Saturday, August 20, 2011

Interview with Zach Williams

(Here's a piece I wrote for NoiseTrade recently on Zach Williams and The Bellow's Kickstarter campaign)

To singer-songwriter Zach Williams, community is more than just where he lives, it’s how he lives. Surrounding himself with friends on stage and off, Zach is deeply invested in the lives of those around him and in turn, allows them into his life as well. For a guy like that, a Kickstarter campaign is a perfect fit. Currently, Zach is using Kickstarter to help fund the recording of a new batch of songs with his musical collective of friends dubbed The Bellow. (For those that read a little too quickly, that’s “bellow” as in roar, not “below” as in underneath. It’s okay, you’re not the first one to do that.) With a little over two weeks to go, they’re over halfway to their goal of $20,000. That’s a little over $9,000 more left to go by Friday, September 2. That’s where you, me and the rest of the NoiseTrade community come in. Pledges, emails, tweets, and the unparalleled power of word of mouth can help Zach and his bandmates deliver an incredible album of beautiful music and meaningful stories, without the enormous weight of self-funding. For the financial pledges through Kickstarter, Zach has set up some pretty cool rewards like signed albums, bonus tracks of the original demos, a song played just for you over video chat, a recorded cover song that you request and the grand poobah of a private, full band house show.

But wait, you say! Who exactly is this Zach Williams and what does he sound like? Well, one of the post headings on Zach’s website says “Brooklyn. Country. Music.” and I think that’s a perfectly fitting description. While Zach’s vocals and guitar playing are definitely based in roots music, he’s more in line with the folk poets of Greenwich Village than the twangy troubadours of Nashville. The Bellow beautifully augment his songs with electric guitar, banjo, stand up bass, lap steel, harmonica, piano, drums and tasty harmony vocals. To hear them in action, you can download a couple of free songs and check out their videos on their website. As far as Zach the person, I think you can get a good sense of his heart and vision through his answers and stories in our interview bellow…I mean below.

NT: In the description of your new album's Kickstarter project, the lines "There is no certainty. But there is hope." really stuck out to me. Do those thoughts apply to more than just trying to raise enough money to complete the project?
Zach: Absolutely. It’s about the uncertainty of creating something that might be selfish compared to the hope of creating something that might be worthwhile. The uncertainty of creating something that might be trite compared to the hope of creating something that has conviction. I've said this before, but the songs on this record ebb and flow through tragedy, hope, betrayal and redemption. My hope is that we capture those four things in an honest way.

NT: How has the recording process been at Rockwood Music Hall and did the new batch of songs come quickly?
Zach: It was amazing. Rockwood Music Hall was basically the first NYC venue I played in when I moved here 5 years ago. At the time it had been open for only a few months. It only had one room back then that held 75 people max. I found out quickly that the man who ran sound was also the owner. Each night of the week shows would start at 6pm and go till at least 2am. I was the 2am slot several times. My wife and 3 or 4 good friends would be the only people in the bar. After I played there a couple of times Ken Rockwood (the owner of Rockwood Music Hall) started to encourage me to sing and write more. He'd stand there coiling up the instrument cables in his button up shirt and vest and tell me things like "you really should keep doing this." That is of course the edited version of Ken's pep talks. After playing in NYC for a couple years Ken helped me record a little EP at the beautiful Avatar Studio here in midtown Manhattan. He has always pushed me to be honest. A couple years back Ken opened "Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2" which is the room we are recording in. I had the honor of being the first band to play the room.

Ken quietly built this room for a year or so before that without letting anyone know, so the first time I walk into the place I was astonished. The engineer who helped him build it toured for years as the sound man for The Rolling Stones. He would wander back and forth checking every little detail and mumbling to himself. Ken was constantly getting hassled by the cops. Even during the week that we were about to open the room Ken was still worried that the cops wouldn't let him! The first night was glorious. The line of souls was outside the venue and wrapped all the way around Houston Street. We had to turn away 200 New Yorkers. The 1916 Steinway came down from the ceiling and sat on the stage. The room was silent and about to burst. We sang our songs that night like we were dying. It was a good moment to be alive.

Fast forward to February of this year. Charlie Peacock and I are eating lunch with a couple friends at Georgia EastSide BBQ one block away from Rockwood. The topic of our discussion was "how do we capture this thing?" Charlie then said, "You think your old friend Mr. Rockwood is around? Maybe we could pay him a visit.” We finished up our meal and headed over. Ken was there, just like he always is around that time of the day... pacing back and forth making all the necessary things happen to protect the music that will be made in his rooms later in the night. Charlie shared his vision with Ken. "What if we recorded this record here?" Ken lit up. They quickly figured out all the logistics and it was on. Months later we were loading in all the recording gear and it hit me. These floors, chairs, candles, glasses, and amps have been apart of the music since the beginning and we are literally going to hear them in this recording! Charlie and his team set everyone up where he saw fit. Jason, our banjo player, was behind the bar! All eight of us tracked 14 songs about 12-14 times each for two and a half days. Each song tracked like it could be the one on the record, including vocals. It was nuts.

(Zach wrote a blog about what happened one night while recording and you can read about it at his

NT: Great songwriters always strive to tell new stories in familiar ways. What differences and similarities can we expect on the new album in regards to your last release, Story Time?
Zach: It’s still story songs. Each story is true to my life, nothing is made up for dramatic effect. I think the familiarity might be found in the melodies. I think it’s definitely a much more complete work than
Story Time. I recorded Story Time like this: My manager wanted four songs to help him express to people what we do. I couldn't choose which four because we had been playing about 12 a night at our shows. So we recorded all of them at five different studios and one upstairs bedroom. We used five studios because it was the cheapest way. So lame.

NT: You've got the "Midas Touch" of producer Charlie Peacock behind the board for your new album. How did that come about and what drew you to working with him?
Zach: I met him 2 years ago. He heard my music and asked for my family and I to come stay with him in Nashville for a few days. We absolutely were taken care of by him and his precious family. Charlie and his wife Andi have a special gift of hospitality and creativity that I hope to have in my home someday. At the time he was working on The Civil Wars record. Musically, all I needed to hear was
Poison and Wine and I was completely hooked.

NT: Community seems to be an incredibly important ingredient in your life and one that you feel is worth sharing about. Tell us how you became involved in your current community in Brooklyn and how that translated into forming "The Bellow."
Zach: I believe the best work I have personally done has happened either in extreme loneliness or extreme loyalty. This project has had strong emphasis on honesty and loyalty among the musicians. There is a true since of brotherhood. Brian Elmquist, the other male vocalist and electric guitar player, is one of my oldest friends. We lived together in an old crappy house in Lynchburg, VA 10 years ago. I was singing in the shower one day and he slung the curtain open and said, "You should be ok with singing in front of people." He moved to Nashville for a few years and then found himself here in Brooklyn after that. Brian has that true southern strength. He grew up in the sticks of Sandersville, GA. He brings that charm with him to every rehearsal. Kanene is the one and only female in the band. She has a voice that can knock a wall down. Her older brother is a man that I call a brother myself. He is one of my closest friends and lives life very well. Kanene and her husband Jason, who plays the mandolin and banjo in our band, both just moved back to the states from Beijing, the place they called home for the past five years. They have a strong commitment to the neighborhood they live in and are some of the most loyal friends in my life. Ben Mars plays the bass. He and the drummer Brian Griffin represent the best type of New Yorkers. They have spent their lives learning an instrument and then moved to this city to be a part of music making. They are adventurous souls that have a hard time making any decision in their lives based on fear. They bring their journeys to every rehearsal. Brian Murphy is our ace in the hole. He is a successful music producer based out of Brooklyn and plays the piano with us. He is the level keeper. He has this gift of keeping everything open and real. He is an honest man and you can hear it bleed out of him at our shows. Matt Knapp is one of my oldest friends in NYC. I met him years ago when I first moved here. Matt is the type of person who loves to master things. You can count on every word he says and every decision he makes having much thought and conviction attached to it. For a type A surface, he has a true ear for the things unseen and unspoken. I believe anyone who plays a weeping instrument should. We all met for the first time to play together back in the fall. Not long ago at all. I was going through some hard times in my life and I wanted to make a country sound. We met at 9 in the morning and knew within minutes of playing that this was something special.

NT: Your talents have allowed you the good fortune of playing with folks like Ben Folds, Jon Foreman (Switchfoot), The Civil Wars and Stephen Christian (Anberlin). What does it mean for a relatively new artist to be able to share their audiences and hopefully get to pick their brain a little bit?
Zach: Playing shows with folks is a funny thing. Both musicians will politely chat back stage while both are completely gearing up mentally and emotionally for the task at hand. One night when I was out with
Ben Folds I had a couple good buddies road trip down to the show. We snuck through some secret troll door back stage and ended up in the rafters hanging above Ben and the 16 ft piano. By this time I had played 10 shows with him. That night, Ben came alive. He connected with that crowd and found himself jumping up and down on the top of the rented piano screaming his lungs out without the microphone. It was all I needed to hear. Whoever is talking to Foreman, whether it be his wife, his friend, a fan or a stranger asking for directions, they have his complete attention until they are done talking. It's remarkable. It was such a challenge to me as a human being to watch him be dead tired, sweating head to toe and a fan caught his ear right off the stage and told him his complete life story. Foreman listens. It's such a beautiful thing to watch. I've had the honor of watching The Civil Wars take off. Their humility and meekness is something my own Mother wrote down in her Moleskine.

NT: I read a quote from you that said "Art is a stop sign" and I loved how you explained the concept of pausing and being present in the moment. How do you try to incorporate that into your songs and shows?
Zach: Listening! Trying my best to listen to strange moments that happen between words sung and instruments played. I struggle with being afraid during an entire show. What am I doing? What are they thinking? Can I sing this note? Is this worth while? It has taken up the space in my mind so much that I have often forgotten the words to songs I have written myself and sang hundreds of times. It's like I don't stop. Maybe I wake up late that morning, grab my girls, feed them, hug them, rush to work, then rush to sound check, check morale with the band, worry about everyone, write the set list, hit the stage, then sing 10 songs and I never stopped to just be. I try to stop and listen during shows. What's happening in the room? Should we be silent for a moment? Should we wait on something? It's beautiful to be a part of that process. It feels like you’re really present. That’s the goal right? To be aware.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

One Man, Many Bands - Mike Herrera

Alrighty kids, last week’s MTV retrospective takeover was super fun, but now it’s back to our regularly scheduled programming. I’ve only done a “One Many, Many Bands” feature on mega-genius Aaron Sprinkle so far (found HERE), so it’s beyond time to take another multi-pronged musical magician and sketch out his expansive creative output. Mike Herrera is one of those guys that just exudes incredible musicianship, an intense work ethic and an unassuming rockstar cool. I usually refer to him as the “James Brown of Punk Rock” because he can definitely challenge anyone for the title of "hardest working man in the music business." He was signed to a label and released an album before he even got out of high school and he has managed to release something every single year since then. Hailing from Bremerton, WA, he managed to bypass all the alternative/grunge overexposure that was prevalent in that area in the early 90’s and put together one of the most talented, fun-loving and consistent punk bands of the last 20 years. He has navigated the fickle, choppy waters of the “music scene” and is still putting out some of the best music of his “no end in sight” career. It’s no secret that you’ve got to have a healthy amount of musical ability, songwriting chops and business savvy to be a successful artist for any length of time. While Mike has all three of those in spades, I think his continuous musical presence also has a lot to do with his kind spirit and personable approachability. When I interviewed him earlier this year, he was super gracious, laughed a lot and told some awesome stories. After the show, I saw him talking to every fan that dropped by the merch booth. It’s one thing to be a good musician and it’s another thing to be a good person. Put both of those qualities together, slap some tattoos on it and add an unquenchable thirst for musical creativity and you’ll have Mike Herrera.

MxPx – Mike started MxPx when he was just 15 and had an album out on Tooth and Nail Records within two years. The band’s debut, Pokinatcha, was released in 1994 and I became an instant fan. Growing up, my mom and I seemed to be in a perpetual music buying battle with the exception of anything found at Sonrise, our local Christian bookstore. Due to MxPx’s positive messages and Christian background, this one made it into my collection without debate. Lyrically and sonically, Pokinatcha was a hugely influential album for me. It was one of those albums I discovered on my own, fell in love with and played non-stop. My favorite song on the album, “Want Ad,” helped me define what I was “looking for” in a girl and helped me realize that there is such a thing as romantic punk rock. In fact, Mike wrote songs about girls and growing up in a way that was pretty unique and couldn’t be easily found in other punk bands. I got to see MxPx a bunch in the 90’s thanks to their propensity for touring and their inclusion on the annual AtlantaFest roster for a few summers. In fact, volunteering at the AtlantaFest “Edge Stage” (hey, it was the 90’s) in 1996 afforded me a “sit down” conversation with Mike over dinner. I remember two main things about that experience. First, Mike was a super nice guy and his nonchalant, humble demeanor off stage made his powerful, controlling stage presence even more impressive. Second, MxPx played a blisteringly awesome set that was repeatedly interrupted by “shutdown threats” due to, among other things, the volume, the moshing and the curfew. I couldn’t help but smile when a few empty cardboard boxes from the MxPx merch stand ended up on the picnic pavilion roof after the hassling. With Mike just being a few years older than me, his songs always seemed like welcomed words from someone just a little farther up the path than me. Luckily for me there have been many of those moments to choose from over the years due to Mike’s prolific and poetic songwriting. Since 1994, Mike’s singing, songwriting and bass playing can be heard on MxPx’s 9 full length studio albums, 2 covers albums, 3 VHS/DVD releases, a live album and a handful of EPs, compilations and 7” singles. (They’ve also released a killer Christmas single each year, so you know they get extra points with me for that.) Although they don’t tour as a trio as much anymore, MxPx is still at it and they are currently in the studio recording their next album.

"Want Ad" - MxPx (Pokinatcha)

The Cootees – Mike’s first side project came in 1996 with The Cootees album Let’s Play House. The Cootees featured Mike trading in his bass for an electric guitar and splitting the vocal duties. The line-up was rounded out with Jiles O’Neal on vocals and bass, Dale Yob on guitar and MxPx band member Tom Wisniewski on drums. Let’s Play House is pretty fun to listen to from a musical perspective and it’s a great time capsule of the raw skate punk that came out of the mid-90’s. However, with Mike only partially contributing to the project, it can be kind of hit or miss overall. When they do “hit” though, there’s a couple of pretty cool songs stuck in there. MxPx even “covered” two Cootees’ songs with “No Brain” appearing on 1995’s On The Cover and “I’m OK, You’re OK” appearing on 1998’s Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo.

"Roses Are Red" - The Cootes (Let's Play House)

Arthur – Mike’s second side project came in 1999 with the release of Arthur’s Loneliness Is Bliss EP. Comprised of all three MxPx members and their guitar tech Neil Hundt, Arthur headed in an alternative/emo type vein with Mike’s new batch of songs. The different direction was felt in his lyrical voice as well. Loneliness is Bliss definitely sounded like Mike was stretching his musical wings and Tom, Yuri and Neil added a lot of different musical flavors to the EP as well. Mike revived Arthur last year and the guys released their first full length, Watch the Years Crawl By. With Arthur, Mike first showed his ability to be a diverse songwriter and musician, regardless of the genre he is writing in.

"Out of the Blue" - Arthur (Watch the Years Crawl By)

Tumbledown – Eventhough Mike is still going strong with MxPx, I just can’t bring myself to call Tumbledown a side project. Whether it’s the sheer strength and emotion of his songwriting or the nonstop push he has given to touring and recording, Tumbledown is Mike clicking on all cylinders. Taking the punk elements he has mastered in MxPx and adding in roots music like folk, classic country and rockabilly, Tumbledown is amazing and just plain fun to listen to. Spinning the bottle between good times and heartache, Mike writes songs that will make you want to party, put your arm around your girl, get in a fight or drown your sorrows. The one thing they don’t do is leave you unaffected. Even when Tumbledown had a horrible experience touring in Mexico that involved a van break-in, huge theft and a tour cancellation, Mike ended up just turning it into a really cool song. Even when he can’t tour with the whole band, Mike takes Tumbledown on the road as a solo act. Having seen it in person, I can guarantee you that Mike needs nothing more than an acoustic guitar to get people moving and singing along. In just a few years, Tumbledown has released two full length albums, an EP and a live album, all full of whiskey-soaked, boot stompers and tearjerkers.

"Sunny In Dallas" - Tumbledown (Atlantic City EP)

When Michael Jordan tried his hand at baseball, most people thought it would work. He’s great at one sport, so he’s got to be at least semi-good at another right? Not exactly. Jordan reminded us that being great in one area doesn’t mean that you’ll be great in other related areas. In that respect, Mike Herrera is the anti-Michael Jordan. Mike is incredibly proficient in the punk rock realm, but he has also succeeded in writing songs in other moods and genres. He's punk rock and he's more than punk rock. His songwriting talents and musical abilities have transcended above just one genre and have translated into many different areas. I’m sure he’s still probably got more up his sleeve that we haven’t seen. Mike is always putting out great releases and thankfully he seems to be full steam ahead. If Mike brings any of his many musical incarnations to your city, do yourself a favor and go to the show. Until then, he’s got more than enough music to keep your heart and ears satisfied.

You can keep up with Mike Herrera at the following:
Tumbledown's Website (tour dates, news and merch)
Tumbledown's Twitter
MxPx's Website (tour dates, news and merch)
MxPx's Twitter

Friday, August 5, 2011

MTV Memories: The Videos

It’s been a lot of fun spending the whole week celebrating/eulogizing MTV for its 30th birthday. While there were more memories than space to include them all, it was a cool experience getting some of them down onto paper…screen, whatever. But it’s one thing to talk a lot about something and it’s another thing to actually just experience it. There’s a time for labeling and quantifying with words and there’s a time for just letting that special thing wash over you and sink into your head, heart and soul. That may sound a little overdramatic, but I believe what MTV did for my relationship with music can’t be overstated. MTV offered me a constant connection to a variety of genres, accessibility to new artists and bands, hours and hours of entertainment and a common denominator between me and the rest of the world. MTV provided an endless supply of conversation starters, friendship strengtheners, celebration enhancers and broken heart supporters through a once powerful medium that has now become nothing more than an afterthought. Sure, on the surface music videos are just promotional/marketing tools and they make no promises to be anything else. But ask a generation of MTV watchers what they talked about around the school lunch table or what helped them through their first teenage break-up and I guarantee you they’ll give you a different definition of what a music video is. So instead of any more words, here’s just a small sampling of personal favorites from my MTV days. Some are cheesy, some have a message and some are just fun to watch, but all of them mean something to me. Happy birthday MTV and thanks for the good times.

Michael Jackson – “Beat It”
“Beat It” is one of my earliest video memories and probably my favorite MJ video of all time. “Beat It” had an awesome look, great choreography and that classic red, zippered jacket everybody wanted.

Wall of Voodoo – “Mexican Radio”
Wait…you mean I don’t have to color inside everybody else’s lines? Thanks Stan Ridgway!

Cyndi Lauper – “Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough”
Combining three of my absolute favorite 80’s ingredients (The Goonies, WWF wrestlers and Cyndi Lauper), it’s like they plucked this video straight out of my 6 year-old brain!

Poison – “Nothin’ But A Good Time”
I don’t know if it’s due to all the neon green or how many time C.C. changes guitars, but out of the plethora of glam metal videos, this one has always stuck with me.

A Tribe Called Quest – “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”
I’m pretty sure that learning the verses to “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo” and “Can I Kick It?” saved me from getting my butt kicked more in elementary and middle school.

Guns N’ Roses – “November Rain”
We hadn’t seen anything this epic (that’s how you use the word correctly hipsters) since “Thriller”. It hits just enough notes to be grandiose with out feeling too over the top.

Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Ladies and gentlemen, the revolution WILL be televised.

Beastie Boys – “So What’cha Want”
Starting when I was about 7 years old, I wanted to be a rapper pretty bad. From Licensed to Ill on out, Beastie Boys were my folks. “So What’cha Want” is a killer song and this live performance from Yo! MTV Raps is one of my favorites.

Rancid – “Ruby Soho”
I became pretty obsessed with Rancid in high school and this video is my favorite of theirs. It also reminds of a late night/early morning party were Amanda and I, still just friends at the time, talked together into the wee hours of the morning. For some reason, this video and “California Love” by Dr. Dre and Tupac seemed to play every fourth or fifth video in the background.

Mazzy Star – “Fade Into You”
“Fade Into You” holds a special place because it struck a chord in me that was first opened up by Concrete Blonde. I think this gorgeously shot video matches the amazing song perfectly.

The White Stripes – “Fell In Love With A Girl”
A genius marriage of music and aesthetics, all in under two minutes.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

MTV Memories: The MTV Beach House

For any kid stuck at home during the summer in the 90’s, the MTV Beach House was our mental vacation destination. I dreamed of how awesome it would be to hang out there all day and get to see all the veejays, bands and celebrities that visited. Each video/commercial bumper, interview and musical performance was backdropped with wild décor and good times. It was right on the beach, had a killer pool with a slide that started on the roof, a giant Moon Man, a kitschy art collection, a fully functional kitchen, a spacious living room area and cool people were always stopping by. I assumed (wrongly) that the veejays actually lived there the whole time, like a super cool summer camp. I found out years later that each veejay was only there for 4 or 5 hours a day and they actually stayed at a nice hotel down the road, but at the time it was a fantastical delusion. The MTV Beach House first appeared in the summer of 1993 and was stationed in The Hamptons in Long Island, NY. It returned to the same spot, one house over, for the next summer and then popped up in different locales throughout the next few years. When high school and the ability to drive a car hit, my summers started filling up with friends, football practice and a job. This relegated my exposure to the Beach House to pretty much just late night airings of Alternative Nation and MTV Jams, but those first few Beach House summers were an all day affair.

VJ/Shows: The first batch of veejays included John Norris, Bill Bellamy, Duff and my all-time favorite Beach House staple, Kennedy. Many others showed up over the following summers, including Dave Holmes, Dan Cortes, John Sencio, Carson Daly, Peter King, Daisy Fuentes, Skee-Lo and Ananda Lewis just to name a few. I seem to remember a lot of Pauly Shore in there as well. Many folks came through for varying lengths of time to just hang out, introduce videos and conduct super fun, laid back interviews. That’s one of the things that was pretty cool about it being a 24/7 thing was people didn’t sit down for just a rigid, 10-minute interview focused on a specific album or movie they were promoting. People would hang out through many segments and commercial breaks and just have fun and shoot the breeze with the veejays. It allowed you to see a side of the musician, movie star, comedian, etc. that you didn’t usually get to see. Many MTV shows moved to the Beach House for the summer as well including “Alternative Nation,” “MTV Jams,” “Top 20 Video Countdown,” “Singled Out,” “Say What? Karaoke,” “MTV Blocks” and “Most Wanted.” Of course, there were also some horrible shows like “The Grind” (or as Eric Nies liked to call it “Tha Griiiiiiiiiiiiiiiind”) but why dwell on the negative.

Musical Performances: Over the years many bands stopped by the MTV Beach House to play a song or two. Since alternative music was blowing up and the performances were usually set up around the pool area, it was quite an ironic contrast to see the bands wearing long sleeve t-shirts and Doc Martens against all the poolside pretty people. Nevertheless, I loved almost every band that came though, so I thoroughly enjoyed the songs, no matter how out of place they may have felt. My favorite performance from the first summer was probably 4 Non Blondes doing “What’s Up?” to a slightly unenthralled crowd. Linda Perry made the best of it though and I’ve always loved the performance for it. The next summer, Radiohead made one of their first live U.S. television appearances with a killer version of “Creep.” Lead singer Thom Yorke ended the song by diving headfirst into the pool and sinking to the bottom because of his combat boots. The story is that while struggling to get back out, he almost grabbed the live microphone, which could’ve electrocuted him on the spot. However, some producers were there to help him out and slap the mic away from his hand just in time. That same summer, Lisa Loeb did a cool nighttime performance of “Stay” that always reminded me of the late night beach scene from The Karate Kid. Another favorite of mine was No Doubt covering “Sailin’ On” by Bad Brains. Garbage, Nada Surf, Jewel and Everclear also turned in some really nice Beach House performances as well.

Here's a rebroadcast of Radiohead's "Creep" performance that unfortunately cuts off before Thom takes a dip:

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

MTV Memories: MTV Unplugged

MTV Unplugged debuted in 1989 with Squeeze, Elliot Easton of The Cars and Syd Straw appearing in the first installment. While a stripped down, acoustic-based performance was certainly nothing new to rock audiences, MTV strived to take it to another level and make it a special event that held up well to repetition. Hearing bands reinterpret their songs, throw in a cool cover or two and generally just let their hair down a little meant that even at its most blasé moments, MTV Unplugged offered something unique and worth watching. On a consistent basis, what happened on that little stage equaled up to more than the sum of its parts for a magical musical moment you couldn’t get anywhere else. In fact, may of those moments ended up being released as singles or even as a complete album and DVD. MTV Unplugged slipped off the radar for a period of time, but recently they’ve revived the show with new episodes and fresh faces. I think it’s an incredible idea, especially with the track record they’ve had over the years.

The High-Water Mark: You can’t talk about amazing MTV Unplugged performances without starting at the top. In 1993, Nirvana turned in the touchstone by which all MTV Unplugged performances before and since will be measured. Instead of trying to just filter their powerful, well-known anthems through acoustic guitars, they surprised everyone by creating beautifully lush arrangements of non-hit album cuts and obscure covers. They even added Lori Goldstein on cello for the performance. From the lack of successful singles on the setlist to the relatively unknown musical guests of Cris and Curt Kirkwood of The Meat Puppets, MTV execs were considering pulling the plug on the whole thing. No stranger to doing things their own way though, Nirvana turned perceived chaos into something untouchably gorgeous. Some folks will wrongly say that the mythical status attributed to it is because we would lose Kurt a mere four months after it aired, turning it into a self eulogy of sorts. However, all you have to do is listen to the incredible music they made and their masterful reworkings to know they did what hadn’t been done before. Capped off by a heart-wrenching cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” Nirvana owned their MTV Unplugged performance from beginning to end.

Other Standout Performances: Nirvana wasn’t the only one who used MTV Unplugged to put on an incredible showing. Only two albums into her career, Mariah Carey showed she was no studio creation and wowed audiences with a stage full of musicians and a slew of background singers for her 1992 performance. In 1996, Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher skillfully stepped in for his brother Liam who had not only pulled out right before the show but also mocked him the whole night from the balcony. Also in 1996, Alice In Chains showed back up on the scene for their first concert in over three years. Although lead singer Layne Staley looked like a wreck from his drug abuse, he managed to conjure up a dynamic vocal effort. In 2000, Lauryn Hill used MTV Unplugged to emerge from her four year musical hiatus for a moving display of raw, new songs that included a tearful “I Gotta Find Piece Of Mind.” Surprisingly, MTV Unplugged was no stranger to great hip-hop performances at all with awesome shows from Maxwell in 1997, the Jay-Z/Roots collaboration in 2001 and the Yo! Unplugged Rap show from 1991 that included MC Lyte, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and LL Cool J with a jaw-dropping, show-stopping version of “Mama Said Knock You Out.”

Reintroducing Legends: MTV Unplugged also turned out to be a perfect setting for introducing iconic, established artists to a younger generation of fans. Paul McCartney’s incredible 1991 show included the first song he had ever written at 14 years old and a handful of Beatles’ songs, some of which he had never played live before. Eric Clapton’s 1992 performance included a wonderfully reimagined version of “Layla” and also earned him two hit singles and six Grammy Awards. Tony Bennett’s 1994 show went Platinum, won two Grammy Awards and with a little help from k.d. lang and Elvis Costello, turned him into a hipster icon of sorts. In 1995, original Kiss members Peter Criss and Ace Frehley joined back up with Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons for the first time since 1979. Also, Paul Simon (1992), Bob Dylan (1994) and Neil Young (1993) all turned in phenomenal performances that helped gain them a broader, younger fan base.

Amazing Covers: After so many memorable interpretations of other people’s songs, it has almost become expected to attempt a unique cover song or two on MTV Unplugged. Nirvana did six, including David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World” which went on to be released as a successful single. Roxette did three for their 1993 show including Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and The Byrds’ “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” Maxwell did two with Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” and a fantastic version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.” Mariah Carey set the bar high with her smoking cover of The Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There” with Trey Lorenz. However, my favorite cover would probably have to be Natalie Merchant’s unforgettable take on the Bruce Springsteen/Patti Smith classic “Because The Night.” Something about the combination of her amazing voice, the stellar arrangement and the musical landscape in 1993 solidified this performance as one of my all time favorite musical moments. They released the whole 10,000 Maniacs MTV Unplugged as an album and a VHS. The VHS included some extra songs that included David Byrne on vocals. While the VHS may be hard to come by, I strongly recommend picking up the album. In case you need any proof or reminder of this song’s brilliance:

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

MTV Memories: Video Music Awards

I’ve decided to devote the rest of the week to MTV’s legacy and impact by writing about some of its most memorable moments throughout the years. Today, I’m going to be looking at the way MTV revolutionized awards shows with the MTV Video Music Awards. Thanks to a consistent showing of explosive musical performances and an outspoken cast of hosts and presenters, the “awards” part of the VMAs have almost become an afterthought. While carrying home a “moon man” was a pretty big deal that first decade or so, nowadays pretty much everyone tunes in for the theatrics, the characters and the overall spectacle of the event. The VMAs first aired all the way back in 1984 and they are still going today. However, it depends on who you ask as to whether they could be considered still going strong. No matter your age or interest though, the VMA almost always guarantee something memorable, good or bad, for the highlight reel.

Performances: In regards to musical performances, the VMAs have never disappointed the pop culture public. Right out of the gate, the inaugural VMAs set themselves up as the Grammys’ unruly, cool younger brother with Madonna’s iconic half wedding gown/half bustier clad “Like A Virgin” that people still talk about to this day. A few years later she turned in another landmark performance with an over-the-top 18th century ballroom version of “Vogue.” Michael Jackson tore through the 1995 VMAs with an untouchable 10 song medley of his biggest hits with Slash joining him on guitar. In 1989, Bon Jovi’s acoustic performance of “Wanted Dead or Alive/Livin’ On A Prayer” was noted as one of the key inspirations for the MTV Unplugged phenomenon. Before all the flightiness and drug rumors of recent years, Paula Abdul solidified herself as one of the most talented singer/dancer/choreographers of the 80’s with an energetic medley of “Straight Up,” “Cold Hearted” and “Forever Your Girl.” Great performances even took place outside of the venue with Foo Fighters playing “Everlong” and “Monkey Wrench” from atop the Radio City Music Hall marquee and Eminem leading a collection of look-a-likes from the streets of New York and into the auditorium for “The Real Slim Shady” and “The Way I Am.” Generation gaps were bridged with combinations like Elton John teaming up with Guns N’ Roses for “November Rain” and Pearl Jam joining Neil Young for an explosive “Rockin’ In The Free World.” The Pearl Jam/Neil Young combo is probably my favorite actual musical performance, while my favorite non-musical performance is probably when Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic caught a bass in the face after an ill-fated toss.

Hosts: Hosting the VMAs has to feel more like being a ring leader than an emcee, but so far everyone has done at least fairly well. The first VMAs were co-hosted by the seemingly odd couple of Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler. (By the way, between hosting the first VMAs and somehow getting into the “We Are The World” choir, Dan Aykroyd’s PR person was on it in the mid-80’s!) Multi-show hosts include Arsenio Hall with a whopping four in a row (1988-1991), Chris Rock with three (1997, 1999, 2003), and Dennis Miller, Downtown Julie Brown, Dweezil Zappa and Russell Brand all with two. My personal favorite for host was probably Dana Carvey in 1992, thanks in no small part to him dressing as Garth from “Wayne’s World” and playing “Even Better Than The Real Thing” with U2.

Reunions: The VMAs have been the chosen occasion for a couple of pretty cool reunions. In 1990, Bobby Brown and New Edition buried the hatchet for a mega-medley that included Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” and “Mr. Telephone Man” as highlights. Two awesome reunions happened at the 1999 VMAs, as Aerosmith and Run DMC hooked back up for an amped up “Walk This Way” during Kid Rock’s performance and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg performed “Nuthin’ But A G Thang” during Eminem’s performance. In 1997, a very interesting reunion of sorts took place when Franz Stahl got back together with Dave Grohl, his former band mate from Scream, when he replaced Pat Smear in Foo Fighters. The announcement of Pat Smear’s departure and Franz Stahl’s entrance was announced in between songs. However, what would probably be considered the biggest (or maybe least likely) reunion took place in 1996, when the four original members of Van Halen appeared together for the first time in over a decade to present an award. Apparently it was a little too soon though because no sooner did they get backstage than…

Fights: …David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen got into a major fight that almost got physical. At various other VMAs, more “almost” fights also took place between Axl Rose/Kurt Cobain (1992), Eminem/Moby (2002) and Axl Rose/Vince Neil (1989). Occasionally though, things actually did escalate to punches with fistfights taking place between Kid Rock/Tommy Lee (2007), Bret Michaels/C.C. DeVille (1991) and Vince Neil/Izzy Stradlin (1989). Apparently, it’s not all just music and moon men at the VMAs. Knuckles up!

Wackiness: Let’s all be honest. As much as we look forward to the music and jokes, we’re also kind of crossing our fingers for those crazy shenanigans that only the VMAs can produce. I’m talking about those unexpected, sometimes even unscripted, moments that we never saw coming and that can end up being hard to explain to someone who didn’t see it for themselves. Michael Jackson has been responsible for a few of them, including the creepily awkward kiss with new wife Lisa Marie from 1994 and the accidental acceptance of the non-existent “Artist of the Millennium Award” in 2002. Kanye West’s interruption of Taylor’s Swift’s acceptance speech in 2009 shocked everyone and gave us more imitations and recreations than any one cultural event should have to bear. Even the meltdowns can be hard to look away from, with Courtney Love’s make-up launching interruption of the Madonna-Kurt Loder interview in 1995 and Rage Against The Machine’s Tim Commerford’s stage rush and scaffolding perch in 2000 being two of the most uneasy to watch. Even seeing Pee Wee Herman in full gear for the first time after his arrest in 1991 was only made more comfortable by his perfect opening line, “Heard any good jokes lately?”

In middle school and high school, I can remember having friends over specifically to watch every second of the VMAs as they unfolded. Many, many fun times were had during those broadcasts, both on screen and in our living room. Eventhough the last complete VMAs I watched would’ve been in the early 2000’s, this era of instant info makes it easy to keep up and find out anything you may have missed. Even if you’re not checking out the VMAs any longer, hopefully these recollections will spark a happy memory or at least send you to YouTube for another viewing.

Monday, August 1, 2011

MTV Turns 30: A Look Back

Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.

With these immortal words, the cultural juggernaut known as MTV was launched on August 1, 1981 at 12:01 AM. Only a few thousand homes in New Jersey were privileged enough to get the initial cable broadcast, but that didn’t stop MTV from quickly growing into one of the most influential media entities of all time. Starting with a relatively small batch of promotional videos and concert clips, MTV would eventually change the way music was released and consumed. Sure, they were nowhere near the first ones to broadcast visual images synched with music, but they did it bigger, better and bolder than everyone else. From six Rod Stewart videos on the first day to the production of multi-million dollar videos like Michael Jackson’s “Scream,” Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain,” MTV revolutionized the concept of what a music video is and what it can do. No longer could a band or artist rely solely on the strength of their songs alone. Appearance, performance, visual creativity and the all important “music video” were now necessities if you wanted to grab anyone’s attention. Listeners became viewers, musicians became faces and the question of style or substance was answered in 3 and half minute cinematic commercials of sensory overload. MTV was selling more than music…and I, along with generations of others, couldn’t get enough of it.

Being born in 1980, I didn’t get to fully engage in MTV’s first few years. Its impact and influence was not lost on me though. Whether it was due to my parents or my sister who is four years older than me tuning in, I still have very distinct memories of “the first five” veejays (Alan, J.J., Mark, Martha and Nina) and some of the real early videos like “Rapture” by Blondie, “Brass In Pocket” by The Pretenders, “I Ran” by Flock of Seagulls, “Our Lips Are Sealed” by The Go-Go’s and “Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco. All of the animated/stop-motion station ID bumpers and “I Want My MTV!” commercials are super vivid in my memory as well. However, the first time I really remember being completely enthralled on my own was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. I have no idea when I first got Thriller on cassette or when I got the Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller VHS tape, but I wore them both out equally. Seeing such a “can’t look away,” scary-yet-enthralling video to go along with an album I couldn’t stop listening to made me a MTV fanatic. Hours and hours a day spent either watching MTV or having it on in the background while doing other things developed a habit I carried well into my late teens. Throughout the 80’s, I fell in love with tons of iconic videos like Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” Wall of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio,” Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky,” The Clash’s “Rock The Casbah,” Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party),” and Fat Boy’s “The Twist,” just to name a few. I also became a huge fan of MTV’s original programming with Remote Control, Yo! MTV Raps and 120 Minutes becoming never miss shows for me. Martha Quinn, J.J. Jackson, Dave Kendall, Doctor Dre, Ed Lover, Fab 5 Freddy and Adam Curry all hold a special place in my musical heart for the incredible music they introduced me to.

As the 90’s crested the horizon, shows like Alternative Nation, MTV Unplugged and yes, even Beavis and Butthead joined my must see line-up and were more important television shows to me than anything on the major networks. Back then, even the first few seasons of The Real World were extremely eye-opening to me. There was so much incredible music available at the time and MTV could get it out faster and better than any radio station. More importantly, they could do it without any format constraints. For someone with a wide-swinging musical appetite, I really appreciated being able to see “In Bloom” by Nirvana, “Roots Radical” by Rancid, “Scenario” by A Tribe Called Quest, “Groove Is In The Heart” by Deee-Lite and “I Get Around” by Tupac, back to back to back. As I got older, practicing split kicks off the couch like David Lee Roth in Van Halen's "Jump" and trying to learn the dance moves from Michael Jackson's "Beat It" gave way to playing guitar along to Oasis' "Champagne Supernova" and furiously trying to scribble down the lyrics to Snoop Dogg's "What's My Name." Matt Pinfield became a trusted guru when he took over on 120 Minutes, Kennedy made me appreciate musical taste and sarcasm in a girl on Alternative Nation, Doctor Dre and Ed Lover continued to show me where great rap and hip-hop could be found on Yo! MTV Raps and 10,000 Maniacs, The Cure, LL Cool J, A Tribe Called Quest, Stone Temple Pilots, Mariah Carey and Nirvana all turned in jaw-dropping performances on MTV Unplugged.

In fact, hugely important moments like Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance were the kind of things that made MTV so ground-breaking, so legendary and so wonderful. MTV provided continuous coverage of Live Aid when ABC was just showing highlights. MTV made awards shows watchable with unforgettable performances throughout the years by Madonna, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, an acoustic Bon Jovi, Red Hot Chili Peppers and a Neil Young/Pearl Jam pairing that blew my 13 year old mind. MTV came up with over-the-top contests with unbelievable prizes from artists like John Mellencamp, ZZ Top and Metallica. MTV stretched the creative, technological and artistic boundaries of what could be done in a video. MTV used its platform to bring awareness to social issues, health concerns, racial equality and community involvement. Unfortunately, those are not the kind of things you’ll find if you tune in to MTV today. They have traded videos and thought-provoking programs for unwatchable reality shows and weak awards ceremonies. They even removed the “Music Television” portion of their logo. But we still have the good times to look back on. All those times we watched MTV for the whole sleep over, stayed up late for a “World Premiere Video,” made an event out of the VMA’s, got our music news from Kurt Loder, started a conversation with “Man, you have GOT to see this new video,” wished we could’ve attended a Rock n’ Jock softball or basketball game or even just spent a blissful few hours getting transported and lost in some great videos; we’ve got MTV to thank for each one of those times. MTV is turning 30 and she’s looking a little rough around the edges, but we can’t forget what she did for us culturally or individually. So instead of bemoaning the newest episodes of Jersey Shore or Teen Mom, just start a conversation with someone about one of your memorable MTV moments, reminisce about your favorite veejay or debate what was the “best video” of all time. Just remember, eventhough it’s all subjective, a-ha’s “Take On Me” is still the trump card on that one. So turn those frowns upside down my fellow folks of the MTV Generation. While it’s true that nothing gold can stay, it doesn’t mean the glimmer has to fade once it’s gone.

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