Monday, July 26, 2010

Interview with I Was Totally Destroying It's John Booker & Rachel Hirsch

The band released in July 2010 a special 7-inch release called Get Big which is an ode to '80's music.

By Brian Tucker
photo: Jason Arthurs

What was the impetus for the 7-inch released this summer and why choose Big Country?

JOHN: We usually like to add a cover song to our repertoire before we head out on the road, so for our album release tour last October we decided to learn one of my favorite songs of all time, "In A Big Country". I had wanted to cover "In A Big Country" for most of my musical life, and it turned out really well, everyone in our band was well-suited for the individual parts. We had a bunch of people telling us there was a special energy to our rendition & we should record it, so we did. We told our label we wanted to release the song as a digital single with a b-side, and they encouraged us to go ahead and go all out with a 7", which we were dying to do, but too hesitant to suggest ourselves. It's pretty amazing to be on a label that says "simple and cheap? No, let's spend a lot of money and make something a lot more special".

The b-side “Big Rock” is like Faster Pussycat doing a Warrant cover. Was En Garde a rock outfit entirely or is this just fun being had?

JOHN: "The Big Rock" is easily the most tongue-in-cheek, over the top, silly song I've ever written. My old band, En Garde, was supposed to be a pretty balls-out, no frills hard rock band. It was mostly a big party of old friends and we tried to be as loud and hyper as possible - sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. It was basically a project for me to learn to be a songwriter, though. I'd been playing music for years but I'd never been the main writer. It was the learning time I needed before reigning in my chops & ideas for IWTDI. When we decided on the concept for the new 7", "The Big Rock" was a leftover from the En Garde days, and seemed like the perfect contender for a b-side that was hopefully likable but hopefully people would know not to take too seriously as well.

Many bands record an album and wait and wait between new material, even now in the digital age. Is it your intent to keep putting out new material?

JOHN: I guess I see it both ways. I feel like most bands release a full-length every 2 years, and so far we're on track with that method. The stuff in between adds up to a lot (2 EP's, a 7" and a couple spare tracks here and there), but even that material feels spread out by nearly a year. So yes and no, we like being prolific and trying to stay active both for the sake of our own creativity and to let people who like our music know that we're still going strong; but at the same time, the time that has elapsed between projects often feels much longer to us than it is in reality. It's hard to believe Horror Vacui hasn't even been out a year at this point.

What resonates with the band about the 80’s and its music? It’s a generation behind some band members. Is it more inspiring to discover music outside your generation than what’s current?

JOHN: I grew up in the 80's, so for me it's nostalgia mixed with a genuine, un-ironic love for the songwriting and production values that were typical of so many of the hits of the time-period. There's an adventurousness, creativity and originality to new wave that is often underrated. People forget that the 80's sound spawned from punk, into post-punk, and out of that came new wave and in many ways new wave was the most innovative of all three of those movements. Among many other factors, the rise of the synthesizer and the advent of the sampler opened a lot of new doors to musical creativity and expression, and essentially defined new wave and so much of what is insular about the sound of the 80's. I consider myself a completist and a musical librarian/historian. I like to collect an artist's entire catalog. I don't care if there are bad songs, or even bad albums, that's actually a much more interesting story than immaculate consistency. So for me, it's definitely a bit more of an adventure to immerse myself in music from past generations, to see the whole drama play out, and try to understand what it meant when it was current. I love how artists like Neil Young have all these crazy left turns in the 80's. I want the full story, not just the legendary stuff.

RACHEL: What resonates with me the most is how creatively and heavily the synthesizer was utilized. This was the first decade in which more user friendly and affordable synthesizers were available to the public, and the outcome was a colossal amount of really interesting and compelling new music. I love thinking about how the people who had never heard such inorganic sounds must have reacted to them upon first listen.For myself, I find that music recorded outside of my own generation inspires me more. As a millennial, it’s hard for me to fathom that before, say, Laurie Anderson, there was nobody that sounded like Laurie Anderson. There are a lot of new buzz bands that I really like lately, but it’s hard not to hear the influence of other artists in their music. So while I might love this new band, I also love the artists that they’re drawing from. You guys seem to record a lot, having material leftover for special releases like the 45 and the vinyl release prior to Horror Vacui.

Do you have more material that hasn’t been released?

JOHN: We just issued a bonus track, "Mona Lisa Overdrive", available to people who buy our new 7". That song was originally going to be track 1 on our most recent album, Horror Vacui, but it got bumped at the 11th hour. "Mona Lisa Overdrive" was the last remaining track that we had yet to release from the various sessions of 2008 and 2009. As of right now, there is only one song that we have officially recorded that has not been released, it's called "A Boy + A Girl". We tracked it during the sessions for our first album, in 2007. It is the worst song we have ever written and we vehemently hate it. It's quite embarrassing. I can say with a lot of certainty that song will never see the light of day!

Is the new album material you’re working on different than the last album? Are more songs being written outside the scope of personal themes?

JOHN: After completing Horror Vacui, Rachel and I both agreed we had no interest in writing more "breakup songs" or any of the general romantic-relationship stuff. We played that stuff out for ourselves, and likely for anyone else listening. So it's been very difficult finding inspiration sometimes on the new material, since those themes are so comfortable in pop music. We haven't really said this publicly yet, but over the past year, Rachel and I have become wrapped up in Stephen King's magnum opus, The Dark Tower, and many of the new songs are loosely based on some concepts from those books. It won't be a "concept album", and we're shying far away from any of the supernatural elements that would turn things cheesy very fast, but we've definitely pulled some themes and inspirations from the characters and emotional content therein, and found ways to relate the material back to ourselves and our own experiences. As for the music, it's too soon to say what we'll end up with, but we definitely set out to make something drastically different than anything we have done previously.

The original plan was that I would take this bulk of acoustic-based, stripped down, singer-songwriter type surplus of material I had accumulated and make a solo album while the band explored new songs and sounds based in dance and electronic music. We recently experienced a big shift in that plan, because while we like some of the dance-influenced stuff we've come up with together, it was proving to not be as fulfilling as we had hoped, and often we were sacrificing fun for some higher concept that didn't always work. Rachel and I had some songs that we were holding back on because they didn't fit the plan, and the band heard those tunes and decided that they were more promising than some of the stuff we'd been pursuing. So what we've done now is add all the songs I'd planned to keep for a solo album, all of Rachel's various experiments, as well as keep the best songs the band had composed together during the first half of the year. So we suddenly jumped from a pot of 8 or 9 songs, to 30-plus and growing. I think the final album will end up being a mix of our experiments with dance and electronic music, alongside some pretty down-tempo acoustic ballads. It seems like it'll be a cleaner, less loud rock album, and possibly a bit more melancholy.

RACHEL: To write any more songs about my personal relationship with John would be beating a dead horse. We’ve analyzed and written about each other about as much as we (and probably anyone listening) can stomach.We’re discovering that writing about subject matter outside of our own personal experiences is actually really uncomfortable for us. I’m a 20 year old and therefore am obsessed with myself, so the easiest thing for me to do would be to write about my self-actualization or self-discovery…but honestly… it’s been done. And done. And done.

Like John has said, we’ve been reading Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series and have been vaguely incorporating some themes from that into our lyrics. It has been really fun to assume different characters and to write from their perspective and then relate that back to myself. Lately I’ve been reading about abnormal psychology and an encyclopedia of the world’s worst murders… so I don’t know where that will take us. Sonically, I’m very hesitant to say what I think the album will sound like. We have the luxury of having no set deadlines, and we want the sound to continue to evolve until we’re actually in the studio. For the first half of 2009, John and I had this really set idea of it being a more electronic and structurally complex album…but we simply weren’t happy enough with our results to keep going that way. I had been writing a couple of songs that I didn’t want to get that treatment, so I withheld them from the band. Same goes for John, who had gone through dozens of cassettes he’s recorded demos on over the years, but didn’t want them to turn out the way that a lot of our songs had been. So now we’re kind of “starting over” and taking a new approach. We don’t really care how we get it done, but we want to write the best songs we can.

Was any material written/conceived while on the road touring in the last year?

JOHN: We rarely write new music while on the road. For me as an individual, I find musical inspiration hard to come by when in that strange, foreign situation of touring- and as a band we rarely start from scratch with a jam idea or anything like that. Most IWTDI songs usually start with me sitting on my bed alone at 4am with an acoustic guitar, or Rachel sitting at her piano in her room, plinking out a new idea.

RACHEL: We really don’t write on the road. For me to write songs, I need to be left alone. I get so self-conscious if John or someone else is in the next room…so I usually wait until everyone is out of the house. I really check to see if there are any cars in the driveway.

The band always seems to be in good spirits, either at shows I’ve seen or from videos posted online. How is it you seem to be having fun in the midst of all this work making records and playing shows to support them?

JOHN: This band has a strong family dynamic. We actually fight a lot, and some of us can be not-very-fun-to-work-with at times, but no one takes anything personally and we're able to squash disagreements very quickly, and five minutes later act like nothing happened. We're all stressed out a lot of the time, but the band is a labor of love for us, we're all super committed to writing the best music we can and constantly trying to grow the project to its full potential.

RACHEL: Like any group of close-knit people, we don’t get along all the time. We all do things that annoy the shit out of each other, but for the most part we like each other enough to forgive the flaws. We have a common goal, and that definitely unites us amidst our squabbling. There are things I love and hate about every member. We wouldn’t be a band if we didn’t like doing it.

Your last record bore a lot of relationship strife and persevered. How is your and Rachel’s relationship today, after all that you guys went through and what was put out in the public through music?

JOHN: Rachel and I get along better than ever, these days. We have to remember to separate issues within the band or songwriting disagreements from our relationship, and if we do that, we get along swimmingly. We needed the time off and as awful as 2009 was for us and the rest of the band, it's left us in a better place and taught us some good lessons. 2010 has been fantastic so far and Rachel and I are back together and have none of the old issues this time around. As for all the drama being aired out in public, I'm fine with that. I'm far from an exhibitionist, but I'm a pretty blunt and open person. I don't really have secrets. If people want to talk about or know about something, I don't really deem anything as too personal or taboo, and I hope knowing where our lyrics are coming from can open windows into a deeper understanding of what we're trying to express and convey to the listener.

RACHEL: Out of everything that has happened, I have found a lifelong friend in John. It was really weird and surreal to put our issues out there the way that we did. I mean, there was everything from journalists analyzing our breakup, to my parents reading about it on the internet, to me screaming at John at shows…to be honest it was all really hard. For a year it felt like I was somebody’s ex-girlfriend and not really a musician. I don’t think I’m going to open up like that again.

Where does the band name come from?

JOHN: The name comes from a stupid conversation I was having a long time ago. I was describing how I was breaking up a slate walkway with a pickaxe, and the words "I was totally destroying it" came out of my mouth. The name stuck because of its ridiculousness, and because I knew we'd never run into the problem of there being another IWTDI.

The band has embraced tech in all fashions to distro the music and communicate with people. Has there been any surprises since you’re communicating and making fans all over the globe?

JOHN: It's important to us to utilize all the resources of internet promotion, communication, and social media, as much as I often lament the disadvantages of the era and long for the way things used to be when I first started making music. The primary reason we try to do lots of video updates and use other online resources is because we've been exposed to a lot of new fans who we aren't able to play in front of regularly- whether it be support from folks in what feels like our second home of Minneapolis, or the millions of people in Brazil who've heard our song in a cell phone commercial. I can't tell you how often people think a band has broken up simply because they are between projects, so blogging, vlogging, etc., gives bands a way of letting fans know they still exist and are still creating.

RACHEL: I am a child of the modern age, so experimenting with different mediums of social media doesn’t bother me one bit. You have to love the instant gratification! We have met a lot of people on the road and people have stumbled upon us from all over the world thanks to the internet, so social media is a great way for us to keep in touch with everyone. There have been a few weird things I’ve found. I will admit that I have Googled myself twice. The first time, I found my name in some Japanese music database. There was a picture of me, and links to iTunes for I Was Totally Destroying It. The second time, I found a stranger that left a comment on one of our pictures somewhere that said that they had sex with me. I stopped searching after that.

The 7-inch is the second vinyl release for the band. When are you expecting the new album to come out and will you press vinyl again?

JOHN: The new album is taking us a lot longer to write than we originally planned, but we're determined to let it take as long as it needs. The money and producers and studio are all in place and ready when we are, so we could easily jump the gun and make an album that we wouldn't feel 100% about but we're going to keep writing until we feel we have 12 songs that are absolutely worth all the effort that will be put into recording and releasing the project. The album is currently slated for a fall 2011 release, and while we will continue to plan specifics during the interim with our label, we have already confirmed that the album will be released on vinyl, among other formats. Since we keep pushing back the date, and because of our recent influx of songs to choose from, we'll be releasing an EP in the spring of 2011. We plan to record six or seven new songs which most excite us at the time, but don't quite fit what we hope to comprise the full-length, this fall.

RACHEL: The safest thing to say about the new album is that it will be coming out in the second half of 2011. We want to get it right.

BEST IN SHOW by Phil Juliano


Singer-songwriter David Dondero talks about his new album, getting older and living on the lam.

by Brian Tucker
photo: Josephine Heidepriem

You’re an inspired songwriter, regardless of location or environment. What’s been a more peculiar place or situation that’s lent itself to a song?

Any place you go has certain peculiarities and unique qualities. In the latest album ( # Zero With a Bullet) I condensed a lot of them into one song called "Wherever you go". Like finding the frog on the skull on the wall in Salamanca, Spain or hearing the javelina's foraging through the brush at night in the Gila Wilderness out in New Mexico. I remember when I was out in Hawaii and a fella said "choke food broke da mouth" meaning there was a great big feast. Or hearing another guy in Australia say "wrap your laughing gear around this one mate." meaning, take a bite of this sandwich.. these moments have all crept into the songs. Fragments of detail.

You’re 40. Do you look back on your early 20’s with a particular fondness or nostalgically?

Actually, I turn 41 on June 24th. Man, I wish I had the energy to jump around and scream like I used to. I used to dive into the audience and bite people’s ankles. Pour beer all over myself. Go nuts. I do it a little more thoughtfully now but I do miss the days of being 20. My body hurts a lot more now and the recovery time is a bit longer but the heart breaks a little more softly.

I miss punk rock before Nirvana and I miss alternative music when it was truly alternative. I miss indie rock and most of all I miss music before computers, the days of sending cassette tapes in the mail. On the other hand it's a hell of a lot easier to put music out and promote. It no longer costs hundreds of dollars in long distance phone calls and sending out packages to book tours. It's a free click away.

You describe travelling, the road, as a “holy unforgiving blacktop sanctuary that’s become wife and family”. How long have you been touring and could you see life without it?

I first started touring in 1993 and have been doing it on and off since then. It hasn't been non-stop though. I spent a good part of last year installing solar systems out in San Francisco and the last three months landscaping in Austin, TX. I've done almost every shitty job imaginable through the years to make ends meet. I like to work but...I got that travelling itch again last summer when I saw some sticker on a garbage can in the Mission. It said "Don't forget your Dreams" with an arrow pointing down into the trash. I knew it was time to hit the road again. I don't really want to install solar panels forever or do landscaping forever or bartend forever. But I do want to keep learning the guitar and writing down words and songs so I prefer to tour around and sing songs to people who want to hear them. Touring a lot has taken away many other possibilities that go along with settling down which I sometimes wish I had, seeing friends in nice homes with their kids and safety nets. Then again that life can suffocate and take the spirit. Watching TV and living vicariously through others makes you fat and lazy. So can drinking in bars every night. This living out on the fly can be pretty frightening though...knowing that I'm one step away from being homeless but then again I'm trying to look at the entire world as my home. Luckily I've got a lot of friends in many places who help me out. I am thankful to them and feel I owe them a great debt. Fred Champion (owner of CD Alley, Wilmington, NC) has helped me tremendously through the years, letting me stay in the back room in the loft. Thank you Fred. People like him have provided lifelines to me. I know sometimes I overstay my welcome and I regret that but I do want to reiterate my thanks and appreciation for these places of refuge for the downtime stretches.

The title track of the new album seems like a state of the union address in terms of the world and your place in it. What’s your philosophy / thinking on where you’re going given the state of music now?

Well, music has pretty much been hijacked and given away, devalued by the internet. It has a direct impact on me and people I know who do write and perform music. People don't sell records anymore. It's getting harder and harder to make a living at it if it's given away. It's a shame to see landmarks like CD Alley close. It seems that people no longer have the patience to listen to an entire album. Attention spans have diminished. They just buy one song on iTunes and listen to part of it, shuffle through; many don't even know the title, just a track number. The flavor of the week is now the flavor of a moment. On one hand the internet has been great for promoting and booking. On the other hand it's not because it has flooded the system with excessive info and mediocrity. Maybe it's coming full circle. I think it was Woody Guthrie who said that the jukebox was the death of live music. Perhaps the internet is the rebirth of live music because people are going to want something real eventually and those that have the chops will rise up.

Do you think performers are not themselves enough now on records or are they just afraid to be?

Maybe they really are themselves. Maybe they have been Auto-tuned since they were babies. Maybe they are the TV shows they have watched their whole lives. Maybe they are a Hollywood writer’s rendition of what they should be, therefore, they are copying what they see as themselves on the TV and taking that to the stage. So that really is who they are as they see themselves in their mind.

Actor John Hawkes described to me his years moving about as a gypsy lifestyle. Would you agree and what influenced you to live more freely than your peers as a musician?

Jack Kerouac influenced me in a huge way... and Henry Miller, EddyJoe Cotten, Woody Guthrie's "Bound for Glory"...DIY Punk Rock...friends like Rymodee and Terry Johnson from This Bike is a Pipe Bomb...Chris Clavin from Plan-it-x records. People like that showed me the way into the possibilities of creating something out of thin air and taking it around the world, doing what you want, finding a way to live freely using your own gumption. The main thing is not to be scared of being an unemployed transient. Don’t be afraid of being broke because "Money comes and goes and rolls and flows through the holes in the pockets of your jeans..." like Bob Dylan says.

Where do you call home these days? What is comforting about not having permanent ties to traditional anchors – mortgage, apartments, jobs, etc?

I call Austin, TX,,, San Francisco, CA, New Orleans, LA, Pensacola, FL, Omaha, NE,,Duluth, MN, Anchorage, AK, Fort Mill, SC, Asheville, NC and Wilmington, NC my homes these days. The most recent place I paid rent for three months this spring was Austin but now I've moved into the Honda Hotel on wheels, a rolling bubble of steal, glass and plastic. It's an efficiency apartment and it only costs $250 a month plus insurance. What's comforting about it is I have this amazing ever changing view from my living room. I find comfort in not knowing what's going to happen next.

What do you hope to leave behind for anyone finds you, listens to you?

An interesting picture.

BEST IN SHOW by Phil Juliano


David Dondero
# Zero with a Bullet
Team Love Records

No one could say David Dondero doesn’t wear a heart on his sleeve, or bears a habit of pointing out what he sees all around him. The singer-songwriter has spent a career of nearly two decades writing and recording about his travels and the people he’s come across. He doesn’t bear the moniker of social commentator or is burdened by the responsibility of doing so – one of the gifts of not being terribly famous. He writes what he knows, paints pictures through words and melody with seemingly little effort, as though songs poured out of his mouth and fingers like a sudden conversation about the day.
# Zero With a Bullet finds Dondero singing songs about people and things you and I know and can relate to, of bosses, money troubles, strippers and good eating. Dondero’s voice is more beautiful, richer now with age. There’s ache in his timbre, sounding perfectly imperfect. He crafts songs with firm command of an energetic acoustic and electric guitar, playing with twinges of folk and country - from the Marshall Tucker Band flavored title track or the crash and boom of “Jesus from 12 to 6”. There’s a bit of tomfoolery on “Don’t Be Eyeballin’ My Po’Boy, Boy” where the guitar playing stumbles up and down and Dondero sings of the Crescent City. On “Job Boss” the music has a stuttered, manic construction – fitting given the story’s tale of a work crew taking the boss hostage. “All These Fishes Swimmin’ Through My Head” is a driving song with smooth vocals and a gospel church feel, a loud and triumphant finish to the album.
Dondero may well be one of many unsung heroes in our American catalog of singer-songwriters. Given his body of work, and especially this new album, it’s probable that the music’s timeless quality will lead to constant rediscovery.

*new album out August 3rd through Team Love Records or on Amazon, iTunes. Released in cd, mp3 and vinyl formats – vinyl comes with cd/mp3 code. Vinyl on Team Love’s site is $13 – a steal given you get a cd/mp3.

-Brian Tucker


Hail the Goer
Roaring Colonel Records

If you want something frothy and cute look elsewhere. We Are Hex’s Hail the Goer is a frantic and scorching follow up to Gloom Gloom. It’s abrasive and boggling in every way, buried in scratchy, end of the world guitar playing and hollow throated wailing and singing. Lead singer Jilly is a crossroads of PJ Harvey and Jim Morrison. That seems weak and lazy to write but Jilly is a vocalist that a listener experiences and witnesses, a memorable and indifferent singer difficult to clarify in a handful of words. We Are Hex are relentless in some of these songs, the result tribal and forceful. Every song seems born from a different mother. From tense opener “Birth of the Mystics” whose Psycho-esque guitar punching drives the song, to album closer “We are the Goer” the band doesn’t let up or consign itself to one through-line musically. “Gold/Silver” is driven by heavy bass lines and guitar notes that spike and echo while “Singer/Tastemaker” is musically nightmarish and gypsy-esque. Jilly seems to choke and grapple with her own vocals here, as if fighting with the music. Hail the Goer is a fantastic album, music that is combustible and hypnotic. Sounding disagreeable and in-your-face unpretentiously really works, a creative blast of dark rock and manic energy.

-Brian Tucker

*Out August 3rd on cd and Vinyl. For fans of Can Can, The Black Angels. video? - 7-inch release

…music video?
I’m Afraid of Everything 7-inch

Knowing …music video? is from Tucson, Arizona has little to do with the feeling that these two tracks on clear vinyl from Fort Lowell Records (also out of Tucson) sound like what a cool breeze across a heated desert night must feel like. I’m Afraid of Everything is perhaps a primer, a proper tease, of where the group is heading after two full length albums. On this 7-inch release songwriter and keyboardist Paul Jenkins and multi-instrumentalist J. Lugo Miller have crafted two airy and serene tracks of music that blend ambiance (by way of squash beats and lilting keys) with immediacy. “feelgooddesperation” represents the latter even though it opens up with gentle piano notes surrounded by phone connection sounds and subtle synth. On it Jenkins displays his soulful abilities, delivered with cool and near-pop delivery. He can coo and strain notes without crossing the line, always maintaining identity and emotion without overdoing it. “I’m Afraid of Everything” is one step beyond chill/electronic music. The group finds their groove here, taking electronic music and giving it more to do than mix and shuffle beats and noise. Jenkins’ vocals float in and out, like a narrator floating above drama. Blending pop melodies and electronic music is nothing new. Making it interesting and enjoyable is something else. …music video? succeed. With this second vinyl release its clear Fort Lowell is sincere about releasing good music in quality packaging. If you’re a vinyl hound this is a solid purchase.

*The vinyl release is limited to 500 copies and is available on iTunes for $1.98. Vinyl comes with download code and poster and can be purchased through Fort Lowell Records or on Amazon for $5.65.