Normal History Vol. 15: The Art Of David Lester

lester15370Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 25-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

David has sent me a new illustration—Strange Shows We’ve Played—and yes, there have been more than a few. In 1994, we were invited to perform for “German futurists” in New York, one of these deals where they want to pay us too much. “Too much” meaning, we know they don’t know what they’re doing, who they’re inviting. Mecca Normal had been touring quite frequently in Europe during the growing interest in grunge, riot grrl and Pacific Northwest DIY. We’d had articles and reviews in Rolling Stone Europe and Der Speigel, and I think Matador, our label at that time, set up this show for the futurists, which was in a small meeting room in a high-rise for maybe a dozen men sitting on chairs, arms folded across their chests. It must have been a Johan Kugelberg koncept; he appeared part way through our presentation wearing a bullet-proof vest. I recall being out of breath a lot because the songs back then were demanding and I was trying to give a lot of information between songs to these futurists about how they should proceed … with the future. Johan started asking questions—silly questions about my boyfriends or something unrelated, which was maybe why he was wearing the bullet-proof vest. He was the sales guy at Matador. I forget what Spencer Gates’ title was—publicist, I think—and whether this event was before or after Spencer made a comment to me about taking off my panties at shows when I asked her how she envisioned Mecca Normal achieving better sales, which was meant to be funny—and it was—and a possibly a comment on the general state of affairs in the music business, and I’d mentioned her comment to Gerard (Cosloy, head of Matador) and he pretended to be outraged maybe because he thought I was outraged and perhaps this is why Johan was wearing the bullet-proof vest. It was all very odd: the futurist show and being on Matador. On one of our tours in Europe, we were very much looking forward to playing with Jad Fair in Nürnburg. We arrived while they were sound checking; Jad was onstage, front and center, pretending to play a guitar without strings. Some of these details in all these stories are a bit sketchy—just trying to give you an impression here. There was a curtain set up onstage, and the actual guitar player was behind it. OK. Maybe I’ll try that in my band. Or … maybe not. So we watched them sound check, and then they went down to the kellar, to the band room, to drink beer, and we did our sound check and then we went down into the kellar, which is sometimes awkward, when it’s another band’s show and you don’t know if it’s a private or shared band room. And we did play a lot of opening spots. We opened for Hole in Vancouver, and I wasn’t too sure if I was allowed to eat the grapes in the band room, that sort of thing. I remember Courtney had her guitar player, Eric, come over and buy my book, my first novel. I guess she didn’t want to do it herself. In 1988, on tour in England, we played the Wakefield Opera House: a big anniversary event that had been in the works for years, and it was all very amazing that we’d been invited. And yes, it did appear to be a case of very bad judgment on someone’s part to include Mecca Normal on the bill. We were touring with political-activist poet Peter Plate, which we did quite a bit of back then and we had great times and amazing conversations. I have, over the years, tried to replace Peter’s intensity and intelligence in our tour groupings, but the stimulation he provided cannot be matched. We arrived at the Opera House late afternoon to get way too involved in a mind-numbing sound check that went on and on. They had technical problems and they took them out on us, which we resented; so they had resentful punk-rock poets running through the backstage passages of their Opera House. Peter unscrewed some of the light bulbs—or maybe it was just one—from a row of bare bulbs lining a dressing-room mirror. He unscrewed it and threw it on the floor, where it shattered idiotically, and we probably all ran away giggling and, yes, the show was a disaster and what was to be learned? Don’t invite punk poets to the party prematurely. The most gracious of band-room-sharing occasions was opening for Fugazi at Roseland in New York. Ian was very nice to us, Ian and the other guys. Very welcoming. I was anxious about the fact that there was no beer backstage and the place was packed and the bar was miles away and Mecca Normal was supposed to go on soon and Ian said, “What kind of beer, Jean?” I said, “Rolling Rock.” He went out the stage door, into the alley, and returned with a six pack of Rolling Rock. I think he actually went to a store. Wow. Now that I think about it, Ian was very friendly when we opened for Fugazi in Vancouver, too: a show where someone in the audience threw a shoe at David while we were playing. At that time, I was going out with Gerry Hannah (a.k.a. Gerry Useless of the Subhumans), who had quite recently been let out of prison after serving five years in a direct-action conviction. I think Ian and Gerry had met at some point in early punk-rock days, so it was interesting to re-introduce these two men. Back to Nürnburg and Jad Fair. I was walking tentatively down the steps into the kellar and heard the guitar player say, “I don’t like Mecca Normal. They stink it up big time.” Or, you know, something like that. I was just setting foot in front of them and I didn’t bat an eyelash and he didn’t blink and I grabbed a beer and we all sort of awkwardly hung out until show time. I mean, he’s a guy playing guitar behind a curtain for god’s sake. Maybe he was jealous of David being allowed to play without a curtain. Anyway … Personally, I think the biggest fucking failure to endure as a punk band would be having everyone love what you do. Cooing over you, treating you like a rock star. Purgatory, I say. If you’re not agitating, you’re stagnating. Punk bands that broke up because not enough people liked them? Spare me.

Moby Picks: iPhone Drum Machine App

mobylogo100b4Moby is the artist who wasn’t there—but only because he’s always in motion. From hardcore punk to techno to film scores to mainstream rock to the sampladelic commercial phenomenon that was 1999’s Play, Moby’s career can appear as a blur of forever-changing sounds, vocalists and moods. His palette has shifted to twilight blue on the home-recorded Wait For Me (out this week on Little Idiot/Mute), with noir, shapeshifting pocket symphonies such as “Shot In The Back Of The Head” and its David Lynch-created video. Moby will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com this week. Read our Q&A with him.

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Moby: I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s an analog, step-sequenced drum machine on a phone. The future is awesome.

Montreal International Jazz Festival, Day 3

esperanza400It’s the 30th annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers translates the action.

As I mentioned, the 30th Montreal International Jazz Festival is a sprawling operation of immense scope and volume. It’s not just jazz and it’s not just music, and the entire city gears up for the two-week celebration. The festival organizers have created their own jazz universe, including an art gallery, which is now showcasing the photographs of Herman Leonard—and the esteemed photographer was on hand for the opening. Born in 1923, Leonard is responsible for some of the most memorable, iconic photographs of famous artists like Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and countless others from the golden age of jazz (1940 through 1960). Leonard’s black-and-white shots have been reproduced all over the world, and his unique use of backlighting inspired numerous photographers. Herman has wonderful anecdotes about his encounters with these artists and is a model of discipline, integrity and joyous enthusiasm. If you aren’t familiar with his shot of saxophonist Dexter Gordon with cigarette smoke pluming around him, you don’t know jazz. Hats off to Herman!

I caught a rehearsal by Quebec-based recording artist Patrick Watson. Patrick Watson is the name of the band, but the band is led by singer/musician Patrick Watson. They are popular up here, and I think they are supposed to be like a Canadian version of Radiohead. The band will be playing a big free outdoor concert here on Sunday and will be accompanied by a string section, horns, special guests and special effects. This is going be a mammoth spectacle, and the locals are going to be out in full force. Still, I wonder if these guys can break in America. Check out their new album, Wooden Arms, and see what you think.

Just to keep things down to earth, I walked over to the Metropolis Ballroom to hear Susan Tedeschi and her band open for Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy. Tedeschi was in total command, singing in a strong, urgent voice and playing the heck out of her guitar. This is roots music, pure and simple, and her mix of blues, soul and gospel continues to evolve. Tedeschi’s band plays a solid version of Southern rock, but they all could loosen up a little bit more and have some fun with these great tunes. And Tedeschi should engage them even more. I only saw a half-hour of Guy, but I can pretty much tell you that there’s no other 73-year-old on the planet that can play blues like Buddy. He was wailing—I mean wailing—on the guitar and really knows how to please crowd: singing, screaming and picking the blues, doing shtick with the audience and letting his band strut their stuff. Tedeschi has been opening for Guy for years, and she should take a few more lessons from the master!

I left the Guy show to run back to the Gesù for a late-night gig by Esperanza Spalding (pictured). Spalding has a buzz going, as the singer/bassist has played with Prince and performed for President Obama. It’s not hard to see why. Spalding is a lovely, petite young woman with a huge afro-styled hairdo and a most charming demeanor. The Gesù gig was totally sold out, and Spalding had the crowd eating out of her hand. Literally dwarfed by her massive double-bass, Spalding scatted, crooned, jammed, joked and jived jazz in a soulful, modern style. While she treats her band with loving camaraderie, she’s clearly the star of the show. I can’t say that I loved the music, but Spalding’s winning enthusiasm is hard to resist and I understand the interest. Verdict: She’s a very promising young artist on her way to much wider appeal, and when her chops (both bass and voice) catch up with the rest of her act, look out!

Moby Picks: Gwar

mobylogo100b2Moby is the artist who wasn’t there—but only because he’s always in motion. From hardcore punk to techno to film scores to mainstream rock to the sampladelic commercial phenomenon that was 1999’s Play, Moby’s career can appear as a blur of forever-changing sounds, vocalists and moods. His palette has shifted to twilight blue on the home-recorded Wait For Me (out this week on Little Idiot/Mute), with noir, shapeshifting pocket symphonies such as “Shot In The Back Of The Head” and its David Lynch-created video. Moby will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com this week. Read our Q&A with him.

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Moby: Have you ever seen Gwar live? No? Rectify this immediately. The best live band ever. Really.

MP3 At 3PM: An Horse

anhorse390An Horse began in the back of a Brisbane, Australia, record shop in 2007. The pop/punk duo of Kate Cooper and Damon Cox quickly managed to score a tour with Tegan And Sara even before the release of An Horse’s debut album, Rearrange Beds (Mom & Pop). Cooper and Cox are fully aware that their band name isn’t gramatically correct: A friend gave Cooper a sweater with “An Horse” written on it, and she instantly had her band’s moniker. She still wears the sweater.

“Camp Out” (download):

Moby Picks: Lady Rizo And The Assettes

mobylogo100b2Moby is the artist who wasn’t there—but only because he’s always in motion. From hardcore punk to techno to film scores to mainstream rock to the sampladelic commercial phenomenon that was 1999’s Play, Moby’s career can appear as a blur of forever-changing sounds, vocalists and moods. His palette has shifted to twilight blue on the home-recorded Wait For Me (out this week on Little Idiot/Mute), with noir, shapeshifting pocket symphonies such as “Shot In The Back Of The Head” and its David Lynch-created video. Moby will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com this week. Read our Q&A with him.

ladyrizo530Moby: My friend Amelia (she sings on “Pale Horses” on my new album) has an amazing burlesque show called Lady Rizo And The Assettes. It’s 80-percent funny/20-percent sexy. Video after the jump.

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Watching Wilco: “Ashes Of American Flags”

wilco_ashes250With this week’s release of Wilco (The Album), there’s no better time to reconsider Wilco’s steady progression from scrappy alt-country forebears to kings of the AAA charts. Since each of Wilco’s studio albums has been pored over, criticized and deconstructed countless times, MAGNET’s Matt Siblo looked toward the band’s output on film. Watch as Jeff Tweedy can’t afford to buy Wendy’s for his hungry child! Marvel at guitarist Nels Cline’s inability to wear pants that cover his socks! See the Tweedy household and all of its bric-a-brac! And wonder at who’s been supplying this band with such awful beanies for the past decade. Today’s feature: 2009’s Ashes Of American Flags.

Yet another tourlogue, this one following the band through its 2008 off-beat club tour, Ashes Of American Flags’ existence calls into question whether Wilco has played any shows in the past two years without a camera crew present. Although the descriptor refers to its newly acquired horn section, Ashes finds the band looking and sounding like Total Pros, a far cry from the psychogenic vomiting and extended snoozy jam sessions of its past. Considering Wilco’s transformation into a well-adjusted, well-oiled unit a few years back (well-documented on the excellent Kicking Television), the band’s measured performances here are mostly for the benefit of giving its Sky Blue Sky material the mettle it lacked on Shake It Off. Like the congruity found in I Am Trying To Break Your Heart‘s gritty footage and the dissolution of Wilco 2.0, the cinematography on Ashes is rich and expansive, exploring not only the nimble poetry of its desolate landscape but also the wistful undercurrent of its most recent material. Directors Brendan Canty and Christoph Green’s richest images come from their stark shots of the decay and abandonment of small-town America in the wake of corporate development and expansion. Noticeably less eloquent are the explanations from the band, though bassist John Stirratt’s bold assertion that many people seem to have taken the corporate encroachment lying down is nothing if not provocative.

While much of this film will placate die-hards’ desire to get any taste of the band, the necessity for yet another live release is dubious. A great deal of Ashes features Tweedy singing the praises of his fellow bandmates, a welcome counterpoint to the neurotic uncertainty of his Yankee days but decidedly less entertaining. (And the footage veers toward an extended feel-good Real World confessional. Oh, that Nels sure is swell! And those solos!) The band’s presence here has an air of the willing elder statesmen shown in Tweedy’s increasingly confident use of the Nudie suit, Glenn Kotche’s library of baby books and Nels Cline’s copping to nights of self-induced whiplash. But behind all the middle-aged goodwill, Tweedy offers a flicker of realism when he admits that while “he’d like to think this lineup will be the last, things have changed in the past.” Pausing, he finishes, “As long as it involves John.”

1999’s Man In The Sand
2002’s I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
2006’s Sunken Treasure: Live In The Pacific Northwest
2007’s Shake It Off

What is your favorite Wilco album? Vote here.

Moby Picks: The Hotcakes

mobylogo100b2Moby is the artist who wasn’t there—but only because he’s always in motion. From hardcore punk to techno to film scores to mainstream rock to the sampladelic commercial phenomenon that was 1999’s Play, Moby’s career can appear as a blur of forever-changing sounds, vocalists and moods. His palette has shifted to twilight blue on the home-recorded Wait For Me (out this week on Little Idiot/Mute), with noir, shapeshifting pocket symphonies such as “Shot In The Back Of The Head” and its David Lynch-created video. Moby will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com this week. Read our Q&A with him.

hotcake550Moby: My friend Erin started a pop/punk called the Hotcakes, and they’re really, really good. She’s beautiful, and the songs are amazing. Live video after the jump.

Continue reading “Moby Picks: The Hotcakes”