A Conversation with The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs
Mike Ragogna: Ladies And Gentlemen…The Bangles! is the latest yet oldest collection of material from The Bangles. Why did you choose to go back to this era for a new release?
Susanna Hoffs: Gosh, I don’t even remember, it’s been such a long time coming, but it’s something that we’ve wanted to do for years, really. It just became more apparent to us when we started re-learning and performing the songs. The thing that kind of sparked all of it was that last year we did a couple of shows with a few of the other bands that were part of the paisley underground scene that we kind of came up through in LA. We decided to just kind of make it thematically work for us that we would really focus our energies in those shows on playing the songs that we really did play during those years. It was very fun. That’s when we realized, “Wow, did any of us actually have copies of it? Where did we find them?” I, of course, was going to YouTube to re-learn the songs. It just kind of put the pressure on us to really actually make a commitment to seeing this through and tracking down the tapes which was quite an ordeal.
Then we thought, “You know, let’s throw in the very first single we did, that we recorded at Radio Tokyo in Venice, let’s see what we can find.” We came upon this set of demos, so we thought, “Why not?” and then a few live tracks came to our attention, so we just decided to make it an album instead of re-releasing the EP. We’re very excited about it, we’ve been performing those songs ever since and it really does fit perfectly with the mindset of The Bangles right now, which is reclaiming our roots and where we started. I have to say, there’s a sense of authenticity at the shows. We’re really playing clubs and everything’s coming together as a concept. The timing is perfect.
MR: Is it fun to be reunited through this circular way?
SH: Yeah! Obviously, the eighties was a very focused time for us, but then there was this break when we were all going off and having our own lives. We regrouped with some of us having children and then we regrouped at the end of the nineties and have been pretty much touring ever since, but very much under the radar. Not with necessarily a lot of focus. There were a couple albums, actually, that came out in the 2000s–in this century–and we’d do a bit of focus touring then, but we kind of go here and there. But now with this release on Thanksgiving day there’s a feeling that really fits with our focus of playing clubs and really playing to our loyal supporters and having this very intimate experience where we play in very small rooms. It really has a different feeling to it.
MR: By focusing on the roots, what the essence of The Bangles was at the start, it’s like a clarification for whatever the future brings for The Bangles.
SH: Exactly! There is something about those songs. It’s odd because a lot of the people at these shows don’t actually know the songs that well, but they feel familiar. They’re really the first songs we ever wrote and performed and recorded, so they really capture this point in time that was very important in our history or evolution as a group. I think of all the stuff we’ve ever recorded, they represent who we were, what mattered to us, so much of our influences from the harmony groups like The Mamas And The Papas and The Beatles, and the pop, melodic sensibility that we were obsessed with mixed with a very energetic little bit of punk-inspired grooves. That is what we were attempting to put across with those songs: That energy, those harmonies, those melodies, the jangly guitars, there weren’t any keyboards then and we aren’t performing live with keyboards anymore, we really were a power pop garage band with tremendous sixties influence. That’s what those songs are.
But it was also part of the post-punk, post new-wave thing. We were past that, I don’t know what you call that era, but that’s what it was for us in 1982, 1983, 1984. It was a very interesting time. I hear influences of bands like The Jam, bands that were influential to me at that time. One of the things that brought The Bangles together was this obsession with Sixties music that we all had, we were all kind of young at that time. At that time we were very young to be obsessed with Beatles Music. The music that was happening for our generation was a little bit post all that. I really feel like those songs on the EP really, really were The Bangles and what The Bangles loved. I don’t know, I’m not finding the right words right now to express it, but I think you’re getting the idea.
MR: So that not only spring-boarded The Bangles forward, but was reflective of all the changes happening in music at the time.
SH: Definitely. I think the fact that we found other bands on the scene in LA, some of them were in the South Bay, The Salvation Army, who became The Three O’Clock, some of them were more east Hollywood bands, we found other bands who were simpatico and had the same obsession with sixties stuff. Psychedelic pop, everything from The Seeds to The Mamas And The Papas to The Beatles to The Byrds. We found other bands, and that’s how this paisley underground thing happened, because at the time there wasn’t a lot of that going on in LA, there was always a hard rock thing going on, and there was always the rockabilly scene, new wave was there but it was fading a little bit. I was playing Rickenbackers and twelve-strings and trying to channel the Byrds and then we suddenly found The Dream Syndicate, who were very garage-meets-Velvet-Underground. I was obsessed with The Velvet Underground, too. It was just fun, it was a fun time. We found a little way to surround ourselves with other bands that were interested in the same kind of music, and I don’t know that I’ve ever changed. It took us a few albums later to really break through as a band in terms of popularity, but it’s stuff that we were doing then when we were just kind of a popular local underground act that still to me represents who the Bangles are almost more than anything we ever did.
MR: At the time when your hits were popping, it was like, “Oh here’s this new band,” but you’d already been making music for years before that.
SH: We were definitely not an overnight happening. We were a band that performed a lot, opened for a lot of people, we opened for The English Beat, we opened for Cyndi Lauper, we were basically opening for other bands even when were starting to have radio hits and stuff like that. We were always slugging it out on the road and I think that’s a good thing. It’s harder for us to be on the road like that now, but that’s okay. That’s what the eighties were for us. We were just a hardworking band. It was a very compressed decade, when I think about how much we did and how many places we went.
MR: Do you feel like The Bangles were empowering to women?
SH: I think that we were just doing the thing that we were driven to do. We were a band that didn’t want to take “No” for an answer. Whenever we encountered this attitude that we were some sort of a novelty act we were always completely flabbergasted. We didn’t understand. “This does not compute! What are you talking about?” There’s been so many great female artists through the years, we couldn’t figure it out why, just because the band was four girls, that that would confuse people and suddenly turn it into a novelty thing. But now that I have some perspective and decades have passed, I feel more of an awareness now than ever that we were and are, I guess, an influence on other female artists in a good way. That’s just an incredible honor just thinking about that. It wasn’t our intention to go out there and wave a banner or anything. We were just doing what we had to do. We just had to do this thing. We had to create this band. That was what made us who we were, we were justa ll incredibly obsessed. We were obsessed with writing songs and saying this thing that we wanted to say. There was definitely something especially fun about collaborating with other women, for us. Being an all-girl band was important to the energy of it, to the spirit of it and to the art part of it, but it was sort of innate to it. It does feel really nice when people come up to us and say that it was an inspiration, because I was so inspired by female artists. I was crazy for Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstandt, female singers, female guitar players, female musicians, that’s how I learned to sing, just singing along to their records. It was very important to me, so I guess I understand it, and it’s really flattering to me to know that we’ve inspired other women.
MR: When you were looking at the content of this album were there any revelations?
SH: I guess I’ve sort of already said a lot of this, but I think the revelation was that there was something very essential about The Bangles in that material. Something very real. When I sing “Real World” now, for example, I just sang it on Saturday night at The Troubadour, one of the revelations is, “Oh, we were so young.” It’s like a teenage love song. We may have been twenty one or twenty two when that song was written, and I’m a lot older than that now, but there’s a part of that looks back and has an out-of-body experience seeing the twenty one year-old version of myself writing it. The emotion is so fresh and so real for me that when I sing it it’s like an incredible treat, but it’s also kind of like looking back at an old picture and going, “That was me?” I still know that person, but she’s a lot older now, but I still know that! It’s really fun. It’s really fun to go back. When you sing a song it’s like the emotion in it comes right out. It’s like you’re feeling it. You have to feel it when you’re singing it because it takes you there. I believe songs are there to say things that are very difficult to say in life. I’ve always felt like songs are an outlet, and I think that’s why people make mixtapes and share them with people, because it’s like, “This is what I feel about you! These are the things that I feel and I don’t know how to express this! But the songs! Listen to that song! That’s it!”
So that’s the revelation for me as I grow older… Why we love songs. Why those of us that love music love it, and that those of us who are compelled to write it and sing it, why we do it is that these are the things that are hard to say in life to another person, and that’s why they connect us. In those songs that are on this record, that’s what I see. That’s what I feel when I revisit them. It’s been a really nice thing. The Bangles have been playing music together for thirty years, but these songs we have not performed for almost thirty years. In other words, these songs got parked back when we started making records for Columbia Records and things started exploding for us and we started touring and having songs on the radio. We stopped playing all of these songs. They just kind of got parked and they’ve just been waiting all of these years. They’re like little friends and we’re like, “Oh, let’s have a party again! Let’s do this!” So it’s very nice.
MR: This isn’t so much a reunion of The Bangles as it is a reunion of the young Bangles.
SH: Yeah, it’s a revisiting of material that holds the key to who The Bangles are. It’s like the architecture of The Bangles is inside these songs. Everything that mattered to us, the harmonies, the whole layout of it. And I forgot to mention that we worked with this incredible producer on the EP, Craig Leon, who produced the first Ramones record, and Blondie. I think it was possibly the first Blondie record. He was so wonderful. He was such a cheerleader and genius and just an incredible person to work with as our first experience. The single, “Call On Me” and “Getting Out Of Hand” was self-produced by the bangles, so that also represents who we were. We recorded that for thirty five dollars at a ten dollar an hour studio. We were in there for three and a half hours and boom, recorded, done, mixed, everything. I feel like this is the key to who The Bangles are in this.
MR: Did you ever look at the old stuff and think, “Oh God, I want to redo that one little thing right there”?
SH: Well, that’s true of everything. But not so much with this stuff for me, honestly. I think it’s like knowing when the painting is done. You never know when something’s done, and that’s the hardest part about doing anything creative; knowing when to walk away. I have that about everything I’ve ever done, but I’m trying to look at everything now as just the process more than anything, because you can drive yourself crazy if you keep tinkering with something, you can start to have diminishing returns and that’s what you don’t want to do, so there is a point where you just have to walk away. But no, I don’t feel that so much about this stuff, honestly.
MR: It does seem like at a certain point, artists are expected to focus on the product instead of the art when they’re very successful. I’m sure looking back at this earlier stuff is nice because it represents a time when that pressure wasn’t on for you.
SH: Exactly. That’s true, too. This stuff was made before we were signed to a major label. We were on a small label. Miles Copeland, who was our manager at the time’s label. It was Faulty Products and then it somehow became I.R.S. Records. There was way less pressure in terms of that, and we were young. We were young and kind of just blinded by our desire to conquer the world. You have to kind of have this almost stupid sense about things when you’re a young band because otherwise you would just give up. There’s so many obstacles in the journey of a band. This was just a very grassroots journey for us, we were a do-it-yourself band, we had a lot of energy. We still, amazingly, have energy. I’m grateful for that. We had this really fun show at the Troubadour. I’m very, very, very grateful. I can’t emphasize how grateful I am that I get to keep doing this. Believe me, it’s wonderful.
MR: Speaking of young bands, what advice do you have for new artists?
SH: Oh, my God. I guess I would say always try to follow your instincts above and beyond anything, there’s going to be a lot of outside input all the time. Open your mind to it, but there’s something inside you which is your instinct about anything and it can be very confusing, but I think that’s one important thing. Another important thing is just to keep track of the importance of the whole process over the outcome of things. That’s kind of something that I think about now, the gratitude of having the opportunity to continue to be a musician in the ever-changing landscape of how things are done and how much gets out there to the world. It’s the joy of the creation of it. I think that’s the thing that keeps it real.
MR: Susanna, how do you feel about The Bangle’s legacy?
SH: I feel very grateful that we can even talk about legacies. I don’t know how to have perspective on that, really. I think that what we’re doing with the release of Ladies And Gentlemen…The Bangles! Is a kind of way of going full circle and showing where we started, and the fact that we’ve kind of gone back to that essential place, the beginning where we were young and these were the first songs, there’s an authenticity for us in playing this music that feels very right for us now. It’s nice to have that retrospective, to be able to look back and see the music and be able to perform the earliest stuff along with the songs that people remember most like “Walk Like An Egyptian,” “Eternal Flame,” “If She Knew,” “In Your Room,” those songs that got played on the radio and had videos made for them, there is this nice sense of a body of work.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
THE CABANA KIDS OFFER “SORTIDA”
Explaining all things “Sortida,” The Cabana Kids’ lead singer Joseph Lee says, “The word sortida is Catalan for exit. I wrote the first draft of lyrics while sitting in a Barcelona train station surrounded by ‘exit’ signs or “sortida” signs. The lyrics being about life and the ultimate exit, death. The lyrics sat on the back burner until an unfortunate incident reheated the idea. A friend of mine was heading to Barcelona to skate and surf and to kind of get away from it all. He said he was going on a ‘one way ticket” and that he’d could be there ‘just for the day.’ or for the foreseeable future. A couple weeks later we found out that he had OD’d on heroin and died. His passing made me think of the initial lyrics that I had written. I incorporated some of the last words he said to me and combined them with what I already had. The song with Alena’s ghostly, haunting, vocals are a tribute to him and all of us who feel powerless against the forces of life. We all have a time where we will exit and we only have each other until.”
A Conversation with Crobot’s Brandon Yeagley
Mike Ragogna: Okay, hold on here. Crobot…are you guys fans of MST3K? You’re all Misty fans, aren’t you!
Brandon Yeagley: Well, I can only speak for myself here and say that I am absolutely a fan of Mystery Science Theater and everything that Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett are apart of including their recent ventures in Rifftrax. I’m sure you’re referring to the resemblance in our name and the character Crow T. Robot, that is a good eye clever sir!
MR: Nice, kudos from a Crobot! Hey Brandon, to me, Crobot references many of the great rock bands. What are some of the band’s influences and by the way, how did you all build the Crobot?
BY: We love all of the classics and we’re heavily influenced by all of the riff rock of old such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath or even funkier classic bands like Funkadelic and Mother’s Finest, we dig it all! But there are a lot of some current bands that conjure up the soulful, timeless attributes of the titans of old such as Clutch, Graveyard, and Queens of the Stone Age. It’s really all about the stuff that keeps your hips moving and your head banging. The two can most definitely simultaneously exist in a sonic world. We call it dirty groove rock.
MR: How do you guys create these recordings, from the songwriting to the recording processes?
BY: Really, we just get in to a room and lock the door with a few inspiring ingredients then jam away. One of us brings a riff to the table and we build it into a song structure and just play around with it for a few hours until we are happy with it. If we can’t settle on something we usually scrap the idea or put it on the riff pile with the others. We like to keep things flowing in a genuine way. We don’t have any conversations as to what kind of songs we want to right, we just let Crobot happen through collective influential excretion. That’s what we are all about.
We met our producer Machine by accident at SXSW a few years ago. It was certainly serendipity at its finest. Machine, living on the east coast, had alarms set in his phone for Eastern Time and his phone sent him to our set mistakenly. When we finished playing, Machine approached us and exclaimed how badly he wanted to work with us, not knowing anything about us prior to this happy accident.
With this said, it was a lot more of a comfortable situation when we entered the studio with Machine because we really understood each other before we started working together. We entered that studio a tight band with a unique spin on an old sound and evolved even more so when we left. Machine really upped our writing process and the awareness of our strengths and weaknesses. He is our fifth member in the studio bouncing ideas around. It was a pleasure working with him.
MR: What are your thoughts about the current state of rock and in your opinion, how much harder than that does Crobot rock?
BY: The state of rock and roll is situational. For guys like Gene Simmons, the guys who are worried about the money in everything of course are going to see rock ‘n’ roll as being dead because to them, a heartbeat runs off of cold hard currency. That’s just not the reality of things to the rest of us who just enjoy creating and playing music. Certainly, there aren’t as many people buying records than there used to be, but vinyl sales are projected to be up 38% since 2012. So there is hope that real music lovers are still making purchases, but that isn’t what keeps us waking up everyday to play music. That’s what keeps the business model alive and in turn whatever is in the public eye though, but not the quality of the music.
Rock ‘n’ roll is alive and well. There are a great number of real rock bands out there like Clutch, Graveyard, or not-so-known acts like New Jersey’s Only Living Boy that are testaments to the state of rock music and its immortality. It will never die and can only become seemingly dormant. But, I think the times they are a-changin’.
MR: You guys are a quartet with pretty much the mandatory instruments rep’d. But did you ever consider electric fiddle like Jefferson Starship had or the occasional xylophone solo like Gentle Giant used?
BY: I’ve been working on my Kazoo skills for the next record or maybe a Theremin might be cool!
MR: Excellent! So if there was one song on the new album that would best represent what the band is all about, which one would it be and why?
BY: My go to nutshell Crobot song is “Skull of Geronimo.” It lays everything out there for you. It’s everything Crobot is all about, in your face dirty groove rock! There are a lot of influences in that one as well. From riffs to the vocals to the fuzziness, our whole spectrum is displayed on that one.
MR: Do you feel the band has a mission musically?
BY: We just want to be real. We get in to a room and jam whether it’s live or when we’re writing. We don’t use backing tracks live, we are really out there doing it and putting every emotion that is conjured up into the performance. That’s our mission statement. Our souls are our captains.
MR: Great answer. Brandon, what advice do you have for new artists?
BY: Smoke ’em if you got ’em and just keep doing what you’re doing. Eventually, something will give. Somebody will pay attention. If not, at least you enjoy doing what you’re doing, which makes everything incredibly easier.
MR: Where does Crobot go from here?
BY: In December, we’ll be heading out with Chevelle to support our new album Something Supernatural. Then, in February, we’ll be heading to the Bahamas on Shiprocked followed by a full-fledged European tour with Black Label Society, only to come back and tour North America with Volbeat and Anthrax. It’s going to be a great year for Crobot next year. Not to mention, we’ll have our own beer, hot sauce, and rolling papers! We’re certainly set for a fantastic voyage!
A Conversation with The Griswold’s Chris Whitehall
Mike Ragogna: Chris, The Griswolds’ album Be Impressive has impressed quite a few critics and your single “Beware The Dog” got a lot of attention as well. Will having that kind of immediate positive buzz affect the band’s approach to its career or creativity?
Chris Whitehall: It’s been very flattering, all these reviews are gonna give us a big head haha. I don’t think it’ll change our approach to the band or being creative, we tend to ignore whats going on around us, especially when we’re trying to write songs.
MR: The Griswolds worked with producer Tony Hoffer on Be Impressive. What was the process like? Any fun behind the scenes stories?
CW: Probably one of my favorite experiences i’ve had so far, Tony was nothing short of a genius to work with and the best dude! Tony has produced some of favorite ever albums for some of the best bands out there like Phoenix, Beck and The Kooks. We were pretty star struck when we met him but as the recording process started Tony became like an extra band member and he’s one of our best friends now. He was a bit of prankster actually, constantly messing with us as we were trying to record the album. We worked with David Campbell to do the string compositions on the album, and Tony had us believing that we couldn’t look him in the eyes and we shouldn’t talk to him, etc. When it finally came to meeting David, we were really freaked out. Anyway, It turns out David is actually the nicest guy in the world, so kudos Mr Hoffer for one of many legendary pranks.
MR: You’ve hit the Top 5 on Billboard‘s Emerging Artists chart and #1 several times on Sirius XM’s Alt Nation chart. What do you think it is about the music that’s resonating?
CW: I think a lot of it’s probably timing, it was summertime and we released a summery, up beat kinda song. I think the rest is just luck, you never really can be sure if your music is gonna be liked or disliked when you release it, and to this day I still have no idea what breaks a song.
MR: What do you think makes a good song? What kind of expectations do The Griswolds have of the material and the recordings?
CW: We have really high expectations of ourselves when we write, we go over every little part of every song until we have written parts that we are 100% happy with. We write songs then go back and re-write it again and again until we’ve ironed it into something that gets us really excited. For The Griswolds, a good song is a catchy song that people will want to singalong to. We’re constantly trying to write hooks, I guess thats what makes a good song for us.
MR: Does the group have a favorite current hit or recording by another artist or band, what is it and why is it a favorite?
CW: Everyone in the band is really loving “Bear Hands” right now, “Giants” is such a cracking tune! There’s something really addictive about that song, we always crank it in the tour van. The singer has a really iconic sounding vocal, that mixed with great big beats and clever synth lines has us all won over.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
CW: Do it because you love it. Being in band is the best fun you’ll have, so just enjoy it.
MR: Give us something embarrassing. I mean, really humiliating and don’t hold back, we’re all friends now!
CW: Earlier this year when we played Firefly Festival, we went and had a bunch of drinks at the festival and then our tour manager drove us home. We also had a young impressionable photographer in the van with us, she was doing a piece on “Tour Life with The Griswolds.” Anwyay, Dan and her were in the back of the van and he must’ve had a “few too many” because he projectile vomited all over the god damn van. It was the horrid and this poor girl was mortified! Haha…
MR: Yeah, that works! What does the ideal future look like for The Griswolds?
CW: Well we just locked in a two-month tour around the States with Walk the Moon, that pretty ideal! After that, I guess we’d love to tour around the UK and Europe, then hit up some US festivals in the summer time. Ideally then, we’d come home to Australia and start writing album 2.
A Conversation with Great Caesar’s John-Michael Parker
Mike Ragogna: John-Michael, Great Caesar just released its debut EP. How did that project come together and how was the group “discovered”?
John-Michael Parker: I like to think that this EP provides a few snapshots of the multi-faceted Great Caesar sound–a sound that’s actually been in development for quite a while (the origins of the band trace back to high school). We brought in Griffin Rodriguez, who produced Beirut’s magical The Rip Tide in 2011, to capture that warm, anthemic sound of Don’t Ask Me Why, which was definitely the catalyst and anchor of all this. After that, we sought to showcase everything you’d hear at a Great Caesar show–from the raw, ripping solos to the sweet lyrical melodies–and, looking forward, we’re eager to create our first full-length album that will be less a series of snapshots and more of a cohesive musical narrative and statement. As for the other half of your question–folks have “discovered” us in many ways over the years, whether at a college party, on the NYC subway, or somewhere along our month-long cross-country tour this September. The biggest driver to our music, however, has definitely been Upworthy’s sharing of our music video on Martin Luther King Jr. Day of this year.
MR: The phrase “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” was used by Perry White on the old Superman TV series many decades ago. Was that the monicker’s inspiration or is it more like “All hail the Great Caesar”?
JMP: Much more the latter. In fact, it was a big day for us when Google searches for Great Caesar began to favor our group over the ever-frustrating (for us, at least) jam band bearing Perry’s phrase. Anyways, we took our name from a freshman year in-class reading of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Though it started out as one of those sixteen-year-old inside jokes that just stuck, I think that over the years we’ve actually really grown into it. There’s something in the ambition and grandiosity of Caesar that speaks to an aspect of our music, and once I began to study him in college, Shakespeare became a big influence on my writing and storytelling.
MR: How would you describe Great Caesar’s sound and who are the group’s musical influences? And how much do you guys adore Arcade Fire and Beirut?
JMP: We adore them a lot. Also Dirty Projectors, Sufjan Stevens, Broken Social Scene. I learned how to write songs by playing from the Easy Piano book of The Beatles’ 1, and a stroll through our back-catalog would show an evolution influenced by Reel Big Fish, Brand New, Dashboard Confessional, Dave Matthews Band, Damien Rice, roughly in that order. How would I describe our sound? Big. Dynamic. Emotional. Passionate. I’d like to think we sound like a band that’s been playing together for over a decade, and that loves each other and the music we’re making, and wants to share that with every audience we get to play for.
MR: What is the songwriting process like for the band and when creating a song, at what point do you know when it’s done?
JMP: I’m happy to say that our process is still evolving, and I’m eager to see what form it takes when we create our debut–and it really will be a debut this time–full-length album. For the most part, our songs are generally conceived of by an individual, and then run through the “Great Caesar” filter, which involves enrolling the other folks in the vision and the idea of the song, and letting everyone bring their own flare to their parts. Having said that, we’ve also experienced everything from a more-or-less group jam, which is how Bury Me really took shape, to compositions done note by note on sheet music–like on our new tune, “Sharks.” Ultimately, we’re just trying to get at some truth in our songs, and we’re open to seeing what form that takes over time.
MR: You released a video for the title track, “Don’t Ask Me Why,” which makes a big statement about equality. How did this come together and whose idea was it to take a strong social stand?
JMP: For the full version of this story, check out a talk I had the privilege of giving at The Feast, a NYC-based conference on social good that helped us launch the video. For the brief version… The song was in our repertoire long before our friend Alex Colby–a brilliant director–came up with the blazingly clear vision for this video. I told him we wanted to make a video that would change the world, and a week or two later he sat down and pitched it to us, pretty much shot for shot. Everyone in this project, from the dudes in the band to the dozens of filmmakers, actors, and crew, to the hundreds of backers on Kickstarter who made it possible, had their own reasons –personal and otherwise–for taking this stand for social justice and equality. For now, I’ll say this… What I think ran through this entire project–which is really still playing out today–was an excitement and an inspiration that came along with doing something big and bold and quite a bit unreasonable in the search for doing some good in the world. It’s been an honor to be a part of it all.
MR: What are the creative dynamics of band mates and how can you just sit back and allow sax player Stephen Chen to also be in San Fermin? Is there no loyalty these days?
JMP: Let me try not to be disloyal in answering this question! I’ll start with this… Each individual in this band is a unique person with unique musical, creative, and lifestyle needs, and we strive to make Great Caesar a vehicle through which those can be met while leaving space outside the band to meet the rest. So whether that’s our trumpet player who likes to sing a bit and play the melodica while seamlessly maintaining his full-time advertising sales job when we’re on tour; our drummer who likes to drum, sure, but also to write and sings folk songs, read JD Salinger, and paint; or our sax player who likes to take amazing solos, write brilliant songs, and sometimes tour and record with another sick band, what’s most important to us is that the experience of listening to Great Caesar approaches transcendence–seriously. And as long as our various other projects, from the musical to the otherwise, don’t get in the way of that–did you know that Great Caesar bass player, Adam Glaser, is a partner in Vanessa’s Dumplings and co-manages the Williamsburg store–we’re quite okay with them.
MR: So musical multitasking works, groovy. What advice do you have for new artists, and feel free to elaborate a little because, as the song goes, the children are our future?
JMP: Be prolific, as a creator and performer! It takes a long, long time to really find your voice–whether that’s literal if you’re a singer, or figurative if you’re a songwriter or guitar player–and you’ll put out tons of retrospectively cringe-worthy material while you’re on the journey to finding that voice–or evolving it once you think you’ve found it. But every crappy song gets you one step closer to writing your big hit, and every sloppy show gets you one step closer to your headline tour, so put the time in, make lots of music, and do your best to be proud and shameless along the way. I say all of this as both an oft-cringed-at songwriter and performer and as a middle school teacher and high school Dream Director, so I’d like to think I have a bit of experience to speak from here: Take every opportunity you can to create new art and share it with the world, and, more importantly, every opportunity you can to learn about it and about yourself.
MR: What advice would you give Great Caesar when you guys started and what’s the best advice you were ever given?
JMP: Play every show like it’s your last. I know that sounds super cheesy, and I don’t think anyone actually said those specific words to us, but here’s what I’m thinking… I think sometimes–especially during a long tour when you’re exhausted and homesick, or during that 1 AM set that’s way later than you’d hoped at a venue way further away than you imagined with some dude in the front row who is talking so loud and turning around and texting and throwing off all your tender moments–it’s easy to say f**k them and go through the motions, and to forget what an extraordinary privilege it is to share your music, your voice, your truth with the world. Every show gives you a chance to change at least one person’s life in some small way, and it’s a shame to let that go by because you’re sick of sharing a bed with your bandmate or pissed at the venue or frustrated with that dude in the front row. On our last tour, we had the chance to spend the day and play a show at the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio. To say nothing of the graciousness of our hosts throughout the day, we received a standing ovation after every single song in the set, and were told later, by guys who would never set foot outside of that prison again in their lives, that our show was the closest thing they’d experienced to freedom in a long, long time. Sure you’re going to have your off nights, and sure the music industry–from your dreamed-of record deal to your little club’s sh**ty door deal–doesn’t always feel like the fairest thing in the world, but you have such a privilege and a power as an artist, and you should never take that for granted.
MR: Is Great Caesar’s future so bright you’ve got to wear shades?
JMP: I sure hope so. But after these last few answers, this interview is making me feel like I might have a future in motivational poster writing if the band goes dark, so to speak.
MR: Okay, cough up one embarrassing thing about the band.
JMP: Well, a day in the van with us would shed some light on the different attitudes toward shame and embarrassment across our group, so I’ll stay away from that potentially controversial concept and leave you with something I hope is at least funny: on one of the particularly long drives during this last tour (I think it was from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Washington, D.C., we spent a few hours listening to a pretty good portion of the entire collected discography of Great Caesar, from the early jazz-trio days to the cringe-worthy live sets at Arlene’s Grocery when we first played there six years ago, to our “break-out hit” Snowflakes, written about my high school sometimes girlfriend / always loving and painful muse–and we cranked the volume and sang along to every note. It was one of the best parts of tour, and it was just us, singing and air drumming with each other, passing beef jerky and shouting at the top of our lungs.
A Conversation with Such Gold’s Ben Kotin
Mike Ragogna: Ben, Such Gold’s new album The New Sidewalk was produced by Bill Stevenson. What did the association bring to the mix?
Ben Kotin: Well, simply working with him turned some heads. When bands go into the studio to work with particular producers, fans expect a certain output from that collaboration. Based on the records that come out of The Blasting Room, listeners were definitely curious as to what that association would mean for the new record. People know The Blasting Room for a certain honesty and impact.
MR: Take us on a tour of the album’s creation, the songwriting and the creative process.
BK: Nate, Jon and I all had been hammering out riffs and structures for The New Sidewalk since Misadventures came out. We parted ways with our old drummer in early 2015 so I was actually hacking my way through writing drum parts until we employed our new drummer Matt Covey–formerly of hardcore mainstays Shai Hulud–back in March. Jon runs a studio in Brooklyn and we essentially recorded the entire record in full once through before we drove out to Colorado to work at The Blasting Room. Getting to know the arrangements in his studio before we went into do the real thing was invaluable. I wrote most of the lyrics during this stage as well.
MR: You guys tour often, do you take new material out and road test it?
BK: Not really. We write constantly on the road however. We started playing a rotating cast of songs from “The New Sidewalk” since we recorded it and are currently playing three live–“Faced,” “Engulfed in Flames,” and “Nauseating.”
MR: How did Such Gold come together?
BK: We all originally met through the Rochester music scene from playing in bands in the area through the years. Jon joined the band through our old guitarist Skylar and Matt joined through Jon, as they both lived in New London, Connecticut, for a time.
MR: What are a couple of the crazier adventures you guys have had as a group?
BK: It’s hard to pinpoint just a few “crazy” stories, let alone ones that I would want my Mother to read. Being able to record at the Blasting Room this past May with Bill Stevenson, Jason “Swoll” Livermore, Andrew “Goatsmilk” Berlin, and Chris “The Baby Jesus” Beeble was easily the “craziest” experience of our collective musical career. We can’t wait to go back.
MR: Such Gold is considered a pop-punk band. But wouldn’t a better word be “alternative”?
BK: We couldn’t care less what people call us. If you were to ask us, we’d say “Soft Alt Grunge Klezmer Banana ’57 Sound Melodic Hardcore Double Clap, Triple Trap Uber Trooper Banana Music.”
MR: Whew, cleared that up! So what kind of musical influences did you have growing up and which artists still excite you? Do any of them influence the creative process?
BK: Music that “rips” excites me. This hasn’t changed since I was a kid. Any band that pushes themselves to write intense and engaging music is cool, no matter what genre. I’ll listen to Frank Sinatra and Dillinger Escape Plan within five minutes of each other. The only time a particular artist enters our creative process, so to speak, is if something we are writing sounds too much like someone else.
MR: Has Such Gold thought about the future of the band, direction and career-wise or are you just letting the music and events shape what’s coming?
BK: We try to not to think too far ahead. We’ll keep on pushing ourselves to write cooler material and keep touring. Where those tours take us and with what bands is up to the cosmic void of the future as well as Rang, creator of orbs.
MR: Anything in the news got your attention?
BK: The moon isn’t real. Circuit City is an elaborate hoax. False Flag. Rocks are squishy but tense up when you touch them.
MR: So what advice do you have for new artists?
BK: Practice your instrument. Get good at what you do on your own time. Doing your homework for the sake of your craft will bring dividends to your band. Push yourself to write material that feels foreign or new to you.
MR: What’s the best advice you and the band ever got?
BK: Nuno from A Wilhelm Scream told us recently, “If you’re lucky, people won’t like your band.” I know that sounds weird but it rings true. Hope that your band doesn’t achieve renown based on fashion or topical sound, but rather on the merit of the material that you are writing and your ability to perform live.
MR: What’s the future look like?
BK: As I place my hand atop the Time Cube and peer into its gelatinous surface, my vision blackens and I enter Catatonia. The sand on beaches are replaced with that of crushed peanut shells. Our band has changed our name to “Wild Stallion” and are amidst a worldwide amphitheater tour that is also a book signing for our most recent fiction cook book. I’ve married Taylor Swift. I’ve had both my hands removed and replaced with hooks, which I got a great Groupon for.
Mike Ragogna: Jacquie, your debut EP, Broken Ones, was already a hit at iTunes. How did the project come together?
Jacquie Lee: Well, I was determined to make something of myself after The Voice and I needed people to see me as my own artist. That being said, I was extremely eager to release my own music. That’s how the idea of an EP came about.
MR: Was the recording process and songwriting a learning experience for you?
JL: Yes definitely. I drove myself crazy because I needed to get in a certain zone to evoke emotion when I recorded and I needed to be open and vulnerable with different writers to write magic. It was all very scary at first. I learned that being honest will get you places. Lying to try and not hurt anyone’s feelings won’t get you anywhere.
MR: Beyond Broken Ones, what is the Jacquie Lee Story up until now? Like what are some highlights everyone should know to catch up?
JL: Well, some things that were pretty cool were opening for Christina Perri and Tegan and Sarah during Fresh in the Park festival. That was my first show post The Voice where I was my own person and it was a big success. And I met a fellow Atlantic artist! The release of my EP hit top ten on iTunes and performing on The Today Show was also a really surreal experience.
MR: You appeared on The Voice and were the first runner up on Season 5. Radio Disney played your single “Broken Ones” and it quickly became one of the most requested songs. What do you make of all this Jacquie Lee fuss? What do your family and friends make of it?
JL: I’m extremely proud of it. I don’t take any of it for granted and I love my jacqattacks. I am so thankful for them. My family and friends are also very supportive of it all. They still don’t really believe it’s real to be honest.
MR: What kinds of activities do you do during your down time? Do you even have any down time? Do you miss being a “regular” person or has basically nothing changed on that end?
JL: I will say I am an avid Netflixer… Oh yeah, and I am still a senior in high school so a lot of my free time is dedicated to school. I don’t mind it though it definitely helps me feel normal and stay grounded.
MR: Now that you’re having some success, have you put yourself on a career plan or have you adjusted things with your music and creativity that utilizes this new position in life?
JL: I have a plan… I will do whatever it takes to achieve my dream. Hard work pays off and I plan on writing and touring to grow. My dream is to sell out Madison Square Garden one day.
MR: Do you have any particular charities that you participate in or are there any social issues that you align yourself with?
JL: I would love to support a charity that raises money for Cystic Fibrosis. It would mean a lot.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists based on your experiences to this point?
JL: My advice would be to dream big. If you never try you’ll never know
MR: What would an ideal future look like for Jacquie Lee?
JL: World tour. Surrounded by people who love and care.
MR: Favorite animal? Had to ask that, sorry.