Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Justin Townes Earle

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Justin Townes Earle plays it down but, whether he felt it or not, his musical pedigree (son of Steve Earle, stepson of Allsion Moorer and named after famed country musician Townes Van Zandt) placed a huge weight of expectation on his musical development. His rocky road is well documented, but what’s unusual in his story is that from the cinders of heroin addiction he stands as a man, now 30 years old, who has emerged from the shadows of his lineage to a reputation as one of the strongest country voices of his generation. Set to release his fifth album Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now this month, Earle is hitting Australian roads for a tour in April and, as he was duly pointed out by his manager, he’s received equal billing for Byron Bay’s Bluefest with his father.

“I was a little freaked out when I first started doing it,” he says of his first forays into writing songs, “but I really didn’t spend a lot of time around my father and his friends.” This was to change dramatically when at a young age he was recruited by his father to tour with his band The Dukes, but, at least initially, he was shielded from the spotlight. “I was a Mama’s boy and I lived with my Mama so I wasn’t as intimidated as a lot of my friends, who actually grew up going to the industry parties and hanging around with musicians,” he continues. “I was a little more cavalier because I was a little more ignorant I guess. I pretty much started writing songs and within a few weeks of writing my first songs I was already performing live, and pushing things as far and as hard and as fast as I could. My Dad told me ‘If you wanna be good, don’t worry about sittin’ around, just go out and play shows and you’ll get better and you’ll become a better writer’. So that’s what I did, I just played and played and played and did all the shows I could.”

The initial spark came via writing poetry and short stories as a youngster. Encouraged by a teacher who saw a glimpse of promise, Earle entered and won a few “little stupid county writing contests” but it wasn’t until his adolescence that he began dabbling with songs. “I found [songwriting] an interesting style of writing because you have to leave a certain amount of room and you have to not say a certain amount of things in order for a song to be good,” he says. “You don’t have page after page to say it, you’ve gotta get it in there and you’ve gotta get it in in the most condensed form that you can. It’s very challenging.”

Earle’s songs are personal affairs, close to himself. Often penned in the first person perspective, they are songs about love, loss, family and life on the road – typical country fodder. Mama’s Eyes from 2009 album Midnight At The Movies directly addresses his at-times tumultuous relationship with his father (I am my father’s son/I’ve never known when to shut up/But I ain’t foolin’ no one/I am my father’s son); new number Won’t Be The Last Time appears to tackle addiction-associated regret. His subject matter never strays too far from his story’s central character – himself. “It does expose me somewhat,” he says about his writing approach, “but the things that are in my songs, I’m addressing things that people already know about me and I’m just clearing up the hearsay.”

A move from Nashville to New York City has allowed Earle the luxury of anonymity. There was a risk associated with the move in that the country ‘muse’ may be less apparent in the big city. For Earle it was all about taking a breath and gaining perspective. “It hasn’t hurt me in any way,” he says. “I definitely thought like living in the big city might change me as a musician but all it did was inform me more. [Now] I have a broader idea of human nature, which is what a lot of my writing is based on. In New York you have a lot of human contact... I love everything about it, it’s so inspiring. If anything it made me wanna move too fast, I had to kinda slow myself down.

“I’m kind of ‘bar humbug’ about going to see shows. Especially in Nashville, a lot of bands that I’d like to see, I don’t get to listen to them because people just talk. In a small club people are just poking at me all the time going ‘Hey! What are you doin’ here?’ Nashville people drive me crazy; I go out a lot more in New York ‘cause nobody gives a fuck who I am. Nobody cares in New York.”

Writing from experience opens Earle’s material up to a broad audience. We’ll get a good gauge of this when he tours here in April as he’ll be playing to very different audiences at festivals like Bluesfest and Boogie, and in clubs ranging from inner-city venues to country halls. Having seen him perform in a variety of settings over the years and witnessing vastly dissimilar audience demographics won over, I ask him whether he ever takes stock on stage and wonders how the hell these people found him? “I’ve done that several times,” he says. “Especially out here in the States, I get the traditional country fan sometimes – not many of ‘em these days but y’know, they’ll be there. But y’know, I remember this one guy with a big handlebar moustache and a giant cowboy hat standing next to this little girl with cut off shorts, a tattoo across her chest and a ring through her nose. My shows have definitely gotten more on the young side every year but it’s a pretty wild mix... I do ask myself all the time. I think something bad’s gonna happen one day ‘cause maybe they’re all gonna realise they’re all really different and hate each other at one of my shows.”

It could be seen that he’s bringing people together through his music? This is a concept Earle embraces wholeheartedly. “I think that it’s a very important thing,” he continues. “I made a decision through watching my father’s career that I would not include political statement in my music. Just because somebody votes differently doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to come out and listen to music and have a good time. My father, without question, alienates a certain part of the population.”

Despite their past conflicts, Earle and his father are on much better terms these days. As they both appear on the same Bluesfest bill this year, it seemed logical to ask what are the chances of some kind of father/son duo? “It probably will [happen] if we have the time,” he says. “Unfortunately in this business what we always run into is that we don’t have any time to do the things we wanna do – we just gotta do what we gotta do. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch his set. I haven’t seen my father’s show in... It’s been two years since I’ve seen him perform because of touring and not having the time.”

The father and son appeared together in HBO TV series (the incredibly good) Treme season one. There’s a coffee-shop scene in which the Earles share a table with John Goodman and you can almost see the younger Earle’s cup shaking with terror. Steve had already acted in HBO smash The Wire – the two shows share the same creators – so for father what may have been just another day at the office, was for son a harrowing experience. “It was absolutely terrifying,” he laughs. “One of the first scenes I was in was the coffee shop scene with John Goodman, it was horrifying. [Acting]’s something that I’m open to but it’s not something that I’m trying to do. I got enough shit goin’ on. Acting’s a pain in the ass! You’re on set all day, you do the same shit over and over. I don’t know if I have the patience for that shit. Those people are crazy.”

Charles Bradley Interview

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“My Mamma always told me, ‘You’ve got a sweetness in you, you’re a very gentle human being. Of all my kids, you’re the gentlest and the kindest, but be careful ‘cause they’re gonna eat you up out there, ‘cause you’re just like a lamb,” says Charles ‘The Screaming Eagle Of Soul’ Bradley down the phone line from a freezing New York City. “And she always told me that ‘cause I could never try to hurt nobody... It’s like if I had a piece of my bread and I see you’re hungry, I give you a piece of my bread.” And to an extent, Bradley’s mother was right – his life has not been easy.

Bradley grew up on the tough streets of Brooklyn in the 1960s. Around 1962, his sister took him to see James Brown and, he says, he instantly knew he wanted to be an entertainer. He got off the streets by entering Job Corps (an initiative helping underprivileged youths into employment) and landed in Maine where he learned to cook. It was here that he initially got a band together but his bandmates were drafted into the Vietnam War and Bradley was forced to move to Wassaic, New York to cook for 3500 people a day in a hospital for the mentally ill. He stayed in this role for nine years before making his way, gradually, to California, where he lived and worked as a chef for 20 years.

“Job Corps was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “I was livin’ in the ghettos; I was livin’ in the streets from the age of 14 until I went to Job Corps. If I hadn’t gone to Job Corps, I’d be pushin’ up daisies or in somebody’s jail ‘cause I didn’t have nowhere to go, no one to look up to. They give you a job, they give you training, they give you education and they give you self respect and that’s why it helped me.”

Though Bradley sang and performed in various neighbourhood bands and picked up small gigs throughout his time in California, his ‘break’ wouldn’t come until much later. Laid-off from his job of 17 years, he decided to move back to NYC and took up handyman work to free himself up in the evenings so he could perform.

Here, he met with mild success performing a James Brown routine under the moniker ‘Black Velvet’, and it was at one of these shows that Bradley, in his 50s, was discovered by Gabriel Roth of soul label Daptone Records. “Now at my age, I was completely shocked,” Bradley says. “It was at my giving up point and things just... I just can’t believe I got to this point, it just kinda happened over night. I travelled all around the United States searchin’ for my dreams.” But when I offer that maybe he’s finally found that pot of gold, he’s not so sure. “Everybody says that, I’m not really that sure yet see. I just found my open door and I’m just pushin’ in and tryin’ to show them all the love that I am and the person that I am and keep beggin’ for this opportunity and reachin’ out to the world and let them know that hey I’m for real. I ain’t playing y’all, ladies and gentlemen, I’m just tryin’ to give the love of me... I got this opportunity to show love and give love.”

In some respects, for Bradley to find success later in his career after working hard all his life, the recognition of his talent must have been all the sweeter. “It’s bittersweet sometimes,” he says. “I’ve been lookin’ for this opportunity my whole life. I been on my own since I was 14 years old. I’ve been searching for my music a long time. It’s just one thing I’m really holdin’ on to it and keepin’ on doin’ the best I know... I just kept my mind and heart and soul clean y’know. I want this chance and I want to be able to give it with the honesty of myself.”

His impending visit to Australia with band The Extraordinaires, will see him take the stage at Golden Plains Festival. When I relate that fellow Daptone Records soul sister Sharon Jones has been responsible for one particular festival defining performance at the same venue for (Golden Plains’ sister festival) Meredith in 2010, his excitement levels double. “I was shocked by attracting so many young people,” he says of his wide audience. “I thought I was doin’ it for a much older audience. I got young peoples, old peoples, middle-aged peoples comin’ to watch me... Anybody who really love music and listen to the music and listen to the lyrics and that’s what they’re comin’ to me for.”

He goes on to say that he’s doesn’t necessarily adhere to the thinking that it’s soul music as a ‘genre’ that allows this broad appeal. For Bradley, if the music comes from the soul and is of the soul then that’s all that matters. “When, you know, you got it goin’ down and you go out there and reach people’s soul, they feel it in the love in their heart and they know it and they relate to it. It’s not about any label you can give it – soul music, rock music, country and western music – but if you’re givin’ somethin’ that human souls can share and know it’s for real, it don’t have to have a label. You have to open up to the audience and let the audience know who you are. You’re not talkin’ to a machine on stage, you’re talkin’ to a human being. And the human being is lettin’ you feel the way you feel in your heart and sharing his heart or her heart with everybody. You look inside their heart and say ‘wow, that person’s not a bad person’.

“I have nothin’ to hide,” he says when asked if he ever feels exposed through the honesty of his music. “It’s nothin’ but the spirit that you feel inside, to tell you the truth.” And how he got labelled The Screaming Eagle of Soul? “Sometimes when I get on stage and the spirit hit me and I can’t find no words to say and it hurts so bad, so sweet and sad, I don’t know what to say so I just scream it. That’s the truth there man. When things hit me and it’s so good and it’s so sweet and you just can’t say the words, there’s just no words in my vocabulary that’s strong enough to taste that sweet as what I’m feelin’ in my heart right there, I just scream it.”

Total Control -- Interview with Dan Stewart

Everybody was talking about Total Control from the moment they appeared a couple of years back. It’s impossible to talk about the group without mentioning their musical lineages, and in mentioning their pedigrees it becomes obvious why the buzz surrounding them resonated and morphed into a storm. With their debut Henge Beat out last year and recently back from a national tour of the US with San Francisco firebrands Thee Oh Sees (and an ATP appearance at the invitation of Les Savy Fav), the band have paddled into this wave of interest and are well and truly up and riding.

Now comprising members of almost every corner of Melbourne’s guitar music royalty, Total Control began as a collaboration between Mikey Young (Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Ooga Boogas, Brain Children) on guitars/keys and Dan Stewart (Straightjacket Nation, UV Race) on vocals, but expanded into a five-piece with Alistair Montfort (UV Race, Lower Plenty, Dick Diver) playing additional guitars, noted photographer Zephyr Pavey on bass and James Vinciguerra (The Collapse, AIDS) rounding out on drums. Listening to Henge Beat, there’s far more driving kosmische-inspired space jams than jabbing punk or garage, and you quickly realise you’re not going down any path well trodden by any of the conspirators’ groupings thus far. Still, elements of all of the band member’s musical histories shine through – you couldn’t get a more recognisable bunch of players (at least the front three) together in this town if you tried – but Henge Beat is entering into bold new territory and the record rendered any hype surrounding the band well-informed and justified.

Being who they are, there is always the risk that a step away from a more signature sound may equate to a step away from audience. Stewart doesn’t see it that way, however, and seems slightly irritated by the suggestion that they bring an air of expectation, and even a ready-made audience, through the chops of the members. “I guess in a lot of ways we try to... we personally try to avoid the ex-member thing in regards to pushing the band to play shows and stuff,” he offers apprehensively. “Generally a lot of people that like the other bands, especially Eddy Current, will come watch and that’s kind of unavoidable.

“I haven’t really thought about it that much, would be the most polite way to answer. If I had to guess, I’d probably say that we’re playing to a similar audience. We approach music – with all our bands, and the bands that are kind of peripheral to us but are trying to do the same thing – with the same kind of ideal, which is kinda trying to avoid the trappings of just the way music is in 2012. We’re trying to avoid giving people something that’s insulting I guess. I feel like a lot of music and the way it’s presented to people is a bit insulting to their basic intelligence. I think a lot of the bands that come around, even bands that base themselves on delivering real primal idiotic music like UV Race, I think there’s something very honest and direct about it.”

In terms of sonic directives, Total Control, growing in numbers the way the band did, managed to incorporate the swelling size into the sound and deliver something larger and more challenging to their listeners. Stewart informs that while the parameters were far from laid out on the table, there were some specific pools of inspiration. “Before the LP it wasn’t really a band it was just songs that we were writing together,” he continues, “but the LP was definitely when the band came together. At that point we kinda knew what we were doing; we just took a lead from the songs we’d written around the early singles. We wanted to use synths and use electronics in the songs... We definitely talked about some other bands – we talked about The Screamers, Adolescents and Swell Maps – but apart from that, we just started playing and writing songs with the band. We didn’t really talk about what we were bringing to it. Some of the songs we’d been working on for a long time, so it was exciting to see it come together. Because it was such a gradual process – everything else that I’d done was like over one weekend, like it was direct and then it was done – this was over a month or something, it was weird.”

From there, the invitation to tour in the USA with Thee Oh Sees and a further opportunity at ATP opened up. The band pushed further to get a split eight-track out for the US tour and here they’ve managed to change it up again. The split opens with some moody guitar drudgery, more indicative of goth-centric ‘80s gloom pop than the pulsing kosmische of their album. The remaining three tracks draw similarities to some of the Henge Beat material, but you get the impression of a band pushing harder than most. “[The] split with Thee Oh Sees, that was songs that we put together at practice,” Stewart continues. “Mikey had demoed one of them, Al had demoed one and one of them we kind of put together on the spot from a song Al had written. This was far more a band-type thing. We were just kind of jamming at a rehearsal studio and playing them until they sounded right. They’re a lot more abrupt than the other ones because they were written more on the spot and to a time schedule, ‘cause we wanted to get them out in time for the tour. They definitely have a more raw kind of punk energy, whereas the LP songs had been planned for a while.”

Thee Oh Sees’ tour was a real opportunity for Total Control to expose themselves (now, now) to US audiences with an established name ensuring crowds will turn out. For Total Control, many of whom have travelled in the States with their lesser-known outfits and lived the grind of turning up to empty rooms in strange towns, this represented a chance to prove their worth on the ultimate touring stage. “As far as presenting music with total confidence and really making each song burst, [Thee Oh Sees] kill it every time I’ve seen them play,” Stewart continues. “When you play shows with a band like that, you’ve really gotta work a lot harder and that’s what I really love about touring is the work side of it. Like every night for five weeks or so, I just love that feeling that every night you’ve just gotta work a bit harder than the night before. Not only are you tired and the accumulated driving is getting to ya, but you’re with this other band that are pretty well seasoned and they know what they’re doing. They’re gonna be like that guy at work that will see ya every time you’re slowing down and you know you better get your shit together, you’d better work that extra bit harder. It’s good to have that person around.”