Thursday, December 30, 2010

Classical Talent: Joseph Sheppard

Steeped in the tradition of Baroque masters such as Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn, Joseph Sheppard's mastery of classical techniques helped him carve out a life as an acclaimed painter and sculptor.

He has received portrait commissions for the likes of President George H.W. Bush and Pope Benedict XVI, and his bronze sculptures, among them the Holocaust Monument and Pope John Paul II and Saint Francis, are on view in Baltimore.

Marin-Price Galleries in Chevy Chase now is showing a selection of Sheppard's paintings and sculptures. The oil paintings range from still life's of lemons to bustling bar scenes.

Sheppard, who taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art and wrote several books on drawing human anatomy, prefers people as subject matter, but does not use live models.

"They're never as good as what's in my head," he says. "If you take someone like Michelangelo, he never used models. All those figures are made up from his knowledge of anatomy. He can twist them and make them do whatever he wants to do with them."

A further link to his classical roots, Sheppard believes an artist's ability to depict the human figure is the true test of his talents.

"Before the abstract thing came along, the highest form of art was the human figure, from the Greeks on down. Then you had portraiture, then you had landscape and then you had still life, but they were ranked in that order. So when you look back at the Renaissance or the Baroque period, the greatest artists were always the figure painters," Sheppard says.

Born in Owings Mills, a suburb of Baltimore, Sheppard's art education began when he was admitted to MICA in 1948 after high school. He studied under Jacques Maroger, the former technical director of the Louvre in Paris. Credited with rediscovering the lead-based medium 17th century master painters used, Maroger, gallery owner Francisco Marin-Price says, is highly regarded across the Atlantic.

"In Europe, if you go to art school to get a degree in fine art, you cannot graduate unless you do a course in Jacques Maroger," says Marin-Price. "That's how important they think he is."

When Marin-Price opened his gallery in 1992, Sheppard was the first artist he featured. The two met at Vernable, a Dupont Circle gallery that showed Sheppard's pieces where Marin-Price once worked. This is Sheppard's 20th exhibit at the Chevy Chase gallery, and Marin-Price thinks highly of both the man and his art.

"I have never heard him criticize another artist, never," Marin-Price says. "But, if he sees a painting that is really outstanding by somebody else, he compliments them. He never tries to pull them down, which is a very common thing artists do."

Sheppard started his career as a painter, but moved to Italy 40 years ago to pursue sculpting. He says he is self-taught and the transition between mediums was relatively easy.

"I draw in a three-dimensional way and paint in a three-dimensional way so I think [in] three dimensions, so it wasn't a big step to go from the painting to the sculpture," he says.

Sheppard owns a 300-year-old farm in Pietrasanta (Italian for holy stone), a town in northern Italy that has some of the world's best foundries. A hotspot for sculptors and artists, it became well-known when sculptors such as Michelangelo went there for its statuary, which is a soft, grainless stone. Sheppard, who creates his sculptures mostly in Italy, divides his time between his Pietrasanta and Baltimore residences. Currently, he is working on a nine-foot sculpture of Baltimore Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson.Some of the work featured in the Marin-Price exhibit may make its way to the Leroy Merritt Center for the Art of Joe Sheppard, a gallery established by the University of Maryland, University College, in Adelphi. The gallery opened in April, and Marin-Price says the timing is a rarity for artists.

"That is a huge, huge event in the life of an artist because most artists do not end up with that distinction until they're very well dead," Marin-Price says.

The three sections of the gallery exhibit Sheppard's drawings, paintings and sculptures. With its windows and open space, the sculpture garden consists of 25 works that span Sheppard's career and vary in medium from terra cotta to marble. Attached to the sculpture garden is a gallery with paintings that will rotate every year. As an educational institution, UMUC saw a kindred spirit in Sheppard's past teaching career, so the study center devoted to his personal collection of books and his original drawings also serves as an interactive, educational exhibit.

"You're surrounded by a lot of his anatomy drawings," UMUC Arts Program Director Eric Key says. "You'll be able to go in and pull out the drawer and pull out the pieces and study [them]."

The center was funded by the late philanthropist and commercial real estate developer Leroy Merritt, who was a personal friend of Sheppard's. Merritt died in January before the center opened.

Despite his acclaim and accomplishments, Sheppard says he still has aspirations as an artist. Forever admiring the masters of the past, he looks to those who inspire him as the standard he hopes to reach.

"I look at [17th century Flemish Baroque] Ruben's painting or Rembrandt's painting. I haven't achieved that yet, and I want to, so that's what I hold up as my model," he says.

Sculpture photo by Anthony Castellano/The Gazette
Photos courtesy University Maryland, University College

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Road Warriors: Crystal Castles (Last article for Express)

For Crystal Castles, the road is home — literally. Neither beatmaker Ethan Kath or singer Alice Glass has an actual residence outside of whatever vehicle they're taking to their next gig.

In fact, the Canadian experimental electro duo's April release, "Crystal Castles (II)," was recorded on the road during lulls between shows. The album's production venues spanned continents, from a vacant convenience store in Detroit to a church in Iceland.

"We were on tour for so long that it made no sense to pay for our apartments any longer. So, we just left our apartments behind," said Kath. When the first leg of their tour wrapped up, the band had no home left to return to. "[W]e would just stay in the last city of the tour and just find a spot to set up our keyboards and pedals and just record wherever we were," Kath said.

The two began making music together in 2004 in Toronto, mixing deep-house dance beats with walls of synthesized sound. Kath figured the collaboration with Glass would be a fleeting thing, in the vein of the one-hit '80s punk wonders he obsessively collected on vinyl.

"The bands are unknown, they've released one 7-inch, gone on a tour and then broken up — I thought we could be that band for some kids in 30 years," Kath explained.
                         
But even if he couldn't predict their staying power, Kath knew from the moment he saw a young Glass perform in 2004 that she was the X-factor he was looking for to match the wild instrumentals he'd been working on.

"She was playing in this small punk club in Toronto which holds like 40 or 50 people, and the people who were there were all these Toronto punk legends from the '80s that everybody knows ... and they were all telling her to [expletive] off," Kath recalled. "And she was, in return, calling them [expletive] and spitting beer at them — and she was 15. I was like, 'This is the most powerful girl I've ever seen. I've never seen such a tiny girl stand up to a room full of punk biker guys. This is insane.'"

After recording a batch of demos in 2005, momentum started to build for the band when they were approached by Milo Cordell of the band The Big Pink, who offered to release their songs on his label, Merok Records. While Kath was only expecting Cordell to press about 50 copies of the band's first 7-inch, Cordell informed him that the number would be closer to 500.

"I said, 'Well, you're going to be stuck with 450 copies for the rest of your life,' Kath joked.

Three days later after the release, all 500 were gone — and Crystal Castles were planning a U.K. tour.

Since embarking on that first tour in 2006, the two have been constant road warriors — with just one major setback. In 2008, Glass was in a car accident that broke two of her ribs. Though she'd been given doctor's orders to take six weeks off, she was back performing after two — no small feat for a performer who scales amps, drumkits and whatever else is on the stage.
                         
"She's possessed," Kath laughed.

The band is currently headlining the HARD Summer Tour, which includes a Friday-night stop at the 9:30 Club. They'll release a few extra B-sides in October when another single off "Crystal Castles (II)" drops, and their tour will finish up in December.

After that, the two will float around some other country until the next tour starts, which is business as usual.

"So we'll just stick around there," said Kath, "Just hang out. I guess work on stuff."

» 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; with Rusko, Sinden, and Destructo; Fri., Aug. 20, 7 p.m., $35.

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photo courtesy Crystal Castles

Friday, August 13, 2010

Original Blend: Patton Oswalt

You know what's not funny? When you're a comedian and someone steals your jokes. So, when Patton Oswalt heard that the 2010 valedictorian of Columbia University's School of General Studies had pinched one of his jokes for a speech, it was no laughing matter.

The stand-up veteran, who makes regular appearances on Showtime's "United States of Tara" as well as lending his voice to TBS' "Neighbors From Hell," got an apology from the grad, and now Oswalt is on the road and working on new material for an album set to drop next year.

Oswalt spoke to Express about his voice-acting career, his year-old daughter and the ever-vigilant eye of the Internet.

» EXPRESS: How did you get into voice acting?
» OSWALT: I can't really remember how that happened. I think someone saw me doing stand-up and brought me into do some voices and it grew from there.

» EXPRESS: How do you prepare for your different voice-acting roles? Do you try out a bunch of different voices?
» OSWALT: It's always cold reading, so there's no preparation. You just go in and they kind of flap the script down and you read it.

» EXPRESS: Your daughter was born last year in April, how has your first year of fatherhood gone?
» OSWALT: Sleep deprived, but fun. I can't complain. I like being a dad; it ended up working out really well.

» EXPRESS: Did anyone give you good advice about fatherhood?
» OSWALT: It's your own unique experience, and I was told that by enough people that it wasn't a shock when it was a shock.

» EXPRESS: How did you find out about the Columbia incident?
» OSWALT: Someone sent me a link and then the New York Times called me about it before I knew what was going on.

» EXPRESS: Couldn't have seen that coming.
» OSWALT: It was weird. I was like, "Oh, I don't even want to talk about this, but now I guess I have to." The Internet breeds suspicion, so what are you going to do?

» Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW; Sat., Aug. 14, 8 p.m., $27 - $34.50.

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photo courtesy Patton Oswalt

Friday, August 6, 2010

Heavy Metal Woodstock: Jeff Krulik, "Heavy Metal Picnic"

Maryland's own Woodstock: That was what Billy Gordon was shooting for in May of 1985 when he hosted the Full Moon Jamboree on a piece of land known as The Farm in Potomac, Md. The party lasted only a weekend, but with more than a thousand people in attendance — including some disgruntled police — the Jamboree propelled itself into local-music infamy.

Twenty-five years later, "Heavy Metal Parking Lot" director Jeff Krulik revisits the notorious party in his new documentary, "Heavy Metal Picnic." Krulik decided to make the film after screening some footage of the party shot by a friend who'd been armed with a home-video camera and a CBS microphone swiped from Ronald Reagan's inauguration ceremony.

Krulik then tracked down folks who were at the Jamboree, and those interviews offer viewers a glimpse into the heyday of Maryland's rock scene.

» EXPRESS: What was it about the footage that attracted you to the project?
» KRULIK: It's funny; it's very genuine. ...Everybody was part of that scene so they were kind of making their own home movie. Everybody just let it all hang out for their friends on camera. It's a real kind of window into this period, which is great because this is a time way before cell-phone cameras, way before the proliferation of home video — home video was very much in its infancy. Nobody had cameras and, of course, in a situation like this party, [where the crew] had a CBS microphone, it was like, "What? Is this the news?" And yet, it couldn't be farther from the news. It was just this giant kind of playground all captured on tape. Because footage from that period is really rare, when you get right down to it, that's why it really appealed to me.

» EXPRESS: How did people who were at the party react when they saw the film?
» KRULIK: They were amused and excited and interested and really nostalgic. It'd be like you watching whatever period of time you were really coming of age or really just, you know, sowing your oats. If you saw a video of it, as long as you weren't doing anything too embarrassing, you'd probably really enjoy it. And everybody who I've screened it for who was part of it really got a kick out of it.

» AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring; Fri. Aug. 6, $10.

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photo courtesy Jeff Krulik

Bounce That: Robert Mercurio of Galactic

It's easy to forget that living in a city with a strong musical tradition is a blessing not everyone shares. Robert Mercurio, bassist of the New Orleans-based band Galactic, has been lucky enough to live in two such cities throughout his life. Growing up in Chevy Chase in the early '80s, Mercurio was exposed to the D.C. punk scene at a young age and was later introduced to our town's homegrown genre, go-go.

"I used to go see punk rock shows where the 9:30 Club is," he said. "It used to be called the WUST Radio Hall, and I used to see punk rock shows when I was 13. It was not a good part of town [then]; my parents never really knew I was going down there."

In 1990, Mercurio and future Galactic guitarist Jeffrey Raines moved to New Orleans to attend separate colleges. The two become enthralled with the local music culture and formed Galactic under its influence. The group's sound is a hodgepodge of brazen brass-funk, murky jazz and high-energy hip-hop.

Mercurio said the band's February release, "Ya-Ka-May," was an attempt to reflect the different musical movements happening within the city. The album is a sort of who's-who of the New Orleans music scene, and features an array of talent from local legends like Irma Thomas to up-and-comers like Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews.
                           
"This album ["Ya-Ka-May"] was more like us trying to connect the dots between what's going on in New Orleans ... and how we hopefully all live together even though it's all kind of different," Mercurio said. "It was a uniquely New Orleans-focused album, as opposed to our other albums, which are New Orleans-focused just because we're from there."

Prior to their 9:30 Club gig on Aug. 6, Mercurio spoke to Express about New Orleans culture and the band's recent foray into the video-game industry.

» EXPRESS: There are a bunch of guest appearances on "Ya-Ka-May." Was there anyone in particular you were excited about working with?
» MERCURIO: Working with Allen Toussaint. I've known him for years, and he's such a musical legend, not only to New Orleans, but to the whole country. ... To have somebody like him co-write two songs was amazing. Also, Irma Thomas. I've heard her for years and never in my life thought that I'd actually perform with her and to have her come into the studio; it was amazing. And then, myself, I got turned onto a lot of new music in doing this process too. I got a lot deeper into the "bounce" music [a New Orleans based-genre of rap characterized by fast beats and chants] and bounce scene in New Orleans, and met and collaborated with people like Big Freedia and Katey Red and Sissy Nobby. It wasn't as big of a treat as maybe Allen Toussaint or Irma Thomas, only because I've known of those people for a long time, but it was equally as amazing to have them in the studio. They're going to be legends.

» EXPRESS: Is bounce more tucked away in the community?
» MERCURIO: To me, it's similar to go-go in a way. It's something that comes out of the neighborhood and it hasn't really surfaced beyond the city itself. ... It's similar to the go-go thing, not that they sound similar, but they both have a beat when you hear it you're like, "Okay, that's a go-go beat." And when you hear a bounce beat, you're like, "That's a bounce beat." It's kind of interesting to me that I come from two cities that kind of have this kind of music, and I forgot that that's not the case in every city.
                           
» EXPRESS: I'm sure you guys get a lot of questions about Hurricane Katrina, but how has the city changed since musically?
» MERCURIO: We lost some people, for sure. People moved out of town and never moved back and that's kind of the biggest loss to the scene. The scene has grown back to what it once was, but it kind of has new faces involved with it. It's amazing to see. I thought five years ago when Katrina happened, I thought, "Oh god, is the city ever going to be like it was, and how could it?" It's amazing. The make-up of the city has really moved back and the culture and, I got to say, it's really strong and the city has a lot of love for it now. I think in a weird way, sometimes you don't really know what you've [got] until you almost lost it.

» EXPRESS: I heard you guys were writing some music for a video game.
» MERCURIO: Yeah, we still are. We were doing it up yesterday. I can't give you the name, but it's a PlayStation game.

» EXPRESS: So it's a major release?
» MERCURIO: It's a pretty big game. It's a sequel to a previous game that sold over a million copies. It's been really fun. We're about a third of the way done with the music and it's been really fun to take our heads and see how far we can stretch it. We don't have to be Galactic. We can kind of create whatever we want. Like today, we were writing some stuff for a string section.

» EXPRESS: How has it been writing the score to a video game versus an album?
» MERCURIO: In general, it's just more of a mood-setting as opposed to songwriting. They still want melodies and they want grooves and stuff like that, but it doesn't have to be as strict as a song structure normally is.

» 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; with Lionize; Fri., Aug. 6, 8 p.m., $25.

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photo courtesy Epitaph Records

Monday, August 2, 2010

Body Talks: Robyn

When I told my 24-year-old sister that I'd be speaking with the Swedish pop star Robyn, she began belting out the singer's 1997 hit "Show Me Love" from the album "Robyn Is Here." This is a typical response for an American pop fan, as "Robyn Is Here" was the first — and last — memory many American listeners had of the then-teenage star: A fluffy, radio-friendly album co-produced by Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC hit-makers Denniz Pop and Max Martin.

After that record, Robyn dropped off of America's musical radar, though she continued to release albums in her native Sweden and across Europe. But while many of the American popsters Robyn started out alongside have either fizzled out or clung to nostalgic reunion tours, Robyn returned to the American charts in 2008 with a new, self-titled album and a defiant, electro-pop sound.

Now in her early 30s, the singer's reinvention from pop princess to no-nonsense club queen is directly linked to the creation of her own record label, Konichiwa Records, in 2005. With the dawn of Konichiwa, Robyn gained full creative control of her music. And while she no longer makes music targeted toward teen audiences, it is a past she fully embraces.
                           
"What I used to do earlier on in my career, it's still very dear to me," she said over the phone while in San Diego. "It's not something I try to separate myself from. On the contrary, it's actually something that's making still a lot of sense with what I'm doing now. Being brought up in that tradition of pop music, around people like Denniz Pop and Max Martin, who were a part of actually a thing before they started having hits with Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys, they were doing things like working with Dr. Alban and Leila K and artists that I used to listen to as a kid. To me, it's all come together full-circle."

Robyn is hitting the road on the "All Hearts Tour" — which includes a now sold-out show at the 9:30 Club on Aug. 2 with co-headliner Kelis — to promote her new album, "Body Talk Pt. 1." As implied by the title, the 8-track release is one of three in a series of releases that will all drop this year. The first two albums were written at the same time in July 2009, while the third has yet to be penned.

So far, the series has been full of guest appearances. On "Body Talk Pt. 1," artists like Diplo ("Dancehall Queen") and Norwegian duo Royksopp ("None of Dem") helped produce tracks. The second installment in the series will see Diplo's return, as well an appearance from rap icon Snoop Dogg on the track "U Should Know Better." For Robyn, who describes herself as a "pretty well-informed rapper" and has proven so on previous efforts, it was a chance to work with a kindred spirit.
                           
"It was great. He's a really nice guy, he's very smart," she said of Snoop. "He loves music, and I think that's what we connected on. We hooked [up] in L.A. a couple years ago after I did a remix version of 'Sensual Seduction.' We just talked about music and really clicked and decided to get into the studio together."

Though it may seem unorthodox to release three albums practically back-to-back, Robyn says she wanted to break from the music-industry routine.

"I've released albums for a long time and I think ... I've always enjoyed making albums and promoting them and touring," she said. "But I was getting tired of this typical thing of releasing an album and touring it for two years and not being able to be in the studio as much as I would like to. It's just an experiment where I'm trying to find a way to work where I can do more of all the things I like to do at the same time."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sexy Beast: Hugh Hefner

For Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner, work and play are one and the same.

As figurehead of the men’s magazine since its launch in 1953, Hefner has embodied the publication’s spirit with his silk-pajama lifestyle and revolving cast of simultaneous girlfriends. At the same time, Hefner has established Playboy as a cultural juggernaut, a brand at once iconic and controversial.

But while most perceive the 84-year-old magazine mogul as a man living out a never-ending fantasy of girls, parties and luxury, there’s another side to Hefner that has remained understated throughout his career: that of the social activist.

Ask him why America may not have noticed this facet, and he'll tell you that the answer is straightforward.

"I think it's fairly obvious — It's because they're distracted by the pretty ladies, both in the magazine and in my life," he said. "Ray Bradbury, in commenting about the magazine a number of years ago, said, 'People don't see the force because of the tease.'"

Academy Award-winning director Brigitte Berman's new documentary, "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel" — opening Friday at Landmark's E Street Cinema — goes beyond "the tease" and examines Hefner's history of defying and re-defining social norms. The film paints a portrait of a man who was interested in putting out much more than just a magazine filled with attractive, nude women.

From the start, Hefner has been something of a trailblazer. His 1959 television series, "'Playboy''s Penthouse," was one of the first to show black and white Americans comingling. At a time when racial tensions ran high throughout the country, Hefner wanted "Playboy" to be an integrated brand, and bought back franchised clubs in the south that refused to serve African-American customers.

It was at this time in the early 1960s, when the magazine had reached more than a million in circulation and beaten out competitors like "Esquire," that the ideology of "Playboy" truly began to shift.

"Then I realized I could include in the magazine the other half of what I was all about," Hefner said. "That's when I started doing 'The Playboy Philosophy.' We introduced 'The Playboy Interview,' and the other nonfiction pieces that helped to change the way of things."


With this shift, "Playboy" was reinvented from a men's magazine directed toward single men "with an appropriate interest for the opposite sex" to a cultural platform that railed against such subjects as the Vietnam War, police brutality and gay discrimination.

"Playboy" has always been a lightning rod for controversy, and the documentary presents a diverse collection of perspectives on the magazine, from Christian activist and singer Pat Boone to notorious KISS bassist and frontman Gene Simmons.

In the face of decades of criticism from a wide rage of fronts — religious institutions, the United States government — Hefner has stood strong. Every time he has been presented with a legal battle, he has emerged the victor. Still, there was one group whose dissent he found "troubling" at the onset of Playboy.
                           
"When it [criticism] came from neo-feminists — early feminists — I was initially blindsided," he said. "I didn't know what they were talking about. As far I was concerned, there was certainly nothing exploitive about 'Playboy.' 'Playboy' was a celebration of our sexuality."

"Nowhere did you find a more positive view of female beauty and sexuality then in 'Playboy.' It took me time to realize that the women and the people who did have a problem with it were having problems with the whole notion of sexuality. That shouldn't have been a surprise, but it was," he said. "And the reason that it shouldn't have been is, in thinking about it historically, there's a Puritan element within everything in America. So the fact that there would be some anti-sexual, Puritan elements within the women's movement is understandable."

For better or for worse, "Playboy" has had a lasting influence on America's social climate. And while controversy continues to swirl around the magazine, Hefner is confident that, in the end, history will look favorably upon his legacy.

"I would like to be remembered as someone who had some positive impact on the changing social and sexual values of my time," he said. "And I think my position is pretty secure in terms of that."

Landmark's E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW; opens Fri., $10.

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Punking Out: Deer Tick

John McCauley, singer and guitarist of indie-folk band Deer Tick, cites punk rock as a chief influence on his group's onstage antics and general attitude. Given what transpired within the first two minutes of our interview, the connection is clear.

"You don't mind if I pee while we talk, do you?" McCauley asked over some questionable sounds. "Because that's exactly what's happening right now."

In terms of other sounds McCauley makes, it's hard to reconcile how the raucous, live band McCauley describes — fueled by "drunken stupidity" — can be the same group whose albums carry an introspective, mellow tone with some country flair. But McCauley has dealt with this conundrum before.

"Our live shows have kind of gained us a reputation of somewhat of a party band. People are kind of searching to understand that about us," he says. "I think when you come to one of our shows; you should expect to have a good time, and if you're expecting to hear something that sounds exactly like the album, then you better just go home and listen to the album."
                           
Since McCauley set out on his first nationwide tour in 2005 at the age of 19 — the very same tour where he coined the name Deer Tick after taking a daytime hike in Indiana and discovering one of the little parasites on his scalp later that evening — his group has undergone several lineup changes. Now 24, McCauley says the band's current roster is what has fueled the energy of recent Deer Tick shows. So far, there have only been a few casualties.

"I got crowd-surfed into a ceiling fan once," he says. "Luckily, I went into it feet-first."

There are other changes happening within the Providence, Rhode Island-based band. On June 8, Deer Tick released "The Black Dirt Sessions," which was recorded over January 2009, just four months after wrapping up the sessions that made up last year's release, "Born on Flag Day."

According to McCauley, "The Black Dirt Sessions" is a purging of any lingering Deer Tick material. As such, the process for recording the album was straightforward, with no real planning or heavy stylization.

"It's considered our third album, but I don't think it was really put together too much like an album. That's why it doesn't have a title," McCauley says. "'The Black Dirt Sessions' is named after the studio we did it at. ...It was just kind of us cleaning out our catalog of stuff we hadn't recorded yet."

The release may also mean the last of Deer Tick's familiar, Americana sound. McCauley, who is as big a fan of Kurt Cobain as he is of Hank Williams, says that he wants to take the band in a direction more reminiscent of their live shows, with a faster, rock-oriented emphasis.
                           
"The only problem is that I haven't really written any songs like that in a long time, so I'll try to ease my way back into it," he says. "Try to channel my 17-year-old self."

Having experimented with a folk and country-infused sound for three full-length albums, McCauley feels that the time is right for expansion.

"I think we're a little terrified of being pigeonholed in any sort of way," McCauley says. "We kind of want to flex our musical muscles that we haven't used yet. In my opinion, as a performer, I just think it's a little more fun to play rock and roll."

» Rock and Roll Hotel, 1353 H St. NE; with Wye Oak, Gamble House, Thurs., July 22, 8 p.m., $12.

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photo by Travis Huggett

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Heavy Homage: Lez Zeppelin

There are two myths that have been perpetuated since the dawn of rock 'n' roll: People in cover bands aren't legitimate musicians, and girls can't rock as hard as the boys. So when Steph Paynes decided to start a Led Zeppelin tribute band in 2004 called Lez Zeppelin, it's safe to say that she experienced a few dissenters.

"If you're going to do it and you're going to be women doing it, you'd better get it together," Paynes said, who is the group's guitarist. "I don't want to add to the myth that women can't play — which is false, and if I were to go out there with a band that half-assed it, I'd be doing everyone a disservice. If you're going to do it, you're almost going to have to do it better because everyone's so cynical."

Years later and with a few nationwide tours, appearances on TV networks such as the BBC and MTV and — perhaps most importantly — a seal of approval from Led Zeppelin's guitar god, Jimmy Page, Paynes and company have proven to the critics that they are more than just a gimmick.

One of the reasons behind the New York City-based band's success is that since its start, the group (which has had about three major lineup changes) has been hesitant to follow the traditional course of tribute bands and dive into cover-band culture.

"[Lez Zeppelin] was just [for] fun because I love the music so much," Paynes said, "but then I realized, 'My God, there's this whole scene and I'm supposed to be in this scene,' and I made a very conscious decision early on because I didn't like the vibe of it and I didn't consider what I was doing to be any sort of tribute band. ... I decided to just book my band as if it were an original band and not to sign up with tribute band agents or do any of that or play those clubs or play with other tribute bands."

The fact that everyone in it is female also has a lot to do with why Paynes doesn't see the group as a regular tribute band. The musicians can't really impersonate anyone — Shannon Conley is never going to pass for Led Zep singer Robert Plant — and while there is still a certain amount of pageantry in Lez Zeppelin (dragon suits included) the girls honors their idols by focusing on the music.

"If you're a classical musician trying to take a piece of well-known music and interpret it, that's really what we're doing," Paynes said. "We're playing a very classical canon in rock 'n' roll and we're bringing our own self to it, and the energy and the power that I feel that Led Zeppelin was about. We do try to capture that; it's sort of a natural thing after awhile, when you study it this much."

As pupils of Zeppelin, the group has been thorough in its quest to embody the sound and atmosphere of its namesake. The musicians have employed a multi-faceted approach, from procuring only vintage gear for their performances to requiring sometimes high levels of commitment from some of the group's musicians.
                           
Bass player Megan Thomas, for example, learned to play mandolin and synthesizers for specific songs. Paynes not only had to master the technical, blues-based riffs of one of the world's legendary guitarists, but she also had to figure out how to work Page's signature tool: the bow.

"You need to hit it in the right place," she said. "It's almost like playing tennis."

In terms of their textbook, Paynes and her group draw from Led Zeppelin's live shows, which were filled with extended versions of songs and long bouts of improvisation, more than the group's studio releases.

And if you're wondering about their suggestive name, don't bother to ask because Paynes offers no answers. As to why she leaves it shrouded in secrecy, like everything else that has to do with the band, she's taken a few notes from the original.

"Led Zeppelin always did that," she said. "There was a lot of mystery surrounding that band, nobody knew for sure what was going on, and I think that adds to the excitement of a rock band. Too much is told now; I don't want to know everyone's details. ... It sort of brings people down to the most banal level. There's no imagination."

» State Theatre, 220 N. Washington St., Falls Church; Fri. July 16, 9 p.m., $19.

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photos by Kyra Kverno

Friday, July 2, 2010

Sleight of Hand: Victor Wooten

When Muhammad Ali spoke the words, "Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee," to describe his unusual fighting style, he was suggesting there's a certain grace to be learned from the habits of our fellow creatures.

Bass guitar virtuoso and core member of the group Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Victor Wooten, shares a similar view. He believes that developing a skill to the point that it becomes like animal instinct is necessary for mastering any trade.

"Whatever you're doing, you want to be natural at it," he said. "I don't want to have to be concentrating really hard when I play the bass; I just want to flow."

Having taken this philosophy to heart, Wooten, 45, has hosted a bass and nature camp every year since 2000 during parts of the spring and summer. Located an hour west of Nashville, Tenn., the natural environment — it's called Wooten Woods Retreat — helps students to become better in tune with their natural rhythms.

"It definitely makes you play better," said Wooten.

When he's not at camp, Wooten will be on the road this summer with his quartet, the Victor Wooten Band. This tour will be less theatrical than previous efforts like his "Soul Circus" tour, which found Wooten performing another childhood passion onstage: magic.
                                 
Though Wooten wowed audiences on that tour with feats such as levitating mid-song and making his bass disappear, his favorite type of magic involves one-on-one interactions. "That's where it blows your mind," he said.

For a man who has conquered both crafts, Wooten sees magic and music as having more in common than just a sleight of hand. "If I go to a magic show," he said, "even if I know how it's done, it's still fascinating. Music is the same way: You'll hear a song or see an artist, and it's just magical."

» 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; Fri., July 2, 7 p.m., $25. (U St.-Cardozo)

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photo by Steven Parke

Monday, June 21, 2010

Losing Literature: Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis is the type of author who doesn't leave you guessing where he draws his inspiration from. Most of his stories are framed around aspects of his real life; the most glaring example of this being his 2005 novel, "Lunar Park," which follows the exploits of an up-and-coming author by the name of, well, Bret Easton Ellis.

The chronicling of Ellis' life through his fiction has been characteristic of his writing since his literary career began 25 years ago when his first novel, "Less Than Zero," was published in 1985 before he had even graduated from Bennington College in Vermont.

A snapshot of Ellis' native Los Angeles in the mid-'80s, "Less Than Zero" was an indictment of the decadence and waywardness of the author's generation. The novel focuses on its young, perpetually despondent protagonist, Clay, as he returns home to L.A. for his college's winter break. Upon arriving in L.A., Clay reconnects with his high school friends and soon discovers that while he was away, many of them have become severely twisted by a combination of drugs, apathy and heartless entitlement.

On June 15, Ellis and Knopf Publishers released the follow-up to "Less Than Zero," titled "Imperial Bedrooms." Though Ellis maintains that he had never intended to write the next installment in the story of Clay, life intervened and brought his hand to the page.

"It took a couple years, in fact, to even get to the point to start making notes for 'Imperial Bedrooms,'" Ellis said. "During that time I was finishing 'Lunar Park' and I was also just wandering around thinking about a lot of things that were going on in my life: I was moving back to Los Angeles, I was working more heavily in the movie industry, I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler, I was wondering where Clay was, and all these things kind of form a cloud that you become enveloped in and then you begin to write notes."

The sequel follows Clay, now working as a screenwriter, as he travels to L.A. 25 years after the events of "Less Than Zero" to cast roles for an '80s-themed flick which he penned. The book is a collage of the old and new, with many familiar faces returning from the original novel who are either suffering the consequences of their youthful debauchery or still indulging in it. It is not only a reunion for the characters in Clay's world, but also of Ellis and a straightforward, clean writing style he had long since abandoned.

"Part of the attraction of this project when I was thinking about it was how attractive it would be to go back to that kind of minimalism, in that style I haven't written in, I don't know, 25 years," Ellis said. "And that was very fun and exciting and after writing some verbose novels that were very long and were narrated by people who talked a lot. It was exciting to go back to this stripped, bare minimalism and just try to achieve an effect or a mood with few words as possible. It almost becomes kind of a game."

As the plot progresses in "Imperial Bedrooms," the story becomes less of a cautionary tale of the dangers of reckless excess and, instead, takes a noirish turn as Clay becomes obsessed with a young actress named Rain Turner during his casting calls. His infatuation leads him down a path of haunting paranoia, strange text messages and gruesome acts of violence.

Just the same, the world has been a little different for Ellis since "Less Than Zero" first hit the shelves. One of the main differences Ellis has noticed over the years is the reduction of an environment that has been essential to his career: that of the literary book culture.

"It's just a very different culture now," he said. "My friends, if you talked to them five years ago, at least they'd have a book going next to the nightstand and I'd be able to talk about a literary novel. I don't have those discussions anymore, they diminished by 70 percent and they say, 'Oh, yeah, my computer, or 'I'm watching movies.' It's a different culture now in terms of that kind of book. ... You can argue that it's kind of a transitional period; we're still figuring out how to make money off of technology and selling books. Maybe down the road, it'll be a different world, but right now, it's kind of shaky and I think people are a little freaked out by the general public's lack of interest in book culture."

How will the withering literary culture affect the writers Ellis writes about? Maybe a character will drop a hint in his next story.

» Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Mon., June 21, 7 p.m., free.

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photo by Jeff Burton

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Against Tradition: Steven Greenstreet of "8: The Mormon Proposition"

The film "8: The Mormon Proposition," has all the makings of a Dan Brown novel: political intrigue, front organizations and questionable church practices. The difference is that the people in this story are real. It isn't even fictional intrigue the documentary scrutinizes, but the events — some might say manipulations — that culminated with the passing of California's Proposition 8 in November 2008.

The measure banned same-sex marriage by defining marriage in the state's constitution as only valid between opposite-sex couples. The move came just six months after same-sex marriage had been ruled constitutional by the California Supreme Court. The documentary examines the role that the Mormon church played in supporting Prop 8 and the estimated $22 million that it spent in the months leading up to the election.

For co-director, Steven Greenstreet, "8" has been a personal endeavor — he was raised in a Mormon household.

"To make a film that criticizes that thing [the Mormon church] that for so long defined my life was at moments harrowing and at other moments liberating," he said.

The film premieres June 18 at the AFI Silver Theatre — a day and two years after the first same-sex marriage took place in California.
                                
» EXPRESS: Was there anything that came as a revelation to you as you made this movie?
» GREENSTREET: Even having grown up in the church and being a Mormon missionary, I was still shocked when we got a hold of the internal documents kind of outlining the church's battle plan against gay marriage. It seems less of a plan written by representatives of God and more a plan written by political lobbyists in Washington. It was this kind of very politically scheming; all of the values I was taught in the Mormon church, of charity, of love, of loving your neighbor and tolerance were void in all of these documents that I was reading. It was so anti-gay it was mind-boggling.

» EXPRESS: How has your family reacted to your involvement with the film?
» GREENSTREET: When I made this film, I feared division and arguments within my own family and I had to battle with that every day on my involvement in this film. ...I feared horrible encounters with my own family and, luckily, that hasn't happened. My family has just been amazing and they love me no matter what and they understand that it's important to me. While we may disagree religiously and politically, they understand that love conquers all of that and I'm glad we've been unified despite our differences.

» AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring; opens Fri., through Sun., $10. (Silver Spring)

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photo by Brandon Bloch

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Stage of Development: Source Festival at Source Theater

The arrival of summer means it's festival season, and from beer to bands, there's an event for every fancy.

Theater buffs can get their kicks over the course of the next three weeks, as 300 artists descend on D.C. to take part in the third annual Source Festival. The festival — the reincarnation of the late Washington Theater Festival — will showcase artists as they perform varied and versatile forms of theater during each week of the event's run.

The fest kicks off with a week of 18 original, 10-minute plays. The second week will feature the culmination of what producer Jenny McConnell Frederick describes as "artistic blind dates." These "dates" consist of 12 selected artists who have never previously collaborated and were first brought together in the fall to create four pieces to perform at the festival. Finally, the third week will be composed of three full-length plays.

According to Frederick, the festival not only promotes the arts, but also serves as a bridge between rising stars and those who have already established themselves within the theater community.

"One of the major components of the festival is the bringing together of early-career artists, of later-career artists," she said, "to create a synergy and to help launch some careers in Washington."

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photo by C. Stanley Photography

» Source Theater, 1835 14th St. NW; opens Sat., through July 3, 8 p.m., $18 per night

Sunday, May 16, 2010

End of an Era?: Aqua Teen Hunger Force's Dave Willis

With networks such as Adult Swim and Fox featuring animated programs in prime time, it's safe to say that cartoons aren't just for kids anymore. Co-creator and voice for the characters of Meatwad and Carl Brutananadilewski of Adult Swim's nonsensical cartoon show, "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," Dave Willis is one of those responsible for never letting audiences get too far away from their Saturday-morning dispositions. Now, Willis and Dana Snyder (voice of Master Shake) are on the road as part of the "Adult Swim Presents Aqua Teen Hunger Force Live Plus Also Some Squidbillies Stuff Live" tour. The event, which features hand-puppet versions of the duo's various characters, is a variety show of sorts that will be making a Thursday-night stop at the State Theatre in Falls Church.

» EXPRESS: Did you ever imagine "Aqua Teen" would become a live entity?
» WILLIS: Actually, that's always what we envisioned. The show started as — [was] seen as — a live show. But then, we were confined by the network to make it into an animated show.
                                
» EXPRESS: Why do you think adult cartoons have become so prevalent in the last decade?
» WILLIS: I think in the last decade, we saw ... an opening and opportunity to do something late-night that didn't involve having to pay a host $20 million a year and a band in the same talk-show late-night scenario.

» EXPRESS: The characters on "Aqua Teen" were originally scripted as crime solvers, but you dropped the concept early. Why did you reference it again in the 100th episode?
» WILLIS: That was a thing that was kind of forced on us by the network. ... But the good news is that after 100 episodes, we've decided that that note was a good note and now we're going back. From now on, they're going to be detectives, every episode. And from now on, the show is called "Aqua Unit Patrol Squad." We're going to destroy the brand. This is the last thing "Aqua Teen" is doing, the last tour.

» State Theatre, 220 N. Washington St., Falls Church; Thu. May 13, 8 p.m., $25;

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photo courtesy Aqua Teen Hunger Force Live

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mirco-Messaging: Documentary Filmmaker Davin Hutchins

FILMMAKER AND FOUNDER of the online production company NomadsLand Films, Davin Hutchins is attempting to help catapult a new medium to the forefront. He describes it as the "micro-documentary," a less-than 10-minute film with a social-issue focus.

Launched in November 2009, NomadsLand Films normally produces these short pieces for nonprofits, social startups and environmental organizations. The company also handles viral campaigning for the videos and offers to train its clients in the budding art of the micro-documentary.

As an extracurricular activity, Hutchins (pictured filming at a marketplace in Sudan) has been screening documentaries at Busboys and Poets as part of his "NomadsLand Presents" film series monthly for the last three years.

» EXPRESS: Where did the idea for using micro-documentaries come from?
» HUTCHINS: I think it's used by a lot of people. ... I also work at PBS, at this thing called IndiesLab, where I work with ITVS and Independent Lens Films, and those are full-length documentaries, which I love, and we show that at "NomadsLand Presents." But I think the future with iPhones and iPads is really starting to move toward shorter-form content for people with attention spans who don't have a lot of time.

» EXPRESS: What do you think are the advantages of the micro format?
» HUTCHINS: They both have advantages and disadvantages. People will actually pay money for a ticket to see a full-length documentary. It's harder and harder to get into theaters because there's such competition. But the advantage of a short-form documentary is generally more people see it. Because whether you've put it on your YouTube channel or you've sent it out to bloggers, people can actually respond to it and pass it along with a tweet to their friends or on their Facebook [pages], so the whole idea of passing short documentaries around like a baseball card to friends, that's kind of where I think the future is going.

» EXPRESS: You were a judge for this year's Nonprofit Video Awards. Are there any videos that stood out for you?
» HUTCHINS: Oh, yeah. There's this one called "Darius Goes West" and it's just leagues above the rest. It's basically a short film promoting a DVD that's helping a person — I think he had cerebral palsy. ... It actually did win in its category.

» Busboys and Poets, 2021 14th St NW; Sun., 8 p.m., free.

Written by Express contributor Topher Forhecz
Photo courtesy Davin Hutchins

                                
                                
                                
                                

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The State of Poetry: Lemn Sissay

With a play named “Why I Don’t Hate White People,” it is an understatement to say that race has played a role in the life of British poet, playwright and actor Lemn Sissay. Sissay, whose mother came to England from Ethiopia, was placed in the care of a white foster family when he was very young and spent much of his adolescence growing up in Manchester, England. His exposure to black culture and people was limited; he first met another black person when he was 11. For a young child trying to make sense of race, these experiences could prove challenging. Still, the play takes a comedic tone and more than anything else, is a straightforward look back at what has made Sissay the man he is today.

“It's an honest, truthful comedy,” he said. “And that's who I am and that's how my audience I think relates to me. I don't play any cards. It is what is it because that's what I was feeling or seeing at any given time.”

Sissay’s first visit to Virginia Tech will be on Apr. 5, where he will read part of his play, perform some of his poetry and show one of the many BBC documentaries he has worked on. Before his arrival, he spoke with the Collegiate Times about his latest play and the state of contemporary poetry.

COLLEGIATE TIMES: I know that you've been busy touring. What is the name of the play that you've been touring for?

SISSAY: The play is called “Why I Don't Hate White People,” and part of the reason that its a success at the moment is because we have an election coming up in England and one of the elements of the election is that we have a afar right party who are gaining some serious ground so the subject of race is very present in England at the moment. But hey, the play is a personal experience and it's kind of fun and it's meant to be very funny and it is.

CT: Was it sort of planned or a matter of timing that the play is happening with what's going on with the elections?

SISSAY: For me as an artist, politics is involved in everything. We make our personal choices, but they happen in context with the world so therefore, everything we do is political. It's all good for me, as a writer and as an artist, my job is to create and I won't stop doing that.

CT: What was motivation to write the play?

SISSAY: It came from childhood really. I didn't know a black person until I was about 17 years old. I hadn't met a black person until I was about 11 or 10 years old and so that gave me a great insight into a community and I always wanted to be able to explore that insight. So the motivation was to be able to share some of what I felt were quite original insights as a child who had that particular experience.

CT: So that was something that had been stewing for a while?

SISSAY: You wait for the moment. As a writer, you have a lifetime of experience to sieve your memories through and sometimes you just have to wait until it's become fine dust before you can see what kind of clouds it's going to create and that can take a lifetime and so it's not as much, you know, it's more just finding the skills as you grow to articulate some of the stuff, you know. But also, it's incredibly important to employ imagination and to employ – to search for the original line. Everything's been talked about before man, it's like “So what? Go figure.” But, it isn't what you do, it really is how you do it. Period.

CT: Do you think imagination is something people are born with or they need to hone?

SISSAY: We are all born with active imaginations. It's why people go out and party at spring break. It's why and how people dance at clubs. It's why there's flashing lights when you go out to party. It's why clothes are in the design that they are. We are imaginative human begins in search consistently to be stimulated in our imaginations. It's why some people turn to drugs, yadda yadda yadda. It's why things are designed the way they are. It's why logos are the way logos are. We are born imaginative, creative human begins and we spend a lot of time learning how not to be that. We allow often other people to fill in the gaps with adverts and whatever.
                                
CT: For the most part, people don't flex their imaginations enough?

SISSAY: We're born creative and our imagination is manipulated, I think to get us to buy things. There's nothing wrong with buying things.

CT: Not at all. I love all my stuff.

SISSAY: But, we don't need to forfeit our primary purpose which is in some ways, possibly, to interpret the world.

CT: Do people lose sight of that purpose do you think?

SISSAY: I think what I'm saying is that people seek it. There's always a whole lot of people at the shopping mall to tell you they've found it.

CT: Then they're looking in the wrong places?

SISSAY: Some people do it through religion, some people do it through drink, some people do it through shopping. What I'm saying is we are creative, imaginative human beings. When push comes to shove; when people die or birthdays or Valentine's, we turn to poetry, we turn to arts to translate our stories. It's all part of the same creative impulse that runs through everybody. It may sound weird, does that sound weird? It may sound weird, but that's the way it is.

CT: Not really, it makes sense. But, one of the things that I really wanted to ask you when it comes to poetry is about poetry culture. What is your perception of poetry culture in the United states versus that of the U.K.?

SISSAY: I really don't know to be honest. Everywhere I've been in the world, it seems like there's a similar vibe going on. If you want to be binary about it, there's two sets. There're the page poets who are the bookish blah-blah-blah poets. By the way, I don't believe in any of these definitions. And then you get the others who are the performing poets, who perform on the stage. And the page poets look over at the performers and go “Ah, you wankers.” And the performance poets look up to the bookish poets and go “Ah, you fuckers.” It's a game and I have nothing to do it. Really, I'm a working poet and writer and have been for as long as I can remember in my adult life. I'll tell you, there is a thing that unifies poets and its got something to do with imagination and truth. All poets, whatever style they are, however they dress. Some of the most stylish poets are the most full of shit and some of the most unstylish poets are also the most full of shit. You understand what I'm saying? What I'm saying is that there is something between the poet that unites them with all poets everywhere all over the world. It's a beautiful and powerful thing.
CT: Is it a kind of searching? Is that what unites them?

SISSAY: I think we're like a family of poets. And yeah, we're searchers, we are seekers and we are finders, and you don't get one without the other, man. And there's a whole lot of people out there who are quite happy not to seek and they won't find and that's all good. There is an element of danger in seeking and in the question; there is an element of beauty in the finding. I think that we are like warriors of the spirit. We are. It's hardcore, hard serious work that's happening out there whether it's Maya Angelou or Henry Rollins. Both of them; right against there. They're workers like the tin miners. It's very easy for people to think that poet's are some sort of effect. Sort of flaky kind of dropouts. It's not that way, that's not the way it is.

CT: Even the reception of poets. Poetry in the United States has become very isolated to certain circles.

SISSAY: It happens all over the world, unfortunately. The reason that poetry has to be minimalized by a culture is because it speaks the truth and it's quite a dangerous thing to allow into the party. People don't want the guy or the woman to come into the party and say, “You know, this is a little bit messed up, folks.” Families often really would prefer we don' tell the truth around the dinner table because there's food to eat.

CT: Just want some pleasant conversation?

SISSAY: Let's just keep that like that, yeah. The poet never did that. The poet would sit at the dinner table and say “Okay, let's party folks. We need to work this stuff out.” and that's not necessarily, you know, a good thing for people.
                                
CT: So what does poetry need to do survive or is it fine?

SISSAY: It's not going away. Let me be very clear, there is poetry throughout the Bible. Okay, one of the books or the Torah, one of the books that our faiths are based on is pure poetry. Whether you believe or you don’t believe, there is no doubt that this book is an incredible story that is told to many people and is told so well. One of the things that it uses is poetry to tell its story. So for me, poetry is not on the peripheral of our society. It's right in the central of the heart of it. It's in Bruce Springsteen’s work, it's in “American Boy” that track by that English girl, it's in Nick cave's work, it's in Allen Ginsburg, it's in Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Maya Angelou; these are great people that read to Presidents. Well, not Ginsburg. So to me, poetry is not on the peripheral, it's in the heart of who we are. It's not going away, man. When you’re watching football on a Saturday afternoon and they're chanting songs, it's poems that they're looking for. It's rhyme structures, it's word play, it's rhythm. These are not the great poems of the 21st century, but they are a need to communicate through language in the manipulation of language, which is what poetry is after all. For me, it's no question; it's already around us all the time. You can go around with a blinker on the high street, invisible to the fact that you use it. On Valentine's Day, people will write it. When you’re at church, and you’re singing hymns, you will sing it and the rest of your life you may go around saying “Well, poetry is for weirdoes or poetry is not part of my life.” What is strange for me is not the poet and it’s not the poets and not the people that go to poetry readings, it’s people that don't recognize that they're so close to it.

CT: I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean.

SISSAY: In our culture, we don't see poetry as the center of our experiences and yet to me, it is.

CT: We don't recognize that we're engaging in that?

SISSAY: When it's in the Bible or whether it’s in whichever religious text you read – it's at the heart of it. Whether it’s Buddhism or etcetera, etcetera. And so for me, I'm like “Wait, how is it got to this? How is it got to that people are like ‘Oh, poetry. That's kind of weird isn’t it?’” No, it's not actually. It's kind of around you all the time. I don't know if that happens in America, but it definitely happens in England.

CT: It happens all the time in America. Why do you think people create that distance?

SISSAY: Of fear. Poets are the real thing. We've got a lot of ways of making fear acceptable and one of the ways that we do that is by rationalizing what we're frightened of out of existence.

CT: We dance around it.

SISSAY: Yeah and like (pause) Oh, I sound like a weird freaking preacher of the poetry pulpit. Poetry pulpit preacher. You know what? Ah, forget it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Burning Brightly: Fiery Furnaces

EVERY FAN HAS that moment at a concert where, gazing up at the guitar-wielding icon in admiration, the little ticket-holder wishes he or she could be the one onstage, covered in sweat under a flurry of house lights, indulging in a roaring solo or conducting a grand finale sing-along.

Luckily, for fans of the indie-rock band the Fiery Furnaces, that coveted scenario may be closer to a reality than they realize, thanks to one of the band members' own experiences as a fan.

"How fun is it being a fan of a band?" asked Furnaces' multi-instrumentalist Matthew Friedberger, who, with his sister, Eleanor, makes up the group's core. "I've been a fan of a band. But, also, it's pretty passive and boring."

To remedy that complacency and get their constituents more involved in Fiery Furnacedom, the group announced recently that its upcoming album will be, and will be called, a "Silent Record."

Despite the title, this isn't an album of 45 minutes of recorded nothingness. Rather, the songs made for the recording will never, uh, be recorded. Because music with audio is now "obsolete," according to a July 29 post on the Furnaces' Web site, the band's new passel of songs are to be released as sheet music. You want do-it-yourself rock 'n' roll? You got it.

Replacing the role of a physical record will be a songbook sporting different types of sheet music from guitar tabulator to standard musical notation to make the music playable by you, the consumer. Along with the sheet music will come other educational tools such as examples of how each song has been imagined by the band as a kind of guideline for the less imaginative.

The idea is that once fans get a hold of this unrecorded record, they can learn the songs, interpret them and then come to a Fiery Furnaces show to play them.

Inspiration for the grand experiment, Friedberger claims, came not only from the desire to boost the fans' role in the Furnaces' music but to also shake them out of the musical apathy he believes has been generated by the digital era.

"Because people have so much more access to music, presumably they're bored by just listening to it. They get everything for free," he said.

"I know when I was a kid, because I paid for it or I had to save up money to buy a record, I had to work harder at listening to it, almost. … But I think that maybe now that people have these huge music libraries for no effort, it becomes often less satisfying. So, I think people are bored with their music, with the experience of just being a spectator or a listener, and they want an outlet to participate in their band in a way that's interesting."
                           
The only things that the "Silent Record" shows can promise are that the Furnaces' involvement will be minimal and that certain fans who have gone through a screening process will be allowed to hog the Friedbergers' limelight. Whether this is for better or for worse, the unpredictability that every night will guarantee is an added perk that Friedberger is looking forward to.

"It will be different, and that's the fun of it," he said. "Some things will only be successful as something ridiculous, and some of them, probably, the music will be interesting and not have anything to do with what I write, necessarily. Just people will be doing something interesting, [even if] it's only involved with the stuff on the 'Silent Record' negatively, but what they play will be good. It'll be all different."

This mantra of "it'll be all different" is one that seems to perfectly encapsulate the group's nature. The quirky garage-blues rockers, who have dabbled in every sound from psychedelic to Egyptian-themed, have kept fans guessing with each release by employing unconventional tricks such as cuts with backward- (and, occasionally, forward-)switching lyrics (2006's "Bitter Tea") to full-length narratives from their actual grandmother (2005's "Rehearsing My Choir").

And there is no shortage of oddities in the group's ever expanding list of projects. Currently, the Furnaces are also in the process of reworking their recently released LP, "I'm Going Away," into two versions that will be handled independently by each sibling. Though it may be expected, this is not a case of sibling rivalry.

"I would be very proud," said Friedberger, when asked how he would feel if Eleanor's version of the record blew his out of the water. "It's just like a parent would say, 'It's not about better; it's about different.'"

Photos courtesy Lithe Sebesta

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Devilish Wit: Puscifer

MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN knows how to clown around.

Granted, you would have never guessed from his roles as front man for the experimental heavy-rock bands Tool and A Perfect Circle, but in mid-'90s Los Angeles Keenan used to rub elbows with the likes of Bob Odenkirk, David Cross and Janeane Garofalo at a local club that would host a small weekly variety show. Every other week, Maynard and his band would would close the night. The other band that they shared the closing spot with? Tenacious D.

"That's where Puscifer started, at [the variety show] Tantrum," Keenan said. "Then, of course, we did a little small bit in 'Mr. Show': Puscifer did a tribute show to [David Cross' petty criminal character] Ronnie Dobbs."

But as Tool and A Perfect Circle took off, the ever-changing Puscifer project went into limbo until 2007. That year, Keenan released Puscifer's debut, "'V' Is for Vagina," which was followed the next year by a couple of remix recordings of that CD, then a 2009 EP of new and live songs.
                           
But it wasn't until February of last year that Keenan put the revolving cast of Puscifer back on stage for a series of shows in Las Vegas and some southwestern states. Now he's bringing Puscifer to the East Coast, and it's a large-scale affair requiring a semi-trailer truck due to the amount of materials needed to put on the four different shows that Puscifer may perform on any given night. But don't expect a straight-ahead rock show.

"This has more in common with Adult Swim than MTV," Keenan said, referencing the willfully wacky, late-night comedy-and-animation block on the Cartoon Network.

Keenan said Puscifer isn't so much a rock concert as it is a variety show consisting of an overriding theme, comedy sketches, live music and other acts. It is for this same reason that Keenan has been describing his group as a "troupe" and their shows have been taking place in theaters instead of traditional rock venues.

"That's kind of the side of the show we need to present," he said. "We could make it a band, I suppose, and just go into a club and play. But I've done that so there's no point in doing that. I had to wait until it got a little bit big enough to take it into a better setting so that we could actually present it as a troupe with a soundtrack. A performance, not a concert."

In fact, don't even ask Keenan what goes on in a Puscifer show; if you do, he's likely to ask you if you're the "kind of kid at Christmas Eve dinner that was just negotiating with your parents to open up presents the night before Christmas?"

There are shaky camera-phone videos on YouTube of the group playing in front of flashing neon walls and randomly hung TV sets. There are also live reviews for a country-themed Puscifer performance that apparently had all the subtleties of "Squidbillies": fake mustaches, huge wigs, lewd jokes and a country-and-western backdrop.
                           
However, Keenan thinks any prior research into what Puscifer is, or preconceived notions about what it should be, would only hamper the unique experience he has spent so much time orchestrating.

"The best way to approach this band — I'm sorry, troupe — is just to show up with no expectations," he said. "You just got to come as you are and enjoy. That's kind of why we're doing this in theaters rather than in rock clubs because right away we're going to get people coming out who haven't really been in that theater before. It's already a new experience for them — they don't even know where the bathrooms are. You're kind of back on your heels as it is and it's exciting."

Photo courtesy Puscifer

He's Got Game: The Globetrotters' Anthony 'Buckets' Blakes

DURING THE PAST 84 years, the Harlem Globetrotters have become famous around the world for their coupling of competitive basketball and hoop-themed hilarity.

The comedic angle of the Trotters, which during game time involves antics like players sliding across the floor while continuing their dribble, or the whole team stopping mid-game for an impromptu football play, originated from the team's heyday when they were known for beating their opponents so badly that they would end up performing tricks just to keep the crowds amused.

But for a travel intensive team that is about to kick off a North American tour consisting of 270 games in 240 cities — including both a Dec. 29 stop at the Patriot Center and a Dec. 30 visit to the Verizon Center — just after completing a tour of 150 games overseas in countries like Iraq and China, cracking a joke or two may also just be what it takes to survive the road.

"I've only found one gray hair on my head," said Anthony "Buckets" Blakes, who sports the #15 jersey on the team, "and I think that's from all the traveling. That's from going through customs. It's hard to laugh going through customs."

With eight years under his belt as a Globetrotter and one page left in his passport, Blakes has figured out the tricks of the trade when it comes to traveling with a team that is so busy its 30 players normally divide up into two or three separate teams that tour independently of one another.

"You learn a little routine and it's all based on the person," Blakes said. "Everyone is different physically and mentally. You can tell the veterans from the rookies because the veterans have developed a routine to adapt to just about any environment, while the rookies, we're giving them some helpful hints and they're still grinding along trying to figure out how they're going to continue to play another 200 games after they've only played 70."
As for Blakes' personal routine, he cites exercise, eating right, sneaking in a nap when possible and a big breakfast as the keys to what keeps him going. After so long on the team, you might think that being a Globetrotter has become almost second nature to the 33-year-old Phoneix, Az. native, but Blakes sticks to his regiment in order to stay sharp because he feels that people expect a flawless performance every time he dons his red, white and blue uniform.

"That's probably one of the toughest parts of being a Globetrotter is trying to be perfect every single night day in and day out," he said.

Aside from the heavy travel and trying not to flub any tricks in front of an arena full of people, the pros of Globetrotting greatly outweigh the cons for Blakes. The community outreach aspect of the job, which finds Blakes and his teammates doing anything from speaking to kids at schools and rec centers to assisting charities, as well the chance to learn about the cultures of the different places he visits are two of his favorite parts of being a Globetrotter, said Blakes.

And by traveling throughout the 50 or so countries that he has visited in his time a Globetrotter, Blakes has figured out the reason behind why the Globetrotters always feel like the home team no matter what country they're in.

"We make people happy," he said, "no matter where you are, who you are or what you believe in."

Photos courtesy the Harlem Globetrotters

Nashville's New Sound: Brooke Waggoner

AT FIRST LISTEN, it's hard to imagine how country music has anything to do with songstress Brooke Waggoner. There's no real sense of the West in her style; her music generally showcases softly sung melodies complimented by piano, strings and minimal drums. But the classically trained pianist's music wouldn't sound as it does today without the heart of country music: Nashville, Tenn.

Waggoner's road to the center of country began three years ago when she graduated from Louisiana State University and started looking for a music-conscious city to begin her career in.

"I never thought I'd live in Nashville to be honest, it was sort of a whim move," she said over the phone from Nashville. "It was the closest, most affordable music city I could get to."

Her most recent release, "Go Easy Little Doves," chronicles part of that time in her life as she began to find a place for herself in a city whose most cherished "classical" composers have names like Cash and Nelson instead of Tchaikovsky and Wagner. Although she may have felt like an underdog at first, her stylistic bent only helped Waggoner find a niche in the local music community.

"People here aren't doing classical," she said. "I'm in a really weird city doing that. But, I like it. I think it causes a rub, which is really important. I think if I was in an all classical setting, my music would probably go more pop in a reaction to that."

Part of how Nashville has shaped her music stems from the very nature of its residents, something Waggoner learned about as she began to cultivate a local fan base.

"It's a musician's town," she said. "Musicians go see other musicians and I love that. It's a critical town. But at the end of the day they appreciate artistry so much and they appreciate the song and the writing so to be honest Nashville's my favorite place to play still because of the critical eye. I think its good to pay attention to what you listen to and don't be a robot."

Still, no matter how the city itself has played a role in her musical development, don't expect to hear Waggoner whistling "Dixie" on any upcoming release. She doesn't allow country, or most other types of contemporary music, to get into her head.

"I don't listen to a lot of music to be honest," she said. "I think maybe because I do it now for a living, I'm trying to find a release and my ears just get tired quick. I just try to be careful because you know, like food, you are what you listen to so I just want to really hang on to, as cheesy as this sounds, my whole inner voice thing and I want to make sure that it never sounds like a replica of someone else's work, so I really just try to filter a lot if I can."

What Waggoner doesn't block out, however, are lessons — and Nashville has taught her an important one when it comes to music.

"It just goes to show there's sort of a common thread in what people can connect to," she said. "It doesn't matter what your background is or what you're trying to do. Music is music and it causes certain emotions no matter what. It's pretty cool."

Photos by Brandon Chesbro, Heidi Ross