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Swinging Modern Sounds #40: A Miscellany of Musical Thoughts that Will Not Otherwise Appear

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From June through December of 2012, I kept a diary of musical impressions that didn’t develop into longer pieces. Here is a stew of them. What is contained herein is mostly celebrations, but this stew also contains a lone episode of carping about some music I don’t like at all. For this brief interval of bile, I apologize, but one must be true to what one hears . . .

***

Los Lobos is the best live band in the United States of America.

If they were not Chicano, I think, everyone (meaning the white reviewing establishment) would agree with this assessment. And maybe, in the next five or ten years, when they become undeniable elder statesmen (as opposed to just being middle-aged guys) this will be obvious, as it should be.

Having seen them play not long ago at Brooklyn Bowl, courtesy of Jolie Holland (of whom more below), who was sitting in on a couple songs, I was completely transfixed by their greatness. Not only is David Hidalgo surpassingly gifted at everything musical, but the band as a whole is remarkably versatile wherever you look. The bench, as they say, is hugely deep. Which is to say: there were also amazing performances turned in by Cesar Rosas, Louis Perez, and Steve Berlin, each of whom got a moment (or many moments) in the spotlight, and the rhythm section consisting of Conrad Lozano and a charming and hilarious and amazing young drummer whose name I did not get (is he the Cougar Estrada named on the web site?) was brilliant and locked in throughout.

The band is tight, so tight that the word is sort of meaningless, and they can play in any idiom on earth. And the solos, if you like that sort of thing, and I do, were just unfathomable. They played a few covers, and one of these, “One Way Out,” the old blues song made popular by the Allman Brothers, came in the middle of a jam where they got lost for a while. Cesar broke out the riff, and David started singing as though it had been planned all along, and the audience knew all the words.

The show was loose-limbed, funny, beautiful, proud, with just enough anti-professionalism to remind you that they got their start at the edge of the punk scene, and, for those who really care about the intricacies of band life, watching Rosas and Hidalgo work together, two astonishingly inventive players who have given decades to playing on the same stage, amounts to a dynamic live music experience unlike few I have seen in a long while.

The only other band even worth talking about in the same way, in the United States of America, is The Roots. And that band, while astounding, does not have a soloist like this band does. Los Lobos has several great soloists. This show reminded me what I want music to be about, what I want rock and roll to be about. At one time, this approach, this bar-band-touched-with-greatness approach was not unknown. Now is it as rare as, well, wolves in the wild.

***

Can’t Believe The Books Broke Up Already.

I really loved the cut-and-paste project known as The Books. They thought about music in a way that I imagined I very intuitively understood, which is that they mixed laptop grooves with acoustic instruments and very excellent and strange samples. At their best on The Lemon of Pink, their second album, the samples kind of were the verses of their pop songs, though there was no ignoring the essential qualities of the cello in how the songs became as complex sounding and virtuosic as they did. Paul de Jong was a great presence in the music that way. The closer the songs came to songs, the less interested I was, but for all that there was still something deeply surprising and new about The Books throughout their brief life, even on the somewhat sad and riven last album, The Way Out.

Most laptop music skews toward dance. The Books did not. They were surprisingly devoted to the samples as samples, but the acoustic part of the of thing often had a paradoxically Appalachian flavor (and that’s appropriate since, if I am not misinformed, Nick Zammuto was actually hiking the Appalachian trail at one point while they were working on an album).

Eventually, I guess, there was bad blood between Zammuto and de Jong, or at least aesthetic disagreement, and the collaboration was no more. It’s always depressing when this happens in bands you like, when there is Mould vs. Hart, or Simon vs. Garfunkel, or Reed vs. Cale, or Davies vs. Davies, or Gallagher vs. Gallagher, or Lennox vs. Stewart, or what have you. Time is the avenger, and all good collaborations untimely come to an end, through death or entropy.

Still, there is a very interesting box set out, now, of everything The Books released, entitled A Dot in Time, and it’s a limited edition type of thing. Totally worth pursuing it seems to me, and especially because the primary format in this case seems to be the LP, with lots of extras, a DVD, and a USB drive, so you can have all the tracks that way too. It’s sad to lose a band that seems at the height of its powers (only four studio albums into its career), but the box set is a fine record of what they did, and, I think, they lasted as long as The Clash.

***

You Cannot Deny that Recent Single by the Beach Boys.

Look, I understand that there are ways that the reunion version of the Beach Boys bears no resemblance to the Beach Boys, I know that significant members of the Beach Boys are no longer living, in particular Carl Wilson, whose singing is sorely missed, and I know that Brian Wilson is in his seventies, and I know that it is hard to admit to yourself that rock and roll is now best practiced by people in their seventies, that whatever this idiom is, it is now often performed by people who qualify for Medicare and Social Security, and I know, further, that there is a guitar break in this song, “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” that is borrowed from Toto, undeniably so, and I know that almost anything that involves Mike Love, who I believe once referred to “Good Vibrations” as “avant-garde shit,” involves surface affability in a baffling and irritating way, I know all of this. And I know that this is more the band that recorded “Kokomo” than it is the band that recorded “California Girls.” Which means that “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” the single, cannot possibly be good.

I further believe that digital recording is the enemy of the Beach Boys, because it makes vocals that were beautiful in a natural way sound as processed and auto-tuned as anything you might here on the “radio” these days. And there are too many session musicians playing on the song. And the lyric rhymes “when I” with “antennae.” All true.

Why then is it so good? Or if not good exactly why does it get under your skin somehow? I can’t think of many singles that I have loved in the last decade. I am not the sort of person who listens to a single. I listen to a body of work. I listen to a career. The kind of “radio” I like is the kind that plays a lot of deep catalogue, or which ignores everything happening in contemporary music. I like the radio that consists of all possible musics. But I can’t seem to let go of this song right now, and while “That’s Why God Made the Radio” is frankly nostalgic in a way I am suspicious of—as is the entire album of the same name—there is something that is very moving about the fact of this music, about its anti-rock qualities, its anti-contemporary qualities. I think it has to do with the fact that concerns about adulthood are addressed therein—getting older, recollection, grief—in a way that is just not possible in a musical market that concentrates entirely on instantaneity.

But that’s not all. One thing seems to remain of Brian Wilson, that genius, and that is a relationship to the complex possibilities of harmony. And at this point his idea of harmony, whose roots are in harmonies from the 1950s, in chromaticism, is so unusual as to be completely singular, and totally American. Even on a song like “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” which apparently dates back more than a decade, and which is nothing like the beautiful and reflective songs that end the album (a sort of a suite—“From There to Back Again,” “Pacific Coast Highway,” and “Summer’s Gone”), there is on offer a half-century or more of ideas about harmony. This is something that almost no one else in American music is capable of. Only Brian Wilson.

“That’s Why God Made the Radio,” the song, is mostly a frothy opportunity for a big out-chorus, in which just about everyone still alive in the Beach Boys family sings. All those voices. Why wouldn’t this be beautiful? There is the joy of these artists singing again. The fact of this joy. But more than that there is the joy of hearing all of American music for nearly sixty years distilled, summarized, and even, yes, advanced a bit.

“That’s Why God Invented Spotify” would be a more likely single these days, but what we actually have here, a middle-aged hymn to a dead medium, is far more interesting.

***

I know that Scott McCaughey is a sophisticated musician, with great talent, and an arresting array of projects and interests, all of them of surpassing musical interest, e.g., The Baseball Project, and The Minus 5, R. E. M., etc., but apparently I like the stuff that he whips off with one arm behind his back, the most elemental part of his output, viz., the Young Fresh Fellows, who now have another album out, called Tiempo De Lujo (Yep Roc), which they recorded in some alarmingly short amount of time that would be measured in days not weeks.

I hold my breath with excitement about new YFF albums, which means that I am frequently blue with oxygen deprivation because the albums do not arrive very often anymore. I think there have been three in the last decade, and this new one therefore arrives almost hurriedly, because there was a really good one just a couple of years ago (I Think This Is, 2009).

Tiempo De Lujo does not quite have the varnish of compositional premeditation that I Think This Is had, but who gives a shit? What’s good about a YFF album is the awesome camaraderie of the thing (McCaughey and Jim Sangster and Tad Hutchison have been playing together for about thirty years, and Kurt Bloch, the newcomer, is now at the 25-year-mark), and the thrill of reverently pilfered decades of rock and roll, and the excellence of the rhythm session (Sangster is a remarkably melodic bass player, and drummer Hutchison is a force for chaos, but in the best possible way), and Kurt Bloch’s great solos, and McCaughey’s made-them-up-just-now lyrics; look, there are a lot of bands who put a lot of hard work into what they do, and they have shit to show for it, and this band just turns on its incendiary enthusiasms when they feel like hanging out, and the results are incredibly winning and far more reverent than they appear to be at first blush. This is the kind of thing that makes rock and roll mean something again. Perhaps this album was not premeditated, but it has a lot of living in it, and it’s funny as hell, totally punk, and just as in-your-face as The Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest, the first YFF album from 1984, and it mentions Dr. Zizmor.

The Young Fresh Fellows are just as good as when they were legitimately young and fresh, in fact, they are more great, because they don’t need to make a career of this. They only need the joy, and there’s plenty of that on Tiempo De Lujo.

***

I’ve already said everything I can possibly say about Jolie Holland, but that would mean that I wouldn’t get a chance to write about her cover of “Rex’s Blues,” by Townes Van Zandt, which is on her most recent album, Pint of Blood (Anti-).

You can listen to the album version here, and that version is accompanied by piano and violin, i.e., Holland playing everything, and with a sort of sprung rhythm wherein the accompaniment really is accompaniment—the voice is the leading edge of the thing, and the piano just fills in around it. As a player of the fiddle, Holland is absolutely sublime, absolutely sublime. There is no fiddle player in contemporary music who touches her. Only Carla Kihlstedt reaches these heights, and she comes from the conservatory world. Holland originates from her own special hideout, and so there is no one quite like her. But by describing the waves of trembling fiddle I fail—as I am bound to do—to describe the emotional punishment of this song, and this is what I must attempt. The lyric starts likes this:

Ride the blue wind high and free
She’ll lead you down through misery
Leave you low, come time to go
Alone and low as low can be

If I had a nickel I’d find a game
If I won a dollar I’d make it rain
If it rained an ocean I’d drink it dry
And lay me down dissatisfied

The lyric doesn’t get any less dark thereafter—it is never a good old time. Everybody knows what happened to Townes Van Zandt, and his version of the song (probably the best version, or the least unfussy, is on Live at the Old Quarter), his rendition of the devastation and self-slaughter, takes a stridently impassive approach to the subject matter. He’s just telling you how it is. Holland means something entirely other. For one thing, Holland makes the melody count. It’s a beautiful melody, but Van Zandt plays it as a country song, while Holland is a lot closer to gospel. Gospel, to these ears, is more appropriate, musically, because you can kind of live in the melody a little bit, but gospel is more appropriate thematically because Holland, by slowing the whole thing down and contributing some wordless runs between the verses, accepts the self-slaughter and cares about it, whereas Van Zandt just indicates the likelihood that such things happen, of which he was exhibit A. Van Zandt sings “Rex’s Blues” like Hank Williams, which means that he sings it like someone who is going to die. Van Zandt sings it in both the third and first person (he’s singing about Rex, but he’s singing as Rex). But Holland sings it in the third, the first, and the third (she’s singing about Rex, she’s singing as Rex, she’s singing about Van Zandt), which means she has more layers, and while Van Zandt’s recording is sympathetic with Rex, it is not compassionate, because compassion is not a country music virtue (compassion is unmasculine), but Holland solves the problem by being a woman, and by using the gospel idiom to moor her compassion. Is there a first-person layer to Holland’s transcription? Is she singing about herself too? You could make the argument, which would mean it would have yet another layer, as in this verse:

Legs to walk and thoughts to fly
Eyes to laugh and lips to cry
A restless tongue to classify
All born to grow and grown to die

Which is perhaps partly about lost love, and so perhaps there is a love-love dimension to Holland’s recording. Which gives it at least four possible readings. Probably my favorite line in the whole is this “restless tongue to classify.” Did Van Zandt mean what he seems to mean? It’s an indictment of language, and the tendency of language (after Aristotle) to prove and ratify taxonomy above all, and in that business of differences, to endanger the speaker, to make the speaker a subject of language, and to feel in that paradox (the speaker is the subject rather than the speaker) an annihilation—a hard line to sing, in a deeply grim verse, but Holland seems to sing it with its full force. Maybe a line about epistemology in a verse about lost love all makes some kind of peculiar sense. At least it does in Holland’s recording.

All of this is to say: I think Jolie Holland’s rendition of the song is better than Van Zandt’s. Holland embodies and purges the horror of this lyric, by making the thing more compassionate, and Van Zandt wasn’t a legend as a singer anyway (and we are used to the notion, in the era of Bob Dylan, that good singing is an impediment). He was a writer first. And herein is a remarkable development. There is no other singer in the “indie rock” world who is an effective interpreter of songs. There are others who occasionally cover a song (Bonny “Prince” Billy covers songs exceedingly well sometimes), but there is no one who has that incredibly effective ability to interpret, the way, viz., Karen Dalton did, the way Nina Simone did. Holland has that kind of interpretive talent. She dashes off interpretations (I have been lucky enough to hear some of them) sometimes without thinking twice, though her instrument is so singular, so unusual that wherever she concentrates it, there is magic. You can see how she even reinterprets her own interpretations, by watching her revisit “Rex’s Blues” here, for guitar accompaniment:

Pint of Blood is otherwise originals, and Jolie Holland is a remarkable writer, too, but it takes time for originals to register, to reach their full flower. (Which is why I’m writing about a record that came out 15 months ago.) Interpretations have their impact more quickly, if the tune is familiar. “Rex’s Blues,” while not well known outside of Townes Van Zandt circles, has that familiar feeling, a melody we should have known already. And Jolie Holland makes it even more important, more indelible than it was before.

And the last thing I’ll say about this is: I was listening to “Rex’s Blues” while writing notes about the Purgatorio of Dante recently. And I loved how the second verse of the song, with its water imagery (“If it rained an ocean I’d drink it dry”) cohered with this marvelous passage in the Purgatorio, from Canto V (Mandelbaum translation):

You are aware how, in the air, moist vapor
will gather and again revert to rain
as soon as it has climbed where cold enfolds.
His evil will, which only seeks out evil,
conjoined with intellect; and with the power
his nature grants, he stirred up wind and vapor.
And then, when days was done, he filled the valley
from Patomagno far as the great ridge
with mist; the sky above was saturated.
The dense air was converted into water;
rain fell, and then the gullies had to carry
whatever water earth could not receive;
and when that rain was gathered into torrents,
it rushed so swiftly toward the royal river
that nothing could contain its turbulence.

Turns out Jolie Holland knows her Dante, too, and I’m not ruling out the possibility that she knows there is a connection between the fluvial imagery in Van Zandt’s underworld, as interpreted by Holland, and Dante’s purgatory.

***

Marcia Bassett is not a noise guitarist, because among other things the word “noise” when applied to music is incredibly stupid, where music is concerned it is a remarkably unuseful word.

Marcia Bassett, whom I only met a few weeks ago despite the fact that we are in the same Dante study group, is also known as Double Leopards, or at least formerly was, on occasion, and also records as Zaimph, and was, on this night that I heard her, playing with violinist Samara Lubelski, who has also played with Thurston Moore, among many others.

Things came out of Bassett’s guitar that are not supposed to come out of any guitar, and the relationship between the guitar and the violin (which also had a lot of pedals and mischief going on) was sublime. They played for half an hour for so, one song, improvised entirely (as far as I can tell), with no breaks, no commentary, and so on. This was, it’s worth saying, incredibly feminine music somehow, though abstract. It was graceful, calm, without being sentimental, abstract without being stupidly abstract, and there was no boyish self-centeredness. It was just remarkably beautiful music that sometimes sounded like a train, sometimes like an earthquake, sometimes like a siren passing in the street, and sometimes like a mouse climbing over the surface of an autoharp. Or sometimes it sounded like a hamster on a wheel. Or sometimes it sounded like an Ed Wood sound effect. There were collisions of melody, where you least expected it, and these were delicate and inviting, not Wagnerian.

So where would the noise part of the thing occur, if it is as I’m saying? Somehow, we have all come a long way from the days when noise was noise, which means: we tolerate a lot of dissonance, and we tolerate a lot of things that would have bugged us in the old days, explicitly non-musical sounds, and so on. These things sound beautiful, which is why Marcia Bassett and Samara Lubelski’s performance was beautiful, even though it was not sentimental, and was never obvious.

After Marcia, at Union Pool on the night in question, was Alvarius B., formerly known as Alan Bishop, formerly of the Sun City Girls (and co-founder of the awesome Sublime Frequencies label), one of the really great and interesting bands of the nineties (and they did, in fact, record an album called Dante’s Disneyland Inferno, which I am trying to scare up at the moment), and his performance was so stylized, provocative on purpose, deliberately nasty, and also rather sublime, all at once. And this morning I thought of him as one of the somewhat redeemed tyrants, sitting in the valley, surround by flowers that are more beautiful than precious metals, namely Marcia’s performance. He is still untrustworthy, slightly terrifying, highly moving, while Marcia, in the difficult opening act was full of compassion for him before he had even done what what he was going to do.

***

Owen Ashworth must have been reading Raymond Carver.

I knew about Casiotone for the Painfully Alone over the years, Ashworth’s first band, knew people who loved them without reserve, and I always understood the mix of British New Wave and Phil Spector and Suicide (the band) and incredibly bleak lyrics, but somehow I personally didn’t feel as painfully alone as the music required. (Which is not to say that I didn’t feel painfully alone on occasion.) I suppose I wasn’t ready. What would help me turn the corner? Seeing Owen play live, which I recently did at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.

This show was sort of a testament to the power of live music for me, for the following reasons: 1) Ashworth played a Fender Rhodes electric piano live throughout the show, and it sort of trumped the synthetic qualities of the Casiotone recorded work. Though you may think Ashworth doesn’t do anything but write the lyrics, and the machines do the rest, there is sophisticated melodic thinking going into those parts, and by paring away almost everything except the Fender Rhodes for the show, he reveals the music inside of the conceptual apparatus. And 2) by doing so he makes the drum machine seem less in control. The drum machine patterns he likes, which are really simple and uninflected (and the drum machine he likes is seriously old-fashioned and primitive), are something to work against in the live setting, and I loved every minor imperfection of entrance and exit, or the moments where he’d stop the song and then have to turn off the drum machine at the same time, it was where all the robust humanism of the songs started to leak out at the edges, and 3) he was a little bit nervous (opening for the excellent Mark Kozelek), and the nervousness made his voice, which is a blunt force instrument, even a bit more plangent, because he wobbled a bit at first, and, 4), perhaps most importantly there’s something about singing these songs to people as opposed to singing them in the privacy of your own home that requires a certain commitment. Yes, Ashworth’s songs are about a failure to communicate or about failure to reap all the rewards of contemporary life, and when you sing about these things to people, and people respond with a fair amount of warmth (as was the case here in the mostly staid neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn), it gives the whole thing a little bit of veneer of, well, redemption.

Moreover, there are some facts, in this new Ashworth regime called Advance Base, that make the whole a little triumphant. What’s with the name change? Why no more Casiotone for the Painfully Alone? Because, perhaps, Ashworth is no longer painfully alone himself. Because, perhaps, Ashworth is now a father, among other things, and being in the enviable position of someone who knows someone who knows him, I got to chat with him briefly after the show, and we traded kid stories. And I got to see a couple of pictures of Rosalie, his daughter. A very moving moment, and you could hear, in the conversation, how some of Ashworth’s natural skepticism about this mess that is human relations has given way, a little bit, to some excitement and even significant joy about parenting. Advance Base, then, might refer to the advanced accomplishment of not writing songs about the failure to connect in your studio on headphones, quiet enough that no one else can hear.

There’s something celebratory about this new Owen Ashworth, who, it must be said, is an incredibly sweet guy on first impression. The simplicity of the music and the absolute refusal either to compromise, or to worry especially about vocal delivery, do make Ashworth sound like Leonard Cohen, a little bit, a contemporary analogue, wherein even untoward showoffiness in the area of lyrics is de trop, but if you bear down on the Ashworth lyrics, which are all 7-11s and television shows and shitty American car models and bad holiday dinners, the aesthetic to me is just as artful as Cohen, only more minimalist-realist, as if he spent all his formative years reading Carver or Frederick Barthelme. I admire these lyrics so much. I wish I were this good as lyricist.

And then there’s one last point worth making and that is for all his wobbly sentimental/anti-sentimental vulnerability and his refusal to appear unduly professional in his recordings, Ashworth is also poised and committed about what he does, happy to be there, totally present for his vision, or so it appears, and this is at some variance with the serotonin deprivation of work, but totally winning. He’s a big, bearded, lion of a guy, and he appears to love making music, which makes it easy to love him.

***

And I tried to understand the Taylor Swift phenomenon this morning, but I do not understand.

I get that it is considered inhumane or bad form to say that music that breaks all sales records has no redeeming merit whatsoever. I remember those icy and condescending ripostes by Kelefa Sanneh about how the rock audiences were irrelevant to where music was in the middle oughts, and I’m sure he would say something laudatory, as one of his colleagues at the New Yorker has done, about how pure and confident and American Taylor Swift is, but I just want to say, it is not that I want to like things that are obscure or unpopular, it’s that the things that are heavily machined by the digital processing of the day (and few things are more heavily machined than, e.g. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together Again,” her new single) sound utterly dead to me, like some flattened squirrel on a country road. Or these songs actually do sound to me like what the undead would sing if they were capable of singing.

I know that Robert Christgau, and others, have bent over backward to try to find something redeeming to say about Taylor Swift, like that she has a real knack with a chorus, and she tells us true things about what teenage girls or young women really feel, as though she were the Lena Dunham of the pop world (which she is not), but I remember all of that faux-confessionality from Jagged Little Pill, and from Natalie Imbruglia, and one summer’s bold and true lyrics are next summer’s post-menopausal antiques. I defy you to sing the words “Isn’t It Ironic?” without being ironic. And what about: “I’m all out of faith/and this is how I feel.” By Natalie Imbruglia? Feeling good about that one now? So I find the allegedly refreshing and honest lyrics of Taylor Swift repellant and artificial, as if thought up by a middle-aged Swedish guy with a coke and Ritalin problem, and if I had to listen to them for long I would probably have to run screaming form the room.

I respect Taylor Swift’s ability to steal from every available popular form of the moment, viz., “country” and pop and hip hop and electronica, but there is nothing in this music that does anything new besides fusing together a mandolin with a programmed drum track, and so I say it is inert, like the flattened squirrel, manufactured, ungenuine, and when we are forced to listen to two or three more of these albums, we will, as people do with relentlessness generally, begin to form a hard impenetrable exoskeleton to the work of Taylor Swift, and we will begin to hate it deeply (those of us who didn’t hate it already), and we will say horrible things about it and about her. This will not matter, because her parents work in finance, and she has good manners, and she’s going to marry up, and she’s going to get into the movies (not just guest appearances in CSI), and she’s going to launch some clothing lines at Target (no, wait, I think she already did that), and a personal fragrance (I think she did that too), and parlay all her bad press into some self-serious complaints, making good on every opportunity to monetize her career at the expense of making actual art.

Look, I normally only write about things I like, things I care about, but I can’t stop myself here. Taylor Swift represents what makes me want to die about popular music. She makes me want to die. If it’s all going to be like this—merchandising opportunities, branding, cross-platforming–the marble slab of post-mortality, then I am not interested in popular music. I don’t give a fuck. Taylor Swift makes music about as interesting as Olestra-based products, or Swiffers in multiple colors, or tiered Jell-O dessert products, or milk from China that has lead in it, or home cosmetic surgery, or rectal bleaching. Her publicists are adept at creating an ersatz Taylor Swift who appears to resemble a young woman with hauntingly insistent nostrils. But that does not mean that she is not a Swedish Ritalin-addict’s idea of the popular song, created by committee for demographic penetration. More than a million people bought her album in the first week. And every one of them was duped.

***

Oh, and I never did finish the Universal Thump interview I was going to do.

I cherish both Greta Gertler and Adam Gold, the principal players in this band, the Universal Thump, and truly admire their first full-length album (more here), especially for its arrangements which are extremely lovely and ornate, but they are shy and busy, and are in Australia getting married, and I don’t like pestering people, so here’s all we got so far, which was entirely from Greta’s point of view. Read a few lines, and then go and buy some of their songs. You’ll be glad you did.

Q: Can you describe the early history of Universal Thump? How did you meet? Was love always a feature in the music? Did love precede the music? How were the two integrated?

A: In July 2008, I asked Adam Gold if he’d play drums with me at a show at Barbes. I had previously had a tuba-rock band called The Extroverts, which had imploded for various reasons. Before that I performed solo under my own name, with a lot of different musicians. Adam and I had been friends for a few years, having met through mutual friends who are musicians too. We had always wanted to collaborate, musically. Adam is an incredible and very supportive musician and I’d always been so impressed with his work, particularly in the band Moore & Sons. But it just hadn’t worked out for us to work together until that fateful Barbes gig.

I scheduled a rehearsal with the band a week or so before the gig. I knew I’d always liked Adam a great deal as a friend, unconditionally. But fairly quickly after that rehearsal I fell completely in love with him (not just his drumming). The two – love and music – were pretty closely integrated from that time on. Many songs I wrote on the album are inspired by that time in 2008 – by our getting closer and also going through periods of separation. And the process of beginning “The Universal Thump” was enabled by our love for each other. Prior to that time, I really wasn’t sure I wanted to make another album. I did have a collection of songs that I had written that hadn’t been recorded, and there seemed to be forming a body of work that I really wanted to record, but I was feeling pretty bleak about making another record. Adam suggested we try it, and was so supportive of doing it that we began working on it in his studio, Oh Real Yum.

We also went on a whale-watching trip to Canada around that time – an adventure that we had together very early in our relationship, which inspired the process of trying to find the sound and the shape of the album together. We began by gathering ‘field recordings’ of sounds we were hearing, and imagining them intertwined within a sparse landscape of instruments. But the album gradually grew into a more ambitious orchestral pop album with over 60 musicians. I don’t think either of us realized that the album would take four years to complete, and we’ve gone through ups and downs with working on it so closely together. It’s been important for us to take breaks from the recording process. But I feel that ultimately working together on it has brought us closer. I’m really very proud of it.

Q: Can we go back slightly and talk about why you weren’t sure you wanted to make another album at the time that Universal Thump began? Just the vicissitudes of the music business? Did it have to do with working in NYC as opposed to in your ancestral homeland of Australia?

A: At the time that The Universal Thump began I was still somewhat recovering from the break-up of my previous band, The Extroverts. As the name suggests, there were certain strong personalities and dynamics within that band, that both made it exceptionally fun and raucous, and also prone to implosion. The rhythm section comprised of tuba and marching drums, there were two electric guitarists and me on Wurlitzer and vocals. We rehearsed, performed and recorded together in NYC for two years. We made a great record – “Edible Restaurant” – which really captures the live, theatrical sound of the band. It was the first time I’d managed to gather a steady band together in NYC, which was quite difficult as everyone was so busy and had numerous other musical projects. But it was something I’d always wanted. In the end, there was one too many “tuba tantrums” and we had to part ways. After channelling so much energy, passion and drive into that project, I was somewhat wary of heading down another collaborative venture, especially with someone that I was beginning a relationship with.

Aside from all of that, yes, the vicissitudes of the music business were also getting me down, after putting my songs out there as a solo artist, with The Extroverts and generally pounding the pavements of NYC for several years. Without any label, management or other music industry backing, it all gets a bit overwhelming…  I guess my way of dealing with that disappointment was to express it as a fear of making another record. But honestly, I’m too addicted to making albums to ever stop. And, whether or not Adam and I were in a relationship, I had always wanted to collaborate with him musically. I have unconditional and unlimited respect for and trust in his musical talents, and I was thrilled honored that he wanted to work on an album with me . . .


Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and most recently a volume of essays entitled ON CELESTIAL MUSIC. The Wingdale Community Singers, in which he plays and sings, have released three albums, of which the most recent is NIGHT, SLEEP, DEATH (on Blue Chopsticks/Drag City). His new novel will be released in 2015. More from this author →