MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Yo La Tengo’s “Painful”


The making of Yo La Tengo’s Painful
By Steve Klinge

Why Painful?

Over its 30-year career, which the band recently celebrated with three retrospective shows in early December, Yo La Tengo has released a slew of albums deserving of “MAGNET Classics” status. Painful was the first in a remarkable string—1995’s Electr-O-Pura, 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out—any one of which could and should be feted. And we could make a strong case for 2006’s I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. Hell, 2013’s Fade was damn good, too.

But the trio—Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew—chose 1993’s Painful, the sixth of 13 Yo La Tengo albums, for a recent deluxe reissue, titled Extra Painful. It’s the one that’s at the root of all the ones that followed.

“I think the band we are today is traceable to that record, more than any one that came before it; those records are something else,” says Kaplan. “It’s the first record on Matador and it kind of felt like the beginning, even though it’s somewhere in the middle.”

Although Kaplan and Hubley had played together in other bands, the first Yo La Tengo show occurred in December 1984 at Maxwell’s, the Hoboken, N.J., club that was the vital home of a cadre of groups, including the dB’s and the Feelies (and, eventually, the site of Kaplan and Hubley’s wedding reception). The band’s debut, Ride The Tiger, arrived in 1986 on the local Coyote Records, a mix of originals and covers from the Kinks and Pete Seeger. The lineup included Dave Schramm on guitar and Mike Lewis on bass. New Wave Hot Dogs came in 1987, the mini-album President Yo La Tengo in 1989, and the acoustic, mostly covers Fakebook in 1990. Although all worthy, those records now sound like a band in search of an identity, which it was: At its 30th anniversary show in New York City, the trio brought onstage 17 former band members (most of the bass players) and producers, almost all of them pre-Painful.

That would change when they drafted McNew as a temporary bassist for a tour in the summer of 1991, a jaunt that included songs that would turn up on 1992’s May I Sing With Me, which came out on Alias Records. The band had begun to stretch out, with “Mushroom Cloud Of Hiss” and “Sleeping Pill” passing the nine-minute mark, and to sharpen its focus, with its catchiest rock song yet in “Upside-Down.”

Matador Records’ Gerard Cosloy sees May I Sing With Me as Painful’s clear predecessor. Painful “felt like a natural evolution from May I Sing With Me, albeit a much, much better recording,” he says. “I’ll buy Ira’s claim that Painful was their best album to date, but anyone who says it came outta nowhere hadn’t listened very hard to the prior works or attended many of the earlier shows.”

May I Sing With Me came out in February, and by that summer, the band’s live sets included some songs that would turn up on Painful. When TYL opened for My Bloody Valentine and Buffalo Tom, the band began its sets with “I Heard You Looking,” and that instrumental would often take up half of its allotted 30 minutes.

The group had begun to get together five days a week, McNew coming to Hoboken from his home in Brooklyn to work with Kaplan and Hubley on new songs.

“We developed the sound and the songs together just by experimenting together and swapping instruments,” says McNew. “That was really the beginning of us finding out how we could work together and actually work as a band.”

All the songs on May I Sing With Me, with the exception of “Sleeping Pill,” were written before McNew came aboard, but for Painful, McNew became a collaborator in the writing process, although he says as the new guy he was cautious at first.

“I was a Yo La Tengo record-buying, concert-going fan before I was already in the group,” he says. “I was already totally fine with the organization: ‘You’re doing great.’ I didn’t want to be an interloper—‘Oh, that’s the guy who ruined Yo La Tengo.’ I don’t know what my status in the group was. I don’t know what my status in the group is, really. I don’t think about it, really. Eventually, sometime around there, I got my own keys to the practice space, and that made me feel like I was official. There was no ceremony and there was no cake or anything. It was just like, ‘All right, see you tomorrow.’”

Painful also includes the first YLT songs built around the Ace Tone organ, an instrument that would become a staple for the band. The trio had borrowed one from Das Damen’s Lyle Hysen, with whom the group shared its practice space, and used it on the 1992 tour for “I Heard You Looking.”

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of The Afghan Whigs’ “Congregation”


The making of the Afghan Whigs’ Congregation

By Matt Ryan

There are many remarkable things about Congregation, the Afghan Whigs’ third record, but topping the list is the fact that it ever saw the light of day. The problem, first and foremost, was that the band was particularly adept at breaking up.

“Yeah,” laughs bassist John Curley, “we broke up on a fairly regular basis. I would chalk it up to strong personalities and young guys who hadn’t learned how to communicate very well yet. It’s hard driving around in a van. It didn’t really feel like it at the time, but looking back on it, we really did a lot of miles and a lot of shows. You’re around the same people all the time, and oftentimes scraping together enough money to drive to the next town or share some food at Taco Bell. It’s not an ideal situation. It’s fun and romantic, but it’s stressful, too.”

“We broke up before we even got signed to Sub Pop,” says singer and principal songwriter Greg Dulli. He goes on to explain that the band decided to play two final shows—one in Chicago, one in Minneapolis—the latter at the encouragement of a bartender named Lori Barbero, who is now better known as the drummer in Babes In Toyland. “We ended up having such a good time that we got back together and made Up In It,” says Dulli of the band’s first record for Sub Pop. A subsequent European tour saw the group split again in Amsterdam, each member going his separate way. “We were quite the dramatic, soap opera band,” says Dulli. “We were kind of wild, you know? We liked our poisons.”

In the wake of this latest dissolution, Dulli began writing songs, including “I’m Her Slave” and “Let Me Lie To You,” that he assumed would appear on a solo record. Eventually, he would move from L.A. to Chicago and reestablish phone contact with Curley, which in turn led to Dulli meeting up with the band in Cincinnati to work on some songs. Notably, these early sessions yielded Congregation’s first single and indie-level hit, “Conjure Me.” Unfortunately, the band’s troubles were far from over.

The second roadblock came during the actual recording of Congregation, a time when Sub Pop was circling the drain. “Until Nirvana’s Nevermind came out, actually six months to a year after Nevermind came out, we were not on firm footing financially,” says Sub Pop cofounder Jonathan Poneman. “One of the manifestations of that was inconsistent ability to pay out studio bills. There’s a famous story that Greg can articulate about him getting stranded in Los Angeles because we basically didn’t have money to fund the recording according to the agreement we had come up with.”

“The Congregation album at that time was kind of an expensive record,” says Sub Pop cofounder Bruce Pavitt. “I remember ’91 was a very, very difficult time for the label. We laid off most of our staff. That August, we released Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge by Mudhoney, which wound up selling 100,000 copies, and that really revived the label. And then by Christmastime ’91, we realized that Geffen was going to send us a check for half a million bucks. So, right before Congregation came out, we knew we were back on our feet, but at the time Congregation was being recorded, we were totally broke. It’s a miracle we paid off that recording. I remember Mark Arm from Mudhoney saying, ‘Look, Mudhoney is making all the money for Sub Pop. What you’re doing is subverting those funds and you’re giving it to a band that isn’t even from here.’ He was right—that was exactly what was going on. At the same time, we really had a deep faith in the Whigs to come up with a brilliant record, and they totally delivered.”

Pavitt mentions that the band received a $15,000 advance for Congregation, but Dulli remembers it differently. “We didn’t get an advance; they were paying as we went,” he says. “I was working with this guy who was not really sympathetic to the Sub Pop plight. It was recorded in fits and starts, and I remember being locked out of the studio and I had to call the guy and make threats against his property if he didn’t give me my tapes. That kind of became an agitated situation. Sub Pop went broke. I got stuck down in L.A., and then Nevermind came out. That sort of set me free, in a way. I remember going to Nirvana’s show at the Palace and personally thanking them.”

The studio in question was Buzz’s Kitchen outside of L.A., where overdubbing and mixing occurred following a week or so of recording at Seattle-area studio Bear Creek. By all accounts, the band loved Bear Creek—so much so that they would later record Black Love there in its entirety. Buzz’s Kitchen? Not so much.

“Bear Creek is where it started, and then we moved to some shithole out in Sun Valley,” says Dulli. “It was just bad. My least favorite studio I’ve ever been in. I think the engineer moved us. Kind of sold us a bill of goods. Told us we were going to a studio in L.A., and it was Sun Valley and technically L.A. County, but not exactly Los Angeles. We got kind of swindled there and ended up in a really hot, crowded box in the middle of a not very savory part of town.”

The engineer in question was Ross Ian Stein, recommended to the band by Shawn Smith, a Seattle singer/songwriter who provided backup vocals on Congregation’s “This Is My Confession” and “Dedicate It.”

“I did not get along with Ross Stein,” says Dulli. “He was in my way. I never saw hide nor hair of that guy ever again. I remember it’s the last time I was going to take advice from Shawn Smith.”

“It really ended up being a contentious relationship,” says Poneman. “Because Sub Pop was a fancy name and we were good at corralling headlines at the time, but we were also famously broke, Ross was very concerned about getting paid, which is understandable.”

“I remember the sessions being kind of antagonistic,” says Dulli. “But in a strange way, I think that worked to the songs’ advantage, because it’s a prickly record, you know? I can feel the tension on that record, and it is very real.”

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Devo’s “Freedom Of Choice”


The making of Devo’s Freedom Of Choice

By A.D. Amorosi

Saying that Devo once found itself in an oddly uncomfortable position is, simply, odd in and of itself. The toast of Akron, Ohio’s skanky underground music and DIY avant-garde art scene built its entire career’s aesthetic to make its audiences weirdly uncomfortable, as it moved from being the product of Kent State student Gerald Casale’s satirical anti-corporate anarchy and Mark Mothersbaugh’s quirkily humorous motorik feel for new de-evolution into something proto-punkish by 1973.

“It’s not as if we were ever looking to be in the mainstream, or even thought that it was possible,” says Gerald Casale, Devo’s co-founder. “We figured that we spelled that out from the start.”

Theirs was an entrée filled with leg-baring trash-bag costumes, earnestly sinister big-fat-baby masks, flower-pot hats, science-fiction-meets-military-complex themes, Chi-Chi Rodríguez references, off-kilter rhythms and cheaply primal synths (the key to their scorched-earth vibe) that made them the faves of art-school punks, Captain Beefheart wonks and frat-boy curiosity seekers alike. Whether for its onstage performances or through Ohio director Chuck Statler’s creepy, homemade videos, Devo was quickly becoming a sought-after commodity by 1976 going into 1977.

“Before we had even one legitimate album out, there were 14 or 15 studio-quality bootlegs of our stuff on the market,” says Mothersbaugh. “People knew and loved our live sound.”

What Devo’s Casale and Mothersbaugh—to say nothing of the Two Bobs, keyboardist Casale and guitarist Mothersbaugh, along with drummer Alan Myers—really wanted was a clear shot at having that un-prissy, primal sound ably represented. “We were Kraftwerk from the waist up, and Elvis Presley from the hips on down,” says Casale. “We wanted those smarts and that raw energy to translate to our albums.”

Once Devo signed with Warner Bros. in 1977 at the urging of high-powered father figures such as David Bowie (who was to have produced them but didn’t, as filming on Just A Gigolo began when Bowie was dragging the band off to a studio in Tokyo) and Elliot Roberts (Neil Young’s manager), Devo never got the shot to produce itself. (At least not within the frame of its first three albums, as Devo actually teamed together to produce 1981’s New Traditionalists and 1984’s Shout as part of its deal with Warner Bros.)

This is a bizarre reality to most listeners, as the band’s brain trust knew exactly how it should sound during its golden inception, and what was famously recorded by Brian Eno (1978’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!) and Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust producer Ken Scott (1979’s Duty Now For The Future) wasn’t it. Not even a little bit.

These heroes of new music—Eno (of Roxy Music fame) and Bowie’s main man—couldn’t give Devo what it needed. “Songs of ours like ‘Smart Patrol’—that was rock power Devo,” says Casale. “The crowds went crazy for them. On record, though, they got blunted. Badly.”

What then was the album that Devo finally thought was its most concise and direct, the one that did exactly what the band told it to do and sounded exactly like it had written and envisioned in its minds? 1980’s Freedom Of Choice; weirdly enough, the band’s biggest seller, its cleanest, sharpest record and one that paired its oddball vision of America (who else would be inspired by both Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power Of Positive Thinking and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, according to Casale?) with its most dedicatedly electronic output yet.

“We set out to make Freedom Of Choice with an R&B feel, and that’s what we got,” says Bob Mothersbaugh. As opposed to dipping into its deep well of tunes written between its inception and 1978’s debut (some 60 of them split between Are We Not Men? and Duty Now with plenty left over), Devo wanted newer songs. With that came the expectation of how the band should and could come across—its feel for off-putting, askew rhythms, discordant guitars and such. Freedom Of Choice gave Devo a cleaner, fresher shave as it was cuttingly executed and warmly produced by Robert Margouleff of Stevie Wonder and TONTO’s Expanding Head Band fame.

The popularity of Freedom Of Choice—a top-20 Billboard pop album in the United States, with its ever-present “Whip It” performing likewise on the singles charts—often takes the bloom from the rose when considering the jerky version of the dream was Devo’s ugly-beautiful debut album. Repeated listenings of all three of Devo’s first LPs (the golden inception mentioned earlier) prove that this third record—made under label duress and increasing pressure from within to go more guitar (Casale) or more synthesizer (Mothersbaugh)—features its strongest melodic bass without eschewing all of its rhythmic oddity. Yes, Mothersbaugh won out, and Freedom Of Choice became Devo’s first most-realized, magnetically percolating, most electronic album to date (Duty Now came close in what Mothersbaugh called its “sleek K-Rock-iness”). But Casale’s sense of snark was also appeased (“Whip It” was intended as a song for Jimmy Carter to use as part of his second run at the presidency), and the title song has the frenetic feel of crunching guitars and quickly wiry solos to go with its mega-watt hammering drum tones.

“We were mutating ourselves on purpose, with that purpose being to make something bolder and funkier, still with guitars and energy, and still maintain the energy of our stage show,” says Casale.

Still, what the hell happened with Are We Not Men? and Duty Now?

Mothersbaugh recalls that when Bowie—who caught on to Devo after Iggy Pop gave him a cassette—had to pass on producing the quintet, the members of Devo had already quit their day jobs and left their apartments to relocate to the West Coast. “We were homeless and had to survive,” he says of the whirlwind touring that brought them to Manhattan, where Brian Eno and Robert Fripp found Devo at CBGB. There, Eno offered to produce Devo in Cologne, Germany, at Conny Plank’s studio (he of Ultravox, Guru Guru and Moebius & Plank fame) and pay the band’s travel expenses while its Warner Bros. deal came to be.

“What’s funny about that is Bowie wanted to sign us to his Bewlay Brothers production company, but the money wasn’t so great,” says Mothersbaugh. “I always thought Bowie’s lawyer reminded us of Bruce Wayne, and we wouldn’t have been surprised if he had Batman costumes in his closet.”

While Eno started work on Are We Not Men?, Bowie would stop by the studio on weekends and filming breaks to noodle around. “Neither one of them had a clue what to do with us, at least not to our liking at that time,” says Mothersbaugh.

Casale adds that the Eno they got wasn’t the Eno they imagined from the days of Roxy Music and Eno’s noisy avant-glam solo album, Here Come The Warm Jets. “We expected feather boas and synth squeals, and what we got was this nice man with short hair who had embraced beautiful sounds and ambient waves rather than the grotesque Minimoog stuff we associated with him,” he says. “Eno wanted to make our stuff less cacophonous, industrial, brutal, and inject harmonies and soft drum pads.”

Mothersbaugh mentions that going into the record business and their first label project, what they wanted was “big brothers to hold their hand” and not guide their sound. “We knew what we wanted to sound like,” says Mothersbaugh, who mentions one recent and interesting find. “Before he passed, Bob Casale and I were transferring old tapes onto digital and stumbled onto Germany recordings we didn’t know existed. Brian and David recorded extra tracks on every song—they wanted to be on our first album.” Excitedly, Mothersbaugh mentions Bowie/Eno backing vocals on “Uncontrollable Urge,” Eno’s additional Eventide harmonizers and bucket-dumping sounds on “Too Much Paranoias” and gamelan twitters and monkey chatterings throughout the found tapes.

“I think we let Eno down, bummed him out because we were more radical than he expected, and he hoped to have more influence over us,” says Casale, faintly praising the producer’s take on “Mongoloid” with its gated delays and snare limiters that made its pulse splash and snap like white noise.

“Maybe we did know those extra take tapes existed, but, in the end, were so positive that we knew what Are We Not Men? should sound like that we didn’t have an open mind for it,” says Mothersbaugh.

Mothersbaugh and Casale didn’t want the Bowie/Eno imprint. Devo wanted to be protected.

Devo album one was a cutting-edge, critical success and all the hipsters dug it, but in Casale’s words, it didn’t “clear the radio barrier with stations run and maintained by fat pseudo-hippies in satin baseball jackets accepting whores and coke from independent promoters like Joe Isgro.”

Casale laughs, but he’s clearly still annoyed about the major-label record business of 1977-1978, reminding us that the only reason Devo did get any radio spins was due to its strangely syncopated cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” For their second album, then, Casale and Mothersbaugh believe that Warner Bros. wanted more of a new-wave synth hit à la the Cars.

“I think at first they were all proud because, ‘Hey, we have Beefheart, we have Zappa, we must be cool,’” says Mothersbaugh of Warner Bros. seeming prepared to put Devo on its mantle of curios. “They wanted to prove they had taste and were hip. They signed us because David Bowie thought we were interesting. But they wanted to recoup some money, too.”

Casale believes that Warner Bros. was hoping that its sophomore effort would find Devo mainstreaming its avant-skronky sound for a hit like the “Loverboys of that time.” So the label pushed the quintet toward a number of producers “of which Ken Scott was the most palatable because of his history with Bowie,” he says. “Now, this is where things got weird.”

Again, neither Casale nor the Mothersbaughs wanted a producer—they simply wanted an overseer of sorts.

“I didn’t like Ken Scott because, from the start, he didn’t ‘get’ Devo: our ideas and vision,” says Bob Mothersbaugh. “He was still into Supertramp.”

Casale reminds us that, after the Eno experience, they just hoped to have someone who would listen to them: “The best-laid plans of mice and men, right?”

Mark Mothersbaugh mentions that Scott was no conversationalist and that his vision of the future and Devo’s future(ism) was much more literal than the band’s own. “He sterilized us,” he says. “He had a specific take on us—very K-Rock friendly.” As before, Casale sounds even more bitter about the Duty Now process, as several of his self-penned songs—like Are We Not Men?, taken from some 40 or 60 tunes written before its first album was recorded—were made plainer than beige under Scott’s watch.

“‘Clockout,’ for example,” says Casale of a tune written in 1976, pointing out how Duty Now eschewed the wonky punkish guitar sounds that made his version more primitive and the album’s version more pristine. “He just anesthetized that. Scott played up to Mark because he knew about his love of synths and sequencers. Mark already wanted to move away from guitars. Bob Mothersbaugh was never egotistical enough to fight in the studio.”

To that charge of losing a punkish guitar’s edge, Bob Mothersbaugh says, “I think Devo had worked through a lot of the angst that propelled Are We Not Men?—what was left was the song craft. The first album had great songs, delivered with anger and youthful insanity. Look, we watched the Sex Pistols implode. We weren’t really interested in mosh pits.”

To make matters worse, Scott excluded Devo from the album’s mixing process, only begrudgingly letting the band hear tracks after all had been decided. “We barely knew how bland it sounded,” says Casale. “Scott took our suggestions but rarely incorporated them.” So yes, Casale is frustrated about that album to this day.

“Actually an old girlfriend of mine had a copy of Duty Now on eight-track that she played through her beat-up old Volvo’s cheap auto-mall speakers—you know the inexpensive retro-fitted speakers,” says Mothersbaugh, laughing of its crude, tinny, bass-y sound. “That was great. Just distorted enough. If you can find the eight-track, do it.”

Bob Mothersbaugh adds that “Duty Now contained the rest of the songs we had been playing live that weren’t on our first album. Plus, ‘Day My Baby Gave Me A Surprize,’ ‘Swelling Itching Brain’ and ‘Triumph Of The Will’ were written just before going in the studio for Duty Now. We had been touring extensively after the first album; maybe we rushed to get another album out.”

Casale is less humorous about Duty Now. That album in his mind had powerful songs that should have translated as vicious but didn’t. These were tunes that had been written in dingy basements and played in dirty clubs. “That’s how Duty Now should have sounded,” he says. “Scott wanted something processed. We wanted something aggressive.”

For album three, then, Devo had one last shot with Warner Bros. In Mothersbaugh’s mind, the label didn’t care if the band had a seven-record deal. “They even said as much to Elliot Roberts: ‘Make these guys make a hit or we’ll see you in court,’” he says. “Look, this was a label that used to shut down on Friday and start partying around noon. The workers would set up a rotisserie or get carry-out food and booze. It was acceptable to them to pull out canisters of cocaine during meetings like somebody taking orders for Starbucks today. That wasn’t us.”

What was “them” was Robert Margouleff, a highly respected and wildly commercial synth pioneer and producer who aided in Stevie Wonder’s Motown label transition from Little Stevie Wonder into an innovative funk wunderkind whose every move ruled the charts and defined the new revolutionary soul movement. “We didn’t particularly like Scott, and since Duty Now didn’t sell as well as Are We Not Men?, we wanted a different producer,” says Bob Mothersbaugh. “We settled on Bob Margouleff because of his involvement with TONTO, the modular Moog synth, and because he had produced Wonder.”

Mark Mothersbaugh mentions that while he was interested in technology—pushing for the use of computers, drum machines and the (then) new toy of MIDI machinery—Casale was more interested “in getting a radio sound, whatever that meant, for the next album,” he says. “Robert was somebody who satisfied what I was interested in and Jerry was interested in.” Along with that decision, the Devo brain trust had decided that pursuing a funk album for the band was a way to go in writing new songs (some of its first since Devo’s start) and considering new grooves that could satisfy the band and Warner Bros.

“A Devo funk album, right? Whatever that would be?” says Mark Mothersbaugh. “We were into Bootsy Collins and Prince. But we couldn’t quite make out what our take on that soul sound would be. We grew up loving Motown. That’s probably how we came to Margouleff, because Stevie Wonder was ubiquitous, and he was a giant of electronic music. The underground film world, too, when you consider he lived with and produced that Edie Sedgwick movie.”

Mothersbaugh and Co. rented space along Wilcox Avenue in Hollywood—an old row of storefronts long abandoned—where Margouleff was a constant visitor. To Mothersbaugh, the producer was a fascinating presence, always interested, engaged and engaging, and looking to do the next thing. “He was demonstrative and optimistic—super optimistic—which I think grated on Jerry’s nerves, but I kind of liked that,” he says. “He reminded me of General Boy from our films.”

Bob Mothersbaugh goes on to say that unlike Scott, who made Alan Myers and Bob Casale play to metronomes in the initial sessions for Duty Now (“So demeaning,” says Casale), Margouleff was dream-date-great in the studio. “He made our parts sound good together,” says the other Mothersbaugh. “When Jerry’s bass synth didn’t sound like the demo tapes we’d made, Bob said to go get the same amp he had played through at the rehearsal room. He created a good atmosphere to play live.”

This obviously won over the ever-doubtful Casale, who talks about penning “Girl U Want” and the like with a focused intent, to do something robotic and R&B-ish with a thick bass sound. “It wasn’t a sound that we had to push through someone else’s meat grinder, because this was fresh meat straight from our brand-new cow—mutating ourselves on purpose with Bob’s help, not hindrance,” says Casale. “Margouleff was excellent in bringing synth sounds to two-inch tape. That was the real marvel there. That’s what he had done going back to TONTO.”

Devo wanted to be R&B and got just that, with R&B twomp that kicks “Gates Of Steel” and “Ton O’ Luv” into hyper-funky, super-stupid overdrive. Mark Mothersbaugh still rhapsodizes about Freedom Of Choice and what he learned from Margouleff: interesting recording techniques that he could have never gleaned from his other producers at that point. “Robert taught us how to run synthesizers and get sounds we liked, especially on our guitars,” he says. “He would yell, ‘Check this out,’ like a kid, show us how to blend different sounds from different settings into one. From there, on Freedom Of Choice, we made technology sound better and different than anyone out there at that time. That became something that for the rest of our measly careers, we kept doing. Not making synthesizers sound smooth but making them do their own thing—maybe human, maybe just weird machines.”

MAGNET Classics: The Making Of The Long Winters’ “When I Pretend To Fall”


The making of the Long Winters’ When I Pretend To Fall

By Matthew Fritch

In 2003, the Long Winters released their second album into a crowded field of cleverly crafted, melody-driven guitar rock. Given the crop of that particular era—the Shins, Decemberists, New Pornographers, Pernice Brothers, Weakerthans (and lord, can I get a Beulah?)—you would be more than forgiven for not recognizing When I Pretend To Fall as the cream that rises more than a decade later. The album produced neither hit singles nor commercial jingles, and it all but destroyed the fragile league of extraordinary frenemies who created it. It’s the great sound of coming together while everything is simultaneously falling apart. John Roderick, the man at the center of When I Pretend To Fall, was striving: hoping to win back a girl and attempting to make his mark in a microcosmic indie-rock scene.

As one of the album’s producers (Chris Walla; we’ll get to him later) put it, “It was an exercise in trying to try.”

There are many paradoxes surrounding the album. It’s the sole domain of singer/songwriter and confessed studio tyrant Roderick but also the collective product of some of Seattle’s finest musical minds. (Not that Seattle, the crucible of grunge; rather, the Long Winters were midwifed by turn-of-millennium pop outfits Harvey Danger and Death Cab For Cutie, with an alley-oop from the Posies.) When I Pretend To Fall sounds big and barrel-chested yet sneakily baroque, emotionally earnest yet lyrically sly. During the recording, the 32-year-old Roderick—a tall, garrulous, mastiff-hearted man from Alaska, raised on Judas Priest and Scorpions—was the oldest guy in the room but the least experienced in the manners and customs of indie rock. Roderick’s education mostly came by way of a stint in 2000 as the touring keyboardist for Harvey Danger, the suddenly successful outfit led by Sean Nelson. (As a refresher, Harvey Danger is the band behind alt-radio workhorse “Flagpole Sitta”: “I’m not sick, but I’m not well … I wanna publish zines/And rage against machines.”) Afterward, Nelson and Roderick intended to collaborate on an album but ended up creating the Long Winters’ debut, a collection of Roderick’s songs produced by Death Cab guitarist/wunderkind Chris Walla and titled The Worst You Can Do Is Harm. Roderick, who’d befriended these younger peers while playing in local outfit the Western State Hurricanes, refers to the effort as a “charity project.”

“My friends didn’t want me to die without having made an album,” he says. “The Death Cab guys were all still in college when I met them, living in a big house together, and Harvey Danger weren’t much older. My songwriting chops and band chops were evolving right alongside theirs. The younger indie guys found what I did interesting, I guess, and just assimilated me into their scene. My old rock friends were embarrassed for me: ‘Why are you hanging out with those weird emo kids?’ But the kids accepted me and my songs without hesitation.”

Walla, seven years younger than Roderick, seemed to belong to another generation. Although Walla would later be Roderick’s go-to producer and benefactor, Roderick initially resisted Walla’s boy-genius DIY aesthetic during the Western State Hurricanes era.

“He meant to record us in the kitchen of the Death Cab house in Bellingham using microphones made out of soup cans and a drum kit made out of stacks of Tape Op magazine,” says Roderick. “I was like, ‘No way, indie dude.’”

In 2001, Roderick left Seattle to mend a broken heart in New York City, where the late-blooming songwriter found the creative spark and emotional thrust behind what would become the Long Winters’ masterpiece. He was bolstered by exposure to a class of albums—by Spoon, Belle & Sebastian, Nada Surf, Teenage Fanclub and others—that combined inventive hooks and melodies with astute lyrics on subjects that were mostly elusive and bittersweet.

“I was awkward and unlucky in love, constantly feeling bruised and battered, idiotic and embarrassed,” says Roderick. “So I wrote ‘Shapes’ and ‘Stupid’ and ‘Cinnamon’ and ‘It’ll Be A Breeze’ out of frustration, sitting on a mattress on the floor of a third-floor walkup in Spanish Harlem, in 102-degree heat. I’d never been happier, because I had songs. I was miserable and had never been happier.”

Roderick returned to Seattle shortly before September 11 and put together a band—bassist Eric Corson and drummer Michael Shilling—to play live dates and eventually record When I Pretend To Fall. The sessions began in late 2002 at Walla’s Hall Of Justice studio, a triangle-shaped building where Jack Endino had recorded grunge landmarks such as Nirvana’s Bleach and Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff. But even before the first notes were put to tape, the Roderick/Walla/Nelson triumvirate that had been responsible for the Long Winters’ debut began to fray. Nelson, not far removed from Harvey Danger’s chart-topping success, found his creative function in the Long Winters to be severely limited.

“I cherished him, but we occupied a similar space: loud-voiced, sardonic, unconventionally handsome frontmen, and there was a lot of competition between us,” says Roderick. “He was in my band and I didn’t need collaborators—so I thought—so I guarded my space jealously. Every night he would step forward into the light a little and I would hit him with my riding crop, even though we were playing Gabe’s Oasis or some pot-pie restaurant in San Luis Obispo. He quit the band several times and rejoined during the recording sessions mostly because he couldn’t stand the idea of my songs being recorded without his input. He had a much broader scope of musical taste than I did and offered production ideas, harmony vocal arrangements and constructive criticism, but he was always frustrated that he couldn’t play a larger role.” (Nelson declined to comment for this story.)

Roderick, it turned out, had found his songwriting stride and wasn’t about to cede an ounce of control. For all of the album’s talented contributors, Pretend To Fall is narrated by a central character (i.e., Roderick) with a shaggy-dog, sarcastic worldview, bouncing from one emotional dustup to another in a blur of clever one-liners and piled-on keyboards, guitars, horn sections, strings and gang-tackled backing vocals. “Stupid” details the moment when you summon enough future regret to ask someone out; “New Girl” is a scathing character portrait with an increasingly snide chorus that becomes a leering taunt: “Be kind to the new girl.”

The album’s apex is “Scared Straight,” which seems to roll downhill and gain momentum as horns swell and Roderick’s lyrics tumble out with sharp edges around them: “It’s true little miss mean mini-bar guard/We’re gonna have to try something new/Let me breathe fire down on you.” The song is one of drummer Shilling’s fondest memories of the recording session.

“Initially, John had it slower—it was more of a hymnal-ish kind of song, at least to my memory—but we turned it into more of the Style Council/late-Jam arrangement that really brought out the power of the melody and the narrative momentum of the lyrics,” says Shilling. “It was a nice collaboration.”

“All the stories are told impressionistically,” says Roderick. “There’s a narrator, but it’s hard to discern his plot, like watching through a picket fence from a slow-moving car. I’m feeding sense impressions, trying to get you to feel the story. I want to love people and I don’t get how, and people want to love me and I don’t get why.”

As the recording proceeded in financially motivated fits and starts—Walla had cut the Long Winters a deal, and they worked in between his other studio projects—Roderick became less loveable. Though the band generally got along while on the road (“Long Winters tours were just endless hours of eating corn dogs and throwing Dorothy Parker quips at each other,” says Roderick), the frontman cops to being dictatorial at times.

“In the studio it was probably worse,” he says. “I really tried to control everything because, my god, this was my legacy, and if one damn tambourine part got played without my supervision we might as well just shit on my birth certificate. They all contributed amazing things to the recordings, but I can’t imagine it was easy for anyone. At least I didn’t wear sunglasses the whole time.”

According to bassist Corson, the process was made more painstaking—but also more intense—by the fact that the album was being recorded to analog tape.

“Tape forces your hand in a good way,” says Corson. “There’s no ‘undo’ key command; if you replace a take, it’s permanent. You don’t have playlists with other performances on them that you can revisit a month later. If you want to make an edit, you grab a razor blade and cut the tape.”

Walla estimates the album was approximately three-quarters finished when things began to bog down in an impenetrable mess of disorganization, unfinished tracks, missing vocal takes and endless tinkering.

“[I had] no plan at all,” says Roderick. “I was just shooting bullets at the moon. Chris was cool with it when I was producing good stuff, but at a certain point he felt like we were wasting time. I remember him pushing the talkback mic and saying, ‘I’m not sure it’s useful for me to sit here with my finger on record while you teach yourself how to play the pedal steel.’ That’s a hilarious line now, but at the time I was really offended.”

After a particularly heated argument between producer and artist, Walla felt the need to step outside and clear his head for an hour or so.

“I went to get food, came back, and the studio was empty and all the tapes were gone,” says Walla.

“I said, ‘Fuck this working-effectively bullshit’ and packed up all my guitars and amps and just drove away,” says Roderick. “To this day, my Wurlitzer only has three legs because I’m pretty sure I dropped one in the grass. I didn’t even leave a guitar pick behind, but I don’t remember taking the tapes.”

Enter Posies singer/guitarist Ken Stringfellow. In Seattle, the Posies are a godfatherly presence, the band that broke out not due to the hype of grunge but rather the highness of their vocal harmonies. Stringfellow had recently released a well-received and stunning, ornate solo album (2001’s Touched) and had won acclaim for his production of Damien Jurado’s complex and moody Rehearsals For Departure. When Stringfellow agreed to take over production duties for the Long Winters, it provided an apposite stylistic counterpoint. Stringfellow’s take on the bare-bones, Walla-recorded “It’ll Be A Breeze” illustrates the two producers’ divergent approaches to making records.

“The song is sung from the perspective of someone in a coma who can sense their lover from inside the sealed darkness but can’t communicate,” says Stringfellow. “Heavy, tear-inducing. And for whatever reason, Chris had decided to record that song with the harshest, scratchiest guitar sound imaginable. It’s almost unlistenable if you solo up the guitar. I recommended we start over on that one and re-record it, but we ran out of time.”

Stringfellow was so disdainful of the sound, he later recorded his own version of the song and released it on a covers EP.

“It sounds pretty terrible, I agree,” says Walla, explaining that “It’ll Be A Breeze” was a demo recording. Walla was trying to coax Roderick into an intimate performance and convinced him to record with just voice and guitar; it’s a producer’s trick Walla would later use with Ben Gibbard on Death Cab’s “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.”

“John likes to have things completely figured out,” says Walla. “One of the things that’s special about that performance is that he’s not in his head about it.”

With all the various egos and claims to the producer’s chair—Roderick also has a production credit, as well as engineer Kip Beelman, an unsung hero who shepherded the mixing—the list of grievances grows long. Walla hijacked a bass line here. Some of Nelson’s backing vocals got elbowed out there. Stringfellow mixed the record and jetted to Spain the next day.

“Everyone wanted to get their fingerprints on that record,” says Corson. “I remember toward the end, there was a lot of jockeying for position.”

On top of the regular cast of players, Stringfellow brought in a few guests: Peter Buck played mandolin (Stringfellow was a touring member of R.E.M. at the time), and Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows and Minus 5 (also playing with R.E.M.) added harmonica. One of Roderick’s friends, a music teacher, was brought in to arrange and conduct the string sections. But it’s the contrast between the two producers that leaves a lasting impression on how the album sounds. “There’s definitely a kind of classic feel, a certain warmth, from elements like the strings and Hammond organ that I supervised,” says Stringfellow. “Chris’ tracks have a more modern, indie, unsentimental feel. Too much of my style and the album would have been potentially mawkish; too much of Chris’ approach and the album would have been cold and remote.”

In the end, Roderick reveals, it was all about a girl. The songs on When I Pretend To Fall were inspired by a romance and the subsequent heartbreak he felt in New York City after it was over. Roderick reunited with the woman after two years apart, and he played her the album on a long drive across the Puget Sound to the Olympic Peninsula, explaining that she was the inspiration for much of the record. It was supposed to be a soul-baring moment; a way to reveal things that most humans can never express with words alone.

“She reacted to the album the way you would react to a five-year-old’s drawing of a horse,” says Roderick. “She said, ‘Oh, that’s nice. It’s really good,’ and then we changed the subject to how the salmon can’t make it past the old hydroelectric dams. We never talked about it again. So it turned out I had to wonder a bit longer whether happiness was possible.”

“I think at the time I hated it,” says Walla, who eventually reconciled with Roderick. “I don’t hate it anymore. It’s a great record. The record is really a reflection of where John was at. We were trying to collaborate and make something big and beautiful. It’s a really honest record. It’s one of the best records I’ve worked on.”

Following its 2003 release on indie label Barsuk (home to Death Cab and Nada Surf), the Long Winters doggedly promoted the album: four European tours, multiple U.S. treks and lots of press and college-radio promotion. But it just didn’t take; and the world instead embraced the Decemberists and the Shins. Finding success in indie rock is akin to the classic tale of trying to become popular in high school: a seemingly small pond, yet endlessly difficult to conquer and nearly impossible to achieve satisfactory success.

“We were in the game, we made a thing I was proud of, but at the end of the day we were in the top of the middle of a thing I could never fully grasp,” says Roderick. “The Drive-By Truckers are in the book, Conor Oberst is in the book, Grandaddy is in the book, but the Long Winters? I’ll overthink that until the day I die.”

MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Super Furry Animals’ “Rings Around The World”


The making of Super Furry Animals’ Rings Around The World

By K. Ross Hoffman

It was our big adventure,” Gruff Rhys declares, a little wistfully, reflecting on his band’s remarkably singular fifth album. That’s saying something, considering that Super Furry Animals have never, by any stretch of the imagination, been an unadventurous bunch. As producer Chris Shaw puts it: “We’re talking about a band that convinced their record label to buy them a tank to bring to festivals.” (The tank was blue and blasted techno music; they later sold it to Don Henley, and it remains the handiest shorthand evocation of the band’s penchant for goofy, imaginative excess.) “It’s just one of those things. I’m surprised that the labels allowed them to be so nutso with their ideas. But that’s what makes the Furries the Furries—that’s just the way they are.”

Even so, Rings Around The World was a colossal undertaking. It was their first album for a major label (Sony/Epic), following three for Creation—the venerable British indie that was, at the time, shepherding Oasis to global domination—and one, the relatively stripped-down, entirely Welsh-language Mwng, that they self-released on their Placid Casual imprint. The ample resources of their new label—and, crucially, the enthusiastic support of Sony UK CEO Rob Stringer, by all accounts a massive fan—afforded them by far the most elaborate and indulgent record-making process of their career, with sessions taking place in multiple top-of-the-line studios from April 2000 to January 2001. Rings was released simultaneously as a standard stereophonic CD and as a DVD with a 5.1 surround-sound mix (something entirely unheard of at the time, particularly for a new, original studio album) and videos for each of its 20 songs (beating Beyoncé to the punch by more than a decade), plus 16 remixes and copious extras.

It also happens to contain a lot of phenomenal music. Its kaleidoscopic bounty of sonic and melodic riches encompasses punchy, Beatlesque power pop, cornball electro-soul pastiche, otherworldly trip hop and sputtering IDM excursions and a bevy of gorgeous ballads outfitted with towering strings and Beach Boys-indebted harmonies. (“That’s definitely a Welsh thing,” says longtime A&R rep and fellow Welshman Mark Bowen. “We all grow up singing in choirs; we’re really good at close harmonies.”) Somehow, despite this madcap stylistic diversity, almost nothing feels forced, gimmicky or overreaching. It’s certainly epic, and arguably overstuffed, but it’s never excessive in an arbitrary, purely self-indulgent way. Everything follows its own particular fuzzy—or perhaps furry—logic.

Rhys, the band’s ever-affable frontman and principal songwriter, says, “I was into the complete maximalism of it: ‘More is more’ was the rallying cry. I was thinking of ridiculous statement albums like Prince’s Sign O’ The Times or Welcome To The Pleasuredome by Frankie Goes To Hollywood: glossy, overambitious records; completely excessive double albums. I think I had pretensions that the lyrics would capture the state of the planet in some way, although I got kinda sidetracked.”

“I think we’re guilty of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks,” says keyboardist Cian Ciarán. “And then we find we can’t bring ourselves to leave anything off.”

“It was very indulgent, but I think we managed to not go down too much of a concept album wormhole,” says guitarist Huw “Bunf” Bunford. “There were still tunes there—‘(Drawing) Rings Around The World’ is just a pop tune, whether it’s in 5.1 or whatever.”

Rings came out in July 2001 as a single disc in the U.K., although the DVD version contained seven songs that were left off the album proper. The American release on XL, which followed eight months later, included these tracks on a fantastic, not-to-be-overlooked bonus disc, partially restoring Rhys’ vision by making it an odd, lopsided double set.

The album stands as an idiosyncratic artifact of, and monument to, its time, in both unwitting and deliberate ways. The very nature of its excess, and especially the specific, bygone technological horizons it ventured to explore, make it something of a relic. And Rhys’ lyrics—which touch on environmental devastation, the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, religious doomsday cults, Japanese cyberpunk films, political spin doctors, the global telecommunications networks of the title and what he labels “the extreme sport-ification of culture”—constitute an insightful, if desultory, reflection of the globalized, satellite-televised, distraction-prone millennial moment—the burgeoning dawn of the information era—offering neither condemnation nor dismay but rather a bemused, value-neutral curiosity.

“It’s about how technology gives you problems,” is Rhys’ attempt at encapsulating the album’s themes—although, he admits, it’s not his own formulation: “I never understood a lot of our records, but we were lucky enough to tour Japan on every album, and Japanese journalists would explain the records to us, really eloquently. So: Technology brings many problems but also a lot of good things, so it’s about seeing the good and the bad in everything, and using the good stuff to make the record itself.”

While Rings was in many ways the furthest expression of the band’s eclecticism and experimentalism, those qualities stretch way back to the band’s origins in the early ’90s.

“In the early incarnation, there was kind of two bands,” says Rhys. “It was at the peak of rave culture in the U.K., so our social life was based mostly around electronic music. We had a sequencer, a drum machine, a few synths; there was a loose collective that would take this equipment to parties. We did a few tours as Super Furry Animals playing improvised electronic music. But simultaneously, we were always in bands playing conventional instruments—I’ve been writing songs for most of my life. It was really weird. We were in our mid-20s, we’d been playing music for a decade, we put this one EP out—1995’s Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (In Space)—and did a couple of shows playing this more song-y material, and suddenly we were getting record contracts thrown at us. We thought it was like a joke, after being kinda ignored, but not particularly bothered about it, for a decade. We never took it fully seriously. Our attitude toward record companies was always, ‘Wow, let’s take advantage of this ludicrous situation, ’cause it’s not gonna last.’”

Continue reading “MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Super Furry Animals’ “Rings Around The World””

MAGNET Classics: The Making Of X’s “Wild Gift”


The Making Of X’s Wild Gift

By A.D. Amorosi

“I play too hard when I ought to go to sleep/Well, they pick on me ’cause I really
got the beat/Some people give me the creeps/Every other week, I need a new address/Landlord, landlord, landlord cleaning up the mess/Our whole fucking life is a wreck/We’re desperate, get used to it … It’s kiss or kill” —“We’re Desperate”

In april 1980, X was on top of the world. After having started in 1977 amid a sympathetic sea of like-minded Los Angeles acts with bassist/singer/poet John Doe, his (then) girlfriend, fellow wordsmith Exene Cervenka, and smiling rockabilly guitarist Billy Zoom (drummer DJ Bonebrake joined after leaving local punks Eyes), the quartet broke out of punk’s pack and quickly rose to the top.

“It was bands like the Avengers and the Weirdos,” says Doe of his immediate contemporaries. “That’s where we came from.”

“For our band to survive long enough for me to afford my own apartment—that’s what I was thinking right then in 1980,” says the typically dry Zoom from his L.A. home office, where he’s preparing for this month’s X tour of America while going through chemotherapy for bladder and prostate cancer. (“So far, so good,” he says of his present health.)

Following the release of 1978’s Dangerhouse label single, “Adult Books”/“We’re Desperate,” the publicly and critically lauded X hooked up with magazine-turned-record label Slash and legendary keyboardist-turned-producer Ray Manzarek to record its menacing, diverse, off-beat album debut, Los Angeles, in 1980. “It was a great time for music and shows,” says Cervenka. “The whole thing. We were in the middle of all that.”

Rather than espouse the usual gospel of hard, fast, loose L.A. punk, Los Angeles was dramatic and full of dark, magnificent, differing tempos, noisy ragers and creaky slow songs, all featuring off-kilter harmony vocals from Doe and Cervenka and that same pair’s craftily Beat/pulp poetic images with cunning, calm characters to guide the debut. All that, and Cervenka married Doe, on April 6, 1980, after having been tied at the hip as titans of that city’s poetry-reading scene.

“At that point, the possibilities were endless,” says Doe. “We were part of an exciting, eclectic scene that was just bearing fruit. It was becoming more challenging, that scene, due to the then-sudden inclusion of hardcore, but we were coming off a great high—several of them.”

What followed, however, within weeks and months of the release of Los Angeles—several deaths in the X family (literal and figurative) and the premiere of director Penelope Spheeris’ wrong-headed The Decline Of Western Civilization documentary—would subvert, but not deter, the good/bad feeling going into the band’s blunter, weirder, more-driving sophomore album, 1981’s Wild Gift.

“This was filled with the oddities that weren’t on the first one,” says Bonebrake, who was just on tour with Doe for the latter’s new solo album, The Westerner.

Wild Gift was definitely the more up-tempo album,” says Doe.

Tipped with several songs written at the same time as those that packed Los Angeles, Wild Gift, like X’s debut, was full-bloodedly produced by Manzarek, the one-time Doors keyboardist left in the lurch by Jim Morrison’s sudden death in 1971. During this, his third decade in music, Manzarek experienced a grand second act as a laissez-faire philosopher type behind the boards for four X albums (Los Angeles, Wild Gift, 1982’s Under The Big Black Sun and 1983’s More Fun In The New World).

“I had a great time with X, the greatest punk band America has ever produced,” Manzarek, who died in 2013, once said. “The power of Billy Zoom on that guitar. Don Bonebrake cracking that deep, fat marching-band snare drum. John and Exene with their Chinese harmonies were just fantastic. Real American, Los Angeles poetry. I immediately thought of Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, that ’30s gangster stuff. Jim is part of that tradition, too.”

One step beyond the spooky, stark Los Angeles and less murkily mournful than follow-up Under The Big Black Sky, Wild Gift was more punk rock than either effort, with shorter, sharper songs, a Bukowski-like sense of humor (without all the fucking and booze) and Zoom’s rockabilly howling guitar set to stun. There were other twists. Wild Gift was slightly kitschy (for an X album) affair with twinges of surf-rock cool, which sounded a bit quaint when executed by rip-snorting Zoom and Co. It was almost pop (newly written songs such as “White Girl” and “Beyond And Back” had hooks galore), and, for the first time, its music was nicotine-scented with the ground-up, dusty twang of roots rock and country.

“That is very much who we eventually became, and it started there,” says Doe. “In 1980 into ‘81, there were new bands toying with the roots thing—we were on the leading edge of that. Gun Club, Blasters. It was the beginning of that era. Plus, we had long championed the pioneers of rock ’n’ roll like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran and Little Richard. We wore those influences on our sleeves—especially with Wild Gift.”

Bonebrake goes on to say that the blunt-yet-eclectic vibe behind Wild Gift was exactly why he joined X in the first place: “Doe and Cervenka had great oddball songs.” Though he loved being in Eyes with Charlotte Caffey (eventually with the Go-Go’s), “X could do anything: a rhumba, these great complex rhythms that I was able to bring to the mix. These guys were open to anything that sounded good.”

Good and frenzied, and even fun where Wild Gift was concerned. Like the racing theme to the remake of Jean-Luc Godard lean pulp drama Breathless the band would later execute, X’s sense of romance—the love between its central songwriters and off-beat harmonists—was in full, palpitating, fast-and-furious display on Wild Gift, a sound never to be heard again in the X catalog.

“I think Wild Gift had some of our best material,” says Zoom, before focusing on the mess that was the recording process. “It’s too bad we couldn’t do that material justice.”

So April 1980, and the release of Los Angeles

“We were on this high, and then, two people who were really close to us died suddenly,” says Doe. He’s remarking on Cervenka’s older sister from New York City, Mirielle, a jewelry designer who came to L.A. for an X record-release party at the Whisky A Go Go only to be sideswiped by a drunk driver who ran a red light; she was killed instantly. The other “scene” family member who died was Darby Crash, the messed-up Germs co-founder who committed suicide with an intentional heroin overdose on Dec. 8, 1980. “John Lennon died that day, too,” says Cervenka quietly and matter-of-factly. “It was a very weird moment. My sister died on the way to our release party, so perhaps if we had never made that album, my sister would still be alive—so many mixed emotions.”

Bonebrake details the poignant Whisky A Go Go live party as one that should never have occurred. “We had that whole show-must-go-on mentality, but we were young—we didn’t know better,” says the drummer. “It was so tragic. Exene and John found out right before we went on. We didn’t tell anyone in the crowd. We were frustrated and freaked out. John was breaking windows. You can’t imagine.”

Cervenka talks about the yin and yang of having the greatest moment of their collective lives to that point being intertwined with the worst moments of their collective lives to that point with a sort of lofty existentialism: “With Darby dead, too, it was the end of punk, or it was as if the end had started then.”

Coming into the follow-up to Los Angeles meant a higher profile and a slightly bigger budget. There was no sense of trajectory or programming or order on the part of the band. “We had no idea, so I give Ray a lot of credit for choosing the songs and what went where,” says Doe. “We knew that ‘Johnny Hit And Run Pauline,’ ‘Soul Kitchen’ and ‘Your Phone’s Off The Hook, But You’re Not’ would be on the first album because they were crowd favorites. Other than that, it was all Ray.” In Doe’s mind, Manzarek was the trusted friend and new band mentor who understood what went where and how to progress X’s sound incrementally. “He made Wild Gift harder, faster and a little more punk rock,” says Doe. “Our conversations with Ray were never over-intellectualized. He was more about doing it than contemplating it. No master plan.” Whether it was writing lyrics or playing, everything about X was more instinctual than intellectual when it came to Wild Gift.

If Los Angeles was the dramatic 365 degrees of X (“a primer, slow songs, fast songs so you couldn’t pigeonhole us,” says Cervenka), the second album showed off “our sense of humor,” she says. More personalized songs such as “The Once Over Twice” detailed a want for something greater, but settling “for some more scotch instead.” She continues that, as a writer, she lived for whatever was inside her head, then worked to get it all out quickly.

“The really cool lines in particular,” she says. “Just get ’em out and get ‘em down—we were writing a lot of stuff down quick as we could on Wild Gift and just kept hoping the smart, funny stuff came out faster.”

The only problem between the bitter Los Angeles and Wild Gift was how they managed to get an album that sounded as good as it does, still. “Really, I still prefer Los Angeles to the way Wild Gift sounds, but the latter has its merit,” says Doe.
Bonebrake even seems to gloss over some of the headaches—the buzzing of old studio mixers and mics—and focuses more on Manzarek’s handling of the band: “He might ask for an intro twice or another occasional take, but all-in-all, he did everything that he could to make us comfortable live—he was the best objective ears. Even when we told him before doing More Fun In The New World that we were frustrated not getting on the radio, he just did some things to boost up our sound so that it was still us.” Consider, too, that Manzarek—who got handed $10,000 by Slash to record Los Angeles and $15,000 to record Wild Gift—pretty much produced both albums for free and gave the money to the studios: Golden Sound in Hollywood for the former, Clover Recorders in Los Angeles for the latter.

“Billy Zoom’s friend had this studio for the first album, and he gave us a really good rate; we probably got like $50,000 worth of studio time,” says Bonebrake. “Not on Wild Gift.

Zoom recalls that Manzarek was a real cheerleader, but that there wasn’t enough money on Los Angeles to actually do any kind of production. “We just tried to get the songs to go to tape and playback,” he says. “Rick Perrotta had as much to do with the sound of the first album as anyone.”

When it came to Wild Gift, Zoom notes Slash was completely out of money, “and we didn’t have Rick making the sound happen. We probably should have pulled the plug on that one until we figured out how to finance it. It’s a very uneven, thin-sounding recording. We knew better; there just weren’t any options available. No other studio would let a punk band record.” Not only does Zoom go on to say that Clover was a disappointment with tons of technical problems, but “the only way we got them to let us record was to let their janitor, who was the owner’s brother-in-law, engineer. It was his first record. They had an old API desk, but it was pretty beat, and everything hummed and buzzed.”

Doe talks about pursuing and pushing X’s signature—the off-kilter, co-joined harmonies of the lead singers—with Wild Gift, and that every player had to have a part in every song. “What was she going to do otherwise—dance?” asks Doe, considering an outtake track such as “Heater” that signaled his first solo song (it appears on a subsequent Rhino reissue where both Los Angeles and Wild Gift—each barely 30 minutes in length—appear on one album.
“The song had a nice chorus and some fun lyrics, a fantasy about guns and playing around with S&M imagery that was popular at the time,” he says. “That didn’t fit us in any way.”

For all the band’s complaints, Wild Gift wound up topping nearly every important critic’s list in America, both West and East Coast. Their shows were sell-outs wherever they went, and their name was being made swiftly. There was but one more hurdle to get around mere weeks after Wild Gift’s May 1981 release: July’s release of The Decline Of Western Civilization, a documentary filmed within Los Angeles’ punk and hardcore scene throughout 1979 and 1980 with director Penelope Spheeris at its helm. Along with featuring the antics of Darby Crash and his pal Pat Smear in the Germs, bands such as Black Flag, Circle Jerks and Fear made appearances in various stages of comic-book menace. So did an unsmiling (save for Zoom, who never loses a smile) X, which also riffed through in-the-red recorded tracks like “Beyond And Back,” “Nausea,” “Unheard Music” and “We’re Desperate.”

“That was coming out as Wild Gift was making its way, and that film just sensationalized, trivialized and emphasized all the bad things that happened and could happen with any scene,” says Doe with a sadness even 35 years after that dreary, goofy documentary’s release. “She really focuses on the darkness and nihilism of the scene at that point, which was not the overwhelming feeling and attitude of Los Angeles at that time.”

Cervenka perks up and says that Spheeris’ crew were circus people, and that the woman who went on to direct Wayne’s World and the remake of The Beverly Hillbillies probably just saw L.A.’s punks as the same kind of weirdos she’d been used to her whole life. “We were probably dark carny people to her, but to us, we were just young kids who wanted to play loud and change the world at the same time,” she says.

Bonebrake, ever the gentleman, mentions how at a time when they were meant to concentrate on the woolliness of Wild Gift, The Decline Of Western Civilization was this juvenile dope/prank shitshow that made X and the scene look like what they weren’t: mindless and nihilistic. “It was a pretty narrow view where we became caricatures,” says the drummer, humorously, but building up steam. “She was filming us after a gig that ended at 2 a.m. and wanted to come to our house while we got tattoos? I went home. I didn’t want another tattoo. Plus, she added that slam-dance footage to our scenes, the sort where the audience spit at the musicians. You know how many fights we got into if someone spit at Exene? Billy Zoom wouldn’t play a show if people came up and touched his instruments, let alone mosh near him. What a weird time.”

MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Swans’ “Soundtracks For The Blind”


The making of SwansSoundtracks For The Blind

By A.D. Amorosi

Photo by Tamara Rafkin

Born from the jolting, speedy clutter that was New York City’s no-wave movement of the early, dirty ’80s, Michael Gira’s Swans were cuttingly abrasive in their sonic locution and lyrical force. Swans were no mess, though. Their roar was succinct and surging, their pace often blinding, and Gira’s attack, though brooding, was riveting and blunt—he was a sharp-shooting sniper, not a bullet-spraying machine gunner. To this rapier-fast, roaring exactitude, he added scorched-earth texts that were as much about the pointed notion of rage as the music itself pointedly raged (depravity, violence and power also fit nicely into Gira’s lyrical mien).

“My interest in Swans—what attracted me, I would still argue in their currency—is intensity,” says Bill Rieflin, one of a dozen past-and-present Swans. “I was an intense young man in those days myself.”

Fast and raging is a rough pace to maintain, though—even for a young man, a young woman (haunting, self-titled “buzz-cut athletic, non-drinking vegetarian” co-lead singer Jarboe) and an ever-shifting crew of young, schooled, inventive primal musicians—over the course of five-plus years; and by 1987, a bicameral sound process set in, a sonic architecture was erected. “One of the things I always loved playing in Swans is that it never stays the same,” says longtime guitarist Norman Westberg. “It is evolving, as well as adapting to its changing players. Michael never stands still.”

1987 double album Children Of God found Swans embracing sparkling tonic tones, subtle softness and nuanced elegance; a shimmering orchestral or ambient quietude that came to co-define Swans’ hard, bumpy ride from small labels (PVC, Caroline) to its unfortunate moment with the majors (MCA?!?) and back again to utter independence (Gira’s own Young Gods).

“I was utterly exhausted, man,” says Gira, considering the holy, scabrous, psychic trip of nine cold Swans albums between 1982 and 1995, to say nothing of his World Of Skin project with Jarboe, work on her solo albums (three between 1993 and 1996), his own solo effort (1995’s Dreamland) and recordings for Pigface and Lydia Lunch.

“Going through the process of my own label (starting with 1991’s White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity) allowed me freedom to do anything I want,” says Gira, adding, of course, “not that other labels had editorial control—except for that horrible circumstance with MCA. Once I had my own label, the freedom was absolute, but I also had the absolute financial responsibility in regards to the conscience of my decisions, the consequences. Those aspects had an influence over everything I did going forward. Then again, I probably just threw it all out the window, adapted and did what I wanted.”

Absolute freedom and utter exhaustion: What better moment in which to introduce the breathtaking Soundtracks For The Blind, Swans’ two-LP masterpiece from 1996 and the last album to feature Swans’ name until Gira’s soft sculptural de-constructivist rejuvenation of said band name in 2010. Wider and craggier than the Grand Canyon, as epic in scope and testament as the St. James Bible, as weirdly and quirkily diverse as the Beatles’ White Album—that’s the description I gave to producer/multi-instrumentalist Rieflin, who said, “Yeah, that about wraps Soundtracks up nicely,” he says with a soft laugh. “Plus, it seems to go on for-fucking-ever. It’s as if it never ends.”

With Gira removed from his cherished Lower East Side roots and relocated in Atlanta, Soundtracks For The Blind’s credits read “combined, collaged, manipulated and EQ’ed at Griffin Mastering, Atlanta GA.” That’s because Soundtracks was hardly straight-ahead, cobble-10-guys-into-a-studio-and-roar type material. It was knitted together quickly like a ghoulish, gorgeous AIDS quilt for a patient quickly dying. It was compiled like a family album filled with torn photo memories and newly emotional relationships. When you weren’t busy being balmed, then bruised by the loud, then lush “The Sound” and “The Helpless Child,” you were concentrating on the taped spoken interludes of “I Was A Prisoner In Your Skull” and how they related to Swans’ rush of sound.

“A motivation to incorporate multiple sound sources is a method that came naturally to us both as we had a long history with this technique,” says Jarboe, recalling both Swans’ Love Of Life and Gira’s Drainland. “As for Soundtracks, other than the finished songs recorded in studio, my own role within the process of its ‘architecture’ was providing source material.”

Gira’s original album notes claim Soundtracks’ song sources as “hand-held cassette recordings to found sounds, to samples, to loops, to finished multitrack recordings.” Produced with his usual un-grouping of differing musicians, with heavy input from Jarboe, this two-LP project—one disc named “Copper” and the other “Silver”—moves through its elements as would any alchemist looking to spin his own self-made gold. Brazen industrial skronk, tempered acoustic-guitar folk, humming winded ambience, Branca-esque scrawls, moist drones and the textural influence of the field recording—Alan Lomax’s treasured gift to rural musicality—all make Soundtracks For The Blind buoyantly cinematic, boldly alien and deeply Swans-y.

“I can’t rate it, no,” says Gira, wearily, of Soundtracks, which makes sense.

”It’s 20 years ago, and who can remember every element of an album put together such as that,” says Rieflin. “I listened to it yesterday in anticipation of this interview, and I’m still not always certain where I am on that album.”

Plus, Gira’s far busier contemplating the end of this most recent version of Swans after its upcoming 18-month tour for its new album, The Glowing Man. “I can see and say where Soundtracks took root, though,” he says.

How Swans came to, arguably, their best, most manic work, is that between the aforementioned hard-meets-soft of Children Of God and 1992’s Love Of Life, Gira began thinking of music more in terms of its malleable sound-craft than strictly its driving, definable melody and rhythm—an Eno-esque “soundtrack” to movies existing solely in the mind of its maker.

After 1995’s stripped-to-the-bone, skull-boring The Great Annihilator (“Annihilator to me has the raw energy present on Children Of God with some truly evocative melodies in the arrangements,” says Jarboe) and during its exhaustive tour, Gira stopped using opening bands “because they were nothing but trouble,” he says. “There were bits of sounds that I had been working on alongside Annihilator’s tracks—plus I had a trove of floppy discs, cassette tapes, all with these bits and interludes that began popping up on Swans albums.”

Gira began putting thought and weight into these sometimes blissful, sometimes creepy interludes, to the point where they seemingly blossomed in importance to the “songs” themselves. “For that tour, I handed a bunch of these bits to our live sound engineer, who added dub elements to the proceedings,” he says. “Before we would play, that’s what led us into the gig, welcomed us on. I used that method on Soundtracks to organize it.” Combined with a longtime love of all things Eno and Berlin-period Bowie, sound, rather than lyric, melody or pulse, led the charge for Gira’s compositional/production endgame. “Gradually that idea reached equal measure with formal song when it came to Annihilator, then Soundtracks,” he says. “Everything from Children Of God on became backdrop to films that didn’t exist. It’s just that Soundtracks would become the most … soundtracks-y.”

That Gira thinks of his music—solo, Swans—as one long process, never finished or complete, having one element recorded for one album that could easily find itself used or reused with some morphing on another, is no shock. “Every part of the music can transform, shift,” says Gira.

Rieflin was floating in and out of the devil’s pocket of industrial morass that was Ministry, Pigface and Revolting Cocks when he first got to Gira. “I had heard Swans, and knew of Gira, but hadn’t lived with their records until I was on tour, like 1991, and a writer from Alternative Press had an advance promotional cassette of White Mouth,” says Rieflin, bringing back the entirety of the ’90s with two phrases and a pristine rush. “So good. I knew then I wanted to work with Michael.” Along with being pleasantly surprised that Gira was not a sad-sack/lone-gunman type, Rieflin confirms that Gira was not only a great producer but that he knew how to get a high yield—more bang for his buck—with the drummer/multi-instrumentalist recording for eight-hour sessions at a shot with its outcome not always geared to one particular song.

“We would do a lot of work in a very short period of time,” says Rieflin. “He’s very high information, and we’d get a lot out of each other.” Where some of their bits went was up to Gira, who by 1995 into 1996 was feeling the strains of the business of being Swans.

“How did we change by 1995, 1996?” asks the ethereal Jarboe, who by that time had developed into a ghost chanteuse whose dynamics (and fan base) were as mighty and laudable as Gira’s. “I’d say that Michael best expressed it in the lyrics to ‘Feel Happiness,’ where he talks about forgiving indifference. In many ways, the story of Swans involves persistence in the face of adversity. As for the impact on me personally, all changes by that point only enhanced in me a sense of discipline and an attitude of determination.” What she calls “touring by trial” for years, where everyone smoked and drank (“except me”), surely took its toll on all concerned, Gira—the founder and financier—in particular.

“I felt defeated, as I had put every little last piece of energy into it—it had gone on at that point for 16 years—and it hadn’t really seen all that much success,” says Gira of the post-Annihilator-tour Swans. “There was always this conflict to find the money to record, to tour, to survive, to put out albums that were way beyond my capacity financially, probably technically as well.” Going forward, he wanted to do something simpler—at least on the face of it— and challenge himself to write music that was centered around a narrative, “some basic songs rather than these huge improbable soundtrack compositions.”

So Soundtracks For The Blind would be newly recorded and stitched together—a gorgeous Frankenstein—as Swans’ swan song. They would, however, go out with a bang.

There are roaring band songs and humming tracks such as “Red Velvet Wound” and the wry, homemade “Volcano.” The spooky chanteuse has a funny story to tell about “Hypogirl,” which she claims was performed under particularly unusual circumstances. “The song begins with the sound of me having to get into character instantly as I had a commitment that night taking care of someone who needed me,” says Jarboe. “So I drove to the studio as quickly as I could, did the song and drove back. The sound you hear first is me reacting after I shot back old whiskey belonging to my father. I had grabbed it going out the door when Michael called me to the studio to sing. It was literally speed to the studio, shoot back strong whiskey, perform that vocal, drive back home as fast as I can.”

It is, however, Soundtracks’ lost-and-found elements, its haunting interludes and pre-taped, ancient texts, that drive what Gira calls its sonic encyclopedic feel. “The overarching impetus behind Soundtracks was built as a whole world apart from, but based upon, whatever means I had at our disposal without any prejudice in regard to the material,” says Gira. “It could be new loops, old tapes, all just make this immersive universe exist.”

Rieflin laughs when he discusses his role, then and now, based upon Gira’s directive. “I do what is needed,” he says, his job within Swans closer to that of a producer and singular in that regard as he isn’t pared to one sound or instrument but rather whatever sounds he deems necessary. “If a song needed violin, I did that. If it’s piano, more than likely it’s all me.” When I mention how lovely those quickly flitting pianos lines often are throughout Soundtracks, he laughs and says, “Nothing wrong with pretty.” In surveying his overall Swans gig, Rieflin likes to joke, “I’m like the Harvey Keitel character in Pulp Fiction, the Wolf. I do all the dirty jobs, clean up the mess, do exactly what is necessary at that exact time.”

Some of the elements used to build the bigger whole of Soundtracks were small, simple, but crucial atmospheres provided by Jarboe on songs such as “Surrogate 2,” chunks she created: “My own cassettes of sounds with a 16-second, electro-harmonic digital delay” for use during Swans shows as early as 1984, barely a year into her first tour of duty. Then there were the more intimate found sounds, such as personal recordings from Jarboe and Gira’s families—fathers, in particular—that cut, and infect, like a rusty knife.

“Michael and I were both going through the decline of a parent,” says Jarboe. “This was a significant aspect of our lives, and, indeed, aging parents who become ill is a significant part of the lives of many others.” Gira points out that Jarboe’s pop was an FBI agent who, when he died in 1980, became the source for a wealth of surveillance tapes—not just of criminals under his gaze but of his daughter as she got ready to go out to school or to concerts. “There was one we used on Soundtracks where he taped her talking about wanting to be in a band,” says Gira. “There’s tapes where she is talking about her mom who fell ill to dementia. These tapes inspired me to create a narration in sound.”

Gira’s father, Robert, weaves his own tale throughout Soundtracks, capturing as it does the elder Gira’s latter life.

“We had a contentious relationship during my youth, as I was a pretty rebellious teenager,” he says. “We didn’t speak—he was out of my life—for about 12 years. I wanted to get to know him again without the tension of the earlier years. He was a great man, though. I wanted to capture that as he went through the process of going blind.” Hence, a soundtrack for the blind with texts from the past cross-faded, cut-up, looped and swollen with ambient drones or swelling, spider-glass-shattered guitars.

“Our personal field recordings used on Soundtracks gave both a true soundtrack feel and provide a document of our lives,” says Jarboe. “And I also believe listeners have a deep experience because of this.”

Like a film editor, Gira served a dynamic function by looking at what scene came before and what came after, piecing everything together to create a stirring narrative. “I had to balance the quiet with the brash, the delicate with the noisy and make one thing work against the other,” he says. “The quiet thing sounding more incendiary when set against the loud thing. It was just me putting contradictions together … an architecture.”

Gira hasn’t listened to Soundtracks since he recorded it, but, now—along with Swans Is Dead—sees it as a great finale statement for that era of Swans. Soundtracks in his mind also formed the basis for the aesthetic behind Swans 2.0, which commenced in 2010.

“This Swans has transformed far beyond that now,” he says. “But Soundtracks was the start point.”

Gira had a funny story relating to both Soundtracks and his dark ambient drone projects of 1998, the Body Lovers and the Body Haters. From its looming vibe to its compositional éclat (to the fact that Westberg, Rieflin and Jarboe took part in the sessions), much of its found sound and sample clips could’ve been culled for Soundtracks For The Blind.

“I continued the soundscape thing—the anything went thing—with a sound archive at my disposal, a truck full of floppy discs, cassette tapes, whatever,” he says. “After I was done, I brought all of the studio-made floppies and the old cassettes to a trash heap and walked away. I wanted to start fresh, which is what I did with the Angels Of Light. But that day, it was a purely physical thing. I put them all in my van, brought them to the county dump and threw it all away.”

Both of us laugh hard at the image of a man throwing away a large chunk of his past on an ash heap. Soundtracks For The Blind is a record that makes you want to start anew.

MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Pet Shop Boys’ “Please”


The making of Pet Shop BoysPlease

By A.D. Amorosi

On the newest album from synth-pop’s drollest duo, Pet Shop Boys, dryly romantic (and icily British) vocalist Neil Tennant wryly recalls a past with longtime musical partner/orchestrator Chris Lowe without wallow or recoil. “The Pop Kids,” the centerpiece cut from the blunt-synthonic Super, finds Tennant—still writing and crooning like Noel Coward in a leather bar—wringing the line, “We were young but imagined ourselves so sophisticated/Telling everyone we knew that rock was overrated,” for all the cool, collected-ness he could muster. “That’s my snapshot recollection of coming up, really” says Tennant, talking about the time that led up to 1986’s Please, the first Pet Shop Boys album, which became an unlikely platinum-plated smash across the globe.

Sinister, sardonic and kinkily sensual, yet somehow alluring, sweet and even innocent for all its experience(s), Please is that rare, odd commodity: an elegant, commercially viable work that didn’t lose PSB its underground cool or cred upon release. Quite the opposite, really.

Just consider the first hit from Please, “West End Girls.” Recorded originally with American producer Bobby “O” Orlando—then, in album form, by Britishby-way-of-Maine mixologist Stephen Hague—the smooth, snaky and snarky track was inspired in equal parts by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Lenin’s clandestine trek to Russia detailed in Edmund Wilson’s To The Finland Station and the rough-boy, red-light district youth-quake of London that Tennant and Lowe came to know in the mid-’70s.

That’s but one three-and-a-half minute song on Please.

From there, Tennant—a cynical ironist to the max—turned the cinema-worthy lies and licentiousness of Midnight Cowboy’s principals into a greater outrageousness with “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money),” which means you’ll never quite look at Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo again in quite the same fashion.

Influenced equally by the racially tense riots of Brixton in 1981 and the violence and boredom that was the subtext of Penelope Spheeris’ 1984 film Suburbia, PSB’s “Suburbia” lolled and gagged on its own hubris. For every slowly rolled vowel sound and sarcastic distance/dissonance from Tennant circa Please, there were Lowe’s subtle arpeggios and glad-to-be-unhappy verses—a merry widow’s melodic mix of Burt Bacharach, Giorgio Moroder and Vince Clarke for a soundtrack that was smart, tart and chart-topping. “That was very much how my life was then, observationally,” says Lowe thinking back on his existence immediately before and after meeting Tennant and getting to Please.

In actuality, it was a long time coming to Please, when you consider that neither gentleman was much about playing pop to start, let alone electronic music. Tennant claims that he’d been writing songs since age nine at his home near Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, teaching himself guitar and falling in love with the likes of Joni Mitchell and the Incredible String Band, the latter of which inspired his first folk group, Dust. He also attended an all-boys Catholic school there, whose strict morality (and Tennant’s wish to act in opposition) easily influenced grand, percolating Please hit “It’s A Sin.”

“All this became a totally separate thing from my career at that point—as much as it was—in magazine writing and editing,” says Tennant, who, by 1975, moved to London to work for Marvel UK, the British branch of Marvel Comics, before becoming, by 1982, a news editor at Smash Hits (the British teen-pop magazine). “The only reason I wound up at Smash Hits, really, was because they knew that I knew about music. What they didn’t know was that I had a secret parallel career as a songwriter—my folk songs, some punk, these angst-ridden Elvis Costello-ish songs—which I actually took around and played for publishers. Those days are long gone. That was fun.”

Lowe would not have been fond of Tennant’s folk or punk songs, in all honesty. “Not a fan, no,” he says. Five years younger than Tennant and raised in Blackpool, Lancashire, the keyboardist/ sequencer’s past includes “playing trombone in a big brass band, then dance bands, and I mean Glenn Miller-type jazzy dance bands, neither of which was very punk,” says Lowe with a laugh. “I did have a rock band at school, and we were heavy, though I wouldn’t call it metal, despite our heavy-metal name: Stallion.” Playing piano as much for pleasure as for compositional largesse, Lowe fell in love with disco, electro and house music at his coastal region’s night clubs and never looked back when he moved in 1981 to London, where he worked for a local architect right around the time that he met Tennant. It’s no joke that they met in an electronic/hi-fi shop along Kings Road and got to talking about each other’s various musical interests.

“I was very much into Soft Cell then,” says Lowe, mentioning that Tennant was not only still a bit folksy (“that Incredible String Band thing”) but also more romantic—even poetic—as a lyricist.

“After I showed him my writings, Chris said, ‘Can’t you make those lyrics just a bit sexier?’” says Tennant, which Lowe concurs was the start of Pet Shop Boys—a duo whose rise came quickly once the two of them shared their ever-developing tastes. Making things sexier meant a lot of Bowie, Italian disco and a love for the bourgeoning rap scene of New York City, the Bronx and Queens, and the lo-fi electronic dance music of Bobby “O” Orlando.

Back up a second, though.

“When Chris asked me to be less poetic, I did and started writing about London, the people we knew, the places we went,” says Tennant. Writing less romantically gave his new sets of lyrics their caustic, sardonic edge and distance, the latter element aided by him in character. “That’s the remove, you see; I wasn’t just being me anymore,” he says. “I also began writing satirical songs—which I would say, ‘Opportunities’ was—you know without being outrageously humorous. I also thought of things that Chris would want to do or hear. It worked. Even now, I don’t think I write as me much.”

Lowe chuckles when he thinks of that moment in time, as “this was very weird; I don’t really or usually comment on lyrics.” Tennant considered their new London experiences—especially Lowe’s club life—part of the deal. “I don’t recall being that fascinating,” says Lowe. “We were just young and enjoying London … something that wound up being reflected in Please. I don’t know what Neil could have got from me, though—was he spying?”

One thing the two spoke about out loud was their love for Orlando. This New York City-born, Italian-American producer and composer’s life and work wound up changing the fates of Lowe and Tennant.

Their initial writing partnership quickly became simpatico because the two had similar interests—Orlando in particular. “His records were almost punk, really,” says Lowe. “Simple beats, two three chords, lo-fidelity production; definitely a punk attitude to it all.”

Lowe is correct in his description. Orlando (attempts to contact him for this piece were thwarted) as a producer/composer created the sound of lo-fi, HI-NRG, electronic American dance music, usually playing all parts of each robotic melody himself with a heady array of synthesizers, rolling bass lines, clanging cowbells, early robotic sequencers and hammering pianos. When Tennant mentions the Flirts, an alias ensemble of Orlando’s, he seriously all but squeals. When Lowe talks about “The Best Part Of Breakin’ Up” by Roni Griffith or “Native Love (Step By Step)” by Divine (yes, John Waters’ Divine), it’s with the reverence one uses for John Cage.

When an opportunity to travel to New York City arose (to interview the Police), Tennant decided, too, that not only would he interview Orlando (“He had several ‘singles of the week’ at Smash Hits,” says Tennant. “I wonder why?”), the Pet Shop Boy would bring some of the early demos that he and Lowe had worked on. “Chris and I were simply all about our own interests,” says Tennant, talking about “Planet Rock,” Orlando’s HI-NRG disco and early hip hop. “We were really so much more American than British in our tastes. In fact, I think what Chris and I were working on truly represented a new era in dance music. We replaced pop elements with dance-music elements—we were never trying to do what the new-wave bands of that time were doing. And, of course, by the time those acts eventually had their own dance elements, we were onto something else.”

In 1983, however, everything for Tennant and Lowe was Bobby Orlando, who, upon meeting Tennant in Manhattan and hearing several PSB demos (“Opportunities,” “I Get Excited”) at a restaurant called the Applejack, agreed to do their debut album and work out a one-time single deal with Epic (for “West End Girls”) as well as some sort of production publishing deal.

“I remember Neil phoned me after meeting Orlando in NYC and he said he’d produce our record for us,” starts Lowe. “Neil was excited. I was excited. If Orlando knew how much I was living and breathing his music, he probably would’ve been scared.”

Going to New York and recording at Unique Studios in Times Square only made the whole thing seem like even more of a dream. Arthur Baker was in an adjacent room to them; there was breakdancing in the street and fresh graffiti on every wall. “The city was still a slightly dangerous place, in a good way,” says Lowe. “There were amazing clubs such as Paradise Garage, and Jellybean Benitez would spin house records into morning. It was all so exciting.”

So was the 11-track session that the studio time in 1984 spawned (pretty much all of Please, plus), including a version of “West End Girls” that sold zip in the U.K. but did swimmingly in America, becoming a club hit in Long Island, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“When you realize that we did that song in a few hours—because you paid by the hour at Unique—it was pretty funny,” says Lowe. “We wanted to use sequencers, but everything wound up being played manually. Bobby O opened the door to weird sound— shambolic, really—playing an emulator with me playing a bass with everything slightly out of time.”

Tennant continues that when “our (then) new manager Tom Watkins was in L.A. on business and heard that we were ‘the scream of the week’ on L.A. radio, that was even more hilarious.”

Not so amusing was when Watkins—one of pop management’s true raconteurs and an architect and antiquarian of the highest order—got PSB a deal with Parlophone in the U.K. and EMI in America, who insisted that they get out of their deal with Orlando. Push came to shove, and Orlando got a huge chunk of money, including a slice of Pet Shop Boys’ future royalties. “Basically EMI bought us out of the deal and put a million-dollar ceiling on it, so he made out fine,” says Tennant. “That sounded like so much money then, doesn’t it? Wait. It still does.”

Ask Lowe and Tennant if they thought there were any hard feelings from Orlando, and each says they all met up years later and laughed it off . “How bad could he feel?” says Tennant. “He got a million dollars in 1985. What’s there to be mad about? Plus, we did one of his songs on Please (“Two Divided By Zero”), so he did all right by us.” Without aping the twitchy, speedy, lo-fi HI-NRG of the 11 tracks that make up most of Please, the Boys had to find a producer who had sleek, dance-disco-heat experience but with something more something richer. Enter Stephen Hague. The wunderkind producer from Maine, onetime member of and mixer for Jules & the Polar Bears, became the go-to electronic producer for Malcolm McLaren’s “Madame Butterfly,” Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s Crush and Erasure’s “Chains Of Love.” He did smash synth-smooth albums for New Order, Siouxsie & The Banshees and anyone who sought his lush, signature tone with its occasional jagged edges (a sound he eventually brought to Blur, along with other Britpop ’90s ensembles as well as new recordings with U.K. cats such as Whitey and a new outfit called AccroGeist).

Ask Hague how he came up with his layered, sweetly somnolent, proactively sinister sound, and he’s modest about the accomplishment. “Gee, I have no idea, except that everyone is a product of their influences to some extent,” he says, calmly mentioning the Beach Boys, Todd Rundgren and German “experimental” records by the likes of Cluster, Harmonia and Neu! as prime inspirations for his sound. “When producers and artists decide to work together, it’s usually based on shared sensibilities that could be heard in their previous work. So one project follows another in that way, and before you know it, you’re associated with a ‘sound.’ It’s not by design on my part, at least not consciously.”

As a fan of British and European records as a kid, Hague got his first break playing keyboards for (then) newly solo Peter Gabriel (busting out of Genesis). “Peter was kind enough to play some of my home-recording stuff to his label, and they hired me to produce Rock Steady Crew, which became a hit in the U.K. Then the work and the hits seemed to keep coming, and suddenly I was a producer. Life is strange.”

Tennant mentioned that between “Madame Butterfly” and the Rock Steady Crew material, he liked the producer and his “hip-hop-era” sound. “I thought everything that Stephen Hague did was so cute,” says Tennant. “Besides, the label wanted us to use Stock-Aitken-Waterman (Brit schlockmeisters). Stephen Hague was our man.” (Strange, but every time Tennant mentions Hague, he uses the producer’s full name, even if he had done so just a second prior.)

One thing that Hague didn’t want to do was what Bobby Orlando did. Working on “West End Girls” first for a single that— this time—would rise quickly up the British charts, Hague says of Orlando’s production, “There were some good parts there. He’s no dope, but it also sounded to me a bit like a novelty record. One of the most important decisions we made was to slow it down. One thing led to another once we’d done that.” With “West End Girls” rising on the charts and the slowed tempo an apt vibe for Pet Shop Boys’ once-Orlando-mixed cuts, Hague’s rich orchestration made lustrous sense for everything that came next.

“First off, I’ve always been a lyric guy in my pop tastes, going way back,” he says. “Neil’s lyrics, intriguing as they were, have always pushed all the right buttons for me. He’s a bit of a master of that craft, I reckon.” As Orlando did with “Two Divided By Zero,” Hague too co-composed a song with the Boys, “Love Comes Quickly.” Hague states that, as originally written, the dreamy cut “needed a middle-eight, and I stumbled on the chord changes for it. That’s often been my role as a co-writer on records that I’ve produced: ‘song doctor’ stuff. I do enjoy that process.”

Tennant says he relishes the fact that he’s had great relationships with all PSB producers, Orlando, Trevor Horn and Hague included (“Neil and I are still in touch after 30 years, which says something,” says Hague). “You have to be able to share your musical DNA, let them in … and they have to be able to let you in.” Tennant likens what they and Hague shared—what the producer brought to their already-penned-and-once-before-produced songs—was something closer to a cinematic film-noir soundtrack than a pop tune. “It wasn’t just some remixes of what we did with Bobby O,” says Tennant. “Please was something different, richer. It’s funny, too—even now, I think it sounds classic and contemporary. Unlike say, Depeche Mode, who don’t particularly like their first album because it sounds dated.” (For the record, Tennant thinks that the Mode’s Speak & Spell sounds “beautiful,”)

Lowe recalls that there was an urgency to get through making that first album, not just because it was the excitement of their debut, but because “West End Girls” was a hit that required followups. “Yes, we had to move much more quickly than we might have, but it was all a learning process, as we had never really been in a proper studio before,” he says. “I mean, Unique (Orlando’s studio) was great but threadbare—like the music.”

“Chris and I wanted everything programmed, metronomic, tight and precise,” says Tennant. “Stephen Hague wanted a bit more air in everything, especially on a song such as ‘Love Comes Quickly,’ which is still one of my favorite songs. Stephen Hague’s heightened bass line started as a mistake initially but just worked to our benefit eventually.”

Ask Tennant what Please means to him 30 years after the fact, and he thinks that it’s an incredibly romantic album “whether it was meant that way or not. Please is full of life and joy and possibility—even at its bleakest—about all that London held, and all you were running away from.” Lowe says he rarely listens to any of Pet Shop Boys’ early work, unless planning for a tour, as they are presently, and imagines that Please is still quite fresh. Ask him, though, if he thinks that newer albums such as Super will be talked about in the same way that people regard Please, and he stops me.

“In 30 years, Neil will be 100 years old,” Lowe says with a hearty laugh. “It won’t matter.”

MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend”


The making of Matthew Sweet‘s Girlfriend

By Hobart Rowland

By ’90s industry standards, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend performed well. It peaked at number one on the Heatseekers chart in 1992, even if it barely cracked the top half of the Billboard 200. The title track made it to number four on the Modern Rock chart and number 10 on Mainstream Rock, while the album’s sublime leadoff track, “Divine Intervention,” was a number 23 Modern Rock hit—and, quite frankly, deserved better.

That’s nowhere near the astronomical numbers Nirvana’s Nevermind and U2’s Achtung Baby enjoyed that same year. But we’re talking about a quirky—albeit monumental—power-pop record that almost didn’t find its way to listeners. Prior to Girlfriend, Sweet was less than an unknown commodity—he was a liability, with a pair of glossy, nondescript late-’80s albums that tanked commercially and critically. The vibe surrounding Sweet was so toxic that Zoo Entertainment, the now-defunct BMG affiliate that finally took a chance on Girlfriend, pretty much spun the thing as Sweet’s debut.

And for good reason: It sounds like nothing that came before—from Sweet or anyone else. Its edgy, honest beauty set the tone for a string of great albums, including Girlfriend’s underrated 1993 follow-up, Altered Beast, 1995’s 100{e5d2c082e45b5ce38ac2ea5f0bdedb3901cc97dfa4ea5e625fd79a7c2dc9f191} Fun and 1999’s Phil Spector-inspired masterpiece, In Reverse.

In the months prior to Girlfriend’s October 1991 release, a devoted cadre of industry people embraced the album—dubiously titled Nothing Lasts at the time—making it their personal mission to ensure its survival. One of those fans was veteran music scribe Bud Scoppa, who was working A&R for Zoo when a cassette arrived in the mail from his New York counterpart, Scott Byron. Scoppa’s stellar liner notes for the 2006 Girlfriend Legacy reissue are required reading for any Sweet fan. They’re so good, in fact, that we found no point in reinventing the wheel here.

Legacy Recordings just released a vinyl edition of Goodfriend (Another Take On “Girlfriend”), featuring home demos, session outtakes and live performances. Think of it as an unruly companion piece to the original, which was reissued on 180-gram vinyl at its intended 12-song length in 2014.

Describing Girlfriend as one of the best power-pop LPs ever may be accurate, but it’s also selling the album short. After all, what purist in the form would allow the late Robert Quine to run roughshod over his pristine melodies and multipart harmonies—and, in the process, deliver some of the Richard Hell And The Voidoids guitarist’s most wrenchingly inspired work?

So let’s just say this: What follows is an oral history of one of the best albums of the ’90s, a decade swimming in great music.

Matthew Sweet: I got married when I was really young—19—and we were married for six years. By 1989, we’d moved out to Princeton, N.J., from New York City, so we could rent a whole house. It was awesome for me because I could do music without bothering anyone. The house was built in 1780, right on the edge of the Princeton Battlefield. I’d ride my bike in the backwoods all through there. But my wife at the time was restless. She felt like there was something she wanted to do. So she got some money from her dad and moved back to New York—got an apartment there. We hadn’t really broken up, exactly, although we weren’t getting along. It wasn’t, like, a positive thing.

Ric Menck (drums): Matthew and I toured to promote his previous album, Earth—just the two of us in his Honda, opening for ’Til Tuesday. We listened every day to my cassette of Full Moon Fever, and we loved how unadorned by technology it sounded.

Sweet: I set up drums in the main living room, and I started playing them on my demos. I sent those to (manager) Russell Carter, and he said, “It reminds me of Crazy Horse and Neil Young.” And I said, “I know, my voice is really high and weird.” And he’s like, “No, the vibe of it.” He sent me a bunch of Crazy Horse stuff, and I was like, “Fuck, now I understand what he’s saying.”

Menck: Matthew was recording demos at his house, and I visited him at several points during that time. He was really getting into Neil Young, and he had an abiding love for the Beatles—especially Abbey Road. As we drove around Princeton in his little Honda station wagon, he told me he wanted to make an album that sounded really organic.

Lloyd Cole (guitar): Matthew would write very quickly—sometimes two or three songs a day, where I would take a week. He’s never been the most disciplined guy in that respect, and that’s kind of endearing.

Sweet: Having my marriage end was something I tried so hard not to do. We tried to make it work; we went into marriage counseling. But we were like kids. In the end, it was me who said I wanted to get divorced, even though she was the one who left. By that point, she was sort of desperate to stay together. All my life, I thought I was a good guy. But when you have to be the one who says it’s over, I had to accept that there was no way to be the good guy. It was a thing where I went, “Wow, I’m really tainted.” You know, original sin or something—like, “Now I get it: I’m good and bad, and there will be times in my life when the right thing to do isn’t being good.”

Cole: My main claim to fame is on the song “Girlfriend.” Matthew kept talking about “good friend.” He’d just been recently separated from his wife, and I don’t think he wanted to address the issue straight-on and say “girlfriend.” And I said, “For God’s sake, just call it ‘Girlfriend.’”

Sweet: At the time, I tried to explain that none of it was exactly autobiographical—that everything could be looked at in a couple different ways. “You Don’t Love Me” might be a song my wife was singing to me—you know what I mean? But I felt those feelings, and so I was working that out in a song. Whereas something like “I’ve Been Waiting” was really like a brand-new, untouched fantasy of how it could be great to fall in love or whatever.

Fred Maher (producer, drums, guitar): Matthew originally wanted to record at his house in Princeton, and we planned it out. But he got cold feet a few months before recording was to start; he was nervous about upsetting neighbors. I suggested Axis Studios in New York City, since it would be as cramped and difficult a place to make a rock record as his small house.

Sweet: Fred and I had met on my first record (Inside) and worked a lot together on the second one. We were already buddies for a long time, so it was kind of coming together. Even (Television guitarist) Richard (Lloyd) and Bob (Quine) played with me before Girlfriend. I met Richard during my time with the Golden Palominos, when he filled in for Jody Harris. There was no way to learn the whole set, and we had to do these rehearsals with him, and I just felt so bad because it was so impossible. But Richard was really nice to me and told me he liked my songs. So we started to become friendly.

Menck: Prior to making the album, Matthew, Richard and I went through a few of the songs at a rehearsal space near the studio. We warmed up by playing Television’s “See No Evil,” and Richard yelled at me when I acted too much like a geeky fan.

Cole: The rough demos were nowhere near as extreme as what’s on the album. Jim Rondinelli deserves a lot of credit for that. He and Matthew gelled really well.

Jim Rondinelli (engineer): The sound of Girlfriend really goes back to lengthy conversations I had with Matthew. We talked about it for months before we actually did anything. When I heard Earth, I loved the songs, but there was a dissonance between the slickness and the precision of the production and Matthew’s voice.

Maher: Matthew didn’t want to use any of the technology available at the time. So we decided we’d make the entire record on 24-track tape. Parts were mercilessly bounced together, with no way back.

Rondinelli: I worked with Fred and Matthew to establish an entirely different framework for his voice, and that meant not drowning him in reverb or studio processing, not burying his voice but making it loud and clear in the front of the track, framing his voice with his primary weapon for attack, the electric guitars, and making sure those guitars were raw power and unadorned. I mean, good God, we had Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine, and Matthew’s rhythm-guitar playing is so incredibly concise.

Menck: My drum tracks were completed in one or two sessions. Matthew played rhythm guitar, and I played along. Very simple and straightforward, which was a change for Matthew, whose previous album was made with programmed drums. It took one or two takes to complete each track.

Rondinelli: We established rules at the start: It would be all live instruments; it would be all Höfner Beatle bass. The Höfner has this big, heavy bottom that stays nicely out of the way of the guitars, so we could really compartmentalize and separate the instruments. That left Matthew’s voice and the guitars front and center. By having the drums loud but dry, there’s always some ambience in the room where the music is being played. We didn’t want to soften the impact of Fred and Ric’s drumming by washing it in reverb. Really, we wanted to take everything that was done on the first record and do exactly the opposite.

Menck: Axis was in a high-rise building surrounded by other highrises. At one point, I looked out the window to see a very pretty woman undressing. She was the inspiration behind my playing on “Divine Intervention.” The drum track for that was definitely completed in one take.

Sweet: People see what they want in “Divine Intervention.” If they’re religious, they might think, “Awesome. That’s when God comes.” But I was saying that he’s not. I was coming out as an atheist, in a way. Christianity has great things about it. Jesus is totally cool, and I live by those morals. I don’t do anything that’s really un-Christian—and most atheists probably don’t. We put the whole album in [the precursor to] ProTools, which was so novel back then. The intro to “Divine Intervention” was something we turned backward—then you hear Richard playing a lick.

Rondinelli: We’d complete the basic rhythm tracks for the album, and Matthew would take a long weekend and go back to Princeton. He’d come back with these unbelievably layered and complex guitar and vocal arrangements. Then he’d sing additional vocals, and we’d add the guitar tracks. It was really a fun way to work.

Sweet: It’s a typical studio thing, but we made comps of our favorite guitar bits. So Richard and Bob didn’t have to do anything but play what they felt—and that’s why it worked so great.

Rondinelli: It’s funny. There’s only one spot on the album where two people are actually playing together in real time, and that’s Matthew and Lloyd on “Thought I Knew You.” Fred, wisely, wanted to pull the swing section out of the demo version of “Girlfriend,” which gave it a life on radio it probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Cole: Matthew was obsessed with Winona Ryder—especially in that Heathers film. I said to him, “You’re singing a song about Winona Ryder, and ‘Winona’ is a great title for a song—so just do it.”

Rondinelli: My favorite song to record was “Winona,” because there’s so much Greg Leisz and Quine on that song. Greg is something else. He does an incredible lap-steel part that’s an answer line to the vocals in “Girlfriend.”

Sweet: I went to see Jules Shear play. We were outside the venue afterward, and he introduced me to Greg. They were in a group together called the Funky Kings. I’m like, “Hey, so do you know the Sneaky Pete (Kleinow) kind of steel playing?” And he was like, “I love all that stuff.” So I asked him to play on the record. It was that simple.

Rondinelli: The first time Richard came in, his tracks were so exciting that I remember popping out of my chair when I heard them. With Quine, we’d have him play top to bottom on a song five times, and we’d go back afterward and compose a highlights track. I don’t think there’s one spot on the finished album where Bob played a continuous track. The most amazing thing is that Dennis Taylor, the guitarist who plays with Matthew now, learned all this stuff that no human being had ever played before.

Menck: An abiding memory of the sessions was hanging out with Bob Quine in the lounge. He was a passionate music fan who loved to talk about songs and records. Bob could be a little cantankerous, but when he started talking about music, he really softened up. I’ll forever treasure our discussion about the Velvet Underground. He loved them so much.

Rondinelli: Bob would get something going in the first couple of takes, and then he’d get really down on himself and go through this incredible self-loathing. On the fourth or fifth take, all this additional fire and anger would come out, and he’d take it out on his instrument. Then he’d be emotionally and physically exhausted.

Sweet: The album was originally called Nothing Lasts, and we had to go through hoops to get Tuesday Weld to let us use her photo on the cover. Then somebody from the legal department called her and asked, “Is it OK that it’s called Nothing Lasts?” Well, it wasn’t.

Cole: A terrible name for an album. So he changed it to Girlfriend.

Rondinelli: The sound of the needle at the end of the record—that groove in the middle—was done by Alan Friedman, a programmer who was a fixture at Axis Studios.

Sweet: I just kept adding extra songs, because I was having so much fun in the studio, and it was just such a joy to hear what we made it sound like by adding everybody’s thing. I kept cramming them in, and I was so enamored by what we were doing that I wished I could put it all in there. I’m pretty sure it was me who came up with the idea of putting the three extra tracks all the way out. Then, if you accidentally left your CD player on and you were playing it really loud, they’d come on and be really loud. It makes me laugh now because that supposes a lot of things. But I figured if that happens a few times, it’s awesome. So we put in this long gap after the first 12 songs. I probably wanted to put three minutes, but I was talked down to something more like 40 seconds.

Rondinelli: We made Girlfriend for A&M, and they dropped it. God knows, every label in New York heard that album. We were all working that album, and Karen Glauber at HITS magazine was a huge supporter.

Karen Glauber (president of HITS magazine): I met Matthew when he was in the Athens, Ga., band Buzz Of Delight and worked closely with him as the director of new music marketing at A&M, which was the label for his second solo album, Earth. I left A&M in 1990, and I was absolutely insistent that (Zoo founder) Lou Maglia sign him, the label that employed many of my friends—and fellow avid Matthew fans.

Scott Byron (former East Coast A&R director for Zoo Entertainment): Zoo was a new company at the time and didn’t have a set process for getting things signed. The first thing I had to do was convince the head of A&R that it was a worthwhile project. Then I had to convince Lou. We had a verbal agreement, and Lou just sort of pulled the plug one day. I had to call Matthew and say, “It looks like it’s not going to happen.” Then, Bud Scoppa was cranking the album in his office one day, and Lou walked in and said, “What’s that you’re listening to?” And Bud said, “Matthew Sweet. You nixed it a few weeks ago.” Then Lou went back to his office and changed his mind.

Sweet: At the time, “Girlfriend” wasn’t an important song to me. It was just kind of a ditty. But if you were an artist at that time trying to sign to a label, they always used the track that’s nothing like you as the single. It was actually my manager, Russell, who became obsessed that it could be on rock radio. And he really trumpeted that all through the thing.

Rondinelli: I don’t want to downplay the record, because it’s really a testament to Matthew’s genius. But there was a bit of lucky timing to it, as well. Every radio station that programmed Nevermind had to very quickly find songs with loud guitars that they could play in its wake.

Maher: Girlfriend has aged well because we didn’t allow ourselves to use any modern recording techniques. We stuck to our guns. Ultimately—and possibly most importantly—it was made at a time when the record company let us do our thing. Matthew had a vision, and I defended it—brutally at times.

Glauber: Girlfriend is a perfect album. The songwriting and musicianship is unparalleled—most notably “Girlfriend,” “I’ve Been Waiting” and, my absolute favorite, “You Don’t Love Me.” The contrast of Matthew’s voice and the frenetic, angular playing of the guitarists elevated the songs to another dimension. Fred and Matthew’s production combines the energy of the late-’70s CBGB scene with the gorgeous harmonies of the Beach Boys and the Byrds.

Sweet: When I’m doing music, it’s kind of like throwing pottery on the wheel and just losing my mind. This thing comes from somewhere else. It’s almost like it’s not from me, but I know what to do once it starts coming. But what’s cool is that somehow I had an instinct on how to put those songs together, where it seemed to have worked so well.

People will ask me if I’m sick of playing the Girlfriend stuff, and I’ll be like, “No, I’m just happy someone likes something I did.” It’s a gift to me that it means so much to people—that it wears so well for them.

Rondinelli: It’s one of the greatest divorce records ever made.

MAGNET Classics: Ted Leo And The Pharmacists’ “The Tyranny Of Distance”


The making of Ted Leo And The Pharmacists’ The Tyranny Of Distance
By John Vettese

On their third day in the studio together, Ted Leo and Brendan Canty watched a reel-to-reel machine explode all over National Recording. “The tape shot across the room and whipped like a rope,” says Canty. “Like a bullwhip. You could see the magnetic particles flying off.”

It was February 2001. The song they were in the middle of tracking was “Under The Hedge,” a fierce meeting ground between the Pogues and Elvis Costello; the sessions were working toward The Tyranny Of Distance, Leo’s anthem-rich sophomore LP. The studio, nested in the then-desolate fringes of Washington, D.C.’s Mount Vernon Square, was owned by the band Trans Am—post-rock soundscapers and avid collectors of old recording equipment. In this case, a dusty Atari 16-track and an “ancient” Trident mixing board couldn’t sync up; it wasn’t possible to rewind on one and stop on the other.

And so a terrific take of “Under The Hedge” was lost. Everything so far was lost, actually. “Teddy looked at me and said, ‘I think the tape is fucked,’” says Canty.

But what could have been a crushing setback was taken in stride. The machine was recalibrated, the sessions moved on. Friends and fellow musicians in the neighborhood began to join in. Hearing Leo and Canty describe it 15 years later, it sounds damn near idyllic, a perfect nexus of creative productivity with a dearth of external pressures. The result was a bold collection of songs that goes in a variety of directions with confidence, thrash to folk to pub rock, while maintaining a strong central focus.

Leo likens the album to “a really good mix tape.” Canty praises his friend’s prolific songwriting. In a May 2001 Pitchfork review, critic Kristin Sage Rokermann enthused, “This album could have sounded like anything. As it turns out, it sounded like everything.”

Heading into the June 2001 release of The Tyranny Of Distance, Ted Leo was something of a free agent. He had been playing in hardcore bands like Citizens Arrest and Puzzlehead since he was a teenager; his biggest success came from D.C. power trio Chisel, which had parted ways four years previous. The interim was a mix of lo-fi four-track noise (his solo debut tej leo(?), Rx / pharmacists, released in 1999 on Gern Blandsten), bare-knuckled political punk (the Sin Eaters, a band with brother Danny) and indie-pop (a stint with the Spinanes). Though tapped-in people knew Leo, he wasn’t yet a marquee name in the indie-rock sphere.

Because of that, did he feel compelled to be more exploratory with his sound and style?

“It’s hard to say I felt compelled to do anything,” says Leo. “At that point in my ‘career,’ I don’t think there really were many expectations. There were probably a few lingering Chisel fans around who were looking for some good pop songcraft.” When that band broke up, it hit Leo hard. He had moved from Indiana to Washington, D.C., with his bandmates, and he took jobs based on his ability to tour. His eggs had very much been in the Chisel basket. As he recalls, “We had come to a real crossroads in terms of a future direction. I was feeling very punk, I didn’t want to sign to a major label. And we were diverging musically.”

Leo admits that he and his bandmates were neither making shit-tons of money nor feeling artistically fulfilled. When he left and began touring solo, his shows were aggressively unconventional—he set up an old tape machine onstage and performed to backing tracks, something that was at the time unheard of in punk.

“It was fun for me, but I look back and I realize I was kind of pushing for someone to come at me about it,” says Leo. “I would get heckled a lot. It was weirdly confrontational.”

At some points in the setlist, he’d put down his guitar and “basically karaoke to my own songs.” This carried on for a year or so until he realized the absurdity of “lugging this giant, constantly breaking piece of near obsolete technology around.” About the time of the 1999 release of the Treble In Trouble EP, gigs turned into 90 percent solo-with-guitar, 10 percent pickup shows with friends. His life at that point was very fluid, freewheeling and in the moment.

“What do I want to do today? I want to play a show. I need to pay my rent, I have to play a show,” says Leo. “I have a bunch of songs, I’m gonna record them. I don’t have any money, I’m gonna do it on a four-track in the basement.”

This outlook carried over to his writing.

“I was kind of careening back and forth—and I always am, in a way—between this desire to write beautiful music and this desire to write really repulsive music,” says Leo. “I think where I landed with Tyranny was a little bit more on the pretty side of things. But because there were no expectations, really from almost anybody, it was nice to make a record where the only thing you were worrying about was what you were doing at that moment, what it sounded like and whether you were into it.”

Tyranny may have been Leo’s first album released under the Pharmacists banner, but as he told the D.C. City Paper in 2011, it was recorded very much like a solo LP—complete with contributions from friends and fellow musicians whom he respected. Along the way, the band emerged (see sidebar), and a sound was zeroed-in on, though this in-process vibe was appealing to the team at Lookout! Records, which signed Leo on the strength of his home-recorded demos.

Molly Neuman, co-owner of the label, says she was a longtime fan and friend of Leo’s from the Chisel days. Where some were perplexed by his scattered, transitory direction in the wake of his old band, she found it exciting.

“Fans, or people who aren’t in bands themselves, get really obsessed with one track or one album from an artist,” says Neuman. “But artists have to continue to challenge themselves; they need to go off the rails. And creatively, there should be permission to do that.”

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