Sep 182008

In their respective solo careers, Stiff Records original Wreckless Eric and singer-songwriter Amy Rigby have mined similar, down-to-earth, ’60s-influenced pop material that’s both open hearted and appropriately self deprecating. A few years ago they met, jammed together, and fell in love. Today they’re married, living in France, on tour together (click here for tour dates), and set for the September 15 release of a joint album, Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby.

A few of us had the fortune of meeting Amy in 2002, as she not only contributed an awesome cover of Jane Aire & the Belvederes‘ “Yankee Wheels” to a Stiff Records tribute album we curated (The Stiff Generation), but introduced us to some other contributors and flew to Hoboken, NJ to play a few Stiff-related songs at the record’s release party. She was as cool and approachable as her music, and she had the foresight and good sense to wear a dress that matched the polyester shirt of our bassist, Townsman Chickenfrank. It’s only fitting that we, once more, turn back to Amy for yet another Stiff-related introduction. The following chat with Amy and Eric was conducted separately, with one of them in an isolation booth, wearing huge headphones and seen only on a video monitor. This is the first time their responses will appear in one place. Enjoy!

NOT Two Virgins…

Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby, “Here Comes My Ship”

RTH: This Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby album and tour is some way to celebrate a marriage! You were married earlier this year, right? How long have you been together? Did the two of you actually meet, as I’ve read, during one of Amy’s concerts, as she covered “Whole Wide World”?

ERIC: We met in Hull, in a pub I used to play in when I was an art student back in the early ’70s. It was actually the first place that I ever played “Whole Wide World” in public. Amy sang it and the promoter shoved me on stage to help out. The song went round the world and did the work for me! I don’t think the album is a celebration of our marriage – it’s not Two Virgins or something…

AMY: I’d been playing “Whole Wide World” in my set when I felt I needed a little boost and a promoter in Hull that we’d both worked with had the idea to have Eric DJ for one of my shows. He came in covered in snow with a box of records under his arm and then he got up on stage with me during “Whole Wide World” and said I was playing it in the wrong key.

If you look at the photo collage inside my “anthology,” 18 Again, there’s a picture of it happening.

RTH: Your new album is on a revived Stiff Records! Are any of the founders of the label involved in its revival? Eric, did you have mixed feelings about going back to Stiff? Amy, you were a fan of the label and its artists in its heyday, right? Were you struck by any teenage fangirl feelings at this opportunity, any need to keep your emotions in check? (For instance, I’d have had to keep my self in check to make sure I didn’t agree to sign with Stiff for free.)

ERIC: I had no qualms about going back to Stiff – on the contrary it was my idea. None of the founders or the subsequent employees are involved, which is just as well.

Amy Rigby, “Yankee Wheels”

AMY: To be on the same label that gave us “Yankee Wheels”, Lene Lovich, Nick Lowe & Wreckless Eric? It beats being labelmates with Pokemon, which was the big priority album when I was on Koch.

RTH: On the new album, did you collaborate on the writing of the songs, or did you write separately? Were most of the songs written before or after you’d met?

AMY: All of the above.

ERIC: We wrote most of them separately I think. I started “Here Comes My Ship” and Amy finished it off. We wrote “Round” together – I came up with a guitar chord sequence and we got the lyrics together between us, so that was a true co-write. “Trotters” is a group composition that came out of a jam session – we were playing “God Only Knows” and we changed one of the chords. Apart from that I think we wrote separately, Amy upstairs, me downstairs. But we’d definitely met before we started.

RTH: Did you learn anything about each other during the writing process that you may not have learned had you not mixed business with pleasure? Were there ever times when you’d have to stop working on a lyric and ask your partner, “Why didn’t you tell me you were feeling that way?”

Feb 212008

I have bemoaned for years, and Mr. Mod can attest (say Amen, brother), the loss of Nick Lowe‘s masterpieces, Labor of Lust and Pure Pop for Now People (originally Jesus of Cool in the UK) to the great digital abyss.

Last time I checked these discs were released in the ’90s and then vanished, showing up in used shops for as much as $89! Puh-leeze.

But you can bemoan a lot less as Yep Rock Records has just released Jesus of Cool (with the original track line-up) and “10 extra non-LP singles, EP sides and compilation cuts that lead up to Jesus.”

AND IT’S ON EMUSIC!!! Sweet. Here’s a bonus cut, originally released as part of the excellent Bowi ep.

Nick Lowe, “Shake That Rat”

: Pure Pop for Now People and Jesus of Cool are two of my favorite album titles and they’re for the same album! Has any other album come even close to having two drastically different release titles that are both this bitchin’ and spot-on?

Feb 192008

No dogder, this Roger!

May I begin by sharing with our Townspeople what a thrill it was for me to chat with producer/engineer Roger Bechirian! As a teenager, while intently studying the liner notes of the records that first made me feel as if I’d finally hit on “my” music, music made for me and my bandmate friends, his name kept cropping up. My friends and I never saw a picture of him, and we still don’t know exactly how his surname is pronounced, but this Roger Bechirian fellow was held in very high regard among our band of nobodies.

If I may, I’ll continue in the first person plural, because that’s how strong my love is over this guy’s work – and beside, my old friends and fellow Townsmen, Andyr and Chickenfrank, contributed to this interview. Our introduction to Bechirian was as the engineer on all those great Nick Lowe productions for Elvis Costello and The Attractions. Shortly thereafter, we saw he had his own thing going as producer of The Undertones, the band in our wildest, humble dreams we thought we could emulate.

With Costello, Bechirian produced the one Squeeze album we all agreed sounded great and steered clear of the stiff, awkward moments on their earlier albums. Then we noted his name on the credits for what we thought was The dBs‘ last great single, “Judy”. This guy not only engineered my all-time favorite album, Costello’s Get Happy!!, but he produced one of my favorite overlooked gems for listening to in my bedroom with the shades drawn, The Undertones’ Positive Touch. As Elvis would eventually have an album produced by George Martin engineer Geoff Emerick, we fantasized having an album produced by Nick’s right-hand man. Considering the likely disappointment (for him!) resulting from this fantasized collaboration, his taking the time to answer the tough questions from Rock Town Hall is more than enough wish fulfillment for anyone to bear… But enough of this ass-kissing, no matter how sincere it is! Let’s get on with the questions.

RTH: I’ve read that you were born in India and moved to England when you were a boy. When did you get into music and how did you get into recording?

RB: There was always music on in the house. My father was a big Jazz fan, and my sister would get all the latest hits from the UK and the States. I also played piano, and would spend hours making up my own tunes. We had a tape recorder at home, and I soon started making up my own sound montages by editing various recordings… I did the same thing as you, scouring album credits, looking for the engineering and studio credits. I got my first job training as a mastering engineer, cutting vinyl!

I was so opinionated, and couldn’t stop myself from telling people what I thought they should be doing!

Feb 082008

I’ve been everywhere, man.

At the risk of having this large chunk of rock stride the pond and pummel me with his Flying V, I can’t help but think of Chris Spedding as “The Forest Gump of Rock.”

It seems unflattering, but I really don’t intend it that way. I’m not thinking of him as a borderline short-busser with high-water slacks. I’m thinking of him as a dude who has participated in an AMAZING amount of rock history and yet, other than weirdos like us, he’s fairly unknown. (At least in the US of A.)

“It will be a cold day in hell before you get me to work with Zwol!”

Chris Spedding, “Motorbikin'”

I first read his name in college as I became enamored with Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets and saw his name on the back as playing on “Needle in the Camel’s Eye” and the “Paw Paw Negro Blow Torch”. I had no idea then and not much more of one until recently that this guy has done a wee bit more than that.

Early on Spedding, with his band Battered Ornaments, played THE Hyde Park concert in 1969 that featured the debut of the Brian Jones-less Rolling Stones. Bridge that with being the producer on The Sex Pistols demos and you start to get an idea of the breadth of experience here.

He has worked with so many amazing people that I’ll only list one for each letter of the alphabet (except x, y & z): Laurie Anderson, Ginger Baker, John Cale, Donovan, Drifters, David Essex, Bryan Ferry, Art Garfunkle, Nicky Hopkins, Kris Ife, Elton John, Dave Kubinec (featuring fifth Rutle Ollie Halsall), John Lodge, Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Pretenders, Dee Dee Ramone, Dusty Springfield, Johnny Thunders, Vibrators, Tom Waits.

His story is pretty damn cool and there’s some great stuff on his website and a 2006 biography, aptly titled Reluctant Guitar Hero, so I won’t belabor it. Rather I’ll just let the man speak for himself as he responds to our questions.

Jan 022008

While listening to (what else) Elvis Costello and The Attractions’ Get Happy!! on New Year’s Eve I pinpointed exactly what made the greatest of that great string of the band’s albums: Nick Lowe’s production. And it’s not so much what he did technically – the drum sound, the choice use of effects, the mic choice – but how he decided to capture the band for each album: that is, he captured the sound of the band. All the Lowe productions through Trust feature the full sound of both EC and The Attractions. The style of music is in no way similar, but scope is similar to what was captured on albums by The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and so many more great albums that I’d sound even more cliched and pathetic by listing them.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions w/Martin Belmont (w/o Steve Nieve), "Little Sister" (Live at the Hope & Anchor)

Imperial Bedroom has the same type of open scope, allowing for the listener to chooose to focus on any one of the instruments. Of course that album was produced by a Beatles’ engineer. Compare the Lowe-produced Costello albums and Imperial Bedroom with all the rest: Costello’s voice way out front and the rest of the musicians kind of canned in the background. On albums like Punch the Clock and Spike I might as well have been listening to Elvis Costello and The Association. The best of the non-Lowe-produced bunch, King of America, also sticks the musicians under glass. Quick: Name your favorite lick in a song from King of America.
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Nov 152007

I got to see the Joe Strummer movie, The Future Is Unwritten, with Townsman Chickenfrank the other night. It’s funny, as I was getting ready to go, with Hrrundi’s latest anti-hippie rant (only the first in a series that I’m sure he thinks will finally convince us of his point of view on this matter) fresh in mind, I was wondering if I could somehow tie my thoughts on the life and works of Strummer into refuting my good friend’s latest cry for help. And as it happened, this Julian Temple memorial service of a biography played right into my hand!

What the film lacked in Clash nerdboy musical analysis (eg, no complete song performances, no scenes with engineer Bill Price pulling up tracks from the master tapes, no in-depth discussions of how a cool track on, say, Sandinista was built from the ground up), it made up for in love. Bucketfulls of love! Using tape recordings of Strummer telling his own tale and a vast array of unseen (at least by my eyes) footage, including childhood home movies; a very early Clash rehearsal; and a holy grail for me, actual footage of The 101ers (!!!), Temple structures the film around campfire reminiscences by friends, former bandmates, lovers, and the like.

In what first seemed like an unnecessary act of Insider Cool but what I would come to see as a warm, egalitarian touch, Temple does not flash any names under the speakers, so when you’re not seeing the obvious characters, like Steve or Mick Jones, you have to figure out for yourself if you’re seeing an old love, a bandmate from The 101ers, John Cooper Clarke, or Zander “Snake” Schloss. I think one of the points of the film was that Strummer had built a broad community in his years and any one of us might have felt a part of it. No one’s flashing subtitles under your face or my face, so why should the folks on the screen have their identities highlighted? For the most part, it kept the focus on what each person had to say about Joe. There were exceptions, of course (Johnny Depp in his Captain Jack get-up), but even Bono worked hard at being one of the admirers.

One of the highlights for me was seeing Topper Headon looking so healthy and well-adjusted. Compared with footage of him from his final days in The Clash along with my memories of him looking at death’s door a few years ago in that Don Letts film on the band, Topper is looking like he’s turned a corner, sitting on the beach in his pink v-neck sweater. Drummers that great need to stay free.

But onto the hippie/punk stuff…
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Oct 022007

Home Counties Boy

I first learned about Martin Newell nearly 14 years ago to the day, not too long after my wife and I had moved to Hungary for a year. A Townsman sent me a cassette with Newell’s The Greatest Living Englishman on one side and Crowded House’s Together Alone on the other. The latter was advertised as a “good stoner album” from a band both of us had previously been lukewarm on (thanks, in large part to the productions of Mitchell Froom). This Newell guy’s album was produced by XTC’s Andy Partridge, and my friend touted the album as an extension of The Dukes of Stratosphear. This was music to my ears. I’d felt XTC’s proper studio albums had been getting too clinical.

Martin Newell, “She Rings the Changes”

Today I’m having particularly strong associations with this time because our move way back when coincided with the day before my beloved Phillies team ended a typically long drought of winning baseball by clinching the division and heading to the playoffs. I would miss the entire playoff and World Series drama, staying up ’til all hours in Budapest, trying in vain to tune in the game on some army radio station on shortwave radio. I was loving our new adventure overseas but a part of me missed home more than ever. In short time, The Greatest Living Englishman would somehow speak to this longing for home. Although the songs had nothing to do with missing life in a large, East Coast, American city, they had everything to do with a personal sense of place. My wife and I listened to this album constantly, and Martin Newell would soon become one of “my” special artists, alongside The dBs, The 101ers, Roy Wood, Big Dipper, and countless others. The guy’s been on my radar, although you’ll see that the radar of a busy middle-aged man fails now and then.

A few weeks ago I picked up Newell’s latest release, A Summer Tamarind, and it was like pulling on a favorite brand of jeans. He has a way with jangly tunes that never strikes this hard-ass ’60s music fan as cloying. It’s jangly music the way it was meant to sound. His lyrics are typically funny and down-to-earth; my delicate sensibilities are not distracted by songs about the genetalia of fishes and keeeeeeraaaaaazzzzzy diamonds, no matter how sincere and tuneful the singer of such numbers might be. Newell’s best songs strike me as the best songs I hear by any of my music-making friends who are found in the Halls of Rock, be it The Unknown Mysterious 60’s Group, The Trolleyvox, Photon Band, The Dead Milkmen, our man Hrrundi, and so on. There’s something about hearing a great song from a person I’m friends with; I get this added knownledge about my friend that is especially touching. Of course, I don’t know Martin Newell from a hill of beans, but his songs sound to me like they’re coming directly from a CD or cassette handed to me from an old friend. Here’s a new one from A Summer Tamarind that’s been sticking in my head:

Martin Newell, “Cinnamon Blonde”

With that song in mind – and the knowledge that Martin’s new album as well as The Greatest Living Englishman are available through eMusic (what better way to try our trial offer, found on the right side of this page?) – let’s move onto our chat with rock’s finest gardener!

RTH: I did something I’ve only begun to do more often in the last year, download your new album – legally [cue eMusic plug], of course! The first half dozen times I listened to it I kept thinking how good it sounds and how much more your voice is given room. I went back and listened to The Greatest Living Englishman, and your new album sounded even richer. This is a long way of saying at least two things. First, in lieu of liner notes for this middle-aged rock fan to study while on the john, who produced and played on A Summer Tamarind?

MN: I played nearly all the guitars. I consider myself not a bad bass player, but Carl, the engineer/producer, turned out to be much better and quicker. I therefore only played bass on, “Mulberry Harbour” and “Stella and Charlie Got Married”. Drums were all Carl. Keyboards, tambourines, and percussion were me. And I did all the vocals. It really was a solo album in old-fashioned terms. It took only 20 days (and short days) recording time. A lot of the stuff was one or two take performances, especially vocals. That’s why it sounds so fresh and uncontrived.

RTH: As someone who once managed to get his music out through the grassroots style of home-produced cassettes, what’s been your experiences with and impressions of the digital download era?

MN: I was ahead of my time. This though, is perfectly as useless as being behind my time. So it wasn’t a virtue. I forsaw it happening. On the other hand I always tell young musicians: “As long as young people with dreams make music, businessmen will find ways of hijacking the music and taking a big skim.”

I think there is almost too much music about. On reflection, I was much happier as a 16 year old, with only three albums and ten singles, which I played over and over. Now I have a room full of CDs and tapes, I have never had such access to music and yet I can’t think what to play.

RTH: As an artist you seem very comfortable in your skin. “Wow! Look at That Old Man”, from your new album, makes me laugh and seems to sum you up pretty well. From what I’ve gathered dating back to your Cleaners from Venus days, you’ve managed to sidestep every popular music trend that was there for the following. How far back did you know who you were as an artist? How far back did you accept and commit to your voice?

MN: I tell you, it was mostly ineptitude and isolation, rather than a stance. I just couldn’t seem to get things right and I ended up with my own thing. Kind of like Reggae came out of Jamaican calypso musicians picking up R&B records from American stations, and this skewed music with its bass drum on the third beat of the bar came out. Someone said to me, “You’ve never sold out Martin.” And I’m like, “Nobody ever ASKED me to!” I’d have gone like a shot. You think I wouldn’t have LIKED all that Jack Daniels, assorted bags of drugs, and naughty foreign ladies impaling themselves on me? The problem with me is that I didn’t even know how to be corrupt!

RTH: When punk hit, did you ever cut your hair, ditch your flares, and backdate yourself a bit in hopes of fitting in with the new scene, the way the members of XTC, The Damned, Joe Strummer, Nick Lowe, and other pub rockers and glam-rockers of your generation would do?

MN: While I’d been waiting to ditch the flares for a long time – they kept getting tangled in my bicycle chain – I just couldn’t find the skinny jeans in the shops. As for the haircut, I never really did get around to having short hair. I’ve never liked it. But I often had it razored in strange ways. More glam than punk. Oh and I stayed in a heavy prog-rock band all through the punk period. I only left it in 1979 cos I wanted to do 3-minute songs again.

RTH: Does the glam part of your musical background ever play a role in the songs you write these days? What did Bowie and glam rock mean for you coming out of the Swinging ‘60s of your teen years? I ask because, although Bowie was also huge in America, the whole glam scene was experienced at arm’s length in the US.

MN: I retain a huge affection for its fun, it’s showiness, and it’s sheer light-hearted songs. 1972 and 1973, particularly, were just two of pop’s greatest years for me, in the UK at least. Bowie, Bolan, Slade, and Roy Wood made brilliant pop music, much of it still unsurpassed.

Note to self…

RTH: Are there any bands and out-of-print albums from that era that are worth us shockingly ignorant American rock snobs seeking and plunking down wads of dollars to buy? Should we track down the last remaining copy of Stray albums? All we tend to know about are the heavy hitters: Bowie, T Rex, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music, Sweet, and maybe Slade, thanks to ‘80s hair metal bands covering their songs.

MN: Some which spring to mind are Suicide, by Stray, and Neverneverland, by Pink Fairies, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, by Mick Ronson (which I loved), and the recently released Boulders, by Roy Wood. Personally, one of my faves of the entire period was your very own Steely Dan with Countdown to Ectasy.

RTH: Your memoir of your formative rock years, This Little Ziggy, should be required reading for aspiring rock musicians. Did you hope to pass on anything special in writing the book? Do you feel you might have captured something in music-making literature and mythology that is rarely captured?

MN: I wish someone would re-print the thing and publish it. I haven’t got the machinery in place to service it really, but if any publishers are interested, call now, I do actually own it again. I wrote it in an insane burst of work to give it its continuity and flow. Yes, I’m sort of proud of it. It’s horribly honest.

RTH: Do you have any favorite music memoirs or biographies? Did I read correctly that you have another book on in the works?

Next: Martin answers this question and, later, participates in some Dugout Chatter!
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