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HuffPost Video Exclusive: R.E.M.'s "Überlin," Plus Conversations with David Lowery and Cowboy Junkies' Michael Timmins

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The lyric video, "Überlin," is R.E.M.'s latest offering. It previously premiered exclusively on HuffPost. Producer Jacknife Lee offered the following about the song:

"I love this song. There's a melancholy in it that only R.E.M. (can) articulate. The demo of the song was very simple and beautiful, and we decided to keep it that way. We tracked this in New Orleans. The vocals and some percussion we did in Nashville. Michael had a lyrical idea that was so complex that I didn't understand what he was getting at even after he explained it to me. He has pages and pages of lyrics and ideas with backstories for characters that don't figure in the song. Everything has to make sense to him. Nothing is (a) throwaway or flippant. This song took some beating into shape. The bridge had a vocal at one stage, but the music conveyed what he was saying anyway, so we deleted it. I bought some little analog synths (Microtrons) for my kids and these were amusing us all. The middle section of the song needed to feel less grounded, so I had Peter, Michael, and Mike do the middle section with the synths. It was really good fun."

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A Conversation with David Lowery of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven

Mike Ragogna: Your new solo album, The Palace Guards, has been in the making for quite a while.

David Lowery: Yeah, though it's not like I was slaving away in my basement every day. I was collecting up the stuff that wasn't either Cracker or Camper Van Beethoven, my two bands. It was sort of about four years in the making, that's because I did a Cracker record in-between and was working on some Camper Van Beethoven stuff. It took a while to make, but not for really any other reason than I was purposefully kind of lazy about it.

MR: The Palace Guards includes quests such as John Morand and Alan Weatherhead.

DL: Yeah, Alan Weatherhead has done some behind the scenes work with some great artists. John Morand is an engineer and producer, so is Alan. Also, there's a lot of odd instruments: pedal steels, synthesizers, and guitars. He's had a lot to say on a couple of the Sparklehorse records. He is just a really interesting, good player.

MR: Also, you have guest appearances by the likes of New York bass player, Sal Maida.

DL: Yeah, and he's been around for a very long time. He is probably one of the last of the gentleman rockers. He was in Roxy Music and he was in Sparks, two of my favorite bands. He was also in the legendary but very obscure Milk 'N' Cookies.

MR: He also backed up Bob Hillman and worked at NYCD in New York.

DL: Sal's done so much, it's hard to start with how you're going to describe him. He's the guy that when we get backstage at a festival and there are a bunch of bands, he already knows twenty of the people there. Somebody like Robin Zander walks up and goes, "Hey, Sal, how're you doin'?" Bryan Ferry..."Hey Sal!" you know?

MR: Yeah, he's pretty well loved. You also have Johnny Hickman.

DL: Johnny Hickman is my mate in Cracker and is sort of the co-founder of Cracker. He does a little bit on the record too. I joke about it, actually, because he is on about ten seconds of a song. I took one version of the song that has a better breakdown and it happened to be the part where Johnny played on. The other thing about this record is that it's very liberating for me, I get to do things how I want to do them, which is, for instance, doing stuff like The Beatles. The Beatles didn't care, "Strawberry Fields..." was from two different versions of the song and they just put it together. I do a lot of that with this record.

MR: But you were similarly adventurous with your other bands, those records featuring some pretty interesting productions.

DL: Yeah, a lot of those happened because we didn't know what we were doing in the old days of Camper Van Beethoven. That was the charm of it. With this too, it was be like, "I like that rough mix that we did of that song and it's my record and I don't care, so we're going to put it on there." Sometimes that's the best version.

MR: Can you go into the title track a little bit?

DL: What's interesting about the title track, there were some people that genuinely didn't understand that song when I was putting it together. It's just one of the voices that I use--this is obviously a slightly crazy, disturbed voice. This voice that I'm using has a sense of humor. It's essentially told from the perspective of a passive aggressive superhero, like a superhero that's kind of in need of a restraining order against the populous he's trying to protect. This is a really complicated voice and there is a lot of humor in it. There's also an unreliable narrator. You're supposed to read between the lines and see what's going on. The narrator isn't exactly telling you the truth, I use that a lot. I was listening to the mixes of it in my car and my older son was with me, and he said, "Dad, didn't this start out as a kid's song?" And now that I think about it, it did start out as a kid's song. I remember I was thinking that I've got this song and it is kind of a kid's song, maybe I'll put it on a children's album or something like that. Obviously, it wandered away from that. Then my son said, "Can you explain it to me?" So, I sort of explained it to him like I explain it to everyone else. He then said, "So it's less of a Cartoon Network song and it's more like an Adult Swim song."

MR: (laughs) I have to ask you David, "Baby All Those Girls Meant Nothing To Me." Right. You know, that's rarely ever true.

DL: Exactly, and again, the unreliable narrator. I can't remember exactly how that song got started. Actually I do. I was talking to my wife who is also our manager, and I can't remember which celebrity had been busted with prostitutes, and I said, "What do you say to that? Baby all those whores meant nothing to me?" I had this bit of music and I realized that I could sing this to that. So, that (title) seemed a little bit too far, so I rolled it back to "Baby All Those Girls Mean Nothing To Me. The other thing about that song, I have to tell you, I've always admired how certain artists--especially Iggy Pop--could tell a story just by repeating three or four sentences over and over again. It's just really great. If you listen to that song, I say only about three or four things and you get the entire story from that, they're just set in different ways. To me, that's something that's almost a lost art. So, that's something I was trying to do with that song.

MR: I have to ask you about "I Sold The Arabs The Moon."

DL: It's a little complicated, but I think I can summarize it. I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the first book I ever read by him was Arm Of The Patriarch. In that, you have this dictator and he is the patriarch of this country, and eventually, he just sells everything to the Americans. He eventually sells the sea to the Americans, and I like that--the poetry of it or something. This is what you don't here everyday. I was sitting in the Baghdad airport in Iraq, on the U.S. military side, and I was just reflecting on the ten days I spent visiting these military bases. I thought I could sum up, in three verses, the entire history of the Middle East by doing this. The Arabs were able to navigate the deserts with their camels under the moonlight. Then, we'll skip three or four intervening empires and get to the English with their battleships who come in and colonize the Middle East. Then, finally, it's the Americans with our satellites, planes, and unmanned aerial vehicles that sort of rule the Middle East by ruling the sky. It doesn't really take any political position in any way, it's just a poetic observation.

I don't know why, but that song has really struck a lot of people. I went to play it on the BBC in England last month, and the producer looked at the song title and went, "Oh, what are the words to this song?" At first, I had no idea what was going on. Suddenly, somebody who was sort of an in house censor came up and interviewed me for about ten minutes on what the song was about because the BBC didn't want to play anything controversial. They wanted to make sure I wasn't going to say anything controversial about Arabs or Muslims. I was thinking that you kind of have to be careful about using the word "Arab" because people are afraid of where you might be going. That's become a very powerful word. My two Arab friends love that song and have brought it up to me.

MR: As you're releasing a solo project, will you be going on tour to support it?

DL: I will do some shows, and doing promotional performances like going to radio stations and record stores. I've been writing a blog recently called "300 Songs." I tell the really long, convoluted stories behind these things, that's something you can't really do in a club. So, I'm doing shows, but I'm doing very non-traditional kinds of shows for this record. You would probably ask, "Is he on tour? It doesn't look like it." But I'm going up to Asheville in North Carolina to play at a record store there, and I will do a combination of reading parts of my blog and playing songs, more like what a book author does. It's fascinating to me right now, it seems like I've built a good career on the notion of touring and playing live shows. But I wanted to do something a little bit different this time. This doesn't mean anything about Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, those are still both ongoing adventures. We've got shows scattered all throughout this year, but not a lot of touring.

MR: So, you reformed Camper Van Beethoven when you did the Tusk project?

DL: Camper Van Beethoven is an ongoing project. We have been playing shows, writing, and recording--albeit very slowly--for the last decade. Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker just did three shows this last weekend in New York, Boston, and Toronto. Camper played the album Key Lime Pie in its entirety, and we are going to do that again next month in Oakland, California. There's this little batch of songs that we're working on that I'm hoping will come out as a Camper Van Beethoven record. It's very primitive right now, but that's how we work.

MR: Every once in a while, you get a song placed in a movie, like "Take The Skinheads Bowling" in Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine.

DL: Yeah, a lot of our stuff that appears in commercials. That's more lucrative than what we did as a band the first time. We have this great catalog of songs that people love.

MR: Yeah. How do you think you've grown from those early days to now?

DL: Well, I don't know if I have grown. Though I have grown in a way, I certainly haven't grown up. I think the enemy of all rock musicians is maturity. Whenever you've read a review--especially when the singer or guitar player goes off solo--the reviewer says something about how the songwriter's written very mature songs, the songwriting has really matured. That usually implies acoustic guitars and a softer production sound, kind of the way things that are sold in Starbucks sound. It usually also is a euphemism for the songwriter becoming boring. The songwriter can now be safely sold on a Starbucks brand CD. So, I would like to say that I haven't grown up, I have a lot more interesting experiences. I couldn't have written a song like, "I Sold The Arabs The Moon" plausibly, or with authority, when I was in Camper Van Beethoven in 1984. I can now after doing a tour of patrol bases in Iraq with members of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, it's starting to actually mean something.

MR: When you're touring overseas, what is it like playing the bases?

DL: First of all, let me say this. There is a much more honest discussion about our role as the one remaining superpower in the world than you will ever get in the United States. A lot of very thoughtful, higher-ranking officers and enlisted men were quite enjoyable to talk to. What we did was we had a song on the last Cracker record which is called, "Yalla, Yalla"--its kind of a rewrite of an anonymous soldier's blog about the slang that soldiers use over there. I weaved it into a song. Deep down buried somewhere, it has an anti-war view, but it doesn't really take a position, it just kind of talks about what soldiers like to talk about. That got us a strange sub-USO tour. When people think of a USO tour, they think of the sailors or marines there in their dress uniforms sitting in a nice semi-circle politely behaved. Then there is that scene from Apocalypse Now where the Playboy Bunnies are having to be airlifted out of the jungle. We did more of an Apocalypse Now kind of tour. We literally dropped in with just the four of us--two helper guys, and minimal gear by helicopter--to these patrol bases. Sometimes, it was only a hundred guys, maybe fifty. We played for them and would do a couple of these a day. At the end of the day, we would go stay at these big Wal-Mart type bases.

MR: I bet they loved having you there.

DL: Oh yeah, it was fantastic. This is the hilarious thing. They were completely overjoyed and thrilled, but most of the National Guard were reserve guys asking politely if we were going to play "Euro-Trash Girl" tonight. The younger gung-ho infantry would come up to us and be like, "My parents are going to freak out when they find out that I saw you guys. Would you autograph this CD for my parents?" So, we were like, "Yeah we're old." This was really fascinating, you know? Sort of the unreality of it too--wearing Kevlar vests and helmets, driving around in armored personnel carriers. We were never in any real danger, except we were. We didn't really think about it. I used to hate flying, and here we are flying in this helicopter with the doors open at 4,000 feet above some Iraqi city. We're sort of just laughing and not really thinking about it, but back in our real home life, I think that would scare the hell out of me. For some reason, everybody was so casual, just sort of talking about normal stuff--great bands that they like, the other celebrities that came over, and what doofuses they were or if they were great. It was fun.

MR: I love that you were there and got to talk the truth with these guys.

DL: They bring it up! We were told to keep the politics down, but they want to talk about it all the time. Truthfully, I'm not really a lefty. In fact, I consider myself really middle of the road. My father was in the military and I've lived in military bases all of my life, and I know that there is really broad diversity of opinion within the military, always. Truthfully, when we were there, they were doing what every decent democrat, middle of the road politician, or average American would care about us doing. Obviously, the two wars were kind of a fiasco in certain ways, but, eventually, it became like it happened, so what do we do about it. We're going to engage this counter insurgency, create economic development, and make stability. Well, I'm all for that, let's not go back and argue whether the war was right or not. These guys are doing a job that is very boring for them; but still, it's what we need to do as a country, it's our moral responsibility now. It was great to go over there for us and support these guys, and I hope sort of lighten their day.

MR: Nice. So, what's your advice for new artists?

DL: You can't look at the past to look at what to do to make yourself successful. I think that's my number one advice, I'm teaching a class on the fundamentals of music business right now. What I wanted everybody to look at is what everybody did last year isn't necessarily going to work this year. Also, the fundamental rule--never sell your publishing. The publishing is actually the rights to your song in abstract. It's fine to sign a record deal, but keep the rights to your songs, the publishing. Essentially, that's how I've enjoyed such a long career making a living in the music business, I've never sold all of it, I always kept most of the rights to my songs. That's served me very well.

MR: And it's awful when young, hungry artists or bands sign those obscene "360" deals.

DL: The students in my class, even after two weeks, could tell you why that won't work based on the simple fact that you can't have every artist out there touring, there is not enough audience for that. People have enough money to buy an artist's CDs, but people cannot--there's just no way--always be going out. You can't have a live-based music business, that's not going to work. What happened this last Fall is all the concert promoters started doing what Camper and Cracker and a lot of other indie bands have been doing for years--everybody went on the road trying to make money to play for their fans. Well, if I was a concert promoter, l wouldn't be booking the artists with the same fan base in the same two weeks because people are going to start making choices about which bands they can actually see. Live Nation had the same problem by trotting out all of their classic artists into these huge amphitheaters and filling them about twenty percent, you know?

MR: There's a change in the culture, there are other priorities.

DL: Uh-huh, exactly.

Tracks:
1. Raise 'Em Up On Honey
2. The Palace Guards
3. Deep Oblivion
4. Ah You Left Me
5. Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing To Me
6. I Sold The Arabs The Moon
7. Marigold
8. Big Life
9. Submarine

(transcribed by Theo Shier)

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A Conversation with Cowboy Junkies' Michael Timmins

Mike Ragogna: This album seems like a counterpart to your last album Remnin Park. What is going into the process of these works?

Michael Timmins: We are in the process of creating a piece called the Nomad Series, which is a series of four albums that we're recording and releasing over 18 months. So, Remnant Park is volume one, Demons is volume two, and we are working on volume three right now.

MR: Who came up with the concept of doing this?

MT: As a lot of things with us are, it was a group effort. We're throwing around ideas and trying to figure out what to do for our next recording, and we had lots of ideas and lots of directions we wanted to go in. So, we were throwing back and forth this idea of doing four records in a very short time period, to challenge ourselves and to give the albums a feel that's similar, not having the songs deal with the same issues, but certainly having a consistent feel.

MR: Very rarely do you find groups being as inventive as this.

MT: With the freedom of the Internet these days, we don't have any major contracts with anybody, and we can sort of do what we want. So, we stretched our imaginations, and instead of doing the system of releasing a record every two or three years and then touring on that record for two or three years, we thought to just do a broader project.

MR: There seems to be a musical progression between these two albums.

MT: It's hard for me to comment on that, we just continue to record and make music. The four volumes aren't necessarily supposed to be going into each other, but in the idea of doing it in a short period of time, we knew that there would be a link between them, whether it be the audio, production, or the performances, we knew there would be something. It's good to hear that your hearing something that's attaching them.

MR: Your first album was called Whites Off Earth Now!!, one of the best titles ever. What's the story behind that?

MT: Lots of things went into that. We stole that line from somebody, I can't remember who...some organization that was based on the West Coast. They were saying it with tongue-in-cheek, but not really. The idea was that to solve all of Earth's problems, you had to get the white people off the earth. The music we were doing on that record was interpretations of old blues songs, so again, we were poking fingers at ourselves. Here are these white suburban kids covering old, black, blues music. The cover itself has some horrendous pictures of ourselves, so it all kind of came together and the title made sense.

MR: Trinity Session was your second record, and it included your cover of The Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" that was an interpretation of the live version, right?

MT: Trinity Session is a live album. It's not an album that was recorded in front of an audience, it was recorded live off the floor with one microphone--no mixing or overdubs, you just hear what you hear. That record had the "Sweet Jane" cover on it, and we got our inspiration from their '69 live record, so that was kind of our jumping off point.

MR: You also returned to that project with Trinity Revisited, which included appearances by Ryan Adams and the late Vic Chesnutt.

MT: Yeah, and Natalie Merchant. That was our twentieth anniversary for Trinity Session, we wanted to do something to celebrate it. It was one of those sitting around sessions where we were trying to figure out what to do. It went through all of these different phases and variations. Finally, it came out to this idea of rerecording the songs with friends of ours who those songs had some meaning to their careers. We did it in a very similar type of way in a one day recording session. This time, we filmed it, so there's a DVD, Trinity Revisited. So, that was our own personal tribute that was very special to us and to other people.

MR: Let me do the band member check up...you, Margo, Peter and Alan are all still Cowboy Junkies?

MT: Yeah, same band.

MR: What is it like making music with your family for this long, and of course, I'm including Alan Anton in that statement.

MT: You should, he basically is family and I've know him for 45 years. It always works for us and we've been in it for a long time. So, what's it like? It's good. It works.

MR: What would you say is the band's biggest growth from the early days?

MT: It's a long period in the life of a band. When we made Trinity Session, this band was only a few years old, and Margo and Pete had only just started to play music with the band. So, we formed in '85 and we recorded Trinity Session in '87, so we hadn't done a whole lot as a band. But 20 or 30 years later, we've spent hundreds of days on the road, traveled thousands of miles, been in and out of studios, and played with a large number of people. So, I think there is a lot of growth there from a personal point of view and from everybody's relationship with their instrument. As a band playing that long together, there's just an intimacy in what you can do with each other and how your sound grows and connects. It's hard to put into words. With anything, it grows with experience and with time. You can't help but grow in 25 years of being in a band.

MR: Isn't it true that Margo was called one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world by People Magazine?

MT: You'll have to ask Margo about that.

MR: Getting back to your new album, why did you call this batch Demons?

MT: Well, this is an album of Vic Chesnutt songs. When we came up with The Nomad Series, we knew we wanted to make four albums in 18 months, though we didn't know what exactly those albums would be. We knew we weren't going to do four albums of completely new material, that would be just too much to write. So, we wanted one of the records to be a cover album, but with some sort of concept behind it. Cover versions have played a big part in our band's life. You mentioned "Sweet Jane." We're known for doing covers and trying to bring our own stance to them. We wanted to come up with a concept for the second volume, and we were honing in on doing a cover record, but we didn't know who to do it on and how we wanted to line it up. This was a couple of months after Vic died, and he was obviously on our minds. It came into my mind that we had to do a cover album of Vic songs, and everybody knew immediately that was what we had to do.

MR: I was lucky enough to interview him, and he was such an amazing character. When we were discussing his songs, he talked frankly about suicide and half-jokingly told me that he was just no good at it. So sad, really. I really hope other acts take a look at his catalog and similarly cover his work.

MT: Yeah, we hope so too. When you cover these songs, even if they are relatively obscure, you hope your audience goes to the original and explores it. He's got an amazing catalog of music, and he's very prolific.

MR: Can you share a story about Vic?

MT: We were doing a tour in the UK with him, and his record company in the UK had just released a lot of his back catalog. He was going over there to promote a new record, as well as a lot of songs on his old records. He had a bass player and drummer in tow, and he had spent a few weeks before he came over rehearsing a lot of the back catalog and getting to know it. On his way to the first gig, he turned to his bass player and said, "You are now playing drums," and turned to his drummer and said, "You are now playing bass." They basically went on stage like that. That was classic Vic. He wanted to throw a monkey wrench into things whenever he could just to change it up and see what came out.

MR: Do you have any advice for new artists?

MT: There are lots of different things, it depends on what you're doing. If you're doing this for any reason but the fact that you can't help but doing it, then don't do it. It's too tough of a road if it's not something that's driving you. You have to be obsessive about it.

Tracks:
1. Wrong Piano
2. Flirted With You All My Life
3. See You Around
4. Betty Lonely
5. Square Room
6. Ladle
7. Supernatural
8. West Of Rome
9. Strange Language
10. We Hovered With Short Wings
11. When The Bottom Fell Out

(transcribed by Theo Shier)