The Badass Drumming of Tony Allen

Brian Eno said that Tony Allen was, “perhaps the greatest drummer that ever lived.”  As a rhythm section guy (bass) that has been lucky enough to have learned a lot about drumming from two of Austin’s best drummers (Keith Langford and Alex Moralez), I have been marveling at the drum work of Tony Allen lately.  He is most famous for his work with Fela Kuti where he helped create Afrobeat.  I learned about him, like many my age in the West, first through his work with Damon Albarn.  He has been a part of a ridiculous amount of great records.  Above I picked a live version of the single from his newest solo album Film of Life.  This is a song he wrote with Albarn.  You really need to check out more than his work with Albarn, because again there is so much fantastic stuff to discover, especially if you appreciate great musicianship.  Although I love Albarn and I think his work with him is excellent, it is really only a sliver of what makes him so great.  I simply picked this because it was new and I know that there are some people who would find a pop song the easiest place to start.

Filming a Video, Going On Tour, and Man-Boobs

beef-and-pie

Beef & Pie Trailers

Today I was over at Shawn Sahm’s house with Kevin Russell and Keith Langford filming a video for a song called Old School Austin Groove.  It appeared in the movie Crazy Carl and His Man-Boobs.  The movie and the video were directed by Mike Woolf.  The Crazy Carl movie is a documentary about an Austin eccentric.  However, it uses his story as a jumping off point to tell the history of the counter culture movie of the last few decades.  If you are at all interested in this city it is definitely worth checking out.  I saw it at its premier at Esther’s Follies and was really taken aback by it.  I have been living here now for a number of years and there was so much I didn’t know about the city in the movie.  And besides, who can turn down a movie that features man-boobs?

The Shinyribs band is hitting the road for the next couple days.  We will be in East Texas.  You can get the details at:

Shinyribs Tour Schedule

Adam Clayton’s Zen Like Bass

I am a bass player by trade.  One of my favorite bass players is Adam Clayton from U2.  His playing is often disparaged by musicians.  This criticism stems from an old argument in music about technical ability vs. feel.  I also believe that some people don’t understand the idea that within a band people have different roles and those roles are crucial to creating the sound of a band.

Keith Langford, the drummer in The Gourds and Shinyribs, and I often have a discussion about musical roles in bands and we use a football analogy.  We often talk about how someone needs to stay home and block.  In each band there is usually a member that provides the glue in which keeps the song together while the other musicians play more expressive roles.  In different bands this role is held by different instruments.  In U2 Adam Clayton usually stays home to block while the Edge floats above him playing unique sounds and Larry Mullen Jr. plays polyrhythmic drum parts.  In New Order there is usually a rhythm guitar, keyboard, or sequencer part holding things together while Peter Hook, the bass player, flies around the higher end of the neck playing melodic lines.  One of the bands that breaks this rule is the Who.  Although Pete Townshend’s rhythm guitar is the thing that most often glues the band together, they are all often being expressive which leads to the chaotic nature of their sound which you can hear on an album like Live at Leeds.  But most bands are not like the Who.  Most bands have at least one person staying home providing the foundation for the song.  Someone needs to subdue their ego so that other members of the band have freedom of expression.

Although there are definitely periods where I see the point in criticizing Adam Clayton, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb comes to mind as he is playing nothing but root notes the entire record, for a good portion of U2’s career he has created simple memorable lines that form the bedrock for U2’s songs.  I view his playing as being very Zen like.  He plays the fewest notes possible, but crafts them in such a way that they are memorable and functional.  There are many U2 songs, Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World, New Years Day, and Bullet the Blue Sky being a few, where you could hear the bass line by itself and recognize the song.  Not only are these bass lines recognizable and hooky, but they also serve the songs functionally as they allow the other musicians to play in an expressive manner.  These are parts carved out of stone until only what is absolutely needed is left.

Adam Clayton also has great tone and feel.  Their 90’s albums, Acthung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop, are especially full of great bass performances.  These are also records which are centered around strong grooves.  I particularly love the groove on Until the End of the World.  Or listen to his performance during the chorus of Mysterious Ways.  It is only four notes but it feels and sounds incredible.  In Bill Flanagan’s excellent U2 book Until the End of the World, he talks about, and I agree with this assessment, that a beat is like a target.  One can play on either side of the bulls-eye and doesn’t necessarily have to hit the target dead on.  Adam Clayton plays in a slightly dubby behind the beat style.  Larry Mullen Jr. often plays right on top of the beat.  Between the two of them they create a great foundation for which the songs can be built on.

Although Adam Clayton has always worked with great producers like Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, which definitely help him to achieve a great bass sound, a lot of the sound of bass is how you approach it with your right hand if you are a right handed player.  How you pluck the strings with either your fingers or pick, and Clayton does both, goes along way in determining the sound of the bass.  The sound of a bass relies slightly less on technology than the sound of a guitar does.

There are plenty of great technical bass players, and Adam Clayton certainly does not fit that bill.  However, if you look at the roll that he plays in allowing his band to do what it does, and listen to the tone and feel of his playing there is a great deal to appreciate.  Taking three or four notes, and making them the perfect three or four notes, is something every player should try to achieve once in awhile.  Subvert the ego and aim for a certain Zen like aesthetic.  You just might create the most essential part of something while doing the least amount of work.

I Love You All the Same

Sometimes I dream of other women
And the end of the world
Sometimes I want to crash your father’s car
And steal your mother’s pearls
I can be greedy
Selfish and vain
But oh my love
I love you all the same

I don’t trust any man
Without conflict in his eyes
I don’t trust any women
Who have never been a pawn to desire
Someone had to bite the apple
I don’t care who’s to blame
Oh my love
I love you all the same

That old river is flowing
It flows to the sea
It won’t wait for you
It won’t wait for me

Lying on your bed
I dreamt of the fall of Rome
I did unspeakable things
It felt like home
Am I the candle
Or am I the flame?
Oh my love
I love you all the same

Listen here: http://noshowponies.bandcamp.com/track/i-love-you-all-the-same

Some songs come easy.  This one didn’t.  This might be the oldest song on the record.  It took us at least ten years to get a band arrangement of this song that we felt was right.  I had to read eight books to write it.  How do I know eight?  I went through a period where I read everything that the author Denis Johnson wrote at the time, which was eight books, and then sat down and wrote the lyrics upon finishing the last one. 

The last few lines in the song, “Am I the candle or am I the flame?”, are paraphrased from Denis Johnson’s book Angels.  Funnily enough that is my least favorite Denis Johnson book.   In that book Denis Johnson asks, paraphrasing here: Will you be consumed by your own personal violence or will you consume it?  . The Garden of Eden story and the prison sequence from A Clockwork Orange were also on the brain.  

There is a lot of mystery in these lyrics.  They are more poetic than some of the other more straightforward pieces.  Sometimes you want to say something very specific, and sometimes you want to paint.  I think it’s some of my best work.  In short it is about loving someone in the face of personal shortcomings, but this is one of those songs that the meaning changes for me over time. 

The bass, drums, and guitar were recorded at the same time in 2 to 3 takes max.  I don’t believe anything on this record went further than this.  If it did it was strictly an arrangement issue where we felt something needed shortening upon hearing playback.  Ben and I, as typical for these sessions, redid the vocals singing into the same microphone with no patching up afterwards.  Again we might have done 2 or 3 takes at max.  This track is unique because everyone seemed to want to play percussion on it.  If you hear Al’s drums you realize that this wasn’t a necessity, but because of the rhythmic nature of the track it just seemed like it fitted.  Keith Langford came in and did a track of shaker, Al did some tambourine parts, and I played some kind of weird looking gourd with beads on it during the breakdown. 

Listen to Ben’s guitar playing on this song, especially in the instrumental section.  It is extremely musical.  Without playing a traditional solo he is able to bob and weave around the groove with lyrical expression.  Al’s drumming is also superb throughout this entire track.  Whether he is just sticking to the groove or playing a flourish of drum rolls, he is consistently on the top of his game here.  I’m proud to be in a band with these two. 

We do magic tricks together
Get sick from drinking from the same damn cup
Love doesn’t always wear a stupid smile

– Paul Westerberg

 

 

I’m Not Listening to the Radio Tonight

http://noshowponies.bandcamp.com/track/im-not-listening-to-the-radio-tonight

You talk just like we do
But only part of the time
You’re only this famous
For towing that company line

And now my love is over
My love is over

I’m not listening tonight

I used to hang onto
Your every word
But now you change so slowly
I’ve outgrown you for sure

It’s overrated
What you over play

And now my love is over
My love is over

I’m not listening tonight

I can’t blame you
You just want to be liked
Grew up idealistic
Cashed in to survive
But you used to be mine
You used to be mine

My love is over
My love is over

I’m not listening tonight

I remember huddling in bed as a kid listening to the radio, waiting for my newest hero to appear.  I also remember moving to Austin and hearing a station not worth mentioning, that used to play excellent and surprising music, turning to the now dreaded corporate driven format.  As Morrissey once sang, “Has the world changed, or have I changed?”  Both I assume.  However, there is no doubt that radio as a whole has been defiled by the money men.

This is actually the oldest song on our new album, No Show Ponies A Manual for Defeat.   Things have only gotten worse since it was written.  The song started out as a sort of a Replacements rocker.  Without the dual guitars of our now current three-piece lineup, it simply didn’t work in that fashion.  The new incarnation is somewhere between the African pop of Thomas Mapfumo and the British jangle of early Smiths.  Again I am honored to play with my brother Ben and our drummer Alex.  Al again understands intuitively what we are going for.  My brother’s guitar brings the magic and the color in ways I had not dreamed possible.  Listen to his prechorus guitar hook.  It’s brilliant.  Recording this song was one of the highlights of the A Manual for Defeat sessions.  I remember dancing like mad children with my brother in the vocal booth as we both sang into the same microphone.  This is also one of the songs that the always great Keith Langford came by for.  He is playing percussion and a barely audible whistle.  It’s there is you search.  His whistle playing had us in stitches during the session.

Public Radio is the only hope for free radio.  It seems to be the only format that is taking risks and trying new things.  That’s not to say that there aren’t other privately owned radio stations that are still fighting the good fight out there.  But on a whole, it is the Public Stations that are keeping intelligence on the airwaves alive.

However, much like religion, at one point or another I just decided to not participate.  Part of this is my disgust in what radio at large has become, and part of that is just my introvert tendencies.  I’ve read that introverts like to bring some order to their surroundings, and I suppose that I do this most often through what is being played.  I am a huge music fan though.  I have been collecting records since I was a kid and there just is no room in my life for the radio most days.  I have too much good music now and the chance of getting burned is just too high.

I feel bad for anyone coming of age now.  To use a term from Keith Richards, most radio is just, “dogshit in the doorway.”  It seems that most artists only rise to the top anymore if their music is lacking any kind of intelligence, wit, or social critique.  The company men have finally figured out how to make money off of music without splitting the pie with people who would sooner see them discarded.   That’s not to say good music isn’t out there, just that it rarely becomes part of the mainstream dialogue.

So anyway, the targets of this song are too numerous to mention.  This song is saying goodbye to radio in the form of a spurned lover.  A love affair, long since dead.  We may have lost the war.  I might be a lone soldier at a remote outpost, not realizing the war ended years ago.  But in my own way, I still fight the good fight…

The Making of A Manual for Defeat: Part 1

No Show Ponies new album, A Manual for Defeat, will be released tomorrow exclusively through www.noshowponies.com.  This is an album that was forged out of necessity.  That is both the necessity of expression and the necessity of circumstances that lead to the way this album was made.  This is a rock album about hard times, which was made by and for people that are going through them. 

My brother Ben and I moved to Austin about 8 years ago from Central Pennsylvania.  Although we had always played rock music, we started out in the Austin scene as an acoustic duo.  We slowly climbed up the Austin ladder, found band mates, and recorded the album The End of Feel Good Music.  We recorded that album with Kevin Russell and Keith Langford of Shinyribs and the Gourds.  We had cameos by such Austin luminaries as Jon Dee Graham and Jimmy Smith of the Gourds.  We had a successful CD release party and then a residency at the Saxon Pub.  Everything seemed to be going right, but then as often happens, trouble found us.  Our live band imploded. 

Suddenly we found ourselves without a steady band.  Although Ben and I never quit working, we found that we were lacking a distinct sound and direction.  Out of the blue, or possibly through an internet ad, the drummer Alex Morales walked into our lives.  He is a drummer with an encyclopedic knowledge of drumming.  His apartment looks like a drum museum.  He not only could play whatever crazy idea we had in our heads, but also could inspire us and push us in new directions.  He is the perfect drummer for the songs Ben and I write.  He has rock solid timing, a deep pocket, and more importantly he intuitively understands the kind of music we play, shares many key influences, and writes unique and distinctive parts for each song.  A band is only as good as their drummer and suddenly we had a great one. 

However, we were still lacking a distinctive sound.  I was on bass at the time and Ben was on acoustic.  At one practice, when Ben and I found ourselves alone with Alex, Ben decided to pick up the electric guitar.  All of a sudden, in about three songs, that sound that we were always looking for, but weren’t sure where to find it, came to life right in front of us.  My brother could jump with ease from beautiful chimy arpeggiations to blood thirsty noise solos.  We decided right then and there that we would remain a three piece.  We were limited in what we could do, but as often the case in art, limitation is the mother of invention.  While we always believed we could write and sing together, we suddenly, for the first time in a long time, had a “sound”. 

The next step that we knew we had to make was recording an album.  We asked each other how we could make a record that would do justice to the sound that we were hearing for the budget we had.  And the truth of the matter is that we had no budget.  The Great Recession had come through like a hurricane and wiped out whatever financial stability that we had.  Luckily I had the experience of recording with Ramsay Midwood on his quarter inch tape machine.  Shinyribs had recorded a song called Dollar Bill Blues for an English Townes Van Zandt tribute record.  In one day of working we had the song recorded, mixed, and ready for action.  There wasn’t the fussing about that plagues most recording sessions.  Most importantly the recording we did had a vibrancy and life that is missing in most modern recordings. 

I knew that if we had any chance of making a good record for a nonexistent budget, then this is the route that we had to go.  If we were well rehearsed we could knock out basic tracks within a couple days and end up with something we believed in.  For the next several months Ben, Al, and myself rehearsed like mad.  We got every song that we had into a definitive three piece arrangement.  Anything that didn’t work with only three instruments was thrown out the window. 

When it came time to record we picked the best songs we had given the arrangements that we had.  We also had our eye on the whole and picked songs whose meanings would be enhanced by the songs around them.  We wanted to make an album and not just a collection of songs.  Once we had the material where we wanted it, we contacted Ramsay, who picked engineer Seth Gibbs, and headed out for his house, where the first batch of songs were to be recorded…

To Be Continued…

Last Gourds Show Review

I attended what was possibly the last Gourds’ show last night.  They are deeming it a hiatus and not a breakup.  If that was indeed their last show it was a hell of a way to go out.  Those of you that have been reading my blog all along have noticed an uptick in Monty Python references.  I have been reading a book on the Pythons.  I grew up on them and I am having a personal resurgence of their influence upon my life.  However, what I am about to say I believe to be absolutely true.

So help me god last night was the closest I have ever seen to rock n roll merging itself to the surreal comedic aspects of Monty Python.  The Gourds achieved some kind of strange performance art milestone last night.  I am sure of it.  If the live stream goes up online again, it may well be now, then watch the last half hour of it.  This was living breathing surrealism that was also emotional, passionate, and well executed.  I feel like they touched, for a moment anyway, some weird 4th dimension.

I may be slightly making it sound like it was a shit show, but it was also rock n roll of the highest fucking order.  Kevin was hitting insanely powerful high notes, even for him, Jimmy was playing bass like he was burning down a barn, Max did the best banjo solo I have ever seen live, Claude switched between instruments with ease and brought life to every one of them, and Keith simply put in a tour de force performance.

I would like to write more, but I actually have real work to do today.  My brain may also be slightly clouded by the substances I either did or did not consume last night.  But if you want to get a crash course in amazing independent rock n roll, then watch this show somehow someway online.

There are moments, primarily in the work of great directors like David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Nicholas Winding Refn, and Werner Herzog, where you realize you are witnessing some kind of hidden truth of the universe that you realize is true, but even in witnessing it you can’t quite put your finger on what it is.  You are touched, for a brief moment, by the Divine.  It only lasts a little while before human imperfection closes the door.  Last night there were several of those moments.  I was glad to be alive in Austin, Texas on October 27th, 2013.

Well, I need to get back to the grindstone.  Not quite as glad to be alive on the 28th.  These ups and downs in life can take some getting used to…

Again, I know and have worked with the Gourds, so I feel I need to disclose that.  If you think you that is going to make me write something I don’t believe in, then in the word’s of GNR, “You’re fucking crazy.”