I recently decided to republish some of my favourite articles that I’ve written over the years. This interview with John Waters originally appeared as a FFWD Weekly cover story to promote his one-man show at the Calgary Underground Film Festival on April 12th, 2012. I still think it’s great, though the part about Johnny Depp being a “gentleman” doesn’t exactly ring true today. Enjoy!
“The tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic.” This six-word definition of “camp” offered by John Waters in a cameo on The Simpsons might also be the motivation behind his entire career. Rising to cinematic infamy with his self-declared “trash trilogy” (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living ) in the 1970s, the fearless filmmaker, actor, author, and iconic moustache sporter has continued to ruffle feathers ever since. Yet while his cast of characters might make you run to the other side of the street, Waters would rather celebrate than mock, shock, or insult.
“I’m interested in people who might be depraved, but they don’t know it, and they definitely don’t think they are,” he says with trademark dry martini wit. “I’ve always tried to make people laugh about it, whatever it was. To me, depravity is someone who’s insane causing both themselves and other people unhappiness. That’s not what I’m about. I’m much more interested in people who are insane, but find it gleeful and exciting, using that insanity creatively to make life better.”
This month, Waters appears at the Calgary Underground Film Festival with his one-man live show, This Filthy World. Part retrospective, part standup comedy, and all tongue-in-cheek, it dishes out behind-the-scenes dirt from his DIY days to the breakthrough of Hairspray (both the ’88 original and its Travolta-fied 2007 remake). Everything began with his childhood friend Harris Glenn Milstead, who transformed into larger-than-life drag queen Divine for 10 of Waters’ most notorious titles.
“It was kind of like the studio system,” Waters says. “He had a small part in my short film, Roman Candles, and crawled his way up because people liked him the best. I could see that he had this great screen presence and that audiences really reacted, so I created this character that was like Jayne Mansfield and Godzilla put together. He scared critics, but he started getting good reviews when he took that image and played the exact opposite of it. It worked for Dolly Parton when she became an alcoholic and won the Oscar. So hey Justin Bieber — play a junkie!”
From eating dog feces in Pink Flamingos to playing Ricki Lake’s mom in the 1980s Hairspray, Divine’s star power was expanding with each subsequent performance. Sadly, Milstead passed away just one week after the latter’s critically acclaimed opening, shortly before he could take on a followup role that may have busted him into the mainstream consciousness for good. The mind ponders how Divine would have reacted to the film’s recent remake, plus seeing John Travolta in his size 16 pumps.
“He would have wanted to play every role,” Waters laughs. “But he was actually much more interested in playing a man. I think performing in drag might have become old hat for him. In fact, right before Divine died, he was cast to play a recurring role as a gay uncle in Married With Children. It would have been really early for that kind of thing and could have made him a huge success.”
“Divine passed away at 42, and that’s the age of my friends’ kids who have grown up now,” Waters continues. “Me and my group of friends like Pat Moran and Mink Stole have all bought gravestones together. We call it Disgraceland and we’re all gonna be buried together. I find that comforting. I don’t believe in Catholicism, but I was raised on it and they always used to say that you couldn’t be cremated. I didn’t want that in case the resurrection happened. What will that do to real estate prices when every single person comes back to life?”
Following Hairspray ’s unqualified success, Waters’ next offering was Cry-Baby, a ’50s-themed rockabilly musical taking aim at the squeaky clean delinquent teens of Grease. Alongside an ensemble cast that included Iggy Pop, Patty Hearst, and former porn star Traci Lords, the film also starred a young Johnny Depp — then known as a pin-up for his role in 21 Jump Street .
“Johnny was already a star, but he hated doing that show at the end and never wanted to be a teen idol,” Waters says. “The thing I helped him with was that Tim Burton came by and looked at dailies of Cry-Baby, then decided to cast him in Edward Scissorhands. Johnny is a great gentleman and I think he handles stardom really well — especially that giant kind of stardom.”
Throughout the ’90s and into the aughts, Waters continued pushing buttons with the twisted triple-header of Serial Mom, Pecker, and Cecil B. Demented. His most recent directorial effort is 2004’s A Dirty Shame: a sex-crazed satire about the problems caused by puritanical repression. Ironically, this earned him the most restrictive cinematic rating of NC-17.
“I’m amazed that happened, and I think the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] is ridiculous,” Waters says. “They just gave Bully an R rating. It’s a documentary against bullying and now bullies can’t see it! That’s some good thinking. They have these preposterous rules, and I think rules are meant to be broken, but they refuse to do that. A Dirty Shame doesn’t even have any sex in it; the characters just talk about it. It should have been rated G because it’s so juvenile! No adults should have been allowed to see it.”
In 2008, Waters announced his next project: A children’s Christmas film called Fruitcake with Johnny Knoxville as the lead. Unfortunately, this was also scrapped due to the rejection of several studios as the filmmaker quipped, “In this economy I’m going to have to do a puppet show.” Four years later, Waters has now pushed the holiday project onto the backburner, and seems fully content with his other endeavours.
“That’s the movie part of my life, which is the smallest part,” he says. “I have a million other projects on the go. I’m writing another book, I just had another art show, and I’ve done this one-man show maybe 60 times in the last year. I’ve got a lot of TV projects that might happen as well. Right now I just want to tell people some stories. I want to make another movie, too, but it’s not like I haven’t made ’em.”
Through it all, Waters’ hometown of Baltimore remains a constant source of inspiration. As the backdrop for every one of his films since 1964’s Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, he professes a love for its blue-collar bars and the uneasy mix of “hipsters hillbillies, African-Americans, and the 10 per cent rich.” When the topic of HBO’s Baltimore crime drama The Wire comes up, Waters lights up like a jack-o’-lantern.
“Are you kidding? It was the best show ever on TV,” he exclaims. “All of the people who worked on my movies worked on The Wire, too. Pat Moran started with me and she cast it. Vincent Peranio was my production designer starting with Pink Flamingos, and he designed the show as well. I’m an ordained minister and I actually married [The Wire creator] David Simon and his wife. That was a secret, but she told the story on the Craig Ferguson show, so I guess I’m out of the closet.”
In the 2006 DVD version of This Filthy World, Waters looks all the way back to his childhood in a Maryland suburb, summing up these formative years in a single line: “It was hard to be depraved in Lutherville.”
“I recently took my elderly mom for a drive and decided to bring her to the very first house we lived in,” he says. “I was probably 12 or 13 when we moved away but I decided to go online and find who owned it. So I called them up and said, ‘I’m sorry to bother you on a Sunday, but I’m John Waters and I used to live in your house.’ There was silence on the line and then the man said, ‘Yes I know you did.’ I asked him if I could bring my mom to see it, and he said, ‘Yes, of course, but my wife will be mad that it’s such a mess.’ I said, ‘That’s okay, my mom can hardly see anyway!’”
“When we got there, it was really strange,” Waters remembers. “I remembered that I pretended to be Elvis Presley in my bedroom there, and across the street was the juvenile delinquent that I based Cry-Baby on. Up the street was a small part of the neighbourhood where the Black people lived, and I would hear them walking by at night singing rhythm and blues songs exactly like Ricki Lake does in Hairspray. These flashbacks happened and it was kind of amazing.”
“It was hard to be depraved in Lutherville, but as I’ve always said, you have to know the rules of good taste to have fun with the bad,” he concludes. “I’m glad I started my rebellion against tyranny early.”
I was scared to watch Entertainment for a long time. After experiencing Rick Alverson’s previous collaboration with Tim Heidecker in the painfully dark film The Comedy, the prospect of watching Gregg Turkington bring his Neil Hamburger character into these harsh realms sounded gut-wrenching. Of course there has always been a purposefully explored element of extreme sadness to Turkington’s long-running performance as the decrepit, misanthropic comedian telling offensive jokes about celebrities that cause audiences to recoil. His bait-and-switch act can leave you gasping one moment and in tears with laughter the next, but in this film it becomes a numb haze.
Entertainment imagines a deeper backstory for Neil Hamburger where Turkington (here simply named The Comedian, or maybe Gene) brings his act on the road to small town venues across America while sinking into a pit of despair. In this dogged one-man journey, he is joined by a young clown comedian played with aplomb by Tye Sheridan, John C. Reilly as a supportive but ultimately condescending cousin, and others who attempt to help the touring performer on his slow ride to the edge of sanity.
Alverson (with the help of Heidecker and Turkington’s riveting script) creates a stunning series of vignettes where the edges between nightmare and reality begin to blur. As he crosses state lines from one hotel room and roadside bathroom to another, a low-simmering fear follows The Comedian at every slowly shuffling step. Does he really help a woman give birth, meet a manic Michael Cera, or play Marco Polo with a houseful of drugged out Southerners? (Bonus points for the second excellent David Yow cameo I’ve seen alongside Under The Silver Lake.) This film never lets us know and is more powerful for it.
Turkington’s performance has a magnetic loner quality that rivals Philip Seymour Hoffman in Owning Mahowny, so obsessively dedicated to a singular pursuit that it will inevitably lead to his downfall. We never learn the circumstances that led up to Gene bringing his soaked Tony Clifton with four drinks under his arm act on an endless tour circuit, how he ended up performing at a birthday party in the Hollywood hills, or why his daughter won’t pick up the phone when he calls.
There are beautiful images bursting off the screen throughout Entertainment, with Turkington somehow containing a lifetime of regret in his eyes behind a yellow pair of sunglasses and matching baseball cap. Ultimately this is a film about the horrible powers of depression to overwhelm the human spirit, as someone can long for connection at the same time as they push people away with all of their strength. Not even the horrific scene where The Comedian insults a woman in his audience until she hurls a full drink at the stage (based on a real life event that happened when he was punched in the face at the Sled Island festival) can shake him out of this blank state. His character drifts through life with a dullness that anyone who has suffered with depression will understand. This is Turkington’s brilliance, simply adding darker, sadder colours to the rich tapestry he’s has been weaving in a long distance performance for the past 30 years. Five bags of popcorn.
“Maybe the ghost orchid only blooms in the mind of people who have walked too long in the swamp.” – Susan Orlean
Watching Adaptation for the second time in my in life, nearly 20 years since my first viewing, I was struck by its painfully accurate depiction of the agonies of being a writer. Of course this is Charlie Kaufman’s m.o. to foreground the anxieties of his protagonists/stand-ins, twisting through their mental gymnastics of self-loathing morphing into jealousy, pride, inspiration, and back again like the film’s metaphorical ouroboros. Nicolas Cage as Kaufman and his fictional twin brother Donald are the perfect personifications of the confident id and the tortured ego (with the super-ego occasionally moderating in voiceover), one sailing through life with success and popularity as the other seethes at the perceived ease of everyone around him.
I’ve seen hundreds more movies since the last time I watched Adaptation (and become a full-time writer myself), so I’m now able to situate its actors, characters, and script within new contexts. Kaufman’s leads are always the sweaty kind of men described as a nebbish, starting with John Cusack’s puppet-maker Craig Schwartz in Being John Malkovich (referenced throughout Adaptation in a series of winking meta moments from Kaufman and the films’ shared director Spike Jonze) and followed by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s theatre director Caden Cotard in Kaufman’s magnum opus Synecdoche, New York. We get more of the same from David Thewlis’s depressive author Michael Stone in the stop-motion feature Anomalisa (my least favourite Kaufman film for its streak of cruelty), and most recently Jesse Plemons’ haunted soul Jake in the tragicosmic surreality of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things.
Cage brings his expected level of hyper-commitment to Adaptation’s pair of starring roles, with that unhinged flash in his eyes that we see in his finest moments onscreen, when he seems equally capable of exploding into violence or warming your heart with sincere displays of affection. Meryl Streep is equally masterful as the New York Times writer Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief article and novel that provide the basis of this screenplay while expanding far beyond its original plot. As a meditation on the longing to love something (anything) so passionately that it becomes an obsession, Orlean’s words are rich fodder for Kaufman to dissect and extrapolate, while imagining just how deeply into the swamp she could travel to satisfy her desires.
That kind of cultural wanderlust from blue check media types, venturing into the compelling worlds of people perceived to be in a class below them, has been seen in the years following this film in quasi-exploitative “documentary” series like Serial, S-Town, or most recently Tiger King. Chris Cutler’s performance as Adaptation‘s front-toothless Floridian orchid thief John Laroche even has a few shades of Joe Exotic in his wily, back country charisma. In Kaufman’s hands it’s easy to imagine how Orlean could escape into Laroche’s world of sex, drugs, and rare flowers as an antithesis to her boring coastal elite life in NYC, snorting lines of green powder from the ghost orchid that send her into a fascinated state of babbling bliss.
When Adaptation briefly becomes an action film in its third act, Kaufman creates a brilliant send-up of Hollywood scripts that nonetheless holds you in its grasp. This is also acknowledged earlier in the film with Donald Kaufman’s fake screenplay, The 3, a cliche-ridden serial killer story with a multiple personality twist that naturally sells for six figures. Charlie, on the other hand, is so stuck adapting The Orchid Thief that he suffers the indignity of attending a screenwriting workshop led by Robert McKee (Brian Cox, bringing the same pissed off outbursts he would perfect decades later on Succession), before ultimately caving into asking for help from the twin brother who he views as an idiot and imposter.
The core lesson of Adaptation arrives at the denouement of its action sequence, just before a deus ex machina in the form of an alligator that McKee would have hated. In this rare tender moment between the brothers, Donald gives Charlie the realization that it’s a losing battle to fixate on whether other people love you, and ultimately matters most what you love yourself. Any solitary pursuit can be lonely and torturous, as we learn in this film from Orlean, Laroche, and both Kaufmans, but we keep returning to the swamp, compelled by our own ghosts.
I met Mehdo Dosso while volunteering with the Encampment Support Network, a grassroots group delivering basic humanitarian aid to people living in tents in six Toronto neighbourhoods. At that time, Mehdo was employed by a private company hired by the St. Felix respite centre, providing security and first aid to residents of the Lamport Stadium encampment. After speaking to him during my weekly visits, I quickly discovered that Mehdo was a compassionate soul with a great love for the people around him. A few more conversations revealed that he had experienced a globetrotting life as a model, actor, and humanitarian, driven to give back to the children in his home country of Côte d’Ivoire. We connected for an interview where he shared some wonderful stories about his life, work, and family inspirations.
Jesse Locke: How did you get started as a model?
Mehdo Dosso: I started modeling at a very early age. I was in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast. I think I was about six or seven years old when a French woman named Paula came to me and said I could become an amazing model. She helped me study and became like my second mother.
How did you first meet her?
She used to live across the street from me when I lived in a nice neighbourhood called Riviera Golf. That’s where I grew up. I won’t say I was rich, but it was mainly for middle class people.
Were you already tall? I was tall and skinny for my age! [laughs]
How did that lead into your modeling career?
I moved to Paris when I was 16. I was walking next to La Défense when another woman named Chanel came up to me. She was a scout for a modeling agency called Giovanni and we started talking. Right then she told me I could have a contract. It was a different era and I would say there weren’t a lot of big time Black models. There were only a few names coming out like Tyson Beckford and Idris Elba. I told myself that if I used that opportunity the right way, I might be able to do something and add my name to that list. Giovanni was doing a lot of video shoots and they used me for a few of those. Then I started to have my first gigs. The paychecks weren’t big but I was excited to get out on the runway.
What were the highlights of your modeling years?
The biggest things I did were for Jean Paul Gaultier. If you dream to be a model, you can’t top that. Once I started to do runway shows regularly, I couldn’t believe it because it was my dream when I was a teenager. I moved from Paris to different cities and came to Montreal in 1999. When I went to the agency there, people told me I was too tall and too big. It was hard for me to fit the mould of what they wanted, but I told myself I wasn’t going to give up because something told me there was a place for me.
Since I couldn’t find an agency in Montreal, I decided to go freelance. The first gig I had there was with a guy named Dan Loiselle. He’s the one who got me into the spotlight in Montreal. There was a big event there called Festival Mode & Design, and also Montreal Fashion Week. I couldn’t find a way into either of them, but Dan told me that I could wear his clothes and that we would make a big impression. We were trying to do different things to get attention from photographers and the media, and it worked! His vision and my drive paid off. Unfortunately, he passed away from cancer a couple of years ago.
Did you do a lot of photoshoots at that time?
Yes, I did a lot of photoshoots for big brands like Armani. When I got to that point in my career doing runway shows for Jean Paul Gaultier, I was traveling to cities like New York and Miami, but I wasn’t satisfied. Something inside me was telling me that I should do something to better my community or develop Black fashion. It became like an obsession for me and that gave me an extra lift.
The vision and timing was just perfect because as I was growing that Black fashion idea in my mind, I started to meet people with the same mentality. They wanted to help fashion grow in Africa, and we worked together at events in Paris like Black Fashion Week. If you research my name, many of the photos they’ll see come from that event. People remember me because I was part of the group of male models in the first two years of Black Fashion Week.
Male models don’t have a lot of good gigs because fashion has more to offer to women. I had to work extra hard to get on that stage because there’s so much competition. Talent is not enough. I wasn’t sleeping and was always trying to find something extra to do. I would spend days on my cell phone or computer doing research because I was a freelancer. That’s how I developed my entrepreneurial vision and started to understand how to brand myself.
Can you tell me a bit about the acting you’ve done?
Here in Toronto I work with an agency. I’ve done a couple of gigs with a TV show, and acted in three movies in Montreal. One of them was called La Prix. I met the guy who made the movie at a fashion show. He came to me and said “I think I have something for you.” I was playing the role of the doctor and one of my patients was eight years old. She was diagnosed with cancer so I had to announce the bad news to her mom. It was a crazy, dramatic scene.
What other kinds of roles have you had?
I’ve also acted in an action movie and a comedy. In Ivory Coast, I did a lot of commercials. When I was there I had some offers to act in a national television show, but my mind was still set on coming back to North America and learning to develop myself.
The process of acting for movies is almost opposite to the world of fashion. As a model you walk on the runway, but when you’re acting you need to talk to yourself in your mind. In both you need confidence, but in acting gigs you’re in front of the camera and really need to project. You need to become the character. Acting has 10 seconds of glory because by the time you get to the end of the podium, you have all of these guys photographing you. There are so many flashes in your face but it’s just for one moment.
When I started in modeling I was never satisfied with myself. People said the photographs looked nice but I thought they caught me at a bad angle or I was smiling in the wrong way. The fact that I was trying to be perfect made me a great model. I was always hungry for more. If I didn’t have that drive, you would have never heard about me. Some of my biggest accomplishments are gaining recognition in Ivory Coast. After modeling at those Black fashion events, I showed people that I could perform at a high level in Europe. At that same time I could come back home where they would consider me an expat. When people talk about me, they know I’m from Ivory Coast but have also traveled around the world. That gives you a different dimension, whether you want it or not.
How do you feel about your career, thinking back on it now?
Looking back now, I think it was all about God. You have a vision in your mind and want to do something every day, but it’s hard to see what’s going on while it’s happening. It was only in 2015 when I lost my mother that I started to take a step back, and decided to spend more time with my kids. I just took a breath and started to enjoy something different because I was always on the go. When I revisited everything that I’ve done, watching videos of myself on the runway, I realized that I was very good. I showed those videos to my youngest son Moya and asked him who it was, and he said “that’s papa!” Those things gave me joy.
When I was just starting out, I told myself that when I had kids we would look back and daddy would be looking fresh! As you get older, your body and your face change. I’ve looked at photos of my father when he was in his 20s, and now when I look at him I see the age. That was one of my worries. I knew I needed to leave something for my kids so they could see what I had done. I was a big African giant and my kids get to enjoy it.
One of my biggest thrills came when my oldest son Jalil went on the internet and Googled my name. I got scared for a second! [laughs] But he looked at the photo of me and it was beautiful. I don’t know how he found it. I started to respect the fact that I had been an international model because you never knew where it could lead you. I was in front of my own son doing research and showing him something about me. At that moment, I felt like I had done something.
There was proof of what you’ve done.
Exactly! When I first started modeling I hid it from my parents. I came from an African family with a father who was considered an elite. He worked in finance for the African Development Bank when I was kid. My father was so good that the president nominated him as an ambassador to Saudi Arabia. That was another turnaround for me because I had to leave with my father and enter into a totally different culture. It was just crazy.
Can you tell me about your foundation?
The foundation is called Mehdo for Africa. The goal is to give back to people in Ivory Coast. When I worked at the shelter here in Toronto, I never told anyone about my foundation, but sometimes instead of talking you have to just do. I’m saving up to buy clothes and toys for kids that I can send back home. There are always people in need. I can’t wait for COVID to be over so I can bring it to them myself. With a little bit of organization, I know I can do it.
I’ve also started to work on a soccer tournament in Ivory Coast that I want to do every year. I’m creating it in the name of my mother who passed away. She used to give back a lot, so it will be a fundraiser for children that will also help them appreciate their summer. I want them to forget about their stress. Teenagers are starting to get into trouble at an earlier age, so sports are always a good thing.
The population in Ivory Coast is very young. Almost 70% are under 21, and young people don’t always know how to organize themselves. Here in Canada you can find places to meet people and look for a job, but Ivory Coast is still growing as a country. I’m not saying we don’t have those services but there are people like me who learn a lot by working here. We can also do our own part without waiting for the government to help us. Everyone is waiting for a miracle to happen, but we can start our own projects.
Everything I’m doing is non-profit, so it’s all meant to benefit people. I’m doing things from my own pocket and not asking for sponsorships. Eventually I will start to look for that because a few people have proposed it to me, so we’ll see what the future will hold.
Is there anything else you want to mention for this interview?
I want to mention my kids because I’ve never really talked about them in the media. As a male model, you have a lot of people trying to understand you, but I always tried to keep my personal life separate from my professional life. I tried my best to protect them, but now they’re at an age where they understand what I did and what I’m doing. This interview came at a crucial time in my life because one of them is a teenager and one of them just turned nine. It’s like looking in a mirror. I’ve grown from the model I was as a young kid to a man and a father. I’ve won awards, but that’s not my goal anymore. It’s about showing them the way in life. Whatever you put your mind to, you can actually do it.
I started as a kid from Africa and people thought I was crazy. Nobody thought I could end up in movies or on the runway, but I saw it in my mind. I made it happen. My kids were born here and they have so many opportunities. I want them to understand the chance they have to benefit from my African culture and their mom’s culture from here in Canada. I want them to read this interview and see what daddy became. Hopefully they’ll see a hard worker and a great father.
My mother is also my drive. She’s the one who never doubted me and always believed in me. When I was playing basketball, she would come to my practices and never let me down. I won a trophy in 2015 and said I wanted to dedicate it to her, but she said I should dedicate it to my father. As a kid, I had a hard time with him but he was my only father figure. Now that I lost my mother, I understand everything now. I have 15 brothers and sisters, so I don’t think I can name them all, but those are the people I have in my life. This interview is dedicated to my father and my mother who I lost. I think the best is yet to come.
Back at the start of March, in a world that felt completely different, I had the chance to catch Halifax indie-rock heroes Nap Eyes at the Toronto stop of a tour with fellow Canadian wordsmith Destroyer. Before the pandemic forced them to cancel their upcoming series of dates, Nap Eyes had linked up with perpetual road dog and hilarious Twitter personality Ryley Walker, who would fill in for their guitarist Brad Loughead, then in the midst of an Egyptian tour with Homeshake. I had the chance to interview both Nap Eyes frontman Nigel Chapman and Walker for an article in Exclaim!, but sadly the guitarist’s quotes were cut for space. When I connected with Walker over the phone a few weeks before he joined the Haligonians, he was in the middle of a day off in Ghent, Belgium, chilling in his hotel room and eating “crappy food.” I enjoyed our conversation so much that I’ve decided to publish it here in full. If you’re looking for a soundtrack to accompany your reading, I would humbly suggest Nap Eyes’ brilliant fourth album Snapshot of a Beginner, followed by anything from the bolded names in the paragraph above.
Jesse Locke:How did you first connect with Nap Eyes?
Ryley Walker: It was six or seven years ago maybe. I heard their first record through Chris at Paradise of Bachelors, but I’m struggling to remember when I first met them. That’s probably because we had so much fun getting blasted. We’ve always stayed in touch and I’ve become close pals with all of them. I love them dearly.
I know you’re a big fan, so can you tell me a bit about why you like their music or Nigel’s lyrics?
Nigel has a great perspective from the voice of the characters in his songs. It’s psychedelic paranoia in suburban reality. Everything he describes in a quiet Canadian life is like an outsider drawing. He paints such beautiful pictures of street scenes. I don’t think he’s attempting to ask the big questions but they come out really naturally through simple observations. The band dances around that like a bleak ecosystem surrounding what Nigel is singing, and it works so well together.
The new album includes a song about The Legend of Zelda and how he finds beauty even in something like that.
I’m always inspired by people who get off on boredom. I love artists who create from the big scene or whatever’s going on in the world, but also think boring shit is fascinating. There’s so much to talk about when you’re talking about just staring at a wall, and that’s what Nigel does best. Walls are really scary and he’s looked at a lot of them.
Does it feel like big shoes to fill to play Brad’s guitar solos?
Brad’s got the only pair of shoes made for Nap Eyes. I’m just hanging out wearing my own bootleg ones. He’s a good friend, and I’m really inspired by his playing. Cian Nugent filled in with them once, and he told me he had to put his back into those songs because Brad brings so much energy. I’m honoured to be playing his parts. There are a lot of body sounds in the guitar. He flails around a lot and you can hear that. I’m much less limber than he, but I’ll try my best.
Seamus from Nap Eyes comes from a Christian rock background, which I know you do as well. Do you think that might be part of why you connect with them as people?
We’ve talked about that a lot. I come from a big time Christian rock background, and there’s so much shame associated with it for me personally. After I was 15 it felt so embarrassing to admit that, but now I just wear it as something proudly on my sleeve. I’m not Christian or religious by any means, so that was something I tried to block out. I think Seamus did too but now we rap back and forth about the powers that be and the bands involved in it. It’s a thing I tried to suppress and black out in my mind, but now it’s all I listen to. I can’t stop listening to shitty Christian ska. It seems so ignorant of the real world, even more than real ska. I like how their sets have all of these punny songs but then have one Christian song to tie it all up. There will be a bunch of kids skanking in banana costumes who raise their hands in that evangelical praise way. I think Christian ska made the world better for some people who found a centre in it. That’s pretty fascinating.
Can you recommend any Christian ska albums people should check out?
The ultimate one is Five Iron Frenzy’s Our Newest Album Ever! That’s probably the pinnacle. It’s like the first Velvet Underground album. Every Christian who heard it started a Christian ska band. They tried to have some sort of crossover but I probably saw them 20 times at Christian music festivals. I have an Apple Music account, but I don’t use it to listen to new indie band or classic Sun Ra albums or whatever. I literally just use it to listen to Jars of Clay, D.C. Talk, and the Newsboys. I pay $9.95 a month for these albums I never thought I’d be able to hear again. D.C. Talk’s final studio album Supernatural from 1998 is honestly kind of psychedelic. I don’t know if I’m getting closer to God, but I might be learning some of the answers.
Nerds have gotten a really bad rap in the last few years, but I think Nigel is a good nerd who goes super deep into things but is also a lovely, happy person. Do you think they’re bringing a good name back to nerds?
I think Nigel is a very sexy, smart man. If that’s what a nerd is, we all need to be nerds. In all honesty, they’re all humble and loving, and any nerdiness they have is contagious. Their morale together is wonderful because they’re all old friends. I’m honestly looking forward to hang out with those guys for eight hours in the van.
Shitlord Fuckerman – Music Is Over! (Self-Released)
Vancouver’s one-person DEVO deconstructionist Shitlord Fuckerman makes a bold statement on their latest release. Of course, Gil Goletski has never been one to half-ass anything, from their animated creations to their powerhouse drumming in prog-rock goofballs YEP to the absurdist spectacle that is a Shitlord Fuckerman live show. These warped electronic pop songs match their IRL performances in unbridled energy, careening from one idea to the next. “Patrick Cowley (In Agony)” pogos like a Mr. Oizo flatbeat with vocoder. “Big Eden” struts like a hulking robotic beast, asking listeners to “wipe me up with a sponge” before exploding into a blizzard of chiptune. The seven-minute outerterrestrial ambience of “Vacation of the Mind (Green Blue Green)” vaguely resembles Craig Leon’s Nommos with a swooning mellotron outro. Pay for a download and you’ll even get three bonus covers plus a modern day mashterpiece. Whether music is truly over, Shitlord Fuckerman hopefully points to whatever’s coming up next.
Jeff Parker – Suite For Max Brown (International Anthem/Nonesuch)
Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker continues to shape the sound of contemporary jazz through his work with the Chicago Underground Quartet, Joshua Abrams, Makaya McCraven, and a series of excellent solo albums. Suite For Max Brown injects his compositions with head-nodder drum loops and woozy hip-hop production techniques. Like his stunning 2016 cover of Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids”, here Parker takes on John Coltrane’s “After The Rain” and Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus” (retitled “Gnarciss”), breathing vibrant new life into these classics. To learn more, listen to his enlightening interview on Aquarium Drunkard’s Transmissions podcast.
Montreal-based experimentalist Anthony Hansen provided an artist statement for this project, so I’ll let his words be the introduction: “I figure we’re right on the cusp of cassette nostalgia giving way to low-grade mp3 nostalgia, so I’m getting in on the ground floor. This is 16kbp Future Nostalgia, the worst-sounding ambient album ever made.” If his intention was a new form of shit-fi, the 2020 reboot is a lot easier on the ears. These bleary tone-floats, melancholy melodies, and occasional blasts of fractured beats simulate the experience of reading Tiny Mix Tapes at 3 a.m. while listening to low-res downloads of Stars of the Lid. In other words, a perfect vibe.
Water From Your Eyes – Somebody Else’s Song (Exploding In Sound)
Water From Your Eyes’ Rachel Brown and Nate Amos bounce freely between sounds on this infectious eight-song set. The New York duo pull the rug out from listeners’ feet right off the top with the pastoral acoustic fingerpicking of the title track leading into nearly 10 minutes of icy drum machine pummel on “Break.” Yet even at their most experimental, like the 57-second lo-fi a cappella “Look” or its reprise “Look Again”, there’s a beguiling sweetness to Water From Your Eyes’ music. They return to their folky side on “This Is Slow” before reworking the title track into a sleek electronic beatscape on “Bad In The Sun.” Best, catchiest, and most singular of all is “Adeleine,” a slinky new wave tune with the duo depicted as puppets in its charming video. If this album seeped through the cracks when it was released last October (like it did for me), don’t overlook it any longer.
Martin Verrall – Yesterday’s Tomorrow (Self-Released)
Former Simply Saucer drummer Joseph Csontos shepherded this album into being after hearing cult Hamilton musician Martin Verrall sing his heartbreaking ode to Teenage Head frontman Frankie Venom. Followers of Steeltown’s musical history will know how fiercely revered the punk singer is among locals, with a street corner dedicated to his name and sadly nixed plans to construct a statue. “Frankie Blue” is a gorgeously melancholy tribute from the gravel-voiced singer with a look that can only be compared to Old Rottenhat. While Csontos draws parallels in the album’s liner notes to Lou Reed’s epics “Berlin” or “Street Hassle”, it sounds closer to my ears like Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” unfolding with the drama of “Rock and Roll Suicide.” The love for Frankie is clear in Verrall’s voice with his warts-and-all biographical lyrics: “And the days of excess, the lines on your face/Wanting obscure fame for the boys and girls/And it’s dangerous to talk when ears are near too/And you worry ‘bout the damage you’ve done and will do.” The fact that Csontos managed to wrangle Teenage Head’s own Gord Lewis on guitar for its recording session, alongside horns, flute, and a choir of singers makes this sonic homage even more divine. In very Saucer-like fashion, side two of Yesterday’s Tomorrow includes an unearthed set of basement fidelity recordings from Verrall’s first band Urban Sprawl dating back 30 years. The VU worship continues on these jangling, tuneful songs packed with Hamilton grit, a wonderful discovery in their own right.
Debby Friday’s music is the soundtrack for seizing control of your freakiest desires. After coining the world’s coolest genre name with her excellent 2018 debut EP, Bitchpunk, the Vancouver producer returns with an even more harrowing sound on this year’s followup. Death Drive combines dark industrial squelch with block-rocking beats and the creeping dread of a horror film soundtrack. Friday’s voice prowls the beat like a black widow on “Fatal”, a song about sex so good that it might kill you, while “Good and Evil” finds her unleashing in primal scream intensity with alien guitars and strobing techno straight out of the Blade blood rave. Likeminded electronic noise artist Lana Del Rabies contributes to the cyborgian agony of “Treason” before Chino Amobi re-wires closer “Neight Fictive” from a tragic spiritual into something even more hellish. Friday sings with a deceptive sweetness about a mother killing her own child as the song descends into a claustrophobic collage of buzzing flies, clanking chains, and pissed off rioters underneath nightmarish narration. Take a joy ride to the dark side if you dare.
XV – XV (Life Like)
The 21-minute debut LP from Detroit’s XV is a gloriously wacked racket. This label-described “free-punk/uncomfortable sounds” trio features Shelley Salant, Emily Roll, and Claire Cirocco, who may be familiar from the current Tyvek line-up or their various projects such as Shells, Haunted, and The New Me. As XV, they blur genres into a twee strain of no wave with voices overlapping into dreamy detachedness and phrases repeated to the point of abstraction. The album’s noisiest cut, “What Did You Do Today?”, sounds like Talk Normal in an unhinged jam session with Calvin Johnson’s Beat Happening. With the cadence of schoolyard skip-rope chants and blown-out fidelity of Japanther’s telephone mics, “Hair” delivers XV’s funniest lyric: “I had a crush on both Aladdin and Jasmine!” After a short pause following album-ender, “Process”, they return with a shambolic secret track cover of Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown.” I’d open up the pit while busting a gut if (when?) I get the chance to see them play it live.
Rick White and Eiyn Sof – The Opening (Blue Fog Recordings)
While everyone (including me) is understandably excited about Julie Doiron reuniting with Phil Elverum for the sequel to their brilliant 2008 album, Lost Wisdom, her former Eric’s Trip bandmate Rick White may have slipped under the radar with his own comeback. Teaming up with homespun psych-folk artist Eiyn Sof, who I last wrote about for Label Obscura, it’s a pleasure to hear his smoky whispers harmonizing with her haunting lullaby croon.The duo’s slower songs are fleshed out with dreamy washes of mellotron, bleeping electronics, and backwards effects, while its quicker cuts are propelled by fuzzy guitar solos and motorik snap. Musically, they occasionally remind me of Japan’s Ghost, whose name has now been stolen by a group of cheesy Swedish hard-rockers in religious gear. But back to the point at hand: new music from Rick White! Don’t sleep on this.
Gal Gracen – Fantasy Gardens (JAZ Records)
Outside of his home in Vancouver, Patrick Geraghty is one of Canada’s most underrated songwriters. I first became aware of his magnetic talents as the frenzied frontman of Ethiopian jazz damaged art-punk group Role Mach, before falling for the starry-eyed dream-pop of his solo project Gal Gracen. Fantasy Gardens(named for a sadly shuttered Richmond, B.C. theme park) is arguably Geraghty’s most fully realized collection of songs to date with its crystalline arrangements of synths, guitars, and sax. Badalamenti-esque instrumentals like “Grass Mask” sway like Audrey Horne at the Double R Diner, while “Winds of Solace, Pillars of Sand” could be plucked from a coral pink new age cassette found at Value Village. “She’s The Queen” is the album’s standout song, stretching out over eight minutes with its squiggly vocal effects and shimmering vamps. This mind-mellowing evolution of Gal Gracen sounds like Dire Straits produced by Yukihiro Takahashi, or maybe the other way around.
The Shangs – Golden Hits Of The Shangs (Judi Gee! Records)
The Shangs are a perpetually overlooked chapter in the story of Simply Saucer. Formed by singer and multi-instrumentalist David Byers, a member of Hamilton’s legendary proto-punk band in their original early ’70s incarnation, the trio have earned a cult following while conjuring an entirely different kind of electro-rock. Openly gay in a time and place when that must have been incredibly difficult, Byers was lucky enough to link up with brothers Ed and Pat O’Neill to assemble their own secret sonic society. Drawn together by a mutual love of the Shanri-Las, forgotten psych-pop group the Feminine Complex, and Kenneth Anger-informed Hollywood babylons, they created a sound that’s more spectre than Spector. The cheekily titled Golden Hits Of The Shangs is the group’s first release since the 1990s, but it sounds like no time has passed. These 15 songs bring history full circle with contributions from the remaining members of Simply Saucer alongside the final recordings of the dearly departed Paul Colilli. Devoting songs to semi-obscure starlets like Carol Wayne and Arlene Tiger, The Shangs weave together beguiling melodies with lush orchestration and an eerie undercurrent. To learn more, listen to Byers’ 45-minute interview with Hammer head Lou Molinaro.
This interview with the late David Berman was conducted by my former roommate and lifelong friend Keith Odell in 2008, shortly after the release of Silver Jews’ swan song Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea. Keith and I lived together at the time and I worked as his editor at BeatRoute Magazine, where the article was originally published. I remember listening in to their conversation over the phone that day and laughing when they began to poke fun at Stephen Malkmus, who had begun to take on jam band qualities with his 2008 album, Real Emotional Trash.
Re-reading this interview in the weeks following Berman’s passing has a bittersweet quality, especially in the final sentence, but it’s fascinating to learn that his obsession with outlaw country scofflaw Johnny Paycheck lingered for over a decade. To celebrate Berman’s life, words, and music, we will be holding a tribute event in Toronto on Tuesday, August 27th at the Tranzac Club’s Main Hall. More information and tickets are available here.
“There’s a certain amount of fatigue that comes with… …writing five albums about yourself.”
So intones David Berman, lead Silver Jew, and possibly one of the best songwriters of the past couple of decades. The primarily autobiographical outlook of Berman’s material, as well as his sharp wit, has driven the Silver Jews country infused slacker rock over the course of five albums.
It hasn’t all been the most upbeat material though – despite the countless jokes and turns of phrases to be found on any given Silver Jew album – there’s always been a current of dischord mirroring Berman’s well publicized problems with drugs. However, the recent release of Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea seems to find Berman looking forward and even, dare I say it, sounding hopeful.
“(With) Tanglewood Numbers, I got a lot of skeletons out of the closet,” Berman explains, “the sort of more gruesome, ghoulish part of our lives.” The release of Tanglewood Numbers did in many ways seem like a cap on the way the Silver Jews approached things, with Berman even declaring he’d taken a “hammer to it all,” and with one final push, it seemed like he had finally exorcised some of the demons that haunted his earlier material.
It should come as no surprise when you realize that at that time Berman got clean, got married, went on tour for the first time and turned the Silver Jews into a real enterprise, a real band for the first time. But with the darker side driving so much of previous Silver Jews material, where would he turn for inspiration?
As it turns out, Berman had no problem. The songs may bear a lighter feel than previous Silver Jews albums but are just as chock full of his trademark wit, evocative turns of phrase and strangely catchy choruses. Songs like “Aloyisus, Bluegrass Drummer” and “San Francisco, B.C.” find the Silver Jews approaching character driven narratives for the first time, while tunes such as “Candy Jail” and “Party Barge” even giving Berman a chance to get a little silly.
“In the past I usually had all the songs done and brought them to the studio,” Berman says, but highlights the difference of this album, explaining, “a lot of the words (were) written after the music – about half, 50% of the language came after the tracking was done.”
So with the band informing Berman’s lyrics and vice versa, as opposed to the holistic approach of the songs being written and then shown to the band, does it create for a better live situation? The thing is, Silver Jews had never embarked on a tour until 2005, and well, how did the Jews fare?
“It’s fun, it’s easy… … I just always imagined it as being a lot more awful than it was actually going to be,” Berman explains, “Also, by not playing live, I was sort of begging for the chance to let the records stand on their own.”
It is a bit odd that Silver Jews had never approached live performance. After all, live performance is so important and integral to country music, and while the Silver Jews have never really been a country band, per se, Berman’s songwriting definitely stretches more in that vein than the indie rock bands the Silver Jews are so often associated with. When asked about the country elements of his music, Berman jumps at the chance to explain.
“I think a lot of where that comes from the less reputable side of country music from the 80s, like Randy Travis or early George Strait.. … or the one that I love the most, Johnny Paycheck – but you find that most people don’t really want to listen to anything besides Johnny Cash or Hank Williams.”
Continuing on, Berman reasons as to why there’s such an aversion to country music by so many people, noting that there’s just as much as lame representations of the blues, “but since country comes out of a poor white tradition it’s easier to write it all off because red-necks are so annoying.”
And like any reliable country songwriter, the end doesn’t seem like it’s in sight for David Berman and his Silver Jews. The title Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea may seem somewhat prophetic, because in this new phase of life for the Silver Jews, Berman seems ready to take on life as a musician than ever before.
This interview is part three of an epic trilogy, following my NOW Magazine article and extended Q&A with John Darnielle on the Mountain Goats’ In League With Dragons. Owen Pallett was kind enough to type up in-depth answers to my emailed questions about his production of the album, which I was only able to use a fraction of for my original piece, so I now have his blessing to blog them here in full. If you’re in Toronto, catch the Mountain Goats tonight at the Phoenix, and listen to their stunning new record. In the meantime, read on for my chat with Owen!
know you first toured with The Mountain Goats in 2009, but how did you
originally become aware of John’s music? He mentioned that you covered one of
his songs and were a fan before you began collaborating.
Caleb from Cerberus Shoal first told me about We Shall All Be Healed back in 2003 or so, and I met John Darnielle at a party in Chapel Hill in 2005, and later he wrote a nice review of He Poos Clouds for Plan B magazine in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I actually listened to The Mountain Goats. I was in a car in Dawson City with Grant Lawrence and his producer and they put on “No Children” at full volume and I said “what the hell is this” and dove in. By 2008 I was e-mailing John ideas about constructing his set lists randomly by casting coins. I covered a few of his songs live— “Alpha Omega”, “Pure Heat” and “Going To Bristol.”
I definitely derive equal-but-different satisfaction from the material from his boombox years and his 4AD/Merge years. I found that John’s performances on his early records had so many wonderful moments of improvisation and accident that they’re absolutely riveting.
When John asked you to come on as the producer of In League With Dragons, he said you came up with a proposal to bring in Thom Gill, Johnny Spence, and Bram Gielen for the sessions. Why did you choose them specifically?
John had been throwing references at me that suggested “excellent musicians” and “a certain amount of pre-production.” Initially I’d proposed that we learn all the songs prior to entering the studio, but the calibre of musicianship (both with my hired guns and the band itself) made it clear that we would be able to do things quickly.
John has also been an enormous Thom Gill fan since we were on tour in 2009—John’s interest in working with me was also an interest in working with Thom. Because I know that Johnny and Bram have wonderful chemistry with Thom, I thought it’d be an excellent Wrecking Crew. The chemistry was so strong that I’ve since used the same trio on other recordings I’ve made, and hope to use them regularly in the future.
John also talked about
how you chose to focus on playing the songs as they written, bringing a
“krautrock diligence” (in his words) to the parts as opposed to experimenting
in studio. Was it your intention to preserve his original impulses as
faithfully as possible?
Part of the appeal of The Mountain Goats’ early recordings is the sparsity of the production, the feeling of simplicity and space. My favourite latter-day “recorded in the studio” songs retain that same feeling of suspension—“Against Pollution” in particular is dramatic because so little happens, the understatement of the performance is electrifying.
I found myself asking for performances that were trimmed of any superfluousness. I asked Jon Wurster to play no fills. I asked Peter Hughes to play no disco octaves, to stick to the simplest line possible. I started using “grains of rice” as a unit of measurement for how many gestures I wished for each player to contribute to a performance—I’d say, “Johnny, on that pass, you gave seven grains of rice. Let’s bring it back to four grains of rice”—the idea being that if you limit the number of gestures you perform, it gives added weight to the gestures you retain.
“Done Bleeding”, which ended up being the opening track on the album, presents a very clear thesis. Bass playing straight eights, drums playing a basic beat… I wanted this album to be brutal in the simplicity and restraint of the performance. (I felt, too, that this would be a good approach, given the harmonic adventurousness that John had gotten into on certain songs such as “Done Bleeding” and “Doc Gooden.”)
I also saw you mention
on Facebook asking Jon Wurster to play as few drum fills as possible, which he
seems to stick to outside of the country-rock accents of the title track and
the New Order hi-hat mania on “Sicilian Crest,” which stands out from the rest
of the songs. Why did you want to him avoid flashiness?
I find repetitious drum beats to be more interesting. Keeping a beat that is simple, allowing for the drama of the performance to be subject to one’s own bodily capability, it sounds very human to me. It sounds like prayer, it sounds like the mind trying to grasp the concept of infinity. I love that sound.
It also creates incredible drama when Jon starts going outside the box. There’s one or two snare interjections on “Clemency For The Wizard King” that are so simple, but so powerful. Or the outro on “Younger”, when after five minutes of the same thing, Jon finally starts to rock out. If you deliver a restrained performance, it makes those moments of excitement that much more exciting.
Thom’s guitar solo on “Cadaver Sniffing Dog” and Johnny’s organ playing on “Doc Gooden” are a few other standout moments in my opinion. Are there any other passages or arrangements on the album you’re especially excited about?
I knew Johnny was a synth wizard but I had no idea, literally no idea, how amazing he was on the Hammond. As soon as we heard him on it, we started getting him on everything.
I think “Done Bleeding” is one of the finest songs/productions I’ve ever had a hand in… everything about it from Johnny’s organ, Bram’s sweeping synths, the rock-solid rhythm section, and the moment-of-truth string entrance, I can’t think of a better song I’ve worked on. “Clemency Of The Wizard King” was also completely wonderful. John and Matt on each side of a figure-8 microphone and holding each others hands, singing in perfect harmony. I’m very attached, too, to the drama of John’s vocal performances on “Possum By Night” and “Going Invisible 2.”
I’m really glad he felt that way! I myself was entirely preoccupied with the mood of the performance, and making sure that it complimented the lyrics, as well as contributed to a larger sound-world of the album as a whole. The days we spent working on the album were, frankly, extremely smooth—only a couple of minor arguments. John kept delivering home-run after home-run in his vocal performances.
I recently interviewed Mountain Goats mastermind John Darnielle about his brilliant new album, In League With Dragons, for NOW Magazine. The article can be read here but I decided to start this website for the purpose of publishing the full transcript of our conversation. Over a spirited phone call, we discussed the origins of his collaboration with Owen Pallett, Dungeons and Dragons, and the encyclopedic drumming knowledge of Jon Wurster. Read on below!
know you toured with Final Fantasy in 2009, but how did you first become aware
of Owen’s music?
There should be a thing called “Indie Confessions,” like a sidebar to a magazine article. The Arcade Fire was just starting to get some steam. Funeral was out, but they hadn’t won a Grammy yet, or anything like that. You know how it is when a band is getting popular, there’s that energy or buzz or whatever you want to call it. They were playing in Chapel Hill and I was in Durham. This is back when I went to shows. My wife asked if I wanted to go and I said sure because we used to go to shows all the time back then. I went out there to Cat’s Cradle, which was about a half hour drive. I saw Owen’s set and he played “This Is The Dream Of Win And Regine,” which is of course such an amazing song, and I was just knocked over. I don’t remember the Arcade Fire’s set.
People asked if I wanted to come to the party afterwards, and I said sure. It was at a hair salon and Owen was there. I said ‘Oh my God, you were so great. I loved that so much.’ We danced to “True Faith” by New Order, which I remember because I ruined my heel that night trying to do the “True Faith” dance, which I suffered from for several years thereafter. It was great.
That was how I ran into Owen. The short version is that he was opening for the Arcade Fire and just completely blew me away. We became pals, and it turned out he liked my stuff and had been covering one of my songs. We started communicating and then I put him onThe Life Of The World To Come. I asked him to do some arrangements, and we’ve been close ever since.
did you decide to work with Owen as the producer of your new album, and record
it in Nashville again? Did you have a specific country-rock sound or approach
in mind, or was that Owen’s vision?
The deal was this. We had a conversation at
the end of the tour, and I knew which tour it was until recently, but now time
is doing the thing it does. It ended in Pittsburgh at Mr. Smalls, which is one
of my favourite places. We were upstairs and I said, ‘Well guys, we’ve been on
the road all year, and I’ve got a new batch of songs. Let’s talk about what
we’re going to do.’ I wanted to go back to Blackbird in Nashville, because it’s
just such an amazing studio. You can record any kind of music there.
I had this idea of letting somebody
produce. Usually I exert a pretty heavy hand over all decisions, and a producer
does things I can’t do like microphone selection, placement, and organization.
Generally speaking, I shoot down more ideas than I greenlight in the studio. So
I thought after 20 years, why not let somebody actually produce us and make
We started kicking around names, and Peter
said, ‘These are all good ideas, but you don’t know these people. You will
probably not be able to give them the kind of power that you’re talking about
giving to a producer. We were scratching our heads and I think it was Peter who
said, ‘Isn’t Owen producing now?’ I thought that sounded pretty good so I
called him up and he was into it. He wrote a pitch and said what he would do,
enlisting the following musicians to come in, naming Thom Gill, Bram Gielen,
and Johnny Spence. He wanted to use another studio, but I wanted to use
Blackbird, and he said ‘Fine.’
He had a vision for how
it would be with a lot of focus on playing the actual song as written, as
opposed to going in and seeing where it goes. He wanted us to adhere, bringing
a sort of krautrock diligence to playing our parts. That was cool because often
you go in and your expectation is that the song will evolve from how it was
written. Owen was holding me to the text, saying these were the songs I wrote.
Even though it requires more planning, it preserves the original impulse
It’s funny you use the term ‘krautrock diligence’ because Owen has said that he asked Jon Wurster not to play any drum fills on this album.
I think Owen is probably overstating that.
Producers have a tendency to gild the lily, you know? ‘I told this drummer not
to play any fills’ probably means asking for very few fills and getting the
best mileage you can out of them. I know Jon has always been really interested
in that kind of thing, talking about records that only have three fills. That’s
exciting from a drummer’s perspective because fills are flashy, but good
drumming is more about riding a beat and making it really count.
Jon really does seem to hold back on flashy playing, too, until the last song “Sicilian Crest.”
Yeah, but if there were no drum fills on “Sicilian Crest,” what a dire world this would be. That song needs a big old fill. I think there’s a modest fill or two on the title track as well. It’s a proper country-rock fill that’s not flashy but there to accent. If we want to talk about drumming, I can do it all day. Jon was a great player to begin with, but he’s also really dedicated to the growth of his craft and gets better every year. He has the whole history of rock drumming devoted to memory, so you can name a good old track and say ‘I’d love if we could do something with a Steve Gadd vibe here.’ He’ll say, ‘Got it!’ It’s exciting because I think his drumming on the really locked in songs on this record like “Doc Gooden’ he just absolutely nails it to the floor. It’s utterly beautiful playing, and a real honour to be a part of that.
a drummer myself, and a big fan of everything Jon does, so I’ve definitely paid
attention to his playing over the years.
He really knows every drummer. If you say you’re looking for a Jim Keltner kind of feel, he knows what you mean. There’s a song on this record where I said it was about Black Sabbath, and he totally brought a Bill Ward floor tom vibe to the chorus. You can’t miss it if you’re actually a fan of Sabbath for the playing. It’s like ‘Oh my god, a Bill Ward vibe in a folk-rock song.’ It’s really cool.
love those kinds of musical references, as opposed to lyrical ones.
Oh yeah, it’s the best! There are a lot of
them on this record, actually. I hate this about myself, and because I’m the
charismatic frontman people tend to focus on me, but my band is so much more
important to the whole picture at this point. I’m the guy who sets things in
motion, so I may be a 51% vote, but the band is the story of this record as far
as I’m concerned.
described their playing on this album as a “gigantic texture for you to sit in
the middle of.”
That’s the thing. There’s a synergy to it that’s really satisfying artistically. I write a song and set the stage, then they inhabit and people that stage. They make it a place where I can come back in and bring the original text back to life under their stewardship. It’s a communicative process that I really relish.
I love all of the little musical flourishes like Johnny Spence’s organ playing on “Doc Gooden.” Him, Thom Gill, and Bram Gielen are kind of musicians’ musicians here in Toronto, sprinkling their magic on all kinds of releases. Is that what you had hoped for as well?
I knew Thom from the tour with Final
Fantasy, and like everyone else in the world I totally fell in love with him. I
was wondering when I would get to make music with Thom again, and then 10 years
passed because that’s how life works. I was utterly thrilled to see he’d be on
the record. That’s his guitar solo on “Cadaver Sniffing Dog” and one thing I’ll
be attempting to do and failing nightly on our tour coming up is playing
something that does justice to it. He laid down like seven solos, and I think
that’s the second one. He’s a great singer and songwriter too!
The pedal steel solo on the title track is a really standout moment too. I was reading a bit about Dan Dugmore who played it and loved to learn that he released a Beatles cover record called The Off White Album. What was it like recording with him?
He was Linda Ronstadt’s dude in the 70s. He’s a session guy. For people outside of the business, they think of session musicians as people who just come in and play a part. But if you’re a musician in the trade, you’re like ‘Oh my God, we got a session guy!’ They can play anything, and they get done it very quickly. They’re usually getting paid by the hour or by the track, but we’re paying for the studio for the hour, so he knew he had to come in and get it done. When he came in the engineers were freaking out, and they were like, ‘That’s Dan Dugmore!’ He showed up in his day clothes, asked us what we needed, and did it. It was not many takes.
It’s such a different way that most people think about music, which is inspiration or being in the moment or all of these tropes that are sold to you about rock and pop music. Actually, there’s an architectural component when you know what a song needs. You need to find the person who has the best tools for that part of the song. They come in and show you several shapes that part could take. With a guy like Dan it’s hard to pick because everything he played is good. We had to get very granular to choose what was right.
I think the grander concept for your lyrics on this album really clicked for me when I read the Vanity Fair interview and you talked about “making peace with your dragons and enlisting them in your aid.” The metaphor of chasing the dragon in search of a high that you can never achieve the same as the first time is really vivid. Is that kind of what you had in mind when you talk about “dragon-noir”?
For this album, I’m talking a lot more transparently about how albums get born. Some people who work really fast might think about a concept for an album and then write to that. This one, like many records, had several lives. It started out as a rock opera called Riversend. It was about an aging wizard whose seaside kingdom is under siege. He’s rallying his people to try and defend their community. He’s probably going to die, and probably a lot of people are going to die.
So I was working on that and I sort of reached a point of not wanting to anymore. It’s not like I got sick of it, but one thing that happens is I struggle to write a song that doesn’t feel like it’s just stage directions. When I wrote TallahasseeI almost lost my mind with this stuff. I needed to write a song that got them to Florida and wound up setting the whole record in Florida to eliminate that problem. That’s the frustrating part when you’re writing an album that tries to tell a through-line story. You need to move the action, and at the same time it’s hard to find a hook. I decided I wouldn’t finish it, so I went on to write other songs like “Strychnine”, “Doc Gooden” and “Cadaver Sniffing Dog.” I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction in the last few years, and those songs reflect that.
So I looked how they played together and the thing about themes is that they only drape the deeper themes. A dragon or a poisoner or an aging athlete are all skins around a different character, which I think is kind of obviously me. That’s the way it came together to look past these genre trappings. There are several different skins of genre fiction that go into the collection. I like the way they play together and expose each other’s veneers.
have been lots of references to Dungeons and Dragons in coverage of this album,
but you’ve said it’s not really about RPGs at all.
Somebody very fairly
said to me, ‘you did announce the album from Wizards of the Coast.’ So fair
enough. I said in the broadcast that it’s not that, but there is one song, the
title track, that’s explicitly about a dragon. Then there are all these relics
of the Riversend pieces. The thing is that everything is a concept album about
Dungeons and Dragons insofar that we always end up playing as ourselves. You
talk about ‘your character’ and the things they do, but it’s really just a skin
for you to fit inside to better understand your tendencies and see how you
react under fire. One of the major strengths of role playing games is that we
get to do that with friends around a table and learn about ourselves.
I’m playing my first D&D campaign right now, funnily enough, and my
character is very much me. He’s a musical necromancer.
Is he a wizard?
actually a dark elf, but he played with a troupe of musicians who died in a
caravan crash. Now his quest is to bring them back from the dead and play a
final concert with his friends reborn as skeletons.
That is rad! How do you align?
would say chaotic good, in the game and in real life, probably.
Yeah, I think a lot of us align that way.
I’m always interested in lawful good characters, because I think most people
immediately want a bit more flavor, but I like a nice wizard who calls all the
roommate is playing as a vengeful angel, so that’s a pretty fun character.
I’ve been thinking about Dungeons and Dragons a lot, so it’s excellent timing with your new album. I’m also so happy to have the new season of the podcast,I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats, with you breaking down every song.
I’m glad! If you listened to the last
season, you know we don’t always stick to our subject. The conversation goes
all kinds of ways, but it should be fun. The thing is I’m really into the
transparency of this record. When we started recording the podcast, it didn’t
even have the title that it has yet. I hadn’t given it a hard enough look yet,
or located all of the themes in it, and was still learning about it as we talk.
you feel like you’re adding meaning to the songs after you’ve written them?
It’s not adding, it’s locating. This is a
misconception people have about writing. I mean, I’m sure some writes work this
way, but not me. There’s an idea that the writer formulates an idea, then
states it to himself or herself only: here is my theme, here is what I mean,
here is what I’m doing. Then they spell it out for the rest of the world to see.
I don’t think that’s how it works for most writers I know. What happens is you
write something because it seems cool, and then you get it done. At some point
in the future you figure out what you’re writing about, but that process could
take many years.
I’m always telling the story about how Franklin Bruno was reading through a couple of songs on the sessions for Heretic Pride. One of them was “Sax Rohmer” and he said ‘Oh, that song’s about touring!’ Now I’m not the kind of guy to write a song like Jackson Browne’s “The Load Out” or something like that. It’s just not me. But he was right! It’s about how you go on this journey and face all of these unexpected things. It’s hard to explain the life and the whole point of it is to get back home. I didn’t know that until we recorded the song, and hadn’t figured out what this album was about until we started tracking the podcast.
It’s interesting to me because people ask
‘what did you mean to say?’ There’s this idea that you’re standing behind the
song with a battle plan that you’ve elucidated before beginning, but that’s not
true for me at all. I write to find out what I’m thinking. To me that’s the
strength of it. It’s exciting to hear someone come to that realization.
the same as Dungeons and Dragons in that way! You’re revealing how you’ll react
to a certain situation.
That’s right! In play, you find out if
you’ll save your own skin or help out the party. It’s pretty fun.
you playing a campaign right now?
We’re doing Night Witches right now. It’s a Jason Morningstar game. In it, everyone plays a Soviet pilot in a squadron called the Night Witches whose job was to run interference by night against the advancing Germans, and hold the line until reinforcements could arrive. They flew terrible planes called PO2s with canvas-covered wings that couldn’t get a lot of altitude. So you’re flying low missions by night to deposit modest payloads of explosives, and fully expecting to get shot down half the time. The job is to waste German energy. They’re real historical figures, but you make up your own characters. It’s a game mostly about mitigating losses, conserving resources, and hard choices, which Jason Morningstar’s games are often about. It’s a good game.
I’ll have to play it next!
The only thing I hold against it is that
one of the character skins has a magic thing going on. They’re a witch, but
there’s an addendum that says ‘special note: witchcraft is not real. You can
play this character however you like, but if you imagine that you can cast real
spells, you are playing the game wrong.’ I always think, ‘we can’t say
definitively there’s no witchcraft!’ I like my magic spells, but this is a game
that takes place between 1941 and 1945 in the world.
question: What has Jon Wurster done recently that made you laugh?
He and I do a thing to each other for
laughs. We find bands whose tour routings look absolutely suicidal and forward
them to each other. I know bands who stick to the philosophy when you’re new in
the business that every night off is a night you’re wasting money. You have to
get hotel rooms, food, and all that. Many young bands avoid taking time off,
but you’ll go crazy that way. It’s work whether you’re having a good time or
Then if you stick around long enough in the
business, rise fairly high, but then dip a little bit in status, the first that
goes again is the days off. You think ‘If we’re out for nine days and play
seven shows, we get this much money. But if we play nine shows, we mitigate
some of those losses.’ So you see these routings that are like 14 shows in a
row spanning from Western Russia to England. You look at the routing and you’re
like, ‘Wait! They’re playing Munich on the 9th and the London show
is on the 10th. That’s madness if you owned a private jet, and these
are bands that probably finish their show, drive all night, and hopefully get
to the ferry by dawn.’
The last thing Jon sent me was a band that
had 30 days in 32 nights. It was a bunch of guys are age too. Mike Watt is the
guy who’s the most famous for it, because he’ll do things like 17 nights in a
row including two border crossings. He doesn’t respect limitations.
Watt seems like the ultimate example of someone who thinks ‘if you’re not
playing, you’re paying.’ Jamming econo until the day he dies.
There’s one other thing Jon Wurster did recently that made me laugh. I had to write a statement about our song “Sicilian Crest” recently, and it made me think of this band from the ’80s called The Alarm. I asked Jon if it was OK to reference them, and he said, ‘I don’t mind at all but you must reference the drummer by his name: Twist.’ So I did. He’s the best.