Friday, January 21, 2011

DANNY KALB produces new Lp for ROBOTANISTS entitled "Plans In Progress"

Ears Wide Open: Robotanists
by KEVIN on JANUARY 21, 2011

When we last checked in with L.A. quartet Robotanists, Sarah Ellquist, Daniel de Blanke, Keith Boyarsky and Preston Scott Phillips were dazzling us with a covers EP. They have not been idle. Their second full-length, “Plans in Progress” — the foursome’s first new material since 2008′s “Close Down the Woods” — comes out Feb. 25. Over ghostly guitars and pulsing keys, Ellquist’s vocals strike a nice balance between sultry/detached and warm/inviting, and on this sophomore effort, produced by Danny Kalb, the foursome strikes out for a broader sonic atmosphere. “Let’s steal this moment / and go as fast as we can,” Ellquist sings in the title track, and if this too-short (28-plus minutes) album is any indication, Robotanists’ moment may very well be nigh.

||| Download: “On/Off the Ledge” (via

||| Live: Robotanists have the Monday residency in February at the Silverlake Lounge.

Photo by Jenny Plume

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Magical Skill: Chris Goss, the godfather of desert rock, on the return of Masters of Reality

By Jay Babcock Thursday, Nov 11 2010

Chris Goss, the 52-year-old leader of Masters of Reality, is near tears. A mountain of a baldheaded man, part Aleister Crowley, part Admiral Kurtz, Goss has been involved in some of the most vital rock 'n' roll music made in the last two and a half decades. Masters of Reality's 1988 debut, a masterwork of concise songwriting and classic rock riffage, was produced by Rick Rubin; their second, the lovely Sunrise on the Sufferbus, featured an actual classic rocker, the formidable Cream drummer/crankyman Ginger Baker.

Around that time, Goss discovered a group of teenagers from the California Low Desert called Kyuss, who played a heavy, trippy mix of Black Sabbath and the Misfits. Goss produced Kyuss' best work, inaugurating a relationship with guitarist Joshua Homme that would continue into the latter's subsequent Desert Sessions and Queens of the Stone Age projects.

And while there would be other Masters of Reality albums, other production gigs of varying profile and quality — my favorite is Mark Lanegan's Bubblegum — and an album-and-a-half as Goon Moon, a bizarro-rock collaboration with Marilyn Manson guitarist Twiggy Ramirez (and, on the first EP, underground free-rock drummer Zach Hill), generally speaking, Goss has slipped into legend: one of those musician's musicians, a guy who knows the occult secrets of the creative process and can get a great drum sound, who somehow, in this devolved age, still feels it.

Which, I think, is why he's near tears, as we sit on a patio outside his Joshua Tree home. Masters of Reality have a new album out — a beautiful, musically adventurous, warm affair with double-name Pine/Cross Dover — and are about to play a set of West Coast dates. It's the first time in years that Goss has been able to line everything up: a great album, a happening band, U.S. gigs. But who is there to hear anymore?

"Hard time for art right now," he says. "Socially, politically, economically — this is awful right now for everyone, this confusion. We're in the new Dark Ages. It's very hard and depressing, and you get angry because just so much attention is paid to so much shit. It's a shit storm. But there's no reason to stop making music. The market is down? Fuck the market. If you love what you're doing, you gotta keep doing it."

Even making record albums, when record stores are going out of business and everything is available for free on the Internet? Isn't that tactile experience over?

"I love the album format. I'll never lose that. Never. I don't want to lose it. I mean, why can't we keep experiencing it? It's easy, it's palatable. I'm so used to buying music in my hand and I can't get over it. Packaging matters. The visual album-cover connection to the music matters. Remember the gatefolds with the storybooks in them and the pop-up photos and stuff? This kind of thing is a boutique, elitist origami item now, but when I was a kid it was a five-and-dime item. I remember how it felt when I had Jethro Tull's Passion Play in my hands as a kid, from a poncy Shakespearean Renaissance Faire English hippie guy, knowing that, like, another million kids also were reading this storybook. There was this feeling that so many other people were experiencing what I was experiencing, at the same time. It was like combining that Harry Potter intrigue with the music for the kid of the time. That's empowering. Those records connected us. ..."

The music experience is more than what meets the ear — is it about actual physical contact?

"This is about warmth, and beauty," Goss says. "Now vocal tuning is everywhere. What a horrid tone. The chipmunk-robot people are here! Great. Lovely. Did you see Shania Twain live at the CMAs this year, maybe last year, with a vocal tuner on her voice when she was singing live? "And! I! Love! YouuuuUUUU!" It puts that thing on the tone at the end, an artificial lengthening of when you land on the note. So the person's natural phrasing is gone. Why? When Lennon was flat, it was wonderful. When Keith Richards is flat, it's wonderful. Because it sounds like the guy is sitting right next to you. He hasn't been chopped to spam before he gets to you."

People don't even know what they're missing.

"I remember going to see Yes in the '70s, back when people knew the lost art of properly mic-ing an acoustic guitar live. It has to have a low end, so that if you bump the guitar with an elbow, the PA goes boomf. You need that full spectrum of sound — you gotta feel the chest, and the belly, that part of the sound spectrum. Music should come through your chest, your eyes, your belly, that part of the sound spectrum. I think that's my favorite part.

"There's some great Israel Regardie Golden Dawn meditation tapes," he says, describing one of Crowley's disciples and his mystical society, "where he talks about getting into a state where your body is made out of spiderweb, like mesh. You try to conceptualize that you're just a net blowing in the breeze — forget your physical boundaries, let everything blow through you, don't block it with your body. That is what good music does to me. I immediately get this feeling, like I'm made out of sponge." Goss has his arms outstretched, his torso vibrating like jelly.

"When the good stuff hits me, it's recorded with those spider frequencies in mind, when you know that the person wants to embrace you. You can embrace people in weird ways too. Giving them the creeps during that embrace is fun. You hug and you tickle, or you pinch their ass. Bowie and Page were masters of that — who could manipulate sound in a way that in the future it has a physical effect on the person hearing it. Instinctively knowing that. Because you can only do that if you know that feeling yourself. So it's like I'm going to attack the left side of this person's chest with this bridge that's coming up. While they're embracing the guitar's midlevel, I'm going to poke them on the left side of the forehead with something. Just make it a physical contact sport, in a way. Attack with intention and great skill. It's a magical skill.

"There are still people making records like that. Joanna Newsom, who I adore, who is just such a gift in this era for us, I know she knows that sense of being at one with her instrument. She's hearing the harp through her eyes. Hearing it through her fingers, too. So when I hear her records, even if I might not agree with the production decisions sometimes, I feel that I have my head against her chest.

"That's something to be preserved — that's something to shoot for. And I suppose that's our only hope, to strive to keep the things you know are worth preserving. Preserve that beauty! Just because everybody else stops, doesn't mean you have to."

Masters of Reality perform on Nov. 10 at the Anaheim House of Blues, Nov. 12 at the Los Angeles House of Blues and Nov. 20 at Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Triphop Innovators Pigeonhed's Righteous Return Flight

This Is What Love's About, Ain't It So?
Triphop Innovators Pigeonhed's Righteous Return Flight

PIGEONHED Steve Fisk and Shawn Smith, ahead of their time since 1992.

The popular press, Wikipedia, and music authorities like don't acknowledge this, but Pigeonhed very likely invented triphop before the term was even coined. Back in 1992, Seattle keyboardist/production whiz Steve Fisk and sanctified soul singer Shawn Smith huddled in the SCUD Building where the former lived and cut their self-titled debut album. These gifted musicians were buddies with Sub Pop co-owner Jonathan Poneman, who issued the work on his label in 1993. With grunge still raging in the U.S., heads weren't quite ready to digest the lasciviously funky sonic roughage Pigeonhed were dropping.

"Because of the collision of their respective sensibilities, that first Pigeonhed record has a tension that makes it an engaging listen to this day," Poneman asserts. "Brilliant stuff. Furthermore, it was absolutely the first triphop record."

"We were pioneers," Smith claims. "[But I] gotta give props to the Beastie Boys for opening my eyes [with Check Your Head]. Steve's were already open."

Poneman faced some internal trepidation and external discouragement before green-lighting the innovative project. "I was a little scared of it at first," he remembers. "It was so different from anything else. But that also made it wildly compelling. I remember kind of sneaking it onto the schedule. But [because] Steve was involved—Shawn was still largely unknown—that more or less spared me from a mutiny [among Sub Pop employees]. It's good to have friends in high places."

An anomaly in Sub Pop's vast catalog, Pigeonhed is essentially a strange dance/romance album that's distinguished by Smith's hypersensual soul-man exhortations and Fisk's panoply of bizarre keyboard textures contoured together into supple seducers, which belong in the pantheon where Prince, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green preside. The funk here is extra thick and lubricious, and often laid-back to help you get laid... like much of the triphop that would emanate out of Bristol, England, and those early offerings on Mo' Wax and Ninja Tune. Listen to "Ain't It So" and "Trial by Sex" and try not to think of Jamie Lidell biting this steez more than a decade later. Throughout Pigeonhed, Smith ranges from Barry White rumble to fluttery Al Green falsetto with flamboyant ease, and Fisk keeps the libidinal tension at the boiling point. You can stuff your Afghan Whigs LPs; nothing in Sub Pop's history is sexier than Pigeonhed's debut full-length.

"I heard about all the fucking," Fisk responds when asked if Pigeonhed were attempting to score sexual conquests with their debut record. "Very cool, but we didn't plan it. Prince was a big influence on both records. The Beach Boys were not. The second CD [1997's The Full Sentence, which is like Pigeonhed's There's a Riot Goin' On or Sign o' the Times] was one of the last records recorded in Bad Animals Studio B, an authentic world-class 1970s studio. We had much help: Kim Thayil, Jerry Cantrell, Matt Chamberlain, Reggie Watts, Carrie Akre. [It was a] different process than the first record."

"I was smitten by a love that didn't love me back on the first record," Smith recalls. "On the second, she still didn't love me back, so I had to find some good in it. I had my muse and that's a beautiful thing."

Pigeonhed's two albums fuse silky R&B and gritty funk to eccentric electronic music with exuberant expressiveness. Amid the grunge explosion, the debut sounded like a true oddity—an unabashedly romantic and vulnerable yet unclich├ęd soul record that sprouted in a manly-man milieu of lumberjack rock. Surely, they must have felt like they were staking out singular territory in the Northwest with this sound.

"We never articulated what we intended to do," Fisk says. "It was very intuitive. Shawn and I had already worked together on some of his first solo music. Somewhere in there, the Steven Jesse Bernstein Prison record happened and Shawn liked what I did with break beats. We were neighbors in Lower Queen Anne.

"[Pigeonhed] was done at the height of the media grunge rape of Seattle," Fisk continues. "[We recorded it] in my space next to the old Cyclops on Western. I loved much of that music, but we never saw Pigeonhed as any kind of 'answer' to all of that. I think we were no more vulnerable than TAD."

"The Beastie Boys' Check Your Head was the jump-off point for me in terms of letting go and allowing Steve to be as freaky as he wanted soundwise, and then I put my pop sensibilities into the psycho soup," Smith says. "There was never a thought about the rock of Seattle at the time and where we fit in. It was being financed by Sub Pop, so we fit in somewhere."

While Pigeonhed have been dormant for 13 years, Fisk and Smith have maintained hectic careers. The former has become an in-demand producer (Low, Harvey Danger, Unwound, many others), developed into a vaunted solo artist (999 Levels of Undo is full of sui generis electronic music), played in Cut-Out, and, with Ben Gibbard, scored the soundtrack to Kurt Cobain: About a Son. Smith fronts the more conventional soul-rock outfits Satchel and Brad, and works as a solo artist and collaborator with several other area players in projects such as Fireside Gospel, Forever Breakers, and All Hail the Crown.

The good news for Pigeonhed fans, though, is that the duo have been working—sans outside help—on a third album, some of which they'll air at Thursday's Neumos gig. "It's maybe less abstract [than previous Pigeonhed releases], although there are a lot of strange details and weird signature sounds and textures," Fisk explains. "No wolves, angry dogs, or thunder. There are some ballads. Shawn did really elaborate vocal harmonies. It still sounds like us: heavy grooves, 110 bpm, vintage Arp synths."

One of the great ironies about Sub Pop Records is that the Lo-Fidelity Allstars' remix for "Battle Flag"—a track that met great resistance within the company—ended up keeping the label afloat after the track blew up on radio and in clubs, and was licensed in several movies. Poneman recounts, "I remember being lectured by a former employee who was quite adamant that our Pigeonhed remix record [1997's Flash Bulb Emergency Overflow Cavalcade of Remixes] was poseur folly. This perspective was built on saltier observations made by a then-popular local DJ who shall remain nameless. 'Battle Flag' was singled out for particular ridicule."

Ultimately, Pigeonhed were too ahead of their time to click with more people in the 1990s. Artists like Lidell and, to a lesser degree, Mayer Hawthorne have taken what Pigeonhed did to the bank. Perhaps the time is ripe for Pigeonhed to reap greater rewards now.

"If we were ahead of our time, then the time machine was broken," Fisk notes. "Postmodernism was eaten for breakfast in the '90s. If Pigeonhed's distillation of our influences was 'ahead' in any way, it's only because the 'future' turned out to be a dismal array of genre clowns. Thanks, iTunes!"

"Who the hell are Jamie Lidell and Mayer Hawthorne?" Smith asks. "Do they owe us money?" At the very least, Shawn.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Jack Johnson's "To The Sea" Produced by ROBERT CARRANZA Sets Sail At No. 1 On Billboard 200

Jack Johnson claims his third No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart as "To The Sea" debuts atop the tally with 243,000 copies sold according to Nielsen SoundScan. The album breaks an eight-week long streak of No. 1s selling less than 200,000 -- where five of those weeks were sub-100,000 frames.

Downloads made up 114,000 of "Sea's" first week -- nearly half of the set's overall figure. In terms of download units, it's the biggest week for an album since the week ending Jan. 31, when the digital-exclusive charity compilation "Hope For Haiti Now" set sold 143,000 downloads in its second week of release.

Read Billboard's Jack Johnson Cover Story

"To The Sea" also helps perk up the overall album market a bit. 5.16 million albums were sold in the past chart week (ending June 6) -- up 4% from the woefully low 4.98 million the week previous.

See All of 2010's No. 1 Albums

Johnson's last studio set, 2008's "Sleep Through the Static," arrived in the penthouse with 375,000 while his first No. 1 came with 2006's "Curious George" soundtrack. The latter bowed with 163,000 in February of that year. Overall, "To The Sea" is Johnson's fifth top 10 album. He previously reached the region with 2005's "In Between Dreams" (No. 2) and 2003's "On And On" (No. 3).

Last week's No. 1 album, "Glee: The Music, Volume 3: Showstoppers," slips to No. 3 with 45,000 (down 29%). Meanwhile, Justin Bieber's "My World 2.0" climbs one rung to No. 2 with 52,000 (up 4%). Nos. 4-6 are non-movers this week, as Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" is at No. 4 (41,000; down 12%), Usher's "Raymond v Raymond" is at No. 5 (35,000; down 2%) and Lady Gaga's "The Fame" is at No. 6 (33,000; up 6%). Carole King and James Taylor's "Live at the Troubadour" moves up two spots to No. 7 with 25,000 (down 4%).

After Johnson, the next-highest new entry on the chart belongs to Taio Cruz's debut album "Rokstarr," arriving at No. 8 with 24,000. The set's lead single, "Break Your Heart" (featuring Ludacris) hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in March and has sold over 2.2 million downloads according to SoundScan.

Speaking of downloads, over on the Hot Digital Songs chart this week, Cruz finds himself with two titles in the top 20. "Break Your Heart" falls from No. 10 to No. 11 with 109,000 (though with an increase of 2%) while "Dynamite" debuts at No. 13 with 83,000. The highest debut on the chart is Drake's "Miss Me" (featuring Lil Wayne) which enters at No. 8 with 128,000. The top three slots remain static, with Katy Perry's "California Gurls" holding at No. 1 (318,000; up 19%), B.o.B's "Airplanes" at No. 2 (248,000; up 5%) and Usher's "OMG" at No. 3 (226,000; down less than 1%).

Back on the Billboard 200 albums chart, Clay Aiken earns the third-highest arrival on the list this week with his debut album for Decca Records, "Tried & True." The covers album, which features the singer's take on such standards as "Mack the Knife" and "Moon River," enters at No. 9 with 22,000 copies sold. "Tried" is Aiken's fifth top 10 set and first since departing RCA Records. Aiken's last studio release, "On My Way Here," opened at No. 4 with 94,000 in 2008.

Rounding out the top 10 is Ke$ha, who rebounds up seven slots to No. 10 with "Animal," selling 20,000 (up 5%).

Overall album sales in this past chart week (ending June 6) totaled 5.16 million units, up 4% compared to the sum last week (4.98 million) and down 19% compared to the comparable sales week of 2009 (6.39 million). Year to date album sales stand at 130.6 million, down 11% compared to the same total at this point last year (146.6 million).

Digital track sales this past week totaled 22.6 million downloads, up/down 4% compared to last week (21.7 million) and up 8% compared to the comparable week of 2009 (20.9 million). Year to date track sales are at 510.6 million, up less than 1% compared to the same total at this point last year (509.6 million).