really disliked each other a lot, beginning with two brothers who disliked each other. There was always this threat of violence and a lot of dysfunction and unhappiness. I didn’t want to experience that again. It took convincing on his part that I wasn’t tying myself to a rock that was going to the bottom of the ocean. It’s been one of the most rewarding situations I’ve ever been in, and I don’t mean because of its success,” he says, smiling, the contrast with the Trees immediately apparent, “but because its one of the rare beasts in that its good, but it also has the ability to obviously get through to a lot of people, so it’s not marginalised.

“Mainly it just grew out of my friendship with Josh. It’s grown in stages, sometime reluctantly on my part. I have a job that nobody else in rock has... It’s like when I played baseball and I was a relief pitcher, I had to just come on and do my thing when needed. It felt weird at first because I’d never seen anyone else do it, but it wasn’t weird to him, to his credit. It really does work the way he envisioned it.”

So, to The Mark Lanegan Band, then. The title is something of a misnomer; in place of a static, solid line-up, The MLB, for the purposes of ‘Here Comes That Weird Chill’ at least, is a fluid coterie of friends, including Josh Homme, Nick Oliveri, Greg Dulli, and Chris Goss, of Masters Of Reality fame. Fittingly subtitled ‘Methamphetamine Blues, Extras and Oddities’, its thirty or so minutes of obscura finds space for crunching industrial eerieness (‘Methamphetamine Blues’), haunting, fragmentary hymnal (‘On The Steps Of the Cathedral’), an incandescent Beefheart cover (‘Clear Spot’), soul-saturating piano-led gospel (‘Lexington Slowdown’), and ‘Skeletal History’, a chilling descent into squalor taking in hookers and hypodermics, over a spasming tungsten-punk groove.

“For a short while I had a band with Duff McKagen, and some of the stuff I did with him was sorta like that,” he says of ‘Skeletal History’, which dominates the EP like a tumour. “I call it my Saccharine Trust song. To me its one of the most real kind of songs I have, the most honest.”

‘Methamphetamine Blues’ is a decided departure from the dust-etched austerity of the rest of Lanegan’s solo output, as if his excursions alongside QOTSA have re-engaged Mark’s interests in a harder-edged, more explicitly ‘rock’ music. The slow-burning, brodding majesty remains, and that voice – steeped even deeper in sin and despair and more fearsome and chilling than ever – but the mood is more raucous, more vicious than the other albums’ after-midnight, tumbler-fulla-whiskey ruminations (although Lanegan says he’s only had one drink in several years, on a flight to California following his divorce a couple of years ago. Once told by his doctor, aged twenty, that his booze habit would ensure he never saw his thirtieth birthday, Lanegan quips half-seriously that heroin “Saved me from becoming an alcoholic”).

The route to ‘Methamphetamine Blues’ took in two further solo releases: 1999’s elegiac ‘I’ll Take Care Of You’, a moving and dark covers suite including songs by Fred Neil, Buck Owens and his departed friend, Gun Club-singer Jeffrey Lee Pierce; and 2001’s bleak ‘Field Songs’ (opener ‘One Way Street’, with its refrain “Can’t get it down without crying,” is maybe Mark’s most gloriously downbeat mourn; ‘Kimiko’s Dream House’, meanwhile, is unimaginably delicate, and dreamy like doo-wop).

‘Field Songs’ marked the end of Lanegan’s collaborations with Mike Johnson, and Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd, who shaped the last two albums like Johnson had the first two.

“I said I didn’t want to make that same kind of record anymore,” remembers Mark. “I considered them all rock records, but I noticed people thought of them as blues records or folk records, and that’s just not interesting to me. I didn’t want to make something that was so rooted in period that it was a genre-exercise. I wanted to make rock’n’roll records, my kind of rock’n’roll records. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music, and very little of it is rooted in the past. Mike in particular was not interested in doing anything that was ‘unsafe’, y’know? That’s no slam on him at all, he makes wonderful records and all those records bear his stamp, and I’m very proud of and love the music we made together. But I wanted to do something else.”

“Something else”. Sitting eating breakfast with Mark the next morning, as he tucks into a plate full of eggs, bacon, hash browns and tomatoes, I sense that his horizons probably haven’t seemed so limitless for a long time. The night before, his touring Mark Lanegan Band backed him for a set that was majestic, dark, and bitter, a set of songs from his solo career – no Trees songs, unlike his execrable last UK show at the Astoria, late 2001, 40 minutes including cursory and bloodless encore of ‘Gospel Plow’. Numbering ex-members of Ween, A Perfect Circle and Caustic Resin, this version of the MLB aren’t as stellar as the A-List cast on the album, but they’re fine at segueing between the moods of the show, from a turbulent ‘Barracho’, to a sleazy and unpleasant ‘Methamphetamine Blues’.

This morning, Mark’s buzzing at the prospects lying before him. There’s talk of more work with Martina Topley-Bird (he guested on her debut ‘Quixotic’), of collaborating with PJ Harvey on her next album. Upon returning to the States, Greg Dulli will be joining the band as keyboard player, and afterwards he and Greg are taking ten days off together to record their long-mooted Gutter Brothers project.

“The very week I was offered the Queens gig, Greg and I had time booked in Memphis, with the Hi Rhythm Section as our backing band,” winces Mark. “It was paid for and everything, that was our window of opportunity, and I chose to do Queens instead. But we’re gonna finally do it. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I’m excited. He wrote some songs for me to sing, I wrote some for him to sing, and we chose covers for the other guy to sing.”

How did you react when you were told, aged 20, that if you kept living the way you were living, you wouldn’t see 30?

“I reacted the same way that Jeffrey Lee Pierce reacted when they told him he was gonna die. In early 1996, he went to Japan, and right before he left he and I were at his mom’s in LA writing songs. He seemed in really good health –sometimes he wasn’t in such good health, sometimes he could barely walk because he was so fucked up.

“When he came back from Japan, he left me a couple of messages on my answerphone. He sounded completely out of his mind, though not like he was drunk. It was strange, like he’d gone crazy; finally I got hold of someone, and she told me Jeffrey had come back, that he’d been drinking while he was gone, and his liver had sent poisons through his system, and he was experiencing dementia. The hospital turned him away saying, there’s nothing we can do for him, his liver’s shut down, he’s dying.

“After this, I get a call from him; he was up in Utah, and he sounded normal. And I said, what the hell, man, everyone’s saying you’re going to die. And he said, they always say that. And a week later, he fell into a coma and died.

“So, that’s how I reacted. You don’t actually believe that stuff; you feel okay, and all that. I didn’t think twice. I probably would today, if they told me. I would probably take it a lot more seriously.”

You say the halfway house helped you clean yourself up. But you must’ve made a decision yourself, to get clean?

“Well sure. I mean, there was a time when I thought I didn’t have any choice in the matter, when I spent almost a year in various ‘situations’: jail, rehab, halfway house. And just through the sheer fact that I wasn’t able to get outside, so to speak – and also because I really just did not want to live that way any longer – for me it wasn’t hard. It was the end of a nightmare that had lasted for years and years. I had always hoped that I would be able to stop, but I never was able to. Eventually, I was. A lot of that had to do with changing my way of thinking on a great many things; again, some battles you just have to give up. I was pretty stubborn, I thought I could do a lot of things myself. Nobody likes to believe that they need anybody’s help in anything, and the smarter you are – and I’m not smart – or the tougher you are – and at times I thought I was pretty tough – the more trouble you have. The smartest guys I ever met are not around anymore, because they thought they could think their way out of an unthinkable situation, and the tough guys have to just be beaten up repeatedly, and some guys just never do make it out.

“As far as I remember I don’t have any warrants out for my arrest anymore. I can travel without fear, I’m not carrying anything in my pockets that might get me caught, so that’s a good thing. I thank God that today, I’m okay. That doesn’t mean that tomorrow I won’t be of the mind to do something stupid. But God willing, I won’t.”

What attracted you to get fucked up in the first place?

“Shit man, what attracted you? [laughter] Let’s change the subject.”

(c) Stevie Chick 2004

Monday, March 14, 2005

Christopher Guest

[This piece ran in Kerrang! early in 2004]

“It’s such a thin line between stupid and clever…”

- David St Hubbins, This Is Spinal Tap

Interior: A typical Major Label launch party, a coterie of industry leeches and vacant-eyed rock ‘stars’ milling and mingling aimlessly. In one particular corner, the guests of honour have just been informed that the proposed sleeve for their new album is too contentious for release. On discovering that its image, a tethered and greased naked woman on all fours with a black glove shoved in her face, offends the gender politics-conscious 1980s, Spinal Tap’s shit-hot guitarist Nigel Tufnell asks, innocently, “What’s wrong with being sexy?”

“Sex-ist,” corrects manager Ian Faith.

“-Ist,” explains lead singer David St Hubbins, helpfully. “More than sexy.”

It’s a testament to the genius of This Is Spinal Tap that this Mockumentary, if you will, remains choice tourbus viewing for all your favourite rock’n’roll bands, who view its excruciating comedy of Heavy Metal errors with a mixture of rueful recognition and laughter. Its set-pieces – bassist Derek Smalls’ deftly-placed cucumber, the dwarves-and-miniature-monuments pantomime of ‘Stonehenge’, Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier that’s “one louder” – were hilarious, but also had their roots in the truths of a rock world given to moments of sublime ridiculousness.

“Its other peoples’ egos that make them come up to us and say, ‘You’re doing me!’,” offers Christopher Guest, who played Tufnell, of the mythic misadventures, drawn from real-life experiences of Black Sabbath, Saxon and The Troggs, and the hapless rockers’ clueless wordplay, improvised by the actors themselves as the cameras whirred. Luckily for director Rob Reiner (who also played film-maker Marty DiBergi) his cast were all experienced improvisational actors; Guest in particular was fiendishly well-versed in the sights, the sounds, the smells of a hard-working rock band on the road.

As the raging 1960s gave way to the easy-going 1970s, rock’n’roll’s righteous fire extinguished by cocaine and country-rock, a new misunderstood generation looked elsewhere for their counter-cultural heroes. Forget the cliché of the 1990s alternative comedy scene – in pre-punk 1970s America, comedians certainly were the new rock’n’roll stars: anti-establishment, shocking, hoovering up all the drugs they could find.

Coolest of all these was a travelling comedic revue called Lemmings; financed by notorious humour magazine National Lampoon, this musical drama about a festival where the artists and attendees ritually offed themselves was a biting satire of the waning Woodstock generation, one of the first ‘punk’ cultural statements. Many of the Lemmings graduated to the National Lampoon Radio Hour, broadcast nationwide on whatever stations dared broadcast its riot of scabrous and violent satire, blowing rassberries at subjects like drugs, death and racism.

Lampoon discovered many of the decade’s comic superstars, like John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Billy Crystal. A graduate of New York’s High School of Music and Arts (inspiration for the movie Fame) who’d been acting and playing music all his career (“This is where Nigel Tufnell and Christopher Guest intersect,” says McKean of the scene in …Tap where Tufnell shows off his vast collection of rare guitars), ex-Lemming Guest wrote and produced musical parodies for the show, gleefully skewering sacred cows like Otis Redding and Neil Young; he also played Ron Fields, a viciously hilarious lampoon of vain and vacant music-industry insiders who continually contradicts himself while imbibing loudly of cocaine. The seeds of Spinal Tap were sown with such sketches.

As the decade wore on, Lampoon’s star acts left for Saturday Night Live, taking Lampoon’s brutal humour revolution to television and commercial success; Guest, however, went on to write for comedienne Lily Tomlin and pursue less high-profile roles. He’d hooked up with McKean, a fellow High School of Arts and Music attendee, who was enjoying national fame as uber-nerd Lenny on TV’s Laverne & Shirley. McKean and his onscreen buddy David ‘Squiggy’ Lander recorded an album as Lenny & The Squigtones; on guitar was one ‘Nigel Tufnel’, Guest’s nom-du-rock.

The first true performance by Spinal Tap was in 1978, on offbeat music show The Midnight Special; backing a performance by arch folkie Loudon Wainwright III, Guest, McKean and friend Harry Shearer – a wizard comedic improviser with a reputation for awkwardness on set – fell afoul of a malfunctioning dry-ice machine which dripped hot oil on their faces. To take their minds off this ignominy, they improvised with each other in the roles of hapless rock musicians at the mercy of their props; from this minor disaster, a major comic creation was born.

“You’ve never seen blanker stares on the faces of studio executives than when we’d show them our demo-reel,” remembers Guest of This Is Spinal Tap’s unpromising early days. Collaborating with director Rob Reiner, who’d made his name on legendary US sitcom All In The Family, the trio had filmed a 20-minute rough demo of their projected mockumentary; the search for funding was fraught with frustration, until All In The Family producer Norman Lear stumped up $2.7 million for the renegade film-makers.

Reiner and the band proceeded to shoot a masterpiece on the tightest of budgets, charting the heart-breaking decline of legendary rockers Spinal Tap as they tour their latest album, Smell The Glove, across America, facing innumerable humiliations along the way.

“It's obviously inherently funnier to have someone who isn't doing something very well,” explained Guest, later. “That is the basis of most comedy.” In another interview, he admitted an affectionate obsession in human behaviour, adding “I like to sit in the park and watch people.” The observational humour was as spot-on as the parody rock songs (including ‘Big Bottom’, later covered by Soundgarden), Spinal Tap bumbling innocents ignorantly blissful of their diminishing place in the eternal playground that is rock’n’roll.

Hilarious and poignant as Spinal Tap was, it’s Box Office appeal was, initially, decidedly selective: This Is Spinal Tap found its true audience through late night TV screenings and videos, becoming, in the words of UK Tap-ripoffs Bad News, a massive cult. “We didn’t make any money off Spinal Tap, who would ask us to make a sequel?” says Michael McKean today, although the band reunited in 1992 for Breaks Like The Wind, a proto-Darkness comeback album, and tour from time to time.

After modest Hollywood success, Guest – improbably now a member of our House Of Lords after the death of his father, Lord Haden-Guest, and married to actress Jamie-Lee Curtis – returned to the mockumentary form in the mid-90s, with Waiting For Guffman, a brilliant and touching tale of amateur dramatics; Guest took the role of flamboyant professional director Corky StClair, trying to bring a touch of Broadway magic to a small American Midwestern town. For the movie, a cult classic, Guest assembled a fine cast of improvisational actors – Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey and the hilarious Fred Willard (who cameo’d in This Is Spinal Tap, and would return for 2000’s Best In Show).

Guest brought his keen eye for the comedy of bizarre obsession to the world of high class dog breeding for this picture, even bringing Tap co-star McKean aboard; as with the previous pictures, the improvisational style meant the actors could deliver deliciously detailed and well-rounded characterisations, highlights including Parker Posey’s hyper-stressed yuppie, Levy and O’Hara’s henpecked husband and wife-with-a-steamy-past, and Guest’s lonely bloodhound owner, not to mention Willard as a wickedly inappropriate TV commentator.

Guest and his troupe’s latest picture, A Mighty Wind, does for folk-music what Spinal Tap did to Heavy Metal. “The Folksmen pre-existed 20 years ago,” reveals Guest of the folk-trio he, McKean and Shearer play in the movie. “We opened for Spinal Tap; we opened for ourselves!”

With their acidic improvised humour and stellar casts, these movies are as close as we’ll get to more magic from Spinal Tap (and Best In Show is, arguably, even funnier). Guest, McKean and Shearer have decided they’re too old to play their spandex-clad alter-egos; certainly This Is Spinal Tap sums up the manic, tragic microcosm of rock’n’roll so perfectly that the trio have little left to say on the subject. This movie is cranked all the way up to eleven, and you couldn’t possibly take it One Louder.

(c) Stevie Chick 2004

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Grand Drive

[You'll have to forgive my recent glut of posts... Am laid low by jetlag and listening to ots of old records, and wanting people to hear about them. So here goes another long piece, this time on Grand Drive, a wonderful country-soul band from South London, whose four albums are all readily available, and all deserve your purchase. The following piece was commissioned by the band to promote the re-release of their first two albums, Road Music and True Love And High Adventure, on RCA Records. Gentlemen that they are, Grand Drive ensured that money changed hands for this piece, and yet I meant every single word, and would've written it for free, if they'd asked. Grand Drive hail from my neck of the woods, so you'll have to forgive if a little local pride colours the prose...]

“Neil Diamond wasn’t being ‘ironic’ when he sang ‘Sweet Caroline’, was he?” - Danny Wilson, at the launch party for ‘True Love & High Adventure’, September 2000

Perhaps, in the end, the feeling is all. Not the locations, the details, the little legends that make up the big picture, and yet which serve only to obscure, to deflect, to distract you from the true beauty and wisdom that lies within Grand Drive’s first two albums, re-released by RCA/Victor Records. The cold hard facts couldn’t ring true, couldn’t pull you through darkest days, like Grand Drive’s music does.

So it’s wholly unimportant that Grand Drive are centred upon the musical and songwriting talents of Danny and Julian Wilson. It’s positively incidental that the brothers were born in Australia, grew up in the stony south London suburb of Sutton in the 1970s, and spent most of their musical career holed up in nearby Raynes Park, minutes away from the road, Grand Drive, they took their name from. And it’s so insignificant as to be laughable that Grand Drive grew from Soul Green, a raucous country-punk outfit who themselves developed from an earlier hardcore-thrash incarnation, and who played support to alt_country pioneers Uncle Tupelo once upon a prairie moon.

And it’s entirely trivial, not to mention erroneous and unjust, to refer to Grand Drive as a ‘country’ band. Maybe that was true when the boys released their debut 7”, 1997’s ‘Tell It Like It Is’, on the Vinyl Junkie label, and the Wilson harmonies vied with warm, soulful hammond for space in your heart. Maybe that was true (at a push) when they followed it up with the mournful uplift of ‘On A Good Day’, where Danny stared into the darkness and found a reason to believe as the band knocked up a gorgeous Replacements-esque frazzle in the background.

But, by the time of the band’s sublime third single, ‘Wrong Notes’ - a campfire tribute to “all the bumps and rough edges and imperfections that make life worth living,” sez Julian - twang was just one element of Grand Drive’s increasingly erudite musical vocabulary, as the Wilson Brothers (plus Ed Balch, honorary Wilson brother, Grand Drive’s third cornerstone, the man with the bass guitar) broadened their sonic palette to create a record which, in their own words “opened like the theme-tune to Camberwick Green, before turning into something that would’ve fit on the soundtrack to ‘Midnight Cowboy’”.

‘Wrong Notes’ was something of a breakthrough for the band, and the following year, 1999, it was collected together with the other two singles - now sold out in their initial pressing - along with B-sides and two new tracks, to comprise the ‘Road Music’ album, released on acclaimed London Americana label Loose Recordings. The reviews were accurately ecstatic for such a charming collection; The Times called it a “modern classic”, Mojo declared it “an album that glories in the song”. Remastered and rereleased today, what’s striking is how fully formed this nascent vision of Grand Drive sounds, a sophisticated, heartfelt patchwork of Americana influences that drew equally from Memphis soul nuances as Nashville skylines. ‘Road Music’ proved that describing Grand Drive as ‘country’ was akin to suggesting Edward Hopper was a dab hand at painting naugahyde diner upholstery - sort of kind of accurate, but missing the ‘point’ by a, uh, country mile.

“Neil Diamond, he wasn't being a clever bugger, whether he was wearing tinted Alain Delon shades or not. It’s the real deal, and that’s heart music, not head music.” - Julian Wilson, a pub, Raynes Park, December 1998

And then came the great leap into genius.

Tracing Grand Drive’s progression from ‘Road Music’ to its follow-up, ‘True Love & High Adventure’, is like jumping from the Wright Brothers’ first flight to the Apollo moon landing - the former’s impressive, the latter’s inspirational. In the layoff between ‘Wrong Notes’ and ‘True Love...’ (few records are so perfectly titled), the Wilson brothers had taken odd jobs as painters and decorators to tide themselves over as they worked on their epic vision. And at the launch party that preceded its release, the various friends who’d collaborated with the band and helped realise ‘True Love...’ celebrated their achievement: a towering, beautiful, hopeful, sad, wonderful paean to love in its every form. Requited, unrequited, romantic, familial, happy, not so happy. All couched in a billowing, lushly-orchestrated sound that nodded equally towards Mercury Rev, The Beach Boys, The Flaming Lips, Van Morrison, Phil Spector, Motown - the masters of head’n’heart music.

A gleeful, exhausted, proud Danny described it as “a modern psychedelic country-soul album”, which goes some way to capturing the essence of songs like ‘Ladder To The Sea’, ‘A Little Numb’, ‘One Last Parade’... Magical music that achieves that most elusive of qualities, timelessness, not least because its themes are as grounded and essential as the music is dreamy.

Indeed, ‘classic’ is a word that appeared heavily in the reviews for this record, and listening to the record a scant six months or so after its initial release on Loose, as RCA/Victor ready it for their imprint, it’s startling just how deserving an accolade that is. And now, with a major label’s backing, the band will be able to take these heavenly songs to a much wider audience, and perhaps receive the acclaim they so richly deserve.

Because, much like Bob’s Country Bunker, the hicksville joint Jake and Elwood played in the Blues Brothers, Grand Drive play both kinds of music - music for the head and music for the heart. Call it country, call it soul, call it what you want. Just make sure you love it, with all your heart.

(c) Stevie Chick, March 2001

My Morning Jacket

[This piece ran in Kerrang! late back in 2003. If I preach full-pelt the wonders of My Morning Jacket here, then its only because My Morning Jacket are perhaps one of my favourite bands (check out all of their albums, or (even better) a live show), and that this is one of my favourite trips ever. The band themselves were warm, funny, wonderful people, who welcomed us into their home, forced us to buy their favourite books at the local Barnes & Noble, and shared some tender moments which revealed plenty of the vulnerabilities that would see guitarist Johnny Quaid and keyboard-player Danny Cash leave the band, homesick and tired of the duties of touring It Still Moves. But My Morning Jacket continue, majestically, and their next album should be due some time this year. Word up to my man Tony Woolliscroft, photographic accompaniment for this trip.]

Picture 004

The thunderstorm swarmed through Louisville like a petulant child, mocking mankind’s hubris, its attempts at besting the intemperate forces of nature. For every step of our journey so far – from plane to airport to cab to hotel – our environment had been artificially air-conditioned to a numbing, pleasant median of comfort, untroubled by the Bible Belt humidity of Autumnal Louisville, or the bitter changeable snap lurking in the clammy air.

But this aftershock of the nearby rampaging Hurricane Isabel cared not, creeping sinisterly through the deserted sleepy streets and half-built yuppie-condos: retina-scarring flashes of light, unbroken walls of fierce and chilling rain, spiny bone-white fingers of forked lightning, and ominous, heart-stopping explosions of thunder, louder than war – fuck it, louder than Rock’n’Roll – leaving us awestruck, terrified and humbled.

Some things, it seems, can’t be tamed. A lesson taught us, most recently, by Louisville’s own My Morning Jacket, five friends who eschew the trinkets and fakery of modern ‘rock’ – digital trickery, image-over-content – for something elemental and magical, stoning you with sublime, spiritual, supernatural rock’n’roll steeped in a timeless power and wonder you can’t conjour up from just anywhere. Something from the heart.

“We pride ourselves on not thinking about it all too much. It takes the magic, the power away,” smiles hirsute, perma-daydreaming singer/guitarist Jim James, as he drives us the forty miles between Louisville and nearby Shelbyville, location of the farm owned by guitarist Johnny Quaid’s grandparents and home to Cadillac Studios.

Outside, the storm rages hard but, rolling in the band’s homely eleven-seater touring van, we’re almost cosy. Clothing, magazines and other detritus clogs the nooks, while a huge jar of peanut-butter rolls around the floor; bootleg CDs chronicling the Rolling Stones’ entire 1972 American tour (matinee and evening performances) teeter on the passenger seat. You imagine the band’s own bedrooms to resemble this dog-eared but charming chariot, and why not? They’ve logged more hours in the van than their own beds this past year or so.

“The first concert I ever saw was Metallica, the Black album tour. They played for four hours, no support,” brags hairy and gregarious drummer Patrick Hallahan, from the back of the van. The stereo’s spinning an eclectic mix CD Jim made for such trips –Roy Orbison, AC/DC, country-rockers Flying Burrito Brothers, even calypso king Harry Belafonte – but the band, for our benefit, are in ‘metal’ mode. “I saw Pantera support Skid Row, totally blew ‘em off the stage,” continues Patrick, excitedly.

“Me and Johnny used to put on ‘Vulgar Display Of Power’ and rip his bedroom apart,” offers Jim.

“For some reason we never trashed Jim’s bedroom,” muses the guitarist, with a wry smile.

For all this confessed destruction, My Morning Jacket are gentle obsessives; but music drives their every impulse; “I don’t think any of us really cares what we look like,” murmurs the sweetly scruffy Patrick at one point, hinting at their monomania.

“We start at that unspoilt point,” offers keyboard player Danny Cash. “Unlike most other bands, we’ve never strayed from it.”

“We didn’t fit in at school, with the footballers, the skaters, the ‘alternative’ kids,” remembers Jim\. “Most bands we saw looked like rock’n’roll bands, they were all sexy and skinny and looked like they were wearing the ‘right’ clothes. We’ve never been that way, we’d rather think about our music than what we’re gonna wear or how our hair looks. I think we learnt early on, that kinda stuff is really distracting.”

Their latest album, ‘It Still Moves’, opens with ‘Magheeta’, a shimmering sliver of tender rockidge that ploughs through seven minutes of southern-fried soloing and exquisite falsetto melodies betraying nary a whisker of machismo, beautiful, powerful and vulnerable. It sounds so unguarded, so un-self-conscious; like the boys themselves.

“It’s not about any one person in particular,” starts Jim, talking about ‘The Way That He Sings’, a moving near-lullaby off their second album, ‘At Dawn’. “Half of it’s about all my favourite singers, half of it’s about love. It’s about loving somebody, a singer, or your girlfriend or boyfriend, for what they do rather than what they look like. Something deeper, that you can’t really understand. Like, when I listen to my favourite singers, a lot of the time I don’t even know the lyrics, but I’ll just get so wrapped up in their singing. It’s the same thing with falling in love with someone, it’s cool if they look good, but it goes way beyond that.

“Music was the only thing I ever felt like I was any good at,” he continues. “The only way out for me. I was bad with girls, I hated school, I’m not good at sports. But music… I could always turn my stereo up in my room, jump off my bed and play air guitar, pretending I was in Sepultura, or lay on the floor crying, listening to REM.”

“I always got this feeling in my chest when I heard music,” offers Johnny. “It was just so emotional, I couldn’t believe something could make me feel that way. I wanted to capture that, recreate that for other people.”

That dream began here, at Cadillac Studios.

The van deftly negotiates the entrance to the farm from the Interstate, gingerly touring its breath-taking thousand-acre sprawl, the fields of corn and tobacco interspersed with a vast hall Johnny’s family rents out from time to time (most recently to a lizard-fanciers’ convention), pumpkin patches, grazing horses and cows, a petting zoo (we spy some soggy bunny-rabbits peeking gloomily out of their hutches at us), and huge rickety barns packed with relics like Johnny’s granny’s dilapidated T-Bird sportscar (she was quite the speed demon in her day). It’s still a working farm, Johnny’s brother and grandfather running it now, though that’s not why we’re here.

We pull up alongside a 60 foot tall grain silo that’s seen better days, not suspecting that this is, in fact, My Morning Jacket’s secret weapon. For – having rigged up a speaker deep inside it – this forlorn farm utility has now been transformed into a sublime Reverb chamber. This is why, when Jim James sings, he sounds like a chorus of angels cooing down from Heaven.

“I was in a band, and our singer got sick or quit,” remembers Jim, of the day he discovered reverb. “Everyone was asking, ‘who’s gonna sing?’ So I tried. But I felt real self-conscious about how my voice sounded until, one day, somebody left the reverb turned up on the amp. I started singing, and this amazing sound poured out; I knew I’d found my calling. Nothing had ever made me feel more powerful than that in my life. I felt like I was in the Righteous Brothers or something. It was such a fucking amazing feeling!”

“The reverb knob has been at ‘11’ ever since,” laughs Johnny. “We’re gonna design a Jim James Signature Reverb Pedal: it won’t have any dials or buttons or even an on/off switch, just Jim’s smiling face staring up atcha; just plug it in and you’re ready to go!”

We walk from the silo to a nearby two-storey building. This, it transpires, is Cadillac Studios; it feels more like a clubhouse than a studio, decorated with concert-posters and fairy lights and cluttered with memorabilia, and the down-home atmosphere and antique analogue equipment confirm that feeling; a sense of romance for rock’n’roll’s past, the days before digital, before Autotune and Pro Tools – before cynicism – hangs in the air.

“Speaking for myself,” offers Jim, “The 1950s, 60s and 70s, that’s when music was at its peak for me. There’s good stuff today, but no-one’s hitting me like Roy Orbison or Etta James or Led Zeppelin or The Band or Bob Dylan or Neil Young.”

“It seems like as the decades progress and more money enters the equation,” adds Danny, “The more formulaic everything has gotten. Like they’ve figured out exactly what to do to make the most money, and that’s become the total focus.”

“The music business is so fucked up,” sighs Jim, with the resignation of those newly betrothed to the corporate behemoth. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the album came out and sold two copies or two million; you can’t control if people are gonna love you or not. All we can do is close our eyes and rock out as hard as we can.”

This momentary darkness passes quickly, doubtless thanks to the Jacket’s “think less” mindset, and we talk influences some more. The band admit they wear theirs on their sleeves, and refuse to cover their most obvious heroes – “No Skynyrd,” laughs Patrick, “And if you hear us playing Neil Young, you’d better check the papers, because either we’re splitting up or Neil’s dead!”.

But there’s one influence you mightn’t instantly guess when you hear My Morning Jacket, one very close to Jim’s heart.

“Kermit The Frog,” he smiles, bashfully. “I’ve always loved dark, fucked up children’s shows. The Muppet Show is so happy and so colourful, but some of the songs are really sad; the emotions Jim Henson could express through Kermit were amazing. He was just as brilliant a genius as John Lennon or Walt Disney. The Muppets show what you can do if you don’t put any limits on your self, that there’s no limit to how far you can get with your imagination.”

If there ever was any real doubt in Jim James’ heart about whether or not his band can truly break through, then you wish he could sit in the audience for a My Morning Jacket show. Earlier, Johnny had said that when they play live, “We almost sound like a metal band; there’s sensitivity and softness there, but we get back to our roots and rock out.”

And he’s right. A couple of weeks earlier in London, supporting Foo Fighters audience at that band’s secret Mean Fiddler show, MMJ seduced a partisan audience with ‘Runthrough’ off ‘It Still Moves’, Foos fans pumping their fists with that song’s bass-breakdown and fierce twin-guitar attack, even though they’d never heard it before.

This afternoon they’re playing a set for local station WFPK, which Jim describes as “the only good station in town, playing stuff that isn’t Foreigner or Foghat”. Indeed, their playlist is as winningly wayward as James’ own mixtapes, and they’ve supported the band since the early days. Jim, a barefoot blur of hair with a voice like honey, leads the band through an hour of sweet and soulful southern rock, country-tinged and metallic at its core, alternating fiery riff-outs and fragile balladry, dripping with sublime peaks and electrifying goosebump epiphanies. It’s a poignant moment, one last breath of normality before the boys get back in the van and lose themselves in the wilds of the world for another three months.

It’s made doubly, triply poignant by the presence of their loved ones in the audience, mothers and fathers and siblings and fiancées savouring these last precious hours together. There’s a farewell dinner later and we’re invited, but we decline; for all the southern hospitality and genuine warmth we’ve enjoyed, there are some parties you shouldn’t gatecrash. Unlike most, this band thrives on its family, and, as such, severance is painful.

“Being in this band is a fucking awesome experience, but it’s a hard way of life,” nods Jim, quietly.

“I’d find it harder if I didn’t love touring with these guys,” offers the newly engaged Patrick. “I never get sick of ‘em. We really are all brothers in this thing; it makes missing loved ones at home a little bit easier, because we have each other to fall back on.”

“We’re all in this for the same reason, we’re all aiming at the same goal we’ve all had since childhood,” adds Johnny. “All our friends and families and significant others understand that and support that. It is difficult, but you know that coming in, because nobody’s handing out dreams; if you want something you’ve got to work for it. And it’s tough, but, I think, in the end it’ll be worth it. I feel like we can honestly say that we’ve tried as hard as we could’ve up to this point.”

Humble, but reaching for the stars and with hearts of gold, they can’t lose.

(c) Stevie Chick 2003