Think Haight-Ashbury and 1960s rock, Leon Russell and the Tulsa Sound, or indie rock in Omaha in the mid-1990s. Geographical pockets of bands operating loosely under the same genre umbrella often have tremendous impacts on popular music nationwide. One of the Midwest’s contributions, at its commercial peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was “emo,” short for “emotional,” a label often shrugged off by the bands categorized within it.
Though Dashboard Confessional, from Florida, and Saves the Day, from New Jersey, are bands that thrived in that era, many of the most successful bands of that time hailed from suburbs in Illinois (Braid, American Football) or Kansas. Lawrence’s The Get Up Kids is a prime example, as are The Appleseed Cast and The Anniversary. The Anniversary, the band that perhaps least fit the sonic mold of its emo counterparts, erring more toward classic rock ‘n’ roll, recently reunited after a 13-year hiatus and will perform at Opolis on its brief reunion tour. Singer and guitarist Josh Berwanger answered a few questions about the band for The Oklahoman.
Q: Why did The Anniversary break up, kind of at the peak of its success? Josh Berwanger: Looking back, I think we were young and didn’t know how to deal with everything that was going on around us. So instead of trying to really sit down and figure it all out, most of us were like … It’s over.”
Q: Why reunite after so long? Berwanger: Janko (drummer Chris Jankowski) has been trying to get this thing going for a while now, and most of us have been into the idea and times and not into the idea at different times. Finally, we felt there was a window, and if it was gonna happen, now was the time. We really looked at this as having fun and being together again. We toured nonstop from 2000 to 2004, and when we weren’t on tour, we were recording. And some of us didn’t see each other again until the first practice 13 years later.
Q: The timing seemed particularly strange given you just finished recording a solo album under your project “Berwanger.” Berwanger: I think the timing was surprising to everyone. A year before we agreed to reunite, I still thought it would never happen. Berwanger has a new album called “Exorcism Rock” coming out Nov. 4, and we’ll be playing Tulsa and Norman the first week of December.
Q: What’s your connection to Norman? Berwanger: Ricky Salthouse, from My So Called Band fame. I met Ricky when I was touring in my band (that I started minutes after The Anniversary broke up) called The Only Children. He plays in Berwanger now. We recently recorded a record in Norman with Jarod Evans (at Blackwatch Studios). I love Norman. It’s a second home to me.
Q: Tell me about the first show back, at the Taste of Chaos festival in San Bernardino, Calif. Berwanger: I wouldn’t recommend a band’s first show in 13 years be in front of 15,000 people. That was a bit intense. All of the other shows have been great. We played after Gwar at Riot Fest.
Q: What have you learned in your other bands since The Anniversary that might’ve led that band to continue on its trajectory back then? Berwanger: I’m not sure anything could have helped us, since we were so young. As I’ve gotten older, I feel I’ve learned how to handle certain situations better and am able to deal with what I can and cannot control in life. Everyone in the band is a parent now, so with that I can say some of the little things we thought mattered so much as a 20-year-old don’t matter at all.
Q: Once you focus on Berwanger this winter, is The Anniversary kaput again? Berwanger: It’s really hard to do any Anniversary show, since everyone has serious jobs and kids. The Anniversary is planning a 10-day West Coast run in the summer, and that’s all we have planned. Maybe that will be it, maybe we’ll make another record, maybe we won’t. We have short-term memories, so we may forget this reunion ever happened.
Rarely does this much come from a game of H-O-R-S-E.
In fall 2012, Oklahoma City’s James Nghiem, a comedian, musician, and writer, planned an art show loosely based on the elementary basketball game. Each artist’s piece had to have a title that corresponded to one of the letters in the game. Nghiem said a visual artist friend of his had lamented a lull in her productivity, and he planned the art show partly as encouragement to spur her to create a piece for it.
Oklahoma City artist Mike Allen, then a casual acquaintance of Nghiem’s, submitted art for that show, and the two struck up a friendship. Shortly afterward, Nghiem relocated to Los Angeles for a while, and upon his return, he, along with Allen, found new inspiration in their shared interests and specifically in a type of gathering of pop culture aficionados he experienced in Los Angeles that he couldn’t find here.
“These shows totally started because I was depressed that California had something that Oklahoma didn’t,” Nghiem said, recalling a “Ninja Turtles” art show he saw while he was living in Los Angeles. “I have a lot of talented friends who don’t get a lot of opportunities to express themselves. I just want to see cool things happen and be involved in them in an invisible way.”
Nghiem, along with Allen and in partnership with the venue, started a series of themed art shows at 51st Street Speakeasy. The video game “Street Fighter” was the concept for one, the next was based on Japanese animated series “Cowboy Bebop,” and the last borrowed elements from the films of Wes Anderson.
“James and I have long, winding conversations when we hang out, which sometimes lead to an idea,” Allen said. “We try to steer away from subjects that are too popular or too niche, but really nothing is off the table. I’m still shocked that so many people are into ‘Cowboy Bebop’ in this city.”
On Saturday, this creative conglomerate opens “Enter Through the Drink Shop,” a curated gallery show featuring the work of several area artists tasked to create pieces inspired by mysterious London street artist Banksy.
Allen, a longtime visual artist, said his submitted pieces for the Speakeasy shows have been different from his other work. “I have made a conscious effort to shed my normal style for these in order to fit the theme,” Allen said. “I’ve found that what I trade away in freedom of subject matter, I get back in freedom from expectation.”
Nghiem agrees about what the Banksy theme offers artists that other shows may not have: “Freedom. I think this theme is a lot more open-ended. I want people to say what they want in their pieces.”
The shows also push the boundaries of what visitors may expect from an ordinary art gallery: themed food menus, performance artists in character and live music are on tap for the Banksy show. The aim is more to create an environment based around the theme than to just have sterile art viewings, though the art itself is garnering attention as well.
“Someone from Allied Arts told me we have amazing pieces and is interested in a lot of our artists. That felt validating,” Nghiem said. “Also, the Speakeasy rearranged their space to have more of a gallery vibe upstairs for us. I’ve been doing comedy there for seven years, and I never thought they would do something like this for a project, especially something that isn’t my specialty.”
Nghiem may consider himself a comedian first, but his social experiments are sparking a considerable amount of creative interaction from those around him, visually and socially. “I like to use pop culture to try and get people to experience other culture. It’s a good way to put bands and artists in good situations and get people talking to one another,” Nghiem said. “It’s not really anybody’s job to facilitate this, but it’s better than living in a state where no one talks.”
From the artists’ side, Allen said, “A theme ‘levels the playing field,’ because it’s likely that most artists who submit, whether established or not, are trying something new.”
For people interested in participating in upcoming shows, Nghiem and Allen want everyone to know the door is open — and dedication and interest can trump perceived skill level.
“If I could just get people who live here to believe in themselves as much as I believe in them, we can really make something,” Nghiem said.
Musical icon, feminist, activist, author and winner of Tony, Grammy and Emmy awards: Cyndi Lauper’s list of accomplishments runs as long as her storied, three-decade career.
Although the eclectic 63-year-old singer says she has many dream projects in the works, when she makes a tour stop in Oklahoma City on Tuesday, her extracurricular to-do list is short: She wants to see the Vince Gill statue at Northwest Classen High School. “So funny,” Lauper said. “I gotta take a picture of myself in front of it so I can show him.”
An ’80s pop singer seems an unlikely Vince Gill fan, but unlikely is the name of Lauper’s game. Since the release of 1983’s “She’s So Unusual,” which spawned the megahit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Lauper has released nearly a dozen genre-spanning albums, from old standards to electronic dance music and even Memphis blues. Her latest, released earlier this year, is “Detour,” an amalgam of classic country hits. Gill is one of many superstars, including Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and a yodeling Jewel, to lend their vocal talents.
Lauper’s powerful voice sounds surprisingly at home subbing for Patsy Cline on tracks like “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “I Fall to Pieces,” with a few charming glimpses of her signature Queens accent here and there. The album opener, a take on Oklahoman Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love,” could easily be mistaken for the original if not for modern production value.
“That song, I connected to. It was the first one where we realized, this is what (the record) should be,” Lauper said. “I wasn’t looking to reinvent the wheel, just have fun and be in the genre. It’s a singer’s record.”
“Funnel of Love” in particular may serve as an overdue homage to Jackson, whom Lauper looked to when she was studying female rock ‘n’ roll singers in her pre-solo rockabilly band Blue Angel.
“Without learning from her … I don’t think that I would’ve been able to sing ‘She Bop’ like that or even thought to sing it like that, or ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun,’ ” Lauper said. “I was able to do all those kind of rockabilly things. They called Wanda ‘the devil woman,’ because she was singing rock ‘n’ roll. They said she’s country, but she’s not.”She recalled arguing with industry professionals about Jackson’s lack of recognition when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in the ’80s. “They should’ve inducted her,” Lauper said, “but they’ll never hear that. There’s no women on that board.” Jackson was later inducted in 2009.
Lauper is intimately familiar with butting heads with music’s upper echelon of suits and has not shied away from voicing her dissent, as far back as the start of her solo career. “In my band, it was easier, it was a given that we wrote together. But female singers sometimes have a Svengali standing behind them, and I hated that,” Lauper said. “I would be like, ‘Let me explain something to you: If you could sing, you could do all those things you think are so wonderful, but I have a voice and a mind along with it that I would like to use.’ ”
‘Some kind of feminist’
Lauper, who grew up in a household of women, said, “I just made decisions that I thought were right for women. People would ask, ‘Are you some kind of feminist?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, of course I am. I burned my training bra. Is that a problem?’ Gimme a break. That’s what feminism is. Figure out what your rights are.”
Even “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was originally written by Robert Hazard in 1979 as a male- centric assessment of women’s carefree lives. Lauper rewrote it from a woman’s point of view, and it found massive success and became a call to arms for female autonomy.
More recently, she penned the music for “Kinky Boots,” a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical based on the book by Harvey Fierstein. The musical deals with themes of acceptance for different lifestyles through the lens of a factory worker’s friendship with a drag queen. Lauper, who is an outspoken activist and fundraiser for LGBT causes, found the characters close to her heart.
“I was able to work on a subject matter that was so much bigger than myself,” Lauper said. “It was a great thing to do, and with all those wonderful characters, I could sing any which way I wanted without someone telling me, ‘You can’t sing like that because you’re Cyndi Lauper,’ because I wasn’t.”
Telling Lauper she “can’t” has proved an exercise in futility during the past 33 years, and although she won’t divulge what’s next — “I don’t want to jinx it!” — her audience can be sure that regardless of format or style, Lauper’s true colors will unmistakably shine through.
Oklahoma City rapper Jabee Williams’ new album, “In the Black Future, There’s a Place So Dangerously Absurd” — or simply “Black Future” — opens with a reading of the poem that inspired its title. In the poem’s imagined black future, language, education, hope and hard work are the means to moving forward.
“In the black future,” it reads …
We give more than requested
Work harder than required
And believe in the unrealistic
Written by Oklahoma City poet Najah-Amatullah Hylton, the poem was commissioned for a concert of Jabee’s that never came to pass. After being inspired by a similar show he saw at a museum in New York, he planned a Black History Month-themed performance in Oklahoma City, to include a full band performing songs from different periods of black history, set to video of significant events of the same eras. He requested Hylton write a poem to read live the evening of the show.
Earlier that day, Williams went to a mall in OKC with a friend to get a haircut. They went in separate directions, and he was stopped by security officers who said they’d already told him to remove the hood and accused him of taking video inside the mall. He protested, explaining he’d just gotten there, and after a debate, he attempted to leave. He was followed to the exit and taken out of the mall in
Williams was placed in a holding cell with many other people, during which time he was not allowed to make any calls for several hours — including to the friend he’d gone to the mall with, who waited without information on her missing friend until after closing time. He was not released until after his showtime had passed.
If you follow Jabee on any social media platform, you know this: “Normally when something happens to me, I Facebook it, I tweet it,” he said. “But I didn’t tell nobody. The KSBI thing had just happened not long before that.”
In July 2014, Jabee was slated to perform on KSBI-52’s “Oklahoma Live!” program, a show he’d guested on before. Upon arriving at the studio, he was asked to leave by a producer who, upon seeing Jabee in person, stated that
a hip-hop act being booked for the show had been a mistake. He and his band left without performing. KSBI’s president later called Williams to apologize. Williams said, of both incidents, “Even though I hadn’t done anything wrong, if things keep happening to you, people are going to think it’s you.”
It’s worth mentioning that Williams is not just a musician; he’s an Oklahoma fixture. He’s known as a relentlessly hard worker and a champion of personal development and positivity. He could often be found handing out fliers and shaking hands while promoting his early 2000s band Invisible Struggle, which often played with folk and punk acts in OKC, or working events for hip-hop collective Puzzle People.
More recently, his local work beyond regular club shows has included performing for youths at schools and social service centers, a pop-up concert in partnership with Oklahoma Arts Council and hosting an annual food and clothing drive. In 2014, he even won a Heartland Regional Emmy for his contribution to an educational commercial for Science Museum Oklahoma.
To put it succinctly: People who know him were surprised to hear he’d run into trouble.
That trouble did not manage to slow Williams down. When a venue setback moved the new album’s release show from its original date of June 18, he responded to disappointed fans by immediately dropping a hold-over record, a compilation of b-sides and non-album cuts called “Juneteenth.”
And, finally, “Black Future,” after more than a year of production, is in its home stretch, the release show rescheduled for Saturday in Oklahoma City. And as he prepares to share the album with his audience in this emotional climate, he hopes the message of the record is clear.
“I thought people who know me would realize that I would never be exclusive, but look at where the country is right now,” Williams said. “I’m black. My kids are black. It should be OK for me to say I want a future for my people.”
In the black future There’s a place so dangerously absurd That words re-emerge as our tools and our friends Rather than the means by which the man condemns us to ignorance
“ ‘In the Black Future, There’s a Place So Dangerously Absurd.’ It’s almost sarcastic, in a lot of ways,” Williams said. “We can have a bright future, or a dark one. It can be bright, or it can be black.”
The songs tackle a number of heady subjects with stark honesty: personal tragedy, dreams tempered by reality, the salvation hoped for in death, Williams’ relationships with his parents, and the daily challenges of contemporary American blackness.
He initially chose to record “Black Future” entirely at Jivin Studios in Tucson, Ariz., but found himself gravitating back home to Local Cuts, a new Oklahoma City studio (also a barbershop, located on NW 23). Collaborators include Chuck D. and Brother Ali, as well as several Oklahoma artists: Meant2B, Sardashhh and Allie Lauren, among many others.
“My initial plan was selfish: I didn’t want to drown it with Oklahoma features,” Williams said. “But it was a question of what the song needed. With Sardashhh, I heard his stuff and thought, ‘This kid is the future.’ We’d start a song, and I felt like it needed Miillie Mesh. Then everyone started asking, ‘How can I help? What do you need?’ They believed in it, so I wanted to share it.”
SENSE OF URGENCY
Williams was also open with his audience about his artistic process, and he posted videos of studio sessions and provided plenty of updates along the way.
“I want people to buy into it. I wanted to make them a part of it,” Williams said. “And I feel like if I’m not talking about it, it’ll get lost. I wanted to keep that momentum going up until the release. I wanted to always have something to show or share, something to talk about.”
This is true of Williams in the context of an album release but also his artistic path overall — a sense of urgency and a desire to share his music have been fundamental to his success so far.
“You think you have time, but you have no time,” Williams said. “I’ve said, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ to people I had plans with, and then it never happened. I could be driving, doing anything, thinking about how if something happens, how will my music get out, or who will do this thing (that) has to get done. You just don’t know what’ll happen. There’s a song on the album where I say, ‘I close my eyes, and I’m gone.’ I talk about not making it to tomorrow, and am I finishing everything I want to do?”
For Jabee, working hard ensures a legacy; his art controls the message he’ll leave behind. In the black future, according to Hylton:
We see today through tomorrow-colored lenses Because progress rarely puts out for those who feed it We give more than requested, work harder than required And believe in the unrealistic, because we matter And our babies, even more than our own bodies, will depend on it
Ryan Lindsey, singer and guitarist of Tulsa quartet BRONCHO, is talking about the band’s new album, “Double Vanity.”
When he says it, we’re reclining on a thrift store sofa in the makeshift living room of BRONCHO’s post-apocalyptic warehouse space in Tulsa, surrounded by trusses, mirrors and metallic plastic sheeting. There’s a large tube television playing a VHS tape of the 1985 Chevy Chase comedy “Fletch” and a slowly floating but seemingly permanent haze in the air.
I did eventually settle in, to the environment and the album. In both cases, it did not happen right away.
Where BRONCHO’s two previous punky efforts sped by at one hour combined, “Double Vanity,” out Friday on Dine Alone Records, is a comparative stroll. It’s a rich, reverb-drenched 40 minutes, equal parts darkness and pastel watercolor. It’s what Lindsey calls a slow headbang record, and it marks a stark about-face for Lindsey, guitarist Ben King, bassist Penny Pitchlynn and drummer Nathan Price.
In other words, meet BRONCHO 2.0: They’re here to set the mood.
Off the heels of “Class Historian,” the 2014 earworm single whose “da da doo doo doo doo” refrain made it a breakout hit (the track currently boasts more than 12 million plays on Spotify), Lindsey’s talent for penning pop and punk hooks reached its largest audience yet.
It comes as a surprise, then, that the band’s next move slows things down considerably. “Double Vanity” is a statement record: grungy and expansive, with every song chugging along at the same leisurely tempo, all vocals and guitars alike twisted under billowy recording effects.
But still, under that first impression are the fundamentals, glimmers of the trademarks that have made BRONCHO successful so far. Giving the album time, according to Lindsey, is crucial: “Once you commit to it, that’s where the little parts of it start to show themselves.”
Matter of understanding
One of those critical reveals is Lindsey’s singing style, a distinctive drawl that has grown increasingly unintelligible since BRONCHO’s inception. It’s what SPIN recently called “androgynous” and “elastic,” and Lindsey doubles down on this style on “Double Vanity,” along with studio effects further obscuring most every line.
“That’s the one thing everyone in our crew had an issue with, but that’s what everyone has always had a problem with, with me — they can’t understand what I’m saying,” Lindsey said. “It’s not intentional; it’s just the way I am. When I focus on ar-tic-u-la-ting, I think about that rather than taking in whatever makes me feel good about performing.”
The vocal character Lindsey plays in BRONCHO has contributed to the band’s charm immensely, but of course complicates clarity for the listener, literally muddying what the band has to say. This is something Lindsey understands despite his tongue-in-cheek stage antics.
“Ben and I, when we’re talking lyrics, we want things completely drenched,” Lindsey said. “I care about lyrics that might be misheard, but sometimes I’ll hear a song and think it’s great, and I hear the real lyrics later and lose some emotion for it.”
Take “Fantasy Boys,” the new wave-y lead single in which Lindsey coos, “Is it something in your walk / is it your legendary play / I wanna eat you up / I wanna drop your name.” Reviewers pounced on the innuendo of the track, likening it to ’80s romantic movie anthems. Close friends, however, say it was initially inspired by the dynamics of a fantasy basketball league. As ever, BRONCHO leaves it up to listeners to decide what they’re hearing.
“I’m making stuff for myself, something that I like,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think of it selfishly until I have to step back and explain myself. And maybe it is a little selfish or self-indulgent, I don’t know. I think there’s people who get it. And hopefully we find the people who do.”
Whether you get it or not, “Double Vanity” owes no small thanks to a couple of the people who do: the production team of Jarod Evans and Chad Copelin at Blackwatch Studios in Norman. The two have incidentally become less-than-silent partners in this era of BRONCHO, harbingers of a technical kismet that has borne heavy influence.
“We’ve gotten to a place where we know how to work with them, and I didn’t wanna mess that up,” Lindsey said. “I like the way they deal with the stress of the studio and the stress of getting something done.”
Working with longtime friends in a familiar setting also allowed BRONCHO some liberties with the record’s pace and environment. According to Lindsey, the band spent the first week of studio time “getting the vibe right,” finding drum sounds and setting up a lounge that included parking the band’s RV and adding patio furniture and artificial grass to create a studio lawn.
And spending that time proved critical. After initial “scratch” recordings and drums were completed, Copelin had the opportunity to purchase an AKG BX20, a massive analog spring reverb unit discontinued some decades ago, famous for its ability to re-create concert hall-style echoes within a small studio space.
“I fell in love with it. It brought the record to life for me and everybody in the band, like, ‘Oh, there it is. We have a record,’ ” Lindsey said. “It felt like cheating. Two weeks into recording, I found out I liked the way my vocals sounded through it and the way guitars sounded through it, and we were on a path.”
Meanwhile, Evans’ newfound interest in manual video production meant much of the recording process was captured visually as well, inadvertently creating a hazy, multicolored aesthetic that has synced up perfectly with the songs and album-related artwork.
“Those cameras kind of have their own vibe and really set the tone for what we wanted to do with our first video,” Lindsey said.
Evans had been searching for a discontinued editing system called Video Toaster (originally engineered by Brad Carvey, reportedly the inspiration for his brother Dana’s character Garth in “Wayne’s World”) for some time. While in the studio, Evans found it for sale — for a mere $500, in Norman. The result of that fateful purchase is a blurry and absurd but suggestive video for “Fantasy Boys,” shot mostly in the warehouse.
Places and parties
A former production space for bathroom fixtures, the industrial building and its surrounding land are peppered with empty hot tub shells, the ceilings and walls coated with inches of chemicals layered so thick it all appears to be frosted, part dirty cake, part limestone cave. BRONCHO’s headquarters looks exactly like a place where an album like “Double Vanity” could be conceived: more than a little dirty, littered with bygone artifacts and somehow still brand-new.
A stage and catwalk are prominent in the center, and various iterations of the stage set — a complex tangle of mirrors, plastic foliage, wire fixtures and purple lighting — are assembled inside when the band is at home.
Currently, though, BRONCHO is in the middle of the first of several summer tours, this one a monthlong, cross-country trek of the sort that has consumed the members’ lives over the past few years.
“I found a way to never be home,” sings Lindsey on “Soak Up the Sun,” track nine of the new LP. Whether that’s really what he’s saying is anybody’s guess, of course.
“All I know is ‘Double Vanity’ is a place I’ve been trying to get to,” Lindsey said. “In some ways, people might be turned off by it, but it also opens us up to other people. There have been those fans after the shows who just want to party, party, party … but I think this is more of a party record than any of our other records. This is the type of party I would go to.”
Equal parts vulgar party band and thoughtful pop artists, Austin quintet A Giant Dog has spent eight years culling the best of its influences—think the creepy-sexy swagger of T. Rex and the driving energy of AC/DC, among other things—and mutilating them into its own brand of garage glam rock.
Songwriters and vocalists Sabrina Ellis and Andrew Cashen formed A Giant Dog in 2008 with guitarist Andy Bauer, bassist Graham Low and former drummer Orville Neeley (current drummer Danny Blanchard is new to the lineup). Their newest record, Pile, out May 6, is a 15-song tour of sex, drugs and rock. The album is the band’s first offering on Merge Records, and it nearly never came to be.
“We’ve had it recorded for a year and a half and almost gave up trying to put it out,” Cashen said. “Then Merge happened. We’re excited.”
Pile (which follows the also comically titled albums Bone and Fight) is the band’s second record with producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon, White Denim) who, according to Ellis, captured the band’s live energy “almost protectively.”
Ellis noted, “He’s a collector of vinyl and always pulled out stuff for us to listen to. He goes really deep into immersing himself in what he wants the sound to be, an engineer through and through.”
Among McCarthy’s LP references during the making of Pile were of course a lot of AC/DC, but also The Pretenders—a surprise that ultimately makes sense when you arrive at the gentler moments on the album. Singles “Get With You and Get High,” which features guest vocals from Spoon’s Britt Daniel, and “Jizzney” are definitively love songs, though still peppered with the band’s signature debauchery. The latter is an admonition for infidelity in an imagined relationship and comes across heartbreaking and a little stalker-y. It’s a great example of the pervading tongue-in-cheek lyrical humor that appears throughout the album.
Overall, though, Pile is certainly more sour than sweet. A Giant Dog’s songwriting has honed in on the bravery found in hopelessness, the moment when caring becomes too much, so you just don’t. I could watch you die and not feel a thing, Ellis sings on “Creep.” I can’t even remember being young, goes the dire refrain of “Sex and Drugs.” These are anthems for lovelorn nerds and hungover outcasts alike, written and performed to sound both flawless and reckless by seemingly loose cannons with intent focus and style.
Notably, Cashen and Ellis are also the primary songwriters for a second Austin act, Sweet Spirit, founded in 2014. On keeping their creative endeavors separate, Ellis said, “You know when there’s a litter of puppies born, you can tell right away which puppies are going to be good and which puppies are going to be really bad dogs? It’s the same way with babies: You know which one’s going to be really good and take care of you and which one’s going to end up in jail. When we’re writing songs, we know right away whether they’re going to be better for Sweet Spirit or A Giant Dog. A Giant Dog is our ‘end up in jail’ band.”
Would-be show-goers should heed that warning: Ellis is a renowned frontwoman with antics ranging from the coquettish and dramatic to the outright gross, and the band’s shows are always loud and always interactive. A Giant Dog is in the midst of a six-week club and bar tour, a room size Cashen said he appreciates because it’s easier to get a feel for the night.
“We can figure out what kind of mode the crowd is in,” he said. “How drunk they are, if they wanna go apeshit or just stand there with their arms crossed.”
And if it’s an arms-crossed kind of night? “We try our hardest to make them uncross their arms.”
“If I feel like people are bored, I start acting like an angry child who’s been told that they’re very beautiful and special,” Ellis added. “In Brooklyn one time, I peed myself. I spit at people, pour beer…especially on people who seem vulnerable.”
A Giant Dog will perform at Soundpony May 14, a venue perfectly suited for the leotard-wearing, head-banging, sweat-spraying crowd involvement the band’s fans have come to love and expect. Until then, stretch, hydrate, and study hard the overarching message of Pile, perfectly summed up in a single chorus line: “I believe that there’ll come a time when we can all just rock ‘n’ roll.”
Subtlety, subtext and surprises: Poet Derrick Brown talks about odd jobs, unusual venues and assorted weirdness
for The Oklahoman / NewsOK.com
Poet Derrick Brown is a writer and storyteller and president of Write Bloody Publishing, a celebrated independent press that has printed more than 100 titles, including his latest collection, “Our Poison Horse.” His resume also includes stints as a paratrooper, Venetian gondolier and contestant on “The Dating Game.” He currently is touring with actress and poet Amber Tamblyn (“Joan of Arcadia”) and will perform at District House Saturday.
Q: Where are you from and where do you live now?
A: I am from Long Beach, California, and I live in Elgin, Texas. I’ve been in Texas for the last four years.
Q: What is the first poem you remember reading? And when did you write your first poem?
A: All my firsts were ugly experiences. My first poems I found were confusing, and for years I thought poetry was only for the elite citizens and was lost on my working-class fuzz.
Q: When was the first time that the idea of poetry as a career manifested itself?
A: When you are an artist, you do whatever you can to hit your bill due dates, have a few beers and squeeze in time to create. I never thought I could do it full-time and am pretty sure the rug could be pulled out at any minute. So, never.
Q: I’ve seen so many things that discuss all the jobs and kind of odd experiences you’ve had (paratrooper, gondolier, weatherman, “Dating Game”). What’s the single weirdest thing that you’ve ever done or that’s ever happened to you?
A: A few things. One, someone asked if they could come back to my hotel room and bring a friend. Hubba hubba? No. The friend was a 6-month-old baby. A fan said they would make love to me post-reading if I would give my heart to the Lord — the lord of all Mormons. The comedian David Cross once told me, to my surprise, to let his dog out for a walk twice a day and leave the light on. I forgot to leave the light on, and the dog tore up the laundry room. I now know the exact size of the actor Ben Foster’s butt cheeks, (learned) during a tequila fight in Los Angeles. Let’s just say, if you can palm a basketball, you’re there. I shot a bottle rocket into the face and arm of Alexis Bledel on accident. She did not cry and said she doesn’t know how to cry.
Q: People are saying “Our Poison Horse” is more vulnerable/autobiographical than your previous books. Do you agree with that assessment?
A: It is the most personal, but I don’t know if that holds more value than surreal or fantastical.
Q: Does the autobiographical content of your work ever give you pause when you’re putting it “out there” for consumption?
A: No. I am still a nobody in this world. If Blake Lively put out a book of poems where she was keeping track of the foods that made her fart the hardest at night, that could be a job-killer for the many people she employs, so the stakes are high for her and very low for me.
Q: The concept of authors doing readings and book signings isn’t new, but Write Bloody seems more structured, like the authors are bands. Why does that approach work better for you?
A: Well, Amber Tamblyn wanted to be at Barnes and Noble because she is big on fluorescent lighting and loud announcements about calendars on sale when you’re in the middle of a cancer poem. I try and put on shows in venues different than traditional venues because poetry has had so many bullets shot through it, and all the life has fallen out. I love turning the tables and shoving life into those holes. All those holes.
Q: I think writing poetry in general is kind of viewed as a solitary thing, thanks to a long list of famously depressed and isolated poets, but you’ve dedicated a lot of time to making it interactive, not just in your own readings, but curating, making records, organizing tours, etc. Why do you think the performance, the actual hearing of the literature, is so critical?
A: It’s not critical to the life of poetry, but it is critical to moving an audience. No good writer writes poetry for the audience, but a great writer knows how to make a set depending on the temperature of the audience that night. Too many poets do not care about the relationship between reader and listener, so folks are expecting a drone-fest. Or they expect a bunch of fake actors, fake crying or yelling about politics without a sense of nuance. I sing “hoorah” subtlety — hooray subtext, hurrah surprises.
Just ‘Roll’ with it: JD McPherson returns to Oklahoma with new album in tow For The Oklahoman / NewsOK
There’s a mobility in perception about Broken Arrow artist JD McPherson that evades explanation.
The onion skin is basic, essential throwback rock ’n’ roll, a partial assessment that leads diehard rockabilly fans and unresearched reporters alike to see McPherson as, in his words, “all poodle skirts and leather jackets.”
And ultimately, I guess, there’s no real harm in taking the sock hop version of McPherson at face value if that’s all you’re looking for. But there’s more to him than that.
Whatever it is, it’s why he and his band have jumped from opening for neo-country star Eric Church in April to a string of late-May dates with Robert Plant. It’s a timelessness coupled with experimentation that’s captured the ears of NPR, David Letterman, The Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone. It’s taken McPherson from an invitation to play with Queens of the Stone Age last fall to a headlining slot at Guthrie’s Queen of the Prairie Festival.
“Maybe people sort of see the patina of somebody who’s been committed to something for a long time and also maybe isn’t trying to treat it as a Civil War re-enactment,” McPherson said. “It’s being treated with some kind of dignity and as a living, breathing, functioning thing. Just trying to do something maybe a little different with it. I’m really not sure.”
On the record
McPherson’s debut album “Signs and Signifiers” was released first in 2010 on bandmate Jimmy Sutton’s Hi-Style Records (Sutton also produced) and then widely redistributed by Rounder Records in 2012. It is a surefire good-time album, heavily rooted in ’50s R&B but with glimmers of experimentation, in inspiration, in instrumentation and in a tight lyricism — with meaning — that’s easy to overlook if you’re just trying to have a good time.
“Let the Good Times Roll,” released in February, is the other side of the coin. According to McPherson, “Every aspect of this record is different in every possible way than the first time around.”
Notably, the new album features production from Mark Neill (The Black Keys, Old 97’s) and includes McPherson’s longtime touring band (bassist Sutton, drummer Jason Smay, pianist Ray Jacildo and saxophonist/guitarist Doug Corcoran) performing the instrumentation.
McPherson said about the studio experience, “I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t lifted the thing and placed it squarely on my own shoulders. But I do know the band very well, and it was wonderful to be able to put some trust in some people.”
That trust didn’t materialize easily, as McPherson notes he was hesitant to bring his new batch of songs to the table.
“I’ll just be honest; I was in a really paranoid place with these new songs,” he said. “I didn’t show the songs to anyone until we got to the studio. It was a strange journey, and difficult.”
Why, with McPherson apparently at the top of his game and surrounded by his own band, would recording these songs be any harder than the last go-round?
“That’s a controversial question, but let’s just say I had some very personal things to say, and I needed to do it in a sort of ‘plant my flag in the ground’ way,” McPherson said.
“I needed to assert myself. I had some songs that were a direct product of a couple of hard things I’d gone through, and I needed to have control. I needed to wrangle control.”
There are multiple biting lines on the record, like, “Did you win a black ribbon for breaking hearts?” from “Bossy” and “I was shaky from the day that I started to walk / I carry such a heavy load” from “Shy Boy.” Then there’s the Dan Auerbach (Black Keys) co-write, the gently heartbreaking “Bridgebuilder” — “Wading in shadows and old merry times / I fear I may sink to the bottom.”
The album benefits from the ebb and flow of rock beats with moments of anticipation … weariness and energy, everything in its right place.
“Let the Good Times Roll” is still in some ways a feel-good record — “It Shook Me Up” and the title track in particular — but it is, as McPherson said, vastly different from its predecessor in so many ways, and ironically titled, to boot.
“It is absolutely,” McPherson said. “Almost no one gets that.”
Show me some ID
Despite the hard knocks during the production of “Let the Good Times Roll,” it’s a bold step forward, a statement album not just for McPherson in the studio but in the broader terms of what JD McPherson is or, more easily identifiably, what he is not.
Yet I don’t actually detect any fear of artistic misunderstanding from McPherson, whose interviews in recent months have contained everything from being laid off from his teaching job to tales of songwriting inspiration drawn from “Frasier” episodes to him admitting he likes listening to his own album.
“Nine times out of 10, they’re the same questions,” McPherson said, “but there’s a repository of things I haven’t revealed and probably never will. If people aren’t picking up on things, that’s probably my fault … and also kind of a relief.”
Perhaps all of that contributes to the indefinable-ness of JD McPherson, in a way — the not knowing what the mystery is, or not quite being able to tell if there is one. It’s a rock ’n’ roller who loses his cool in front of his idols. It’s not expecting to hear the hard truth from a nice guy. It’s the complex reality of letting the good times roll.
The dedication in the liner notes of Tulsa songwriter John Moreland’s new album is a fitting introduction. “High on Tulsa Heat” was mostly recorded on a whim in a few days in July 2014 at Moreland’s parents’ Bixby home, while they were on vacation.
Produced by Moreland, with engineering and instrumental assistance from fellow Tulsans John Calvin Abney and Jared Tyler, the record is filled with pop rock, Petty-esque gems cut with plaintive ballads, ruminations on being lovesick, loneliness and, above all, the idea of home.
The concept of home is something he’s explored before, a bit more subtly. A line in “Your Spell,” from 2013’s “In the Throes,” lilts, “We knew emptiness like a panhandle road.” And then there’s the title track from 2008’s “Endless Oklahoma Sky,” a line repeated on “Tulsa Heat’s” “Cleveland County Blues.”
But the very idea of home is tricky when, by choice and by trade, Moreland — whose knuckle tattoos read “OKLA” and “HOMA” — has spent much of the past several years on the road, making travel as much his home as anywhere else.
“It gets weird after a while. You can’t do that forever, and I need some balance,” Moreland said. “But I’ve been off for a while, and even just driving to SXSW (in Austin, Texas, in March) felt really good. Just getting out of town and driving down the highway, listening to ‘Exile on Main Street.’”
Upon the release of “High on Tulsa Heat” Tuesday, Moreland will once again pack up for sometimes-greener pastures, with tour dates booked nationwide through the summer. And when he does, crowds can expect the same gravity, the same pin-drop silence that has marked many of Moreland’s recent performances.
“I think I want the words to be the focus,” Moreland said. “I don’t think I’m a very good guitar player; I can’t do anything flashy to grab people’s attention. I would rather the words do that.”
Moreland isn’t a traditional front man and doesn’t seem terribly interested in putting on a show. Instead, he’s a heartbreaker of a different color, possessed of the gift of articulation — whittling the weight of despair, lost love or homesickness into a few choice words.
“I write a ton and then figure out what doesn’t need to be there,” Moreland said. “I just take stuff out until I feel like it’s simple enough.”
The resulting sadness is pointed, palpable — and the assumption is often that all the sadness is his, and that the sadness is all he is. With lines like “I guess I got a taste for poison / I’ve given up on ever being well” from “Tulsa Heat” track “Cherokee,” it’s easy to see why his songs, as Moreland would say, bum people out.
But, as he’ll tell you himself, he’s not really that sad.
“Somebody started a ‘Cheer Up John Moreland’ Instagram account,” Moreland said. “And I think it’s funny, but it’s also like … man, I’m not really that sad. I don’t know what you think I’m like. That happens a lot.”
His friends know this about him, and many of their additions to the record — namely Abney’s late-night synthesizer riffs on “High on Tulsa Heat,” and Kierston White’s whiskey-laden background vocals on “Heart’s Too Heavy” — lift the record’s spirits in unexpected ways.
Hitting his stride
In tandem with this misapprehension about him being a bummer, Moreland agrees that in “real life,” he’s generally a private person. He also recognizes that this makes his career, his art, seem a bit counterintuitive.
“Being a songwriter is weird. You have to be introspective and maybe even self-loathing enough to write the songs, but then you have to be audacious enough to think that the songs you wrote are worth people’s attention,” Moreland said. “And people have asked me if it’s weird to sing this stuff in front of people, but it doesn’t feel weird. This is only context where I could say this stuff.”
He’s made a lifelong commitment to the outlet, though, with his earlier Tulsa bands rooted in hard-core and punk rock because of the same lyrical honesty. Moreland said, when I interviewed him in 2009 with his Black Gold Band, that he got into punk rock because of the “straight-ahead, good songs with no gimmicks,” where the words mean something.
Despite his earlier stabs at this style of song, it wasn’t until 2011’s “Earthbound Blues” that he feels he hit his stride.
“When I was writing for ‘Earthbound Blues,’ there was a moment where I knew I actively wanted to get better, and I was writing with that in mind,” Moreland said. “Everything I wrote before that, there’s a lot that makes me cringe, but nothing really since then. I’ve kept in mind that I want to be able to be proud of these songs down the road.”
What lies ahead is the release of “High on Tulsa Heat,” where Moreland for the first time finds himself with a marketing team (Nashville’s acclaimed Thirty Tigers) and a booking agent, the latter a luxury he’s only enjoyed for a few weeks.
In that same 2009 interview, Moreland discussed the difficulty of booking after crossing over from punk rock into Americana — that, at first, people weren’t ready to buy in, forcing him to work all the harder to find his market with later records.
Having a team behind him, despite his success so far, is relatively new to Moreland, and while he’s learning to hand control over to people who are working in his interests, he hasn’t lost sight of the work he’s put in so far.
“I’m thankful that I came from this musical background where you learn how to do stuff with extremely limited resources. You do everything yourself that you possibly can. You don’t wait for a break; you just do it,” Moreland said. “I wouldn’t have a career if I hadn’t known how to do that. There was nobody on my team making calls or pulling strings for me for a really long time.”
Moreland wasn’t waiting for a break, but it appears that break may have finally come anyway, and the road ahead looks promising. And in the near future, he’ll be on that road constantly, likely earning plenty of fodder for future songs.
As he sings on “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars”: “I know this life will leave you cold and drive you mad / make you homesick for a home you never had.”
But after all the exploration, the heartache, the leaving and returning, Moreland seems poised to forever hang his hat in Tulsa.
“I think if you’re going to make a living going to strange and unfamiliar places,” Moreland said, “then it’s probably good to come back to the most familiar place on Earth. Tulsa’s just home.”
As I walk into the coffee shop where John Fullbright and I have agreed to meet, I feel an intent stare coming from the minivan next to me. He beat me here, and when I look over to source the gaze, he breaks into a smile and waves hello.
For those of you in the back, Fullbright is something of an Okie wunderkind, a songwriter who, for some of us, seemed to leap overnight from membership in the Turnpike Troubadours and solo gigs at Libby’s Cafe in Goldsby to international recognition and, eventually, a much-talked-about Grammy nomination for 2012’s “From the Ground Up,” his first studio album.
Those accolades aren’t the source of my nerves, though. Fullbright has a bit of a reputation, particularly locally, for being reluctant to talk — not about his music, but about himself. While I’ve seen his professionalism in full effect in all sorts of places, including the Folk Alliance International Conference, South By Southwest and his own shows at the Blue Door, this is the first time I’ve put the spotlight on him.
Often, when talking to Oklahoma musicians, I tread the line between interested friend and biographer, reading articles from around the world written about people I know and asking questions I may already know the answers to. I am nervous, and I tell him as much.
He is patently aware of this. When I press record, he says, simply, “I’m going to use my interview voice.”
I inquire whether or not this reluctance is in the forefront of his mind when talking to media folks like me or, more often, of a higher ilk.
“Absolutely, but I don’t not tell the truth. I’ll tell a truth. A one-dimensional question gets a one-dimensional answer,” Fullbright says. “I give people all I got, all that I want to give ’em, but if one person from a local paper asks you a question, next thing you know, someone on NPR is taking that question to the next level. You have to be aware of what you’re saying now; someone’s going to bring it up later.”
And for those who prod further, past the songs, past the facts, past what he wants to give?
“I go, ‘I’m not going to go into my family history. We’re talking about music,’” Fullbright says. “Or when people ask, ‘Are you a Christian?’ and all that stuff. ‘We’re talking about these songs.’”
This is a conundrum for Fullbright, whose songs — including those on his upcoming album “Songs” — are clear enough and seemingly personal enough to be subjected to an autobiographical reading. I wonder aloud about the struggle to play close to the chest when your art and profession demand otherwise.
There’s a common theme around here about truth in songwriting. Canadian artist Scott Nolan sings the plight of the Oklahoma songwriter in his “Bad Liver/Broken Heart” with the plaintive line: “Doesn’t anybody care about truth anymore?/Maybe that’s what songs are for.” Okie John Moreland, in a nod to Nolan, echoes that plight in “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore,” saying, simply, “I guess truth is what songs are for.”
Fullbright, who notes that for him, songwriting has generally been a lonely task, decries this limitation in a different way on “Songs.” “Every time I try to write a song/I can’t seem to get a word in edgewise,” he sings on album opener “Happy.”
Fullbright puts forth that songs, “when they’re well-written, are about the listener,” but notes the obvious problem with that.
“Write a song that everyone can connect with, and suddenly everyone will start assuming that you know what you’re talking about. Ask me what ‘Jericho’ is about, and I can go line for line, and you’ll fall asleep. It’s the most boring story on Earth. But when you internalize it and make it about you, then it’s epic and exciting. That’s what songs are for.”
He explains further by paraphrasing a Shel Silverstein interview: “He said that when you write a song, you have to say everything that you mean, and it has to be interpreted exactly like you want it to be interpreted, and if it’s not, then you’re not doing it right, because you can’t chase someone down the street and say, ‘Now let me tell you what I really meant to say.’”
He’s lauded as a songwriter first, musician second. I’d categorize him as a sharp observer above all else, and keenly funny, despite an early NPR review of “From the Ground Up” that said he could “use more humor.”
If anything, he’s victim of the aforementioned local papers pigeonholing him with a swath of “Aw, shucks!” folk cliches: Yes, he’s from the same coupling of small towns that produced Woody Guthrie, and yes, he still lives there. Yes, he has an acoustic guitar, though for those who’ve seen him live, it’s inarguable that his piano playing is more impressive. One SXSW reviewer even called him milquetoast.
There’s a palpable absence of a cultivated image in Fullbright — and he is of course aware of this and of the limited perception that keeps that projected version of him alive. “If there’s a preconceived notion that I have to be some kind of Woody-head, then they’ll keep that about as long as it takes for them to come see a show and see that that is not the case,” Fullbright says.
The dark, racy video for his 2013 single “Gawd Above,” featuring Fullbright singing solo in a peep show confessional booth, may have been an answer to that as well.
“I just wanna be known for writing a clear, concise song,” Fullbright says. He goes on to say that experience is teaching him to whittle his songs down precisely to nothing more and nothing less than they should be.
“At the end of the day, I’m two years better than I was when that first record came out. In every way. Better singer, better writer, better guitar player, better piano player, better whistler,” Fullbright says. “I’m better at all kinds of stuff, and if the record doesn’t reflect that, then I’m not doing it right. That’s where the whole thing about stripping it down came from. This has to look like I’m better at this than I was before.”
And it does, I think. “Songs” is powerful in its simplicity, and it’s (theoretically) difficult to interpret his intent. But don’t get too attached. Apologies for using another folk cliche here, but he is an old soul. It’s difficult to remember he’s only in his mid-20s, only on his second studio record.
“Maybe once or twice a year, I’ll take a little stroll down memory lane because there are (older songs) I want to hear again,” Fullbright says. “But I’m looking ahead. I’ve got stuff to write and new experiences, and I’m not the same person I used to be. This new person’s gotta write all that down.”