Ian Vanek is perhaps best known for his time in the band Japanther. From 2001 to 2014 Japanther brought together the interest of Vanek and bandmate Matt Reilly in hip-hop, punk, art, graffiti and a spirit of experimenting with a mode of creative expression that would be difficult to pigeonhole. Depending on who you might have asked at any point people might have lumped Japanther in with punk, garage rock, indie rock or art rock. The group befriended a broad spectrum of like-minded artists in the realm of music and fine art and pursued whatever opportunities presented themselves in that rich milieu of Brooklyn in the 2000s and early 2010s and the American and international art and music underground. In the spring of 2021 Vanek released his memoir Puppy Dog Ice Cream about his time in Japanther. His candid and thoughtful account of his life during those years is a vibrant and encompassing narrative that truly captures the spirit of that time and those various places that certainly intersected similar scenes throughout the country and the wider world before various political, social and economic forces made the cultural infrastructure that made aspects of DIY touring and the art galleries and venues increasingly unsustainable certainly by the end of the decade.
These days Vanek’s perhaps main musical project is Howardian and he’s playing a show at 1010 Workshop in Denver, Colorado on Monday, October 18, 2001 at 10:30 p.m. with Knuckle Pups which includes Oliver Holloway formerly of the great folk punk band The Fainting Fansies. Vanek also publishes his long running zine 99mm, the current issue of which includes an interview with hip-hop legend Boots Riley of The Coup whose film Sorry To Bother You garnered rave critical reviews upon its release in 2018 and with whom Vanek has toured and collaborated. We recently got to talk with Vanek extensively about his time in music going back to his youth in Olympia, Washington in the 90s when he was involved in underground music and culture from a very young age. In the extended discussion we talked about aspects of how underground music has changed and how that evolution was inevitable as well as the perils of nostalgia and a looking forward to a future of inspirational music and art that one has not yet encountered. For more information on Vanek, his various projects and goings on, please visit ianvanek.com where you can also find links to his social media accounts related to his varied creative projects. For now, you can listen to the interview on Bandcamp for episode 5 of the Queen City Sounds Podcast below.
Cellista brings her tour for her new album Pariah to Colorado this weekend. The multi-media artist described her performances “stage poems” that engage those who show up as part of an inclusive experience that reflects the reality of the world and people’s lives. Originally from Longmont, Colorado, Cellista has been on a creative and civic path that has expanded her ideas of the possibilities of music and the reach of her rooting in classical music and working through her compositions and performances to make that world of music more accessible to people outside the traditional elite circles through presenting musical and theatrical experiences in a way that attempts to break down those barriers, psychological, social and economic. If you go expect not just to witness music and storytelling but a strong cinematic dance element. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Cellista about her background in Denver underground music, the noise scene and her times developing her music and performance in San Jose, California and beyond. So listen on Bandcamp embedded below. And go see the show for yourself on Friday, October 14, 2001 at Mutiny Information Café, doors 7:30 p.m. with special sets from dark ambient artist Herpes Hideaway and Zero Collective and Saturday October 16, at House of Cellista in Longmont with Zero Collective, 7:34 p.m.
For more information please utilize the links below the Bandcamp podcast.
The Titwrench Festival launched in 2009 as a means of shining a light on the creative efforts of marginalized groups beginning with the musical and art works of female identified folks and expanded to other groups including the 2SLBGTQIAP+ community at large and people of color and so on. While the curation has been thusly focused, the festival has always been all ages and inclusive and open to everyone to get to experience creative performances in a safe environment from people whose work isn’t always featured in the usual venues and rooms where you generally get to see live music. The current edition of the festival takes place on Sunday, October 3, 2021 from 4-10 p.m. at the Denver City Park Pavilion. The event will include educational workshops, dance parties, food from Maiz food truck (selling homemade Mexican cuisine) and a market featuring Witch Collective, a group of local artisans and herbalists. This podcast includes interviews with the event organizers (Sarah Slater, Michaela Perez and Katie Rothery) and members of all the performing artists including My Name is Harriet, Machete Mouth, Nacha Mendez, April (Axé) Charmane of Sol Vida Worldwide and Harmony Rose of The Milkblossoms. For more information on the festival please visit titwrenchcollective.org. Listen below to our lengthy interviews with the festival’s organizers and artists performing at this year’s event.
Since forming in 2006, Portland, Oregon’s The Shivas has developed a sound that incorporates elements of 60s psychedelic garage rock and pop but out of step with obvious trends. Its idiosyncratic songwriting style has always seemed to have more in common with the 90s indie pop and its emphasis on raw expressiveness and tapping into classic sounds and aesthetics as a vehicle for expressing timeless themes and universal human emotions with an intensity and artistry that feels vital and of the moment and not trying to recreate a previous era of music and culture. The band started making a name for itself in the American underground in the late 2000s but its breakthrough to a wider audience might be traced in the wake of the release of its 2013 album Whiteout! On the respected and influential label K Records. Heavy touring every year and a string of solid albums garnered the band a bit of a cult following when, in 2020, The Shivas, like many touring entities, had to effectively stop operations. The foursome had already written its next album and had to put plans on hold for any kind of release until the following year. During the first part of the pandemic and a de facto blackout of live shows happening, three fourths of the band worked with the unhouse population of Portland through a non-profit and took time to rethink and rework how the band would operate going into the future. In early 2021 the group released its latest album Feels So Good // Feels So Bad through Tender Loving Empire, a record that evokes the sense of urgency and uncertainty that all of us felt during the bleakest times of the 2020-2021 pandemic but which many of us poignantly felt prior to that global, and ongoing, health crisis. It is both a cathartic and comforting listen. Now the group is in the beginning part of its first tour since the winter of 2019-2020 and you can catch them at Treefort Music Fest this weekend (Friday, 9/24 at The Hideout at 4 p.m. and Saturday 9/25 (really 9/26 but who’s counting) at the Olympic at 12:40 a.m.) and in Denver at the Hi-Dive on Monday, 10/4 with as yet announced dates between and following the Denver date. Visit theshivas.org for more information and other dates for the tour. We recently got to speak with guitarist and vocalist Jared Molyneux about the new record its origins and the impact of not being able to tour for a year and a half on the band and its priorities for the future. Below is the link to Queen City Sounds Podcast episode including that conversation as well as the fetching video for “Feels So Bad.”
After their psychedelic/shoegaze band Creepoid dissolved a few years back, Anna and Patrick Troxell took some time out to further explore the pop and electronic side of their songwriting. Lovelorn emerged out of that process and its 2021 debut full-length What’s Yr Damage echoes with the influence of 80s, noisy psychedelic soundscapers and fellow travelers on the line of blending rock instruments with electronic sensibilities, Spacemen 3 as well as grimy industrial dance acts like My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult and experimental rock band Curve and its own gift for perfectly blending electronic dance ideas with cathartic psychedelia. But the sentiments expressed and the tenor of the record is very much grounded in the present and the challenges faced by us all as the fallout of income inequality compounded by a continuing global pandemic and a now seemingly endless climate crisis crashes throughout our lives, casting stark shadows on the near and foreseeable future. And yet the album is not despairing, rather an embrace of life and a lingering will to strive toward a meaningful and vibrant existence. Lovelorn offers no convenient or pat answers but its music resonates with the certainty that your feelings about the world are real despite how politicians, pundits and the mainstream media spin events. We had a chance to pose some questions to Lovelorn via email so read on and if you are so inclined give the band a listen on Bandcamp (linked below) where you can pre-order the vinyl release of the record due to ship out in late November.
Queen City Sounds (Tom Murphy): “Get a Job” is reminiscent to me of Curve from the albums Cuckoo and Come Clean. That sort of difficult to classify blend of pop, industrial and noisy guitar rock with programmed beats. What artists, if any, did you find inspiring or interesting that influenced that aspect of your music? What moods/emotions do you think that sound lends itself well to expressing?
Lovelorn: We are getting a lot of Curve references, which is awesome but definitely not something that was at the forefront of our minds when making the LP. “Get a Job” was actually a song that kind of snuck its way onto the record last minute. We had the beat for a while but hadn’t fleshed it into anything yet. The night before our 2019 SXSW tour, the Baltimore date was canceled due to weather. So I went down into the basement with that beat and wrote the vocals—turned it into a song. We ended up playing it every night on that tour and letting the live performance really inform how the song would take shape. Honestly, I think I was thinking more of it being a Rapture type thing at the time. The sound was angry to me, and I wanted to tap into this pissed off existential dread vibe.
Q: The title of “Get a Job” also sounds like a common refrain creative people hear from family, friends and strangers who think as an artist you’re not doing anything serious and that, in fact, takes work that isn’t always easy to quantify. As if working hard at some mundane, often essentially meaningless job just to survive is something to which one must aspire. What are some jobs you’ve done that have made you recommit to doing creative work?
L: Oh man, we’ve both had some terrible soul sucking jobs. The worst job I ever had was selling Colorado Prime steaks over the phone. You had to lie and pretend they didn’t have to buy an extra freezer but they totally did. Patrick has had basically every shitty job you can imagine. We’ve both also been super lucky and had amazing jobs. When we made the decision to quit our jobs and go on tour full time with Creepoid, I had a wonderful job teaching art history at a college in Philadelphia. Ultimately though, there’s nothing as fulfilling as working for yourself.
Q: How would you answer someone that tells you to get a job instead of doing a musical project if you had to give a serious response?
L: I’ve had this conversation several times with all sorts of people. People are either being a dick or they genuinely do not understand the amount of work that goes into being a full time band. Most of the time you can get people to see reason. What’s more frustrating to me is when people say things like “Oh, well its time to get back to real life” or some other stupid reference to touring not being a legitimate source of income. I don’t know, it feels pretty fucking real to me.
Q: It seems to me that the economy for being in a band has changed drastically over the course of the last eight to ten years from venues you can play, being able to have a job to sustain yourself and pay rent at home, transportation, getting your music out into the world and promoting it in order to get your band talked about and reaching for various opportunities. How has that changed for you in ways that may have impacted Creepoid dissolving and Lovelorn navigating the new music world landscape? As a musician and writer myself I saw music blogs implode, alternative weeklies drastically reduce activity or disappear, the ways bands seem to have to market themselves is strange to me, DIY spaces especially after the pandemic and many clubs being gone, the “indie” model of music festivals and radio formats making things less diverse. Etc. Just wondering about your perspective on that and how that has affected your life as a musician both before and currently with Lovelorn.
L: The pandemic has taken out a lot of great venues and bands, that is a sad and undeniable truth. But, I think there will be a reawakening of new DIY spaces that will emerge in the next few years. You can’t break the DIY spirit. We just recently played at an amazing DIY space in Houston, and it was awesome. Kids for the kids, no ego, a safe place for all. The marketing thing is funny too. I try not to get too caught up in how to flex on social media, use it to promote the hell out of yourself for sure but also stay authentic.
Q: “Sickness Reward” is about failure and I feel it’s a bit of an illuminating exploration of the experience and meaning of that concept. How has your understanding of failure evolved in your understanding of what it is and how much weight we need to give it since adolescence?
L: It’s sort of about failure. It’s more specifically about my eating disorder, which I had in my early 20s. It’s about chasing an ideal that will never come, and ultimately feeling disgusted with yourself in every way possible. It’s true though, this idea of ‘SUCCESS’ is drilled into all of us. Creatives aren’t able to escape either. I think if you’re ever going to feel satisfied you have to carve out your own definition of success, instead of chasing after someone else’s.
Q: A number of people I know who have made and do make music that gets lumped in with shoegaze have always been or have become interested in Detroit techno and the like in the past decade and more. How did you become interested in it and how do you feel it fits into your overall way of thinking about and making the music you do?
L: We both have been interested in those sounds since high school. But honestly, I am much more influenced by hip hop and pop when I make music, and Patrick is more influenced by 90s Brit Pop—so together we create this weird little drug pop child.
Q: “Hole In Yr Soul” and the album title What’s Yr Damage seem to me oblique references in some way to late 80s and early 90s popular culture and music with Sonic Youth and Bikini Kill using the shortened “yr” for “your” and maybe Heathers and the line “What’s your damage?” Maybe it relates to “Get A Job” and adjusting to what seems to me a world culture hell bent on leaving everyone not already wealthy (and even them long term) broken or crippled in their psyche and ability to resist and blame themselves for not making that adjustment because of the “rules” of how things have been working, or rather, not working. What is the significance of that title and song for you perhaps in the context of the album and what seems to me an extended commentary on life in late capitalism?
L: Both “Hole in Yr Soul” and “Whats Yr Damage” are more directly about mental illness than a more general comment on society – though that certainly feeds into the issues of mental illness. To us, the use of the “Yr” places the tone of the question in a specific voice, hopefully one that the listener relates to, and trusts. Yr not alone.
Q: Why do you feel Spacemen 3 has continued to resonate with you creatively?
L: Spacemen 3 continues to influence me because they still have a hand in current music. Sonic Boom has touched so much over the years from MGMT, Panda Bear, Beach House, and Yo La Tengo. J Spaceman takes a different approach, spending years orchestrating beautiful live shows with Spiritualized. At the end of all that, they still hold their DIY roots, making it very difficult for record collectors and I love that.
Spunsugar from Malmö, Sweden released its debut album Drive-Through Chapel in October 2020 on Adrian Recordings. Rather than the ethereal post-rock that passes for entirely too much shoegaze and psychedelic rock of late, Spunsugar’s music has a grittiness and emotional urgency that pairs well with elements of an industrial aesthetic. In that way Spunsugar has more in common with groups like Curve and A Place to Bury Strangers that have embraced a similarly hybrid approach to songwriting and soundscaping. We recently sent some questions to the band about its origins, the subjects of its songs and its decision to sing in English. Connect with the band at the links following the Q&A. Article and interview by Tom Murphy.
Queen City Sounds and Art: Cordelia and Elin met at 13. What did a small town outsider clique look like at that age and what mutual interests draw people who are part of that together?
Elin Ramstedt: We mostly hung out with the weirdos and bonded over music, alcohol and alienation.
Cordelia Moreau: We also had less parental supervision than a lot of the kids at our age so that made it easier for us to do mischief at nights without repercussions!
Q: Cordelia and Elin spent some time hardly speaking to each other and not writing music for several years. What were they discovering and exploring separately that seemed to inform what they would do with the new band?
E: I wrote music by myself but always felt that I wanted Cordelias input because of the way that we complement each other when writing music. I felt restrained. I listened to a lot of music and went to concerts and built up the eagerness to play music with others. I mean it is not easy to be a female in a male dominated industry and I guess it took some time before I realised that this was actually something that we could do as well.
Q: In what ways do you think coming up as the children of farmers and fundamentalists and “trailer trash” in small towns in Sweden shaped your view of and approach to making your music?
E: Maybe that we don’t really take anything for granted. We don’t really feel the urge to be famous or anything, we are just very thankful that we make music that people like and can relate to.
C: It makes us less snobby, I think.
F: Yeah, and it’s something to be proud of. Pride is a feeling we haven’t got an abundance of growing up. I spent a lot of time in my teens being somewhat ashamed of the circumstances around my upbringing, family etc. So to have this thing (the band) that is 100% our own is a great source of pride.
Q: What kinds of places did you play before moving to Malmö and how did that environment influence your early development as musicians?
E: Spunsugar didn’t exist before we all lived in Malmö, from 2018. Cordelia and I played in a band when we were teenagers. We mostly played at youth centers. One time we participated in some kind of music competition and the judges told us that we looked like we were dead on stage.
F: Haha, the same here. I played in several metal bands and also a cover band. We played Creedence, Rollings Stones and Ted Gärdestad songs. That kind of stuff. We played shows at small pubs in front of audiences of a bunch of 50-year old women trying to hit on us. Which was strange for me being 18 at the time. I mean, these gigs weren’t the most inspiring but it gave me a lot of experience of playing live and solving situations revolving playing live.
Q: Knowing virtually nothing about the music world of Malmö myself, I wonder what it’s like for an independent even underground band to develop, book shows and connect with other bands to perform and cultivate an audience? Are there places to play that were integral to your growth as a band? Publications/media outlets that write about local band that were helpful to Spunsugar and other groups?
E: Malmö is a city with a lot of really great pop and rock bands! There are a few places that we have been playing at in Malmö. I think that it is kind of easy to get to play small gigs around Malmö, even if you are a new band. We have played at Plan B like four times haha. We haven’t really had any contact with local media outlets. I mean 2020 has been shitty and we haven’t really played that much live at all since we started the band, but we’re aiming at replacing COVID-19 in taking over the world.
F: Yeah, like Elin said, Plan B has been important to us. They gave us a chance for our first gig and our relationship with them has kind of developed with the growth of the band. We had our release-show for our album there and it was a fantastic night. The local media has been awfully quiet to be honest, but that’s not a problem really. There is a big scene of alternative bands and venues that talked to and about each other so I feel that bands can evolve anyway.
Q: You once opened for Nothing. When and where was that? In what ways do you feel Nothing is an influence on your own art?
E: It was at Plan B in Malmö November 2018. It was our first gig ever!! I think Nothing inspired and inspires us to write heavier music. When we started playing music together our music was much poppier but then we realised that we wanted to play music that is a mix of Britney Spears and Slayer.
C: Also, the soundscape of their latest album is really inspiring. Melodically, their geniuses, and they have a certain atmosphere in their songs that are gentle but hard, depressing but catchy. That’s a great way to write music.
F: I think that gig was a bit of an eye opener too. It was quite daunting to play with a band that we respect so much on our first show. It made me realise that this is real and experiences like this actually could happen to us as well, not only to other more fortunate people. I think we put in a higher gear after that. We took things a bit more seriously.
Q: Your songs are in English. What informed that decision and what helped you coming up to learn and connect with the language in a way that makes it a comfortable choice for creative expression (assuming it is)?
C: I guess it’s because pretty much every song, movie and TV-show we consume is in English. It’s personal enough since it’s a language we speak but if I wrote lyrics in Swedish I’d sometimes lack the ability to reference things I want to reference, as well as a vast enough vocabulary. But I sometimes write in Swedish but not for Spunsugar.
E: It would be too embarrassing for me to sing swedish lyrics. You really can sing about nothing when it is not your native language and it sounds cool anyway.
Q: The title Drive-Through Chapel suggests much like the nature of religion and its role in society. What inspired giving the album that title?
E: You could actually say that we are antichrist himself, kind of, and I think that we are fascinated about commercialization of religion and how it can be expressed.
F: And it’s a good title. I mean, I like how it sounds and looks.
C: I grew up in a religious village, it shaped me a lot. When I moved with my mom I got to see something different while my dad was still in that southern religious world. My mom was heavy into rock music and dark movies so she showed me a lot of dark stuff at a young age. That was a scary, intriguing contrast, but it gave perspective that helped me question organized religion. If that music and those books and films were so evil, why did they make me feel so nice? It planted the seed for my obsession with the plastic workings behind these small time churches.
Q: “Video Nasty” is an interesting title to a song as it references a category of film given that designation in the UK in the early 1980s. How did you become familiar with that concept and do you have particular video nasties you like and why?
C: I’m a horror movie buff and have always been fascinated with the idea of media ruining young peoples minds and making them violent, because I was scared into believing that was how it worked as a child. It doesn’t, by the way. In that song I use this concept as a metaphor for peoples invasion and fear of the sexualities of others. I haven’t done many deep dives into the most obscure ones but I absolutely love I Spit On Your Grave, The Last House on the Left and The Beyond.
Q: There is a real synthesis of electronic music and rock in your songwriting with the drum machine fully integrated. What about that sort of sound have you appreciated in other artists?
E: I like the contrasts.
C: I think it blurs the lines of what time the music belongs to. It’s a little bit 80s, a little bit now and a little bit future sounding. I am a big fan of late 80s to late 90s electronical/industrial sounding metal. Everything from Type O Negative, Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie, it has a certain type of grit to it while at the same time being cheesier and more mellow than other types of metal.
F: It’s very much a mix of all the things we like. I was a big heavy metal kid growing up, and a quite conservative one too. It was a big eye opener when I found bands that could blend that intensity with other influences. That you didn’t need to sound like Entombed or Sleep to sound heavy or that you could sound beautiful and heavy at the same time.
The Ocean Blue performs tonight, December 5, at Soiled Dove Underground. Hailing from Hershey, Pennsylvania, The Ocean Blue didn’t blow up into a household name when it first came to the attention of an international audience by the late 80s but like many bands of the era this has perhaps accounted for some of its enduring longevity. Its sound was a lushly melodic rock music that was fairly sophisticated by the time the fledgling band released its earliest singles in 1986, the year it formed. The members of the group had known each other since middle school and had learned to play together in that organic way a group of friends who more or less grew up together do with a natural chemistry that makes the songs most other people get to hear seem effortless and polished.
Looking back to the 80s from the perspective of today it can be a bit of a mystery to suss out where bands might have played and honed their craft outside of garages and bedrooms unless it was a punk band. The Ocean Blue didn’t play out much other than a birthday party and a school dance until the band got a manager who advised the group to play out and work on the live show. “At that point, we started playing small clubs and colleges in the mid-Atlantic area,” says guitarist and lead vocalist David Schelzel.
The young band also connected with older musicians who were coming to be known in the pre-alternative rock underground music world who enjoyed some degree of success on college radio, which was a far more important factor in the success of a band beyond the local scene up through the 2000s. Most significantly for The Ocean Blue in this regard was dream pop legends The Innocence Mission.
“We met the Innocence Mission when we did a radio station benefit record, and I became fast friends with Don and Karen,” says Schelzel. “They were a bit older and way ahead of us musically, but they were super kind and became great encouragers and friends as we both started to get a wider audience and later on, record deals. They are kindred spirits for sure. Music in the late 80s locally was dominated by hair metal and blues bands, along with peppy pop stuff. We stood out, and thus didn’t get lost in a big city or scene. We found a bit of a circuit at clubs and colleges that supported original, local music, in nearby cities, like Lancaster, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC.”
Undoubtedly The Innocence Mission helped to mentor The Ocean Blue in the ways of the music industry including dealing with labels and publishing. Fortunately the group had a team of people including a manager, a good lawyer and a music publisher by the time it signed, in 1988, a three record deal with respected independent label Sire for the release of its 1989 debut, self-titled full length. At the time of signing the band was still in high school but were savvy enough to know what label they might like to be a part of as Sire had released important records by Ramones, Talking Heads, Ministry, Pretenders, Wild Swans, The Cult and Echo & The Bunnymen. The latter is a group that the first The Ocean Blue album gets compared to the most.
“Sire was always where we wanted to be,” says Schelzel. “So many bands we loved were on that label. I realize now how extraordinary it was to get signed to Sire, let alone as teenagers and to a long term deal that allowed us to develop. As for how, we were lucky to have a good manager, that knew how to get our music to the right people, get people out to see our shows, and drum up a buzz. And of course the key to any signing is that there is music and something as a band that people are drawn to, and from a label’s perspective, that will do well.”
The band evolved rapidly and its subsequent albums for Sire, 1991’s Cerulean and 1993’s Beneath the Rhythm & Sound, broke from the obvious influences and aligned more with the kind of music that was on the ascent at the time and seemed to vibe well with some of the “Madchester” bands like The Charlatans UK, C86 groups like Felt and Sarah Records outfits like The Field Mice and The Sundays. That style of dream pop grounded in classic songwriting that has interestingly enough exerted a great deal of influence on contemporary bands trying to mine for ideas and sounds that haven’t been shoved down their throats by ubiquitous commercial popularity.
By the mid-90s, The Ocean Blue suffered from the usual corporate mergers of the day and the conservative trend of record labels after scrambling to capitalize on the alternative rock wave of the early part of the decade. But the band persevered and by 1999 self-released its then new album Davy Jones Locker. By the 2010s The Ocean Blue was back to being more active than it had been in many years (at least as far as anyone outside the band and its immediate associates might know) with its first new album in over a decade, Ultramarine, out in 2013 on Korda Records followed by Waterworks in 2014 and 2019’s strikingly gorgeous Kings and Queens / Knaves and Thieves. It’s bright tones and transporting melodies in high form, The Ocean Blue has never sounded better. Like certain bands from its original era the group has retained a good deal of its original artist as well as having an appeal to a younger audience for whom the group might have a bit of cult cachet, Schelzel also says the band didn’t know it had fans in South America until the past ten years.
“I think what has kept us together and doing what we do is our love for music and each other,” offers Schelzel regarding the band’s having stayed together. “I am always making music, and I love the guys I make music with. There were things that were much easier when we were on major labels and had a team of people handling management, promotion, production, touring, etc. But there has been something very refreshing about doing things as an independent artist. Things are way less complicated and the focus is almost entirely on making music. We try to maximize the aspects of what we do that are pleasant and rewarding, and minimize those things that are unpleasant and draining. It is the satisfaction of making music. Personally, I think it’s part of who I am and what I find meaningful and joyful in life. I don’t say that lightly. Life is hard and dark and full of a lot of pain. Music is a hugely important counterweight to all that.”
The title of the new album suggests political commentary but for The Ocean Blue the lyrics have always been more observations about human nature and personal reflection. “I see that line and that song, and maybe the whole record, as more of a musing on the human condition, particularly questions of existence, meaning, relationships with each other, the world, etc. and love,” says Schelzel. “I think the human problems of the modern world are pretty much the same as they were 100 years ago.”
Kyle Emerson just released his second album as a solo artist, the introspective and thought-provoking Only Coming Down. The songwriter recently relocated back to Los Angeles in August 2019 after a stint back in Denver where he originally came to the attention of fans of psychedelic pop during his stint in the band Plum. For a couple of years, the latter was a bit of a buzz band before it realized that maybe Denver wasn’t the best place to base a band that seemed to have the opportunity expand its reach beyond the local scene, beyond being nominated for local awards and playing the same gauntlet of small clubs and occasionally playing bigger venues like the 550 capacity Bluebird Theater or graduate in draw and popularity to the Gothic Theatre at 1,100. Plum moved to Los Angeles in 2016 and within about a year Emerson had left the band and not long after Plum fizzled out. For some that would have been discouragement enough but not for Emerson who had already relocated once to pursue his dream of being a musician with a career.
Emerson was born in Northern Ohio not far south of Detroit where his father was a worship leader at a non-denominational church. While involved in a worship band Emerson learned some music theory from the group’s leader who also shared his love of Radiohead, indie rock and later era alternative music. Emerson also connected with and studied guitar under a music teacher of a local private school, Patrick Paringer, who had grown up in Seattle and known Elliott Smith. At that time Emerson the current bassist in his live band Dan Volmer who also played in the youth group band.
After high school a number of Emerson’s friends moved to Colorado and Brooklyn. Those that moved to the latter offered to let him join their band and sleep on their couch until he got on his feet. But life in NYC was daunting and Emerson didn’t feel like he was ready to live in the city on his own.
Colorado beckoned in 2014 and before moving to Denver Emerson was blithely unaware of happenings in the state and city. He did not know about the legalization of recreational cannabis or that the city was experiencing its largest and longest period of population growth in many years with many musicians moving to Denver seeking out the opportunity for perceived overnight success of acts like The Lumineers and The Fray or at least to be in a place where music was happening and the scene not yet oversaturated. Emerson’s friend Andrew Bair (now of dream pop phenoms Tyto Alba and other projects), son of the pastor of Emerson’s church in Ohio, had moved to Denver and he felt like with Bair and other friends around he could keep his footing in a less expensive city than New York. So he moved into a two bedroom apartment at Thirteenth Avenue and Marion St. near the former location of the Gypsy House Café and shared a room with Volmer for a few months before moving in with the guys from Plum in the Villa Park neighborhood of west central Denver.
The fledgling band had a lot going for it aside from musical and songwriting talent. Ty Baron was a music business major and did some talent buying at Larimer Lounge, a club where many up and coming acts perform weekly, and Jake Supple had been also playing in Abandin Pictures, a group with some cachet in the local psychedelic rock world (he now performs in Flaural). Both had navigated the local music world both as artists and on the less romantic business end of what it actually means to be in a band that might want to do more than play for a few dollars and free drinks.
But like a lot of bands Plum ran into that often unspoken barrier to a lot of bands from Denver and Colorado generally that prevents most from reaching beyond the local band status. Sure, there are anomalies like the aforementioned Lumineers, The Fray and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats and on a smaller scale, Tennis. But outside of jam bands and the EDM world, not a lot of in between being bonafide famous and “local band” status regardless of one’s artistic merits. So even though the move and living in cramped quarters in what was essentially a practice space in L.A. lead to the band breaking up, the decision to relocate was understandable. When you have some hype at home it stands to reason you can build that elsewhere, especially when you’re young.
When Emerson left Plum in 2016 he moved back to Denver where he had some roots and connections and wrote and recorded his moving debut solo album, 2017’s Dorothy Alice. It combined Emerson’s insightful lyrics and storytelling with a folky psychedelia and almost textural atmospheric melodies. The sound has become a bit of the songwriter’s signature sound. Emerson had recently split with his then girlfriend and on top of the other experiences it’s no wonder there is more than a bit of a melancholic vibe to Dorothy Alice that is part of its deep appeal. But recorded with Jeff Cormack of pop band South of France and Justin Renaud of psychedelic rock outfit Sunboy the record reflects Emerson’s renewed hope for his music and his affection for the Mile High City.
“It felt very Denver, very Colorado and it felt great to be back,” says Emerson. “I was living back in that old house where Plum was living. It was like picking up where I had left off in a weird way.”
Emerson didn’t waste any time in writing for his sophomore record nor did he intend for it to come across like a journal entry of the last few years as he moved from Denver to Los Angeles, then repeating that same move and the experiences that framed those moves but it does. In writing the new material Emerson had no working title, which he feels might influence the sound of a record and songs chosen for better or worse, it just came to him one day. “You talk about the come down from anything, a natural high or drugs or alcohol or whatever,” says Emerson. “The more I conceptualize it I don’t know if it gets cooler or more lame but I just think there’s something about if you’re only ever coming down then there was no high on the other side of it.”
Emerson also suffered from a bit of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as a kid and the acronym has the same letters as Only Coming Down. It reflects the fact that Emerson feels that music was the only thing that got him out of that head space of focusing so much on minutiae to the detriment of a productive life. Now in the process of writing his third record Emerson realized that he had to grow up.
“It’s not a conscious thing for a lot of people and you dabble in things you know you need to move on from,” explains Emerson. “The last two records are about the woes of growing into yourself. You’re always growing up your entire life. It’s not like you get to a certain place and you’ve arrived. There was something about putting a bookend on a lot of the themes I was writing about and the things I was feeling. The title summarized that feeling in so many ways with just three words.”
The heaviness that many listeners heard on Dorothy Alice is still there on Only Coming Down but the early feedback has remarked on it being upbeat. Whether it’s Emerson’s recent decision to use more electronics on the new record since discarding a purist’s disdain for technology or the more than a hint of hope in his songs that often contrast hope and despair, or the songwriter’s compassionate take on his role as a musician, the new album definitely tilts toward the positive.
“I don’t play party music, it’s not like that,” says Emerson. “But it’s like I stand in front of a room full of people who at the end of the day are just there to have a good time and as artistic as this can get and as some songwriters and musicians think they are I do believe in the power of positivity. I didn’t think about that so much when I was younger but now if you can say yeah this sucks but I’m here for you, it’s going to get better. I think that’s more worthwhile to say than it’s all shit and then we die. I think there’s power and reality in both of those, I just find it a little bit easier living in the first one a little easier.”
Catch Emerson live during his run of shows in Colorado with Houndmouth:
Torche (performing tonight, September 18, at Larimer Lounge) started in Miami in 2004 after the dissolution of Floor, the band guitarist/vocalist Steve Brooks and former guitarist Juan Montoya had played in through much of the 90s and early 2000s. Torche picked up some of where Floor left off but took the heaviness in a more melodic and experimental direction across several albums including 2019’s Admission (N.B., Floor has reunited since its 2004 split and is technically still active). The new record reflects the band’s eclectic influences and roots as a band. New bassist Eric Hernandez or heave noise rock weirdos Wrong has played with Torche on and off filling in for drummer Rick Smith when the latter was not able to tour including, according to Brooks, a 2006 European tour. So the new role simply meant Hernandez was still playing with his friends in a new capacity. “After we lost two guitar players Jon [Nuñez] started playing guitar and he said we should get Eric to play bass,” comments Brooks.
Torche has never really fit the mold of a heavy metal band and Admission sounds more like a heavier neo-shoegaze album or noise rock record than heavy metal even though there are plenty of moments when the band plumbs those sonic depths that are part of its overall aesthetic. Part of this is accounted for by the fact that Brooks and the other members of Torche came up in Miami. Earlier in life, according to Brooks, he saw Melvins in 1991 and Godflesh on its early tours in 1989 or 1990. “I thought this was the type of stuff I wanted to do,” says Brooks. But finding like-minded musicians was a challenge and the guitarist moved to Atlanta in 1995 for a few years because the drummer of Floor lived there. Then the band got another drummer who lived in central Florida posing another challenge in the commute and Brooks “would drive three to four hours to practice on weekends.”
Locally Floor would play a club called Churchill’s often and frequently drove to Gainesville, Florida to play where a sizable audience might be found but back home it was playing to friends. So Floor and then Torche built up an audience well beyond their respective home towns out of necessity and have since cultivated a national and international fan base on a fairly grassroots basis.
Perhaps reflective of Torche’s non-genre purist sound is its current tour with experimental synth and heave drone band Pinkish Black for the bulk of the journey and ethereal yet emotionally charged darkwave project SRSQ (Kenndy Ashlyn formerly of Them Are Us Too) for the first leg of the tour. Torche’s current sound seems more introspective than one would expect from its previous offerings and when bringing Hernandez up to speed for the kinds of things to have in mind for moods and tones, Torche recommended listening to the first three Gary Numan albums for inspiration.
“We write a lot of riffs inspired by synths,” says Brooks. “Gary Numan is a big influence on us. So we threw that out. It’s the same thing except we’re playing guitars. The vibe.”
Admission has the evocative Richard Vargas cover art with a simple design favored by Torche this time out rather than anything too intricate. The image is of a head with the lower face intact but the upper head having exploded into the aftermath of a volcanic eruption suggesting either blowing minds of having one’s mind blown.
Although Torche has been around for fifteen years and toured internationally and it supports the members of the band, the group still operates like an underground outfit but one with the cachet to have albums released on the likes of Relapse with its two most recent records. But as with a lot of bands who are still playing small clubs and theaters Torche does its own driving and selling its own merch most of the time. Although its name is known among connoisseurs of heavy music the band isn’t so far removed from the challenges of its early days.
“It was really challenging when we first started because we weren’t making any money,” says Brooks. “Now we’re able to survive. The challenging part is actually all the traveling, trying to get sleep. Last night we partied and then I ended up going home and woke up at six o’clock in the morning and my band was in my room and I was like, ‘What the fuck are you all doing here?”’They were staying with friends before but they were in my house. They had broken into my house because I wasn’t waking up. I woke up naked because I took an Uber home, took a shower and went straight into bed. I woke up thought ‘Fuck, there are people in my room!’ The challenge is having privacy.”
Bernard Fowler is a singer and musician who grew up in New York City who has been a touring member of the Rolling Stones since 1989 when he was asked to come on board as a singer for the Steel Wheels tour. In fact, Fowler will join the Stones on stage at Mile High Stadium on Saturday, August 10 for the No Filter Tour . But by the time Fowler became involved with the Stones, he had already been hired to do backing vocals on Mick Jagger’s first solo album, 1985’s She’s the Boss through the auspices of his friend and professional associate musician and producer Bill Laswell. Prior to that Fowler had worked with Laswell on the 1982 Material album One Down as well as various other of Laswell’s projects including the 1985 Compact Disc by Public Image Limited and, later, avant-garde composer Philip Glass’s 1986 record Songs from Liquid Days. Fowler’s power, versatility and taste has made Fowler an in demand talent in music for decades and his discography also includes performances on records and live with artists as diverse and respected as Herbie Hancock, Yoko Ono, Sly & Robbie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, James Blood Ulmer, Alice cooper and Bootsy Collins. Fowler has been around.
In 2019 the singer released a project that has been in the works for a few years now as an idea that had to become a reality and that is the album Inside Out comprised of Rolling Stones covers. But it isn’t merely a covers album. Fowler went through the Stones’ catalog and selected songs whose words struck deep and resonated with issues of racism, political corruption and class that were in the forefront of public consciousness at the time of their writing and the ways in which those cultural issues are very much at the heart of political discourse today not just in the United States but in the world generally. That approach to finding the songs with the appropriate words went hand in hand with doing the music in an almost entirely different style in the form of jazz and the spoken word and jazz fusion that was embodied by the East Harlem, New York City collective, The Last Poets. But unlike one of the other progenitors of hip-hop, Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets’ music wasn’t as widely accessible.
“Gil Scott-Heron, lucky for him, he was one of the spoken word artists that actually got played on the radio,” says Fowler. “So I heard him on the radio like everybody else did. But The Last Poets was a different story. The Last Poets was not something we heard on the radio. People learned about The Last Poets by word of mouth and the music played on the street. My older brother brought those records home. So we played The Last Poets at my house.”
Fowler was just slightly to young to have seen The Last Poets when he was coming up but in later years he met and hung out with Jalaluddin Nuriddin, one of the founders of the group before he passed away in June 2018. The collective still operates today with a 2019 album Transcending Toxic Times produced by Philadelphia-based bass player Jamaaladeen Tacuma. For connoisseurs of rap, The Last Poets are some of the founding fathers of the art form starting as spoken word poetry with a backdrop of percussion until 1973’s Hustler’s Convention where other instruments were added and gave the group’s music a more jazz and funk vibe. But the whole time, The Last Poets wrote sharply observant songs about life in the inner city in ways that hadn’t quite been articulated in the arts the same way up to that time.
“The things they were talking about were the things we were going through in the black community,” says Fowler. “Things are rough now but it was even rougher back then. And they talked about those things—poverty, corrupt government and children being hungry. It is also part of what influenced me to do this record. I just wanted to do something different. Someone wrote a comment about it being a vanity project. A vanity project? What’s so vain about doing something different? When I saw that the first thing that came to my head was ‘Fuck you, you don’t even know what you’re talking about.’ It’s like telling an artist known for abstract painting to not do portraits. Don’t paint portraits because we only want to see you doing abstract painting. People just want to put you in a box and if you step outside that box, oh, it’s a vanity project. This record is important for a lot of reasons, I think. It’s important because it mirrors the time we’re living in now and more important than that it shows how strong a songwriters that the [glimmer] twins are.”
Give Inside Out a listen and discover the real impact of the words written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Fowler stayed away from most of the big hits and chose songs that maybe some fans glossed over but whose lyrics struck Fowler deeply. In the liner notes of the album Fowler writes “Could it be that the Stones are actually some black guys disguised as English gentlemen?” And why so?
“Because the lyrics could have been written by a black cat from the inner city of New York,” offers Fowler. “Those lyrics were that strong. Obviously to be able to write and relate the way that they wrote they had to be going through something similar where they were. We didn’t have the internet back then so I’m sure they had an idea what was happening here but didn’t see it first hand. When you think about it, they did go through some shit. That’s where Exile On Main St. came From.”
Perhaps the only radio friendly song Fowler chose for Inside Out is “Sympathy For the Devil,” which is an oddity in radio play due to its length alone. It’s also the only song for which Fowler used the original chord changes and played by keyboardist Mike Garson. Otherwise the songs are rhythm driven and performed by some ace players in the jazz world including Ray Parker Jr. who many people really only remember for the 1984 hit song “Ghostbusters,” a song he also wrote and produced. Parker Jr., though, has had a storied career worth delving into including writing with Marvin Gaye, session work with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Jean-Luc Ponty, Tina Turner and Herbie Hancock, to name a few. Parker Jr.’s guitar chops and creativity have graced numerous records including Inside Out and brought the jazz sensibility Fowler was looking to create in homage to The Last Poets’ style. So he also brought in other Midwestern jazz musicians like George Evans, Vince Wilburn Jr. and Darryl Jones – the latter two of which performed with Miles Davis – as well as jazz horn players like Keyon Harrold and Tim Ries. The result is an interpretation of Rolling Stones songs unlike any you’ve ever heard and which highlight the heft of the poetic clarity and heft of the lyrics of The Glimmer Twins. What do the Rolling Stones think of the album?
“They love the record,” says Fowler.
Catch Fowler on the road now with The Rolling Stones but keep an eye out for live performances of tracks from Inside Out when Fowler takes that music on the road to perform live beyond his home town of New York City.