Nine years ago, singer-songwriter-producer Nick Lowe told the New York Daily News that he didn't want to turn into a "tragic" aging rock star caricature, doing the same act he did as a young man. At age 67, Lowe's commitment to age gracefully is as revolutionary as the clever, melodic songs he wrote and artists he produced almost 40 years ago. A few hours before kicking off his current tour in Minneapolis, Lowe spoke about his current preference for songwriting over recording, his love of American music in the hands of British musicians, and how his work continues to evolve. He'll perform a solo acoustic set at The Pageant on Tuesday, October 18 with opener Josh Rouse.
Robin Wheeler: Aside from the Christmas albums it's been five years since The Old Magic came out. I'd like to catch up with what you've been doing creatively since then.
Nick Lowe: Rather disappointingly, not much. [laughs] I haven't exactly been idle. I suppose I'm not so driven to make records of my own at the moment. I'm still writing songs. I've started going to Nashville, for instance, and writing for other people. I've made a lot of records, and they all make a profit eventually. It's incredibly expensive to make the kind of records I make, with real musicians in a recording studio. That's why no one is doing that anymore. They're doing it all with computers -- and there are some great records made like that -- but I just don't know how to do that and I'm getting a bit too long in the tooth to learn how to do that. I'm much more interested in writing for other people and getting other, younger artists to record my songs. I might change my mind. I've got quite a good store of songs. I'm much fussier now than I used to be. I'm not as prolific now as I used to be. Or maybe I am but I'm much quicker to say, "Ah that's not good." I do have a few pretty good ones, so there might come a time when I change my mind.
RW: Who have you been working with?
NL: I arrived in Minneapolis the day before yesterday [October 9], and I met with a fantastic act of two brothers called The Cactus Blossoms who opened for me when I was touring with the Christmas album, backed up by Los Straitjackets. I came to town a bit early to see if we could write something before they left for Australia today.
RW: I've always been interested in how you came up as part of this group of British artists who, in the late '70s and early '80s, were making American music better than Americans were making it. What motivated you from the beginning to work with these strongly American influences, like early country and rockabilly, and what continues to motivate you?
NL: You mean that mysterious connection that Brits seem to have with American music [laughs]? It's something that comes from my mother. She was very musical. She taught me how to play the guitar, just two or three chords. She had a few really good records that most middle-class families had in the 1950s -- Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, show tunes. I played these records over and over again. In amongst them, I don't know why she had these records, but she had two records by Tennessee Ernie Ford. I'd never heard anything like that. Something happened when I heard that. I thought he was so fantastic, and still do. I never got over it.
When I got a little bit older we had this fellow in the UK called Lonnie Donegan who started skiffle. We didn't know it at the time but he was playing a lot of Leadbelly, so we were getting this lesson as well in how this stuff went. It was very easy music to play and you could get a groove going very, very easily without much talent. It was the best thing, really, that we had on the radio unless other American music was playing. The pop from England, aside from Lonnie Donegan, was really hopeless.
In my case my father with in the RAF [Royal Air Force] and I spent my youth abroad, wherever he was stationed. There was usually an Armed Forces Radio Network nearby, and you could pick it up. That's when I heard people with names like Howlin' Wolf and Ferlin Husky. I mean, what the hell is a Ferlin Husky? Howlin' Wolf? What does he look like? I just thought it was the most fantastic thing. I never got over it.
Nowadays, I know a bit more about it and how it works. As much as I still love American music, I love what happens to it when it goes across the Atlantic and we sort of mess with it. That's the way it should be. It's ridiculous for someone like me, someone who comes from the south of England, to try to sound like he's from Alabama and went to Nashville. Some people can do that, like The Shires. Good for them, but it's silly for me to do that.
RW: The last few times I've seen you, I've appreciated that you're not being a traveling greatest hits act. I know the changes you've made to "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" have been discussed, how you've taken the cynicism out of it and turned it into something very poignant. How did that come about?
NL: I did make up my mind at one point that, if I was going to have any longevity in this business, I was going to have to learn how to write songs -- this was quite a long time ago -- and I'm going to have to find a way to use the fact that I'm getting older as an actual advantage, instead of trying to disguise it. We all do that, no matter what walk of life we're in, but in music especially. I didn't want to just play to the same people, the people who, God bless them, discovered me when they were kids -- and when I was a kid -- and have stuck with it, and I'm still trying to behave like I'm a kid so they can relive their youth. There's plenty of people who do that, and I feel very sorry for them, but I really, really don't want to do that.
RW: When I see artists doing that, all I can think is that it must be exhausting.
NL: It's exhausting. That's quite right. And humiliating as well. I thought if I get this right, and sometimes I do and sometimes I don't, but if I can mostly get it right, I won't just play to my old fans. I'll be able to bring new people in, younger people who'll dig it and get a kick out of it. You won't see much stodgy old folk stuff. It'll be funny and entertaining. Really, that's how it's turned out to be. I get quite a few younger people, people in their late 20s, and they have a great time. They really enjoy it, alongside the older people. I've lost quite a lot of my old audience, because they're not rocking anymore, but I can cope with it.
RW: What can we expect to see from you in St. Louis?
NL: When I say I have to do some songs, I don't feel like there are nooses around my neck. I love some of these songs that are really well-known. Strangely, though, this touches on something you said earlier; sometimes I'll hear my old records, the original versions played on the radio, and I can't believe how much they've changed. It's not because I set out to change them. I suppose if you set out to play acoustic versions of them, you can't really copy what the full amp sounded like. But if the song's good, I think it can take that and people can still enjoy it.
At any rate, I play quite a few of the songs I'm known for, but also a lot of others, some that I haven't recorded but people seem to really enjoy them. They fit in with the other songs so it's a real mixture of old stuff, like "Peace, Love and Understanding," which is the oldest song I do, to brand new stuff. I don't do too much unfamiliar stuff because people get sick of it, but I do ones that are fun.
Dweezil Zappa is going to play "Whatever The F@%k He Wants" on his Cease and Desist tour Thursday, October 13 at the Ready Room. This show will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Freak Out, the Mothers of Invention's first major studio release.
Zappa, the son of the late guitarist and composer Frank Zappa, brings his rocking teenage combo to Saint Louis for what has become an annual event. This time it will be under his own name. This is due to a squabble with his younger siblings Ahmet and Diva who were given control of the family's business, the Zappa Family Trust, with the passing of their mother Gail. He normally uses the moniker Zappa plays Zappa but that has become impossible due to licensing issues with the ZFT. In what has become an incredibly public battle, Dweezil is funding and producing these very expensive shows to continue bringing his father's music to as many people as he can. One of the major issues driving this feud are monies owed for merchandising from previous Zappa plays Zappa concerts. The ZFT are claiming overwhelming debt accrued since the untimely death of Frank Zappa in 1993 from prostate cancer -- a claim very difficult to swallow, considering the numerous products that have been released since his death, ZPZ tours, the Kickstarter campaign to open the "vault" holding all of the unreleased audio and video to filmmaker Alex Winter, and most recently the sale of the Zappa home to Lady Gaga.
Regardless of this crap, which surely is very stressful, Dweezil is paying homage to his father like none of the other siblings can or will. Having seen this group play, they are finally coming into their own. They are giving concertgoers a glimpse of what it was like to see a Frank Zappa show. This music is not for everyone. At times humorous, other times quite sophisticated, one moment it may sound like a rock band, and suddenly much like an orchestra, it is always original and very precise. The group performing with Dweezil on Thursday have been together for several tours and have really consumed the material. With him on this tour will be Scheila Gonzalez, Ryan Brown, Kurt Morgan, Ben Thomas, Chris Norton, and new vocalist Mikki Hommel.
Dweezil released his own solo record Via Zammata to critical praise in November 2015, making it incredibly clear Dweezil is becoming a major force on his own. I for one can't wait to hear Whatever The F@%k He Wants to play!
Long time Frank Zappa band collaborator Ike Willis will be making his Dweezil Zappa debut in Chicago on Wednesday night at the Concord Music Hall. This will end a long drought of alumni performing with this group. Willis was a target of the ZFT's wrath for many years because of his promise to Frank to continue to play the composers music. In addition to Dweezil's performance this coming Thursday, October 13 at the Ready Room, one of the many bands that Willis has fronted, Project/Object, will be performing Sunday, October 16 at 2720 Cherokee along with another FZ band alumnus Don Preston.
David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra this Friday and Saturday in a program consisting of just two big works: John Adams' 1993 Violin Concerto and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 55 (or the Eroica) from 1803. Despite the 190 years that separate them, they have something in common: they both represent a distinct stylistic departure for their respective composers.
Beethoven's departure came about as a result of a re-evaluation of his life, described in an 1802 document now known as the "Heiligenstadt Testament." That document, as most classical fans will recall, is a letter Beethoven wrote to his brothers Carl and Johann at the town of Heiligenstadt (now part of Vienna) in which he told of his despair over his increasing deafness and his struggles with thoughts of suicide. The letter was never delivered (it was found among his papers after his death in 1827) and seems, in retrospect, to have acted as a kind of catharsis for the composer. Before the "Testament" he was a composer/pianist. Afterwards, he would be exclusively a composer.
It also marked the beginning of the emergence of his unique compositional voice. His first two symphonies were clearly in the mold of Haydn and Mozart. But with the Eroica Beethoven created, as Paul Schiavo writes in his program notes, "a new musical genre, the Romantic symphony."
And what a symphony! Those first two big chords are almost like a gauntlet thrown down to challenge established notions of what a symphony should be. Indeed this first movement displays, in Mr. Schiavo's words, a "dramatic intensity [which] was unprecedented in symphonic composition and remains rarely, if ever, equaled two centuries and more later."
The drama continues with the heroic funeral march of the second movement, the restless energy of the third movement scherzo, and the towering finale--a set of elaborate variations followed by a powerful coda. It clocks in at around fifty minutes, which no doubt seemed absurdly excessive to audiences accustomed to symphonies half that length. "One early critic," writes Welsh musicologist David Wyn Morris, "described it as 'a very long-drawn-out daring and wild fantasia' which, at least, reveals a response to its emotive power."
The finale is also a classic example of musical recycling. The theme that serves as the basis for the variations was originally part of a set of twelve contredanses Beethoven wrote between 1791 and 1802. It seems to have been a favorite of his, popping up again in (among other places) his score for the 1802 ballet "The Creatures of Prometheus." Composer and writer Drerk Strahan has suggested that Beethoven saw it as a "hero" theme. It certainly becomes heroic in the course of the final movement of the Eroica.
The departure for John Adams was somewhat less dramatic, and it was the choice of the violin as the solo instrument that initiated it. "A concerto without a strong melodic statement is hard to imagine," recalls the composer. "I knew that if I were to compose a violin concerto I would have to solve the issue of melody. I could not possibly have produced such a thing in the 1980's because my compositional language was principally one of massed sonorities riding on great rippling waves of energy. Harmony and rhythm were the driving forces in my music of that decade; melody was almost non-existent."
"As if to compensate for years of neglecting the 'singing line,'" he continues, "the Violin Concerto (1993) emerged as an almost implacably melodic piece--a example of 'hypermelody.' The violin spins one long phrase after another without stop for nearly the full thirty-five minutes of the piece. I adopted the classic form of the concerto as a kind of Platonic model, even to the point of placing a brief cadenza for the soloist at the traditional locus near the end of the first movement."
Having listened to the concerto, though, I have to say that I'm not sure it's as big a departure from the composer's usual style as his comments suggest. His "hypermelody" does, indeed, unfold as described, but it's ultimately composed of the kind of individual motivic "cells" that characterize so much of the composer's other works. Add up enough minimalism, it seems, and you get a long and winding road of lyricism.
The singing first movement gives way to a second movement based on the old Baroque form of the chaconne, which features a series of increasingly elaborate variations on a simple theme repeated in the bass line. That theme might sound familiar to sharp-eared listeners since it's remarkably close to the little sequence that underscores the words "Space: the final frontier" in the theme of the classic TV show Star Trek. If you doubt me, take a few minutes to view CBC Radio 2 host Tom Allen's little video documentary [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTaSjS1pwhQ] on the lineage of that theme; it's fascinating stuff. I don't know whether Mr. Adams was ever a Star Trek fan or not but he's of the right vintage, so anything is possible.
The concerto ends in a blaze of virtuoso fireworks with the driving "Toccare" third movement. It's the sort of thing that gives a truly proficient violinist a chance to show off and, as the composer notes, "many violinists have taken on the piece, and each has played it with his or her unique flair and understanding. Among them are Gidon Kremer (who made the first recording with the London Symphony), Vadim Repin, Robert McDuffie, Midori and, perhaps most astonishingly of all, Leila Josefowicz, who made the piece a personal calling card for years."
The soloist this weekend will, in fact, be Ms. Josefowicz. So it looks like we can expect an authoritative performance. Mr. Robertson has also shows a strong affinity for the music of John Adams, so the work will be in good hands.
The essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with violin soloist Leila Josefowicz on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. September 30 and October 1.The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center. The Saturday concert will be broadcast, as usual, on St. Louis Public Radio.
The New Music Circle will begin its 58th season with the piano duo of Craig Taborn and Kris Davis who set out on a tour to mark the release of her album Duopoly, on which she plays with a number of luminaries including Bill Frissell, Tim Berne, and Don Byron as well as Taborn. Kris Davis spoke to KDHX from her NYC studio, before embarking on the two-week twelve-city journey. Kris Davis and Craig Taborn will play the 560 Music Center in University City this Saturday, October 1.
JK: How long has this tour as a piano duo been planned for? Did the idea to tour come after Duopoly?
KD: The idea to tour pretty much came right after recording the pieces -- I'd say within five minutes of playing (laughs), Craig and I were like "This is great!" and our producer, David Breskin [who is producing the Taborn / Davis two week US tour] also really loved the duo, so he wanted to create an opportunity for the two of us to play again. So it's been in the works since the recording, which has been a year and half now.
JK: Can you tell me more about writing material for the new album?
KD: I was trying to think of a different approach, trying to find a different sort of project that wasn't group based. Usually I'm trying to put together material to be played by many musicians and tour with a full group, which can be really difficult to put together, so i wanted to try doing something that would capture the moment of the first meetings I experience when playing with people -- which can be risky business because you don't know how it's going to turn out, but it turned out great. I tried to come up with pieces that were appropriate for everyone, that made them more comfortable and would help bring out their voices. We gave everyone three hours, some of which were really easy and some we had to figure out how to make it work for the duo format, usually by bringing in compositions that I have not yet played and trying to figure out how those could translate into the duo.
JK: And what about the piece you and Craig Taborn did together ?
KD: The piece for Craig was really composed and detailed, but once we got in the studio and started working on it, we ended up just improvising off the concept of the piece. So it turned better out much more improvisational that what it was written, which originally was pages and pages of rhythmic interplay with heavy intervallic lines. So we took the spirit of that and improvised upon it, and it turned out for the better.
JK: What are the similarities or contrasts of your and Craig Taborn's playing?
KD: I think we have similar approaches actually, and honestly Craig has been such a big influence on me -- in terms as both an improviser and composer he's certainly one of my favorite pianists. So it's been a real honor and amazing experience to play with him. I'm just looking forward to learning from him over these next two weeks during the tour. We both certainly have our own styles, but I think the nuances of our individual approach are pretty subtle. We certainly draw from many of the same influences and musical inspirations.
JK: What will the live material consist of on tour? Compositions or spontaneous material?
KD: We are riffing on the idea of having compositions and then opening them up, which is something I do with my groups quite a bit anyways. But on the recording it opened up even more than I thought it might -- so for live material we thought that having compositions to work with, and improvising between them, makes for a nice landing spot, and not feel like you have to come up with all the material right in the moment all the time...
Portland's Blind Pilot -- at the Ready Room on Friday, September 30 -- have returned after a five year hiatus with their third album, And Then Like Lions. The band is now on ATO records after self-releasing their first two albums but they've kept to the same blend of folk and rock. If the melodies and songs weren't so well-crafted, you could imagine hearing the band at a coffee shop playing covers of James Taylor. Happily, the music of Blind Pilot transcends the genre.
Much of the five year wait for the new album was due to leader, singer, and songwriter Israel Nebeker's personal travails -- the end of a 13 year relationship and the passing of his father. The impact of personal loss has not lessened the beauty of their music but enriched it. Simplicity still remains the major strength of the band, which is no surprise since the band is well-known for touring via bicycle early in its career. At that time, the band consisted only of Israel Nebeker on acoustic guitar/vox and Ryan Dobroski on drums -- now it's a six-piece.
The songs of And Then Like Lions may not be as immediately tuneful as their debut, but the melodies burrow into your soul before long. "Moon at Dawn" opens slowly with light drums, vibes, and an acoustic guitar and builds to what for Blind Pilot is a hair metal solo, namely a lively singalong song that can cause goose bumps to break out all over your arms. This is perfect turntable music -- the nuances and subtleties of the music lift and lilt, push and pull, and otherwise keep the listener waiting with bated breath for the next move.
The album's closer "Like Lions" uses animal references and lyrically saturated verses to provide a statement of the America they know: "Will they buy even our breathing / a river strangled by a dam / less than one percent are taken / so tell me who dries up this land." Lines like these give us a sense that the band sees outside of Portland.
"Don't Doubt" provides the emotional core of the album. Musically, it hearkens back to the sounds of their debut, with the acoustic guitar, vibes, and muted trumpet leading the listener to join the band in a wonderful rabbit hole but expresses the impact of the personal tragedies Nebeker has dealt with this year. "Don't you doubt / everybody's seen some winter / don't you take the dark way out" could be a mantra he uses to keep his chin up and keep producing this great music.
In short, Blind Pilot has released another great album, well worth a listen even if they don't break any new ground musically. They will play the Ready Room with opener Quiet Life this coming Friday, September 30.