Skyscraper Magazine » 2011 » January
A friend of Skyscraper shares this message.

A friend of Skyscraper shares this message.

On Sex With an X, Scottish indie-pop duo The Vaselines – Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee – prove that while a person can go home again, so to speak, it’s rarely the same: the scenery may seem impassive, but the emotions have shifted and lingering wounds can reopen.

For most, The Vaselines were probably a trivial postscript in Nirvana’s history. Kurt Cobain was a huge fan: Nirvana covered “Molly’s Lips” and “Son of a Gun” on Incesticide (Geffen, 1992) and “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” showed up as “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” on the 1994 live document Unplugged in New York (DGC, 1994).

Listeners most likely discovered The Vaselines’ tumbledown twee-noise when Sub Pop released The Way of the Vaselines: A Complete History in 1992 [reissued in 2009 as a deluxe edition, Enter the Vaselines, which added re-masters of early EPs as well as demos and live recordings], by which time the group had already folded. Kelly subsequently resurfaced as leader of boisterous, self-effacing Eugenius, a melding of Teenage Fanclub-esque rock with his precise pop instincts, while McKee busied herself as a member of both Suckle and Painkillers.

After two decades off, though, The Vaselines have returned, and while some things have changed others have stayed the same. The twosome’s last official outing was Dum Dum (Rough Trade, 1989), but anyone expecting nostalgia or a reunion impression won’t find it on Sex With an X.

Musically, the material merges The Vaselines DIY aesthetic with a refined production approach and a small serving of the thick guitar mash that frequented Eugenius’s two undertakings, Oomalama and Tireless Wireless (Atlantic, 1992) and Mary Queen of Scots (Atlantic, 1994). The years have moved on, though, and in this present day when Kelly’s hair has thinned and wrinkles are obvious, the tunes he and McKee fashioned are noticeably tightened with middle aged cynicism and time-weathered candor.

Sex With an X contrasts conspicuously to Man Alive, Kelly’s 2005 solo effort on Sympathy for the Record Industry, which was adorned with acoustic, nearly folksy trappings and optimistic desire. It is also the polar opposite of McKee’s languorous leanings on her previous projects.

A dozen fresh Vaselines pieces here seem gripped by persistent pessimism and aspirations to settle old scores. The 42-minute excursion incongruously kicks off with “Ruined,” beginning with a child’s tuneless croon and then quickly barrages the ears with an assaultive grunge guitar salvo akin to early Nirvana while Kelly gripes about has-been hipsters prolonging their own finished fame. While there is a sense of irony in the lines “I think you got it wrong / Can’t write a decent song” and “We could get famous too / From drink and sniffing glue,” there is also anger at yet another overhyped generation of swinging swindlers selling out to the pop music machine.

The best pieces are jangly cuts like the title track, about having a go with an ex-partner despite painful memories. If there is a general theme, it’s that imprint of labored torment that colors countless former soured relationships. One example is Nick Cave-like “The Devil’s Inside of Me,” where the antagonist blames his cruelty, malfeasance, and masochism on interior demons. The tune’s corrosive quality is accented by echo-laden guitar from Belle & Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson, providing a suitable backdrop to Kelly’s repeated mantra, “I’ve got the devil, the devil’s inside me.”

Even better is the incriminating riposte “Overweight but Over You,” a lightly distorted guitar-pop gem that’s another slice of acerbic romance during which Kelly sets up the guidelines to finality: “It’s a recipe we have to follow / Take heartache and a pinch of sorrow / Let it simmer for a year or two / Serve it up and then we’re through.” The finest give-and-take track is slowly seething, Velvet Underground-ish “Poison Pen,” wherein Kelly and McKee trade lines like a couple tired of each other but too tired to divorce. “I can rely on you to always let me down,” Kelly sings with McKee replying, “And I’ll trust you to never be around.”

More tart honesty is unwrapped on mockingly upbeat “I Hate the 80’s,” one more rejoinder hostile to the past. While the band grooves along blissfully, McKee and Kelly pour on the vitriol against the Me Decade with prickly poetry like, “You put a bullet in a Beatle / Started beating on the people.” The refrain, sung by two veterans who lived through it all, sums up a long-gone age: “What do you know? You weren’t there / It wasn’t all Duran Duran / You want the truth? Well, this is it / I hate the 80’s ‘cause the 80’s were shit.” The record concludes with the appropriate “Exit the Vaselines,” which buries hope beneath fatigued fatalism through the cheerless chorus, “Don’t even try, it’s only goodbye.”

On Valentine’s Day 2008, Bobby Bare, Jr. dispatched an e-mail informing all within virtual earshot that his mother had been hit by a tree two weeks previously while watching television alone in her Hendersonville, TN, home.  Considering the source, one would do well to smell a rat, but it was not the case this time. Evidently one of the century-old birch trees girding the Bare property came down in a windstorm, smashing through the roof and landing on his mother, cracking two vertebrae in her neck. The Bare matriarch was forced to phone for help while still trapped under the debris. Fortunately, the story ends with Jeannie Bare making a full recovery.

The best writers, it has long been said, write what they know. As such, the experience has provided Mrs. Bare’s favorite son with both the title and a song for his first full-length since 2006’s The Longest Meow. Even without his mother falling prey to the vagaries of gravity, the four years that passed since his last full-length have proven fertile fodder for Bare, Jr. A wealth of life experiences and his partnership with fellow new-jack Nashville outsider David Vandervelde are neatly distilled into song on A Storm, A Tree, My Mother’s Head.

Losing a Country Grammy to the Pointer Sisters at the ripe old age of 6, having a surprise hit with his first band, becoming an unlikely benefactor of Korn’s success, and early notoriety with a body of songs all approved by Shel Silverstein before they were released kinda makes Taylor Hicks and Avenged Sevenfold’s image-sculpting seem a little silly,  huh? Bare, Jr. is no stranger to absurdity, fostered in part by having Shel Silverstein as both a literal and musical godfather. Eight releases into his career, Silverstein’s scent is all over Bare, Jr.’s work, forcing the average fan to become too comfortable with songs about the real-life relationship between Opie and Liz Taylor which rubs shoulders with tales focused on seeing the Jesus Lizard open for Sonic Youth in 1993 and/or boldfaced contemplations of killing the guy dating his ex. Like Wussy’s Chuck Cleaver and Drive By Truckers’ Mike Cooley, Bare, Jr. has a twisted Rockwellian gift for capturing a scene without overstating it.  Having Bobby Bare as a father and growing up with George Jones and Johnny Cash as neighbors probably helps a bit, as well.

Opening with “Your Goat is on Fire,” Bare, Jr. builds on the Silverstein credo that the best songs start where other songwriters are afraid to go.  From there it’s the average trip down the Bare, Jr. rabbit hole with Vandervelde returning to co-pilot. Recorded over two days in a Nashville log cabin with 3/5 of My Morning Jacket as the band’s core, A Storm, A Tree, My Mother’s Head juxtaposes songs about Jesus’ lost sandals and Atlantan Halloween parties with naked declarations of love from flawed protagonists cut from a Randy Newman cloth.

Looking past the Silverstein-esque end-rhymes in “Liz Taylor’s Lipstick Gun,” it’s songs like “But I Do” and “Sad Smile” which better embody Bare, Jr. than any interview ever could.  One surmises the idiosyncrasies Bare, Jr. shares with listeners lose a bit of shine when one’s experiencing them firsthand in a relationship. As a body of songs, though, A Storm, A Tree, My Mother’s Head makes for some of the finest songs collected on one disc this year.

To date, most of the reviews written of the very appropriately named White Noise Sound reference Spacemen 3 a lot, which makes this reviewer wonder how many of those critics listened to anything beyond the opening track. Part of this might be because Sonic Boom helped record this young Welsh group, along with Cian Ciaran of Super Furry Animals fame, and critics are looking for an obvious reference point. In reality, however, White Noise Sound is a quite diverse and exceptional debut album, encompassing everything from straightforward, raw rock’n’roll power to accomplished, experimental space rock epics.

Yes, the opening track, “Sunset,” which begins with fiery bursts of stun-gun guitar, is very reminiscent of Spacemen 3’s “Revolution,” at least initially. However, when the song fully kicks in, it sounds much more like contemporary fellow travelers, such as The Warlocks or Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, replete with a heady mix of post-Jesus and Mary Chain pyrotechnics and Stooges-meets-Velvet Underground rock’n’roll cool. It’s easy to picture black as the most prominent color in the White Noise Sound wardrobe, too!

The Stooges/VU reference point makes a lot of sense on “It Is There For You,” a slow hypnotic mood piece with almost spoken word vocals and occasional, furious blasts of power – very John Cale-inspired (think “We Will Fall,” which he wrote for the Stooges’ self-titled debut). “Fires In the Still Sea” is quite ambient and mellow, while “There Is No Tomorrow” picks things up with a Brian Jonestown Massacre-like psychedelic groove and an enticing arrangement that includes flute, piccolo, and sax.

This leads to the album’s centerpiece, “Blood” and “Blood (Reprise),” one of the best psych-rock songs you will hear all year. The former begins with an impressive array of feedback that Loop would have been proud of before kicking into a crushing rocker not unlike The Warlock’s “Hurricane Heart Attack” with its insanely catchy melody and skull crushing, primal “caveman rock” style. “Blood (Reprise)” tones down things a lot with a seductive arrangement of synths, drones, and subdued, distorted, hushed vocals. The vibe then builds to an almost horror film-like score climax consisting of sinister guitar feedback, which reappears near the end.

Other highlights include “Don’t Wait For Me,” which brings to mind the vastly underrated early 1990s Rugby, England, group The Darkside, while the album finale, “(In Both) Dreams and Ecstasies,” lives up to its name with an almost orchestral-like combination of soft and loud sounds. A fantastic end to a fantastic record.

What do you get when you combine Wilco’s lead guitarist, The Lounge Lizards’ drummer, The Minutemen’s bassist, and Cibo Matto’s keyboardist? The answer is the one-off semi-supergroup Floored by Four. The titles to the four mostly instrumental songs on this self-titled debut are a big clue to the players’ identities: “Nels” is guitarist Nels Cline; “Yuka” is keyboardist Yuka Honda; “Watt” is bassist Mike Watt; and “Dougie” is drummer Dougie Bowne.

The musicians have long, varied bios and although they each have previous connections to one another, they have never come together as a single entity. Bowne and Honda were previously married and have performed together often. Watt and Cline have worked in many projects (Banyan being one example). Cibo Matto opened for Porno for Pyros, in which Watt was once a member. Finally, Watt and Bowne have even been employed by Iggy Pop at different times. And so on.

Floored by Four took shape last summer when Watt, the self-dubbed thud stick player, went to New York City to participate in a Summerstage show in Central Park. Bowne and Honda reside in the area and Cline was visiting: the result was three days in a sweaty-hot studio. The final outcome is this 43-minute excursion through jazz-rock, fusion, mysterious avant-punk, and more.

The basic template springs from bass riffs and a few words of Watt’s direction. From there, each piece was constructed via live studio jams, with each musician contributing what felt right – in essence, pure inspiration and improvisation.

“Nels” takes its time building and ebbing. Beginning with Cline’s ethereal, effects-driven noises, the effort morphs into a thumping jazz-rocker with fuzzy guitar, spacey keyboards, and the Watt/Bowne bottom end providing a thick, basic beat. Cline and company don’t stay in a solid groove, though, and circle back to quieter interludes rife with Jeff Beck meets Tony Williams’ Lifetime mannerisms. Because this is Cline’s quarter of the four-walled venture, his guitar and effects take center stage during most of the 10 minutes, offering sonic territory that’ll be appreciated by the guitarist’s fans. In true do-it-yourself fashion, “Nels” abruptly snaps closed with Cline’s jet-plane effects impression suddenly cut off.

Commencing in a similar style with Honda’s shimmering keyboards leading the way, “Yuka” finds itself complemented by Bowne’s lightly tapped percussion. The atmospheric introduction unexpectedly concludes as the group erupts into another furious fusion groove, slowing only when Watt begins to recite a repetitive, Mother Nature mantra about fire, wind, light, and water. The tune’s lyrical theme and subsequent middle section has a classic rock tinge, almost like something copped from an old Uriah Heep or Pink Floyd LP. But despite the fact that this is Honda’s cut, she remains behind the scenes for the most part.

“Watt” is by far the shortest and funkiest piece. Everyone contributes to a broken, soulful groove with a distinct Memphis inclination: this could have graced a Booker T. and the MGs B-side. Honda replicates that bluesy organ with Watt and Bowne holding down a solid beat Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson would approve of. Cline puts his own unique spin on Steve Cropper’s impeccable six-string chord changes. And towards the track’s conclusion the band slips in a slight noise-rock tease akin to Sonic Youth, but they bump right back to the Stax-Volt shiver for the last bar.

At an epic 19 minutes, “Dougie” captures one third of the disc’s total time. Like “Nels,” the foursome uses space and time to open up the proceedings. Nothing is hurried and everything moves at a reflective pace. Bowne emphasizes cymbals, brushes, toms and occasional hi-hat while Cline stakes out a violin-like stance with what sounds like an e-bow and Honda supplies an otherworldly background. As Bowne reveals his jazz roots during a drum solo highlighting his melodic skills, the majority of the lengthy jam recalls Weather Report’s late-1970s heyday.

While Floored by Four might have been initiated by Watt, his proj (as he dubs it) will most likely appeal to anyone who knows Bowne and Cline, since they dominate the instrumentals. Watt hasn’t sat back to rest, though. He’s already arranged to do another session with The Unknown Instructors, three albums have been recorded with Cline and are ready to go, in addition to plans regarding the longstanding Missingmen ensemble. At his own estimate, Watt guesses there could a dozen or more undertakings he may donate his time to.

“Oooooh yeah, damn this is an awesome song. Who is this?” said my friend in a cabin filled with smoke and musicians nodding their heads silently while leaning against something sturdy.

“Black Mountain,” I responded.

“I knew it,” he confirmed in a haze, tacking on some superlatives.

And there you have it.

After you’ve heard them once, you know Black Mountain when you hear them again. That is, of course, unless you mistake them for some tune faintly overheard from the next room as a VH1 Classic Masters of Metal-style video countdown churns on as you make a double grilled cheese.

With Wilderness Heart, the band’s third full-length record, Black Mountain tries a change-up of sorts and alters the sonic attitudes conveyed from their previous albums. That modification comes in the form of mixing in a random archive of musical attempts the crew made on previous outings.

Where the quintet’s debut, a 2005 self-titled effort, was a fresh and multifaceted take on youthfully impassioned, if not drugged and bearded, drone rock from the 1970s, 2008’s In the Future took a satisfying grasp of the stoner-metal reigns and slow-rode them with proper fore-and-pinkie-finger signs aloft. Wilderness Heart is an attempt at melding each with some poppier sentiments for a bit of accessibility, leaving you with the hope that the group just picks one or the other.

“The Hair Song” opens the record as a high-flying, yet succinct pop-metal tune that in one fell swoop utilizes nearly all the band’s specified talents. It’s got a sick guitar riff, a catchy verse-chorus-verse route, lead man Stephen McBean’s gravelly vocal delivery backed by the pretty pipes of Amber Webber, all buttressed by Jeremy Schmidt’s intense organ sounds. It’s the album’s single and rightfully so, as it’s the best tune on the album.

From there, the Vancouverans turn toward the spaced-out, psych-metal of their last album with “Old Fangs” – one of only three heavy, drone rock efforts on Wilderness Heart. Out of 10 tracks, that’s a 30-percent “Awesome… dude” rock ratio on this record versus the 80-percent from In the Future. I’m not sure exactly what that means for the band or its fans. We may have to call on the spirit of Ronnie James Dio for a ruling.

Of the trio of heavy rock tunes, “Rollercoaster” is the obvious standout here. It comes in over the five-minute mark – something the band blew through habitually on their last record, but just two times on this one (another tell-tale sign on the accessibility meter). It opens with a Sabbathian monster riff and is immediately joined by Schmidt’s heavy organ, before the tide rolls back for McBean’s vocals backed by just the evil strut of a synthesizer and a ball-busting bass-line. Drop in sprinkles of Webber’s angelic voice and you’ve got a great one.

Unfortunately, it’s followed by the single worst tune of the band’s career. “Let Spirits Ride” is a cheesy, cornball of a metal song akin to something a Judas Priest cover band might play at a biker bar in Daytona. It’s that bad.

Overall, the album veers heavily toward sleepy, acoustic tapestry jams like “Radiant Hearts,” “Buried by the Blues,” and “The Space of your Mind.” Probably inspired by the on-target attempt at this genre in the form of “Stay Free” off In the Future (also included on the Spiderman 3 soundtrack, oddly enough), Black Mountain falls victim to a style they may have struck gold with once. Too many visits to the well, though, seem to leave the band coming up with less creative juice each time.

The style mishmash makes for a slightly uneven album, but one that still showcases parts of what makes Black Mountain so attractive. Too much mashing up, though, and my buddy may not be able to recognize that “awesome” sound anymore.

The decline of America is everywhere. That is, except in the sweaty, smoky backroom of a bar in Atlanta, Georgia, where it’s too dark to see anything but a stage, the band on it, and the hundreds of bright eyes staring passionately at a group of scrawny Jersey kids. America is unified once again, if only for one evening, for Titus Andronicus at The Earl.

On this night, the five-piece band makes their final preparations before blasting off into their brand of passionate indie-punk. Fidgeting about onstage in a swell of reverb and Blue Ribbon cans, you can almost hear the stirring Abraham Lincoln intro to “A More Perfect Union,” the opening song on the band’s sophomore LP The Monitor (XL Recordings, 2010).

Lead man Patrick Stickles steps up to the mic and simply says, “Let’s make this the funnest Monday night ever.” Then, boom. “A More Perfect Union,” its jagged, sawing guitar and the giddy-up of a tribal drum throb provide backing for a siege of unabashed musical celebration. The bearded, lanky front man of the group sways with his guitar to and fro as an American flag attached to his waist dips and dives like it’s on the pole of your hometown baseball field.

He growls, “Because where I’m going to now, no one can ever hurt me / Where the well of human hatred is shallow and dry  /No, I never wanted to change the world, but I’m looking for a new New Jersey / Because tramps like us, baby, we were born to die.”

Soon, as the song moves into its rollicking bridge, the crowd joins Stickles and his four band mates (Ian Graetzer, Eric Harm, Amy Klien, and David Robbins) in a chant of “Oh-oh-oh-oooooooh / na-na-nananana-na-na / Yeah!” that puts any World Cup pub sing-a-long to shame.

On the other side of a sweltering guitar solo, Stickles again snarls while climbing atop the stage’s PA and sings, “Woe, oh woe is me, no one knows the trouble I see / When they hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree, I’ll sit beneath the leaves and weep / None of us shall be saved, every man will be a slave / For John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave and there’s rumbling down in the caves.”

By the time the whole gang rips back up in a rousing homestretch of seething guitar, ragged bass and drum-roll, the crowd, propped on each other’s shoulders and chanting Stickles’ every word, sings in heated harmony as he finishes, “Rally around the flag, boys, rally once again / Shouting the battle cry of freedom!”

Goddam. That was just the first song. It sets the tone for the raucous evening, though, before Stickles brings up baseball by making fun of his Phillie-fan guitar player and pandering to the crowd made up of Braves enthusiasts before spilling out, “Everyone knows the Mets are the best team,” which is greeted by a chorus of boos. “But we can be friends, anyway,” Stickles responds with a laugh before diving back into the music.

The set list brings music and crowd into a percolating, boiling oneness with each song scratched off the playlist from The Monitor and a few tunes found on the team’s debut, The Airing of Grievances (Troubleman/XL Recordings, 2008). During the performance, random members from the opening bands Free Energy and Turf War join the onstage festivities, as does the odd audience member. As the steam train that is the Titus Andronicus live show rolls on, the crowd chants familiar and powerful pieces of Stickles’ lyrics while the swirling revolution inherent in punk rock songs like “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future” and the epic “The Battle of Hampton Roads” washes over them.

It feels right when Stickles slurs the lyrics along with a hundred other folks on “Theme from ‘Cheers.’” “I can get up early, go to work and come home, and start it all over again / But while we’re young, boys, everybody raise your glasses high / Singing, ‘Here’s to the good times, here’s to the home team / Kiss the good times goodbye, oh yeah.’”

By the time Titus Andronicus closes with “Four Score and Seven,” the most powerful song on perhaps the most powerful and pure record of the millennium so far, the throbbing masses mix in with buzzing guitars, clinking glasses, smoky haze, and an aura of stage lights which seem like a perfect portrait of Americana painted in the moment we should all be living.

After the show, Stickles seems to have followed his own example, making sure this was, indeed, the funnest Monday night in America. “We had a great audience tonight, and we just wanted to make sure we were ourselves onstage. And I think we projected that kind of fuzzy feeling to everyone,” Stickles says with a smile. “Sometimes, in this day and age, this post-modern nightmare our society can be, you just have to rock. I mean, what else is there?”

Photos by Coleman Wood

From the Archives: this web-exclusive first appeared on the old Skyscraper Magazine site back in April 2010. It is being republished here for your reading pleasure.

When Mission of Burma reunited in 2002 after a 19-year hiatus, nobody really knew what the reunion would mean to the indie rock world, least of all the band’s members. Seven years and three albums later, Mission of Burma are still pushing themselves artistically and continuing to contribute to the overall evolution of rock music. It’s as though they didn’t notice that rock music – outside of a few exceptions – perished years ago under a deluge of whiny androgyny.

The length of the band’s hiatus – which occurred when vocalist/guitarist Roger Miller’s tinnitus became too unbearable to continue – perhaps left them in a time warp. Their latest album, The Sound The Speed The Light (Matador, 2009), isn’t their best album – that would be the iconic Signals, Calls, and Marches EP (Rykodisc, 1981) – however, the album rivals the equally iconic Vs. (Rykodisc, 1982), and further cements their legacy as the band people can point to as the junction between hardcore, classic rock, and the avant-garde. A few of the album’s tracks recall the band’s snottier “Academy Fight Song” days; others point toward a mature, complex future of rock.

The best part? That Miller, bassist Clint Conley, drummer Peter Prescott and Bob Weston (who replaced original tape looper/sound man Martin Swope when the band reunited) barely even consider themselves a band due to their other commitments. It’s hard to imagine what the band really has the capability of accomplishing, even as they approach their sixties.

Roger Miller spoke with Skyscraper around the October 2009 release of Mission of Burma’s latest album.

Skyscraper: You’ve referred to Mission of Burma as “barely a band,” due to the little time you actually spend on that project compared with your other life pursuits. Is that still the case?
Roger Miller: Well, it’s still just something we do, not the center like it was in the first incarnation of the band. For example, The Sound The Speed The Light didn’t even know it was going to be an album. We had to really look at the band and think, “Do we really want to do this?” But, when push comes to shove, we usually rise to the occasion. That’s kind of funny, really. But we’ve known each other so long (and get along quite well, thank you) that even though we spend less actual time on it, we seem to get things done. Weird.

Skyscraper: You also expressed concern over whether or not you guys would make fools of yourselves coming out of “retirement” and trying to make new music. Yet, Mission of Burma, Wire, Dinosaur Jr., and a few other 1970s/80s underground acts have all had extraordinarily triumphant returns. Can you discuss what separates you from “pop” bands that try to expand on past glory but tend to flounder?
RM: That fear only pops up now and then – things have clearly gone well enough that we aren’t so concerned about that. Though, we often wonder what we’re doing every time we start a new album. Basically, when we first started up again in 2002, we each had one new song in the band. That’s the key: you have to have a new thread to follow, some new veins in the rock. Wire certainly has done that, and though I don’t follow Dino as much, I do believe they have an album of new material out, yes? [Ed. note: Yes. It’s called Farm and it’s great.] That’s the thing: as long as the band is really alive, it will most likely be vastly superior to bands that are just cover-bands of themselves.

Skyscraper: It sounds like you had a blast writing and recording The Sound The Speed The Light. True?
RM: Well, it just kind of fell together. Getting the right basic performance of each song can be kind of stressful, especially because we don’t play that much. But once we get the main tracks down – I always love the overdubs time – you can mess around and come up with new ideas, whereas the basic songs are more or less the basic songs. Of course, songs with improv in them, which are quite a few on this disc, vary considerably performance to performance. Ultimately, for us, it’s as much about the energy input into the song as it is about the song. And we’re pretty comfortable with ourselves, so usually the songs are pretty cranked up by the time they hit tape!

Skyscraper: Can you describe the essential differences between how you write songs together now, as opposed to the first round of Mission of Burma?
RM: Almost no difference at all. In our band, each composer comes up with the song on their own. When we bring it in, it gets compressed and crushed a bit by everyone else – sometimes this majorly affects it, sometimes barely at all. That’s the way we worked back then, and it’s the way we work now. Generally, Clint and I have our songs worked out more completely, and Pete discovers his songs more in rehearsal. But that’s not always the case. My favorite part of our songs is the improv sections; even when we have “guitar solos,” usually the band is jamming behind that, i.e., more jazz, less Led Zeppelin. So when someone says, “Listen to this live recording I made of you guys,” I’ll go right to the songs with improv in them (or a brand new song, if we have one), if I bother to listen at all.

Skyscraper: You worked with Bob Weston again on this album. Will he be touring with you as well? If so, can you explain his role?
RM: Well, he worked both as engineer and producing-type person on all the discs made after the reformation. As far as being a band member, he does exactly what Martin did: live sound and live loops. Of course, he does loops on the album as well. We encourage Bob to go a bit over the top with the loops live – it’s always fun to hear one of us screaming in slow motion while people are demanding encores. He is a band member; he is not an adjunct rock professor.

Skyscraper: Has Martin Swope expressed any interest in rejoining the group over the past few years?
RM: No, Martin passed on becoming a member. He gave us his blessings, though!

Skyscraper: What contemporary art and musical trends do you follow?
RM: I try and keep my ears open, but I don’t follow anything in particular. I liked Missy Elliott, MIA, Outkast, and other techno/hip-hop artists a while ago, but not much new seems to be going on there these days. I don’t see any major innovative trend in any of the arts, actually. So I just constantly scan for the isolated things that interest me; there are always good bands, good artists, but I see no real cohesive movement. It’s conceivable that I am jaded, but I don’t think that’s it: in the mid-’70s, I considered rock music to be mostly shit; there were no ideas at all compared to the ’60s. But I knew immediately when I heard the rumbling of punk rock that there was hope again, and I attended to these rumblings with enthusiasm.

Skyscraper: I’m a school teacher by day, and actually teach journalism. I had the students write a blog entry the other day on the “album that changed their life,” and they asked if they could write about the playlist that changed their life because they don’t listen to albums anymore. That was a hell of a blow. How does that make you feel, as musicians who have had the opportunity to see nearly every major rock trend since The Beatles?
RM: I don’t know. What can you do? It doesn’t upset me much, actually. I do know that our fans are a bit fanatical, in general, and perhaps do listen to an entire Mission of Burma album. Maybe not, who knows? I love albums, but I grew up with them. But before there were LPs, there were no albums: there were just a few songs on a disc (78rpms, et cetera). So “the feature album,” with 45 minutes of music or so on it… it’s not etched in stone. It’s just been a mainstay for a while is all. Who knows? It’s a weird time for a lot of things in civilization, and CDs/MP3s/downloads are certainly part of that unsettled shift.

Photo: Kelly Davidson

MURFREESBORO, TN: Of all the places I’ve lived, this is my favorite. I moved away for love, which is really the only legitimate reason to leave such a cool place. This is a town entirely free of assholes. Everyone I know in Murfreesboro (also affectionately known to locals as “The Murfhole” and “Bucket City”) is some mix of friendly, talented, and insightful. Even the most badass dudes there share recipes for yummy desserts. There is beauty everywhere, even beyond the community itself. One could do a lot worse than to end up in Middle Tennessee.

DRAG BOAT RACING: Got into watching some footage of this on YouTube while researching for a short story, and ended up reading about the entire history of the sport. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, a handful of crazy ass adrenaline junkies in Bakersfield would attach parachutes to their backs and race blown fuel hydros at speeds of up to 200mph. As with any so-called “action” sport with limited appeal, a community emerged around these nutjobs. The pioneers of drag boat racing more closely resemble members of an outlaw biker gang than the walking energy drink advertisements that make up today’s motorsports elite. I highly recommend Don Edwards, Barry McCown, and Bob Silva’s excellent book, Drag Boats of the 1960s, which documents this community, with a history of the sport and pictures that paint a thousands words.

ENVIRONMENTAL IRRESPONSIBILITY, OR “GAIA VANDALISM”: When my fiancée Leah and I started littering from the car window this past year, the rush was indescribable. This, the most ultimate and basic of rebellions, has become something of an addiction. We started doing it just for kicks, to make each other laugh, but now I do it even when I’m alone. There’s a definite rush that occurs when you roll open the window on the highway doing 90 and chuck a paper bag full of empty plastic bottles, gum wrappers, and tissues into the howling wind, watching the tumbling St. Vitus Dance of rubbish in your rear view mirror. Before you go feeling bad, you know who picks that shit up? Prisoners. So there’s a good chance that when you pitch an empty KFC box from your window, some carjacker or burglar or wife beater will have to pick it up.

THE HEMINGWAY HOUSE IN KEY WEST: I very much enjoy going to historic houses, even if I’m not terribly interested in what makes them historic (ask me about visiting the My Girl house in Bartow, Florida, sometime), but I’m a Hemingway fan, and seeing his writing room gave me the same sorta weird chill I felt the first time I saw an original Darger painting in person and a photograph of Jandek for the first time (see the next entry). There are too many people in America nowadays, so of course the tour was swarming with loud and stupid tourists who seemed interested only in photographing one of the famous six-toed cats that run amok on the grounds, but I tuned them all out best I could and allowed myself to take in the environment where such greatness occurred. Then, a few blocks away, I ate a slice of the best key lime pie I ever tasted.

SEEING A PHOTOGRAPH OF JANDEK FOR THE FIRST TIME: Like a lot of people, I didn’t really believe it when I heard that Jandek appeared in public. I’d heard that a man resembling the character on all of those great album covers, with the same spooky voice and inimitable guitar style, appeared onstage in Glasgow. It sounded like a stunt. I needed photographic proof. A friend was present and took a photo. I had an old computer at the time, so the picture downloaded slowly, from top to bottom, revealing in horizontal fragments the same man from the album covers, looking super cool, draped in black and peering out from behind a black rimmed hat. He was dressed like Kane from Poltergeist II. “Yup, that’s him, all right,” I thought to myself. I swear my heart skipped a beat. I haven’t kept up with Jandek’s post-coming out party music – not because I am not interested but because life has gotten too busy to keep up – but he remains an important figure to me.

LOCAL BOURBON: The single best thing about living in Kentucky is access to all the wonderful bourbons. My current favorite is Rowan’s Creek, but I have also been enjoying Old Pogue and Blanton’s a great deal. I’ve gotten so spoiled that I find my once beloved Jim Beam no longer goes down so smoothly.

LOCK GROOVES, SKIPPING RECORDS, AND REPETITIOUS MUSIC IN GENERAL: Repetition – what some call monotony – is an undervalued attribute where music is concerned. Sure, everyone loves Krautrock, but what about music that makes Krautrock sound like Zappa? Boyd Rice, Phillip Jeck, and Lee Ranaldo are just three of the inspiring artists to use vinyl lock grooves to create transcendent pieces of music. I’m frequently overjoyed when a record starts skipping at just the right place on a song. I once had a JJ Cale record skipping on a turntable for an entire day. Think about your favorite part of a song you love – whether it’s by Iron Maiden or Young Jeezy or Gong – don’t you wish it would go on forever? (Author’s note: This doesn’t work with skipping CDs. That shit just sounds terrible.)

MY FRIEND BRIAN LOWERY: Brian Lowery is my best male friend. We hit it off the minute we met and have been thick as thieves ever since. When I had to re-record parts for my new album in New York, Michael Gira asked me if I could only fly one person out from the original sessions, who would it be? I didn’t hesitate before I said “Brian Lowery.” His talent and good humor make him an asset to any record he plays on. He also writes great songs, but like a lot of great writers, he’s lazy, which is why most of you haven’t heard of him yet. Maybe this will light a fire under his ass to start getting his shit out there.

VIRGIL “THE RUCKUS” CAINE: Not every dog is worthy of his own Facebook page, but The Ruckus insisted I set him up one, so I did. He’s since amassed 106 friends. He is the light of my life.

NOT GIVING A SHIT ABOUT GEAR: I have never owned an instrument worth more than $600, and I only owned that one because I was playing in a metal band at the time and thought I needed to have a Gibson SG. Gearheads are boring. If you watch footage of RL Burnside, T-Model Ford, and Junior Kimbrough, those mothefuckers were playing through solid state amps on guitars that didn’t even have names on the headstock. I have owned some pedals, but the only one I didn’t sell within 6 months is a Boss tuner. I could probably even do without that one. I’m constantly hearing about bands on tour getting their vans broken into and losing tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear. Why would anyone tour with anything they’d need to take an insurance policy out on? If someone stole all of my gear tomorrow – I mean everything I own that allows me to play music, including batteries, cables, and picks – I’d be out about $400.

Oh yeah, and SUSHI. I fucking love sushi.

Wooden Wand is James Jackson Toth. The singer-songwriter, who has made dozens of recordings under nearly as many monikers, most recently released Death Seat on Michael Gira’s Young God Records in October. This latest full-length, his first for Young God, was produced by Gira and includes collaborations with Grasshopper of Mercury Rev, William Tyler of Lambchop and Silver Jews, and members of Big Blood.

It isn’t until the 27-minute mark of our interview that I realize I’ve gotten nowhere with Tim Kasher. Actually, I’ve gotten somewhere, passed it, and come back to nowhere. Maybe he’s gotten somewhere and I haven’t. Maybe we never even left. But poring over the past 27 minutes of questioning, there’s the suggestion that nowhere might actually be somewhere. Or at least that it might not matter.

Typically, if I wanted to wait for a groundhog to leave its hole, I’d do so on Groundhog Day. Today, however, is different. In this case, the Cursive frontman is a charmingly mercurial groundhog whose hole in the dirt spans the influence of the indie rock empire that is Saddle Creek Records, his home for roughly 13 years now. As Kasher touches on religion (guilt), love (guilt again), and his identity (category unavailable), he simultaneously crosses the barriers of self and awareness, skirting any identifiable combination of the two. If Kasher doesn’t know quite who he is today, neither will the rest of us.

Still, there are signs.

The first sign is the title and central theme of his first solo effort, The Game of Monogamy (Saddle Creek, 2010). Released in October, uppercase Monogamy deals with a midlife crisis of sorts, full of lyrics dealing with past loves, unavoidable flaws, and the minutiae of a life he occasionally requests to separate himself from. Lowercase monogamy is still part of a new life for a man who’s gone through more than the cliché-nine in different musical forms since the mid-1990s. The only thing missing is something really new.

The idea looming over this album is one of examination, of a new threshold he might or might not be crossing. Kasher, though, is wary of drawing direct connections between himself and the album’s central character, a man who obsesses over his old yearbook and wants to “have sex with all my old girlfriends again” (“There Must Be Something I’ve Lost”). The lyrics of the album’s second song, “A Grown Man,” begin, “I’m a grown man / I don’t know what I want.” But it would be too easy to let him get away with a statement of that magnitude. The 36-year-old’s visceral themes leave room for no shortage of future growth, and he negates the second part himself.

“I’d like to separate myself from that a little bit,” Kasher says. “I consider myself really fortunate because I do know what I want and am really passionate about what I do. So many of the people in my life have to have that conversation about, ‘Hey, we have good jobs, but is it what we really wanted?’ They never know if they made the right decision.” Kasher does know what he wants, even if he won’t say what it is.

And this is an area that we’ve covered with him before. The Good Life, one of Kasher’s various projects, saw the songwriter challenging himself and confronting his personal life through a sour divorce, finding sonic translation on Black Out (Saddle Creek, 2002). This was also a theme explored on Cursive’s Domestica (Saddle Creek, 2000), and indeed Cursive has always been the main and most significant stage for Kasher’s aggressively intimate lyrical agenda. Together in different guises since 1995 (and even before that with the formation of Slowdown Virginia), the band has tackled issues spanning modern religion, desperate love, youth and age — the last of which plays a central role in Kasher’s current modus operandi. This, even as he veers in and out of it, is sign two.

“I don’t recognize much difference between myself now and when I wrote Happy Hollow,” Kasher says, referring to Cursive’s 2006 album (Saddle Creek). Here he pauses. “I was singing similar content but I recognize I was younger and much more earnest and so dramatic. With the mellowing of age, I still have all the same feelings, but the way I write about it now is much more crass and sardonic and with such a scathing attitude. It’s like I just don’t give a shit about myself anymore.”

This is a surprising level of self-awareness for a man whose goal so far has been to avoid it entirely. One of the few times I met Kasher in person, he accidentally but painfully hit me in the face with a door — a situation not wholly dissimilar to what’s happening here, though, on a much more friendly and much less obvious scale. “I’ve turned into a calloused older man,” he says. “To be rosier about it, I’d like to see it as a maturing in perspective and in scope, but I have to fight the dulling of age. Most people don’t realize it, and their sense and their feelings…” A pause in Kasher’s speech rings out as he searches for what happens to those feelings. “When we’re young we’re all activists. But when we’re old, we just don’t give a shit anymore, and just sit on the couch and watch dumb TV.”

Going over my notes, there’s a reason I wrote “DIFFICULT INTERVIEW” near the bottom, but there’s also a reason I’m smiling. “These are just things that I haven’t thought about,” he says at one point, followed a while later by, “I just don’t tend to think on those terms.” Devoid of context, none of his statements are quite empty.

It’s always difficult to tell when your age group has changed from “young” to “old,” but Kasher, as usual, has made the decision himself. Although 36 is young for wisdom, his occasionally shallow brand makes it easier to swallow. A few years ago, Kasher began to feel a tremendous amount of guilt for not settling down with one woman and getting married. Instead of obeying it, he provoked it and the Midwestern, Catholic upbringing which created it. This, quite clearly, is sign three.

“I managed to wake up from that and realize that it’s absurd to think that’s what we have to do or supposed to do to be a good man,” Kasher says. “I don’t really subscribe to that. As far as what comes up as animosity about monogamy, it’s not really the situation itself. It’s the social parameters that surround it. Here I am in my mid-30s, and if I am not monogamous, it seems to me that I’m portrayed as some sort of wild tomcat or something. Which is plausible, but not true.” His guidelines for successful relationships are distinctly modern, though he’s harder on himself when he says they’re “cruel.” If you want to be in love, he says, you have to play along.

And right now, that’s where he’s at. Signs — and a very attractive partner — point to the idea that he is currently monogamous without regret, but he isn’t inclined to comment. The uncompromising indie-rock statesman is surprisingly difficult to crack given how intimate he is in his music, but there’s room to connect the dots. Eating macaroni and cheese for lunch makes him happy. He might want kids, but he doesn’t know.

“I certainly don’t want to stop being one, though,” he says, and later. “Good luck hobbling all of that together.” He sounds like he means it.

Portrait photo by Jess Ewald

From the Archives: this review first appeared on the old Skyscraper Magazine site back in July 2010. It is being republished here for your reading pleasure.

In American cultural history, there’s been no greater laborer in obscurity than Chicago’s Henry Darger. A janitor by day and self-taught artist, Darger developed and honed his skills as he worked on his extravagant pieces over the course of almost 55 years, most of which provided illustrations for his 15,000-plus page work in progress, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. His rambling tale may well be the longest novel ever written. Even with that, Darger’s work wasn’t discovered until shortly before his death in 1973. Note to such laboring artists: if you’re going to leave a legacy of American outsider art squirreled away in your two-room apartment, be sure your landlord and his wife are art aficionados.

And now, a gorgeous new compendium simply titled Henry Darger allows us to view Darger’s work in about as large a format as most of us could imagine keeping in our homes. It’s difficult to reproduce the scale and impact of his paintings, which were often 10 to 12 feet long, but Henry Darger attempts to do so, even rendering some of his sprawling works in tri-folds tucked inside an already wide, hardcover book.

Edited by Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator of New York’s P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Henry Darger offers a handful of essays, including an engaging and informative introductory piece by Biesenbach himself, a generous overview of the artist’s work mapping Darger’s influences and even including about 60 reproductions from the typed pages of his 5,000-page autobiographical piece, “The History of My Life.” So cloistered was Darger his own work proves the primary source for most of the biographical data of his life. As Jessica Yu’s 2004 documentary In the Realms of the Unreal revealed, Darger’s neighbors couldn’t even agree on the proper pronunciation of his last name.

Within these biographical details, we learn the awful facts of Darger’s childhood: institutionalization, sundry punishments he endured, designation as “feeble-minded” – essentially, it seems, for the sin of simply not fitting in (this despite his ability to read upon arriving at school and promptly being  advanced from first grade to third.) Discovering the physical, mental, and possible sexual abuses of Darger’s youth, we’re left with an altered understanding of his obsession with the delicate, yet valiant, Vivian Girls, who suffered so much at the hands of the adult males in his works.

Of course, there’s a long tradition of storytelling which details innocent girls shadowed by the threat of violence. Consider the tale of Little Red Riding Hood – the wolf, surely a metaphor for the predatory older male – all the way up to Catherine Breillat’s crystalline depiction of the same themes in her recent film Bluebeard.  Henry Darger took this theme and amplified it, expanded it geometrically, replicated it compulsively (arguably ad nauseum), over the course of his 15,145 page illustrated novel and its attendant artwork.

As Biesenbach details in his essay, Darger influenced a slew of artists and imitators. His imprint can be seen clearly, for example, in photography by Anthony Goicolea, in earthernware by Grayson Perry, and in elegant gouache paintings by Amy Cutler. He has prompted homage from musicians such as …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Camper Van Beethoven, Fucked Up, Natalie Merchant, and Sufjan Stevens. Even the cover for Animal Collective’s album Feels()2005  bears a clear tribute to Darger’s tableau style. The graphic novelist Neil Gaiman included a story in his Sandman series featuring a talented and artistic janitor, who is working on an enormous body of work. And this collection opens with an excerpt from the poem “Girls on the Run” by John Ashberry, which recounts adventures of the Vivian Girls in verse form, while also probing the conflated psyches of Darger with the poet penning each line. He has even inspired tattoos.

Of course, some popular references to the Vivian Girls seem little more than opportunities to name-check Darger. A way to identify with an esteemed outsider in the hope that some measure of his mystique is transferred to the name-dropper. This artist, though, was a reclusive but gifted janitor, not an extroverted pop star. If anything, Darger was a clinically introverted anti-star. That said, it isn’t difficult to see how anyone might identify with the enslaved, yet buoyant, Vivian Girls, not to mention Darger himself, whose own life mirrored the harrowing tales of young children he depicted.