Nick Cowan's Posts

Nick Cowan's Photo I've been a KDHX volunteer since 1996, and have engineered talks shows, live sound and programming since 1999. My current show on 88.1 KDHX is Train of Thought, every Friday 3-5 a.m. Central. I also write for KDHX Live Performances.

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‘You look through the cartoons and find the best one and put it on a record’ An interview with Les Claypool of Primus

It’s safe to say that just about everyone knows Primus. You might not own every disc or have seen the band live, but you’ve probably caught a video on MTV for “Mr Krinkle” or “My Name Is Mud,” or maybe you’ve caught one of bass player/singer Les Claypool‘s many side projects. 
Primus’ sound is instantly recognizable. The crazy characters in the songs are framed by Claypool’s voice and the jagged expertise that brings the instruments all together. Primus was everywhere in the ’90s before they took a break. A couple of tours in the 2000s had the band performing full albums, even as other side projects kept the members busy, until reforming in 2011 for their first full album in more than a decade.
Claypool called me the afternoon before playing a show in Philadelphia last week to discuss the history of Primus, the art of the bass and more. Primus returns to St. Louis on October 28 for a show at Peabody Opera House.
In case you were wondering, the highlight of this writer/DJ’s month was answering the phone and hearing a Northern California accent say: “Nick, this is Les Claypool.”
Nick Cowan: Les, what’s the inspiration behind the 3D/Quad Sound show? What makes it different from a regular Primus gig? 
Les Claypool: Well, a handful of years ago a buddy of mine purchased ILM’s modeling department from George Lucas. He worked for them for many years and started a company. Well, he changed it to “Kerner Optical,” and we had our offices in the same building. They were working on all this 3D stuff: 3D television, 3D converter boxes, 3D cameras. He was always taking me in and showing me what they were working on. I’ve done these New Year’s Eve shows in San Francisco for 20 years, and every year is a theme. I was playing the San Francisco Opera House one year and thought, “Let’s bring in this 3D thing and see if we can do that.” We did it and it was amazing, hugely successful. 
On “Green Naugahyde” my manager said, “Hey lets do that 3D thing you did a few years ago.” We looked into it and they’ve advanced their stuff quite a bit. We put a package together and now we’re out playing in front of a bunch of imagery that shoots out into the audience. 
That sounds awesome.  
It’s pretty incredible actually. Unlike going to IMAX or seeing a movie in 3D, you’re seeing a lot of stuff you wouldn’t normally see. It’s more visual effects like textures and whatnot. It’s much more psychedelic than anything anyone has probably ever seen in 3D. 
It sounds like a 3D version of the light shows, plasma-like lighting that the Grateful Dead had back towards the beginning. 
Yeah, it’s very much like that. There is some stuff that’s landscapes, fly-throughs and things like that. A lot of our experience is improvisation, and there’s a lot of psychedelic wandering and meandering musically so I wanted something that was going to be different every night. We have artists out by the soundboard that are manipulating these machines so that the visuals are different every night, along with our set. 

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‘Good for your brain and good for your chops’ An interview with Emily Haines of Metric / Brantley Gutierrez

Metric has been making new wave-flavored indie rock since 1998. The band has released five albums of evolving material and its latest, “Synthetica,” appeared this past June.

Emily Haines and the rest of the band have just started a tour that brings them to the Pageant on Tuesday, Oct 2.

Nick Cowan: Thanks for chatting with me. How are you?

Emily Haines: Just started the tour in Minneapolis, everyone’s in good spirits.

I got to see you at Lollapalooza this year and it was great. You owned that stage.

Thanks, man. We had a great day.

How’s “Synthetica” being received?

Really well! It’s always been an interesting process when you bring the new material and integrate it into your existing repertoire. Plus, it’s our fifth album so we’re used to this process. It’s one of my favorite things; part of creating the whole Metric experience is always representing all the chapters and phases of the band. So, we still play songs from our first record and it’s always interesting to see how the new stuff will sometimes match up with something really old. It’s a nice sense that’s it’s all one big body of work.

We love playing around with the possibilities, trying new arrangements, improvising a little, and people really seem to be having a good time. That makes me happy.

It sounds like, in a way, that you’re making a mix tape out of your own songs.

Yeah, that’s how it feels.

You mentioned the arc of your career and you don’t push older stuff to the back. How do fans react to hearing a bit of everything rather than the “new album and a few hits” formula?

When I’m playing music I’m not able to focus on individual reactions. We know when there’s a great feeling in the room and just follow that.

In addition to the five records, how did you get involved with film soundtracks? The song “Black Sheep” from Scott Pilgrim, a song for “Twilight,” a couple of others — how did you get involved with that?

I don’t know. It’s something that we’ve always had an interest in developing. We’ve been interested in scoring and are quite inspired by film. There’s a chemistry there. “Black Sheep” was a song that didn’t fit very naturally on the album “Fantasies” and we just held on to it. It turned out it was unbelievably perfect, lyrically and otherwise, when Edgar Wright [co-writer and director of "Scott Pilgrim vs The World"] gave me a call. Bryan [O'Malley], who wrote the graphic novel the movie is based on, used live shots of Metric in the book, so there was an interesting correlation there. He asked if we had anything and I told him about “Black Sheep.”

Around the same time Howard Shore reached out to us to co-write the theme song to the “Twilight Saga: Eclipse” score. To do a writing project with a composer of that caliber, was an honor. And he asked to score the movie “Cosmopolis” with him.

With every film project it feels like we get more a little bit more advanced and we get more of a chance to learn about the medium and the process. It’s good for your brain and good for your chops.

How did the “Synthetica Hide & Seek” get conceived. Can you describe it for folks that haven’t heard of it?

The “Hide & Seek” was a little project on-line that gave people a chance to find clues and use those to unlock songs. It seemed like people had a really good time with it. Rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be fun so sometimes you have to remind people of that and not take ourselves too seriously. That’s kind of the ethos behind it.

This is what’s so great about this project for me, what really gives me a lot of pleasure. The fact that we put our records out ourselves, spent many days in the early days of their career — as many artists do — battling the [music] business. For most artists, it doesn’t feel like it serves them very well. It’s kind of a whole thing in itself to navigate that. Usually the terms that are presented to musicians are kind of at the bottom of the barrel. After many years of grappling with that we took quite a bold move with “Fantasies” and put it out ourselves in the United States. We went through quite a protracted legal thing so we could be free of previous contracts and put our work out ourselves.

So, one of the things we get to do now that we run the show is that we can come up with all kinds of things like the hide and seek idea. Our manager has a really forward thinking mind, doesn’t care about what the protocol is about how you’re “supposed” to put out a record. We just follow what feels right for us and what we’re excited about.

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‘I want to hear something that’s gonna blow my mind’ A pre-LouFest interview with Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips have been making adventurous, creative and sometimes outright silly rock ‘n’ roll since the early days of the alternative boom. It would be wrong to say they think outside of the box because I’m not sure they ever acknowledged the box to begin with.

Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Steven Drozd — who first joined the Lips as a drummer in 1991 — was doing some press calls from his home, and I was lucky enough to chat with him about the Oklahoma City band’s staying power, its forthcoming album and LouFest, where the band headlines on August 26.

Nick Cowan: There’s a lot of excitement about the Flaming Lips being part of LouFest.

Steven Drozd: My sister-in-law lives there [in St. Louis] so I get up there from time to time. I’m trying to remember the last time we were there. A couple of years ago I think.

I think it was two years ago at a place called the Pageant.

So how many years has LouFest been going? Is it an institution or is this a new thing?

Let’s call it a growing institution. It’s in year three and lots of great bands are and have been part of it in a short time.

All I know is that Dinosaur Jr. is playing! When we play festivals as a headliner we try to pull out all the stops. Not that we play a minimized show otherwise, but this will be the full-on, huge, flaming rock show.

How do you prep for a festival vs. a club show?

We have our video set up at these big festival shows. A full size video wall and these things called Versatubes, if the stage is big enough, that outline the video wall. It looks insane. It gives the impression that we’re a stadium rock band even though we’re not.

I don’t want to make it sound like I’m taking away from hardcore Flaming Lips fans, but whenever we play a big show like this, we try to gear it towards the maximum possible rock. The mellow stuff is kept to a minimum, we try to keep the big songs as the majority of the set. We want it to be a huge party. Even if you’re not enjoying the music that much you can still have a great time with your friends, and it looks insane and you get wrapped up in the show itself.

In smaller shows we’ll do three or four mellow songs and tone it down in the middle of the set before we do more big numbers. Man, I can’t believe I’m calling songs “numbers.” I sound like some old blues guy. But that’s the only difference.

Since you said “numbers” that’s actually a good segue. “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” is being, or has been by this point, turned into an actual stage musical.

True. The rumors are true. I think they’re in the final stages of tweaking it.

How did that come about it? I would never have thought of that in a million years.

Well, Scott Booker, who’s the Flaming Lips manager, is always trying to expand us and get us into different things. And Wayne [Coyne] is just inherently crazy and curious about trying different stuff.

The main guy [Des McAnuff] has done some huge, big-hit Broadway productions. He was really interested in it. And when we first heard about it I thought it was kind of a funny “oh that’d be crazy if they did that” thing. But now here they are. At first I thought they would want or require some additional music, but they’re using songs from “Soft Bulletin,” “Yoshimi” and “At War With the Mystics.” I haven’t really had that much of a hand in it. Wayne has checked on it, Scott is really involved. Anything that can get someone who wouldn’t otherwise be turned onto our music, I think that’s a great thing all the way around. I’m pretty excited about it.

Do you think you guys have some credibility when it comes to this stuff? If a pop star were to do it, I’d let that pass. But you guys come at all your stuff with a lot of creativity that I think brings people in.

I’m just afraid to turn off people by doing it. But then maybe we turn off the people that aren’t hard core fans. I don’t know, we’re always trying different stuff whether we’re recording a 24-hours song or recording tracks with Ke$ha or a Broadway musical. I think it perfectly suits us to do that. If it’s a failure it will be an interesting side note on a Wikipedia page. If it’s a big success, who knows?

I’d rather bands I like do something interesting and fail, rather than tow middle ground and rehash.

And how many bands do that these day? They make a couple of classic records, and then do it over and over again, to diminishing returns usually. I think the things the Flaming Lips are doing now add on to what we’ve done.

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‘If things sound like there is some coherent core to them, that’s thrilling’ A pre-LouFest interview with Sleepy Kitty / Ted Barron

One of the many great things about being a writer at KDHX is that you get to write about bands that you love. No one is lining us up to talk to a Top-40 artist.

So when the email went out about interviews for LouFest, I happily got the chance to hang out for an hour with St. Louis duo Sleepy Kitty at MoKaBe’s coffeehouse, just a few blocks from the KDHX studios. The band will be kicking off the first day of LouFest 2012 in Forest Park on August 25.

Nick Cowan: You guys started in Chicago, right? Around 2007?

Paige Brubeck: That’s right.

What bands were you in before Sleepy Kitty?

Brubeck: I’m really proud of our previous bands. I was in a band called Stiletto Attack. There was an EP called “What the Cops Don’t Know” that I would have loved to go further. I really like it. It was three cool rock girls. Well, I though we were cool (laughs). All three of us wrote songs and we would switch instruments, we played for a couple of years. That band ended as Evan and I got more and more into similar kinds of music.

Evan Sult: We eventually excluded ourselves from our own band to be in this band.

Brubeck: That’s when I started playing guitar seriously. I kind of messed around, power chords and barre chords so I could write songs. I started playing guitar when I was 14, but bass was my first real rock ‘n’ roll instrument.

Sult: And your first songwriting instrument

Brubeck: Yeah.

That’s interesting because you can hear a lot of the rhythmic melody in your playing that a bass usually carries.

Brubeck:. I think I still play guitar like a bass player, I miss playing bass (laughter), so if anyone has a bass amp they’re willing to trade…

Evan, what were your previous bands like?

Sult: In Chicago I had one other band, but came into town from Seattle where I was in Harvey Danger.

The band from “Flagpole Sitta,” the one song everybody knows?

Sult: Yes, the shepherds of Flagpole Sitta. You know what’s interesting? It’s been more than a decade since that hit the airwaves in 1998. It’s a common factor that people have heard “Flagpole” — which is pretty much everybody because it was everywhere. But I’ve been really surprised and pleased at the number of people who have said, “Hey, your second album was really cool.” I just had no idea anybody had heard it. Let alone people who are making music I like that had heard it when they were younger.

After Harvey Danger ended, which none of us knew would be temporary, I came to Chicago and started a band called Bound Stems, and we played the whole six years I was there. We put out two albums and an EP, toured all over. We did great in Chicago, went to New York all the time. It was a really demanding, very fun thing to do.

Brubeck: Really cool music too. Really tricky.

Sult: And there were five of us so I could play as wide out as I wanted to, or as tight in as I wanted, and there was somebody playing in that zone.

That seems like a rare thing because people play one way or the other unless it’s the big jam song or the single.

Sult: I really love the drumming from early Spoon and Pavement and Blonde Redhead. The Fall is also a really great example because they have no meter. I totally dig that stuff. Eventually, right at the outset of our second album the band was done. By then Paige and I had been playing together.

Brubeck: The first time we worked on a piece was with a friend of ours and it was total, straight-up, experimental sound collage for an art school class room audience. We just needed a title for the file so we called it Sleepy Kitty.

Evan and I kept making a lot of sound collage stuff; we were listening to a lot of Steve Reich and doing field recordings and adding drums and harmonies to it. Just having a lot of fun and seeing what sounds we could make.

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Train of Thought’s top 10 albums of 2011

While looking at all the music I was listening to this year I see that most of my favorite stuff ended up being single songs. (Stay tuned for a post on that topic.) But the albums that I dove into I dove into repeatedly and often. Here are about half of my favorites.

Beastie Boys – “Hot Sauce Committee Part 2″ (Capitol)

For me, this is their most complete album since “Ill Communication.” It’s full of the thumping beats and crazy, funky melodies that have always been a part of their finest work. The very first song is announced with a fat, fat synth line and as the record saunters forward you get more groove. There are still a couple of goofy tracks and a couple harkening back to their punk days. We still get lyrics with a lot a pop culture and the humor that made them a hit, but it’s tempered by age. I’m not saying they’re old, but their wisecracks have a measure of age.

Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears – “Scandalous” (Lost Highway)

Such a funky, soulful party starter. Lewis sings like it’s his last gig ever, and the horns get as much space as the guitar and rhythm. Black Joe reminds me of James Brown; he and his band pack a lot of funkiness into unbelievably precise tunes. When the song ends you know it’s over but you want more. I would buy another couple of discs worth of these sessions.

Listen to Black Joe Lewis’ Live at KDHX session from this year.

Mike Doughty – “Yes & Also Yes” (Snack Bar)

After 10 years solo I’m still impressed by the laid-back poetry of his lyrics. He gets a little crazy on a few of the short songs, a little reflective with Rosanne Cash on a tune and even references old programming languages in a track called “Russell.” Doughty does a lot of the production himself; some songs have other sounds and music mixed with the rhythm and his trademark guitar playing. I keep waiting for a Doughty record that doesn’t have me falling all over it like a prom date on Boone’s Farm — this isn’t it.

Listen to Mike Doughty’s Live at KDHX session from this year.

Explosions in the Sky – “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care” (Temporary Residence)

I’ve been fan of this group since I first saw them on Austin City Limits. Their long, atmospheric compositions set awesome moods. One track on the album is perfect for a nice sunset, another perfect for a night drive, and yet another would work for finding a corpse in your back yard. It demands your attention; it’s not throwaway music. It’s simply one of those CDs that you get into deeper with every listen.

Ezra Furman & the Harpoons – “Mysterious Power” (Red Parlor)

This frantic pop band from Chicago sent out another kick-ass record this year. When this showed up in my mailbox I did a little happy dance. I love it when I’m into a band, and I can hear them get stronger with each album. The Harpoons as a whole have gotten better at the brisk power pop that makes up most of the album. The slower tracks (like “Don’t Turn Your Back On Love”) are full of sincerity, maybe to the point of being a little goofy (in a good way). This is a great album.

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‘Don’t do anything that you dislike’ An interview with Mike Doughty / El jiggity

Since leaving Soul Coughing in 2000, Mike Doughty has released a couple of EPs, a half dozen records, toured in a few configurations and played here at KDHX (twice!). This year he’s got two albums out, “Dubious Luxury” and “Yes and Also Yes.” He was kind enough to take a few minutes to chat with me about the new albums, music and other odds and ends.

Nick Cowan: So how’s life treating you, everything cool?

Mike Doughty: Doing pretty good, I just put this band together for the fall tour and I’m super stoked about them. I’ve got the right drummer, Scrap’s gonna play electric bass, and Dan Chen, who I played with a bunch of years ago. He decided to not play on the road anymore but called me up and wanted to be part of it. So, I’m really excited.

So who’s the new drummer in your band on this tour?

His name is Pete Wilhoit. He played in Fiction Plane, and Dan Chen knew a guy who knew a guy and came up with Pete.

Why a full band this time? Last time it was you and [bassist] Andrew “Scrap” Livingston.

Basically, I wanted to do it. The album is a very bandy type of album and I want to have that fully expressed on the tour. But a lot of it was that I just wanted to do it to switch it up.

You’ve got two albums out right now, both of which are very different, “Yes and Also Yes” and “Dubious Luxury.” What was the spark that made you think, “Man, I’m gonna do these two records right now?

Well, “Dubious Luxury” I had been tinkering with for years and was in shape to be released two years ago, but I never found the right moment to do it, so I just put it out before “Yes and Also Yes ” came out. And of course, “Yes and Also Yes ” is the meat of what I do as a singer-songwriter.

I think a lot of folks know you as a singer-songwriter with other vibes going along with it.

Yeah, I totally tried to make sure everybody knew “Dubious Luxury” wasn’t a singer-songwriter record. Hopefully people listened to the snippets before they spent their money. It’s way different. I don’t sing on it for one thing.

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Tips for LouFesters

Nate Burrell

With LouFest coming up this weekend I thought I’d offer a few tips for two days of all-day music. I’m no expert on this stuff, but a very happy veteran of a dozen or so multi-day festivals.

This probably isn’t anything revelatory, no moments where Bugs Bunny might shout, “Eureka!” These are just reminders so you can make it from first chord to the final cymbal crash in good shape.
Water. The weather is tracking right now to be sunny with temps in the mid to high 80s so you probably won’t need massive amounts of H20, but bear it in mind. This is St. Louis, after all, so that could change. You can bring up to a 1 liter bottle of water in — take advantage. If you’re drinking water flavored with hops and barley, don’t be that guy face down on the ground being ill-treated for YouTube. That has nothing to do with hydration; just don’t be that person.

Sunscreen. If you are only going to be there late afternoon on, sunburn probably isn’t a big worry. But if you’re in for the whole thing, bring a tube with you. Otherwise, a normally comfortable shirt will feel like that chair of needles Han Solo was tortured in halfway through “Empire.” You might want to wear a hat for extra solar protection.
Clothing. If you stay for any length of time you’re probably gonna get dirty. Balance your fashion desires with how easy it will be to clean your (and maybe other people’s) sweat, sunscreen and everything else off of it.

Ear plugs. That much music could make your ears ring like crazy. Maybe I’m showing some age.

Shoes. You’ll be on your feet a lot, and other people might be on your feet too so I recommend skipping open-toe footwear.
I hope that helps. If you see a well-hydrated guy, covered in SPF900, wearing orange ear plugs and sportin’ some dope head gear say hi.

Festival review: Lollapalooza 2011 blows away the Windy City

Lollapalooza 2011

Nick Cowan

I’ve been back from Lollapalooza for four days now, after being there for all three days for the first time. The blisters have healed, sunburn is aloe’ed to the gills, and leg muscles have finally relaxed to put some notes to paper.

There were a few bands that didn’t catch our interest for whatever reason and a couple that flat out sucked. So I’d rather spend more time on what I think would be cool to check out then what to pass over. The beauty of a music festival is that if what you’re listening to isn’t the best thing you’ve heard all day, move on.

Here are some of my favorites.

I’ve been digging on OK Go’s recent live album (“180/365″) a lot and they were my only “gotta see” on Friday. Man, did they deliver. The band came out in different solid-colored suits and proceeded to rock out. I found out at that point that Chicago is their home town, and it was clear they were happy to be home and the crowd was happy to have them home. They played mostly hits, nothing too obscure, no covers, and they even played one song with handbells (white gloves and all). A lot of fun and the crowd was into them.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals commanded a big stage like the veterans they are. After doing something like 800 shows in the past five years they’re getting some bigger exposure and this can only help their cause. Grace Potter doesn’t really reinvent any particular wheel, but what she does is good ol’ fashioned rock ‘n’ roll with swagger, confidence, a great band, super songs and a clear love of performing. There’s some tone and feel of late ’60s early ’70s stuff to the sound. Grace herself sings, plays guitar and organ and writes most of the songs. She surrounds herself with great players (her bass player was really impressive) and they play together with passion. When an artist really knock those things out of the park you get to see a show that’s out of the ordinary. It was my first time seeing her; it is not going to be my last.

The Disappears’ field of sound would have made Sonic Youth proud, from whaling distorted guitars to what looked like some sort of homemade synthesizer pushing at the crowd to pay attention.

Friendly Fires was a freaking groovy band. The lead singer was amazing and had the energy and enthusiasm of a little kid who happened to play cow bell. The drummer was great and they had a couple of horn players too. Very infectious. I almost danced in public, which has only happened twice since my wedding 10 years ago.

I hadn’t seen Ween before, and they were a highlight among highlights. The tightest band we saw all weekend. They started with some of their crazier pop stuff and got a little more conventional (as much as they will) as the one hour set progressed. They ended the set with “You F’ed Up” (one of the great break up songs of all time) and earlier they whipped up a tight cover of the David Bowie tune “Let’s Dance.” For that one, Dean Ween sang it in a faux lounge style that poked a little fun at Bowie.

Big Audio Dynamite. Hell yeah! When I saw them open for U2 in 1992 their stuff was too far ahead of my tastes then. Well, twenty years later I think their music is still a bit ahead of me. All that stuff (what fit into an hour anyway) came out great live and the years have been generous to Jones’ voice. They even played a couple of new tunes. The only one they named was “Robbing Peter To Pay Paul,” a nice, guitar-heavy gem laying out the current financial crisis in 3 1/2 minutes (as Jones stated). Even if their set hadn’t rocked, how often do I get to see Mick Jones?

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