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.’”

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