Episode 081: Mike Watt

26Nov

There’s a whole of confusion when I arrive at the Mercury Lounge. By the time I emerge from the front of the club, on being informed that I was supposed to meet Mike Watt at “the boat,” the I spot the musician limping his was toward me on Houston Street. He’s longer the skeletal figure the late D. Boon described as a dimensionless “serious of points” of course, but the bassist is still a force of nature, now barreling through the crosswalk.  I introduce myself and add that I’m more than happy to go back to the van, but Watt waves me off. “It’s fine,” he answers. “We’ll find something inside the venue.” And for once, I’m disappointed at the prospect of not following a stranger back to a van, the giant white Econoline at the center of year’s worth of road stories, behind whose wheel Watt conducted the lion’s share of interviews for the delightful 2005 documentary, We Jam Econo. We settle in a small alcove, where the instruments are stashed between sets. Watt takes a moment to settle in, compensating for a bum knee exacerbating by chronic touring and then asks in earnest why I’m interested in speaking with him. There’s no false modesty there.  He is, after all, just one-third of Il Sogno Del Marinaio a trio formed with two Italian musicians from a younger generation marking yet another sharp turn in the Watt’s long and winding career path. “Because you’re Mike Watt” seems a strong enough answer, but instead I sit and listen as he maps out the band’s approach in typically democratic language, playing alongside two tremendous young musicians in a situation that requires continual musical growth, nearly three and half decades after the release of the first Minutemen LP. He may be limping slightly, but Watt shows no outward signs of slowing down, music or verbally — and hell, I’ll be the first to admit that for the first few minutes of our conversation, I have some trouble keeping up. As with his music, Mike Watt speaks in a language uniquely his own — a sort of Southern Californian free jazz approach to verbal communication that requires dialing into his very specific frequency. And as with everything else the music does, once you’re tuned in, it’s best to just hang on and enjoy the ride.

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Episode 080: Tim DeLaughter

19Nov

In 2013, The Polyphonic Spree released, quite possibly the best album, a decade into their existence — quite the feat for a band many had written off as little more than novelty the first time its 20-odd members took to the stage in matching robes. But, then, Tim Delaughter has built a career out of defying exception. The Spree itself was one of those crazy sorts of what ifs that artists sit around and discuss but rarely ever deliver on: as much a happening as a band, with two dozen members in choir outfits, born out of the dissolution of Tripping Daisy a damaged 90s psychedelic alternative act that recorded a handful of wonderful records that will forever be relagated to the Buzz Bin of history for its sunshine single “I Got a Girl.” Delaughter’s determination is the glue that’s held his deeply satisfying pop experiment together since 2000 in the face of financial strain and all of the other numerous logistical considerations that come with such a massive operation at a time when similarly positioned groups with roughly one-eight the band members struggle to make ends meet.  The singer looks slightly worse for wear when we sit down upstairs at Brooklyn Bowl in a meeting spot oddly positioned just outside the ladies room before the doors have officially opened. But once the music starts — after a very brief but extremely wedding ceremony between audience members — the band puts on a show with every ounce of energy that defined the Spree in its nascent days. Over the years, unsurprisingly, members of the massive group have come and gone, but Delaughter has maintained his position as the excited and chaotic nucleus. The band has already outlived Delaughter’s previous group, and if Yes It’s True is any indication, The Polyphonic Spree still has plenty of life ahead of it.

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Episode 079: Glenn Tilbrook

11Nov

I first met Glenn Tilbrook two years back in a hotel bar roughly 40 minutes or so outside of downtown Austin, Texas. I was nursing a whiskey after a long day’s work and overheard the older gentleman describing a corporate music gig in a soft spoken English accent. It took me longer than I care to admit that the guy sitting next to me was the frontman of one of the greatest pop group of the last 30 years. I’m also slightly embarrassed to admit that I slipped into interviewer mode a few times during that conversation — and subsequent conversations the following two nights, asking Tilbrook about my favorite Squeeze song, “Up the Junction.” A typically upbeat song musically, the number seems to take an abrupt tonal shift in lyrics roughly halfway through when, seemingly without warning, things shift from white picket fences to alcoholism and broken relationships. “I’d never thought of it like that,” Tilbrook answered. “I’d always just thought it was realistic. Fair enough. And really a pretty solid encapsulation of the musician’s approach to the world — a realist with the undeniable propensity toward perfect pop hooks. Fitting then, that things got a bit real in the tour bus parked just outside of the City Winery ahead of a Tilbrook solo show, as we spoke of matters of songwriting and life.

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Episode 078: Greg Cartwright

5Nov

There are few people around I’d rather sit down and discuss music with for 45 minutes than Greg Cartwright. Beyond the laundry list of excellent bands he’s fronted, from The Oblivians to The Reigning Sound (and the dozens in-between), the Tennessee musician makes no bones about being a huge music fan himself.  That fact has manifested itself in countless side projects like The Parting Gifts with Ettes singer CoCo and records like Dangerous Game, which saw the return of Shangri-Las singer Mary Weiss after a number of decades away from the music scene. Cartwright’s deep love of music affords him an impressive level of insight when it comes to discussing his own output over the years — and almost invariably leads us down all manner of musical rabbit holes in the interim. I sat down with Cartwright backstage at The Bowery Ballroom to discuss his near decision to retiring The Reigning Sound name and the band’s subsequent return to recording with the newly released Shattered, which finds him playing with a number of recent recruits and a new-found lease on life for one of rock and roll’s most exciting groups.


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Episode 077: Jillian Tamaki

29Oct

In amongst the throngs of costumed chaos that the Jacob K Javits Center on the Saturday of New York Comic Con weekend, we find a reasonably quiet corner to sit down and discuss life and art with Jillian Tamaki — “reasonably,” of course, being a nice way of designated that rare spot where one can talk without shouting. Maybe there’s some metaphor to be explored there about finding oneself in amongst the pop culture sound and fury that is the contemporary comics scene. And Tamaki has certainly carved out a place for herself, rising to prominence in the indie comics and YA scenes with Skim, a collaboration with her cousin, writer Mariko, that landed the duo on all manner of year-end best of lists.  The two Tamakis joined forces again for 2014’s This One Summer, a teenage coming of age story that has once again landed the cousins in critics’ good graces. We had about 40 minutes before Tamaki had to rush off to a signing with First-Second, but we managed to cover a lot of ground, from collaborating to teaching, to surviving the Comic Con chaos. The questions about Adventure Time, sadly, will have to wait until next time.

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Episode 076: Kevin Seconds

22Oct

Kevin Seconds is seated next to me on a small bench just in front of the Knitting Factory. As I prep the record and unravel the mic cords, fan after fan approach the singer. Some want autographs, some want to take a photo, some just want to say hello, but all have a story — mostly tales of seeing 7 Seconds way back when. Punk show stories that prove they’ve been there for the band for just as long as the band’s been there for them. Seconds has been living the stories since he was 19-year-old in Reno, one of two groups of brothers who helped bring the nascent hardcore scene to the biggest little city. At 53, he still appears grateful for every one. The band still tours, now and again, when Seconds isn’t putting out solo records or running a Sacramento coffee shop wife his wife, a fellow musician. In the past year, 7 Seconds even put a new record, Leave a Light On — it’s first in nine years. When he gets up on stage, the energy returns, though, granted, not quite the same level as the 19-year-old who started the group 35 years ago. But like his fans, those intervening decades have left Seconds with many more roads traveled and stories to tell.

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Episode 075: John Porcellino

15Oct

I’d spoken with John Porcellino not all that long ago for Publishers Weekly feature discussing The Hospital Suite, the indie cartoonist longest self-contained work to date. Published by Drawn & Quarterly, the book is deeply personal, exploring long standing health concerns that caused Porcellino to be hospitalized numerous times over the years. Toward the end of that conversation, I asked the artist whether he’d be willing to meet up again for yet another interview when his book tour brought him to New York City. He’d only be in town for a couple of days for the Brooklyn Book Festival and would only have a couple of hours to spare, but he happily agreed to devote one of them to sitting down with me in front of a microphone yet again. Porcellino greeted me in the lobby of his Brooklyn hotel a few weeks later in a white t-shirt bearing the visage of celebrity cat, Lil Bub. He recognized me before I recognized him. He looked different than the last time we’d met, when I’d interviewed him on-stage at the Minneapolis Indie Expo a few years prior. Back then, he’d been in the throes of the health concerns at the center of his new book.  “I’ve put on a little weight,” he said proudly. “I just turned 46, after all.” He didn’t look overweight, he just looked, well, healthy. He offered me an English muffin and apologized for tucking into the hotel breakfast that had only just arrived. He was making the most of his limited time as I set up the recorder. After five ten minutes of discussing the relative niceness of various hardcore frontmen (Ian MacKaye, Kevin Seconds and Keith Morris all get gold stars), any concerns I harbored about our ability to fill yet another hour’s worth of SD card with conversation melted away. For episode 75, here’s a wide ranging one with one of the most fascinating and longest lasting figures in the world of self-published comics. Punk rock, buddhism, nature, health and art all abound.

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Episode 074: Jason Nash

8Oct

The best interview subjects and the best comedians share a common thread: brutal honesty. There’s a sense that nothing is off-limits in pursuit of the perfect joke or honest answer. Jason Nash, to his credit, is nothing if not honest — often times brutally so. About his career, about his life and, most frequently, about his marriage. In fact, the comedian recently released a movie on the subject — the fittingly straightforwardly named Jason Nash is Married. “The secret to a great marriage is very simple,” Nash sums the whole business up in a voice over at the end of the film’s trailer. “One person eats shit and the other person soars like a bird feeding off the lost dreams of the first person.” Nash and I sat down at the Sidewalk Cafe in Manhattan while the comedian was in the city promoting the film’s video on demand release. And just as one would expect, things got really real.

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Episode 073: Art Spiegelman

29Sep

Two years ago, while on a take a half day off following a photography convention, I ran into Art Spiegelman on the streets of Cologne, Germany. Actually, I spotted his wife first, and it took me a moment to place the familiar face so completely out of context — New Yorker editor and former RAW Magazine partner in crime, Francoise Mouly. I reintroduced myself, having interviewed Art a year or two prior for a HEEB Magazine cover story. Spiegelman nodded his recognition and invented me to a talk his was giving at a modern art museum later that night. Naturally, I obliged. It was one of the more surreal experiences of my comics-adjacent life. What began as a conversation about the cartoonist’s beloved holocaust book Maus, soon transitioned into a slideshow featuring holocaust denial gag strips Spiegelman had drawn, answering then-Iranian president Amedinijad’s call in the wake of the uproar over the massively controversial 2005 Dutch Muhammed cartoons. Watching the German audience crack up at the work offered a fascinating glimpse at the coping mechanisms of a country whose psyche is forever changed by the topics Spiegelman has unflinchingly embraced. It was also a reminder that, along with being a vocal pundit in the ever-shifting give and take between “high” and “low” art, Spiegelman has long been a showman. His new touring act “Wordless” is the most direct manifestation of these two qualities. The event mixes multimedia, lecture, a live jazz band and conversations revolving around the influential if often forgotten pictorial novels of artists like Lynd Ward. Spiegelman spoke with me ahead of his upcoming tour about Ward’s on-going impact on his own work, the power of the visual medium and the often questionable pursuit of multimedia comics.

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Episode 072: John Darnielle

24Sep

“Once a bugle stood in the window of a store that sold brass goods.” That’s the first line of The Magical Bugle, a short story written by a young John Darnielle after acquiring an old Royal typewriter for his seventh birthday. It was a line so good his father taught it to his Freshman composition students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Darnielle has, it turns out, been a writer his whole life, and if that first sentence is any indication, he’s been always been a pretty good one.  Since the mid-90s, he's been best recognized as the frontman and sometime sole member of The Mountain Goats, a southern California indie rock outfit defined by the musician’s intensely emotive vocals and narrative song structures that play out like two to three minute short stories. His early career was also marked by lo-fi recording techniques, with songs often taped directly to a cassette boombox. In 2002, Darnielle released Tallahassee, a concept album relating the story of a embittered Florida couple perpetually near divorce. The singer’s second LP that year, the record also marked the first Mountain Goats record to be performed by a full band.  An arguable disappointment to some of his hardcore fanbase, the record was a perfect manifestation of Darnielle’s desire to pursue new challenges, having taken home recording to its logical conclusion with the equally brilliant All Hail West Texas. Wolf in White Van marks is a similar pursuit in some sense, the novel serving as a manifestation of his desire to perpetually challenge himself,  though Darnielle’s decision to pen a novel likely didn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with his songwriting abilities — or any mid-70s Cal Poly composition students. Darnielle and I sat down in the Manhattan offices of his publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a veritable shrine to the written word, to discuss the novel, his life long science fiction and the importance of being able to throw things away.

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