Archive for the ‘Other Bands and Nirvana’ Category

http://www.clashmusic.com/features/the-eternal-process-of-becoming-swans-michael-gira

I was lucky enough to be asked if I wanted to speak to Michael Gira the other week. It’s an intriguing time coming up: extensive touring over the next year before I moves onward with Swans in some – yet to be determined – iteration of the Swans identity.

 

http://www.wordsandguitars.co.uk/2016/05/jaccuse-jesse-hughes/

Doesn’t time fly? Here we are in late May and it’s been ages since I last posted. Many apologies, a full month of ill health, final preparation on the Thurston Moore book I’ve been working on, plenty of my real job to do, a lot of real life.

The attached piece written for Words & Guitars is…Well, I’m less temperate or mellow than I’d be ordinarily. Jesse Hughes of the Eagles of Death Metal made a batch of comments about what happened at the Bataclan in Paris last year. Why does it bother me? Because this is friends of mine he’s talking about, these are people I love and care for that he’s calling terrorists when they’re just as upset or worried by it as anyone else. The day I see Jesse Hughes take responsibility for crimes committed by white Christians is the day I’ll suggest that the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are anything other than individuals getting on with their lives as, unfortunately, the usual ragtag bunch of idiots present in any society or group ruin it for the majority.

Here’s the letter shared by one Muslim survivor of the Bataclan attack:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/24/jesse-hughes-eagles-of-death-metal-paris-attacks-bataclan-survivor

And here’s the piece regarding the gentleman who saved several hundred lives that night:

http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/02/05/465551737/in-france-a-quiet-hero-belatedly-comes-to-light

 

Rather like this video – neat concept. I noticed that Damien Binder of Second Child is working on his next album – he’s a really nice bloke so wanted to share the crowd-sourcing link given the target is only $3,000 and he’s two-thirds of the way. It’d be great to smash it plus I fancy a copy of the record so this is entirely selfishly motivated(!)

http://www.pozible.com/project/198232

You’ve not heard of Second Child? Ah! Well, Nirvana’s support on February 9, 1992 at the Logan Campbell Centre in Auckland, New Zealand. I dug back into my transcripts from the “I Found My Friends” book to pull out some of the material from Damien about Second Child, the Nirvana show, his life n’ times…

“Chris Van de Geer and Luke Casey had the name Second Child originally when I joined in 1987. Luke and I were still at school at the time and one day he told me about some guys he was jamming with in Titirangi (outer western suburb of Auckland) and that they were looking for a singer. I turned up to meet some pretty serious Goths (Chris and his friend Paul who played bass) who were friendly enough. I couldn’t sing to save myself at the time but the rest of the band took me on because apparently I was into it and had the right attitude. I was lucky they were open to me given my skills but then again they were into the punk ethics of DIY with a ‘there are no rules/teach yourself/untrained is best’ mentality so I was in. I was bursting to perform and express myself and these guys were happy to let me do it. Besides one else wanted to be the front man so it worked out.

On reflection the name Second Child fit well though we thought of changing it a few times. Chris and I were both middle children in our families, and despite it not being a conscious thing, the concept of middle child/second child syndrome was something we evidently related to. It stuck and we grew into it I guess.

By 1990 we were a strong part of the punk/alternative scene in NZ but this scene was not large by any means and we often struggled to find places to play. Sometimes we would organise our own gigs with other bands at local community centres/halls. For a time I worked at a famous Auckland venue called the Gluepot and that connection helped us set up gigs for Second Child. Once for a short period, management paid us $300 dollars for a Thursday night provided we brought in an audience. This was amazing to us as we rarely if ever got paid. Around then a terrific guy called Kirk Gee started to manage us. He had been to a few of our shows and really liked what we did. He worked as a writer among other things at Rip it Up magazine, which was the local monthly rock bible in those days.

Murray Cammick ran the magazine and also had his own record label called Wildside. Murray was something of a local legend in the NZ music industry. He’s a more than slightly eccentric fellow, but a good guy and a real hardcore music fan. I remember he was always trying to get me to listen to Otis Redding at every opportunity. Kirk talked us up to Murray a lot and convinced him to sign us (though we never signed anything). I realise now how important it was to have someone like Kirk in our corner. True believers in what you do make a big difference especially if they are connected! I think he secretly financed a tour we did once, driving us in a van around the North Island of NZ. I guess we thought the label was paying for the tour (or more likely didn’t think about it at all) but when we found out this was not the case and confronted him he wouldn’t take a dollar from us. In 91 we ended up putting out our first album ‘Magnet” through Wildside.

There wasn’t any major radio behind the band at that time except for BFM (college radio equivalent). One of the DJ’s there, Simon Coffey helped get us gigs with other bands early on while Lisa Van de Arde, who hosted a NZ only content show on B called ‘Freak The Sheep’, was a fervent supporter and got us airplay and interviews which helped a lot.

Elsewhere there was self-released underground press like Stamp magazine. We had a fan in Stamp’s editor Jonathan King and also in John Russell who wrote for various underground music zines and later, for Rip it Up.  Both championed Second Child, through writing reviews and features. In the process, while being valuable allies they would also become good friends. Jonathan in particular was a strong force in our development. He would later go on to direct nearly all of the bands videos as well as videos for my solo records.

When “Magnet” (7 song EP) came out it was only on vinyl in a very limited pressing. We didn’t exactly set the charts on fire but we drew well live and we had some memorable shows around its release. Musically we changed quite a bit afterward. I think we had been a little uptight, as you are naturally when you are finding yourself, so gradually we loosened up a little. After it’s release we started listening to different music and inevitably different influences crept in. Our line up at the time of the Nirvana show was Chris (guitar), Theo Jackson (who had recently replaced Barbara Morgan on bass after she left), Jules Barnett on drums and me (vocals and guitar).

Later we would have a variety of drummers. Luke Casey even came back to play on a few recording sessions before we settled around 95 on Ben Lythberg who would play on our first full length album “Slinky.” Ben was a really laid-back relaxed guy and an unfussy yet powerful and tight drummer…Beside finding new members Chris and I had started to get into more melodic guitar music starting with Husker Du/Bob Mould and SST bands through to The Pixies, Sub Pop label bands, Afghan Whigs and early REM to name a few. I got turned on to Dylan in a big way (better late than never!) around this period too so our tastes changed and we became interested in more formal rock songs with choruses etc rather than the 8min-never-repeating-the-same-part-twice epics that we had become known for.

Looney Tours were the company who brought Nirvana out and the Logan Campbell Centre held about 2,000 people. We used to call it the Logan Concrete Centre because it sounded like shit in there — not exactly known for its warm acoustics. The Powerstation where I believe the gig was originally to be staged was a much better, more intimate venue. It could hold 800-1,000 at most.

At their sound check, which we were present for, I recall Kurt said, “I want cd quality sound” over the mic to the sound person. He seemed a little annoyed at what he was hearing back through the monitors. I don’t recall much, if any interaction with them. It lingered with with me that he/they seemed rather sullen and exhausted and played that way too. Their performance was workman-like but lacking any great enthusiasm. As I said they looked like they weren’t that thrilled to be there. Jules Barnett recalls “Nirvana opened with Negative Creep, Kurt walked out onto the stage, slung his guitar on and said “Hello…this is a song off our first album, which you can buy at Really Groovy Records “[sic]. Their set was okay enough, however not very energetic…Krist jumped around in his bare feet while Kurt was much more subdued. ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ was right near the end — if not an encore- and got the most rapturous applause during the opening chords.”

I don’t remember even seeing them much before and definitely not after. They kept pretty much to themselves.

Chris (guitar) recalls ”We didn’t get to meet or hang out with them, we watched sound check and yeah, they were pretty subdued and exhausted I think the NZ show was on the tail end of their tour, they had basically just blown up in NZ with Teen Spirit crossing over to being number 1.”

We were possibly the last stop in nowheresville that they had to be before going home so I think they did 1 or 2 songs as an encore and got the hell out of there. Kurt especially looked tired and depleted. A friend told me he visited Real Groovy Records (a once famous Auckland record store) either the day prior or after the gig and bought a copy of a record by the NZ band The Axemen.

As far as our performance I thought we went down really well. It was the first time Second Child had played together on a stage of that size and it was slightly strange being that far away from each other compared to tiny stages that barely fit the drums, let alone the band that we were used to. We were accustomed to having the audience in our faces but after I met some people who said they were blown away by us. It was certainly a thrill however to be in front of that many people and I felt pretty at ease with it after a few songs.

I learned a valuable lesson that night. Don’t ever, if you are supporting a big band, say this is our last song! I think that got us the biggest cheer. I in turn promptly told the crowd the fuck off, serious young man that I was. I hadn’t yet developed my inimitable stage banter at that stage it seems!

A somber finale song, a track in support of the Red Cross Japan tsunami appeal:

http://www.radionz.co.nz/collections/under-the-influence/nirvana

February 9, 1992 – Auckland. Gotta love the extended riff intro to School (I can’t tell if it’s a loop by the radio station or actually what Cobain played on stage) – it reminds me of an old bootleg of Nirvana remixes I had. This has been floating around a while – it came out back in April and consists of interviews by Radio New Zealand National about this southern-most of Nirvana gigs.

Lots of neat details, few revelations – the stepping up of the venue as each one sold out, Cobain’s ropey condition by the time he arrived, the fact the band spent only 36 hours or so in the country because they were so determined to get him out and get him a break. Even the witnesses feel the band ‘only played 12 songs’…Which isn’t true but it seems they did race through it and get off. There’s no indication greatness was on stage.

There’s also an old poster on the website showing the original venue – a nice historical touch.

I remember a friend handing me Sweet 75, Krist Novoselic’s post-Nirvana project back sometime late in my time at school. I also remember not thinking much of it –with age I begin to wonder whether I may have overlooked some essential quality within the album…So, given Novoselic’s post-Nirvana releases are so cheap on eBay I did some digging and decided it was time to revisit Sweet 75, the No WTO Combo and Eyes Adrift. What do Novoselic’s post-1994 releases demonstrate about Kurt Cobain’s chief lieutenant and are they worth time and energy in and of themselves?

Starting with Sweet 75, OK, it vanished without a trace at the time despite ongoing work right through into 2000 – curious to think of it as a five year project when Nirvana itself barely lasted seven. Of course it doesn’t seem to have been a band with great ambition behind it – a significant contrast to Nirvana’s 60-90 gigs a year heyday and regular recording and release schedule. That’s often the problem with something so casual – as a one-off, as a document of a specific moment in time, they can often be effective. But the idea that this album is a testament to efforts between 1995 and 1997 – the same length of time it took for Nirvana to go from Mrs Butterworth to the January 1988 sessions, through Love Buzz and all the way to Bleach…Of course, Wikipedia states that he met Yva Las Vegas at one of his birthdays – which would mean either the association began around May 1994 (which seems a bit swift and sudden perhaps?) or didn’t begin until May 1995…Oh well. What of the album?

This is going to come as a controversial statement, but the Sweet 75 album stands as a real testament regarding Krist’s hidden talent as a guitarist. Trying to focus down simply on his guitar-playing, it’s remarkable how adaptable he is. On Cantos de Pilon he contributes a beautifully finger-picked Spanish guitar backing. On Ode to Dolly, Dogs and Japan Trees you’ll hear a jazzy guitar vibe similar to Cobain’s Black & White Blues home demo. Lay Me Down, Six Years and Nothing all plumb the Americana vein. La Vida meanwhile is bloody crooner-jazz music more befitting Michael Buble…I admire that last piece of open-mindedness while still not wanting it on my stereo. The rest of the album has a firmer alt-rock feel but always with other touches emerging like Bite My Hand’s South American breakdown. He’s certainly a more traditional guitar player than Cobain – the moments of overdriven fuzz on the record are used sparingly while little here feels wildly out of control – he has a clear grip of technique and such a wide awareness of styles and techniques which he deploys with real precision. The song Six Years moves through several different feels and vibes in a relatively brisk four minutes.

The only slight issue one could point to is that across the album there’s a relatively limited tempo to all the songs. It’s like comparing top form Lil Wayne mixtapes to the walking pace approach on The Carter IV where he could barely break out of ‘talking speed’ for more than a song or two. The same affliction is present on Sweet 75 – it’s an album of half a dozen dominant styles, divided again by the diversions taken within each individual song, but all taken at the pace one might reserve for practising an instrument. Accuracy rules over heart n’ soul. Praising the openness to neat instrumental touches – like the really well placed mellotron interventions on Fetch, or the accordion on Oral Health – is genuine, the compositional talent on display is very clear but, again, it feels constructed in it’s precision while simultaneously lacking a unifying feel.

On Game’s The RED Album there’s a horrendous mid-album R n’ B segment which seems cynically planned to permit sales to the dominant music market and to open it up to the female demographic. It totally ruins the momentum of the overall album, destroys the flow – not to mention that the songs are appalling crap. There’s absolutely no sense of anything so strategically planned out (and strategically flawed) on the Sweet 75 album – it feels far more spontaneous, it is what it is…The problem being that there’s not much sense of a plan at all. Nevermind clearly has a plan – Cobain quite clearly is mapping out the flow of the LP and does so for quite a long time prior to the album’s finalisation. That album is also a very focused object – there’s no huge deviation into completely disparate territory and yet, simultaneously, it certainly doesn’t belabour a single sound nor outstay it’s welcome. The Sweet 75 album is of comparable length but flies off in so many directions there’s no flow or development to it – there’s no movement, no reason why a song should be in one place or another and as a listening experience it’s really audible. While the Game’s effort wants to be a gangsta rap revival AND a chart-bothering R n’ B EP all on the same overlong album, the Sweet 75 album doesn’t seem to have any determined identity, it simply flits between guises to the detriment of some good touches, good moments and details. It’s wrong to read too much into a single release but if it said anything about Novoselic it would be that he has an incredible amount of under-exposed and under-rated musical talent that went to waste in the dictatorship that was Nirvana – however, it suggests he functions better with a leader, with someone saying what will fly and what must die.

What more can I say? At its core Sweet 75 has a suite of really excellent alt. rock songs with Take Another Step and Red Dress being tracks I’ll happily listen to again – there’s something that reminds me of Babes in Toyland about the vocal delivery which is eminently listenable. Around those songs, however, are so many diversions it’s impossible to love it all. I’ve spoken to two journalists who say that after Cobain’s death they had to move away from working on rock music because Kurt, for them, had exposed all the gross consequences and endings of the clichés of rock n’ roll. I would understand Novoselic wanting to play something a world away from Nirvana – which he does here – but at some point this album needed someone to decide what it was, it doesn’t have that. Foo Fighters got it right; a punk rock/pop rock band – set the controls, go. It doesn’t mean I always loved them but it was clear what was being delivered. Sweet 75 is three EPs in 14 tracks – I still don’t know who they are.

Eyes Adrift is a firm correction of almost all those question marks. It further expands my appreciation of Novoselic as a musician too – Krist sings! And he does a good job of it too! His voice is surprisingly similar to Curt Kirkwood’s, maybe his voice is just something he had to grow into because it’s a world away from his 1987 take on Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves. I’m immediately fond of his gentle approach on Inquiring Minds – it’s a great lil’ song! And, this time around, Curt clearly provides the leadership and the focus lacking from Sweet 75 – the album has a defined identity, a solid core, a unity that lends coherence. But wait…Agh. OK, I like the Meat Puppets, I like Meat Puppets II, I like Up on the Sun…But the problem is there’s only so much southern hospitality rock I can take. The focused identity of the Eyes Adrift album is that particularly gentle country rock vibe Meat Puppets ended up with – it’s ultimately a Meat Puppets album with one Krist replacing one Cris, when what would be a neater thing would be a Nirvana-ish album with one Curt replacing the other Kurt. Instead it just feels a bit…Gentle, a bulbous summer warmth that never boils into sweaty motion or dries to frazzled crispness. It also shows Krist, on the Dottie Dawn & Julie Jewel track, again proving quite keen on the Leadbelly guitar influence a few decades too late. But maybe it’s just me. Middle-of-the-Road indie is as irksome as MOR rock always was.

Which brings me to the No WTO Combo – phew, Gods, it’s nice to hear some raw guitar and an impassioned vocalist at last! On Full Metal Jackoff Jello Biafra’s delivery recalls Johnny Rotten’s style on Pretty Vacant – a good sound to emulate. Again, there’s a clear leader here – the first fifteen minutes are Jello hyping the cowd, there’s a Dead Kennedys’ song, there’s a song from his 1989 collaboration with D.O.A., there’s two new songs he’s written. But what the hell, it means there’s a sound being aimed for and it works well. Plus it’s a focused recording – a single night, a specific point in time, a quality line-up including Kim Thayil who kills on guitar. When defending Sweet 75 or Eyes Adrift I can understand people saying that they’re unpretentious records, that they’re the sound of musicians enjoying themselves…Except I think the No WTO live show sounds a lot less pretentious, a lot more like musicians enjoying themselves – the albums are not people just cutting an album for the hell of it, they’ve made an album because they want to release some music and have formulated it as such. No WTO Combo is about highlighting a cause, getting attention, putting the word out there…But it kicks ass in a way the other two don’t. There’s a real feeling of being sat bobbing head up-and-down on the corner of a stage in a club so full everyone has an elbow in there gut one way or another – the production is somehow so clear and yet it also that slight mist over everything that makes it live – you can hear Jello breathe…Momentum matters, Jello spending a minute or two ranting doesn’t break the intensity at all thanks to his practised delivery, it just lends outrage in between the bursts of straight-forward punk.

I’m definitely aware that what I’m feeling is my preference for rock over indie – my assessment has to be judged on those terms, that I’m arguing from the perspective of someone who ‘feels’ the rough-edged punk guitar but feels no affinity for quite a lot of country-influenced music (there are exceptions! The Broken Family Band, early Meat Puppets, Herd of Turtles!) The drift toward stripped down acoustic music seems to be a simple part of the life progression of the average noisenik or ex-alt. rocker, even Thurston Moore has ended up there (thank God for Chelsea Lights Moving and Twilight) while Michael Gira has really owned it (thank God for the Swans revival but also for Gira being able to make even the most lite song sound menacing.) Being aware of it, that eventually turning down the volume is all anyone seems to be able to do doesn’t make me a vast supporter of it. The directness of the No WTO Combo, the absence of any attempt to create an album makes for a far stronger connection with the artists while Sweet 75 and Eyes Adrift…They don’t speak with me, I don’t feel someone communicating to anyone outside of the circle of players. Ah well.

Again, the inlay booklet presents Krist on articulate form – he wears his intelligence lightly, it’s been impossible for years to ever mistake the guy for a fool. He writes well, speaks well, makes points effectively and with a clear depth of knowledge and awareness. Again, reading the liner notes of the No WTO Combo gave me a further appreciation for Krist Novoselic. Really glad I spent the £6-7 it took to get hold of the three records even if they reminded me of what was lost when the stakes got too high. The result is that zone of comfort, of lack of consequence to music – when it’s just something nice to do rather than something one has to do, the millionaire rock star syndrome or just the aftermath of the horror?

This piece came to me via a gentleman called Shane Tutmarc – great-grandson of a gentleman who is both a significant part of music history AND of Seattle music history simultaneously, Paul Tutmarc (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Tutmarc). It’s a quite dramatic reworking of Aneurysm on which he plays all the instruments. I think it’s a brilliant move the way the song commences with what sounds like an old school blues rhythm, the kinda thing Jessica Rabbit might croon over only to open it up rapidly to a far tenser and uncomfortable build made up first of just an omninous bass, then the minor key strings before eventually roaring into the Aneurysm chorus which, despite the lighter tone of the backing, is impossible to detach from the surrounding creepy elements. Stabbing piano keys and the rising strings give that sense that a climax is being reached, it’s the point where the axe might come through the door or the shadow is traced on the shower curtain.

The treated vocals continue this uncanniness. I wondered at first if it was a remix of Cobain’s own vocals but recognise now it isn’t. The uncanny, a core horror concept (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny) is centred on the idea of things that are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar which is why the subtle deviation from the original vocals is such an effective touch.

Aneurysm was built on rock and roll cliches (“come on over and do the twist,” “love you so much,” etc.) but the cleverest touch was the way it then warped each one (“…overdo it and have a fit,” “…it makes me sick…”) turning it into a joke, a refusal, a sardonic parody. The song’s other great strength (I think it’s one of Cobain’s finest lyrical efforts) is the way it turns every emotional statement into a physical symptom – whether love meaning he brings up his guts, keeps his heart pumping – and each act into a biological concept – dancing leads to a epileptic episode, even the use of the cliche “shoot the shit” looks deliberate given it ends with the human physical output – shit. For such a short, mantra like and repetitious song, it was clogged with cleverness. As has been pointed out a million times, yes, the ‘she’ of the song and an awful lot of the phrasing could be considered as heroin references. This kinda multi-layered composition, conducted in a song with really only six different lines to it, is a great case for Cobain was an astronomically good writer.

This revision of the song is remarkably true to the original in these respects. Stripping it even further to a smaller cluster of repetitions is effective. Altering the voice remains true to the sense of human physicality derailed. Also, while Cobain’s lyrics walked a careful line between rock n’ roll cliche and impassioned believer statements – this song does it musically. The musical choices shift between night club tunes and modern ecstasy while soundtracking an uncomfortable tale of heroin, physical collapse, love and discomfort. The video is crucial here, this isn’t just a film soundtrack, but the film and the interpretation are so well integrated – the film brings the physical concept to the fore, it brings the ‘horror’ element to the fore, it has a physicality that a cartoon or modern CGI effort couldn’t match – the jerky quality of this work benefits the overall unsettled emotion and bodies.

I think musically it’s managed the impressive feat of taking the song in an apparently fundamentally different direction while remaining surprisingly true to the original warping of potentially traditional themes; visually it’s hammered in the crucial kinetic element of the original; and Shane’s managed – overall – to combine the elements present in a remarkably strong way where each reinforces and is mutually dependent on the others to create the overall effect. Impressive.

Anyways, enough of my prattling. Shane kindly gave me some time to describe a little more of his work and what was done here so I’ll let him speak for himself:

“I come from a very musical family going back to my great-grandfather, Paul Tutmarc, who has been credited with inventing the electric guitar. His son, my grandfather Bud Tutmarc, was a well-known Hawaiian Steel Guitar player, and both my parents played music around the house growing up. My favorite movie in kindergarten was Amadeus, so music was always a big part of my life. I remember singing melodies to my mom around that age to have her notate on sheet music so she could play it back to me. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t making some sort of music. After discovering Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, I immediately started a band. There was something about Kurt’s music and attitude that made me feel I could do it too. Looking back, I feel so lucky that I was able to grow up in Seattle during that pivotal time in music.

I’ve explored so many different avenues over the years, and each release becomes the “highlight” of each era. From 2001 – 2005, I released five experimental pop records under the moniker Dolour. After a short sabbatical from music, I dug into American roots, country and blues, with Shane Tutmarc & the Traveling Mercies, releasing two albums back-to-back. I went even further down that path with my first solo album, Shouting At A Silent Sky in 2009. Since moving to Nashville in 2010 I’ve worked on a number of projects, including last year’s trio of covers, which includes Aneurysm. I wanted to choose a song that was slightly off the beaten path. I’ve always loved the tongue-in-cheek humor in the lyrics, “Come on over and do the twist,” and the very-Cobain line, “I love you so much it makes me sick.” I started messing around with the arrangement using only midi sounds. There are no real instruments on the recording. The intro has a very Twin Peaks vibe. I was re-watching the show at the time, and the soundtrack definitely crept into the arrangement. And I went with a sort of Michael Jackson Thriller groove on the verses. I made the connection with the background vocals being “beat it, beat it.” Growing up in Seattle, people rarely covered Nirvana songs, it felt too sacred, or it carried too much baggage. But with this cover, it was a joy to take the song completely out of its original context, and reintroduce it in a fresh way.

I don’t remember how I first saw the short film, I used to work at a record store and was always taking home weird art DVDs, and that’s probably where I first came across it. In any case, I remembered it once I had the song finished, and I tracked it down again, and it was a perfect fit. It reminded me a lot of Kurt’s style of art, like the Incestiside album cover.

I sent the video to my brother, with extensive notes of where to make the cuts, and I’m really happy with what we ended up with. My brother Brandon and I have always collaborated. He’s been involved with my web and design projects since my early days with Dolour. He did the artwork for Dolour’s 3rd album, New Old Friends, and has had a hand in every project I’ve done since then. He’s just so fast and easy to work with. I’m sure it helps that we know each other so well, and know the same references. You can see more of his work at his website:

http://www.brandontutmarc.com

Living in such an active music city as Nashville, I’ve been able to get involved in so many different areas of music – from playing shows, co-writing, producing other artists, playing with other artists, etc. Currently I’m finishing up producing a record for Tanya Montana Coe, which should be released later this year. And I plan to start recording a new album of my own in the next month.
To keep up with me, check:

http://www.facebook.com/ShaneTutmarc
http://www.shanetutmarc.com

Gosh, has it really been a month since I was working on this? Darn…Sorry…Sorry…

A diversion today though, wanted to look at Melvins’ Houdini record. I’d always noticed that commentary on Cobain’s involvement with the album is focused on his role/non-role on the production side with barely a mention made of the part he played as a musician on the release. I couldn’t help but want to satisfy my curiosity by grabbing a copy of the album and finding out why…

…Oh dear…It’s pretty obvious. The real story of Houdini, the real fun and drama, come from discussing the record company’s cynical behaviour – their determination to have the name ‘Kurt Cobain’ written on the record by any means necessary and to see if Melvins’ association with Nirvana could be turned, at the peak of Nirvana’s fame, into success for their own artist. I’d have to admit though that a lot of albums never make money I can understand a label executive wanting to exploit the very clear and visible connection between their ‘token grunge band’ and the world’s biggest group – it’s logical, it’s sensible, it’s helpful. Melvins’ status at the time is also fascinating, this was a pretty drug-addled time and examining the album, it’s not bad but there’s definite filler compared to their most glorious excursions. Thing is, for Cobain’s name to be exploited in this way he had to agree to it – his instinct to support his friends, coupled with the fact that it’s fair to say that in the early days he’d made use of his Melvins’ connections and owed them to some extent for early breaks, meant he was happy to involve himself despite there being no apparent evidence of him being interested before in the mechanics of recording beyond asking for a particular sound and a producer fulfilling the desire as best they could. Similarly the mood is visible in the way the relationship between Melvins and the production staff broke down a touch, you can see it in the way that Jonathan Burnside – an experienced producer who’d worked on several other Melvins’ albums and releases – was relegated to ‘engineer’ in the credits when it’s become very obvious that Cobain certainly was not producing in any active sense. Melvins also had to join in with the urge to use Cobain’s presence for commercial purposes. Buzz Osbourne has stated he wanted Cobain there for inspirational purposes and so forth – yeah? Let’s just check, Kurt Cobain had been a presence in the life of Melvins for some ten years by that point but suddenly he was wanted as a collaborator? Alas, hate to say it, but I think it’s more likely that just as Melvins’ arrival on a major label was tied directly to Nevermind’s explosion, the arrival of Cobain in an amorphous and vague role on Melvins’ first major label record was simply a knowing desire to try to keep the label happy and gain some commercial glitter. Nothing wrong with that, useful to have a rock star friend.

Did I say filler earlier? That’s where the Cobain contributions come in; Cobain is given a credit for playing on two songs – Spread Eagle Beagle and Sky Pup. What that involvement amounts to is participation in Melvins’ very own Moby Dick (a la Led Zeppelin.) Spread Eagle Beagle is a lengthy percussion piece that doesn’t feel the desire to go anywhere in a hurry. Lulls at about five minutes and ten minutes – where the drums give way to the light rumbling of what sounds like a steel sheet then the patter of drum sticks being rubbed – almost count as moments of tension simply because so little happens. I’m a fanatic for unusual noise records, for a certain quantity of extremity, but this doesn’t have the same momentum Melvins lent to something like their collaboration with Lustmord – it’s just ten minutes of relatively static thudding, little intricacy or drama. On live bootlegs of Nirvana sometimes you’ll hear for a few seconds the drummer warming up, clattering a few drums before the start of an actual song, just setting the beat and waiting for his comrades to join in…This feels like Melvins playing those few seconds ad infinitum, over and over, while everyone else is too busy nodding out to join in. It could be a joke – that they’ve tagged this nothingness onto the end of a real record in which case it’s a bit sad because Melvins have always managed to be whimsical, experimental, out for just trying things and seeing what might happen – without creating ‘nothing.’

There are several sources within the song. First, a drum kit keeping up a solid heavy thump in the middle, a consistent zing of bent metal that echoes accentuates or follows certain moments in the main rhythm, a separate and far lighter set of accents is being added by a separate drum kit occasionally echoing the main rhythm while a further piece of equipment producing something like the sound of a light switch or thin stick being hit on the edge of a drum – a whip sound – sometimes intervenes. The rhythm is fairly unvarying – the pauses give me the impression of active improvisors pausing to look one another in the eye before a change of direction…Except the direction doesn’t change. The ‘song’ pauses then simply proceeds in pretty much the same manner as it had been. There’s a change up at about six minutes in to a far denser drumming with each instrument gradually rising up for the next couple minutes and the pace picking up while still amounting to little more than a swifter clatter.

For evidence of Cobain’s continued collaborative or creative impulses in the 1993-1994 period Spread Eagle Beagle isn’t the place to go. It’s impossible to tell what contribution he made, there’s no way of teasing out a signature sound or anything identifiably Cobain-esque. In a way that’s perhaps what makes me smile widest because, if I was being generous and clever-clever, I’d suggest that the anonymity of Cobain’s presence is precisely the point. The album’s own merits were being overshadowed by the mere presence of an (unwilling) global superstar. Whatever Melvins did on the album, the label were far more concerned with just plastering Cobain’s name on it. Cobain himself undoubtedly knew that he was helping friends but simultaneously that he was being exploited due to his fame and that it wasn’t just ‘helping friends’, it was also supporting the label people suggesting and coaxing them into it…These are musicians, while most people simply say what they feel is wrong/right, musicians can comment via music, via performance. What Melvins create at the end of the album, was a graffitti track stating “yes, Kurt woz ‘ere” at the same time as it makes him completely invisible, a cipher, a name, nothing more. They’d erased him from the track even as they satisfied their bosses that they’d included him. Great! Doesn’t mean I necessarily am going to listen to the track often even if it potentially says much about the circumstances of the album. Buzz Osbourne’s apparent resentment/irritation with Cobain’s posthumous status perhaps has roots in this kind of moment where Melvins’ own achievements are pushed to one side in favour of their friend’s commercial cachet. Understandably annoying.

So what of Sky Pup where Cobain was coaxed into handling a guitar? Hmm. Perhaps this feels disrespectful but in the songs four minute duration the usual heavyweight chug of Melvins at full pelt is stripped back to a pretty jazzy bass/drums duet which works neatly, but the guitar is missing in action. Oh, no wait! There it is. There’s a repeating sequence during the early minute or so of the song – I was aware that this was Cobain on a right-handed guitar with Buzz Osbourne manipulating the peddles but then it dissolves to a low-in-the-mix watery sounding diarrhea that eventually becomes nothing more than drain noises for the rest of the song matched against some vocal chokes and coughs and ad-libbed squarks. I was hoping to say more about it but there really isn’t anything there to comment on. Apparently Cobain handed the guitar back as rapidly as possible – there’s no indication that this was a live jam, it sounds like a recording of the guitar was mixed in later with the rest of the band playing over the top. I wouldn’t even be surprised if that introductory semi-riff was looped after the fact or if the same minute or two was reused throughout most of the song. There’s some kind of a solo from about 1.50 through around 2.30 then a skeletal 25 seconds in which the finger positions move back-and-forth a couple of times without achieving anything much. There’s a hint of Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol’s spindly moments at that point but it makes the latter Nirvana jam look like gold-dust by comparison (I really like Gallons I admit.)

The most crucial reason that the two Cobain contributions stand out is simply that everything else on the album actually sounds like a Melvins’ song. This is a cohesive and coherent album if one erases Sky Pup and deletes the ten minute marathon finale. That final track simply feels like a band low on inspiration needing to get the song up to some kinda contractually mandated run-time though, in tone, it at least feels consistent with the album as a whole. Sky Pup is a mid-album interlude adding neither a pause for breath nor an intriguing switch to leftfield – it doesn’t sound like it belongs on the same album as the other tracks. It’s a remarkable commentary really – to make the interloper stand out so prominently on the album that it’s clearly the thing that simply didn’t fit into what the Melvins were doing with the Houdini album prior to the intervention of major labels and the potential cash bonanza.

Anyways, a good album…If one deletes Sky Pup and Spread Eagle Beagle.