Monday, May 22, 2017

Chris Cornell

And Now He's Gone
A Tribute to Chris Cornell

I never thought I’d be writing a tribute to Chris Cornell, not just for the usual reasons, but because of how I became a fan of Soundgarden in the first place. As for the usual reasons why one writes a tribute, it makes me shudder, not just that this wonderful musician is gone, but that so many are: Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, Andrew Wood, Stefanie Sargent, Scott Weiland, Mike Starr, John Baker Saunders. Let the next one added be when everyone is, say, 90. Only Eddie Vedder, Mark Arm, and Mark Lanegan are now alive of the more famous grunge band leaders. What must they be thinking? The Space Needle went dark for an hour Thursday night, so everyone is grieving. Chris’ family and the rest of Soundgarden are also in my thoughts.

I will be honest; at the time, I hated grunge, and a lot of early 90s alternative music, and, again, it wasn’t for the usual reasons. I despise the term “sell out.” There's nothing wrong with making money from your art, and as my career involves various types of creative writing, I admit that sometimes my attitude is “screw art, give me the money.” Not that making art for art's sake is bad, but doing it for pay is the greatest job in the world. But I don't like it when people make a certain kind of art just for the money. The music magazines I was reading at the time said grunge bands were sell-outs, doing just that, so that put me off.

Also, I have a learning disability severe enough that I'm unable to work a straight job, or drive, hence my writing career, as writing is what I do best. I have struggled all my life to make a good life for myself. Only those who have everything mentally together would act like it’s cool to be disabled or mentally ill, and that is the way I perceived grunge and most alt-rock at the time. I didn't think their expressions of pain and dysfunction were honest or real, and I didn't want all that negativity, particularly if it wasn't sincere.

I was still very much following punk’s credo of thinking for yourself. The elementary school in Hightstown, NJ put on folk concerts during the school year, and there was a local folk song society who brought in musicians. It was very popular, and Dar Williams sold the place out more than once. I began going to those shows and joined that local scene. In addition to Dar, I got into the Nields, Richard Shindell, the late Dave Carter and his partner Tracy Grammer. Jill Sobule of I Kissed A Girl fame was also a part of the scene, and so was Ani DiFranco. And there was plenty of alt rock outside the lines to get into: Fugazi, Pavement, The Breeders, the Loud Family, Sugar, Mudhoney, the Posies, Liz Phair, Sleater-Kinny. Those were my favorites. I didn’t think of Mudhoney as grunge, but rather punk.

When I met Jen Grover in the very early 00’s, I told her all of this. Around that time she was a moderator for SOMMS, the original Soundgarden online fan list, and had the now defunct Unofficial Ben Shepherd Website. She urged me to give Soundgarden another chance, and after thinking about it a bit, I did. And I liked what I heard. They were more punky than I realized, and after hearing Seasons, I realized Chris could be folk. Euphoria Morning proved that even more, and that sealed the deal. Eventually I got into more grunge, and as for alt, a new way of looking at it.

My favorite Soundgarden song is the one I first heard, and at the time of its release somewhat tolerated, as I liked the ruefulness of it--Outshined. By default, Badmotorfinger was my favorite Soundgarden album. The others are great too, but BMF was my first.

I hope everyone takes this tribute the right way, and not as a snide slam. My journey to the band was roundabout, but eventually I made it home. I came to realize how much of that music really was honest and why it meant so much to so many people. Long live Chris,long live Soundgarden, and, yes, alt.

Andrea Weiss

Friday, May 19, 2017

Hearing And Seeing Is Believing: An Interview With Amanda Thompson

Amanda Thompson leads the UK band The Big Believe, a band I got into through the song Let’s Pretend We’re Spies. I was a huge fan of Let’s Active, and when the late Faye Hunter worked with The Big Believe, I was hooked. Illuminate, their latest album, is very good. If you are a fan of college rock and bands that have their roots in that genre, like the New Pornographers, you’ll love The Big Believe.

Andrea Weiss: Let’s Active is such a cool and unjustly forgotten band. How did you find out about them?

Amanda Thompson: I agree. My boyfriend Keith used to own a second hand record shop and would often bring albums 'round that he thought I'd like. It must have been about 1988 when he stuck Big Plans For Everybody on my turntable and it changed my life. I was instantly a fan, and found LP's of everything else they'd released, and never stopped listening to them.

AW: And combining that style with that of the New Pornographers is great. How did you get into them?

AT: Thank you, although I don't do that intentionally, but I guess snippets of those bands' influence are bound to seep through. Keith was to thank for this discovery too. He would play anything that MOJO magazine had given four or five stars to-- stream it, I mean. Shortly after Twin Cinema was released, he stuck it on. The title track blew me away. The rest of the album was less instant, but I fell in complete love with it gradually, often the best way. As with Let's Active, I then got my hands on everything else they'd released and went to every UK show they played. Funnily enough, I remember thinking, "I have never liked a band this much since Let's Active".

AW: I like your lyrics. Where do you get your ideas for them?

AT: Thanks again. I have one rule: never write about yourself! I hate "I feel this, I feel that", "this happened to me, he hurt me", etc. As I'm sure all songwriters do, I make notes in my phone whenever anything inspires me. That could be a scene in a film, a vibe from a book, something someone said, or simply stuff that happens out there! I remember my guitarist friend Simon Ruckes saying to me, "Paint a picture in people's heads". That was partly why I used lines like "all the little bugs 'round the street light" and "our hands behind our heads as we watch the stars", because everyone can picture those images. I like the science of things. There's a new track in early stages called The Motorway Effect, which is how if one person brakes on the motorway it has a knock on effect for miles and hours on everybody else on the same road. I like relating that to how our actions as humans affect things and we have to take responsibility for that. It's OK to sneak personal stuff into the lyrics, as long as it's disguised.

AW: Besides Let’s Active and TNP, who are your influences?

AT: I could write a very long list answer to that, but will condense it down to Led Zeppelin (there is no other rock band to touch them, they are so interesting, and anyway, so much more than rock), Arthur Lee and Love, early R.E.M., John Cale.

AW: How did your band form?

AT: I was always in other people's bands, co-writing, up until about 2006, when I started writing songs I actually liked! So I recorded them, stuck them on the internet as a kind of "fake band". People seemed to like it, so I gathered musicians together to play that music live, and that became the band Ozone Baby, which later became The Big Believe.

AW: Would you want to tour the US?

AT: Yes, that is something that would seem appropriate, as we have more fans there than here! There have been a couple of times where that has been on the horizon and then fallen through for logistical reasons. Never say never, though.

AW: You worked with the late Faye Hunter of Let’s Active fame on Let’s Pretend We’re Spies. What was that like, working with her?

AT: It was delightful and so easy. I should mention that we sadly never met in person. She wanted me to go over to Mitch Easter's studio when she was recording the vocals for Spies, and I did too, but Mitch's free studio time came suddenly and I couldn't get a visa in time. Faye learned the song in an instant and nailed it without many takes in the studio. She was full of enthusiasm and praise, and humble throughout. I was incredibly excited about the whole thing, and so grateful for her interest and the time she gave it. Still am.

AW: You also worked with Todd Fancey of the New Pornographers. How did that come about?

AT: I believe it came about because of cigarettes and the smoking ban, i.e. one time I was in Bristol to see The New Pornographers play an unlikely venue that was pretty much a huge church hall. Afterwards I went out the back for a cigarette, and so did one of the band members. We ended up having a smoke and a chat together, later joined by other members of the band. Eventually I let it pop out that I was in a band and they asked for a link to the music. I was excited again when they liked the material and passed the link around. Guitarist Todd got in touch, saying he was into the material, and an online friendship followed where we discussed my stuff and his solo stuff a lot. In the end I popped the question, "Would you like to do a solo on one of our tracks?" and he said, "Sure".

AW: Is there anyone else you’d want to work with?

AT: Well, yes and no. After Todd had collaborated and Faye had agreed to, the idea was to make a whole album of collaborations, yet I couldn't help feeling that after working with members of my two favourite bands, that anything else was a step downwards. Also, Todd and Faye were such sweet people, we never had talk of contracts or money, and they were so easy to work with, I had a feeling the other people I had in mind would maybe be less accommodating. Having said that, I wouldn't have turned down working with Arthur Lee in an ideal world!

Andrea Weiss

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Big Believe

The Big Believe

Amanda Thompson leads this wonderful UK band, who sound like equal parts Let's Active and The New Pornographers, but with enough of themselves thrown in to make the music, and the lyrics, their own. Their influences are just a starting point.

They write quirky lyrics about relationships, much like Mitch Easter, leader of the now defunct Let's Active, would write, not to mention the late, great Faye Hunter, who collaborated with the Big Believe on the wonderful song Let’s Pretend We’re Spies. Faye was the bass player in the first lineup of Let's Active, and was a mainstay of the Hoboken, NJ music scene, as well. The Big Believe's skewed take on relationships makes them sound refreshing, and there is no irony in the quirkiness.

In general, it is downright refreshing to hear a band update 80s college rock, rather than ape the 70s or 90s. For that alone, I strongly recommend Illuminate, and check out Let's Active, as well. Both bands will delight you to no end.
Andrea Weiss

Monday, May 1, 2017


Waxahatchee/The New Pornographers
Union Transfer
Philadelphia, PA, 4-27-17

I’d never been to Union Transfer, but I’d heard nothing but good things about it. Since I love The New Pornographers' new record so much, the time was ripe to go.

It’s a great place: clean, comfortable, neat. I need handicapped seating, as i can’t stand for long periods of time anymore, and the staff provided me with a chair, with excellent sight lines. I had a nice conversation with a woman with a similar condition sitting next to me.

Waxahatchee is Katie Crutchfield, joined by a bass player. I have her last two albums and really like them. Katie didn’t disappoint with her noisy, electric folk/rock and good lyrics, and sang very winningly. A perfect opening act.

TNP also didn’t disappoint. I’d wondered how they’d sound live, and how slick. As great as Whiteout Conditions is, it’s also the closest to the mainstream, at least the AAA radio mainstream, which has embraced the single High Ticket Attractions.

With the addition of new member Simi, who plays the violin very well, the band is now a seven piece, with Carl Newman and Todd Fancey on guitars, Blaine Thurier and Kathryn Calder on  keyboards, John Collins on bass, Joe Seiders on drums, and Neko Case on percussion. Carl, Neko, Kathryn, and Simi sing four-part harmony. And wow, what harmonies! Just terrific. Blaine Thurier played harmonica on one song, and Kathryn played accordion. I loved everything they played. The energy didn’t let up for a moment. High spirited fun all around.

They played songs from every album, even one of Dan Bejar’s, Testament To Youth In Verse, though he is on hiatus from TNP. Neko, who was really someone to behold, put the crowd under her spell, with her sparkly blouse causing Carl to remark at one point that it was reflecting off the walls of the bar. During the encore they were funny as anything. Somehow Neko’s and Carl’s banter evolved from Neko saying they reminded her of Donnie and Marie Osmond on their TV show, to Neko joking that she lost her virginity to Carl after 46 years.

It was a good night all around, a band I’m so glad I finally got to see, and a club that I’ll be going  back to.

Andrea Weiss


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