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Alasdair Roberts Chats About His Beautiful New Album Spoils

Posted by Miss Ess, June 4, 2009 04:32pm | Post a Comment
Drag City recording artist and Scotsman Alasdair Roberts' new album Spoils is one of the best I've heard all year. It's a lyrically dense, elegant and complex album with trad folk touches. One of its best qualities is its natural ease -- it manages to sound both organic and dense, positively medieval and modern at the same time. Roberts has been creating eloquent, idiosyncratic albums for quite some time, since 1994 to be exact, at first with the band Appendix Out and then simply under his name for the past 8 years. He was rather famously signed to Drag City after handing Will Oldham a tape of his music back in 1995, and his musical career has blossomed on since then. Spoils feels like the culmination of the sound he has cultivated since his first solo album. It is well worth tracking down and listening to repeatedly. My interview with Alasdair follows.


Miss Ess: When and how did you begin writing songs?

Alasdair Roberts: At 15 when I saw footage of the Hindenburg disaster on television and heard the pain in the presenter's voice saying, "Oh, the humanity." I then wrote my first proper song called "Autumn."

ME: What records from your youth have stayed with you most strongly?

AR: Early eighties pop singles. "Karma Chameleon" by Boy George; "Don't Leave Me This Way" by the Communards. "Pass the Dutchie" by Musical Youth.

ME: Whose music inspires you? Whose words inspire you?

AR: Many, many musicians. Some fantastic Romanian buskers in Glasgow city centre today. Fiddle and accordion. I am constantly amazed at how many great musicians there are everywhere who don't receive the credit they deserve. At the moment, Hector MacAndrew. After that I'll listen to Monteverdi. Everything I hear at one turn makes me want to quit and otherwise makes me want to improve my own art and keep going.

Words-wise, recent reading has been a lot of poetry from the so-called Metaphysicals to Wallace Stevens, Sorley MacLean in translation, Geoffrey Hill, David Jones, as well as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Colm Toibin's translation of the Cattle Raid of Cooley, the Poetic Edda, writings of Mircea Eliade, Kerenyi and Emma Jung's book on the Grail legend. That kind of stuff.

What Scottish rock and folk artists are your favorites?

There are so many -- singers like Lizzie Higgins and her mother Jeannie Robertson, Davie Stewart, Elizabeth Stewart, her aunt Lucy Stewart, Duncan Williamson... Dick Gaughan, the earlier records particularly.

How did Appendix Out's first single on Palace Records come to be?

Will Oldham heard some four-track recordings and handed them on to the guys who ran Palace Records. They put out the first two songs on the tape -- I front-loaded it so that the hits were first.

What kind of connection do you feel you have with Will Oldham's music? It's like you both are able to mingle aspects of your countries' deep rooted, native sounds with something completely your own...

Maybe some kind of similar attraction to the song form and engagement with singing as a means of "expression." An awareness of what's gone before and an attempt to reconcile that in creating something new. An element of metaphysical and philosophical exploration. Similar straddling of intellect and idiocy.

What comes first for you with your songs: music or lyrics? What was your writing process like for Spoils? The songs all seem connected in a beautiful way.

A mixture of both -- I take notes of lyrics all the time which eventually become songs. Guitar parts come separately -- I experiment a lot with different tunings. I'm aware by now that I'll never have the greatest guitar chops, so it's been a concern to try and forge a distinctive guitar style via the use of scordatura, which makes me sound like a better player than I actually am. Half the Spoils songs were written in a crazy summer blurt of activity; then I went on tour and the other half were written afterwards.

Where was your new album recorded? How did you decide on the instrumentation? Do you hear the songs in your head before you record or do you spontaneously bring them together in the studio?

A small analogue studio called Green Door in Glasgow. Great engineers Sam and Emily. Re: instrumentation, I had an idea that the record would be 'syncretic' -- yoking together apparently oppositional belief systems and/or musical approaches, so I brought together musicians from a lot of different backgrounds; all great musicians in their respective fields, all fairly well superior to me instrumentally...


Your songs are clearly influenced by ancient tales/imagery. What first exposed you to mythology? What about it appeals to you?

I don't know; it seems like a fertile area for the generation of ideas; the mythospheres of the world. It's not about escapism or nostalgia, it's more about the way that matters ancient can still have relevance today, and perhaps eternal relevance, although that's probably fanciful.

You are touring with Bert Jansch this summer in the US! Which album of his is your favorite?

I have been listening a lot to his record Avocet recently... beautiful.

What records have you been listening to lately?

A lot of stuff on tour -- Avocet... Fonotone boxed set... Abner Jay... Dexy's Midnight Runners, Kitchen Cynics, Alban Berg as played by Anne-Sophie Mutter, Bach's Magnificat, Jock Duncan, William Parker's Double Sunrise Over Neptune, Chain and the Gang, Hector MacAndrew, Gaelic Bards and Minstrels by William Matheson, Wagner's Parsifal, Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate... etc.

What song describes your life right now?

"It's the World's Gone Crazy (Cotillion)" by Waylon Jennings. My own new song "Scandal and Trance," which treats of the current global economic meltdown.

What is an album that you love that you think more people should hear?

Bris by Nils Okland. The Noah's Ark Trap by Nic Jones.

What has been your best record store find?

Double Shirley Bassey live LP in my local charity shop.

Thanks for taking the time to do this. Come to San Francisco sometime soon!

Would love to come back!


Bonnie Prince Billy's Beware - Is That Scary?

Posted by Miss Ess, April 24, 2009 04:50pm | Post a Comment
Bonnie Prince Billy's prolific, unrelenting output sort of forces me to prolifically blog about him -- he's one of the few present day artists whose work I always seek out, and consistantly his albums are nothing short of incredible...so here we are again.


This time, however, I had my doubts at first; now that I have had a few weeks to settle in with Bonnie Prince Billy, aka Will Oldham's latest, Beware, plus seen him perform material from it live, I am starting to get more and more into it. At first all the production work and the over the top backing vocals were getting in the way of my enjoyment of the record, but now the goodness of the songs has seeped into my brain and I've noticed I have tracks from Beware stuck in my head constantly, which is usually the most inescapable way of knowing when something is getting to me.

I think it's weird that the media is labeling this album "mature," and calling it his move toward a more "popular" sound...it's just plain wrong, really, because if anyone in the biz has just been doing exactly what he goddamn pleases, thank you very much, in his music for going on two decades, it's been Will Oldham. The media onslaught he's brought upon us for this record is, I believe, him trying to help sell records for Drag City's sake; it's not a ploy to catch the attention of the mainstream. That is something Oldham has never courted with any real commitment, or, in my opinion, any actual interest whatsoever. Oldham seems truly happy following his own muse, and I, for one, am continually ecstatic to listen to the result-- over the top backing vocals or not!

This album was apparently inspired in part by Elvis' 70s period, hence that slick, over the top aspect I keep referring to. When I first listened and was off-put by the production, at least I felt I understood the meaning behind the sonic choice. Sometimes it can be freeing and fun to go over the top (see: Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music)...and over time, the songs' pure melodies, inescapable ragged glory, and Oldham's typical lyrical charms worked their magic on me, as always. 

The live show the other night at the Fillmore was fantastic. Oldham brought his singular energy, dressed all in white, even his fingernails a matching hue. As in his music, his onstage presence feels less about the audience and its desires and more about whatever it is that is going on in his brain as he feels his way through each song. In what can only be called the most overly self-conscious era of all time, Oldham, despite his penchant for eyeliner, remains utterly unaffected as he stands stork-like on one leg, twists his face and lifts his arms high over his head in abandon. His eager band, starring perennial underground fave Jim White of Dirty Three as the drummer, brought the songs, both new and old, to great heights. Jim White's arms while drumming can only be described as octopus-like -- he brings them up, around, and over there all at once with a seemingly slowed-down, underwater grace, enhancing the music. The only thing that tells of the labor it takes to keep that beat going is the at first tiny, then growing, growing spot of sweat that eventually took over White's entire shirt as the night wore on. Another player highlighting the band is Cheyenne Mize, who adds fine fiddle and strong harmony vocals. Mize and Oldham have recently released a 10" together entirely of tracks from 1915 or before, like "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and "Beautiful Dreamer." It's called Among the Gold. Hopefully it will be available at Amoeba soon; until then, check out two tracks here. And nab yourself a copy of Beware.

For all the images from Bonnie's recent Amoeba Hollywood instore, click here.

Greg Weeks of Espers and Language of Stone Records Chats

Posted by Miss Ess, January 27, 2009 06:02pm | Post a Comment
Greg Weeks is an exceedingly multi-talented musician at the forefront of the so-called "Folk Revival" that's been going on for several years now with his solo albums, including this year's The Hive, and his band Espers. He is also single-handedly helping keep alive the art of analog recording with his studio in Philly, Hexham Head. AND he has his own label, Language of Stone, distributed by Drag City, for which he plays A&R man. Then there is also Greg's other baby, The Valerie Project, which involves a group of Philadelphia musicians who created a soundtrack to play along live at screenings of the 1970 cult Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and debuted back in 2007. Between all these various artistic endeavors, it's a wonder Greg had time to chat here! Read on to hear about the thrilling new projects Greg is taking on, where he finds inspiration, and what songs are currently defining his life, among other things.



Miss Ess: What was it that got you into music in the first place?


Greg Weeks: I'd have to say radio ... or the Solid Gold dancers. Probably radio.
 
ME: Can you describe the exact moment?

GW: No way! That's like asking what it was like in the womb.
 
ME: What records defined that early period of musical obsession for you?

GW: Ah, well, I had two sound designed LPs of Hansel and Gretel that were very much loved. I wore out the grooves on the bit where the witch burnes alive in the oven. The plate reverb on that part probably had a large impact on future production tastes. I listened a lot to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and the Sean Cassidy LP.

ME: Jumping to the future: any news on the next Espers album?

GW: We're recording it. Slowly but surely. Our drummer is hardly ever around, and that makes it challenging, but we should have a record out in the Fall.

Yes, Otto is fantastic, and consequently high in demand! What projects are you working on currently and what is coming up next for you?

Well, Valerie Project is likely going to be doing several weeks in Summer around Green Man. That will pretty much put the wraps on that project and allow us to get on with the biz of a second installment in the Project Series (though the subject is being kept under wraps). I have a project with Alison from Mellow Candle underway. She wrote a series of songs on dulcimer (with vocals) which I'm arranging for rock band treatment. Recording should begin soon on that.

Wow, I can't wait to hear that! You have your own label, Language of Stone. Is there any commonality between the sound of the artists you have chosen to sign?
 
Well, when you have one person designing the roster there has to be some through line linking the bands. My taste is somewhat diverse but there are commonalities, perhaps indefinable to some degree. It's all subconcious stuff really. Labels are a funny thing. We music fans often think of label signings as being a signifier of status and worth for a band, but in reality small labels are populated by administrators with fickle tatstes who pass up great bands all the time in service of their own whims and agendas. If Ben Goldberg hadn't picked up a copy of [Weeks'] Fire In The Arms Of The Sun for $1 in an Other Music bargain bin, it's likely that Espers, Valerie Project, Language of Stone and Hexham Head wouldn't exist. No other label was interested in that record. So, in a way, Ben Goldberg is a founding father of the psychedelic folk movement.

Thank god for the independent record store in that instance! What past and current labels are you inspired by or are favorites?
 

Dandelion, Harvest, Elektra, Virgin, Philips, Mellow, Si-Wan, really a lot of the re-issue labels and the modern day vinyl only labels.

Your solo album The Hive came out this past year. How do you choose what will go on a solo album vs Espers and how did the creation of the record come about?
 
My solo records are vastly internal affairs. I'm writing for me and largely about me, either specifically, abstractly, or about my feelings regarding the world around me. Espers records will by default have some of that same energy in the mix, but the works are written for larger forces. There is no ego in an Espers tune. We intentionally remove the "I" from our music. We attempt a more universal approach. The music follows suit because it mixes the energies of the three writers with the overall energy of the ensemble. The band in effect erases the individual's imprint to some degree.

You put out an excellent album with Espers, The Weed Tree, that is all covers -- what songs do you still want to cover sometime in your career? How do you decide what songs to cover in general?
 
Man, I always have a running list of songs to cover, and there's a good chance we'll squeeze another covers record out, but I hesitate to name names. People know too much nowadays. The excitement of the unknown needs to be cultivated, so I'll leave it at that. As far as choices ... personally I'm not interested in doing a straight cover rendition, so the tune has to lend itself to an interesting retelling. Manipulating the original intent is always a fun endeavor as well.

You are involved in so much. What aspect of your work within different musical fields is your favorite?
 
Touring would be last on my list. Playing music in front of people is incredible and rewarding ... and probably allows for the most spiritual of experiences, but touring is the least creative aspect of musicianship and the biggest time waster. And physically and psychologically it is very difficult. I most enjoy working with others at this point. Espers is great cuz for me coming up with arrangements to other people's parts is absolutely the most enjoyable aspect of music making. And certainly assisting other talented musicians in reaching their potential ... that's incredibly rewarding. If I could do that full time and make a living I would likely devote myself to it.
 
I read that your song was featured on Weeds! How did that come about and how do you feel about it?
 
Showtime contacted me through Myspace. Simple as that. I'm all for music licensing. It's one of only a few ways to make money from music. An artist needs to be selective, of course, but there isn't much out there that I wouldn't go for if offered. I live in this society. Every day within it I feed almost every aspect of its structure, good and bad, by default. If a car commercial asks me for a tune, I'm likely gonna give them a "yes." I drive a car. I'd be a hypocrite to hold out for moral reasons. If some throwaway Hollywood crap film wanted a song I'd likely say "yes." I slum bad Hollywood movies on tv all the time. But I'd have no trouble turning down $1,000.000.00 if offered by the US military or Haliburton or McDonald's or some such company that I am patently opposed to and resist supporting. With Weeds it was a perfect fit. Showtime hardly pays anything so I don't have any pressures to flee my destitute lifestyle and change my artistic orientation, and pot needs to be legalised, so I feel I'm supporting a just cause I firmly believe in by helping pot gain more mainstream appeal.

What is your most prized piece of music gear and why?
 
Oh, I would off the cuff say my Mellotron, but in reality its likely my '78 Gibson Les Paul Custom, the only electric guitar I've ever owned. I bought it for $400 in 1986 and despite its backbreaking weight I will own and use it till I become fertilizer for some grower's pot patch.

What is the musical scene like right now in Philadelphia and what makes it different than scenes in other major cities?
 
The scene is vibrant and ever expanding, so much so that even Magnet did a story on Philadelphia! I can't even keep track of the people who keep arriving, friends and strangers. I imagine the climate is much like that of Seattle in the early 90s with one exception; there is no major label cash influx to challenge the scene's foundations. Philadelphia is the last artistically viable big city on the East Coast that remains affordable. New York is untennable, as is Brooklyn. DC is dead, atomised into small loft scenes that are very strong individually but aren't able or interested in creating a unified scene. Baltimore is an amazing city with a lot of great people and a very healthy electronic scene, but it's too small and disparate yet to cultivate a unified scene able to support outsiders. And south of DC ... good luck. Like the midwest, there simply is no suitable infrastructure. It's like mainland Europe without the government interference.

Speaking of scenes, now that the "New Folk" movement has been around for several years, how does it feel to you now and how do you feel about the labeling of it that has gone on?
 
The labels exist for the simple reason that we need symbols to help us easily understand what we're discussing. New Folk, New Weird America, Freak Folk, Psych Folk ... none of it means what it pretends to say. I've always said that it's a movement based on personal politics. That the unifying factors are rebellion against what the megacorps project as being the mainstream: music megacorps, clothing megacorps, produce megacorps, lifestyle megacorps ... anything faceless and huge and not represented by the common man/woman. This music, in all its wide varieties, grew out of a network of individuals who slowly came together with a shared desire to create a world they believed ought to exist. It may seem relegated to a microcosm of indie music but the evidence shows it's part of a widescale sea change in attitudes. Or more so, a change in momentum wherein everyday people have found the inner strength to resist what is force fed them. We're seeing it in the natural foods revolution, the global economic meltdown, US political regime change, the crafts revolution and all sorts of things that, while [also] embracing new technologies, are taking us back to what was good about the world on the cusp of the industrial revolution. Music is a huge force for change, despite the fact that musicians are the most ghettoised of artists. Music has to a very great extent supported youth (those 40 and under) in this current movement towards change.
 
What has been the musical highlight of your life thus far?
 
The first Valerie Project performance ... my first solo performance at VPRO's Amstel Fest. Those would be the two highest ranking experiences on my list.

What have you been listening to lately?
 
Ys by Joanna Newsom. The first side of that record is one of the great works of art of the 21st century. Funnily enough, when I play it for the uninitiated, the first reaction is always "it sounds like a little girl singing." "Violence Grows" by The Fatal Microbes (thanks to Jeremy's Christmas cd smapler). A German gal by the name of Haruko. Frumpy's video for "How The Gypsy Was Born." There's an Austrian band by the name Graumahd that I really dig. And there's an ellusive Brit who makes the most incredible and melancholic music (available only on Myspace and YouTube) by the name of Chevalier of the Brazen Serpent. I wish someone would convince him to let me put out a record of his.



Name an album that you couldn't live without that you think more people should listen to.
 
Anything by Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes.

Do you have any musical guilty pleasures?
 
Er ... anything that a person enjoys hearing shouldn't really be considered a guilty pleasure. Though I guess enjoying an M.O.D. album should make me feel guilty.

It's interesting how often pockets of great music come out of one particular place and within one particular time period. Is there a musical scene, a particular place and time that you would like to go back to and insert yourself in?
 
I'd happily insert myself in Bearsville [NY in the late 60s/early 70s] right now! Europe in the early 70s was amazing straight across the board. Late 60s early 70s Italy would have been insane. Biglietto Per L'Inferno, Osanna, New Trolls, Saint Just, Mauro Pelosi, Dalton ... the list goes on.

What song best describes your life right now?
 
"If" by Bread and "Jesahel" by Delirium.


If you could cre
ate your dream bill, made of any bands/artists irregardless of time and space, with Espers as the headliners, who would you choose?
 

Supersister would have to be on there. Aside from that, a multimedia affair with artists largely drawn from the list of Favorites on the Language of Stone YouTube page would be a good start.

I've heard that you also are interested in making films. Have you had a chance to make one yet? What is it about and what was its inspiration?
 
I have long been wanting to make a film series dealing with modern day stone cults and centering largely around the push and pull between nature and humankind; how each side attempts to reclaim what the other has taken away. The problem is finances. All the participants and the creative team are lined up, but I'm not good at raising money, I don't want to cede creative control to investors and I want to shoot it all on 16mm. Any suggestions?

Since the economy is as bad as it is these days, I would say definitely don't put it on your credit card, even if that's what so many indie filmmakers have done in the past! Any idea when you will be back on the road touring?
 
Solo stuff, I don't know ... I'm not sure if there's an audience for me live in the US. I've never been in the position to gauge it. Espers will definitely be out there to support the next record.

Thanks so much for your time!

Something Old, Something New: Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh's self-titled CD/LP out now on Drag City!

Posted by Kells, September 18, 2008 12:39pm | Post a Comment

 

When I first learned that Masaki Batoh, enigmatic frontman of the wondrously magical avant-psych band Ghost, and Swedish-born Helena Espvall, vocalist, guitarist and cellist of the equally magical folk-rock outfit Espers, were to release a record of their collaborative efforts, a wave of excitement swept me out of my shoes and into a frenzy of inspired musings that lead to an impulse purchase of a bottle of Framboise Lambic. After many repeat listenings of Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh, their simply self-titled releaseI can safely say that not only does the record pair well with the sweet, frothy drink, but also complements those early Halloween  decoration displays that are beginning to pop up all over town. The record and the drink spurred a flip through my battered old D&D Monster’s Compendium which led me to conjure a mental picture of a romantic tapestry woven by two modern day minstrels who, after recognizing their great esteem for one another, slipped away from their bands’ respective gypsy caravans silently in the night, running away together to the far reaches of the northern wilderness, making beautiful music together all the way. 

Of course, my tastes for picturesque exaggeration and raspberry tinged ale have likely overrun the reality that is quite reasonably the result of a season spent jamming by two proficient multi-instrumentalists who, in riffing on each others folky sensibilities, managed to produce a collection of seriously pretty, mysterious rambles. 

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