I said everything I needed to say regarding the experience of seeing Philip Glass play live in this concert review from the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, in 2007. That said, seeing Philip Glass play the piano is not an opportunity to be missed, because his music is more about how one reacts to it than what it sounds like, which is, pointedly: the same as it always does.
Philip Glass had performed his 3 1/2-hour opus Music In Twelve Parts at Davies Symphony Hall a few nights earlier, so playing a solo piano show for 90 minutes in Napa might not have seemed like a big deal to him. It was a huge deal, however, to the full house on Thursday night, who in the wonderfully intimate theater were treated to Mad Rush, Metamorphoses No. 4, 3 and 2, some Etudes for Piano (even Glass humorously forgot which ones), and Closing, from his Columbia album Glassworks. Some people leaned forward, enraptured. Others either sat politely, or swayed back and forth to the repetitive patterns, or fell asleep. I closed my eyes and got lost in it all, thinking about love, family, and the future.
Margrit Mondavi, whom the Napa Valley Opera House theater is named for, was sitting way up in the balcony, and afterwards, when Glass came out to the lobby to meet his fans, she presented him with a few bottles of wine. Watching Mondavi, who has done so much in support of the arts, share a warm conversation with Glass, who essentially personifies “the arts,” was pretty intense. Glass then took a good half-hour or so to sign autographs, answer questions, and take photos with his fans. Again, this mightn’t have been a big deal to Glass, but everyone was happily surprised that he’d be so accommodating, and it transformed a great concert into a special night.
Dear Jay Pullman,
You’re a neat guy and all, which is why I’m completely confused by your pick of Wiggle as your Screeching Weasel album of choice. You say, and I agree, that “You can tell a lot about a person by their favorite Screeching Weasel album.” Here’s how I might break it down:
The person who picks BoogadaBoogadaBoogada is most likely someone who still embraces their juvenile side and makes a lot of fart jokes. May have trouble in relationships, may also have trouble in any academic pursuits. However, it must be noted that this person is insanely fun to be around.
The person who picks My Brain Hurts is a no-nonsense pragmatist who occasionally dabbles in pseudo-intellectualism—while admitting to the “pseudo” part. Could possibly describe themselves as a “serial monogamist” since they’re too romantic to notice that love dies. Is balanced, but incidentally loves to drive fast.
The person who picks Wiggle is confused and misguided, who pushes on doors clearly marked “pull” and returns time and again to a restaurant that gives them food poisoning. Stuck between making clever threats about the real world and snide pop-culture jokes. An utter bore.
The person who picks Anthem for a New Tomorrow is idealistic, and is as interesting as one can be who follows the pack. May wear nice shoes and have an education, with luck in love and with snappy repartee. Does not care what others think, but most certainly conforms to a set of internal rules.
The person who picks anything after Anthem for a New Tomorrow or who picks the obscure self-titled debut is either completely retarded or is lying.
So: You picked Wiggle. However, I have hung out with you, and you do not seem confused, nor misguided, nor a bore. Is it a Chicago thing? I can’t tell you how excited I was when Wiggle finally came out, and how completely shattered me and my girl were when we brought it home from the record store. It’s such a lazy record, musically and thematically. I got rid of it a few years ago, and immediately felt much better.
Please explain. (And by the way, I’d pick My Brain Hurts.)
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.
The recipe for a fantastic lunchtime concert is pretty basic. When it comes down to it, all you need is a Fender twin reverb, a vintage Gibson, a Gretsch drum kit, a standup bass and some damn fine songs. That’s all James Hunter brought to the Russian River Brewing Company today, and it was enough to bring the house down.
Parked behind the place on Fifth Street was Hunter’s large tour bus, which leads me to believe he’s normally got a pretty impressive stage production, horns and all. Today, however, on the tiny stage in the corner, Hunter pared down to a three-piece and worked overtime on the guitar to fill in the missing sound. It wasn’t what he was used to, but man, it was great.
In blue jeans, a black t-shirt and a denim jacket, Hunter announced songs in his thick British accent and then sang them like Sam Cooke or Otis Redding; just pure, beautiful soul. Near the end, he even unpacked “The Very Thought of You,” and, instructing his band in an aside to take it at “the usual stupid speed,” a ripping three-piece version of “Talkin’ Bout My Love.”
Filling in extra chords and licks on his guitar, Hunter took a crazed, half-picking half-fretboard-tapping solo with his bare palms. He played a little hand-jive, and then, when the tank-topped hippie dude in beads who’d been dancing the whole time was joined by a long-haired female, Hunter clasped his hands together in thankful prayer toward the sky. “Oh!” he cried. “A girl!”
The crowd went nuts at the end, a testament to Hunter’s engaging charisma and talent. He plowed through the shoulder-to-shoulder house to get to the bathroom, and by the time he finally came out everybody was still clapping and screaming. Hunter played the Fillmore last night, and you gotta think he loves doing these little shows—he certainly seemed like he was having a blast. So it was one more song, and one more great noontime concert by the KRSH. Thanks, guys, for brightening everyone’s Wednesday.
I was waiting for this. Etta James slams Beyoncé.
It’s not so much that Etta James is jealous of someone else singing her song; she couldn’t be, after the thousands of versions of “At Last” played at weddings every single weekend in America. At some point, you hand your signature song to the public, and are glad for the supporters (and royalties) of the original instead of threatening to whoop their ass. James signed off on Cadillac Records, and knew Beyoncé would be in public, promoting the film with her likeness.
But: “He ain’t my president.” ‘the fuck? If that’s the way she feels, then she never deserved to sing “At Last” for Obama anyway, and she and other cantankerous rock critics can sit in a corner complaining about how Beyoncé needs a ladder to kiss the hem of Etta James’ skirt—with intelligence and hope as collateral damage.
Realistically, Etta James needs some scaffolding to reach Beyoncé’s shoes. She isn’t the vocal powerhouse who recorded Etta James Rocks the House anymore, and frankly, if she’d sung for the Obamas, she only would have embarrassed herself. She’s since offered a halfhearted semi-retraction, but I don’t think anyone feels it. A sad twilight to a great career.
Let us praise versions of “My Funny Valentine” that don’t make us squirm. Let us praise Lifetime Achievement Awards for those who truly deserve it. Let us praise 90-year-old pianists who continue to paint new scenes on the keys.
Let us praise Hank Jones.
Hank Jones opened a two-night stand at Yoshi’s in San Francisco tonight, and during an hour-and-a-half set displayed no loss of conception, creativity, nimbleness or humor even while entering his ninth decade. He defines the phrase “jazz treasure” without any self-importance. He opened his set with “Happy Birthday,” for cryin’ out loud.
I caught the 10 o’clock set, after impulsively driving down from Santa Rosa at the last minute to buy a single ticket. Jones has been on a lot of albums I adore—Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, John Coltrane’s Bags & Trane, Charlie Haden’s Steal Away, Roland Kirk’s We Free Kings, Chris Connor’s My Name is Chris—but it’s a piquant little collection of standards by his Great Jazz Trio that I’ve been listening to a lot lately. Someday My Prince Will Come isn’t out of this world, but it is a basic collection of standards played well. Sometimes that is all that’s needed.
Tonight, Jones offered a similar grace and simplicity. Check the setlist:
Lonely Moments – Mary Lou Williams
Quiet Lady – Thad Jones
Bluesette – Toots Thielmans
My Funny Valentine – Richard Rogers
Rhythm-a-Ning – Thelonious Monk
Blue Minor – Sonny Clark
Stella by Starlight – Victor Young
Six and Four – Oliver Nelson
Mercy, Mercy, Mercy – Joe Zawinul
Intimidation – Hank Jones
Blue Monk – Thelonious Monk
Each song followed the basic order. Intro, head, verse, piano solo, bass solo, drum solo, head, and out. John Clayton clearly relished playing with a different group (he’s Diana Krall’s right-hand man) and came correct with brilliant bass work that at times even had Jones in awe, while drummer Clayton Cameron danced around the drums with brushes that seemed to sing. Jones phrased skilled solos that could only come from a lifetime of playing combined with an impressively present acumen.
But it was Hank Jones’ humor that took the cake. He drew out the ending to “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” with three false endings, toying with the crowd, but when the next tune ended abruptly and no one clapped, he looked at the audience, curiously, and laughed, “That’s it.” During the verse of “Blue Monk” he threw in an extra discordant harmony to Monk’s already-discordant arrangement and then looked around as if to apprehend the musical trespasser—inside the piano, underneath the keyboard.
The dude is 90 and he’s still having fun. Thanks, Hank, for still being here.
Last night, between dates at Thrillhouse Records and Gilman, Thorns of Life played a stellar show with Santiago and the Semi-Evolved Simians in the basement of Adam’s house in Santa Rosa. It’s more like an interrogation chamber than a basement down there, but in spite of our repeated warnings to the band in the last few weeks that the downstairs is a tiny, 10-foot-by-15-foot concrete cell, they kept shouting back their approval. It’s small? Sure! It’s cramped? We’re there! It’s going to be a total disaster? Great!
So the basement it was, as Thorns of Life—Blake Schwarzenbach, Aaron Cometbus, and Daniela Sea—came to Santa Rosa for another hush-hush house show last night on their West Coast tour. There were some hidden flyers around town, but unless you looked inside dumpsters, sewer tunnels and library book-return slots, you had to rely on the word-of-mouth secret show game, with all of its social awkwardness and selective dispensing. But in the end? A night, as they say, for the books.
Looming over the house at the onset was a freak nervousness, aided by the cops parked a couple houses down. Then: the slow dissipation. The opening bands, the opening beers, the opening hearts. Sweat doesn’t just break through the lining of the skin; it opens up invisible barriers. By the time Thorns of Life played, there was no option but the personal. I sat essentially on top of Blake’s shoes with a sea of people at my back; Blake fit squarely beneath a heating duct; Daniela played between the water heater and exposed fiberglass insulation; and Aaron crammed more people in the basement by directing them behind the drums, atop the workbench.
The show was a brilliant blur; smeared further, a bit, with disbelief and volume. For 11 songs, everything gelled inside the ridiculously populated basement on the corner of Spencer and King, and afterwards, it was beers in the backyard, “On The Way to Frisco” in the kitchen, Nancy Ling Perry obituaries in the hallway, and for me, catching up with Blake Schwarzenbach.
At some point during the party—between discussing the house’s cats, the possibility of playing Jets to Brazil songs at acoustic shows in the future, Creature Feature host Bob Wilkins, accidentally ripping off “Ingrid Bergman,” the challenge of playing harmonica, the memory of losing one’s virginity, and sending postcards to Verona—Blake and I managed to slow down and escape to the sidewalk outside, next to the station wagon they’ve been touring in, to conduct an official interview. I first interviewed him in 1991, 18 years ago. He’s just as open now as he was then.
Do you look at the past as a hindrance or an asset?
I used to look at it as a hindrance, but I think I broke through in the last couple years. I don’t really know when it happened. I did a lot of work on myself, getting me to enjoy my past. I found out I could actually use it a little bit to help me out.
What about regret? Is regret useless?
Yeah. If you can’t convert it into art, then it’s gonna destroy you.
What about nostalgia? Where does nostalgia lead?
I think it’s pretty good if you don’t live in it. It’s always nice when you think of somebody fondly, or go to a place and remember something or somebody. That’s part of travel, and being alive. I’m usually grateful for it, I don’t get it that often.
Really—you’re not a nostalgic person?
No, I’m sad. I’m sad. What I used to think of as nostalgia was my recognizing degraded human environments , and it was a response to poverty, I think—poverty of spirit, a lot of times, but also social poverty, aesthetic poverty in our country, the way living spaces look awful and our civilization is really ugly physically. So, yeah. There’s a big difference between sadness and nostalgia.
One of the things noticeable in this band is the apparently conscious decision to play house parties and DIY places. Can you talk a little about that?
Well, it’s how we started, when Aaron came to me. We’ve had this courtship for a decade, but really in the last few years when I started having songs, he coaxed me into going to a house show. And it was really fun. And then I felt like in order to justify going to house shows I needed to have a band; after a while, I felt like I was freeloading, like the old punk guy who goes to shows. Like, ‘I’d better have a band, to go here and hang out.’ So it was a pretty natural progression, and I think I have some indie damage from the Jets where I just never want to be in a rock club with someone from the local free weekly being disinterested and asking questions.
You know that I’m technically from the local free weekly, right?
Yeah, but you know what I’m talking about, that whole apparatus, like the person who goes to interview the Matador band that week, or whatever. So having survived that machine, I was kind of happy not to… it was really boring, honestly.
Yeah. And we’ll play clubs. I mean, I’d like to. But you have to have less stages, I think. We don’t have a P.A. in our rehearsal space that’s very good—it’s just a guitar amp, it’s very sketchy. It just ended up being the sound of the band, that there should be a little bit of struggle in it. The first show of this tour we played at a club in San Diego, and I have to say it was really disorienting to have a monitor. I spent years learning how to use a monitor, but I’ve completely unlearned it, and now I don’t want too much of me. I’d rather push, and hear it out in the room.
Some of your more ardent followers take issue with this whole approach, where you do shows that are word of mouth and therefore only for the in-the-know; it’s frustrating for them, and can seem kind of elitist. How would you respond to people’s concerns like that?
I can’t help them.
Well, you could play larger places.
That’s true, and I’d like to. But last time, for me, in my band, it was the other thing. The punks thought that that was elitist, and that we didn’t give a shit because we played big clubs: ‘I’m not paying eight bucks to see you, fuck that.’ So I kind of feel like it’s hard to win.
And if you’re gonna err, you might as well err on the side of…
Right. Free shows, or four-dollar pass-the-hat shows, where we have fun. I’d rather have fun first and then worry about other people’s fun. I’m pretty selfish that way.
One of your infamous positions has been leaving the punk scene behind—and now, between playing house parties and embracing a political stance, it seems like you’re rediscovering your inner punk.
Well, I became politically articulate in New York through graduate school and through the last three wars. I used to write about it, I mean, I felt it was intrinsically in me, because my parents were radicals and I grew up suspicious—I grew up in Berkeley in the late- late-’60s, I watched the Watergate hearings with my dad. It was in me, I didn’t know how to express it, and I always found it a little corny when people would do it on the nose. I had to find a voice where I felt I could be helpful. When I can put it in a song, I really like it. I just have to earn it in a way, to take on other people’s pain. I don’t want to write any kind of sloganeering song, or jingoistic song or anything. So if I can use my own subterfuge of poetic language, and do it, that’s actually where I feel like I should be writing. I’m a little tired of me. I haven’t had a relationship in a long time, so there’s no stories there. I’ve been living the Palestinian struggle for the past five years. That’s more interesting to me right now.
You have a song about Al-Qaeda in Washington.
Yeah, and it was a really quick song to write. It was just about surviving the primaries and seeing Hilary Clinton in the ascendant, which to me was a dark harbinger of more bad policy. It’s a cautionary song about not putting all your money in Obama curing the guilt of white people and saving the world. I don’t wanna say no to that, I wanna give him his shot, and I voted for him, and I would work with anyone to change anything.
Would you call yourself cautiously optimistic about his presidency?
Yeah, yeah. I think it’s only responsible to wait and give him 100 days, or four years, whatever it is. The title—the idea, to me, studying Iraq for the past few years, studying Afghanistan, studying the Western attitude toward the Arab world—“We Build Al-Qaeda in Washington,” that’s the title. The core of Al-Qaeda is in Washington. Sure, it grows in Yemen, and it grows in the Saudi oligarchy and everything, but I think we’ve done so much to foster militias around the world that the idea is you should go there and fight, you don’t need to go across the world. That’s the title, that’s the idea.
Has the punk scene changed, or have you changed?
I think I’ve changed. I mean, yeah. I went back.
Could you imagine yourself doing a tour of house shows in, say, ’96?
No, but I longed for it many a night. I was just like, ‘This is so boring!’ Like God, these fucking places. The shows could be great, and musically it was fun to have that huge apparatus. But it’s a limited thing: you get 40 minutes of feeling powerful, and a lot of drudgery. As I said, being politically articulate helped me miss punk. I realized that those are my people. At least they’re asking those questions. Indie rock isn’t asking those questions. It’s so inward-looking and ambitious, in New York especially. It helps to be in New York, because they’re just shameless about wanting to fuck you over to get ahead.
Brooklyn, in particular?
Now, yeah. I guess now Brooklyn is this kind of Seattle. I never thought of it that way, but it’s… I just found those people not very interested in the world. Interested in their own local phone code, their own space. I was heading out into the world at the time that it seemed like that music scene was heading into itself. So punk was the only place where people were going out and marching, doing actions. They just gave a shit about the world! It seemed to be about the most important thing anyone could do in the last eight years.
You took part in some of that. I think you gave a speech in New York at some point.
I did, yeah. I have a great friend who’s a historian, a professor, and she insisted that I speak at a student walk out. She goosed me into awareness; I met a lot of great people there. It was terrifying, but I was embraced, which was nice. I just tried to do my own thing; I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I wrote a poetic essay, I guess, and I was surprised that it seemed to register with a few people there. I was speaking with bona fide refugees and people I felt really outclassed by. All I had was band experience. But I think the people, they see you out there, they appreciate it.
Are you worried that people may be forgetting how to live in the moment?
I worry that they are forgetting how to live in the world. I don’t mean even the big world, but just in terms of going outside, or not being online. That new technology, it’s just not… I don’t quite get it yet. I know you have to give youth a shot, and some kids have really happy, connected lives that way, but I don’t feel it. I miss the bricks-and-mortar stuff.
What about the hundreds of cameras at shows? It’s reasonable to expect people to appreciate what’s happening in front of them, to experience it, but instead there’s this need to record it.
Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, we thought about… I don’t want to tell people not to do that. I just don’t have enough time in my life, I’d much rather work on making our show sound good, and playing well, and seeing the people we like.
Are you happier when people don’t take pictures all the time, film you all the time?
Yeah, of course. But I have to admit, there is this strange little vain part, if the show’s really kickass, that I think it’d be fun if I could tell my dad he could watch it, or my sister, to tell them, ‘Hey, we just played in this big closet!’
Were you nervous about tonight when you saw that tiny basement?
We had questions about how we were going to fit in there, but once we set up, once we started, it was great.
What do you think is more important, to be smart or to be honest?
That’s a tough one. Oh, I would say to be honest. And I think to be really honest, you have to be pretty intelligent. If it means being honest with yourself, or being really clear with your friends and loved ones, to communicate, you have to be smart. You can be clever, and that’s bad. Clever is like being surreptitious, and figuring out how not to be truthful. I think smart and intelligent means an ability to be honest. I’ve done a lot of work getting past clever to what I think is a broader kind of intelligence, which involves honesty.
Are you going to record an album?
I couldn’t help but notice Fat Mike hop on stage the other night and talk to you guys. Was that about recording at all?
I think he’d like to do something. He’s been a really supportive guy. But I don’t… we don’t have a label. We don’t have a ‘dream label’ or anything, other than one we make. It seems we’re about at that point, with technology, that you can just have your own label.
You have a reference to a Smith-Corona, and you own a Smith-Corona. Do you use it to write lyrics?
No, I don’t. That’s about Mishima, that song. It’s about writers, the verse is about Mishima committing ritual suicide. So the line is: “Hari-kari with a Smith-Corona, what the fuck? The left arm of the right wing.”
You mentioned the other night at the Hemlock that all of your songs are about suicide and unrelenting misery. Is that actually true?
Kind of! It’s surprising, yeah. I mean, they’re pretty joyous tunes, but they’re pretty dark lyrically.
Do you feel a discussion on suicide is something that’s ignored in society?
Yeah. It’s either glamorized or it’s shunned, and it’s only the most important question that everybody asks themselves, especially in their young life. It’s something you reckon with as a youth. Our song is ‘O Deadly Death,’ it’s kind of a valentine to suicidal feelings, and how important that is in your development to go to the wall, and then step back. That’s just part of identity, is finding your way to the utmost point and then reveling in the beauty of being alive.
What song do you hope you’re listening to when you die?
“Girl From the North Country,” maybe, with Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, the duet version. That’s always a sweet, off-into-the-wilderness song.
More Photos Below. (more…)
In 2004, I walked into the Tradewinds in Cotati and felt my jaw immediately hit the floor in amazement over the two guys opening for the Rum Diary. A greasy-haired hippie-looking drummer who played just a little behind the beat and a sharp-throated, fingerpicking singer who blew the harmonica and sang songs about trying to care that the country’s at war in the midst of a ruined liver and other malaise. It felt like this band was created just for me, and after their captivating set, I found out that the band was called Two Gallants. Both Michael Houghton and I cornered the singer near the pool tables and bought everything he had.
I felt a similar sort of excitement tonight when I opened the antique door to Cast Away, a precious yarn shop in Railroad Square, to check in on that same singer, Adam Stephens, and his new solo project. Clusters of people lined the stairway up to the store’s loft, where the outstanding owner Justine usually offers knitting classes but tonight had transformed into a mini-concert space. About 30 or 40 people sat crowded on the floor, quietly passing around libations and listening intently to the music, while below, older customers reclined on couches for the evening’s ‘Knit & Sit’ session, knitting needles and unfinished scarves in hand. Santa Rosa never ceases to amaze me.
Stephens explained that he’d forgotten his harmonica holder, but he had more than enough texture to make up for it; cello, piano, drums and bass filled out his sound while managing to be mostly quieter than anything Two Gallants has ever done. His songs, I noticed, were long, but as Henry Nagle whispered in my ear, they’re paced extremely well, akin to long Springsteen epics. How Stephens manages to come up with so many words to fill his songs is beyond me. I only heard one reference to someone else’s lyrics—a line about sweeping out the ashes—and for the most part, his songs were things to get happily lost in.
Two Gallants is officially “kind of on hiatus,” Stephens told me afterwards, so he’s planning on recording and touring with this new outfit—whatever it may come to be called. “I hate my own name,” he murmured on the sidewalk, “but I also hate coming up with band names. I’ve only named one band in my life, and I was sick of it after a month. So we’ll see.”
By the time the doors opened for the Thorns of Life show at the Hemlock Tavern in San Francisco tonight, the line of 300 people had completely wrapped around the venue. Only 110 people made it in—including notable attendees Billie Joe and Fat Mike—and those lucky few who got to see the San Francisco debut of the most highly anticipated band of the new year weren’t disappointed.
In short? Thorns of Life were beautiful and amazing.
I’ve written about Thorns of Life before, albeit on a purely speculative basis. I’d refused to watch the YouTube videos, as untainted by advance coverage as possible so as not to deny myself the enjoyment of in-person discovery. Patience is a virtue. The show was outstanding.
My God, the songs are good. This is the first thing that matters. The songs are good, some of them downright blissful. I take back my speculation about Aaron not being able to play ballads. I also take back my speculation that Blake might be retreating to relive a former self circa 1994. I’ve never been so glad to have been wrong. The songs are good.
Lyrics are a huge part of any Schwarzenbach band, and the ones I could make out ranged from the sentimental (“We tend to fill the void with hope and longing”) to the image-laden (“Hari-kari with a Smith-Corona. What the fuck?”) to the referential (“We listened to the Velvet Underground, ‘Heroin.’ And even though it wasn’t appropriate, it’s such a beautiful song.”) to the political (“Al-Qaeda is in Washington, why aren’t you fighting them?”) (I paraphrase). Blake mentioned at one point that all of his songs were about suicide and unrelenting misery; that he’d now had enough distance from graduate school to look at the subject of suicide objectively, and that he felt a real dialogue needed to occur in society about suicide.
Out of 13 or 14 songs, the band delivered alternating moments of elation, poignancy, humor, dejection, ennui and triumph. One, perhaps called “The First Time,” ranks among Blake’s best songwriting ever, and he closed the set with a solo song that between its lines about postcards and towers even utilized a harmonica and, after some deserved dissing of the capo, a capo.
When it was all over, I felt so completely and gloriously happy that Blake is making music again. There was a long time there where it looked as if he’d played his last show, and as clusters of exhausted people shuffled past me, smiling and reveling, I savored the annihilation of that worry.
I ran into a friend afterwards who muttered that the crowd was irritating and that too much hype had killed any possible positive experience the show could have offered. I disagree. Yes, people shouted Jawbreaker references (“Hey, look, it’s a new band,” Blake warned). Yes, there were superfans showing off their pictures taken with Blake. Yes, it was a miracle if you could get in. Yes, some people got a little too excited and drunk. Yes, Fat Mike hopped on stage afterwards to talk to Blake and Aaron, presumably about recording. Yes, there were tons of cameras out when the band hit the stage. These things happen.
But hype that forms inorganically with no actual basis can be smelled like the shit that it is from a mile away. The atmosphere surrounding Thorns of Life is different in that it’s based on something very real. To wit: A huge subculture of people, all with a longstanding personal connection to the music and writing and art that Blake and Aaron and Daniela have created in their time. I don’t believe for a second that the majority of people at the show were there because it was the “it” thing to do. I believe that most people who were there—people like Kyle, Avi, Brian, April, Tony, Brandt, Chris, Billie Joe, Jerry, Haley, Ivy, Jason, Fat Mike, or Martina—most of these people are fans, just like me, who have followed and loved and been touched by great art, and who are compelled to check in and see what the creators of that art are up to.
As for the couple hundred people who got turned away tonight at the door, rest assured that what Thorns of Life are up to is thrilling and great, and they more than live up to the intense curiosity that so many people understandably share.
UPDATE: Thorns of Life played four days later at Adam’s basement in Santa Rosa; my interview with Blake is here.
I’ve retold this story numerous times to friends and always found it funny. Today, I look at it with deeper meaning. Duke Ellington came to Santa Rosa and no one knew who he was. This, to me, is a sad part of our history, that we denied the most famous composer in a predominantly black art form even the dignity of recognition.
Think about this story, and then think about the exemplary man recognized, elevated and inaugurated as our President this morning.
From Duke Ellington’s 1973 autobiography, Music is My Mistress:
Half the time on our trips Harry Carney and I arrive at the city or town where we are going to play that night thinking the other knows the place where the gig is, or has an itinerary in his pocket. Every now and then it appears that neither of us knows nor has an itinerary with him. “No sweat, baby!” I say, and we drive into a gas station, where Harry says, “Fill it up.” After I’ve stretched my limbs, I ask the attendant, “Do you know where Duke Ellington is playing tonight?” Usually the man answers, “Oh, over at the auditorium, three blocks down this way to the red light, turn left, then first right, and straight ahead—you can’t miss it.” So we just go and follow the directions, and we’re cool, but feeling it was a good thing we picked that gas station for information. We had been doing this sort of thing with good results down though the years until one night, a couple of years ago, we arrived in, I think it was, Santa Rosa, California. We pulled into the gas station with the same routine up to, “Where’s Duke Ellington playing tonight?” The cat with the gas hose turned and said “Who? Who’s he?” When we explained, he said, “I don’t know anything about a dance or a concert here tonight.” And there we were, standing there, feathers peeling off one at a time.
“Oh, no,” Harry said, “you don’t suppose we goofed on the name of the town?”
“There’s only one way to find out,” I said. “Call Ruth or Cress Courtney.” So I went to the telephone to call my sister in New York.
All this time, cars were coming and going, and as they stopped for gas we’d ask them the same question: “Where’s Duke Ellington playing tonight?” Most of their responses were something like, “Duke Ellington? I didn’t know he was playing here tonight.” Then Ruth answered the telephone and we got the directions. So I turned to the cat at the gas station and said, “We’re playing at the Fairgrounds.” “Oh, that’s it, is it?” he said. “Right catty-corner across the street.” What a relief!
But the Fairgrounds were very dark—no lights in sight. After finally finding an entrance gate, we drove in, and around, and around, and around. Nobody, but nothing, until eventually we were about to pass another car going in the opposite direction. Both cars honked their horns, stopped, let their windows down.
“Do you know where. . . ?” Harry began.
“That’s what we want to know, Harry,” the other driver interrupted. It was Ralph Gleason, of the San Francisco Chronicle at that time. We laughed, turned around, and both cars continued their search until suddenly—there it was!
Duke Ellington? Who’s he? Duke who?