Singer, songwriter, bassist, mandolin/guitar player. Chris Hillman has worn many hats in his long musical career as a solo artist and as a member of the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas and the Desert Rose Band. Now, Hillman is telling the story of those years in his upcoming autobiography, Time Between: My Life As A Byrd, Burrito Brother, And Beyond (out November 17 on BMG Books). “As far as the book goes, I tried to write it like I was having a conversation,” says Hillman. “Concise and honest.”
MAGNET had its own concise and honest conversation with Hillman, during which he spoke about his iconic work with the Byrds, surfing, John Coltrane and lots more.
I really enjoyed Time Between. It’s very honest. First off, let me ask how you’re doing. You open your book talking about the wildfires in California in 2017 and having to flee your home. Of course, there are terrible fires all along the West Coast right now. I’ve been haunted by fires my entire life in this state. I’m third-generation Californian, but it’s not bothering us. It’s more Northern California based. This is our hurricanes or tornadoes or whatever. Of course, we do have earthquakes, too, and you don’t know when they’re coming. They just happen.
The pandemic makes looking ahead difficult, and your book is obviously a look back on your career. But I wanted to ask if we might get some new Chris Hillman music in 2021 or another tour with Herb Pederson. You’ve said making your 2017 album (the Tom Petty-produced Bidin‘ My Time) was a bit of good timing. Well, this month I would have been on the road with Herb and John Jorgenson (both of the Desert Rose Band) and promoting the book and doing some stories-and-songs type of shows, and it’s all been moved to March. Actually, we are on the road in January in Florida. So, God willing, those will happen, but it’s day to day. You just don’t know, and as far as an album, I really don’t know. I’m not thinking that way. The whole thing with Tom Petty came along, but I wasn’t even thinking about doing an album. So that’s another situation, but I don’t know. Right now, I’m just enjoying being home, I’m going to be honest with you. And come January, hopefully, we’ll be doing some shows in Florida, and then we really get going in March and start working more around the country and stuff. So, we’ll see what happens. Me and nine million other guys who have far bigger tours booked—and every other business, it’s not just the live music business; it’s everything. So, hopefully, we will all be back to a normal situation soon.
In the book, you discuss getting hit by that first blast of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s but then discovering both folk music and also the bluegrass of artists like Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe. My lazy assessment is that you ended up liking the “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” side of Elvis’ first single more than “That’s All Right.” Is that fair? Yeah, that’s great—absolutely right. But, of course, for him to take that song and do it was amazing, as was all that early stuff where he was so brilliant. Brilliant, brilliant artist for that particular time period. But to go and cut “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” that was a big one for Bill Monroe—he did quite well on that one as a songwriter. Although the other guys in the Byrds were not as involved in bluegrass music as I was, they certainly were aware of it. And, of course, as I’ve said repeatedly in the book, we were never a garage-rock band. We were folk guys, and that’s where Roger (McGuinn) came from … David (Crosby), Gene (Clark), everybody. Mike (Clarke) was the only one that really didn’t come out of that area of being a folk musician. So, bluegrass falls into that category.
You were a surfing kid growing up around San Diego, but it doesn’t seem like you ever got into surf music. Was it just not your thing? It’s funny. I liked it—“Walk, Don’t Run” and all that. I really loved it, but when I was surfing in high school, I would hang out with guys older than me who were already in college who were surfers. But they didn’t listen to Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys. This is, like, 1960, 1961. They were listening to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf. I would go to their parties. That’s when I was starting to learn how to play guitar, and my friend John and I would play these parties. And these guys were all in their 20s, and we were like 16 or 17, and they would make sure we had lots of beer, and we’d play, and it was great. But real surfers—hard-core surfers—never listened to surf music.
Chris Stamey, founder of wonderfully off-kilter pop mavens the dB’s, has had a wide-ranging and fruitful career with numerous solo recordings, stints backing rock legend Alex Chilton, and turns as producer for artists such as Whiskeytown, Alejandro Escovedo and Hazeldine. His latest release, A Brand-New Shade Of Blue (out Friday via Omnivore), made with his roving band of Fellow Travelers, is a follow-up to last year’s New Songs For The 20th Century (Vols. I & II) and like that offering mines a variety of early-20th-century musical genres to produce his version of the Great American Songbook.
MAGNET spoke with Stamey about A Brand-New Shade Of Blue, Cole Porter and binging on Bosch.
Your new album sounds great. I’m out of my depth here, but I hear hints of A Love Supreme in some of the phrasing of the title tune. Talk a bit about the gestation of the album. These songs are part of a larger group of compositions I wrote last November, at the piano, in the middle of the night or the wee small hours of the morning—which ended up in a songbook also called A Brand-New Shade Of Blue. The songbook publication has gotten delayed, because the printer has been closed down by the pandemic—just part of a continuum of struggle we are all in. But they were written in the abstract first, before I had any idea of recording them.
I’ve been writing songs on paper these days, mostly, just words/melodies/chords, and learning how to do this as I go. If you think of recorded music as having some similarities to movies, then I’d say I’ve been writing detailed scripts first, and then letting the musicians—actors—interpret them. Whereas on a lot of my songs in the past, in this metaphor, I’ve been more the director and lead actor. Does that make sense?
This was how it worked in the last century, simple sheet music, you know, up until multitrack tape recorders came on the scene and let people craft and revise as they go. It used to be that people would buy the song sheets as the final thing and then sing them themselves in the parlor at home after dinner. The whole family might join in. And it appeals to me, for some reason, right now, to make this simple artifact, to try to fit it all into just one or two sheets of paper. I inherited a lot of songbooks several years ago, people like the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer, and I grew fascinated with the form. Often the harmonic progressions might be somewhat atypical compared to today’s four-chord hits, but the number of bars is often exactly 32 or some multiple of 16.
I still love recording, of course. I am around a lot of musicians here who can read music—even though this is, sadly, not always the case—and it’s just so cool to give them the bare-bones song sheets and see where they take it. That’s what happened here. We had to work around the pandemic, so unfortunately my plan of cutting these songs live with everyone in a room fast became impossible. But I think the record still breathes and floats in the way I’d hoped, and certainly the players each added a lot of their personalities to it. I play guitar on the recordings, and I did direct the proceedings in a gentle fashion, but I was content to take a back seat for the most part and let it happen.
As far as the Coltrane flavor in the first song, that’s a specific kind of modal playing over drones, but it’s Will Campbell, a highly skilled player and one of my musical heroes, on alto who brought that to it, along with tenor player Elijah Freeman, a teenager who is also a fantastic talent in the making. I have always loved players who phrase “conversationally” instead of rigidly and who play without excess vibrato and histrionics. The song itself is more like a standard Coltrane could have covered instead of being like a Coltrane song. It does have a few chordal similarities, however, with his “Naima,” but I didn’t realize that until later.
Originally this was a double album again, like the one last year, as there were enough songs for this, but the idea of having a record that was more unified made sense. It just so happens that a lot of the songs we picked for this release spoke to each other with a certain downbeat mood. I do hope to release the other songs, which are more groove-oriented and rockin’, as an EP later in the year.
Any band that was big in the ’80s has a lot to answer for when it chooses to mount a belated comeback. To their credit, the Psychedelic Furs have gone about it gradually and organically, with an intimate flair that’s made their recent shows somewhat of a throwback revelation. Leader Richard Butler seems rejuvenated—and with his brother Tim still playing bass, the modified six-member version of the Furs feels legit.
Made Of Rain (Cooking Vinyl), the band’s first album in 29 years, toys with nostalgia without getting mired down in it. It’s no Talk Talk Talk, but it’s certainly a damn sight better better than Midnight To Midnight. For Made Of Rain, the Furs worked with producer Richard Fortus, Butler’s old songwriting partner from Love Spit Love. They’ve equaled the dense theatrical grandeur of those ’90s LSL albums, while providing a suitable platform for Butler’s meatiest lead vocals in decades. The Butler brothers, meanwhile, have surrounded themselves with an impressive supporting cast that includes sax player Mars Williams (Waitresses), guitarist Rich Good (Pleased), keyboardist Amanda Kramer (Information Society) and drummer Paul Garisto (with the Furs since 1986).
An art student in London prior to founding the Furs in 1977, Butler moved to New York in the early ’80s. He eventually found his way to the Hudson Valley, where he continues to do some serious painting, often using his daughter, Maggie, as a subject for his impressionistic portraits. MAGNET connected with Butler at home in the riverside town of Beacon.
How are things in upstate New York during this COVID summer? I’m very fortunate in that I’ve got a garden, so I can have friends around and have dinner at a distance. It’s not been too bad.
The Psychedelic Furs have been smart about this whole comeback thing, playing smaller venues to give fans an opportunity to really connect with the band again. And you’ve been all smiles onstage. I think I’m more comfortable onstage now—that’s a big part of it. I’m able to enjoy it more instead being so stressed and introverted about the whole business. I feel confident when I walk out onstage with this band. We’ve been in this consistent lineup for about 10 years, and it’s a pretty solid-sounding band. We never feel like we’re going through the motions up there. Audiences have been getting larger, which has really been a blessing—it’s allowed us to play larger venues. If we’re able to play Royal Albert Hall (on April 27, 2021), that will been the biggest show we’ve ever done in London.
How did the motivation come about to make new music? From time to time, we’d write a new song, rehearse it and play it. One of them made it onto this album (“Wrong Train”). It felt like the time was right to make a record. There was some downtime between touring, band members started sending me music, and we just started writing. We ended up with 16 or 17 songs to choose from.
The production on Made Of Rain is layered and lush, but with an edge. It’s still the Furs, and it certainly isn’t retro in any sense. We’re kind of lucky in that we’re a guitar band. The songs that sound more retro are the ones where we delved more into synthesizers—“Ghost In You” perhaps. Richard Fortus is pretty handy in the studio, and he’s toured with the Psychedelic Furs before. He knew pretty well what we were at heart. For a lot of the ’80s albums, there was a good deal more time spent in the studio. This time, there was a lot of preparation in advance, and we got it done fairly quickly in the studio. In a way, it was like recording Talk Talk Talk more than anything else.
You’ve said that you really don’t write topical songs. But is there anything we can take away from the themes on Made Of Rain that might relate to the craziness of our world right now? I couldn’t have foreseen COVID. But in retrospect, when I listen to something like “You’ll Be Mine,” which is basically a song about death, it seems to be fitting with the mood of the times.
Let’s talk about your singing on this one. You’ve never sounded better. I think I sound pretty much the same as I always have because I stay pretty comfortably in my range. It’s mostly my natural speaking range—or perhaps when I’m shouting at somebody. On Mirror Moves, I doubled a lot of vocals, which smoothed out a lot of raspiness in my voice. On Made Of Rain, it’s fairly natural.
Are you still painting these days? Oh, yeah—and songwriting, too. I got back into painting about 30 years ago in New York. Once I started doing it again, I was surprised that I’d ever left it behind.
Is your daughter still your muse? About 90 percent of the time. I miss her a lot these days. She’s been off in Scotland studying at University of St Andrews. She managed to get back over here about a month ago. She’s staying for about another month before she moves to London, where she’s trying to get herself a job and an apartment.
Now for the mandatory fanboy question: Which ’80s Psychedelic Furs album was the most fun to record, and which were you happiest with once it was all finished? Talk Talk Talk is still my favorite Furs album. But I remember coming back from recording Forever Now and just being thrilled with what Todd Rundgren had managed to do with our sound. XTC had a really bad time with him—he and Andy Partridge butted heads. We never had any problems with Todd, and he was a funny guy. He’d have to take off at a certain time every night because he was addicted to Hill Street Blues. It was just a great experience with him from the get-go.
While rolling through the small town of Waller, Texas, singer/songwriter Jack Gibson watched his hero Daniel Johnston start to fall asleep in the passenger seat. At the wheel was Johnston’s brother and manager, Dick Johnston, who’d just escorted the hungry trio of Texans out for a bite to eat. After that, it was time to relax.
“We’d just had dinner at his favorite Mexican restaurant in Waller,” says Gibson (a.k.a. Tenlons Fort), who was in town working with the lo-fi legend for a few days in June 2018. “We got the extra tortillas and the tall Cokes. After that, Dan started to shut down for the day. His eyes were closing. We were headed over to the hotel where I was staying, but that’s when she called him.”
The “she” calling was the fabled Laurie Allen, Johnston’s longtime crush and muse. Any fan of Johnston’s music knows of this well-documented infatuation saga. “It was a special thing to witness,” says Gibson. “Laurie just happened to call him for the first time in 13 years. I was in the backseat. I heard the conversation, and it was one of the most romantic things in the world. It was the first time since they spoke at the screening of the (Devil & Daniel Johnston) documentary in Austin in 2005. They talked on the phone for about 10 minutes, and it was mind-blowing.”
Understanding the heaviness of the moment, Gibson listened intently to Johnston’s end of the conversation: “Is it really you? Is it really you? Oh, Laurie! You’ve got to save my life. Can you come to Texas? Oh, I love you so much. Are you happy? You doing pretty good? Oh, I’m doing real good, especially now talking to you.”
That bit of sentimental dialog is now cemented in music history thanks to “Hey Dan,” the new Tenlons Fort song dedicated to the late songwriter. The tender and serene track fully channels Johnston’s eccentric spirit.
“Part of the talking bit I’m doing near the end of ‘Hey Dan’ is what he said to Laurie,” says Gibson. “I won’t say everything that was said on the phone—that’s just a little glimpse of what I got to hear. The way he was speaking and his tone was just so romantic and revering after all of that time. It was the most intimate concert of words I’ll probably ever hear in my life. I’ll never forget it.”
When Johnston hung up the phone, he came alive and was inspired to hit the music room. “After that call, we went back to his house and jammed on the instruments,” says Gibson. “It was the classic, ‘I’m tired—she called me—now I’m awake, let’s write a good song!’ It was beautiful.”
Aside from recording and performing music, Gibson, an Austin-area native, is also an artist and screenwriter. His diverse film resume includes work on television shows, writing and production work on Gus Van Sant films and his own 16mm projects.
Tenlons Fort’s “Hey Dan” was recently issued via LaunchLeft, which will also release Sober October. The forthcoming LP, due October 19, is Gibson’s sixth album and was produced by Larry Crane (Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney, Decemberists).
MAGNET recently spoke to Gibson about what he’s been up to this crazy year, sobriety, Gus Van Sant, Elliott Smith and, of course, Daniel Johnston.
With the new, self-released Moon Shot, singer/songwriter/guitarist John Davis and his Lees Of Memory cohorts (guitarist Brandon Fisher and drummer Nick Slack) have fashioned another fine LP of psych-inflected power pop. Davis is a sorely unheralded songwriter—one of the best of his generation—and Moon Shot does nothing to dispel that notion. The default reaction is to say a lot of it sounds like Superdrag (“Lonely Everywhere,” “Crocodile Tears”), albeit with a fairly surprising closing track, but what it really sounds like is John Davis. Even before our current reality—but perhaps amplified now—that’s exactly what we need. We talked to Davis about life during quarantine, staying positive and funk influences. Yes, funk influences.
How are you and your family doing “in these uncertain times”? Hanging tight, man. [Laughs] Efforts are being made. We’ve been distancing to the max since March 13. I have a sick family member I’m helping to care for who is mega-super-compromised, so I can’t take any unnecessary risks whatsoever. I hate it the most for the kids. Our oldest son went out for his high-school baseball squad and made the cut as a freshman, which we were obviously super-psyched about, then their entire season was 86’d.
Speakingof baseball, you’re a San Francisco Giants fan. How much have you missed it? Is the record’s title a nod to a long homer? Not enough to start watching like the 1983 NLCS or something, but I’ve definitely missed baseball something terrible—especially seeing my kid play. And yes, the title is absolutely a reference to the long ball.
You’re a man of faith and, if you’ll allow the generalization, a pretty positive person in addition to being a husband and father. How do you keep it together with everything going on in the world these days? I’d like to think so. I’m glad you think so. Keeping it positive is definitely a choice, though. It’s not my default setting by a long shot, but I’m trying to think the best instead of constantly bracing myself for the worst. I try to keep my words, thoughts and deeds as positive and uplifting as I can, building up instead of tearing down, with love and compassion toward all people. Whenever I get weighted down by my own sorrows at times, I try to either pivot toward an expression of gratitude for all the things on the plus side or focus instead on ways that I could help somebody. I will say that my heart especially goes out to anybody walking through a season of life that’s extremely difficult in a best-case scenario—but in the midst of the pandemic. That’s kind of where we’ve been at for the past couple of months. It tends to make a difficult time way more difficult.
What was it like creating a record in the current circumstances? How much, if any, of the LP was completed prior to lockdown? We were lucky to be able to cut all the drums, all the bass and almost all of the guitar the way we always do. That was the last session before Nick (Slack) moved Rock Falcon to its current location. Rock Falcon II ruled. The studio was built in 1968, and Roy Orbison owned it for most of the ’70s. It’s a classic Nashville temple of sound. The room drums are ridiculous. He claims the new spot is even better for drums. But we were able to get a solid framework for every track together at the studio with Nick the old-fashioned way. When it came time to finish overdubs, everybody was quarantined and there was really nothing happening at the studio, but I was lucky enough to get Brandon (Fisher) down here for one long vocal and guitar session at the house before they started locking everything down. I had to learn ProTools well enough to overdub, but then I kind of went off the deep end. Nick loaned me his Mellotron for a little while; that was crucial. Brandon actually had to finish his last couple of guitar overdubs remotely from home also. When we finally finished all the overdubbing and it came time to hand in my work drive, I just left it on the front porch. It was all zero-contact. Very weird. But Nick was able to mix the whole thing from home, which really says a lot about his ears and overall levels of wizardry, and we were very psyched to have it mastered by Ted Jensen. Having his ears and EQ on it was huge.
If I’m hearing Moon Shot properly, it’s recorded in stereo, and the last two Lees records (The Blinding White Of Nothing At All and Unnecessary Evil) were in mono. Why the change? If I’m not hearing it properly, please be kind, as I’m old. No, it’s definitely stereo. I didn’t even mount an argument as to why it should be recorded and mixed in mono. Brandon’s way into stereo guitars, and Nick is, too. I know the mono thing is off-putting for some people. I just prefer to have one big sound pointing straight at the third eye most of the time. Wacky stereo gets in the way of the music sometimes, if you ask me—like some of the extreme panning on Led Zeppelin II or something. I don’t intend to be sacrilegious. I love Led Zeppelin II. That’s just the first example that came to mind.
Blinding White had 24 songs, while Moon Shot has 10. You’re a prolific songwriter, so did you just have 10 songs you liked and concentrated on those? Or are you holding out on us and another record will be here sooner than later? No, I wrote 30 songs to get to these 10. A handful of them are set aside for the new Rectangle Shades LP. Some are forming the basis for another new project with one of my favorite Nashville rhythm sections—Jared Reynolds on bass, Lindsay Jamieson on drums—called Glory Ride, then some others are insinuating themselves into a remote collabo with my friend Jason Brewer from Explorers Club, Andrew Dost from the band Fun and Shane Tutmarc from Dolour that doesn’t have a name yet. “Band To Be Named Later”? And I’m working on a reggae LP with my buddy Ethan Luck, Magic Panther & The Deliverers. So I have four other records in various stages. It sounds crazy, but I think we can make all four of them this year. It’s always just driven by the ideas, and there seems to be tons of ideas.
The basic sentiment of “Crocodile Tears”—music can help you feel better—isn’t new, but it’s certainly the case for all of your work with Superdrag, solo and the Lees Of Memory. What are some bands or songs that evoke that in you? Did anything in particular inspire this song? There are so many. I guess that’s why I felt like writing the song. I wrote that one super-fast. When I was registering the works, I had to supply dates of creation, and I had forgotten that I wrote “Lonely Everywhere,” “Crocodile Tears” and “No Floor No Ceiling” on back-to-back-to-back days. That was a good little streak. As for the inspiration, I think it’s a little bit like something Robert Pollard might do. I hoped it would be. His voice sounds triumphant. On that chorus, I wanted mine to sound triumphant, too. Plus, it has a couple of nice little worlds in it. I was way into creating little worlds on this album, with bridges that would take you to a different place for a little while. I feel like “Crocodile Tears” is kind of a power ballad, in a way.
I’m not sure anyone was expecting the funk workout on “Far Beyond.” How did that one come about? Your taste is pretty wide-ranging, so I imagine you listen to that kind of stuff every so often at least. Man, I just try to fully commit to playing exactly what I feel at any given time. I think the closer you are to hitting that mark consistently, the better records you’ll be making. I really do. I got the idea for the main synth hook listening to Snoop Dogg Presents Tha Eastsidaz. In light of his passing the other day, I should definitely mention the maestro Ennio Morricone in terms of those twangy guitars in the verses. They were definitely inspired by the guitar-playing in his scores to the max. It’s obviously a love letter to Prince, but I honestly spent more time with George Clinton’s music while we were making these tracks. I listened to Funkentelechy Vs. The PlaceboSyndrome every day for several weeks at one point. I listened to tons of Wu Tang Clan and related joints, too, but primarily Liquid Swords by GZA. I definitely tried to get into some Shaw Brothers kung-fu synths from 1979 in a few key areas elsewhere—the kind of stuff the RZA might sample for an interlude or something. As far as “Far Beyond” is concerned, we felt like it had to be last—we didn’t know where else to put it. It’s kind of like the record ends with “Wrong,” and “Far Beyond” is the after party. If showing love for the Purple One is wrong, I don’t wanna be right. He’s been my hero since 1982.
You’ve played a few Lees shows, but I recall you telling me once that playing live wasn’t something you were all that interested in anymore, at least the touring aspect of it. Do you still feel that way? Moreso than ever. [Laughs] Man, ultimately it all comes down to time. It’s our most precious resource. With work and family obligations, we have a pretty narrow bandwidth available for rocking, and I’ve never been much of one to be able to write on the road. The conventional deal kind of dictates that you make an album, then spend the next year or two playing it live, then go make the next one. We just don’t have time for that creatively. In the amount of time it takes to woodshed a set, get nine musicians together, sit at the club for five hours, then play, then tear it all down and go home, I could write four or five songs instead—and two of ‘em might be good enough for the LP. [Laughs] I mean, since 2014, we’ve put out 12 full-length sides of vinyl, plus five double-sided non-album 45s and a sixth 45—our first—had two songs on it that ended up on (debut Lees LP) Sisyphus Says. If we only exist on record, we’ve got to keep the records coming. Writing, recording and producing are the elements I enjoy the most—with joy being the main objective.