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BREAKING: BONNY DOON, HOP ALONG, COURTNEY MARIE ANDREWS, NNAMDI OGBONNAYA
18 AMEN DUNES IS AT YOUR SERVICE 22 YOU’RE ALONE, BUT YOU’RE NOT: FALLING AND GETTING BACK UP WITH ANDREW W.K. 30 DR. OCTAGON GAVE US TWO DECADES TO CATCH UP, BUT THEY’RE STILL A THOUSAND YEARS IN THE FUTURE 40 THE BREEDERS SPLASH BACK 46 100 PERCENT HAPPY: COURTNEY BARNETT IS LETTING IT ALL GO
PUBLISHER ALAN SARTIRANA EDITOR-IN-CHIEF NATE ROGERS MANAGING EDITOR ANYA JAREMKO-GREENWOLD ART DIRECTOR MELISSA SIMONIAN EDITORIAL ASSISTANT MIKE LESUER WORDS TRILBY BERESFORD, RANDY BOOKASTA, AUSTIN BROWN, JAMES CHARISMA, ANDY HERMANN, BRIAN JOSEPHS, MATTHEW MORRIS, KATRINA NATTRESS, ERIN OSMON, WILL SCHUBE, ERIC STOLZE, ALEX SWHEAR, ADAM VALEIRAS, JASON P. WOODBURY IMAGES MORGAN BLAIR, DEAN BRANDT, CARLO CAVALUZZI, TODD MCFARLANE, MICHAEL MULLER, EMILY SHUR, ANDREW VAN BAAL ANTHEMIC AGENCY MICHAEL BAUER, ANA DOS ANJOS, JACQUELINE FONSECA, TAYLOR NUÑEZ, RICARDO RIVAS VELIS, KYLE ROGERS
JACK WHITE COVER PHOTO BY THEON DELGADO / COURTNEY BARNETT COVER PHOTO BY POONEH GHANA / TABLE OF CONTENTS PHOTO BY TAJETTE O’HALLORAN
60 THE APOTHEOSIS OF JACK WHITE
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BONNY DOON WHEN BONNY DOON BEGAN SKETCHING OUT A STRATEGY TO FOLLOW UP THEIR SELF-TITLED DEBUT, THEY KNEW THEY WANTED TO DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY. “I think everything’s always a reaction to how you did it the last time and what’s exciting you at the moment,” says Bobby Colombo, who splits vocal and guitar duties in the band with Bill Lennox. While their first record was a strong arrival, Colombo and Lennox characterize its creation as long and arduous. So the band snuck away from their native Detroit and rented a house on the beach in Northern Michigan, recording their next album in just five days, aiming for a looser, more instinct-driven process. “We were just thinking, ‘First thought, best thought’ with this one,” Colombo explains.
be hitting the road with Band of Horses this summer, and are aiming to offer an inviting audience experience—but not one with a copy-and-paste approach. “The paradigm of live music is so old and stagnant,” Colombo laments. “We’re interested in and would like to figure out ways to push us further… We have sort of an unhinged live show sometimes. We play the songs almost like they’re falling apart, but they never really do.” Whichever way it ends up manifesting itself on tour, the album itself is strikingly put together. And the solitude of the recording process is a crucial part of the album’s DNA; Longwave examines isolation at its most blissful (“I’m faking my own death so I can get some rest,” it sighs at one point) and gnawing (“I’m tired of having secrets but no one to tell”). “Those contradictions do exist in all of us—they’re natural, and they’re there, and they fight with each other,” Colombo observes. “Sometimes it can be hard to figure out how to move forward when you’re painfully aware of the tensions that are residing in you. And I do think the record is sort of a document of that for us.”
The result is Longwave, an album Bonny Doon might still have made if they weren’t holed up in a Michigan beach house, but probably not. Delicate and contemplative, the ten new songs feel very much like a product of their MEMBERS: Bobby Colombo (guitar/vocals), Bill Lennox (guitar/vocals), Joshua Brooks (bass), and Jake Kmiecik (drums) recording process—while Bonny Doon FOUNDED: 2014 weren’t necessarily intent on tearing up FROM: Detroit, Michigan the playbook, this record is still a totally different beast from its predecessor. YOU MIGHT KNOW THEM FROM: Their warm, rootsy self-titled debut album from 2017 Longwave embraces the stylings of NOW: Releasing their sophomore effort, Longwave, and supporting Band of Bonny Doon—folk rock with some altIf that all seems a bit dreary, know that, Horses on a summer tour country sprinklings—but the band’s in fact, Bonny Doon sound like they’re more spontaneous approach lends it a scrappiness that feels fresh. Rather gunning to be spiritual successors to Silver Jews and Neil Young, with a pinch than rein these songs in to the point of suffocation, the band allows them of Summerteeth-era Wilco thrown in. It’s because of this mood that the record to breathe, rambling and untangling themselves in unexpected ways. never comes across as overly self-serious. The title track, which opens the album, ends in a knowing refrain, zen-like in its conviction: “You are who Just as Bonny Doon sought a different approach to their sophomore you’re supposed to be.” It’s delivered with the confidence of a band that album, they bristle at the idea of a conventional live show. The band will believes it, and is comfortable enough in their skin to act accordingly.
BY ALEX SWHEAR 8
PHOTO BY CHLOE SELLS
©2018 Drum Workshop, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Gabriel Wallace of Gorillaz plays DW because he wouldn’t dream of playing anything else.
HOP ALONG FRANCES QUINLAN IS AN INTROVERT, AND SHE’LL BE THE FIRST TO ADMIT IT. Growing up, the songwriter, vocalist, and rhythm guitarist
“I’ve never been a great collaborator,” Quinlan divulges. “But just from knowing and working with each other for as long as we have, we became so much better at understanding and communicating in our work. We had a greater power of expression in us and a greater understanding of the tools given to us; we could use them and make them work.”
of Hop Along spent a lot of time in her own head. For the band’s third fulllength album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog, she challenged herself by going into the unknown. “I have such a hard time being in the world, so it was a struggle writing these songs with that desire,” she explains. “It’s so much easier for me to retreat into myself than to really try to make contact with the outside, but I wrote the lyrics with the sincere hope to get out and see other things happening.”
With this heightened sense of communication there also came an opportunity to evolve the sound. Songs like the forlorn “How You Got Your Limp” and twangy album closer “Prior Things” feature lush string sections, while the buoyant “One That Suits Me” showcases a Rhodes piano.
While exploring the world around her, Quinlan also looked inside herself, identifying the unique struggles of being female—and as a result, themes of getting down on yourself and the societal power men have over women became prevalent in the record’s nine songs. Album opener “How Simple” finds Quinlan exploring the notion of finding yourself and how ugly that process can sometimes be. “I’ve dealt with self-loathing for a long time now,” she admits. “Living on my own, unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, added some light to that.” During the chorus of “What the Writer Meant,” she repeats the phrase “So strange to be shaped by such strange men,” dissecting her own upbringing and ingrained deference to the male disposition.
Aside from being the band’s primary songwriter, Quinlan also painted the album art. She first took interest in the craft when her mom took her to oil painting classes in third grade, where she was deeply impacted. “I paint even more selfishly than I write,” she says candidly. “I really don’t think of other people at all when I paint. I was just having a nice moment to myself on a deck in the woods.” MEMBERS: Frances Quinlan, Mark Quinlan, Tyler Long, and Joe Reinhart FOUNDED: 2004 as a solo project; 2009 as a full band FROM: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania YOU MIGHT KNOW THEM FROM: Their first two albums as Hop Along, Get Disowned and Painted Shut NOW: Releasing their biting third album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog, via Saddle Creek
Writing deeply personal lyrics is nothing new for the songwriter; however, this album may be the most special to the indie folk-rock quartet. With two albums already under their belt, the group felt more cohesive than ever when they stepped into the recording studio this time.
BY KATRINA NATTRESS 10
Quinlan’s mother was the first adult to ever tell her she was good at something, and that memory has stuck with her. “I think a lot of adults need to learn how critical that is, encouraging a child,” she says.
For someone who admittedly struggles with self-loathing and feeling powerless, Quinlan exudes confidence. And even if she can’t always see it, she’s a bold artist, particularly inspiring the women who listen to her music—just like her mother inspired her.
PHOTO BY TONJE THILESEN
COURTNEY MARIE ANDREWS THERE IS A CERTAIN INEVITABILITY IN PUNKS TURNING TO COUNTRY MUSIC. A ragged copy of Cash: The Autobiography resting opposite a chain wallet in black denim. Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe next to Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped in the Case Logic (or playlists, these days). A regrettable enthusiasm for Mike Ness’s Under the Influences, if you’re me. “I listen to that stuff now and I’m like, ‘Jesus! Wow, I was feeling a lot during that time,’” Courtney Marie Andrews says of her time as a teenage punker. “Folk and country offer tidbits of all those emotions, but they reflect a wisening.” We agree that one’s psyche can’t run at 120 decibels for too long— that at a certain point, we must accept a range of emotional decibels. There’s also the maturity that comes with the passing of time. “Now I have a better, more worldly perspective,” she adds. “I can see things for what they are more, and not as this magnified thing.” The twenty-seven-year-old Phoenix-born musician has just released her sixth fulllength album. May Your Kindness Remain is a folk record awash in gospel music’s jubilance—a testament to her faith in humanity. “I’m not religious, so kindness is the gospel for me,” she says. Its flourishes are inspired by the sonic touchstones of her favorite records from the 1970s, like Dixie Chicken by Little Feat, which features equal parts guitar twang, murky bass, and skyhigh harmonies. There are sweeping metanarratives commensurate with life on the road, and direct takedowns of injustices she witnessed as a youth in Maricopa County.
BACKSTORY: A punk-turned-country-artist who has yet to lose her edge FROM: Phoenix, Arizona, before moving to Seattle YOU MIGHT KNOW HER FROM: Backing Damien Jurado and Jimmy Eat World on tour in a past life NOW: Releasing her sixth studio album, May Your Kindness Remain, via Fat Possum
BY ERIN OSMON 12
“Border” is an empathetic tale of an immigrant trying to make it in America, inspired by the bigoted actions of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. “The story is so embedded in me,” she says. “I worked right next to his office. There were constant protests against him.” The album’s ten songs emanate a timelessness wholly unique to Andrews, a songwriter whose last two albums have expressed an innate and holistic understanding of cosmic absurdity mixed in with universal truths via gospel music’s chord progressions and a boxcar poet’s observations. Hippies might call her an empath. Others, attuned.
PHOTO BY BRANDON AND BRIAN WRIGHT
Before she was a solo artist, she was in a feminist punk group called Massacre in a Miniskirt. Before she assembled hand-picked session players for her own albums, she briefly served as a member of Jimmy Eat World. “I can still play some of those songs,” she says, laughing, when I mention one of my enduring emo guilty pleasures: her former bandmates’ 1999 album Clarity. “When I was a kid, I loved Taking Back Sunday,” she says. “But Bright Eyes was my saving grace.” Bright Eyes’ Fevers and Mirrors in particular was a bridge many walked to get from punk’s electric chugs to folk’s acoustic hugs. Andrews posits that both genres offer a distinctly passionate spirit and community—something most people seek in their formative years. And though her work has progressed to the full-blown form of emotion, at her core, like so many of us, she remains a punk.
NNAMDI OGBONNAYA NNAMDI OGBONNAYA KNOWS EXACTLY WHAT IT MEANS TO EMBRACE THE ENTIRE BREADTH OF HIS CITY’S STORIED MUSIC SCENE. The Chicago-based musician has less in common with the Kanyes and Corgans who’ve emigrated from the Windy City since their rise to fame and more in common with the Chances and Tweedys in his integration of the city into his music. Since he established himself there in the early 2010s, Ogbonnaya’s drummed or played bass in over a dozen experimental rock bands whose genres range from punk to jazz to math rock (typically an unclassifiable blend of the three), while working on solo material generally reflective of an interest in hip-hop. Yet his solo discography is entirely singular. Ogbonnaya’s most recent album, last summer’s DROOL, is his most genre-focused recording to date, comprised of thirteen tracks inherently hip-hop in their having a beat and being rapped—but the likeness essentially ends there. Instead aligning more with his professed interest in The Simpsons and Looney Tunes since childhood, the vocals on DROOL often sound like an animated series based on TV on the Radio’s Dear Science; like the rubber-hose arms of the cover’s animated Nnamdi, Ogbonnaya’s distorted vocals weaving in and out of hard-hitting SoundCloud beats nearly equates to the unpredictable time signatures he’s mastered in his concurrent career as a math rock drummer.
do that lyrically without jarring the whole song and switching the beat.” As evidenced by the tracklist’s unconventional stylization (titles include “let gO Of my egO” and “nO drOOl”), DROOL’s originality is largely derived from its moment-to-moment rejection of linearity. Where most musicians would wallow in nostalgia to communicate ideas originating in childhood, Ogbonnaya’s music feels like a continuation of it, delivering lines influenced by city living, personal relationships, and the spectre of police brutality through terminology and enunciations reflective of his illicit time in front of the TV as a kid. “I wasn’t allowed to watch much TV, but you always find a way to do a thing you’re not supposed to do if you really want to,” he says of his formative years watching shows that, in retrospect, were “super graphic and wild, just kind of bombarding me with different concepts and ideas and sounds.” In other words, common themes of the local news presently influencing the lyrical content of his music.
“I don’t think there’s anything in my brain distinguishing or separating any of those weird artforms or influences, like cartoons,” Ogbonnaya BACKSTORY: A multi-instrumentalist previously lending his musical clarifies, though this statement also abilities to My Dad, Nervous Passenger, The Para-medics, and literally proves applicable to much more a dozen other Chicago-based experimental rock groups “I think a lot of math rock is built off of than animated TV shows. OutKast FROM: Southern California, originally, and raised in Chicago’s south suburbs messing with people’s perceptions, because and Young Thug are among the hipYOU MIGHT KNOW HIM FROM: His place behind the drums alongside people wanna nod on two and four and have hop influences he lists, citing two seemingly every band who ever opened a math rock show in the a natural flow to things,” Ogbonnaya wearily definitively weird generations of the past seven years posits from his Chicago apartment, where genre. Last but not least: “Mystery NOW: Gearing up to open a handful of summer shows for Speedy Ortiz in support of last summer’s DROOL, and planning a new record he’s slowly recovering from SXSW in Austin, Men!” Ogbonnaya blurts out after with his experimental jazz band Monobody Treefort in Boise, and, most recently, a twentyconjuring up the perfect film to liken four-hour road trip back home to Chicago. “So his music to. Instinctively defending in that aspect, math rock is this joke where it’s like, ‘Oh, right when you his choice, he inadvertently sums up the telos of his music: “It’s kind of think you’re gonna get it, they switch to something else.’ I think you can cartoonish, but it also makes you feel something.”
BY MIKE LeSUER 14
PHOTO BY JOHNNY FABRIZIO
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“Have yourself a good time.” The chorus to “Lonely Richard,” the standout track off Amen Dunes’ 2014 album Love, was a curveball when it came out. It was an earnest, declarative statement from a musical project that, up until then, had made its name off of unhinged, lo-fi, psychedelic folk—a spacious and strikingly anthemic departure. Four years later, though, listening to the new Amen Dunes album Freedom, that chorus feels like a blueprint. A lustrous psych-pop album recorded in Electric Lady Studio and produced by Chris Coady (the man behind Beach House’s recent discography and last year’s Slowdive reunion record), Freedom does, in fact, have a good time—even as the project’s helmer Damon McMahon continues to grapple with his relationship to family, masculinity, and God. McMahon reflects on that period preceding Love—when recordings he’d made in his basement suddenly gained a cult following online—warily. “Evil,” he succinctly states, when asked how he’d characterize the project’s persona from that time. “I’m kind of being facetious, but it was! It was like me purging my shadow self. There’s a lot of anger in that music.” But around the time of Love, which resulted from a breakup, McMahon says he started something new. “It’s a devotional record, really,” he says. “It’s like, I’m shifting toward a different kind of love.” He started craving more extroversion and spirituality in his songs, thinking of the way they related to his newfound audience, and opened up the world of his music as a result.
I S S
A T E
BY AUSTIN BROWN
Y O U R I
PHOTOS BY MICHAEL SCHMELLING
“ D O N ’ T
G E T
W E I R D
Y O U
U N L E S S
C A N
R E A L L Y
G E T
N O R M A L . ”
That’s the guiding principle behind the clarity on Freedom, from
Of course, for all its fealty to craft, Freedom isn’t a pop record, nor is
its patina of warm synths to its swinging, offbeat Americana bent.
McMahon a country singer. His voice is singular, informed by Dylan-esque
McMahon explicitly set out to make a record informed by mainstream
twang but basically deconstructing it as he goes, separating him from the
pop from artists “like Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, INXS, Oasis, or
vocal stylings of artists he’s sure to start receiving comparisons to, like
Tom Petty, who were making music that was mathematically really
Kurt Vile or The War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel. And his lyrics, while
high-functional, so that everybody from the guy at the record store
more concrete than ever, take shape in languid bursts of description, not
to your grandmother could hear it and feel some kind of rhythm to
straightforward storytelling. When they do emerge, as when McMahon
it.” McMahon’s periodic music-nerd lapses into influence listicle are
drawls, “We play religious music / Don’t think you’d understand, man”
revealing in their breadth—a total omnivore, he’s not thinking about the
on scene-setting opener “Blue Rose,” they’re simultaneously impassioned
artists he mentions as concrete, sonic influences, but as the standard-
bearers of a songwriting tradition he’s constantly learning from. “Don’t get weird unless you can get really normal,” he explains. “I learned that
Speaking to that lyric in particular, McMahon explains that, just as
from these traditional songwriters, but also my favorite experimental
he doesn’t want to get too weird without being able to get normal, he
artists: Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten—those guys didn’t
doesn’t want to get too sincere without being able to take the piss. “It’s
presenting this character of me as this ‘Amen Dunes guy,’” he says, “kind of like the ‘cowboy walks into the bar’ kind of scene. And he’s poking
This time around, though, McMahon was also trying something
fun at himself a little bit.” It’s an introduction to McMahon’s playful—
different: “On this record, there was another intention I had, which was
but deeply felt—hope for self-abnegation spread throughout the album.
new,” he explains. “I kind of wanted these songs to make people feel
“Amen Dunes is like the clown character—he’s the one who’s singing
sexy?” Looking back on Love, he notes a sense of tentativeness to that
all these songs about the different identities in me,” he explains, later
album—an uncertainty as to his developing openheartedness that held
describing the titular “freedom” as a freedom from having to identify in
him back from fully embodying it. For Freedom, he says, “I feel like for the
one single way—a comfort in one’s fluidity as a person.
first time, I saw sexiness as spiritual—to have another layer of the onion, that music that makes you feel sexy could sort of be spiritual.” Where
But, when asked about these lyrical themes, McMahon also admits, “It’s
the music on Love was as devotional as its themes, Freedom plays with
funny to talk about this, because a lot of times I’m not even conscious
contrast, poking around in the tension between sex and spirituality with
of what I’m doing.” He might be using the tools of pop music now, but
the same commitment to both that all great pop artists share. “In my own
McMahon’s approach to writing is similar to how it always has been:
weird way, I thought of this as my dance record,” he says, shining a light
organic, flowing, reactive to its environment. The result throughout
on the role of Coady, whose aforementioned indie rock productions often
Freedom is a fascinating study in oppositions, with McMahon
radiate a gentle pulse, and underground Mediterranean house producer
embodying a more extroverted, swaggering Amen Dunes than any of
Panoram, an additional newcomer to McMahon’s musical world, who
his music has ever allowed—even as he uses his pop-wise platform to
added textures and ideas to the recordings.
poke holes in that very swagger. “It’s a product of me realizing that I’m here to be of service,” he says about the album.
The structure and exposed clarity of the record reveals a different aspect of McMahon’s musical triangulation—folk and country music.
“So, then, as a musician, do you see yourself as a part of the service
McMahon, who notes his paternal grandmother’s country music
industry?” I ask in response, only partly joking.
background as part of a West Virginian church choir trio, feels a deep affinity toward the form. “Even though country music is downtrodden,
“100 percent. I’m like a glorified plumber or gardener or something.”
it’s kind of uplifting,” he says fondly, “and I try to bring that to the Amen Dunes stuff.” With this in mind, he makes it a point to never let
“…a plumber of the soul?”
his musical impulses take him away from a traditional song structure. “Every single thing I do is a voice and an acoustic guitar,” he notes, “and
McMahon laughs. “Yeah, a plumber of the soul. That’ll be the name of
then I dress it up in all these different ways.”
my next album.” FLOOD
YOU’RE ALONE, BUT YOU’RE NOT: FALLING AND GETTING BACK UP WITH ANDREW W.K. by Adam Valeiras photos by Andrew van Baal and Dean Brandt
n the particular morning of Wednesday, March 7, 2018, Andrew W.K. could not perform. The occasion was meant to be a solo piano live session of a classical arrangement and two original pieces off his new record, You’re Not Alone. Two camera operators, an audio engineer, several FLOOD staff, and the mother/son owners of the Kasimoff Bluthner Piano Company operated, watched, and waited as W.K. started and stopped his way through more than a dozen takes. At first, he performed truly dextrous and complex Bach compositions, but would falter before reaching the pieces’ ends. Renditions of his original songs included fewer technical mistakes, but it was clear that his confidence was weakening. His sunglasses may have hidden his eyes, but they failed to conceal their downward direction. He sat on the narrow leather bench, faced by cameras, surrounded by a collection of some of the world’s finest instruments—once friendly; no longer friends. As one of the onlookers to this situation—nightmarish for any performer, especially one as pedestaled as Andrew W.K.—I was given the freedom to recap the incident with candor by Andrew himself. His words are transcribed below:
[Clears throat] My name is Andrew W.K. What has just happened here today is that I was given the opportunity to come and play a beautiful piano and perform some pieces. Now, that’s something I’ve done in different capacities many times throughout my career, but it’s never gone quite like this. I’m on the verge… It’s a combination… I messed up a lot. Let’s just say that. So on one hand, I want to cry, and on the other hand I want to slam my head through a brick wall, or maybe a plate glass window ’cause that might actually cause more injury, what with the lacerations to the face. And then I also want to just try and do a good job. But none of these things are really options at this point. So all I’m left being able to do is to try using a radical imaginative process to somehow interpret what just happened in a positive way—which, at this point, feels like the most difficult thing of all. I thought maybe this would be an opportunity to talk about this kind of experience, because it is not often highlighted—it is usually avoided. Edited out. When there’s a mistake, you stop and start again and try to get a fresh take. People do not highlight these moments. For me, the way out of the nightmare of what’s just gone down is to go deeper in. Now, I’m not even happy with how I’m speaking to you, stumbling over my words a bit. I have a canker sore on my tongue. That is no excuse, but it doesn’t help matters. [Stands. Drinks water. Sits back down.] Alright, thanks for letting me say that.
For the uninitiated, Andrew W.K. made a name for himself as a positive-thinking, heart-on-his-sleeve rock and roll figure. It began in the early 2000s with I Get Wet, a raucous party album full of tracks with titles like “It’s Time to Party,” “Party Hard,” and “Party Til You Puke.” Four full-lengths followed over the next decade, and more than a few extracurriculars: He started his own political party (The Party Party), embarked on a nationwide motivational speaking tour, drummed for twentyfour hours straight, and, most recently, was named person of the year by the American Association of Suicidology. When asked about his initial reaction to the award, he describes a state of confusion and a subsequent attempt at understanding by asking the question, “Why me?” “As I’ve tried to process the recognition, I really took it as this group of largely medical professionals recognizing, once again, the transcendent power of music,” he says. “So I just felt that I was accepting the award on behalf of the phenomenon itself— the musical phenomenon, which is intrinsically positive.” For all the positivity in his music, W.K. has a hard time accepting positivity within himself and his own situation. It’s not depression, nor is it cynicism. He seems to be so driven to find the truth—about himself, about psychology, about why a person feels a certain way—that he doesn’t permit himself to answer questions with a simple self-congratulation. Every success and every misstep is a mystery, and the fact that it’s a mystery is a mystery. “It’s not clear why music exists on a scientific level,” he continues. “But what it seems to say is that there’s something benevolent in the world. That music is a manifestation of that [benevolence] is extremely difficult to deny or find fault in... Part of me would love to think, ‘Oh, it’s all because of me and I’m doing this special thing that just happens to strike people in a certain way.’ But I know that’s not what it is, because
there’ll be some other artist whose music couldn’t sound more different from what I’m doing, and they’ll get the exact same reaction from somebody. We should never put the cart before the horse when it comes to that, or think that the performer is the creator of that feeling. They’re just a delivery mechanism.” Part of what helps W.K.’s music resonate with his notably rabid fan base is its understated advocation of healthy isolation— removing the notion of partying from a social setting and presenting the idea that partying can also be a celebration of the self. This is certainly a subtext, because the leveltext is quite the opposite, and the casual listener likely hears loud, theatrical anthems about literal partying in the most traditional sense of the word. “There was not a lot of interaction during most of the musicmaking process. It was just me, sometimes one other person… Maybe because of that [the music’s] trying to compensate for an aloneness. Compensating for that by creating the feeling of there being more people, or wanting there to be more people.” At its core, his music seems to be torn in two, just as many people are, between the joys of social interaction and the joys of solitude. The questions that arise for many are: Which is more pure? Which is more intended? “I’ve felt both ways. I have felt as though I am supposed to want to spend a lot of time with a lot of other people. I have felt very guilty when I have not been able to do that, or have not had what I consider the skills necessary to make that type of interaction possible or enjoyable. And it’s only been recently that I’ve accepted that maybe that’s OK.” For W.K., this struggle is something he hopes to inspire his audience to overcome, and his sincerity stems from the honesty with which he speaks of his own struggles—and his ongoing attempts to overcome the fear of breaching recognized social norms and the so-called status quo.
“I’ve met plenty of people I really relate to who like to spend a lot of time alone,” he says, “and they, too, have felt very pressured that they’re doing it wrong—that they’re doing life wrong. The first song on the first album, ‘It’s Time to Party,’ is about being alone and having a great time, on an emotional level and on a physical level. Those are some of the most special times. They shouldn’t be seen as lacking just because there’s not some other person there.” He goes on to describe how that entire first album was written in essential isolation because none of the musicians he met wanted to be involved. “I tried desperately to meet people that would play this music with me in the very beginning, in the late ’90s, and even my so-called friends didn’t want to participate. Neither did strangers—people I would meet through the classified ads in the back of the newspaper in New York City... They didn’t like the music. The keyboard was always a big stumbling block for people. They said it wasn’t real rock music. That was quite strange because so much of the foundation of rock music started on piano: Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis.” And so that massive, celebrated first record—a hard rock extravaganza about partying—was written in isolation with synthesizers and computer software. His newest album, You’re Not Alone, wraps a familiar sound with bows and ribbons. It’s his largest in scope, and yet it finds the tall, intimidating figure at his most gentle. Scattered throughout the songs are spoken-word messages of self-help to coach troubled or alienated listeners through hardship and loneliness. The words and timbre of Andrew’s voice inspire confidence, and yet the process of recording these tracks was riddled with self-doubt. “It was a really terrifying idea to me, mentally,” he reflects. “There was a complete removal of thought—that was the only way I was able to record them.” He accredits the
development and execution of the interludes to Karen Glauber of his management team and album mastering engineer Gentry Studer, slowly spelling their names letter by letter to ensure proper citation. “Emotionally, I understood as soon as Karen had the idea that not only was she right, but that that’s what was going to happen… So I recorded them by necessity—extremely quickly and painfully. It was not an enjoyable experience for me, but, like most of the album, I was trying to turn myself over to pure intuition—to ignore all the voices in my mind screaming at me a million reasons not to do something and how it’s stupid, people will think it’s stupid, people are gonna cringe, you shouldn’t be so straightforward with stuff, you have to make things more obscure… Most of the time, if I listened to my opinions, I wouldn’t do anything. I would just think, ‘This all sucks’ and just quit.” Andrew W.K. speaks with a refreshing candor. Unlike his music, his speech contains no refrain.
Part of the party mindset is that everything counts. There’s value in everything worth celebrating, worth acknowledging. It’s a very irrational type of mindset, because it seems to me right now that this [live session] is not worth celebrating. But you embrace it. Embracing a mistake: not looking at the mistake as an accident, but as an opportunity. It’s opening a door. Go through it. And sometimes that’s all you can do. You have to accept it. To accept that, yeah, you didn’t do a very good job. Now what are you gonna do about it? You gonna sulk around like a baby, or are you gonna make the most of it and move forward?
Dan the Automator’s been anxiously checking his watch for five minutes. DJ QBert, easily spottable in a bright orange flat-brimmed hat, is ducking behind his folding table, playing Words with Friends, probably not with Kool Keith, because Keith appears to be MIA. It’s 5:10 p.m. at FLOODfest SXSW, and the trio, known collectively as Dr. Octagon, was set to begin ten minutes ago. Dan occasionally hypes the crowd in between quick ocular darts to the VIP area, where Keith also isn’t. Keith seems to not be everywhere, as mercurial as his many alter egos, side projects, and characters—a vanished man swallowed whole by Austin, Texas.
QBert emerges from under his table—which is populated by a single turntable and a laptop, more than enough to captivate an audience with his superlative scratching skills—presumably having vanquished an opponent in his game. Dan gives him a shrug, and they begin playing the Dr. Octagon introduction. The track counts down from fifteen, which doesn’t seem like enough time considering Keith’s still nowhere to be found. After the track reaches the end of the countdown, Automator loops the sampled proclamation: “It’s Dr. Octagon!” All of a sudden, out of thin air, Keith emerges in the VIP area before scurrying down the stairs and onto the stage, outfitted in a navy floral blazer and a Golden State Warriors beanie that hugs his entire head; not an ideal outfit for an eightydegree day. Keith certainly doesn’t seem to notice the heat, nor does he seem to care. Once Keith hits the stage, he’s genuinely thrilled to be there, feeding off a crowd that’s been waiting for a new Dr. Octagon record featuring its original lineup since 1996. The project allows for Keith to access his alter
ego of a time-traveling gynecologist who has one eye focused on the absurd, grotesque, and vulgar, and the other a thousand years in the future. This, of course, is the paradox that Keith, QBert, and Automator had to reckon with when they decided to get the band back together: How does the Dr. Octagon vision stay laserfocused on the year 3000 when, for one thing, modernity is so overwhelming, and for another, reinvigorating the project hinges on asking fans to remember Dr. Octagonecologyst, their debut from twenty-two years in the past? In other words, how do you avoid nostalgia when that’s the only thing left? “Between this and Deltron , I’ve always lived my life around the year 3000,” Dan the Automator explains through a chuckle after their set. “For me, I’ve never really felt like it made any sense to do records that sound like they’re of the time.” In this sense, Moosebumps: An Exploration into Modern Day Horripilation isn’t a followup to Dr. Octagonecologyst—it’s too far removed. Keith, Dan, and Q have been through too many things for this to be a direct reflection of that first album’s style.
“Everything you do in life is gonna influence you,” Dan explains. “Maybe a little, maybe a lot. Maybe modern day politics influences us a lot, maybe it doesn’t. If you listen to this whole record, you wouldn’t necessarily know anything going on in our regular lives that made the record be that way, but if our regular lives weren’t that way, the record would be different, too. There’s a lot more literal narration in there.” Keith draws his inspiration from events both real and imagined, then stretches them vertically and horizontally to fit his scope. “I’m a San Francisco guy, so me working on the record is the experience of Market Street, looking at the trolley cars,” he says, Warriors beanie still pulled down. “San Francisco is a big inspiration for me. When you come outside at four in the morning and you see a 7'5" transvestite walking down the street, it takes you right back.” As he explains this lounged on a couch, basking in the sun, staring at both nothing and everything, it’s impossible not to believe him. Keith has spent his career rapping as a surrealist, stretching the truth to such impossible degrees that it becomes its own kind of believable. He’s among the first generation of rap weirdos; in a world now littered with face tattoos, bizarre alter egos (hello, Lil Boat), aliens, and wunderkinds, Keith’s influence is only outsized and
emphasized. “I just wanted to do a love record,” Keith explains. His idea of love, however, is probably very different from anything you can concoct. “That’s all I wanted to do. I guess it was a challenge to do a new record. The first album is still brand new because it went over forty million peoples’ heads. That’s the challenge.” And while it may take a squiggly line to connect Keith’s definition of a love record to what actually appears on Moosebumps, it’s a remarkably fresh update on the Dr. Octagon sound. Keith sounds engaged and excited, rapping ahead of the beat with a speed and ferocity he seldom taps into anymore. “Polka Dots” takes a dusty beat and fills it with string samples and perfectly placed QBert cuts, while Keith scoots all around the tempo: left, right, forward, and back. “Ladies want my cream on their coconut mounds / She talks so big like she could fit Godzilla in her mouth.” This, one might suppose, is Kool Keith’s idea of a love song. Perhaps because he arrived late, or simply because he was feeling the love, Keith spent ten minutes after his SXSW set’s scheduled ending chanting into the mic, shaking hands, egging the crowd on, and keeping his DJs onstage longer than they had anticipated. It becomes clear that Kool Keith wasn’t late because he’s a diva, or uninterested. He’s just on another planet. He always has been, he always will be.
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SPLASH AGAIN by Andy Hermann photos by Marisa Gesualdi FLOOD
March in Dayton, Ohio, is not pretty. So says Kim Deal, one of the city’s most famous residents. “The daffodils are poking their little heads out of the soil,” she reports. “But it’s also kinda super ugly because it’s really brown still. You have to find them. And then it’s like, ‘Oh my god, it’s happening. It’s gonna happen.’” Fans of Deal’s band, The Breeders, greeted news of the impending arrival of their fifth album, All Nerve, with similarly cautious excitement. It’s the first Breeders full-length in a decade and only the second to feature what many regard as the band’s classic lineup, with Kim’s twin sister Kelley on guitar, Josephine Wiggs on bass, and Jim Macpherson on drums. Twenty-five years ago, that quartet recorded The Breeders’ commercial breakthrough, Last Splash—but drugs, booze, and personality clashes tore the band apart within a few years. Macpherson, the last to go, walked out on a tour with Kim’s post-Breeders group, The Amps, and didn’t speak to her again for fifteen years. The seeds for All Nerve were planted in 2012, when the nowsober Deal sisters mended fences with their old bandmates and convinced them to “do a few shows,” as Kim recalls. “It wasn’t even like, ‘Let’s go on tour and have the label release a box set of our work’”—and here she adopts a corny radio announcer voice—“‘to mark this historic occasion!’” They just wanted to reconnect and have a little fun playing the songs that had made them heroes of the so-called “alternative rock” era. It was a new song called “Walking with a Killer,” which Kim had originally recorded solo as part of a 7" single series, that provided the spark for a new Breeders album with the Last Splash lineup. “When we practiced it downstairs, it was just like, ‘Holy shit, this sounds good,’” says Kim.
42 42 FL FO LO OD OD
“Downstairs” is Kim’s basement in Dayton, where the Deal sisters grew up and have since returned to, just down the road from their parents. Yes, even after all these years, The Breeders are still a basement band—which might partly explain why All Nerve sounds gloriously, anachronistically like a vintage Breeders album. Not dated, just classic, in a raw, no-bullshit, rough-edges-intact way that few rock records achieve nowadays. Kim’s songwriting remains as darkly witty and inscrutable as ever. First with the Pixies (for whom she wrote infrequently but memorably; Kurt Cobain once called the Deal-penned “Gigantic” his favorite Pixies song), then with The Breeders, The Amps, and, more recently, under her own name, Deal fills her songs with ambiguously ominous lyrics and riffs that circle back on themselves like Möbius strips, as catchy as any pop tune without ever quite sounding like pop. Think of the wobbly guitar hook and droning “ah-ooh” backing vocals of The Breeders’ most famous song, “Cannonball”—a track that was probably second only to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in inspiring disaffected girls and boys in the early ’90s to pick up guitars. There are moments of real beauty on All Nerve, but they can sometimes be deceptive. The title track begins with a series of sweet, simple declarations, given a hazy, romantic cast by Kelley’s breathy harmony vocal: “I wanna see you... You don’t know how much I miss you.” It’s a rare Kim Deal love song— or is it? “It’s supposed to be a little creepy,” Kim says, pointing to later, more dangerous lyrics like “I will run you down” and “You don’t know how far I would go.” “That’s the way I see it, anyway. It’s like a psychosis. A love psychosis.” She laughs, a Midwesterner’s deep, hearty guffaw. “Am I ruining it for you? I should just leave it. Yes, it’s a love song.” She is famously exacting in the studio—a devout practitioner of all-analog recording (or “All Wave recording,” a philosophy she devised with legendary producer/engineer Steve Albini), and the kind of perfectionist who will labor for hours over
a single part, trying to make it resemble what she hears in her head. “I go in and just try to not make it suck,” she says simply. When asked for an example of something sucking, she sighs heavily and says, “Just weird things like a cymbal hit, where you clench it off too quickly and all of a sudden I’m depressed.” For All Nerve, they began in Chicago with Albini, who worked on every Breeders album except Last Splash. They recorded two songs with him, “All Nerve” and the brittle, menacing “Skinhead #2.” But Kim’s bandmates vetoed further work with Albini, whose perfectionism rivals hers. “Josephine and Kelley were like, ‘Mm, yeah, that’s too expensive, we’re not gonna do it,’” says Kim, after they got the bill for the two Albini tracks. It’s pricey to record analog, she explains, especially on the temperamental vintage gear Albini prides himself on using. “Those are huge, scientific machines that need to be zeroed out every day to work correctly. They need to be maintained at all times.” As a compromise, they found a much cheaper recording studio in Dayton. On the plus side, it was in a basement; on the downside, its engineers worked digitally. Somewhat to Kim’s surprise, one track from those sessions, the shimmering “Dawn: Making an Effort,” made it onto the final album. “We thought that sounded better than any time we tried to record it in analog,” she admits—in part because the song features very few drums. “I really don’t like rock drums recorded in a digital situation,” she says, her scowl virtually audible through the phone line. To record the tom hits and cymbal crashes for “Dawn,” they ended up using a microphone that was around the corner, down the hallway. “Because I didn’t like the sound of the direct mics on anything,” Deal says. “So it’s just an idea of a drum kit there.” Most of All Nerve was recorded in another Dayton—Dayton, Kentucky, just over the Ohio River from Cincinnati, where Mike Montgomery, Kelley Deal’s partner in her other band,
R. Ring, had just opened a twenty-four-track all-analog studio. “It’s an hour and one minute away,” Kim notes, repeatedly, as though she finds something poetic in this precise distance. There, the band really hit their stride, knocking out the album’s remaining eight tracks, along with some bonus material including Devo and Mike Nesmith covers. (Another cover, one of seminal krautrock band Amon Düül II’s “Archangel Thunderbird,” made it onto the album.) It’s the loosest, most entertaining set of songs The Breeders have recorded since the ’90s. Australian singer/songwriter and Breeders fan Courtney Barnett dropped by with her band to lend some gang vocals to “Howl at the Summit” (the Deal sisters returned the favor by singing background on a few tracks of Barnett’s latest album). Bassist Wiggs takes a rare lead vocal on the aptly named “MetaGoth,” lending her clipped British phrasing to the track’s foreboding atmosphere. And Kim’s trademark wit is fully displayed on “Wait in the Car,” whose title command she sneers— adding “I got business!”—over her and Kelley’s clattering, start-stop guitars. A recurring refrain throughout “Wait in the Car” is “Mother wants to hold me down”—and Kim acknowledges that the song is at least in part about her own mother, who has Alzheimer’s; Kim moved back to Dayton to help take care of her shortly after her diagnosis. The lyrics on “Wait in the Car” are—true to form—ambiguous; it could be Mom ordering a young, rebellious Kim to wait in the car, or it could be Kim admonishing an aging parent with a tendency to wander. Or it could be both. A love song, not a love song. “She’s not mobile and she’s not verbal anymore. When she eats ice cream her eyes light up. But she’s getting pretty frail,” Kim says, sounding weary. Then, unexpectedly, like a flower pushing up through the last dirty snow of spring, her tone brightens. “She would love it if she knew I was singing about her. She used to go around saying, ‘I’m the breeder of The Breeders.’”
Seemingly coasting through this whole rock star thing, Courtney Barnett has been building quite the home for herself in our cultural pantheon. But she needs a place for her cat to stay, too.
BY NATE ROGERS PHOTOS BY TAJETTE Oâ€™HALLORAN FLOOD
hen Courtney Barnett picks up the phone, it’s tomorrow. She’s eighteen hours ahead of me, in Melbourne, Australia, sitting in the front room of her house—the presumptive end result of a search that was chronicled in “Depreston,” a song from her 2015 solo LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, that describes a melancholy visit to a suburban open house. “And it’s going pretty cheap, you say?” she asks gently on that tune, switching back and forth between just two chords, keeping us moving along with a riff that’s perpetually forward, but inevitably sludgy—a riff that makes listening to the song feel a bit like trying to run through a pool of molasses in an otherwise pleasant dream. “Well, it’s a deceased estate,” explains a real estate agent, who trails off briefly before bringing things back to what really matters: “Aren’t the pressed metal ceilings great?” Barnett didn’t buy that home, but she did make one for herself in the Melbourne suburbs, anyway—in Thornbury, where she lives with her partner, the musician Jen Cloher, as well as their cat Bubbles. The thankyou section for Barnett’s new LP, Tell Me How You Really Feel—a thankyou section that later includes such formidable names as Kim Deal, Ian MacKaye, Janet Weiss, and “Kurty” Vile—begins decisively with those two residents of her domestic life. “I would’ve put Bubbles first, but I didn’t want to cause any upsets,” laughs Courtney, who, maybe because it’s ten in the morning her time, comes across as a particularly laid-back and soft-spoken rock star, if there is such a thing. “It’s sunny and beautiful, and I’ve got a bowl of fruit and a cup of tea,” she carefully surveys, when I ask if she can describe the setting in which she took the call. “And that’s about it.” Since widely introducing herself by way of the most enjoyable panic attack imaginable in the 2013 hit “Avant Gardener,” a lot has happened for Barnett. In what seems like the blink of an eye, she’s gone from indie newcomer to powerhouse of the rock genre—a flannel-clad crown jewel of a scene desperately in need of leaders. But no matter what interview you read or what info you manage to glean from her confessional lyrics, there’s a pretty strict humility about her that feels...almost out of place. Sometimes it seems as if she’s more surprised than everybody else at her own success.
“I just find it funny,” she notes of her increasing celebrity. “It’s a very surreal kind of experience. Like, when you think about it logically, all of that stuff is so funny.” And to be sure, her sense of humor has been a key contributor to Barnett’s success; she’s just as likely to make you laugh in a song as she is to knock you on your ass, emotionally speaking. But funny as it may be, the jump in notoriety didn’t happen in the blink of an eye from her perspective: “I’d already done two EPs, and I’d been playing around Melbourne, like, every night of the week to shitty audiences and no one gave a shit,” she says. “And I’m not complaining about any of that stuff—it was all fun. I think it was just part of the journey. But it doesn’t feel like it just happened for me, ’cause now it’s like, oh, thank god, I can play to a crowd!”
Barnett grew up in the Northern Beaches, a suburb of Sydney, raised by parents who met through ballet (her mother was a dancer; her father a stage manager). Naturally, she explains, her family was always “on the artistic side,” but “not so much musical,” she clarifies. “Just sort of in the world of art. When we were growing up, my dad was doing screen printing stuff, and I guess my nan still does volunteer stuff for the Ballet Society or something, which is pretty incredible.”
Her grandma has found herself to be a recurring character in her granddaughter’s saga: Courtney borrowed money from her to run the first press of CDs for her and Cloher’s independent label, Milk! Records, and the title of Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit came from a poster on her bathroom wall, the quote attributed to Winnie-the-Pooh author A. A. Milne. “We’re not a super, super close family, but you know, we’re close enough,” she explains. “So it’s probably just that nostalgic thing that I dip into every now and then when I’m writing. It comes back from those innocent, naïve early memories.” After her family moved to Hobart in her teens, Courtney tried art school there, at the University of Tasmania, but dropped out after a few years and moved to Melbourne. There she played in garage bands and got the gears turning for Milk!—a now-flourishing project that she initially had trouble convincing Cloher to be involved with. “I thought it was a cute idea, but I wasn’t into it,” Cloher admitted in a recent essay for The Line of Best Fit. “Why would you want to do all of that work? I was struggling enough managing my own music projects, let alone thinking about anyone else’s.” But the label—and Barnett’s solo career—clicked. “People bought it,” Cloher went on. “A lot of people! I watched as Court used Milk! to sell directly to her fans. I started to wonder whether she might be onto something.” One of Barnett’s early solo songs, “History Eraser”—which was initially released on the label’s first-ever 7", a split with Cloher’s “Mount Beauty”— laid the groundwork for the sound she would spend the next several years honing: wordy, sharp, personal lyrics over a simple guitar/bass/drums setup that calls back Australasian acts before her like The Clean and The Bats. “We drifted to a party—cool / The people went to arty school,” she sings on that song, making it unclear whether she’s poking fun at her former liberal arts cohorts or just describing them as they are. “History Eraser” eventually made it onto her debut full-length—a 2013 compilation of her first two EPs—which, in typical Courtney fashion, was delivered as a bit of a joke, a bit not: The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, it’s called, the album cover depicting Barnett’s hand-drawn black and white version of Hokusai’s iconic woodblock “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.” That original woodblock depicts a dire scene of fishermen fighting for their lives—but in Barnett’s hands, it’s more likely depicting the casual tragedy of a bowl of soup being dropped onto the floor. Either way, she leaves it up to us to imagine the waves in her version being Exorcist-puke green.
FROM LEFT: COURTNEY BARNETT, DAVE MUDIE, BONES SLOANE
The following year, Barnett’s traditional full-length debut, Sometimes I Sit, firmly established her as a name to watch—not just for her obvious melodic and lyrical talent, but also for the ways in which she was reacting and adapting to the role she had been placed in. (“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” she sings on that album’s second single, “Pedestrian at Best.”) Next was the large-scale public fawning, with the requisite Saturday Night Live and Tonight Show appearances, and a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. (She lost to Meghan Trainor.) People were asking with some seriousness if she might be this generation’s Bob Dylan.
“You’re kind of drawn to her—I’m drawn to her,” Kurt Vile says, happy to step aside for a few minutes during the chaos of South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, to talk about his friend Courtney. The two met when she was added to a show of his in Australia at the last minute, and they stayed in touch after, spending intermittent days over the course of a few years working on a collaborative record. Last year they finished and released Lotta Sea Lice—a rag-tag combination of original songs, covers of others (including a Barnett cover of a Cloher track), and covers of each other. It seemed like a weird project and an even weirder pairing when it was announced—but it ended up being one of the best albums of the year. “I liked her music—I loved her music—but then I got obsessed with ‘Depreston,’” Vile says, tracking his history with Barnett. “I get obsessed with a certain type of Courtney song, like a song like ‘Depreston,’ a real heartbreaker. I loved it all, though, but I’m just sayin’, it only takes a song, and then you just get deep into all of it.” His Philadelphia accent peeks through when he talks, and in a way it mirrors Barnett’s Australian accent with its casual quirks and slight inscrutability. “We’re both, like, sensitive and a little...paranoid,” he offers, half-serious and half-kidding—a perfect foil for Courtney, after all. “She’s the real thing. That’s her there, and that’s her music. It’s very real.” Vile tells me that the Lotta Sea Lice track “Let It Go” is his favorite of Barnett’s, and he has good reason—the swirling, finger-picked, almost
Middle Eastern–sounding song arrived as one of her most assured, complex compositions to date. “You’ve gotta let it go / Before it takes you over,” the chorus goes, in what seems like it could just as likely be Barnett’s advice for herself as for someone else. Assured and complex as it ended up being, though, it turns out that the song’s music was old—something she had come up with years ago and sat on—and the lyrics were mostly written the morning it was recorded, with the chorus itself decided upon in the studio right before she stepped up to the microphone. On Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett picks up that chorus’s sentiment wholesale: “I wish you had a guru to tell you,” she sings on “Charity,” “to let it go, let it go.”
Starting off with the sound of her dropping her low E string on opener “Hopefulessness,” Barnett’s third LP is her most somber to date—an emotional drop in tuning, in a sense. It’s still littered with her Petty-esque sense of hooks—“Charity” and “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Self-Confidence” in particular are earworms par excellence—but lyrically, it’s a raw one. You saw that last song title, right? “I probably felt dark when I was writing it,” Barnett admits. “It was born out of dark times.” And more than just being a dark record, its creation was a drawn-out process to boot, starting and then stopping for interruptions like a stint playing in Cloher’s band, the Vile collaboration, and constant worldwide touring on behalf of herself and all of the above. At one point, she and her longtime bandmates—bassist Bones Sloane and drummer Dave Mudie—stayed still long enough to record a cover of the saddest song ever, the Boys Next Door’s “Shivers.” When David Bowie died, she eulogized him onstage with the help of Jeff Tweedy, covering “Queen Bitch.” “It was all kind of mingled within,” she says. “I definitely wasn’t, like, sitting at a desk all day everyday for two years writing this album.” Early on in the writing process, Barnett was working on songs that were of more deliberate thematic substance; she wanted to find something important to say on this album. Then she decided that she was overthinking it, and scrapped those.
“I have lots of ideas and most of them are terrible.” FLOOD
“I have lots of ideas and most of them are terrible,” she laughs. “I guess that’s part of the process, though—you get words out, and get ideas out. You smash away the bad ones and kind of continue. It was finding a way of saying those things without it just sounding cheap and nasty and self-righteous.” In a way that’s more self-conscious than self-righteous, Barnett did end up discussing important topics on the album, regardless. On “City Looks Pretty,” she writes about needing to get out of the house and go for a walk, before remembering later, on “Nameless, Faceless,” that she can’t even do that without worrying. “I wanna walk through the park in the dark,” she sings, bouncing the line around a timely quote from Margaret Atwood: “Men are scared that women will laugh at them / Women are scared that men will kill them.” While the chorus swells around the declaration of “I hold my keys between my fingers,” you might notice a familiar voice adding firepower in the background: that’s Kim Deal of Pixies and The Breeders, who also shows up in “Crippling Self-Doubt,” along with her sister Kelley. In a legendary flex, Barnett got the Deal sisters to sing the name of the album itself on the latter song, which they yell out as if there’s two exclamation marks at the end of it. (For her part, Barnett returned the favor by singing with Sloane and Mudie on a track from The Breeders’ new album, All Nerve.) As a title, Tell Me How You Really Feel can be read two ways: the first, as an earnest request, like something a therapist (or a guru, perhaps) would ask, and the second, as an ironic response, like something you’d say back to someone who just tore you to shreds for putting the cat in the thankyou section before them. The title, like most of the rest of the album—and much of Barnett’s career in general—is a litmus test for your state of mind. “I like to consider songs—or lines from songs—from every single point of view,” she says, already a full day ahead of most, let alone a step. “I think I’ve always done that.” Later in our conversation, I offer an interpretation of what I consider to be a key theme of the album, thinking I might be onto something. It has to do with a merging of dueling perspectives—a possibility that, to borrow some relevant imagery, the glass of milk could be both half-full and halfempty at the same time. In short, I want Courtney Barnett to tell me how she really feels. “That was nice,” she replies—earnestly, I hope. “Just put your quote in the article.”
With the release of his third solo record, Boarding House Reach, the musician, label-head, and unabashed retrophiliac surveys his careerâ€”and the chance cult of personality heâ€™s built along the way.
BY ERIN OSMON
ack White remains as surprised as anyone about the meteoric rise of The White Stripes. “What that band was on paper, it should have never worked at all in the mainstream,” he says over the phone from his office at Third Man Records in Nashville. “We never thought that anyone in the mainstream was going to dig that kind of stuff.” I tell him I understand the sentiment. The first time I saw him play with Meg White, at a tiny punk club in Bloomington, Indiana, in 2001, I was as impressed with the unhinged quality of the performance as I was with the music itself. Berserk as the band was—Meg’s head-tossing as erratic as her drum hits, thrift store guitar-shredding Jack a Hatter-esque maestro of his own mad creation—they made sense among the groundswell of modern garage acts I’d grown interested in from Detroit like The Gories, The Dirtbombs, and The Detroit Cobras. Garage rock– focused labels like Sympathy for the Record Industry and In the Red were having a moment, and The White Stripes felt ripe for this era of the underground. Their intentional filtration through a red, black, and white color palette, in addition to their stripped-down dynamic, was a distinguishing novelty that felt at once referential and contemporary. It was great, but at that point marginal. I would never have imagined that Conan O’Brien, Beyoncé, and my dad would also one day become fans.
White vehemently agrees. “For anyone to care about what you’re doing—and want to relate to it and share it in any sort of way—is an incredible thing,” he says. “It’s an impossible task to set out and do. It’s beyond your control. It’s beyond your own passion and your own ego.” The point of such proclamations, White insists, isn’t a requisite sense of false modesty that often comes with a visible profile such as his. The point is that it’s difficult to know what will resonate with music fans and what won’t. So he does his own thing. White cooks by instinct, boiling a very distinct pot of historical references and personal influences, and then simply hopes that some of the song-noodles he later hurls stick. This ambivalence to trends and industry norms has worked, it seems. His last solo album, 2014’s Lazaretto, sold 138,000 copies in one week, 40,000 of those on vinyl. Today, lines of rabid fans snake through the streets outside of Third Man retail storefronts in Nashville and Detroit upon the release of any White-related record or scheduled performance. Like it or not, he’s become as culturally synonymous with these cities as Music Row and Motown. Third Man, through its album releases, concert programming, and displays stuffed with limited edition 45s, t-shirts, and totes—not to mention books, turntable slipmats, and, uh, water bottles—serves as the ashram for throngs of White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather fans old and new. Jack White, the evercharismatic leader. His Tarantino-esque obsessions with craft, analog equipment, and figureheads of bygone eras have manufactured a cultural caricature of White as an old-timey history fetishist in a bowler hat. (Related: he’s been known to sport a bowler hat.) “But that’s not what my brain is about,” he insists. “If it was,
I’d say, ‘I hate the modern world and I love the old world and that’s it.’” Instead, he adds, his creative end goal, from The White Stripes’ 1999 full-length debut to his new solo record, has always been innovation—even if he’s looking to the past for inspiration. “Most of the time people only notice the old part with me, and that’s OK,” he says. “But really what I’m trying to do is get somewhere new.” His new record, Boarding House Reach, doubles down on that aim. The idea was born of confinement, when, last year, White cordoned himself off in a small, unassuming apartment in Nashville to write songs with gear replicating his bedroom setup as a teen in Detroit. He explains that it became essential to disengage in the day-today distractions commensurate with the Internet and the friends and colleagues he’s surrounded by at Third Man. “It was an interesting creative prison,” he says with a laugh. The meager setting allowed him to contemplate where he came from, and where he plans to go next. Though the demos were conceived in solitude, the execution of the songs could not have been more different. After writing the bulk of the material, White traveled with it to Sear Sound in Manhattan, Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, and his own Third Man studio in Nashville, where he enlisted a sprawling cast of studio musicians to flex their muscles. Session pros like bassist NeonPhoenix (Kanye West, JAY-Z, Miguel), drummer Louis Cato (Beyoncé, John Legend, Mariah Carey), and gospel trio The McCrary Sisters all contributed their ideas over White’s song sketches. Not unlike his days in The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, he became the conductor of a carefully selected cast of contributors who realized his vision by expanding upon it, adding individual flourishes and personality.
“What I’m doing is capturing real musicians going all in on an idea,” White explains. “I write a chord change and they come up with something really interesting on a clavinet or a drum machine. They come up with something I would have never played myself.” It’s a curious reliquinshing of control for a solo album, particularly because the sprawling labor pool was selected by a man who built his name on stripped-down formats and production. Taken in context, it’s a fairly conspicuous extension of his reticence to do the same thing over and over. Today, White even cops to the drawbacks of the duo format, or a one-man-show mentality. “You lose things when you’re trying to play all of the instruments yourself,” he explains. In its final state, Boarding House Reach is, in fact, a montage of ideas, he adds, and his concerted effort to blend the chemistry and emotion of everyone in the room. And the record is…bonkers. The lead single is a gospel-influenced dirge reflecting on the attack mode of American society, prompted by the Trump administration. “The title ‘Connected By Love’ is simple,” White says. “Maybe too simple.” He adds that when he’s writing about difficult subject matter, he often funnels his thoughts and feelings through a blues-inspired, one-man-againstthe-world perspective. On Boarding House Reach’s “Over and Over and Over,” he sings, “My shoulder holds the weight of the world.” But he’s quick to clarify that the songs are not personal confessions in the traditional sense. “This is not about me,” he explains. “This is not about my life. I don’t want any of that garbage.” The sound broth White simmers on Boarding House Reach includes touchstones of hip-hop, blues, psychedelia, rock and roll, and even jazz. Album coda “Humoresque” is drenched in Tin Pan Alley, reportedly from sheet music Al Capone wrote while
imprisoned at Alcatraz. There are drum breaks, wild synthesizers, raging guitar solos, and strings. White’s take on rapping—a kind of maniacial spoken word, often with a piercing lilt—finds an increasing presence on the album. The record is unlike anything he’s ever done. While there are no obvious hits, it certainly checks White’s required boxes: unique, forward-thinking, collaborative. At this point in his career as a solo artist, band member, producer, actor, and entrepreneur—what some might consider an empire-builder—it would be easy to snark about how massive royalties from hits like “Seven Nation Army,” “Icky Thump,” and “Fell in Love with a Girl” can’t hurt in fostering a total disregard for the commercial success of an idea. But it’s worth noting that White’s a guy who was once content to upholster furniture and record in his living room. Money has certainly enabled his expansion, but I’m not convinced that it’s changed his creative worldview. There’s the mania of Boarding House Reach, and another case in point: A survey of the Third Man Records roster reveals no obvious wins, save for White’s own projects and perhaps rising outlaw country musician Margo Price. Reissues of Blind Willie McTell tunes rest alongside singles by Michigan-based noise artist Wolf Eyes and transgressive auteur John Waters, the only obvious connection being that they are a reflection of White and the Third Man crew’s personal tastes. There’s no marked sense that the operation is simply chasing hits. How the label’s finances break down is a mystery, but White’s catalog is certainly the biggest seller. (Boarding House Reach debuted at number one.) And a recent admin deal inked between White’s publishing operations and Universal Music Publishing Group—a move to increase the presence of his repertoire in the world of music licensing— will no doubt help the future of Third Man.
DAVID JAMES SWANSON
“Most of the time people only notice the old part with me, and that’s OK. But really what I’m trying to do is get somewhere new.”
DAVID JAMES SWANSON
FROM LEFT: QUINCY McCRARY, CARLA AZAR, JACK WHITE, DOMINIC DAVIS, NEAL EVANS
DAVID JAMES SWANSON
Unlike the collection of session pros White rounded up for his new album, Third Man leans heavily on White’s extended family, old friends from the Detroit music scene, and Nashville and Detroit locals for its day-to-day operations. White explains that in the traditional world of record labels, the goal is to hire the best person on paper—the shrewd ladder-climber from New York or Los Angeles with an advanced degree. But White, of course, is anything but traditional. “It’s so much more beautiful for someone to want to leave the Ford motor plant to come and learn to work at our record plant,” he says. “That’s a beautiful story to me.” It’s a way of keeping with his Detroit-bred working-man ethos and the community that nurtured his art and ambition early on. On the phone, White is casual in conversation, but passionate in his answers. He pauses before speaking, and apologizes for rambling on. He cites books, articles, and influences rapidly—cutting room floor material from The Wizard of Oz, Mama Cass mythology, inside-baseball knowledge of Greta Garbo, a book he read about Frida Kahlo. At the end of our long conversation, he thanks me for my time and “intelligent questions,” as if I’m an exception to the rule. It leaves me to wonder if he’s inundated with inanity on the regular, or simply a master of blowing smoke.
Though often dogged in coverage by a nowfamous temper, beginning with a Detroit bar fight in 2003, White speaks softly and lovingly of his children, his support of gender fluidity and gender neutral pronouns, and his belief that creativity should be the driving force of everything. “Most of the ideas we have at Third Man are not money-making ideas,” he adds. “They’re not smart business moves, because they come from a creative idea rather than the almighty dollar.” When I bring up the idea of misperceptions of him in the press, his unexpectedly deep voice lilts like in his songs. I brace myself for a tirade, but he’s measured. “Oh, there are a lot—that just comes with the territory,” he says. “Pick up a tabloid and you’ll see nothing but lies, and those enter living rooms across the world and people believe them.” He mentions his intentional acts of misdirection and his drive to shelter the things most precious to him—namely his children and loved ones. Given his protective nature and somewhat mythical status, I ask if he’d ever write a memoir, like the books he devours about his idols. “I don’t know if I should write about myself or not… That’s a tough one,” he says with a laugh. “I guess we live in the age of the selfie, right? Maybe I should just jump in the pool and swim.”