Even if the Wronglers were the worst band in the universe, I’d still want to go to their show this weekend, worm my way up front and give a standing ovation to every song simply because of the group’s frontman, Warren Hellman. Hellman, as many may know, is the lovable billionaire who’s made the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival a reality in San Francisco for over a decade, at no charge whatsoever to the hundreds of thousands of fans who attend the world-famous event every year.
Luckily, the Wronglers aren’t just decent, they’re downright good. But don’t try to tell that to Hellman.
How did you learn the banjo?
Well, first, don’t assume that I’ve learned it! I’ve always loved banjo music, probably for the worst reasons. I’ve loved listening to Earl Scruggs and those guys, but even worse, I’ve always loved listening to the Kingston Trio. Everybody tells me that I shouldn’t admit that, but I like their music, I like their banjo playing. I’ve always liked this kind of music, and I tried to play it for three or four years. I didn’t play it for about 30 years, and now I play as much as I humanly can for the last 10 years.
I heard a rumor you tried to get Pete Seeger to give you lessons at one point.
What happened was pretty straightforward. I was 28 years old, I thought I was an important investment banker, and it took me a long time to realize that “important investment banker” is an oxymoron. So like most people learning to play this type of banjo—that is, old-time double-thumbing—I thought, “Why don’t I take lessons from Pete Seeger?” I’d bought his book, and what I’d learned so far I’d got from his book. So I started trying to call Pete Seeger, and of course he never returned my call. Finally this guy called me and said, “Mr. Hellman, I am Mr. Seeger’s manager. What do you want?” I said, “I’m Warren Hellman, I’m at Lehman Brothers, and I’d really like to take lessons from Pete Seeger.” And he said, “Well, I’d like to hang up.”
Why did you wait so long to debut your banjo playing at the festival?
First I wanted to have some idea that I could play again. It was three or four years after I started taking lessons again. And we’d formed the band. It just seemed to make sense. By the way, you understand that this is the original pay-to-play. I’m putting on the whole goddamn festival so my band can play for 30 minutes on opening day!
How often do you guys get together to rehearse?
Hourly. Ron Thomason from Dry Branch Fire Squad said, “You guys rehearse more than any band I’ve ever seen or heard anywhere.” I said, “Yeah, but look at how far we have to go!” We rehearse twice a week, sometimes for four or five hours. All the rest of the musicians have gotten really good. All but one. Which is why I don’t even introduce myself when we’re playing.
How does it feel being asked to play shows apart from the festival now?
I keep saying that the best moment of my life was when we played in South by Southwest last year, and the day after we played, I was sitting listening to Buddy Miller when a guy comes up and taps me on the shoulder and says, “Hey, aren’t you with the Wronglers?” I said, “Shit, man, for 40 years I was an investment banker, and not one person ever recognized me anyplace.” The guy said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s fine. What’s your name?” I said, “Man, you’ve just made my life!”
You’re such a hero to all the performers at the festival. Are they still heroes to you?
One of my partners was on a television show a couple weeks ago, where it was him and Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Somebody said, “Does that make you jealous?” I said, “No, but if he was on a show with Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, that’d really piss me off.” I know this sounds too gushy or too starry-eyed, but I think the nicest collection of people I’ve met in my life are all these performers. I don’t know. Maybe because it’s such a tough way to make a living or something. I was in the nastiest, most competitive business that you could imagine for a lot of years, where not only did most people dislike their competitors, they even disliked the people they worked with!
You’ve been an investment banker, an athlete—both are pretty demanding. Is playing bluegrass just as intense and challenging?
Oh, yeah. I’m 76. At 86 I might be mediocre. But the deeper answer to that is that I really believe that you should have something you do in your life where you’re capable of improvement. I’m never going to run as fast as I did, I’m never going to ski powder the way I did. Everything else, as you get older, you try to preserve what you did, and you can’t. So having really started playing banjo ten years ago, there are signs—not very many—but there are signs that I can improve. Have I bored you to tears?
No! I look forward to seeing you in Petaluma—anything special worked up?
They said to us, “This is a Christmas show, you oughta do a Christmas song.” Of course what they’re expecting, I suppose, is “Silent Night.” But we’ve written our own song. The opening line is “Sweet baby Jesus, if only you knew / Just what your birth would lead us all to.” Do you think we’ll be in trouble in Petaluma with that?
Warren Hellman and the Wronglers with Arann Harris and the Farm Band play ‘The Big Give Back’ on Sunday, Dec. 12, at the Mystic Theatre. 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 6:30pm. $10 with two cans of food; $15 otherwise. 707.762.3565.
This week’s Bohemian column is on Grouper, a.k.a. Liz Harris, who plays this weekend’s incredible On Land Festival at Cafe du Nord in San Francisco. Liz and I spent about an hour together in Portland, talking about everything from boyfriends to drug use to old jobs to Kompakt Records to sharing pieces of one’s soul to justifying domesticity to high school to spent relationships, but not all of these things could neatly fit into a 700-word music piece. Besides, I made a conscious effort in some instances to honor some modicum of privacy on her part, since stalkers do exist.
Mainly what I took away from meeting with Harris is that she treats music much like visual art; to be digested slowly, and to not be mass-produced. One of the longer portions of our conversation that didn’t make the cut, though, revolved around the misnomer of “noise” and the fact that a lot of experimental music released on noise labels and embraced by the noise scene isn’t really all that noisy. Case in point: Since I have a one-year-old baby, I find myself listening to more rhythmless music after she goes to bed so she won’t wake up; it’s what most would call “noise” but the funny thing is it’s beautiful nighttime music, and not antagonizing at all. Depending on one’s tolerance for sustained cacophony, some of it is downright easy listening.
Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill is an excellent introduction to Grouper, it’s true. I find Cover the Windows and the Walls to operate on a similar level of structure, wherein her melodies conjure the shoegazier side of Yo La Tengo as much as the Flower Duet from Delibes’ Lakme. You could say it caused some excitement on its release. It’s on Root Strata, who along with curating the On Land Fest recently hosted a series of shows inside Grace Cathedral utilizing said architecture’s natural seven-second delay. Root Strata has some stellar releases under its belt—among them Common Eider, King Eider’s Worn and Barn Owl’s The Conjurer—and everything they do is worth checking out. Plus, Bay Area represent, duh.
Type Records kills it time and again, but the record of theirs I find myself playing with the most frequency is And in the Endless Pause There Came the Sound of Bees, by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Written to accompany a film, the score hits all the urgent swells and calm passages reminiscent of John Barry’s less popular work; though I’ve no clue what the alleged film is supposed to be about, listening to the record is like being whisked through a storyline. It’s utterly addictive. Honorable mentions for Type also go to Your Eyes the Stars and Your Hands the Sea by Seasons (pre-din), Kappe by Svarte Grenier, In Bocca al Lupo by Xela and the utterly breathtaking Going Places by Yellow Swans, all spending hours upon hours occupying my turntable lately.
I know little about the Miasmah label, other than I want to know more. Everything I’ve heard from them is top-quality, and like many of these labels, they have copious sound clips online. Although the cover art isn’t as striking as Kreng’s L’Autopsie Phenomenale de Dieu or FNS’s S/T LP (both excellent records, really), I’m drawn most to Jacaszek’s Treny record of late. Chamber strings, calm soprano vocals, minor-key meanderings and a workable cohabitation of serenity and dread. Miasmah is set to release the home run of their career with Marcus Fjellstrom’s Schattenspieler, due Sept. 13; some preview tracks for the album reveal the Swedish composer at his finest and most evocative yet.
Iceland’s Bedroom Community label has been on a roll, what with Sam Amidon’s much-acclaimed I See the Sign LP (traditional folk songs, none well-known, delicately arranged; the album also contains one R. Kelly song). Most of the players on that markedly calm record contribute to Ben Frost’s razorish By the Throat, a scenario not unlike, say, Will Oldham suddenly singing over an orchestra of power tools or something. Prominent like Shakespeare on Bedroom Community is Daníel Bjarnason, and his risk-reward masterpiece Processions. It reminds me of a certain defunct experimental ensemble from Santa Rosa called Triste Sin Richard—pulsing, daring, and joyous.
That brings me to Pan Records, who actually do release antagonizing noise, albeit in shockingly elegant fashion. Each of their first nine releases features mysterious black-and-white images printed on inverted cardstock jackets; those are then housed in a thick transparent polymer sleeve silkscreened with busy linear patterns. The effect is porn for graphic design freaks, basically, and being limited to just 330 copies each makes them collector’s gold as well. I can’t possibly pick a favorite release on Pan, although Ilios’ Kenrimono is notable for being entirely sampled from pachinko parlors in Japan, and Evan Parker and John Weise’s C-Section is a total blast. I warn you, though: this label is like Ikea. Once you buy one Pan record, you will want them all.
In interviewing famed German chanteuse Ute Lemper for this week’s Bohemian column, I had to ask about her first group, the Panama Drive Band, pointing out to her that Wikipedia describes them as a “punk music group.”
In the continuing adventures of not trusting Wikipedia, Ute clarifies:
“It was not a punk band. It was just a jazz-rock band. I was never a punk person. The music of punk is not interesting to me, it’s horrible.”
Ha! So… what did the band sound like?
“It was a jazz-rock band when I was a teenager. We did good music, like Joan Armatrading, Chick Corea, the Brecker Brothers and all that. So it was good stuff.”
I love Ute Lemper for the 1988 recording Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill, the cassette of which came in a used Volkswagen bus I bought when I was 16. I played that thing over and over and over for an entire summertime. (The car also came with Master of Puppets; the two tapes complimented each other well, actually.) She knows her Weill and Brecht intimately, and interprets their music like no other.
Ute Lemper sings Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins this weekend with the Santa Rosa Symphony, and if you can get there at all, you won’t regret it. Short of funds? If you get there on Saturday afternoon for the Discovery Rehearsal at 2pm, it’s only $10, and you’ll get to see Lemper and the orchestra working out the kinks before opening night. Cool!
This week’s music column is on Jack Springs, a 25-year-old high-functioning mentally retarded metal musician who sings about how he’s been mistreated in life. I didn’t know Jack was mentally retarded when I met him; he offered the information unsolicited, just like he freely shared his stories about having his head shoved into the toilet in school, or getting his ass kicked by bullies after being coerced into smoking marijuana.
The more I talked with Jack, the more I appreciated the raw honesty in his songs. Just like the sketchy handwriting in a junior high love note render feelings on the notebook page more real, the jagged delivery and lateral combination of lyrics in Jack’s songs tilt at the true turmoil that he lives with each day as a developmentally disabled man in a judgmental world.
Here’s some of the songs discussed in the article. There’s talk already amongst local musicians about forming a backing band so he can play live:
2. “The Jack Tracks.” A unique selection among Jack’s songs in that he addresses portions of it to himself. Near the end, he dedicates it to James, “a role model.” I had assumed he’s referring to James Hetfield, but it’s actually his father James, who’s passed away. Click here to listen.
3. “Violated Nights.” The incredible transformation of Jack the avant-beat songwriter with an out-of-tune electric guitar into Jack the hardcore larynx shredder with a score to settle. Chills. Click here to listen.
4. “Violated Days.” The CD-R that I received lists this song as “All of My Rights Were Broken to Pieces and Now I Am Going to Take All My Rights Back From You and Then Your Heart Will Stop Beating,” which, as you’ll hear, are the song’s complete lyrics. Jack’s since informed me that the song is called “Violated Days.” Either way, it’s amazing. Click here to listen.
Incidentally, to prepare for the interview, Jack brought me a list of his influences, written on a napkin. He tells me Metallica’s too commercial now that they get played on the radio all the time. (He also credits Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” as the thematic inspiration for writing songs about his rights.) You’ll see a band at the top of the list, Torn Back, which is Jack’s brother’s band, and Intangled, another local metal band who are friends with Jack—proof that the metal community can provide support to outcasts when no one else will.
For this edition of On the Stereo, we welcome friend, musician and all-around talented freethinker Devon Rumrill. Drummer for the great hardcore band Archeopteryx, Rumrill is also beloved for his staggeringly creative electronic productions under the name Little Cat. I’d been to Devon’s house many times and noticed a disparate, unordered collection of records piled all over the place—records I’d either never heard of, or records so completely mundane that I’d have been challenged to discover in them any redeeming value. Most of them had $1.00 stickers on the cover.
I wanted to sit down with Devon and talk about records, because he’s entirely autonomous when it comes to generating opinions. Devon finds qualities in the world that you and I would normally miss, and so I asked him to have ready some of his favorite records he felt were underappreciated or unknown. We hung out for about an hour in his garage studio last week around the turntable, listening to and philosophizing about music, and the result—it’s really long, I warn you—unfolds below, with tangents into Cattlemen’s, the Cable Car Bell Ringing Contest, Michael Phelps, the AFM Recording Strike and the fact that mullets will always be ugly.
Included in the musical roulette are records by Groupoem, Mark Wetch, Saga, Tomita, The A’s, Gerry Hemingway, Mr. Oizo, the Peace Ringers, the Yeryabka Ukranian Folk Choir, Black Randy and the Metrosquad, Armed Forces, Jr. Chemists, Les Seldoms, the Inflatable Boy Clams, Attila the Stockbroker and Spitballs. Read on…
Groupoem – What You See Here, Hear Here, Say Here, Stays Here When You Leave Here
CSI: There’s a song called “The Frank Sinatra of Misery”?
D: And “Drink Beer ‘Til It Hurts.”
CSI: Also, “Why I’m the Roast of Beef.” These songs are all less than two minutes long.
D: And they’re awesome. I bought this at Saks Thrift Avenue, which as you may or may not know is the most old-ladyish of all thrift stores in Petaluma. It’s one of the best things I have. I haven’t listened to it in a long time.
CSI: What’s the hit?
D: “Drink Beer ‘Til It Hurts.” I think they just had a crazy guy with a microphone. One of those things—they couldn’t find a singer, so they just got a crazy guy instead, totally off from any tempo, really.
CSI: This is really incredible.
D: When I found it, it felt like a miracle had happened. Amongst all these Christmas records and shitty scratched Lionel Richie LPs, I find this.
CSI: Is he saying “I am… invincible?” This guy is just freestyling, really.
D: Yeah, they were like, “Dude, just get in there and scream some crazy stuff.”
CSI: Where are they from? Have you ever Googled them?
Saga – Images at Twilight
D: This band is called Saga, and they are awesome. They’re kind of a proggy Tenacious D, except real. Really, really good, and excellent. And check the cover out. It’s a horde of alien insects destroying a future city.
CSI: That’s New York! The Chrysler Building, the Empire State building, and the fuckin’ Twin Towers! The Twin Towers are being destroyed on the cover of this record.
D: This is prophecy, dude. This was made in 1979. This entire record is the jam. Whether the songs are funny, or good to listen to, it’s a mix. It’s good, it’s so good, I love this.
CSI: Now, see, I’m laughing at this, and you’re jammin’ out to it.
D: I’m laughing and jamming at the same time. See, that’s the thing that people don’t understand about my taste in music. I can find something to be retarded, and ridiculous, and silly—but then another part of me really appreciates it just to listen to it. It makes me happy to hear it, and that’s all I really need from music. It’s making me laugh, but I like this! It’s poppy, and it’s got a tinkly little keyboard, and it’s got this goofy man singing these funny things over it.
CSI: Do you think that in the last 5 or 10 years, music has gotten too intellectualized? Like there needs to be some meaning attached to music for people to enjoy it—there needs to be a concept story, or there needs to be some intellectual stamp of approval?
D: No. I don’t think so. I think that people are really confused right now because they’re so inundated with so many different types of things. Everything feels a little more watered-down in that respect.
CSI: A lot of times people get told how they should appreciate music. What’s of more concern to me is not people being told what to appreciate but how to appreciate it. No one can just say, “It fuckin’ rules, I like it, it makes me happy.” Like you just did—“It makes me happy.”
D: It has to be qualified by other things.
CSI: Yeah, exactly. Like, “Saga emerged from a very regressive prog-rock movement in order to blaze a new trail, infusing elements…”
D: I know what you’re talking about.
CSI: It’s always gotta be put into some context, it can’t just stand on its own.
D: A lot of my friends do that shit, and I just say fuck it. ‘Cause all the stuff I seem to like, no one else seems to like, and it’s always been that way. I don’t really care, man, I just buy a million $1 records, and sometimes a little magic happens. Like Saga. And I’m happy. That’s all I need. It doesn’t need to be contemporary, it doesn’t need to be something that’s already been approved. I’d rather it be something I’ve never heard of, and that maybe kind of sucks, but I want to find the thing that’s good about it.
CSI: Here’s something: three out of the five members in the band play moog.
D: See, that’s a lot of why I like this band. The synthesizers. Shit yeah, dude. No doubt. This kicks ass. So good. I like that dramatic thing, that over-retardedness. When they really ham it up like this, it’s so entertaining! And they know that! That’s why they’re doing it! I know everybody I know would probably think this is lame. Because it kinda is, if you qualify it. But I don’t see it that way. It’s technically amazing, and at the same time it’s really goofy and silly because it’s over-the-top. But it’s fun. I was into indie rock stuff for a long time, and it just bored me after a while. I wanted something fun. Also, this is non-pretentious. That’s the thing.
CSI: And they’re flaunting their non-pretentiousness.
D: Yeah. That’s all good, just being retarded, and I love it. Do you know Isao Tomita?
Tomita – Kosmos
CSI: This record is called Kosmos, with a K. He’s doing “Concierto de Aranjuez,” Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite.”
D: This dude was a pioneer in electronic music and nobody knows who he is.
CSI: I’ve heard of him.
D: But you worked in a record store, so of course you’ve heard of him! He’s not usually mentioned, and he’s awesome. All his records that I have are all really amazing. The way they’re mixed is really impressive, and he has a lot of different instruments. And back then it was a lot harder to do this sort of thing.
CSI: Check out his entire wall of keyboards, with plug-ins, and envelopes, and VCOs.
D: And you probably get two sounds out of that whole thing.
CSI: The way that records like this get incorporated into music today is through modern disco music and club music.
D: You mean like being sampled and shit? It’s true, but I mean, you lose all the dynamics. You have to listen to the whole record. That’s the thing about his stuff. There’s always these cool transitions, and weird explosions of sound. Where’s that A’s record you pulled out?
The A’s – S/T
D: This shit is so good.
CSI: They’re in leather jackets on the cover. One guy looks like Ric Ocasek, one guy looks like Johnny Ramone, one guy looks like Corey Hart, the other guy looks like Boy George.
D: They were kinda trying to bridge the gap between the new wave / punk fad at the time. But the record has a really good momentum, it just rocks. It’s just a great rock record. Again, it’s one of those ones that has a little bit of a goofy delivery, but the end result is just hella good.
CSI: For some reason there’s a typewritten label on the cover that says, “LISTEN TO ENTIRE ALBUM.”
D: Because, you gotta fuckin’ do it! I was like, dude! Yes! That’s true! You do have to listen to the whole thing, because it’s all good. That’s why you have to listen to the whole album. That’s why somebody fuckin’ typed that out on a typewriter back in 1980 or whenever.
CSI: That sounds like some fuckin’ kind of Smashmouth organ, though.
D: Don’t say Smashmouth! That’s fucked up! This is the ’70s and you’re comparing it to Smashmouth?
CSI: It sounds a lot like the Smashmouth version of “I’m a Believer.”
D: Fuck that. Trying to compare this shit to Smashmouth. Dude! It’s one of those records where you can feel that they had a lot of energy when they made it. It comes through in all the songs. It’s got that total schoolboy punk rock feel to it. You could tell these guys, this was their first major-label album, they were gonna fuckin’ do it, they were super into it. It’s kind of somewhere in between punk rock, glam rock and a little bit of new wave.
CSI: It’s incredible. It reminds me a little bit of that band you were in for one night, what was it called? Hoss? Boss Hog and the…?
D: Jim Jim and the E-Town Boys?
CSI: Jim Jim and the E-Town Boys! Which was, like, rock with a lot of passion and energy, and had no compunction about needing to be taken seriously.
D: It was definitely a joke band.
The A’s – A Woman’s Got the Power
D: So there’s a chick in a bathing suit with milk. “A Woman’s Got the Power.” Which isn’t a great song. This album is a little more, you know how a band, their second album sometimes, if they can’t keep the momentum going, it just gets kind of muddled? Maybe they got overproduced or something?
CSI: They overthought the recording of underthought songs, generally. That’s the second album problem. Also, they got rid of their leather jackets, and some of them are wearing white jeans.
D: Yeah. They got money. They felt entitled. Oh, this is terrible.
CSI: This is also, like you said, the first record you ever bought on eBay. How much did you pay for this record?
D: On the strength of their first record, ten dollars.
CSI: Ten dollars?
D: Yeah. Maybe less. This song’s pretty good.
CSI: This makes me want to fuckin’ win the Olympics. Remember when they asked… who was the swimmer who got busted for weed?
D: Michael Phelps.
CSI: They asked Michael Phelps what he listened to to get pumped up, and he said Lil’ Wayne, “I’m Me.”
D: Really? Lil’ Wayne? To get him pumped up?
CSI: That’s what he listened to before he competed in the Olympics.
D: That is surprising to me.
Mark Wetch – Ragtime Razzmatazz Vol. 2
D: We don’t really have to listen to this, because it just sounds like some old-timey bullshit. Ragtime Razzamatazz Vol. 2! On the Mighty Kroger! Cattlemen’s. “Played With Great Success.” What the fuck? Who puts that on the front of their record? “Played with great success?”
CSI: Mark P. Wetch does. Did you ever see him play at Cattlemen’s?
D: No, but I went to Cattlemen’s and I got a lobster there. ‘Cause that’s the place you go to get lobster.
CSI: Do you know anything about Mark P. Wetch?
D: No. Wait, you know shit about this guy?
CSI: He came to Piner High School once and gave a ragtime demonstration for the band class. He explained to us all about ragtime, what it was, played it for us. I believe, this piano that is on this record, he intentionally left out in the rain or something to get that classic old-time ragtime piano sound. The hammers all hardened from the weathering. That’s why they have a harder attack on the strings.
D: Do they have pads on the hammers, or is it just wood?
CSI: Sometimes people would put thumbtacks in ‘em to get this sound. He definitely does not perform at Cattlemen’s anymore.
D: So sad. Was he a regular performer there?
CSI: Every Wednesday night!
D: Played with great success.
CSI: I also heard they got rid of the bean girl.
D: Really? They had a banner up not too long ago that said “The Bean Girl is Back.” So… that’s exciting news? What the fuck is that, and it sounds really sexist.
CSI: You don’t know about the bean girl?
D: No. Does she have to wear shorts?
CSI: I’ve never been to Cattlemen’s, but I think it’s like the milkmaid girl, who walks around with buckets, or barrels cut in half and filled with beans, sashaying table to table, and she’s like, “How ’bout some more beans, big boy?”
Gerry Hemingway – Solo Works
D: I was trying to find this record for a long time. It’s really fucked up. This came through my in-laws, some weird jazz records they had. Some experimental business, I believe. Let’s rock out to this now.
CSI: I’m not sure if that’s the desired reaction from the composer.
CSI: Rocking out.
D: Yeah, no. But I’ll call it that. Active listening is rocking out.
CSI: It’s from 1981, and it’s dedicated to Baby Dodds.
D: Baby who?
CSI: Baby Dodds was a great early, early jazz drummer, he was the first guy to ever release solo drumming records. They were records where he played drums for a while, and then talked about a drummer’s place in jazz, and then played drums a little more, talked some more about drums.
D: That’s cool. This shit is like, a sample record. It’s got a lot of negative space.
CSI: I’ve got a lot of records like this, and I find myself listening to them a lot at night, and generally when I’m frustrated. Do you have an emotional state that draws you into listening to records like this?
D: I rarely listen to records like this. Probably because I don’t have more than one of them. But if I had more, I’d probably listen to them.
CSI: Records form Creative Arts Ensembles, and songs that are drawn out in this Anthony Braxton, we’re-making-up-our-own notation…
D: Exactly. I like this kind of thing. That’s what I’m saying. Make it up as you go. Make a record of you doing what the fuck he’s doing right here, do that. Do that and make a record of that.
CSI: And sell one copy.
D: That’s the problem with this world, is we don’t have more shit like this happening.
Mr. Oizo – Transexual
CSI: What the hell is that?
D: This is badass, it’s a Mr. Oizo record.
CSI: Who’s Mr. Oizo?
D: Mr. Oizo is a dude who, I don’t know if he’s French, but I think he lives in France. An electronic music guy. He initially got famous because he did a few ads for Levi’s jeans with this puppet, and he wrote a song, basically this one little looped song that this puppet would dance to in a car, and that was the entire ad. And the song was really badass. His most recent album is a little more club-worthy, but most of his other stuff is very cut-up sounding, plus samples and things.
CSI: This is 2007. “Contains a sample of ‘I Don’t Know What a Transsexual Is,’ dedicated to Wendy Walter Carlos. It’s hard to imagine playing this in a club and filling the dancefloor.
D: See, I would dance to this. I’d be all, “What the fuck is that? I’m gonna go dance to it.” I need to be confused before I’m motivated. Same with movies. I like them so much better if I’m confused. That means the movie outsmarted me, and then I’ve got some work to do.
Peace Ringers – S/T
D: My next selection for you is Peace Ringers. This is a record with bells, and I love it. It’s a bunch of girls with bells, and gloves on their hands. They’re cute. And they fuckin’ rule. This is authenticity. And awesome.
CSI: This is a stock cover you find on a lot of privately-pressed albums from the ‘60s. You’d make your master tapes, and send them to, like, Century Record Co., and they’d say, “Okay, which of our five or six covers would you like?” This was one of the options, and they’d print the title on with rub-on lettering. Are they from a high school or something?
D: Maybe. They look pretty young. Let’s see… Orange, California.
CSI: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”
D: That’s vague. I like the way bells sound, I’ll tell you that much. DING-DONG!
CSI: Let’s listen to “Plink, Plank, Plunk,” first song on side two.
D: Shit yeah, that sounds like a winner. Oh yeah, this one’s a jammer.
CSI: It must be hard to be in a bell ensemble. It’s like if you got six people together to play a guitar, and everyone was just assigned one string. There’s some actual dissonance in this tune. Have you ever considered being a Salvation Army bell ringer?
D: Fuck no. Why would I do that?
CSI: You said you loved bells.
D: Yeah, ones that sound good. I don’t see a cow with a bell around its neck and go, “Ooh! That sounds awesome!” No, no, no.
CSI: Okay, what about the annual cable-car bell ringer competition? You ever see that on the news?
D: That, I know nothing about.
CSI: They’ll be like, “Alright, this year Lamont Johnson won the bell-ringing contest,” and they’ll cut to this guy going apeshit on the bell, just like DANG-DANGY-DANG-A-DANGY-DANG-DIGGY-DIGGY-DANG-DANG-DANG-DANG-DIGGY-DIGGY-DIGGY-DIGGY!
D: Do you have to do tricks?
CSI: It’s one bell, and you have to beat out the most compelling rhythm on it, I suppose.
D: So you have to be the most creative with one fuckin’ bell?
CSI: It’s great.
D: I like that competition. That’s simple. Kick ass with a bell.
Yeryabka Ukranian Folk Choir – S/T
D: This is some Russian shit, and it’s fuckin’ depressing and beautiful. Some of it is just traditional, but I like how Russian music has this weird thing where even the happy songs have this undercurrent of cold sadness somewhere in the background. You know?
CSI: Because they don’t have democracy.
D: It’s just hard there. Like this song is called “I Am Pretty, So Pretty,” but it’s kind of a morose song in a way.
CSI: This is on Melodiya, the Russian record label. There was only one record label in the U.S.S.R., run by the state, and they determined what the citizens of their country got to listen to. Can you imagine? We’re all pissed off about the Live Nation / Ticketmaster merger, whereas Russia for decades had one record label.
D: It could always be worse. Here’s “A Plank of Willow Wood.” This song really affects me a lot, it’s just real, you know?
CSI: Wow. She sounds like she just watched her husband get killed.
D: Yeah, it comes through. There’s some hard shit in there. I don’t know what she’s saying, but still.
CSI: It’s the blues of Russia. God, the timbre of her voice is incredible. Wow. How can a plank of wood be this harrowing?
D: Maybe there’s a body on it.
CSI: Lets hear “If the Violin Did Not Play.” It better be sad. Hey, this song’s happy! Was everything backwards in Russia in 1974?
D: Maybe so.
Black Randy and the Metrosquad – Pass the Dust, I Think I’m Bowie
D: This is a record that came through my uncle’s record collection that I inherited when I was 12 or 13. He had all these awesome weird records that nobody would normally buy, because he was into weird shit. I didn’t really like this record except for the “Shaft Theme” cover, but I just busted it out again because I couldn’t remember what the rest of it sounded like. It kinda jams. It’s not bad.
CSI: Wait a second! Those were intentional wrong notes on the bass! Listen to this again. And here: “Violation of copyright is punishable by five years in jail, $10,000 fine, or Islamic-style booty dismemberment.”
D: Booty dismemberment?
CSI: They will dismember your booty if you make a copy of this. If I’m not mistaken, Dangerhouse is the label that put out X’s first 7”, “Adult Books.”
D: It’s a little muddled in theme. But I don’t know. It’s okay.
Armed Forces – Let There Be Metal
D: Look at that cover! It’s a skeleton with a flamethrower!
CSI: It looks like D.R.I.’s “Violent Pacification.”
D: It’s all painted with tempera paints. I’m sure it sucks, but look at these dudes. Let’s listen to it. You wanna hear the song, “Let There Be Metal?” It better be good if they’re gonna call it that. You can’t call a song that and have it suck, but watch it suck.
CSI: Here’s something that happened in the ’80s that doesn’t happen now: Old guys in bands being worshipped by teenage girls.
D: Like Huey Lewis? The Huey Lewis band? Some band like that would never be popular now.
CSI: I mean, this guy on the back here looks like he’s 40. Right?
D: I think that these dudes are young. It’s just that now, dudes who look like this are old. So we can’t see earlier pictures of them and think of them as being young. I think these guys probably were about 23.
CSI: “Let there be met-aaaaal!”
D: This is some local band quality. It’s so half-assed. It’s just dumb.
CSI: “Give us metal, shout and scream. Metal rules, it has been deemed. So turn it up and crank it loud. Stand by metal, and be proud.”
D: “I wrote this at recess.”
CSI: Where’s that record you said was very special?
Les Seldoms / Jr. Chemists – Arizona Disease
D: I think we should listen to the whole thing. Jr. Chemists, as you can see, have an awesome drawing. “Building a Fort,” “Spooky Cooties,” and “Busyworms.” And then we got the Seldoms, “Native American,” which was probably the best song. So we should start there. This made me and Sean lose our minds with joy. I’m so glad that a record of this existed.
CSI: Even though “french fries” does not rhyme with “real.”
D: It doesn’t. And it doesn’t matter. This helped me realize you can just make music with whatever, it doesn’t have to be some serious shit. You can just have your friend bang on some drums, and then you can play some guitar kind of crappy, and sing something funny, and then somehow, that makes music and people will listen to it and it’s okay.
CSI: People who are a little bit older than us, that’s how they explain the first time they heard the Ramones: “It made me realize that you didn’t have to be talented to make great music.” But actually, the Ramones sounded really good. They were talented, they were recorded really well, and the songs were concisely written pop songs. But this…
D: This is bare bones. It’s not trying to fit in with some genre.
CSI: It’s not even trying to fit in with itself. It’s its own non-sequitur. Do you know anything about these bands, where they were from?
D: I wonder if they were from the Pacific Northwest, because that’s where my uncle lived and I got this from him. Further proof that he was by far the coolest person that ever lived in my family. This is like some Beat Happening stuff, bands that were K Records-ish. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is Pacific Northwest.
CSI: The vibe I always got from Olympia and K Records was they took really stupid stuff and reappropriated it into something that was cooler than you will ever be.
D: Isn’t like, the total hipster thing to do to take something retarded and make it the coolest thing ever? Like, grow a mullet and be like, “My mullet is the coolest mullet in the world”?
CSI: Yeah, take something that’s been discarded and rejected by society for not being cool anymore and resurrect it.
D: You know, the ironic T-shirt thing, ironic haircut thing—ultimately I think it really just has the same effect as the thing they’re making fun of, personally. You have a ‘hipster’ mullet, but it doesn’t matter ‘cause you have a mullet and a mullet sucks. You know? You “re-contextualize” the mullet, but it fuckin’ doesn’t matter ‘cause it looks like ass.
CSI: Yeah, but the “art” of the hipster is keyword: art. And art is about context. Unfortunately. Art is about context as much as it is about the thing that the art is.
D: It’s true, ‘cause context is kind of what defines meaning in the world.
CSI: But it’s too bad you can’t just look at a painting and be like, “Yeah, that painting’s rad, I like it.”
D: I can do that. Why can’t you do that?
CSI: I do. But you’re not allowed. You have to have some reason why. It’s kind of what I was talking about earlier.
D: Fuck not allowing. People think they’re not allowed, but they are allowed! You and I do that, so what’s the big deal?
CSI: I think that people get schooled or instructed in how to appreciate things all the time, from art appreciation classes, to jazz appreciation classes, to music criticism these days, which seems to be one giant indie-rock appreciation class. And people get instructed on how to like things instead of being encouraged to like them for their base value. They need to like them in the context of some other shit.
D: That’s the thing, they didn’t form their own opinion independently. They didn’t have the time, or didn’t take the time, to form their opinion. So they just adopted the general attitude.
CSI: Did you ever take music appreciation classes?
D: I didn’t really see the point. I was like, “I already appreciate music pretty good and I think I understand it.” That’s for people who don’t understand what the fuck music is, I think. Right? Isn’t that what those classes are for?
CSI: Are there people that exist who don’t understand what music is?
D: Yeah. A lot of people. Are you kidding me? Or at least in my mind, their version of what music is is so limited that it’s wrong. They think that music is this really small thing. Archeopteryx would not be considered music to a lot of people, you know? Their version of music is so minimal that I think it’s inaccurate.
CSI: Yeah, “That’s not music.”
D: Fuck it, it’s all music, that’s what I’m saying. And this record, right here, is a nonstop hit factory.
CSI: These kinds of records can be totally inspiring.
D: Yeah. I just get frustrated, man, ‘cause I feel like people don’t think about what their opinions are based on. They don’t think about why they think something about something. They just know that that’s how you’re supposed to feel about it. They don’t think, “What is that? Is there something in there that I can appreciate? What am I really looking at and why do I have this attitude? What is it based on?” They don’t go through that process, and that’s why they end up with these really weird preconceived notions of what’s music and what’s not music and this is good and that whole genre’s bad and I will just shut myself off from it. Instead of treating it on a case-by-case basis. That’s where I’m at.
CSI: I think, intrinsic in what you’re saying is that you used the word “think” and “feel” almost interchangeably, because thinking about music and feeling something when you listen to music is the same thing to you.
CSI: Maybe not everyone has that same connection.
D: No, I don’t think everybody does. Everybody thinks a little differently.
CSI: And feels a little differently, if they feel anything when they listen to music at all.
D: Some people aren’t affected by it that much. And some people, like myself, are obviously very affected by it. I think music is just a physiological manipulation. That’s really what it is. The art of manipulating the senses. I want to play the Inflatable Boy Clams.
Inflatable Boy Clams – S/T
D: This is a double 7”. I think they’re from Marin, because there’s a song about Marin on here. They’re an all-female band. Let’s play the song about Marin.
CSI: No way. (Gasp.) This is unreal. (Gasp.) Holy fuck.
D: And it’s great.
(Long silence while both parties are mesmerized.)
CSI: Goddamn. This is a little bit like the Shaggs, with the drums and the bass not always playing together. It sounds like she’s also making up the lyrics as they go.
D: I think my favorite records are these weird ones. Local-but-not-to-my-locale oddities.
CSI: There’s a handwritten list of songs from Not So Quiet on the Western Front stuffed in here. And another list, I think might be your uncle’s radio show that he programmed. It says, “Talk About: Shopping malls of San Jose. Inner ghetto of the Fillmore. Sinsemilla farms of Sonoma. New Flipper LP. New and improved. More shitty Flipper music. Punk scene, every image more political, also more burnout.”
D: That must have been my uncle. You know that Flipper was the band that played at my aunt’s wedding?
CSI: Are you fuckin’ serious?
D: Fuck yeah. My aunt who called me just before you got here. She was hardcore punk way back in the day. That’s how badass she was for, like, a minute. Do you want to listen to Spitballs or Atilla the Stockbroker?
Attila the Stockbroker – Cocktails EP
D: “Special Non-Disco Mix,” just to let you know that they hate it so much. It’s like when I see a heavy metal band that’s like, “We did NOT use keyboards on this album.” It’s like, who gives a shit? You just wanted to take a stab at somebody?
CSI: This band has a mandolin, with a flute and an accordion.
D: This is like some Irish-pub-with-a-phaser-pedal bullshit.
CSI: This is on the same label as the Dead Kennedys, Cherry Red.
D: He’s got the punk attitude, even though he’s just hitting the mandolin. Where are these guys from?
CSI: London. So he hates disco, and he hates prevailing trends in music. I think he just hates prevailing trends.
D: He’s an anti-contemporary kind of guy.
CSI: It’s as if he said, “What’s the most unprevailing thing right now? How about a mandolin?”
D: But he’s trying to spice it up a little bit with the phaser pedal! That’s what makes it hot and new.
CSI: He’s complaining about trends because they don’t last very long, but I can’t imagine his time in the sun lasted too much longer.
Spitballs – Telstar
D: I don’t know what this is about. They’re just covers, but I like this record a lot. And “Telstar” is a good song, if people don’t know about it. It’s a great instrumental from the past, back when instrumentals could be hits. Why can’t instrumentals be hits anymore?
CSI: The last time it happened was “Axel F,” I think, by Harold Faltermeyer.
D: That was a long time ago.
CSI: 1984 or something. Or maybe “Miami Vice.” Did you ever hear the “Miami Vice” theme song on the radio?
D: Maybe not. It could have been.
CSI: And then “Rockit,” if you count “Rockit.” That was definitely a hit. I’ve long been advocating for the return of the instrumental hit single.
D: I think that record companies are just unwilling. They’re like, “People wouldn’t respond to that.” But people would!
CSI: Well, they need a face to sell music now.
D: Yeah, it’s true, it’s all very image-based. Back then, people listened to the radio a lot, so it didn’t matter what they looked like. That was a big tragic thing, the radio. Nobody listens to the radio now.
CSI: In the early days of 78 rpm phonograph records, the vocalist didn’t even get top billing. It was “The Harry James Orchestra,” and then, if he was lucky, very, very small on the label, it might say, “Vocal by Frank Sinatra.”
D: And so they flipped it around because they realized they could sell more records by putting the hot chick with the microphone on the cover?
CSI: It was a combination of that, and there was also a recording strike by the American Musician’s Federation. So the only records you were allowed to record for two years in 1942-1944 were all-vocal records. So that’s how we got things like the Pied Pipers and the Ink Spots.
CSI: Yeah, ‘cause union musicians weren’t allowed to record because of the strike. But singers could do whatever they wanted. So singers started getting credited on records because of that, and when the strike was over, the damage was done.
D: Hmm. Weird.
“The McGarrigle Sisters, they were stunningly gifted writers. They were really, truly writers in the very best sense of the word. I mean, that’s an incredible song, ‘Talk to Me of Mendocino.’ When you think about the kinds of risks they take—“out to where but the rocks remain”—I mean, who else in the world would sing, you know, ‘Never had the blues from whence I came, but in New York State I caught ‘em’? They have that strange, schoolmarmish, very old-fashioned approach to language, which is still in some parts of Canada, and they absolutely refuse to make any concessions to what trendy is, which I love about them. And then they have this really gifted way of just twisting a little phrase. It makes them just extraordinarily good, I think. Same with ‘Heart Like a Wheel,’ which is just an amazingly good song. Beautifully, beautifully written.”
– Linda Ronstadt, on the phone with me in 2006.
Kate McGarrigle died yesterday. They say you always learn something from obituaries, and the common eulogy that Kate wrote and performed something called “women’s music” was my lesson about the world and how it thinks. Or doesn’t, as the case may be. Scores of women have covered her songs. Who are the guys? Loudon, Rufus and Billy Bragg.
I have always wondered why the town of Mendocino hasn’t elected this as their theme song. It could play over loudspeakers hidden in redwoods on Highway 1 just after Albion, heralding one’s approach. Even just the cello intro would achieve the desired effect.
I just got off the phone with Adam Theis, who’s still flying high. Christ, he’s got every right to be. On Saturday night, in the middle of his set with Supertaster at a very tiny and very new club called Coda in the Mission District, someone whispered into his ear that Stevie Wonder had just walked into the room. “The rest of the band soon found out,” he recounted, “and we were all looking at each other like, what the fuck?!”
It’s no small thing, Stevie Wonder walking into the room, especially when you’re a band who’s made a habit out of playing dozens of Stevie Wonder songs. It’s no small thing, either, when at the end of your set, Stevie Wonder starts making his way up to the stage with his bodyguard.
You know the rest: Stevie Wonder got up and sang two songs with the Jazz Mafia at a tiny little club in the Mission District. I mean, after Stevie Wonder sits in with your band, what else is there? Does Theis ever need to play another show in his life? “It kinda feels like that, actually,” he jokes.
Here’s an excerpt of Theis’ written recollection of events:
We chatted with him for 5 seconds and decided on the tune “All Day Sucker” which is a tune we used to play a lot in Supertaster and also with Realistic Orchestra for the annual Stevie Wonder Birthday Tribute that we put on. I have to say that when he started singing the song it was beyond goosebumps…the crowd was going completely insane yet being very respectful, the band was playing better than ever and we honestly had no idea that Stevie would even want to sing with us. He did what I felt like was my favorite version of that song ever. As the tune was nearing a stopping point, I leaned over to Bagale and suggested testing the water by playing the riff from “Can’t Help It,” the hit song he wrote for Michael Jackson. Joe gave me a huge smile and head nod.
It was a little weird when I merged into the bass line from “Can’t Help It,” Stevie was still singing “All Day,” and he kinda froze for a second to get his bearings – I was kinda freaked out because I felt like, “I just cut off Stevie Wonder!!” Crap!!” But it took him literally 2 seconds and BAM! one of my favorite songs EVER came to life on stage live.
After it was all over, Stevie hung around the club, taking pictures and chatting with the band, which was both exciting and nerve-wracking. “You’ve got five minutes to hang out with your idol,” Theis explains. “What do you talk about?” By all accounts, though, Stevie seemed genuinely interested in the band, in the San Francisco scene, and in Theis’ recent masterwork Brass, Bows and Beats. And right before he left, he called the whole group together.
“We got in this kind of a huddle, just the musicians, and is voice lowered a little bit,” Theis says. “It was really cool and intimate. He said he liked what we were doing, playing a lot of different styles and taking a lot of chances. He said keep doing it. Do not give up. He said this thing that we did tonight—we did, he said—is really, really important. That it’s what culture is all about.”
Here’s to the Jazz Mafia, to Supertaster and to Coda. And for Theis, a former Santa Rosan who’s done nothing but make a name for himself since he left town, I know he’s on Cloud Nine and probably will be for the next year. “Someone would have to come back from the dead, actually,” he says, “for it to be better than Stevie Wonder.”
Here’s the video:
“He wasn’t one of those people who were the center of attention, but was always one of those people others were drawn to. You know, talented, athletic, funny, compassionate,” says Allen Sudduth. “Bruce was always one of the best and the brightest.”
Sudduth would know. He first met Bruce Barclay in the mid ’60s at Santa Rosa Junior High, and with Sudduth on drums and Barclay on bass, the two locked in step with each other both as lifelong friends and musical partners. Both had known each other in junior symphony and other school programs, but through a series of garage bands with names like the Third Foundation and the Worthy Cause, the two played nonstop at school dances and local venues—even opening for the Buffalo Springfield in Santa Rosa at the Fairgrounds in 1967.
Sadly, Barclay died last year, the result of complications from an auto accident 15 years ago. This Friday, Sept. 25, people from all over the country are flying in—either alumni of Santa Rosa High School or those with a personal connection to Barclay—to participate in a special memorial concert for Bruce reflecting his dual love of classical and rock music, “from the sacred to the profane,” as Sudduth calls it. The first set is classical-oriented with works by Vivaldi, Schumann, Bellini, Grieg, and others; while the second set features songs by Jelly Roll Morton, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Steely Dan, Jimi Hendrix, and yes, a few originals by Bruce Barclay.
“He was a phenomenal, phenomenal bass player,” says Sudduth. “We listen to these tapes that we did in the ’70s and ’80s and we’re just stunned at how good he played. And we kinda took it for granted, I guess. But he was always the rock. He was the guy you could always count on. He played better than anybody.”
The Bruce Barclay Memorial Concert is this Friday, Sept. 25, at Santa Rosa High School. 8pm. $20; all proceeds go to SRHS music programs. For more information, click here.
Did you ever in a million years think you’d have a job making fun of TV?
No. I did not make this plan. It’s very strange, because I was always highly opinionated about pretty much about anything. I was one of those guys who was always like, “Your favorite band sucks!” So I would yell back at the TV all the time. The fact that someone would pay me for it? And that I’m not sitting around in my underwear yelling? Its just a hoot. I never would have thought it.
So many people watch TV these days—especially with the glut of reality shows—and say, “I know it’s awful, but I’m addicted to it.” Do you understand where they’re coming from?
Yeah, I think there’s a lot of Schadenfreude. It’s like, “Look at these freaks.” I see the morbid fascination; it’s the Gladiator aspect of wanting to see people fall apart. The shows are becoming so insane, I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in twenty years.
After that girl taking a shit on the stairs on Flavor of Love, where is there really to go?
That was an incredible moment in television. And then her excuse was just tremendous! She’s like, “Well, I had to go, and then I started walking up the stairs, and then that happened.” That doesn’t happen to normal people! Normal people, that does not happen to. Something is wrong with you, ma’am. And what a surprise you got on a reality show with Flavor Flav.
Where do you think television’s gonna be twenty years from now?
I’m gonna say Live Sponsored Executions. It’ll be like Monday Night Football.
Do you think your job on The Soup, then, is important?
Well, it’s definitely important to pay my mortgage, and clothe the children and things like that. I… gosh, I have not really thought about that.
Well, culturally, do you think society needs someone to point out that what they’re addicted to is ridiculous?
I don’t know. Television is out of control, and a morally bankrupt place. To comment on that is good. I don’t know if it’s important, but it’s not stupid. There’s a lot of things on TV that suck, and they’re very popular, and kids love ‘em. When we make fun of an MTV show and go, “Hey Mom and Dad, it’s on after school!”—I feel like that’s a good comment. Or like a few weeks ago, VH1 was running promos for Black History Month. They’d run this very beautifully done promo with a lot of still photographs of African-Americans, in America, with beautiful music behind it, saying, “This is Black History Month, send in your photos and you could be a part of this campaign!” We just put Rock of Love and Charm School and Surreal Life—we just put a bunch of footage from that behind that very same music, showing how African-Americans are portrayed on VH1 shows. We felt like that was good. We love calling bullshit on things, but we don’t want it to be heavy-handed, or no one would watch. We still want it to be as funny as possible.
How do you deal with celebrities who get mad at The Soup? Is Tyra Banks still constantly pissed off at you?
We ignore it until they try to sue us, which really hasn’t happened. She’s the only one who’s tried to legally stop us, but almost without exception, there’s been very few really upset with us, from what I can tell. I know that David Hasselhoff is not a big fan, but he shouldn’t have gotten totally wasted and started shoving tacos in his mouth! It’s like, what do you expect us to do? We never go after people because we have a vendetta; we try to let their clips hang themselves. Like, we don’t make much fun of Oprah until she talks about her vajayjay. Because for the most part, Oprah’s show is great, and reasonable, and she’s a reasonable person, and she does good topics. But you know, when you have Tyra saying she’s afraid of dolphins, we’re gonna make fun of it!
Were you surprised when the Karsashians agreed to be on the show the other night?
Kind of! We’ve been relentless against them. I did learn that Bruce Jenner hates me, which. . . I don’t blame him. But you know, when someone comes on the show, I’m kind of like, “Hey, that was really cool.” So we probably won’t go after them the way we do. Of course, Kim has that sex tape, which is crazy, and which we have made relentless fun of. But they were all really cool, and I liked them. Hopefully they’ll come back.
How much of The Soup is written by writers, or written by you beforehand, or written by you on the spot, ad-libbed?
The whole script is written out, by the writers. I used to write way more than I do now—my schedule has become so crazy. But I rewrite the script on Wednesday night for how I want it to sound, and then on the floor I let it go and do a lot of improvising. You can’t just walk out and start riffing, because it’s 22 minutes of television, and it has to be very tight. So if something doesn’t work, or goes on too long, we stop and go back and get a new joke. For the most part, we try to tape it without stopping. The writers are so tremendous that there’s no need to improvise a lot of times. I’m not able to watch the amount of TV I used to watch, either. It used to be awful. I used to watch four to six hours a day and it was just killing me. It became a chore. My wife would be like, “Can’t you go do…” I was like, “I’m literally working! I’m literally working, watching this show, this Extreme Makeover: Home Edition two-hour special. Again. I have to do this, hon. Don’t disturb me!” It was really weird.
I assume the show now has people whose job it is to watch TV.
Yeah, we have twelve staff members and a few interns that are watching TV all the time. And we have to cover the things like Idol, and Dancing With the Stars, all those things. You know, the Rock of Loves and the Charm Schools are really easy lay-ups to make fun of. But it’s the shows like Dutch Oven, and I Love Toy Trains, and Korean Drama—literally called Korean Drama—it’s those shows that I really love covering, because they’re so off the regular map. I love it. Like, I Love Toy Trains is a show! I love that!
Part of your charm on The Soup is that fantastic, Conan O’Brien-ish self-deprecation.
Well, he’s a genius.
Does that style—“What am I doing here? Why am I on this show?”—does that come naturally for you? Or in real life are you actually a total egomaniac?
I was raised Catholic, so I grew up with all that guilt. That helped. I think anybody raised Catholic is self-deprecating to a point, where you think basically, if all’s going well, at some point the wheels are going to fall off and everything will be a disaster. And anything you get on top of that is a bonus, so you’re like, hey, this is working out great! But I think you can’t be a jerk, or people will not tune in to watch. I’m not putting on an air, but you just have to approach the show with a light heart, and not take it too seriously.
And not be afraid to dress up like Rainbow Brite.
Right! Anything for comedy!
My gay friends are all in love with you. As a married man, how do you react to that kind of adulation?
I love lesbians! Oh, wait, you’re talking about gay men! Well, I love gay men. Just pull that right out, pull that soundbite out. Having a gay following is great, because they seem to have all the money, they’re definitely the best dressed, and the most in shape. So that makes me very happy. And what’s great is that they’re very loyal fans. Lately we’ve been having Matt the intern come out, and he is always covered in oil, it seems now. He’s been doing interviews with a couple of gay websites, and he was addressed as a “greasy treat.” Which, I think, is really funny. But no one ever talks about my enormous straight following! Or, my enormous hermaphrodite following. That’s so sad.
You grew up in Seattle in the ’90s. How did you weather the grunge storm?
“Weather the grunge storm?!” I think grunge is the greatest music of all time!
Yeah! I really disliked big hair metal, I just never got into it. I spent most of my time listening to the Beatles, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M.—a lot of alternative stuff. I just could not stand all those big hair bands. Then grunge came in when I was in college, and it was the greatest four years in Seattle. Nirvana is, I think, one of the best all-time bands ever. I actually saw their last show in Seattle, and it was tremendous, it was for the In Utero tour. I’ve seen Pearl Jam almost every time they come through here, and Soundgarden. Mother Love Bone, way back when. I loved that time, and I knew no different growing up in Seattle. Bands were just playing everywhere all the time, because Seattle was not a stop for any of the big acts; they would go up to Vancouver because it was a bigger and, at that time, more metropolitan city. Seattle had to make their own music. I mean, to think that a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt became popular is nutty. It’s ridiculous! But it did what it did—it shut down the entire hair-band industry, and Sebastian Bach was left without a job for a while. And now he’s on a reality show.
Did you ever hop in your car and drive down Broadway on Capitol Hill listening to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “My Posse’s on Broadway”?
“My Posse’s on Broadway!” I have done it! I did it in high school, I admit it! That was the great thing—obviously Sir Mix-a-Lot’s music wasn’t grunge, but it was so Seattle. He made all these local references, so you kinda felt like, this guy! He’s ours! The same thing with Sleater-Kinney, which is an actual place outside of Seattle. “Baby Got Back” is still one of the biggest hits of all time. And going to Dick’s Drive-In on Broadway is still the best burger in the world.
So, your standup show in Santa Rosa coming up. Is it like The Soup at all?
It is. I don’t bring a monitor out and make fun of things, but I talk a lot about pop culture, I talk a lot about behind the scenes at E!, and I can go into a little more depth than I do in The Soup. That’s half the show, and the other half I’m talking about my life, and my family, which is a nutty, nutty place. So it’s half-and-half, there’s something for everyone. And then I take my pants off.
Joel McHale comes to the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa on Saturday, April 11 for two shows, at 8pm and 10pm. Tickets, $39.50 each, can be bought here.
Are you just as surprised as most people that you turned out to be a winemaker?
It doesn’t surprise me too much, ‘cause anything can happen. I went from being a cross-country runner, to being recruited to West Point, and then all of a sudden being in art school, and all of a sudden being in an international touring rock band, and then a second one, and now a third one. I tend to just kind of latch onto something and go for it.
Tool came along and really revolutionized popular rock music in a lot of ways. In what ways, if any, do you hope to revolutionize winemaking?
Ooh, gee. I don’t know about ‘revolutionizing.’ I think if I can apply what I’ve applied to everything else I’ve dove into, I think it’d be more about being true and honest with my perceptions and what I’m experiencing. Much the same way a good grape-grower or winemaker pays attention to the terroir, rather than trying to make wines that are for mass consumption. Kind of what we did with the music, where we remained true to what was happening in the room when we write. There’s only two things that myself and a musician, and my partners, there’s only two things we really have to do. All we have to do is remain true to what’s happening in that room between the four people. How we record it, what format it comes out on, what we wear, who sells it—that has no bearing as long as we remain true in that room, and focus on what’s happening in that space. And the second thing we have to do is make sure that when we go to present it live, it’s the same thing. I think with winemaking it’s a similar approach. We have to remain true to what’s happening in the vineyard, and what’s happening in the winery once we start to process those grapes. If I can have a hand in helping someone else come along with 20 times the talent that I’ll ever have in winemaking, if something that I did inspired somebody to pay attention, great. I’d love to have a hand in that.
Recording music these days can be very malleable – you have a chance to manipulate the finished product afterwards through digital software. With wine, you get what goes in the bottle, and you can’t tinker with it when it’s done. Do you appreciate that immediate, must-get-it-right-the-first-time process with wine?
Yeah, absolutely. For sure. But I also appreciate the getting it wrong the first, the second and third time. You learn along the way. But I definitely do like that, that you have to get it right.
How’s your learning curve been in Arizona? What’s your major obstacle to vineyards in Arizona?
Cold weather. We’re up in the high desert, so we planted on a lot of developed, agriculturally-zoned areas that we thought would be okay, thinking that we would have more problem with heat than cold. As it turns out, we’re a similar terrain and climate as Paso Robles, but cooler. So we had a lot of winter kills. We pretty much learned the hard way the first few years, not even realizing that we had winter kills the first year. It was like, why aren’t these things budding?
Is there a water usage issue in Arizona?
Absolutely, you have to have land that has prior ditch rights, and grandfathered-in irrigation, or a well that predates any of the salt river project claims, or any of that stuff. It really is a mess, like anywhere else. The good news is that the more the United States develops its understanding of vineyards and winemaking, I think the more they’re going to come around to encouraging people to put in vineyards rather than tract homes.
Tell me a little about Eric Glomski, and the yin he brings to your yang.
He has a memory. I’m pretty bad when it comes to hearing something and having it stay with me—my short term memory’s not so good. He’s that guy who can hear something once and remember it, so he’s able to really build upon his experiences over the years making wine. He’s a great chemist, he understands geography, geology, and his senses are all firing at the same time. His perception of what’s happening in the moment is accurate. And he can remember those exact experiences, or altered experiences over the years. He’s great in that way; he’s definitely a great guide. What I bring to him is that shotgun, bull-in-a-china-shop approach, that he wouldn’t have normally tried. I come up with crazy combinations and silly ideas that actually tend to work, because I don’t know the rules.
What are some of those crazy ideas? Obviously you’re limited by your musical projects, but how involved are you in the actual growing-to-picking-to-fermentation-to-bottling process?
Pretty involved; I spend most of my time out there. I try to work touring schedules around getting home at the end of August, so I can be there for crush. We have a little bit of downtime when it comes to late December, January, February, everything’s kind of put to bed and we’re starting to prune at that point. So I can sneak off and do musical stuff, or we can do promotions, or I can run around like I’ve been doing with these Whole Foods events. I’m pretty involved. I have a wine under my Caduceus label called Premier Paso, which is predominantly Shiraz, but it has 6 or 7 percent Malvasia in it, somewhat like a Côte-Rôtie. Eric probably wouldn’t have tried that. I was the one going, ‘Hey! I wonder what this would taste like in here!’ He was like, ‘You can’t. . . well, fuck it, let’s try it.’ And it’s great! It’s fantastic! It definitely has that Côte-Rôtie style, but I think it has more floral character on the bouquet, so it draws you in. That wine was my idea to get some of the non-wine drinkers, the more music fans, to get them in the door, because it’s such an enticing smell coming out of the glass. It’s not intimidating, and they can have it with almost anything.
When one thinks of rock ‘n’ roll guys making wine, one thinks more of the baby-boomer generation—guys from the Doobie Brothers or Journey that are starting to make wine. Do you think it’s important for more daring, risk-taking bands to start making wine?
Just in general, I think it’s a shame, our whole marketing concept of a band. There’s this artist that’s expressed themselves in some way, and because it’s so much easier for magazines, and press, and record companies and PR firms, for them to present this artist—this is what his head looks like, this is how he walks, here’s what he wears, and he only sings these songs in this way. It’s undermined the ability to move around. Peter Gabriel and David Bowie have somehow been able to say, ‘Nah, nah, I’m gonna be a painter now. I’m gonna do some acting.’ You would think that as an artist, and as a person who understands how to express, and understands their role in their environment, you’d think people would want to see them express themselves more in those areas. It’s not necessarily that musicians can’t go off into vines, or become painters. I think it’s that they don’t know they’re allowed to.
Do you appreciate the anonymity you have when talking with other winemakers, people from the wine world who may not know who you are?
It’s perfect, it’s great. I’m just some snot-nosed kid, asking questions.
What’s your reaction to wine snobs who may look down on Arizona as an inferior winemaking region?
I mean, that’s a natural reaction. If you don’t understand the area, of course you’re going to say that. The first thing people think of is cactuses and scorpions. So of course they’re going to pooh-pooh it, but they haven’t been presented with the correct information. Can’t really fault ‘em.
Is there an extra challenge with being organic and environmentally-friendly in Arizona?
No, not necessarily. We get to go ahead and break new ground where there hasn’t been stuff, and we get to start from scratch. Our southern Arizona vineyard has been farmed chemically from day one, back in the early ’80s, so it’s going to be a chore for us to slowly wean that off the chemicals and into a more organic approach. But it’s possible. I don’t think there’s anybody looking at it to trip us up on technicalities or anything. We’re doing it the best way we can.
At these Whole Foods appearances you’ve been doing, you must understand that a lot of people are there because of your musical projects. But are Tool fans receptive to wine at these things?
There’s a couple places we’ve gone back to a second time, and it’s actually been pretty encouraging. The first time around, of course, the kid with the star tattoo on his neck is freaking out a little bit, and trying the wine. But then the next time around, people actually have tried it, and they actually have genuine questions about pairings; they’re curious about how long they should lay this one or that one down. So they’ve actually come back, and you can tell when they’re speaking that they have in fact tried the wine, and they have in fact had an experience. So that’s good, We’ve basically just cultivated a whole ‘nother set of wine drinkers. We’re just expanding their perceptions of the world in general.
You’re a big wine collector. Is there a particular bottle that you’re most proud of in your cellar?
I have a 1934 Romaneé-Conti from the Doris Duke collection. That’s the only thing I have that’s of any note, other than I collect all the Grange through the years.
And since you’ve been making wine, has your collecting mentality fallen off at all?
Yeah, actually. I haven’t been first in line going to get some of the first growths pre-ordered. I haven’t done any of that. I’ve been spending so much time making my own wine. It’s put a skip in my step for collecting. It’s so expensive to get this industry off the ground in an uncharted area. You don’t have the barrel shop down the street, or the guy who understands how to fix a German grape press in the area. It really is expensive, and you have to have guys around who know what they’re doing. Everything you do ends up coming n a truck from another state. I kind of stopped collecting, focusing all my energy into making sure the nuts and bolts are in place.
I’m here in Santa Rosa, California, where there’s sort of a friendly debate between Sonoma County and Napa County over who makes better wine. Do you care to weigh in on it?
I honestly couldn’t tell you. I like a lot of stuff coming out of all over California. If you’re looking for a consistency and something that’s the same every time you drink it, there’s a bunch of wineries that do that. I prefer wines that reflect whatever year that was, and that specific region. So in that, I think there’s great wines that come from both of those places. As long as the winemaker and the farmer express that region naturally, then I can’t really separate them.
Okay, a couple non-wine questions. Being a big wine collector, you must understand the mentality of the record collector as well, and all my friends down at the local record store want to know: Will we ever see the day that Ænima is repressed on vinyl?
Yeah, I don’t know. That’s one of those who-knows stories.
The record company probably owns the rights to it. . .
What record company? It’s the Titanic going down heavy. They pretty much blew it. That’s what I’m trying to do with Puscifer, is trying to figure out what the next step is, where’s the outlet, where’s the audience, where are people looking, and of course just having fun making music without somebody breathing down your neck wondering about the numbers.
Do you ever wish that people didn’t have to pay $250 for your records on eBay?
Well, they don’t really have to pay for them. That’s a shame, but yeah, it’s just a matter of repressing them, I guess, and we haven’t gotten around to it.
One last question, since it’s just days before the inauguration. What are your feelings here on the cusp of Barack Obama being put in the White House?
I think things are a mess. I think that he’s got a lot on his plate, and you can see it in his eyes. He knows that there’s so much to do. I don’t envy his position. He’s definitely got a big problem on his hands, and everyone who would not want him in that office is going to milk every, every, every, every drop of juice out of any shortcomings that he has. And of course, he’s gonna have ‘em, because there’s no way in four years that he can fix this. We just have to set aside whatever we want out of it and hope that somehow he can put out the fires.