Tuesday, December 29, 2009
GRACE IN YOUR FACE
Columbia Legacy Celebrates the 15th Anniversary of Jeff Buckley’s Grace With A Deluxe Live CD/DVD Box that Includes the Long-Awaited Retail Release of the Award-Winning Documentary Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley
Story by Ron Hart
There is no doubt that Jeff Buckley’s singular masterpiece, 1994’s Grace, is far and away one of the ten best albums to come out in the last 20 years.
Unfortunately, the album also marks the second generation music great’s only proper studio endeavor, as Jeff tragically drowned while swimming in a channel of the Mississippi River. He was in Memphis to record material for his second album for Columbia, My Sweetheart the Drunk, a record that saw such New York rock legends as Television’s Tom Verlaine and Lou Reed expressing interest to collaborate with him on. Although it was released under the title Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk, it is merely a composite of what could have been. Grace, on the other hand, remains a creative and influential touchstone for two generations of young artists from emo to freak folk.
This past summer, Columbia’s intrepid reissue department, Legacy Recordings, issued a beautifully packaged limited edition CD/DVD package entitled Grace Around The World, a unique collection that features audio and video live footage of every track from the Grace album, mostly from television appearances on such channels as MTV (on 120 Minutes, of course), MTV Japan and the BBC in London. Also featured on Grace Around The World is the long-awaited official release of the critically acclaimed documentary on Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley, a wonderful insight into the man and his music directed and produced by Laurie Trombley, who was also the head of Buckley's fan club, and Nyla Bialek Adams. IRT has the opportunity to speak with Ms. Trombley about her film and its inclusion in the Grace Around The World box.
For more information on Jeff Buckley and this amazing new collection, visit www.jeffbuckley.com.
IRT: Leonard Cohen recently proposed a moratorium on the use of his "Hallelujah", which Jeff Buckley covered. I was wondering what your thoughts were on that and did word ever come around that he ever heard Jeff's cover?
Laurie Trombley: I hadn’t heard that he issued a moratorium on “Hallelujah.” There are two definitive versions of the song in my eyes—Jeff’s and Leonard Cohen’s. Jeff’s version was ironically based on a cover of the song. John Cale recorded the alternate set of lyrics for a Leonard Cohen tribute album called “I’m Your Fan,” which is what turned Jeff on to the song. I can see why the song has resonated so much with people and why artists would want to cover it—it’s just a beautiful song, but it would be impossible to surpass Jeff’s recording of it.
IRT: What was Jeff like when you first met him in person?
Trombley: Jeff was really nice to me from the moment I first met him. He could tell that I was a little starstruck and never made me feel self conscious. He was always very kind. He was sensitive to other people's feelings—but was also quite funny and had a great sense of humor.
IRT: Tell me about the first time you saw Jeff Buckley perform live.
Trombley: The first time I saw Jeff perform live was at an in-store performance at Tower Records in NYC. It was such an incredible show. The place was packed. I remember that there were even people looking in the windows (from the outside) trying to hear what was going on. He commanded attention when he played. Looking back, I feel quite lucky knowing what a rare experience it was to have seen him in such an intimate setting.
IRT: Sin-e recently closed down, just one of the many great venues that has fallen victim to the gentrification of the Lower East Side. What is your opinion on its closure and what was the reaction of Jeff's friends and family--at least the ones you talk to regularly--in regards to its shuttering, if only in name alone, as you and I both know that was hardly the original Sin-e.
Trombley: The second incarnation of Sin-e closed a few years ago. It was a much larger space than the little Café on St. Marks Place where Jeff and other notable L.E.S. musicians (like David Poe, David Gray, Katell Kenig, Dorothy Scott) from that time period performed. That original Sin-e closed many years ago—I think it was in 1996. When the original venue closed, I remember feeling very sad about it. It was the end of an era. It was a special place.
IRT: Do you have any interesting stories stemming from your tenure as Jeff's 'fan relations manager'? There are many famous musicians and celebrities who have sung the praises of Jeff over the years, did any of them reach out to you in your position?
Trombley: Working for Jeff was very eye opening! I was always amazed at the amount of mail he received. I’d never before (or since) seen anything like it. He inspired and moved so many people and he received beautiful handmade gifts from around the world on a daily basis. He cherished all of them and it’s important that people know that he personally responded to everyone he could. I helped him with sorting and organizing. I was privy to a lot of people contacting him but none reached out to me specifically. However, when Nyla and I began our research for the documentary, we did reach out to some of those people ourselves for interviews.
IRT: The live footage you scored for Amazing Grace is outstanding. How did you come across these films and are there any plans to release any of these full shows on DVD any time soon?
Trombley: Thank you for acknowledging that! We were very lucky to have access to the footage we did. Trust me, we do not take for granted the trust that was given to us when people were handing us their personal tapes. There are no plans to release any full-length performances from our archive. We used the clips we did to help with the story we were telling and gave the masters back to the people who so graciously shared them with us.
IRT: Of the folks who you tapped for interviews and testimonials about Jeff for Amazing Grace, who was the most accessible and who was the most difficult to acquire and why?
Trombley: Once we broke through the initial red tape, everyone was relatively accessible and working with all of them was a pleasure. The person we tried our hardest to interview, but ultimately couldn’t coordinate, was PJ Harvey. We met her in NY and arranged to interview her in London, but due to conflicts with her recording schedule it never happened. It was understandable, but needless to say, we were disappointed. I think one of the biggest challenges for both Nyla and I while making this documentary was the editing process. There were people we interviewed who we thought would definitely, unequivocally make it into the final cut (Siouxsie and Budgie, Dorothy Scott, a young opera singer—and many more), but in the end, their stories or songs did not quite flow with the main themes of the documentary. It was surprising, even to us.
IRT: How much of a hand did you and Nyla have in the production of the Grace Around The World box beyond the documentary? What do you think of the finished product?
Trombley: We are very pleased with the final product. I work in marketing so it was crucial that I ensured that the face of Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley be consistent with what we had already promoted on our website and at festivals. We worked closely with Sony and The Estate of Jeff Buckley by providing artwork, information, feedback, etc. on anything to do with the film. They were all happy to oblige us. The film’s inclusion and how it was represented in the package was a collaborative effort.
IRT: Are you a fan of Jeff's father, Tim Buckley? If so, what is your favorite album of his and why? Also, did you ever watch the amazing documentary on him that came out recently, My Fleeting House?
Trombley: I will be honest and say that before I met with Jeff, I had never heard of Tim Buckley. I listened to him once or twice after that but never fully immersed myself in his work.
IRT: What new artist or band do you feel is carrying Jeff's torch of creativity and sonic exploration and why?
Trombley: There are certainly a lot of incredible artists who have been inspired by Jeff, but no one artist comes to mind who is pushing the same vocal and musical boundaries that Jeff was pushing in the mid ‘90s. At least nobody who I can think of at the moment. I think any truly great artist is careful about carrying the torch of another artist because there’s the danger of becoming too derivative.
IRT: Would you like to see Amazing Grace come out as it's own DVD/Blu-Ray one day or are you happy that it was released as a part of the Grace Around The World package?
Trombley: Both Nyla and I are very proud that the film was released as part of the Grace Around the World package. When we set out to make this film, we never anticipated that it would one day receive worldwide distribution as part of the 15-year celebration of the release of Grace. It’s quite an honor.
IRT: What are you guys working on currently? Is there another documentary in the works we can look forward to?
Trombley: I am working full-time in marketing and Nyla is writing. We don’t have another documentary in the works…yet!
IRT: Where were you when you first heard that Jeff had passed?
Trombley: I got the phone call when I was at work and really didn’t believe it could be true. I was shocked.
IRT: What is one thing you can share about Jeff with us that nobody is aware of...
Trombley: Jeff was truly a unique person. I feel so grateful that I got to know him. He had a lot to offer as a person (outside of being the amazing musician that he was) and his introspection and quirky sense of humor was really fun and inspiring to be around. He will be forever missed.
STRAIGHT FROM THE SOURCE
Dave Nuss from the No Neck Blues Band on Ya Ho Wa 13
Story: Ron Hart
Photography: The Source Family Archives/Process Media, Inc.
Ya Ho Wa 13 was a freewheeling psychedelic rock outfit that was led by the late Father Yod, a Rolls Royce driving polygamist and spiritual leader of The Source Family, a cult based out of the Hollywood Hills back in the Vietnam era.
Though the band was originally founded in 1969, Ya Ho Wa 13 didn’t begin making proper albums until 1973, which they recorded in the wee hours of the early morning following all-night meditation sessions inside a soundproofed garage-turned-studio and sold out of the Source Family’s legendary vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles; Frank Zappa, Julie Christie and John Lennon were among those who frequented the establishment. The music created by the Father and his brood was a completely improvisational mind-meld of drum circles, otherworldly chanting and spacey Magic Band-style guitar jams, creating a challenging and wholly unique style of rock that has since been emulated by such modern-day acts as Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice, Tower Recordings, Sunburned Hand of the Man and the No Neck Blues Band, whose guitarist, Dave Nuss, plays an integral part of this here story.
It has been said that the band’s recorded output consists somewhere along the lines of 65 albums, although only 9 were officially released before a fatal hang-gliding accident in 1975 killed Father Yod. Shortly following the Father’s death, the Source Family scattered across the land, with several key members taking up residency in Hawaii. While much about this most interesting group’s history has been shrouded in mystery for many years, a renewed interest in Ya Ho Wa began in 1998 following the release of God and Hair: Yahowa Collection, a massive 13-CD box set celebrating the many incarnations of the band produced by the Japanese psyche label Captain Trip and curated by the late Seeds frontman and onetime Source Family member Sky Saxon. However, in 2007, surviving members of the core Ya Ho Wa line-up, Sunflower, Octavius and Djin, began playing out again on the West Coast to promote The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and The Source Family, an amazing biography written by Source Family members Isis Aquarian and Electricity Aquarian and published by the visionaries at Process Media, Inc. It was then that Dave Nuss from NNCK, through Process publishers Jodi Wille and Adam Parfrey, got to meet and befriend members of the Family. Eventually, Nuss ventured to the surviving Source compound in Hawaii, where he was invited to squirrel through the group’s vast archives of unreleased music. The fruit of his digging appears on Magnificence in the Memory, a compilation released in 2009 by Drag City containing nine of the finest Ya Ho Wa freak-outs available to public ears. IRT had the pleasure to communicate with Dave about his experiences getting to know this most extraordinary rural route of American counterculture and the wealth of knowledge and spirituality it provided him.
For more on Father Yod and Ya Ho Wa 13, please check out this amazing interview with Sunflower, Octavius and Djin, originally published in Jason Gross’ Perfect Sound Forever back in June 2002, now available here.
And please, if you are at all interested in the weird, wild history of The Source Family, you would be foolish not to seek out The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and The Source Family, available now through Process Media, Inc. There isn’t a more definitive or trustworthy source on The Source.
A big thanks to Dave for doing the interview and Nicole and Sara from Drag City for supplying the music and the positive vibes.
IRT: How did you first discover Ya Ho Wa 13 and Father Yod?
Dave Nuss: I first discovered Ya Ho Wa 13 at an NYC record shop with a vinyl reissue of Savage Sons of Yahowa. I bought if for the cover and took it home and thought, what is this, ROCK music?? I was basically only listening to Stockhausen and Alan Silva at the time and was momentarily blinded to the beauty. Interestingly now Savage Sons is my fave album of the Higher Key releases, followed by All or Nothing at All. [These are] timeless, dramatic, transportive songs.
IRT: How much of an influence does Ya Ho Wa 13 bear on the music you create with NNCK?
Dave: Ya Ho Wa 13 is an influence on NNCK in that it stayed independent from larger business and was buttressed instead by a close knit internal community; also the improvisatory aspect, composing with the music rather than any predetermined plan.
IRT: How did you come into curating Magnificence in the Memory for Drag City?
Dave: I've been traveling already to Hawaii for years because of the mystical attraction, and when I finally heard from Process publisher Jodi Wille about the Source book and reunion of the band in LA, I cruised out there to catch the events, met the Source Family and connected. By the way, the best book about Source is this one on Process, and it is the best place to start for one not familiar with the legacy. So I went to Hawaii again shortly after and stayed with Isis, who toured me around the sacred sites and was kind enough to let me explore the audio archives.
IRT: How much unreleased Ya Ho Wa 13 music is there and can we expect to see more releases like Magnificence in the Memory in the future?
Dave: There is SO MUCH there that is unreleased—hours and hours of Ya Ho Wa 13 and many related projects. Much of it may not yet be ready to pass through the portal into this world. Each track and project really lets us know when it's ready to come in...
IRT: What did the song selection process for this set entail?
Dave: For the songs on Magnificence I selected music which has a unique character vis-a-vis the Higher Key Records. In short I would describe the selections as highly musical - many were selected from rehearsals rather than recording sessions, so there is a sense of freedom and playfulness, as well as a marked lack of self-consciousness. What I recognized in certain moments was a sense of the band, including Yod, working together as a band, rather than musicians supporting a charismatic leader.
IRT: To the layman, Father Yod seems like he started The Source Family so he could hook up with hot hippie chicks. However, what have you come to learn about his teachings in your years listening to his words and music?
Dave: Yod did not start the Source to hook up with hippie chicks; the intention was to provide them - and the guys as well - with a sense of clarity and focus on peace and universal love not available via the status quo. He offered a chance for them to pursue their dreams of living in freedom, care, and comfort, and created the mission of developing a more expansive consciousness via ancient methods, Eastern and Western. the path he showed was exceedingly deep, yet glittered with mirth. Yod strikes me as a man of infectious and irresistible joy.
IRT: If you were of age in the late 60s/early 70s, would you have joined the Source Family?
Dave: I imagine I would have joined had I been around because I have a strong penchant for the values the Source Restaurant espoused dietarily, and an inclination towards learning the metaphysical through symbols. Yod combined the metaphysical and the concrete in a completely artistic and jovial way, and in that sense is one-of-a-kind.
IRT: Did you get any good recipes from the old Source Restaurant while you were in Hawaii curating Magnificence?
Dave: Yes. Actually, all the recipes are in the back of the Source book on Process. When Ya Ho Wa 13 came to NYC, we recreated their restaurant in the NNCK space, the Hint House. The biggest hit of the night was, of course, the cheesecake.
IRT: What do you think young Americans can get out of the Father's teachings?
Dave: Regarding the effect of the Source on people today: Many recognize the message as a familiar call and approach it without questioning. The message of Source is not analytical but experiential, and Magnificence is intended to illustrate that experience of Source metaphysics through music, unashamedly. In the album’s full package, you will see the pictures of the major players, witness the key symbols and tune in to the particular frequency that is the experience of harmony in community, celestial and mundane. It is not important to justify or define this message further, for in the release it becomes self-explanatory.
What is relevant for you is: Can you perceive what is being offered?
Here is the invitation from the top of the first track, "Camp of the Gypsies," spoken by Yod:
"There is nothing you can do,
there is nowhere you can be
that you are away from me.
End it, begin it, always as you seek,
but go with Love...
I'm talking to the few that I'm seeking.
Awake from your sleep, your Father's home.
He wants to find his Sons. You were stolen long ago, yeah,
you were very young you know. But I've come to find you.
Don't worry I've prepared the way for you.
Are you ready?
As with the many music fans who heard the unfortunate news of acclaimed singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt's passing this Christmas, we here at the IRT are very saddened to learn that one of the great voices of American alt-folk has been silenced forever--and by his own hand, no less.
Over at Archive.org, there is a great cache of live recordings from the Georgian's recent tours available for download, the best of which we have included as links below. We hope you enjoy and please take the time out to recognize just how devastating suicide is to not only the person contemplating the act, but their loved ones as well. More information on what to do when yourself or a loved one is contemplating suicide can be found on the Web site of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Live at the Central Presbyterian Church 12-5-09
Live at the Button Factory 12-1-07
Live at the 40 Watt Club 10-17-07
To view the rest of Vic's live recordings on Archive.org, click here.
Vic Chesnutt performing live with Godspeed You! Black Emperor:
Vic Chesnutt on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn:
Monday, December 21, 2009
IRT 2009 BOOK OF THE YEAR: White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day by Day by Richie Unterberger
Released in June 2009, Jawbone Press continues to impress with its excellently exhaustive Day-by-Day series with its latest and perhaps most anticipated edition yet in rock historian and All Music Guide guru Richie Unterberger's meticulously detailed step-by-step guide through the entire career of New York's Velvet Underground. Through newly conducted interviews with band members and their associates, newly discovered archival documentation and an array of rare and previously unseen photography, poster and album art and other cultural ephemera pertinent to the arc of this legendary group's career, White Light/White Heat is the definitive word on VU and is a must-own for any fan. IRT was lucky enough to get in touch with Mr. Unterberger via e-mail, who broke down his reasons behind undertaking this foray into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable in this exclusive Q&A. Enjoy. -Ed.
IRT: Why did you choose the Velvet Underground to do a Day by Day book for Jawbone?
Richie Unterberger: I've been a big fan of the Velvet Underground for thirty years. The Day-By-Day format gave me a chance to do more in-depth research into their career than any other could have. Also, when compared to other major groups of the era like the Beatles or Beach Boys, or even the Kinks or the Byrds, not nearly as much research has been done into the Velvets' career. I knew that would give me the opportunity to uncover a lot of previously unpublished information and stories about the band, which are in the book in abundance.
IRT: What was the most interesting thing you learned about the Velvet Underground that you didn't know previously when doing your research?
Unterberger: I titled the book "White Light/White Heat" in part because the concert version of that song from the 1969 Velvet Underground Live album is my favorite Velvet Underground recording. I'd always assumed "White Light/White Heat" to be about a drug experience, specifically about amphetamines, probably crystal meth. Reed even said it was about amphetamines in a 1971 interview.
But I was very surprised to learn that another inspiration for the song came from Alice Bailey's occult book A Treatise on White Magic, which advises control of the astral body by a "direct method of relaxation, concentration, stillness and flushing the entire personality with pure White Light, with instructions on how to 'call down a stream of pure White Light.'" It's known for certain that Reed was familiar with the volume, as he calls it "an incredible book" in a November 1969 radio interview in Portland, Oregon.
I think it's an example of how Lou Reed, like all great songwriters, often writes lyrics that can work on several levels. On one level, "White Light/White Heat" probably is about a drug experience. But it's also about a more spiritual experience, of channeling white light to reach a different level of existence. When you hear "White Light/White Heat" not as a speed freak song but a song about transcending to different ways of reality/experience in general, it makes what he's singing about considerably more universal.
There are a good number of other surprising things I found in my research, some of which counter what's often written about the Velvet Underground elsewhere, on my Web site at www.richieunterberger.com/vumyth.html.
IRT: Of all your interview subjects for the book, who was the easiest to track down and speak with and why?
Unterberger: That's hard to answer since a good number of the people I interviewed had just a few questions to answer, and would naturally be easier to arrange time with than some of the more central figures in the story. For instance, I've been friends with Dorothy Moskowitz of the United States of America, who played with the Velvets in March 1968, for more than a decade and for a while she only lived a mile from me, so I could arrange that immediately. The same thing for Darice Murray-McKay, who saw the VU in San Diego in summer 1968; she is the event coordinator at the public library in Haight-Ashbury, where I often present rock history events, and I see her often.
As for some of the figures who had a more involved role in the VU story, I'd say that the interview with Norman Dolph, who co-financed their first recording sessions in April 1966 and helped as an unofficial co-producer of sorts, was easy to arrange and conduct. Anyone can find him immediately on the Internet, and he was very happy to go into his memories in depth. The same is true of Steve Nelson, who promoted/staged a lot of the VU's Massachusetts concerts, and was only a little harder to find than Dolph.
IRT: Who was the most difficult interview subject?
Unterberger: I don't want to name names in public. Certainly the most difficult one was for an interview I didn't use in the book. At first the subject asked for money; when I explained I didn't pay for interviews, consent was given, but after a ways into a rambling and not very useful conversation, it was asked that I write in the book that this person wanted Lou Reed or John Cale to produce an album of theirs. When I explained that in all fairness I could not guarantee that, the subject got very upset and hung up. This person was pretty peripheral to the Velvet Underground story, so it was not a key loss.
There were a few people who indicated or even said they could/would do interviews and then did not get it together to set a time or respond to follow-up requests to finalize interview arrangements, which is a frustrating waste of time.
IRT: For Lou Reed, it seems as though you relied a lot on old interviews with him. Did you approach him or his people about doing the book?
Unterberger: I did approach people in touch with him, and did not get a response.
IRT: Of all the band members' post-VU careers, whose would you consider to be your favorite and why?
Unterberger: I actually don't have a favorite among the solo careers of Lou Reed, John Cale, or Nico. There are some recordings of each of theirs I like very much for different reasons, though I'm not nearly as enthusiastic about any of the solo careers as I am about the Velvet Underground's career.
For Lou Reed, I like Transformer, Berlin, and the 1972 live recording American Poet, though I don't like his first solo album, Lou Reed. A lot of the songs on these were leftovers from the Velvet Underground days, and while the Velvets probably could have done these better (and in some instance did do them better on live recordings and studio outtakes that later circulated officially or unofficially), Reed did put his own spin on the material working as a solo artist.
For John Cale, I like his first solo album, Vintage Violence. It's quite a bit poppier and more accessible than anyone would have expected. I find most of his solo material, however, more something that's admirable in its idiosyncrasy than something that connects deeply with me personally.
For Nico, I like Chelsea Girl (although she didn't), which has a pop-folk sound unlike anything else done by either the Velvets or the ex-Velvets. Also it's kind of half a Velvet Underground album, since members of the VU wrote half the material and played on some of the record. To a markedly lesser degree, I also like her next three solo albums, though all of them are definitely ones you have to be in the right mood to hear, preferably on a gloomy foggy day.
I'm not too interested in other VU solo releases. There's a slight parallel here with the Beatles, my favorite group of all time. I love the Beatles, but really don't like their solo records, except for George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. I think as soloists they could never approach the heights they reached as a group. And I think the same is true of the Velvet Underground, even though Reed has said that if you want to hear what the Velvet Underground might have done if they had continued, you can hear it sort of in sections on his, Cale's and Nico's solo albums.
IRT: Why do you think Sterling Morrison never recorded a solo album? How would you rate Sterling amongst your favorite guitarists?
Unterberger: I just don't think Sterling Morrison had as much in the way of music business ambition as the other members of the band. When he left the band in 1971, he really left; he never seriously pursued music as a vocation again, with the exception of when he played with the Velvets on their 1993 European reunion tour. I think he'd turned the page and wanted to devote himself to his academic career and family, without much or any regret over not persevering with rock music. I do think he was at a disadvantage compared to Reed, Cale, and Nico in that he wasn't a songwriter. He has some co-credits on Velvets songs, but my impression is that these were for the arranging side of things, not for the nuts-and-bolts words and melodies.
It's hard to rate Sterling among my favorite guitarists, as I see him more as a team player within the Velvets than as someone who takes brilliant and innovative solos. His strength was in grounding the more outrageous, if more innovative, sensibilities of Reed and Cale in more down-to-earth and fundamental (if hardly mainstream) rock, also switching to bass if needed when Cale was on keyboards and viola. His contributions were vital, but actually I think Reed was more interesting as a guitar soloist.
IRT: In the selected discography in the back of the book, you don't include any of Lou's or Moe Tucker's albums. Why is that?
Unterberger: As I note in the book's introduction, White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day primarily covers the Velvet Underground in the years 1965-1970. There's a chapter on their pre-1965 solo activities, and their solo activities between 1965 and 1970 (which were mostly Nico and John Cale's) are covered in similar depth. But their work from late August 1970 to mid-1973 after Reed quit and their reunion tour are covered lightly, and their post-1970 solo activities are only covered in relation to how they directly related to the Velvet Underground's legacy. So the discography is limited to the crucial music they made between 1965 and 1970, which is really the focus of the book. A few Nico and John Cale solo recordings are also listed because they were done during that era.
IRT: When was the first time you ever heard the Velvet Underground?
Unterberger: The first time I really heard them knowingly was in late 1979, when I was seventeen and bought The Velvet Underground & Nico (aka "the banana album"). I remember hearing "I'm Waiting for the Man" once a few months or so before that during the 1960s hour on a classic rock station. I probably did hear them at least once or twice on FM radio during the 1970s without knowing who they were – I seem to remember a hearing a creepy song in the mid-1970s that in retrospect might have been "Venus in Furs." But really, buying and listening to the first album was the first time I heard them fully knowing who the band was.
IRT: Did you ever get to see them perform? If so, how was it?
Unterberger: I didn't see them; I was too young to see them in the 1960s and early 1970s, and didn't see any of their 1993 reunion shows.
IRT: Of all the live recordings out there of VU, which one do you feel is the most essential and why?
Unterberger: This isn't a radical opinion, but the double live LP (now on two separate CDs) 1969 Velvet Underground Live is definitely the best of their live recordings. They're reaching a peak as a live band, playing versions of songs from throughout their career that usually at least match, and often exceed, the studio recordings. They're also often not simply playing the studio arrangements with a live energy, but doing versions that are quite different, and in very interesting ways, from the studio ones, especially on "White Light/White Heat," "What Goes On," "New Age," and "Sweet Jane." There are some interesting songs that don't appear on the studio albums they released while they were active, like "Lisa Says," "Over You," and "Sweet Bonnie Brown/It's Just Too Much."
While the playing isn't as "weird" as it is on the first two albums, in part because John Cale's been replaced by Doug Yule, it's not mainstream at all, combining the best of their experimental innovations and pure rock'n'roll energy. The recordings selected for the album are in my opinion also notably superior (in both sound and performance) than other official and unofficial ones from the same late-1969 era, like the ones officially released on The Quine Tapes, and the unofficial ones from Dallas in October 1969. I'll go as far as to say that 1969 Velvet Underground Live is not just my favorite live album by the Velvet Underground, but my favorite live album of all time, by anyone.
IRT: Of all the unofficial recordings out there, which one would you like to see get an official release and why?
Unterberger: There are about four hours of unreleased recordings, in pretty good quality (comparable to the quality of 1969 Velvet Underground Live), made at the Matrix in San Francisco in fall 1969. That's the same venue where, and same time when, most of the tracks on the official 1969 Velvet Underground Live album were recorded. But all of these four hours are additional tracks that don't appear on that album (though some of them are different versions of songs that do appear on 1969 Velvet Underground Live). As I said in my previous answer, I think this time and place is the band at their live peak – in fact, they're playing as well as any band did at any time.
There are more details on what I consider the most interesting unreleased Velvet Underground recordings on my Web site, at http://www.richieunterberger.com/vubeg.html.
IRT: On the White Light/White Heat Amazon page, a reader posted a comment about the recently surfaced Gymnasium tapes not being mentioned in the book. Why were they not included here?
Unterberger: That's not the case. The tapes are discussed in great detail on pages 146 and 147 of the book, under an entry for shows they did at the Gymnasium.
IRT: What new or modern band do you feel serves the most justice to the Velvet Underground sound today and why?
Unterberger: This isn't going to be the most popular comment, but I haven't heard a new or modern band influenced by the Velvet Underground that I think does them justice. In part that's because I don't hear that many new or modern bands; my specialty is rock history. But the ones I do hear that sound VU-influenced usually seem to take the Velvets' most aggressive surface qualities – the distortion, dissonance, outrageousness, etc. – without backing them up with the kind of diverse and strong songs that were really, when you come down to it, the Velvet Underground's best assets.
This kind of syndrome applies not just to the Velvets, but to many great acts that are paid homage to over the years. All those lame power pop bands that think they're trying to be the Beatles, for instance, are also taking the most obvious surface qualities without having anything near the sophistication or songwriting smarts.
The best artists that were obviously VU-influenced were the ones that were much closer in time to the source. To me, those were early-'70s David Bowie, the early'70s Modern Lovers and the Patti Smith Group.
Exploding Plastic Inevitable:
"Venus in Furs"
Thursday, December 17, 2009
WOODEN SHJIPS ON THE WATER, VERY FREE
The Return of San Francisco’s Modern Day Psyche Rock Heroes
San Francisco has always enjoyed the very best psychedelic music scene in the entire world back in the Summer of Love. And beneath the sensationalism of the likes of the Dead, Big Brother, the Jefferson Airplane, hell, even Sly and the Family Stone back then, there lay a bedrock of heavy hitting groups like Blue Cheer, It’s A Beautiful Day and The Flamin’ Groovies who really offered a darker and heavier view of the whole psyche movement.
Today, groups like Blues Control, Om, Earthless and Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound have since taken the place of of keeping the acid-washed dreams of sonic existentialism alive for the youthful masses in the Bay Area region of the embattled Golden State. And leading the charge is Wooden Shjips, a four-piece consisting of drummer Omar Ahsanuddin, bassist Dusty Jermier, organ player Nash Whalen (no relation to IRT contributor Tom Whalen, although they might be cousins on a cosmic level) and frontman/guitarist Erik "Ripley" Johnson. Together, they bring together a burly, effects-damaged guitar attack that will take you back to heavy psyche's AOR glory days with the steady, drone-like repetition of such classic minimalist composers as Terry Riley and Steve Reich to create an exciting new level of West Coast psyche rock to help rattle the establishment for the next generation.
Wooden Shjips’ second album, Dos, was released by Holy Mountain this spring and is one of the best albums of the year thus far. IRT had the pleasure of speaking with Nash about the Shjips’ triumphant voyage through the high seas of the American underground.
Make sure you check out the Free Music Archive for some amazing free live MP3s of the Shjips doing their thing at the 2009 Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, Spain and at the 2008 ATP Festival at Kutsher's Resort in Monticello, NY.
IRT: How did you guys initially come up with the concept of Wooden Shjips?
Nash: The band was Ripley’s idea. He wanted to make music he wanted to hear: improvised primitive music that you can dance to. So he started these loose jam sessions with some non-musician friends, including me. Sometimes we switched instruments, but in general Ripley and I were playing guitar and we had a few different people playing bass and drums. We kept that going for a year or more, but it eventually fell apart without any shows or proper recordings. After Ripley recruited Dusty on bass and Omar on drums, I started playing keyboards and we began working out songs to play live and record.
IRT: Your band name--how did you come to add that j in Shjips and is the name more of a knock or homage to the San Francisco of yesteryear?
Nash: When the name came about, we were playing with a friend who, like Ripley, has Swedish roots. And Ripley was listening to a lot of Trad, Gras och Stenar. So the idea was to come up with a name that paid homage to psych rock of both SF and Sweden. We thought adding the “J” did that.
IRT: How would you describe the San Francisco music scene today in comparison to the city’s previous sonic renaissances in ‘67 during the summer of love and in the late 80s/early 90s in the heyday of Faith No More and Primus?
Nash: The music scene here today could be in trouble. The State is trying to close down the all-age shows at some venues and a longtime practice space just closed, but people try to work around those obstacles. There are still good places to play and everyone is real supportive, but it is easy to imagine it used to be better for bands. But there are a lot of great ones… some we’ve played with include Sic Alps, Hank IV, Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound, Thee Oh Sees, Ascended Master, Sleepy Sun, Om and Howlin’ Rain.
IRT: I hear as much Steve Reich and the Monks in your sound as I do Iron Butterfly and Sir Lord Baltimore. However, where do you yourself feel the root of your sound lies in your own words?
Nash: For me, I just think of a “Sister Ray” kind of vibe when I am playing. It is such a great song, because it goes on for so long and evolves in an amazing way, with vocals and guitar parts dropping in and out, while the drums never change that much. Even though there is like an hour and a half worth of “Sister Ray” on The Quine Tapes, it never gets boring, as it remains raw and rocking and loose and dynamic throughout. Of course, now that you mention Iron Butterfly, the "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" on the church organ in The Simpsons could be were it all comes from for me…
IRT: For Dos, was there anything you did different in terms of recording techniques than you did for the first album and Volume 1?
Nash: I don’t think we did anything differently for Dos. We recorded it in our practice space using the same tape machine and microphones as the first album, with Ripley and Dusty again in charge of the recording and mixing. Some songs were built up from the bass and drums and others were recorded live. Volume 1 is a collection of singles mostly recorded on a 4-track and therefore all of those sound a bit different than the proper albums.
IRT: Your sound is very analog...what kinds of gear do you use to capture that vintage flavor?
Nash: We record on an old Tascam 80-8 8-track that Dusty keeps going. Actually, I think he has a couple of them that he uses for parts, but that machine is a big part of the sound in our recordings. Most of our gear is old; we play through these 70’s tube amps and use various analog effects that Dusty keeps going too…
IRT: Being from San Francisco, did you ever grow to appreciate the Grateful Dead? If so, what is your favorite Dead era?
Nash: Actually, none of us grew up in SF, and by the time we started moving here the Grateful Dead were pretty much in their final days. But I saw them many times, mostly shows in the Northeast in the 80’s, and I did manage to see one California Dead Show in Oakland in 1990… I was in college and went with a few kids that had grown up in the Bay Area and although they were into rap and metal, they loved going to Dead shows. It was part of their culture, like going to the county fair would be for other people. My favorite Dead era has to be anytime in their first 10 years, especially the Pigpen years. The band spent so much of that time trying to find their direction and wrote a lot of great songs that didn’t sound as inspired in the later years after they played them hundreds of times. And Pigpen added an element of soul they never seemed to have again.
IRT: Your mayor, Gavin Newsom, is running for Calif. Governor. Do you think he has a good shot at winning in your opinion?
Nash: I have no idea if he can win... California elections never make sense to me. He certainly hasn’t done much to improve SF, but I do respect him for pushing the gay marriage issue.
IRT: What was the last gem you picked up at Amoeba...
Nash: It seems like that last few times I was in Amoeba I didn’t do much searching, like when I went there recently to see Steve Earle play. But one purchase I remember well was a few years ago when I ran into Ripley in there and he told me to get Randy Holden’s “Population II”. That is a gem.
IRT: What is your honest opinion on the new psychedelic movement in America?
Nash: I think it is great that there are a lot of bands playing psychedelic music. Part of the experience for me is listening to music that stimulates my senses in unexpected ways, opening up new ideas and feelings inside. We have played a few psych-themed fests and the one thing that strikes me is how much diversity there is in the music: loud and soft, electric and acoustic, simple and complex. Of course there are bands that don’t resonate with me, but I don’t expect our music to resonate with everyone either… But the fact that there are all these bands exploring the psychedelic sounds means more people can experience their own enlightening moments. So the more, the better.
IRT: How do you guys generally discover music? Chance theory at the record shop? Recommendations?
Nash: For me, it is often based on recommendations from friends and one of the greatest resources is Ripley. He is a music historian. He reads a lot about these obscure bands from all over the world and then goes out looking for the music. Well, at least I think they are obscure until I hear him talking at length with other people about some scene somewhere 30 years ago that I never knew existed. Certainly Ripley isn’t afraid to buy something based on the cover either. That’s why he bought The Shaggs at a thrift store.
IRT: You guys toured Europe in 2009. What countries were you most excited about going to and why?
Nash: It was 3rd time on the continent and we were definitely excited about all the places we got to go: Spain, France, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Germany and a few others in between. They were all great, but I was definitely most exctied for our trip around the Baltic. I can't believe I went to Estonia!
Wooden Shjips live in Islington Mill, Manchester, England 8/20/09:
Wooden Shjips live at Green Man Festival in Brecon Beacons, Wales:
Wooden Shjips live in Berlin 6/9/09:
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
It's hard to believe it was 29 years ago today...
London News gets reaction from Paul McCartney shortly after Lennon's death hit the news:
Paul McCartney getting tearful in remembering Lennon:
ABC Nightline report on Lennon's death:
Ted Koppel reporting on Lennon's death on ABC News:
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Bob Keane, credited for discovering early rock great Ritchie Valens and founder of the long-running independent label Del-Fi Records, passed away Saturday, November 28, of kidney failure, according to a report on Newsday.com.
Any fan of early rock should educate themselves on this towering figure of the music industry, whose entrepreneurial prowess helped guide the careers of a wildly wide ranging list of formidable names, including Barry White, Frank Zappa, Sam Cooke, the Bobby Fuller Four and Glen Campbell among many others. And for anyone into surf and hot rod music, Del-Fi's outstanding compilations are absolute must owns.
Rest in peace, Mr. Keane. You will be missed.
The Lively Ones' "Surf Rider":
The Darts' "Speed Machine":
Teaser for the Bob Keane documentary Oracle of Del-Fi: