Saturday, March 14, 2015

B-sides the '90s: The Smashing Pumpkins, Luna, and Annie Lennox

B-sides the '90s is a recurring feature that highlights some of my favorite songs, covers, and live tracks that are hidden away on the b-side of a vinyl/CD single from the '90s. You can see all of my B-sides the '90s features HERE.

While Blondie is unquestionably one of the most iconic groups of all time, I’ve always wondered why more bands haven’t covered their songs. Of course, the surface answer is that Blondie’s unique punk-meets-pop-meets-disco sonic mix and Debbie Harry’s untouchable vocal style just makes the task a wee bit daunting (to say the least). Blondie’s sound is so much more than just melodies and instruments, so translating one of their songs through your own filter requires a brave attempt to harness at least a fraction of that x factor that surges through all of their songs.

To prove how hard this can be for other bands to do, all you have to do is look at the electricity Blondie infused into their own covers. Compare “Hanging on the Telephone” and “I’m Gonna Love You Too” (both from their 1978 Parallel Lines album) with the originals (courtesy of The Nerves and Buddy Holly, respectively) and you’ll be able to hear the unmistakable “Blondie-ness” they imprint on their tracks. They do the same with their covers of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” (from the Roadie soundtrack) and David Bowie’s “Heroes” (the slightly erratic live b-side to their “Atomic” 7” single) as well. In the case of their cover of The Paragons’ 1967 song “The Tide is High,” most people have no idea that it isn’t even a Blondie original in the first place. While the phrase “make it their own” gets applied too liberally in most discussions surrounding covers song, it’s almost always indefensibly accurate when discussing Blondie.    

When I hear a band tackle a Blondie cover, I always receive it with an interesting mix of relish and reserve. I’m excited that they’re doing it, but I’m also skeptical as if to if they can do it. Certainly the straight ahead, nod-to-the-original style covers are nice and safe enough (for example, I really dig Yo La Tengo’s “Dreaming” and L7’s “Hanging on the Telephone”), but if a band is really trying to go for it, I always find myself leaning in a little more than usual. In a very Blondie-esque move, I think all three of these picks show the coverers contributing their own individualized flavor into the mix in one way or another (*rim shot*).

“Dreaming” by The Smashing Pumpkins (1996): 
In October of 1995, The Smashing Pumpkins released their (some say bloated, I say ambitious) double-disc album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and a physical copy of the lead single “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” on the same day. Since I was still about six months away from legally being able to drive on my own, I convinced a senior friend of mine (thanks Eddie!) to drag my sad-sack sophomore self to Blockbuster Music during our lunch break to purchase both of them. Since we only had a precious few minutes on the drive back to school, I busted open the single first and immediately skipped to the B-side, “…Said Sadly”. Not only was it a chance to hear the too scarce (for my tastes, at least) lead vocal turn from guitarist James Iha, but the acoustic duet also featured the always welcome (for my tastes, at least) vocals of Nina Gordon from Veruca Salt.  

When The Smashing Pumpkins re-released the “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” single as part of their (some say bloated, I say ambitious) box set The Aeroplane Flies High almost exactly a year later, it was bolstered with five new b-sides. These weren’t just any “leftover song” b-sides either. Billy Corgan and company loaded the single with five exceptional 70s/80s-era new wave/rock covers, including “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” (The Cars), “Clones (We’re All)” (Alice Cooper), “A Night Like This” (The Cure), “Destination Unknown” (Missing Persons), and my favorite of the bunch, Blondie’s “Dreaming”.

Their gorgeous take on Blondie’s 1979 Eat to the Beat opening track takes on a relaxed trip hop groove courtesy of a distorted drum machine beat, syrupy strummed guitars chords, and enough dissonant warbles to make the whole track feel like an otherworldly dream state. As a bonus, “Dreaming” also features bassist D’arcy Wretzky doing her best Debbie Harry on the first verse and chorus, before Corgan takes back over from the second verse on. They unquestionably make the cover their own and as a B-side to such a guitar-heavy single (from such a guitar-heavy album), it makes the perfect complimentary sonic statement.

"Dreaming" - The Smashing Pumpkins ("Bullet with Butterfly Wings" single)

“In the Flesh” by Luna (1997): Criminally underrated band Luna has always had a knack for crafting really amazing self-stamped covers on their EPs and singles over the years. Their dreamy, guitar-washed takes on “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” by Talking Heads, “Season of the Witch” by Donovan, “Sweet Child o’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses, and “That’s What You Always Say” by 15 Minutes are hands-down some of the best covers to come out of the pre-millennium decade. How they didn’t end up on every alt-soaked 90s movie soundtrack, I’ll never begin to understand.

Luna released Blondie’s “In the Flesh” in 1997 as a b-side to their “Bobby Peru” single from their fourth album Pup Tent. While Luna’s version holds true to Blondie’s original “Enchantment under the Sea” 6/8 sock-hop sway, lead singer Dean Wareham foregoes the confident cool found in Debbie Harry’s delivery and adds an incredible extra layer of teenage timidity to his longing vocals. This song always makes me want put on an ill-fitting suit, buy a corsage, and drag my girl to the nearest middle school gym floor we can find for some awkwardly sweet cheek-to-cheek.     

"In the Flesh" - Luna ("Bobby Peru" single)

“(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear” by Annie Lennox (1995): While most music fans remember Annie Lennox’s 1995 covers album Medusa for the monster single “No More I Love You’s,” the album contained more gems than just that Grammy-award winning one. Her covers ranged from the soulful edges of Al Green and The Temptations to the rockier realms of Neil Young and The Clash. She ended up releasing a second single from Medusa for her breezy version of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” from prog-rock pioneers Procol Harum.

While the single never really grabbed my mid-teen, punk-tuned ear very much, it’s B-side sure did. As a Eurythmics fan, I always loved the command Lennox demanded when she wanted to sing with more intensity and directness. For her “A Whiter Shade of Pale” flipside, Lennox did just that for her synth-bubbling bounce through Blondie’s 1978 Plastic Letters original “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear”. Never has an ode to long-distance romance and paranormal telepathy sounded so intriguing to dance to!     
"(I'm Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear" - Annie Lennox ("A Whiter Shade of Pale" single)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sonic Bloom: The Lackluster Reception Turned Lasting Reputation of 'The Bends'

This is an article I wrote for PopMatters as part of their All Things Reconsidered: Radiohead's 'The Bends' (20th Anniversary) feature.
While most present-day discussions surrounding Radiohead’s The Bends emphatically hail their 1995 sophomore album as one of the greatest albums of that year, the entire decade of the ‘90s, and even of all time (according to some), there is usually an inherent assumption imbedded in the conversation that presumes that the album has continually been held in high regard from the time of its initial release. In fact, many present-day Bends-related stories seem to be written through a rose-colored filter of hindsight history that paints a picture of Radiohead’s immediate and unquestionable cultural and critical dominance over not only the alternative music scene, but also the entire musical spectrum of 1995.

However, a quick survey of the mid-‘90s cultural terrain exposes something entirely different. At the time, popular culture wasn’t exactly sure what to do with The Bends. Sure, everyone was still joyfully riding the “Creep” wave that had yet to crest from its 1992 cannonball off the high dive. Yet, because of (or in spite of) all of their unique quirkiness and sonic idiosyncrasies, Radiohead were a cause of much head-scratching, and The Bends did not help them to find a comfortable landing place in the collective cultural consciousness. Before we dive headfirst into the impact of The Bends though, allow me to frame the climate of its creation.

You remember 1995: Bill Clinton was halfway through his first presidential term, America Online started telling us “You’ve Got Mail” for the very first time, the Beatles released a single that included new material for the first time in 25 years, and “must-see court TV” became a wide-spread phenomenon when cameras were allowed into the courtroom for the O.J. Simpson double murder trial to be broadcast live on national television. The disparate disposition of the culture at large was reflected in our entertainment choices. The top three highest-grossing movies of the year were a quasi-historical dramatization (Apollo 13), a CGI-animated buddy comedy (Toy Story), and the third installment of the “how does this keep happening to one man” Die Hard action movie franchise (Die Hard with a Vengeance). Similarly mixed, the top three most-watched television shows of the year were about a catchphrase-friendly family man/tool-themed TV host (Home Improvement), Chicago-based emergency room doctors, (ER) and, well, nothing (Seinfeld).

This was a uniquely dissonant pop culture atmosphere, one that showed as much fervor and excitement for the “will they or won’t they” antics of Ross and Rachael on Friends (which had its first season finale in 1995) as it did for they “did he or didn’t he” actions of a celebrated Pro Football Hall of Famer on trial for murder. It was in this atmosphere that Radiohead recorded and released The Bends, their own agitated reflection and disoriented commentary on the blurred schism between internal fantasy and external reality. However, while retrospection has shown us that Radiohead managed to create an astute musical mirror of the befuddling times, an examination of the musical landscape of 1995 shows that music audiences were interested in just about anything else except that.

Pop Is (Not) Dead: The Mainstream Music Landscape Circa 1995

Although the ‘90s are often inextricably associated with guitar-led alternative/college rock bands that thumbed their collective nose at conventional mainstream popular music expectations (Radiohead included), one can actually get a more accurate understanding of the popular music milieu of 1995 by looking no further than the #1 best-selling album of the year: Hootie and the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View. It was current pop-country crooner Darius Rucker and company that dominated the 1995 Billboard 200 charts with five separate runs at number one, eventually selling over ten million copies of their feel-good, frat-rock 16 times platinum major label debut in 1995 alone.

From a singles perspective, the 1995 Billboard Hot 100 shows that the number one single of the year was Coolio’s 2 times platinum “Gangsta’s Paradise” from the Dangerous Minds soundtrack. In fact, of the 12 songs that ended up hitting the number one slot on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart throughout all of 1995, 11 of them were pop-tinged R&B numbers from the likes of Boyz II Men, TLC, Madonna, Montell Jordan, Seal, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston.

The lone guitar-holding holdout, you ask? That would be Bryan Adams, with “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman” from the soundtrack to the Johnny Depp-led rom-com Don Juan Demarco, which camped out at number one for the first five weeks of summer. No matter how many times someone writes that Radiohead and The Bends “changed the face of music” in 1995, the retail and radio numbers tell a different story, one that was filled (as always) with sugary sweet pop hooks, singalong lyrics, and big choruses that could be easily memorized and effortlessly belted out at the drop of a hat.

It wasn’t just the R&B, hip-hop, and pop-fueled mainstream music scene of 1995 that didn’t seem to have a place for Radiohead and The Bends. Their own “home genre” of alternative music didn’t seem to know exactly what to do with them either. The alternative music scene experienced a fracturing after the April 1994 death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. In the post-Cobain wake the following year, the alternative genre was overrun with a thick glut of guitar-led, grunge-lite albums from bands like Everclear, Collective Soul, Silverchair, Better Than Ezra, Soul Asylum, Our Lady Peace, Dishwalla, and more. Nonconformity had become commercialized, and a steady stream of “more of the same” bogged down the creative explosiveness that had defined the genre’s impact just a few years prior. The dyed-in-the-wool guitar-bass-drums format of bands like Radiohead quickly overcrowded the genre and caused a sonic splintering of offshoots that invigorated the alternative scene with new variations on the theme.

This fragmentation allowed the alternative music scene to start playing with a completely different deck in 1995. Instead of just relying on the Seattleite grunge gods and their formulaic follow-afters, alternative radio started spinning a wider variety of sounds from a larger pool of bands. The big stories of the 1995 alternative music scene included the so-called “Battle of Britpop” between Blur and Oasis for UK chart domination, equal opportunity and long overdue respect for women in both solo (Alanis Morrisette, PJ Harvey, Bjork, Natalie Merchant, Jill Sobule, Lisa Loeb) and band settings (Garbage, No Doubt, Elastica, Sleater-Kinney), the emergence of electronica and trip-hop (Massive Attack, Nine Inch Nails, Moby, Tricky, Chemical Brothers), and the huge surge in popularity experienced by punk and third-wave ska bands (Green Day, Rancid, Blink-182, Reel Big Fish). Even the burgeoning alt-rock genre got some press with the debuts of post-Uncle Tupelo descendants Wilco and Son Volt.

Oh yeah, 1995 also featured the self-titled debut release from Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl’s post-Nirvana one-man-band project that attracted (and earned) more than its fair share of attention. However, within all of those stories, Radiohead was merely on the fringes, occasionally mentioned as an also-ran, but rarely the sole focus of their own moment.

So if Radiohead wasn’t a major player in the larger mainstream popular music consciousness, the alternative music scene, or even very many Britpop discussions, where exactly did The Bends fit in when it was released?

(Not) Anyone Can Play Guitar: How The Bends Landed in the 1995 Music Scene

When The Bends was released on 13 March 1995, Boyz II Men’s slow jam-heavy II was sitting at the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart and Madonna’s brooding ballad “Take A Bow” was reigning over the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Expectations were high for Radiohead to follow-up the success of their monster debut single “Creep” from a few years prior, and fears of a sophomore slump were already being whispered as the subsequent singles released from Pablo Honey and their My Iron Lung EP (released in October of 1994) did not come close to achieving the same enthusiastic reception. At the time, Radiohead was seen as nothing more than a buzz bin, one-hit wonder with everything to prove and nothing to lose.

“High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees” were the first two official singles Radiohead put out for The Bends, not counting “My Iron Lung” from the previous year’s titular EP. They both achieved moderate success, returning the band to the singles charts for the first time since “Creep” peaked at number two on the Billboard Modern Rock charts (#34 on the Billboard Hot 100). “High and Dry” reached #18 on the Modern Rock charts (#78 overall) and “Fake Plastic Trees” did a little bit better at #11 (#65 overall). Both music videos played well on MTV and became 120 Minutes mainstays. Radiohead even showed up twice in the movie Clueless, offering an acoustic version of “Fake Plastic Trees” for the film’s soundtrack and being playfully referred to as “complaint rock” by Alicia Silverstone in the film.

Even with those respectable blips on the pop cultural radar, most critics did not initially receive The Bends with open arms. Rolling Stone’s initial review of The Bends focused specifically on lead singer Thom Yorke’s distinct delivery and diction, stating, “[He] is so enamored of singing honeyed melodies that he dilutes the sting of his acid tongue” and his “oblique lyrics… erode the power of [his] decayed emotions.” The Chicago Tribune didn’t see much promise or potential in The Bends, claiming, “There’s little on the British group’s second record to suggest they’ll be more than one-hit wonders.”

The band didn’t fare much better with SPIN, who stingingly wrote that the album “just proves the band is afraid to be pigeonholed into the only style it’s very good at” and that there was “too much nodded-out nonsense mumble, not enough concrete emotion.” SPIN also put the band in the smallest box (and perhaps gave voice to the most fickle of cultural expectations), by bemoaning the fact that “The Bends is never ‘Creep’-like enough.” At the time, The Bends was merely seen as nothing more than the follow-up album to Pablo Honey, and wasn’t given much (if any) elevation over the sea of supposed sound-alikes overpopulating the alternative music scene.

As hard as it may be to believe in light of their present-day musical mythos, at the time, Radiohead was just another band struggling to escape the long shadow of a right-out-of-the-gate hit. They were precariously perched on the edge of being forgotten might-have-beens.

How to (Not) Disappear Completely: What Changed to Alter the Legacy of The Bends

So if The Bends was just another album from just another band in 1995 terms, what exactly caused the shift in its standing from mediocre to masterpiece? In hindsight, the transformation can be traced back to three important factors that coalesced to spark the tide change in popular opinion. Had even one of these ingredients been absent from the mix, The Bends would have surely run the risk of becoming nothing more than nostalgic bargain bin fodder just waiting for some lonely soul with five dollars and a yearning to relive “the good ol’ days” to walk by and take it home.

The first contributing factor was Radiohead’s next two albums, the wildly experimental OK Computer in 1997 and the week-one-platinum-smash Kid A in 2000. With both of these albums, The Bends shifted from being just “the most recent Radiohead album” to being its own volume in a larger body of work. Instead of The Bends being the focal point through which audiences tried to understand Radiohead, the album became a reference point through which audiences tried to wrap their heads around the ever-increasing eccentricities of the new records. In reviews for OK Computer and Kid A, The Bends was heavily used as a talking point, usually a positive one, to sketch the ambitious creative leaps and bounds Radiohead was taking. As baffled music journalists were trying their best to stop just shy of accusing Radiohead of trying to be weird for the sake of weird, they would write off The Bends as the kinder, gentler version of Radiohead. By the time Kid A exploded onto the scene, fans were already splitting off into sub-groups: those loving the newer electronic experimentation side of the band and those loudly self-identifying as “more of a Bends-era Radiohead fan”.

The second contributing factor was the turn-of-the-century musical landscape of the early ‘00s. Pop music was selling at dizzying speeds with manufactured, made-to-order ensembles in the form of boy bands (The Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, 98 Degrees, et al.), girl groups (Destiny’s Child, Pussycat Dolls, Girls Aloud, et al.), Latin pop solo acts (Ricky Martin, Shakira, Enrique Iglesias), and former Mouseketeer/Kids Incorporated child stars (Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Wild Orchid, Fergie, Jennifer Love Hewitt).

Even alternative radio, once a safe haven to Radiohead, was experiencing seismic shifts due to the influx of post-grunge bands (Creed, Nickelback, 3 Doors Down) and rap-rock-metal hybrids (Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, and other spellcheck nightmares). In stark contrast to all of these new musical movements, ‘90s nostalgia set in quickly, possibly before the new millennium even hit. The changeover from the ‘90s to the ‘00s was an unquestionable guitar feast to famine, allowing the more substantial albums of the mid-‘90s surplus to rise to the surface of retrospective remembrance. Within this pop culture petri dish, The Bends was one of the foremost albums to a get new life under the new millennium’s musical microscope.

The third contributing factor was the combined frequency and fluidity of any and all “best of the ‘90s” lists. Not only did these lists saturate the ‘00s due to the excitement of the dual decade/millennium change, but they also have continued to be popular in a digital media world that thrives on nostalgia-based reminiscence, retrospection, and revision. As these lists are trotted out year after year, a symbiotic relationship can be easily identified between bands that are no longer active and those that are.

While most of the one-and-done, flash-in-the-pan bands experience a stagnation or slippage, bands like Radiohead and Foo Fighters—groups who are not only still active, but releasing some of their very best work—reap the benefits of this continued reexamination. Also, it’s important to note that the quality of each new release seems to dictate the level of the revision of their prior work as well. The Bends is one of the albums that continues to creep up these “best of” lists with each passing year, and with each new Radiohead release.

Much like Weezer’s Pinkerton, also a sophomore LP (but one without the benefit of another follow-up in the ‘90s), The Bends became a record that was known, not for what it was in the moment, but for what it has turned into over the years. The record has actually benefited from initially being placed to the side of 1995 because it has allowed for the continual reexamination and reassessment of its contents in light of what Radiohead has done since its release. With each sonic leap forward (or sideways, depending on your tastes) and the fearless experimentation that has taken place on each new Radiohead release, the vision and importance of The Bends becomes clearer in focus and more understandable in scope. We may not have known exactly what to do with The Bends in 1995, but we’re getting a little closer each year as Radiohead continues to evolve, surprise, and test the aural boundaries of whoever will listen.

In the same way that taking a few steps back from a painting helps the picture come into fuller view, the farther we get from the initial release of The Bends, we are afforded the opportunity to get closer to fully experiencing its sheer sonic brilliance, as well as understanding the impact of its enduring ripples. It can be easy to overstate the significance of what The Bends meant to 1995. However, it’s important to remember that for all of the fleeting, ephemeral glories of those that peaked early in high school, it’s the awkward, misjudged ones that usually end up changing the world.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Interview with Amason

NoiseTrade is heading to SXSW, y'all! We're setting up shop at The Blackheart and The Swan Dive on March 18, 20, and 21 to host an eclectic roster of 33 incredible bands on both indoor and outdoor stages. We've got a ton of free food and goodies to go along with the festivities as well. You can check out our full 3-day line-up HERE. 

Ahead of their highly anticipated set at our NoiseTrade Day Party on Wednesday, March 18 @ The Blackheart, we interviewed the talented Swedes of Amason to get their perspective on SXSW.
NoiseTrade: If this is your first SXSW, what are you looking forward to the most? If you've been before, what are you looking forward to experiencing again? 

Gustav Ejstes: I'm personally not a big fan of big city festivals. There's too much going on at the same time and it's crazy crowded. But since we've got the chance to play these particular cool spots and parties it's going to be a damn lot of fun. 

NT: To those who have been to SXSW before (either playing or just attending), do you have any favorite SXSW memories? 

Ejstes: There was a great barbecue place in a parking lot, I can't remember what it’s called. There was a 600 meter long line, but worth waiting for! 

NT: Are you altering your normal setlist/show in any way for the SXSW audience? 

Ejstes: We try to alter our set before every show depending on what crowd, weather, birthdays, etc.

NT: Although you guys just released your debut album Sky City in January, you've all been (or are still in) a variety of other bands. What goes into making Amason a unique experience for you? 

Ejstes: So far, it’s been fun just hanging out and playing. We haven’t been in any serious arguments yet. It's like we're in a "still dating, going to meet her parents next weekend" kind of thing. 

NT: You're music video for "Duvan" is easily one of the most interesting videos I've seen in years. Where'd the concept come from and how hard was it to create the stunning mixture of animated/live action visuals? 

Ejstes: The video and all our artwork is made by our very beloved friend Tobias Centerwall. He is a wizard and we find his work very much as an extension of our music and vice versa. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Interview with Humming House

NoiseTrade is heading to SXSW, y'all! We're setting up shop at The Blackheart and The Swan on March 18, 20, and 21 to host an eclectic roster of 33 incredible bands on both indoor and outdoor stages. We've got a ton of free food and goodies to go along with the festivities as well. You can check out our full 3-day line-up HERE.

Ahead of their highly anticipated set at our NoiseTrade Day Party on Saturday, March 21 @ The Blackheart, we interviewed Humming House to get their perspective on SXSW.

  NoiseTrade: If this is your first SXSW, what are you looking forward to the most? If you've been before, what are you looking forward to experiencing again? 

 Justin Tam: Last year was Humming House’s first trip to SXSW and it was insane! It’s as if all the world’s indie-music makers decide to descend upon Austin in one cacophonous week. It’s both overwhelming and exhilarating. We’re really looking forward to participating in 2015, particularly because we’re releasing an album the following week on March 24th. 

NT: To those who have been to SXSW before (either playing or just attending), do you have any favorite SXSW memories? 

Tam: I had the pleasure of going to SXSW with another musical project in 2008 and managed to catch Ben Harper at Stubbs for free one evening. His record with the Blind Boys Of Alabama is one of my favorite albums, so it was incredible to get to see him for the first time at a great festival. 

NT: Are you altering your normal setlist/show in any way for the SXSW audience? 

Tam: Most definitely! Our fans span a very wide demographic and so we tend to pick original songs and covers that fit the crowd each night. All of our SXSW shows are very short, so we’ll be sticking mostly to tracks from our forthcoming album Revelries

NT: Are their any bands or panels at SXSW that you are planning to check out yourself? 

Tam: There are so many friends from Nashville and cities all over the country performing this year. We’re going to check out as many as possible! 

NT: What made you pick the song you did for our NoiseTrade SXSW sampler? 

Tam: We chose to include our new song “Carry On” on the sampler because it is the inspiration behind our album title Revelries. “Revelries” is a lyric in the second verse of the song and the narrative is about how inspiring touring experiences can be. Touring, performing live, and entertaining is a part of our job that we really love as a band. Bringing joy to the stage with which people can participate is very fulfilling. So I guess “Carry On” and in turn the album Revelries is an ode to traveling, embracing life, and cherishing the experiences we are fortunate enough to enjoy.

NT: Later this month you guys will be releasing your second studio album Revelries. What similarities and differences cans fans expect in regards to your debut album? 

Tam: This album is big step forward for us as a band. It is the first time that we were able to arrange and road test every song before hitting the studio with Mitch Dane and Vance Powell. It features Leslie Rodriguez on lead vocals on three tracks and gives a clear voice to each band member. The album is very upbeat. We tracked almost everything live to maintain the feel of our show as much as possible. We’re thrilled to be releasing it into the world this month. 

NT: With your last release being a live album titled Party!, do you guys ever feel too much pressure to always bring the high-energy sonic shenanigans whenever you play a show? 

Tam: Great question! We definitely keep the energy full-tilt whenever possible because we just love putting on an up-beat and fun set. However, when we headline an intimate club or theater we take the opportunity to play our favorite ballads and story songs that wouldn’t fit in our festival-style sets. There is a time and place for each type of song and we try to be judicious about figuring that out each night. We can’t wait for SXSW. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Interview with Hurray for the Riff Raff

Hurray for the Riff Raff is about to head out on the road for a headlining tour and you can bet your sweet bippy I’m jazzed to finally get to check them out live at Lincoln Hall when they roll through Chicago. While you scroll through the tour dates to find your own city, listen to their 4-track The Body Electric Tour EP exclusively here on NoiseTrade. Featuring two tracks from their most recent album Small Town Heroes, a Billie Holiday cover, and a song written for Trayvon Martin, The Body Electric Tour EP is jam-packed with musical richness and social commentary. I talked to Alynda Lee Segarra, the heart and soul behind Hurray for the Riff Raff, about each of the tracks on the EP, her involvement with The Body Electric Fund, and what drives the topical, protest singer spirit of her work. 

NoiseTrade: As a songwriter, your music has always had a bigger goal than just enjoyment and entertainment. Where was the social change/activist/protest singer seed first planted in you? 

Alynda Lee Segarra: I think growing up in New York City and experiencing the Nuyorican CafĂ© (which hosted very politically focused poets) had a big impact on me. Also, the punk scene in the Lower East Side showed me how music can focus on what you see happening in the world around you. A lot of what I loved artistically growing up was either focused on creating change in the world or creating relief from despair. 

NT: To that point, The Body Electric Tour [EP] features a couple of your most topical songs to date, “Everybody Knows” and “The Body Electric.” Can you walk us through what you were responding to in each of those songs? 

Segarra: “Everybody Knows” is my response to the murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. I felt like I was going crazy as I watched his story unravel in the news. I felt like there was a struggle in the media to accept his death and to even paint him as a thug. I wanted to link his death to my visit to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN. I wanted to remind the listener of how in the past, the masses have been convinced to demonize black people. We need to remember that in order to change it and to call it out when it's happening again. We all know where that road leads us, but if we forget it we will end up at the same violent dead end. “The Body Electric” has a similar focus of dismantling the weaponization of women's bodies. As women, we are told that we attract violence and if we dress a certain way and behave a certain way we will not receive that violence. That is not true, we cannot stop it with limits to our behavior. There needs to be a new thought process of how we are treated and respected. This thought process is also true for people of color and queer people. Both songs touch on how we are human and how we deserve to be ourselves and live without the threat of danger or murder.

NT: Last September you ran an extremely successful Indiegogo campaign to shoot a video for “The Body Electric” and to help support The Body Electric Fund, which works with organizations like The Third Wave Fund and The Trayvon Martin Foundation. Can you tell us a bit more about your involvement with those organizations and how individuals can still help contribute even though the initial Indiegogo campaign is over? 

Segarra: I wanted to raise awareness of The Trayvon Martin Foundation and Third Wave because I feel like musicians and artists get attention when we care about social issues, but these are the people who are working everyday to try to build a better world. We are still raising money for these great organizations and have a link available through “The Body Electric” music video. 

NT: On The Body Electric Tour [EP], you’ve also included your cover of Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow” from your My Dearest Darkest Neighbor covers album. What’s your connection to the song? 

Segarra: This is a song I combined with a Big Bill Broonzy guitar tune I learned. I love his guitar style and Billie's rendition of "Fine and Mellow" has always touched me. I have been very inspired by her and wanted to add some very raw guitar playing to the tune. 

NT: To round out the songs on The Body Electric Tour [EP], there’s “I Know It’s Wrong  (But That’s Alright),” whose music video captures the most amazing roller skating party I think I’ve ever seen. First, can I get an invite to the next one you throw and second, the lyric “It’s never wrong to hop a fence” has always stuck out to me in that song. What does that line mean to you and what do you see when you sing it? 

Segarra: First off, yes, definitely! The whole time we listened to Salt N' Pepa and MIA! Second, though I like to be a little mysterious, I can say that I am a firm believer in always breaking the rules and fully being yourself, no matter how much it confuses those around you. It's your life. Live it.