Wednesday, July 22, 2020

I first heard the Brothers Steve on Big Stir Singles: The Third Wave, and liked their contributions "Angeline" and "Carolanne" a lot.

Then I heard their debut LP, #1, and found out  that some of them had been a band called Tsar. I had heard one of Tsar's songs on the radio, “Kathy Fong Is The Bomb,” about a woman who starts teenage riots. It was a lot of fun to hear, as is the album.

The Brothers Steve are equally fun. Fans of Cheap Trick would like them, too. 

Vocalist/guitarist Jeff Whalen and vocalist Os Tyler were kind enough to answer my questions.

Andrea Weiss: How did the band form?

Jeff Whalen: We all went to UC Santa Barbara together, and back then, you’d just form a band in the afternoon and then play a backyard party that night. That’s just how it was done. We’d been in any number of groups formed this way, made up of any number of combinations of our members. And by “members,” I mean us as people.

And we’ve kind of been playing together ever since. After college, me and Jeff Solomon and Coulter were in Tsar together; Dylan Champion is a close co-voyager of life and musical collaborator of mine; and Os and I have been writing songs together pretty much this whole time. So when we got asked to play a party, we fairly jumped at the chance, and then we had such a good time rehearsing and playing, we decided to record an album.

AW: What are your influences?

JW: I dunno! I’d say Monkees, Wings, Guided By Voices, Nilsson, MC5, a little Blue Oyster Cult, maybe?

Os Tyler: And not enough can be said about TV advertisement jingles, especially ads that were meant to play between Saturday morning cartoons. And Saturday morning cartoons! Pop culture in general. There’s a lot of crossover between visual input and musical output, if you ask me. The spinning and winning, the ducking and diving, the whole cultural cacophony swirls around and contributes to any artist endeavor--if music is that, and perhaps it is. A great deal of influence is what gets sent your way throughout the day: thunderous bass trap music coming from the car next to you, the soundtrack playing at the supermarket while you’re shopping, listening to Tears for Fears for the two hundredth time while you’re searching the shelves for crackers. I primarily listen to Classical music whenever I have the opportunity to pick the music I’m listening to, specifically because it doesn’t feel like an influence. It doesn’t compete with the songs in my head.

Oh, and lately I’ve been thinking about the Traveling Wilburys a bit.

AW: I’ve heard Tsar. Good band. How do you feel The Brothers Steve differs from them?

JW: Thank you! I’d say they share some significant turf, but that the Brothers Steve has more of a 60s thing? Meets a 90s thing? Tsar has more of a neon city racetrack kind of vibe, more of an ELO meets Generation X meets T. Rex type situation.

AW: A lot of your songs seem to be anthems. Did the songs just lend themselves to that?

JW: Sure! None of that is particularly intentional.

AW: Even the sad songs sound happy, which I like. Do you prefer one to the other?

OT: The Brothers Steve has a thread of vocal harmony running throughout, and I may be wrong, but I like to think that the human vocal melodies intertwining in harmony is something that adds to the sad songs sounding somewhat happy. I prefer happy songs, but there’s a tendency to write slower, sadder songs if I write alone. One of the benefits of writing songs together is they automatically tend to be more upbeat.

JW: I think I prefer happy songs overall, but rock and roll also needs that option of being devastating, or soul-baring, or soul-asundering, or whatever, if it needs to be. I don’t think it needs to be that way all the time, but it has to have that potentiality a-lurkin’.

AW: Guitar pop has changed so much since Tsar. Do you think the changes have been good or bad?

JW: Well, there’s lots of ways to look at it, but I’m gonna say that I think overall it’s better? I’m hopeful, anyway! I feel like anything could happen.

AW: Do you see yourselves as carrying guitar pop forward?

JW: Sure. Or backward. Or just ever-so-slightly to one side. I want to see what this band can do. I admire these guys so much and enjoy making music with them so much that I’m not really sure what the limit would be if we took the Brothers Steve out of its box and really let it bounce around the room.

OT: The evolution of music is such a beautifully cyclical thing. All these patterns weaving in and out, intertwining with technological momentum. There are plenty of tracks you hear every day that don’t have a single stringed instrument on them. But it ebbs and flows. And yeah, we’re waving the banner of guitar pop.

AW: What advice would you give a musician just starting out?

OT: Here’s some advice I’m giving myself: Do what you love. Every day. You could try to work real hard and get rich so you have enough time to make music and have fun, but time moves fast like a dream you can’t quite remember. Every minute you’re streaming something or thumbing through social media is a minute that you aren’t really enjoying. Don’t give that time away and don’t let them steal it from you.

JW: Rehearse. Try hard and have a good time. Do things that make you happy you did them. Your work is the only thing you have in life--the only thing you can rely on, the only thing that will last forever--so focus on the work. You want to be able to look back and say “Fuck yeah, brah.”

Andrea Weiss

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Brothers Steve
Big Stir Records

What I like about this record is its really poppy take on Cheap Trick, as it’s very charming and appealing. Good harmonies, smart lyrics, and the energy of these songs never flags.

Every track has something recommend it, but the standouts are “Carry Me,” the single, about what the main character wants to have happen with his girlfriend, and the sarcastic “Beat Generation Poet Turned Assassin,” which takes aim not just at the poet, but gossip.

Vocalist/guitarist Jeff Whalen, drummer Steve Coulter, and bassist Jeff Solomon were in Tsar, a very good power pop band who never quite got their due, and #1 is as good as anything they recorded.  They are joined here by their former bandmates from their UC Santa Barbara days,  Os Tyler on vocals and Dylan Champion on guitar and vocals. This album is pure summer fun, and well worth picking up to have some good times in the sun.

Andrea Weiss

Monday, July 13, 2020

Mike's interview

I first heard Mike Tittel’s work with the Loud Family, but also with New Sincerity Works, his post Loud Family band. New Sincerity Works is a really good, somewhat prog, indie rock band, and like Tittel’s solo album, Sleeping In, well worth checking out.

Mike was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

Andrea Weiss: The sound of this album seems, to me, a lot like The Loud Family’s Interbabe Concern, which is great. How much of the sound is influenced by Scott Miller?

Mike Tittel: That is so interesting to me. (I’d love to know what you hear that is LF-esque!) To be honest I always thought Scott’s influence on me was not tied to the way my songs sound or how I write. Of course I loved Scott and his music, but for me he was a force of creativity and always stood for individualism and reminding me that you can only be who you are, and that if you do it with conviction there will be people who relate to what you are doing. But I never set out to write a song like his. His influence on me was more of a creative spirituality or philosophy I think.

Perhaps one thing you are picking up on is the way this record sounds or was produced? Interbabe is kind of a un-hyped up natural sounding recording that balances a lot of acoustic guitar with electronics. And that is certainly the recipe for Sleeping In: keeping things organic and real, but using a blend of acoustic, synth, piano, and treated electric guitars. But I never thought of a LF connection!
I haven’t been able to listen to Scott’s music since he died. It’s still a bit too sad for me to hear it and I felt like I needed to “move on.” But certainly he lives on in me. I do often think after I’ve made a record that “Scott would have enjoyed hearing this.”

Funnily enough this is the second review of this record where someone connected this work to Scott Miller. And thinking of it further I do orchestrate my New Sincerity Works band to have three guitars, synths, etc., so I guess I am in the same genre of wanting a huge rocking sound in that context of a band. So perhaps he’s influenced me in ways I never thought of. Thanks for asking that.

AW: Lyrically, I hear Scott, too, which is wonderful. How much are the lyrics influenced by him?

MT: I could never do what Scott does with lyrics. He, to me, is an abstract painter and I am probably more a romantic. lol. Like him, I do try to skirt the line of being literal and understood, balanced with enough ambiguity for people to build their own meaning and intrigue. But I think I want more to be understood than Scott did. I am much more direct. Less poetic perhaps. Scott was more ambiguous and listeners of his music really have to dive in to make connections or mine out meaning. I don’t think I’m nearly as sophisticated?

AW: Did anyone else influence this album?

MT: Hmmm. I’ve been listening to a lot of non-rock music over the past few years. Artists like Joe Henry, Townes Van Zandt, Nick Drake, Erin Rae, Aimee Mann, and diving back into a lot of really old country music. I would never aspire to write country songs, but what I do like is the immediacy and approach that all that kind of music had before the 1960s. I wanted this record to be sparse and immediate, not overblown or over-produced. At one point I had the idea of making a record with a single acoustic guitar on it, but I chickened out. I am getting confident enough to think I could pull that off but, I felt I wasn't quite there with my voice to do that. All to say as I recorded the record I began to add instrumentation to things. But I did try to limit the amount of fussiness. I recorded everything pretty quickly and aside from using a click track on most of it I didn't do much correction or editing. I pretty much stuck to old school analog recording techniques. I will say there are also a couple artists that always bring it back for me to what its all about. Neil Finn is one of those for me. From the way his records sound to his constant reinvention, I’d say he is a big influence on how I want music to be presented.

AW: I like that New Sincerity Works sounds so different. Was there a conscious effort to sound different on this album?

MT: I was quite worried about doing a solo record, because I didn't want to confuse people. The NSW records are a lot of me, as well, as I play most of the instruments and then have certain guitar parts or bass parts added by the band. At worst, I thought if I kept Sleeping In more acoustic-leaning the two brands would feel different and not just be a weird duplication of approaches. But I think the songs ended up being maybe more introspective and more mellow on Sleeping In, which in the end I think is a good use for an outlet such as a “solo record.” So to answer your question, I don't think it was a conscious effort, but I am glad they sound different. With this solo record I was probably less worried about the quality of the songs or if people would like them. Even when sequencing the record I was aware that perhaps that record was lacking some monster grooves or some driving rock. And I was okay with that.

AW: Is there another New Sincerity Works in the works?

MT: Yes. Strangely enough its been complete for two years. In fact I wrote Sleeping In immediately after I finished recording the fourth NSW record. (It will be released this fall.) We’ve been sitting on it because I upgraded my studio and wanted to mix it properly. Mike Landis, my NSW and Pretty Birds bandmate, is almost finished mixing it.

Because NSW was not ready to release, I got a bit stir crazy and had about twenty new songs that I really wanted to “document.” I have a strange fear that I will forget songs. LOL. Anyway last November I decided I’d just record a bunch of them and maybe put out a record.

These songs, by the way, were written in 2019 during the winter, where I tried this creative exercise of writing a song a day. I’d wake up super early and write at my kitchen table. I’d try to wrap a tune up after working for 2-3 hours. If it sucked it sucked. But I got a few that I thought were good, and those are what you hear on the record.

AW: With the pandemic making it hard to record a band in a studio, how was the album recorded?

MT: My studio is in my lower level of my house and is called Fruit Hill. I have done all my records there on various generations of gear and setup. This is really the first record I have recorded and mixed with really good gear. I spent a lot of effort and money to upgrade to something that is as professional as anyone really needs. Mike Landis and I share the studio. When he is there working I of course can’t use the studio, so I recorded most of the record during late night or early morning sessions. When the pandemic hit, the studio was totally unused. I am not, by any means, an engineer, but I know enough to be dangerous, so I decided instead of waiting for Mike or paying someone to mix it, I’d just do it myself. So March and April I hunkered down and learned how to mix. LOL. Mostly by watching YouTube video and calling Mike for tech support. It was harrowing and I struggled quite a bit, but overall I am happy with the results. I didn't want anything sounding too polished and pristine, so I think I junked it up enough to keep it in the realm of not overthinking it, and that is what I was seeking.

AW: If there are other musicians on the album, who are they?

MT: It is mostly me playing and singing everything. Lauren, my partner, who plays in NSW and Pretty Birds with me, sings on a few songs. And I had Bob and Greg from NSW play bass on a few songs. Bass is one thing that I haven't quite got the magic touch on. And the last song, “Birds of Murren,” has Eric Bates playing a violin part. Oh, and a pal that was in town over Christmas put a guitar part on “Own Your Own Dealings.”

But yeah its a one man band type record. That’s why I was able to crank it out and finish it in a just a few months. And the urgency was important to me. And it was the perfect time to be non-collaborative!

Andrea Weiss

Mike's Review

Mike Tittel
Sleeping In

Tittel is best known for his band New Sincerity Works, and as a drummer for the Loud Family, the late Scott Miller’s 90s band.

This album does resemble, in tone and form, the Loud Family’s third album Interbabe Concern, if a bit more mellow and folkish. It’s still the same straightforward, wonderful guitar rock, with lyrics about love and life. It's smart, literate, and fun.

The most Loud Family song on the album is “Kid Walking,” with its message of never giving up, and quirky musical touches. It’s great, as is the rest of the album, and well worth picking up.
Andrea Weiss

Thursday, July 2, 2020

I first heard Spygenius on Big Stir Singles: The Sixth Wave, and loved what I heard, a nice updating of college rock. It’s a genre that I love to this day, and I think it’s a shame that for all its popularity in the 80s and critical acclaim, it never had a game-changing hit album. Not even iconic bands like the Pixies managed that.

Man Of The Sea, Spygenius’s new album, features cover art wonderfully designed by Champniss, and is a literal trip--there is a treasure map of the journey one takes with it, with music and lyrics that will make you think in all directions.

The band was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

AW: How did the band form?

Spy: We got together in mid 2000s. We’d all been in different bands in and around South London. Matt (keyboards) and Peter (guitar, most lead vocals) had worked together, then after that Ruth (bass and some lead vocals) and Peter had been in a band. Meanwhile Matt had played with Alan (drums), and one by all the bands and musical projects that we’d been involved with separately folded for one reason or another, and loads of our contemporaries gave up playing music, but we weren’t ready to do that. So, in the beer garden of the Greyhound pub in Carshalton, Matt, Ruth, and Peter conspired to put Spygenius together. Our manifesto was to form a group that would write, perform and record original music of the sort that we’d like to hear, without really worrying about what was in favour with the world at the moment, for as long as we could get away with it, and just hope that we could find enough interested people to keep that going. We had a couple of false starts, bringing other old musician friends of ours into the fold, but when we finally persuaded Alan that he wanted to be our drummer, that’s when everything gelled and Spygenius proper began.

AW: What are your influences?

Spy: Wow, too many and various to name! Lots of 60s ‘B’ bands – Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, Bonzos… and there’s a good dose of late 70s new wave in there – Costello, Dury, Squeeze… and equally bits of college radio darlings of a later generation – the Soft Boys, XTC, REM… but then there’s loads of other stuff in the mix too – surf and psych, folk and exotica, lounge and blues, rock and roll… and we don’t all like the same things. Matt loves Queen, Alan loves Studio 54 disco, Ruth loves 60s soul and 70s cheese-pop, Peter adores the Seekers. Matt and Peter inherited a grounding in trad jazz from their parents. And there’s a no holds barred approach when we’re working on a song; we just pull anything out of the musical cupboard that seems right for the moment. Except XTC. Ruth hates XTC. They are forbidden. But we all love harmony singing. I think we slightly hanker for the days when artists were allowed to do that. It was their personalities rather than a particular style that defined what they did.

AW: College rock and jangle pop, as popular as they were in the 80s, are now more underground. How can you reach out to people who don’t know what they are and get them hooked?

Spy: Good question, but, ultimately, word of mouth, building networks, building communities one contact at a time and then putting in the effort to keep them alive. Then, once you’ve got a strong and vibrant creative community, well, that’s an attractive thing and people are going to want to find out about it. For us, getting invited to the International Pop Overthrow festivals was a real turning point, not just for the chance to play to a new and appreciative audience, but for the chance to see and get to know so many other like-minded musicians. And of course that was where we met Christina and Rex from Big Stir, and getting involved with them opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for us. But I think that focus on community building, that’s what it’s all about, and then even if you never get a huge audience, well, everyone involved has had a great time being creative and having other folks around to appreciate what they do.

AW: Or do you feel college rock and jangle pop are more popular and above-ground than ever?

Spy: Ah, no – it’s pretty much underground now. It’s just not what the major music channels are interested in, but that’s OK, it’s liberating not to have anything to live up to but your own expectations and musical aspirations. And there are so many underground outlets – blogs and radio shows – it’s a niche, but a lively one.

AW: Where do you see yourselves in this genre?

Spy: Off to one side of it! When Big Stir formed it sub-titled itself “Power Pop And More,” and we are definitely in the “and more” bracket. We’re pretty eclectic. We don’t play straight down the middle power pop or jangle pop, although there are elements of both in what we do. So I guess we’re happy fellow travelers, grateful that we’re able to tag along and be part of the extended family.

AW: I love the whimsy in your lyrics. Where do you get your ideas from?

Spy: So many places! Overheard conversations, misheard conversations, imaginary conversations, books and films and plays, cereal boxes, road signs, other people’s shopping lists, bad puns, memories of word-play comedy from days of yore, ill-advised games of Truth or Dare, late night Messenger conversations with Blake Jones, and Googling pictures of Deryck Guyler… there is actually a book available (the Spygenius Book of Forbidden Fruit Cocktails) with a lengthy and largely unintelligible explanation of the process of how many of our lyrics are written. As far as we’re aware no one has actually managed to read it from start to finish yet, but it also contains loads of lovely pictures by Champniss.

AW: The treasure map and the journey of the main character are great. Do they make this a concept album?

Spy: We pretended the last album was a concept album, except that on that one we invented a story to try to tie the songs together, so it was all the wrong way around. The text of the story came out very small on the cover though, making it really hard to read, so we thought we’d give our listeners a break this time. No real “concept” for this one, the map is more a guide to Spygeniusland, which could be a theme park, maybe, or a special island like Bali H’ai? “Man On The Sea” as a title was borrowed from a children’s book, and so the idea of a map of some sort just grew out of that. Anyway, the only way that we’re going to get into the charts nowadays is if we draw our own.

AW: Do you see yourselves as more college rock, more jangle pop, or equal parts both?

Spy: Well, as we’re musical magpies with a penchant for puns, how about we call ourselves Collage Rock?

AW: What do you think is the future of both types of music?

Andrea Weiss

Man On The Sea
Big Stir Records

While Spygenius isn't grunge, their delightful update of college rock, in a better world, would be as big as Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Every song has something to recommend it. The single, “CafĂ© Emery Hill,” is sunny pop. The dark “Don’t Blame It On Your Mother” is a put- down of those who blame everyone but themselves for their problems. "Spite" comes dancing out of the speakers, a slam at spite-filled people.

The album is also a guide to the band, and a treasure map is included to guide the listener. It's a great touch in an album full of them, and one of the most fun albums I’ve heard all year.

Andrea Weiss


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