Handsome Family Values: The Ink Spots

handsomelogo120eFor the Handsome Family, upcoming album Honey Moon—a collection of love songs due April 14—is a startling left turn. The husband/wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks still deals in spectral bluegrass and noirish folk forms on its ninth album, but gone are the ghosts and murder ballads that had painted them into a gothic-Americana corner. (Trust us, the album is still plenty weird. Love is weird.) The Handsome Family is guest editing magnetmagazine.com this week. Read our Q&A with Brett and Rennie about Honey Moon and a host of other topics.

inkspots355Brett Sparks: The Ink Spots were a vocal group that was popular in from the ’30s to the ’50s. In 1935, a Melody Maker reviewer said, “The sensation of the programme is the coloured quartette, the Four Ink Spots … Their natural instinct for hot rhythm is exemplified in their terrific single-string solo work and their beautifully balanced and exquisitely phrased vocalisms. They exploit all kinds of rhythmic vocalisms—straight solos, concerted, scat, and instrumental imitations. They even throw in a bit of dancing to conclude their act, and the leading guitarist simultaneously plays and juggles with his instrument.” The Ink Spots were brilliant vocalists who concocted ethereal arrangements of the world’s beautiful songs.

“My Prayer”:
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/MyPrayer.mp3

Handsome Family Values: Bowerbirds

handsomelogo120eFor the Handsome Family, upcoming album Honey Moon—a collection of love songs due April 14—is a startling left turn. The husband/wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks still deals in spectral bluegrass and noirish folk forms on its ninth album, but gone are the ghosts and murder ballads that had painted them into a gothic-Americana corner. (Trust us, the album is still plenty weird. Love is weird.) The Handsome Family is guest editing magnetmagazine.com this week. Read our Q&A with Brett and Rennie about Honey Moon and a host of other topics.

bird360Rennie Sparks: Male bowerbirds build elaborate structures made out of anything from stones, berries and feathers to bottle caps, bits of plastic and shards of glass. They construct brightly colored walkways leading into their bowers and strut before them, flapping their wings and singing as the females pass by. Some bowerbirds are also amazing mimics and are able to imitate the sound not only of other birds, but also of waterfalls and human speech. No two bowerbirds do the same dance, sing the same song or build the same enticing bridal suite. I wish I had a house full of bowerbirds pulling things out of my garbage to turn into art. Unfortunately, bowerbirds live in the South Pacific and I’ve only seen them on TV nature shows. My neighbor’s dog, however, ran off with one of my gloves last winter, and I later found the glove under a pine tree along with a used tissue, an empty cigarette pack and a lone sneaker.

Handsome Family Values: Alfred Deller

handsomelogo120eFor the Handsome Family, upcoming album Honey Moon—a collection of love songs due April 14—is a startling left turn. The husband/wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks still deals in spectral bluegrass and noirish folk forms on its ninth album, but gone are the ghosts and murder ballads that had painted them into a gothic-Americana corner. (Trust us, the album is still plenty weird. Love is weird.) The Handsome Family is guest editing magnetmagazine.com this week. Read our Q&A with Brett and Rennie about Honey Moon and a host of other topics.

deller355Brett Sparks: Born in 1912 in Margate, England, Alfred Deller was the greatest countertenor of all time. He was particularly active in the ’60s and was one of the main figures in popularizing Renaissance and baroque music. His milestone record, 1955’s The Three Ravens: Elizabethan Folk And Minstrel Music (recorded with British lutenist Desmond Dupré), brought songs like “Barbara Allen” to the public ear for the first time. As a boy, Deller sang in his church choir. Even after his voice broke, he continued singing in his high register. Deller’s voice is remarkably high and ghostly beautiful. He was a leader in the historically accurate performance movement.

“Barbara Allen”:

Handsome Family Values: Prairie Dogs

handsomelogo120eFor the Handsome Family, upcoming album Honey Moon—a collection of love songs due April 14—is a startling left turn. The husband/wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks still deals in spectral bluegrass and noirish folk forms on its ninth album, but gone are the ghosts and murder ballads that had painted them into a gothic-Americana corner. (Trust us, the album is still plenty weird. Love is weird.) The Handsome Family is guest editing magnetmagazine.com this week. Read our Q&A with Brett and Rennie about Honey Moon and a host of other topics.

prairiedog325Rennie Sparks: I’ve seen sparrows flying around inside Home Depot and a road runner sprint safely through traffic across Central Avenue, but my favorite animal to spot here in Albuquerque is the prairie dog. There’s a shopping center here that has a secret prairie dog town. I’ve spotted prairie dogs standing up on two legs to peek out from little holes dug in the grassy medians between the parking lots of Best Buy and Target. Scientists believe that prairie dogs actually have a fairly sophisticated language with actual words to describe different predators approaching from different directions. Once I managed to sneak between the parked cars and get close enough to hear them chirping happily to each other. Lovely.

Q&A With The Handsome Family

handsome545

Over the course of 16 years and nine albums, the weird, wonderful world of the Handsome Family has been populated by tales of ghosts, murders, bottomless holes and the mysterious deaths of Nikola Tesla and Amelia Earhart. For the Albuquerque, N.M., husband/wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks, an album of love songs is a startling left turn. The upcoming Honey Moon (due April 14 on Carrot Top) doesn’t sound too dissimilar from the band’s previous output—mainly a studious, modern-studio take on country, bluegrass and Appalachian folk sung in Brett’s deep Texas drawl—but it dials down the gothic-fiction storytelling in favor of a focused collection of material that happens to arrive in the same year the Sparks celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. Still, this is the Handsome Family; don’t expect flowers or chocolates. On Honey Moon, love is a female insect devouring her mate (“Darling, My Darling”), a diamond ring is shattered glass on the asphalt (“A Thousand Diamond Rings”), and happiness is living in a swamp with your significant other, dressed in pelts and howling like dogs (“Wild Wood”).

MAGNET phoned Brett and Rennie Sparks at home, intending to discuss love songs; we were soon engaged on the topics of hillbillies, moths, swamps and toilets. Needless to say, we’re psyched the Handsome Family will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com this week.

“Darling, My Darling” from Honey Moon (download here):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/DarlingMyDarling.mp3

Continue reading “Q&A With The Handsome Family”

From The Desk Of Tommy Keene: Intimate Rock Concert Moments, Volume 2 — Iggy Pop

tommy-keenelogo150frTommy Keene has been playing guitar hero for more than a quarter-century, both on his power-pop solo albums (his latest is In The Late Bright, out this week) and as a sideman for Robert Pollard and Paul Westerberg. Keene, apparently weary of all the critical acclaim, agreed to dole out some of his own praise. He’s guest editing magnetmagazine. com this week and compiled a mix tape for us with a free mp3.

iggy350

Keene: In August 1973, Mott The Hoople played Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center in support of Mott. Opening up was none other than Iggy Pop. We were psyched! My brother and I had fifth-row seats on the aisle, but during Iggy’s opening set, my brother chose to sit up in the second row with friends of ours. I’ve read about this night in several Iggy bios. Apparently he and Bebe Buell were planning to take the Amtrak train down from New York because he wanted to schtup her in the bathroom, but a friend of hers spoiled that scenario by tagging along. That friend later offered him a couple of lines in the dressing room of what he thought was toot but turned out to be angel dust. The house lights went on and the show began as Iggy and the rest of the group ambled onstage. James Williamson, in complete Star Trek drag, hammered out the opening chords of “Raw Power” as Iggy stumbled around for a good minute or so before belting out the opening lines: “Dance to the beat of the living dead/Lose sleep, baby, and stay away from bed.” Something was clearly wrong, however, as they finished the song and Iggy laid down on the stage and muttered, “My doctor told me not to play tonight.” The band lurched on through a few more tunes, most memorably “I’ve Got My Cock In My Pocket” and “Rich Bitch” (“Buttfuckers trying to run my world”). After that one, he passed out, and Ron Asheton, who was on bass for this show, did the hand-swooping motion over him, like a fallen boxer—he’s out!

After a minute or so, Iggy got up, looking dazed and confused, as the band pumped out “Search And Destroy.” He started staring at little ol’ me on the aisle in the fifth row. He got down off the stage with the fallow spot following him and started walking like a zombie straight for me. I looked up to my brother and friends in the second row and saw them pointing and laughing at me. What the fuck was he doing? All eyes were upon me as he walked up to me. He stuck out his hand and motioned, “Come on, shake it, baby!” This was too surreal; I went to shake his hand, and he did the limp thing and pulled away. A guy behind me then smashed a Hostess cherry pie on Iggy’s bare chest while another squirted wine on Iggy from a wineskin. Iggy just rubbed it all onto himself, grunted and turned back to the stage. Three songs later, they pulled the plug and the house lights came on as he wailed over and over, “They won’t let us play anymore!” The Ig had gotten the royal hook indeed!

This concludes “Tommy Keene Week” here at magnetmagazine.com. Thanks to Tommy for writing about some really rockin’ good stuff. Go to the store and buy all his records, especially the awesome new In The Late Bright. As if you needed any more incentive to do so, download Late Bright track “A Secret Life Of Stories” here.

“A Secret Life Of Stories”

http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/ASecretLifeOfStories.mp3

From The Desk Of Tommy Keene: Intimate Rock Concert Moments, Volume 1 — Keith Moon

tommy-keenelogo150frTommy Keene has been playing guitar hero for more than a quarter-century, both on his power-pop solo albums (his latest is In The Late Bright, out this week) and as a sideman for Robert Pollard and Paul Westerberg. Keene, apparently weary of all the critical acclaim, agreed to dole out some of his own praise. He’s guest editing magnetmagazine. com this week and compiled a mix tape for us with a free mp3.

keithmoon

Keene: The last time I saw the Who with Keith Moon was at the Capital Centre in Largo, Md. (site of infamous documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot, by the way). It was 1976, and the Who were touring behind The Who By Numbers. My brother and I were in the second row, smack between Moon and Pete Townshend. We were so close that at one point, Townshend seemed a bit out of sorts and ran back to his Hiwatt amp and literally turned it up to 11—we were so close that we could hear the onstage sound of his amps whoosh over our heads like a 747 taking off.

Being a drummer from age eight to 17, I was enamored with Keith Moon. I still am, actually—he’s my favorite rock drummer of all time. We had eye contact with him throughout the entire show. I would air-drum his rolls as he was doing them, and he would look at me amazed with a “Right on, kid, you know your stuff!” kind of look. It was hilarious. He tried numerous times during the show to throw my brother and me drumsticks, and when he missed or someone else got them, he’d mouth a “Damn!” or “Sorry, I’ll try again!” At the end of the show, as the Who were doing taking their bows, Moon kept looking at us and motioning that he had something up his sleeve. After the other three members walked off, he grabbed one of his cymbal stands and walked over to the edge of the stage to hand the entire thing over to us. These absolute jerks in the front row must have thought it was for them. A complete melee ensued—my brother and I grabbed on to the base of the stand, each of us holding a tripod for dear life, but by then 20 other people had joined in on the action. All we could each get was one of the rubber stoppers on the legs of the stand as the rest of the throng grabbed everything else, cymbal included. The last thing I remember was Moon shaking his head and expressing regret, as if to say, “Sorry, guys, I tried,” as he sauntered off the stage.

The Who’s “Squeeze Box”:

From The Desk Of Tommy Keene: Chris Slusarenko Of Boston Spaceships

tommy-keenelogo150frTommy Keene has been playing guitar hero for more than a quarter-century, both on his power-pop solo albums (his latest is In The Late Bright, out this week) and as a sideman for Robert Pollard and Paul Westerberg. Keene, apparently weary of all the critical acclaim, agreed to dole out some of his own praise. He’s guest editing magnetmagazine. com this week and compiled a mix tape for us with a free mp3.

slushyv370Keene: I had the pleasure of being an auxiliary member of an exciting new band, Boston Spaceships, last year, playing guitar on their fall tour. Chris Slusarenko, along with vocalist Bob Pollard (MAGNET readers may know him) and drummer John Moen, is one of the chief architects of this awesome new combo. I recently spoke to Chris, who was also a member of Guided By Voices, about this project.

Keene: How did the idea of a new band with you, Bob and John originate?
Slusarenko:
Bob was having his art exhibition in New York City last year, and I was admiring this collage that has always haunted me called Brown Submarine. We started talking about how we needed to hear this collage as an album. It was the same thing that happened when we decided to do the TakeoversTurn To Red album. We got so obsessed with the collage as an album cover that we had it blown up to 12-inch vinyl size and drove around town looking at it. So Bob compiled 14 of his songs, some old and some new, and we started cranking on them. After the album (Brown Submarine) was done, Bob decided it didn’t sound like a side project but an actual band with the three of us as full-time members. He hadn’t been in a band since GBV, and he said it seemed appropriate for Boston Spaceships to be the next one to leave a legacy.

How do you and Bob decide which tunes will be Spaceships songs and which ones Bob will use for his solo records?
Bob decides which songs will be used for which projects. His solo albums tend to be a bit more mature and darker in tone. Boston Spaceships has a more pop side, but it’s a lovingly weird pop side. The songs are shorter and full of youthful, sometimes naive, energy.

I think the production on the albums is really strong. Where do you record them? Do you labor on guitar and drum sounds, or do you just turn on the tape and let it rip?
We recorded Brown Submarine with Brian Berg and The Planets Are Blasted with Jonathan Drews, both of whom live in Portland, Ore. They’re insanely talented, and it’s really easy to explain what I’m looking for in terms of sounds and approach. I can say, “This song will have ‘A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing’ ending” or “I want it to sound like we lost the mic in the back of a cave and I died looking for it,” and they get it. John’s drum parts are done really off the cuff—we tried to approach the drums like early GBV, where it’s done in one or two takes and we’re on to the next one. Since we don’t have our own recording studios, I just work on all guitar, bass and keyboard parts acoustically until I can get into the studio. Then I only have three to five hours to get all the ideas out, but it makes coming back for the next session excruciatingly exciting.

Does Johnny Moen have a lot of input as to parts and arrangements? You two seem to have a good working relationship and chemistry.
In terms of the parts and arrangements, it pretty much starts at Bob’s house. Before we start recording, I sit down with Bob a few times and we listen to his acoustic demos on the speakers at his house (called “The Bigs”). We get hammered and talk about ideas, influences and approaches. The next day, when I look at my notes, almost every tune always has the phrase “kick ass” next to what needs to happen with it, especially as the booze kicks in. Then I just go home to Portland and obsess about the songs. I listen to them over and over. I try to get all the little parts of his demos down so they still have that Pollard feel and magic in terms of phrasing and energy. I’ve known John since 1988 while he was in the Dharma Bums, and we’ve played together in the Cavemanish Boys and the Takeovers. Playing with John is always fun. He’s got drive and swing, which make the songs really leap. He’s also an insanely quick learner, which is a total blessing. There’s a lot of his personality in those drum takes.

When can we expect another monumental Spaceships tour? West Coast peeps especially want to know.
I don’t know yet. If and when it happens, it wouldn’t be until our third album comes out in October. It’s called Zero To 99, and it’s pretty fierce and catchy. Lots of Pollard hits and haunts; I mean, when you flip over an album and you see song titles like “Mr. Ghost Town” and “The Question Girl, Alright,” you kind of have to hear it.

Boston Spaceships’ “Go For The Exit” from Brown Submarine (download here):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/gofortheexit.mp3

From The Desk Of Tommy Keene: Crosswords

tommy-keenelogo150frTommy Keene has been playing guitar hero for more than a quarter-century, both on his power-pop solo albums (his latest is In The Late Bright, out this week) and as a sideman for Robert Pollard and Paul Westerberg. Keene, apparently weary of all the critical acclaim, agreed to dole out some of his own praise. He’s guest editing magnetmagazine. com this week and compiled a mix tape for us with a free mp3.

crosswords525bKeene: I’ve always loved board games, trivia games, you name it. (Like Clue—I can never get anyone to play that one with me.) I started doing crossword puzzles some years ago and have gotten to a modestly proficient level. My favorite is the Los Angeles Times’—I can finish Monday’s through Thursday’s editions and Sunday’s on a good day. In the summer of 2007, I noticed an ad in the Times for contestants for a new game show about crossword puzzles. I thought, “What the heck?” and called them up. They scheduled me for an audition the very next day. I arrived early to check out my competition: a few young hipsters, some housewives and lots of nerdy bookworm types you would expect to show up at these things. I overheard a few conversations, and it seems like some of these people were actually professional game-show contestants: “Yeah, I almost got on The Weakest Link, but at the last minute they went with someone younger and prettier.” “Oh, you were on Millionaire? So was I.” “I won $12,000 on Jeopardy, though I can’t audition again for another six years. Bummer!”

They shepherded us into a room where we sat at tables and took the audition quiz, which consisted of questions flashed up on a screen in front of us: “What’s a four-letter word for nervous?” Let’s see … “edgy”? “What’s a 12-letter word for unscrupulous?” Good god, what? I wasn’t feeling too confident as they graded our papers, and sure enough I wasn’t one of the people they asked to stay behind. It was fun, though. Three weeks later, I got a call from one of the contestant coordinators: “Tom, your score was super, super close. Would you like to come back and re-audition?” So I found myself back at the studio with nothing to lose; lo and behold, this time I was asked to stay behind! The next part of the process was a videotaped interview. After trying to be as animated as I could be and telling them I was a rock musician (and had been on Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and David Letterman), they seemed impressed and booked me for the show.

Do you know when you’re watching one of these shows and the contestants always give that tired line, “Gee, this is so much easier at home”? Well, you don’t know how true that really is until you’re there. The game consisted of buzzing in and answering the correct crossword answers while you were at one of the two front stations. Those in the back, of which I was one, were called spoilers. If neither of the front two peeps could answer the question, you could buzz in—if you got the answer right, you would trade places with them and could accrue money. The person with the most money at the end of the last round in one of the front spots would then go on and try to solve the master puzzle for the big money. The clue that I spoiled, of course, ended up being rock-related, in a way: “What’s a three-letter word for German rainwear?” Everyone was stumped; I rang in: “mac.” Correct! “Tommy for the spoil, come and take the front spot!” How did I know that? The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”: “And the banker never wears a mac in the pouring rain, very strange.” (Thanks, Paul!) So I won the game and made it to the final round. I was doing really well when I got hung up on a few clues and failed to solve the big puzzle in time. I ended up winning $1,250—not bad for a day away from the rock ‘n’ roll office.

The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”:
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/PennyLane.mp3

From The Desk Of Tommy Keene: Sally Crewe

tommy-keenelogo150frTommy Keene has been playing guitar hero for more than a quarter-century, both on his power-pop solo albums (his latest is In The Late Bright, out this week) and as a sideman for Robert Pollard and Paul Westerberg. Keene, apparently weary of all the critical acclaim, agreed to dole out some of his own praise. He’s guest editing magnetmagazine. com this week and compiled a mix tape for us with a free mp3.

sally-crewerg366Keene: As I was bumming around SXSW in 2008, I was reintroduced to Sally Crewe, whom I’d met a couple of times over the years, as she was married to a friend of mine. Sally and I and a bunch of others ended up one night at a karaoke place on the outskirts of Austin; there was a party going on, complete with people drunkenly singing along to Iron Maiden songs. Sally invited us to hear her group, the Sudden Moves, play the next afternoon at a party away from the maddening throng of festival-goers. What immediately struck me about her was that she was cute and feminine but looked great holding a guitar, and she could really rock. I’m a bit of a closet rock misogynist—sometimes girls with guitars just look like they’re uncomfortable—but Sally reminded me of great female rockers like Chrissie Hynde and Polly Harvey. After the show, she was saying how they had a European tour coming up in the fall opening for the Wedding Present and their present bass player refused to travel. I blurted out, “I’ll do it,” and Sally said, “OK, you’re on!” So began my career as a bass player, although I’ve been playing bass a lot lately, especially on my last couple of records. We did three shows in Scotland and four in England and had a blast, but we suffered a little bit from Opening Act Syndrome; the Wedding Present’s punters liked to show up quite late.

Sally’s songs are melodic, punchy and sometimes quite short. I’m very envious of that, as it’s really difficult sometimes to get everything in that you want in under two minutes. But she delivers. And, most importantly, they rock. Pick up her new record, Your Nearest Exit May Be Behind You, and tell ’em Tommy sent you.

“Sleepyhead” from Your Nearest Exit May Be Behind You:
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/Sleepyhead.mp3