Makeup For The Silence

The digital home of music writer Jesse Richman

Makeup For The Silence

Tag: mp3 (Page 1 of 22)

#9 Album of 2014 – Foxy Shazam – Gonzo

#9 – FOXY SHAZAM – GONZO [spotify]

(feat. track – “Tragic Thrill” [spotify])

Way back in 2010, Foxy Shazam’s self-titled album ranked as my #1 album of the year, an album I characterized as “a celebration of the gloriously-over-the-top,” combining “Queen, Meatloaf, 70’s arena rock, 50’s rock-n-roll, a smidge of 80’s synthpop and blue-eyed soul, a drip of gospel, [and ]the slimmest remnants of chaotic post-hardcore” into something “so wildly original that only the most hyperbolic statements even begin to capture its essence.”

That’s a hard thing to follow up. The band’s 2012 release, Church Of Rock and Roll, made the classic mistake of attempting to recapture the magic. The album wound up being nothing so much as a weak caricature; the sequel to the self-titled’s impossibly out-sized ambition, either failing to reach such heights or, worse, reaching them but in a way that felt clown-like, more garish than gigantic.

GONZO reverses course entirely; the band scraps all pretense of production, writes a series of songs with smaller, uglier ambitions, books studio time with infamously barebones producer recordist Steve Albini, and launches the resulting composition into the world with no warning and little fanfare. It’s an approach that ultimately felt self-defeating; and yet, nothing could be more appropriate for this little album that couldn’t. GONZO is a chronicle of being beaten up and beaten down, a product of fear and exhaustion and not a little desperation. As frontman Eric Nally revealed to me in an interview, GONZO is a concept record revolving around his father’s struggles with sanity, a struggle his father has slowly lost; for Nally’s part, it sounds as if it was written and composed by a man fearing for his own mind.

The result…isn’t great. Or rather, it is great despite the fact that It isn’t even good, at parts. And yet, those gnarls, those bits of shoddy craftsmanship, lack of care, the odd choices, the paranoia: all of them add up to a harrowing picture of a man at war with some seriously nasty demons. When the songs do work – like on the hard-charging, bass heavy rave-up “Brutal Truth” –  they hit like a hammer; when they don’t, like on the plodding “Have The Fun” and “In This Life,” they bellyflop with just as much violence. It isn’t pretty, but life doesn’t seem to pretty for Nally either, not right now. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.

Nally concluded our interview with the assertion that “there’s no way that anything could go wrong now, because we’re in charge. We’re beholden to no one. Foxy Shazam is its own thing, and I feel like we’re just… We exist. And there’s no denying that. We’re here to stay, and we’ll be here forever.” Six months later Foxy Shazam disbanded (ostensibly temporarily) without explanation.

[interview with vocalist Eric Nally]

#12 Album of 2014 – Moose Blood – I’ll Keep You In Mind, From Time to Time

#12 – MOOSE BLOOD – I’LL KEEP YOU IN MIND, FROM TIME TO TIME [spotify]

(feat. track – “Swim Down” [spotify])

I’ll Keep You In Mind, From Time To Time is a shining example of a very rare phenomenon: it’s an album that could never top this list, even on its best day, and yet I would find it conspicuously absent if I didn’t include it in here somewhere. The full length debut from rapidly-ascending English emo-rock* quartet Moose Blood, I’ll Keep You In Mind is as deeply flawed as it is accomplished – often simultaneously. That friction makes for a fascinatingly compelling listen, one that kept pulling me back in throughout autumn, even as I was trying to figure out if I actually liked the album.

I mean, I think we can all agree that a lyric like ”she wears hats above her ears / oh god, I want her here“ is some Prince-level purpleness. And yet, if it sticks in your head for three weeks straight, like “Kelly Kapowski” will, well then vocalist Eddy Brewerton is clearly doing at least one of his jobs with exceeding competence, even if he’s straight-up ignoring the other one, no?

That’s just one small example, but it sums up the entire experience of listening to I’ll Keep You In Mind concisely and accurately. Even when they’re getting everything wrong, Moose Blood get it wrong so rightly. The baldly apoetic language-bombs; the solipsistic sadboy misogyny; the laser-targeted Your Favorite Weapon-meets-Deja Entendu composition; the show-your-work calculation of Brewerton’s lyrical references to Dashboard Confessional and Nirvana: I’ll Keep You In Mind tickles each and every early-00’s emo pleasure center like it’s running down a checklist, and while that might sound like a gross approach to the sensual arts (because it is!), it still feels awful good.

The result is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in an ill-fitting hashtag and sold to kids in crewnecks, and for the life of me I can’t figure out if I hate it or if I really, really like it. I think maybe the answer is “both.”  If anything, I’ll Keep You In Mind is a great demonstration of the principle that love and hate aren’t opposite ends of one line after all; rather, they are parallel lines, lines which often – but not always – move in concert. And if this list is a ranking of the albums I loved in 2014, well, the fact that I hated it too doesn’t wave my love for it away.

Besides, let’s face it – Nevermind still blows me away too.

*Label No Sleep Records’ website makes the laughable claim that the band’s sound “harks back to the glory days of Deep Elm Records and mid 90′s emo.“ I understand that right now #emorevival is the phrase that pays, but these guys are aping Brand New and Taking Back Sunday and Armor for Sleep, not the Promise Ring. Moose Blood are clearly reviving an emo, but it sure isn’t that  one.

ROB ROWE – THE M4TS INTERVIEW – EPILOGUE – FLIPPING THE SCRIPT

Cause & Effect – “Inside Out” from Trip

Toward the end of our conversation, Rob Rowe managed to flip the script, and somehow we wound up with a short interview of me. Don’t expect any Whitewaits or Cause & Effect content below, but if you want to know a little more about the guy behind the keyboard over here, read on!

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Alright, I think that’s really about everything that I’ve got. Is there anything you can think of that you wanted to talk about that I didn’t mention?

Ahh, not that I can think of. I’m really out of practice with all this stuff, talking about things. What kind of law do you practice?

It’s corporate stuff, I oversee a document review team. It’s discovery work, if you know anything about how the legal process works.

I know some. My brother-in-law is a corporate lawyer.

Let me give you the short version. Say two big companies sue each other, or the federal government is investigating a company or something. There’s a process called “discovery,” where both sides have to turn over all their paperwork related to whatever the matter is in question. And when you’re talking large companies, that can be literally millions upon millions of emails, spreadsheets, marketing documents. Everything you can think of. Right now, the project I’ve been on the last two years, is I’m working for an insurance company that’s suing a bank. I’ve spent two years overseeing a team of ten-ish people who are going through everything we had to turn over, to figure out what we needed to turn over and what was privileged or whatever else, and then looking through everything that’s been turned over to our side to figure out what’s important.

Oh I see. Wow.

So that’s what I do during the day.

Like needles-in-haystacks kind of stuff.

Yeah, it really is. But those needles are what cases get built out of, and what billions of dollars swing on, somehow.

Right, right. How long have you been in New York?

Seven years.

You like it?

I do, I do. I like it here a lot. You know, it’s New York, what is there to say? You know, everything’s here. It’s funny, I actually moved here originally because I wanted to be closer to my family. I grew up in Pennsylvania, and then I lived out west for a while, and then moved back this way to be close to my family. And now my brother and my sister and my parents have all moved away again, so I’m the only one left out here!

Where did they go?

My brother is out in San Francisco. My sister moved to South Carolina. My parents did the “snowbird” thing and moved down to Florida. So I’m here by myself now, with my fiancee.

Did you take that personally?

[Laughs] no. But yeah, I’ve lived a bunch of places, in the US at least, and I could see myself moving again. I feel like anywhere I’ve been I’ve found something interesting and valuable. I lived in Boston for a while, I lived in San Diego for a while, I was in Las Vegas for a couple years. America is a cool place and I like seeing it.

Yeah, but New York is pretty cool.

It is. That’s one of the nice parts about New York, is that so much is just here, and so much comes here, that you kind of get the best of all those other places. But it’s also really expensive to live here.

Exactly. We have friends who live up in Harlem, we’ll go visit once every year, once every couple of years. My wife and I will walk around, I’m like “man, I could totally live here. Look at that place, we could live there.” She’s like “mmhmm, we won’t be living there. That’s probably ten million dollars.” [Laughs].

Yeah, exactly. It’s funny, I’m getting married in a couple months, and so my fiancee and I, we want to start a family, have kids and all that, and so we’re starting to talk about, maybe we need to start thinking about moving out of the city somewhere, where it’s affordable to do that. I’m in Astoria, in Queens, I’m not even in Manhattan, and I’m still playing $1,400 for 400 square feet.

But it’s 400 square feet in probably one of the best cities in the world.

Oh exactly! Exactly. I do the music writing thing, so I get to shows three or four nights a week, and I always have three or four to pick from each night. Great food. Broadway shows. I can go see my Yankees anytime I want.

Oh you’re a Yankees fan. So is my wife. I wasn’t into baseball when we met. One of our early dates, I went over to her apartment. I called her that day, “what are you doing tonight?” She’s like “well we can go out later but you’ve got to come over because there’s this playoff game.” And I’m like “playoff game for what?” She’s like “it’s baseball. It’s the Yankees.” So I’m like “uh, OK.” “So why don’t you come over, and then after the game we’ll go out.” So this would have been… 2001? So this would have been the game, I can’t remember who they’re playing, but I’m sitting there on the couch with her, and she’s going nuts because they’re losing. And I’m just baffled, because I’d never dated a sports fan. Like, “you care so much!” It was so bizarre. But since then, through osmosis, I’ve totally gotten into baseball, and I’ll pretty much root for the Yankees and everyone else I don’t really care about.

That’s cool. Baseball and music are my two nerd passions, the things I really geek out over. I’m in a super serious fantasy baseball league, and watch every Yankee game I can.

Are you bummed about the Jeter thing?

Uhh, I mean, I knew it had to be coming soon. If it wasn’t this year, it was next year.

Yeah, it seemed like it was coming.

And nobody’s really sure he can play anymore anyway, so maybe it’s time. I don’t want to see terrible Derek Jeter hanging on three years longer than he should. So I’m a little bummed out about it, but I’ve gotten to see him win a bunch of World Series for them. I’ve watched his whole career. I’m happy with that. And I’m looking forward to seeing him play this year a couple more times.

So if you’re from Pennsylvania, how did you end up a Yankee fan?

Yeah its funny, because all my friends are Phillies fans. My parents are both from Connecticut, and my dad is a lifelong Yankee fan and his dad was a lifelong Yankee fan. I was raised in the tradition! Starting from when I was four or five years old, every year my dad and I and my brother was a little bit older, when he was old enough to join us, every year we’d have a “guys day out” at Yankee Stadium. And I remember watching games sitting on his knee on the couch when I was like three years old. It’s in my blood. And it’s funny, I grew up in the one era when the Yankees kind of sucked. The mid-80’s to the early 90’s was a real bad time for the Yankees. Everybody assumes “oh, you’re a Yankee fan, you hopped on the bandwagon, you love winning and that’s it.” When I was growing up, they weren’t good! I loved them anyway! And I’m not going to stop loving them just because they got good again.

If you’ve got five minutes, this is a great story. Reese is a Yankee fan because her dad is a huge Yankees fan. Her dad is in his mid-80’s. He grew up in Boston. They live in Washington, DC now. Corporate lawyers. When he was a kid, his dad took him to see Boston play the Yankees, and I don’t know how old he was – this was, like, the ‘30s, this was serious Yankee history time, right? His grandfather is obviously a Red Sox fan. They watched the game, and the Yankees won, and her dad was like “I like those guys!” His dad is clutching his heart. He said “alright, OK, but if you’re going to be a Yankee fan, I want you to learn all the players’ names, I want you to know all the stats. If you’re going to be a true fan you’ve got to know all the stuff.” And so he did! He went away and he studied. And the next game they went to, he knew all the stats, all the players names. And so the family’s been Yankee fans since the ‘30s!

That’s pretty awesome!

She gets a lot of shit for it.

I’m jealous of him, he got to see all the greats!

Yeah, isn’t that crazy?

Well that’s all I’ve got, but thank you very much for doing this!

If you have any other things, or if I think of anything, I can just email you or something.

Sounds good. And I know you were talking about touring just the west coast, but I hope you maybe make it to at least to New York at some point!

That would be cool, that would be cool. We’ve played there a few times. On the Sunrise tour we played out there, it was really fun. But again, financially it’s just so hard.

Yeah, the economics just don’t make sense for a lot of folks anymore.

It’s such a big country, especially if you’re driving, you know?

Yeah, I think gas prices have done as much to kill the touring industry as anything else.

I definitely feel it up here in Seattle. We get a lot of the tours through here, but there are some that definitely skip Seattle because it’s so far north, it’s too much of a diversion.

Too much of a drive for one or two shows up that way.

Yeah, exactly. But anyway, enjoy your Saturday!

I will, enjoy the rest of yours!

And when are you getting married?

In June! June 29th. That’s kind of taken over my life right now, wedding planning.

My wife’s in wedding planning, she runs a couple venues where weddings happen.

We’re right in the thick of things. We sent out our Save The Dates this week and we’re trying to book everything.

Are you doing it in New York?

Yeah, we’re doing it here in New York, in Brooklyn. We found this place, it’s really neat, it’s called reBar. It’s a bar and restaurant during the week, but they exclusively do weddings on the weekend. It’s kind of become a wedding destination. It’s in an old tea factory, so it’s got all this incredible stonework, old brickwork and iron gates and stuff inside, it’s a really cool looking venue, we’re kind of stoked about it.

Nice, that’s really cool.

Yeah, so hopefully it all comes together.

You might not even remember the day anyway. Our wedding was like, “did I eat? I don’t remember anything.” It was a big, big blur. Good luck with that.

I’m excited about it. Thank you! Thanks for chatting with me!

Rob Rowe – The M4TS Interview – Part 3

Whitewaits – “Lost Boys” from An Elegant Exit

 

In his 25-year career fronting Cause & Effect and Whitewaits, Rob Rowe has experienced the highest highs and lowest lows that the music industry – and life itself – have to offer. From multiple Hot 100-charting singles to the tragic death of C&E co-founder Sean Rowley, from being unceremoniously dropped to touring the world independently, Rowe has weathered it all with a warm croon and a singular vision. In the final part of our interview, we look to the future of Whitewaits and Cause & Effect – touring, recording, and surviving in an artist-unfriendly age.

Part 1
Part 2

OK. So let’s talk about where Whitewaits is going now. Actually, let me jump back a little bit. You used Kickstarter to fund the album. And you’re selling it on Bandcamp. So clearly you’ve embraced the new way of doing things, the new technology that’s out there. How do you feel about those platforms? Do you feel like things are finally at a place where there’s something sustainable, or do you feel that there’s still a ways to go?

Sustainable from what, from what perspective?

Is it possible for musicians to create and sustain a career using these tools and operating on their own rather than working within the bigger system.

I wish I had that answer. I know… I’m not making a living at this. It breaks even. Which is great, I’m not spending money or losing money. You know, I haven’t figured out how to make a living at this. Which is fine – I have a design business, and I’m freelance, and I get to stay at home and work when I work and work on music when I want to work on music. So that’s fine. Was it Frank Zappa who said that if you want to be a musician… It was basically something like… I’m trying to remember the quote. I’m not even a Frank Zappa fan, but it’s something like “the way to be a musician is: decide to write a song; at some point, decide to stop writing that song; and then get a part time job so you can keep writing songs.”

[Laughs] If it wasn’t Zappa it should have been!

It’s something close to that. It took me a long time, but I think I’ve finally got to that point.

I was going to say, presumably when you were signed to the label, Cause & Effect was your full-time thing, right?

It was.

Was it a rocky transition for you?

To go back to work? Yeah!

Yeah, and to find a way to go back to work but still keep making music and making it part of your life.

Yeah, it’s hard to find that balance. I have worked at advertising agencies, in house, and it’s incredibly hard to get any music done when you’re working in that kind of environment. Because, you know, they work you to death, and what little time you have off, you’re just trying to catch up, on sleep and whatever.

Sure! I’m actually a lawyer by day and I do the music writing thing on the side, and I feel the same way a lot of the time.

Yeah, it’s hard! How old are you?

I’m 34.

You’re 34? Eh, you’re still a youngster!

[Laughs] It’s nice to hear you say that, because most of the bands I talk to are a good ten years younger than me!

[Laughs] It gets harder, you know? To find that energy. And working as a freelancer, it’s perfect for me.

It gives you the balance you need.

It give me the balance, for sure. Because I might have a design job that only lasts four hours in the morning, and now I have the whole afternoon to work on music. So that works out. Whereas, if you’re in an office, working at an ad agency or whatever, maybe you have real work for the morning, but then they require you to stay there in the afternoon to get your paycheck! That’s the one thing I can’t stand about working in-house. There’s so much wasted time. I would sit around the ad agency going “oh my god, if I was home right now, I could do laundry! Or work on a song!”

Instead of just sitting there twiddling your thumbs, waiting for the work to come in.

Exactly. That kind of stuff just drives me nuts. I get antsy and impatient. It just seems like there’s better ways to spend the day.

Alright, so you mentioned that you’re putting together a live show for Whitewaits. What’s the story there?

Well I wish it was a big story…

Well right now any story would be a big story! Because you’ve played, what, one show?

Yeah, I did an acoustic show. Right now, I’m kind of in the figuring out stage. I’m learning Ableton Live, which I think I’ve got down now; I’ve spent the last two to three weeks messing around with it, and messing around with the songs. Now it’s just a case of figuring out what would be played live, and then figuring out “do I want to get a live drummer? Do I want to get another person to play guitar so I can play keys?” I’m in the very early phase. There is talk – and again, it’s just talk, like most things to do with music it’s all talk until you get in a van and leave. But there’s talk of doing a two week tour, mostly-west coast, but maybe getting as far over as Chicago, in June and July. Again, that’s just an idea right now. But I’m hoping to get out there.

Is that something you want to be a big part of Whitewaits? Or is it more just like a fun one-off to go play these songs live for a couple weeks?

I love playing live. It just seems to be getting increasingly hard to make it financially possible.

Even breaking even on tour is tough. That actually kind of brings me to something else. You played Russia with Cause & Effect a couple years ago, is that right? You played a Moscow gig? How did that happen? Because I just find that really interesting.

Keith heard about this electronic music festival that they do every year in Moscow, and he wrote them and said that we’d like to do it, and they came back and said “alright, we have this much, if you can make it work” – you know, flights and all that stuff – “then come on out.” So we did it!

Was it a cool experience? Had you been over there before?

No, I had never been to Russia, no. We’d never played anywhere in Europe before, so this was our first…

Really? Not even back in the early days?

No, we never got over there.

I’m just kind of shocked by that, because Europe would seem like a natural market for your music, maybe more than America was in the early ‘90s.

Yeah, you would think so! [Laughs] Maybe you can go back and talk to the people at BMG Europe…

Yeah, let me hop in my DeLorean!

You could ask them why they didn’t want to release Trip in England and Europe!

[Laugh] Wow!

Even though our label and our management at the time were totally pushing for it, they just decided they didn’t want to do it. So… Anyway.

Was it a neat experience, getting over to Moscow? Did you have time to see Russia?

It was great! I got to see Moscow. We were there the night before the show, and then we stayed the night of the show, and then I stayed another three nights and mostly just walked around Moscow getting lost. It’s a really cool city, but incredibly hard to get around. Fewer people speak English than you would think. All the signs are in Cyrillic, so…

You can’t even figure out what the letters are, never mind how to read them!

Exactly! You can go to France or Italy, and you’re like “OK, I kind of get it now.” You can be there for a while and you’re “OK, that’s what that sign means” or whatever. You can kind of piece things together. But there, it was crazy. There were some art museums I wanted to go to. So my morning routine was, get out the iPad or iPhone and figure out my route to get there. The subway system there is not like New York, where if you were lost, you could probably just walk in any direction for a few blocks and at some point you’re going to run across a station, and then you’d be able to figure out how to get somewhere. Same with Paris I think. There, the stations are sporadically around the city. They’re in these very ornate buildings that look like every other building. They have a tiny sign on one side, but not on the other side, so if you’re on the wrong side of the building you’d never even know there was a train station there. I got incredibly lost the day of our show. I went out and I came back just in time for soundcheck because I’d just been wandering around lost trying to find my way back. So my routine for the days after was that I’d get up and go “alright, I want to go to this art museum.” And I would figure out what train I needed to take and how to get to the station near the hotel or whatever. But then, you had to count how many stations it was to the right stop, because not only are the signs in Cyrillic, but… In London, when a train pulls into a station, there’s the name of the station on the tiled walls, and it’s every few feet so no matter where your train stops and whatever car you’re in, you can see the name of the station, right?

Right, sure.

Not there! [Laughs] There’s one sign in the middle of the platform, on the tile or whatever.

And if you’re not in the middle, good luck to you!

Exactly! You’ve gone screaming by. And there’s an announcement as to what station it is, but…

That isn’t helpful if you don’t speak Russian!

Exactly. I did a lot of counting when I was there.

Just hope they don’t start running express or something!

Exactly! The gig itself was amazing. Big venue. We didn’t know what to expect as far as people knowing us, but you know, we looked out and there were all these people singing along to the songs, so I guess they did know us.

Did they seem to know older stuff, or newer stuff, or all of it?

All of it! We did a lot of stuff from AC2, and they knew that for sure.

Huh, I guess the internet is good for something! So you said that you’re looking at putting a live version of Whitewaits together and doing some sort of tour, and then I think I saw somewhere you had mentioned that you’re writing more Whitewaits stuff, or at least that’s the plan?

Yeah, I’m always writing. I think I’m going to do a shorter EP the next time around. I’ve already got a couple of songs that are written. They’re not recorded. Like I did with the Whitewaits record, I went back to not getting the computer involved until the song was written, or mostly written.

Is that going to be a parameter for Whitewaits from here on out? Is that part of the project, that it has to be written that way?

I think it’s going to be the parameters for most of the stuff I write from now on. I’m just enjoying writing that way a lot more. When you get the computer and all the synths hooked up and all that stuff involved, at least in the very beginning, there’s always something that goes wrong. You start working on something, and then you’re like “oh yeah, I’m going to start triggering the Minimoog,” and then it’s not working, and you spend fifteen minutes trying to figure out whether a MIDI cable got pulled out or whatever, or why you’re not getting sound while you’re playing it, and then the moment is lost. I’m trying to stay away from that, so it’s either acoustic guitar or electric piano, sit down, at least get the basics, like a verse-chorus figured out before I start programming things. So anyway I have two songs in the written state, they’re not recorded yet, and I’m also working on what I think is going to be maybe a b-side. It’s my first cover.

Oh!

Which I’m totally enjoying. And I might not… Well, we’ll see, its in the early stages. I think I’m going to do a cover of “Bring On The Dancing Horses” by Echo and the Bunnymen. It’s always been a favorite song of mine. I’ve kind of stripped it down and slowed it down and turned it into something a little different.

I’m really interested to hear that, I hope you get it done.

Yeah, I think I will.

So, with that said, it seems like Whitewaits is your primary focus right now. And I think you mentioned somewhere that Keith just got married.

Yeah, he did.

And he also has his own side project going on, right?

Yeah, he’s got a project called Solsun that he’s working on.

So I guess what I’m leading up to is, is Cause & Effect on the shelf for the time being? Is there a plan to return to it at a particular time? Or is it just sort of, when you’re there, you’re there?

Artificial Construct Part 3 is still in the works.

I’ve been waiting a while for that one!

Yeahhhh… [Laughs] All the songs, they’re… It’s so close. We just decided we would take a little break, and then we would regroup once he’s done with the Solsun thing.

So it will happen eventually.

Yes, it will!

And I guess whenever that day comes… I mean, I imagine Artificial Construct 3 will come out eventually. After that, do you think that Cause & Effect is going to become your primary focus again? Will it always be a balancing act between that and Whitewaits? Do you have any sense of what the future looks like, musically, for you?

I think I would definitely do both, because, like I said, the Cause & Effect releases, they just take too long for me now, in my curmudgeonly impatient 40’s that I’m in. And I just can’t imagine not having some other outlet, which will probably be Whitewaits. Or doing guest vocals on other tracks. I did a couple vocal tracks for a band – well, a duo, a DJ/production duo called Opencloud. I did two songs with them and I loved doing it. And I would love doing more of that. It was fun. It was easy. I don’t have to promote the record. I just get to sing on it.

Put your voice on somebody else’s track and let them do what they’re going to do with it.

Yeah. Maybe they do nothing with it! It’s just fun to work with other people, and it’s fun to work in a style I wouldn’t normally do.

Rob Rowe – The M4TS Interview Part 2

Whitewaits – “Blackbird Spies” from An Elegant Exit

ROB ROWE – THE M4TS INTERVIEW
PART 2

In his 25-year career fronting Cause & Effect and Whitewaits, Rob Rowe has experienced the highest highs and lowest lows that the music industry – and life itself – have to offer. From multiple Hot 100-charting singles to the tragic death of C&E co-founder Sean Rowley, from being unceremoniously dropped to touring the world independently, Rowe has weathered it all with a warm croon and a singular vision. In Part 2 of our interview, we dive in deep on An Elegant Exit, the debut full-length from Whitewaits. Check back tomorrow for the conclusion of our interview.

Part 1

Ok, let me get back to Whitewaits. In listening through An Elegant Exit, it’s a bit of a sonic departure from Cause & Effect’s older stuff, but not really a huge one. I can listen to songs like “Island” or “Down” or “Lost Boys,” and I don’t think… like, especially Innermost Station, I think a lot of them fit into a similar groove as that album. And I know you’ve never really been afraid to pivot Cause & Effect in one direction or another, following wherever your muse seems to be leading you. So why the decision to do this as Whitewaits and not make this another Cause & Effect album, or put it under the Cause & Effect name somehow?

Basically, because as I’ve gotten older, one of the things I’ve noticed is I’m less patient. And Cause & Effect records take a long time to finish. And so, rather than wait for Artificial Construct Part 3 to be done, I decided I wanted to release more music and try to do as much as I can in the next two to three years. Just to see what it’s like to put more than one record out every four years.

Ok, I guess that leads me to another question. With Cause & Effect, I guess I always kind of envisioned it as your band, with you being the songwriter. It seems like maybe Keith [Milo, keyboards] is more involved than I had realized in all of that. How do you conceive of that band, and what parts do each of you play?

Even though I’m the original founding member, Cause & Effect has been very much 50/50 since Rich [Shepherd, drums] left after Innermost Station. Keith and I had a discussion after that, when we were talking about doing the Sunrise EP, and he really wanted to take over the role of producer. Innermost Station kind of got away from us. It was our first record that we did by ourselves. We recorded it all at Keith’s house, and the technology, although it was good, wasn’t like nowadays. And we just… there are a lot of technical things on that record that we all cringe at now. It just kind of got away from us. In a lot of ways I blame myself, because it’s just my personality, if anything fails, it’s my fault. So I happily stepped back and said “well I’ll keep doing the writing, but you just take the songs and do whatever you want with them.” And that’s how we’ve worked ever since. It works well, it works well. But at the same time…

It’s a slow process.

It’s a slow process. Keith is so talented, but he’s also a perfectionist through and through. The production is much more refined so the process takes a lot longer. I’m more of a “just throw everything against the wall, see what sticks,” and then kind of peel things away, strip it back down.

So with Whitewaits, were you really interested in doing production and producing it yourself, being on that side of things as well? Or was it more just, if you produce it yourself, you can get those ideas done and out as soon as possible?

It was a little of both. I actually asked Ryan if he would help me with the records, probably two years before he actually got involved. I was going to start it a lot sooner, and it was going to be just a four song EP. Then some things happened, it kind of got delayed and pushed off to the side for a little bit while we were working on AC2 and touring on AC2. During that time, I was kind of like… The very first song I sent to him, I sent him an acoustic guitar and a vocal, and said “just do what you want.” And that ended up being “Ventolin,” which I loved. But then two years passed, and during that time I spent a lot more time in the studio, and started taking production a lot more seriously. Instead of… What I would usually do, is like “this is just a demo. I’m going to throw stuff together for the sole purpose of getting the song written and into a shape that I can send it off to somebody to do the better production on.” Then I kind of changed my tune, and just thought “well no, lets see what I can do, lets see how far I can take this production-wise.” So I spent a lot more time on things, and started to get a lot more into the technical part of recording and engineering and stuff like that. And so, during that time, I thought “maybe I don’t need a producer, maybe what I need is someone to mix.” Because mixing is this dark art that I don’t get!

Sure!

I think you either get it or you don’t! So then I switched my focus with Ryan to being more of a mixing engineer than a producer, even though he did co-produce a lot of the tracks.

OK, so Ryan co-produced some of An Elegant Exit, and you mentioned earlier that he’s going to be involved in whatever the live version of what Whitewaits looks like. Is it becoming a collaborative project with him? Do you see him being an essential part of Whitewaits going forward?

Definitely, definitely. One of my favorite tracks on the record is “Hope Is The Hardest.” That song was extremely spare. The drums didn’t come in until the very end. He changed the structure of the song a little bit, and then he brought drums in a lot sooner and did all the drum programming, and I love where that song ended up. So I’d like to do more of that, where he’s involved in the production a little bit earlier than on some of the other songs.

Let’s talk about the songs themselves. You mentioned that the original plan was to record a four song EP, and that the project grew from there. Were there four particular songs you had written that you thought were going to be the EP, and then others got written later? Did you just keep writing? What exactly happened there?

I had four sort-of older songs which, you know, could have been C&E songs but just never got used for whatever reason. My intention was…

Let me just break in there, because I was going to ask you – were those some of the songs that were going to be on the original Sunrise before you scrapped them?

Uhm… no. No they weren’t, they were probably post- Sunrise. Except for “Ventolin,” “Ventolin” is really old. Obviously, because it’s dealing with a subject that happened a long time ago. But yeah, of the four songs that I intended to be on the Whitewaits album, only “Ventolin” is on there.The others got scrapped. Everything else got written… I think “Down” was half-written when we started. Other than that, everything is pretty much brand new, from the last couple of years.

When did you decide that you had the number of songs you were doing, or what the scope of the project was? Was it just that after eight you felt like this was a good group? Did you have other songs that were in consideration?

No, I don’t have a ton of songs just laying around. I write with the purpose of a release. I’m always working, but I don’t have this huge back catalog of things. I don’t have a notebook with lyrics; I write the lyrics as I write the songs. But I think I got to, like, maybe five songs, and I thought, “we’re going through all this trouble and I already have five songs? Why don’t I at least write another three and we’ll make it like an eight-song release rather than a four-song release.” After doing Artificial Construct Part 1 and Part 2, where there’s just four songs on each release, I wanted to release more songs at once this time around, just to do something a little different.

Let’s talk a little bit about those songs. I’m curious if you see An Elegant Exit as kind of a concept record? Just in the sense that, it seems to me there are a lot of thematic ties between some of the songs. I don’t know if that was a conscious thing, or just where your head was at when you were writing that similar things came in.

I didn’t notice that until… You mean, like the overuse of the word “cold”? [Laughs]. Oh, what else… I was listening to it toward the end, as I was getting mixes, and I was like “wow! I used that word in that song too!” I don’t think it was conscious at all, but I definitely wanted the album to have an album feel, and not be scattered.

Not just a collection of songs.

Yeah, you know the one thing that iTunes has killed for a lot people is the idea of an album, where an album has a certain sound and thematically has some structure, or just has a similar emotion that weaves through the whole album. A lot of people don’t even buy full albums, and I know with Cause & Effect and with Whitewaits, I see a lot of single-song purchases. So it was important to me that it feel cohesive, and it was important me that it be dynamic – I wanted some songs to be super spare and I wanted some to be a little fuller. Those were my only intentions. As far as the themes, I think it’s because I write very stream-of-conscious – I sit down, I start playing, usually at the electric piano, and I just start singing gibberish until I get some kind of nugget, either a melody or a lyric that stands out. It just kind of hits you and goes “whoa, that sounds good, that little piece is cool.”

The Paul McCartney “scrambled eggs” approach.

Exactly! Yeah, yeah. Which I never used to do; I used to sit down and go “I must write a song,” and I would write all the lyrics out and try and put music to it. And that works, but I much prefer this approach, I think it’s a much more honest approach, and there’s much more chance for those happy accidents that you wouldn’t intentionally have happen, little ideas that just pop out of nowhere. I much prefer to write that way. So I think because I write that way, and because a lot of songs were written in such a short timeframe, there definitely is kind of a theme going on there.

It makes sense that, if you have certain things on your mind, you would write about them in whatever songs you’re working on. If you’re writing them all in a short amount of time, that would make sense. So let me go to “Ventolin,” which you mentioned is actually a much older song. I assume that “Ventolin” was written about Sean [Rowley, co-founder of Cause & Effect, who died tragically of an asthma attack during a pre-show soundcheck in 1992]?

Yeah. I can’t remember exactly when I wrote it, but… I think of that song as a journal entry. It’s really just in my head, sort of recounting the few days after he passed. The funeral, and Minneapolis, and the cold and all of that.

I was going to say, the final line is really a killer, crushing line. The “you killed me too.”

Yeah… Yeah.

That’s some heavy stuff.

It is, yeah. [Sighs] There are some things on this record, where like… I didn’t really censor myself. And there are times where I’m like, “is it too much? Does that seem like it’s manipulative, in a way? Or, is that just, like, too bare?” But I decided to just go with it. So, yeah, that line is… it’s hard to sing too.

I can imagine. I know you said earlier that “Ventolin” is an older song, but does Sean kind of… does his spirit still loom large in your musical projects?

Oh my god, always.

It seems like you guys really had a special bond.

We had a bond for sure, and we just… He taught me. I mean, he wasn’t around for very long, but he taught me a ton of stuff about songwriting, and a ton of stuff about not always accepting that first thing that comes out. Maybe you come back to it, but you work through other ideas and then you eventually land on that original idea if it’s the best one. There are song structure things that he taught me. Like, one specific thing I think of constantly is, it’s kind of… I guess it’s a songwriting trick. If your verses start on the 1, you don’t start your chorus on the 1. And that gives the chorus more impact. By starting it after the 1 or before the 1 you’re setting it up as this different part from the verse. There’s little things like that, you know? He’s definitely always around, and I’m always going back to these things that he taught me.

I guess maybe because that song is so upfront with that raw emotion, I was wondering if you had him in mind when you were writing the other songs here. I was speaking earlier about the album’s thematic coherence, and one of the things I kept feeling creeping in is that, a lot of these songs seem like they might address romantic entanglements, or falling-outs with friends and things like that, but they could also be about having lost someone in that sort of way as well.

I will admit that “Down,” the second verse of “Down,” I was definitely thinking about him when I was writing that. Whenever I write, it’s never one thing; there’s usually a couple of things, and when I write I have these things in my head but it’s more about the feeling. “Down” is also a little bit about my parents, and my dad and what he’s going through and what my parents are going through. He’s been diagnosed with dementia. He’s not really bad yet, but it’s getting there. It’s been really hard on them.

I’m sorry to hear that.

Yeah, thank you. So I was definitely thinking of them and Sean when I was writing those lyrics for the second verse of “Down.”

There seems to be a lot of hurt, and a lot of fear, laced through these songs – even the more upbeat-sounding ones.

Oh yeah, yeah. I’m kind of a mess. [Laughs].

And in a lot of the songs – whether it’s “Lost Boys” or whether it’s “Hope Is The Hardest,”–  there’s almost an aspect of that fear and loss turned into, sort of a pep talk to yourself, like “I can get through this kind of fear.”

You’ve totally nailed it. “Lost Boys”… a lot of these songs are these internal dialogues that are constantly going on in my head, or imagined internal dialogues of somebody else, what they would be going through inside their heads. Yeah, for sure.

I guess I recognize a lot of that stuff just from my own writing, it’s kind of how my own thought process works sometimes. You kind of try and write your way out of the bad spots.

Exactly. I’m kind of a comedy nerd, and I’ve been obsessed with Marc Maron’s podcast, “What The Fuck.” I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to it…

Yeah, I have.

One of the things I love about comics, and writers – I know a novelist who took a terrible situation and turned it into a book. I think that’s what creating art is about, taking that stuff and taking the power away from it, from the bad stuff, and using it to actually create something. And by writing a song, or writing a story or whatever, you take back your power.

That’s powerful stuff.

Yeah.

It comes through in listening to these songs. One song I wanted to ask specifically about is “The Way Back.” Maybe, this is just my own reading of it. It reads as a kiss-off to perhaps a former lover or friend, but it could also be read as a kiss-off to a music industry that may have dropped you. I don’t know if that was just my own reading of it there.

It’s not so much of a kiss-off, I don’t think. It is and it isn’t. But it’s not…

More of a “you suck, and I hope you figure it out because I actually do like you”?

Kind of! More so, like the “hope” part at the end, the chorus really is well intentioned. Like “I really care about you, I hope you figure it…” Yeah, you nailed it. I guess I was as obvious as I thought I was! [Laughs]. It’s funny because I used to hide behind characters in songs. Like “She Said” could be titled “I Said.”

[Laughs].

If I went back and wrote it now… I used to kind of hide behind things. And with this record I decided to not ever hide behind anything and to just get it out there. And so it’s interesting to me that that worked, somehow!

Yeah, I think it really comes through! Oh, and then I just wanted to talk briefly about “Lost Boys” because I love the way you twist around the lyric from beginning to end.  I love, just stylistically, the way you go from “I once had the thought we would last // but I lost it somehow” to “I once had the thought I was lost // but I lost it somehow.”

Thank you.

Yeah, I don’t know if there’s a question there! I just love the way you brought things full circle using the same wording.

Thanks. I don’t know where that stuff comes from, it just comes out. I wish I was smart enough to be able to intentionally do that stuff, but I really just mess around and sing things over and over, and eventually these little things pop out, like flipping that line. And I flipped it partly because, you know, even though I might be writing and singing about something that feels maybe hopeless, the reality is no matter what anyone’s going through, life is not completely hopeless. And so, like with “Hope Is The Hardest,” I try to throw a little bit of… It’s very hard for me as a person to find a little bit of hope. I’m kind of a wallower, I have to admit. Luckily, my wife tolerates it. But I still… There’s still a little bit of hope in there. I like to bring that into the songs. If the song is completely negative, this just seems extremely self-indulgent.

So that’s really something that you consciously focus on, inserting that nugget of hope into it.

It’s sometimes conscious, and sometimes that feeling of hope comes out of writing the song. I think that’s why sometimes the little bit of light that I’ll sprinkle comes at the end of a song. I’m almost done with a song and I’m excited, and I’ve gotten rid of whatever those negative things are while writing the song. So it’s kind of natural that it comes in at the end.

Rob Rowe – The M4TS Interview Part 1

Cause & Effect – “It’s Over Now” from Trip

In his 25-year career fronting Cause & Effect and Whitewaits, Rob Rowe has experienced the highest highs and lowest lows that the music industry – and life itself – have to offer. From multiple Hot 100-charting singles to the tragic death of C&E co-founder Sean Rowley, from being unceremoniously dropped to touring the world independently, Rowe has weathered it all with a warm croon and a singular vision. In Part 1 of our interview, we discuss the pitfalls of going fully independent in the ‘90s, the fracturing of popular taste and the return to fashion of that long-maligned genre, synthpop. Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of our conversation.

M4TS: I guess first off, how are you? How are things in your world?

Rob Rowe: Things are pretty good. I’m just sitting in my studio today, messing around, and looking out at a very cliche Seattle. It’s raining, of course.

It’s got to be better than the snow we’re having here yet again…

You’re in New York, right?

Yeah, and it seems like it’s never going to stop. I feel like I moved to Alaska and nobody told me. At least there’s a bit more to do than in Alaska.  Alright, so let me start with, you had mentioned to me when we were corresponding a little bit, that you had to back away from the promotion of Whitewaits right after it came out, and that you’re just getting back into gear now. Is that something you can talk about, what happened there?

Yeah, I can. I’m originally from England. My parents are retired, and my dad’s health is not that great, so they decided to move back to England, where my mom still has a huge family. I spent a couple months helping them organize and then went down to California and got them moved over there, and went over there for a couple weeks and got them settled and stuff like that. I was happy to help but it was emotionally all-consuming.

I can imagine.

So I had to put work and the promotion and all that kind of stuff on hold.

Sometimes life gets in the way.

It sure does.

Was it hard to let go of Whitewaits at that crucial moment?

Uhm… yes and no. I love making music. I love recording music. I don’t necessarily love, as an independent artist, having to do all of the work to get it out there. It’s just not fun, you know? It’s work! It’s work. I’d rather be sitting in the studio twiddling knobs and recording things. So in a way it gave me an excuse to be lazy, you know? [Laughs].

[Laughs] That’s fair! Now, this isn’t the first time you’ve done things independently. Cause & Effect went their own way from their label in the late 90’s, and you guys kind of forged ahead on your own for a while there.

We did.

At the time, it felt like a pretty daring stance. I’m not sure if that was something you guys had a choice in or not. But it definitely was not the usual route, for a major label band to go totally independent, back then. Nowadays that seems much more the norm, to the point where bands often aren’t even interested in having a label, because they want to be independent right from the start. So I guess I’ve got two questions about that. Do you have any regrets about doing that at the time? And how do you feel now that the world has finally caught up with that, in terms of people being taken seriously while putting out their stuff independently?

Well, I recently… I was trying to clean out my basement and purge a bunch of stuff, and I found some old file box. And I was going through it, and there was this piece of paper that I totally forgot about. On it was a list of about 25 industry names. So I guess after Zoo [Entertainment, Cause & Effect’s first label] went away and we got dropped… You know, they dropped the entire roster after Zoo was sold to the CEO, they dropped the entire roster except for Tool and Matthew Sweet. So I guess after that we must have shopped around a little bit, because on this paper there were notes of what people had said. It was so long ago, I don’t even remember doing all this. Like, one of the notes I read which gave me a chuckle, some guy I can’t remember his name, his note about the demos – the demos ended up being Innermost Station, the first independent release – next to his name it said “sounds dated.”

[Laugh] I mean, it was dated, but that was kind of the point, kinda!

I guess? I dunno.

Not “dated,” but it’s referencing a particular era. It’s a genre that had its time, and maybe wasn’t as hot in the late 90’s…

Right, right. And this was, like… This was more like ‘96, because in ‘97 we released Innermost Station. ‘95 or ‘96 was when the record label dropped us. By the way, they dropped us a week after Keith and I had a phone call with the CEO and he was raving about the demos, and how we’d written the next Beatles “White Album,” just blowing all kinds of smoke up our ass. And then a week later they dropped us. I never believed anything he said, but…

Sadly, I’ve heard a lot of stories like that.

Oh yeah. You know, there are a lot of good people in the music industry. There’s a lot of people that, you know, they get it, they work for the music. But then it becomes a job and it’s like any other job. They’re just trying to make a living and make sure they keep their job, or get to the next job. You can’t really fault them. But it was kind of a hard time because we had people at Zoo, like radio reps, that would call me and talk to me and say “well, we’re friends, right?” That’s how they would start their sentences before they asked us to do some free show or something. After we got dropped, not a single person called us and said, “oh, you know, I’m really sorry guys. Good luck.”

You’re “friends” as long as you’re useful to them.

Yeah. I’ve worked in advertising agencies, and if you work in a department with someone and they got fired, you wouldn’t just, like… go silent on them. And not call them and make sure they’re OK, you know? It’s just very strange. It was a very strange time. So anyway, the answer to your question is, I don’t think we had a lot of choice, so I’m not sure how bold we were. I definitely remember feeling like “yeah, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna build a website. I’ve been reading about these artists who are making more money than they were from their label deals. This is going to be awesome!” But back in ‘97, putting up a website and selling music online was not like it is today. It’s so easy today.

You were very early to it, maybe too early.

We were definitely too early. We were having this discussion the other night, my wife and I. Trip sold somewhere around 200,000 copies. If we came off an album today that sold 200,000 copies and then went independent, it would be a whole different story. Because everyone’s on Facebook, so you can find them. We have a lot of fans from the old days, but they’ve sort of trickled in over time as the Internet has grown.

They had no idea you were still around until they caught back up with you?

I just got an email, a message from a woman that bought the Whitewaits album a couple of days ago. She lives in Tacoma, which is like an hour from Seattle here, half an hour. She was a huge fan, and she’s just now discovered that Cause & Effect released a bunch of stuff after Trip. It’s taken all this time for her to find us again. So…

Sure. Going independent was such an unusual thing back then, it was so low profile, there wasn’t a lot of coverage of acts that did that. Even websites weren’t really a big thing, I guess it was more magazines and TV back then. But they were all focused on what was happening at the majors, and maybe the big indies. Now, in some ways, it’s a lot easier to get noticed as an independent artist because so many artists are choosing to go that route. At the same time, there are so many artists doing that now, that maybe it’s actually harder to get noticed? How do you feel about that whole situation?

I definitely feel that, you know… I have mixed feelings about the way things have gone. In some ways, it’s so much better. You can record an album in a house now. There’s the technology; you can make it sound good. You don’t have to go in a studio. So that’s really cool. And then you can distribute yourself, that’s really cool. But I do feel like we have so much access to music – it’s not just music, I’m sure photographers feel the same way – it feels like there is so much music that’s out there, that’s available, that in a way I feel like it’s devalued the work a little bit. The work’s not less quality, there’s just so much of it that it feels less special in some way.

I can see that. Just personally as a listener, there’s so much out there that’s worth checking out that it’s hard to keep up with. Impossible really.

It’s impossible to keep up!

So I feel like I miss out on so much because I only have 24 hours in a day to do things!

Right. I remember a time when you could meet someone and go “who’s your favorite band?” And it would be one of ten bands. If you guys both liked a certain genre, they’d say one of ten bands, you’d go “oh yeah, I like them.” Now, you could go out to dinner with friends, and they’re like “hey have you heard ___?” And you’re like “no, I haven’t heard of them.” And you check it out, and you’re like “these guys are so good! Why didn’t I know about them?!” I was just down in San Francisco, kind of getting some stuff set up to hopefully do some live shows with Ryan Coseboom, who did the mixing on the record…

I was going to ask you about that later! I’ll come back to it.

Well he’s got great taste and amazing musical knowledge going way back. His dad used to own a record store, and he has tons of knowledge. And he turned me on to a band, you’ll probably laugh like “oh yeah I know those guys” but, uh… Halloween, Alaska? Do you know that band?

I know of them, I haven’t really listened to them.

Well anyway, he turned me on to them, and now I can’t stop listening to the last two records. But I don’t know how I would have ever heard about them before. They’re just not that big.

Sure. Well, what do you listen to now? I’m curious. What’s on your radar now?

I tend to… like with food, I’ll eat the same thing forever until I get sick of it. So in the last year, the band Houses. I don’t know if you know those guys. Small independent band. Electronic. I’ve been listening to their record many, many times a week. I love that. Uh… I’m taking a look at my iTunes now. Let’s see… Oh, I listen to myself a lot! [Laughs].

[Laughs]

No it’s all the mixes and the demos! Uhm… Local Natives, I’ve been listening to them a lot.

Oh sure!

Love that last record.

That’s a cool band.

Yeah, they’re great. I don’t know how the guy sings that high, but it’s amazing. I listen to… you know, I find in my writing, in what I listen to, I enjoy mellower stuff. I don’t know if I’m slowing down. I’ve always enjoyed more downtempo things. Underworld is probably one of my favorite bands ever. They’re up there in the top three. And I’ve always gravitated to the slower songs they always have on their albums. They always have one or two real spare, slow tracks. I really like those. And then in our own stuff, “She Said” is one of my favorite Cause & Effect songs. So that’s kind of what I wanted to do with Whitewaits, is explore more of that…

That slower tempo.

Mmhmm.

At this point, does the stuff you listen to come into your work creatively? Because I know, early on, most artists are kind of a conglomeration of everything they’ve listened to. And then eventually you find your own footing. Is there a point where you’ve developed your own style to such a degree that it’s always what comes first? Or do you still find yourself pulling in ideas from things you hear?

I don’t think you can ever stop being influenced by whatever you listen to. You definitely develop your own ways of doing things, but I’m constantly given ideas from things I listen to. Even if it’s a basic thing like listening to the Houses record, which I listened to a lot while I was working on this stuff, and loving the sense of space, where things are not completely filled out. There’s a lot of breaks between lines, and there’s a sense of atmosphere and space. Being influenced by things like that. Not necessarily like “I want a bass sound that sounds just like that.”

That makes sense. And I guess as long as we’re talking about music and listening habits and that kind of thing, you mentioned that ‘95 or ‘96 is when you split with Zoo, and you guys kind of had a hard time finding your place when you decided to go independently. And definitely at that time, it seemed like unless it was “electronica,” there was really no place for synthesizers in other sorts of music. Rock was headed toward nu-metal and all that stuff. And there was a real sharp divide – either, you know, you were a “synthesizer band” that didn’t use any acoustic instruments or traditional instrumentation, or you were a rock band with an 8-string bass and you couldn’t stand the sight of a synthesizer. It seems like, especially in the last couple years, there’s been a real reintroduction of… I don’t know if synthpop is the right term anymore. I’m thinking of bands like, I don’t know if you know Chvrches, or…

Oh yeah! I love the Chvrches record, they’re amazing.

I think it’s an incredible record! I think they’re one of a group of bands who are re-exploring what synthesizers and guitars can do next to each other, and how synthesizers can work in a more traditional rock song context. Does that inspire you? Are you interested in that sort of revival?

Yeah. I think I’ll still do what I do. I like to blend real instruments and synths. But definitely, there’s a spirit to Chvrches. They’re very old school analog, like Juno 60s and 106s and stuff, which I have in my studio. And during the Whitewaits recording, I decided to not use MIDI on most of the synth parts – of course, there are some softsynths and stuff that are being triggered by MIDI – but I played everything. And I feel like bands like Chvrches, it’s more about actually playing the parts rather than sequencing the parts. Definitely live – they’re great live. They have real synths on stage and they’re playing them. It’s a little different than the old synthtop model – you know, having a lot of stuff played by the computer.

I guess, this is a little gear-nerdy then… Did you see the Roland announcement this week?

Oh, the new line of products?

Yeah, basically it’s a new line of synths that emulate the old analog synths in a way where they’re designed to be played live, but without just sampling the old synth sounds. They actually emulate the way the sounds are created. They’re supposed to be live stage replacements for the 303 and 808 and stuff.

I think that’s a good direction. I haven’t checked out all the videos and stuff.

I only caught the press release for it.

Yeah, they have some new voice processor I was looking at. And that’s geared toward live too, being able to control your vocals.

Now that’s interesting! Because that’s one thing I don’t feel like I’ve heard a lot from you, either in Cause & Effect or in Whitewaits, at least not in a noticeable way. A lot of vocal effects and vocal processing and stuff. You seem to take a pretty straightforward approach, at least from how it sounds to me.

Yeah, I do. I enjoy that kind of stuff. Technically, maybe I don’t know how to pull it off. But I do like to keep things a little more pure. Ryan definitely pushed the vocal sound on the Whitewaits record. There’s a lot of saturation and top-end distortion that he’s added. And it took me a few months to get used to hearing my voice that way. But eventually I came around, and now I’m sticking saturation and distortion on all my vocal tracks. But no, I grew up listening to a lot of Beatles, and so I am kind of stuck in this more traditional songwriting mode, having a nice vocal on top rather than messing with it a lot.

#1 Album of 2014 – Kanye West – Yeezus

#1 – KANYE WEST – YEEZUS [spotify]

(feat. track – “I’m In It” [spotify])

What are two things that Foxy Shazam’s Foxy Shazam, The Bigger Lights’ Battle Hymn and Motion City Soundtrack’s Go have in common?

  1. They were my album of the year (2010-12, respectively)
  2. There wasn’t a whole lot written about any.

That #2 there greatly effected how I decided to write about those albums – that combination of experiential and evangelical writing that was sort of the basis for this blog to begin with.

But there’s no sense in me evangelizing on Yeezus. It’s the most-discussed album of the year. Discussed to death. Everyone has weighed in, not the least Kanye himself, numerous times. If you haven’t read either the New York Times interview or the one he just did with Steve McQueen in Interview Mag, or watched the Zane Lowe interviews, I can’t recommend them highly enough. He’s enthralling. Scattered, sure, but so are lots of the smartest people I know. And doesn’t give a fuck about code switching half the time – not sure if that’s because he doesn’t care or because it’s a thought-through stance. I really don’t care which it is, either way, those would be terrible, pedantic reasons to dismiss what he has to say. I love his brashness, his embrace of ego, his intransigent honesty, his intelligence, his desire to live ArtPOP (rather than just call things ArtPOP) – and if you don’t, I’m not convincing you. I’m not about to thinkpiece the most-thinkpieced-about record of 2013.

So what I will say is this. I listened to Yeezus more than any other album in 2013. In the car, on the train, at work, hanging out with my fiancee* in our apartment, in concert. All year long. And I’m not even a little bit tired of it – if anything, the more contexts I hear it in, the more it reveals itself to me. It’s pleasing intellectually and it’s equally pleasing viscerally. I loved the glitchy, blipped-out sonics of the first half on first listen. I came around to the slower, uglier, less musical tracks** later, after many listens, and now I love those even more. It, like 808’s and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (my #7 album of 2010) before it, will prove to be massively influential*** five years down the line. I saw the Yeezus tour in concert four times; the staging and pageantry were both astonishing, Kanye was vibrant and engaged and present in a way that I’ve found few performers to be, especially those on large arena tours, and each night was a progressively better performance, culminating with Lindsay and I on the floor for the final show at Madison Square Garden, maybe 10 feet from the man himself as he did work – as he jumped, stalked, was raised as a god and prostrated himself to another one, as he ranted spoke Swaghili soliloquized – an experience I will truly never forget among the thousands of shows I’ve seen and will see to come.

In short, Yeezus absolutely dominated my year; it wouldn’t make sense to have it anywhere but at #1. I’d place it higher if I could.

* She’s the biggest Kanye stan I’ve ever met. It’s one of her finer qualities. Is there anything more inspiring and wonderful than people who are really passionate about something?

** That’s the big secret about Yeezus – while it is an oblique, harsh, not-readily-approachable record, the Daft Punk tracks are actually the most approachable ones. The synthesized tracks aren’t nearly as gnarly as they’ve been made out to be; spiky, to be sure, but tuneful. It’s the knotted treetrunks of tracks like “I’m In It” and “Hold My Liquor” and “Guilt Trip” that really require some serious listening time to find footholds in.

*** That said, while I think a lot of folks agree that Yeezus will reverberate in a way that changes modern music, I don’t think it’s going to be for the harsh, Daft Punk electronic elements. I think the combination of the chopped-up, jump-cut, seams-showing aesthetic and the use of manipulated dancehall samples are both going to prove to be the real lasting legacy.

#2 Album of 2013 – Fall Out Boy – Save Rock and Roll

#2 – FALL OUT BOY – SAVE ROCK AND ROLL [spotify]

(feat. track – “The Phoenix” [spotify])

If 2013 had a theme for me, it was The Year Of Fall Out Boy. From January’s fevered discussions about how to break their return from hiatus, to February’s even-bigger-than-we-knew reveal, to April’s album launch, to the band’s endless parade of late nite TV appearances, to the six singles which charted on the Alternative, Pop or Rock charts – including the band’s best-selling single to date, the triple-platinum “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light ‘Em Up)” – Fall Out Boy felt completely inescapable to me this year. And it was wonderful.

I spent more words on them than on anyone else, by a longshot. I loved the brashness of the aforementioned comeback single, calling it

a conflagration that rages and then fizzles as quickly as it began. It begs to be listened to on repeat. It’s the sort of triumphal blast that lifts you with it; midway through each play I slip into hazy fantasies of joining 2 Chainz in the track’s video, stomping and spraying fire like kids playing Godzilla.

I thought it was brilliant, the way they found a path to success in a world that no longer had time for rock and roll by being simultaneously a part of and apart from the radio mainstream, “rock as a katamari ball, a small core rolling up the constellations of pop in layers around it,” fearlessly incorporating discofied funk (“Where Did The Party Go”), vintage synth-pop (“Just One Yesterday”), acoustic swagger (“Young Volcanoes”) and jock-jam bombast (“My Songs…”), acting as if all those things belonged together on one album and then somehow making it so they didYou can even sing the chorus of “Just One Yesterday” in a country twang. Try it, it’s fun!

I loved the album’s title, noting that:

if there’s one hallmark that sets Fall Out Boy’s songs apart, it’s that somewhere in that alchemical cauldron where Patrick Stump assembles Pete Wentz’s words into songs, a sort of transubstantiation occurs. Fall Out Boy lyrics, at their best, don’t just contain the possibility for multiple understandings; rather, they are all of those possible meanings, wholly, and all at once. And on Save Rock And Roll, they’ve finally found an album title that’s capable of the same Olympian gymnastics.

I saw the band live six times, in every context imaginable: a tiny club in Austin mere weeks after the band’s surprise return from their indefinite hiatus; capping off a Perez Hilton-organized pop party; anchoring the first day of the biggest punk fest the world has ever seen, in their hometown Chicago; at a sold-out Barclay’s Center, on a victory lap of an arena tour, packing venues they wouldn’t have been fit to headline at peak of their popularity on their first go-round. Each time out, as their playing grew tighter and their staging more grandiose, I was increasingly impressed. It’s something to see a band six times in a year and to not only never feel let down, but to come away from each show a little more amazed than I was the time before.

I listened to it as much as anything in 2013: Save Rock And Roll was my #2 most played album of 2013 according to last.fm, and those numbers are a serious undercount – I listened to it as much, if not more, on other peoples’ devices as I did on my own, not to mention all those live shows, TV performances, radio ubiquity and more. Even listening to it now, tracks like “Rat-a-tat” and “Miss Missing You” sound as fresh and sharp today as they did nearly a year ago. I still get goosebumps when Patrick Stump hits that a capella vocal run the second before the final chorus of “The Phoenix” comes roaring back in.

I even turned my previously-unfamiliar girlfriend into a superfan. (And along the way, turned her into my fiancee too. And I’ve got to imagine that all those hours we spent listening to Save Rock And Roll together, all those nights seeing Fall Out Boy live together, played at least some little part in bringing us closer together than ever.)

So like I said at the outset, 2013 was Fall Out Boy’s year. Save Rock And Roll proved both better and more successful than anyone, including this guy who thought they had the best album of the year back in 2007, had any right to expect. I’m over the moon about it all. To paraphrase a character from the same source material as band’s name: Best. Comeback. Ever.

[album review] [single review] [live review – SXSW I] [live review – SXSW II] [live review – Riot Fest] [playlist – The Phoenix]

#3 Album of 2013 – Against Me! – True Trans

#3 – AGAINST ME! – TRUE TRANS [spotify]

(feat. track – “FuckMyLife666″ [spotify])

So, that aforementioned shortest release on this year’s Top Ten Twelve? True Trans is a digital single / 7”, only two songs long, but they’re two of the absolute best songs of the year, and almost certainly the ones I listened to most in 2013, especially b-side “True Trans Soul Rebel”. I wouldn’t have felt right not including it here.

In a total coincidence, today happens to be the day that Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which includes finished versions of both of these songs, is out. In a fit of masochistic self-importance, I’ve refused to listen to the new album until I finish this piece; I didn’t want hearing these songs with the full studio treatment to color my thoughts on the versions I’ve listened to all year long*, which frankly are tremendous just the way they are. Vulnerability is a new pose for Against Me!, and they manage it here without sacrificing any of their power. Laura Jane Grace’s voice retains its strident bite even sans bark; the high-pitched ambient feedback that undergirds the acoustic guitar on both tracks lends them a depth and resonance that doesn’t make itself obvious until repeated listens.

The upside of that coincidence with the release date is that a thousand thinkpieces and, more importantly, interviews have covered the subject of Grace’s decision to come out as trans. It’s not something I really want to delve too deeply into here. It’s apparent that the vast majority of attention Against Me! are getting right now is due to Grace’s apparent otherness, to our curiosity at the things we don’t quite understand (and, I imagine, can’t really understand at a deep level rather than just, say, an intellectual one, without having been there ourselves.) Let’s not pretend otherwise. Hell, I’ve gone from a big Against Me! fan back in the Searching For A Former Clarity days to one who hardly gave more than a cursory listen or three to White Crosses; I’m not sure I’d be paying much attention this time out if it wasn’t for extra-musical interest.

But what makes True Trans so great is the way Grace universalizes that experience without ever losing hold of its personal meaning – indeed, it’s the deeply personal nature of the songs that grants them their universal power. I’ll never know what it feels like to ask myself “who’s gonna take you home tonight, who’s gonna take you home? // does God bless your transsexual heart?” But the confusion, the fear, the bitterness and the bravery in Grace’s vocal reflects images of places I know, places we’ve all known – we may each carry weights of different shapes and sizes, but we all know the struggle of shouldering a heavy load. And being specific her personal struggles casts them as so much more real than more generically “relatable” lyrics ever could, and definitely more so than the more metaphoric lyrics of the last few Against Me! albums (not to mention the political songs). It’s been a long time since I’ve found Against Me! this compelling.

So with that said, I’m going to hit “Post” and go listen to Transgender Dysphoria Blues. And, if True Trans is any indicator, I’ll find myself scribbling preliminary notes for 2014’s Top Ten.

*I have heard both songs, as well as most of the rest of the album, live a couple times, both acoustic and full-band; they’re only more powerful in person.

#4 Album of 2013 – Shone – Heat Thing

#4 – SHONE – HEAT THING [spotify]

(feat. track – “Bestial” [spotify])

I wrote a piece earlier this year focusing on album release strategies, which was in part spurred on by the viral campaign behind Heat Thing, the debut album from Brian Lane (Brand New) and Andrew Accardi’s (Robbers) Shone:

“Be Patient. Heatthing.com.” That simple, cryptic tweet, issued from a succession of artist Twitter accounts (including Thrice, Manchester Orchestra, Balance & Composure and Vinnie Caruana) on December 21st, launched the scene into the most frenzied viral marketing campaign in recent memory. Through a series of eerie videos, backmasked sound clips, and even mailed letters, the secret missive was gradually decoded over the next few weeks — Heat Thing was the title for the debut album by a band called Shone, which appeared to include Brand New’s Brian Lane as well as Andrew Accardi, vocalist for Robbers and brother of Brand New guitar-slinger Vin. There’s no question that Shone’s campaign brought a flood of attention that the band would never have garnered otherwise. But as the music finally emerged, it quickly became apparent that Shone sounded nothing like Brand New or their friends-in-virality, and when Heat Thing (the album) didn’t match the high expectations that stemmed from Heat Thing (the marketing campaign), that tide began to turn against the band. At this point, it’s not clear whether the elaborate effort was even a net positive for Shone.

Delivering Just What You Need: Album Release Strategies via PropertyOfZack

What I didn’t discuss is just how freakin’ much I loved this coolly-received art rock concept album, from the first listen. Heat Thing is a wildly creative swirl of an album, as twisted and tortured as its main character, an anonymous man who has been tempted into some awful deeds and now awaits his judgment.

Singer Andrew Accardi’s vocals range from barked chants to perverse muttering, from full-throated bellows to smooth crooning; they befit the frayed psyche of the character he plays. Meanwhile, musically, composer/songwriter Brian Lane and producer Mike Sapone pack the album with surprises – the trip hop-like stutters of opener “Piano Wire Number 12”, the swooning cello that rides below Accardi’s falsetto in “Kin”, the dueling sax and fuzzed-out guitar that solo their way through the formless “Defender 237”, the sea-shanty backing chorus of “Baby Shakes”. The choices all seem artful, purposeful, and better still, they’ve chosen right darn near every time.

Heat Thing is also not as out-and-out bizarre as it’s been made out to be. (I hate to think of what will become of the kids who freaked out over “Baby Shakes” when they finally catch up to the Talking Heads and Oingo Boingo.) It’s creepy, catchy,unpredictable, but most of all, it’s fun – a jazzy, unconventional set that, thanks to some big singalong hooks, doesn’t alienate.

I had the good fortune to see Shone’s (very good) debut live performance in February – a show that sold out not only before the album was released, but before the band members names were even announced. They’ve since been sporadically active. I hope that Lane hasn’t felt too burned by the response to continue exploring rock’s weirder corners. Shone may have done themselves in with their own insurmountable hype, but as I wrote following that night, “I hope I get the chance to shout “earthquake! milkshake!” at least one more time. I suspect the crowd at the Mercury Lounge tonight would agree.”

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