Country Westerns: Lean And Mean

It’s been a curious journey thus far for Joey Plunkett—from fronting much-admired Brooklyn band the Weight to largely abandoning music to run Duke’s, a popular watering hole in East Nashville. “I followed an ex down here who was a country singer,” says the Atlanta native. “I was spinning my wheels, and the relationship ended. I kept thinking I’d move back to New York or Atlanta, but I just kept hanging around—until the opportunity came to open a bar.”

Plunkett’s latest opportunity comes by way of Country Westerns, the trio he’s assembled with former Silver Jews drummer Brian Kotzer and violinist-turned-bassist Sabrina Rush. The name is a bit of a misnomer, given that the band favors raspy roots-rock gut checks over twang authenticity. It’s a sound that’s tightly wound yet slightly unhinged, thriving off that dichotomy. “I’m Not Ready,” the fourth track from the band’s new self-titled Fat Possum debut, has all signature assets of Country Westerns’ Hüsker Dü-by-way-of-Lucero model: a taught melody grounded by a pulsing rhythm section, throat-shredding lead vocals and sporadic bursts from Plunkett’s guitar.

“It’s one of those songs that came to me quickly,” says Plunkett. “It’s mostly about having no control over time and the forces around you. It’s a noisy song about not going gentle into that good night.”

A year prior to Plunkett’s arrival in Nashville, Kotzur had a brush with indie filmmaking as the lead in Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers, a darkly humorous 2009 horror flick shot on worn VHS video. Plunkett and Kotzur eventually met and gelled over their common opinions on the chemistry of making music. “I just wanted to be in a band,” says Plunkett. “I’ve never been good about shifting from one project to the next. For a lot people here, that’s their forte. But it’s not my personality.”

By 2016, the two were recording demos in Kotzur’s garage. Early music featured Reece Lazarus (Bully) before Rush settled in on bass. Recording began in Nashville with engineer Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray For The Riff Raff) and continued in Brooklyn with Matt Sweeney (Chavez, Zwan) and Daniel Schlett (War On Drugs). “For us, it was always about trimming the fat,” says Plunkett. “When we hooked up with Matt, we really cut everything down to the bone. It’s like we took a scalpel to it.” 

Six of Country Westerns’ 11 songs are less than three minutes in length. “Harder and faster compensates for not being as much of a hotshot player,” says Plunkett. “I don’t feel like I’m some virtuoso, but I want to feel like I’m sweating for it.” 

An interesting side note: The video for “I’m Not Ready” was shot at the abandoned Starwood Amphitheatre outside of Nashville. “We had to carry all these amps about a half-mile through the brush to find the place,” says Plunkett. “Brian told me he’d seen Ice-T, Easy-E and Van Halen there. He had this idea to do a low-rent version of Pink Floyd: Live At Pompeii.”

—Hobart Rowland

Luke Schneider: Harmony Of The Spheres

Luke Schneider isn’t a household name by any stretch, and Altar Of Harmony (Third Man) isn’t likely to change that. “Some people will argue that ambient and new age are two different things, and I think that’s technically correct,” says Schneider. “But I’m not afraid of calling this ambient new-age music.”

Thanks to his sublime work on pedal-steel guitar, Schneider is a fixture in Nashville. Now 40, he started playing the instrument at 21, when he finally had the means to acquire one. “I was working as bellman downtown at the time, and Nashville had its NAMM Show,” says Schneider. “I had my best week ever, and I took my $1,500 and bought a pedal-steel guitar. After about six months, I was barely good enough to play in a local indie-folk band.” 

These days, Schneider’s contributions have been essential to Margo Price’s Grammy-winning retro-twang formula. He’s also performed with Caitlin Rose, Natural Child and other acts, and session work has been fairly easy to come by. Solo debut Altar Of Harmony, on the other hand, is about as far removed from country music as Neptune is from Nashville.

“With Margo, we were playing traditional country, so we were definitely trying to stay inside those norms,” says Schneider. “Having said that, Margo was definitely into me experimenting with various sound textures. We’d try to disrupt the expectations of the Americana and outlaw-country fans coming to see us. I’d open up a show with weird Eno drones and stuff.”

Brian Eno is a valid reference point for Altar Of Harmony opener/first single “Anteludium” and the rest of the LP’s hypnotic, meditative instrumentals. Other names worth noting include ambient music linchpins Harold Budd and Don Robertson. With his own contribution to the genre, Schneider abolishes any preconceived notions of a complex instrument that’s often misunderstood and even marginalized.

“In the Western world, pedal steel is probably the most difficult instrument to master, but I also don’t want to discourage people from diving into it,” says the Ohio-born Schneider, whose 1967 Emmons push/pull model is the sole source of sonic inspiration on Altar Of Harmony. “Pedal-steel dorks salivate over the 1967 push/pulls. Two-hundred years from now, I really think it’ll be considered the Stradivarius of pedal-steel guitars.”

—Hobart Rowland

Happy (My Bloody) Valentine’s Day!

Forget to get your own special sweetheart a gift this Hallmark holiday? We have you covered: Just read her/him/them this classic MAGNET feature from almost 13 years ago to the day, when Kevin Shields first talked publicly about My Bloody Valentine finally following up 1991’s seminal Loveless. Never mind the love, here’s the Loveless.

Loveless isn’t simply My Bloody Valentine’s shoegazing masterpiece; the 1991 album is also the basis for one of alt-rock’s greatest yarns. It’s been reported that MBV leader Kevin Shields spent three years and a half-million dollars painstakingly piecing together Loveless in the studio, bankrupting the band’s label, Creation Records, in the process. On the 15th anniversary of the LP’s release, Shields tells MAGNET that things aren’t always as they seem.

The two things we’re really known for are spending Creation’s money and making records with loads of overdubs on them. The exact truth is this: About a month before we started Loveless, Creation pulled away from Rough Trade distribution and said, “Our contract is up with you. We don’t want to sign again.” By the time we resumed recording in September of ’89, Creation was already bankrupt.

When we first started Loveless, no one signed to Creation. When we finished the damn record, they had hit records and bands on Top Of The Pops. They were a very successful label. All that stuff about us nearly breaking Creation because we spent all their money is literally 100 percent lies.

Another interesting fact is that we were only in the studio a year and 10 months. We spent six months out of the studio touring behind (1990’s) Glider EP, so really, we were only in the studio a year and four months. The last two months, it was £600 a day. Every studio before that was between £200 and £250. If you actually do the math, you realize that those figures don’t add up (to the records’s reported £250,000 price tag). About a year after Loveless, Creation got in trouble, right before Oasis, because Primal Scream spent £1 million on Give Up But Don’t Give Out.

Creation’s financial situation had nothing to do with us, except we made them much richer by getting tons of bands to sign to them that wouldn’t have otherwise. We signed to Creation because of the Jesus And Mary Chain. I do sound like I’m being pretty negative about the whole Creation thing, but it’s more that I just get bored when people ask me. I’m just going to tell the truth now. I always used to gloss over it, but I’m bored of glossing over the truth.

Basically, Creation was out of their minds on drugs. No one was prepared to front us the money to get our act together or give us the money to get equipment. Between having nowhere to live and having no real equipment, we were actually getting somewhere with an audience. When we made Loveless, no money had arrived. We thought we had proven ourselves; at that point, it was the whole music scene that came after us. People were into the whole juxtaposition of the kind of gentleness with the extreme violent side of the music.

Creation founder Alan McGee is kind of an unusual character. Our relationship with Creation was mostly through label manager Dick Green. McGee was really excited by us, but he was never around. We’d see him once a month or once every few weeks, but he didn’t understand when we’d do the slow songs. When we were recording, he told me that it should be more like (1988 EP) You Made Me Realise. He spent all that year trying to get us to release another song off Isn’t Anything called “(When You Wake) You’re Still In A Dream” as the next single. We were like, “No, we’re finished with that now. We’re moving on to a new thing.”

Basically, when he’d come to these sessions in January and April of ’89, I just said, “I don’t want you to come to the studio anymore.” He didn’t like that very much, but before we even started Loveless, there was a problem. I know he was only trying to be helpful, but he was jumping around saying, “This has to be the best record ever made!” He was looking for a group to be the next Primal Scream or the Sex Pistols. We were his biggest bet. Instead of us including him and bringing him in, we just sort of pushed him away. They thought it was strange that I wouldn’t let them in the studio—like I was being overly artistic—but it was more because a studio for us was like home. We were all homeless until after Loveless got made.

The way I saw it—because I was the producer and kind of in charge of everything—I was a bit of a tyrant. I would just really be strict. It got to the point where I lived with these songs for more than a year, and the melodies were only in my head.

I’ve always told people exactly how I’ve made a record. The average My Bloody Valentine track is about one or two guitar tracks: less than a White Stripes or Cramps record. I could only get away with having one or two guitars at any one point because if you put a few on, then it took away from the effect, it sounded smaller and smaller. Basically, a My Bloody Valentine record has the same amount of tracks on it as most bands’ demos do.

When making records, I got it into my head that some of the big no-no’s were no echo, no reverb, no chorus or flanger and no panning. The one effect I would use was this reversed reverb effect, which is very reverb-y, all of these things I was against, right? But the irony was that with these effects, you could actually play harder and it sounded really different. If you played softer, the sound changed dramatically. I would work with a tremolo to get this other dynamic and suddenly had a language I could kind of express myself with, which I never really had before. I found a voice, and I could do it well.

After a while, I was playing in such a way that people thought it was some weird effect or studio manipulation. People in the press couldn’t get their heads around it. We were going for a sound that drew you in. When people make records, they add; they try to clarify everything with cue and compression and stuff. Everything has its own space and doesn’t sound like it’s happening in the same place. We weren’t trying to make anything stick out too much. Everything was quite full on. The vocals, especially. We were kind of amused that people would think we were singing softly, but in fact we were singing in a very controlled way. Then we’d get compared to a lot of other shoegazing bands; they were doing everything we hated, using loads of chorus, flanger and all these effects on their guitars and singing genuinely softly and it was all whispery. It was so hard to get away from that. We were singing as loud as we could to sing the way we wanted to. (Singer/guitarist) Bilinda Butcher’s voice in particular had a really breathy quality to it, but she sounds like that when she sings pretty loudly, too. Neither of us could sing in a shouty sort of a way.

Anyway, people forget now that “alternative” is just another way to make a million pounds. Back in those days, it was really hard to get a publishing deal if you weren’t on a major label. We only got our publishing deal around Christmas of 1990 because we had done our licensing deal with Warner Bros. We never got paid a penny for any records we sold in America. We’ve never been accounted to by Warner Bros. Alan McGee and Dick Green were only 27 or 28 and weren’t experienced. They were guys who had never in their life managed a band’s career. They’d only had bands who’d done well, like the Jesus And Mary Chain or the House Of Love, who’d leave the label the minute they were playing to 1,000 people.

The really sick part of the whole story is that we’d been offered two different major-label contracts. Seymour Stein wanted to sign us to Sire, but we didn’t want to sign a major record contract. We wanted to be in charge of everything. We signed to Creation for £15,000 even though we’re being offered £150,000. I would never accuse Creation of ripping us off. It was all down to the human inexperience, drug taking and lack of awareness and petty mistakes. I resent Alan McGee’s lies, but he can’t help it. He lies about everything. That’s just his style. If people choose to believe that, that’s their business.

A lot of people say the reason My Bloody Valentine didn’t make another record is because we couldn’t. That’s mostly true, but not because we couldn’t make another record, but because I never could be bothered to make another record unless I was really excited by it. And just by fate or whatever, that never happened. I’m quite optimistic about the future, even though experience has taught me that I’m probably just delusional. I do feel that I will make another great record. We are 100 percent going to make another My Bloody Valentine record unless we die or something. I’d feel really bad if I didn’t make another record. Like, “Shit, people only got the first two chapters, but the last bit is the best bit.” It’s just that it’s taken me such an oddly long time for that to happen. How long will that take to transpire into an actual physical record? I don’t know.

—interview by MacKenzie Wilson

MAGNET Exclusive: Download The Ocean Blue’s “Kings And Queens”

David Schelzel weathered the Ocean Blue’s early success remarkably well—so well that it never really dawned on him that 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of his band’s self-titled Sire Records debut. “I guess that’s a pretty significant anniversary,” says Schelzel matter-of-factly.

Hailing from the choco-tourism hub of Hershey, Pa., Schelzel and the rest of the Ocean Blue were essentially clueless teenagers when they signed a three-album deal with Sire. Now, the band has officially been around long enough to earn the “dream pop” tag, a misnomer that didn’t even exist when they first hit the road to prove that they weren’t, in fact, British.

“We always had a pretty realistic view of who we were and who we weren’t,” says Schelzel. “We’re all really fortunate to come from loving, caring families with great support systems. For me, being in a band is not the sum total of who I am. In the late ‘90s, when having a career in music wasn’t really a viable option anymore, it wasn’t like my whole world fell apart.”

Schelzel turned his focus to academics, eventually heading to law school in Minneapolis, where he’s now a successful attorney. These days, only founding bassist Bobby Mittan lives in Hershey, though the band’s operations are still based there. “We’re fortunate that we had a history on two major labels, which promoted us extensively all those years,” Shelzel says. “We still have a fan base that cares.”

The Ocean Blue’s seventh album. Kings And Queens / Knaves And Thieves, is out on Korda Records, a Minneapolis-based cooperative imprint the band helped launch. Leading things off is “Kings And Queens,” an early-’90s throwback that efficiently co-opts the lush and airy artiness of Britpop’s more lavish leanings without sounding dated or redundant. (You can download the song below.) Like much of the rest of the album, “Kings And Queens” demonstrates the Ocean Blue’s continued proficiency as expert assimilators of all things strummy, Anglophilic and slightly world-weary. “It’s a classic existential song,” says Schelzel. “The big thing is that we’re all basically the same.”

King And Queens is the band’s second full-length release since its 2013 return after a 10-year break. Outside his law practice, Schelzel has kept himself busy on side projects like 5 Billion In Diamonds, led by drummer/producer Butch Vig and featuring members of Soundtrack Of Our Lives, Spiritualized and Echo & The Bunnymen. Fatherhood has also been a priority, and whatever’s left is reserved for music. “The Ocean Blue is still a huge part of my life, but I don’t have to look to it for a way to make a living,” he says. “And that’s tremendously freeing.”

—Hobart Rowland

The Gotobeds: Life And Debt

Time is strange. The punks told us to burn the past, that anything new beats anything old through sheer youth. At least, Bill Bored of the Cardboards preached that credo in Stephanie Beroes’ Debt Begins At 20, a little cult documentary from 1980 that invited viewers to hang out in Pittsburgh’s nascent DIY scene. Almost 40 years later, and the future promises more dread than freedom—urban planners buffer cities with luxuries that a growing lower-middle class can’t afford, policies threaten to rob women of agency, and conniving capitalists tag even the tiniest courtesy with a price. So when Eli Kasan says “I can’t explain why the world has to burn” on a blazing rant on the Gotobeds’ third album, Debt Begins At 30 (Sub Pop), he doesn’t have to elaborate—frustrated youths everywhere know the feeling.

Still, like the pioneers from his hometown, Kasan doesn’t savor the past. He must be sitting on a patio in his house, as over the phone, I can hear the birds chirp louder than passing planes. (We’ve had to carve out a rendezvous between our opposite job shifts, but Kasan worked out an alibi: “I was able to ‘work from home’,” he says, “which means I’m just being a bum.”)  The story goes that he and his fellow Gotobeds starting writing Debt Begins not long after their breakout on Sub Pop back in 2016, Blood // Sugar // Secs / Traffic. And this time, instead of another perfectly imperfect scrap in a friend’s basement, the band would head to Chicago to record in a proper studio with another pal, Tim Midyett (Silkworm, Mint Mile). Kasan would try to actually plan some lyrics instead of devising everything ad lib.

But now, let’s rewind a bit. The first time I saw the Gotobeds, Kasan was stumbling around the stage with a lampshade on his head. He, of course, also stood on several amps; later, he joined one of his guitarists on the same guitar and wished Chunklet’s Henry Owings a happy birthday. Kasan also chuckles to recall his earliest writing, like the commercial updo for “Wimpy Garcia (Brotherfucker)” from album number one, 2014’s Poor People Are Revolting. “TFP (Tom Payne), our guitar player, was just so impressed by the song itself, that he was just like, ‘Wow, this is so great, it’s such a hit, we could sell this for a car. You’ve got to sing this for a car commercial, man,’” he says. “So I completely took the lyrics I had, and mashed in a bunch of junk. And so looking back, I’m like, ‘What the hell did I do?’ Like, it doesn’t make any sense.” 

You see, the Gotobeds thrive on spontaneous combustion. You could talk about the “themes” of Debt Begins—a wariness toward the unwary, loans of all kinds, age abstracted as clocks—if you wanted to pigeonhole the perpetual frustration of living into some sort of artistic “intention.” But Kasan won’t take the credit for masterminding any grand scheme; more than once in our conversation, he admits that some of his best ideas were born from sheer happenstance. The foundation for “Bleached Midnight,” for example, came from a poem in a notebook that Kasan’s old roommate, Scott MacIntyre, left behind. “I was trying to write something about different facets of war, (such as) internally, and versus someone else, and actually being at war,” he says. “His poem was about being addicted to heroin.” So naturally, Kasan reached out, and MacIntyre lent some extra words.

In fact, every song on Debt Begins features at least one other pal or fellow musician—and that, too, was something of a coincidence. The dudes were hanging out at their home base in Chicago, where Midyett lived with another friend—and they contemplated the odds that Midyett would come over and collab on a song with them. “So at one point, our drummer Cary (Belback), since we’re all rap fans, he’s like, ‘Dude, this is going to be just like a mixtape, we’re going to have a feature on every track,’” says Kasan. “He said it as a joke. And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea.’” So Kasan lined up invites to some old friends, from Bob Nastonovich (Pavement, Silver Jews) to Bob Weston (Shellac, Mission Of Burma) to Tracy Wilson Dahlia Seed, Positive No). “I remember the point when we were wrapping up, and I told the dudes, ‘Hey, I need $200 for someone to record their vocals,’” says Kasan. “And so they asked, ‘Well, so who’s all on the record?’ So I told them, and then they asked, ‘Wait, so is there a guest on every song?’ And I was like, ‘We talked about this!’”

The ‘Beds have no trouble communicating with each other. Granted, faintly gothic barnburner “Slang Words”— which, ironically, concerns this generation’s loose lips and insensitive slander—was almost abandoned forever because of a misunderstanding between Kasan and Payne from nearly six years ago. “TFP didn’t have a guitar part for it, it wasn’t finished, I didn’t have all the lyrics, so we just scrapped it, and completely forgot about it,” says Kasan. When he did remember “Slang Words,” though, he was under the impression that his guitarist wasn’t into the tune. Clearly, he was wrong. “I could have just asked him at the time, but instead I just assumed,” he says. “it’s funny, the way that things stick out in your mind, when you’re a dude, and you’re talking to your fellow friends.”

That’s another running theme in Debt Begins. We all know these days that our landscape could use a few less douchebags, and Kasan constantly draws a firm line between those blokes (like the one “jamming Sublime” on “Calquer The Hound”) and the ‘Beds. “I wake in fright/I don’t have the right/To be so parallel,” he says on “Parallel,” a sober reminder that other folks face greater fears. But Kasan admits that even “enlightened” dudes like themselves still bump against barriers. “We’ve definitely all cried in front of each other,” he says. “I’ve held all of them, spooned them [even]. But it’s still like, I’m not sure how to check on this person, even though it’s kinda easy, almost, on the face of it.”

Still, Kasan and the gang still buck the patriarchy when they can. Both versions of “Debt Begins At 30” challenge the systems that be—particularly the latter, where the ‘Beds called in Victoria Ruiz from Downtown Boys to vent her own narrative into the maelstrom. “She was the only person who essentially had a blank check,” says Kasan. “(I told her), here’s the inspiration, here’s what I was trying to say. It’d be cool to have a non-white guy sing this similar song. You can interpret it however you like.” As of our conversation, neither of us yet knew exactly how close Ruiz hewed to the original. But even with my rusty Spanish, I can still hear some parallels. A “fuego” still burns around the same point as Kasan’s fire; Ruiz cries “palabras en débito” where Kasan shouts “These aren’t even my words/They’re out on loan.” And her refrain of “Debit comienza/Pero nunca termina” remains the same as the English: “Debt begins/Never ends.”

As for Kasan’s version—to some extent, that ties back to the stance against nostalgia, and growing up. Astute readers may recognize the opening verse (“Late last night, I sat Atlas on my lap”) from poet Warsan Shire’s “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” another serendipitous influence that our protagonist bumped into on Facebook. But when Kasan says the line, he’s not referring to a book. When his new girlfriend moved in with her daughter Atlas, he decided he’d become her father. “I never thought that I was going to have children, or that I would want to have children,” says Kasan. “But it’s like, well, I love my lady, so I love this kiddo. So I just try not to let her get hit by a car, make sure she’s eating food, don’t be an asshole. All those things you usually do.” 

Of course, anyone who listens to Debt Begins will swiftly find that Kasan and the gang aren’t assholes. The future might look grim, but time has to march on – and while we can’t burn the past, we can at least make some noise with our fellows right now. And that’s all Kasan really wants with the Gotobeds. “You meet one person at a time, and that leads to something else,” he says. “To me, irrelevant of how many records we sell, or we don’t sell—the guests that I respect like it, the friends I really like are getting it. So I feel like I’m doing something right. Even if it’s not Car Seat Headrest level.”

—Lee Adcock