The Softies Then and Now: Jen Sbragia on 30 Years Together

Happy 30th anniversary, Rose and Jen! Photo: Alicia J. Rose

Earlier this year, The Softies (two California girls / singer-songwriter-guitarists Rose Melberg + Jen Sbragia) celebrated 30 years as a band and as BFFs. They are not a band that just reformed after not doing anything since the 1990s! They have been playing shows here and there over the years (including chickfactor 20 and 25 shows in New York, London, SF and Portland), even as they lived in different PacNW towns, had kids, jobs, played music with others and so on. Still, as they just announced their brand-new album, The Bed I Made (on Father/Daughter Records and Lost Sound Tapes), upcoming tour and new single, we wanted to check in about how things were then versus how they are now! Read our post from yesterday about the new album, the vinyl reissues of their previous work and more, and then read on to hear from Jen about how things have changed. Interview by Gail

Jen in Portland, 2023. Photo: Gail O’Hara

CF: What are you up to today?
Jen Sbragia: Working on some freelance design stuff, making dinner, hopefully practicing guitar later
What would you have been up to on a day like this in 1994?
Very similar except I didn’t have Adobe Creative Suite!
Tell us about how your songwriting process worked in 1994 vs. 2024.
In the past, I would write and present a whole song of mine to Rose, she would then write a lead guitar part and a vocal harmony. For the new album, I had song ideas but also a few half-baked ideas and riffs, which we worked on together to make whole songs. It was pretty fun to do that, because Rose has studied the art of songwriting so much more than me. She inspires me to do better, all the time.
Both of you have been undergoing major life shifts in recent years; how did grief, loss, change play into the songs? How is that different from your trials and tribulations of 30 years ago?
I always used to write songs about unrequited love back in the day. This is still true for me! At this point in my life I have experienced more loss, so that is tied in too. But crushes not working out is my favorite songwriting topic, apparently.

Cover of The Bed I Made by Fumi Yanagimoto

What was a typical day in the studio like making The Bed I Made? And how does that differ from the 1990s sessions?
Analog is lovely and all, but recording digitally is fantastic. Rose and I used Garage Band to make demos for each other we could email back and forth. When it came time to record in the studio, we felt so lucky to work with Nich (Nicholas Wilbur). He has an amazing ear, is endlessly chill and patient, makes the perfect cappuccino, and belongs to the funniest and best dog, Cathy. I heard my first ever ghostly footsteps in the (haunted) studio! Rose and I slept there at night – it was a little spooky, which I loved.

Softies’ studio still-life, courtesy of Rose

What are some of your most important studio accoutrements? Snacks, tea, special instruments or accessories?
Lots of Juanita’s tortilla chips, peanut butter, strong coffee, maybe a touch of psilocybin. Anacortes Unknown has a vibraphone… it may make an appearance.
How long have you been working on this one?
I took a trip to Vancouver in January of 2023 and we ended up with the beginnings of 8 songs, and just excitedly continued from there, meeting every month or so. Sometimes we would meet in Seattle, sometimes I would make the full trek to Vancouver. I love long drives so it really didn’t seem too difficult.
How has the touring and show playing ecosystem changed from then to now?
Well, it is much better now that we don’t have to have an Atlas and a Thomas Guide! One time on tour we caravanned with walkie talkies.
We prefer that more days off need to be built in. We need ease and calm. The less stress, the better. There is a low key goal of being able to stay somewhere with a hot tub. Can we always have a hot tub? A girl can dream.

Jen in Portland. Photo: Gail O’Hara

What can fans to do help musicians have better lives?
Vote. Buy merch. Come to live shows.
Do you have a sense of how big your audience is now vs 1994? Do you hear from fans?
We used to get fan letters back in the day. I have a box of them. These days, it’s much quicker and easier with social media. But also it can feel overwhelming because everything is so immediate.
What about the vinyl reissues on K: are those all out now or coming soon?
Out now: Holiday in Rhode Island [KLP119]
Out July 26: Winter Pageant [KLP061]
Out Sept. 6: It’s Love [KLP043]

Where all will you be touring?
Glas Goes Pop festival on Friday, July 26.
Two record release shows at the end of August in Vancouver and Portland, followed by two more shows in early September in Anacortes and Seattle

East coast shows in late Sept/early October

California shows in late October

What else are you up to apart from the Softies?
Always trying to balance freelance design work, hoping for more hours but grateful when I have free time for music. I have some new song ideas for All Girl Summer Fun Band but we haven’t had time to work on them yet. I would like to get back into drawing comics and/or making prints of some kind.

What are you eating, cooking, watching, reading lately?
FOOD: I’m on a mission to sample every single non-dairy cream cheese on the market. I could eat the Moderno Bowl at Tacovore every day. Peanut butter filled chocolate covered pretzels from Trader Joe’s are my favorite food group.

COOKING: Lately I have been avoiding cooking as much as possible! I’m giving in to convenience whenever possible, although throwing a sweet potato in the oven is very easy and I love the edible sugar goo that comes out of them.

WATCHING: I’m re-watching Killing Eve because Jodie Comer is a goddess. Also watching the new season of Bridgerton. I will re-watch Broad City for the rest of my life. Listening to Rebel Girl by Kathleen Hanna. Reading Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski. Books do tend to stack up and collect dust. I’m trying!

The cassette tape is on Lost Sound Tapes

Records Jen Cannot Live Without:

Tiger Trap – S/T & Sour Grass
Lightheaded – Good Good Great
Henry’s Dress – Bust ‘em Green
Girl Ray – Prestige
Pretenders – S/T
Fastbacks – Very, Very Powerful Motor
Young Guv – I, II, III, IIII (basically anything he does)
Dolly Mixture – Demonstration Tapes
Kids on a Crime Spree – Fall in Love Not in Line
Of Montreal – Cherry Peel
Best of 1994: Boyracer – More Songs About Frustration & Self Hate
Best of 2024: Lightheaded – Combustible Gems

Preorder the Softies’ The Bed I Made, out August 23 on vinyl/etc.

Preorder the Softies’ The Bed I Made, out August 23 on cassette tape.

Order/preorder all the vinyl reissues on K Records here

Check out All Girl Summer Fun Band here

Listen to other Rose Melberg music here

Listen to Knife Pleats here

The Softies. Photo: C. Doughty
Set list from the Softies’ June 2023 show at Polaris Hall.
Vinyl reissue out now on K Records
Vinyl reissue out July 26 on K Records
Vinyl reissue out Sept. 6 on K Records
Grab a ticket ASAP, Glasgow!

 

The Softies Announce New Album, Tour, Reissues

The Softies (Rose Melberg and Jen Sbragia) have a new album, The Bed I Made, coming out on August 23!  Preorder the new album here on vinyl. Get the cassette tape here!

Watch the video here “I Said What I Said”

Read our 2023 interview with the Softies

Read our 2023 interview with All Girl Summer Fun Band

Get a copy of chickfactor 18, 2018, with a massive interview filled with memories and great photos

Read our 1993 interview with Tiger Trap here

Order the reissues of their first three albums on K Records here

The Softies by Alicia Rose

Tour dates: BUY TICKETS

July 27: Glas Goes Pop (Glasgow)
August 23: Record Release Show at Fox Cabaret, Vancouver BC (with Lake, Adrian Teacher)
August 24: Record Release Show at Polaris Hall, Portland OR (with Phone Voice + New Issue)
September 6: Record Release Show at Fremont Abbey, Seattle (with Seapony + Lisa Prank)
September 7: Record Release Show at Unknown, Anacortes (with New Issue)
Sept. 29: AS220, Providence, RI (with Zowy + Courtney & Brad + In Glove With Bach)
Sept 30: Crystal Ballroom, Boston, MA (with Jeanines + Zowy)
Oct. 2: Public Records, Brooklyn (with Rebecca Schiffman)
Oct. 3: PhilaMOCA, Philly (with Lightheaded + 22″ Halo)
Oct. 4: Songbyrd, Washington, D.C. (with Linda Smith + Emotional World)
Oct. 24: The Starlet Room, Sacramento, CA (with Anna Hillburg)
Oct. 25: Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco, CA (with Anna Hillburg + Stephen Steinbrink)
Oct. 28: Vine, Long Beach, CA (with Barbara Manning)
Oct. 29: Scribble, Los Angeles, CA (with Badlands + Rebecca Schiffman)
Oct. 30: SubRosa, Santa Cruz, CA (with Eve’s Peach)

Freshly reissued on vinyl by K Records, out Sept. 6
Freshly reissued on vinyl by K Records, out July 26
Freshly reissued on vinyl by K Records, available now

The Aislers Set Talk About Their Peel Session, Out in June

The Aislers Set Peel Session Is Out June 8 on Precious Recordings of London. Order yours here now. 

We caught up with Alicia Vanden Heuvel and Linton from the Aislers Set and Nick from Precious Recordings of London (the label putting out the EP) to find out more about their 2001 Peel Session! Images courtesy of the band

How did the Peel Session come about?
Linton: Sean Price of Fortuna Pop arranged it. I’m pretty certain of that.

How did it feel to record a session?
Linton: Was wild. I’d never recorded Aislers out of the garage before—given up studio control, mixing, etc. The engineers were kind and very attentive. They even tuned Yoshi’s drums and let us do some forbidden overdubs when the singing was terrible. It was amazing to be in that studio, with its history, obviously, and it was interesting to just play and not be at the helm using the studio tools creatively. cool experience and a complete honor, of course. I still feel incredibly lucky to have had that opportunity.

What do you remember about the man himself?
Linton: I only met him once and many years before. He wasn’t there for the session, which I think is typical? I met him in a bar in Leeds around ’94 and we talked about our shared experience of living in the desert. I recall him talking about having lived in Texas as an insurance salesman and travelling the southwest in the ’60s.  I wrote a few lines about that on the back of the record sleeve.

The Aislers Set Peel Session / Photos by Alicia Vanden Heuvel

What was the studio like?
Alicia: The fact that we would be in a studio where all of these legendary, great bands had recorded was mind blowing. Arriving in London and taking the Tube to the studio that morning, we were all full of nerves and excitement. We had been rehearsing intensely and Linton had written a new song just for the session, “Mission Bells.”  We get there, coffees in hand, and enter the studio. Linton, Wyatt, and I had recording equipment at home and we couldn’t wait to see the studio and gear… the Aislers Set had never recorded in a studio, before or since…. were just in awe at the mixing console, the beautiful room. The real jaw-dropping moment was when the engineers showed us the Microphone Closet, showing us various ones that were literally invented and built by engineers at the BBC. And WE got to have them mic’d on our drums, on our equipment. It was literally one of the best days of our lives as a band. BBC engineers, a huge Hammond organ for Jen to play, the welcome from John Peel. In this magic and sacred musical space. The day spent laying down those songs was joyful, the engineers were so kind, we just felt on top of the world.

Linton: Equipped!

The Aislers Set Peel Session / Photos by Alicia Vanden Heuvel

What are you guys up to these days, music or otherwise?
Alicia: I’m still recording bands and playing in bands. I have a record label/ recording studio called Speakeasy Studios SF. It’s still the same Otari 8 track and Soundcraft board that we used for The Red Door and a few other songs back in the day, and both Poundsign records. Now I can mix into digital though, which saves a lot of sleepless nights. I’m currently recording the new Telephone Numbers record and working with my husband Tony Molina on his next record. I still work my day job (that I’ve had since 1997) at La Med restaurant in SF, because life as a musician just doesn’t pay the bills, ha ha. But I love my work, feeding people and being around people is my jam. My daughter is graduating from high school now and life goes on!

Linton: I’m not playing music. very rarely, anyway, but i do think about it. I do make some noise now and again but I wouldn’t call it music—more collage/feedback/harmonic control and texture experiments with zero melody. Mostly I’m making visual art and furniture as well as teaching sculpture and “sonic” arts at CalArts in southern california. Pretty nourishing gig.

The Aislers Set Peel Session / Photos by Alicia Vanden Heuvel

Will the Aislers Set play at CF35 (should it happen)?
Alicia: I would like to very much, yes!

Linton: Only if an entirely new batch of songs is written. I can’t physically sing most of the old ones anymore and I’m not writing music at the moment… so… I am hoping to write performable music sometime, eventually. dunno if it would be Aislers music or in time for CF35 but keep you posted!

Linton from the Aislers Set on CF13, Y2K (lower right). Photo: Gail O’Hara with design help from LD Beghtol
The Aislers Set Peel Session / Photos by Alicia Vanden Heuvel

How did this come together? Any particular challenges or hurdles? 

Nick from Precious Recordings of London: The Aislers Set were one of the artists I thought of when I started Precious Recordings of London a few years ago during COVID. As I hunkered down in Putney, West London, I looked through an old box of cassettes I’d retrieved when my mum died a couple of years earlier and found all these bootlegs and sessions I had taped from BBC Radio 1‑John Peel and Janice Long, none of them ever released.

So I just asked the few friends I knew if they’d be willing to let me loose releasing their sessions on vinyl. You can get them on YouTube but, well, I wanted it to be special.

Somehow I found the right person to pay for a licence from the BBC and off we went. But as I say, these were old friends like Jim from the Jasmine Minks, Duglas from BMX Bandits and Amelia from Heavenly–from the late 1980s, the C86-era, when I was more active!

Of course, I did not know anybody from The Aislers Set, added to which they were on the other side of the Atlantic. And they did not hail from the late ’80s music scene. So why would they want me to release a prized session?

But I am a big fan, which is the ultimate criteria when I want to release a record, and this particular session has legendary status among The Aislers Set cognoscenti. Moreover, the esteemed editor of this august organ put me in touch with Alicia. (You’re welcome! –Editor)

But the thing is that was maybe three or four years ago, and The Aislers Set were originally down with a catalogue number PRE 008. Through nobody’s fault, really, it is finally seeing the light of day as PRE 038–and even that is a little misleading, as we’re up to PRE 042!

Precious started out releasing gatefold 7-inch singles of BBC sessions on vinyl with a set of postcards included in the package. Now we’re doing ten-inchers–a 60% rise in manufacturing costs during COVID forced that change, but I love the tens anyway–and even the postcards have been replaced by printed inners!

The Aislers Set Peel Session / Photos by Alicia Vanden Heuvel

Frankly, I don’t know why it has been so long. Getting pictures and sleeve notes always takes a while–and everybody is so busy. But we kept in touch via email … things kept bobbling along quietly until I heard from Linton, and they were happy with the idea.

Sean Price of their UK LP Fortuna Pop! is a good friend of mine, and Mike at Slumberland also gave his blessing–and I had both scurrying about looking for images. Plus, Alicia had some great pics of the day of recording itself at the famed BBC Studios – Sean was there, it turned out.

So slowly, slowly, we got there, and I am so excited about this session. It’s everything I wanted when I started this project–not only do I love the band, of course, and this is a FAB session–but also the holy grail of a previously unreleased session with a totally song on there–the cover of Joy Division’s ‘Walked in Line’, and Linton actually wrote ‘Mission Bells’ specifically for the session recording.

I always hoped to release sessions that had never been out before in any form, or at least not on vinyl … as it happens, both these ideals have, er, been compromised, but at least I hope I am keeping up the standard of releasing records that I would want to buy myself as a fan, with all the extras, unseen pics etc.

The cherry on the cake with The Aislers Set came when I found out how much the session meant to them. Of course, John Peel is a legendary figure over here and I’ve lost count of the number of people who tell me they prefer the session version of various songs, often because they feel ‘fresher’ than overproduced later versions. Not that that was a problem with The Aislers Set, of course, but Alicia told me the session was “literally the highlight of our career as a band”.

Linton has also supplied some wonderful sleeve notes–the band heard the first broadcast in a Glasgow pub on a tinny transistor radio alongside their friends from Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura! What a great story.

I’m so happy–can I say ‘privileged’ without sounding too ‘gushy’?–to be able to release this session. It means a lot. I also think it means a lot to The Aislers Set, so I’m so grateful they’ve trusted me not to mess things up. Let’s hope I haven’t!

The Aislers Set Peel Session / Photos by Alicia Vanden Heuvel

Interview: Birdie Gets Ready to Reissue Some Dusty 25 Years Later

Paul, Jon, Debsey. Photo: Jimmy Young

Back in Y2K (the year 2000 for you youngsters), I rolled into Fez in NYC after work one evening and tried to interview BIRDIE on the spot. Not always a good plan! Even though I have interviewed each of the primary band members,  Paul Kelly and Debsey Wykes from Birdie (and East Village, Dolly Mixture and Saint Etienne), I had not interviewed them together until summer/fall 2023 when I was enlisted to write liner notes for the reissue of Some Dusty. We are all happy to share the interview with you now and announce the global international pop news of Slumberland Records reissuing this most excellent and under-appreciated album!

ORDER THE RECORD ALREADY! (Out July 26)
(UK folks: Monorail)
Read our 2022 Paul Kelly interview
Read our 2006 Debsey Wykes interview

Get tickets for London July 24
Get tickets for Oxford July 28

Slumberland Records is reissuing Some Dusty.

Gail O’Hara: You met each other when you were both part of Saint Etienne’s live setup in 1992–1993?
Paul Kelly: We met at a Saint Etienne rehearsal in Kentish Town December 1992. Following the demise of my band East Village in 1991, Bob (Stanley) and Pete (Wiggs) had asked Spencer (Smith, East Village drummer) and me to join the Saint Etienne live set-up. For the first few shows we had Siobhan Brookes of Denim singing backing vocals but I don’t think Lawrence was happy with her playing in another band and so she left and Debsey was drafted in, and that’s when we first met, at a rehearsal room in Leighton Place, Kentish Town. Bob and Pete had been big Dolly Mixture fans and had just recorded Debsey singing “Who Do You Think You Are” for a proposed single on their Ice Rink label. I think McGee or Jeff Barrett heard it and felt that it could be a big hit and so it ended up being a Saint Etienne single instead. The record did end up as a duet with Debsey and Sarah of course but she never ended up releasing anything on Ice Rink which is a shame, I thought that was a great little label.
Debsey Wykes: I had joined St. Etienne on backing vocals for their fan club Christmas party in London in 1992. At the rehearsals I met Paul along with the others in the live band. I thought he was very funny. I ended up doing backing vocals on their tours and festival dates over the next couple of years, playing the UK, America, Europe and Iceland. We were also the first band televised live from Glastonbury in 1994. We became best friends and would wander around places all night ending up with a breakfast beer and being called the terrible twins by Sarah.

And then you got together as a couple after forming Birdie?
Paul: We had become very good friends over the two years we had been with Saint Etienne and had been talking about doing a band together. Saint Etienne stopped playing live at the end of 1994 and so we began recording songs on a little Fostex 4-track at Debsey’s flat. I think a lot of people thought our talk of a band was just a cover so that we could hang out together and I think it was a bit of a shock to our friends when we actually started making records together.
Debsey: We had come up with the idea of doing a band together in the summer of 1994 as we started to get a bit frustrated about not doing our own music and so Paul would heave his guitar amp up to London to my flat every so often and we would go over bits and pieces of music that we’d both made up—and then go to the pub. By the beginning of 1995 we had borrowed a Portastudio from Bob and recorded a handful of songs on cassette. We got together as a couple in the March, we just wanted to be together all the time.

Photo: Paul Kelly

What pubs were your regular haunts during this time period?
Paul: When we were first together, we were both signing on the dole and our (fortnightly) payments were on alternate weeks. We would head down to the post office together, cash the relevant cheque and head straight to the Old Red Lion theatre pub at the Angel for a quick lunchtime half. This would inevitably end up with us both falling out of the pub smashed and penniless by closing time. I don’t know how we survived to be honest, we had so little money. When we eventually got our record deal we felt like millionaires and the first thing we did was buy a car. We spent a lot of time in pubs when we first got together, we were still relatively young and having a laugh, it was a good time to be in London then. I have very fond memories of touring the pubs of Islington during our courtship and into the mid ’90s.
Debsey: When we were first together, we went to The Old Red Lion in Islington which is very old with a small theatre upstairs. There was a strange mix in the bar with the pool players, locals and the theatre crowd which is a great thing. We frequented most pubs in the vicinity of the flat and I have a memory of ‘Hotel California’ by the Eagles and ‘Venus as a Boy’ by Bjork stalking us on juke boxes wherever we went. We would often head into the west end and see who was in The Ship in Wardour St. as it was the haunt of the Heavenly Records entourage.

What was the idea behind Birdie?
Paul: It was great fun playing with Saint Etienne but we obviously had little creative input. We were really lucky to get the chance to tour the world and play the main stage at Glastonbury and things like that but we still wanted to make our own music, after all, that’s why we started playing in bands in the first place. We used to sit on the tour bus and imagine what our band could be like, so we had a lot of time to think about how it would work and what it would sound like. I think we generally liked the same music and it was obviously going to be based around Debsey’s singing and so it just came about very naturally.
Debsey: I don’t remember there being a particular idea behind Birdie at first. It was just me and Paul being us, I imagined it would be sixties orientated and hoped that it would be quite ‘cool’. The important thing was to write great songs first. We must have thought our combined force would produce something special!

Birdie. Photo: Aude Prieur

The late ’90s seemed like a golden time when things were pretty great in both the US and the UK, internet bubble hadn’t burst yet, end of the century energy. What do you recall about that time when you were writing and recording Some Dusty?
Paul: We started making records with Birdie in the aftermath of Britpop, things in the UK had stagnated and so it certainly didn’t feel like a golden period at the time. I think we were too hung up on the UK NME music scene and I can see looking back that was pointless as we were never going to connect with the UK music press at that point. I wish we had been more aware of what was happening overseas, particularly in Spain,Japan and the US.
Debsey: There was still a lot of energy in London, in 1995 we went out a lot especially to Heavenly related events where I danced a lot to soul music, hip hop, house, big beat, every kind of wonderful tuneful groovy track. We decided to have a child in ’96 and so I started to stay in a bit more. Paul had started a company making films and designing artwork with a friend of ours to make a living and be a responsible father to be—and was out quite a lot, probably in pubs!

Photo courtesy of Birdie

How was Some Dusty received by the fans and press?
Paul: I was so pleased with the LP. It was the first time I had been involved in a record that I could actually enjoy listening to. I thought it was perfect and sounded exactly as we had envisaged it. It’s such a great feeling to make music that you really love. Looking back, I can now listen to other things I had recorded before that point and appreciate them but with Birdie I knew it was good as we were making it.

We had Mick Houghton as our press agent and Scott Piering was our radio plugger. Mick had worked with Echo and the Bunnymen and the KLF and Scott had worked with Pulp and the Smiths. I think Scott genuinely loved the record but I’m not sure that Mick did. We did get played on the radio quite a lot but the UK music press were not interested at all. Despite this, I think the record sold quite well because we had our option to make a second LP picked up straight away, but the only fan mail we got was from the US and Japan. I think the record made a connection there, but in the UK we could barely get a gig or review. We never had an agent or a manager and couldn’t really make any progress with the live side of things. There was talk of a Japanese tour which would have been great. We had been there with St Etienne in the early ’90s and I think we would have been well received, but there was a financial crash in Japan around that time which scuppered the trip.

Photo: Paul Kelly

How did Birdie’s songwriting process work?
Paul: One of us will generally start a song, me on guitar or Debsey on a piano. Maybe just a few chords and a melody and then we would both develop it together. Whoever starts the song will usually write the words but that’s not always the case—but the words always come last and always late.

Debsey: We wrote separately a lot and then would add things to each other’s ‘creations’. Neither of us particularly liked writing words but we persevered, sometimes if you were lucky the words just happened. Sometimes I would give up and hand over a tune and Paul would fit words to it. He wrote a lot of the words to his own tunes, I never knew what they were about and just made up my own meaning.

What music was inspiring you back then?
Paul: I think we were mainly listening to older records, Acid Folk stuff, and Soft Rock or Sunshine Pop. We were going out clubbing but not really listening to so much dance music at home. We loved Stereolab and Broadcast and I guess they had a big influence on the kind of records we listened to even if it’s not apparent. Laura Nyro was a big influence on the LP and we went to see one of her last shows together at the Union Chapel in Islington which was incredible.

Debsey: I loved St. Etienne of course. My inspiration came from the sixties songs that I had always loved and all the sixties music that Paul introduced to me that I’d never heard. I also heard a lot of great music hanging out with Saint Etienne and everyone around Heavenly Records and the Social, not any particular group.

Image courtesy of Birdie

Jason Reynolds put out your first single, yes?
Paul: Jason had released an LP of East Village B-Sides and out-takes on his Summershine label in Australia in about 1990 and I think we had even had a minor radio hit over there. By the mid ’90s he was at working at Sub Pop in the US but still putting out the odd thing on his own label. He was visiting London and staying at the Holiday Inn in Clerkenwell near us when I met up with him and asked if he would put out a couple of songs that we had recorded at Bark Studios with Brian O’Shaughnessy. One side was a demo we had done for Creation and the other side a demo for Heavenly. I don’t think Jeff or Alan McGee were really interested in the band, but they had funded some studio time—probably to get me off their backs. Anyway, we had these two songs and Jason put them out as a single and that’s how we eventually got the deal with Tris Penna at It Records. I think Jason was winding down the label and so there was never any talk of doing an album for Summershine.

How did having children impact your work with Birdie?
Paul: At that time the band was just Debsey and me, we did manage to get our friend (and neighbour) Wildcat Will to play drums on the record but everything else apart from the strings we played ourselves. Will had been the drummer in the Sandals and was by that time playing with Beth Orton. When we began recording Some Dusty, our daughter Sadie was about 18 months old and we had to take her to the studio with us most days as we couldn’t afford a babysitter. We had periods where she would sleep for a couple of hours but when she woke up either Debsey or me would have to wheel her around Walthamstow in her push chair. There was a sweet factory nearby the studio and all I can remember is this really sickly sweet smell outside that was so strong that it would give you a headache. I think the record only took about ten days to make and that was mainly due to the fact that we had to work so quickly. We did all the backing tracks in two days. It was great, no time to overthink what we were doing. I went in a couple of times on my own to do guitar parts and mixing while Debsey stayed at home looking after Sadie but we were generally there together, baby and all. I don’t think she’s ever listened to the finished record though, definitely not her bag. When we actually signed the recording contract at the label offices in Covent Garden, the only people there were Debsey, Me, Bob, Tris (our label manager) and bizarrely, Vicki Wickham (producer of Ready Steady Go) and Nona Hendryx! It was amazing and we celebrated by cracking open a bottle of Champagne from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s wine vault, amazing!
Debsey: We only played a handful of gigs before we had our daughter. One was in Covent Garden and we went to it on the bus, it was just Paul on guitar and me singing. The same for our second in Camden, an afternoon affair when I was about six months pregnant. Later on in the year I heard from Paul that Jason Reynolds was interested in putting out a single which was great, I still think of that single (Spiral Staircase) as being very precious and having the purest Birdie sound. When we got to the point where we were talking about a record deal and going for meetings, we always had to find a babysitter and that wasn’t easy.

Paul told chickfactor “I think Sadie our daughter saw the guitar as competition and would inevitably start crying as soon as either of us picked it up. Debs would have to hide away in another room to write on the piano whenever Sadie was asleep. It was really rare for us to be able to sit together and play as we had done when we first started.”
Debsey:
It’s all true. She was obviously very attached to me and was used to me answering her every need which I wanted to do, but it did make it difficult to write and to rehearse ideas. She was part of it though as well and Birdie ultimately wouldn’t have been the same without having had her.

Describe the feeling, the vibe, the scene at Bark Studios in the summer 1998. What do you remember about the sessions?
Paul: It was all done very quickly, ten days, but it was very enjoyable, I loved taking home the rough mixes and listening to what we had done. It was really exciting to have a deal and to actually be making a record. We would sit up late at night and work out the parts we needed to record the next day.
Debsey: I remember feeling very lucky and excited to have the chance to record our songs properly. Our drummer on Some Dusty was Will Blanchard (Wildcat Will as everyone knows him) and he was around for as long as it took to record all the drums, maybe two or three days. He was exceedingly relaxed, lovely to be with and quietly witty. It was when I got closer to Brian as well and I found him very easy to be with, to chat and laugh with, he was very individual but it totally worked between us all.

We must have got a babysitter for some of the recording part of it, although I may be wrong, maybe Sadie was asleep a lot of the time, she was only one and a half, still needing naps. We were almost recording it as demos because the agreement seemed to be that if Tris Penna at It Records (they were paying for this) liked the album’s worth of songs he would put it out. It was a good approach because we didn’t take too long to do anything, saving us deliberating for too long. Paul stayed on extra days to mix it with Brian and would come home with mixes and I loved it.

Image courtesy of Birdie

How did you end up working with Brian O’Shaughnessy? He seems to be the go-to for many of my favorite bands. What is it about him?
Paul: When East Village split up 1991, we had an unfinished LP that we had recorded the previous year with Ian Caple at The Stone Room in Acton, West London. It was all recorded but not mixed. Jeff at Heavenly suggested that we finish the record and release it. He felt it would be good to mix it with Brian O’Shaughnessy at Bark Studios. Jeff knew Brian through working with Andrew Weatherall and Primal Scream who had recently recorded Loaded there. A couple of other Heavenly bands and My Bloody Valentine had also worked at Bark. Anyway, the mixing went really well, I loved the sound Brian was able to get and when we came to do our demos that’s where we wanted to go. Making the LP was the obvious next step as the demos sounded so good. It’s a really small tatty looking studio with an old MCI desk just like the one Abba used. You would never believe how many great records have come out that place if you saw it. The Clientele and Lawrence still make records there and it looks exactly the same as it did when we recorded Some Dusty.

Sean O’Hagan seems like an ideal fit for Birdie. What was it like working with him?
Paul: I didn’t know Sean at all but I really liked Microdisney and the High Llamas and he was also working with Stereolab which swung it. We had finished the bulk of the recording and wanted to add some strings. I sent him all of the songs to listen to and make some suggestions for string arrangements. He picked out three songs he liked and we said, great, whatever you reckon. I went down to the session which took only about an hour or so and that was it, job done! The next time I saw him was when we played in Madrid for an Elefant records event a few months later. I went over to say hello but don’t think he knew who I was to be honest.

Photo: Tom Sheehan

How does the record sound to you now?
Paul: For this release we went back to the original masters. We had the tapes baked and transferred for re-mastering and when I first listened back I nearly cried, I couldn’t believe that we had made this record. How did we do it? It’s far more complex than I had ever realised. I guess we were just brimming with ideas and enthusiasm at the time. We were also fairly young still and very much in love and I can really hear that when I listen to the record.
Debsey: I think the record sounds better now than it did then, in fact I’m surprised by it, pleasantly surprised that we had it in us!

Is there anything else you’d like to share about making the album?
Paul: I think Debsey and I are both good at coming up with melodies and harmonies but neither of us like writing lyrics. That was always the hard bit, staying up all night trying to finish the words because we had to record the vocals the next day.
Debsey: I played a Mellotron for the first time, it was very challenging but satisfying because it sounded so wonderful. It was a huge thing that took three guys to bring it into Brian’s control room. We also had another Stevie Wonder sounding keyboard (Clavinet) that I played on, I loved coming up with those extra bits and pieces on any strange instruments we could get hold of, I even played the harmonica I’d got for my 19th birthday which had been waiting another 19 years for this moment. For me the album was quite inward looking. I don’t know if Paul would say the same, but we spent so much time together and had started a family so for me it’s not so surprising that I feel it was about us.

Image courtesy of Birdie
Image courtesy of Birdie
Birdie’s set list from CF30 at the Lexington in London, 2022.
Image courtesy of Birdie

Kendall Jane Meade and Jon DeRosa Talk John Prine, Songwriting and Other Stuff

Los Angeles musicians Jon DeRosa and Kendall Jane Meade. Photo: Amanda Hamm

We don’t talk enough about the people we lost to COVID, and that ends now: One of the biggest losses in the music universe was John Prine, which inspired the L.A.-based musician Jon DeRosa (Aarktica, Flare) and producer Charles Newman (Magnetic Fields, Flare, Mother West Records) to start work on Prine Songs EP, which was released in December with singer-songwriter Kendall Jane Meade (Mascott, Juicy, the Spinanes, Helium). It started out as just a way to pass pandemic time, but Jon says: “I just wanted to pay tribute to a songwriter who meant so much to me.” Jon and Kendall were part of the New York City independent music scene that chickfactor participated in in the 1990s and early 2000s, and they both played at our parties (and collaborated with Stephin Merritt and the late LD Beghtol, who also died in 2020), so it made sense for the two of them to get together and talk about their Prine Songs EP and Prine himself, along with their musical pasts and songwriting in general. Images courtesy of Kendall and Jon

Jon: So Kendall, do you remember how we met in the first place?
Kendall: I remember seeing you play guitar with Flare or with Dudley (Klute) at a Chickfactor night at the Fez. You had on your uniform of the time, which was either a white T-shirt or a white tank top and you had long-ish kind of combed back black hair.
Jon: Not much has changed.
Kendall: I thought you were a great guitarist, and I don’t know exactly how it happened, but you and I later ended up hanging out. We took a walk around Washington Square Park and we had lunch at Dojo. I think it was the late nineties, around the time my first Mascott EP was released. Does this sound familiar to you?
Jon: It all sounds familiar. I think LD (Beghtol) was trying to get us … together? Or at least to work on music together. LD was a matchmaker of all kinds, and he wanted his friends to make art together. I was probably a year or two in at NYU, barely 20 years old. The first Aarktica record No Solace and Sleep came out in ’99. This would’ve been a little bit after that, probably, or right around that same time. I joined Flare right around that time so that’s when I met LD and Charles Newman, who was producer/engineer and Flare keyboardist.
Kendall: How did you get the Flare gig?
Jon: I had just moved to New York in the Fall of 1997. I was really young and just looking to play music and meet people. I was on the Indie Pop email list, and LD put out a call looking for musicians. I don’t think it was for Flare, I think he was doing some solo shows. And this was right as 69 Love Songs was coming out, which he of course sang on.  From what I remember, Flare was in a bit of a transition with a guitarist vacancy perhaps, and LD had a solo show or two lined up that he needed some backup for. I answered. I remember rehearsing with him at his office, his art design office, after hours. I picked up everything really quickly, and we did a show at CB’s Gallery. Somewhere in there I got asked to join Flare. That was how it worked. I had also just become an intern at Fez, under Time Cafe, so I was the assistant to the assistant booking manager. I spent A LOT of time in and around Fez where a lot of our friends were playing, and I got to see a lot of free shows. They fed me and treated me really well (I still remember Hiram the manager, what a sweet guy). And if I was lucky I got to work the door and make, I think 10 bucks an hour, which was a lot of money back then. 
Kendall: I love that.

Prine EP Sessions with Doug Pettibone and Jon. Photo: Charles Newman

Jon: And how long had you been in New York at that time? What brought you there?
Kendall: I moved to New York in 1994 because two of the women in my band at the time, Juicy, moved to New York. So I followed suit. Juicy was my college band at Boston University. We all eventually moved to New York, and I stayed for a few years, leaving briefly after that band broke up. I moved back home to Detroit for about a year and then started hopping on tours and playing in bands. I played keyboards with Helium and then right after that, I played bass and keyboards for The Spinanes and then keyboard and bass in Sparklehorse. I was traveling for quite a bit during that time, so when I met you I was likely off tour from The Spinanes and starting to really actively work on my solo project Mascott. My first Mascott records were released on Matt Jacobsen’s label Le Grand Magistery, which was a label that Flare was also on. So that’s how I met LD and Charles, and then you.
Jon: At that time, I had just signed to Darla Records with Aarktica, and Le Grand Magistery was being distributed by Darla. So we were all kind of pursuing our individual projects and it wasn’t uncommon to collaborate or sing on someone’s record or pop in the studio and play a guitar riff. I remember playing on records where I was just stopping by to say hi and ended up playing on something. So several years later, I was making the Aarktica record Matchless Years for Darla and that was the first time you and I got to collaborate in the studio. You sang on several songs on that album, and we did that with Charles at his studio Mother West.
Kendall: That was probably my first time recording at Mother West.  I remember really loving the songs and also that we never got to sing them together in a live setting.


Jon: I moved to California to work at Darla Records right as that album was coming out in 2007. I lasted about a year there before packing it up and moving back to the East Coast. What were some of the other things that we did together musically?
Kendall: We both were on the Stephin Merritt Showtunes record on Nonesuch. I played on a song called “Ukulele Me” with many other people singing and playing ukulele at the same time.
Jon: I definitely remember that wild session. So many ukes, so many characters. And then I got to do some duets with Shirley (Simms) on that album, which was great.
Kendall: We both collaborated a lot with LD, too, so we would appear on the same LD albums. LD and the New Criticism albums, Flare Acoustic Arts League, and Acoustic Arts Ensemble. We definitely shared some album space together without perhaps singing with each other. So I feel like we’ve always been orbiting around each other a bit as friends and musical peers. A few years ago we ran into each other at a Magnetic Fields show here in LA and reconnected. And that’s what started this journey together leading us toward the Prine Songs ep.
Jon: Right. I moved back to LA in January 2014, so I’d been out here a while by that point. And then Charles actually came back out here as well, several years later. He actually had been living in the apartment that I vacated in Brooklyn. So it all is quite intertwined. Anyway, now we’re here 10, 15 years later making music again.

Kendall Jane Meade with Jenny Ryan and Martin Olson singing Prine (with Prine in the background) at Dash The Henge in London. Photographer: Shelby Meade

Kendall: What have you done musically in the 10-15 years where I didn’t see you?
Jon: I was making music as Aarktica, releasing several different albums on a few different labels, most recently Projekt Records and even a recent album We Will Find the Light on Darla Records, after a really nice reunion with them. I also put out several records under my own name, which were… stylistically quite a bit different than Aarktica, more of an orchestral, dark chamber pop sort of sound. Much more vocally focused.  In recent times, I’ve been moonlighting as vocalist for Black Tape for a Blue Girl, who were actually one of my favorite bands growing up. That project is headed by Sam (Rosenthal) who also runs Projekt Records. I’ve also done some soundtrack work with Charles, which I enjoy quite a lot.  I’m a little all over the place at times, but it’s only because… I’ve tried to become more conscious of creating whatever thing feels like what I want to do at the moment. It’s a discipline in being undisciplined maybe. In a way, it kind of brings us to how we ended up reconnecting in the present. Because during the pandemic, I was sort of feeling a little bit stagnant, and I didn’t really feel very inspired to be writing my own material. I was extremely depressed, but I was trying to find a way to not let it stifle me completely. So Charles and I came up with this idea to record some John Prine songs. Charles lives like 10 minutes from me in Encino, so it’s kind of nice that even though now we find ourselves both out in LA, we’re still neighbors.

Jon with Mama the cat.

Kendall: What inspired you to record John Prine songs specifically?
Jon: During the Pandemic, I had been just recording covers at my house and posting them on Facebook. I was doing it to keep my sanity, and I was doing it to boost the spirits of my friends that I wasn’t getting to see, my family on the East Coast, and I was recording all manner of songs. I did a version of “Clay Pigeons,” which is actually a Blaze Foley song, but it was kind of made famous by John Prine and just felt really good. I was a casual fan of John Prine, but in that pandemic era, I was taking really long walks during which I’d delve deeply into artist catalogs that I had only scratched the surface of up until then. And John Prine was one of them where I was like, I knew him, I knew his music, I knew his hits, I loved what I knew of him, but I realized that I had only just scratched the surface of his catalog. And as I got deeper and deeper into it, it felt more familiar to me. It felt more special to me, and I wanted to get to know him more and more through that. Sadly, he was one of the first celebrities who passed away from COVID during that time. And we had already kind of made this decision to start making this record when that had happened. I don’t think we had the intention of releasing it, I personally just intended to keep the recordings in our back pocket for whatever down the road. I think that kind of helped keep it really loose.  And that brings us to when you and I reconnected, and it turned out that we were looking for someone to sing some of the female vocal parts, and you appeared.

Kendall: I appeared. I remember Charles asking me if I wanted to sing on “In Spite of Ourselves.” It’s an honor to sing that part, Iris Dement’s original part. At first I didn’t know if I was right for it because she’s got such a spirited vocal. The lyrics are a little naughty. But once I started listening to it and hearing your take on it, I knew I could fit right in. And so that was really fun, and I loved singing on it, and then you guys asked me to sing back up on a couple more songs, which was wonderful. I realized, once again, how our voices fit together. It’s very natural. It’s very familiar to me, and I think you’re such a great singer.
Jon: In a way, you coming in to sing on “In Spite of Ourselves” was an inspiration to finish the record, because it was like a missing piece, and then everything started to make sense. It also inspired Charles to make the record more of a priority in terms of getting it done, because it was the difference between it being an unfinished album and being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Jon with Alan Sparhawk setting up the mic while recording the first Pale Horse and Rider album. Photo: Jessica Bailiff

Kendall: Then you guys asked me to sing lead on a Prine song, which was an honor and also a tough decision about which song I wanted to do. Once I heard “I Remember Everything” it was just a no-brainer, that was the one for me because I connected with it on so many levels. I was going through a tough time in my personal life, and I related to it deeply but probably differently than Prine’s intent when he wrote it. I found out it was the last song that he wrote and recorded before he passed away. So it was truly him looking back on his life through the eyes of love. The song means a lot to me.
Jon: I can’t think of too many other songwriters who write in an observational way that doesn’t include a judgment about his characters. There’s inherent wisdom in the words without a condescension or without a posturing. When I listen to John Prine, I feel like I know the characters that he’s writing about. His song “Hello In There”, is a song about getting older and basically becoming invisible in the world. And I remember listening to that song probably about a hundred times.  He brings such an empathy and sensitivity to a type of person that doesn’t normally get treated with that level of respect.

Mascott (Margaret White, Sadie Seely, KM, Clint Newman, Ben Lord) Photo by Craig Chin
Mascott (Kendall, Jud Ehrbar, Margaret White) Photo by Ian Smile

Kendall: That’s a beautiful observation. I also think that he has such a range, even if you just look at the songs on our EP. “Sailin’ Around”, which I think flexes the power of repetition in a really cool way. “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round” is a really universal theme, but very uplifting. “One Red Rose” is also stunning to me. Why did you choose that one?
Jon: I felt compositionally that that was a song that was stylistically something I would’ve written. The other songs were a departure for me stylistically. The way we recorded “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round” felt very Springsteen-esque, which I don’t think of myself as that type of singer. “One Red Rose” to me sounded like it could have been a Nick Cave ballad or something. And so I think I felt like there was a familiarity there, but there were a lot of songs that we had to kind of trim it down. And there were songs that I wish we could have done. “Linda Goes to Mars” comes to mind…  I know you’re in the midst of working on a new record right now. Are there any sort of similarities in terms of what you’ve learned from John Prine that you use in your own songwriting or something maybe you aspire to?

Kendall’s band Juicy. Photo: Lauren Glatzer

Kendall: A lot of what I like about Prine is a lot of what I like about Neil Young. He’s not afraid to rhyme, yet there aren’t a lot of throwaway lines. You can tell that writing is how he processes his emotions. I think he’s very evocative in his choice of words, but everything sounds like it comes really naturally to him. It’s very conversational, and that’s what I really relate to. What I hope to do is create sort of an image and a feeling that you could perhaps put yourself in and feel the same emotions. That’s what his songs do for me, and I think that’s why they were so effortless to cover, because they are universal. I also admire the fact that he was writing up until his last days, I hope to be doing the same thing. What about you? How does his songwriting relate to your approach?
Jon: I feel like, to be a good songwriter requires an ability to connect with people. It’s an ability to understand the plight of people and to be on the level of other people. It becomes very apparent very quickly as a songwriter if you are faking it in that way. When you’re writing in a way like John Prine, there’s a knowing because you get the sense he experienced it himself and has probably taken the time to make those connections with other people to hear stories. And I’ll be honest, I’ve always had a really hard time intimately making those connections. Those connections require revealing a lot of oneself, not only listening to what others are going through. And so as I’ve gotten older and more aware of that, I’ve tried to make more conscious efforts to make those connections with others because I am starting to understand that it’s a two-way street in terms of how we express emotions and how we understand emotions. I think John Prine is the master at that. And I also think that he’s able to tell stories through these voices and through these characters in a way that is very poignant and very non-judgmental. It’s almost like he gives a listener the privilege of coming up with an interpretation for themselves without leading them too much.. So I think that that’s a real gift that songwriters and their listeners have, and it’s what makes his songs timeless. And I think it is what makes his songs timeless. People will be listening to and discovering John Prine a hundred years from now.
Kendall: I played some shows in Sweden and one in London a few months ago, and we released the EP exclusively on Bandcamp before the tour so I could spread the word about it. It was kind of amazing to see how John Prine has touched the hearts of people all over. We played at a record store in London called Dash the Henge. They’re huge Prine fans and projected a video of Prine in the background while we were playing. It made me realize that what we were doing is something a little bigger than just a small project that you and Charles started in the pandemic. It was really bringing  a new twist to these beloved songs that people were excited to hear.

Jon and LD Beghtol. Photo: Catherine Lewis

Jon: We should also make a note that we had some really great musicians playing with us on the EP, including Doug Pettibone and Butch Norton. Both of them have either played with or shared gigs with Prine. When you play with guys like that, it kind of just elevates what you’re doing because their musicianship is just so good. And the fact that they’re really nice guys is just a bonus there, too.
Kendall: This is probably our biggest collaboration to date, and I have to say I think LD would be really excited to know that it was happening. He would really love the way it sounded and the fact that Charles recorded it, it’s all coming full circle to LD. And also it’s exciting to be able to talk about this here on Chickfactor because Gail has been in the center of this musical community for so long. She knows all of us and has always championed our music.

Aarktica. Photo: Jasper Coolidge

Jon: When I joined Flare, and I was also working at Fez, Fez was where those early Chickfactor shows were being held. And so for a 19-year-old kid who was new to New York City and didn’t really have a ton of friends and was still looking for my community, that was a big deal. I was still getting my legs as a performer. I was a young kid, and Gail was very gracious in inviting me to play on those Chickfactor shows. It made me feel so good to share the stage with people who I looked up to, people that I cared about, people who I viewed as very successful, purely in the sense of being extremely creative and doing amazing things in New York City. So it was inspiring. It made me feel part of something, and it was incredibly validating that I was maybe doing the right thing. I was maybe on the right path. There was something to this music thing.
Kendall: What do you have coming up next?
Jon: That’s the eternal question. I’m always working on something. I’m writing new music but it’s so early, I have no idea what to say about it yet. And how about you? What’s the plan for the new record?
Kendall: It’s not going to be a Mascott record, it’s going to be put out under my own name, so it will be my first official singer-songwriter record.
Jon: We should also mention that we both are working on tracks for an LD tribute album that’s being spearheaded by the wonderful Linda Smith and that it’s going to be something fabulous. 

Clockwise from top left: Jon at Fez, Connie at CFHQ, LD and Dudley at Fez, Jon and Dudley. Photo by Gail O, taken with the Nickelodeon PhotoBlaster

Other Prine Covers Kendall and Jon Love

Johnny Cash – “Paradise” (from Bootleg V.1: Personal File)
Jon:
“Paradise” appeared on Prine’s 1971 debut and over the years became kind of a country standard. I can think of a dozen artists from John Denver to Dwight Yoakam to Sturgill Simpson who have covered it. Cash covered it on one of his lackluster (sorry, it’s true) early ’80s albums where the hokey production made it sound phoned in and formulaic. But the Cash version from his Bootleg V.1 album, with just his voice and guitar, is minimalistic and sublime. He’s at his best with just voice and guitar, making it his own and delivering it in the masterful way only he can.
Kendall: I love this style of song, looking back on your hometown of origin. It’s why “Coal Miner’s Daughter” by Loretta Lynn has always been so compelling to me. It’s stunning how Cash holds your attention and moves the story forward with just his voice and a guitar.

10,000 Maniacs – “Hello in There”
Jon: Kendall, I didn’t grow up listening to 10,000 Maniacs and I didn’t know about this cover until recently. Were you a fan? I wonder how it was received in 1989? Maybe it turned some young kids onto Prine? It definitely harkens back to a time where an indie band could record an upbeat version of a heavy outside-of-genre tune to throw on a B-side in a tastemaker, IYKYK kinda way. Does that still happen? Do we miss that a little?
Kendall: Yes, I’m a fan for sure and I love Natalie Merchant’s voice on this. She and the band make it their own—so breezy and upbeat. However, they bring it down and make it a bit more contemplative when the lyrics almost demand it.

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings  – “Hello in There”
Jon: Well, you know, it’s all kind of magical, like everything they do. Gillian brings the perfect combination of fragility and frankness in her delivery, and David’s quiet harmonies and plaintive guitar work are beautiful. There’s also a bit of a sweetness and lightness that helps with the heaviness of the lyrical content.
Kendall: This cover was meant to be. They wear it like a cashmere sweater and I could listen to this on repeat and do nothing else but listen to every word and note.

Lambchop – “Six O’Clock News”
Jon:
I confess, I’d listened to the original (from Prine’s 1971 debut) for a long time before I explored the lyrics and… yeah, it’s really pretty dark. It also speaks to Prine’s ability to touch on some pretty strange subject matter in an understated way. Sometimes you really aren’t sure what you’re singing along to. I love Kurt Wagner’s voice and delivery, and the slightly funky groove brings a bit of levity to the subject.
Kendall: No one sounds like Kurt Wagner, and he sounds particularly robotic on this one until you get to the line “spend the night with me”. That’s what Prine does so well, he can cut through to your heart immediately with a lyric that triggers a universal feeling or longing.

Kurt Vile – “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”
Jon: I was prepared not to like this for some reason — maybe because the original is special to me — but you know, this is actually kinda great. The brushwork on the snare is very Tennessee Three and the vocals are really quite intimate, just the perfect amount of reverb. Brings to mind Flying Burrito Brothers, right? I don’t know what else to say but it sounds breezy and beautiful and I wanna turn it up, and roll the windows down in my pickup truck while I ride through the Valley this summer.
Kendall: I didn’t see this cover coming, to be honest, but once you hear it it makes so much sense that Vile would choose this Prine song to sing. I agree that it has an easy Flying Burrito Brothers energy. I hear so many harmonies, and appreciate the restraint to keep it one singular POV. Kurt, if you ever need your Emmylou to re-record this in a different way, call me.

Jimmy Buffett – “It’s a Big Goofy Old World (Live)”
Jon: I don’t know if we’ve ever talked about this but, full disclosure…I’m kind of a Parrothead. I’m not sure Buffett and the Coral Reefers ever recorded this in the studio, but man this is such a great version. As I get older, I begin to appreciate tunes like this that are just written to put smiles on faces. I just wanna sip a (virgin) rum drink of some kind and shout it out from the back row.
Kendall: This is a revelation, as I think you know that Jimmy Buffett is a huge part of my life. He is my Dad’s favorite artist next to Bob Seger. Every summer we would go see Buffett perform, and I have always had an affinity for his vibe and his lighthearted yet universal approach to songwriting. My college band, Juicy, was an all girl band. We named our first album For The Ladies based on something that I heard Jimmy Buffett say from the stage before he sang his super-romantic tune “Come Monday”. He said “This one’s for the ladies” and all the ladies in the front rows swooned. As a young feminist, I wanted to reclaim that statement to empower women, not just fall at a man’s feet. Still, I have so much admiration for Buffett and the community that he built. I agree, all in the spirit of enjoying life and seeing beauty in moments surrounding the mundane. It’s no surprise that he chose this song to cover. I love the imagery of two normal people just having fun and dancing, oblivious to others around them. They’re just having fun in this big ol goofy world.

Phoebe Bridgers – “Summer’s End”
Jon: I kinda didn’t want to like this because it seems like everyone in the world loves Phoebe Bridgers, and I can be very contrarian when it comes to things like that. But this is sweet and fragile and frankly, quite honest and real, and I think it’s gorgeous.
Kendall: I think she is kind of incapable of not adding depth and beauty to her work. She used to curate a Sirius XM show and it was a delight to hear her speak about the songs she chose for her set. She has great taste, so it’s no surprise to me that she found her way to John Prine. The kids are alright.

Aarktica – “Christmas in Prison”
Jon: This was technically the first track we worked on for the Prine project, and this one ended up released a year earlier and credited to Aarktica because we did the big guitars and ambient production, which was a bit of a different direction than we were going with the rest of the Prine Songs EP. I like the way it shaped up. Kendall, you sang beautifully on it. Destined to be a Christmas classic?….
Kendall: Prine, but make it shoegaze. I loved being part of this cover, and I think it’s one of the first times I liked hearing my voice with effects on it. It works so well, and I felt like I was able to support your lead vocal in a subtle but effective way.

Michael Cera  – “Clay Pigeons”
Jon:
First, yes, I realize that this is a Blaze Foley song, but Prine did the best recorded version of it. That said, I had no idea that Michael Cera sang or that he had albums out. To me, it sounds a lot like Paul Simon, singing lo-fi bedroom folk. It’s got some pretty harmonies and could be soundtrack-worthy for a twee teenage movie love affair…
Kendall: I’m a huge fan of this cover, and I too was surprised to learn about Cera as a musician and singer. It’s so heavenly to listen to, so beautifully twee. I hear the Paul Simon timbre in his voice, too.

Viagra Boys w/ Amy Taylor – “In Spite of Ourselves”
Jon:
I’m not familiar with these guys. Kendall, you brought this one to the table, and…I’m learning a lot about you lately…. It’s a bit deadpan and unhinged, and the video looks like it could be outtakes from Harmony Korine’s Gummo. I do like that they throw a minor chord in the progression and it derails the entire vibe of the original.
Kendall: When I was playing some shows in Sweden and London a few months back I wanted to play “In Spite of Ourselves”. You weren’t with me, so my guitarist on the tour (and good friend) Martin Olson offered to step in. I’m very exacting with harmonies, and we must have rehearsed about 25 times before he jokingly was like “maybe we should sing it this way” and sent me a link to this YouTube video. Martin is Swedish-American, so he knew about this version from Swedish punk band Viagra Boys, which is incredible. It should have been on the soundtrack of True Romance. Prine’s songs are so beloved globally, and this is such a perfect example of his reach.

Prine Songs is available everywhere music is streamed, or support directly by heading to Bandcamp. 

Linda Smith Interviews the Smashing Times

From left:  Thee Jasmine Monk, Alex Florence, Britta Leijonflycht, Blake Douglas, Linda Smith, and Paul Krolian. Photograph by Rupert Wondolowski, who runs Normals Books and Records, outside the shop after we played there.

This Sporting Life: An Interview with The Smashing Times by Linda Smith
It’s 2024 and all over the world people are once again picking up their guitars, keyboards, and drumsticks in pursuit of the heavenly pop hit for those who still want it. One such group of people is called The Smashing Times. Based in Baltimore, MD, The Smashing Times have released two albums (on Meritorio and K Records) and several singles of infectious Rickenbacker driven songs that evoke the sights and sounds of swinging ’60s London. They also tour as time permits. Thee Jasmine Monk writes the songs, sings, and plays 12 string; Alex sings and plays recorder; Blake sings and plays guitar; Britta sings and plays bass; Paul plays drums. Recently, I had the opportunity to accompany the band on a short east coast tour and had a smashing time (especially in Philadelphia). Below, Jaz and Alex answer some of my burning questions. —Linda Smith (whose Nothing Else Matters and I So Liked Spring were reissued/made available on vinyl/streaming platforms in March)

Linda Smith: English Breakfast or Earl Grey? (Or something else?)
JAZ: The’ Au Jasmine! And I like Rooibos, it tastes to me how pipe tobacco smells. But nothing pretentious, just stuff off the supermarket shelf. English Breakfast, Earl Grey, I like those too. Teas all seem good to me.
ALEX: Coffee and biscuits in the morning and then herbal tea all day long!

Do your parents support your musical activities?
JAZ: They did but never really financially. Though I had some piano lessons when I was a young sprout.
ALEX: My parents don’t believe I’m in a band. They want photo proof.

The Smashing Times / Photo: Kevin Daniel

Are The Smashing Times a “jangle pop” band? What do you think of that category?
JAZ: We are a freakbeat band. I like some of the jangly Cleaners stuff. I’m not sure what bands fall into that category. I like the Beatles and I also like The Creation. We’ve gotten references to the Byrds—I like them but they aren’t a band that I would consider an influence. That guitar player rips but he’s a little bit annoying. Gene Clark is cool. So handsome … have you heard the band Now? Their singer Young William gives me a bit of a Gene Clark vibe. Nice fellow, bought us drinks last time we were down there. I recommend that readers dig up a copy of And Blue Space is Burning Noon.
ALEX: Jangle away! I love the category.

I’m interested in The Smashing Times’ home recording process. Do you all play together live or do you record each track separately? Where do you record? Would you consider going into a so-called recording studio?
JAZ: I have a sort of indeterminacy that I apply to all factors of my life. I try not to apply intent to anything. Thus what many people probably hear as lo-fi is really just a result of my gross incompetence and lack of interest in developing technical skill. I have some SM57s that I plug into whatever computer is around and use free software to record. It’s mostly plug and play. I don’t document anything and I try to ignore any advice I’m given. Paul, Alex and I each played drums on the record we just wrapped up. Usually I play most of the other instruments but everyone in the band is there somewhere. I’d like to include everyone, rehearse and go into a studio but we all have jobs and there simply isn’t time. If that took a week then that is a week that we could not tour that year. I am very grateful and very fortunate that such fine people have chosen to come along on the journey but I’m not sure why? What is their motivation, Linda? It certainly can’t be financial. We get along so well, I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’ll miss them terribly when they eventually do get fed up with me.
ALEX: We record in our basement that we’ve painted in psychedelic colors and has a mural like Granny Takes a Trip mural…pink, blue, yellow, and then some. We have a lava lamp that’s been used so much it turned into a weird wax-like goo and doesn’t work anymore. There’s plastic ivy and string lights hung up on the ceiling pipes. When Jaz is in serious recording mode, we can’t use the sink or flush the toilet anywhere in the house because the water in the pipes will pick up on the track.

The Smashing Times / Photo: Kevin Daniel

Where would you live if you could live anywhere in the world? Do you think that you have a spiritual home where you would feel more at home than where you are?
JAZ: Japan! I want to be buried there, anywhere, even outside a 7-11.
ALEX: Fantasize about living in a cabin in the woods.

What and/or who inspires your songs?
JAZ: Squire, Merton Parkas, Mark E Smith, Martin Newell, The Beatles, The Zombies, Bert Jansch and Pentangle. They will never read this so its ok, I usually don’t tote contemporaries, but the Children Maybe Later album is splendid and definitely inspired me on the record we just finished.
ALEX: Ditto and also Elton John.

When did you write your first song and what was it about?
JAZ: When I was a young they, I can recall composing a blistering trumpet track ala Louis Armstrong while I was in the shower. My sister recorded me singing and the family loved to ridicule me by playing it in social situations around strangers. I’ll admit, it set me back.

When did you buy your first instrument? What was it?
JAZ: I bought a bass! It was a Rickenbacker copy and the brand was Lotus.
ALEX: My first instrument was a keyboard my parents bought in 1999 so I could take piano lessons and practice with. I moved away and left it and Jaz got it from my brother, then we moved in together and I still have that keyboard. I think it’s in the studio. I can’t get rid of it!

Did you always want to be in a band? Who is your main musical inspiration?
JAZ: Always. My current inspiration comes mostly from Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent. But growing up it was at various times Paul, John, George, Cher and Bronski Beat.
ALEX: Girls in bands were always so cool to me! Of course I wanted to be in a band but this came about more organically then, like, joining a band for the sake of that. Jaz and I got a set of drums and set them up in our old apartment and I got started learning! I did not see myself being a singer, but it’s really fun.

Do you prefer recording to playing live? What do you enjoy most about each?
JAZ: They both seem to cause existential dread for me and yet I keep doing it.
ALEX: Both have their moments. Recording is so fun because I can be a goof and we can scat and put in so many doo-doo-doo’s and la-la-la’s and I’m laughing the whole time. Playing live makes me too nervous to enjoy it the same.

What is your favorite British film?
JAZ: Bridget Jones Diary! Err um I mean… I keep watching Alfie over and over. For a while it was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning then Billy Liar…I think If I had to identify with a character, it would be Billy Liar.
ALEX: Bridget Jones 1-3.

Did you like school or did you hate it?
JAZ: Hated it. All the way through grad school. The more I’ve learned about what is really going on the more bitter I’ve become. I had such a sense of wonder when I was young!
ALEX: I have a love/hate relationship with school. I did too much of it!  But I liked the punishment. The best part is when you finally get a winter break or summer break, or the feeling after taking a huge stressful test, or finally being done with your least favorite class! Jaz and I used to take separate evening classes, then meet up afterwards and stop by our fave bodega to pick up 2 packs of heat nuts and 2 big cheap beers for the walk home to Chinatown.

What do you like about Baltimore? Were you born here? If not, where?
JAZ: I like to see old buildings that are covered in Ivy and left to deteriorate. I also like the culture here, you can be a proper dandy and people will celebrate you. I love to get hollered at from a car window for my extravagant dressings. I’m from Seattle. It used to be cool but it’s basically a company town for the online delivery service Amazon now. There’s also nothing old there and no sun. Good riddance!
ALEX: Baltimore has so much sunshine. I need the vitamin D. Also from Seattle where it rains 9 months of every year.

Zombies or Left Banke? 😄
JAZ: Haha ZOMBIES! I have been listening to the second Left Banke record lately and I am falling in love with it. This stems from our conversation, I assume, about how my next goal is to write a baroque pop album? 😉 It’s a good goal, you should do it too!

What was the best band of the ’90s? (If you have a favorite.)
JAZ: The ’90s were horrid! Probably the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Did the Third Rail Power Trip come out in the ’90s? I like that.
ALEX: BJM!

Do you have a favorite chord progression?
JAZ: C maj, A minor, D minor, G maj and anything with a 7th chord.

(The following 3 questions refer to songs on The Smashing Times’ latest album, THIS SPORTING LIFE.)
Who is Wes?
JAZ: Weston! An old friend, he’s been an expat for a long time and some of the social awakening that has happened here has passed him by.
ALEX: Once in Tokyo we met him for pizza and he flirted with my friend the whole time. It was charming but strange. Pizza was so delicious. I think it might have had bonito flakes on top?

Who is Petey?
JAZ: That’s Paul’s dog. We needed a name for the instrumental and after Paul and I finished tracking drums he was on the phone talking to someone about something and he said “poor Petey” so I named the file that, and it stuck. Incidental but not terribly nostalgic for me.

Who is Rowan Morrison?
JAZ: I think you mean WHERE is Rowan Morrison? it’s a character from The Wicker Man. Actually I think that might be my favorite British film. Alex and I are huge Hammer and folk horror fans.

I love the use of the recorder in the songs. Where or who did that idea come from?
JAZ: I saw Britta playing one in an online video and I had to have one. Alex and I have been discussing getting some flutes for a while but this was much more interesting and accessible I think. Alex found them at a junk shop. We accumulate things like that and then while recording they get involved spontaneously. I have a djembe drum that a neighbor left on the porch when they moved. It’s all over the records.
ALEX: My ultimate goal is to learn to play the flute, but we don’t have one yet. I’m looking for a nicely priced used one. In the meantime, using the recorder is really fun and gives a haunting melody on a few tracks. 

The Smashing Times / Photo: Kevin Daniel

Do you think music is the greatest art form?
JAZ: I quite like books. Music is pretty hit or miss. I used to read under my desk in school. The first book I read was The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander but in the last fifteen years I’ve been devoted to Japanese literature. I like Shiga Naoya, Masuji Ibuse, Kenzaburo Oe, Yu Miri, Yoko Ogawa. lots of writers. I love that Japanese literature is not as tied to predictable conventions. There’s no Chekhov’s Gun assumption and it doesn’t necessarily have to be allegorical or resolve. I have become a devoted acolyte of the poet Santoka Taneda in the last couple of years. I also like that I can enjoy it as an outsider—I don’t consider myself a writer so I’m not trying to get anything out of it from a research standpoint. I can take it at face value as long as it does not have distinguishable patterns or tropes, if it does, it flies across the room and back in the Library sack!
ALEX: Like apples and oranges. I find enjoyment in scissors and paper and glue and crayons, too. I like to paint and sew clothes for me and Jaz and friends. Recently we were coloring the cassette covers with colored pencil and that was super satisfying. To me, that sort of art is the best, when it feels good, and it’s not necessarily planned out, and it just flows, like glorified doodling.

How did everyone in the band meet each other?
JAZ: I met Alex through her brother who I used to make avant-garde organ music with – he has since drifted into a life of Northface Jackets, Subaru cars and respectable kayaking. Paul and Blake came to see The Smashing Times in an earlier incarnation and Britta reached out to us at some point. I’m quite glad. Britta has a band named Children Maybe Later that is quite good. I think Paul and Blake have a project going but it does not have a name yet. I’ve heard some of it, I think people are going to like it. I’m jealous already!
ALEX: First time I met Paul and Blake was at a pizza place. Britta might be a character in The Wicker Man, she’s a legend.

What jobs do you have? How flexible are they in allowing time for music?
JAZ: I don’t like to go to work, and I don’t like my job. To me it’s a place where my surplus labor is taken and used for the gains of others. It takes me away from my partner and children and it makes me too tired to focus on worthwhile endeavors. But on the other hand—maybe it’s the catalyst for all this escapism?

I worked at several movie theaters when I was younger. It was amazing working on the opening night of a movie. Once everyone sits down to Harry Potter 17 or whatever, all of a sudden you are alone in this giant space. I used to eat candy off the ground to save money. And I can recall turning cartwheels and playing badminton in the lobby. My dream job is to buy a Chevy Love, learn how to drive, get a license, then drive to Los Angeles and deliver Pizza. After that I would replace Bruce Campbell as the champion of B-movie horror.
ALEX: Music is the weekend job! It’s way better than the midweek job. 

The Smashing Times. Photo: Kevin Daniel

What has been your favorite venue to play so far?
JAZ: I like the small venues where nothing is mic’d. The shows we played on that tour together were great for this.
ALEX: I agree, I like the small venues best. We had a mythic show in Pamplona, Spain last year that was like a dance party all night long; also I can think of a certain Philly show that might go into the scrapbook, too. 

What is your next recording project?
JAZ: I’d really like to make a baroque pop album. But specifically a baroque pop album that sounds like The Zombies and The Bee Gees’ 1st. I’ll probably be less prolific for a bit but I feel like I’d like to take some time to work on this one. For a while the goal has been to make things as slapdash as possible – the fear is always that if you spend too much time on it the painting will be overworked. The songs are for me and the records are for you. I try to remind myself of that and when I get upset about mixes and so on and so forth, I just shrug and say “well, I think it’s a disaster but maybe someone will find it endearing.”

Go see The Smashing Times: 
May 9 Charleston Pour House Charleston, SC
May 10 Tuffy’s Music Box Sanford, FL
June 6 Thee Stork Club Oakland, CA
June 8 Permanent Records Roadhouse Los Angeles (LA), CA
June 9 GONZO! Carlsbad, CA
June 13 PhilaMOCA Philadelphia, PA
June 14 The Broadway Brooklyn, NY

Listen to their records
Listen to Linda Smith’s records
Read our interview with Linda Smith! 

Heavenly + Swansea Sound Share Their Best Coast Faves, Add West Coast Dates

We are here to inform you that—OH HELL YEAH!—legendary UK indiepop band Heavenly and indie supergroup Swansea Sound are coming to play shows in the USA! So we asked the band members to come up with lists of their favorite West Coast things and memories. (Photos courtesy of the bands)

Heavenly + Swansea Sound in NYC: 
May 31-June 1 in Brooklyn: shows are sold out
June 1: Heavenly daytime event

Swansea Sound East Coast: 
June 2: Queens, NYC, TransPecos
June 5: Washington DC, Quarry House Tavern
June 6: Providence, RI, Alchemy
June 7: Boston, MA, O’Brien’s
June 8: New York, NY, Knitting Factory
June 9: Philadelphia, PA, Johnny Brenda’s

Heavenly + Swansea Sound West Coast: 
Oct. 15: Seattle, Tractor Tavern (with Tullycraft)
Oct. 16: Portland, Mississippi Studios (with All Girl Summer Fun Band)
Oct. 18: San Francisco, Rickshaw Stop
Oct. 22-23: Los Angeles, Zebulon.

What Heavenly and Swansea Sound Love About the West Coast


Cathy Rogers (Heavenly, Marine Research, Gilroy)
1.
Driving through trees for hours and hours between Portland and SF or is it Oly and Portland? America does everything on a scale so big for us Brits
2. The Original Pantry in LA, my first experience of a cafe open 365 and 24/7, the door constantly swinging
3. The unbelievable smell of Gilroy. Everyone says oh you’ll smell it miles before you get there and you think they’re exaggerating then you smell that they’re not
4. Monterey aquarium and the whole feeling of Monterey and canning and those pummelling words
5. Swap meets in San Luis Obispo, getting up in the middle of the night to rummage around in other people’s drawers of kitchen utensils to find just the right shaped thing you don’t know what to do with
6. Lovely Olympia people. The indie punk memories of the US all centre around or connect in some way with Olympia
7. Snorkelling in kelp off Catalina island. A 90degree change in the angle of your head is all it takes to enter a parallel universe
8. Staying in an airstream by the river in Kernville. I co-owned an airstream when I lived in LA and went up to stay in it at weekends and float in giant tractor tyres down the river
9. Jumping kangaroo rats and cactuses in Joshua Tree National Park. Shame U2 appropriated its name.
10. Pie. The whole west coast. And east coast, and middle. Whole shops, whole restaurants, whole lives committed to pie.

Amelia and Hue, image courtesy of the artists

Hue Williams (Swansea Sound, the Pooh Sticks)
1. City Lights bookstore
2. Meeting Johnny Guitar Watson the first time I visited LA who invited me to swim in his guitar shaped pool
3. Sky Saxon and the Seeds
4. The Griffith Observatory
5. Meeting Brian May at Universal Studios
6. San Francisco 49ers
7. Arthur Lee and Love
8. Linda Perhacs
9. Attending the world premiere of the Beavis and Butthead movie at the Chinese theatre and the aftershow party with Tarantino where Issac Hayes was the star guest
10. The Six Million Dollar Man

Photograph by Yvonne Chen

Amelia Fletcher (Heavenly, Swansea Sound, the Catenary Wires, Marine Research, Tender Trap, Talulah Gosh, Skep Wax Records)
1. Olympia: Our US home from home.
2. Riot grrrl: A global phenomenon but Olympia was where it started and also where we first discovered it. Heavenly weren’t exactly a riot grrrl band, but it had a big influence on us.
3. Heavenly’s show with Tiger Trap in Sacramento: One of my all time favourite shows. I seem to remember it was in someone’s basement without their parents’ knowing. Tiger Trap were on roller skates. It was everything a show should be.
4. The competition between K Records and Kill Rock Stars to be the best label in Olympia/the world at that time. They both won.
5. Slumberland Records: So good for such a prolonged period. Current faves include The Umbrellas and Lightheaded.
6. Gidget: Both the book and the film. I have no idea why I love this, as I have zero interest in surfing; it just got to me.
7. The long-time liberal attitudes to sexuality and gender on the West Coast. Yep, had to say it. Important.
8. Silicon Valley: For giving Swansea Sound so much lyrical source material.
9. The Aislers Set: Such an amazing way with a tune. Linton = ❤️.
10. Beat Happening: The music I want played at my funeral. The music we did play at my brother’s.

Ian recording with Thrashing Doves at Rumbo Recorders in LA ‘86

Ian Button (Heavenly, Swansea Sound, Death In Vegas)
1. Little Richard winding down his limo window to say hello in the car park of the Hyatt.
2. Anthony Perkins stepping out of the lift at The Hollywood Roosevelt.
3. Seeing The Replacements at Santa Barbara ’87.
4. Waking up from an earth tremor.
5. A strawberry next to your eggs and bacon.
6. “What are grits, please?” “You English? You won’t like ’em!”
7. Death In Vegas @ Bimbos 365 SF ’97.
8. Surplus store near Ripley’s Odditorium – proper raw denim Levi’s
9. Hearing Todd R. ‘Hello It’s Me’ for the first time, on the radio, driving along Sunset Blvd., top down.
10. Hot apple cider in Seattle in November.

Peter in the Capitol Theatre, Olympia

Peter Momtchiloff (Heavenly, the Would-Be-Goods, Tufthunter, Marine Research, Talulah Gosh, many more)
North to South:
1. Sylvia Hotel, Stanley Park, Vancouver
2. Bellingham summer philosophy conference
3. Anacortes IPA
4. Roasted Olympia oysters
5. All Freakin’ Night at Olympia film fest
6. Olympia pet parade
7. The decor at the Brotherhood Lounge, Oly
8. Dumpster Values, Oly
9. Sprung dance floor at the Crystal Ballroom, Portland
10. Chez Panisse
11. Hummingbirds in Golden Gate Park
12. Midnight tour of historic downtown LA

Rob and Calvin (“P.U.N.K. Girl” video shoot)

Rob Pursey (Heavenly, Swansea Sound, The Catenary Wires, Skep Wax Records, Talulah Gosh, Marine Research)
1. Filming a video for “P.U.N.K. Girl” in the Capitol Theatre, Olympia
2. ‘Would you like that covered and smothered?’
3. Cinnamon-scented garbage
4. ‘That sounded totally SWEDISH’ (San Diego promoter, of our soundcheck, approvingly)
5. Vaginal Davis hosting the Marine Research show in LA
6. Tiger Trap
7. Hanging with Candice and Calvin at K Records HQ
8. Visiting Kill Rock Stars HQ, just down the street from K. (I just realised that this list is very Olympia-centric)
9. The Microphones
10. Driving for 8 hours and nothing happening

Swansea Sound (Bob in center)

Bob Collins (Swansea Sound, the Treasures of Mexico, the Dentists)
1. Monterey Pop
2. Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass
3. Laurel and Hardy driving in LA with a record player under the hood
4. Ray Manzarek’s almost certainly made-up story about meeting Jim Morrison on Venice Beach and forming the Doors
5. The geographical absurdity of Point Roberts
6. The fact that the members of Love all lived in a house called The Castle.
7. The day that Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark went to the movies in LA to see A Hard Day’s Night
8. Mulholland Drive

READ: Hue and Amelia Interview Each Other (Swansea Sound)
READ: Heavenly in the USA 
READ: The Catenary Wires Interview
READ: Our All Girl Summer Fun Band Interview

LA show is October 23, 2024!!!
From the archive
Eddie Vedder and Cathy Heavenly (she didn’t know who he was!)
“P.U.N.K. Girl” video shoot
Cathy watching Lois in San Jose

Checking in with Sarah Martin from Belle and Sebastian

Sarah Martin from Belle and Sebastian (with her pal Beryl)

Of course we interviewed the smart, wonderful, luminous Sarah Martin from Belle and Sebastian in Glasgow in 1997 when the band rarely did interviews and barely even shared photos of themselves! She is on the cover of CF11 along with Isobel Campbell. But we wanted to check in with her as she makes her way across the U.S. while on tour about the band, dogs, food, and her other life as someone who works on the Revelator! Interview by Gail / Photographs courtesy of Sarah

Get tickets here / Buy merch here

B&S in Chicago / Photograph by Sarah Martin

chickfactor: What are you up to today? Where are you?
Sarah Martin: I’m in Brooklyn, on a bus, moving at a fraction of walking pace towards today’s venue.

And now I’m in Chicago in an unusually comfortable backstage situation, listening to the rain, with our call to the stage coming in a couple of minutes. The sky looked pretty Glasgow-ish earlier, a downpour was brewing.

What are the best things about touring the U.S.? And the most unpleasant things?
One of my favourite things is getting to see friends who I never do the rest of the time. Getting to sit in kitchens across America, especially if the kitchen comes with a dog I can roll about with. Even cats will do. I had high hopes of meeting a pet squirrel in New York, but it didn’t quite happen.

The unpleasant things … well I’m relieved this time to be avoiding the stretch of absurdly high temperatures we had a couple of summers ago, from Pioneertown through Phoenix, Austin, Oklahoma City, Santa Fe. I went to Taliesin West on the day off in Phoenix which was incredible—definitely a highlight of all my visits to North America—but it makes much more sense in the context of being Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter residence—I’m sure it’s lovelier then.

Favorite places to eat or visit while on tour?
Sweetgreen, Tender Greens, Tacombi

What are some of your most memorable shows?
There was one at the zoo in Portland which I remember you were at; the elephants were having a wander around watching the primates and the lights – I loved it.

The first Coachella, the second Benicassim. Iceland in 2006 was amazing.

Photograph by Stephen Skrynka

Tell us about the Revelator. What is it? How did you get involved? What do you do there? Is it a job? A hobby?
The Revelator is my magical, otherworldly other world. It takes the form of a Wall of Death (a wooden cylinder for a motorbike riding display) but it is so much more besides: a theatre, cinema, art space, and an artwork in its own right. When I first saw pictures, it was a wooden skeleton and I knew I had to touch it. By the time I met it in real life, late in 2021, it was a big drum. There was still a lot of work to do, but Stephen Skrynka, the artist whose idea it all was, had already held a group art show inside, and was showing a series of films over one of the weekends during COP26. I went along for a short film called Lambing, and I was the only person who showed up; by the time I left I had offered to help with the build for a couple of weeks over Christmas and new year before touring geared up. But then Covid laid waste to the tours, so I stuck around. It became like another band, seven people with a common purpose. It became a home.

It’s not a job, and it’s not a hobby. It’s work but it’s also play. It can be anything we want it to be. We have built it tucked in the corner of a huge shipyard building on Red Clydeside, in the great tradition of the work-in, the sense of purpose is our reward.

As for the work itself, it can be anything. The build is more or less finished, but my first task was grinding sharp corners and excess weld off steel brackets. There’s been lots of woodwork, obviously. Being the projectionist, singing, getting a meal on the table, entertaining the dog. Sometimes the jobs are menial, but sometimes they are matters of life and death.

Two Sarahs and a Stephen, fitting the balustrades / artwork by Annabel Wright

Tell us about the community you found there, and how that is different from your musical one.
Soon after I became a part of it, I realised there are more similarities with the band than differences really. It is a creative endeavour after all, and we solve problems together and generally do what we can to make things happen. Having been a part of both is a privilege I don’t take for granted.

The Revelator-in-Chief is Stephen (pictured below), an artist, who built the wall having learned to ride it the hard way. I do music and sewing; there is an oncologist, a theatre designer, a production manager from a local music venue, a property developer in the core team, and various others who come and go. Half of us aren’t even into motorbikes. We really are a community though, far greater than the sum of our parts.

The other day before the show in Royal Oak, MI, we accepted an invitation to have a tour of the pressing plant at Third Man Records in Detroit, and obviously that was quite an amazing place, but I also recognised the same sort of collective pride that we have at the Revelator, and ways that it is symbolised in the space the machines inhabit. It felt like a functional work of art, which is a familiar thing. That can go down as another memorable highlight from touring in the US.

The late Lottie and Stephen / Photograph by Sarah Martin

You seem like a dog person. Are there any special mutts in your life right now?
If I never had to go on tour again I think I would have a special dog of my own again, but for now there’s a young poodle called Beryl who calls the Revelator one of her homes – she’s about 7 months old, and I miss having her bouncing round the neighbourhood with me at the other end of her lead. The original Revelator dog Lottie was a very special girl; she died last September and is much missed. And Frank the lurcher who is getting on a bit is another wonderful dog friend.

What’s a typical day like in the B&S recording studio or rehearsal space?
In late 2020 / throughout 2021 it was unpredictable but brilliant, while we were recording the last couple of albums – often there would only be Stuart, Chris and me around, but we’d get the others in to do their parts on songs when they could fit it in. Since we set the rehearsal space up for recording, we’ve tended to record songs as they come together, rather than rehearsing them in advance.

When we’re rehearsing for tour, I must admit it’s fairly workmanlike! We come in at 10ish usually, try to remember a couple of songs, then we form a line at the microwave with our tubs of ready meals and leftovers from home. Lunch always stretches out longer than planned, and most of the dads head off to collect their offspring from school so we don’t go too late into the afternoon.

Work in progress quilt, on show with others in the set, in June at the Revelator / Photograph by Stephen Skrynka

If I come to Glasgow this summer, what should I do there?
If you come in August, come to the B&S weekender at SWG3 – we’ll be playing in the yard, both nights, watching the trains go over the viaduct – it’s such a great place, some other great bands playing too, including the Tenementals who I will also be singing with. If you come in June, come to the Revelator’s salon des refusés “Feed The Hand That Bites You” – I’ll be showing a series of quilts I’m making as part of that, but each day there’ll be something different from an artist or group whose proposal was rejected by Glasgow International. Eat at Sugo and Ka Pao! Maybe we could go to the seaside, chips and ice cream? Visit the Alasdair Gray Archive. Go for a sunset swim at Gourock Pool on a Wednesday night.

Who is the comedian in the band?
Bob’s the funniest

Does everyone meditate on the road?
No! Only Stuart, I think.

The Tenementals (Sarah on far right) / Photo by Stephen Skrynka

How did the pandemic change the band?
I think it has left most of us more firmly rooted to home, to be honest. I feel sure the effects are still emerging, so we’ll see what else…

For a couple of us, the fact that being a working band became more difficult, opened up space in our lives for other creative projects which have become equally important, so there are competing demands on our attention.

What was it like being on The Simpsons
Being asked to do a song for The Simpsons was a real shot in the arm for the band, to be honest – and to have been animated into the episode was particularly special. On my birthday everyone wore pin badges of my Simpsons character… it was a bit like Being John Malkovich at the go-karting!

What are you eating, cooking, reading, watching these days?
I binged Ripley with Andrew Scott the other week, which was amazing. Rewatched Fleabag series 2 after that… I also started rewatching Humans, which was on Channel 4 in the UK maybe 10 years ago, and it is very good. I don’t watch much telly though really. I saw – and loved – Poor Things, at the cinema.

A friend gave me Conversations on Love by Natasha Lunn for my birthday which I’ve been reading on tour.

Cooking—it’s been a while, for one reason or another, but a while ago I was regularly making Ukrainian stuffed cabbage rolls, with veggie haggis, mushrooms, rice and lots of herbs. Really good! If I’m at home, and eating out, it’ll often be at Sugo, or Ka Pao, or Lotus in Scotstoun for Lebanese food as good as any I’ve ever had, or Suissi for vegan Asian food.

16mm film screening at the Revelator / Photograph by Sarah Martin

Records Sarah cannot live without

The Partisan – Leonard Cohen

Come ‘Round Here (I’m The One You Need) by the Miracles, in mono on a 7”. It just isn’t the same on any other format I have heard.

Somebody – Depeche Mode

The Story of a Soldier – Ennio Morricone

On Battleship Hill – PJ Harvey

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue – Them

Stoned Love – the Supremes

That Summer Feeling – Jonathan Richman

Tip Toe – Sault

They Don’t Know – Kirsty MacColl

Photograph by Sarah Martin
Photograph by Sarah Martin

 

Interview: Filmmaker Chris Wilcha on Flipside and Other Stuff

Filmmaker Chris Wilcha. Courtesy of Chris

Record stores, collecting records, WFMU, selling out, underground culture from the 1980s and ’90s, the value of a creative life, indie cred, and unfinished projects—these are things we understand, don’t we, dear reader. I first met Chris Wilcha when I was an editor at SPIN magazine and he was an intern, and he interviewed me about chickfactor as if he were already a documentary filmmaker. After getting a job in the “alternative rock” copywriting team at the Columbia House Record & Tape Club (where you could get, like, 10 vinyl LPs for a penny) in the grunge era, Chris brought his camcorder to work and documented his experience struggling with working for The Man; the result was his first documentary, the acclaimed The Target Shoots First (2000). After piloting a TV show for This American Life (2007), he became a family man and commercial director, though he remained a doc maker in his brain. He also worked on projects with Judd Apatow, Coen brothers and Tig Notaro. His new film, Flipside (2023), chronicles not just his formative years working in a Jersey record store, but how music and possessions influence our identities, moving on and letting go, and how it’s a shame most of us are doing creative work as a labor of love (and are often exhausted by our paid work). We caught up recently and had a chat and here it is. Images courtesy of Chris Wilcha and Tracy Wilson

Flipside will be in theaters in NY starting May 31 and Los Angeles starting June 7 and streaming soon thereafter

Flipside image courtesy of Chris Wilcha

chickfactor: When did you intern at SPIN (you were known as SPINterns)? What was your impression of the magazine? The other interns? What exactly did you do while there?
Chris Wilcha:  I was a SPIN-tern in late 1992, early 1993.  I have this distinct memory of walking back to my apartment on 13th street after an afternoon working at SPIN and the first World Trade Center bombing had happened earlier in the day.  So yeah, that was February 1993.  I had been such a loyal and avid reader of the magazine before interning there. At first it was kind of thrilling to meet all of these people whose bylines I’d been reading but then it all gets demystified pretty quickly. You kind of realize that they are all varying degrees of miserable or at least annoyed by your presence.  It was so useful to see the day-to-day grind of working at a magazine, to see how it gets put together every month. You were very nice to me. And you seemed incredibly meticulous and skillful at your job.

What did you learn from working at SPIN? Anything valuable?
It was a pretty classic internship experience, a lot of menial tasks.  I remember getting Bob Guccione Jr. shots of espresso before meetings. There was one great perk. I was allowed to pitch ideas and write something for the magazine.  And a couple of things I wrote ended up in the magazine. One was a short piece about frizzy haired public television painter Bob Ross. A reappraisal of his brilliance. He was still alive then. I was very early on the Bob Ross pop culture appreciation trend. But I definitely used that clip to get other writing work. Years later, in 1999, SPIN did a piece on my first documentary, The Target Shoots First, and that was truly thrilling.

Chris Wilcha, courtesy of Chris

Let’s talk about your early days in New Jersey. How did you find out about music? What was your first concert?
I was playing in classic rock bands in high school and learning guitar. The first concert: My dad took me and my friends to see Van Halen at Madison Square Garden in 1984 for my 13th birthday. I was definitely guitar shred culture obsessed. My mom wanted me to read, so she got me magazine subscriptions to Guitar Player and Musician, Circus, SPIN, Creem, Rolling Stone. I still have them all. Musician had a column where artists would explain their gear in great detail. The Replacements were having a mainstream moment and they did the gear sidebar, but they totally mocked it. They were like, “Tommy plays a red guitar, Paul plays the blue guitar.” It was like a fuck-you to the whole gear-obsessive nerd thing. This was all pre-internet so I was obsessed with information and knowing things about music and bands gave you a certain currency.

My older sister had some boyfriends who were in the know, they were going into the city, seeing shows, and they clued me in to college radio stations like WFMU and WRPR. And that was when I started listening to hardcore bands, college rock and what eventually became known as alternative music. That was the golden age of college radio. I remember being totally mystified by what I was hearing. One time the Butthole Surfers song “Moving to Florida” came on and I just had no context for what the fuck I was hearing. These albums seemed so transgressive and fucked up and my very young 13-14-year-old brain was trying to process what this stuff was. I was getting it as this big stew though, so it was hard sometimes to know what was corny and what was interesting.

What was your sister listening to?
She was very college rock. R.E.M. and Talking Heads. Tracy Chapman. She took me to see a midnight screening of Stop Making Sense in the city. A friend’s older brother took us to see Bad Brains and that was genuinely kind of astounding. 

That sounds like 1985-86-ish?
Absolutely. I was recording things off the radio and sometimes I didn’t even know what I was listening to for years.

When you were listening to something back then, it felt like, “I may never hear this again and I’m going to be so sad about it. I may never even know who it is.” So where did you hang out? Did you grow up in the Flipside town?  
I grew up one town over in Franklin Lakes and the record store was in Pompton Lakes. I couldn’t drive, so my parents or my sister would have to drive me. Eventually I drove, and I remember listening to records always back and forth. My dad had a company car, a perk of corporate culture, a 98 Oldsmobile. This was the mid ’80s. I would drive his 98 Oldsmobile to my job at the record store. There was a Public Enemy song on their first album called “You’re Gonna Get Yours,” which was about how they were fetishizing 98 Oldsmobiles. I remember playing that song in my dad’s car as I was driving his 98 Oldsmobile. That just seemed so funny to me at the time.

I would sneak into the city a lot. I wasn’t totally embedded in the social universe of my high school, but when I got into a band, I had this double life where we would go play in other towns and Battle of the Bands or parties. I was meeting all these people in this weird northern New Jersey circuit of schools that never would have had any exposure to. Playing in bands felt like this weird passport to all these other experiences. We were just a terrible cover band, but it was super-fun.

Image courtesy of Chris Wilcha

Back then you could go anywhere as a kid in NYC, nobody cared, pre-Giuliani.
Anywhere. CBs, CBs Gallery. We did some really dumb shit. I had some metalhead friends and one night we went to see Celtic Frost [laughs] and everyone drank too much and the kid who was the designated driver was totally wasted. So somebody else drove us home who was like probably 15, super-dodgy—dumb high school, no frontal lobe decision-making type of stuff. I truly was obsessed with music. If I wasn’t playing in bands, we’d go into the city, to Tower. Bootlegs were this mysterious oddity that you could get on St Marks. Hip-hop was this new nascent thing. I was obsessively consuming stuff about music. That’s why the record store job that eventually happened in high school was the dream. I had done shitty jobs before that: caddy at a golf course, mowed lawns, all the classic suburban shit. But the record store job was the first time where I was like, Oh, I don’t even notice the time passing. This is just pure pleasure. It was also like a social hub. You would go there to talk about records and new releases and people would just hang out for hours at the record store.

Flipside image courtesy of Chris Wilcha

Is Flipside Records still open? What was it like then versus now?
It is. Back then it was new releases of every kind. A person would come in and they’d want something that was on the radio that day in cassette form. Or a kid would come in and he’d want some metal thing he’d read about. The inventory was totally new, it was constantly turning over. They also had cutouts—I’ve since read that there was a sketchy market for them that had some kind of mob-related thing where sometimes and there’d be a saw mark in the cover of the vinyl, there would be a gouge in it. The owner, Dan, always had some line on cutouts where it was like $3.99 for these things. He also had bootlegs and he sold VHS. He would run dubs of like weird art movies or horror movies. A mom would come in looking for a Tiffany cassette.

There were these odd little footnotey New Jersey microcelebrities who would come to the store. The Feelies were a big specter to me, like wow, the Feelies, and one of Dan’s close friends is Dave Weckerman, who’s in the Feelies. I remember seeing the movie Something Wild and there’s the Feelies and Dave is playing in the band in the Jonathan Demme movie and then he would come into the record store. He was like a celebrity to me. Various other characters: This guy named Bobby Steele was a grungy New Jersey hardcore guy who played in The Undead who would come by and drop off stickers and zines and cassettes; Uncle Floyd, this cable access character in the tristate area, would shop there because he’s a record-collecting obsessive who had various radio shows.

Flipside image courtesy of Chris Wilcha

There was a whole universe in the store and the town that was just very formative and made a big impression. There was also this micro regional celebrity that would come along with it, which is you were known as the person who worked at the register, and Tracy (Wilson), who succeeded me, ended up really embracing that role. Dan saw that she knew her stuff and he let her and some of her coworkers buy for the store. Her taste was so sophisticated, and she knew bands and a whole market that Dan didn’t understand at that point, and he saw the wisdom in handing it off to Tracy.

Tell us a funny story about something that happened there.
A friend of Dan’s would come into the store, Rick Sullivan. He was a bit of a New Jersey character who did a zine called the Gore Gazette and his obsession was horror and B movies. His expertise and knowledge were fairly astonishing. These guys drank like fucking fish. They’d come in sometimes on Fridays and hang out and start drinking at around 3:00 p.m. and let me drink with them. One time I was in the store completely alone. This woman comes in and starts asking me about a record, and then she gets weird on me and a little flirty and I’m confused because this is an older woman and I’m 15, 16 years old. Eventually she overtly propositions me and my jaw’s on the floor … I don’t even have the language because we left the realm of the normal. This is like Weird Science. And of course, Rick comes in a minute later and he’s like “AH HA HA.” He had put this woman up to completely fuck with my mind. I was so paralyzed with high school awkwardness and utter embarrassment.

Chris Wilcha looking at his stuff at his parents’ house

The film explores how our possessions and musical taste affect our identity and the idea of hoarding versus collecting.
The entire experience of making the documentary helped me figure out what I wanted to keep and what I wanted to leave behind at this midlife moment. That meant both going into the closet and interrogating these things and saying, “does this retain some meaning”? I would often acquire things thinking, I’ll make something of this at some later date. I’d go to a garage sale and say, I need this person’s entire collection of slides because I am going to make something out of it, a short film, sort of object or sculpture. There was this weird hoarding mentality.

And it could be the next Vivian Maier, you never know!
Totally. I was also thinking about ideas that you’ve carried with you for a long time that it’s time to let go of. There was also the Gen X obsession of the ’90s was this whole idea of selling out and that was something I thought about, these nuances of who was or wasn’t selling out.

Chris in SPIN magazine, 1999.

We couldn’t escape conversations about selling out in the ’90s. Nowadays no one would accuse you of that because musicians can barely afford to live.
It’s so brutal. I saw Dan Zanes play and we were remembering when the Del Fuegos did a beer commercial and there was backlash that hindered their rise, which seems insane now. But I mean, I love stuff. I loved garage sale-ing and thrifting and acquiring and saving. There was always some renewed awe when I would rediscover the things. I also moved a lot, but I had this home base of my parents’ house [for my stuff]. They never did anything rash like throw it out; they knew it was significant and important. And as you see in the movie, my dad also has some of these same acquiring, keeping tendencies.

I never got any pleasure out of selling stuff. It was always the acquiring … it was like going to the museum. It was this other form of culture consuming. But then I had a family and we moved into a house where, if you brought something into it, you had to get something out of it. I have a storage space right now. I’ll go there and see a signed Duplex Planet book and I still feel this insane, intense connection to it. It’s tragic but somehow I feel this ridiculous pull to keep the artifacts I bought at the NYU bookstore. Digital photography has been helpful—I can see something and photograph it and that’s enough. I’ll be in the thrift store or at the garage sale, I’ll take a picture and I don’t need to own it.

Image courtesy of Chris Wilcha

Had you thought about being a filmmaker before you worked at Columbia House?
I went to NYU as an undergrad, but I was not a filmmaker. I had film major roommates, people who were in Tisch but I was a philosophy major. This moment came where I became obsessed with documentaries of every kind. I was going to Film Forum runs of like Frederick Wiseman films and the Maysles, but then also discovering artists like Sadie Benning and filmmaker Jem Cohen. I was devouring every form of nonfiction. In the early 90s, it seemed like a totally underexplored form. My parents gave me a Hi8 Sony video camera when I graduated from college, but said I was on my own if I wanted to live in New York City, that was when I got the job at Columbia House. I was still music obsessed. This was also a time and again but that was when you could live on the island of Manhattan in a bohemian way. You could pay 300 bucks live with a few roommates.

I thought, I am going to document [the job] and tell the story of it. It took me a minute to realize, Oh, there’s something happening here about my generation, which is I am being entrusted by this company to help them market to my generation because they can’t get the voice of it right. That was a big thing at the time. They so wanted the voice of the target demographic to help them sell it back to their own generation. So that was a sort of phenomena of that moment. At a certain point, midway through filming, I was like there’s something going on here way more interesting than documenting this institution. I was having this very coming of age post college experience in corporate America and it very much felt like The Office before The Office. The absurdity of work culture and the 17th floor versus the 19th floor and the suits and the creatives that was at play. It felt very screenplay worthy at the time.

Chris Wilcha in NYC, 2000 / Photo: Gail O’Hara

Tell us some secrets about Ira Glass.
[This American Life] was a dream job. When I heard that show was even trying to become a TV show, I was like, OMG, how do I get considered to direct this? I got the job but the job was just to do a test tape. I knew that this was sort of like a once in a lifetime experience, so I killed myself and we made an entire pilot episode with almost no money and basically it ended up being the pilot episode that eventually aired. I knew that if we didn’t blow the Showtime executives away, they weren’t going to greenlight the series. So I worked for 6 or 8 months for nothing, but I knew this was one of those chances you had to just take. 

I got to see how they worked, I got to sit in on their story meetings, I took notes on how they constructed stories and did their research. I was voracious in wanting to learn and understand how they did things because I was so in awe of this magical product that they made. I learned that they were relentless. Ira would burrow into every single story that he was working on himself, or help somebody else shape or sculpt, or work with a writer to extract their voice. Their work ethic was breathtaking: These people worked so, so, so, so hard and obsessively. I’m still living off the fumes of that experience creatively, personally, it was incredible. As a professional experience, I’ve never had that replicated, where you were doing something where the network did not give you a single note, didn’t bother you. [The network] loved what was being created.

Flipside Records owner Dan / Image courtesy of Chris Wilcha

Has the Flipside guy seen this movie?
Yes, Dan [Flipside’s owner] has seen my documentary. I had to send him a DVD because he is so anti-internet and has no online access. He does not have a smartphone, so we had to figure out a way to burn a DVD of it, which nobody in my immediate orbit had done in 10 years. So it took a fair amount of effort to get him to see it. I invited him to a screening in New York and it was on a Sunday. I called him and he said “Nope, we’re open today so I can’t go.” I was like, “fuck, dude, come on, just come to the city.”

Dan considers himself more of an archivist. Flipside is more of a museum. You don’t go there to find something you want. You go there to have your mind blown by like digging and pulling things out and being like, Oh my God, this sound effects record from 1972. It’s like this confetti pile of all this detritus from the 20th century that’s collected there, so the experience of shopping there is so special, but it is kind of gnarly, you get filthy, it’s cold in there. A certain kind of person who goes in there and is ready to dig and move things and make a mess. When you go to Station One, it’s air-conditioned, you can pay with your credit card or Apple Pay. It’s a totally different experience. There are fewer and fewer people who have the patience or energy to spend three hours rooting around looking for stuff in Flipside).

Flipside image courtesy of Chris Wilcha

Have your parents seen Flipside?
Yeah, they came to the Toronto screening, I think they were momentarily terrified, but they got so much love after from everyone who was there and we went out for a big dinner after and they so enjoyed how people responded to them that it forgave some of their self-consciousness around what’s actually in it. My dad doesn’t love the soap stealing scene and my mom was complaining about how she looked and felt like she was too harsh toward Judd Apatow, even though that’s really how she felt. But I think now they are enjoying the experience of being included in it and they see it for what it is, which a bit of a love letter to them in it.

What skills did you get from (working at) Flipside that you still use today?
Looking back, it was so absurdly fun working there. Talking with like-minded people all day about bands and records. Obsessively reading zines and consuming any information I could about music. This isn’t really a skill but it was my first experience having a job that I was good at and felt effortless. I never noticed the time passing. I didn’t realize how much I was learning and absorbing … about how to run a small business, how to interact with people. I loved being there. I would often leave at the end of a work day with an armful of new records instead of my actual paycheck.  It suggested that you could get a job doing something you loved. Which was a modest epiphany at the time! CF
Flipside will be in theaters in NY starting May 31 and Los Angeles starting June 7 and streaming soon thereafter
Tracy Wilson at Flipside
Flipside image courtesy of Chris Wilcha
Ira Glass, Chris Wilcha and Judd Apatow at DocNYC, Photo by Colleen Sturtevant
Flier from Chris’ high school radio show /  image courtesy of Chris Wilcha
Flipside image courtesy of Chris Wilcha

Interview: Rebecca Odes from Love Child and Odes

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Odes

As unofficial documenters of the New York City independent music scene, we should have interviewed Rebecca Odes long ago. Back when we started our zine, she was playing in Love Child, a trio she joined while at Vassar with Alan Licht and Will Baum (and later Brendan O’Malley), along with her band Odes. In the decades since then, she has been a prolific media creator, writing books and creating outlets such as Gurl.com, Wifey.tv and CherryPicks (a feminist-slanted improvement on Rotten Tomatoes). She’s also a multimedia artist and a parent! To celebrate the release of a just-released Love Child compilation, Never Meant to Be: 1988–1993, on 12XU Records, Rebecca chatted with chickfactor about her background, the olden days, her present and other important issues. Listen to the compilation here. (Thanks to Michael Galinsky and Michael Macioce for sharing their photographs)

Love Child. Photo: Michael Galinsky

chickfactor: Tell us a bit about your background: Where did you grow up? Was your family into music? What were you like as a kid? A teen?
Rebecca Odes: I grew up in West Orange, New Jersey. I share an alma mater with Tony and Carmela Soprano. I was a dozen years later, but the vibe tracks. It was a sports and big hair situation. I was generally considered a weirdo, sensitive and not very socially adept. I wrote poems and made art and installations with my dolls.

My father was an incredible pianist—the lore was he could have gone to Juilliard but had to take over the family electrical supply business. I was not good at practicing, but I made up songs and conceptual rock bands. When I was 12 I went to an art camp, where I discovered most artists were weirdos. It saved me. The counselors were all the coolest people I had ever met. This may still be true. The theater director was Ondine from the Factory, though he used his real name there, and I didn’t discover this until I looked him up 20 years later. He wrote a musical version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe with James Irsay, a cult classical WBAI DJ. I was Susan, and sang the song they wrote for me on the roof of a building—kind of my first public performance. The art counselor was Michael Stipe’s roommate. She did my hair and makeup for a B-52s airband, which is how I learned I liked this particular way of being on stage. I learned to play bass there, the summer after my freshman year, when I was a counselor. My boyfriend was the guitar teacher; he got the camp to rent a bass which was ostensibly for the campers, but I’d take it back to my bunk every day and play along to ’60s pop songs. We formed a conceptual band called I AM A BUNNY. It was me playing the riff to “Li’l Bit o’ Soul,” a noise box, and my friend Max shrieking the lyrics to the Richard Scarry book. We played once.

How did Love Child come together and how long did it last?
A couple of months later, fall 1987, we were all back at Vassar for Sophomore year. I had seen Alan and Will around but hadn’t met them. Some mutual friends said they were starting a band and looking for a bass player. We got together to play and they decided I was a better bet than the guy they had been playing with. I had only been playing for six weeks, so it was a steep learning curve. We started playing at school fairly soon after that (see photo of our first show below) We were a band for the next fiveish years—until 1993, though there were two incarnations. Love Child was Will Baum’s brainchild—he had come up with the name and most of the songs played at the beginning. There was a lot of instrument-switching in that lineup; Alan would play drums on Will’s songs and they’d switch when Alan sang. Alan and I slowly started filling our songs around the edges, and then that coalesced into something that didn’t fit quite as well with what Will was doing. Will went away for a semester. Brendan O’Malley filled in while he was gone, and by the time he came back we had gelled into something different.

Love Child, first show, Vassar College. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Odes

Any memorable stories about live shows, recording or touring?
We did a European tour with Codeine, which included what seemed like every single town in Germany and a few other places. I had a somewhat contrarian impulse to put Jaegermeister on our rider (I’d heard the Euro version had some kind of magical powers). This always struck people as gross because of its frat boy rep, but I realize now I was just an early Amaro adopter. Also maybe subconsciously trying to treat my nervous stomach? When we were first playing, I used to swig so much Pepto Bismol at shows, I kept a bottle on my amp.

Got any tour horror stories?
Once we played in Denver during a snowstorm. Someone came in and said a woman had been hit by a car outside. We never found out if she was okay. This kicked up some childhood car trauma which manifested in an unhealthy unlucky association with the lipstick I was wearing (MAC Viva Glam III), which, while not at all as sad as being hit by a car, is a little sad, because it’s a really good color.

What was the independent music scene like in NYC in the Love Child era?
I used to imagine the early ’90s NYC indie scene as a land of two kingdoms: Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo. This was a made-up thing, obviously—those were not at all two sides, and they overlap in lots of ways. But it felt like there were two energies, warm and friendly, and cool and gritty. We were sort of straddling that, or maybe in many places at once, because we had so many different songs and sounds.

The scene was generally friendly and supportive all around—I don’t remember any real competitive energy. Inside CBs was the music, but the party was on the street. It definitely felt like a community, and there was a sense that we were sharing something not everyone got. I feel lucky to have been a part of it.

Love Child by Michael Galinsky

What was Love Child’s dynamic like?
Fraught, but fun. We got along pretty well personally; our sensibilities and senses of humor are very aligned. We were all into the same art, movies, obscure whatevers. There was a kind of built-in tension to having three different songwriters and styles. In the beginning, Alan and Will had a lot of knowledge and skills I didn’t have. I was learning on the fly—they were teaching me, really, with varying degrees of tolerance. Will had very strong ideas about how he wanted things to be. He was always trying to improve me, which I appreciated in theory but found annoyingly controlling in practice. He once insisted I learn the bass part of every song on Are You Experienced? in one afternoon, which may have stretched the boundaries of consent as well as the reach of my fret hand. I wrote “Willpower” as a sort of bratty reaction to that feeling. Alan was less bossy but sometimes more intimidating. It took me a long time to feel really confident in the shadow of his expertise. I had the feeling that my contribution was somehow less valid because it was less about musicianship. And there was definitely some weirdness about me being The Girl and the attention this brought.

By the second album, I was much more self-assured as a player and songwriter. But then there was a new problem: I got tinnitus. Noise was a really integral part of Alan’s guitar sound. We played loud, long noisy jams. I definitely clocked some hours on the floor with my ears close to the amp. I love noise, and have a real visceral craving for it, still. But my ears have always been sensitive, so I guess I should not have been surprised they were sensitive to damage. Volume became the subject of many fights (I remember one soundcheck in Rotterdam that got particularly ugly). This was a real factor in the band’s breakup. I think I was experiencing a kind of grief about the permanence of the injury, and it felt like the noise level had done the damage. But it was hard to imagine how this band could exist without it.

If you had a theme song, what would it be?
I feel like too many things to identify with one song, but I’ll go with “A Plan, Revised” by The Trypes.

Love Child. Photo: Michael Galinsky

What kind of bands did you play with then? What were you inspired by/listening to?
We played a lot with NYC bands: Yo La Tengo, Dust Devils, and Homestead bands like The Mad Scene and Truman’s Water. We often did shows with Antietam and Sleepyhead as we were buddies. We also played with Galaxie 500, Pavement, Sonic Youth and The Feelies in various capacities (recall being bummed that The Feelies were not at all as friendly as their music).

We were definitely nursing a Velvet Underground fixation, as well as early Modern Lovers, and drony noisy stuff like Stooges and Spacemen 3. I am also drawn to minimalist music, maybe for therapeutic reasons. But I have always loved a good sing-song situation. I listened to a lot of Shangri-Las, and then some of the bands that took some of that sound/vibe and ran with it. Young Marble Giants were a huge favorite. We were going to record a song for the YMG tribute in the early ’90s, but that fell apart for some reason.

Did you experience a lot of sexism or misogyny back then? Nasty soundmen? Stories please.
I’ve been hung up for a long time on how to answer this question. I had some profoundly disturbing experiences during this time. Yeah, there were nasty soundmen, though to be honest, mixing a loud band with a not-so-loud voice is a recipe for frustration on all sides.

The more meaningful stuff was elsewhere in the scene. There was a kind of reverence for transgression and a lack of boundaries around substances and sexuality, which felt cool and empowering…until it didn’t. I was very trusting and game. I accepted that being willing to be packaged sexually was part of “the business,” that being packaged sexually came with being perceived sexually, and that it was up to me to figure out how to manage the results of this perception. I understood this as part of being transgressive, which I was very interested in, in theory. In practice, this did not always work out well for me.

German flyer (photo: Michael Galinsky)

We had some major label interest for a second. The guy took us out to a fancy dinner, and asked us if we were “willing to do what it takes.” I thought about that whenever something happened that felt wrong. There was a very explicit Lolita thing happening in Europe (see clip below.) This was very confusing to me—I mean, Christiane F was a cool movie, but being identified with a 12-year-old girl who turned to sex work to support her heroin addiction felt super gross. There was also press playing on this teen thing, a lot of it entirely made up (even the supposed direct quotes). There were some pretty terrible interactions with men around this, on many levels.

If I were doing it again, I would have approached some things differently. I think it helps to keep some distance when you’re putting yourself out there. I was not doing that, and it made me really vulnerable. I wish I could say I would be more confident and push back when things felt weird. But while I was not at all a teenager, I was still young enough to think these people knew better—there was a part of me that believed this was how it all worked.

Tell us about the new collection: What’s on it? How did it come together?
Never Meant To Be is a double album anthology. It’s a lot of the stuff we’re proudest of, all of which hasn’t been officially available online, and some of which has never been available anywhere. There are two songs from our Peel Session, which was never released—“Greedy,” which was the last song we wrote together, and a version of “Asking For It,” the first song I ever wrote (as a too-late act of self-defense against harassment, street and otherwise). Also Erotomania,” which was on a Spanish compilation 7-inch called THIS IS ART (Love Child, Yo La Tengo, Cell, Vineland), and some stuff from live radio shows, as well as our picks from our various releases. We’ve been talking about doing this for a while, and were really happy when Gerard wanted to put it out.

What other bands/projects have you been in then and now?
After Love Child broke up, I started a band called Odes. I was excited about the idea of liberating my songs from the tyranny of two-minute guitar solos. I also wanted to play with some people who weren’t guys. Brendan had a friend named Ari Vena who played guitar. Jesse Hartman played bass at first (I had played bass in his band, Sammy, briefly). When he left, Ari suggested her friend John Gold. John had played in 9-Iron, Will Baum’s post-Love Child band. We put out a single and an EP on Merge.

I took a long break from music while breeding, etc. The idea of getting on stage and singing to people seemed absurd to me. Then it came roaring back in a new form—I didn’t want to be on stage or communicate anything—I just wanted to be near the noise. Ma’am was formed in 2010, with Charlie Gansa from Guv’ner, and Lyle Hysen, who had produced the second Love Child album (and played in Das Damen, among other bands). The name was kind of a perfect intersection of all our prior bands, post-child, female, apostrophe. We played together for a few years and actually recorded a handful of songs—a few are up on Soundcloud. I really loved that project—I was sad when it got waylaid by grown-up stuff.

Are you doing music now?
During the pandemic I re-upped my love of drone music and put together a long-distance noise collaboration with Alan, Gretchen Gonzales, and the guys from Wolf Eyes. Warren Defever (His Name Is Alive) produced it and it turned into Threshing Floor—I also made a video piece to accompany the release.

Back Pages (mixed media on silk, wood and canvas) Photo courtesy of Rebecca Odes

I know you are a visual artist as well; have you done that your whole life?
It’s taken me a while to realize what I really am is a multidisciplinary (sometimes interdisciplinary) artist. For a long time I saw different media as evidence that I was unfocused. And having many ways of working can definitely affect momentum, which can be frustrating. But I have come to see that this is just how my brain works. There are thematic threads that weave through and across the projects and media. My web projects, like gurl.com and wifey.tv, were coming from the same place that inspired the songs I wrote for Love Child, just approaching from a different angle in a different format. My paintings are exploring a lot of the same stuff as well, just visually.

What else are you up to these days? Jobs, kids, pets, hobbies?
Since co-founding gurl.com in the ’90s, I’ve been working on various media projects—From the Hips!, a pregnancy/birth/parenting book, Wifey.TV (with Joey Soloway pre-Transparent) and CherryPicks, which is still going strong, though I’m not in it day-to-day at this point. I have some other book projects brewing, and am also really trying to return to making art as much as I can. I am really painting again for the first time in many years, and doing new kinds of work as well: constructions that meld different media—painting, video, sculpture, light. Feeling really liberated about the possibilities of combination vs. choice. Also, rediscovering knitting, which makes me so much more tolerant of things I might otherwise find annoying or boring.

Are your kids into music? What do they like?
I was always told that kids rebel against their parents’ tastes, so I was prepared for that. But it hasn’t happened (yet?). My kids are about the same age I was when I was in Love Child, so we’re probably past the rebellion phase. From the beginning they’ve been pretty aligned. When they were little, we lived near Other Music, and I let them each choose an album there before it closed. My daughter got Revolution Girl Style Now. My son got Pink Moon. He plays Thurston Moore and Yo La Tengo on his college radio show. They both love Horsegirl. My daughter is into early Girlpool, Adrienne Lenker (and Taylor Swift, obviously). They both play guitar and write songs too, though haven’t done much of it in public since their own art camp experiences.

Love Child by Michael Galinsky

What are you watching, reading, listening to?
I don’t watch a lot of TV, mostly because I don’t think of it until I’m already too tired to get into anything.

I just saw Problemista, which I loved, and finally watched Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up, which really got under my skin. I loved how she got at both the boring and shitty parts of being an artist (and a person) and the beauty and drive that compels.

I am trying really hard to get back into reading books, though I have a much easier time listening to them lately.

I just happened upon Brother of the More Famous Jack, a very fun ’80s coming of age book which was apparently well-loved in the UK but was only recently released in the US, thanks to Maria Semple, who found it in a bin somewhere. Tip: don’t read her intro. For some inexplicable (IMO inexcusable) reason, she gives away the plot.

I also love Dora: A Headcase, Lidia Yuknavitch’s punk feminist reframe of Freud’s case study. It is twisted, but incredibly compelling.

Music-wise, I’ve been leaning into my repressed dance impulses—I’m a little obsessed with Dembow. I have been doing this thing called Dance Walk, where we walk the loop in Prospect Park on weekend mornings, each listening to our own playlists on headphones. It’s kind of a crazy experience, being in your own sound world while everyone gawks at the parade of weirdos. It’s a real challenge to the impulse to feel cool and avoid being seen as a dork. But by the end of my first Ioop I was wondering why it’s so normal for everyone to work out by running in the same straight line.

Love Child by Michael Macioce

How do you find out about music these days?
I admit I’ve learned about a lot of cool shit from the algorithms. But I still prefer human curators. I am fortunate to have a partner who is a voracious music seeker, which inspires me to always go looking for new things to share. Many of my friends and people I am in touch with online are effusive about their musical findings. I’m part of a facebook group called “Now Playing” where people post LPs they’re spinning, and it’s a gold mine. Mikael Jorgensen runs a cool listening club in Ojai where people play songs they love, and everyone sits and listens like it’s church. I have definitely found some new favorites there.

Where are you living? How has NYC changed over the years?
I’m mostly in Brooklyn, and sometimes in Ojai, CA. I have been in Brooklyn for about three years. I was in various parts of downtown Manhattan before that, and after growing up dreaming of living in the center of everything, I was very hesitant to leave. But now I feel like an idiot. I like Brooklyn so much better! New York is always changing. The cost of living is insane. It does feel like the creative energy is being pushed out, or into small pockets. But it also feels like there is some fun, loose, cool stuff happening. I don’t know if this is new or reborn, or if I just wasn’t paying enough attention before. But things like the Every Woman Biennial, which I have a piece in right now, give me hope for the continuing mulch of the city for art and creative growth.

The ecosystem in terms of making money (if not a living) from music has changed; I remember seeing Love Child at the Terrace Club at Princeton, and those gigs paid pretty well. What can fans do to make sure bands get paid better? How would you change the system?
The whole system is pretty flummoxing to me at this point. I do not know why this world rewards the things it does and ignores so much of what is fundamental to human okayness. I do not know how we change this in a world that seems only interested in siphoning dollars to the top. I think the Living Wage for Musicians Act is a good start. Ideally I would like to see UBI for artists (and others). Art—of all kinds—is not bonus content to human existence. It is a necessity that is becoming increasingly hard to make. If I were changing the system, I would also do something about the fact that being an artist at this point is 10% inspiration and 90% social media promotion. Obviously, it has ever been thus—the thing itself a relatively small portion of the work. But I don’t know if there’s ever been a time when artists have been asked to continually produce public-facing material apart from their actual work. My public-facing brain is very separate from my creating brain, and I find switching back and forth to be really distracting and not very creatively constructive. I would love to see artists have more time to make art, period.

Love Child. Photo: Michael Galinsky

The folding of media outlets like Pitchfork (well, kind of) mean that there are even fewer gatekeepers controlling what music gets attention. What music do you adore that has been ignored by gatekeepers?
I’ve mostly been ignoring the gatekeepers. Is that how people find out about things now? I am not sure my kids have ever read a music magazine. I think they find everything on streaming or social. The stuff I love has always been sort of marginal- though obviously so much of what was marginal isn’t anymore. I’ve been listening to a lot of Zamrock and Krautrock, and Krautrock-adjacent stuff, like Slapp Happy. I would love to see The Shams (Sue Garner, Amy Rigby, Amanda Uprichard) back on the map. I can still sing those songs by heart even though I haven’t heard them since my cassette went missing in the ’90s.

Let’s talk about ageism. Some people are shocked that Kim Gordon could be 70 and also cool and modern, but there are loads of older people doing creative things (Yoko Ono, Bridget St John, ESG, etc.) Why is there an assumption that people stop doing things as they age? How have you experienced ageism, if you have? How can we as a culture stop allowing it to be normalized?
This is something I’ve been writing about and working through over the past few years. Ageism is pretty ubiquitous. People don’t even feel like it’s something they need to feel bad about.

This is a generalization, but it’s often the way it goes: Women spend half their youth navigating sexual attention or worrying they’re not good enough to earn it, then spend half their adult lives taking care of people. When they finally have time and confidence, people say they’re past their prime. It’s just another tool to try to get them out of the way.

On a larger scale, I don’t think there’s a lot of incentive to stop seeing older women as useless. Centering women’s power on sex and reproduction serves a lot of purposes. It keeps them busy and makes them buy things. To decide to value women outside of this swath would require knocking the whole thing down, recognizing power that’s lived instead of bought and worn like a mask. I am not super hopeful about dismantling the locked arms of patriarchy and capitalism anytime soon (though hey, there’s always the apocalypse) so it’s on us to redefine the way we see ourselves. Maybe this will lead to people seeing us differently. Maybe it won’t. Either way, it’s the best shot at an unshitty unyoung life.

I think the best way to deal is to just say fuck it. Enough already. I want to see a million old lady punk bands.

Love Child at Vassar, nicked from their FBK page

Can you cook? What’s your specialty?
I grew up cooking. My ex had some professional cooking experience and was great at it, so I detoured into desserts and drinks. I didn’t have the time or focus to make much art when my kids were little, and baking became a medium. I made elaborate pies, cakes, cupcakes, curds, and brulees. Part of my adjustment to single momhood was reconnecting with my savory skills. I am partial to stewy braisy things that don’t require me to pay attention to them. I still love baking, though since I am usually making other food as well. I am more inclined to make simple things like galettes or granola. I definitely like to go all out sometimes, though. I have a book club where we try to cook thematically. When we read Gertrude and Alice, I cooked from the Alice B. Toklas cookbook—aspic was involved. It was a lot. But I do enjoy a high-concept project.

What’s in your fridge?
Many therapeutic beverages that promise and do not deliver. Also many condiments. Coriander chutney, harissa, various hot sauces. Goat Kefir. Lacto fermented ginger carrots. Multicolored produce: fennel, lacinato kale, arugula, cilantro, parsley, chioggia beets, watermelon radishes, purple Japanese turnips, blueberries. These may or may not be rotting. I am a newish and very enthusiastic member of the Park Slope Food Coop, and sometimes fail to deliver on my shopped promises.

What’s making you really happy these days?
Color. Especially pink. Extra-especially fluorescent pink. I have a persistent obsession with pink plexiglass. I thought this was new wave damage but my daughter has it too, so it might be genetic. Or maybe just human. I have a theory about this color and why we love it so much. We think of it as so unnatural, but it’s the exact color of light when you look at it through your fingers.

Pipilotti Rist installations. I might live in one if I could.

-Flâneuring. I’ve been able to travel a bit again for the first time in a while, and it is so good to get this part of myself out of hiding.

What makes you really mad?
I am trying to get less mad, at least at things that don’t matter. But a lot of things do matter a lot and it is hard for me to compartmentalize. I can easily get upset enough to cause major interference. I try to be sparing with social media to not feed the beast.

If you were president, what would you do differently?
I should never be president. I have the wrong disposition. I am horrified by everything that is happening and have no answers.

What are you looking forward to this year? How do we stay sane in this election year?
I am eager to get on stage for sure. Alan and I played a noise show in February which was super fun, but made me want to do more, and sing some songs.

I am definitely not looking forward to the election. We are going to need some boundaries. Also reminders that the story we’re hearing is a narrative intended to freak us out. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t real. But it’s being told in the most outrage-inducing way so we are compelled to watch/read/click/give/vote. Some of those things are more important than others.

Will Love Child be playing shows?
We’re playing at Union Pool on June 9!!

Flier by Michael Galinsky

Records Rebecca Cannot Live Without
BRIAN ENO Here Come the Warm Jets
FAUST Rainy Day Sunshine Girl
CAN You Doo Right
THE BEATLES It’s All Too Much
DUMP Superpowerless
SONIC YOUTH Starpower
VELVET UNDERGROUND Heroin
RICHARD AND LINDA THOMPSON I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight FAIRPORT CONVENTION Tale in Hard Time
LEONARD COHEN Famous Blue Raincoat
IRON AND WINE Upward Over the Mountain
SPACEMEN 3 Honey (Forced Exposure Single Version)
YOUNG MARBLE GIANTS Salad Days
TALL DWARFS Think Small
THE TRYPES A Plan Revised