Author Archives: Jennifer Carney

The Posies at 30: A Chat with Ken Stringfellow

The unlikely success story of The Posies is one of those rock and roll legends that bundles talent, luck, and timing into a rabid fanbase powerful enough to take a sunny power pop duo from the Pacific Northwest and lift them beyond the grunge. And nobody is more aware of just how unlikely it all was than co-founder Ken Stringfellow

“Naivety is an incredible motivator,” he tells TVD. “I’m so un-nostalgic, that going back and having a sense of accomplishment is rare for me.”

Thirty years in a successful band is a huge accomplishment by any measure. The Posies are celebrating the three decades from their rough-hewn inception by hitting the road—first as a two-man “acoustic” show (just Ken and co-founder Jon Auer), then gradually adding more band members as the worldwide tour progresses. 

They’re also celebrating by re-issuing their brilliant albums from their classic big-label era on vinyl via Omnivore Recordings: Dear 23, Frosting on the Beater, and Amazing Disgrace, which will be released as audiophile LPs and double CDs laden with unheard bonus tracks throughout the spring and summer. (You can pre-order them and check out loads of other memorabilia and more at their PledgeMusic Campaign page.) 

We’ve chatted with Ken before, and he’s a true-blue TVD pal, but this tour… this is something special. And it’s definitely not nostalgic. 

It’s rare that I get longer than 20 minutes to talk with anybody, so if something changes and you need to go, just know that my expectations are for a 20 minute conversation.

Okay, great, well we’ll take it as it comes. It’s funny because January generally is usually pretty quiet. It’s often when I’m working on new music because my studio is totally dead. In fact… the one paying customer I had this month canceled on me today. But, it’s cool. Yeah, January is just kind of expected to be quiet and so I have time to do stuff like this. This year it’s all about making sure this upcoming tour goes well. And the pledge campaign goes well. I’m at your service.

So, you’re starting your tour at the end of the month.

Mm-hmm.

Obviously this tour is huge for you—it’s your 30th anniversary tour for The Posies.

Mm-hmm.

Because you guys are such a great power-pop band…. Why an acoustic tour?

Well, this is how we began. Actually, what’s interesting, it kind of just worked out this way by chance. But this year’s activities really mirror, in many ways, the activities of 1988—the year that we’re celebrating the anniversary of.

We started that year as a duo. To back track all the way to 1988 and 1987, Jon [Auer] and I had been in bands together in high school. The I went up to go to the University of Washington in Seattle, which is an hour and a half away from Bellingham, the town we come from.

We had some songs written—some of the songs that would appear on Failure—and we were just trying to form a band and couldn’t find anybody who was actually interested in… they couldn’t quite get the concept. It wasn’t so clear as like, “Okay, we’re going to do this goth band.” If we said that, everybody would be in. Or if we said, “Hey, we’re a punk band,” or metal… Those are concepts that people can get.

But the concept that we were trying to present, which was really… I don’t know. We wanted to put the songwriting first and foremost—the craft [of songwriting]. It was a little hard to explain unless you heard the songs.

To that end, we recorded what was essentially a very long demo tape that turned out pretty good. And we thought, “Well, we should just release this anyway.” Just the two of us played on the album. There’s drums and bass on the record, but we played all the instruments. That’s what became our first album, Failure. We released that in March of 1988, or April, something like that. “Released” means that we just made some copies and we brought it to a local record store and put it on consignment as a cassette. Things kind of went from there.

But up to that point, we had no bass and drums because nobody wanted to… we just couldn’t convince anybody to be in a band with us. At that time, we did play a couple of shows in Seattle and in Bellingham as a duo. And, curiously enough, here in January, 30 years later… here we are playing as a duo.

Acoustic is kind of a misnomer, I have to say. We have electric guitars on stage, Jon plays his pedals. It’s not really like James Taylor when we play or anything like that.

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John Oates,
The TVD Interview

John Oates didn’t think his new album, Arkansas, was going to turn out the way it did. What began as a tribute to legendary bluesman Mississippi John Hurt transformed into a raw and heartfelt reinterpretation of the folk and blues music that inspired Oates to pick up a guitar in the first place.

The Natural State has a rich musical history to be sure, but it’s landlocked by legend. Arkansas is surrounded by Mississippi, Memphis, and St. Louis blues, Texas honky-tonk, Oklahoma outlaw country, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, and damn near every seminal American musical genre that grew up from Louisiana. So why not any number of locales with a more notorious musical history?

To hear John tell it, as he was recording the songs for what became his latest album (due out February 2), he gradually realized Arkansas’ unique significance in American music’s history: it was the last rural stop before Southern folk, country, and blues moved up the Mississippi and got grittier in big cities like Chicago, New York, and his hometown of Philadelphia.

Arkansas is an obvious departure from the rock-and-soul sound that brought him so much success with Daryl Hall. “It’s like Dixieland, dipped in bluegrass, and salted with Delta blues,” he says. But it also might be the most inevitable album he’s created to date (more about that in our interview). It’s a natural companion to the musical history lessons found in the plaintive country sound of his 2014 solo album, Good Road to Follow, and the bluesy rock and shuffle of 2011’s Mississippi Mile. And it’s just a damn good record.

We caught up with John just before his tour with The Good Road Band and chatted about everything from American popular music before rock and roll, to the Philadelphia Eagles’ chances in the postseason, to why Arkansas was always going to be released on vinyl.

As I was thinking about your new album, Arkansas, I couldn’t help think about how Arkansas always gets short shrift when it comes to tributes, because it’s physically surrounded by all these states with undeniable musical legendary talent, too.

Yeah. Interestingly enough, and not only because I wrote the song and called the album Arkansas, but I began to realize that there was an interesting significance to Arkansas’s role in American roots music. And it never occurred to me before, until I spent time there.

I realized that, as you said, so many places—like obviously Mississippi and New Orleans and the Delta—are so known as the birthplaces of American roots music… but I think that what people tend to forget is that Arkansas is probably the last of the rural stops on that music moving up to the north, because once you pass Arkansas now you’re in St. Louis and then finally Chicago, where the music became more urbanized and more sophisticated in a way.

So really it feels like Arkansas was the last rural stop for this roots music before it hit the northern cities. And I think that’s kind of important. It never even occurred to me before, really, but I began to think about it much more since I’ve been doing this project.

That’s so interesting. This project started out a lot smaller; it was going to be a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, right? And then it just kind of grew.

Right.

When did you realize this was going to be bigger?

Well, just to backtrack a bit. I cut a few tracks, just me and a guitar in the traditional way, basically playing Mississippi John Hurt songs that I have known and played for years and years. And then I realized it was kind of a futile effort because I wasn’t gonna play them any better than him, certainly, and a lot of other people probably have played these songs… but I loved the music.

One night I came up with this idea: I said, “You know what, I don’t want to abandon this project, but what if I played it with a band?” I’ve never heard these songs that are so associated with just being performed on a guitar with a voice… I’ve never heard them played with a band, really. So I said, “Let me assemble a band.” I wanted to assemble a unique group of musicians who really are sensitive to the music and see what happens. So I did that; I called in a bunch of my friends, people I’ve played with for years—great players like Sam Bush, Russ Pahl, and Guthrie Trapp—all these incredible musicians.

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Brian Wilson: The (Third) TVD Interview

When Brian Wilson answered the phone, he was shushing what sounded like a pack of attack dogs barking in the background. In that instant, my mind and our interview skipped to the very last track of Pet Sounds, “Caroline, No,” which closes the album not with a note, but with a cacophony of dogs barking. You can’t make this stuff up.

Pet Sounds literally the finest achievement in popular American music of the last 50 years (yeah, it’s even better than warm heartbreak of Blood on the Tracks or the ‘60s swan song of Bridge over Troubled Water). Brian Wilson’s own place in the pantheon of songwriters is long since assured—any song on Pet Sounds makes an ironclad case for his inclusion among the world’s greats—but while its songs have been cited, imitated, and generally pored over countless times since 1967, “Caroline, No” always stuck with me not because of any ambitions of being a pop standard, but because of its charming and unhinging smallness. It’s such an anticlimactic closer to a record that opens with the sparkly optimism of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” It, like life itself, is bookended by absurdity in the relatable, and beauty in yearning and dissatisfaction.

“‘Caroline, No’ is all about a girl who lost her charm and loveliness,” says Brian, “And the guy goes, [singing] ‘Can we ever bring them back once they’ve gone?’ And he goes, ‘Caroline, no.’ It’s a very sad song, but I like performing it because it’s a very beautiful tune and it’s a lot of fun to sing.”

We all know this. He doesn’t have to say these things about his work, but sometimes it’s worth articulating thoughts because we need to be reminded of basic truths. Then again, to talk to Brian Wilson is to talk to someone to whom every form of imaginable and deserved praise has long since been rendered predictable cliches.

I’m luckier than most—this is my second time speaking with him. (TVD also spoke with Brian in April, 2015. —Ed.) I’d like to think there isn’t a music lover alive today who doesn’t know that Brian Wilson is probably a genius, and suitably revered by other musicians they may know better and love more; Pet Sounds paved the way for everything from Sgt. Pepper’s to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—imagine how empty and incomplete and flat popular music would feel without Brian Wilson’s genre-defying and -defining influence.

Presumably at a volume louder than the dogs that leaked in on the phone when we began our chat, Brian had been in the studio, practicing the songs from Pet Sounds just before our call, meticulously fine-tuning his every note for the Pet Sounds 2017 World Tour.

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Ann Wilson:
The TVD Interview

Whether you know Ann Wilson by her legendary voice, or for any one of a dozen rock radio classics that she’s penned for Heart, or her brought-Robert-Plant-to-tears rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” from the Kennedy Center Honors a few years back, to try to encapsulate everything she’s meant to rock music in a few paragraphs is a fool’s errand. The bullshit she and her sister Nancy put up with for daring to play rock music while female is worthy of a few books alone.

As she embarks on a 20-date solo tour, which kicks off Wednesday (3/8) in her hometown of Seattle, it’s clear that connecting with her audience is more important to Ann than ever.

“I suppose I am addicted to it,” Ann says. “I’ve never been much good at talking, but I can sing, and when I sing I connect with people in a much deeper, higher way.” We chatted with Ann about touring, the state of the music industry for women, and what politics and digital streaming mean (or don’t mean) for artists today.

I love the setlists from your recent live solo EPs—especially the “Sympathy for the Devil” treatment of “For What It’s Worth” from last year. Are there more of these sorts of covers in the works? What are your setlists like for this tour?

It’s a whole bunch of different kinds of songs. I mean, “For What It’s Worth” is one type of thing, and there’s also ballads, acoustic stuff, and big rockers. It’s a very diverse set.

As a gal who was also super into rock and blues growing up, I always felt kind of left out, and so I focused even more on music. Albums became prized possessions. Did you have records that held that kind of place in your collection, or that continue to inspire you?

Totally, yeah. Back when there were records, there were some that I played until they wouldn’t play anymore, you know? Everything on the album sleeve, the lyrics and everything… I just completely absorbed it all.

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Peter Wolf,
The TVD Interview

America’s independent streak started in the city of Boston. From the moment the “shot heard round the world” rang out to the day someone said, “Not everyone can have MTV? Fine! We’ll make our own MTV!” Boston has embraced its contrarians. 

New York may get all the glory, but Peter Wolf is one of those contrarians that made Boston his own. He found his way to his adopted city as a young art student from the Bronx in the late ’60s, becoming one of Boston’s favorite sons—pretty impressive, when one considers how Boston generally feels about people from the Bronx.

In the midst of studying painting at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Wolf stumbled onto a chance to sing in a blues band, and found his love (and deep knowledge) of music transformed into a new passion: performance. That passion transformed again into a gig as a DJ for Boston’s legendary WBCN, and again still when he founded and fronted the J. Geils Band with a cadre of fellow rock and roll fanatics.

Wolf struck out as a solo artist in 1984, near the height of J. Geils Band fame, and he hasn’t looked back. Released just last month, A Cure For Loneliness is Wolf’s eighth solo album. It’s a rootsy reflection on his musical past that is reverent without lingering too long.

“Change is constant,” Wolf says, “but it’s not necessarily negative, so you just have to keep rolling on.” The twelve new tracks have been a long time coming, and bring together rock and roll, soul, blues, and even honky-tonk to tell tales of survival and reflection that are both lighthearted and heartfelt. It’s pure Peter. 

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Peter Wolf,
The TVD Interview

America’s independent streak started in the city of Boston. From the moment the “shot heard round the world” rang out to the day someone said, “Not everyone can have MTV? Fine! We’ll make our own MTV!” Boston has embraced its contrarians. 

New York may get all the glory, but Peter Wolf is one of those contrarians that made Boston his own. He found his way to his adopted city as a young art student from the Bronx in the late ’60s, becoming one of Boston’s favorite sons—pretty impressive, when one considers how Boston generally feels about people from the Bronx.

In the midst of studying painting at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Wolf stumbled onto a chance to sing in a blues band, and found his love (and deep knowledge) of music transformed into a new passion: performance. That passion transformed again into a gig as a DJ for Boston’s legendary WBCN, and again still when he founded and fronted the J. Geils Band with a cadre of fellow rock and roll fanatics.

Wolf struck out as a solo artist in 1984, near the height of J. Geils Band fame, and he hasn’t looked back. Released just last month, A Cure For Loneliness is Wolf’s eighth solo album. It’s a rootsy reflection on his musical past that is reverent without lingering too long.

“Change is constant,” Wolf says, “but it’s not necessarily negative, so you just have to keep rolling on.” The twelve new tracks have been a long time coming, and bring together rock and roll, soul, blues, and even honky-tonk to tell tales of survival and reflection that are both lighthearted and heartfelt. It’s pure Peter. 

We chatted with the Woofa Goofa about the new album, his fondness for independent radio stations, and why finding music in a record store is like coming home. 

I live in California now, but I grew up in Boston, and the late, great WBCN was a big part of what gave Boston such a unique musical presence. Just a few days ago, the City of Boston announced that April 13 will forever more be Peter Wolf Day. Was that a surprise to you?

Yeah. It was, but I knew it was going to happen. As it came down the pike, it was a very pleasant surprise. Also, it was nice that the ceremony for it took place at a shelter for homeless veterans. We ended up getting to play for the veterans, so that made it really even sweeter.

That’s very touching. I was thinking about that, and your legacy in the city, both in J. Geils Band and on ‘BCN. I work in Silicon Valley and I’m surrounded by a lot of very brilliant Millennials who find it hard to believe that media in different cities used to be very localized. Boston especially had all of these independent local TV stations and radio stations that weren’t part of a huge conglomerates. I know you’re still a radio guy… do you think independent radio will ever be as popular as it once was?

It’s an interesting question. As you experienced, we’re spoiled up here, because there is a lot of unique radio. A lot of the independent big commercial stations have become conglomerated by corporations that bought up everything. But what really saves Boston is there are so many great college stations.

Yeah.

Boston has kind of a unique stature as far as independent radio, so we get kind of spoiled. When you travel throughout the United States… other than college radio stations or small NPR stations, you don’t really get the same diversity. There are actually two NPR stations with some city funding [in the Boston area]. Then Harvard University and MIT have a great ones. Emerson College has a really fabulous one, WERS, that plays a lot of great music. I know I am leaving out one or two. There are some good commercial stations that are still mom and pop owned, like on the South Shore, WATD

The landscape of radio has changed tremendously. I think it’s not just because of the commercial buy-outs, but I think it’s the technological advancements that have fundamentally changed things. Many people have drifted to satellite radio in their cars; people on their cellphones find radio stations all over the world, or they just stream the different Spotify and Pandora stations.

I went to do an interview, up north of Boston, to a station called The River. It’s owned by this one person, the building is an art deco building, and it was built just for a radio station. When you walk in, you’re walking into a time capsule! They have all the booths and they have a performance area, and it’s just… hearkens back to when radio was king. But for good or for bad, times have changed.

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Paul Weller,
The TVD Interview

The Modernist spirit has remained contemporary for nearly sixty years, and so too has Paul Weller. It seems impossible, but there he is, sitting across the table with a cup of milky tea and a pack of cigarettes. He’s impeccably dressed in a black tee shirt, slender trousers, and dapper pair of shoes. That’s the thing about being a mod; it’s a sharp, timeless style (really, a way of life) that’s all about attention to detail, and it gives a snapshot of what Weller is all about. But that’s not where Weller ends.

While he may be difficult to describe to someone unfamiliar, the most important thing to know is that the authenticity he stands for mattered at a time when it was possible for musicians to really matter.

And he still matters. While music may feel as if it’s spiraling into a madding cacophony of styles, Weller has perched himself above it all as he usually does. His latest LP, Saturns Pattern, is another musical point of reflection for him. He has always stretched and twisted his sound, abruptly departing from expectations only to find him again, and Saturns Pattern follows that M.O. It’s a rush of cosmic soul, psychedelia, blues, dance, and myriad other sounds. It’s opinionated, soulful, rollicking, and so much Paul Weller.

Hours before his sold-out show at The Fillmore in San Francisco, Paul talked about the importance of the new, being content with where he is, and even got a little wistful when talking about putting a record on a turntable for the first time.

On my way here, I was thinking about my college radio DJ days. I decided to start a mod music show and nobody had a clue what I was doing.

[Laughs] That was brave! Was that here in San Fran?

No, it was in a small town in Arkansas.  

Where is that, then? Midwest?

It’s in the south, right on top of Louisiana.

Ah, okay!

Mod culture follows you around in one way or another. You seem to embrace it. What do you think makes it so enduring?

Well, it’s just something that I’m really into, y’know? It’s kind of like any sort of code, philosophy, religion—whatever you want to call it. I think it’s something that once you’re into it, it’s integral to you. It’s really part of your life and the way you think and all that. But the reason why it’s endured so much is because it’s adaptable. I think because every generation comes along and discovers it, and kind of just adapts it and fills it and it becomes something else again, and mutates a little bit, and I think that’s why, really. It’s quite a concise way of living and thought, really.

There’s a famous old Pete Meaden quote that mod means “Clean living under difficult circumstances,” which is very apt, really.

There’s definitely a kind of mystique that drew me to it. In this day and age, the Internet has sort of demystified that whole scene…

The Internet has demystified everything.

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The Darkness,
The TVD Interview

Last of Our Kind is the first album in three years for The Darkness. It’s hailed as one of their finest records yet, and a maturation of their sound. “It is the best rock album you will hear this year,” says singer Justin Hawkins. “It is the best rock album you will hear until next time The Darkness makes an album.” It’s difficult to argue for a more appropriate title; they don’t make rock bands like The Darkness anymore.

“We’ve always been a cult band,” bass guitarist Frankie Poullain tells TVD, but that’s quite an over-simplification (and he knows it). It’s been over a dozen years since Permission to Land blasted rock music out of its same-y, neo-garage rut. Its influence punched the genre in the face and reminded people, who were too young to remember, what it was like for rock to be a fun, profane, exhilarating spectacle. With Last of Our Kind, The Darkness again unleash tongue-in-cheek bombastic rock music that delivers in spades and (figurative, possibly literal) pyrotechnics.  

Frankie opined on many different things when we caught up with him in the middle of The Darkness’ latest world tour. He talked to us about what it was like to feature over five hundred Darkness fans on the album’s title track, why the band nests sincerity in their kitsch, and why they continue to love the challenge of defying expectations.

You’d built your reputation as a live band before you ever had a record deal. Now that you’re on your fourth record and your own label, how have things changed? 

Well, we’re more empowered. It’s gotten to the stage where we don’t rely on other people; we take control of every aspect of what we do, which obviously is what a lot of bands are doing these days because there’s less room for mistakes these days—there’s less of a comfort zone, or a buffer zone. The profit margins that bands used to make that the record companies make them make—which basically comes from manufacturing CDs, which are very cheap to make—now you haven’t got that luxury anymore. This is good, because now we can focus more on the music and it’s more… realistic.

It’s good, or we wouldn’t be alive anymore. One [band member] hasn’t made it this far, unfortunately. That’s why the album has a slightly more defined… well, it starts off reflective… it’s more emotional, probably, than most of our albums, probably to do with that situation, which is tough. You can tell from the subject matter of some of the songs; there are personal things going on there, too. Then there’s also stuff like “Mudslide” and “Barbarian” as well. It’s a nice mix of things, and we’re very proud of it. The consensus seems to be that it’s our second-best album.

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ZZ Ward,
The TVD Interview

It’s not easy to describe what ZZ Ward does, and thank goodness for that. When her first single, “Put the Gun Down,” became a critically acclaimed sensation in 2012, Ward’s relentless talent and drive was turned up to eleven. Just like that, her sonic finger painting with blues and soul and hip-hop and rock was everywhere, and so was ZZ Ward.

It’s been three years of touring and writing and touring some more for Ward. After much perfecting and polishing with the help of S1 (the Grammy-winning producer who’s worked with Kanye West, Eminem, Beyonce, and Madonna), she’s completed a highly anticipated EP, Love and War, which is out now. (The full-length album, This Means War, is due September 18.)

Perhaps the best thing about Love and War’s signature single, “Love 3X,” is that it is not what you might expect from an artist who is routinely compared to both Tina Turner and Etta James; ZZ Ward is all about creative turns. The summery pop of “Love 3X” retains all of ZZ Ward’s unmistakable swagger and soul, and is insanely catchy at the same time. It’s not fair to call it a balancing act, really, because ZZ Ward makes it all look so easy.

And so ZZ Ward continues to deliver a genuine alternative to music-by-committee and to fly in the face of critical expectations. When we chatted with her, she was about to embark on her Love and War Tour. She talked about her inspirations, on being a perfectionist, and what it’s like caring about every single bit of a project (including vinyl).

I see your dog Muddy in a lot of pictures with you. It must be great to have her with you on tour to kind of help you chill.

Yes! I take her everywhere. We’re ready to get on the tour bus for two months! She loves it; she spends more time on the tour bus than she has at home, so she’s used to it.

I’ve read and watched quite a few interviews with you, and I don’t think anybody has described you, as an artist, the same way twice. It changes from “blues and R&B singer” to “new rock chanteuse” to any number of categories. Does that bother or inspire you?

[Laughs] I don’t know… I mean, especially when people ask me what genre of music I am, it’s always really tricky because I think being a songwriter and a producer and a creator, it’s like… I’m not really thinking about categories I want to stay in when I’m working on music. I’m just thinking about what things make me feel like. So it’s always really a tricky question when people ask you, “So, what genre of music does your music fall into?” It’s like, wow, you really have to put a label on it? But that’s how it is. I’ve learned to give it my best shot and say it’s kind of a mixture between blues and hip-hop.

But I feel like, especially if something’s new, you have to compare it to something else if you’re telling your friend about it. “Have you checked out so-and-so? They sound a little bit like this.” And that always gives somebody a good idea of what they’re getting into. I’ve noticed that that just kind of exists, you know, when you’re an artist.

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Jack Tempchin:
The TVD Interview

Jack Tempchin is a product of a time when songs were expected to tell stories, and the songwriters who were masters of storytelling were sought after as aggressively as any first-round quarterback.

Tempchin’s tunes have taken root in so many minds, and have lifted so many hearts in the decades since he wrote “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” and “Already Gone” for the Eagles. The prolific songwriter’s music continues to fill arenas and sell millions and millions of albums for others. It’s been all about the songs, not the man. Despite the fact that Tempchin performed his music to audiences around the world for years, and despite the fact that he’d written hits for (or with) musical luminaries like Emmylou Harris, Glen Campbell, Tanya Tucker, Tom Rush, George Jones, and Tom Waits, the limelight has always been elusive for Tempchin—as have record deals.

That all changed when he was approached by Blue Élan Records who offered him his first contract since Clive Davis’ Arista Records in the late ’70s. That sparked something in Tempchin, and a backlog of songs came pouring out. “I was so excited that somebody was going to care whether I recorded something or not,” Tempchin tells TVD in our chat with him. So many songs were unearthed and so many more were inspired by this label’s confidence that his two-record deal turned into a three-record deal, with no signs of stopping.

Tempchin released an EP, Room to Run, in May to tease his creative “explosion.” He followed it up with a thematic and poignant LP (released on Friday), Learning to Dance, which is his first album of new studio recordings in over eight years. His enthusiasm is massive when it comes to songwriting, as evidenced both in the lovely new album and through his songwriting “inspiration campaign” at GoWriteOne.com

“It’s impossible to overrate the importance of songs,” he says. There’s absolutely no argument from us. 

When you performed at The Troubadour in May, was that the first time you’d played all this new music live?

Yes! I hadn’t done any of those songs, and it was the first time I’d performed without playing guitar, too. [Laughs] This album was produced so differently, that I didn’t think about having to do the stuff live until I finished the album. And it turns out I couldn’t—I needed a whole band to pull it off. I rehearsed for quite a while with those guys because it was a first for me, standing up there and playing without doing my guitar.

Of course the second half of the show, I was doing my hits—stuff I had done before. Being back at The Troubadour and having all those people there… it was great to be there again.

When was the last time you’d played there?

Oh, let’s see… it was about five or six years ago when Timothy B. Schmit had a solo album that he was promoting, and I opened the show for him, just by myself at The Troubadour, and that was pretty great.

Hey, I noticed you interviewed Paul Williams. That’s pretty cool.

It was! He was such a fun person to talk to.

You know, I’ve known Paul for… we wrote a song together many, many years ago and we’re still workin’ on it. [Laughs] Man, he’s done so well. He’s so cool. That was a good article—thank you!

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Pete Townshend,
The TVD Interview

The way I see it, there was rock music before Pete Townshend got hold of it, and rock music after he got hold of it, smashed it to pieces, rebuilt it, and smashed it again. 

Townshend spent his musical life wresting respectability from critics, pushing the boundaries of convention, and simultaneously giving too many fucks and not giving any fucks at all. I think that’s where his greatness resides, in that duality of trying not to care too much while at the same time caring more than anyone else. Newly 70, he still moves the bar and lives to contradict. He remains both brutally honest and colorfully vague. So hard to pin down. (Our interview was no exception.) 

How else could the man write such perfect two-minute-fifty pop songs and nine-minute-plus suites? Pen the most memorable, gritty proto-punk and masterful latter-day operas? Be lauded as an electronic music pioneer and perform with his four-piece rock band, entirely without irony, in front of audiences at the Met? 

And now, he and partner Rachel Fuller have reimagined The Who’s finest work (no arguments, please; you are wrong) into a classical piece worthy of being immortalized alongside the original album. This isn’t a let’s-add-some-strings-to-a-rock-arrangement thing; it’s wholly respectful of its source material, and it’s damned impressive.

While Quadrophenia is entirely Townshend’s (it’s the only Who album written by him alone), what Keith Moon and John Entwistle brought to The Who’s masterpiece is irreplaceable. They, along with Townshend and Roger Daltrey, were the heart, soul, brains and brawn of that album, and there’s no escaping that. 

That’s not what Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia is trying to do. This “symphonized” Quadrophenia brings forth the immortal soul of a rock album that continues to matter. While fans will appreciate the involvement of Quadrophenia touchstones like Phil Daniels and Billy Idol, Classic Quadrophenia is as classical as it gets: Deutsche Grammophon, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a real live opera singer (the wonderful tenor Alfie Boe), and the London Oriana Choir. 

What made Townshend’s work matter to me at nineteen and why he continues to matter to me in my thirties is why, I suspect, even those less familiar with The Who will find beauty and solace in this presentation of one of the last masterworks of rock music. It’s on a different artistic level, and it’s what his fans should expect. Or maybe it isn’t.   

I still work myself to death just to fit in. Fortunately for us all, Townshend doesn’t.

Quadrophenia has always been an immensely ambitious, unwieldy thing. What has been the most satisfying result of committing it to a classical arrangement? 

That I had to do absolutely nothing!

In 2001, you held workshops for a potential stage production of Quadrophenia. What stalled that process at that time? 

That was a good workshop. I put up some of the music on my website at the time. The band was entirely acoustic. Joe Penhall—who wrote a number of good plays and has lately done the book for The Kinks’ musical—was working on the book. Everything was going well until Joe realised there is no proper ending. He was the one who stalled. At that workshop I met John O’Hara who went on to be the arranger and music supervisor on the 2009 UK theatre tour of Quadrophenia conceived with the Theatre Royal in Plymouth. That was a planned six-week run that lasted for six months. It had a great young cast, many of whom have gone on to great things.

You’ve been tinkering with Quadrophenia since its original release. When The Who toured behind it after the album was first released, you spent a lot of time explaining it to audiences, and it took twenty-five years to perform it in concert to your (reasonable) satisfaction. Do you still feel the need to explain what Quadrophenia is all about? 

It isn’t really about very much…. its loose story and its non-ending are what need to be explained. The function of rock music is not to tell tidy little stories that work like soap opera episodes but to provide music for the internal story of the listener. Of course there is also the function of live congregation: gathering to join together to listen to music that a group of people feel reflects all of their unspoken feelings and emotions. Rock is different in this respect to conventional opera and theatre musical.

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Paul Williams,
The TVD Interview

I was brushing my teeth the other night when I had a “GREAT IDEA” about how to intro this interview. Writers: you already know how this went down. 

I had been spending a lot of time with these hazy childhood memories of Paul Williams on The Muppet Show, his most famous songs running through my head. Something clicked. YES! I finished brushing my teeth, washed my face, got a drink of water, sat down at my desk and it was… gone! It was like someone had wiped that area of my pre-frontal lobe clean.

I racked my brain. Was it something about his unlikely stardom? No… What about how he champions aspiring songwriters as President and Chairman of the Board of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP)? No, that wasn’t it either. Was it something about that guy who made that documentary about how he thought Paul Williams was dead? Nah, but that’s a great story. Okay, it had to be something about him winning the 2014 Album of the Year Grammy with Daft Punk. No, I couldn’t find a thread. I was furious with myself. The “GREAT IDEA” was gone.

Then I remembered something from talking with Paul. I put my head back and I drifted down into that region of near-sleep where dream thoughts percolate and vanish when you hear a noise and you come to. My dog barked, and I opened my eyes. 

Paul Williams would say that this is the most important part of the creative process: letting go and being optimistic that the right thing will come, even if it’s not the thing you thought you wanted. Even if what you end up with is nothing like what you pictured (and then spaced out on) while brushing your teeth, sometimes it works out all right.  

My germ of a “GREAT IDEA” wasn’t meant to be. And that’s okay, because Paul Williams says so. Williams had so much more to say, of course; we talked about his fascinating life, his love of helping people (he’s a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor as well), and his passion for showing a digital generation the true value of music. 

You’ve said that you started writing music as a way to “journal” your experiences from very early on. Do you remember what first inspired you to express yourself in that way?

You know, I’ve always said that songwriting is a gift. I started out wanting to be an actor. But I was [also] one of these tiny little kids who sang “Danny Boy” for his dad. Well, when I was thirteen, my dad was killed in a car wreck. At that point, it’s like music disappeared out of my life. I quit singing, and all I wanted to do was be an actor. At the time, my mother shipped me off to live with an aunt and an uncle that I didn’t know in Long Beach. My mother was told she couldn’t afford both of us, so she kept my little brother and so I was shipped off. At that point, I wanted to be an actor. Obviously, I wanted to be somebody other than myself at that time.

But when the acting career fizzled when I was around twenty-seven… I’d done a couple of movies I did—I did one called The Loved One with John Gielgud. It’s a very interesting picture about the funeral business. Then I did a movie called The Chase, and I thought that was going to be a big break for me; I had a few lines in it. But when it was released, I saw that my part in the movie was cut out! So, there I was with no money, depressed, and no career; the phone stopped ringing, then they came and took the phone out…

All of a sudden, this little guitar I had became the cheapest therapy in the world. As soon as I picked it up, I started writing. I guess there was some piece of me that felt like I’d done it before. I didn’t think that at the time, but looking back I do. And then, of course, the first time you play a song for somebody—especially a young lady that maybe said that didn’t want to go out with you—and suddenly her head tilts to the side and she says, “Oh, that’s really nice!” And you think, “Okay, something major just changed!”

Beyond the joking, the fact is that when I started writing songs, I finally felt like I was home. It was absolutely home.

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TVD Premiere: Nineteen Thirteen, “Summertime”

When Janet Schiff pressed play on a CD of an old Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recording, Victor DeLorenzo didn’t know what to expect. They were listening to records when Janet asked if he wanted to hear her grandmother play the organ. He said yes. No, he wasn’t just being polite. 

Marguerite Schiff, Janet’s grandmother, was an eccentric and beloved Wisconsin character. She was a gifted musician who sang and played piano, accordion, and organ and toured America doing just that. Marguerite and her piano were never separated; it went with her wherever she traveled—even to the Bahamas where she “wintered.” When the entire state of Wisconsin got to vote on the very first thing they’d ever see on television, they chose Marguerite.

“There were a few different songs that she played,” the Violent Femmes co-founder recalled. “When it got to this version of ‘Summertime’ well, to be quite frank about it… ‘Summertime’ is a wonderful song, but it’s been so overdone. But there was something about her version with just that organ; it was so ghostly and so hauntingly elegant the way she played it.”

The moment DeLorenzo heard the fifty-year-old recording, he knew it was a perfect project for his band, Nineteen Thirteen. Named for the year in which Janet Schiff’s cello was crafted, the “heavy chamber rock” trio make a habit of subtly blending both old and new sounds to create unique musical traditions of their own. Without a doubt, Marguerite would feel right at home with the band.

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Tom Paxton,
The TVD Interview

Sixty years, thousands of concerts, five hundred and fifty-two Kickstarter backers later, and Tom Paxton released his sixty-second album in time for his final “big time” concert tour.

“Whatever my point was, anyhow,” says Paxton, “I think I’ve made it!” But the prospect of Tom Paxton running out of points to make seems just as impossible to his fans as it does to him. The iconoclastic folk hero may be leaving the weary road behind, but he’s far from stopping altogether.

His new album, Redemption Road, couldn’t be more aptly titled. It’s not so much that he’s written a thinly-veiled confessional as he is revisiting a musical life well lived through his signature stripped down, witty, reflective, political songwriting. With Redemption Road, the seventy-seven-year-old reflects on his travels, on his friends, and on why life remains so fun for him, despite its absurdities and pitfalls. Tom Paxton had a lot he wanted to say with Redemption Road, but it’s far from a collection of swan songs. Musician friends as varied as John Prine and Janis Ian lent their talents and their voices to Paxton’s musical snapshots, making the collection of songs on Redemption Road even more poignant. 

When we talked with Tom, he was jovial and exuded a kind of happiness that comes naturally when one feels unyoked from obligations. Tom is living life on his own terms and loves every minute of it. Among many other things, Tom shared his thoughts with us about touring with old friend Janis Ian, continuing to create and perform in his golden years, and his delight and bewilderment about the resurgence of 33-1/3 records.

You’re regarded as one of the first folk artists to break away from performing traditional folk songs in favor of your own music. What does that legacy mean to you now?

It just seemed to me like a natural thing to do, to try to add to the [folk] legacy. Before me Woody Guthrie, of course, was the greatest writer of folk music in America and I really think I was picking his example and doing it in my own time. It just seemed a logical thing to do. I loved the music that I had learned—the traditional music—and I just wanted to make my own contribution.

I always admire artists that go their own way, especially when fellow artists are bewildered or outright hostile towards them. That you had the confidence in your own songs to break away from the tight-knit folk scene of the early ‘60s is hugely admirable.

You know, I’ve been asked many times—back when so many people in the ‘60s were going electric and going rock—why I didn’t do it. I think the real reason is that I didn’t think I’d be any good at it! [Laughs]

Really?

Yeah, I think I would have made a lousy rock singer. It never spoke to me. I loved The Beatles, and I still think The Beatles were one of the best things to happen in the twentieth century. But I didn’t have those kinds of chops. What I had was a love for simple songs, and I loved the sound of an acoustic guitar. I still would rather hear Doc Watson than just about anybody you could name. I think I was just following my instinct.

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Mike Rutherford,
The TVD Interview

What do musical milestones mean to someone like Mike Rutherford? When you have invested nearly fifty years in one of the most iconic rock bands in the world, charted dozens of singles and sold 150 million+ albums, helped revolutionize the music video format, toured the world’s stadiums dozens of times over, and finally landed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame… where else is there to go? What else could you possibly do?

You just keep going. Mike Rutherford doesn’t like to live in the past. And while he is about to embark on a thirtieth anniversary tour with his band Mike + The Mechanics, he feels reflective rather than nostalgic. As Genesis was hitting their peak of worldwide pop stardom, Rutherford’s solo project became one of the most successful bands of the ‘80s. To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Living Years album, and the thirtieth anniversary of The Mechanics, Rutherford re-recorded his biggest hit, the Ivor Award-winning single of the same name. The remastered The Living Years (released on February 10) also includes rare recordings from a 1989 tour, the inclusion of which inspired Rutherford to embark not only on a 2015 Mechanics tour, but to give some brand new songs of his a live stage.

On top of all of these musical milestones, Rutherford published The Living Years: The First Genesis Memoir. Far from being a Keith Richards-style tell-all, the book does delve deeply into the inside story of his musical life, as one might expect. But it diverges from there into a personal fascination of his: the parallels he discovered between his father’s memoirs and his own, and the stark generational divide that colored the relationship between the distinguished naval officer from his rock star son. It’s a unique take on the usual rock star tell-all that keeps things interesting. 

As Mike + The Mechanics get ready to embark on their massive U.S. and European tour that kicks off at The Birchmere and ends in Belgium, Rutherford touched on a lot of different topics in our interview: from the transformation of Genesis from progressive rockers to pop superstars, to how he prefers to record his albums, to what it’s like to make old songs feel new again for audiences all over the world.

When I was in England some years ago, I went on a coach tour through the countryside. We saw all sorts of beautiful ruins and other ancient architecture. Then the driver stopped our bus by your old school and announced, very seriously, “This is the school where Mike Rutherford and Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks and Anthony Phillips formed the band Genesis.”

Oh! Charterhouse, yeah! We live a few minutes away, so it’s still part of our world, yeah.

Growing up in the ‘80s, the Mechanics and Genesis were all over Top 40 radio. Did you ever feel any conflict about going from prog rock to a more pop-oriented sound? It seemed like a surprisingly natural progression.

Funnily enough, it didn’t quite feel like that to us, because when Peter left, the first two albums after—Trick of the Tail, Wind & Wuthering—were more progressive, so it happened over two or three albums, really. And then I still sort of questioned… well, what happened was a change in public perception. In the ‘80s, MTV came in and the hit single was so everywhere. The singles then had such a huge profile that they overshadowed the rest of the album. Of course, the singles tend to stick in people’s minds, so I think what happened was quite natural to me.

Some would argue that the mid-‘60s to early-‘80s was a unique period of time in popular music where the album was what was most popular; everything before and since has been about the singles.

Yeah, that’s true.

Speaking of singles, I listened to the new recording of “The Living Years” and wondered, how does that song resonate with you now, so many years from the emotions that inspired it?

I think the new track is paying respect to the anniversary. You can’t beat the original one, ever. It’s still very special to me. In a sense, the reason The Mechanics are touring is because about four years ago during some live shows I couldn’t believe how well some of the Mechanics’ songs went down on stage because The Mechanics… we hardly ever toured! We never did much touring ever so, in a sense, it was a new thing for me to hear all these Mechanics songs played on stage… and the audience really connected with them.

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