Saturday, February 28, 2009

Cale Parks (Aloha) Interview

I had the most interesting conversation today with my favorite band Aloha's amazing drummer Cale Parks...

I’d like to start with a personal question: Why are people too ignorant to have noticed your amazing music-god-like talent yet?

Cale: Ha Thank you! I'm not sure really. We've been around for a while, and I'm happy to have the loyal following we've developed. People will come around one day.

What do you think is the group’s most challenging obstacle in trying to achieve success in the music industry?

Cale: Well, we're not a new band. We've been around for a long time, since before indie rock was mainstream again. Immediate success now seems to be all about a fresh faced new group. I think that staying together in a band for this long, with this amount of creative output, is a greater example of success in today's music world.

What made you decide to use a vibraphone as a major instrument in the band’s sound?

Cale: Eric, our original vibraphonist, wanted to play his vibraphone more in a band setting. It worked and we all fell in love with that sound, so we kept with the mallet percussion thing over the years.

In your first albums, you managed to connect all or at least most of the songs together, even going so far as to connect your first EP and first two albums, so as to make them all sound as if they’re one long song. Why, then, did you cease to continue this pattern in your later records?

Cale: We lost Eric and TJ joined the band. It felt like a new group again, with a very different energy. Continuing like that with the album concept didn't feel natural with the new batch of songs.

Why did you decide to use the band name Aloha?

Cale: I didn't choose that name, though I love it. I think it has something to do with the multiple meanings of the word. It doesn't just mean hello and goodbye. It is a very deep thing for Hawaiians.

Which do you prefer: playing live or in the studio?

Cale: They're both completely different things, so I don't prefer one over the other. In the studio, we build songs part by part, very rarely playing together in the same room. I enjoy the creative element here. Live, you all play on stage at the same time together. I enjoy the energetic elements here.

Respectively, what are your favorite songs/albums both from your band and other bands?

Cale: I don't really have a favorite song or album. They all represent different times of my life so to speak, so when I hear a song or album, I just think of where I was personally during the era when I recorded the music. It's hard to separate experiencing the music without experiencing memories of where you were when you wrote the song. I think we did a good job on all of them though!

Listening to the band’s work, I get a sense of a nice blend of The Police and Radiohead. Who are some of the group’s major influences?

Cale: Those two are definitely in there! We all have similar record collections. For example, we definitely enjoy the classic prog rockers Yes and Genesis. We've also spent a lot of time with Can over the years. I personally enjoy a lot of 80's and 90's british electronic bands. Taste and influences change for me depending on what I'm into at the moment. It all reflects in a mush of aesthetics within your sounds.

Can we expect a new album in the not-too-distant future?

Cale: Yes. There is a full length LP being finalized very soon. Expect a release this year.

Do you plan on re-inventing your “sound” again, ala Here Comes Everyone, or is the plan to stay safe with the one you have?

Cale: I'm not really sure. We don't consciously try to re-invent while we're creating.

Altoona, Pennsylvania seems to hold a special place in Aloha’s heart, considering it was given a song and was where T.J. Lipple first played with the band. Could you share more about the significance of this location?

Cale: That's it really. TJ's family live there. They're all very nice. It's a nice quiet town in the PA hills. I've had good experiences in the Altoona thrift stores.

The group has moved all across the country for its writing and rehearsing. Do the four of you ever grow weary of this, or does the change of scenery act more as an inspiration?

Cale: I don't personally grow weary. I love traveling. It's just the way we work. It's not like we move for a year of our life or anything. All the relocating and permenant moves, so to speak, have more to do with our personal lives, not the band. Also, once you tour a bit, you understand that traveling 8 hours to practice a few days before a tour starts or going into the studio in another city for a couple of weeks, really isn't that much of a hassle.

In an earlier interview, one of you had mentioned the Mellotron you used on your later albums was homemade. What can you tell me about this instrument?

Cale: This is a controversial issue. It was not an actual mellotron, but rather the sound of a mellotron that was homemade. TJ sampled a violinist playing for him live, in order to simulate his own unique mellotron sound via midi controllers. TJ is always crafty.

I especially like how most of the lyrics to your songs are subtle and vague so as to be interpreted however the listener feels, instead of something bashing or praising one specific thing. What typically goes into writing a song for you?

Cale: Thank you. The lyrics are always the last thing to come in my writing. I always write the music first. Lyrically, I just try to speak vaguely, like you said, about my feelings, and fit it into the melody I hear, sometimes making it rhyme. It does the job for me as far as getting out what I need to with my art and emotions. If it's vague and open to the personal interpretation of the listener, than thats even better, because they can experience it however they want to, like you said.

How has your songwriting process changed over the years, if at all?

Cale: Well, originally with Aloha, we would write together in band practice. Since Here Comes Everyone, we've written long distance via personal demos. This method has remained until now. In my solo music, the songwriting can be very different from song to song. Sometimes it starts with a beat I make at my apartment. Other times with a vocal melody I hear or a chord progression I've been messing around with.

All of your album covers have been quite unique. Is there any hidden or significant meaning behind them (for example, I keep seeing a recurring wolf), or are they just eye-candy?

Cale: The wolf-dog was only on Here Comes Everyone and Some Echoes. We always go to friends who are artists for the covers, then work with them on the design and layout. We usually give them an advance copy to listen to for ideas while they create.

Are the four of you trying to make a living making music or is money not an issue?

Cale: None of us are trustfunders, so we all do what we have to for money. Speaking for myself, I'm not good at anything else, so yes, I make a living off of music here in New York. Times get tough and things change from time to time. Aloha does not make a lot of money, but like they say, it's not about the money.

Is the band trying to achieve some kind of goal? Like, artistically or commercially?

Cale: I guess like all artists we want to make the best possible music that we can. There are no commercial goals.

Have you planned out the future much, or are you just kind of going with the flow? If you have, what plans do you have?

Cale: I plan to make music and go with the flow always. If you get a big job and have a baby, that is all part of going with the flow, not to get too zen, but it's all relative to living. Aloha will never break up. If we take a break from recording or touring, it doesn't mean you have to quit being a band. Too many groups make this mistake. We all have a great personal relationships with one another. We will always make music together in some form, for whoever still listens. I will always make solo music in some form as well.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Chris Hrasky (Explosions in the Sky) Interview

This is probably my biggest interview yet. Chris Hrasky, drummer for Explosions in the Sky, was kind enough to allow me to interview him.

I’ll start with a simple question: why did you decide to use the band name Explosions in the Sky?

Chris: We played a local college radio show on July 4, 1999 and as we were unloading our gear we heard the fireworks exploding. So one of us said “can you hear the explosions in the sky?” and that was that.

Your work on the Friday Night Lights soundtrack certainly helped to boost your popularity. How was making a soundtrack for a movie different from any of your other albums?

Chris: It was actually a lot less stressful. When we work our own records we feel a lot more pressure. With a soundtrack you’re really just writing background music, or little sketches of songs.

What is your typical writing process when in the studio?

Chris: In the past we’ve always gone into the studio with everything completely written.

How has your songwriting process changed over the years, if at all?

Chris: It hasn’t changed in the sense that its always been a process of trial and error for us. We don’t really have a set method. I sort of wish we did. It would make things a lot easier.

Who are some of your major influences?

Chris: There are so many, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. All four of us agree on the greatness of The Beatles, though. We’re really inspired by their ability to write songs that were both innovative and completely catchy.

What made the group decide to be instrumental?

Chris: It just sort of turned out that way. Honestly, I can’t remember even talking about it. But we all like the idea of there not being a leader or principal songwriter in the band. This can often make things difficult and is the reason it takes us so long to write songs. But, in the end, it’s the most rewarding way for us to do things.

On that note, does this keep you from getting any radio airplay?

Chris: We get a fair amount of college radio airplay, but certainly no commercial airplay. But I’m not sure radio has that great of an influence anymore. We’ve been able to sell a pretty good amount of records without much airplay.

Which do you prefer: playing live or in the studio?

Chris: Playing live. You feel much more energized and not nearly as worried about screwing up. And its nice to have feedback from an immediate audience.

What was your favorite on-stage moment?

Chris: There have been a lot of great ones. Having one of our amps start on fire was kind of funny and ridiculous.

What can you say about the odd coincidence on your Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die… album cover?

Chris: That story has been overblown. Someone claimed that that record came out the day before 9/11. That’s actually not true. It came out two weeks before. And its really more than that…a coincidence.

Many consider your latest album’s name All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone to be a direct reference to The Catcher in the Rye. Is this true?

Chris: Its not a direct reference, but we all love that book.

Esteban Rey has done a few of your album covers now. What can you say about his work?

Chris: Well, he’s one of our closest friends and its nice to work with someone that you love. We really work him hard and make him do things over and over again. But he always follows through.

I’ll admit I was first introduced to you while watching Late Night with Conan O’Brien. What was it like to play on his show?

Chris: We were really nervous but it ended up being pretty fun. The crew were all really laid back and easy going, which was a surprise. It was a nice night.

There seems to be a big story behind the idea of The Rescue involving your van breaking down for eight days, causing you to be flat-broke and live in a stranger’s attic. What can you tell me about all that?

Chris: We recorded our second record in DC and on the way home we played a show in Syracuse. But then our van broke down and the part for the van was on order and we had to live in an attic for a week. There were blizzards every day. It was kind of nuts. The attic was owned by the guy who put our show on. So we owe him a lot. These were the early days when nobody knew who we were and we were completely broke. This was December 2000.

It seems American Analog Set, another excellent band, helped get you started in submitting one of your original demos. Are they good friends of yours? Both being from Austin, did you ever meet up and/or play together?

Chris: I actually live next door to the singer/guitarist of AmAnSet. We played a few local shows with them and they were always a band we loved and still love. These days I go next door and play dominos or watch Lost or basketball games. Also, our dogs are friends, too.

One of you had mentioned you prefer being called a rock band over a post-rock band. Why is this?

Chris: We just think of ourselves as a rock band. It seems post-rock is just a term made up by music critics.

You’re now included in all sorts of commercials and television shows. Have you ever unexpectedly heard one of your songs on tv before? What was that like?

Chris: I don’t watch much TV, but anytime I hear one of songs in a movie or something I feel very strange. It’s a surreal feeling.

What are your plans for the future? Are you working on any new albums/tours?

Chris: Trying to write new songs. But we’re also taking it easy. It seems like our lives have been dedicated to this band for the last 10 years so its nice to be able to sort of live a normal life for awhile.

Rogue Wave - Out of the Shadow

Although I've had the album for nearly three years now, Rogue Wave's Out of the Shadow has been on my mind all week for the first time. This being their debut album, I was extremely impressed. At first you'll be hearing something along the lines of the Shins, and then you'll suddenly come to the last few tracks and swear you're listening to Simon & Garfunkel.
(key tracks: Be Kind & Remind, Postage Stamp World, Sewn Up)

tl;dr: If Simon & Garfunkel ever got together with The Shins, it would have sounded like this.

Dr. Demento Interview

The name Dr. Demento may or may not mean anything to you. Barret Hansen (Dr. Demento) is a famous radio disc jockey who got his start in the 70s with his own radio show of obscure music. The “obscure” soon turned comedic after playing such artists as (the then unknown 16-year-old) “Weird Al” Yankovich. To this day, Dr. Demento still has his own weekly broadcast and is most famous for bringing “Weird Al” to the attention of the world. I was given the chance to interview the great fake doctor last week. Here’s what he had to say…

Peter: Besides being a disc jockey, you’re also an avid collector of just about every type of recording. So, looking back at all the types of recordings there have been over the years, which would you say is your favorite? What do you think was the best era of music recording?

Dr. Demento: My favorite at any given time is something that's new that my listeners like, or that I think that they would like.

As for the past, I'm partial to the 1920s and 1930s, when a lot of great blues, country music and jazz was recorded along with some nifty pop tunes and comedy songs. However, I grew up with the 1950s and 60s and have lots of favorites in those eras as well.

P: Are you a believer in the idea that LPs have a higher sound quality than today’s digital CDs and mp3s?

DD: Not really. Some LPs have fantastic sound IF they were pressed on first quality vinyl, mastered by the very best engineers using state of the art equipment, and if the records are in immaculate condition and played on multi-thousand-dollar systems. Otherwise, I'd rather hear CD's. As someone who uses recordings to produce a radio show, I'd say CD's are so much handier than LP's because they cue automatically, they don't have to be treated so delicately, and in 99.9% of cases they reproduce sound that perfectly mirrors what was recorded on them. One cannot say that about LP's. As for mp3s, they vary considerably in quality. I do use a lot of them in my work, and I love my iPod, but I recognize that they are generally a little lacking (or a lot lacking) in comparison to CD's. The current migration of many listeners from CD's to mp3's as their primary listening technology is not a step forward in sound quality. That is one of the few cases in the history of recorded music that a new technology has not involved an improvement in sound quality. However, mp3's are good enough for most people (including me) most of the time, and they're incredibly convenient, so there you go.

P: How were you given the name Dr. Demento?

DD: I was introduced to commercial radio by a DJ named Steven Segal, known on the air as The Obscene Steven Clean, at KPPC-FM in Pasadena, CA in 1970. On my second or third appearance with him, out of the blue, he introduced me as Dr. Demento. When I spoke with Steven about it later, he said he had conceived of the character of Dr. Demento some time earlier, giving credit for it to a musician named Peter Wolf (of the J. Geils Band) -- Dr. Demento was supposed to be a guy who knew everything there was to know about records. When he met me, he decided I was Dr. Demento, and that was that. It caught on, that's all.

P: Of course fans have many favorite songs that get requested over and over. Does it ever drive you crazy to hear some of the same songs each night?

DD: Well, I don't play the same songs each night. Even "Fish Heads" only gets played three or four times a year. Hot new songs might get played ten or twelve times a year (such as "The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny" in 2006) but no more. So it's not quite the same as a live band that has to play their most popular songs every night on stage, or a local DJ who is playing the same Top 40 songs day after day. I'm OK with it.

P: What are your favorite songs to play on the air? Off the air?

DD: On the air, whatever's new that my audience seems to like. Off the air, lots of old stuff from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s (or whatever) or whatever pops up on my iPod's shuffle.

P: Many point to you as the man who brought Weird Al to the world’s attention. What did you see in him at the time that got your attention?

DD: The very first tape he sent to me was "Belvedere Cruising", an original song (not a parody) about driving around in his parents' 1964 Plymouth Belvedere. (The song was written and sent to me in 1976). The accordion accompaniment caught my ear - accordions were extremely unhip in 1976, but I'd grown up with them - and even more, I was impressed with the clever lyrics, the rhymes, and the general fine craftsmanship of the song. Al was 16 at the time, and after that he just kept getting better and better.

P: What is your favorite Weird Al album/song?

DD: I think "Yoda" is the all time request favorite...but my most exciting moment with Al is when he played "Another One Rides The Bus" for the first time, live on my show, on Sept. 14, 1980. The response was overwhelming, and stations all over the country were soon signing up to carry my show.

P: Is there anyone else you’ve helped you think should have become more famous than they did?

DD: Logan Whitehurst. His 2003 CD "Goodbye My Four-Track" is my favorite funny music album of recent years by anyone not named Al. He wasn't with a major label, and had no budget to promote it...and he came down with brain cancer in 2004 and died two years later. (Sorry for the downer!)

P: You’ve been a radio DJ for over 30 years now. What keeps you going?

DD: New music comes in every week, and people still enjoy the show and tell me so, and I still make a living doing it, so why not?

P: You now have a few “best of” collections. Did you help pick these out? What would be included on your own personal “best of” compilation?

DD: Yes, I picked out all my compilation CD's. Of course my selection was limited at times by business issues...Adam Sandler's management wouldn't let me use any of his songs, for instance. Outside of that and one or two other songs, I couldn't improve much on the "Very Best of Dr. Demento" CD (except to include a song or two that was released after that came out, like "The Ultimate Showdown...")

P: What people can get away with in comedy today as opposed to years ago has changed rather dramatically. Have you been able to get away with airing “dirtier” material over the years?

DD: That comes and goes. I have to watch that carefully. For instance, the word "fart" is OK now; it was taboo when I started in 1970. Same with references to condoms, and references to masturbation as long as they aren't too graphic. In the 1980s and 1990s I had to be very "politically correct" especially with reference to races, ethnic groups and sexual orientation. That has loosened up a teeny bit in recent years; gay people, for instance, don't go ballistic about words like "queer" and "fag" as they once did (it does depend on the context), but we still have to be extra careful about racial references, more so than in the 1970s. When Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson had that "clothing malfunction" at the Super Bowl in 2004, there was intense reaction in Congress and elsewhere in public life. Many radio executives panicked, afraid they were going to lose their stations' licenses if anything "dirty" went out on the air, and we had to really clamp down on the more explicit things and even on the subtle innuendo for awhile. Things have loosened up a bit since then, but that could change at any time due to unforeseen events. I just have to watch what's going on.

P: What sort of changes have you noticed in the funny music business?

DD: The biggest change is due to the growth of computer technology including the Internet. People who make funny music (and all other kinds of music) are now able to produce their own CD's at home, master and duplicate them on their computers, and sell them online. None of that existed during the first 25 years of the show. People back then could produce their own records, but they had to persuade local record stores to carry them on consignment, or sell them by mail, with very few opportunities to promote them aside from my show and a few other outlets. For most of them, the returns were meager at best. Today, someone like The Great Luke Ski can get a whole lot more people to hear his music...though the prospect of real financial return can still be elusive.

P: You used to look for most of the obscure music you played yourself. Do you still do this yourself, does someone else help/ look for you, or do most people just send you submissions?

DD: I still look for records...but most of the new stuff comes online or in the mail.

P: What do you typically look for in new songs you play each week?

DD: Something that's funny and entertaining to listen to. It's very subjective.

P: Now that you’ve been doing your show this long, what plans do you have for the future?

DD: More of the same. When I did my first shows in 1970, I had no way of knowing whether I'd be on the air the next week, never mind the next year. I had no way of predicting or even dreaming that I'd still be doing the show 38 years later. I have no way of knowing what the future will bring, but people still enjoy the show, I make a living, so I press on. Thanks for your interest!

P: Thanks again for taking the time to answer these questions. Good luck to you and here’s hoping we see another 30 years of your show.

DD: Thanks!

Coheed & Cambria - Second Stage Turbine Blade

When I first heard Coheed & Cambria, it was on a sailing trip up in Lake Michigan. Like many, I had no idea what the lyrics meant but I fell in love with the song Time Consumer. I slowly turned into a huge fan of the rest of their work (they only had three albums at the time, the new one is crap). Then I fell away from them and wondered how I had gotten into them in the first place.

Well, today Time Consumer came up on shuffle and it sent a wave of nostalgia through my head. I'm slowly falling in love with their Second Stage Turbine Blade album again.
(key tracks: Time Consumer, Delirium Trigger, Godsend Conspirator)