Monday, April 28, 2014

In Defense Of: Hair Metal

This In Defense Of was contributed by Square Zeros' Jon Mann.

Warrant, with Unnamed Daughter of Some Poor Bastard.
My dad's got a theory about Quentin Tarantino that he once mentioned in conversation.  While he's impressed with Tarantino's encyclopedic knowledge of film, he thinks he's hamstrung by a narrow vision of what he deems "cool."  Despite the vast cinematic resources Tarantino seems to be able to conjure at will, they are unfortunately forced through a tiny keyhole made of cartoon violence, pulp magazine sex, and offensive language.  This keyhole constitutes the authorial presence of Tarantino and marks his work as recognizably "Tarantino," no matter what format he might attempt crime film, kung fu movie, grindhouse horror flick, spaghetti western — but that's also where he loses my dad.

I found myself less concerned with how I was going to respond to this claim (probably something to the tune of "Whatever, old man, Tarantino is tight.") than with the model of creative production my dad had laid forth.  I realized that no matter what I listen to, in my songwriting there is a certain Jon Mann filter that tends to produce a relatively recognizable "Jon Mann" product.  You can sometimes pick out the influences, sure, but at the end of the day you're getting Jon Mann songs.  Huh.  Touché, old man.

So I asked myself, what sort of music do I want to play?  Well, rock and roll, of course.

And I asked myself, what do I want my music to be?  Fun, of course.

And who, in the history of rock and roll, had the most fun?  Who was going crazy?  It's all going to come out sounding like Jon Mann anyway; where can I harvest the energy, the riffing, the over-the-top, pleasure-seeking joie de vivre?

It hit me like a bottle of Nightrain: I needed to excavate hair metal's hidden gems.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Square Zeros #16: Polly Watson (1-800-BAND, Crimson Sweet, Flaming Fire)

I can't write anything about Polly Watson, the keyboard player for 1-800-BAND, without a quick anecdote about how we first met her.

It was a few summers ago, when Jon and I were playing in a very different incarnation of what would eventually become Sunset Guns. We were rehearsing at our practice space in Greenpoint and playing a particularly loud, melodic, over-the-top teenage love song we'd recently written. When we finished, someone was pounding on the door, and it turned out to be Polly. She gave us a sweet (and undeserved) compliment on the song and told us about her project, 1-800-BAND, which practiced in the space next to us.

Two (Three? Who's counting?) years later, 1-800-BAND's new EP, Diver Blue, came onto our radar, and Jon and I went knocking on Polly's door. We're stoked to feature her in our first episode of Season 2.

1-800-BAND plays a bright, super-sincere style of power pop that makes them stand out among their scruffier, sloppier garage counterparts. Diver Blue, which came out this month, is unabashedly sentimental and fun-loving — the kind of record you want to blast through the speakers of your old sedan when you're burning down the highway on a road trip somewhere. The opener is an anxious love ballad with a great keyboard hook and my favorite line on the EP: "You wanna do it again / again 'cause the first time was so fun / but you're not so sure I'm the one." But it's the chorus of the third track that you'll be shouting along to from the passenger seat: "Here comes summer / hungry as a hunter / here comes night / all right!" Musically, it's got a new wave edge like The Nerves, with more driven guitars à la later Hüsker Dü. They recently released a video for the title track:

Polly's first serious musical endeavor was an early-2000s project called Crimson Sweet that she formed with some of the guys she plays in 1-800-BAND with currently. At the time, she says, they were all complete novices on their instruments — a factor that, we're beginning to realize, often makes for some inventive stuff. Polly played guitar and sang, and for someone just starting out, the results are pretty stunning:

Crimson Sweet found some success, touring the U.S. twice and even making it to Europe for a string of shows before going their separate ways. When they split, Polly joined an experimental folk collective called Flaming Fire and traveled with them across the country. The collective is fronted by Patrick Hambrecht, whose Southern Baptist upbringing fuels a wonderfully bizarre mix of psych-folk songs he plays with a rotating cast of dozens of musicians. Polly played guitar and sang with Flaming Fire during a U.S. tour. She brought us a track called "Holy Holy Holy" that's probably best summed up by a few lines from the bridge: "Nail your soul to a tree / cry for her, bleed for me / eternal lamb, forever slaughtered / let my torture be my altar."

Lyrically, Venom. Technically, Bright Eyes. Musically, Sunday school. You've got to hear it for yourself:

1-800-BAND is playing a bunch of dates on the road next month. New Yorkers can catch them May 9 at the Bell House opening for none other than power pop great Dwight Twilley. Check their home page for the full list of shows, and stream the Diver Blue EP on Pitchfork.

Thanks, Polly!


Monday, April 21, 2014

In Defense Of: Gin Blossoms

This week's In Defense Of was contributed by Chris Buckridge, an Ohio-raised, Brooklyn-based musician, songwriter, and recovering music-video-face maker.

In the mid-90s, I was in my teens, and I was becoming Punk with a capital P. It was around the time of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and I was studying the rips and tears of Johnny Rotten’s jackets, noting which moments in songs prompted Iggy to scratch his stomach, counting safety pins, and, of course, making disparaging remarks about shitty post-Pearl Jam alternative rock bands. One band that got lumped into MTV's Alternative Nation rotation managed to escape my bitter teen ire, and that was the Gin Blossoms.

In Defense Of: Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette

This In Defense Of was contributed by Rachel Brown, a Brooklyn-based writer and native of Hawaii who has dressed up as Catwoman for Halloween three years in a row.

It seems a lot of growing up is realizing that the things you loved as a kid are kind of shitty. It’s a good feeling to throw out the last of your hip-hugger cargo pants and admit that your mother was right: you should brush your hair back to show your pretty face, and just because something is in style doesn’t mean it’s good. But it’s an even better feeling to find something from your childhood or teenage years that’s still good, even seen through the eyes of a person who can get drunk, vote for the leader of the free world, and buy a shotgun to round off the evening.

Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album Jagged Little Pill was the first album I ever bought, and I thought every second of it was pure gold. But I was 11. I also thought my straw cowboy hat with the peacock feather was a good idea. And 19 years after its release, most people talk about Jagged Little Pill with a slight eye-roll or derisive snort. It’s considered a cruder sound from a less civilized age, when people thought unnecessary harmonica solos were a good idea. Cue “Head Over Feet.”

But Jagged Little Pill was a perfect storm. The right artist with the right producer at exactly the right time in music history dropped an album that would define the mid-90s. Morissette came in riding the crest of the grunge wave and found an audience eager for what she was selling: angsty, vaguely intellectual alt-rock. More importantly, she found the producer Glen Ballard, who could take her potentially weird and off-putting sound and turn her into a hitmaker. Ballard’s guitar and Morissette’s songwriting combined to produce six hit singles and sell as many copies as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

And you know what? Good on eleven-year-old me, because Jagged Little Pill is still marvelous.

In Defense Of: "Hotel California" by The Eagles

This In Defense Of was contributed by Brian Bender, an Brooklyn-based (coming soon to Los Angeles!) musician, music engineer, and producer who hates haters and loves the warm smells of colitas.

Oh, The Eagles.

There may be no lower hanging fruit for self-styled Cusack-ian haters and laypeople, both. It’s such a cliché to loathe The Eagles that there’s even that bit in The Big Lebowski about how The Dude “really fucking hate[s] the Eagles, man." (He'd had a rough night.)

So how did I find myself in the unenviable position of defending this band?

I’m a record maker by trade and, as such, the playlist here in the studio is usually a well-curated one of the inspirations and influences pertinent to the project at hand. For pleasure listening, it’s a combination of shit that I just plain love, new and old, and sharing deep T.V. versions of those favorites on YouTube. Every muso knows this hole: never trust a producer who has lost their ability to be a fan.

However, a few years back, I was driving back to my hometown in Indiana from Brooklyn and decided to not bring any music of my own. Instead, I wanted to see how the radio along the way could do. I ended up revisiting a whole bunch of music that I had completely forgotten about, got hip to some bands I’d been sleeping on (notably, Spoon), and got in more than my fair share of talk radio.

In the years that followed, I’ve just kinda continued this tradition in the car. It has been really helpful for me to inject some entropy into my ears with music that I would normally be far too cool to enjoy sincerely. This simple act has broadened my horizons considerably and also led to a few shocking conclusions, one of which has brought us together today.

Hotel California” is a fucking awesome song.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Square Zeros Special Edition: Jimmy Doyle (The Fad, Jimmy Doyle and the Engineers)

The Fad, Amityville Music Hall, 12.28.2013
Photo credit: Megan Michelle
One of the things that got me the most excited about Square Zeros when we conceived it was the certainty that I’d get to re-engage with one of my first musical loves, ska. My high school music experience was governed by the third wave ska that kids were making in the suburbs following its brief mid-90s heyday on the airwaves, and I couldn’t wait for the inevitable moment when we got to interview someone about their awesome late-90s ska-punk tracks.

Enter Jimmy Doyle of The Fad and Jimmy Doyle and the Engineers. I first saw The Fad in the mid-2000s in Richmond, VA, playing with local hardcore heroes Vindication at what was then Alley Katz. After both bands played great sets to a moderately sized crowd, the announcement was made that they were taking the party back to my friend Reid’s basement to play another show. Because that’s what you do, if you’re any fun at all.

The basement show was packed, and the music was even better the second time around. I remember asking Reid about these Long Island dudes, and how he came across them, and his response was: “These guys just play shows. There are a lot of bands out there that worry about their next move, spend six months recording — you know, take too long. These guys play shows. At home, on the road, wherever: they play shows, all the time, and when they get to your town, you know.”

We chose to do this Special Edition of Square Zeros because, thirteen years after their earliest incarnation (as Death101), The Fad
will be headlining The Thing in the Spring on Saturday, April 19 at Revolution in Amityville, NY: a show that should not be missed under any circumstance. (Get at me, I've got two seats left in my car.) They still throw down, and our interview with Jimmy unlocks the ultimate achievement of interviewing someone about what was — essentially — their high school band and their current band.

Jimmy brought in an armful of old CDs and DVDs that confirmed Reid’s claim: live shows recorded on arcane technologies, ripped to old computers, ripped to hard copies and scribbled on with a Sharpie — the stuff music self-archiving is made of.  We ripped the above video one more time to get a rough A/V of an early Fad show at Sports Plus, a Long Island sports complex that also hosted local shows.  When Jimmy reminisced about punk shows with two stages facing each other so the music never stopped, things started sounding really familiar.

The cut he played us off Number 5, an early Fad record named after the fact that they came in 5th in a local battle of the bands, "PMRC", is a Tipper Gore-baiting ripper that he notes "was dated before it was even written."  But hey, there's a lot of sacred cows that someone needs to ritually slaughter every so often to remind us of our history, because there's always going to be some conservative element trying to control culture.  Maybe we were young, but those "Parental Advisory" warnings absolutely loomed over the albums we bought.  That said, the rap breakdown at the end of "PMRC" really has to be heard to be believed, in all of its youthful, exuberant, swearing-for-the-sake-of-swearing glory.  Collaboration credit for the rap goes to Jay Tea from the Arrogant Sons of Bitches.

Keep up with Jimmy as he continues to organize rock and roll events through BUY VINYL PUNK SHOWS and plays shows with The Fad and JDATE (You know I had to abbreviate it at least once), and see you at The Thing in the Spring.

— JM

Monday, April 14, 2014

In Defense Of: “Stay (I Missed You)” by Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories

This week's In Defense Of was contributed by Josh Inman, a New York City-based musician and product designer who's only hearing negatives (no no no no).

Released in 1994 in the dying days of grunge — on the soundtrack for a Generation X-ploitation movie called Reality Bites “Stay (I Missed You)” by Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories is an unusual song full of unexpected twists far more memorable than the movie that spawned it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Later, Season 1

Dear friends,

Today, Square Zeros is closing the books on its pilot season. When we started this thing back in January, we had a fairly good idea of what we wanted to accomplish in our first round of episodes. Whether people would actually want to listen or participate was a mystery. Thanks to your support, we're beginning to feel like we're onto something. 

As much as we laugh and crack wise during our interviews, we recognize that asking musicians to share their early recorded songs with the entire internet is a serious request. You may have wanted the whole world to hear your lo-fi Zeppelin rip-offs and riot grrrl covers and Biggie imitations when you were 16, but those things can take on a certain sanctity as you get older. It’s not easy to be so candid about your humble beginnings — especially at a time when social media has made us more and more obsessed with branding and image building. It takes courage.

With that in mind, we thank all the courageous musicians who resurrected old hard drives, dug through jewel cases, and tracked down long lost Angelfire pages to share some of their earliest artistic endeavors. Making music is a shared experience, and our goal, if we have one, is to celebrate that — even if it means embarrassing each other a little bit.

— DJH + JM


Season 2 starts next week, so stay tuned! In the meantime, here are some of Derek and Jon’s random accolades from the first season.

Most delightfully sophomoric song: Jordyn Blakely
Jordyn brought us the innocuously titled “Mandy’s Song,” which turned out to be an ode to BBW porn. The opening line gets right to the point: “Your legs ARE SO BIG / I like the way that they JIGGLE.” The chorus is timeless: “Masturbation! / Masturbation! / I jack off every day!” But what really gets me is the bridge with the male groaning, fart noises, and ska breakdown. You’ve really just got to hear it for yourself.

Best song title: Marisa Cerio
This could’ve gone a lot of ways. Marisa doesn’t necessarily win on the strength of the title alone, but she annihilates on the backstory. The story of her band Murray's “Lady Lyandria” begins with Marisa in a writing workshop where everyone read each other’s stories: an opportunity one male participant took to write full-on soft-core porn; Lady Lyandria was the titular character, who “stared in the mirror at her soft pink self.” Honorable mention goes to “Trying Vegetables” off of the children’s album Jordyn Blakely worked on, and yes - had Marta DeLeon’s The Getter Flash song “The Days of Living Velvet”  kept its original title, “Woody Allen Bangs His Daughter” — she might have unseated Marisa.
— JM

Most unintentionally prescient songs: Amanda B.

Amanda was writing sweet, wistful shoegazey hits WAY before you bought enough pedals to ape Loveless without making it sound like you were trying to ape Loveless. You've got nothing on Yamamba or Nakanaka Yaru Na. I'm getting all genki just thinking about them.
 — DJH

Greatest bandname-to-song-length ratio: Aileen Brophy
There’s bands out there like …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead who will willingly craft the entire second side of their record into one seventeen-minute song with several movements and common themes throughout. Then there are bands like The Violent Against Themselves and Others whose songs only threaten to scrape the two-minute barrier when someone dares to ask afterward whether the song had the word “whore” in the lyrics. (Spoiler Alert: It did not.)

— JM

Best bio: Keenan Houser 
On the meaning of his stage name, Spaghetti Blacc: "Cubic centimeters of disgusting, sauced-up spaghetti realness." Enough said. (23:31 in the interview.)
 — DJH + JM 

Favorite early song: Louis Ramos
This was really tough. What surprised me most about the music I heard across these 14 episodes was how legitimately good some of it was. It was also humbling to realize what a hopelessly sincere dork I was compared to other musicians when they were adolescents. Overall, the track that stuck out to me most was "Pigman" by Louis's band Mrs. Whitehead. It's really unhinged, and Louis goes into some wild theatrics at the end. Recalls some My War-era Rollins. For being so young, his voice has a ton of character, and he has a lot of control. He also improvised the vocals, which is really impressive. The way he wails "I am the pigman! / Understand!" is fucking deranged and I love it.

Best high school bandname: Stephen Perry
I still can’t believe you brought in Epinephrine to play for Square Zeros when you were in another band in high school called Craphead. You’re a real son of a bitch, Perry.
— JM

Most high school bandname: Kaleen Reading
There are certain pleasures available in youth that simply can’t be recreated in adulthood. The innocence of first love. The sense of safety: of a world without consequences. And of course, having a doom metal band, and naming that band Destructotoad.

— JM

Best extracurricular instrument: Marta DeLeon

Not only does she shred on cello and bass, and not only does she sing beautifully, but she played melodica on one of her tracks. Barely edged out Will Waikart of Typefighter, who played washboard on a cut from his early college band, Politicks.
 — DJH + JM
Best soundbite: Chris Tracy
Chris made the broadest, most stunning rhetorical leap of the entire season in discussing the Lord of the Rings-themed subject matter of his high school band Shire.  Chris did a quarter-turn from discussing Shire’s need for “pant-shittingly sick guitar solos” into a forty-five-second discourse on the Battle of Pelennor Fields that would make Stephen Colbert applaud. (cut to 17:06 for Chris, 4:26 for Colbert)

— JM

Least high school song: Stephen Selman
After listening to Stephen's high school Jackson Browne-esque ballad, "Road Song," I asked my good friend in our inaugural interview, "What on earth motivated you to write this particular song?" It's really heady and laden with old soul lines like, "I can't wait till these slow days in my life are gone." Fortunately, unlike most of us, Stephen had the advanced musical chops to support lines like that — which, of course, makes it even less high school-sounding. But it's well composed and recorded, and that riff is pretty damn catchy.

Best music-related aside/reminiscence: Mario Viele

We're not often ones for nostalgia, but Mario’s discussion of going to his local music store spoke to a moment that we're sad to see go.  Mario met Kyle, his band’s singer, because Kyle worked as a manager at the local record store and “curated” to an extent the music that Mario and his younger bandmates listened to, introducing them to new music.  This, Mario points out, wasn’t something record store guys did just to sell records, but because of a genuine desire to hip people to new music that was going to blow their minds.  As the Internet increasingly governs our reception of music, that interpersonal aspect of going to an actual place, looking for an actual person, and having an actual conversation about new music (while listening to it with them, collectively) is something the Internet can’t provide. (9:30 in the interview.)
— DJH + JM
Best non-music-related aside/reminiscence: Ryan McLaughlin (Typefighter)
Oh, god: Ryan getting frosted tips. 24:45 in the interview. No contest. Next.
— DJH + JM


Season 1 playlist:

[0:00] "Beaner" – The Amputees

[2:47] "Tear The World Apart" – The Planes
[5:15] "Wedding Rings" – Crazy Pills
[8:31] "No New Friends (demo)" – Clean Girls
[11:17] "Pay Tribute" – Spaghetti Blacc feat. E Fury
[14:33] "Police Cop" – Low Fat Getting High
[16:27] "Dear Jimmy" – Jimmy Doyle And The Engineers
[19:09] "Another One For The Record Books" – Big Quiet
[21:59] "Bike Lane" – Mayor Creep

[24:14] "She Never Screams" – The Meaning Of Life
[27:30] "Time Out (demo)" – Stephen Selman
[30:48] "All The Royal Years Are Gone" – Clouder
[33:11] "Bender (demo)" – Hounds Basket
[37:04] "Procrastination" – Jackal Onasis
[40:46] "Eviction Notice" – Sunset Guns

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Square Zeros #14: Jordyn Blakely (Butter the Children, Tom Blacklung and the Smokestacks, Free Addiction)

When I first met Jordyn Blakely, she wasn’t yet playing in either of her current projects Brooklyn rockers Butter the Children or Tom Blacklung and the Smokestacks she was playing drums for The Dardys. Now, if you’ve been anywhere south of 14th Street in Manhattan, you’ve seen a Dardys sticker on a curb, or a wrecked bike, or a toilet lid, or illegally on a federal mailbox. There’s a reason for this: these dudes are hustlers, and I mean that in the best sense. They’re out there rocking, drinking, writing (great) music, and getting into hilarious trouble, always. They’ve got songs about breaking into each others’ apartments.  At any given show, more than one of them will show up randomly injured. So you can imagine my surprise when I was introduced to the charming young woman who was now going to be playing drums for these guys. “This will not end well,” I thought to myself.

But, of course, it was totally fine. Sitting down with Jordyn and hearing about her earliest band, I now get why she was almost uniquely prepared for those guys: in every male rock musician, there’s still traces of the juvenile, horny teenager that was, and Jordyn has rocked with the best of them. Enter her first punk band, Free Addiction.

Right out the gate, we’ve got some thrashing on “Victim of Choking” that wouldn’t sound out of place on that old Punk-O-Rama compilation you pretend you don’t break out on road trips anymore.  Jordyn informed us that “Free Addiction” is a reference to masturbation (naturally), and that “Victim of Choking” is about “Don’t tell me what to do, man
stop telling me how to live my life. Suck my dick.” Check out the thunder in those breaks.

“Mandy’s Song” is about her bandmates’ affection for fat porn, a well-enough-known affinity that fans would bring magazines to their shows for the band’s enjoyment. Say what you will about a song with the chorus “Masturbation, masturbation, I jack off everyday”, but there’s something awesome about finding a scene that doesn’t just tolerate these sentiments in musical form, but embraces them, and Jordyn had nothing but good things to say about the Maryland/Delaware punk rock scene that she came up in. That said, Jordyn’s mom
preternaturally cool in a.) letting her daughter have drums (adopt me?) and b.) allowing a raucous teenage punk band to practice in her basement seems to have tolerated, but not embraced “Mandy’s Song.” Fair enough, Mama Blakely but there’s no denying that ska-punk outro.

Though Jordyn came out swinging
one of her first drum crushes was drum crusher John Bonham she set her sights on jazz, too, and snagged a couple of gigs playing with older, smoother musicians who were perhaps on the other side of their misspent youths. After a stint playing on a children’s album (including the dynamite deep cut “Trying Vegetables”), she was poached for the project Allan & Friends, where she supplied drums for local Virginia jazz musician Allan Harrington. Reading over his compliments in the liner notes to the album Tick Tock, she reminisced fondly about the adult musicians who saw something in her nascent talent and gave her the impulse to consider music professionally.

Thus armed with punk thrash and jazz nuance, Jordyn has played drums in more New York City projects than I could count without some serious effort. You can check her out with Butter the Children at Grand Victory Wednesday, April 9 or at Pianos Tuesday, April 29, and with Tom Blacklung at Emet on Friday, April 18.