Interview with Gared O'Donnell, Planes Mistaken For Stars, August 2006

I recently visited a Wovenhand concert and met Chuck French and Neil Keener who currently form 50% of Wovenhand, beside their involvement in their own band, Git Some and their past with Planes Mistaken For Stars. I was glad to meet them because it also reminded me of the fact that I still have an interview with Gared, the singer, in the vaults somewhere that needs to be published in written form. That interview is pretty old by now. I made it in August 2006, made the radio show and forgot about it. Many things have happened since then. Planes Mistaken For Stars released Mercy, their last album, before breaking up in 2008. But Chuck and Neil told me that Planes Mistaken For Stars are back together, re-releasing Mercy on Deathwish and working on a new album and tour. Good news, all around and about time I write down that interview, so here we go.

From l.t.r.: Gared O'Donnell, Mike Ricketts, me, Chuck French and Neil Keener, August 12., 2006
(Photo: S.R.)

R.: Up In ThemGuts had a real good flow as an album. What can we expect from Mercy?
Gared O'Donnell: I think the new album has a pretty good flow to it. It’s got more songs that stand on their own than Up In Them Guts. Up In Them Guts really was…a piece…from start to finish. The new record is like that in some respects but in another respects it kind of has songs that you could remove from the record and put on a 7”. I think it’s a nice balance between Up In Them Guts and some of the older stuff.

R.: You were supposed to tour with Converge but that didn’t happen. What happened?

Gared: There was just a bunch of stuff happening. Chuck’s daughter was being born, so he wasn’t going to be able to do the tour. We called up Jamie Drier - our old bass player - to fill in. It was going to be nice because we never really had much closure – there wasn’t a last tour with him. So when we went to get him we got a call from his mother that his dad was dying. Obviously we scrapped the tour. We had to cancel the tour because of births and deaths… [laughter] The two biggest reasons you could possibly have. We were gutted… no, we’re gutted about it now because at that time we didn’t think about the tour too much. We got our own stuff to deal with. But it’s a bummer because Converge are old friends of ours and they were one of the first bands that took us out on tour. Right when Fuck With Fire came out. It was us, Converge, American Nightmare and Hope Conspiracy. It was a great time. I wouldn’t rule it out. We’re probably going to be here with them next time or in the near future. We are very like-minded. We’re not the same sonically but I think that our approach is very similar, our attitude about what we do.

R.: Did deaths and births influence the new record then?

Gared: Every record that we write is like a time capsule. It is supposed to be a document of that time, of the surroundings. I strife to just be as honest as possible. For prosperity’s sake. The records are supposed to be kind of like a journal for a period in our life. Up In Them Guts was about the three years between Fuck With Fire and Up In Them Guts and now Mercy is about that time period between Up In Them Guts and now.

R.: Could you tell me something about your process of writing?

Gared: It’s a mixed bag. Sometime we’ll have the song first and then we tailor the lyrics around it. I always have a ton of stuff written. Until I hear the song the lyrics aren’t finished. I think it is very important – and I think not many people try to do this anymore – to tailor a song around a mood or a feeling. I think it is very important that the lyrics fit with more sonic aspects. We all just come to the table with what we have and it kind of falls together. Sometimes it doesn’t fall together. Sometimes it’s an uphill battle to get the song right.

R.: So what influences you as a band while writing an album?

Gared O'Donnell: Just Life, living, Whiskey, Sex...

Mike Ricketts: Whatever I listen to or am into at that time I try to draw from it.
Gared: ...humility, humanity... The whole process of breathing. [laughter]

R.: So what were you listening to in the tour bus today?

Chuck French: We were listening to Marvin Gaye today. And...

Gared O'Donnell: ...Thin Lizzy. Neil Young. Curtis Mayfield.... 

Chuck French: ...New Model Army. Jesus Lizard.

Gared O'Donnell: Mostly old stuff. There’s not a whole lot of new stuff that we collectively listen to. 

Mike Ricketts: A few things here and there but…

Gared O'Donnell: Few and far between. I just don’t know what it is...

Neil Keener: They don’t make Rock’n’Roll like they used to. [laughter]

Gared O'Donnell: Yeah. That's what it is. [laughter]

R.: In a lot of interviews I heard that bands that play loud or heavy music just like to relax in the tour bus.

Gared: The general feeling that I get these days is that all the bands that we listen to were their own entity. They didn’t come from the same cookie cutter. I think a lot of contemporary music  - whether it’s punk rock, or hardcore, or whether it’s pop music - people instead of doing their own thing and trying to be inspirational and trying to be inspired they are trying to be successful. The main goal of older bands and bands that we really respect and love was that they didn’t want to play music they have to. And that is where we’re coming from. Their goal was to be creative and to have that catharsis, to exorcise those demons. If success came along with that, then that’s even better. That’s great. I would love to make a living doing this. But I’m not gonna fucking compromise. If we wanted to sound like – you name it – we probably could. Mikey’s an amazing drummer. There’s nobody better than Mikey in my eyes. The hard thing is to do your own thing. Sometimes it is frustrating ‘cause you see so many people who have achieved certain levels of success. And you’re like: “Why?” They sound just like… whatever band. You pick it. How many bands do we need that sound exactly like… well I’m not gonna name names…

R.: Please do! [laughter]

Gared: No. But you see what I’m saying. The stuff that we listen to are people that stood alone and did their own thing. Like The Jesus Lizard, for example. Name a band that sounds like the Jesus Lizard. Besides the Birthday Party. Jesus Lizard sounds like The Birthday Party. But that’s a different story. That’s me being a record geek. I could go on. [laughter]

R.: Do you all live in the same city? Is it easy making music together?

Gared: Yeah, yeah. It’s not hard and it’s not necessarily easy because we all have families. When we’re at home we all do our own things but we also hang out. You kind of have to remove yourself from that not becoming your identity. Or you just end up being a creep. [laughter]

R.: Do you see yourselves in a certain genre?

Gared: We’re a Rock’n’Roll band. Just a Rock’n’Roll band. It’s just Rock. Why limit yourself to a genre? Especially if you’re talking about Punkrock and Hardcore it’s such a limited and limiting genre. You only have so much of a window to work with and if you’re straight out of that window you’re not Punkrock, you’re not Hardcore. With those things it has a lot more to do with style than substance. 

Mike Ricketts: It goes back to those bands that are rehashing what’s already been done. If you try to tailor yourself to a certain genre, or try to be a certain style, then you’re not being true to yourself.  To me, music should be as honest as possible. You shouldn’t try to limit yourself by genres. It’s really hard being inside a band and trying to label yourself because it kind of defeats the purpose, you know.

R.: If you want, make a wish for a song to be played on my show.

Gared: I would say, play Gentleman by Afghan Wigs. That’s a great song.

Chuck: I’d say, Bad Reputation by Thin Lizzy.

R.: Why?

Chuck: Because it fucking rips! [laughter]

Neil: I would say Cortez the Killer by Neil Young.

Mike:  The first song off Deep Purple in Rock. It’s one of the best songs ever. And Two Headed-Dog by Roky Erickson and the Aliens.


Interview with Felix from Murmuüre, September 2012

Murmuüre is the name chosen for an album that was based on an one hour guitar improvisation recorded in November 2006. The distorted guitars buried in this album make it prone to be categorized as Black Metal. However, with a much more organic sound than any traditional Black Metal band this album is a multilayered cinematic experience that resists being easily categorized. Felix, the man behind Murmuüre reveals how the sound of a 500 year old astronomical clock made it onto the album and tells us about the instinctive process of making it. Finally, he also revealed some good news for people eagerly awaiting more music from him...

Felix from Murmuüre
(photo: unknown)

R.: First of I wanted to ask you something about your personal background. Where are you from? Did you have a particular musical upbringing?

Felix: I don't feel yet like I belong anywhere at all, but I've spent most of my life in the south-west of France.
The only "musical upbringing" I can remember is learning how to play "Seek And Destroy" on guitar, haha, so that sums it up to nothing. I'm self-taught and don't know much about music theory, I'm learning things in that field, but very slowly.

R.: What was the initial idea behind Murmuüre? What’s the history behind this record and what are the core ideas behind the music?

Felix: In the early 2000's I played in a hardcore punk band (doesn't matter which one), it was fine until I got aural damage on tour in Germany and grew utterly disgusted and bored with the scene and genre, even with the whole guitar/bass/drums thing. From then on I tried doing strictly electronic music (in a field close to what was once labelled "glitch" music and has since faded away), but eventually it ended up being pretty boring and sterile as well. So Murmuüre was almost an instinctive, animalistic reaction, a return to some sorts of "roots". The whole guitar improvisation the record is based on must carry some of these years of musical frustration, breaking free from it. The original idea was to make something suffocatingly organic, that would literally feel like having your mouth full of earth ; I think the desire emerged after I watched that movie, "Begotten". Then the thing evolved and I added more colors, more coldness and more structure. I played around a lot of ideas: the cycle of seasons, the cycle of life, the earliest archetypal gods, etc… and did all sorts of experimental sorcery inside and around the record. It's a mess, I don't want to stick too much definitions or restrictive concepts on it, you have to figure it out for yourself.

Murmuüre cover artwork

R.: Where does the name Murmuüre come from?

Felix: In the "Goetia" book of demonology there's a demon called murmur, or murmuur. Since I thought there were probably 15 metal bands with that name already, I added an "e" (murmure is french for whisper) and an optional umlaut just to make sure, and to annoy people (I smile whenever I see that someone bothered typing the umlaut). That's a stupid and uninteresting story ; I guess every metal band should have one attached to its name though.

R.: What is the meaning of the phrase "Que les masques tombent" in the context of the album?

Felix: To make it short, it means nothing in the context of the album, and everything in terms of life in general.

R.: Could you please elaborate on that? What do you think it means in terms of life in general?

Felix: I think everybody is living and behaving like a robot ; our thoughts, tastes and reactions are not our own, they are dictated by bad habits and emotions who themselves are almost always useless perturbations. We have no chance of reaching reality and seeing it for what it is, without an immense effort by proven means. What I call "masks" is all the lies we've created to keep feeling comfortable despite our constant contradictions and destructive behaviour. The phrase also applied to the rulers and propaganda of the western world, but I have no illusion left on that part : people get exactly what they want and what they deserve.

R.: I don't think that your album is connected to any particular genre. Others would categorize it as ambient black metal or something like that. What do you think? Does it belong to Black Metal?

Felix: In my opinion it does somehow ; if I didn't want to be associated with that genre I wouldn't have used distorted guitars and that kind of things at all. More than that, doing black metal or at least my own version of it was the only purpose of Murmuure. At the time I was also into a lot of non-metal bands that played with that neo-romantic, pseudo-"anti-modern" aesthetic ; I thought there was something to be done there, that could carry more sunlight, colors and "tradition" than the usual nordic, corpse-paint panoply. It ended up being more deep and personal than just a crossbreed of genres or whatever, I suppose.

R.: Do you think that traditional, Nordic Black Metal bands failed to "grow up"? In a sense many artists who started within this genre that presented something new ended up repeating a formula.

Felix: It's hard to talk about this subject without falling into pointless rants… A "grown up black metal" probably wouldn't be black metal at all anymore… I think naïvety is a good thing, the whole worship of nature and pre-christian things, the almost expressionist aesthetic, all things borrowed to DIY punk, the references to krautrock (Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, etc) that were there "from the beginning" in Norway, all of those things allow many possibilities. But I guess most musicians in any sub-genre of rock are alienated somehow, they always resurrect the same awful formulas, codes and uniforms. There's something militaristic and fascist about shitty music…Most people are content with that kind of things because it's comfortable. They want to stay forever in a loop, in what seems to me like the groovy soundtrack to a capitalist nightmare… Always repeating the past without ever taking any risk, always following the same mental habits and patterns, this is regressive.

R.: On your blog you described yourself as an “ex-punk”. What kind of music do you listen to and what bands or albums do you consider as an influence?

Felix: The only band that I still listen to since 1993 or 1994, and will always influence me, is Coil. Other than that, I don't know, things that I like come and pass. Maybe there's also the David Bowie / Brian Eno thing ; whenever I do something that vaguely reminds me of the b-side of "Low" (their 1977 album), I think "ok, this is good". Someday I would really like to go past all reference to occidental pop/rock though, but I'm not sure it's very realistic.

R.: From the samples that you incorporated on the album I have recognized the opening from Carmina Burana  and the final song by Paul Giovanni from the Wicker Man soundtrack. What other outside sources have made it into the album? What was the reason you decided to use these?

Felix: You're the first person that I know of to recognize "The Wicker Man" extract. One other sample is the bell melody at the very end of "L'Adieu Au Soleil". It comes from a french movie called "L'horloger de Saint-Paul" ; I don't know why I included this one, but the strange thing is that shortly after the album was released, I randomly visited a church in Lyon and the same melody started ringing as I entered. It actually comes from a unique, 500 years old astronomical clock - the very same one that was featured in the film. Aside of that, the reasons for using samples are multiple: symbolic cannibalism, "historical" reference, transmission of images and ideas, and it also has to do with the desire to make a "naive, mentally 12 years old, metal demo tape" - in that state of mind, using recognizable samples was ok. I wouldn't do it the same way in another context.

R.: What do you think of the record today, two years after its release? Since you stated that there won’t be a sophomore album by Murmuüre, do you consider it as a reference point of your state of mind and interests at that time?

Felix: Well, I never felt truly fulfilled by this project, since I always viewed black metal as a quite nerdy and teenager thing, but after I completed it I realized it's the best and most sincere music I've ever done. It opened a lot of doors in my head, encouraged me to be more free and spontaneous, more "spiritual", and to get rid of musical irony and musical trends as a mask. If I ever decide to release something else with Murmuüre, it should be more straightforward and closer to a real metal sound than the selftitled, and feature a few cover songs. Time will tell if it's worth it - I change my mind everyday about it, depending on my mood.

R.: Are you involved in any other musical projects now or will you be in the future?

Felix: I'm working on a one-hour long album since a year or so, in-between problems in my life which is a mess. Hopefully it should carry everything I've been trying to achieve musically since 15 years. It won't have any distorted guitars or metal/hardcore influences in it, and will be released under another moniker. Murmuüre was only an appetizer.


Interview with Matt Elliott, March 2012

Matt Elliott is a musician from Bristol who lives in Nancy. After making music with Flying Saucer Attack and his electronic music project The Third Eye Foundation he began releasing records under his birth name. His music is strongly influenced by Eastern European folk music. Yet, limiting the description to this influence would underestimate the emotional strength and beauty Elliott carries with his voice and music. 2012 saw the release of his latest album 'The Broken Man' (mixed by Yann Tiersen), a record that explores one mans descent reflecting the frustrations and sadness experienced in his own life. The profound result is a record that is bound to touch us all.

Matt Elliott

R.: Your latest album 'The Broken Man' has been pre-released by Ici d'ailleurs as a 2 Euro digital download as a means to prevent it to be leaked early. Whose idea was this and how did it work out?

Matt Elliott: Well it was largely my idea, I think mp3 downloads are far too expensive and it is why many people download illegally. In fact the reaction was very positive from outside the industry, most responses from within the industry said it would make no difference, in fact it did, I had a release date for the first time in years, the album wasn't leaked illegally for days if not weeks and the fucker that uploaded it was a fucking journalist. For me you have to offer people a choice, most people, myself included can't afford to spend so much money on music and an mp3 album is only exchanging information, you simply cannot charge the same for information as you can for a piece of vinyl or a CD which is a physical thing. But the vinyl editions also had a very positive response, Ici d'ailleurs were pretty forward thinking with their approach.

R.: I agree with you that digital downloads are too expensive and I believe that the way you did it fits more with the way people listen to and buy music today. However, with the ongoing conflict between the music industry and illegal downloaders in mind - what's your opinion on all this?

Matt Elliott: Yes, well there is a realisation that the music industry largely doesn't like, that you cannot dictate how people buy and listen to music. Perhaps it is too little too late but at least we realise that people listen to music how they want and if you don't give them the music how they want to consume it, they can get it easily for free and in a way it is a good thing, generally the internet is a good and bad thing for musicians. It's good in that my music is all over the world, most people with a computer and a connection to the internet can hear my music. Ultimately music is a form of expression, something you wish to share so in that respect it has never been easier to communicate with so many people. The downside is obviously my label gets fucked, they are the ones that pay for the recordings (which are expensive even when we are not too extravagant) and it is one of my greatest fears because I love working with my label, they do a great job and with the best of intentions, that said if we continue to keep thinking about how best to keep everyone happy, as far as how they want to actually get the music then hopefully we can survive. The internet has also forced musicians to work harder which is a good thing, you have to perform well and do a show that will impress people and again that is healthy but frankly it is getting harder and harder to survive and it's not so much for me that I worry but for younger people, I'm glad and lucky that I started music when I did, I would hate to be a struggling young musician these days...
I don't mind that people download my music illegally so much but I don't like the fashionable attitude that it is quite fine to download everything illegally, that in a way you are owed entertainment for free and that musicians should be happy to be musicians. I don't like to complain because my job is largely wonderful and I'm very lucky and privileged to be able to do what I do but it is also a lot of work. Touring for example is exhausting and stressful, a lot of time and effort and of course money goes into writing and recording the music, so someone has to pay for it. My attitude is that if you enjoy listening to music you should pay what you can afford towards at least some artists, because without money the more interesting music will slip by and we'll be left only with what is financially viable to make, in a word x factor karaoke re hashings of old songs.

R.: You could be described as a “true European”: your music has Eastern European and Southern European influences, you were born in Great Britain, yet you live in France. What does Europe mean to you?

Matt Elliott: Well my attitude to all countries is that nationality means very little, it's where your parents fucked (as Bill Hicks said) and that is all. In my opinion all countries are shit for different reasons, all countries are run by corrupt businessmen with a police force ready to turn on their people in the blink of an eye, all countries see their citizens as potential criminals and it is a damning indictment on the modern political model, there are good and bad people of all nationalities and patriotism and nationalism is such a backward way of thinking that it is quite meaningless to me as a concept. That said of course I'm lucky to spend my time travelling Europe. It is quite unique because it is where many cultures meet which makes its cultural history very interesting and you can travel 100 km and the language and everything else is completely different. There is such a wealth of culture here that it would take many lifetimes to absorb just the last few centuries.

R.: To me, the 'Song' trilogy sounds very much influenced by Eastern European music and you already mentioned in different interviews that you love e.g., traditional Romanian music. What do you find fascinating about such music?

Matt Elliott: Well after a lifetime of the standard song formula found in 90% of music released in the west in the second half of the last century, hearing songs based on different scales and structures is of course like a world opening up. Folk music from around the world tends to be more expressive and in a way pure because it is generally music made with the best of intentions, to tell a story or to share an emotion or just to get people dancing. I'm fascinated by all music that has emotional content, it is what separates good and bad music for me.

Lyrics to the Song 'Our Weight In Oil'

R.: Revolts all over Europe and the Arab world are still going on, the financial crisis is still not overcome and governments are cutting people’s rights more and more every day. Do you still see a chance of a real change of the current situation?

Matt Elliott: Yes because I believe we are fast approaching breaking point, the point at which ordinary people will say 'enough is enough' people as you've pointed out are already doing it in different ways all over the world, and our politicians are too short term thinking to see that at any point in history where there was such a gap between rich and poor there has been a revolt. Now we have access to a lot of information, anyone can check their information, anyone can join the dots and see the facts as they are, that democracy is a farce, little more than theatre to indulge us. It makes very little difference which of the central parties we 'vote' in because they all work for the same people with the same agenda. Democracy is more than just a vote every 4 or 5 years, it should be the right to free lifelong education and free information, democracy can only work when people are informed. On the bright side more and more people everyday are starting to realise that this system is a con to rob us of our time and resources.

R.: In an interview from 2011 you said that this year would probably bring some interesting changes. What did you mean by that? Do you see these changes happening?

Matt Elliott: Well yes as I mentioned there are plenty of changes going on and this summer will be even more interesting. People are finding it harder and harder just to exist even though they are working harder and harder. This has a terrible affect on people and as I said before it won't be long until people start to break under the pressure. Last year we saw full blown revolutions, myriad protests from spontaneous riots in England, to the ongoing protests in Greece, peaceful demonstrations all over the US, what can only be described as Police Brutality in Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, of course Greece in fact all over the world. These protests won't go away, they will build more and more, many tactics will be used from peaceful and not so peaceful, in a way it has to happen, the conglomerate that runs this world or corporatocracy has taken the piss too much.


Interview with Dana Schechter from Bee and Flower, January 2010

Bee and Flower's Dana Schechter is an ever busy person. Between writing songs for the new album and working as a freelance animation artist she luckily found some time to do an interview for this blog. In the following detailed interview Dana Schechter took a personal look on the first two albums, the similarities and differences between Berlin and NYC, the upcoming third album and more. Read on...

Dana Schechter
(photo by Waldemar Brzezinski)

R.: First off, I wanted to ask you about Bee & Flower’s band members, which have changed from the first album “What’s Mine Is Yours”, to your second album “Last Sight of Land”. I guess that was also due to your move to Berlin. Can you maybe tell me something about what motivated your relocation to Berlin and who was and is involved in the band?

Dana Schechter: The move to Berlin wasn't intended to be permanent. Before that plan came up, things had changed; after making "What's Mine Is Yours" our original drummer (Ani Cordero, who I started the band with) left to pursue her own band; and over time the group somewhat dissolved due to bandmembers being unavailable for long time stretches due to other commitments, because in New York everyone is in at least 2 or 3 bands. This became increasingly frustrating to me - we were at a standstill - but now I can see that going through that instilled in me the idea that you can't stop, even if those you used to rely on are not around. And since then, Bee and Flower have worked with so many musicians...the only one who has remained constant is Roderick Miller (keyboards).
The idea to work in Berlin came from Toby Dammit. We had played together (drums and bass, respectively) in several projects (Angels of Light, Bertrand Burgalat, April March) and enjoyed working together. The first collaboration was his remix/edit/tracking (vibes, percssion, etc) for "I Know Your Name", for the video by Josh Graham, and I liked how he worked.
Toby had been working in Berlin with Ingo Krauss (engineer) and had a whole plan envisioned; I told him that if he produced the record, I'd go for his idea. At that point he hadn't produced much beyond his own projects, which were amazing; and I felt that Toby was (and is) one of the most pure talents, so inspired...just brilliant. I had all the songs written but I was creatively stuck due to the recent 'breaking' of the original band and I was ready for something totally different. I really had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
The plan was to record for 3 months, with the core band (myself, Roderick Miller, and Toby Dammit), plus Thomas Wydler (from Nick Cave/Bad Seeds) on drums. The basic tracking went fairly quickly, but once beyond that, it was clear it'd take longer - we were still writing and planning the accompanying music to the songs I'd written. The idea was very ambitious, which I credit in very large part to Toby, to make a record that broke our normal "band" mold, to make something bizarre, beautiful, and completely different from our first album (What's Mine Is Yours)...heavily orchestrated and non conformist. One reason it took a year to complete was that we did everything DIY to keep costs down. There was no budget, just self-funded. Over time it grew. Besides the four of us, the other contributing players were friends or people we sought out for specific parts, and I loved having all these talented and special people involved in the record. In all I believe there were at least 20 musicians involved.

R.: “What’s Mine Is Yours” is quite an atmospherically dark, brooding album, whereas “Last Sight of Land” sounds lighter to me. Is this change in sound in your opinion connected to the cities in which each respectable album was recorded? Apart from the change in personnel – how much has the relocation to Berlin changed Bee & Flower’s sound and lyrics?

Dana Schechter: In actuality my writing didn't change much, though I suppose it did grow up a bit in the years between "What's Mine Is Yours" and "Last Sight of Land". You can take any song and perform or record it in a wide variety of ways. Make a country song into metal, make a blues song into surf-pop...
In any case, as I said before, the "new" sound was largely attributed to Toby Dammit's role as producer and the directions he navigated the recordings through. He and I didn't always agree but it was a leap of faith on my part. His background is in orchestral arrangements and symphonic percussion, and that was a huge part of the sound.
I do think that the feeling we all had of a new lease on life, musically, socially, environmentally - NYC and Berlin being very different worlds - attributed to the difference. But I definitely wouldn't say Berlin made me feel lighter. Berlin is a very dark place, though it doesn't bother or disturb me. It just radiates that. Like a hologram. And consciously or unconsciously, who can forget the city's history? It was always in the back of my mind. My family background is Jewish and I knew that my grandparents would've been very disturbed that I went there by choice. I never felt afraid but I could feel the ghosts on every street corner, despite the warmth that the people there showed me.

R.: The design on the “Last Sight of Land” CD has stamps from what seems to be a flight ticket and boarding pass on and in the booklet. Can you explain the meaning behind this? Is this somehow connected to the lyrics that have to do with parting or is it just a way of connecting the two albums in different towns?

Dana Schechter: Parting, yes, but more so: passage. Passage to a new life, a new reality. The whole making of the album and our departure from NY and becoming ex-pats was ultimately about passage, and by chance, most the songs were about passage from one realm of life to another. Keep in mind that I'd written all those songs before there was any idea to leave NY. We didn't realize this thread until we were thinking about album artwork, and it hit us that there was a theme that'd practically created itself. I had found a very old photo of an ocean in a Berlin Trödelmarkt for 1 euro, and I was captivated by the image, and that became the album cover. The flight ticket stamps are scanned from our initial plane flight to Berlin. The CD gatefold was a photo by NY photographer Josh Wertheimer, whose photos have a timeless quality. The ideas just fell in together very naturally.

R.: How would you compare the two Bee & Flower albums?

Dana Schechter: The first album is clearly darker, more brooding, and simpler. It featured just the band members, and nobody else. At the time that was what I wanted to express; it was my first effort at leading my own project and that definitely had some pitfalls along the way, I think I could be a real pain in the ass. I was idealistic about how to approach the music and probably lost the chance to broaden it at times.
I wanted it to be bare and sparse, and my original idea was that there would be no guitar - I only wanted piano, bass, drums, and pedal steel - but after I met Lynn Wright (guitarist) I bent on that idea. Over time the band as a unit developed and it became more of a collaboration, though I was always the primary songwriter. But the other members (Jon Petrow, violin; Roderick Miller, keyboards; Lynn Wright, guitars; and drummers Ani Cordero and Jeff Conaway) all had special charms and when I listen to that record I can still hear them in it.
The second album is lighter, yes. It was made with much less of a focus on guitar, and that's one reason. I've already talked a lot about the sound of the 2nd record so I won't go into it again here.

R.: What is your favorite art form - beside music?

Dana Schechter: Visual art, painting, drawing, film. And animation. I have a long-standing second career as a freelance 2D animator for film and TV, using Adobe After Effects. It's not cel animation...in my field it's called Motion Graphics. The program works like moving Photoshop, layering images, footage, graphics. I really love doing it, it's amazingly diverse. And I don't mean cutesy animation, there are some really intense, scary, beautiful animation pieces out there. I used to be a painter but I don't have time now. But I do draw; I have a solo art show this Fall near Tabor in the Czech Republic (at Prácheňské muzeum v Písku). I've done some album covers and a book collaboration with Pete Simonelli (of Enablers). I'm always dreaming about ways to combine my music with my visual work - I have about 20 different ideas for music videos - but I know how much work and time it would take to pull it off, not to mention money, and so for now it's a dream, but I won't give up. Ideally we'd have a visual element to go with live shows, but if it can't be really, really good, I won't do it at all. Call me a perfectionist.

R.: What were your reasons to move back to the states? What did you like best when living in Berlin? Or even: Why do you think so many artists are drawn by Berlin?

Dana Schechter: Moving back to NYC was not an entirely easy decision but it needed to be done. I loved living in Berlin - the city, my bandmates, my friends, living in Europe - but after 4 years I felt stagnant there, like I was living in a bubble. The music scene was very limited for the type of music Bee and Flower makes, and artists need a sense of community or being part of something, or they get lost. I also had no work there - animation work - I'd been going back and forth to NYC a few times a year to do my freelance work and I realized that if I wanted to keep my chops I'd have to stay working to keep up with it, and since I can do music anywhere, moving back was the only choice. I also had a strong love interest in the US which was a big influence in my decision. So now I have a long - distance relationship with my band, but we're managing.
I think Berlin has a cache of being a place that anything can happen; if you want to start fresh it's perfect. A perfect place to restart your life, as an adult. It's quiet there, so you can concentrate. As an American, you can get by with minimal German. And it's cheap, there's lots to do, so many ways to lose yourself. But there's a sense of isolation that seeps into you when you live in Berlin for a while. It also seems that many people who move there end up leaving, either they can't find work or the dream wears off after a while. In some ways it's similar to NYC in that way; you either make it, or you are forced out. The grind and hustle in NY can be exhausting but the opportunities are more abundant; and the lack of those things in Berlin makes people feel displaced and unmoored. Personally, I am more productive with a fire under my ass.

R.: "Dust & Sparks" has been an excellent release that I really liked. Not only the song itself (which I think is one of the best Bee & Flower tracks) but also the fact that it’s released on a limited 7”. Are there any similar releases planned for the future?

Dana Schechter: That was the result of meeting Jozef Moors from Morningrise Recordings in Belgium, who was a big fan. I knew I wanted Nicole Boitos to do the artwork, she's such a stellar visual artist. The track "Dust & Sparks" was an unreleased extra from the "What's Mine Is Yours" sessions, and Jozef wanted to release something but we didn't have a budget to record, so the song came out from the vaults. I hope we can do more vinyl, maybe for the new record.

R.: Can you reveal something about the upcoming album?

Dana Schechter: Yes, the band just came over from Berlin in November and we recorded with Martin Bisi, who recorded our first album. We finished the basics for 6 new songs. We had 4 songs already done from sessions with Ingo Krauss in Berlin that we'd completed over the last year. The album's theme hasn't revealed itself yet, but I can say that sonically it's more similar to the first album. The production will be less orchestrated than the last record, and the writing is darker. I suppose it will sound somewhere between the first and second records, having learned a lot from both of those experiences, as a writer, and as the de facto producer. We also worked with some of the original NY-based band for the newest NY sessions, Lynn Wright on guitar and Jon Petrow on Violin. It's been a pleasure to work with them closely again. The guitarist who has been in the Berlin band for several years and recorded on the most recent Berlin sessions, Jonathan Heine, wasn't free to come to NY, so I asked Lynn, and he helped me flush out the new songs before the others (Roderick Miller, and drummer Thomas Fietz) arrived. I'm about to start recording vocals for the album this week and after that we'll get some guests on there, Toby Dammit, Martin Wenk of Calexico has already done some work, and I'm hoping to pull in bits and pieces from all the talented friends in my musical community to add the last glints and sheen before mixing. We don't have a label anymore, but we aim to have it released by Summer 2010, and if not, we will do our own release via our website, in which case I want to make all handmade covers, limited edition...something beautiful, a little gift for each person who wants to have one of their own.


Interview with Nathan Hall, U. S. Christmas, September 2009

I first heard of U.S. Christmas on the day I interviewed Steve Von Till, from Neurosis, for this blog. He told me that Neurot Recordings was going to release this band that "just play really dark, dirgy, very spaced out Rock music." It is the perfect description for U.S. Christmas. They really blew me away at this year's Roadburn Festival and therefore I was very happy when Nathan Hall, U.S. Christmas' lead singer agreed to do an interview. Apart from the good news for vinyl enthusiasts, he had something to tell about the Southern influence on the lyrics, musical influences, news on new releases and many other things.

Nathan Hall

R.: Could you summarize U.S. Christmas‘ history? How did you guys get together in the first place? Did you know each other beforehand? Did you live in the same town?

Nathan Hall: We have been a band for about eight years, Matt [Johnson (Theremin, Synth)] and I both live in Marion. Some new people are in the band now: Josh [Holt (Bass, Guitar)] and BJ [Graves (Drums)] live in Knoxville Tennessee, Justin [Whitlow (Drums, Synth)] lives in Asheville, and Chris [Thomas (Bass, Guitar)] lives in my hometown Spruce Pine, North Carolina. Like I said, the band has been around a long time, everything is sort of a blur at this point. This is the only band I haver ever been involved with. Our town, Marion, is a small town in western North Carolina.

R.: Recently, there have been some changes in the band that has been hinted at on your Myspace blog. Could you talk about what has changed for U.S. Christmas and why?

Nathan Hall: That is a reasonable question, but we are not going to discuss that publicly.

R.: Eat The Low Dogs is already your fourth album, with former releases on a Russian and American label, plus one self released album. From your standpoint, what has changed for the band since Neurot Recordings released the latest album? Are the three former albums still available?

Nathan Hall: Things change constantly in this band, but I think that is universal. But to answer your question, Neurot opened a lot of doors, it is hard to imagine where we would be without them and without Neurosis. We've opened for Neurosis several times, once with them and Mastodon. We've played big festivals with them in the US and overseas. To some degree, we are known all over the world now. The guys in Neurosis have been our mentors in a lot of ways, and that is a huge honor. We have been dealing with them for years now and it is hard for me to remember how it was before. As for cds, I think RAIG might still have some cd copies of Salt The Wound left, and I'm Better Than Everyone Records is going to release it on vinyl soon. The vinyl won't have the awesome red dog artwork that the Russian artist Victor Pushkin did, but it looks like a really good artist is going to do the vinyl design, and if it works out then the cd and LP will each have their own unique artwork. Keep an eye out for that. Of course, Eat The Low Dogs is still in print, and I'm Better Than Everyone is going to release the vinyl version as well very soon. The self released stuff is out of print, no plans to re-release it.

R.: From the few printed lyrics in the Eat The Low Dogs booklet, I had the feeling to be reading an excerpt from a Southern novel, like William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy. What kind of influences did you have writing the lyrics to the album?

Nathan Hall: That is a huge compliment, and Cormac McCarthy - particularly his novel Blood Meridian - was a huge influence on that album. I have read William Faulkner for years, many other southern writers as well. Flannery O'Connor, James Dickey, and Robert Penn Warren are other favorites. I am an avid writer and reader, I am actually in grad school studying literature. You hit it right on the head actually, I am a southern person and very much influenced by the literary history of the south. But at the same time, I never set out to do anything, it just sort of happens and I go with it. A lot of it is a mystery to me.

R.: From the lyrics that I can understand on Eat The Low Dogs, it almost seems like a story told in different parts with a concept behind. What kind of themes does Eat The Low Dogs cover?

Nathan Hall: Right again, there is always a concept or theme that emerges when we write an album. Not necessarily a story - but a clear idea that develops as we write. For Eat The Low Dogs I would say as a whole it involves: cycles of violence, sadness, loss, some Cherokee mythology, and human darkness. And the idea that living things become vicious in chaotic and stressful situations. We turn on ourselves.

R.: You have mentioned several times that a USX live show can be very chaotic, yet it accomplishes to capture that raw energy that the music evokes. What is the difference between recording and playing a show for you? Do you have any “guidelines” before going on stage to play a live show?

Nathan Hall: We never have any guidelines live, and crazy things happen sometimes. I don't even like to have set lists if I can help it. But recently we've been focusing on getting the best live sounds we can. We have put a lot of thought into our rigs and everyone sounds really good as a result. We are a band full of gear hounds. Having the best gear ensures that you get a good sound. That's why I never hassle sound guys for "more guitar". I just turn up my amps. Recording is different of course, but we are very open during that process as well. Lots of things happen that we could never anticipate. But I wouldn't want to know the future in advance.

R.: It is known that the band name comes from a Sam Peckinpah movie and in another interview that I have read you said to be inspired by bands like Neurosis, Melvins, Neil Young and Hawkwind, to name a few. What other bands and movies to you consider to be an inspiration? What has caught your attention recently?

Nathan Hall: Caustic Resin is possibly the biggest influence on me as a guitar player. Brett Netson, the guitar player and songwriter in that band, has been a constant source of inspiration for the last decade. He has the best big, warm, trippy tone. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were a big influence on the album we just recorded with Sanford Parker, it is called Run Thick In The Night. Townes Van Zandt was also a catalyst. As for recently, we play with so many great bands. I guess I could name a few, but I'm sure to leave someone out. But here goes: Minsk, OM, Wolves in the Throne Room, Kylesa, YOB, Inter Arma, Generation of Vipers (our rhythm section now), Pontiak, Saviours, Grails, Dark Castle, Across Tundras, Baroness, RWAKE, and Weedeater have all left an impression.

R.: What happened to uschristmas.net? The last time I checked it was offline.

Nathan Hall: It was a pain in the ass so we abandoned it.

R.: What is next in line for the band? Can we expect a new album?

Nathan Hall: New album is done. More on that later. We also have a Hawkwind tribute project that is complete, Minsk and Harvestman (Steve Von Till) are on that as well. And we have a live LP coming out on I'm Better Than Everyone Records. And a tour with Baroness this fall.

R.: The last words belong to you:

Nathan Hall: There are several people who have supported us and made our custom gear: Brent Monson/Monson Guitars has hooked me up with two excellent instruments, Ear Candy Cabinets has built gear for both Matt and myself, Emperor Custom Cabs made my two excellent 2x12 cabs, and our friend/guitar tech Robert English in Marion NC has kept our gear solid and running for the last eight years. Thanks to all of them.

Nathan Hall, USX


Interview with Pete Simonelli from Enablers, August 2009

Pete Simonelli is a writer and poet, who not only creates powerful words on paper but transforms them on stage with the rest of the band that is Enablers: currently Joe Goldring, Kevin Thomson and Doug Scharin. With Simonelli being an "underground literary veteran" and the rest of the band being musical veterans they created three albums up until the latest piece called Tundra. From intimate confessions to powerful, raging words, Enablers have it all and this makes them a band not to be missed. Pete Simonelli took his time to answer some questions on the transformative process on stage and on the albums, the roots of Enablers, the necessity to move on stage and much more in the following interview.

Pete Simonelli

R.: How was your recent tour? Which places did you enjoy and what did you experience on tour?

Pete Simonelli: It was great--- as they all are, really--- but this time was a little different. We had a new drummer, Doug Scharin, and because we didn't book this one I think we were exposed to a few places we ordinarily would not have played. Andreas Kohl (Southern Germany and Exile On Mainstream) re-released "Tundra" in a limited edition box set and handled the booking and the tour for us. His main territory is Germany, which we had never toured much of, so we covered a fair amount of ground there. He definitely opened some doors for us and has broadened our future intineraries for sure. Poland, for one, was great, and we also played Prague for the first time and had a great show there. In all, I think this tour proved to be a more expansive one, musically (because of what Doug brings to the band) and in a motivational sense as well. Touring will do that; it gives you a sharp sense of focus and can tell you where your strengths and weaknesses are. This one did that, and now we're ready to record some more damn songs.

R.: How did Enablers get together in the first place?

Pete Simonelli: I approached Kevin Thomson about a book project I had in mind. Neither of us expected a band to emerge from it at all. He was playing with Goldring (and still does) in a band called Touched by a Janitor, and I was--and remain--- a very big fan of them. Kevin and I were working at a bar together at the time, so I eventually asked him if he, and possibly Janitor, would be interested in providing some music for this project. Basically I wanted to read some poems over good, challenging music and use the recording as an accompanying CD to a book I was going to put out myself. Nothing new or novel about that--- we both knew it--- but we were opposed to the usual and obvious "backdrop sound" that so often says very little for the music and leaves most of the ear time to whomever is doing the speaking. I turned over a few poems to Kevin and within a short amount of time Goldring became a part of it. Joe Byrnes, on drums, was added a little later on. Songs were being developed at a pretty steady clip once we had everybody there. But it was Byrnes who essentially initiated the band. He said that in order to record, he'd have to play the songs live a couple of times. Shows pretty much just kept coming from there on out. And we were already recording what would become End Note by that time anyway. Those few local shows turned into a small European tour and, almost on a whim, Goldring gave Neurot a demo and they decided to put it out. The "project" pretty much fell by the wayside at that point and we started to get more serious as a band.

R.: How do you write songs? Do you already have the lyrics (or poems) before the music is created?

Pete Simonelli: For the most part, yes. End Note was all old stuff---even then. I'd written most of those poems years before, which more or less prompted my wanting to record them as part of that initial project I'd approached Kevin about. By the time Output Negative Space was being recorded, we'd toured two or three times already and many of the poems on that record were written specifically for that release. I still had some old ones around, like "For Jack", but that record is primarily taken from what were then new poems. I only mention all of this because we were essentially becoming more and more serious and devoted to the band by that time. As a result of that, we were also becoming hungrier for newer material, which created, and still does create, broader or different approaches to how the songs are written. We're all constantly working on something anyway, and now that I'm living on the east coast, we've gone the way of audio files and whatnot. They have riffs and ideas, they send them along; I just keep writing, but I hear, and write, a lot more musically now, for better or worse.

R.: Was it clear from the beginning that you’d perform your poems to the songs? What is the difference between the three albums – musically and lyrically – for you?

Pete Simonelli: No, it was never clear. In fact, it was the last thing I wanted to do. But as I mentioned above, it was just something that transpired out of a need, for Byrnes especially, to get a better feel for the songs. The irony is that most of the poems I now write are intended for the band--- to be perfomed, that is. Not all of them make it and that's perfectly fine. As a writer, I need my own stable of material anyway. The same can be said for the others in terms of music. We've always recognized that there is Enablers material, and there are things that are distinctly not Enablers material. Which sort of carries over to the latter half of your question. The main difference between all three albums is growth, really. Music gets developed by one's involvement with it. If you like the sounds and noises you're making with other people--- fantastic; you keep moving along and growing one big ear together. That's where we are now, especially with the addition of Scharin on drums. He brings an intensity of focus and musicianship that I wouldn't say was necessarily lacking, but it drives the rest of us into newer territories because we have this renewed or invigorated presence in the band. We're more inclined to take risks without the fear of failing. I hear that in the course, or arc, of the three records. Lyrically, the writing has become more focused on sound, which created a lot more editing. On "Tundra" for instance, the poems' words are slightly different than the lyrics to the songs. "Carriage" is a perfect example of that. It's a permutable piece of writing. As a poem, taken on its own and away from the music, it reads differently than what you'll find on the lyric sheet. In short, there's a lyric version and a poem version that exist independently of each other, but they have the same title. As another, but different, example, "The Achivement" started out as a story (and was recorded as such) and then was cropped down to fit a certain shorter arrangement. Weird? Maybe. But it's a definite indication of how we're all willing to shift our roles to the desired effect of the songs or situation.

R.: Was it easy transforming your poems into spoken song lyrics?

Pete Simonelli: I suppose I sort of answered that already--- getting ahead of myself again. Sorry about that. Sometimes it is easy, other times not. The idea, or the aim, is to retain the integrity of each element--- the writing and the music--- so that they can work together and independently of each other. But I think under the crux of the harder times you can really see the limitations or the possibilities of the lyrics. There have certainly been times when I'll have to call a break, sit down and get to work all over again--- sometimes right then and there, in the studio. "Transforming" is the perfect word for the process, though, because there are times when the song's arrangement will dictate how a line comes across; it will heighten or lessen segments where I haven't necessarily seen it coming and I'll have to adapt a line, or a break in a line, to the direction of the music. Again, this is one definitive way the whole approach has changed over the years. The push and pull has sort of shifted. Where they once felt the need to accommodate the words, I now feel the responsibility to accommodate the music. I have to adapt more now, and I think that only helps. We're much more at the mercy of the song and the arrangement now. Not always, but a lot more than before. You have to reconcile space (voice) and sound (music) accordingly and do it in a way that still makes sense to you, the listener and, hopefully, to the whole and eventual combination of the poem and the music.

R.: Your words in your poems have sometimes an intimate quality to them so that I could imagine that it could be difficult performing them. Do you see that as a challenge?

Pete Simonelli: A challenge, yes, but a welcome one. It's really just about feeling your way through the process of combining these two separate things. Mistakes are often very helpful because you can step away from one approach and see another developing. We're trying to record everything now--- the practice, that is--- to see where the possibilities lie, and to what advantage they can best be used. Intimacy comes out of that. I can't really come in and say, "Ok, it's gotta be really quiet here," or, "Dial it down here because I gotta get sexy with it; I gotta get this line across." None of that shit. The intimacy will reveal itself as you get more familiar with the song. I mean, I first thought that the poem "Tundra" would get a sort of quiet or mild treatment. Then Kevin introduced this really great southern fried, ZZ riff and I got such a resounding hard-on about it that the aggressive delivery kind of took over. And then it got even more raging when they told me it had to be delivered harder, dirtier. That movie, "Downfall", had just come out; we all really loved it, and I can remember Kevin telling me to basically imitate Bruno Ganz as Hitler raving in the bunker--- the ebb and flow of it. That was an intimate performance to me so I ran with it. Performed live, I love turning into an absolute fucking lunatic with it...with some hearts and flowers thrown in for nuance of course.

R.: How do you perceive yourself on stage during a performance?

Pete Simonelli: I try not to perceive myself. That's troubling. I do some things in a performance and wake up the next day wincing out of physical pain or sheer, psychic embarassment. Other times everything's ok. From a techical standpoint, I'll think, alright, I hit my marks, the voice felt good, the delivery seemed good; I fell ass over heels over the monitor, but that's cool; it got a laugh--- all of that. I guess I'm still trying to figure it all out, faults and all. I don't worry about movement, though; I know that'll always be there because those guys make truly compelling music that forces me to move and respond to it. Who wants to see a "poet" or "singer" just standing there as this provocative music pours around him? I wouldn't, so I suppose I react against that kind of perceived performance. Ultimately, it's rock music, and there's an inherent demand on a performance. You should come out with the intent on delivering something people can take away with them.

R.: Could you elaborate a bit on what some of the lyrics/poems mean to you?

Pete Simonelli: They all have a special meaning. I wouldn't have written them if they didn't have some kind of initial curiosity or emotional weight. Other than that, I really don't care to elaborate on what they "mean" or how they come about. I will say that their origins may not indicate the outcome. I just don't believe in breaking down the meaning to any poem, and as I progress as a writer I think the writing and thus the point/meaning/gist becomes clearer. As a favorite poet of mine, August Kleinzahler, said, a poem is just another form of entertainment. If people accept a poet or a poem deeply into their lives and it somehow gives them succor or meaning--- great. But I wouldn't set out to specifically do that; that would make for some startlingly BAD work. But I will say that poems like "Mediterranean" and "A Blues" are definite points of pride, and for various reasons.

R.: Do you have any writers/poets or stories/poems that you like very much?

Pete Simonelli: Sure, there are many of them that over the years have proven to be really influential or just things that have made a strong impression. Over the last dozen years or so I've been reading almost everything August Kleinzahler has put out in that time. The first time I saw him read I thought, "Alright, now I know what I want to do, and, more importantly, what I have to do." I was reminded of Celine a little bit, because Kleinzahler has a great technique, style, and approach to how he writes: he combines everyday spoken language with a sort of elevated language that rarely loses the reader. He can write poems with his feet firmly on the ground and yet he can also launch a poem into these great, expansive territories of memory, history, or even science. He's a poet and writer with a lot of curiosity, instinct, and humor, and he just seems to be very comfortable doing what he does with language. He contorts it without becoming too vague, and at the same time will sort of retreat into a given character's (he writes a lot about people in his neighborhood, friends, acquaintances, strangers past and present) way of speech, which takes a very refined ear to pull off successfully. He's also a hugely tasteful music buff and critic, and has written pretty extensively about Jazz, old R&B, early Rock, Blues, and even the occasional Classical piece.
Another favorite of mine is a guy named Jack Gilbert. I came across him after an old friend of mine turned me on to one of his books, "The Great Fires." I've been hooked ever since. He's led a pretty interesting life. Grew up in Pittsburgh when it was still an Iron Town with a largely working-class population; a city based almost exclusively on heavy industry. He went to Yale, eventually winning a very distinguished award (The Yale Younger Poets Prize) and then fucked off to Europe and drifted around for the next 20 odd years before settling in some obscure part of Greece for many years more. His poems read like dispatches from acute points of pain, loss (his wife died at a young age), and the resolve that comes out of those emotions. A really strong, white-haired, white-bearded poet that believes in telling it like it is. He looks like a grounded demi-god that sort of wanders the Earth recalling things about a life lived with misfortune, fortune, and risk. I just re-read a poem of his called "A Kind of Courage" (from his book, Refusing Heaven) last night, and that's about as good as any poem can get. What he can do in a minimal amount of lines is by turns shocking and enviable. I've read some of his stuff over the years and thought to myself, "Forget it, man....Drop the pen and go do something else."

R.: Do you have any other favorite stories/poems not of yours where you could talk about what they mean to you?

Pete Simonelli: Well there's that Gilbert poem I mentioned above, but a lot of poems and stories come and go in terms of how they "hit" you. Something that blew you away ten years ago may now say nothing more to you than a simple "huh." Some stick with you, though. There's a poem by Elizabeth Bishop called "Crusoe in England," which comes to mind. That one I go back to and read time and again. It's a poem that reads like a short story and, in a technical sense, commands the reader with its transitional mastery, how it gets from point to point so fluidly and keeps its tension as she goes from point to point. And the ending of it breaks your heart. Dog lovers beware.
Aside from these, there are a lot of poems I come across in online journals and small print journals that are great. A guy named Matthew Dickman comes to mind. Kim Addonizio is another really good one. A couple of friends of mine write great stuff: Peter Funk and Mark Terril. Rilke's Duino Elegy #1 (translated by Stephen Mitchell) is an important one to me: "For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us." Not bad, eh? Bukowski had one that used to kill me, "Claws of Paradise" from Play the Piano like a Percussion Instrument until the Fingers Begin to Bleed.
There's a line in there about toothpaste caps getting lost down the sink drain--- another stupid reason why relationships fail. I remember that poem having a lot of relevance at one time. Another old friend of mine, Jack Hayes, wrote some great stuff, namely "Sam Peckinpah Mexican Xmas" which I've read at readings a couple of times now. Jack (who is the person addressed in one of our songs "For Jack: A Philippic" on Output Negative Space) is a surrealist poet weaned on all those French guys (Breton notably) who brings a lot of 50s and 60s American Pulp and Noir into play in his poems. Great, vivid images and references to people like Tammy Wynette shake hands in the same line; it's often hilarious and loaded with overtones of pills, booze, deserts, Ecclesiastes--- all sorts of rabid and livewire kind of shit. Makes for a tasty stew.

R.: What were the last few bands/albums that you enjoyed?

Pete Simonelli: I've recently come across The Grails' last record and have been enjoying that. What a great band they are. Last night my girlfriend was playing something called Ballroom Dance is Dead, which is a New Orleans/New York collaboration involving a friend of ours named Lynn Wright. Really, really great. One of those things you hear and your ears just instantly perk up: " what's this??" Then I realized that I'd actually heard it before but hadn't remembered it, which is basically the same as hearing it for the first time. And then there's always Delta Blues stuff, which I'll always love and admire, because 50, 60, even 70 years on now (in most cases) that stuff still comes across to my ears more sincerely than any other form of music I can think of--- just watch, or listen to, Son House. Man.


Interview with Emil Amos from Holy Sons, Grails and Om, March 2008

Emil Amos is not only the fantastic drummer for the magnificent Grails and Om but also the mastermind behind the one-man folk-inspired soulstrip called Holy Sons. Recently Emil joined Om and replaced the original drummer and since Grails have also turned some stones with their recent album it is high time for some praise for Holy Sons. The following interview is going to shed some light on Holy Sons as well as touch themes like conformity and the demise of the Western civilization. For completeness sake I would also recommend reading the earlier interview with Grails' Alex John Hall. But now, sit back, turn on your favorite obscure 70' record and enjoy reading the following interview with Emil Amos.

Emil Amos

R.: Please tell me about the circumstances of how and when you started Holy Sons.

Emil Amos: Sometime in 1992 I went from being obsessed with hardcore to someone who focused only on lo-fi music in a matter of months and ignored everything else developing in music at the time. To me that was just the clear path that underground/punk music was following ...I didn't see the other bands and styles going on at that time as something able to satisfy the specific intelligence I was looking for in music. Like most obsessive underground music listeners I could only really listen to artists that I felt I could totally 'trust'; which is a sort of militant mindset reserved for extremists... it felt kind of analogous to the early 60's folk movement where the listeners were hypersensitive about how truly legitimate and pure a singer's motivations were. I'm saying this while realizing that most people would've and still do disagree with a lot about my perspective. But it's the perspective that made me who I am and the records I make now and I don't feel like I had a lot of control over this development.

R.: As far as I understand Holy Sons is a solo project of yours - you play all the instruments, you sing and compose all the songs. Is this a "living room" project that you do in your free time?

Emil Amos: It used to be just my waking state of being. When I woke up each day I recorded... and, as a kid, I wasn't super interested in much else going on out in the world besides the few fringe things that I found to be of value. But now I've found newer interests in the world, more external issues that I feel strongly about; so the music has become a little less of a diary and more about my relationship to the world. Playing all the instruments alone was always part of the philosophy because it gave me more power to create a total immersion into the world of 1 person instead of watering it down with the common democracies and ambitions of a 'band' mindset.

R.: Apart from Holy Sons you play drums in Grails and Om. How do you handle three musical projects at the same time?

E.A.: I'm just barely pulling it off. When I was younger I wouldn't have had the mental discipline to emotionally compartmentalize these projects and leave my ego behind. Everyday I have to drop whatever record I'm artistically engaged in to switch to a different band or go practice for a tour. Last year I created a nexus of responsibilities for myself that was borderline physically impossible, so this year I'm slowing the flow of releases and traveling so I can try to enjoy what I'm doing. Remembering to enjoy things has become the central issue for me lately. That seems to be the irony of ambitiousness... that the more you attempt to accomplish, the more bullshit you inevitably fill your daily existence up with to get it all done; but simultaneously it's getting in your way. So efficiency has sort of become everything.

R.: Do Grails, Om and Holy Sons complement each other in terms of ideas for songs or do you treat them separately?

E.A.: Yeah, HolySons and Grails have been trading more instrumental songs lately to give the albums more stylistic variation. Each band's sound generates from a certain mood and you generally know what kind of melodies and instruments will fit into that mold. But because the material comes from the same melodic wellsprings inside of you there's always a common thread between the bands.

R.: The cover of your records have an outstanding iconography of collages with images from Eastern, Western and ancient vanished civilizations. What do you try to "express" with these covers?

E.A.: I was heavily influenced by skateboard art growing up... it was kind of cartoonish and surreal but really loud and extreme. Otherwise, I just gravitated towards various strange or disperate aesthestics as a kid and they became a part of my skewed worldview. For example, the first time I remember liking Eastern music was when I was obsessed with a martial arts arcade game called 'Kicker' from around 1986 that had really catchy songs that ran through a lot of Asian scales really fast; we've been talking about trying to cover that video game song recently. I've had a lot of phases of being really into obscure cults and secret organizations that are all somehow connected by the sense that they are hidden behind a sort of psychic curtain; things that you have to uncover or are part of a world behind the world that is sold or taught to you. The name 'Holy Sons' is supposed to be indicative of a secret cult in this way.

R.: "Decline Of The West" is a peculiar title of the last Holy Sons record. What is the meaning behind choosing this title and how does it fit with the themes on the album itself? Do you believe that Western culture is doomed?

E.A.: Yeah, it will eventually die like everything does but I wouldn't say that's a bad thing so much as it's inevitable. Songs like 'Satanic Androids' and 'Slave Morality' are trying to paint a picture similar to Dostoevsky's 'Grand Inquisitor' in that Western consumer culture has gone unchecked for so long, without any sense of self-critique or conscience, that the only pursuit it seems to exalt is the escape of oneself or one's dissolving into 'the crowd'. If you look at something like the state of Hollywood today I think you'll see a reflection of a declining spiritual state; the art of film has winded down this long sophisticated path that experienced very profound peaks to arrive at a bankrupt dead end where art can't really enter into it's equation. I feel like this dynamic is occuring throughout most areas of popular culture... but I guess there's no reason to think that the spiritual errosion of a culture dominated by conformity is any sort of new phenomenon.

R.: Do you see any differences in the way this 'conformity' reveals itself throughout the Western culture? I ask this because to me it seems that in the US it is not so much regarded as a 'shame' to be well adapted to society because this adaption is to a 'free', extraordinary society. On the other hand conformity in Europe is a more problematic notion although it reveals itself in the European view to be more multifaceted than the US. But exactly this view again attests conformity through arrogance. In simplified terms one could say that this is a complicated behaviour based on an ancient tribe vs. tribe demeanor.

E.A.: I think you're on to something; I just can't really weigh in on a cultural comparison because I don't have enough experience with living in Europe. On the other hand, although I don't think it's a totally safe scientific assumption to make, I think it's fair to assume that the impulse to conform has to be pretty evenly spread across the world. The rewards would be different in various cultures but the urge to dissolve oneself into a mass is ancient. Companionship with the like-minded blob, relief of individual responsibilities, and the pressure to join, in most societies, seem to be too hard to avoid for many people... maybe for a lack of imagination or bravery... or the need for inclusion as a simulation of real love. It's hard to underestimate people's need to feel liked by others. What fascinates me about conformism is how subtle and convoluted it can be... it finds it's way into every facet of life... I think conformism is my favorite subject.

R.: Would you say that Holy Sons songs are personal in the sense that they reveal something about yourself? Do you see them as some kind of therapy?

E.A.: Yeah, that was basically the whole dogmatic birth of HolySons in that the whole purpose and DNA of the expression was that it was almost a type of radical therapeutic practice... an environment where I could just be myself, whoever that was, and study that thing with no interrupting social awareness, no moral plane, nothing but a room where I could behave in anyway I was moved to and document it. Obviously that's not really something with an audience or the world of music marketing in mind. At the time I thought that was something people might be able to get into... and over time I felt proved wrong... and, as a lover of music, a sense of disappointment in me grew as I felt like I watched underground music snake further and further out into areas I really found useless and impersonal. I carried the sense that I would never be able to really have a dialogue with an audience at all as it seemed to contradict the wish to just be true to myself. In the last couple years that kind of bile-tasting/morbid view has begun to soften in me a little bit... but ironically a new brand of pseudo-honesty has recently been concocted and succesfully sold to the public and that has contributed further to muddying up the arena of defining what 'honesty' and 'rawness' are.

R.: When I play records that I believe to be emotionally 'raw' and 'honest' to other people I often get the response from them that it is too 'dark' and 'depressing'. The misconception of what is 'depressing' owes this undoubtedly to what has been sold to the public over the years as being 'raw' and 'honest'. What do you think? Could you tell me a bit more about what this 'new brand of pseudo-honesty' is and what it contributed to?

E.A.: Are people conditioned to want processed simulations of reality?... yes,,, Do they enjoy the fake versions even more anyway?... maybe... I think Jandek is a good example of something that's so raw and direct that most people's ears can't even identify what it is or how one would digest it. I suppose anyone has the right to say... "this is too raw, process this for me so I can enjoy it"... you'd just hope that everything in their life wasn't pre-processed without their knowing what reality actually tastes like.
After an industry was created around 'underground music' it began to pay to be 'sincere'... so then we got this new phenomenon of bands who are aware of 'the sound of sincerity' and completely aware that there is a reward for that 'sound' ...or perhaps, more innocently, some are mimicking what they listened to and felt was sincere but have nothing to add to the previously covered dialogue.
It kind of reminds me of that movie 'A Beautiful Mind'... in that the focus of the movie's phenomenon was the leading multi-millionaire/model actor playing the schizophrenic genius and getting best picture,... rather than the reality of the actual schizophrenic guy the movie is based on that most people in the audience would step over on the sidewalk while walking out of the movie.

R.: What can be expected from the upcoming Holy Sons record? When will it be released?

E.A.: The next one, "Drifter's Sympathy", was an attempt to create some sonic contrast between the HolySons records. It's heavily influenced by the experimental German records made in the 70's that had less songs but drew out their ideas into longer genre experiments. Their records created an odd kind of fantasy world but somehow remained very personal sounding; sort of pre-new-age, post-acid, bummer/contemplative records... the songwriting could employ any instrumentation or style that could illustrate the overall meditative/explorative mood.
I always found myself, in ways, drawn to the less cohesive records bands made, while popular thought seems to always vote for a smoother, less jarring presentation. If you really love a band, their b-side collections and private demos can often thrill you more than their big/glossy major label presentations. Neil Young is one of the most obvious writers that sometimes disregarded how an album is 'supposed to flow'... and not always to great results. But what if you flipped that dynamic and consciously made records that didn't have an expected sonic cohesion to create more contrast and give each song more weight? You might find that more in outsider stuff like R.Stevie Moore, maybe Kramer's 'Guilt Trip' or more well-known with Sebadoh III and Bee Thousand but it still seems like there's a lot more to be done to upset the expected formulas.

R.: What have you been listening to lately? What's the last record you bought or 'got into'?

E.A.: I've been in a 70's Italian soundtrack phase for awhile now. I constantly move through genres and just listen to things that are new to me to expand my understanding of production even if I don't necessarily like the music. I've always really liked film, music or imagery that make you feel slightly uncomfortable... and, somewhat inadvertently, I often end up making uncomfortable imagery or music; it's not my intention so much as it's what I like. I like some aspect of a piece of art to be a completely catchy hit,... very colorful, melodically saturated and in the pocket... and then I like another aspect of the art to be simultaneously awkward and wrong; that seems to open up the ceiling for creative and unexpected choices to be made. Within both of those areas lies a sort of honesty that rides a balance for me.