Hello again, 2016…
Hello again, 2016…
“There’s that rock’n’roll myth, of the functional junkie rock star… Our friend Jeremy went out to LA once to interview Lemmy, expecting him to be off his head the whole time, and Lemmy gave him this whole spiel about the reason he was alive was he didn’t cane it anymore. It was just the media that created the myth. It’s all blown out of proportion. Real junkies aren’t able to make a record or turn up to gigs… I mean, I was incapable of any of that. Apart from being a blithering mess, I just couldn’t do it. People who really are like that die, to be honest.” – Sym Gharial
From the ashes of 80s Matchbox B-Line Disaster come the wonderful, bruised and lysergic pop nuggets of Piano Wire. Want to know more? We interview them in the latest entry in the seventh issue of Loose Lips Sink Ships. Enjoy!
I believe, very deeply, that every year is the best ever (so far) for music, or what’s the point? And if I ever feel otherwise, it seems churlishly arrogant to think anything other than “I must have been listening in the wrong places, to the wrong things”; Great Things Are Always Going Down, with or without the company of your ears.
These are my 38 favourite records of 2015, the Best Year Ever (So Far) for Music. I note that it doesn’t tally hugely with the End Of Year lists for the titles I contribute to, nor many other outlets out there. For sure, I know I need to listen closer to the Julia Holter and Kendrick Lamar albums; I liked what I heard on first listen, but ended up getting distracted and going to listen to other stuff that, I guess, most of m’learned colleagues weren’t listening to – and really, isn’t that how it should be? Below, then, is what I was listening to. It is all worthy of your time, and plenty of it is pretty fucking awesome.
Bring on 2016.
38/ Dornik, Dornik
The diaphanous futurist confections of Brit-soul auteur Dornik’s debut album plot post-midnight paths drawing influence from the synth-slaked soft neon bliss of early-80s soul and electro-jazz, reupholstered for the 21st Century, coloured by intriguing bruises of melancholy and finished with wispy, delectable, Jacko-esque vocals. And perhaps an album’s-worth those confections are a little to sweet to devour in one sitting, but in small bites his debut proves Dornik much more than just the UK’s answer to Miguel.
37/ Matthew E White, Fresh Blood
That the second album from the Spacebomb supremo doesn’t figure higher on this list is due, perhaps, to the fact that the bewitching and deceptively ersatz sound on his debut – casting the warm soul-funk glide of Hi Records far adrift from its Memphis moorings, and topping it with drily guileful vocals – is familiar enough to lack the flash of surprise this time around. But there is plenty to charm on Fresh Blood, and the twisted erotic tales hiding within the lyric sheet are well worth untangling.
36/ Paul Vickers & The Leg, Greengrocer
The one-time frontman of Dawn Of The Replicants, who always seemed like he might walk offstage and into a Police Telephone box that would thence dematerialise off into time and space, Vickers returns with a vividly magical, endearingly maverick concept story involving grocery and altogether darker arts, with a bustling folk-prog sound that, together, suggests the League Of Gentlemen covering the weirder and more bucolic parts of Genesis’ Selling England By The Pound. And right now I’m ruing that the wonderful Vickers has not shared any of this opus on Youtube, as I’m itching to prove how accurate this seemingly random description actually is.
35/ Alchemist, Israeli Salad
Hipped to this by Neil Kulkarni. Alchemist is a DJ/producer who’s previously collaborated with an eclectic rogue’s gallery including Eminem, Oh No and Dilated Peoples, and Israeli Salad is the latest in a serious of home-cooked instrumental mix-tapes, looping and stealing from a pile of Middle Eastern wax to create forty or so minutes of beats, ambience, looped-hooks and fried psychedelic guitar that dislocates and disorientates like all the best instrumental hip-hop – a landscape that shifts with enough flair and restless invention that you never miss the absent MC, building up new skylines from the rubble of ancient and discarded wax. On this evidence, Alchemist is a man who never digs a crate without turning up magic of some kind, an admirable trick.
34/ Carlton Melton, Out To Sea
As our Loose Lips Sink Ships feature explains, Carlton Melton are perhaps best known as those fried psychedelicists who record all of their acid-damaged heavy rock jams from within a geodesic dome. Only on Out To Sea, the trio have instead installed themselves in a proper working studio, to see if their lysergic inspirations will survive the transit. Long story short: they do, and from the magnificent Peaking Duck (eight minutes of morphing, shimmering guitar warp, HULK SMASH drumming and mind-rewiring fuzz) onwards, Out To Sea takes the willing listener on a twilight glide through uncharted waters, with a soundtrack that combines the awesome and unknowable might of nature with the endless potential of electricity and FX boxes. This is the music you sleep-play air-guitar to while dreaming at your most lucid.
33/ Janelle Monae, Hell You Talmbout
If the Black Lives Matter movement needed a soundtrack, well, here it is. It’s been a couple of years where the murder of young black Americans (either by cops or by non-black civilian shooters who somehow curiously pass through the justice system unscathed) has risen to epidemic levels – or maybe it’s just that the proliferation of video cameras and social networking systems have helped bring an already-extant phenomenon to a wider audience; a catalogue of injustices which, if you muse upon them for too long, might leave you incapacitated with the tragedy of it all (if, of course, you have the luxury of probably-never-being-murdered-by-police yourself), or might lead you to take to the streets and try desperately, the only way you know how, to assert black lives as something other than Tragedies-In-Waiting. Hell You Talmbout, then, is an assertion that Black Lives Matter, in the most direct and profound manner, as Monae and her compatriots at Wondaland Records call out the names of the dead over martial drum tattoos and fiery gospel chorus. Some of the names – Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sean Bell – will be familiar to anyone who keeps up with the news; others will not, but the way these voices break as they shout “Say his name! Say his name! Won’t you say his name!” underscores that these names are more than mere tragic headlines to be tutted over and then forgotten. Harrowing, righteous, moving, the track is a protest song of the purest and most powerful sort, and when Emmett Till’s name is called out at 4:35, it’s a grim reminder that there’s a long, sorry history here that needs to be brought to an end somehow.
32/ Wavves, V
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is one of pop’s hoariest clichés, often deployed to excuse any manner of autopilot dullardry from artists who should know (and do) better. But hey, it also applies to the Ramones, who peeled out more genius ramalama from the same simple formula than most bands with a wealth of further chords at their disposal. And it’s no criticism to point out that the fifth Wavves album finds bandleader Nathan Williams veering not a jot from his well-honed sound, plying pop-punk tuneage that’s stickier and bitter-sweeter than a vat-full of strychnine-spiked candy floss, drenched with ear-wrecking FX and shot-through with lyrics that throb with adolescent heartbreak and unforgivable micro-betrayals. Williams turns 30 this year, so perhaps 2016 will see him change his game, but Wavves’ fifth hits all the spots it needs to in under 30 minutes, so gabba gabba HEY!
31/ The Membranes, Dark Matter/Dark Energy
It didn’t take much to bring Blackpool post-punk institution The Membranes back from a couple of decades on ice – only the Higgs-Boson scientists’ cataclysmic endeavours to discover the last remaining secrets of creation. Yes, the group’s epic double Dark Matter/Dark Energy is a concept suite, inspired directly by the Large Hadron Collider and its acceleration of particles, but one doesn’t need to be au fait with applied physics to grok frontman John Robb’s snarled invitation to “Dance to the rhythm of eternal war / Dance to the clash of the cash machine”, or to relish the broken-glass funk of Space Junk, or to feel the parched agonies of In The Graveyard, which ditches the Sci-Fi vibe to visit Robb’s grief over the loss of his father, a raw and roaring cold-front that feels like it fell off the first PiL album. Masterful stuff, suggesting the Membranes’ powder as combustible as ever.
30/ Low, Ones And Sixes
Quietly (though their records now are rarely as hushed as when they debuted), Duluth, Minnesota’s Low have been enjoying a creative purple patch of late; 2013’s The Invisible Way was one of the group’s strongest albums in a career that was then celebrating its twentieth year. Its follow-up, Ones And Sixes, does not quite share its predecessor’s succinctness or bittersweet clarity; more bare and electronic, it’s a darker, colder beast, but Alan Sparhawk has never sounded quite so focused, quite so hungry as on No Comprende, while Mimi Parker’s gift for aching, powerful and sad pop shines through on The Innocents. The closing DJ, meanwhile, delivers that trademark Low haunt, and harmonies that will chill you to the very bone.
29/ Kurt Vile, b’lieve i’m goin down…
The title is almost stereotypically Vile: lower case throughout (like he thinks he’s bell hooks), apostrophes covering for missed syllables and missing from the third word, the stoner ellipses drawing it to a hazy, lazy close… You almost expect Kurt’s sixth full-length to sound like a plaid shirt left crumpled on the bedroom floor, but a closer listen to b’lieve i’m goin down… reveals that, behind the overall slackadaiscal vibe, lies a singer/songwriter in the lineage of Tom Petty or Lindsey Buckingham, with a clear gift for loose melodic genius, and deceptive, drawled lyrical smarts. Vile’s music sounds so effortless, tunes pulled out of the ether or the tangle of acoustic strings within a chord, but that ability to make his work seem like a cinch is only one of his many skills surfacing on his best (and most ‘Kurt Vile’) album yet.
28/ East India Youth, Culture Of Volume
William Doyle’s second full-length is bigger and bolder than 2014 debut Total Strife Forever, and if I found myself missing the scattershot of pining bedsit symphonies, giddy mood-swings and ambient passages, all was forgiven when the album hit its peak with the resonant, breath-taking Carousel, like David Sylvian reclining on clouds of ambience wheezed from a church organ’s pipes, or Erasure at their most-bereft and least-pop, a track that stills time, that does something to the soul. Venture further out, William, brilliance awaits you there.
27/ Giant Sand, Heartbreak Pass
On their previous album, Tucson, Howe Gelb’s multi-handed dustbowl arkestra adopted a second ‘Giant’ in honour of their most expanded line-up yet. Though shrunk back down to just ‘Giant Sand’ for Heartbreak Pass – their 20somethingth full-length, my eyes blur when I try to tot up their discography – Gelb and crew sprawl further and wider still, on a set that passes through all points previously explored by the Arizonan weirdsmith and picking up new ideas en route. Highlights: the garbled, stop-start train-of-thought running through Texting Feist, and Gelb’s stark and charming duet with his young daughter Talula on Forever And Always. Giant Sand is still All Over The Map.
26/ Deerhunter, Fading Frontier
Following the emotional tumult that fuelled their previous album Monomania, and the physical trauma Bradford Cox sustained after being knocked down by a car, Deerhunter’s seventh was the sound of healing – wounds examined and licked, a tentative positivity abounding, a flinch from possible future trauma detectable beneath the gleam of their brightest, clearest pop yet. And if Fading Frontier never quite hits the unhinged brilliance of the previous album’s title track, Cox’s tales of lives in transition, of uncertainty in the face of change, deliver some of the most charming, affecting songs of his discography.
25/ Jill Scott, Woman
I was tipped off to this by the eternally wonderful Neil Kulkarni. In the past, I’ve been guilty of mistaking Jill Scott as some more earthbound, worthy kind of neo-soul artist, despite moments of brilliance like Golden, and her live duet of You Got Me with Erykah Badu and The Roots at Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. And while, on the surface, Scott isn’t a weirdo maverick in the Badu vein, or a D’Angelo daring Icarus-like falls from grace, there’s invention at play here that impresses throughout, while Scott’s lyrical poise and vocal strength remain inspirational. The imperial glide of Prepared is a masterful slow-jam; the barn-burning Stax/Motown mash-up of Run Run Run reinvents Scott as stage-stomping diva deserving of a pop crossover; the sunset haunt of Cruisin stirs up a dreamy, magical quiet storm. And when, on the eerie, existential, past-midnight pulse of Lighthouse, Scott murmurs “It’s a fact that in the universe sometimes life is pain and it can hurt,” it’s her sureness of that fact (a by-product of maturity) that makes her following line, “But I know that it’ll get better”, powerful. Scott knows how bad it can get. Scott knows it doesn’t stay bad forever.
24/ Golden Rules, Golden Ticket
An unlikely charmer, this one. MC Eric Biddenes hails from Florida; producer Paul White is a bloke from South London. Their first album together as Golden Rules opens as an eerily accurate Dirty South pastiche, the slow party jam of Auntie Pearl’s House worthy of Outkast at their stankiest. Soon, though, the push-and-pull of their style, influences and backgrounds takes Golden Ticket in some unexpected and fruitful directions, from the satiny, x-rated blend of raunch and melancholy of Play Some Luther, to the marching band stomp of Holy Macaroni. The bittersweet Barbadian blues of Never Die (featuring Yasiin bey, aka Mos Def, at his mightiest) is the highlight, but don’t miss the album’s darkly psychedelic closers, the burned-out brood of Life’s Power, and the mystical spirit-quest of Golden Ticket.
23/ Offshore, Offshore
This posthumous collection of instrumentals by Offshore – AKA Aberdonian producer Ewan Robertson, who passed away in 2012 while undergoing heart surgery – reminds me a little of J Dilla’s Donuts, in part because Offshore, like Dilla, was an idiosyncratic soundsmith whose beats were charting a path divergent from any of his contemporaries, and because, like Dilla, his premature passing has robbed us of a vital creative voice, and lends perhaps-unintended poignancy to his wordless sketches and dramas. Robertson’s visions stray between clanky, brittle, post-punk DIYisms – Make It Up, which quotes the two-note salvos pock-marking Buzzcocks’ Boredoms – to punchy funk miniatures like Barden’s Burden, to the polyrhythmic panoramas of Off Peak; all his music really shares with its label-mates at Big Dada is a communal sense of adventurousness, a pointed avoidance of pigeonhole. As with all releases under such tragic circumstances, Offshore leaves us with a nagging sense of what could have been, where else Robertson might have strayed, how these nascent ideas might have developed. But these clues to those stolen futures are enough to enchant curious listeners.
22/ Faith No More, Sol Invictus
Faith No More’s seventh album arrived eighteen years after predecessor Album Of The Year, and some six years after their initial reformation, and even its mere existence as a potential project was a tightly kept secret until mere months before its release, with the group vowed to quietly smother their offspring mid-term if it didn’t prove a worthy successor to one of rock’s most perverse and impressive discographies. Thankfully, Sol Invictus found all of the group’s myriad parts alive and intact, not just its venomous, muscular sense of physicality – note the savage riffage and ferocity that bookends the stately choruses of Superhero – but its black sense of humour, its unashamed mastery of both smarts and smart-assery, its underappreciated gift for grand tunefulness. The grindfunk crawl of Motherfucker, the ground-shaking mammoth Sunny Side Up and the Jesus Lizard filth of Cone Of Shame were all highlights on an album that shouldn’t have been this good, and that wouldn’t have been at all, if it had risked shaming that which came before it.
21/ Colleen Green, I Want To Grow Up
Literally no-one would let me review this. Baffled, as the arch and winning Green seems an easy-sell in my book, with a pop-knack akin to Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, and a fine line in self-deprecating and wry lyricism. Her third album, I Want To Grow Up intends that echo of the classic Descendents album – Green’s tunes are as bright and harmonious as Milo and co’s, and her story-telling every bit as self-lacerating, funny and honest, as she details her frustrations, her anxieties and her lame tendencies. Her style reaches its apotheosis on TV, which updates The Lemonheads’ The Outdoor Type for the Netflix-And-Chill generation, Green in love with the exquisite loneliness of nights in with the box, noting the unhealthiness of her fixation with television as she admits “it’s easier than being with somebody else in my world”, delivered like a classic power-pop anthem.
20/ Deafheaven, New Bermuda
When I interviewed San Francisco’s Deafheaven last year for the Guardian I half-expected the comments section underneath to be filled by the kind of frothing Death-To-False-Metal-types the group seemed to have stirred up among metal’s most-faithful. I don’t have an awful lot of interest in the kind of orthodoxy or purism preached by this group’s most-vocal detractors, and I’m not interested in whether or not their fulfil some mandatory level of severity to qualify for its place in the Heavy Metal Parking Lot. And while the bared-teeth roar of Deafheaven in full flight is enough to raise the hairs on my arms, it’s that looming, aching guitar line three-and-a-half minutes into Brought to The Water, the oceanic, tender tones six minutes in Luna, and the airy, eerie rumble of Gifts For The Earth that draw me back to New Bermuda again and again.
19/ Danny & The Champions Of The World, What Kind Of Love
One of my favourite-ever songwriters, Danny Wilson’s come a long way since the desolate tones of Grand Drive’s Wrong Notes. With the magic touch to revitalise the sounds of the past like the era of ‘irony’ were only a scary bedtime story, Danny plays it from the heart but never plays it heavy, and What Kind Of Love is the Champs’ most ebullient, charismatic set yet. Opener Clear Water remains my favourite of a killer bunch, golden Celtic soul in the gleaming vein of Van Morrison or Dexys channelling Van Morrison, just utterly joyous, ageless, timeless and guileless. The warm, earnest yearn of Precious Cargo is another keeper, while the slide-scored gospel of the title track is Danny in excelsis: raising the homely and the everyday to something heroic and powerful, without ever sounding hokey. Nothing guilty here, only pleasure.
18/ Tyler, The Creator, Cherry Bomb
A fair chunk of this album is the kind of puerile, out-to-offend-for-its-own-sake ish that’s turned me off Odd Future since day one and leaves me feeling like someone’s grumpy grandpa, though I get a thrill off dissonant noise-rap opener Deathcamp, which sounds like a widescreen Death Grips. But then Find Your Wings kicks in, and Tyler’s third album-proper takes flight (or swan-dive) into a neon-lit, squelchy-funk dream-world first imagined by the psychedelic-soul middle passage of Stevie Wonder’s Superwoman, all waxing and waning synths, twilit jazz chords and creamy backing vocals conducted in service of Tyler’s bloody-minded and perverse visions. The sheer twisted smooth-funk overload of tracks like Blow My Load, 2Seater and Fucking Young/Perfect beg your indulgence, and make Cherry Bomb a mixed but often mesmerising experience.
17/ Miss Red, Murder
An Israeli MC who first hooked-up with Kevin ‘The Bug’ Martin at a rave in Haifa a few years back, Miss Red looked up the British dub noisenik upon completing her mandatory military service. This mixtape, available free from her website [http://www.miss-red.com/], is the first longform fruit of their collaboration, and sees Miss Red take to combat over beats by Mark Pritchard, Evian Christ, Mumdance and, of course, Martin himself. It is, unsurprisingly, speaker-bothering stuff of a high standard, the beats raspy and loud, the ambience heavy with menace, as Miss Red sing-songs like an imp-perverse skipping about the apocalypse, the likes of the needling Sugar or the yowling, leonine Lean Back fashioning dub-damaged ear candy you’ll find it impossible to shake. Bring on her debut-proper.
16/ Erykah Badu, But You Caint Use My Phone
There was a brilliant passage during the greatest show I ever saw Erykah Badu perform (at Brixton Academy on the Worldwide Underground tour), where Erykah seemed to ditch the setlist and ditch her band and, for twenty or so minutes, just kind of dicked-around with her drum machine and her microphone and seemingly improvised a bunch of weird and wonderful shit for us all, oblivious that she was in a roomful of paying punters and acting as if she was simply fucking about in her home-studio. And this mix-tape release – a much-needed stopgap abridging the silence since her brilliant New Amerykah one-two punch – is a similarly dizzy, charming, loose and fun project, a suite of tracks themed on the technical development that has so profoundly reshaped our lives this past decade-and-change: the cellphone. But You Caint Use My Phone’s eleven tracks take Badu’s theme and run wild with it, vamping on Drake’s Hotline Bling (Cel-U-Lar Device) and Badu’s own Tyrone (Caint Use My Phone (Suite), and even connecting the decline of the honey bee to the tones and frequencies emitted by the everyday cellphone (Dial’Afreaq, which incorporates Siri’s proprietary beeps into its beat). It’s loose and fast stuff, in the vein of the similarly stopgap Worldwide Underground EP, and if Erykah wants to continue letting us fans eavesdrop on her creative process, that’s fine by me.
15/ Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts, Manhattan
In which the anti-folk troubadour and genius comic illustrator bemoans the ongoing gentrification of his beloved Big Apple, the city that shaped who he is and what he does. But Manhattan, the album, is much more than that, and even when Jeff’s waxing pessimistic about the way New York is changing (and swiftly chasing away artists like himself), it’s more with a wry and winning sense of humour than any hectoring. As is Lewis’s way, these are personal stories rather than parables, about the small details rather than any polemic: an encounter with his old school bully (Scowling Crackhead Ian) finds Lewis reflecting that both are now outsiders within the commercial revitalisation of New York. The city he knows is no checklist of iconic locations from movies and TV; Brooklyn Bridge exists for Jeff as the scene of an awkward walk home, where he slowly uncouples from his girlfriend, and ruminates on love, relationships, isolation and more (the atmospheric, unhurried and wonderful Back To Manhattan), the map reference tied inexorably to a diary entry. Elsewhere, reality encroaches and makes his musical dreams a little harder to bring to life on Support Tours and Have A Baby; the wit and charm with which Lewis visits these challenges, however, makes you hope and believe he can overcome and continue fashioning albums like this.
14/ Young Fathers, White Men Are Black Men Too
Young Fathers’ second album had to be great. It just had to. There was too much at stake – not just shaking off any sense their Mercury win could have been a curse, like it was for Speech Debelle, that other Big Dada Records artist who scored the gong for her debut album, but also proving wrong Telegraph pop critic Neil McCormick, who bloviated that so multi-cultural and underground a group as Young Fathers didn’t deserve the Mercury Prize. McCormick – infamous for a fealty to Mr Bono Vox that often veers into gross self-parody – wrote of Young Fathers’ triumph: “A Liberian, a Nigerian and a Scotsman went to an awards ceremony and won album of the year. This is not a joke” (suggesting… what? That Mercury Prize-winners shouldn’t hail from Liberia, or Nigeria, or… Scotland? Again: what?), while the Telegraph’s commenter-ship doubtless nodded in bovine agreement that this was a rum situation indeed. McCormick then sourly called time on Young Fathers’ career two months after their victory, bafflingly claiming that everything they did had been done before by Method Man, and noting with customary insight that the band had “promptly disappeared without a trace”. Actually, Young Fathers had taken their Mercury winnings and repaired to Berlin to record this wonderful, essential follow-up, where the murky left-handed pop instincts of debut album Dead and preceding mix-tapes flourished alongside experimental and chaotic sounds that pushed their riot in an ever-bolder direction, sounding quite unlike anything else in 2015. And White Men Are Black Men Too’s genius isn’t a matter of subjective opinion, but objective mathematical fact: McCormick’s beloved U2 scored perhaps their biggest hit with One, but Young Fathers’ standout moment here is the enigmatic happy/sad throb of 27, which, primary school-level maths tells us, must be at least 26 times better than that hokey U2 ballad. Ergo, Young Fathers win again.
13/ Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit
Courtney Barnett’s debut full-length scored highly in the year-end lists, and why not? It’s hard to think of a more likable album: its unshakable tunefulness, the satisfying crunch of its occasional moments of adrenalised and eminently-pogoable kinetics, and Barnett’s ability to slide between dry sarcasm, economic and grin-inducing character sketches and glimpses into her own darker side (Kim’s Caravan, Depreston). And there’s an endearing ease, an effortlessness and apparent artlessness to the album, which belies the pains Barnett takes in song-writing. I spoke to her just before Christmas for a feature in the current MOJO magazine, and she said “writing a song can be a tedious, fuckin’ heart-breaking, crazy-making process, and every time, it feels like a fluke.” And that’s the thing: to evoke so much in lyrics possessed equally by pith and insight takes a hell of a lot of hard work and a whole lot more magic, especially to do it as well as Barnett does here. And Sometimes I Think… is the like that character in your run of friends who can just completely nail things in a few devastatingly funny and perspicacious words, only now they also ply a fine line in grunge-tossed tuneage.
12/ Thee Oh Sees, Mutilator Defeated At Last
With each album since 2008’s The Master’s Bedroom Is Worth Spending A Night In (which saw bandleader John Dwyer finally ditch the lo-fi confessionals he’d coined on the earlier OCS releases), The Oh Sees have further refined a most excellent formula, cross-pollinating psych-damaged garage-punk with frenzied, frenetic freak-beat rhythms of an occasionally Kraut-y bent. Nothing, it seems, can shake Dwyer from his fascination with this sound – not moving from San Francisco to Los Angeles, after incubating the Bay Area’s resurgent psych-punk scene, nor going on a brief hiatus in 2013, nor sizably re-jigging the group’s line-up upon reanimating – and nor should it, as The Oh Sees’ fourteenth full-length sees him discovering further fresh new thrills within the din and the dervish. Mutilator Defeated At Last is a treat for the air-guitarists within The Oh Sees’ fandom, Lupine Ossary (sequel to Putrifiers II’s similarly adrenalised Lupine Dominus) shot through with feedback-soaked guitar breaks that fuse Hendrix with Husker Du and rocket about the tracks with juggling-chainsaws-on-a-tightrope-without-a-net levels of bravado, while Withered Hand’s storming thrash plays host to lucid, breakneck solos that only seem to amp up the velocity of Thee Oh Sees’ psychedelic hurricane rock. It’s also an album awash with swaggering pop songwriting flourishes – the glammy “Woohs” on the T-Rex-y Turned Out Light, the haunting Poor Queen sounding like sweet folksong run through fields of righteous electricity, Palace Doctor turning down those amps only to turn up the bruised spook – and enough freaked-out wit and brilliance to suggest Dwyer one of the American underground’s more consistently inspired cultists.
11/ Fuzz, II
Scion of the SF psych scene, it’s not just the high standard of Ty Segall’s output that’s deserving of mention, but the sheer amount of it – a seemingly unstemmable tide of noise-blasted psych-punk and twisted pop of a united spirit but arriving in a rainbow of hues, from blasted solo busks, to full-on psychedelic freakouts, to drone-y acid-folk suites, to nuggets of battered pop perfection. One of a number of projects the no-dozin’ Segall runs on the side, Fuzz sees Ty team up with Charles Moothart (guitarist with the Ty Segall Band) and Chad Ubovich (leader of the underrated Meatbodies) to play out their Sabbath fantasies and come up with the greatest albums the Ozzy-fronted first incarnation of the group never recorded. Their second LP electrifies with the gonzo fervour they apply to this mission, from the muscular panic of opener The 7th Terror, to the tempo-scrambling breakdown of Rat Race, to the needling low-end bulldozer that is Pollinate: this is proto-metal as glorious body music, as anti-cerebral, cro-magnon trip, running a gamut from Black Sabbath to Blue Cheer but never retreading those groups’ achievements, instead getting drunk on their brawny spirits and creating havok anew. Meanwhile, amid all the sludgy headnod groovers here, the punked-up garage-thrash of Red Flag is like shotgunning a case of Red Bull and going sky-diving after spending the afternoon chugging cough medicine, and damn right you’ll keep skipping back to it.
10/ Natalie Prass, Natalie Prass
Wherein the in-house band at Matthew E White’s Spacebomb studio bring to life the handsomely anguished pop-soul confections of this Nashville singer-songwriter, their gift for blending eerily-ersatz antique sounds playing well to Prass’s balance of aching country-pop, keening southern soul and a melodic sensibility that owes as much to Jam & Lewis-era R’n’B as more old school influences. The Spacebomb crew thrill throughout, from the tumbledown funk at the heart of Why Don’t You Believe Me, which could have slipped quietly on the second album by The Band, to the parched American Gothic creep of Cristy (a bleak Jolene rewrite that lends so exquisitely summery album a brief wintery chill), to the sweetly bubblegum lightness-of-touch of Your Fool, to the haunted, atomised delirium of that song’s Reprise. But it’s Prass’s songs truly captivate, the way she captures the doomed love chronicled on My Baby Don’t Understand Me with the cold impact of revelations like “what can you do when the only home you know is with a stranger?”, with the way she sings “our love is a long goodbye / waiting on a train to cry” over and over again on the outro, caught in an emotional tailspin she won’t be able to break until too late. Her pop is sugary on the surface, sure, but there’s a broken heart beneath, and the tension between the two is what makes Prass’s debut more than just a pretty sound.
9/ King Midas Sound & Fennesz, Edition 1
The first in a series of collaborative albums finds King Midas Sound joining forces with Austrian experimentalist noiser Fennesz, on a suite of near-beatless torch songs heavy on a gloom as luminous as the northern lights, on the unknowable mysteries of love, the endless depths of loss, the way the burn of an old flame can keep you up at night. Over brooding, icy ambient soundscapes from Fennesz and Kevin ‘The Bug’ Martin, Roger Robinson and Kiki Hitomi muse on wounds that won’t heal, on the exquisite agonies of longing, like a Wong Kar-Wei movie melted into wax, its characters suspended forever in bruised amber, in a blues they can’t shake. “You’re mine / You’re on my mind” murmurs Hitomi, over minimal electronic pulses and Lovers’ Rock basslines from the next room, like its 4am and she knows whatever’s kept her up this later won’t let go of her before sunrise. “Away from her, it’s the small tings I remember,” offers Robinson, on Melt, “The small tings I mustn’t think about / Like how she bite my lips when we kissed… None of them small tings not helping no-one.” When King Midas Sound and Fennesz performed this beautifully bereft music at St John In The Field’s last Autumn, the dry-ice was so thick you felt like you were alone in that cavernous church. It’s a similar emotional intensity that makes Edition 1 such a dark triumph. This is an album that knows those long dark nights of the soul too well, that inhabits them and invokes them like some 21st Century In The Wee Small Hours.
8/ Chastity Belt, Time To Go Home
When they formed as a college prank in Walla Walla, Washington, Chastity Belt specialised in joke songs like Pussy, Weed, Beer and Giant (Vagina), designed to slay wasted audiences at the parties they used to gatecrash. When the group relocated to nearby Seattle, however, singer Julia Shapiro noticed her songs take on a more serious tone, and ambitions beyond making drunk kids laugh. Which is not to say the group’s second album isn’t any fun; the deadpan Shapiro, infamous for posing a press shot where she raised her skirt displaying a raw steak where her genitals would be, has a gift for saying what she means and entertaining at the same time. On Cool Slut (“Ladies, its okay to be / okay to be slutty”) she’s laconically but uncompromisingly feminist; on Drone, she glides woozily through the college party scene, dispatching a lame mansplainer with a merciless “He was just another man tryin’ to teach me something”, like Clint Eastwood murmuring over the fresh corpse of a bad guy he’d had to waste. The band, meanwhile, happen upon this wonderfully untutored groove, gelling together perfectly with simple strums that build and build, the stoner reveries of On The Floor drifting away on a dreamy extended jam, a stargazing levitational chug as meditative and exploratory, in its own unflashy way, as Marquee Moon.
7/ My Morning Jacket, The Waterfall
Always the most magical, the most heartfelt, the most subtly-weird of the New American Mystics that surfaced in the early 00s, My Morning Jacket have plotted a most unpredictable path since the ragged, psychedelic classic-rock moves of At Dawn and It Still Moves, band-leader Jim James dealing with both catastrophic health disasters and an indefatigable muse which – after the Jacket electrified the retro-rock paradigm with the resurrectionary passions of It Still Moves – fractured in a million different directions. The albums since have found James making ever sharper sense of this stylistic restlessness, and if Evil Urges confused with its schizophrenic changes of gear, its desperation to not be It Still Moves Part Two, follow-up Circuital began translating this writhing creative sensibility into something closer to sense, and The Waterfall strikes an even finer balance between James’ cosmic weirdness and his gift for woolly and wondrous songcraft that always feels like home somehow. So the album opens with the crazily hyper-optimistic rush of Believe (Nobody Knows), an ecstatic James calling listeners to “Believe!” over ever-rising power-chords, this manic frenzy doubtless a necessary corrective to the dark times that inspired the album. So In Its Infancy (The Waterfall) sounds like two different songs (one marrying Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross-era trippiness with its Rumours-era pop savvy, the other grand, rousing and heavy like Zeppelin at their deepest and most spiritual) welded together, a Frankenstein’s monster moving with unlikely grace. So Spring (Among The Living) finds James sounding like a total badass, as his group hit their most widescreen, epic crescendos yet. Its quieter moments impress, too, Get The Point an exquisitely sad and insightful rewrite of Dear Prudence’s melody and a Dear John letter’s essence, Only Memories Remain sounding like the sweetest song you might find on the jukebox in a midwest dive-bar in 1974. A master shape-shifter who loves his music too much to ever play simple pastiche, to ever sully his creations by not meaning it, James (and his great, great band) are at their very best on The Waterfall.
6/ Baroness, Purple
Savannah, Georgia’s Baroness were in the UK, touring their acclaimed album Yellow & Green album – their next step towards a seemingly inevitable heavy metal canonisation – when their bus was involved in an accident that saw all four members sustain injuries serious enough that drummer Allen Blickle and bassist Matt Maggioni would never again return to the group, while singer/guitarist John Baizley required months of physical therapy. The accident casts a heavy shadow over their next album, but ultimately Purple triumphs, turning the pain and the trauma into songs that are unabashedly moving and inspirational. With a grace that outdoes even kindred spirits Mastodon, Baroness align their metallic edge, their proggy dexterity, with an anthemic sensibility bold and powerful enough to make sense in the big leagues the album shamelessly proves them worthy of. David Fridmann’s typically in-the-red production sharpens the dramatic peaks, but it’s the compelling nature of Baizley’s songcraft – the bruises beneath the clear, ringing choruses of Shock Me, the darkness anchoring the stridency of Kerosene (and dig those epic closing rumbles), the serious-as-your-life power balladry of If I Had To Wake Up (Would You Stop The Rain?), which shows Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters how to play ‘having feelings’ on the metal stage without one iota of mawkishness – that makes Purple so remarkable, so moving. The song that owes the most to that awful near-tragedy, Chlorine And Wine digs into the misery of recovery, the desperation of Baizley’s period of hospitalisation, to wrench hope from the depths, choosing existence over oblivion and finally pleading “Please, don’t lay me down”, one last golden, harmony-slaked gasp, one last resistance against the dying of the light. From the jaws of death, then, life is snatched. And how sweet it is.
5/ THEESatisfaction, EarthEE
The second full-length from this Seattle duo took their avant-rap to celestial realms, inspired equally by Anita Baker and Alice Coltrane and Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Zora Neale Hurston, its Blade Runner beats foregrounded by futurist tales of sex, spirituality, drugs, identity, race, culture politics, existentialism, neo-colonialism, the environment, and more. The confidence Cat and Stas have accumulated since debut LP awE naturalE is heady, and sees them spin their music outwards, without fear – drifting, as Cat croons on the spaced-out robofunk of No GMO, “We drift to where no-one even knows”, but never losing the dulcet future-funk thread that binds these thirteen spaced-out dashes of brilliance together. “There’s a lot of music out there that is really just copies of replicas,” Stas told me, early last year. “Boring, and succubus, and leech, and appropriating, and inauthentic.” Rest assured, none of those words could ever apply to the bewitching, otherworldly astro-jazz of EarthEE.
4/ Roots Manuva, Bleeds
When I interviewed Rodney late last year, he said that his latest album Bleeds is having “a really good laugh at the direness of it all. It’s so dire, it becomes a joke. And a lot of people miss that, and start going off about how ‘serious’ it is. But then, they do say humour is a serious business.” Listen to Bleeds, though, and it’s hard to hear where Rodney’s laughing; the hard-edged chill of Crying even builds an unnerving hook out of his pain-wracked sob. Bleeds is an album that opens with Hard Bastards, a State-Of-The-Nation address which sourly notes “most broke cunts are all true bastards / And most rich cunts are even more bastards”, observing “things are getting bleak, we ain’t seen the worst”, and that “the underclass, the lowly class with no damn togetherness” are kept down by “cheap food and cheap booze that keeps them out of shape”. An album that then turns its grave observations upon Rodney himself, who admits “I look inside my head and find it all disgusting”. While Rodney’s always kept one rudder in the darkness, on his latest (and, I reckon, greatest) full-length he plays weighty on every single track (which possibly explains why Bleeds is a lean, flab-free ten tracks; too much of this would be too much). Even the glimmers of hope that appear late in the album hardly make for easy-listening, the spiritual re-awakenings within Stepping Hard and Me Up! bearing the weight of truth and the accumulation of regrets and anxieties that come with age and maturity. And it strikes me, that Rodney is of a generation of rappers still making some of their finest music in their forties, demonstrating a degree of career longevity that would have been unthinkable back at the dawn of hip-hop, and that perhaps we can expect more albums like this from the genre: albums carrying with them a bleak wisdom that comes from the passage of years. And Bleeds is the sound of a man who has lived more years than perhaps he once expected, and has seen enough of life and how it goes to have developed a clarity untarnished even by his chemical intake; the sound of a long, slow, sad exhale, and maybe a silent, hopeless, helpless chuckle at how fucked-up things are, and how little one man can do about it, and how that fucked-up-ness is part of his nature too. This is serious stuff, but it offers more rewards with every further listen.
3/ Girlpool, Before The World Was Big
Girlpool’s debut is an elemental masterpiece, the product of a few very fine ingredients: two guitars, two voices, little else. Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad come on like Simon & Garfunkel if they’d been brought up on K Records and Riot Grrrl and the early 90s US DIY scene, their harmonies imperfect and more bewitching for that, their guitars spare and unadorned and sounding like battered junk-store acoustics played with the care of hands that can afford little better. In moments like the magical, lopsided chirrup of Cherry Picking, they recall the Deal twins at their giddiest and most manic. And then there are songs like the title track, sparse notes plucked on well-thumbed strings, Tucker and Tividad finding something poignant beyond nostalgia in the passing of the years, reflecting on “how many ways my mind has changed”, then, like a flash of panic, asking “Mom and Dad, I love you, do I show it enough?”, and then reflecting on how your exit from childhood means bidding farewell to things you didn’t even know you’d miss (like standing with your sibling “wearing matching dresses, before the world was big”); maybe it’s my own sentimentalism showing through, or the fact I have a young daughter who’ll find the world changing around her at a pace faster than she can register, but this swift avalanche of emotions – reflecting on how she’s developed as a person, then a sudden, chilling sense of her parents’ mortality, and the memory of a moment gone forever that she didn’t even know she cherished until now – can’t fail to leave me choked. And then there’s Chinatown, a sleepy-eyed rumble sorting through a jumble of transitory twenty-something anxieties before switching its gaze from itself and looking the listener (a partner? a friend? certainly someone you’d want to know the real you, intimately, and not recoil) direct in the heart, asking “Do you feel restless when you realise you’re alive?” in homely harmonies that feel like a feather brushed down your spine, like warm sunshine on your neck and shoulders, like an electronic charge completing its circuit, a sound so warm and so magical it’s hard to concentrate on anything else. It’s a big world and it’s only getting bigger; Girlpool’s debut is something small you’ll treasure forever.
2/ Girl Band, Holding Hands With Jamie
There are moments when Girl Band’s debut full-length sounds like three different Sonic Youth records playing at once, with some bloke in the corner screaming ecstatic, panic-driven babble. And those aren’t even the best bits. Following up on a slew of rare seven-inches and that genius cover of Blawan’s chilling house stomper Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage, the debut LP from these Dublin cacophonic youths is noisier than a month of Sundays at Café Oto, but there’s little cerebral about these nine tracks. Girl Band play noise – guitars that sound like shorting power cables and chainsaws plummeting through stairwells and tornados of broken glass – for kicks, hoping the sudden jerks from tranquility to extreme noise terror will give you the willies as surely as Tony Perkins dressed as his mum scarpering across the landing, as surely as a rollercoaster lurching from slow to fast to nosebleed kamikaze. But even if this is no egghead amp-abuse pow-wow, there’s plenty that’s smart about this band, and the way they guide their songs slaloming into frantic speakerpocalypses, while frontman Dara’s impenetrable and haunting babble lends the noisenik bloodshed a deeper, darker thrill. Live, they’re a riot. And on record, they’re even better. Read more here.
1/ The Icarus Line, All Things Under Heaven
For a while there, it was enough just that the Icarus Line were still alive. Drug-damaged, falling apart, with mercurial guitarist disappearing through the window into oblivion, a decade or so ago it seemed as if group were living out the final act of a career that had drawn much inspiration from The Stooges, and was now about to mimic their ignominious and unjust and inevitable demise. And then frontman Joe Cardamone did a wonderful, unexpected thing, and cleaned himself up, and built his own studio, and began a process that would allow The Icarus Line – a band which, even during that brief window when the media loved them and record labels wanted to throw money at them, seemed only to derive pleasure from glorious self-sabotage – to function on their own terms. And if 2010’s Wild Life wasn’t quite on a par with their 2004 peak Penance Soiree, it was enough to still have them around, for them to be still rocking to enough of a degree that didn’t embarrass their history. It was enough.
And then came 2013’s Slave Vows. On this infernal masterpiece, The Icarus Line raged again, harder and heavier than ever before, the songs running long, with Cardamone’s own guitar playing writhing about the tracks, bitter and slick like mercury, like poison screaming through veins, this self-declared rock’n’roll cockroach no longer okay with simply still breathing after years in the rock’n’roll gutter, but now possessed by a righteous anger that was ready to take ass and kick names. He was the Marathon Man; he’d had years of taking this shit, but stamina can only get you so far, and here it turned out his capacity to withstand the slings and arrows of bullshit people was just one half of a delicious long-game of rope-a-dope, and now it was time to fight back. Slave Vows (incidentally, that year’s best album) started a fire, one which engulfs Cardamone and his loyal, hardy shipmates on All Things Under Heaven. It’s a long, dark, uncompromising listen, and you won’t get it all on first listen. In fact, I still find it hard to listen to the whole thing in one go; it is, in a very real sense, too much. But how glorious it is, how deserving of your effort, how rewarding both in the long and short term. Ride Or Die (and yes, that is the kind of uncompromising logic Cardamone is playing with here; he does not have time to fuck around) torches the joint for openers, guitars and oscillator howls and crashing cymbals spraying gasoline everyone, and an ice cold Cardamone dropping the match. The rest of the album, however, mostly favours a slow burn, be it the acrid smoulder of Total Pandemonium, the muted post-apocalyptic-Iggy snarl of El Sereno, the unearthly rumble of closer Sleep Now, Cardamone crying for sweet oblivion but cursed, as a cockroach, never to be released.
This is music that could eat pretty much everyone, bar Swans, for breakfast. There are moments of blackest humour; Millennial Prayer plays like a Maggot Brain for the iPhone generation, over squawking free-sax and amp rumble. There are moments of ecstatic rock catharsis, like all twelve or so minutes of Incinerator Blues, which sounds like Exile On Main Street on a savage bummer of a comedown, guitars splaying like rusted razor-wire, Cardamone shredding mics and speakers with his rasp. There are moments of impossible intensity, when it seems like the whole thing is going to collapse in on itself, like on the seasick, tempestuous seesaw of Mirror. And throughout, there is Cardamone, voice twisted in a rictus of disgust, like Sissy Spacek in the movie Carrie, returned from the grave and still spattered with blood but ready to claim his revenge on every loser, chancer and faker in rock’n’roll. Here’s one cockroach who knows he should be cock of the block, and isn’t ready for rock’n’roll’s scavengers to pick up his records in a decade’s time and decide they’re brilliant. He’s impatient but, more than that, he doesn’t care. Joe Cardamone knows no-one’s listening, or at best a precious few, but he’s going all out anyway, and maybe the art’s better for that, focused and sharpened by the desperation, the impossibly high stakes.
“Oh my baby,” he murmurs, over the shipwrecked, Warren Ellis-aided ambience of Bedlam Blue, “I am done.” Indeed, I’ve no idea how long he can keep this up, and it seems like a superhuman act of will to make such wilful, powerful, soulful and unforgiving music, mostly in obscurity, definitely in poverty. And for Joe Cardamone, right now, the music is its own reward; it has to be. It’s enough to be alive, maybe, to have made something so pure, to have given your all and to know not a single compromise was considered. This is a remarkable album, and you should hear it at your soonest opportunity.
I first heard Scott Weiland’s voice on the radio in 1992, and like many I initially mistook the grunge-y anthemics of Stone Temple Pilots’ breakthrough single Plush as a new song by Pearl Jam, my most beloved group at the time; Weiland’s vocals certainly echoed Vedder’s corduroy burr, an albatross that would dog the group for years to come.
I didn’t get to interview him until he’d joined Velvet Revolver, the heavy rock supergroup he fronted alongside numerous Guns’n’Roses alumni after Stone Temple Pilots’ messy split. I was no G’n’R fan – and, if I’m honest, Stone Temple Pilots also often left me cold, beyond some notable tracks (the rising-falling churn of Plush, the amazing stuck-groove riff of Vasoline, the modernist-AOR stylings of Interstate Love Song, the parched, dead-hearted grind of Where The River Goes), though my little brother has always sworn by Weiland’s solo career and STP’s deep cuts. But Kerrang! asked me to interview Weiland for a Velvet Revolver-related cover feature in 2004, and so off to Los Angeles I flew.
From my early research I divined that Weiland had a troubled relationship with the press, and had been conducting messy internet grudge matches with previous interviewers. My main aim on this trip, I decided, was to avoid this fate, to get a good story by winning him to my side, with carrot rather than stick, to handle him with the kid gloves and make him feel he had a safe space in which to talk. My bosses at Kerrang! had already told me that talking about his family, his drug problems – actually, anything other than the feature’s main thrust, his status as one of rock’s greatest frontmen – had been declared verboten by Weiland’s ‘people’. This was actually kind of a relief, and so I undertook the assignment thinking it would be a breeze: just fluff up his ego, let him talk about rock stars he’d admired and influenced him, and we’d be done.
I caught a taxi to his studio, an hour away from the Sunset Strip, and waited for Weiland to arrive. He was late, and the studio was dark and creepy (I’d been let in by his engineer), with the glass between the studio and the control room smashed in what I imagined must have been an in-session temper tantrum. He’d spray-painted profanities over the shattered glass. Who was this dude, and what had I let myself in for?
Once he arrived, he was on good form, and very quickly it became clear that, no matter what his PRs had warned us, he was up for spilling his heart about the drug problems that would dog him his entire career, and his struggles to keep his life and his family together. As the tape rolled, I was thrilled at the interview I was getting here; it was, as they say, inarguably “good copy”. Later, though, once I got back to my hotel room, I started dwelling on the things he’d said, the way he talked about his addictions, and how he seemed caught between such a vicious fork in the road – one path taking him to his family, the other off to oblivion – with only the slenderest wish to stay alive holding him on the right path. I felt really depressed; it seemed like only the merest temptation might drag Weiland off into the darkness, even though he knew it would be the end of him, and of everything he’d struggled to make of his life. A couple of years earlier I’d asked Mark Lanegan what it was that attracted him to getting so fucked up, and to deflect he’d replied “Shit man, what attracted you?” But the truth is, I was never attracted to getting fucked up. There was something within him, and within Weiland I guess, that I didn’t know or understand, and while it that self-destructive impulse fascinated me, it frightened and saddened me as well.
The piece is below. Weiland, it turned out, loved it, and the PR told me that Weiland bought a box of that issue of Kerrang! and sent a copy to each of the US rock mags, saying ‘THIS is how you write about me’, which in the cold light of day seems unlikely, and I’m not sure if I believe it, but certainly I never featured on his internet shit-list. Weiland’s life didn’t seem to get any smoother or simpler in the years that passed, and this morning he was discovered dead in a hotel-room while on tour. It’s a tragic end, and I’m sorry that he never won his battle against whatever took his life last night.
The ribald rock’n’roll spirit of Guns’n’Roses and their ilk has long since evaporated into the smog. Once they owned Sunset, roaring up the strip in outlandish automobiles, yelling and brawling and fucking on these very streets. The vogue was always for excess, in all manners and guises. But no more.
Its 9pm Saturday Night, and we’re at the Mondrian, a classy hotel just opposite the infamous Hyatt ‘Riot House’ Hotel. It boasts LA’s hottest nightspot, a poolside outdoor cocktail lounge by the name of the Sky Bar. But there’s no bandana-sporting hellions here raising a ruckus. A sleepless night on Sunset Strip nowadays is more likely to be the fault of coked-up Trustafarians straight out of The OC, blaring Death Cab For Cutie till the wee smalls, than the noisy arrival of Nicki Sixx and a harem of strippers. This is a landscape dominated by an illuminated, 30 storey Gap ad featuring preening tosser and fake-rock star Lenny Kravitz grinning inanely, flaunting his Personal Trainer-honed pectorals at his plastic disciples all over the city. Right now, it feels as barren as the desert this city was built upon.
Drive for about an hour across the wrong side of the tracks, to a deserted business park in Burbank, and you’ll find Lavish Studios, a deceptively-modest cubby-hole hidden amidst these wastelands. The crib of one Scott Weiland, it’s a messy collision of club-house and recording studio: musical gear is littered everywhere, the walls are furnished with exotic rugs (lending the room a bohemian, bacchanalian feel) and Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver Platinum disks (the gong for his appearance on Limp Bizkit’s ‘Significant Other’, fittingly, sits in the toilet, perhaps to keep Scott humble). Memorabilia abounds, from framed screen-printed Coop and Jermaine Rogers gig posters, to the megaphone Weiland wailed Sex Type Thing through.
Sweeping away early accusations of grunge-bandwagoneering and developing his Stone Temple Pilots into one of the most fascinating and flamboyant rock bands of the era, tussling with personal problems in a very public arena, even hooking up with a motley crew of ex-Guns for Velvet Revolver, none of this could’ve prepared us for the sight Weiland greeted audiences with at the first Revolver shows. Described within these pages as resembling a “Nazi rent-boy” and a “gay fashion designer”, Weiland fronted this band chock-full-of-frontmen, cladding his bone-brutal body in slutty skintight rock gear, topped off with a Fuhrer’s cap for more evil, authoritarian cool, commandeering the audience, toppling teasingly into them, dancing a chainsaw stadium-ballet that no-one who ever saw it would ever forget.
Here is a rock’n’roll frontman, he seemed to be baying, a man to follow the footsteps of Ozzy, of Iggy, of Bowie, in the preening, messianic, blood-stained rock-star stakes. Finally, someone who could own the very stages he trod.
And yet here, ultimately, is a man, all his mortal frailties on display. Peer through the fogged window he spray-painted ‘Fucking Fuck!!!!!!’ upon in spray-paints one wild night, into the control room, and you’ll find Weiland, rail-thin and sporting a skintight maroon Velvet Revolver tee and corduroy hipsters that hang around razor-sharp bones. He got here a little late but all is forgiven, the delay being not a fix or some trouble with the police, as it might once have been, but a late-running birthday party in the park for one of his son Noah’s friends. You can tell, given the choice, Weiland would still be at the party, spending time with his family; he’s only just won them back, after his problems with chemicals and the law, and still keenly remembers how their loss felt.
Its one of the most charming things about Scott Weiland, this sense of gratitude for the second chance he’s been given and embraced, a tale he tells with the sincere fervour of a Born-Again. The passion with which he declares his love for his wife and children is positively molten. Funnily enough, Kerrang! undertook this interview on the understanding Weiland’s private life would be off-limits for discussion, but Scott offers these tales of heartache and redemption himself, seemingly gaining an empowerment from the retelling. Certainly, it would seem there’s a grand distance between Weiland the man, and Weiland the Rock God, the Imp Perverse prowling the stage.
“I always looked at myself as an artist in the studio, and a performer onstage, the dark clown playing out dark theatre,” he explains, launching into the first of a sequence of extensive responses, many of which answer the bulk of my questions before they’re asked. “It’s performance art. If I can’t be taken over by that character, then there’s no use in doing it at all. I’m not myself onstage, it’s another person who I allow to take over the person you’re speaking to
“That guy up onstage is the person I used to be… I used to get confused, though, and that’s why I used to have so many problems getting loaded all the time. I used to get confused about who I really was. I’ve been diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder for years, and if I was perfectly medicated, I would be the most boring songwriter ever. My wife says, ‘Thank God our relationship isn’t perfect because otherwise you wouldn’t have any songs anymore.’”
He grins, but you can sense the tension, the pain, underneath his words. None of this, you guess, is easy.
“When I’m writing songs for a record, I start tearing apart my soul, digging up journals, napkins, dredging up a year’s worth of therapy, locked up with a needle in my arm… When I started writing the record, I had to make sure I was tightening my shit up and getting my family back together. So I had to leave that person behind, the person who was the inspiration for this record, and prepare myself to go on the road and be strong enough to handle this whole media thing that’s happened.
“Where I’m at, my whole thing was, was I ever really a man? No, I don’t think I ever really was. I think every musician gets to the point where you realise being Peter Pan for your entire life only works for a little while. My chief goal was to achieve a rapid emotional puberty, or I wouldn’t have been able to get my family back.”
Is it frightening to reconnect with this Mr Hyde-type alter-ego up onstage?
“No, the music takes over. When I’m actually recording the song, that’s when I’m close to the emotional content. Live, it’s a primordial thing, a sensual thing. It’s about the beat, it’s sexual and violent. That’s what I’m attracted to, at that moment, onstage.”
How conscious are you of what’s going when you’re out onstage?
“It depends upon what mood I’m in before I hit the stage. The best gigs are the ones where there’s something that absolutely infuriates me before I go onstage, something that causes me to have a psychiatric meltdown up there. I’ll throw a full-metal wobbler. But that will inspire the most majestic performance. I think what really gives Velvet Revolver their impact is this sense that anything could happen. It’s that Evel Kenievel element, there could be a trainwreck at any moment.
“There are some big egos in this band, there’s some tension. But it’s that tension which creates absolute brilliance: it’s the tension that means everybody’s feeling it, everyone’s testosterone is at boiling point, and everyone’s hair’s standing up on the back of their neck, playing with complete intensity and complete passion. Nobody’s falling asleep onstage.”
Weiland’s not in the mood for holding anything back. Certainly, this is a man rudely acquainted with how live performances, and life itself, can collapse into the ugliest, most exhilarating trainwrecks when you’re least expecting. But he’s right; Velvet Revolver teeter every night between majesty and misery, chasing a mercurial promise of rock’n’roll nirvana, but hasn’t this High-Wire act always been the stuff of great rock’n’roll?
“There’s two sides to me as a performer; there’s the theatrical side, and then there’s the side of me that is willing to be torn apart and leave the stage bloodied, beaten and gorged. True and real rock’n’roll is a perfect marriage of sex and violence. And that’s where the energy has always been created, it’s been that way since the ‘50s. Rock’n’roll inspires you to do one of two things, and that’s to fight or fuck. Or both.”
Oddly enough, this confirmed Arena Rocker says he “sorta missed out on Arena Rock, cuz I never had an older brother to take me to the shows. The first show I ever played was at a club called Radio City. We weren’t even an actual punk-rock band, we were more of a post-punk band, nancyboys, all doom and gloom with eyeliner and big fringes. My first show was playing in front of fifteen people. I felt like I was already a rock star.”
Young Weiland must’ve been quite a sight. Though he grew up singing in the choir in church – “They always made me sing the solos, and I remember it being horrifying because, when you’re little, all the other little kids out there would snicker and laugh at you, but music was everything I ever wanted to do.” – by the time he hit 8th Grade, his heroes were David Bowie, The Sweet, and Johnny Rotten.
“When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time dressing up in costumes. I always used to spend a lot of time pretending I’m somebody else. My mother and father thought I’d become an actor, and in a sense that’s what I do when I’m on stage. I would make costumes out of anything really. In fourth grade, when the whole Glam thing was going on, I came back from staying with my Dad in California with a pair of skin-tight angel-flight pants, made of polyester. When I got back to Ohio, I was trying to put together the right look, so I got this silky blouse of my mother’s, and I wore it unbuttoned to my navel. My grandmother, who was visiting, had a pair of platform shoes, but they were women’s platform shoes, about an inch and a half on the sole, and the heel was three inches. I wore it all to school one day. The whole outfit. Needless to say, that was the only day I wore the outfit. It didn’t go over so well in fourth grade. The teachers might’ve thought it was cute, but the other kids… I was probably trying to get a reaction from the chicks, but I didn’t get the reaction I was looking for.
“I had a friend in seventh grade, John Wild, who came back from Summer vacation in Europe with punk-rock records. He had the Plasmatics, he had Sex Pistols, he had the Ramones. He was the one guy in my smalltown of Chagrin Falls, OH, who actually knew about punk-rock. The jocks in high school used to look down at my friends and I for being skinny make-up-wearing pussies; ‘art-fags’, they used to call us. It’s funny, because a lot of them were friends with us at school, when they weren’t drunk. But when they got drunk at parties, they would give us hassle. Once those kinda guys drank too much cheap beer they’d get kinda violent. You’ll see these exact same guys rocking their fists in the air at shows, especially in the Midwest, when I’m wearing a black patent leather corset, singing Sex Type Thing. It’s quite a turnaround. That’s my revenge.”
Ironically, the night before we meet up with Weiland, he’s been out rocking the LA nightlife at a Camp Freddie show.
“Camp Freddie is a cover band where a bunch of friends,” explains Weiland, “A bunch of rock star celebrities get together and play together. Last night was my first show with them… Everyone was there: Dave Navarro, Matt Sorum, Steve Jones. Billy Duffy was there, Courtney Love sang. I sang David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’, and I sang ‘Bodies’ with Steve Jones. And ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’.”
As he’s explained, in the past Weiland has struggled with the contradictions inherent in being a Globally Recognised Rock’n’Roll Star and “A father of two beautiful children, a husband who takes care of his wife, who provides for his wife, who fucks his wife whenever she’s willing to ‘put out’.” Are there similar contradictions inherent in playing such a grand, theatrical ‘character’ onstage with Velvet Revolver when the lyric sheet – new single ‘Falling To Pieces’ in particular – is so rooted in his own, real-life and down-to-earth confllicts?
“I kinda struggle with that myself, to tell the truth,” he answers. “I cannot make a record with just one flavour, I’m not just feeling one way all the time. There are so many different emotions on this record. I went through the worst, most depressing period of my life. I didn’t think I was gonna get my family back but, at the same time, I was filled with so much venom towards her because, in my mind, I thought she was fucking someone else. She wasn’t, but in my mind I thought she was. I wanted to fuckin’ have her killed, that’s how I felt sometimes. But other times, I would remember everything we’d done together, and experiences that we’d had, look at our wedding video. I would just break down.
“There’s so many different emotions, running the gamut from A to Z. It’s not a black album, it’s not a white album; it’s everything. It’s not a completely depressing, poor-me fuckin’ album, like some of the earlier STP records were. You wanna know why? Because I won’t sit there and say ‘Pardon me’ anymore, I’m a fuckin’ man and I’ll own up to what I’ve done now. I’ve made my mistakes and I’ll fuckin’ own up to them, if you fuck me then I’ll fuck you. That’s the way it is. If I’m hurt, then I will say, yeah, I’m hurt. I’ll admit that too. All those emotions are on that record.
“A lot of times, on certain songs, the riff and the beat inspired me to write music that’s pretty fucken sleazy and dirty and, for lack of a better term, music that girls and guys should fuck to. It’s good stripper-fuckin’ music, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You know why? People should spend more time fuckin’, and a lot less time… worrying about…”
He’s struggling to finish his sentence, so he cuts to the chase.
“You know what? Everybody should just spend more time fuckin’. I’ll tell you why, when my wife and I are having a lot of sex, the relationship’s healthier, happier. When we’re having less sex, we don’t get along as well. It’s the fuckin’ truth. If you’re having more sex, aren’t you getting along better with your chick? Sexual energy, between two people – not just a guy and a girl, whatever – it’s so fuckin’ important.”
Of course, alongside the stripper-fuckin’ music, Velvet Revolver’s debut album harbours a potent power-ballad, the epic and dark ‘Falling To Pieces’. Telling Weiland’s recent history in the plainest, most poetic language, it’s the subject of one of the more chilling, poignant, powerful music videos on television now, dramatising the recent flashpoints in Weiland’s turbulent marriage, and his relationship with illicit and dangerous chemicals. Weiland and his wife, Mary, play out a number of these scenes, against a backdrop of seedy backstage areas, overdose-cramped emergency rooms, their own rapidly-crumbling dream-home. It could have been mawkish trash. In practice, it’s a three-minute rollercoaster that’ll leave you chilled, disturbed, but mostly moved.
“I’ll tell ya, for me, it was pretty heavy,” remembers Weiland. “But it was the only way to go about doing it. I was pretty scared when I made the decision to actually tell the real story. Because it could’ve gone either way – either it’d turn out amazing, and would have a huge impact, on a real emotional level, or it could’ve ended up really cheesy. I’ve really never done any real acting like that before. There weren’t any actual lines to say, it was more intense than that: I couldn’t hide behind any dialogue. I had to get everything across, all the emotion was non-verbal. Everyone had to dig deep inside of themselves, if it wasn’t going to be convincing it would be a complete pile of fucking bullshit.
“I didn’t even watch MTV or VH1 for the first couple of weeks, I didn’t want to hear any feedback on it at all. But I’m happy about it, the feedback has been great. That song is the pivotal point on the album, that was where it all started changing, for me and for the band. That song was written the day after I was arrested, and if things hadn’t changed there, then the band couldn’t have worked. I don’t even know if I’d be talking to you now. That song really tells the story of what happened over the year leading up to that event, and really, in a sense, tells the story of what’s happening now, by telling the story of what happened leading up to that day.
“If it hadn’t have been such a powerful song, on a musical level, I wouldn’t have been moved to write those lyrics, that melody. That song was the exact moment where I realised that Slash and I could really be one of those classic songwriting teams.”
It’s been an hour, and its time for Weiland to return home. He offers, kindly, to answer more questions on the phone later, but – understandably, even commendably – nothing’s going to interrupt this next appointment, a quiet evening in with Mary and the kids.
One last quick question, Scott. What does Noah think, when he sees Velvet Revolver up there onstage? Does he see Scott Weiland, Nazi Rentboy frontman, or does he just see Daddy?
“My son thinks he’s in the band,” he laughs. “He is completely intrigued by what I do for a living. We’re very similar. When he comes to the shows, we have to put a little mic-stand right on the side of the stage, by the monitor boards, so he can sing and dance along. If it’s not set up, he throws a bit of a fit.”
That sounds like great rock-star training…
“Exactly,” he laughs. “Throwing a fit is definitely great rock-star training.”
(c) 2004 Stevie Chick
I recently interviewed Roots Manuva for The Quietus. It’s not the first time I’ve spoken with Rodney – I first interviewed him in 2001, when he released his sublime Run Come Save Me LP – but this is definitely the deepest we’ve ever gone together, and I think this might be the best interview I’ve done this year. Please read it, and check out his dark and powerful new album, Bleeds.
This is what I was up to in the month of October…
I interviewed intense, graceful and stirring black metal group Deafheaven, as their third album new Bermuda hits the record shelves.
I selected and discussed the ten finest tracks by The Stooges, in acknowledgement of the sad passing of the group’s sax-man, Steve Mackay.
I saluted the long and strange trip that has been The Icarus Line’s quest through rock’n’roll, on the occasion of the release of their sublime new album, All Things Under Heaven.
You may now return to your scheduled Halloween-related festivities.
We’ve uploaded a new feature on Loose Lips Sink Ships. Girl Band are one of the most thrilling new bands I’ve heard in ages, their records and their live shows delivering a beautiful headfuck that will electrify neophytes and avowed (and long deaf) noisers alike. DO. NOT. MISS.
The current issue of MOJO, with an awesome shot of Patti Smith on the cover, also features a great piece on the rise of the American underground in 1985, featuring excellent pieces on Husker Du, Meat Puppets, Butthole Surfers and more. I interviewed Thurston Moore for the feature one just what it was like to be at the vanguard of the American underground noise uprising at that time, and on the making of Sonic Youth’s glorious Bad Moon Rising. Be quick, it’ll be disappearing from the shelves soon.
And last month I chose my ten favourite Curtis Mayfield tracks and talked about them for the Guardian. Maybe you agree with me, maybe you don’t – doesn’t matter, the comments for this feature are now closed!