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 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

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

Jennifer Baron in Conversation with Hilarie Sidney

The Garment District filming the “Left on Coast” video. Photo by Nicole Czapinski. Photo courtesy of Jennifer

Jennifer Baron in Conversation with Hilarie Sidney

“I’m thrilled to be contributing a song for a compilation on Hilarie’s 6612 Tapes label with proceeds supporting Justice Democrats,” says Jennifer Baron (she/her), adding that the band she cofounded in the 1990s, The Ladybug Transistor, is excited to announce news soon, including a tour in 2024 with West Coast (U.S.) dates. In addition to exec-producing the compilation, Jennifer is the force (composer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist) behind The Garment District, a Pittsburgh-based project she works on with her cousin, which released Flowers Telegraphed to All Parts of the World last fall on HHBTM records.

This is the second part of a two-part chat between longtime friends Jennifer and Hilarie Sidney (the High Water Marks, the Apples in Stereo), who talk about everything from skinnydipping in Sweden and living in the moment to the comforts of recording at home with friends and family. Jennifer was having her morning coffee in Pittsburgh and Hilarie was at home in Grøa, Norway. (Images courtesy of Jennifer) (Read part one)

The Ladybug Transistor at The Andy Warhol Museum in the early 2000s. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer)

Hilarie: What bands have you been in then and now?
Jennifer: Past: Saturnine, Frock, The New Alcindors
Now: The Garment District, The Ladybug Transistor

Hilarie: Was music a big part of your upbringing?
Jennifer: You already know my brother Jeff because we play in Ladybug Transistor together. When we were growing up, we would make up our own radio shows. We would record on Maxell cassettes, play the part of DJs, act out commercials and select music from our parents’ vinyl collection. Our household was filled with records, especially the Beach Boys and Beatles. We would just lie around and stare at record covers. Those records were some of our favorite toys. Donovan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Bob Dylan. We weren’t raised with religion, so I always joke that Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young was our cultural trinity growing up. My first concert was Peter, Paul and Mary. We started going to concerts together early as a family: Richard Thompson, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, U2, the Replacements. And then as teens were fortunate to have seen so many incredible bands (RIP the Syria Mosque!), like the Smiths, the Cure, R.E.M., New Order, the Three O’Clock, Hüsker Dü, Modern English, the Ramones, the Kinks, Camper Van Beethoven—that was absolutely pivotal for me. More recently as a family we saw Bert Jansch in a church, not long before he passed away. Music was always on around the house and in the car. We had 45s and the Fisher Price turntable so music has been a constant. My mom grew up with Bonnie McLean’s (RIP) half-sister in Philadelphia; she was one of the most amazing Fillmore poster designers. She made some of the most beautiful posters from that era. She would mail them to my mom and her friends at Penn State to decorate their dorm room and we had them framed on our walls growing up. Music (and album covers) created a place of joy and comfort for us and that created the essential foundation for me.

Jeff was always playing in bands (in what is now Pittsburgh show legend, his high school band opened for Nirvana very early on, at The Sonic Temple, which was a short-lived all ages venue inside a Masonic Temple), but then I was like, I want to play guitar too! Did you ever have that feeling where you’re like, I’m not just a music fan and you’re learning by listening and going to shows, constantly paying attention. That’s a way of learning music too. I took piano from a woman down the street when I was a child. When I was at Mount Holyoke College, I took lessons from a guy in Amherst here and there, which was kind of awkward because I had my binder of songs I wanted to learn, and he wanted me to strum along to his songs. So I really learned to play by joining a band. I first started playing guitar in Saturnine in Brooklyn. When we were forming Ladybug, Sportsguitar invited us to go on tour with them in Switzerland around 1995-1996, so that’s when I also started playing bass.

Jennifer leads the Garment District / Photo by John Colombo

Hilarie: That’s how you do it. It’s like, I want to be part of this. And maybe I can’t do this, but I will do this because I want to.
Jennifer: You learn from being with others and from listening and doing. It teaches you to really listen and learn to play with other people.

Hilarie: Tell us what you’ve been up to in Pittsburgh.
Jennifer: Before creating music at The Garment District, I was focusing my creative energies in other realms. First, I worked as education director at the Mattress Factory, an incredible contemporary art museum here, and created educational programming, including for our James Turrell retrospective exhibition. That was a huge draw for me to take the job when I moved here and worked with artists from Cuba at a time where there was political turmoil with Bush as far as Cuban artists not being able to come to the U.S. So there was a long-distance collaboration, long before the times of lockdown. In that position, I worked with incredible contemporary living artists and created educational and public programs and materials. So, it was very much a creative job. I had worked in museums in New York, including the Brooklyn Museum, and also worked here at SLB Radio Productions, which produces a public radio show and radio-based programs for kids and families based out of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. I was also was one of the longtime co-organizers of Handmade Arcade in Pittsburgh, the city’s first independent craft fair. I had cofounded an online craft business with Christine Lee and Danielle Fee when I lived in New York, just at the beginning of websites. We were vendors the first Renegade Craft fairs at McCarren Park in Brooklyn and Wicker Park in Chicago. After moving back to Pittsburgh, I remember seeing a flyer announcing Handmade Arcade applications. It was the first event, with like 30 vendors and 1,000 attendees in a small gallery space. I became one of the organizers and a longtime vendor and then the marketing director. We ran that for 15 years and it grew to 200 vendors and 10,000 attendees.

So, I was working creatively in those realms and also I co-published the Pittsburgh Signs Project photography book. We received a grant from the Sprout Fund, which we had applied for. It was a competitive process, and it was during the city of Pittsburgh’s 250th anniversary. There were projects that were funded that involved the community and this was the early days of crowdsourcing. It’s a 200-page color book, so we had 250 signs from all over Western Pennsylvania, not just from Pittsburgh and photographers were children all the way up to people in their 80s. Professionals, hobbyists, amateurs, designers, a whole range. Being on tour in the ’90s, I was always one of the ones who had a camera, and I was always taking photos and I’d get teased. I would always say stop the van, stop the van, let’s jump out. I was taking photos of these cool neon signs mainly out west. A lot of them are still there out west because the weather’s so much drier. Our book had a limited boutique run through Carnegie Mellon University Press and sold out quickly, so I’ve always daydreamed about doing a second printing because most of the things in the book are either destroyed, demolished, ended up in dumpsters in gentrified neighborhoods, etc. and it’s a visual recording of the built environment of Pittsburgh. It’s available online and in some bookstores still. We created an exhibition, posters and postcards and it was great to have people submit their images to us from all over Western PA and to curate that book. It was two couples working together and we all lived near each other. So it was kind of like a band but for a book.

Jennifer Baron with her Pittsburgh Signs Project book. Photo courtesy of Keith Srakocic / AP

Hilarie: Tell us about the origins of the Garment District.
Jennifer: We were talking about how starting a new project can happen organically. While I was working on the PSP book, I started getting back into writing music. You know, you can’t not do it. I started recording demos at home using our digital Boss 8-track with my laptop and phone. I have a lot of vintage instruments, including a Hammond M3 organ we got for $40 at Goodwill. One of the keys is still chipped, which is frustrating. One night I went to see this amazing band Wet Hair … at the time Shawn Reed lived in Iowa City and had run an experimental/noise label before that (Raccoo-oo-oon). He’s also an incredible printmaker and visual artist. When you go see a band you’ve never heard of and you’re inspired and excited, I need that in my life. It doesn’t happen as often now because of social media and finding out about things too much before you experience them. So I saw Wet Hair and was blown away by the merch table: all handmade silk-screens, collages, cassettes, 45s. I struck up a friendship with Shawn, who was running Night People (label). I sent him some of my Garment District demos and he wrote back in the middle of the night asking, “do you want to do a cassette?” And I was like, “of course!” It just started taking off organically. There was the motivation and there was an investment where I was like, OK, now this is real.

I was also starting to play live with friends in Pittsburgh. My cousin Lucy Blehar was in high school at the time, and I’d always go to see her musicals. I felt that her voice would be a great addition to the music I was writing. I was always in theater company growing up. I don’t sing, but I write all the music and the lyrics. We started recording with my friend Kevin Smith in his attic studio, which led to the cassette Melody Elder on Night People. Then Shawn asked me if I wanted to do a vinyl release. He didn’t do full-length vinyl that often, but my next album, If You Take Your Magic Slow, also came out on Night People. I really thank Shawn, and felt so encouraged and supported, that brought my music into this whole scene of more contemporary underground stuff in the world of the releases he was doing. Check out Wet Hair, they remind me of Spacemen 3 meets New Order combined, plus their own sound. He loves a lot of the same bands we love from Australia and New Zealand and has also done some reissues. So I continued the concept I had for The Garment District and played a few shows with some women in Pittsburgh. We did a Nuggets Night ’60s covers. If we lived in the same city, I’d be like, “Hilarie has to be our drummer.”

Jennifer and Lucy = the Garment District

Hilarie: I would love that.
Jennifer: I always wanted to make music with more women and that just was part of that as well.

Hilarie: I didn’t know that and I don’t think I knew that that first album is on cassette.
Jennifer: Yes, my first Garment District release Melody Elder came out on cassette and I always daydreamed about it coming out on vinyl. I love recording in houses like Ladybug has always done with Marlborough Farms. That was my beginning in music. I love recording in home environments and taking time and just that whole vibe. And Melody Elder is named after my favorite childhood babysitter.

Hilarie: That’s her actual name? How cool is that?
Jennifer: If I have a side project, I want to name it that. I don’t even know where she lives now. But like being aGeneration X latch-key kid, typical, we had tons of babysitters and we loved them.

Hilarie: Me too. We kind of raised ourselves but we had babysitters, and our parents went out. My parents were really into partying, so I was left to my own devices quite a bit.
Jennifer: There were a lot of parties. There were Steak-umms for dinner.

The Ladybug Transistor on a ferry while on tour in Canada, 1990s (Image courtesy of Jennifer)

Hilarie: How was the Ladybug reunion last fall?
Jennifer: I picked up Derek (Almstead) in Bedford, PA and we all met up in advance, coming from four different states, in Brooklyn to rehearse at Marlborough Farms, where several of us used to live. It was incredibly special to spend that focused quality time in the house and the neighborhood for about one week before the tour. The first show was in Brooklyn, which was fantastic—it was like a wedding reception with so many old and new friends and people I’d been connecting with for the Garment District and old-school Ladybug fans. It was just amazing to see everyone in one place. I love that venue Public Records in Brooklyn, which is close to our old house. The tour was a dreamy magical whirlwind on a lot of different levels, and for me, I felt instantly back in the on tour mode the second I jumped in the van. We have a lot going on with our live sets, with instrument switches, and being in Norway last July helped prepare us. I can’t wait to do it again! It all clicked back into place and it went really well, especially the show at Public Records in New York and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and being back at Schubas in Chicago. And Kalamazoo, the Bells Brewery, they have this massive space, a huge outdoor garden, a home brewing market and beautiful venue. The sound system was probably one of the best, most professional sound systems we’ve ever played in. Wow, this sounds the sound person with such a sweetheart. The way they treated the band, it felt like being in Europe. I highly recommend that venue.

Hilarie: Who is the biggest comedian in Ladybug?
Jennifer: Really, all of us in our own individual ways. A regular traveling comedy troupe in the van. Party of 6—audience of 6. If pressured to select one, I would probably say my brother Jeff.

Hilarie: Who is the coolest in a crisis?
Jennifer: Gary. However, our forever drummer San met both criteria, cool in a crisis, plus a hilarious and biting and sharp wit. Rest in power forever to the best drummer ever and an incredible human.

Hilarie: If Ladybug Transistor had a theme song, what would it be?
Non Ladybug song: “Joy of a Toy Continued,” Kevin Ayers
“Jackson,” Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra
Ladybug: “The Great British Spring”

The Ladybug Transistor on tour with the Lucksmiths and the Aislers Set, SF, circa 1999-2000

Hilarie: Do you have any funny/odd tour stories?
Jennifer: When Ladybug Transistor was on tour in Spain (Barcelona), it was like a typical Spanish night. We played the show, and you have dinner at midnight and we were sitting outside with Unai, he was our amazing booking agent and tour manager and also drove our van. Mike Galinsky has a documentary film about him, Radiation. I love Spain, it was one of my favorite places to tour. Barcelona is probably my favorite city I’ve been to. And every place you play is such a different geography, different architecture, just so much to do there and we had an incredible time in Barcelona like we climbed to the top of Sagrada Familia, went to the beach; it was just fantastic. We went to the Alhambra, southern Spain, northern Spain. So, we’re in Barcelona, having dinner after the show at this huge round table, all sitting together. The band, other bands, promoter, it was a big group. In the center of the table Jeff and Sasha had their passports, cards and money in a cross-body bag. It was late. Well, someone grabbed their bag, just reached right through all the people around the table, snatched it, and ran off into the night. Everyone started running after this person screaming. My brother Jeff ended up barefoot, I don’t know if he was wearing sandals or flipflops. Everyone was yelling after the person, and they dropped the pack somewhere in the middle of the street.

The Ladybug Transistor live at The Andy Warhol Museum November 9, 2023. Photo courtesy of Jennifer

Another logistical craziness story was around the time of The Albemarle Sound tour. We were doing a U.S. tour with Of Montreal when we were also playing the Bowlie Weekender in England, Belle and Sebastian invited us to play, which is which is hands-down one of my favorite experiences ever performing live. This is the day of message boards and pre social media, so it was just so incredible to arrive there. When you’re seeing people, you’re seeing them for the first time. It’s so direct. Yeah, you just arrived, and you experience everything firsthand as it’s happening, which is it’s hard to explain to people who don’t have that and why that’s so important.

So, we already knew we were doing like a monthlong tour with Of Montreal, but we were then invited to do the Bowlie and this was in April 1999. At that point in the tour, we were playing in Norman (OK), so we had to figure out the logistics. So basically, we’re on the tour, but we then had to fly to London and take the train to Camber Sands, to play Bowlie. So Of Montreal agreed to drive our van for us with all of our stuff. We played the show in Norman and then Anne Cunningham and Ron, the amazing original guitar player for The Flaming Lips, had some all-night party BBQ. I love his guitar playing. You probably went to one of those parties or stayed in those big old houses near Oklahoma City. We played that show, stayed up all night, drove the van to the Dallas airport, and left handwritten notes for Of Montreal. I don’t even know if we had cell phones. Everything was like you made a plan and you stuck to it. It wasn’t like you text everyone “I’m almost there. I’m parking. I’m here.” You just made a plan, wrote notes. We made an extra set of keys for them. We flew to London mid-tour and wanted to stay for the festival, so we were gone for a couple of days, and had to miss a few U.S. shows. And then we flew back to rejoin them in San Diego. But it was such an amazing experience, showing up at Bowlie, everyone waiting in line. Meeting these bands, some of them for the first time. You might not even have any idea of who they are. It was such an incredible time being able to play on the same night with Belle and Sebastian. We were so grateful to that Of Montreal was willing to do that.

The Ladybug Transistor at the Emmaboda Festival in Sweden with Ulf Ekerot, 1999. (photo courtesy of Jennifer)

Hilarie: Tell us about some other memorable live experiences.
Jennifer: The first time we played Emmaboda in Sweden with the Lucksmiths was magical. The Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel regaled us with tales about their experiences playing there. They even gave us a handwritten note containing advice about “breaking into” the Hotel Amigo pool and something about a “mystery drink.” Sure enough, one night in the woods, the pool was, um, populated. Immediately most Swedes naturally started skinnydipping and well, many but not all the Americans joined in. Also, the Ladybug Transistor performing with Mayo Thompson and Ghost at Spaceland in L.A.; seeing Lee Perry and Oasis (diva helicopter arrival) in Sweden; playing at our friends’ wedding at a biker bar in Flekkefjord, Norway; in 2019, staying at the Vibberodden Lighthouse during the Egersund Visefestival in Norway; getting to play live with Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey’s the No Ones, when we returned to Egersund in 2023. With the Garment District, opening for Julia Holter at the VIA New Music & Media Festival; opening for Parquet Courts; filming a Silver Studio Session for the Andy Warhol Museum; performing at the Carrie Furnaces Rivers of Steel National Historic Landmark (giant steel mill remnants along the Monongahela River); participating in artist Doug Aitken’s Station-to-Station video project; and performing in an abandoned 1900s-era Czech Church on the Allegheny River for the SYNC’D film and music series.

Hilarie: What is the best food you’ve ever eaten on tour?
Jennifer: Tacos, burritos and brunch in the Mission District in San Francisco. The vegan Uchepo Tamal at Public Records in Brooklyn during our recent Ladybug Transistor tour. The first time we tasted (devoured) Brunost, brown Norwegian cheese. Addicting. Hilarie might chuckle since it’s so common there! Breakfasts at the Grand Hotel in Egersund, Norway during the Visefestival, with the sublime simplicity of bread, yogurt and granola … everything leads back to Norway which is appropriate for this interview.

The Garment District filming the “Left on Coast” video. Photo by Nicole Czapinski. Photo courtesy of Jennifer

Hilarie: What’s in your fridge?
Jennifer: Vegan contents. Seltzer, hummus, leftovers, almond milk, garlic, ginger, pickles, carrots, tempeh, all manner of hot sauces, Fly By Jing Sichuan chili sauce, tahini, lots of fruit, Earth Balance.

Hilarie: What is the last thing you cooked at home?
Jennifer: Recently: Vegan chili and banana bread

Hilarie: What’s on your nightstand?
Jennifer: Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young; Jane by Maggie Nelson; The Modern Utopian by Richard Fairfield; Amity and Prosperity by Eliza Griswold; Dog Songs by Mary Oliver; the new issue of Maggot Brain.

Hilarie: What are some of your hobbies?
Jennifer: Observing the world around me through photography; sewing and crafting; swimming laps; gardening (work in progress!); adventures with our Black Lab Casper; thrift shopping; record shopping; museums; watching documentaries.

Hilarie: Do you collect anything?
Jennifer: I am a lifer when it comes to thrift shopping and hand-me-downs, and I prefer the organic discovery process of physically going out into the world to discover things, especially when visiting new places or having special pieces passed down from family members or shared between friends. Vintage dishware, housewares and design, paint by numbers, found ephemera, records.

Shivika Asthana recording with The Garment District at Madeleine Campbell’s Accessible Recording Studio.

Hilarie: Do you have any favorite stagewear or stage design?
Jennifer: Vintage clothing and thrift scores from over the many years; something given to me by my Grammy Kay. I love finding gems from my friend’s fabulous new shop, Jackie Whoa Vintage and my other friend’s event, the Pittsburgh Vintage Mixer. On our recent Ladybug Transistor tour, we brought along our original handmade paintings from “The Albemarle Sound” as stage decor. In December, The Garment District performed as part of a SYNC’D Presents showcase, which featured a live liquid light show by SOS Lightshow from Dayton, Ohio, and it was so fantastic. Very comforting to be bathed in that kind of warm light, shape and texture. So much the opposite of the ubiquitous artificial LED lighting we see all around us now that I find to be so harsh. Last month we opened for William Tyler & The Impossible Truth and the show featured DIY visuals from Michi Tapes, including live projection manipulation, VHS/8mm videos and found footage, and I cannot wait to have them at our next show.

Hilarie: What musician would you love to interview?
Jennifer: Robert Wyatt.

What is your sign?
Jennifer:
Leo

Rehearsing at Marlborough Farms in November 2023 / Photo courtesy of The Ladybug Transistor

Hilarie: What musical collaborations have really impacted you?
Jennifer: With The Ladybug Transistor, we had the remarkable opportunity to work with Kevin Ayers. We recorded a cover of his song, “Puis-Je?” for the Pop Romantique: French Pop Classics compilation (Emperor Norton), and he added the vocals remotely from a studio in London. All organized initially via phone! The Garment District collaborated with artist Nicole Czapinski on the music video she made for “Left on Coast,’ which we filmed at an abandoned Nike Missile Site in Western Pennsylvania. Composing original music for the Pittsburgh-based SYNC’D series, which pairs musicians with filmmakers and video artists.

Spending time together in the studio and sharing a creative process with my cousin Lucy Blehar, who sings on the Garment District record. I’ve always been drawn to the concept of family bands (I play in The Ladybug Transistor with my brother Jeff) and what exists between relatives who collaborate on creative endeavors. We sing backups and harmonies and double certain melody lines together. It’s a very close bond, and an organic way of enjoying the studio environment together, extremely rewarding and such a blast. This continues my family’s music-making heritage, as my grandfather, great-aunt and great-uncles performed in tamburitza orchestra family bands in the Monongahela Valley towns Braddock and Rankin, and in Benwood, West Virginia, often for boarders who worked in area steel mills. Also, “Nature-Nurture,” from Melody Elder, was remixed by Sonic Boom (Spacemen 3, Spectrum). “Bird or Bat” features bass guitar by Jowe Head (Swell Maps, Television Personalities), who I recorded with years ago in Brooklyn when we were stuck inside at our house Marlborough Farms during an epic NYC blizzard (look for those to resurface soon!). Last year I DJed at the opening celebration of “The Velvet Underground & Nico: Scepter Studio Sessions” exhibition at The Andy Warhol Museum. What a dream.

Hilarie: Tell us about your latest album. How did it come together?
Jennifer: I’m ecstatic to have my brand-new full-length album, Flowers Telegraphed to All Parts of the World, out now on Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records after knowing Mike Turner through Athens, Georgia and Elephant 6 bands, for many years. It’s been wonderful to reconnect with Mike on a personal level too, and a deep honor to be label mates with bands I admire like the Primitives, the Wedding Present, Great Lakes, Fred Schneider, Outer World, Swansea Sound, Katie Lass, and many others. He is so supportive and thoughtful and I’m so grateful for that support and for his enthusiasm. When he said, “What color vinyl do you want to do?”, that was meaningful (orange, of course!), because there is nothing like the tactile and visceral experience of listening to an album on vinyl from start to finish over a space of time. And it was a dream come true to get to talk to Warren Defever (His Name Is Alive), who cut the lacquers for my new LP at Third Man in Detroit, and have his expertise at the pressing plant.

Before this new album, I put out an all solo, all instrumental album called Luminous Toxin, released on Bill Shute’s Kendra Steiner Editions label. I wanted to do something more in the realm of sound collage, found sounds and field recordings and ambient music. I love instrumental music, and I found myself with this body of material that fit together. It’s liberating to sometimes do it all myself, record at home, have all instrumental, interstitial, soundtracky type music that I’m drawn to for a cohesive release. I was able to do like some final mixing at my friend’s basement studio called Yellow Couch Studio. I also did a 45 that has a remix that Sonic Boom did of one of my songs. That was all long distance like you’ve done sending files back and forth. I rerecorded a few of the synth parts at the end, but I love that his remix is very respectful of the original. Pete Kember’s way of making physical space out of sound is how I describe it.

The Ladybug Transistor on tour in Paris, late 1990s

After that I started creating new demos at home that would become my new album and I started working with my friend David Klug at his studio in Mount Washington here in Pittsburgh. Dave’s studio is very close to where we live so it is convenient and flexible if I want to try something new, add more layers, redo a part. There is a comfort level there and it has been an empowering space for creativity and experimentation and where I have been able to challenge myself and grow musically. I already had a lot of the new songs almost fully ready as far as arrangements. But other times I was able to keep that process open and flexible because I was working in his home studio and it’s a laidback, comfortable setting to be in. I still have some other things started waiting for a future release. I used a lot of great vintage synthesizers, including my own: I have a Roland JX3P I love. The Vox Super Continental and also my Wurlitzer electric piano I’ve had for years. And then for certain songs like “Left on Coast” and “Following Me,” I was really going for a specific fuzz guitar sound that you can’t get from some of the digital plug-ins … I mean, there are so many amazing people are making cool pedals now, including our friend Åke Strömer in Brooklyn. I got to borrow a bunch of ’60s and ’70s guitar pedals from Gregg Kostelich of the Cynics, they’re a fantastic garage rock band from Pittsburgh. And again, he was generous with them, basically he gave me this box of his vintage pedals, really rare ones. He was like you can borrow them for like a year. I love vintage pedals that have like 1 button or one knob.

Hilarie: That’s the best. I’m not super hung up about stuff, but I just want two buttons.
Jennifer: All the digital displays and things that are programmed, I’m not oriented that way either. It’s like how can this equipment be in service to the song? It can’t make you have a great song. It can’t make you have the final piece of music. But it can bring things out and highlight things and it’s part of the language of whatever that song is. I felt so lucky to be able to have these great vintage and analog instruments because that’s part of my sound, to be able to see them and feel them and touch them, it’s very visceral. During the pandemic, there were obstacles and interruptions. I could do the mixing in person but we also did zoom, we did online. Lots of back and forth because being very involved in that process from the very beginning, from writing the demos, arranging everything through the mixing and the mastering, I was constantly there.
I’ve always been fascinated by bands made up of siblings or family members or couples and being in The Ladybug Transistor with my brother and two couples. Working with Lucy is so organic because she’s my first cousin. We’re really close and we love being in the studio together and just being around each other, so it was just an added layer to our personal bonding to be able to share that. I’m not a singer, but I sing a lot of backups, and I can do it with her because we’re related. And there’s something about voices that are related that like merge and overlap, where they kind of come together in that way. It’s also just a positive environment. The story of the new album includes this incredible group of friends, who all contributed their talents, several of whom perform live as part of The Garment District. You know Shivika (Asthana) from Papas Fritas.

Hilarie: I was going to ask you about her because I always admired her so much. We played a lot with Papas Fritas.
Jennifer: I kind of get goosebumps. We reconnected after she moved here with her family from Charleston. Coincidentally, she had applied to Handmade Arcade, the event I was running. This is how we became reunited. I’m in love with her drumming. She has an amazing feel.

The Garment District live at Spirit, December 14, 2023

Hilarie: And a pretty voice too.
Jennifer: She has a great voice, and we have played shows together. She has two kids, is really busy, makes her own jewelry and has a full-time job. I love that she’s on the new album. She should be playing music all the time. She’s got this natural touch. Sean Finn is the other drummer who plays on the new album and live with me, and he’s also incredible. Then Dave, who recorded the new album, plays on “Seldom Seen Arch” and he’s also an amazing drummer. He’s mainly been in metal bands, but if you tell him what you’re going for, he’s like a metronome with a cool feel. With arranging and producing the music and thinking about who’s the best person to play on a particular song, which are the best instruments to use, and the flow of things, I feel so fortunate to work in Dave’s studio and with friends and relatives on the album.

Hilarie: What are some of your favorite instruments and gear you used on the latest album?
Jennifer: Two beloved instruments I always use that have been with me during my entire music-making journey are my Fender Vibrolux Reverb amp (beloved amp I got years ago from a friend I worked with at The Brooklyn Museum before there were things called eBay and Reverb.com!)—and my Rickenbacker 360 Fireglo, a generous gift from my parents years ago. Right now I am in love with a 1970 dark red Guild Polara electric guitar that a dear friend of mine is generously sharing with me. I got to use it on the Ladybug tour in November and I cannot wait to get to know it better and use it on new recordings! I am inspired by analog instruments and the characteristics of their physicality, and I love having them around the house to encourage the writing and demo process to be spontaneous in terms of where an instrument might lead you. Not in the sense of viewing equipment and gear as precious but as elements that are part of a song or piece of music to inform the creative process. Some of my favorite instruments that help give the new Garment District album its sound include our 1960s Vox Super Continental organ, Wurlitzer electric piano, Korg CX-3 organ, 1980s Casios.

Jennifer recording the new album at David Klug Studio

For the new album, I am so fortunate that I could borrow several synthesizers I consider to be the holy grail in terms of the golden age of the analog synth universe: a 1970s Roland 505 Paraphonic, Roland System 100, Farfisa Syntorchestra and a Sequential Pro One—along with effects like a Roland Dimension D. In terms of achieving specific guitar sounds, I loved experimenting with a few 1960s and early 1970s fuzz pedals I borrowed from my friend Gregg Kostelich (of the iconic Pittsburgh garage band the Cynics and Get Hip Records), including a UMI Buzz Tone & Volume Expander and Foxx Fuzz & Wa & Volume, plus my own Fuzz Face.

I love the story behind one of the drum kits we used for a few of the new songs—a beautiful-sounding 1966 Slingerland kit belonging to Laura Rogers (The Rogers Sisters). Our first bands played shows together in NYC (Ruby Falls and Saturnine) in the 1990s. Though its provenance has not been confirmed, Laura was told that the kit, which she bought from a collector in Detroit, was used on the Nirvana Unplugged recordings. Woven into this story is the fact that the brilliant Shivika played Laura’s kit on “The Starfish Song” and “The Instrument That Plays Itself.” I love the intuitive feel of Shiv’s playing, sometimes slightly behind the beat, perfect for the groove needed. She has performed live with us a few times and I think those two songs highlight her style. Papas Fritas and the Ladybug Transistor also used to play shows together, including at the Knitting Factory in NYC. Not long ago, we reconnected here in Pittsburgh (through another mutual friend!) and it has been such a joy to reconnect through both music and crafting. It was incredibly special having my longtime friend and Ladybug mate Gary Olson on trumpet along with and Kyle Forester on saxophone. And having Nathan Musser, who I hope to work with again, on violin and cello. I also really enjoyed playing melodica and glockenspiel on the album as well. These seemingly minor details are the kinds of experiences I love about the recording process and making a permanent document in sound. They help tell the story of an album and I love that our lives have intersected in these ways.

Jennifer and Casper on the Panhandle Trail

Hilarie: When we come to Pittsburgh, what should we do?
Jennifer: I’d love to take you to the Mattress Factory museum, where I used to work. You could see permanent installations by Yayoi Kusama, Greer Lankton, James Turrell, Ann Hamilton, so many remarkable artists. Also the Andy Warhol Museum of course, and the Teenie Harris photography collection at Carnegie Museum of Art. Andy Warhol’s grave is right near where we grew up—people love to leave gifts at the site. We would walk through the Troy Hill Art Houses, which are installations in row houses that have been transformed as public art. The best vegan food ever is at Apteka (plant-based Eastern European), where we would go to eat and drink often. Las Palmas for street tacos and Udipi for Indian food. We would visit the birthplaces of August Wilson and Gertrude Stein and ride the incline up to Mount Washington (very Scandinavian!). We have good vintage shopping and some of the best record stores in the country. We’d go to Jerrys, the Attic and the Government Center. And nature is a huge part of Western Pennsylvania. When people come to Pittsburgh, they are shocked by how green it is. You can go hiking within 10 or 15 minutes in the city for the Rails to Trails program. The Gap Trail goes all the way to D.C. and there are so many great state parks all across Pennsylvania and rivers and streams.

Hilarie: You’ve made me homesick. Now I want to go to record stores and eat good food and I’m here in the middle of nowhere.
Jennifer: You have the astounding nature and the Pagan culture and the fascinating traditions that go way, way back, plus a society that actually cares about taking care of people. Pittsburgh has a history of innovation and resilience. There’s still a lot of issues here, a lot of struggles and challenges, like with every city, especially with affordable housing. It’s a crisis all across the U.S.

Hilarie: What are you watching these days?
Jennifer: We’re pretty addicted to documentaries. 1970s British television and horror films. Night Gallery. I love the soundtracks to them too. Always revisiting I’m Alan Partridge. One of my favorite new shows is Beef.

Jennifer at Marlborough Farms in Brooklyn where she lived in the 1990s with Steve Keene painting / Photo courtesy of Jennifer

Hilarie: What newish and current music you are loving?
Jennifer: New and slightly newish music that’s often on my turntable and in my ears: Surface to Air Missive, Carl Didur, Zacht Automaat, The Frowning Clouds, Traffik Island, ORB, Locate S,1, Gloria, Etran de L’Air, Paint, Large Plants, Emma Anderson, Heather Trost, flypaper, Colored Lights, Cindy Lee, Brigid Dawson & The Mothers Network, The Murlocs, Cindy, Jacco Gardner, Tim Presley, The Cromagnon Band, Licorice Root Orchestra, Bong Wish, The Orange Alabaster Mushroom, Cut Worms, Hot Apple Band, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Liam Hayes, Belbury Poly, Samantha Glass, Jackie McDowell, Golden Apples, The David Tattersall Group, Mike Donovan, Flash Hits, False Tracks …

Hilarie: What are you looking forward to this year?
Jennifer: Performing live more and celebrating the new LP and hope to tour. DJing at the grand opening of The Government Center Outpost record shop in my neighborhood on March 9. We are organizing a show on April 19 with our friends in Pittsburgh, Chariot Fade, DJ BusCrates and Jackson Scott, plus live visuals by Michi Tapes. On April 28, I am so excited to participate in the Maxo Vanka Community Block Party. I will be playing 78s from my grandparents’ collection of tamburitza music surrounded by the magnificent murals of Croatian artist Maxo Vanka at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, Pennsylvania. Vanka painted the murals in 1937 and 1941 and his subject matter explores a combination of religious imagery and iconography and progressive social themes including the horrors of war, injustice and the exploitation of workers. I have some new demos started and hope to be back in the studio soon! Working on new music videos in collaboration with several artists (Johnny Arlett, Sandy Loaf, Michi Tapes, Peter Speer, Cosmo Graff).

Records Jennifer cannot live without
John Cale, Paris 1919
Mayo Thompson, Corky’s Debt to His Father
New Order, Power Corruption & Lies
Donovan, A Gift From a Flower to a Garden
Kaleidoscope, Tangerine Dream
Kevin Ayers, Joy of a Toy
Soft Machine, The Soft Machine
Love, Forever Changes
Lee Hazlewood, Cowboy in Sweden
Alice Coltrane, Journey in Satchidananda
King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown
Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Jardin Au Fou
Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets
Ethiopiques, Vol. 3-4: Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music

Listen to the Garment District
Listen to the Ladybug Transistor
Read part one: Jennifer interviews Hilarie

Read our interview with Gary Olson
Preorder the new benefit cassette for Justice Democrats

Saturnine at The Beachcomber in Wellfleet MA

The Ladybug Transistor on tour with Superchunk with Laura Ballance in Florida
Saturnine at The Middle East in Boston / Photo by Michael Galinsky
The Ladybug Transistor in Prospect Park Brooklyn / Photo by Erick Schonfeld

Hilarie Sidney in Conversation with Jennifer Baron

Hilarie and Per Ole from the High Water Marks (images courtesy of Hilarie)

Hilarie and Jennifer in conversation, part one
“My own happiness and well-being are strongly correlated with my ability to create something,” Hilarie Sidney told 15 Questions. (We can relate!) Hilarie (she/her) is a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who was the drummer from the Apples in Stereo (through 2006), a cofounder of the Elephant 6 collective, a member of Von Hemmling and Secret Square, and currently in the High Water Marks (along with her hubby, Per Ole Bratset, Logan Miller & Øystein Megård), whose latest album, Your Next Wolf, came out last summer. Hilarie also runs a cassette label called 6612 Tapes that will release So Many Things at Once, a benefit compilation for Justice Democrats featuring HWMs, Rose Melberg, the Garment District, the Ladybug Transistor, the Natvral, Dressy Bessy and others, out April 5.

This interview is part one of a two-part series that is a result of longtime friends Hilarie and Jennifer Baron (the Garment District, the Ladybug Transistor) having a conversation about everything from fertility cults and Norwegian pizza to body shaming and airport jail. Hilarie was at home in Grøa, Norway, and Jennifer was in Pittsburgh. (Images courtesy of Hilarie) Read part two.

Hilarie in Denver (images courtesy of Hilarie)

Jennifer: Was music a big part of your upbringing?
Hilarie: My parents were really into music. They loved The Beatles. My siblings are older, they were born in the ’50s and ’60s. The whole family listened to The Beatles and the Beach Boys. My sister was 13 years older than me and she loved Black Sabbath, KISS, Alice Cooper and Grand Funk Railroad. My brother Roger was into stuff like Yes, Genesis with Peter Gabriel, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. More mellow kind of proggy stuff. My brother who’s 9 years older than me was into Devo and the Cars and ’80s pop. So I heard all sorts of different music coming from all the different bedrooms. I would go in their rooms when they weren’t home and look through their albums. My sister had a Grand Funk Railroad album and they’re all naked on the inside and I would always go in there and look at it like, oh my god, their penises. My dad was in a barbershop quartet. I played clarinet—I started at the end of grade school until middle school, and then I switched to guitar. Then I picked up drums when I asked if I could be the drummer for the Apples. Music was always on. It was always important. I always liked the boys in school who liked music and were like guitar players.
Jennifer: That’s our downfall, isn’t it. We share that. How did the High Water Marks get started as a band?
Hilarie: I met Per Ole, who’s now my husband, on an Apples tour in Oslo. He gave me some songs that he had with his band. We started talking on e-mail and we decided to do an album. We were like, let’s send songs back and forth. The thing that was super funny is first he sent his 4-track tapes and didn’t send a return address and he had my name wrong. It came eventually to my brother’s house in Lexington, KY.
Where were you?
Hilarie: I was in Lexington too, but it was just bizarre because he’s like “I have a package for you from Norway.” I was like, really? Oh my god, that’s so weird.” So I got the tapes. But they could have been lost and there was no backup.
Jennifer: That’s a great origin story. We’ve been talking a lot about physical mail and the sense of waiting and anticipation and that it could have been lost and that it was 4-track tapes. How did you continue your long-distance creative process?
Hilarie: I recorded them on to his tracks, I added to them. I sent a couple of tracks that I wanted him to add to, which he did. Eventually we just decided … I was on tour, I’d made a little bit of money. Flights were really cheap so I was like, I’m going to come out there and we’re going to just do this. We’ll knock it out really quick. I’d just started recording on a computer. It was exciting to have a huge audio interface that looks like a rack mount thing in my backpack and some nice microphones.
Jennifer: You traveled thousands of miles to make music. That’s so endearing.
Hilarie: It was really cool. We became best friends right away. We really clicked and it’s so weird. All of it happened so organically and innocently. And then bam, We’re like in love. We were like, we have to be together. We can’t go back.
Jennifer: How did you come up with the name?
Hilarie: It was the name of one of the songs that he recorded. Songs About the Ocean came out in 2004, this year is the 20th anniversary. A couple years later, Polar came out, and then we didn’t do anything for like 13 years. In 2020, we put out Ecstasy Rhymes, in 2022, we put out Proclaimer of Things. In 2023, we put out Your Next Wolf.
Jennifer: Do you still have the 4-track cassettes?
Hilarie: We don’t. We can’t find them anywhere. We lost some weird and important stuff when we moved. We had a moving company and a shipping container and some of the boxes just didn’t show up and the company didn’t take any responsibility for it and it was a huge hassle. I don’t think we’re ever going to find them.

Jennifer: Your label is putting out a new compilation. I’d love to hear about the tape label in general. I’m honored to be on it.
Hilarie: 6612 Tapes started because we wanted to put out our new album on cassette. It’s such a cool format. I love what you can do with it. How compact it is. We just decided to do a tape label and all eco packaging. No shrink wrap. It’s also going to have a homemade vibe where we’re going to put inserts and stickers and stuff. We’re putting out a new compilation tape called So Many Things at Once, it’s a benefit for Justice Democrats, coming out April 5. We’re doing it because democracy is in peril. So many things are so fucked up right now with Palestine and Ukraine. Now there’s bombing going on in the Red Sea. We’ve got to take care of this election because it’s going to have an impact on everybody. It will not be on streaming because we want to get money for the donations.
Jennifer: Are you planning other cassette releases?
Hilarie: Because we have a 20-year anniversary coming of our first album, we’re going to do some fun things, like we have some old recordings that we did on the radio here in 2004 so we’re going to put those on the tape; we’re doing something really cool with our bandmates where they’re reimagining a couple of the songs from the record. We’re going to put out some unreleased stuff as a way to celebrate it. That and our next record will be on the cassette label later this year or early 2025.
Jennifer: You’ve been so incredibly productive. It’s so inspiring.
Hilarie: It must be that fertility cult.

The Apples in Stereo with Kurt Heasley

Jennifer: Tell us about the Elephant 6 documentary. Has it reconnected people?
Hilarie: It made us remember how much we cared about each other and how stupid it is that we haven’t been in touch, especially when it’s so easy to be in touch. It’s never been easier. For my part, after Robert and I got divorced, a lot of people … I don’t want to say they chose him over me, but they chose him over me. That’s just the way it goes. He’s a talented, popular guy. A lot of people lost touch with me or I lost touch with them and it’s been fun getting to know everybody again. We’re all the same, but we’re so different.
Jennifer: I’ve loved seeing it multiple times and have been so inspired by all of you. It’s been great reconnecting with people as well. Derek and I did two Q&As after the Pittsburgh premiere. The audiences were so different the two nights. The first was our generation, in-depth questions, like uberfans, rabid fans, like so many deep things. Just people reminiscing and wanting to know every little detail and talk about all the bands that weren’t in it and who were. We had to kick people out or we would have been there for 5 hours. The next night was all these new fans, younger audience. It was so cool to be able to have that mix. It speaks to the timelessness of the music and that communal culture and that sharing and that hands-on DIY aesthetic that people are craving. And also over the summer having everyone come together in Norway.
Hilarie: Yeah, that was so amazing. Circling back to the tape label, when we talked about the spirit of Elephant 6, 6612 reminds me of when we started Elephant 6, because it’s all about handmade and having personal things in the release as possible and connecting on a personal level and that was one of the greatest things about what we did. I’m so proud of that, but I’m also in awe that we did that too.
Jennifer: And there’s so much more beyond the parameters of the film that went on.
Hilarie: The film is just a really good tip of the iceberg there. It was really well put together.
Jennifer: How does how does it impact your working today? Also, could that happen today?
Hilarie: I don’t think it could. I mean, I’d love to think it could, but I don’t think it could. That whole instant gratification thing that we’re talking about. And like, if I can’t get it now, I’m going to kind of freak out. I need to hear it first.
Jennifer: There’s this whole mentality of having to create music for a film or show or streaming or video. I don’t create music that way. Truly living in the moment, it sounds so cliche, but it’s harder and harder to do that.
Hilarie: People don’t do that anymore. It’s too hard. We were so lucky back then because we didn’t have all these distractions. I lived in this tiny little apartment with Will and Jeff and me and Robert, we’re talking about music all day and all night because we didn’t have a TV, we couldn’t afford one.
Jennifer: If you watched a show, like Freaks and Geeks, you did while it was on, then it was over and you missed it.
Hilarie: There were no mobile telephones so if you wanted to see somebody, you were really immersed in it. We were so immersed in everything we did. We were just sitting there brainstorming and writing things out and drawing and coloring. We watch a lot of TV now, but we’re always drawing and tonight we’re going to do some lino cutting and we’re recording and I’m trying to keep that going. Back to the E6 documentary, it was the very end of that era between no technology and technology where everything was really free.

The High Water Marks: Øystein, Per Ole, Hilarie and Logan in Egersund (images courtesy of Hilarie)

Jennifer: When did you start speaking Norwegian?
Hilarie: Well, it is hard. I studied it a little bit at university after we met, I was going back for my bachelor’s and I switched to Norwegian studies from sociology. I finished my degree and I still couldn’t really speak Norwegian though. I don’t know if all people are like this, but I couldn’t pick it up until I started using it every day. I’m good with the grammar. I knew how things went together, but I couldn’t get it out quick enough; it just took some time. Working with kids helps because they’re honest. They’re like “what are you trying to say?” You’re formulating sentences in your head like you would if you’re going to write them down, but that doesn’t work.
Jennifer: Let’s talk about gender roles in bands. In the ’90s, it was so great to meet you, meet Shivika (Asthana, from Papas Fritas), we toured with a lot of bands that had women I love and am still in touch with. It felt like a tightknit community. That was the positive side of it.
Hilarie: I was thinking about how we would tour; we’d be in New York or whatever, and there’s all these women and men and everybody’s integrated and doing things together. And then suddenly, you’re in Nebraska and you’ve got this guy who’s like, “you’re not in the band.” I had that happen to me before. “I’m in the band, I need to come in.” “No, you’re not in the band.”
Jennifer: “Who are you with?”
Hilarie: “Who are you trying to see?” “Well, I’m the drummer in the Apples in Stereo. I need to come in.” “Yeah, right.” Finally, after arguing, he goes and gets John or Eric or somebody. They’re like, yeah, she is in the band.
Jennifer: This wasn’t even that long ago. I totally agree about New York almost being another world. I always have this thing that still happens: “Oh, you’re in a band. Are you the singer?”
Hilarie: Yes.
Jennifer: Nothing against singing, it’s an amazing talent. But it’s this kneejerk reaction that still constantly happens. Also “woman-fronted band,” hate that term. What does that even mean? Can you imagine discussing the Kinks and said “male-fronted band”?
Hilarie: Exactly. It’s so stupid.
Jennifer: Let’s talk about the music we’re making. It’s so hard for people to even describe and talk about music and most art forms but mostly music because we can’t touch it, we can’t see it. It’s constantly in the background. It’s in all these videos. Social media has made music this background thing where people are numb to the art form so if you have to work to listen to something and figure it out, you have to be challenged to think about it, people’s minds can’t do it if they’re born into the digital age.
Hilarie: No, they can’t.
Jennifer: I still have a lot of difficult feelings about gender roles and music. It’s hard to even process.
Hilarie: Well, outside of even like the instrumentation aspect of music, I had a lot of problems being a female in a band who’s overweight, because I was criticized. Jeff Price from SpinArt, he told me that I was holding the band back from success because I was too fat.
Jennifer: No, Hilarie.
Hilarie: Yeah, he did. I was crushed. He’s like, if you’re going to be in a band and if you’re a girl, you need to dress like really cute and you need to be really thin. Sure, whatever, dude. I acted like it didn’t bother me, but it still really bothers me to this day.
Jennifer: It’s horrifying, it’s traumatic, it’s harmful. The body shaming and the awareness about it now, we didn’t have during our time. Or reviews would be written, and someone would describe what Sasha and I were wearing, but they wouldn’t describe what the guys were wearing. Why would you describe our hair or our clothing?
Hilarie: Jeff never would have said that any of the guys are fat or too bald or whatever.
Jennifer: That’s horrifying. When people who are running labels or in leadership or power positions are saying these things, it’s so harmful. With openness and inclusivity and queer music and culture and gender affirmation and body awareness and fighting body shaming is much as it is today, that didn’t exist in the ’90s when we were starting our bands and way before that.
Hilarie: It is still there. And we came up with really amazing female figures to look up to, like all the K Records and Kill Rock Stars, like Heather from Beat Happening, she was like my hero.

Early High Water Marks

Jennifer: I got to see them play. Even going back, the Go-Betweens, New Order, like there are so many incredible women who are part of bands writing music, adding to the music, part of the arrangements, like adding to the sound, but why do we only talk about the singer?
Hilarie: Yeah, exactly, it’s not the only part. There were so many amazing women when we were coming up and you still don’t really hear about them like you hear about others.
Jennifer: Incredible composers too. Do you know about the Women in Sound zine? You would love it. It’s an incredible zine that my friend Madeline Campbell started and it’s really inspiring. It’s a great resource and a fantastic publication. … That experience horrifies me that that happened and I’m so sorry.
Hilarie: That’s just the way stuff was back then. I took it to heart. I acted like, oh whatever, but and I actually stopped eating and I lost weight, and I got like really freaked out. Yeah, it still bothers me today. Sometimes when I think about it, I still get really mad.
Jennifer: Understandable. If we thought about this topic, we would have so many examples.
Hilarie: So many.
Jennifer: So many of them were subtle and manipulative back then and we were really young and our brains weren’t even trained to process it and interpret it as sexism or chauvinism or misogyny at the time.
Hilarie: Yeah, I didn’t know those words back then. I mean, I knew them, but I didn’t really know them.
Jennifer: Yeah, we just brushed it off.
Hilarie: Yeah, it’s just like, oh, well, whatever, that guy’s a dick. But in the meantime, it’s sitting back there in your head and you’re playing it over and over.
Jennifer: Yeah. When you’re in your own cocoon of women in your band, women are in all the bands you’re on bills with then you go into some of these places like Panama City…
Hilarie: …and you’ve got the metal guy who’s doing sound and he doesn’t get what you’re doing and he’s like, “why do you have this stuff?” He has no idea what to do with you.
Jennifer: If we were to visit you in Grøa, what should do and see?
Hilarie: It would all be outdoors. We don’t really have anything else to do here. We have a mall and it’s very boring and the restaurants are all pizza I feel like and it’s terrible pizza.
Jennifer: Norwegian pizza!
Hilarie: I would take you guys … about a 15-minute walk from my house is one of the oldest Viking graveyards in the western part of Norway. Where we live right now, it was a special gathering place in the Iron Age, where they came to pray to the fertility God Freyr. There are fertility cults here and they’ve excavated a lot of fertility pits, like fire pits where they did sacrifice. There are a lot of graves here that were excavated and there are some important women who were buried as well as like families. It’s a cool place. Being in there, it feels mystical and magical. It dates back to the 900s, right in the middle of the early Viking age.
Jennifer: Tell us about the latest High Water Marks album Your Next Wolf.
Hilarie: We’ve just been on such a roll with recording. Ecstasy Rhymes is a really mellow like pop record and the next one, Proclaimer of Things, was a bit of that, but also a bit more rock. Then we took it all more fuzzy pop on this last one. We’ve just been recording and writing so much and we just kept going. It’s not like we just sat down and said “we’re making this record.” We just kept working. We record our parts here at our house. And then we send the tracks to Øystein and Logan. We have a shared Google Drive where we all put our parts and we put our all of our information. As we get closer to being done, we have Google Keep and we keep each other on task, like Hilarie needs to do this, this, this, Per Ole needs to do this, this, this, and so on. Then we can cross it off. It’s really organized. It’s not my idea; Øystein is so organized, he’s the one who introduced us to that.
Jennifer: Where do you record in your house, different rooms?
Hilarie: We have a tiny little bedroom that we record in that we’ve made into a studio, it has a desk and a big bookshelf and a little vintage cabinet and then all of our guitars are on the wall. We record on a Mac Mini. We just recorded in there but when I record drums, we have to do it in the hallway because they won’t fit in there. I can’t do it any other way. I’ve had bad experiences in studios, I don’t like recording in studios.
Jennifer: I didn’t know if you had ever recorded in a studio in Norway.
Hilarie: I got to help mix and kind of produce some songs that Per Ole’s band was doing when I first came over to record. That was fun. But that wasn’t my project, and it wasn’t my time, so it was pleasant.
Jennifer: Recording in a home, whether it’s your home or it’s close to where you live, or your friend is what I’ve tried to do. Just the organic nature or that comfort feeling and not constantly staring at the clock.
Hilarie: That’s a real creative killer.
Jennifer: It is so difficult. I try to strike this balance of I’m recording with people who also have become friends because I have to feel really comfortable with the person.
Hilarie: Yeah, me too.
Jennifer: You guys are recording your own music and that’s amazing. But I like to work with like an engineer to oversee it all and produce it. I like to have someone else worrying about being the technical expert, because I’m not that as far as the engineering side and I don’t really want to be. I love focusing on the creativity of the songwriting and the recording. I love all these processes. I know that that’s not my skill, my strong point, but it is a balance that you have to strike. I’ve recorded in studios and had positive experiences, but I much prefer when it’s a home-based experience. It can be stressful and difficult. It can hinder your creativity or experimentation to just be like, OK, we’ll book you on these dates in and out.
Hilarie: It doesn’t always work out that you feel at your best at those moments. We’re busy and older too. I can’t be bothered. I can’t spend that much money either because we pay for so much of these records ourselves.
Jennifer: Before I started recording my new album, I visited some incredible studios and they’re doing wonderful work and they’re beautiful spaces, but I can’t afford them, I’m in the same situation. So, if I’m going to be putting my own investment into it, which I am because I’m paying for studios and engineering, I love that I can put it toward like an independent person who is incredible to work with. I worked with someone whose personality is very chill and laidback, great listener, great rapport. We’ve become good friends and he’s been incredibly generous with his time so I feel really fortunate. It feels comfortable. Some of the experimentation or the parts of the directions you go in in the studio, you wouldn’t be able to do in a different kind of setting.
Hilarie: That’s a really perfect scenario.
Jennifer: It still doesn’t mean that it’s not expensive and it should be paid for. What was the mixing like?
Hilarie: We mixed this time with Justin Pizzoferrato, who is J Mascis’ engineer who works with the Lou Barlow and Speedy Ortiz and lots of different artists. He would basically do a mix and send it to us and we would say what we thought, and then he’d do another one and send it and it kind of went like that. But he was so good. We weren’t arguing about anything really. He was such a pro, so great to work with. Really nice, talented guy. We’re also lucky because Øystein has worked at a studio and he has so much equipment. He has two Mellotrons and Hammond B3s. Tons of keyboards. He’s got like several drum sets, so many amps, they rent out some of their stuff. He does a lot of the technical stuff and Logan also is very like good and interested in recording.

Hilarie and Per Ole

Jennifer: Do they bring their equipment to your house ever or do they all record in their houses?
Hilarie: Everybody records in their houses. Your Next Wolf was the first time we recorded all together. We went to Kentucky and recorded the basic tracks of 4 of them. It was a fun bonding experience. We had a great time. We recorded at Logan’s house.
Jennifer: Was it the first time that some of them coming to Kentucky? Hilarie: It was Øystein’s first time in Kentucky and I think in the U.S. That was fun, we went to Cincinnati and showed them around. There’s not a lot to do around Lexington, but I think they had a great time. It was just really chill.
Jennifer: Who pressed your latest vinyl?
Hilarie: We did it at a place in Paris. We paid for it ourselves. It was so hard to decide because we had to ship most of them to Red Eye anyway in the U.S. I don’t know if we did the right thing, but it was cheap. They have a like a two-month turnaround, which was really quick. They don’t use the stamper, they use the original lathe cutting, the lacquer. It doesn’t feel real if it’s not on vinyl. I’m really into cassettes right now.
Jennifer: Me too. It’s interesting how many people on our most recent Ladybug tour wanted CDs. What do you enjoy most about recording, performing, and or touring? Do you prefer one or the other? Do you dislike any of them?
Hilarie: I prefer recording to touring. I like playing shows, but I get terrible anxiety but then while I’m doing it, it’s always really fun and I’m like, why don’t we do this all the time? And then the next time it’s like, oh my god, we have a show. I can’t do this. And then we do it and it’s fun. It’s this weird cycle of anxiety and then elation. I have so much fun whenever we play live. But it’s just like the whole getting there is like… Øystein’s in Trondheim, Logan’s in Kentucky, so this summer we played shows and Logan came over from Kentucky for just these few shows that we did. We had like three days to practice here. Thinking about doing it is really daunting, but once we do it, it’s really amazing. And Logan’s lucky because his wife is a pilot. She’s my best friend. She’s a pilot for Southwest and she can get them on flights pretty cheap sometimes. Her dad was also a pilot, so she has United tickets and stuff like that.
Jennifer: She’s such a trailblazer because there are so few female pilots working for the major airlines. There are more than there used to be.
Hilarie: She has cooler clothes now. When she first started out, she wore the stupidest outfit and she used to call it her birth control suit.
Jennifer: That’s amazing. That would be a good band name. It is a lot of logistics as you get older.
Hilarie: Yeah, some places have backlines, some places don’t. Living in Norway is great and playing shows here is not so great. The music scene is pretty generic or maybe I haven’t found the right thing. They play us on the radio here. We have a lot of streams coming from here, from Norway, a lot of streams. It seems like people like us, but we can’t get people out to the shows. It’s frustrating, but a lot of venues say that people just don’t go to shows anymore, so they’re having a hard time promoting and getting people to come out. We wonder if it’s worth it.

Jennifer: Is that true in Bergen and Oslo as well?
Hilarie: Yeah, everywhere. Everything is just so expensive and it hasn’t really come down, especially since the pandemic. Norwegians were more reserved and homebodies and maybe the pandemic has made everybody feel like it’s OK to stay home.
Jennifer: I need social interaction, playing off the energy of people and the chemistry. Got any good tour stories?
Hilarie: I have a few. One I was thinking about was: OK, first of all, Apples in Stereo used to drive around with the Bible on our dashboard because we have this whole schtick where we’re this religious band in case we ever get pulled over because the boys had a lot of weed on them all the time. We’re driving around with this bible, we have this whole backstory. We played at Oberlin College and we had a great show. But it was over pretty early, as college shows are sometimes, and we say goodbye to everybody, we go back to the hotel and we’re hanging out. The boys are smoking bowls. Eric and I are sitting there counting money and what have you. We wake up the next day and we go to Denny’s, which is right outside the hotel. And then suddenly we see cop cars pull up to the hotel. We were all just kind of looking and then Robert was like, “Oh my God, my backpack’s in the lobby and it’s got all the pot in it.” We got in the car and started driving to Wendy’s. Robert goes into the Wendy’s. John was driving and he didn’t have a license. I switched seats with him, and I got in the driver’s seat and then Robert ran into Wendy’s, threw the pot away in the garbage can in the bathroom, and came out with a Big Gulp type thing.
These cops pull us over and they’re like, “Hey, who does this backpack belong to?” Robert’s like, “that’s my backpack.” The cops are like, “Do you realize that there’s marijuana in this backpack?” Robert’s like, “No! What? Are you kidding me?” We made a story first before the cops started talking to us. Robert is taken to the cop car and they talk to him and us separately. But we all say the same thing: We have no idea whether it’s pot in that bag. The cops are like, what are you talking about? We’re like, “we’re just a Christian rock band, we played at this college last night and everybody was doing drugs and stuff. We had no idea and we think somebody put that in our bag as a joke.” Robert had had picked up all these religious pamphlets and pulled them out and he was like, “Yeah, I was just giving people these and trying to get people to recognize Jesus as their lord and savior.” And by the end of the whole thing, the main cop and Robert were hugging and like they were best friends. Isn’t that insane?
Jennifer: Do you have any wild High Water Marks tour stories to share?
Hilarie: When we were touring in Europe, we had like 5 shows in England and the people who have booked the shows wanted to try to bypass getting a work permit. Per Ole didn’t need one because he was a Norwegian citizen at the time. So it’s just me and the other two guys that needed work permits and we talked about how we’d say we’re just going over to hang out and do a little studio recording. Our bass player was asleep when we were talking about it, I guess, and we didn’t realize it. So, we get to England, we go through customs, and we’re all through. And we see he’s talking and waving his hands and suddenly they’re looking at a computer. And he’s like, “We have shows. We’re in a band called the High Water Marks. Look at our website.” His phone got stolen on that tour too, because a guy came up and said, “can I borrow your phone?” And he said, “it’s from America but sure, go ahead!” And the guy just ran. He’s so gullible, but anyway, so we got marched off into jail in the airport. So, we’re sitting in jail and we have to be deported back to Sweden. We were in jail all day. They were nice, but it was embarrassing. They looked through all my stuff, they read my lyrics …. awful. There were people in there that were traffickers, a lady who tried to smuggle herself in, and then we’re just like a little indie band. It’s like a lockup room. At the end of the day, we had to get on the last flight. They had to march us on the flight, like with a great ceremony. It was really embarrassing, but it’s also funny now in hindsight.

Jennifer: What was it like playing in Egersund this summer the festival in Norway. How did that feel?
Hilarie: I love that festival. It’s the best festival because it feels small or intimate. I love how it’s set up in such a small area so you can go from show to show, and you have the hotel setup so if you get exhausted, you can go rest. It’s not the kind of festival where you’re like, “where am I going to get water?”
Jennifer: “Where am I going to wash my hands?”
Hilarie: Exactly. It’s really cozy. And I think Froda does such a nice job.
Jennifer: It’s like a family. Being able to do that before the pandemic, when Froda and Steven did this special deluxe reissue of Albemarle Sound and then meeting everyone and being a part of that community and making lifelong or new friends. After that whole experience of lockdown for us to all be together and reunite with you guys and have Elf Power and have the Elephant 6 documentary and Froda’s new band and No Ones and Minus Five just this past summer there was something so magical and so like necessary. People were just so desperate to be together and missed each other. It’s so important the way that they treat the bands and you can go take your break.
Hilarie: You feel so welcome. There’s no stress there. I didn’t feel any stress. I didn’t feel any of that hurry up and get on the stage. Hurry up and get off the stage. Hurry up and move your equipment.
Jennifer: We had to get a substitute drummer the same week of our show. So we had probably the biggest wild marathon of our musical careers, which then prepared us for the tour in November. So next to the hotel we were staying in that incredible historic building that was so cool. It was one of the most gorgeous buildings I’ve been in. Taking breaks to go swimming and walk around the town. Last time we got to stay in the lighthouse with Elf Power. It was a dream come true. It’s such a wonderful festival. So welcoming, like the way the whole town is waiting for it all year.
Hilarie: Everybody’s involved. There’s another festival in Norway that you guys should play sometime if you haven’t already. Indiefjord.
Jennifer: Gary has played it.
Hilarie: Yeah, it’s amazing. We actually played with Gary there.
Jennifer: Yes, I would love for the Garment District to play in Norway. Those experiences have been some of my favorite live music experiences.
Hilarie: The Norwegian summer is really magical.
Jennifer: What a beautiful landscape too, the Fjords.
Hilarie: You have to come up here where we are because it’s way more dramatic. It’s so much more beautiful up here.
Jennifer: I live vicariously through your photos on Instagram and I would love to visit. It looks like something out of a movie.
Hilarie: Right now it’s dark but in the summer I’m looking out the window and I see Europe’s tallest waterfall right out my window.
Jennifer: Even if you’re just there for a short time, you feel like you’re integrated into the community and the town and you’re just welcomed with open arms. There’s such a respect for the music and for artists and creativity.
Hilarie: There is. That’s one of the things I love about it.
Jennifer: What are some musical collaborations that have really impacted you?
Hilarie: One of the most fun collaborations for me was going to Japan to record with Cornelius. The entire experience was really fun both in the studio, and outside. Another fun collaboration was singing a song on the new The Go! Team record. It’s a song called “Sock it to me.” Although I didn’t collaborate in person and I did it from my home studio, it was still really fun. I think Ian is a super talented songwriter and arranger.

Hilarie in the Apples in Stereo 1995 Tidal Wave video

Jennifer: What is the best food you’ve ever eaten on tour?
Hilarie: Right now, at this point in my life most of the food I ate on tour I remember as being the best. I live in a place where we don’t have any good restaurants, and even if we did it is so expensive to eat out here. Many of my most memorable are probably some of the Ethiopian restaurants in D.C.
Jennifer: What’s your favorite thing to make?
Hilarie: I like to try new stuff. Everybody loves my quiche and my quiche crust that I make from scratch. I make enchiladas and things like that. I don’t use recipes because I’m really good at figuring stuff out without recipes. I take all the elements that I like from it. My downfall is that I never write it down. So sometimes it’s not super consistent. I make this like creamy pasta dish everybody loves but the consistency is different.
Jennifer: I’m glad I’m married to someone who’s a really good cook and I enjoy it. I often feel short on time. We always cook vegan because we’re vegan at home, but I would love to receive some of your recipes. I can always adapt them. We’ve been making a lot of dal and chana masala and I’m trying to experiment and use the Instant Pot more for Indian food. We’re also lucky to have a growing vegan scene here.
Hilarie: You guys can order food and have it delivered to your house too. I make my own vanilla and everything because you can’t buy vanilla extract here. I make my own dill pickles. But I have to make it.
Jennifer: I did the cliche thing during lockdown and learned how to make kombucha. I love baking bread. I really like cooking and I love baking. We’re lucky because we have a Lebanese market right around the corner that’s been there since the ’60s. They make their own pitas next door. They come down a conveyor belt and give you these piping hot pitas. What are you watching these days?
Hilarie: Crime shows are big here in Norway and like we watch British crime and we’ll pretty much literally watch anything. We’re not like super discerning sometimes.
Jennifer: What can always be found in your fridge?
Hilarie: Sadly, mostly leftovers that everyone will forget to take to work and nobody will end up eating. I try to always have green olives and green olive tapenade. We tend to buy what we need day by day.

The Apples in Stereo, 1995, Tidal Wave video (image courtesy of Hilarie)

Jennifer: What books or magazines are on your nightstand?
Hilarie: I just finished Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll. I am currently reading Poor Things by Alasdair Gray. I just saw the movie and it blew my mind! Yorgos Lanthimos has made some of my favorite movies, but this one is incredible, from the camera work, the art, costumes, and music, the entire feel is completely insane.
Jennifer: What are some of your hobbies?
Hilarie: I like sewing; we do a lot of drawing over here, and I am learning lino cutting. Of course, playing guitar, making songs, reading, making earrings (that I can’t even wear because I am allergic, haha), and building things/making things for our van. We got really into our camper van, so we made a headboard out of Moroccan tiles, curtains. I like to sew practical things. I’m going to start on a quilt soon. I love drawing with Per Ole; it can be intimating because he’s so good and I’m so bad.
Jennifer: I love your vehicle.
Hilarie: It’s all I can think about sometimes; it’s like, “I can’t wait to get in the van.” We just put a power converter in it so we can use an electric blanket.
Jennifer: Do you collect anything?
Hilarie: After emptying my mom’s house before she moved into a nursing home and seeing all of the things she collected, I was overwhelmed. It was a nightmare. She had boxes upon boxes of things. I decided then and there that I would not collect anything other than records. Even books. I adore books, but I rarely go back and read any of them unless they are my favorites. Now I only buy/keep the books that are exceptionally great to me. I kept photographs, artwork, letters, my grandmother’s life’s writing, my great-grandfather’s handwritten memoir, my mom’s wedding rings, my grandma’s wedding rings art deco jewelry, and other small mementos. Part of living in Norway has also been an exercise in learning quality vs. quantity, things vs. experiences, etc. It was hard to decide what to bring from the U.S. after we moved.  

Hil recording on Ecstasy Rhymes

Jennifer: What are the biggest differences about living in Norway and the U.S. and what has it made you appreciate most about each locale?
Hilarie: The biggest differences about living in Norway vs the U.S. are things like consumerism, free time, freedom, and safety in my opinion. I realized a year or so after living in Norway some of the things I missed were heavily based in consumerism. Like, I missed being able to pop in to a store and browse or buy something, or choose from a million different restaurants. Here in Norway everything is closed on Sunday. We have a tiny little part of the grocery store that’s allowed to be open on Sundays for necessities. We get at least 5 weeks of vacation every year and are strongly urged to take at the very least three of them in a row. In Norway you haven’t relaxed enough if you haven’t forgotten what day of the week it is on vacation. We also get feriepenger “vacation money.” We get an extra percentage taken out of our pay each payday and that money is given back to us in June to use on vacation, or whatever we want.
I worked at a university in the U.S. and we had a very liberal vacation policy. 4 weeks. But, getting 3 weeks in a row was supremely challenging. Also, there is a misconception about the taxes we pay. In the U.S. I paid around 24% of my income in taxes. As far as I could tell, I was paying for wars, because my roads were shit, I had to buy more than $100 worth of school supplies for each kid each year, plus a list of things teachers need because they don’t have the funding. Day care was crazy expensive, etc. Here I pay 34%. Both December and June we pay half tax 17% ish so that we have extra money for Christmas and for summer. Included in that 34% is our national health insurance, along with a lot of other great perks like barnetrygd, which gives every single child in Norway $100 per month from the time they’re born until they are 18. That gives families who struggle the money to l buy clothes, pay for activities, etc. to level the playing field and make things more equal. If you don’t need the money, you can just save it. We did that and gave our son Anders a lump sum on his 18th birthday. Because I don’t have to worry about health insurance, I don’t worry about losing my job. Not having to worry about health insurance opens people up to be able to try small businesses and endeavors that they would be afraid to try in the US due to healthcare for example. I love that my youngest son grew up riding his bike to school, playing all over the neighborhood for hours while I didn’t know where he was. I love that he didn’t have active shooter drills. Kids are encouraged to climb up high in trees at school here and to trust and rely on their bodies and motor skills. They learn how to use knives from pre-school, make fires, and really practical things. If we did any of that in the U.S. we might have had a visit from CPS. I miss the openness and friendliness of the U.S. I miss my friends. It’s hard to make close friends here. I miss seeing great bands and eating out a lot. Oddly, there are fewer women in the music scene here. Especially Trondheim, which is the city I’m closest to. I refer to it as “dude rock city.” Oh boy, have I had men explain music, equipment, bands, etc. to me. It’s weird because in most other fields we’re pretty equal.
Jennifer: What are some of your favorite instruments and gear you used on Your Next Wolf?
Hilarie: My favorite is my new Gretsch guitar I bought myself for my birthday last year. It only made it on a couple of tracks, but it is an absolute dream to play, and I love the sound of it. I have a 1964 Roger’s Holiday model drum kit. I had a similar bass drum and rack tom of the same year, but I really wanted this whole kit. It was red sparkle, 20″ bass drum, mounted rack tom, perfect condition, and it came with all the hardware and cymbals, one of which was a staple I used back then, a 24″ Zildjian sizzle cymbal. I went on to buy up as many of those as I could find because they were cheap, and had such a special sound, but I frequently cracked them. Back in the ’90s you found stuff like and it was so cheap because nobody wanted it. Anyway, Kurt Heasley was living with us at the time and he had gotten some publishing money or something, and he actually bought it for me. That is how sweet and generous he is. I am forever grateful. This drumset has been featured on a lot of the early E6 records, including both the Neutral Milk Hotel Records, the Olivia Tremor Control, and The Minders, of course, the Apples, and many others. I’m not as interested in equipment as I was in the past. At this point, I just want reliable things that sound amazing to me and will work when I sit down so I can keep up my momentum while I’m in the mode. 

What is your sign?
Hilarie: Capricorn
Jennifer: Do you have any crushes?
Hilarie: I would say now, no, but maybe I’m too old for that. Everybody loves Paul Rudd.
Jennifer: I heard you had a tradition in the past…
Hilarie: Yes, Lisa Janssen and I, she’s from Secret Square, would come up with like, OK, who’s your celebrity dream date this week. It was typically David Berman or Bill Callahan or Steve Malkmus. And then we would decide what we’d do on our dream date.
Jennifer: What musician would you love to interview?
Hilarie: Sun Ra
Jennifer: I have a crush on your dog Archie right now. I seriously have a crush on all big dogs. I’d to meet up with Syd Barrett and Gene Clark. Have you seen the new Syd Barrett documentary?
Hilarie: No. I love Syd Barrett so much. Lisa and I would talk about him endlessly and how we would take care of him.
Jennifer: Are we, like, lost sisters? We might be. What newish and current music are you loving?
Hilarie: I love your new record and that has been spinning quite a bit, I’ve been listening to the new Elf Power, Feeling Figures, The Beths, Aislers Set, Umbrellas, Tony Molina, Telekinesis, Santigold, Shannon Lay, Shana Cleveland, Mikal Cronin, A lot of old bossa nova stuff (Astrud, Nara Leão). Not so new, but it’s some of the stuff I’ve been listening right now.
Jennifer: What plans are you looking forward to in 2024?
Hilarie: We are currently about 9 songs deep into a new album. We have a few more to start, and so there will be a new record later this year or in early 2025. Only time will tell. We are going to start looking for a label to release it. We love Minty Fresh, but they aren’t able to help us very much besides distribution. September is the 20th anniversary of our first record, Songs About the Ocean, and we have a special release coming to celebrate that. I’m super excited about it.

Records Hilarie Cannot Live Without
The Beatles (pretty much any of them, haha)
Velvet Underground, White Light White Heat
Dinosaur Jr., You’re Living All Over Me
Guided By Voices, Alien Lanes 

Listen to the High Water Marks.
Preorder the new benefit compilation on Hilarie’s label.
Listen to the Apples in Stereo.
Watch the Elephant 6 documentary.
Read an excerpt from the Steve Keene Art Book, which Hilarie is in.
Read part two of Hilarie’s conversation with Jennifer! 

Beautiful Ringo in beautiful Sunndal, Norway

An interview with Connie Lovatt about Coconut Mirror

While we also interviewed Connie Lovatt in our 2022 issue of chickfactor (19), we interviewed her again just about Coconut Mirror, out Sept. 27 on our label, Enchanté Records (based in the U.S., not the one in Paris, France). Also read about the dream team who plays on it. Interview: Gail O’Hara

Connie Lovatt in Carrboro, NC, 2023. Photo: Gail O’Hara

chickfactor: When did you start making Coconut Mirror? Talk us through the timeline. 
Connie Lovatt: When [my daughter] Hartley was around 1, we needed to get help with childcare. We didn’t have family in Los Angeles and both our moms had been so generous with their time, traveling out to care for Harts as we adjusted into being parents. But as she got older, I needed to get some structured help so I could take a break during the day. Her name was Diana, and she was incredible. Later Lucy [LaForge] took over and was amazing with Harts, too. During my breaks I discovered I didn’t even like to go anywhere in LA. I started to hang out in my garage and read and work on songs. I didn’t play guitar because the sound would tip off Harts that I was somewhere in the house, so I didn’t do anything with an instrument. I started making up melodies with some phrases. After a few months doing that off and on, I had 11 solid song ideas.

That was 10 years ago.
So this was 2013. You can get into something for a little bit and then your kid gets sick and takes you out of it, or something happens, and I would put it away for a very long time. And years would go by, where like off on, off on, I gathered up melodies for each song. And then maybe three or four years ago (2019-2020), it was time to put chords to the melodies and see if the songs were indeed real. That’s kind of hard to do when you start with a vocal melody, to find the right chords and the flow. It was hard for me I mean, learning how to put chords to melodies that already existed because I’m not a great guitar player. And once I got that done, it took a couple years to figure out the directions of stuff. It was the first time I wanted every song to hold a sense of clear narration. I kept working on words all the time, and then when the pandemic hit, at some point, I would send lyrics to Bill [Callahan] and I’d say, “How’s this looking?” One day he gave the thumbs up, and I was galvanized!

Seven months after the pandemic started, we went to New Zealand. Ravi [my husband] got me this little digital four-track and I took it with me. We were there for six months, but two months before we were set to leave, I got it in my head that I had to get these down. I’d been sick for months with odd symptoms with what was eventually diagnosed as long COVID. We’d moved halfway across the world, and I wanted something to show for all this lost time. And it was time for me to face reality, to see how they sounded recorded. We were living in this pretty wood house right on the ocean. The weather in Wellington is extremely moody and beautiful. Almost every walk was challenging and wonderful. Every moment sheltered in the house was good. So, I started doing it, closing my bedroom door, and putting down the guitars and vocals. After months of being sick without any answers, it was incredible for me to hold in my hands something I’d made. It seemed impossible. 

The cover features a drawing by Connie’s sister Jennifer Lovatt

When we got back to Los Angeles, I found an engineer. He was a dad friend from our school. I’ve known him from the dozens of school events we went to with our daughters, and he was always helping with sound, at recitals or school plays etc. He’d been an engineer on tons of records from Veruca Salt to Barbara Streisand. His name is Joe Wohlmuth. So, I brought him all my files and I told him I wanted to work off these. I told him something magical happened in New Zealand and that my hands and vocals aren’t the best because of all these neuropathy issues but I want to build on what we have here. Then it took a little while longer to get other players. I was lucky enough to have beautiful Jim White secured but needed to wait for a break in his on-the-go schedule. Once we added Jim’s drums, I was able to send it to killers like James (McNew) and Rebecca (Cole) and Che (Chen) and slowly start building up everyone else’s tracks. Another person that helped me to build up confidence in these songs was Phoebe Gittins. She’s amazing and has an equally amazing mom, Philippa. Philippa was instrumental in helping us find the house we stayed in while in New Zealand, and she lived a couple houses down the road. She was the bestest next-door neighbor anyone could ask for. Her husband, Seth, had an acoustic guitar he generously lent to me while there. It sounds great and is mostly what I play on the record. When I met Phoebe, I learned she was a self-taught piano player. There was this piano in the house we were staying in and I had a couple songs down and I asked her to come by and put on headphones and play along to it and she sounded so beautiful. I kept those tracks, and they are on the album. She did so beautifully on those songs that when I eventually got back to LA, I sent her a couple more songs to work on. My friend Max Tepper lived close to us in Los Angeles, and I asked him to do some synthesizer stuff and he kindly wrote and handed over all sorts of cool sounds to work with. All the instruments, except for Lucy’s harmonica, were sent remotely. Joe and I would sit down and comp them in as they arrived and place them where we wanted, do little edits, and move things here or there to perfect the things we wanted. Then I re-sang everything except for some backing vocals that I kept from the New Zealand recordings. We rerecorded 3 guitar tracks, too.

You recorded this album next to the ocean. It’s hilarious that you went to New Zealand and made a Laurel Canyon record even though you were living in L.A. 
I didn’t know how it would all come together till New Zealand. Everyone that I’ve loved is in this record. Everyone that matters, women, men, they’re all in there somewhere. I wanted to show Hartley that after giving birth, that I could still make something. I wanted to make a record with acoustic guitar where I’m telling my daughter all the stories that mattered to me. My first few years in California, I listened to a lot of Neil Young and Judee Sill and some Stevie Nicks demos and Sandy Denny. I wanted their voices in my head as I got to know California. All the songs I had written with Fontaine [Toups] and Ed [Baluyut] (in Containe and the Pacific Ocean) were written so fast. They were immediate. I knew I was going to spend a lot of time on this. That I wanted to be certain of every word and note and it wasn’t rushed during the fun of hanging out with friends and trying to learn how to play or how to be in a band. I worked way, way faster then. Everything I did with people that was collaborative, the pace of that was not nearly as careful as I was now attempting. I’d never spent this much time writing one song, much less 11.

So, the recordings you made in New Zealand are these songs and you built on top of them, basically subtracting and adding after you got back. 
Yes. Almost all the acoustic guitar, lots of the backing vocals and a few of Phoebe’s piano tracks, all came from the work done on that little 4-track in New Zealand. 

Who else plays on the record? 
Lucy, who helped us take care of Hartley in the beginning, she writes and performs and is a strong singer. She plays all sorts of instruments. She’s one of those people that can play a million things. So, she came in and did harmonica and some backing vocals on “Sisters.” James Baluyut plays pedal steel on “Sisters.” And I think that’s everybody. Yeah. Phoebe, James [McNew], Jim [White], the other James [Baluyut], Lucy, Max, Rebecca [Cole], and Che [Chen]. And Hartley’s screams of joy as she played video games with friends a world away are heard in the background on a couple songs.

Bill Callahan produced one of your previous albums (The Pacific Ocean’s So Beautiful and Cheap and Warm). You’ve known each other since then, right (2002)?
Yeah. And then I played bass on his album A River Ain’t Too Much To Love.

Would you say that Bill was a consultant?
He was a loyal champion. He would check in and ask how the songs were going. Just by being interested, he gave me strength. He knows what I’m trying to do or trying not to do. No matter if I’m successful in my attempts or not, he’s kind and honest so the courage to work on remains no matter the feedback. I’m lucky to have him there telling me, “This is working. This could be better.” Everyone should have Bill as a friend. The end of “Kid” is now perfect due to him.

What else informed the record and its process?
Motherhood. Wifehood. My life changed course. I hadn’t touched an instrument for a couple years. When I started working on the melodies that would eventuality became the songs, I felt excited. I had so many happy moments playing in bands. I got curious if I could be happy trying this on my own. If the joys would still be there with just me in the room. I got really into it when I solved problems or things sort of elevated. I couldn’t quit caring about it. I wanted to finish this letter to my daughter, which is what it was becoming the more it came into view. You can’t give up on a letter to your kid! Sometimes I wish it hadn’t taken so long, that all those stops and starts and long gaps between stabs at the work hadn’t happened. But I was a different person in ways, compared to when I started, when I finally recorded it all. I’d became a bit of a perfectionist in that I no longer regarded impatience as a valid motivator to wrap it up. It had its own timeframe in my life and I was along for the ride. I finished when I finished and it felt good. 



Learn more about Connie’s previous bands here:
Containe Oral History
The Pacific Ocean Oral History

Listen to Coconut Mirror and other releases here. The album will be out Sept. 27 on select digital platforms and CD (via Bandcamp).