Sunday, February 19, 2012

Guns N' Roses returns to The Jungle

In his 22 years with Guns N' Roses, keyboardist Dizzy Reed often is the overlooked observer in the band's headline-grabbing history.

Since joining GNR in 1990 during sessions for what would become the albums “Use Your Illusion I” and “Use Your Illusion II,” Reed has been privy to the inner workings of a band defined both by its arena-sized hits such as “November Rain” and ”Paradise City” as well as its rotating lineup, unpredictable live shows and enigmatic frontman Axl Rose.

When Guns N' Roses arrives at The Fillmore Silver Spring on Thursday night, it will continue what Reed describes as the “annex” of their first string of shows in five years in the United States.
In step with “the greatest band I've ever been in as far as lineup,” Reed spoke with The Gazette about the long-awaited 2008 album “Chinese Democracy,” GNR's future and its upcoming induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

A&E: Why did it take five years for the band to get to the states?

DR: That's a good question. I think logistically, I don't really know. I don't have much to do with that. I think at some point I probably said to myself, “Hey man, how come we haven't played the states?” I guess the timing wasn't right as far as production or whatnot. Maybe they weren't ready, I don't know. But I got to say this: I can't think of any show where the people weren't really appreciative and happy that we were there and getting into it and getting into the songs from “Chinese Democracy,” as well as the older songs and that's a great feeling for everybody.
A&E: Speaking of “Chinese Democracy,” that was the first time you received songwriting credits. How has your role in the band evolved over time?

DR: Since I came on, I think I've always added what I could creatively. I guess when “Use Your Illusions” was being recorded, all that stuff had already been written but I just added whatever I could creatively to make the songs better or, at least, in my opinion, make them better. You have to do something that adds to the song and nothing that takes away or clutters things up. There's a fine line. From the very beginning I've just been chucking ideas into the hat and some of them stick, so that's good. A lot of people think they can write songs and not everybody can. And I don't claim to be a great songwriter, but that's what I do when I'm not playing live. I work on songs and ... now everyone ... in their own right, is somewhat of an accomplished [songwriter]. Everyone's going to be adding ideas. Part of the process is sort of having the whole band sort of add to it if they can. That's what makes it a band makes it a band effort and at the end of the day, if you got a great song and Axl sings it, it's Guns N' Roses at that point to me.

A&E: Does Axl lead the charge when in the studio?

DR: For some songs, sure, but I know if we spend time and put together cool ideas and send it his way, and it's cool, he appreciates it. So some things go a little bit further, maybe. And some things don't, you know? Everyone brings things in, it just depends. At the end of the day, he's going to sing it, so it's got to flow the way he wants it to and the way he feels comfortable and the way he does put what he puts on it.

A&E: What was it like recording and working on “Chinese Democracy” compared to the 1993 covers album “The Spaghetti Incident?”?

DR: A lot of the basics for that record were actually tracked when we tracked “Use Your Illusions,” and then we added some things later and then sort of did overdubs and whatnot back in ‘93, I think, and put it out. And then shortly thereafter ... we started writing more songs and that was sort of the intro to the beginning of the intro to the writing of “Chinese Democracy.” So I don't think any other album would compare to the process that went into putting things together for “Chinese Democracy” for this band or any other band. It's funny you would mention that. That's the entire gamut right there as far as recording projects.

A&E: It just seems like “Chinese Democracy” was such a meticulous effort that took a long time.

DR: From a production standpoint, a lot went into it. There's orchestration, there's incredible programming and cool keyboard parts and lots of amazing guitar solos, whereas “Spaghetti Incident?” was pretty much a barebones band. It's funny, a lot of people forget about that record but I always thought it was pretty cool.

A&E: I heard you guys are working on new material.

DR: I keep hearing that, so I'm going to go along with that and say, “Yeah.”

A&E: Is that news to you?

DR: No, no. There's been talk. I know that [guitarist] DJ [Ashba] and Axl have been kicking back and forth some stuff and we talked about it a little bit, but I've heard that there's plans... to sit down at some point in time ...and start working some stuff up. So if that happens, great. I don't want to jinx it though.

A&E: The band is set to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. Do you feel like it has anything else left to prove?

DR: Myself, personally, I'm always going to feel like I have something to prove. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame certainly isn't the end of the line. I think it's a great thing. It's really cool for all the people who have supported the band over the years. And I try not to think about it because I don't want to get too freaked out, but just focus on the shows coming up. And when that day comes and gets closer, then I'll start thinking about it a little more.

Photos by Katarina Benzova

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Soul Singer Bettye LaVette Delivers Soul and Grit

Bettye LaVette is ingrained in the classics of soul music.

In 1962, at the age of 16, the young singer kicked off a promising career with her first single, “My Man He’s a Lovin’ Man.”

She was in good company. While making her way in Detroit, she lived across the street from Smokey Robinson, chummed it up with Otis Redding and loaned clothes to Aretha Franklin.

So, how was it working with these icons, she’s asked. What was it like, knowing the people before they became the faces of rhythm and blues?

For LaVette, now 66, they were just people.

“How did your 9th-grade classmates make you?” she shoots right back.

For LaVette, her overlap with such legends exists only because they also are musicians. The difference between LaVette and her contemporaries is obvious even on stage. Her show is not rife with over-the-top sensationalism. Often dressed in a simple black dress and backed by her band, LaVette allows her voice to be the centerpiece, the grit galvanized by the emotion she brings.

And in her demeanor, LaVette laughs often, speaks frankly and tells it like it is.

LaVette’s career did not follow the trajectory of those around her. After her initial takeoff, the album that was set to be her full-length debut was inexplicably canceled by Atlantic in the early ’70s. It was only in 1982, that she debuted in her own right with “Tell Me a Lie” on Motown.
Aside from a few recordings under Motor City Soul Records, LaVette’s career floundered, and she found herself performing regularly in Detroit.

But things changed for LaVette in the turn of the millennium. First, her original album was resurrected and released as “Souvenirs” in France under the Art & Soul label. In 2002, LaVette was invited to play at the birthday party of John Goddard, owner of Mill Valley Records. The party created inroads for LaVette and she inevitably wound up releasing the album “A Woman Like Me” in 2003 with Blue Express Records, before signing with ANTI- Records.

Since then, LaVette’s career has soared, reaching bigger and better heights as a recently unearthed gem from a classic era. Personal highlights include performing for the inaugural celebration of President Barack Obama, whom she says is as old as her career. The performance meant more to her than just a confirmation that she had arrived.

“It was wonderful,” LaVette says. “It was more for me than anybody else. I was the only person there besides Pete Seeger.”

Since 2000, Lavette has released several CDs, including “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise” in 2005 and “The Scene of the Crime” in 2007; won awards; shared the stage with former Beatles and toured with former Zeppelins. A book about LaVette is also set to be published in the fall.

Working from others’ material, LaVette identifies her work as interpreting. Each piece is carefully worked through and given her own flavor.
Her last album, “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook,” was released in 2010. Her newest, she says, will take on more modern sounds.

While adapting material, LaVette occasionally changes words if they don’t make sense to her. Feeling responsible for presenting these songs to her adult audience, she says there are no untouchables. Not even Led Zeppelin, whose “All My Love” received the LaVette treatment.

“I was fortunate enough to go on a short tour with Robert Plant last year and he said, ‘You changed the lyrics,’ and I said, ‘You have to make sense to adults who maybe weren’t high’,” she recalls with a laugh. “And he didn’t kick me off the tour.”

During the latter half of her career, while going from gig-to-gig in Detroit, the idea of quitting ran through her mind about “two hours every day.”

“I would have been stupid to just go along and keep laughing,” LaVette says. “There were absolutely hard days and those were the days when my cousin ... in Detroit would say, ‘Have another drink, hit this joint, you’ll be okay in a few minutes.’ And then somebody would call and I would be thrilled for 72 hours.”

Now, with a career as loud as her voice, LaVette may just have the last laugh.

Photo by Carol Friedman

Something to Dance About: Steve Aoki and Datsik at The Fillmore Silver Spring

Electronic music producer Steve Aoki may be in the midst of an identity crisis. From festivals in Madrid to clubs in Atlanta, Aoki is a lasting presence on the dance scene, but the man, if anything, is a rockstar.

From behind a heap of jet black hair, Aoki yells, crowd-surfs and pilots inflatable rafts across audiences during his electro house sets, pausing only long enough to steer the show’s momentum from behind his setup.

On Saturday, Aoki will shake up The Fillmore Silver Spring alongside wobble-friendly dubstep producer Datsik for The Deadmeat Tour.

It’s not just Aoki’s high-energy onstage antics that have established him as a DJ with a rock attitude. Hardcore and punk samples like the recently-reformed Refused’s “New Noise” are common over unrelenting waves of bass and synth.

Before his endeavors in electronic music, Aoki was a hardcore musician, regularly hosting and promoting parties while attending the University of California, Santa Barbara.

 Aoki became fixated with electro when it rose to prevalence in the mid-2000s. Established under artists like Justice and MSTRKRFT, Aoki says the philosophy behind the music was reminiscent of hardcore’s evolution in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“[Electro] was like the punk baby of electronic music,” Aoki says. “The ideology was very much ‘We are sovereign, we are not part of this world. We are our own world.’ It was very anarchistic. The ideology seemed to be that way. It didn’t have to say we are anarchistic, it just felt that way in that approach. ... I automatically wanted to define myself with the electro with the electro artist.”

Aoki started out as an electro purist, but his first full-length release, “Wonderland,” released in January, demonstrates a genre-hopping producer who figured out the right recipe for dance floor anthems after cutting his teeth in clubs across the country. Aoki worked on the album for years, but says he was finally committed to completing it in earnest in 2011.

“The album itself chronicles that period of time from ‘08 to 2011 of all the different sounds that influenced me as an artist. It’s diverse,” he says. “There’s some punk background in it, there are progressive songs that I never actually released until this point, there’s obviously dubstep. There’s all these different sounds that are important to me as a DJ.”

Aoki’s curiosity with other genres not only is evident in sound, but by the number of guest appearances on the album. All 13 tracks feature industry names such as Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker and Kid Cudi to fellow producers LMFAO. Perhaps the biggest crossover on the album is a track featuring Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo called “Earthquakey People.”
On an album with eternally-caffeinated artists like Lil Jon, it’s hard to imagine how Cuomo’s cool vocal delivery would comfortably translate to a dance track, but giving Weezer an electro facelift is nothing new for Aoki. The two touched base after Cuomo said the producer’s interpretation of “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To” was his favorite Weezer remix.

“I was a big fan of Rivers Cuomo since ‘The Blue Album’ [the 1994 album ‘Weezer’], so getting that kind of notice was a big deal and I think that was the door opening for him to work with me,” Aoki says.

Aoki not only has a knack for tracks, but for business, as well. Under his label Dim Mak Records, he has helped launch the careers of artists including Bloc Party since starting the company in 1996. Aoki says he signs acts that are committed to developing a distinct sound. Among the initiated are psytrance-rockers Infected Mushroom and art pop act Fischerspooner.

One of the latest to join the label is Datsik. The two toured together during the Identity Festival in late summer 2011, a roaming festival reminiscent of the model established by the Vans Warped Tour. Aoki says his decision to sign Datsik not only was to help him release his first album this year, but because they worked well together.

 “Relationships mean a lot to me. When I meet someone and they’re doing something unique and I work really well with them, it makes sense.

This is our first dubstep artist on the label and he wants to do something outside of the dubstep community and we want to do something in the dubstep community,” Aoki says.

When it came to releasing his own album, Aoki says several electronic dance artists have abandoned the trend. Top producers such as Avicii and Afrojack have yet to release albums, but still enjoy worldwide success.

“Albums define bands. To define Kings of Leon, they would need to release an album with a few of those songs in there... With Avicii, he just needs to write the next levels and then it’ll redefine his sound again, just from one song. But for me, I come from the rock world so albums are really important to my personal accomplishments.”

With “Wonderland” under his belt, Aoki plans to continue doing what he does best: using electro and house music as the main ingredients for what has become a melting pot of electronic influences.

“I just finished [a song] with [producers] Knife Party,” Aoki says. “That won’t be coming out until later this year, but that’s another new bridge. I’m all about like advancing music by testing out and evolving the sound outside of its form.”

Photo by Dove Shore