‘It’s just turned into a super loud sludgy sound, which is awesome’ A pre-LouFest interview with Murph of Dinosaur Jr.
Known as much for tumultuous internal band strife as for their “ear-bleeding country” tunes, the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr — J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph — bitterly split in 1989. All members pursued various projects throughout the ’90s and early 2000s. The trio reunited in 2005 and has since released two albums, and plans to release a new album, “I Bet on Sky,” due out September 18. Recently the band has played a blur of festivals from Chicago to Belgium.
I had the tremendous pleasure to chat for a good half hour with drummer Murph. We spoke about the new album, how the band rehearses these days, the early origins of Dinosaur — and I finally figured out who that girl was in all the early videos.
Joe Roberts: I know Dinosaur has a new album “I Bet on Sky” coming out this month. Can you tell us a little about the new album?
Murph: Yeah. The main difference on this album is that J really spent a while [working on the vocals]. He spent a good two weeks, which is a long time for him to get the vocals right. There are some really great harmonies, and I was just really impressed. He’s really starting to invest a little more time and effort than before.
How about the drums on the new album? Is it the process of J Mascis mapping it all out or did you find yourself coming up with more of the drum patterns?
Um…I mean it is, but now we interpret stuff. He’s a little more open to interpretation for Lou and me. Again, another big difference is normally we would track drums first, like those guys would play along and would not be recorded, just the drums would be recorded, whereas this time actually Lou was recorded first. So the original bass tracks that he was coming up with and playing along with were kept as the basic tracks, and J layered stuff over that. So, again, that’s pretty huge because a lot of that stuff was a lot more spontaneous and was us just coming up with stuff as we went along. So that was kind of cool.
Is there significance to the title of the album, “I Bet on Sky”?
No. That’s a weird J thing. You’d have to ask him because he didn’t even tell anybody — even us — the name of the record until right before. And unless you specifically ask him why that name he won’t talk about it. You’d literally have to ask him because we don’t know.
On a similar note, do you ever hear J or Lou’s song lyrics and wonder what the hell the song is about?
I know one of the songs has that in the lyrics…. In my own mind I ask questions, but J’s one of those people — you know, I’ve noticed that a good lyricist or a good songwriter has the ability to write a song and write lyrics where you feel like, “Oh, it’s about my life,” or “He’s talking to me!” or about my situation. And I found that’s a pretty good mark that someone’s on the right track and they’re a good songwriter and lyricist. J’s songs always seem to have that effect on everybody. You’re just able to apply it to yourself. That’s just part of his strong point.
How does Dinosaur Jr. prepare for the road?
Well, I’ve actually been living on and off in LA at Lou’s house. He’s got a house with a spare bedroom in Silver Lake. And one of the reasons is that bass and drums are the first thing to come together, and since J is more familiar with the songs he’s able to step in later. So, Lou and I usually put in a pretty good amount of time. Like a good week or more and really get the bass and drums super tight and solid. That’s how we practice. And, you know, we’ll get together with J maybe once or something and have a full band practice. But it’s always been me and Lou getting it together, and I think that’s why I’ve kind of been living out here. But for a tour we’ll try to get together a week or 10 days before, and for about three hours a day we’re in there everyday. We’ll just go through it like we’re playing a show. And we’ll just power through the set.
How has the rehearsing changed since the early days?
Well, there was a little more jamming in the early days, I guess. Whereas now, it’s more specific, we know exactly what we need to do and there’s not as much guess work. It’s more about getting down to work and making things super tight and super solid. Whereas, in the early days it was a little more experimentation because you’re not as sure. But we’ve been doing this long enough that we know how it’ll translate live, so we know what to work on and what will work and what won’t work.
Concert review: Kasey Anderson and the Honkies (with Miles of Wire and the Dive Poets) cast a wide rock ‘n’ roll net at Off Broadway, Monday, July 30
Rock ‘n’ roll, in its many forms, remains the quintessential melting pot of music. Musicians from all different genres have given color to the various incarnations over the years. At the heart of the genre is still a blend of country and blues that gives rock ‘n’ roll its very soul.
At Off Broadway on Monday night and playing a rare performance, St. Louis-based quartet Miles of Wire took the stage about 8:15 p.m. for an enjoyable set of original material that was firmly rooted in alt-country, but grabbed undertones from indie rock.
Discussing the band with others around the room, I learned that Miles of Wire hasn’t played out much in the past five or six years. After hearing the 30-minute set, I surmised that if the Replacements and the Minutemen colored the country of Uncle Tupelo, then Pavement and Superchunk meant the same to this group.
Next on the bill were the Dive Poets. Their 45-minute set showed why they are one of the most solid original bands working in the St. Louis scene. The sextet played an upbeat set of roots rock that meshed nicely between both bands.
The lead guitar work of Karl Eggers and the keys of Christian Schaeffer color the strong harmonies provided by rhythm guitarist Eric Sargent and Anna Drexelius, who also shines on viola, while bassist Jeff York and drummer Renato Durante hold down the bottom end. Their sound allows all those who like any form of rock ‘n’ roll to join in and dance or just tap a foot in time.
Kasey Anderson and the Honkies returned to St. Louis just over seven weeks after playing a solid opening performance for night three of Twangfest 16. In the interim period they have supported the Counting Crows — who recorded Anderson’s “Like Teenage Gravity” for their new covers record “Underwater Sunshine” — on their summer tour.
Last night, instead of playing the opening slot, Anderson and the Honkies — Andrew McKeag on lead guitar, Mike Musburger on drums, Ty Bailie on keys and Will Moore on bass — were the headliner and seemed quite at ease with the slot. The band played a laid-back, easy-going set of both original and cover songs. Anderson talked and cracked wise a bit more than he did back in June.
‘If you let great players create, you end up with much better music’ A pre-Twangfest interview with Deano Waco of Deano & the Purvs
Hailing from Chicago and Austin, Deano & the Purvs meet in the tough-to-define middle of loud rock ‘n’ roll and hard country.
The band features members of the Waco Brothers — Dean Schlabowske (guitar/vocals), Joe Camarillo (drums) and Alan Doughty (bass) — along with Bill Anderson (acoustic guitar), Pete Stiles (mandolin) and Jo Walston (vocals) of the Meat Purveyors. The musicians are no strangers to Twangfest; they’ve all played the festival in St. Louis and the SXSW day parties on numerous occasions. But this year’s Twangfest marks Deano and the Purvs first official appearance as a band on a stage in St. Louis. They’ll be at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room for Night Two of Twangfest 16 on June 7.
Last week, I caught up with Deano by email to learn what he’s been up to.
Rick Wood: How and when did you guys meet up?
Deano: I first met the Meat Purveyors in Austin at SXSW in 1995. Cherilyn [diMond] used to have a day party at her house, and she invited Jon [Langford], Tracey [Dear] and I to come by and play a few Wacos tunes. We did, saw TMP [Texas Meat Purveyors] and were predictably blown away. Jon then recommended that Rob Miller sign them to Bloodshot and he did. Insurgent country history made at a backyard BBQ!
Whose idea was it to put this band together?
About six years ago, again at SXSW, I asked Pete [Stiles] to fill in for a missing Jon Rauhouse at Dollar Store’s Yard Dog gig. The idea was hatched over that drunken evening but took a couple years to come together.
Given your scattered locations and schedules, is it hard to coordinate a string of tour dates?
We’re not interested in lengthy touring. The idea of the Purvs is to go where we’re wanted, not tour for the sake of touring. I pay for all of the recording and so far, we’ve just given the music away. There’s no record company to placate. In a sense, I suppose there’s no ambition either! But writing, recording and performing good songs for a small number of people that truly appreciate what we do is ambitious enough.
Where is this current tour taking you? Who are you playing with?
We’re playing just three shows. After Twangfest, we play a house concert in Milwaukee, then at Fitzgerald’s in fabulous Berwyn, just outside Chicago. Both the St. Louis and Chicago shows are with Kelly Hogan, who’s out supporting her fantastic new album and has poached Wacos/Purvs drummer Joe Camarillo for her all star band!
Lots of people in St. Louis know the Waco Brothers and the Meat Purveyors from previous Twangfest lineups. What can they expect from this current band?
Expect the muscular backbone of the Waco’s with the sexy technique of TMP! Seriously, my writing is in a similar vein for both the Purvs and the Wacos…I think fans of either TMP or the Wacos will come away happy.
With their latest studio record, “Women & Work,” the alt-country rockers known as Lucero have managed to harness fully the music of their hometown to make their most Memphis-sounding record yet.
The album, their second consecutive project recorded at Ardent Studios with producer Ted Hutt, presents the musicians at their polished best. In an interview last fall singer Ben Nichols told me that the group had “stumbled” into their last record “1372 Overton Park.” Here, the prior experience the band received recording at the historic studio completes the transition from a country band with punk roots to a rock outfit brimming with soul.
The title track begins with Rick Steff (piano/organ) providing rock ‘n’ roll boogie-woogie piano and some Chuck Berry-style guitar that harkens back to all those songs recorded across town at Sun Studios more than a half century ago. Yet, Nichols’ lyrics bring the song back to a modern punk-rock reality with the line, “The women and the work and the booze in between. Got ya puking in the aisles and smashing TVs.”
Newer styles, not previously found in Lucero’s repertoire, further enhance the quality of these songs. Though filled with elaborate instrumentation and warmth, the band still retains a raw feel. For example, “Juniper” is a bluesy stomp whereas the band goes full-on soul for “Who You Waiting On?” complete with a Booker T.-esque B-3 organ from Steff. Not just content to add horns to the sound with Memphis professionals Jim Spake and Scott Thompson, the outstanding background vocals from “the Ho-Moans” — aka Susan Marshall and Reba Russell — offer further proof that Lucero is comfortable with the Memphis sound.
Nichols’ songwriting continues a theme to incorporate chasing love, pining for lost loves and the ever present references to having some cocktails. Not until the album closer, “Go Easy,” do the lyrics feature a protagonist that has the girl, but even then it’s tenuous as the opening line indicates, “Hold on, darling hold on. A storm is coming on. I’ll keep you safe.” With the background vocals, mournful horns and piano included, this track takes on a deep spiritual quality.
Lucero manages to slip back into their old sound for “I Can’t Stand To Leave You” and “When I Was Young,” songs with picked guitar chords and pedal-steel flourishes that could easily find a home on the band’s previous albums “That Much Farther West” or “Nobody’s Darlings.”
Steff’s boogie-woogie piano returns for “Like Lightning,” the most upbeat track on the album — a sure barn-burner in a live setting. Nichols belts his signature raspy vocals as he sings about chasing after the girl he’s head-over-heels for: “She’s got a kiss like a thunderbolt. Electric lips that shock me to the bone.”
Die hard fans of “1372 Overton Park” may lament the ratio of rockers to weepers, but what the band gave up in fury only earned them depth with a sound that suits their experience level. Like a new tattoo, they now wear the sound of their hometown proudly.
Concert review: Jason & the Scorchers and Brian Henneman celebrate the true roots of alt-country at Off Broadway, Friday, January 13
It’s clear the Scorchers, who have been tearing it up onstage for as long as I’ve been around, are meant to be experienced live.
To help celebrate 30 years of countrified, punk-influenced blues rock, Brian Henneman (of the great St. Louis band the Bottle Rockets, who helped pioneer the genre of alt-country as far as I’m concerned) opened the show with a mellow set that included a nod to Waylon Jennings and multiple references to the Indigo Girls. (And perhaps there were similarities: nothing on stage but two guys in jeans, strumming loose and twangy guitars, singing about their feelings.) “I’ll Be Coming Around,” one of the most recognizable Bottle Rockets tunes, coaxed the straggling crowd around the stage, faces upturned and toes tapping in time to the music.
“If you write creepy songs, you get creepy fans,” explained Mr. Henneman regarding the tendency of Bottle Rockets fans to be obsessive. No one rushed the stage or threw undergarments, although there was quite a bit of swooning when Henneman banged out the first few bars of “Bad Moon Rising” to keep things from getting too Indigo. A beautiful, if low-key, kickoff to the evening.
The Scorchers fired off with an oldie but a goodie, “Shop It Around,” and kept up a relentless pace of classics, new material and everything in between. Frontman Jason Ringenberg, dressed to the nines in rockabilly finery, still sounds and dances like a juvenile delinquent: windmill arms and hiccups in all the right places. His band members look as though they’ve each been drawn from a separate era of rock ‘n’ roll history, as befitting a band whose sound and influences are difficult to categorize: country guitar, the occasional harmonica and nothing but pure hard rock pummeling from the rhythm section.
The crowd was lively. Between songs folks shouted out various shows where they’d seen the Scorchers play, dating back to the mid-’80s. (A special tip of Jason’s sequined cowboy hat to the now-shuttered Mississippi Nights was given.) A parade of guests, including Nashville singer Stacy Collins, Henneman and Todd Snider (fresh from a performance at the Sheldon), joined the Scorchers onstage throughout the evening, whipping the crowd into frenzied dancing and taxing the limits of Off Broadway’s sound system. I am not sure how many encore performances there were: two? Eight?
More people streamed in as the set progressed from cowpunk to the straight-up blues rock the Scorchers have been hammering out since their latest release, “Halcyon Times.” Sometime after midnight — the band and crowd still not lacking for energy — the house was officially brought down with an ensemble rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” — surely the most raucous cover of John Denver ever performed. Ears ringing, the crowd replaced their cowboy hats and slid outside to continue the party at Uncle Bill’s.
And that, folks, is how you make a rock ‘n’ roll living for 30 years: blazing through a tri-state radius fueled by country soul and pancakes.
Concert review: Rocking, drinking and being merry with Murder by Death, Royal Smokestacks and Strawfoot at Off Broadway, Thursday, December 29
The rigors of touring are not for the faint of heart. The time away from home and loved ones is difficult enough, and when added to bad food, cold dressing rooms and bandmate farts in the van, those endless miles can wreak havoc on one’s soul.
With this in mind, it’s a good idea to develop a set of rules to keep you sane. These rules vary from band to band, but probably at the top of the Ten Commandments of Touring are the following:
Rule #1: Never underestimate the power of a good drinking song.
Rule #2: Especially in St. Louis.
Last night’s Murder by Death show at Off Broadway proved our city’s commitment to the finer art of drinking and appreciation of those who write songs on the topic. St. Louis is a place where the crowd howls at mention of whiskey, and neither Murder by Death nor their openers, local bands Royal Smokestacks and Strawfoot, could disappoint.
Royal Smokestacks played a moody neo-Americana, the kind of music we can’t just call “rock” anymore but it still fits the bill. Their set was mellow, with occasional outbursts of rockabilly vocals, ska inflection, and a swinging cover of “Wooly Bully.” While I found them to be enjoyable enough, like Van Morrison songs, Royal Smokestacks was pleasant but mostly uninteresting to a sober listener (ahem, me).
A shining example of what happens when the kids aren’t satisfied with just one style, Strawfoot opened their set like gypsy punk hooligans and closed it in a dizzying finale of “Churchyard Cough,” a drinking song given credibility, I guess, with an affected Irish accent and fiddle. If this seems like ADD, then it’s the best possible kind because it afforded the presence of accordion, harmonica, violin, mandolin and an upright bass. It could be that I’m just a sucker for skilled dilettantism, but I thought that Strawfoot played a giddily deranged mess of a set, riling up the crowd for a headliner they were clearly thrilled to support.
Strawfoot’s drinking hymns were all well and good, but they couldn’t hold a candle to Murder by Death’s opener, “Kentucky Bourbon.” It takes a certain kind of confidence to open with a drinking song, I think, and guitarist/vocalist Adam Turla’s polished baritone paired with Sarah Balliet’s mournful cello were, like the song’s namesake, smooth and stoic enough to pull it off.
Murder by Death’s second song, the gruesomely funny “You Don’t Miss Twice (When You’re Shavin’ With a Knife),” was indicative of the style the band has adopted since releasing their first truly country-influenced album, “Red of Tooth and Claw” in 2008. Balliet’s cello kept a gothic beat alongside Dagan Thogerson’s hop-step percussion, and the avant-garde result could fit into the background of a Tom Waits project.
Concert review: Lucero and John Henry & the Engine keep the alt-country and liquor flowing at Off Broadway, Friday, December 9
John Henry & the Engine opened to an already packed-to-the-walls room. Even with Off Broadway’s turning the long side wall bar into a corner counter, there was barely enough standing room for the masses of bearded and wool-capped alt-country enthusiasts. John Henry & the Engine appeared and played like an overcrowded bar was just their liquor of choice, performing heavy harmonica and organ-laden country tunes. The band was a great local choice as an opener for Lucero, with a similar style of rock swagger and smoky vocals.
Henry and his band spanned a range of ages, similar to the attending crowd. Performing the new song “My Head is like a Spinning Wheel,” the band showcased its tightness, surely earned playing the bar-room circuit. The leather coat-clad, guitar-strumming Henry moaned strong vocals to his bands’ whistling guitars and thick, low-end drums. I couldn’t tell if Henry was losing his voice by the end of the set or if he actually just smoked half a dozen cigarettes before taking the stage. Not that it mattered, since I had come to hear the similarly pack-a-day voice of Lucero’s Ben Nichols.
Later in the set, Henry dragged out an acoustic guitar. Normally, seeing an older band attempting to slow it down is cringe-worthy for me, but the band caught me totally off guard and played an even faster song than their previous electric guitar tunes. Besides a slower, solo keyboard song played by Henry, the band kept the half-way-to-drunk crowd’s attention with their loud rock ‘n’ roll numbers and country strummers.
The first thought I had when Lucero took the stage is how awesome it would be if the band scored a gritty, modern Western movie. But ultimately Lucero embodies musical spirit of their Memphis hometown. Amid whoops and whistles, Lucero turned out crowd favorites, one after another. All it took was a single guitar strum and the band’s fans would be begin yelling along to the words, pushing and fist pumping like they were at an old-school hardcore show.
With “Nights Like These,” the now fully drunk fans sang along knowingly to the words “It’s nights like these, that make me sleep all day.” The band had the appearance of a roadside trucker bar crew; half of the members looked like they could have toured with Bob Seger, who was across town at the Scottrade Center.
Imagine being in a traveling band and staring down the prospect of trying to play a rock show in a town on the night said burg’s baseball team is playing in Game 7 of the World’s Series, at home, no less.
Lesser bands would’ve gotten their manager to reschedule, or just resigned themselves to a shit show and gone through the paces so they could get back on the bus and put that town behind them but quick. But Drive By Truckers hunkered down, got a lay of the land, adjusted their sights a bit and then opened up with both barrels.
The band pushed back its set to 10:30 p.m., a likely time for Game 7 to end, giving a full hour after Those Darlins’ set for fans to watch the game on several TVs and a giant movie screen hanging over the stage before DBTs took the stage. Luckily for them, there wasn’t a repeat of Game 6 extra-innings shenanigans, the Cards won right on time and the rock commenced in a timely fashion.
The DBTs’ setlist was a bit of a puzzle. The band was a full seven songs in before they played a track from their latest record, “Go-Go Boots” — the desperate, atmospheric “Used To Be A Cop.” Earlier this week it was announced that singer/guitarist Patterson Hood’s great uncle, George A. Johnson, who figured prominently in several DBTs songs, like “Sands of Iwo Jima,” passed away, yet there was nary a mention of this from onstage, and none of those songs were played. (Though Patterson did perform “Sands,” live in the KDHX studios, earlier on Friday.)
But everyone grieves differently. Maybe it was too soon to play those tunes live again, and when you have a back catalog of work that rivals Ryan Adams for sheer heft, you have to make some cuts. And while I might question their song choices, I can’t fault the execution.
The band got progressively louder and looser as the night progressed, and they focused more on their heavier songs, stomping rockers like “Lookout Mountain,” “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” “Uncle Frank” and “Sinkhole,” than on some of the rambling, Southern gothic story-songs they do oh so well. Hood’s partner in crime, singer/guitarist Mike Cooley, was on fire both vocally and instrumentally. His careening version of “Shut Up and Get on the Plane” from the “Southern Rock Opera” album during the encore was a real highlight.