All Around Records

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

 When I heard Incognito was going to be released, I could hardly wait. Zibaldone, their previous one, had been excellent, folky/rocky college rock, a style of music I love and am glad to reconnect with via their label, Big Stir. Anyone who loves this kind of music should check it out.

Christina Bulbenko and Rex Broome, who lead the band, and started Big Stir, answered a few questions for me about Incognito.

Andrea Weiss: How did Incognito come about?

Christina: We like to think of it as the antithesis of a “pandemic record,” but there's no way around the fact that the crisis is the reason why it exists! Throughout last year, Rex and I were trying to figure out how to run Big Stir Records while the world broke down. We were honored and grateful to be busy, but we also needed a creative outlet, and The Armoires are usually a band that lives to play onstage. We couldn't record with the whole band – that had been the plan – so the two of us started doing different types of songs and learning how to produce ourselves. Suddenly it was fun and we were in an experimental mode. Gradually we folded other people in remotely and a new kind of record started to take on a life of its own.

Rex: With all the different types of albums and singles BSR was releasing as so much happened in the world and our culture last year, even the label was in an experimental mode. So we hit on the idea of releasing our own songs under fake band names into that flow. It seemed like a fundamentally absurd idea for absurd times, and the more details and clues we put into it, the sillier and crazier it seemed. We figured, "in for a penny, in for a pound," and played a very long game. The album is both a diary of that and of our growth as a band while we tried on all of these different disguises.

AW: What were your influences for this album?

Rex: I'm really glad you asked, because one part of the “undercover” nature of the different singles was that we felt free to really, really wear the influences on our sleeves! Aside from the covers, we either quoted or doubled down on chasing the sounds of some of the bands we adore. There are little bits of Fleetwood Mac and Peter Gabriel tunes hidden in there, and we didn't try to hide the places where we were channeling The Go-Betweens, X, Gang of Four and Dylan (at the same time!), glam-era Bowie, Blondie, Mitch Easter-produced R.E.M., The Fall and many others. We were literally going for recordings that could fit onto albums by those bands, just with our own harmony sounds over the top.

Christina: I hit on the idea early on that whatever the songs sounded like individually, they added up to our version of Tusk – a melodic pop band creating an experimental sprawl that still sounds all of one piece.

Rex: And that worked! To me that patchwork of references that still sounds like one band also made it kind of our Lolita Nation. I love and miss Scott Miller so much and listening to the whole record, I like to think he would have heard it and said, “I get what you're doing here.”

AW: I think your cover of XTC's "Senses Working Overtime" is as good as the original, and I prefer your version of John Cale's "Paris 1919." Why did you choose these two songs to cover?

Christina: Most of the covers were outside assignments destined for tribute compilations – in fact the XTC one was supposed to be on Futureman Records' XTC tribute last year, but the band was too busy touring to get it done in time! I had always wanted to record “Senses,” for literally decades, so I wasn't going to let it go, and quarantine provided an excuse to finish it anyway. It's a challenging song, which, like a lot of XTC tunes, has more going on than you realize... a tough nut to crack, and it took lots of guests, including Karen Basset (Pandoras) on drums, Julian Moss from Charms Against The Evil Eye on bass, Dolph Chaney on guitar and vocals, Blake Jones on vocals, and Peter Watts of Spygenius mixing it and adding genuinely British asides. But we got it there!

Rex: I'm a huge John Cale fan and Christina and I always wanted to do a sort of Guided By Voices kind of version of that song, simple as that. The Incognito sessions were sort of a “bucket list” affair. Lots of stuff we had long wanted to do, but never found the right context.

AW: “Homebound” and other songs feature topical lyrics. Do you think these songs lend themselves to this approach, with everything that's going on the US these days?

Christina: What's odd is that aside from “Homebound” and one of the hidden tracks, none of the lyrics were written during the pandemic. All of the originals were older songs that we'd never had the time to record before now, or they never fit whatever record we were working on. On this record we were really concentrating on performance and production; almost every song was already written, by us or someone else. We looked to serve the songs as best we could.

Rex: A few of the older songs that we picked felt eerily “now,” though! “Walking Distance” was written a long time ago, about an imagined post-apocalyptic future that turned out sort of boring, and the need to keep your moral compass in difficult times when everyone's out for themselves. That was 2020 as we experienced it, in a lot of ways! I'd say we picked quite a few, like “Jackrabbit Protector,” “Awkward City Limits,” and “Magenta Moon,” that were about how crucial empathy and thinking beyond yourself are. “I Say We Take Off And Nuke The Site From Orbit” is a cautionary tale about egos out of control on social media; it was written pre-Trump, pre-QAnon, but “uninformed and unaware” seemed just right.

AW: I hear college rock, folk/rock, and country on these songs, which is great. Did this just come about naturally?

Rex: To me, The Armoires belong on the college rock airwaves from the '80s, which was such a great time to discover a whole range of music. So it's really good to hear that – I'm generally happier when we get compared to The Go-Betweens or The dB's than some of the obvious '60s influences. I miss that era the very most. It's peak rock and roll to me, the diversity and the quality of the writing.

Christina: I've always loved the country songs we'd written, but Rex has always been a little shy about putting that foot forward, I think because he grew up with his dad being in a country band in West Virginia, but here we made peace with that and his dad even does a guest vocal! And my daughter Larysa's other band, they're a real-deal bluegrass group, and they backed us on “Bagfoot Run.” Honestly, we both always worried that the male-female Americana duo was a bit of a cliché, but again, these sessions were our chance to try on different costumes, so we went for it on several of the songs... and we're glad we did!

AW: There are a lot of guests on this album, which is fun. Did making the album seem like a party at times?

Christina: A socially distant party, maybe! But actually, it was less like that than our previous album, Zibaldone, where we had a lot of guests, too, but they were all in it together. On Incognito, since we did the tracks two at a time as the singles were released, it was more like having people crash on our couch for a weekend, one or two at a time. Except we were almost never in the same room with them!

Rex: I think a lot of people have been moving towards remote collaboration for years, and the pandemic just sped up the process. The deeper we got into the “fake bands” idea, the more we viewed it as a casting call for each band we made up, hahaha! Like, “Paris 1919” needs arty e-bow and cheerily ghostly backing vocals – Dolph Chaney, and The Corner Laughers! This one needs angular post-punk guitar leads, so let's call Jon Melkerson. Big glam-rock leads? Chris Church! I think everyone had fun being in on the secret.

AW: These are all singles, and any one of them could be a popular, mainstream hit. They are that good. Is it frustrating that this type of music isn't getting more exposure?

Christina: Of course, and that applies to literally everything we put out on the label. If you just look at the stuff we put out just this year, The Stan Laurels and Dolph Chaney and Chris Church records, it's so accessible and well-crafted and passionately performed, we can't imagine people not loving them. It's our mission to get them to more ears. It's definitely a challenge from the business perspective, but we also need to let listeners know that this kind of stuff is out there, and not just on reissues! It's not that hard to find, you just have to be open to it.

AW: If someone were going to start their own label, what advice would you give?

Rex: Assuming they think Big Stir Records is a good role model, we'd say... first of all, you have to find a way to make passion and patience co-exist! And while you need to respect yourself and your artists enough to take the business side very seriously, and take on every last new skill you need, you also can't follow any rulebook to the letter. You'll need to be ready to respond to anything that might happen (like last year) and experiment and try new things. You can be as creative with the business side of things as the artists are with the music. Be prepared to reinvent a wheel or two!

 The Armoires


Big Stir Records

Most of these songs were written before the pandemic, and recorded during it, pulling in almost everyone on Big Stir to help record it remotely. They're theoretical singles, a college rock throwback, that in a better world would be as popular as any college rock band of the 80s.

For example, their cover of XTC's "Senses Working Overtime" is as good as the original, and shows what college rock could've become if grunge (itself a type of college rock) hadn't accidentally replaced it. As good as the original is, I much prefer their cover of John Cale's "Paris 1919, as it's faster.

Original songs like "Awkward City Limits," with its down and dirty violin playing, also make the grade. This band is folk/rock, country/rock, and straight up rock, blending many different styles of music together into a seamless whole, one of many things college rock did best.

So if you're curious about what college rock was like, or if you like, say, R.E.M., Game Theory, and XTC and want to hear more, this album is a must-hear. You'll hear a type of music that was for a while, and still should be, very important; a type of music that never really went away; a new type of underground that should be a lot more aboveground.

Andrea Weiss

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

 When I first heard Game Dirt, my introduction to Chris Church, I thought of Neil Young right away. Chris' music makes me think about Young in a new way, while being rewarding in its own ways. Big Stir Records should be commended for continuing to put out albums that push the boundaries of power pop in all directions.

My thanks to Chris for answering a few questions about the album for me.

Andrea Weiss: How did you get your start in music, and where has that path led you?

Chris Church: I guess I'd have to answer that by saying I got into making my own music after playing with a hard rock covers band at age 17 and 18 gave me the bug to start writing my own songs. At that point, my late, great brother Mike, with whom I'd already been jamming, recorded some of my earliest songs together in a North Carolina studio owned by beach music legend Harry Deal (of The Galaxies, who engineered the session -- and no, of course he didn't quite understand us) and then looked into starting our own band. We started several over the years, and I've played and recorded a lot since those days. There's really been no "path" other than simply continuing to create what I want when I can, either by myself, or with the talented musician friends I'm fortunate to know.

AW: Who are your influences?

CC: To name a few, I'll go with Todd Rundgren, Big Star, Zappa, Zeppelin, Dylan, Julian Cope, The Who, Teenage Fanclub, Rush, Hall & Oates, The Church, CSNY... and that's more than a few, so... ok, even though I could keep going for a while, I'll stop there.

AW: I hear a lot of Old 97's in your music, which is great. Are you influenced by them?

CC: Not really, but I love and am probably somewhat influenced by some artists I'd say are similar, like Drive By Truckers and Ryan Adams, plus the country rock aspects of the Stones and Faces, which I love and have listened to a lot. I actually love quite a few of the perhaps out of character county-ish songs by artists like Elvis Costello, Lloyd Cole, Nick Lowe and Squeeze a lot, as well. The European interpretation of country music can often be wonderful.

AW: And would you say the same about Neil Young?

CC: Well, I mentioned CSNY earlier, but Neil Young is one of my most important influences, not just because of his brilliant songs and the often thrilling and ragged in-the-moment aspects of his albums, which Rex Broome of Big Stir correctly identifies as "the spook." It's also because of the fact that he is a true artist who completely follows his own instincts with little regard for any expectations. He's a true inspiration for me in that way.

AW: Your lyrics deal a lot in relationships, which I like. Do you find it easy or hard to write about them?

CC: I do write about relationships, but I think it's kinda rare that I write in an "on the nose" type of way. From my perspective, I'd say most of the lyrics of my songs are a bit obscure, and geared towards letting whoever is listening figure it out for themselves. There are exceptions, and it usually depends on what sort of genre the music I'm working in dictates.

AW: "Learn" sounds almost rockabilly, and seems to be about growing up. Would you say that's the case?

CC:Yes. I wrote that song first thing in the morning awhile back. It was done pretty quickly. I can't remember what I was dreaming about, but it was definitely a retro feeling and approach.

AW: How did you come to self-produce and be a one man band on Game Dirt?

CC: I've done that before, and just felt it was time to do it again. My silly muse convinced me that this batch of songs just seemed to require it. I recorded drums first, while humming the song in my head, and then put everything else down. I'm not a good drummer, and there's obviously no click track, so I guess you could say that sometimes I like a challenge.

AW: What advice would you give someone first starting out in music?

CC: I would never venture to do that at all. If someone asked me directly, I'd give roughly the same advice I've given to the few people who ever seemed to really want direction of any kind from me, "Do whatever you want as long as you're not hurting anyone." It's up to them to consider themselves and our ears at that point.

 Chris Church

Game Dirt

Big Stir

This creative, original power pop take on Neil Young, with some CSNY and Drive By Truckers in the mix too, takes all three to new places, especially Neil and CSNY. This is impure power pop, and all the better for it. 

The lyrics, about the nuances of relationships, are direct and plainspoken, and very emotional at times. "Trying," for instance, is about a complicated relationship, but one that works out. "Smile" and "Sunrise" are just about how good life can be. 

This album is the indie side of Americana, and wouldn't it be wonderful if it got to be at least as popular as the Truckers, or perhaps the Old 97s? Or maybe Neil himself? That's how great this album is, and well worth the time to listen, so open your ears to a new sound.

Andrea Weiss

Friday, February 26, 2021

 Rich Arithmetic


Kool Kat Musik

This album, first in a long time by Arithmetic, is beholden to a lot of 60s pop, largely the Beatles, with trippy lyrics about love and life.

Some of the songs, like “A Girl's Reply,” featuring Diane Leigh, and “One Thing,” featuring Maura Kennedy of Pete and Maura Kennedy fame, sound like a punky take on the Jefferson Airplane. I like the way this album updates their sound.

So if you want some good pop that updates older sounds, this is an album to get. Light, but not lightweight, it goes down easy, while still having an edge.

Andrea Weiss

Thursday, February 25, 2021

 When I heard Petrified Max, I was hooked immediately, but didn't realize Vitus and John, who are interviewed here, were in The Last and Trotsky Icepick, two bands that I'd heard and liked. But it had been awhile since I heard either. The Last's album Look Away, recorded in 1980, but not released until last year, is great. If you are a fan of these two bands, check out Petrified Max.

Andrea Weiss: Please give us a short history of the band.

John Rosewall: Vitus and I have been in bands together for almost forty years, beginning with The Last and moving on to Trotsky Icepick in the eighties and early nineties. We reconnected musically about three years ago and without much forethought decided to start recording tunes that we each had lying around. Drummer Danny Frankel is also an old friend; he recorded at Vitus’ studio in the eighties with Carmaig de Forest and has always kept in touch. After a few months of intermittent recording, we realized we had a coherent batch of material, and just about the time we were completing our first album, Charlie Drove North, the pandemic hit. With no live shows to distract us, we kept writing and recording and were able to put together our new album, Year Gone By, in a few months. And that’s where we are now.

Vitus Mataré: There’s a series of locally active L.A. garage bands in our past. The Last began playing incessant live shows in 1976, but did not tour nationally until a decade later, at which time John and I had moved on to Trotsky Icepick.

AW: Who are your influences?

John: They’re all over the map. Sixties garage rock, the British invasion, and psychedelia are always there and are foundational for me. I spent my adolescence listening to what we now call “Classic Rock” before slowly working my way into pub and punk rock. Later, at the same time that post-punk was happening, I was also listening to country music and acoustic blues. It all finds a way into the music at different times, sometimes quite intentionally. “Quentin’s Stroll” on the new album is a very conscious take on surf music, for instance.

Vitus: I find inspiration in unique chord structures, and just about any style of music can be of interest.

AW: Your music reminds me of Dream Syndicate. Are they an influence?

John: I’d say instead that we obviously share influences with them, and other bands of that scene, which might account for any similarities that you’re hearing. Dream Syndicate were one of the bands that came up in Los Angeles while Vitus and I were both in The Last, and we shared bills with them and other Paisley Underground bands.

Vitus: Always loved Steve Wynn’s music. We met when he was still with The Suspects and tried out as guitarist for The Last. A few years later I produced a handful of Dream Syndicate recordings that are still popping up here and there.

AW: I also hear a bit of Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth in your guitar playing. Am I on track there?

John: I love Sonic Youth and Ranaldo’s playing, but I wouldn’t call him an influence. In terms of my guitar work, the influences range from the usual Sixties guitar heroes to the original blues guitarists that those British players were ripping off. But I’ll lean on anyone depending on what’s right for a particular song, whether it’s Buddy Guy or Pete Townshend.

Vitus: Love Sonic Youth. I believe I hear bits of Danny Kirwan and Peter Green in our newer recordings.

AW: Your lyrics are very psychedelic, which I like. Where do you get your ideas for them?

John: Vitus writes most of the lyrics, but when I do write words, the lyrics are mostly free-associative and start with a random line or two, something that pops into my head, seems to have some interesting associations, and sits comfortably into the tune. An exception would be “The Days,” which was a conscious attempt to write about the pandemic.

Vitus: My lyrics are based on common, real life experiences that in my mind became cinematic.

AW: There seems to be a lot of jamming in your music, and that's cool. Does your music lend itself to that?

John: The songs are actually very tightly composed, but on the new album, I did add a lot of improvised guitar. That was just a function of the songs and what they seemed to need. The kind of jamming that a “jam band” does isn’t an interest of ours, but I think we both like the coloration that a lead guitar can bring when it weaves in and out of a song and interacts with the other elements, particularly, of course, the vocal.

Vitus: The jamming occurs when the initial chords collide and countermelodies spring forth. There are little improvised flourishes when we play live and record, but the presentation was usually tightly constructed in advance.

AW: “Year Gone By” seems to be about LA. Is that the case?

Vitus: That song has more to do with our local experience during the pandemic with the unfortunate politics of 2020, and it sets the tone for the album, as do “Sipping The Moon” and “The Days."

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AW: What advice would you give to someone just starting out in music?

VitusThe banjo is an underrated addition to any song.

 Petrified Max

Year Gone By


John Rosewall and Vitus Mataré, formerly of The Last and Trotsky Icepick, have a new band, Petrified Max. Their psychedelic lyrics are mostly about common life experiences, and while the guitar playing is somewhat improvised, the music is tightly constructed in every other way.

“The Days” and “Year Gone By” are about the pandemic, and are fine examples of their sound, which is really good, nicely psychedelic, and great to listen to while walking.

I was really glad that the band contacted me about this album, and I thank them for it. It's a real find, and bears repeated listening, as there's always something new to notice. That makes the album extra fun.

Andrea Weiss


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