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(Above: Matthew Sweet’s performance is definitely a time capsule.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Matthew Sweet is bringing it all back home.

The power-pop singer/songwriter grew up in Lincoln, Neb., but spent 20 years living in Los Angeles.

Last year he returned to his Midwest roots and moved to Omaha.

Around the same time, Sweet released a third volume of covers recorded with former Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs. The project focused on the 1980s and let Sweet play songs from his formative years as a music fan and musician.

Musically, he is returning home too. Sweet, who performs Tuesday at Knuckleheads, has been extensively revisiting his breakthrough album, 1991’s “Girlfriend,” along with its follow-ups, “Altered Beast” and “100% Fun.”

“I guess I have been a bit nostalgic lately,” Sweet said, revealing the idea to revisit “Girlfriend” came out of marking the album’s 20th anniversary.

“The crowds have been so happy to experience the feelings they had back then. It’s not a thing I feel weird about because it feels really natural and healthy.”

Sweet and Hoffs started their collaborative cover albums back in 2006. Each installment focused on a different decade, starting with the 1960s. The series concluded with the ’80s, the decade that saw Hoffs’ greatest commercial success with the Bangles and Sweet’s initial success in the music world.

matthewsweet“I graduated from high school in 1983,” Sweet said. “We covered XTC’s ‘Towers of London’ on our last album. I remember when I bought (the XTC album) ‘Black Sea.’ I definitely got to experience more connections like that on this album than the ’60s and ’70s projects.”

Four years passed between the second and third “Under the Covers” volumes. Sweet said their record label, Shout Factory, grew impatient waiting for the next installment.

“It took a long time for the ’80s volume to come together. We were like a year and a half late turning it in,” Sweet said. “Susanna and I still Skype tracks back and forth occasionally, but I feel the trio of albums will be it for us. We have not planned on doing a ’90s album.”

The 1990s were good to Sweet. After bouncing between labels and releasing a pair of albums in the late ’80s, Sweet found a home at Zoo Entertainment and started a run of critically acclaimed albums that also landed a handful of tracks in the Top 40.

Sweet moved from New York to Los Angeles to capitalize on his success.

“I’ve lived on both coasts and in the South,” Sweet said. “It’s been real comfortable to go back (to Nebraska). I’m rediscovering things I remember liking as a kid, like seasons. I’m a big fan of weather and nature, and it is amazing to experience distinct times of the year and see them change.”

Now back in Omaha, Sweet is no longer affiliated with a label. He plans to record at home, and his fans are helping.

Money for his 12th solo album eclipsed its Kickstarter goal of $32,000. The project’s funding closed Saturday. He’s now writing songs.

“I’m also going to make demos of every song, because I haven’t done it in forever because we’ve just recorded as we went. Those will be available for fans and also will let me pick and choose what I want to use,” Sweet said.

Fussing over demos is almost exactly opposite of the approach Sweet took on his previous solo album, 2011’s “Modern Art.” For that album, Sweet intentionally tried to keep his right brain out of the process, making up melodies and recording where his imagination took them.

“That was almost a stream-of-conscious process,” Sweet said. “I’d hum something into my iPhone, then overdub on that and build a whole song.”

Sweet hopes to have the Kickstarter album out in the spring. Right now there isn’t any new material to debut on tour, but Sweet hopes it won’t be long before he can play new songs.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve played Kansas City,” Sweet said. “Hopefully with me living just up the road now we can make it there more frequently.”

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(Above: 5FDP land a knockout in Lancaster, Penn. on Oct. 13, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

When your band is called Five Finger Death Punch, covering LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” seems preordained.

The surprise isn’t that the five-piece metal ensemble decided to record a hip hop tune, but that it took them four albums to do it. When the band finally decided to put their stamp on the classic rap track, they found perfect person to help out: Tech N9ne.

“Zoltan (Bathory, guitarist) came up with the idea, and the riff was laying around for a couple years,” said Death Punch drummer Jeremy Spencer. “Ivan (Moody, vocalist) and I are big Tech N9ne fans, so we asked our management to reach out. I thought he did an incredible job.”

Although he was on tour, Tech N9ne jumped at the request. The only time his schedule would allow was the very un-rock-and-roll time of 8 a.m.

“I usually get up about 11-ish, 12-ish,” Tech N9ne said. “I was worried about my voice because I had just done a show the night before. It was too early for me to be screaming, but it was meant to happen. I don’t sound groggy at all.”

tech-fiveWith the instrumental track complete and a scratch vocal track to provide direction, it didn’t take the Strange Music MC long to record his part. The hasty departure meant although they collaborated on tape, Spencer and Tech N9ne have still yet to meet face-to-face.

“I got an email from their people about two weeks ago saying they were playing Kansas City and asking me to join them. I just about died,” Tech N9ne said. “I wanted to perform with those guys, but will still be on tour. It would have been such a surprise to Kansas City. But don’t worry, I think we’ll be working together a lot in the future.”

Tech N9ne isn’t the only guest on the new Five Finger album. Judas Priest frontman and metal god Rob Halfort joined the band on lead single “Lift Me Up” and members of Soulfly, In the Moment and Hatebreed also appear.

“We’ve been able to experiment a little bit,” Spencer said. “There are some instrumental interludes that link one song to another, and one song has a spoken-word narration from Zoltan.”

The Los Angeles-based band had the freedom to expand their boundaries when they realized they had more than enough material for one album. Instead of culling the material for one release, they decided to release it all in two parts. “The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell, Vol. 1” came out in July. Volume two drops November 19.

“When you are touring, there is a lot of downtime. We’ve always had some kind of portable studio or recording device with us to keep that (creative) muscle flexing,” Spencer said. “We went into the studio this time with a wealth of material. When we got to 24-25 songs, we thought they all fit so well we didn’t want to separate them.”

Spencer said the band consciously spread out the tempos and textures across both albums rather than creating a common theme for each volume.

“I think you get a wide variety of emotion on both albums,” Spencer said. “You can interchange songs on either volume.”

The recording studio can be a harsh master that will fray even the best of bands – look no further than the Beatles’ “Let It Be” – Spencer said his band emerged from the process even stronger.

“I don’t want to overthink what happened. We just let the ideas flow and got out of the way,” Spencer said. “We all supported each other’s ideas, and the songs just happened. I definitely feel the group is tighter for whatever reason I can’t put my finger on.”

Thinking twenty-six songs and more than 90 minutes of new Death Punch material might be too much for fans to digest in one sitting, the band opted to pace releases. The glut of new songs also created issues when planning setlists.

“We try to balance the old and new. We don’t want to forget about people who want to hear the old hits,” Spencer said. “It’s kind of a good problem to have this much good new material.”

They may have nearly doubled their catalog this year, but Five Finger Death Punch aren’t resting on their laurels.

“We’ve definitely started talking about ideas,” Spencer said. “It will be exciting to move forward and see where it goes.”

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(Above: Sea Wolf perform at the Riot Room in Kansas City, Mo., on May 29, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Alex Brown Church had to come full circle to see how far he has come. As the singer/songwriter/producer and main musician behind Sea Wolf, Church decided to return to his roots, recording at home by himself.

Sea Wolf started as Church’s California bedroom recording project because he didn’t have the resources to work with a band in the studio. When it came time to go on the road with his debut album, “Leaves in the River” (2007), he was amazed by the intensity that developed over time as the material was played each night with a full band.

Alex Brown Church of Sea Wolf.

Alex Brown Church of Sea Wolf.

“The reason why I took the band into the studio for the second album (“White Water, White Bloom,” 2009) was because I wanted to replicate that feeling, and I think we did that,” Church said.

Church was lured to record in Omaha, Neb., by the opportunity to work with Bright Eyes guitarist Mike Mogis, the sonic architect behind many Saddle Creek artists, including Rilo Kiley, Cursive and Jenny Lewis.

“I thought it sounded like fun to go somewhere as a group and be holed up in the studio for a month,” Church said. “That was definitely the experience we had, because being in a relatively small city not knowing anyone made us focus on the record.”

For “Old World Romance” (2012), Church wanted to return to working alone. He wanted the ability to pick up and put down songs as he saw fit — not possible with band members waiting and a studio clock running.

“This time I feel like I’ve gotten better at making albums, and I can match that energy by myself.”

In other words, if you like Sea Wolf’s latest album, “Old World Romance,” you’ll probably like Sea Wolf’s concert Wednesday at the Riot Room. Church is touring with a five-piece band and said the live sound is “pretty close to the record.”

“When I’m working on a lyric, I only work on one song at a time,” Church said. “I might spend weeks on one song. If I’m not feeling it one day, I’ll put it aside and do something else. I’ll wait and try a little every day and usually, after time, inspiration strikes.”

Despite being left to his own devices, Church said it was never hard for him to know when a track was ready.

“I’ll revisit a song and tinker, but that’s not to say I think about things too much,” Church said. “I want a song to feel fresh and inspired, and when I labor over it, it loses that. As soon as I get to the point of not knowing what to do, I put it aside until it feels fresh again.”

Though Church labored in relative solitude, the album never sounds insular. For every sparse track, like “Old Friend,” there is one with lush production, like “Saint Catherine St.”

“I was fortunate, because I could call Lisa (Fendelander, keyboards), Joey (Ficken, drums) and Ted (Liscinski, bass) — my live Sea Wolf band — to come play on songs,” Church said. “My friend Zac Rae, who is mostly known as a session musician but has his own amazing studio, also helped me record some stuff.”

To other do-it-yourself recording artists working at home, Church encourages having two back-up hard drives and backing those up religiously.

He picked up this advice when the hard drive he was using to save his music crashed and he lost everything. Working from MP3s as reference tracks, Church had to tediously re-create his songs.

“Before the crash, the album would have been done early last year,” Church said. “The final turned out a little different, but not in a bad way. I had to let go of what I had done before and just be happy.”

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(Above: Acid Mothers Temple perform at Kansas City’s Riot Room in April, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Note: This feature was scheduled to run in the Kansas City Star.  Because of our language barrier, Kawabata Makoto requested an interview via e-mail. Unfortunately, the Mothers’ touring schedule didn’t give Makoto much time to respond to my questions. His short answers necessitated using quotes from the band’s Website. Ultimately the feature was shelved.

The Acid Mothers Temple welcomes all, but entry can be daunting.

The ambition of Kawabata Makoto, the founder and leader of the Japanese rock band, is both impressive and intimidating. For fans, the group and its affiliated side projects has released more than 80 titles since forming in 1995. For musicians, Makoto offers several homes across Japan where musicians can jam and do whatever they like. There is a good chance, however, that neighbors will report these free spirits as terrorists.

“Our slogan is “Do whatever you want, don’t do whatever you don’t want!!’” Makoto said in an extensive interview on the Acid Mothers Web site. “When all the Aum Shinrikyo (the group behind the 1995 poison gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed 12 people) stuff was going on in Japan a few years back, the neighbors mistakenly thought that our house was a secret Aum hideout and managed to get us evicted. Also, mountain villages are always suspicious of outsiders, and sometimes we are ostracized by the community. These kinds of problems pop up from time to time, but there’s not much we can do about it.”

It’s not unusual for a Mothers’ composition to reach well beyond 20 minutes. Makoto wears his influences like badges of honor, naming albums in homage to Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. The music often sounds like an update to the rock scenes in Haight-Ashbury and London in the late 1960s. Psychedliec rock may be an easy handle to hang on the band, but Makoto prefers the term trip music.

amt“As I see it, psychedelic rock is a type of rock music that evolved under the influence of the drug culture,” Makoto said. “For me trip music does not mean the same as psychedelic rock. … A simple explanation of what I mean by a trip is something that allows you to hear sounds that you do not usually hear, or that allows you to experience those dangerous frequencies that mount a violent assault upon your soul.”

The writing and recording process is relatively straightforward. Makoto gathers whatever musicians he can find in a collective attempt to record whatever he is hearing in his head. Beyond that, anything goes.

“Music is constantly changing, depending on time and place and atmosphere, and attempting to tie it down never breeds good results,” Makoto said. “Our recording process is basically to improvise the broad structure of the songs, then to overdub stuff later. The line-up depends on who’s available on the day. So I suppose you could say it’s down to fate, since we don’t adjust the schedule to try and fit in with everyone’s plans. “

Makoto formed his first band in 1978, when he realized there was nothing on the radio like the sounds in his head. Completely self-taught, Makoto and his bandmates played through trial and error. It took four years, Makoto said, for him to realize there was a standard way to tune the guitar.

“I have always only mastered just the bare minimum of technique so that I can play my own music,” Makoto said. “I believe that it’s best in all things to have neither too much or too little. If you have too much knowledge or technique, then you’ll naturally want to show that off to others. At that point it ceases to be music, and just becomes a display of skill. That is not what I want my music to be.”

The Mothers’ were the final act of last year’s Middle of the Map festival. Unfortunately, their start was delayed and the band was unable to play a full set. Makoto is hoping to play a full set this visit.

In his many trips around the world, Makoto has noticed audiences behave differently depending on the country.

“Japanese audiences come to hear the music and that American or European audiences come to enjoy themselves,” Makoto said. “I don’t know which attitude is better. If you’ve paid your money to get in, then you should have the right to enjoy the music in whichever way you like. You can listen quietly or if you’re bored you can chat with your friends, it’s up to you. Maybe it’s more important for the musicians to try and play in such a way that people won’t feel like chatting.”

With Makoto’s AMT label dropping new albums in March, April and May and the band a third of the way through a six-week tour, it doesn’t look like the Mothers will be slowing down anytime soon. But Makoto knows there may be a day when his days of exploring new sounds and textures will come to an end.

“My personal goal is to recreate the music played by a heavenly orchestra I heard once in a dream. If I ever succeed, I will have no more need to play music,” Makoto said. “The other members of Acid Mothers Temple may have different goals – I don’t know. But even if I were to quit, I would like AMT to continue to exist, since I think of it as less of a band and more of a collective will.”

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(Above: Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears rip up the Riot Room in Kansas City, Mo. on Valentine’s Day, 2013.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Thursday may be the first time Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears have headlined a show in Kansas City, but it’s far from the bandleader’s first visit.

The soul and roots music front man has lots of family in the area. For several months in the mid-’90s, his family lived with his grandmother off Cleveland Avenue.

“I was only about 15 or 16 at the time,” Lewis said. “I remember hanging out in the neighborhood playing basketball, hearing gunshots, BBQ. We weren’t there long, only about 6 months.”

black_joe_lewis_soundcheckmagazine_03Just a few years later, Lewis was busking on the streets of Austin, Texas. Five years ago, he started assembling the Honeybears, a five-piece horn and rhythm section welded tight after countless shows and miles touring by van.

Lewis has shuffled in and out of town on family visits several times over the years, but his band is in a vastly different place from when it last stopped in the area.

In 2010, when the group played the Bottleneck in Lawrence, it was touring on the back of its first full-length album, “Tell ’Em What Your Name Is!” In the two years since, the Honeybears dropped their sophomore LP and shuffled members. A third album is underway.

“Our set now is mostly new stuff, but we still play the older songs, too,” Lewis said. “It’s a lot of fun for us. We know fans sometimes want to hear stuff off the records, but they get into it. It will be nice when the record comes out and people will know what to expect.”

Right now Lewis’ plan is to get the six-piece combo in the studio once a two-week tour wraps up, then try to set up a distribution deal. Lewis said he hopes to have the album out this summer but doesn’t have a timeline. Regardless of when it’s released, Lewis can’t wait for fans to hear it.

“I feel like with what we’re doing right now, I’m putting out my first record,” Lewis said. “On a lot of it, we sound like a rock and roll power trio with a horn section.”

Sometimes songs start from skeletons worked up by Lewis or bass player Bill Stevenson. Other ideas come out of jams, either during rehearsal, sound check or a show.

“Somebody might record our jam on their phone and we’ll come back to it, but even when we’re playing live, the stuff that sounds cool, I’ll work on lyrics for it,” Lewis said. “For me the structure of the song is the meat of the song, and the lyrics put it over the top.”

Forces that compromised the band’s sound in the past are gone now. The contract is up with label Lost Highway, which commissioned DJs to create a Honeybears mix with an electronic and hip-hop flavor aimed at the dance floor. Band members who pressured Lewis to clean up the band’s sound are gone.

“To me, those first albums sound wimpy,” Lewis said. “Back in the day, different guys wanted to do different stuff, and I went with it because that goes with being in a band. Now that stuff isn’t around. I get to cut loose.”

A fully unleashed Lewis could be dangerous. There’s not a lot of sheen or timidity in the Honeybears’ catalog. Lewis doesn’t have any trouble channeling Wilson Pickett or Howlin’ Wolf. He isn’t as concerned with re-creating a specific sound or era as are contemporaries Sharon Jones, the Daptone family and Raphael Saadiq, but he works in enough similar circles to draw comparisons.

“Honestly, I think we’re doing something completely different,” Lewis said. “I feel like we’re American roots music with our own twist. Once the new record comes out, the differences will be more obvious.”

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(Above: Survivor Billy Joe Shaver performs “Old Chunk of Coal” at Farm Aid 2011 in Kansas City, Kan.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Search the name of country legend Billy Joe Shaver and the phrase “honky tonk hero” isn’t far behind. It’s the name he gave his autobiography and the name of the landmark album Waylon Jenning recorded of Shaver’s songs in the early 1970s. That association earned him a seat at the far end of the outlaw table, another handle that has stuck with Shaver over the years.

It is difficult to summarize a life that reaches back to the Great Depression, when Shaver was born, and a catalog of music that spans five decades, but a better word to describe him may be survivor. Check out this passage from Shaver’s self-penned, online biography:

“I’ve lost parts of three fingers, broke my back, suffered a heart attack and a quadruple bypass, had a steel plate put in my neck and 136 stitches in my head,” Shaver writes, “fought drugs and booze, spent the money I had, and buried my wife, son, and mother in the span of one year.”

billy_joe_shaverWhen Shaver lost his fingers, he taught himself to play guitar again without those digits. The night his son died, he was back onstage, playing the scheduled gig. Guitar and pen are Shaver’s constant companions through crisis.

“I write songs as my way out of life’s corners,” Shaver said in a recent phone interview. “I always just wrote for myself, but it worked out that a lot of people got in the same kind of shape I did and identified with what I was writing and held it close to their chest.”

To Shaver, “Try and Try Again” and “Live Forever” aren’t just classic show-stoppers and sing-alongs – they’re literally lifesavers. When Shaver started writing “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” he was in a particularly bad spot.

“I was set up to be the next big deal in Nashville, but I was drinking, doing drugs, chasing women. I was doing everything you weren’t supposed to do,” Shaver said. “One night, I had a vision of Jesus Christ. He was sitting there, eyes like red coals.”

Too intimidated to make eye contact, Shaver sat there, stewing in humiliation.

“His head was in his hands and he was going from side to side with his head,” Shaver continued. “He did have to say it, but I knew he was asking How long are you going to keep doing this?”

Overcome with guilt, Shaver drove in the middle of the night to a special place away from the city he discovered with his son, planning to kill himself.

“I could have sworn I jumped off a cliff going to do myself in, but I wound up on my knees with my back to the cliff asking God to help me,” Shaver said. “He gave me this song when I was coming down the trail.”

By the time Shaver reached the bottom of the steep, tricky path he had half of the song. Getting the second half was no easier. Pulling his wife away from her friends and his son from his school, Shaver moved the family to Houston to distance himself from his dealers and temptations.

“I went cold turkey from smoking, doping, everything. I couldn’t keep any food down so I dropped to 150 pounds. One night, after I was finally able to eat again, I finally wrote the rest of the song. It took a year to finish.”

Whenever Shaver writes a new song, he holds it up to the standard of “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” It’s one of the first songs he wrote, not only a key track on Jenning’s “Honky Tonk Heroes” album, but the title song on Shaver’s first album, both released in 1973.

“I wrote that song when I was eight years old,” Shaver said, “and I’m always trying to beat it.”

Next month Shaver plans to release his first new studio album since 2007. He’s been working on the project with Todd Snider, and is finalizing the tracklist, making sure everything is up to the “Five and Dime” standard.

“I don’t want to spill all the beans, but we’ve been doing a few of the new songs live,” Shaver said. “I’ve got a four-piece band that makes enough racket, but still lets people hear the words.”

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(Above: Frank Black visits “Manitoba” all by his lonesome.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

It’s hard to believe, but the Pixies have been around as a reunion act for almost as long as their original incarnation. When Frank Black (aka Black Francis) announced his new project shortly after the Pixies’ first triumphant reunion tour, few could have predicted where he would end up.

The self-taught, idiosyncratic king of indie rock was working in Nashville, Tenn., with seasoned session musicians. The impulse yielded two albums, 2005’s “Honeycomb” and 2006’s double album “Fast Man Raider Man.” Earlier this year Black announced a third Music City installment was on the horizon.

“If you’re into the pop music of the 20th century and you happen to be a post-punk record maker, chances are you’ll like Patsy Cline and Miles Davis,” Black said. “Most rock musicians aren’t going to put out a bebop album, so we go to blues, folk, roots music, whatever you want to call it. It’s not that much of a jump for me — it’s all part of the same grassy hillside.”

It’s also a road well traveled. In 1966, Bob Dylan left New York City to record at the CBS studios in Nashville with the day’s top session players. More recently, Robert Plant ventured to middle Tennessee to work with Allison Krauss and Buddy Miller.

“The reason why you see this happening again and again is because of the opportunity to play with some of the best musicians in the world,” Black said. “It’s not just country music, but R&B and the whole world of 1950s and ’60s pop recording.”

Black’s collaborators are a world removed from the Boston underground scene where the Pixies formed in the mid-’80s. His album credits today include Muscle Shoals legends Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, Stax guitarist Steve Cropper and drummer Chester Thompson, pal of Genesis and Frank Zappa.

During sessions in Los Angeles, Black worked with Funk Brother Bob Babbitt, Al Kooper, Phil Spector veteran Carol Kaye and drummer Jim Keltner. Grab any of your favorite major-label albums from the late ’50s to the mid-1970s and at least one of these names will be found on the sleeve.

“I guess you could say the era peaked in the ’60s and got a bad rap in the ’70s, because by then there was just too much easy-listening and knockoff, quickie records,” Black said. “But the people who grew up under the punk badge were young 20-somethings who didn’t have a lot of money and shopped at used clothing stores and decorated their apartments with kitsch. All of a sudden, out come those old Dean Martin albums again. Ultimately, what you rebel against becomes hip again.”

When Black comes to town on Monday, he’ll be without any of his all-star assistants. In fact, Black’s only company onstage will be his acoustic guitar. But regardless of his surroundings, Black said, his goal is the same: to satisfy the customers.

“That’s where I’m at now and it’s no different from when I played my first gig,” Black said.

“It’s all part of the world of the musician. Sometimes you play huge festivals for tons of money in front of tons of people, other times you’re playing Knuckleheads in Kansas City. Both are equally valid.”

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