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
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,
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
AW: Would you want to tour the
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,
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!
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.
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
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 onkeyboards, 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.