I got there early and chatted with my cousin & her fiancée. They had just finished eating tacos while the beer tents were in full swing. It was an absolutely beautiful day for a punk rock show!
First up was Denver’s own Dendrites, kicking the music off with some expert ska. The suits were probably pretty hot in the midday sun, would have been better to play later when it cooled off, but they didn’t get a choice. 😄
Next up was The Dwarves, a band whose album covers I remember more than their music but I really liked their set. Their singer, Blag Dahlia, was pretty funny. A true punk character. Honestly, I probably would have been too scared to go to one of their shows back in the day. Something about the lawn & sunshine mitigates that “let’s fight, asshole!” vibe.
My favorite part of the day? The mini-pit these kids started during the Dwarves set:
Strung Out took the stage after (I was really impressed by the set changes throughout the day – great roadies!). They were another band I wasn’t too familiar with but came to like a lot. Definitely more polished punk but I’m not terribly picky, as long as the songs are good.
I couldn’t believe I actually got to see the band who played after Strung out – the storied Black Flag. No, not with Rollins. Or Kira. Or Bill. Or…well anyone from way back, except Greg. But I didn’t care, I got to see them play “Rise Above,” “Black Coffee,” “Depression” and others.
I’ve got my own reasons for not really caring for the band that played next, so I looked forward to Bad Religion. They tore through a set of 16 songs! I’d seen them at Riot Fest in 2013 and was stoked that they’re still going.
Last up was the headliner (for good reason – their singer makes the hot sauce that sponsors the festival) The Offspring. The weather had turned, but the crowd didn’t care, they were there for the music! (I met Dexter once, actually – the night they played Woodstock ’99 in a bar in NYC. He’d flown back by helicopter and was hanging out in the same bar as me – was kind of weird but cool to see him there.) The band pounded out the hits and everyone ate it up – I guess all the energy helped keep the people warm. That’s what you get in Colorado in April, though.
Was great to get back to Sabroso, one of the decent (if aging) punk festivals in the Denver area. I hope they keep coming back and bringing the hardcore energy.
As with many of the bands in URGH!, this was the first I knew or saw of Dead Kennedys. I didn’t know they were punk rock. They just seemed weird. Well, Jello did, anyway. The bass player and guitarist simply seemed geeky.
Jello’s intro monologue for the song “Bleed For Me” didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at the time; I didn’t know anything about the politics of Argentina or how the US figured into that, but it came across as sinister. I still don’t know if there’s punk rock in Nebraska. 😉 Jello sure is charismatic, though.
Later on in junior high and high school my friends and I listened to Dead Kennedys more, especially their Bedtime for Democracy album. (Who doesn’t love the “Take This Job and Shove It” cover?) I didn’t listen too much to the lyrics to understand what Jello was on about, though. “Holiday in Cambodia” sounded sinister but…where was Cambodia? Who was Pol Pot? “California Über Alles” had German in the title but how was California connected to Nazis? I understand it now, but at the time I was just a high school kid more concerned with drinking on the weekends than doing a deep dive into DK lyrics & dyspepsia.
The lore around URGH! is that two songs were recorded for each band, I guess to make sure they had at least one good tune to use for the movie. After “Bleed For Me,” the video above has footage & audio for another song recorded at the same show called “Government Flu.” I’d love to see an URGH! 2 film of all the second (or more?) song footage.
Where URGH They Now?
The band broke up in 1986 following Bedtime for Democracy. I followed more of Jello’s post-Kennedys career when I was in college radio, due to his spoken word record I Blow Minds For A Living and his work with Al Jourgensen in the thrash industrial band Lard. (One of my favorites of the genre)
College radio is also where I played the Cha Cha Cha With Mr. Flouride record by the band’s bass player, Klaus Flouride.
Guitarist East Bay Ray played on numerous musical projects throughout the 90’s and also found work producing and mixing albums for other artists. He’s on Twitter now, too.
D.H. Peligro, the main drummer for the band (he replaced founding drummer Ted in 1981), had a brief (and I do mean brief) stint in the Red Hot Chili Peppers before guesting on a few records and fronting his own band Peligro.
Ray, Flouride, and Peligro are still touring as Dead Kennedys following a lawsuit against Jello Biafra. They re-formed in 2001 and have had a few different singers, with “Skip” Greer from the Wynona Riders as the current vocalist.
I met Jello once at a show that featured my friend Adam Gimbel. I forget the details but Adam asked me to bring my black & white Rickenbacker 360 and play on a cover of Ride’s “Vapour Trail.” I was thrilled at the opportunity. We had a great time.
One of the show openers was singer/songwriter Wesley Willis, who was on Jello’s Alternative Tentacles label. I best remember Wesley’s song “Hootie and the Blowfish”:
Jello was there, I’m not sure if he was managing Wesley’s or just there to hang out at the local show of one of the label’s artists, but we talked a bit and he was a really nice guy. For whatever that’s worth. 😄
After the loss of David Bowie and Prince in 2016, 2017 turned out to be a good year for music. I don’t know if everyone stepped up their game to fill in the gap (not that anyone could fill for those two) or if it was the political climate, but I really enjoyed the music that I listened to this year. Very few duds, but then again, I don’t listen to much pop.
So let’s jump right in!
Favorite Political Song: Despite the continued relevance of YG’s song “FDT,” that song came out in 2016. March 2016, no less. What a prophet. But my favorite political song achieved that status because it came from an unexpected source: Depeche Mode.
I don’t know when it was written and recorded, probably in the throes or aftermath of Brexit and the 2016 U.S. election, but it had the familiar sound of old Depeche Mode, which drew me in right away.
Now, I don’t say “unexpected” because Depeche Mode’s never been political. Quite the contrary, this is the band that wrote of environmental destruction (“The Landscape Is Changing”), the long-reaching potential effects of parental neglect (“Shouldn’t Have Done That”), and the manipulation of the masses by the media (“New Dress”). That was a younger Martin Gore, however. This is an older, impatient Martin. “Where’s the revolution? Come on people, you’re bringing me down.” A call to action that is much needed in this Age of 45 and Brexit.
Runner Up:Billy Bragg‘s “Bridges Not Walls” mini LP – One of the best protest singer/songwriters of our lifetimes steps up to deliver messages of resistance and togetherness. Here’s “Why We Build The Wall”
Coolest Comeback & Favorite Show:
One of my favorite bands of all time is RIDE from Oxford, England. They’re a shoegaze band, a genre that emerged when I was in college, and I love the music that gets that tag, almost to a band. I’ve described it as a kind of pop-driven psychedelic guitar dirge but that’s not quite it. Like most “genre” tags the meaning gets lost (“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” right?).
I had plans for a music podcast named obliquely about the band (“Ride With Me”) that never quite got off the ground, but I digress.
Ride re-formed a few years back after a couple of one-off get-togethers where they played Primavera in Spain, Coachella in the U.S., and more festivals. 2017 saw the release of new material in February, the lead single “Charm Assault” with news of a full album titled Weather Diaries to come in summer. “Charm Assault” was immediately captivating: crisp, driving, replete with jangling guitars. It was like old Ride, but still new. “Home Is A Feeling” was released the next day, a more languid offering, but still that classic drone style.
The next release was “Lannoy Point,” a week ahead of the album. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about that song at first, and looking back I’m not sure why. Maybe the arpeggiated synth, maybe I was expecting something…else. I don’t know. But it’s another solid Ride song and a great album opener.
My first listen to the album was also a little off. All of the pre-released songs were on the front half of the album and I was anxious to hear more of the new new. I feel like I just floated along listening until I got to track 8, “Cali.” Not as fast as “Twisterella,” it opens with a catchy bass guitar riff and hip-shaking beat. The “summer is gone” refrain as the second half of the song stretches out is less a rebuke than an acknowledgment that all things pass.
The album has grown on me over time, appreciating the chopped samples that start “All I Want,” the pounding “Lateral Alice,” and how can a Buddhist not love a song about “Impermanence?”
When I saw the band was coming to Denver in September, I jumped on a ticket and it was probably one of the most satisfying shows I saw in 2017. I’d never seen Ride live in person, although I have a PAL videotape of their Going Blank Again performance at Brixton that I bought while on holiday in the UK. I was actually hoping I’d be able to catch them live but this was back pre-internet and I had no way of knowing at the time that they were on tour in the U.S. while I was in Europe. It was 25 years before I had another chance to see them, and they delivered. I also confused the hell out of them after the show by having one band member sign one each of the cover art from one of their albums or singles. (Most people were having them all sign one item.)
Here’s a set recorded for Amazon Music just days after the Denver show:
I thanked them for playing – I couldn’t think of anything else to say. What do you say to a musical hero sitting in front of you?
So, thanks again Mark, Andy, Steve, and Loz. You made me very happy this year. 🙂
(Note that they have a new EP coming soon titled Tomorrow’s Shore, featuring the new song “Catch You Dreaming!”)
Best Song & Video About A House-Sitter:
“House-sitter,” not a “user.”
Brad Goodall‘s charming 70s-twinged tune about stewarding the swank premises of his friend Mel got a lot of views & listens from me this year. Something about the laid-back vibes of the video (and the vibes Brad plays in the song) appealed to me. Like the guy is getting away with something, but he’s providing a valuable service in watching the cat. And gettin’ his groove on in the meantime. (And the little crouch-y dance Brad does is fucking classic)
Watch, listen, and live vicariously through our friend in Casa de Mel.
Favorite Summer Song:
I made a playlist of 9 songs released before or during June (except one), all of which I enjoyed during the summer months. From The Dollyrots‘ rockin’ “Just Because I’m Blonde” (a callback/homage to the old Julie Brown tune, maybe?) to the tropical island 80s energy of Paramore‘s “Hard Times,” there were some good summatime choonz to be had. The standouts for me were San Fermin‘s “No Promises” (suggested to a friend who was embarking on a road trip – the song features open vistas along with its urgent percussion); the near-nonsensical New Politics banger “CIA”; and my fave of the faves, “Turning the Screw” by Generationals. My friend Eric had recommended their Vampire Weekend-ish song “TenTwentyTen” not too long before “Turning” was released so I had a little callback moment when I realized they were the same group. “Turning The Screw” has enough of a lazy electro-bounce to encourage either relaxing with a cool bevvie or giving a slack shake of what your momma gave you.
Favorite Song & Video of the Year:
Round about mid-February my Spotify Release Radar playlist dropped a bomb on my head in the form of White Reaper‘s “Judy French.” The guitars jammed out a poppy Coheed & Cambria sound while the lyrics were a classic boy-likes-girl paean, pleading his case to his crush. In a bit of a flash-forward to the #MeToo controversy of the fall, our leading man leaves it all up to the object of his affection:
If I’m on your nerves just tell me I don’t want to make it hard I can leave you be, I can leave you be We don’t even have to start
Clear. Simple. Consent.
But that’s not all. The lyric video dropped around the same time and is such a brilliant concept that I can’t believe it’s not been done before (at least not seen by me). You just have to watch:
So great, right? Aaaah, I love it. Such a callback to high school years.
Well done, White Reaper & Charlie Pollard. Thanks for the nostalgia and rockin’ song.
***They released an “official” video for the song but it’s standard slo-mo beautiful-girl-playing-the-guitar fare. Better still, watch their SXSW performance of their song “Make Me Wanna Die” into Oasis’ “Champagne Supernova.”
They’re having a lot of fun. 🙂
Honorable Mention for Great Lyric Video Concept: “On The Rocks” by Bash & Pop:
Video on the cracked phone while the lyrics come in as text message alerts? Also brilliant.
So I guess that’s it, don’t want to ramble on too long. Ok, just a little bit more.
Other Honorable Mentions:
Best Song Title: “Post-War Cinematic Dead Man Blues” by Chuck Prophet
Just A Great Rock Record:Our Undivided Attention by Benchmarks. I’ve followed Todd Farrell Jr.’s career for years and this is his new band. Give it a spin, won’tcha?
A friend of mine sent me a message on Facebook with one of my favorite conversation starters: “Random music question for you.” Favorite because I know the discussion to follow will be a lot of fun. It just has to be. After my reply asking what’s up, she continued: “So I just bought a record player. What are some essential vinyls I need in my life?”
I’m glad you asked. This is what I do.
(Links below are to vinyl copies of the named records on Amazon.com. If you buy from those links, you help support this website. Thanks!) 1. To start, she said she already owned Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. I can’t think of a more perfect album to be the anchor in a vinyl collection. *I* don’t even own that record, but it’s a classic. You can envision dropping the needle on it on breezy summer afternoons, or if you’re gearing up for a night on the town, and even late night as the evening winds down.
But where to go from there? Here’s what my thought process looks like:
2. It’s super cliché, but my mind turns next to Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue or Birth of the Cool. Again, I own neither record, but a classic from that jazz age seems fitting. If you can’t find classic Miles, then one of the Jazz Queens would fit perfectly here – Ella, Billie, Sarah, Dinah.
4. A comedy record. I have Reality…What A Concept by Robin Williams, but anything by Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Redd Foxx, Cheech & Chong, Bob Newhart, Nichols & May, or Eddie Murphy would be good, too. (Nothing by Gallagher, though.)
5. A crooner – Sinatra, Tormé, Nat King Cole. Maybe a Dean Martin or Johnny Mathis record if you can’t find the first people I listed. I feel like Bing was kind of past his prime by the late 50s/early 60s, so it would be difficult to find a record by him. I would also put Julie London in this category.
6. Soul – Here I’m thinking Aretha or Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Staple Singers. Music that’s not gritty blues but also not necessarily the dancier rhythms of R&B. Something with a groove and heart.
7. Any Led Zeppelin album up to and including Physical Graffiti. Personally, I prefer Houses of the Holy, but you can’t really go wrong with any of the LZ I-IV albums, either.
8. Early rap – After all, it was made with turntables! If you can score some old school – Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang – go for it. Otherwise records from the golden age will do – LL Cool J, Run-DMC, etc. Public Enemy might be a little hard for a “starter vinyl” list.
9. 70s rock – This is a pretty broad category. I’m mostly thinking Queen here, or other mid-late 70s rock like Foreigner, Styx, Thin Lizzy, Kiss.
10. Round it out with a classical record. I have 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky backed with Ravel’s Bolero, but whoever you like – Beethoven, Bach, Mozart. Whatever speaks to your soul.
And that’s what I’d recommend for my essential vinyl top 10.
But wait! There’s more!
As I was writing this, I kept thinking of other records to have in the collection, but they’re not as essential as the top 10 list. Bonus record #1: Something camp from the $1 bin. Mrs. Miller. Jim Nabors.
Bonus record #2: 80s new wave remixes – The remix was the rage for new wave, easy to loop those electronic beats and keep the dance floor going. My 12″ collection includes New Order, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Depeche Mode, Book of Love, Erasure, and The Blow Monkeys. If you can’t find a good 12″, then any classic early 80s album will do: Men At Work, Cyndi Lauper, Go-Go’s, Devo.
Bonus Record #3: Psomething Psychedelic! Isn’t that the cliché of record players? Getting stoned and zoning out to some Pink Floyd or Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane or Cream or The Doors. Blaze it! Turn on, tune in, drop out. All that psychedelic stuff.
Bonus Record #4: A Soundtrack. This could be Saturday Night Fever, Star Wars, or South Pacific. Songs, scores, or showtunes, something connected to a film.
Ok, that seems like enough to *really* get you stocked up to break in your new record player. (Don’t ask me what record player to buy, though. That’s beyond my purview. I just have an Ion turntable and M-Audio AV42 speakers.)
What are *your* essential vinyl picks? Leave a comment below!
Purchasing from Amazon affiliate links helps support Your Older Brother. So help Your Brother out. 😉 Thanks!
Once again we return to a superstar band that wasn’t a superstar band when this was filmed in 1980.
(Content warning: crowdsurfing woman getting her shirt tugged at)
The Go-Go’s debut Beauty and the Beat was released in early July of 1981 and was RIAA certified double platinum the following year. They were already gaining a fan base as a result of opening for Madness in Los Angeles and the U.K., but the album and singles “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got The Beat” were massively popular. It seemed especially well-liked with teen girls, these five happy, energetic young women, playing all the instruments and writing catchy songs.
I lived with a teen girl–my older sister–so that’s probably why The Go-Go’s seemed so popular. Our family moved to a small mountain town in Colorado from southern California a couple years before the album’s release and this band felt like what I still considered “home.” I think my sister probably had that connection as well, the sun and the beach instead of the mountains and snow. The music took us to a different place. This was our generation’s surf music (listen to the guitar on “This Town”), but my family was 1,000 miles away from the nearest coast, and I was pretty bitter about it. The Go-Go’s were a connection back to those SoCal days. (Yes, nostalgia had set in for me at the ripe old age of 12.) I have lots of memories of their records being played on my sister’s stereo, the sound coming out thin and high with not much bass, which tended to give even more of a SoCal surf music feel.
So The Go-Go’s were already an established worldwide success by the time I saw them in Urgh!, whenever that would have been, probably 1983. In fact, when I saw Urgh! on cable, the band were one album away from breaking up. Guitarist and songwriter Jane Wiedlin left in late 1984 and the The Go-Go’s broke up in 1985.
Where URGH! They Now? In my mind there’s two post-Go-Go’s eras. The first is just after they broke up, when Belinda had her big pop heyday in the late 80s. Her songs were everywhere for a couple of years, but when I got to San Diego State I started working at the college radio station and fell out of touch with the pop world. The band released Return to the Valley of the Go-Go’s in 1994 with some new songs, but for me the second post-Go-Go’s era is after 2001, after God Bless the Go-Go’s up to recently, when Kathy Valentine left/was escorted out of the group. It’s just not the same for me when original members are out, especially when there are lawsuits.
Belinda has continued to sing on her own solo records and Go-Go’s reunion functions. She’s an animal activist and posts regularly about her goings-on (yoga projects, activism in India) on Twitter.
Jane released one of my favorite pop songs, the single “Rush Hour,” in 1988. This song was the soundtrack around my high school graduation:
Honestly, I’ve always had a crush on Jane, from her playing guitar in The Go-Go’s and singing with Sparks (“Cool Places,” “Lucky Me, Lucky You”) to her role as Joan of Arc in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Something about her guitar-slinging badassery combined with that pixie cut and her sweet voice. Jane’s an activist for animals as well, is on Twitter, too, and can even marry you if you want! MarriedByJane.com
Charoltte Caffey continued to play and write with Belinda for a while, formed her own band The Graces, and wrote the theme to the TV show Clueless as well as a #1 country hit with Keith Urban. She’s co-written with Redd Kross, Hole, and Andy Summers.
Gina Schock released one album as House of Schock in the first-post era and according to Wikipedia has continued to work and play with an impressive roster of artists: a-ha, Feargal Sharkey, John Mellencamp, Little Richard, Alanis Morrissette, the Wilson sisters from Wilson-Phillips, and even new pop stars Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez. She’s got an official Facebook page that seems to be her doing the posting (as opposed to a hired hand).
Kathy Valentine lives in Austin and seems like the kind of denizen that city cultivates – arty, weird, awesome. She’s pretty active on Twitter and Facebook, and her website looks to be updated sometime this fall. The song playing in the YouTube preview video on her site sounds like a kickass cross between the Breeders and Superdrag. She plays in a band called The Blue Bonnets and has also started The She Factory, a nonprofit that seeks to “assemble the talents of women in the arts.”
As for the band, after releasing God Bless the Go-Go’s, a full album of new material in 2001 (complete with a Billie Joe Armstrong co-write), they seem to be starting a push for a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 2018 bid. They have a website and Twitter account, and have remastered & reissued their early albums, with Beauty and the Beat getting an expanded version with some early live tracks for its 30th anniversary.
So here’s my “10 albums that made a lasting impression on you as a teenager” thing. I think I did this fairly recently, but what the hell. Rules are: only one per band/artist. Don’t take too long and don’t think.
(I made my list of albums that were released when I was a teenager, as opposed to albums that might have been released before I was a teenager. Because I’m weird like that.)
1983 – 1989
Big Country – The Crossing
That guitar. Those words. I miss you, Stuart. Your voice is needed now.
New Edition – New Edition
Great boy-band pop songs that helped me through one of my early bad breakups. “I’m Leaving You Again” is heart-wrenching.
The Smiths – Hatful of Hollow
Was never the same after “Reel Around the Fountain” and “Girl Afraid” and “Back To The Old House” and “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want”
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Junk Culture
“NO NO NO.” Pop and synths. Their mainstream response to their least mainstream album. I fell in love with this album in the record store and brought it home with me.
New Order – Low-Life
Starts with that snare and that melodica-sounding thing. Ends with a song whose joyful refrain is “Oh, how I cannot bear the thought of you.” This record covers every emotion and is gorgeous.
Fishbone – EP
Some of the most joyful, sophomoric, cool-ass ska I’ve ever heard. Seeing them on Halloween in 1986 is one of my favorite concert memories.
The Replacements – Tim
Westerberg the Clown wrote side one. Paul the Poet wrote side two. Side two is my side.
Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman
Such beautiful songs. A window into a completely different world from mine. Very grateful to have had the open eyes to see.
Billy Bragg – Workers Playtime
Helped me through my first bad breakup in college. Well, this album and a LOT of alcohol. Holy crap. But really, this record. So smart. So wise. So much pain. And then…you’ve made it through. And the sun is out again.
Paul Humphreys & Andy McCluskey – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
In a year of seemingly unending ups and downs, 2016 held one of my personal and professional high points. I was granted an in-person interview with two of my all-time musical heroes, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Best of all, I met them at Red Rocks, one of the most beautiful and iconic music venues in the world.
They were there with Howard Jones and headliners Barenaked Ladies, so it was going to be a “greatest hits” set. I was fine with that because OMD is one of the bands I’ll see no matter what the circumstances. OMD – along with New Order and Depeche Mode – drove my interest in the synth music of the 80s. Whereas the other two groups were always more song-based, OMD’s experimental spirit initially led them along alleys closer to Kraftwerk than the discotheque.
Where casual listeners mostly know Orchestral Manoeuvres from the hits they played that night (“If You Leave,” “Secret,” “So In Love”), more avid fans know and appreciate their more experimental side, showcased on their early records and occasionally on deeper tracks on their more commercial albums. The resurgent popularity of Architecture & Morality and Dazzle Ships (albums #3 & 4) led to recent concerts where they played the albums in full for the hardcore fans.
The band’s most popular work poignantly touches matters of the heart, but they have also been outspoken on political issues: Their first UK top-ten hit “Enola Gay” tackled the subject of nuclear war head-on; “International” from Dazzle Ships began with an audio clip discussing the Anti-Imperialist Tribune and the atrocities perpetrated by the Somoza family, former dictators of Nicaragua; “88 Seconds In Greensboro” marks the massacre in North Carolina where members of the Communist Workers Party were killed during a protest against the KKK in 1979; “Southern” contains audio from the last speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s not a stretch for me to say that my own early political views were informed by the music I listened to in the 80s. (Billy Bragg, OMD, and Depeche Mode, among others)
There was a lot going on in my life during the lead-up to the show, specifically that my late father’s “celebration of life” gathering was the day before their appearance at Red Rocks. While the band didn’t know anything about it, meeting them gave me something to look forward to and keep my spirits up.
Getting dressed for the interview, I wore the “Autobahn” shirt I bought when I saw Kraftwerk in September 2015. It was a small way for me to show that my love of electronic music went beyond my interest in OMD’s music. As we met and shook hands, Paul pointed out with glee that he was also wearing a Kraftwerk shirt, and I knew that this meeting was going to go well.
Your Older Brother: First of all, I want to ask – How’s Malcom doing? (The band’s original drummer, Malcom Holmes, suffered a cardiac arrest while onstage with the band in Toronto July 2013)
Paul Humphreys: Malcom’s doing okay. His health is good. Fortunately he survived the cardiac arrest but the downside is he can’t play live anymore. But he’s well, he lives in Germany, he lives in a small little town between Hanover and Hamburg. He’s happy and he’s writing songs for different things, for TV and things like that.
YOB: Do you still collaborate with him? Or is it mostly just the two of you still?
Andy McCluskey: He’s done some programming for us, actually. There’s something we want to send him for some programming we’d like to do on the new album. But other than that, we’ve generally written the drum parts ourselves ’cause we write mostly on ProTools on the computer. But yeah, as Paul said, he’s well but it’s frustrating for him. He would love to be playing for us. And we’d love him to still be able to play for us, but he just can’t.
Paul: It must be very difficult for him because he played in all our school bands as well. We go back a long way. So it must be very difficult for him to see us going on the road and he’s not part of it.
Andy: Yeah, he was like 15 when we first played with him or something like that?
Paul: Yeah, but it was all kind of the same group of people, just different names.
YOB: I read on Twitter that you’re working on a new album, and it’s slated for next year (2017)?
YOB: Does it have a title yet or are you still just kind of working on getting the songs together?
Andy: No, I think we’ve started telling people that we’re probably going to call it The Punishment of Luxury
YOB: Ooo, that’s nice. (laughter)
Paul: I think we’re kind of sold on that.
Andy: We seem to be sold on that as a title. We have a song called that so…. Actually, the original title comes from a painting in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, actually. We’ve taken that idea and extrapolated it into sort of…it’s a metaphor for modern life, really. First world problems. All of the shit we have to deal with is only a problem that’s created for you by some suggestion that came from a marketing man or a PR job that’s been done on you. Everything you think you know was placed there by a marketing man. (laughter) Everything you think you want, you don’t.
YOB: Very OMD sort of topic.
Paul: It is. The typical OMD topic, yeah.
Andy: No, it’s the usual lyric for most pop music isn’t it? (laughter)
Paul: Maybe not, but for us it is. (smiles)
YOB: Going back, the early days was the early synthesizers and then there were pop elements obviously on those, and then after Dazzle Ships it crossed over, maybe a little more pop, still some experimental stuff. The two most recent albums I find are kind of the same way. History of Modern felt a little more hook-y, and English Electric felt a little more playing around with some stuff. What’s the direction with the new music?
Paul: We’ve kind of kicked on from English Electric, really. We’ve gone…we’re still trying to maintain our connection with our roots, but we’ve tried to go a bit more, even more stripped-down than English Electric.
Andy: Yeah, there’s a little bit more sort of crunchy industrial sound in a few things, a bit glitchy-er. But you know, the bottom line is that we have a sense of melody that we just can’t throw off. And actually, you know, we’re not great fans of experiment for the sake of experiment. It’s experiment that also has to walk a tightrope between being musical and bearing repeated listening, and that is *really* hard to do. So that’s why it’s taken us four years to do this record. (laughs)
Paul: You’re right, we got kind of a bit safe after Dazzle Ships, the albums that came after. ‘Cause I think we got a little bit scared, I think we kind of fell off sort of an experimental cliff after Dazzle Ships. Certainly in terms of…I mean, it’s a great…we’re still very proud of that record. But commercially speaking, we fell off a cliff. I think we got a little scared and so we went a little safe.
Andy: And we combined that with the fact that the deal we’d signed meant we that didn’t make much money even when we sold millions, so, you know, we’d find ourselves on tour for six or eight months and we’d get back home and the management would be like “Well, you need a new record ’cause you’re skint.” And so we’d rush in and the first 10 things we wrote were the album…
Paul: That was the album…
Andy: …whether they were good bad or indifferent. There were various pressures on us. It wasn’t just that we decided…
Paul: …to be safe…
Andy: …to be safe, there were the pressures. You know, it was our job. He was married and we had mortgages, and for all the millions of records we sold, we didn’t make much money.
Paul: ‘Cause we were on a crap deal on Virgin Records, basically. (laughs)
YOB: I’m familiar with that side of the industry and all that sort of thing. But thinking about songs like “Crush” were off in that experimental vein.
Paul: We still continued to experiment. But not as much as the Dazzle Ships era.
YOB: What kind of…I was going to ask what kind of hardware do you write with, but I also had the question down of what’s your go-to when you start working on new material? Is it just a piano, or do you fire up a sampler and start toying with stuff?
Paul: It’s still sounds, very much. We’ll find an interesting sound or we’ll have an interesting idea off an interesting sample and we’ll go from there. We very rarely start on a piano writing chords. It’s usually…
Andy: I think “never,” in fact, is the word you’re looking for… (laughter)
Paul: I think the only time we did was “If You Leave.”
Paul: We had to write a song in 24 hours. I remember sitting me on the piano and you writing words and we just hashed it out, but that’s one of the very few times.
YOB: Wow, that’s amazing!
Paul: We just start with sounds and ideas, don’t we?
Andy: We’re looking for a palette that inspires us, actually. Because to be honest if we sat down with some chords or a guitar, you know, you just go back to the same patterns, you go to the same…
Paul: …the same chords…
Andy: …the same chord sequences and things. So, to start with some sound you’ve just discovered or just invented, it’s like “Ooo…that’s inspiring, that’s something new.”
Paul: It sort of takes you down a path.
Andy: Yeah. Gives you an opportunity to start adding to it and go in a different direction. Theoretically.
YOB: In some of the material on the new record, I hear little callbacks to sounds from some the earlier records, from Junk Culture maybe or kind of in that era.
Andy: Which ones?
YOB: There was one song… (I had actually been thinking of how “Decimal” is similar to “Time Zones” and “ABC Auto-Industry” in construction and subject matter.)
Paul: Maybe in the melody sounds or something?
YOB: There was one song that felt like it started off with a choral sort of sound that reminded me of “Junk Culture”
Paul: Oh, possibly.
YOB: And then there was…was it “Save Me” does that one start with…?
Andy: Well, “Save Me” was just a mashup of “Messages” and Aretha Franklin, so yes, it does sound like an old one ’cause it’s “Messages” and Aretha Franklin. (laughter)
YOB: But do you look to the past in your own work for inspiration, or even for some sounds to tie the present to the past? What comes to mind is how Sting would put a line of a previous song in some of his later albums.
Paul: …to make that connection. Yeah, I mean, I think…we’re proud of our history and you can’t get away from it. And I think when you play it, you play songs from your past all the time and when you play live, you have a constant reminder of where you’ve come from. And I think it may enter your songwriting. I’m not quite sure, really. But just recently we played Dazzle Ships and Architecture & Morality, and all those B-sides. And I think it was so lovely to play those songs. And I loved how simple some of these songs were. It was kind of a reminder of how simple our writing was in those days. And I think we’ll take some of that into our new album.
Andy: There’s something we’re trying to apply from the past is actually the simplicity. Because, you know, more is not always better. Just because you’ve got 128 stereo channels doesn’t mean you should put something on every one of them. (laughter)
Paul: And also with modern technology now, you’ve got *so* much choice. When we first started out, we had a couple of synths, a Mellotron, an organ, a bass, and that was kind of it. And the synths were limited, they didn’t come with, like, thousands of patches, because they didn’t have patches yet to make them up! So now with all the synths, you’ve got – Andy calls it “the tyranny of choice” – and it really is because you’ve got *so* much choice, you can get so lost in finding sounds you forget what you’re trying to do, which is write a song. So with the technology now you have to try to kind of minimize your palette and minimize your palette. ‘Cause that was what was so great about the early days, we didn’t have that huge amount of choice of sounds so we concentrated on trying to get the most out of those instruments but write an interesting song.
YOB: It sounds like the Dazzle Ships and Architecture & Morality shows went off fantastic, I saw that you did the Dazzle Ships show at the Museum of Liverpool and then in Berlin.
Paul: We did the Royal Albert Hall, we played both Dazzle Ships and Architecture & Morality.
Andy: The Museum of Liverpool was kind of the inspiration. We dared to do some of the weird stuff because we know there’d be a small group of people who, if we told them we were going to do some Dazzle Ships, they’d want to hear it. We didn’t realize quite the demand, did we? And then the internet was lit up with pissed off people who couldn’t get tickets! So we decided to do an even bigger venue, do the whole of the Dazzle Ships album and Architecture & Morality, and then we sold out that in an hour. And then we got an offer to go to Germany so we took it to Germany. In fact we were hoping to play it in America, but it was a contractual requirement, and understandably so, with Barenaked Ladies, that we couldn’t put a show on sale in either Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York where we would do it, until their tickets had sold out. And none of those venues are completely sold out, so we couldn’t put something on sale, unfortunately. We were hoping we could perhaps do something on the East coast or the West coast because we think there would be an interest.
Paul: So something for the future, anyway.
Andy: Hopefully something we can come and do in the future.
YOB: Yeah, I went to this Kraftwerk show (gestured to my t-shirt) in 3-D last fall here in Denver and I’d never seen them before.
Paul: It was fantastic, wasn’t it?
YOB: Blew me away. Totally blew me away. And the crowd was amazing. It was in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House which is in downtown Denver, and people were out of their seats, dancing – as much as you can with the 3D effects – but it was a pretty wild crowd. And I understand that in L.A. and Chicago and New York there would be a lot of demand, but I think there’d be a lot of demand for a Dazzle Ships show or Architecture & Morality/Dazzle Ships here as well. I’m not trying to sell you on it or anything….
Andy: Yeah, well, you’re doing a good job. (laughter) We don’t know. We were pleasantly surprised we sold as many tickets as we did in Germany. We figured maybe New York or Los Angeles. You know, we would love to do these more esoteric concerts regularly. I mean, this evening would be a good example. We’ve got 45 minutes, we’re playing 11 songs, every one is a single. It’s the path of least resistance. There may be a few people in the crowd who are OMD fans who want to hear some B-sides or some weird album tracks (laughter), but the other 99%, we’ll be lucky if they’re sitting in their seat and not going to get some beer or something whilst we’re onstage.
Paul: The thing is, this isn’t our tour. The reason why we’re doing it is we’re playing a lot of cities that promoters don’t normally ask us to go to. We can do great shows on the east and west coast, you know, our own headline tours…
Andy: What was the little theater we played in Denver?
Paul: Yes! Um…
YOB: Four/five years ago? I think it was the Bluebird?
Paul: Yeah, I had “blue” on my mind”
Andy: You didn’t see us there?
YOB: I didn’t. So…I’m gonna geek out just for a second. When I first started to get into you guys, was I was in a record shop in Denver (Rocky Mountain Records & Tapes in the Tabor Center – ed.), I was walking around, I had ten bucks burning a hole in my pocket, was trying to find something to buy, walking around, looking for stuff, finding some things, “oh, maybe I can get this, maybe I can get that.” And I heard the music that was playing in the store, I was like, “I like this, what is this?” So I went up to the person behind the counter and asked “What’s playing?” They said “This is new from OMD. It’s Junk Culture.” And I was like “Give me that!” and that started it so it was great because from there I could go back and then I could go forward.
Andy: So that was your introduction.
YOB: Yes! So I went back to Dazzle Ships, and found “Telegraph”… there’s a rock station here called KBPI, which was mostly rock in the 80s and I remembered hearing “Telegraph” from one night they had a “make it or break it” sort of thing. So far off their normal playlist, but I remembered that song, and by the time I got back to hearing “Enola Gay,” I remembered seeing that in Urgh! A Music War and then going forward was Crush and Pacific Age. So talking about shows I’ve seen, I missed you guys here before (at Red Rocks) when you opened for Power Station, but I went to see you with Thompson Twins in Boulder, then at the Paramount for Pacific Age, and then in ’88 when you opened for Depeche Mode at McNichols Arena. So I’ve seen those. (laughter) And then I was *extremely* jealous, I was actually down registering for college in San Diego when you guys were playing the Depeche Mode show, the 101 show with Wire and Thomas Dolby I think were also on the bill that day?
Andy: That was the Pasadena Rose Bowl.
YOB: I was listening to it on the radio going “I’m so close!” So what keeps you in OMD now? What keeps you creating and working on this music? Is it your partnership or…
Andy: Debt. (laughter) No, it’s not.
YOB: Debt, ok. I was gonna say “Fair enough, I understand that! Ok!” (more laughter)
Paul: That was funny though! ‘Cause that’s what kept us going for a while, debt, but it’s not anymore. We love being in OMD, we love playing live, we all get along great, we’re all good friends, and it’s fun being in OMD. And we still have plenty to say, musically.
Andy: Yeah, it’s important, I think, that we want to do new music. It’s very difficult, you know, there’s a lot of people who are our age, our generation, who make records and they’ve not really got a lot to say for themselves anymore and perhaps shouldn’t, but their management tells them they need a new name for the next tour or something. (laughs) But we’re conceited enough to still think that we actually are hungry enough and interesting enough to be worthy of writing new material. I guess everybody goes through that cognitive distortion. We’re probably deluding ourselves. (laughter) ‘Cause when we re-formed in 2007 after a couple of years it was like, ok, are we a tribute band to ourselves?
YOB: Yeah, right.
Andy: And we didn’t want to be that. ‘Cause the whole point of being in Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark originally was that we wanted to do something interesting. Different. You know, kind of walk the tightrope between something that was musical but something that was an interesting idea that maybe challenged people’s conceptions. Or it was a conversation with ourselves. Pulling an idea out of your head and examining it externally.
Paul: And we’ve still got lots to say, so as long as we still feel that way, we’ll just keep saying it.
Andy: So we’ll still keep touring. We might even be able to come back to America ’cause neither of us are Mexican or Muslim, are we? (laughter)
YOB: Another project I’m working on is a podcast where we take someone on a musical journey of a band that we’re passionate about. I’m obviously passionate about OMD. One of the ideas is, on that musical journey – if you met someone who had never heard of OMD and wanted to hear the band, what would you play for them?
Andy: Just one record?
Paul: One album or…?
YOB: Just to start.
Andy: The first thing would probably be the first single “Electricity” ’cause I think it shows a pair of kids who could barely play who were doing a sort of punk rendition of Kraftwerk’s “Radioactivity.” And then maybe “Enola Gay” because it was the first big international hit. Then “Souvenir” because it was the more ambient, melancholy sound.
Paul: But then the other side to us, things like “Sealand” and “Stanlow” and “Of All The Things We Made” and “Romance of the Telescope.” They’re a side to the band that we *really* feel attached to as well, and love. As well as the pop stuff.
Andy: And I think there’s elements of the things that actually attract a certain type of listener – perhaps yourself – who likes a band who, okay, they’re writing tunes, but they’re also doing things that are still melodic, but not following the rules, the formats of verse/chorus/verse/chorus middle 8, you know, “ooo ooo, I love you,” blah blah blah. I think it limits our audience because I don’t think we’ll ever be – and we never were going to be – a band who headlined arenas ourselves. Because we just don’t conform enough to the norm. So that’s the reality you choose to plot your own course.
YOB: I think that’s what’s endearing. The hooks of “Tesla Girls,” “Telegraph,” “Enola Gay,” and all through, they’re completely undeniable. But there’s still that area of experimentation, like on English Electric, using the text-to-speech from a computer to read something and having more odd sounds and blips and stuff here and there. I actually had in college, I took…’cause I was always interested in synthesizers and I started taking piano lessons because I wanted to be able to play what I heard, but being from a little mountain town, I’m actually from a town called Evergreen which is just up the hill. Red Rocks was my home venue, growing up. It was the closest to us…
Paul: Great venue to be your home venue!
YOB: Exactly. All-ages shows. So in college I had a Beginning of Electronic Music class and one of the things we were tasked with was Musique Concrète. And in listening to them explain it, I was like “Oh, that’s what OMD does.” What you did with “Time Zones” and other songs like that. So it was fun for me to attach that project to “I’m going to be doing it like these guys were.” Kind of that thread and that’s what’s endearing to a certain type of musical customer who loves the hooks but still likes…I mean even with your contemporaries like Depeche Mode or New Order who I love as well, they never quite got as weird as as OMD did at times.
YOB: And that’s what I love, like for “Crush,” the little samples were from Japanese adverts, right?
Andy: Yeah, Japanese TV adverts.
Paul: Sitting around in the hotel room recording the TV and when we got home we chopped them up.
YOB: And it’s so cool to read about that’s how you created something and it’s like “That’s brilliant!” Brilliant, not, like, Einstein brilliant but like so much fun to play around with.
Paul: The playfulness is important.
Andy: Yeah, but that’s essentially the raison d’etre, is to always be looking for something that’s stimulating, that is potentially musical. So yes, musique concrete has always been giving us somewhere to start with. And it’s just…We specialize in trying to follow crazy ideas. But the reality is that 9 out of 10 of them you’ll try, and you’ll go “Nah, that doesn’t work, that’s not musical, I don’t want to listen to that again.” You leave a trail of rejects behind you. (laughter)
Paul: We’re constantly editing them as well, even the ones that end up on the records. Chopping bits out until you distill it into something that the idea comes across but it’s also palatable to the ears.
YOB: Do you still record stuff in the field or do you take stuff you find and do that or is it still mostly working with synths, working in ProTools, that sort of thing?
Paul: We’ll always be looking for anything that makes a sound wherever we find it, really. If it’s something mad on the internet or…
Andy: The internet of course has opened up a Pandora’s Box. You used to have to go and either buy a vinyl BBC sampler record or record it yourself. Now there’s sound effects libraries that you can join and you just think of something and type it in and they’ve got a thousand files!
Paul: You’ll find it, whatever you think of. There’s an audio file of it somewhere.
Andy: “Humpback whale farting…” Yep! Got 300 of those. (laughter)
Paul: Just pick the one you like the best!
YOB: How has the technology of the past 15 years influenced your collaboration and how you write songs?
Paul: What I do like about the technology now is if you look back to the analog days with multitrack tapes, it was a ballache to use. Trying to get things to sync to the tape, trying to work on sections of the song and you had all the rewind times and the tapes would stretch. It did sound lovely, the analog tape, but to have everything on the computer now, I couldn’t imagine going back, could you?
Andy: No. We have always used tape machines, because we started as the two of us. So we used to put down drums or basslines onto the tape for 5 minutes and then we’d just play it and then rewind it. But that meant that our songwriting was quite linear.
Paul: We were locked into that then.
Andy: We would be locked into the same drum pattern or the same chord sequence or something. And later days when we decided to try to not be linear, we would, if we wanted to change something, literally we’d have to edit the tape.
YOB: That’s what we had to do.
Paul: We’d end up cutting massive tape.
Andy: “Ok, this bit here is going to be the chorus, but we’re going to cut that bit out and bring it over here.” Which, of course now, on computer programming, you just cut and paste it. “Ok, repeat that twelve times, right, move that over here, no actually that’s too long (makes a zip sound effect), oh, love it, it’s great!” The computers are good. Paul and I, we do work separately, but we have a fairly mirrored ProTools computer system. But the one thing we discovered about technology is when it comes to writing, we are best to be in the same room together.
Andy: So we try to have…
Paul: …a period, don’t we, of when we’re together. Then we can go away separately and work on them.
Andy: We start with a kernel of an idea one of us brings in. There’s no point in sitting in a room going “Got any ideas?” “No. Have you?” “No.” “Uhhhh…cuppa tea, then?” (laughter)
Paul: “Let’s see if the football’s on.” (more laughter)
Andy: So we try to bring some ideas that are not completely formed so hopefully the other one will go “Ooh! That inspires me!”
Paul: Yeah, “Love that.”
Andy: “Can I work on that? Can I throw this idea on?” And then work together. ‘Cause if you send things up and down the internet there’s that time delay, you’re not in the same room together. ‘Cause what you want is for someone to go “Hey, what about this?!” and you go “Yeah! Yeah! Tellyouwhat, not that note…that note? Yeah!” and just get buzzing. And then when we’ve got something happening, then we can go our separate ways and work on them. We tried the internet and it didn’t work. Sending files up and down to each other didn’t work, we need to be together.
Paul: ‘Cause we live 200 miles apart. I live in London, Andy lives near Liverpool in the Wirral. I normally go up to Andy’s ’cause it’s nice and quiet at his place, he’s got this beautiful house in the middle of…
Andy: And also he has a one bedroom apartment so I end up sleeping with him. (laughter)
YOB: As far as recent bands, recent music, what of the last 5 or 10 years, is there anything that’s caught your ear, inspired you? I think I’ve seen your playlist (Andy) of some of the stuff you’ve been listening to. Anything that stands out?
Andy: Well there’s things that we like, I know Paul got me into Arcade Fire, and he’s a fan of Hot Chip, I like Robyn, we both like Future Islands…Atom TM…
Paul: Atom TM, yeah, we both like Atom TM.
Andy: …Uwe Schmidt. Check out the last album from 2013 called “HD.” Very glitchy but melodic as well. Uh…yeah, bits and pieces. I mean, I think we’re not dissimilar to how we were when we were very young, which is we’re quite picky. Not a lot really excites us, you know, but we’ll hear something and just go “Ooh, wow.” And then you might listen to the album and go “No, that was the only song that really resonated.”
Paul: But at least something resonated and something will be inspiring to us.
Andy: I tell you what I did like recently, actually, I liked Eno’s “The Ship.”
Paul: Oh, it’s great, actually!
Andy: Particularly the title track.
Paul: That’s really good.
YOB: Have you ever worked with any of those folks or…?
Paul: I’d love to have worked with Eno. Eno has been a massive inspiration on us over the years. I mean we loved him in Roxy but when he set out by himself we kind of followed pretty much everything he did. And I think his sort of melancholia, this melancholic side to him, definitely had an influence on us. (I wound down our conversation at this point, but when I pulled out my copy of Dazzle Ships on vinyl to ask them to sign, Paul mentioned that he had a turntable and was listening to vinyl recently.)
Paul: I’m still listening to vinyl. I’ve got a deck at home.
Andy: You had to get a deck because we kept releasing limited editions and you had to check the test pressing.
Paul: (laughing) …I had to check the test pressing. So I had to buy a deck and since I got the deck I use it all the time ’cause I got all my vinyl out of storage.
After that we went outside to take a couple of photos of them in front of the titular red rocks of the amphitheater (see below). They were incredibly gracious to grant me that request, and we shook hands and parted ways. The interview had gone well and I was so grateful, just buzzing from the experience.
I returned later that night with my wife to watch the show. Howard Jones started the night with a solid six-song set of favorites that got the crowd primed for OMD.
Andy, Paul, Martin Cooper, and Stuart Kershaw started their set with “Enola Gay” and the crowd was on their side from the first notes. I admit that even I was surprised to see pretty much the entire audience on their feet and dancing.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark at Red Rocks Amphitheatre
OMD (clockwise from top left: Stuart Kershaw, Paul Humphreys, Andy McCluskey)
Unfortunately I’ve had some health issues that have prevented me from transcribing and posting this until now, but I wanted to put this up before year’s end to remind myself and others that 2016 wasn’t one huge downer. I never thought I’d get to meet and talk with Andy and Paul, and having them be as friendly and engaging and generous as I hoped was uplifting in a year that needed it.
I look forward to hearing their new music and hopefully seeing them on tour in 2017. It doesn’t happen often that a group that has relevance in one’s teens returns to form after 30 years, but that’s what they’ve done. I caught their Coachella performance on the live stream a few years back and they have as much energy and enthusiasm as ever.
From URGH! to English Electric, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark has been one of my favorite bands. I’d like to thank Andy, Paul, Martin, Malcom, and the rest of the band for providing me with the soundtrack to much of my life over the years. Wistful, energizing, inspiring, empowering – their music and words have been all of these things to me and more, which is why musicians write and release their compositions. Thanks again, lads. See you soon.
I’d also like to thank their management who helped me set up the interview, and Simon their tour manager for being available and accommodating. Easily as nice and helpful as the band themselves. Sorry it’s taken so long to post this.
As I said in my previous post, Greg Humphreys and I spoke for about 2.5 hours earlier this year. I hadn’t spoken to him since 1993 when I interviewed him for the San Diego fanzine 360°. I’ve cut some of the small talk here and edited for clarity, but this is most of the conversation, from Dillon Fence to Hobex to his solo records and wound up the interview talking about his new album with the Greg Humphreys Electric Trio, Lucky Guy. Go buy a copy and see a show and support one of the nicest, hardest-working men in music. The band plays the Brooklyn Americana Music Festival this Friday night September 23rd and tours the east coast this fall.
Your Older Brother – What have you been up to the past 20 years since we last talked?
Greg Humphreys – A lot of shows, a lot of livin’. Incredible adventures, lots of highs & lows.
GHumph – We did another year and a half of touring. Chris & Kent left the group not too long after Living Room Scene came out. We found some replacement musicians who did a great job, but by the end of that touring cycle we were pretty burned and feeling like we were hitting a wall with our label deal. Momentum was an issue.
YOB – You said they left the band, were they just burnt, or did they have other stuff going on?
GHumph – Yeah, I think a lot of it was that we really were a classic college band, where we didn’t really plan on making a go of it, it just kind of happened. I feel like maybe of our original group, I was the guy who was really ambitious and wanted to make it something. I think everybody did, but I was booking the gigs and writing a lot of the songs. We all were contributing, but it’s definitely something where when we hit a plateau and were treading water for a while and living the grind of touring in a van, Chris & Kent started thinking “Wait a minute, I thought I was gonna go to grad school” or “I had other plans besides just driving around all day, every day.” And we were just so young that what we wanted to do, both individually and collectively, kept changing. Chris ended up going back to grad school and now he’s a psychology instructor, and he’s got a career. So he’s very much an academic. But when we do these reunion gigs, he gets to get out and rock and scratch that itch. Kent and his partner have a business in Wilmington. And both of them did musical projects after Dillon Fence, so it’s not like they quit music completely. It’s hard to keep pursuing something if you can’t create momentum and have it have its own legs and not just be a labor of love.
Hobex – photo credit: Claire Ashby
YOB – Can you tell me about the transition to Hobex, how that came about?
GHumph – Well, I was deep into touring with Dillon Fence and at that point we were on what you might call the alternative rock circuit, doing tours opening for Lush and Weezer or the Lemonheads. And that was a pretty good fit for what we were doing at that time. But I was personally listening to a lot of funk and soul, a lot of Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield. I went on a big Curits Mayfield jag where I bought all of his out-of-print albums on Curtom…
(Greg’s adorable son comes in to say hi and the interview resumes after)
I guess for me, I’ve talked about this before, but somehow your creative spark becomes a grind, and then creatively you’re looking elsewhere to regain that excitement and enthusiasm. And for me it was like, with alt-rock or college rock or just, you know, straight-up rock & roll, I think I was really burned out on it because of the grind of touring. And the fact that at that moment, it was such an explosion of groups all of a sudden doing the same thing we had been doing. Whereas when we started, it was surprisingly easy for us to build a large audience because there weren’t a lot of bands doing what we were doing. We were reminiscent of bands like R.E.M. and The Smiths and bands that we had been listening to. When you would look around the southeastern college circuit, there were bands that were R.E.M.-influenced, but we were poppier and had different influences. For me, it was just a moment where I felt like we had made some really cool records that didn’t get played on the radio much, and then a lot of other bands that were doing something simliar were all of a sudden front and center. So for me it became like competing with your shadow. Like, ok, now I have to make another album like that and do the whole record cycle. And it just wasn’t inspiring to me. And the other original guys leaving was also a catalyst because they had been there from the start. So to have them not there, it just changed the dynamic of the band and I was just ready to do something different myself. And I was really excited about playing funk and soul, extending and expanding my musical vocabulary and my musical knowledge. Taking on a new challenge. I have to admit, there was an element of arrogance to it, where I thought “well, i’ll just start this whole compeltely different proejct and I will have the same or more success with something completely different.” I was definitely humbled by the road and going out and playing shows where the hundreds of Dillon Fence fans in this or that town didn’t come out to see my new band. It was like starting over in a lot of ways because the genre was just different enough to where people thought it was weird. Looking back now, there’s thousands of kids in funk and soul bands, so it’s easy to forget how weird that was. Like “what are these white guys from North Carolina doing playing funk and soul?”
GHumph – Yeah! The cultural moment for the revisiting of that musical feel is more now than it was in the 90s, where we were a little more of an exotic bird, then.
YOB – So what you’re saying is that you’re a visionary and way ahead of your time. (Laughter)
GHumph – Yes (laughs) I’m saying that in the most humble way possible. (smiles) There’s something to be said for challenging yourself and taking creative chances. In terms of career, it’s probably not the smartest thing, but in terms of being true to your muse and following your creative direction, I feel like we ended up with some really cool albums and some really cool experiences. And Hobex had its own roller-coaster ride through the music business.
YOB – Where did you find the guys for that band?
GHumph – Andy Ware, the bass player, had joined Dillon Fence for the last year or so of touring. He’s a guy I knew from Chapel Hill. He was in a band called Satellite Boyfriend that was a contemporary of Dillon Fence in the Chapel Hill scene of the late 80s. They were really good and he and I had stayed in touch. I remember playing him some demos of some of the material and saying “I want to take a break from Dillon Fence and try something different, would you be interested?” and he was into it. It was one of those things where we didn’t have a plan. We weren’t even necessarily going to make Hobex a full-time thing. But as it started and unfolded, it just ended up being the thing for many years.
YOB – So you set out to write soul & funk music?
GHumph – There was an element of that influence in my writing for Dillon Fence. I’ve always been into funk, soul, Motown, Stax/Volt. When I was growing up, I listened to a station in Winston-Salem called WAAA which played Stevie Wonder, Al Green, just the classic 60s & 70s funk and soul stuff. So that was definitely part of my vocabulary. But I guess for me it was a reaction to what was happening, trying to pursue what was missing in my music and the music around me. A live band creating grooves, creating classic songs that were also super groovy and danceable and kind of an anti-alternative rock. Something that was far different from what was on the radio at that moment. It actually took us to a place where we were playing with other bands that were pursuing that, and a lot of them had come from jazz backgrounds. I remember playing a gig with Galactic, from New Orleans, and I think it was their first tour outside of New Orleans. Or a band like Greyboy All-Stars who were doing really faithful 70s James Brown-style stuff. They actually had Fred Wesley with them when we played with them. So, I guess it was kind of a burgeoning scene of funk and soul, and as we went on, it developed. When we were touring a lot, we were getting put on a lot of the pop/rock bills that Dillon Fence might have been on, but it wasn’t a great fit. And then as time went on, we ended up falling into the jam scene and playing a lot of the festivals, because those audiences have an affinity for for the groovy funk soul style. And if you look at bands like Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings and that whole scene, the festival circuit is a big part of their touring.
YOB – That’s where I first heard of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. There was a festival in Denver called Monolith and they played one of the nights. And like with festivals, you don’t know all of the bands so you start looking through the lineup and checking them out on iTunes and I found them and thought “Holy shit, they’re great.”
GHumph – Yeah, and I feel like playing the festival scene was one of the things that made me really step up my musicianship, because I felt like over the years I was put into a lot of positions where we were following Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings or following Fareed Haque or some guys that used to play with John Coltrane. So all of a sudden, you have to step up on the stage and follow all this incredible musicianship. So it’s not just songwriting and arranging songs and putting together a cool set, it’s really wowing the crowd and putting on a show. Just not bullshitting your way through it. You’ve gotta be a player if you’re playing to a festival crowd and you’re following someone who’s really good.
YOB – And you were the lead guitarist in Dillon Fence, right?
GHumph – Kent and I traded, but I did play a lot of the solos, yeah. For a lot of the songs I wrote, I would write two guitar parts and they fit together and created wider chords. And he did the same. So we definitely had – and still have – a very symbiotic guitar style, where we played so many gigs together that when we play songs together, we just fit together really well. He’s not as much of a soloist. When we first started, he played more solo-type stuff in the group. At this point, I’ve been soloing with Hobex so long that it’s a big part of my musical expression.
YOB – The reason I asked is because, listening to the music on Outside In, the progression is definitely there. Listening to Outside In, and then the solos on Living Room Scene are incredible. So for me, when you said “stepping up your musicianship,” I thought – wow – going up from those levels, that’s being able to recognize in yourself, like “I’ve still got another level to get to.” Which is kind of amazing that you were able to see that but then be able to deliver on it.
GHumph – I feel like with those later Dillon Fence albums I was striving for a big rock & roll sound, and a lot of those guitar solos were very composed. I was trying to create something reminiscent of a Brian May guitar solo or a Thin Lizzy guitar solo, a Cheap Trick-like classic two-or-three minute pop/rock gem.
YOB – How did your songwriting process change from Dillon Fence to Hobex to your solo stuff and now the Electric Trio? Or has it changed?
GHumph – I think so in the sense that I don’t like to repeat myself. I could write a song that is similar to “Living Room Scene” or “Something For You” or “Daylight,” but as a writer, I don’t like writing the same song over and over. So as I get older it makes it harder to write something that sounds fresh to my ears. One of the ways I feel like I’ve kept my writing fresh is by exploring genre. WIth Hobex, we had a good run and we had our trials and travails in the industry with record deals, but ultimately for our last album, I was producing it, I was the engineer, and writing the songs. I look at that album – it’s called Enlightened Soul – and I feel like it’s got some interesting songs on it but I also feel like I was maybe wearing too many hats and kind of being pulled in a lot of directions. Worrying about the engineering, worrying about the performance and not just being like “okay, I’m singing and I’m writing this, and I’m bringing my ideas to the table, but it’s a team effort.” What’s a better way of putting it? I feel like that album was a long and painful end to the band, where we were trying to create another era for the band with a fresh album but it took a long time to finish and the songs could have been better if I had been focused on just that, and not trying to keep us working and keep everything moving forward. We were all living in different towns at that point. We gave it a good shot, but by the end of that touring circuit for the band, I was done with Hobex for a while. The bass player, Andy, was too. He’d had a daughter and we just decided to give it a break and then just play occasionally. And that’s what we’ve been doing since then.
YOB – So how did you make the next transition into and through your solo records?
GHumph – For me it was a sea change in my life. I was no longer on the road, I was breaking up with this woman I’d been with for a long time. I was also, at that point, very burned out on van touring with a band and chasing it, trying to create and maintain momentum. If I had been slightly burned out at the end of Dillon Fence and needing a change, at this point I was just *really* done with it for a while. I didn’t want to quit playing music, but I wanted to get away from loud guitars and hauling gear and keeping the band working. I just wanted to return to really focusing on songwriting, so I put my electric guitar down and ended up making four solo mostly-acoustic albums where I was collaborating with a lot of different musicians. I was collaborating with jazz guys, and some of the local bluegrass musicians in the Triangle. I was still doing occasional rock gigs like the occasional Hobex or Dillon Fence gig, but only the very best ones. (laughter) You know, only the ones that were really fun or paid well or something we were all excited about. So I was still playing a few rock shows here & there, but for 5 or 6 years I probably did 10 or 15 rock gigs the whole year, and everything else was acoustic – listening rooms, coffee houses. I had some friends in that world and they introduced me to that world and helped me find my way. For me, that was the creative dog-leg turn that I took after Hobex. I just got away from being in a band. I feel like with my songwriting over the years, I’d come to rely on having a kick-ass band. So for me, in terms of songwriting, it was a real reality check. Like, ok, you’ve got to play 45 minutes to an hour and it’s just your guitar and your voice and your song, and every song’s gotta really stand up and be strong on its own. You can’t rely on a great rhythm section or a great guitar solo or awesome hooks. It’s gotta be more than that. That was a really good exercise for me creatively. And with the end of my relationship and the end of the band, it was just me expressing myself in the purest way I could. Which was: I was not very happy, I was trying to find my way. It was a lot of introspective sad songs. Sprinkled with some observational songs, or storytelling, or happy moments, too, optimistic moments. But overall, it was a period in my life where I was alone, musically and in my life. So about four years ago I met my now-wife at a memorial service for my best friend who died of cancer. He was my best friend in high school. Losing him was a real reality check for me, where I just saw my life in a different way. In that weekend I met my wife and she was just really amazing and we spent a couple of days together and we’ve really been together ever since. We dated long distance for a year or so. And I loved Durham and I love Chapel Hill, but I’d lived there so long and we wanted to be together, so I just decided to move to New York to be with her. So it’s the beginning of our life together and now we have a son and we’re married and for me it’s been the culmination of a lot of things I’ve always hoped for in my life, actually coming together. I feel like I always wanted a family and I always wanted that part of my life, but I always put it off because I didn’t want to give up my dream of being a professional musician. I feel like my priorities changed because I gave so much of my life to that and I guess in the end I feel like it made me a better singer, player, writer, what have you. I feel like I’ve had an interesting career, but ultimately I wanted something different out of life than I’d experienced thus far. This Electric Trio album, as far as the songwriting, I do feel like it’s hopefully capturing that happiness that I was feeling and that I’ve been experiencing. It’s not all sunshine and roses, but some of the songs capture that romantic moment where two people are coming together and it’s real. I’m happy that I was able to capture that in song for myself. We’ll see what happens with it. I want it to be successful, but I’m not as invested as I was with the previous two projects.
YOB – And you’ve got success in your personal life now, which can tend to fill you up in places to where you aren’t necessarily looking to the music or the band to fill you up.
GHumph – I feel like with Dillon Fence, there was a lot of sadness in my life at that time because I lost my father at a pretty early age, he was 50 and I was probably 23. So for me, a lot of the Dillon Fence stuff, there was a lot of melancholy and sadness on those albums because of his loss, and because I just wasn’t ready. I felt like a lot of my drive in trying to make that band happen was “I’m gonna play my way out of this and I’m gonna make this happen and then everything’s gonna be ok.” And of course then we had a level of success and it didn’t fill that hole in my life. So I tried to fill it with other things, weed or whatever. I went through lots of growing pains. And I didn’t have him around to help. So I think a lot of those hard lessons in life I learned the hard way because I didn’t have his guidance, and I didn’t realize how much I had relied on it until it was gone.
YOB – Yeah, I think about stuff like that too. I know he was a big influence on you ’cause we talked before about “Union Grove” and you told me about that being about the bluegrass festival. That song is about loss and hopefulness…you can really hear a lot in that song. With that said, do you feel now like you’re more complete as a person? All that way through Dillon Fence and Hobex and your early solo stuff, was that just all chasing after something that you now realize you have anyway?
GHumph – If there’s one thing I’m proud of or I’m glad about in my musical life, it’s that I feel like I was true to how I was feeling at the time. So I feel like that is who I was then. That’s not who I am now because we go through life and we change and we learn things about ourselves and the world and about music. We can’t be the same people that we were when we were 25. I think about artists, someone like Bob Dylan, like how can he be the same person now that he was then? But he’ll still write an album that expresses where he is now. I feel like a lot of it is armchair analysis where you have a body of work and you are a certain age and so you have to give it all shape and have it all make sense somehow. The reality is I probably did make some mistakes and I probably was very lucky. All I know is I kept trying to write that great song that expressed how I really felt, and doors kept opening. And as I’ve gotten older, it’s definitely gotten harder, because people have families, and you can’t really rely on all your fans coming out to a nightclub if they’re in their 40’s. At some point as an artist, you’ve got to transition to ticketed shows, or seated shows. If you’re a rock & roller, that’s harder to do. At the same time, I’ve put the songs and making records first, and then I try to make everything else work. I try to build my touring business, either with the groups or when I was doing the solo thing, and try to support the albums and reach the people that might like it.
YOB – Along those lines, you just did a tour in Asia. How did that come about?
GHumph – It was interesting, I’ve got some friends that live there. We were actually on our honeymoon, we went on a long honeymoon and we visited Thailand. A good friend of mine, David Burris, lives there part time. He was a producer on Survivor for many years, and he was also in a band called The Veldt, do you remember them?
GHumph – Yeah. The were great. I’m still friends with all those guys. But Dave was in The Veldt and he was in bands and was out of that Chapel Hill scene, but he was also part of a group of Chapel Hill people that were really into making moves. They all moved out to LA. One of the guys, Peyton Reed, was the director of Ant Man. He was also the drummer in Jonny Quest when they first started. We call them the Chapel Hill Mafia, but they’re doing really interesting movie & TV stuff out there. And Dave Burris was one of those guys and he grew to love that part of the world, so he’s been living there on and off for the last two or three years. I let him know that I was coming and asked him if he would maybe help me find some gigs. So he introduced me to a guy named Joe Cummings who is a travel writer, he does a lot for TripAdvisor, he’s kind of a Thailand expert for TripAdvisor. And he’s also a rock & roll guitar player. And he lived in Greensboro back in the day, so it’s the old “small world” cliché, but it’s true. I connected with Joe and he booked the gigs for me and helped put the backing bands together for me. So we did a show in Chang Mai in northern Thailand, and a show in Bangkok. It wasn’t a “tour” but it was fun, I met some other really cool people. This photographer Ian Taylor who is in a band called Roy Jet and he does a lot of great photography and we did a photoshoot with him. So, you know, my wife was just really cool to let me do that while we were on our honeymoon.
YOB – But it’s not like you were tied to your laptop and your iPhone and trying to score deals across the world. Of course it’s “work”, but it’s not “work” work.
GHumph – I got a taste for traveling and playing shows like that when I was doing my solo albums. An old friend of mine was sponsoring a stage at a big music festival in Prague. He wanted to bring over Hobex but it wasn’t really a big money deal. And Andy couldn’t afford to go because he had his family and it was just too much. So I went alone and my friend Bill Pixley helped me line up a backing band, and I got a taste for going to a far-flung place, lining up a group, throwing together a set and just going for it. It’s not like the super-arranged set with lots of twists and turns and arrangemental subtlety. It’s more like, “Let’s get some good players together and here’s some really basic tunes and we’ll do some funk and soul.” In Prague, there weren’t really a lot of people doing what I do. Okay – there wasn’t anybody doing what I do. (smiles) So I really got a taste for taking what I’ve done here and throwing it out there in a far-off place and seeing what the reaction is. And it’s usually good, so it’s been fun.
YOB – So your move to Brooklyn was to be with your wife. (Yes) You moved there a couple of years ago when you got married or…?
GHumph – I’ve been here for 3 years. Once I got up here I reconnected with a bass player named Matt Brandau who is a really talented guy. He’s about 10 years younger than me, but he had been living in Chapel Hill almost as long as I had, and had been in local bands. Most recently down there he was in a band called The Old Ceremony, I guess they’ve been on Yep Roc for 2 or 3 albums. They’re another really good band, good songwriter. Matt was one of the first people I called when I moved up here because I wanted to do *something*. I was still planning on going back and doing gigs at home, but I definitely wanted to pursue music up here and see what was out there. Matt and I collaborated on some demos and some songwriting. A tune I recorded with him was on my very last solo album, it was one of the only songs on the album that had a rhythm section and was more of a fleshed-out band sound. So we did some recording and writing together and we said “We’ve gotta try these out live.” He’s just a very positive, encouraging personality. So he introduced me to Keith Robinson, who’s a really talented drummer, originally from Texas. Keith and his wife had moved up, they’ve been up here for 6 or 7 years. Keith had been just kind of a Texas guy. He backed up a great piano player named Marcia Ball who plays Professor Longhair-like New Orleans style piano and she was in that Austin freak scene of the ’70s with Willie and Jerry Jeff Walker. She’s a big deal. Kind of under the radar as far as mainstream pop, but Keith has played some big gigs. He backed her up a long time. He played with a country guy named Charlie Robison who was on deck to be a big country star. I think he (Keith) just said “screw it,” but he definitely went through the wringer as far as doing the country circuit and playing the big shows. So he’s a very seasoned player and he’s got great shuffles. I’m really into that, playing a good blues or country shuffle. That’s part of that Texas thing with him, that’s a big part of their musical vocabulary. So, to have a rock & roll drummer that has that as part of his vocabulary is really attractive to me, because I like playing shuffles. So we started playing some shows and it just became something that I wanted to pursue. I guess I had taken enough of a break from it that I missed it and I was really enjoying playing electric guitar again. And these guys are bringin’ it, so it makes it fun when they’re bringin’ it, too. That being said, it’s back on the “touring, trying to create a story and build some momentum” train. That’s been interesting, because they’re both busy, they’ve got a lot of stuff going on. We’re just trying to plan it and make it worth everybody’s time. And that’s another thing about touring now, now that my wife and I have our little family, it’s harder to go “ok, I’m gonna be leaving for a week and I’m going to come back with, like, $500.” You just want it to make more sense financially and be worth your time and be leading to something.
Greg Humphreys Electric Trio – Keith Robinson, Greg Humphreys, Matt Brandau
YOB – So have you been making a living as a musician all this time?
GHumph – Yes and no. It’s definitely been the main part of my income. I do have some real estate business, some income that helps. Like I rent my house out in Durham. And I’ve got some investments. I’m not broke, you know, but I’ve definitely had some very lean years. And New York’s expensive. But my wife has a really good situation where she’s been able to work from home for the last year and she’s actually just started going back to the office. So I’ll definitely be doing some child care, which is fine with me. It’s a lot of fun. Playing some around the city and then a lot of my good work is still down south. Be it playing with Dillon Fence like on a big reunion gig or going a tour with the trio, that’s the zone where I still sell tickets and all the talent buyers know me and they know I bring it. Getting back into that has been fun. The Trio has had some really fun shows down there. And the Dillon Fence shows last year were off the chain. It was kind of weird how good they were.
YOB – I think I saw some video from Cat’s Cradle.
GHumph – Yeah, for the Be Loud! benefit. That was sold out, a lot of my favorite musicians were also on the bill. It felt like our generation coming together and raising a lot of money for a good cause. (The Be Loud! Sophie Foundation supports adolescent and young adult cancer patients and their families at UNC Hospitals – ed) It was cool to be a part of that. Just the energy in the room felt like that energy when we were really firing on all cylinders. And I think we were all like “Wow, this is amazing.” And then Hootie and the Blowfish invited us to open for their big show, so all of a sudden we’re playing in front of 8- or 10,000 people. When Hootie was really huge and took Dillon Fence on the road as an opener, Kent had already left the band. So they had never really experienced that when it happened the first time. So it was a cool closing of the circle to have them experience that. The Hootie guys have always been generous about sharing their success with their friends and so it was cool for them to see what that was like. And then we did a big show in Charlotte right before Christmas. And it was the same thing, just a lot of old friends. Our original drummer showed up and played a song with us. And we recorded some new songs, so we’re gonna do…it’s not gonna be a proper album, but it’s gonna be a couple of my songs, one of Kent’s really great songs. We still have to finish it, but it sounds really good and I guess we’re going to plan a release of it around a show or shows and it remains to be seen when and where those might be. It’s hard when you have some good shows like last year with Dillon Fence, you just don’t want to force it. We didn’t plan any of that but we ended up having a handful of really great shows.
YOB – How did you end up picking the songs for the new stuff? Is it just stuff you had lying around that you thought “This might be good for Dillon Fence?”
GHumph – Well, we’ve been doing reunions every year for, as Chris said in an interview, for longer than we were actually a band, you know what I mean? So we have this repertoire of songs that are burned in our brain, we played so many gigs and worked so hard that it’s just there when we need it. But at the same time, we’ve always wanted to add new material to the set. In the early aughts a friend of ours licensed the material and put together a best-of compilation. So we did a recording session at my studio and recorded an EP of new material, and I’m really proud of that. The engineering could have been better, but it was a very DIY project where it was just getting us back in the room creating and arranging. Doing some of Chris’s & Kent’s songs, and some songs I had written that sounded to me like Dillon Fence songs. And that’s really what it’s about. These two songs that I contributed, I did acoustic versions of on the solo albums but they sounded like Dillon Fence songs to me. So in the back of my mind I was always thinking “this should be a Dillon Fence song.” So when we came together I pulled these two and we’ve been playing them in the set live and it fits right in. It’s just the right kind of song for Dillon Fence. And then Kent brought a really cool song. He’s a great writer, and he’s never stopped writing. He’s just never really chased it since he left the band the first time. He did another band after Dillon Fence called Granger where he was the main writer. I just don’t think he was feeling the chase or trying to make it happen. But he’s never stopped writing and he writes really cool songs. The song he brought in was perfect. I think the new Dillon Fence material has that chemistry that we developed over the years together. I’m excited for the Fence fans to hear it.
Dillon Fence – photo courtesy of Greg Humphreys
YOB – One of the things I wanted to ask about – your vocals between Rosemary and Outside In changed. They got more full and confident, got a little more depth to them. Can you describe how that came about? For myself, there are a couple of songs that, when I was in one of my bands, I can point to and say “This is where I found my voice.” When you sent me the new record and I put it on and heard your voice I was like “Ahhh…That’s Greg.” It’s so great to hear that soulful, powerful voice that you have. That voice was on Outside In and definitely on Living Room Scene, but with Rosemary you can hear it starting, like the chorus for “Something for You” is like you’re holding back a little bit.
GHumph – Yeah, I think I’ve talked about this before in an interview way back, but one of my biggest regrets in my recording career is how my vocals ended up on Rosemary. There are so many people who are fans of that record and they love it, but when I hear that album I hear what I wanted it to be and what it could have been.
YOB – That’s tough.
GHumph – I was never really satisfied with my vocal performance on that album. I think it was very well recorded, it’s very clean, but as far as my vocal performance, I feel like I was a better singer at that point than what came across on the record. There are a few reasons for that, the main one being that we went to this…. Our producer on that album was Ron St. Germain, and he wanted to go… we collectively picked this studio in rural Massachusetts called Long View Farm, this really cool farm-turned-recording-studio, the Rolling Stones had rehearsed there and The J. Geils Band made “Centerfold” there. It had a vibe and a big barn as a drum room, so it had a big, roomy sound and you were very isolated and they put you up and they fed you. But…it was in a barn. It was above like, horse stables, with like…
YOB – Like an actual barn?!
GHumph – Yeah, the 2nd and 3rd floors was the studio and the ground floor was still a stable. So it was full of horses and, like, 10 barn cats. And I’m allergic to cats. I can’t remember if I had a cold or if it was just allergies, but my whole head was really shut down. My whole sinus area was completely stopped up. I had been in the choir growing up and I knew how to use my lungs and use my head and create a big sound and I felt like I really wasn’t getting what I wanted on that album. *And* with Ron’s production style, it was one of these things where he was used to working with super pro singers. So for a lot of the stuff, he didn’t feel like he was getting what he wanted, or maybe I just wasn’t delivering because my voice wasn’t where I wanted it to be. It just wasn’t as full and airy as I was hoping for. So we ended up doing a lot of that vocal work in a piecemeal fashion. Phrase by phrase, word by word. Not a full performance and honestly, not someone who is super experienced in the studio at that point and knew how to get what they wanted. So when I hear that album, I hear those vocal performances and they’re good, but they’re just not what I wanted them to be. Also at that point…. Ron had a really interesting discography. He had done lots of stuff in the 70s and 80s but more recently he had done the Bad Brains and Sonic Youth mixing, so we thought he was gonna rough up the edges a little bit, and he ended up giving a very clean, super “pro” mix of what the band sounded like at the time, not far from what we sounded like. For me, it’s a very clean record and my vocal performance is not what I wanted it to be. But it is, probably of the Dillon Fence records, it’s probably the most “pro”, the cleanest, slickest sound of all the records. For better or for worse. But I feel like with Outside In, in a way the production style and the choices we made were a reaction to Rosemary.
YOB – Where did you record Outside In?
GHumph – Outside In was at Fort Apache in Boston, and we hired Lou Giordano who, you know, started with Hüsker Dü and was very much a Boston rock guy. We told him we wanted big guitars and he gave us big guitars. And at that point, I was a little more confident in what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it vocally. As a singer, you’re always a stylist, and some singers sound like they sound and that’s it, but most singers – if you’re singing a lot over a career’s worth of music, your voice is going to change and your stylistic approach is going to change. I mean, look at someone like Neil Young or Dylan. People I look up to as a vocalist are people like Paul McCartney who can belt it and take you to church and sing R&B and soul when they want to, but they can also be very sweet and quiet. Stylistically they can approach a song in the way that the song needs and not restrict themselves to this or that style. Over time, that’s kind of been my attitude. And definitely moving on from Dillon Fence, it’s a factor of age, it’s a factor of lifestyle. If you’re drinkin’ and smokin’ and doing 200 shows a year, your voice is going to sound way different than it did when you were 18 and only drank beer on the weekend.
YOB – Going back to Paul McCartney, I was really surprised hearing him belt out “Helter Skelter” recently and I was like “holy crap,” being able to still bring it like that was just insane.
GHumph – Yeah, he’s a hero of mine as a singer, for sure. That era of rock & roll is an inspiring era to me because they were into so many things, and they would try a country song. You know, “Let’s do a country song, let’s do an English drinking song, let’s try on different styles and see how they fit.” Whereas now it seems like everything is so genre-driven. Like, could Jason Isbell do a funk tune and get away with it? I don’t know. It just seems like every artist is in their own genre slot and there’s no mixing allowed.
YOB – Yeah, it’s funny, my friend Jeff Jones, who is a big Beatles fan, one of the things he said – which is hyperbole but it rings true in a lot of ways – was that The Beatles did every genre of music and they did it about as good as could be done. Like, country tunes…
GHumph – Well, they were fantastic writers. It all starts with great songs and played well, so they definitely delivered.
YOB – Even like “Honey Pie“, which is weird, and you’ve got “Birthday” or “Back in the USSR”, those are proto-punk tunes.
GHumph – Yeah, they’re very raw.
YOB – Yeah, and if you dig, the theory doesn’t really hold up, but they did a lot of different stuff and that’s where I get a lot of joy out of listening to The Beatles. It’s hearing the growth of an artist over a series of albums, even to the last album.
GHumph – I feel like with a lot of my funk & soul touchstones it’s the same way. Like Stevie Wonder would do a country song, or a song that’s influenced or inspired by country. Or Al Green would cover a Hank Williams song and say “ok, we’re gonna take Hank Williams and do it Memphis style.” It’s these people realizing great is great and genre is just a line in the sand that you can step over at any time. And that’s a big inspiration to me.
YOB – The last series of questions I want to ask are about the individual Dillon Fence records. You’ve talked about Rosemary and how you feel about that.
GHumph – The thing about Rosemary is I’m proud of it, because that was our collection of our best songs from over 3 or 4 years of being a band and playing. I think the songs are strong, but maybe it’s just me being hypercritical of my own performance.
YOB – So then how do you feel about Outside In? What’s your general rememberance of that time and the album itself?
GHumph – Outside In for me was wanting to make our Revolver or our Rubber Soul. The album where we went from just being a real catchy pop band to really making an artistic statement. Trying to make that perfect song cycle where every song is great and it takes you on a journey and you want to return to it. I think it also reflects a lot of the work we put in. After Rosemary we really hit the road hard and our manager quit and we found out we had a tax debt we didn’t know about so we ended up having to double down and play twice as many shows to stay afloat. So it was a combination of a lot of work and also maybe not as green. We were more seasoned, we were living the rock & roll band life at that point and not necessarily satisfied with our lives or where we were. There’s growing pains in there. It’s also us being influenced by what’s around us, like at that point the alternative rock moment was in full swing and I feel like we were influenced by that, there’s no question. We turned up the guitars and things were dirtier and a little rougher around the edges, but it was still the same band. We did not sound like Nirvana or Pearl Jam, we sounded like Dillon Fence. And looking back, that is why I thought that album would be more of a success. I feel like we reached an audience with that album, but I think we put a lot into that album and we were hoping we would reach a bigger audience. I think the music industry at the time was just looking for “Let’s just sign the band that sounds like Pearl Jam or sounds like Nirvana.” So you had all the copycat bands getting all the attention.
YOB – I heard Outside In because, I think I’d heard some of Rosemary before, but I was writing for the fanzine and the guy who was running that had listened to it and said “This is totally something for Sam” and handed it to me. Just the wash of how it opens with “Collapsis,” I’m like “Oh, man, this is so good!” But then the depth of “Union Grove“, “Any Other Way“…. “Any Other Way” still hits me, it’s just such a great love song. We actualy talked about this in 93 when we talked before. And “Headache“, *I* still love playing “Headache.”
GHumph – Yeah, it’s a power-pop gem. But that’s another thing about that record, is that it’s really deep with songs that could’ve been singles, but at the time, the way the business was, it was like “ok, you get one single, and then two singles, and then if you don’t have a hit, you’re out of luck.” A lot of it too for me was about the songwriting at that time. I was super immersed in songwriting. I lived on my 4-track. Some of it might have been THC influenced, I don’t remember. (laughs) But I was writing and writing and I’ve got tapes and tapes full of musical ideas and songs from that era that never made it to a record. I feel like for me as a writer it was a very productive time where the songs were flowing and we were able to capture and record them because we had something going on. I feel very lucky in that sense that we were able to capture some of that and put it on a record.
YOB – Where did you record Living Room Scene?
GHumph – We recorded Living Room Scene at Ardent in Memphis. We worked with a producer named Mark Freegard, who’s a British producer. He had some success with the Breeders, he produced their big single “Cannonball” and had some really interesting stories about how he did tape editing, like he chopped up random sounds and then mixed them up and taped them back together and dumped them back into the session and brought it up in the song. So he was definitely a “using the studio as a creative tool” type producer. I feel like a lot of the sonic artifacts on that album are him. Mix moves, sweeps, and also just sheer indulgence. That was the only album with Dillon Fence where we had 3 weeks to record, 2 weeks to mix. We were so used to rehearsing, getting it together, and knocking it out that it was an indulgent record for us. It was like “Let’s do 20 takes of this guitar solo and then Mark will comp it together for the perfect guitar solo.” We did a lot of that on that album.
YOB – There’s some pretty perfect guitar solos on that album!
GHumph – Yeah? It’s a very well-crafted album. One thing though, now that you say that, that reminds me, is that on all three of those Dillon Fence albums, we did a lot of demoing and some of the demos, especially for Outside In and Living Room Scene, are pretty awesome. So that’s one of the things I’ve thought about doing and we’ve talked about doing is releasing some the demos for the hardcore Dillon Fence fans because it’s like “Here’s a version of ‘Right Road‘ that I actually prefer to the album version.” or I prefer my performance, or the groove, the subtle things that are hard to quantify.
YOB – And it’s easier to do that now than it was back then, just release it and put it out there digitally and be like “Here it is,” instead of “We’ve gotta press records and cassettes.”
GHumph – Yeah, so that’s on deck, too, is kind of an Odds & Sods or rare & unreleased type thing for Dillon Fence and Hobex. But yeah, the Living Room Scene album was a very creative time but it was also when the band was coming apart at the seams. We thought it was a good idea at the time to go to Memphis…I can’t remember where Mark mixed it, maybe somewhere around New York. But we were away from home for along time and I think it was just hard on everybody just to be away for so long and feel like we didn’t have lives. We were just sick of each other, it’s a very intense way to live when you don’t have time to reflect and recuperate.
YOB – My parents are from Memphis, actually. I wish I would have known you guys better, I could have sent you to Granny’s house for chicken & dumplings. That might’ve helped. (laughs)
GHumph – It’s an amazing musical town. That’s one of my fascinations and obsessions is Memphis music. I think that’s one of the reasons we did Ardent. We met Jody Stephens and I remember him playing me some live Big Star that they had recorded in Japan, telling me they were going to get the band back together. We were there. We were checking it out. More recently I did some songwriting with William Bell, one of the Stax/Volt soul singers. He’s one of these guys where you hear his anecdotes and you say “You need to write a book, man!” Him singing with Al Jackson Sr’s band, Elvis as a teenager coming to see the band. He’s the same age as Elvis so they knew each other. Just all the different circles and how they all intersect and Beale Street and the blues and soul just…it’s unbelievable.
So you have any songs on the new album that jump out to you?
YOB – Yeah, it is, but like I was telling my wife, listening to it, I’m like, “This dude’s happy.”
GHumph – It’s pure happy, yeah.
YOB – But you don’t get a lot of songs like that. And that’s what we were talking about with “Any Other Way” as well, it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of good songs about being happy and actually being in love.
GHumph – And I can’t fake it. I can’t write a happy song unless I’m really feeling that in that moment, you know?
YOB – And “Crosstown,” for me it’s a good lazy bar tune, but with a beach sound. It’s just so easygoing, but it’s got that soul to it. And “Golden Bone“…this one is fantastic!
GHumph – With the slide? That’s the only instrumental on the album.
YOB – Yeah! It’s so big rock, but then you’ve got that section in the middle that switches from the gritty blues thing…for me, the middle section reminds me so much of Dillon Fence. (Later I realized it reminded me of “Hard To Please” from Outside In a little with a little of “High School Sap” from Living Room Scene.) It was so gritty and then broke into that middle section and I was like “Woah…” And then there’s “Lucky Guy” and “More Than A Friend…” Oh, so what’s the story behind “So Fucked Up“?
GHumph – I think that song is more of a storytelling song, it’s not as personal. It’s written from the perspective of two young people trying to make it and just feeling like our world is so screwed up that all they can do is just love each other and try to make it through. Trying to capture that feeling of hopelessness that I feel like is pervasive in our culture now. I’m not feeling this so much these days, but I know that feeling of just being beaten down by our culture and a feeling of hopelessness. I just think about people without a way out. Maybe it’s living in New York and being surrounded by humanity and feeling that feeling of people who are just struggling and living day to day. Lyrically, that’s what that song is about. And then it’s got that middle section that’s kind of a rock thing and that was just taking two ideas and putting them together and saying “I like this.”
YOB – Listening to “Lucky Guy” and those songs on the album, it was like, this is nice. It’s nice to hear that someone is happy. And like the song says, when you’re gone, people are going to get together and say “He was a lucky guy.” And you want to hear those kind of positive messages. And you’ve got the right musical style and the right voice to deliver it. Because you’re coming from a place of humility. It’s not “Check me out! I’m lucky!” It’s “Can you believe where I’ve got to and how good things are?”
GHumph – Wow. Thanks, man.
YOB – Yeah, thank *you*! Thank you for all the years of music, that’s a gift that I’m happy to have.
Do you know Greg Humphreys? You’ve got a better chance if you live on the east coast because that’s where Greg is from, the area around Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I know of Greg even though I lived on the opposite coast.
In 1993 I was living in San Diego and working on a fanzine with my friend and then-housemate Jeff Motch. It was Jeff’s project, he ran it and did all the design. I wrote album reviews and got to do some pretty cool interviews.
One day, Jeff handed me a CD with an abstract cover, two origami figures, one in blue, the other orange. The band was Dillon Fence and the album was Outside In. Greg was the main singer and guitarist for the band, handling a good amount of the songwriting duties as well. (This is not to take away from the songwriting contributions by Kent Alphin and Chris Goode, both of whom added excellent songs to the DF oeuvre.)
I put the CD in the player and was unprepared for the wall of guitars that followed the in-breath captured at the outset. A gorgeous, sensitive, soaring opening for a great record.
Dillon Fence put out two of the best rock records of the 90s but like many bands weren’t able to keep the momentum going. The early 90s were a strange time for music and there wasn’t much room for a great straight-ahead rock & roll band in amongst all the Pearl Jam soundalikes and punk-wannabes riding the coattails of Nirvana & Green Day.
Dillon Fence was one of a group of great but not necessarily similiar bands like The Veldt, Superchunk, Polvo, and The Connells who hailed from the Triangle area in North Carolina in the 80’s & early 90’s. The college rock/”alternative” scene was the catch-all term, but that just meant anything that didn’t have a place on mainstream radio at the time – hard rock, MOR, country, soul/R&B.
Living on the West Coast, I never got a good chance to see the original Dillon Fence play live. Then, not too long after their tour cycle for Living Room Scene ended, I heard they were breaking up. (This was back before hiatuses were a thing) In the nascent days of the capital-I Internet, not every niche was being served, so it took me a few years before I heard that Greg was now fronting a band called Hobex. I may have even read about that in Spin or some other magazine, just offhand.
Hobex was not Dillon Fence 2, however. Greg’s musical background and tastes pushed him toward blue-eyed funk & soul. The music of Hobex didn’t gain much traction in the mainstream rock garbage fire that was the late-90s, early-00s rock music scene, coming as it did on the cusp of the end of the major label/radio stranglehold. Not that there’s a huge retail market for that music anyway, but Hobex did settle in on the festival circuit. (Think of the current status enjoyed by St. Paul & the Broken Bones or Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings at large festivals – Afternoon slots, and everyone grooves along and has a great time.)
Much like Dillon Fence, Hobex eventually reached it’s conclusion. (Much like Dillon Fence, there was no animosity and both bands regularly re-form and play gigs.) The Hobex wind-down had Greg moving through changes that were more personal than personnel. It seemed the right time to slow down and the next four records were just solo affairs.
After those records and a move to Brooklyn, NY, he met up with Matt Brandau and Keith Robinson – both highly accomplished in their own rights – and formed the Greg Humphreys Electric Trio. Their newest album Lucky Guy was released in June after a Pledge Music campaign raised almost 200% of their goal, with the funds going to print vinyl & CDs for the fans, as well as hiring a publicist and making videos. (The band even donated 5% of post-goal funds to the American Brain Tumor Association.)
Greg Humphreys Electric Trio – Greg, Keith Robinson, Matt Brandau
Where Greg’s solo records of the late 00s-early 10s were more subdued affairs, Lucky Guy, like the other Electric Trio records, is more upbeat, which is to be expected from the title. Greg’s life is in a swell place, having moved from North Carolina to New York City after meeting the woman who is now his wife, and the arrival of their son. The record is made up of newer songs alongside the band’s re-recording of a few songs that appeared on his earlier solo releases.
23 years after I first interviewed Greg about Dillon Fence for 360 degrees (scans below), he and I spoke at length (not kidding, about 2.5 hours!) about his career from Dillon Fence through Hobex and his solo records, and the Greg Humphreys Electric Trio. We talked about his vocals on the Dillon Fence record Rosemary, how he put the GHE3 together, and his inspiration for Lucky Guy, the song and the record. Come back on Wednesday to read that interview!
Dillon Fence – Greg Humphreys interview from 360 fanzine – 1993 (Click to see full size)
Dillon Fence – Greg Humphreys interview from 360 fanzine – part 2 – 1993 (Click to see full size)
If, like me, you hit puberty in the early 80’s when Prince was in his heyday, you likely learned about sexuality, sensuality, and love through purple lenses. The same man who broke our hearts in songs like “Purple Rain” and “Nothing Compares 2 U” also taught us about the slow grind in “When Doves Cry.” We learned about the thrill of one night stands from “Little Red Corvette” and “Raspberry Beret.” He broke down the pain of a cheating lover in “When You Were Mine.” And he held our hands as we dipped our toes into his explorations of kink – “Darling Nikki” and “Erotic City” are the ones that stand out for me, but there were many others. Everyone has a favorite.
As a musician, he set the bar impossibly high. The quality, the quantity, the excess, the secrecy. There were probably more than a few careers that fell, trying to keep up with Prince. Where one might dream of being like this or that band, Prince was out of reach. Neither you nor me were ever going to be that prolific. I first started to understand multitrack recording when I heard that he played all the instruments on his early records. I previously thought everything was just a band playing, and the sound engineer hit the ‘record’ button. When I heard that he played & sang everything, it broke open a new perspective of what one person could do in the recording studio.
He was a true genius, as well as a true artist. I don’t use the former word lightly, but it was very clear to me – especially after Sign O’ The Times. We lived in the same rarefied air as a bona-fide musical genius, writing and recording in our lifetime.
I saw him in concert once, in 2004. He played “in the round” at the Pepsi Center in Denver, and I was thrilled to be there. The show kept going, to everyone’s sweaty delight. He played in town a couple of years ago, a few sets in a small venue, charging upwards of $200 per ticket. I wasn’t able to go to those shows, but not because of the price of the ticket. I didn’t even blink. If there’s any artist worth that rate, it was Prince.
And to top it all off, some of my favorite songs by other artists are Prince songs! “Manic Monday,” Mitch Ryder’s version of “When You Were Mine,” “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
All the girls loved him. Some guys were jealous and maybe said they hated him, but I don’t recall any of my friends who said that. I would have loved to have that kind of allure, that funk, that badass. Instead, I was a fan. I remember having Prince listening parties with my friend Tony in college. He’s the one who turned me on to Sign O’ The Times beyond the title track.
Purple Rain is one of my favorite albums and has been since it was released. I’ll be setting aside some time tonight and this weekend to listen to it in reverence. In genuflection. In worship. One of the all-time greats from this or any generation. A true musical genius.
Thank you, Prince. Your music elevated us from mere subjects to royal equals in passion and funk. We’re eternally grateful. See you in that world of never ending happiness.
Here’s one of my favorite Prince performances, his guitar solo on the group version of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from the Rock Hall induction in 2006.