Q&A With Old 97’s Frontman Rhett Miller

Rhett Miller didn’t have to go far to find the catharsis that informs his latest release, The Messenger (ATO). Triggered by his son’s advancing age, the Old 97’s frontman exhumed the troubled, borderline suicidal thoughts that bogged down his own 14-year-old psyche. Recorded with Sam Cohen (Kevin Morby, Benjamin Booker) in a five-day spurt at the Isokon in Woodstock, N.Y., Miller’s eighth solo album (if you include his 1994 pre-Old 97’s debut, Mythologies) has a nimble, expansive feel. Cohen’s textured guitar work and the locked-in low end of bassist Brian Betancourt and drummer Ray Rizzo provide an elevated soulfulness that’s been lacking in Miller’s past work, even as the subject matter turns inward toward the soul-baringly personal.

MAGNET recently spoke with Miller about The Messenger’s gumbo of emotions. He also offered his take on the semi-sincere motivation behind Love The Holidays (ATO), the new Old 97’s Christmas album.

Your son is about to turn 15. Apparently, that’s stirred up some memories.
For sure. Our children are nothing if not mirrors of ourselves. We relive the moments that were so hard to live through the first time. Both my kids are so better adapted than I was at their age. Still, it reminds of just how hard it is to be a kid and just how hard it is to be a human being. The world is such a harsh place, and every day is a little bit of a struggle. The 14-year-old version of me came the closest to giving in, but it’s not like that battle ever got won.

What were you battling at the time?
I thought it was a real existential crisis. There was a fundamental meaningless to it all that just floored me. It was about brain chemistry. It was about my parents’ marriage and its long, slow disintegration. It was about me realizing that I was a sensitive, artistic kid.

That’s pretty heavy shit for a 14-year-old.
Yeah, I was precocious. [Laughs]



You basically kicked things with The Instigator in 2002. Since then, you’ve been The Believer, The Interpreter, The Dreamer, The Traveler and now The Messenger.

Yeah, that comes from the bridge from “Human Condition.” It’s a message to myself back when I was so freaked out—me saying, “Hey, it’s worth staying alive, but not in any way that I can really quantify. I can’t show you a photograph of yourself as a perfectly happy and content adult, but I can show you a photo of yourself as someone who’s grateful he didn’t die back then.” I almost called the album The Face Of Danger, but it seemed like a cop-out.

How did you hook up with Sam Cohen?
I talked to a number of young lead singers of bands I really liked—the kid from Car Seat Headrest and Ben from Lord Huron—but the timing wasn’t right for either of those guys. Sam had done a couple of records for my label, ATO, and I really wanted to work with someone who’s an artist first and a producer second. He’s pretty young; he grew up in Houston; he was a rockabilly guitarist; and over the last few years, he’s become this pretty sought-after producer. What he is—and it took me awhile to figure this out—is like a young Jon Brion. Sam really sees the architecture of the music, and he can play anything you can imagine. He wound up being the perfect foil.

The album has a distinct groove throughout.

There’s something about the rhythm section on this album that really blows me away. It’s organic, visceral and raw—that real in-the-pocket groove Ray and Brian have. We immediately heard it during playback.

As you were writing the songs, did you sense that they needed a different treatment in the studio?
When I wrote them, they felt like the ones I was writing in high school. I really wanted to take them somewhere where I would never think to take them. They felt kind of folky to me—all my songs sound kind of folky when I write them. I remember when I wrote “Timebomb,” and I went to (Old 97’s guitarist) Kim Bethea and he said, “Man, that sounds wimpy.” Now, it’s our signature song and set closer, with his signature guitar riff. Songs can become anything, and I’ve been the beneficiary of that for decades.

So, why a holiday album?
Christmas albums are useful—sort of this evergreen quality. I started thinking about the songs we’ve all grown up with and heard too many times, and then I started looking for gaps in the canon. The opening title track is something I wrote with Kevin Russell (Gourds, Shinyribs). He’s such a great writer—and one of the reasons is because he’s got so much soul. Of all my myriad talents, being super-soulful isn’t one that gets brought up a lot. Kevin came up with the idea. It’s joyous, ebullient and fun, but also kind of snotty and snarky. Top to bottom, the album is so fun.

It also looks like you guys had fun with the photo shoot for the album.
It was a sweltering-hot August day in Chicago, and this really nice couple in Evanston—where we were playing a street festival that day—let us use their historic house. It was hot as hell, and we were wearing Christmas sweaters and laughing our asses off. There are some ridiculous photos, including the picture on the back cover where Murry (Hammond) has like eight chins. I would’ve been way too vain to let that picture go, but he was fine with it.

—Hobart Rowland

Q&A With Fastball’s Miles Zuniga And Tony Scalzo

There really couldn’t have been a more unlikely hit single than Fastball’s “The Way”—especially in the post-grunge cesspool that was 1998. With its delayed chorus, rinky-dink keyboard line and mariachi undertones, the tune was basically an afterthought on All The Pain Money Can Buy, an album of world-weary rock and power pop from a band nobody outside of Texas had ever heard of.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the album’s release, Omnivore has reissued an expanded version of All The Pain Money Can Buy with all the expected demos, b-side and outtakes. Perhaps most impressive is how well it all holds up two decades later. Then again, great songwriting is anything if not durable. MAGNET reached out to Fastball’s Miles Zuniga and Tony Scalzo at home in Austin to discuss the making of All The Pain Money Can Buy, its surprising success and why they never get sick of playing “The Way.”

So how did the reissue come about?
Tony Scalzo: I was on Facebook one day, and I noticed Ronnie (Barnett) from the Muffs had announced that they were putting out a reissue of their debut album, and I was like, “Hey, that sounds like a good idea.” So my manager called Omnivore, and they were like, “Sure, sounds good.” I think we had it all sewn up by the end of the day. The only issue we had with (former label) Hollywood was keeping them on task.

To this day, I’m sure a lot of fans don’t realize—or care—that All The Pain wasn’t your debut. For the record, I actually liked that first album (1996’s Make Your Momma Proud).

Miles Zuniga: It has its charms, but I didn’t think it was that great. There’s a certain cool energy to it, but when we were recording it, there was a lot of pressure to try to put us into a box they could market. Green Day was all the rage, and we were a three piece, too. So they hooked us up with Jerry Finn, who mixed Green Day … That’s the way record companies think.

Everything is so fast on that first album.

Zuniga: It seemed to be an effective way to get people to pay attention, I guess.

Scalzo: We couldn’t pull it off live any other way back then.

It’s so cool to listen to Tony’s demo of “The Way.” It has a quirky Spanish flavor to it.

Scalzo: I didn’t really expect the guys to latch onto the whole keyboard vibe, but they wanted to do it that way—and they were right. I was probably the one who most wanted to conserve the sound of Make Your Momma Proud. Miles was being more progressive, and it was hard for me to break out of certain shells back then. Once we got into the studio, the producer (Julian Raymond) and Miles were like, “Let’s make that loop happen.” And we brought the actual keyboard I used on the demo into the studio.

Zuniga: The song ended up being this gumbo where everyone threw in ideas. Tony wanted to hear it one way; I wanted to hear it another way; Julian had another take on it. But all of us felt intrigued and interested. It led us down this path, and it was really fun to work on. I think that if we’d tried to make it this massive hit song, we would’ve fucked it all up.

How did the song get so big so fast?

Zuniga: It was like an unstoppable beast. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and I remember driving up to see my sister in Santa Cruz. At the midway point, we stopped at this steakhouse so I could check my messages. I was so broke I didn’t have any kind of a phone. I had this voice mailbox that floated in space, and that day I started getting these calls about stations adding the song. Once K-Rock added it, it was all over. Very quickly, even pop radio stations were adding it. I remember the radio guys saying to us, “You’re doing really well, man, but don’t get too excited. You’ve got some big boys ahead of you … You’ve got Pearl Jam, Green Day, whatever.” We just blew right past all of them—I couldn’t believe it. That tune was really a force of nature.
Scalzo: There was the weird novelty of how it was recorded—the radio thing at the beginning, the tinny first verse. Then it explodes sonically in the second verse, and then the chorus finally comes along. It takes you from a minor verse into what Leonard Cohen described as the major lift. It makes your senses wake up.

Zuniga: More often than not, hit songs are unusual, intriguing, different. We still love doing “The Way” live. It’s a fun song to play.

Was it intended to be the album’s centerpiece?

Scalzo: We thought it was a b-side.
Zuniga: It came along almost last in the song selection. Stuff like “Fire Escape” and “Warm Fuzzy Feeling” were more indicative of where our heads were at—loud guitar music. We thought “Sooner Or Later” would be the hit song, which shows you how much we knew. Luckily, there were other people around us who were pointing to “The Way.”

At the time, you were being introduced as this new act. But if you listen to the themes on the album, they’re coming from the perspective of a band who’s been there, done that.

Zuniga: Well, we thought we were gonna get dropped. The only reason we got to do another record was because the president of Hollywood got fired. Someone asked the de facto president if we could do another record, and he was like, “Sure, whatever. I’m probably not gonna be here in a few months anyway.” Our mental state was, one, we’re probably not going to be able to do this again and, two, they probably won’t even put it out.

If the situation wasn’t as dire, do you think you would’ve made the same record?

Zuniga: The album would’ve sucked, I think. [Laughs]

Scalzo: There was no pressure, and the producer and the A&R guy were our buddies. It was like nobody cared. Like, “You can use the studio—just lock up when you’re done.”

Zuniga: There was a magical thing about it. I haven’t had a recording experience quite like that since.

And the album still sounds fresh today.

Zuniga: There’s no DJ on there toasting, and there’s no one mumbling, “I hate myself, and I want to die.”
Scalzo: Yeah, that whole period reeked of this fake drama-queen vibe. Everything was just so passionate, and it was so lame. We did it fairly deadpan.
Zuniga: Coming from Austin, Texas, all that stuff was all bullshit. 
We were coming from a totally different perspective. I was 30 years old at the time, and my heroes were Joe Ely and people like that. I like the Beatles and Badfinger, but I also like Jimmy Vaughan and the Paladins and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. That was the restaurant I was eatin’ at, and I didn’t really care about that other shit.
Scalzo: I was coming from a Southern California DIY environment, where that shit wouldn’t fly.

What about the post-success hangover that came with the follow-up (The Harsh Light Of Day)?
Zuniga: There was just all this pressure that wasn’t there before. We didn’t work hard enough and didn’t write enough songs. We’d been touring for two years, and we didn’t take any time off. We finished touring in October, and we were in the studio in January.
Scalzo: I was sort of detached; complacency had set in. I’d managed to write a few songs that had gotten successful, but I still didn’t have any real grip on writing—and Miles and I hadn’t done any writing together. He seemed to really know what he wanted, and just deferred to him. I thought our success was something that was there and would just stay in place.
Zuniga: The band has gotten into such a wonderful spot now. But then it was a lot more competitive and not as collaborative and supportive. When I look back on our career and myself as an artist, I realize that I just didn’t have the skills yet to do the things I wanted to do. I just couldn’t pull it off.
Scalzo: And we didn’t have any showbiz skills, either. We should’ve gotten our heads together and formed some solidarity—but we didn’t. We responded to success differently. I reacted in an extreme way. It was really weird for me and hard to manage psychologically. I like the way things are right now. I like to be able to go wherever I want and not have people be like, “Oh my God.” And for a little while there, it really happened that way.


Anything new coming?

Zuniga: We have a new album in the works, but we don’t know when it’s coming out.
Scalzo: It’s our Chinese Democracy. [Laughs]

—Hobart Rowland



A Conversation With Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson

A half-century later, does Jethro Tull warrant some reassessment? Most of the pre-1979 evidence points to the affirmative. Murky production flaws aside, early Tull retains its considerable charm as a substantive, challenging stew of blues, Anglo folk and hard rock. Benefiting hugely from a 2011 remastering, remix and expansion for its 40th anniversary, Aqualung is still the most flawless distillation of the English band’s ruggedly dynamic, elegantly verbose aesthetic. Simply put, it doesn’t sound like anything else released in 1971, which was an especially robust year for classic rock. Taking it a step further a year later, Thick As A Brick’s album-length song cycle is a prog-rock archetype (for better or worse), validating the group’s arena-headliner status for the rest of the decade.

All of which left Tull’s flute-wielding leader, Ian Anderson, with very little traction in the years following the punk explosion. Anderson has nonetheless pressed on as other band members have fallen away, lending orchestral legitimacy to the group’s compositions with recent projects featuring string-quartet accompaniment. 

MAGNET caught up with Anderson in the U.K., where he was taking a break from a 50th anniversary tour of the States that kicked off in late May in Arizona and ends next month in Connecticut. At the behest of his handlers, we steered clear of anything on the “All Too Frequently Asked Questions” list posted on Anderson’s website—heady journalistic stuff like: “In 1976, you named a famous Tull track ‘Too Old To Rock And Roll.’ What do you feel about this title, looking back on it now?”

MAGNET’s conclusion: You’re never too old to rock ‘n’ roll—and, at 71, Anderson ain’t dead yet. —Hobart Rowland

Aqualung remains one of those LPs that no self-respecting rock-history buff can be without. How do you feel about the album—and perhaps even the song itself—being the sole representation of Jethro Tull for many people?
If you were calling me from Germany, you’d be asking me that question about “Locomotive Breath.” If it was France, it would “Bourée.” There are those pieces that have risen to the fore in certain countries, but not necessarily in others. Certainly the first 10 years of Jethro Tull is when most fans and record buyers around the world got to know us. That material, for them, will always represent the starting point.

Hence, all the reissues.
No one wants to hear new new Jethro Tull music—they want hear new old Jethro Tull music. But it’s natural to want to go back and explore rock history, even if you’re a 15-year-old rock fan in Brazil. 

Among those reissues, the 2016 Stand Up (The Elevated Edition) boxed set is a real highlight. How did the whole Steven Wilson remix come about?
Around the time of the 40th anniversary of the Aqualung album, I approached Steven to see if he’d do it. I knew him for the work he’d done remixing the first King Crimson album. It was obvious from the way he worked that his method was not to replicate the original mix, but to use that as a starting point as he fine-tuned everything and tidied it up. I was pleased with the end was result on Aqualung, and we’ve carried on working together intimately over the years. We’re currently working on the Stormwatch album.

On the original recordings, there was a significant spike in production quality from Stand Up to Aqualung.
Well, in terms of the songwriting and the variety of music, there’s always going to be some evolution with any band. Aqualung actually wasn’t an easy one to do. We were working in what was then Island Records’ brand-new studio, which was a converted church in West London, and there were lots of issues with acoustics. It was very unforgiving, harsh and hard. Zeppelin was in Island’s basement studio, and they had a much better sound. It was not an enjoyable period of recording at all for us. The end result wasn’t something I was very fond of, in terms of the multi-track master tapes and the mixing. To me, it wasn’t a great-sounding album, but we did what we could. 

The liner notes to the Stand Up boxed set describe how you were essentially creating music in a vacuum—that you were fairly isolated. Is that normal for you when writing?
I like to do things privately. I like to be able to explore without interaction from anybody else until I think I’ve got something that’s worth sharing. And at that point, it’s baring your soul, so you better think you really have something to say before you say it.

In a recent discussion with a British friend about the rise of punk in the late ’70s, he talked about this immense pressure in the U.K. to disavow any affection for classic rock acts like Zeppelin, Yes and Jethro Tull. What are your thoughts on that period?
When the Clash, the Sex Pistols and that whole brigade of British punk bands came about in the wake of the Ramones, it was a movement that lasted only a little while—it evolved very quickly. Then you had bands like the Police and the Stranglers, and they owed more to progressive rock, though they took on some of punk’s trappings because that was their entre into making a living in music at the time. On more than one occasion, Johnny Rotten has cited that Aqualung was a huge influence on him as a young wannabe musician. People tend to want to divide things up, put them in neat little boxes on the shelf, and say, “This is for that, and this is for that.” In the real world, people are much more capable of thinking across the broad spectrum of different genres.

The flute’s status in the rock world pretty much begins and ends with you. Why do you think no one else has given it a real shot?
One reason is that it’s a delicate instrument that’s not easy to play in the context of loud rock music. Secondly, if you were to become a flute player in a rock band right now, inevitably people would be comparing you to me. In a way, it’s kind of a thankless task—to realize you’re always going to have that millstone around your neck of the endless comparisons. It’s probably easier for me because I’m a songwriter, so I can integrate the flute into what I do. When I play on other people’s records, it always causes me a bit of trepidation. I wonder whether the flute really belongs there—if there’s something useful I can do that will add to the music. I always tell people, “Don’t pay me, and don’t be afraid to hit the delete button. Then it’s gone forever. I’ll get on with my life, you get on with yours, and no money has changed hands.”

Q&A With Robert Pollard Biographer Matthew Cutter

Here’s a tip for any aspiring biographer hoping to chronicle the life of their favorite musician: Befriend him/her and, preferably over beers, ask. Hey, it worked for Matthew Cutter, author of Closer You Are: The Story Of Robert Pollard And Guided By Voices, released today by Da Capo Press. (Full disclosure: I edited an early draft.) The Pollard-approved tome is a must read for GBV fanboys and anyone interested in how a normal dude from Dayton, Ohio, developed into one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest songwriters. Cutter answered a few hard-hitting questions about the book’s genesis—and what Pollard thinks of the finished product. —Matt Hickey

When did you first hear a Bob Pollard song? What was it? Did the song hook you immediately?
“I Am A Tree” playing in a Boulder, Colo., record store in ’97, followed by “The Old Grunt.” During the next song, “Bulldog Skin,” I asked the clerk what it was. and he handed me Mag Earwhig!. I was instantly hooked, and went back for more albums a few days later. Been hooked ever since.

What is it about his music that created and sustains your fandom?
I’m primarily a lyrics guy, so the allusions and mystery and multiple meanings Bob plays with intrigue me. It’s similar in a lot of ways to what Joyce did with language. And I come from a Beatles/classic-rock background, so I think I’m wired for the types of songs and indelible melodies Pollard writes—even though he always manages to surprise. His music is familiar without ever being predictable.

You’d been acquainted with Bob prior to writing the book. How did the idea come about?
At a Dayton bar, in the midst of an afternoon of drinking and bullshitting, I just asked Bob if I could write a book about him. I honestly didn’t give much thought at that time as to whether or how I would do it.

Was he hesitant at all?
He took a few months to think it over. And with good reason; I didn’t have a whole lot of mainstream writing credits to go on. It was a risk for him.

What was your reaction when he gave his blessing?
Primarily gratitude for an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And joyful surprise, followed by mortal fear. I mean, it’s an honor and an immense pleasure, but I also knew I had a huge responsibility to Bob and Guided By Voices fans. As Bob has said, “When you get your shot, you have to rise to the challenge.” So that became my goal.

Bob’s a really nice guy, but he’s had moments of, let’s say, a mercurial nature when it comes to the band. A couple of those are in the book; were you wary of including them?
No, because Bob has always taken a pragmatic view of those stories: They’re the truth. They’re what happened. Bob’s often self-deprecating, and I think he’d prefer to put a truthful, good story out there rather than a hagiography. He’s complex, like most people, but at his core he’s just an honest, generous person. His stage persona is certainly part of his personality, but it’s not even close to all of it.

What was his reaction when he read the book? What was your reaction to his reaction?
He had a bunch of corrections, naturally, so I braced for the worst throughout that process. But then he exclaimed, as I recall, “Three, two, one … book!” and told me he liked it. I was flabbergasted. I had a few drinks to celebrate. That was the first moment I thought, “Holy shit, maybe I can pull this off.”

Since you had a relationship with Bob prior to the book, did that make it easier or more difficult to write it? I guess what I’m getting at is you’re a fan and a friend and not an objective observer.
That was a concern at times, but as mentioned earlier, Bob made it easy. You know the journalistic idea of a “nose-picker”? That is, adding character details that are not necessarily flattering but help to humanize the subject? Bob was always OK with including those if they were true. So I hope the book presents a well-rounded view of Robert Pollard as a person, but in the end I’d want his good nature to shine through. Otherwise it would be like when Albert Goldman spent years writing that hack job on John Lennon—what an absolute waste of time and effort, just to tear someone down.

Diehard fans are going to love the book. Did you have any sense while writing it that it could have a broader appeal? Or is it really for them?
The lyrical analysis and detailed accounts of live shows are definitely for the diehards. But I think there’s also a broader appeal for anyone who’s struggled to make creativity and art the center of their lives. American society is not generally set up to appreciate or support creative, artistic efforts unless they generate millions of dollars. So for me Bob’s story is as timeless as that of Pinocchio; it’s the idea of a dream that survives all its struggles to become reality.

Given the speed that Bob works—he’s prolific, you know—how did you decide where to end the book?
That he is! We talked about that early on, and agreed that the book should be “a good read,” with a satisfying arc to the story. The Electrifying Conclusion (2004) ended up being a new phase of Bob’s career rather than the end, but we felt that was the natural place to drop the curtain. When Geppetto’s puppet turned into a real boy, so to speak.

Related to that, any plans or ideas for a follow-up?
I’d love to do a revision/expansion down the road that covers more of Bob’s solo work and side projects, and especially explores the band’s current incarnation in more detail. But there are no plans for that right now. I’d recommend that anyone on the fence about seeing GBV catch them on this tour. They’re going like gangbusters and blowing the doors off every club they hit.

There had to be things that you left out. Give MAGNET readers an exclusive anecdote that didn’t make the final cut.
One of my favorites is alluded to in the Circus Devils song, “Sunflower Wildman.” Summer of 1968, Bob, (his brother) Jimmy and their friend Emmett came upon a large cherry tree in someone’s front yard, branches bowed with fruit. They crept up to it. No one emerged from the house, so they started slamming these cherries. The juices, cool and sweet, popped in their mouths. They gorged themselves.

A hollering man appeared on the front porch. The boys fled to their bikes. “No, wait!” the man yelled. “Come back! It’s OK!” They paused. “Let me show you something.” He pulled a cherry off the tree and broke it open with his fingers. In the remnants writhed a plump, bright green fruit worm nearly as big as the cherry had been. The boys blanched. “Probably just that one,” the man remarked. “Let’s try another.” He proceeded to pluck 30 or 40 cherries, and none lacked a writhing parasite at its heart. “Oh, I guess it’s the whole tree.” He smiled. “You boys take care now!” Bob thought he might puke. Like the song says: “Don’t eat the cherries from Oscular’s tree/Filled with green larvae, as they simply wouldn’t agree.”

Exclusive Cover Story Excerpt: The Breeders Interviewed By Actor Elijah Wood

Here’s an exclusive excerpt of the current MAGNET cover story. To read the whole thing, order a copy of the issue here.

Interview by Elijah Wood

Photos by Jon Enoch

A quarter century after releasing the platinum-selling Last Splash and then drifting into an on-again/off-again period, the classic lineup of the Breeders is back with the aptly titled All Nerve, rocking like it’s 1993 all over again. Elijah Wood sits down with Kim and Kelley Deal to illuminate everything.

Elijah Wood: Like so many, when I first heard the Breeders in the summer of 1993 (I came to discover 1990’s Pod later), my ears were struck by the opening clack of Jim Macpherson’s drumsticks as intro to Josephine Wiggs’ iconic bass line of “Cannonball.” I was hooked. These four musicians, led by the singular voice of Kim Deal, stood out then—and remain now—as a band very much its own: sonically vital, idiosyncratic and incredibly special. I was honored to be asked by MAGNET to chat with Kim and Kelley Deal over the phone about their beautiful new album, All Nerve (4AD), the first with this lineup since Last Splash 25 years ago. Enjoy and rejoice that these fine folks are coming to a city near you and continuing to share their music with us! And check out Kim’s solo seven-inch project for an early version of “Walking With A Killer”

Elijah Wood: Where are you right now?
Kelley Deal: I’m in Dayton, Ohio, in my house.
Elijah: Oh, nice.
Kim Deal: Not really. I’m in Florida and sitting in a bay on the Atlantic Ocean in Summerland Key, in the lower Keys north of Key West.
Elijah: That sounds so lovely. Are you on vacation?
Kim: Yes. We started coming down here. You know, my dad used to come down here all the time, every year. And then he got old and needed help, so me and Kelley would grudgingly come down here. I don’t know about Kelley, but I hate the beach and laying out in the sun.
Elijah: I’ve never understood that, either. It only seems like kind of a weird waste of time.
Kim: It’s a punishment.
Elijah: Yeah. I’m good with swimming. I love to swim in the ocean, but the idea of laying out a blanket and reading a book or just lying there just seems … I have the same relationship with baths.
Kim: Oh, yeah. [Laughs]
Elijah: I just feel like after 15 minutes, I’m bored with it. And I overheat, and I need to get out of it.
Kelley: Yeah. We have similar coloration, don’t we? We’re kinda light skinned like that.
Elijah: Maybe it’s just not in our blood.
Kim: Yeah.
Elijah: Um, your new record is really incredible. I was so pleased when they sent it to me. I didn’t know that I was gonna get a chance to look into it before talking to you, but it’s so good. How did it come together? I know that you all reformed the Last Splash lineup for the reunion tour. Is that kind of how you all came back together?
Kelley: Exactly. I was sitting on my couch with my sister. Kim was visiting me. It was 2012. I commented, you know, “Next year is 2013. It will be 20 years since Last Splash, it will be the anniversary. Should we, like, give a show? We could invite Jim and Josephine and could just play the record and maybe just do a show or do a couple of shows or something.” And Kim said, “Sure. You invite Jim, and I’ll talk to Josephine.” And so we did, and everybody was game for it. They texted right back and said, “Sounds awesome.” That kind of started that. That was sometime in the summer of 2012, and we played our first show at the Bell House in Brooklyn in March of 2013. That started the ball rolling.
Elijah: It obviously felt really good to be back together again as a band because it clearly led to this album. When did the conversation begin about recording something new together?
Kim: Well, at first we’re just concentrating on, “OK, this song goes into this song. This song goes into this song. How are we gonna do ‘Mad Lucas’?” So a lot of that time, you know, it wasn’t that … It was something like eight months of touring from March to the end, but then as the touring was getting a little farther in, it’s sounding really good and people are enjoying it so much. It was a London Forum show where people were so happy to see us, and there was a booking agent that’s just, like, “Man, have you guys thought to do another record? You really should. This was a really incredible night.” And our friends were saying, “You guys need to play more.” And, of course, we think, “This is sounding good.” So we began to go and do things.
Elijah: Wow. Then with Kim’s seven-inch series … I’m trying to figure out the timeline. Was that happening concurrently?
Kim: Yes, the first seven-inch, which was “Walking With A Killer,” came out, like, Jan. 1, 2013. I had some other ones, in different stages of completion, ready to go. Now, I have another one ready to go, but I haven’t manufactured the seven-inch yet. I thought I would put them all together as an album maybe.
Elijah: Oh, that’s a cool idea.
Kim: Yeah, I thought maybe I could do something like that. But yeah, it was happening concurrently. And what’s one of the ones we’ve … Josephine and Kelley said that they really liked the “Walking With A Killer” song, and I knew other than you, Elijah, and a couple of other people, not a lot of people have heard of the song, you know. So we started playing that one live, and it just sounded so big and lush.
Elijah: Yeah, that sounded good.
Kim: I’d never played it live with a band. It was always done in pieces, because it was a solo thing.
Elijah: That was ultimately how you all decided to record that for the album: just playing it live.
Kim: Yeah, I was just like, “Oh my God, we should do this one.”
Elijah: That’s so great.
Kelley: It’s interesting. I’m sitting here thinking about all those songs on there, and there are so many that I would do: “Range On Castle,” “Dirty Hessians,” “Likkle More,” “Biker Gone.” There’s so many that I would love to play live because these songs don’t get a chance. But you know what’s interesting about that is just this band—like Josephine, she really liked “Walking.” I don’t know that she didn’t like the others. They’re not the ones that spoke to her, I guess. It’s interesting how in this particular band, the push and pull is different. It’s interesting to me ’cause I’m sitting here thinking, “I’d love to do ‘Range On Castle.’ Oh, it’s so awesome.” But I gotta respect what she sees. That’s what makes this different than the last thing or the solo series. It’s really interesting how that works out. It’s fascinating.
Elijah: The thing of a group of people coming together as a band is different than an individual person writing a song. Under the auspices of the band, it’s seemingly a democratic process. And therefore, it is. It totally is. It’s fascinating. The thing of those voices coming together as one making the band what it is for whatever reason.
Kelley: Yeah. Jim Macpherson is working a full-time job, and Josephine is very busy doing her stuff: soundtrack work and art-installation work. She’s like a little scientist up in Brooklyn doing her stuff. So you would think that here we are—we’re doing this and we’re offered that. I love the idea that Kim or Josephine can say, “It’s a deal.” Or, “No, no. I don’t wanna do that.” It wasn’t until recently that I thought, “You know, a lot of people wouldn’t do that with Kim.” They would just say, “Whatever you want,” you know? It’s interesting.
Elijah: I think that’s what makes the Breeders the Breeders: the combination of those voices.
Kelley: Exactly, yeah. It’s true.
Elijah: There’s another song that you all re-recorded, I think it was on (2002’s) Title TK. You recorded the Amps song “Full On Idle.” What was the thought process behind that?
Kim: Nobody knew the Amps record (1995’s Pacer) when it was out.
Elijah: That seems crazy to me.
Kim: But it’s true though, right?
Elijah: Yeah, I guess so.
Kim: So, it felt like nobody had heard it anyway, and sometimes a beautiful song could be done better. That was really the main thing. We were playing it live, and it sounded so much better. Maybe it’s not a really great thing to do, but I couldn’t stop myself. And the same with “Hoverin’” on the b-side of “Divine Hammer.” It’s just me and Kelley just going into a demo studio and doing it together for fun. I ended up using it as the b-side because I thought it sounded really cool, so rickety. I thought it could be done way better. So me and Jim did it with (Steve) Albini for the Amps record. Were you there, Kel?
Kelley: With Albini? Yes, I was.
Elijah: Speaking of the legendary engineer/record handyman … He recorded some of the new record as well, right?
Kim: Yeah. OK, here’s the thing with Albini, I think. When you go to a studio with him, it’s not sort of a place where you can workshop an idea out or anything. There’s definitely spaces on a song that don’t sound good. [Laughs] For instance, there can be a song that I can think of that it’s not the greatest part, but if we get the guitars distorted enough or whatever, it’ll sound OK. I don’t know. There’s things like that where these things worked. But with Albini, the recording process is so revealing of what’s happening, and he takes it to the basics. So at every level, it can’t just be … I can’t cringe anywhere in the song with Albini.
Elijah: He’s sort of notorious for that, isn’t he? He’s kind of the person who refuses to be called a producer. He refuses to take that producing credit, and he’s just there to filter whatever the band is bringing them without any … I’ve heard that he notoriously doesn’t offer any kind of thoughts necessarily, right?
Kim: Right. Well, he would, you know, refer to himself as a plumber.
Elijah: Right. [Laughs]
Kim: If you want a good recording of what you’re doing in the studio, out in the room, he will give you the best recording that he’s capable of doing. And he approaches everything professionally. He will make you sound exactly like you sound, and sometimes that’s not good.
Elijah: If your idea or if your song is not as fully fleshed out as you’d like it to be, then it can showcase some of the work that you weren’t keen to experience.
Kim: It could. On the other hand, he does like to say that he doesn’t like to influence anybody’s recording and artistic decisions. But at the same time, with “All Nerve,” I definitely had a harmony that I wanted to do to that part of a song, and I got some pushback. “You don’t need a harmony.” But whenever I wanna double something, he’ll say, “It just sounds better single here.” But sometimes, he likes to listen to the damaged fragility of a single vocal. He finds that way more compelling than he would find a voice like Adele that’s beautiful. Not that she’s not doing a damaged beautiful vocal. I’m not saying that.
Elijah: He’s not looking for perfection. He just wants the naked, revealing recording of the band.
Kim: Which is sometimes extremely, exactly what I don’t wanna do. But in the end, he’s always right. He really is always right. It’s really ridiculous how right he usually is. It’s frustrating.

A Conversation With The B-52s’ Cindy Wilson

If you see Cindy Wilson as part of her now-40-year-old day job—with Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider, one of three vocalists with the B-52s—she’s in a bouffant wig singing tart, dance-punk classics, wriggling through the Mashed Potato and celebrating the band’s anniversary on tour. Yet for her first-ever solo projects—two self-released EPs, Sunrise and Supernatural, and a spooky-yet-cheerful album, Change (Kill Rock Stars)—Wilson is resplendent in a Warhol-white hairdo, a cool musical reserve and a powerful, nuanced and beautiful voice that’s always sounded as if it’s come from far beyond the heavens of Planet Claire.

You’re a Southern belle from birth, and I know you just moved back to Athens, Ga. What’s the long-lasting allure? And is this the Athens of our youth?
The B-52s all moved to New York City once we signed with Warner Bros. and lived there for years. After (1989’s) Cosmic Thing came out, my husband and I moved back down to the South, first to Atlanta and, more recently, to Athens in a cute little house in Five Points. I love being back there. And you know how Athens is. Even back in the day it was ever-changing. That’s the thing with a college town. I was born there, so it’s like watching a river go by, always flowing. One of Athens’ charms is that it has new energy, that it’s constantly replenishing itself. That’s fun to watch.

Do you find yourself part of the scene again down there like you were at the start of the B-52s?
Are you asking me if I’m a regular at certain venues? [Laughs] Not really. That’s not to say I don’t ever get out to see bands. Doing this solo thing does put me back in the scene, especially as we’re back to playing small clubs. I think that I have the same new energy as the city.

I know there’s 40th anniversary stuff with the B-52s, but in the last 20 months, everyone in the band has done solo stuff. Do the three of you discuss being apart as much as you do band work?
Oh, sure, and everything works out great among us. Kate’s record came out not long ago, and Fred is constantly making new music, but we’re totally committed to the B-52s. We’re friends first and foremost and still have a great time performing. I think we’re having as much fun as the audience.

Forget about what took you so long to make your solo debut. Have you been working toward something on your own before the EPs? Was doing a solo thing much of a big deal?
Music is a lovely and wonderful stress reliever. I had some free time, and a friend of mine (Ryan Monahan) and I just started kicking it around the studio. We started working with another friend, Suny Lyons, and it became a thing. If it’s not fun or exciting, why do it in the first place? As it got more exciting, it became more and more concrete in my mind. It felt like something that I could put my energy into. Several songs into it all, we came up with a show and took it to SXSW—that’s when it became real. That’s when we decided to bring it to a label for support and guidance, and Kill Rock Stars was able to appreciate the whole package, even though we put out the EPs on our own before we toured.

I love that the EPs feel different than the album. Were you testing the musical waters for yourself with the EPs or were you seeing how a potential audience, old and new, might respond?
We kept hearing after the EPs came out that we might want to add more uptempo numbers to our repertoire. [Laughs] We agreed, so we wrote more upbeat tunes for the album and the show.

You have two sonic modes upon which you rely on Change: Germanic motorik krautrock and French electro pop. Is this stuff you’re listening to and bringing to the table? How did you know that would work for your voice, as what you do during your day job is so far from this?
We combined all of our interests and sounds, but Suny and Ryan are just genius. It was a process, but the first song where I knew we could do this was “Brother.”

I don’t love pinpointing or interpreting lyrics, but I can’t help but think that the idea of “Brother” is deeply personal. [Wilson’s brother, B-52s co-founder Ricky, died from the effects of AIDS in 1985.]
We started performing with a bunch of old friends, starting with this tribute night to Athens bands from the later ’70s and early ’80s like Pylon. It was a cool evening where we all did each other’s songs. That sort of led me to put my own twist onto the whole brother idea.

You’ve been part of a band dynamic since 1977 and friends with the B-52s before that. You keep talking about Suny and Ryan with great respect and affection. Would it be fair to say that maybe you waited as long as you did to make your own music until you found an equally comfortable nesting place as the one you had with your brother and (B-52s co-founder who no longer tours with the band) Keith Strickland? Is how you worked on Change in any way like how you used to work with Keith and Ricky?
That’s very perceptive of you. It was indeed something I was looking for, and I didn’t even know that I was looking for until I found it happened. When it did, it just felt natural. Now, I’m tripping. I’m just so happy about it. Really.

You should be. Going back to the B-52s, “Big Bird,” “Give Me Back My Man,” “She Brakes For Rainbows.” These are all your songs. Fred and Kate had a more Dadaist lyrical approach, but you seemed to be silly but to the point. That’s what I noticed about Change as a whole, that it’s more impressionistic than your B-52s work and more universal without being socially or politically tinged. What say you?
I think so. I hope so. I’m a liberal, a Democrat. I want to talk about it all but not in the music per se. What I tried to do … I definitely always had my silly side, where we’re laughing and jamming, but I wanted my songs to sound real. Even now, something such as “Ain’t It A Shame,” I wanted that to sound sincere and not as if I was making fun of a thing … I want to be amusing but with just a touch of realism.

—A.D. Amorosi

A Conversation With Marc Almond

Be it his epic, cabaret-pop solo albums or his wonky electro-wave work in Soft Cell, Marc Almond is an avatar of modern dramatic vocal arts. Whether he belies or deifies his influences (Lotte Lenya, Gene Pitney, David Bowie), Almond has remade the image of the nü-pop singer with a tortured theatricality that would make Judy Garland seem tame. He hasn’t released music in the U.S. since the ’90s—2016’s gorgeously collected Trials Of Eyeliner 10-CD anthology was only properly released in the U.K.—but things change with Shadows And Reflections (BMG), an album of stirringly stagey new Almond songs and rare covers, all tinged with a cosmopolitan sheen and arching melodicism fans of Bacharach, Brel, Webb and Hazlewood will adore.

Do you believe in fate or free will? Where do you stand on the philosophical side of the ledger?
I don’t believe in fate because, in some way, that requires we believe in something predetermined by supernatural powers, and that doesn’t interest me.

You’ve had great health and lousy health. How has the latter made you appreciate the former?
Great health is something you take for granted until you lose it. I suppose if I thought I was going to live this long I would’ve taken better care of myself.

I’ve witnessed you in many live music circumstances. Are you done with Rewind ’80s tours or is there something heartening about seeing and hearing audiences respond to your most public moments or hits?
I find myself in the fortunate position that I’m still asked to do Rewinds and retro festivals, and I’m now OK with that because it isn’t all I do. I can do a song cycle, Ten Plagues, which was a metaphor about the AIDS crisis by avant-garde composers Conor Mitchell and Mark Ravenhill. Or I can sing “Tainted Love” to 40,000 people and see how happy it makes them to relive their youth. That’s a great position to be in.

Coming off a 10-LP boxed set of your past and knowing Mike Thorne is readying a collection of Soft Cell tracks, have you had just about enough of your past?
No, the past defines us. If I only had the past it would personally be worrying, but I don’t. I keep working and recording new material, or revisiting the past. I no longer have a problem with going back, since there’s more behind me than ahead.

Several songs on the new album—“Overture,” “Interlude,” “No One To Say Goodnight To”—set and frame the record’s mood. They’re composed and orchestrated by you and longtime collaborator John Harle. How does his music speak to you?
John Harle is another great musician/composer, one of Britain’s finest. His understanding of the limits of musicality, his extraordinary ability to take out as much as he puts in, to let a composition breathe and have life, is amazing. His music doesn’t just speak to me. It is transformative and transports you.

Why the ’60s—that particular 1960s—as an inspirational éclat for Shadows? A little bit Mod, a little Carnaby Street cosmopolitan, a little—in the words of Sandra Bernhard—bit of Burt?
I mean, where do I begin? It’s the roots and new shoots of so much of the family tree of all modern music, so much potential, so many possibilities, so much to say and hope for in that decade of music. It just felt like such a natural thing to do and such a joy to explore so many great, relatively unknown songs.

Considering the whole Jimmy Webb/Bacharach vibe of Shadows, did your heart sink when Glen Campbell passed?
He will be sadly missed, and his influence is far more deeply felt than might’ve first been apparent.

You worked with Bacharach at the London Palladium, and you do his “Blue On Blue” here. I don’t mean to starfuck, but that just sounds like a magnificent opportunity—was he cool to work with? Why do this song, as opposed to a million others?
It’s still this relatively unknown song, and I love tunes that are sad and mournful, but feel in their arrangements to convey the exact opposite. It was great to work with Burt. He, of course, writes principally with women in mind, the simplicity of his storytelling always masks a subtext. He was thrilled I chose this song.

On the new album, you start with a picture of a man in an apartment, and end with a picture of a man in an apartment. Are you selling real estate now, or do you picture Shadows And Reflections as someone walled in by circumstance?
Exactly. I couldn’t have put it better myself. I wanted the songs to hang together to form a narrative, arranged around the opening and closing tracks. In many ways, it’s an homage to the films of the late ’50s and ’60s directed by Douglas Sirk. Once again, it’s the subtexts that I am fascinated by, the language of what is not said, and the bleakness of pursuing capitalist soulless dreams. It’s also about the emptiness of things, a lack of spirituality as a warning.

I ran around with you and the Soft Cell crowd when you first came to New York. You seemed to love the city, and then you seemed to hate it and never came back, more or less. Are you ever coming back?
I did love it. You have relationships with cities and places, you fall in love, and then they change and madden you, or leave you behind, or become something other than that thing you fell in love with. Or maybe we change. I loved New York, and then didn’t. I was in love with New York, and then wasn’t. But infuriatingly I still love it in some hope that we can rekindle something.

—A.D. Amorosi

A Conversation With Jane Birkin

For every sound and image of Jane Birkin burned into memory (e.g., Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Vadim’s Don Juan, Or If Don Juan Were A Woman), there’s an equal amount dedicated to her time with Serge Gainsbourg. From 1969 to 1980, the love pair created the legendarily naughty song “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus,” a film (Slogan) and a daughter, Charlotte. Gainsbourg made Birkin something of a muse, writing dozens of complexly wordy songs for her and, in turn, she continues the observance of their co-joined legacy with the new, lush Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique (Warner Classics/Parlophone) and a rare live celebration of such, February 1 at Carnegie Hall.

Once you made your fortune in France, you never really returned home to London. What was the allure?
I left for France to do a screen test when I was 20. John Barry (her then-husband, known for composing the music for 12 James Bond films) had already left for Los Angeles, with me not knowing what else to do. So I went to Paris and never came back—maybe just for Christmas or holidays. I just wound up staying with Serge after John and I divorced for the next 13 years or so.

I would be remiss if I did not mention your daughter, Charlotte, and her latest album, Rest. Do you keep up with each release, the minutiae of it all?
She let me listen to Rest about two years ago, and I was astounded by her words, her honesty. It was so true and beautiful, poetically speaking. I think that she was brave in opening her heart to what hurts. What’s strange about this is that she was always a very secret child—a very introverted actress. She never talked about her private life. Now she has this desire to be open and for people to understand her. And that has a remarkable beauty to it.

Does she get that from you or Serge?
I would say that she got that most from Serge—at least maybe the writing, though Serge used a style of writing that was very much like Cole Porter, really; of cutting words into two and singing them as part of the next lines. So it is a whole thing. He was the most modern writer that ever existed in France, more so than Brel and such. It was his way of shortening words or using slang. No one has really been like him since, so he is a constant reference to anybody who writes in French

He had a brilliant level of wordplay that mixed the erudite with the erotic—even foul. When you were first presented with his lyrics and his shifting musicality, how did you embrace it?
I’m never really sure what people mean when they say embrace. [Laughs] He wrote many songs for me—eventually one every two years over 20-odd years.

Until he passed.
What he gave me to sing was what I believe was most feminine about him, and all his sadness, and all his breakups, even the one involving me, as well. That’s a very strange psychological position to be in. It was intriguing to try to be up to his standards and honor it in some way. When we were together, I guess it felt more normal for him to write about me or to me, as I was always by his side. He gave me the most beautiful of his songs always.

I don’t mean to sound naïve, but if someone was writing songs for me and about me on a regular basis, I might find them difficult to sing. Flattered and moved, yes, but did you find that awkward?
Not a naïve question at all because it is really not that simple. I mean, there were songs that he wrote explicitly about me having an affair and about how he cried. And they were written in such a beautiful way. I was like you; terribly moved and awkward. I could understand they were wonderful songs and from a man’s soul. I just tried to sing them as high as I could in pitch to make him as pleased as he could and feel as if I was interpreting his words to the very highest of standards. I would watch him through the glass of the studio and hoped they were as beautiful as they could be. And not disappoint him I was singing his pain. I always hoped for another 12 songs, then another. And then he died.

How did you even learn to sing, since acting was your thing?
I was in a musical when I was 17: The Passion Flower Hotel. It was very bad with lots of stupid songs such as “I Must I Must I Must Increase My Bust.” So not funny. A real school farce. There were, however, a few beautiful melodies because that is what John Barry did. No one noticed whether I had a good voice—it was just that I lived with the composer. It was weird that I found myself again in the musical arena with Serge, especially at first with this terribly sexy song “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus.” It was a lot of heavy breathing, which I understood exacty what that was. I also understood that every other pretty girl in Paris wanted to sing that song with him. I was no fool. So when he said he’d written “Jane B Preludio De Chopin 4,” well, I loved him. I didn’t care what the song was. It was just good fun being with him being out on the road. I never cared much about anything. I wasn’t really a professional person with some grand ambition. I believe he would think it funny that I’m here doing this in America now. He loved America.

I do get that Serge was classically trained, but why do this as a symphony?
I don’t know if he saw it as so grand, but he did use classical music as inspiration and when he wanted to give us something beautiful. His father was a classically trained musician who played piano in cabarets and casinos. It’s a bit pompous, this show, as I didn’t know if I had the voice for it. But I did do this first as a reading of his lyrics—to show off what sort of poet he was. I believe Serge would have been pleased, as he was only able to use full orchestras for his movies. Orchestras were always so frightfully expensive. I believe he would be moved especially hearing “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” played that way.

—A.D. Amorosi

Suicide Wife: Alan Vega’s Missus Liz Lamere Chats Love, Art And Boxing

When Suicide Sally: A Celebration Of The Music Of Suicide And Alan Vega unfurls in real time on January 25 at The Bowery Electric in Manhattan, the sold-out live event promises to go beyond mere renditions of classic Suicide songs and those of the late Vega. This time, it will most likely be deeply personal. Led by Jesse Malin and Mr. Pharmacist (Gregg Foreman), the live celebration will include old friends and collaborators—Martin Rev of Suicide, Ric Ocasek, Ben Vaughn—as well as those who followed in Vega’s footsteps: JG Thirlwell (Foetus), Peter Zaremba (Fleshtones), Kid Congo Powers (Cramps, Gun Club), Eugene Hutz (Gogol Bordello), Bob Bert (Sonic Youth) and Cynthia Sley (Bush Tetras).

Best of all, there will be family—Vega’s wife/collaborator Liz Lamere and their son Dante—hailing the one-time singer/songwriter for minimalist experimental/electronic duo Suicide and his series of latter-day, primal soundscape/rockabilly solo efforts. Renowned for his aggressive way with song (as a raw gut-shot howler and as an earthen apocalyptic lyricist), Vega passed in 2016 at age 78 with his legend intact—as an avatar not only of the proto-punk scene that birthed Talking Heads and Television but of the scorched-earth sound of noise and beauty, a terroristic, tremulous tone that continued to be his life’s work up through his last solo album IT, which came out last year. (Lamere contributed to all of Vega’s work since 1990’s Deuce Avenue.)

If Lou Reed was NYC’s saint of the streetwise, Vega was its soul.

MAGNET recently spoke with Lamere, a fascinating woman whose Twitter handle reads ”Artist Producer Manager Fixer – Music Art Boxing Life.”

I don’t know what’s more fascinating about your Twitter tagline—the art or the boxing bit.
Funny you should say that. Alan was a boxing fan from way back.

That does not surprise me. I am a fanatic as well—the whole mano-a-mano thing.
The early days of listening to boxing exclusively on the radio—he was so fond of that. And Alan put Mike Tyson into a sculpture of his before anyone really knew who Mike Tyson was. That theme has appeared and reappeared in his visual career as well as the music. He’s always talked about warriors and underdogs—that passion and drive. Boxing is not a game. It is a science, and you are literally putting yourself in a situation where you could be killed. Alan felt that was about being on the stage. He had tremendous respect for athletes on the whole and boxers in particular. They put their life on the line for their artistry.

So how do you figure into that?
Fighting teaches you tremendous life lessons. About 11 years ago, I started boxing to stay fit. I was coaching my son’s soccer team—I played varsity soccer in my youth—from the ages five to 15, and by the time they hit eight, they start getting stronger and faster. I liked to scrimmage with them because I’m not a sideline-type coach. So I just starting boxing to keep up for fitness. The traditional club I was in they, call it a white-collar boxing club because the men and women who were there—on Wall Street—were investment bankers. About five or six years in, one of the owners of the club knew that I managed Alan’s art and music and asked if I would do the same for some fighters. So I got my manager’s license and began managing a female fighter first because it is tough for the females. So much of it is pay-to-play—you have to really build up a track record and support and sell your own tickets, and someone picks you up.

Sounds like the music industry.
Yeah, where you have to build up your own support system and following until the big guys come in and put you on the bigger stage. Interestingly enough, I want to be in the Guinness Book Of World Records and make my boxing debut as the oldest professional to hit the ring for the first time. I’m 50-something, and the record is currently held by a man who was in prison for a crime he did not commit, and when he got out, Bernard Hopkins put him on the undercard. I’m moving toward that. I’m working on my defense, and I’m very aggressive. My son Dante—I spar with him. He wants me to know what’s it is to get hit in the face. I did the same with a lot of professional boxers—men—in the past, but I need to get hit in the head and get my defenses up. Too many men won’t hit me. Women—they will go at you. They’ll kill you. But with women, I go right at them, too, so they don’t want to spar with me.

This is the woman Alan Vega fell in love with. What were you doing circa 1987 when you met him?
I actually met him Oct. 23, 1985, at a record-release event thrown for him by Elektra Records for his Just A Million Dreams album. I was a second-year associate at a corporate law firm, and one of my colleagues was the sister of his guitar player at the time. We were actually going to pick him up at the Gramercy Park Hotel, as the party was at the Palladium. I didn’t know who Alan Vega was even though I did play drums in a band—did so since age 16, nothing serious—in Boston and knew the Dead Boys and the Neighborhoods. Even knew the Cars, though I thought they were pop. Suicide and Vega? Nothing. So anyway, we go to pick him up, and he whips open the car door, and the first thing I notice is that he’s got this crazy amount of energy. I mean, it was just radiating off this person. We get to the Palladium, and there are these three light sculptures on the wall. On the floor were effects pedals—a real mish mosh of electronic stuff, and he just took command of it all. I was impressed. He was impressed with me, too, as I was this lawyer by day, punk-rock chick at night. Weird because my colleague thought I would click with her brother. Alan kept leaving his circles of well-wishers that night and coming over to me especially, as he was leaving the next morning for a tour of Europe. After that night, I didn’t see him for six weeks. Oh, and here’s the weird thing.

Here’s the weird thing?
I’m into astrology—not heavily or obsessive but fascinated—and that very morning I read my horoscope that said that I would meet a lamb in wolf’s clothing. Honest to god, Alan that same night when I met him was wearing a belt buckle that read “WOLF” all over it. That was really intense. I still have it in my collection of Alan things. That was my initial meeting with Alan Vega. He came back from the tour—I couldn’t get him out of my head, that visceral reaction to his presence, and he to me—and as soon as he got back from that tour, I met him at the Gramercy Park and we just talked for hours. We were together from that on.

Was he keen to work with you as a drummer?
Not really, because he used to have a keyboard player in his band—Anne Deon—who was his girlfriend. A very passionate Italian woman who slowly kept edging her way to center stage. It became something of a rivalry between them. I don’t think he dug that, and that wasn’t what I was about, either. That would be the end of our relationship, so I kept it cool. At that point, he was very much about deconstructing his music. He would work with producers and come up with polished stuff such as Just A Million Dreams, but then he would do a song like “Ra Ra Baby”—he did that when the producer was on break—that was just sheer energy and noise. He really wanted to get back to that level of raw, that deconstruction. He had this thing—this theory—of “no note,” where you held down all the keys of a keyboard all at once. Black on black. You didn’t have to focus. He liked me as a drummer because I kept it simple, didn’t do any fills. Keep the beat: the purity of simplicity. Very minimal. Right out there. So vulnerable. Nothing on the front line or spotlight. That stuck out for Alan. Can we strip it down? The paradox of that is when you hear it, hear what he did, it was true rhythm and blues. When you get a gut feel of where that is going to or can go, that was intense. I do not know if we will ever hear again a vocalist who was as pure as Alan Vega. He always did the vocals last when he got to the studio. The music would be done. He would just go into the booth without any idea or knowledge and just wail. He would write sketches nightly, tons of notebooks, that he would use as a framework but then go into a studio and freestyle from there. Done in one performance. And the placement was always unique—where he placed his vocals within the context. I get really excited thinking of all this.

You should be. I’m married to a talented artist. I get it. How, then, did you get to be his collaborator, producer and drummer?
It really was just an evolution. So natural. No plan. No expectations. That was the beauty of working with Alan. Some of the roles I executed early on … I mean he had me working these machines by hand that I had never played before. Neither had he, really—he wasn’t this amazing musician. But he just knew sound. He was the director of sound. The tape was always rolling, and he always just knew immediately when you had hit upon something. Everything from 1987 through to 2016 was just us manipulating hours and hours of tape and until we got what Alan thought was totally unique. That was his mission: something that had never been heard before. Eventually I would say, “Hey, we’ve been doing these 40 tracks for years. Can we pick 11 of them that we can turn into songs and Alan can sing on them?” He loved that challenge. He wanted to keep going until it became uncomfortable. As soon as he got it, he had to push past it. He would do the same thing with sculpture: He would work on something that seemed finished, then smash it and start again from there and deconstruct that. “Alan, can’t we save that? Alan, can’t we hold on to that song as is?” No. He would tape over things and smash things because to him it was irrelevant as soon as he did it. That was his ethos. He always needed to move forward. He never went backward. When we did—when we went through his vaults—we would find stuff that just was so amazing and timeless. Alan’s music transcends time and space. Probably because he was searching for the unknown.

Is that how IT was created—culled from tracks—or was it more centered and specific?
Maybe I’m overstating. He would bring CDs back from the studio and center on a core group of sounds or songs. “This needs more bass.” “This needs a sound that could be a guitar or a lawnmower.” That is what became the cohesive whole. I would push to get him to which songs went forward from there, then got mixed, had vocals out on and such. What was hardest then was getting him to commit, and commit with lyrics and vocals. Because that was a statement. Yes, there are universal themes that happen to or with our collective consciousness, but he had trouble with the idea of putting something out into that consciousness. He was uncompromising in his vision, but he was vulnerable once it was out there. He was the heart and soul of his own music. I just kept it on track. Even when he had his stroke.

So he knew time was closing in?
I mean, he was going back and forth from sculpting and making music and doing songs that evolved into IT at a time when he could’ve dropped dead and knowing that his arteries were blocked. His doctors didn’t even want to unblock his carotid arteries because they thought it would cause another stroke. Even toward the end, he kept doing these portraits of faces that had lost any distinction—no faces. He was connecting with the spirit world. His last group of paintings had no faces; it was degeneration. And those paintings were connected to the songs of IT. They had the same names. He knew this was his final statement. And the message was inspirational: After going through generations of war and strife, you can’t let anything stop you. You have to get up and move forward.

—A.D. Amorosi

A Conversation With The Posies

As the Posies celebrate three decades making music together, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow ponder the band’s Geffen years


Tommy Keene’s recent passing only serves to underscore the realization that power pop will always be a marginalized idiom of its own making. The Posies realized this early on and seriously set about debunking its very existence with 1993’s Frosting On The Beater, a darkly beautiful album that ranks among the ’90s finest moments—and certainly one of its most enduring.
 Starting in May, Omnivore will be reissuing Frosting, along with its DGC bookends: 1990’s Dear 23 and 1996’s Amazing Disgrace. Posies founders Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow assure us that each will deliver a payload of juicy outtakes and such. Vinyl versions of the original LPs are also part of the campaign. Meanwhile, Auer and Stringfellow are heading out as a duo starting this week, before reassembling the Frosting-era band for a fully fleshed-out celebration of the Posies’ flirtation with major-label infamy. These days, both are residing in Europe, where MAGNET caught up with them via transcontinental conference call.

What are the details surrounding the reissues?
Auer: May 4 for Dear 23, July 27 for Frosting On The Beater and October 26 for Amazing Disgrace—that’s the timeline from Omnivore.

What can fans expect?


Auer: I know that sometimes there’s a tendency to repackage bonus tracks that’ve been previously released and just update them, remaster then and sell them all over again, and sure, were doing some of that. But so much of what will be on the re-releases has never been made available before, and it’s all culled from our personal archives. We navigated our way through a huge stash of an obsolete media form known as the DAT tape, which yielded incredible stuff, some of which we didn’t even remember recording. It’s shocking, for instance, to see how many demoes there were for Dear 23. And for Frosting, there’s no way we could fit all the extra stuff on the reissue and make is manageable.
Stringfellow: To be clear, we did put out a box set in 2000 with a whole bunch of unreleased stuff. But almost none of the bonus tracks on the new reisssues were on that box set. So there’s that much more unreleased material that we’ve been able to find.

How about the vinyl reissues?


Auer: What’s cool is that we’re going back to the original master tapes, so it’s not like we’ll have to live with some inferior source anymore. We’re able to do a nice polish on these original masters, and that’s pretty incredible. The technology has improved so much since “back in the day.”
Stringfellow: The CD version of Dear 23 is one of the reasons why I’ve never gone back to that album much. It didn’t sound very good to me.

Yeah, you really have to turn that one up.
Stringfellow: And after listing to the original tapes, I have to say that it’s not the same record—it’s way better sounding. Sonically, it’s much clearer and more close at hand. Dear 23 always stuck out because it sounded a little mushy and washy. Frosting was meat-and-potatoes solid and hard hitting, and our other albums just don’t have the reverb thing that Dear 23 had. We were teenagers when we did that album, and we learned a few things in the three years of touring after that.
Auer: I think there was somewhat of an intimidation factor in making that first major-label album. I mean, we’d made this independent record (1988’s Failure) that had gotten all this attention that led to this record deal with DGC/Geffen fairly quickly. And then, all of a sudden, we were making a record with one of our production heroes, Sir John Leckie, a true English gentleman who’d worked with Pink Floyd, XTC … some of our all-time favorite artists and records. I think we spent six weeks working on 10 songs for Dear 23; we spent 90 hours total on Failure! To me, sometimes it sounds like we’re trying a little too hard, like it’s a little stiff. That’s what I hear when I put it on. But I still think it’s a pretty great record.

On Frosting, the two things that stand out the most for me are the larger-than-life guitars and the insane drumming of Mike Musburger.
Auer: The ironic thing about the sound of the guitars being so huge is that it was stumbled upon through these really small amps we were using—it’s in between distorted and clean. And we were experimenting with open tunings heavily, and personally, I felt like we were finally establishing something we felt was our own.
Stringfellow: And there’s a British way of making records, and there’s an American way of making records.
Auer: We were encouraged by our new producer to relax as well. I mean, you couldn’t get more opposite of John Leckie than Don Fleming. Don was more of a rock guy with no formal engineering training, and he wouldn’t let us get fussy about things. The drums and guitars weren’t labored over; we all felt free to let it all hang out in the studio.

Any quick thoughts on Amazing Disgrace?
Stringfellow: “Dense” is a word that comes to mind. It has some wonderfully composed pop songs, but it didn’t come off that way somehow. It’s not as easy to approach, which is another reason to like it. It’s more demanding.
Auer: It’s our most rocking record—the one that has the most aggression. In retrospect, I’m amazed at how angry it sounds.

I saw you perform in Houston on the Amazing Disgrace tour. You looked a little angry that night.


Stringfellow: That U.S. tour was right on the heels of a European tour and went right into an Australian tour. It was never-ending, and the four personalities in the band were going in pretty different directions, really. There were two divorces going on, and we’d kind of hit a wall in terms of the exponential growth we’d experienced. We were just these dudes on tour, with some of us taking drugs at some point and getting into funks. We weren’t communicating very well, and that’s a disaster.

On a more positive note, I’m really looking forward to seeing Mike Musburger on drums for this tour. 

Auer: The first time we played with Mike, we decided to do a few covers. “I.O.U.” by the Replacements was the first song we ever played together. After the guitar intro, there’s this single snare hit that occurs, and I remember shooting a look at Ken after Mike made that first hit, like I’d been hit by lightning.


Stringfellow: I was 19, Jon was 18, and Mike was maybe 20. None of us was old enough to drink, and Mike shouldn’t have sounded that pro. But he had his act together, for sure. It was pretty obvious that he was amazing.

—Hobart Rowland