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STROKE OF GENIUS: Q&A W/ Scott McCaughey

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019

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meavatar2BY JONATHAN VALANIA Few people in this life have seen Scott McCaughey’s eyes. He’s been wearing black Ray Bans non-stop 24-7 — presumably even when he sleeps and showers — since at least the late ‘80s. Dude’s got a right. If rock n’ roll is 99% sweat equity (and one percent drugs), and it is, Scott’s a rawk star. He’s got about six or seven bands he’s playing in simultaneously at any given point in time — most of them have Peter Buck in them and the ones that don’t have Wilco in them. Paul Westerberg of The Replacements called Scott’s first band, The Young Fresh Fellows, “the best band in the world.” His next band, The Minus 5, was/is even better — an ever-morphing meta-rock thing with a constantly shifting cast of players where the only constant is that Scott writes and sings the songs. And that is a many-splendored thing because in addition to being a gentleman and a rock scholar, Scott is one of the great popsmith’s of our time, he’s also one of my favorite singers. So I was gutted by the news that he suffered a stroke in November of 2017 but very excited to hear he made a wonderful album about it. The just-released Stroke Manor — his nickname for the ICU he spent 10 days in while doctors blasted blood through his brain at firehose velocity to flush out the clot, and Peter Buck played him his awesome Beatles mix tap — is comprised of songs that occurred to him in the days immediately following the stroke. These songs pinwheel woozily with the almost-Joycean nonsense of a brain attempting to uncross its own wires. It is undoubtedly the last word in stroke-influenced psych-folk-rock. Here’s hoping he never has cause to make another. In advance of the Minus 5 performing in support of Stroke Manor at Johnny Brenda’s on Wednesday, I got Scott on the horn. DISCUSSED: The stroke, the ICU, Peter Buck, books about the Beatles, Obamacare, Rip Torn, the Mercury Lounge, Young Fresh Fellows, This One’s For The Ladies.

PHAWKER: Before we get started, I want you to know I’m a longtime fan, I go way back with you, man, I go THis_Ones_4_the_Ladiesall the way back to [The Young Fresh Fellows’] This Ones For The Ladies. I’m old school.

SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: Yeah. Yeah. I know you. [laughs]

PHAWKER: You know me?

SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: I know your name. I’ve talked to you before.

PHAWKER: Frankly I’m surprised you remembered, but yes I interviewed you backstage at Mercury Lounge for an aborted REM cover story for MAGNET MAGAZINE circa Reveal, like, 17 years ago. I’ve been a big Minus 5 fan, and have seen The Baseball Project many times, but never actually got to see The Young Fresh Fellows in the flesh.

SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: Well, your day could still come [laughs]

PHAWKER: A fella can dream, can’t he? So now, what I would like to do for this interview- I’m assuming this is cool with you, since your album is called Stroke Manor, and it’s all written and inspired by the events leading up to it — is it cool if we talk about what happened, and then dig into the new album?

SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: Yeah.

PHAWKER: So, let’s just jump in here. Tell me what happened. I’m actually very curious about this, because we’re not that far apart in age, and like, I know other people that have had strokes, and it’s like a huge lingering fear. Could you just tell me what was going on when this happened and what you recall? How did you know you were having a stroke?

SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: I was walking around in San Francisco, and I just suddenly, you know, kind of, it was- it’s hard to describe because I was totally conscious, but I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew that something was going on. I felt like- kind of like- I was gonna faint, maybe, or something, but I didn’t faint, and I just tried to slow down, and I kind of couldn’t walk anymore, and it just gradually, I was just hanging on the scaffolding by the side of the building, and just kind of waiting for it to pass, and it didn’t pass, and it just got worse and worse and worse, and I ended up lying in a puddle on the ground, [laughs] on the street in San Francisco, so, and then, you know, eventually somebody called an ambulance, and they took me to the hospital, and it went from there.

I was like ten days in the ICU, because they didn’t- the first hospital they took me to they didn’t diagnose me correctly. They didn’t want to think I had a stroke. They wanted to think that I was a drugged-out bum drunk on the streets.

PHAWKER: Oy.Stroke Manor

SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: Despite the fact that I don’t look like that at all [laughs]. Well, I think, maybe I don’t. But maybe I do. So, they were determined to just to write me off as a drug casualty. But I was totally sober, which is saying something. [laughs] But, yeah. They had to do a lot of stuff to get me back right- they had to raise my… When they took me to the stroke hospital–which is now called Stroke Manor, to me because I just started calling it that, I don’t know why–but they had to, like, pump all this blood through my brain to create a crazy high blood pressure to try to get the clot out, to try and get it to dissolve, which worked and probably, you know, saved me to a degree, because, I mean, my brain didn’t die. More of it didn’t die than it could’ve, you know, because part of it was already dead, but it could’ve gotten worse and gotten spread more, and I think they flooded it with blood so much that they kind of forced it to keep my brain from dying, basically, you know. So there was that, and that was going on for a long time and, you know, I was pretty out of it for three or four days, until I could maybe, sort of function- maybe try to make sense and communicate with people a little bit, and stuff like that. That took a while. And then, somehow, I got in my head to start scribbling down my thoughts, or whatever I wanted to put on paper. I couldn’t really talk very well at all, so it was easier to try to write stuff, but it wasn’t easy to write anything that made sense either. [laughs] But I just forced myself to write.

PHAWKER: Physically or mentally, it was difficult? Or both?

SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: Both. I couldn’t write very well. I mean, my right side had been paralyzed. So, I wasn’t writing very well, but, you know, I could just kind of scribble it out. But my brain would keep having these ideas that I should write down, but then the idea was gone, you know. The words were there one second and gone the next second, you know. It was in chaos- my brain was in total chaos.

PHAWKER: And a lot of these words wound up being the basis for songs on the new album, correct?

SCOTT MCCAUGHEY: Yeah. That’s the whole record. It was all most stuff that I wrote in the hospital, and then a couple that I wrote after, where they were still kind of in the same mind.
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BEING THERE: Kristin Hersh @ Boot & Saddle

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019

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Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER

Kristin Hersh rocked Boot & Saddle so hard on Monday night that you could almost guess the shampoo brand of the short middle-aged woman at the front of the crowd enthusiastically thrashing her stylized white coiffure. Hersh pounded her clenched fist against the body of her green Fender while drummer Rob Ahlers and bassist Fred Abong negotiated an intro, her eyes narrowed in a thousand-yard stare into the abyss at the back of the room as she delivered a verse’s gritty vocals, and then broke for a middle-eight with a chillingly disaffected gaze over her scorching Stratocaster solo.

Early on, a thin feedback pitch scored the quiet between songs, which Hersh mused to be the voice of an angel. Explained Ahlers, “most people use tuners, but we use angels,” as Hersh added with an eye-roll, “they’re expensive but so worth it.” Ironically, the three launched into the singer’s celebrated 1994 hit “Your Ghost” with one instrument mistuned, leading to several false starts received with good humor.

The trio are on tour now supporting Hersh’s latest solo effort Possible Dust Clouds, but this was to be no strict showcase of the new-and-unfamiliar as Hersh and co. salvoed her solo and Muses standards like “Limbo,” “Mississippi Kite,” “Sand” and “The Thin Man.” The three granted one encore too, following gracefully entertained request shout-outs flatteringly far-out enough to make the singer note, “these are some deep cuts, guys!,” while Abong and Ahlers traded instruments for “Broke,” from Hersh’s and Ahlers’ days as noise-rockers 50FOOTWAVE — a suitable deep-cut of their own choosing. — JOSH PELTA-HELLER

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HOWE GELB: The Influence Of Non-Influence

Sunday, June 23rd, 2019

Howe Gelb + ME (Mitch Esperanza) play @ Old Swede’s Church Wednesday June 26th. Howe Gelb has released something like 60 albums of gloriously shambling, sunbaked Americana, high desert mysticism and accidental grace. All of them should be heard before you die. His latest is Gathered, which includes collaborations with M. Ward, Anna Karina, and Pieta Brown. From the sound of it, this is his self-penned bio:

One takes issuance with band bios. They often read as if the writer is trying to sell you on something. These days, bands are brands and the bio regards them as product instead of art, and as such, commerce lies in the eyes of the beholder:

Howe Gelb chose his own name as a child as he didn’t agree with his mother’s aesthetics. He was born with one good eye and has spent his existence negotiating a 2 dimensional plane. Although his drives his car like he plays guitar, he has never had a car accident and has driven across this country countless times in 2D. This allows some evidence to the way his brain must’ve augmented such particular ocular perspective and probably means he doesn’t see things like you do, nor you like he. In addition, he is often late due to an unofficially recognized disability connecting within tick and tock; the landscape of time and clock. That said, he has never missed a plane or mode of transportation, and never been late for a gig unless it’s in his hometown. However, this has nothing to do with such disability, but all to do with family errands and general degree of desert slouch.

He was born the year Elvis had his first hit. He died up around the bend at an as-of-yet undisclosed date.
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WORTH REPEATING: The Rapist In Chief

Friday, June 21st, 2019

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NEW YORK MAGAZINE: The moment the dressing-room door is closed, he lunges at me, pushes me against the wall, hitting my head quite badly, and puts his mouth against my lips. I am so shocked I shove him back and start laughing again. He seizes both my arms and pushes me up against the wall a second time, and, as I become aware of how large he is, he holds me against the wall with his shoulder and jams his hand under my coat dress and pulls down my tights.

I am astonished by what I’m about to write: I keep laughing. The next moment, still wearing correct business attire, shirt, tie, suit jacket, overcoat, he opens the overcoat, unzips his pants, and, forcing his fingers around my private area, thrusts his penis halfway — or completely, I’m not certain — inside me. It turns into a colossal struggle. I am wearing a pair of sturdy black patent-leather four-inch Barneys high heels, which puts my height around six-one, and I try to stomp his foot. I try to push him off with my one free hand — for some reason, I keep holding my purse with the other — and I finally get a knee up high enough to push him out and off and I turn, open the door, and run out of the dressing room.

The whole episode lasts no more than three minutes. I do not believe he ejaculates. I don’t remember if any person or attendant is now in the lingerie department. I don’t remember if I run for the elevator or if I take the slow ride down on the escalator. As soon as I land on the main floor, I run through the store and out the door — I don’t recall which door — and find myself outside on Fifth Avenue. MORE

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I Went To Father John Misty’s House And All I Got Was Stoned…And This 7,156 Word Magnum Opus

Friday, June 21st, 2019

FatherJohnMisty_by_RachelWada_

Illustration by RACHEL WADA

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third and final installment of my 2013 MAGNET cover story. Part 1 is HERE. Part 2 is HERE.

Misty Mountain Hop

If Father John Misty’s life was a Hollywood movie, it would be a metaphysical jail-break thriller about a wrongly convicted man escaping the prison of belief thanks to the liberating power of rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelic drugs. MAGNET goes to the mountain to help write the script.

BY JONATHAN VALANIA

III

In Seattle, Tillman befriended Damien Jurado, whose CDs, with their Christian subtext, had gotten past the gatekeepers at home. Jurado encouraged Tillman to pursue his music, and eventually took him on tour.

“As a teenager, I fell deeply in love with folk music—the simplicity of it, the humanity of it, the emotion,” says Tillman. “But to me, it was this old form that nobody bothered with anymore. Hearing that first or second Damien record, I was like, ‘People are still doing this?’” Working construction and living in the basement of a friend’s brother, Tillman threw himself into singing, songwriting and recording. Soon he was performing and releasing music under the name J. Tillman. “I didn’t like the name Joshua,” he says. “I was named very symbolically. I was named after Joshua the bible character, and was told that my name is about leadership and courage and obedience to God and all that stuff. I was already at a point where I was like, ‘Fuck that, I don’t want to embody that. I don’t want to stand for that.’ Names take on a lot of significance when you are in, like, a spiritually minded household, so I am not surprised that that was the first thing to go.”

Taken as a whole, the seven records he released under the J. Tillman moniker are the sound of a man engaging the fallen angels of his youth in spiritual warfare. His voice was his sword; his guitar, his shield. “The music is very dark, and about death and betrayal and spirituality, man’s relationship to God, my relationship to God,” he says. “I think the reason those records are so humorless is because a lot of my childhood I was told that all of my humor was inappropriate and ungodly. But as I got older, I found the sting of that sort of thing lessening exponentially.”

After six politely reviewed, modest-selling albums on micro-indies, Tillman had a small-yet-devoted following. But the prospect of him ever being able to quit his day job remained remote at best. And then, a dramatic reversal of fortune. By the tail end of the aughts, Tillman was dating Aja Pecknold, sister of Robin Pecknold, frontman and primary songwriter of Seattle’s Fleet Foxes. In 2008, the band released its breakout self-titled debut. During the first tour in support of the album, friction between Pecknold and the band’s drummer came to a head, resulting in said drummer being fired at the end of the tour. Now Fleet Foxes needed somebody who could not only keep a beat, but also help recreate the album’s sunbeam harmonies.

“They knew me, and knew that I sing like a motherfucker and I play drums and even had a beard,” says Tillman. “It’s like I was genetically engineered to be in that band.”

When Tillman auditioned, he didn’t even own a drum kit. “I think I overestimated my interest in being the drummer in somebody else’s band when I said (I’d join),” he says. “You have to understand I was doing construction and I was pretty beaten down by the grind by that point. I worked with 50- and 60-year-old dudes every day, getting on the bus every morning when it was still dark, and I felt like a 50- or 60-year-old dude. I had been making these records that no one gave a shit about and touring my ass off. I was like, ‘Fuck this constant songwriter misery. I can do that.’”

Although the Foxes welcomed him with open arms, Tillman felt conflicted in that he had played no constructive role in their burgeoning stardom. For the longest time, when fans would approach him after shows and ask him to sign their copy of Fleet Foxes, he refused. “I would just say, ‘Sorry, I didn’t play on that,’” he says. “And (my bandmates) would be like, ‘Come on, you are in the band.’”

________

His first year as a Fleet Fox was a stone-cold gas: rave reviews, adoring crowds, more money than he’d ever seen in his life. His initial pay check from the Fleet Foxes was for $13,000, which is a fuckload of money for a guy who, three months prior, could barely make his rent. But two years of touring and living in each other’s back pocket soon took their toll on interpersonal relationships within the band.

“We were all being standoffish and short and just sort of unhappy,” says Tillman. “I was very confused. I was like, ‘How did we not make this work? How are we not all having a great time? This seems like it should be so easy.’ Instead, it turned into ‘Touring sucks, promo sucks, being in a band sucks, the isolation that I feel sucks.’ Like, everything about this sucks. And then the relationships in the band became very strained, and no one could talk to each other. It’s like, no one ever hung out. It was just very isolated, and I mean, you really need some camaraderie when you’re stuck with five people and that’s your whole world. It started feeling like a fraud to me. You know, here we are playing this kind, gentle, positive, shiny, smiley music about the sun and mountains and families and happy shit, juxtaposed with the weird, weird misery happening inside the organization itself.”

When it came time to make a follow-up to the first album, Fleet Foxes were running on fumes both creatively and interpersonally.

TILLMAN: Basically we went into the studio with no songs.

MAGNET: Zero songs written?

TILLMAN: There were some songs written, but no one had played them before. We tried for, like, six months to get together in a room and, you know, write music together, and just nobody could stand to be in a room together for very long, and Robin definitely exacerbated it. And then apathy set in. Like, we’re wasting so much money sitting around these studios and then doing things in these half-assed ways. Like, you’ve got this huge budget to make this, and everyone keeps talking about what an amazing record it’s going to be, and then we’re recording in our practice space with, like, the bus going by, so none of the tracks can be used.

And it’s just like, we have all these resources at our disposal and all this dough, and we can make this amazing thing. There was all this pie-in-the-sky talk: “We’re going to go to Iceland and record onto water,” or “We’re gonna, like, tune the mountains and play those and it’s gonna be mind-blowing—it’ll be like Astral Weeks, but better.” And six months later, we’re back in the practice space trying to piece something together with Pro Tools. Like, “OK, grab that middle part,” you know? So, that whole thing about scrapping [a completed version of the record and starting over, as was widely reported at the time] was bullshit. We limped our way into this first version of the record. There was barely any there there.

Then there was more pie in the sky, where it was like, “Oh, we’re gonna go mix it at Sear Sound and they have an old-school analog board and it’s gonna sound amazing!” We get there and it’s like, nothing in the studio works. They spent like a month (at Sears Sound) banging their head against the wall because the basic tracks sounded so shitty. We were just kind of limping through the whole thing, and it wasn’t very inspiring. But the hardness of making the album to me wasn’t so much wrapped up in the search for perfection so much as, “Does anybody want to do this? Does anyone want to be in this band or make this record and, like, try and do this thing?”

MAGNET: I didn’t like the second record nearly as much as the first one.

TILLMAN: I didn’t either. I joined this band because I was like, “Man, this is so refreshing. This music is guileless and catchy and fun to play and fun to sing.” But by that point, it’s just not much of a band. People’s idea of Fleet Foxes was that it’s these five guys in a room all singing together, you know, and harmonizing in the studio, but it’s like nobody sang on those records other than Robin.

TILLMAN: Really?

MAGNET: I mean there are like three spots of (group) harmony on the second record, but so much of the stuff that we did, Robin would go back and erase it and then do it all himself, and we’d have spent like days trying to get these vocal things the way they’re supposed to be, and then, without telling anyone, they just get scratched and re-recorded. We’d listen back and be like, “What did you do? Like, what are you doing?” And it got to a point where I didn’t even want to lay anything down. He’s either not going to like it or it’s going to get replaced. When that record came out, I refused to do any press because if anyone asked me, I was going to tell the truth, and that would be a lot different than the bullshit story that was being sold to the public and the press.
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BEING THERE: Perry Farrell @ World Cafe Live

Thursday, June 20th, 2019

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Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER

Since his days fronting Jane’s Addiction, Perry Farrell has convened several other projects, including alt-rockers Porno For Pyros, concept-electronica crew Satellite Party and, now, his eponymous Kind Heaven Orchestra — a self-proclaimed “solo project” that reads more as supergroup collective. For their debut, Farrell tapped industry heavyweight Tony Visctonti — known for his work with Iggy and Bowie and T. Rex — to produce a record featuring the likes of Matt Chamberlain (of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden), Tommy Lee (of Mötley Crüe, and Pamela Anderson), the Foo Fighter’s Taylor Hawkins, plus George Harrison’s kid, the guitarist from the Cars, and two of his own compatriots from Jane’s.

It’s all a bit of a meandering, eclectic psych-pop mess, of course. That’s not a criticism, really, it just didn’t really need to be more than that. Kind Heaven is perfectly catchy, upbeat confection that, most importantly, serves as Farrell’s new street-legal strut vehicle.

A Perry Farrell performance is invariably imbued with a self-styled joie de vivre that’s flamboyant without being gaudy and Tuesday night at World Cafe Live was no exception. Big, but not bombastic. The man just looks comfortable and right in his element, as he banters casually with the crowd and with his bandmates, with an easy, infectious grin, especially when he flirts with his wife, dancer and vocalist Etty Farrell. He looks genuinely happy, and he looks as though he genuinely wants you to be, too, as he saunters along the edge of the stage to top off the cups of front-row fans from his own bottle of Charmes de Kirwan Margaux. Every appearance feels like some sort of victory lap, a celebration of life, and of a musical catalog that’s remarkably focused — maybe even surprisingly so, given that his first forays as a musician were post-punk/pre-grunge musings of which the next chance for a deluxe multi-disc rerelease will be an almost incomprehensible 40th anniversary.

At $50+ per ticket, the bargain on Tuesday night was clear: test-drive the new one, sure ok, but — be a doll and hook up some of the classics, would you? Farrell did what he always does, staging one of the best, most tastefully theatrical rock-and-roll performances you could hope to see and making it all look easy — which at an incredible 60 years old is even more of a feat than ever. While guitarist Nick Maybury scrambled to scrape together his level-best Dave-Navarro solo-shred impressions, the lithe and lanky Farrell offered up enduring favorites like “Jane Says” and the Porno’s “Pets” and “Tahitian Moon.” He also scorched a little World Cafe earth with Zep-esque Jane’s anthems like “Mountain Song” and “Ocean Size,” delivering a live show that was, as usual, equal parts big-top bazaar and dark-arts derring-do. Clocking in at just barely 90 minutes, he even got everyone home by bedtime. – JOSH PELTA-HELLER

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I Went To Father John Misty’s House And All I Got Was Stoned…And This 7,156 Word Magnum Opus

Thursday, June 20th, 2019

FatherJohnMisty_by_RachelWada_

Illustration by RACHEL WADA

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second installment of my 2013 MAGNET cover story. Part 1 is HERE.

Misty Mountain Hop

If Father John Misty’s life was a Hollywood movie, it would be a metaphysical jail-break thriller about a wrongly convicted man escaping the prison of belief thanks to the liberating power of rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelic drugs. MAGNET goes to the mountain to help write the script.

BY JONATHAN VALANIA

II

Joshua Michael Tillman is largely estranged from his family. He has contact with his parents about once a year, if at all, and it’s been that way since he left home at 18. He just turned 32, and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon, if ever. Up until he turned 18, and as far back as he can remember, he chafed under the heavy yoke of evangelical Christianity administered by his parents. “My situation at home was troubled,” he says. “I don’t really want to talk … I just never … I’ve left this out, I’m very careful to leave this out of the narrative of the music thing because it’s like, how much do you want to bring into the public square? But my situation at home was really troubled; it was a very unhappy situation underneath the suburban gleam.”

Most of his schooling was at religious institutions where the histrionics of belief were stressed over basic academics. “I have a really poor education,” he says. “I went to a Pentecostal Messianic Jewish Day School that had 30 kids, K-8. There were two people in my eighth grade class. They believe in the ‘gifts of the spirit’ as they appear in the Book of Acts: speaking in other tongues, speaking languages you don’t know, healing FJM MAGNET COVER ARTpeople, prophecy, all that shit. They are like, that is still happening, everyone can do that, all you have to do is get baptized in fire, which is what they did to me the first day of school. Everyone in the school gathered around me and, like, put hands on me and started praying in their prayer language, which is like—if you’ve seen Jesus Camp, you know what I’m talking about. People are like [makes gibberish sounds], speaking in tongues. And that went on until I made up some gibberish sounds, which is what everyone else was doing. There was a lot of ‘slaying of the spirit,’ with kids praying over other kids, and then they would fall backwards and other kids would catch them, and they’d just be like having a seizure, which probably some of them were, like, having anxiety attacks because it was so intense.

“That never worked on me, and I was told it was because I was possessed by demons and that the demons had to be extracted. So, I’m walking around as, like, a fifth grader, thinking that I am like possessed by demons, and I’m like, ‘What did I do? How did this happen?’ Eventually, that turns into resentment, and for me it was like, ‘Fuck you, I’m full of demons—what the fuck are you talking about?’”

At the end of his eighth grade year, Tillman was cordially invited to never return. He got that a lot as he was growing up. His parents took him to a Christian therapist. “He diagnosed me with seasonal affective disorder and prescribed that I sit in front of a light box and read the bible for an hour every day,” he says.

When Tillman turned 11, he found a constructive way to channel his existentialist angst. “My teachers came to my parents and said, ‘Your son is hyperactive. He won’t stop tapping,’” he says. “I was constantly tapping on my desk and just running around and whatever. They’re like, ‘Maybe you need some extracurricular outlet for all this fucking energy.’ They said, ‘If we buy you a drum set, will you stop tapping at school?’”

Secular pop-culture artifacts were forbidden in the Tillman household. “It really was the McCarthy era in our house,” he says. “I didn’t see any movies that weren’t Christian, and my dad had a sign up by the TV that said … it’s like a King David quote, and it said ‘May my eyes only behold that which is holy and pure,’ or something to that effect.”FJM MAGNET COVER ART

Likewise, non-Christian rock was verboten, which of course had the effect of amplifying its allure. In addition to drums, Tillman began teaching himself to play the guitar, and pecked away at the family piano, but this too was fraught with peril. “We had a piano in our living room, and I would sit at the piano and play a G chord and then a D chord, and then my mom would come tearing around the corner and accuse me of playing ‘Hey Jude,’” he says. Still, he found ways to access the forbidden. At night, he soaked up the latest alternative rock like a sponge, with the proverbial transistor radio turned low and pressed against his ear under the blankets. He befriended schoolmates he didn’t really like and mutely endured their insufferable company while availing himself of their excellent record collections.

To hear Tillman tell it, his father was Ned Flanders with a Pentagon security clearance. He is currently in the business of selling telecomm systems to repressive regimes around the globe, the kind that can be used as an internet killswitch or to pinpoint the location of dissidents for arrest and god knows what else. “He would meet with, like, generals and shit,” says Tillman. “(Tracing the location of dissidents) isn’t what it’s intended for, but it does get used for that. So, you get a lot of bang for your buck when you put in a telecommunications sytem for the people of your country all the while … just to be clear, that’s just my synopsis of it. I’m sure he would not want me to reveal that, and I’m sure it’s more complex than I am making it seem.”

His mother was the daughter of missionaries, and she spent most of her formative years in Ethiopia. She was a stay-at-home mom given to wild mood swings and sometimes scary outbursts. “This was like a severely manic parent who can’t be reasoned with, an unbelievably angry person,” he says. “And the religion thing was like putting all that anger on steroids. She was prone to really irrational outbursts—pushing and provoking me, throwing juice in my face. Having said that, she is like a really fascinating person to me the further I get from it. I very much identify with her, the pain and the despair; a lot of it I chalk up to despair on her part.”

Despair from what?
Not being loved.

Was your father like that?
No, my father had kind of a different take on despair—he really wanted all of this stuff to just not be the case.

What stuff?
The family stuff, travelling around the world and then coming home to the nightmare.FJM MAGNET COVER ART

He was kind of like a passive guy?
Yeah, but I remember him intervening one time, and it was like boom! Picking [my mom] up and throwing her in another room. Talk about a primal scene, like I am being defended from my mom. Crazy.

How old were you when that happened?
That was the morning of my birthday in fifth grade, so I must have been turning … how old do people turn in fifth grade? Like 10 or 11 or something? Yeah. These things always had this really intense trajectory where it was, like, crazy anger with all the trimmings, and then intense, like, ‘I love you, I’m sorry!’ This constant kind of crazy. By the time I was in high school, I had fully emotionally disconnected from them.

In his mid-teens, Tillman started planning his escape. When he turned 18 and was legally emancipated, he would open the front door, walk the one mile to the train station and never look back. But upon graduating high school, his parents strong-armed him into enrolling at the Christian Nyack College in upstate New York.

“That was when I just really lost it,” he says. “I didn’t go to class, I slept all day and walked the streets chain-smoking all night and just didn’t see anyone. It culminated in this sort of sleep-deprived, two-day crying thing where I couldn’t stop crying and I was just thinking, like, ‘I have to get the fuck out of here. All I want to do is play music. I will move to Seattle and go fail at that.’”

And so he did.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Look for the exciting conclusion tomorrow on a Phawker near you!

FATHER JOHN MISTY PLAYS THE MET PHILLY ON SATURDAY JUNE 22ND

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I Went To Father John Misty’s House And All I Got Was Stoned…And This 7,156 Word Magnum Opus

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019

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Illustration by RACHEL WADA

Misty Mountain Hop

If Father John Misty’s life was a Hollywood movie, it would be a metaphysical jail-break thriller about a wrongly convicted man escaping the prison of belief thanks to the liberating power of rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelic drugs. MAGNET goes to the mountain to help write the script.

BY JONATHAN VALANIA

I

Father John Misty lives in a red-clay adobe pueblo on top of a low mountain in Echo Park. Good luck trying to find it without GPS and a helicopter. Down below the cloud line, the hazy glittering grid of Greater Los Angeles recedes into the infinite. From the vantage point of this fairly Olympian perch, the City of Angels looks like flecks of diamond embedded in a filthy sidewalk. Like most wise men atop mountains, Father John Misty’s possessions are few: his beard, his acoustic guitar, his vinyl copy of On The Beach and a mason jar filled to the brim with psyilocybin mushroom caps. There’s no internet access, cellular service is intermittent at best, and in Father John Misty’s world there is no such thing as TV—just Richard Brautigan novels. There is a black 1972 Cadillac Hearse parked out front that he literally bought for a song. His sole companion, besides his thoughts and psychoactive fungi, is Emma, his gorgeous twentysomething gal pal, currently a grad student at UCLA film school, and FJM-MAGNET-COVER-ARTlast seen in the “Nancy From Now On” video in a black bustier and garter belt, slapping Tillman around and forcibly shaving off his beard, Delilah-like, in a room at the Chateau Marmont. She makes a helluva kale smoothie.

Father John Misty is the nom de soft rock of one Joshua Tillman, a.k.a. J. Tillman, ex-drummer for Fleet Foxes and author of eight largely ignored and invariably joyless solo albums of pious folk rectitude. These were the songs of innocence, the whispery bedroom folk he made on the sly between globe-trotting tours wherein the Fleet Foxes charmed the pants off the world, but could barely stand the sight of each other. Those albums remain a well-kept secret.

And then one day in 2010, he blew up his life. Killed off J. Tillman, quit the Fleet Foxes, let his raging id off the short leash it had been kept on since his tormented childhood trapped in a fundamentalist Christian house of pain. Instead of muting his wicked sense of humor and bottomless appetite for the absurd, he turned it up to 11. He changed his stage name to Father John Misty. Threw his guitar and a family-size sack of magic mushrooms into the van, and set the controls for the heart of Babylon.

Look out Hollywood, here I come.

Fear Fun (Sub Pop), Father John Misty’s debut, came out a year ago, and after 12 months of trippin’-balls touring, four cinematic high-concept videos (in his latest, he dances to “Funtimes In Babylon” amid the ruins of a 747 crashed into a suburban subdivision, a set piece left over from Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds), inclusion on innumerable year-end best-of lists and a lot of swooning word of mouth on social media, the album has become the sleeper hit of the year. This despite a very public gloves-off Twitter war with Pitchfork. But more than any of those things, the reason Fear Fun has legs is because it’s front-loaded with earworms dressed up in stoned-in-the-Canyon harmonies, scuffed-denim twang and acid-witted Nilsson-ian soft-rock pastiches. And, most importantly, The Voice. Dude sings like an angel wrapped in velvet and smothered in honey. His voice is characterized by something extremely rare in modern music: the unstrained quality of mercy. To quote the Bard, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. Or, as Tillman puts it, he can sing like a motherfucker.

It is shortly after 10 a.m. on yet another glorious, sun-kissed day in Babylon when I show up at Tillman’s compound high atop Misty Mountain. His publicist assured me via text when I deplaned that he was awake and eagerly awaiting my arrival, but he seems surprised and unprepared when I get to his front door. For one thing, he is completely naked. “Sorry,” he says sheepishly after pulling on some pants. “I’m sure you’ve seen worse.” I tell him it will make for a colorful opening scene for the story. Shirtless and shoeless, wild-haired and sporting one of those Old Testament beards, he escorts me back down the stairs to a small room adjoining the pueblo. Ordinarily, this serves as the studio where he works on his paintings, but for the next couple days it will serve as my guest quarters and locus of more than eight hours of intensive on-the-record conversation.

The room is rustic and airy. A gentle breeze climbs up the green mountain and funnels through the windows and open door like a peaceful, easy feeling. There is a small choir of crickets sounding off in the corner, and the occasional lizard scampers past my feet. They are adorable, just like pocket-size dinosaurs. There are a half-dozen canvasses leaning against the walls, all brightly colored, lurid and childlike in their primitivism. None has a title except the one he FJM-MAGNET-COVER-ARTcalls Mona Lisa 2. Tillman excuses himself and returns with two steaming mugs of java and a peace pipe. Time to wake and bake, it would seem.

Well, when in Rome.

Despite the fact that, by his own admission, Tillman got a shitty education, constantly shuffled from one barely accredited Christian school to another for acting out or asking too many questions, the good Lord blessed him with a beautiful mind. He is witty, well-spoken and well-read, not to mention a preternaturally gifted prose stylist.

We sit cross-legged on the floor and pass the peace pipe before launching into an intense and expansive conversation about art and God and ghosts and all the crucial events that lead up to us sitting here: his profoundly unhappy fundamentalist upbringing in the exurbs of Washington, D.C.; his nervous breakdown at a Christian college in upstate New York; his narrow escape from the prison of belief; his desperate exodus to Seattle; his joyless tenure in Fleet Foxes; his forays into psychedelia, including a visit to a shaman in the Cascade Mountains who squeegeed away the crusted ego that was blinding his third eye and fed him Ayahuasca until he realized, to quote Bill Hicks, “that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves”; the murder of J. Tillman, the birth of Father John Misty and all the fun times in Babylon that ensued. All of which he is nakedly honest about, sometimes painfully so. He is eager, he says, to answer the many, many questions nobody has bothered to ask him. The result is one part dictated memoir, one part sinner’s confessional and one part talk therapy.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Look for Part II tomorrow.

FATHER JOHN MISTY PLAYS THE MET PHILLY ON SATURDAY JUNE 22ND

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COME AS YOU ARE: Every Nirvana Song Ranked

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

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Artwork by DIRTY LOLA

NEW YORK MAGAZINE: Like Elvis, the Beatles, and Easy Rider before them, Nirvana instantly inverted the status quo. They flipped the axis on what mainstream and alternative meant, usurping the likes of Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks, and Guns N’ Roses at the top of the charts. Seemingly overnight, the music industry was suddenly chasing down the likes of Royal Trux, Steel Pole Bath Tub, and the Jesus Lizard so as to hand them suitcases of cash. For a few years, corporate rock had to pretend to be college rock. Fashion laughably wrapped itself in flannel and heroin chic, Hollywood set a rom-com in the midst of Seattle’s music scene, while a Sub Pop receptionist outed the “lamestains” in the “lamestream” media and Cobain graced the cover of Rolling Stone with a T-shirt reading “Corporate Magazines Still Suck.” Nirvana pulled back the veil to reveal such major institutions to be the hapless fools they were then and still are now.

Musically, Nirvana was a cagey mix of ludicrously macho classic rock, scummy punk, irrefutable pop hooks, and precocious indie twee. The band remains a gateway for new listeners, a bridge between generations and extremes. Cut your teeth on the Beatles and Nirvana can quickly usher you toward Flipper and the Melvins. If you’re into your older sister’s Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin records, Nirvana could open you up to Bikini Kill and Daniel Johnston.

Teenage angst paid off well, as Kurt Cobain once humblebragged, but we fans received something in return, something that it took decades for many of us to fully appreciate. Tucked away in Journals, Kurt Cobain wrote a letter to his ex-girlfriend Tobi Vail (of Bikini Kill) about how he perceived his band in the American cultural landscape. “It’s almost impossible to de-program the incestually-established, male oppressor, especially the ones who’ve been weaned on it thru their families … like die-hard NRA freaks and inherited corporate-power mongrels … But there are thousands of green minds, young gullible 15-year-old boys out there just starting to fall into the grain of what they’ve been told of what a man is supposed to be, and there are plenty of tools to use. The most effective tool is entertainment.” MORE

PREVIOUSLY: Sometime between Bleach and Nevermind, Kurt Cobain repurposed the Pixies’ patented lulling verse/volcanic chorus dynamic to prop up the enormous chip on his shoulder during the Frankenstein-ish gene-splicing experiments with the Beatles and Black Sabbath he was conducting out in rainy Seattle. The monster would, of course, rise from the slab and kill its creator in the end. In 1994, when Cobain bit down on the barrel of a 20-gauge shotgun and pulled the trigger, he killed a lot of birds with one stone. He widowed his wife and essentially orphaned his daughter, his art and an entire generation of disciples who hung on his every word. He also managed to freeze-frame his legacy into the hallowed halls of martyrdom, ensuring that every future assessment of his work would be filtered through the grim prism of his self-inflicted crucifixion.

Doled out by the keepers of his flame to re-up the visitorship to the shrine of St. Kurt, With the Lights Out is a four-disc barrel-bottom-scraping time capsule of his electrifying tantrums and territorial pissings, and when he felt like it, his seemingly bottomless capacity for heart-shaped melodicism. There are three moments on this collection of 80-some nirvana__with_the_lights_out_by_wedopix-d38plkttracks that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up: a demo version of “Rape Me” with a newborn Francis Bean Cobain crying throughout; a solo acoustic reading of “All Apologies” that has the same angel-wing flutter of John Lennon’s acoustic demo of “Strawberry Fields Forever”; and a filmed segment of the band in a Brazilian recording studio performing Terry Jacks’ maudlin ’70s soft-rock meisterwork “Seasons in the Sun”–with Cobain on drums, Dave Grohl on bass and Krist Novoselic on guitar–interspersed with home movie footage of the band members in younger days having joy and having fun, despite the growing sense that the hills they climbed were just seasons out of time.

Much of this material–home demo tapes, radio station performances and early acoustic versions of classic Nirvana tracks–has long been traded in the shadowy digital chop shops of file-sharing networks, but the true value in this enterprise is that, as you read this, a runny-nosed kid eating Froot Loops out of a dirty bowl in some flea-bitten double-wide in Cow’s Ass, Ind., is listening to With the Lights Out and realizing he can purge all his rage, self-loathing and ham-fisted fumbling for grace into three serrated guitar chords and a primal yowl. And one day he–or for that matter, she–will change music once again. – JONATHAN VALANIA

RELATED: Steve Albini On Making In Utero Etc.

RELATED: Q&A W/ Butch Vig, Godfather Of Grunge

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JOY DIVISION: I Remember Nothing

Monday, June 17th, 2019

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the release of the acclaimed Joy Division album Unknown Pleasures. The album was the “sound of the future” when it was released in 1979, and sounds as relevant, urgent and “from the future” here and now, as it did then. One of the most pivotal albums ever recorded, Unknown Pleasures has influenced countless creative minds over the years and continues to be an instructive legacy that sees no end – a seemingly endless vision of Joy Division as truth and myth, as well as the continuing legacy being created by the band they morphed into: New Order.

Working together with the band, their visual coordinator Warren Jackson has commissioned 10 new films, one for each track on the album, which will present a filmic re-imagining of the music in 2019. Collaborating with established artists and directors as well as up-and-coming filmmakers, the clips are created by those for whom Joy Division and the album Unknown Pleasures has provided sense, form and framing, a fractured influence on their own insights, art and process.

The series of videos, sound-tracked by the original Joy Division recordings, will be released over the course of 2019 beginning in June. The first video for “I Remember Nothing,” directed by Iceland’s Helgi and Hörður who combine their skills as editor and image-maker into regularly epic visualisations realised as commercial work and music video. They have worked with the Academy Award-winning singer Marketa Irglova, as well as with Sigur Ros and Yoko Ono. Their clip for “I Remember iancurtis.jpgNothing” features Iceland’s leading actor Baltasar Breki Samper, who is also in the acclaimed TV drama “Chernobyl.” Helgi and Hörður say they are the salt and pepper for your soup, and that they are not afraid of flying.

PREVIOUSLY: An ultimate music geek movie, Control allows Joy Division über fan Anton Corbijn, the band’s one-time photographer, to reconstruct the dreary world of mid-seventies Manchester for this new biopic of band singer/lyricist Ian Curtis. It’s a dazzling resurrection, in overblown black & white. Corbijn gets every detail right in his obsession to summon the stark landscape that gave birth to Joy Division desolate vision. Once we get used to Control‘s austere beauty, we find a film hung up by the same problems that have always afflicted star bios: the rise to stardom is infinitely more engaging than the sad and steady slide down.

For the first hour though, the film moves along entertainingly, like a good Mojo profile. We see Curtis as a lanky and fey high school student, wearing his little sister’s tiny fake fur jacket and dancing in the mirror to Hunky Dory. We see him steal his friend’s girl and we see him occasionally stopping to scribble words in his notebook. Post-industrial Manchester is an uneventful little place and Corbijn directs the action like one of those sixties British working class dramas, the silvery sheen of cinematographer Martin Ruhe’s black & white giving the gloom a subtly romantic air.

iancurtis.jpgThe actors are right in tune with Control‘s underplayed dramatics, Sam Riley (who briefly played The Fall’s Mark E. Smith in 24-Hour Party People) creates an utterly human portrait of Curtis. Much of his performance is near stone-faced – an dilemma of an actors playing the depressed – but Riley’s lean frame gives him the chance to communicate with an infinite and articulate display of slumps. It’s a slump-tastic performance, which occasionally catches fire as he’s brought on stage to recreate Curtis’ peculiar marching frontman stance. MORE

RELATED: ‘Everyone Calls Us Nazis’

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UNGRATEFUL DEAD: Talking Zombies & Stooges With The Dead Don’t Die Director Jim Jarmusch

Friday, June 14th, 2019

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Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Jim Jarmusch emerged on the American independent film scene in 1980 with his feature length debut Permanent Vacation, written and directed shortly after he dropped out of film school. The film would establish the director’s M.O. going forward: an eccentric cast of hipster characters who inhabit an almost otherworldly, super cool version of New York city. Jarmusch also displayed his musical chops composing the soundtrack for Vacation, that has over time evolved into a side hustle for the director who continues to perform and record with his experimental noise band, SQURL. His next film, 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise, would cement his rep as a hipster auteur with a flair for understatement and win him the prestigious Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Since then he has gone on to make modern indie classics like Dead Man, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, Coffee and Cigarettes, and 2005’s Broken Flowers, starring Bill Murray, which earned him the Grand Prix at Cannes. In the last 30-plus years, Jim Jarmusch has built a filmography made of counterculture staples.

So suffice it to say it was a surreal experience to sit down and interview Jarmusch about his latest film The Dead Don’t Die a couple weeks back. To make this occasion even more serendipitous, the film in question is a zombie comedy starring three of my favorite actors: Adam Driver, Bill Murray and Chloë Sevigny. Still, given some of the buzz around the film from Cannes, I was a bit worried that the film would be more of an ironic piece that talks down to horror genre fans with an ironic and swarmy hipper-than-thou take. Instead, The Dead Don’t Die is a humorous love letter to all things undead filled to the brim with meta-references and call backs to the postmodern zombie film genre.

It’s a rare thing when the people whose work you’ve long admired from afar turn out to be damn cool in person. But clad headTHE DEAD DON'T DIE Poster to toe in black denim and his trademark dark sunglasses beneath a thick white cloud of hair, Jarmusch was filled with a Zen-like calm, as he professed not only his love for Night Of The Living Dead director George Romero, but the horror genre in general. Thoughtful and extremely candid, Jarmusch and I had an extremely comprehensive chat about a film that is a rather bleak statement on climate change and the generation being left to deal with it. To be clear, The Dead Don’t Die is one of my favorite movies of 2019.

PHAWKER: So first off, you’ve done a Samurai film, a vampire film. Why zombie film?

JIM JARMUSCH: And a western, and a very abstract hitman film. You know, zombies are the broadest kind of metaphor possible. And I guess that attracted me because I wanted the film to be ridiculous, and a little dark at the same time. So, zombies seemed like the kind of ideal metaphor, you know, the broadest metaphor possible for the times we live in. So yeah, I chose zombies.

PHAWKER: There’s an obvious love for the genre here at work, especially George Romero films. I mean, there’s like countless George Romero calls, which I loved. What was your initiation to the zombie genre?

JIM JARMUSCH: Oh Gosh. I don’t know, because I saw a lot of horror films when I was a kid because my mom would drop me off in Akron on Saturdays at this double feature movie theater. So I must have seen something there. You know, White Zombie, I remember, I remember I Walked With A Zombie, that’s not really a zombie film at all. Um, but I gotta say I’m not a big zombie fan. I’m a more of vampire fan, but I’ve seen a lot of zombie films. I’ve never seen The Walking Dead or stuff like that, but I’ve seen a lot of zombie stuff, but it’s Romero, because Romero is the postmodern zombie master. He changed everything. The metaphor became, so powerful.

PHAWKER: Yes with him imbuing the film with the struggle with race and the civil rights movement of the time.

JIM JARMUSCH: Yeah. And also, you know, before that early zombies are entities like Voodoo-controlled to do your bidding. Romero makes them us. They are also monsters that come from within a decaying social order, not from without. They’re not Godzilla. You know, they are the monsters, but they’re the victims too because they don’t choose to be reanimated. It’s some stupid things humans did, you know? So, wow. He really made it really fascinating, very powerful. I love Night of the Living Dead and his other films too, I liked Day of the Dead, I liked Martin and The Crazies; but Night of the Living Dead is the godmother of our film for sure. We were shooting it 50 years later and his metaphor, it’s the same, you know, it’s just the same. So, when people say ‘why didn’t he bring anything new to the social consciousness of the film.” Did we need to, isn’t it obvious?

PHAWKER: I tend to disagree with some of those folks but I’ll get to that later. But I disagree with some what some people were saying because I just don’t think they looked deep enough into your film because it has multiple layers. One thing I’m always fascinated with, in zombie films in particular, is rules. Like you’re zombies are definitely unique to your sort of universe you’ve created. How did you come up with the dust that comes out when you dismember them instead of blood? Because I thought that was fascinating and I noticed how the people that had been dead longer had black Jim-Jarmusch_OliverStafford-1108x0-c-defaultdust and the people who weren’t dead that long had green dust. And the talking as well. Like how did you come up with adding that as well to your zombies?

JIM JARMUSCH: The talking is just from Romero, from Day of the Dead.

PHAWKER: Yeah Bud the zombie.

JIM JARMUSCH: But the dust was, while I was writing the script, I took a walk and I was thinking about how I didn’t want to make a splatter movie, right? Then I was walking and I was thinking about the fact that we are what, 70% water? And our brains and lungs even more. I’m walking and I’m thinking, “Oh wow man, I’m just like a cross between a water balloon and a fucking sausage,’ you know, it was just kinda weird. And then I was thinking, okay, and if you’re dead for a long time, man, you have no fluids. You’re dry, you’re dust. So then we have ashes to ashes, dust to dust, right? So I thought I had that could be visually nice to have them just turn to dust.
(more…)

STILL STRANGER THAN PARADISE: Q&A With Eszter Balint, Actress, Musician, Singer-Songwriter

Thursday, June 13th, 2019

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview with Stranger Than Paradise star Eszter Balint originally published back in 2015. We are reprising here today for two reasons, three actually: 1. It’s interesting, if you’re into, like, interesting things 2. It’s almost certainly the most in-depth, comprehensive and exhaustive Eszter Balint career overview ever published (hey, somebody had to do it) 3. She has a supporting role in the Jim Jarmusch zombie comedy (zom-com?) The Dead Don’t Die, which opens Friday.

BYLINER mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA Eszter Balint, best known as the then-16-year-old star of Jim Jarmusch’s career-making, tide-changing, genre-defining 1984 indie flick Stranger Than Paradise, has lot of balls in the air right now. Her acting career was revived recently when Louis CK cast her as his non-English speaking Hungarian love interest for six episodes of Louie. In addition to a lengthy filmography and an impressive cast of co-stars, Balint is a classically-trained singer/violinist and a darkly elegant songwriter, in the Leonard Cohen/Lou Reed meaning of the word, who writes these inscrutable noirish tone poems telegraphing the anguished midnight of the soul. Such is the case with her new album, Airless Midnight, a dusky, sad-eyed album-long meditation on magic and loss, written in the wake of the death of her father, the noted experimental playwright Stephan Balint. To mark the release of Airless Midnight, Phawker conducted a comprehensive five-hour interview with Balint. By her admission, it’s the most in-depth and revealing interview she’s ever done. Balint has done a lot of living in her 49 years.

Back in the 1970’s, Stephan Balint was a high profile dissident in Hungary who fled to New York in 1977 with his family — including 10 year old Eszter — when his work ran afoul of the Communist authorities and set up an off-off-Broadway theater in Chelsea that became a gathering eszter-coverplace for many soon-to-be-famous denizens of the NYC underground art and music scenes: Susan Sontag, Jonathan Demme, Sun Ra, John Lurie, Jim Jarmusch and Screaming Jay Hawkins, to name but a few. These are the people Eszter Balint rubbed elbows with when she was a teenager. She was very good friends with Jean Michel Basquiat and played, at his behest, on “Beat Bop,” the little-known hip-hop single he recorded before his death. Rubbed elbows with Julian Schnabel and Rainer Werner Fassbinder  After Stranger Than Paradise became an underground hit she was cast in Woody Allen’s Shadows & Fog where she worked with Mia Farrow and John Malkovich, as well as Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge and starred opposite David Bowie in The Linguini Incident. From there she transitioned into music, writing, recording and releasing two well-received albums in the early aughts, appeared on the second album by Marc Ribot’s legendary Los Cubanos Postizos and was a touring member of Cerarmic Dog, as well as playing on Swans and Angels Of Light albums at the behest of Michael Gira, who does not suffer fools gladly. Neither does Eszter Balint.

PHAWKER: So let’s go back to the beginning here. Your father Stephan Balint [pictured, below right] was a purveyor of experimental theater, a writer, an actor, producer, harassed by the communist authorities, banned from performing in public theater in Hungary had to put on plays in people’s apartments and houses, things like that. Is that all correct?

ESZTER BALINT: Yeah you’ve done your fact checking.. Very good!

PHAWKER: And so he flees to America in pursuit of freedom like many, and brings you along with your mother, and you have a brother too, right?

ESZTER BALINT: We actually went to France first, as part of a group; it was an ensemble situation, and he was one of the several founders of what became later known as Squat Theater. So we were a collective, 4 children and 6 adults originally, when we left Budapest. We lived in France for a year and a half, travelling a lot, then moved to the States in ‘77. I have a much younger half brother living in Europe – but he came way later.

PHAWKER: Right. And they set up shop, where on 23rd street?

ESZTER BALINT: Yeah in the Chelsea Hotel initially for about six months.

PHAWKER: You lived in the Chelsea Hotel?

ESZTER BALINT: I did.

PHAWKER: What do you remember about that?

ESZTER BALINT: It was crazy, but you know my whole life was pretty crazy so I felt at home. I remember one woman, resident of the hotel befriended us. The first time I saw her she seemed like a perfectly nice girl, she was cute, young, had short brown hair I remember., And the second time I saw her she entered the room we all shared stark naked, and I realized she was stark naked mad, like many who lived at the Chelsea.. I also remember sitting in the lobby during the huge ‘77 blackout. Everybody congregated down there, people played their acoustic guitars, and it was a very communal spirit of freaks. I was a kid, it was fun for me, an adventure. What more could a kid ask for?

PHAWKER: Were you living there when Sid Vicious stabbed Nancy Spungen to death?

ESZTER BALINT: It was around the same time but I wasn’t living there anymore, I believe by that time we had settled in the storefront that became our home, down the street. However, this is a total side anecdote but much later. In the mid-80’s my father put on a little play that was part of one of the early site specific projects, I believe by En Garde, to whiPisti photos with fixes-62ch he/ Squat was invited to participate. And the whole series took place at the Chelsea Hotel. My father’s piece was a demented adaptation of Little House on the Prairie, performed in one of the rooms, with a goat as one of the sisters. This was similar in some ways to the apartment theater the company was doing in Hungary, when they were banned by the authorities from any public venues – with the audience set up inside the room. So it was familiar terrain for my father. Anyway, I distinctly remember one of the events, which I think followed my father’s piece, was a supremely funny wonderful piece by Penny Arcade about the Sid Vicious, Nancy Spungen thing. It was powerful seeing it in one of the rooms at the Chelsea. I remember being pretty floored by that performance.

PHAWKER: They acted out the murder?

ESZTER BALINT: Yeah. they acted out the murder but it was a very sort of dark comedic take on it. I remember there was a pizza delivery boy who somehow took on a pivotal role in the story.

PHAWKER: And then you lived at the Squat Theater, which was sort of a communal living space and performance space on 23rd street is that right?

ESZTER BALINT: Yes, there was a storefront theater that was at ground level and then there was a living room communal space where we – or the adults I should say – hashed out the play. Which consisted of a lot of hair pulling and pacing and yelling. And then there were large bedrooms spread out all over various floors in the building.

PHAWKER: Jonathan Demme was an audience member or regular hanger-on is that right?

ESZTER BALINT:He was an audience member, yes – where did you get that? I’m just curious.

PHAWKER: This might have been in your father’s New York Times obit. He tells a story about a play where two men pull up in a jeep outside and kidnap somebody from the play and drive off with them and you never see them again.

ESZTER BALINT: Yeah so Jonathan Demme was one of the people who came around and saw one or two of the plays and really liked them and had made some very generous public comments about them. But — not to drop names — but there were a few admirers.

PHAWKER: Drop some names, tell me who.

ESZTER BALINT: Well, Susan Sontag .  So was Fassbinder – though he didn’t see us in New York, he filmed several of the plays at a theater festival in Germany. The director Peter Sellars. So some not too shabby creative peple.

PHAWKER: Yeah, I’ll say. And when plays were not going on this was a performance space? I’m getting this out of nowhere maybe Wikipedia. People like Defunkt and DNA and Sun Ra would perform or just hang out there?

ESZTER BALINT: Both. It was considered an important music venue at the time. So yes for a few years when we didn’t use the space to perform the plays, it would be transformed into a club with live concerts.

PHAWKER: Also around this time you played violin on a rap track by Basquiat. What do you remember about that experience?

ESZTER BALINT: It was a little intimidating.

PHAWKER: Because?

ESZTER BALINT: It wasn’t so much intimidating because of Basquiat, maybe a little as I had a lot of admiration for him, but we had been friends. I was very happy he asked me to be a part of it. But Rammellzee, who raps on the song, brought in some of his crew, and having them in the studio was definitely intimidating for me, I admired that early hip hop scene a lot as well, and I was this 15 or 16 year old girl who had studied classical violin, and I remember them sort of yelling in the studio during my take: “Funk it up, Funk it up!” That made me a little anxious. It’s hard to funk it up on the violin on the best of days. Not the world’s funkiest instrument.

PHAWKER: How did you become friends with Basquiat?

ESZTER BALINT: Well I think we met basically the same way I met all the people I knew at that time. He passed through Squat Theater, quite a few times, so that was one thing. And I also crossed paths with him at the other clubs I went to. It was really a scene – if you were in it, and I was, it was hard not to know the other people in it. I remember the first time I saw him, at Squat, but I don’t remember the exact time we actually met. I was in that movie Downtonwn 81- but we were friends by that time

PHAWKER: So this is 1980? He wasn’t a big art star at that point, was he? He was kind of not really discovered.

ESZTER BALINT: Well the record might have happened in ‘81 or 82. I can’t really remember the exact year. Things were just starting to really heat up in a big way for him around that time. But I had known him prior his break. Although he was always making art,and funnily he also had a very, “famous” vibe before being famous. I think maybe he badly wantmaxresdefaulted to be famous, and he had a lot of charisma.

PHAWKER: Did you see the Basquiat biopic that Julian Schnabel made?

ESZTER BALINT: I did.

PHAWKER: Did it feel authentic to you?

ESZTER BALINT: It’s very hard to say. It was a difficult movie for me to watch. I think it has some wonderful things about it, Jeffrey Wright [the actor who portrayed Basquiat] was brilliant. But for me it felt odd, like watching a fictionalized part of my own life in some ways.. Not that it was my life, I’m not appropriating that. But I knew so many of the characters in the film; I was present at some of the events depicted,; it was a little too close to home. I couldn’t find my own comfortable place as a viewer.. So I can’t really objectively say how I feel about the film. Which I think is normal in this situation.

PHAWKER: Somewhere at this point is where you run into Jim Jarmusch, right? He was a Squat Theater regular?

ESZTER BALINT: Yeah I think that his early band may have played there, but he certainly came by and we had run into each other at other places where people were hanging out. I was good friends with John Lurie who was good friends with Jim. It all sounds very exotic now because it’s not really like that anymore anywhere but it was a big community of artists so it was normal to meet each other and do things together.

PHAWKER: Yeah it sounds pretty amazing. You’re right it’s not like that anymore, certainly not in New York. Now I’m curious, it doesn’t sound like any of these artistic adventures were profitable. I’m wondering how you were able to get by?

ESZTER BALINT: That’s a good question. ‘Barely’ is one answer. The other thing is that living in New York was a very different story back then. You didn’t need that much. People had all kinds of scams and schemes with incredible rent-stabilized apartments, where they paid anywhere from $100-200 for rent. We had great difficulty paying the rent, and were usually broke. just to put it bluntly. We got some grants, we traveled, performing our plays in Europe and occasionally in the States, and that brought in a little bit of cash, but certainly not enough to support everyone in the theater year round. The music venue may have started out as a business venture, it was actually spearheaded by somebody outside the theater who was a friend, but in the end I’m sure we lost more money on it than we made. Nobody at the theater had any business plan or business smarts. But we as a theater got a lot of help from supporters, including, for a time, the landlord. Then, at some point, the jig was up.

PHAWKER: So you’re a very young teenager at this point and typically an American teenager is sullen and rebellious and doesn’t like their parents. But it doesn’t sound like that was your experience.

ESZTER BALINT: It’s interesting. It was a little twisted around for me but everybody goes through their own thing. I kind of skipped the teenagehood stage all together, which may not have been a good thing. I cultivated friends when I was a teenager who were much older than me, I didn’t have teenager friends. I had young adult friends and considered myself an adult and tried to pass myself as being older than I was. I guess that was my version of rebellion; going out on my own, to the clubs, cultivating my own relationship with the people on the scene.

PHAWKER: When did you learn to speak English?

ESZTER BALINT: Very quickly after arriving here. In fact when we were living in France I was already learning English and by the time I came here I had some basics. You know how kids are they absorb like sponges. So I went to school and very quickly picked up the language.

PHAWKER: So how did you wind up starring in Stranger Than Paradise?
(more…)

INCOMING: The Marshall Plan

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story originally published in the pages of the Philadelphia Weekly back in May of 2002 on the eve of a celebration of Sun Ra Arkestra director Marshall Allen’s 79th birthday at the sadly-now-defunct Tritone nightclub. We are re-posting it here today in advance of the Arkestra’s performance at Union Transfer on Thursday June 13th in celebration of bandleader Marshall Allen’s 95th birthday, presented by Ars Nova Workshop.

meavatar2BY JONATHAN VALANIA When the 15-piece Sun Ra Arkestra takes to the bandstand at [Union Transfer on Thursday] they will be playing in honor of bandleader Marshall Allen’s birth [95] years ago. Actually, “birth” isn’t the right word. “My arrival day,” says Allen, correcting his interviewer, as he sits in his third-floor workroom at the Arkestra’s house on Morton Street. Being born is far too mundane an explanation for the origin of the man who is carrying on the tradition of Sun Ra, the avant-jazz group’s deceased leader, who in 1993 returned to the planet Saturn from whence, he insisted to the very end, he came.

One of the most colorful characters in the history of jazz, Sun Ra couched his compositions in arcane spiritual beliefs that combined Egyptology, numerology, Afrocentric myth, the Book of Revelations and interstellar travel to create a personal religion. Arkestra members were not just musicians; they were disciples committed to a monastic regimen of musical and philosophical study. After Ra left Earth, saxophonist John Gilmore took over leadership of the Arkestra, and when he died in 1995, the baton was passed to Allen. A noted alto saxophonist, Allen joined the Arkestra in 1958 after returning from studying at the National Conservatory in Paris.

In typical Sun Ra fashion, Allen’s audition was less than conventional. “[Ra] had me come down to the Marshall_Allenpractice room every day for three days and all he did was talk, talk, talk,” says Allen [pictured, right]. “He talked about outer space and going to the moon and Egypt and the Bible. It was like going to school. And then he finally tells me to come around to practice; I was in the band. I never even played my horn.” In 1968 Sun Ra brought the Arkestra to Philadelphia after residencies in New York and Chicago. “To save the planet, I had to go to the worst spot on Earth,” he once told an interviewer, “and that was Philadelphia, which was death’s headquarters.”

Allen’s explanation of the Arkestra’s migration to the City of Brotherly Love is a tad less dramatic. “My father owned this house and he wanted to give it to me, so I told him to give it to Sonny,” says Allen, referring to Ra, born Herman “Sonny” Blount. The house on Morton Street became a communal work and living space, where the Arkestra would practice every day and night of the week. It was an ascetic lifestyle. To join the Arkestra was more or less taking a vow of poverty. Booze and drugs were forbidden, as was the presence of women at rehearsals, with the exception of singers and dancers. “We lived it here,” says Allen. “‘I’m paying you to rehearse, not to gig,’ [Sun Ra] used to say. He would tell us that we were playing tomorrow’s music today.”

Indeed, the Arkestra was building an international reputation for mind-blowing musical spectacles that combined astral big-band swing with hard-bop dissonance, often veering into the outer limits of free jazz exploration. Prefiguring the psychedelic “happenings” of the ’60s by a decade, Arkestra performances featured cosmic costumes, interpretive female dancers, poetry readings, film projections and mind-altering light shows. Local jazzniks and hippie types got a taste of this during a series of trippy performances at the long-gone venue Gino’s Empty Foxhole, located in the basement of a church on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

“I first heard about Sun Ra when he was on the cover of Rolling Stone some time around 1969,” says John Diliberto, host of the nationally syndicated ambient music radio show Echoes, who at the time Sun-Ra-Space-Probewas a DJ on the then free-form WXPN and later assembled a radio documentary about Sun Ra. “So I went down and checked out those shows. There was a lot of tie-dyed shirts in the audience. I remember thinking, ‘Marshall is a brilliant player.’ He would attack his saxophone like his fingers were pneumatic hammers.'”

“They had a light show to rival anything in San Francisco during the Summer of Love,” recalls Jerry Gordon, former co-owner of Third Street Jazz and Rock who now runs the Evidence record label, which has reissued a sizable chunk of the Sun Ra Arkestra’s some 500-title discography. “I remember one night they used what looked like strobe lights and industrial-strength fans that blew the bandmembers’ robes to create the illusion that they were flying through space. And then Sun Ra put this black scarf over his head and it looked like he stuck his head into a black hole.”

While Allen has done an admirable job of keeping the Arkestra an active and vital performance group–they just got back from a three-week tour of Europe–money is, as ever, in short supply. The Arkestra receives no royalties from Sun Ra’s back catalog–that money is split between Evidence and Ra’s estate.”Only time we make any money is when [Evidence] sends us five or six boxes of records to sell at shows,” says Allen. “I have written four albums worth of new music, but we just don’t have the bread to go into the studio.” The deed to the Arkestra house is held by Ra’s surviving family, who allows the band to continue to live and rehearse there in addition to granting them the right to perform under the Sun Ra Arkestra name. Most of the key players from the Arkestra’s golden age have passed on, but Allen is adamant that the group will continue after him. “It just carries on,” he says.

THE SUN RA ORCHESTRA + SOUNDS OF LIBERATION @ UNION TRANSFER 6/13

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