Culturespill » 2008 » July

The Boxing Lesson: Our Exclusive Interview

22nd July

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Easily one of the most interesting bands we’ve come across all year, The Boxing Lesson offer a brazen revival of the psychedelic blues sound, tinged with a love of the early punk and new-wave they grew up–and fell in love–with. Hailing from the fertile creative grounds of Austin, this is a band that’s as open about their influences as they are committed to an identity of their own, a band that made Culturespill’s recent “Most Interesting Bands To See This Summer” list, and a band whose new album, Wild Streaks & Windy Days, promises to make more lists here at Culturespill–our best-of picks at year’s end. Glistening with a lo-fi adrenaline that weaves together a perfect recipe of sounds from across the decades, Wild Streaks is clearly the work of a group of guys who play for nothing other than a love of the song, a passion that yields the kind of controlled abandon that gives way to great rock ‘n roll. Here now is our exclusive interview with Austin’s The Boxing Lesson (Oh, and check out this little tease from their upcoming video for “Brighter,” one of many killer tracks from their new album):

1. One of the things that fascinates me the most about you guys is how open you are about your influences. With song titles like “Dark Side of the Moog,” the whole space-rock persona you push, and the psychedelic blues sound of your latest album, it’s clear that Pink Floyd is a big influence. How did Floyd come to factor so prominently in your work?

Paul: I’ve been attracted to Pink Floyd’s songs and David Gilmour’s guitar tone for a long time. When The Boxing Lesson moved from Los Angeles to Austin in 2004, we were hooked on Animals, Wish You Were Here, and Meddle in addition to a lot of other things besides music. Certain albums and certain substances go hand in hand. As we were building Jaylinn ‘s synthesizer rig, we were searching for those classic synth sounds that recalled the epic textures of Floyd yet at the same time modern enough to push our sound into the future.

2. As with fashion, music’s “next big thing” usually turns out to be a recycled artifact of the past, as in the still-thriving post-punk movement captained by bands like The White Stripes, The Black Keys, The Gossip, etc. Other than yourselves, though, I don’t know that there is nearly as visible a revival of the psychedelic blues sound. So maybe you can correct my ignorance here: What other bands might you credit with a revival of the sound you’re bringing back?

Paul: There is a revival of the psychedelic blues sound going on down here in Austin in some ways. The Black Angels have gotten very popular by preserving the 60’s psych sound. In regards to The Boxing Lesson, I think we have our own little twist on the psychedelic or neo-psychedelic movement due to the fact that our songs filter in other decades of music than just that one specific late 60’s sound. As we say in our bio, our sound is psychedelic but not in the traditional sense. This is modern druggie music that we are making.

3. Other than Pink Floyd, what other bands have proven to be your biggest influences?

Paul: Spoon, Brian Eno, David Bowie, The Cure and Failure

4. I’m always leery of bands brave enough to cite rock ‘n roll Gods as influences. Another band we covered in Culturespill, Low Water, liken themselves to The Kinks. Do you fear that you may be imposing lofty standards on yourselves by citing such gargantuan influences?

Paul: I’m not scared. We created this album out of a genuine place. We are not trying to be a Floyd tribute band or anything; we are trying to just be ourselves. We are huge fans of music, in general, not just Pink Floyd.

Jaylinn: You can’t help but have influences seep into the music you make when you listen to a particular album hundreds of times, especially when all you are doing is literally listening to and absorbing the music – not worrying about the outside world, but focusing on the sounds at hand. It gets into your subconscious and becomes part of who you are.

Jake: I have to agree with both Paul and Jaylinn. I love music. I love all different kinds of music. Who would not be inspired by Tony Williams, or Capitan Beefheart, or Jimi Hendrix? I grew up listing to all kinds of music and that music has made me the player that I am today. A wise man once said to me, “I don’t need to go to school to learn how to play music; my record collection is my school.” I took those words to heart. I think when you list great bands as your influences it might just mean you have great taste in music.

5. Critics have also slapped the “post new-wave” label on you guys—I do hear perhaps a vague echo of new-wave in songs like ”Brighter” or, of course, anytime that synthesizer comes roaring in. Do you acknowledge any “new wave” roots in your music? And, if so, what new wave bands in particular have contributed to the development of your sound?

Paul: We are children of the 80s. How could it not be in there somewhere? One of my first cassette tapes ever was “Never Mind the Bullocks…” While not exactly new-wave, I thought this punk sound was so risqué and powerful. It gave me goose-bumps. This lead into the whole post-punk new-wave thing for me and I fell head over heels in love with The Cure as a teenager. The Boxing Lesson has been doing a cover of “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” recently and it is so fun to play. I’ve wanted to do that song with a band since I was 16 years old. Some of the better new-wave bands had this really raw energy in the songwriting that I was attracted to. I’m really a ‘student of song’ in a lot of ways. As an adult, I went through a huge Elvis Costello phase about a year before making the move to Austin. His songwriting is exceptional and he has a voice that is so strong. It’s a voice of a generation. I feel like in The Boxing Lesson, we are attempting to morph together all the things we love about the different eras of music into our own voice and our own sound to make the music that we want to hear right now.

Jaylinn: Being in high school in the late 80s lent itself to bad haircuts, skater boys, Depeche Mode and New Order. I remember thinking New Order was probably the coolest thing I had heard – until I discovered Joy Division… And that was the coolest thing I heard until Jane’s Addiction. I went from new wave to indie in one fell Nothing’s Shocking swoop. I smoked my first joint with a dude named Chip listening to that album.


The Boxing Lesson: “Dance With Meow,” Wild Streaks & Windy Days (2008)

6. Though Paul’s roots extend back to L.A. , you guys hail from the fertile creative grounds of Austin , TX , home of the great SXSW festival. Can you talk about what it’s like to be a part of that rich culture, and how, if at all, Austin has changed over the years—especially given the increasing popularity of SXSW?

Jake: Well, Austin has changed over the years. The way the city is changing demographically has had an impact in the music scene. Downtown housing has become more and more expensive thus pushing the musician out of that area and the downtown music scene in general. The people who are moving downtown are pushing for a noise ordinance. I find it a little peculiar that one of the greatest things about Austin is its music scene and that the people that are moving downtown want to destroy it. I think if you move downtown you should expect some noise. If that is something that is going to bother you, maybe you shouldn’t move downtown. Maybe you would be more suited to live in the suburbs. Let me get off my soap box and get back to your question at hand. There is a strong community of musicians in Austin. On any night of the week you can go see (and be a part of) great live music. I cannot express enough how much I am inspired by watching a great band play. It makes me want to go home and play. I have lived all over the U.S. and there are only a handful of place that inspire me as much as Austin does. I feel that SXSW is great for Austin, maybe not so much for the Austin musician, but for Austin it is a great thing. The festival is incredible. Bands from all over the world flock to our city for a week of music and fun. It is something that any music lover should come be a part of. That being said I feel that the festival has gotten away from its roots. It is my understanding that it was for unsigned and up-and-coming acts. Now it is headlined by the likes of The Flaming Lips and Tom Waits. Please don’t get me wrong, those are two of my favorite artists, but do they really need the publicity? If you ask me their careers are well on their way. As a band from Austin, it is incredibly hard to get invited to the festival. For me it is a love/hate relationship.

7. A lot of bands out of the NYC area—particularly Brooklyn —talk about how hard it is to get noticed in a place as huge as that. But isn’t it almost—if not just as—hard to get noticed in a place like Austin, where it seems that just as many bands are crawling over one another to make it. Is that the case?

Paul: I think it’s hard to get noticed anywhere. When we first came to Austin, I thought it was going to be so easy here. In a way I was right and in a way I was wrong. It’s just different down here. Music is the cornerstone of the community and there is definitely a strong sense of support for local acts. There are a lot of bands down here fighting for shows and recognition but it is Austin and everyone is very cool about doing so.

Jaylinn: I think the recognition comes from not going away. We played over 100 shows in Austin alone our first year in town. We have not slowed down much. It’s hard not to notice a band that has shows listed every week!

Jake: I lived in Manhattan for a little while and I can attest to how many bands and musicians are up there trying to make it or even just get noticed. I always felt that New York City was very compact. I think that when you have that many people in that small of an area it is going to be tough to get noticed. I think that one of the advantages that bands from NYC have is that there are hundreds of small towns that they can branch out to and play. You can go up and down the east coast and hit college town after college town. So it might be hard to get noticed in NYC, but in general I think it is easier to tour. As for Austin, there are lots of bands here, and Austin is not a large town. We have less then a million people who live here. So when you consider how many bands and musicians there are here, it starts to become very competitive. Also to tour from Austin is a little difficult as well. If you are only doing little week long or two week long tours, it makse it a little challenging to say the least. We are in the center of one of the largest states in the union. When you drive west, that starts to become very apparent very quickly. In the end, I think that no matter where you live, if you have good songs and you love what you are doing then you have made it.

8. I love the space-rock persona you guys indulge, always making sure to credit Paul as a songwriter just as much as an “astronaut” and member of “the Cassini Spacecraft Team.” On your MySpace page, the band’s sound is attributed to “everything they collected in Space,” which included “researching the magnetometer’s detection of the presence of ion cyclotron waves in the vicinity of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.” What inspired all of this celestial imagery, this theme of space travel?

Jaylinn: I am a theoretical astro-physicist. Theoretical. And in my quest for knowledge of all things above my head and below my feet, I found the most interesting thing about Saturn. Recorded by the Cassini Huygens spacecraft, Saturn is a source of intense radio emissions. They are closely related to the auroras near Saturn’s poles. They are like the Northern (and Southern) Lights… except when recorded, they sound like a Moog. (check it out here: http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/multimedia/sounds/) I mean, what keyboardist WOULDN’T be fascinated by a planet that creates or emits the very sounds that twiddling knobs does? It blew my mind right out of my head. When trying to get just the right imagery for the album artwork, and after weeks of frustration at different design options, I decided to watch a little Science Channel to clear the brain, and what did I find? Cassiopeia A – it’s the image on our album cover (and back). This was taken by Hubble, and although it’s touted as the “Birthplace of Stars”, it’s (more accurately) a supernova remnant (death of a big-bad daddy star) and the brightest extrasolar radio source in the sky. Neat. http://www.nasa.gov/centers/jpl/images/content/161581main_pia01903-browse.jpg

9. One of my favorite songs on the new album is “Brighter.” Can you talk about how that song came to be—the lyrics, the music, its subject matter?

Paul: This is one of the songs that just came to us in a rehearsal. We played it in its entirety the first night and luckily recorded it on the spot. The melody was there from the beginning but the lyrics evolved over the course of a few months. The opening riff is so raunchy and this song has one of the fattest bass lines on the album, in my opinion. The lyrics are about my conflict with myself over major changes that I was making in my life at the time, and the battle between being true and being free. I think it rings out loud and true. We recently shot a stop motion photography video for this song in an old graveyard in East Austin. Keep your eyes and ears open for that one this Fall.


The Boxing Lesson: “Brighter,” Live in Austin, 2-28-08

10. Songs like “Hopscotch & Sodapop”—both in sound and title—seem like such wild departures from the album’s predominant mood—it strikes me as the most distinctly “American” rock song on the LP. How did a song like that find its way onto the album?

Paul: Hopscotch was one of the last songs that we wrote for the album. I had a weekend to myself and locked myself away to write a few pop tunes that I thought the album was missing. After “Lower” I knew there had to be a quick song with a light mood to counteract the heavy theme that came before it and to give the listener a few minutes of reprieve before the album got really dark and heavy again. Hopscotch’s theme is positive and I think that vibe is needed to make the album move forward in momentum like it does. We were drinking a lot of scotch at that time and Jaylinn came up with the play on those words and named the song Hopscotch & Sodapop. It’s a breezy song with a breezy name.

Jaylinn: It’s the scotch and soda in the middle that make you wanna hop on pop at the end.

11. Is Wild Streaks and Windy Days a “concept album”?

Paul: Yeah, in a way…. but it’s far from a rock opera. It’s a concept album about our lives if it’s a concept album at all.

Jaylinn: This album embodies a time and place. It is a time capsule of sorts. Because our inspiration was specific, I can see how it could be labeled that. But it’s no Tommy, you know? We weren’t trying to be. It’s a journey from the darkest of nights to the windiest of days. It’s just not linear.

Jake: I say no. I think that these songs came to life by living them. Each song is a story of our lives one way or another. Some of the songs did not make sense till after we wrote the song. It is weird like that. We will be playing the song live and I will be singing along with Paul, and some of the lyrics just hit home with where my life is now. At the time the song was written it had a different meaning. It is truly amazing. We put so much of us in these songs that I think the listener has no choice but to come along for the ride. I think that when we recorded these songs we had a concept in mind. We recorded the album from start to finish. We started with the first song, completed it and then moved on to the next song. That was the first time I had ever done that. I feel that we really got a chance to concentrate on each song. We got it were we wanted it before we moved to the next one. I feel that that is part of the reason why it takes the listener on a journey, a true experience.

12. That raises another question, and possibly a very stupid one, so consider yourself warned: are you guys a “concept band”? Or do you worry that such a label might be too confining?

Jaylinn: A concept band? No. We DO conceptualize, though, and it seems that our last few releases are a pretty good indicator of that. Labels can be so awkward…

Jake: Concept band? I am not too sure I understand what that means. What would give you that idea? I think, no…. I know that what the three of us have is very special. We have incredible chemistry together. I feel it every time we set up and play. I felt it the first time Paul and I played together. I am not sure if that answered your question. Let me say it this way: I try and stay away from labels. I definitely would never label myself. If you think it is something and want to call it that, that is fine, but I would never label it anything other than music that I love to play with people that I love to play music with.

13. How, by the way, did “Dark Side of the Moon” become “Dark Side of the Moog?”

Paul: It didn’t intentionally start out that way. I was trying to find an introduction to our live set one day at rehearsal and I was looping big A and F chords on my Boomerang and found that opening riff and the vocal melody rather quickly. Jaylinn had been playing around with these really deep dark sounds on her Moog Voyager at the time and had named this one specific sound Dark Side of the Moog. I think it is very fitting and a great opener for the album and a good introduction for the songs that follow.

14. What did you guys think about the Pink Floyd reunion with Roger Waters at the Live 8 Show?

Jaylinn: We happened to stumble in on this one. . . We were at rehearsal and decided to take a break from the studio. We wandered in the house for drinks and on the TV there was something pretty amazing. We didn’t know it was coming on, and we’re all like, “Is this FLOYD???” Seeing David Gilmour’s face up close while he was playing was so beautiful. I could see his facial reactions to the notes that were being played. It felt like I was sitting right in front of him. Covered in chills and inspiration, we went back into the studio and had a great sesh.

15. David Gilmour looked like he couldn’t get away from Roger Waters fast enough when they wrapped up their set, putting down his guitar and scampering off the stage as soon as humanly possible. Roger had to wave him back for a collective bow. Do you guys think we’ll ever hear new material from that lineup again?

Paul: We have all heard the stories about how difficult Roger was to get along with and what he did to Syd Barrett and David Gilmour over the years. I guess some wounds cannot be healed with time alone. I don’t think we will ever see new material from that lineup again nor do we really need to. They have left quite a legacy.

16. Any thoughts on the life and death of the great Syd Barrett, by the way?

Jaylinn: Don’t do drugs.

Jake: Music is a funny thing. You don’t need it to sustain life, but without it, life is a lot less colorful. I think the world is a much more colorful place because of Syd and the music he left behind. Cheers!

17. Do you guys have any new music in the works?

Paul: Yes, we have been writing a batch of new songs recently with no purpose in mind other than to have fun and experiment with our sound. We have no idea when we are going to put out another release. Wild Streaks & Windy Days just came out in March so we are going to ride this one out for a while.

Jaylinn: If there wasn’t new music in the works, The Boxing Lesson would be disbanded – all puns intended. Paul writes new music everyday. One of the troublesome parts of releasing an album is that you are married to those songs on that album for quite a while. We play all kinds of stuff at rehearsal that won’t make it to a stage for quite some time. We are trying to give people an opportunity to hear that what we do on that record is what we do on a stage. So the answer is yes and no. Yes, we got it. No, you can’t hear it…yet.

Jake: Well as long as we keep on living, we will always have more music to write.

Thanks so much for spending some time with us!

Tom Petty: Live in Ft. Lauderdale

19th July

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Not more than two seconds into a thunderous opener of “You Wreck Me,” a knock-out whiff of Moroccan hash blooms from somewhere a few rows back, and most people around me lift their noses to the air and sniff like cats in a fish market, hoping to elicit a mild high. And as soon as Tom Petty spreads his arms like some lost eagle on stage, slowly meandering through the band with a mildly disturbing aimlessness as they play with these “oh, here goes Tom again” looks on their faces, I understand that the dudes behind me aren’t the only ones who are stoned. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be–this is a Tom Petty show, where people go to feel good, forget all the bullshit of their daily lives for a couple of hours, and cheer on the songs that sneaked their way, somehow, into some of their most vivid memories.

I wonder which memory revisits the couple in front of me, as they openly embrace immediately upon hearing the first few strokes of “Free Falling” yawn from Petty’s guitar, a vaguely florescent cloud of weed smoke cloaking their silhouettes in the dark arena–maybe it’s the song that accompanied a first kiss in a parked car under the bridge, maybe it’s the song that reminds her boyfriend of all the horrible tramps he survived to find the woman he’s with, maybe it’s nothing anyone else in this writhing crowd could possibly imagine–yes, probably that–not even our closest friends and relatives are aware of even a fraction of the personal mysteries we take to our graves, after all.


Tom Petty: “Listen to her Heart,” Live in Gainsville (2006)

Few bands deliver as steady an onslaught of syrupy riffs and hooks as Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers, a monumentally underappreciated talent that cynical Emo wannabes dismiss in their desperate pursuit of an identity their friends will approve of. A public distaste for the likes of Tom Petty is as much a rite of passage among that crowd as a good ol’ fashioned paddling at the frat house; and it’s a damned shame, because the human saga that unfolds at one of these shows is as humbling as it is inspiring. Take the beer-bellied dad with a backwards Marlins cap squeezing his huge, balding head up front, for instance, clutching the gates that close him into the first row seats he probably won by calling into a local radio show one day, hoping to score a pair of seats for himself and his kid, maybe to give him a taste of what “pop music” sounded like back before it meant more than a pair of porcelain boobs and a tongue kiss at the Grammies. The lights that scroll the crowd catch him in their glare for a second–he’s belting out every line of “Listen to Her Heart” with a series of convulsive heaves, every one of which takes maybe another ounce of the world’s weight off his shoulders, if only for one night.

When Mike Campbell busts out the 12-string on “Free Fallin'” or lifts his guitar chest-high and beats another searing solo out of the thing, I almost start to believe he’s one of the most underappreciated guitarists in rock ‘n roll. But that’s before Steve Winwood takes the stage to join the band for a killer take on “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and it immediately becomes apparent that Campbell, however accomplished as he may be, is one small trout in a sea of aging but wily sharks. Winwood’s fingers flutter over the guitar he straps on and strums in a single smooth motion–one he’s performed for nearly half a century now–a fact that’s evident in his effortless aplomb as he saunters over the the organ for a surprise from his Spencer David Group days, the enduring miracle of his voice overcoming the band’s noticeably rigid interpretation of “Gimme Some Lovin'”–though the crowd’s relatively indifferent response suggests it’s not an entirely welcome one, with lines to the pisser or the beer stand assembling in the aisles.

Something seems to sour on stage in the aftermath of Winwood’s cameo, as the Heartbreakers stumble out of their cover-by-the-numbers take on “Gimme Some Lovin'” with a frenetic delivery of “Saving Grace,” a newer track from Petty’s admittedly uneven but no-less underrated solo album, 2007’s Highway Companion. The band is obviously insecure in its newer material, as they overreach to turn the tune into a raving rocker with a clutter of misguided noise that ruins what is, in its original form, a blistering and bluesy rocker. For a band that is always remarkably true to each song’s original recording on stage, it’s an especially jarring moment that feels like an eternity.


Tom Petty: “Saving Grace,” Highway Companion (2007)

But a second wind of anthems follows, and you realize, with a modest touch of awe, just how relevant these guys have managed to remain throughout four decades now, tricking high schoolers into a love of Thunderclap Newman’s 1969 hit “Something in the Air” when Petty slapped it onto his greatest hits package in 1994, discovering a polished echo of grunge’s grit on the mischievous staple “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”–a song which, the second Petty unleashes it on stage here in Ft. Lauderdale, is met with the entire crowd’s instantaneous delirium, as if they’ve gone blue in the face holding their breath for this very moment since they took their seats at 8.

Petty and the band hopsctoch in and out of the four decades they swept through–the ’70s (Refugee, American Girl); the ’80s (End of the Line, Runnin’ Down A Dream, Don’t Come Around Here No More); the ’90s (Learning to Fly, Honey Bee, Won’t Back Down). But the true testament to just how many diamonds this band has mined over the years is the crowd of kids who fumble through the lot under the peach glow of parking lot lights after the show, singing their best rendition of “The Waiting,” yet another anthem which, somehow, just couldn’t be crammed into the 150-minutes of rock ‘n roll we witnessed under the dome of Ft. Lauderdale’s Bank Atlantic Center, one of many corporate civic centers cropping up around the country that look every bit as impersonal as their names suggest–a crudeness overshadowed only by the music of those folks who, as Rocky Frisco puts it, “write from the heart, not the wallet.”

Well, Petty’s wallet is doing just fine, but there’s something about the genuinely emotional response his music evokes–that couple embracing before me, the pot-bellied dad screaming the band’s songs back at them with his mesmerized son at his side–that proves beyond any doubt that Petty is one of the heroes Frisco had in mind–an authentic pioneer the likes of whom become fewer and farther between with each passing year.

Ft. Lauderdale Set List 7-15-08

You Wreck Me

Listen to Her Heart

Won’t Back Down

Even The Losers

Free Fallin’

Mary Jane’s Last Dance

End of the Line (Traveling Wilburys)

Can’t Find My Way Home (w/Steve Windwood)
Gimme Some Lovin’ (w/Steve Winwood)

Saving Grace

Breakdown

Honey Bee

Learning To Fly

Don’t Come Around Here No More

Refugee

Encore:

Runnin’ Down A Dream

Bo Didley’s A Gunslinger/Mystic Eyes

American Girl

She Wants Revenge: A Defense

12th July

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She Wants Revenge

In our willfully sarcastic, postmodern age, we sometimes become so impressed with our own wit that criticism of any particular band or album becomes less an opportunity to inform people than it is a chance at demonstrating how boundlessly hip we are. The poet W.H. Auden cautioned critics against writing reviews of bad books, because “it is not possible to review bad books without showing off.” The same applies to criticism of albums we do not particularly like—what is to be gained by banging a band around for the length of an entire review, other than to massage your own ego in a public forum? That is especially the case with a relatively new group called She Wants Revenge, a darkwave band hailing from the San Fernando Valley whose 2006 debut spawned a video directed by Joaquin Pheonix for the single “Tear You Apart” (as well as another video featuring Garbage’s Shirley Manson for “These Things.”)

The crime this band commits, apparently, is that they sound like other bands. “Come on, people,” some anonymous worm spews in an amazon.com review, “Spend your money and time on the Best Of Joy Division, Bauhaus, or Sisters Of Mercy instead of this recycled/redundant nonsense that’s basically a way for the band to pick up chicks.” Oh, how clever! How ingeniously “cheeky,” as my English friend used to say. Thank God you found this band to pick on, because we otherwise might never have known how interesting you are.

Then there’s always this kind of thing: “I picked this up for four bucks thinking I was getting a great deal, having heard that they were similar to the Killers and drew influences from the Cure. However after one listen, I put it aside and actually felt regret for parting with my $4.” But if it was a Cure or Killers album you wanted, why not buy a Cure or Killers album instead? It’s like picking up a volume of poems by some contemporary poet whom, you heard in passing, draws influence from Emily Dickinson–and then burning the book on your grill in the back, convulsing with guffaws of disdain as you douse it with gasoline and fumble for a blow torch in the shed because you didn’t find any Emily Dickinson poems in it. It’s called “crazy.” This is why comparing bands to one another can be as fatal a blow to both of them as the most acerbic (and, of course, incomparably clever) CD review.


She Wants Revenge: “Tear You Apart,” She Wants Revenge (2006)

If anything is more useless than reviewing those “bad books” Auden talks about, it’s criticizing a band for having influences–as if there is any such thing as a band whose sound and ideas do not at least in part derive from the work of prior groups. Criticism of She Wants Revenge as a derivative product of obvious influences is nonsense. Influence is an inescapable fact of the artistic process; a work of art that is entirely independent of all influence would have to consist of nothing more than utter silence. Simply put, it is impossible. All art derives from influence; great art does something new with it. Once this is recognized, the only possible legitimate criticism one can level at these guys is that their influences are too obvious, and that they therefore fail to achieve a sound of their own. This is a more rational criticism that, unlike the absurd and irrelevant complaint that She Wants Revenge are infuenced by other bands, actually has some grounding in logic and is open to a diversity of opinion.

The real test is this: are these guys able to incorporate their many influences into an original sound that they can rightly call their own? Many obviously feel that the debt She Wants Revenge owe to Devo, New Order, Interpol, etc. is so significant as to be distracting. But the vast majority of people who have seen them live–an opportunity I enjoyed recently when they opened for another great band called Electric Six–will come away from the show with the understanding that they are too good, too full of energy, and too certain of their creative identity to be tossed off as mere imitation.

Some bands do indeed fall prey to their influences, while others are able to blend them into a unique sound. She Wants Revenge do just that; they are talented players whose music is more textured, layered, sophisticated and fresh than most of the influences critics nail them to. I am certain that their debut marked the beginning of a fascinating creative journey for She Wants Revenge, and I know that there is more great music to come from these guys. Crybabies whose tastes are stuck in the 80s can feel free to dust off their 25-year-old Devo and Cure albums as I gladly set foot in the future of rock ‘n roll–and I won’t be looking back.

The Legendary Rocky Frisco: Our Exclusive Interview with The Roxter

9th July

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Rocky Frisco


“People will always consume musical Twinkies, but only the real stuff can satisfy a genuine hunger. When your lover leaves and hits the bed of somebody you know, Twinkies won’t save your life.” — Rocky Frisco

It is no piece of hyperbole to say that the story of Rock ‘N Roll’s birth cannot be fully told without mention of the great Rocky Frisco–one of the reasons why he factors into Peter Guralnick’s bestselling book about Elvis Presley, The Last Train to Memphis. Frisco has served as pianist to some of rock’s most lauded visionaries, such as the great and hugely influential J.J. Cale, whom the likes of Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and Richard Thompson credit as a pivotal influence. Frisco and Cale were high school buddies in the mid 1950s, and Frisco has played in Cale’s band throughout his life. And he has one hell of a story to tell–costly run-ins with crooked record company fat cats, the night he bought Chuck Berry a bottle of whiskey and watched him down the whole damned thing before duckwalking across the stage, a 7-day bike ride from Tulsa to Texas to interview Elvis that left him burnt to a crisp in the deadly southern sun, racing a Morris Mini in the Canadian Grand Prix, running for office in Tulsa, starring in Disney movies with Dave Matthews–you name it, this guy’s been there, done that. It is not possible to overstate how thrilled we are to present to you our exclusive interview with this rock ‘n roll renegade, the one and only Rocky Frisco, a man whose grace and humility belie the kind of resume any lesser man would boast of.

Culturespill: You’ve been in and around the music business for quite some time, sitting in with Flash Terry’s band and playing your earliest gigs with J.J. Cale as part of Gene Crose’s band in the late 1950s. You’ve subsequently played with an amazing host of other acts over the years—Eric Clapton, Widespread Panic, Leon Russell, Clyde Stacy, Garth Brooks’s sister (with the Betsy Smittle Band), Johnny Lee Wills (just to name a few.) Who among these many bands and artists was/is the most fun for you to play with?

Rocky: I never played with Leon Russell. I met him as Russell Bridges once when Doug Cunningham brought him to one of my dances at the YWCA in Tulsa. Leon was 14 at the time. The most fun has definitely been with the Cale Band since I rejoined them in 1994. John took me on my first trip to England and the rest of Europe in 1994, something I had always wanted to do. I have been back a number of times since then. I thoroughly enjoy playing with the three Tulsa Bands I work with these days. Tom Skinner is a genius Oklahoma singer-songwriter and his Wednesday Night Science Project is packed with incredible musicians. Tom started Garth Brooks in the business some years ago as his rhythm guitarist. On Thursday nights, I play with Higher Education at McNelly’s Irish Pub upstairs. HE includes Dustin Pittley and Jesse Aycock, two unbelievably good young singer-songwriter-guitarists. Either of them could walk onstage and play with Knopfler or Clapton although they are in their middle 20’s. The band also includes David White, one of the best Bass players I have ever worked with, me on piano and a list of different drummers, most usually, Dylan Aycock, Jesse’s brother. Dylan and Jesse’s dad, Scott Aycock is co-host of Folk Salad, a local radio show that features many local artists. Scott is also a great songwriter whose CDs I have played on. Sundays find me playing with the host band at the Tulsa Sunday Blues Jam; the Kevin Phariss Blues Band is the old Flash Terry Band. Kevin was Flash’s band manager and second guitarist. Scott Santee was Flash’s sound man and he is now our lead guitar and main vocalist. He’s one of the best lead players in Tulsa, but he is known for his self-effacing humor, so few people realize exactly how good he is. He’s famous for ending each song with “I wrote that song.” Harry Williams was Flash’s drummer for many years and we are lucky to have him with us. Harry is in the Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame. I was inducted into the Hall just this year. Our present Bass player is Tiny Davis, a Tulsa music legend in his own right. The lineup is completed by Mike Winebrenner on Sax and Iona Gilliam on vocals. Iona is not only a wonderful singer, she is incredibly good-looking and charismatic. One other group I’m excited to be working with is “Li’l Tee.” Tee is Teresa Gross, a tiny little lady with an enormous voice and great charm. The band consists of Tee, me on piano and Bob Withrow on Guitar. I put Bob in my alltime top ten guitarists list. He plays with great skill and finesse. Bob and I played in the Mickey Crocker Band some years back when Warren Haynes sat in with us for one summer.

Culturespill: Among the many fascinating anecdotes available on your website, rockyfrisco.com, is the revelation that, during basic training with the U.S. Army in Fort Polk, Louisiana, your commanding officer would sneak you off base to play in local bars and, of course, earn him some free drinks. What are your fondest memories of those days?

Rocky: The Army Basic Training was very difficult. Fort Polk in the summertime was unbearably hot and recruits fainting from the heat was not unusual. The best part of the illicit bar visits was that some of them had A/C. I was small and thin and I’m still proud of completing the training.


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That’s Rocky Frisco on the Keyboards with Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale (In Shades & Hat)

Culturespill: You also express particular gratitude for having gotten to play with Flash Terry—both back in the day and at his Tulsa Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2003. Just how big a presence was Flash in Tulsa, and what made you so proud to play with him?

Rocky: Flash was responsible for integrating the Tulsa music scene. He invited me to come and sing some songs at his home club in the Greenwood section of town, the Famingo Lounge. We had a deal: I would come and be the white boy at the jam session on Tuesday nights and I would win second prize, eleven dollars. You know, if you adjust for inflation, that was a lot more than I make now, playing in Tulsa clubs, and the gasoline was 20 cents a gallon then. As time passed, other white Tulsa musicians began to come to the jam. I have no doubt that Flash’s influence was a big part of the development of the Tulsa Sound, so, in a way, Flash influenced Eric Clapton and Leon Russell and JJ Cale. Flash died in 2004, one year after being inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, and we all miss him. He was once quoted by the Tulsa World newspaper with the best compliment anybody ever gave me in print, when he said I was the most “colorblind” musician he ever met. That may have been partly based on the night one of the guys at the Flamingo asked me if he could dance with my date, a little beauty named “Foxy” Baker.” I said, “Don’t ask me; ask her.” After that, I was one of the family there. In 1957, Tulsa was a very segregated city.

Culturespill: Was rock ‘n roll able to do anything to alleviate that racial tension?

Rocky: Very definitely it helped a lot. Tulsa is the city where America’s worst
racially-based massacre happened back in 1921. Rock and Blues Music were
the strongest influences toward integration and cross-racial friendship
here in the 1950’s.

Culturespill: Another fascinating anecdote you reveal is that, upon touring with Clyde Stacy in Toronto in 1958, you crossed paths with such stars as The Everly Brothers, Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry, Frankie Avalon, and Jimmy Rodgers. What stories or memories stick with you the most about your encounters with those legends?

Rocky: The ones I got to be friends with were Jimmie Rodgers, Frankie Avalon, the Everlies and George Hamilton IV, all really nice guys. I once got Chuck a bottle of whiskey when he played in Tulsa back when we still had Prohibition (repealed in 1958). He chugged the whole half-pint and then went out and duckwalked across the stage. I wouldn’t have been able to even stand up.

Culturespill: Would you mind recounting for us the “infamous bike-ride to Texas” and your “interview with Elvis” in 1958, when you were known as “Rocky Curtis”?

Rocky: Actually “Rocky Curtiss.” I took that last name from the Curtiss Wright Aircraft Company, where my father was once a test pilot. I was working for radio station KOME in 1958 (stood for Kovering Oklahoma’s Magic Empire) when the station manager and I concocted the publicity stunt. I pedalled a Schwinn bike from Tulsa to Killeen, Texas, to do the interview. It took me seven days of cloudless skies and Summer heat to get there. We didn’t know beans about sunscreen or skin cancer back then. I was burned really badly; some of the scars didn’t fade for years. Elvis was charming and friendly. He had hired a Photographer to come from Temple to shoot pictures of us together, one of the most thoughtful gestures I ever experienced. In the days before the interview, I spent some afternoons with Gladys, eating cookies and listening to stories about Elvis when he was a baby. She was a wonderful woman and a great mother. Gladys died about three months later and I have always thought that was when Elvis lost his life’s anchor. She didn’t care about the money or the fame; she just wanted her boy to be happy and stay right with God.


Rocky Frisco Performing His Song “Pursuit of Happiness”

Culturespill: You’ve mentioned in our correspondence leading up to this interview that J.J. Cale is a unique friend and the finest person you’ve ever worked with in the business. Would you mind elaborating?

Rocky: John is 100% genuine. He has always been, from the first time I met him. He was the coolest guy in Central High School, because he completely didn’t care about such things. He told me that fame just limits your choices. He said, “Elton John can’t go to the Burger King.” He once said that the bane of being famous is that drunk people want to tell you their life story. “I really love your song, Magnolia; it changed my whole life; it reminds me of the time my sister had the gout and her husband left her and . . .”

Culturespill: One of the lingering narratives surrounding Cale’s illustrative career is that some of his own best-known songs tend to be associated not with him, but with Eric Clapton, who turned Cale’s “Cocaine” and “After Midnight” into huge hits. Some people like to suggest that Cale, consequently, fails to get the credit he deserves and is overshadowed by his more famous contemporaries. But judging from his recent work with Clapton on The Road to Escondido, Cale himself seems to enjoy a great relationship with Clapton and doesn’t much mind being, in a sense, the man behind the music. In your long experience with J.J., can you discuss how Cale responds to his comparative lack of commercial success over the years?

Rocky: Maybe a lack of personal fame, which is changing now that “Escondido” has paired him with Eric, but as far as money is concerned, he has done very well. I think he likes it that way. He drives rusty old pickups and wears jeans or fishing clothes, even at our most prominant gigs. I wear some pretty fancy threads on the gigs. One fan asked me on the 04 tour, “Aren’t you overdressed for a Cale Concert?” I told him, “This is what I wear when I mow the lawn.”

Culturespill: You played on J.J. Cale’s excellent 2004 album, To Tulsa and Back, which was his first since 1996’s Guitar Man. Songs like “Stone River,” “The Problem” and “Homeless” delivered quite a bit more political statement than I ever recall hearing on a J.J. Cale album. What encouraged J.J. to head back to the studio after the long lay-off, and what inspired the album’s more political material?

Rocky: John genuinely cares about people and the health of our planet. I was really impressed by his courage in making those statements in such a repressive, unamerican period of time, when our government has turned rogue and our “leaders” are mass-murdering war-criminals.

Culturespill: You yourself have demonstrated a rather active political conscience in your life, contributing to the 1977 nuclear protest album For Our Children: The Black Fox Blues, and even running for office in Tulsa. Can you elaborate on your life as a political activist—what inspired you to use your musical talents as a means of political message, what motivated you to run for office yourself, etc.?

Rocky: The deal with Black Fox was that it wasn’t just a nuclear power plant, but that the design was an experimental “thought exercise” the designers were appalled to see being actually built. Carrie Dickerson’s legal battle with the power company brought out the “Reed Report,” showing that the original designers had resigned their lucrative jobs to protest the plan to actually build it. Thanks to Carrie, we stopped the plant. My latest run for office convinced me it’s a waste. I doubt you can fix anything through politics when politics is the source of all of the problems. When Ron Paul was mostly ignored by the mainstream media, I gave up on politics. None of the other candidates, including the two present ones, even came close to Paul’s integrity. I strongly disagreed with many of his positions, but saw that he was the only one who could be trusted to honor his oath of office.

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Rocky with Elvis Presley

Culturespill: We share an affinity for Ron Paul, and your statement that our government “has turned rogue” also resonates loudly with me. In your view, how does today’s political climate compare to, say, the days of Vietnam, JFK, LBJ or Nixon? Is one any worse than the other? How so?

Rocky: I think it’s all worse now, since the President doesn’t even pretend to
act within the law. John Adams said the USA is a nation of laws, rather
than men. That’s obviously no longer even partly true. The present day
America is a nation ruled by powerful outlaws who break the law with
impunity, but require absolute obedience from the citizens. We no longer
have a legal government, but rather the latest of a long line of outlaws
who have hijacked the Ship of State.

Culturespill: You seem to have become disillusioned with the political process, partly because of your experience running for office. At the time when you say you returned to rock ‘n roll and never looked back in 1969, there was a genuine belief that music was capable of changing the world–a spirit Neil Young carried on with his “Living With War” album a couple years ago. I think of anthems like “Ohio,” “Fortunate Son,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Is music capable of provoking change?

Rocky: I’m saying this with only the tip of my tongue in my cheek, but I think
the only thing that has the capability of changing this world, so
polluted by citizens who are shallow, lost and stupid, is The Return of
Christ and that this Christ will not be the storybook Jesus the churches
pretend to follow, but rather the Lord of the Storm, the God of the
Elephants and Whales and Zebras. Recall the bumper sticker that said,
“Jesus is coming soon, and boy is He pissed!”

Culturespill: Your own long-standing relationship with the music business has undergone quite a few evolutions over the years. Most notably, you “retired” from the business in disgust after losing thousands in royalties to a corrupt A & R man in the 1960s. Would you mind recounting that episode and why you dropped out of the scene for a while after that?

Rocky: I was working very hard to support myself, my wife and two kids when I found out that the Columbia Records guy in charge of my account had embezzled around $45,000 from the account. He had been giving the band members money every Christmas to keep quiet about it, but one of the guys had a strong conscience and sent me $500 one Christmas and told me what was going on. Before I could do anything about it the guy from Columbia died. I’m not sorry I quit playing in disgust, since I spent that time in basic electronic research and racing MGs and Mini Coopers, activities that enriched my life immeasurably.

Culturespill: Is the music business any more or less corrupt now than it was back then? How, in your view, has the industry changed over the years?

Rocky: It’s the same old corrupt money-grubbing sewer, with fancy new clothes.

Culturespill: You say that in 1969, you quit your regular job, grew your hair long “and started playing rock ‘n roll again and never looked back.” What brought you back to the music business at that time, and why did you, as you say, “never look back”?

Rocky: I was doing most of the actual work for an IBM machine leasing company in Tulsa, maintaining the equipment of my own account and also the account of an inept bumbler who couldn’t fix a bicycle bell, let alone an IBM machine. When the boss was kicked upstairs, they made the bumbler the new manager. When I raised hell with them, they explained that they couldn’t give me the management job. “Who would fix the machines?” I told them they still had that problem, since I was quitting. I never again worked for “The Man.”

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Rocky as “Rocky Curtiss” in a Publicity Photo

Culturespill: Other artists from your generation—such as Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and even Leonard Cohen—are enjoying amazing popularity and success in the 21st century. What is it, do you think, that keeps people coming in droves to see these guys live after all these years and, at least in Dylan’s case, buy their new albums by the millions?

Rocky: Their music is written from the heart, not from the wallet. People will always consume musical Twinkies, but only the real stuff can satisfy a genuine hunger. When your lover leaves and hits the bed of somebody you know, Twinkies won’t save your life.

Culturespill: Now I’m going to put you on the spot, Rocky: Who is the greatest guitarist of your generation?

Rocky: In which genre? See what I mean? Would it be Chet Atkins or Billy Grammer? Eric or Knopfler or Jeff Beck? I recall Stirling Moss once saying that the greatest racing driver of all time probably never saw a racing car, was maybe born with the reflexes and ability, but lived his (or her) entire life in the outback somewhere. One of the finest guitarists I have ever worked with, Bob Withrow, is practically unknown outside the local music scene. Who can say what other great guitarists are virtually unknown? As far as influence over other great guitarists, I have to say Cale is unmatched.

Culturespill: You’ve also dabbled in film, Rocky, starring in the 2003 Disney remake of Where The Red Fern Grows, among other projects. Can you elaborate on your interest in movies? Are they as much fun for you as playing music?

Rocky: One aspect of acting in films is the people you meet. Dave Matthews was in “Fern” and he’s a very nice guy. My stint as a crowd extra in “UHF” allowed me to meet Weird Al, one of my heroes, and the great Billy Barty. My dream is to have a speaking part in a production with Billy Bob Thornton, the greatest actor/filmmaker alive. It’s a different kind of fun, since you don’t get to see the finished product until months later. The music is right now.

Culturespill: You mention an interest in working with Billly Bob Thornton and praise his work in film. I’m sure you also know about this involvement in music. I was struck by his love of Warren Zevon; Thornton played on the album Zevon recorded as he knew he was dying of cancer, sadly passing away just shortly after its release. I wonder if you have any thoughts on the work of Zevon, yet another unsung genius who never really got his due as a songwriter?

Rocky: I’m not really familiar with Warren’s songs, except for “Carmelita,”
which is a favorite of mine. I know the song from hearing Brad Absher
and Steve Pryor do it.

I think the lack of commercial success Warren suffered was because most
Artist and Repertoire Agents, with a few notable exceptions, are shallow
fools.

Culturespill: In yet another of your many lives, you were a racer—driving a Morris Mini in the preliminary races for the 1967 Canadian Grand Prix. Since you’ve also repaired Mini Coopers in your spare time, I’m curious: any thoughts about the new Mini Coopers that BMW put out on the market in the past few years?

Rocky: The BMW “Mini” is charming and small, but it’s not really a Mini. I have a 1967 Cooper S on my driveway that I rebuilt in 1998 with a 1990’s bodyshell, so it has rollup windows and the big rear window. The reshell means it’s not a concourse car or true collector’s item, but it has a factory racing engine built by Adrian Goodenough for the Sebring 24 hour race years ago. I met Adrian a few years ago when I was in England and he identified the parts used in the engine. The little beast will do an honest 132 mph on a cool day. The BMW car is 16 inches longer, a foot wider and higher and it weighs 1000 pounds more than a real Mini, so it’s not anywhere near as fast or maneuverable as the Austin-Morriss car. I still wouldn’t mind having one for highway travel.

Culturespill: Are there any newer or up-and-coming bands/artists that either you or J.J. enjoy? Anyone you’d like to recommend?

Rocky: Can’t speak for Cale, but the artists I like the best and think will be
very large in the future are Dustin Pittsley and Jesse Aycock in the
Blues-Rock genre, Rachel Stacey in country and England’s Lata Gouveia in
the folk and pop categories.

Culturespill: Thanks so much for graciously allowing us some of your time, Rocky.

Rocky: Thanks for giving me a chance to; it was fun.