Festival review: LouFest 2012 Day 1: Phantogram stole our hearts, Son Volt drowned us with country-fried guitars and Girl Talk split our skulls in a feverish dance party, Saturday, August 25
Of all the days the weather vane could have picked to end Missouri’s historic drought, August 25, the first day of LouFest, was not the one I would have chosen.
Still, it was impossible to dampen the spirit of revelry in Forest Park in St. Louis while rain pelted us sideways and the cracked, hard earth turned to mush beneath our feet. The afternoon hours, with the notable exceptions of local faves (and babes) Sleepy Kitty and young Brits Little Barrie, were packed with rootsy, interstate-ready Americana.
King Tuff’s gritty take on psychedelia translated surprisingly well from a dimly-lit club to a humid afternoon. “We would like to thank Lou for having us to his Fest,” announced Kyle Thomas, the creative force behind a quartet of guys cinched into tight jeans, before tearing into a set full of fuzzy slacker anthems—the stuff rock ‘n’ roll is made of.
Cotton Mather, back together after a decade-long hiatus, followed on their heels with straight-up, high-powered pop-rock. Three men dressed as Schlafly bottles, apparently there to remind us that we could be drinking Summer Lager as we munched vegan nachos on blankets, weaved in and out of the crowd, their bottle-capped hats bouncing along in time to “40 Watt Solution.” Cotton Mather seemed genuinely happy to be on the road playing together again; light-footed frontman Robert Harrison skipped and grapevined across the stage, in a manner of which the band’s Puritan namesake would have surely disapproved. And the sprinkles began.
Little Barrie took the stage amid thick, gathering storm clouds, charging into a punk-inflected set with a nod to the Strokes here and some nice cyclical riffs there. The London trio was doubtlessly more accustomed to inclement weather than we heat-stroked St. Louisans, most of whom were sent scurrying under merch tents for cover as the rain began in earnest, playing right through the much-needed (but ill-timed!) downpour.
“Drown,” appropriately named and timed, and one of the best-known tunes of Son Volt’s substantial alt-country catalog, coaxed festival-goers out from under their plastic ponchos to toe-tap and two-step. Jay Farrar’s harmonica reached all four corners of the park during several barnhouse rockers, but they also kept it cool with a few quieter folk ballads — classic Son Volt, and perfectly suited for a lazy afternoon slipping into dusk.
The band’s monitors were still buzzing as the youngest and most tattooed chunk of LouFest-ies tripped over to the Blue Stage for a hotly-anticipated appearance by Phantogram. It was only the second time the New York-based indie darlings have been to St. Louis, and they seemed overwhelmed by the size of the crowd and the feverish adoration contained within — “We’re definitely coming back!” promised lead vocalist/keyboardist Sarah Barthel, following a set full of throat-constricting bass and forceful, danceable electronica-rock. (Rocktronica?) The duo (plus a drummer for the road) pairs Euro-pop and bass lines you feel in your stomach with Sarah’s sugary soprano—what Sleigh Bells wants to be when they grow up.
‘Just writing and writing and doing what comes naturally’ A pre-LouFest interview with Josh Carter of Phantogram
In a crowded indie landscape full of electronic pop, it’s unlikely that most bands will ever cut through the noise, and even less likely that they’ll be exceptionally good. Young Phantogram has already defied both odds.
Only one full-length album and three EPs into their career, the duo of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel — with the touring addition of Tim Oakley — has stirred up a bucketful of attention for blending darkly addictive tunes that heavily reference dream pop, hip-hop production and shoegaze.
The band released two EPs in 2009, but heads began to turn en masse with the releases of its debut full-length, “Eyelid Movies,” in early 2010 and its third EP, “Nightlife,” in late 2011. Both garnered enthusiastic responses from fans — for hooky electronic melodies — and critics — for melding a diversity of sounds into something wholly original.
I recently spoke to Josh Carter — the band’s songwriter, guitarist and secondary vocalist — on the phone about the origins of Phantogram’s sound, how to deal with expectations and the band’s first, err, second St. Louis appearance, this Saturday at LouFest.
Chris Bay: What’s your favorite boy-girl duo, past or present?
Josh Carter: Sonny and Cher. Captain and Tennille. Just kidding. Let’s see, I like Beach House a lot. They’re a good band. We just did a show with Sleigh Bells a couple of weeks ago. Those guys are really nice, too.
When “Eyelid Movies” dropped, the thing that I was most impressed by was that it had a very well-formed, original character to it, which is unusual for a band’s first full-length these days. A lot of music sounds derivative when it first comes out of the box. How did that feel from your perspective?
It happened very naturally. Phantogram was basically the product of my solo work. When I was about 18 I started writing songs a lot and played the drums and guitar and synths, and I would write these little ditties. And then a friend of mine who was really into hip hop got me into some more obscure underground hip hop, like Quasimoto and Madlib and stuff like that.
I grew up with an older brother who is really into good indie rock like Sonic Youth and shoegaze music, like Ride and Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine. And I also grew up on the Beatles. So basically, it wasn’t really sought out too much, it was just me blending my favorite elements of music together to create something that’s natural.
I met up with Sarah — we’ve been longtime friends — and I was singing a lot of these songs in my falsetto and I thought it’d be really cool to have a girl sing them. Sarah has a really great voice and she’s really good on piano, so I asked her if she wanted to collaborate and we started Phantogram.
You just leapt ahead of me quite a bit from where I wanted to go with that comment, but this is as good of a time as any to go there. You write a lot of the lyrics, if not all…
Yeah, I write all of the lyrics.
…So what’s it like to have somebody else sing your songs, especially when a lot of them seem to be very personal?
I think it’s because we’re such close friends. I’ll often write lyrics with Sarah present and kind of run them by her. So I think she can really connect emotionally to what I’m writing about even though she’s not writing the lyrics. She definitely has a big emotional connection to them.
You do this because you feel like it makes the music work better with a female vocalist?
Yeah. I sing on some of our songs, but we sort of pick and choose who sings on what songs. But we both have very different sounding voices; there’s very high contrast.
When we first started the band we wanted to do more of a Thurston Moore / Kim Gordon type deal where we both sing, where there’s not a lead singer. But Sarah has more or less taken the lead, obviously because she has a stronger voice than I and she’s a great entertainer as well, and I don’t mind that because I just like to make music. I’m lucky that I have such a great partner to do it with.
‘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.
‘We give each other a lot of space and leeway to be ourselves’ A pre-LouFest interview with Catherine Harris-White of THEESatisfaction
Catherine Harris-White and Stasia Irons are soaring with THEESatisfaction. Well known among fans of the Seattle hip-hop scene, the duo has taken off with a European tour and buzz both abroad and at home following the release of their debut album, “awE naturalE.”
Fresh off a flight landed in Seattle, Harris-White discusses the group’s new album and its first-ever St. Louis appearance at LouFest 2012.
Francisco Fisher: You guys have been recording and making music since 2008. I’m talking about ThEESatisfaction, but you were also on the Shabazz Palaces’ [a Seattle-based collective] album. How does it feel to have this album come out, an album of your own?
Catherine Harris-White: It’s really nice, you know. This is the first project we’ve had that’s been advertised and distributed around the world. In the past, we’ve just come out with projects like mixtapes and sold them basically by hand and at shows and put them online. So it’s kind of cool because this has been put out there in such a big way.
What is it like working with Stasia [Irons]? Do you prefer working in a duo or larger groups?
I really love working with Stas’. She’s got a great style and a really great ear for music. It’s a joy to work with her. I’ve worked with a couple of other bands before, but I like working with Stas’ and the two-person dynamic and how we can build off that.
Would you say you guys complement each other?
We definitely complement each other, rhythmically and vocally. We harmonize a lot when we’re on stage. We just have a solid idea of what the other person is doing or might do, and if we don’t know what’s going to happen, we can work it out. It’s not like any problems, like, “What the hell is she doing?” or “Why would she do that?” We work through everything, so it’s cool.
In the studio, onstage or both?
Everywhere. Definitely onstage, too, because since it’s live, things can always change. But we give each other a lot of space and leeway to be ourselves.
Do you enjoy live performance or are you more comfortable in the studio?
Recording and working on stuff at home is a totally different process, because you have hours, days and weeks to work on things sometimes, so you can get into a different vibe and chill out on it. When it’s live, it’s a different kind of high, because you have to do everything within an hour and people are watching it. There’s a lot of editing and mixing down and different things you can do in the studio — which is another kind of science, or another kind of game you can play — but you can’t do that same stuff onstage.
Complete with brotherly harmonies and warm drum arrangements, the Pernikoff Brothers’ first record, “On My Way,” garnered praise in the Americana and rock world and netted the band gigs opening for Willie Nelson, G. Love and Tim Reynolds. I recently interviewed the trio, brothers Rick and Tom and drummer Dan Germain, about their musical evolution, upcoming record, touring and future plans.
Will Kyle: What have you been pursuing lately?
Tom Pernikoff: We just got out of the studio a couple weeks ago. We recorded an album with producer Brian Deck. He’s produced Iron and Wine, Counting Crows, Modest Mouse, Gomez and a host of others.
Dan Germain: July 19th was the last day.
How’d that go?
Tom: Awesome. We were there about a month. Now he’s mixing the record.
Is Brian Deck responsible for those crisp handclaps on [Iron and Wine's] “Boy With a Coin?”
Tom: That’s him doing the claps.
Sounds like you’re in good hands, so to speak. So you cut the whole record with Brian?
Dan: Yeah, 14 tracks.
Tom: We’re gonna have people listen to some before we release it. We are not sure about the release point yet, though. We may release it independently or may go with an indie label. We’re going to take our time.
Compared to your previous record, “On My Way,” where is the sound of the new record sitting emotionally?
Dan: There is more of a personal aspect to this record, especially lyrically. I think the stories are truly compelling and honest. This comes out in the instrumentation as well, sounding more like a reflection of our work as a trio. Overall, it has a little bit more of a raw characteristic.
Tom: I’d say our first record is more singer-songwriter rock, whereas this is more straight up rock. There are some psychedelic elements, some hard rock elements, but overall, anything that compositionally should have rocked harder on the previous record, now rocks harder.
How has the evolution of your sound and style been organic?
Tom: I think it’s all been organic. When we recorded the first record, Rick and I were in San Francisco, performing as an acoustic duo. After we got Dan onboard, we recorded before ever even touring. It was the first thing we really did together. I feel like we became a band after we made that record, so we didn’t entirely know ourselves while recording it. What we just recently recorded is more honest. We sound like a band, whereas before it felt like a trio of musicians playing a collection of songs. The evolution came from being on the road together and writing the songs with each other.
Dan: Yeah, like three musicians coming together.
Tom: You’ll hear it. We sound much more like a band.
Rick Pernikoff: We also grew into more of a rock sound, which is what we were originally trying to find on “On My Way,” using organ over dubs and percussion.
‘If things sound like there is some coherent core to them, that’s thrilling’ A pre-LouFest interview with Sleepy Kitty
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
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.
‘I’m pretty happy with the way things have turned out’ A pre-LouFest interview with Philip Dickey of Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin has grown from the humble origins of being the third most popular band on Weller Street in Springfield, Mo. to national recognition for breezy, harmony-laden pop and quirky song structures.
While the band’s long name and the notable lack of post-Cold War lyrical content in their music continues to vex many a journalist, SSLYBY has built an impressive and devoted fan following over the years, thanks in part to a brisk touring schedule and singalong melodies that are both radio friendly and grudgingly respected by indie critics.
I recently caught up with Philip Dickey — who is either the lead vocalist, guitarist, bassist or drummer in the band, depending on what song it is — to chat about the band’s latest release, “Tape Club” — a collection of old tunes, rarities and B-sides sure to delight early fans especially — and SSLYBY’s recent tour of Japan and upcoming recording project. Full disclosure: Philip and I have known each other since college. He once lent me a book about Zelda Fitzgerald that I may have forgotten to return to him.
Philip Dickey: I’m really bad at interviews.
Annah Bender: Ha ha! I just have a couple of quick questions for you. I know you got back from a tour of Japan not long ago, and so I wanted to hear how that went.
It was the craziest thing!…um so, something I can say for the radio. Yeah, I guess I was just really surprised at all the people that came to see us play, it was like, wow! I mean, because we always, or at least I always, have these really low expectations. I find it’s better to have low expectations because then you’re surprised when all these people come to see you play, and if you get really excited before and no one shows up then it’s just really sad. (Laughs)
How do you think people had heard of you?
Well I think basically, our record label [Polyvinyl] did a really good job of trying to promote us in Japan, and there were posters and we even made a video where we tried to speak Japanese, so by the time we got there it was like, people had been listening to our music and so our label basically did all that, which was really cool.
I was listening to “Tape Club” yesterday and it occurred to me that I have been coming to listen to you play for almost eight years now, maybe longer. I can’t believe we are this old. (Both laugh) I have been hearing and singing along to “Pangea” and “Modern Mystery” for all this time. On the one hand it’s great to hear you play some of your older material at shows because those songs, “Modern Mystery” in particular, really stand the test of time in my opinion. On the other hand I wonder if you ever get really sick of playing them?
Yeah, it’s weird, because at a show you have to play the songs that we’re known for on Myspace and stuff. (Laughs) I mean I think for all of us, even though it gets tiring sometimes to play the same old stuff, we want people to have a good time. I think for a lot of those songs it’s like, they were written such a long time ago when we were in college and they all have to do with relationships and stuff, and it was like, a totally different time in our lives, you know? I mean, that’s why I resisted “Tape Club” coming out for a long time, because a lot of those songs have to do with girls and stuff from a long time ago.
(Laughs) Controversy! A lot of those songs, I remember you guys playing way before even “Broom” came out, so listening to it was like, reminding me of being someplace in Springfield and hearing the music…
Was it the pink house? [Writer's note: a spider-infested, shabby rental painted pastel pink where current and former girlfriends, coworkers and friends of the band threw numerous dance parties and hosted one of the only known live performances of MC Migraine Head]
Yes! Those parties were so much fun!
Right! But I guess as far as getting sick of them, whenever I have to play a song like “Modern Mystery” or something, you know, I sometimes just close my eyes while I’m on stage and think about other things and just enjoy it, that helps me get through some of that older material (Laughs).
It was cool when you and the rest of the guys would crash on our floor in New York. I think I was vaguely aware then that you were having some success, but the moment that I really knew you had arrived was some years later, when I heard something from “Pershing” playing in a coffee shop in Ann Arbor. The guy in front of me asked the barista, “Who is this?” and the barista said, “They’re this band from Mississippi, they’re called Somebody Loves You Boris Yeltsin, this song is about Nirvana” or something like that, he was totally giving all this false biographical information!
Ha! I think the thing with that is, I hear those kinds of stories all the time, people are always telling me things like that, but it has never happened to me personally. I hardly ever hear our songs playing anywhere, but other people are always coming up and telling me about stuff like that.
It must be a trip to hear yourself playing in places. I mean, it’s a trip for me to hear it just because I know you, and it’s not my words or music that’s coming through…
Yeah, totally. It is a trip!
‘I’m the thing they’re passing through to get that connection’ A pre-LouFest interview with King Tuff
Transitioning from color to black and white, the clip features a pack of young adults tooling around a spooky apartment while Tuff (i.e. Kyle Thomas) and company, dressed as Halloween staples, proceed to follow the 20-somethings with a maniacal glint punctuating their creepy stares.
It’s in good fun, the audience soon learns, as King Tuff and his band turn the haunted house into a venue, and rock the horde of formally-petrified guests out. Like Thomas, who is prone to ripping out a crackling giggle at a joke’s shadow, the video says, “It’s all fun and games.”
Kyle Thomas was in Portland for our phone interview. At Mississippi Records, the musician — whose second album, “King Tuff,” is a frenetic jaunt into rainbow colored scuzz rock — picked up records from Michael Hurley and New Rhythm and Blues Quartet. The 29 year old reasoned, “I never really listened to them until this year. I’m always discovering shit.” Once en route to his gig, the artist (who will be in St. Louis for LouFest) talked about growing up punk in Vermont, sharing songs with fans and visiting St. Louis’ “adult playground.”
Blair Stiles: You live in LA now, but, you were raised in Vermont? Brattleboro, correct?
Kyle Thomas: [laughs] Yes. I grew up there, lived there most of my life.
Brattleboro is championed for its arts community. Were you involved in the arts community there?
Yeah. I was involved in a lot of stuff when I was there. Me and my friends had the whole floor to this building and we put on shows and had art studios and stuff.
Just a building in the center of downtown [Brattleboro].
Was it vacant?
Yeah. Nobody was renting it out. One of my friends found it and he started asking us if we wanted to have art studios in there. There were these huge rooms. My room had these vaulted ceilings, like a ballroom, with this dome at the top of it. We had skate ramps in there. It was insane.
Why did you ever leave?!
They [city of Brattleboro] sold the building, it was called The Tinderbox. I think the new landlords didn’t want a crazy bunch of punks doing whatever they wanted. It was our clubhouse. [laughs] It was a mix of getting kicked out and things ending naturally. That was a great time in my life. That’s where I recorded my first album, “King Tuff Was Dead.”