Jody Stephens has always thrived on collaboration, whether it was with his bandmates in Big Star (one of rock’s great underdog tales) or as the do-everything CEO of Memphis’ Ardent Studios. Lately, Stephens has been feeding off the creative energy of Those Pretty Wrongs, his on-and-off collaboration with longtime friend Luther Russell—one that began when the two came together for 2012 Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me. The duo’s latest release, Zed For Zulu (Burger), enhances the vaguely nostalgic folk/power-pop leanings of their self-titled 2016 debut with more expansive arrangements and some well-placed Big Star accessories, including a few of Chris Bell’s guitars.
Meanwhile, Omnivore has just reissued 2005 Big Star “reunion” album In Space. An inconsistent affair that definitely has its moments, the LP features Stephens, the late Alex Chilton and the Posies’ Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow.
Checking in from Memphis, Stephens weighed in on Those Pretty Wrongs, In Space and the untimely 2010 death of Chilton.
Are you and Luther doing any touring behind Zed For Zulu? We debuted the new LP in Los Angeles at a Wild Honey Foundation benefit for autism. We shared the stage with Dan Wilson, so that was fun. We played Nashville for the Americana Music Fest, then here in Memphis and in Little Rock. We’re going to England and playing nine dates there.
The best description I’ve heard so far about Zed For Zulu is that it’s sort of like #1 Record without the Alex Chilton influence. I’ll take that. It’s quite a compliment. For those familiar with I Am The Cosmos and Chris (Bell), he was an amazingly talented guy.
You used some of his equipment on at least one song, correct? I own his acoustic Yamaha. (Big Star bassist) Andy Hummel wound up with it first, and then he gave it to me because I was looking to learn how to play guitar. I got Alex to teach me a few chords, and I wrote “For You” on it, which is on Big Star’s third album. That guitar is pretty much on every song on Zed For Zulu. Then we have Chris’ Gibson ES-335, which we use on “You And Me,” “Below Zero” and one or or two others. His spirit is very much present on this album.
You and Luther seem to gel so well creatively that it’s tough to figure out who’s doing what. How did you meet? (Former Capitol Records CEO) Gary Gersh introduced me to Luther in the early ’90s, and we just kept in touch. Danielle McCarthy, who spearheaded the Big Star documentary, wanted me to sing some songs out in L.A., so I called Luther. We wound up playing other dates as well, and he suggested we write some song together. I knew we were likeminded spirits when it comes to melodies and influences, and Luther is a great cheerleader. So it was easy to say yes.
What are your thoughts now on the Big Star documentary? I love the fact that the film focuses on (Ardent Studios founder) John Fry, because he certainly was a valuable part of what we were doing. Danielle contacted Fry very early on, and I think the common denominator was Winston Eggleston, the son of Bill Eggleston, who took the Radio City cover photograph. She flew to Memphis, and John rented a van and took her to all these Big Star spaces. I think it’s a wonderful film.
Now that we’re on the subject of Big Star, how does In Space sit with you almost 15 years later. I think it’s fun—I practice to it all the time. “Love Revolution” is a trip on headphones. You can hear Alex’s wacky picking on it, and you can hear Jon Auer’s ’70s-style noodling.
What was it like putting the album together? Rykodisc had no idea what they were getting into—they had no clue. But they agreed to do this thing. The idea was to record a song a day. But 10 days into it, we had no idea what we had. We had some instrumental tracks, but I don’t even think lyrics or melody lines were starting to appear. Rykodisc kept asking. “How’s it going?” We really didn’t know. Then we got together for the second round, and things started coming together. We finally got it done and delivered, and then it got really fun. What were some of Alex’s key contributions? He’d taken these classical pieces and transcribed them for two guitars, bass and drums. That’s what “Aria, Largo” is. He passed around these charts, and Jon and Ken were all sitting around reading them. I think he may have had drums, but it’s not like I can sight read, so I wasn’t really paying attention. I started thinking, “Man, this is going south.” But as it turns out, “Aria, Largo” is a really nice transitional break.
How difficult was it for you to absorb Alex’s passing? He died on a Wednesday, and we were to play South By Southwest on Saturday, and I’d just arrived in Austin. I was in the Convention Center, in the middle of the registration area, when Alex’s wife called me and told me. All of sudden, it was like everything got quiet and these curtains came down around me. I just went to my hotel room and shut down. I felt so sorry for his wife—and Alex. He’d just got married, and he was having such a good time of it. Big Star songs were getting played on TV shows and commercials. That ’70s Show had gone into syndication, and it could play as many as six or seven times a night, and he was getting royalties for that. I don’t think he had a lot of money, but he was comfortable—and 59 years old is young. I got along with Alex best onstage and in the studio when we were playing. He could pick up a guitar and deliver a vocal, and it was pretty inspirational. It was so sad. I still think about it.
Much like “criminally underrated,” the term “legendary” gets tossed around too easily in the music realm, but it certainly fits Tony Visconti. As a producer, arranger, sideman and collaborator, he’s worked with David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Paul McCartney, Sparks, Morrissey and too many others to name (go do some Google homework) and has helped bring such classic albums as Low, “Heroes”, Electric Warrior and Blackstar to life. His new solo album, It’s A Selfie, gives Visconti a turn in the spotlight and offers fans a chance to hear his original compositions.
MAGNET spoke with Visconti about his new album, his unique relationships with Bowie and Bolan and walking with zombies.
It’s A Selfie is a fun and rewarding listen with a variety of song styles and well-told tales. I’m not used to hearing you sing solo, but your voice has a warm timbre and vibrato that really grows on you with repeated listens. I believe it’s been 20 years since your last release—why so long? I know you’ve been busy performing with Bowie tribute band Holy Holy of late. Thank you. I’ve been singing for years and years on other people’s records. I did lots of high falsetto vocals on T.Rex records, “Telegram Sam” and “Children Of The Revolution,” for instance, and on much of the David Bowie albums I’ve produced. “Heroes” is only David and me singing back-ups. My father sang in a barbershop quartet, and that’s where I got my love of singing harmonies. I have a decent blending voice, very useful, but singing lead does not come easy to me. I really have to step outside of myself to get to that point where I’m in the spotlight vocally. Holy Holy doesn’t take up much of my time; we do that project for fun. What has taken so long is that I’ve had an amazing 20-year run as a record producer. I’ve been blessed with being reunited with David Bowie during this period, producing his last four albums and various other projects with him. I’ve worked with Morrissey, Esperanza Spalding, Perry Farrell, Damon Albarn and more. An album can take as long as three months to make, sometimes longer. I kept putting my new album on the back burner.
Several of the songs are cautionary tales. For example, we aren’t sure if Frankie and Johnny, the protagonists of “A Marriage,” will make it to happily ever after. Yet, the album still feels hopeful to me. Did you have an overall theme in mind? Much of life is about our emotional relationships; we all fall in love with somebody—several times in fact. We’ve all had our heart broken or hurt someone else in the process of breaking up. This universal theme comes easy to me to finally write about, a kind of therapy. At this time of my life I’m still asking the question, “What exactly is love?” I know we feel possessive, jealousy, envy and rage in relationship to love. We’d like to think love is that warm fuzzy feeling, but what can love really be? That’s what I explore in the song “The Purpose Of Love.” But of course, it is a human virtue to live in hope. The album definitely points to the light at the end of the tunnel.
On “Hey! Shout It Out,” you lovingly pay homage to some of the people you’ve worked with over the years by referring to their initials and the experiences you shared. Do I have this right, “DC” is Denny Cordell, “MB” is Marc Bolan, and “DB” is David Bowie? I love to give credit where credit is due. Denny Cordell was a famous British record producer who believed in me and took me on as his second in command and apprentice at the same time. Marc Bolan and I started as scruffy young men who had to put all our pocket change on the table so that we could buy lunch. We started as me, a novice record producer, and he, the leader of a psychedelic-folk duo. We recorded the first three albums with cheap guitars and toy instruments, then went on to outsell the Beatles in the U.K. with a two-year run of hit singles and albums. David Bowie hardly needs any explanation. We started recording in 1967 and that continued off and on until his passing in 2016. When I perform this song live, I will ask members of the audience to ‘shout it out,’ the name of a mentor into the microphone. Tell the world!
The mash-up of country fiddle and robotic vocals on “Mystery Man” is fun and unexpected. The lyrics decry the modern condition where everyone is on social media and Instagram photos replace dreams. It’s a bit cranky! Do you really think things are that dire? For a long time I felt something was missing on “Mystery Man.” Then the wonderful Greg Holt came into my life. He is so good that I asked him if he wanted to hear the song, and he said, “No, let’s go straight on the mic and press record.” Needless to say, Greg will be on my next album, too. Oh, it’s dire out there. I love social media, but I know when to step away from the computer and do some real living. I used to criticize young people, especially teenage girls who walked and texted, several years ago. Now when I walk to my studio from home, I walk with zombies. People of all ages are doing it, including grey-haired older men. It worries me.
You played, or programmed, almost all the instruments on the album, something you playfully detail on the closing title track. As a producer, you’ve spent many years guiding other artists in the studio. When the tables are turned and you’re recording your own music, do you ever wish you had outside counsel or do you prefer your own? Since this is my 50th year of producing records, I think I am in a good position to objectively record myself. Also, we have entered the stage where it is so incredibly easy to make recordings on a laptop and there is no holding back millions of musicians who have become their own band, label and manager. I’m not doing anything that different, but I am calling this album It’s A Selfie because it is all me in my narcissistic glory, or folly, depending on how you view it. I have been writing for years and making demos in my professional studio. I polished them until they could shine no brighter. In the old days, you would make demos on really lo-fi gear and then you’d go to a studio and rerecord the bunch with slick studio musicians. Today the demos can easily be the final masters if you spend enough time on them. In the absence or unaffordability of slick musicians, there are digital tools that can correct your tuning and help you edit a dodgy guitar solo into quite a respectable one.
My daughter listens to lo-fi artists, but they don’t sound lo-fi to me based on my recollection of recording with cassettes and Radio Shack microphones. Do you think the proliferation of quality virtual instruments and plug-ins has been a boon for musicians? Conversely, I sometimes hear major releases that sound too loud and with obvious distortion and clipping. What is really funny is that professional producers and engineers spend small fortunes on vintage microphones, expensive gear and costly software. But the trend is to make the recordings sound like they were recorded on really bad gear. I have always said that making a rock and pop record is an audio illusion. The trend was always to make everything on the record sound larger than life. But today the trend seems to be to make everything sound smaller and trashier than life.
Step into the Wayback Machine for a moment if you don’t mind. The early T.Rex albums often had that characteristic and fantastic-sounding slight delay between the right and left channels on the guitars and drums. Was a distinctive T.Rex sound something you were trying to achieve from the get-go once Marc Bolan put together the full band? The Slider still sounds fresh today. Up to a point Marc, David and I—and every other recording artist—lived in the shadow of the Beatles. Every new album release had sounds on them that baffled us as to their origin. How did they do that? But I worked so hard and long in those early years; I managed to invent a few signature sounds that were very identifiable as T.Rex. I finally knew what I was doing by the time we recorded Electric Warrior, and The Slider was just sublime. Most of the magic was done at the overdub and mixing stage. I loved overdubbing and mixing more than live recording back then. Technically for the time, it was too hard to set up all the analog special effects during a recording session. On the tracking session, it was more important to get good basic sounds from the instruments, but the all-important factor was the performance, the groove, the vibe! Of course, as we recorded we’d make notes of what we were going to do the basic sounds in the mixing studio.
Lastly, are there any new artists you are working with that you can talk about? What’s wrong with the old artists? Just joking. I am lining up some future work, including a big film, but nothing I can really talk about yet. I have some time off, and I’ve already started my next album, and I have made plans to record it in a big studio with some of those slick musicians I was talking about.
The first line that Ace Enders sings on Lilac, the new album from the Early November, is, “I will always be there.” It’s the introduction to blissful, effervescent opening track “Perfect Sphere (Bubble),” the kind of pop/rock song that feels like it’s suspended in mid-air, falling slowly, easily down to earth. Never again does Lilac feel as unburdened as it does on “Perfect Sphere,” but it always maintains that level of earnestness and empathy, even as it ventures into darker territory.
“I will always be there” has been Enders’s M.O. for nearly two decades. As a solo artist (sometimes operating under the I Can Make A Mess moniker) and with the Early November, the New Jersey songwriter has rarely gone more than a year without releasing a record. For all that time, Enders has never released a song with a less-than-wide-open heart. Still, he’s never been as direct about some painful topics as he is on Lilac. On first single “Hit By A Car,” he bluntly sings, “Depression has become my old friend.” Over the course of the album, the narrator tosses and turns in bed, begging for sleep. They sink into boozy nights to avoid their troubles. On one song, Enders yells, “Where are those pills I decided to hide?/Teasing my mind.”
Enders describes this newfound directness as therapeutic, a means of facing his own difficulties head on. “I think the reason I’m more direct is because this way there’s no hiding behind it,” he says from his Jersey studio, The Lumberyard. “It made it easier to deal with and realize that you don’t have to be perfect all the time.”
But for all the struggle documented on Lilac, there’s a light on the horizon. The stormy “Our Choice” sways violently between pain and hope, but it lands with a fighting spirit intact: “Every morning, I will try.” The title track ends the album in a quiet, peaceful meadow, facing some morbid imagery in a kind of blissful tone: “The needle in my hand is coming down/Drilling through my chest, but its oil they found.” The poppy “Ave Maria” sails smoothly, buoyed by harmonies that ring like a choir. There’s hope to be found, hiding in the corners of these songs.
A much more cynical and conceptual version of Lilac was finished more than a year ago but held up in the release process. “It was a very heavy album and I had built it around the idea of trying to help someone through that dark phase—and not being able to help,” he says. “It ended up that you were in the same exact position that that person was in.” The delay in releasing the album gave Enders the time to reflect and refocus the LP on pulling through it all. Now, he hopes Lilac will help others who struggle with depression or addiction to keep fighting. “At the end of the day, if it can help someone find that inner strength, that’s what’s more important to put across,” he says.
MAGNET: I wanted to start by asking about Lilac. Can you give us any insight into the recording of the album and how the process might have been different from past records? Enders: It actually was a very different approach. Usually when we do a record, I find whatever moment I’m in at the time and just turn out a bunch of songs. If it’s with the band, we’ll jam on it a little bit together or maybe they’d each work on it separately. That’s all usually consolidated into a month and a half. This was different because the record was done well over a year ago—it was finished twice. There were things along the road that would prevent it from being able to come out or get slated for a release date. That happening really made me think about the album, and so I just kept adding songs. I did some things I had never done with the Early November before, which was really exciting for me. I would start in the early conceptual phases of the song with a beat that would inspire a completely different type of rhythm or melody than I would naturally come up with. I would make the melody first and then I would build things off of that. It was kind of cool to see it all based around melodies instead of being like, “Oh, there’s a rock part here.” I do a bunch of co-writing with artists, and that’s usually how a co-write starts, we’ll play a loop for a half hour until it feels right and they have something that they feel good about.
What changed from when the album was initially finished? When I first finished it, it was a really dark record. Not sonically dark, but it was just heavy. It was very much built on dark themes, inner demons and addiction and mental health and all that stuff. It’s no secret that when you’re in the music business and you have to survive on your ability to create, it makes you crazy. I think a lot of people in the music industry and any type of entertainment industry, you can sort of see how it can make you question everything about yourself, your life, all of it, all the time … After the record got held up the second time, I had been sitting on it for about a year and I decided it needed a change. It needed to go in a different direction. So now the record kind of reflects the side of pulling yourself out of it … I don’t want to contribute to the dwelling.
I noticed some of the darkness on the record. I also noticed that you’re a little more direct than you have been in the past—some of the songs address addiction and depression by name. Yeah, and I typically don’t do that. When I went into this, I think I hit a point in life where I felt like I couldn’t be human if I didn’t take a certain thing. I couldn’t communicate with people. I couldn’t have a normal conversation with you, I wouldn’t be able to go into a room or a co-write and be able to do anything valid to help push my career forward and support my family. For me, I think it was a big help to say, “Look, you’ve said it. You’ve put it out there.” I think it definitely helped me move forward from a lot of it.
I also can see in the record where you sort of take that turn with songs like “Our Choice.” That’s one that, to me, is very emphatically about deciding to work through the darkness. Is that a song that came later on in the process? That was actually the very first song that was written on the record. I was in an angry place when I wrote that song. That’s what started the whole idea of the concept to me: not being able to understand how we get stuck in these places. You can be successful and make money or whatever, but I’ve run into so many situations where mentally you’re putting up a front. Being depressed or sad always felt like a warm blanket that I could throw over me and find comfort in. When I felt like I wanted to be like, “Oh, I’m the worst and everything I do is awful.” I don’t know if it comes across like that, but there are many moments that are like me arguing with myself. It does make sense, you can be all right, and figuring that out is hard. I think that’s what I wanted to take away from this, and that’s why that song is at the back of the record.
It feels like a turning point in the record. I think it was a turning point in my life. If I’m looking at other songs that came after that or directly after that, including “Hit By A Car,” they all came sort of around the same time. That moment, writing “Our Choice,” it made me reflect on that turning point, and that’s why I decided to go with a conceptual theme. Originally, all of the titles were different, too. I had the titles in sequence so they formed a long sentence and you could clearly get an idea of the concept. I decided to just leave it as a loose concept and not so tight. Because I’ve done that before, making a triple disc, and I decided, “I’m not gonna try and do all that again.”
Do you remember what the sentence was? I do not. I have it written down somewhere, but I don’t remember off the top of my head. Like I said, that was a year ago.
I was kind of surprised to hear that you were thinking about a concept album, since I know the band went through a whole lot while working on the triple disc. It originally was gonna start as a double disc, and I thought, “Well, I’m saddling up again.” But then I was like, “AYou know what? I don’t think I can handle it.” I could handle it, but I have to wait. Maybe the next one, not this one, though.
You mentioned “Hit By A Car,” which was the first song you released. It has a subtitle. What’s the significance of that? The idea behind it is right before the last chorus, I always imagine myself laying down, and I put myself in that place and—the whole record is me talking to myself—I’m telling myself, “It could be worse.” I’m telling myself to please try and get through this for everyone. That moment right before the last chorus I always imagine myself laying on the ground right after I got hit by a car or something like that. It’s that moment of release of all of that baggage. In that song, I also talk about depression as a physical thing and tying it to myself and letting it fall to the bottom of the ocean floor. Nobody can see it, but it’s tied to me. It’s about that moment of laying there and everything goes away and you’re in that euphoric state.
“Hit By A Car” was the first song you played live and the first one that you released from Lilac. Why did you think this would be a good introduction to the record? I think collectively everyone—the label, the management and the band—decided that it made sense to go with this song because it attaches itself enough to what people know the band is and it allows itself to be something fresh for people who don’t know what the band is. It’s sort of an easy transition. There are some songs on the album that I know some people will be like, “Oh, that’s way more structured and chorus-heavy.” This one sort of allows it to be a bridge between both worlds. Especially coming from the last record that we did—that one, it’s like there’s not a chorus on that album. It’s all just jamming; it’s just rock. This one, I knew I wanted to do an album where I’m allowed to sing a little bit more. So this was a good bridge between the two. Because the record is noticeably different.
There are a lot of songs on the record that are pretty different. Some of these songs pick up from where some of your solo work left off, especially Hiraeth. Does your process usually involve trying new things out on your solo work before bringing them in to the band? You mention that record (Hiraeth), and that was just something I put out. It’s not even on a streaming service. I’ve never really released a record where I tried to do some stuff that had real choruses on it. For some reason, and I don’t know why, the Early November has just never done that. We’ve had a few of them, but never to the extent of what it is now. We had an opportunity to do it, so why not?
So there’s a lot of emphasis on the chorus this time around? I hate to say chorus because that’s so vague. I hate to say the more “pop” side of things, but maybe the more “fun” side of things, maybe that’s the better word for it. We never really do things that are fun, like sing-along fun. But I had this moment right before I did the last batch of songs where you’re constantly doing something that’s going to turn the wheel a little bit more for your own career. When I’m making a record, I think about it when I wake up, I think about it throughout the day when I’m working, I think about it while I’m sleeping, nonstop. Because obviously, I wanted to be able to keep going, I wanted to be able to be successful with it. I wanted to be able to keep it fresh and valid, not just going through the motions. I had this weird dream about this chorus—it sounds cheesy maybe—but I had this dream about what the chorus should feel like. It felt right and it made sense. I had the dream when I was on a trip somewhere and I came back and did the last batch of songs and finished it.
I wanted to talk about the title track. A lot of Lilac is sort of bombastic and has a lot of different sounds, but on that song you go back to what a lot of people know you for, which is just you and a guitar. Was it a conscious decision to end on that note? Yes. The reason it’s called “Lilac,” the meaning of that flower has to do with purity. I think that track is just supposed to be stripped down purity. It’s a very honest, open track. I thought it was a good way to cap it off.
Beyond just that song, why do you think it was important to attach that flower to the record as a whole? I forget the exact meaning of the flower, but it basically has something to do with purity. I wanted to go with that name because while it’s alive the lilac is this beautiful thing and then it shrivels like anything else. That’s what the album meant to me at the time, back in the dark stages. It was very much about wanting to hang onto that pure moment.
At this point, you have a few rotating members who tour with you. Who was involved with the recording of the album? Jeff (Kummer, drums) is always gung-ho for everything. Our newest guy, Nate (Sander), who has been touring now with us for a couple years, he did all of the strings and most of the piano work. He’s an incredible musician. Bill (Lugg) still tours all the time, and sometimes he’ll play bits and pieces here and there on the album. When he has something he feels good about, he’ll step up and do it. He has great ideas. But a lot of times I’m just jamming through things when it comes to recording.
There’s a lot more trumpet on this record, kind of a throwback to the triple disc. I know! That’s our guy Nate. He did trumpet on a ton of tracks. He was very essential when it came to a lot of the cooler things like the violin and the trumpets and the pianos. It was cool. I love having all of that stuff. I think it brings out such a personality, especially with a lot of the grander-sounding choruses. It definitely supports that and just pushes it along.
The album pulls in a few non-musical moments too, like a breathing sound on “You Own My Mind” and a heartbeat sound on “Our Choice.” What was the thinking behind that? The breathing one is representative of someone having an intense dream, and you’re trying to figure it out from the outside, and all you have to go off of is that breathing. The heartbeat—at the time, I was thinking of how I could give you something that makes the song feel the way it feels to me. You kind of have to focus on it because it’s not loud, it’s very low. And then when it hits, it strikes you. It’s like you’re really concentrating on something and it just smashes in, gives you a little bit of anxiousness, which is what I feel like the song is doing.
Is there anything, music or otherwise, that inspired you while you were making this record? I always have a hard time answering this question, I don’t know why. I listen to a lot of news and NPR all day, and it just puts me in weird places. I have records that I love and I love the way they sound, but when it comes to the inspiration of everything, I think it’s just from listening to too much of what’s going on in the world. That usually inspires me to either highlight how I’m feeling or to write about something. I try and stay active now that I’m becoming … you know, I’m not as young as I used to be. I try to stay in shape; I go to the gym at five in the morning every day, and I listen to NPR news while I’m working out, and it’s the weirdest thing to listen to while you do that. I’ll also listen to podcasts sometimes. But I never listen to music. I think it’s from too many years of extremely loud music every single day.
Are there any songs on the record that you’re excited to start playing live? I think “I Dissolve.” That’s one of my favorites off the record. Probably after that, I have to say I’m looking forward to playing the song “Fame.” I think that’s one of my favorites as well. They’re both these floaters that are very fun to play.
What do you hope that people—whether they’re already fans or it’s their first time hearing the Early November—are going to get out of listening to this record? To be at all able to impact someone’s life in one way or another—especially in a way that can help them overcome something—it means the world. So I think one thing I hope people take away from this is that it’s OK to have those dark times when you’re not sure what is right or wrong or up or down or if you’re going to make it. Hopefully what they take from this record is that it’s all right and you are gonna make it and you shouldn’t do something drastic. I think that an important theme of the record is that it’s OK to feel that way. Don’t let it destroy you, though.
It certainly seems like there’s a full-fledged Cars renaissance going on right now. Flip on the TV and you’ll hear “Just What I Needed,” one of the Boston new-wave outfit’s late-’70s hits, rippling through Circuit City commercials. Not too long ago, you could switch over to MTV and catch Fountains Of Wayne’s kitschy “Stacy’s Mom,” featuring a kiddie quintet dressed in full faux-Cars regalia. Check the production credits on new albums from Le Tigre, the Hong Kong and others, and you’ll see the name of former Cars leader Ric Ocasek. (He’s also produced Weezer, Guided By Voices, Bad Brains, Nada Surf, Black 47 and No Doubt.) In addition, he has managed to squeeze in a new solo album, Nexterday. Released on his Inverse imprint and distributed by Sanctuary Records, Nexterday shares the same sense of hook and melody as the Cars, though it’s matured to new-millennium vintage. The only thing halting a triumphant Cars reunion tour is the death of bassist/singer Ben Orr in 2000. Or maybe the 61-year-old Ocasek’s key creative tenet is to blame. “I made it clear a long, long time ago that I didn’t want to jump back on the bandwagon,” he says. “I prefer to live more toward the future than to revisit the past.”
I first met you on the Panorama tour in 1980. I was a cub reporter, and you invited me back to the Cars’ post-show penthouse party. While we were talking on the balcony, two geeks from a local Cars cover band scampered up to you, holding a pricey album by Milkwood (Ocasek and Orr’s earlier outfit). They gave it to you to autograph; instead, you stared at it for a minute, then tossed it over the railing. The poseurs squealed like little girls as it shattered 27 stories below. You know, I wouldn’t have thought I was gonna remember what you were gonna say, because obviously I don’t remember every little thing. But I do remember that. In retrospect, I do feel like I should publicly apologize for doing that to those guys. But I was going through a funny thing with Milkwood, because it was old work. Sometimes the Cars would play a gig, and people would bring Milkwood albums and hold them up while I was playing, and Ben and I would look at them and think, “What the fuck? Where’s this Milkwood thing coming from? Where’d they get this Milkwood stuff?” Obviously, it was very different from the Cars. I thought it was like our skeleton in the closet. At this point, I don’t really give a shit. But at that point, I was trying to move forward, and so people bringing in old shit was just annoying. Plus, I didn’t really like the Milkwood album (1973’s How’s The Weather). So maybe tossing another one was a good move.
A writer from Rolling Stone had flown in to interview you that night, and your publicist told me not to talk to you since it was Rolling Stone’s night. You pulled me away from her and said, “Hey, kid. Switch on your tape recorder. Fuck the label; I’ll give you all the quotes you need.” I will never forget that. Well, I don’t know how to comment on that. I mean, Rolling Stone was great and fun, but you know what I mean. We were always taking around records of Suicide and Iggy Pop and all that shit and making DJs play them on the radio or else we wouldn’t go on the station. So we had that kind of attitude when we were first going. Plus, you get kind of crazy on the road.
Panorama is the Cars’ unheralded masterpiece, where you swerved away from your patented sound into strange new directions. In a sense, that’s true, because I did purposely try to steer that in a non-pop way. Although in retrospect, it’s still pop. But I was thinking, “I really have to try to bend this now, otherwise it’s always gonna be the same.” And so I did get a bend out of it.
Have you seen the Fountains Of Wayne video? Yeah. In fact, I even met one of the Fountains guys—I guess it was Adam (Schlesinger)—in a studio one day, and he was a little shy about bringing it up. But they wrote me a letter and asked me if I would be in the video, and I said, “No, but good luck.” I didn’t really want to partake of it. But it was a nice tribute, a nice little thing for them to do. They used a Cars sample; it’s gotta be, because it’s exactly the same sound from that old amp of ours and that guitar. I don’t think anybody could replicate it, so I think they must’ve sampled it. But I’m always flattered if somebody’s paying some kind of homage to us.
Well, the Bravery has a synth-keyboardist who approximates the Cars’ Greg Hawkes. That’s cool. And the Bravery were on that Cars tribute record (Substitution Mass Confusion, on Not Lame) that, I think, was really just released on the internet. But it’s really good; it’s got some really great versions. There’s, like, 20 bands on there, and a few of the versions are just phenomenal; I wish I would’ve done ’em that way. There’s a really good version (by Butch Walker) of “Best Friend’s Girl” that segues into “Magic” on acoustic. And the Red House Painters did a really good version of “All Mixed Up” (which is not on Substitution Mass Confusion).
One day in the paper, I read that Ben Orr was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A few weeks later, they ran his obituary. That was crazy. I went to see him. He was pretty strong; I have to say that. Very strong, considering he knew very well that he didn’t have very many days to live. It was very sad. It’s hard to even comprehend, because a year before that, there was nothing wrong. So no one really expected that. To make it more sad, he had a little boy who was about four at that point, and when I went to see Ben in Atlanta, his little boy was there, too. It was sad for me, because I have kids, like, “Oh my God, the poor little kid doesn’t even barely know what’s gonna happen.” I guess I didn’t really believe it. I was asking some people around, “Well, how long do you think?” They were going, “A few weeks.” I said, “Nah. You gotta be kidding.” But there’s no way to get out from under pancreatic cancer, from what I understand. It’s a horrible thing to have.
It’s doubly sad, because the time is perfect for a Cars comeback. If Ben was still around, I would think about it. And I agree, it would probably be an interesting and fun thing, and I love all the guys in the band. And I know a couple of guys in the band still want to do that kind of thing. Greg, Elliot (Easton, guitar) and David (Robinson, drums) are still around, and it’s been talked about over the years.
Is that why you agreed to license “Just What I Needed” to Circuit City? Well, a lot of that money goes to the band, too. And maybe I’m a little bit better off than the band, financially, because I do a lot of other things in my life. But I got a little bit of, “Oh, could you please? We could really use it!” I kind of fell to that, even though philosophically, I really never wanted to do that. But after Dylan did Victoria’s Secret, I thought, “If Dylan’s gonna do it and Lou Reed’s gonna do it, maybe I’ll just forget about what I said 30 years ago and do this.” So I did it. Plus, Ben’s estate gets a cut.
I’m surprised that you even had time to make your new album. I know. I did the album in the basement, really. I did it a couple of years ago, oddly enough. I was gonna release it on an indie label or via the internet, but then Sanctuary heard the record and wanted to put it out.
What is this “nexterday” of which you speak? You know, what it sounds like: another word for “tomorrow.” It really just came from my four-year-old son, who didn’t know what tomorrow was, so he called it “nexterday.”
And you and (supermodel) Paulina Porizkova are still together. Oh, yeah. For a good 20 years. And it’s still like we just met about two weeks ago. It was the best move, but I knew that, anyway. After a couple of marriages, I learned some stuff about me and what a marriage should be, how you co-exist with a person. So we made some rules in the beginning about this relationship, ’cause we both worked. We made sure that we didn’t grow separately because of what we were doing individually. I went with her when she worked, she went with me when I did. And we always had a very open communication: no fucking around, no lying, no calling each other “fuckhead” or “bitch.” Just a little respect for the other person. I’m speaking for her as well, but I think we’re pretty happy. We’ve got two children, and it’s pretty cool.
Is there any prime directive when signing a group to your record label? I’m not looking for pop hits. Just some solid, real-deal stuff.
After almost 20 years on various major labels, Pete Yorn is finally doing things for himself. It’s quite the feat for any “mature” artist to experience that sort of industry-financed longevity—especially these days. It’s also worth noting that Caretakers (Shelly Music) is Yorn’s most overtly catchy set of tunes since musicforthemorningafter. Even so, it’s a very different record from his 2001 debut—one more apiece with 2009’s Back & Fourth, minus that effort’s earnest indie-folk leanings. For Caretakers, Yorn got together with Day Wave’s Jackson Phillips, who nudged him in a prolific direction while encouraging him not to sweat the simple stuff—and even revel in it. The result is a wistfully introspective album that finds an effortless common ground in classic ’60s pop and ’80s new wave. Prior to heading out of Los Angeles for a vacation with his wife and young daughter, Yorn provides additional juicy details on an album that almost didn’t happen.
So how’s family life treating you? My daughter’s going to be four at the end of this month, and it’s moving along. It’s definitely the greatest joy of my life.
From the beginning, you’ve always found interesting folks to partner with: R. Walt Vincent, Frank Black, Saddle Creek’s Mike Mogis. And there’s your side project with Scarlett Johansson. Looking at the whole picture over the years, I prefer it when it’s me and one other person running the show, and we bring in a few people here and there. I like the tightness, and I move really fast that way. The flow I instantly got into with Jackson on this new album was reminiscent of those early sessions with Walt—getting hyper-creative and building the songs up.
How did you and Jackson hook up? We meet at a birthday party in the fall of 2017. It was date night, and we got a babysitter. It was late, and party was way out in Malibu. My wife left, and I stayed. Things got blurry after that because we started doing shots. I met Jackson there, and we hit it off. His older sister was crankin’ my stuff when he was a teenager, and I was familiar with Day Wave. We talked about getting together at his studio in Echo Park, where all those young hipster kids hang out. [Laughs] A few months later, I went out to his house and we talked about recording an EP.
Apparently, it turned into more than that. Before we knew it, we had more than an EP, and we were having such a great time working together, basically recording a song a day. We have 25 songs we’re really excited about, and this is just the first installment. We’d say to each other, “Let’s just keep going until we make something we hate.” And we’re still going at it.
In terms of sound and mood, there’s a unified feel to Caretakers. It’s us playing everything—very focused. I’d typically get there at 11 a.m. Then I wanted to be home at 7:30 each night to tuck my girl in bed—and I live in Santa Monica, which is a 40-minute drive. We almost always had a new song at the end of each day. So, in that regard, it was very fast. But we worked over a long period, starting in January 2018.
Is it true that this album almost didn’t get made? We started recording three days after I told my brother at lunch that I wasn’t looking to make any new music. I was really focused on my daughter. Then, out of nowhere, I got an email from Jackson’s team.
There is a bit of an age gap between the two of you—he’s in his 20s, and you’re in your 40s. How did that play into the creative process? There’s this tendency—unless you really go out of your way—to listen to less and less music as you get older. Sometimes it takes a younger person to remind you about stuff you used to be into. Jackson is such a huge fan of music. If you were to ask me what his influences are, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, because he listens to so much different stuff. He’s always digging around on Spotify and those endless playlists. I remember he was playing something that reminded me of Guided By Voices, and he didn’t know that much about them. We really bonded over GBV.