The Small Axe Interviews

Introduction

Small Axe may well be the greatest rock band you’ve never heard nor heard of, unless you lived in or near New York’s Capital Region around the turn of the century. A couple of posts ago, I mentioned rediscovering some of their early CDs while going through boxes in preparation for our move. Through the power of online shopping, I have since been able to score the one Small Axe disc I was missing, their awesome digital debut, A Shot to the Body. While I was poking around, I also found two interviews with the band that I conducted for Metroland in 2000 and 2002 that I had not added to this online archive for some reason. So I’m rectifying that oversight now by re-publishing them below. Soon after the second interview earned a Metroland cover feature, founding bassist Jimbo Burton left the band to launch his solo project, Blackloud. After one album (Public Thief) with bassist-cellist-luthier Orien MacDonald standing in for Burton, drummer Thom Hall’s wife Kelly Murphy (also of Empire State Troopers, The Wasted, and others) joined on bass and vocals, and as best I can ascertain, the band still occasionally plays out when their geographically dispersed members are able to make it work. Founding singer-guitarist D.J. Miller and the prodigal Jimbo Burton also apparently played an acoustic set together in Albany a few years back, and I wish I’d been there for that reunion. They were great together, always. The group’s website hasn’t been updated since 2007, but you can still listen to samples of their songs there, and most of their records seem to be available online if you’re willing to poke around a bit. It’ll be worth your time to do, I promise. They were truly a fantastic band.

First Interview: 2000

Forget the Batcave: the reality of Small Axe’s mysterious Black Cloud Studio is far more evocative than any pop culture metaphor.

To find the forward-looking retro-acid trio’s command center, you leave the Northway at a certain rural exit, pass the obligatory Stewart’s Shop and Mobil Station that hug the highway ramps and head west into the woods. You then look for twin willow trees swaying in the breeze above a packed dirt driveway filled to capacity with vehicles, beyond which stands a nondescript farm house. Enter the house through the porch, pass the tailless black and white cat on its perch, stop in the kitchen to warm your hands over the oven’s gas burners and head into a crowded mud room with an industrial yellow bucket partially obscuring the way into a bathroom beyond.

Axe_shotPass through the bathroom and open the half-sized door on the left, which reveals a nearly vertical stairway into a root cellar. Watch your head as you descend into the darkness, carefully negotiating your way around the weight bench and turning back under the stairs, again ducking to avoid getting conked by the exposed ductwork and pipes that run along the narrow passageway. And then, just about the time that visions of the sex torture dungeon in Pulp Fiction begin to permeate your consciousness, you’re there — in an incredible, technically sophisticated studio-cum-rehearsal space the likes of which any number of commercial recording mavens hereabouts regularly dream. In vain.

Which makes sense, if you’ve heard either of Small Axe’s CDs — A Shot to the Body (1998) and A Blow to the Head, recently released under Small Axe associate Adam Lawrence’s Hoex Records imprint — both of which deftly exhibit the band’s keen collective sense of sonic space and detailed appreciation for the wonders of studio technology. And while the band’s three pathologically laconic and publicly uncommunicative members (singer-guitarist D.J. Miller, bassist Jim Burton and Thom Hall, who replaced Burton’s brother Dave on drums a couple of years ago) have been wowing live audiences with their hyper-amped and experimental deconstructions of traditional rock and blues forms since 1989, first in Buffalo, then in Portland, Ore., then here for the past seven years, you get the sense that they truly make their psychic homes deep in their Black Cloud Studio bunker.

“This really is a great work space for us,” offers the soft-spoken Miller, as he and the more garrulous Burton lead me into their nerve center with its unfinished pressboard walls, black PVC ceiling and band memorabilia tacked to most exposed flat surfaces. “Jim and Thom live here, so they’ve been working on it for a long time to get it the way we want it to be . . .”

“And we can just play here anytime, all we want, without bothering anybody,” seconds Burton, finishing Miller’s sentence, piped in on the same longtime-bandmate telepathic trunk line, happy to let Miller pick up the story again later at his own leisure and pleasure. “Y’know, there’s some other houses around us and everything, but they’re just far enough away so that nobody ever complains about the noise . . .” Axe_blow cover

“Although we’ve had some pretty loud, pretty amazing Fourth of July parties out back that probably could’ve bothered some people, since we had these other underground bands we knew from Buffalo and we set up a big stage out there and played. And there was some irresponsible use of fireworks too . . .”

“Yeh, we had this big bonfire set up, all doused in gasoline, and I was gonna light it at the end of a song by shooting it with Roman candles attached to my bass . . .”

“But there were all these people between the stage and the bonfire, so Jim shot this guy from one of the Buffalo bands in the chest, and he got pretty pissed off . . .”

“Although, y’know, he’s like this big underground music dude, and he’s gonna get pissed about something like that at a party? I mean, what’s that all about?”

“Well, you did shoot him with a Roman candle, man . . .”

And so on through the story, which concludes when some evil nerd chemists from Buffalo create a deep-fat turkey frying pit in the backyard, starting a massive grease fire in the process that burns for three days straight. But everyone really enjoys the fried turkeys, so it’s worth it, right?

Thom Hall enters the dungeon, err, studio, passing through the room wordlessly and immediately taking a seat behind his massive drum kit as Burton and Miller strap on their hard-worn axes. Small Axe then play an impromptu studio gig, offering four “new old songs” (as Miller dubs them), keeping true to their typical concert approach by never uttering a word between tunes. Set complete, we discuss the Butthole Surfers (for whom the group offer both affinity and respect) while Miller putters in the control room, patching this to that, connecting that to the other, finally filling the room with the sounds of a new, unreleased Axe tune called “Insect.” It’s brilliantly crafted, yet ookier and spookier than usual, which is really saying something given the band’s already deeply cryptic creative persuasions.

Axe_speaker cover“This has got some Prophet V synth on it, and some old church organ that Thom got somewhere,” notes Miller. I look around for the drummer, but he’s vanished again. “Thom’s got the coolest day-job in the world: he repairs Hammond Organs for a living.”

“He works for this old Christian dude who leaves the best messages on our answering machine,” adds Burton. “It’s like ‘We’ve got a B-3 Emergency, Thom!’ and Thom’s got to hop in the van and go to New York City or wherever to operate on the organ . . .”

“Plus he’s good with other tech stuff too. Like he fixed the DAT machine in there, which would have cost us huge money if we’ve had to pay for it . . .”

“He knows what he’s doing. He was a signalman in the Army,” concludes Burton.

Turns out Burton was in the Army too, serving as an infantryman in Berlin before the Wall fell, after which he and his brother Dave headed to Buffalo to found Small Axe with their childhood friend Miller, who’d gone west to get his degree in the City of Brotherly Bills. Burton drives a truck now, when he’s not playing out or recording with Small Axe, while Miller works for a government acquisitions outfit as a computer operator and bid analyst.

“Insect” behind us now, we all walk upstairs together to warm our hands on the stove and smoke some more. The tailless cat joins us in the kitchen. “He had an accident,” Burton notes, drifting out of the room after the cat, both never to return. Adam Lawrence and Dave Burton (now the band’s webmaster) hover over a laptop computer in the next room over, intent, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. Miller watches me thoughtfully as I jot notes in my pocket pad.

“I hope you can come see us play at King’s Tavern sometime,” he offers. “We do our best shows there, it seems. I like the people there.”

He lights a cigarette. The house falls silent. The interview is over. It’s time to return to society, to normalcy, to safety — but yet with a little shred of Black Cloud inside me that’s gonna color the way I see the world for a longtime yet to come. Hopefully.

Second Interview (2002)

Most rock musicians talk way too much for their own good.

As a music journalist, I’ve interviewed sneaker-gazers who have just barely made it out of the garage, but as soon as I shove a microphone into their faces, they turn into Bono. They’ve got theories, they’ve got manifestos, they’ve got explanations, and when all’s said and everything’s done, they’ve got hopes that I’ll validate their positions in print — because once it’s been written, it’s real, somehow, it seems.

But it ain’t, and the self-important yammer boxes have long since ceased doing it for me. It’s the silent types, I’ve learned, who are almost invariably causing the most heat and friction in the places where it really matters. They’re the ones who let their art talk for them in ways that words can never capture. They’re the ones you want to talk to, even if they don’t talk back. And if you judge forward-looking retro rockers Small Axe by that silence-equals-allure metric, then the Saratoga County-bred trio is definitely the most fascinating band in town. Axe_ride cover

But don’t expect them to tell you all about it.

“We probably should do try to do better about self promotion, get out of our own shells a little bit, but I dunno . . . we’re just not any good at stuff like that,” admits laconic singer-guitarist D.J. Miller during a recent visit to the band’s Ballston Lake headquarters, where he, bassist Jimbo Burton, drummer Thom Hall and I sit out the summer heat on a dark front porch, sippin’, smokin’, sweatin’.

That porch is a necessary summer adjunct to the simple, weather-beaten frame farmhouse that serves as the group’s home base. There’s usually a friendly dog or cat there to greet you when you arrive, and the whole compound exudes the true old blue-collar essence of Saratoga County in ways that most money-horsey summer people and Velveetavillians rarely encounter, and never grasp.

Hall lives there full-time, and Burton lived there until very recently, when he moved to West Sand Lake with his girlfriend, following the lead of Miller, who lives with his wife up in Moreau. But the house has a sanctum that draws the full band back several times each week: downstairs lies Black Cloud Studio, where the group’s four albums (one of which has yet to be released) were created, and where the band rehearses its live shows to an almost unbearable intensity.

When the band’s in the house, they’re rarely there on their own, and we always had other company the nights that I’ve visited there. In addition to the friendly cats and dogs, and the expected girlfriends and roommates and wives, Jimbo’s brother, Dave Burton, was there, as was Adam Lawrence, owner/operator of Hoex Records, on which Small Axe’s last two records, Speaker Eater and A Blow to the Head, were released. It always feels like a family operation there in the Small Axe house, which makes sense as you grow to understand how its principles have been not only making music, but living their lives together, for many, many years.

Childhood friends D.J. Miller and Jimbo Burton graduated from Saratoga High School together in 1985, with Dave Burton following them out of secondary education’s clutches a year later. Miller headed west on his own after high school, ultimately graduating from the University of Buffalo in 1990 with a degree in history. But for the purposes of this story, something more important happened while he studied history there in Buffalo: while in college, Miller found his instrument.

Photograph by Timothy Reidy.

Photograph by Timothy Reidy.

“I didn’t start playing guitar until I was out in Buffalo,” the now-deft SG wizard recalls. “I kinda came to music late. I mean, I didn’t discover Jimi Hendrix’ Are You Experienced? until I was in college, and that made me totally look at music differently than I ever had before. Bob Marley’s Catch A Fire, too, and the older stuff he did with Lee Perry. Some of my heaviest experiences ever came from listening to that music.”

While Miller was discovering his muse, Jimbo Burton was putting in time in the service of his country. “I was in the Army from ’87 to ’89, ended up Germany when the wall came down,” he explains. “When I got out, I went to HVCC for a while, then I got accepted to the Buffalo Art School, but instead of doing that, we all decided to move out to Buffalo and start a band instead.”

That exodus westward included both of the brothers Burton and Adam Lawrence, who was originally envisioned as the as-yet-untitled group’s vocalist. He didn’t end up singing — but he did name the band (after an allegorical Bob Marley number, wherein the small axe takes down the big tree) and has since worked for over a decade to take Small Axe’s music beyond the Buffalo basements that birthed it.

“Our early stuff in Buffalo was a lot more minimalist,” says Miller. “We had a second guitarist for a while. I’d never been in a band before, and I’d only been singing for a very short time. So the stuff was experimental . . . but it was pretty simple, too. I hate listening to my voice on the old stuff, though, but I’d like to take some of those old ideas and record them the way we can now.”

“Problem is, though, that we’ve got so many ideas to work with and there’s just not enough time for all of the songs,” Burton adds. “D.J.’s got this incredible stuff that records acoustic and brings to the studio. We’ve got so much material that we just can’t do it all justice.”

Small Axe’s first concert appearance in Buffalo was on the undercard for the then-equally-unknown moe. (“Al Schnier really liked us,” Miller notes.) Three years and not a lot of progress after that first gig, though, Small Axe decided they needed a change of scenery — and lit out for Portland, Oregon, with friend and percussionist (and later volunteer publicist) Chris O’Connor in tow. “We just wanted to go and do music full time in a new place,” notes Jim Burton. “But it wasn’t as big a music scene as we though it was, not as exciting as it could have been. There was one club where we could play, but it closed and we sorta realized that if we committed to being there, it was going to be a pretty major commitment. So we came back home to Saratoga instead.”

Photograph by Leif Zurmuhlen

Photograph by Leif Zurmuhlen

Throughout those early years, the band honed its skills and built its repertoire through a nearly obsessive dedication to home recordings, many of which are preserved on an early, eponymous cassette-only release, which has come to carry a legendary cache among the band’s devotees. “Four track recordings really made this band in the early years,” Miller explains. “We could play and do overdubs, experiment, figure out how to do things right, then take them out on stage. That’s how I learned to play leads. That’s how we learned to write songs.”

Small Axe made their formal recording debut in 1994 when “Holy Ways” appeared on a regional multi-band EP issued by Shithouse Rat Records, who also then released Small Axe’s full-length CD debut, A Shot to the Body. Two years later, as Small Axe began preparing to record their second album, Dave Burton decided that his days behind the drum kit were done.

“I followed that dream until it wasn’t a dream anymore,” he explains. “I knew there was more to myself than what I was offering, so with the help of my sister Debbie, I built a strong enough customer base to support my own construction business. Later on, I started building the first web page for Small Axe (www.smallaxemusic.com), and that extended into graphic design, video production and advertising, so I was happy to still have Small Axe as a point of reference for my creativity. And pooling all of those assets together, I eventually formed my new business, called Sleight of Hand Productions.”

While Dave Burton laid the foundations for his creative and construction empires, Jim Burton and Miller wrote songs for a year, then recruited Thom Hall to fill Small Axe’s drum stool. The Central New York native had played in a Buffalo band called Squid, and had been in New Orleans for several years before answering the Axe’s call. Since relocating to the Capital Region, Hall’s kept himself in drumsticks by working as a Hammond Organ repairman, and serving on the staff of Cancer Conspiracy publishing house Elsmere Press — as does his wife Kelly Murphy, the other full-time resident at the Small Axe house and bassist for Hall’s other band, Kate Mosstika.

Photo by Kirsten Ferguson

Photo by Kirsten Ferguson

Hall made his recording debut with Small Axe on 1998’s A Blow to the Head (which also featured a few classic four-track numbers with Dave Burton on drums, as did 2000’s Speaker Eater), after which the group returned to the concert stage with a vengeance — although not necessarily for the same product-supporting reasons that most bands offer.

“Our live sound is really different from our records,” says Miller. “Maybe someday we’d like to get a good live recording done, but we’d have to have someone else do it for us, since we do all of our studio stuff ourselves, and we’re pretty particular about how our stuff sounds.”

“We’ve already got another ten songs or so that are ready to be played live right now since we recorded the last album — which hasn’t even been released yet,” Jim Burton adds. “So the records just represent a point in time.”

“That’s why we don’t really think about our live shows supporting our records, since they just represent the best stuff we’re doing at that stage in our development,” Miller concludes. “And I think the band is better live than it’s ever been right now. We win people over in hard places. And we’ve been doing that for a while now.”

Which is due, of course, to the band’s prowess, and also to the yeoman efforts of Dave Burton and Adam Lawrence, who work hard to fill the public relations gaps that the band members are loath to attack themselves. But there’s also a national network of devoted Small Axe fans that functions as an unofficial street team in ways that most record label-sanctioned community marketing groups would envy. How many artists, for instance, can lay claim to an army of Silly Pink Bunnies working on their behalf?

“Silly Pink Bunnies is a tag on a renegade group of skateboarders all over the country: San Francisco, Denver, the East Coast,” explains Bunny kingpin and Small Axe uberfan Grier Mirling. “We first got involved with Small Axe at one of their Fourth of July parties at the house: there were fireworks and people jumping fires, keg throwing contests, Jimbo had Roman candles strapped to his bass, shooting them over the crowd, bands from Buffalo and North Carolina and Small Axe playing outside, thirty people sleeping on the lawn in the morning. It was such an intense community scene, so the Bunnies really got on the wagon with that.

Photo by Bryan Thomas

Photo by Bryan Thomas

“Small Axe’s live shows offer such an amazing experience: the ebb and flow and building of what they create is epic, and it provides a good parallel to skating from a standpoint of cutting loose. So now I’m the guy who calls up everyone to come to every one of their shows; at first it was hard work, now I just make one call into the network and everyone’s there,” Mirling continues. “I know that self promotion is not who Small Axe are . . . but it’s who I am, so that’s what I do. And as much as I know they’d like to be big, their focus is just on the music. How many bands do you know who have been around as long as they have who practice all the time? They love to play. They love the music. They’ve done nothing less than captivate any crowd that I’ve seen them play for. I saw them play at this family fun day up in Hague in the Adirondacks, for instance, and there were grandparents and children all over the place, and when it was over, every kid in the place was begging his mom or his dad to buy him a guitar.”

That child-like enthusiasm is infectious, which is why Dave Burton, Lawrence and Mirling aren’t the only devoted enthusiasts willing to work hard on Small Axe’s behalf. There’s poet Eric Smiarowski, too, who pens and performs works about the band, among other topics. There’s NoiseLab sound guru Dave Reynolds, who’s considering a move from New Orleans to Saratoga to facilitate his work with the band. Valentine’s manager and head Coal Palace King Howard Glassman, too, has long been a dedicated supporter — and when an influential A&R type from a major label called this summer to figure out what was what up here music-wise, Glassman pointed him in Small Axe’s direction. The label rep (whose identity Small Axe is loathe to divulge while negotiations continue) liked what he saw and heard, and is working with the band to plan a showcase show in New York City this fall.

So is this the moment? Is this the big break? Are the band’s members finally rushing toward their date with destiny? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean they’ve got to get wound up tight about this, anymore than they ever get wound up tight about anything else.

“I think we all just need to be patient right now,” says Dave Burton (who is serving as primary band spokesperson during the corporate courting session). “It’s like it was with those trapped miners in Pennsylvania a little while ago, when the rescue crew slowed down drilling just 20 feet above the cavern. That confused a lot of people: ‘Why are they slowing down? They have to get them out as soon as possible!’ But there were too many variables involved, and if they rushed at the last minute all of their efforts could have been fatal. Small Axe has been playing their timeless music for a long time now. And I think their patience is a discipline that will be rewarded in the end.”

As the negotiations continue, the band themselves remain . . . well, themselves. “I dunno, maybe we ought to get a manager or something,” Miller muses. “Know anyone who might be interested?”

Interview with Little Jimmy Urine of Mindless Self Indulgence (2002)

Albany’s a logical, reasonable stop for most up-and-coming New York City bands, an easy three-hour schlep up Henry Hudson’s river, a city all a-brim with bored college students, and with a swell truck stop just off the Thruway where you can shower before fleeing home to Gotham. So why are Mindless Self Indulgence just now making their first club stop here on Saturday night at Valentine’s, four years into their collective career as techno-audio-anarcho-terrorists, with two records under their belts, and a national buzz surrounding most of their movements?

Because they’ve been too busy playing arenas in other cities. “People are always wanting us to play headlining shows in their cities,” explains MSI singer-songwriter-programmer James Euringer (Little Jimmy Urine to fans), “But then we keep getting these huge offers to go open for all sorts of people in all sorts of other places, so then the other people get pissed off and complain about why we never come to their hometowns to play clubs. So you can’t win, really, no matter what you do.”

Euringer’s not just spouting hyperbole when he describes the magnitude of those national opening offers. To date, MSI have toured with (among others) Rammstein, Korn, the Insane Clown Posse, Staind, Soulfly, Lords of Acid, Orgy and Cypress Hill–in almost every case at the specific request of the bands headlining the bills. Including, most recently, Serj Tankian of System of a Down, with whom MSI are touring when I wake Euringer up by phone for this interview at the crack of mid-afternoon in Detroit Rock City. (“More like Detroit Abandoned City, actually,” he notes, between yawns).

Claiming little more than boredom as an inspiration, Euringer formed Mindless Self Indulgence in 1998, recruiting guitarist Steve, Righ?, bassist Vanessa Y-T and drummer Kitty to flesh out the cheesy Atari computer driven sounds he heard in his head. “We were too poor to afford Coleco or any of the more expensive video games when we were little,” Euringer explains, “so we were just stuck with the shitty old Ataris that nobody else wanted.”

After Vanessa left the band last year (allegedly to become an astronaut), MSI posted a call for auditions on their website for a replacement bassist. “We did that just so we could see who would be stupid enough to reply, so that we could bring them in and laugh at them,” notes Euringer. “But that got boring, too, after a while, so we got serious and found Lyn-Z, although we hear rumors that she was in another band before us, so she’s still on probation until we confirm or deny that out, and until all her papers clear. Once that’s done, though, she’ll be able to pack heat with all the rest of us.”

MSI’s cover of the Method Man classic “Bring the Pain” and their self-released debut EP Tight (now out of print, and trading for big cash through the Internet) spawned a bidding war for their services among half-a-dozen major record labels, with Elektra emerging as the winning bidder on MSI’s skittery rhythms, warbling vocals, on-stage histrionics and controversial-bordering-on-evil lyrical concerns.

Elektra issued the 30-song Frankenstein Girls Will Seem Strangely Sexy (featuring a cover by Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewitt, who, it could be argued, then took a good number of MSI moves on to his next project, the chart-busting, critic-pleasing Gorillaz) in 2000, at which point Euringer and company immediately moved to dissolve their partnership with the label, just because they could. The group is now entertaining offers from boutique labels helmed by the likes of Korn, Slipknot and Marilyn Manson–although they don’t discount the possibility that they may release their next album on their own, with the loot that they extracted from Elektra.

Assisting Urine and Company LLC with these negotiations is one-time QE2 fixture and Albany underground mainstay James Galus, who has promoted Mindless Self Indulgence from (close to) their beginnings. And Galus isn’t the only Albany connection for the band: former Northern Lights booking agent Michele Toch is road managing the group for the System of a Down tour, and the traveling roadshow accompanying MSI to Valentine’s includes the O (featuring native Albanian and Wikkid Crew member Greg Poole) and Chaos Twin (with onetime Stigmata and Clay People member Dan Walsh on bass and former 81 Tranzam drummer Todd Clemmer behind the kit).

“Managing a brilliant underdog like MSI is a fuckin’ privilege,” Galus enthuses. “There is a reason why Marilyn Manson, Jonathan Davis and Slipknot all want to sign MSI to their labels, and that’s because Mindless Self Indulgence is the future of electronic punk. Some people won’t understand what they do for years and others never will get it. But the people who can open their minds not just to what’s cool today, but to that which doesn’t even give a shit about being cool in the first place will get it right away. It’s the freedom to be inventive without worrying about whether you’re part of the cookie cutter, macho crap that’s spoon-fed to kids these days.”

So how does Euringer himself explain his band’s allure, or describe the sounds they make? “Y’know, if I knew of any words to describe all this, then I wouldn’t be in a band in the first place,” he says. “I’d just sit there and be, like, ‘Whoa, that’s wrong.’ So if you’ve got to have a word to describe what we do, then I guess ‘wrong’ is probably as good a word as you’re gonna be able to come up with.”

Interview with Ill Remembered (1999)

Here’s a moral from the Ill Remembered storybook: Good songs will get put to good use in good time.

“I had these old songs laying around, things that I’d written back in ’95 or so, songs that I was planning to record myself, playing the drums and everything” recalls guitarist Mike Maney as we sit around a table covered with magnificent appetizers at Troy’s Ale House. “But, y’know, I was working 10 to 12 hours a day doing tattoos then and I moved to New York City while the singer I was gonna work with moved to California, so I just had to put that project-and music in general, actually-aside for a little while. But I still knew that I wanted to come back to those songs at some point.”

And he has: the best material from that aborted endeavor has now been dusted off, outfitted with new lyrics and set as the anchor on Ill Remembered’s debut album, Hero Park, which will be publicly unveiled during a CD release party at Valentine’s on July 10, 1999. What can listeners expect? Well, given that Maney, bassist Jason Sunkes and drummer Pete Vumbaco are all veterans of indestructible ultra-metallists Stigmata, while singer Jann Kasey Dorr earned his stripes with late Section 8 and the recently-retired Disciples of Berkowitz, an expectation of violently aggressive, sludge-metallic scream-core might be reasonable. But it would also be wrong.

“We’ve done metal and we’ve done hardcore and all of that,” explains Sunkes. “So we wanted to do something that was more along the lines of what we’re listening to these days, something more on the rock-but still the hard rock-side. That was the plan: keeping the screaming vocals to a minimum, no ‘life in the street’ lyrics, creating something that owed as much to Led Zeppelin as it did to Slayer.”

The first seeds of that plan were laid after Maney returned to the Capital Region to cut a four-track demo of his songs with Sunkes, with whom he had already shared guitar duties in Stigmata for almost five years. After completing the demo (with Sunkes handling bass and Maney providing guitar and drums), the pair serendipitously overheard an old Stigmata single featuring Vumbaco’s impressive percussive skills-which had, since his Stigmata days, helped him to emerge as one of our area’s most in-demand, versatile session and show drummers. Maney and Sunkes believed that their former comrade could provide the groove that their new material needed-and Vumbaco agreed, leaving only the nascent band’s vocal slot unfilled.

“We knew that we wanted a singer, not a screamer, for the project-but getting Kasey into the band wasn’t really planned, it just sort of happened,” recalls Sunkes. “So last September or so, just a few days after Section 8 called it quits, Kasey approached me and asked what was going on and I mentioned that I had this thing with Mike and Pete. So we just kinda left it there that night, but then he called me later to see if it was going to happen or not-and we sent him the tape and invited him to come in to practice with us. And Kasey’s such a professional: he showed up with lyrics already written for most of the songs, amazed us when he sang ’em at the rehearsal and that was pretty much it. We knew he was the singer.”

“I gotta admit that I was skeptical about what I could do with this material when I got the tape,” notes Dorr. “I mean, here I was coming out of the whole sludge thing with a deathcore band and this was just something completely different. But my life’s different now, too, than when I was first writing for Section 8, so I saw this as an opportunity to go about what I do from a different angle. I went back to my older influences, bands like the Misfits and Minor Threat, who you couldn’t call positive, really-there’s a lot of contempt in there-but the music and the lyrics aren’t as dark as other stuff I’ve done. It’s still heavy as hell, but instead of just wallowing in the fact that we live in a negative world, it’s trying to say ‘Well, let’s do something about it.'”

Ill Remembered made their live debut at Valentine’s in January with the harder than hard Crisis and the faster than fast Sam Black Church on the bill. “I was just really grateful that people gave us a chance to make it work, since we came out playing something that was so off the beaten track and so different from what people were expecting based on our prior experiences,” says Dorr. “And the overall feeling from the frontline to the back of the room was so great: people were listening and putting their hands together for the songs-not for who we used to play with or what they think we should sound like now. That’s very rewarding. ”

After issuing a potent cassette single (“1000 Points of Darkness”/”Pray”), the quartet moved into the studio to craft their first full-length creative statement. “We went into do the record at [Albany’s] Max Trax [Studio] and we were like ‘No one’s gonna tell us what we can and can’t do’ since we’d all had bad experiences in the studio before,” says Sunkes. “So we had a list of stuff we wanted to accomplish and we were adamant about how we wanted the mix to sound-and I can’t say enough about how well our engineers, Paul Benedetti and Brett Portzer, worked to make it come out the way we wanted. We had an idea, we’d explain it them, they’d make it happen. And you can hear that in the final product, I think.”

After their record release party, Ill Remembered may be laying low for a couple of months out of respect for Vumbaco’s heavy summer performance schedule-but the group’s members are confident that Hero Park will sustain the formidable momentum they’ve accumulated to date. “I hope people will put the CD in and say ‘Damn! This is different,” concludes Dorr. “Mike’s songs are so strong and you can hear so many influences and so many styles-but you can also hear us making fun of ourselves and playing with the expectations that people have. I want people to be able to hear the songs over and over again without getting sick of them. I want people to feel the way I do: that this band is actually worth leaving my house for.”

Interview with Dave Boquist of Son Volt (1999)

Dave Boquist is a man who understands job satisfaction.

“Music is the only thing that I’ve found where I really get on with the people who I’m working with,” says the Son Volt guitarist. “And it’s not that I’m antisocial or anything, but it’s just that I’ve had a dozen jobs since I finished school and this is the only one that really works for me. Good thing, huh?”

Yup. And good thing, too, that Boquist’s professional choices have worked for quite a few other people as well. He and his band mates — singer-songwriter Jay Farrar, bassist (and brother) Jim Boquist and drummer Mike Heidorn — recently released their third long player, Wide Swing Tremolo, to hearty critical acclaim and are supporting the traditional/roots-flavored rock & roll record by touring with like-minded superstar John Mellencamp.

The high profile opening gigs afforded by the Mellencamp tour mark a significant change of modus operandi for Son Volt, who have been headlining their own shows almost since their inception in the mid-’90s. The quartet earned that early luxury as one of the two successor bands germinated in the death-throws of Uncle Tupelo, who had already almost single-handedly spawned the return-to-basics musical movement that now bears the name of their 1990 album, No Depression.

When principal singer-songwriter Jay Farrar abruptly scuttled Uncle Tupelo in 1994, fellow frontliner Jeff Tweedy (largely perceived at the time as George to Farrar’s John-and-Paul) reorganized Tupelo’s remnants as Wilco, who pleasantly surprised most listeners (and critics) with their unassuming 1995 debut album, A.M. And Farrar? He just went home to Illinois — and made some new calls on some old colleagues.

“My brother Jim was touring with Joe Henry, opening for Uncle Tupelo in the last days of that band,” Boquist recollects. “And I had played with the Jayhawks ten years or so ago when they were a young band and so we knew a lot of the same people. So after Jay left Uncle Tupelo, he and Mike Heidorn — who had been Uncle Tupelo’s drummer for a while and was from the same town as Jay — called Jim and I, and we traded some tapes and agreed to get together to see what happened. And I know it was a bit of a risk for Jay because of all the expectations that people had after Uncle Tupelo, but we all got together and really became a band during those first sessions.”

Unfortunately, Son Volt also immediately became (or at least were perceived as) a band with a rival — as the quartet’s Trace quickly followed Wilco’s A.M. into the racks, making for a convenient comparative criticism exercise for more music writers than Boquist cares to recall. “That stuff got real old, quick,” he explains. “But fortunately we don’t hear so much about the Wilco vs. Son Volt competition thing any more. And I think it’s because both bands are old enough now that if there are comparisons being made then they’re being made by people who are just hanging onto things that they can’t let go of for some reason. So we haven’t heard it much here lately, although we did get a lot of that last year when we were in Europe. I guess people were still lagging behind there since we haven’t been there as often as we have been here.”

In addition to reminding them of roots that they’d just as soon have kept buried, Son Volt’s European jag also had an unforeseen impact on the nascent project that would ultimately grow into Wide Swing Tremolo. “Jay was listening to a lot of ’60s garage rock during that tour,” Boquist recalls. “Or we all were, actually, ’cause we were touring around in Europe with the Nuggets box set on the stereo. And I’ve since heard Jay say that music influenced him as he was starting to write for the new record, which may account for the different feel to his songs.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to identify that influence, as Wide Swing Tremolo opens with the fuzz-tone rocker “Straightface”, a hard-edged number that wouldn’t have sounded out of place between the other slabs of psychedelic proto-punk that define the Nuggets canon. And that harder, furrier sound isn’t the only change defining Wide Swing Tremolo, which also carries a far more palpable sense of immediacy and intimacy than Son Volt’s first two records.

“We had all of our own equipment with us for this record,” Boquist explains. “So that had something to do with the different feel of the record. We were able to play what we owned, which we’d never done before. We also recorded the album in our rehearsal space in Illinois, which was a more relaxed setting, of course. Jay and Mike able to go home at end of day . . . and Jim and I could go back to our hotel rooms, since we actually live in Minnesota.

“But that was okay. It was still relaxing and we could actually take the time to do things like, say, tune the drums. We could spend half a day doing just that to get it right for a song if we felt like it,” Boquist continues. “And we worked up from scratch in the recording process, doing things in a low tech way with no computerized gear. It was a slower process, much more deliberate — but we able to experiment a little bit more, do songs in different ways instead of settling for just one. It was very comfortable, very natural.”

Ironically, this back-to-basics creative approach actually produced the least “country-sounding” record in the entire Uncle Tupelo-Son Volt continuum, a fact which that didn’t necessarily endear Wide Swing Tremolo to the group’s long-time followers.

“I’ve got a friend who I’ve known since high school — and he wasn’t thrilled about this record when he first heard it,” says Boquist. “He’s real honest with me that way, y’know, although now he says that he’s listening to the record a lot more since he’s seen us do the material live. So I think our shows will bring things out in the songs that you might not hear just listening to the record. Maybe the songs will rock a little harder. Maybe people will hear the songs differently when they don’t have the fiddle and lap steel and other things, since we’re trying to stick with just the basic guitar line-up on this tour.”

So does Boquist worry about Son Volt losing their “No Depression” clout as they set aside their country instrumental flavorings?

“Y’know, I don’t think anyone in the band pays much attention to what category we’re in at any moment,” Boquist concludes. “We’ve all been happy playing lots of different kinds of music all along without thinking about where we are or whether we’re part of a movement or not. I mean, we’re a rock band, for Christ’s sake. Why not just leave it at that?”

Interview with Iris DeMent (1999)

Early morning, Corvallis, Oregon; Iris DeMent hunkers down at an economy motel after an unexpected scheduling change in her West Coast tour itinerary. The press interrupts her lazy morning with a call from the East Coast, which could conceivably annoy the road-weary singer-songwriter, were that her style–but she’s in a good mood, instead, happy that her motel has windows that open.

“Opening windows is the first thing I do when I can,” she explains over the prominent sound of a weed-eater being operated by an up-and-at-’em motel employee. “I can’t stand feeling cooped up in rooms where they don’t let you open the windows to get some fresh air in.”

DeMent’s songs are sorta like that too: they tell you something personal about her while evoking fresh air, long horizons and big spaces, where regular folks do regular things on a regular basis. Which fits, since DeMent has spent most of her life that way, growing up the youngest of fourteen kids in a religious, blue-collar household, marrying a fire-fighter who turned in his boots to manage his bride’s career, working in the down-home spaces between the folk and country communities. Of course, growing up as a regular girl, DeMent never imagined that she’d be in a place where folks would have any reason to call her up from the Coast while she watched the weed whacker.

“Music for me growing up was always in the context of the church,” she recalls. “So whatever dreams I had about music were wrapped up in that-and I never really thought of clubs or radio or anything else. Everybody around me sang: my family was the musical family of the church, so my sister would direct the choir and some of my brothers and sisters wrote special songs and then performed them. And I grew up admiring so many people who could put words together that I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything as good or meaningful.”

Until desperation set in.

“I got really tired of doing things that I didn’t love and I realized that I was putting a lot of effort into things that didn’t matter to me,” DeMent continues. “I went to school, worked hard and got good grades for one semester, but that was not where my heart was. So I started thinking that if I put that energy into something I cared about, like music, then I could probably do well and have a little bit of happiness. And it all just opened up for me when I started thinking that way.”

But not immediately: it took three years worth of Open Mikes before a Rounder Records representative spotted and signed DeMent, whose ear-opening 1992 Rounder debut, Infamous Angel, then won her a contract with Warner Bros. Her two major label releases, My Life (1994) and The Way I Should (1996), built on her reputation as one of the most important singers and songwriters to straddle the country-folk divide in this decade–and added to the anticipation for (and pressure associated with) her elusive next album.

“I’m not really trying to take my time with the next record,” DeMent concludes. “But that’s just how it is: I’m still looking for songs that say what I feel they need to say, songs that lift me up and say something to other people too. I’m trying to take a picture of my life experience and share it with other people . . . I feel a need to do that, although I don’t know why. Or, well, I guess I do: I just want to write songs and sing ’em for people ’cause that’s what makes me happy.

Interview with Laurie Anderson (1998)

Laurie Anderson is tired of having her work boxed in. Literally.

“I’m working on a really big visual piece based on Moby Dick that will be opening in the spring,” notes the multimedia performer during a recent phone interview. “And one of the things that I’m taking into account in this piece is the fact that I am just so sick of looking at screens and rectangles all the time. Mostly rectangles, actually. So nothing in the new Moby Dick thing is rectangular at all, even though the kind of work that I’ve done in the past has tended to be within a kind of rectangular, screen-oriented medium–which ultimately made me start thinking about how that on-screen world links into our 3-D world. I keep feeling like people are just looking at screens and web sites all the time, but do they ever do anything? Or go out and say anything to anyone? I’m no so sure anymore.”

People’s relationships with their machines (and each other) have long served as fodder for Anderson’s genre-defying performances, installations, recordings and films. After graduating from Columbia University with a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1972, Anderson began collaborating with a loose group of pioneering New York artists and musicians, including Philip Glass, Keith Sonnier, Gordon Matta-Clark and Tina Girouard. Assisted by series of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts, Anderson spent most of the ’70s developing an increasingly challenging series of projects that blurred the distinctions between visual and musical arts, while also incorporating both her ever-growing technological expertise and her increasingly pointed social commentary. Anderson’s work began to cross over into the general public’s general consciousness in the early ’80s when she scored a surprise pop hit with “O Superman” while also taking her epic multi-media piece “United States” across its subject-named nation to rave reviews from critics and large, effusive audiences alike. While most of the American mass media attention paid to Anderson over the past few years has been focussed less on her work than on her personal relationship with rock & roll legend Lou Reed, she has continued to explore the hazy borders of art, music, communication, politics, love, longing and life.

Anderson will be bringing one of her latest multi-media observations, “The Speed of Darkness,” to the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Tuesday with a “meet the artist” session to be held at the Opus CafĂ© in Troy after her performance at the Bank. Be forewarned: you’d better not come expecting a technological love in. “‘The Speed of Darkness’ is a collection of stories and songs about technology . . . and it’s kind of a way for me to deal with my grudges about the whole thing,” Anderson explains. “The relentless optimism of technology these days just sort of obsesses me. Well, technology isn’t really optimistic, actually, but it’s the people who talk about it as though the digital age is just the most exciting thing and that everybody really needs to get up to speed or they’ll be lost. That’s just so tyrannical.

“And I also have a grudge with this whole new concept of form vs. content that [Internet worldwide] web technology seems to have inspired,” Anderson continues. “I mean, if you ask any artist in any medium about this, they’ll tell you that they don’t split up form and content, the whole point of making things is to make sure that you can’t easily pull them apart, that you can’t separate what you’re saying and how you’re saying it, that you can’t isolate your so-called message from the color blue. But the thing is that everything is so ugly on the web, all the images and the sound being compressed beyond belief, it sounds awful, it looks awful and so someone thought ‘Well, what this needs is content.’ So they try to pour something into something that’s really ugly and try to make it mean something. And the result is just incredibly non-sensuous and still ugly.”

Does Anderson see any irony in presenting this vaguely anti-technological work in Troy as part of RPI’s Electronic Arts Performance Series, which is designed expressly to present pioneering and emerging artists who explore the boundaries of electronic art? “I think it’s important in an academic or university setting or series like this to be as antagonistic as possible,” Anderson answers without pause. “I think it’s important to ask ‘Well, why do you have this kind of department? Why do you have this kind of series? What’s so great about it?’ And I consider it one of my jobs as an artist to do that, to ask those questions. I mean, yeah, I could make some nice electronic art with lots of cool systems, that would be fun . . . and I do that, actually . . . but I also like going ‘But why and for what?'”

One of Anderson’s most recent works, “Life,” attempted to define a space where that “nice electronic art with lots of cool systems” actually made viewers ask the “why and for what?” questions themselves. “‘Life’ involved so much technology, it was insane!” Anderson notes, laughing. “I had gone to Austria to do a piece, to this little perfect little town with churches and everything all nice and organized . . . but in the middle of the town was a maximum security prison! So I went up to the bell tower of this old church where I was supposed to be working and I was searching for an idea of something to do and I saw this guard tower that was so close to the bell tower. So I went downstairs and I said to the presenters ‘Okay, here’s what I want to do: have a camera in the prison and three times a day have it look at a seated prisoner live and then it will send a signal up to the guard tower then over to the bell tower down into the church and maps that live signal onto a full-size plaster cast of that prisoner, so it’s like a living statue.'”

“And keep in mind that I always think it’s important to be as outrageous as possible because it’s probably not gonna happen anyway, but they went ‘Great!’ So I was like ‘Oh, okay.’ And I went on to tell them that I was interested in how telecommunications is changing the world and how it changes our idea of what’s live and what isn’t and the attitudes of the church and the prison to the body, one being incarceration and one being incarnation, the being there and not being there thing. And again they said ‘Sure!’ And again I said, ‘Okay one more time: I’m gonna take this criminal and I’m gonna put him here in your church’ and they just went ‘Great!'”

As it turned out, Anderson was unable to produce ‘Life’ in Austria because that nation forbids its prisoners from being viewed by the public in any fashion. Anderson also attempted to develop the piece with New York City’s Whitney Museum and the infamous Sing Sing prison (“In New York, it became political in a different way: it was less about a church and a prison but more about guarded cultural institutions, guarded art museums, guarded prisons and what we care about here”) but ultimately ended up completing the project in Italy.

“It was a huge effort,” she continues. “Because we had to lay all these high-speed lines, dug up Milan, in the streets, everything. And when we finished the project it was just unbelievable. As you walked into this room with about 3000 square feet, dark, filled with gravel, really crunchy gravel and in the corner there’s this person sitting . . . but it’s actually a live feed of this person in prison mapped onto this statue. It was incredible!

“So my point here is to say that I don’t mind working with technological stuff when it’s useful. I just try not to use it so people are going ‘Oh gee, doesn’t that technology look great!’ I don’t worship the stuff, I just use it. And I make it work for me . . . because it’s stupid, actually. So when I’m talking about dangers of technology I’m not talking about the technology itself, ’cause that’s no more dangerous than a pencil. What’s dangerous is people worshipping it. I mean, people are tiptoeing around their computers like God is in there.

“But y’know, in a really funny way, God is in there . . . and you are in there too. And I’m in there–and somehow I’m indestructible because if I crash there are still remnants of me left, floating around there in a box. I find that kind of scary and amazing all at the same time.”