Veteran musician Tori Amos stopped by the studio recently to talk to Jim and Greg. The singer/songwriter was in town on a tour to promote her most recent album American Doll Posse, which both Jim and Greg agreed was a Buy It. Tori is known for her strong feminist views, as well as her accomplished piano skills. But, as she explains, both those things weren't seen as positives early on in her career. After failing with her glam rock project Y Kant Tori Read, Tori decided to stay true to her heart and her musical roots. She approached record companies with her honest, political, piano-driven songs and was told that no one wanted the“girl at the piano.”Luckily for us she stuck with that and has gone on to make and sell records.
For this album Tori decided to collaborate with some true rockers: drummer Matt Chamberlain and guitarist/producer Mark Hawley (aka Mac Alladin aka Mr. Tori Amos). Jim and Greg talk to Tori about why she chose to do such an earthy, almost Zeppelin-esque record. She explains that the sound partly came out of the content of the songs — which express the anger and frustration Tori felt for and on behalf of American women after 2004's presidential election. She gave a lot of thought to the different roles American women play on a daily basis, and even adopted different female characters for different songs. If you get a chance to see Tori perform on this current tour, be ready for someone different to pop up.Go to episode 106
The New Pornographers
Now for a statement late-night shows don‘t get to make: This week’s musical guests: The New Pornographers. The Canadian indie rock band, who many refer to as a“supergroup,”formed in 1997. The members include A.C. Newman, John Collins, Todd Fancey, Kathryn Calder, Kurt Dahle, Blaine Thurier, Dan Bejar and Neko Case (though Blaine, Dan and Neko couldn‘t make it to this interview). Front man and chief songwriter A.C. (Carl) Newman describes the band as just a group of friends who got together to make music. They didn’t plan to be popular, and are still“figuring out how to be a band.”But while there were no ambitions of fame, there were musical ambitions. The band is known for its sophisticated, complicated take on pop music. You can hear this in the tracks "All the Old Show Stoppers" and "Adventures in Solitude," as well as these bonus tracks.
It was with Twin Cinema in 2005 that the band received the most attention, but as A.C. explains, with attention comes expectations, and expectations are not always good for a band. He and Dan Bejar, who also pens songs for the band, are constantly striving not to repeat themselves. A.C. also strives to live up to his influences-Jimmy Webb, Brian Wilson, and most importantly, Burt Bacharach. That's not a name you hear come up very much with rockers, but AC explains that no album affected him more than a collection of Dionne Warwick's greatest hits. He admits that it might be out of step with the times, but was an example of extraordinary songwriting.Go to episode 105
One of Jim and Greg's favorite albums of the year so far comes from the indie rock band Spoon. Despite the odd title, they fell for the combination of minimal art pop with Phil Spector-like arrangements and orchestrations. This is the band's sixth album, and the fourth they've made with indie label Merge (also home to another indie success story — Arcade Fire). Jim and Greg start by asking lead singer and songwriter Britt Daniel about the approach to this album. He explains that the band was definitely inspired by Motown groups like The Supremes — something that may come as a surprise to fans who are used to a sparser sound.
One of the people responsible for the“Spoon sound”is producer Mike McCarthy. But, the band also worked with Jon Brion on a couple of songs. Other surprising influences: Queen and AC/DC. Songs like "We Will Rock You," and "Back in Black," are fairly simple and minimal, but they have that rhythm and that“thing”that draw you in. Listen to Spoon's take on that“thing”in the songs "Don't Make Me a Target," "Rhythm and Soul," and "Don't You Evah."Go to episode 102
Jim and Greg are joined by Robert Wyatt in the next segment. While he may not be a household name, Wyatt is one of the most influential musicians of the rock era. As a drummer with 1960s group Soft Machine, Wyatt reinvented prog rock, and was a pioneer of jazz-rock fusion. He was later ousted from Soft Machine, and in 1973 a terrible fall rendered him a paraplegic. But, as his interview with Jim and Greg reveals, Wyatt never ceased to be an innovator. Jim explains that Wyatt's been having a career resurgence in recent years. He was not only up for the prestigious Mercury Prize in England in 2003, but he is releasing a new album, Comicopera, on Domino Records, the label that is also home to Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys.
Greg begins by asking Wyatt about his appeal to a younger generation of musicians, including Thom Yorke and Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip. Wyatt can‘t explain this phenomenon, but he imagines that people respect how he does his own thing and makes music for music’s sake. It's inspirational for young musicians to see that you can maintain artistic integrity and, at the same time, longevity.
Wyatt formed the Soft Machine with three other schoolmates, and he never imagined that they'd eventually be opening up for Jimi Hendrix on his 1968 tour. The music of that time influenced his politics as well as his sound. But while contemporaries like The Rolling Stones looked to the blues, Wyatt and the Soft Machine looked to jazz. After his accident, though, Wyatt was forced to approach drumming differently than other jazz musicians. By eliminating the element of acrobatic virtuosity that jazz drummers often focus on, Wyatt was free to focus on the beats and the sounds. But, listeners shouldn‘t confuse Wyatt’s experimentalism with an anti-pop attitude. He says, "Pop music is the folk music of the post-industrial era, and folk music is the most important music in the world."Go to episode 100
John Cale is known for many things: co-founding The Velvet Underground, producing major albums for The Stooges and Patti Smith, and doing one of the best covers of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." So when John Cale was touring in support of his most recent album Black Acetate in 2006, Jim and Greg wanted him to stop by the Sound Opinions studio to be their first guest on public radio. Now almost 100 episodes later, we wanted to revisit that terrific conversation.
During Cale's visit, the three men covered everything from Brian Eno to Lou Reed to Snoop Dogg. And, Cale played two of his songs live: "Set Me Free" and "Gravel Drive," which he names as his favorite track on the record. He explains to Jim and Greg that this song was his way of talking to his daughter about some complicated issues, and why“Dad”sometimes wasn‘t around. Greg notes that despite Cale’s admitted anger, and his undeniable punk rock attitude, a number of the songs on Black Acetate are equally heartfelt and beautiful.Go to episode 98
When Jim and Greg were at SXSW last year they discovered one of their new favorite bands: Midlake. The Denton, TX quintet have been around for about 10 years, but Greg notes that the current Midlake is almost unrecognizable from the old one. He and Jim talk with three-fifths of the band (Eric Pulido, Eric Nichelson, Tim Smith) about how they came together and evolved. The lead singer Tim explains that OK Computer was integral to their development from a 30-minute jam band to what they are today. Psychedelic music fan Jim also wanted to ask what is in the water in Denton. Considering the size and location of the city, it's surprising how many bands came out of there. Eric Pullido, the band's rhythm guitarist, responds that the Denton community really supports art and music.
During their visit Tim and the two Erics of Midlake play "Van Occupanther" off their 2006 release The Trials of Van Occupanther. Tim, the chief songwriter, explains that during a game of “strangest name,”someone came up with Van Occupanther, and everything followed from there. He dismisses the notion of a“concept record,”but admits that there are recurring themes and a cohesive nature to the album due to the fact that all the songs stem from one person. The band also plays "Chasing After Deer," and discusses the process of writing Jim, Greg and Jason Lytle's favorite track, "Roscoe." You can also hear the bonus track "Bandits" here.Go to episode 95
The Flaming Lips
This week's guests are two of the members of Oklahoma's Flaming Lips, co-founder Wayne Coyne and long-time member, multi instrumentalist and co-songwriter Steve Drozd. Wayne chimes in that their two other current band members, Michael Ivins and touring drummer Clifford, couldn‘t make it to the interview. Ivins was too preoccupied erecting the UFO for that night’s live gig in Chicago. Greg points out that Wayne at one time admitted he was part of a band that couldn‘t play, had a singer that couldn’t sing, and heralded from an unknown town. Yet, here they are 25 years later, still going strong. As someone who wrote a book about The Flaming Lips. Jim continues to be astounded by the extensiveness of their career. He feels it parallels the career of Pink Floyd who had at least four different incarnations over 30 or 40 years. The Lips' first era was their '80s psychedelic era with it's key album In a Priest Driven Ambulance from 1990. On this album, former Lips drummer Jonathan Donahue replaced Nathan Roberts and the band collaborated for the first time with producer Dave Fridmann. Fridmann, who would go on produce many other Lips‘ albums, brought a higher level of musicality and production to the Lips’ sound. In a Priest Driven Ambulance was also the album that introduced Steve Drozd to the Flaming Lips (he did not join the band until almost a decade into the band's career). Drozd loved the album's“loud psychedelic rock guitar”with "hokum balladry". Greg also adds that the record contained a non-ironic cover of Louis Armstrong's "It's a Wonderful World" amidst the cynical and cooler-than-thou indie rock community.
Even though the band started in 1983, it wasn't until 1992 that The Flaming Lips signed to a major label. The first album for Warner Brothers Records was Hit to Death in the Future Head. Wayne and the band saw this as an opportunity to make a record that's worth the“billion dollars”major labels can spend on albums. Greg feels that their new ambition really exceeded the ambition they had with their previous work. He feels it's clearly evident in 1993's Transmissions from the Satellite Heart. To Jim this album marks the moment when Wayne's songwriting started to rise from the background and move towards the caliber of the Lips' sonic density. Transmission from the Satellite Heart's, "She Don't Use Jelly" is such an example. Even though the song became their breakthrough“wiggy, novelty hit.”it was a "beautiful bubble gum song with a poignant lyric" wrapped inside an amazing musical production. Wayne and the band knew almost from the beginning that the song could be a hit. The song's hook was created from the lyrics which Wayne got from equating smearing chapstick on your lips to buttering your toast. Wayne's story dispels the rock critic myth that these lyrics were a code for sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Greg brings everyone back to the dense sound of Transmissions From the Satellite Heart. He wonders how Steven came upon the idea layering the heavy“Bonham-esque”drums underneath pop songs. Steven admits that the sound was inspired by Larry Mullen's drums on U2's War.
Greg wonders if the band's next transformation happened after guitarist Ronald Jones left the band in 1996. Wayne agrees that Ronald's leaving changed the band. Although, Steve adds that he himself was burnt out and heavily into drugs at the time. At this point the Lips re-tooled into the era of their parking lot experiments, boom box experiments and the 1997 release of the four-CD album Zaireeka — an album designed for the listener play all four CD's simultaneously on four different sound systems in the same room. Each project was an orchestration of random sounds, a symphony of noise. Wayne wanted to try something new and take a chance.
After the band went through their two year sonic experiment they released the album The Soft Bulletin in 1999, which Jim considers a pop masterpiece. Wayne thinks the signature song from that album is "Race For the Prize". The song is in reference to two scientists fighting to cure a disease. Also on the album is "Waitin' for a Superman," inspired by Wayne and his brother jogging around the lake to deal with their father's bout with cancer. These two songs are full of meaningful and heartstung lyrics. Jim pipes in that that Wayne wouldn‘t have been able to write lyrics like this earlier in the Lip’s career. Wayne chalks it up to the experience of life changing you, which changed him and the band for the better.
2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is a continuation of the band's lyrical progression, especially with its song "Do You Realize??" Another key song is "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt. 1." (You can hear their live performance here.)
The critical response to these last two albums was, as Jim puts it,“nothing short of ecstatic.”The latest album, 2006's At War With the Mystics hasn‘t seen the same response (including from our own Greg Kot.) Steve and Wayne kind of expected it. They’re just as happy to win a Grammy for a song titled, "The Wizard Turns On…The Giant Silver Flashlight And Puts On His Werewolf Moccasins."Go to episode 94
One of rock's most influential and interesting figures is former 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson. After performing with the psychedelic band in the '60s and as a solo artist in the '80s, the singer's mental and physical health took a severe decline. But in the past couple of years, Roky's sights have improved, and Jim and Greg took this opportunity to celebrate his legacy. During this you'll hear their discussion with Keven McAlester, the director of the film biography You're Gonna Miss Me. McAlester spoke to Jim and Greg after a special screening of the film at Chicago's Music Box Theatre.
Jim and Greg highlight two of their favorite Roky Erickson tracks from different points in his career. The first is a 13th Floor Elevators song called "Reverberation Doubt," which Jim explains is an example of how psychedelic the band was. The song was not only influenced by psychedelic drugs, but it conveys the experience of using them. Jim discusses the term“synesthesia,”which refers the drugs' ability to allow you to actually see musical notes, and“Reverberation Doubt”has a similar effect. As he states, it gives you the "sense that the entire world is vibrating."
The second is a solo track from a later period in Roky's career. "Red Temple Prayer (Two-Headed Dog)" was recorded after Roky came out of Rusk State Mental Hospital in Texas, and wasn't in very good shape. But, musically he was very productive, and became one of the American artists to really lay the groundwork for punk music. Roky's songwriting at this time was influenced greatly by horror movies, and the title of this song gives a sense of where his mental state was. Greg describes“Two-Headed Dog”as a brutal, but wonderfully hard-hitting song.
You'll also hear a montage of covers from the tribute album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye:
- R.E.M., "I Walked with a Zombie"
- ZZ Top, "Reverberation"
- T-Bone Burnett, "Nothing in Return"
- Butthole Surfers, "Earthquake"
- Julian Cope, "I Have Always Been Here Before"
The Besnard Lakes
This week's guests are the members of Canadian indie rock group The Besnard Lakes. The band is one of many up and coming acts to come out of the Montreal rock scene, including recent guests Arcade Fire. Jace Lasek, Olga Goreas, Steve Raegele, Richard White and Kevin Laing came to town for a tour in support of their second album The Besnard Lakes are the Dark Horse. Jim and Greg first became fans after seeing the group perform at this year's SXSW Festival.
Husband and wife Jace and Olga are the primary songwriters in The Besnard Lakes. The pair met after Jace saw Olga playing bass, and immediately became smitten. The two moved to Montreal in 2003 to start a recording studio, and they didn‘t form The Besnard Lakes until after they put their first record together. Their name comes from Jace and Olga’s favorite spot for R&R: a lake in northern Saskatchewan. But, Jim and Greg wonder if the band has gotten enough vacation time in recent years; there are very dark themes running through the record — devastation, destruction — and Jace explains that he loves writing sad and emotional songs. You can hear three such songs during the course of the interview.Go to episode 89
This week Jim and Greg have one of their favorite Chicago punk groups, The Effigies, performing live in the studio. It's been nearly 21 years since the pioneering post-hardcore act has released any new material, but on April 12 the band released Reside, a reunion record that Jim and Greg love, much like that of their Boston post-punk contemporaries, Mission of Burma. They explain that the band does not miss a step from where the band left off in 1986. You can hear the songs band members John Kezdy, Robert McNaighton, Paul Zamost and Steve Economou performed on the show, plus bonus tracks here.
Lead singer John Kezdy recalls the band's difficulties being one of the pioneers of punk rock in the Midwest. Unlike their east and west coast peers, they didn‘t have an established punk scene to join or legendary venues like CBGB or Maxwell’s to perform in. Now, rather than touring throughout the year, the older members of the Effigies have important day jobs. In fact, Kedzy is an Illinois state prosecutor, a job that he explains is the "easiest moral option."Go to episode 88
This week Jim and Greg welcome music legend Yoko Ono. While many know her simply as John Lennon's widow, Yoko is also an accomplished artist in her own right. Since coming into the spotlight, Yoko has often been reviled her for her radical views and radical music (and for "breaking up the greatest pop group in the world"), but she recently found a new role as a heroine in the indie rock underground. A new generation of musicians who didn't grow up with the same kind of reverence for The Beatles have claimed Yoko as their own. This was especially evident at the Pitchfork Music Festival, where she headlined Saturday's show. Yoko not only played to an audience of thousands people — young and old — but she invited Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Cat Power's Chan Marshall on stage with her to perform.
Recently Yoko has been busy working on some new albums. The first is Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur, which features two discs of artists covering songs by John Lennon. She's also released a couple of disc of her own work. Yes, I'm a Witch is a collection of remixes of Yoko's songs by artists such as Peaches, Le Tigre and The Flaming Lips. This was followed by Open Your Box, a collection of dance remixes. The title is a testament to the artist's strong will. It stems from her song "I'm a Witch," which she was reluctant to officially release when she penned it years ago. She explains to Jim and Greg that it wasn‘t as acceptable at the time to come out with such strong lyrics. But, it’s much easier in 2007 to proclaim yourself a bitch.
John and Yoko both influenced each other's music greatly. Greg explains that Yoko's collaboration with her husband brought out the“beast”in him as a guitar player But, Greg wanted to know what Yoko first thought of John's“simple”pop songs considering how avant-garde her compositions were. Yoko explains that she actually found that approach quite refreshing. He helped her to understand how beautiful even the most simple, fun songs can be.
It would be unfair to categorize Yoko strictly as avant-garde. In addition to influencing John's undoubtedly mainstream music, she's also influenced contemporary bands like Cibo Matto and Deerhoof. Jim and Greg talk to the artist about hearing elements of the song "Why" in The B52s' pop hit "Rock Lobster." Yoko explains that she never looked at this as any kind of vindication, but that John actually found great joy in hearing "Rock Lobster" for the first time.Go to episode 86
This week Jim and Greg are joined by Régine Chassagne and Win Butler of indie rock giants Arcade Fire. Arcade Fire, critically acclaimed for their debut album Funeral, are known for their rich, anthemic sound and diverse instrumentation. Neon Bible, their latest release featuring a military choir, Hungarian orchestra, pipe organ and a hurdy gurdy among other instruments, has been an overwhelming commercial success. Régine retraces her relationship with husband, Win Butler. They became musical collaborators after Win saw Regine playing medieval music in Montreal, and eventually the band became headliners for such major festivals as Coachella and Lollapalooza. After seeing Arcade Fire perform at a number of venues, both Jim and Greg agree that their live show is something truly special.
Jim and Greg discuss the band's music-making process. Win and Régine elaborate on the primacy of beat and rhythm to the Arcade Fire aesthetic. Just as their rhythms could be perceived as classic rock and roll, Régine confers with Win about the multicolored sound they strive to create with different instruments and orchestration. Jim and Greg discuss the meaning behind the religious themes and allusions in Neon Bible with Win and Régine; Win articulates the moral ambiguity of evangelism as a source of influence and inspiration for writing the album.Go to episode 85
Peter Bjorn & John
Recently Jim and Greg invited a group of listeners to sit in on their session with Swedish trio Peter Bjorn & John. Many members of the audience had heard their album Writer's Block or seen them perform at festivals like SXSW. But, certainly everyone in the room had heard their catchy hit "Young Folks." The song has been featured in TV shows and commercials and was recently sampled by Kanye West. It provides just a taste of what the band had to offer. During their interview Peter Morén, Björn Yttling, and pinch hitter Nino Keller performed a number of songs, all of which you can sample here.Go to episode 83
In the wake of Don Imus‘ offensive comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team a couple of months ago, there's been a lot of discussion about language, race and sexism that has spilled over to the hip hop realm. Black leaders such as Oprah Winfrey and Al Sharpton have been questioning the use of certain words and imagery in the hip hop lexicon, but perhaps the most significant statement was made by one of the architects of the music genre, Russell Simmons. The Def Jam Recordings founder and leader of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network released a statement that recommended members of the recording and broadcast industry self-censor their use of the words“bitch,”"ho" and the n-word.
Jim and Greg wanted to dedicate this segment of the show to asking the question: Do these words still have a place in hip hop? To get the answer they first invited on Public Enemy rapper and radio personality Chuck D Chuck explains he was on tour oversees when the Imus controversy went down, and it reminded him of how“funny”language can be in America. Chuck says that he wishes people like Russell Simmons had approached long-standing members of the hip hop community and tapped into grassroots movements before crafting his statement, but he agrees that not all words should be accessible to everyone all the time. Sometimes an artist does need to use strong language, but commerce shouldn't be built around it. And, because they craft words for a living, he expects that rappers in particular should be able to be more creative with language and not rely on the same set of words.Go to episode 82
Mark Anthony Neal and Joan Morgan
Next Jim and Greg welcome Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of Black Popular Culture at Duke University and author of New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity, and Joan Morgan, a writer and critic who recently left her post as Executive Editor of Essence Magazine. Joan and Mark have been debating the merits and demerits of hip hop since they grew up as friends and neighbors in "Boogie Down Bronx." And Joan was one of the first music critics to examine the dichotomy of hip hop fandom and feminism in her 1990 Village Voice review of Ice Cube's first classic album AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. Greg asks Joan what she makes of misogyny in modern hip hop. She explains that it was always there, but the level of it has changed. That concept of women has consumed commercial rap music, so listeners don‘t hear a lot of balance in perspective and tone. She also explains that something like the Ice Cube album is actually easier to wrestle with because it’s a brilliant album. Joan and Mark explain that labels are as complicit as artists in perpetuating a certain level of misogyny since they are the ones actually limiting the range of what you hear in hip hop.
Greg wonders if perhaps the consumer has already begun to speak out. Last year's top hip hop act, T.I., sold 1.7 million copies of his album King. Those aren‘t paltry figures to be sure, but they are definitely much smaller than what we’ve seen from star rappers in years past. Mark sees less revenue and less investment in major-label hip hop as a good thing; it's an opportunity for fresher sounds to come into the marketplace. Jim likens the trend to the development of indie rock in the '80s. That market was also glutted with big name acts like Poison and Mötley Crüe, leaving music fans to seek out underground rock from bands like Hüsker Dü and The Minutemen. Perhaps next we'll enter into an era of indie hip hop.
When asked about the effectiveness of banning certain words in hip hop music, Joan first expresses disappointment in what came out of Simmons and the Hip Hop Summit Action Network's meetings. Without doubting Simmons‘ sincerity, she calls the resulting call to action anemic at best and disingenuous at worst. Mark also grates against people, especially members of the“old guard,”making proclamations about culture or language. This kind of criticism is compounded by the fact that critics of rap music often don’t understand aesthetics. Mark's specific example is the hit hip hop single "In Da Club." People that take issue with the shallow nature of 50 Cent's lyrics may be failing to hear what makes a song like that so popular — the production and the beats. Mark furthers that rulings against specific words don't take into consideration that some rappers can make really complex, compelling statements using racial or sexist epithets. Joan adds that you can also say some really sexist, racist and homophobic things without using any“bad words”at all.Go to episode 82
When Colin Meloy visited the show last year he promised to bring back his entire band, The Decemberists, next time they were in town. This week he makes good on his word. Meloy, Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk, John Moen and Nate Query join Jim and Greg for a conversation and performance. The band was in Chicago to perform a show and promote their most recent album The Crane Wife. This orchestral pop concept album is harder rocking than previous efforts, much to the delight of Greg, who only recently became a Decemberists‘ convert. Colin explains, "We’re really interested in rocking."
The band came into Chicago only a couple of weeks after the Virginia Tech massacre. Greg asks the band how that had affected their live shows. Colin responds that he was horrified by the incident, and was struck by how the media glommed onto the shooter's“macabre aesthetic.”In this case, these were perhaps warning signs, but Colin hopes people don't become unnecessarily paranoid about young people expressing their dark sides. Greg agrees, saying that art can often be the best way to respond to violence or tragedies.
The night Jim and Greg saw the Decemberists play live, Colin spoke about the Virginia Tech shootings, and the band followed that with a performance of "I'll Come Running," by Brian Eno. Sound Opinions listeners know that Jim has a special place in his heart for Eno, and he appreciated the choice of this song, which is about love and helping a friend. You can hear this song, as well as a rousing rendition of the three-part suite "The Crane Wife" in the course of the interview.Go to episode 80
Parts and Labor
This week Dan Friel, B.J. Warshaw and Chris Weingarten of Parts and Labor visit the show. The experimental indie rock band formed in 2002 after Dan and B.J. worked together at New York's famed Knitting Factory. All of the members bonded over their love of the noise-meets-melody formula perfected by bands like Mission of Burma, Hüsker Dü and The Boredoms. But, with a low-budget aesthetic that includes the use of toy keyboards, cheap foot pedals and distortion devices, the band has carved out a unique sound of their own that can be heard on their most recent album Mapmaker. Greg for one is already a fan of Mapmaker and says that if you like rock at all, you have to like Parts and Labor.
Parts and Labor are as striking visually as they are audibly. The band had a complicated setup of gizmos, toys and instruments — none of which are more expensive than $200. The result is not a rinky-dink sound, though. The band is known for its anthemic songs, and their performance at Chicago Public Radio literally shook the station's walls. But, Jim and Greg note that if you strip the songs of their big effects, they could hold up as quiet, acoustic tracks. In fact, one of the band's original missions was to include politics in their songwriting. Now, with this third release, things are getting more personal.Go to episode 78
Getting all six members of the band Wilco on the show is no easy feat. But, this week Jim and Greg were able to snag an hour with the band just before their first U.S. performance in support of Sky Blue Sky, their sixth studio album released last week. The men all met at Northwestern University's Patten Gymnasium, but aside from the shoddy acoustics, it was a treat for all. Those not familiar with Wilco's story, should check out Greg's book Learning How to Die. But, by now, most have heard about the trials and tribulations of Jeff Tweedy and his often-changing cast of characters. The current cast includes Tweedy, John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Nels Cline, Mike Jorgensen and Pat Sansone. The members of Wilco are all great musicians in their own right with a number of side projects, but, as they explain to Jim and Greg, there is nothing like collaborating with band mates (or living like The Monkees).
A lot has been said about the fact that between the recording of A Ghost Is Born and Sky Blue Sky, chief songwriter and lead singer Jeff Tweedy went to rehab to deal with prescription drug dependency and depression. In fact, with its intense fan base and media scrutiny, there's not a lot about the band that hasn‘t been said. The question is posed as to whether or not Jeff’s recovery affected the music. But, he explains that the biggest effect is just feeling physically healthy. Still, as Jim notes, you can't help but sense a more positive outlook on Sky Blue Sky — a tone that Jeff attributes to maturity more than anything. Listen to the tracks "Side With the Seeds," "Sky Blue Sky," and "What Light," and you be the judge. Then check out the exclusive bonus track, "You Are My Face."Go to episode 77
Many fans know Tom Morello through his electric guitar innovations in Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. So it was a surprise to hear he had unplugged and donned a new guise as The Nightwatchman. The Chicago native has a new solo album out called One Man Revolution, and during a visit home he stopped by the Sound Opinions studio to show off his new incarnation. During his discussion with Jim and Greg it starts to make more sense why the famed electric guitarist would go acoustic. Tom has always been a fan of folk rockers like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. And, the one man + guitar formula lends itself to the political content Tom has always been known for.
Tom explains that he was seeking a political and musical outlet that would fulfill that side of his personality. The hard rocking side gets fulfilled by the arena rock group Audioslave. However, Tom reveals that the band might be no more. He and Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell were both in Chicago at the same time, but haven't communicated in a while. Luckily friend and producer Rick Rubin encouraged Tom to branch out on his own with this record. And of course, Jim notes that the guitarist always has a political career to fall back on. Like his mother Mary Morello, Tom has always been a social activist. He also worked for Senator Alan Cranston for a number of years.
One person Tom Morello did hook up with while he was in town is fellow Rage Against the Machine member Zack de la Rocha. The Rage frontman joined Morello in a couple of protest rallies in support of low-wage immigrant farmworkers. And of course, as fans have been anticipating, the two will appear with Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk for Rage Against the Machine's first performance in seven years at this weekend's Coachella Music Festival. For a sneak preview, check out Morello's rendition of the band's song "Guerrilla Radio," as well as an exclusive bonus track.Go to episode 74
The guest this week is Joe Boyd. Boyd recently wrote a book, White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, about his experiences as a producer, manager and club owner in London during that psychedelic era. Jim describes Boyd as one of rock's most fascinating behind-the-scenes characters. He has worked with Pink Floyd, The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and Bob Dylan just to name a few.
As an American living in England in the '60s, one of the ways Boyd made a name for himself was through his club UFO. The venue only lasted less than a year, but Boyd explains that those few months in 1967 were remarkable. UFO wasn‘t anything more than a basement, but it featured light shows, films and“happenings,”and was home base to Pink Floyd. The title of Boyd’s book gets its name from track "My White Bicycle," by Tomorrow, one of the many bands to perform at UFO. The song is about the free white bicycles that were passed around in Amsterdam at that time, and Boyd explains that by the end of 1967, most of those bicycles were stolen and re-painted. The result is a“heavy-handed metaphor”for the changing times according to the author.
One of Boyd's major contributions to music is that he is credited with“discovering”Nick Drake. During a meeting with John Cale, Boyd played some of Drake's music, and immediately Cale wanted a meeting with the rising talent. The next day, Cale abandoned his studio date with singer Nico and told Boyd that he wanted to record Drake by that afternoon. The music they made that day and in the years before Drake's tragic death propelled him into this romantic, cult status that grew even bigger after his song "Pink Moon," was used in a Volkswagen commercial.Go to episode 73
Booker T. Jones
When Jim and Greg were at SXSW, they were invited to interview soul legend Booker T. Jones in front of a live audience. This week, you'll get to hear some highlights of that interview. Jim and Greg start the interview by asking Booker how he became such a musical prodigy. The multi-instrumentalist, who has played tuba, piano, saxophone, guitar, oboe, and of course, most notably, organ, credits his musical family with steering him on that path. This path took him to Stax Records where he, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson, Jr., and Lewie Steinberg (later replaced by Duck Dunn) formed Booker T. and the MGs. While Booker was still in high school, the group recorded "Green Onions," which went on to become one of their most well-known hits.
Jim asks how Booker feels about being relegated to the role of“side man,”in music history, but the musician explains that he feels nothing but pride about being“best supporting musician.”In fact, Booker explains that being a side man elevated him as a musician and allowed him to do so much more than he would have been able to solo. Some of the people our guest has recorded with over the years include Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Ray Charles, and even Barbra Streisand.
Booker T. and the MG's not only played with an impressive cast in the studio, but on the road as well. Jim and Greg highlight his 1967 European tour with other Stax artists, and ask Booker what everyone must have been on to get that powerful, lighting fast tempos. Booker attributes that kind of energy and enthusiasm to people like Otis Redding and Al Jackson, describing them as“possessed people.”The Monterey International Pop Music Festival followed in the summer of 1967, and Booker describes this experience as one of the most eye-opening of his life. With everyone (including the Hell's Angels) collectively joining in to ensure its success, this concert was an affirmation of the values of peace and love everyone there believed in. The MGs went on to perform with Neil Young and with many artists at the Bob Dylan tribute in 1992 including George Harrison and Eric Clapton, who he dishes on later in the interview.
Performing at Monterey eventually led Booker to leave his steady stream of jobs at Stax and venture out to California. As a solo performer and producer Booker challenged himself with a number of new projects including a collection of standards for his neighbor, Willie Nelson. He also worked in the studio with Stephen Stills, Rita Coolidge, Bill Withers and Neil Young.Go to episode 72
This week's guest is singer/songwriter Neko Case. It's hard to categorize Neko's music. Some call her "alt-country." Others throw the word "soul" in there. But whatever you call it, fans and critics alike are happy to hear it. In addition to making her own music, Neko records and performs with Canadian pop band The New Pornographers. After wrapping up her current tour, Neko will go out on tour with the New Pornographers in support of their new album.
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is Neko's most successful album to date. It's also one for which she did much more of the songwriting. Neko credits that songwriting with learning to play the tenor guitar. Greg compares Neko's guitar playing to that of Steve Howe, but she likes to think of herself as more of a Paul Butterfield.
Neko calls Fox Confessor Brings the Flood her most“smart-ass”album. The way in which the songwriter tells stories on the record is in large part inspired by Eastern European folktales. Neko grew up listening to this style of storytelling from her Ukrainian grandparents and appreciated how open-ended and non-judgmental the tales were.
Two of the songs Neko performs for the show have unique inspirations. The first, "That Teenage Feeling," was written after her guitarist, Paul Rigby, exclaimed that he didn't feel the need to get married for the sake of getting married. Rather, he desired that simpler, no-strings feeling that love gives you when you are a teenager. The second song, "Margaret vs. Pauline," is based on a book by Beat novelist and poet Richard Brautigan called In Watermelon Sugar. Jim's relieved to hear the song has a far less ominous meaning than he thought. You can also hear a bonus performance of "Sometimes When I Get To Thinking" by Buffy Sainte-Marie.Go to episode 71
For this week's feature Jim and Greg dive into the psychedelic world of Elephant 6. For those new to this crazy universe, Elephant 6 is a label and musical collective that was started by childhood friends in Ruston, Louisiana. The bands that came out of this group of music-lovers include Of Montreal, Beulah, Elf Power, with the most notable being Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, and Apples in Stereo. Jim and Greg will focus on those three Elephant 6 acts, discussing why they're so important in the rock landscape and which tracks and albums you should check out.
Sound Opinions always likes to begin any consideration of a band, label or movement with the music. Here are the three songs you sample first (you can find a list of all other song titles at the bottom of the page):
- "Memories of Jacqueline 1906" by Olivia Tremor Control
- "Two Headed Boy" by Neutral Milk Hotel
- "About Your Fame" by Apples in Stereo
One of the key players in the success of the Elephant 6 Recording Company is Robert Schneider. Schneider is the chief songwriter, producer and lead singer of Apples in Stereo and co-founded the collective along with William Cullen Hart and Bill Doss of The Olivia Tremor Control and Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel. Jim and Greg wanted to find out from Schneider how so much great music came from Ruston, Louisiana. Schneider explains that because of the college music scene, he and his friends were exposed to a lot of great music. Schneider and Jeff Mangum took up music early as a way to escape mundane, small town life. Eventually all of these friends decided to start a label and call it Elephant 6.
Greg describes Schneider as the“pop craftsmen,”of the bunch and Jeff Mangum of the Neutral Milk Hotel as the“soul child.”The Olivia Tremor Control were then the trippiest. He and Jim discuss their debut release, Dusk at Cubist Castle, a double album whose subtitle,“Music from an Unrealized Film Script,”points to the music's psychedelic nature. The Olivia Tremor Control tried to capture the feeling of a live performance and made a dense album full of layers and layers of sound. This was also the case on their second album, Black Foliage, but OTC disbanded soon after that.
Next Jim and Greg discuss Neutral Milk Hotel, the band that probably has the largest fan base. In fact, Jeff Mangum holds a mythic standing among music fans that parallels only that of Kurt Cobain. Mangum went for a soulful, more stripped down approach that was moving and easily identifiable for many listeners. This is evident in the band's 1998 release In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a concept album about tragedy, and at times, the story of Anne Frank. Mangum wanted the star of this album to be the acoustic guitar, his voice and his words. This sometimes caused conflict between the songwriter and Robert Schneider, his producer, but the result is one of the most innovative and important albums of the 1990s.Go to episode 70
Ron Asheton of The Stooges
A couple of weeks ago Jim and Greg talked about the punk pioneers The Ramones. This week it's time to look at the other pillar of punk: The Stooges. In the late '60s and early '70s the band released three major albums, and then disintegrated into drugs and power struggles. Now, almost 35 years later, three of the four original members reunited to record a new album, The Weirdness. Jim and Greg invite guitarist Ron Asheton to talk about the band's history and how they came back together.
Lead singer Iggy Pop (James Osterberg), guitarist Ron Asheton, drummer Scott Asheton and bassist Dave Alexander formed The Stooges in Ann Arbor, MI in 1967. They were signed to Elektra Records a year later after opening for“big brother band”the MC5. There they had their first self-titled album produced by John Cale of The Velvet Underground. Jim and Greg talk to Ron Asheton about the band's first time in the studio (and their first in-studio strike), and learn about how they developed their signature, primitive sound. They point to the propulsive Bo Diddley-inspired rhythms of songs like "1969."
The Stooges went on to record Fun House, which reflected their love of James Brown and John Coltrane, and then things started to fall apart. Iggy went on to form a relationship with David Bowie (and with heroin), and got the band signed to Columbia Records. Ron Asheton was bounced down to bassist, however. He explains that their subsequent release, Raw Power, is a good album, but not indicative of their true sound.Go to episode 66
British import Lily Allen is Jim and Greg's guest this week. The hosts have been fans of the 21-year-old for over a year, however her album Alright, Still, was just released in the U.S. While Lily is now launching a full-blown American invasion with major label backing and major press and appearances, she started with more humble means. The singer/songwriter initially drew buzz after posting some songs on her MySpace.com page.
While her career is grassroots, Lily's upbringing still has star power. Her father is British comedian and personality Keith Allen, and she spent many of her family vacations with Uncle Joe. (That's Joe Strummer to you and me). In fact, the singer can boast that she has performed at Wembley with The Clash before she was old enough to buy herself a pint.
Jim and Greg are drawn to Lily's sound, which is a pastiche of pop, reggae, ska and even a bit of '60s“space-age bachelor pad”music. But, it's her lyrics that really“slay”them. Lily writes about everything from an average life in London to a failed relationship with a great deal of honesty, humor, and most of all, attitude. Listen to her performances of hits "LDN" and "Smile," and check out these exclusive bonus tracks.Go to episode 65
This week's guest is rapper, Chicago native, and now Grammy nominee Lupe Fiasco. Lupe, or Wasalu Muhammad Jaco to his parents, made a smash with last year's release, Food & Liquor. He may have even made a bigger smash with the internet leak of the album. And now the album and his hit single, "Kick Push" have been nominated for three Grammy Awards.“Kick Push”began as a track Lupe and producer Soundtrakk created for a Chicago skate shop. He was inspired by a Filipino jazz song and wanted to evoke the atmosphere and culture of skateboarding. Listen to Lupe's live performance of the song, as well as that of "American Terrorist" featuring Matthew Santos.
Our guest is something of an anomaly in hip hop today, in that he shies away from misogyny and profanity in his music. Lupe is also a religious Muslim. Greg asks Lupe about reconciling his values with his love of hip hop-something he raps about in the song, "Hurt Me Soul." Lupe explains that his first exposure to vulgar hip hop was through the N.W.A. records his father would play. Jim points out that even Lupe's parents would be interesting to interview. His mother was a chef, and his father was a Green Beret, martial arts master, engineer and active with the Black Panthers.Go to episode 62
Robyn Hitchcock, Peter Buck, and Scott McCaughey
Robyn Hitchcock, the man who Jim and Greg call a cross between Bob Dylan and Syd Barrett, visits the show this week. He is joined by his Venus 3 band mates, Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey, whose day jobs as members of R.E.M. aren‘t too shabby. All of the band members share a deep love of music, and a history of finding inspiration in record stores. Peter and Scott explain that this is how they initially became familiar with Robyn’s music. Greg remarks that they're all just a buncha rock geeks — our kind of guys!
Robyn and the Venus 3 have a new album out entitled Olé! Tarantula. According to Jim, it's a return to an earlier Hitchcock sound full of jangly melodies and multiple harmonies. And of course, you can count on the singer/songwriter for inventive lyrics. Sound Opinions H.Q. won't attempt to summarize his explanation of the concept behind Olé! Tarantula and the album's artwork, but offers this and this as reference points. You can hear the band perform this song, as well as "Adventure Rocket Ship," Syd Barrett's "Dominoes", and the bonus track, "N.Y. Doll" written about deceased New York Dolls member Arthur Kane.
Jim and Greg don‘t neglect to ask Peter Buck about his other gig. The R.E.M. guitarist and songwriter explains that he has written a lot of material and hopes to get together with some of the other band members soon to work on songs for their next album. Ideally he’d like to avoid spending“a lifetime.”An example of the band's more immediate work is the song "Final Straw." Buck wrote that piece of music while they were working on Automatic for the People, but he continued it to use it as a guitar warm-up. Lead singer Michael Stipe was struck by the tune and inspired by in the Middle East, and within a day it was recorded and put on the web.Go to episode 59
Blues legend and fellow Chicagoan Buddy Guy visits the show this week. The 70-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is back in town for a month-long stint at his club Buddy Guy's Legends. The club has been a mainstay for blues in downtown Chicago for more than a decade, but Buddy recently announced that he is being forced to find a new location. As residents and Sound Opinions listeners know, the city is not always kind to music clubs, but in his interview with Jim and Greg, Buddy stresses the need to maintain such venues. Our hosts also recommend listeners check out the bluesman at his best — live and stripped down at Legends — while they can.
One thing that makes Buddy Guy's music so unique is his sense of melody. He explains how he will listen to spiritual and gospel music on the radio as inspiration. As Greg states: he's trying to imitate the voices. He learned this from B.B. King and went on to inspire vocalists like George Benson. Another musician who inspired Buddy was Guitar Slim. Before seeing Slim play, Buddy didn‘t know how far he could go with a“strat.”Now he is known for his violent, high-energy style. This style wasn’t appreciated by his former label Chess Records, but was adored and emulated by British blues fans like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Andy Summers.Go to episode 58