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)