Friday, September 07, 2007

The following interview was conducted in Bill Taft’s basement in the latter part of 2006. I’m not exactly sure when this happened, but we did the interview because I was fishing for ideas to use when writing the liner notes to go inside the Superlocalhellfreakride CD.

Chad Radford: You’ve described Superlocalhellfreakride in terms of it being like a tour of Atlanta. Can you tell me more about this?

Bill Taft: I’ve always been interested in prison literature and the idea of escape. I always liked stories about tunneling out of the Nazi prison camps when I was in middle school. Then the idea of being stuck in a neighborhood, or in a sense that I have to stay in one town as a dad, I saw my neighborhood, in some sense as being like a prison. So I thought ‘how do I tunnel out?’ And I got the idea to explore my prison, rather than just complain about it.

But also, Thoreau had his pond, and I have this city. And there’s that movie Il Postino. It’s about a guy, who wants to be a poet, but he doesn’t know how and he meets Pablo Neuruda. The guy who wants to be a poet takes Pablo’s advice and explores his own town. It’s very powerful the way he did that, so I thought there’s a way to explore my own small part of the world and discover that it is just as complex as the world itself.

So you’ve done a tour of Atlanta?

Yes, that’s the idea, to find strange or interesting places around town to play. It’s an on-going process. Places with interesting sounds, ambiance, fingerprints. I don’t know what the right term is, but some places sound better than others and the environment will affect you in subtle ways and that becomes a big part of the recording process, or the tour. When I was able to leave town on a whim, Kelly and I toured all over the country with the Jody Grind, having a great time playing music. And Smoke traveled around the country, too. We went to Texas, Seattle, New York lots of times. I also really love the idea of Lewis and Clark exploring, so the idea of going to record in the “Faster Moustache” building [R.I.P.] on Memorial is like touring. You have to pack stuff up and take supplies with you. Like a tour it gives you a transcendent experience. You rise above the mundane, and it’s very important to do that.

Did you have a Neruda-like character in your life who taught you to do this?

No, but I did read a couple of anthologies of prison literature and the idea was always that you have to find a way to write. So as a musician I have to find a way to record. And then I learned how a mini-disc recorder worked. I thought this is amazing, much better than a cassette because it’s easier to track. The mini-disc recorder became a big part of the tour. Because then we could go to a place, explore and document the results and easily organize it and archive it.

Would you describe Superlocalhellfreakride as a concept album? It is conceptual, but it’s not like The Wall or Tommy or something in the sense that there’s a story at work and repeating musical phrases and those sorts of thing…

I think the story is the process itself. The individual pieces don’t connect. What connects it all together is the process through which they were recorded. The tour idea. Field recordings.

This was all recorded with just one microphone?

Yes, well actually two microphones. Stereo mics. My original minidisk recorder just had one mic but I replaced that with a stereo mic system. It uses two little condenser mics. The philosophy is the same.

Does this come out of the idea for an album that you once told me about, called A Town Called Malice?

Oh, hey that’s a song by the Jam, “A Town Called Malice.” I first saw it scrawled in black sharpie in the Krog St. tunnel. I thought wow. That’s brilliant, like I’d discovered something. “A Town Called Malice.” I kept trying to figure it out. I’d ask people if they’d ever heard of it and no one did. Later on, at a show somewhere, this girl told me it was a Jam song and I got instantly depressed because it was no longer mysterious. I’m keeping the idea it inspired but I’m gonna have to lose the title.

Tell me about the idea it inspired?

I want to get people to write stories about a town, like an imagined history of a place. It’s not hoax and it’s not fraud, more like a surreal history of areas in the city. Things that happened there or they feel like they happened there. Historical impressionism. Is there such a thing?

Do you mean like the mutant mill boar that stalks the abandoned Whitier Mill that you talk about on your blog (

Right, when I wrote the story to tell people about the mutant mill boar that would be an example of historical impressionism.

Was there really ever a mutant mill boar?

No. I felt that there really could have been a mutant mill boar at one time.

Recently I’ve overheard people comparing Hubcap City to Smoke, which is a little strange to me. HC is the logical equivalent of Smoke, but the music is totally different. Smoke, to me, was very much rooted in this sort of outsider aesthetic. Even the documentary has the slug line “What is the sound of queer Southern blues?” The visual representation of the group seems kind of freakish, but when you listen to the music it’s very straight forward. Even the documentary seems to say, never mind Benjamin’s freakish presence, this guy is a great, honest-to-goodness songwriter. There are a few songs, like “Curtains” that contain the seed of Hubcap City, but one of the most unsettling things about the music was how straight forward and normal it was trying to be. Hubcap City is not like that. It is very experimental and the group embraces the noise aesthetic and the weirdo aesthetic. When I listen to HC I can hear Smoke, especially in your horn playing. It gives an uplifting counterpart to the more brooding elements of the music. Have you considered this?

I’ve always liked improvisation, noise, jazz, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor. I’ve always liked that kind of music and no one in Smoke did really. It was always kind of a rock group, like the Beastie Boys or something. Whereas in Hubcap City we are less into the Beastie Boys and more into the kind of music you would hear at Eyedrum, so the group takes it into more of that direction.

Do mean that Smoke was more rooted in pop culture?

No, I think both groups are rooted in pop culture, at least enough to rebel against it. Both groups took a lot of inspiration from the Destroy All Music festivals. Benjamin was a big part of Destroy All Music. But in Smoke, Ben was really interested in song form, he was always talking about Kris Kristofferson and Vic Chestnut so we kinda all needed to tighten up the sound to give him what he needed.

Tell me about the Destroy All Music festival era of the late ‘80s in Atlanta and how it affected Hubcap City.

The Destroy All Music festivals were a big deal for me. I got to see people redefining the nature of music, songs and performance. It was all kinds of noise. Sometimes it was a guy with a contact mic glued to a metal pipe. He ran the mic through an amp and it was loud and everyone left the room. Other times it was acoustic but not in a folkie way.

The big revelation for me was that a lot of the performers were from Atlanta. They were doing incredible things and they weren't from New York or LA or Berlin or Moscow. This got me thinking about what I could do, too. Like it wasn't hopeless to play music if you didn't know famous people or live in the East Village and spend your nights hanging out at shows there.

Medicine Suite and whatever Tracy Terril was doing were the big performers for me. They always tapped into this deep, primitive wail, and they had songs with lots of words. Plus, they rolled around on the floor and played a fur-covered guitar and sometimes made their own instruments like a plank of wood with pot lids bolted to it.

The DAM festivals created a definition of music that Hubcap City has always believed in and followed and tried to keep going--mixing in to it other stuff we've picked up over the years.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Digging Deep: Buying Records with Gentleman Jesse

Few people can rattle off such a staggering knowledge of rock and punk minutiae as easily as Jesse Smith. Pull any scratched-up record out of the dollar bin and he can tell you something about the producer or the drummer’s other band. For Smith, it’s more than a hobby, it’s a lifestyle choice; one that’s underscored when he explains that his record collection is filed by race, genre and soon by decade.

Weaving through traffic on I-75 North, heading to Circle Sky Records the guitarist for Atlanta punk band Carbonas, and the charismatic frontman of his own group, Gentleman Jesse & His Men fumbles to switch off his cell phone after reading an incoming text message. He laughs as he explains that he uses Metallica as the benchmark by which he compares most bands: [e.g. Fugazi’s Red Medicine is the equivalent of …And Justice for All. 13 Songs is their Kill ‘em All and In on the Kill Taker is Master of Puppets].

His opinions are sound, but never about anything too serious. A good example of this comes to light when he explains that bands should not be allowed to wear shorts on stage. "You're not in your living room and you're not up there for comfort," he says. "When you are performing for an audience, you owe them a certain amount of respect. Shorts don't convey that respect." He goes on to recall watching Pearl Jam perform on televion a decade ago and seeing Eddie Vedor wearing sweat pants. "It was a huge problem in the '90s."

A week before this record shopping excursion, Smith approached me at Criminal Records in Little 5 Points as I studied a dated and awkward album cover by Belgian punk band Hubble Bubble. “That record is essential,” he declared. “It’s noisy, and they think they’re being space-aged and it sounds like they’re playing broken guitars… It’s awesome, and Plastic Bertrand was their drummer. You know who that is?” Of course not, but I grunted a dismissive “uh huh…” while making a mental note to type him into Wikipedia that night.

Later at Wax and Facts he stuck two more LPs in my hand, Baroque Hoedown and Sixteen Tambourines by the Three O’clock. “These are their first two records, and if you don’t have them you really should. It’s great psychedelic punk…” He was right.

Over the years Smith’s shopping habits have left a mark on his own musical output. His early bands Some Soviet Station and Paper Lions bore the agonizing marks of the post-hardcore and emotionally charged climate of the late ‘90s. His recent trad. punk guitar sneer in Carbonas, and the power pop chug of Gentleman Jesse & His Men reflect the time spent making sense of the records he buys, while shaping his own sounds.

When did you graduate from high school?

It was ‘98. Because I was underage, I couldn’t see the shows I wanted see. The easiest thing was to go to house shows at places like I Defy and the Driver Dome. Back then the scene in Atlanta was straight edge and vegan. It didn’t last long because it wasn’t any fun. But that’s how I got to see music.

That scene influenced your early bands, Some Soviet Station and Paper Lions.

I was a record collector even then, so I started off buying Drive Like Jehu records, which was an obvious influence. Then I figured out the DC hardcore thing. I had a little bit of an edge over people because of record collecting, as far as influences on my band. But I remember like in ’98 I thought I should check out MC5. I like rock music and didn’t want to play beat your chest emo just to get laid, like a lot of people did.

Gentleman Jesse and Carbonas are very different from your previous bands.

There was a clear point in my life where I said ‘I am changing my ideals.’ I had spent so much time in bands saying ‘I am not going to put any boundaries on what I can do musically.’ Things have to be natural and real.

I always find you in bands that have a lot of steam, like Paper Lions and Carbonas.

Paper Lions was awful. It was democracy failing. I was really into the Birthday Party and avant-garde punk and was trying not to rip anybody off and just make music that pulled from influences. At the time there was a real shitty hipster garage rock thing going on and there were guys in the band who thought, ‘we can do that.’ Our publishing money was split four-ways. Four people writing a song are too many. We wanted to do something that was cool and Mission of Burma-influenced, but it got whittled down to something boring with every song. I could go back and fix that band if everybody would just listen to me, but that will never happen and I don’t care too much. I’m doing fine now.

Then you joined Carbonas?

They overlapped by a year. I would get made fun of by the bands we played with. People would say ‘you’re in that shitty indie rock band..?’ But the best tours I have ever been on, the ones where people are fans and are there for the music were with Carbonas. I toured for 7 months with Paper Lions and people liked us less every time we came through town.

It’s probably cathartic to play with Carbonas after Paper Lions.

At first I had this hang up: you can’t make punk rock in modern times. It just isn’t real. But I found myself going to see Carbonas every week and buying the records and thinking they were great. No one else thought so at the time, maybe the same 20 kids that I saw at every show.

But they’re pretty big now?

Not in Atlanta. They’re respected mostly because of some sort of Black Lips trickle down. The Black Lips and Carbonas used to be the tightest thing in the world. The first Black Lips tours were with Carbonas.

We finish shopping, eyeball each other over an Arthur Lee 45, and after Jesse debates whether or not to plunk down $25 for Sam Cook’s Hits of the ‘50s, he decides to pass. We make our purchases and leave.

Records bought:
Pussy Galore Live: in the Red
The Subsonics A Lot to Forget
Arthur Lee “Sad Song” b/w “You Want Change For Your Re-Run” 45.

Next stop, The Book Nook on Cleremont Rd.

You have been playing music in Atlanta for a long time, and recently a lot of bands in Atlanta have become wildly popular. Has this affected you?

Playing better music has helped. I go on tour and people like my band?

Is it based on the band’s merits or is it because you’re from Atlanta and associated with so much other stuff right now?

I would like to think that it’s because of the band’s merits. When I first joined Carbonas we couldn’t get anyone to put out our LP. So we put out the single and pressed only 200 copies. It sold out very quickly and we got on the cover of Maximum Rock & Roll. It was pretty remarkable.

But has Gentleman Jesse benefited from that?

We put on the Gentleman Jesse “I don’t Wanna Know” single “members of Carbonas doing power pop” and we sold out of 500 copies in three months.

You’re a big fan or Nick Lowe. I’ve written about Gentleman Jesse and compared you to things like Lowe, Joe Jackson, Rick Springfield…

You can take Rick Springfield off of your list. That guy ruined my life. He wrote a song, called “Jesse’s girl.” I hate that fucking guy.

As the shopping winds down we compare our scores at The Book Nook. He is cradling a copy of ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres and I am holding a pristine copy of the soundtrack to Decline of the Western Civilization Pt. 1. We both eyeball each other again, this time as if to ask, “don’t you already have that?” Truth be told, I’m not sure if I do or not, but I might as well pick it up.

How do you feel about it when people say “Gentleman Jesse wears his influences on his sleeve?”

I do! It feels good… I was asked to join Carbonas I thought wait a second. It’s not okay to play punk rock in a modern setting, and it’s not okay to sound like Gang of Four, but why? Everything has been done? What’s the alternative, start a noise band? That’s been done. The best thing you can do is put your influences together and put your touch on them. If it sounds like I’m doing a great rip off and people like it, awesome. If it seems like my influences are obvious, it’s probably not as obvious as you think, which goes back to record collecting and trying to find the most obscure bullshit in the world. The obvious ones are obvious. Nick Lowe, I love him. But there are a lot more that people would never recognize. Guided by Voices, just from the low- fi angle and a lot of ‘60s worship, and Beatlemania. Good power pop bands from the ‘70s like the Nerves were so good because they weren’t trying to be a power pop band. They were trying to be the Beatles. You need to listen to the first couple of Beatles records and try to pull that off. That’s way more important than trying to sound like some band from the ‘70s that had skinny ties, but not great hooks and memorable songs. I realize this because I have played shows around the country and heard people singing my song back at me… I’m just trying to be the Beatles.

Top Photo by Laura Hull
Words and bottom photo by Chad Radford

Abe Vigoda at The Drunken Unicorn, Atlanta, GA. Sunday, July 7. 2007.