Sunday 10 February 2008

Philip B Price-The Maggies Winterpills

I remember thinking, the first time I heard, A Different Sun, the dazzling opening track of The Maggies first CD release Homesick, with its swirling star bright melodies, its dynamic warm musicianship, the golden honeyed voice of Philip Price, that if the rest of this album is as good as this then I was going to love this record till the end of my days. And yes the rest was every bit as great as I could have possibly hoped. The type of album you can play from top to tail and then play again straight after. Brilliant heartfelt songs, packed with emotive majesty, wrapped in melodies of such beauty…my god what an album. And then two more albums followed, both equally wonderful. I remember contacting Philip at the time, trying for an interview, not realising that even as I did so The Maggies were already gone. A package arrived at my door, containing nothing but his two solo albums. I recall the slight trepidation that while he had the voice and the songs that maybe it was the Maggies that had brought the sheer quality of the musicianship to the table and without them…..but I need not have worried because the two albums are equal to what had come before. I wrote Philip back, sent questions, but sensed that he wasn’t quite ready to talk….yet. So I left it alone, not forgotten but pending...Then the first Winterpills album appeared, another pearl in an unbroken chain of perfect albums, and two compilations of pre-Maggies songs, Feet Wet, that continued the joy. And now the brilliant new Winterpills album The Light Divides is upon us and everything falls into place finally. This time Philip was prepared to not just talk but open up his memories for the first time and take us through the story of his life long love affair of creating music. He generously put in many evening of graft and thought in preparation for this exhaustive (and for him exhausting) article and the finished piece as good as it is long. But enough of me, this is Philip’s tale and I’m taking a back seat from now and leaving the talking to the man in question.

A Preamble Of Sorts

Winterpills has been the vehicle by which my songs have received the most attention by far. I feel like I want to get that clear from the beginning -- no other outlet for my songs has been even remotely as successful as this one. So, the response has been wonderful, vindicating. I didn't really know how to explain to people in interviews that I had been making music for so long, from the late 80s on into the 2000s, so completely under the radar that i could not even get the attention of the most modest indie labels, until this one point. So I left it all out. I was a baby, a newcomer, we all were, even though Dave Hower had toured for years with the Neilds. I read reviews that referred to us as a 'freshman" band, writing about the realities of life as they hit you once you leave college, that the album was about the bittersweet fading of first loves. I laugh and shrug. I still leave it all out. Music is of the moment. Who cares about the history of the musician? My friend, the writer Jonathan Lethem (who wrote an exclusive short story for the cover of the last Maggies’ record) was once reflecting a touch of envy at how, as a musician, I got to recreate my art anew every single night I played. While as an author his epiphanal moments of creation occurred months or years before, while alone. And also the reader experiences their own communion with the art by themselves -alone as well. Where as a musician I get to, in a sense, remake the art every time i played it, and have the interaction with the audience on the spot, in the moment. I suppose this revelation applies to a music career as well. The music is as timeless or useless, as it is when you hear it and the history is irrelevant.

The Beginnings
I was a music nerd from infancy. For the longest time my parents had a huge mono hi-fi in the living room - one big speaker, with a turntable on top, and a radio tuned to WFUV out of NYC. I couldn't count how many hours were spent sitting on the orange rug in front of that one big speaker, listening repeatedly to the Beatles, David Bowie, Bee Gees, Doors, Ultimate Spinach, the Kinks, Bob Dylan, Claudine Longet, Herb Alpert and the Tiajuana Brass, Leonard Cohen, Jethro Tull, Al Green, Elton John, the Byrds -- pretty much all of the '60s and '70s pop heroes and villains. I was a tiny little sponge, and that music completely defined what a song was to me for the rest of my life, though my assumptions would be happily challenged over and over again in my high school and college years by punk rock, new wave, 80s and 90s power pop, and the perpetual re-discovery of musics I thought I'd grown accustomed to or for some reason had ignored completely. When I was about 7, I had a fantasy band called The Shandaleers. Though I would not pick up a guitar or touch a keyboard for some time yet, I spent many hours drawing pictures of my fictional band, which was very much in the mold of the Beatles, Kinks and Monkees -- bowl haircuts, matching suits. But their the music was unformed in my mind -- it was the idea of a band that intrigued me. There were drawings of the tour van, the logo, the various costume changes. Was I more effected by band marketing concepts than by the music itself? It was inseparable to me.

I began guitar lessons around age 8. The teacher, who in my memory resembles some wall street executive in suit and large black glasses and a crew cut, was very frustrated with me and expelled me from his class because I would never practice. I recall one painful afternoon where once he found I had not practiced at all, he called my mother to come pick me up. I had to wait for her uncomfortably with him in the room, scowling at me, trying to teach me a lesson about what was and what was not allowed. All i wanted to do was go home. I did feel humiliated, but I didn't ultimately care at all. I thought he was a jerk. I didn't touch a guitar for a couple more years -- then, in rural Vermont, a woman named Stanley Tayler began teaching me basic folk guitar songs, chords, and phrasings. Stanley was a treasure, a living encyclopedia of folk songforms, and I didn't really understand what a treasure she was until years later, but I loved her and she was immensely patient and encouraging to me. Whatever confidence I had lost before came back, and I loved playing the songs she taught me: Tell Old Bill, the Black Fly song, many more.
Then i discovered the piano. The family had moved to Los Angeles (dad was in the movie business) and they had bought a white baby grand. We'd had a beat-up spinnet before but it never captured my imagination. I figured out that I could learn any song on a piano pretty easily, and I set out to do so -- the new stereo and the new piano were side by side the in living room, and I would go from record player to piano and back again, figuring out chords to the catalog of artists that defined music to me at the time. I learned whole songbooks by heart. I was no prodigy -- my interpretations were ham-handed, clumsy, my voice squeaked prepubescently -- but I really got off on it. My mom paid for piano lessons. I had a similar reaction from the teacher -- why do you never practice what I give you? -- but he was impressed by the little instrumental compositions I would bring in and encouraged me. 'you don't need lessons,' he said. 'just go play.' he was a goddamned hippie.
I began writing songs around age 15. They were so awful its hard to describe them. Huge prog-rock-sci-fi extravaganzas that meandered for upwards of 15 minutes each, followed by a 'jam.' I wasn't into the 3 chords, 3 minute pop song at this point -- I was trying to make a statement. It was a nightmare.
But I wrote one song in my teens that in later years I realized was the moment when I understood that I could actually put a song together to reasonably exciting affect. It was titled "Lovely Liquid Crystal Eyes". The melody still hums pleasantly in my ears. The lyrics I would not subject any person to that I was trying to impress.
I was unlike so many other fellow musicians in that I never had a rock band in my teens. It never even occurred to me. I never had the confidence. the only group effort in music I was involved in was Madrigals in my high school, where i shared lead tenor chores with Forest Whitaker, who had a beautiful voice.
Music never became truly central for me until my late 20s. I was distracted - and still am - by writing, filmmaking, poetry, visual arts. I took many years off to study painting. I then tried to become a screenwriter. In my teens, I wanted to be a filmmaker, and had taken over the family garage and turned it into a movie studio, a special-effects lab, full of handmade spaceship models, sets, lighting. my camera was stolen at some point and being a filmmaker slowly disappeared from my priorities; I never quite recovered from the setback.
But during all this I never stopped writing songs. It was really a hobby, or an artform, that I felt no pressure to excel in -- not yet, at least. When my other efforts in writing and painting became too self-conscious, too weighted down by expectation, my idiotic songs were always waiting for me. They flowed out of me easily, I never became fraught with worry about their quality or what genre they existed in, or what inspired them. Music was a lazy escape. I could be lazy and creative at the same time. I had no work ethic attached to music, and as far as writing songs is concerned, I still don't.
In college, I went through a very intense british and canadian folk obsession (that somehow omitted Nick Drake -- he came later) that wielded a lot of very formal-sounding folksongs from my guitar and pen -- with very bad pseudo-elizabethan lyrics, and tales of maritime adventures that I never had or even could imagine with any conviction. I recall Pentangle being a big influence during that time, as well as Gordon Bok and Stan Rogers. This all was flowing alongside my amassing heaps of horrible landscape painting. I was living in my own version of 18th century British country life with a dose of Walt Whitman thrown in. I ignored the 20th century. photos from me from this period show a long haired youth wearing a shockingly blousy shirt, a throwaway from a renaissance faire, and gazing longingly into some middle distance.
That all went to hell with the year I spent in NYC. I very quickly transformed into a lover of punk rock, new wave. I could be found at the Peppermint Lounge in front, moshing to the Minutemen, or the Meat Puppets, finding my way to a peak-period Talking Heads or B52's show, writing my name on the wall of CBGB's. I was studying art downtown during the day, painting & drinking late into the night, absorbing '80s NYC culture --and then finding time to sit down and still crank out 'folk' songs, which had suddenly mutated into something quite different, much artier in a grittier way -- more 'truthful'. I daresay the songs from that time, for a brief period, became closest to what I would consider my truer voice. My girlfriend had dumped me for my best friend, and I was mourning it by spending a year away in NYC. The songs reflected emotional reality for once.
I should add that at no point during any of this time was I performing anywhere, nor even remotely considering a career in music. it was something I did on the side, completely privately, while my 'true' ambitions were exercised on a larger, more public stage. music was just for me. I would play for people sometimes, and yes, there had been some kind of a show or two at the college pub, but I did not let it consume me.I was a painter at this point. Period.

When I went back to school, my perspective had changed. I was still studying painting, but I began writing songs that felt and seemed much different -- I felt the ecstasy of influence overtake my efforts.I had played earlier with recording on tape, playing it back through speakers and playing along, taping again, creating extremely hissy multitrack recordings, and I took it up again, in my off campus house, setting up a de-facto studio. the next year or so was spent creating piles of songs via tape collage. I still have these somewhere. Then I met Antony Widoff at college. Tony was, and still is, extremely precocious in the electronic music world, and at the time he was studying with Joel Chadabe, who had created some of the first midi multitracking pieces of software. Tony liked my songs and offered to help me flesh them out. I ended up over the next year spending a lot of time up in the electronic music studios at Bennington, with a Fairlight and that software, and Tony's know-how. (Tony later went on to do all kinds of programming work for U2, David Bowie and others, for their live shows.)
College ended. I had a degree in painting and printmaking, which I shelved. Music began to overtake me, although it was competing with writing. why not both? I proceeded. Tony and I had formed what would become my first band at college, one of these 80s 'drum machine' bands: variously called Zpam Delila, Big As A Hut, The Fold, or Tired Ed and the Hinges, we would perform at the college coffee houses with Tony on keyboards and programmed drums, his brother Adam on guitar, and myself on guitar and lead vocals. Songs performed would be originals and covers by such diverse bands as Japan, the Minutemen, Fred Frith, and Talking Heads. Nobody paid any attention. I did not care.
But now, out of college and after a break of about a year, Tony and wanted to regroup and create a real band. I had moved out to San Francisco with my new wife and infant daughter, and while earning money landscaping and working in a book warehouse, I was writing tons of songs, much of which would become the foundation material for the band. I had finally purchased a real 4-track tape machine, and the writing was flowing. Memorial Garage was about to be formed.
Memorial Garden

Our main influences were Gang of Four, Roxy Music, Talking Heads, XTC, the Beatles, Wire, PiL angular, somewhat dissonant, 'nervous' vocals, 'nervous' lyrics...there was a artificiality to the band that was kind of hyper-self-aware and intentional, but we still had a rawness, partially offset by Adam's very slick guitar work (Adam later went to be Lenny Kravitz's guitarist, and beyond that, Toshi Regon's). There's no question that Memorial Garage was very much a band of its time, and my frustrations with it had much to do with the self imposed constraints of creating a music that was by turns deliberately dissonant, confrontational, punk, and yet still satisfy my unrecognized needs to create harmony, traditional songform, and beauty, whatever that means. my relationship with Tony was a kind of microcosm of this dilemma, as his music was very cerebral. Tony wanted to push boundaries. I was fine with that, but I think I acknowledged, perhaps cynically, that there were no more to push, really -- I felt in rock and pop there was nothing new under the sun. i still feel that way. so, why not write from a different place and ignore the idea of pushing the form? If the form was going to be pushed by what I was doing then it would present itself as its own opportunity.

Memorial Garage recorded two albums ("Memorial Garage" and "Mootland") before dissolving. Much of our repertoire was never recorded, but there are live tapes with everything we did on it, badly recorded.

One thing that begs to be mentioned in here is that aside from a friendly correspondence with a couple of fans in the music business, there wasn't the slightest inkling of attention from the industry. The band itself was fairly decidedly anti-commercial, even having something of a manifesto that included stark comparisons between the band and U2 ("U2 works hard at creating anthemic, inspirational music. Memorial Garage needs the extra sleep.") I think even if someone in the business had offered us a contract, we would have had no idea what to do with it and it may well have broken up the band just thinking about it. Instead the band broke up because one member decided that music was idiotic.

Feet Wet

Feet Wet was and is closer to what I surmise is my natural voice. By the time Memorial Garage had ended (1989) I was feeling an urge to return to something, but I wasn't sure what I would be returning to. To quote Philip Guston, I think I was craving "less 'art' and more nourishment." At this point in my music 'career' I had been a Brit invasion devotee, prog-rock nerd, a folk-waif, a punk rocker, a new waver, an art-rocker, and without knowing it what I probably wanted to be was something (the term anyway - the reality was old hat) that hadn't quite been coined yet, which was the omnivorous "indie-rock singer/songwriter" -- or, emo kid.
Feet Wet was born from a desire to detach from the band concept but remain hidden, and bare more. abandoned were the hysterical dada lyrics, the overarching paranoia. In came sincerity and attempts at a mundane poetry. In came acoustic guitars and simple drum machine patterns. in came my enormous debt to R.E.M. and the Beatles, and Leonard Cohen, finally acknowledged.
I need to mention a short-lived project that bridged the gap between Memorial Garage and Feet Wet: The Bobbins. this unfortunately-named project was formed when a gentleman bass player named Michael Nuziata (who later managed The Rooks) heard untapped harmonic potential in Memorial Garage and approached me to offer his bass-playing services and those of a drummer friend, to bring out the Beatles in me. We spent a summer and fall rehearsing new songs of mine and some co-penned with Nuziata, at Jerry Marotta's studio (Marotta was fairly fresh out of Peter Gabriel's band and was all over the new Elvis Costello album that I was obsessing over the time, "Spike", so I felt in the presence of royalty), and eventually cut a 4-song demo called "Weatherless", which featured Marotta on drums and lot of belabored over-production. I think I have some copies of it somewhere. The band was somewhat stillborn, but it was a good experience to play in a band where those kind of artless but pretty harmonic impulses could be cut loose.

In retrospect I think its clear to me now that the general subject of all of the albums was my divorce and subsequent struggle to raise my two daughters as protected from that hailstorm as possible, to be frank. The first one was "Goodbye Bambi Manor". The cover art was a degraded image of the burned-out carcass of a hotel near where I lived that had been called "Bambi Manor". It has burned down years before and no one ever claimed the land (eventually they did) but for the longest time it just stood there. It somehow came to represent a loss of innocence to me. The songs had flooded out over the course of a nightmarish winter, and I recorded it all on my Fostex X-15, which accounts for the atrocious sound quality of that one. Later that year I moved to a new town in New England, closer to my family, and a family friend died, leaving me a small inheritance. With that money I purchased much improved recording gear and embarked on a fevered 3-4 year writing spree that produced the Feet Wet material.
Next was "True Moisture" recorded on the new gear at a new residence, and with a slightly more optimistic timbre. Then, "E", which might be a personal favorite of mine in its spareness and bleakness (and featured a cover of a Mark Mulcahy song, "And Then..?" Mark is now a friend). After this came "Tender Skelter", which bore the first fruits of some of my collaborations with author Jonathan Lethem (with the song "I'm Not Finished Yet"), who had been a college friend. "Tender Skelter" was also the first time I experimented with harmonizing with a female singer, this time in the form of Smoky Thoreau (nee Claudia Friedlander). To touch on the technical, all these albums were self-engineered and produced, and duplicated on cassette with handmade artwork. I never played out. There were no websites yet, only a number of regional record stores that dared stock the stuff. It was art in a vacuum, as usual.
This last album drew the attention of a San Francisco-based independent label (Top Records), and a friendly correspondence began with the owner, Vann Hall, whose own label was languishing but he wanted to shop me around. So he paid to duplicate more tapes and began an earnest attempt to get me heard. This was all new to me and very exciting. I felt I had arrived, and that fame and success were around the corner, but of course I would have been utterly unprepared for them had they arrived (they did not). This was in the impatient lull before Nirvana. Vannl did his best, but no one said anything more than that they liked the songs.
A comment on my singing at this point: not so good. Still a bit too self-consciously post-punk. The recordings suffer from my own DIY aesthetic of "first takes are always the best" and a little too much leaving-in of mistakes.

Next album was "Show & Tell", which featured 2 more Price/Lethem collaborations ("Girl In Landscape" and Vaster Than Charlotte") and a bunch of other songs. It was a solid piece of work. A highlight is the epic ode to Philip Guston titled "Mr. Goldstein (It Isn't Enough)". A low point is my anti-war anthem, "War Is Shame". Points for a heartfelt attempt, however, I suppose.After "Show & Tell" came the 'double-album' of "Roped", which was kind of designed to be my final word on the whole Feet Wet thing. Side one was all rock, side two was all acoustic.

The Maggies

We formed in 1993, when a fresh-faced young college student named Max Germer approached me. He had heard "Roped" (the last Feet Wet album, #7) and asked would I like to form a band with him and play these songs? He brought with him drummer Rich Dart and singer/guitarist Julie Keller. We began rehearsals in Max's parents’ basement. We gelled immediately: rough around the edges but we had something right away, we all felt it.
It was around this time that I began to feel that music was actually something i wanted to pursue as a career. Amazingly, this possibility had never quite formed in my mind until this point. I was still expecting the points on the compass to line-up in another direction. But this band became the turning point. And I was not getting any younger. Haste!

About 2 weeks after we started we had our first gig at a high school (under the name Tulip, which lasted only about 3 months) and went over very big with the teen crowd. Nirvana and other indie-punk bands were breaking and there was a palpable feeling that anything was possible and the world was our oyster. I had been in such an isolated, cynical state when Max first approached me. I had been married, had two children, and then been through a devastating divorce, so my innocence was truly wearing off. Suddenly i felt like another childhood was upon me. I have fond memories of that first spring the band existed. I was writing furiously for the band and regionally we had become well known rather fast.

We had opened shows for the Lemonheads, Firehose, and Live, and it really seemed like something was going to happen. We quickly recorded our first seven song EP, and changed our name to The Maggies after we were theatened legally by some other Tulip-named band. Then we got even more ambitious and in that first year recorded two full-length albums, "No Footprints In Heaven" and "Misinterpreted".

All these on cassette-only, sold off the stage or in local record shops, all self-duplicated at home. It would be later that we would become a powerpop band, working hard to associate ourselves with the likes of the Posies, Teenage Fanclub or Big Star. Our sound at that time bore much more allegiance to bands like Throwing Muses, Belly, and the Pixies, angular and surreal, yet emotionally raw and deeply dependent on vocal harmony and melody to put it across

So, a busy year. Then, both Rich and Julie left the band. Max and I were left shakily alone, but we had a desire to press on as quickly as possible. We assembled a defacto version of the band simply to record another EP, something to keep the momentum going until we got permanent replacements. This line up made our one foray into vinyl, "Dance For Daddy", with 2 songs on each side. Barely rehearsed, and the material was iffy, but the EP has its charm. I still have a big box of these damn things in my closet.
Summer of 1994, and Max and I held drummer auditions. Stuart Wright had just left the Dambuilders (from Boston, MA) and was living in Brattleboro, VT. We tapped him -- he had seen the previous line-up play up there, and he liked us. He was the only person who auditioned, and his huge, precise drumming style won us over immediately. Thus began the "three piece" period of the band, and our true introduction to what was to our eyes the elite and coveted Northampton, MA music scene, one hour away.

From Keene, NH, Northampton looked like Mecca -- birthplace of Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, the Pixies, Buffalo Tom -- pretty much all the albums we were listening to at the time. To gain entry, we imagined, would be hard -- we would be viewed as crackers from up north -- but we managed to get gigs at the fabled Baystate Hotel, the Brewery, without too much bribery. Suddenly Northampton started to look like any other town with a struggling music scene, with as much nepotism, talent, hype and drunken bullshit as anywhere.

The line-up was strong and productive and began to garner press. With seasoned vet Stuart in the band, we felt much better poised for some kind of success than before. No longer three college kids and a divorced dad, we were now just three men of varied age with a common goal: the toppermost of the poppermost. We recorded three albums between 1994-1996, "Brittle", "Experimental Cinema" and "Summer's Gone". Again tape-only, self-produced and engineered on 4-track with homemade art. Then Adrian O'Carolan joined the band and we figured it was time to make an actual proper CD.

Jon Lupfer of Q Division in Boston, MA (along with Mike Deneen engineer and producer of such acts as Aimee Mann, Jen Trynin, Tracy Bonham, insert more later…) produced and mixed "Homesick", the first 'real' album. He had a friend in the Northampton area and was visiting and ended up at a show of ours. He expressed interest in working with us in some way, and this friendly connection has remained in place to this day. We took him up when it came time to do "Homesick". Basic tracks were recorded at Q and then carted home onto ADATS to do extra tracking in our basement rehearsal space. Then back to Boston for tweaks and mixing. The album came out to huge local acclaim – it seemed certain we had made an impact onf the local music scene. But this didn’t translate to the world at large.

The Maggies barely ever toured. We had no publicists, managers, booking agents or record labels helping us out in any way, until the very end of the band's life. Although we were productive and ambitious, it was ultimately a deeply frustrating venture in that it seemed there was an endless series of near misses for the band. It was not for lack of trying, I assure you. Again, it seemed we laboured in a vacuum almost for its entire existence. Would it have helped had we moved to NYC, or Los Angeles, or Nashville, or London? Possibly. Maybe. Maybe not. It was not really an option, as i needed to be near my family, my kids. This was a huge factor, if not the core factor, of our inability to get on the road for any extended period of time. Balancing family and a creative life was a serious endeavor, and I would never compromise my kids health and happiness for the satisfaction of a succcessful music, but I somehow felt I could find a way to do both, even if it meant waiting a long time or some other middle ground.


There was a long gap between Homesick and the next album, Cryptic Valentine. Homesick came out in 1997; CV in 2000. The main reason I imagine was an attenpt to avoid any sophomore slump, but also I had a desire to be much more ambitious with this one. Whatever I felt I hadn’t achieved with Homesick I was going to do with CV. Dave Chalfant (later egineer of Winterpills) was hired to help engineer. Basic tracks were done at his house/studio in Amherst, only a mile or so from Emily Dickinsons house; the project began in earnest in the dead of winter, 1999. Everything else was done at my tiny apartment – I was set up with a couple of ADATs and a Mac which was used for sampling, loops, and software synth. Then it was all brought back to Chalfant’s for mixing.
The band wasn’t ultimately happy with my approach to this album – I think they all felt I was usurping too much control. I was layering in more details and intstruments that no one else in the band was playing. A lot of keyboards, even drum and percussion parts that Stuart did not perform, made it onto the album. I have to say perhaps to my detriment I wasn’t too concerned about the opinions of the rest of the band when it came to putting this one together – I knew exactly what I wanted, everyone had made their contributions and it was time for me to take over and sculpt it. I made no friends within the band creating this album. But I was pretty happy with the result and eventually most of them came around. My one real regret is how the last song, Dead Jones, ended up – it was a song Adrian really wanted to sing but I never felt she really owned, and I think the performance is rather stiff. I wish I had been the singer.

CV finally came out to good response but again, no real support in terms of touring, or any interested from labels. That came later in the year, after we had entered the band into an ambitous online music project callled Garageband, run by a gengt named Tom Zito and Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads. Also involved in the project were Sire George Martin and Jim Dickinson. The song “Wrong” from Homesick soared to the top of the Garageband chart, and not long after they offered us a record deal.
A deeply strange period came next. We had finally signed to a label, when Adrian left the band, citing the difficulty of the coming tours. Max, the founding member, left soon after (they were married. Sadly as well, that also ended around the same time.) But, we still had a label and, finally too, management -- but only Stuart and myself left in the band. We had to regroup again. This final line-up became a sort of Northampton-area supergroup, with Ken Maiuri (Pedro the Lion, Pernice Brothers, Spouse) and Adam Greenberg (now of Senator). An incredibly talented group of people, except that there was almost too much talent and ideas to go around -- the band lost focus (and I began to truly burn out on the entire adventure), but not before recording the Breakfast at Brelreck's EP with Dave Chalfant again, a last hurrah.

It all fell apart after that. There was a sad meeting at a diner on a cloudy winter day, and people went away feeling hollow and beat up by life. That EP is of bittersweet substance to me, as we hurried to create it while my father was dying. The final song on it, "Someday", was recorded two days before his death. In many ways my rush to make the album was partly my attempt to impress upon him how fecundly i could thrive in his absence; a desperate feeling -- he was incredibly supportive of all my musical efforts, as is my mother to this day.


After my dad passed, there was a lull of almost a year where I was directionless in my music. I had no new material but I had amassed many songs over the years that were not for the Maggies. For a while I had a plan in mind of recording these and getting an album out. But aftter one dormant year, music began flooding out of me again in what in retrospect feels like the most productive and focused time of my life. I think also, the discovery of Elliott Smith had given me "permission" in my mind to go minimal, simpler, more direct and hushed. The first two fruits of this were the two solo albums. "13 Songs For Right Now" and "Honey in the Chemicals" which were written back to back.

The songs were about death, and the dissolution of relationships, and the incredibly strangely inspiring sense of hopelessness that i was immersed in at the time. I was in an altered state for about two years after my father's passing. In my writing I began to take on characters and voices that I'd never dared before, and there was also a romanticism that I allowed in the music that I had previously suppressed, quite deliberately. I began hearing music differently during this time, too.

The albums were both home-engineered and no one else played on them. All of a sudden the desire to be a solo entity seemed very attractive and I embraced it wholeheartedly. I began booking solo shows, transforming my web presence, and looking for a label. I felt I had a small bit of leg up from whatever notoriety was gained from the Maggies, and this was true. I played a show with John Wesley Harding in Boston, and after he asked if i would join his tour. So, that fall (2002), I toured with Wes and got a fair amount of exposure. At one show, someone bought an album and later they contacted me saying they were from a small NY-city label called Listen Here! Records. Ken Anderson and Rebecca Hall picked up both albums for distribution and although it was a very modest deal, it helped my sense of worth in what i was doing. Keep in mind its about 15 years now that I had been working this field in a vacuum. The slightest attention felt momentous. There were two more albums worth of material that I had written and recorded, as well, and I was gearing up to release those albums -- "Eleventy-Twelve" and "The Drug Songs" -- when the Winterpills formed and began playing a lot of that material so those albums were shelved.
The Gay Potatoes

Chris Collingwood (Fountains of Wayne) and his wife moved here sometime in the late 90s. They would attend shows regularly at the Baystate Hotel, and eventually they caught a Maggies show and shows including Henning Ohlenbusch (in a couple bands: Aloha Steamtrain, School For The Dead), which also featured Brian Marchese (also in Lo Fine, Mark Mulcahy) on drums. Also fairly new to the area, interestingly, was Lloyd Cole and his family. I think Lloyd and Chris knew each other from previous NYC connections. Anyway, friendships ensued. At one point, after 'Utopia Parkway' by the Fountains had bizarrely disappointed their label, Fountains found themselves labelless. Chris was sort of rattling around his house up here, not sure what was going to happen with his band, and at one point at some social gathering he pulled out a bunch of country songs he had written. "Let's start a country band," he suggested to us, (us being Henning, Brian and myself). We all fished into our catalogs to find songs that could either be bent into a country-ish shape, or already were. None of us really had much in the way of country licks in our kit bags, so we kind of faked it. A large part of the band was riding on Chris's intense enthusiasm for country music as, in his mind, a much purer songform than the snarky power pop he'd all been doing for years. Speaking for myself, I was into it because I had been a big Fountains fan before I met Chris and I was in shock that suddenly i found msyelf in a band with the guy. Also, I really enjoyed playing with Henning and Brian, who are two incredibly talented and intuitive musicians I had always admired from afar in the local scene but never had the opportunity to make music with. So, we booked some rehearsal time and just jumped right in. Everyone brought an equal number of songs, and I must say, the repertoire was pretty minimal -- I think our longest set was 9 songs, 3 songs from each writer (Brian did not contribute although he is a great songwriter in his own right), everyone singing lead on their own songs. I became the lead "Nashville style" guitarist which is quite bizarre.
The Lloyd Cole angle is humorous. The four of us had been rehearsing for a few weeks when he piped up and said he wanted to join as well. He became the bassist, taking over from Henning, who then picked up a guitar. So, we were a 5 piece. I think the band only has ever played about 5 or 6 gigs, and Lloyd only played 2, as far as i recall. Lloyd quit shortly thereafter as his tour schedule began to limit his ability to come to rehearsals.
There is a yearly event that occurs locally here, and has for about 15 years, called Transperformance. Its a music event that benefits arts programs in the local schools, and the conceit is that local bands impersonate famous ones based on a yearly theme. Its one of the highlights of everyone's year here in the Northampton music world -- a time when egos are checked and personalities submerged and costumes are made from scratch and new songs learned, and much beer is consumed backstage. The theme that year -- I think it was 2000? -- was British bands. On a lark, the Gay Potatoes chose to impersonate Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. Chris pretended he was Lloyd, and Lloyd pretended he was his own bass player (Lawrence Donegan). As you may be aware, the Commotions were never quite as big in the U.S. as they were overseas, so we were guessing that a minimal amount of people in the audience knew that Lloyd was actually in the band, and I don't think too many -- about 1000 people usually show up at this outdoor theater for the show every year with their kids in tow -- really knew Lloyd's songs that well. So, it was an inside joke.
The Gay Potatoes may be playing a reunion concert one day. We haven't played together for a while, though we do talk about it. Oh, the name? Thanks for asking. We were drunk, and trying to come up with what we thought would be literally the stupidest name for a band we could muster. 'The Gay Potatoes' won by a wide margin. I don't even remember any of the other ones.


I'd been playing solo for about two years and felt I was treading water and was also bored of the sound of my voice. Solo work proved harder to break into than I had thought – there are so many singer-songgwriters, how was I possibly needed? I'd been spending a fair amount of time with my friends Dennis Crommett, Flora Reed and Dave Hower. There was a period where we would meet weekly at Dennis' house, drink wine, and play late into the night, in a kind of re-enactment of the kind of gatherings that would occur at my parent's house in my childhood, growing up in Vermont. During this time of mourning my dad the social connections were vitalising and important to me. Generally speaking, the music scene here does not always inspire impromptu acoustic sessions under the influence of cheap wines and candlelight so it was a unique time for us. The guitar would go around the room and we'd play songs by Leonard Cohen, Elliott Smith, the Smiths, Magnetic Fields, Beatles, Hank Williams -- the whole history of pop music all seemed like a common folk music to us.
As I'm certain we weren't alone in feeling then or now, but as obvious as it seemed the revelation is a personal thing. The main thing, though, was that a kind of sound evolved from this particular group of people. It was not planned, it was not auditioned for, and there was no ambition behind it. It was just a present.

The idea came about of my friends accompanying me on some solo shows, as 'gentle backup' -- the idea being to touch the songs as lightly as possible. Flora was not in those first shows, but Dennis and Dave helped out in the harmony department. We played a few local shows as Winterpills, just trying out the moniker. (The name i had actually coined years before as a sort of fantasy electronica band that i wanted to form one day. As a nod to the future I wrote the band name on the bathroom wall of the Baystate hotel, which was a gravesite of dozens of bands that had played there over the years, and hence added the as yet unrealised band to the fabled roster of the club. The club is no more, and the wall was not preserved and moved to Las Vegas.). I began to feel the newer songs were finally being represented properly, so we made it official pretty much the time we asked Flora to join the band, which was around February 2004. I recall one show where it all really felt like it had come together, and that was Flora's debut with the band at the Brass Cat in Easthampton, MA. It's a rare experience for me to feel like something so natural and stunning could come out of thin air, but after that show we all looked at each other and wondered, 'whoa, what the fuck do we have here?" Our heads were swimming.

The next year was spent playing more and more, honing the songs and the arrangements, creating a presence and migrating my extremely modest fan base over to the Winterpills. Come end of the year we decided we really needed to record something. We decided to ask our friend José Ayerve of Pernice Brothers (and his own band, Spouse) who had been garnering praise for his fledgling engineering and producing efforts, if he would basically move into our house and record an EP. He brought all his gear and we got to work in Feb 2005. That quickly expanded into a full album. José took on bass chores as well, and the album was finished by the early summer. The process was relaxed, simple, and we were mainly just trying to capture what we did live.

I had been living very sparely for some time at this point -- many many years, in fact, always leaving a hole to the left of the center of my life where music could live and thrive and where hopefully one day I could perhaps make a modest living from it. I had made a deal with myself. If by the end of 2005, my fortunes in music had not changed in some significant way, i was going to change direction. Put it aside, find real work. It had to be done. A man and his kids had to eat.
Things moved fast by summer. We shopped the demo of the album around, and of all the labels that expressed interest, Signature Sounds was the one that offered the most concrete and fair deal. They let us retain our licensing and publishing, and was close to home so we could have face to face meetings with the people we were going to be working with.

We signed. The album came out in November, and by December we were on national radar for the first time in my entire music career. I was ecstatic. So bittersweet, so strange, and actually in the face of it all, still very small, but it all seemed very real and good.


The new album is Winterpills, with a more expanded palette, a few more brushes, and more lead in the paint. This time around there were less finished songs to work with, so we finished them in the studio, which was new for this group. Even though we spent last summer working up arrangements, we had little to show for it come the start of recording. We recorded at the studio of Dave Chalfant again. José came aboard to co-produce and we spent a month and a half up in the hills putting it all together. Chalfant: an approach to acoustic recording that is warm and seasoned. José: a local hard and indie-rock hero. Nice balance.

I think the main difference is a kind of cinematic feel to the flow of the album, and a much bigger sound, more lush and clear, which i think is a natural setting for the sound of the band. An implied narrative that is hard to pin down. Everyone had more time to experiment and work out their parts and try many more approaches and as a result the album was more of a group production.

The songs are all drawn from the same place in me that i usually mine -- which is to say, i think, fragments of my own life that are filtered through a half-light of melody, that are melded with a desire to say as much as possible in as few words, that want to leave as much out as possible and still retain a form. The songs thrive on their own fragility, and i hesitate to talk about poetry because i have such high regard for real poetry, but i like to think the songs are inspired by poetry. I like to think a good song is a poem that is guided by melody -- the melody forces you to hear some words a certain way, the melody highlights and underlines, or hides and obscures to effect. Of course there was a standard set of sophomore effort pressures, and we want this album to take us all somewhere. We built a boat, and we want it to be able to stay above water. The water is very very very deep and scary. Swimming is a poor option. But we feel pretty supported. I feel supported. That doesn't mean I’m not scared to some degree. You'd have to be crazy to not be scared. What good would it be to become inhuman?

And since this interveiw there are all these albums to adore. Every one a perfect thing. Go here to find them all.

 Central Chambers (2008)
"The actual, physical heart goes through many changes and challenges. To me, it also speaks to a place where judgement is dispersed, where lovers meet, where people live - and hide - and where secrets are kept."

Tuxedo of Ashes (EP)​(2010)
“I seemed to have accumulated a glut of what I thought of as my ‘Hey Jude’s -- 5-minute-plus songs with huge dramatic endings. This was one of the inspirations for the EP -- that and the idea of doing it all at home, up in the bedroom, on our own gear, with special guests sending in parts via email or whenever they could stroll through. The EP is a sort of arranged marriage of the wordy epic and the modest haiku.”

All My Lovely Goners (2012)

“We wanted this album to be more live-instrument-based, rather than effects-based. The focus is on capturing our live playing. The songs were written slowly, arranged slowly, braised slowly in their own intentions, as mysterious as those were.The songs took shape around the idea that we are defined in many ways by the multiple wars we’ve all endured, the broken hearts, traumas and tragedies that shape our characters, even as they may recede farther into the past. As they fade from the front of our minds, they are ever-present reminders of how we became who we are.From the opening salvo of the album, where a benediction and a warning is given from an open grave, to the closing shuffling love song to an elusive and cruel muse, every song is about the tenuous threads that hold us to the split second dream of life. It’s easy to reach into a recent death and find the vital song. It’s harder to live with it for many years and find another song. Those are the hard-earned ones.To all the lovely goners — the people we’ve loved, the people we miss, the people who stand in our backyard and are always looking through our windows” — this one’s for you."

Echolalia (2014)
 “Aren’t all albums cover albums? Aren’t our musical daydreams overflowing with versions and interpretations and echoes of songs — others and our own — that have woven themselves into our brains? Songs misremembered, songs massaged or tortured through memory and association… For us, live shows where we play our own songs are sometimes, at least technically, a constant re-inventing of our own material while innately reflecting the influences of others.Some nights I find myself singing one of my own songs in the voice of someone I’d been obsessively listening to for weeks, trying on new voices like a 1940’s character actor. Conversely, other times we weave our own voices into the voices of our musical heroes for the vicarious thrill of blending the living with the dead. It's a dialog without end and often no one noticing.The criteria for this project were twofold: 1. Dig into the body of ingrained influences and find songs from any era that we connected with, and 2.Transform them in a way that reignited the songs for us personally- not simply a record of us performing it, not playing (much) from the ego. We had to do something that trumped the simple love of the song. There were so many songs and artists that we left off this list and it took some tinkering to realize that some songs are not really meant to by covered or transformed –by us. Simply because a song was great (and influential) was not enough to pass the Echolalia gauntlet; it had to be transformable; we had to be successful Dr. Frankensteins and re-animate, and not worry if it was a monster or not, or afraid of fire…”

Love Songs (2016)
“We hadn’t recorded together in awhile, and we felt refreshed when we went in the studio this time. Without even trying, over time the canvas has just gotten bigger time stretched us.At first the thought of calling it Love Songs was intended as a whimsical nod to the other million albums of the same title but then casting that light on the existing songs made them jump into stark relief: they were all love songs after all, though arriving at that place through strange portals and unused back roads. We feel lucky we’re still good friends after all this time. And I’m in awe of what everyone in the band brings to this weird table we built.”

1 comment:

Rob-in-Brevard said...

Quite excellent feature, Jay. In-depth and fascinating, as usual.