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CINEMA: The Tomorrow War Is Taking Forever

August 25th, 2021

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THE TOMORROW WAR (directed by Chris McKay, 138 minutes, USA, 2021)

BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC The Tomorrow War has the guy who directed The Lego Batman Movie attempting to deliver a heartfelt Terminator-eque action spectacle that ironically feels as if it was spit out by an AI. The film’s high concept story of humanity in the final throes of a losing war with an unstoppable alien race, who out of desperation draft their fathers into their war via time travel, has promise as a premise. But it becomes cliche to the point of trite when it comes to its execution. Heavily influenced by the Tom Cruise vehicle, Edge of Tomorrow, The Tomorrow War eschews that film’s cleverness and fearlessness, in favor of something more wholesome and saccharine, that feels more like it’s trying to click a checkbox on a demographic assessment, rather than tell a story.

 

In what feels like an unmade Bruce Willis vehicle from the ‘90s, we have Dan Forester (Chris Pratt), a biology teacher and former Green Beret, who is sent 30 years into the future only to be put under the command of his little girl Muri (Yvonne Strahovski), now a grown-ass woman, world-saving scientist and take-no-prisoners Army Colonel leading the charge against the alien onslaught of the titular tomorrow war. Think if Sarah Connor was enlisted by John Connor in the war against the machines. Muri is in the process of orchestrating humanity’s last ditch effort to take out the aliens, and recruits her father in the mission that she hopes will turn the tide of the war by taking out the queen of the invaders, a tip of the hat to James Cameron’s Aliens. But that’s as close as this film gets to sci-fi royalty because in the days leading up the mission the film loses itself in a melodramatic spiral as Dan discovers he didn’t become the father he thought he would be. He then spends the rest of his time attempting to mend that relationship before humanity’s last stand, in a way that almost feels like some bizarre incestial love story.

 

The Tomorrow War has all of these things that ultimately should work, and sometimes do to varying degrees. The action set pieces are effective, the narrative is derivative – but ultimately serviceable, the alien creatures definitely have a distinct nightmarish look and you have a  curmudgeonly wisecracking J. K. Simmons, as Pratt’s long-estranged Vietnam vet father to complete this package. But the film ultimately fails in the execution of its human story, because Chris Pratt who sees himself as the charmingly boyish beacon of hope just can’t let the credits roll with him being a shitty dad. So because of this we are forced to endure an ending that feels both unnecessary and tacked on, as he completely redeems his character in every way shape and form, in I might add, a bizarre homage/knock off of John Carpenter’s The Thing. This coda really hammers home the script-by-algorithm nature of these streaming service tentpoles. It’s simply two plus hours of content to consume with a name star attached and shit blowing up all over the place, which works out pretty well if you like that kind of thing.

NOW STREAMING ON AMAZON PRIME

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BEING THERE: Wilco/Sleater-Kinney @ The Mann

August 23rd, 2021

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Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER

The post-global-pandemic resumption of live music events seems like the sort of thing that should be accompanied with some fanfare, some skywritten announcement or proclamation from a town crier. Something. It’s a big deal, and the abrupt shutdown a year-and-a-half ago of nearly everything — including most painfully, for many of us, live music — was a stark reminder never to take for granted the opportunity to attend, participate in and share these collective cultural experiences.

But that’s old news, anyway: just when post-global-pandemic life may have looked back in June as though it were within easy reach, a new more contagious viral strain threatens to make this fall look a little too much like the last, as what bands had been back on the bill for now remain so only tentatively. Authoritative public health guidance feels too dynamic for comfort, regrettably yoked to political considerations. Numbers climb again, and anxieties heighten by the day. As one devastatingly handsome emo rock-and-roll rabbi once put it: the future’s uncertain, and the end is always near.

Okay, so if no one’s in the mood, maybe cancel the fanfare. But not the shows again, not just yet. Dim the Mann Center house lights and enter Wilco, stage left, filtering over to their instruments quietly, as if to not draw too much attention to themselves following a blistering set from unlikely co-headliners Sleater-Kinney and what seemed like an unusually short intermission. When the spotlights caught him, frontman Jeff Tweedy issued a characteristically humble hello, and was ushered into song by the morse-code-ish first notes of opener “A Shot In The Arm,” a fan favorite now reimagined as the unintended vaccine anthem Wilco never knew they wrote.

After having been postponed from last summer, the rescheduled dates of the ironically named “It’s Time” tour are weathering not just coronavirus resurgence, but Tropical Storm Henri and broken bones, too — the unfortunate result of a recent scooter accident that had opener Nnamdi absent for two tour nights for emergency wrist surgery. Still, this show finally happened. Sleater’s Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker stuck mainly to more recent material that included tracks from the just-out Path Of Wellness, and Tweedy and co. skimmed cuts from across their catalog. Both bands paused, if only briefly, to collectively acknowledge the unique privilege of shared, live music, further helping to diffuse some of the tensions, as masks were lowered and beers raised, a communal secular prayer on one warm summer night in the otherwise cold comforts of these strange times. – JOSH PELTA-HELLER

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Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER

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BEING THERE: Laura Jane Grace @ Four Seasons

August 23rd, 2021

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Photo by DYLAN JARED LONG

“I’ve performed at big arenas, I’ve played Wembley Stadium. I sang on stage with Cyndi Lauper, written songs with Weezer. I’ve been on stage with Joan Jett. And nothing compares to this,” said Laura Jane Grace,  the singer-songwriter known best for founding punk group Against Me!,  mid-set atop the parking lot at Four Seasons Landscaping on Saturday. “I draw a bigger crowd than Rudy Giuliani, and I have more Twitter followers than Donald Trump,” she declared to a sea of eager smiles, “which isn’t fucking so bad for a transgender high school dropout.”

The makeshift stage at Four Seasons was flanked by plants, and just big enough to fit a couple amps, monitors and a drum machine with some walking room left over. The atmosphere was giddy, almost carnival-like, with a setup à-la Punk Rock Flea Market. A cut-out of Rudy Giuliani stood next to a podium. Stands were set up for purchasing pretzels and local craft beer, which sat in cans with custom-made graphics celebrating the momentous occasion. Merch tables for both Total Landscaping and Laura Jane Grace saw lines ten punks deep. For this wasn’t merely your average day acoustic set. It was a celebration.

Chicago-based Brendan Kelly warmed up the crowd with an acoustic set of his own as fans sifted throughout the lot and over next door to catch glimpses of the famed crematorium and porn shop, dubbed Fantasy Island. “I thought this was a hotel,” Kelly giggled into the mic. “What the fuck.” Laughter from the crowd. The whole thing did smell of a fever dream, and I personally couldn’t help but wonder what strange shit in the air had ultimately led us down the timeline where this show was actually happening. To give credit where credit is due, it was Kelly’s idea to do the show at Total Landscaping, according to a tweet from Grace.

Grace was determined to rid all bad juju from the most infamous landscaping service in America, aka ground zero of the Trump campaign’s transition from public menace into toxic farce. For the uninitiated, the venue was the site of a surreal press conference led by Rudy Giuliani, former personal attorney for Donald Trump, four days after the election. A full explanation as to why this venue was selected in the first place remains in the wind, but it screams “somebody fucked up.” The presser was laden with falsehoods and fantastical rhetoric pushing conspiracies about voter fraud in the presidential race, embodying the last-ditch, flop-sweat desperation of the Trump campaign in its failed attempt to overturn a free and fair election banana republic-style.

During songs about embodying your insecurities and the disorienting  journey of self-discovery to an unreleased song simply named “All Fucked Out,” Grace’s powerful voice swept over the crowd, her candid lyrics both poignant and full of elation. Fans shouted along to Against Me! classics such as “Black Me Out” and “Pints Of Guinness Make You Strong,” which were mixed in between tunes of her own. The performance was a spiritual and energetic cleansing, the antithesis of everything that put this unassuming business in the industrial Northeast on the map to begin with. It was pure, and it was punk. – DYLAN JARED LONG

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CINEMA: Q&A With Action Starlet Maggie Q

August 19th, 2021

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THE PROTEGE (Directed by Martin Campbell, 109 minutes, USA, 2021)

Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC The Protégé is an unconventional actioner starring Maggie Q as Anna, an assassin on a mission to avenge her fallen mentor and father figure Moody (Samuel L. Jackson). Moody’s taken out while digging too deep into the pair’s latest gig, which would’ve sent them to Vietnam, where the assassin found Anna – who managed to kill his targets before he had a chance. It’s this humanizing moment when the killer saves the life of the young girl, by taking her in and smuggling her out of Vietnam, that gives the film a different vibe than the more archetypical entries in this genre. Pair this with Michael Keaton, who plays a cultured upper management assassin, who works for the parties responsible for Moody’s death, and you have a fun dynamic that puts some dimension into a story that even manages to bake some genuine twists into the question of why Moody was killed. I personally found it a solid actioner that avoids the more exploitative trappings, cartoonish violence and nudity, in favor of character development and story.

With this in mind, I sat down earlier this week (after showing proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test) to chat in person, with the star of the film, Maggie Q. After starting her career as a model, Maggie, who was an American working in Hong Kong, was recruited into the HK film industry in the early aughts and started her film career in pulpy action fodder such as like Gen-Y Cops and Naked Weapon, eventually making the jump to big budget American action spectacles such as Mission: Impossible III, Live Free or Die Hard and most Recently the Divergent series. The Protégé is sort of the culmination of her action work, putting her front and center in a starring vehicle that feels tailor made for her, even leaving the door open for a sequel or two. Being a fan of Hong Kong cinema and fight films in general, I had a blast chatting with Maggie who discusses not only her career’s unlikely beginnings, but the trajectory of the action genre which has been embracing these recent female led action properties.

PHAWKER: So you had an interesting trajectory as an actress. You started out as a model, then you were kind of sucked into the Hong Kong film industry and you were “trained as an action star”. You say that a lot and I’ve always been fascinated by it, because I’m a fan of Hong Kong cinema and you were like even mentored a bit by Jackie Chan. Would you elaborate on that? Like how you went from modeling to kicking ass and taking names?

MAGGIE Q: I have no idea. I was working in Hong Kong. I was not in film and Jackie (Chan) had a management VegNews.MaggieQcompany at the time and they sort of came looking for me and said, “hey, listen, we want to put you in films.” I didn’t know why, I didn’t know why they were looking for me. I wasn’t an actor. I had no clue what the deal was in terms of why me? So anyway, they came to me and said, we want to represent you and I said, no, initially, because I didn’t want to be an actor. I didn’t have any experience. I had nothing to offer. So I don’t know why I would’ve said yes to this big name and his company, if I didn’t feel I had anything to give to them.

So I told them that in six months, if people are still looking for me, we can have another conversation. I guess in six months they were and so we started a relationship and that’s kind of how it all began.
PHAWKER: Was it like a bootcamp or how were you trained for action films?
MAGGIE Q: The issue is in Hong Kong, there’s no time or resources to do, like what Keanu did on The Matrix, like have six months to train. So they sort of just throw you in and you just have to be capable. I think it really was the best school, because you don’t have a choice, but to perform, and to perform at the highest level or you’re out.

PHAWKER: So in The Protégé, I noticed that there’s some parallels between the film character Anna and your actual life. You’re both from Vietnam and are bi-racial. Were you involved in the script writing at all? Was the character tailor made for you or did that come after the fact?
MAGGIE Q: Oh no, I wasn’t involved at all. I mean, we were all involved with our tweaks and sort of our takes on the characters that were already written and how we wanted to make them better, like myself and Michael, and Sam especially. So we sort of worked in that way, but no, it was written. Funnily enough, they had different incarnations of this film years before they tried to make it. It was different actors, different actresses, you know, the whole thing. So it never got made and somehow it nicely dovetailed into what we have today.

PHAWKER: One thing I really liked about the project is it kind of attempts to view Vietnam and the Vietnam War through a different prism, than one we’re more accustomed to. Do you think we’re finally getting to the point where we’re starting to actually kind of come to terms with that and a more realistic view on the country and the war?

MAGGIE Q: Yeah, I mean, I wanted to portray a mixed race person in the film as well as show Vietnam is like one of the leading economies in the world, in a world-class city. Right, and it is. You’ve only really seen those regions in periods that we’re married to in our heads. So, you’re finally not seeing in a war movie for the first time, I would say.

PHAWKER: So one thing I noticed about the choreography of the fight scenes, is you sort of have that super smooth, fluid fighting style reminiscent of your Hong Kong work. Did you have any sort of say in your choreography? There definitely seemed to be some Wushu influence in there.
MAGGIE Q: I just think I am very smooth when I fight.

I’m definitely not a Wushu person. Our choreographers, they were all European, so we didn’t have any really Asian influence in that way, although they are all influenced by martial arts, because obviously. I had a lot of say in my fighting. I mean they choreograph what they have in their mind’s eye and then it comes to me and then I make the tweaks I want to make, and if I don’t have to, fantastic. But a lot of times I do jump in and say, well I’d like it more like this, or more or less like this, and we kind of work together in that respect.

PHAWKER: I liked that the fights felt more grounded. Because when you’re forced to use your body to give you leverage when you’re fighting to give you that edge and weight advantage in taking out bad guys and landing a punch. It’s not like you punch them and they fall down, you actually have to build that momentum to put them down, so it’s more believable when you do.
MAGGIE Q: And this is it. Sometimes when I spy things that aren’t realistic, like I get, very like “guys, we really have to protect these characters by rooting these fights in reality”. Number one, number two, Martin (Campbell – Director) does not like big fantastical action at all. He likes it to be practical and something that could actually happen within the realm of the storytelling. So we were kind of married to that.

PHAWKER: I have to say the chemistry between you and Michael Keaton was great. What was that like working with Keaton and what was it like kicking Batman’s ass?

MAGGIE Q: First of all, one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career was collaborating with Michael, because he is such a collaborator, he’s so generous of spirit, you know, just as a human and as an actor. So, I was able to really dig in. We really were able to dig in together and were constantly calling each other and texting each other about ideas and things that we had. So that was really fun.

Fighting with Batman. That’s so funny, I never thought about that when we were making the film until we were done and people were like, “you realize who you were fighting?” It only came up last week. I couldn’t believe that I actually, I mean, of course I remembered him as Batman because he’s one of my favorites, but I was not thinking. I think maybe you just try to compartmentalize and just do what you have to do in front of you and you don’t think of anything else, or maybe it’ll be overwhelming.

PHAWKER: So that brings me to the fact that these action vehicles always get sequels.

MAGGIE Q: Yeah.

PHAWKER: Who would be your sort of ideal heavy for the next film? Male or female? You know, which DCU or MCU character’s ass would you like to kick next?

MAGGIE Q: Wow. Oh my goodness. Yeah, I guess I, maybe I’d like to fight Wonder Woman.

PHAWKER: Oh, that’d be fun.

MAGGIE Q: That would be good, because as a kid, like I was a big Lynda Carter fan, like that was like my show. I wanted to be her, and I dressed up as her and I pretended I was her. So that would be like a childhood fantasy and then Gal (Gadot), she’s such a great woman and I love her personality. She’s a really, really nice lady. So it would be fun.

PHAWKER: So finally, do you think the action genre has gotten better? Because like now we have Charlize Theron, and she has her own action vehicles and Scarlett Johansson, and she has her action vehicles and now you’re doing The Protégé and we have these women now leading the charge in these more empowering narratives?

MAGGIE Q: I mean, I hope so, because you know, opportunities obviously are few and far between. So I suppose if we get the opportunities and we do it well, it’s going to create more opportunities. So hopefully that is the case.

PHAWKER: I love that while this film definitely trafficks in the tropes of the sexy female assassin sub-genre you manage to imbue her with more of a realism, because she’s more established and she’s not being groomed or like this ingenue. We actually see her go on this journey.

MAGGIE Q: It’s a couple of things. I think it’s casting women of a certain age who have a gravitas and a history that they bring to the screen, which I think is infinitely more interesting. Then casting great actresses like Charlize and Scarlett. These are really talented actresses and you’re putting them in a genre where they’re giving weight to everything else that’s happening and we didn’t do that before, because there was an era where the acting was secondary to what was happening. I think audiences are too sophisticated for that now, to be honest. I think we are moving in a different direction.
Video link: https://youtu.be/yGU8Brj0FxA

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WORTH REPEATING: Being Owen Wilson

August 18th, 2021

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ESQUIRE: We haven’t ordered. We don’t have food yet. We don’t have coffee yet. Just talking. Waitstaff whir around, trolleying quinoa bowls and acai.

The scene sends Owen’s memory to another restaurant, which makes him smile. He and Wes Anderson were writing The Royal Tenenbaums, the 2001 movie for which they were nominated for a best-original-screenplay Academy Award, and as part of the backstory, they made up a restaurant called Sloppy Huck’s, which Royal Tenenbaum (played by Gene Hackman) used to take his kids to when they were little. “It was this place with peanut shells on the floor and an odd menu with stuff like rhubarb pie and corn-fritter casserole,” he says. “There were those jukeboxes at each booth, right on the table, that you could flip through. And bullet holes in the window, because bad guys had tried to rob the cash register a couple of times, so Sloppy was always alert.”

He’s fifty-two. His skin is tanned and healthy—ruddy—and he has enviable blond hair that always looks like he went swimming in the ocean a half hour ago and it dried in the sun, annoyingly perfect. The blue eyes are as blue as they are in the movies, or bluer. His ball cap has a logo of a half doughnut, half taco, a totem from a recent movie shoot in Saratoga Springs, New York. (A man who owned a taco-and-doughnut shop gave it to him.) He does not place his phone on the table, the way most people do. He answers questions not as if he’s being interviewed but rather as if he’s standing in the corner at a party, chatting and telling delightful stories.

I’m starting to wonder, How long do we have for this breakfast? Will he have to leave soon? Are we going to ride the bikes?OWEN_WILSON_ESQUIRE

“Sloppy Huck’s didn’t make it into the movie,” he says, smiling down.

He asks questions. He is well-read. Very well-read. We parse the divergent narrative styles of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He tells me about a book his brother Luke gave him recently: a biography of an obscure Swiss writer named Robert Walser. He mentions picking up a copy of The Snow Leopard not long ago, a book he says means a lot to him.

I, meanwhile, am asking him the normal interview questions, not yet getting where he is going. What exactly is the story going to be?

I bring up Loki, the smart, fun Marvel series he starred on for Disney+ as agent Mobius, with Tom Hiddleston. “We did a press junket for that yesterday,” he says.

“They asked me a lot about—‘It sounds like you had to be convinced to do this.’ I don’t know where they’re getting that. That isn’t true. The director just called me and told me the idea, and I wanted to work on it. But somehow what seems to be in their press notes, maybe, is that I know zero about the MCU. I don’t know a ton about it, but I know—”

He pauses.

“Actually, yeah, I probably don’t know that much about it. I kind of know about Iron Man. I’ve seen Aquaman. He’s swimming in jeans. No one can swim in jeans! That was my argument with the kids about Aquaman.”

(Speaking of Loki: Owen is known to improv lines on set, and in one scene in the first episode, Loki is acting very self-important during Mobius’s interrogation. Mobius simply says, “You’re just a little pussycat.” “All Owen,” Hiddleston tells me.)

It’s not that Owen is uninterested in talking about this stuff, but pretty soon he’s drifting away from it, telling me about when he was in Atlanta filming Loki and he made up a leaf-catching game for himself and his kids. “We play that you have to catch it with one hand and run,” he says. “It’s nice because it gets you looking up.”

He bobs his head almost imperceptibly, squints and smiles almost imperceptibly, and almost whispers: “Yeah. The Leaf-Catch Game.”

“What did they ask you?” is my probing inquiry. MORE

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FROM THE VAULT: Heroes & Villains

August 17th, 2021

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Photo by Christian Lantry

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in the pages of MAGNET MAGAZINE in June of 2002, in advance of the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. We are reprising it here in advance of Wilco’s performance at the Mann Center on Sunday August 22nd, with special guests Sleater-Kinney.

BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR MAGNET


so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.

That was written by William Carlos Williams, an American poet. Best I can tell, he was talking about the significance of insignificance, that little things truly do mean a lot—like if you could surf the past in a time machine and you did something as small as, say, kicking a stone in the Stone Age, it could send a ripple through the entire fabric of history. Everything after could be slightly different. You might even erase yourself from existence.

I bring this up because this is a story about American poets, who will be referred to hereafter as the rock band Wilco. And this is a story filled with insignificance: business deals, personnel changes, communication breakdowns, creative dysfunction and small personal failures. Basically, a lot of red wheelbarrows in the rain that so much depends upon. Not the least of which is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which I’m pretty sure will be remembered one day as great American poetry in thought and word and sound and action. If 1999’s Summerteeth was Wilco’s Pet Sounds, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is its Smile—American beauty edged in transcendental weirdness and giddy invention. YHF is the smoking gun in the case for Wilco being the new Great American Band—a torch-passing tradition that stretches from prime R.E.M. to the Band to Bob Dylan, who got it from Woody Guthrie, who picked it up from Carl Sandburg, who had it passed to him by Walt Whitman.

The wonderment of this artistic triumph is made all the more remarkable by the fact it happened at a time when Wilco—perhaps the last group we’ll be able to refer to as “a great underground major-label rock band”—was completely reinventing itself in public. First, the drummer was asked to leave. Then, the band’s label asked the band to leave. Finally, the guitar player was asked to leave. How and why all these things happened depends on whom you ask. That’s the thing about these red wheelbarrows upon which so much depends.

Don’t Go Back To Rockville
The recent release of Uncle Tupelo’s 89/93: An Anthology—the first step in Columbia/Legacy’s plan to reissue the band’s three indie records—isn’t just a reminder of where Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy has been, but also how far he’s come. He sounds so boyish and tentative on those recordings, especially compared to fellow Uncle Tupelo singer/songwriter Jay Farrar’s glowering, Mount Rushmore gravitas. At the time, everyone thought Farrar was the heavyweight and Tweedy the lightweight, the eager one in the straw hat with the Minutemen jones. And then Tweedy got heavy. He stepped out of Farrar’s shadow Oct. 22, 1996. That’s the day Being There, Wilco’s sophomore album, was released. And on that day, Jeff Tweedy started casting his own shadow, and it’s only stretched farther and wider with each ensuing Wilco album. Not that he cares about shadows anymore, his or anybody else’s. He’s done worshiping heroes; now he just learns from them. That’s what Being There was about.

The conventional wisdom is that Uncle Tupelo pioneered the alt-country genre, and while that’s factually incorrect—‘80s groups like the Long Ryders and Green On Red first wedded rootsy twang to indie rock—the band did succeed in making country music cool in dorm rooms across America. Columbia/Legacy’s reissue series came about when Tweedy and Farrar—who share the same attorney—finally managed to wrest control of their master tapes away from Rockville Records, the now-defunct label that released Uncle Tupelo’s first three albums. Tweedy has nothing nice to say about Rockville: “Ran a very unethical business,” “tried to screw a lot of people” and “cease and desist orders” are some of the phrases he uses to describe the process of getting the band’s catalog back.

He does, however, have nice things to say about Farrar, which is somewhat surprising considering Uncle Tupelo didn’t exactly go gently into that good night. One day, Farrar announced he no longer wanted anything to do with Uncle Tupelo or the people involved—and that was the end. Apparently, a lot of water has passed under that particular bridge. Tweedy actually seems open to the notion of a one-off reunion. “Actually, nobody has asked us,” he says. “There’s no weirdness between me and Jay, we just don’t talk. But you know, we never talked much when we were in a band together.”

Summer Teeth And Some Are Mermaids
In the wake of Uncle Tupelo’s bitter split in 1994, Farrar went on to form Son Volt; Tweedy started Wilco. A.M., Wilco’s 1995 debut, sounds like Uncle Tupelo minus Farrar, which was pretty much the case. All of that changed when Jay Bennett, formerly of Midwest power-popsters Titanic Love Affair, joined the band shortly after the completion of A.M. Bennett brought with him a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of rock music, and his creative partnership with Tweedy opened a lot of new doors, enough to fill the two CDs that would make up Being There. On the back cover of the album is a photograph of disembodied hands hovering over the keys of a piano. This would prove to be a prophetic image: Wilco was about to make a great leap forward artistically.

Although Bennett was hired on as a guitar player, Tweedy was delighted to learn he could also play piano. Tweedy started writing with piano voicings in mind, something he’d never done before. At every tour stop, they would comb junk shops and music stores for esoteric keyboards: modular synthesizers, moogs, mellotrons, theremins. They would doodle endlessly, searching for strange new textures onto which they could project the songs that would eventually become Summerteeth. The Pet Sounds boxed set was released around this time, and it, too, was closely studied.

Tweedy also began to rethink the way he approached lyrics, questioning his insistence on writing in the conversational voice. He relaxed his rule against committing lyrics to paper: If you couldn’t remember it, it wasn’t worth singing in the first place. “I used to want to write songs that anybody could sing, but then I started to think it was OK to write songs that only sound right when I sing them,” says Tweedy.

He began to realize mysterious things happened in the spaces between words, and that when you arranged them in certain ways, you could create magnetic fields of deep suggestiveness. He experimented with collage and cut-up techniques, snipping words out of newspapers and magazines, tossing them in a hat and drawing them randomly to see what sentences they made. He would write a page of lyrics, then switch all the nouns and verbs. To break up the boredom on the road, Wilco and crew would participate in an old surrealist word game called cadavre exquis (“exquisite corpse”). A typewriter would be set up in the back of the bus, and whenever someone felt like it, he could go back and type a sentence. The one rule: You could only see the sentence typed by the person before you; all the rest were kept covered. Some of this accidental poetry would make it into songs, such as the line “Please beware, the quiet front yard,” from Summerteeth’s “She’s A Jar.”

Marriage and fatherhood had deepened Tweedy’s perspective. He learned to quiet his mind in the hours he would sit by his son Spencer’s bedside, waiting for him to fall asleep. “I really just started reading six years ago,” says Tweedy. “It’s not like I didn’t read before, but now I actually finish books. I’ve finished more books in the last six years than I did in the preceding 28 years of my life.” Books like The Making Of A Poem: A Norton Anthology Of Poetic Forms and The Anxiety Of Influence: A Theory Of Poetry by Harold Bloom. Beckett novels. Books about Dadaism, surrealism and minimalism. It was obvious to anyone who was paying attention that Tweedy was becoming something extremely rare in rock ‘n’ roll: a poet.

Billy Bragg seemed to notice. In 1995, Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora invited Bragg to dig through the dustbowl bard’s extensive archives of orphaned lyrics and build songs out of them. It was Bragg’s idea to include Wilco in the Mermaid Avenue project. In 1997, Tweedy made a pilgrimage to the Guthrie archives in New York City, spending hours sifting through thousands of pages of lyrics, doodles and musings. It’s impossible to ignore the passing-of-the-torch analogies: young upstart American songwriter given the task of finishing the work of a giant of American music.

That December in Chicago, Wilco recorded a handful of tunes it had put to Guthrie’s lyrics before heading to Ireland a month later to record with Bragg. Six weeks under Dublin’s damp, dreary skies took its toll on the band. “It was a rough time,” says Tweedy. According to some observers, this is when Tweedy and Bennett’s friendship and creative partnership began to fray. “Jay Bennett lost his mind in Dublin,” says one insider close to Wilco.

Bennett cops to going a little stir crazy. “We had just come off the Being There tour, which was Wilco’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll tour,” says Bennett. “I had just quit alcohol and caffeine. And the sun came out for maybe five minutes in the six weeks we were there.” Despite the misery, it was a prolific time. The bulk of the tracks that appear on volumes one and two of Mermaid Avenue were recorded; in all, 49 songs were put to tape.

Still, it was an uneasy partnership with Bragg, which explains in part why there never was a Mermaid Avenue tour. “As a collaboration, it had worn thin,” says Tweedy, making it clear Wilco won’t be doing a Mermaid Avenue Vol. III. “We never really saw eye to eye. It was hard for us to relinquish control over what we put out into the world, as I’m sure it was for Billy.”

On top of it all, the cruel logic of major-label math meant Wilco’s royalties for both Mermaid Avenue albums were less than $1,000 despite their combined sales of about 400,000. Tweedy had long ago figured out that making records isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. “Since Uncle Tupelo, I’ve been trained that you put out a record and people buy it five years later,” says Tweedy.

He Fell In Love With A Drummer
In the early days of Wilco, each member called a different city home, with Tweedy living in Chicago, Bennett in Champaign, Ill., bassist John Stirratt in New Orleans and drummer Ken Coomer in Nashville. Everyone would saddle up in Chicago for tours and recording sessions, then go their separate ways afterward. Stirratt and Bennett soon relocated to Chicago, but Coomer elected to stay in Nashville. It was a decision that ultimately led to him being asked to leave the band early last year. He was, quite simply, out of the loop.

After Dublin, Wilco took up residence in a loft space in Chicago’s Old Irving Park neighborhood. It would serve as recording studio, secret hideout and incubator of ideas. “It became a legitimate workshop, and I don’t think Ken ever got the concept of the loft,” says Stirratt. “We were paying a lot of money for it, and we wanted to take full advantage of it. He never even bothered to get his own key to the place. Sometimes he would be waiting outside for one of us to let him in. It was like, ‘You don’t understand. This is your place, too.’”

The band’s finances were a sore subject with the drummer. To this day, Wilco has yet to see a dime in royalties from album sales. Salaries are drawn from touring revenue, and in an off year, each member earns about $30,000—in a good year, as much as $70,000. Tweedy draws additional income from publishing royalties and is said to be more generous with it than most.

Two years ago, Coomer asked that Wilco’s books be audited. Reportedly, when he got the results, his response was, “Wilco grossed a million dollars and I can’t pay my rent?” Wilco is run like a business—the band calls it Wilco World Tours—and as such, there’s significant overhead. “Ken was always the first to ask questions about that kind of stuff but the last to actually look into it,” says Stirratt. “You have to understand, this is a band that spent $125,000 on taxis in one year.”

In May 2000, Tweedy was invited by Chicago’s Noise Pop festival to collaborate with esteemed local highbrow-rock renaissance man Jim O’Rourke, who brought along drummer Glenn Kotche, a Kentucky native formally schooled in percussion. Kotche, a mainstay on the Chicago scene, has toured frequently with O’Rourke and played on a number of his records. The Noise Pop gig went so well that Tweedy and O’Rourke wrote and recorded a soon-to-be-released album with Kotche. One night, the drummer showed up at a Tweedy solo show and wound up sitting in.

“I don’t think he really knew any of the songs,” says Tweedy. “But it seemed like he had been playing them for 15 years. There was a really intuitive communication between the songs and what he was doing with them, and I felt really great about it.”

Sessions for Wilco’s fourth album began that summer: songwriting, woodshedding, demos. The working title was Here Comes Everybody. Wilco would record in two-week blocks, for which Coomer would fly into Chicago. Picking up where Summerteeth left off, Tweedy wanted to continue moving away from the band’s early rip-it-up live aesthetic and into heretofore uncharted territories of mood, vibe and sound. But an air of frustration and vague dissatisfaction hung over the sessions. For Tweedy, it felt like playing in “a Wilco cover band.”

By January, it became clear to the members of Wilco a change had to be made. “I hate to say ‘fired,’ but we let Ken go not based on his personality or our feelings about him as a drummer,” says Tweedy. “It was primarily about a chemistry and a relationship that I had developed with Glenn and his sensitivity to what I was trying to do musically. And I didn’t want to give that up. But it was a decision that could not have been made unless the rest of the band agreed to it.”

“It was a difficult decision, definitely not for the faint of heart,” says Stirratt. “It was rough.”

“It was handled really badly,” says Bennett. “(Wilco manager Tony) Margherita called him.”

Tweedy and Coomer haven’t spoken since.

When Swag, Coomer’s new band, was on tour later that spring, I asked him what had happened. He shrugged and said, “You tell me.” I called him at his Nashville home in February to get his side of the story. He still hasn’t called back.

Yankee … Hotel … Foxtrot … Over
Last November, Wilco received a letter from Los Angeles photographer Sam Jones. He wanted to make a film documenting his favorite band going through the process of recording and releasing its fourth album. Tweedy liked the idea, and Jones was given unlimited access and permission to film anything he saw fit. With cameras rolling and Kotche behind the drum kit, Wilco set about reworking and re-recording all the songs.

All the basic tracking for YHF was done in the band’s loft, and Bennett insisted on handling the bulk of the recording responsibilities. Everyone else chafed at this arrangement. “Jay had put himself in a position of being something other than a member of the band,” says Tweedy. “I think we would have all been happier if he had spent less time recording and more time making music.”

“Things came to a head between me and the rest of the band because I was wearing too many hats, and I’ll take the blame for that,” says Bennett.

A lot of time was given over to experimentation. The band held “noise parties,” building Rube Goldberg-style noisemaking contraptions, hooking up a fan so the blades struck the strings of a piano or an electric guitar, then running that sound through a chain of effects pedals before putting it to tape. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s title comes from a recording of a short-wave radio broadcast featuring a woman intoning the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, which was mixed into the noisy coda of the song “Poor Places.” For additional nuance, Kotche would sometimes play one drum kit on the verse of a song and switch over to another kit for the chorus. He brought along his collection of ceramic floor tiles, which he played like a marimba. There was a lot of tape splicing and filtering instruments through modular synthesizers, “basically trying to destroy anything that sounded traditional or natural,” says Tweedy.

Given unlimited time and access to equipment, Wilco wound up recording many of the songs from YHF six or seven different ways, complete with vocals and instrumental overdubs. It was a bootlegger’s dream—seven versions of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—but in the end, this approach proved exhausting and disorienting. “I would never want to record that way again,” says Stirratt.

At the end of March, the band convened at the Chicago Recording Company (the preferred studio of the Smashing Pumpkins and R. Kelly) to commence mixing. The first step was weeding through upward of 48 tracks’ worth of overdubs—“endless weirdness,” as Bennett calls it—for each song. It was to be a democratic process of elimination, with all members voting on decisions and Bennett steering from behind the mixing console. From the beginning, it was a trainwreck. “The decision-making of the group was not functioning properly,” says Tweedy of the sessions, which routinely stretched into 14-hour days.

According to Bennett, the presence of Jones’ film crew didn’t help matters. “It was as much about making a movie and trying to look like you’re making a record as actually making a record,” he says.

By this point, Bennett’s estrangement from the rest of the band was almost complete. One by one, the other members stopped showing up.

Back at the loft, a new plan was hatched: Bring in Jim O’Rourke to sort it all out and mix it down. Some say Bennett saw this as a slap in the face, but he begs to differ. “I co-wrote a bunch of those songs, and I recorded them,” says Bennett. “Am I the best person to be mixing it down? No. By that point, I was ready to do a hand-off.”

O’Rourke, Tweedy and Kotche set up shop at nearby Soma Electronic Music Studios (owned and run by Tortoise’s John McEntire) and began paring down the material and clearing away the clutter, occasionally recording fresh tracks to reinforce a new direction. The first thing O’Rourke did was strip away all the reverb and dry the songs out. “I don’t like using effects,” says O’Rourke. “I just think it separates the listener from the music.”

“Everyone thinks [O’Rourke] is this avant-garde guy, but he actually made the record less weird,” says Stirratt.

All the while, Bennett was back at the Wilco loft, furiously recording guitar and keyboard overdubs. “When he started to realize how little he was on the record, he would stay there day and night recording tracks and tracks, and it just didn’t fit in,” says Stirratt.

“The record was already done, and when we started mixing with Jim, the idea was ‘more space, less clutter,’” says Tweedy. “That was what was going on on one side of the city. I don’t know what was going on on the other side of the city.”

I Want To Thank You All For Nothing At All
When Reprise Records got word Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was nearing completion, the label penciled in a release date: September 11. Wilco sent Reprise a tape of the first batch of mixes: “Ashes Of American Flags,” “Kamera,” “Radio Cure.” Reprise’s enthusiasm was muted at best.

“We didn’t get an overwhelmingly positive response from them, so we decided that we were not going to talk to them any more until we finished the record,” says Tweedy. “We finished the record and sent it to them and didn’t hear anything for 14 or 15 days. That’s usually not good. When they finally did respond, they thought it still needed work. Our response was we were done with our record and weren’t interested in doing any more work on it. We were happy with it, and that’s the way we wanted it to come out. Their response was, ‘If you’re not willing to make some changes, you should consider whether or not you want to leave.’ And our response was, ‘We can do that?’”

At the time, Reprise was in the midst of a changing of the guard. Label head Howie Klein was retiring (one source at Reprise says he was quietly forced out). Klein was one of the last old-school major-label honchos who still believed in long-term career development. “Wilco was the band on Reprise slated to develop a deep and lasting catalog,” says Klein, who calls Summerteeth “the most beautiful album released in the last 10 years.”

Klein’s replacement, Tom Whalley, was busy tying up loose ends at his post at Interscope, and David Kahne, senior vice president of A&R at Reprise, was acting as label head in the interim. Reportedly, Kahne’s response to the album was, “It’s so bad it would kill Wilco’s career.” A noted producer who’s worked with everyone from Sugar Ray and Sublime to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett, Kahne has a keen ear for what commercial radio likes to hear; he crafted the Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian.” (Kahne declined an opportunity to tell his side of the story.)

“People have a hard time justifying their jobs when they don’t make some kind of change to what they’re manufacturing,” says Tweedy. “But they aren’t manufacturing something. They’re making copies of it and selling it to people on the street.”

By August, a deal was struck: Wilco would compensate the label $50,000 in exchange for ownership of the master tapes to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and release from its contract. From the outside, it looked like Wilco was getting fucked over by the suits, but to the band, it was like being handed a get-out-of-jail-free card. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, that doesn’t happen,” says Klein, explaining that labels usually drop bands and retain the rights to the music. “It’s the best thing that could have happened to them. I know David thought he was doing them a great favor.”

Most major-label artists earn a royalty rate of 12 percent of the retail price of a CD. The problem is, this 12 percent goes toward paying off the six-figure costs of making and marketing a record. As such, most bands never see any money from album sales. With all debts canceled and a new record bought and paid for, Wilco stands to make a nice chunk of change from the sale of YHF. When you consider Wilco sells 150,000-plus copies of each release at almost $20 a pop, we’re talking about a lot of lettuce. “We think of it as a great rock ‘n’ roll swindle,” says Tweedy.

In the wake of the Reprise buyout, Wilco found itself in the middle of a bidding war, sifting through offers from 30 different record companies. In December, the band settled on Nonesuch, a label that’s had a great deal of success in finding an audience for artier, grown-up music by bands like the Kronos Quartet and minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, not to mention the Buena Vista Social Club. Ironically, Nonesuch is owned by the same parent company as Reprise: AOL/Time Warner, which has now effectively paid for YHF twice. Tweedy was impressed by Nonesuch’s ability “to get a lot of people interested in a recording by a bunch of old Cubans.”

Take The Guitar Player For A Ride
On a muggy August day last year, Jeff Tweedy walked up to Jay Bennett in the parking lot of the Wilco loft and told him he couldn’t take it anymore. Bennett was officially fired. He would be compensated for his contributions to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. He could take all of his gear. He could tell the press whatever he wanted about how his departure came about. But he had to go.

This was a long time coming, as the relationship between Bennett and the other members of Wilco had been disintegrating for more than a year. There were numerous minor sins that pushed Bennett out of good graces with Tweedy and Co. Chief among them were frequent production gigs Bennett took on, which were seen as “whoring out the Wilco name,” according to someone close to the band. Bennett further ruffled feathers by enumerating his contributions to Wilco in the press. “Jay was very concerned about getting credit for what he did,” says Stirratt. “At the same time, in a lot of ways, Summerteeth was very much a Jay Bennett record.”

Then there were the drugs. There was a time when pills—mostly painkillers like Percocet and Vicodin—had a role in Wilco; this is a rock band after all. The pills made you feel warm and fuzzy and helped slow down the velocity of life on the road. They made you feel good onstage. It’s no accident Summerteeth sounds so druggy. At some point, according to sources in the Wilco camp, everybody stopped but Bennett—and that turned into a problem.

For the record, Bennett denies all of this. His explanation for his departure from the band is simple: He made a power grab and lost. “I tried to force an agenda,” he says. “I wanted to make a record that had more of the uptempo pop songs that got cut off the record. But [Tweedy] is the lyricist, and he was trying to make a statement. And I had a hard time seeing that because I was seeing things through my lens, which was, ‘You don’t leave uptempo pop songs off a record.’ I guess, in a way, I saw things the same way that Reprise did.”

In any event, Bennett is moving on. He got married in January and currently resides in Arlington Heights, a Chicago suburb. His basement—stacked floor to ceiling with his extensive collection of vintage musical instruments—has been converted into a recording studio. In the Wilco divorce, Bennett got the gear used in the recording of YHF. He reunited with old friend and songwriting partner Edward Burch, and together they have a new album called The Palace At 4am (Part 1). It’s mostly full of uptempo pop songs in the classic mold of Bennett’s idol, Elvis Costello, including a couple songs that didn’t make it onto YHF (“Venus Stopped The Train” and “Shankin’ Sugar”). Bennett says he couldn’t be happier. “I wanted to be in Wilco, but I didn’t want to be in Jeff Tweedy & Wilco,” says Bennett. “I knew I was second fiddle all along, and Jeff didn’t need a second fiddle anymore. And by that point, I wanted to be first fiddle.” It’s no accident The Palace At 4am was released the same day as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Down With Wilco
“I would like to salute the ashes of American flags,” Tweedy sings on YHF. File that under Careful What You Wish For in the Archives Of Eerie Coincidences. Tweedy spent the morning of September 11 playing slot cars with his six-year-old son Spencer. All told, it seems as reasonable a reaction to the day’s events as any. Later, Tweedy drove over to Soma, where Wilco was in the middle of working with Young Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey on a new album by the Minus Five, McCaughey’s ongoing side band. The name of the song they recorded was “I’m Not Bitter.” The name of the album, scheduled for release later this year, is Down With Wilco—McCaughey’s sarcastic rejoinder to Wilco’s troubles with Reprise.

While recording the Minus Five album, Wilco was rehearsing for a national tour that was slated to begin in less than a week. It was a ballsy move, touring in the immediate wake of September 11 on an album that didn’t come out, just one month after firing Bennett (who was widely regarded as the fulcrum of Wilco’s live sound). There was a lot of debate within the band as to whether it should cancel the tour. “I just thought it would be cowardly not to do it,” says Tweedy.

Leroy Bach, who joined Wilco during the tail end of the Summerteeth sessions as a keyboard player, took over Bennett’s multi-instrumental duties. Up until YHF, Bach was something of a junior partner in the band, rarely doing interviews or posing for group photos. With Bennett gone, Bach has become the go-to guy onstage. “It’s not like I got a gold watch or something,” he says dryly.

The band streamed YHF on its Web site (www.wilcoworld.net) to give hardcore fans a taste, and the tour was a sellout. The first few nights were a little rough, but by the time Wilco got to the West Coast in early December, it felt like a band again.

I Need A Kamera To My Eye
I’m interviewing Tweedy in his New York hotel room. Sam Jones is there with his film crew. He’s shooting the final scenes of his documentary, titled I Am Trying To Break Your Heart and set for a late-summer release. As the cameras roll, I ask Tweedy about Bennett. It’s like poking a sore tooth.

“I’m not going to have much to say, I’m just warning you,” says Tweedy. “There are definitely a lot of things that: a) I can’t talk about; and b) I don’t think are important. Jay’s contributions to the band were important and valued. As far as the actual circumstances of Jay’s leaving, that’s up to him to define. As far as my feelings about it? I couldn’t be happier.”

And, cut.

Tweedy offers to play me Wilco’s “new” album. “Our plan is to record a different album every month, and then at the end of the year, we will have 12 albums to select a greatest-hits record from,” he says, only half-joking. Recorded over the course of a week in early February, the album consists of four proper Tweedy songs—they have the same ELO-meets-the-Band vibe of YHF’s “War On War” and “Jesus, Etc.”—and four improvisational pieces, wherein the rule was no one could use an instrument he knew how to play. For one of the improv pieces, the band “played” a newspaper article about a suicide like it was a piece of sheet music. “The motto was ‘hear the sound before the sound hears you,’” says Tweedy with a chuckle.

Via Chicago
Carl Sandburg called it the City Of Big Shoulders. The Wilco loft is situated in a prototypical Chicago neighborhood: grey-hued and walled up by meat-and-potatoes architecture bannered with neon signage that blurs by the taxi window: OASISLOUNGEBARGROCERYLIQUORPARKINGINTHEREAR.

The loft is standard-issue brick-and-pillar, illuminated by Chinese lanterns and stuffed with gear and bohemian bric-a-brac: acoustic guitars, old-school synthesizers, bongos, a sitar, a grand piano, old radios, Clark Nova typewriters. There are workbenches with amps and guitars in various states of undress. The master tapes of YHF sit on the shelf; one is marked “Reprise Slave Reel.” Tweedy and Stirratt have their own desks, framed by bookshelves. A quick scan of titles: Thus Spake The Corpse: An Exquisite Corpse Reader 1988-1998; Conceptual Art (Art And Ideas) by Tony Godfrey; Technicians Of The Sacred: A Range Of Poetries From Africa, America, Asia, Europe And Oceania; Zen Concrete & Etc. by D.A. Levy; Purple America and Demonology by Rick Moody. And there are CDs: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Steve Reich, Raymond Scott, Syd Barrett, Public Image Ltd., lots of Dylan bootlegs.

Stuck to the refrigerator door is one of those magnetic poetry kits arranged into the following phrases: Eternity Car Whispering; Fiddle Finger Lather; Please Incubate; Me Smell Rock; After Chocolate Ask; Say Put Puppy Girl; Frenetic Peach Crush.

Jeff Tweedy Is Trying To Break My Heart
What more can I tell you about Jeff Tweedy that he hasn’t already told you himself? He’s an American aquarium drinker. He doesn’t believe in touchdowns. His mind is full of radio cures. He shakes like a toothache when he hears himself sing. He spends a lot more than three dollars and 63 cents on Diet Coca Cola and unlit cigarettes. He doesn’t so much walk or swagger down the avenue—he assassins. He’s the man that loves you and, yes, he’s trying to break your heart.

So what was I thinking when I said hello? I know what I was thinking when I said goodbye: You should never try to write a magazine profile about a band you really love. It’s too humbling. I followed Wilco to New York, Chicago and the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Los Angeles like a dog fetching a stick. I asked too many questions and learned more than I wanted to know. And now Tweedy has asked me to stop calling him. That’s OK, I understand. I would’ve told me to fuck off a long time ago if I were him. But I’m not. Because even though he’s the last person who would ever admit it—even to himself—Jeff Tweedy is special. Special like Dylan. Special like Guthrie. Special like Thom Yorke.

People talk about Wilco the way they talk about Radiohead, the way they used to talk about R.E.M. Wilco is a band that people listen to in their bedrooms and talk about at parties. Wilco can sell out a national tour in support of a record that didn’t even come out. Wilco is a band that people make movies about. Wilco sings softly and cuddles a big stick. Wilco is standing on the shoulders of giants.

Tweedy has been to what Greil Marcus calls “the old, weird America,” and he’s seen the future age. And he’s come back here to tell us that, well, he’s come back here to tell us writer types that we’re making asses of ourselves when we say that kind of stuff about him.

“I just talked to this journalist from Germany who told me our record had a distinct advantage because it was written by a prophet,” says Tweedy, shaking his head in disbelief. “Hilarious.”

WILCO + SLEATER-KINNEY + NNAMDI @ THE MANN CENTER SUN. AUG. 22ND

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CINEMA: One More Time With Less Feeling

August 13th, 2021

suicide_squad_xlg

SUICIDE SQUAD (Directed by James Gunn, 132 minutes, USA, 2021)

Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC James Gunn helming a Suicide Squad film should have been an easy win. The director previously adapted a property for Marvel few even knew existed when he brought Guardians of the Galaxy to the MCU. That film has became a pop-culture touchstone and represents a watershed moment for the director. Gunn cut his teeth making no-budget indie films for Troma that trafficked in transgressive humor and buckets of gore. After a falling out with Marvel — a fence that has since been mended — Gunn was lured to the DC film universe. There he was offered to work his brand of magic on a property about a similar group of outlaws on a mission, aka The Suicide Squad. DC’s supergroup of villains who are doing good in the hopes of shaving some time off their prison sentences, which originally was an easy way for the comic creators to explain why the villains of DC were constantly getting out of jail. This film is a soft reboot that brings some of the surviving members from the first film back with fresh new looks and a harder R-Rated attitude.

The truly ironic thing here is the original Suicide Squad was kind of DC’s knee jerk reaction to Guardians of the Galaxy. The original Squad was rumored to have been much darker before they cut a trailer that was similar in tone to Guardians, replete with needle drops and quirky jokes and Gunn-esque banter. After the overwhelmingly positive fan reaction to that trailer, the film was then recut by a third party – the ad firm that cut the trailer, with additional reshoots to further mimic that stylistic tone. This resulted in a bastard child that failed in my opinion like most of these DC films because of tonal imbalance due to pandering to fan reactions to trailers when they should be trusting their directors. So landing Gunn, the original auteur who crafted the film they tried and failed to replicate, on the sequel to said film seemed to really make sense.

The Suicide Squad picks up sometime after the first, with the Squad once again recruited by Amanda Waller to head down to the South American island of Corto Maltese. Their mission is to erase all traces of “Project Starfish,” a top secret doomsday weapon research project of “extraterrestrial origin,” when a military coup risks it falling into anti-American hands. After the group who you think are the movie’s titular protagonists (but in actuality are a sacrificial diversion meant to run interference for the real Suicide Squad) are killed off, we then follow the violent hijinks of a group of convicts-turned-commandos lead by Bloodsport (Idris Elba). The rest of the roster here includes the scene-stealing Peacemaker played by the massively underrated John Cena, the Sylvester Stallone-voiced King Shark, Polka-Dot Man, and Ratcatcher 2. They are later joined in their quest by Harley Quinn and Rick Flag who are the only two characters who genuinely care for one another, which is the biggest flaw in the film.

The Suicide Squad has Gunn coming in hot on his R-rating with plenty of fucks, tons of gore and probably the most taboo of thing in American movies: full frontal male nudity. It’s all here, and it should be glorious, and hilarious, but it’s missing something — heart. The reason the Guardians films worked so well is because you got the feeling that this band of outsiders were a dysfunctional family and by overcoming their personal differences it made them not only stronger but better people in the process. Here, we are just waiting on the group to turn on one another in what feels like an episode of Rick and Morty. Project Starfish, it turns out, is literally a giant starfish from outer space that destroys the capital city of Corto Maltese using Alien-style face-sucking mind control to turn its citizens into homicidal zombies hell bent on killing the Squad. This is basically what happened in the first film as Deadshot, I mean Bloodsport, has to choose to be a leader to get the Squad to the finish line of their mission and save his daughter.

I am not going to even try to touch the bizarre, anti-American subtext that feels like an empty plot device to facilitate a full release for our remaining team at the end. But this film just fails on so many levels, sorely lacking the emotional gravitas of Gunn’s previous spandex clad outings, it’s derivative and resorts to simply throwing against the wall whatever sight-gag humor he hopes will stick to the lowest common denominator. I mean by the time we see the third person ripped in half by a giant shark and Taika Waititi O.D. on heroin, we’re painfully aware that The Suicide Squad is the film equivalent to a Calvin pissing on the Marvel logo sticker on the back of a Telsa.The sad truth here is while there’s some really cool shit here. The original Suicide Squad, which was essentially a poor man’s Guardians Of The Galaxy, had more heart than Gunn’s and I hate to say it but less is sometimes more in the shock department. While being mildly entertaining, yet ultimately forgettable, this Squad could be Gunn’s first superhuman misstep; here’s hoping he gets his head on straight and his shit together before Guardians Three. 

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Q&A: Stranger Things/Free Guy Star Joe Keery

August 13th, 2021

JOE KEERY

 

BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Free Guy takes a concept we’ve seen before, the character who suddenly realizes he’s living in a simulation, but elevates this idea with the surprisingly nuanced how and the why of the narrative. The film stars wisecracking Ryan Reynolds as a Guy, an NPC or Non Playable Character, who works as a bank teller in a video game called Free City. The game is like Grand Theft Auto where gamers come and let loose whatever carnage they see fit on the city’s peaceful inhabitants, who have learned to blissfully accept this behavior of the players they have dubbed the “sunglasses people.” This is due to the special specs that facilitate the head up display in the game. When Guy falls for a mysterious sunglasses wearing woman (Jodie Comer) one day, this sends our naive NPC down a rabbit hole of enlightenment where he discovers he’s a character in a video game after pulling a pair of reality-free_guy_ver11_xlgshades from a fallen player.

Where things actually get interesting here is when we discover that the A.I. in the game, which is the reason for Guy’s awakening, was possibly stolen from a pair of estranged programmers. One of them is trying to prove their claim against the company who released Free City and the other one works for them. While the film delivers on the Ryan Renold’s PG-13 family friendly ad libbed raunch as you’d expect, it’s the story outside of the game of the pair of creators who are united by their creation that really drew me in. One of these devs is played by actor/musician Joe Keery, who is probably best known as Steve in Stranger Things. As Walter “Keys” McKeys in Free Guy he delivers a much more subdued character than we are used to, showing a new side of the young actor I didn’t expect. I really dug Free Guy and earlier this week I got to chat with Joe via Zoom, not only about this film and em>Stranger Things of course, but also his music and a little indie he did about a homicidal Uber driver in Spree.

PHAWKER: So you shot Free Guy two years ago. What was your 2020 like? I know you’ve been busy making music and I know you just finished a season of Stranger Things, as well.

JOE KEERY: Yeah, I mean, we were shooting season four of the show, right when everything had shut down. So we shot for about three months, took a break from about March to September and then kind of started shooting in September until we finished quite recently. So you know, I was really lucky to have something to do and some work to slip my mind towards, to do something in my downtime. I was just focused on doing music and trying to stay creative and kind of like everyone else doing a lot of cooking. I think like everybody else in the world I baked some bread.

PHAWKER: So your song “Keep Your Head Up” was a gift in 2020. I can’t wait for the rest of the new album, any update?

JOE KEERY: Yeah, no, I just finished obviously the show and so now I’m going to kind of shift focus to that, and hopefully sooner rather than later. It’s something that I really love to do and enjoy in my downtime and feel pretty lucky that people are down with it and into it. So I’ll keep cooking it if you guys keep listening to it, I guess.

PHAWKER: So I really dug both your previous films Spree and Slice, and I started to notice looking at your filmography you sort of pick these roles in films that have these social messages embedded in them. Even Free Guy. There’s interesting stuff underneath the veneer there for people that want to dig deeper. What do you look for as an actor when you’re reading scripts? Like what are you looking for that sort of your feelers go up where you’re like, I want to do this project?

JOE KEERY:That’s a really tough question. You know, I’m still pretty, pretty early on in my career. It’s kind of hard to say what really intrigues you. Usually it’s doing something that’s a lot different than the thing that I had just previously done and then it’s just kind of a gut gut feeling, really.

I remember reading Spree and thinking it was an amazing commentary and it was kind of risky, but then meeting Eugene, the director of that movie, I felt like he was the guy for the job and had the movie inside him. It’s really just about putting faith in the director that you’re working with every time it’s kind of a little bit of a roll of the dice, but that’s what makes doing these projects so fun. I guess the only thing that I’ve realized is that you have to do projects that you’re passionate about, and if you’re not passionate about it, you know, it’ll show. So luckily I’ve been able to work on things, like Free Guy, where I’m just really passionate about the story and the people that I’m working tv-show-stranger-things-joe-keery-steve-harrington-wallpaper-previewwith.

PHAWKER: So what was it like switching the kind of the character dynamic up and playing a game designer who’s more in line with the lovelorn nerd Dustin in Stranger Things rather than Steve? Was it a different mindset or like, what was it like for you internally?

JOE KEERY:It’s a lot of fun, really just a different challenge. I think that’s something that I’m always looking for, job to job is just to do something that’s kind of different. I get to play this kind of aloof, confident, maybe not the brightest crayon in the box character on Stranger Things and to play a much more intelligent character, but somebody who doesn’t really have a lot of confidence was a fun challenge.

PHAWKER: Free Guy is all about video games. Are you a gamer at all?

JOE KEERY:I mean here and there. I mean, I played Pokemon as a kid. I played some in N64 as a kid, played a few here and there, not a ton of online gaming. So I had to do some work there. But I have a pretty good understanding of the video game community.

PHAWKER: Speaking of which, games and technology are things folks tend to be really passionate about, and getting something wrong can definitely impact how people perceive your performance. What kind of research did you do prior to shooting the film with your character Keys who’s a game designer?free_guy_ver6_xlg

JOE KEERY: The research I did was based more around the world building side, because I think that’s kind of what Keys is at the end of the day, he’s a world builder at heart. I really enjoyed how at the top of this movie, he had kind of gone through this heartbreak with him and Millie, who he had worked so hard with to create this game. They sell it to this company and to Antoine, played by Taika Waititi, and then the game is shelved and he ends up just working at this dead end job at Antoine’s company.He starts in this kind of depression, and then his character really kind of goes through this journey in parallel to Guy and that was something that was appealing to me about the character.

PHAWKER: Speaking of Waititi, what was it like filming your scenes with Taika? Because it seems like there was a bit of improv in his performance. Was the script the gospel, or was there more improv scene to scene?

JOE KEERY: He is a mad genius, man. I really was looking forward to working with him. He’s a writer, director, and actor. I love his movies, love his shows and that’s kind of what he does on set. I mean, he’s kind of directing, writing, acting all at the same time. Shawn (Levy) said out somewhere out there, there was like a 39-minute blooper reel of just only improv stuff that was not scripted. No, he doesn’t have any fear. He’s not afraid to fail. He’s just got a lot of confidence and that can be difficult as a performer when you’re on the spot, but it was amazing watching him work and being around and being able to do the scenes with him. Yeah, generally we would get what was on the page and then, yeah, Shawn would just let him run wild.

PHAWKER: Finally I have to ask, can you tell us what we can expect from the next season of Stranger Things

JOE KEERY: I can’t say much, but I can say that in the next season… [Joe acts like the sound is out on the Zoom Call as he mouths words without actually saying anything]

PHAWKER: [laughs]

JOE KEERY: I just finished my own work for the season, so I’m officially wrapped after a very long shooting process, which was tough for everybody. Just given the circumstances of the world, obviously, but these guys, the Duffer brothers, have poured their hearts and their souls, their entire lives into this show. They do not take a break. They do not take a vacation. They are constantly either writing, editing, or directing this show for the past five years, since it came out and they’ve been working tirelessly to bring this new season to everybody. I just think that they are such visionary guys and I still can’t quite fathom how I got linked with these guys and in this show. So personally, this is the season I’m most looking forward to seeing just because it’s been such a long process and the script I think is pretty different and has a really large scope. So I believe it will be worth the wait, like I usually say, but not much more I can say.

NOW PLAYING IN A THEATER NEAR YOU

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FROM THE VAULTS: The Temple Of Boom

August 11th, 2021

THE SONICS BOOM

 

Buzzfeed LogoBY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR BUZZFEED In 1965, Tacoma, Washington’s The Sonics released a debut album of raw-boned, hemorrhagic garage-punk and maximum R&B called, simply, Here Are The Sonics. Exponentially louder, wilder, and weirder than their woolly-bully frat-rock brethren on the SeaTac teen club/roller rink/armory circuit, The Sonics sang about witches, psychopaths, Satan, and strychnine as a social lubricant, along with the more standard themes of hot girls and fast cars, or, even better, fast girls in hot cars. The 12 tracks on Here Are The Sonics capture the needle-pinning, speaker-blowing, tonsil-shredding, balls-to-the-wall mating call of five hormonal mid-’60s teenage savages forever in hot pursuit of Mad Men-era booze-cigarettes-sex-magic and the glorious din that made it all possible.

Fifty years after its release, Here Are The Sonics still sounds, as one wag aptly put it, “as raw as a freshly scraped kneecap.” On the continuum of rock ’n’ roll as a 20th-century art form, Here Are The Sonics remains a vital and important relic, the aural equivalent of a prehistoric cave painting, as primitive as it is seminal. It changed music. More accurately, it changed the people who would change music.

Jack White called it “the epitome of ’60s punk.” Kurt Cobain said it had “the most amazing drum sound I’ve ever heard…it sounds like he’s hitting harder than anyone I’ve ever heard.” On “Losing My Edge,” LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy concludes his itemized list of the essential artists in the definitive hipster record collection by invoking The Sonics four times in a row, as if casting a spell.

Feeble national promotion and ham-fisted distribution may have ensured that few outside of The Sonics’ Pacific Northwest stomping ground heard Here Are The Sonics when it was firsreleased, but in the fullness of time its sphere of influence now transcends generations and spans continents thanks to the Esperanto of electrifying noise.

Just don’t tell The Sonics that.

“I think that’s overstating it a little,” says Larry Parypa, 68, The Sonics’ guitarist and de facto leader, when I recite some variation of the last two paragraphs to him. “I’m not sure how much influence we had on rock ’n’ roll.” “Parypa” is a Hungarian name that means “man of strong horse or something,” he says, but I just don’t see it. Parypa is more mild-mannered than you’d expect from a man whose claim to fame is playing guitar on a song called “Psycho,” and, it turns out, is suspicious of grand statements, especially about his band.

THE SONICS 3

 

“I know we did some things that were very different, but to that degree? I don’t know,” he says with a shrug. We are sitting in the living room of Parypa’s house situated in a leafy suburban cul-de-sac outside of Seattle and paid for not by The Sonics’ paltry record sales royalties (about $4,000 a year) but a decades-long career as an insurance adjuster from which he finally retired earlier this year. He is only mildly amused when I point out that it only took 55 years for the guitar player for The Sonics to finally be able to quit his day job. Parypa is oddly joyless given that the thwarted rock star dreams of his youth have finally come true in his old age. Perhaps he senses, deep down, that it’s come too late.

Parypa is not a sentimental man. You have to look hard to find signs that the guitar player from The Sonics lives here. He doesn’t have copies of the original pressings of The Sonics’ ’60s recordings. No film footage of The Sonics performing live or even a video clip of their 1966 performance on Cleveland’s Upbeat, their one TV appearance. He doesn’t even have any old photos of the band from back in the day. “We just never kept that stuff,” he says, again with the shrug.

There are a few framed gig posters tucked away in an upstairs hallway — but nothing older than five years ago. Parypa never even bothered to tell his now-adult daughter that he was in The Sonics when she was growing up. She had to find out on the street when she was 14. “She must’ve gone to a record store and saw my picture and asked the guy behind the counter and I guess he made a big fuss,” he says, with that I-don’t-see-what-the-big-deal-is tone of voice he adopts when talking about the band. “She came home with a Sonics album and was like, ‘What’s this all about?’”

The reason we are debating the band’s place in the canon of rock ’n’ roll is that a reconstituted Sonics — Parypa, saxophonist Rob Lind, singer-songwriter-keyboardist Jerry Roslie, all three original members, plus bassist Freddie Dennis and drummer Dusty Watson (replacing original bassist Andy Parypa and drummer Bob Bennett, respectively) — are on the verge of releasing This Is The Sonics (out earlier this week), the first proper Sonics album in nearly half a century.

Wisely they enlisted the production services of Detroit garage guru Jim Diamond (White Stripes, The Dirtbombs), who laid down the law on day one.

“I told them, ‘You know, you’re not 19 years old, so it would be silly to try and copy your ’60s records; having said that, we have to stay true to the spirit of those recordings,’” he says a few weeks later, calling from somewhere in the ruins of the Motor City. “I want you to play like you haven’t gotten any better than when you were 19. Raw and mean. If it’s not punk as fuck, I’m not putting my name on it.”

Well, Jim Diamond put his name on it, as well he should. Despite the 48-year gap between albums and the fact that the median age in the band is now 70, one spin of This Is The Sonics makes a persuasive case that The Sonics are still The Rawest Band on Earth. Parypa can still swing a riff like a Louisville Slugger, the drummer still beats the drums like they owe him money, the sax player still honks as if he’s horny, and the singer still sounds like he gargles with gasoline and can’t be trusted with breakable things. All of which means The Rawest Band on Earth are now old enough to be your grandfather — and more popular than they ever were in the prime of their youth.

Anthony Bourdain, host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, used “Have Love, Will Travel” in promos for the current season. He emailed the following when I asked him why: “The Sonics were true originals, garage before garage, the way rock and roll should be: loud, dirty and dangerous.”

The cruel irony of The Sonics story is that Jerry Roslie, the guy who screams like an electrocuted banshee on record and writes songs about guzzling strychnine for kicks and going psycho at the sight of a beautiful lady, is pathologically bashful, bordering on socially phobic, a condition that seems to have worsened over the years. It wasn’t much of an issue when he was living a quiet, anonymous middle-class life in the suburbs of Tacoma, laying asphalt for a living. But all that changed in 2004 when Land Rover licensed The Sonics’ version of “Have Love, Will Travel” for a TV ad, triggering a revival of interest in the band.

The Sonics
 

In 2007, after years of politely declining lucrative reunion tour offers, The Sonics begrudgingly agreed to reunite for one night and perform a completely sold-out show at the Cavestomp! garage-rock festival in New York. Backstage before they went on, everyone had butterflies — after all, it had been 40 years since they plugged in together — but Roslie was scared shitless. Could he still do this? Did The Sonics still have it? Would the audience laugh at these sad old men trying to relive long-past glories? “We heard that New York can be a pretty tough crowd,” he says. “I remember before we went on looking around for a garbage-can lid to shield me from the rotten fruit and vegetables. When they opened the curtain it was like déjà vu, spooky, we’d gotten older but the audience was the same age as they were when we played back in the 1966. And they welcomed us right away.” And 21st-century audiences have been welcoming them ever since.

In the eight years since they played CaveStomp, The Sonics have crisscrossed the globe repeatedly — not bad for a band that never got farther east than Cleveland back in the day. “We’ve played in European countries where they don’t speak much English,” says Lind. “And the crowd is down at the front of the stage singing every word of ‘Strychnine’ and waving their beer bottles.” When The Sonics played Mexico City last summer, they were so mobbed by autograph seekers after the show it took half an hour to go the 20 feet from the backstage door to the shuttle van. When they played in Spain, grown men cried in their dressing room, begging to touch the hem of their garments. Two months ago they flew to São Paulo, Brazil, for a completely sold-out one-night stand. The next morning they were mobbed in the hotel lobby by autograph seekers. One eternally grateful fan passed the band a handwritten note with the following message.

To The Sonics

Thank you for existing and the good job you did (and still doing) for mankind.

Big Respect,

Rodrigo

Sao Paulo, Feb. 2015

Not too shabby for an ex–insurance adjuster, retired commercial airline pilot, former proprietor of an asphalt paving business, laid-off Experience Music Project tour guide, and the guy who played drums for Lita Ford from 1980 to 1984.

Tacoma and all points in between. Every red-blooded, non-jock male under 25 has a rock ’n’ roll band. Or wants to start a rock ’n’ roll band or just got kicked out of a rock ’n’ roll band or at the very least goes out to see rock ’n’ roll bands all the time. Because that’s where the girls are. Jerry Roslie and Rob Lind are no exception. Roslie plays keyboards and Lind blows sax. Their band is called The Searchers. “We started going out on Saturday nights on a dual mission and the mission was: hear rock ’n’ roll bands and meet women,” says Lind, a recently retired US Airways pilot, on the phone from his home in North Carolina. “We’d see something cool and then go home and try and play it and kinda get it wrong, but in the process make something that was ours.”

One Saturday night they met a guitar player named Larry Parypa, who had an instrumental band with his brother Andy called The Sonics — named after the sonic booms emanating from nearby McChord Air Force Base. But something was missing. Like Lind and Roslie, the Parypa brothers liked their rock ’n’ roll loud and mean. They quickly agreed to join forces and ditch The Searchers moniker in favor of The Sonics, which was wise because there was already a band called The Searchers in the U.K., with actual hits. By process of elimination, Roslie became the band’s lead singer. He was the least bad of the bunch.

“People always ask me how come you guys are so nasty and dirty, and I always tell them that Seattle bands were jazzy and swingy and really good musicians,” says Lind. “Down in Tacoma, where we grew up, it was a blue-collar city, our fathers all worked in mills and on the waterfront and all we wanted to do was rock ’n’ roll. We wanted to kick your ass.”

“We all wanted to play hard music, and it got so aggressive,” says Parypa. “We wanted loud drums and back then you didn’t mic the drum kit, so if you wanted loud drums the drummer had to hit really hard. That meant everybody else had to turn up to be heard over the drums, and Jerry would have to scream to be heard over the din. And that just became our sound.”It was slow going early on, but soon they landed a regular Friday-night gig at a teen club called the Red Carpet, which would become for them what the Cavern Club was for The Beatles: the place where they got their chops from playing marathon four-hour sets nightly, learned their lessons about stagecraft the hard way, and began harvesting the fruits of their labor, namely girls and beer. “After a while, we’d pull up to the back to load in our gear and there would already be a line of kids waiting to get in that stretched around the block,” says Lind.

Some nights Roslie’s preternatural bashfulness would get the best of him and he’d succumb to debilitating stage fright. “He’d look out at a packed crowd and turn to me and say, ‘I’m not singing tonight!’” says Parypa. “I’d be like, ‘But you’re our singer!’”

The Sonics soon caught the attention of Buck Ormsby, bassist from The Wailers, who had started Etiquette Records to put out his band’s recordings and harvest local talent. He told them if they had a record under their belt, they could command at least twice the $500 they were pulling down a night at the Red Carpet. But to make a record you had to have some original material, and at that point The Sonics were still just a cover band. Roslie went home that night and wrote a this-evil-chick-done-me-wrong song, as was the style of the day, around a catchy stair-stepping riff that — when played simultaneously by the guitar, sax, and organ — sounded as menacing as the title. He called it “The Witch.” Ormsby liked what he heard and took the boys into a two-track studio in Seattle that was primarily used to cut ad jingles.

“We were all of 17 and so keyed up and nervous that when they pressed ‘record’ we played it three times as fast as it was supposed to be,” says Lind. “I remember afterwards laying on the living room floor at the Parypas house and listening to the master, and all of us were distraught. We felt like we’d totally screwed it up and we’d spent $500 of our own money to record it.” The Parypas brothers’ father was so incensed he called up Ormsby and threatened to drive over to his house and punch his lights out for ruining his sons’ budding musical career.

Six months later it was a hit.

Sonics 5
 

Despite the phone ringing off the hook with requests for “The Witch,” the big Seattle radio station WKJR refused to play the song before 3:30 p.m. — when the kids were home from school — for fear this creepy, lo-fi song about a witch would scare off the lucrative daytime homemaker audience. Despite such restrictions, the single sold 20,000 copies in the first week of its release. “The record label was like, ‘Holy crap, you guys are hot! We have to follow this up with an album!’” says Lind. “And we were like, ‘OK, when are we going to make this album?’ They said, ‘Tomorrow.’”

That night after playing their standard four-hour set at the Red Carpet, they asked the owner if they could stay and rehearse for a few hours. They worked up a couple numbers that Roslie had been chipping away at: “Boss Hoss,” inspired by a bitchin’ red Mustang he saw in a hot-rod magazine; and “Strychnine,” a bitter white crystalline powder widely used as a rat poison that causes convulsions and death through asphyxia in humans. It was also widely rumored at the time that LSD was cut with strychnine, which turned out to be a myth spread by law enforcement types to discourage use of the hallucinogen. A third original, the aptly titled “Psycho,” was made up on the spot that night. The rest of the album would be fleshed out with covers from their live set, including their now-iconic version of Richard Berry’s “Have Love, Will Travel.”

Lind remembers the recording session was booked for the middle of the night to get a cheaper rate. “We used to call Etiquette ‘Cheap Screw Records,’” says Lind. “It was like 3 a.m. Everything was done in one take. We’d be like, ‘We could probably play it better if we did it again.’ And the engineer would be like ‘Naw, sounds great, let’s move on.’ I remember the top of the piano being covered with burgers and soda cups and there was this thick fog of cigarette smoke.”

Etiquette hired famed rock photographer Jini Dellaccio to shoot the band for the cover. Formerly a fashion photographer, Dellaccio had started turning her lens on the moody, hirsute young men that peopled the local music scene with striking results. Always shooting in black and white, Dellaccio eschewed the fussily arranged studio setups that were de rigueur at the time in favor of spontaneous shots taken in rustic outdoor settings near her home along the waterfront.

The Sonics’ debut sold well in the Pacific Northwest but distribution snafus kept the album from breaking nationally. “They would start playing it on a radio station in Miami, but by the time they got the records into stores there, the radio station had moved onto other things and it died on the vine,” says Parypa. “I think that kind of thing happened a lot.”

Still, Here Are The Sonics opened a lot of doors for the band — including regional tours with The Kinks, The Mamas & the Papas, and the Beach Boys — and tripled their asking price for headlining gigs. “I remember the first time we got paid $1,500, boy, we felt like we were The Rolling Stones,” says Lind. And in a big-fish-little-pond way — getting drunk with The Kinks, trading backstage pranks with the Beach Boys — they were. After all, The Sonics’ prime directive always was and forever shall be getting laid, and, for a time at least, it was raining women. And when it rained it poured.

“We did not want for female attention back then and sometimes that caused problems,” says Lind. “We used to play a lot out in cowboy country. Not a lot of people know this but if you go over the Cascade mountains, all of eastern Washington is like Kansas, basically one big wheat field and combines. So when we would play out that way; lots of dudes would come to the shows in pickup trucks wearing cowboy hats and plaid shirts with the sleeves rolled up. Well, their girls were attracted to us — we were young, skinny, good-looking guys and we’re up there playing rock ’n’ roll music.” This kind of thing happened all the time. Invariably the band would be cordially invited by jealous boyfriends to discuss the matter over knuckle sandwiches in a darkened alley behind the club. It got to the point that The Sonics guys started learning karate.

It wasn’t just jealous boyfriends they had to worry about. Though it’s hard today to understand what all the fuss was about, in 1965 — especially in the rural redoubts of the Pacific Northwest — having hair longer than a buzz cut marked you as some kind of beatnik-commie-queer. “We’d stop at some gas station out in the middle of nowhere and we’d ask directions how to get back to the interstate and the owner would say, ‘Oh sure, boy — say, are you a boy or a girl?’ Ha ha. Like we hadn’t heard that a million times,” says Lind. “Then he’d give us directions and we’d thank him and soon find out the directions lead to the middle of nowhere. We used to refer to them as ‘Sonics Directions.’”

Sonics 4
 

They toured around in a shit-brown ’62 Ford van they christened The Turd. “When the sun hit at a certain angle you could see there was some writing on the side of the van that said EAT OUT MORE OFTEN,” says Jerry Roslie. “We couldn’t stop laughing about that, because, well, we were 18.”

When Etiquette decided they’d played out the string on the first album, it was time to record another one. Tomorrow. “Again, we had, like, no songs,” says Parypa. Though many rock snobs worship at the temple of Boom, which is widely recognized by the iconic Jini Dellaccio shot of the band on the cover — five tall drinks of water dressed head-to-toe in midnight-black and Beatle boots, elegantly staggered and striking poses of sullen teenage cool before a backdrop of whited-out oblivion — musically speaking it’s kind of a wet firecracker. The frantic energy of the debut has dissipated, Roslie largely abandons his lacerating vocal style, and the improved clarity of the recordings doesn’t really do the band any favors. The Sonics always did their best work in the murk.

By early 1966, when Boom was released, the times were clearly a-changing. The Beatles and the Beach Boys and Dylan had moved the game to a whole new level. Recording artists were expected to be poets and seers taking rock ’n’ roll to strange new places — places well beyond The Sonics’ reach as songwriters. They were primitives in a new age of artistes. Not that they didn’t give it the old college try. In late ’66 they jumped to Jerden Records, a Seattle label with deeper pockets thanks to labelmates The Kingsmen’s million-selling version of “Louie Louie.” Jerden sent them to Hollywood to record at Gold Star Studios, hoping for higher fidelity and a more current sound. It was a disaster. “We wound up hating it,” says Lind. “We’d just as soon forget that one.” The band disowned the record before it was even released, and it died a quick and ignominious death upon arrival. In the aftermath of their ill-advised slouch toward the fringes of competence, finesse, and commercial viability, The Sonics crumbled like vampires in the dawn’s early light of psychedelia, and its members soon vanished into the jungles of Vietnam, straight jobs, and the middle-class domestic tranquility of the suburbs from whence they came.

Which brings us back to where we started. The sun is going down on Larry Parypa’s house. The man of strong horse is looking a little saddle sore. He’s dreading the epic trek to São Paulo next week. “It will be fun to play in Brazil, but that’s going to be a horrible flight,” he says. The band’s upcoming coast-to-coast U.S. tour — a first for The Sonics — is also cause for concern.

“I live for that hour on stage, but everything else is bullshit,” he says. “You’re always tired, you get home at 2 a.m. but you’re kind of hyper, and you’ve got to be in the lobby at 6 a.m. to go some other place. And then when you get there, they want to do interviews and all that stuff. I hate waiting, I hate sitting in those little cramped greenrooms, I hate airplanes.”

Though The Sonics have managed, thus far, to defy the restraints of senior citizenship, time waits for no man. Not for very long, anyway. None of them are getting any younger. At 65, Freddie is the baby in the band. Lind and Roslie are septuagenarians, and Parypa is not far behind. Not to mention Roslie underwent a heart transplant back in 2008. Let’s face it, rock ’n’ roll is no country for old men. I ask Parypa how much longer he thinks The Sonics can keep this up. “I ask myself that all the time,” he says. “I asked Jerry about that like three weeks ago. He’s in the same boat, like, ‘When do we quit, man?’”

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BEING THERE: Japanese Breakfast @ Union Trans

August 9th, 2021

Screen Shot 2021-08-09 at 12.03.40 AM
Photo by DYLAN LONG

The long-awaited return to live music at Philly’s beloved Union Transfer was spearheaded by none other than Philly’s own Japanese Breakfast. The breakout indie pop unit, headed by frontwoman, author and director Michelle Zauner, played its second of five sold-out shows last night to a packed, masked up crowd spanning all ages, backgrounds and creeds. In terms of homecomings, five nights over six days is wildly impressive without the existence of a pandemic, and exactly what the people needed with one.

The night was as beautiful as it was a stark reminder of the pandemic. The same quirks of concert going returned as we left them: the awkward shifting and glancing around the venue while waiting for the band to go on, fans filling the silence in between songs with scattered yelps and quips, and strangers propositioning you for the purchase of a cigarette in exchange for a dollar. But looking around, having never experienced a live music show with everyone in the crowd wearing masks on their face, I’ll admit: it was fucking weird. Like, a how-is-this-real-life weird. Along with masking, the venue, upon request from the band, checked for proof of vaccination or a negative test within 48 hours of the show upon entry. A girl outside the entrance spoke frantically on the phone. “They’re not letting me in without my vax card. It’s either in my closet or on the stand by the dining room table.” It was a mix of emotions.

The kind of Woodstock-esque cathartic emotional release you’d expect of the crowd was not immediate. Punk rock and indie trio Mannequin Pussy, also Philadelphia natives and direct support for the first three shows of the run, played fast, furious, and with unbridled passion. “Is this your guy’s first show back?” frontwoman Marisa Dabice asked gleefully, and the crowd responded widely in the affirmative. The fans, however, seemed reserved and cautiously enthused as the band powered through their set. The majority of us were, after all, readjusting to live music in a crowded space for the first time in years.

In between songs, Dabice approached the mic. “People say you’re not allowed to scream,” she said quietly. She paused for a moment. “Guess what? You can scream. You can scream and it will feel good. Let it go.” Perhaps sensing the hesitation in the crowd, she proceeded to lead the audience in a group scream. On three, the crowd collectively let out a billowing, cathartic scream, synthesizing the wide variety of emotions the pandemic has elicited into an emotional and blissful release. Fans laughed, cheered, and high-fived. They were home.

It was a textbook warming up of the crowd, and any anxiety that fans had brought in with them to the show had been dissolved just in time for the main act. Zauner took the stage in a gorgeous white gown and a mallet in hand, which she used to ceremoniously ring a gong during the band’s opening song “Paprika”. The crowd sprung into action, dancing their hearts out to hits like “Be Sweet,” “Savage Good Boy,” and “Boyish,” as Zauner alternated between her microphone, guitar and piano in between songs. Spinning spells with her words and effervescent movements across the stage, Zauner took fans on a journey, weaving her melodic vocals through the lush, dreamy synths Japanese Breakfast has so finely honed.

Standing outside of the show, conversation between the bouncers revolved around the pandemic. A woman walked out of the venue, ripped off her mask, and proclaimed with a sigh of relief, “freedom at last!” Music is an escape; live music a destination to leave all of your worries at the door. For now, they’ve found a way in. And while we’ve still got a long way to go, Japanese Breakfast provided a safe environment for fans to celebrate and cherish life once again. – DYLAN LONG

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BEING THERE: Modest Mouse @ The Met

August 7th, 2021

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Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER

At a punctual 9 PM this past Thursday, Isaac Brock martialed his Modest Mouse crew to their instruments, squared off with a house thick with expectant minions, and plucked the first waltz-time notes of “Dramamine” to kick off a luxuriant 20-song set.

The Golden Casket, their first new music in six years, offers elegiac overtones that include a music video for album single “We Are Between” in which Brock is crushed inside of a car in a junkyard. In the context of global pandemic and climate change, oppressive anxiety and existential dread may be the zeitgeist, but those aging indie-rock fans who may be alarmed by the explicit nod to a stand-off with mortality can lower one eyebrow: 17-year-old setlist cuts like “Bury Me With It” and “Satin In A Coffin” will remind us that for Modest Mouse these considerations are nothing too new.

By way of contrast, Brock and co. proffer on this tour the results of more dynamic experimentation a la Wilco’s Yankee Hotel or Dylan’s Basement Tapes, a shift in approach that sees them trading guitars for banjos, spacephones, vibraslaps, and even “soft-drink percussion” (not kidding, read the liner notes) that add up to a sprawling, tactile landscape of music that’s still packaged under the band’s trademark buoyant, staccato, uptempo euphony.

That’s a lot of growing, for a band that talks so much about dying, and as much a finger in the face of pandemic zeitgeist as were the hundreds of maskless faces of their (hopefully vaccinated) crowd. For better or more likely worse but hey — at least you could see all the thin smiles. – JOSH PELTA-HELLER

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CINEMA: Requiem Pour Un Con

August 6th, 2021

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ANNETTE (Directed by Leos Carax, 139 minutes, France, 2021)

Dan Tabor_byline_avatarBY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC French writer/director/film critic Leos Carax, responsible for the absurdist masterwork Holy Motors, is back with an oddball operatic musical called Annette, for which he collaborated with Sparks, aka the greatest band you’ve probably never heard of. Sparks is comprised of brothers Ronald and Russell Mael who for the past 55 years have somehow managed to remain bleeding edge of music, with just the right blend of complexity and quirk. If you’ve seen Edgar Wright’s the excellent Sparks doc The Sparks Brothers, you know the brothers Mael have spent a rather large portion of their career trying to make their way to the silver screen. Given the brother’s proclaimed love of Goddard and the French New Wave, it only made sense their cinematic debut would come courtesy of the more culture savvy French. And it was worth the wait — Annette is a weird-beard tour de force.

Unlike Holy Motors, which utilized an episodic narrative structure, Annette is near-linear in its storytelling. The plot unfolds in the celebrity-obsessed fishbowl of Hollywood, where stand-up comedian provocateur Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) marries the world-famous soprano Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), and after a whirlwind romance, conceives a daughter  they name Annette. For reasons not entirely clear, Annette is portrayed as a wooden marionette (hence the name) in contrast to her very much living and breathing costars. Think of Annette as a female Pinocchio, definitely not CGI, very practical, and often unnerving until you get used to her. The story soon takes a turn for the tragic when Ann is lost at sea one stormy night on their yacht, amid whispers of foul play.

Given Sparks love of eccentric metaphor and wordplay, the choice of the marionette is more than a weird stylistic choice and in fact serves two purposes. Firstly, the marionette represents the fact that the children of celebrity couples are often relegated to simple objects or things to be fought over in custody battles. Secondly, it’s only after Annette speaks out against her father for putting her on tour to capitalize on his wife’s death that she becomes a real girl.

The music here is a mix of deep cuts from Sparks’ back catalog, largely drawn from 1974’s Propaganda (“Thanks But No Thanks” and “Bon Voyage”), mixed with new compositions written specifically for the film. The meta opening number “So May We Start” starts in a recording studio with Sparks recording the song before handing off the melody off to Driver and Cotillard who then get into wardrobe, into vehicles and into their respective first scenes. This amid meta-lyrics about production budget concerns and audience etiquette.

Like Holy Motors, Annette is very raw. Performances feel less rehearsed than improvised in single long takes, that highlight both the intensity of expression and the exhaustion that invariably ensues. In the beginning the film’s look is heavily inspired by old Hollywood with its heavy use of rear projection and dream-like cinematography, with everything picture perfect to the point of artificiality. But the unreality slowly erodes over the course of the film’s tw-hour running time and by the end we are very much in the gritty real world.

Driver shoulders much of the film and his performance exceeds the highwater mark of his work in Marriage Story. Henry McHenry is unlikable and unhinged and his comedy act is a series of monologues that are internal explorations of love and anger painfully externalized on stage, often performed in speedos and a bathrobe. He is a conflicted father, struggling with regret and battling his demons in front of an audience. Think embarrassing over the top performance art meets poetry slam, all while breaking into the occasional song.

Still, Driver, acting opposite a puppet, manages to sell Henry and his fragile father daughter relationship which slowly evolves into the dark heart of the film. Ultimately, Henry chooses to push his daughter away just when you would expect him to hold her close. This stark choice magnifies the film’s darker moments and portrays the consequences of Ann’s death on Henry and just how far he is willing to go to keep his dark secret safe, and his daughter on tour making money. It’s not for everyone, films this uncompromising rarely are, but for those that give themselves over to Annette are in for a wild ride.

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SERGE GAINSBOURG: Requiem Pour Un Con

August 6th, 2021

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