Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Jethro Tull

Published in April issue of Rhythms Magazine

Jethro Tull

“The flute,” read an advertisement in a British music magazine in 1989, showing a picture of a flute lying amongst a collection of metal rods, “is a heavy, metal instrument.”  This tongue-in-cheek jab was commissioned as a result of the controversy surrounding legendary English band, Jethro Tull, who that same year took out the Grammy for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance for their record, Crest Of A Knave, beating Metallica’s, …And Justice For All.  (When Metallica won the gong three years later for their Black Album, drummer, Lars Ulrich jokingly thanked Jethro Tull for not releasing an album that year).

The fact Jethro Tull – who many regarded as nothing like hard rock, let alone metal, hence the controversy and the fact the band paid for the aforementioned ad – were even nominated though, shows how much of a wide-ranging sound this iconic band have had over the years.  Hard rock (whether you agree they were there or not), is but one of the genres crossed by the Tull, a band who began deep within the blues-drenched sounds of ‘60s rock n’ roll and who roamed the fields of folk, who wallowed in the electronic sounds of the ‘80s, who have embraced jazz and funk and even classical music.

It’s this wide range of genres and styles then, that permeates the conversation first up when I speak with Ian Anderson, founder and only remaining original member of the band.  We’re talking about the fact Jethro Tull are playing Bluesfest, something Anderson seems to be struggling with – “It’s bewildering to me that a blues festival would feature Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan, let alone Jethro Tull,” he says – and we get on to the terms ‘roots’ and ‘world music’, discussing how jingoistic they are and what, exactly, they mean.  “The word roots, I mean, every kind of music has roots,” he reasons, before adding with a sly laugh, “but rather like the hair on a blonde, they’re not necessarily very attractive.

“And there isn’t very much music that’s out of this world,” he goes on, referencing the term, world music.  “Except in the case of my flute, which is currently in space.”  As Anderson mentions this, I’m halfway through the act of rolling a cigarette and so do somewhat of a double take.  Ian Anderson’s flute is in space?  “It’s currently going around the earth at a lick of knots, being played in the International Space Station by Colonel Coleman of the US Air Force, an astronaut who’s up there.  She plays flute, and she turned 50 on the evening before her launch, and I think she wanted to celebrate her 50th birthday in space by playing the flute, and so she took up my flute, her flute and a flute belonging to Matt Molloy from the Chieftains…so a little part of Ian Anderson’s vital bodily fluids are currently in space – I can’t remember if I cleaned that flute the last time I used it.”

The flute in question is Anderson’s back-up flute, and yes, it is indeed orbiting the earth as we speak, and yes, it does perhaps contain traces of Anderson saliva – truly, at least a part of Jethro Tull can accurately be described as being ‘out of this world’.  Meanwhile, back on terra firma, the band itself marches on.  2011 sees the band 43 years on from their 1968 debut, This Was, and it also marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Aqualung (’71), perhaps the band’s best known recording, an album which is now regarded as a classic of its era.

“Yeah, that record is the subject of discussions with EMI at the moment because we’re doing some remixing and remastering in 5.1 Sound, a kind of collector’s edition which we’ll release this year to celebrate the anniversary of Aqualung,” Anderson explains.  “And then next year is the 40th anniversary of Thick As A Brick, so we’re already looking at the 2012 calendar and beginning to put together tours to regenerate the Thick As A Brick material in live performance for the first time since 1972, in its entirety.”

Both those records did a lot for Jethro Tull, and indeed, a lot for modern popular music in general, being as they were, far from ‘normal’ – excursions into blues-based rock n’ roll with no thought for convention but with an eye on the surreal, and as such, these are records which are still played on radio to this day, something which I mention to Anderson, asking why he thinks these songs are still so relevant now.  “Well, in the case of the Aqualung album, which was pretty good, I guess introduced in a more confirmed sense of my being more of a singer/songwriter, guitar strumming kinda guy, Aqualung had quite a few beautiful acoustic tracks on it,” he muses.

“That was a really important album that brought together the extremes of rock instrumentation and very much an acoustic guitar, singer/songwriter approach,” he adds.  “So it’s an album I still draw from a lot in concerts.”  It’s an album that’s still revered around the world, one recorded back in 1971, a time when rock n’ roll was still new and there were still boundaries to be pushed, limits to be tested.  To go deeper then, beyond how relevant Aqualung still is, how are Jethro Tull themselves still so relevant?  Perhaps relevant isn’t the right word, maybe popular is the word I’m after, for they’re certainly that.

The Tull’s first record, This Was, was released as mentioned, in 1968, but preceding this was six or seven years of build-up, Anderson forming The Blades in 1962, a band which contained more than just a couple of soon-to-be Jethro Tull members.  As such, Jethro Tull, particularly Ian Anderson, have been around (pretty much) for just shy of half a century.  So again: why are they still so popular?  How have they lasted as long as they have?  “I think it has to do, as with many bands of our era, that there’s a recognition that some of the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s is landmark music that deserves to be remembered, and so a new generation focuses on that music as being part of the history of contemporary music,” Anderson waxes.

We get a bit deeper here, talking about how there’s not that much more to be done with rock n’ roll, you can’t really expand upon it, and it’s the same with classical music, blues and jazz – “Most of what you could actually call jazz was all wrapped up in a bow by the ‘80s,” he remarks – and so Jethro Tull were at the coalface, making this music as it was happening, hence their current popularity.  I venture that as well, it’s been the band’s wont to experiment, sonically, that’s seen them last as long as they have – they’ve certainly not stuck to any one musical formula.

“I think to some extent, there’s two things going on,” Anderson replies after some thought, not really paying my thought much nevermind.  “There’s part of your awareness that you have the older generation of fans, and the younger generation of fans who are primarily going to see what you might call a heritage act, a minor legend in the world of popular and rock music.  And then on the other hand, you have those who have followed the band for years and years and years, and who are perhaps a little more in tune with the idea there should be continuing evolution…just because you hit the age of 40 or 50 or 60, it doesn’t mean you have to fall into being some sort of cabaret act or a mobile jukebox, or indeed, a musical hooker.”

What Anderson is getting at, is the reason they’re still so popular is because the younger generation comes to see the ‘legend’, whilst the older fans are there to see the classics, but also the musical evolution, and so are more than happy to let the band indulge themselves with whatever genre or style they see fit, and so will keep coming back to see them play.  Simple, really.  It’s at this point that we turn to the future, or perhaps the present, for I’m interested to know what it’s like being in Jethro Tull in 2011, as opposed to 1968, or the mid-‘70s, or even the ‘80s.  No doubt a lot of it is vastly different, but given Jethro Tull – and Anderson in his solo guide – are always striving to hit new heights, perhaps overall it’s not as different as you’d think.

“We should perhaps consider that this isn’t just Jethro Tull or Ian Anderson we’re talking about, there are so many acts – maybe we forget just how many there are – many of whom are older than I am, who are out on the road, it’s what they do,” he exclaims.  “I think there is a sense of identity that continues to be expressed, and there are many musicians like me who, if they tried to define to themselves in private what they’re about, who they are, what their life has been, would find they were quite proud and a little obsessed to be musicians.  And so, whether you’re Eric Burdon in his advanced years or a frustrated Mick Jagger…there’s a bunch of us out there who just can’t quit, it’s what we do.  And I find there’s a certain charm in that.”

Therein lies the reason why Jethro Tull are still around today, still releasing records, still playing festivals like Bluesfest, still being played on the radio – it’s what they do, and they can’t do anything else, it’s just not on the cards.  So, to wrap up, where to from here?  Is there an end in sight to Jethro Tull?  “Well, much of it really depends on physical health,” Anderson says.  “And mental health too, the ability to focus and concentrate on the demands of music.”  It’s a simple answer really, and one which speaks volumes.  Jethro Tull will only hang up those instruments when it’s not possible for them to play any more.  Here’s a band who straddle more genres and styles than they care to remember, and they’re keeping on keeping on, which is one reason why we love them so much, why we still think they’re out of this world.

Samuel J. Fell


The Wilson Pickers

Published in Inpress (Melb), 30th March, 2011

The Wilson Pickers

Sunday afternoon at the Beach Hotel in Byron, late winter and so quite cool, but still with that warm edge so prevalent in this part of the world, the sea breeze ambling through the beer garden whipping cigarette smoke every which way and cooling the throng that swigs and sways around tables and props up the big central bar.  In the barn, the roofed part off to the side – quite large, tables scattered everywhere – a band plays, and they play hard and people sitting outside drift towards them, drawn like bugs to light by the raucous sound, the passion and precision that rains down and drenches people in a bluegrass-tinged, rock n’ roll film.  It’s a special time when the Wilson Pickers come to town, and this one is no exception.

A good seven months after this show, I get a chance to chat to one of the men behind this group, Sime Nugent, and we briefly relive that set at the Beachie, one of many for the band on what was a national tour in aid of their second record, Shake It Down.  This has turned out to be a record which has cemented the band as a serious venture, more than just the fun side-project it began as – not that the viability of such a group wasn’t immediately apparent, the band’s debut, Land Of The Powerful Owl, put together in less than three days, being nominated for an ARIA the year of its release.

These days then, despite the myriad other projects the Pickers’ five members are involved with, the Wilson Pickers is a band in its own right, one garnering fans with every performance, one tightening and becoming more and more real with every passing day.  They’ve undergone some changes since I saw them last, that August day, with co-founder Ben Salter leaving the group recently (on good terms) and being replaced (at least in a temporary guise) by bass player extraordinaire, Grant Cummerford.  This, according to Nugent, has left them not wanting, but hungrier and eager to move on, to keep the momentum going.

“Yeah, Ben did leave a few months ago, which was a real amicable shame really,” Nugent muses on these changes firstly.  “I think eventually he got bitten by being too over-committed, he’s got so much going on and is trying to make his solo record…so that was coming for some time.  And I guess as the band ramped up, because of the response to it…it was best for us to plough on and for him to do what he wanted to concentrate on.  So in terms of attrition, that’s really been the only loss and it’s a real sad one because we totally love the man and wish he could be available for all the shows, but he’s not, and that’s fine.

“So we’ve kept the ethos of the band going and when it’s time for us to make another record, we’ll take that one in our stride with whoever is travelling with us at the time,” Nugent adds.  Taking things in their stride is part of what makes the Wilson Pickers as strong a unit as they are – Nugent and guitarists Andrew Morris and Danny Widdicombe all have solid solo profiles, and along with fiddle player John Bedggood, all play with the likes of Carus Thompson, Bernard Fanning and Tim Rogers.  To manage all this as well as playing with the Pickers’, they have to be a strong unit, and so they’ve evolved and adapted as quickly and as solidly as the band’s profile itself.

Where we see the Wilson Pickers now then, is in established territory.  Granted, they’re not tearing up the charts and wowing jaded industry execs with their meteoric rise to the top, but they’re proving that what they’ve got is something to be paid attention to, and so the next move will be an important one.  Where to from here?  Two great records, fans all over the country, appearances at festivals like Port Fairy, Bluesfest and Woodford.  The obvious answer, is to look further afield, and this is exactly what the band are doing.

“Danny and Andrew won the Grant McLennan Fellowship, a grant which goes out of Brisbane, which gave them some money to spend a month in Berlin,” Nugent tells on where to next.  “Just to be working on music and to get a feel what it’s like to play and work overseas.  Myself and John, we’ve done a fair bit of touring overseas and so has Andrew with Bernard Fanning, but Danny hasn’t so it’ll be great from his point of view so he can get a feel for the landscape over there, it’s a totally different musical landscape in Europe…so the theory is that they’ll go and do a months homework and then we’ll join them and put a run together.”

What Nugent is getting at is that the Wilson Pickers will head to Europe, taking their firebrand bluegrass hybrid to a whole new audience, for what will be their first overseas venture.  It strikes me as almost absurd, given how well they’ve been doing here in Australia and how often its individual members have been over to Europe, that this is the first time the Pickers’ have left Australian shores.  “Yeah, I suppose so,” Nugent muses.  “I guess we have done a lot of miles individually and only a small amount together, so yes is the answer, it is weird, because we feel like we’ve been around the world a dozen times…which is kind of the case, but just not collectively yet.

“And it makes a lot of sense to try to expand it, and we’ve had a great run with the festival circuit here so we’re looking to keep running with that and to go further afield as well,” he goes on, before adding with a laugh, “I never believe it until I’m on a plane….so anything can happen and we’ll certainly be working our arses off to get there.”

2011 then, marks a new frontier for the Wilson Pickers.  The smart bets are on the band to make waves overseas, such is their talent and drive, coupled with the overseas knowledge of most of the band’s members.  Having said that, it’s always a gamble, and as Nugent acknowledges, it’s not until he’s on the plane, that he’ll feel more at ease with the whole situation.  Still, this is a golden opportunity for one of the more exciting roots-based Australian bands to have emerged in recent years, and there are many, many people outside the band itself, who’ll have their fingers crossed.

And so to the rest of the year, one which has begun strongly, which will no doubt continue strongly in Europe, and one which begs to end strongly too.  “Well, we’ll come back and will be releasing the third single from Shake It Down, a song called ‘Tailem Bend’,” tells Nugent.  “And we’ll be doing a reasonably extensive east coast tour around September.”  Sounds like a good deal to me, and the fact Grant Cummerford will most likely be involved is icing on an already tasty cake.  The past has been a surprise for the Wilson Pickers, the present is full of opportunity and the future, well, it’s never been brighter.

Samuel J. Fell

Monday, 14 March 2011

Ed Kuepper

Published in Inpress (Melb), 16th March 2011

Ed Kuepper

If you look closely, you’ll still find Ed Kuepper in Brisbane, his natural habitat, the place where he spent his formative years and made his musical mark as guitarist for the Saints back in the mid-1970s.  You’ll still see him on stage too, all over the world, gnarled like old wood and just as musically strong and established, piecing together his art from whatever he finds lying around in his head, with whomever he feels the connection with at the time.  Some connections are severed, not to be reunited, but others beg to be redone, to be dusted off and pushed up on stage, tied down in the spread-eagle pose before a new generation of music fans eager for something different and off the well-beaten track so many others these days tread.

Kuepper left the Saints in the late ‘70s and formed the equally seminal Laughing Clowns who released a slew of records through the early ‘80s, before Kuepper began what must surely be regarded as one of the most prolific solo careers ever before seen in this country.  1985 marked the beginning with the release of Electrical Storm, a record which firmly put Kuepper on the map as an artist in his own right, a musical force to be reckoned with on any, and every front.  So he released a few more records, an EP or two, and then dropped Today Wonder in 1990, which opened the floodgates even further and the scene was treated to something new and different and Kuepper-stained with almost every passing year.  Truly did this man know what he wanted to do.

During those years then, Kuepper built up a strong musical relationship with one, Mark Dawson, a drummer and percussionist who accompanied him on many of those early solo recordings and so this brings us to now, and to the music that begs to be dusted off, as Kuepper and Dawson strike out together to re-imagine those two, now seminal, records, Electrical Storm and Today Wonder, a treat for all involved.  “That was so long ago, I think it was in the days when you’d run an ad in the street press or something, I think that’s how Mark and I met up,” muses Kuepper, providing some history on this musical partnership.

“So Mark basically joined my band at the time, very shortly after Electrical Storm was recorded and ended up playing on seven or eight albums I did after that, so we worked together for quite a long time,” he continues.  “And a lot of that was as a duo, we did a lot of touring after Today Wonder was recorded.  We didn’t do a lot in Australia, but we did a lot of European touring.  So the intention of these shows I guess, is to reignite some of that, and hopefully we can.”  The question that begs to be answered then, is why?

“Well, I was asked to do these shows, I was presented with the concept, and I kind of thought, even though Mark didn’t play on the original recording of Electrical Storm, he did end up being the drummer who ended up playing all that stuff live,” Kuepper explains.  “So he does have a connection point, and Today Wonder, I think if you’re going to look at that in any way, Mark has to do it, because that was basically him and me.  We haven’t worked together for yonks, I can’t remember how long, maybe 15 years, so when the offer came up, I got him on the line to see if he was interested, because we hadn’t had a lot of communication, and for all I knew it was the last thing he wanted to do.  But he was keen, and I’m pleased that he was.”

It’s interesting to note then, that despite the fact Kuepper and Dawson have a solid history of performing as a duo and that Today Wonder featured just them,
Electrical Storm was more of a band record, featuring Louis Tillett on piano; it’ll be interesting to see how Kuepper and Dawson perform this material.  “Well what I’m going through at the moment is, ‘How do we actually do these songs?’” Kuepper concurs.  “It’s obvious to anyone who knows my stuff that we’re not going to go out and do note for note recreations.

“We’ll just be looking at it differently, I don’t think I can just go back and do it the same.  The interesting thing that I find, because I haven’t heard Electrical Storm in so long, maybe 20 years…is that you listen back and you’re confronted with, ‘Oh, I’ve actually changed, I actually do things differently’, which I find interesting.  I haven’t gotten stuck in a rut anyway.”  These shows are being billed as Electrical Storm and Today Wonder being “re-imagined”.  As Kuepper says, they’ll certainly sound different from the original recordings, but how, exactly, is he looking to ‘re-imagine’ them?

“I think, especially when you take into consideration the way a lot of my recordings are done, they’re done sort of quickly,” he muses.  “It’s like, this is what they are now, or at that point in time, and then a few years down the track, I might feel real differently about them.  Hopefully, as songs, they stand up, the way that you play them.  Because I’ve never really stopped and things just keep evolving artistically, which some people like, some people don’t…but I’ve never played a song the same way twice in my life.  I guess if you want the record, listen to the record, but if you want an interpretation done live, then you come to the live show, it’s pretty straight forward to me.”

So how these two albums will appear on stage now then, will be quite different to how they were originally recorded, and so it seems like it’ll be quite spontaneous.  “Well, we will actually rehearse,” Kuepper says with a laugh.  “To be honest, I’m thinking, how are we going to do some of these songs, it doesn’t sort of scream out to me in a few cases.  But hopefully as we get closer to the dates and start loosening up in a few rehearsals, it’ll kind of become obvious as it happens.”

And so begins yet another chapter in the musical like of Ed Kuepper, ‘re-imagining’ a couple of modern classics with just Dawson as his foil, rock n’ roll his muse, anything could happen and it probably will.  So to look ahead then, where to next?  Kuepper is constantly changing and evolving, trying new things, so what’s on the cards after this project?  “Well, I’ve been working my way through an album of new songs and I’ve had a number of different changes of approach to it, so I really can’t say an awful lot about that, but it is developing…and people have been asking if there’s any further things planned with Chris Bailey, and at this point in time, I’d say that’s probably unlikely, I think we might have changed too much over time.”

Kuepper certainly has changed a lot over time, and this is one of the major reasons he’s still such a force to be reckoned with.  It’s an ongoing evolution here, and one which is far from done.

Samuel J. Fell

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu - Cover of Rolling Stone (Aust)

Shots of Rolling Stone (Aust), April 2011 Issue - (Cover Feature)
Full story to be posted soon.

(Not to be confused with the below 'In The Studio' piece)

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Gurrumul - In The Studio

Published in Rolling Stone (Aust), January Issue 2011

Gurrumul – In The Studio

In the half-light of the main room at Byron Bay’s Studio 301, his face partly obscured by a large vocal mic, huddles Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.  The grand piano at which he sits dwarfs him, and in fact, the whole room seems too big, its yawning emptiness stopping just short of swallowing him up.  He doesn’t seem to mind too much however, tinkling the ivories almost distractedly, bobbing his head slowly as he waits for producer and long-time companion, Michael Hohnen, to give the command to begin.  Hohnan himself is a bundle of energy – the two of them have already laid down the bulk of what will become Gurrumul’s second solo record, over in New York City back in February – and so for the pair of them, the finish line is in sight.

“This could be one of those extra inspired things,” Hohnen smiles to me, as he and an engineer set up the track to record.  Gurrumul is, Hohnen tells me, in fine form at the moment.  Sometimes he’s in the mood to come into the studio, sometimes he’s not.  Today he is, today he wants to play, today he wants to be right there, bearded and tousle-haired behind that giant piano, with Hohnen guiding his ship, back here in the control room.  “He’s really in the zone at the moment,” Hohnen muses, almost to himself, watching Gurrumul through the big window.  “OK Wawa, lets go,” he then says through the mic into the studio itself, and Gurrumul does.

It’s hard to describe what then begins to emanate through the two speakers atop the control panel – a man who couldn’t look more out of place in the environment he now finds himself, working it to his every whim.  His voice – as pure as spring rain – swells like the famous break 15 minutes up the road.  The piano – it’s deep, thick timbre thundering – responds to the man’s long, slim fingers like he himself made the instrument.  For a full seven minutes Hohnen, the engineer, his assistant and myself sit in silence.  It is an utterly amazing experience – truly an extra inspired thing.

Earlier that day, I’d arrived to find Gurrumul not in the studio.  He was lying down in the room next door, listening to music, not much concerned with what was happening elsewhere.  Hohnen had called me and asked me to come in to listen to the rough mixes of the record as it stood so far.  Twelve tracks, none of them mastered – just raw, real, Gurrumul.  We sat for around three hours and listened, Hohnen making notes on a pad of paper, things to change later on.  He told me the meanings behind some of the songs, he told me where they came from, he could barely keep the smile off his face.  This record, a much-anticipated one given the phenomenal success of Gurrumul in 2008, was shaping up to eclipse even that.

“I think we need to make it more ambient…the whole mix…so it floats over you,” murmurs Hohnen at one point, making a note on his pad. To me, these songs sound done.  Obviously they need to be mastered, but to me they sound like golden nuggets, freshly extricated from the ground; dirty and damp, yes, but real and so very, very valuable.  Where they differ from 2008’s Gurrumul then, is mainly in the delivery.  These are still songs sung in language to contemporary sounding music, but the confidence in Gurrumul’s voice, in his guitar and piano playing, is immeasurable.  As well, he’s layered his vocal on many of these tracks, he plays drums and bass, and as I saw firsthand, is an extremely accomplished pianist.  This is a record which will showcase Gurrumul as an even larger, ever more mystical, even more complex talent than his debut did.

Later on, after Gurrumul has finished recording the piano track, Hohnen leads him back into the control room where he sits in an armchair to listen back.  When there’s not music playing, he hums and clicks his tongue, occasionally letting out a yip and a laugh, but when the playback does begin, he’ll sit still for just a second, before beginning to tap his hands on his knees to the rhythm, head bobbing in time, utterly lost in the sounds swirling around his head.  He truly is a remarkable man.

Later on, we share a cigarette outside.  It’s late afternoon and Gurrumul stands in silence, occasionally humming a tune, ashing his cigarette whenever he remembers he’s holding it.  Standing next to him, I want to ask him about his music, but I don’t.  It’s not like that.  And anyway, nothing he could say to me out here, would do any justice to what I’ve been listening to for the past four or five hours in there.  It’s just like that.


Published in Tsunami Magazine (Nov 2010) and Forte Magazine (Jan 2011), (Cover Feature)


I remember seeing Tool for the first time back in 2001 in Melbourne, at the Tennis Centre of all places.  I’d been a fan of their music since they’d released Undertow almost a decade previously and all through high school I’d been aided in my studies – or lack thereof – by that album, by Aenima and Lateralus, three records all up which epitomised my world view at the time and which kept me sane through those adolescent years, a soundtrack to the life and times of myself.  At the Tennis Centre that night, those three records came alive for me and the thousands who’d flocked in all their black majesty – the entire GA section heaved and writhed like a giant serpent bent on it’s own self-destruction, a sweaty mass in ecstasy and awe as these sounds rained down around them all.

Today sees Tool as one of the big bands of our time.  They took heavy metal and applied, for wont of a better term, some intelligence to it.  Not to say other metal bands – thrash bands, black metal bands, death metal bands – weren’t using their brains, but what Tool managed to coax from the recesses of their collective mind was a step above, something ethereal that kept on going and no matter how hard you tried, you’d never get to the bottom of it, and that was just fine by us.  These four purveyors – Maynard James Keenan, Danny Carey, Justin Chancellor and Adam Jones – are monsters of their time and the music they’ve created is as timeless now as it ever has been.

It’s now 20 years since Tool first exploded onto the scene with Undertow, changing the way people, the world, viewed heavy music.  They have, of course, released another record in this time, 10,000 Days, and it’s in the aftermath of said record that we find them now, coming out of the dark and back into the light, finding their feet once more and testing the waters.  For this is what the band do – they release and then they tour, and then they part ways, each time taking longer to come back into the fold, and this isn’t to say they’re bored, but as bassist, Chancellor tells, it’s just a natural thing, just the way the band works.

 “Every time we tour, it’s always a different world that we come back to,” he muses.  “We tour for a long time, so we really age quite a bit over those cycles, and I think each time you get back, everyone kinda sits down and wonders what the future is for the band.  It’s a bit of a strange, insecure feeling I guess, for a while, because we go away from each other and we don’t really know what each other is up to.  So after a year or so, we get back together and talk about it and more importantly, you find out if everyone is hungry to do another record with Tool.  And that’s a really good moment when everyone is excited and has all these ideas, and sure enough, you find out everyone has been working on other stuff, but they’ve been writing for our band as well.”

It’s strange to think that a band like Tool would worry about whether or not each other was up to carrying on – as a fan, it just seems like they always will, they’ll always be there making these epic records and putting on mind-blowing live sets.  But it’s not like that, and listening to Chancellor talk, it makes you think you shouldn’t take this music, this band, for granted.  Drummer, Danny Carey, who I also spoke to (the day after Chancellor, oddly enough), has his own theory.  “I guess it’s as you get older and you have to put up with people’s idiosyncrasies just that much longer,” he smiles.

“It takes a little longer maybe to come up with new things to say to each other I suppose,” Carey adds.  “We won’t do a record until we do have that, so however long the sabbatical takes, that’s what it’ll take.”  Carey seems somewhat more downbeat about it all than Chancellor, and you can’t really blame him – it’s been  a long time and this music, it’s not easy.  Having said that though, where both Chancellor and Carey agree, is on the feeling in the band when they come back from a break and it’s all systems go, all cylinders firing, as it is now – they’ve been away for a while, but Tool are slowly but surely coming back.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s right,” Carey enthuses on that feeling.  “I mean, it’s a little strange at first, sorta like a guessing game, wondering where we’re all gonna be…and it’s interesting wondering if what you’ve got will translate with the other three guys…so it takes a while, it took about three weeks of jamming this time around to really lock in that groove, to find something that sounds like Tool again.”  What this means of course, is that he band are working toward another album.  It’s still very much in the early stages, the writing stages, but give them time, give them space, and there’s no doubt Tool will once more deliver the goods.

“Well, we’ve been playing all year and I can tell you that we have a really monumental amount of interesting material,” tells Chancellor.  “But we’ve only recently started to put those piles of ideas into song structures, so I think we’ve taken more time over this one than we ever have before and I think that’s because our responsibility to ourselves is to come up with something that we’re really proud of again.”

“Yeah, it’s hard to pick, we are quite early on at this point,” says Carey when I ask how the material so far is a sonic evolution from 10,000 Days.  “One of my favourite tracks from the last record was ‘Jambi’…that had a great melody and this pretty extreme polyrhythmic stuff going on, and so we’ve got three or four ideas that are kind of heading in that direction…I’m liking it, that’s for sure.”

“Whether or not it’s intentional, but we come up with ideas that are in unconventional timing when you count them out, and it can be a struggle to put them into a song, but I feel in the last few months we’ve been playing, that there’s a lot more fluidity to it,” Chancellor expands.  “Before I think, the mass, you could feel it fighting against the melody.  So it’s got this smoothness to it that I haven’t noticed before.”  Obviously this is a record which is a long way off, and whilst pieces are beginning to fall into place, whilst the band are definitely in it 100%, it’s still a fledgling being, something even these four aren’t sure how it’ll turn out.

For a band like Tool then, and indeed any band of such standing with a back catalogue bursting at the seams with modern classics, I imagine going in to make a new record would be a daunting task – how do they go about doing this, with the success of the past work, forever sitting behind them, peering over their collective shoulder?  “We don’t think about it too much,” muses Chancellor.  “Because we know that people are going to give us the patience and the time to do what we need to do in order to be true to ourselves and our art.  And that’s the really awesome thing about the people who buy our records – not only are they waiting for our art, but they’re actually allowing us the time to be that artistic.”

Time is of no nevermind for Tool, and truth be told, Chancellor is right – as long as we know it’s coming, we know it’s worth waiting for and we’ll wait patiently until it’s done.  For that is what Tool do, and have been doing for the past 20 years – slowly but surely moving forward, a monster of it’s time, only getting better with time and age.

Samuel J. Fell

Gogol Bordello

Published in Rolling Stone (Aust), July 2010

Gogol Bordello

Late on Easter Sunday, I stand toward the back of the Jambalaya Stage and try desperately to take in what’s happening before me – Gogol Bordello, a nine-piece sonic juggernaught, awe-inspiring and huge, playing their first ever slot at the East Coast Blues & Roots Festival.  Frontman, Eugene Hutz, is the buggiest of them all, a dynamo plugged into the main-vein these gypsy punksters have themselves created over a decade of touring and playing.  It’s interesting watching Hutz in this mode too, as not two hours beforehand, in the band’s dressing room where I got a chance to pick his brain, the man is the picture of calm; serene and thoughtful, he belies his onstage persona and energy, something he and the band are bringing here for the first time.

“It’s been a very cool tour,” Hutz muses on the run thus far.  “I’m amazed at how many people know our material and are singing along.  Not only ‘Start Wearing Purple’ but a lot of stuff, basically everything from the albums that are out.”  Gogol Bordello, who have attained world-wide cult status since forming in 1999, were scheduled to play here three years ago but pulled out and as such, Australia is at the beginning of what will no doubt be a life-long love affair with this group, a group whose infectious energy and pounding live performance, puts them on a pedestal of their own.

The aforementioned energy and live verve is, then, captured to a tee on the band’s newest studio release, their fifth, Transcontinental Hustle.  This is a record which comes three years after the last – 2007’s, Super Taranta! – a time where Hutz (a man who is as far from conventional as Byron Bay is from the lower East Side of Manhattan, where the band are based), relocated to Brazil, no doubt influencing how this new record came out.  “Oh it did, but not in a way that the album is going to start with a piece of Samba or anything like that,” he confirms.  “You find inspiration but it’s through becoming part of the landscape and bonding with the land and people, kind of becoming a local.  My style is very documentary driven and I think that those songs come from particular experiences, you know, be it from a relationship with a girl from a favela, or be it a road trip to the violent side of Brazil with a bunch of guys.  And you will find it all on the album, it’s pretty straight up.”

Hutz goes on to talk about his love of Johnny Cash (whose writing influenced this record quite markedly, in particular his ability to “express complexity through simplicity”) and also working in this instance, with producer, Rick Rubin.  “He was the guiding light in the making of this record,” smiles Hutz of Rubin, who incidentally, with the American Recordings, brought Cash back to prominence in the mid-90s.  “It was very inspiring to join forces with Rick who had a vision, and we had a vision too, and luckily, they coincided…I got completely inflamed and excited, because it was like ‘Yeah! That’s what I think real music is’, and from then on it was easy.”

Watching Hutz on stage an hour or two after our interview, and it looks anything but easy.  Of course, he and the rest of Gogol Bordello certainly seem to make it so, and therein lies their appeal and what will no doubt endear them to Australian audiences – what they’re doing is so powerful and real, it’s just what they do, it’s them, it’s easy.  It’s just how Gogol Bordello roll.

Samuel J. Fell

Bluesfest, 2010

Published in Rolling Stone (Aust), June Issue, 2010

East Coast Blues & Roots Festival 2010
Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, Byron Bay

A limp, toasted ham and cheese sandwich outside the Tiger terminal at Melbourne airport is a poor way to begin proceedings I feel, waiting for a plane which is already half an hour late on a grey morning where everything seems as far away from Byron Bay as is physically possible.  Cut to five days later however, standing ragged and raw with dust through my hair and a wild look in my eye, and the airport scene is naught but a distant memory.  Since then Bluesfest, this year in it’s 21st incarnation, has seduced me with her siren song, goaded me into trying her wares, caressed me aurally and held me close prior to leaving me destitute before I’ve really had a chance to fully indulge – so much to see in so little time. 

Dr. John lays it on thick, playing two pianos at once, his New Orleans groove writhing like a serpent hell bent on it’s own funky demise.  The Blues Preachers transport people back to a time of depression and pre-war, sweet harmonies and harmonica laid bare on a bed of simplicity, no less powerful than a ten-piece band.  Jen Cloher injects some kick into her set and has people embracing her for what she is – a songwriter of the highest order.  Hat Fitz gets dirty, rubbing his sounds in the dirt and shooting them every which way to Sunday.

I amble from interview to stage and back again, meeting up periodically with photographer, Paul; comparing notes and drinking cold cans of beer whilst all around us people of all ages, races and denominations ingest the sounds of a planet, all set to music at the Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, 12 clicks out of Bryon Bay.  “I think everything is running really well,” muses festival director, Peter Noble, when I’m briefly introduced to him in the artist’s enclosure on Saturday night.  Noble is, to an extent, correct, for behind the scenes is an army working with a fervour to ensure everything runs smoothly.

However, this being the first time Bluesfest has been held out at Tyagarah, there are bound to be some wrinkles that warrant ironing out – the sound bleed between stages for one; having six stages in a space really only fit for five – the First Nation stage being essentially pointless, being as close as it was to Crossroads and Jambalaya.  Regardless of the kinks however, Bluesfest is at it’s glorious best this year – out here in the swamp with the ocean over the way and the pounding of sounds from all around, it feels like home. 

“We’ve been wanting to come here since we started the band around two and a half years ago, and so to finally be here is a real privilege,” notes Johnny Wishbone, tattooed and enigmatic frontman of the Sydney-based Snowdroppers when I corner them in the media tent.  Their set on Sunday afternoon reflects this, a bombastic explosion of old time bluegrass injected straight into the modern day rock n’ roll vein – a throbbing powerhouse so happy to be playing a part; a band to watch to be sure.

Buddy Guy whips the full Crossroads stage into a frenzy with a power and fervour common to players half his age – he’s 76, and Buddy Guy is showing no signs of slowing down.  By contrast, John Mayall seems a little slower in action these days.  He still has what it takes, but it saddens me somewhat to see his first set on the Saturday afternoon, a set which is big and powerful, but a set so far removed from the rawness and desperation of the early Bluesbreakers, it seems lacklustre and boring.

“Well, that’s just technology, it’s the power in the set-ups they have at festivals like these,” Mayall explains to me a few hours later.  “But I can tell you that the attitude and the approach is just the same now as it was when we were in our 20s in 1964.”  I see him play again on Monday afternoon and catch a much freer, more improvisational set, the standout being the 15 minute rendition of ‘Room To Move’ – redeemed in my eyes to be sure.

On Saturday afternoon I sit under the trees outside the artists enclosure with four members of Louisiana supergroup, Lil’ Band O’ Gold – founding members, CC Adcock and Steve Riley, along with living legends Warren Storm and Dickie Landry – a group whose infectious party attitude and downright virtuosity has already become the stuff of Bluesfest legend, after only one set.  “It’s a wonderful thing to be here,” mentions Adcock, not only referring to Bluesfest, but also Australia, given this is the LBOG’s first trip over here.  “Also, if you didn’t grow up in the 50s, this is as close as you’re gonna get,” adds Landry.  “Yeah,” agrees Adcock, “it feels like America in the 50s.  That’s a good thing.” 

Local guitar slinger, Ray Beadle, is phenomenal, on a par with any other six-string virtuoso you care to name.  Crowded House are ecstatic, a bigger sing-along this festival has never seen, although their new material serves as naught but an interlude between the classics.  Jack Johnson plays a few new tracks off his forthcoming record, the rest of his set made up of old favourites.  Gogol Bordello blow rooves off stages with the sheer enthusiasm they exude while Jeff Beck transcends this mortal world with guitar wrangling, the likes of which are rarely seen.  There are tears and laughter and beer is swilled with reckless abandon, the Break pound people with their surf grooves and Bela Fleck mesmerises with Oumou Sangare on vocals and African percussion behind, truly an odd mix which satisfies all senses.

And then it’s all over and you’re left standing there, ragged and raw, not really sure what just happened but secure in the knowledge that it was epic – Bluesfest lived up to expectations this year, and then some, a time not many of the thousands who attended, are likely to forget.

Samuel J. Fell

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

Published in Rhythms Magazine, December 2010

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

Baby, lemme tell you about the blues.  Yeah, you know the blues, but do you really know the blues?  Do you know what it can do when you let it loose?  Do you know how to make love to it in such a way that it’ll make you scream and writhe like the music itself?  C’mon, baby, lemme tell you about the blues.  Cos the blues isn’t just 12 bars and a microphone, it’s a feeling and a state of mind.  It’s something that makes something else and something else again and you can make it big or you can make it small, you can make it punk and you can take it all.  It’s the blues baby, it’s been having sex with the world for a long time, and it’s high time, you got on board...baby.

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion captured and corrupted my mind a long time ago.  I was in high school at the time and I was young and impressionable, easily led astray, but I liked where it took me and how it made me feel.  They made me feel ten feet tall and so I stomped on the terra and made it my own to the sounds of that big bass drum, those scruffy guitars, that manic howl from the depths of the rock n’ roll abyss.  I grew my sideburns so they were the same as Jon Spencer’s himself, and I strutted around as they bumped and jostled on my discman, sounds channelled through headphones, straight into the mainline of my brain.

The first time I saw them, I walked from North Carlton to St. Kilda to catch the set, and then home again afterwards.  I slept four hours then drove to Meredith to see them again the next night.  I saw them again in 2005, a shoving match down the front of the Hi-Fi Bar in Melbourne because this guy thought I was trying to push his girlfriend out of the way but really I just wanted to get closer to the Blues Explosion.  I’ve sweated for this band, and they’ve sweated for me.  I’ve howled for this band, and by god, they’ve howled for me.  For almost 20 years, they shaped my mind and enlarged my brain so’s the bigger, more ungainly blues ideas could be accommodated and they lay my ethos down, threw a ten dollar bill on the bed, and pushed me out of the room.  Nothing has been the same since.

“It’s crazy, and I don’t know where the time has gone, it’s funny how it just slips away,” smiles Spencer when I mention that when they’re back here in Australia in January (six years after they were here last), it’ll be nigh on two decades of shimmy-tight blues punk n’ roll.  “But it is something to be proud of, and I am proud of it.”  JSBX have, over their time, stamped themselves as a cult act - never ones to hit it big, so to speak, but always lurking in the musical shadows, content to do it their own way, a renegade group of musical misfits, the blues their watchword, rock n’ roll their muse.

So it all began in 1991, Spencer coming from Boss Hog (who he still plays with), joining forces with guitarist, Judah Bower (who plays with Cat Power a lot these days) and drummer, Russell Simins.  This power trio dropped some of the dirtiest records around: Extra Width in 1993; Orange in 1994; Now I Got Worry in 1996.  They’ve a host more under their belt (their latest was Damage, released in 2004), but around the time they were in Australia last, the band decided to call a time-out.  At the end of 2005, they stopped for a while, and the future looked a little grim, although as Spencer tells it, The End was never on the cards.

“I think we just wanted a break,” he muses, looking back over the years.  “I was interested in making different kinds of music with different kinds of people (most notably, Heavy Trash, with Matt Verta-Ray).  We’d been playing for a very long time by that point, I think it was about 14 or 15 years in…I just think it’s nice to take a break and have a bit of a different thing going on, I mean, it wasn’t the end, the band wasn’t dead.  I think also, it was a little frustrating - we’re a punk rock band and we’ve always done our own thing, we’ve always made records for ourselves, but it’s always nice to have people like what you do.

“So I think as time went on and the returns began to diminish, that hurt a little bit, especially with Damage, which I think was a really good record,” he says.  “So having that feeling that things were passing us by…and to see a lot of other bands who I don’t rate very highly, making a lot of money, it hurts a little bit and makes it harder to do business with other people, especially record labels.  So that just seemed like a good time to take a break.”

“Do you wanna get heavy?” he asks, croons, on 1998’s ACME, and it’s a loaded question, one which you must answer correctly in order to move on to the next level, and the level is the level of the blues my friends.  The answer of course, is yes, yes you wanna get heavy, because that’s what the Blues Explosion does, they get heavy, and even when they take a break, they’re still heavy, they’re just waiting, doing other things, maturing, gearing up to come back, to slap you in the chops with three chords and a can of beer, they’re not dead, they’re the Blues Explosion, baby.

“We did a compilation of all our Jukebox Singles, The Jukebox Compilation, and when we put that out, we did a brief tour in Europe and a few shows in New York City,” Spencer tells on the band coming back together in mid-2008.  “Then after that, we’d get asked to do some gig, and we’d just take it, it just began this very sporadic, intermittent series of gigs, and then around a year ago, I started working in earnest on these re-issues, because all our albums have gone out of print. 

“I think it gets easier and easier now,” Spencer goes on when I ask if, when they re-entered the JSBX fold, it was a smooth re-entry, or if there was work needed.  “When we played together the first few times back, there was quite a bit of work, but I think the energy and the synergy between the three of us remains, and it’s always a nice feeling to feel that, to know it’s still there, that it hasn’t dried up.  But then I think just remembering some of the things takes a bit of work, and more than that, I think it’s also like training for a marathon, we believe very passionately about putting on a good show, we’ve never shied away from the show business part of what we do…we make no bones about the fact that we’re entertainers.”

Entertainers from the depths of the pit some call odd but that I, any many like me, call rock n’ roll heaven.  Spencer mentioned the band’s records are now out of print, and as he also mentioned, with the help of Shout Factory, JSBX are re-issuing all their records once more, enjoying now, something of a revival, even though we in the know, knew they never went away.  “I think in some ways it is a bit of a revival,” he muses.  “From what I’ve seen, people have re-evaluated the band and what the band did, it’s contributions and importance.  I think at the same time though, the band is sadly misunderstood by some people.

“And the re-issues themselves, that was our idea, we wanted to have those records made available again,” he continues.  “We’d been thinking about doing it on our own, but we got a very nice offer from Shout Factory…so it was our idea, but I don’t think it would have happened in the way that it did without this record label.”  JSBX are out there again in all their scruffy glory, laid bare on disc once more, a revival of the rebels, the rebirth of the renegades to be sure, although it’s not all about the records.

“Live is a very, very important part of who we are, it’s the key to understanding the Blues Explosion,” Spencer offers, and he’s right - seeing them up on stage under the lights, in a different place to you and I, doing what they do with a fervour and a chaotic abandon rarely seen in this day and age, not with such focus and intensity, anyway.  The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are their own entity, and they’re still very, very much alive, very, very much moving forward and you’d best buy the ticket and take the ride, lest you get caught under the wheels, dragged for miles and spat out the back, a tangled, bloody mess, never the same as you were when you began.

To the future, and the question begs, will there be more new material from the band?  “We’ve got plans for it, and I don’t wanna jinx anything, but the three of us have talked casually about it, so yeah, we’re messing around with some songs,” he says.  “And not only that, but we’ve been messing around with new arrangements of old songs, so we’ll see where it goes, we’ll see what happens.”

Damn, baby, the future is bright, I can see it right in front of my eyes, hallelujah, you know where it goes from here - hot-doggin’, punk n’ roll done in the style of the blues.  Because that’s what’s always happened, and what will no doubt continue to happen for many a year yet.  It’s the Blues Explosion, baby, and you’d better believe it.

Samuel J. Fell

Splendour In The Grass, 2010

Commissioned but not published in VICE Magazine

Splendour In The Grass, 2010
Woodfordia, Woodford, QLD

It’s at this point, as dusk descends, that I realise I don’t have a story.  It’s late in the piece – Sunday evening – and what’s come before melds into one picture, one which doesn’t tell a thousand words and one that doesn’t have a caption.  I’ve come to the conclusion that I no longer recognise what passes for rock n’ roll.  I no longer, it seems, have a connection with the anti-establishmentarianism that epitomises such an art form, it seems I’m no longer in the loop, in any way involved with what is, and has been for the past three days, been happening around me.

Since we arrived early on Friday morning, I’ve felt strangely detached like I’m part of a silent movie that no one else knows about but me.  There has been a sound track, quite obviously, but what does it mean and where is it taking me?  I watch a clutch of freaks gyrating in front of the Miami Horror DJs and don’t feel like I think I should.  I immerse myself within the sweaty throng that gathers to watch Delphic  and I can’t comprehend what’s going on.  I try to get my head around the fact that guitars are no longer the cool instrument and yet I don’t care.  Because it’s a scene, and despite the fact it’s not mine, it throbs with a strange kind of energy that at least rings a bell within some dark recess of my mind.

With that energy though, there’s something else, something more sinister.  There’s a pack instinct very prevalent here – roaming gangs of thuggish males, dorks hanging low to the ground, snuffling their way through crowds of likeminded souls.  Gaggles of tiny whores whose watchword is their own bared flesh and nothing is too open or shut, this is just how it works.  And they seep into one another like wet paint hung up to dry, packs of them bumping and snarling and writhing in the dust yet none of them to a man knowing why they’re doing it.

Saturday morning and faces are swollen with drink, eyes drooping languidly, the excesses of the previous evening written on faces with permanent pen.  We get stoned and sit on the hill and listen to Midlake who evoke images of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, guitars building and building and building before it all comes crashing down in glorious waves of something that rings more true than anything else I’ve seen, or may have seen, so far.  The mud dries in the heat and is trampled under foot, dust floats in the air and we all breath it in, whether we mean to share or not.

Midlake.  Pic by Christian Lesske

Around thirty-two thousand people are gathered here this weekend, almost twice as many as last year, on a site built to accommodate perhaps two thirds of what we’ve got, and it shows – bottlenecks are a regular occurrence where three thousand become one, crammed into a tiny gap on their way to see whichever Triple J band is banging around in their mind at any particular time – crammed and squashed, cast adrift in a sea of sweaty flesh from which the only salvation is to breath in the dust, to hang on and hope for the best.

We don’t get in to see the Strokes – the amphitheatre is full and has been closed off but no one has been told and so thousands are rushing to the access track, the crowd building up, the fences buckling.  Bar service is suspended around the entire site and panic almost ensues, security guards rushing frantically from everywhere to stem the tide.  We leave the scene before it turns ugly and catch Paul Kelly who soothes our savage breast and calm is restored, at least where we are.

Paul Kelly.  Pic by Paul Rovere
Later on, after the Strokes have played (repeatedly telling the crowd to give each other room), a gas bottle explodes just over from our tent, it’s hose flailing wildly, flaming all the while, setting tarps and tents alight, cars backing out in a hurry – there’s a strange vibe over the site tonight, and no one is really sure what’s going on.  Something could snap at any moment, and almost does, but somehow the energy that’s been clogging the air for the past day or so manages to bind it all together for long enough so’s people can move out to their campsites where there’s calm and beer and no one pushes or shoves.  And everyone sleeps.

Sunday is spent in a lethargic fug, wandering from one site to the next, tent to tent, finding used drink tickets in pockets and swapping them for cold cans of mid-strength beer which tastes like water and does nothing to ease the feeling I’ve had all along – that this isn’t what it’s supposed to be.  But therein lies the kicker, because perhaps this whole scene is exactly what it’s supposed to be.  It’s thick and rude, it’s packed and hot, it’s rock n’ roll set to a frantic beat, one wrought from machines rather than kits and this is why I feel lost and detached because I’m living in the past, man, and I’ve not kept up and I don’t know which way to turn.

But in amongst the apathy and the strange, there is that aforementioned scene, that vibe that’s still there, despite all that’s passed me by.  For this is a gathering and whether you want to dive in head first or merely wade around the edges, it’s ultimately all for the same reason, all for one and one for all, play the music loud and pour the beer over my bare chest, which I’ll beat with my fists and holler at the fat, yellow moon.  This is not my scene but I’m a part of it and so we’re one, whether either of us like it or not.  As we make a slightly premature getaway then, late on Sunday evening, it’s knowing we were there and so were the others and we got stoned and gorged ourselves on something different and alien and yet tried and true. 

So perhaps there’s a story after all, within the hopelessness of not having a story, of flicking through the notebook and finding only gibberish, fit for no man to read.  Either way, despite the fact it’s wearing a different jacket and it’s iPod is jacked into something more frantic (but no less primal), rock n’ roll was alive that weekend.  It bucked and kicked and writhed and fought, and now it’s done.  And my life remains the same.

Samuel J. Fell