I became aware of Chicago’s Phantom Works a couple years ago and ended up going on tour with them up the West Coast. Super great people and a great band. A lot of fun to travel with, and that’s saying a lot when you cram two bands in a single van together for 15 days. Even staying tight with the best of friends can be challenged under those circumstances. The timing of this tour coincided with the release of their first full-length, self-titled LP, which followed a couple 7-inch single releases.
Originally Phantom Works began as a trio of two guitars and drums (Kris Poulin and Matt Seifert sharing guitar and vocal duties with Jim Duffy on drums), very recently adding bass (Reg Shrader) to the mix on their latest release “Stunrise”. The sound is very reminiscent of the heroes of Chicago, namely Shellac, Jesus Lizard and Tar. Super aggressive guitars and pounding, roomy drums. Each instrument demands and earns its sonic space. Even though the first LP is strong as hell, I have to say I absolutely love the new LP “Stunrise”. Follow ups can always be tricky and these fellows nailed it. The addition of bass was a good move too. A full sound got even thicker. One notable aesthetic choice is the minimal use of cymbals. I had thought long and hard on this topic being a drummer and an engineer myself. I broached this topic with the band…
MF: You mentioned that your songs intentionally lack many cymbals. Can you discuss the impetus for this?
Kris: The original rule – more of a guideline – was that Jim should “almost never” hit the cymbals and, when he did (such as on “This Sleazebag Rant”), it was to be for ridiculous effect. On the newer songs, we’ve lightened up on that regulation, but it still stands as a general rule. The impetus for this is rooted in our original plan for the band to include a more powerful, rolling approach to the drums, å la The Monks.
Reg: Cymbals eat guitars. Guitars must be free to roam.
Kris: I’m sure that was part of the thought process, but I don’t think it was a reason why we chose that route, more that my experience recording bands told me that this approach would work for us. Until recently, we had no bass player, which opened up all that low frequency range, where the bass and low end of guitars would have been, to be filled by massive drums and bigger guitars. In general, we love a natural & roomy drum sound, and that sound can get eaten alive when a drummer is bashing away on cymbals. In short, more power on all fronts.
MF: Since you’ve relocated to San Diego, how has the process of writing played out with Matt and Jim still residing in Chicago?
Kris: Matt & I come up with stuff at our respective homes, sharing these demos via a cloud-based DAW called Ohm. I write a part in my garage in San Diego, record it in Ohm, and it shows up in Matt’s session file in Chicago. We keep building & arranging demos in that program until we all get together in the same room and work it out further in person.
Reg: Means that crushing new ideas has to take place in the limited times when we’re all in the same room. Being in the same room w/amps & drums on is still the best way to get the thing to come to life.
Matt: We’ve had to come up with some creative solutions to songwriting, and fortunately there are some cool tools out there now like Ohm that can make things a lot easier. Of course, when you live in Chicago, winter writing trips to San Diego are great excuse to get out of the cold.
MF: Phantom Works feels very “Chicago” to me. Can you discuss some things that make up an identifiable Chicago-esque sound?
Reg: A willingness to play around w/songwriting & forms w/out getting too precious. Robust respect for volume. Big drums.
Kris: With all the great and varied bands from Chicago, it’s clear there’s not a singular Chicago sound, but I know what you’re getting at and Reg pretty much covered that. I would add that what we’re talking about here is a certain abrasiveness and heaviness without being metal.
Matt: There is just something deeply appealing about jangly, reverb-less guitars and lots of harmonics.
MF: Some of the new album was recorded at Electrical. What is that place like to record in? It seems like a mythical place, although I know you’ve recorded there a good deal of times.
Kris: It’s definitely up there in my favorite few studios I’ve ever been in. It really has more than anyone would need to make a great recording, from a wide variety of rooms that all sound great in different ways to hundreds of great mics and loads of other top gear to get the sounds to tape. And everything works – always. The staff is totally on top of all things related to running a studio, too. I’ve never had a question go unanswered correctly and quickly. I don’t really drink coffee, but I’ve heard that the particular type of “fluffy coffee” that all Electrical Audio interns are trained to make is amazing. From the reviews, that alone might be reason enough to book time at Electrical.
Matt: Recording at Electrical is absolutely one of the finest privileges I’ve gotten to experience. It is mythical, with the hand-made adobe brick walls, beyond excellent equipment, and a really wonderful staff.
MF: Are there plans to tour with Phantom Works at all in the coming year?
Kris: Maybe. We hope so. Is there a petition to add more hours to the day or more days to a year? I’ll sign it.
Matt: A full on tour might be difficult, but we are working on some shows both on the west coast and in the midwest.
MF: You’ve pressed these great, beautiful vinyl LPs. Do you think that vinyl will always be around? It seems like CDs are perhaps not really desirable for people these days. Any thoughts on that?
Reg: I think there’s a core of people that will always want the vinyl object, whether big or small. Sound issues aside, CDs all seem kind of the same when you jam the artwork into a little plastic box. Vinyl seems more intrinsically individual, somehow. You can’t wrap your hands around an MP3.
Matt: Records have such a physicality, it’s hard to imagine them disappearing completely
MF: To wrap up, here’s one last question. I know you are very sensitive to MP3 encoding. Does it surprise you that youngsters seem to not mind horrible quality audio / delivery systems?
Kris: It doesn’t surprise me that people prefer the most convenient and, often, cost-free method of getting something. Also, it really seems like the vast majority of people just don’t hear the difference between a lossy, compressed MP3 and a CD. Or maybe the difference in sound quality doesn’t justify the cost to these people.
MF: Thanks for the scoop!
Here are some places one can track down the various physical and digital releases from Phantom Works…
Both 7-inches and the new record are available here, as is first LP digitally:
First LP vinyl here:
Live EP (digital only) here:
Collaborative EP with Cool Devices (digital only) here:
I have a strange and powerful connection to The Drift. The aforementioned is a fantastic San Francisco-based group who excels at a special brand of hypnotic, modal, jazz-inspired improvised music. My introduction to their strange brew happened around 10 years ago. My band at the time, The Jade Shader, was playing with local San Diego heroes Sleeping People. First on the bill was The Drift. We showed up early to load in and set up on the side of the stage. Within minutes we’d met the friendly boys of the drift and it turns out I knew their drummer from years back in his time with the amazing Jargon from Santa Barbara, but that’s another story…
Their set was confusing and mind-blowing. It was challenging and was like taking a bath in the warmest water you ever felt. Throughout the evening the crowd grew larger and larger in anticipation for the evening’s closer Sleeping People. I ran into a friend, whom I’d played with in a jazz band, he was raving about how great that first band was. Even though my band had also played, I had to admit… their band kicked everyone’s ass that night. It was a very welcomed ass-whooping. In short order I began moving in their direction with my own music. To this day, I site The Drift as a main influence and inspiration for my band Montalban Quintet.
The dark brooding delivery was interlaced with joy and beauty. Loose forms were lain out as a vehicle for improvisation and hypnotic repetition of each member’s contribution. The instrumentation was acoustic upright bass, electric guitar, drums and trumpet armed with an arsenal of effect pedals mounted on an ironing board. It worked on so many levels. Simple yet sophisticated. The Drift is a reminder that groove is not reserved for hokey jam bands, there was an art and soulfulness in the music’s delivery that had a widely broad appeal.
As time went on, The Drift put out a few more albums and then went sadly quiet. Tragically, a main reason for this was that their innovative trumpeter Jeff Jacobs had passed away from a battle with cancer. The Drift put out a final album after Jeff’s passing called the Blue Hour on Temporary Residence, which is another fantastic offering, although notably different from their quartet recordings with Jeff.
I contacted the versitile Danny Grody, guitar player from The Drift, for a bit of a lowdown on the Drift and his compadres’ current project.
MF: Hi Danny! Could you describe a few influences on The Drift’s sound? I’m sort of catching the late 60’s Miles Davis era (i.e.. In a Silent Way / Bitches Brew) but obviously there are more rock textures happening.
DG: Our sound is definitely an amalgam of many intersecting influences as well as the evolving line-up of members who helped shape the music over time. Initially, we were a three-piece consisting of drums (Rich Douthit), electric bass (Trevor Montgomery), and guitar (myself). We knew from the get-go that we wanted to make instrumental music with particular emphasis on long-form compositions that were hypnotic and very rhythmic. In the early stages I was completely obsessed with Afro Beat and Dub music, so I was personally interested in drawing on those influences. We all really dug bands like CAN and The Necks… anything that had a strong rhythmic center with abstract leanings that wasn’t afraid to blur the lines was super exciting to us. We’d play for hours and hours on end, letting our instincts lead the way. It was a great beginning…
MF: The Trumpet on your earlier records really gives the sound a jazz reference but without it there’s still a core ambient, hypnotic feeling. Was there an initial goal or concept in the band’s sound or did it evolve from friends getting together in a practice space?
DG: Our early beginnings definitely helped pave our sound, but it was really helped along by the addition of a fourth member. Not too long after forming, we decided we’d like to expand the line-up and include a horn player of some kind. We placed an ad on Craigslist and in a pure stroke of luck got a response from Jeff Jacobs, who became an integral member in the band for many years to come. Jeff was first and foremost an incredible trumpet player. He was also a total explorer and loved to tinker with other instruments and sound-makers. He loved adding delay and reverb to his horn, giving it this otherworldly dimension we all loved so much. I’ll never forget the first practice we had with him. It was like a feeling of pure deja vu in that it felt like he’d been there all along. Everything just flowed so naturally. It was uncanny. He brought a lyrical beauty to the music that really deepened the music. Before he joined, our sound was quite stark so it was a welcomed shift to have his voice in the mix. Jeff was, like all of us, a huge fan of Miles Davis – particularly his electric period, so it was inevitable that the Davis comparisons would come. It was flattering to elicit that response from listeners because we were all such huge fans! Ultimately though, the goal was not so much about who we adored but about exploration and really being as creatively open as possible in the writing process. Influences would subconsciously show up for sure, but so did many unexpected surprises that we could never have anticipated. I think that is really the beauty of collaboration because you get all these perspectives coming together overlapping and (hopefully) creating something new.
MF: What’s it like recording at Tiny Telephone? Some of my favorite records seem to come out of there. What’s the typical recording process like for The Drift.
DG: Tiny is a fantastic space to record! We’ve had the honor and pleasure of recording all our music there with engineer and buddy Jay Pelicci. Jay really understood our music and knew how to create the perfect setting to record. Generally, we came prepared with a body of work that was fairly well rehearsed because time was of the essence, but we always kept an element of improvisation in everything we did and made it a point to set aside a chunk of time to be totally spontaneous. Some of my favorite recordings were made this way actually. Tiny has a long history of great artists coming through and has been an enormously supportive resource for Bay Area music in general. Over the years the studio has expanded. There is now a “Studio A” and “Studio B”. The first of which is the original space with a big playing room, and the second newer option is an expansion into the adjacent building and offers a few smaller rooms that are offered at a discounted rate. Both sound great. Rumor has it they are working on an East Bay studio as well.
MF: I was so sad to hear about Jeff’s illness and eventual passing. As you know I had gone through a similar situation with my musical comrade Terrin Durfey. That must have been very difficult to continue as a trio after he passed away. What sort of things did you wrestle with when deciding to let the band evolve?
DG: Thank you. I appreciate your warm words. Jeff’s passing took an enormous emotional and psychic toll on us… something I’m sure you can relate to with Terrins’ passing. So sorry to hear about that. It really rocked our world to lose such a dear friend and creative companion. He had so much talent and departed far far too soon. We continued writing music with him as he battled through cancer. Eventually though, it became clear that he could not continue playing so we tried our best to build on the ideas we had started together. It was one of the most difficult things to do, but it felt like the right approach. It was about honoring Jeff really and we found it to be very cathartic to keep the train going as his condition worsened. It was kind of like group therapy when we got together and wrote. Eventually we went into the studio to record what was to become our last album “Blue Hour”. It was just a heavy time and I truly believe the music convey’s all those feeling of sadness, frustration, anger that washed over us.
MF: There hasn’t been much activity with the band it seems for a while. Can you let us know about some of the new music that you are making?
DG: Jeff passed shortly after “Blue Hour” was recorded. Once the album was released we embarked on a tour in Europe in its support. After the tour we took some much-needed time off. We were all so exhausted and unsure of what the future held. It was a break that would ultimately last until now. Jeff’s passing took the wind out of our sails and I think we never fully recovered. Not having him around left us feeling listless. I’m very proud of the fact that we made “Blue Hour”. It felt like a vital and important thing for us to complete, but once we were on the other side of it we kind of hit our natural stopping point… at least for the time being. In the interim we have all kept fairly busy with other musical endeavors. Trevor, with his Young Moon project which is now a full band that I play guitar in. Its been super fun! Rich drummed with a band called Winfred E.I. for a few solid years, and I have been largely focused on making solo music under my own name with the occasional collaboration.
MF: As time goes on, how does making music fit in your life. Do you feel differently now about the sacrifices of a musician’s life than you did as a 20 year old?
DG: My relationship and practice with music has certainly changed over the years. As a twenty-something I had a lot more idealism around music and the idea of being in a band full-time. Thankfully, I acted on that dream and was able to have so many amazing opportunities and experiences as a result. But as time moves on those ideals evolve and take on new meanings. I may not be as eager nowadays to tour a bunch, but I am still just very much engaged in writing, being challenged creatively, and performing music… just on a more local level these days. The main goal for me now is really to just enjoy playing as much as possible and continue to grow artistically. Got to water the plant!
MF: Drought be damned! Water it!
I became aware of the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International (OBDBI) through an engineer friend of mine, Kris Poulin. We were having a conversation about how I wished bands could just set up in a room, play music and have the space be captured in such a way that the moment was complete without overdubs or extra production. He said “Well, you’ll have to check out this album that I did,” and he stuck the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International on the stereo. It took about 5 seconds before I needed to find out more about this amazing band and album.
Occidental Brothers Dance Band International is the brain child of guitarist Nathaniel Braddock of Chicago. He apparently became so interested in the music of Ghana that he intensely absorbed the sound, created a band to play some of the culture’s best pieces, and eventually even moved there for a time to study. While there he absorbed the music and played with the local musicians, attempting to decode the Ghanian guitar styles. Although, not well-known outside of Chicago, they filled local venues and enjoyed strong support from their hometown music scene.
Of the music I heard, my favorite was the self-titled 2006 album. This one was all instrumental and consisted of 2 percussionist, electric guitar, tenor saxophone and upright acoustic bass. All the musicians loaded into the famous Steve Albini-owned Electrical Audio, recording studio B. A large live room suited the spacious organic sound of the band. There’s clearly a good chemistry with the players, as you can even hear them cheering each other along at times during their solos. The melodies are clearly African-inspired with buoyant, angular melodies. There’s a cheerful, light-hearted feeling to compositions with a playful afro-cuban rhythm section support. At times the band reminds me very much of the Marc Ribot’s Los Cubanos Pozitanos records. Another slightly warped and wonderful interpretation of a geographically distant influence is the instances that recall the music of legendary Cuban guitarist Arsenio Rodríguez, another highly recommended recording…
It’s interesting to think about the rhythmic and melodic diaspora from West Africa to the Caribbean, via the slave trade hundreds of years ago. From the Caribbean, this music entered the United States and influenced American Jazz, the precursor to rock and roll and popular music. Then you have these American musicians traveling right back to the source to learn about West African music. Along the way, things get filtered and mutated and of course the original Ghanian music has also adapted to modern times and sensibilities. A full circle indeed. Or perhaps a spiral would be a more accurate description of this transformation. There’s never a way to truly return to an origin, we can only only interpret into our own history and experience that which came before us. I digress…
The Occidental Brothers are on to something great and their music is easy to spend a good deal of time with. The unclouded production created a time-less recording that transcends the potential dating 20 or 30 years from now. It’s a group of 5 people in a beautiful sounding room, enjoying playing music with one another. Pure and simple.
Q & A with Nathaniel Braddock
MF: I play mostly rock music but do a jazz / afro-beat inspired project as well and the feeling of playing improvised music is unbelievable. So fun! That’s the vibe I got from the Dance Band International Album.
NB: The OBDBI became a high-flying, festival-playing African dance party, but the group started as a side project and at the request of my students. I booked the first gig without a band, in fact, or band name. The same student that came up with Occidental Brothers (as opposed to the Oriental Brothers) also suggested Code 419, which is the Nigerian legal code for fraud–which I thought appropriate.
I called together a handful of Chicago players and taught them about the music. We treated it like jazz in the sense that there was a melodic “head”, improvisation, head and out, but I always wanted to keep the explorations in the style as much as possible–nothing could be worse than some music school kid trying to get all his licks in while we’re trying to establish a vibe. However, improvisation within structure is essential to African music. This group got steam during a steady gig at Chicago’s great (defunct) Charleston. We’d go and play 3 sets, the girls would dance, and the dialogue therein taught us the real history of music. There is nothing like playing for rooms full of dancers to teach you how to listen and improvise.
MF: It sounds like good players in a good sounding room having fun playing music. That vibe just doesn’t get captured in a multi tracked/layered/overdubbed recording situation. I guess it’s a Rudy VanGelder Vs. Rick Rubin deal. Both good, but one is magical. I guess, if you had a couple words to speak on that topic that would be great.
NB: The group had only ever played live sets in rooms of people, and aside from certain structural milestones, most tunes required a lot of eye contact and ears to make them come alive–note that there were several tunes this day that we didn’t use on the record!
My favorite studio for mics and fundamental room tone is Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio, and while the A room is the best you could ever want, I really love Studio B. The main room is two stories of acoustical tile and drums sound amazing in there! Just listen to that first strike on the congas on the first tune, Marion Brown’s “Bosco”–huge! timeless! It could be 1953. You also need the right engineer, and Kris Poulin was the smart choice, as always. We went to 2″ tape, and used the smaller headstack. Hands down this is the best sounding session I ever did, though I’ve grown as a player since.
The performance isn’t perfect, but “perfection” is a faulty concept and usually leads to bad art. There is no editing on this first record. We hear Miles Davis’ flubs and they make us cry. There is a difference between a fuck-up and expressing your humanity.
MF: Also, I was curious about your travels to Ghana. How did that come about?
NB: I had been listening to music from all over Africa for some years, with a particular affection for music from Zaire/Congo, though I had one amazing record on the Original Music label of Ghanaian highlife guitar called “I’ve Found My Love”. So simple, but so completely confusing to the American player.
After starting the Occidental Brothers I started to be approached by African guys who recognized the sounds of their childhood and wanted to join the band–a very flattering thing. I was very fortunate that the first of these guys was the great trumpet player, and later singer, Kofi Cromwell. He helped me draft the unparalleled drummer Asamoah Rambo, and we were off and running. The first OBDBI record was recorded right after meeting these guys, but they are on the 2nd, not the 1st, record. They helped me make my first trip to Africa, and connected me with musicians and family that I remain close to to this day.
MF: Do you think it’s important to pay respect in a traditional representation to the West African music or do you think putting an American spin on it is more important for you? Was there any struggle with that concept in the band?
NB: To me, music never exists out of it’s context. I wanted to recreate as much as possible the sound of Bantous De La Capitale, and other bands because the the confluence of guitars, amps, creativity, civic awareness and more are central to why the music is brilliant. Please remind me to tell you the Dr. Nico story. That’s what I strived for. However, this can not be recreated, and only a fool would think so. Whatever I play, it comes through my own Dinosaur Jr/Jim Hall/Marc Ribot/Dr. Nico/1980’s Michigan thing, and as psyched as African guys are at how I play, this other thing is still there. Which is okay, because that African music was always about creating new things, too.
We at Monofesto are all very interested to hear the “Dr. Nico story” ASAP!
“She says there’s nothing quite as beautiful as the ending of a song…”
Whomever this female speaker may be, most would agree with her that there is indeed something powerful and at times even magical in those final moments of a song, and if done well, the ending is the cathartic culmination of the previous pieces teased and presented along the journey of a song’s life. This line, the opening lyric of the track “Time Capsule” off the Second Cousins’s recently released self-titled EP, serves as a fitting example of the strength of both the record and the band, as each track fully reveals its true nature and capacity in its closing, ultimately showcasing the emerging talent of this North County San Diego collaboration.
The record’s stirring effect can arguably be attributed to the patience exhibited by the youthful but seasoned musicians comprising Encinitas’s Second Cousins. The patience in songwriting is evident. Each song is structured carefully so that every turn or addition keeps the tracks and the band’s sound continually transcending any genres it may borrow from as influences. It is easy to hear the origins of “Something to Lose”, “Thrown Right In”, and “Time Capsule” as a single finger-picked acoustic guitar and vocal melody, but the tracks come alive through the complex layers of instrumentation and production. Additionally, diligence and patience in the studio has successfully resulted in songs that have stayed refreshingly faithful to the raw essence of their creation yet remained open to reinterpretation through the multitude of styles and skills possessed within the band. Every member brings something to the table, and the payoff is songs that can seamlessly move from stripped down, meandering folk ballads to richly orchestrated, urgent roars of sound.
Holding down the bulk of the initial songwriting duties are Austin Burns (lead vocals, guitars) and Tim McNally (bass, lap steel), however, the multi-instrumentalist talents of Dillion Casey (Keyboards, Guitar) and versatile drumming of Nolan Greene are equally integral in rounding out the songs. An overall patience is even reflected in the coming together and steady momentum of the collaboration itself. As explained in greater depth in the accompanying Monofesto interview with Tim McNalley, the band has allowed itself to find a natural direction after years of mutual appreciation and crossover collaborations in past and current projects. An important commonality between the four young men seems to be their shared breadth of knowledge and study, experience, and maturity in their approach to a life of creating music. Second Cousins has benefited from this collective wisdom and patience that reaches beyond their years.
An overall wisdom is also evident in the mood and content of the songs. Burns’s soulful, deceivingly weathered vocals play a crucial element in establishing a tone of meditated reflection and longing for meaningful connections and experiences; yet the choice and wielding of hearty instruments (lap steel, banjo, stand-up bass, organ) plays an equal part in the creation of the mood as well. Production touches, like the driving clash of what sounds like a chain in “Thrown Right In”, also connect the songs to the toil of moving forward day by day. However, the EP demonstrates the diversity of band in the brightness instantly exuded in “Tijuana”.
The EP ends with “Layer Up”, a fitting representation of Second Cousins’s ability to lull you into a rolling daze (this time with accordion, banjo, light percussion flares, and even rain falling upon leaves), lift you up suddenly with raucous bursts of emotion and earnestness, and finally bring you back down to a more even, satisfied place. Although the ending of this song, and EP, is surely beautiful, it is the promise of what appears on the horizon for Second Cousins that is shining the brightest.
Q & A with Tim McNalley of Second Cousins
MF: Can you tell us a bit about how Second Cousins came together?
TM: Though Second Cousins as a band didn’t exist until early in 2013, the four of us have had different connections for much longer. Austin and I came together and started showing each other material at the end of high school, but it wasn’t until he had moved to Santa Cruz that we started planting the seeds for this particular project. Dillon I had known from playing with The New Archaic and In Motion Collective. We actually happened to be playing in a musical together at the time, and I asked him to come play bass and banjo with Austin and I (now he plays more keys and guitar).
MF: Can you talk a bit about your writing process as a band? Do you work out the arrangements together as a band or do you bring different pieces to the songs individually?
TM: Most often, Austin or I bring a song to the table that is mostly completed in terms of parts, lyrics, etc. and the band collectively helps create the arrangement. This model has worked efficiently because sometimes one of us has been sitting on a new tune for a long time, and as soon as the group hears it, we know collectively exactly how to shape it into its final form. There are some songs however, for instance “Layer Up” on the EP, that undergo pretty dramatic reconstructions by the time they’re performed or recorded to the point where the arrangement is almost a new composition in itself.
MF: What was the recording process like for this first EP?
TM: We actually started the whole thing by making demos of each song to generally know what we wanted, then reconstructed and retracked the entire thing. Once we knew what we wanted, we went to Tim Felten’s studio and recorded a lot of the basic tracks to tape. From there it was about as DIY as possible. At the time, Austin was in the Studio West recording arts program, and I was taking classes at UC San Diego, so the majority of the tracking happened between those two studios. We were really blessed to have access to both these spaces for free) because it meant that we had a good amount of time to experiment with the recording process, which is a luxury that rarely exists for recordings made on low budgets. I think that the experimentation process really allowed us to unlock a vibe that might not have been there otherwise with this EP.
MF: One thing we like to focus on at Monofesto is the sacrifice and commitment that it takes to make music and art these days? In what ways do you feel like you and the members of the band have had to sacrifice or persevere to make Second Cousins happen?
TM: An ongoing sacrifice for any collaborative project is just each band member’s ego. It seems simple, but everyone in a group will be forced at some point to remove themselves in order to relieve gridlock or help make progress in rehearsal, recording, song development, etc. and if that happens too much, its easy to feel dissociated with the group. On the flip side from that, I can say certainly that everyone in this group has put an enormous amount of effort into this recording, pulling all-nighters in the studio and shying away from our personal lives and other projects in order to get the EP released on schedule the best it can be.
MF: Each member of the band has been or is involved in other projects and has seen momentum building within these endeavors. How does the energy and momentum behind this project compare? And what have you learned through past projects that may have you approaching this one differently?
TM: Having the experience that we do with other projects has definitely helped give this newer band of ours a jumpstart. For instance, Nolan, Dillon, and I all play with 2 bands besides Second Cousins, so we didn’t have to spend a lot of time playing together to figure out how to lock in as a band. Plus, we know what kinds of shows we want to play, how often to play them, bands we like in the San Diego scene, etc. so as a group we don’t have to go out and take every gig opportunity just to figure out what’s out there. The best thing about that though is that it means instead of booking empty dive bar gigs, the group can be focused on developing our music the way we like, which in my mind is the most important thing any band should be doing.
TM: The breadth of musical knowledge and interest in this group is extremely refreshing. We all draw on wide spread influences, but then know how to integrate musical ideas without it sounding like we’re trying to transplant John Coltrane’s kidneys inside Tom Waits and then asking him to play a Tame Impala song. A lot of artists now are about integrating different genres, but I feel with this group the process yields a more subtle resultant sound, which in the end feels much more honest to the songs themselves.
MF: What is on the horizon for Second Cousins? Are you looking to get out and play this material as much as possible before taking time to write and record again?
TM:We have a short West Coast tour planned in late September, and another gig developing on August 21st at Merrow, but otherwise we’re already getting back into planning our next recording.
MF: Thanks for your time.
TM: No worries. Thanks again.
Check out a couple quality produced videos of Second Cousins from Cellar Door’s web series We’ll Do It Live:
One of the first people that came to mind for an interview subject is JP Hasson. I first became aware of JP when I saw him onstage at the Casbah with a makeshift yeti costume dancing in front of an overheard projection screen singing ridiculous songs. Behind him was a projectionist using various hand made transparencies of bizarre art and words to illustrate the songs’ content. I was seeing Seattle-based Pleaseeasaur for the first time and was subsequently affected with the intense emotions of amazement, excitement, and shock.
Over the years many established bands had asked to share the stage with this bizarre wonder, including: DEVO, Buckethead, Presidents of the United States, Modest Mouse, Neil Hamburger, Blackheart Procession, Melvins, and Men at Work. Eventually we travelled together when Pinback took Pleaseeasaur out on tour several times around the United States. It was amazing to watch JP try and win over audiences every night. The Pinback audience did not know what to make of Pleaseeasaur. Some people were pissed, some laughed and got it, many were confused. The gist of the material was commercials for companies and products that didn’t exist. JP would create theme songs and would sing and dance, while his touring partner Tommy would do the visuals on a pair of jerry-rigged overhead projectors. It was like watching children’s crafts come to life. The show was really well-done but also just crappy enough to give you the feeling that this was something made by hand, with a little bit of love and a lot of warped imagination.
Eventually Pleaseeasaur morphed into the performance art of JP Incorporated. This is a slightly different approach, where JP dresses as an old man and does his act, while in the character of JP Incorporated, “the most famous man on American television”. He then presents a series of show previews and sings and dances to all the songs in front of an onscreen animated production. After each show preview, he polls the audience on whether they would like to see this show in the coming television season. People can cheer or boo depending on their interest in the programming. I especially enjoyed watching JP Inc in non-english speaking countries, like Japan and Germany. People were very confused and the international shows were very entertaining on many levels. I’m a fan of what JP does. It’s bizarre, funny and very inventive.
While out on tour together I sat down with JP and spoke with him about some of his inspiration on making art and music.
MF: Why do you make stuff?
JP: I make stuff because I have no other choice. I’ve always just done dumb stuff. I was never really allowed to be bored when I was a kid, so if I wasn’t outside running around in the woods, I was inside drawing or playing games or eventually making music or art projects.
MF: From the way you you’ve talked about your community growing up sounds like it was a creative group of people.
JP: It was a small group of people because I grew up in a town of about a thousand people and the county that it was in was also small. All the little towns in the county went to the same central school. But there were only so many weirdo kids who did creative stuff. And we all sort of stuck together. 4 or 5 or 6 of us. There were more than that, but that was the core. All within a couple years of age of each other. For the most part, everyone has gone on to do some really interesting things as adults. Whether it be musical, fine art, film/tv, furniture design, we all stayed pretty well entrenched in one creative world or another.
JP: I would think so from what I understand about my other friends who I didn’t grow up with like you guys (Pinback). There was a tiny core of people who all hung out together. For us it was the kind of thing where there it was a mix of having the outdoor space to go run around, exert energy and when the weather turned and the rains came, we all hunkered down around the kitchen table and drew pictures until we discovered music, then we migrated down to the basement and the garage. Being able to go to the beach, jumping off the dock, riding bikes, skateboarding, playing wiffle ball made it bearable to be forced inside the weather dictated. Once we got licenses then we started driving to the abandoned military bases. We would bring our instruments there and go way down deep in the tunnels and mess around down there. There wasn’t much else to do. There was no internet. Nobody was interested in playing video games, well I should say we did play video games, but they were classic Nintendo games like Soloman’s Key, Rush N Attack and Tecmo Bowl, so it was ok.
MF: Since a lot of the work you do now is in a really small indoor studio situation with a computer, do you miss the influence and inspiration of the outdoors and nature in your work environment? You do the majority of your work on a computer now. Have there been any drawbacks in this current approach to making art and music?
JP: After not having those things the last several years, I have developed such a craving to play music with other people. There was a point when I was so focused on doing something a particular way for a specific result with the Pleaseeasaur material that I was doing. That was a really personal thing for me, a total musical and artistic extension of my dumbest thoughts and concepts and it didn’t require a lot of outside influence necessarily. But as I’ve put certain projects to rest or on hold, other creative needs have cropped up and I am into the idea of collaborating again. The most important (to me at least) music I ever did was with other people and was a product of our environment. Whether it be the shitty weather outside where were forced to hole up inside and make music together or the fact that we were at an abandoned military base. I’m sure those are things you can’t measure how that impacts something creatively. But I know I have suffered creatively after working by myself for so long. And that’s why I have this urge to play music with my two oldest friends that I grew up playing music with. There’s a plan to meet up this winter in a cabin deep in the forrest and do a record. Whether it’ll work, who knows? It’s sort of something that we all feel like we have to check off our list. Our first session is actually scheduled for May 22-25 in Seattle!
JP: Well, yeah. We played music together because we were the best of friends and that’s just what you do, right? We’re not sure if what we did was good in the context of that or if we really did have something special together. I mean, we were all close friends. Like my friend Paul Kikuchi (drummer), who I’ve known since I was one or two years old. So, he and I are like brothers and the other guy Ben Blankenship (guitar, piano) is a very old and dear friend too and is probably to most rawly talented musician I’ve ever known. And somewhere the three of us made something very interesting together… or so we’d like to think. Our getting together is a way of checking in and seeing where everyone is now. Seeing if those muscles have strengthened or weakened. Not only the musical musicales but the friendship muscles in writing together.
MF: Especially in being apart for this many years, everyones’ aesthetic is likely to be different than it was years ago.
Totally different! I mean, now Paul is now a professor and has studied with Milford Graves (Experimental, avant-garde jazz, spirituality in music guru ) and he’s nuts. Paul is so deeply entrenched in jazz and african music. My personal interests have gone much more into contemporary film music and more pop-oriented concept writing.
MF: More smooth jazz…
JP: (laughs) I’ve made some smooth jazz. As silly as it’s meant to be.
And then Ben went on to be in Modest Mouse for a while, he did The Moon and Antarctica album with them. He is now a really talented set designer for films and television. But he can sit down and play anything anytime. He’s awesome at it. It pisses me off! I have to work so hard at some things. Even drawing, he can sit down and draw anything. You could say “Draw a totem pole.” and he would draw this perfect totem pole with all the carving features and everything. He’s just a brilliant guy. He’s nutty but brilliant.
MF: I look forward to hearing it!
JP: Me too! (laughs)
MF: I love you JP.
JP: I love you too.
In 1990 I headed off to college at UC Santa Cruz. A friend and eventual bandmate up there played me some amazing music in his tiny dorm room. Among the treasures were Nomeansno, Scratch Acid, Coffin Break and Alice Donut. Something about Alice Donut really struck a chord with me. It was really warped. The songs had some straightforward rock elements, but the approach was so deeply twisted. They had songs about murder, suicide, incest and child abuse, disgusting food habits, the list goes on and on. Somehow, Tomas Antona sung about these subject matters triumphantly and with the darkest of humor. It just made me want to sing along and learn how to play the songs. I’d also have to admit, I know barely the lyrics to any songs, outside of happy birthday, but I know many of the Alice Donut lyrics and musical parts. This goes down to every noodly, wiggly guitar part to every drum fill. I just really dug this music. Eventually, my band even got to open up for Alice Donut at the old Casbah location in 1992 (Max capacity: 72 people) at an amazing and memorable show.
From time to time, I’ll still go through Alice Donut binges, where I’ll play their albums over and over. I just have to be a little careful which songs are playing during the morning school drop-offs. I’m pretty convinced my 5 year-old is not getting the sarcastic humor. Maybe I’ll let him sort this out on his own in a few years. But, for discerning adults, I recommend starting at their masterpiece album “The Untidy Suicides of your Degenerate Children” and working out from there. It really checks all the boxes with a varied and creative album with full-bore rocking songs interspersed with haunting interludes. It’s a concept album in a way, with the common thread being a bunch of really depressing stories about suicide and depravity. But somehow it’s told in a fantastically creative and funny way. I’m not sure how they do it, but they do it.
In typical fashion, I tracked down Tomas Antona for a brief interview with questions about Alice Donut’s songwriting process, influence, what’s going on these days and their eminent childrends’ album.
MF: When listening to Alice Donut there are not many singers that I know of that sound like you. I was curious if your vocal style is more informed from literature or films as much as by some musical influence. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to writing?
TA: I have no idea of what I’m doing. I’ve never had any music lessons or voice training. So my vocal style is informed by a deep, deep ignorance peppered with self-delusion.
MF: The Alice Donut musical material is pretty diverse. There are some straight ahead rock moments, totally chaotic freak-outs, heavy punk riffs, and beautifully anthemic sing-along parts. Is there a primary musical director or do people bring in parts and sort it out at rehearsals?
TA: All five of us write and shape the music. The two guitar players bring in the majority of the song ideas. But, by the time everyone has their hand in there, nothing ever ends up like it started. Freak freely. Make way for the Dutch. Pretend it sounds better.
MF: One of the things that I really appreciate about Alice Donut is the playfulness of it. There’s a great sense of humor, although a very, very dark sense of humor. The lyrics of course reflect this but the music does as well. Is that something that started off from the beginning or did you all gel into this approach as you played as a band?
TA: We have a dark sense of humor and writing and playing together is incredibly fun and has been since the get-go.
MF: There’s that great quote from Jello Biafra that Alice Donut is the “missing link between R.E.M. and the Butthole Surfers”. What sort of musical influences do you feel helped form the Alice Donut sound?
MF: Interesting! Was it a total coincidence to be label mates with Nomeansno or did their influence grow after joining the Alternative Tentacles roster? Did you specifically pursue their label?
TA: It was total coincidence. And we didn’t pursue any label specifically. Biafra heard the song ‘Lisa’s father’ on a radio show and contacted the station and then us. Nomeansno, Victim’s Family and Ultra Bide toured and played together a bunch. We are good friends and I think we all influenced each other’s music.
MF: A few years back, you and Sissi moved from New York down to North Carolina. That must have been a big adjustment of lifestyle! How has that change been for you?
TA: We’re digging the slow laziness of it. It’s lush, green and laid back.
MF: Due to the long distance to New York, apparently you’ve been sending music back and forth between yourselves and the rest of the band in NYC to work on the new material. How has that worked out for you?
TA: It’s not so great. When we are all together, we come up with songs really quickly. This is very slow and mostly my fault as I’ve been busy napping on a hammock on the porch.
MF: So are there band practices happening in your absence, and then you chime in? Or do you all have periods of inactivity and then get together for productive writing etc?
TA: We’re on hiatus right now. Michael, Stephen and Dave are playing in a new band in NYC called Mustafina. When we decide to do something again, it will be a combination of getting together and writing songs or sending each other material back and forth. It’s quickest when we see each other and hang out and practice and bring in stuff and just play. Our last album was mostly sending each other files. Sissi and I would send them files and those 3 would send us files and we were never all in the same room as we recorded it.
MF: Have you considered doing music in your area to have a closer connection to live performance? The ultra rare Alice Donut shows seem like they would be too few and far between. ?
MF: As time goes on my hopes that Alice Donut will tour out to the West Coast grows dimmer. Do you feel like you may tour again at some point or does the current time commitment to the band feel like the right balance for you all.
TA: It looks like we are going to be playing in Lyon, France sometime before May 2015 (Long story) And that will probably hold us over for a couple of years. We like playing the odd show that is interesting. Its a good excuse for the 5 of us to see each other.
MF: The earlier albums have some seriously demented lyrical material. That was what first really caught my attention and made the band unique. Now that you are a little older and are a “family man”, has your approach to writing lyrics changed at all?
TA: Because I’m so familiar with them, the lyrics don’t seem odd to me. I think some of them hold up and others don’t. I tend to notice all the flaws. So… These days, I may be lamer but not notice my lameness because I am so deeply entrenched in lame-ocity. Or, my current lameness may be far better than anything I’ve done before.
TA: They don’t listen to our albums at all. “Mummenshanz Pachinko” is probably the only song they know. We let them discover music on their own and currently they love pop songs with disco beats.
MF: That’s funny! I’ve been playing your albums in the car a lot lately and when that song comes on the kids really are into it. They also really like the creepy interlude songs on Mule with the marimba sounds. I’m no expert but it sounds like an Alice Donut kids album should be a priority. Hammock be damned!
TA: Ha. A kids album would be fun and we definitely have a few that would work. Damn Hammock.
MF: What are you up to these days outside of Alice Donut?
TA: I’m doing an online art project in memory of my brother Carlos Antona. It should be up sometime this summer.
MF: Thanks Tomas!!!
Being immersed in the early 1990s San Diego music scene was a really inspiring experience. There was so much camaraderie, friendship and respect between so many of the bands. One thing that was a necessity for a band was finding the ever-elusive affordable practice space. At one point a cluster of dilapidated office spaces became available for rehearsal use. It was underneath the Psychic Palm Reader building near Old Town San Diego. It was easily seen from the 5 freeway. I still think back fondly about that stinky rat hole every time I drive by.
Word got out among the group of musicians and eventually the rooms filled up and were architecturally adjusted to accommodate the volume of the music and the security required to keep the random tweaker out. Some people shoe horned themselves into small spaces in the building and were living there, destitute and on all sorts of drugs. You’d need to negotiate your way in and out in order to not let people see what equipment was in your room. We would string barbed wire all throughout the rafters to keep people from climbing through the ceiling to break in to steal gear. The music equipment was still regularly ripped off by the small but vigilant tweaker army. All this being said, the place was cheap and had 24 hour access. But that’s not what made this place great, it was the mind boggling number of great bands that existed at one time in the space. Drive Like Jehu, Three Mile Pilot, Fishwife, Creedle, Rocket from the Crypt and many others. It was here that I first met Atom Willard.
Atom was the fresh-faced 17 year-old who had just joined Rocket from the Crypt. They were starting to gain a large following in San Diego and had outgrown the “party band” mold they had initial been born into. They had only released their debut Paint as a Fragrance at this time and were writing the material for all their 7-inches and the classic Circa Now! album. It was an exciting time to be able to hang out and watch rehearsals and have a beer after practice. Atom had serious skills and was bringing a new level of professionalism to the band, even at his young age.
Fast forward through years of international touring and a heap of amazing recordings, eventually Atom left RFTC for the big city. Upon arriving in LA, Atom worked as a session musician and as drum tech for Weezer. It took a little while but eventually he found a string of successful drumming jobs and has stayed more than busy ever since, both recording and touring non-stop internationally. I decided to grill him a little for the scoop.
MF: Over the years you have played in a bunch of different bands, such as Rocket from the Crypt, Angels and Airwaves, The Offspring, Danko Jones, Social Distortion and currently Against Me! Since often you are coming into a pre-existing musical situation, what sort of challenges do you have when trying to learn the material and prepare for the first show with these bands? Is it usually the same preparation procedure?
AW: I guess the biggest challenge is figuring out how a band is currently playing their songs, as opposed to what’s on the original recordings… Songs inevitably evolve over time in the live setting and some bands have gotten to a totally different version by the time I meet up with them. The way I get prepared to play with a band is pretty standard no matter who it is or what the gig is for, recording or live.
MF: Does your equipment change between when you are touring versus recording in the studio?
AW: Not really… I mean I have the drums that I like to record with, and those don’t really leave town… I keep them at home! But the configuration is pretty much alway the same.
MF: What pieces are your secret weapons for recording? Are they old classics or new stuff that just works for you?
AW: You know it’s mostly newer stuff that just sounds incredibly good.. although I do have this older Acrolite snare that I can’t believe sounds the way it does.. so full and great crack, this little 5″ x 14″ with 8 lugs. It’s crazy!
MF: Who were some of your favorite bands when growing up? How did that mold you into the musician you eventually became?
AW: Well there were different eras, you know? like what was my fav when I was 10 changed a lot to when I was 14 and then again when I was 17… so from Rush and Iron Maiden as a little kid, to Black Flag and Minor Threat, and on to Fugazi and Weezer. Every one of those bands/drummers is with me every time I play the drums.
MF: Since Weezer was an influence, that must have been bizarre working with them. How did that come about to connect with them?
AW: Pat and I got to know each other first through cars. He had this great Chevelle and I had my truck and we would see each other at this practice spot in LA. Eventually I started playing in his side band called “The Special Goodness” and it went from there.
MF: You are widely known as the guy who destroys his drums. Has this type of hard-hitting playing intentionally been a path for you as a niche? Are there times that you wish you could lay back and play quieter? The toll on you physically must be rough at times.
AW: Yeah I hit kinda hard.. it just happened really out of necessity from not being able to hear myself in small practice rooms. It’s how I play, and I love to play.. so i don’t know… I guess I hadn’t really thought about how I was playing differently… Thanks Chris!
MF: When you left San Diego and your position in Rocket from the Crypt after so many years, that must have been a really big decision, a seriously life altering moment. It seems like the music business opportunities must be more abundant in LA. Would your recommend to younger players to make the move to a bigger city or stay try and make things work at home? Any advice?
AW: If you can make your band in your town work on any level I would.. I had a unique situation being so close by in san diego and having a girl friend in LA didn’t hurt. I was able to meet people and develop some great relationships when I was still in RFTC and then had stuff to do immediately after leaving. To move to LA cold without knowing anyone seems like it would be really tough. I wouldn’t want to do that at all! But if you can get your band out on tour and get out of your city you will do alright.
MF: Are there misconceptions about your day to day life in a high profile band?
AW: Mostly that it’s just nonstop parties and constant good times.. Which isn’t truly that far off… but it’s also a lot of work. People don’t think about the reality of being away from home so much, and what it means to travel constantly. it can be pretty tiring. All that said though I am so lucky to be able to do this and wouldn’t trade it for anything!
MF: With so much travel, time off must be a luxury. What kind of things do you do outside of music?
AW: Mostly its motorcycle stuff… either going to the track or just going on rides with my wife.. I love fixing shit, building stuff in the shop..
MF: Touring and recording for so many years is a rare opportunity. What sort of sacrifices have you and to make in order to follow your calling as a musician?
AW: Well I don’t really think of them as sacrifices… I guess they’re just the choices we make right? Like my wife and I don’t have any kids, but we never wanted any. And I don’t have a close knit group of friends at home, but I never really did so it’s not something I miss. I have had to sacrifice monotony and repetition in my day to day life… So I guess there’s that.. HA!
MF: Thanks Atom!
I remember hearing about this new local band in the early 90s called Smile. Turns out they weren’t from San Diego but rather a little over an hour north of us in Costa Mesa. Geographically there is a huge gap between Orange County/LA and San Diego due Camp Pendleton’s vast marine base along the coastline. In general this dividing line really keeps San Diego isolated from the cities to the north and vice versa. Smile trekked down to play the Casbah so many times that they were often mistaken for a “local band”. Good news for us, as we got to see them play again and again.
Smile’s first album was a noisy and heavy grunge feast. The band was tight and they played skillfully and with boundless energy. Seeing them play was mind-blowing, partly due to the slight demeanor of singer/guitarist Michael Rosas. They all were really young but had the musicianship from clearing both talent and hundreds of hours in the practice room. After a stint on Atlantic Records they started making a name outside of Southern California. Then they recorded their masterpiece: Girl Crushes Boy. Using producer Mark Trombino (Drive Like Jehu, Jimmy Eat World, Blink 182) they recorded an amazing collection of creative and well-written songs. The band’s material had really developed and they were playing better than ever. It was a little more 60’s garage influenced, using campy keyboard sounds and clever lyrics. scott Reeder’s drums continued to pound out a free-wheeling style a la Keith Moon / John Bonham. There was a clever sense of humor coupled with powerful, creative bombastic songwriting. Then nothing happened. And then they kept touring and working and… nothing happened. I’m not sure why that is. So Smile remained mostly unknown yet they had put out an amazing sophomore album. Eventually some members changed and the band broke up. Michael formed the great band Satisfaction and Scott found success playing with stoner rockers Fu Manchu. I had the pleasure to catch them recently on a reunion performance and it was great to hear these songs again. The reason for wiring about Smile is simply, they are great and maybe you missed them when you had the chance. If you haven’t heard Smile, check them out.
I felt it would be good to get the band’s perspective so I contacted Mr. Michael Rosas and caught up with him a bit.
MF: I was curious about the amount that Smile played down in San Diego. I can think back to so many shows at the Casbah in the 90s. I think some people didn’t even know that you weren’t a “local” band. Since you guys were located in Costa Mesa, was there something about San Diego that drew you more than driving the same distance up to LA? It seems like LA would have had more opportunities to play and promote the band.
MR: When Smile started, we were based out of the Tustin/Orange area in Orange County and we were doing a residency at the Doll Hut in Anaheim. From our perspective, there wasn’t a lot happening in Los Angeles. Orange County and San Diego seemed to have exciting indie music scenes at the time and we were hoping to get plugged into that. We became acquainted with Chris Fahey who was putting on most of the cool indie rock shows in Orange County. He was bringing all of the great San Diego bands to a Costa Mesa venue called Our House and he introduced us to fluf, Uncle Joe’s Big Ol Driver, Heavy Vegetable, etc. O from fluf was a huge supporter of Smile, early on. We had just released our first 7” and O took it to Headhunter Records and basically told them to sign us for an album deal and they did. From there, it was just natural that we would play San Diego often since our label was based there and most of the bands we were friends with were there. We were very well received by the San Diego music scene so we focused a lot of attention on playing there. San Diego seemed to have the best indie music scene anywhere at that time and Tim Mays was kind enough to book us at the Casbah regularly.
MF: Were you all friends growing up or did you find each other through the music scene in your area?
MR: Aaron Sonnenberg and I met in high school. We played in a hardcore band called Headfirst for a few years and became great friends. He was the only bass player that I really knew and it was natural that I’d want to play with him when it was time to start a new band after high school. Our musical interests were totally aligned at that time. Smile started with Headfirst drummer Kevin Murphy who was also playing guitar with Farside and 411. Shortly after Kevin moved on, Aaron and I met Scott Reeder by placing a ‘Drummer Wanted” ad in the Recycler. I wish I had a copy of that ad.
MF: Although I really loved the debut LP Maquee, Girl Crushes Boy is my favorite. The song writing seemed to develop far beyond the first record. There were more complexities and the songs had a wider variety though out the album. Was there something that inspired the shift in the band’s sound?
MR: The songs and sound of Maquee came together very quickly without a whole lot of thought. Our individual influences were very different but we connected with a basic formula – we wanted to rock hard and weird like the Melvins, have cool songs with as much personality as a band like Descendents and we hoped to have the depth and prowess of classic bands like Pink Floyd.
We wrote, rehearsed and played shows like crazy. When it was time to make an album, we just picked the best material we had at the time. That was Maquee. The next wave of music that led to Girl Crushes Boy came from a much broader set of influences and experiences. We had been on a few national tours by then, been exposed to all sorts of great artists that we admired, and were probably a little eager to leave Maquee in the dust and prove to ourselves that we could do more. Between Maquee and Girl Crushes Boy, my songwriting had evolved quite a bit. I was writing less and less to riffs and more to melodies and chord progressions. I’m not sure what the other guys were thinking at that time but I know that I was really trying to push the band into a more progressive, indie, pop direction. I was listening to a lot of Sebadoh, PJ Harvey, Sonic Youth, Nirvana “In Utero”, Unwound as well as a lot of 60s British and French pop music. On Maquee, I was trying to sing like John Reis and Kurt Cobain. For Girl Crushes Boy, it was Lou Barlow and Brian Wilson. I’ll add that Aaron became a big fan of Ween during the Girl Crushes Boy era. Scott has always been a huge Depeche Mode and U2 fan and his drumming was always heavily influenced by Alex Van Halen and John Bonham.
Songs like “Too Many Reasons” and “You Cast a Crazy Spell on Me” were heavily influenced by early B-52s, The Sonics and current garage bands like Thee Headcoats and The Mummies. The sound of songs like “Peach and Brown” and “Sputnik” were a result of loving San Diego bands like Heavy Vegetable and Drive Like Jehu – “Sputnik” was my attempt at writing a Heavy Vegetable song. Same with the second half of “The Scientologist’s Love Affair”. Our EP called Masterlocks was a collection of outtakes from the Girl Crushes Boy sessions… those songs are very un-Maquee like. We were just running with whatever good ideas we had and we weren’t curating the sound to fit into a particular style.
MR: I took guitar lessons as a kid but it was only to learn the basics. I got my start in bands by playing heavy metal guitar style which has a heavy focus on technique. By the time I was playing with Smile and working on Maquee, I was less into the metal style and more focused on songwriting and singing. Licks and solos weren’t my thing then but I still wanted to make the guitar interesting. I put a good amount of effort into building a really blistering, fuzzed out guitar sound so that even the simplest playing sounded interesting. For Maquee, I wanted my guitar to sound like the amp was on fire and about to explode. I think it does sound like that.
I don’t think that having a solid foundation in technique is essential in making great music but it can definitely make it easier to realize whatever musical you have going on in your head – getting to the end result might take less time or be less frustrating. Great musical ideas are often a complete accident or happen as a result of complete musical naiveté. Having some amount of formal musical training or technique can make it so that you don’t always have to rely on those happy accidents, I guess. For some artists, technique can just get in the way of good art. Most of my favorite artists seem to strike good balance between both approaches. I can tell that they have a certain amount of musical prowess but, as a listener, I am not directly confronted by it. It’s transparent.
MF: Choosing Mark Trombino to produce your music was another link to the San Diego music scene. How did you know about him and what made you seek him out to work on your record?
MR: Mark was the drummer in one of our favorite bands, Drive Like Jehu, and he had produced great sounding records for Heavy Vegetable and Jehu. Scott loved the drum sounds that Mark was getting out of that room at Big Fish in San Diego and we liked his overall approach – a very real and dynamic sound. We were originally scheduled to record Girl Crushes Boy with Steve Albini in Chicago but we had to cancel shortly before starting the album when Scott broke is foot on a snowboarding trip. Steve wasn’t going to be available again for a while so we had to make other plans. It’s not that Mark was our “second choice” – we hadn’t even considered the possibility of working with him until we were looking for a new producer/engineer. After chatting with him and talking it over as a band, we realized that he was the perfect fit. I always wanted to work with Steve but I am really glad things worked out the way they did. Mark Trombino was a huge part of why that album is what it is. I think it was meant to be.
MR: By the time Scott left the band, Aaron had already left and was replaced by Bob Thomson who played in Big Drill Car. Matt Fletcher had also joined the band on keys to cover the organ and synth parts from Girl Crushes Boy. Scott left Smile on good terms and he suggested that we ask Matt’s brother, James Fletcher, to step in. James was a natural choice since we were already good friends and he was the best drummer around town. He had a completely different style of drumming compared to Scott but he was a perfect fit for the direction that Smile was headed and his joining the band opened the door to tons of new musical possibilities. Supporting Girl Crushes Boy with the new line up, we started to build a lot of momentum and a bigger fan base than we ever had in the past. However, after a while, our musical direction started to evolve so much that it started to feel like a completely different band. It all seemed natural at the time but, looking back, I realize how different we were compared to what Aaron, Scott and I had started and I think we probably should have started a new band when the lineup changed. I was so attached to Smile’s songs, though, that I didn’t want to let it go. After a few years of playing shows and writing new material with that line up, it was obvious that It was time to leave the Smile material behind and give this new sound an identity of its own. We started Satisfaction about a year after Smile played our last show.
MF: I was reading that you produced the Satisfaction records. Is that correct? They sound amazing!
MR: Thanks man. I was making a living as a producer/engineer then so it seemed natural to take on the recording duties for Satisfaction. Plus, I was able to get us into studios on the cheap. It kept costs down.
MF: What led you to recording? Was it out of necessity or purely interest?
MR: Recording was my second passion next to being a songwriting musician. I’ve always been one of those musicians who is also drawn to the technical aspects of recording. My dad bought me a Fostex 4-track recorder when they came out and I was always making little songs on that thing as a kid. Later, I was the guy in the band with the 4-track who could record little demos to see what we sounded like. At some point, I ditched the 4-track for a cassette 8-track. The first Smile 7” was recorded on that. Then, I got a reel-to-reel 8 track and a mixer. At some point, I decided to stop buying my own recording gear and, instead, start working in real studios. I didn’t do that many projects before eventually hanging it up but in a few years I recorded tons of demos for bands and records for Fu Manchu, Sherwood, We Shot The Moon and mixed a David Cross album for Sub Pop.
MF: It seemed that your performances in San Diego are few and far between these days, although the recent Smile reunions were a blast! Do you tour at all currently?
MR: Satisfaction quietly called it quits a while back after a few years and Matt, James and I took some time off to figure out what we wanted to do. We started a new band called Flying Sparks which was sort of a continuation of Satisfaction. We did that for about a year until I decided to just be Michael Rosas. That’s where I am now. It’s a very recent thing. I am just releasing my first EP and working on my plan for playing live and touring in the coming year. I am really excited about it because I have a shit ton of songs in my backlog that I am excited to get out there.
MF: How has your your focus changed over the years regarding performing and putting out music?
MR: It hasn’t changed much at all, really. If anything, I am much more confident as a performer and musician now. Other than that, I’m still just a huge music nerd who aspires to be like the artists that inspire me. I still get as excited and giddy over a cool new song idea as I did when Smile was hashing out our first set of songs. If anything, I am just more focused on getting more music finished and released on a regular basis.
MF: I know, for me personally, dealing with grown-up life stuff poses some incredible hurdles in finding time to make music. Have you encountered situations where you have to sacrifice in order to continue making music?
MR: Not really. When Smile was signed to Atlantic Records, we were on salary with ourselves as full time musicians so we were able to treat our musical career as a day job. We went into the rehearsal studio 4-5 days a week to write and practice. That kind of situation is rare for most musicians, I think. Since then, it’s been easy to work music into the rest of my life. Music, for me, isn’t a choice. I have to do it. I can’t stop. I have no idea what life would be like without it. I suppose it’s possible that I have made big sacrifices in life for music that I am unaware of. I don’t dwell on that possibility though.
MF: What things are you up to now? and are you planning on doing more shows with Smile?
MR: As of this year, I am working on music as Michael Rosas. I’ve been playing a lot of shows in the OC and LA area and I just released an EP. Right now, I’m getting a band together for live shows and touring and I’m very excited about it. As far as Smile goes, Aaron and I have been meeting regularly to get things organized and to figure out the best ways to make sure that all things Smile are out there and available to anyone who is interested. We’ve chatted about more shows but we don’t have any definite plans right now.
Check out Mike’s latest music here: www.michaelrosas.com
Here is an interview with David Grubbs taken from the Belfi / Grubbs / Pilia album review. Read the full article here.
MF: I was curious about the trans-continental collaboration. Since Andrea and Stefano are primarily based out of Italy, how were you able to put the project together? Were the songs composed by one of you and then fleshed out in the studio or was there a good deal of rehearsal involved.
DG: This is the second record that we’ve made (the first, “Onrushing Cloud,” will be reissued on Blue Chopsticks in May — it has been out of print for a couple of years), and in both cases we found the time to all be in the same place to work. The first one was made when Andrea and Stefano were in New York for a month, and this one was made when I went to Bologna. In both cases the writing and rehearsal process were pretty much one and the same, but most everything was finished — or mapped out — before going into the studio. One thing I like about both of the records is that the material is very new, very fresh, and the performances seem full of decisions made on the fly.
MF: The music sounds very precise but also loose and improvised at times. How much is really improvised (if at all) and does that play an important factor in your current work?
DG: For the three of us, improvisation is primarily a means of generating or re-generating more written, more decided-upon pieces. That said, two of the tracks on the album are straight let-it-roll group improvisations.
MF: I was reading that you are teaching and have done extensive schooling in past years. Did you find it difficult to juggle making art/music and completing your degrees and working or does it lend itself to each task as they are related?
DG: I’m incredibly fortunate in that what I teach (experimental music and sound art, pop music and technology, poetry, and interdisciplinary performance — these are in three different programs, all at Brooklyn College) is intimately meshed with the music that I make. They definitely feed into one another. The only problem is finding the hours in the day to do everything that I want to do.
I should go ahead and say that my first book, “Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording,” which again interweaves the work that I do as a musician and as an, ahem, scholar, comes out at the end of this month on Duke University Press. Here’s a link to their page: http://www.dukeupress.edu/Records-Ruin-the-Landscape
MF: From the early days of Squirrel Bait then on to Basto and Gastr del Sol, each project seemed like it departed further from the rock world and more into avant garde / new music. Was there a moment that the light bulb went on and you changed directions? Seems like the sophistication of the music is geared towards an adult’s mind, versus the angst-ridden teen mind. What caught your interest in this musical exploration?
DG: I’ve always moved from the known to its opposite, I think! It has to do, I’m certain, with following my own curiosity, following my brain and fingers who knows where, and having a fluid sense of whom I am as a musician — an orientation towards the ongoing.
It’s a treat when you meet others living in your neighborhood with similar interests. I can’t always identify with the culture around me and enjoy meeting those bucking the norm a little. One day I discovered that my neighbor was a drum builder named Preston Parsons. I tracked him down and we’ve since become good friends. His quality drums are built under the name Vessel Drum Company.
One of my most prized possessions is a drum set I had custom built for me in 1994 by local drum guru Paul Bleifuss. Paul was a legendary builder among his community, but due to the limited output possible by something made completely by hand, he worked widely under the radar of the typical music mega-store-type clientele. His drums are works of art. Unfortunately, Paul developed cancer and passed away much too early. Some speculate that it was elements of his craft that may have led to his illness with daily exposure to sanding dust and wood stains. Parts of the process can take a toll after years of work.
The first thing that struck my when visiting Preston’s shop was the building equipment with Paul Bleifuss’s logo. Coincidentally, Preston had apprenticed under Paul and ended up with all of his custom building equipment. Not many people know about Paul’s drums, so to end up living a few blocks from his apprentice was very surprising. Preston brings his skill and unique personal aesthetic to his drums. In some ways, Vessel Drums is a continuation of Paul’s legacy but in other ways it’s Preston’s unique approach. We can’t make music without the tools of the trade. Drum builder Preston Parsons brings the goods.
MF: At what point did you decide to dedicate yourself to building drums?
PP: The exact point at which I decided to become a drum builder is foggy. I started playing drums at age 4, not counting the pots and pans or the beating I gave my Mom in the womb. I played in bands all throughout my junior high and high school years while working for my Dad’s plumbing company in Ruidoso, NM. I would dream up ways to build drums out of pipe, but never did because the heads didn’t fit the pipe sizes. I decided to get married and go to South Plains College for Percussive arts and Sound Technology in the summer of 99. I think it was at SPC that I decided I would like to start digging into drum building. I had my days filled with listening to and making music for the first time in my life. It was at this point I felt like I could make my contribution to music and not just daydream about it.
PP: I listened to college radio while I was living in the Lubbock, TX area to go to school. It seemed like all the music I liked had a heavy San Diego connection. My wife and I had visited SD on vacation and fell in love with this place. I had heard there was a great drum builder in San Diego too. So in January of 2004 as my wife and I had just finished up school, it seamed the clear choice to move to SD.
After asking around, no one seemed to know about the drum builder I’d heard of back in Texas. Finally after a long search, through some great drummers and friends, Craig Zarkos and Aaron Redfield, I found Paul Bleifuss. I’ll never forget the first time I drove from Escondido all the way down to El Cajon to meet Paul. Paul had his shop space in a building shared with a bunch of street sweeper repair shops. I thought to myself, why is this guy not on the coast? Paul should have had his own drum boutique. Paul and I hit it off, and the rest is history.
MF: Can you describe some philosophies behind your craft?
PP: My good friend Paul Bleifuss told me, so long as it’s round and square, we can fix the other stuff. Is that a philosophy? I feel like I put some of myself into every drum I build. If I don’t like the thing and wouldn’t want to play it myself or put my name on it, I don’t. I can honestly say I back every drum I ever built. That’s a good feeling.
Me. There are a ton of drum companies out there right now; each one is unique because of its builder or builders. Most of us are working with the same shells and parts with the exception of only a fortunate few. The only thing that separates us is the understanding of our own process.
I have a commitment to quality that sometimes keeps me up at night. I like to do thing right so I can sleep at night. Like I said before, if I don’t like it I don’t build it. I love it when a drummer brings a drum I made in for a tune up, the older the better, I feel like I have an attachment to all of the drums I have made over the years, and I like to see how they’re holding up.
MF: Is it important to study classic designs or are you more of a fan of forging into unknown territory?
PP: The classics are what got us here. I think you’re crazy if you don’t respect the people here before you and there contributions. I like to think of my drums as modern vintage. It’s drums not space travel. The most forward thinking thing I have done in drum building is sticking maple re-ring in an aluminum snare. Not sure if I’m the first or not; I had never seen it before. If that’s the unknown, I guess I’m forward thinking.
MF: How much of building is skill and how much is creative inspiration?
PP: Part smart, part art or passion, and part never growing up. 40/40/20
PP: Yes, it’s defiantly the willingness to follow dreams. I think there is a balance to managing the responsibilities of life and not losing site of your individuality, creativity, and dreams. That part of you is uniquely you; it’s your inner creator. Honestly, as much as I consider myself a non-conformist, I think we all conform in some way or other, but I try not to throw in the towel. We all have the body of work done by the people before us to draw from, you can’t help but be influenced by the world we live in, but it’s that part that’s uniquely you that only you know when that part is being fed. I can’t lose sight of that part of me. If I lose that part, what’s the point?
I may need to adjust my percentages now and then to gain perspective; drum builder is not my identity. Faith, Family, Friends, Passion, Hope, it’s all in there. I am a lover of authenticity. Not sure if I cleared that up or if I made it a bigger ball of crazy then it was before. There is definitely an element of crazy I need to add into my equation.
PP: Well, I think the biggest one is the fact that for me to be who I am, my wife has to work. Before we had Isla (my baby girl), this wasn’t a big deal, but now I feel like I kind of suck at juggling the rolls: husband, full-time-dad, audio engineer, drum builder. It gets tricky, and the money sucks, but if I was after money I could have stayed in plumbing. I knew what I was in for when I started chasing the music. I know I’m rambling here, so I guess I would say I feel like my family has taken the biggest hit. My hope is that the last 15 years of this chasing the music will pay off some how.
MF: Can you describe the process of learning from Paul? What made his designs so sought after?
PP: First of all Paul was a Friend, he took me in and I will forever be grateful. Most drum builders are very exclusive as to who they will let in their shop, much less teach their trade. Paul was not that way, as he was a friend to many. Every drummer in SD should have bought a kit from Paul. I don’t know anyone that has one of Paul’s kits that wants to get rid of it. Paul had a way of overdoing everything that made most builders a little crazy. If most builders sanded to 240, Paul sanded to 1200, no joke.
PP: Paul did things the craftsmen way, better than anyone else I have met, setting the bar extremely high. I like to think that I stay that path, and I do for the most part, but if I can save time and make something better, I do.
After Paul passed and I bought all his tools, I met Ted Williams. Ted has been there to help me out along the way and connect the dots that I didn’t have time to glean from Paul. Ted and Paul were good friends too. I have learned more from Ted than I expected to in the beginning. I guess I ended up apprenticing under Ted too. I need to say as well, I would not be building drums today if Bill Sylvester, Craig Zarkos and Aaron Redfield had not paved the way for me.
**Author’s note: I have used Vessel Drums many times and they are truly exceptional. Some bands that have used Vessel drums include Greyboy Allstars, Pinback, Delta Spirit, Alan Parsons Project, Switchfoot, The Howls, Mattson2, Tribal Seeds, Trouble In The Wind, Goodnight Ravenswood, and the Silent Comedy