Black Lips. The seemingly indefatigable garage-punk band from Hot-Lanta, GA who redefined the genre and helped spur a movement of bands who pirouette on delay pedals and project distortion as though it were a national anthem. Who took on an idea of what a punk band could be for millennials in a new generation still vying for a component of authenticity in everything they spin. Who don't just take the stage simply to perform but wholly take it over with live-wire antics that would make Sid Vicious blush. And who now find themselves a little older and wiser on their latest album, Satan's Graffiti or God's Art. After nearly two decades spent on the road, bassist Jared Swilley chats about working with Sean Lennon, being professional amateurs and never going back. Black Lips play the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill on Monday, May 15.
Kevin: I'm loving the new record -- what's the inspiration for the title?
Jared: I lifted that from a marquee outside of a church in northern Georgia. I just thought it was weird and hilarious and kind of neat. We were on a road trip so I couldn't stop to pop in and find out but I really wish I could have listened to the sermon. I think it's open to interpretation.
Kevin: Is the new record a tried and true Black Lips album or is there a sense of newness for you?
Jared: We were kind of stuck in a big time rut. We were going through personnel changes and things in our lives. We've been together 18 years and this really felt like our do-or-die record.
Kevin: Like, "The Death of the Black Lips"?
Jared: I mean, I don't think we would've broken up but when you're trying to put out new stuff, you really have to breathe new life into it somehow. We kind of found ourselves in this rut and then Sean Lennon came and kind of saved our lives.
Kevin: How did you get hooked-up with Beatles royalty?
Jared: We met Sean a few years ago through Mark Ronson. It really came together when we played this show at SXSW a few years ago. After that day, Sean just kind of started recording all of us and we became this really weird recording family.
Kevin: That sounds weirdly awesome.
Jared: It was great! We're weird guys and sometimes it's not easy to make friends and then sometimes you meet people -- when you automatically see someone or don't even talk for very long -- and just decide, you've got to friends with this person now, because that's just the way it works.
Kevin: Was he a big fan of Black Lips?
Jared: He must've been because he invited us to go live with him and record in upstate New York. But certain people -- especially when you're making art -- you kind of just know who your people are. It's kind of unwritten, there's no script. There's just this understanding that we're gonna do stuff together. Creating art can be really hard and very vulnerable. It's hard to even do it with people you grew up with.
Kevin: Black Lips isn't a band I think about being artistically vulnerable. Is that a result of getting older? Have you gravitated more towards maturity now or do you ever wish you could go back to some of your crazier days?
Jared: We're just us but I don't think we're that mature yet. I wouldn't go back to being a teenager. We did what we did at that time and it was good that we did that. But now we are where we are and it isn't that far from where we were before. Except now I don't get peed on or sleep in a frozen van anymore. That stuff that I dealt with when I was 17 was awesome and I wouldn't take it back for the world. But if someone told me that I could travel back in time, I would say, "Hell, no. Fuck that."
Kevin: Sounds like you guys are going full-steam ahead.
Jared: The struggle made us who we are now and I'm glad that we did that. Most people wouldn't do that because most people are pussies and can't deal with anything. The reason we worked so hard was so that we could have the luxury of doing this and creating cool music and be able to eat and sleep in the places that don't have dogshit in them. It made us tougher. That's why nothing can really affect us, nothing really fazes us.
Kevin: How about this new record being your 'do-or-die' record? Did that idea faze you?
Jared: Not at all. Because we've been there a million times. We've had band members die, we've had breakups, we've had deportations, arrests. If nothing had broken us before, nothing will now. But we were in this transitional period -- we weren't ever gonna break up, but I'm not about to put out a record that isn't good or that I don't feel proud of. If that certain spark isn't there, I'm just not gonna put out anything half-assed. I've worked a lot of shitty, manual labor jobs, but I did that with all my heart. If you're a garbage man, then fucking chuck that trash. Do your job well. Because that's what you do.
Kevin: Some might think of Black Lips as graffiti or art. How do you characterize of it?
Jared: I think it's both. We've always called ourselves professional amateurs. Art is really whatever it means to you, it's open to interpretation, that's why I've always liked it. People view things in different ways, it's all based on your perception. Some people think we're garbage, some people think we're good. And I think both -- I think we're shitty good.
This past year has been quite a crazy one for Chicago indie rockers Whitney. Since releasing their debut album, Light Upon the Lake, back in June, the band has been touring seemingly nonstop and generating even more critical acclaim for their modern take on the classic styles of rock and pop. A year after the release of their debut, Whitney has just recently kicked off a new tour thats taking the band across the United States and Europe, including a stop at Delmar Hall on Tuesday, May 9th. I recently caught up with the bands singer and drummer, Julien Ehrlich, to ask for his thoughts on heartbreak, tour life, and the art of mixing Gatorade with sparkling water.
Matt: My first question is what are the psychological steps you have to go through to be able to play the drums and sing at the same time as that seems really, really difficult to me.
Julien: I don't know, I basically just don't think about it anymore, but in the beginning it was pushing more of the movement to my arms and not using my entire core to drum which is what I used to do. And then learning how to calm my core so I can have a steady falsetto that isn't shaky and all over the place. It's a constant struggle still, but I think I'm pulling it off.
Matt: So Whitney's album last year, Light Upon the Lake, was one of my favorites, as it's a really unique look at heartbreak, especially in the sound which is much more upbeat compared to other artists and albums within the current indie music landscape. On a breakup album it seems like there's a certain sound you have go for, but I think you and Max [Kakacek] took a left turn and went in a new direction with it. What do you think were your influences in taking this direction?
Julien: I think it has more to do with the fact that me and Max are pretty positive people who were going through a trying time and a number of different, crazy life transitions. Almost like quarter-life crisis vibes. We aren't the types to get truly down in the dumps, we have to look up and feel a bit positive. I think that's where the juxtaposition comes in with sad-sack lyrical content and then a little more upbeat melodies. I guess we were still just writing pop songs, translating a weird awkward time into pop songs.
Matt: I think I've noticed that, and this might not be the most apt comparison, but it's the one that I'm thinking of right now and that's the new Paramore song "Hard Times" about struggling with depression but trying to be positive and about it and say, "Hey, we're going to beat this." I think Light Upon the Lake gives that vibe -- maybe not in sound but definitely in feeling.
Julien: Yeah, that's definitely where we were at too. We're just happy people at heart but we have our struggles.
Matt: You guys are playing a show at Delmar Hall next week, and it's in the middle of this absolutely massive tour you guys are doing right now, so I have to wonder two things: How do you guys think your live show has evolved over the years? And how are you able to survive on the road for as long as you are?
Julien: This current tour that we're on right now is about three straight months, which is the longest any of us have been out consecutively. We're going home right now for about three days, but after that it's another two months. Our live show -- I guess at this point we're just telling each other inside jokes on stage -- we just have little musical jokes that we'll add to our solos or fills. We're basically just having a conversation with each other. We still enjoy it and it still is evolving and it's getting a little bit more ridiculous and a little bit better in some areas. And I don't really know how we're still surviving right now, [if anything] some of us aren't surviving right now.
Matt: Yeah, being on the road for three months is just...
Julien: Dude, it's intense.
Matt: I think I remember reading an interview where you said that it's much easier to be in a big band doing tours rather than being in a small, three-piece band just because you have more people to talk to and not go as insane by the time it comes to an end.
Julien: Yeah, if it was just me and Max on tour or something, we would have probably ripped each other's heads off just because it helps so much to have an entire crew where you just float around and spend too much time with one person.
Matt: Since last year, you guys have been working on the follow-up to Light Upon the Lake, any updates on how the record is coming along? It seems like you've been working on it since that first album came out.
Julien: After finishing Light Upon the Lake, we definitely took a little bit of a breather when it comes to writing. But yeah, we have three songs that we're super, super happy with and are deep into the next one. We're taking the whole month of September off and going to Portland where we rented this insane looking cabin to go write in. We'll knock out a few more songs then. We also have a couple weeks off in July. We don't really write when we're on the road because we're completely busy, but not uninspired because your head is just in such a wild rollercoaster ride. We need alone time at home to process everything and then translate that into the new songs.
Matt: I don't really have that much time left with you so I'm just gonna throw some rapid fire questions at you and you can try your best to answer them. So my first one: what's the best Gatorade flavor to mix with sparkling water?
Julien: Ooh....I'm kind of a fan of just classic orange but maybe Fierce Grape too.
Matt: What are your favorite alcoholic beverages?
Julien: The Negroni Slushy at Parson's in Chicago that's right around the corner from my house.
Matt: Favorite record of the year so far?
Julien: It's so easy to say Kendrick's new record [DAMN.] -- that song "LOVE." just gets better with each and every listen.
Matt: Favorite kind of sushi?
Julien: I'm into just like... sashimi vibes.
Matt: How does it feel to have an LSD and mushrooms reagent testing kit named after you?
Julien: Oh, what?
Matt: I was asking my friends about what questions they wanted me to give to you and one of them told me that there's this test kit for LSD and mushrooms that shares your name called "Ehrlich's Regeant Test Kit."
Julien: Oh, really?
Julien: Dang, that's news to me. That's awesome though.
Matt: Slanted and Enchanted or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain?
Julien: Woah...what are you referring to right now?
Julien: Oh, dude, I've never heard Pavement.
Julien: I'm sure I've heard their biggest songs but I have never really paid attention to them. Should I get into them?
Matt: Oh yes, I had friends who were obsessed with them for a while and eventually put me onto them and they're essentially the definitive indie rock band of the '90s. People usually describe them as essentially the Seinfeld of indie rock, whereas you know the "Seinfeld is bad" theory which is that people think it's bad, but mostly because of how much sitcoms took from Seinfeld. So basically there's a lot of indie rock that took from Pavement. At first you're wondering what's the hype behind this but then you realize how pretty much everything traces back to Pavement.
Julien: Like the Nirvana vibes. By the time I heard Nirvana, that was what alt radio sounded like all the time. So then when I heard Nirvana I was like, "This just sounds like mainstream." I just didn't understand how groundbreaking it was. So that's like the same Seinfeld thing. (I also don't like Seinfeld very much.)
Matt: Ok so, All Things Must Pass or Plastic Ono Band?
Julien: Oooh, oh man. Both of them have a lot of mediocre songs on them in my opinion, but probably All Things Must Pass because his cover of "If Not for You" is fucking insane, so good. Actually, All Things Must Pass all the way.
Matt: The last rapid fire question I have for you is, Six Flags or Dollywood?
Julien: Wait, Six Flags or what?
Matt: Or Dollywood.
Julien: What's Dollywood?
Matt: It's like Dolly Parton's theme park in Tennessee.
Julien: Woah... I would check that out before going to Six Flags. But also, I wanna give a shout out to this waterpark in McMinnville, Oregon that's also an aviation museum [Wings and Waves Waterpark]. If you up go to the top of the building you take a water slide out of a Boeing 757, as it's this massive plane. Yeah, it's a crazy water park so shouts out to that place.
With a few candles burning, Orion staring gently through the basement window from the heavens and the first analog crackle of vinyl, Shooting Rockets Towards the Sun comes alive. The first hit of Theodore Moll's drums to Heather Moll's guitar and voice transports the listener to another place, and maybe another time. As the needle makes its way through each groove layers of melody, song and musical adventure lurk around each corner that is only discovered after repeated listens. The candles flickered and Orion radiates a little brighter as the album progresses from track to track Shooting Rockets Towards the Sun is taking the listener on a journey. "Whenever NASA wants to send something into deep space they shoot it towards the sun first for the slingshot effect," Theodore explains the approach to how this set of songs travels. "It's a space album that is not about space."
"It was the late '90s," Heather said with a bit of glee. In a voice of wonder Theodore echoed, "It was the late '90s." At that time Theodore was still circling the globe with MU330 as well as taming the drums with Climber, whom was formed with Heather, Julie Butler (now Gibbs) and jack of all trades Joey Renza. They released one full-length, an EP and one seven-inch but as Climber was coming to a close, Theodore says, he really wasn't writing, "I had a bunch of songs and Heather had a bunch of songs, and it just started from there." Theodore states. "It was more of a recording project. Theodore would lay down some weird stuff that wouldn't necessarily transfer to a live setting, especially with Climber. We would then lay down vocals and vocal melodies," Heather mused about the band's beginnings. As Climber petered out and MU330 slowed down, the duo found themselves in the studio to knock out the first Bagheera album Twelves in 2003.
2017 finds the band giving the material of the last 14 years released life on their own record label and looking towards the future. In the time between the two albums the duo focused on writing, recording, going back to school and raising a family. "If it was just Heather's band, or my band, one of us could cover the kids. All the advantages of being a two piece band where you are married and living together goes out the window when you have kids," Theodore explains of the time away. They have been able to explore their songwriting partnership in the studio, take sonic experiments and mold them into fully formed songs. "When I write it has to sound good with just me and an acoustic guitar, that is how I approach writing. Then Theodore puts in the beeps and boops," says Heather. In Theodore's words, his songwriting comes broadly from "some weird kernel of inspiration," sometimes even sparked by the give and take of deliberately using "bad equipment," he says. Over the ensuing years they culminated a sound that is a direct melding of both processes to create a unique and solid vision that was only hinted at with their debut album Twelves.
Shooting Rockets Towards the Sun continues with the same indie-rock-pop songwriting of Twelves but goes deeper and into sonic textures and tapestries -- one more telling than what appears to be a three-song suite of "Martian Influence," "Deimos Escape Velocity" and Plate Tectonics of Ceres" halfway through the album. This set of songs begins with familiarity and then quickly progresses into electronic atmospheres which then explodes in a harmonic cacophony that musically sounds like the controls have short circuited sending us on a cinematic adventure. The opening tracks "Stargazing," "Shooting Rockets Towards the Sun" and "Neptune Pt. 1" showcase the band's cleverly written material with themes of space with open interpretation for the listener to derive their own meanings. "All the songs are very personal, from our perspective. The last song, "Departing the Oort Cloud" is about my dad passing and "Neptune Pt. 1" is about our friends Dan and Shannon falling in love and getting married." Ted explains. Where Heather says that "Stargazing" came about after a midnight showing of Harry Potter. "We went to see the movie and after that I drove Ted to the airport because he was going out of town with school. We drove to the airport using the north star. That is how it came about."
It is refreshing to hear an album whose influences are felt rather than overtly heard, from Heather's love of P.J. Harvey and Throwing Muses to Ted's love of production. "When I was on tour with MU330 every night I afforded myself time before going to bed, when everyone else would be sleeping, to listen to music. I would lie with my headphones on in a dark room, and an album and I would really just listen and absorb it. There wasn't anything in the background, it was just me and the music." Those late night listenings to hear every nuance cultivated a love for experimenting and bending sound: "My approach for producing an album is how many of those elements can I use as possible. I try to make an album you cannot in one sitting listen to. I like albums you can listen to and find new little things each time." That deep study in sound helped shaped Shooting Rockets Towards the Sun. Heather explains: "Dynamics are big for me. I need stops, starts and interesting things. For a person who isn't trained as a musician, except a few months of guitar lessons when I was 13, when I sit down to write a song I am not bound by rules."
Spring finds the band in a good place. They have a stable line up with Julie Gibbs returning from her days in Climber, a new album and their own record label, Skeleton Fur. There are another two and half albums in various states of completion. Theodore explains "I could never expect any reasonable record label to put out half of that stuff. I just want to make it available in one place." Shooting Rockets Towards the Sun is pressed, ready for turntables, listener's ears and stages with the band gearing up for "more albums and more shows," says Heather with a laugh.
Bagheera's album release show for 'Shooting Rockets' starts at 8 p.m. this Friday, March 31 at Foam with guests Accelerando and Dino Fight.
Chuck Berry had to be smiling on Sunday, April 9. It was a beautiful spring day and the crowds had come to see him one last time at The Pageant on Delmar Avenue. They just wanted to say goodbye to an old friend they grew up with.
St. Louis is a city blessed with musical talent and history. Chuck Berry and Scott Joplin are its bookends. Both drew on the blues to change the course of twentieth-century musical history. Joplin took the blues as a base and urbanized it for an entirely new genre of music, ragtime, which influenced the development of jazz.
Fifty years later Chuck Berry took those same blues and added a bit of country, R&B, a hot piano, driving beat, sweet tunes and clever lyrics to create a new music, rock 'n' roll. When you hear the term "guitar-driven," think Chuck Berry. His dazzling six-string prowess and flamboyant stage style turned his instrument's usual rhythm and fill job in a band into the starring role. His playing and songs inspired generations of musicians across the world.
Collaboration was also a key ingredient in Berry's success. Long before Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards there was the duo that inspired them, Johnson and Berry. The Sir John Trio led by the legendary keyboardist Johnnie Johnson (the real Johnnie B. Goode) was a highly regarded St. Louis band in the early '50s. Johnson's guitarist had a stroke and he asked Berry to fill in for his 1952 New Year's gig.
Things would never be the same: Chuck joined the band, Muddy Waters hooked him up with Chess records, in 1955 "Maybelline" was born, and the band was renamed the Chuck Berry Band. Together they began cranking out the hits that put Berry in the Blues Hall of Fame and both Johnson and Berry in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Francis Johnson, Johnnie's widow, says "Chuck was the Maya Angelou of rock 'n' roll." Paul Shaffer (of David Letterman's Late Show) reminisced about the night Chuck asked him to play with him and said, "He was rock 'n' roll. His life coincides with its birth and, perhaps, its death."
Chuck Berry will always be alive in the memories of musicians and music lovers and especially St. Louisans. They remember him for the music, for staying true to his home town, and for making them happy and to want to dance. It is most apparent in the Delmar Loop area: the first star on the Walk of Fame outside Blueberry Hill, the memorabilia inside, the Duck Room downstairs, and the bronze statue covered in flowers and beads across the street. There is also a new portrait on the side of Vintage Vinyl that the owner, Tom "Papa" Ray, says "had been planned for some time but it was at the moment the artist began painting it that Berry died."
Joe Edwards, the owner of Blueberry Hill and a trusted friend of Berry's, has decades of memories. He calls Berry's music "a personal history book for all of us" and stressed how Berry "had a major effect on our culture with the ability to bring black and white together." The Kaldi's coffee gang (60+) remember how Berry seemed to be a constant presence on the radio: "It was like driving in the car with an old friend. There was a rhythm and a sound that fit with being young and a teenager." Dave Robinson (62) got to fish at Berry's farm and said "his whole family listened to him and the British invasion that followed." But for him, Berry "didn't get his just due until later in life. "
Today at the National Blues Museum, an entire section has been devoted to Chuck Berry and his influence. There, one can see his records, the records others made with his songs, the duck walk and the flow of his influence across the musical landscape. Terry Hardin (52) says he "grew up with the records my mother loved which started with Chuck Berry and Little Richard." Dr. Rosalind Norman grew up deep in the inner city and remembers Berry fondly: "I grew up near downtown in the late '50s and early '60s and Berry would send busses into our neighborhood to pick up kids and take us out to his farm to play and swim..... I had never been in the country. I got to go swimming in his pool. It was amazing. A person of his color who had all of this doing what he was doing. He was a role model for kids of color. He had his passion, pursued it and succeeded."
Museum visitor Regina Heard (44) said, "Chuck is music to me....the link in a chain that runs from rock and roll to hip hop." Ed Chappelle, a museum volunteer, finds "so much blues and rock 'n' roll history in each of his songs." Dave (58 -- NBM founder) and Renee Beardsley (53) "love their childhood memories of his music and the trace of Berry's pioneer roots from the Sir John Trio across the water to inspire everyone in England." And Zachary Ganet (37) simply said Berry "was a badass guitar player." Like a lot of Berry's audience from that generation, Ganet's encounter came through Back to the Future, "I first came to realize who he was when, as a kid, I saw Michael J. Fox do his guitar style."
Blueberry Hill was packed Saturday night with a crowd there to raise a glass with Joe Edwards and Johnny Rivers in a toast to the man who played 200 shows there. Many Berry family members and friends were there including Murv Seymour (52), Carl Brooks (59), Joe McKinney (75), and Charlie Cojak. Before toasting they reminisced about how good he was to his extended family and the good times at the Windemere City home and the farm. Murv said, "We loved Uncle Chuck. He was the starting point for the creation of a new genre of music that led others to copy his style. He was quietly admired." Carl chimed in saying, "He was family and he created rock 'n' roll from infinity to beyond." The family visited the Duck Room and later headed across the street for pictures with the statue.
Sunday the sky was blue and the breeze warm as limos arrived and crowds gathered outside the Pageant. Out front people entered for the open viewing, while a large line for ticketed guests formed. On the side there was another long line for the 300 public tickets that would become available at noon. Celebrities, family, friends, coworkers, musicians and the public easily co-mingled, a great representation of the way Chuck's music brought black and white fans together. It was easy to ask folk "Why did you come today?" or "What did Chuck Berry mean to you?" Their responses tell the rest of the story.
There was a large contingent of Berry family present. Eric Johnson (55) was there with his family. He recalls learning "My Ding-A-Ling" in the '70s but, he said, "You couldn't sing it around the house; you had to sneak outside." Cousins Diane Johnson (66) Marilyn King (79) and Eric Smith (46) all praised his lasting legacy and the doors he opened for other musicians.
David Selby (66) and Patrick Roche (64) worked for Berry. Selby said Berry was a role model: "He was very brilliant, dedicated to his family and believed in God. He taught me about business and life and how to treat people." Daniel Rossing, (32) a pianist from Norway, played with Berry in Europe. He grew up listening to his parents' records of Chuck. "Getting to play with him was a dream come true," he said, "I had to be here."
Stefano Francioso (51) loved the sound of his Gibson ES35 and Dual Show amps and his lyrics: "Everyone had shit lyrics and he could paint a picture -- 'I never seen a coffee-colored Cadillac but I know exactly what one looks like'." Michael Messey (59), a musician who played with Chuck for many years, recalled a memorable day: "I first heard My Ding-A-Ling at my cousin's. I never dreamed he would end up playing it with him years later."
Beth Zubal (55): "He was a native St. Louisan that brought great music, a new mode of upbeat music. He always stayed true to his roots living here and playing the Duck Room. People had access to his music." Antonio Scott (37) called Berry "a hometown hero," and plainly "awsometastic." Joe (68) and Jake Miklovic echoed a familiar refrain: "Chuck's music was everywhere growing up. I heard it on the river on the Admiral and at the CYC and sock hops..... Your hormones were moving and Chuck was grooving. You were young, in love and feeling great -- it made you want to dance."
Donna Diffley (67) and Dawn Smith (57) loved "his duck walk, the great hits and how he influenced all the big acts to follow and he never forgot his hometown." For Cathy Jacobs (59) and Carol Allen (57) "the music meant freedom of expression and was so much fun to dance to." Jerry Coleman (60), who played a couple of gigs with him, remembers Berry best for "breaking down racial barriers. His music brought people together and it will be here as long as we live." Tim Cladsen (51): "He influenced everyone, a pioneer."
Ray King (50) Sue Beck (61) and Eric Pritle (70) were first in line for the public tickets. Ray, a musician who "appreciated Berry's huge influence on modern music," and offered the reminder that "The Beatles and Led Zeppelin wouldn't exist without Chuck Berry." Sue says a she came to "support his family and pay respects one last time." Eric likewise came to "pay respects to one of the hardest working men in show business [who] lived a full life doing what he loved to do."
CC Winchester (40) credits Chuck Berry with making him want to be a musician. Laurie Ising (53) and Ann Smith (57) called him "the father of rock 'n' roll," and said, "As a music lover you've got to appreciate what he's done. It's important to us to pay our respects." Michelle McMurray (57) remembered the fun times she had at Blueberry Hill listening to "one of our own, a legend and always so friendly."
Ted Thien (72) remembered first seeing him in 1962 at the Gaslight Square: "He put the guitar as the lead instrument and changed music." Jeff Schieb (45) emphasized Berry's singular contribution: "It won't happen again -- breaking the norms and creating something new. You can take apart most any song and you will hear snippets of Chuck Berry." Praising the "hometown legend," Andre Louis (52), Karen (60), Ralph Morse, and Brian Flowers (61) said, "There is no better rock 'n' roll than Johnnie B. Goode. Anyone whoever picked up a guitar and played a bar chord owes it to Chuck to be here."
Gus Thornton (65), bass player with Marquise Knox, remembered Berry's early influence: "He was the first thing I listened to as a kid. Getting into the guitar, I tried to play like him. I knew Johnnie Johnson and he got me a gig with Chuck and he was always very nice to me." Elaine Foster (64) recalled, "Chuck used to play for the Sumner High Roundups. We loved his music as kids. All the girls would scream when he played and I would too." Jules Sardo (68) remembered the first time she saw the performer, "I saw him for the first time playing on a bill in '71 with Billy Peek at the Rainbow Lounge, where it cost 50 cents to get in."
Lynn Orman Weiss was in town from Chicago this week to pack up her Women of the Blues photography exhibit that had been showing at the National Blues Museum. She stayed over to attend the Chuck Berry events. When I asked her what Chuck Berry meant to her she answered with John Lennon's quote: "If they didn't call it rock 'n' roll they would have to call it Chuck Berry."
The Duck Room Stage sits empty. Chuck has left the building. He may be gone but the songs remain and St. Louis will always know the music by its real name... Hail, Hail, Chuck Berry!
To see Bob's photos of many of those quoted here in the order of the article, click the image below.
Lambchop is an enigma. It's a band that fits the definition of "cult favorite" as well as any, despite the fact that past and present label-mates on Merge Records define a large portion of the indie-rock canon -- Neutral Milk Hotel, Arcade Fire, Spoon, to name just a few. They've been around longer than any of these bands, and may outlast them as well.
Lambchop released its first record in 1994, and has maintained a consistent, shape-shifting output in the two-plus decades since. Initially shoved beneath the alt-country banner (they're genre-bending, with Americana touchpoints) they've shed that label over time and more properly defy classification. This is especially true of the band's latest release, FLOTUS, which centers the band's poetic, lounge-style sound around electronic elements for the first time.
Kurt Wagner is the center of Lambchop, guiding the group into uncharted territory as both bandleader and bard. And it was his experience with HeCTA -- an electronic/dance collaboration with fellow Lambchop members Ryan Norris and Scott Martin -- that foreshadowed Lambchop's most recent change of course.
In addition to the release of FLOTUS in 2016, Lambchop reissued its 2002 LP Is A Woman earlier this year. It's a still, observational record, built atop guitar and piano. Sitting next to the lightly pulsing, comparatively experimental FLOTUS, the reissue reminds us how deep and far Lambchop has voyaged over the past 15 years. I talked with Wagner on the phone from his home in Nashville, Tenn. The band kicks off a rare string of U.S. dates at Off Broadway on March 22.
CB: Lambchop's records tend to not take into consideration how the songs might be played live, so how do you go about taking something like FLOTUS and presenting it on-stage?
KW: Well, the interesting thing about FLOTUS, that we sort of discovered when we started thinking about performing it live, is that it's a pretty open-sounding record. It's a little sparse in a way, so it lends itself to a smaller presentation in terms of number of people. We're traveling with Andy Stack who's in Wye Oak, and he's a multi-tasking sort of musician, so he covers a lot of territory that helps fill it in. The rest of it is a trio of bass, piano, and myself.
CB: The instrumentation and arrangements on FLOTUS differ quite a bit from most of the Lambchop catalog. How do those songs feel when they sit alongside some of your older stuff?
KW: That's kind of the cool thing. Because of the openness of the presentation that we're doing, we'v found certain songs really work well in that way. In some ways, it's sort of taking the older songs and presenting them a little differently. I find that they actually work pretty well together. We're anxious to present as much of the new material as possible, but we have quite a bit of stuff. So, you know, we've found some things that seem to work really well. We've done 44 shows now with this setup, and it's really fun, it's really cool. I'm excited to do it in the U.S.
CB: Between FLOTUS and Mr. M you put out the first album by the HeCTA project. It seems like there was some bleed from that project into FLOTUS. Can make that connection a little bit more explicit for us?
KW: Mainly it was technological, learning the technology that was involved in the HeCTA project opened up a new way for me to write. I was learning about different software programs, and of course, in performing with HeCTA live, I learned about processing my vocal in a live way. Once that came about, I was able to apply that particular tool to the writing that I was doing. HeCTA is definitely a different type of thing, a thing where we wrote these songs together as 3 different artists coming together and bringing their [ideas] together. Lambchop is pretty much me sitting around coming up with the songs and then presenting them to the band. So I sort of found a new way of writing, and through that comes a new sound. But it's still Lampchop.
I used to just write singing and playing guitar onto a tape recorder, a cheap little dictaphone tape recorder. And once I started using these software programs and was able to edit and create stuff independently, then I was able to realize the songs a little bit fuller, and introduce a different way of presenting it to [the band]. It's still like, "Here's the song," but it's more realized, it has a fuller structure. The way I wrote most of FLOTUS was literally without a guitar at all. I just used a voice and computer software, and that was it, and I've never done that before. It was exciting; suddenly I'm not limited and constrained by my limited abilities as a guitar player. I can do whatever I can think of. Whatever comes out of my mouth, I can turn that into the sound of an organ, or something. It really freed me up to try different songs and structures and keys. I would never come up with the stuff on FLOTUS had I kept working the way I was doing. That's exciting and liberating.
CB: The new record and the shift in instrumentation and songwriting kind of begs the question of genre and how it relates to your band. What is Lambchop's relation to genre? Do you think the band seeks more to destroy it, or to ignore it?
KW: (Laughs) We just kind of go about our business. Unfortunately, I guess genre comes into play. People like yourself have to tell somebody what this music sounds like. In our case, I don't know, we just do what we do and it never seems to really fit any particular genre in a proper fashion. I don't think that's such a bad thing, it just makes for awkward conversation sometimes. If that means that we're sort of doing something unique...
CB: I was interviewing another musician recently and they were saying that they didn't think that 20 or 30 years ago people talked as much about genre as much as they do now, that somehow...
KW: (Laughs) Well, there were fewer genres. There was, like, rock and roll...
CB: ...but I think that, taking that idea a little bit further, if you go back to Lampchop 23 years ago, or whatever it's been, the music industry as a whole has changed a lot since then. It's been turned upside down. But from my perspective -- from the music-fan perspective -- it doesn't look like what you do, or the way you do it, have changed that much over that time.
KW: You know, it's probably true. We just plot alone in our own way. We just go about things in the way we always have. It's a fairly straightforward thing where we have remained independent of a lot of things. Obviously, we've worked with the same record label that we've worked with for over 20 years. We're just our own thing. We decide when to make a record, we pay for the record, we present it to the label: "Here you go!" We've sort of remained autonomous all these years. There are certain bands that function like that, but not many.
CB: I wanted to ask you specifically about the reissue of Is A Woman. What was it about that record that made it feel like it was worth revisiting?
KW: From the U.S. perspective, the big thing was it was never available on vinyl in this country. As a record in general, it was the record that followed up Nixon. Nixon was much more a record that was popular in the U.K. Is A Woman ended up being the one that was very popular across Europe. When you put that together, that solidified our world in Europe in general.
For me, it was a big record because started to create a sound that continues in some aspect to this day. Prior to that we were still sort of exploring how far we could go with the record-making, and how to make a record that was as technically and sonically as great as any big commercial release, and do it with a humble budget and facilities in Nashville. Is A Woman was really digging in and focusing on songs. It was also the introduction of the sound of piano in what we do. When Tony [Crow] joined the band, I pretty much designed the record around him, to feature the sound of piano, because it was something that had been rolling around my head for years. It was just that nobody in the band had played piano.
CB: As I was doing some research for this conversation, I read the Wikipedia article for Is A Woman. In the first sentence, it referenced "minimal instrumentation" but then included in the credits 19 musicians. I felt like that was Lambchop in a nutshell.
KW: It kind of was. It really sort of took, what at that point what had been a wonderful expression of a lot of people getting together and making a joyful noise together, and Is A Woman took the whole thing and made it coalesce into something that was pretty special.