Exclusive Excerpt: The Making Of Pavement’s “Slanted And Enchanted”

Pavement

Here’s an exclusive excerpt of the current MAGNET cover story. To read the whole thing, order a copy of the issue here.

When Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg entered Gary Young’s studio to record their first album, Malkmus was cranking out songs, Kannberg was learning the guitar, and Young suspected these kids still didn’t know which end of the fuzzbox to plug into. A week later, they walked out with a record that all but defined 1990’s indie rock. Almost a quarter-century after the release of Slanted And Enchanted, the members of Pavement recall how they made the best album of their—and most everyone else’s—career.

By Eric Waggoner

The music didn’t sound like anything much. That’s what concerned Gary Young about the weird racket the two young guitarists were making in Louder Than You Think, the 16-track studio Young operated out of his Stockton, Calif., home. There wasn’t any weight to it. These kids didn’t even own a bass, for Christ’s sake. They were playing “bass” on detuned guitar. And they hadn’t booked much time in the first place—four hours total at 30 bucks an hour. And that time was passing rapidly.

The sounds coming out of Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg’s amps didn’t really do it for Gary Young on a personal level, either. His own listening tastes ran to intricately structured prog rock—King Crimson, Yes, ELP, Fred Frith, that kind of thing. Part of it was likely the age gap: Young, who was 13 years older than the kids strangling their instruments in his studio this January afternoon, had logged time in a series of Stockton-area bands over two decades. He had a lot of musical experience. This Malkmus guy had some, but Kannberg had very little. Both were rock eggheads, but their source material was rather different from his—hard, angular, static-laced music that began with basic pop forms, but sliced them up into shards.

Young didn’t know Malkmus or Kannberg at all prior to the day they walked into his house. But the hour was waning, and Young’s drum kit was right there in the studio, all miked up and prepped. On the fly, he offered to drum under the duo’s high-frequency guitar lines. They were open to the possibilities of improvisation and experiment already. Malkmus was a free-jazz fan, and Kannberg was so unpracticed on guitar, he hadn’t developed any habits to break. OK, they said to Young, sit down. Let’s see what happens.

The making of Slanted And Enchanted? Ask Gary Young. It’s simple. Rock music is really simple. People overthink it. It’s actually very easy.

“They found me in the phone book,” Young says of how Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg arrived at his studio. The truth is a bit more complicated, but not by much. Malkmus and Kannberg had been classmates at Lodi, Calif.’s Tokay High, one of two high schools that served the Stockton-Lodi area. In 1988, Malkmus received his history degree from UVA; Kannberg, an off-and-on student in urban planning at a Sacramento college, was working at a local record store in Stockton when Malkmus returned to California for a short post-grad stopover. When the two decided to collaborate, the plan was that Pavement would be a studio-only project.

“I asked around the store,” says Kannberg. “Eventually someone said, ‘You should check out Gary Young’s place.’ I hadn’t thought of Gary until then. But when his name came up, I remembered who Gary was.”

And how. Everybody knew Gary Young—at least knew about him. “Gary was a real performer,” says Kannberg. “He was like someone from back in the cabaret days.”

The tales surrounding Young’s substance-fueled act-ups were the stuff of Stockton music-scene legend—legends that often had the uncommon distinction of being true in the smallest bizarre detail. Among several other impressive achievements, Young had once sent his Steinberger bass guitar, a famously ugly, practically indestructible instrument, straight through the plate-glass window of a club and out onto the sidewalk when the band he was in, Death’s Ugly Head, got stiffed by the owner for 60 dollars.

“I hadda do it,” says Young, in the resigned tones of a man who wants you to understand that he was regrettably, upon careful consideration, down to his only remaining option. “This guy, he’s behind me, all ‘Raah raah raaaaah, these fucking punk kids.’ So, yeah, I put it through the window. See, we’re not destructive people. We don’t trash hotel rooms. I just didn’t have a choice.”

Legend aside, Young worked cheap, and he worked fast, and he had an improbable-but-unanimous reputation around Stockton as a wizard engineer. Malkmus and Kannberg entered Louder Than You Think for their four-hour session with a handful of song ideas, but with absolutely nothing in the way of percussion design. Bob Nastanovich—Malkmus’ fellow UVA alum who joined Pavement as a second drummer in August 1990 and would remain in the band until the end—credits Young with much of the rhythmic strangeness that characterized Pavement’s earliest recordings. “Gary was an indie-rock version of Keith Moon,” he says. “He was a dynamo. We were really, really lucky to be associated with him. There were other great bands around at the time, bands similar to us, but Gary was from outer space. He made us unique.”

 

MAGNET Classics: Mogwai’s “Come On Die Young”

Mogwai

The making of Mogwai’s Come On Die Young
By A.D. Amorosi

There is no better definition than redefinition, especially for a wee band leaving its first fingerprints on impressionable minds with a quick and clearly delineated ferocity. That was the mark of the beast of Glasgow, Scotland’s Mogwai in the years following its 1995 inception under the rubric of harsh, experimental serious guitar music; hurriedly recorded first singles such as “Tuner,” “Angels Vs. Aliens” (a split seven-inch with Dweeb) and “Summer”; 1997’s “New Paths To Helicon” and a raging EP titled 4 Satin.

All these raw, knuckling records signaled that Mogwai was a testy, forceful, dynamic instrumental ensemble with a takeno-prisoners sense of sonics that merged the best qualities of Glenn Branca, Slint, the Stooges (minus Iggy’s voice, yet with his cocksman’s swagger) and Sonic Youth into one uniquely creeping and surprisingly melodic mind-meld.

“I think what we did first and early on was pretty good, and reflected our listening habits,” says Mogwai bassist Dominic Aitchison.

Mogwai’s 1997 debut studio album, Young Team, sealed the noise deal with a scorched-earth vibe and one-long-song feel to its proceedings. From its bellbonging, metal-not-metal processed wall of guitar (via Stuart Braithwaite and John Cummings) to its stormy weather rhythms (Aitchison and drummer Martin Bulloch) to its overall burnt, shimmering crispness, Young Team was epic, loud and hard. Even if the rest of that album had been filled with covers of Iron & Wine ballads, its closer, “Mogwai Fear Satan,” ripped, rigged and panicked the young band’s dynamic shards-of-metal sensibilities into a glistening finale that would forever expand what kids knew of as the whole “post-rock” thing.

Then came Come On Die Young. That’s another story, or rather this one; the band’s 1999 minimalistic second studio album, whose tonic tones, dramatic quietude and un-gentle sparseness—even its vocals—showed that a new dog could learn old tricks and seismically shift the headlines on what little we truly knew of Mogwai at that time.

“Ah, I don’t think that we knew for ourselves, so don’t feel bad,” says Braithwaite of Mogwai’s radically different approach to CODY (the official anagram for Come On Die Young and one that sounds like a cowboy tot’s name) that shifted the band’s still newly devised deconstructionist paradigm.

That CODY was released in the U.S. on Matador connects the Scots with that era’s most prominent American independent label, which is truly saying something considering Mogwai’s ties to Scotland’s Chemikal Underground, itself a haven of critically lauded historical post-punk sounds out of Glasgow.

“We felt close to Mogwai from the start—a real connection to the rest of Glasgow’s punk history—and wanted to maximize everything we could about who they were,” says Stewart Henderson, the bassist of Scotland’s Delgados and one of Chemikal Underground’s CEOs, about getting Dave Fridmann as CODY’s producer and licensing that same album to Matador. “Glasgow is a close community, so our label was a coming-together of geography and mutual admiration. Mogwai lived down the road from where our studio was, and happened to be big fans of Arab Strap, whose records we released. It all was one continuum.”

Braithwaite was taking a break from recording Mogwai’s newest project when we spoke. This new album, the soundtrack to the sophomore season of Les Revenants (a French series for Canal Plus about the undead walking amongst us, or them, or someone), is, like CODY, a zealously spooky and enlightened bit of minimalism in the Mogwai catalog.

“I think you’re right in assuming that doing CODY paved the way for us writing and recording Les Revenants seasons one or two,” he says. “It certainly showed us what we could do with less, or making less sound like more and so on.”

Mogwai isn’t usually a backward-looking lot, yet the last 12 months has been one of reconnoitering. Last year, the band rereleased CODY with an additional album of CaVa Studios demos upon which Fridmann built (“but didn’t add that much to, really” says the producer) and hosted a 20th band anniversary in 2015 with All Tomorrows Parties and a series of shows featuring like-minded acts such as the Jesus And Mary Chain and Bardo Pond. “Yeah, we missed most of the shows we didn’t play,” says Braithwaite with a laugh. This month, Mogwai and Chemikal Underground release an anniversary vinyl box of its most lucid and allusive moments titled Central Beltersthat gives a broad but bold overview to all the noise and nuance the ensemble has wrought since 1995.

“You know, we didn’t start off as strictly instrumental,” says Braithwaite, confi dentially, about Mogwai’s most notable trait. “We actually had songs with vocals and lyrics when we started, and found that the instrumental ones were better, stronger. We all felt that way. Plus, no one in the band really felt good about writing lyrics, and no one felt comfortable hanging about as a frontman.”

The prowess of instrumental-only music that was assertive and kinetic—that which the band finessed throughout 1996-’97—propelled the intensity of Young Team in a manner that, eventually, led to an invisible shield around the band, a hype surrounding who and what Mogwai was. “I defi nitely think there was this thing that preceded them,” says Henderson.

Thinking back to that time, Mogwai was considered the intelligent man’s heavy metal music, an overly intellectualized vibe that the band neither understood nor wanted. “I think people perceived what we did as wise or smart, and I don’t know why,” says Aitchison with a snort.

“There was certainly this hype about us, but I don’t think we had anything premeditated up our sleeves about what we would do about it,” says Braithwaite, who ducks back into the matter of Mogwai being a notably cerebral outfit. “Now people realize that we’re just a bunch of goofs making it up as we go along.”

Going into what would become CODY, there was a feeling amongst its band members—whose ranks had just expanded at that time, 1998, to include keyboardist/fl autist Barry Burns—that their next work would be just as ferocious as Young Team, only quieter. “We defi nitely were thinking of something more minimalist,” says Braithwaite. “We had heard all the applause for us being thought of as noise-rock kings, but we had done the EPs and singles as such, and our tastes changed.”

Braithwaite mentions minimalist giants such as Nick Drake and Low, while Aitchison brings up listening to the For Carnation records as well as Codeine. “We wanted to do something sparser,” the bassist says about music they began demoing at CaVa Studios in Glasgow, the home base of the Delgados and Chemikal Underground. “It just happened; that and the fact that we were disappointed in the dynamics of Young Team, with the way they worked on that record. That made us step back and consider another way in.”

Mogwai, however, just didn’t know for certain what way was in, or which door to take. For Braithwaite, going into CODY meant crafting a more minimalist soundscape for the band’s larger, more discernible melodic strain. “We’ve always had big melodies,” he says. “I just think that, with CODY, there was less noise so that you could hear the songs more.”

Between their first EP, 4 Satin, and Young Team, Henderson says there was a general feeling that there would always be something incredibly exciting about Mogwai, especially after that first album was so well-received. “It was the beginning of a very chaotic, crazy time for Glasgow,” he says. “We had had that whole Teenage Fanclub thing for a while, but Mogwai was different, more experimental.”

Yet, Young Team created a huge pressure for the label, as it had created an enormous buzz for the band, for Chemikal Underground and—in Henderson’s mind—Glasgow. “We had to make certain CODY furthered whatever it was that Mogwai was and did,” he says.

If Young Team was youthful and naïve, an exuberant exercise between band and label, CODY was measured and determined, something both Henderson and Braithwaite considered as a professional approach to making a record. To that end, Henderson’s Delgados relinquished their spot in line to securing Dave Fridmann as producer and hooked up Mogwai with the honor.

“Our general attitude is that we will try anything, and having Dave around just made that easier from day one,” Braithwaite says about Fridmann, whose work on the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin most impressed Mogwai for its open-ended atmospheres.

“I don’t think that CODY was more or less dynamic than their previous work,” says Fridmann. “There were just more quiet moments and approaches to the songs.”

For Fridmann’s part, there was very little to do to CODY but stand back, twiddle some knobs, rearrange the lustrous strings on “Waltz For Aidan,” play keyboards on “Helps Both Ways” and stand back.

“From the moment we started working with him at Tarbox, we found that he wasn’t an ego guy,” says Braithwaite. “Dave was really easygoing, inventive and never pushy.”

Aitchison, a huge Mercury Rev fan, didn’t realize that Fridmann was the guy behind those albums. “He wasn’t our choice, but once we got him, we were really glad we had him,” the bassist says about the exceedingly patient producer (“which was good because we were drunk all the time”) who let Mogwai run amok in his studio as the band saw fit. That even included a rare vocal on the title track—all which was named for an old Scottish biker gang from the ’60s that Burns’ dad had once belonged to.

“I drew the short straw and stumbled into the vocal booth,” says Braithwaite, “because the track had this almost traditional verse/ chorus feel to it that few of our songs had at that point.”

“Davey actually was more hands-off than we expected on CODY,” says Aitchison. “He’s got a distinct production style, so we assumed that he’d really mess with things—which he didn’t. Instead, he kept it all quite sparse, which interestingly is just what it needed.”

Both Aitchison and Braithwaite go on to mention that by the time Mogwai returned to Tarbox Road Studios and his production aegis for 2011’sRock Action, things changed and Fridmann became more of a collaborator, arranger and such. “He’s just a great guy, and we couldn’t help but stay friendly with him and his family,” says Braithwaite.

Most of Aitchison’s CODY experience was based around the social experience of eating there and being in northern New York state, in the back of a house with loads of light looking onto the middle of the woods. “There was a lot of natural reverb in that room; so much so, it was like we didn’t even have to add any,” says the bassist. “It was a very relaxing place to be, the most easygoing recording experience we’ve ever had.” One that easily carries into the sound of the entire album, according to Aitchison: “None of our other albums have that carry-through.”

Working with Fridmann at his studio gave Mogwai an excuse to be in America for the first time. “It really was awesome to think about,” says Braithwaite. “This was the place of Sonic Youth and the Stooges.”

Mogwai was so enamored of Iggy’s Stooges, in fact, that the band used a sample of Pop’s voice from an interview he did on Canadian radio from a 1977 broadcast for “Punk Rock.” Braithwaite says that he assumed Iggy was OK with it, as he never tried to sue them or remove it from CODY. Oakland Raiders football coach-turned-network NFL analyst John Madden felt differently. At least, those who own the likeness of his voice did. The murmuring “Helps Both Ways” sampled Madden’s commentary on a game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers.

“He sounded angrily over the top,” says Braithwaite. The use of it, however, was unauthorized, and the NFL doesn’t go for unauthorized, so Mogwai and Fridmann replaced that roaring voiceover with another American football game color commentary, probably from a high school contest.

“We dodged a real bullet with that one, as you don’t want corporate American football on your ass,” says Henderson. Along with the endlessly fascinating minimalist quietude of CODY, there was still verve, ferocity and encroachingly screeching noise with “Christmas Steps”—a song that was as heavily dynamic as any CODY song, only with an ending that was as distorted and dense as anything on Young Team. “That was one of the first songs we wrote, actually,” says Braithwaite. “It wound up last by chance. Oddly enough, we actually wanted the album to be shorter than it wound up being. I don’t recall how that song got tacked on to the album.”

Working with Fridmann in America also gave Mogwai its firstever Thanksgiving dinner, a meal that still sticks with the band. “Not only was he a brilliant producer and an all-around nice guy— we are still friendly with his family,” says Braithwaite, calling Fridmann a fine host and chef to boot. “That meal sealed it. They didn’t have to treat us as one of their own, but they did.”

“I think they were truly enamored of a holiday that had nothing else but all that food going for it,” says Fridmann with a laugh. “I have to admit, I was pretty jealous about that Thanksgiving meal—it would have been ours if the Delgados recorded with him that year,” says Henderson. His band went on to record two LPs with Fridmann, sans turkey, cranberry and stuffing.

Considering the overall vibe that Aitchison says the band was going for, Braithwaite elaborates that the process was one that allowed CODY its own interior logic—a haunted one, far different than other Mogwai record before and since. “All of our albums have their own language and signs and atmospheres, but CODY certainly has this really ghostly echo-y thing about it. It occupies its own space. That was the first time that we were able to do something like that.”

Braithwaite’s obsession with all things The Exorcist surely had something to do with his choice of a cover shot: that famously red-eyed snap of Aitchison captured in ghoulish haze. The bassist giggles thinking about the photo, emphasizing that he is neither that ghostly pale or disturbed-looking in real life. “I think I was drunk and the photographer kept shooting all these Polaroids, then found the spookiest one and made me look even more frightening. I mean, come on now.”

Though CODY was an aesthetic success, it was a shock to listeners and critics prepared for more bombast, à la Young Team. “We heard the demos and maybe expected something more fleshed out—where’s the ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’?—but it was brilliant,” says Henderson. “Of course, you expected this visceral post-apocalyptic soundtrack only to hear this beautiful, tempered, restrained record—elegiac, really—that was so delicate in places. That’s what makes CODY brave. Here was this loud and proud band that defied logic and expectations. Good on them. They shot off in directions no one expected, just like a spider-ing windshield.”

As for Braithwaite, he agrees that CODY was a shock to so many of its fans, at home and in the U.S. “Too much, too weird, perhaps not the right record at the right time,” he says. “Maybe people checked out on us because they didn’t have the patience. We make what we make.”

Still, considering that all that Mogwai has done since, Come On Die Young is alive with silent promise and eerie potential. “It’s an amazingly focused and still record considering how young we were and where the band was at that point,” says Braithwaite. “It is one of my—our—proudest moments, really.”

MAGNET Classics: …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead’s “Source Tags & Codes”

TrailOfDead

The Making Of …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead’s Source Tags & Codes
By Kevin Stewart-Panko

We toured with the Foo Fighters, and their road crew hated us,” says Jason Reece. “I mean, the band liked us, but their crew fucking hated us!”

If ever we were challenged to write a super-condensed history of …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, that might be it. Well, that could be it, but it definitely wouldn’t tell you anywhere near the whole story. Its artistic kitchen sink and devotion to heartfelt expression—delivered via a seemingly endless array of hooks—appeals to factions of both the underground and mainstream, but the band’s sound and antics also possess enough abrasive danger to scare the genteel away, if not piss them off entirely.

Why did the Foos’ crew despise these guys so much? Well, as anyone who’d witnessed the Austin band live from its inception in 1994 could tell you, the conclusion of its gigs was usually signified by a wholesale instrument trashing. Grohl and Co.’s handlers probably got sick of ducking drum shards and flying guitar necks, not to mention being on residual clean-up duty, having to reposition mics and monitors, let alone watching the violent nightly death of instruments, as Trail Of Dead used this extreme measure to signal that there would be no encore—and for dumbasses to stop yelling, “One more!”

“Exactly,” laughs Reece, who has comprised the band’s core since day one, along with fellow multi-instrumentalist Conrad Keely. “I have no clue, dude,” he continues, when asked for a ballpark figure on the destruction, “but it’s definitely a lot of money we probably could’ve saved. I mean, we invested in cheap instruments, but that doesn’t matter—they still cost money. We did that from the start, though; it was second nature to trash the motherfucker, and that was the way to end the show. It was fun, but after a while it became a little contrived, no matter how much money we had. Some people got it; other people were like, ‘Oh my god, what is this?! What does this mean?’”

“I’d rather not speculate,” says Keely, “but I will say that the money matters less to me than some of the beautiful guitars and drums we sacrificed in the name of the theater of spectacle.”

Ah, money. Cash. Greenbacks. Benjamins. The root of all evil. That which we wish would grow on fucking trees. The only thing we both love and hate more than our significant others. The period leading up to the 2002 release of Trail Of Dead’s third album, Source Tags & Codes (considered by fans and critics to be one of post-hardcore/prog-punk/alt-math/indie rock’s definitive and enduring works) was a period of musical and lifestyle transition for Keely, Reece and former members Neil Busch (bass, vocals) and Kevin Allen (guitar).

The band was buoyed by the business and infrastructure being built around it, not to mention an uptick in its bottom line. Having gained traction in Europe in the early 2000s, the group found itself experiencing a different series of highways, byways and service-station delicacies before returning to Austin and finding the veil lifted on its local and industry obscurity. Gone were the days of sneaking into studios during off-hours, as the band did in order to record its first two albums, 1998’s self-titled debut and 1999’s Madonna. A&R types with expense accounts started poking around, and major-label offers were entertained and weighed before Trail Of Dead eventually signed Interscope’s dotted line.

“I think we were really excited about being in a band,” says Reece. “And the fact that we’d started to tour around Europe and suddenly had Interscope willing to give us a budget to record. There was a little bit of that major-label pressure—the corporate ogre we’d always despised—but at the same time, we were very aware of what we wanted. We had songs and an idea of the direction, so the mood was very full of wonder, upbeat and positive.”

“It was an optimistic time to be living in Austin, a great music community,” says Keely from his present-day home in Cambodia. “Our goal was to break the ‘curse.’ People used to say bands from Austin got stuck there, that they never went anywhere, just ended up playing local clubs and never going international, let alone national. We wanted to make sure that didn’t happen. We were never in any doldrums after Madonna. We were extremely active because we had started to tour Europe and everything was looking up. If anything, I was looking forward to some time at home writing. After we signed to Interscope, I took a job at a record store. It was the first job I did that wasn’t for the money—as was clear to my bosses because I usually didn’t bother picking up my paychecks—but to do something: mainly, listen to new music. It was an experimental record store called 33 Degrees, so the selection was eclectic, and it was where I heard a lot of weird new stuff for the first time—stuff way outside the rock genre.”

“We were just rolling off of one album into the next,” says Reece. “We were dealing with the constant European touring for Madonna and coming back and working day jobs, so I think we were all about just getting the new thing going. And the label wasn’t telling us what to do, so we were generally motivated.”

Trail Of Dead was spreading its wings. Not content to remain static, Source Tags & Codes was the synthesis of the caustic fire that powered its early albums with the discovery of a broader world of sound. Additionally, Source Tags was the band’s conscious attempt at shining a little literary light onto the alternative nation’s insular worldview, creating an album that flowed with intent, purpose and in a definite direction. You can hear it from the start, as opener “It Was There That I Saw You” injects melancholy melody into a sonic flare of raging post-hardcore before the fury takes more pensive and spacious turns with “Another Morning Stoner,” “Baudelaire” and the tumultuous ebb and flow of “Homage.” Separating those tracks are ambient soundscapes, effects and cabaret noises. As the irascibility simmers on “How Near, How Far,” the string arrangements start their gradual ascent, first as connective tissue during the song’s jangly middle-eight before playing a more pronounced role in the crescendo of “Monsoon” and alongside the sparse piano sequences of “Heart In The Hand Of The Matter.”

“A lot of it was written in Austin, hanging out and doing it how we would normally do—getting together three or four times a week and just playing for hours,” says Reece. “In the end, we were thinking about it as an album that you’d put on and listen to all at once. To make it a journey—not just a collection of songs—was our goal. The other thing was to make the lyrics as meaningful to us as possible. We were into some very literary figures and aspiring to be little beat poets, which might sound cheesy, but we were into Bukowski, Henry Miller, William Burroughs and sci-fi. We were into books and trying to be deeper lyrically and paint pictures and tell stories like Patti Smith, Beck, Springsteen, John Doe and Exene Cervenka would.”

“We were getting into a point where the stress of touring together made it difficult to meet and write as a group,” says Keely, with different memories. “We tended to fade into our own lives when we got home. So, I did most of my writing by myself at my house. Then, we got together and hashed out arrangements. Jason and I were still great at working together, but sometimes the effort of pleasing a group of four made it difficult for us to reestablish that ease of writing that inspired our earlier material. So, in many ways, the material on Source Tags was a lot more laboriously written, and in some ways even more contrived, though not for the sake of any audience so much as for the sake of making it work as a four-piece band operating under a philosophy of solidarity.”

Capturing the songs on tape was another labyrinthine process due in large part to the monetary freedoms afforded the band. “It was the first time we had a budget and could afford to be a little frivolous, even though I don’t think we were frivolous,” says Reece. A total of six studios were used across the country, from Brooklyn Bridge in Austin to Prairie Sun in Cotati, Calif., where the lion’s share of the album was laid down, and three different studios in “the creative black hole” (as described by Keely) of Nashville before editing and mastering sessions began at Masterdisk in New York City.

“We were going to record at Electric Audio, but Steve Albini was booked up and told us to go to Prairie Sun, actually,” says Reece. “We started in Austin, then we went up to Cotati, which is 50 miles north of San Francisco in the middle of nowhere. We were recording at this place that was like a chicken ranch. We were there for a whole month, and a lot of writing was done there. We were really picky about what we were doing, too. We didn’t want it to be an average third album, but it was a little bit like The Shining. It was easy to lose your mind up there. (Producer) Mike McCarthy was sort of like our mentor and dad at the time, but he started regressing just like we were. There was definitely a little bit of that ‘losing it’ feeling. It wasn’t like we were doing drugs or anything; it was that we were so self-contained and so in our own head space that we were driving each other crazy. There was absolutely nothing to do there unless you wanted to go into town and hang out with a bunch of Hells Angels and hippie burnouts.

“We went to Nashville to mix and finish up. That boiled down to Mike having grown up recording in Nashville; he got his education recording country music. He really fucking hated it, but he kept a good relationship with a lot of the people he worked with. He would be like, ‘I fucking hate this place, but the equipment they have is amazing!’ He got us into Oceanway, which is a very cool studio in an old church and a completely luxurious place where huge country stars record. That’s where we recorded a lot of the string arrangements and orchestral parts.

“The funny thing was we were upstairs and the Cash Money dudes and Juvenile, the rapper who did ‘Back That Azz Up,’ were downstairs. We would all hang out in this one common area. There was this strange meshing of worlds of these New Orleans rappers and us Austin rock dudes, and they were like, ‘Do you want to do a collaboration?’ We were like, ‘Ah … um … erm, no. Sorry!’ and later just laughing at the idea of what that might possibly sound like. But we smoked a bunch of weed with them, hung out and checked out each other’s music. They were like, ‘What the hell is this? What are you guys on?’ They had never heard anything like it.”

Upon its release, Source Tags & Codes was an instant hit. Pitchfork bestowed a rare 10/10 upon it (“At first, we were like, ‘What is this Pitchfork?’” says Reece, “but I remember Radiohead and Wilco getting 10s as well, so we were like, ‘Does this mean we’re OK?’”) as longtime fans cottoned onto the band, blowing open the doors. As well, those previously unaware of the Trail Of Dead cult found themselves drawn in by the excellent songs, moody rollercoaster, bald emotion and Interscope’s promotional budget. Things exploded as the band hit the Billboard charts to the tune of 65,000 copies sold in the U.S. in less than six months, before hitting the road for nigh on three years.

“I’d say we toured it a year longer than we should have,” says Keely ruefully. “But at the time it was easier to stay on tour than it was to face the thought of returning to the studio to write another record. That goes to show how people can change over the years, because these days I feel almost the exact opposite.”

On the topic of change, with MAGNET doing these intensive look-backs at particular eras and albums, we’d be remiss if we didn’t ask if there was anything the band would change about Source Tags or do differently during that phase of Trail Of Dead’s existence. (The band’s lineup is now completed by Autry Fulbright II and Jamie Miller, who are now working on the follow up to 2012’s Lost Songs.) Especially with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and the consideration that songwriters are always their own worst critics.

“Not really—it’s our history, something we went through,” says Reece. “There are always things you wish you did looking back, being older and more mature, but you have to go through all the scrapes, learning lessons and getting burned to evolve. So, there’s not much to do other than realize that’s what happened and that’s what it is. We were out touring a couple months ago, doing Source Tags in its entirety, and the music still flows, and that’s remarkable to me, whereas we did Madonna for a Japanese tour and it seemed disjointed. Source Tags’ sequence made sense from start to finish, and it still sounded relevant. I don’t know if that’s me kidding myself, because you always want things to be timeless, but it seemed like the material still seemed inspired, and that’s a beauty and a curse.”

“I would have started work on the next album sooner,” says Keely, gravitating to what might have been. “I would have tried to be a better person—a better leader, follower, listener and friend. I would have taken better care of myself and my bandmates on tour, turned down more free dinners, put some money away for rainy days. But there is no advantage to this sort of thinking. We make our mistakes and learn from them, and with any luck we move on.”

Magnet Classics: Mercury Rev’s “Yerself Is Steam”

MercuryRev

The making of Mercury Rev’s Yerself Is Steam
By Corey DuBrowa

The reply to the inquiry comes back the same day it was sent, its cockeyed enthusiasm offset by a dash of reality check.

“Love this! If MAGNET is prepared for six different versions of the same ‘making of the LP’ tale … ”

Mercury Rev frontman Jonathan Donahue is now 25 years on from his band’s debut release, the malaprop-flaunting Yerself Is Steam. But the personality conflicts, differences of opinion on artistic direction and sheer, glorious miracle of its “noisy squall meets giant, major-chord melodies” sonic crazyquilt are still omnipresent in his mind. So, a little expectations setting seems entirely in order.

“I see the band as a vehicle for personal experiences,” he begins, weaving a metaphor that will set the stage for the many conversations that follow. “Looking back, it was made to fit four passengers comfortably; six, crowded; two perfectly, with baggage. And no one told us when liftoff was. So, everybody jammed in there waiting for some message from Control like, ‘You’re going to take off in an hour—here’s where the bumpy part will be.’ Nobody gave us any instructions, so we all fitted into that cramped capsule and then it took off without anyone being prepared. And some of us weren’t as well strapped-in as others, or didn’t have oxygen on at the time we left the atmosphere. Where we came back down again as six people was very different from where we took off; it was disorienting and messy. Things were broken. There was bruising.”

The Major Tom analogy suits Mercury Rev perfectly—throughout its two-decade history, the Buffalo-based outfit has soared skyward, plummeted in flames while packed with a team of astronauts almost as close (and contentious) as family, been fawned over and analyzed by the powers-that-be while witnessing any number of quasi-legends spring up around it, all while continuing a journey toward an epic moon-shot that only the band itself seemed capable of envisioning. Part Pink Floyd and part Pere Ubu; half Butthole Surfers and half Brian Wilson; more Ciccone Youth than Sonic Youth, Mercury Rev’s startling debut signaled the dawn of a decade in which Lollapalooza, the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow and even the neo-psychedelia of the Elephant 6 collective would prove capable of brief guest appearances in the mainstream pop consciousness. The record has never sold in any kind of quantity, and has been in and out of print since it was first issued. But it remains—alongside The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Forever Changes and Hairway To Steven—some of the most outré and influential psych/pop of the 20th century, a monument to chaos and beauty almost universally revered by critics and fans alike.

This story is the first time since the original six members were still a band that all responsible for 1991’s Yerself Is Steam have gathered to discuss it—and as Donahue predicts, the results represent six different creation myths that sometimes synch with one another, but just as frequently spin out in space, going in seemingly every possible (opposite) direction, often simultaneously. “Six chefs, one cauldron,” laughs Donahue at the memory of it now. “Six witches, one spoon.”

What eventually became Yerself Is Steam had no timeline, no road map, no recipe. In fact, there wasn’t even a band responsible for its creation throughout most of the three years in which it was slowly hatching.

“Nobody was planning or thinking ahead. There was no band, really. It was a recording project that turned into a band,” says now-producer and Tarbox Road studio owner, then-student and part-time recording engineer Dave Fridmann of Mercury Rev’s origins. “There was no set agenda, no formula—just a bunch of people stumbling around trying to figure out how to write songs, and being recorded while that’s happening.”

Continue reading “Magnet Classics: Mercury Rev’s “Yerself Is Steam””

MAGNET Classics: Old 97’s “Too Far To Care”

Old97s

The making of Old 97’s Too Far To Care
By Matt Ryan

By 1997, Old 97’s had two indie releases of affable honky-tonk to their credit, largely unnoticed by the mainstream, which at the time was in the throes of a deep infatuation with big-beat electronica and nü-metal. Still, the band was part of an alt-country scene that had been percolating underground for a few years, attracting a growing fan base and the attention of major labels looking for the next big thing. The genre’s coming-out party would be that year’s No Depression tour, garnering headlines as the press hyped a Blur vs. Oasis-style rivalry between the tour’s two principal acts, Old 97’s and Whiskeytown.

“That was as we were getting signed,” says Old 97’s singer and principal songwriter Rhett Miller. “It was a little bit weird, because we were headlining and Whiskeytown were right before us. They were getting signed at the same time, and it had gone from being where Ryan Adams was a huge fan of us and really sweet to where he was really annoyed that he wasn’t headlining. It wound up sparking a one-sided feud that was his idea that went for years and years, where he talked shit about us in the press and onstage.”

Whiskeytown, as we know now, would stick with the alt-country script for its own classic, Strangers Almanac. The Old 97’s? Well, let’s just say they had other ideas.

“I wanted somebody who didn’t give a fuck about country,” says Miller, explaining the band’s selection of Wally Gagel to produce Too Far To Care, their major label debut. “Who didn’t know from ‘alt-country’ or ‘No Depression’ or anything. I really loved the work Wally had done with Lou Barlow and the stuff he did coming out of Boston and that scene. This thick guitar stuff, but also kind of smart. I just felt like he would get the things about us that I needed him to get. I didn’t need anybody to worry about the lyrics. I got that. I didn’t anybody to make us sound more honky-skronky, or whatever kind of bullshit kind of country thing that people liked about us. It’s fine, it was already part of our sound, but that didn’t need nurturing. What needed nurturing was making it kind of coalesce and making the sound of our band live, which was kind of this big, thick, rock sound.”

“It was heavy, post-hardcore music that Wally came from, so he toughened everything up very much,” says Murry Hammond, Old 97’s bassist, occasional singer and accomplished yodeler. “For the first time ever, he really sat down and worked with our guitar player Ken (Bethea). Ken had never had anybody say, ‘These guitars are extremely important. There’s a restless spirit in this music and we’re going to find that.’ So, yeah, it was the first record where we had a producer who was really pulling out this blood-and-guts thing. He wanted to hear that kind of ‘oomph.’ Certain metal bands and punk bands capture that. You get that on an AC/DC studio record, but it’s a tricky thing to be able to get.”

They got it. Too Far To Care opens with an aptly named “Timebomb,” which hears Bethea sounding not so much like Hank Williams as a meth-fueled Dick Dale playing through Ace Frehley’s Marshall amps. When drummer Philip Peeples punctuates Bethea’s picking with a booming depth charge, the song is off like a runaway freight train. “Oh, Celeste!” howls Miller above the din, lamenting the girl who was “gonna kill me, and I don’t mean softly.” Clearly, Old 97’s weren’t going to cry softly into their beer on this record. Instead, “Niteclub” provided a more fitting statement of purpose: “I just might get drunk tonight, and burn the niteclub down.”

The alt-country scene police were not pleased. “Few songs—the keys to timeless country—survive the catharsis of punk frenzy,” sniffed Grant Alden, cofounder of No Depression magazine, in a review of Too Far To Care for Rolling Stone. It’s not that this sort of thing was unprecedented. Surely Alden had heard “Graveyard Shift,” the opening track on the 1990 Uncle Tupelo record that became his magazine’s namesake, wherein twang and punk guitar crunch were married in shotgun ceremony. Indeed, the Old 97’s didn’t invent this stuff. With Too Far To Care, however, they damn sure perfected it.

In addition to Too Far To Care’s huge sound, Miller’s considerable lyrical gifts were on full display, with witty, irreverent takes on bad booze and bad women. On “Barrier Reef,” which became one of the band’s signature songs, Miller announces to a fellow barfly, “My name is Stewart Ransom Miller/I’m a serial lady killer.” To which she memorably replies, “I’m already dead.” Later, his character “goes through the motions with her. Her on top, and me on liquor.” The words were coming fast, loose, and honest for Miller, who on the eve of meeting with the major label that would sign his band, penned a song for the occasion, foretelling the label honchos “fattening him up just like a calf before the slaughter.”

“I wrote ‘Broadway’ sitting in a hotel room waiting to get picked up by a limousine to go to a fuckin’ Elektra Records dinner with all the executives,” says Miller. “We ordered so much food at all those dinners. There were six months where we were wined and dined by mainly Capitol and Elektra and Geffen. It was all these record labels spending so much money. We would go and order everything, and then we’d order stuff to go to take home to our poor roommates or girlfriends. So, yeah, I wrote that song in the Paramount Hotel. This tiny little room. I had seen how much it cost when we checked in, and it was literally more than I spent for a whole month of rent for my little shithole garage apartment.”

While alt-country scenesters didn’t know what to make of the Old 97’s’ new sound, the record garnered fans in unlikely places. Miller shares that Vince Vaughn and Janeane Garofalo were early boosters, playing Too Far To Care in constant rotation on the movie set of Clay Pigeons. Director David Dobkin took notice and ended up using “Timebomb” in the opening sequence with Joaquin Phoenix.

“One thing people don’t know is that there was a scene in the movie where they were going to use the song ‘Big Brown Eyes,’” says Miller. “Vince Vaughn’s character murders this girl while having sex with her from behind. I saw an early cut of the movie, and it was fucking horrible. It’s like, ‘Here’s my beautiful, pretty song, and here’s this really fun, charismatic actor murdering a girl while he fucks her.’ It was a nightmare. As cool as maybe that would have been, I’m really glad they didn’t use that, because it would have altered my image of that song forever.”

Early fans know that Old 97’s borrowed from their first two albums for Too Far To Care, recording a more raucous version of Miller’s beloved “Big Brown Eyes” from Wreck Your Life, as well as “Four Leaf Clover” from their debut, Hitchhike To Rhome. For “Clover,” Miller brought in legendary X singer (and, more recently, certifiably insane conspiracy theorist) Exene Cervenka.

“I wrote this song called ‘Firefly,’ that I later put on a solo record.” says Miller. “I played it for Exene and she said, ‘Rhett, you know I don’t sing like that. That sounds pretty.’ As if pretty was the worst thing a song could be. I had the idea to turn ‘Four Leaf Clover’ into a duet, so I brought Exene that song and she liked it a lot, although she really wanted me to change the lyric in the verse that she sings from ‘I got a real live horseshoe, I hung it upside down above my door, but it doesn’t do nothing to impress you.’ She thought it would be sexier and cooler if she sang, ‘attract you.’ Exene didn’t get a writer’s credit on the song, but she did make that subtle-but-cool change in that second verse.

“It was such a cool thing, because I had been a huge X fan and was in love with her. I remember when I was 15 years old sitting in study hall poring over Beyond And Back, the book that accompanied the movie they made. And it had a bunch of her poetry in it and a bunch of big pictures of her when she was really young, with this punk-rock energy. And then there she was in the studio with me. I guess I’m a little cooler now when I meet people who I really admire, but I was just trying so hard not to dork out on her.

“We were camped out in this hallway waiting for some technical thing and she said, ‘I’ve got some poetry I’ve been working on. Do you want to hear any of it?’ I’m like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ I remember her reading me poetry as we’re laying on the floor in this hallway, and I was thinking, ‘If I could go back half my life to my 15-year-old self, I would have a heart attack realizing I would be doing this 12 years later.’ I’ve stayed in touch with her, and I know some shit has gotten weird with Exene, but she’s always been kind of out there. She’s definitely not a bad person. Murry believes in aliens. Everyone’s weird. All the people I hang out with are weird. She said some unfortunate things that I bet she wishes she could take back, but she’s always been a cuckoo bird. The best of us are.”

In addition to Cervenka, Old 97’s had one other guest player on the record: Jon Rauhouse. The multi-instrumentalist played with a Bloodshot act called Grievous Angel in the mid-’90s, but is perhaps best known for recording and touring with Neko Case. “We love Jon very much,” says Hammond. “He played banjo on ‘West Texas Teardrops.’ Everything’s in the soup, you know? Everything’s in the giant soup of the guitars, but yeah, in addition to doing steel on some of those songs, he did a couple of little banjo tracks.”

By his own reckoning, Miller wrote “a ton” of songs for Too Far To Care, including “The One,” which only surfaced a decade later on Blame It On Gravity (the original version appears on 2012’s They Made A Monster: The Too Far To Care Demos). With its sarcastic take on the band “cashing in” with a major label, the song is an effective document of the times. Miller ultimately deemed the song too crass, however, and shelved it for Too Far.

“I remember a friend of mine was in another band that was briefly signed to a major label right when we were getting our deal, and I was so excited and I came home and told him about it,” he says. “He got real quiet, because he was maybe on the backside of that record deal, with that band. He said, ‘You know, sometimes it’s better to let people find out the good news you have on their own. You don’t have to tell us the good news.’ I remember really taking that to heart, like, ‘I’m excited about this, but the more I talk about it, the more it just sounds shitty,’ like I’m bragging or rubbing somebody’s nose in it. ‘The One’ was kind of the song equivalent of that, and it didn’t seem like a cool thing to put out into the world until years later when the whole major-label system had fallen by the wayside. So, now it’s just like a good joke.”

Old 97’s spent roughly a month on Too Far To Care, conducting most of the recording over two weeks at Sonic Ranch outside of El Paso, followed by overdubs and mixing (and the Exene sessions) at Dreamland near Woodstock in New York’s Hudson Valley. As the band recalls, the locations could not be more disparate.

“El Paso was the desert,” says Miller. “It was a really cool studio surrounded by pecan farms right on the border of Mexico. We would just sit down at the end of every night and look at the stars. There wasn’t too much partying. We smoked a little weed and we drank, but not to excess. I remember we talked beforehand with a couple of producers and I said, ‘I don’t want any drug-drugs in the studio. I don’t want any coke.’ Obviously, I have never wanted smack around the band. I remember a couple of the producers were like, ‘No coke?!’ I was like ‘Fuck no.’ That’s just bad decisions in a powder form.

“The crazy thing is, the second half was in January in the Hudson Valley, really close to where I live now. At the time, I couldn’t imagine anybody living up here. I mean, why the fuck would you want to live here?”

“It was sort of like The Blair Witch Project,” says Hammond. “When it snowed, it was over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go, but it was spooky, you know? The building itself had a real reputation of being haunted. There was a lot of activity of that sort that went on in the church part and in the parsonage part, and in the schoolhouse down where we lived. In fact, I found out about the ghosts because I got left by myself down at the schoolhouse one night, and I kept feeling and kind of hearing somebody walking around in the room while I was just sitting on the floor with my computer. I kept feeling somebody walking up right behind me, and of course there would be nobody there because everybody had gone into town to go Christmas shopping, and I got left there by myself. When I asked about it, they said, ‘Well, we don’t like it to get out, because it might hurt business.’ But then they started telling me all these ghost stories.

“But yeah, it was summery West Texas, and then to upstate New York,” says Hammond. “That’s how we finished it. We heard ourselves sounding very, very large. When I first heard it, I was kind of shocked. I didn’t entirely know how I felt about it sounding so big on record, because we were in this sort of little alt-country band, and we did what we did, and the guitars were smaller. I didn’t really get it until after it was really put together and I lived with it for a bit, that what we had done was very cool. I didn’t know that we had done anything important, but I knew that we had really stepped up and turned in a great record.”

With major-label backing and some buzz building behind the record, improbably, the Old 97’s played Lollapalooza in 1997, alongside such dubious contemporaries as Korn, Orbital and the Prodigy. “We like to say that we were on the Lollapalooza that kind of killed Lollapalooza for a while,” says Hammond.

“That Lollapalooza thing was crazy,” says Miller. “The lineup on the second stage was really cool, and we wound up making a lot of great friends, but it was such a juxtaposition with the main stage. I think we made some fans, but there still were a bunch of kids with their arms crossed and just shaking their heads and walking away.”

“Not all of it was very comfortable at all,” says Hammond. “We were just out of our element. You know, our element is club gigs, theaters, energy in a room. If we can fill up a theater and get everybody on this energy tick, on those nights and in those certain moments where everybody is kind of feeling it all at once, that’s really incredible. It’s really an extraordinary feeling, and you don’t have to be on a major to have that.”

While they aren’t playing huge festivals these days, Old 97’s still make viable, vibrant music, as part of a scene that has endured, both above and below the radar.

“I really think this whole movement was, and still is, a really, really cool, underground movement that’s been on this slow burn all these years,” says Hammond. “And now you’ve got bands like the Decemberists and people like that and you go, ‘Oh, they’ve actually figured out how to have hits.’ None of us ever could. Neko did what she did. We did what we did. Ryan certainly did a lot. For bands like the Decemberists and Mumford And Sons, the time was finally right. The Avett Brothers. They’ve figured out how to do it. Us old-school people, we’re all right with that. We get to be the Ramones. There’s not a darn thing wrong with that. We just get to be an old stalwart band. Not only did we not start stinking anything up, we stayed good, and occasionally we even got to be relevant.”