With his new album, I Need A New War (Partisan), the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn wraps up a solo trilogy that began with 2015’s Faith In The Future. Given the textured tunefulness and frequent glimmers of hope that marked 2017’s We All Want The Same Things, War feels a little like a somber slap in the face. The detailed character studies continue, mostly set to the unflattering backdrop of Finn’s adopted hometown of New York City and its damaged mystique. Saxophones burb, trumpets moan, and the backup singing duo of Cassandra Jenkins and Annie Nero do their best to calm frayed nerves. But there’s something even more unsettling about Finn’s hapless protagonists this time around—as if they’re treading water with one hand. Can one guy really know so many desperate souls, or is he just making this stuff up? We inquired.
I Need I New War has an uneasiness to it that took me a little off-guard. It’s definitely a darker record. We were trying to do something different. We All Want The Same Things seemed super empathetic. With this one, we were laying things a little more bare. Then again, the years between the two albums have been sort of dark—not necessarily on a personal level, but on a macro level. It also has a sort of nostalgic feel—especially tracks like “Indications” and “Magic Marker.” When (producer/musician) Josh (Kaufman) and I were recording this album, we started talking about this idea of days gone by—not as a focal point but more as a wistful feeling to try to capture in some of the music. It harkens back to something, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. We were also searching for a groove you could move your body to. Things like “Something To Hope For” and “A Bathtub In The Kitchen” have that sway to them—more of a pulse.
Is it safe to say that the characters in these new songs are composites? Some are more real than others, and some are more fictitious. I wanted to do something that’s about people today. When I’m writing for the Hold Steady, oftentimes the characters are engaged in bad behavior or bad decisions, and big, tragic things are happening to them. But the desperation I’m trying to write about on these last three solo records is more often about people who’ve done the right thing—or tried to—and it still hasn’t necessarily worked out for them. There’s less overt bad behavior and more of a struggle with the modern world. The modern world is changing quickly—too quickly for these characters—and they’re having difficulty keeping pace with it and kind of getting ground up in it.
So is it a conscious thing—the way you write differently for the band than you do for your solo work? With the Hold Steady, I’m often writing to parts the other guys give me. And when it’s Tad (Kubler) or Steve (Selvidge) with these big guitar riffs, it feels like big things have to happen. It doesn’t feel like a reflection of a vulnerable character who’s tired from work or whatever. The stuff on the solo records starts from a smaller place and builds outward, creating a different world that may be a little more introspective, with vulnerable characters who might be moving a little slower.
Are there any key differences in the way this album came together, as opposed to the previous two? The big difference is that we brought in Cassandra Jenkins, and her and Annie Nero sang together on one microphone. We were thinking of those Leonard Cohen records where there’s almost an answer with the backup vocals—that whispering in your ear, “It’s going to be OK.”
The brass seems more pronounced, too. What am I hearing? Sax, trumpet, clarinet and trombone. Stuart Bogie is a good friend of mine who’s worked on all three records. I’ve been writing more with his parts in mind and leaving more space for him.
So, now that the trilogy is complete, where do you go from here? I’m always writing songs, so I guess we’ll see. A trilogy wasn’t something I set out to write. It’s more of a way of me understanding these three records together. The nine Hold Steady singles you’ve released over last few years almost amount to a full album. They’re almost like dispatches. We haven’t been touring, but we’ve been doing these weekends where we play shows in one town. It takes some of the travel out of the equation, makes things way more musical and underscores the community around the band. So I thought, “What if we dropped a single beforehand, and then it’s attached to that weekend.” Also, with a lot of our favorite bands—from the Beatles to the Smiths to the Clash—their classic record was a collection of singles. The music industry feels pretty broken, so I think it’s a mistake to do everything in a traditional manner. We already know where our fans are.
Very few rock ’n’ roll artists release their first album on the cusp of turning 70. Even fewer of this breed originally made their bones as a legendary author of multiple books that made the New York Times bestseller list. And only one of these near-septuagenarian rockers/writers is responsible for a record that’s a stone delight. On this particular 10-track work, you’ll find a smoldering duet with Nick Cave, songwriting contributions from John Cale, celestial vocals from some of the planet’s hottest female singers, a Bob Dylan cover utterly unlike any ever committed to tape and an anthem that’s gone on to inspire a novel by Jonathan Lethem.
The album is Stubborn Heart (Lucky Number), and its creator is Larry Sloman, the flamboyantly bearded and even more flamboyantly attired New York City hipster kahunawhom just about everyone calls, simply, “Ratso.”
At his age, you’d think that the man would be resting on his proverbial laurels. Not only has Ratso written for Rolling Stone (back when it was good) and served as the editor-in-chief of both High Times and National Lampoon (back when they existed), but he’s spent the past 40 years churning out all those bestselling books. There have been literary collaborations with Mike Tyson (Undisputed Truth and Iron Ambition), Howard Stern (Private Parts and Miss America) and Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis (Scar Tissue). There have also been scholarly, personal takes on marijuana (Reefer Madness), the New York Rangers (Thin Ice: A Season In Hell), everyone’s favorite escape artist (The Secret Life Of Houdini: America’s First Superhero) and that other lovable escape artist, Abbie Hoffman (Steal This Dream). Best of all, by my lights, On The Road With Bob Dylan, Ratso’s zany-yet-revealing Rolling Thunder Revue epic that His Bobness himself labeled “the War And Peace of rock ’n’ roll.”
So literary a cat is Ratso that he’s even been an ongoing fictional character in someone else’s written oeuvre. That would be Kinky Friedman’s much-loved series of mystery novels, wherein Kinky’s longtime close friend Ratso plays sidekick to the singing/songwriting “Texas Jewboy” sleuth that is (as Ratso calls him in his Queens accent) “the Kinkster.”
Rewarding as it’s been for him, the literary life plainly wasn’t enough of a buzz for Ratso. He needed to rock. So he put down his quill, picked up a microphone and convened a crack band in order to record many decades’ worth of his own songs. Which is where I—a friend of Ratso’s during the past decade—enter the story. Eager to learn the precise origin story of Stubborn Heart, I invited Ratso to lunch at an Italian restaurant near his home in Soho and brought my tape recorder. Our kibbitzing, which has been edited and condensed for publication here, began with my pal’s late-’60s/early-’70s music journalism at college and graduate school—a job which, he admitted with a sly grin, was mainly about “getting free records.”
How did you turn pro, Rats? By covering Sly And The Family Stone at a music festival in Milwaukee. Sly was an hour and a half late. People were going crazy, chanting. He comes out, freebased out of his mind, sings three songs—or attempts to sing three songs—and that’s it. He leaves the stage. In New York, people would boo, whatever. Midwest kids, they tore down the fence, burned the stage—it was insane. So I called up Rolling Stone. I said, “This is Larry Sloman, music editor of the Daily Cardinal at the University of Wisconsin. There was a riot at Summerfest with Sly Stone. Do you want me to write it up for you?” The editor said, “Yeah, do it on spec.” That way they don’t owe you for anything. But I didn’t care—I got an assignment for Rolling Stone!
Was it through your work there in the early ’70s that you met your lifelong friend Leonard Cohen? Right. One thing about me as a music journalist—every thing I do, I overprepare. With my Houdini book, I did a year and a half of research. So when I got assigned to write about Leonard, I embedded myself. Leonard was playing in New York for the New Skin For The Old Ceremony album, and I was with him in the hotel room, cab to the Bottom Line for the concert, hung out in the dressing room with him. He was incredibly open, and said some amazing, amazing things to me.
You got your nickname from Joan Baez, who hurled a Midnight Cowboy reference at you back in ’75. Did Cohen adopt it, too? Leonard had too much decorum to call me “Ratso.” I wouldn’t expect him to. But he sometimes called me “Jew” when we emailed, because my email address is “newyorkjew.” He would write, “Dear Jew.” And he would sign his emails, “Old Leonard.”
Any other friends who’ve held out on using your nickname? Well, Kinky calls me variations of “Ratso”—like “Rat-a-tat”—and Howard Stern calls me “Ratsy.” Nick Cave calls me “Rats.” And my wife Christy only calls me “Ratso” when she’s mad at me.
What did you do for an encore after the Leonard Cohen piece? I wrote a preview of Lou Reed’s album Berlin. Every critic attacked the shit out of Berlin, but I gushed about what a brilliant album it was. I called it “the Sgt. Pepper of the ’70s.” What I meant was that the ’60s zeitgeist was captured by the Beatles, with sex, drugs, drop acid and have a great time while the ’70s zeitgeist, as in Berlin, was a bisexual couple beating the shit out of each other, trying to kill themselves and having their kids taken away.
That’s Berlin all right. So when the album comes out, they made huge posters with my quote. Apparently, though, Lou hated Sgt. Pepper. Also, when the Berlin album tanked, he blamed RCA for using that quote. So he didn’t talk to me for a couple of years. He warmed up to me only after I started writing lyrics for John Cale. I guess that gave me credibility. And you know that if he didn’t think they were good lyrics, he would have said so!
Which brings us to Ratso the songwriter. Songwriting was a hobby. The first lyric I wrote was a satire of this little guru from India who Rennie Davis and a lot of the New Left had decided was a spiritual leader: Guru Maharaji. He was doing rock-star dates around the country. And I was hanging out with the Fugs’ singer Tuli Kupferberg, who was a genius at writing song parodies—“parasongs,” he called them. Tuli encouraged me. He said, “Why don’t you write a parasong?” So I wrote “Guru Maharaji/He really wants you and me/You know he’s really the one/He may be fat, but he’s fun.”
We all have to start somewhere, I guess. I wrote my next song while I was covering Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. I had a falling out with Rolling Stone, but I wanted to write a book about the tour. I told Dylan, “I really want to document this.” So he said fine, and I started working with the film crew for the tour film Renaldo And Clara, scouting locations and bringing people for them to film. They sent me north to Boston a couple of days in advance (of the concert there)—they wanted hookers, strippers for a party scene. Well, with my great research skills, by the end of a whole day and night in Boston’s red-light “Combat Zone,” I got to know every hooker, every stripper, every club owner, and I wound up at six in the morning in a Howard Johnson’s restaurant where they all stayed. So I wrote a song called “Combat Zone.”
What was the spark that led you to write about that scene in a song in addition to in your book? The spark was being around Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Bob Neuwirth and all those Rolling Thunder people. I’m a lyric freak, anyway, so being in that atmosphere, I was, like, “Hey, I should try this!” And then, when I showed my “Combat Zone” lyrics to Dylan on a train ride from Toronto to Montreal for the next gig, he looked at them and said, “Yeah, these are good, man!”
You didn’t feel any sense of timidity, showing your first serious lyrics to Dylan? For most people, that would be plenty daunting. Yeah, but at that point, I was completely crazy. I was manic. My chutzpah … At the end of the tour, Dylan gave gifts to everyone, these nice medallions. And so I had T-shirts made up with a photo of me by Bob Gruen and the word “Ratso,” and I gave them out to everyone, too!
Chutzpah, indeed. And part of that chutzpah was to treat Dylan like a normal person, not at all deferential … I even went up to his hotel room, hanging out with Bob and his then-wife Sara there, and after they had room service, I ate leftovers off their plates in front of them.
What became of your song “Combat Zone”? Roger McGuinn wrote music for it, and at the end of the Rolling Thunder tour—when I was still in my manic phase—McGuinn and I performed it on Bob Fass’ radio show, Radio Unnameable, on WBAI. Then I did two performances of “Combat Zone” at (legendary Greenwich Village club) Gerde’s Folk City with my friend George Barkin (Ellen Barkin’s brother). The first time I did it, I got off the stage and there was this crazy woman who was wearing a jumpsuit with shorts, made out of Mylar. I swear! You took one look and you knew she was wacky. But she liked the song …
Your first groupie! My first groupie. And within five minutes, I took her into the kitchen, and …
And? Mike Porco, Gerde’s owner, walks in and says, “Ratso, what am I gonna do with you?!” She and I still consummated the act. And the next week, I come back with George to do the song and she’s there again. I finish it and she says, “Come outside. I wanna talk to you.” George reluctantly comes outside with us. And the woman pulls a knife and says to me, “Don’t you realize you’re my husband now?” George runs and leaves me there. I’m going, “Humma-na, humma-na.” But I say, “Listen, put that knife away, I don’t want you to get arrested.” I start trying to talk her down. She’s obviously distraught. And when she puts the knife away, I run.
Your master’s degree in criminality and deviance obviously paid off. That was the last time I ever saw her. And that was the last time I ever performed at Gerde’s.
What was your next move as a songwriter? I started hanging out with Liz Derringer, a music journalist whose husband was the great guitarist Rick. She called me “Schmatzo.” Liz said, “Why don’t you write songs with my husband?” So Rick and I hung out and wrote some great songs. One was about discos: “I don’t care what’s new in Beirut/I just wanna dance/Nuclear war? To me it’s moot/I just wanna dance.”
How did you launch your collaboration with John Cale? Kinky was in town doing a residency, and he was staying with me. Don Imus said that Kinky “left skid marks” on my couch. Cale started hanging out at Kinky’s shows and said to me, “Let’s write songs together.” So we did that, every which way possible. We’d be at Marylou’s (a popular New York City restaurant/bar) at four a.m., drinking and getting fucked up, then finding some illicit substances, going back to my apartment and staying up all night writing crazy songs.
Rumor has it that Cale can be standoffish. Is he difficult? Or just shy? He’s shy and difficult! But he’s a great guy, with a great sense of humor once you get to know him. Very smart.
Would Cale contribute to your lyrics? He’d throw in a line … “Ooh La La,” that was a real collaboration. “Dying On The Vine,” he changed a line or two. But for some other finished products, he took a chorus from this song, a verse from that song, and did a mash-up.
“Dying On The Vine” got a lot of attention. It became Cale’s signature song. The novelist Jonathan Lethem wrote in an essay that he did a whole novel of his (Girl In Landscape) fueled by listening to “Dying On The Vine” every day. He called it “the best Leonard Cohen song that Cohen never wrote.” Lethem says that he had never reconciled himself to his mother’s death until writing that novel and being inspired by “Dying On The Vine.”
Another writer, Elissa Schappell, has written about that song’s influence on her. Did you ever branch out from lyrics to write your own music? For “Stubborn Heart” and “Our Lady Of Light,” I did. I never gave those to Cale. I thought, “I don’t want to split the royalties for these 60/40 like I did with the other ones!” Then Cale moved to L.A. around ’85, so we stopped working together, though we kept in touch. My songwriting fell by the wayside.
Did you miss it? When my Thin Ice book was a Barnes & Noble top-10 bestseller, it was exciting for me to walk by a booktore and see it in the window. But to sit in the last row of The Bottom Line and watch John Cale onstage singing my words, that was a thrill like no other. I’d get goosebumps. So in the back of my mind, I always knew that I’d get back to lyrics.
Ever considered co-writing with your pal Kinky? By the time Cale moved away, Kinky had already started on his mystery novels. He didn’t write songs for 25 years. But he’s flipped out over my country song “Matching Scars.” He says he’s going to do a cover of it.
Tell me how your new album came about. I started going to Brooklyn and hanging out with new friends, these young indie artists who were fans of my Dylan book. One of them was Shilpa Ray, who’s fucking great. I gave her album to Nick Cave, who raved about it and took her on his Grinderman tour. Shilpa introduced me to Vin Cacchione, who played with Shilpa and fronted his own two bands, Soft Black and Caged Animals. So one time I saw Vin play, and before the show I said, “I have some lyrics. Would you be interested in writing music to them?”
Lightning strikes! I gave him “I Want Everything,” which I think is one of my best songs, and I said, “I see it as an uptempo Byrds kind of thing.” He did a version of it that way, but I realized I was wrong. The song didn’t really work like that. Apparently, he felt the same thing, so he also did a much more contemporary version, with drum machine, but he was afraid to show it to me. Finally, though, he got up the courage, and I listened to it and thought, “Holy shit!” I loved it. So we started working together more, along with the musicians Pat Curry, Kyle Avallone, John “Catfish” Delorme, Andrew Hoepfner, Jack Byrne, Paul Shapiro, Darwin Deez and Vin’s wife, the violin whiz Magali Charron. I did a duet with the sensational artist Imani Coppola. But at first my only goal was to get our songs out—I had no idea that I would be singing. I wanted to do what Kinky does: tribute albums to himself.
Other people performing your work. Yes. But I did a demo of “Our Lady Of Light,” and Vin goes, “You should do your own songs. You have a unique voice.” So right away I’m paranoid: “Unique?’ What does ‘unique’ mean? Like Florence Foster Jennings?”I didn’t commit until I brought the demo to my friend Hal and played it for him in his office.
Hal would be Hal Willner, the music producer and impresario par excellance. Right. Hal put the demo on his system and lay back with his eyes closed—which is how he listens. When the music’s over, I said, “So, Hal, should I be singing these songs myself?” And Hal takes a deep breath, and he opens his eyes and leans in and says, “What are you waiting for?” Which gave me the confidence to do it.
Nick Cave’s duet with you on “Our Lady Of Light” is an obvious highlight of your album. How did you and Cave meet? First I met Mick Harvey from Nick’s band the Bad Seeds, whom I loved. Harvey would invite me to their concerts, and Nick tells me now that he always noticed me backstage and felt fascinated by me. He’d wonder, “Who’s this guy wearing these bad-ass, out-there suits?”Eventually I brought Nick a copy of my Dylan book, and he read it and flipped out and loved it. Then I went on tour with his band Grinderman and came out of retirement from rock journalism and did an article about it for Spin magazine.
A friendship is born! Having spent a bit of time with you and Nick together, I could see how fond of you he is. And me of him! Nick is one of our greatest songwriters. And the greatest showman. He’s getting better and better with age. Plus, he’s a real mensch.
The sole cover on Stubborn Heart is a doozy: Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.” It’s one of my favorite Dylan songs. And very few other people have done it: Joan Baez, Richie Havens …
Havens’s sort-of disco version beggars belief. Dylan was a brash 24 year old when he wrote and sang “Sad-Eyed Lady.” I thought it would be interesting to record that song from the perspective of somebody who had “been through the wars,” who had a modicum of maturity. But I wasn’t fooling myself. I knew that an 11-minute song of me singing 10 verses and five choruses was too much for anybody to bear. So I said, “How cool would it be if I got five different women and have each one do her own interpretation of the chorus?”
Ultimately you chose Imani Coppola, Eddi Front, Vin’s wife Magali, Ruby Friedman … Ruby’s no relation to Kinky, but she’s a real rock ’n’ roll diva—the Jewish Janis Joplin, I call her.
… And Lebanese singer/songwriter Yasmine Hamdan, whom I believe is one of the best young musical artists of our time. I met her through my friend Jim Jarmusch. She appeared in a performance sequence from his film Only Lovers Left Alive. Yasmine’s incredible. Such a natural. She said she hadn’t sung in English in 14 years, but she just nailed it. To hear her with that Arabic accent sing, “My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,” it was just so fucking cool! And when she recorded back-up vocals to my song “I Want Everything,” Yasmine went into this seductive chanting of “Aman, aman.” We asked her what this word meant and she talked about existential joy. It sounds so great.
Any ideas for covers for your next album? “Motorcar, What A Day” by my friend Jake Jacobs. In the early ’70s, his group Jake And The Family Jewels put two great records. Another cover I want to do is “You Set The Scene” by Love. And when I perform live, I’d like to do Nick’s song “Skeleton Tree” as a tribute to his late son Arthur.
You’ve kept in touch with Dylan down all the decades. Is he aware that you’ve made Stubborn Heart? He is. The last time I saw him was in Vegas, after one of his gigs. He knew I was there, working with Tyson, so he told his manager to invite me. I remember I was wearing one of my Soul Train-fashion zoot suits, and when Dylan got off the stage, he got closer to me to take a good look and he said, “Oh, man, Ratso—you should be dressing me.”
Another career for you? Anyway, we start talking, and I tell Dylan, “Hey, Bob, guess what? I’m doing my own album!” He goes, “What?” I say, “Yeah, I have a duet with Nick Cave.” Bob goes, “You have a duet with Nick Cave?” And then I say, “And I want you to … ”
Uh-oh. He tenses his body, like he’s just waiting for me to drop the hammer and ask him to play on the record …
Bracing himself! And I finally say, “I want you—to write the liner notes!” And he’s relieved, but says, “I don’t know if I can write liner notes.” I say, “How about on your album World Gone Wrong?” And he says, “Yeah, they were good.”
I know you’re planning on performing soon. Can we expect a full-throttle Ratso world tour? I don’t want to tour. At my age, the idea of getting in a little Ford Econoline van and driving 300 miles a day to do another gig and crash on someone’s floor. Besides, what kind of rider would I have? “I want brown M&M’s, a quart of matzoh-ball soup, two pills of Flomax—extended release.” I’m too old for this shit!
Obviously this last statement of Ratso’s is untrue. Rock ’n’ roll, like hope, springs eternal. Stubborn Heart was released today. Tonight, Ratso will be doing a Q&A and record signing at the Rough Trade store in Brooklyn. Whether his “first groupie” will show up there—that “distraught” woman wearing Mylar who pulled a knife on him and called him her “husband”—no one can say. But like all newly minted would-be rock stars, Ratso will need to be ready for absolutely anything.
News travels fast in the digital age, but back in the middle 1970s it took months for a British or American rock magazine to sail halfway around the globe to Brisbane, Australia. Every word or song that made that trip was precious to teenagers Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. Nourished by dreams of rock ‘n’ roll, poetry and art films, they willed themselves to become singer/songwriters and in 1977 founded the Go-Betweens.
Starting with 1978 single “Lee Remick” b/w “Karen” (a pair of Forster-penned songs that praised a movie crush and a librarian, respectively), the Go-Betweens navigated the mercurial vagaries of a music business that valued video flash over sharp writing skills and recorded a half-dozen brilliant albums. Exhausted and riven by the same internal tensions that sparked some of its best songs, the band split after 1988’s perfect-pop 16 Lovers Lane failed to break through, and Forster and McLennan commenced solo careers. But even when they were recording records that differentiated their respective aesthetics from the Go-Betweens’, the songwriters never fell out of touch. A second go-around in the early 2000s yielded four more excellent albums before McLennan died of a heart attack in 2006.
Since McLennan’s passing, Forster has spent his time writing for Australian periodicals, assisting in the compilation of a boxed set covering the first six years of the Go-Betweens’ career, writing songs and the memoir Grant & I: Inside And Outside The Go-Betweens. The new Inferno (Tapete) is Forster’s seventh solo album since 1990. To record it, he left Brisbane, where he and wife Karin Bäumler have raised two children, and spent several weeks in Berlin during one of its steamiest months on record. Its songs set elegantly told personal stories—some autobiographical, others overheard—to lean, timeless music.
You took up writing about music. Where is your writing published nowadays? I don’t write music criticism anymore. I used to write regularly for an Australian publication called The Monthly, but I stopped in 2013.
What music, either old or new, has moved you in recent months? I haven’t listened to much music over the last years. Most of my time goes to writing prose or songwriting. So I tend to hear a song here or there. Recently I have been listening to “Letter To Hermione” from David Bowie—a beautiful acoustic song from the late ’60s. Maybe his first great song. And just yesterday I heard “All Things Must Pass” by George Harrison—a hole in my musical education. Both great late-’60s songs.
Your son Louis is in the band Goon Sax. Is there any advice that you have given him as he moves into the family business that you would like to also share with MAGNET’s readers? I give him little advice. A piece of advice I give to every band is: Don’t say yes to every show you get offered. You attract attention when give the odd no. People are used and comfortable with a constant line of yeses.
Your wife has performed and recorded with you. Does your daughter also play, and is there a possibility of a family band down the road? I like the idea of family bands. They should happen more often. But I don’t think it will happen with us. Our children must make their own way for a good while.
A boxed set of the Go-Betweens 1978-1984 was compiled and released a few years back. Will there be additional sets covering the rest of the ’90s and the 2000s? Yes there will be a second volume The Go-Betweens Anthology. I am expecting it to come out towards the end of this year. It shall cover the years from 1985 to 1989.
When you first recorded in Berlin circa 1990, you were starting something new. What was the objective in returning to Berlin to record Inferno? The reason I recorded Inferno in Berlin has much to do with the producer and engineer of the album, Victor Van Vugt (Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Beth Orton). He lives there, and he has a studio there. That was why we recorded the record there.
Last summer was a scorcher in Europe. How inferno-like were your living and recording circumstances in Berlin, and was your usual life in Brisbane sufficient preparation? Berlin last May and June when I was there recording Inferno was tropical Berlin. I was travelling on the underground railway to the studio—the U-Bahn—and it was very, very hot down there. Inferno-like on the way to record an album called Inferno. The irony when taking the journey each day to the studio was not lost on me.
In your book you describe being charmed by Bowie’s “Starman” in your youth, and “Inferno” sounds more Ziggy-like than anything else that I remember you recording. How did this come about, and what took you so long? I don’t know why it sounds so Ziggy-like. It was a coming together of instruments and sounds in the studio, and suddenly there it was. I am amazed I haven’t done more glam-rock type stuff in the past, as it was a major part of my world as a teenager. Expect more.
What tour plans do you have to support Inferno? Might the USA be on the itinerary? I will be touring parts of Europe and then Australia, and at the moment the USA is being scouted for me to play. I haven’t been there for 11 years, and I wish to return and play. We are trying to get there.
Now is as good a time as any for an official Meat Puppets reunion. Brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood are back with founding drummer Derrick Bostrom for the first time since 1995’s No Joke!, the Arizona-bred trio’s impolite London Records send-off. And given Cris’ epic struggles with addiction, we could easily be talking post-mortem tribute right now. But this tale of excess has a relatively happy ending, beginning with his eventual recovery in the late 2000s and continuing with his reconciliation with big brother Curt.
And then there’s the new Dusty Notes (Megaforce). It’s the band’s first studio release in six years, and it was worth the wait. Curt has simplified his songwriting, cleaned up his vocals and eased up on the guitar histrionics. That’s opened up space for virtuoso keyboardist Ron Stabinsky and Curt’s guitarist son Elmo, who brings a more conventional rock grounding to his dad’s intricate Billy-Gibbons-by-way-of-Jerry-Garcia overlays.
With just a couple months to go before their first U.S. tour in 20 years, Curt and Bostrom explain the band’s recent bout of productivity.
Dusty Notes is easily the Meat Puppets’ most keyboard-heavy album. Ron Stabinsky’s contributions are huge. Curt: Ron had been coming to our shows for years. I didn’t even know he was a musician until he handed me a CD. We got together and played a little in Austin when he was in town with one of his bands. From there, I came up with a few easy little tunes we could play. That came out real nice, and it gave me some direction as to what I wanted to do with this album. And this is also the first album that Elmo is on. Bostrom: Elmo’s shit is my favorite part of the record. It just kills. His parts are more classic rock, where Curt’s got that weird spaciness. Curt: The first four songs are all Elmo on lead guitar. He can play a lot of different stuff—more than I can. You don’t hear me doing a lead on this album until the actual “Dusty Notes” song. Bostrom: Curt kept the songwriting simple to give us a maximum amount of space. The whole process was so organic. I added my parts in pretty much one day. We recorded it in Phoenix with Cris’ friend Jeremy (Parker). Jeremy has helped out Cris a lot. The fact that he could talk his big brother into recording the album with his buddy, and having it come out as good as it did, is so cool. Curt: There really wasn’t a lot of planning. It was kind of accidental—very fluid.
There’s a certain warmth and mellowness to this album. Curt: Yeah, there’s not a lot of overt rock ’n’ roll. One of the big things is that we tracked acoustic guitars first. I also did that with Snow, my solo record with Pete Anderson. For this one, Elmo and I just laid down nice solid acoustics on everything. Drums got tracked to that, and then keyboards. Bostrom: These songs do head to more of an Americana place—they sound a little bit more classic. Some of it sounds like gospel; some of it sounds like Stephen Foster; some it sounds like Tom Petty or Fleetwood Mac. But it’s still Meat Puppety.
Curt, your vocals are surprisingly clear—almost pristine. Curt: It was the right microphone for me—but I can’t remember what it was. The warmth of the vocals is really apparent. I generally didn’t sing with a whole lot of overt emotion. I mostly wanted to hurt people’s feelings—even if it was screaming nonsense. I never intended to sing. With my first few bands before the Meat Puppets, I was only the guitar player. Then there was just the three of us, and we thought about having a lead singer—but we decided, “Nah, that’s annoying.” Bostrom: Curt used to like to come up with a bunch of words, and then if it got a little too close to home, he’d change them so they were nonsensical. He didn’t really do that this time. To fuck with people, I’ve been telling them that these new lyrics hold the key to understanding all of his old lyrics. Curt: Once I started doing solo shows in the early 2000s, I began to see how much weight the words had. I realized that people like to hear them, though I never really thought about it until then.
When the original lineup first disbanded in 1996, where did that leave you, Derrick? Bostrom: I was never a huge fan of the whole rock shtick. It’s really easy when you’re sitting in the back of a van as the drummer in another guy’s band. I learned a lot about myself. I got a good opportunity to grow up, get married and get a job—I do IT for all the Whole Foods stores in Phoenix. Once we got a bunch of cats, I put the drums away. I never wanted to play with anybody else.
So what brought you back? Bostrom: This whole thing with the Arizona Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. They’d wanted to induct us for a few years, and finally one of our heavy-hitter local promoters got on the phone with Curt, and we played the ceremony. I stayed in touch, but they already had a drummer (Shandon Sahm). Last April, I got I call from Curt saying [Sahm] had decided to move to Europe. He’d already recorded his tracks for the album, but Curt sent me the roughs and gave me the opportunity to compose new parts.
In going back through your ’80s work, I always seem to latch onto 1989’s Monsters. It has two of my favorite Meat Puppets tunes: “Light” and “Touchdown King.” Curt: That was the last SST album. Atlantic made us a really good offer for it once it was done, and I wanted to give it to them. It was recorded for super-cheap, and they liked it. That led to the rift between us and SST.
And then, of course, you follow that up with your first major-label release (1991’s Forbidden Places), produced by—of all people—longtime Dwight Yoakam collaborator Pete Anderson. Curt: Pete knew who we were because he and Dwight had opened for us a number of years before. We learned so much from him, and that learning rubbed off when we made (1994’s) Too High To Die. He’s very methodical, and we’d never had a real producer. We’d never spent more than like eight grand on a record. (1984’s) Meat Puppets II was done in four days; (1985’s) Up On The Sun was literally 36 hours straight of recording and mixing. Once we played—if we played it right—it was done.
I was a grad student at Arizona State University when I first saw you guys 30 years ago. If I recall correctly, Cris was wearing a kilt, and he taped his face to the mike stand for most of the show. My girlfriend was terrified. I was both horrified and fascinated by the whole display. Curt: Yeah, that wouldn’t have been too strange. I lot of the stuff we did was the result of the boredom we experienced between soundcheck and having to go onstage. We’d sit around and draw on ourselves, or whatever. There was very little you could do back then that was going to help or hurt your career in that scene. It was what it was—and it wasn’t really going anywhere. Bostrom: If we couldn’t chase the audience out, we weren’t doing something right. We’ve never been about going onstage and doing what we know we can do. It’s always been about putting ourselves in the position to allow the X factor to occur—and that’s exactly why I returned. In this day and age, it just seems so fucking obvious that America has gone in a crazy direction. From all sides, people need to get a lot less comfortable with their assumptions. There are worse things in the world than having people not know what they think, because usually what they think is wrong to begin with.
Andy Zaltzman might be a new face to comedy audiences in the U.S. But his verbal dexterity and his literary connections run deep within the U.K. comedy, radio and podcast scenes: as a stand-up taking part, annually, in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as a radio performer on self-created British programs such as Political Animal and The Department and through podcasts such as the wildly popular The Bugle. Those last three shows were written and performed in tandem with his old friend John Oliver, who eventually left the U.K. to find American fame courtesy of The Daily Show and his own Last Week Tonight. Zaltzman continued on in the U.K. and became renowned for his love and use of puns—he is the king of “pun run” riffing—and his caustic look at politics and sports. MAGNET caught up with Zaltzman in London preparing for his trip to America, with dates starting tonight at Laugh Boston in, well, Boston.
Twenty years since your start, are you as excited to twist the language as zealously as you did in 1999, or are you wearied by the turn of political events, often so bizarre it may be rough to lampoon? Both. I still love my “job,” and it is always a challenge to find fresh approaches, twists and angles for comedy. And the news, the capricious idiot that it is, never ceases chundering out a generous deluge of events. That said, the world is so ridiculous that comedy can now sometimes be found in presenting a less absurd version of reality.
Not as if you were doing anything fringe-like such as speaking through a whale bone or hanging from a tree limb while doing a monologue, but, how do you feel your work has changed in terms of its presentation, its drama—its sense of theater—since the start? I’ve become increasingly interested in performance over the years. I only really thought about material in my early years on the comedy circuit in the U.K. I think much more about how to convey material, how to engage and surprise audiences with more than just the words I’ve written.
What does one get, as a comic, from a father who is a sculptor? I ask since both you and your sister are comics and podcasters? The idea that getting a proper job is not the only way to conduct an adult life.
I have interviewed a lot of podcast hosts, some of whom do comedy—Greg Proops comes to mind—who keep their stand-up work and podcast work separate. Does one influence the other? Can you pull each apart enough so to create individual monologues? They definitely influence each other; The Bugle podcast is, largely, a written comedy show, so it’s an expression of my comedic ideas in the same way that my stand-up is, and I will touch on the same, or similar, topics in both. I often develop material I’ve written for The Bugle into a longer, less specifically topical, stand-up routine. Most of my stand-up audience comes from The Bugle.
I understand that you chose to remain in the U.K.’s Brexit vote and once told The Guardian, “I voted to remain and I feel European as much as I feel British. The whole tone of the leave campaign was negative and xenophobic, and a lot of the remain campaign was just selfish.” Now the Conservatives are grousing over the no-deal after May’s defeat. So, where do you stand now? The entire story has shown British politics and democracy in a very bad light—there has been too much short-termism and self-interest, and a deep confusion over what we want and expect from our democratic system. Brexit has been an object lesson in how not to do democracy, from all sides. There is no happy way out of it now, and everyone is fighting to see their preferred least-rubbish solution put into action. Democracy is in a delicate, borderline-dysfunctional state around the world, I think. We are all going to have to raise our game.
Whether you miss working with John Oliver is one thing. What do you think of his humor now that he is mostly Americanized? I do believe that his HBO show does its best at global outreach, perhaps more so than other comic news shows, while his recent stand-up was more U.S. focused. I do miss working with John—we’d written and performed together for almost 15 years, and always had a good rapport and complementary ideas. That said, I’ve also really enjoyed the rebooted Bugle, working with different comedians from around the world. His show is doing journalistic satire supremely well, and his outsider perspective as a Brit in America gives him a strong, independent comedic voice.
Your use of American partners at The Bugle, co-hosts Hari Kondabolu and Wyatt Cenac: Why them, and their U.S perspective? When I restarted The Bugle, I wanted to use a range of cohosts from around the world, and they were two comedians I liked and admired.
What was the first pun you ever heard that pricked up your ears? My father was a significant punfluence on me in my formative years.
You are not alone in your love of the pun. I know you have been asked this before, surely, but, why is it so rich, and how do you believe that you have made it your own form considering how tried-and-true it has become, and how often it is made awkward? There is something timelessly joyous and pointless about comedic wordplay. Puns were prominent in Ancient Greek comedy, and I imagine they’ll be prominent 2,500 years from now as well, assuming the dinosaurs haven’t retaken the world by then. I’d never really used puns in stand-up, but the endless comedic acreage of a weekly podcast brought out my dormant punstincts. I tend to go for the ludicrously convoluted set-up when indulging in pun-type material, much of the comedy—or, most appropriately, intended comedy—comes from creating absurd scenarios and images, with the promise/threat of a word-play payoff at the end.
I am not asking to give me your entire U.S. set, but, do you have an idea of what you have planned for the States? It will be mostly topical, so it depends what is in the news. It will be, essentially, an episode of The Bugle, with some added visuals, and Alice Fraser, a regular cohost and brilliant comedic mind, live on screen via the internet. Assuming the internet works.
The last time I saw Bob Mould, he was as fit as he’s ever been—almost unrecognizably so. It was 2002, and he was set to release Modulate, a curious stab at attaching electronica and various technological gimmicks to his blustery fusion of post-punk and power pop. To celebrate his return to recording after a four-year hiatus, Mould hosted a warehouse party in Atlanta for friends and press folks, where a talkative Mould did a short set highlighting the new material.
I wanted to like Modulate—as did most critics. Looking back, though, it may turn out to be to the lone misstep in a 30-year post-Hüsker Dü career marked by its consistent excellence. Suffice to say, the new Sunshine Rock (Merge) is no Modulate. In fact, it may be the crown jewel atop a trio of late-career triumphs that began with 2012’s Silver Age. Mould has not slunk quietly and insignificantly into his elder years—and Sunshine Rock may be his most emphatic statement since Sugar’s debut. It’s a near-perfect balance of Hüsker-esque rawness and driving pop hooks, with the occasional string arrangement lending unexpected emotional resonance.
We caught up with Mould in San Francisco, where he was prepping for his latest tour with bandmates Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster.
Sunshine Rock marks 30 years of solo work for you. I should’ve noticed that. [Laughs] Workbook was released in the spring of ’89, so … yeah.
Hard to believe, but the last time we talked was 17 years ago, when you were about the release Modulate. How are you feeling about this one? I think this album is pretty great, though it was odd for me to take so much time to write. I’d been going at such a fast clip. The time between Silver Age, (2014’s) Beauty & Ruin and (2016’s) Patch The Sky was a few years. But a key thing that makes this thing exciting is the vocal approach. If you go back to the Sugar records, the vocals are meticulously stacked, for the most part. With Sunshine Rock, I didn’t work out a lot of the vocal arrangements ahead of recording. I knew the basic melodies and phrasing, but I didn’t belabor the vocal approach whatsoever. So it’s a lot more immediate sounding. I don’t think I sang any of these songs more than dozen times on the floor. I just said, “It’s in there somewhere—we’ll find it.”
Wasn’t the Shocking Blue cover “Send Me Postcard” a single-take vocal? Yeah, that was the first thing I actually sang for the record, and it was one take top to bottom. So when you talk about energy, I think that adds a lot, because there’s a lack of measure to the voice. It’s rougher—more the way I sing live. It’s new to my records since, gosh, probably (1990’s) Black Sheets Of Rain. There’s also the 18-piece string orchestra. They were completely mapped out on sheet music and sent over to Prague. It’s an interesting point/counterpoint. My vocals are loose, and the string arrangements are concise. On “Sunshine Rock” and “The Final Years,” you can hear the Al De Lory influence from all those Glen Campbell records. It’s my tribute to strings in ’60s pop music, I guess.
Interesting how your late-career resurgence came right after your 2011 autobiography, See A Little Light. Everything started moving forward in a big way after those three years of looking back. I wanted to be able to put this marker in place to say, “This is where I’ve arrived after all these things.” I’ve never been one to look back a lot, so the book was a bit of a trying experience. But it sent up a bit of a flare to people that, aside from the music, there was a good story there—my family history, Hüsker Dü, my sexuality and accepting that, getting into electronic music and explaining to people why that was important to me. I don’t think people really understood that (last one) until I clarified it.
I had a chance to talk to Grant Hart about his 2013 solo album, The Argument. It was the longest phone interview I’ve ever had. He just talked and talked and talked. How has his passing affected you? As we get older, we encounter loss with more frequency. I’ve lost my parents—both to cancer. Getting word of what Grant was up against was tough to hear. And, of course, we had a long history. So much of that time with Hüsker Dü was a great time, even if the end was a little sideways. When everybody walked away from it—and I feel I can safely speak for Grant on this—we knew it was time to move forward with our own things. We’d had a lot of communication leading up to the 2017 box set. Everybody was communicating; everybody was working toward a common goal. And I think if you look at the box set, it turned out pretty great. It’s a nice document of that innocent phase when absolutely no one was looking—as opposed to when the whole world is looking and you get really self-aware and self-conscious about your work.
And then there’s your latest power trio. On the last tour, there was a guy in front of the stage who’d brought along his young daughter to the show. She had earplugs, of course … I wish I’d remembered mine.
[Laughs] Jason and I have worked together on-and-off in various capacities since I produced his band, Verbow, back in the ’90s. When the stars aligned and we started working together in late ’08—when Jon jumped on board to save a tour—it was like somebody opened a window and let the sunshine and fresh air in. We’re all roughly within 10 years of each other in age, and we have a lot of similar records in our collections—and I’m sure some of those are my records, too. It doesn’t take a lot of explaining when I bring in a song and I say, “Hey, it goes like this.” They’re like, “Yeah, it turns like that other one you wrote 20 years ago.” They know the language, and we share an aesthetic about pop music. I think you hear it in these last four records.
The last time we checked in with Guster for a MAGNET cover story four years ago, the quartet was dipping its toes into Evermotion’s temperate electro-pop seas with help from the late Richard Swift. For the new Look Alive (Nettwerk), they sought the guidance of seasoned Brit Leo Abrahams (Brian Eno, Jarvis Cocker, Imogen Heap) in their efforts to further distance themselves from their organic folk-pop roots. Look Alive’s iridescent sheen and languid atmospherics will no doubt continue to irk fans who lamented Evermotion’s techno leanings. But eight albums and 24 years into its evolution, Guster has earned the benefit of the doubt for embracing change. And Look Alive certainly has its moments.
MAGNET spoke with Guster’s Ryan Miller, who explained the band’s tactics and how they’ll translate to the stage on its current tour.
So you’re calling from the nation’s capital? My friend, Dean Phillips from Minnesota, has been elected to Congress, and I’m here visiting. While I was sitting in his office, the president was giving his thing [about the three-week reprieve from the government shutdown]. It was crazy.
The way I see it, you could’ve done one of two things after Evermotion. You could’ve reverted back to what everybody expects of Guster, or you could’ve moved even further in the electro/techno direction of the last album. It appears you’ve done the latter. I feel like this one is more of a move to middle than the Richard Swift album was. It’s less abrasive, even though it’s a very different sound for us. It’s not a wacky record—it’s just a wacky record for us.
Are you bracing yourselves for the reaction you might get from some fans? At this point, I think the hardcore fans are along for the ride. Of course, some of them are going to be like, “This isn’t what I prefer, but I respect it.” So, yeah, I guess we’re bracing ourselves a little bit. But we never really know how far we’ve gone until six months or a year later. Like, “This is everyone’s fully formed opinion of the record, and this is where it succeeded and this is where it failed.”
So what were your takeaways from Evermotion? The spirit of that thing really changed the way we make records—in terms of freeing us up to be freaky and not overthink certain things. What Evermotion did for Look Alive was give us a wall to push up against. We really wanted Look Alive to sound like an audiophile record. Maybe we didn’t think that from the beginning, but it seems like we ended up there.
What was it like working with Leo Abrahams? Amazing. We just locked in with him. Part of the reason this band continues to grow has to do with our choice of collaborators. This is the first record in a long time where we can’t wait to get back into the studio with the same producer again. There’s not a single accident on this album. It’s all so purposeful.
How did you hook up with him? I know Regina Spektor. We share this other producer in David Kahne, from (2010’s) Easy Wonderful, and it really didn’t go that well. Several years ago, I asked her if she’d ever worked with a producer she loved unequivocally, and she mentioned Leo. So I put him on a list, gave it to our manager and forgot about it. Then his name came up again, and we got on the phone with him. He said this one thing that made me light up: “All your albums are quite warm and vintagey sounding, and I’m interested in cold, icy sounds.” We wanted to have a very contemporary-sounding record. We wanted to sound like James Blake, not Paul McCartney.
What’s a good example of that on the album. “Look Alive” started as a piano song, and we gave it to Leo and told him, “We know that we don’t want it to be this.” He took it home and worked on it for like two days. When he presented it to us, it was very divisive. Some of us thought it was the best thing that ever happened to the band, and some of us were like, “I can’t get with this. It’s so depressing.” It took us a few minutes to get our heads around it collectively.
So the songs went through some serious evolution in the studio. Yeah, almost everything—except for “Hard Times,” which we wrote in the studio. We went to the National Music Centre in Canada, which is essentially a keyboard museum. A lot of the textures we’re playing with on the album we found in the vaults there.
“Hello Mister Sun” is a keeper. Yeah, it was like, “Can we really have a chorus that goes, ‘Hello, Mister Sun/You can make a rainbow?’” But that’s kind of where we’re at in our lives and our career. I mean, why did I sing in an English accent (on “Overexcited”)? Because it’s kind of funny and it helped me get into character. And why do we have a super-dark song like “Mind Kontrol” on the same album as “Don’t Go,” which sounds like an ABBA song. At some point, I think we just have to own all this stuff.
What does that mean for the live show? It’s a huge reboot, but it’s been working. We had to redo our entire rig so I could put a sampler up front. Brian (Rosenworcel) has all these drum triggers, and we’re bringing in horns in some cases. It’s been a massive, massive undertaking, and it’s still going on. We want to do right by all this stuff. Getting the song across is really the only important thing.
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.
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]
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.
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.”