A Conversation With Brendan Benson

It’s been almost seven years since Brendan Benson’s last solo album, which makes the release of Dear Life (Third Man) a bit of a milestone. He executed nearly everything himself at his Readymade Studio, working with accomplished engineer Michael Ilbert (Taylor Swift, Supergrass) on the mixing end. A busy snapshot of Benson at his most cautiously optimistic and emotionally direct, Dear Life is also the sound of an acknowledged family man coming to terms with his own fallibility and mortality (he turns 50 in November). The album was mostly finished before Benson’s recent run with the Raconteurs, the Grammy-winning band he founded with Jack White, whose label picked up Dear Life. Still juiced from the group’s international tour, he added two new tracks and put the finishing touches on Dear Life. The results are refreshingly unpredictable, if potentially off-putting to fans expecting more of the same modestly unhinged retro-flavored power pop. Some may be a little taken aback by the programmed beats, abrupt shifts in style and tone and occasional hip-hop vibe.

In lockdown mode at home with his wife and two kids in Nashville, Benson discussed the delayed evolution of Dear Life, the iffy logistics of promoting an album during a pandemic and where he might land once we can all roam freely again.

Nothing like dropping a new album during an international crisis.
Well, yeah, I like to do things a little differently. [Laughs] This record’s been funny like that. I was really excited about it once I completed it—which was maybe three or four years ago—and I couldn’t find a label to put it out. Then the Raconteurs started up … and then, of course, this pandemic. It seems to be against all odds. 

Would you say that this is your most eclectic LP?
I think so. The big thing that happened during the making of this record was that I had to move out of my studio—the building was scheduled to be demolished. I relocated to my basement and set up this little rig. But I couldn’t set up any drums, and I couldn’t play loud because of the neighbors. So I went exploring inside the box, as they say. I had a lot of fun doing that—getting weird with different textures and sounds that I don’t normally do.

And the lyrics are pretty straightforward.
Yeah. I’ve been listening to a lot of rap lately—rappers are so direct. I wasn’t going to break my back to make things super-witty or clever. I’m singing about what my life is now, not some old-fashioned life. I think there’s power in that directness.

Do you worry that Dear Life’s twists and turns might turn off some fans?
I’m conflicted on that. On the one hand, part of me wants to grow as an artist. And an artist doesn’t usually dwell on one body of work for long—you like to move on and try something new. As for the career part, you can’t throw fans a complete curveball or you’re not going to have an audience anymore.

It helps if the songs are strong enough to withstand the experimentation.
If they don’t like them, that’s OK. But this is really me—I’m not trying to pull one over on anyone. 

So Dear Life is essentially you left to your own devices.
It’s me, myself and I. Michael Ilbert mixed the album, so he deserves a lot of credit. I’d send him a few songs at a time, and he’d mix them and send them back. Then I’d get excited and write more. He made the record sound unreal. 

How did “Raconteurs round three” pan out? I really liked (last year’s) Help Us Stranger, but it didn’t seem to get much promotion.
That’s Jack. He works really fast, from the recording process to everything else. We were in the studio a couple of weeks—maybe a little longer—but Jack had it all planned out in his mind. I would’ve liked to spend maybe a little longer making it. It’s a lesson I learn from Jack every time I work with him: Move on—don’t fuck with things too much. 

So what’s the plan for Dear Life?
I feel like it’s a bit of a comeback album. I’ve been a little out of the loop for several years. I was trying to co-write more, produce more and stay home more. But that didn’t really work out for me. We’re rescheduling the tour for the fall. I’m doing a song a day live on Instagram, and I’m kind of digging that. I may even gear up to do some shows from home. 

Now that you’ve been sitting on these songs for a few years, what do you hear now?
I haven’t been this excited about an album since I put out (2002’s) Lapalco. I feel good, I feel confident. I wouldn’t change a thing.

—Hobart Rowland

A Conversation With SAVAK

Rotting Teeth In The Horse’s Mouth (Ernest Jenning) is SAVAK’s fourth LP of jittery, yet insanely catchy, post-punk-inflected rock. As with the previous efforts, Rotting Teeth holds 10 tunes equally split among band co-leaders Michael Jaworksi and Sohrab Habibion—and like those outings, it’s start-to-finish outstanding. We touched base with Jaworski and Habibion to talk about the new record, their songwriting process and living in New York City during a pandemic. (Habibion, unfortunately, was infected with the invisible enemy but has recovered.)

We’re all kind of tired of talking about COVID-19 at this point, but I have to ask you guys about it since you’re in New York City. How are you doing? How are your families?
My family is doing OK. Other than occasionally making trips to our semi-safe building roof for fresh air and sun, my wife, three-year-old daughter and I have not left our building for over three weeks now. We live in Manhattan and haven’t felt like it’s worth the risk to leave our apartment. My wife’s parents live next door to us in the same building, and we don’t want to jeopardize their health, either. We’ve somehow been able to secure a weekly food delivery and are taking all precautions. We were all sick for the first two weeks with something that shared a lot of common symptoms as COVID-19, but fortunately we’re all fine now and who knows what it was. We’re struggling like so many other people, and the conditions of living in a small, one-bedroom apartment with a high-energy three-year-old is a challenge. My wife still has her job, so we’re better off than many. I have so much appreciation for all of the health-care workers risking their lives to save people and improve the collective health of us all.
Habibion: I actually had the ‘rona, and it was a very odd two weeks of self-quarantine in my sliver of a home office in our apartment. While I was lucky that the fever wasn’t too extreme, the muscular pain was more intense than anything else I’ve experienced. It literally hurt to move at all. I felt like I’d been hurled down a flight of stairs and my whole body was bruised. My wife delivered food and water to me, and I only got up to use the bathroom. For about a week after I’d otherwise recovered, the fatigue was still overwhelming, and my sense of taste and smell was considerably dulled. But I’m OK now, and thankfully neither my wife nor our son got sick. We live across the street from a large park, so I go on daily walks to get fresh air and let my mind wander. I’ve also used the time to transfer live recordings of old bands I was in and edit the videotapes I shot of hardcore bands playing in the D.C. area in the mid-’80s. It’s been a fun distraction and has also put me back in touch with some folks I haven’t spoken with in years.

Being in the “hot zone,” what are your reflections on what you’ve seen? Sohrab, you mentioned in an email how you went for a walk in the park wearing a mask and how weird it all seemed.
Jaworski: We have a nice view from our roof and have been enjoying it. We’re watching the few planes land in La Guardia and the trash barges move on the East River. We filled a bird feeder on our fire escape and watched the birds decimate the seed for a week. We attempted a walk a week ago, but there were still so many people on the sidewalks. It felt like we were dodging zombies, and it was so stressful.
Habibion: Well, aside from wanting to yell at the joggers to cover their stupid fucking faces, it’s been a mix of seeing people who are trying to be responsible citizens while doing small things to maintain their sanity, and also witnessing far too many folks who are behaving in remarkably cavalier ways considering the circumstances we find ourselves in. Mainly this just affirms my belief that the human condition is absurd. We’re willing to submit to comically make-believe things like God and patriotism and the stock market but somehow unable to do a thing as simple as wearing a mask to slow the spread of an infectious disease that’s already killed more than 95,000 people in a matter of a few months. Is anyone going to the bar? I’d love another beer.

How odd does it feel to be releasing an album right now?
Jaworski: It sucks. Canceled tour dates are a bummer and a new reality that makes anything but survival feel insignificant. That said, I’m still grateful for music and art, and it’s helping my sanity in these weird times. We poured a lot of ourselves into the new record, and I truly hope it can be a source of joy, or an escape for folks right now.
Habibion: Less than ideal? For a band like us, I’m not sure it’s a huge deal. I’d like to think that for the kind of people most likely to be interested in the music we make, it doesn’t matter so much if they hear us or find out about us when a particular album comes out. At this point, we will have four LPs, an EP and a couple of seven-inches out in the world. If it’s your thing, we’re here! If not, no biggie; there’s no shortage of other low-stress/hi-res jams to cram onto your Zune or Pono or whatever.

Continue reading “A Conversation With SAVAK”

A Conversation With Kim Richey

The fact that Kim Richey felt impelled to completely rework 2000’s Glimmer would imply that she was never happy with it in the first place. But that’s simply not the case—for the most part. Richey has always maintained that she loved working with Grammy-winning producer Hugh Padgham, who added a glossy commercial finish to what remains some of the Nashville-based singer/songwriter’s best work.

Twenty years later, Richey has just released A Long Way Back: The Songs Of Glimmer (Yep Roc), a stripped-down interpretation of the original 14 tracks. Recorded by Grammy-nominated producer Doug Lancio (John Hiatt, Patty Griffin), who also played most of the instruments, this version was originally issued in 2019 as a limited-edition vinyl release. The 300 copies sold out so quickly that Yep Roc has now reissued it in CD and digital formats.

MAGNET checked in with Richey as she was prepping for a tour that has since been bumped to August for obvious reasons. She had plenty to say about Glimmer and its less conspicuous counterpart.

Was it the label’s decision to go in a more commercial direction with Glimmer?
Nope. Every decision I made with Mercury I made on my own. I didn’t have a manager at the time, so I was trying to figure it all out by myself. I thought, “Well, I love (the Police’s) Synchronicity, and Hugh Padgham did Split Enz and a lot of other cool stuff.” Still, everybody kept saying it was the label that made me change my sound.

What were some of the challenges of re-recording the songs for A Long Way Back?
Starting out, we put too many restrictions on ourselves. It was just going to be me on acoustic guitar playing the songs, but doing that was easier on some songs than on others. “Strength In You,” for example, was harder because it’s more of a rock song.

So things just sort of evolved in the studio?
Yes. Doug plays everything beautifully. He started putting more things on the tracks, and I basically said, “I don’t even want to play guitar if you’re here.” So it started to get a little bigger. In the last phase, we had a few songs that really needed more than just acoustic instruments. Living right next door to Doug was Aaron Smith, the drummer who played on “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”—he was on a couple tracks. And one of my favorite moments is Dan Mitchell playing flugelhorn on “A Long Way Back.” 

What were some of the misperceptions that arose after the release of Glimmer?
What always bothered me was that people didn’t really give the songs a chance, and that’s partly why I wanted to record them again. Everybody seemed to be so concerned about the production of the record because it was so pop, and I was supposed to be country and Americana—I wasn’t allowed to do something different. At the same time, I got all my hair cut off … Remember, I had that giant ’90s hair? [Laughs] My feelings were hurt by the reviews in Nashville, because they seemed so centered on the production and the way I looked. I got a haircut and I started running. Why was that news?

How about the recording process?
At first, making that record was really stressful because I didn’t know anyone. I went from more of a “making a record in the basement” vibe with Angelo (Petraglia) for (1997’s) Bittersweet to a New York studio with well-heeled musicians and Hugh Padgham. One thing that was so much fun with Hugh was doing background vocals. I think of them as another instrument, and he was really open to anything musically. Once we got going, it was a blast.

—Hobart Rowland

A Conversation With Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers)

Drive-By Truckers’ American Band arrived at the perfect time in the fall of 2016. A celebration of the actual core values that define this country and a brutally honest depiction of our flawed humanity, the acclaimed release was just the salve to soothe inflamed psyches during a tumultuous election season.

So here we are in another election year, and DBT’s Patterson Hood isn’t wasting an opportunity to vent on The Unraveling (ATO). That anger colors his storytelling in the best sense, from the inexplicable despair of mass-shooting opus “Thoughts And Prayers” to the futile small-town narrative of “21st Century USA” to the anti-immigration horror show of “Babies In Cages.” For ominous eight-minute parting shot “Awaiting Resurrection,” Hood stages an intervention of sorts, getting in our faces with the realization that it’s up to us to turn this thing around. Supplemented by two more great tracks from DBT co-founder Mike Cooley, The Unraveling might’ve worked as a second disc to American Band, if it were conceived as a four-sided concept album along the lines of 2001’s Southern Rock Opera. At the very least, it’s a fitting sequel.

In a recent chat, Hood explains the origins of the angst that informs The Unraveling,while insisting that there’s still hope to be had. But the clock is ticking.

The Unraveling feels like the ultimate gut check. It’s angry, it’s blunt, and it’s also really sad.
This was a hard record to write. It was kind of a challenge trying to figure out how to achieve what we wanted to achieve and have it still be a record somebody would want to listen to. Leading up to it coming out, I didn’t really know whether it was going to be received well or not. The fact that it seems to have hit a nerve with so many people has been gratifying, but I wasn’t really expecting it this time.

You could argue that this album and American Band are two sides of the same coin, so to speak.
Before American Band, we’d write about something in the form of a story or something set in another time. With Southern Rock Opera, even though it was set in the ’70s, to me it was still relevant when we made it. With American Band, the songs were set in the right now, and they seemed to become even more timely over the next two or three years. This record is sort of an extension of that one, except with a more personal slant to it. It’s about trying to raise your family in the midst of all this madness—trying to explain the lockdown drill to your kids and all that shit. I have 15-year-old and a 10-year-old. It’s fucked up.

I’ve always equated your storytelling to that moment at a bar when interests and intellects collide, the beer buzz is just kicking in and the discussion turns to the stuff we all have in common—some of it profound, the rest life’s seemingly mundane little details. I think that’s especially true on The Unraveling.
All of our records are personal to me, but this one seemed to take on a different level. It’s been a rough few years on just about every level but a professional one. We moved cross-country (to Oregon), and there were a lot of hardships associated with that. I keep up with current affairs and the political climate, and there’s been a lot of turmoil associated with that. There are some pre-existing conditions in my family that would make health insurance precarious if they’re ever able to undo the Affordable Care Act. So I’m not sure I was in the best mental and emotional state—and getting old is a bitch. All of that played into the way this record came out.

Drive-By Truckers have had a long and fruitful relationship with producer David Barbe. What role did he play in making these last two albums so lean and mean?
It’s not a typical producer/band relationship. He’s very much part of the band. We challenge each other; we push each other not to repeat ourselves—and the last two records have been engineered by Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price), who’s amazing. We all wanted this record to sound really different from the last one. With American Band, we mixed it almost mono. On this one, we kind of went the opposite way: wide-screen and cinematic. Matt had some really great ideas about that when he came in to mix it with David. As hard as this record was to write, it was fun to record.

Many of songs on The Unraveling are fairly direct in their sentiments. One that’s a bit more mysterious is “Armageddon’s Back In Town.” What was the inspiration behind that?
I’m honestly not sure. [Laughs] That and “Rosemary With A Bible And A Gun” are different types of songwriting for me. “Armageddon’s Back In Town” implies a story that it really doesn’t bother to tell. There’s a lot of imagery and a lot of moving from town to town … That might be one that I figure out a year or two from now.

And then there’s the finale, “Awaiting Resurrection.”
That one revisits all the other ideas on the record—ties all the loose ends together and leaves you standing on that beach watching the sunset. The album cover we chose was inspired by the end of that song. It’s my son and one of his best friends, whose dad actually took the picture, which is fucking beautiful. We’d cut about 18 songs, so there were a lot of different ideas about what this record was going to be before we honed in on what we wanted. I didn’t want a cover that looked like any of our other covers, and I wanted it to be photo based. I stumbled on that picture, and it immediately spoke to me. You’re standing there, the sun’s going down, and it’s kind of beautiful—but it’s also kind of eerie.

How’s life in Oregon?
I love it. It’s made me enjoy the South more. Now I don’t have to deal with the day-to-day things that were pissing me off; I can go back home and enjoy the people I love, the restaurants I love. And I hate summers. The summers in Oregon are pretty fucking amazing. 

—Hobart Rowland

Tour Dates
3/12 – The Vogue, Indianapolis 
3/13 – Metro, Chicago 
3/14 – Palace Theatre, St. Paul, MN  
3/17 – Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver  
3/18 – The Showbox, Seattle  
3/20-21 – Wonder Ballroom, Portland  
3/22 – Van Duzer Theatre, Arcata, CA  
3/24 – Mystic Theatre, Petaluma, CA 
3/26 – The Fillmore, San Francisco 
3/27 – The Regent Theater, Los Angeles  
3/28 – The Van Buren, Phoenix 
3/31 – El Rey Theater, Albuquerque  
4/2 – Granada Theater, Dallas  
4/3-4 – Scoot Inn, Austin   
4/16-17 – The Orange Peel, Asheville, NC 
4/18 – High Water Festival, Charleston, SC  
4/21 – The Ramkat, Winston-Salem, NC  
4/23 – Manchester Music Hall, Lexington, KY  
4/24 – The Pageant, St Louis, MO  
4/25 – Ryman Auditorium, Nashville  
4/27 – Vinyl Music Hall, Pensacola, FL 
4/28 – The Plaza Live, Orlando 
4/29 – Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL
5/1 – Iron City, Birmingham, AL
5/21 – Shaky Knees, Atlanta

A Conversation With Richard Lowenstein (“Mystify: Michael Hutchence”)

To say that Mystify: Michael Hutchence was a labor of love for director Richard Lowenstein is sort of an understatement. Lowenstein was close friends with the INXS singer for more than a decade, directing many of the band’s videos and casting Hutchence in the lead role of his 1986 film, Dogs In Space. That connection lends Lowenstein’s immersive documentary an intimacy that could only come from someone in Hutchence’s inner circle. 

Available for streaming now and out on Blu-ray and DVD via Shout! Factory on March 31, Mystify takes a long-awaited deep dive into the ascent and demise of one of the great frontmen in rock. Making the most of footage from Hutchence’s home movies and those of his intimates, Lowenstein captures the charismatic artist’s larger-than-life persona while honing in on his sensitivity, his intellect and his fitful indifference toward the trappings of success. The second half of the film artfully sucks viewers into a five-year downward spiral touched off by a violent assault that robbed Hutchence of his senses of taste and smell, culminating in his suicide in a Sydney hotel room. Ultimately, Mystify is a celebration of life, surrendering itself to the journey of its protagonist and bypassing the innuendo surrounding his 1997 death.

MAGNET touched base with Lowenstein via Skype from Melbourne, Australia, a mercifully safe distance from the fires still burning farther north.

How are you holding up over there? The coverage I’ve seen of the fires has been horrible.
It’s quite devastating—10 percent of the country has burned. We’ve had some terrible apocalyptic days of smoke down here, with acid rain and mud falling from the sky. But fire wise, we’ve escaped. 

How has Mystify gone over in your country?
It’s been brilliant. The cinema release was one of the top-five documentary grosses of all time here. It’s also opening in 50 cinemas in Germany, and the French and the Italians are doing releases. It’s really striking a chord around the world, which is great.

You don’t have to be a diehard INXS fan to appreciate the story.
It’s a study of an individual and the trials and tribulations of getting through a career as a pop star. In pop, it’s all about looking and being young, as well as having a hit record. I did try and make it a universal story. And in lots of territories, INXS has been forgotten about, so I did want it to speak to a younger generation who knew nothing about Michael.

So many Australian bands never had INXS’s enormous success in the United States. Why?
At the time, it was extremely rare for an Australian band to do genres of music other than classic pub rock. INXS infused dance music and R&B into a sort of white pop. They took their influences seriously. They didn’t do it in a superficial way like many of the post-punk bands coming out of England at the time. On top of it, you’ve got someone who’s not just a good performer but a great performer. Michael had this humility about him—he wasn’t pushing some arrogant pop-star Oasis image. He was one of those classic sexual icons girls love, but there were just as many working-class blokes who saw him as fantastic. It’s like he presented a feminine side they couldn’t express.

And INXS was hardworking band.
They were determined to break territories like America and Europe by touring there at a young age. As soon as they were filling 1,000-seat pubs here, they were doing college tours in America for their (1982) Shabooh Shoobah album. That really gave them a grassroots international appeal. They weren’t just hoping for a number-one hit—like Men At Work. But after (the success of 1987’s) Kick, management got incredibly lazy. I remember being around Michael post-Kick and hearing him say, “Where’s my manager? Probably out playing polo somewhere.” The focus went from touring to writing a hit song. I think that was a huge mistake. 

When did you first meet Michael Hutchence?
We met on the set of the “Burn For You” video, which was the first one I did for them. They rang me a week before I was to go to the Cannes Film Festival with my first feature film (1984’s Strikebound), and I told them we could talk when I got back. They were like, “We’re here now—just grab your cameras.” They were in Mackay, this low-rent Florida-style beach town in Queensland. Because we were these pale punks, their manager put us into this hotel to protect us from the sun. Later, they led us out of the hotel and there were these five or six bronzed Australians with mullet haircuts lounging by the pool with their beautiful girlfriends next to them. The middle one with this extra-long mullet got up, came over, double-shook my hand and said, “Hi. I’m Michael,” with this big genial grin. Within 24 hours, we were all snorkeling together off the Great Barrier Reef, living the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and filming as we went along.

A week later, when I was at Cannes, INXS were playing in Nice, and Michael appeared. He ended up staying up all night partying and coming along to one of my meetings with an Australian producer the next day. It wasn’t going well, so I stopped my pitch and said I had this other film about a bunch of hippies and punks living in a house in Melbourne—and Michael was the lead. He looked up from his semi-asleep position at the table and said, “Am I?” I said, “Yeah, you’re the lead.” Pretty much from that point on, we became firm friends. I didn’t expect more INXS videos, but they just kept rolling in. I also knew a whole lot of people Michael idolized, like Nick Cave. He just loved him and the artistic credibility he had.

What were some of the revelations that came up as you were making Mystify?
It took about two years to make the film once we got funded, and five years of preparatory work before that. I literally spent the first year panicking that I didn’t have the footage I needed. I kept telling investors I had amazing stuff, but I was actually lying. Then, when money started coming in, I started going through my old tins of film. I sent it off to the laboratory to get scanned, and every few days, the lab would ring me up and say, “You won’t believe what we found.” The [footage of] Kylie [Minogue] and Michael on holidays was in those tins. I couldn’t understand how 20 minutes of Michael and Kylie got amongst my music video rushes. I’d totally forgotten.

Michael wanted a hand-wound 16mm Bolex like mine, so I bought him one, and he started filming his private life. But he didn’t know how to process the film, so he’d bring it back to the next video shoot and throw it at me. I’d get him a VHS and keep all the 16mm footage. It was like some kind of divine intervention.

Welcome To Wherever You Are, the last great INXS album, came out in August 1992, the same month Hutchence had his violent run-in with the cab driver in Copenhagen. That was a pivotal year for both him and the band.
Michael had started getting very confused about grunge. The band was in danger of being labeled an anachronism, and I don’t think the record company knew how to reinvent them for the ’90s, which is what U2 did so successfully. When it came to the accident, Michael would never let the truth get in the way of a good story. He told some people he fell off a bike in Thailand. (Ex-girlfriend) Helena (Christensen) was the only witness, and as soon as I heard her description—the blood coming from his nose and ears—I knew it was serious. There was an incredible amount of bleeding in his brain that wasn’t treated.

The film does an effective job of addressing Hutchence’s death without dwelling on it.
The most important thing for me was to look at all the things leading up to his suicide like a detective would. The autoeroticism rumor didn’t start until about six weeks after he died—there was no mention of it before then. We accessed the full coroner’s report, and there were two really large areas of brain damage that put him at an unusually high suicide risk. The medical evidence was really clear that he was at risk for three reasons: He hadn’t slept in over 24 hours; he was incredibly drunk, with only tiny traces of recreational drugs; and he had two walnut-sized areas of traumatic head injury. The experts said it was like a perfect storm. It’s not a suicide where you write a note—it happens like a snap decision. If you can get through that half hour, you most likely won’t even recognize your own actions. No one knew that information, so it was important for me to get it out.

Mystify was Michael’s story, so once he stopped breathing, I didn’t think it was the right thing to show funeral footage. Knowing Michael, he would’ve hated his own funeral. There was all sorts of media bullshit going on. The only thing he would’ve liked was Nick Cave playing “Into My Arms.”

—Hobart Rowland