Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Justin Rice Jumps Between Bishop Allen and The Last Names

First you hear the hazy, languid tones of a young woman whose voice falls somewhere in the ethereal zone between Mazzy Star‘s Hope Sandoval and Cat Power. At times, a male vocal partner’s warm pipes waft into the mix. Soon you’re sucked into a mood that’s somewhere between the last, evanescent rays of summer sunshine softly receding from view and an evocative, autumnal flickering of gossamer guitars and diaphanous keyboard lines. You’re listening to Wilderness, the debut album by The Last Names, a married couple who became a band by accident. (more…)

Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Murder By Death's Dark Dreams

We’ve always been outsiders, it seems, says Adam Turla, frontman for Bloomington, Ind. band Murder By Death. Though he’s talking specifically about the band’s history with record labels, the idea could easily be expanded to encompass Murder By Death’s career as a whole. After all, a band that comes off like a blend of Nick Cave, The Pogues, and the evil siblings of The Decemberists isn’t the sort that’s easily pigeonholed. But judging by the Bloomingtonians’ sixth album, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, that’s a quality that has served them well.

Though MBD’s latest outing finds them on esteemed, alt country-oriented Bloodshot Records, their last two albums found a home on Vagrant Records, a label initially best known as an emo stronghold. We never really fit in, says Turla. Whatever label we sign to, there’s people who are like, ˜Huh, that’s weird.’ Vagrant was excited about working with us, and we’d seen that they’d had some successes with bands like Hold Steady and Lemonheads when we signed with them. We thought, ˜Okay, that could work.’ (more…)

Riffs, Rants and Rumors: Bruce's Broadsides for the New Depression

The first question is, what the hell took him so long? Bruce Springsteen‘s new album, Wrecking Ball, is very much a response to the post-apocalyptic state of the American economy, but a quick glance at the calendar reveals that the country has been in a handbasket clearly marked “Destination: Hell” for the last five or six years, during which time The Boss (who is hopefully not starting to regret his nickname in this post-Occupy era) released two albums”Magic and Working on a Dream”that had nothing to do with economic collapse.

Well, being an international rock star isn’t like running a newspaper or blog”sure, Neil Young has dashed off hastily assembled musical responses to current events in recent years, but frankly, the results sounded hastily assembled. An aesthetically successful musical reaction to sociopolitical developments doesn’t come together overnight, and when you’re on the kind of grand-scale write, record, tour-the-world superstar schedule Springsteen maintains, nothing happens quickly. Besides, he didn’t even start recording 2009’s Working on a Dream until 2007, so most of the songs on it were probably written before the excrement hit the air conditioner in terms of the national economy. (more…)

Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Thomas Dolby Dreams Of A Floating City

Even if you have only a passing knowledge of ˜80s new wave, it’s likely that Thomas Dolby has a place in your heart for lending some class”not to mention the occasional touch of funk”to the burgeoning synth-pop movement with such hits as Hyperactive, Europa and the Pirate Twins, and of course, the ultimate ode to love in a lab coat, She Blinded Me With Science. But if your knowledge of Dolby’s career drops off after the ˜80s, it’s not because you’re uninformed. In fact, Dolby spent much of the ˜90s and ˜00s outside of the music biz, pursuing other electronic interests that we’ll get to presently. But now, he’s set to release his first album of new material, and we talked with him about that record, A Map of the Floating City, as well as his early output, and got the straight story on Dolby’s missing years too.

Back in the ˜70s, the electro-pop pioneer was actually a teenage prog fan, worshipping at the altar of arty epics and tricky time signatures. I think many punks were teenage prog rockers, says Dolby. I still remember the outrage that prog rockers felt when punk first came on the scene. When I was fifteen I was into Genesis and Yes and Little Feat and Steely Dan. [Pogues frontman] Shane McGowan, who I was at school with, came in one day and said ‘Well, I think The Beatles and the Stones is all shit,’ and I remember my sense of outrage. I said, ‘Well, Shane, what should we be listening to?’ And he said ‘Johnny Thunders, MC5, Iggy Pop.’ And we’d never heard of any of these people. Of course within a few months we’d all spiked our hair and torn our trousers, and were all down at the 100 club listening to Siouxsie & The Banshees or The Clash.”

Even after trading his bellbottoms for leather pants, though, Dolby still gravitated naturally towards the brainier end of the British new wave, idolizing XTC to an obsessive degree. I used to follow them around in the early punk days, he admits. XTC came along and they had the energy of punk, but they had a musical intelligence to go along with it, so obviously that was a revelation to me. I knew their songs inside out, and I remember being in front of the stage, in front of Barry Andrews, their keyboard player, hoping that he would get hit by a tram or something, and they’d have to go ˜Is there anyone in the house that knows our keyboard parts?’ and I could leap up on stage.

Before that opportunity arose, though, Dolby began making his own way in the music world, working with other artists at first, from Bruce Wooley & The Camera Club to Lene Lovich. He released his first single in 1981, and his 1982 debut album, The Golden Age of Wireless, made him a success straight out of the gate. The sophistication of Dolby’s songwriting put him at the forefront of artists working with the new musical toolkit the ˜80s brought along, and even today he’s often associated exclusively with an era when he recalls providing an alternative to a lot of hair bands and a lot of AOR, noting The irony of it is that if you listen to my first album¦a lot of the songs are a three-piece band with additional keyboards. I was a big fan of early Talking Heads, and a couple of songs have that kind of vibe to them.

Nevertheless, he still embraces his early recordings. I do feel very strongly connected to them. There’s very little that I would choose to redo or delete. I guess, like anyone else in the ˜80s, I fell prey to some trends and sounds of the moment. Some were of my own making, some were just the flavor du jour, but overall I think my early stuff still stands up fairly well because of the substance behind the songwriting. There are some artists that transcend the era that they’re from; I think of anyone from Steely Dan to Kraftwerk to Van Morrison or Joni Mitchell, all of whom have influenced me very strongly. You wouldn’t catch any of them going out on a ˜70s revival tour¦the contribution they made spanned a wider spectrum than that.

However, Dolby found himself sufficiently dissatisfied with the music industry in the ˜90s to pursue a different course. I thought, ˜I’ll take a little sabbatical and go to Silicon Valley and explore my interest in technology,’ he recalls. Eventually, he started his own company and created a revolutionary ringtone technology that made a huge splash in the cell phone world, and he created soundtrack music for video games. Dolby found himself a success once more, but in an entirely new context. He could never resist the pull of songwriting for long, though, and the seeds of his upcoming album, A Map Of The Floating City, began to bear fruit. I had some songs that I’d been unable to escape from, he remembers. I needed to get those done, and once I started, I wrote brand new songs. Much of the recording process took place in Dolby’s home studio, built inside a lifeboat from the 1930s, which he says looks out over the North Sea and is powered by the wind and the sun.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the songs he recorded in this idyllic setting turned out to be much more acoustic-oriented and balladic than the tunes Dolby is most famous for. The songs from the new album are very organic, he agrees, adding, I’m very influenced by my environment. The inclusion of Dire Straits axeman Mark Knopfler on the track 17 Hills helps lend a rootsy touch as well. I just felt that his style would be a very good complement for the song, explains Dolby. He’s a student of American roots music¦I love his lyrical guitar style.

So, with all this earthiness going on, does Dolby still have a soft spot in his heart for the technology of old? Quite frankly, he confesses, a $1.99 iPhone app with a picture of a Mellotron, that sounds pretty close to the real thing, is to me a huge improvement on something that goes out of tune and takes three guys to carry it. But I know purists would probably be outraged to hear me say that. Nevertheless, he can envision a future where even today’s cutting-edge digital gear is fetishized as vintage equipment. I think fetishism for the past will always exist, he speculates, but maybe the future will be [about] jacking into the matrix and imagining ourselves in front of our 64k Mac, playing with those old tools. Things go full circle, so it’s hard to know where we’ll end up.


Q&A With Dropkick Murphys

Bagpipes, accordion and tin whistle aren’t usually part of the formula for success in a rock band, but Boston’s Dropkick Murphys managed to build a considerable following by infusing their unique Celt-punk with traditional Irish elements. And after Shipping Up to Boston was featured in Martin Scorcese’s Academy Award-winning film The Departed, the Murphys and their offbeat rock became a household name. Not that the sudden attention went to their heads” the dynamic rockers continually put out albums filled with insanely catchy, hard-hitting anthems and melodic ballads perfect for tavern sing-a-longs.

As the band gears up for the release of their seventh studio album Going Out in Style and prepares for a two-month tour of the US and Europe, OurStage got a chance to sit down with guitarist/vocalist/accordionist Tim Brennan to get the lowdown on the new album, their post-Shipping Up to Boston success and what it’s like to play with Springsteen.

OS: First things first: how exactly does one get into the accordion?

TB: As a kid, I had always heard Irish music being played. My mom would listen to it, my grandparents listened to it. I liked it, but when I was a kid I just wanted to buy Springsteen records, and stuff like that. But when I was probably fifteen or so, I got really into The Pogues, and from there I started re-listening to a lot of Irish stuff that I had heard when I was a kid. I just wanted to be able to play along, so I initially got a tin whistle and taught myself how to play along with that. Actually, an English teacher at my school taught me how to play, and he actually introduced me to Dropkick Murphys. When Do or Die came out he brought it into school and was like, Check this out, you’d like it. He got me into The Pogues and stuff. So I started playing along to the songs with the tin whistle and then one day I was like, I wish I could play the accordion like this dude plays the accordion. I didn’t really have the means of getting an accordion, but I was in a band with this kid whose father was a musician, and down in his basement he had an accordion that had just been sitting there the whole time. It didn’t seem as though anybody was really using it, so I asked him one day at practice, Can I borrow that to try and teach myself how to play it? And he said, Sure, so I took the thing home, and much to my parents’ chagrin I started playing along with Pogues songs and The Chieftans and stuff up in my bedroom.

OS: It’s funny, you don’t usually hear about people just picking up the accordion.

TB: Yeah, I feel like the accordion is the kind of instrument that gets thrust upon somebody when they’re a kid, and their parents make them take accordion lessons. Luckily, I was interested in it just from listening to The Pogues so much, and I just wanted to be able to play along to the stuff. I think I probably picked it up for different reasons than your average accordion player.

OS: Can you tell me about Going Out In Style? It’s a concept album, right?

TB: Well, sort of. It’s loosely based on the story of this guy, and the songs sort of all tie in together. We didn’t write it with the intent of it being a concept album by any means, but as things were unfolding lyrically there was definitely a common thread running throughout the songs. We just sort of pieced it together in a way. Initially, we were going to come up with a mock obituary of a guy and include it in the liner notes. But then Michael McDonald”he sort of took it and just ran with it a little bit more. When we were writing it definitely wasn’t our intention, but you know, whatever happens, happens.

OS: You also got to work with Bruce Springsteen on the track Peg o’ My Heart” how was that experience?

TB: He did it at his studio in New Jersey, so we didn’t get to sit there with him while he was singing, unfortunately. But we sort of threw it out there to each other like, Hey, what if we try to get Springsteen to sing on this song? And the fact that it happened is just unbelievable.

OS: Didn’t you propose to your wife at a Springsteen show?

TB: I did, yeah. I proposed to her onstage at a Springsteen show in Boston. We had met him”he came to one of our shows in New York with his son, Evan. He came backstage and hung out with us for a little bit, and then he invited us to come see him in Boston and invited us to play a couple songs with him. A couple months earlier at practice, just in jest, I had said” because he was playing two nights and I wasn’t going to be able to go to the first one but Ken, our bass player, was going to the first one ” Hey, when you talk to him, ask him if I can propose to Diana. [Laughs] Literally, it was more of a joke than anything. Nothing was ever said about it again. And then a couple months later, when Springsteen came to town, Ken called me at about midnight after the first show, and he said, He wants us to play with him tomorrow, and he said it’s cool if you propose onstage. So that was quite the event.

OS: Do you guys feel pressured to top the success of Shipping Up to Boston when you put out new material?

TB: No, not really. We just sort of kept writing the way we normally do, and it just so happens that Shipping Up to Boston and songs like that are just the kind of songs that we write. I’m hoping that anybody who became a fan through the Shipping Up to Boston thing can buy this album and still like the material as much as they like that song. But we certainly didn’t go in saying, you know, We’ve gotta make something more popular than ˜Shipping Up to Boston.’ We didn’t necessarily try to chase that sound or anything, that’s just sort of what we sound like. So we just went in and did our thing. I think new fans” people who heard about us through Shipping Up to Boston or The Departed or whatever” hopefully those new fans will like the new album as much. As well as the old fans, of course.

OS: It’s funny that you mention new fans, because I’ve heard a lot of people say I wish there were more punks at Dropkick shows! There are all these bros now!

TB: Yeah, well, as something”whether it’s a song, or a band’s record, or whatever, as it becomes more… [pauses] I mean, we’re not mainstream by any means, but when there’s a song like Shipping Up to Boston that is able to reach a wider audience than we would normally have as a general fan-base, that’s always going to bring some new people into the mix. And it’s going to be people that don’t know about us because they’re music fans, but because they heard the song in a movie, or a sports game or something.

OS: So you’re cool with the changing demographic of Murphys fans?

TB: Oh, yeah! It’s perfectly fine with us. We’ve never compromised our sound to become a mainstream band, by any means. The fact that we have more quote-unquote mainstream fans speaks for The Departed and Red Sox and Bruins and stuff like that. But that’s cool with us.

OS: The new album’s called Going Out In Style, but that doesn’t mean you guys are planning your exit from the scene or anything, does it?

TB: Well, we’ll see how many people buy the record. [Laughs] No, that title was taken from a song I called Going Out in Style, and it’s about a guy’s wake. So that’s more about leaving the world in style, more than our band going out in style.

OS: You also have your annual St. Patty’s dates in Boston coming up. Are the Boston shows usually crazier than your other shows throughout the year?

TB: We’re lucky in that those shows could be any night, pretty much. But for us, at least, there’s definitely a different feeling to those shows. All our friends and family come out, and it’s rare that we play in Boston these days. Before you go on stage it’s definitely a little bit of a different thing. Sometimes, maybe on the first night, there’s a little bit more anticipation. You’ve got people chanting for you to come on and stuff, because it’s a hometown crowd. But we love doing them. Last year we did seven shows in six days, so it’s definitely taxing, but well worth it.

(Ed. Note: Brennan elaborated on the St. Patty’s shows in an interview with OurStage last March)

OS: What else is going on for you guys this year?

TB: We hit the road a little bit more than a week before the album comes out. Then that comes out on March 1, and from there we’ll just be everywhere. We’re back at it. We’re definitely looking forward to it. The last time we were in Germany, they were like, You guys are great, but you can not come back here until you’re on tour again. [Laughs] It’s been four years or whatever since the last album, and we’ve been back to Europe, you know, how many times. So this time they’re like, We’re glad to have you guys, but please, give us something we can use. So we’ll go back there, and we’ll do the states and stuff. We’re definitely looking forward to it.

You can get your celt-rock fix with Going Out in Style (out today!), and be sure to catch the Murphys in concert when they roll through your town.