Monthly Archives: November 2011

Josh T Pearson: The Pariah Returns

There’s an aura surrounding Josh T. Pearson, one that’s helped make him one of the most enigmatic, whispered about singers of recent times. It’s apparent in the authoritative, stark initial that punctuates his name. It’s evoked by the fabled, crash and burn story behind his old band, Lift to Experience. You can hear it in the ten-minute-plus vehicles for self-flagellation that appear on his album, and see it in the flowing, messianic beard he wears to his chest. It percolates through everything that’s been said or written about Pearson this year so strongly, that whenever he lifts the phone and announces himself to The Skinny in his thick, Texan drawl, it sounds like a proclamation from on high.

“This is he.”

In March, Pearson released his first solo record, the rapturously received Last of the Country Gentlemen. It’s his first output since the double album The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads ten years ago, which signalled the end of the road for Lift… and the beginning of a nomadic, primitive existence for Pearson. “I was just working,” he reluctantly says of the hiatus.  “I scrubbed toilets, I was a janitor, I did construction, I was painting outdoors, mowing – lots of mowing – I was a caretaker on some property in Texas for a time. Thirteen acres. I was down there with goats and chickens. Just normal straight work.” The idea that he’s happier now to be making a living from his music is quickly dismissed, though. “Not really,” he says. “I’m glad if it does good for people, but being on the damn road, playing the same damn songs; I would’ve written a lot more if I had a straight job.”

Pearson is currently homeless. He’s in Brixton as we speak and is annoyed at having to speak to me from the street, in case the mobile reception won’t hold indoors. “It’s fine,” he says, graciously letting us off the hook. “Except y’all drive on the wrong side of the road. Surprised I ain’t been hit yet, but there’s always tomorrow.” He’s been touring the album, playing songs that stemmed from intense personal heartache, to steadily growing crowds. But rather than enjoying the fruits of his labour, Pearson finds them harrowing. Success is, for him, a poisoned chalice. He hasn’t been able to listen to the record since he recorded it and each performance is a drain. “It’s difficult every time,” he tells us in an austere, considered manner that lightens gradually as the conversation unfolds. “After the last show I swore I’d never play them again but I’m back doing it, since I’d already committed. You’re only as good as your last show. I’m risking a lot every time I step out. If I had easier songs I’d be glad to play them. But I don’t.”

Pearson has never led what you might call a “normal life”.  He comes from Denton, a college town and oasis of music in the barren Texan desert. His father was a Pentecostal preacher and a loyal disciple of the Word of Faith Movement, biblical literalists whose adherence to the scriptures discourages employment (why earn a crust, when Marksays “soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them”?). His father refused to work and his mother, faced with a starving brood, packed up the kids and left when Josh was four.

He’s philosophical about the whole thing. “I’ve got nothing against organised religion,” he says. “We’re all doing our best here to survive this shit out. Denton’s in the Bible Belt so, yeah, it’s going to be a little more religious than other places. If anything, it’s necessary. It’s a hard country. Texas is bigger than France; it takes 16 hours to drive across it. Right now, it’s 38 degrees at the low, 42 at the high. It’s hot and it’s hard; you go crazy there. It’s only natural that the religion is a little extreme.”

“The south,” Pearson explains, “is very, very different from the north.” America isn’t the only country with a north – south divide. He thinks the UK is an inversion of the USA. “They’re conservative in the south of the UK,” he says, “and they’re just wild in the north. It’s the opposite of the US. With Lift… when we got up to Scotland, they were always really up for a rock show. They were passionate and they feel it. It’s much more what I’m used to and that’s what I come from. They get so high and worked up, it’s just like you’re in Texas sometimes. There’s one place in Glasgow, King Tut’s. I always presumed it was good, because the owner would always go for a big hug at the end. I don’t know what the fuck he was saying, but I think he liked it. I was just happy to hug him back.”

Written for The Skinny

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L.A. Times: The Californication of M83

Anthony Gonzalez is on the fifteenth floor of a plush hotel in London’s West End. It’s one of the last evenings of summer and the sun is making its leisurely way west, emblazoning the heavens and carving a diorama silhouette from the skyline. The Skinny finds him gazing out of one of the many huge windows that mark the bar’s perimeter. He looks relaxed, casual and boyish in his open shirt, t-shirt and jeans. The flecks of grey that pepper the side of his neatly coiffed hair are the only telltale signs of a man who has recently entered his thirties. One gets the impression that Gonzalez will only ever age with style.

He greets us with a warm, pearly white smile and a handshake. The Skinny compliments him on his freshness (he flew in from L.A. last night and leaves again in the morning), which draws a modest nod. Bubbling beneath the affable surface, though, are stormy undercurrents. The new album by M83, the guise under which Gonzalez has been making music for over a decade, has just leaked online, six weeks before its release. “I don’t feel good,” he admits. “I almost don’t want to fight anymore. The fight is lost.”

Pirates aside, though, Gonzalez is a happy man. He’s just swapped the Côte d’Azur for the Hollywood Hills. His English, which is word perfect, has acquired an American twang and he’s found new stimulus for his music, too. “It’s different,” he says excitedly of Los Angeles, “but there are more similarities with my home than you might expect. I think it’s the beach, the mountains, the palm trees and the sunshine. It’s like the South of France, except ten times bigger. The main difference is the culture, but that’s exactly why I went there, to experience something new.”

Confused, we suggest that two places couldn’t seem more different. The L.A. Gonzalez has fallen for, though, is not the L.A. we had in mind. “It’s like everywhere,” comes his measured reply. “Every city is clichéd and in Los Angeles, the cliché is “being superficial”: big boobs, white teeth, Hollywood, fame and movies. That’s not what inspires me about the place, though. I was very influenced by the Californian landscapes. I was often heading into the desert with my computer and keyboards. Most of the instrumental tracks on the album were recorded there. I would rent a small cabin in the middle of nowhere, smoke a big joint and make music for hours.”

At the mention of his recreational pursuits, he flashes another one of his winning smiles, suggesting the Hollywood ideal may not have been completely lost on him. Gonzalez comes from the Mediterranean port of Antibes, a sleepy Roman settlement that was once, briefly, home to Pablo Picasso. It was here that he learned how to play guitar as a ten year old. His upbringing, though, was anything but musical. “My parents didn’t listen to it very much,” he recalls. “They had three records and they played them all the time, but they weren’t inspiring.

“I was very lucky to have an older brother and he introduced me to a lot of great music. Being in France, culturally, we are very curious. We’re not afraid of foreign culture, like from America and England and through my brother, I became more and more interested in lots of different kinds of music. I think our generation, our age group, [The Skinny is too polite to mention that Anthony has a few years on us yet] had similar culture, despite being from different countries. We grew up listening to the same bands and watching the same movies. I barely ever listen to French music. Every time someone is singing in French, it kind of makes me sick!”

Unsurprisingly, then, M83’s lyrics are all in English. “It’s more natural for me,” he explains. We suggest that the UK should be ashamed of its poor linguistic record, citing our pidgin French as Exhibit A. “I learnt English in school, but I agree. How they teach languages in schools is not the best. But through music, I have travelled a lot and picked it up.”

There is one French artist, though, who has had a big influence Gonzalez’s music. “I will always remember being seven years old and watching this television show which featured a performance from Jean Michel Jarre. I have to say, it was a real shock. He looked so beautiful. He was surrounded by synths and lights and looked so picturesque; like a spaceship. This was the first time I realised that music could be so powerful and since then, I’ve had this love for synths and electronic music.”

Despite his polite protestations to the contrary, there is something decidedly Francophile about M83’s music. Along with Daft Punk, Justice and Cassius, to name but a few, they have been pivotal in establishing France as the planet’s primary breeding ground for indie – dance crossover acts par excellence. Over recent years, though, the band’s sound has incorporated more “rock” sounds into their oeuvre.Saturdays = Youth, the 2008 album that brought M83 to a wider audience and which reaped universal critical acclaim, drew heavily from the shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins (with whom the album’s producer, Ken Thomas, worked extensively).

Gonzalez’s attitude towards the album is surprisingly aloof. “I was a little less proud of that one. Approaching the new album, I felt the pressure of Saturdays… and I didn’t like having that. I wasn’t scared to make another album; I just didn’t want people to think I wanted to make Saturdays… number two. I wanted to do something different and was a little afraid of the reaction.”

When speaking of the earlier entries to his back catalogue, though, he beams with pride. The recording ofHurry Up, We’re Dreaming in Los Angeles ushered in a new era for M83. The previous records were all laid down in France. Most of them were made on a shoestring and Gonzalez recalls his early days in the band, alongside his former musical partner Nicolas Fromageau (who has sinced moved on to front the sublime Team Ghost), with misty-eyed nostalgia. “Ah!” he exclaims, with his head tossed back. “When you release your first album, you never know what’s going to happen. Are you going to find some people who like your music? It’s like jumping into a big black hole. You don’t know what to expect. Nicolas and I made the first two albums (M83 and Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts) on a shitty 8-track recorder in my bedroom. We were both at school and we did this for fun. It wasn’t a job, you know? It’s funny how, if you listen to the other albums, you can get this sense of fun from them. I am so proud of the first few records, but I’m probably most proud of the new one.” 

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, the new double LP, is M83’s most ambitious album to date and Gonzalez views it as a culmination of his life’s work to date. You can forgive him, then, a little ire over the album’s leaking. “This is, for me, a statement of how I used to buy music back in the day. This is my version of growing up and buying music in record stores. I’ve been dreaming of making a double record since I was a teenager, listening to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.”

It isn’t just the format that has been in his intentions since his youth. The album’s content and concept have been with Gonzalez for even longer, only to be evoked recently by his change of environment. “Well, it’s mainly about dreams,” he explains. “When I moved to LA, I was in a new environment, a new city and I was lonely. I was remembering a lot of memories from my childhood, you know things I used to dream about as a kid, and I felt like I should write about them. When I was young, I dreamed about space a lot. There was a Japanese animation called Galaxy Express and I was obsessed with it. It’s the story of a young kid travelling through space on a train. As a kid, I dreamed that I was the captain of my own spaceship; like a space pirate, driving from planet to planet. This album is like the story of these adventures, in a way. This is the soundtrack of a movie that doesn’t exist. I hope that people listening to it can provide their own images, in their heads.”

Gonzalez, for all his globetrotting, still greets the release of a new album with the glee of a debutante. A conversation with him is like a breath of fresh air. He is charming, honest, funny and, even if he doesn’t think so, very French. The Skinny departs the dimly lit ambience of his hotel into the bustling Regent Street twilight, thankful that the forces of chance led a seven-year-old French kid to the dazzling lights of a Jean Michel Jarre show all those years ago, and reflecting on the ten years of brilliance that it helped to spark.

Written for The Skinny

“It was definitely chaotic”: Wilco’s Glenn Kotche talks Yankee, Hotel, Foxtrot

Glenn Kotche is a busy man, as you might expect from the 41st best drummer of all time, as decided by Gigwise in 2008. If he isn’t jugging drumsticks and tambourines, it’s a three-year-old and a one-year-old. (“Either way, my hands are always full…”) When The Line of Best Fit calls him at his Chicago home, he’s buzzing. Wilco, the band he’s been a member of for a decade, are about to release their eighth album, and their fifth with Kotche at the helm. The Whole Lovewas recorded in Wilco’s own studio, on Wilco’s own label. Things have come a long way since he joined in January 2001.

What unraveled shortly after he replaced Ken Coomer as Wilco’s drummer is a part of rock and roll folklore. Kotche had recently played alongside frontman Jeff Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist and producer Jim O’Rourke in Loose Fur. Tweedy encouraged both to join his band, hoping to replicate the sound of his side project, and allowed O’Rourke to have free reign over the production of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the follow up to Summerteeth. O’Rourke’s inclusion led to a series of rows between Tweedy and Jay Bennett, the late, former guitarist, who was dismissed after the album was recorded. The band’s record label, Reprise, rejected the LP. Wilco were dropped, but retained the rights to the album, which they released through Nonesuch (ironically, like Reprise – a subsidiary of Warner Bros). The album’s recording was documented in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, one of the greatest rock and roll movies ever made. The album, Wilco’s most successful, has gone on to become one of the most critically acclaimed of our lifetime.

Kotche’s memories are clear, if understated. “Yeah, it was definitely chaotic. The membership changes, the record label, the friction: it was pretty crazy, but in some respects, it was business as usual for me in that a lot of the bands I’d worked with at that point were troubled. Rarely do you find a perfectly healthy band that works really well together and all get along all the time. I remember just thinking that I would do my best and get the job done and hope things would turn out all right. Eventually, they did.”

“When I joined, they’d already recorded the record. I was brought in and redid all the drum parts, which made all the other parts a little different, so they were retracked and reconfigured. When Jim came in to mix it, though, he really turned things around. He stripped away layers and layers and layers. Man, did he do a job. People always say to me: ‘that must have been a crazy time?’ and I guess in some ways it was. Thankfully we’re in a better place now, though.”

Wilco have had the same line-up for six years; an unprecedented period of harmony. The band are growing old together, gracefully. Kotche thinks they’ve come to appreciate each other and to treasure their individual talents. “We have different musical personalities, for sure. Some of us are coming more from the left, some of us from a more traditional angle, but we all respect each other, meet in the middle and bring it to the band. We all have different side projects, so anytime we have a break, we go off and do our own things and when we reconvene we bring something from those experiences to the table.”

The dynamics of the band have changed, too. So much so, that they’re unrecognisable from the anxious figures portrayed in Sam Jones’ documentary. “Things have changed drastically since I joined the band,” Kotche says. “We’ve had membership changes and every time you have that, you have a completely different dynamic. This is the longest line-up we’ve had and there’s a certain comfort, but also trust that comes with that. There’s no asshole in the band. We all get along and really trust each other musically. This was the first record that I‘ve been a part of that there’s been no huge drama. There was no major event and we’re all the happier for that.”

The latest album, The Whole Love, is Wilco’s most challenging for a while. After the  soothing, AM-friendly Sky Blue Skyand disappointment of the self-titled follow up, it’s good to have them back on form and Kotche says the recording of the album was the most enjoyable to date. “On this record,” he explains, “I get to hear a little better what I already knew about the guys in the band. I think there was a little more ambiguity or openness on this record. Jeff’s very generous and it’s obviously his band, but he listens to everyone and that’s how the songs have developed on this record.

“It’s different every time we get to the studio. On Sky Blue Sky, for example, we all made it together. The last time, a lot of the songs were finished when Jeff brought them in. We just fleshed out the arrangement. With this one, there’s a good balance. For certain tunes, Jeff had written lyrics and chord changes. We recorded it and then someone else had an idea, they wanted to try something different. Then I weighed in with a different drum pattern and the song was getting pulled all over the place. We just started over and redid the whole tune. There were a few tunes like that, where we flipped them upside down until we had something that resonated with us. We’re all super excited and happy with this one.”

If he isn’t recording or touring with Wilco, you might find Glenn popping up on an album by Phil Selway (Radiohead), Andrew Bird or Seven Worlds Collide (with the members of Crowded House and Split Enz). On the off chance, when he’s not performing as a member of Loose Fur or On Fillmore (another Wilco spin-off), he just might be composing jazz or classical music with Kronos Quartet or John Luther Adams, or penning essays on Steve Reich for Do It Yourself Percussion. He’s a chameleon of a percussionist, constantly flitting between projects. But Glenn Kotche, the conversationalist, is polite, measured and articulate. He’s happy to talk about any one of his endeavours and grateful that The Line Of Best Fit is able to hold its own in dialogue about them each.

Classically trained and intellectually motivated, he’s an anomaly in the hedonistic world of rock and roll tub-thumpers. He’s big enough to laugh at the irony of being sandwiched between Tommy Lee, from Mötley Crüe and D.J. Fontana, Elvis Presley’s sticksman, the world’s 40th and42nd best drummers, respectively. But right now, he has more important things to occupy his thoughts. Those nappies aren’t going to change themselves, you know.

The Whole Love is available now through dBpm Records.

Loch Lomond – Little Me Will Start A Storm

If it wasn’t the name, then the Chemikal Underground logo on the cover may have led you to believe that Loch Lomond hail from the far side of Hadrian’s Wall. In fact, the nine-piece (who’ve had an EP and split 12-inch released by Edinburgh label Song, by Toad, too) are of Portland, Oregon. They’ve toured extensively with townsfolk Blitzen Trapper and The Decemberists – a pair of bands who they’ve been often compared to, but with whom the association is mostly superficial. Sure, they share Colin Meloy’s love for folk instrumentation: this album is falling down with mandolin, banjo and fiddle, plucked and bowed. With Blitzen Trapper, they’re united in stirring melodies, and, well, that’s about it.

On Little Me Will Start A Storm, there’s something much more subtle at play than either of the above have ever mustered. Peel away the knockout hooks, swelling strings and exhilarating harmonies and you’ll find a potent brew of nostalgia, creepiness and sorrow. This record is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and is all the more interesting for it. Like a Michel Gondry movie, you’re drawn in by the gorgeous aesthetics, only to be consumed by the shadowy core.

Throughout Little Me… there are moments that stop you dead in your tracks, simultaneously vivid and matter of fact, like an old photograph you’ve seen a thousand times before, but which nails you in the heartstrings on the thousand and first. Ritchie Young (the bandleader whose highest register apes Stuart Murdoch and lowest Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade) sings from the perspective of an eight-year-old child on album opener, ‘Blue Lead Fences’, seemingly a scrapbook of his most fleeting childhood memories. Snippets of throwaway parental advice and bustling, boyish horseplay combine to form an indestructible account of pre-pubescent indestructibleness, all the richer for the triviality of the detail.

The simple, picked guitar of ‘I Love Me’ dances over a chilling sample of a girl who hears a “loud, loud, buzzing in her ears”, before Young chirps in with his admiration of the bedsheets – starched just right – in what’s the most quietly obsessive set of lyrics you’ll hear for a while. It’s a trick repeated throughout the record: playful, ornate music, paired with words that make you wonder if you’re hearing alright (is he really singing about chopping someone up on ‘Blood Bank’?). As well as honing in on the minutiae of their thoughts in such fine fashion, Loch Lomond do macro too. ‘Earth Has Moved Again’, arguably the centrepiece (complete with an intro that’s brilliantly Galaxie 500) contemplates a natural disaster, and how those affected deal with the fallout. What initially seems like a simple message of hope (the mantra “we can start again” makes it hard to suggest otherwise) becomes burgeoned by ethereal vocals, ghosting in from all sides, until it sounds like a choir singing posthumously about their own passing. It’s intoxicating and it’s beautiful.

Lots of albums pack an at-face-value emotional punch, and for obvious reasons (Antlers’Hospice being a great example). But it’s less frequent that they come so stealthily loaded, the mood woven gently into pop songs. In that respect, Little Me… evokes The Rhumb Line by Ra Ra Riot, amongst others: the preservation of memory, the articulation of emotion synthesised sweetly, euphonically, gracefully… perfectly.

8/10

Written for Drowned in Sound

The Waterboys – An Appointment With Mr Yeats

 

A study into William Butler Yeats’ life would likely prove as fascinating as any into his body of work, for his 73 years were riddled with contradictions. Here was a non-Catholic, non-Gael championing the cause of Irish independence through poetry and politics; an ascribed atheist, ostensibly seeking spirituality and finding it in both the occult and the natural world around him; a man tortured by private tension – clearly visible in his writing – that continually thrust himself into the public eye, first through the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and then by taking a seat in the Irish Senate. His art, too, was constantly shapeshifting, absorbing the myriad influences he adopted throughout his days.
Perhaps the most intriguing, recent take on Yeats, though, was in Joseph O’Connor’s 2010 novel Ghost Light, a historical fiction biopic about Molly Allgood, an actress at the Abbey and former girlfriend of his good friend John Synge. In the book, Yeats is depicted as caustic, bitter and intimidating; quite at odds with the romantic, fragile image many find in his poetry.

Yeats may have more in common with Mike Scott, the driving force behind The Waterboys, than you might think. Scott, too, has led a wildly varying creative life. Over the years, he’s embraced and excelled in the roles of rocker, poet, folkie, balladeer, mentor, raconteur, producer and, most recently, tweeter. Just like Yeats, many of his best compositions have drawn from nostalgia; longing for a bygone era, willing a return to nature. Both have consistently instilled a sense of magic in their work, heavily evoking Celtic mysticism and folklore.

Scott’s personal life, too, has been the subject of speculation. In a piece for The Guardian a few years back, Scott recalled editing his own Wikipedia account and lamented “outrageous fictions” that he was, amongst other things, a heroin addict and an Irishman (he’s actually Scottish).

In Scott’s musical interpretation of Yeats’ poetry, though, we can see one clear difference between the two: whereas Yeats wrote some of his most celebrated poetry in advancing years, The Waterboys’ best days are far behind them. Too often An Appointment With Mr Yeats, is clunky and heavy handed. Having spent much of their career teetering on the right side of kitsch, they’ve fallen overboard consistently here. An Appointment… continues in the vein of their last album proper, The Book of Lightning, in providing intermittent moments of lucid quality amid oodles of overwrought, forgettable filler.

The few diamonds in the rough provide frustrating, damning evidence of the album’s ills. ‘Sweet Dancer’ is a take on one of Yeats’ simplest and most playful poems. It’s built beautifully around a basic piano melody and violin arpeggio and vocalist Katie Kim provides a Stevie Nicks-esque star turn. It’s a perfectly formed pop song. The solemn penultimate track ‘Let The Earth Bear Witness’ is tastefully, austerely composed and is the most poignant song on the album by a distance. ‘September 1913’ could easily have jockeyed for the title, but is nigh on ruined by the hair metal guitar riffs inserted along its spine, some of many excessive frills that plague the record. Swathes of the album don’t work aurally: melodrama is often easier digested in the flesh. Given The Waterboys’ penchant for dramatic, borderline cabaret live shows, there’s the suspicion that it was built for stage rather than stereo.

Too often, Scott and his band are guilty of lily gilding. The tinny, awkward wind effects on ‘Mad As The Mist And Snow’, their thunder and lightning equivalent on ‘A Full Moon In March’ and the seagulls on ‘White Birds’ combine with dense, cluttered compositions to render decent songs overwrought. ‘News For The Delphic Oracle’, for instance, would sound much better with the Disney-like instrumental layers peeled off, leaving it to survive as its core alone. Anyone who heard the piano demos from This Is The Sea(In a Special Place), released earlier this year, will confirm that most Waterboys songs do.

Stylistically, some of the decisions taken on the album are baffling. ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree’, all stargazing sentimentality and yearning, could be Yeats’ ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, but Scott has redressed it as a jazzy, blues number. The very restlessness and willingness to contort that have made his career trajectory so interesting, have gravely tainted An Appointment With Mr Yeats..

Watching potential float past, belly-up, bloated and being picked apart by seagulls isn’t pleasant and An Appointment… is a frustrating listen. Scott will have learnt in his adventures online that perceptions can be dangerously wide of the mark. Whilst poetic interpretation is subjective, it, too, can be difficult to fathom. Maybe sometimes, it’s easier not to try.

4/10

Written for Drowned in Sound