Wolf Alice: Cool World

WolfAlice

Wolf Alice shrugs off growing pains, shoots for the moon

As Clint Eastwood once opined, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Londoner Ellie Rowsell learned hers early on, back when she first stepped in front of a crowd at a local singer/songwriter competition—and tanked. “I did one song, but my guitar playing was just incredibly poor at the time,” sighs the tall, angular brunette, kicking back before a recent soundcheck with her much-buzzed-about quartet Wolf Alice. Its scruffy punk-grunge debut, My Love Is Cool, streets this month. “So, I thought, ‘I’ve got to find a guitarist to help me.’ And I didn’t really have the confidence to ask anyone I knew, so I decided to go one of those guitar forums.”

That’s where the then-teenage vocalist found edgy axeman Joff Oddie, who had just moved to her city for college. Choosing the moniker Wolf Alice from an Angela Carter short story, the initially acoustic duo began touring Britain’s “toilet circuit,” sniffs Rowsell, now 22. “Tiny rooms in tiny pubs on open-mic nights, playing to people who are just chatting and drinking,” she says. Again, she recognized her problem and fixed it: “We thought, ‘Maybe if we play louder, people will listen to us,’ so we went electric.” And then added drummer Joel Amey and bassist Theo Ellis, for extra oomph.

Now Rowsell has matured so swiftly, she views with a certain detachment energetic Cool cuts like “Bros,” “Fluffy” and kickoff single “Giant Peach,” a Roald Dahl-inspired celebration of her surreal life in London. “The stuff I wrote from 15 to 19? Well, that’s when your brain is the craziest, the most introverted, so the tiniest thought becomes immense,” she says. “But I feel like I’m changing now, really finding my feet as a songwriter.”

Ultimately, Rowsell proudly accepts her limitations. “I never gave up—I always thought, ‘One day I’m going to get the confidence to do this,’” she says. “I just didn’t get that confidence until I was 20!”

—Tom Lanham

Dawes: Dawesian Blur

Dawes

Taylor Goldsmith and Dawes learned to trust their instincts

Taylor Goldsmith has experienced slightly rising levels of anxiety with each successive Dawes album since North Hills, the band’s 2009 debut. The goodwill generated by his previous band, Simon Dawes, seemed to naturally carry over to his new project, and yet in some ways, Goldsmith is still waiting for the other shoe to fall.

“Those early years for a band, that definitive time, it’s almost like they can do no wrong or something, and as time goes on, those records are used as a barometer for the new stuff,” says the L.A.-based Goldsmith. “As the band, we’re always happiest with the latest thing, as it should be, but I don’t ever want to get to a point where it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is cool, but man, our second record was so much better.’ So, it’s good to hear people like it. It’s the first fourth record we’ve ever made.”

To date, Goldsmith and his Dawes compatriots—drummer/brother Griffin Goldsmith, bassist Wylie Gelber, keyboardist Tay Strathairn—have maintained plenty of forward momentum, a string that remains unbroken with the release of All Your Favorite Bands. As with the first three Dawes albums, All Your Favorite Bands sighs with bittersweet ’70s folk ennui while maintaining a contemporary pop/rock edge. The difference this time out is that the group was determined to make Favorite Bands considerably less mannered and studio-massaged than its predecessors, 2011’s Nothing Is Wrong and 2013’s Stories Don’t End, and perhaps even closer to the ramshackle verve of 2006’s Carnivore, Simon Dawes’ only full-length release.

“It wasn’t a reactionary thing against Stories Don’t End; we love that record and we love playing those songs,” says Goldsmith. “But with every record you make, you learn a little more about when you’re at your best. Despite the joy it was to make Stories Don’t End, there were obstacles that had nothing to do with anything other than us being, in our estimation, relatively inexperienced in the studio.”

All Your Favorite Bands might have turned out very differently if not for the amazing string of life and career experiences that took place in the wake of Stories Don’t End. Their 2014 trip to Rwanda had a profound effect on all of them, as did their opening dates for Bob Dylan (perhaps to a slightly lesser degree), but the most potent wild card in the deck may have been the Goldsmiths’ participation in T Bone Burnett’s New Basement Tapes project, which led Dawes down completely unexpected paths.

“It really opened my eyes to what we could do,” says Goldsmith. “There would be days where we would cut five or six songs a day, and I’d get a nod from Elvis Costello or Marcus Mumford to take a solo, when I didn’t even know if there was going to be one. And right there, I’d have to hit it, and then I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s actually one of my favorite solos I’ve played. Maybe I should stop and think about that.’ Griffin was part of those sessions, too, and the more Dawes talked about it, we realized we’re most comfortable in those spontaneous circumstances where we really have to think on our feet. We finally realized we need to stop being scared to just play together and start trusting ourselves. I can sing this song. I don’t need to get meticulous over some vocal take; I can just sing it with the band. And that’s what we did.”

The other significant factor in the sound and structure of Favorite Bands is the presence of producer David Rawlings, best known as Gillian Welch’s performing/recording partner, but quickly gaining a reputation as a savvy boardsman. Recorded at Rawlings’ Nashville studio, All Your Favorite Bands is a solid document of musicians looking to make some changes, and a producer willing to let them.

“We would play the song four or five times, and he’d be like, ‘Cool, I think we got it, let’s move on,’ and we wouldn’t even listen back,” says Goldsmith. “We didn’t hear any of the songs we recorded until we were seven or eight songs in. So, when it came to editing or picking a certain solo section, that was all Dave. That was really cool for me, because this is how we play, this is what we sound like, so that process of having Dave construct and edit the tapes without us being a part of that helped the experience in a lot of ways.”

—Brian Baker

R.I.P. Ornette Coleman (1930 – 2015)

Our 2007 feature on the jazz legend:

Ornette

Having spent more than five decades challenging convention, changing the shape of jazz and blowing everybody’s minds, 76-year-old Ornette Coleman still isn’t satisfied. By Mitch Myers

There he is, dressed impeccably in a tailor-made suit, holding court at J&R Music World in Lower Manhattan, signing copies of his latest CD for devoted fans. Earlier in the day, he taped a segment for Black Entertainment Television and made an appearance on local public radio station WNYC. There he is again, engaged in a face-to-face listening session with a New York Times reporter and, later, doing an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition.

No, we’re not talking about some veteran rock star or hip hop’s latest mogul/producer. We’re referring to Ornette Coleman, one of the most influential jazz artists to emerge in the last century. And he wants to connect with you—right now.

Continue reading “R.I.P. Ornette Coleman (1930 – 2015)”

Jacco Gardner: Behind The Wall Of Sleep

Jacco

Psychedelic pop auteur Jacco Gardner crafts a compelling wakeup call

The video for “Find Yourself,” the first single from Jacco Gardner’s illusory new album, Hypnophobia (Polyvinyl), could easily be misconstrued as anti-drug propaganda. In it, a frizzy-haired teen, apparently in a fit of TCH-induced psychosis, guns down his equally weed-addled likeness in a cloud of smoke. Is it murder? Is it suicide? Is it a horrific hallucination? Whatever the intent, it is a disarming—and disturbing—counterpoint to a catchy, synth-washed baroque pop tune.

And you’ll get no argument from the song’s creator. “When it was finished and I saw it, I was like, ‘This could be one of those educational videos,’” says Gardner. “It seems like I’m warning people, but I’m totally not. I love weed.”

Mixed messages—and mixed realities—are pretty much the norm for the Dutch producer and multi-instrumentalist, who first emerged as a proper solo artist with 2013’s Cabinet Of Curiosities, an admirable stab at finding an otherworldly context for his wide-ranging flights of fancy grounded in old-school technique. “I love pop music,” says Gardner. “I’ve always been fascinated by using common song structures in my own way.”

Recorded at Gardner’s Shadow Shoppe Studio in his hometown of Zwaag, Hypnophobia conveniently conjoins his techie obsessions with a collector’s passion for vintage instrumentation—Wurlitzer, mellotron, harpsichord, Optigan, even a Steinway upright piano from a local church. The result is sort of akin to what it might sound like if Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker had embraced Syd Barrett, as opposed to John Lennon.

“The dad of a good friend of mine showed me Syd Barrett, early Pink Floyd and Soft Machine,” says Gardner. “Before that, I’d heard some records my parents owned—Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Peter, Paul & Mary—very structured, kind of square stuff that also was really beautiful.”

As for the title of the new album, hypnophobia—or an irrational fear of sleep—is an actual condition with which Gardner has had a few run-ins. “I’ve experienced it about five times, first when I was flying back to Europe from the United States,” says Gardner. “It’s kind of like getting stuck between a state of unconsciousness and consciousness—reality and a dream world—and being a little too aware of it happening. I looked it up and discovered that there’s actually a name for it. You get to the point where you’re aware of the things that you lose control over, which is a very scary thing.”

Scary, as in blowing away a dude that looks an awful lot like the guy pulling the trigger? “That was mostly the director (Bear Damen),” says Gardner, in his continued defense of the “Find Yourself” video’s macabre themes. “He had this idea of filming it in the mountains of Belgium. I played this phantom in a yellow car, and there was lot of waiting involved. It was super-cold, with all this ice and snow. The way it turned out, I really like it, because it has this cinematic vibe, and that’s basically what the new album seems to have. But initially, I thought the concept was way too badass. I’m not that tough.”

—Hobart Rowland

The Damnwells: To Hell And Back

Damnwells

The Damnwells take a licking, but keep on kicking

Alex Dezen must possess a pretty twisted sense of humor. Otherwise, he might be in a pretty sorry state by now. “It’s a really weird time to be in a band,” says the Damnwells’ unflappable chief, phoning from a video shoot for the band’s new single, “Lost.” “People aren’t buying records anymore, and they haven’t been for a while. They’re still consuming music in large quantities, but how to make money off that is kind of a mystery. A video spreads the word about us, and hopefully someone will stumble on it and become a fan. But that’s sort of like panning for gold.”

Dezen’s realist take on the industry is certainly justified, given the intermittent shit storm he’s weathered to get his Brooklyn-based band’s music out there. More surprising is the fact that he’s not bitter—that his realism is laced with measured optimism and an appreciation for the process. After all, there are far worse occupations than being a working musician, and there’s always the chance you’ll hit on a stray nugget to sustain you here and there. “When no one’s watching, that’s when people make the most brilliant shit,” he says.

The Damnwells’ latest album (on Rock Ridge Music) is self-titled for a good reason: It’s the first to include the original quartet since 2006. That was the year Epic dropped the band after a hellish 18 months of two-faced A&R nonsense, endless remixes and postponed release dates—much of it captured in excruciating, sometimes hilarious detail in award-winning 2007 documentary Golden Days.

Air Stereo, the album that finally saw release in 2006 on Rounder, is a solid slab of streamlined roots rock that belies its tortured evolution. “We spent so much time chasing other bands around and opening for other acts, and getting dropped from this label and picked up by that one,” says Dezen in a vague reference to the Fray, the group Epic decided to push over the Damnwells. “Every 20-year-old has his head so far up his ass that he doesn’t know what going on around him, and I definitely fell victim to that. That made for strained relationships in the band.”

Dezen saw the new album as a way to make things right. “I wanted to apologize in some way,” he says. “I wanted to get back to that place that’s new and exciting and beautiful, really—where it was just the four of us hanging out, without that sort of sad underlying tone.”

Apparently, it worked. On The Damnwells, the chemistry remains fully charged between Dezen, guitarist David Chernis, bassist Ted Hudson and drummer Steve Terry. Recorded at Texas Treefort Studio in Austin with producer Salim Nourallah (Old 97’s), its 11 tracks ooze a relentless swagger born of perseverance. The album might even be considered a continuation of the work the band started on Air Stereo—albeit with lyrics from a 37-year-old divorcé staring at the access door to middle age and unwilling to go quietly. “Baby, they took all my money and all my shiny things, but not my drugs,” sings Dezen on taut leadoff track “Money And Shiny Things.”

It’s not like Dezen has been homeless since the Epic debacle. He’s spent some highly productive years writing and co-writing songs for other artists—credits that include Justin Bieber (number-one hit “Take You”), the Dixie Chicks, Dave Grohl, Gary Louris, Kelly Clarkson and others. Two of the stronger tracks on the new album are collaborations. He teamed with Charlie Peacock (Civil Wars, Switchfoot) for the sinister, self-deprecating “Wreck You,” and co-wrote the strummy, upbeat “Heavy Heart” with Eric Rosse (Tori Amos, Sara Bareilles).

“I still spend my days writing songs for other people when I’m at home,” says Dezen. “But I guess I’m still too stupid to know what’s good for me. I walked away from music for two years when I went to grad school in Iowa from 2008 to 2010. But every time I think about just writing songs for a living, that’s when I feel icky.”

More recently, Dezen has had a spilt with his wife to keep him occupied. “Money really doesn’t interest me anymore,” he says. “After going through a divorce and basically being bankrupt because of that, I can’t put any value on it.”

And, no, that isn’t his baby on the cover of the new album. Dezen doesn’t have kids. “Not that I know of,” he quips.

Funny guy.

—Hobart Rowland