Normal History Vol. 519: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 35-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Known for the intensity of our live shows, this one (Montreal 1996 with Peter Jefferies on drums) borders on incendiary. Maybe it’s just me, but I figure the guitar and the drums are both trying to get the last word, while I felt I needed to elevate my performance to justify the drama.

“I Hear You” from The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):

MAGNET Exclusive: Premiere Of Bobby Long’s “Serpentine”

Bobby Long has never been one to make the same album twice—not even close. To guard against repetition, he’s fortified his muse with a diverse list of producers, including Liam Watson (White Stripes), Ted Hutt (Old Crow Medicine Show, Lucero) and Mark Hallman (Carole King, Ani DiFranco).

“I don’t want this to sound insensitive to the listener, but I’ve never really worried about what people think,” says Long, who’s a new father and settled comfortably in Jersey City, just across the Hudson River from New York City. “My tastes change, and my style of playing is changing and evolving all the time. What I’m listening to today is not what I’m going to be listening to in a year-and-a-half’s time.”

On his latest, Sultans (Compass), the Americanized Brit is in full-on collaboration mode with multi-instrumentalist Jack Dawson, who gets double-billing on the cover. Long had previously worked with Dawson on 2012’s The Backing Singer EP. “He played violin on that record, and we share a lot of the same loves,” says Long. “You get to the stage where you just want to work with friends—and I think we’ll continue together for the time being.”

Making Sultans was a no-pressure, no-fuss affair, with Dawson producing and another pal, Dave Lindsay, serving as engineer and drummer. Sessions took place over a year’s time at Lindsay’s Country Club Studio in Brooklyn. “We recorded as a three piece—about 50 percent of what you’re hearing is live,” says Long. “I’d sit by the console and press play; Dave would go into the drum room and sit down; and Jack played bass. I fucked up a few times, where I didn’t press the right button. So we’d do this great take, and Dave would get up from the drums and come around and be like, ‘Ah shit, you didn’t press record.’”

Sultans takes its name from the LP’s first and last tracks. The original was just drums, ukulele and a sample that Dawson loved, with Sgt. Pepper being the obvious inspiration for the eventual bookend treatment. And while Sultans is only occasionally loose and experimental, it does test the limits of Long’s gritty folk template in some unexpected ways. At times, its tightly wounded psychedelic jams recall Jimi Hendrix’s sophomore masterpiece, Axis: Bold As Love, especially in their push-and-pull between the blues and the Beatles. 

That friction works in spades on “Serpentine,” a driving, ominous mini-epic with a slithering guitar lead and lyrics that bemoan the vagaries of co-dependence. “The riff I had for a while—that was one of the more instinctive songs, really,” says Long. “I have a lot of wonderful women in my life who seem to dote on me, from my mom to my wife to my sisters. It’s more of an ode to them.”

—Hobart Rowland 

Normal History Vol. 518: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 35-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

“When we put out our first LP, it was promptly called the worst record ever made by a reviewer who added that my guitar player should kill me. Meanwhile, the same city’s college-radio station had us at number one. Being disliked and appreciated have both contributed to our intensity and longevity.” —Jean Smith, “Surviving The Underground,” Monitor Mix, NPR, 2009

“Every Wrong Word” from The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):

Normal History Vol. 517: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 35-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

“The activity of not attempting to get somewhere in terms of what already exists presents an opportunity to make things up as we go along. It was a thrill to get a playlist in the mail from Moscow, Idaho—a place we’d never even heard of—and a strange sensation to get a letter from a guy in Arkansas who’d been beaten up for wearing one of our weirdo T-shirts. We went on tour because it was a scary adventure, not to sell records.” —Jean Smith, “Surviving The Underground,” Monitor Mix, NPR, 2009

“In January” from The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):

Normal History Vol. 516: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 35-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

“The value of being creative is not the object that remains at the end; it is the time engaged in the process. Really, it shouldn’t matter if anyone else is exposed to it, let alone if it is deemed good enough to sell. Commerce doesn’t inherently apply to every aspect of life. There can be quality without an imminent exchange of goods for money.” —Jean Smith, “Surviving The Underground,” Monitor Mix, NPR, 2009 

“Revolution#Pine” from The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):

Normal History Vol. 515: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 35-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

“Historically, artists have been put into categories invented by the media, defined by journalists who grapple with language to supply the general public with impressions. Naming groups and movements makes it easier for the media to chronicle versions of history in terms of beginnings, leaders, influences and demise. Beginning a group practically demands that it end, to make room for new groups, new terms, new fashions—all required to keep selling product.” —Jean Smith, “Surviving The Underground,” Monitor Mix, NPR, 2009

“What About The Boy?” from The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):

Normal History Vol. 514: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 35-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

The history and power of image-based communication is overwhelming. I set out to make a short video about several of my favourite brushes and ended up off topic and all over the map in “It’s OK”—the first in a new series of behind-the-scenes stories from my studio in East Vancouver.  

“Is This You?” from The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):

Normal History Vol. 513: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 35-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Things went missing, things got replaced, and a few people struck down the law of the land with only a butter knife in hand in Canada.

“In Canada” from Who Shot Elvis? (Matador, 1997) (download):

Normal History Vol. 512: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 35-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

This is probably our longest song title and, considering it’s loaded up with two analogies (like a dog and like a horse) when, as a writer, I steer clear of such things in general, it was somewhat distressing when in several written reviews at the time the title appeared as “Don’t Heal Me Like A Dog Just To Brake Me Like A Horse” when I felt that peddling (not pedaling) commonly used phrases was supposed to be safer (as far as being understood) than inventing one’s own original language.

“Don’t Heel Me Like A Dog Just To Break Me Like A Horse” from Who Shot Elvis? (Matador, 1997) (download):

Normal History Vol. 511: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 35-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Late last year I got a Facebook notification that someone had mentioned Mecca Normal. The beauty of the faint cultural presence we enjoy is that we see and savor any and all references to our history, whether it’s radio play (a station in Newfoundland recently played all of Flood Plain—what a thrill!) or inclusion in historical overviews that alter our legacy. I bet bigger bands regard a near-constant flow of commentary on their doings as something of a burden to keep track of. Maybe even boring or irritating. And what about those bands that get so big that they’re trapped within their own infrastructure with employees who depend on regular output (albums and tours)? Mecca Normal has always been more of a group (than a band), I think. I regard this weekly collaboration as the work of Mecca Normal as much as any song or show.

It was very early in the morning, and when I clicked on the FB notification, I really did wonder if I was still in dreamland. The video snippet showed a band in London rehearsing “Strong White Male” (“a cover by the amazing Mecca Normal” for a fundraising show two days hence). The band description: “non-binary and female people of colour taking up space. We make DIY punk music.”

“OK Here We Go” from Who Shot Elvis? (Matador, 1997) (download):