40 years later: Mike Garson recalls what it was like to record ‘Aladdin Sane’ with David Bowie – an Indie Ethos exclusive
April 20, 2013
Earlier this week, EMI Records reissued a new remaster of David Bowie’s darker-side-of-glitter follow-up to last year’s 40th Anniversary reissue of the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Aladdin Sane’s 40th Anniversary reissue arrives in simpler CD form, with no DVD audio or vinyl equivalent. But it remains a very interesting moment in the evolution of Bowie.
Though riding an increasingly popular wave of stardom at the time, Bowie had begun to tire of splitting his persona between Ziggy and Bowie. The follow-up album’s fractured portrait, with the so-called “Ziggy Bolt” painted over Bowie’s rosy, if somber, face and the play on “A Lad Insane” in the title belied the amped up sound of a talent in top form.
Inspired by his first U.S. tour for Ziggy Stardust, Bowie had embraced the glamour of L.A. and the seediness of New York for much of the album’s inspiration. It gave the interstellar glam rock of Ziggy a grittier, down-to-earth sound. Though still working with the luxuriant guitar blasts of Mick Ronson, Bowie threw in some soulful female vocals. He also picked up New York-based jazz pianist, Mike Garson, who brought one of the most distinctive approaches to the piano ever to a rock record. Garson has since become Bowie’s longest-ever go-to for piano (until this year’s the Next Day).
If there was one musician Bowie has had worked with, besides guitarists, that have come to help define Bowie’s sound over the span of his career, Garson’s touch on piano cannot be ignored (for a comprehensive look at their career together see this series of earlier posts). Despite Bowie’s work with Rick Wakeman of Yes on 1971’s Hunky Dory, Garson’s angular approach to his instrument offered a more distinctive touch. On stage, Garson would never play the same solo twice. It’s ever-shifting quality fascinated the singer who knows so much about changes it has become cliché to call him “the chameleon of rock ‘n’ roll.”
You may just be able to call Garson the chameleon of piano playing, which affords him a kind of distance to his work. When I called him last month to ask him for his thoughts on his first studio album with Bowie, he seemed rather surprised that his solo on the album’s title track has grown into such a big deal. “Now, after fuckin’ 40 years, ‘Aladdin Sane,’” he says of the praise he gets for the minute-and-a-half solo that’s the song’s centerpiece. “People are writing, and I’m seeing these things I’m shocked [about] because I never heard this song for 20, 30 years after I recorded them, people saying things like, ‘It might be one of the best rock solos in history,’ and it’s not even rock playing. But, you know, history sometimes proves things out.”
The title track of the album opens with such a soft touch it feels ethereal. The keys rumble with the reverb of the hollow body of the Bechstein piano at Trident Studios in London, where the album was recorded in the winter of 1973. Garson’s touch is soft and pillowy, as are the light strums of an acoustic guitar by Bowie and murmuring electric guitar accompaniment by Mick Ronson, the soft, elastic plucks by bassist Trevor Bolder and the drum taps by Mick “Woody” Woodmansey. “Watching him dash away … swinging an old bouquet,” Bowie sighs before responding to himself in a higher octave: “dead roses.”
After a false shift where the song may be building to a larger sound, with Bowie turning a sigh to a rat-tat-tat, stuttering pause, the group pulls back for another short verse of easygoing, ghostly quality. Bowie sings the follow-up line similar to the first: “Passionate bright young things … takes him away to war — don’t fake it.” Another stutter, and the song shifts to strident piano and chugging guitar, as Bowie coos, “Who’ll love Aladdin Sane/Battle cries and champagne just in time for sunrise/Who’ll love Aladdin Sane.”
Again the song falls back to its delicate beginning of delicate touches for one more verse and, at the two-minute mark, makes a leap toward a now irrepressible charge, with a distant saxophone by Ken Fordham howling out a few large, breathy notes. Garson begins to play the hook with more staccato force, trills here and there. The drums and bass pound along below, straight and steady, as Garson grows terse for one moment and squeezes in bits of notes from one range and another while still miraculously keeping the theme intact. He hammers keys here and brushes keys there, teetering on the edge of chaos while always remaining in check. With the echoing howl of the sax returning, Bowie returns with the “Who’ll love Aladdin Sane” chorus, and Garson does not stop his rawboned riffing as Bowie repeats “We’ll love Aladdin Sane” and takes a tangent to growl “Say the lights are oh so bright on Broadway” like some cosmic joke to the tattered jazz that encapsulates this bizarro song. Ronson holds back his guitar so that Garson may tangle with Fordham for a bit, as the song fades.
The fade out of this song should also not be underplayed. Ronson’s guitar becomes apparent here as it sighs a few tiny chords of reverb. Meanwhile, Garson toys around tersely on the higher end, as Fordham seems to sob into his sax for some soft sighing final notes. For a few seconds all that remains is the piano. Garson plays quick, seesaw runs on his right hand, then pumps out a few billowing bass chords with his left. There’s one last all-encompassing chord and a pause for the reverb of the piano, before he ends with one final, sly irrepressible trickle with his right hand. Clearly a mad duel of an orgy of instruments has played out and Garson came out a victor with a little wink at the end.
No one can talk about that song as just a Bowie song, and it has forever been Garson’s shining moment on a Bowie record. As many are quick to praise his frenetic piano on Aladdin Sane’s title track, Garson himself can position himself outside of it and note its magical quality. “The notes found me as much as I found it,” he says of his work on that song. “I wish I could find something comparable … When you have those magic moments, you want to recreate them, but the truth of the matter is you can’t. They have to be what they are, and they have to come in a very organic way, so I can’t force it to happen. I would just like it to happen somehow, naturally, but you can’t force it because they’re bigger than us, when those moments happen. They’re really like spiritual experiences, as far as I’m concerned.”
Garson credits Bowie’s direction during the recording for at least leading him to the result on record. “I considered David the best producer I ever had of anyone that’s ever produced me, and why? On the ‘Aladdin Sane’ solo, I played a blues solo first. He said, no. I played a Latin solo. He said, no. Then he said, ‘Play that avant-garde stuff you told me you played in New York,’ and it was he who pulled it out of me because it wasn’t my first choice. Now, once he said that, it was a take one, but it wasn’t my choice to go there, so I give him big kudos for that.”
Garson does not play on every song on the album, but he does appear on some of its most revered deep cuts. Besides the extraordinary moody journey of the title track, whose long-lost original title included the parenthetical: “(1913-1938-197?)” in reference to the start of the World Wars, he also plays on the album’s most sincerely romantic song: “Lady Grinning Soul.” After a dramatic trilling piano opening by Garson, there’s a pause for silence for a few seconds before Bowie croons, “She’ll come…” unaccompanied, and then the band falls in with a soft swing as Garson provides rapidly trickling finger rolls, and Bowie finishes the opposite end of his sentence: “she’ll go.” The song features quiet, soaring sax and guitar, not to mention dreamy piano work by Garson, as Bowie howls words like, “Touch the fullness of her breast/Feel the love of her caress/She will be your living end.”
“To me, that’s one of his most gorgeous songs,” Garson says. “That’s the David Bowie that I love. That’s just pure, romantic gorgeous voice, beautiful, romantic piano playing, and it doesn’t get better than that for me. I’m not a big rock ‘n’ roll fan when it comes to all the screaming and not singing with a real voice. To me, that’s a crooner. That’s David Bowie. That’s the gift of the man, for me.”
Other songs Garson contributed piano to on Aladdin Sane include “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Watch That Man” and “Time.” He says he recorded most of his parts with the band with the exception of the title track, and there were often few takes. “’Aladdin Sane’ was an overdub,” he notes. “I think I played ‘Time’ with the band, and I think I played ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ with the band. I don’t remember for sure, but I think so, but I think I played ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ with the band.”
He notes that— at least for his part— he took a sort of tongue-in-cheek approach to the last song he mentions, a cover of a 1967 Rolling Stones single. “I just went nuts, personally,” he says. “I don’t even know why I played that crazy beginning, but it just worked. Maybe it was in rebellion or protest or opposite-effect of what Mick Jagger did. Maybe it was just such a contrast and so hilarious because you couldn’t top that vibe that they got, just as a rock band, and what can I add that just turns it upside down? It’s almost borderline humorous.”
He remains humble about his contribution to the album. “It wasn’t just Mike Garson because of ‘Aladdin Sane,’” He says. “It was Mike Garson with Ken Scott with Mick Ronson with David Bowie producing it with the magic of Trident Studios with the magic with of the Bechstein piano, with the fact that the Beatles and Queen recorded there, the whole karmic, historic, archetype magic that the notes found me as much as I found the notes. That’s the real truth. It’s not just Mike Garson. It’s that group effort.”
Superficially, most everyone is drawn to Aladdin Sane for its cover art. That flash of blue and red painted over Bowie’s face overshadowed the teardrop in the man’s clavicle, which hinted at Bowie’s pain of leading a life as a split persona. It’s flashy superficiality overshadowed a grim reality, which was also brilliantly reflected in the resonant music, which carries a subversive depth few acknowledge. The album’s cover became the avatar of the rock star. In the years that followed that flash of face paint has been co-opted by younger music stars like Marilyn Manson in the 1990s and more obviously and recently Lady Gaga, who, like Bowie then, flaunts her bi-sexually as part of her shtick. Like the fleeting magic of what happened inside Trident Studios when they recorded Aladdin Sane, Garson notes that no imitation of the album cover will have the same effect now. “You can’t even hardly recreate it now because it was the ‘70s,” he says. “It was the bi-sexuality. It was the glam rock. It was the look. Right behind me, as I’m talking to you, the poster’s on my wall. My grandkids ask me about it, and it’s amazing. So it’s all those factors, so I was blessed to be able to contribute to that movement.”
March 26, 2013
Just finished up a quick piece regarding one of the many projects keeping Robert Rodriguez busy. He’s putting his twin nieces’ acting chops to work again. They are to star in a short film called “Two Scoops,” but the real star is you! He is asking amateurs and unknowns to help him finish the film.
We last saw Electra Avellan and Elise Avellan in Planet Terror, providing some amazing comic relief. Now you can work with them. Rodriguez is participating in a crowdsourcing project via BlackBerry. The details of which I lay out in my latest piece for the “Miami New Times” art and culture blog “Cultist.” Jump through the blog’s logo below for the details and videos:
In a way, with it’s corporate sponsorship, it does feel a bit cheesy, but the film’s camp tone makes it all appropriate. Besides, the creative verve is there among the 100+ auditions already uploaded— be they diamonds in the rough— so there is room for further creative input to get Rodriguez’ attention. Any creative/filmmaking types out there? Give it a shot.
Eddie Jobson of U.K. on popular music: “Everything’s been superficialized;” my interview in “New Times” and more
March 23, 2013
After the Cruise to the Edge, aka the “Prog Cruise,” according to Yes drummer Alan White, sails around Cuba (Alan White of ‘Yes’ talks ‘Cruise to the Edge’ and early Yes; my profile in “New Times”), another of the nine bands sailing with Yes will perform in Miami: U.K. I spoke to that band’s leader, Eddie Jobson, and that interview is slated to be published by the “Miami New Times.” next week.
Jobson, who worked with Curved Air, Roxy Music, Frank Zappa and King Crimson before he took part in forming U.K. spoke with me over the phone during rehearsals in Los Angeles with his other band, UKZ. You can read the attempt to scrunch up his history in progressive rock, including the birth of U.K., which was to include (gasp) master guitarist and inventor Robert Fripp, by jumping through the logo of the paper’s music blog “Crossfade,” below (you’ll also find lots of cool retro images and videos):
Jobson recently took the initiative to reform U.K. for a few rare performances with veteran members John Wetton on bass and vocals and Terry Bozzio on drums. Guitarist Alex Machacek, from UKZ, stands in for Allan Holdsworth. They will only play a few scattered dates, including performances at music festivals in Panama and Mexico, besides the cruise. After touring to Jamaica on Yes’ “Cruise to the Edge,” U.K. will host its only U.S. show at Miami’s intimate Grand Central. “This is not only the first gig in Miami of this lineup, it’ll probably be the last,” says Jobson. “This is a one-off tour that we started last year with Bozzio, and this one gig is the only North American show we’re doing now.”
Despite the show being U.K.’s only show in the U.S., Jobson is not wholly surprised the show has yet to sell out and has no pretensions about the state of prog rock in the current popular music scene. “It’s really a nostalgia movement now,” he says. “I think there are two levels of prog rock now. There are the guys like us, who are sort of the originators of the genre, and I think our time is sort of on its last legs, to be honest,” he notes with a laugh before continuing, “The other side of progressive rock is a new wave of younger bands, especially out of England, you know, Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson and musicians like that who are kind of tapping into a young, fairly vibrant retro wave … We can’t really tap into that either because they’re younger and retro hip.”
Prog arrived on the music scene in the late ‘60s offering an alternative to pop music, blues, folk and psychedelic hippie rock. But also meddled all those genres and brought in classical music training, elements of jazz and unorthodox song constructs with heavy and obscure lyrical themes that also seemed to demonstrate a literary knack. It was sometimes deridingly called “art rock” (I’ll take it, tough!). It was surprising to think such complex music once led to sold out stadiums. But as the masses’ attention span so easily grows short, popular music has little room for intellectual music, especially now. Jobson touches on one of the distractions: “It strikes me that the focus has really shifted from people appreciating players and people appreciating music to kids just fantasizing about being stars, this whole ‘American Idol,’ ‘Guitar Hero’ game sort of idea.”
One of the ways Jobson currently makes a living, as do many other prog musicians, is by giving lessons. He says these clinics have helped give him a lot of perspective. As a 58-year-old musician with many years of experience in the music industry (he was a regular child prodigy who joined Curved Air at age 16), Jobson has had a lot of time to consider the mind of a popular music consumer. “A lot of our guitar clinics or drum clinics, more people will show up to that than will show up to the concert, even if the concert’s the same day or the next day,” he notes. “People are more interested in trying to learn the tricks of how to become a rock star then to actually get into the music and have the music actually mean something to them because most of the music they’ve been brought up with has been sold to them from the music industry is just so superficial. They never develop that rich context, that richer development of appreciation for more complex rhythms, more complex harmonic structures or anything like that. Everything’s been superficialized, and that’s all they know. That’s why progressive rock can’t really sustain with that audience. That’s why classical music can’t sustain with that audience. It requires too much attention, in a way, too much analysis … That connection only happens if you’ve been sort of brought up with it and you develop that connection between complex harmony and emotional responses. I think it has to be developed in early years, and none of our kids are having it developed unless they’ve been brought up with classical music; very few are these days.”
Let’s hope refined tastes and demands for something more complex never dies out (I must say I found that in bands like Grizzly Bear and Of Montreal, among others). As the Internet grows more niche-oriented and separate, I would hope there are younger people with tastes beyond hipsterdom and superficiality who will seek out blogs such as this. There will always, therefore be some room for more complex music— and film— somewhere in culture, if not at the top of the charts. Anyone reading that agrees, let your voice be heard below.
U.K. performs at Grand Central, 697 North Miami Ave Miami, FL 33136, Saturday, March 30. Doors open at 7 p.m. The show is all ages. For tickets, jump through this link.
March 21, 2013
While giant music festivals continue to bring in huge crowds to cities like Chicago (Lollapalooza) and even right here in my hometown of Miami (Ultra), more niche acts with dwindling followers who are growing more affluent are taking to the high seas (see my Weezer Cruise coverage). One of the more recent groups of musicians trying out the cruise music festival circuit are a batch of progressive rock bands who both started the genre and followed in their footsteps. The Cruise to the Edge tour sails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida next week, headlined by Yes, the band who produced one of the great early ‘70s prog albums: Close to the Edge.
While my more youthful colleagues at “New Times” covered the hanging asses and same-old beats at Ultra, I had an opportunity to speak to two prog legends who will be on this cruise: Yes drummer Alan White and U.K. bandleader Eddie Jobson. Both have landlocked shows, which I wrote about in the two “New Times” publications that cover South Florida.
We covered a lot of territory on the phone. Including his memory of stepping into Bill Bruford’s shoes, when he left Yes for King Crimson in 1972. He remembers having to learn the early albums quickly. Close to the Edge was the last album Bruford recorded with the band. White came to Yes at just 23 years of age with some high-profile studio experiences with John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and George Harrison. “I had three days to learn the repertoire including the new album they had just recorded,” White told me via phone, from a tour stop in Aspen, Colorado, “so I had to learn a lot of stuff in a few days.”
Up to that point, this was some of the most complex music White had to learn, as Bruford had made a name for himself in prog as one of the genre’s most complex rhythm men. “Bill’s obviously a different drummer than me in certain ways, in certain ways not,” White noted. “I can do the technical stuff, but I can also do the rock ‘n’ roll background. I had my own band that was a rock/jazz type of thing for a long time before I joined Yes, so I was kinda prepared for all the time signatures, and that kind of stuff, which I got into and picked up on, and changed them a bit, to a degree, but kept most of the parts that made the music what it is.”
To read more of my conversation with White, jump through the link above. I plan to attend Yes’ live show and review it for the “New Times.” White said the band plans to play three of Yes’ more important albums from the ‘70s live: the Yes Album (1972), Close to the Edge (1973) and Going for the One (1977). The show will take place at the same venue where I caught the Genesis tribute band the Musical Box, as it re-created that band’s acclaimed 1974 prog masterpiece the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway live (Genesis tribute band The Musical Box’ take on ‘The Lamb,’ and this writer returns to “New Times”). I shall up-date this post with a link to that review when it is published, so, Yes fans, take note and bookmark.
Meanwhile, my interview with Jobson in “Miami New Times” music blog “Crossfade” will also appear shortly, I’ll link here when that post appears. We spoke more in depth about the formation of U.K. and what he considers the last of the ‘70s prog rock groups and the place of prog in the ever-shifting landscape of popular music. He was quite insightful.
Update: Jump to the Jobson interview here (it has a link within it to more of our conversation and lots of vintage images and videos):
Eddie Jobson of U.K. on popular music: “Everything’s been superficialized;” my interview in “New Times” and more
Update 2: Jump through the image below of the band performing at the Hard Rock Live on Sunday night for the live review:
Poetry and electronica find cozy home in Rick Holland and Old Man Diode collab – An Indie Ethos Exclusive
March 20, 2013
It was a longtime coming, but more than a year since poet Rick Holland shared his first step beyond his collaboration with Brian Eno (Old Man Diode brings poetry of Rick Holland into “disco” territory), his work with UK underground electronica artist Old Man Diode has finally resulted in a full-length album. The King Krill will see release as a digital-only release via the London-based indie label WW Music on March 26 (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase direct through Amazon via this link) … and on limited edition vinyl on April 25.
The album might seem more accessible compared with Holland’s work with Eno. Where Eno had chosen “vocalists” like a secretary to recite the lines on the Drums Between the Bells, vocalists on The King Krill bring often soulful, soaring voices to the mix. Notable UK artists on the album include Chris James (singer/keyboardist/guitarist for Stateless who most recently worked with Deadmau5) and vocalists Onallee (a collaborator with Roni Size), I Am Fya, Beth Rowley and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Andrew Plummer. Still, even with more proper singing in the mix, Old Man Diode does not lean on the typical dance hall rhythms, choosing to explore more slippery beats inspired by such experimental electronica predecessors like Aphex Twin. For a limited time, you can listen to an exclusive stream of the whole album here (that’s a hyper-link).
As Holland and Old Man Diode (née Jo Wills) are in London, all three of us recently corresponded via email for a little question and answer session. They offer such beautiful insight into the care and approach to the music versus the words, the possibilities of interpretations and the creative process for the pure pleasure of experimenting and creating (Note: my questions are in bold, Holland’s responses are in plain text while Old Man Diode’s comments are in italics).
Hans Morgenstern: Rick, you wrote all the lyrics, correct?
Rick Holland: In some cases we wrote together, myself and the featured artist, so their ideas filtered through me, or fragments of our writing fused together.
HM: There is a dance quality to this record. Were you conscious of that when composing the lyrics used on the record?
RH: I always wrote to a beat-track, a skeleton of the track, and we wanted to keep the settings sparse and honest to their origin. I wrote from the instinctive response I had to Old Man Diode’s beats and bass pulses.
HM: What are some of the themes that you address in your words?
RH: These emerge after the writing. I’d like Jo to answer this one. There were powerful shared image banks for sure.
Old Man Diode: We didn’t have anything in mind at the start of writing, the starting point was wanting to collaborate, both of us (and the vocalists) talking and making and talking and making. In the end, the themes that have come through are about humanity really and the urban dichotomy of needing to be part of a group and an individual at the same time, trying to avoid becoming an automaton whilst seeing people being just that all around you. I think there’s a strong sense of being constantly being pulled in different directions, there’s beauty and desolation all around us. Maybe that feeling has come out through this strong oceanic vibe that infuses a lot of the writing. Somehow it’s part grimy concrete and barren cliff top at the same time.
RH: I like that. I would add that there are moments in there about being completely submerged and released, the ocean keeps coming back. And there is a love song in there too, an old-fashioned love lyric, but about shedding some of the more possessive elements of love.
HM: To what extent did the sound of Old Man Diode’s music influence your writing?
RH: It triggered and moulded the writing, it made it, in tracks such as “The King Krill.” “Clearing Song,” the words are the music passing through me, they are the music translated as instinctively as possible. In others, there is more input from my own life and experience, moulded to the atmosphere of the music.
OMD: Just to flip this question a bit and answer if from my perspective. I think we’ve both been influenced by each other and the process music I’ve written in the past has been very different to this. There’s a shared ethos in approach, a sort of minimalism that gives as much power as possible to each action. Also, one of the reasons I was keen to work with Rick was to make myself focus on words. My ears are drawn to texture when I’m listening. It’s hard for me to remember words in tracks I’ve just listened to or know really well. I hear them as part of the whole sonic, working with Rick has forced me to really focus on that content.
HM: Were you surprised by any results, the effects of the words turned musical? If so, where?
RH: I tended to listen to some of the work of a featured artist once I knew we were working with them, so in the writing process somewhere hidden in my back brain would have been an imagining of how that artist would sing the words, and whether they would “work.” Beyond that, though, all of them surprised me because they are all creative artists and all brought their interpretations to the process.
For some, the words took centre stage, for others they were more sounds to riff from, I love both approaches. Some less fluid “lyrics” on a page became beautiful through the artist, Chris James sliding over words springs to mind, and Onallee singing “Time hangs, like a torn sheet, we disappear through hopes” (OMD: is this not just in your head?!?!?!?!?!)* which may have started out as “holes,” but that lyric is just pure poetry for me, how it is sung, it could mean so many things to so many people.
OMD: It’s been great to see the words take shape, become melodies and textures. Sometimes it’s had a more operatic/libretto approach to setting and others have been more like writing a pop song with everything in between. Everyone has been great to work with, bringing their approaches and philosophies to the table.
RH: *quite probably, it’ll be what’s printed on the back of the vinyl though… haaa… and I prefer it.
HM: Rick, how much of a say did you have in the music that accompanied certain words?
RH: We have such an understanding of each other from years of working together and a shared sensibility that we usually just know when words and music were meant for each other, and this extends to production ideas too. We share ideas throughout the writing process, and our best work usually happens without over thinking. Luckily, we find effective ways to communicate in real time in the studio and most of the time we find the ground we both believe in.
OMD: Hahaha, some pretty funny ways of communicating as I remember, using words to describe sounds and vice versa. The best parts of the writing process have been when all three of us (Rick, myself and whoever’s singing) are in the room together, creating on the fly, everyone is influencing everyone else, that’s a real buzz, and the track comes pouring out.
HM: The vocalists vary a lot. Where did they come from?
RH: Wonderful mixture isn’t it? They are all just open-minded, creative artists drawn together by Old Man Diode’s vision and his life. There were a couple more surprising names interested in collaborating, we may hear from them later. This has been a dream team. They are all real artists.
HM: How different is working with OMD versus Eno (Eno collaborator/poet Rick Holland corresponds on craft – An Indie Ethos exclusive [Part 1 of 2])?
RH: This is such an interesting question. There are some huge similarities. Both believe in giving ideas space to become something without over complicating, yet both have some deep-lying beliefs in essential values of production. Both are constantly curious about their crafts and open to the input of other people. Both come up against their limitations from time to time yet accept and find new ways to circumvent them. Both believe very passionately in the fruits of good collaborative practice. Both remove the ‘I’ from the process.
In terms of less wooly specifics, it is different working with OMD because I grew from the same cultures and have a far more similarly mapped life to each other. Occasionally, with Eno, I would inadvertently suggest something that he felt he had covered before, or the essence of an idea would change entirely over time. I was in my early 20s when Drums Between the Bells started out, and early 30s when it was released. It was a really unusual process to turn that great a span of life into an album, fascinating and difficult all at once. With this album, Jo and I managed to finish it in just over two years (I think) and it is the shared work of two people in a more shared single world I think, less patchwork.
I could write a book about this question to be honest. Interestingly, I also think Eno may have taken some direct influence from this project, listening to some of his new work with James Blake, so the two subconciouses have certainly melded, feedback both ways.
Last year, Pinback returned after five years of recording silence with the new album: Information Retrieved. Even bigger for this writer is the San Diego-based band’s return to South Florida for a rare live appearance coming up this Wednesday at the Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale. The show marks only the group’s second appearance this far south since 2004, in support of the duo’s third album, Summer in Abaddon. Back then, the band travelled as far south as Miami to a space called I/O (now Vagabond), skipping this area during support of its 2007 album Autumn of the Seraphs.
Pinback formed on a lark in 1998 when multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Rob Crow and bassist/vocalist Armistead Burwell Smith IV’s found themselves with some downtime from other projects. The resulting catchy, crisp pop rock soon outshone any of their earlier bands in terms of interest and record sales. I spoke with Crow last month for a pair of stories in the “Broward-Palm Beach New Times.”
To read the print story, jump through the logo below:
To read a nice, long rambling tangent we took on science fiction movies and Star Wars in particular, jump through the logo below for this left-field story in the paper’s music blog, “The County Grind”:
As fun as it was to recall our mutual memories of watching the first Star Wars movies in the theater, I found it rather difficult to get Crow going about his music. Here is a back and forth that captures our repartee, where he recalls memories of the band’s first South Florida show, what to expect of the band live and his musical relationship with a man he calls Zack for short, and considers his opposite.
Hans Morgenstern: What do you remember about the Miami visit, the last time you were here, like 5 years now? This is your first return here since then, but in Fort Lauderdale.
Rob Crow: Yeah. We went swimming at dusk. I didn’t know why nobody else was in the water. It’s because it’s crawling with sharks.
That or everyone’s getting ready to hit the clubs. No partying for you guys?
Not for us. We’re the nice-guy band.
I was impressed with how well you captured these songs that are rather intricate and polished in a live setting.
I remember that room. If you could hear anything, that’d be amazing.
I’ve seen many bands there, and it’s always too loud, but I could actually hear the different parts.
(laughs) What a bonus when you can hear the parts!
How do you pull it off live now as a three-piece?
They’ve been our best shows, as a three-piece, as everyone has wholly agreed.
Nope. They will still be there. They just won’t be seen. They’ll just be heard.
So they will be pre-recorded. I was sorry to hear about Terrin Durfey’s passing. How long was he a touring member of the band?
I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it in those terms. The timeline gets confusing for me, and depressing, to be honest, so I don’t dwell on it.
I cannot help but notice a sort of poetic tribute of you all touring as a three-piece, without a keyboardist. Is that a sort of tribute to Terrin or out of respect?
In some ways, like there’s some things we don’t do anymore because he did on the desks, and nobody could ever do that. But we had other people doing his parts as well for years, when he couldn’t do it anymore (coughs) and they were nice, great people and everything, but everything just works better for us as a three-piece.
There’s this clean sound you guys have that seems to harken back to the first polished rock records that really started coming out in the mid-’70s and up, like the Police.
I like the Police. I mean, when we were making our first album, it was one of the few bands that both of us liked, that we listened to while we were dicking around or whatever. He and I have very different views on almost anything, so when we agree on something it’s nice.
Like what views are different?
I don’t know. They’re all different.
How about musically?
He doesn’t own any records. He owns maybe five records, and I own, and I’m an archivist. (laughs)
There’s never any indulgence in feedback in your music, like dominating a whole song.
Zack’s always trying to do that on his bass. It doesn’t work for me.
So you stop him when he pulls that?
We both stop each other from doing stuff. Yeah, I’ve learned that it would be bad to do on guitar, and I just kinda get nauseous when it happens on the bass that much (laughs). That doesn’t mean we won’t do something that does that sometimes. That’d be great to figure out how to make it work.
Where was the new album recorded?
We had a studio that we were both working at [S.D.R.L. Studios, San Diego, California]. But he doesn’t work there anymore, and we both have home studios.
Do you record to tape at all?
No, we used to try to do that, but it was such a nightmare. We just gave up. We had a 16-track, big old giant thing and all this stuff, and were like, ugh, it doesn’t sound better. And we literally cannot afford to keep it in shape.
Ever think of going into a studio?
There’s no way that the two of us could go to a studio where you pay by the hour [He pauses to think about it, and his voice even sounds exhausted as he continues] because it’s just a nightmare. Everything we do is at a snail’s pace… Everything.
* * *
Here are Pinback’s current tour dates (including an appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon:
March 12 – Orlando, FL @ The Social
March 13 – Fort Lauderdale, FL @ The Culture Room
March 14 – Jacksonville, FL @ Freebird Live
March 15 – West Columbia, SC @ New Brookland Tavern
March 16 – Richmond, VA @ The Canal Club
March 17 – Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
March 19 – Late Night With Jimmy Fallon @ Rockefeller Plaza, NY (check local listings to watch the performance)
March 21 – St. Louis, MO @ Firebird
March 22 – Kansas City, MO @ The Riot Room
March 23 – Little Rock, AR @ Revolution Music Room
Finally, just for fun, here is all the room I had for the band’s first South Florida appearance in Miami, almost 10 years ago, which ran in print before web mattered as much as it does now. Again, jump through the image: