While sitting at his home in Gainesville, Fla., David Gordon apprehensively chats about his forthcoming FUNKILLER record. Talking about his own music is not Gordon’s strong suit, though he comes alive when his earnest sound is likened to the late Daniel Johnston.
“I actually have an original piece of his,” he says. “It says, ‘You can go crazy too, but don’t ever come back.’ It’s a beautiful thing.”
For those not living near Gordon in Florida, in some nearby Spanish-moss-covered town, you’ve likely never heard his lush, poetic music. He’s only released one album, 2005’s On Cemetery Road, and since then, he’s rarely played live. Instead, he’s been slowly chipping away at his upcoming Tropical Depression.
The 10-track album spirals freely, never clutching to a specific genre. From harmonious, airy ballads that’d make Brian Wilson smile to trippy, Flaming Lips dream pop, Tropical Depression delivers a classic listen-on-headphones experience. “Rattlesnake Freight Train” even delves into an ethereal Joe Meek/“Telstar” arena that quickly dissolves into some Cramps-tripping-on-acid rock ‘n’ roll. Somehow, Gordon’s music is still seamless and obviously cut from the same sonic cloth.
Inside most indie rockers of a certain age there’s a closet Styx lover. The group may never have been a critical darling, but the hooky and instantly identifiable melodies, crunching guitars and soaring vocals made for a hard-to-resist package. Dennis DeYoung, former singer and keyboard player for the band and author of most of Styx’s biggest hits, has released 26 East: Volume 1 (Frontiers), a 10-song album that DeYoung has indicated is the first part of the last recorded work he will do. The LP is a contemplative and rewarding look backward on a life spent making music, featuring a nostalgic duet with Julian Lennon (“To The Good Old Days”) as well as harder-edged tunes with a topical bent (“With All Due Respect”). There’s even a nod to Styx classic Paradise Theater in the form of closer “A.D. 2020.”
MAGNET spoke with DeYoung about 26 East: Volume 1, Styx’s connection with fans and how he’s been coping with the pandemic. [Ed note: This interview was conducted before George Floyd was killed.]
I wanted to start off by asking how you and your family have been holding up under the current situation with COVID-19? Well, my wife—we’ve been married 50 years, and she’s 71 years old, and she’s been so serious about this thing. Even in the house—and we’ve been here for like 10 weeks—she insists I stay six feet away from her. Even during sex, and she said it’s never been better.
That’s pretty funny, but it’s obviously a tough time for everybody, and it’s probably a strange time for you to be releasing new music. Well, obviously, everybody’s in that particular boat. So you know, first of all, my first single was released on a Monday in March, and then on Wednesday the W.H.O.—and I don’t mean Daltrey and Townshend—declared a pandemic, and I said, “Well, after two-and-half years of work, this seems like pretty auspicious timing.” Nonetheless, in the big picture, my little album is meaningless compared to what billions of people are going to suffer through because of this. I’m not one of those celebrities who say we’re all in this together. We are to a point, but really those of us who have been fortunate enough to be successful in our lives are not in that category with everybody else. We’re doing a little bit better. I look at this and I think, well, you know, I entertain people. That’s what I’ve done my whole life. About a month ago, people asked me to do one of these celebrity things from home and sing a song, because they thought my music would lift their spirits. Really, I’ll take a take a vaccine over any song I’ve written.
But I did it, and then over a million people watched me sing “The Best Of Times” into an iPad on my out-of-tune piano. I was overwhelmed in every possible manner. I don’t get a million people to come and see anything I do in three or four weeks. That’s just unheard of; I’m not Lady Gaga, for goodness sake. So I was surprised by it, but what I discovered, there are so many of what I like to call “silent majority Styx fans” out there who, for whatever reason, don’t have time to pay attention to every little thing one of their favorite bands from when they were in high school are doing. But they came out in force and said the nicest things about me and my voice and my songwriting.
I don’t come in contact all the time with these million people. But, when I read the comments, they are ridiculously nice on so many levels. These fans, what I think they were saying is, “We love Styx. It was one of the most important times in our lives. And we loved that moment, and we loved that music.” So, this is what’s been happening with me during the pandemic, and because of it, I’ve never stopped doing Zooms. I was just on Rachel Ray. What am I doing at 73 years old on Extra, Access. All these people that are coming to me. There was a piece in Rolling Stone saying that Styx should reunite. It’s surprising to me. But I think, “Wow, OK then, I like it—and I’m in my house!”
So the cancellation of the tour was monumental in a way, because I have people who are in my employ. I think they’re the very best band in the world to duplicate Styx’s music live. That’s why I put this band together. And, they’re affected by this. So, it hurts me as it hurts me to see the countless people in this country and around the globe whose lives are being crushed by COVID-19.
I’ve been listening to the new album, and it sounds fantastic. You mentioned your band; did you use your touring band on the album? Not only does your voice sound amazing, but the players are all great, too. My band is on there, but I have outside players, too. Jim Peterik (Survivor, Ides Of March), my coconspirator, played guitar, and he played bass on couple of tracks. My son played drums on the Julian Lennon duet. Other than that I think my drummer, Mike Morales, plays on every track. Another fantastic guitar player, Mike Aquino, who’s a local guy who plays with Jim Peterik, helped. And Jimmy Leahey, who I’ve used, is on the record. I’m glad you liked it. I picked terrific musicians. And, I have to tell you, it’s number five on Amazon. Yeah, and I think that’s a total of six-and-a-half sales. Nonetheless, I think someone’s considering buying it somewhere in Nebraska right now! But, I’m thrilled by the response, and the reviews have been pretty darn terrific. And I was scared to death to make this record. Didn’t want to do it and resisted it for almost three-and-half years. But Peterik nagged me. And so, we did it, and I have been surprised by the reaction to it. That’s not false modesty.
I think it’s one of your strongest works; the whole thing just flows nicely together. As I’ve read, the title refers to your childhood home, and I did a little Google cyber-stalking on Street View, and I see the house is still there where you formed Styx with the Panozzo twins in the basement. I think it was Roger McGuinn who said he wished the Byrds had the kind of friendship as a band that the Beatles had. Did you find it was helpful that you guys started out as friends so early on in your career? Invaluable! John and Chuck and I started that band, and every guitar player who joined, joined a successful band. We had gigs. We were a wedding band in the beginning with me on accordion, Chuck on guitar and John on drums. And, yeah, we were across the street from each other. But with the three of us being that close, and JY (James Young) and JC (John Curulewski)—the original five—we all lived within three or four miles of each other. But, Chuck and I have begun talking again recently when I asked him permission to use his images in the video (“To The Good Old Days”). It only ended up that way because Jules (Lennon) ended up in Europe, and I ended up here in my aunt’s attic. We had a guy ready to do the video with the two of us in it, but it ended up being that video by necessity. But now when I look at it, I think I couldn’t be happier that I did that because I’ve been telling our audience since the Grand Illusion album that deep inside we’re all the same. Don’t look up at us here on the stage and believe what we’re doing; we are an illusion, we are a grand illusion, and we do that to sell you tickets and albums and records. That’s who we are. That’s what we do. I mean you can like us, but please stop the hero worshipping, and understand that deep inside we’re all the same. So when I got to show this video, it shows me, my life outside the spotlight and who I really am. Kind of a goofball who cherishes his family and his friends.
When I was watching the video, obviously you wrote it with your friends and family in mind, but I was listening to the lyrics, and I couldn’t help but think about the young people who are graduating right now in strange circumstances. And I find that young people can still look backward during important moments in their lives. How would you feel if students are using that song as part of their virtual graduation ceremonies? Yes, somebody posted a video with all the graduates doing just what you said. And they played the music, and then they had all the graduates talking about what they’ve been going through. How do I feel about it? I tell you, I love young people to like my music. When I first started doing this, I said there will be no IQ tests or urine samples necessary to like my music. Enjoy it! I don’t care how old or young you are. My whole objective was to communicate with others with my music—that’s it. So, yeah, great!
On last year’s Ouroboros, Looprider unleashed a sound that mixes equal parts punk energy and sludgy stoner rock. Just like the pretty flowers that grow from muddy soil, the Tokyo trio creates fuzz that beautifully cascades and shimmers. If you want to play musical connect-the-dots, you could do worse than drawing a line from Looprider to Boris to the Melvins to the Wipers. (You can connect the Zeppelin, Sabbath and Stooges dots on your own after that.)
MAGNET spoke with singer/guitarist Ryotaro about Ouroboros, pushing the boundaries of fuzz and Johnny Cash.
Ouroboros is really good. All 10 tunes are tightly wound blasts of fuzzed-out mayhem. Talk a bit about how the band approaches composing, how things have changed compared to your last release (25-minute single-track LP Umi), and what attracted you to the album moniker motif of a snake eating its tail! Thanks. We’re really proud of the album. A lot of times it’ll just start with a riff. I’ll flesh it out into a rough band arrangement, and then I’ll send it over to the band and we start hashing out the details in the studio. Most of the process will involve me and the drummer, and once the foundation is there, we start adding the other guitars and bells and whistles. We do whatever we’re into at the moment, so every album ends up different in terms of style and concept, but the process is generally the same: We start with some riffs and take it from there. Umi was essentially the same process. I really liked the idea of the ouroboros, that everything is cyclical and life informs death and vice versa. Music is a cycle, too, and new sounds always come from old sounds. We also had to go through some spiritual deaths to put this album together. It was in a way a rebirth, so I felt the title was fitting on multiple levels. It also ties nicely into our band name.
I know your lineup is composed of you, a drummer (RYO7) and another guitarist (Haruka), but your sound is full, with plenty of bottom end. I couldn’t quite tell if there was any actual bass on the album, although it sounds like it on tunes like “Dunes.” What prompted you to go mostly bass-less? There is absolutely no bass guitar on the album. We had a bass player previously, but we had to let him go for various reasons. All the songs for Ouroboros were ready to be recorded at that point, so rather than going through the process of finding someone new, we figured we should just try it with the three of us and see how it turned out. We tried it a few different ways; I used an octave pedal, I was on bass, etc. I didn’t like playing bass, so one day I tried plugging my guitar into a guitar amp and bass amp at the same time, using a low-frequency boost pedal on the bass-amp side, and it sounded massive. We sounded tighter, too, because there were fewer instruments going on. So we decided to run with it. We’re probably much louder and heavier now, which is ironic, but I also realized that some of my favorite bands are bass-less—or almost bass-less, anyway. I think people have it in their minds that a guitar band has to be a certain way or has to have a certain configuration in order to work, but as long as you can create the low frequencies in some form, either with a synth or a pedal, you don’t need to necessarily use a bass guitar to fill that role.
Which early ‘80s bands are you conjuring up on “NWOBHM” (New Wave Of British Heavy Metal)? I hear hints of Killers-era Iron Maiden. How are those groups an inspiration for you? That song is funny, because we are calling it that despite it being more of a stoner-rock song. It’s supposed to be an homage to those bands, but at the same time it’s taking the piss, because I feel like they have painted metal into a certain stereotype, especially in Japan, that has long been shed. The song is about going above and beyond the status quo or what has come before. Don’t get me wrong, though, I love all those bands, but I think metal has many forms beyond that imagery.
You also list band like Kyuss—the forefather of Queens Of The Stone Age—and Boris as touchstones for your sound. Popular music has broken into so many sub-genres that labels like “stoner rock” or “doom metal” are almost meaningless and likely confining. In what way are those groups a jumping off place for Looprider’s sound? Those bands are interesting to me because they essentially take old tropes, in this case the blues, and turn it into something else by playing it really loud or really slow. I like extremes, so music that’s super slow or super fast, or really loud or really quiet, is very intriguing to me. Obviously, we are named after a Boris song, so that band will always be a big influence. I like how they dabble in the extremes, but they also play in the areas in-between, which is something I hope we are also able to do with this band. I think knowing how far you can go, conceptually, in each direction is super important, as it informs everything else you do. The Melvins are another band who are good at that.
The current COVID-19 crisis is affecting everyone, of course, including live-music venues around the globe that face permanent closure as they have to remain shuttered. Looprider has been actively trying to aid the ones in Japan by donating all sales from your new Inside The Ouroboros EP. Have you been seeing some success? We’ve seen support from our followers on social media and Bandcamp, so that’s been great. We’re not a big band, so it’s especially weird asking people overseas to help us support far-away venues that they may never set foot in, but we are extremely grateful to the people who have decided to pitch in. I think a lot of members in the community are feeling the same thing in that we all feel a little helpless, but want to do something. We’ve decided to help out places that are closest to us, but at the same time, it pains us that we can’t help every venue. I think on a macro level, these places will need government support in order to survive, so I think the best thing artists can do is to support places they have a close relationship with and raise awareness about the issues. Hopefully, we’ve been able to contribute to that, even if it’s just a little bit.
I believe you spent a significant amount of your growing up years in Tennessee. If you had to choose, Elvis and Memphis or the Grand Ole Opry and Nashville? I like Johnny Cash, but apparently he was banned from the Opry at one point. So, probably Elvis.
“Music intended to serve as an unobtrusive accompaniment to other activities” is how ambient music is defined by Webster’s Dictionary. (Google it, millennials.) Fair enough, except that disregards what Brian Eno wrote in the liner notes for his Music For Airports, which state that ambient music “must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” Scott Morgan, who records and performs as Loscil, has done his part over the course of numerous albums, such as last year’s Equivalents, to create ethereal sound collages of exceptional beauty that reward close listening.
MAGNET spoke with Morgan about his latest LPs, his approach to composition and recording, and the impact of the current pandemic on his work.
Your music is quite diverse with both soothing and unsettling aspects, which allow the listener to have a varied experience from track to track and album to album. Many of your records seem inspired by a conceptual idea, as with the submarine/underwater theme on 2002’s Submers. This would seem to lend itself to a cerebral interpretation, yet they are also good at evoking a particular mood that doesn’t require deep thought to be enjoyed. How much do you want people to think about your music as opposed to just enjoying it? I’ve become a firm believer that art is a subjective experience, and what we bring to our experience of a work of art is just as important as what the artist brought in their creation of it. I like to provide context for listening because that sparks something in me as a creative person, but I also don’t consider this context a set of rules that a listener must abide by. If someone were to listen to Submers, taking your example, and think nothing about the life of a submariner, but instead thought of something deeply personal to them, I would be more than OK with that. On the other hand, if fully abstract music doesn’t resonate for someone and they need a guidepost, adding that extra poetic suggestion might sometimes help listeners find a way into the music.
Last year was a busy one for you with a new album, Equivalents, and an LP’s worth of material, Lifelike, for the video game of the same name. Was the latter a commission, and were you tasked with certain parameters? Yes, Lifelike was a commission, and I was tasked with creating music for each of the levels. I was also in control of the sound design and the interactive music implementation, which is something I have a background with. The experience of the music and sounds in the game is actually quite different than the music out of context because it is tied to the interactivity and the progression. I think of Lifelike as more of an interactive art piece than a game, but ultimately, we were striving for a synergy between the elements.
I believe for many of your albums, you make music mostly using Csound or other audio programming languages. Since there’s no “knob-twiddling,” is it harder to find happy musical accidents or moments of spontaneous musical creation, or is that an incorrect assumption? Do you compose “offline” and transfer the musical expression to a program? I know you also collect “found” sounds and samples as you work. No, I haven’t used Csound for ages now. I used it a bit in university when I was learning about computer music. I was drawn to the name Loscil—a function in Csound—because it summed up electronic music to me: looping and oscillating. But I transitioned from Csound to Max/MSP long ago and only really use that in the context of Ableton Live now. I have pretty much always based my sound on samples and sound design. I rarely used synthesis in the traditional sense, but I’m always looking for new sounds, so whatever works.
There’s been a resurgence of relatively inexpensive hardware synthesizers and modular gear over the last decade. Does that have any appeal to you? It’s almost the revenge of Keith Emerson with banks of keyboards! I’ll be honest—I’m not much of a hardcore gear nerd. I like what I like, and when something really speaks to me, I will adopt it into my setup. I tend to enjoy working with sampled sound—either instruments or field recordings—and manipulating these into playable sample-based instruments. I have bought a few synths over the years, but none of them are really as important to me as techniques like granular processing or convolution, which are both forms of DSP I use heavily to create textures and timbres.
I’ve read you started off as a drummer. Is that true? Your music certainly has rhythmic movement, yet much of it is almost beatless, although not always—as with the track “Persistent” from Lifelike. Talk about the role rhythm plays in your music. My true first instrument was guitar, which I still play. I also played tenor and baritone saxophone in high school. I started playing drums because every band needed a drummer, and I was good enough to hold a beat. I then did a stint as the drummer with Destroyer for a few albums. Since then, I haven’t played drums all that much. I do love rhythm. Especially very subtle polyrhythms. I played gamelan for a few years, and I think this influenced my sense of rhythm and polyrhythm. Also dub, prog rock and ’60s minimalism. I do like to return to rhythmic ideas from time to time but also enjoy music that is amorphous and off the grid.
Ambient music must rank with country music for being misunderstood, or often disliked, by those who are not regular listeners. Do you think about genre when it comes to your own music, or is that a loaded question? It’s a loaded question, for sure. I’ve never loved our incessant need to categorize, though I understand it in a practical sense. I do consider my influences quite varied and just want to be a musician. Too much focus on genre leads down a path of monoculture. Unfortunately, what we call ambient music now has suffered from this a bit.
Most of the people around the world must stay indoors as much as possible due to COVID-19. Health concerns are paramount for everyone, of course, but do you think this experience will find its way into your music? It will undoubtedly find its way into all of us. No one will be untouched by this experience. I’ve gone through a bit of creative shock. I’m in shutdown mode for the most part. With many canceled events and projects, I’m having to completely reshape things and refocus. But I’m coming around to the idea of creating again. Mostly for my own sanity. What comes of that, I have no clear idea right now.
It’s been almost seven years since Brendan Benson’s last solo album, which makes the release of Dear Life (Third Man) a bit of a milestone. He executed nearly everything himself at his Readymade Studio, working with accomplished engineer Michael Ilbert (Taylor Swift, Supergrass) on the mixing end. A busy snapshot of Benson at his most cautiously optimistic and emotionally direct, Dear Life is also the sound of an acknowledged family man coming to terms with his own fallibility and mortality (he turns 50 in November). The album was mostly finished before Benson’s recent run with the Raconteurs, the Grammy-winning band he founded with Jack White, whose label picked up Dear Life. Still juiced from the group’s international tour, he added two new tracks and put the finishing touches on Dear Life. The results are refreshingly unpredictable, if potentially off-putting to fans expecting more of the same modestly unhinged retro-flavored power pop. Some may be a little taken aback by the programmed beats, abrupt shifts in style and tone and occasional hip-hop vibe.
In lockdown mode at home with his wife and two kids in Nashville, Benson discussed the delayed evolution of Dear Life, the iffy logistics of promoting an album during a pandemic and where he might land once we can all roam freely again.
Nothing like dropping a new album during an international crisis. Well, yeah, I like to do things a little differently. [Laughs] This record’s been funny like that. I was really excited about it once I completed it—which was maybe three or four years ago—and I couldn’t find a label to put it out. Then the Raconteurs started up … and then, of course, this pandemic. It seems to be against all odds.
Would you say that this is your most eclectic LP? I think so. The big thing that happened during the making of this record was that I had to move out of my studio—the building was scheduled to be demolished. I relocated to my basement and set up this little rig. But I couldn’t set up any drums, and I couldn’t play loud because of the neighbors. So I went exploring inside the box, as they say. I had a lot of fun doing that—getting weird with different textures and sounds that I don’t normally do.
And the lyrics are pretty straightforward. Yeah. I’ve been listening to a lot of rap lately—rappers are so direct. I wasn’t going to break my back to make things super-witty or clever. I’m singing about what my life is now, not some old-fashioned life. I think there’s power in that directness.
Do you worry that Dear Life’s twists and turns might turn off some fans? I’m conflicted on that. On the one hand, part of me wants to grow as an artist. And an artist doesn’t usually dwell on one body of work for long—you like to move on and try something new. As for the career part, you can’t throw fans a complete curveball or you’re not going to have an audience anymore.
It helps if the songs are strong enough to withstand the experimentation. If they don’t like them, that’s OK. But this is really me—I’m not trying to pull one over on anyone.
So Dear Life is essentially you left to your own devices. It’s me, myself and I. Michael Ilbert mixed the album, so he deserves a lot of credit. I’d send him a few songs at a time, and he’d mix them and send them back. Then I’d get excited and write more. He made the record sound unreal.
How did “Raconteurs round three” pan out? I really liked (last year’s) Help Us Stranger, but it didn’t seem to get much promotion. That’s Jack. He works really fast, from the recording process to everything else. We were in the studio a couple of weeks—maybe a little longer—but Jack had it all planned out in his mind. I would’ve liked to spend maybe a little longer making it. It’s a lesson I learn from Jack every time I work with him: Move on—don’t fuck with things too much.
So what’s the plan for Dear Life? I feel like it’s a bit of a comeback album. I’ve been a little out of the loop for several years. I was trying to co-write more, produce more and stay home more. But that didn’t really work out for me. We’re rescheduling the tour for the fall. I’m doing a song a day live on Instagram, and I’m kind of digging that. I may even gear up to do some shows from home.
Now that you’ve been sitting on these songs for a few years, what do you hear now? I haven’t been this excited about an album since I put out (2002’s) Lapalco. I feel good, I feel confident. I wouldn’t change a thing.