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I spent Monday and Tuesday working in my studio on two new songs by Sweet Gum Tree, a one man band lead by Arno Sojo, a Frenchman living near Angers. His last album is an orchestral masterpiece, recorded in part with a Belorussian symphony orchestra. Good grief! How to top that…?? Well, you can’t, but you can take a different tack. We went for songs that were based on his guitar playing, and went for some fanciful, modulating, complex guitar tones. We added various keyboards, and some drum programming (more to come). He sang his vocals and some backing vocals (I’ll add more). We worked hard, and felt we had the basis for two great songs, provided I filled in a few details before mixing, which will happen this week.
As you may have read last week, my travel to meet up with Arno meant that I had to leave my hotel in Holland at about 5am, which meant getting up at 4.30. I’d only gotten to bed at 1, since the Posies show was long and late. The short sleep, even with a couple extra hours on the train, was not enough, and my body paid the price. Plus, it was cold and damp, even torrential-ly wet, in Tours. Laundry I did when I arrived was still wet Tuesday afternoon when the sun came out long enough to dry a couple of things on the rail to balcony. It was so windy, tho, that I had to bungee the lighter sheet to the rail. I had just enough clean stuff to make Arno’s bedding. But the lack of sleep (Monday night I was up late finishing last week’s blog) and the surprising coldness of the house — stormy and blustery as Tours was, it was warm– took its toll. The burning in my throat could not be beaten back, even with all the delicious juices–infused with ginger and garlic–that I was making.
I felt OK, Wednesday morning, a sunny day at that, when Arno drove me to the station, but my throat could not be made to feel moisturized, it was dry and raw. I could sing, but I knew I’d be fighting this all week and the odds of beating it on tour were slim. I snoozed on the way up to Paris in the train, crossed Paris in a taxi, and got to Gare de Nord surprisingly quick. I had a meeting there with a band, believe it or not, my second meeting with a band interested in an album project; my third meeting with their manager. We met up at one of the coffee places in the station, and their manager Philippe was even kind enough to help me haul all my stuff to the train — I had my suitcase, which was full to bursting with a box of vinyl Holly had shipped to my house, I’d already broken a handle getting it in to Arno’s car; I had my effects bag with my pedal board; and a guitar. And my backpack, let’s not forget.
I boarded the train to Brussels, and tried to rest as much as possible. Jon was on this train, and we made our way to the platform for our Hasselt train, and Holly joined us there. This was one of those trains which splits in two, and unf. the cars are not marked individually, there was no signage on the train etc, this was one of those SNCB trains that comes straight out of Mary Tyler Moore colors. Well, we were on the right train, we just had to ask some folks. I passed the enormous crate of albums to Holly, she re packed her stuff on the train, and gave us chocolate in return — good deal! We got to Hasselt about an hour later, and hopped off the train. No chance for the handicapped at this station– godawful stairs down and up. Wow.
We loaded ourselves into a cab, who took us first to the wrong hotel, then the right one, grabbed the keys to our rooms, then proceeded to the venue, the Muziek-O-Droom. Some great shows here in the past: Posies acoustic in 2000, Disciplines in 2009, my solo show with Eva Auad in 2012. They’ve always taken good care of the artists, and the audience is adventurous and cool. We hoped for a more progressive reception than some of the folks in Holland gave us. Now that I had my effect pedals, I could set up more consistently each night. We felt OK onstage, we kept the soundcheck short as there were three artists playing tonite…more on that later.
We cabbed to the same restaurant where Eva & I dined before my show, I think the conversation we had that evening is where our acquaintanceship became less formal, and we became friends, and this laid the groundwork for me producing her album the following year. An album which just came out, and is incredible, by the way, and you should purchase immediately (here). An important night! Tonite, Jon, Holly & myself took an outdoor table, a bit risky with the blustery weather (it had hailed on the roof just an hour before) but it proved to be enjoyable.
Back at the venue, it was practically showtime, and Holly was on first. She did a short set to start the evening. Then, we had Andy Shauf. Holly turned me on to his music, Andy’s album, “The Bearer of Bad News” is a bedroom masterpiece; he plays, evidently, every note of music on it. Drums, pianos, woodwinds, strings…it’s downbeat troubadour music, if Beirut was less klezmer, perhaps, and slow core. Wonderful album. He came with a band, he plays electric guitar, he has a bass player — they both play 60s Japanese instruments and get mind blowing tones from them. The keyboard player plays a Rhodes and a little Casio on top of that, and, occasionally, plays some guitar. And then there’s a drummer. When their stuff came up the elevator, all that gear plus boxes of vinyl, I remarked it looked like Metallica was about to build their set. Musically, this is anti-Metallica of course. The live set is really wonderful, exquisitely played.
OK, our turn…the place was packed, it had been a long time since a club I played was so packed that I was sweating just by being there. We played an excellent set; the sound onstage was a bit muddy and thick which is consistent with such a low ceiling’ed room. People responded to the set, tho, it should be noted we got no encore– i think after two hours of playing everyone was ready, on a Wednesday no less, to get the hell out of that sweaty room. We pulled out all the stops in the set, too– we had Andy’s bassist Josh and drummer Ian play a very plunky, Broken Social Scene meets Zumpano version of “Flavor of the Month”, and we had Holly sing “Licenses to Hide”. Like, what other surprises were in store?? None!
At the merch table, I had to endure the usual lecture from the odd person who didn’t like our new direction. They have a problem with the fact we have no drummer — which of course, never happens when we play just an acoustic duo show. One guy, who bought no less than three CDs from the merch table, said he’d seen Thurston Moore play the same way, with a drum machine. He claimed that if we kept playing this way, we’d be playing to 5 people in a few years. I can see, with my own eyes, that the opposite is true — if we keep playing to the nostalgia of our mid 90s success, with the conventional rock band, we will play to ever smaller audiences; we’ll never expand without changing the sound. Again…see also: Bob Dylan. He disgusted much of his hardcore audience when he went electric and ‘sold out’ to modern sounds. 25 million records later, I think we all agree, his choice was sound (pun INTENDED). We will def lose some folks if we continue to explore this modern, electronic path. Even if we add a drummer, which I think would be fun anyway. But we’ll never gain a single new fan playing our 90s catalogue in a 90s fashion. Even Blood/Candy, which I think is a “classic” Posies album, which we worked very hard on, and I think should have absolutely touched our traditional base — nice mix of guitars and psychedelia, clever word play, etc…only saw our sales and live base shrink. We cannot, must not, play to the base. We need to expand the base. And anyway, this is not just about marketing strategy. I am an artist, first and foremost. I only look forward, and as an artist, it’s part of the process to kill your darlings. You need to shed skin to grow.
It’s not all bad news after these shows, but what we’re doing is different than before, some people have a problem with it, they are looking for what they know, and we’re not giving it to them (despite playing all our best known songs) the way they expect it. A painter explores. A filmmaker explores. Some (Woody Allen) make variations on a theme, more or less. Some (Kubrick) appear in different guises from film to film. I like artists who offer me surprises, stylistic twists. Pynchon appears in different voices from book to book. A true master of their craft can be fluent in several styles, and that is my aspiration.
The next morning, my cold was at its worst. Ugh. The less I spoke the better. I slept in rather than having breakfast, and took lunch with Holly somewhere in the cute center of Hasselt. Asparagus, in season. Our friend Willeke, whom we’ve known for years, wanted to come to tonite’s show, and the route from her home to Opwijk has Hasselt in the middle of it. She offered us a ride. Having four children, she has a big enough rig to take the three of us and our gear. At 1.30 that afternoon, she rolled up to the hotel, we loaded up and hit the road. After leaving the ring road around Brussels, we were on rural roads between villages. At one such village, we could see ahead two of the shiniest, slickest, blackest Audi sedans you’ve ever seen. Each with a little blue light on top. As we approached, we had to turn on the corner they were hanging out at, and a very well-tailored man emerged from a shop on the corner…Willeke exclaimed: “it’s the king!” And indeed it was. As we watched, he got into one of the cars, the blue lights started flashing, and the two sedans, with a police motorcycle behind, took off towards Brussels. What he was doing in that tiny village, we can only imagine. Maybe he likes to go to tiny villages to actually enjoy the freedom to enter a shop (and give the shopkeeper a heart attack) without being mobbed.
we rolled on thru a few more villages, and the GPS led us to an indistinct spot in a hamlet of small farms. There was an auto garage, and we asked them the location of the B&B we were staying in–in fact, there was the van owned by the B&B, up on the rack, missing a wheel. We were about 50 yards from the place, the GPS just not privy to the intimacy of this very rural spot. We pulled up to the place, De Kleine Deugd, and were greeted by Wendy, the owner. She runs quite a place, in her 120 year old house. She raises horses (incl a very handsome show horse called Chocolate Genius) and on the weekends runs a pub in a kind of semi-outdoor construction, clear plastic material in place of walls. Like a wedding tent, with booze. People ride trails in the area, and tie up their horses and have beers. They even have live music when the weather’s nice. They used to have the pub inside the house but it outgrew their dedicated room, now some 400 people pack the place every weekend afternoon. And, they run a B&B, it’s the upstairs of the front of the house, three little rooms with a common dining area. Perfect! She gave us a key and we headed for Opwijk central. In the center of this small town is a lovely venue, the Nijdrop (a contraction of the the first two letters of three villages in the area. It’s been a youth center since the 60s; the current location is a couple years old, they had a smaller facility in the past. Nice big stage. We set up sound checked, and I went to sleep on the dressing room couch. Woke up to eat a lovely meal, and went back to sleep til just before show time. Put in my contacts, brushed my teeth, I could hear Holly entertaining the crowd. An amazing crowd for this show, the place was packed. Sadly, as much as took my zinc pills and drank the ginger/honey/lemon brews Holly kindly made for me, my voice was really ragged. I announced as such before the show, along with the usual caveats — we’re trying out our new songs, we’re using the laptop to augment the usual acoustic duo show, etc. The first song, Throwaway, was tough. I’d taken one of my emergency meds, a Rhinadvil, a very potent over-the-counter cold med only available in France. It kicked in about a third of the way in to the show, and my voice opened up. Thank god! The new songs are easy to sing, written for a 46-year-old’s range; some of our older material is quite challenging to sing but soon I was cruising. I felt tired and I was sweating, but I tried to make things as natural as possible. We do a few songs as a duo, introduce the laptop and the new material for a few songs, resume playing as a duo for a bit, return to the laptop for more new songs and some catalogue material. We got a nice encore; in general the crowd was very mellow during the show and shyly demonstrative, but at the end, they showed us a great amount of appreciation. I know we did “Licenses” with Holly. I know there’s epic versions of “Burn & Shine” and “Coming Right Along” towards the end. It’s a blur! But a good one. Yes, a few people pointed out how we were supposed to have a drummer, blah blah. I politely agreed. Anyway, next time we’ll probably have one. Do I have to point out the artists who appear with different groups each tour — Beck tours solo, with his traditional band, with the Flaming Lips; Neil Young tours solo, with Crazy Horse, with the Stray Gators, etc… guys, we’re just like any other artist. We try different things, over the…30 years of being a band, it’s not going to be the same flavor year after year. We’re not Denny’s. We’re artists.
We had wonderful sleep at the B&B, and I woke up feeling not as sick as the morning before. We had wonderful pastries. In Opwijk there are vending machines around the rural areas and in town that sell staples — bread, dairy products, potatoes…incredible! Jon said they have the same where he lives in the outskirts of Paris. I’ve never seen it before. What a great idea!
We stuffed ourselves and our gear into Wendy’s loaner Volvo, and she drove us to the tiny Opwijk station. May 8 is VE day in most of Europe. Opwijk felt like a Sunday, maybe it always does. Brussels too. It’s a long weekend, so Paris was empty. Indeed, traveling thru Belgium’s fields, I have to say that my stepdad, Dewey, who turned 90 last month, passed thru here 70 years ago. He doesn’t discuss his wartime activities much, it’s a pity, as the stories will go with him. A humble infantry support truck driver, we’re proud of our Greatest Generation hero.
We had a very modern, nearly empty train to Brussels. We’d planned on taking a later one, but found ourselves at the station with earlier options, so we took the first one, tho it came with a different destination marked on its signage. Seemed to include Brussels in its list of stops, but on the board at the station it should have been a Brussels-only bound train. Once on board, it was only showing the next few stops, but a passenger confirmed it was Brussels bound, and soon, the signage did too. At Brussels Midi station, being a gold card holder for the Thalys, I had the right to use the lounge with a guest (Holly) and Jon, being a silver card holder, had the right to use the lounge too. We took advantage of the clean-sh bathrooms and free wifi and soon it was time for me to get on my train home. I had the perfect work for a travel day: I had to run off stems for the Phantom Sound album, so Marisa can potentially do shows with a laptop like we’re doing w the Posies, bandmates being hard to pin down at times. For this I don’t need to be in my studio, and I don’t need to record new stuff, it’s more like overseeing the baking of a cake. Once it’s in the oven, it just…bakes. You take it out when its done. Simple as that. Believe it or not, this is not that different. I just had to organize, prepare, and let ’em run. 5 stems per song, for 12 songs, except one song has a tempo change so the stems are in two parts. I could do this on the train, and at the flat at home. I checked to make sure they were all working, and also, the big job, load them all in to a session to look at the levels from part to part, song to song — the mixes might have louder or softer drums, bass etc, but for live, they should be as similar in level as possible. By about 11 that night I was leveling and re-exporting the stems with new levels. In the meantime, Dom & I could take lunch together, and dinner together, for a rare night out in Paris. On Saturday, I slept in til about 9, and felt much better, my cold was heading away. The stems resulted in over 1.5Gb of material, so that was a 5-hour upload, with our ridiculously slow ADSL internet. So, nothing to do but get out in the sunshine. We went to look at my flat, formerly my studio, which we’re renovating. We went to our favorite bio grocery and had lunch at their restaurant. I ran a few errands in the neighborhood, ran into some familiar neighbors. Also, after 12 years in the flat, we’ve acquired a ton of stuff, but being in Tours most of the time we don’t have the time to deal with it. Old clothes of Aden’s, toys she doesn’t play with, DVDs, kitchen stuff we don’t use…we are in the Ebay equivalent of D-Day. I carried stuff out to the charity shop. We even took our traditional TV down to the street; technically, the city will recycle it, but it will be snatched up way before they come along. We prepared shitloads of toys and other items for the ‘vide grenier’ that’s coming up at the end of the month, a neighborhood-wide garage sale, you set up your table at length of sidewalk you rent from the city, and sell what you can. Aden’s very intrigued by the business of selling toys to get newer toys, clothes, etc.
The upload done, I could start my work for the day, I’m starting to mix Mimi Schell‘s album. I needed to work on a song that needed no additional recording, so I worked on a song that was ‘RTM’. I got the mix close enough that it will be easy to finalize today. We ate at home, and by 9pm I was done with the mix for now. We could hang out as a family, even tho Dom & Aden were still organizing and sorting stuff in her room, I parked on the couch with a glass of wine. Went to bed early. This morning we had breakfast on a terrace, packed up tons of stuff, and hauled ourselves to the train station for our train back to Tours. School starts again tomoro, Aden’s been on spring break for two weeks. In the morning I had time to listen to a couple of good records — Klifton Filente’s “Common Ground” and D. R. Hooker’s 70s Jesus Freak rock album “The Truth”. I feel much better and am looking forward to mixing Mimi’s & Arno’s music this week, and performing the Posies’ new material in Brighton on Friday…
train to St. Pierre des Corps