Last week, Cincinnati's stars-in-the-making Walk the Moon issued the first release under its deal with RCA Records. Though only three songs, the effort is illuminating and a hint of what's to come on the band's forthcoming, so-far-untitled RCA full-length debut (due to be released this May). The Indie Dance Pop foursome has seemingly been touring and doing business related tasks non-stop for at least the last year. Now that it has a release on RCA, that will only increase. The recording is called Anna Sun EP, named for the band's irresistible tune that (along with a stellar music video) helped initially generate much of the buzz they've received fairly consistently over the past year or so.The song "Anna Sun" is on the EP, but those who have i want! i want! (the group's stellar self-released LP containing the original track) might still want to listen. It's a new version of the catchy song, slicked up a bit for radio and seemingly (inexplicably) sped up.
The accelerated speed of tech developments over the past decade has changed the world in innumerable ways. The impact it has had on music is glaring, completely readjusting how the worldwide music industry operates and affecting everything from the way the sounds are created, recorded and distributed to the way they are experienced by listeners. Cincinnati’s Walk the Moon is currently in the midst of a quick rise in the music world that is a perfect example of how the career plans of aspiring young artists can today play out over an amazingly short period of time. It’s why you might want to catch Walk the Moon’s concert tonight at Oakley’s 20th Century Theater.
We caught up with Shannon Larkin Sunday afternoon before the show on the bus to talk about football and about his musical influences. When I arrived I waited in their outdoor football viewing area where a TV comes out of the side of the bus and is setup for group viewing. You can tell members of these three bands are die hard football fans.
I had already done my research to know that Shannon loves the Oakland Raiders and has pretty strong feelings about them bringing down the San Diego Chargers last week for the first time in many years.
CB: Do you feel like your Oakland Raiders are doing better than they should be? (Laughing)
Shannon: No. No I don’t. I feel like they are doing a lot worse than they should be. My Raiders story goes back to growing up. I was raised in Virginia area and my dad is a Notre Dame guy. He went to Notre Dame so I grew up watching ND football ever Saturday. Tim Brown, who was a number one draft pick and Heisman winner, went to play for the Raiders in 1987 or 1988. After that I always liked the Raiders. I also went to Redskins games at RFK growing up in Virginia, so the Raiders were my AFC team and I always loved the Skins. The last few years the Redskins have been terrible and they had Jason Campbell as their quarterback and then he got traded to Oakland and I didn’t understand why.
CB: Now he is the starter right?
Shannon: Yes because Gradkowski got hurt. Al Davis has been very influencial with things he has done for the NFL. He has done some great things, but he is so old now like 88, he needs to let the team go and get some younger people. Let them win again.
CB: Well, San Diego is losing today so you should be happy.
Shannon: Last week was so amazing. Every year, I watch the Raiders lose those two games against San Diego and last week Sully and I were jumping up and down when Oakland won for the first time in a long time.
CB: Well, we are here in Bengals country, do you have any favorite Bengals?
Shannon: They are exciting this year with T.O. and Chad. Terrell Owens is still making amazing plays and touchdowns every game and is fun to watch. Carson Palmer is a great quarterback and hopefully he can prove himself in the big games.
CB: Well maybe the Raiders and Bengals will see each other in the playoffs.
Shannon: I can only hope.
CB: In music, you have played with legendary bands
like Stone Sour, Black Sabbath, Candlebox, and others, but I read that
you love to play funk music. We have the Bootsy Collins connection here
in Cincinnati. Have you ever met Bootsy?
Shannon: I have never met Bootsy. It is funny last night we played Detroit and after the show there were fans waiting outside on the street and I always try to go out and sign autographs and take pictures with the fans. There was this older gray-haired black guy who came up to me and said he was in the P-Funk Allstars with George Clinton. He came up and said hi and that he liked the show. I love funk so that was interesting.
We were a family where the TV was mainly used for Saturday Notre Dame games. After dinner, we would go downstairs and my parents would play records for my sister and I like the Beatles and Creedence. One of the main records was Sly and the Family Stone Greatest Hits.
CB: So you have always had it around.
Shannon: Yes, Sly and the Family Stone is the shit to me. It just has such a positive message in every song where all the musicians can shine. In my later years, I got into Zeppelin, RUSH, Slayer, Metallica of course. I am giving away my age. In 1984, it became Black Flag and punk bands. Everything kind of circles around. Now I am forty-something I am going back to my roots with 60’s and 70’s rock.
CB: What are you listening to right now?
Shannon: My latest downloads have been “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys, which is another record my parents used to play and Paul McCartney’s “Wings.” People won’t believe it reading this.
CB: Have you met Paul?
Shannon: Oh my god no. I wouldn’t even know what to say. After a long hard battle with myself after someone asked me who my top 5 bands were, I ended up picking Ramones, Beatles, Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Sly and the Family Stone. Those are my influences and I wear them on my sleeve.
CB: Is there anyone that you would like to collaborate with that you haven’t worked with yet.
Shannon: I’d love to work with George Clinton someday since he invented the word funk. Funk to me becomes about being in a room with friends to just jam with and you just make music and there is no pressure to make a record. You just get stoned and have a shot of tequila and just jam for three hours. It always becomes a funk riff that you can loop over and over where everyone can take their little part to shine. I would love someday to create some funk-pop music like Sly and Family Stone. Sly is like a freak that disappeared off the face of the earth so I know I will never get to play with him. George is still out there though with his crack pipe so there is a chance maybe I will be able to play with him.
CB: You just played Sturgis this summer. Did you have fun? Any crazy stories?
Shannon: It was horrible for us.
CB: Really? I thought you always enjoyed it.
Shannon: Well we are usually on tour when we play there and this time we weren’t so we didn’t have our bikes. It sucked. There were 500,000 people and bikes and we didn’t have ours. The show was fun but it was like putting a kid in the candy store and telling him he can’t have any and he has to watch all the other kids eat the candy.
CB: What kind of bikes do you have?
Shannon: I have a 07 Heritage Softtail that is my reliable bike. I have a 77 Shovelhead that is my bar hopper bike. In fact my 77 Shovelhead is from a guy here in Cincinnati, Jeff Cochran with Speed King Customs. I ordered it from him here when I found out we would be working on the Oracle album in LA for four months. I knew I would need a bike in LA so I called him after I had seen him when I played here. He brought a whole bunch of bikes out and I fell in love with a red one with a suicide shifter. He came across the 77 and thought it would fit me better so he sent it out to me and I love it.
CB: You guys have the new Oracle album which came out in the spring. What is your favorite song to play on the new album?
Shannon: “Oracle.” It is a 7.5 minute instrumental. At shows like Rock on the Range, when the album first came out we weren’t ready to tour so we would fly in for radio festival shows. It ended up being like a “best of” with two or three songs off the new record where as this is “The Oracle Tour.” It is Oracle heavy and we play 5 or 6 songs off the new record which makes it far more interesting to us to play new stuff that we haven’t played live before.
CB: The “Love-Hate-Sex-Pain” song is all over the radio right now.
Shannon: That is so great to hear and what we did for all the songs in the show tonight is strip down the videos and make all new videos to go with each song. We hired a video guy from Motley Crue and dug through years of video tape trying to find stuff that would look cool on the big screens. Everything is brand new visually even if you don’t know all the new songs yet.
CB: So are we going to see any pyro tonight?
Shannon: We actually have a laser show this time. Laser technology has kind of taken over the past few years and it is sick visually. You can get any can get any color lasers now and it actually takes two guys to run the lasers. It is actually cool from my vantage point as well to see the lasers over the crowd.
CB: I know you have a family now. Do they ever come out on the road with you?
Shannon: No they don’t really, but we did start this tour in Florida so my wife and kid got to come out and experience the first two shows. They love it. My daughter is 12 now so she is at an age where she can appreciate it and have fun.
CB: Do you ever worry about exposing her to it?
Shannon: No, we are all in our 40’s and we don’t do any of that crazy shit anymore. We did it all in previous bands before we joined Godsmack. I was 36 when I joined the band and was already married and had my daughter. The only thing I worry about is the language. You know we are a rock band and so when she comes backstage she’ll see people smoking and doing shots. We also did this one DVD called “Changes” and on the DVD I was late to sound check and Sully keeps yelling “Shannon Fucking Larkin” over and over. Now when fans see me and I am walking with my twelve year old people yell out, “Shannon Fucking Larkin” so she is exposed to that sometimes and I want to put ear muffs on her. As far and the drugs and girls though we are way over that.
CB: I have spoken to a lot of drummers this year
and some of them like Ray from KORN talk about playing drums all the
time everyday even when they are not touring. When you are not touring,
do you play all the time or do you take a break?
Shannon: I play all the time. When I am home, I go in my garage and put on my Ipod and play along with every song on random shuffle. One minute it is the Stones and the next it is Slayer. It is a fun way to practice. Usually when the band is together without Sully, we just jam and play funk and other sounds as well. The other band members live in New Hampshire and I live in Florida so I don’t really have anyone to play with so I jam to the Ipod.
CB: Does your daughter do any music?
Shannon: Yes she plays the trumpet in the school band which is cool. Maybe a funk duo is in the future who knows?
CB: What is up next for the band? I know the record is still pretty new, but are you working on new music?
Shannon: No new music right now. We actually write by ourselves. Everyone has a little recorder that we use. Tony is actually back there playing guitar right now. He plays all day and when he gets a riff he likes, he will record it. By the time we start to write songs, we all have like 20 riffs as a starting point. We use those to write songs and a chorus. Right now we are just all focused on this tour. It is a pretty big production. Even though the set list is the same, the production changes and is ever evolving. Last night Sully came on the bus and we came up with a new ending to the set. We also just came up with a video for “The Enemy.” It is changing as we go, as we see parts that are weak, we make changes. Our video guys says he goes to sleep dreaming about edits.
Those not in the know often knock Cincinnati for a dilapidated arts scene, as if a conservative political climate results in a conservative cultural one. Those who have read CityBeat over the years hopefully know that this is a myth. Cincinnati's arts and music scene is often right on time, if not a few steps ahead. Tonight's tribute to the Ludlow Garage (and Rick Bird's feature this week on the late ’60s/early ’70s venue) is just one example that bucks any misconception that Cincinnati is, always was and will always be a backwards, messed-up city with, say it with me now, "nothing to do."
Let’s forget, for a second, about all of the talk surrounding Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk (a.k.a. this week's CityBeat cover star). Certainly in an era of Internet piracy and intensely important discussions of fair use doctrine, Gillis is at the forefront of pushing boundaries, both musically and legally. And Gillis also sticks out like a wonderfully sore thumb to those at the Federal Communications Commission and the like, that would have artists censored or denied their right to perform in the way they say fit.
However, at a live Girl Talk show, none of this matters.
The music of one of Cincinnati’s all-time greatest musical exports, The Afghan Whigs, hit me at precisely the right time.
As a child, the music of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who tattooed itself on to my DNA, while my high school years found me becoming obsessed with College Rock, Punk, Hip Hop and Hard Rock.
But The Afghan Whigs were my “coming-of-age” soundtrack — from (approximately) the ages of 20-27 — and, like those childhood musical heroes, their music has never left me.
Those years were pivotal in my growth as a human being. In that brief span, I was a raging alcoholic, a one-step-from-the-gutter junkie and a newlywed — at least for a few years all at once — with a handful of relationships that played themselves out painfully woven in between, followed by the “light” that comes with sobriety and clarity.
I can’t remember exactly the first time I heard The Afghan Whigs. I knew of
them right after high school by seeing their names on fliers for shows
at bars I wasn’t old enough to get into. But once I finally got my hands
on the band’s debut for SubPop, Up In It, in 1990, I was hooked.
While the music on Up In It still gives me a jolt every time I listen, the songs (save “You My Flower”) never became as emotionally resonant as 1992’s Congregation, 1993’s Gentlemen and 1996’s Black Love would prove to be for me.
The sound of the Whigs’ music was the perfect transition
for me from favorites like Dinosaur Jr., The Replacements and Husker Du.
But there was an aura in the Whigs’ music that those groups were never
capable of invoking. And originality — no one before or since has
conjured the magical abstract-art guitar squiggles Whigs guitarist Rick
McCollum has churned out and John Curley is one of the “Alt Rock”
revolution’s most distinctive bassists, with his sublime mix of melody,
feel and sheer propulsiveness. Original drummer Steve Earle also had a
trademark sound in his playing, a flurry of Hard Rock bluster and
shuffling dance rhythms.
Together with the hearty, evocative songwriting, The Afghan Whigs always had something more — an air of mystique and a sound beyond the trends — than their late ’80s SubPop peers, not to mention their ’90s Alternative Nation breakthrough cohorts.
I got lost in the dark corners and ominous shadows of the music, as well as its manic moments of pure, jubilant uplift and smothering, inescapable sadness. And I soon began to pick up on the words of frontman Greg Dulli, which have repeatedly given me those moments every deep music lover has where they’re almost freaked out by how closely the lyrics mirror their own feelings and experiences.
Dulli’s lyrics were raw, clever, poetic and brutally honest “love songs.” It was the brutal honesty of his poetry about relationships that led to a still ongoing belief by detractors that Dulli is a misogynistic asshole. But I never got that vibe, even when the lyrics (always taken out of context when used against him) skewed that way, like on Gentlemen’s “Be Sweet,” where Dulli croons,“Ladies, let me tell you about myself/I got a dick for a brain/And my brain is gonna sell my ass to you/Now I'm OK, but in time I'll find I'm stuck/'Cause she wants love and I still want to fuck”
Some find Dulli’s swaggering “lothario” persona onstage off-putting and such lyrics crude, sexist, deplorable. I find them a relevant part of the story and character development, but also a realistic portrayal of a virile young man’s mental process. Dismissing Dulli’s words because you find them dick-ish or “sexist” just seems disingenuous. Men are assholes sometimes. And they can realize that in themselves. And women can be assholes, too.
When I met my current longtime partner, she was as obsessed with Liz Phair’s music as I was The Afghan Whigs’, which made me draw some parallels between the two. She loved Liz Phair for the same reason I loved the Whigs — their music spoke directly to us and was dazzling in its self-awareness and rare candor.
It should be noted that I really love Liz Phair’s first album (the main one she built her legend upon, Exile in Guyville), but my girlfriend merely seems to tolerate my affinity for the Whigs. Still, The Afghan Whigs have tons of female fans, some who just love the sound of the band, some who appreciate the quality writing and musicianship, some who find Dulli’s honesty sexy and some who find the man himself a hunk among hunks. There are usually an equal amount of male and females in an Afghan Whigs audience.
Dulli’s lyrics have a personal, intimate style, like something being revealed to you in a whisper or drunken yowl in the backroom of a speakeasy, which might be why most of his critics fail to consider the possibility of a non-autobiographical “narrator.”
What Dulli’s lyrics offered to me was something I hadn’t heard before, and it all goes back to that brutal honesty. He was presenting a more complete and complex picture of love, one that admitted mistakes, wielded vitriol like a sword, cranked up the self-deprecation, wallowed in sex, drugs and misery and held on to the hope and promise that love first presents. The Whigs’ connections to classic Soul music isn’t just in the sound or beats; that lyrical description could also be about Marvin Gaye or any number of great vintage Blues and Soul artists.
Dulli sings about the emotional ups and downs a man in, out or around love feels. And his honesty made a lot of uptight people (and men trying to seem “femi-sensitive”) uncomfortable. It’s sort of like a non-ridiculous version of Howard Stern’s “He says the things we all think and feel but can’t say ourselves!” Like Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller, Dulli never ran his insight through a PC filter — he just ran it out, filter-less.
I can be masochistic in my listening habits, cuing up songs that are painful in their reminder of darker times or clinging to them during fresh, new depressing moments. But I’ve also listened to the Whigs while elated and ready to celebrate. Though I don’t have the same visceral response to the Whigs’ more upbeat “party” anthems (particularly on the band’s swan song, 1965), I’ve grown to love them almost as much.
During dysfunctional moments in love affairs, with my issues with drugs and alcohol, Gentlemen’s “Fountain and Fairfax” — with it’s lines like “Let me drink, let me tie off/I'm
really slobbering now” — stung. But it was a good sting, like a shot of
whiskey. Songs like these, the ones that echoed my weird, nihilistic
feelings of “fuck it all,” helped me realize I wasn’t totally insane. Or at least I wasn’t the only one who was trying to understand and deal with this insanity.
Black Love closer “Faded” has been an anthem for many breakups, the Purple Rain-sway
giving me the same kind of chills Wendy and Lisa get in the Prince
movie when he plays the title track for the first time. And whenever my
longtime battle with depression has led me to suicidal thoughts in my
life, “Crime Scene (Part One),” the numb, opening salvo on the Whigs
noir, emotionally-wrenching masterpiece Black Love, starts
running through my brain: “Tonight, tonight I say goodbye/To everyone
who loves me/Stick it to my enemies, tonight/Then I disappear.”
More than once, it’s brought me to tears and squashed all suicidal thoughts — thinking of saying goodbye to everyone who loves you is sometimes all it takes.
As I eventually got my shit together, getting off the hard drugs and managing my alcohol intake, another Whigs’ song would haunt me, but this time in a purely reassuring way. I’ve used a “program” called Rational Recovery to help me stay off of drugs and alcohol and the essence of the system is mental cognizance — being able to recognize when your mind and body are trying to get you to drink or do drugs. You turn this “feeling” into a physical thing and name it. I suppose it could be named anything, but I’ve gone with “The Beast,” per the suggestion of the Rational Recovery book.
It sounds silly, but merely saying in my head, “That’s The Beast,” has worked wonders for me staying sober. I eventually started to cling to a line from The Afghan Whigs’ single “Debonair” from Gentlemen: “Once again the monster speaks/Reveals his face and searches for release.” It so perfectly matches my “sobriety mantra” and mental ritual, I’ve considered having it tattooed on my arm.
I’m fairly certain that I would’ve become a huge Afghan Whigs fan if I wasn’t from Cincinnati. Even before I found a way to make a living from writing about music from the area, I loved “homegrown” music and never saw it as simply “local music.” But being able to see the Whigs in concert dozens of times, venues big and small, all over the region, including a few epic holiday shows and a couple of “secret” warm-up shows the band would sneak in before hitting the road — that certainly helped their “favorite band” status in my mind.
The Whigs have long been a phenomenal live band.
Musically, it’s always been a tight but ragged glory. But Dulli is one
of the most entertaining, funniest banterers in the history of Rock
& Roll. His mid-set chats (formerly trademark “smoke breaks,” though
Greg is now apparently a non-smoker) were like an edgy, fired-up
stand-up comedian going into the audience for some “Hey, where you
from?” volleying. But in Dulli’s case, it was usually a time to talk
musical tastes, new bands, maybe throw out some humorous sports
commentary, playfully taunting every other person in the venue. It was
loose, like party chatter, and I always found it an hysterical highlight
of every Whigs show. Comedy and music are my two favorite things in the
world and the Whigs usually delivered both in concert.
The band members were a few years older than me, so there was a sense of awe early on when seeing them around town. When a band I was in was playing at Sudsy Malone’s in the early ’90s, it would be a total mind-fuck to hear a Whigs member was in the crowd. Especially because I’d taken to listening to the band’s music so much, almost everything I played for a long time was informed by the Whigs. (Big C chords with a suspended 7 or mere C to E-minor chord progressions are classic early Whigs’ motifs.)
I’m far from the only local musician from the’90s (and likely beyond) inspired by the Whigs’ music, but there was another kind of inspiration during that era when all of the band members were out and about in Cincinnati. The Whigs’ “fuck it, let’s just go do this” ambition, just getting in the van and going, actually worked. That gave a lot of musicians hope that they could be heard outside of city limits even if they were from Cincinnati. But, unlike in Seattle, where there were several groups with similar sounds rising simultaneously, the Whigs were too unique to copy to the point where a label might sign a “soundalike” band. It’s what’s great about Cincinnati music — the lack of a unifying sound as a result of artists trying to make their own unique thing.
The Whigs were even involved in starting my career — the very first review of any piece of art I ever wrote was a take on the band’s Congregation album for a features/criticism class I took at the University of Cincinnati. (I remember getting a pretty high grade and thinking, “I got this.”) Once I’d decided I wanted to write about music full-time, I accepted an internship in New York City. Driving over the hills into New York City, the Whigs’ remix of “Miles Iz Ded” called “Rebirth of the Cool” came on some random NY/NJ-area radio station. It made me feel like I was on the right track.
Gradually, I’d meet all of the members out and about, and each had that Midwestern down-to-earthness that it usually takes outsiders to point out.
Well, I’d meet every member except Mr. Dulli. During the peak Whigs years, Dulli seemed especially sensitive to negative press, reportedly calling out (or just calling up) writers who’d say sometimes legit, sometimes stupid things about him or his band. I was a mentally unstable substance abuser who, for reasons I don’t completely remember or understand, added a couple of dumb barbs about the band into my column or elsewhere in CityBeat over the course of a few years. They weren’t especially harsh, save for one aside where I mentioned (jokingly) that a rumor was suggesting Dulli had developed a massive bourbon habit and gained 500 lbs (or something equally outrageous). It was stupid and baseless and, given his family lives in the area and might read it (this was pre-internet-is-everywhere), he had every right to be angered by my youthful idiocy. If you’re reading this, Greg, I apologize. It was another lesson in growing the fuck up, courtesy of The Afghan Whigs.
I came to despise that sort of trashy journalism but, in a cruel twist of fate, baseless gossip websites might just be the only job I’ll be able to get one day given the state of newspapers.
In response to my bad-taste alcoholic/obesity sentence, I received a fax (a fax!) from Dulli’s publicist saying the Greg was challenging me to an AIDS test. I’m still not totally sure why, though I think it was either a comment on my taste in women or my IV drug problem at the time. I was flummoxed. Embarrassed. Ashamed. Confused. Then tickled. “Greg Dulli knows who I am?” (Then ashamed again: “One of my musical heroes hates me.”)
That how much I love Dulli and his musical partners’ output — he might’ve strangled me with his bare hands if we ran into each other at a bar and I would’ve been all, “He touched me!”
Many of Dulli’s more direct peers from the Cincinnati area who were around when the Whigs were coming up don’t seem to have a very positive opinion of the man, but I’ve always taken their shots at him with a grain of salt. There might have been some jealousy or maybe Greg really was an asshole in his mid-20s. I can relate. There are so many stories and legends about Dulli’s personal life and actions during his time in Cincy as the Whigs were taking off, he’s like an urban Rock Star Davy Crocket.
None of it has ever changed how I listen to the Whigs’ music. To this day, when I’ve been in a relationship in turmoil or crumbling apart, I still think to myself, “My life is becoming an Afghan Whigs song again.” And I know there will be some emotional pain and probably a few bad decisions involved, but it’s at least going to be an interesting ride. The one that never ends.
I usually shy away from album reviews, but when I opened the FedEx package on my doorstep and found the new Dirty Heads album, complete with promotional rolling papers (presumably to accompany the album), I decided to take a second look because obviously this was intended to take my worries away and make everyone feel great.
In 2008 The Dirty Heads splashed onto the music scene with their debut album Any Port in a Storm; this year, they follow it up with their long-awaited album Cabin by the Sea. Cabin is a true master class that sticks to the So-Cal altrocker vibe for which The Dirty Heads are known. When popping the disc in the dash of the car, the first chord of "Arrival" instantly enthralls you and throws you into the cabin by the sea with a group of friends enjoying life the way it was intended to be. The song that really struck a chord with me was “Spread Too Thin” because I think everyone can relate to being pulled in many directions every day and wanting to just slow down for a minute; Cabin by the Sea allows you to take a break and do just that. Cabin is the perfect summer album, ranging from the summery feel-good Reggae of "Your Love" to the Hip Hop vibe in "Smoke Rings" to the poppy acoustic flow of the title song.
Every time I listen to Cabin by the Sea it takes me away from the daily grind and monotony. There are many collaborations on the album, including with Matisyahu, Del the Funky Homosapien, Rome and Ky-Mani Marley. One of the coolest parts of this album is the accompanying DVD, which takes you behind the scenes of the recording process at Sonic Ranch Studios in Texas.
Cabin by the Sea is a must have for the summer. The album hits the shelves and online outlets tomorrow.
I don’t like Radiohead.
Just like that, my budding career as a music journalist is destroyed by one, four-word sentence. I’m sure the pretentious Pitchfork police are on their way to my house right now to take me away.
I can imagine most of you yelling at me through the monitors on your Mac Book Pros, passing judgment on me through the lenses of your dark-rimmed Woody Allen-esque glasses.
I assure you, I can’t hear a damn thing you’re saying. So just save your breath and read.
I know why people like Radiohead. They are talented musicians who are constantly expanding their sound. Not to mention, Thom Yorke’s (even though he doesn’t know how to spell his name) vocal range goes for miles, making him one of the most impressive singers in Rock & Roll today. They are like the indie rock version of The Beatles, except The Beatles don’t take an eighth of magical mushrooms to appreciate. (Although I’m sure it makes it better, I wouldn’t dare know about such devilish things.)
Upon numerous occasions during my 23 years, I’ve tried desperately to enjoy this band.
At 16, I would peruse through cute “indie” girl’s MySpace pages, listening to “Karma Police” among various other cuts off of OK Computer. I would force-feed my metalhead mind to try and wrap itself around the ambient tones coming from my speakers. No matter how hard I tried (believe me, I tried; I needed something to trick these girls into liking me) it just never stuck.
A few years later, I made my second attempt. In Rainbows had just been released and it was a hot topic of conversation between my more “hip” friends. They would play the record on an endless loop and, eventually, I really did begin to dig it. Then I had a revelation.
While I was driving to work one day, I put the album on and quickly realized that I had never listened to this while I was sober. I mean, I know 2007-2008 had pretty much become a blur of various substances, but as the docile sounds of “House of Cards” rang through my car stereo, I said to myself, “Blake, put down the bottle and get your shit together! Also, take off that ridiculous v-neck shirt and skinny jeans. No one wants to see your Teen Wolf-covered man-boobs or your ‘Basilisk’!” (That’s right, my junk is nicknamed after the giant snake in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets; get over it.)
It was as if the smoke had finally cleared (literally and metaphorically) and I came out of this catatonic state of intoxication a new man. That man just still happened to dislike Radiohead.
My final attempt was no more than four months ago. My lovely girlfriend bought me a record player for my birthday and I decided I would give In Rainbows one more shot.
I had grown up quite a bit since the last time I heard this record. Not only was I knee-deep in my journey to becoming a music journalist, but also I wasn’t totally sloshed all the time either.
Plus, if it doesn’t resonate with me on vinyl, it never will.
This last go-around, however, was a futile one.
I always thought, “Maybe I was just too young to get it?” Or “Maybe, I was just too fucked up to understand?”
But as I put the record on, more questions came up, like “Am I too old to get it?” or “Jesus, what’s that drug dealer’s number again?”
As I racked my mind trying to figure out why I’m the only music journalist who isn’t a part of this worldwide circle-jerk over Radiohead, I finally came up with a simple, yet honest explanation.
Radiohead fans can be broken down into two factions. You’re either a Radiohead guy or a “Creep” guy. I’m obviously a member of the latter group.
“Creep” is the anthem for every broken-hearted loser too cowardly to talk to the girl he dreams about every night. It’s the anthem for every outcast kid that roamed their hallways aimlessly; unable to find their place in the proverbial hell that was high school. It’s the anthem for every overweight, underachieving, late-blooming, weirdo band kid that the band chicks didn’t even want to associate with. It’s pretty much my 7-12 grade experience told in three minutes and 56 seconds.
“Creep” just always spoke to me in a way that no other Radiohead song ever had. It was effortless and truthful, yet, real and depressing. I made a connection with that song, a connection which I tried ever so earnestly to do with the rest of their catalog, but failed miserably.
So to the Radiohead fans out there, keep listening to them.
Do whatever makes you happy, whatever you want. Because truly, you’re so fucking special.
I just wish Radiohead was special, too.
Radiohead then …
Radiohead lately …
The Doobie Brothers have been entertaining audiences across the world for more than 40 years. In 2010 the band released World Gone Crazy, their first album in a decade. They continue to be an inspiration with their recordings and their rigorous tour schedule.
CityBeat caught up with guitarist and vocalist Tom Johnston by phone this week. Johnston discussed the changes the band has seen through 40 years of Rock n Roll and what guides the creative process of the band. They will be performing at Riverbend at the PNC Pavilion this Sunday alongside Chicago.
CityBeat: You guys have been touring on the road for over 30 years. Do you ever get tired of just being on the road?
Tom Johnston: You get tired of travelling. You don’t ever get tired of playing. The playing part is what makes you come out here in the first place. I think Keith put it the best, Keith Knudsen, “You get paid for all the time it takes to get to the town and then you play for nothing.”
CB: You have seen music change over the years in recordings from albums to 8-Tracks to tapes to CDs to MP3s and iPods. Do you think it sounds better or worse today, the classic analog vs. digital question?
TJ: If you have hearing like mine, it really doesn’t make any difference. There is basically the school of thought that digital recordings aren’t as warm as analog. I can’t really tell you the difference when I am listening to it. Maybe if I did a mix there would maybe be a difference in analog that I could tell the difference. They have really come a long way with digital recording. They have ways of mixing digital recordings now so it sounds more like analog. Some people still buy albums if you can get them. People are still putting albums out. In fact, this last album we put out, World Gone Crazy, there was over 14,000 actual albums put out with the CDs, and by that I mean actual vinyl records for the people that want to hear it in analog.
CB: How many guitars do you have and what is your favorite to play?
TJ: Oh boy. I’ve got a lot of guitars. Basically, everything I use on the road is PRS and that is what I play live. I use two basic guitars live that I trade off and I have a Martin acoustic that I play as well live. It is pretty much all about Paul Reed Smith right now. At home I have a Stratocaster and I have some older guitars I have had for a long time, an old Les Paul, an old 335, a couple Strats and a Telecaster. But live and when I am out on the road, it is strictly Paul Reed Smith.
CB: When you began and wrote the early hits and songs for the band like “Rockin’ Down the Highway”, what were your early inspirations?
TJ: My inspirations at the time of writing a song like that had pretty much been put in place from playing since I was 12 on the guitar and picking up singing when I was 15. Most of my early stuff came from Blues and R&B and Rock & Roll by the guy I consider the King of Rock & Roll, that was Little Richard and people like Jerry Lee Lewis. Later on, that changed, I got into Hendrix and Cream and quite a few other people I am not going to be able to think of right now. David Mason albums, old Fleetwood Mac albums, you know from the ’70s, just a lot of stuff going on then. As far as players, Albert, Freddie and B.B. King were huge in my guitar playing. I call them the Three Kings, that’s basically how a lot of people refer to them. There are a lot of singers that influenced me. James Brown was definitely one of them.
CB: Have you had a single issue or incident that has ever changed the way you approach music?
TJ: If I ever did, I am not really sure when it was. I know the first time I ever watched, one of the few times I actually got to watch, James Brown live was 1962 in Fresno and that was pretty much a life altering event, musically. I had never seen anything like that. It just blew me out of the water. I couldn’t believe someone could work that hard that consistently and put on just an incredible show. That was a big event in my life.
CB: Over the years, you have had some health ailments with your voice and other things. How do you stay healthy on the road now?
TJ: I take care of myself. Back in the old days it was the Rock & Roll lifestyle, that wasn’t really healthy. But the biggest sideline I ever had was stomach ulcers which I developed in high school but it fully bloomed when I was out on the road in 1975 when I actually had to leave the tour. That is really the only health issue I ever had, but it was a bad one.
CB: Do you consider yourself or does the band consider themselves spiritual in any way and did it ever play a factor in your music or writing?
TJ: To be honest with you, no — at least not in the secular way of any specific religion. It’s not that we are not a religious band, it is just everybody has their beliefs about the world and mankind and how we got here I suppose but it is certainly nothing we would talk about.
CB: After all these years, I assumed you guys would talk about everything.
TJ: We talk about a lot of stuff but that isn’t one that pops up. Actually it popped up this morning. I was just giving my views on Buddhism and thinking it was a little more realistic since it is based on mankind’s shallow man as opposed to strictly about a specific deity and things having to be done a certain way. But those are just opinions and I don’t really follow it that closely; I don’t think anybody in the band does, to be honest with you.
CB: Do you guys take on different leadership roles within the band?
TJ: Yeah, to a point. It is basically when we are recording. When we are playing, it kind of happens naturally. Recording it is pretty much whoever writes the tune will be leading if you will, but other people come up with ideas for the tune so it is pretty much always a group effort.
CB: Are there any current Rock bands or new Rock bands on the scene right now you would like to collaborate with or work with?
TJ: I think John Mayer is an incredible guitar player. I really enjoy his work. Another one is Bruno Mars — I think he is extremely prolific as a song writer and pretty amazing. There is a band called Mannish Boy, which is a Blues group. I really like those guys. They are new. Most people aren’t going to know them. They aren’t Pop or anything like that. They are simply a Blues band but they are really, really good. There are more, I just can’t think of them right now. There are more people I think are really good out there that would be fun to get in the studio with. It would be fun to work with Christina Aguilera or Cee Lo Green. It would be fun to work with anyone from Maroon 5. We recently worked with Luke Bryan for that TV show on CMT called Crossroads and we had a ball doing that.
CB: I love Luke Bryan and his music. He has kind of blown up recently.
TJ: He is a good guy. He is a really good guy. We had a lot of fun doing that show. Everybody was just having a lot of fun.
CB: Do you have any creative outlets or hobbies outside of playing music?
TJ: It’s outside of the band in a sense but I write music for a hobby. I love writing. I do it all the time. I have a little studio at home. A lot of the stuff I write would never be used by this band. I am starting to branch out and write with other people now too, which is something I haven’t done as much. I have always kind of just written my own songs. I have started taking the steps to go out and write with some other writers who are very prolific and very much involved with the Pop scene or the Country scene or whatever else. I just really started doing that before we came out on this tour. When we finish this tour this year, I will go back to doing that some more. It was fun. It was a new place to go. It is exciting to get in and work with someone else because they help you find a lot of stuff you don’t know you have and I think you do the same for that person. You come up with songs that you would never come up with if you were just sitting there by yourself.
CB: Do you use social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to stay connected to your fans?
TJ: There is Facebook and Twitter and all that stuff on our website. I don’t do any of that stuff. For whatever reason it hasn’t called me. I don’t have any need to be in touch with people or stay in the limelight or find out what is going on. I am kind of a private guy and I would like to keep it that way rather than blast it all over the universe. I don’t belong to Facebook. I know tons of people who do it and that’s great. From a business point of view, it is a really smart way to go. From a website point of view, it is a really good tool for getting your music out there, events out there, where you are going to be, maybe even staying in touch with other musicians, things like that but mostly I do that on the phone. Twitter, I have never even used Twitter. I know people do it all the time but I have never gotten involved with it.
CB: I still use a telephone because I prefer to talk to people.
TJ: It is alive and well in the younger generation. That’s how they communicate.
CB: My last question is do you have any fond Cincinnati memories over the years?
TJ: Yeah, playing at Riverfront Stadium, playing at where we are going to be playing this Sunday which is right on the river, Riverbend. We have played there lots of times. I was just talking to a gentleman a little bit ago about playing in Blue Ash the last time and a tornado came through and shut the show down and we never got a chance to go out and finish it. We have been playing Cincinnati since we started so we are talking 40 years of playing Cincinnati.
CB: We look forward to seeing you on Sunday.
TJ: Thank you very much. We are looking forward to being there and it will be a gas as always. This show with Chicago has pretty much been sold out everywhere we have gone. The crowds have been great and it is a good combination. The two bands, we get together at the end and do an encore of everybody in both bands playing at the same time and it is pretty powerful.
There are concerts that are fun and there are concerts that kick your ass. If you were at the sold-out U.S. Bank Arena Friday night for the opening date of The Black Keys first headlining arena tour, you probably got your ass kicked.
First up, Arctic Monkeys caused a ruckus on the floor. Most (but not all) of the folks in the seats wandered around aimlessly or sat there, watching listlessly. There was certainly uproar in front of the stage, though. But as the English boys played, sang and sassed, the crowd in the arena filled in and loosened up. It helped that their lighting guys strobed the shit out of them, too. The seizure-inducing lights may have been Morse code for “Love Arctic Monkeys. Swoon over our accents.” If so, it worked. By the time Arctic Monkeys closed with “When the Sun Goes Down,” the crowd on the floor had nearly doubled and, at the very least, those in their seats were nodding their heads and smiling. Those boys put on a fun show.
After spending the entire intermission only getting halfway through the beer line, nearly everyone gave up and fled to their seats when The Black Keys began. Not that anyone sat, though — they were all too busy dancing and freaking out. Strictly speaking, The Black Keys may not be from Cincinnati but it’s safe to say we treat them like hometown boys, anyway. Dan Auerbach (singing/guitar) even recalled playing Southgate House a few years ago. Upstairs. In the small room.
From a titanic disco ball that lowered from the rafters (for only one song) to the graphics on the screens behind them, the show was far different from their days playing tiny rooms. With each beginning there was an outburst of recognition. The middles of songs gave way to dancing, flailing and air guitar (or drums) and each ending note was drowned out by thousands of shrieks, whistles and catcalls.
Two things were learned last night. First, if you have any doubt about the amount of noise that one guitar and a set of drums can make, go see The Black Keys. Their albums don’t do justice to the sheer volume Auerbach and Partrick Carney (drums) are capable of producing. Second, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard an entire arena try to whistle.
If you weren’t there, you missed the best kind of Friday night possible. If you were, you’re probably already making plans for the next time The Black Keys come to town.