Don't get it twisted: John C. Reilly's folk group is no movie star vanity project. His musical career goes deep. After launching his acting career in the Chicago musical theater community, Reilly blew the Academy away with his performance of "Mister Cellophane" as part of the cast of 2002's Chicago. Sure, he might be best known for his comedic chops (think Stepbrothers and Walk Hard) but Reilly's serious about keeping the traditional songs in his setlist alive.
And he's aligned with other serious musicians - - like Jack White, who helped Reilly and band members produce a pair of original singles in his Nashville studio in 2011. Onstage, he's joined by singers Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond) and Tom Brosseau, who, along with Reilly, create setlists of spirituals, classic folk and country tunes marked by close harmonies. Reilly's hosted his roots revue multiple times in Los Angelos, and now he's taking his eight-piece show on the road.
And the missing "C"? That's intentional.
NUVO: I am a pirate song enthusiast.
John C. Reilly: Ah-ha!
NUVO: So I heard your contribution to Rogue's Gallery [a compilation of sea shanties released in 2006] a while back. Did you pick the songs you contributed and performed ("Fathom the Bowl," "My Son John") or if you were assigned to them? Did you have a long scroll with "John's Favorite Sea Shanties" scrolled across the top that you pulled out to choose from?
Reilly: I actually did know a lot of shanties already. I think that's maybe why Hal [Willner, who did the record] asked me to come down and do that. "Fathom the Bowl," I had actually not heard before. He sent me a disc of a whole bunch of stuff, and some of it I knew and when I heard that one I thought, "This is the greatest ode to drinking I think I've ever heard." So that one was a new one for me, but I was well-primed for loving shanties.
"My Son John" by John C. Reilly
NUVO: What draws you to folk music?
Reilly: The first thing I think of is [how] it feels immortal. Maybe the older I get, the more interested I am in immortality. There's something really cool that you hear one time and it sticks in your head. I had a blues band for a while and I was going deeper and deeper into blues. Then I found myself in Appalachia, and suddenly I was right back where I was as a kid, listening to traditional Irish music.
The first thing I would guess I'm drawn to is the eternal sound of some of those songs. I like the simplicity, the purity of the lyrics. They're like little short stories.
NUVO: I've found that some of the most genre in-fighting that I've observed in the music community comes from the roots music community - what is "real" bluegrass; what is "real" folk music? There's such strict lines drawn.
Reilly: We're just looking for music that moves us; music that is in line with this traditional or "roots" umbrella. That said, we do try to do bluegrass music as strictly "bluegrass" as we can. And when we do an old folk song, we try not to jazz them up. We try to stay pure within what the song wants to be. But in terms of defining ourselves as a bluegrass band, or a country band - - we're really not interested in that. If anything, the collection of personalities in the band really lends itself to variety. It's Becky Stark who has this voice of just a beautiful bird. Then Tom Brosseau and Willie Watson - - the one thing we all have in common is that we're all soulful people. We're drawn to things that are soulful or have a depth to them. I've never been someone as an artist who's been very keen on defining what I am. Or even as a person! Fact is, I think that's why I became an actor. I thought, I don't really have a lot of self-awareness at all. I just know what I like, and I try to do the best that I can and [the rest] is for more intellectual people to analyze if they want.
Reilly performs "Mister Cellophane"
NUVO: How did you get hooked up with Jack White?
Reilly: Jack and I met socially years and years ago when I heard he was doing a cover of "Mr. Cellophane" in concert. I was really tickled and honored by that. So I went and saw some of their shows and we became friends socially. And then I asked him to do Walk Hard [as Elvis] and miraculously he said yes.
We've stayed in touch. He's just a really generous, amazingly prolific guy. He said to us, "Hey! I have this recording studio, this record pressing plant, I've got a guest room - - do you want to come down and do whatever you want on a record?" And I thought, well, I've been singing with this guy Tom and this girl Becky - do you think we could come down and do that? And he said, "Absolutely! I'll produce it." He plays drums on one of the songs. It was a big honor.
NUVO: You have the interesting problem that not many people have - - constantly saying, "I'm not just an actor, I also do this whole separate thing!" Most people know you as an actor, or even a musical actor, but not a musician. Do you think most people realized you were also a musician with "Mr. Cellophane" [In Chicago, for which Reilly was nominated for Best Supporting Actor]?
Reilly: People are always surprised when you do something that they didn't know you could do. They're always surprised - - but that's my business plan right there, Kat. Doing things people don't expect me to do, because then you surprise them and they're interested in what you're doing. A lot of people came up to me after Chicago and said, "I didn't know you could sing!" Of course if you were around the Southside of Chicago in the late '70s, early '80s and you were a fan of community theater, then you would know!
In terms of being defined about who you are, or what people will accept you as, I think that everyone has stuff in them that they should get out. Whether you're a professional artist or not. If you've got a painting in you, you should do it. If you want to sing a song, you should do it. The world would be a better place if everyone shared their talents in that way. Life is short. You should do everything that you can while you're alive. And I've been really lucky. At first it was a little bit uncomfortable. People were yelling things from Stepbrothers or whatever. Which is fine - - I love Stepbrothers as much as the next guy. But then they kind of settled down and realized what we were doing, this labor of love, bringing these old songs to people. There's a real power to these songs. Once people kind of settled down and opened their hearts to what we were doing, they've been really cool about accepting me doing something different than what you might have known me for before they came to the show.
"Goodnight Irene" by John Reilly and Friends
NUVO: Why did you decide to drop the [middle initial] C from your band's name?
Reilly: Oh, [the middle intial] was something that was forced on me to begin with [through the Screen Actors' Guild regulations]. I thought, "Here's the chance to call myself whatever I want!" It was also a way, I suppose, to subtly define this as something different than the acting thing. I don't know - - I'm very, pretty much, a modest, Midwestern kind of person. I always found it a little embarrassing to "put your name out there," like, "Live! In Person! John C. Reilly!" It's one thing to be playing a character and have a play or whatever, but it just seemed like a more accurate name for how I feel about it. I ... I don't know! I haven't figured this out! I just have to do things. I want this to be a little simpler.
NUVO: Continuing with the simplicity of your name: from the "Friends" part of John Reilly and Friends, I assume they really are your friends.
NUVO: How did you assemble this friend group?
Reilly: We just became friends! And we started singing together, and I realized that I had all these disparate pairings, and I thought, "Well, what if I just bring everyone together and we'll all be friends?" And it worked out. I knew Becky first, and I went to see her in a band she had called The Living Sisters. And Tom was opening her one night, so I got to check out Tom. We started out playing together at this club called Largo; that's where we all coalesced as a group.
NUVO: What's the difference for you between performing on stage in a musical theater production and performing with at a concert?
Reilly: In a concert, there's a lot more improvising and interaction with the audience. I can really recognize the moment and what's going on in the moment and talk about it and engage with the audience. That feels really good and alive. There's a lot more listening in the moment [during a concert]. I mean, you try and listen during a play, but it gets to be more of a challenge when you're doing your fiftieth performance with the exact same set of words. There's more variety with music; we switch the setlist up every night that we can. And singing harmony with people, you have to really listen very carefully when you're singing together. The difference is that you feel more free. More independent.
Listen to John's impression of Tilda Swinton's love of Walk Hard.
John Convertino and Joey Burns grew up on opposite sides of the country, but settled together in the middle of the Southwest. There, in Tucson, they formed Calexico, a Tejano alt-country band that is deeply grounded in the sounds of the South. Burns (vocals, bass, guitars) and Convertino (drums, piano) blend the textures of traditional Mexican music and American folk, and solicit fellow Tucson musicians (like mariachi band Luz de Luna) to craft their dark, atmospheric albums. Makes sense for a band named after a Mexicali border town to pull inspiration from both sides of the separation wall that runs through it.
"I think that people think that mariachi music is just party music," said Convertino on the phone last week. "But really there's a lot of beautiful songs written in that format that are in the minor key. They're love songs and they have great yearning, whether it's for their home or for love."
New album Algiers is inspired by a different place - - the Algiers district of New Orleans, where the album was recorded. But to get to Convertino's real musical story, we have to come back home to Indianapolis, where his parents met while studying music.
NUVO: I've been a fan for a long time. I've been excited to talk to you.
Convertino: That's good. I was excited to talk to you too. I was thinking about it, and I realized that I wouldn't be talking to you if it hadn't been for Indianapolis.
NUVO: How so?
Convertino: That's where my parents met.
NUVO: Please tell me about that.
Convertino: I don't really know the whole story, I'm the youngest of five [and] both my parents are dead now. My dad was attending Butler University and was teaching accordion and my mom took accordion lessons from him. And they fell in love.
NUVO: I could not like that story more.
Convertino: They played accordion together. My mom's specialty was voice and guitar and drama. So, I think at some point way later, I was born in '63, I remember we had the Convertino School of Music in Mineola, N.Y. My Mom taught voice and guitar and my dad taught piano and accordion. He had a friend from Italy, who taught violin. And it was the Convertino School of Music, which was pretty sweet too, as I remember it. [I remember] seeing kids coming up and down the stairs. The studio was down in the basement of our house. Sometimes, these kids would come up after taking a lesson with my dad and they'd have tears in their eyes, because he was pretty strict.
NUVO: Well, I think you need that early on if you are going to stick with it. Maybe I'm just rationalizing my previous piano teachers' tactics.
Convertino: You do! You need that discipline. I remember my dad always saying "You have to discipline yourself." That helped me out too, as painful as it was.
NUVO: Was your dad your instructor on the first instruments you picked up?
Convertino: Yeah. He gave us all some accordion lessons and some piano lessons. But, I think he was way too busy with his own world of teaching and playing that it didn't really work out that well for us to be his students.
NUVO: I can imagine.
Convertino: When I started getting interested in drums, he really helped me out a lot with that. He wasn't a drummer, but he knew who the greats were from his time period and had a lot of great jazz records. He pointed me in the right direction for listening to drummers and learning from listening besides the whole pop/rock world which he really wasn't a part of.
Neither my mom or dad really were into pop/rock stuff. Which is kind of interesting, because Joey [Burns], he's not that much younger than me, but his parents were probably about 10 years younger than my parents and they embraced the pop/rock; they had the Beatles records and stuff. That is such a huge difference, and it's only really within a ten-year span, how that generation really changed.
NUVO: I'm sure it changes your musical DNA - - what's around and what's getting in your brain from when you're young affects what kind of music you want to make when you're older.
Convertino: See, that's so funny and interesting. There's a whole generation of people who grew up listening to '80s music, and I just can't hardly fathom that because it's kind of painful for me to hear a lot of it. I was in cover bands in the late '70s and early '80s, so I played all of that music.
Something just got super ugly there. It must have happened somewhere in the late '60s, early '70s and on through the '80s. Things really got ugly. But, what can you do.
NUVO: Keep making better music, I guess.
Convertino: Yeah, I hope so.
NUVO: I oversee a columnist who writes exclusively about world music and basically different artists who are looking to make social change and responsible art. We talk to a lot of people from Syria and Jerusalem, and all over the place. To me, you guys have always seemed like a band that's sitting on top of the separation wall, playing to both sides. If you could, talk about what draws you to that music.
Convertion: We get asked that quite a bit, actually. It was such an organic thing that happened when Joey and I moved to Tucson and to the Southwest. I think even going back to what we were talking about what we were listening to when we were kids. Joey, growing up in California, his parents taking vacations in Mexico and bringing back mariachi music and him listening to that.
When we moved here, it is just such a part of the culture here; mariachi music and Latin-based music just around every corner you hear it. As we started writing our own songs coming out of Giant Sand, we started collecting our instruments - accordions, marimbas, acoustic bass, vibes - all those instruments tie into that sound. It was a really organic thing.
We became friends with mariachi band Luz de Luna. They're super sweet guys. [They] were so open to playing with us on our songs and open to us playing on some of their songs where it worked. So, it just came from music. As cliché as it sounds, music is the universal language; it knows no borders. It communicates well on a spiritual level so you don't have to worry about words so much.
Immediately, when that started happening we started doing the collaborations in Europe and people started seeing that happening and we made the connection, "Oh, what about the border?" and the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. It's heavy talking about that as a musician, because it's a separate thing. It's just the world of politics and it just seems like a prickly business. It's like a snag.
I think for me, one of the pivotal moments was being invited to play in the town of Calexico and actually going there and seeing the massive wall. There is a wall right in the middle of town that separates Mexicali from Calexico. There's a part of the wall where you can actually see through it. There's these metal ridges and there it is. There's Mexicali over there. You can't get to it because of the giant wall. It's like when we first started playing over in Germany when the Berlin Wall was up. It's the same thing. It just seems so ridiculous. Especially when we've traveled over to Europe so many times and have seen their borders and their boundaries become less and less severe. Of course, they've had more years to deal with it than we have. None the less, you still see that their borders have come down where as our border to our brothers in the South have come more and more severe.
NUVO: Do you feel a pressure to communicate politically through your music, and do you feel like it comes naturally?
Convertion: I think it should come from a natural place. I think it shouldn't be forced. I think some people are born to have that kind of leadership. I don't really know where we stand in that. I feel like we really try to keep things in a really honest place and work from there. That's our starting point.
I know that there's some things you can do and we've done them and are still open to benefits - raising money for Border Angels or other organizations that deal with people dying in the desert and trying to bring some humanitarian aid to them. The buck pretty much stops there as far as you start putting our toes in the world of politics. I really don't know.
I feel like the best thing we can do is try to get leaders and elected officials that align with our kind of thinking into office. That's the best thing we can do: voter awareness, and stay on that path. But it's really hard. The politicians that we've talked to; it's super hard for them, especially in Arizona, I think. I think New Mexico has a little bit more going on. Texas, it's very difficult.
NUVO: The only time I've been in Texas has been in Austin, and I know that's not real Texas.
Convertion: No it isn't. That's like Tucson in Arizona. It's like the little drop of blue.
NUVO: That's kind of how Indianapolis is, honestly. I do remember reading that you played a show that Gabby Giffords was present at.
Convertion: Yes. She introduced us. We did a benefit for her and became friends with her. We really liked her a lot. She was a fan of our music. I was a little wary [at first]. This was a little early on when this started happening, when we started to get popular in our hometown. I was just like, "I don't know if I want to get involved with politics." [But] we've really got to know her. She's a great person and a super hard worker. Her husband, Mark Kelly, is as well. So, it became a real honor to be a part of her work and we tried to do whatever we could to help her out. Of course, when she got shot it was devastating. It was shocking to me that through that, still, we couldn't get the bill passed for gun control, which is unbelievable..
NUVO: Living in the Midwest, there's such a mystery still to the American West. There's such a darkness to so much of the music and art. I was reviewing some writing about your music, and you have some of the best genre descriptions about your music that I've ever read. Desert noir, and stuff like that. Do you think because of where you're making music that [reviewers] place a darkness on it? Do you feel like you're part of this mythology of the American West?
Convertion: I know that Joey and I like writing songs in the minor key, and that automatically puts you in a blue mood. The minor key is nighttime and the major key is daytime. That is a real dichotomy right there because it is sunny 350 days of the year in Tucson. You're aware of the fact that the sun is shining all the time but then you write songs or come from this place that is more in a minor mode.
I think too that people think that mariachi music is just party music, but really there's a lot of beautiful songs written in that format that are in the minor key. They're love songs and they have great yearning, whether it's for their home or for love. Those are all parts of what makes the sound.
I think too that people attach the region to our music because of the trumpets. It's such an identifiable region. There's no place like the Sonoran Desert anywhere. All of those things just happen. There is a lot more to the band than that, I think. I think more and more, like you were saying, that there is a lot more populations of people coming from the South, besides the Southwest. They're going to other places.
I thought this was kind of interesting. When we were in New Orleans, there was a lot of migrant workers from Mexico that were helping clean up after Katrina. There's a lot of Mexicans now in New Orleans. There's finally some really good Mexican food in New Orleans, which is awesome. I think it's great. It's such a great culture just south of us. Why [do] we put borders up and why [do] we make it so difficult for people to come?
Just think- people just want to work and make money like anybody else. The politicians use the drug cartels and drugs as this reason to put up a bigger border. All that has ever done is make the drug cartels stronger. It has made that whole situation worse. Really, I have always had this philosophy that I haven't said out loud very much, that I think that if you take the border completely down and open it up and see what happens, you'd find that there would be a lot of people coming in but a lot of people going back too. There might be a big wave of people coming in but then it would come back.
More and more I think that U.S. manufacturing and businesses would work more in Mexico than in China. Why wouldn't you? It's so much closer. There's such a great connection to the two countries. There is such a greater connection to the two countries. There's such a great sharing of cultures there. I'm not saying that the U.S. can't share Chinese culture either. Anybody can share any culture they want to.
NUVO: There is a lot more in the way between here and [China, though].
Convertion: There is a way lot more in the way. I actually read an article recently, I don't know where it was, that there's more U.S. businesses starting to work out of Mexico, which I think is a great thing.
NUVO: I think that there's a lot of fear going back and forth as well. There's a lot of fear about not being able to get back and not then being able to go back and see your family. Just to feel so locked in, I can't imagine.
Convertion: Yeah. It's really killing the border towns. The town, Calexico, is dying. It's pretty much dead since they raised the wall.
NUVO: Do you know when that wall went in?
Convertion: I don't know the exact time, but I know that after 9/11 when they stepped up the control so strong, that the New Mexicans couldn't come back through Calexico because it took three hours to cross the border. It just didn't make sense any more for them to go through Calexico and shop and bring their stuff back. Mexicali is a pretty cosmopolitan city. It's like three times the size of Calexico. It has a lot going on there. People have a good way of life there. It was really helpful for the California side when Mexican citizens would go up there and shop and go back and forth.
I was talking to a guy who is Mexican-American, a guy here in Tucson, and he was talking about how his grandmother would tell stories about crossing the border in Dallas when there was only a little station. There wasn't any checking of anything. There wasn't a fence or anything. People just walked back and forth or even drove through. I just think a lot of what you are talking about - the fear and people not being able to have a better way of life - causes desperation and causes the troubles.
NUVO: I noted something that Pitchfork had said in reference to Algiers, your last album. They said that consistency may not add any excitement over a new installment from the band. That's something I actually read recently about another band recently, The National. When you keep releasing these consistently excellent albums, it made me wonder if you ever felt compelled to release some kind of spectacular failure to negate that and get reviewers like me all fired up.
Convertion: I really appreciate that question and am glad you asked it because I was just talking about this the other day to Joey and Andy [Hughes], our guy from the record company, how the reviews of Algiers, was the first time I ever got pissed off at reviewers for saying things like that. It's really just annoying to me. I don't know.
It's kind of like the worst review you can have. It says, "Yeah, it's a good record, but not a great record and not a bad record." That really started to irritate me. We had some somewhat negative reviews for Garden Ruin and we've had some really great reviews for some of our earlier records. There were some really nice reviews for Algiers, too. I just felt like we really did something different with this record and I think that reviewers just have a tendency to follow the bouncing ball. I don't think, a lot of times, that they really take the time to get into a record.
It's hard, and it's getting hard to take the time to listen to a record these days because there's so much out there and it's so easy to skip around now that you have the digital devices. To really sit down and listen to a vinyl record and listen to Side A, turn it over, listen to Side B, and then maybe listen to it again just really doesn't happen too much anymore. Which is really sad because you have so many devices that you can listen to in your car or on your phone. There's so much multi-tasking going on that I think people are really missing a lot.
We did talk about yeah, let's make a small record. Why does every record have to be the best record we've ever made? I don't know. Maybe the next one will be really bad. I don't know. I really don't give it that kind of thought. I just feel so fortunate, and I know Joey does too, that we've been able to do this for so long. We just still love to do it. At some point, which we actually started doing this week, I sat behind the drums and he sat there with his guitar and we started playing again. Coming up with new ideas and we'll see what happens. Actually, we had some fun a few weeks ago. We recorded some cover songs from the '80s.
NUVO: And it all comes full circle.
Convertion: It does, it does.
"You Got the Blood of an Innocent Man on Your Hands" is packed with Daugherty's swaggering, stinging leads and distorted-yet-melodic chord crunches. He rips through the record's five-string piece de resistance, which includes a mid-song rip-your-soul, grinding and dirty guitar duel between the right and left speakers, aided by guest Tyler Berkum's guitar solo on the left channel. The performance serves as a primer for the magic that Daugherty makes with is guitars.
"Pictures of Girls Firing Guns", is a sugar-soaked highlight: a crashing backbeat and the power-pop riff of the year. It is a candy-covered guitar-drenched rocker with enough sweetness to recall primo Badfinger. And the lyrics? You decide what the hell they really mean. I'm going to hit replay, and listen again to how the bubblegum-with-spider eggs guitars and double-tracked vocals sound.
Elsewhere, the opener, "Something's Missing" is Foo Fighters thrash, more Z103 than WTTS, heavy and aggressive.
"Solidarity (Rise Up) echoes mid-career Elms rock, with Daugherty's vocals channeling his version of Elms singer (and current solo artist) Owen Thomas. Again, fat guitar chords and Elms drummer Chris Thomas' groove-with-thunder percussion pushes the song's urgency. Sounds like it could have been cut in 1977.
Lyrically, it is a record seemingly trying to understand how those who make mistakes and other choices can continue to live with themselves, and what we can do to live with ourselves amidst the noise. And it is the rock and roll music that makes it all go down nicely.
"Keep Moving" closes the set, jumping from a keyboard intro into guitars into an acoustic "Shooting Star" - sounding Bad Company verse, before eventually morphing into gospel. Mostly a narrative story of "a leader" (presumably about President Obama in the first verse, but that's a guess) who is the target of others, "Keep Moving" morphs into a call to all to follow your own vision, exalted by those gospel background singers.
Nicely done, Mr. Daugherty. You rock.
I'm kind of obsessed with Scranton's The Menzingers. Their album On the Impossible Past dropped in early 2012, and it hasn't left my car stereo since. It's a basically perfect album, tightly written, hugely energetic and deeply sad. The pop ska-punk band has been quietly dominating the East Coast punk scene for a while, but their albums have yet to achieve the tier of public recognition that they deserve. Their tracks about simple regrets and everyday grievances ache. And it's no wonder - here's how lead singer Greg Barnett describes his two favorite bands:
"Besides Springsteen, my favorite band is The Mountain Goats. Both John and Bruce (we're on a first name basis now) have a way of breaking your heart and gluing it back together again in 3-5 minutes. I love that. I've always loved bands that were brutally honest, and I constantly push myself to do the same. The best songs are the ones you're afraid to share."
I spoke to Barnett the same day NBC series The Office - also based on Scranton, Penn. - ended. He let me express my deep obsession with his work and even spoke to me a bit about that famous TV show.
The Menzingers will play tonight at the Hoosier Dome.
NUVO: I'm kind of obsessed with this album. I'm not sure if it's because when I first heard it, I was a waitress and I was in a deep, dark place in regards to my career, but something about it really speaks to me. I remember listening to "Casey" over and over and over again.
Greg Barnett: [Laughs]
NUVO: If you could tell about writing that song - I read an interesting interview from a year or so ago where you said it was actually inspired by hearing someone else play a song.
Barnett: Yeah! Exactly. We used to have this practice space, a long time ago, probably 2006, I want to say. We had a practice space in Trenton when we were living there. I was 18 or 19. It was an excuse to have a place where we could all go drink and then play music all night. We went out there late at night. One time, my buddy came out - his name was Danny - he played this song called "Casey" that he had and I fell in love with the song. The chorus was pretty close to the version that we have. The first line or two [is close]. I just changed it to include two people instead of just one person - his [song] just described one person. I was like, "Dude, do you mind if I borrow that first line for our new record?" And he said, "Yeah, sure!"
And my experience around the time of hearing that song inspired the song, I think.
NUVO: You said that was a while ago - has that lyric been rattling around in your brain since?
Barnett: Yeah, it's one of the themes on the record. It's a nostalgic look back on everything, where we're at now. The whole record's theme is based on that and what I was going through. I remembered the stories, and thought, "Hey, that would be great for that song!'
NUVO: Your song structures remind me of how a lot of great novels are written - they have someone for [the reader] to recognize, a universal feeling. But the structure has something you don't expect, so you stay wrapped up the whole time you're reading. How conscious are you of your atypical structures? Or does this writing style just pour out of you?
Barnett: I think it's right in the middle of there - you can never think about something too much, because it kills the spontaneity of what the idea is supposed to be and what it becomes. There's a conscious thinking going into a song - you want each song to complement the other ones; you're working towards the whole and the whole is the album. There's definitely a conscious idea of trying to put things that complement other things.
But then again, a lot of it is the four of us getting in a room and just feeling it without us having to say [anything]. It's a mixture of the two. There's a part of us that just has to play and not say, and another thing when you're constantly thinking out about what songs complement the other songs and build the whole story, which would be the album.
NUVO: I feel compelled to ask this because The Office series finale is airing tonight - and you guys of course are from Scranton, where the show is based. I was thinking about Scranton, and The Office and your songs and thinking about how ... they remind me in a way of each other. They're about normal people - waitresses, paper salespeople - just wanting to connect and find some kind of not-failure.
Barnett: I totally agree with that comparison. That's why I think they did such a great job of picking a place for the show. At least for me, humor is all around. It's all around you. You're stuck with these crazy people who are your neighbors and the people that you love. They're not cool, they're not attractive, they're not hip. They're just normal everyday people. I think a lot of times, especially in music and any type of art, that kind of idea gets lost, just because it's not that interesting to think about.
But when you find interesting things about it, you can relate to it so much more than someone in L.A., someone in New York, or a story or an album set in those kinds of places. Most people don't live there. I think that's what makes the show so great.
NUVO: There's also a real undercurrent of darkness through both that show and your music. The darkness of just everyday life, how much regret you can have over something very small. I kept reading reviews of On the Impossible Past, and many mentioned, "Well, somebody in this band fucked up [something in their life] enough to write about it like this.
Barnett: I don't even know if it's that serious. I don't even know if I would go that far. We're okay [laughs].
NUVO: I just got off the phone with Japandroids, a band that, like you, channels the power of the majestic punk chorus. Very anthemic. How much do you think about writing those great singalongs when you're writing?
Barnett: I haven't listened to our last record in over a year, but I play the songs every day. I want them to be able to translate live. You want people to get excited at a show that way, to pile on top of each other and sing along. That's the ultimate goal. It would be lame to write a bummer record where no one moved or no one clapped.
NUVO: I've just got one more question, and this one, you can feel free to say "I'm not going to tell you," but I've go to ask. Is there a significance to the engagement ring prominently displayed on the cover of this latest album?
Barnett: You know what? No, but there's no [laughs], there's nothing - how do I say this - it's just the idea. It's supposed to imply certain things. There's no special significance on the ring. It's supposed to imply in your mind some kind of connection that could be there, could be lost, through an old photograph.
Molina is known to most as the man behind Songs: Ohia, and later, Magnolia Electric Company. His music was widely celebrated by reviewers and music lovers alike. Almost all of it was released on Secretly Canadian Records, as Molina was closely tied to the Bloomington music scene.
At the Saturday concert, musicians from around the country will gather to perform songs specific to the eras during which they recorded with Molina. Guests include Swearing at Motorists, Jennie Benford, Mike Brenner, Andy Cohen and Tim Midget of Bottomless Pit and Silkworm, David Vandervelde, members of Golden Boots, Lawrence Peters, Elephant Micah, Chris Kupersmith, with more guests promised.
It's also the release date for the Songs: Ohia classic Hecla & Griper, including the first time the album will be available on vinyl. Secretly Canadian was collaborating with Molina on this release, as well as other projects, before his death.
Another tribute album, currently available on Graveface Records, features covers of Molina songs by Jeffrey Lewis, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Phil Elverum, John Vanderslice and Allo Darlin'. All proceeds will be donated to help cover medical and funeral costs for Molina.
NUVO: Talk about your time in Indianapolis, and how you got into music.
RANDY PAUL: I grew up in Greenfield, just east of Indianapolis. I was given my first guitar from my grandma when I was about eight years old. I played around with it for a little while but never really took it seriously until a few years later. I got in trouble for stealing a bike and was ultimately grounded for an entire summer. I spent that time in my room, playing on a three string guitar. I later convinced my mother to have the guitar re-strung and tuned which opened my eyes to what a guitar could sound like. I learned to play by ear by listening to John Mellencamp, AC/DC, Metallica, and 80's rock.
NUVO: How did you figure out music was what you were meant to do?
RP: The first time I played on stage at a student recital I knew that this was something I would be doing for the rest of my life. The rush from the energy and undivided attention from the crowd made it addictive.
NUVO: Were there other Hoosier musicians who you used as influences?
RP: I, of course, return to Mellencamp. The Why Store, Henry Lee Summer, plus just about every guitarist that came through The Slippery Noodle Inn.
NUVO: When did you leave Indiana?
RP: I moved to Tampa in 1999 with my brother, Rick, and friend, Shorty. I met and joined a band called Olive Carpet, and we played locally for about a year and gained label interest at a time when the new music boom in Orlando was taking off with bands like Matchbox 20, Creed, and Seven MaryThree3.In 2001 we recorded our debut album Do You Know Who I Am in Nashville.
NUVO: What was your first big break?
RP: Olive Carpet headlined the National Conference of NACA (National Association of Campus Activities) Showcase in front of more than 5,000 at the convention center in Indianapolis. We toured, based on that performance, for two years and played 280 showsthroughout the United States.
NUVO: Why did you decide to relocate again, this time to Charlotte?
RP: Given that I was able to tour all over the country with Olive Carpet, I took note of cities I liked and where I might one day like to live; Charlotte fit the bill. It's not too small, not too large, weather is favorable year round and it's not too far from home.
NUVO: Speaking of home, coming back to, in Indy this month at Birdy's Is that extra cool for you?
RP: I'm very excited to play for friends, family and fan. It has been a long time since I have played in Indianapolis, and I'm looking forward to debuting my new single "Indiana Home." What better place to do it than in Indy?
Danny Brown plans to drop OLD, one of the most anticipated hip-hop albums of 2013, later this year. But a recent incident at a show in Minneapolis - when a female fan reportedly grabbed Brown, pulled down his pants and proceeded to perform oral sex on him - has eclipsed news of the upcoming release for now and has spawned a series of confusing and highly charged pieces.
There's a lot of conflicting information swirling around the incident, but the definitive piece thus far has been by tourmate Kitty Pryde, who published a long blog on Noisey two days ago. Kitty proclaims the incident was sexual assault.
"I'm mad as hell, to be honest.
"I'm mad that a person thought it was okay to pull another person's pants down during their performance in front of about 700 other people. I'm mad that a person thought it was a good idea to perform a sex act on another person without their consent. I'm mad that nobody made her leave. I'm mad that Danny had to actually wonder what he was supposed to do at that point. I'm mad that when I went home and said I had no respect for that girl, I was attacked for being a "slut-shamer" (after literally leading a girl to his hotel room at 3AM at her request) and, even more outrageously, for being jealous of the girl who sucked his dick. I'm mad that when two dudes pulled my pants down onstage, other people got mad too, but when it happened to Danny the initial reaction was like one big high-five."
Up to this point, Brown has not commented publicly on the incident, save for a since-deleted tweet response to Kendrick Lamar. He has, however, retweeted many expressions of support from his fans - and retweeted the link to Kitty's piece multiple times. That is, he hasn't spoken publicly until now.
@xdannyxbrownx I love you babe- Erika (@whootybish) May 2, 2013
I wanted to talk Brown about the incident. Scratch that. I wanted to talk to Brown about the response to the incident, which, to me, has seemed unfair and sexist. Perhaps I didn't present the conversation in the right way; looking back, I certainly didn't mean to say "bullshit" four separate times.Brown seemed extremely reserved throughout our interview; I'd be tempted to attribute that to the recent media storm, but I've never talked to the man before. He'll perform at Deluxe at Old National Centre on Tuesday, May 14.
NUVO: I don't want to make you talk about anything you don't want to talk about.
Brown: It's cool. I won't! [laughs] I won't talk about something I don't want to talk about.
NUVO: I know you've been retweeting a lot of messages of fan support in the last couple of days, and there's been a lot of things being said. I guess I wanted to know how much [of what's being written about the Minneapolis incident] is bullshit.
Brown: What do you mean bullshit? Like what?
NUVO: I've been reading all kinds of [pieces] about whatever happened in Minneapolis. ... I wondered if you had read anything [being written] and how much you think is right, if any.
Brown: I just don't like when people - with the whole thing, I don't like the way people are, like, taking the tabloid-y approach to it. ... I mean, it's what happened. The biggest thing with me is that I don't like when people try and throw the age thing. You know what I'm saying? It was a fuckin' - I don't do all-ages shows for one thing. The girl was fuckin' 24 years old. I talked to her after the show was over with. You know what I'm saying? I don't like that they keep trying to throw in there that he maybe "did" an underage girl. That's not true, at all. And that's the only thing that really upset me about it.
NUVO: (I hem and haw while thinking about my next question.)
Brown: Don't get me wrong, I'm just keepin' it [honest] with you. I'm not like, proud of that shit that happened. I'm not running around, feeling like the man or some shit. I'm not happy. You know what I'm saying? I'm not happy that that shit happened. It happened - it was cool. Don't get me wrong. It was cool that that type of shit happened. I don't, like - if this was the '80s or something and we could just hear word of mouth, than that would be cool. But we live in a world where videos and pictures and everybody wants to do a fuckin' article trying to track down the girl, talking to the wrong girl, you know what I'm saying? That shit is not cool.
NUVO: I agree with you a lot. Nobody should be persecuted for something that just happens.
Brown: It was a moment. It just - at the end of the day, I don't care about it. It might happen again, who knows? You know? There's nothing I can really - it's just - fuckin' - that's the way my shows are. It's a party. We're havin' fun.
NUVO: How is Kitty doing?
Brown: [laughs] Kitty's all right. She's all right. She's been knocking these shows out, crying every night.
NUVO: I really did love that piece that she wrote. I thought it was badass.
Brown: It was. It's one of those things that I have a love and hate relationship with it. It's like - I'm happy that she did it and stuck up for me, but she did open up a can of worms too, and bring a light to a situation that probably we wouldn't even be talking about no more, you know? But now it's not going away.
NUVO: The same world that lets you drop a massive album on the everyone for free and hit all over the world in ten seconds also makes shit follow you. Good and bad.
Brown: It's cool. I've been through way worse situations, you know?
But let's not forget the reason I wanted to talk to Brown in the first place: his music kills. So before chatting a bit about the unsavory cloud that's hovered over the last week of his tour, we talked about the music he listened to when he was young, what he writes (or doesn't write) on tour and what he thinks is real hip-hop.
NUVO: You'll be in Indy in about a week and a half here. You're wrapping up your North American tour and ending up somewhere in Europe. ... I wanted to know if touring allows you time to be creative and write, or if it's more of just a time to refine material that you're touring.
Danny Brown: I don't work on music when I'm touring.
NUVO: Too busy?
Brown: I don't know. I just don't do that. I might write. I'm not the ... I don't know. I'm more concerned with doing the show. I look at it like, if you practice too much you might hurt yourself.
NUVO: That makes a lot of sense.
Brown: You don't want to get hurt in practice. Most of the time, I'm spending all day trying to get my voice right to perform. I wouldn't want to be sitting around trying to rap all day and then go and play a show at night.
NUVO: Do you have daily vocal practices?
NUVO: [laughs] I just wondered.
NUVO: I forget who I was talking about the other day who does every single day and they run through them for an hour. (Writer's note: I later remembered I was talking about Stevie Nicks, who spoke at length during her SXSW official interview about her vocal warm-ups. It was on my mind.)
Danny Brown - "Express Yourself"
NUVO: For the future of powerful, influential hip-hop releases [like XXX], do you see them [being released] in the free online download mode or more of the major/minor label release mode?
Brown: Well, I'm signed to Fool's Gold, so I don't think they would let me put out another project for free at this point.
NUVO: You've also talked about hip-hop splintering in the last few years, opening up spaces for you, Macklemore, Mac Miller, other guys. Could you expand on that hip-hop splinter?
Brown: What do you mean?
NUVO: I guess, Danny, honestly I would just like to hear you talk about the state of hip-hop in 2013 and what is important and influential to you right now.
Brown: What's important to me is probably not important to everybody else, you know?
NUVO: I'd like to hear what's important to you specifically, though.
Brown: Me, personally, I just listen to what I like. I don't care about the other shit that's involved with it. I've been listening to hip-hop since I can remember, but I'm not even going to call it hip-hop; it's rap music to me. Hip-hop is fucking, like, a lifestyle that you live, and I don't see nobody around here spray-painting or fucking DJing in a park. That's hip-hop. You know? This is rap music. My take on it is that I like rap music with hip-hop intentions. And what I mean by that is hip-hop to me is when somebody is doing something authentic to them, and not doing what they think hip-hop should be.
There's a lot of people who'll sit around and tell you that somebody like Gucci Mane isn't hip-hop. Gucci Mane is hip-hop; Gucci Mane don't need to be making A Tribe Called Quest songs; that's not his life. You know? So I like stuff that I think is authentic. That's what I listen to.
NUVO: You mention being young and listening to music; I know I've read that you've been rhyming forever and that your mom read you Dr. Seuss books. I'm really interested in what music does to young brains, and how it ends up influencing us later. Can you remember a few specific things you were listening to when you were really, really young?
Brown: You mean, on my own?
NUVO: Or in the house - what was around.
Brown: When I was a kid, my pops was 16; he had me at 16, so I was probably with him in his early twenties, you know? He just listened to whatever was the hot rap music at the time. He was a house DJ, so I heard a lot of house music and electronic music, and I think the biggest inspiration for me in house was Loose Ends. My pops, my moms, everywhere I go, they played Loose Ends. Something about that album. Maybe, I don't know if something clicked in my family, but any BBQ, they were playing that album. I still listen to it to this day.
Congratulations to James Strong Jr. on his new alumni award, named for the founder of the Afro-American Arts Institute.
From the IU Newsdesk:
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - Indiana University's African American Arts Institute is honoring James A. Strong Jr. with the Herman C. Hudson Alumni Award.
Strong is an alumnus of IU Bloomington and the IU Soul Revue. He has become a critically acclaimed bassist, musical director and producer, playing for artists such as Toni Braxton, En Vogue, Tupac, MC Smooth, New Edition and LL Cool J.
Strong will be honored at the African American Arts Institute's annual Herman C. Hudson Alumni Award Banquet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 16, in the Grand Hall, Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center, 275 N. Jordan Ave.
Since his time as a band member in the IU Soul Revue, Strong has recorded, produced and performed for top record companies such as RCA, Warner Bros, Sony, Virgin, Atlantic, Universal, J Records, Jive and Capitol. Strong has played to sold-out crowds at Madison Square Garden, as well as for LL Cool J's Grammy Award-winning performance at New York City's Radio City Music Hall.
"Attending IU and being a part of the IU Soul Revue was a priceless experience," Strong said. "The creative environment under the mentorship of Dr. James E. Mumford inspired me and gave me tools and the confidence I needed to pursue a career in music."
When asked to define success, he said, "I ask myself these few questions: Did I wake up this morning happy? Did I wake up this morning pain free? Did I wake up this morning with the ability to better myself and to help someone else? If my answers are yes, then there is nothing standing in my way from being successful."
Strong will graduate from IU East in May with a degree in business. "Its never too late to finish what you've started," he said.
KO performance shots
Shots of KO (Kristin Newborn and Todd Heaton)
"I'm all over the place," laughs Kristin Newborn. We're sharing a table in the back of an Alley Cat with Todd Heaton, discussing the duo's new band, KO.
I'm chomping at the bit to hear Newborn and Heaton's newest recording project, a debut album slated for a late July release. Slothpop, Newborn's critically adored former group, dissolved amicably in March of last year. Now, almost exactly one year later, Newborn prepares to release a new album, set off for a host of shows and impress Indy once again. This year has been a diverse one for the duo, whose performance spaces have ranged from basement floors to the Hilbert Circle Theater stage, and just about everywhere in between.
I'm in a tall, cushioned seat at the Hilbert Circle Theatre. After spending too much time chatting in the front over gratis appetizers, I've been relegated to a seat in the back; I prefer it there - better to watch the crowd's reaction to the batch of songs compiled by Steve Hackman, who's debuting his Brahms "First Symphony" and Radiohead "OK Computer" mash-up. The performance features three singers, including Newborn. After solo songs from the other two performers, Newborn launches into a new piece (arranged by Hanna Benn), accompanied by the orchestra. It's delicate and lush, and although more than 80 orchestra members join in, Newborn owns the performance.
"When I was 3 years old, I would watch these musicals," says Newborn. "These sing-along, dance-along videos, and then I would go to this electric piano and be able to play back from ear. My mom [saw this and put me] in piano Suzuki [method] lessons that year."
Newborn grew up in Indianapolis; she spent her formative years studying classical music, sneaking into church sanctuaries to play the piano and performing with North Central's show choir.
"Classical music was really important to me; I played a lot of Bach, a lot of Mozart. I loved listening to Debussy," says Newborn. "Debussy is so beautiful."
After high school graduation, Newborn was set to move to Chicago to attend Columbia College, one of the largest arts colleges in the country. But something was subconsciously holding her back.
"It was so weird - I kept having these really bad dreams that took place in Chicago; I was having weird second thoughts about it," she says.
So, instead, it was off to The Young Americans (after a brief stop in Michigan for auditions) in Los Angeles. TYA is a traveling performance group for young professional musicians, with whom she crisscrossed the world, living for months at a time in places as far-flung as Japan and Germany.
"I loved [Young Americans] and I grew up a lot, playing with professional musicians," says Newborn. "And everyone was super different, but we had one thing in common: our love of music."
After finishing her tours with The Young Americans, Newborn returned to her hometown. Fairly quickly, she settled into a comfortable musical collaboration with Lauren Elson (vocals, violin), Dan Zender (guitar), Bryan Unruh (percussion), Jeff Vyain (cello) and Drew Malott (bass, vocals). That collection of musicians was Slothpop. They released an LP in January of 2011, a magnificently strange collection of 10 strongly written tracks carried by Newborn's lilting voice. The group performed all over the state and elsewhere, gaining friends and fans steadily.
But by March of last year, it was time for something new. So with a brief goodbye ("Dearest loves, Slothpop is officially calling it off."), KO was born.
I'm in a basement of a stranger's house in Bloomington. On deck for the night is Floorboard, a gauzy three-piece group led by singer Biz Strother; Philly band Son Step; Steven Layne; Todd Heaton's Street Spirits; and KO. The basement is far from packed - in fact, a good portion of the people downstairs are band members themselves.
It's a nice space, as college town basements go. I'm posted up on the washing machine, with softly glowing Christmas lights swinging above my head. Newborn floats from person to person - she's the last act of the night, but she's there from the beginning, chatting quietly with other musicians. She's front and center when Heaton starts his set.
"I was always a fan of Todd in Our Imaginary Friends," says Newborn. "Then I heard these home recordings of Street Spirits that he did, and I messaged him right away and said, 'Todd, Todd, I love you. We should play music.' "
Street Spirits is a solo writing project that grows to a full band for live performances. Heaton's EP, released last summer, is a low-fi, dreamy confection with deep, dark undertones; his thunderous drums add gravity to the reverb-soaked vocals. Newborn loved those drums, and Heaton understood KO's songs.
"I didn't really know where the KO project was going," says Newborn. "And I didn't know Todd was going to play drums. I think a lot of people in Indianapolis did not know he played drums as well as he does. I think that was what was cool when we played our first couple of shows; people were like, 'Whoa, Todd!' "
Newborn brought five songs to Heaton initially, and they rehearsed only three times before their first live show.
"Then, she said, 'I have two more songs,' and then, 'I have two more songs,'" says Heaton.
Theirs is a musical partnership that works, and they're already thinking about future collaborations before this album is even done.
"It'd be cool, for the second KO album, for me to help out with songwriting and guitar [playing]," says Heaton.
But they've still got to finish up this album first.
"When I first demo'd these songs, I would be doing the percussion on my guitar with my thumb and it sounded like a djembe," says Newborn. "When Todd came, we formed this grungy, but still soulful, sound. When we first started playing out, someone said, 'Hey, you're afro-grunge.' I think it fits. I do have a soulful voice, and I'm inspired by a lot of African-style vocals; but Todd brings this hardness to it."
The genre name might be a mouthful, but the songs are really quite simple.
"We're minimalists," says Newborn. "We're really into a stripped-down sound. It's completely the opposite of Slothpop, which I felt like was a very full band, over-the-top and very emotional. KO is more playful."
The recording process was smooth; Heaton's drum parts fleshed out the tracks naturally.
"With the drums, it was easy to come to a conclusion with how the songs should be and how the feeling should be," says Newborn. "We've considered [adding someone else to the band], but for right now, it's really fun just the two of us."
Heaton hasn't paused his solo project; in fact, he's planning on completing a new Street Spirits album by the end of March. But it's got something in common with KO's upcoming release: simplicity.
"You don't have to say a whole lot for people to understand," says Heatonn "In music, there's a lot of people that have a lot of lyrics trying to get a point across ... but in actuality I think there's a genius in taking complex ideas and breaking them down into a simple platform."
I'm at the DO317 Lounge. It's July, and the cozy spot in the Murphy Building is just a few months old. The hallways are buzzing with gallery goers packing the rooms for First Friday, but all is quiet inside our space. After setting up, Heaton and Newborn launch into "I Will Run When It's Dark" (available for listening on MusicalFamilyTree.net) and I'm entranced. Just a few months after the announcement from Newborn that Slothpop is no more, this completely independently written batch of songs is already sounding years old.
"We've been having a lot of really neat opportunities [in Indy]," says Newborn. "And it's hard to consider living in another place. There's so many good things happening for us. ... I think that there are so many talented musicians here."
Spaces like the Murphy Building and promoters likes MOKB Presents have been welcoming to them; in fact, KO just wrapped an opening slot for '90s pop dreamboats Sixpence None the Richer.
Speaking of throwbacks, we spent time thinking back on those first shows Newborn saw when she moved back to Indianapolis. She remembers being impressed by Christian Taylor, Jesse Lee and Jorma Whittaker. She's still impressed by the wealth of what she calls "secret musicians" in Indy - people she didn't know were talented, prolific artists who pop up at venues regularly.
I'm alone in my apartment, cueing up KO's newest collection of songs on my computer and sinking into my couch.
The mastering process for Goldengal is about 50 percent done - they holed up to record once again at Queensize Studios, where Slothpop was recorded - and Newborn's let me hear a few of her newest tunes. I cue up "Goldengal," the title track, which starts with a slow, steady beat from Heaton and easy guitar riffing from Newborn. Thirty seconds in, the guitar spins and layers, leading in a vocal harmony and looping vocal tracks with Newborn's tranced-out rock scatting, a chorus of da-DATs and dum-dats. It's gorgeous, and I can't wait to hear more.
"Goldengal is a real person," says Newborn. "I was trying to reach this person in some way; I think when you're with someone for so long, you can fall into these habits where you feel like you become further and further away. ... I don't think this person knows the album is named after them, which I think is fine."
A collection of formidable Indy talents guest on the record; this includes Heaton, of course, but also the collective talents of Derek Johnson (Johnsongs) and Leilah Smith (Homeschool). But the songs were written solo.
"I started composing songs right after I was done with Slothpop. It was natural - I was getting used to playing by myself and experimenting with pedals and playing more guitar."
Listening to "Goldengal," I'm struck again by the sheer beauty and resonance of Newborn's songwriting. Her music seems devoid of place or time, and her voice transcends trappings of genre and venue. From basements to the Hilbert Circle Theatre; spaces large and small are perfectly suited for KO.
"That's the awesome thing about KO. We can play in a basement, she can play at the ISO, we can play in a club - and it just works," says Heaton. "The magic of KO is that it's really versatile and unique, but open to everybody."
Like she said, they're all over the place.
"Goldengal" by KO
The Indianapolis and Bloomington music communities -- and the rest of the world -- were saddened to learn of the untimely passing of musician Jason Molina, 39, who died in his home in Indianapolis Saturday, March 16. The force behind Songs: Ohia and later, Magnolia Electric Company, Molina was signed to Bloomington label Secretly Canadian and released the majority of his work on that imprint.
"Jason is the cornerstone of Secretly Canadian," said a statement released by the label. "Without him, there would be no us - - plain and simple."
Molina experienced a variety of health problems in recent years, including a years-long struggle with alcoholism that led his family to ask fans for financial support to his rehab. Memorial contributions are still being accepted.
"I have not given up because you, my friends, have not given up on me. ... Keep the lamps trimmed and burning," Molina wrote in a note on the band's site in May 2012.
[A+E] Festivals + Parties, DJs + Dancing
[Food+Drink] Dining Out, Jazz + Blues + R&B
[Music] Jazz + Blues + R&B
[Music] DJs + Dancing