Ryan Spearman is many things in many musical moods, but all his roles show a passion for setting the spark of innovation to the good tinder of tradition.
A singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, band leader, solo artist and teacher, Spearman was born and raised in St. Peters, Mo. and after a stint in Colorado with the band High on the Hog, he’s continued to make his home and his music in St. Louis.
When Spearman and Pokey LaFarge take the stage at the Sheldon Concert Hall on Friday, November 30 for the Folk School Grand Celebration, they’ll be doing what comes naturally — making music the old-time way – and while they’ll make it look easy, it most certainly isn’t. It takes years of hard work to play country, blues, folk and swing as well as they do.
I met Spearman for coffee to get a preview of the Sheldon show and to catch up on his current musical endeavors.
Roy Kasten: When did you first meet Pokey?
Ryan Spearman: The first time I met Pokey was when I moved back into the city about four years ago. I had just come back from Colorado and I had been living out in the country in Herman [Mo.] for two years. I’d been hearing about Pokey but hadn’t seen him. I caught him at BB’s, and a mutual friend introduced us. Pokey knew who I was, he knew my history. Our musical paths had been crossing for a while. He’d seen my band [High on the Hog] before.
After that I’d see him every once in a while and we’d talk about our mutual musical histories, but we’d never played together until last year at the Sheldon for the 10 year anniversary for the Folk School.
The idea was to get the two of us to just play together. We’d been talking about. I thought it would be fun and people would enjoy it. With Pokey being so busy we don’t get to practice much. He’ll come to town and we’ll spend six hours and then he’ll be gone. This year we’ve had one eight-hour session so far.
Did you feel like you had a shared base of musical knowledge? Did you know the same tunes?
Yeah. What Pokey does on stage and what I do on stage, it seems disparate to the average listener, but we both have similar musical histories, what we’re into and the different types of music we play. That’s the other reason we wanted to get together. Pokey will do stuff that I play and I’ll do more what he plays. Last year we had him on the mandolin. Our interests are similar and our experience with country blues and old time music, and then Pokey’s recent obsession with country swing — I had just been getting into the same kind of stuff in Colorado.
At this point, it’s a perverse challenge, to see if we can put together a set and make it interesting, and make it sound good.
October 27 and 28, 2012 on the eve of Superstorm Sandy and in the shadow of the the construction at Ground Zero in Manhattan, Joe Pug took the stage at Pace University to thank the man who created his job — Woody Guthrie.
Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora asked Pug’s friend and frequent tour mate Justin Townes Earle to curate two nights of music from the current generation who are working in her father’s spirit. Earle invited Pug, the Low Anthem and Deer Tick’s John McCauley to represent the continuation of Guthrie’s singer-songwriter legacy, punctuated with Guthrie biographer Joe Klein reading passages from his beloved “Woody Guthrie: A Life.”
While most of the audience bought tickets to see Earle, the murmurings after the shows focused on Pug’s impassioned performances. I kept hearing Pug’s name attached to variations of “I’d never heard of him before tonight, but he was incredible!”
Not that Pug didn’t have a fan base prior to the show. Justin’s troubadour papa, Steve Earle, brought Pug to his son’s attention, forging a pair of kindred songwriting spirits that includes shared tours and stories getting Woody Guthrie-themed, rib-cage tattoos in western Australia.
Playing solo for both New York shows, the Austin resident spat out fiery takes of his social commentary — “I Do My Father’s Drugs,” “Nation of Heat” and “The Great Despiser.” While most Guthrie tributes end with a sing-along of “This Land is Your Land,” the new generation did it their way, joining voices on Earle’s joyful and ominous “Harlem River Blues” with enough power to make getting covered with dirty water seem like a good idea and not a harbinger of disaster to come.
Pug took time from his tour schedule a few weeks prior to the New York City shows to discuss Guthrie’s legacy, songwriting, giving it away and what we can expect from him at Off Broadway on Monday, November 12.
Robin Wheeler: I want to talk to you about your upcoming St. Louis show, but I’m really interested in the two upcoming “In the Spirit of Woody Guthrie” shows you’re doing with Justin Townes Earle in New York at the end of October. How did you get involved in this, what will you be doing and what are your thoughts on the whole thing?
Joe Pug: I got involved in it through Justin’s invitation. He’s always been a huge advocate for my music and he’s really given me a hand up in a lot of ways. I first did a tour with him about three years ago where we did two months straight together on the road. We toured in Australia together. This is just the latest example of Justin helping me out, and helping me be a part of something that’s very special. He invited me to this, and I just talked to him about it in more detail at Hardly Strictly [Bluegrass Festival]. Basically, he’s invited other artists who … not only … to say we owe a huge debt to Woody doesn’t even describe it. He invented what our job is. It’s just a way for us to come and explore that lineage, explore that influence and pay tribute to him in his centennial year.
What has Guthrie’s influence been on you, besides creating your job?
I think Woody was the first person in American popular culture to complete a synthesis, which is very common now and we take it for granted. A synthesis of someone who is — in the most high-minded and esoteric ways possible — an artist, but also in some of the most pragmatic and basic ways, an entertainer. Again, we really take that for granted. Not only with singer-songwriters who are made to come on like your Bob Dylan or Steve Earle — the social parts. He was that, but this was also someone who was taking old songwriting tropes and putting them in an entertaining package. This was a guy who could keep a room spellbound. That’s mastery. It’s a mastery that he did for the first time in American popular culture.
‘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.
Every Monday 7-10 a.m. Central on 88.1 KDHX, Cat Pick hosts “Emotional Rescue,” a wide-ranging mix of pop, rock, R&B and so much more.
I chatted with the award-winning DJ (the Riverfront Times named “Emotional Rescue” Best Rock Radio Show in 2009) about her history with KDHX, her early discovery of music and what keeps her going as a volunteer on the radio.
Dani Kinnison: How did you get started at KDHX?
Cat Pick: Well, I started with my first husband and we started volunteering in like 1988 maybe, so it’s been a long time. We did music library stuff, so of course we wanted a show and put our application in. Then we got a show near the end of 1988 and that was a Saturday night into Sunday morning, 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. We had that for quite some time.
How do you pick stuff for Emotional Rescue?
In the past, I think it was different when we started because it was just so important to play certain things that nobody knew about. That was before [the Internet] and everybody knows everything now, you can find it in a second. Our first show was called “Left of the Dial,” because we loved the Replacements so much, and normal people didn’t know about the Replacements.
And I think now, the older I get and the longer I’ve done it, it’s kind of just what sounds good that day. And I do the birthdays, so that’s kind of a starting point every week, things that I’ve never heard before necessarily, so it’s fun. But I think it’s less, the way music is now, it doesn’t feel so like “Oh my god, everybody must love every single thing I play because it’s so important” you know what I mean? It’s way more, “I wanna play this song so I’m going to play it.”
Does your own personal music taste overlap with your show?
Absolutely. I think it’s pretty clear. People tease me about things that I’m obsessed with that I’ll play a lot. I started my show with Elbow a lot, for probably more than a year, and now I don’t do it very often anymore, but that’s what people say to me. So yeah, definitely my own tastes absolutely come through, but I do play a lot of stuff off the new shelf. We don’t rule out something necessarily just because it’s popular on regular radio. But a lot of people who listen to KDHX don’t listen to regular radio so they don’t hear it.
Do you have a certain format for “Emotional Rescue”?
I probably have about half of my show done beforehand. I do playlists on my computer, probably about an hour and a half’s worth, and the rest is just whatever. So that works out. I like having that so I know if something happens I don’t freak out and I’ll have something there to play.
Some people are very planned with their shows, down to the minute. I can’t even imagine that. It just seems to work out. After you do it for such a long time, I mean I haven’t done it solidly since I’ve started, but for the most part, I think you just get the rhythm down and you just know. I don’t even think about it.
While Water Liars stuck to more of an indie-folk hook, Demonlover fell off the stage and rolled around in spazz surf punk.
I caught up with Demonlover vocalist and bassist Andy Lashier over the phone from his hometown in Iowa, where he’s been spending some time recovering from an illness. Multi-instrumentalist JJ Hamon took a few minutes over the phone sharing his perspective while on the road in Kansas City for a gig with for another fine St. Louis musician, Beth Bombara.
Catch Demonlover on October 2 at Mushmaus on Cherokee Street, where they’ll be playing with Magic City (featuring Hamon and Meyer of Demonlover), electronic super duo CaveofswordS and touring hazy rockers TOPS.
Matt Stuttler: How did Demonlover get together?
Andy Lashier: It was like we were playing in this other band [Theodore] and it was kind of falling apart, and we played this one show at the Jefferson Warehouse. I booked a show with some Iowa City acts that I really liked, and some people flaked out on it, but I really didn’t want to cancel the show. So we got there and I was like “Fuck it, let’s just sort of wing it.” I was really excited. It was nerve-racking because we had no idea what we were going to do. We ended up just goofing around and it was kind of rad.
That was the first show, then we were like let’s keep doing this. I was pretty sure it would be cool if we just kept working on it. It sucks, right after that Matt Pace quit. He plays in Rats & People [Motion Picture Orchestra] and just didn’t have time for it, but the other two dudes, Sam Myer and JJ Hamon, decided to keep doing it.
How is Demonlover different from other bands and projects you’ve been involved with?
JJ Hamon: I think we’re pretty good. I mean, we’re all serious about music, but we’re not serious about like getting on stage and being very “Oh, we are ominous” or “Oh, we have this over-riding mood of everything sucks” or “We are a rock band, we will rock you” you know. We’re a fun sort of mess.
Lashier: It’s a lot more fun, I don’t think anybody is afraid to screw up. Basically with that first show, it was like we’re going to screw up, so just get used to the idea of it and just keep fuckin’ playing, you know? I think at least at the outset we wanted to do some weird instrumentals, and throw some pop songs in here and there. Since then, some of the pop songs have taken over for the live shows. I don’t know if it’s the response to them or just how fun they are to play.
Also, with improvisation, I’m not an improvisation dude. It was kind of like, “Okay, we’re going to play this song and it’s going to go on for a while, then once somebody else does something different, you just go with it” — which gives you the right frame of mind for a live show. I hate to see bandmates look at each other when they fuck up. I think not caring about any of that, people respond to that really well. The energy just goes a lot better.
I would say that’s different — definitely the types of songs we sing and play. It’s still just getting started. I’m kind of sick of people talking like, “Oh, we have so many different influences.” When I hear a type of song, I want to make it sound a lot like that. I’m not trying to mix it with other things all at once. I like to get it a little closer to the way songs sounded in old cinematic shit and just throw like a 20-second-long death thrash shit in there. You know, just see what happens. It’s so fun. I mean, I won’t say it’s paid off, but it’s definitely paid off in smiles.
Is there a calculated plan as to why you don’t play that often?
Lashier: For the most part the people that like us have just been people who have gone to a show. We played a bunch of shows at El Leñador all in a row, and that was kind of for fun. We have all this shit recorded, but we haven’t really put it out. The only people who know about us are our friends and people that have come to shows. For the most part people who have come to shows have come back for another show so that’s been pretty cool.
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.
Will Johnson‘s never been stingy with his art. From his work with Centro-matic, South San Gabriel and Monsters of Folk, to producing and playing on albums by other artists, to painting portraits of baseball players, “prolific” barely describes the Missouri-born artist.
This year he’s been even more visible. First he released and toured with New Multitudes, the Woody Guthrie tribute project that also includes Jay Farrar, Yim Yames and Anders Parker. Six months later, he’s back on the road with Parker in support of his new solo album, “Scorpion.” He’ll be playing songs from both albums, and much more, with Parker at Off Broadway on September 29.
I talked to Johnson the morning after the tour’s opening show in Mobile, Ala. He was once again busy with an endeavor that will keep him on the road; we chatted from a waiting room while he was having the tour van’s oil changed.
Robin Wheeler: How did “Scorpion” and “New Multitudes” influence each other?
Will Johnson: The “Scorpion” record was predominantly written in the studio. It was a real front-of-the-brain exercise over the course of five days. With the exception of three songs, my bandmate from Centro-matic, Matt Pence, and I worked for five days, just trying to really capture this certain chapter in our musical lives.
The difference would be that the the “Scorpion” stuff was my own material and my own lyrics, and the Woody thing was something I’d never done, which is write music to someone else’s lyrics. However, the similarities between the two would be that the songwriting structures and the songs themselves came together very quickly — in an almost automatic way.
It’s a little hard to explain, but the timing was just right. The weather was right. Something as simple as the weather can influence something like that for me. That was the case in both of those particular records. All those recordings were around for a long time before we got a chance to release them. It took a good number of years to get the Woody record to a place where we were ready to show it to the world. And it took a little while after recording ["Scorpion"], though I recorded it really fast, I put it on the shelf for a few years just because there were some other releases to make room for and I didn’t want it to encroach upon the breath that those releases need to breathe, and the touring and all that stuff.
Can you tell me what it was like for you to go through the Guthrie archives and have the experience of adding music to his words?
It’s incredibly humbling. It really re-calibrated me in a lot of ways. To say it’s an honor sounds flimsy, but it is the highest musical honor I’ve been lucky to experience. To have a glimpse at Woody’s writings and notes, and math problems in the margins, and his drive until the very end of his life, when it was evident that his faculties were fading. His handwriting was so shaky toward the end, but that voice — that fire that burned within him — really burned until the very end. You can see physical evidence by looking over those pages he wrote at any and all costs. He wrote until the very end. To see evidence of that — we hear about it when we research Woody Guthrie — but to have an opportunity to look over those pages made it even more intense and real, to get a feel for the kind of energy and fortitude that he possessed until his last day. That inevitably carried over to making the recordings, without a doubt.
What kind of shift did you have to make in your songwriting to work with his lyrics?
Starting from the start, Jay Farrar sent me 17 pages of lyrics in a mailer. When I opened them up I went up to my little apartment, and I was looking at them on the walk. Then I got to my apartment, spread them out and really looked at them. This is going to sound kind of cryptic, but I waited for those songs to kind of jump out. I think they speak for themselves in such a powerful manner, just looking over the written word. It’s very realistic to hear music in your head when you’re looking at lyrics. When I was looking over those lyrics I was really looking closely for that, seeing if one or two or three would start singing back at me, if I could hear the cadence and hear the tempo, the velocity for lack of a better word.
Grizzly Bear‘s newest release, “Shields,” is a jagged and dynamic masterpiece.
The four piece’s most uptempo record to date, “Shields” represents a synthesis of Grizzly Bear. Having tried out new writing styles and combinations, the Brooklyn, N.Y. band demonstrates versatility and a willingness to experiment. But make no mistake, experimentation is not completely king; the band organizes its opuses to the point of near obsession, squeezing interest and surprise from these heady tunes.
I recently interviewed Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen about their process, live show, video plans and upcoming tour.
Will Kyle: How has Grizzly Bear evolved?
Ed Droste: “Horn of Plenty” featured messy performances looped in this unique, beautiful manner to create an intricate, less-performed aspect. Our early live show featured a lot of improvisation and a kind of intentional messiness. We were just having fun and enjoying being loose.
When we were younger, we, the more technically trained members of the band, pushed away from playing in an overly technical way. It felt good to play messy. Now we just think more about songwriting and recording rather than technique, but somehow, we’re more precise now.
Can you talk about your process between records?
Droste: In the past, we’ve gone off on writing retreats. We tried that again for “Shields,” but I think we hit our stride when we all just got together and tried new ways of collaborating.
For instance, Dan and I wrote songs from the ground up, which was unusual for us; Dan would often write by himself, while I would write with Chris Taylor. This time, we got to a point where we decided to try some new things that were spontaneous and off the cuff. We wanted to make sure that it wasn’t overwrought in any sense.
Overall, we were having fun discovering new ways of working together, which was when we discovered we were tapping into something worth getting excited about.
When collaborating, do you write in the studio as you record, or do you tend to experiment without the tape running?
Droste: We don’t have any true studio time, so it’s all the same thing. We go off on retreats and we work together and hang out. Sometimes we’re recording, sometimes we’re not. Especially on this last trip, we tried to keep things as casual as we could, remain willing to try anything and record when it felt good.