From The Bogtrotters to The Beatles: Ed Ward’s “History Of Rock & Roll, Volume One”

It’s a truism that technology can (and should) liberate. The history of rock music demonstrates this axiom quite well, as shown in Ed Ward’s new book “The History of Rock and Roll, Volume One –1920 to 1963” (Flatiron Books, 390 pages, $35). Beginning with folk music and what was called race music, first recorded on phonographic discs in the 1920s, to the birth of the radio and the electric guitar, through the electrifying of the blues, to jukeboxes, early TV broadcasts, and Hollywood films,  the book is packed with info about the personalities that created rock and roll, and the technologies that made the genre possible.

Decades ago, long before techno-pop artists adopted popular music forms, filling stadiums with shows featuring banks of electronics,  laser lights and towers of amplified speakers, a rip-roaring night on the town may have consisted of heading down the road to hear a simple unamplified guitar, banjo or fiddle accompanied by a vocalist. Folk, country and western, blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, pop and rock all come into play, across the decades in Ward’s detail-rich book. It’s a page turner, ideally next to your computer, smartphone or tablet (YouTube has pretty much all the tracks he mentions), so you can follow along while listening. All the characters that transformed a diverse array of genres into the world’s (arguably) most influential music genre are presented, and Ward doesn’t disappoint those who prefer their music history served with a side dish of gossip (Colonel Parker was an illegal immigrant, Chuck Berry went to jail for violating the Mann Act, John Lennon was a popper of pep pills, etc.). Oh My! 

Decades ago, long before techno-pop artists adopted popular music forms, filling stadiums with shows featuring banks of electronics, laser lights and towers of amplified speakers, a rip-roaring night on the town may have consisted of heading down the road to hear a simple unamplified guitar, banjo or fiddle accompanied by a vocalist.

As the resident rock and roll historian for NPR’s Fresh Air, Ward’s encyclopedic knowledge serves him well here, and offers up more than mere gossip. Along the way he covers the clubs, the rise of the labels, the record stores, the DJs, the managers, and the stars they created, along with Billboard stats of hundreds of songs making it convenient to listen as you read. There’s an emphasis on the United States, with a few chapters devoted to Britain, which reacted to this uniquely American creation in a variety of interesting ways.

It starts with the music presented in traveling medicine shows, which allowed new sounds to spread from town to town, and eventually, when radio caught on, it spread even faster. When things really start to take off in the ’50s, the book goes deeply into vocal groups, the beginning of Motown, pop groups and rock groups, as well as the role of the electric guitar, mentioning the Fender Stratocaster at least four times (Fullerton shout out!) as well as continuing to follow the second and third careers of those who started out in the ’30s and ’40s. Lots of background info here, along with the wonderful songs that are still staples on oldies stations today (and many others that should be).

Ward’s book ends in January of 1964, just as the Beatles are set to take the United States by storm. Ward spends more than 50 pages on the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and a good number of pages to the beginning of Elvis’ career as well, but only after setting up these pop/rock phenomena in the context of the decades of blues, gospel, and folk artists and others who started it all. Highly recommended.

finis

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Thomas Dolby: The Speed Of Sound

When Thomas Dolby hit MTV and the airwaves in 1982, the world discovered a new kind of electronic artist, someone quite different from the typical synthpop performer selling songs about romance and despair. On his first album, “The Golden Age Of Wireless,” Dolby presented a parallel sci-fi universe of retro technology, youthful idealism and Cold War politics with motifs that were nearly mythological in their grandeur, condensed into masterfully engineered three and four minute pop tunes. I was all of 18 in 1982;  I admit to having been more than a little perplexed by the paradoxes present in his style and image. What to make of his compelling synthesis of past and future, of traditional singer/songwriter tropes intertwined with an honest fascination for humanity’s complex history and faith in our better natures, wrapped up in some of the most ear-pleasing techno pop ever created?

1984’s “The Flat Earth,” Dolby’s second album, confronted listeners with its soulful style, driving home the fact that Dolby’s romantic optimism and willingness to depart from formula put him in a class apart from the hordes of synth-wielding popsters on the radio. Dolby didn’t merely pose with electronic instruments as artwork – for him, technology coupled with our common humanity represented a way forward, the dawning of a new paradigm. With its exploration of jazz and the paradoxically synthetic/acoustic sounds of the Fairlight CMI electronic workstation, the album was a sophisticated departure from the techno pop of the day. 1988’s “Aliens Ate My Buick” delved further into funk-flavored electronica, causing confusion and frustration for record executives and promotion people who found it difficult to categorize and market Dolby’s music.

When I learned a few weeks ago that Dolby’s memoir, “The Speed Of Sound:  Breaking The Barriers Between Music And Technology” (Flatiron Books, 277 pages, $27.99) was due for an October release, I eagerly got my hands on a copy. It’s a gripping read, as Dolby recounts his rather quick journey from working musician to pop superstar, and beyond. It’s not surprising to discover that Dolby is a gifted storyteller, given that from the beginning his albums have been filled with cinematic tunes with stories from imaginary historical narratives.  

The idea of adding to the general chorus of syrupy pop chatter and unrequited love songs filled me with loathing. I was determined to go full-on with my own peculiar brand of dieselpunk music and visuals; and if I couldn’t crack the big time, I would go down behind enemy lines in a blaze of glory.” Thomas Dolby

It turns out that Dolby’s early style and content choices were based on solid convictions and instinct.

He writes: “If I’d stopped for a second to reflect on the fact that my obsessions with science fiction, ham radio and the Cold War might prove a little unsuitable for the delicate pop sensibilities of the mass record-buying public, I’d have chosen a different path. I could have written catchy songs about jealousy and teenage angst, I might have joined the ranks of the smiley poster-boy singers of the early 1980s, got my hair cut at Antenna and bought my clothes on South Molton Street. But when I turned on BBC Radio 1, or watched Top of the Pops, there was nothing, absolutely zero that appealed to me. The idea of adding to the general chorus of syrupy pop chatter and unrequited love songs filled me with loathing. I was determined to go full-on with my own peculiar brand of dieselpunk music and visuals; and if I couldn’t crack the big time, I would go down behind enemy lines in a blaze of glory.”

The anecdote-packed narrative tells the tale of Dolby’s brief time at the top of the charts, followed by his increasing disillusionment with the recording industry and his subsequent ventures into producing, film scoring, and the world of Silicon Valley startups. Dolby’s public image has always been carefully cultivated, so it is quite revealing, after 35 years to encounter the actual person behind the boy genius image. What is surprising is that he is more or less an ordinary fellow, albeit one gifted in the arts, and apparently business as well. It turns out that the same ear for musical innovation guided his forays into the tech world, where Dolby had a hand in transforming the way music is heard on the internet and cell phones.

Dolby writes: “In 1994, investment started to pour into small Internet start-ups from San Francisco to San Jose. If you were an eager young entrepreneur with a germ of an idea, you could take several meetings in a week with angel investors and VCs. Anyone who could sketch out a plan for world domination on the back of a paper napkin was a strong contender for an infusion of cash. A hundred and fifty years after the first hungry speculators poured into the Bay Area, the new Gold Rush had begun.”

Yet Dolby did much more than merely sketch plans on a napkin. In the early days of the Internet, Dolby’s company Headspace Inc., with their Beatnik Audio Engine, allowed web browsers to play back audio with ease, thanks to code that made it possible to compress large audio files. This technology was soon bundled into the Sun Java Platform, found on virtually every PC. Headspace (now Beatnik Inc.) followed up on this success by creating a version of the Beatnik Audio Engine that eventually ended up on billions of cell phones. Yet ever the perfectionist,  Dolby was somewhat unsatisfied with the way things turned out.

“When I was on the charts with ‘Blinded Me with Science,’” he writes, “I was known as a sonic innovator, the man who put warmth and humanity into synthesized music. I was embarrassed that now I was the guy people would blame for the global ringtone plague. Had I unleashed a monster? I couldn’t wait for phone power and storage to increase so we could improve the way ringtones sounded. I badly needed Moore’s Law to kick in.”

And indeed, Moore’s Law did kick in – the powerful smartphone we have today was only a few years away. Meanwhile, despite his Silicon Valley successes, at the beginning of the 21st century, Dolby couldn’t ignore his hunger to create new music. Longing for his childhood homeland, Dolby left Northern California with his wife and three children, settling again in England. Always the innovator, he set up a state of the art recording studio in a restored 1930s lifeboat, and got down to the work of once again creating stunning electronic music. 2011’s “Map To The Floating City” is his most recent musical endeavor.

“The Speed Of Sound” is recommended for anyone who enjoys a good music industry story, and though the final third of the book recounts Dolby’s adventures in Silicon Valley, it’s loaded with entertaining and humorous details, as he brushes elbows with some of the leading figures in the computer revolution.

finis

 

 

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Gilles Snowcat’s Resurrected Rarities A Treat For “Awaken” Fans

Here’s an October Surprise that’s a refreshing break from the annoying circus that the American political scene has become recently.  Gilles Snowcat reveals more of his gonzo past in a triplet of lo-fi MP3 releases from the early to mid-90s, including Awaken’s “Numb,”  “Blurp,” and the Gilles Snowcat solo tape “Zéro Sur Dix : Encore Raté.” Gilles calls them “something between official albums and demo tapes.” Fans of Awaken and of avant-garde pop, art rock oldies and lo-fi electronica might want to check them out.

“It was rather MacGyverish, to put all those instruments into a basic analog 4 tracks,” Gilles recalls. “I think it was the average Tascam, but I’m not even sure. Then the masters were done on DAT, if anyone remembers DAT now. There was also the mighty ATARI and some synths, including a wonderful hybrid monster by Korg, the DSS-1. Some booze to do the vocals, but since then I changed the brand of my whiskey and the results are slightly better.” (Note: these new releases are taken from cassettes, as the masters have since been misplaced).

 What sets them apart is a growing freedom, in terms of interaction with musicians,” Gilles explains. “Actually I upgraded my status: on 1993’s “Numb” I was a leader, and on 1995’s “Blurp” I had reached the level of dictator.

Vintage synths and a variety of other instruments interplay, documenting late nights that became early morning episodes, along with inebriated vocals and that unique Snowcat perspective. It doesn’t get any more authentic than this.

Apparently the tapes, considered sequentially, tell a story of the rise to power of the curious, rockin’ creature known as Gilles Snowcat. “What sets them apart is a growing freedom, in terms of interaction with musicians,” Gilles explains. “Actually I upgraded my status: on 1993’s Numb I was a leader, and on 1995’s Blurp I had reached the level of dictator.”

Missing from the set is 1993’s “Phase 2: Scrappy”, slated to be digitized soon (it came out between “Numb” and. “Zéro Sur Dix”).  Still, there’s a lot here for Snowcat fans. Unrestrained and uncensored, this triplet of pure pop-punk-psychedelic delights is available exclusively to members of Gilles Snowcat’s Secret Club (it’s free to join).  Click on the link below to find out more.

Gilles Snowcat Secret Club Exclusive: Re-released Awaken Relics 

www.gilles-snowcat.com

finis

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Remembering Stefan Oberthaler

The most exciting part of writing about music has been the chance to connect with creative people from other places. In 2011 Stefan Oberthaler replied to a post I made on a Yahoo music group, as I was looking for artists to interview. From the beginning I knew I had found a gem of a musician. Aside from his location in Vienna, home of the great composers, his training at the Mozarteum and his passionate embrace of electronic music, it was his warm, welcoming nature that encouraged me the most. I found him witty and generous, sharing his music with me, and always available to discuss it in depth. I eagerly awaited each new release, including his innovative nu jazz CD Journeyman and an array of esoteric electronic releases that challenge the idea of easy categorization.

“Music is a language from face to face, from soul to soul.” Stefan Oberthaler

In early 2015 he told me he was ill. I offered what encouragement I could via email, then decided to wait until I heard from him. In this instant internet age, one might think I could get info on his condition, though it wasn’t until May 2016 that I found the sad news of his passing. F*** cancer, as they say. Devastating.

During the several years that he and I corresponded, he presented me with advance releases of several songs. With the tune Robomanic in 2014, he sent along photos of his work process, including pics of his written manuscripts and a photo of his digital process as well. I present them here.

oberthaler_manuscript1 oberthaler_manuscript2Bildschirmfoto_2014_robomanic

Oberthaler put it best when he told me:”Music is a language from face to face, from soul to soul.” Stefan, I’ll miss your brilliant, traditional-meets-postmodern approach to electronic music, the friendly email discussions that you were always available for, and your deep knowledge of seemingly all genres of music, from today’s electronic music to the jazz and classical that educated and inspired you. There is no way now to thank you for all of the great memories listening to and writing about your music; I hope you know how much I appreciated all of it. I’m sure you’re making great music up there in the stars, with the incredible band being assembled in the heavens.

(Note: Some of the links in earlier articles are now down. But I found Stefan’s musical files (some previews) on Soundcloud, here: Stefan Oberthaler aka Keyminator, at Soundcloud.)

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Tom Cridland: How Rock And Roll Inspired Me To Create The World’s Leading Sustainable Fashion Brand

By Tom Cridland

I’ve always loved rock ’n’ roll music since I can remember. The first song I ever recall listening to was “My Blue Heaven” by Fats Domino. My Dad worked all week and, when my brother and I were little, we always used to really look forward to him being at home on Saturdays, so on that morning we always used to interrupt his lie in and wake him up so he could cook us breakfast. I have memories of us jumping around in the living room to that tune after our bacon, Coco Pops or pain au chocolat! Listening to music on family car journeys from when I was very young also had a huge effect on me. My brother and I used to love The Beach Boys (though he’s become more of a Drake fan these days), which my Dad put on for us on the school run.

Then came my obsession with The Beatles and that was when my love of rock ’n’ roll extended to more than just the music but also the back story, the culture, the liner notes of the records, the attitude and, of course the look. It started with their two greatest hits records that are divided into a first with the “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” hits and then a second with their later, more experimental and groundbreaking classics such as “I Am The Walrus” and “Revolution”. My knowledge grew and grew, helped hugely by the wonderful anthology documentary series that was released in the 90s, which I watched again and again. I distinctly remember my Mum buying me “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” as a special treat for doing well at school and being delighted! At one stage one of my best school friends used to take the piss out of me for knowing the year every Beatles record was released and the order of every single track on each of them.

Growing up in a house full of music was a joy. My Mum especially loves the wonderful pop music of the 70s, such as The Bee Gees, James Taylor, Paul Simon, The Eagles and Carole King, and, being in the car with my dad, you could hear something by Van Morrison followed by The Stones or Led Zeppelin followed by the new Groove Armada record he’d decided to check out and then maybe some soul by Marvin Gaye.

Throughout my teens I got into habits I still have today. I organise my iTunes music library in a regimented fashion, with everything neatly labelled and with the album artwork in high res on every record. All my CDs are always in alphabetical order and, a few years ago, I got my parents’ old 70s vinyl collection out, re-ordered it, bought a couple of record players and have been adding some classic contemporary releases to the library, such as Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” or John Grant’s “Pale Green Ghosts.” I use Shazam every day, listen to Beats1, SiriusXM and FM radio and read Rolling Stone and Q, noting down any song I like or record I need to check out in my music notebook.

I listen to all genres regularly: electronic, dance, reggae and hip hop often feature in my playlists, classical less so, but you can be certain that I’ll always be into some rock, pop, soul and blues records. I think it’s important not to be a snob and to admit that, as well as enjoying Muddy Waters, I do occasionally find myself dancing to “High” by Lighthouse Family when I’m doing the dishes.

Since The Beatles, I’ve become a massive fan, in phases, of, first, Eminem, then Nine Inch Nails, Michael Jackson, Metallica, The Eagles and, finally Elton John, the latter becoming my favourite music act of all time, along with the Fab Four (not that I ever refer to them as that unless I’m writing articles). I firmly believe Elton and his band are the best rock ’n’ roll act left on the road today and his drummer, Nigel Olsson, has such a great sound that I felt inspired to finally bother to learn a musical instrument and join a band. He taught himself listening to records in his teens and, hearing that, I realised that it’s never too late and you don’t even need to read!

As part of my “day” job, I run the world’s leading sustainable fashion brand, Tom Cridland, and we are best known for our groundbreaking project, The 30 Year Sweatshirt, an anti-fast fashion campaign in the form of a luxury jumper that is so durably made that we guarantee it to last for three decades.Rock ’n’ roll has influenced me at every turn and we even have a collage of some of my vinyl as the backdrop for our product shots!

Rock ’n’ roll has influenced me at every turn…the rock musicians that I so admire have inspired me to follow my dream to be an entrepreneur and a designer.

The rock musicians that I so admire have inspired me to follow my dream to be an entrepreneur and a designer. Though many of the great rock stars happen to be rich, it is not money that informed their choice of career, it was a genuine love for what they do. That’s why, against the advice of many, I applied for a £6,000 government start-up loan and, with no major business or fashion experience, threw myself head first into creating the Tom Cridland brand.

I couldn’t be happier that I did. We started off trying to create the perfect pair of chinos. We ended up making navy ones for Daniel Craig and Ben Stiller, beige ones for Leonardo DiCaprio and Frankie Valli, pink ones for Rod Stewart and Nile Rodgers, and red ones for Brandon Flowers. Most excitingly though, Nigel Olsson turned out to be our biggest fan and the trousers fit him perfectly. I’m pleased to say he has now become a friend, has a lot of Tom Cridland clothing and we meet up with him a few times every year to go backstage at Elton John shows and for dinner.

Rock ’n’ roll is, in many ways a dying art. There is so much great new music coming out from young artists, such as Sturgill Simpson, Tobias Jesso Jr. and Tame Impala, but one has to wade through layers of excrement to find it. The days of groups of young people picking up actual instruments and travelling around the country in a van playing small pubs and clubs to hone their craft feel like they’re almost over. We may never see the likes of Aretha Franklin or Elvis Presley again. Luckily for me, however, I was born at the tail end of rock’s golden era and I’ve had the privilege of seeing The Eagles, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Paul Simon, Sting, Fleetwood Mac, Paul McCartney, Santana, Electric Light Orchestra, Elton John and even The Beach Boys live in concert. And they’ve inspired me to spend the rest of my life doing what I love.

Tom Cridland is founder and CEO of the globally-renowned sustainable fashion brand that bears his name, and more recently, with Deborah Marx, founder of Tom Cridland Public Relations.

www.tomcridland.com
www.twitter.com/thetomcridland

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From Brussels: Talented Trio Brings Music, Mischief

Among the various approaches to achieving creativity, dressing up for the occasion might work. The colorful clothes from British designer Tom Cridland just might be enough to inspire a creative writing session; certainly one’s stage presence will be enhanced. A tight pair of those trousers just might push your vocals into the next octave. And if you spend all of your wages on designer clothes, the resulting poverty could inspire you to write some really sad, beautiful songs. And sad songs say so much.

Others have tried intense cardio workouts, large quantities of caffeine, and other, more sordid approaches that aren’t recommended. Sometimes creativity comes along by unexpected means. Sometimes that means faking it. The much debated line between madness and creativity comes with enough social capital that artists sometimes assume crazed poses just to say they’ve been there (and of course, to drum up record sales). If blessed with resources and good luck, some performers have emerged from a meltdown unscathed, though they often return to the themes of their breakdowns in a theatrical way as a fount of ideas.

Faking aside, that serious mess that Bowie went through in the 70’s was the real deal, certainly painful enough to earn him the title of “tortured artist,” yet fruitful enough that the decade was his most glorious; a large part of the mystique of the massive “Let’s Dance” phenomenon was the vicarious enjoyment of the fact that he survived it and decided that he might as well celebrate. Syd Barrett’s persistent troubles were parlayed into a legend worth a million pounds a year, even up to the time of his death, thanks to his part in the creation of Pink Floyd and the royalties that came with it. Britney Spears’ current Las Vegas run could be titled “From Madness to Millions.” And Kanye West –who knows?

Now, About Those Fellows From Brussels
Point is, real or contrived, musical madness is good for business, a fact that is not lost on the three lads responsible for the innovative new music group Gianax. Named for the members – Gilles Snowcat, Ian Rigillo and Axel Dumont, the debut EP “Pass The Pill” features six tunes: three in their original form as previously released by each artist, and three of them creative permutations of the originals.

The project, which is labeled as avant-garde sound art and features jazz, drum and bass, electronica, and pop, has its origins in a playful interaction among the three talented comrades. It all started when Gilles asked his frequent collaborators Ian and Axel to perform one of his tunes, “Yanagigaura.” As Ian began to work on the song, he realized that its length and melodic complexity was an obstacle to commercial performance.

Origin Story
Ian explains: “By the time we reached the 4th page of ‘Yanagigaura’ during our rehearsal, I had realized that there was no way I would have been able to play this song without having to awkwardly shuffle music on stage. I also felt that an excessive amount of chord changes was getting in the way of the harmonic and melodic beauty of the piece.”

After the temporary experience of cold feet, Ian approached the piece again. “I therefore decided to try and rearrange ‘Yanagigaura’ to make it both more ‘commercial’ and easier to play live and asked Axel if he would help me out.,” Ian explains. “Having his own fully equipped studio and an incredible talent for music recording and producing, Axel was an obvious choice especially since he had shown he also strongly believed in Gilles’ talent for composition. This is basically how Gianax started.”

The object of their work was Gilles’ surreal, romantic homage to one of his favorite Japanese towns. The resulting three minute piece, called the radio edit, exaggerates the absurd poetic imagery of the original. Gilles’ initial reaction to the reworking almost sunk the project from the start. He explains: “’Yanagigaura’” was heavily edited to fit the radio format, which pissed the hell out of me. I didn’t want to be involved in such a butcher work, but the few parts they kept were so wonderfully played and arranged that it wasn’t a clear ‘no’ from me. It eventually became a ‘yes’ and I was in.

As the work continued, a creative tension developed which the group found inspiring. “It was a process of everyone trying to infuriate everyone else, which worked quite well, I have to admit,” Gilles says. To which Axel adds: “We don’t know if we hate each other as much as Pink Floyd’s members do, but we sure like to work together.”

As the work continued, a creative tension developed which the group found inspiring. “It was a process of everyone trying to infuriate everyone else, which worked quite well, I have to admit,” Gilles says. To which Axel adds: “We don’t know if we hate each other as much as Pink Floyd’s members do, but we sure like to work together.”

Judging by the input I got from these guys, they have all the creative chemistry of the Floyd with a bit of Monty Python and possibly the Three Stooges (it is yet to be determined if they will clobber each other with foam rubber implements).

As often is the case when combustible talent comes together in close quarters, the results were incendiary, at least in the short term. Ian explains: “Initially, Gilles was furious at our attempt to chop his 10 minute song in a 3 minute radio edit with absolute disregard of the lyrics, and went so far as to call me a ‘Scottish butcher’ when we first presented him with the new arrangement.” Slowly, however, his artistic ego started kicking in and as we progressed with the recording and discovered all three of us were having a good time together, so we decided to extend the experiment and rearrange one of Axel’s and one of my songs too.” Axel explains the overall concept: “It was more than just a remix, (it was) “a rework, a real creative flow.” he says. This approach led to all new parts being recorded for each tune.

Rules and Results
Ian continues: “To be fair to Gilles, we decided the original composer was to have no power of veto on the arrangement of his song, although he would obviously participate in the recording and he would be allowed to make suggestions.” The extensive performing experience of the three members results in some very satisfying tunes. Ian is an extraordinary guitarist who has dabbled in various forms of jazz in projects including with the group Individual Choice. His tune “Jungle Jazzin’” is fine example of jazz fusion with a jungle music vibe, which, though wild in nature, is relatively subdued compared to the manic departure of the new version by Axel and Gilles, which features weirdly attractive wordless vocalizations by Susant Bista, a Nepalese singer who had recently collaborated with the trio on other projects.

Axel is an expert bassist; his composition on the disc is “Jungle House,” and in its original form it’s a lush, jazzy piece propelled by lilting bass that supports stellar solos on Fender Rhodes, muted trumpet and sultry sax. It’s electro nu jazz at its finest. The permutation by Ian and Gilles is an esoteric adventure into ambient nu jazz with Ian’s fusion-flavored guitar at the center, and drenched with Gilles’ thematic electronic atmospheres and melodies. Sweet stuff indeed.

As for the future, the three would like to take the show on the road. “We’d like to bring the project on stage and get as crazy as we can,” says Axel. Gilles has even more elaborate plans: “Next step is to go on stage under a shape that I still don’t know; we might invite an Amazon tribe to sing, or have some ETs playing Morse code, or release lions from the zoo and bring them on stage with us, and they will eat some members of the audience, which might annoy the guitarist – and doesn’t everyone know that when a guitarist is pissed, the music’s better?”

Finis

Find out more:
Gianax: Pass The Pill. http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/gianax

Axel Dumont
Selected Discography:
Currents by Mister Dumont
Kitchen Diaries by Mister Dumont
http://www.misterdumont.com
Ian Rigillo
Selected Discography:
Make Your Choice by Individual Choice
Music Radiates by Jazz House FX
https://www.reverbnation.com/ianrigillo
Gilles Snowcat
Selected Discography:
Early tapes (various tapes, 1988 – 1992)
Phase 2: Scrappy by Awaken (tape LP, 1993)
Tales Of Acid Ice Cream by Awaken (LP, 1996)
Party In Lyceum’s Toilets by Awaken (2LP, 2001)
Wasabi Kiss by Awaken (single, 2003)
As A Start: Cà Phê & Pizza by Awaken (single, 2006)
Beppu Nights by Awaken (EP, 2006)
This Mouth… by Gilles Snowcat (EP, 2008)
Mokomoko Collection by Gilles Snowcat (LP, 2012)
Nama Time! by Gilles Snowcat (live LP, 2015)
www.gilles-snowcat.com

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True Love, Snowcat Style

Write From Love.

Legendary Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim once said : “The only reason to write is from love.You must not write because you think it’s going to be a hit, because it’s expedient, or anything like that. It’s so difficult to write, it’s so difficult to put on a show; better, if you have the privilege of being able to to write it, write it out of passion. ” (From the HBO Documentary, “Six by Sondheim.” 2013)

To ask a set of related questions: How many poets write earnestly about love but remain hungry? (probably millions) How many established songwriters, not feeling love, have made a fortune crafting by-the-numbers songs about love? (too many) Was Donna Summer feeling it when she wrote her influential Giorgio Moroder-produced hit “I Feel Love?” (most definitely, just listen to her performance). see and hear that classic Donna Summer song here.

When in 2008, I took to my ukulele to write what would become the tune “Love, Where To Now?” I was utterly sincere, pondering destiny in a romantic, art pop kind of way. The themes of uncertainty and vulnerability have often resonated with me, and I was happy with the way the song came out. I am equally happy  (you could say ‘in love with’ ) Gilles’ Snowcat’s version, a beautifully understated dub-influenced cover released as an “official bootleg” just in time for Valentine’s Day, as a gift to his fans. Get it at: Push Red For Valentine.

Also included on the single is the melancholy, touching “Maybe I’m Dreaming” by New Zealand-based singer-songwriter Glen Smith.  Gilles explains: “He currently lives in Belgium and I sometimes have a jam with him and other musicians. A few months ago I played some piano live with him and a violin player, on that very song, ‘Maybe I’m Dreaming.’ I thought it was beautiful and wanted to snowcatize it a little.”

Cool stuff.

Hear the original version of  “Maybe I’m Dreaming” at:

 

Find out more about Glen Smith:

Find out more about Gilles Snowcat:

Happy Valentine’s Day, from Synthbeat.com.

 

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Gilles Snowcat, Raw and Unfiltered

Here’s something new: A man, his feline persona, exotic liqueurs, and a few musical instruments. This intoxicating combination takes shape as Gilles Snowcat’s new live-in-studio album, “Nama Time!” I asked him about the title, with its Japanese inflection:

“The word ‘nama’ has a range of nuances and meanings,” he says, “more less politically correct, though it all goes around the idea of ‘raw,’ ‘unfiltered,’ which perfectly reflects the way the live part was recorded. However, ‘nama’ is also a fine way to do pleasant things in the bedroom or in the back seat of the car, and when you know that ‘Nama Time!” is made to be listened to in a cozy bedroom, I leave things to your imagination…”

Throughout the course of the 16 track disc, Gilles gets a chance to show off his wide ranging songwriting and arranging skills –encompassing pop, progressive, classical, and jazz– along with his keyboard chops and earthy baritone. On most tracks, piano accompaniment is masterfully provided by Awaken veteran Nicolas Leroy, whose keyboard pyrotechnics enliven the disc, along with brilliant guitar work by other Snowcat colleagues along the way.

The live-in-studio approach presents a mood of quiet intensity that showcases the tunes in an exciting, theatrical way.

The live in studio approach presents a mood of quiet intensity that showcases the tunes in an exciting, theatrical way.

The songs, spanning a period of about 10 years and written at various places around the globe (no doubt on the fly in overnight hotel rooms, cocktail lounges, and European coffee houses) feature an array of topics, including romance, travel (trains feature prominently), food, hotels, and various suggestive situations. This brother of Baudelaire, this son of Serge Gainsbourg, lives life to the fullest and has the stories to prove it, packing a wealth of worldly experience into a very enjoyable collection.

Intoxicating, Magic Stuff

“The stuff on ‘Nama Time!,’” Gilles explains, “all comes from a time when the boundary between Awaken (his previous band) and Snowcat-solo was becoming so blurred that it doesn’t matter under what label they had been originally released. Awaken or Snowcat — is there a real difference anyway now?” The songs were written “mostly (in) Japan, Vietnam, and Belgium,” Gilles says. “I’d say the common denominator between all the songs are some places in Kyûshû, Japan, and the fumes in the street, that addictive smoke from the hot springs, they must pour something inside, it’s powerful and inspiring. They also have strange citrus fruits and make wonderful liquors from them – once you taste them you’re hooked. All those songs are intoxicated by that magic stuff, and it makes the music so special.”

In addition to working live in studio on the majority of the tracks, Gilles arranged the record to feature evocative instrumentals interspersed between the vocal songs. The contrast creates a theatrical mood, as the wordless tunes create a dramatic backdrop that sets the stage for Gilles’ playful vocals, Leroy’s piano pyrotechnics, and the guest guitarists.

Gilles explains: “Well, except for the opener ‘Continental Breakfast,’ ‘Nama Time!’ is purely a live album, raw as it can be. It features more or less what I play on stage since the release of ‘Mokomoko Collection.’ The live songs of ‘Nama Time!’ have been recorded like some radio sessions, or Peel Sessions, totally live but in a studio. The audience is 100% the one who listens to the album in their bedroom. It’s a bedroom concert, to summarize.”

And what a concert it is. As Snowcat fans know, Gilles’ lyrics often take the form of surrealist poetry, in the case of  “Nama Time!” with artfully concealed messages of romantic hope wrapped in a stylish melodic package. From “Beppu Nights”:

And finally when winter’s gone
His plane is landing at your door
A pearl wrapped in a pink box
Treasure love like this precious stone
Remember, there’s a morning coming after Beppu Nights
He could be me
As sure as tall cats come from the year of the dog
A Diverse Cast
In putting the project together, Gilles recruited a handful of musicians who have joined him on stage in the past, including guest vocalists Antonella Corrias (“not only a great singer but she brought brilliant ideas for the arrangements”, says Gilles); and Marie de Condé (“a master in singing complicated love stories and seductive songs”).  Each of these contribute vocals on a handful of songs, with Corrias on the spirited art-rock romp “Continental Breakfast” and the duet “Room 211”,”  and de Condé on the lovely duet “The Train is Leaving Kokura.” The band on the disc’s opener “Continental Breakfast” is  made up of performers from all over Europe, while the remainder of the album’s vocal tunes feature an individual performer paired with Gilles’ vocals.

Musicians featured include: Folk singer-songwriter Pat Lennon (“the audience is always mesmerized when she sings” ); drummer Sebastian Bournier (“I gave him a hard time playing on a single note of the gong on the studio track,”); Ian Rigillo on guitar (“a highly wild, unpredictable, yet fine guitarist,” ); bass by Axel Dumont (“a groovy French musician living in Belgium – he’s full of music science and tricks”); Benjamin Steegens on guitar (“his guitar playing is pure; you know you can feel the wood of the guitar when he plays”); and Vassily Rudenko (“he’s a bit mad like a true guitarist should be; he turns a Stratocaster into a firework”). This diverse cast of characters represents Italy (Corrias), Africa and Belgium (de Condé ), Scotland (Lennon), France (Bournier and Dumont), Scotland and Italy (Rigillo), Belgium (Steegens), and the Ukraine (Rudenko).

But there’s more: Herman Martin, (sound technician on the live tracks and some parts of the opening studio track) hails from England. “He gave some British spirit to the sessions and his incredible sense of humor made it easier for everyone,” Gilles explains. “He had such a strong input in the mix that he should be credited as co-producer.” Japan is represented by Itsuo Hyûga from the It’s Oh! MUSIC Label, as producer in charge of mastering and promotion. “He also mixed ‘Continental Breakfast,’” Gilles explains, “because my own mix was too rough; he just made everything sound better and more appropriate for Japanese taste and a relaxing moment.”

With its jazz sensibilities, the disc presents a view of the romantic side of this feline rocker, resulting in a product that’s highly accessible, both to faithful fans and new converts. From “The Train Is Leaving Kokura”:

The train is stopping everywhere
And the night is falling fast
We’re living our life in a funny manga
The paper is wet but can never melt
I’m wearing your baby ring
As a sign of love
The train is leaving Kokura
And I know what I’m gonna do
‘Cause I know my life is you

 

In addition to the singer-songwriter feel of “Nama Time!,” several tracks incorporate experimental keyboard sounds and funky electronic elements, presenting the most commercial Snowcat album so far. It’s a gentler, unexpected departure from a man who has made a career living at the limits, and producing albums as testaments to that lifestyle. As a whole, the subtle intensity of the vocal tracks compliments the experimental and jazzy tracks quite well, resulting in an energetic, inspired collection of tunes, and a fitting mid-career accomplishment in the Snowcat oeuvre.

For more information, visit www.gilles-snowcat.com

“Nama Time!” is available from Amazon.com, iTunes, Google Music, Spotify, and directly from It’s Oh! MUSIC.

 

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Cutting-Edge Electropunk From Slovenia

Listening to Karmakoma’s debut album “Imagination and Mechanical Metamorphoses,” one gets the idea that life in Slovenia is tenuous and difficult. Slovenians have lived in constant uncertainty for centuries, with their tiny country at the mercy of invaders and imposed rule. Only in 1991, as the former Yugoslavia fell was Slovenia’s new constitution ratified; in 1992 Slovenia joined the United Nations and in 2004 it was the first post-communist country to join the European Union.

The album’s performances give the impression of authentic edginess, not the manufactured theatrical edge of artists who grew up in comfortable surroundings. An email exchange with the band’s leader Enej Mavsar does little to dispel this notion. Though amiable, he steered me away from political discussion other than expressing frustration with the status quo in the form of church scandals, and social and political corruption (though Slovenia rated a modest 35/175 at www.transparency.org , discussion of political misdeeds is common in the media and in gossip, according to “Culture Smart: Slovenia,” by Jason Blake, 2011 Kuperard).

But enough about that. Karmakoma has managed to package a madhouse worth of crazed energy into a ten song album that will rock your socks off.  Mavsar’s lyrics and vocal style convey a sense of desperate urgency, which the pulsating synth beat and big-sounding acoustic drums drive home. From the track “Ctrl-Alt-Delete:”

Karmakoma has managed to package a madhouse worth of crazed energy into a ten song album that will rock your socks off.  Mavsar’s lyrics and vocal style convey a sense of desperate urgency, which the pulsating synth beat and big-sounding acoustic drums drive home.

Protect yourself/Keep away from the windows/Defend your friend/From the leader/We are crazy animals, but better than to be a machine/We are lazy animals, but better than to be a machine

In 1979 when David Byrne of the Talking Heads sang in “Life During Wartime” about staying away from the windows, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that it was theatre. In the case of Karmakoma, you can’t be so sure, given Slovenia’s history of turmoil and because it’s a young nation still experimenting with modes of governing.

Formed in 2011 by Mavsar and his friend, drummer Benjamin Kovač, Karmakoma also features Miha Škafar on bass, guitar and synth bass when they play live. Their influences are for anyone to hear; it was British and American music that inspired Mavsar growing up:

“I prefer foreign music,” Mavsar explains.” Okay, there are songs and artists who made an impact on me as a child and later in high school, some Slovenian bands whom I still like today, mainly coming from the 80’s punk scene which was very strong and diverse here.” Mavsar’s favorite genre in high school was grunge, “and it stayed with me forever,” he says. “I have to say we are all into very diverse music, from classic to hardcore punk like Black Flag to bands like Can or Trans Am or dance music, which we also produce.”

What Karmakoma brings from the punk experience is throbbing beats, lyrical repetitions with shouted vocals that are expressions of frustration with the status quo, as well as the assertion of one’s right to be heard. The very definite dance music influence comes in the form of the pulsating electronic bass lines and poppy synths that are sure to inspire listeners to hit the dance floor. Members of the group also DJ, so this is no surprise.

The song “Cabin Fever” features a manic beat and Mavsar’s powerfully visceral vocals, and lyrics that depict life on the impossible-to-navigate edge of reason. It really has to be heard to be appreciated.

Leave me out (stir crazy) lack of luck (stir crazy) ghost for a friend (stir crazy) night and day (stir crazy) I’m late to stay (stir crazy) I’m not insane (stir crazy) Leave me out (stir crazy) not guilty (stir crazy)

The chorus features a repeated plea to a friend for the support that becomes a lifeline when things stop making sense.

I’m on fire/I’m on fire/I’m on fire/walk with me/walk with me

Commercial Barriers

After Mavsar and Kovač formed the band in 2011, they took the project name from a Massive Attack song at the last minute to join a competition. “Well, I had to find a name quick to apply for a show,” Mavsar explains. “I remembered a Massive Attack song title which I thought sounded good; there was no philosophy at the time. But I see how the name is applying to us in different ways.”

Since their formation, the group has played in “Belgium, England, Austria, and all over ex-Yugoslavia,” and plays frequently  throughout Slovenia.. Airplay support has also been strong, starting with Airplay on Radio Student Ljubljana in the nation’s capital, leading to airplay on the national Radio Slovenia and on national television, a program called Aritimija. Still, the barriers to reaching truly massive exposure are formidable. “We are like many other Slovenian artists ignored by other radio stations, which are all commercial,” explains Mavsar.

Analog Dreams

Mavsar spent a few childhood years in music school, and continued as a self-taught musician encouraged by his mom, who bought him his first guitar. In addition to guitars, Mavsar contributes keyboards and programming to Karmakoma. Drummer Kovač’s skills should not be underestimated; the presence of live drums (he plays to a click track in his headphones) is a powerful factor that sets Karmakoma apart from electronica artists who rely on programmed drum beats. Kovač is also largely self-taught, with a few years of music school as a child behind him. The duties of sound design for the group falls to both men.

Karmakoma’s sequenced sound is driven by a Mac laptop. “For now we just use soft synths, (samples) and a computer,” Mavsar writes, almost apologetically. “Real analog synths are pretty expensive for us but we would like to use some on the next album or in the near future.” To accomplish this, the band members balance day jobs with frequent live performances.

The album, recorded throughout 2013 and released in 2014, was produced and engineered by Petar Stojanović at his studio. The year in the studio was a deliberately measured approach to the recording process. “We wanted to have no deadline, to work slowly,” to allow for the members’  schedules and to create something they would be satisfied with, he says.

Like the music they take their inspiration from, Karmakoma’s lyrics feature impressionistic illustrations from the human condition, based on the responsibility of each of us to each other, as members of the human race. From the tune “Bona Fide:”

Oh man, heavy days, dead weight/I have almost lost my mind/you came, bona fide/nothing like a great heart installed, I am saved/why should I run, brave is the man who stands/I can only make you laugh and put you on a pedestal

Inspired by a love relationship, the song’s message is an optimistic note in an album that features a lot of lyrical realism, even cynicism.  When asked if the new songs he is working on now will be in this optimistic vein or focus on desperation, Mavsar replies “I guess I know (what you mean) when you say I am a man of despair,” he writes, followed by an emoticon wink. ” I still don’t know which songs will (be) on the album. As I see it now it will be very diverse.” The recent release, “Remiss” from earlier this year is a dreamy departure from their more aggressive sound (linked below at you tube).

Karmakoma represents the new Slovenia, of creative, peaceful dissent, of having the courage to be oneself in the face of stifling traditions, of reaching one’s potential through the power of music. The famously angry old school punkers that inspired Mavsar often let optimism and humor break through, a lesson that is not lost throughout “Imagination and Mechanical Metamorphoses.” Given the bands’ engaging sound and the ambition of the members, it’s easy to be optimistic about Karmakoma’s prospects. With the support of the right label and the right combination of the lyrical and melodic hooks they’ve already mastered, Karmakoma may well break through the barriers keeping them from making Slovenia less of a mystery to fans of alternative rock around the globe.

(A big “thanks” to Sienna for introducing me to these guys!)

http://karmakoma.bandcamp.com/
https://www.facebook.com/karmakomaband?fref=nf
https://soundcloud.com/karma-coma-1/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-D25B9vkLUM
https://twitter.com/K4RM4KOM4

 

 

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Cultural History: Sienna’s Romantic Vision For A Postmodern Age

A thousand years from now, historians will access musical recordings and videos of performances to understand what life was all about in the 20th and 21st centuries. Arguably, there’s no better way to vicariously experience the lunacy that was the 1960s and 70s than listening to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon,” or no more direct glimpse into the heart of a romantic than the latest disc by Passenger or Ed Sheeran. Put simply, musical compositions encapsulate passions and attitudes in a way that mere essays or news documentaries can’t.

Another romantic soul worth listening to is European electronica artist Sienná, who is busy traveling the globe and documenting a life in love with beauty. Her most recent release, the single “I Know Why” is the first on her “Anneis” label, and a departure from her previous releases. With vocals by Sienná and Hallvard Gaardløs, the lovely tune begins with an ethereal guitar figure and a sound close to dreampop before venturing into a more experimental style. The single is Sienná’s debut as producer and engineer as well. See and hear the video on you tube: https://youtu.be/pLMaMZNbcjs

Born and raised in Japan but now situated in Norway, Sienná rebelled against the conservative norms of her childhood to pursue music; since  launching her career she has toured all over Europe bringing alternate versions of her recorded music to audiences.  From the beginning,  Sienná  partnered with producer Abon to release an EP and three full length records.

About the differences between her recorded music and what happens live, Sienná explains: “We are three musicians on stage, and we always simplify them to the max, and also give a larger space for Hallvard (my bassist) and Vegard Lien (my keyboardist) to groove and improvise as they like. So, the audience may always expect something different than what they hear on the albums. I also experienced how much my music varies according to whom I perform with. ..I think especially house-music lovers tend to be surprised how groovy we are as a live band who does jazzy improvisations. It´s just like extra spices on the grooves they dance to. Live music lovers tend to be surprised how unique we are. Well, the world of music has become pretty much crossover, though we can still surprise people. I love it.”

Cinematic and Danceable Soundscapes

Sienna’s most recent full length album, Japonesque (2013) is true to her romantic vision, imbued with a poetic sensibility that celebrates the beauty in imagination, memories, and reflections on everyday life.

Sienná explains: “I had been trying to combine “European” type of music and Japanese music in my weird electronic way since 2008. What I tried to do on the album “Japonesque” was to do it much better. I guess ‘what one likes, one will do best’ as Japanese say. The word ‘Japonesque’ means something characteristically Japanese, with influence of something European – like my music, as well as my personality. The main concept came from me being nostalgic about my hometown Kyoto. I am far away from home, but I close my eyes and see in my mind what I used to see. Sometimes I start to hear sound added to it like a movie scene. So I take a note of what comes to my mind with any synths available at that point – that is probably why it becomes electronic-based music. I believe I am best at forming my ideas with synths.”

 The disc relies on a mix of sampled, digital and classic analogue synth sounds along with skillful guitar and bass, and features Sienná’s characteristically tasty dance grooves along with cinematic, sublime experimental tunes and Sienná’s exotic vocalizations. It seems ideal for play in many venues, from home to public spaces. In addition to drawing upon the wellsprings of imagination, Sienná is inspired by her travels, as is the case with the tunes “Gion” and “Fontabranda di Siena.”

It can happen wherever I am,” she explains. “I heard sound when I was walking down on the Gion district in Kyoto, or when I was sitting by the fountain in Siena (Italy) named ‘Fontabranda Di Siena.’ Timing is always unpredictable, but yes, I think travel is certainly a very good way for me to collect impressions. The sound I hear first can be changed as it processes later, but the basis and its concept usually stay unchanged. It´s interesting that you tell me about the medieval references. It´s nothing conscious about it from my side, though very very true! I am basically an educated cultural historian, so I admire things and places with long histories and stories. Also, I like to use my imagination and pretend stepping back in time here and there. That may be why people call me “an awake-walking daydreamer’ and ‘a contemporary traditionalist?’ I don´t know.”

 The album reaches a point where Sienná’s personal experiences intersect with universal experience in a cycle of four songs: “Tranquility (Black Tortoise of the North)”, Ascension (Azure Dragon of the East)”, “Rest (White Tiger of the West)”,and “Play (Vermilion Bird of the South).” These alternately soothing and danceable new jazz/electronica soundscapes combine atmospheric melodic elements with improvisation, resulting in sound paintings that engage the listener’s imagination.

Sienna explains: “The titles of the four songs represent what I used to do in each part of the town, combined with an image from the Four celestial guardians of Kyoto on the four compass directions – a kind of Feng shui concept the town was built upon. The northern part is a deep mountain area where I felt an endless tranquility. Sometimes I spent ‘rest time’ with my parents in the western part. I went to a school located in the eastern side, where I “ascended.’ And, I lived in the southern part. It was my ‘playground.'”

It’s the sense of play that permeates the album that makes it so much fun to listen to;  experimental but always melodic, “Japonesque” documents an artist at play, with the recorded medium as a canvas teeming with color.

The disc’s lovely final track, “New Day,” features lush pads, vintage analog drum sounds, tranquil piano and Sienná’s baritone/tenor voice urging listeners towards  “wonderland,” where “we keep the dream.” Like the rest of the album, it’s a gorgeous sound painting depicting the life of a dreamer. “Japonesque,” produced by Abon, features Sienna on keyboards and vocals, Hallvard Gaardløs on bass, and Abon on guitar. It has a lot to offer fans of jazz, pop and electronica who appreciate first rate musicianship and production, in a disc that engages the imagination and, at times, inspires you to put on your dancing shoes, or just chill out and enjoy. Get it on iTunes, Amazon, and hear it on Spotify. Find out more at www.sienna-web.com

 

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