Monday, December 29, 2008

The Year in Music

Here are my picks...

TOP 10 ALBUMS of 2008

1. James, “Hey Ma” (Decca) – The Manchester, U.K. band reunited and crafted an album filled with memorable anthems, life affirming tunes and panoramic melodies, not to mention some politics and self-deprecating humor for good measure. Totally enthralling.

2. The Enemy UK, “We’ll Live and Die in These Towns” (Warner Bros.) – Inspired by the Clash, Who and Jam, the teenage trio’s brilliant debut featured incisive rockers about working class issues, picturesque lyrics and danceable tunes a la Franz Ferdinand. Added bonus: an ace cover of Bowie’s “Five Years.”

3. The Stills, “Oceans Will Rise” (Arts & Crafts) – Some albums make you feel good to be alive. The Montreal indie rock group’s third and strongest disc fit the bill, thanks to vivid environmental imagery, moody Peter Gabriel-esque numbers and chiming U2-styled guitars.

4. Jack’s Mannequin, “The Glass Passenger” (Sire/Warner Bros.) – Andrew McMahon battled leukemia, then rebounded with another piano-driven pop/rock gem. The band’s sonic palette was completely expanded amid emotionally-charged confessionals about romance (“Suicide Blonde”) and survival (“Swim”).

5. Kings of Leon, “Only By the Night” (RCA) – Caleb Followill found a confident voice and his kin proceeded to blow the Southern rock label out of the water. More ambitious than before, their atmospheric, ominous and sensual tunes truly mesmerized for the first time ever.

6. The Last Shadow Puppets, “The Age of the Understatement” (Domino) – Cinematic in scope, the enticing side project from Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner combines the epic grandeur of 1960s film soundtrack composers (John Barry, Ennio Morricone) with distinctly British pop smarts.

7. David Byrne & Brian Eno, “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today” (Todomundo/Opal) – The creative brain trust behind seminal Talking Heads albums and a world beat collaboration return for an ethereal, alluring batch of folk/electronic/gospel tunes aided by Roxy Music, Sex Pistols and Soft Machine alumni.

8. Teddy Thompson, “A Piece of What You Need” (Verve Forecast) – More upbeat and than its predecessors, the fourth effort from Richard & Linda’s singer/songwriter son is a charmer, using Roy Orbison and Neil Finn as touchstones on engaging smart pop and folk-tinged numbers.

9. The Cure, “4:13 Dream” (Suretone/Geffen) – From Robert Smith’s trademark mewling and creepy, psychedelic guitar work (welcome back Porl Thompson) to dark and breezy love songs, it doesn’t get much better on the veteran band’s 13th disc.

10. Beat Union, “Disconnected” (Science) – These British upstarts specialize in insanely catchy tunes with gang-style chants. The vigorous blend of 1970s punk, pub rock, ska and new wave (think early Police, English Beat, Elvis Costello) are extremely pogo-worthy.


11. Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Cardinology (Lost Highway)
12. Vampire Weekend (XL)
13. Nada Surf, Lucky (Barsuk)
14. Keane, Perfect Symmetry (Interscope)
15. Charlatans UK, You Cross My Path (Cooking Vinyl)
16. Pigeon Detectives, Emergency (U.K. IMPORT)
17. Coldplay, Viva la Vida (Capitol)
18. Futureheads, This is Not the World (Nul)
19. Oasis, Dig Out Your Soul (Reprise)
20. My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges (ATO)

Honorable Mention: Kaiser Chiefs, Off with Their Heads (Universal); We Are Scientists, Brain Thrust Mastery (Virgin); Helio Sequence, Keep Your Eyes Ahead (Sub Pop)


1. Coldplay, "Viva La Vida"
2. R.E.M., "Supernatural Superserious"
3. Vampire Weekend, "A-Punk"
4. Keane, "Spiralling"
5. My Morning Jacket, "I'm Amazed"
6. Weezer, "Pork 'n' Beans"
7. Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, "Magic"
8. Kaiser Chiefs, "Addicted to Drugs"
9. Lucinda Williams, "Real Love"
10. Panic at the Disco, "Nine in the Afternoon"


(Left to right: Clarence Clemons, Springsteen, Tom Morello, Max Weinberg)

1. Bruce Springsteen & the E St. Band, Honda Center/Anaheim (April-show #2)-Not only was "Magic" the album they were promoting, it was what still happens onstage after decades together. As usual, show #2 was more relaxed. Watching The Boss duet with Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello on "Ghost of Tom Joad" two nights in a row was mind-blowing. The "Meeting Across the River/Jungleland/Born to Run" triptych was icing on the cake.
2. James, House of Blues Downtown Disney/Anaheim (October)-Seven guys crammed on a stage making a beautiful noise, with a LED backdrop like the nighttime sky, shadowy light and whirling dervish/shaman vocalist Tim Booth keeping the sold out crowd riveted.
3. Kings of Leon, We Are Scientists, The Stills, Nokia Theatre/L.A. (October)-All killer, no filler on this night of electrifying performances.
4. Yaz, Pacific Amphitheatre at the OC Fair/Costa Mesa (July)-How great it was to see Alison Moyet & Vince Clarke taking care of some unfinished business after only a handful of live dates in 1982-83. Moyet can still belt out those dancefloor classics.
5. Kraftwerk, Carbon Silicon, Coachella Festival, Empire Polo Grounds/Indio (April-Day#2)-I got the full audio-visual experience from the German techno pioneers (and learned some German). Earlier in the day, it was a blast to watch Mick Jones of The Clash and his new band have an equally fun time.
6. George Michael, Honda Center (June)-While the show wasn't wall to wall hits, there were enough in the set to confirm the former Wham! singer is one of the best soul men around.
7. Jack's Mannequin, House of Blues Downtown Disney (November)-Always a joyous and moving experience to watch the energetic Andrew McMahon pound the ivories.
8. Siouxsie Sioux, House of Blues Downtown Disney (Feb.)-Spellbound? Yes indeed.
9. Nada Surf, Glass House/Pomona (March)-The quiet introspection, shimmering melodies and heartfelt sentiments came across wonderfully in this packed gig.
10. Lindsey Buckingham, Grove of Anaheim (Sept.)-Fleetwood Mac's most successful guitarist strutted his virtuoso tendencies while fans thought, 'we're not worthy.'

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Q&A with veteran singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell

photo: KFJ Miller

Rodney Crowell plays the Belly Up in Solana Beach on Nov. 19 and Largo in L.A. on Nov. 20. His latest CD "Sex & Gasoline" is out now on Yep Roc Records. We talked a couple weeks ago from his home in Tennessee. My feature article can be viewed at

What can fans look forward to at the shows? It’s an acoustic trio format, right?
This is different from when I’ve been through there with my band before. It’s myself with another guitarist/keyboard combo and a classically-trained violinist who has been working with me. She’s a violinist who can also play fiddle. Been doing it since September. Musically, it’s very enjoyable; satisfying for me. I really like the format. It was a certain kind of vision I had for how I wanted to perform at this particular time.

You’ve said you thought 2001's “The Houston Kid” was a reinvention of sorts. Did you find yourself on more of a creative tear once the new millenium came along?
Well, I took five years off. Four of that to dismantle a way of doing things I found to not be really serving me, so I actually took five years off and lived very quietly. Made very few public appearances. Getting kids ready for school. Did things like that so when the wind picked back up inside to go back to work, certainly in the public sense, there was more of, ‘how could I be true to my own sensibility?’ What I’m saying is, I really got less interested in really broad strokes and popular music. I got more interested in how I was gonna really honor my own particular sensibility and hopefully create an ongoing conversation with an audience.

Did you find more detailed life experiences filtering into the songs?
Oh, far more [emphatically]. That comes from insisting that the basis for what I’m doing is giving voice to my own particular sensibility. On one hand, it becomes less broad stroke and less mainstream, but by the same token, it intensifies the quality of the relationship between me and the audience.

Social commentary has been part of your lyrics on the past couple albums. What is your take on politics these days?
In the 2004 election, I was traveling abroad and looking at it, most of that election season I was in Europe. My record “The Outsider” was more from the point of view of an expatriate. I feel that the topical, political observation has a very short shelf life. While there was a period where I was really motivated to do that work, I find myself drifting away from it. I’m not compelled anymore to make it a part of my monologue or the dialogue. But I’ve had people say to me that there is some cultural observation in “Sex & Gasoline.” There is, but from where I sit, it’s not so much about politics as about cultural projection – specifically on young women.

The role of women in today’s society is a minor theme in a few of the new songs.
Yes and a major one there. The song “Sex & Gasoline” is entirely born off of watching someone I cared so deeply for struggle to find her place and indeed her sexual relevance in modern culture… that part of our culture - the Size 0 - and sexual icons that are made famous, not for the quality or the content of their personhood or contribution to art or culture, strictly because they’re Size 0, long-legged and beautiful. For us, it’s not a great message for young women. That song addresses middle aged women as well. Not only if you’re 19 and not Size 0 and a sex goddess you’re irrelevant in the culture, but also it’s the 43-year-old women who helped a man build a life that gets traded in on a new model. I’ve watched it happen.

Did you have Hillary Clinton in mind on “The Rise and Fall of Intelligent Design”? At one point you sing, “If I could be the first woman president.”
Yeah, I was writing that when she announced her presidency. And also around the same time of all that brouhaha about creationism. I was sitting around thinking, ‘is it not possible that God, the benevolent creator of the universe, didn’t also create evolution?’ All the projects I worked on seem to take me a lot of time and care to get it just right. I can’t imagine the world as we know it was in a spontaneous combustion. It takes tinkering. Look at the dinosaurs. That took some tinkering.

On this album, you didn’t co-produce for the first time in awhile. What made you decide to hand over the reigns to Joe Henry?
I finally came to my senses. God, what a treat. I went and made a record with Joe. I showed up at the studio, sang my songs, left and said, ‘just mail me a copy of the record.’ Whereas always before, I sweated bullets over every note on the record.

Did you think, ‘why didn’t I do it this way sooner?'
Oh man, have I ever said that over and over – why? Duh, man. How slow am I on the uptake?

How did you discover Joe Henry?
Through his music. We also have a mutual manager. We all hooked up for dinner and Joe and I clicked. He’s a great soul, a really sensitive artist and a really quality human being. I love the conversation we were having and wanted to continue it in the studio.

I really dig his atmospheric sound where the singer almost seems to be emerging from the shadows and everything is understated. Is that the vibe you both were after?
I was going after playing and singing as good as I could. I too enjoyed that part of Joe’s work. ‘Coming out of the shadows’ is a good way to put it. With producers, it’s like photography – ‘how do you frame it? How do you develop this picture?’ So I thought, ‘if I’m going to step out of view, I want to be playing and singing really well.’ I had total faith and trust in Joe, so I just really took care of my own work. It was good for me. If I run off and think I’m going to produce any more of my records, I should be shot.

Was doing it quickly a good way of working for you?
That was a good way for me because the focus was entirely on performing…I always thought I was at my best when performing, but why wasn’t I getting that on the record? I made some pretty good records. Still, there was something more about what I was able to capture just in a live performance. I certainly could not go looking for that and produce myself. To be producing is that one step removed from objectivity. In this case, it was entirely a subjective process. I left the objectivity to Joe.

Did you play in the studio with the other musicians?
Yeah, that music is all live. That’s what we played and sang. It’s great playing. We overdubbed some background vocals and that’s really it.

Had you recorded with Phil Everly before? What was that like?
I had not recorded with him before. That was just a lovely day. I called him and he came out of retirement to do that. He’s a very charming man, first and foremost. When he came out, he said, ‘look, I’m retired.’ He hadn’t been singing a lot…it was a delightful afternoon. I really enjoyed that process and I’m really thankful.

How did “I’ve Done Everything I Can” end up a duet of sorts between you and Joe?
It’s actually a three-way conversation between me and the young woman I’m speaking to. We discussed the words I’d written sounded like the conscious mind or a good friend talking to him. That’s how it evolved that Joe would take that particular narration. That’s one of my favorite tracks on the album, just a lovely conversation and it sounds so good.

"The Night’s Just Right” is a great love song. Did you have your wife Claudia in mind while writing it?
I did. I wrote it to her. I’m still capable of writing the broad stroke love song. Whenever I want to obtain a picture for Claudia, it generally comes out like that.

Was “Closer to Heaven” about how the aging process affects us all?
Somewhat. It seems with each passing day, the choices that I make really tend toward living a spiritual life. The rigid thing outside my family is this spiritual life I lead. I really do like Hummus, you know. I originally wrote it as ‘I don’t like Hummers,’ which I don’t. But that didn’t sing as well. So I changed that line and it’s getting a laugh when I play it live. The attention was to present the early part of the song as a grumpy list of gripes. In spite of the grumpy thing I got goin’ on, I actually feel more connected to the source with each passing year to the point where I purposely wrote the last verse as a switchover from what I was grumpy about to what I really love and was grateful. I wanted to take the listener to a destination.

Switching gears, how is your memoir coming along?
I’ve taught myself how to write. Now I’m learning what it takes to get a manuscript ready to publish. It’s work. I expected it to be a chore because I have friends who are serious writers. I knew what I was getting in for. Now I’m in it, I realize only the strong survive. It takes stamina, courage and being willing to go through those dark nights of the soul in order to get there. I hope I’ve done my work well enough that I don’t have to tear it apart and rewrite it one more time. We shall see. The publishing world is now digesting it and I will start to get feedback on how much more work I have to get it ready.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Jack's Mannequin interview

Photo: Keaton Andrew. Jack's Mannequin performs on Nov. 3 at House of Blues in Anaheim.

By George A. Paul

Andrew McMahon has no problem baring his soul in song, but fans shouldn’t assume they have the leader of Jack’s Mannequin all figured out.

“It’s not so much about revelation,” admits the singer/pianist, in a phone interview. “If you know my music, you know a lot about me - but not [everything]. In recent years, with what I’ve gone through and the way that’s been presented to people, I think there is very idealized version of me, Frankly, it’s only a small portion of who I am.”

McMahon was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005, a few months before Everything in Transit – his first release since leaving Something Corporate – was released. He endured chemotherapy, contracted pneumonia and underwent a bone marrow transplant. After going into remission and making a full recovering, the musician and his band made up for lost time. They toured with a vengeance in ’06. Both “Dark Blue” and “The Mixed Tape” received college and modern rock radio airplay, while the exceptional alt-pop album moved 250,000 copies.

Transit was often referred to as a concept album – something McMahon shied away from. “At first, I started going that direction when I was finishing it up. Then My Chem and Green Day put out concept records. To me, it almost became this mildly cliché idea. I treated it more like a storybook. It was very specific.”

Amid steady roadwork, songs for the stellar follow up The Glass Passenger gradually started to emerge. “There’s definitely a theme that is present throughout…it’s about trying to climb over the hurdles of the day and get on the other side of a heavy situation.”

Once again, McMahon co-produced with Jim Wirt (Alien Ant Farm, Live), who’s been at the studio helm since his Something Corporate days. “In a lot of ways, this was my most ambitious record…we took the idea of orchestral arrangements a little further. I really found myself having a lot of fun with the organ, synth and keyboard aspects.”

Indeed, the intense rocker “Bloodshot” features a brief synth solo a la early Rush and the dense sonic bed of “Annie Use Your Telescope” floats into the stratosphere. Utilizing nearly a dozen musicians at times (the sunny “American Love,” a syncopated “Crashin’”), McMahon learned to value collaboration and filter constructive feedback.

“We refined a new dynamic in the studio. I was working with the most people I ever had [before]. There were a lot of opinions.”

Among the most compelling tracks is “Swim,” a gorgeous, waltz-styled number with programming and an emotionally-charged vocal delivery.

Sample lyric:
You’ve gotta swim/Swim for your life/Swim for the music that saves you when you’re not so sure you’ll survive/You’ve gotta swim/And swim when it hurts/The whole world is watching/You haven’t come this far to fall off the Earth

“The tough thing about writing in that particular period,” recalls McMahon, “was people assumed because I had survived this huge ordeal and was now back at it that all the sudden things were peachy…this record and the whole process was one of the more difficult times in my life. I was forced to relive the past and a lot of situations.”

Music served as therapy, even when the creative muse temporarily shut down. “All the sudden, a song like ‘Swim’ would come out at the darkest moment” and he realized how much it was needed. “I hope people use it as a way to get through a tough day. It really saved my life. Playing it felt so real and so right. It was one of the broadest things I’ve ever written.” Initially, McMahon questioned whether fans would think “I’m pandering or trying to be universal,” then realized “I can’t think about things like that. I’m experiencing something real here.”

Diehard followers can get a firsthand glimpse during the current small club tour. McMahon says Jack’s Mannequin will do the album front to back on several dates.

“It’s going to be a chance for us to really dig in and communicate these songs…the best thing to do is put it in rooms where the people there are the ones who cared enough about the band to get on the phone that first day and get tickets - the hope being that we still have a lot of fans out there,” says McMahon with a laugh. “I want the audience to have a chance to hear these songs intimately.”

Talking with Andrew is like conversing with your best friend. He is so passionate about music. Here are additional excerpts from our phone interview at his rehearsal space in Burbank...

Q: You did the video for “The Resolution,” the first single from "The Glass Passenger," with director Stephanie Meyer.
A: Stephanie and the co-director were was a really cool experience. The theme of the video is this idea of the tide kind of eternally rising. Essentially, I go through various shots, moving on from one location to the next, trying to get further inland, uphill from the tides…finally I take a plunge at the end and that’s where the mermaid comes into play. It’s not exactly “Splash.”

Q: Apparently Stephanie is a fan of your music. Were you into her vampire novels?
A: It’s funny. I had heard about her interest in our music from a friend of mine. Justin from Blue October had a similar story. She used music to help define and write her characters. I’d heard through mutual friends who really love her books that I appeared on some of her web sites. When we tried to find people to write treatments for the video and brainstormed, all the sudden it was like, ‘let’s think out of the box. Are there people we’re not thinking about?’ I’d been hearing stories about this woman who sold a gazillion books and has a huge following and I’ve heard she likes the band. ‘Let’s reach out to her.’ Of course promptly after that, I started digging into “Twilight,” the first of her novels. I’m almost finished with her first book right now. I didn’t want to go into it not knowing what she was about and where she came from.

Q: You toured with Paramore over the summer. Were their fans receptive to your music?
A: Yeah. It was great actually. I can’t think of a show that didn’t go well. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that being on the road at that moment, when we were really anxious to go home, learn the new material and get ready for another tour [wasn't hard]. There were elements of ‘oh my gosh, should we really be here right now? We’ve got so much to do.’ It was just one of those things. The material we were playing we knew so intimately, it ended being a lot of fun. It was one of those tours where we could really cut loose, have fun and change up the set list from night to night. I did enjoy being out there. Hayley and the dudes were a great time. There was a lot of jumping onstage with everyone else’s bands throughout the tour. We became really good friends with the dudes in Phantom Planet and Paper Route. It was good tour camaraderie.

Q: When you’re being autobiographical in your lyrics, do you ever get to a point where you think, ‘maybe I’m revealing too much of myself?’
A: I hope through my albums I’ve said some pretty bold things that aren’t really the stuff of heroes and not necessarily the stuff of idol worship, but the stuff of real living. For me, what I’ve always tried to do is present the real side of life.

Q: On the deluxe version of the new album, there’s a short film included on the DVD. What is it about?
A: It was an on-the-fly thing that me and the photographer for the record who did all these great pictures, James Michen, worked up. We went out in the middle of the California desert in this amazing old Oldsmobile station wagon. I said, ‘it doesn’t have to be a specific story.’ We were doing this for two days while we were out there. I ended up writing this narrative which is ultimately the story of how I ended up on the piano for the first time. The way it’s revealed is in an artful, hopefully Leonard Cohen way. The delivery is intentionally more poetic that just telling a story. And it lines up with this drive through the middle of the desert these guys shot. It’s not meant to be blown up into something huge. We thought it would be a fun part of the record. We had great visuals.

Q: Last year, I really enjoyed your cover of John Lennon’s “God” from the ‘Instant Karma’ tribute CD. What was it like having Mick Fleetwood play drums on it and how did it come about?
A: (pauses) Yeah. I’m speechless even thinking about it right now. It was amazing to be asked to do a Lennon cover that’s actually sanctioned by Yoko Ono and to have it be one of my favorite John Lennon songs across the board, Beatles or non-Beatles. In some respects, I really related to some of the disillusioned elements that he communicates throughout that track. When it came through that I could do it, I just freaked out. Then the suggestion came to collaborate with somebody. We listened to the track to see what made sense. My manager handles Mick Fleetwood. I’m not sure who brought up having Mick play the drums...He was amazing in the sense that he’s a great drummer, but also in that he was a really great human being. He came into a scenario where people were a little on edge, like ‘what’s it going to be like having this legend come in and play the drums?’ He came in and was so engaged in the recording process from start to finish. He came back though twice. When he left that day after his part was done, he walked to his car and 10 minutes later, he’s back in the room with another idea...Meanwhile, he’s telling us stories about being in Fleetwood Mac. We’re like, ‘that’s Stevie Nicks he’s talking about.’ But ultimately, what I took from it was ‘here’s a dude who obviously reached the top of the mountain and never left it and he shows up in the studio with a bunch of young guys to cover a John Lennon track and enjoyed himself. You could tell he loved being there and was so engaged and so into the process. For me, to actually get to make music with a guy that’s made some of my favorite songs ever, it doesn’t get any better. I’ve been really blessed in the past few years to get to meet and see and interact with some legendary performers that have inspired me.

A chat with country star Marty Stuart

This interview appeared in the North County Times on Oct. 30.

By George A. Paul

Marty Stuart has his fingers in so many pies that keeping track of all the endeavors can be a daunting task.

Over the past two years, the veteran Grammy-winning country star has curated a music exhibit (“Sparkle & Twang”), put together a photography book (“Country Music – The Masters”), produced several artists, released a concert CD and collection of duets (“Compadres”), toured with his Fabulous Superlatives band, hosted a weekly XM Radio program (“American Odyssey”) and is set to host a new cable TV music series (“The Marty Stuart Show”).

The Mississippi native is a self-taught mandolinist/guitarist and vocalist who started in the business as a teenager. He was a member of Bluegrass master Lester Flatt’s band through much of the ‘70s before hooking up with Johnny Cash in 1980. Stuart put out his first solo albums independently, married Cindy Cash (they divorced in 1988) and produced a gospel effort for The Man in Black.

By the late ‘80s, Stuart’s solo career had kicked into high gear. His spirited music (a mix of rockabilly, honky tonk and traditional styles) and colorful suits drew widespread attention. The result was 17 top 40 hits on the country charts through 1996 – including “Tempted,” “Hillbilly Rock,” “Little Things” and “Burn Me Down” - not to mention a few gold and platinum records.

Two song collaborations with Travis Tritt (“The Whiskey Ain’t Workin,’” “This One’s Gonna Hurt You”) went top 10 and the pair toured several times in the ‘90s. Now the two musicians have reunited for a special acoustic jaunt that starts in Temecula. I I nailed down Stuart, 50, via phone from Nashville to get the lowdown.

Q: Let’s start by talking about the upcoming tour. Will these dates with Travis Tritt be your first since your “No Hats” jaunt of 1991-1992?
A: No, we actually did a couple tours back in those days beyond the “No Hats” tours. We kept it rollin’ and renamed the tour a couple times. But this is the first extensive tour we’ve done together since those days.

Q: What can fans look forward to – is it an acoustic thing or are you with the band?
A: No, the thing that’s really unique about this is it’s just the two of us on stools. No net [laughs]. No Superlatives, no Travis band. The way this came about in the very first place is, I produced a record for Porter Wagoner a couple years ago. The one thing that was startin’ to kinda click for that whole project – in New York City, I presented Porter and it was just the two of us on stools. That was the way it was kinda workin’. It was fun for Porter because he didn’t tour very much and it was a unique evening. Ten or 12 shows were booked in that configuration when he passed away and they were gonna cancel all the shows. I said, ‘hold it. Let me think about this for a second.’ One of them was at the Savannah Music Festival. I called Travis and said, ‘this is in your backyard, let’s see how this feels.’ We hadn’t done anything in a long time and the minute we got down there just the two of us, something magic happened. That’s how all this came about.

Q: Will it be a fly by the seat of your pants sort of deal where you don’t have a set list?
A: It’s a loose based set list with an informal structure to it. Then it kinda of finds its own mark.

Q: I caught you live at the 2007 Stagecoach Festival out in Indio. What were your impressions of that event?
A: Oh, I thought it was crazy. Anytime there’s a reason to come to Southern California and play country music, it always clicks for me and my band. Because you know there’s a lot of California influence in my band. It’s always a good thing for California. The groundwork for a country music audience, regardless of generation, goes so far back to the days of Maddox Brothers and Rose, Buck and those fellas, Merle and Gwen Stewart, all those people – the groundwork that they laid for country music out there is so strong. When they opportunity occurs for something of that magnitude, it’s always wonderful.

Q: Whenever I see you perform with the Fabulous Superlatives, you seem to have a great chemistry together. Would you say they’re some of the best musicians you’ve played with?
A: Oh they are the best. It’s the band of a lifetime. I have been in bands since I was nine years old and I have no doubt in my mind that the Superlatives will be the band that I’m remembered for.

Q: How did you initially find them?
A: Harry played on some of my original hits and was a well-loved and respected guy and session player around Nashville. He was always known for integrity. He didn’t show up for project he didn’t believe in. That’s where we found our first common mark. He played on “Tempted.” Kenny, I saw on TV playing with Lucinda Williams. I met him at an event and we swapped phone numbers. I was trying to take a year off and when it was over, I called him and said, ‘you find us a bass player and I’ll try to find us a drummer.’ That’s how we kinda got together.

Q: Next week, your “Sparkle and Twang” exhibit opens at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. You first started collecting country memorabilia back in the 1980s, right?
A: Formally. I was always a fan and collector from the time I was a kid, collecting country music song roundup books to 8x10s to records. But I got really serious about it in the early ‘80s.

Q: For you, was it a matter of not wanting to see these items fall through the cracks and you decided to step up and preserve them yourself?
A: That was a big part of it, yeah.

Q: Are you familiar with the permanent Johnny Cash exhibit out here at the Fender Museum in Corona?
A: I’ve heard about it. Bill Miller has pretty much dedicated his life to Johnny Cash. He’s done it for a lot of years. I hope he finds the reward he’s looking for there because we’re all the richer for it.

Q: Next month, episodes of the new TV show start airing on RFD. How have those been going?
A: It is so fun. It is a breath of fresh air to do traditional country music on a stage in Nashville again. I mean, unapologetically. Hay bails and all. The idea came about the first time I saw the RFD channel. I been watching this thing for like the past five or six years. Dearly love it. They run great shows, just Americana, trains across America. That kind of stuff is an eye into the real America, not just the face value of America and American people. That’s what I bought into. The fact that they run Porter’s and the Wilbur Brothers show – that’s the kind of shows I grew up on, “Hee Haw.” The problem with it is it’s reruns. As much as I love reruns, we need a current take on things. I thought, ‘how about a 30-minute weekly TV show that tips off from those shows, that carries the tradition of that forward?’ I took the knowledge and experience that I had watching Flatt & Scruggs, Porter Wagoner and the Johnny Cash shows and went, ‘let’s make a new one.’ Connie Smith and the Superlatives are regulars each week. Leroy Troy, a traditional banjo player, an old-timer, he’s a regular. Then we invite a guest on top of that each week.

Q: Your coffee table book, “Country Music – The Masters” finally gets a widespread publishing run next month. Is it a bunch of photos you’ve amassed over the years?
A: Well, I started taking pictures when I went on the road at 13. The first picture I ever took was of Connie Smith when she came to my hometown. That’s where the book starts. It does the best job it can do with the amount of time, money and circumstances in 40 years, I could pull together the old world of country music. It’s a pretty extensive study. A labor of love. Almost 500 pictures. There’s a spoken word CD that goes along with it and tells a few stories. There’s a song called “Dark Bird” that I wrote for Johnny Cash before he passed away. It goes along with the image on the cover of the book, which is a shot I took of him four days before he passed away.

Q: I really enjoyed the “Compadres” duets collection that came out last year. Any chance of a Vol. 2?
A: Well, it might take 20 years to get it done. One by one, it moves along.

Q: Did you find that fans were glad to have all of those duets together in one place?
A: I think so. You know, once I got beyond it and stepped back from it a year later, I enjoy listening to it.

Q: One of my favorites was The Who tune, “I Can See For Miles.”
A: [laughs] That’s great.

Q: Is it hard to put a country spin on a rock classic like that?
A: Nah, you just twangify it.

Q: Over the past decade, a lot of younger musicians have helped bluegrass music gain a new following. What do you think about the state of the genre today? Is it still thriving?
A: Absolutely. It’s one of the brightest spots of the whole country music pantheon. You can always find, as far as authenticity goes, there’s the whole “American Idol” and “Nashville Star” spin – that usually produces the next 15 minute star. But the lasting players usually come out of the rootsy, bluegrass end of things. If you go to a bluegrass festival – pick one – you’ll always find younguns playing banjos, fiddles and the mandolin, guitars and singin. That’s where the kids usually come from, the more power base, integrity base. If you look around at the new old-timers like me and Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs and Travis Tritt, we all started with bluegrass. Keith Whitley, if he’d have lived, he’d be amongst that.

Q: Are you still taping new episodes for your XM radio show, “American Odyssey”?
A: We’re on hiatus right now. [Did one season so far]

Q: How did that start?
A: I’m a big fan of XM radio. I think the genius of XM radio is, I saw this bumper sticker in LA one time that said, Welcome to LA. Pick a decade and fit in. As a listener, you can find a channel that suits your lifestyle, your preference or political taste and you don’t ever have to compromise that. You can drive coast to coast and get in on it. First time I went to the XM studios when I first started, I saw Tony Bennett come out of one studio, Black Crowes, some metal band and then us. I thought, ‘this is my kind of place.’ That was part of it. The other part of it was, ‘let’s do a radio show. It sounds fun.’ They offered me 24-hours a day on Channel 2 to do whatever I wanted. I thought, ‘what if take the cast – the band, the announcer and Pastor Evelyn – and go across the United States of America?’ Stop in town after town and profile what came from that town. It’s staggering, the things that I didn’t know about America. As a traveling musician, I go from place to place and once again, the term ‘fave value’ comes up. I get the face value of a town. But if you stop in Shreveport, La. and really mine out the people, the music, the culture that has come from there, it’s easy to fill up an hour. You can basically go anywhere in the United States. People come up to me all over the place and say, ‘I didn’t the first traffic light was in Cleveland, Ohio. Didn’t know Ike & Tina Turner started in Shreveport, La. That kind of stuff. Trust me, I learned more than anybody else while we were doing the show. [Second season is coming soon]

Q: What else is on the horizon for you?
A: I’ve been writing songs in my spare time in the past couple years. I’ve got a new stack of songs we’ve started introducing to the live audiences at our shows. Connie Smith has three new records backed up. That’s what’s staring at me right now after we get over the hump of the TV shows in the first quarter of next year to get back in the studio. We have a stone cold, firecracker poppin’, traditional country record I’m dying to do. There are three songs waiting for a gospel record.

Marty Stuart & Travis Tritt play an acoustic show at Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, Calif. on Nov. 1.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A chat with Tom of Plain White T's

The group finishes its run as an opener on the Rock Band Live! tour in mid-November, then headlines through early December.

By George A. Paul

When singer Tom Higgenson and guitarist Dave Tirio formed the Chicago pop/punk band Plain White T’s in 1997, the prospect of scoring a No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 probably seemed like a long shot. But that’s exactly what happened to them last year.

Acoustic ballad “Hey There Delilah” initially appeared on the quintet’s 2005 indie effort All That We Needed and became a fan favorite. Hollywood Records put out Every Second Counts in 2006 and eventually reissued the CD with the song, which topped the charts here and around the world.

Now Plain White T’s – rounded out by bassist Mike Retondo, guitarist Tim Lopez and drummer De’Mar Hamilton – has returned with Big Bad World, a solid new collection of effervescent pop/rock gems inspired by such 1960s tunesmiths as The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan (plus a little ‘70s power pop thrown in for good measure). Hear/Say caught up with Higgenson via phone in Los Angeles, following a weekend where the T’s attended the MTV Video Music Awards and played a benefit gig for LIFEbeat.

Q: Are you psyched to be on the road with Panic at the Disco and Dashboard Confessional on the Rock Band Live tour?
A: Panic at the Disco is one of my favorite bands, period. Anytime we get a chance to hang out with those guys, see them play or play with them is really exciting for me…we’re in the opening slot, but we’ll make the most of it and hopefully at the end, we’ll be the band that kids go home thinking about.

Q: Has everyone in the band played the Rock Band videogame before?
A: Yeah. We actually had one at the Malibu studio. We lived in a house and recorded there. The game was in the living room. I think Tim and I were kept up some late nights because people were playing Rock Band, singing loud and being obnoxious. It’s fun.

Q: Last year, the T’s appeared on the Nickelodeon kids show “iCarly” and you’ve done a few episodes of the ABC Family channel series “GREEK,” about college life. How has that experience been?
A: In the one [that just aired], we perform the song “Natural Disaster,” our new single. Me and De’Mar actually have lines. Our show gets crashed by one of the fraternity students and we have to get off stage and say, “We’re done man. This sucks.”

Q: Tell me about your involvement on a new episode of “Sesame Street.”
A: It’s just my voice on there. I sang a parody of “Hey There Delilah,” for the letter ‘T’. It was like, ‘hey there, I’m Tom, I’m a T from Tennessee.’ It’s all about the letter ‘T.’ They’ll probably have a character doing it. I’m excited to see that.

Q: In September, the band sang the National Anthem at a Chicago Cubs game. Are you a big baseball fan?
A: Unfortunately, I don’t get to keep up with it as much any more. Growing up, it was all about the Cubs. I liked them more than the Sox, personally…I was definitely into sports a lot when I was younger.

Q: You’ve said the band wanted Big Bad World to have a more widespread appeal so that a mother might enjoy listening to it as much as her teenage daughter. Was that one of the primary goals?
A: Definitely. It was like, ‘let’s make an album that can stand on its own and not be about ages, being trendy or what’s going on right now. Let’s do one that anyone can listen to and love.’ We tried to give every song as classic a treatment as we possibly could and that they deserved. A lot of my songs are very honest lyrically. They have kind of an Oldies arrangement with lots of great melodies and harmonies. Many of the new songs lent themselves to that ‘50s and ‘60s feel. Instead of putting some punk into the songs and amping it up, it was like ‘let’s just let it be what it is.’

Q: The band really expanded the sonic palette on various tracks – from harmonica and organ to a string section and having session wizard Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Kanye West) play chamberlin on “1,2,3,4.”
A: Again, it was like, ‘let’s just make music that anyone can love and appreciate and not worry about targeting our demographic.’

Q: Over the years, harmonies have always played an important role in your music. This time, it seems like the T’s took everything up a few notches, especially on the lush “Sunlight.” Am I correct?
A: Yeah, we definitely wanted to exploit that. We know that’s one of the things we do well and sets us apart from other bands, so we wanted to utilize that strength of ours and get it out there.

Q: Everyone used vintage recording gear, such as a 1966 Ludwig drum set, in the studio. Why?
A: To make a classic album and go along with the ‘50s and ‘60s music theme. It was like, ‘let’s try to use a lot of old instruments.’ Listening to those old records, you wonder why they sound so good and why they still stand up 50 years later. To be honest…we did use modern stuff. We couldn’t go all the way with it. But we tried to keep everything vintage as much as we could. Just to add to that old feel and flavor.

Q: Wasn’t most of it recorded live too?
A: We did all the basic tracks live…as a band, we recorded everything altogether in a room. To give it that real organic sound, we thought we should do it that way so there was that bleed and excitement. It worked like a charm. We didn’t use a click track on 90 percent of the album.

Q: So there was more spontaneity.
A: Totally. We didn’t want it to be perfect, lined up to a grid and all the vocals Auto-tuned. We didn’t want anything to sound like it was from a machine or computer -just five guys playing instruments and singing songs together.

Q: You brought Johnny K back to produce again. Was there a good rapport between him and the band on the previous album?
A: Yeah. It was our idea to take this approach. It could have been a scary thing. It wasn’t the safest bet. A lot can go wrong. Luckily, when we mentioned what we wanted, he jumped right on board.

Q: After listening to the folksy “I Really Want You,” I envision Plain White T’s holding court at a Hootenanny. Was that the vibe you were after?
A: That’s funny. With the harmonica and everything, I was thinking Dylan. I wrote that song really fast in London, like in an hour. I just saw a pretty girl and had that in my head. At first, we were going to play it all rocked out as a band. Since it had a countryish feel, Johnny said, ‘let’s pull out all those drums, use brushes and play a kick and a snare.’ We turned the distortion down on the guitars, then made it clean and acoustic.

Q: Dylan has a song called “I Want You.”
A: I didn’t know until I watched the movie “I’m Not There.” It had this saloon style piano in the chorus. I thought we should incorporate that into our song. On one of the last days in the Chicago studio, I said to Mike, who’s a multi-instrumentalist, ‘it would be cool to have a Ragtime piano part to the song.’ It was July 4. Tim and I went outside to watch fireworks. We came back in and he had laid down all this crazy piano stuff. It was the perfect final touch.

Q: Do you try to inject a sense of optimism into darker songs like the sweeping and dramatic closer, “Someday”?
A: Yeah. That song is all about hope, like ‘we might not be where we want to be right now, but someday we will be.’ My favorite line in that song is “someday we won’t be so tired.” Everybody says, ‘I’m so tired.’ It’s kind of an excuse not to do some things.

Q: After watching “Meet Me in California,” the ABC Family Channel web site reality series about making the album, there’s a sense that too many distractions kept everyone from getting work done. True?
A: It was. For the first few weeks, we’d practice the songs for an hour or two a day and the whole rest of the day would be like, ‘let’s call some girls over.’ Anything we could do that wasn’t recording. We had been on tour basically four years straight. Johnny had just done 3 Doors Down, straight into Staind, straight into our album. He’d been working without a break for the past nine months. When we all got there, it was beautiful and awesome. We wanted it be leisurely and enjoy it. About three weeks in, we realized we only had [five weeks] left to go. It was time to get down to business.

Q: I thought your ‘Top Five Videos of All Time’ video posted on the band’s MySpace page was hilarious. How long did that take?
A: We did that one day in Luxembourg. We got this email that MySpace wanted a Top Five Videos thing. They wanted me to stand there and do a simple delivery. I thought that was boring, so I had the idea of trying to have fun with it and do little parodies of all the videos. It worked out really well.

Q: How did Plain White T’s end up creating a new milkshake for the Denny’s Restaurant chain?
A: They were doing a new late night menu. Being open 24 hours, a lot of people that come in are bands on tour or people that just went to a concert. They had the idea of Rock Star menu with bands designing some of the items. They came to us to see if we had ideas for a food item. There’s a place in Chicago that does a good chocolate cake shake. So we went into this culinary school while we were out in L.A. recording. They had all these cakes and ice creams and toppings laid out. We sat in that room for a couple hours experimenting with combinations. The Plain White Shake was too perfect with cheesecake, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. That’s pretty amazing. Definitely something you’ve never tasted before. Just delicious.

Q: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about “Delilah.” It was the textbook definition of a sleeper hit. Were you amazed by its slow build and staying power on radio?
A: Yeah, that was like the little engine that could. This song we released five years ago and put up on MySpace kept growing. It was weird. We were surprised at how big and crazy it all got. The fact that it was No. 1 in 10 countries? C’mon! It is a little simple song with acoustic guitar – a little love letter to a girl.

Q: Did simplicity factor into the classic approach of the new album?
A: We said, ‘let’s give that same treatment to all these songs. Let’s try not to overproduce them. Take a song like “Serious Mistake.” It has a lot of instruments, but is heavy, talking about church. We have this musical breakdown with violins and melodica that has this classical feel in the middle. It was almost like saying a prayer with a little lullaby in the middle. We tried to think about what we were saying in the songs and present them in that way, mostly because of the success of ‘Delilah.’ It showed us maybe that [success] was because it was just an acoustic guitar and the vocals and storyline all made sense as a piece.

Black Kids band feature

The Black Kids preview ran in the North County Times (San Marcos, Calif.) in October 2008. The band plays LA alt-rock station Indie 103.1 FM's Xmas show with The Pretenders and Bloc Party at Club Nokia on Dec. 10.

By George A. Paul

Watch the entertaining music video for Black Kids’ “Look at Me (When I Rock Witchoo)” on YouTube and you’ll immediately be transported back to the late 1960s, when animated classics like “Scooby Doo” and “Speed Racer” were popular. The band is inserted into various cartoon scenarios and shown wearing silly costumes throughout.

Bassist Owen Holmes had doubts at first about how everything would turn out. “It was surreal. We really trusted the director on that one. You’re standing in front of a green screen wearing a dog suit, jumping around, doing crazy things and have no idea what it’s going to look like. You feel like an idiot. I would be horrified if the raw footage of that was ever released, it was so absurd.”

The clip fits perfectly with the celebratory and hedonistic alt-dance aesthetic heard on Black Kids’ arresting debut disc “Partie Traumatic” (each members sports bunny ears or devil horns on the cover photo). Produced by Bernard Butler of ‘90s UK Britpop sensation the London Suede, “the influences are all over the place – the B-52’s, disco, Motown, synth pop, Britpop,” said Holmes. “Obviously Bernard was good at cultivating that.”

From adopting a feminine guise on a joyous “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You” (complete with Go! Team-styled cheers by keyboardists Ali Youngblood and Dawn Watley) to the risqué lyrics of “I’ve Underestimated My Charm Again,” singer/guitarist Reggie Youngblood tends to write subversive lyrics. No surprise there – he cites Pet Shop Boys as an inspiration and name checks Sparks in one song.

Holmes helped arrange “Charm,” best described as a Pulp-meets-Phil Spector girl group mash up. “It was my suggestion to put two song halves together and not worry whether they matched perfectly, which is something the Beatles did a lot on ‘The White Album.’”

Black Kids’ seeds were sown during Baptist Sunday school in Jacksonville, Fla., where Owen, Reggie and drummer Kevin Snow first met. They toiled in different bands (Christian ska and punk) for a decade until 2006, when the guys decided it was time to do something more fun. Reggie asked sister Ali to join; she invited her friend Dawn along.

At the time, the city was best known for spawning pop/punk and aggro rock (Yellowcard, Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, Limp Bizkit). Black Kids sounded like nothing else in the area. That gave them a leg up when it came to club bookings. “We were really one of the few indie pop bands in town, so we’d always get to open for the cool big bands that would come though. That was one of the benefits of being different.”

Black Kids self-financed and released the “Wizard of Ahhhs” EP and streamed the tracks on MySpace in 2007. Word spread quickly among the blogosphere. “We played a festival in Athens, Ga. that summer and things took off for us. We started getting attention in the States first, but it quickly became apparent that people in the UK were up for it on [another] level.”

Although Black Kids have taken a lot of flak from their indie fans for making the EP songs sound more polished on “Traumatic,” Holmes said “there’s a world of difference and that’s how we wanted to do it. We’d already recorded those songs [raw]; we wanted our record to sound good this time.”

The Brits “seem less particular. I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing, but people in the States are a little more critical.” Still, the CD has been received plenty of college and specialty airplay at stations like KCRW FM in Santa Monica. For the past few months, it has been lodged in the upper rungs of the main College Music Journal chart.

Last spring, the album debuted at No. 5 on the British charts and “Boyfriend” made top 20 on the singles tally there. You could draw parallels between Black Kids and Scissor Sisters - another revelry-minded American group who found success abroad first. The quintet made the European festival rounds over the summer and opens for Kaiser Chiefs at London’s Wembley Arena in February.

“It still blows my mind that a band that plays music [like us] can be considered a mainstream band over there,” exclaimed Holmes. “Our CD was in the charts next to Madonna and Coldplay!”

Another Pink Spiders story

Here is my second Pink Spiders piece, which ran in the October issue of Mean Street Magazine (Los Angeles).

By George A. Paul

Matt Friction might be a Southerner, but when it comes to baseball, the sports fan’s loyalty is focused on L.A. These days, the singer/guitarist for Nashville rockers Pink Spiders has two reasons to be excited: rousing third album Sweat it Out is finally available and his favorite team made the playoffs.

“I’m a lifelong Dodgers fan; I have my Blackberry set to update me on scores,” admitted Friction. Two years ago, KROQ sponsored a Spiders gig at Dodger Stadium, where the group performed in center field after a game.

“We went and sang ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ on the dugout during the seventh inning stretch. It was awesome and crazy. I got to meet Tommy Lasorda…a pretty surreal moment.”

Formed in 2003, the Tennessee trio released an EP and full-length independently before signing with Geffen Records, which put out Teenage Graffiti in 2006. Produced by Ric Ocasek, the album featured an exuberant and sleek mix of party hearty power pop/rock. Tours with Fall Out Boy, Yellowcard and 30 Seconds to Mars ensued.

Recording the adventurous Sweat it Out last year with Brendan O’Brien (The Offspring, Springsteen) at the helm was more enjoyable. “I’d grown up with [his] Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots records.” Friction said O’Brien was so enthusiastic, they “knew right away this was the guy.”

Instead of putting up with a taskmaster like before, the musicians discovered “he was open to our suggestions. It was like a brain trust, getting in the trenches every day…[apparently] it was one of the more fun recordings he’d done, which is pretty meaningful coming from a guy who’s had all these huge records.”

Standouts include an over-the-top “Falling with Every Step,” with layered vocals and a blistering classic rock guitar solo a la Mercury & May. “There’s definitely a glam side apparent on the record. I was listening to a lot of T-Rex, Queen and David Bowie.” Insanely catchy single “Gimme Chemicals” revisits Love & Rockets territory and “touches upon the excesses of touring; the social lubricants to get you through, for better or worse. It’s not a pro-drug anthem by any means.”

This past spring, Pink Spiders got primo TV exposure via an appearance on hit Fox show “Hell’s Kitchen” and saw their MySpace hits increase. “When the opportunity came, of course we were down. It’s network television with 13 million people watching…we flew out there, had a good time and got well fed.”

Story on Tennessee rockers Pink Spiders

I did two different features on Pink Spiders in October 2008. The first one, below, ran in the North County Times (San Marcos, Calif.). They're currently on tour throughout America and auditioning a new bassist in conjunction with Alternative Press Magazine. Photo of singer Matt Friction: Steve Cross

By George A. Paul

Nashville is not the easiest place to launch an alt-rock band. To stick out among a sea of country acts, the Pink Spiders adopted a retro look and played short gigs where they provoked crowds into buying merchandise.

According to Matt Friction, those confrontational shows (done shortly after the group formed in 2003) are a thing of the past – especially with a new lineup.

“I think it’s downplayed to some degree,” said the singer/guitarist from a tour stop in Pennsylvania. “The personalities are a little more relaxed now (like I am). These guys are my friends. It’s not too abrasive, but still true to how we are…we just have fun with it and get in people’s faces a little. It’s not dangerous.”

As for the musicians’ favored attire – scarves, matching retro sunglasses, pink and black striped clothes – Friction explained “the visuals go along with the attitude of the band…we ripped off Motley Crue, New York Dolls and the ‘70s New York punk scene.”

The Pink Spiders released the full-length “Hot Pink” independently before signing with Geffen Records, which put out “Teenage Graffiti” in 2006. Co-produced by Cars main man Ric Ocasek and Jerry Harrison from Talking Heads, the album featured an exuberant and sleek mix of party hearty power pop/rock. Single “Little Razorblade” received airplay on college and modern rock stations such as KROQ in Los Angeles. High profile tours with 30 Seconds to Mars, Fall Out Boy and Yellowcard followed.

Friction, 27, found the major label experience frustrating. He learned a few lessons along the way though. “Never compromise anything and or let anyone tell you what you know isn’t true. Don’t rely on anyone…start being involved in every aspect of the business.”

Adventurous third effort “Sweat it Out” was just released on an indie (Friction’s own Mean Buzz Records through Adrenaline Music Group). “It’s a much better fit for us, having control and not a daily fight over every little thing.”

“Sweat” was recorded more than a year ago with Brendan O’Brien (The Offspring, Bruce Springsteen) at the helm, while still under contract to Geffen.

Unlike Ocasek, O’Brien was more open to the band’s suggestions. “It was like a brain trust, getting in the trenches every day - like kids in a candy store, having fun and shooting ideas off each other…it’s kind of cliché, but we were having the time of our lives. He said it was one of the more fun recordings he’d had, which is pretty meaningful coming from a guy who’s had all these huge records.”

Highlights include an over-the-top “Falling with Every Step,” with layered vocals and a blistering classic rock guitar solo a la Brian May. “I thought the album needed a big
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’-styled anthem; a song that kept changing gears all over the place.”

“There’s definitely a glam side apparent on the record,” he continued. “I was listening to a lot of T-Rex, Queen and David Bowie.” Insanely catchy single “Gimme Chemicals” revisits Love & Rockets territory and “touches upon the excesses of touring; the social lubricants to get you through, for better or worse. It’s not a pro-drug anthem by any means.”

A stripped down approach was utilized for the gritty, acoustic guitar-led ballad “Don’t Wait for Me,” about being on tour. “The underlying theme of the record is the duality of living two different lives.” Friction found being at home one day, then playing to a packed club on another was “like Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde in some ways…we toured four or five years nonstop. The record touches upon more personal stuff than rock ‘n’ roll.”

Last spring, the Pink Spiders netted their largest media exposure to date during an appearance on hit Fox TV show “Hell’s Kitchen” and saw their MySpace hits increase. “When the opportunity came, of course we were down. It’s network television with 13 million people watching…we flew out there, had a good time and got well fed.”

Interview with British buzz band Foals

This story originally appeared in Inland Empire Weekly (Corona, Calif.) on Sept. 11, 2008. Photo by: Guy Eppel

By George A. Paul

Destruction is a common occurrence at a Foals gig, whether it’s from fans or the musicians themselves. “We almost smash our equipment the way Sonic Youth do,” says guitarist Jimmy Smith in a recent phone chat from across the pond. “We’ve got a tendency to break things at the moment just for fun.” When I bring up the expense involved, he notes “luckily, we’ve struck up some deals with guitar companies. I’ve never actually totaled a guitar. It’s working out ok.”

Formed three years ago, the young British band initially performed at friends’ house parties and word spread quickly among local college students in Foals’ hometown of Oxford. “Some of them were really intense. Once we played this London squat where people demolished an entire wall and went berserk. I smashed a tooth; there was furniture going everywhere. They got evicted the next day. We stopped doing them for awhile because it was so out of control, but we’re going to start up again.”

Considering the indie rockers’ U.K. popularity (mesmerizing 2008 debut Antidotes entered the charts at #3 and garnered a Best New Band nod from NME), those gigs should be quite the ticket. For Foals’ first I.E. appearance, fans can expect the songs to be “heavier and more raw; kind of punky in places.” Unusually, the quintet faces each other instead of the crowd. “That’s the way we’ve always set up,” explains Smith. “We feed off each other’s energy.”

Antidotes was produced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars) in New York. A few jittery songs feature the horn section from Brooklyn Afrobeat ensemble Antibalas. “They came down and Dave conducted through the glass like some old ‘60s Motown producer. We were blown away when we heard it.”

Foals (the moniker is derived from the English translation of yelping singer/guitarist Yannis Phillippakis’ Greek last name) took a “less is more” approach to making its highly danceable music. “The best way to record a song is to get as much sound down as possible, then strip loads out,” said Smith. “You shouldn’t be afraid to take away stuff.”

Inspiration came courtesy of German minimal techno. “We tried to incorporate techno using traditional instruments and dry polyrhythms…we listened to bands like the Talking Heads when we were growing up and drew to that naturally.” These guys play notes (not chords), unorthodox time signatures and make chirping sounds (see: “Mathletics”). Standout track “The French Open” (Phillippakis is a tennis enthusiast) contains a rubbery groove and peppy rhythms. Smith also cited such experimental groups as Shellac and Don Caballero as formative influences. “In England, they don’t really know about those bands. I think it gives us a hidden advantage.” (George A. Paul)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Q&A with The Duke Spirit

Pictured: singer Leila Moss, onstage in England, 2007; Check out some of my interview with Duke Spirit drummer Olly Betts. View the feature article at The band plays on Saturday as part of the Download Festival at Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City.

Q: Where have I reached you today?
A: I’m nowhere particularly interesting. I’m in Milton Keynes, which is probably the most American part of Britain. It’s a new town and it’s based on a grid system. It’s not as good as the rest of England.

Q: The band just played the Granddaddy of all English festivals, Glastonbury. How did that go?
A: It was absolutely amazing, actually. We played four shows over the weekend. Our first gig was torrential rain and it didn’t stick around, which was great. As the weekend went on, it got better and better. I’ve only been to Glastonbury twice, but it was definitely the better one.

Q: In a few days, you play the O2 Wireless Festival. Do you enjoy playing the big outdoor gigs?
A: Yeah, it’s ace. We’ve got a great time ahead. We’re also going to Denmark to play the Roskilde Festival. I love it, really. It’s a great chance to see other bands and meet up with old friends in bands that you see around. It’s great to have a chance to play for people who otherwise might not have a chance to come to your shows. They’re there to see different genres of music and you catch them and win them over. As a band, that’s the key element to playing a festival – to get new people into your band. We embrace festivals. We’re very much a gigging band and always have been. A festival is the jewel in the crown of touring.

Q: For someone who’s never caught a Duke Spirit show, how would you describe it?
A: I like our gigs to be a special experience for the audience as much as us. There shouldn’t be any stage/audience divide as far as we’re concerned. We want people to embrace what we’re doing as much as us. That’s a great gig – when people forget they’re at a rock concert and just enjoying the gig.

Q: Do you hope this American tour, which opens in Solana Beach, will turn out better than the one in 2006, which was fraught with problems?
A: We realized that, although there are souls out there who will steal your equipment, there are 20 times more people who will go completely out of their way to help you carry on as a band and play shows. We’ve had some great [American] tours since then. We went on the road with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club...they were a great band to be on the road with and the audiences were really receptive to us.

Q: The latest CD “Neptune” has been out here for a couple months now. What is the consensus among fans?
A: The majority of people have completely warmed to it. I think it’s a natural progression for us as a band. Many people listened to it and felt surprised by the outcome of the album, but I think people realize songs at the end of “Cuts Across the Land” [hinted toward this one]. I don’t think it’s a massive jump, sonically. I think it’s a natural progression…we feel like we’ve hit the ground running and we don’t want to stop.

Q: Was working with producer Chris Goss a direct result of doing the UNKLE track “Mayday?”
A: It was. Basically, we’d never met him until our collaboration with UNKLE. But we’d heard of him and we were a fan of his work. When the UNKLE collaboration came about we were really pleased. So we went to Rancho de la Luna [Studio] in Joshua Tree and worked with Chris and UNKLE, just for the day...You’re trying to create a piece of art and be musical...often Chris would say, ‘just fill in the gaps.’ He’d make subtle suggestions about harmony and tempo. It would all make sense. He’d never rip everything apart and have us wondering what was going on. He’s a great musician. A great producer often has amazing life experiences. They put it all together and pass it on. That’s exactly what Chris did for us. The changes and suggestions he made were the subtleties we really yearned for.

Q: Did he encourage you to use some of the less common instruments around the place, like the autoharp and omnichord?A: The autoharp we’d used previously. There’s so many weird and wonderful instruments there and sometimes he’d be tinkering on some old Hammond B3 organ. You’d think, ‘what the hell is he doing in there?’ All the sudden, you’d be like, ‘yes that’s great! Press record!’ He’s quite eccentric and that is just brilliant. It was quite different to us, growing up in rural England, you go to the desert. He’s the polar opposite to us. That was so refreshing.

Q: I read that the band actually stayed at the Joshua Tree Inn, where Gram Parsons died, right?
A: We did – our very first night in Joshua Tree. We stayed in rooms on both sides of the room where he passed away...We were there to get [oriented to the desert] and watch the first day of Coachella, then had a BBQ a few miles up the road. It was great introduction into life in Joshua Tree. Now it’s like our home away from home because we spent so long there.

Q: On the cover of “Neptune,” you’re holding up a vinyl copy of Bob Dylan’s “The Basement Tapes.” Why’d you choose that?
A: It’s funny. We didn’t set that photo shoot up to be the cover of the album. We like the end result. Initially, we came together to Toby’s flat and brought 5 or 6 items that we really liked. I ran in my living room and picked up 5 that were dear to me. Everyone did the same. “The Basement Tapes” is an album I’m really fond of...Everything in that picture isn’t as significant as we should have made it. We liked the outcome of the photograph and the items we all hold are dear to our hearts. We wanted it to be slightly tongue-in-cheek. It’s a contrast with the artwork, stands out and creates an interest because people ask, ‘why are you holding that?’

Q: Toby said you consider yourselves to be a soul band. Can you elaborate?
A: I wouldn’t want to pigeonhole it with a type of soul. It’s more the ethos behind the sound. The way we sound when we play and us as people. One thing that really captivates us is old soul records. Even bands like Parliament Funkadelic and Sly & the Family Stone – it’s a celebration. You can’t avoid being drawn into the sound. Just the way everyone looks when they play. When you watch and listen to the music it’s uplifting. We want to emulate that in our music. It’s something that influences us and we want to express that when we play. That’s where us being a soul band comes from – it’s more the feel of things. We definitely tried to make more of a groove-based album this time…knocking things around and realize there’s more space to be had. With “Neptune,” we tried to express that space which you have in soul music.

Glen Helen Pavilion name change

I sure do hate the proliferation for corporate names on sporting and entertainment venues over the past decade or so. The companies don't consider how stupid they often sound or that they are tongue twisters, let alone whether the general public keeps up with the changes.

We have the new Citizens Business Bank Arena opening up in Ontario, CA this fall.

Now the Blockbuster Pavilion/Hyundai Pavilion/Glen Helen Pavilion in Devore, CA is now known as San Manuel Pavilion. Even worse is San Manuel, an Indian casino in nearby Highland, will also have the San Manuel VIP lounge at CBB Arena. How's that for confusion?

I can't tell you how many people still wonder where Honda Center (formerly Arrowhead Pond) in Anaheim and Gibson Amphitheatre (Universal Amphitheatre since the '70s) in L.A. are at.

The biggest laugh for a corporate named venue came several years ago when the Jenny Craig Pavilion listed shows in San Diego. I don't even remember what it was.

Anybody else feel the same way?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Bonus Q&A with Gillmor

Here is more from my separate interviews with two members of the California band Gillmor. They perform at the Glass House in Pomona on July 5. Debut EP "Counting the Days" is available through

TYLER THOMPSON (keyboards/piano), a San Bernardino resident, was born and raised in the city.

Q: Can you tell me how you first got involved with the band?
A: About a year and a half ago, I was doing some session work with a local artist here [in the IE]. They were looking for a keyboard player and I was looking for something fun at the time. I joined up with the band Ava Elliott. They were involved with Loren Israel who was doing artist development for Capitol. When they broke up, I got a call from Loren about a guy named Ryan Gillmor. At the time, I’d never heard of him. [Loren] sent me a couple tracks and I was blown away. So we did a couple practice sessions and a few weeks after that, he asked me to join. I was doing a piano/acoustic thing on the album and things went from there.

Q: When the five of you performed together for the first time, was there an instant chemistry?
A: The moment we jumped onstage it was magic. It felt like we’d been playing for years together like old friends.

Q: How do you think the IE music scene has evolved over the years? Has it gotten better or worse?A: The Inland Empire has always had a reputation for going against the grain of the music industry. I’ve noticed a lot of punk bands coming out trying to bring it back to “Inland Empire grass roots.” Although it’s a small scene, it’s still punching hard. I really hope those guys get a lot of exposure and we can really bring it out. As far as us, we’re far more involved with the L.A. scene where a lot of other things are going on. As far as the Inland Empire, it’s kind of a diamond in the rough waiting to explode.

Q: There’s really a lack of places to play.
A: Definitely. It’s part of one of the biggest counties in America and I can think of one club that’s even remotely decent and that’s the Glass House. And a lot of people don’t want to drive an hour to get there. I genuinely think if there was one decent club here, it would take off.

Q: The Showcase Theatre closing was a death knell for certain genres.
A: As far as that [hardcore] music goes, they were doing it strong for awhile. I think we can build that stuff back up. I remember always hearing my dad and uncle talk about the [Swing Auditorium, now the] Orange Show, where Zeppelin and The Doors used to play. If we could bring back a spot like that, that’s what we should be known for.

Q: I noticed the band only does a few shows a month. Is that because of the logistics where everyone is located?
A: Yeah. We do as many as we can afford to do as starving musicians…Ryan lives in Northern California, which is a 7-hour drive…if we all lived down in Southern California, we’d be playing almost every day. We get tons of offers for shows. Our biggest draw is Northern California because of Ryan’s solo stuff. It’s really tough trying to get up and down there.

Q: Any talk of moving closer together?
A: Yeah, there’s been talk since last year of Ryan maybe moving down here and getting a house and centralize everything. But Justin already has a house with his girlfriend. I don’t know. If it does happen in the future, it would be rad.

Q: Was Gillmor always meant to be a band?
A: The only reason I joined Gillmor was because Ryan said specifically he wanted to be a band. We were barely writing the album [at the time]. We chose Gillmor [as a name], because the crowd draw already knows Ryan so we went that route. The CD is specifically band oriented. We had a bunch of guest musicians. The drummer from Reel Big Fish came in. And me before Jimmy and Jake all came in. We cut ties with Loren Israel a few months ago. There were some contract issues. He wanted us to extend the contract for development. We felt we were better off doing things ourselves [next time]. We talk all the time. We really wanted to do things on our own as far as the direction we need to go. We got the “American Idol” and Fox [TV show] on our own.

Q: The songs often have a power pop vibe. Who were you listening to while writing and who are some of your influences?
A: My influences have little to do with the band. I was into Buena Vista Social Club…we all add a little spice to it…it’s completely diverse.

Q: Have you had any major label interest after the Fox-TV exposure?
A: I can’t count how many showcases we’ve done. The only drawback to it is it’s a really scary time right now. A lot of labels are scared to put too much money out. The music industry in general is afraid; it all comes down to singles and iTunes. If you don’t have the singles, it’s not about the album anymore. It’s really tough.

Q: Were you inundated after that “Idol” episode aired?
A: The day “Idol” came on, within half an hour, we had 40 messages from people giving us their contact info and ‘let’s see what we can do.’ We’re still talking to them today.

Q: A few months back, the band appeared on the KLOS/Mark & Brian radio show. How did that go?
A: Wonderful. We did about an hour set, played 3-4 songs. Tons of people were calling in. Mark & Brian are the coolest guys.

Q: Any plans for new music coming out this year?
A: We have tons written already. If you thought the first album was great, you haven’t seen anything yet. Our songwriting is maturing a lot more. We’re talking about a lot of deeper subjects.

RYAN GILLMOR (singer/songwriter/guitar), lives about an hour outside Sacramento

Q: Why doesn’t the band do more shows in the area?
A: Actually, the hardest thing about doing more Southern California gigs is the club owners. They’ll say, ‘if you’re playing here, you can’t play another show for six weeks.’ Makes it hard to do a lot of shows. I can understand where they’re coming from because they want you to draw to their club. At the same time, people going to the Glass House aren’t necessarily going to go to the Key Club.

Q: How would you describe the typical Gillmor show to someone who’s never seen you?
A: Lots of singalongs and crowd interaction. There’s a lot of energy from us and we don’t like silence onstage. We like to keep the party going all the time. Even in between songs there’s jam sessions going on. Once we start, we don’t want to stop until the very end.

Q: You played a some solo acoustic dates on Warped ’07. Tell me about it.
A: Last summer, I was also volunteering with Music Saves Lives. I’d register people as bone marrow donors. That was something I could do while I was out there anyway - a way for me to get inside the Warped Tour every day. It was a great experience.

Q: Were you in other bands before Gillmor?
A: I was in another band for about 7 years in the Sacramento area. I did some touring with Frank Hannon from Tesla. I played guitar for about 6-8 months with that. I had known him for a long time. It was an opportunity for me to get out and play with someone who sold millions of records, get on a tour bus and do fly out dates. Getting the rock ‘n’ roll treatment. While doing that, I was writing and recording my own stuff. I did the acoustic thing for a couple years before hooking up with these guys. Now we’ve been together a year now.

Q: On meeting Tyler…
A: On some of the songs I was writing, I played piano on them and Loren said, ‘I know this great piano player who might be interested.’ Tyler had just left the band all the other guys were in. We hit it off right away. He loved the music and I thought he was one of baddest ass piano players I’d seen. I felt super lucky I met him. He brings so much to it.

Q: Was there an instant rapport?
A: Yeah, we got together before I left for Warped Tour. I had a CD release dinner with all the musicians involved, the producer, guys I co-wrote with. We had a big party in the Valley. That was the first night I met Justin and Jimmy. We hung out and hit it off. I left for the Warped Tour all summer and we had our first rehearsal at the end of August ’07. We played through the songs and it worked. Pretty instantaneous.

Q: Tom Higgenson of Plain White T’s guests on backing vocals on both this EP and your solo one. What was it like working with him?
A: He was really open to suggestions and said, ‘this is your song. Let me know what you want me to do.’ And threw in some suggestions. Obviously the first time he came in and sang was before they really blew up. It was nice enough for him to come and do it the first time.

Q: Tell me about collaborating with Tim Pagnotta of Sugarcult.
A: He’s become one of my best friends. We talk every other day…I hooked up with him first about a 1 ½ years ago and we started writing some songs. We wrote “Hey” and thought, ‘this song could be a hit.’ We have a slew of songs we’re getting ready to demo together.

Q: What inspires your songwriting?
A: The thing that really inspires me is other music. There are so many different types of songs I want to write. Songs by Queen, The Beach Boys, and all these bands I grew up idolizing. Aerosmith and No Doubt. When I hear a great song, it inspired me to write my version of that song.

Q: Any other genres/acts you’ve admired over the years?
A: Power pop. I like Boston, Kansas. I grew up listening to old ‘60s music like Motown, the Byrds, Mamas & Papas. And I grew up listening to ‘80s rock like Tesla, Motley Crue, Bon Jovi. Music from the late ‘90s, No Doubt is probably the reason I’m doing music. When I first got ‘Tragic Kingdom’ and went and saw their tour, it changed my life.

Q: Tyler mentioned your lyrics have an innocence to them, which might stem from your fascination with Disneyland.
A: My car has a Disneyland license plate on the back and ‘I Love Lucy’ on the front. When I’m down there, I have a season pass. I’m at Disneyland a couple times a week when I’m down there just hanging out. I was born in Anaheim and grew up there until I was 10. My parents are big Disney collectors. I’m not one of these dudes who tries to be a tough guy…It comes across in some of my songs. People will hear them and say, ‘you might want to toughen up the lyrics.’ I don’t really care. When you listen to the oldies or even some ‘80s stuff, the lyrics are so innocent. People wanted to listen to music to have a good time and not searching for life answers. The music I write is influenced by that.

Q: How did the process with “In This Moment” on ‘Idol’ transpire?
A: I was actually at Disneyland when they called to say I made the top 20. The Mark Twain boat went by and blew its horn while I was on the phone and the guy said, ‘are you at a train station?’ I said where I was and he said, ‘Ryan Gillmor you’ve made the top 20, what are you going to do?’ Two days later, they started online voting for two weeks. Three weeks after that ended, I found out I made the top 10. They called me that day and said David Archuleta chose the song to sing on the [two-part] finale…there’s no better exposure for a songwriter than ‘American Idol’ at this point. It’s the biggest platform to have your songs showcased on.

Q: Industry people are taking notice.
A: When ‘Hey’ was the theme song, it sparked a lot of interest. But a lot of artists get lucky once and they never have another break. For ‘Hey’ to come along and a few months later, ‘Idol,’ shows [labels] it’s not just luck. There’s something here to pay attention.

Q: Does Gillmor have an overall philosophy?
A: Going back to oldies and ‘80s music and having fun – there’s a lot of things I write in my lyrics that are very meaningful, but at the end of the day, don’t think too much. Just listen, enjoy, let it move you and have a good time with it. You can dig so deep into things. You do that every day of your life, just listen and enjoy. Don’t make so much of it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Ed Harcourt album review

The Beautiful Lie
Grade: A

When Ed Harcourt sings, “music slays my heart and soul” on The Beautiful Lie, he does it with such conviction that you hang onto every word. The British singer/songwriter/pianist’s fourth album is filled with confessional tunes and enthralling character studies. They’re mostly done up in grand cabaret pop style a la Rufus Wainwright, but acoustic folk and psychedelic touches also seep into the musical woodwork. Primarily recorded on an eight-track machine at his grandmother’s home, Harcourt used a piano built in 1917.

The proceedings get off to a haunting start with “Whirlwind in D Minor.” Harcourt uses his falsetto (key lyric: “will you love me when I’m old/I’m still hoping I can get that far”) as pedal steel master BJ Cole adds eerie swirls and a Flamenco guitar pattern carries everything along.

An upbeat melody, jazz drums and sprightly guitar work from Graham Coxon (ex-Blur) belies the dire sentiments in “Visit From the Dead Dog.” Here, Harcourt touches upon religion and politics: “God has the last laugh from up on high/he lets us kill/as people die for their faith/we call it triumph of the will.” A thunderous, Spectorian barrage of instruments propels “Revolution in the Heart,” where Harcourt goes through a litany various troubled characters and The Magic Numbers lend their pipes to a soaring chorus.

Other standouts include “Late Night Partner,” a stark, brokenhearted piano ballad with a gorgeous cinematic flair, the stirring, orchestrated drama of “Rain on the Pretty Ones,” simple, acoustic guitar and violin-driven “The Last Cigarette,” about a terminally ill smoker (shades of Damien Rice, albeit far less grating), “Scatterbrain,” a waltz which switches time signatures, and the expansive “Braille,” Harcourt’s duet with his wife leavened by treated guitar. Dramatic and personal, this is Harcourt’s finest effort since 2001’s Here Be Monsters.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Carrie Underwood, gospel show on tap for new arena in Ontario, Calif.

Country superstar Carrie Underwood will grace the Inland Empire with her presence for the first time since playing the much-missed Key Club at Casino Morongo a couple years ago.

She performs at the new Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario. The show is Nov. 9 and tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. Monday. Prices are $35-$55, plus fees.

Already on sale is gospel show Bill Gaither & Friends, Nov. 22, $19.50-$42.50.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Vans Warped Tour 2008 preview

(This article originally appeared in Inland Empire Weekly) The Warped Tour hits Pomona Fairplex on June 20 and Home Depot Center in Carson on Aug. 17.

Convenience, surprises and expected elements. They all add up to a successful lifestyle festival, according to Warped Tour organizer Kevin Lyman.

“I think Warped Tour works because the kids can go and feel comfortable,” he said. “There’s always something different that catches their ears or eyes. That’s what we continue to do. Sometimes festivals lose their focus when they try to shift away too much from what they’re about.”

Although teens and pre-teens comprise the core Warped audience, the annual event also attracts adults who come to see their favorite old school punk acts and those currently making waves on radio.

An Inland Empire native, Lyman graduated from Claremont High School and Cal Poly Pomona. He later worked with Lollapalooza and concert promoter Goldenvoice, before helping to launch the Warped Tour, which deftly combined skateboarding and alternative music, in 1995. It has been going strong ever since.

No Doubt, Sublime and face to face served as the inaugural headliners. Vans signed on as corporate sponsor the following year. Each edition has spotlighted established and upcoming groups on multiple stages and inside tents. Many have gone from playing a small area in the corner of Warped to topping large venue bills on their own. My Chemical Romance and Paramore are recent examples.

Lyman takes pride in watching that happen. “It’s what I’ve probably done best – giving bands a little step up. I love music and got into this business to help develop and break bands. I think I’ve done a pretty good job.”

Previous Warped tours featured enough acts to make your head spin, but Lyman said the 2008 edition - anchored by Pennywise, All American Rejects, Angels & Airwaves, Gym Class Heroes, Cobra Starship and Against Me! – should be capped around 75.

“Sometimes ‘more isn’t better’…when we were having over 100 bands a day, it was getting to be too much trying to park everyone and separate the sound.”

With sky high gas prices, local Warped attendees can be relieved that the festival is still anchored at Pomona Fairplex.

“There’s grass and some shade. The Fairgrounds has big parking. They help us get started and don’t charge us rent. We can go in there early to get ready to go. Everything like that goes into keeping the tour price [reasonable].”

Environmental efforts continue at Warped. The Kia/Kevin Says stage runs entirely on solar power, backstage catering uses washable dinnerware and a biodiesel fuel blend helps cut down on carbon emissions.

People who bring 10 empty bottles or old cell phones/accessories to designated on-site recycling centers earn a contest entry for the Eco Adventure. It happens this October at St. Croix with the Warped crew and Costeau Foundation. Warped VIP perks and swag are also in the offing to anyone seen carpooling or wearing a t-shirt that promotes eco action.

An emphasis on diversity is evident by the lineup inclusion of Oreska Band (all female ska from Japan) and the Pinker Tones (electronica DJs via Spain). Lyman cited young pop/popsters We the Kings as breakout of the year.

Beat Union, a promising English new wave/punk/ska quartet that hails from Birmingham, is definitely another one to watch at Warped. Singer/guitarist Davey Warsop said they are psyched about the jaunt through America, especially after reading about it in local rock rags as teenagers.

“We’re completely over the moon to be playing. To finally be here doing it is an absolute honor.” Disconnected, produced by Goldfinger’s John Feldmann, bears traces of late ‘70s-era Jam, Clash, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Squeeze and The Police. The sharp album is one of the best debuts of ’08 thus far. They should go down a storm on the stage. “We pride ourselves on an energetic and fun live show, for sure,” added Warsop.

The Briggs’ guitarist/vocalist Jason LaRocca believes the best part of performing at Warped is “getting to experience all the other music that’s going on. To see all those bands separately would take several months. You get to do that all in the course of a day.”

His punk band is doing the entire run for the first time. LaRocca – who splits guitar and vocal duties with brother Joey – agreed that a big part of Warped’s staying power can be attributed to Lyman not gouging young concertgoers.

“Every year, he manages to make a really strong package for the price. It is pretty unparalleled. There is no other tour with that many bands and that much to experience for $30.”

Singalong chants are important to The Briggs, whose rousing fourth release Come All You Madmen dropped this week. “This is L.A.,” a fiery ode to their hometown, was inspired “by the frustration of people thinking we were from Boston because of our sound and bands we’ve toured with,” explained LaRocca. “It was always coming up in interviews: ‘Boston this, Boston that’…it kinda sucked. We have a sense of pride being from L.A. It is home.”

Easily the group’s strongest to date, Madmen features politically-themed tunes (“Ship of Fools,” “Charge Into the Sun”) and acoustic slow burners. Several Mighty Mighty Bosstones members, Bad Religion guitarist Brian Baker and Dropkick Murphys singer Ken Casey also contributed to some songs.

“From top to bottom, I think it’s a really strong lineup and unique again,” noted Lyman. “I’m really excited about it and I don’t say that every year.”