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

Wu-Tangy: Pretty Lights

WHEN DEREK VINCENT SMITH performs under the name Pretty Lights, he brings audiences his own blend of hip-hop and soul inspired electronic music.

Just, don't call him a DJ.

"I've never considered myself a DJ," he said over the phone during laundry duty somewhere in Louisville, Ky., late this past October. "I've never had turn tables and a mixer and spun records or done a show like that."

For Smith, the compulsion to explain to others the difference between a DJ and a producer, as he considers himself, goes past the simple fact the he prefers equipment like MIDI controllers to the more standard DJ set up when playing shows. Instead, it's something that has spawned from the time he has spent on the road interacting with groups of fans he believes have applied the most common DJ stereotype to him: that he plays other artist's material.

"There's a difference between maybe the guy who opened up, who can play anyone's music in the world," Smith said, "and the fact that I've got to make everything."
Still, Smith realizes that to some, he may sound like he's over analyzing it. "It's a weird thing ... Whenever I do explain it," he added. "I feel like a dumbass."

Whether he's being too technical or not, it makes sense as to why Smith would want recognition for the music he has been playing six days a week on his most recent tour — his production, in every sense of the word, has gotten Pretty Lights where it is today.

The sole mechanic behind Pretty Lights' sound, Smith's project is the culmination of a love affair between electronic music and hip-hop, a genre that he became enthralled with from an early age.

"My homie gave me Wu Tang's 'Enter the 36 Chambers' on a cassette tape," he said. "I'd listen to it while I did my paper route."

In high school, Smith began experimenting with electronic musical instruments, but never really considered crafting beats as anything more than a hobby.

"Production was something I did on the side, all through high school and the college that I went to," he said. "My main thing in that time was my live band."

It was only after his band fell apart in 2005, that he felt confident enough to go out on his own.

"During those years," he said, "that's where I feel like I really honed my productions skills and when that band started to fall apart, then I felt like I was just getting to the point where I could produce music that was good enough to release; that I was proud of."

By putting up all of his records online for free in between touring, which includes the double disc "Filling Up the City Skies" and the recently released "Passing Behind Your Eyes," Pretty Lights began to cultivate a steady fan base in Smith's native Colorado and the rest of the West Coast.
Now in 2009, it has been less than a year since Smith and live setting drummer, Cory Eberhard, first played on the east coast and the duo has been enjoying a slew of sold out shows all over the country at venues like the Metro in Chicago and the Bowery Ballroom in New York.

With each tour, Smith tries to improve the quality of his live performance, which has recently meant allotting funds toward a more sophisticated light show. Then again, this might have been the product of another misconception that Smith learned about while on the road, one that can take shape when you tour as a group called "Pretty Lights."

"A lot of people assume that the name Pretty Lights was like, 'Oh, let's make a band and have a really crazy light show and we'll call it "Pretty Lights."' But that's not at all what it is. The name came way before I even considered spending ridiculous amounts of money on touring with LED walls."

Smith also has future plans for the production of Pretty Lights' live sound. For his next tour, he hopes to incorporate more live elements and showcase some of the instruments he plays on the albums, such as bass guitar and synthesizers. This will not only add more diversity to the show, but might also help further his point on that particular issue of his.

"It'll make it a lot more fun for me as far as just being able to experiment with a different improvisation on stage," he said. "And also, it will make it more clear to my audience that I am not a DJ."

Photo by Darren Mahuron

Head of the Fun Patrol: Matt Iseman

MATT ISEMAN HAS been many things in his lifetime. As a seasoned comedian, he has faced every type of crowd, from the various corners of America to cracking wise for the troops in destinations like Afghanistan and Kosovo.

He can also add "TV personality" to his list of accomplishments as he is host of the Versus Network's "Sports Soup" (Tue. & Thu., 10 p.m.) — which recounts wacky sports stories with smart-aleck commentary — and a co-host on the Style Network's "Clean House" (Wed., 10 p.m.), where his afternoons have been defined by what he can dig up and tear out from some of the filthiest homes in America.

But before Iseman jumped into entertainment he was a Princeton grad with an MD who, in the midst of his residency, unexpectedly left a life in medicine in order to pursue comedy.

Iseman, who performed at Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse recently, talked to Express about his evolution from med school to the school of yuk-yuks.

EXPRESS: How often do you get to do stand-up?
ISEMAN: It's really been cut back because of the TV shows. It's the Catch-22. I moved out [to Los Angeles] doing stand-up; it's my first love. I got hooked on it when I was in med school in New York City, but now I'm on the TV shows, which is taking up all my time so I can't get out and do stand-up as much. It's a little nicer now having some exposure on TV so when I do go out it's a little more of an event for me and hopefully for the fans who come out. One of the great things in stand-up is when people come to see you [specifically], as opposed to just going to the club to get drunk and hopefully laugh. So it's been a lot of fun now that "Clean House" and "Sports Soup" have been going, when I go out and do the stand-up. It's kind of like a reunion, except none of us really knows each other. I've always loved stand-up, the immediacy of being onstage, I can't do any music at all so it's as close as I'll ever get to being a rock star. When a show's really rocking and people are laughing, you really feel like the head of the fun patrol.

EXPRESS: You switched from medicine to comedy. What prompted that?
ISEMAN: I finished med school, I got my MD and I was doing residency out in Colorado. I had that feeling when I was going into work, that pit in my stomach, and I just realized my heart wasn't in this, I wasn't passionate. There are a lot of things you can kinda do halfway, but I didn't think that being a doctor was one of them so I decided I wanted to take time off and do something completely different. I had done stand-up a couple times in New York and I was doing residency in Colorado and I just decided to pack up, go out to L.A. for a year, just do stand-up, and clear my head. I got out there and I was so much happier doing it and I was lucky enough to get into some commercials and stuff and start supporting myself pretty quickly. I never really looked back and I love going into work every night, which is probably one of the great things I get to say that a lot of people really can't.

EXPRESS: So you're still clearing your head?
ISEMAN: Exactly. At some point I should grow up and realize, "What was I thinking?"
EXPRESS: When they called you up for "Clean House," where you're the go-to fix-it guy, were you apprehensive about going into it and seeing these messy, disgusting homes?
ISEMAN: No. You know, I had seven roommates in college, so that was taken care of. Having done medicine, seeing people's bodies filled with maggots, you've pretty much seen everything — which doesn't mean we don't see stuff that is absolutely filthy and disgusting and makes me choke on my own vomit. You've kind of gotten to the point now too where I feel like we've seen just about everything. We've found people's sex toys; we've found rats in jars with the lid on. Like, who put the lid on when the rat was in there and didn't throw it away? Surreal stuff. You're almost daring a family, saying, "How are you going to shock me?" We found 35 pounds of cat feces in someone's house under a stairwell; the cat had been dead for two years. It boggles your mind to see how people live. And that's one of the fascinating elements of the show. How did it get to this?

EXPRESS: Has it had an effect on any of your own cleaning habits?
ISEMAN: Absolutely. One of the things was I was kind of a nostalgic pack rat. I hang on to everything and I would walk into somebody's house and I would say, "Wow, you've had your collection of movie tickets since you were 12 years old." I went home and I had the same thing — and rats too. If I see a rat in a jar, I no longer put the lid on, I throw it out.

Photo courtesy Matt Iseman

Tomorrow's Music Today: Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite

IT'S HARD TO IMAGINE that seasons affect rock 'n' roll, but ask Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite, and he'll tell you that as summer approaches the band's live set begins to take on a different form.

During the summer months, the Scottish instrumental group makes a slew of festival appearances all over the world from the Bad Bonn Kilbi festival in Switzerland to the upcoming Sonic Summer festival in Japan.

But as a band known for elaborately constructed, softly sweeping melodies as much as the explosive, distorted climaxes that generally follow, attempting to lull an audience with a gradually building crescendo can be a challenge when a few other, equally loud, performances are happening at the same time.

"You're trying to have a tender moment and suddenly you can hear, you know, the performance or something from the back. It's not ideal," said the group's guitarist, calling from his home a few miles south of Glasgow city.

After having too many mellow moments crushed, the band now refrains from their trademark soft/loud pattern and just sticks with the heavy stuff when performing at festivals.

From the perspective of one of its founding members, the best place to experience Mogwai — which is named after the adorable Furby-like creatures in the movie "Gremlins" and is also Cantonese for "demon" — is in a club setting.

"I probably prefer our own shows because everything is under your control," Braithwaite said. "You know, you've got the sound check and all that stuff. There's nothing very amazing at festivals. I think it's more reliably good at club shows."
Wherever they're playing, Mogwai's sound is one that has baffled rock categorizers since their start six studio albums ago in the mid-'90s. Most often, they are labeled as "post-rock," a slightly ambiguous term that describes instrumental-based rock music that goes outside of the traditional verse-chorus-verse approach and usually diminishes vocal roles.

But Braithwaite maintains that it's a lot simpler than that.

"I think we did a few singles before anyone ever heard the word 'post-rock.' We just saw what we were doing as just as a regular rock band," he said. "We just didn't have much singing because none of us are very good singers... It's weird though because when we first heard people say 'post-rock' it wasn't really bands like us that they were talking about. It was more of a fusion between dance and rock music or something. It's just come to mean music, club music, with no singing."

When Mogwai's five members convene, their goal isn't to make something that sounds Mogwai-esque, Braithwaite said — it's to make music with merit.

"I think the only pressure is to ourselves, to make music that we like," he said. "We just get together and play and if it sounds good then we keep it."

It's an ethos that sounds more present-rock than post-rock. Which is fine by Braithwaite.

"I never want rock to stop," he said with a laugh. "I love rock 'n roll."

Photo Courtesy Mogwai