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TONITE: Black Hole Sons

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

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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 sold out Halloween performance at Johnny Brenda’s on Wednesday October 31st, presented by Ars Nova Workshop. Marshall Allen [pictured, below right], who continues to lead the Sun Ra Arkestra, turned 94 this year!

meavatar2BY JONATHAN VALANIA When the 15-piece Sun Ra Arkestra takes to the bandstand at Tritone on Saturday–as part of their monthly residency at the club–they will be playing in honor of bandleader Marshall Allen’s birth 78 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. “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_Otherwas 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.

SUN RA ARKESTRA @ JOHNNY BRENDAS WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 31ST SOLD OUT

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The Time 20,000 American Nazis Came To NYC

Sunday, October 28th, 2018

THE ATLANTIC: In 1939, the German American Bund organized a rally of 20,000 Nazi supporters at Madison Square Garden in New York City. When Academy Award-nominated documentarian Marshall Curry stumbled upon footage of the event in historical archives, he was flabbergasted. Together with Field of Vision, he decided to present the footage as a cautionary tale to Americans. The short film, A Night at the Garden, premieres on The Atlantic today. MORE

RELATED: The apparent spark for the worst anti-Semitic massacre in American history was a racist hoax inflamed by a U.S. president seeking to help his party win a midterm election. There is no political gesture, no public statement, and no alteration in rhetoric or behavior that will change this fact. The shooter might have found a different reason to act on a different day. But he chose to act on Saturday, and he apparently chose to act in response to a political fiction that the president himself chose to spread, and that his followers chose to amplify.

As for those who aided the president in his propaganda campaign, who enabled him to prey on racist fears to fabricate a national emergency, those who said to themselves, “This is the play”? Every single one of them bears some responsibility for what followed. Their condemnations of antisemitism are meaningless. Their thoughts and prayers are worthless. Their condolences are irrelevant. They can never undo what they have done, and what they have done will never be forgotten. MORE

FRESH AIR: Journalist Eli Saslow says there’s a “straight line” between the suspect chargedRising_Out_Of_Hatred with 29 counts related to the deaths of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday and the views of the white nationalist movement.

In the “horrific hierarchy of white nationalist beliefs,” Jews are considered the “primary enemy,” Saslow says. “Throughout the history of the white nationalist movement, we’ve seen more attacks on synagogues, more bombing threats on Jewish schools than we have almost any other demographic group.”

Saslow’s most recent book, Rising Out of Hatred, chronicles the life of Derek Black, a young man who was once a leading voice in the white nationalist movement but has since denounced his views. Saslow says that he spoke to Black after the synagogue shooting, and that Black feels “heartbroken” by the incident.

“Every time something like this happens, [Black] feels in small ways culpable,” Saslow says. “He wonders how much of the messaging that he did in terms of white nationalism plays into incidents like this.”

For his part, Saslow was saddened — but not surprised — by the attack.

“It seems like there’s a certain kind of inevitability. … I don’t think that this will be the last one, and I think probably, like a lot of us, I sort of live in fear and with a sense of dread of when is when is the next horrible thing like this going to happen?,” Saslow says. MORE

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CINEMA: Season Of The Witch

Friday, October 26th, 2018

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SUSPIRIA (Directed by Luca Guadagnino, 152 minutes, USA, 2018)

Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC When discussing Italian horror’s influence on cinema as a whole you would be remiss if didn’t name check Dario Argento’s 1977 supernatural masterpiece Suspiria, a surrealist nightmare about a young girl who is sent to a dance school run by a coven of witches set to the score of prog rockers Goblin. As a devout horror fan, my initial response to the news that a remake of Suspiria was in the works was akin to hearing someone had planned to remake The Godfather. But director Luca Guadagnino was an intriguing choice to say the least, especially given he was fresh off of his awards darling, the exquisite love story Call Me by Your Name.

As with the original, the remake is the story of Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) a young American from Ohio who in 1977 is recruited for an interpretive dance school in Berlin presided over by the enigmatic Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). While the film still retains the skeleton of the original, it is a much different animal altogether. You still have Patricia who inexplicably leaves the school before Susie’s arrival, triggering the mystery of what is going on at the Markos Dance Academy. But this time it’s Patricia’s psychologist Dr. Jozef Klemperer, also played by Swinton, who is tasked with solving the mystery of just what happened to his former patient. In this version, as Susie is groomed by Madame Blanc, we are introduced to the mythology of the Three Mothers that has split the dance school right down the middle.

The screenplay’s equation of feminism with a coven of witches is a dicey proposition, but Guadagnino makes it work with this cerebral, densely-layered mediation on transgression, terror and female empowerment shielded from the objectification of the male gaze that doubles as a terrifying new take on the supernatural perils of witchcraft. Guadagnino transmutes the jagged, avant garde choreography of modern dance into a ritual for casting spells and, we soon learn, Susie is not just a precocious young dance student fresh off the farm but a natural born sorceress. The first scene we see her unleash this power washed away any thought I previously had that this film would shy away from the disfiguring abominations of the original. The film also echoes Guadagnino’s previous film when Madame Blanc takes a less than platonic interest in her new star pupil, and Susie quickly rises to the top of the pecking order at the dance school. Spoiler alert: by the end, she turns the tables on the diabolical coven in a bloody, apocalyptic showdown.

Like Mother!, Suspiria is a divisive film you will either love or hate. Deeply. Most male horror fans will probably simply dismiss it due to its primarily feminine slant. That being said Suspiria is not simply a remake, it feels like another story within the creepy cosmology Argento crafted. It’s a haunting slow burn, accented by Thom Yorke’s bleak yet ethereal score, that climaxes in an orgy of blood and gore that baptizes a new horror classic. Johnson is a formidable force on screen, even opposite Swinton who is positively magnetic in her dual roles as both the middle-aged head mistress and the elderly Dr. Jozef Klemperer. Suspiria is a stunning cinematic masterwork that is, like all the best horror, both visually mesmerizing and profoundly unsettling.

OPENS IN AREA THEATERS WEDNESDAY OCTOBER 31ST

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BEING THERE: Garbage @ The Fillmore

Friday, October 26th, 2018

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Photo by PETE TROSHAK

Halfway through a triumphant set at the Fillmore on Thursday night, Garbage singer and Scottish firebrand Shirley Manson stared out into a crowd and asked “Who would’ve pegged Garbage as a band that would’ve fucking survived the nineties?” Manson along with guitarists Steve Marker and Duke Erikson and bad-ass drummer/uber producer Butch Vig have not only survived but thrived over the course of 25 years since their debut. With Jane’s Addiction Eric Avery taking on bass duties, the band set out on tour this year to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of their second album Version 2.0, a hit album on which the band shrugged off any notion of a sophomore slump with a heady mixture of buzzsaw jangle pop and electronic beats. For their current tour the band committed to playing the entirety of Version 2.0 and all of it’s B-sides as their main set every night. Freed from the shackles of playing a rote greatest hits set, the band made magic in Philly while performing a 23-song set including half dozen songs that most of their fans had never heard live and in some cases never heard at all.

Garbage kicked off their set with Version 2.0 B-side “Afterglow,” an undiscovered torch ballad gem that found Manson delivering her vocals as if she were a slinky singer in a seedy nightclub in a dimestore pulp novel. Throbbing electronic rocker “13x Forever” found Manson prowling the stage spitting verbal venom on an ex-love and left the crowd wondering why this song never made it on a proper album. Another B-side highlight was a simultaneously thrashy and gleeful cover of The Seeds 1966 garage pop nugget “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine.” Garbage delivered an ethereal version of their Jame Bond theme “The World is Not Enough,” with Marker and Erikson exquisitely carving out the cold war spy riffage of the song while Manson’s vocals soared over the icy music. The rarely played songs were far from the only highlights. The power pop and rollercoaster rhythms of “Special” brought a roar from the crowd early on. Mid-set the band delivered a fragile but beautiful “Medication” during which Manson gave a master class in how to use your vocals to take a crowd on an emotional journey in a three minute pop song.

Late in the set “Push It” threatened to tear the roof off the joint with Vig’s ferocious drumming driving the band to an even higher gear and Manson goading the normally stoic Avery into pogo-ing with her with the entire crowd on the floor of the venue bouncing wildly along with them. Manson, eternally one of the most loquacious singers in rock, warned the crowd early in the night that she was in a talkative mood. In between songs she shared her feelings on a number of topics including how on one of their early tours she had a massive crush on Live’s guitar tech (Matt Rice, you missed your shot), how much she loved the vibe of the Fillmore and how important it is for people to vote. She spoke from the heart about how beautiful and unique the democracy of America compared to the other countries the band has visited over the last quarter of a century. Manson heaped praise on Big Star and Alex Chilton before the band gave a slow and beautiful rendition of Big Star’s “Thirteen.” During the prelude to the song, Manson admitted that even though they had recorded their cover over twenty years ago, she had only recently truly unlocked the meaning of “Thirteen.” Manson described the song as representative of that moment in everyone’s young life where they first realize that the have free will and that the future holds unlimited possibilities, which probably mirrors how the band felt as they started work on Version 2.0 twenty years ago. – PETE TROSHAK

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AUTEUR NOUVEAU: Q&A W/ Director Jonah Hill

Friday, October 26th, 2018

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Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Mid90s, Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, is an impressive feat for a first-time filmmaker. This coming of age drama set in the skateboarding subculture of the 90s is heavy on the nostalgia as you would probably expect, but also has something genuinely important to say about youth. We experience the film through the eyes of Stevie (Sunny Suljic) the son of a single mother who is taken in by a group of skaters much older than him who teach him some very important life lessons and how to be a man. It’s not the film I would expect from Hill who was surprisingly introspective, humble and thoughtful when I got to chat with for a few minutes about how his instantly iconic film came into existence.

PHAWKER: So, how did this film come together?

JONAH HILL: I don’t know, I’ve just been in the best film school you could ever imagine for the past 15 years as an actor. I’ve gotten to learn from so many amazing directors, who were my professors in this film school I’ve been in. You know when it came time to make my own film, I just wanted it to be something I really deeply cared about and for the past four years whenever I was like sad or lonely, or angry I would just go into my room and write. You kind of think no one is going to show up, mid_nineties_xlghonestly, if you just work on it hard enough and believe in it people start to show up.

PHAWKER: For most of the cast this was their first acting role, did you rehearse at all to get them ready to inhabit the characters?

JONAH HILL: Sunny came in first and right way I just knew it was him and he understood it so deeply. We did the scene with him and Catherine in the car where he’s yelling at her and I was just like “holy shit, this guy is an amazing actor.” Because you felt it. It wasn’t like a kid actor, this energy makes Sonny like a force of nature. Then next Ryder came in and again like Sunny was immediate, just like Sunny we knew Ryder was it. Then we had Owen who was so funny when he came in and he told me this story about using his girlfriend’s fake ID to get in somewhere. So I have to send these tapes to Scott Rudin and Eli Bush at A24 to get them approved, because obviously I am not a casting agent and normal in a film like this they would make you cast child actors, or kids like Stranger Things or something. No disrespect, but these are real kids. They are real skateboarders. That was really important to me.

So, Owen was funny and I sent Scott the tape and he asked me if I was going to have him audition. Because I had just forgot to have him read the lines, because his story was so great I was like ‘that’s a movie star,’ you know that I would want to see. Before him Na-kel Smith just came in why plays Ray. He came in and did the scene with Sonny, where they are talking outside the skate shop and everybody’s jaw was just on the floor. So you kind of knew they had it, but they didn’t have that established career and everyone just worked so hard.

That was the journey of finding these kids, but it really was an insane amount of work on their parts. Watching these kids become artists, and feel empowered to work their asses off. When I saw Moneyball for the first time it was in Toronto when it premiered, so I wanted to give them that experience. So none of them had seen the film till the Toronto Film Fest and it was their first time seeing this film and it was a highly emotional night, I don’t want to speak for them but for me it seemed like it was amazing to watch them watch the fruits of their hard work.

PHAWKER: I’m a big fan of Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, how did he become involved?mid_nineties_xlg

JONAH HILL: And Atticus Ross. Well it’s double layered, they are my favorite modern film composers and also the fact that Trent was in Nine Inch Nails was sort of a nod that he was a 90s icon, so it works on both levels. But I wouldn’t have hired just a 90s icon. Him and Atticus happen to be my favorite film composers and we didn’t have a lot of money as an independent film, and I didn’t think we be able to get them. Eli Bush and Scott Rudin had produced the Social Network, so they had worked with Trent and Atticus, and it was something I had mentioned in passing to Eli as like a dream. Almost like one of those things you say almost passive aggressively, “Oh that’d be cool if Trent and Atticus did the score or whatever.” But you never think it’s going to happen.

But we sent them the movie and they said yes right away and I can’t believe they scored my first film you know and its really special and I love the score it really adds to the emotion of the film.

PHAWKER: There’s a story going around that you talked about directing with Scorsese, for four hours. What’s the best piece of advice he gave you for the film?

JONAH HILL: Working with him and Leo on Wolf of Wall Street before this was like the defining moment of my life, as far as something like an education; still the best education I’ve ever had. It was watching my favorite filmmaker work for seven months, and my hero. I would never bother him and I sent a lot of people I know the screenplay to get to get notes and I would never bother him or anything. But the weekend before we started prep, we have the same manager and I said should I text him and ask him? He said of course. I text him, and he said I could over and I went to his house and I thought I would get like 15 minutes, but he loves film so much, he was so interested in the story, we ended up talking for four hours, which was amazing.

One of the things he talked to me about, is I talked to him about Christopher Blauvelt our wonderful DP mid_nineties_xlghad talked about staying wide and not doing a tremendous amount of coverage and only when necessary. He was very adamant that the opening of the film not cut. You know that fight with the two brothers, at the beginning. He was really like just let it be real, don’t try to cut in like punches and stuff like that, it will be far more unsettling if you stay wide. I really appreciated that and used that ethic throughout the film to stay wide and people just exist in the frame and let that violence exist in the frame. Elephant was also a big influence on the film as well and that was a film that did that very well.

PHAWKER: I read that originally you had two timelines in the script and older Stevie, sort of looking back on his youth, what was that older timeline about?

JONAH HILL: Four years ago I was writing a play with Spike Jonze and he is an amazing friend and mentor. He and I do this thing when we are writing a film, we were taking breaks from writing our play and we would tell each other the story of the film from beginning to end. So if you do this every day you end up getting lots of new ideas, you can contribute to each other’s new ideas and also you just saying it makes you understand the story, unbelievable deeply, having to repeat it over and over again. A lot of time Scorsese would be saying things to me that were super literal about the story and I kind of thought he was fucking with me, because they were so obvious. “So, you walk in and put the thing down and your character is thinking this”, like yeah, I know. You know like you’re the biggest genius of all time and I realized he would just simply repeat the story and it was so genius because you have those things in life, you have those things you know you should do, but they are so simple you don’t do them. Just repeating the story of your film over and over again helps so much.

Anyway, so Spike and I were talking about the story of this film, and it was about something completely different and I kept flashing back to when this character was skateboarding with his friends when he was 12. Spike said “you know you light up like a Christmas tree when you talk about him when he is younger skating and you don’t seem as interested in the A story. So why don’t you just make that the story of the film.” I was like good call.

NOW PLAYING @ RITZ 5

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INCOMING: Massacre At Duffy’s Cut Book Signing

Thursday, October 25th, 2018

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BYLINER mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA There is an old saying that goes: under every mile of railroad track is a dead Irishman. Locally speaking this is almost literally true. Back in the 19th Century, the Main Line was built on the blood, sweat and tears of Irish Catholic immigrants, who back then commanded about as much respect as Mexican migrant workers command today. Out near Malvern, under mile 59 of what was then the Pennsylvania Railroad and is today SEPTA’s R-5 line, beneath a stretch of track known as Duffy’s Cut, lies the bodies of 57 Irish railroad workers. What killed them remains mystery — a mystery that, some 186 years later, appears to be on the verge of being solved. The official record says says the men died of cholera, but a team of academic researchers known as the Duffy’s Cut Project suspects foul play — that some, if not all, of the men were in fact murdered in cold blood by wealthy landowners to stem the spread of a cholera epidemic, then raging in Philadelphia, to Chester County, and the Pennsylvania Railroad has kept the horrible truth about the massacre hidden for nearly two centuries. And the Duffy’s Cut Project believes they are on the verge of uncovering the forensic evidence to prove it.

On the heels of this breakthrough, comes the publication of Massacre at Duffy’s Cut: Tragedy and Conspiracy on the Pennsylvania Railroad (History Press, October 22, 2018) by Frank and William Watson [pictured below as children, with their grandfather], the prime movers behind the Duffy’s Cut Project. William is a history professor at Immaculata University in Malvern, and Frank is a clergyman and local historian. Their grandfather was a Pennsylvania Railroad executive, and keeper of the company archive, who instilled in them an abiding interest in the history and lore of the American railroads. When he passed away, he left the brothers his vast trove of company files and internal communications. It was while digging through this archive that the brothers uncovered the long-suppressed file on the tragedy at Duffy’s Cut.

In June of 1832, the 57 Irish migrant workers arrived at the docks of Philadelphia. Six weeks later they would all be dead. History would blame cholera for their deaths, but history is always written by the winners, and the winners — in this case the railroad company and the landed gentry of Chester County  — would be best served by such an explanation. But in fact there is a lot about the historical record that doesn’t add up.

By the summer of 1832, a global epidemic of cholera had arrived on the East Coast of America and was currently raging through the Philadelphia region, taking upwards of 80 lives a day during its peak in early August. Before it was over, the cholera outbreak would kill 900 in the Delaware Valley. The infection soon spread to the workers at Duffy’s Cut and by late August, according to archival accounts, all 57 had succumbed. The men lived in a warren of tent shanties at the bottom of a deep, wooded valley located a stone’s throw from mile 59, and it was there that that would be buried in unmarked graves and covered over with the dark loamy earth they had shoveled out of Duffy’s Cut just weeks prior.

And it was there that they would remain, forlorn and forgotten, if not for the efforts of the Watson brothers — Bill, chairman of the history department at nearby Immaculata University, and Frank, a Lutheran pastor with a P.H.D. in historical theology — and a small volunteer army of archaeologists, forensics experts and history students. For nearly two decades — despite near-zero funding, the skepticism of many and the outright obstruction of others — the Watson brothers’ team have been digging through a historical paper trail and the tick-infested valley at Duffy’s Cut searching for the remains of the men and the truth about what happened to them.

Tomorrow night they will host a book signing/fundraiser at the Grace Kelley House in East Falls. In addition to the book signing, the event will feature a short lecture on the Crime Scene Investigation aspect of the Project by Dr. Matt Patterson, forensic dentist formerly with the US Navy, and Duffy’s Cut Forensic Analyst; open bar (featuring Doylestown Brewery’s Duffy’s Cut Irish Red Ale) and hors d’oeuvres; live Irish music in Kelly’s Authentic Irish Pub. You can purchase tickets HERE.

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THE GODFATHER OF GRUNGE: Q&A With Butch Vig, Garbage Drummer/Producer Extraordinaire

Thursday, October 25th, 2018

butch-vig-by-autumn-dewildePhoto by AUTUMN DEWILDE

EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally published on November 23rd, 2016. In advance of tonight’s Garbage show at the Fillmore, we present this encore edition. Enjoy.

meAVATAR2BY JONATHAN VALANIAThe Smart Studios Story documents the rise and fall of the legendary recording studio founded by acclaimed producer Butch Vig and his partner Steve Marker, where they recorded Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, Death Cab For Cutie and, most importantly, Nirvana’s Nevermind. The film tracks the evolution of Smart Studios from its humble DIY beginnings as a glorified punk rock treehouse with free beer to the center of the alt-rock universe in the 90s only to close in 2010 as the age of the big, expensive analog studios gave way to digital home recording. In the interim, Vig has produced albums by the Foo Fighters, Goo Goo Dolls and Against Me! and reactivated Garbage, which went on hiatus in 2005. Recently, The Smart Studios Story has embarked on a screening tour around the country, which stopped in Philadelphia at PhilaMOCA earlier this month. In advance of the Philly screening, we spoke with Butch Vig from his home in Los Angeles where he was gearing up for a tour in support of Garbage’s surprisingly vital sixth album, Strange Little Birds.

PHAWKER: One of your earliest musical endeavors was contributing a track to the slumber_party_massacresoundtrack of Hollywood slasher pic Slumber Party Massacre? Is this true? How did it happen?

BUTCH VIG: That’s true. Long story short, I was in film school and a bunch of my fellow students moved out to Hollywood. One became David Lynch’s cinematographer, and another is Jerry Bruckheimer’s editor. Another friend from Wisconsin was working on Slumber Party Massacre. It’s just in the scene where somebody is walking down the beach with a boom-box and gets an axe in the back, but we were thrilled to be a part of it.

PHAWKER: Judging by the documentary, the Midwest indie-rock scene seemed more about D.I.Y than adhering to some specific punk-rock orthodoxy. Is that true?

BUTCH VIG: Yeah it is. We were never elitist about any kind of music that we worked with or anything. One of the reasons we did so many hardcore punk bands is there was a thriving scene at the time. As soon as you get a couple bands coming into Smart they would just tell their friends. We never advertised and it was all word of mouth. Anyone who wanted to book time there could. It was good learning ground for me because I learned how to record everything, even though I didn’t really know what I was doing. You had to figure it out by the seat of your pants.

PHAWKER: Cheap beer seemed to have played a central role in these proceedings as it seemed to do with many aspects of life in the Midwest, can you speak to that a little bit?

BUTCH VIG: Growing up in Wisconsin that’s part of the M.O, that’s what people do. They go the_smashing_pumpkins-gish-frontal1to the local tavern on the corner. There was a local tavern right across from the studio called The Friendly, which was not always that friendly actually, because there were a lot of blue-collar rednecks there. There was a point when we had a coke machine in the studio upstairs, and it had eight or ten slots, and we had Coke in only one and the rest had cheap beer that we put in there. We made it free, we put duct tape in so if you put fifty cents in or whatever it would drop right back down so the beer would drop down and you could take the money out of the coin return and put the money back in.

PHAWKER: In Billy Corgan, leader of the Smashing Pumpkins, you found a kindred spirit who was willing to meticulously craft an album even if that meant spending days getting a drum sound right or a guitar tone right or recording 45 takes of a vocal.

BUTCH VIG: I found a kindred spirit in Billy in the sense that he wanted to make an amazing sounding record. Now it’s so easy to make things sound perfect, to tighten things up and edit, drums or guitars or whatever and fix vocals, back then you had to play it. As good as they were, we recorded a lot and we did a lot of takes. Making Gish was the first time I ever had a proper budget. Before then I’d done hundreds of records in a couple days. I think we had about 30 days to record and mix Gish, and to me, that was like Steely Dan time.

PHAWKER: Is it true that you were only able to convince Kurt Cobain to double track his vocals by telling him that John Lennon used to do that?

BUTCH VIG: That’s true, because he just felt like it was fake, and as much as I knew, I told the band that, that I wanted to double some things, I wanted to go back and overdub some things, because we need to make this sound on a record, when someone wakes up in the morning and this is playing on their little alarm clock radio, we need to make the record sound as intense there as if you were standing in front of the band playing live in a room.

PHAWKER: In the wake of the overwhelming success of Nevermind and perhaps nirvana_nevermind_responding to the holier than thou underground types that were complaining that the album’s production values represent some kind of sellout of punk rock purity, Cobain told writer Michael Azerrad “looking back on the production of Nevermind, I’m embarrassed by it now. It’s closer to a Motley Crue record than it is a punk rock record.” How did you respond to reading that that?

BUTCH VIG: I remember reading it at the time and it bummed me out because when we finished the record, the band was over the moon with how it sounded. They worked really hard to get that record super tight but what happened was when you sold fifteen million records you cannot maintain your punk credibility and say “Man, I’m so glad we sold fifteen million records.” You have to walk away from it. He had to diss it, in a way, for himself and how he was perceived by the public. I wish he was around today because I have a feeling he would have gone back to love it.

PHAWKER: The Nevermind sessions at Smart started in April of 1990. It was just supposed to be a little indie record for Sub Pop. After a number of the tracks were recorded, the sessions stopped when Cobain blew his voice out on “Lithium.” The plan was that they were going to come back and finish the record there but instead they sort of used those tracks as a bargaining chip to get a major label deal — and at that point “Smells like Teen Spirit” was not even written. So if he hadn’t blown his voice, the album probably would have been finished at Smart, without “Smells like Teen Spirit,” and would have become just another hip little indie record on Sub Pop instead of the generation-defining zeitgeist-embodying blockbuster we all know and love?

BUTCH VIG: Correct.

PHAWKER: So, moving forward, you form Garbage with Smart Studios co-owner Steve Marker, which was a big break from the punk sound of the music you had become famous for producing.

BUTCH VIG: Well, by the time I started Garbage, and by the time anybody heard of Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins, I had done, I swear to god, strange_little_birdsa thousand punk rock records, and I was getting tired of just guitar, bass, and drums, especially after Nevermind took off. I started getting calls, people thought I had some magic formula and if I could just plug that into, whoever it was, whether it was a singer/songwriter or a blues artist or a hair metal band, I knew how to change them into an alternative grunge band and I wasn’t interested in doing that.

PHAWKER: After a lengthy hiatus, Garbage is about to embark on a tour in support of a new and intriguing record called Strange Little Birds.

BUTCH VIG: Yeah, it’s gotten a lot of great press despite being such a dark album, it’s definitely the darkest album that we’ve made. I think there’s something about it that has resonated with people. Part of it is that we took some of the rock and roll out of it, the album is much more sort of cinematic and atmospheric, and I think the music works, arrangement wise, really well with Shirley singing and her lyrics. She has sung some of the most powerful performances she’s yet recorded on Strange Little Birds. I think you can hear that, there’s an immediacy and an emotional vulnerability to the performances out there that we would have fussed over more in the past in Garbage, but at this point in smart-studios-tourour career we’re trying to leave things alone and be a little more spontaneous with them and I think that translated a lot to the vibe on the record.

PHAWKER: Smart Studio closes in 2010 because…?

BUTCH VIG: The music business has changed and so has recording technology, the D.I.Y. attitude has taken on a whole new meaning because someone can record on their laptop in their bedroom, so why pay $100 dollars to go in the studio when they can keep that money in their pocket. The studio got used less and less, and we couldn’t get anybody. We were literally offering 100$ dollars a day to come in and track, just pay for the assistant engineer and you can use the studio and it just wasn’t getting used. Between insurance and keeping overhead and heating and bills and all that kind of stuff, we couldn’t let it sit there with closed doors, so we finally decided to pull the plug and sell it.

GARBAGE PERFORMS @ THE FILLMORE PHILLY THURSDAY OCTOBER 25TH

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NPR 4 THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When You Can’t

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018

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Photo by CHAD GRIFFITH

FRESH AIR: Paul Dano, is probably best known for his performance in “There Will Be Blood” as a teenaged evangelical preacher. Imagine being in your early 20s and working on that film with director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day Lewis. Dano was only 12 when he had a part in the Broadway revival of “Inherit The Wind” starring George C. Scott. Dano also co-starred in the films “Little Miss Sunshine,” “12 Years A Slave” and portrayed Brian Wilson in the film “Love & Mercy.”

Now at the age of 34, he’s directed his first film, called “Wildlife.” The screenplay, which Dano co-wrote with his partner, Zoe Kazan, is adapted from a Richard Ford novel of the same name. “Wildlife” is about a 14-year-old old boy, Joe Brinson, who has recently moved with his parents to a small town in Montana. He hasn’t yet made friends, and he’s looking to his parents for a sense of home and stability. But his father, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, loses his job and his sense of purpose. The mother, played by Carey Mulligan, takes a part-time job to help make ends meet.

Meanwhile, it’s wildfire season, and the father decides to join the men fighting the fire, which leaves his wife and son to fend for themselves during the indeterminate period he’ll be gone, and that changes everything. Just as fires can get out of control, so can people’s lives. Here’s the scene in which Joe Brinson comes home from school to find his father breaking the news to his mother that he’s leaving them to fight the wildfires. MORE

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NPR 4 THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When You Can’t

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

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FRESH AIR: Since the 2010 election, 24 states have implemented new restrictions on voting. Alabama now requires a photo ID to cast a ballot. Other states, like Ohio and Georgia, have enacted “use-it-or-lose” laws, which strike voters from registration rolls if they have not participated in an election within a proscribed period of time. Mother Jones journalist Ari Berman, author of Give Us the Ballot, says that many of the restrictions are part of a broader Republican strategy to tighten access to the ballot — an effort that was bolstered in 2013 by the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder ruling.

“[That] decision,” Berman explains, “said that those states with the longest histories of discrimination no longer had to approve their voting changes with the federal government.” You’re seeing a national effort by the Republican Party to try to restrict voting rights, and it’s playing out in states all across the country. As a result, Berman says, “You’re seeing a national effort by the Republican Party to try to restrict voting rights, and it’s playing out in states all across the country.”

Many of the new voting restrictions are occurring in states like Georgia, North Dakota and Kansas, which have critical races in the 2018 election. Berman says that it’s still unclear what the impact of the restrictions will be on the upcoming election, but he remains hopeful that the tide might be shifting on voter restrictions.

Berman points out that an amendment to Florida’s 2018 ballot would restore voting rights to more than 1 million former felons who are currently disenfranchised in the state. “The 2018 election could go in two different ways,” he says. “It could be tainted by voter suppression, or it could be remembered as an election in which voting rights were expanded for millions of people.” MORE

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CINEMA: Being Jenny McCarthy

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

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FRESH AIR: Melissa McCarthy is not interested in playing pleasant characters — flawless women with perfect clothes and relationships. “Who wants to watch that?” she asks. “There’s nothing to sink your teeth into. … The people I love and like are filled with quirks and eccentricities. … We’re a bundle of all these different weirdnesses.” Instead, McCarthy became known for her comic roles in movies like Bridesmaids and The Heat — and for her impersonation of President Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, on SNL. More recently, McCarthy’s taken a turn into drama, playing the misanthropic writer and literary forger Lee Israel in the new film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? Israel, who died in 2014, was famously caustic — and complex. McCarthy embraces the opportunity to bring these characters to life on screen — as an actor, writer and producer: “I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t realize how lucky I am,” she says — taking on the challenge of portraying these “three-dimensional, flawed … really real women.” MORE

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TONITE: The Importance Of Being Johnny Marr

Monday, October 22nd, 2018

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally published in issue 95 of MAGNET MAGAZINE in 2013 upon the release of Johnny Marr’s first proper solo album, 2013’s The Messenger. Marr followed it up with Playland in 2014 and Call The Comet, released back in June.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally published in issue 95 of MAGNET MAGAZINE in 2013 upon the release of Johnny Marr’s first proper solo album, 2013’s The Messenger. Marr followed it up with Playland in 2014 and Call The Comet, released back in June. We are re-posting this story in advance of Marr’s performance tonight at the TLA.

mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR MAGNET MAGAZINE Being Johnny Marr is nice work if you can get it. Lots of travel, flexible hours, money for nothing, chicks for free. Most days you walk between the raindrops. You are rakishly handsome, impossibly talented, effortlessly cool and beloved by all. Born in Manchester and raised in public housing, you meet your soulmate when you were 14, you quit school when you were 15, and at the ripe old age of 18 you start a band that NME readers will, 20 years hence, declare the most important band of the last 50 years, edging out the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Small wonder everyone wants you to join their band in the studio or onstage for a song or a tour, or even an album or two: the Talking Heads, the Pretenders, Modest Mouse, R.E.M., Beck, Oasis, Bryan Ferry, Pet Shop Boys, Billy Bragg, Black Grape, Jane Birkin, Happy Mondays, The The, Chic, Dinosaur Jr, Pearl Jam, Crowded House, Tom Jones and, last but not least, the guy who started Joy Division. You almost never say no, because you are not just a legend, you are also a nice guy.

Here you are, a year shy of 50. You still have the soulmate, two grown children, your looks and all your hair, plus a line of Fender Jaguars named after you, along with a numbered limited edition of Johnny Marr Ray-Ban Signet sunglasses with light blue-tinted lenses and gunmetal frame. And, best of all, 25 years after walking away from your own band, you are finally going solo. “The ideas became stronger to me and the well filled up—that’s the right time to do it,” Marr says when asked what took so long. “It was pretty much all there before I started to work with it.” The album is called The Messenger and it is easily your best work since the Smiths, some of it is clearly as good as the Smiths and some of it, arguably, is better than the Smiths.

Ah yes, the Smiths. Before we go any further, let’s just get this out of the way: The Smiths will not be reuniting. Not now, not ever. Not that I didn’t try to make it happen, but the sad reality is when the queen is dead, she stays dead. A full Beatles reunion is more likely. Or, to quote Morrissey’s publicist, “The Smiths are never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever going to reunite—ever.” And if the more determined among you can parse that quote for a glimmer of hope that there’s still an outside chance of a reunion, please note that there’s eight “ever”s in that statement, meaning eight eternities in a row that will have to run their course before a Smiths reunion comes to pass. Given that the median age of the members of the Smiths is 50, and the life expectancy for British males is currently 78.2 years, it doesn’t look good.
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NYT: Canada’s New Recreational Weed Economy

Sunday, October 21st, 2018

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BEING THERE: Big Thief @ First Unitarian

Sunday, October 21st, 2018

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Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER

When I was three years old, I tripped on the wooden floorboards of my family’s small home in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania, my head landed on a nail that gashed my left eyebrow open. Far-removed from any town or decent phone service, my panicked parents rushed me to the closest hospital they could think of, praying their first-born daughter wouldn’t lose her eyesight from the accident. Nearly twenty years later, driving with my mother to that same house in the mountains, I heard Adrianne Lenker’s screaming voice in “Mythological Beauty” detail her own experience of toddler-age blood-gushing head trauma, and have since felt a deep-rooted connection to every note of her music in a way that only the most honest folk music can inspire.

Lenker’s most recent work is her solo album abysskiss, but last night she made a stop in Philly with her band Big Thief, who took the stage at First Unitarian after a couple of fantastic opening sets from .michael. and The Range of Light Wilderness. After a polite hello to the crowd, Lenker looked around at her bandmates before plunging into “Real Love,” a song that undulates from gently quaking vocals to heavy power chords behind the more violent poetry. The tension Lenker sings of in the contradictions between her expectations and reality of real love culminate in a churning solo of guitar distortion that borders on noise rock. And as the crowd writhed along with her, she pulled the abstract notes into the intro of fan-favorite “Shark Smile,” a song that culminates with the plea “Take me, too,” when the singer’s lover dies in a violent car crash.

Despite the rolling drums and curling comfort of Lenker’s high voice, Big Thief’s music is not for the light-hearted. The vulnerable grief on songs like “Paul” or “Masterpiece” from the band’s debut album only darkened in their 2017 release Capacity. Living up to the name, Lenker’s lyrics demonstrate a capacity for the human emotions we are most afraid to express – those that come from the stirring intersections of pleasure and pain, sorrow and happiness. As she sang “Pretty Things” and “Capacity,” with what looked like anguished effort, her bandmate Buck Meek watched with noticeable empathy that reminded the audience of the serious and often-ugly truths behind the heart-centering rhythms of the band.

Apart from a few thank yous, Big Thief kept quiet for the first half of the show, Lenker adjusting her capo and sipping from a blue and white ceramic mug between songs. But after a ferocious guitar solo on “Masterpiece” from Meek – who should be complimented for his fashionable tiller hat – Lenker began a meandering monologue on how her energy level has been flattened lately. As she overflowed with stream-of-consciousness ideas, she landed on the feeling that despite the “maze of constructs” she finds herself running into every day, “I’ll be feeling bad, but then we’ll play a show where people are gathering in a space, peacefully, and opening their hearts to each other. It’s pretty beautiful and I feel really lucky to be part of it.”

The live performance of Big Thief’s most cutting songs gives the music a new dimension. The person behind the pain becomes tangible, and the band twists around in motion with their immersive rhythms. Drawing inspiration last night from being in a place of worship where “energy is concentrated,” Lenker acted as guide for the band through the softest isolated vocals to startlingly quick kicks at the drum in songs like “Mythological Beauty” that made the entire room jump. But this is exactly what makes Big Thief so unique: Lenker’s intricate writing infused with a rhythmic harshness that is uncommon to most folk music.

Ending with an as-yet-unreleased song called “The Toy,” Lenker spoke to the crowd briefly about its references to gun violence, but how the words could really be applied to any similar issue or feeling of hopelessness. “This song is about asserting the power and the privilege and the responsibility we have,” she told the audience. As the 27-year-old crooned this final song, the room became acutely aware of the immense courage it takes to open oneself so fully to the world and then to demand others to do the same. This selfless persistence in empathy and emotional grit is what continues to sell out Big Thief shows, and inspires fans to seek out expression as honest as Lenker’s in every domain of their lives. – SOPHIE BURKHOLDER

 

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