MGMT vinyl clouds. Photo by Hans Morgenstern

MGMT continue to drift down the rabbit hole with the brilliant, if at times mixed bag, that is its new self-titled album. If you can get past some rather heavy-handed early efforts in weirdness that open the album, you will find some amazing rewards in this further experimental album by Benjamin Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden. The center of the duo’s fourth full-length album stands as the band’s most triumphant moment in its career. Songs like “Introspection,” “Astro-Mancy” and “I Love You Too, Death” might sound like filler to some but actually harbor some of MGMT’s most inspired moments of creativity ever.

Though rather sweet, get past the child’s voice that kicks off the album (“Alien Days”) and transitions into VanWyngarden’s hazy voice and some rather banal guitar strumming with some zippy, perky synthesized space-rock decora. You can even skip the second low-key, sleepy-voiced number, “Cool Song No. 2,” peppered with the sounds of the jungle, like the howls of monkeys. It’s easier to like “Mystery Disease,” with its dense layers of throbbing electronics, but despite some rather original thoroughly deconstructed samples that includes covers of “You Are My Lucky Star” and “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes” by Werner Müller and His Orchestra, the track never seems to go anywhere after four minutes. However, it’s when you arrive to track four where things really become interesting.

The cover of Faine Jade’s “Introspection” truly sets the album in motion toward post-psych-rock inventiveness. The phasing left-right-left-right-left of VanWyngarden singing the opening lines both brings a clichéd added dimension to the mix and an affectionate nod to the loopy stereophonic indulgence of the genre. MGMT vinyl detail. Photo by Hans MorgensternAs they did when they covered bands like Pink Floyd (“Lucifer Sam”) and Cleaners From Venus (“Only a Shadow”), MGMT stay true to the original tune but pump it up with a witty, almost cartoonish sense of psychedelic rock on steroids. But the track is also filled with shimmering bits of décor like phasing reverb and, God Bless them, a flute solo, not to mention Goldwasser’s complimentary bits of synthesized space rock sprinkles, as it builds to a soaring finale of all the bits layering up together to come to a sudden ecstatic cut.

The percussive “WHACK” of “Your Life Is a Lie” suddenly kicks in with hardly a chance for a breath. It’s a ruthless track on many levels. The lyrics offer an exploration of brutal honesty while the music feels like a non-stop assault. “Here’s the deal/Open your eyes/Your life is a lie/Don’t say a word/I’ll tell you why/You’re living a lie/Your life is a lie,” VanWyngarden sings with a deadpan delivery to conclude over and over that you are “on your own.” MGMT prove they still have a sense of looking at a deeper layer of existence, not too different from the sensibility that so richly informed the nostalgic moment of “Time To Pretend” (“I’ll miss the playgrounds and the animals and digging up worms … Yeah I’ll miss the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone,” he sang juxtaposing those lyrics with “I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars/You man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars”). But with “Your Life Is a Lie” something purer lies in the lyrics’ directness that skip subversion and get right to the point that speaks to today’s tendency for everyone to indulge in personas propagated by generation Y’s “We’re all so original together,” not to mention the social media filters provided by cyberspace and the whizz-bang edits of “reality television” that’s ironically and heavy-handedly contrived.

The song structure, with a metallic cowbell smack for punctuation, bobs on a perpetual, dense, unrelenting percussive racket with no real hook. With its sharp clacks of metal, rumbling bass and a range of instrumentation joining in to clang along to illuminate a humming buzz, the first single off the album was a slap in the face against all that is catchy about early MGMT. The video offers witty literal visuals, which is appropriate considering the words are far from subversive:

Side B, opens with a brilliant, ghostly shimmer that could have been lifted from a Broadcast record. A hypnotic electro pulse overtakes it, soaring off to space-rock heights until a burbling, creaking sound fades in to underlie the song’s pulsating electronics. With these three musical evolutions, “A Good Sadness” settles into a groove for VanWyngarden’s voice to appear. It’s mixed low, weaving through the din of electronics, breathy and layered and almost as inhuman and spectral as the multi-tracks. He becomes difficult to understand, but a few words like “memories” and “to feel it’s all right” appear among the sibilant vocals before the din swells and peters away in the distance on echoing beeps. It’s another impressionistic, layered— if more electronic— triumph that maybe the band’s most celestial moment.

“Astro-Mancy” kicks off sounding like “Abdulmajid,” an obscure David Bowie-Brian Eno collaboration from that duo’s time together in Berlin. You half-expect this busy track with its jungle-like rhythms and sporadic, active electro-whistles and phases to be an instrumental. Once again, VanWyngarden’s voice returns, with even more dreamier treatments.MGMT Side B. Photo by Hans Morgenstern It may as well be an instrumental, as he seems just as hard to understand as the previous track. But a glance in the lyric sheet reveals a surrealistic theme more interested in creating atmosphere than offering a concrete message. With coos and oos exhaling below his echoing vocals, VanWyngarden seems to sigh his lyrics: “My green silken river and two lights/I could almost touch the free walls.” It sounds like the aural equivalent of an LSD trip.

Just when you think the album could not go stranger, here comes the audio-hallucinatory build-up of melodies and synch shifts in “I Love You Too, Death.” Buzzy and pulsing electronics meld with flutes, ticking brushes and reverberated single dings on a tiny bell. Again VanWyngarden’s voice appears spectral and drenched in echo but much clearer, as he half whispers lines alluding to the grim reaper (“Who is much more than a friend/But never by my side?/All beginnings are an end”). As with many songs on this album, the lyrics grow more surreal as the song layers up with instrumentation (“Autumn hurts far less than sticks, knowing winter’s five feet tall”). Very gradually more melodies appear, first harmonium sighs then a strumming guitar. Still the track’s opening melody of flute and bell carries on, and the song ever so subtly morphs into something completely different while still maintaining a subtle familiarity. It’s the musical equivalent of deja-vu, and it’s brilliantly crafted.

It may be MGMT had little where else to go at this point, as the next track returns to the self-conscious zaniness that opened the album. “Plenty of Girls in the Sea” breaks up the strangeness like “Excuse Me” interrupted Peter Gabriel’s weirdo/dramatic first album. The cabaret-like tune feels out of place and too sly for its own sake. It’ll be new to some kids and may even sound weird for the sake of being weird, but it’s the obvious kind of bizarreness, despite the sometimes ironic lyrical play (“There’s plenty of girls in the sea/And plenty of those are not women”).

MGMT. Image Courtesy Columbia Records.

But then comes the capper, “An Orphan of Fortune,” which earns it’s spot as a closing number. It feels rather unfinished but still mysterious. It opens with a misty, creepy quality until shifting to a cascade of percussion and layers of creaking, warped electronics. At first listen, this could be a lost Bauhaus song. When the song explodes in an elastic, blurring “melody,” VanWyngarden’s voice emerges, again immersed in the mix to impressionistic quality. A few words jump out like “morning” and “erode” before the song once again shifts, breaking it down for a melodica solo. Then the wash of percussion returns with the vocals and more instruments piling in and freaking out, as VanWyngarden repeats “into Twilight” until everything halts for a shimmering phasing fade out, which gives way to a rather grotesque, roaring organ solo that kind of just peters out, almost exhausted in an anti-climactic fade out.

And so the short album ends on a rather low-key note that may sound like a shrug, if this band were not so sly. This is music for fans of the early Brian Eno and Pink Floyd. MGMT wrote a couple of great pop tunes early in its career that expanded their audience far wider than its heart for weirdness could handle. It’s great that “Kids” and “Electric Feel” where both witty and catchy, but so much of their stellar work is moody, atmospheric, dynamic and ultimately transporting. With this self-titled album, the duo has returned to work with Dave Fridmann, who made a name for himself by shaping the sound of the Flaming Lips and first worked with MGMT on its breakthrough 2008 album Oracular Spectacular, which featured those aforementioned singles. As much as the band showed growth working with Sonic Boom on its last album (My review: MGMT grow with Congratulations), their ease in working with Fridmann shines through on this new album. The genius hinted at in Oracular, like the shifting atmospheric “Future Reflections,“ reaches new organic heights in many songs of this new album.

Finally, the band has had visuals made for each track in an “optimizer” mode found on the CD or as a download in the vinyl version. As revealed by the trailer below, the “optimized” album features animated psychedelically-colored digital images from alien creatures to skyscapes that accompany the music on the album.

Music history is filled with artists who have tried to visualize music, from Walt Disney to Len Lye. Though there has been science that shows some correlation with color and music, this music critic prefers the evocative quality of music in relation to one’s own imagination. For instance, few probably feel the sensation of peering into a darkened corner of a desolated, run down, dusty mansion when they hear the opening drones and whistles of “A Good Sadness.”

MGMT vinyl. Photo by Hans Morgenstern

The “optimizer” trailer above implies the enhanced experience of watching visuals accompanied by the music. However, as ever, the vinyl is the true treat, offering pure aural bliss with nothing but the imagination to accompany the listening experience (again, note the research). Music is a blur of impressions, offering a feeling more than anything visual. There’s a taste of nostalgia and cracks into the subconscious dreamland that defy words. The creativity of this album works best as it was initially intended by the musicians: as music. The fact that the LP arrives on 180 gram vinyl, “pressed in Europe” (Columbia Records does have access to some of the best plants there), shines through on this record of rather intricate audio gymnastics. Because it’s so active and dynamic with so many layers of melody, contrast and din, it is best experienced on the separation and space provided by vinyl.

Hans Morgenstern

Columbia provided a promotional copy of the vinyl version of this album for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

If the lack of music coverage on this blog about music and film has seemed apparent, that is because I have returned to freelancing at the two South Florida-based “New Times” publications. They pay, but they have exclusive control. They are also print, which still matters to many musicians, labels and venues, so I did get some good “gets,” the first being a phone conversation with the singer of the official Genesis cover band, the Musical Box, who are based in Montreal, Canada.

Though the mere mention of the name Genesis makes many flashback to Phil Collins and hits like “Invisible Touch,” to this writer, the true Genesis existed within the progressive rock scene of the early seventies with Peter Gabriel as theatrical frontman. The Musical Box specialize in that era of the band. Speaking to the band’s singer, Denis Gagné, it immediately became apparent that he too shares a special nostalgia for the early Gabriel-era Genesis. I spoke to Gagné ahead of the band’s South Florida debut to perform the band’s 1974 double album the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, scheduled for tomorrow.

As the Musical Box is the only Genesis tribute band officially sanctioned by Genesis, they were granted amazing access to the original Master tapes of the Lamb. “Me and Sébastien [Lamothe, the band's co-founder] sat down at the Farm studio, at the board and played with the tracks,” said Gagné with a laugh. “So every texture that we were wondering, ‘What is going on here? we could hear, actually.”

It is a dense album both thematically and musically*. Even for Gagné, a long-time Genesis fan since the age of 10, in the late seventies, the Lamb, revealed more of its power as he grew more familiar with the music. “It’s a masterpiece. A lot of the songs that I used not to like … I’m a big fan of now, since we play them on stage … like ‘Back in New York City’ I used to not be a fan of because I used to think, ‘I can’t sing that. He’s screaming.’ For a singer, it’s not something you look forward to,” he said and laughed. “But then, when we played the song together, it’s such a strong riff and the whole feeling is really, really awesome. It changed my whole perspective of the song. It’s one of the songs I love to play and that I love to listen to, which was not the case when I was younger.”

Gagné said his band tries to do justice to Genesis as they performed the album back in the mid-seventies. They looked at photos and video clips, like the one below, which features part of “Back in NYC,” filmed in Bern, Switzerland in 1975:

Tickets are still available for the show. You can read more of my interview with Gagné in the original preview piece for the “Broward/Palm Beach New Times” by clicking on the publication’s logo here:

The article covers the significance of this era of Genesis and also what the Lamb is superficially about with some more quotes from Gagné. They also published a retrospective piece I wrote on the ever-changing look of Gabriel from song-to-song during his productive if underrated years in Genesis.There are many pictures and video clips, click on Gabriel’s mug below to jump to that article, entitled “Nicki Minaj of Prog: The Many Faces of Peter Gabriel’s Genesis Years”:

Edit: The “Broward/Palm Beach New Times” posted my review of the show here (disappointed no photog was there). Read it here.

Hans Morgenstern

*In the not too distant future I plan to write an appreciation to the subtleties of the album, so follow this blog for the appearance of that in the next few days.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Well, besides the fact this blog celebrates the Independent Ethos in music and occasionally film, it should come as no surprise to read my endorsement for Arcade Fire‘s Grammy win for album of the year. They are the only truly independent band on an independent label (Merge Records) to win the honor.

I had not planned to write about the Grammys at all, as it usually celebrates the contrived dreck that is pop music: from rock to disco. But the voters got my attention this morning.

Arcade Fire deserved the win for many reasons, and to those who call them “upsets” to crap like the music of Lady Antebelum, Lady Gaga and such: get some culture. They are true musicians making creative music with real instruments. Their energy live is unmatched and forgoes the distracting trappings of theatrics. Their music is creative while strongly rooted in rock (especially the progressive kind). Hence they have fans that span the ages from the current hipster youths, to respectable rock elders like David Bowie and Peter Gabriel.

So good for them. The Suburbs is a great album, as seen in my top 10 albums of 2010. OK, so it was not a personal fave of the year, as the exuberance of first hearing Arcade Fire via Funeral is a tough act to follow, but Arcade Fire are good enough to only measure against themselves. It’s all downhill from here. ;-)

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

2010 in review

January 3, 2011

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

The average container ship can carry about 4,500 containers. This blog was viewed about 20,000 times in 2010. If each view were a shipping container, your blog would have filled about 4 fully loaded ships.

 

In 2010, there were 79 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 103 posts. There were 267 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 190mb. That’s about 5 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was April 30th with 412 views. The most popular post that day was From the archives: Tony Levin interview 2003, Part 1 of 3: on Peter Gabriel.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were forum.dvdtalk.com, dgmlive.com, ideensynthese.de, facebook.com, and squidoo.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for thin white duke, melanie gabriel, david bowie 2010, ben bridwell, and tony levin.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

From the archives: Tony Levin interview 2003, Part 1 of 3: on Peter Gabriel April 2010
2 comments

2

David Bowie’s Station to Station to be reissued in fancy 9-disc package July 2010
4 comments

3

Brian Eno and the Lovely Bones February 2010
12 comments

4

Advance copies for Bowie’s Station to Station features DVD-A August 2010
7 comments

5

From the archives: Tony Levin interview 2003, Part 2 of 3: on tour with Peter Gabriel April 2010
2 comments

Thanks to all for the support. I couldn’t have kept this blog without you! A special thanks to my wife Ana who pushed me to start this thing in the first place.

Thanks to DGM Live (King Crimson’s website) for linking directly to these series of posts, my full-length interview with King Crimson bassist/Stick man and stalwart Peter Gabriel sideman Tony Levin. See my prior post for Part 1 of this 2003 interview with this innovative bassist. And so it is on with Part 2 of the interview, Levin on his time on the Up tour…

How long have you been on tour for the Up album?

We started rehearsals last August [2002].  We did warm-ups last September.  We toured the States November, December.  We toured Europe in April, May and now it’s June, and I think that’s going to be it, although you never know.

Why return to the US for a second tour?

I didn’t ask Peter.  I don’t really know.  I know it’s a different kind of show because we’re not doing big arenas, so we don’t have the huge stage above us and the thing built– although we are adding some different material, and we’re also using some different staging ideas of Peter’s.  Actually, we haven’t done them all yet.

What’s this live show like compared to the last Up tour?

It sounds a lot better being outdoors with no ringing.  The trouble with arenas is it’s good to see a special show, but the sound is awful.  Here outdoors people are already commenting it sounds great.  They can hear everything.

How’s the live presentation of this tour compared to the last Up tour?

Huh. . . (he sighs) Golly!  You know, I’m typical of musicians.  Once I’m on the tour I don’t really think about the last one, so it’s hard to think back. I think it’s similar in that there’s quite a bit of spectacle and the spectacle is mixed in a way that Pete is very good at, with real human elements, so the people in the audience don’t feel like they’re seeing some kind of circus.  They feel involved in the show.  They feel like he’s speaking to them directly. That’s partly because he’s in the middle of the arena and it’s part because both he and Robert Lepage, the show designer, are very good at keeping the show human and communicating well.

Beyond the addition of “No Way Out,” how has the set list changed?

We’ve added “Don’t Give Up.”  Actually, I think it’s going to change from night to night, too.  I know we rehearsed “Darkness,” but we haven’t done it and “Grieve” we rehearsed, but we didn’t do that.  Give me a minute to run and get a set list while we’re talking. . .

What songs do you like to perform and why?

One that I enjoy the most is “Mercy Street,” but I don’t actually have a difficult bass part or a bass part that’s particularly up in front, but we do it in a very different way than we used to.  We all sing on it.  There used to be pretty minimal background vocals.  Now it’s really quite a vocal song, and it’s just a very good moment.  When we did it in the round stage some of us sat on the edges of the stage and revolved—Oh, WOW!

What’s going on?

Well, something pretty special, although not show-related unless I drink all this liquor that showed up behind stage.  Good golly!  That’s great.  Someone sent back three bottles of Fernet Branca a very unusual drink that I particularly like…So I’m still walking toward the set list.  But anyway, so that’s the special thing, but now that we’re on the normal stage, of course we’re not revolving, but I’m pretty sure we’ll sit in the front.  But anyways, it just works as a special moment in the show, and I particularly like that one.  I like all of the pieces.  There are none that I haven’t had a lot of fun doing.

Now, I think it’s a gorgeous song, but do you ever get tired of playing “In Your Eyes”?

No.  I don’t.  Generally, on a really long—we used to tour for years, so when we’re on a really long tour you get tired of some of the material, that’s for sure.  But not the really good pieces, and this tour’s all good pieces, plus we’re not touring for a couple of years, so I don’t think I’ll get tired of anything. OK, I’m on stage where my set list should be and it isn’t there!  OK, we’re doing “Red Rain,” like we did.  We’re doing “Secret World.”  “Games Without Frontiers” we have added.  We’re doing that.  We didn’t do that in the regular tour. “Don’t Give Up” we’ve added.  “Tower,” actually the full name is “The Tower That Ate People.” We’re doing that.  We’re doing “Shock the Monkey.” “Come Talk to Me,” which on some shows we did and some we didn’t.  Those are the new ones that we’re doing tonight, but by tomorrow or the next show, things could have changed.  We could have added more newer pieces or newer or older pieces.  We did rehearse quite a few.

Did you even do “Shock the Monkey” on the Us tour?

Oh, on the Us tour, yes.  Last year we did it a couple of times but only a couple.

Hopefully you’ll do it when you come down to West Palm Beach.

Yeah!  I think, unless we do something wrong, it’ll still be there.  Unless we’ll do it badly.  I’m looking forward to going there.  It’ll be fun.  I haven’t been in Florida for quite a while with Peter.

How do you think Melanie is working out?

Um, great.  It’s a pleasure for us, not only having her sing and stuff, but I’ve known Melanie since she was a little girl, and, um, every band has a different energy depending on who’s in it and what they bring, and it’s great having a younger energy around and while we’re on the road.  There are a number of things that are great.  Also, she’s a great person, so it’s pretty neat having her.

Do you remember the day she was introduced to you as part of the band?  What did you think?

That’s a good question, but I’m afraid I don’t remember.  I’m sure you could get interesting answers to that from people, but I can’t remember when that was.  I think I heard it before the tour that she would be doing it.  Sorry, I don’t remember exactly.

Who’s the live drummer this time around?

Ged Lynch.  He’s done a lot of work with Peter in the last few years, and I did know his playing because two years ago we did a show in Seattle, a WOMAD festival, with kind of the same line-up, in a way, and Jed was the drummer, so I know he’s a very good drummer.

He’s on the record too.

I think so.  Playing both drums and percussion.

So what happened with Manu Katche?

Nothing happened to him. Just Peter chose to tour with Jed.  I don’t know why, really.

Remember when you did World Diary?  They were impromptu jam sessions in hotel rooms and stuff, right?  Have you thought about using more current portable recording technology and doing another one?

I have thought about it.  My first plan was to follow that up with two other albums in the same vein, going around the U.S.  I particularly avoided U.S. musicians [on World Diary].  I wanted to do it around the world, but not in the U.S., and I thought it would be nice to travel around the U.S. in my Harley with just my bass on my back or the Stick and visit musicians and just do records in their town.  So I was going to do that, but somewhere along the line I got busy with other ideas of what I might do for another album.  Lately, I’m enjoying writing in a more compositional way, in a less collaborative way, where I pretty much write the song out completely and then bring in musicians, so I’m sure I’ll go back at some point to a collaborative kind of thing.  Maybe go back to do that.  It was fun, but I wouldn’t mind doing that again.

The interview continues…

Read Part 3 (on King Crimson and more)

Read Part 1 (on recording with Peter Gabriel)

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

After my recent lengthy review on Peter Gabriel’s new release, Scratch My Back, I started feeling a bit nostalgic about the old PG days. The last published piece I wrote about my all-time favorite progressive rock musician came around the time I met the man backstage after a show on the Up tour, in West Palm Beach, Florida. I got his autograph on the then new CD, and that was pretty much it. I kind of felt stupid talking to him for such an impromptu moment as he signed paper plates for these annoying Brazilian chicks and another fanboy who brought practically every PG album for him to sign– even Genesis’ the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. I even offered Gabriel my service to hold his cup of tea as he signed the ephemera, but I still could not come up with much anything to say.

As much as I wanted to interview Gabriel for a piece in Goldmine during the release of Up, I was really there to meet Tony Levin face-to-face, as that is who the label offered for an interview, and I was quite cool with that. The opportunity to chat with Gabriel’s longest lasting band member gave me a great opportunity to glean some insight into their long-lasting relationship.

<!– /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-parent:””; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;} p.MsoBodyText, li.MsoBodyText, div.MsoBodyText {margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”; font-style:italic;} a:link, span.MsoHyperlink {color:blue; text-decoration:underline; text-underline:single;} a:visited, span.MsoHyperlinkFollowed {color:purple; text-decoration:underline; text-underline:single;} @page Section1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.Section1 {page:Section1;} –> This interview was conducted via phone on June 6 and 8, 2003, while Peter Gabriel was starting up his second U.S. “Growing Up” tour on the West Coast.  I believe the locations were San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. Levin was very gracious about talking with me about his work with Gabriel since 1976, over the phone, during one of the tour stops leading up to the West Palm Beach show, where Levin secured me some nice seats and a backstage visit. He has been one of the nicest rock veterans I ever had the pleasure to interview, and I want to share my never-before published, full Q&A with him (Goldmine published an abridged version for their Prog rock issue from October 17, 2003).

This is Part One in a series of three blog postings that I have decided to break the interview up in, and it focuses on his work with Peter Gabriel in the studio. Part two will be all about playing live on the Up tour and related questions, and part three focuses mostly on his work with King Crimson and other tidbits he shared with me about his photography and acting. So, without further ado…

You’re probably the most consistent Peter Gabriel sideman.  What keeps you coming back to work with him?

Well, first of all, I’ve done lots of different music projects.  I’ve done a lot of touring and a lot of albums, but Peter’s consistently my favorite thing to do, so it’s not a matter of just me coming back.  It’s actually—if I had to choose between Peter and anything else, I would choose Peter’s tours.  The reason of that is a combination of them being really good music and really fun and Peter being a great guy, and so he kind of attracts good people, so it’s nice to be around, even in addition to the music being really great.

What are Gabriel’s recording sessions like?  Did you have to be handy for 10 years straight for Up?

They’re different than anybody else’s, that’s for sure.  First of all, I’m only involved in part of it.  I come in early, when we’re doing what’s called the rhythm tracks, and Peter generally has an idea of the song, maybe not completely worked out, and we spend anywhere from a few weeks to a month doing an album worth of rhythm tracks.  And then it goes through a process that really takes longer and longer each album.  It takes years, and Peter fiddles with it and sometimes brings in other rhythm section elements and then, when the final product comes out, I’m as surprised to hear it as anybody else because it has very little to do with the version I heard in the beginning, and often I’m still on it . . . so it’s an interesting process really that Peter goes through.  More than knowing what he wants at the beginning and going directly there is kind of a process that takes him quite a while, and I’m only involved in the early stage of it.

How do you feel about this, for your creative sake?

I’m fine.  First of all, I’m very used to it.  This started this way in, golly, 1976  (laughs).  I should be used to it by now, and also I do a lot of albums that are done different ways, and what I focus on is bringing what I can musically to the project and really becoming a fan of the music and contributing from the bass-end of things.  I don’t really get so bothered about the process itself and the way it’s going ‘cause that’s not really my domain, unless I’m the producer, which is pretty unusual.

How much direction does Gabriel give you when you play your bass parts?

It varies a lot.  Sometimes he’ll have a bass idea that’s pretty good, and I’ll just do it, and sometimes it’s an idea that I’ll modify and make more bass-player-like, and sometimes it’s an idea that I’ll kind of go against, and I’ll try something different and sometimes we’ll compromise.  Sometimes, in the end, we’ll go back to his own idea.  Sometimes he likes what I do completely from the first note and just says, “I love that, keep doing that.” It really varies quite a bit.  I certainly am open to his suggestions because, like many people who are musical and who aren’t bass players, he gets ideas that a bass player wouldn’t normally think of, and I like to use him as an inspiration for coming up with unusual parts.  But I also—for me as a bass player, the part has to have some kind of bass-ness to it.  I don’t know really how to describe that in words, but if it doesn’t really move my body in a certain way, then I’m not as happy with it as I’d like to be, so I keep kind of moving towards the part that just kind of organically works for me.

Is that bass opening for “Don’t Remember” yours?

I think it’s just mine.  It’s a Stick part.  It’s this unusual instrument, the Stick, where I can play bass parts that have bigger jumps than on a normal bass and a little bit of a different timbre– much more attack than a normal bass, so that was a typical stick part of mine.  But other parts. . . “Sledgehammer” was my part, on a fretless bass, but “Don’t Give Up” was a part that really he worked out on a drum machine, but it kind of almost had pitches, so he played me this drum machine part, and I said, “Well, that’s a great bass part.  Let me just put the notes that work to that,” so, really, in a way it was three-quarters his part.

What about the beginning of “No Way Out,” on the new record?

“No Way Out” has three different basses on it.  That’s a good example of why I don’t know what the record’s going to sound like till it’s done. One of them is mine, playing an electric up-right bass, but then two other basses, with different players [Danny Thompson on Double Bass and Gabriel on Arpeggiated Bass] were added later.  I’m the beginning of the three.  I’m not sure which is the guy that comes in first.  I forget.  It’s been so long since I did the track.  But I know I have an issue when we play that live—and I’m about to play that live for the first time tonight—about which of those three parts to pick out to play.

How did you first get into playing the Chapman Stick?  What lead you to it?  When was that?

When I first heard about it, which was about 1975.  I heard there was this instrument you play by hammer technique, and then it’s kind of like a bass but different, and it appealed to me because I like unusual music and unusual instruments, so I got it right away, and I’ve been playing it ever since.

And you didn’t play it at all on the first Peter Gabriel album, right?

I brought it to those sessions.  It was pretty new, and I actually showed it to the producer [Bob Ezrin], and he had me put it away.  He didn’t even want to even hear it.  I do remember that.  But I played it on the tour of that album for one piece called “Moribund the Burgermiester.”  I remember playing it a lot on that tour, and on the second album I was playing it pretty exclusively.

What gave you the idea for the funk fingers?

It’s a long story, but I can tell it quickly.  It started from a piece of Peter Gabriel’s called “Big Time” where on that album, So, I asked Jerry Morrota to play with his drumsticks on the bass while I fingered it, seemed like a good idea.  And then a year later, when I was doing the touring I was trying to play that part with just a drumstick in my hand.  I had to practice it a lot, and, as usual, just like now, I was practicing and Peter Gabriel walked by me and said, “Why don’t you figure out some way to attach two sticks to your fingers,” so that’s what that was.  His idea really, and then we fooled around, my bass tech and I, really for a year with different size sticks and different lengths and things like that till I finally got so I liked it.  Then I called them “funk fingers” just for the fun of it.  It ended up on this tour I was playing them quite a bit.  For most pieces I’m playing the funk fingers.

And what’s the advantage of playing with them?

They’re more percussive.  That simple.  There are a lot of disadvantages.  It’s hard to hit the right string.  I had to practice a lot with them to get used to them, but once I’m used to them it’s very percussive, which for some things it’s really good.  I wouldn’t play them on every piece.

So, I heard Peter’s on to the next album, have you done any work on it?

I’ve heard that too (laughs).  I know nothing about it.  I know we did a lot of tracks for the last album, so there are plenty of spares, but I know nothing about it.  You would think being on the road that we talk about that stuff, but actually we don’t.  I don’t know what’s coming next for him.  I know that he’d like to release another album before another six years go by.

In the press kit it says that it’s supposedly called I/O, and he’s set to release it in a year and a half or something like that.

Oh, really?  Well, there you go, as usual you know more than me.  I’m usually the last to find out about these things, but then sometimes what you hear isn’t going to happen anyways, so…

The interview continues…

Read Part 2 (on touring with Peter Gabriel)

Read Part 3 (on King Crimson and more)

After my recent lengthy review on Peter Gabriel’s new release, Scratch My Back, I started feeling a bit nostalgic about the old PG days. The last published piece I wrote about my all-time favorite progressive rock musician came around the time I met the man backstage after a show on the Up tour, in West Palm Beach, Florida. I got his autograph on the then new CD, and that was pretty much it. I kind of felt stupid talking to him for such an impromptu moment as he signed paper plates for these annoying Brazilian chicks and another fanboy who brought practically every PG album for him to sign– even Genesis’ the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. I even offered Gabriel my service to hold his cup of tea as he signed the ephemera, but I still could not come up with much anything to say.

As much as I wanted to interview Gabriel for a piece in Goldmine during the release of Up, I was really there to meet Tony Levin face-to-face, as that is who the label offered for an interview, and I was quite cool with that. The opportunity to chat with Gabriel’s longest lasting band member gave me a great opportunity to glean some insight into their long-lasting relationship.

Levin was very gracious about talking with me about his work with Gabriel since 1976, over the phone, during one of the tour stops leading up to the West Palm Beach show, where Levin secured me some nice seats and a backstage visit. He has been one of the nicest rock veterans I ever had the pleasure to interview, and I want to share my never-before published, full Q&A with him (Goldmine published an abridged version for their Prog rock issue from October 17, 2003).

This is Part One in a series of three blog postings that I have decided to break the interview up in, and it focuses on his work with Peter Gabriel in the studio. Part two will be all about playing live on the Up tour and related questions, and part three focuses mostly on his work with King Crimson and other tidbits he shared with me about his photography and acting. So, without further ado…

You’re probably the most consistent Peter Gabriel sideman.  What keeps you coming back to work with him?

Well, first of all, I’ve done lots of different music projects.  I’ve done a lot of touring and a lot of albums, but Peter’s consistently my favorite thing to do, so it’s not a matter of just me coming back.  It’s actually—if I had to choose between Peter and anything else, I would choose Peter’s tours.  The reason of that is a combination of them being really good music and really fun and Peter being a great guy, and so he kind of attracts good people, so it’s nice to be around, even in addition to the music being really great.

What are Gabriel’s recording sessions like?  Did you have to be handy for 10 years straight for Up?

They’re different than anybody else’s, that’s for sure.  First of all, I’m only involved in part of it.  I come in early, when we’re doing what’s called the rhythm tracks, and Peter generally has an idea of the song, maybe not completely worked out, and we spend anywhere from a few weeks to a month doing an album worth of rhythm tracks.  And then it goes through a process that really takes longer and longer each album.  It takes years, and Peter fiddles with it and sometimes brings in other rhythm section elements and then, when the final product comes out, I’m as surprised to hear it as anybody else because it has very little to do with the version I heard in the beginning, and often I’m still on it . . . so it’s an interesting process really that Peter goes through.  More than knowing what he wants at the beginning and going directly there is kind of a process that takes him quite a while, and I’m only involved in the early stage of it.

How do you feel about this, for your creative sake?

I’m fine.  First of all, I’m very used to it.  This started this way in, golly, 1976.  (snicker).  I should be used to it by now, and also I do a lot of albums that are done different ways, and what I focus on is bringing what I can musically to the project and really becoming a fan of the music and contributing from the bass-end of things.  I don’t really get so bothered about the process itself and the way it’s going ‘cause that’s not really my domain, unless I’m the producer, which is pretty unusual.

How much direction does Gabriel give you when you play your bass parts?

It varies a lot.  Sometimes he’ll have a bass idea that’s pretty good, and I’ll just do it, and sometimes it’s an idea that I’ll modify and make more bass-player-like, and sometimes it’s an idea that I’ll kind of go against, and I’ll try something different and sometimes we’ll compromise.  Sometimes, in the end, we’ll go back to his own idea.  Sometimes he likes what I do completely from the first note and just says, “I love that, keep doing that.” It really varies quite a bit.  I certainly am open to his suggestions because, like many people who are musical and who aren’t bass players, he gets ideas that a bass player wouldn’t normally think of, and I like to use him as an inspiration for coming up with unusual parts.  But I also—for me as a bass player, the part has to have some kind of bass-ness to it.  I don’t know really how to describe that in words, but if it doesn’t really move my body in a certain way, then I’m not as happy with it as I’d like to be, so I keep kind of moving towards the part that just kind of organically works for me.

Is that bass opening for “Don’t Remember” yours?

I think it’s just mine.  It’s a Stick part.  It’s this unusual instrument, the Stick, where I can play bass parts that have bigger jumps than on a normal bass and a little bit of a different timbre– much more attack than a normal bass, so that was a typical stick part of mine.  But other parts. . . “Sledgehammer” was my part, on a fretless bass, but “Don’t Give Up” was a part that really he worked out on a drum machine, but it kind of almost had pitches, so he played me this drum machine part, and I said, “Well, that’s a great bass part.  Let me just put the notes that work to that,” so, really, in a way it was three-quarters his part.

What about the beginning of “No Way Out,” on the new record?

“No Way Out” has three different basses on it.  That’s a good example of why I don’t know what the record’s going to sound like till it’s done. One of them is mine, playing an electric up-right bass, but then two other basses, with different players [Danny Thompson on Double Bass and Gabriel on Arpeggiated Bass] were added later.  I’m the beginning of the three.  I’m not sure which is the guy that comes in first.  I forget.  It’s been so long since I did the track.  But I know I have an issue when we play that live—and I’m about to play that live for the first time tonight—about which of those three parts to pick out to play.

How did you first get into playing the Chapman Stick?  What lead you to it?  When was that?

When I first heard about it, which was about 1975.  I heard there was this instrument you play by hammer technique, and then it’s kind of like a bass but different, and it appealed to me because I like unusual music and unusual instruments, so I got it right away, and I’ve been playing it ever since.

And you didn’t play it at all on the first Peter Gabriel album, right?

I brought it to those sessions.  It was pretty new, and I actually showed it to the producer [Bob Ezrin], and he had me put it away.  He didn’t even want to even hear it.  I do remember that.  But I played it on the tour of that album for one piece called “Moribund the Burgermiester.”  I remember playing it a lot on that tour, and on the second album I was playing it pretty exclusively.

What gave you the idea for the funk fingers?

It’s a long story, but I can tell it quickly.  It started from a piece of Peter Gabriel’s called “Big Time” where on that album, So, I asked Jerry Morrota to play with his drumsticks on the bass while I fingered it, seemed like a good idea.  And then a year later, when I was doing the touring I was trying to play that part with just a drumstick in my hand.  I had to practice it a lot, and, as usual, just like now, I was practicing and Peter Gabriel walked by me and said, “Why don’t you figure out some way to attach two sticks to your fingers,” so that’s what that was.  His idea really, and then we fooled around, my bass tech and I, really for a year with different size sticks and different lengths and things like that till I finally got so I liked it.  Then I called them “funk fingers” just for the fun of it.  It ended up on this tour I was playing them quite a bit.  For most pieces I’m playing the funk fingers.

And what’s the advantage of playing with them?

They’re more percussive.  That simple.  There are a lot of disadvantages.  It’s hard to hit the right string.  I had to practice a lot with them to get used to them, but once I’m used to them it’s very percussive, which for some things it’s really good.  I wouldn’t play them on every piece.

So, I heard Peter’s on to the next album, have you done any work on it?

I’ve heard that too (laughs).  I know nothing about it.  I know we did a lot of tracks for the last album, so there are plenty of spares, but I know nothing about it.  You would think being on the road that we talk about that stuff, but actually we don’t.  I don’t know what’s coming next for him.  I know that he’d like to release another album before another six years go by.

Iin the press kit it says that it’s supposedly called I/O, and he’s set to release it in a year and a half or something like that.

Oh, really?  Well, there you go, as usual you know more than me.  I’m usually the last to find out about these things, but then sometimes what you hear isn’t going to happen anyways, so. . .

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Vampire Weekend have a new video. This time for the second promotable track from their upcoming full-length Contra (due out Jan. 12). Watch it here:

Their first single was “Horchata,” and they once had a free mp3 download of the track on their website. Now the same video above dominates their site (a large file that may load slow on some computers, so the link above moves best). You can still download the “Horchata” mp3 at We All Want Someone to Shout For. Check it out, here, with lyrics included.

I’m still kicking myself for missing them at the Gleason Center in Miami Beach during their last tour. I had not given their debut album a proper chance at the time. All the critics couldn’t stop talking about their African roots music, which grated my sensibilities while listening to the album via Napster. The influence really is not as pronounced as most critics might have you think (although they sing “Peter Gabriel” in their track “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” that doesn’t mean it sounds like “Biko.”*). Needless to say, the album later grew on me and I picked up the vinyl at Sweat Records. Here’s to hoping they return to South Florida for their second album!

*By the way, you can hear Peter Gabriel’s version of the song here (thanks again, Will). It’s a collaboration with Hot Chip.

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