Quicksand: How Soon Is Now?

The post-hardcore innovators in Quicksand return with their first album in more than two decades

A number of books telling the story of the early days and origins of New York hardcore have been penned over the last handful of years, and in addition to the venues that served as meeting places for the scene and its denizens, places like Washington Square Park have also been described as playing a significant role in the NYHC story.

The 9.7-acre Manhattan park has been cleaned up and transformed as per the gentrification that began with Rudolph Giuliani’s time in office, but back in the ’80s, it, along with other outdoor city spots like Tompkins Square Park and Roosevelt Park, was a hangout and meeting place for addicts, the homeless, prostitutes, pushers and miscreants of all descriptions as well as artists, eccentrics and local hardcore punks. So, a sense of surprised irony generates a wry grin on our face when Quicksand bassist Sergio Vega informs us he’s hanging out in Washington Square Park when MAGNET calls.

That irony is not lost on Vega. While chatting about Interiors (Epitaph), his reformed post-core/alt-metal group’s first album in nearly 23 years, he recognizes he’s frequenting the same locale in which he and his bandmates—guitarist/vocalist Walter Schreifels, drummer Alan Cage and guitarist Tom Capone (currently on hiatus due to personal issues)—spent chunks of their youth, between gigs and rehearsals for pre-Quicksand outfits like Gorilla Biscuits, Youth Of Today, Beyond, Bold, Burn, Collapse and Absolution. But old habits, as they say, die hard.

“When Quicksand was originally around, I used to stress out about its fragility,” he says about what makes QS2017 different. “The band was intense, good and powerful, but at any moment it felt like it wouldn’t exist. I think I took things for granted, coming from the hardcore scene where things would fall apart and reemerge very quickly. On the other hand, there was always chemistry, and all we had to do was get together to do something good. These days, things are way more chilled out.”

“We navigated situations that I could’ve seen us fighting about,” says Schreifels. “That just didn’t happen on this. We had disagreements, but it was never hostile or contentious. It was like total discussion, which is awesome, and that’s how you get through things.”

Quicksand actually reunited once before, in 1997, but split two years later due to outside and business pressures fanning the flames of internal tension. This time around, the reunion was casual. So much so that if you weren’t paying attention—or if you were paying more attention to the members’ other projects, including Rival Schools (Schreifels), Instruction (Capone), Enemy and 108 (Cage) and Deftones (Vega)—you might not have even realized the quartet originally got back together five years ago.

“Basically, around the time Deftones were about to record (2012’s) Koi No Yokan, Dine Alone wanted to license and reissue (first Quicksand album) Slip,” says Vega. “The Quicksand guys have always maintained a friendship, and Walter and I got talking and batted around the idea of playing a couple shows around the licensing. Not so much because of the licensing but because that was where our heads were at, and it seemed like a good pretext to do it. Our friends and people around us were super pumped on the idea of the band existing again, so we reached out to Alan and Tom and had a lot of fun with it.”

“We’re lucky in that we still have a rapport musically and personally,” says Schreifels. “Both of those guys are super unique and distinct players, and it brings my game up.”

“There was no pressure, no social-media presence, no trying to find funding,” says Vega. “We just did it when we could do it.”

Since then, Quicksand toured occasionally here and overseas without definitive plans to record an album until realizing it had enough material. Things were, again, very casual, which allowed the music on Interiors to blossom with vocal-driven melodies, hard alt-’90s guitar and as much proggy/space rock former NYHC kids can scrape off the streets. It took three years of work so insular that the band’s management eventually stopped asking what was up.

But, as Vega puts it, “That approach allowed this to happen. Our nature as players is that we always jam, noodle and come up with new ideas, so that was natural when we got together, but we never decided we were making a record. We’d jam whenever we could, but it was never like, ‘We’re writing!’ After a certain point, we thought about how long we’d been messing around and what we had to show for it. We documented it all and discovered we had a hard drive full of stuff and we’d done a lot more work than we thought. Then, we were able to go back, see what worked and it was like, ‘Wow, we actually have a record!’ This all went so backward.”

“Going into it, I thought in some ways that we have to try to catch up with our style from 27 years ago,” says Schreifels. “But what ended up happening was it just kind of came out naturally. We didn’t really have to do anything.”

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

Maston: Awake In The Dark

Maston’s Tulips is a love letter to primitive-cool European film scores

L.A.-based producer/composer Frank Maston had always wanted to live abroad. When he was given the opportunity to sit in on an extended tour with Dutch indie-psychedelic-pop star Jacco Gardner, Maston—who releases his music under his surname—didn’t think twice. And it was there, during that time adrift in the Continent, that Maston’s glorious, film-geeky, hopelessly romantic Tulips was born.

“I wrote it over here, though,” says Maston, whose second album is released on the artist’s Phonoscope label. “I was trying to get at a kind of sound—it’s difficult to describe. I didn’t want it to be rooted there, but I also didn’t want it to sound like I was trying to recapture a sound that I wasn’t connected to. I ended up going (as a reference point) to a kind of music I’ve always loved: those great soundtracks to 1960s and 1970s European films.”

Like the best of those film scores—and we’re talking here not just the work of the venerable Ennio Morricone but also grittier, lesser-known composers like Bruno Nicolai and Franco Micalizzi—Tulips contains a series of short theme-and-variation grooves, heavy on chorus-washed keys, gutsy/cool guitar lines, somber flutes and minor-key bridges. As a composer and producer, Maston has done his homework—Tulips spins like a lost soundtrack circa 1969 and would be difficult to tell apart from its source material in a blindfold test—but the album works as a collection of short original compositions in a “neo-classical-trash” style. Barely 24 minutes total, Maston’s second record knows what it’s about, and not only doesn’t overstay its welcome but it leaves you wanting more.

“Oh, that’s so nice, man,” he says. “That’s such a compliment.” Well, if you’ve got a head for this sort of sound, so is Tulips.

Eric Waggoner

Happy (My Bloody) Valentine’s Day!

Forget to get your own special sweetheart a give this Hallmark holiday? We have you covered: Just read her/him/them this classic MAGNET feature from 11 years ago, 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

Kllo: Modern Maturity

On Backwater, the young Australian cousins in Kllo go for an adult swim

Melbourne’s Kllo makes music for lost souls, sounds imbued with muted colors, intimate vocals and languid rhythms. The duo—singer, lyricist and guitarist Chloe Kaul and keyboard player, percussionist and producer Simon Lam—favors quiet intensity, allowing the songs to develop their own haunting presence. On debut album Backwater (Ghostly International), elements of funk, R&B, pop, U.K. garage and 2-step drift through the mix, often in unexpected combinations.

“We’ll include any genre we’re feeling at the time,” says Lam. “Whatever we throw at a track, even if it’s from left field, always sounds like us.”

Kaul and Lam are first cousins. They were working separately on their own projects when their mothers suggested they collaborate. “Our mums have a lot of crazy ideas,” says Kaul. “This one was probably one of the best they’ve come up with.”

Lam studied jazz in music school and was involved in ambient pop projects, producing occasional dance tracks. Kaul had extreme stage fright, but it didn’t stop her from writing songs and playing them for friends and family. When they began discussing their aspirations, they found they had much in common.

Working in Lam’s bungalow studio, they put together two EPs, Cusp in 2014 and Well Worn in 2016. Kaul’s comforting vocals and Lam’s brooding, multilayered soundscapes struck a chord. Millions of streams on social media made them famous, although their faces remained relatively unknown. “It’s funny sitting in a café when they play our music,” says Lam. “No one knows it’s us, sitting right there. It’s kind of neat.”

Backwater will change all that. It’s garnering lots of excitement, and the road beckons, but first a hiatus is in order. “I’m taking a break right now, the first in years,” says Lam. “I want the next thing we do to be different, so I’m trying to interrupt the flow at the moment.”

j. poet

The Lone Bellow: Central Air

Spurred by a change in scenery, the Lone Bellow breathes deep and expels its best album

For a band prone to solemn—if emotionally generous—reflection on life’s struggles, the Lone Bellow has been known to let loose, especially when it involves fans and friends. Hence the hearty laughter prompted by the mention of a rather colorful mutual acquaintance we’ll call Vern. “He’s the brother-in-law of a really close friend, and he’s been able to get backstage at our concerts with this huge laminated sign hanging around his neck that says ‘The Lone Bellow’ on it,” says bandleader Zach Williams. “We were out with Ben Folds back in the day, and we stayed at Vern’s house. I remember he was on the computer watching a YouTube clip with headphones, and he mumbles under his breath, ‘Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that groove.’ I look, and it was Jason Mraz.”

On album, the Lone Bellow can sound awfully serious—and soulful, too, thanks to the outsized harmonic meld of Williams and vocal partners Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist. “All three of us grew up singing in church,” says Williams. “I grew up in a family with grandparents who’d wander up to pianos, guitars and banjos and sing a ‘hallelujah’ song. At any given moment, someone might break out into humming, ‘Then sings my soul … ’”

You wouldn’t know it by the title, but Walk Into A Storm (Descendant/Sony Masterworks) is the Lone Bellow’s most buoyant album to date. Credit producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson) with injecting some air into the band’s hearty, gospel-tinged folk sound, loosening the screws a bit while nurturing an exhilarating balance of mood and pacing. Credit Williams and the rest with hammering out the most riveting and concise tunes of their career. “With this one, we really only wanted to have 10 songs, and we wanted to challenge ourselves to say exactly what we wanted to say in those 10 songs,” says Williams.

Pipkin concurs: “The focus was most definitely the songs themselves—how to make them breathe and scream with life and energy.”

The Lone Bellow has some pretty serious responsibilities. One of them is just three months old and cradled in Pipkin’s arms during our interview. Pipkin’s husband, Jason, is the group’s touring bassist. Elmquist has one child, with another on the way, and Williams has four. “Almost a baseball team,” quips Elmquist.

These growing families prompted the band’s move from Brooklyn to Nashville. “We all came to the decision on our own, but it was blatantly obvious,” says Williams. “You can be home more as a touring musician down here—and we couldn’t argue with that.”

Williams and Elmquist share Georgia roots. “It’s where the trailer parks are,” says Williams of his hometown of Acworth, which is about 30 miles north of Atlanta. Elmquist grew up a few hours away in Sandersville.

Williams and Elmquist were both grappling with solo careers when they convened in their Park Slope neighborhood. At Williams’ urging, they were joined by Pipkin, a Fredericksburg, Va., native who was attending culinary school and working as a pastry chef in New York. From the start, the chemistry was obvious, and the trio started landing gigs around NYC, opening for the likes of Brandi Carlisle and the Avett Brothers.

Williams, meanwhile, had crafted a potent batch of songs inspired by the true low point in his life after his wife was thrown from a horse and broke her neck. Though doctors warned that her paralysis might be permanent, she has fully recovered. Friends encouraged Williams to turn his journal entries from that time into music, and those songs formed the foundation of the Lone Bellow’s beautifully angst-ridden self-titled debut.

Months of touring followed, and by 2014, the band was on to its second release, Then Came The Morning, produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner. Almost three years separate that early 2015 release and Walk Into A Storm. The gap between albums has given the group time to reorient itself, both geographically and otherwise, and it was time well spent.

“From album to album, you get to change landscapes—I guess that’s where our heads were at,” says Elmquist. “We usually write about family situations or friendships—these true stories around us. But you also want to explore musically where those songs can go. We were just trying to bring a little bit of levity to the songs.”

“With art, it always seems so natural to pull from heartache,” says Williams. “There are times on this record where we try to challenge that notion. I wouldn’t want anybody to have to look for pain because it’s the only way they can make something they care about.”

—Hobart Rowland

MAGNET Feedback With Radiohead’s Philip Selway

My soundtrack for Let Me Go is the first full score I’ve written for film. Finding the music’s place in the film amongst the direction, the cinematography, the production design and the amazing performances was a fascinating process; it was a very steep learning curve for me. Fortunately, it’s a path that’s been well-trodden by many immensely talented composers, so I had lots of scores to turn to for instruction. Here’s a short selection of soundtracks that MAGNET asked me to write about that have captured my imagination over the years. —Philip Selway

Ennio Morricone, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
I grew up watching Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns of the ’60s. At the heart of these were Ennio Morricone’s hauntingly memorable scores. In the soundtrack for The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, Morricone turned convention on its head. He used minor keys for many of the pacy action scenes and major keys for the more melancholic sequences. He wrote for large ensembles of uncommon groupings of instruments, where electric guitars could sit alongside an ocarina or whistling and whip cracks. He more or less reinvented the Western film score, and I always find myself humming one of his themes whenever I see a poncho.

Edmund Meisel, Battleship Potemkin
I remember going to see this film in a chilly village hall when I was a teenager. The movie was based around the mutiny on the Potemkin in 1905, so the score for Eisenstein’s film was never going to be easy listening, and I can’t say that I immediately warmed to it. Edmund Meisel’s composition for the film was atonal and angular. It was blamed for causing riots at the Berlin premiere and was subsequently banned. However, the score played its part in turning a film that had received modest success in Russia into an international hit. It also acted as a blueprint for composition for film from thereon in.

Mychael Danna, Monsoon Wedding
I love the work of director Mira Nair and have lost myself in Monsoon Wedding, in particular, many times. Mychael Danna’s soundtrack is definitely part of my emotional memory of the film. He based the main title, “Baraat,” on a traditional Indian-wedding processional for a groom. It is such a joyous piece of music. The soundtrack also includes a qawwali by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and a ghazal by Farida Khanum, so it evokes a devotional and spiritual character, almost subconsciously, through the music. It’s such a rich soundtrack.

Gottfried Huppertz, Metropolis
I recently came across Metropolis again through my eldest son, who’s become a bit of a film buff. This soundtrack was written at the height of the silent-film era, just a couple of years after Meisel’s Battleship Potemkin score. I find the ambition and scope in these pieces almost overwhelming. Huppertz’s large-scale orchestral score, inspired by Wagner and Strauss, was prominent in the production of the film, and Huppertz would play piano on the set to guide the actors’ performances.

Quincy Jones, The Italian Job
Aside from establishing my lifelong love of Minis, The Italian Job also introduced me to Quincy Jones’ music. Jones’ track “The Self-Preservation Society” is as synonymous with the film as Michael Caine saying, “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” His soundtrack was perfectly in tune with the energy and irreverence of the film. It also shows how the music in a film can stay with you long after the actual images of the film have faded from your mind’s eye.

Jonny Greenwood, There Will Be Blood
It’s impossible to talk about film scores and not touch on the incredible work of my bandmate Jonny Greenwood. His ongoing working relationship with director Paul Thomas Anderson has been particularly fruitful, and it’s hard to imagine one without the other now. I remember going to see There Will Be Blood and being absolutely blown away by how visceral Jonny’s score was. It was so accomplished and self-assured and definitely laid down a marker for me.

Leonard Bernstein, On The Waterfront
From West Side Story through to On The Waterfront, I love Leonard Bernstein’s use of complex and insistent rhythm in his music. His soaring melodies, coupled with the dissonance and sometimes atonal harmonies he dresses them in, make for one of the most compelling voices in film composition. An anecdote of his also reminds me of how music must serve the film and cede to it when necessary. When Bernstein was attending a dubbing session for On The Waterfront, he had to look on in horror as a music cue that he felt was very important to the film was mostly removed to make way for Marlon Brando’s grunt. “What are you going to do?” he reminisced. Even the greatest have to bow down at points.

Mark Knopfler, Cal

This is one that’s stayed with me over the years. It laid in me the seeds of the idea that you could come to film-score composition from disparate musical backgrounds, and that gave me the confidence to have a go myself. It shows how you can have a very distinctive musical voice but still support the drama perfectly. There is a beauty and melancholy in this soundtrack that complements the tender moments in the film but also acts as a counterpoint and foil to its harsh darkness.

John Barry, Midnight Cowboy
It’s hard to choose among John Barry’s scores. His music is the sound of James Bond and espionage. The vast, soaring sweep of his themes have elevated so many films. But Midnight Cowboy has Barry’s trademark arrangements of lush strings and strident brass, and with some of the main melodies being carried by harmonica, there’s an intimacy which lends a poignancy to his score. This soundtrack also benefits from Fred Neil’s amazing song “Everybody’s Talkin’,’’ sung by Harry Nilsson.

John Williams, Star Wars Trilogy
From Harry Potter to Indiana Jones to Schindler’s List, John Williams practically is soundtrack composition personified. It’s his music for the Star Wars trilogy, though, that created a whole musical universe, drawing on the symphonic influences of Dvorak and Strauss. It’s also possible to hear intonations of English composers like Holst and Walton in this work. His music for these films is like a series of great themes for Westerns and WWII films all rolled into one. Above all, they are just cracking tunes that make me say to myself, “God, I wish I’d written that.” Maybe, one day …

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Joy Formidable

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith brings a human side to her metal-machine music

No one was more surprised about the rapturous critical response to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s breakthrough album EARS last year than Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith herself. Smith, the 30-year-old scholar of the rippling Buchla Music Easel synthesizer, also released generative piece Sunergy in 2016, with avant veteran Suzanne Ciani. But an unusually wide exposure for what used to be called “outsider” electronic music has only emboldened Smith’s ambitions on new LP The Kid (Western Vinyl), which is even more songful.

“I guess I wanted to go a step further with creating a story,” Smith says via phone from Glendale, Calif. “With EARS, my intention was to create an environment and scenery. I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller with music. I want it to feel like a full experience with characters and a full narrative.”

A master of textured analog synthscapes who layers her voice into soft mountains of harmony and counterpoint, Smith leaves The Kid open to interpretation, though it’s been suggested that her most forthright cycle yet traces a person’s life from birth to death.

Smith stresses that she doesn’t relate to the word “ambient,” a common descriptor of her music, which she respects but finds curious. She’s very conscious in her decision-making: “Does that get in the way of what I’m trying to say right there? Or does it help it?” she offers by way of example. But at the same time, “I let the creation itself tell me where it wants to go.”

She says finding joy is her ultimate goal, and who can blame her as an artist in this divisive time? But her music is as soothing as it is thought-provoking. “I think it’s impossible to fully control art,” says Smith. “It’s always a dance between putting in intention but accepting a surprise with it. That’s life, too.”

Dan Weiss

Bully: Raw Power

On Losing, Bully returns with songs of love and loss (or beating on yourself)

Bully deals with raw emotion, delivering songs that delve into a wounded psyche with an intense energy that can put a crowd into an altered state. Alicia Bognanno, the band’s singer and songwriter and one of its two guitar players, has a striking presence: a shock of blonde hair and a voice that can go from a whisper to a shriek of despair in a heartbeat.

“My volume depends on what’s going on in a song,” says Bognanno. “If we’re playing a longer song, one that has complex instrumental parts, that gives me a lot more freedom to move around onstage, and it’s more inviting to scream. There’s no rule, though. It just depends on whether I feel like screaming or not screaming.”

Bognanno produced sophomore album Losing (Sub Pop) at Electrical Audio in Chicago. Second guitarist Clayton Parker, bassist Reece Lazarus, drummer Stewart Copeland (not the former drummer of the Police) and Bognanno cut the basic tracks live, direct to analog tape. “Analog has a limited number of tracks, so you’re forced to play with commitment,” says Bognanno. “We brought in a bunch of pedals and had some new pieces of gear introduced to us on the engineering side, so we figured out our tone, took notes and got organized. With analog, you can’t manipulate a bunch of stuff in the editing. I don’t like having the endless possibilities at my fingertips you have in the computer. I like being forced to work with what we have and move on.”

The result is an album that captures the immediacy of the band’s live show. Tunes include the ferocious punk passion of “Either Way” and the droning, deadpan humor of “Blame,” an unrequited love song with Bognanno playing hide-and-seek with the object of her affection. A highlight is the slow, grinding irritation of “Hate And Control,” a track that addresses the friction that can arise in a relationship when a woman speaks her mind.

“The album deals with a loss, in a lot of different situations,” says Bognanno. “Some songs ask if you’ve lost yourself, or the person you thought you might have been. You can get stuck in a discursive mind frame if you don’t have an appreciation for yourself, or your feelings. There are songs about romantic relationships that are dissolving, and losing friends you love as well.”

Although Bognanno writes all the songs, the other band members help bring them to life. “I may present melodies and ideas, but after they’re shown to everybody, they’re free to move things in the direction that suits them best,” says Bognanno. “Everybody’s contribution is there in every song.”

As for the band’s enigmatic name, the quartet decided on it shortly before it started performing live. “‘Bully’ was one of the first songs we wrote,” says Bognanno. “We were going back and forth about using it, but it’s obvious from the songs that we’re not a pro-bully band. You’re your own bully, which is what a lot of the songs talk about.”

—j. poet

SAVAK: But Seriously, Folks

Moniker aside, SAVAK’s tunes and intentions are no laughing matter

As a joke, SAVAK singer/songwriter/guitarist Sohrab Habibion—formerly of Obits and great ’90s outfit Edsel—named the NYC band after the notorious, CIA-enabled Iranian secret police established by Mohammad Reza Shah. But he seriously doesn’t care if someone finds the name objectionable—after all, not even his father likes it.

“Anyone who takes issue with us calling ourselves SAVAK can have a chat with my 83-year-old dad,” says the half-Iranian Habibion from the Brooklyn home he shares with his wife and son. “He sincerely believes it’s a terrible band name, but offensive? Fuck off.”

Habibion’s worldview was partially formed by immersing himself in punk and hardcore as a teenager, but an earlier event—the American embassy hostage crisis in Iran that began in 1979, when he was in grade school—left an indelible impression. In addition to enduring “basic ignorance and casual harassment” after the family returned to the U.S. to flee the revolution, his father, with a Ph.D. in economics, had to change his first name and could only find work as a carpet salesman; his mother went on job interviews that were ultimately pointless due to the origin of her married name.

“Over Gorton’s fish sticks and Green Giant sweet peas in friends’ homes, I was asked by suburban parents for my take on the hostage situation,” says Habibion. “That really shaped the way I see myself in the world. I’ve always related to the outsider, the underdog, the weary, the bedraggled, the slowpoke, the goofy-footed. That’s undoubtedly in every song I’ve ever tried to write.”

Though the bulk of the band’s terrific second LP, Cut-Ups (Ernest Jenning), was recorded prior to Trump’s inauguration, the taut, jittery-yet-catchy tunes reflect the widespread malaise and unease the dipshit-in-chief has fomented. Co-singer/songwriter/guitarist Michael Jaworski’s “Loma Prieta” is a specific response to Trump’s rise: “Now a beast is forming/No longer hides among the rest/His mouth is open as he rears his ugly head.”

“I wrote the song way before any of the primaries, back when so many of my liberal friends, myself included, didn’t think it was possible that someone so openly vile and hateful could be considered as a serious candidate to run this country,” says Jaworski, who lives with his wife and daughter in Manhattan. “It was hard to witness the fervor and racism among his supporters and wonder where we’d gone wrong.”

In the style of the tense Hüsker Dü partnership of Bob Mould and the late Grant Hart, Jaworski and Habibion alternate songs on record, minus the animosity and adding collaboration. “(Michael’s) the Bob Mould in this relationship,” says Habibion. “He’s got a better penchant for melody.” The duo (joined on Cut-Ups by bassist James Canty and drummer Matt Schulz) not only share songwriting duties but also a relatively sunny view of the future in the face of what feels like daily negativity and tension.

“I’m generally a pretty positive person, so I look for the good in things,” says Habibion. “This city is jammed with every kind of person doing every kind of thing, and we have no choice but to coexist, so we do. And we find the humanity in each other, regardless of whether you toast your bagel or not.”

“I’m also a generally positive person, but it takes some effort for me not to let the current political climate bum me out,” says Jaworski. “I’m disheartened by some people’s views, but I also believe that good wins over bad.”

Matt Hickey

JD McPherson: Vintage Post-Postmodernism

’50s-style punk JD McPherson scares the squares with his Undivided Heart & Soul

“Being an art-school kid, I learned that there is no more movement,” says retro-futurist ’50s R&B rejuvenator JD McPherson, the pride of Broken Arrow, Okla. “It’s a post-postmodern world, and you have to take advantage of all the languages available to you. Maybe that’s the best thing I learned in art school: to pick everything apart and understand how not just style but sound works to achieve the proper thing.”

Hence the shock and awe that his 2010 debut, Signs And Signifiers, created when re-released by Rounder in 2012. Here was this fresh, vital-sounding record, full of newly written ’50s R&B hip-shakers like “North Side Gal,” with a production so accurately analog it could’ve passed for some newly resurfaced obscurity excavated from the vaults of Specialty or Chess Records. All from an ex-middle-school teacher with a punk-rock past.

“For me, punk’s most valuable lessons came from reading about bands in D.C. like Minor Threat and the whole ethos of economic freedom, the freedom of doing what you want because you’re handling everything yourself,” says McPherson. “That was a revelation to me because I had nothing to do. There was nothing going on. So, I was just going to start my own world.”

That world was increasingly informed by R&B and jump blues upon hearing the aggro-Little Richard pastiches of late Austin-based ’50s-punk guitarist Nick Curran. “Toward the end, Nick was combining his love of the Ramones and the Dead Boys with Little Richard,” says McPherson. “That’s a pretty heavy record, Reform School Girl. I thought that showed a lot of gumption, to scare the squares a bit like that.”

Three full-lengths into his career, with Undivided Heart & Soul (New West), McPherson not only seeks to defy fans’ expectations, but also his own.

“I was definitely forced out of my comfort zone in making this record,” he says. “And through every process: writing and recording and post-production. It’s like I wiggled out of my old skin the whole way. It was pretty transformative.”

McPherson transformed in Nashville’s historic RCA Studio B, birthplace of many Elvis Presley, Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison classics. He also took on co-writers for the first time, most notably fellow rootsy Oklahoman Parker Millsap, Butch Walker and bandmate Raynier Jacob Jacildo. He even did his first Ray Davies-esque character study.

“I was telling a story to somebody about this guy with his throat cut at the Las Vegas bus terminal,” says McPherson. “And they were like, ‘God, where’s the song?’ That became ‘Style (Is A Losing Game).’ It never occurred to me before to write about a character, or an observation from life.”

That “Style” became one of the record’s highlights, in a setting Jack Nietzsche would’ve killed to have helped create, suggests McPherson should always rattle the methodology.

—Tim Stegall