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Friday, 07 June 2013 08:00

'Thinking about the next new thing' A pre-Twangfest interview with Marshall Crenshaw

'Thinking about the next new thing' A pre-Twangfest interview with Marshall Crenshaw Lisa Tanner
Written by Robin Wheeler
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In his three-decade career, Marshall Crenshaw hasn't taken traditional routes. He's a Michigan-born singer-songwriter with a penchant for complex chord structures and pub rock-flavored pop while portraying other musicians. In the early years of his career, he played John Lennon in a production of "Beatlemania," then found himself onscreen as Buddy Holly in the 1987 film "La Bamba."

Over the years, he has kept recording, writing songs (including "Til I Hear it From You," a hit for the Gin Blossoms) and writing books (a guide to rock and roll in the movies).

At a point in his career when his contemporaries retire or turn into an oldies jukebox, Crenshaw again took a different path. Two years ago St. Louis' Bottle Rockets became his semi-regular backing band. They're partnering to close Twangfest 17 in their usual way -- the Bottle Rockets playing a set of their own before they back Crenshaw. That afternoon, they plan to switch it up again, with Crenshaw doing a solo set to open for the Bottle Rockets at a house concert.

He's also shucked the traditional recording model, producing a six-EP series that mixes new material, cover songs and re-recordings of his classics. The second EP, "Stranger and Stranger," came out last month with the help of a crowd-sourcing campaign.

Marshall Crenshaw headlines a sold-out show for Twangfest 17 on Saturday, June 8 at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room.

Robin Wheeler: Can you tell us how your collaboration with the Bottle Rockets came about and how it's continued over the last few years?

Marshall Crenshaw: It's pretty simple -- the whole thing began because we have the same booking agent for the second time in both of our careers. There was a time about 12 years ago when we had the same agent. Now we have the same agent again, but it's a different guy. This guy -- his name's Eric [Roberts] -- he made the suggestion at the end of 2010 about us working together. I just thought, yeah, let's give it a shot. I've always been a fan of theirs, right from the start, and nothing ventured nothing gained. We tried it and it was even better than I thought it might be. It was really a gas. They're really cool people. Great rock musicians that really got into it with a lot of enthusiasm. I really like the fact that someone who comes to a show with both of us -- song-wise it's a really solid evening of entertainment. We've played around 40 shows together now, I think, and I still really enjoy it, and really look forward to seeing them when we get together. It's still good.

I was at one of those first shows in January, two years ago. It was amazing. One of the best shows I saw that year.

Yeah, that was the first show. I thought okay, if this is what it's going to be like, then yeah. The few shows we did just after that one were all, they've all been great. We've had some great shows in New York, Chicago. It's turned into a thing.

How have the sets evolved since that first night at Off Broadway? What can we expect at Twangfest?

I don't know what they have in mind as far as their set goes. They have a great, huge repertoire. Myself, since that night, there have been some additions to the set. A few shifts here and there. There are some newer songs that we've added, including a brand new one called "Stranger and Stranger," and then we've beefed up the oldies a bit on my end. It's just more of everything.

Speaking of "Stranger and Stranger," why are you going with the six EP model instead of releasing a few standard albums?

"Stranger and Stranger" is a little bit of a dark song, lyrically. It's told from the viewpoint of somebody who's experienced some kind of loss. I don't spell it out whether the person who's gone away is really, really, really gone away, as in no longer walking the earth. When I was writing it, it was right after Hurricane Sandy. My father -- it was around the time he passed away. There were a couple of other things like that that were rolling around in my mind when I wrote it. The track is really nice. It's got this great vibraphone player on it called Bryan Carrott. I'm really happy to have worked with him. I'm proud of it and think it's a really nice song.

I like the subscription service idea and I've noticed, personally, I'm buying a lot of EPs lately. I think it's cool. What was your thinking behind it?

It's just simply a case where I'm trying to figure out how to go forward as a recording artist and do it in an interesting way. I came to a point where I wasn't feeling that; the idea of an album didn't appeal to me. But on the other hand I can't stop wanting to make records. So I came up with this idea, but it was maybe based on a couple of other peoples' ideas I picked up on, like I knew that this artist named Sam Phillips -- she's really good -- I read that she was doing some kind of subscription thing ["The Long Play," created in 2009], so that notion stuck in my mind.

I buy a lot of vinyl records myself and I know there are a lot of people who love it and have embraced it. Being one of those people myself, I know that. It's vinyl and downloads, but the emphasis is on the vinyl. But you get a download card. It's ongoing, instead of having an album out and that's that. This is a situation where I have this continuing feeling that I have a new record out. Okay, now I'm working on my next one. It's stimulating and inspiring to always be having something new out and then thinking about the next new thing. I really like that.

Are you going to continue bringing back your older songs on the EPs with remasters and live versions?

Yeah, it's the same template for the whole series -- a new original song for the A side, and the B side with a remake of an old song of mine, then a cover tune.

What's it like to revisit your classic stuff? Are you making many changes? How are you viewing the songs compared to when they were new?

The versions that I have of my older songs that are coming out on the EPs are recorded already. They're just things that have accumulated in my archives over the years. So far the two I've had out are coming from a different place emotionally.

What prompted you to use Kickstarter to fund the EPs?

My manager was the one who suggested we do that. It turned out great. The Kickstarter thing has gained acceptance, really. It gave us the ability to create the project exactly the way we wanted to, and have complete autonomy with it. I really like that. I talked to several labels about doing this and they all balked. We thought, well, we'll do it ourselves. And we did, and it's exactly the way I wanted it to be because of the people who helped us with Kickstarter. It's one of the coolest things that's out there.

Marshall Crenshaw and the Bottle Rockets perform at a sold-out show for Twangfest 17, presented by 88.1 KDHX, at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room on June 8.

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