Thursday, July 19, 2007

Music Review: The Silos Come On Like the Fast Lane

Like the Silos’ best work, Come On Like the Fast Lane is gutsy, a little sparse, and often deceptively joyful. Walter Salas-Humara’s songwriting has always been steeped in the past, whether he was nodding at the Stones on the Silos’ early classics or the Velvet Underground with his guitar-heavy art rock leanings later on. This time, Salas-Humara’s iPod seems stuck on 1994. The bright, toe-tapping “Tell Me You Love Me” would be at home on a Lemonheads album. “Keeping Score” churns and soars like early Smashing Pumpkins. “People Are Right” like a lost track from Phish’s “Rift,” and there are even splashes of Soundgarden in the chorused riffing of “Top of the World.” The new touches might be the influence of Jonathan Spottiswoode and Steve Wynn, who co-wrote a few tracks.

But Fast Lane is pure Silos. Whether the starting point is cowpunk, art rock, or grunge, the Silos play with the stripped-down attitude of a garage band. When Salas-Humara sings “Come on over to our side or get out of our way,” it’s convincing. And not too many bands could pull off a love song called “Kickass” without sounding campy or pandering. For the Silos, it’s just naturally cool.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Peter Kuper Stops Forgetting to Remember

Peter Kuper is already respected as an artist for work like his graphic novelization of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” his wordless mediation on conflict Sticks and Stones, his underground political zine with friend Seth Tobocman, Bomb Shelter, and his Spy v. Spy in Mad Magazine. With today’s release of Stop Forgetting to Remember: The Autobiography of Walter Kurtz, he becomes his own subject, joining the ranks of R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar. Through his alter-ego, Walter Kurtz, Kuper explores his life from his awkward childhood development, his artistic inspiration and bad relationships, right up through his own daughter’s adolescence.

As Kurtz tells one clueless potential publisher, he is making the point that, “As we age, we forget or distance outselves from our past behavior… Especially after we have kids.” It’s a poignant, funny, and self-deprecating work of note. I was able to catch up with Kuper by e-mail this week to talk about Stop Forgetting to Remember and his past and future work.

What’s your sense of the origin of graphic novels as autobiography?

Robert Crumb certainly showed the way for the tell-all autobio work. No turn left unstoned. He showed things I hadn’t realized cartoon characters were allowed to do, and I thank him for it. Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad had shown Crumb the door and he and his generation walk right through.

When you first got into cartooning, did you see the possibilities of the format, or did you just want to make comics?

Since the age of about eleven I have been absurdly enthusiastic about comics. My friend Seth Tobocman and I did our first zine back then beating the drum for comics. I had started to see underground comics at that point so I was aware that there was even more to the form than superhero adventures and Richie Rich. Both of which I read and loved, by the way. All and all I loved the medium and felt it was the best and most expansive art form around. Still do.

Who are your main influences?

It is such a long list I’m sure to miss some important names, but here’s the tip of the iceberg: Charlie Chaplin, R. Crumb, Jack Kirby. George Grosz, Alfred Hitchcock, Lynd Ward, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, Dr Seuss, Will Eisner, Walt Disney, James Thurber, Ralph Steadman, Saul Steinberg and on and on.

Do you approach Spy vs. Spy differently than, say, a graphic adaptation of Kafka? Do you have a different mindset for the work for hire versus the more personal work?

Well, it isn’t so much the work for hire part as the subject matter and who it’s aimed for. When I do Spy, I try to remember my 12-year-old self and get in touch with my inner child/terrorist. I think about Kennedy and Kruschev, Simp and Gimp and Itchy and Scratchy. With Kafka it’s a trip to German expressionist Czech woodcutting territory. Kafka’s words are so rich they suggest lots of wild visuals and unconventional ways to tell the story. Doing Kafka is like going into a trance, while with Spy, I’m dodging bullets.

Was it a challenge to create the storyline for Sticks and Stones without dialogue? Why did you approach it that way?

I have always found wordless comics to be an appealing approach to telling a story. Without words, the pictures become language uncluttered with word balloons and defy expectations of what a comic can look like... The more I work without words, the easier it is to do. At this point I’ve done so many comics like Eye Of The Beholder (a weekly strip I did for a decade), The System, stories that appeared in Speechless and over a decade of Spy Vs Spy, I’ve become pretty fluent in that language

Do you still produce Bomb Shelter?

Bomb Shelter is the stand in name for World War 3 Illustrated, which Seth and I founded in art school in 1979. We are working on the 27th issue at this very moment.

Do you have plans to keep producing Richie Bush cartoons?

I don’t, but perhaps I’ll do a departing story for old time sake to bookend the other stories. The animation I did remains on the web at

In your more political work, is it hard to resist the easy jokes? It seems like the “Bush is dumb” jokes are too seductive for a lot of people to resist, and then they wind up not looking any deeper into the issues.

I don’t think it’s fair to target Bush just for his simian appearance and inability to read his lines, even as he lies us into war. I’m generally more concerned with what the people like Rove and Cheney are doing since they seem to be the active destroyers, while Bush is a silver spoon front man who looks as surprised as we are he’s president.

How similar are Peter Kuper and Walter Kurtz?

Completely different. Kurtz is a self-centered, obsessive whiner, whereas I am self-centered and obsessive, but whine less.

How constant is that battle to keep from distancing yourself from your past behavior? It seems that would be an exhausting task.

I don’t think we even notice when it happens. It’s a slow process and then one day you wake up on Father Knows Best. The struggle to stop it from happening is complicated since there are plenty of things worth forgetting. I moved to Mexico last year to stop forgetting how important travel was to my life. Moving (along my wife and daughter) was such a headache—but worth it to keep this dying part of my past behavior alive.

The kids seem to provide instant perspective during the more difficult times in the book. Do your kids ever influence your perspective in your work?

My daughter has a huge influence on my life experience which bleeds into all my work. I did a children’s book Theo and The Blue Note, last fall and have a few new ideas I may yet do that come from being around a child.

The 9/11 metaphor, where Kurtz’s daughter draws her own picture over the devastation of the towers is beautiful. Is there a true life story behind that?

In the weeks following 9/11, I was shattered like everyone else. At the end of the day I’d get home from work and take a deep breath and swallow my tension to avoid having my daughter experience that state (she was 5 at the time). I found entering her world of make believe and toys free from harsh reality to be a tremendous relief from my anxiety. I just tried to translate that feeing visually in my book.

Do you expect you’ll pick up where this novel left off at some point?

Yes, pretty much immediately. I have already mapped out much of the story. It begins in NYC and follows Kurtz to Mexico with the side stories covering many, many wild past travels. All I have to do now is finish a second year in Mexico, so I know how the story ends!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Grant-Lee Phillips: Strangelet

Grant-Lee Phillips has been making sublime rock and roll since the late eighties, when he was the guitarist for L.A.’s Shiva Burlesque. But it was his next band, Grant Lee Buffalo, that would cement Phillips as an extraordinary songwriter with an angelic voice and a penchant for treating a twelve-string acoustic like it were a bad-ass fuzzed out Tele. Their first album, Fuzzy, got the attention of indie and college stations, including Boston’s WFNX in 1992, and they would continue to make majestic, bucolic rock through the late nineties.

Since then, Phillips has established himself as a solo artist, experimenting with electronica on Mobilize, releasing an album of sweetly melodic, acoustic guitar driven tunes on Virginia Creeper, and an homage to his eighties influences on nineteeneighties. Along the way, he has scored for television and film, played the town minstrel on The Gilmore Girls, and appeared on buddy Greg Behrendt’s daytime talk show. His latest album, Stranglet, veers into fuzzed out sixties garage rock while retaining some of Virginia Creeper’s sepia-toned feel. Besides guest guitarist Peter Buck (R.E.M.)He played most of the instruments himself, working with Eric Gorfain on the string arrangements. He also just completed the Various $& Sundry tour with Glen Phillips (formerly of Toad the Wet Sprocket), the Watkins Family (Sean and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek) and singer/fiddler Luke Bulla (Blue Merle).

Did recording nineteeneighties put you in the mood to indulge your rock side a bit more on Strangelet? There's a bit of a 60s low rock feel with anthemic lyrics.

I suppose the nineteeneighties album did in some way influence my approach to Strangelet. When you go about covering a song, it's an opportunity to deconstruct the inner workings, which can be very inspiring. I was actually working on the two albums at once but there's some bleed-over.

How did you choose to play most of the instruments on Strangelet? Is there any specific criteria using a band versus going it alone?

Very often, it has to do with timing as much as anything. In this case, I was writing at home and working through ideas in my studio. Recording has gradually become another useful tool for songwriting. If the song cried out for an overdub that I could play, the most natural thing was to play it myself. It’s really matter of remaining focused and dialing in the track as I hear it. I sometimes struggle to articulate what I’m hearing to other musicians, so again it’s often easier do it myself. When I’m aiming to record an album all in one go, I prepare the songs with the band of course and that can be a great process.

How did you work out the string arrangements with Eric Gorfain? I always wonder how that works, when you have someone like Michael Kamen working with Tom Petty, where the inspiration comes from and how that transfers to the recording.

Eric has an incredible ear and he’s very instinctual. We’ve done a few international tours together, recorded together and it’s always been very easy to work with him. He often finds that perfect little line and plucks it right out of the air. The two of us have developed a short hand when it comes to parts and arranging - that and a trust.

I sometimes create a demo of the song with various string ideas that he is encouraged to refine or refer to. Then I give him another mix minus strings for him to mock up to and we sort of carve away from there. It’s a unique partnership, most definitely.

As a solo artist, do you still have any desire for a band dynamic?

The truth is I often do work within a band dynamic when it comes to recording and performing. True at times, I’m apt to perform entirely on my own but whenever there are other musicians involved it tends to challenge and inspire you in various measures. Perhaps because I’ve always been the songwriter and singer, even in the old band, my job hasn’t changed all that much.

Was there a specific inspiration for Johnny Guitar?

It's rock and roll song in the classic sense... self destruction and a big beat. I was listening to T-Rex, Eddie Chochran and Gene Vincent at the time. There's a bit of X in there as well.

Had you played with Peter Buck before?

We've had a chance to play together here and there over the years but this was the first time that Peter and I ever recorded together. He’s always been one of my favorite guitarists. He works with textures and layers but always at the service of the song. Much of the album was completed before Peter came in but I had set aside a few choice songs in anticipation of what Peter would bring to the party. Those moments on the album are among my favorite.

How was the Various & Sundry tour? Do you think you'll ever record with that particular group of people?

The tour we just wrapped up with Glen Phillips, The Watkins Family, and Luke Bulla was thoroughly satisfying. I came back a better musician just being in a van with those guys. With any luck, we’ll take the show on the road again, in which case, yeah perhaps an album is possible.

What led you to record nineteeneighties? Was there some aspect of the nineteeneighties songs you thought was overlooked that you tried to bring to the surface?

These were the songs that meant the most to me at a time when I was first finding my feet in Los Angles. Sort like my top ten, although there were other songs I’m sure. In some ways my re-recordings are drawn from memory, rather than being a straight cover version. Those of us who came of age with this music have a deep connection to it and it says so much about our generational tastes. Most of these songs were never top ten but they have a personal relevance.

Do you ever get the urge to put the guitar away and write songs in a completely different way, like you did with Mobilize?

I’m often intrigued by music that’s made of different stuff than my own. At times, I’ll have to follow that and go exploring. Mobilize was like that. Every album is to some degree, some times it’s more pronounced. As a singer and guitarist, that’s the most natural place for me. It’s like the religion I was born into. Nevertheless, it’s meaningful explore and see what you can haul back home.

Are you still influenced by new music? Do you hear something like My Morning Jacket or even a new Willie Nelson song and think, I could go in that direction?

I do tend to follow my ears when they prick up at something new. My Morning Jacket have a great spirit about them. Big guitars, big reverb and yet it feels like those guys are discovering those things for the first. That’s the thing with music – it’s all in your ears and in your head. It has much more to do with that than any tangible components - so yeah, poking your head up out of the ground has a way of reminding you of this.

The Grant Lee Buffalo bio on the official site mentions WFNX specifically as the first station to give significant airtime to the band's first album, "Fuzzy." How important was that station in GLB's development? Has Boston been an important city for you in terms of a fanbase and touring?

Personally, I love Boston. It’s supposed to be a Virgo city. It was also the place where GLB first got a foothold and WFNX played a big part for sure. There are certain places that you’re drawn to, where you feel at home and Boston is that kind place for me.

What have you scored for television? Is that more of a working gig, or is there something about it that appeals to your artistically?

Film scoring is something I’ve always been drawn by. The power that music can conjure in terms of mood and texture appeals to me. In many ways, film music is more akin to classical music, in that it moves so freely from one emotional color to the next. Scoring What About Brian was a good opportunity to delve further into the process of composing to picture. The methodology between film and television is essentially the same. The job is always about aiding picture though and assisting the realization of the director’s vision. That’s where the work comes in and where you grow the most, artistically.

Were you sad to see the Gilmore Girls sign off? Was that a strange gig?

I took a walk through the back lot a few weeks ago. It was like walking through my old deserted high school. It is sad to say goodbye but it was fun show and we had such a nice run. It's now in syndication. I’m eager to see Amy Sherman Palladino's next show, which should be amazing.

Greg Behrendt mentioned he was thinking of making you the bandleader on his show. How close was that to happening?

Greg was indeed working to create a very different kind of daytime television show and in many ways he succeeded. Knowing how funny and fast on his feet he is, it would be somewhat criminal if he were confined to being a talk show host alone, however. Although the format did not have room for a band and therefore a bandleader, we did manage to work together on The Greg Behrendt show. The "Uncomfortable Phone Call," bits where I came on to break difficult news to a soon to be jilted lover or a soon to be ex-roommate in the form of a song, are going on my resume I promise. Crisis Counseling in Song Form.

Friday, July 6, 2007

OC-Ed -- Hometown Fireworks

The Fourth of July is a monthlong affair in Lynn, Massachusetts, where I live. The fireworks start around mid-June and, as I write this on the actual night of the Fourth, continue long past the point where anyone could possibly still enjoy the noise. The quality of the fireworks after midnight is largely inferior to the impressive pyrotechnics of eight or nine o’clock as daylight fades. Everyone in the neighborhood seems to have blown their stash, and we’re now down to single bottle rockets. A few hundred single bottle rockets.

Lynn does things a bit differently than the rest of Boston. The official town fireworks display happens on July 3, all gussied up as a joint enterprise with our more upscale neighbors in Swampscott. Everyone gathers on the beach or the sidewalk lining the beach starting at around six p.m., orders their food from Christie’s, on the Lynn side, or one of the restaurants on the Swampscott end of the beach. Just to fit in, Nahant, to the east, joins in with its own random civilian displays.

For those not familiar with the Fourth in Boston, the big tradition is to cram onto the esplanade, where hundred have slept since the night before to secure good seats, and watch the Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops with special guests (this year it was John Mellencamp) and watch the fireworks over the bay. Which means as my wife Melissa and I were driving five minutes up the road at six p.m. on the 3rd for fireworks that started at nine p.m. that night, the first of the Esplanade crazies were arriving with their blankets and coolers in Boston.

We got our drinks and a newspaper from a neighborhood corner store, loaded up on fried foods from Christie’s, an eatery that has overlooked the Atlantic Ocean and been run by the same family since 1903. Then we staked our place in the grass along the sidewalk and waited.

The shore started to fill up. One of the first couples came with small yapping dog. It was cute in the beginning, until the man noticed out amusement and start talking to the dog in a booming voice to make sure everyone around him noticed. Melissa placed his accent as Oklahoma or north Texas. Several people gathered on a blanket behind us around a boom box. Melissa and I debated about the language, whether it was Middle Eastern or perhaps had a hint of the Caribbean islands. You wouldn’t think the two regions had much in common linguistically, but I couldn’t decipher it.

That’s when Melissa said, “There’s something very poignant about the diversity in this place.”

It occurred to me at that moment that we were in the best place in the country to celebrate America. As we got closer to the start time, we put our chairs back in the car and walked along the beach, looking up at the containing wall where hundreds of people lined up for a mile or so. There were faces of every color, people of various means and beliefs. And, unlike the Esplanade show or some of the other displays, the crowd here was from the same community. The couple we’re sure were smoking pot, the dozens of families, the groups of kids riding their bikes on the hard sand – most of them probably lived within a ten minute drive from here.

We returned home to find the fireworks hadn’t ended. The personal fireworks displays that had begun in June was reaching a crescendo while a professional show from somewhere near Saugus, to the west, lit up the end of our block. It seemed like every neighborhood was having its own celebration. Lynn does things a bit differently, but it does things together.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Beaver Nelson's Exciting Opportunity

After being named a prodidgy in 1992 by Rolling Stone, Beaver Nelson spent nearly seven years fighting the record industry to put out his first album, The Last Hurrah, in 1998. And when Freedom Records, the record company that released that album, folded, it looked like it might be another seven before Nelson’s beautiful, rough-hewn rock and twang would surface again. But he found a way to release seven albums in nine years, each one of them filled with some of the best American songwriting you’ll find anywhere, on big label or small.

There is a folk rock sensibility to much of what Nelson writes, but he has a knack for fusing that with any number of styles, from punk to reggae. His voice is reedy but sincere and surprisingly versatile, breaking in all the right places with the right amount of grace and bravado.

His latest record, Beaver Nelson’s Exciting Opportunity was just released on Freedom Records, his fourth for the label, which was resurrected in 2003. Written over ten weeks of isolation painting a house in rural Texas, the subject matters are clearly personal and introspective. He contemplates shifting ideas of utopia (“Perfect String”), self-image (“Bad Man”), and faith (“Humility”) with earthy wit and a poet’s eye. “If You Name A Thing It Dies” is at once simple and complicated, a lesson in Zen semantics and discovery. “That song is in halves,” says Nelson in his album notes. “I state two completely opposite statements, and I believe them both to be true.” The album also bears the stamp of longtime Nelson collaborator, guitarist and producer “Scrappy” Jud Newcomb.

When you took the house painting job, did you see it as an opportunity to isolate yourself and write or was it a surprise that the songs came to you?

I hadn't written in a while and had a good idea that if I put myself in that kind of productive isolation I would write some songs. My wife and I had been trying to figure out a way to do that when that job came along.

How did you come to write “If You Name a Thing” and contradict yourself in the song?

"If You Name a Thing It Dies" was written very quickly. Thirty minutes tops. Well before I had written it, I had been ruminating on the importance of internal consistency in poetry. I had previously never made such bold opposite statements in the body of a song. After the first section of the song was written, I knew that this was the time to do that - not because I could, but because the subject matter demanded it. I am drawn to paradox, and find comfort in them.

Each song has its own set of instruments, if not a separate vibe. How do you reconcile those into a coherent album?

I chose to rely on the subject matter and lyrical approach to provide the context for the listener. I think it worked out well. I just can't get behind the notion that variety is a negative. At the same time, we recorded this quickly and with the same players, so to me it doesn't feel jarring, song to song.

Exciting Opportunity seems the flipside of The Last Hurrah, past the sort of deadpan sarcasm that went into the first album into an acceptance of a certain randomness. Is that an accurate description? Is that where you’re at now, looking at your life and career?

Yes, as long as we are talking about things that humans can control. I believe that God has reasons for SOME of what happens. I just have stopped trying to control it or trying to predict it. I have wishes for my life, but so does He. And I think He is smarter.

When you were named a prodigy by Rolling Stone, did you imaging you’d be where you are now?

How could I? I had never faced failure in anything. Looking back, I don't consider any of this as failure, but I would have then.

Was it a conscious decision to leave behind the strings and fiddles on The Last Hurrah to find a news sound?

I guess so, but I really didn't think I was leaving anything behind that I couldn't go back to.

Do you identify with anything resembling the “Texas singer/songwriter” tag? Is that some to embrace? Run from? Seems handy, but could be a hindrance.

That whole thing is tricky to me. I don't know what "Texas singer/songwriter" means anymore. It's different things to different people, so how do you answer that? The wide range of music that has come out of here is staggering. Townes Van Zandt was very important to me, but my stuff doesn't sound anything like his. I have listened to his records constantly for 20 years, and still don't sound like that. It's there in the lyrics, though. To me, the whole thing is that he and many others at different times were approaching writing songs from a place that no one else could get to. That is much more important to me than musical style. I doubt that makes it any clearer for you.

What does Scrappy Judd bring to the music?

It has changed drastically over the years. In that time he has been director, sonic quality control, sympathetic player, partner, translator, and a million other things.

How did you wind up back with Freedom Records?

It was a place where I could simply do what I wanted to do.

Where do you see your career in ten or twelve years?

Career? I just want to be writing as good of songs as I can. Everything else is just a distraction.

Added July 13:
How's this for meta?