December 31, 2022

Just Stand Back: Remembering Mimi Parker

"Here comes the knife 
You better just stand back
I could turn on you so fast"

Those lyrics, from the Low song "Just Stand Back," resonated anew last month. On November 6, the Duluth, Minnesota indie act's Twitter announced that its co-founder Mimi Parker had passed of cancer at age 55. Hers was a life lived, along with husband-collaborator Alan Sparhawk, in the service of uncompromising art. Parker's voice, woven with Sparhawk's, was a glowing beacon amid ominous yet mesmerizing music.  

Like a viper lying in wait, "Just Stand Back" strikes the listener about a third of the way into the dense and jarring thicket of the 2005 album The Great Destroyer. It's an admittedly obscure corner of their musical legacy, but in line with the majesty and mystery of their overall body of work, it captivates just the same. 

The guitar chords of "Just Stand Back" scuff and jangle as the song begins. Sparhawk, with his dry yet pleading voice, invites you in ("It's a hit / It's got soul," he sings). But once Parker joins in to harmonize with her partner, the shimmering magic of Low is revealed: "Just Stand Back" blossoms into an eerie campfire song. It churns and burns, seemingly daring the listener to interpret what lyrics like "Here comes the knife" and "I could turn on you so fast" mean to them. "With a swing like that / You better just stand back" is delivered by Parker and Sparhawk with such co-conspiratorial confidence, it both inspires awe and telegraphs danger.

Like Minnesota's countless lakes, "Just Stand Back" is just one place to dip into when it comes to Low's music. There are 13 studio LPs, and The Great Destroyer is just the seventh. It's an expansive songbook of cathartic noise, experimentation and abject sonic bravery. Parker co-created hymns for the struggling and the painfully alone, her voice and drums tossed like lifelines to anyone needing them. 

Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk of Low
In the realm of indie rock it's easy to become cynical and write off bands like Low as cult entities or just another Pitchfork-approved act of the week. It would be inaccurate to say they're easily accessible or widely known; the phrase "musicians' musicians" comes to mind. Tagged as slowcore, they've been heavily acclaimed in some corners, particularly for their last two albums, Double Negative (2018) and HEY WHAT (2021). Both of these releases garnered Low some of the strongest notices of their career, remarkably for work awash in digital distortion and static. Transgressive? Boundary-pushing? Avant-garde? All of the above, and then some. 

Low did see an unlikely cheerleader emerge from the rock world. Their songs "Silver Rider" and "Monkey" (both from The Great Destroyer) were covered by Robert Plant on his 2010 album Band of Joy. And the day after Parker's death, Plant performed "Everybody's Song" and "Monkey" at his concert in Glasgow, Scotland. Elsewhere, tributes poured in from admirers including Sigur Rós, Tool's Maynard James Keenan, Will Sheff, El-P of Run the Jewels, and producer Steve Albini. Wilco's Jeff Tweedy even shared a cover of Low's "I Hear... Goodnight" on his Substack newsletter page. Onstage in South America November 8, Father John Misty talked about how important Low was to him, and performed a cover of the band's "In the Drugs." And this month, Phoebe Bridgers and Storefront Church released their take on the 1994 Low song "Words."

The marriage and creative partnership of Parker and Sparhawk has precedent in popular music, but it should be noted that they stayed together and thrived artistically until the end. In this one aspect, they're more like Johnny and June Carter Cash than say, Richard and Linda Thompson or Jack and Meg White. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, as well as the War and Treaty (Tanya Trotter and Michael Trotter, Jr.) are current examples of couples doing terrific work together. It all just underlines the inherent sadness and sense of loss when one half of a creative duo leaves this earth. 

Parker's voice dispelled the darkness. In joining her husband on songs of emotional turbulence matched by their music's noisy commotion, she shared her gift to magnificent effect. A phenomenal artist, gone too soon. 

November 18, 2022

The Super-Sized 2022 Rock Hall Ceremony

We're not at the Waldorf-Astoria anymore.

In light of the dazzling, genre-diverse spectacular that went down at the Microsoft Theater two weeks ago, it's worth reflecting back on the original location of the Rock Hall ceremony, held in New York City starting in 1986. 

Ah yes, the glitzy, champagne-drenched Waldorf-Astoria, home to a whopping 23 private inductions over the years. The event did escape from New York at times—it landed at L.A.'s Century Plaza in 1993 (still private), and in 1997, the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel had the distinction of hosting the first public ceremony. After a second public induction in Cleveland in 2009, the Waldorf-Astoria hosted two more closed-door ceremonies. Finally, in 2012, the walls came tumbling down, making this largely closed-off event open to everyday music fans. 

Ten years later, so much has happened. There's been Rock Hall Foundation leadership and committee turnover (most notably, John Sykes in for Jann Wenner), the pandemic (which herded the 2020 inductees into a pre-packaged, documentary-style HBO program), and an erratic three-city rotation. This year, inductions returned to La La Land (or, in Alex Lifeson parlance, "blah-blah land") for the first time in nine years. 

This was a big one. Super-sized. It will put the "Max" in HBO Max this weekend. In a first, there were even bleachers onstage packed with fans. This was Sykes' first Los Angeles ceremony, and the iHeartMedia President and co-founder of MTV (along with the foundation and production team) wasn't leaving anything to chance. "Delivering the goods" appears to be the key methodology of 2020s-era Rock Hall ceremonies. Cleveland next year? Or Brooklyn? No matter where this event lands on the map, it would appear that state-of-the-art production and God-tier rock star power will be on tap. Last year, McCartney. This year, Springsteen. 

The 37th annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony is getting a 4-hour window for broadcast on HBO. At the Microsoft Theater, it spanned five and-a-half hours (7:15 p.m. to about 12:45 a.m.). Having been in the room for ceremonies that ran about that long, but felt longer due to speeches and near-comical staging delays (looking at you, 2015), it must be said that apart from Duran Duran's brief sound collapse early on, the show mostly cruised along, with just a few plodding segments along the way. The final edit will likely jettison some of that excess baggage. 

The baggage isn't limited to the show itself. The Rock Hall ceremony is an exhilarating bubble to be in, but it remains peculiar due to various tensions. Maybe it's the mixing of industry and commoners, and maybe it's the feeling that the Hall, with its obvious inductee backlog and well-documented failures of committee-think, has a lot to make right; the fans showing up are carrying both expectation and indignation. 

If the show runners understand this, and they hopefully do, they'll work harder to find a balance between crowd-pleasing musical nirvana (knockout performances, once-in-a-lifetime moments) and the manner in which they recognize amazing individuals such as Harry Belafonte, Sylvia Robinson and Elizabeth Cotten. Those three inductees received only video packages, with no one onstage to even briefly announce their induction. In the late Robinson's case, her son Leland and granddaughter were there, so to not have them quickly accept the award on their mother's behalf was a mistake. Time truly must be made in these instances. Yes, it's a long show, time is of the essence, but some judiciousness was needed here.

And that's the problem with "big." Small, nuanced things get trampled upon. It's a vexing problem with shows of this scale, and with the Hall specifically. Much is done well, and much seemingly gets ignored. But flawed as it may be, the institution appears to be steering this colossal ship in the right direction. Vocal, intelligent observers have raised their voices for more women, more metal, more inductees, etc., and it would be inaccurate to say the Hall isn't listening. That said, Cleveland truly needs its first female hip-hop honoree, and hopefully 2023 brings that and much more.

But back to the ceremony. iHeartMedia boss Sykes is a different captain than Wenner, and there is an ambitious, new-look Rock Hall era upon us. With its 14 honorees and top-shelf list of special guests, the highly-produced 2022 edition could be split in half, and two ceremonies could be made from it. Goodness gracious, there were even two all-star jams, for all intents and purposes. (It seems the days of 5-7 inductees are a thing of the past.)

Speaking of Sykes, the inductions these last two years seem to parallel, in subtle ways, the genre-diverse, mainstream tilt of iHeartRadio Music Awards shows. In line with Sykes' references to "the sound of youth culture," there are several household names crossing over, and back, between that event and the Rock Hall ceremony (J.Lo! LL Cool J! Ed Sheeran! Olivia Rodrigo!). It's fitting, too, that SiriusXM looms so large in this annual affair (from backstage interviews to broadcasting audio of the ceremony), because its panoramic music station menu echoes the genre-inclusive approach that, at its best, the Hall manifests with its inductee slate and ceremonies each year. Where there is Dolly Parton, there is also Rob Halford. Where there is Eminem, there is also Steven Tyler. 

Started at the Waldorf-Astoria and now we're here.  

November 3, 2022

The Rock Hall Triumph of Judas Priest

"We don't accept defeat, we never will retreat..." - "Freewheel Burning"

Tough as leather, armed with a steely resolve, and road warriors to this day, Judas Priest finally enters the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this Saturday, November 5. It's a triumph for these metal gods, and for the heavy metal faithful across the globe. 

It's also an exceptionally overdue honor, and one that unfortunately required special intervention by the Hall to even happen. Judas Priest, upon their third nomination this year, still didn't earn enough votes from the official Rock Hall votership to be counted among the Class of 2022's seven "Performer" honorees (Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo, Duran Duran, Eminem, Eurythmics, Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie, and Carly Simon). As a result, they are being given the Award for Musical Excellence.  

Ian Hill, Glenn Tipton, Rob Halford, K.K. Downing, Les Binks
Ultimately, the Hall arrived at a solution. Some observers are OK with it, some are not. But the institution had to take action. How could they continue to snub Judas Priest, arguably the second-most significant metal band after Black Sabbath? If Hall voters continue to reject this genre (Iron Maiden was on the ballot last year, another swing and a miss!), measures need to be taken. Maybe it's not perfect, but as Winston Churchill once said, perfection is the enemy of progress.

In many ways, this "other" honor is quite appropriate, and one truly hopes the Priest camp fully embraces and understands it. These guys wear their outsider status on their studded sleeves, and have soldiered through their career on their own terms. They are the embodiment of heavy metal, which is not a path for the faint of heart  these guys had to have wanted it. Officially formed in 1969, with their debut LP Rocka Rolla released in 1974, the group has overcome daunting challenges: label woes; personnel changes; world tours; a 1990 court trial where they were accused of putting subliminal messages in their music; and Rob Halford's difficult decision, as a gay man, to stay in the closet during Priest's most successful years (he came out in 1998). More recently, guitarist Glenn Tipton was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 2018, leaving him unable to perform full shows, though he still performs encores with his mates, and will fortunately be present at this week's ceremony. Despite everything, Priest have delivered on their vision for over 50 years, making thunderous, exhilarating music for hardcore fans and mainstream rock audiences alike. 

Musical excellence? They've excelled indeed, from the sonorous vocals and haunting riffs of "Victim of Changes" to the revving, concussive "Hell Bent for Leather" to radio/MTV hits like "Breaking the Law" and "You've Got Another Thing Coming." On 1990's Painkiller album, they pushed the limits of speed and thrash metal to gloriously punishing effect. And these high points are just the tip of the iceberg — at 18 studio albums, the Priest discography is rewarding and vast, with 2018's Firepower earning rave reviews as a thrilling return to form. A new album is due in 2023.

Priest's induction feels rather special; there's a definite "triumph of the underdog" narrative here for both the band and its disciples. Suddenly, a worldwide community of marginalized metal believers, angry with the Hall for years about this snub, finally feel seen. For generations of lost souls and high school rebels, Priest has been a sanctuary. Their music is a rite of passage, sure, but it's also a lifelong companion. 

Judas Priest represents so much. They are the smoking kids on the corner outside your high school. They are every Eddie Munson with a Dio backpatch. They are the rowdy denizens of heavy metal parking lots where zebra-striped shirts get soaked with beer and sweat. They are the sound of a teenager's bedroom door slamming after a fight with a parent. They are a backwoods kegger, where bonfires rage and bad choices are made. They have been there, reliably, to offer their faithful catharsis, community, and the credo "One life, I'm gonna live it up." And that's why they belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, by any means necessary. 

July 10, 2022

We Are the Robots

Kraftwerk 3-D
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
July 8, 2022

Why are we here? What is our purpose? Is life a dream or an elaborate, predetermined program? Are we more machines than man now? Perhaps it's best to let German robots explain all this.

Those are heavy questions, of course. And while witness accounts of Kraftwerk 3-D may vary, this multimedia presentation seemed intent on exploring universal truths and the challenges of modern human existence. 

Lest you think this whole enterprise sounds uncomfortable  and that, by the end, you'd be imploring HAL 9000 to open the pod bay doors — it was quite the opposite. By way of introduction, the talent onstage is founding Kraftwerk member Ralf Hütter (age 75), along with Henning Schmitz, Fritz Hilpert, and Falk Grieffenhagen. Wearing neon-lined body suits redolent of the movie "Tron," they manned individual, rectangular podiums while an unrelenting spectacle of 3-D-enhanced video played on a giant screen behind them. UFOs violated your airspace, protruding satellite antennas made you duck, sound waves bounced, 8-bit cars sped down the Autobahn. It was a technicolor feast for the eyes, but the subversive Kraftwerk ethos still burrowed into the psyche, going past the optic nerves and straight into the hippocampus and beyond. 

Kraftwerk 3-D
The best concert experiences draw you in, and deliver something unexpected. This futuristic extravaganza certainly did that. Just as the 3-D screen lent a sense of space and depth, the seemingly basic subject matter of songs like "Numbers," "Home Computer" and "Airwaves" blossomed into thought-provoking performance pieces. On a similar note, "Autobahn," "Tour de France" and "Trans-Europe Express" evoked forward movement and human progress, but given our recent history, one could not help but think of another band's theory of de-evolution.

Underneath Kraftwerk's beeps, circular rhythms and cyborgian vocals lies a key question: What happens at the intersection of man and machine? On this night, many answers were possible. "Computer Love," with its lyrics, "I don't know what to do, I don't know what to do/I need a rendezvous, I need a rendezvous" suggests a lot about how people connect in the modern age (and it's quite prescient for a song released in 1981). Elsewhere, the folly of man/machine was laid bare on "Radioactivity," as it called out nuclear-scarred cities and displayed radiation warning symbols onscreen. 

Sobering nuclear outcomes aside, a rapt audience nonetheless sat with cardboard 3-D glasses on their faces while Hütter and crew  relying not only on substance, but resplendent, colorful style  reasserted Kraftwerk's innovation and immeasurable influence. Some of the haunting textures from "The Model" echoed goth-rock, one of many genres Hütter, Florian Schneider, Wolfgang Flür, and Karl Bartos either nudged along or made possible. At other points of the show, robot voices confirmed that things like Auto-Tune and Daft Punk were beamed down from the Kraftwerk mothership. Of course, any musician that ever touched a synthesizer or drum machine after 1970 can thank this quartet. Synth-pop, New Wave, Neue Deutsche Welle, disco, industrial, hip-hop, techno, and a legion of pop and rock acts are all branches of the Kraftwerk tree. 

Masquerading as automatons, the original lineup of Kraftwerk gave their fans much to contemplate around identity and purpose. On this night, the tradition was continued by four men that, for all their amusing stoicism, were still recognizable as living beings. But in a chilling bit of future shock during "Robotronik," four actual robots danced onstage, without a human in sight. It was turbulent and purposeful: a synthetic, sensory-overloading tableau that rattled the cages of our 21st-century souls. It was artificial intelligence reminding us to be human.

March 28, 2022

Indie Rock (and Cuervo) Gold

Guided by Voices
Revolution Hall - Portland, OR
March 27, 2022

"Who do you think you are, Jethro Tull?

This snarky inquiry wasn't from a heckling audience member, but rather, a smiling, self-aware Bob Pollard after a rendition of "Moses on a Snail," a proggy number that culminated in ascendant riffing that found the singer slowly raising his arms and hands in religious fervor. The next logical step might have been speaking in tongues, but fear not, infidels: Uncle Bob picked up his Miller Lite, took a swig and got on with other sacred business.

This Guided by Voices phenomenon is remarkable, and it endures. But what does one make of these Dayton, Ohio indie rock kings in 2022? They're 39 years into their inspirational story, with nearly as many lineup changes, albums and songs as beers consumed onstage. The center of the GBV universe, of course, is Robert Pollard, a former schoolteacher whose unlikely "parachutist into a boxing ring"-level party-crash of the indie rock world in the '90s still feels like a miracle. And there are fewer more reassuring sights than this fully-invested bon vivant joyfully kicking his leg backward, twirling his mic, and doing his signature high kick when his band launches into yet another irresistible anthem. Pollard is white-haired and 64 years old, but time has not diminished him.

Pollard, March and Gillard
When it comes to choosing songs, where does Guided by Voices even start? Pollard and company are on the road, theoretically supporting their 35th album Crystal Nuns Cathedral, but since it's their sixth album since 2020, there's an always-swelling pile of tunes to craft a setlist from (seriously, there are thousands). "Prolific" is the word that is most often attached to Pollard, and justifiably: By his own admission on this night, he's put out 117 albums, if you count GBV and all his solo and side projects. The task of putting together a setlist is enough to drive a bandleader to drink. Luckily, provisions were acquired, and as usual, a cooler sat onstage, and Captain Pollard fished a bottle of Cuervo Gold and endless beers from it. 

Whatever the setlist yields, though, this band's barley soda-guzzling cult is down for whatever, and ready to sing along. The 49 riff-heavy tunes GBV cranked out at Revolution Hall in Portland (a converted high school auditorium) kept spirits high, and the "G-B-V!" chant inevitably made its appearance a few songs in. And the thrill of surprise  for those avoiding the spoilers of previous tour stop setlists, anyway  was very much in effect. For every predictable, "they can't leave without playing that" selection like "Motor Away," "Echoes Myron" or "Game of Pricks," there were plenty of recent tunes and tasteful picks from the GBV/solo Bob repertoires: "Climbing a Ramp" (from 2022's Crystal Nuns Cathedral), "The Disconnected Citizen" (from 2021's Earth Man Blues), "King 007" (from 2017's How Do You Spell Heaven) and "Love is Stronger Than Witchcraft" (from Pollard's 2006 solo LP From a Compound Eye).

There was a welcome middle ground, too, as the less familiar (i.e. newer) tracks were offset by standout gems from across the colossal GBV songbook, including "Your Name is Wild," "Back to the Lake," "I Am a Tree," and "My Kind of Soldier." There is a copious amount of musical gold to dig for in this catalog, of course. But not everything worked: The harmonies on the reflective "Twilight Campfighter" were sloppy compared to the slick studio version (that is just a tough tune to improve live), while "Man Called Blunder" was a case study in the sometimes plodding, mid-set lull that naturally happens during a two and a half-hour show. 

Overall, though, these guys came to play. Having witnessed this band in action since the year 2000, there's no question of its evolution — there is now a sharpness, a rhythmic complexity, and subtle prog-rock elements dovetailing nicely with the power chords and power pop, lifting Guided by Voices to a higher echelon artistically. Many moments of this performance legitimately felt like "next-level GBV." The chemistry and enthusiasm onstage was evident, and one imagines Pollard is thrilled to have a steady, consistent lineup of GBV to go out there with. Axeman Bobby Bare, Jr., bassist Mark Shue, and GBV vets Kevin March (drums) and sharp-shooting guitarist Doug Gillard rocked an array of material in winning fashion. Additionally, it was charming to see Pollard act paternal with the youthful Shue, calling him "Colonel Whitepants" due to his stage attire. 

On a similar note, Pollard's self-deprecating stage banter is a hilarious aspect of any of his gigs; tonight he lamented that the pop act Fine Young Cannibals (!) was somehow a bigger band than GBV (he even sarcastically sung a line from FYC's biggest hit: "She drives me crazy!" to which the audience automatically lobbed the song's "whoo! whoo!" back at him). However, Pollard, seeing the beer bottle as half full, did remind the crowd that Fine Young Cannibals don't have a song as great as the next one GBV was about to play — "Smothered in Hugs." Fair enough, Bob... we can examine that Jethro Tull comparison another day. 

February 21, 2022

Eric's Archive: Butch Vig Interview, Entertainment Today, January 1999

From 1997-2001, I served as the Music Editor of Entertainment Today, one of Los Angeles' oldest weekly entertainment newspapers. The Internet was still something of a fledgling thing in those days, but a website for the paper did eventually exist. 

As a new feature of E-Rockracy called "Eric's Archive," I've rescued some of my more interesting Entertainment Today pieces from the dustier corners of the Internet, and have posted them here and below. 

I fondly recall this interview I did with Butch Vig, producer of Nirvana's Nevermind and a key member of the band Garbage. I remember Vig being quite personable and forthcoming. His response to my question about Nevermind is something I still remember:

"I know that Kurt sometimes tried to repress his pop instincts, but he was a genius when it came to that: He'd just pick up a guitar and he'd start ad-libbing something, and it was all this amazing stuff." 

Butch Vig... talk about a guy that was present at the birth of a major rock movement. Without further adieu, here is the feature article/cover story from January 1999:

The Future, Thy Name is Garbage

Überproducer/drummer/Wisconsinite Butch Vig sounds off on success, musical evolution, Y2K and the next big thing

by Eric Layton

It's hard to believe that Garbage started as a fluke. When engineer-producer/"grunge architect" Butch Vig and his two Madison, Wisconsin buddies Duke Erickson and Steve Marker first laid eyes on the Scottish singer currently known as Shirley Manson, she was on MTV, crooning with the band Angelfish. That was nearly six years ago. Since then, the thirtyish Manson and this elder trio of Midwestern producers have become one of the dominant forces in modern rock. By taking traditional pop songs and hacking them apart with processed guitars, hip-hop beats and mutating, post-industrial soundscapes, the quartet delivered a knockout blow to the music world and alternative listeners bored with self-serving grunge misery. Fueled by such hit singles as "Only Happy When It Rains" and "Stupid Girl," their eponymous 1995 debut went quadruple platinum. In the meantime, Garbage became a ubiquitous presence on MTV, radio and the concert trail. In a truly queer turn of events, fans and critics finally seemed to agree on something: Garbage didn't stink.

This group could have easily become their own worst enemy - how in the world was this internationally recognized act going to follow-up such a promising first effort? The resounding answer is with Version 2.0, which, as its moniker implies, is a evolution of the sound and fury they began on Garbage. The sophomore release finds Manson, Vig, Erikson and Marker truly cohering as a unit; they not only wrote the material as a collective, but produced it together as well. It's a sonically futuristic, emotionally striking song cycle worthy of the overused description "fully realized." Manson's lyrics have taken on a whole new maturity (she may be a lusty heartbreaker, but she's paranoid, vulnerable and optimistic too), while the kaleidoscopic aural textures are pure ear candy - audible paintings that reveal something different with each spin. But where the first record was a nervous, kitchen-sink splatter of Basquiat-ian proportions, Version 2.0 is crafted with a decidedly Van Gogh-ish flair, its colorful layers the product of painstaking workmanship. Cuts like "Hammering in My Head," "Special" and "The Trick is to Keep Breathing" are perhaps the finest examples of their artistry.

Speaking by phone from a Chicago hotel suite just before Christmas (Garbage was in the Windy City to perform at yet another multi-act radio festival), the 40-year-old Vig sounds especially chipper. And he should. Version 2.0 has been shifting serious units, and is on its way to triple platinum status (since this interview, it's been nominated for two Grammys, including Album of the Year).

Possibly adding to Vig's general state of happiness is the fact that he's had such a deep impact on '90s rock. Besides his contributions to Garbage, he's the "superstar producer" who sat behind the boards on such albums as Nirvana's impossibly huge Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins' breakthrough platter Siamese Dream. Grunge may be dead, but its influence is still being felt on the music of today. One case in point is Garbage, which couldn't have existed without the genre; how many knob-twiddlers, really, have been able to form and play in commercially and critically viable band? Vig is enigmatic in this way, though his pleasant conversational manner and dude-next-door attitude indicates nothing but a Wisconsin guy who's made good. Real good.

Since Garbage had tasted and bonded over the sweet nectar of multiplatinum stardom before recording Version 2.0, one might assume a four-way traffic jam of inflated egos might have slowed down the album's creative process. However, Vig claims that it was easier to reconcile all band members' varied personalities into Version 2.0 - especially that of Manson, Garbage's golden-voiced focal point. "I know that Shirley had a lot more confidence in her singing and lyric writing. I think she just felt freer to express herself," he remembers. "It was very awkward when she joined us on the first album - she didn't know us from anyone, and had to immediately go in and start writing and producing. She sort of took the ball and ran with it, and I think she's really grown as an artist. I think that the four of us just interact much better now than we did before."

Attaining musical perfection is a process that has kept the Garbage members, who each have an iron in the production fire, burning the midnight oil on countless nights. Their often-schizophrenic sound is a mélange of synthesized noise, drum loops, grinding guitars and atmospheric touches that could probably be remixed an infinite number of times. Vig and co. are notorious for their studio overkill, so when he's asked his thoughts on the famous quote, "Art is never finished, it's abandoned," he chuckles in tacit recognition.

"I think that, if left to our own devices, I'd probably still be in there working on Version 2.0. I think there's a point where you sort of lose yourself in [the recording process] and you get so obsessed with it that it's hard to have any objectivity. That's one of the good things about having four very opinionated producers - at one point, somebody will say, 'It's good. We're going too far.'"

They may be workaholics, but it's a small price to pay for keeping Garbage, one of the most visible rock acts of the mid-to-late '90s, creatively vital and on the road. And Vig understands that the clock is ticking. "I think we realized that Garbage is very of the moment now. I don't know that we can sit around and think, 'Do we want to be remembered for a song 10 or 50 years from now?' We're enjoying making music and playing live, and we have loose plans to make a third album. Because we love this so much - even though we're exhausted all the time - it's our job and it's also our passion."

Vig is humble about it, but his band can rightly take credit for forging a style that a slew of current acts has adopted, from the Sneaker Pimps to Morcheeba to Girls Against Boys. Though he's cognizant of Garbage's influence (he finds other groups' appropriation of their sound "complimentary and irritating at the same time"), he doesn't want its artistic vision corrupted by vain self-congratulation"We don't necessarily want to tell people that we're waving a flag, that we started some new trend. One of the reasons we call Garbage a pop band is because you can embrace a lot of different things. It's important to us, though, to make records that we think are cool for ourselves - if other people think that's cool, that's great."

Videos and MTV have played a critical role in Garbage's climb to the top of the alternative rock heap. From the next-to-ignored late '96 clip "Queer" to more widely-seen fare like "Only Happy When It Rains" and "Stupid Girl," the foursome has had a talent for marrying their music to an always-stimulating visual canvas. Not so surprisingly, Vig really digs the medium, even though he doesn't watch much MTV these days ("I don't have time," he admits). "We really enjoy videos - we've always been very visually oriented. Steve and I met in film school, and we're all into cinema. I think that, for a lot bands, [videos] are a drag, and I can see where it takes away some of the mystique of the song. And to a certain extent, I believe that also. But we also feel like it's a chance to make a mini-movie that is at least one visual representation of a song."

That fusion of sound and vision was also important to Vig's former collaborators in Nirvana. Their single "Smells Like Teen Spirit," with a little help from its video, became anthemic in scope, and pushed the album Nevermind into the stratosphere. When prodded, Vig shared his thoughts on why that watershed album, a collection that heralded the beginning of this decade's grunge movement, worked as well as it did.

"I think one of the reasons is that it had some amazing songs. It was a combination of the sort of energy that I was able to capture on that record, and the passion, the angst and all of the multiple, complex emotions that came out of Kurt. [The songs] were all well crafted and had intense passion, but you could sing along with them all. I know that Kurt sometimes tried to repress his pop instincts, but he was a genius when it came to that: He'd just pick up a guitar and he'd start ad-libbing something, and it was all this amazing stuff. That is extremely rare. And I think there was something in his personality - he touched a generation of kids who were dissatisfied and looking for something, and could relate to some of that in his lyrics and his singing."

At this juncture in popular music, grunge is extinct, electronica's failed to become the next big thing and bubblegum (Hanson, 'N Sync, Spice Girls, etc.), as they say, is blowin' up. But Garbage is in a class by itself, so learning about Vig's taste in current music was especially interesting. "I love Massive Attack's album, Mezzanine and I like PJ Harvey, Elliott Smith and Hole. And Fatboy Slim is probably the most played [artist] in the Garbage dressing room every night. Then we usually listen to Frank Sinatra when we come off."

And once they're offstage, the sex and drugs part of the rock 'n' roll equation is tackled with a drooling ardor, right? Well, not quite. Although Garbage has boasted that one its favorite pastimes is drinking, moderation, according to Vig, typically wins out. However, for this 40-year-old, it's still a challenge to stay healthy and balanced when he's on tour"Our vices aren't that bad. If you're 20, you feel indestructible. But touring really wears you down - I've lost like 10 pounds since we started this tour. You know, we like an occasional beer or a good glass of wine or a cocktail, but we feel we need to be responsible to put on a good show every night."

The road, as they say, goes on forever - or for Garbage, at least until Y2K. They're currently on a European trek, with possible tours in South America, Japan and Australia on the docket. Vig is incredulous. "We're kind of laughing, kidding ourselves that we're going to tour until New Year's Eve, 1999. It's scary to comprehend."

Scarier yet, in the opinion of some, is the Y2K crisis. But Vig can't be bothered with such pre-millennial tension. "It's still too far away for me to worry about, I think. I don't think [the year 2000] will be that different than [the present]. I think that music is evolving into something new, and I don't know what that is, but I think we're sort of in a transition period again. I think something's gonna come out in 1999 or in 2000, kind of like Nevermind did, and blow everybody away. I don't know whether it's going to be a rock album or a punk album or a techno record, but I think we're sort of in a period where we're waiting for something to happen. I can't quite define it, but I'm excited. If I knew who it was, I'd sign them."

Whatever the future holds, Vig says that Garbage is determined to do another record, though the timetable for it, at the moment, is murky at best. "We have plans, when we finish this tour, to try and score a film. We've been talking to several directors - Oliver Stone, David Lynch, Ron Howard - but nothing's been finalized yet. Part of it has been a timing issue because of touring. We want to make a third Garbage album, but we have no idea when or what it's going to sound like. But I think that we feel, creatively, that we want to push out beyond where we've been on the first two records. It's enough to keep us busy for awhile."

February 20, 2022

Eric's Archive: Henry Rollins Interview, March 2001

In 1991, Jane's Addiction were playing Rochester War Memorial, and there was no way I was missing that show. Jane's had an opening act I knew nothing about, beyond seeing his name alongside of Bad Brains on the "Pump Up the Volume" movie soundtrack, the contribution being a fierce cover of MC5's "Kick Out the Jams." 

That name was Henry Rollins, and his concussion grenade of a group, Rollins Band, deployed before Jane's took the stage, startled, fascinated, and scared me in equal measure. Rollins was crouched, seemingly simmering on some other plane of existence, and exploding vocally in time with the music; every song was like, tick-tick-BOOM. At one point, as a mosh pit roiled below Rollins, in this home to the Rochester Americans hockey team, I remember him sneering, "Welcome to the hockey rink!" At least there was a trace of humor in there somewhere.

Little did I know at the time about Rollins' spoken word career, his writing, his book publishing company, or what his tenure in Black Flag was all about (later, upon listening to the Get in the Van CD, the struggle was illuminated for me in harrowing detail). I saw the Rollins Band again a few months later, opening the first Lollapalooza in Toronto, and in the ensuing years, caught various club gigs of theirs in the Buffalo area. It wasn't until I moved to Los Angeles in the mid-90s that I had an opportunity to hear Rollins just stand on a stage and talk for 2-3 hours. A different shade of Hank, to be certain.

The interview below was my second Henry Rollins cover story at Entertainment Today. My unlikely trajectory of shock-and-awed fan to interviewer amuses me, and yet, is a source of pride. Here I sat, 10 years after that skull-rattling Rochester night, talking to a guy I would have gone to great lengths to avoid if I'd seen him on the street outside of War Memorial in 1991. It's evolution, baby. 

Henry, Unleashed

At 40, Renaissance animal man Henry Rollins sounds off on his band, his acting career, his changing priorities and his new spoken word disc, A Rollins in the Wry

by Eric Layton

“You think I’m doing any of this against my will?” fires back Henry Rollins, when asked how voluntarily he carries on his multi-hyphenated existence.

It’s a telling exchange. Indeed, there is just no stopping this guy. While everyone in life plays at least a few roles — employee, spouse, friend, addict, etc. — Rollins has totally upped the ante in regard to an individual’s possibilities for nearly 20 years. He’s been the singer of Black Flag, a spoken word artist, the leader of two incarnations of his namesake, post-punk band, an author, a publisher, a voice-over talent, an actor, and all along, a vein-popping weight lifter. You can also add TV host to that resume, as Rollins will be pulling a Rod Serling and emceeing the Fox horror series Night Visions, which premieres in May.

Rollins’ situation when he pauses for an interview reinforces his Renaissance man-dom. He was in the midst of recording the next Rollins Band album, about to do a spoken word tour behind his new talking CD A Rollins in the Wry (taped during his two-month residency in 1999 at the now-defunct L.A. club Luna Park) and recently filmed parts in three movies. The day after his 40th birthday, the garrulous icon, who will talk at the El Rey Theatre April 11 and 12, unleashed his tongue on Wry, why Clinton beats Bush, the upcoming Rollins Band record and his changing priorities.

Entertainment Today: Was it difficult to go through all the tapes of your Luna Park gigs?

Henry Rollins: Yeah. I hate doing it. Every two years I do a talking record, and it’s an excruciating task, sitting and listening to myself, and I never look forward to it. I always try and palm it off on my manager. Most of the time he’ll go, “Look, I heard these shows and I think this was good and this was good,” and I’ll listen to them and say, “Yeah, I think you’re right.” And that’s kind of what we did on this new one — he listened, I listened… I actually listened more than he did. But it was 18 hours of stuff, and I did not listen to all 18 hours. I kinda made notes after every show, like, “OK, that was cool, that was fun, that idea kinda fell on its face, we can leave that out.” So I consulted my notes, and it helped me cut some corners.

ET: What you wrote in the liner notes suggests that you were sort of coerced into doing the Luna Park residency. True?

HR: No, no, I was just having fun writing that. It’s just that I do a lot of shows and a lot of work. And my manager oftentimes knows better than to waste my time asking me if I want to go do a tour or something. He just says “Yes.” And then he’ll call me up and say, “Alright, you’re going to Australia for a month and you’re leaving in 10 days.” And I’ll go, “Cool.” And so his nickname is Richard “he’ll do it” Bishop. It was just a joke. I was in the studio mixing the new record and Carol from the book company called up and goes, “We need a paragraph of liner notes for the In the Wry CD right now, like in the next 20 minutes, or we’re going to miss the deadline.” I said, “OK, I’ll hit you with an e-mail in the next 20 minutes.” And I sat and wrote it right after hanging up the phone — one draft, one take, in seven minutes. I thought it was funny. There wasn’t a whole lot of thought that went into it.

ET: Positive audience response aside, what qualities do you feel constitute a good talking show?

HR: That I made the points I wanted to make, that I didn’t ramble too much and that I kept it going.

ET: What do you like the most about doing spoken word?

HR: The free range. You know, not having to [worry] about blowing the chorus or keeping in time. I enjoy that discipline as well, I just also like having no leash.

ET: What’s more exhausting, spoken word shows or band shows?

HR: Physically exhausting? Band shows. But they’re also physical like a work out — it’s an exhaustion you can deal with. The mental exhaustion of a talking show, six weeks [into a tour], becomes a heavy bear to wrestle.

ET: You express admiration for Bill Clinton on the new CD. Do you have any comment on the Bush presidency thus far?

HR: He hasn’t had a chance to do much yet, but he’ll fuck up — it’s coming. On a serious note, I liked Clinton in that I liked his people skills. On the global level, I liked that he cared about people or seemed to. He knew everyone’s name, and he seemed to be concerned with the bigger picture. I don’t see George W. being the same way. I see plot loss and failed arrogance that will slowly become unveiled as the four years go on. As the ignorance gets called out more, the arrogance will rise up.

ET: It is alarming that he hasn’t even been out of the country that many times.

HR: He’s only been to England — please! I was in England when I was 15. I mean, come on!


"Have you ever stood and watched a man’s body burn for 20 minutes? It was a new one on me! It was like, “OK, I’m definitely not in Cleveland.” 

ET: On the CD, you really seemed taken with Israel. Is that the most impressive place you’ve been?

HR: As far as the most impressive place, that’s probably someplace in Africa that I’ve been. Israel is a mind-blowing place. As far as the biggest mind-blow I’ve ever had, it’s India, for sure. I walked out of there and went, “What the fuck was that?” But Israel was fascinating — a beautiful country, amazing people — I had an amazing time. I can’t wait to go back.

ET: What was it about India that stuck with you?

HR: So much stuff… it’s 180 degrees from what you know. It’s just… what a trip! The first time I’m there, I’m standing in a room with 12 dead bodies as they’re lined up to get burnt. I was like, “Hello!” That’s just an everyday thing. It’s how they’re kickin’ it. I’d never seen that before — it wasn’t gross, it was just different. Have you ever stood and watched a man’s body burn for 20 minutes? It was a new one on me! It was like, “OK, I’m definitely not in Cleveland.” I saw many things there that I’d not seen before, and it wasn’t just because of the poverty — I’ve been to quite a few Third World environments. This was just a different kind of poor. Hard to explain, but it’s someplace one should go in one’s life, because it’ll definitely make you see your own country differently.

ET: How is the new band album coming, and what can fans expect from it?

HR: So far, there’s 30 songs in the can and we’re about 10 days away from completion. They can expect a record that will run over them like four jeeps.

ET: You did 83 shows this past year with the new band in support of Get Some Go Again, but I imagine that’s less than some of the tours with the old band. Was that a purposeful slowing down?

HR: Oh no, that’s how the tour ended up, actually. It’s just because we didn’t do as much in America as we usually do. We all wanted to keep going, but I had to do a bunch of movie stuff that I’d signed on for and a TV show. I had stuff I had to do, so it was time to give it a break. But for me, 100 shows is usually my minimum. The year before, I did like 130 shows or something like that. This year should be in the 150 range.

ET: You’ve done a fair amount of acting — ever been offered a lead role?

HR: Yeah, in smaller films. When I did this indie film Past Tense, they turned around and offered me the lead in their next movie, but I was busy. I would have been interested, though.

ET: It seems as though you could produce your own film projects if you wanted to. Is that something you’d be interested in?

HR: No. I would never want to produce or direct. It’s a fucking nightmare. I see these guys running around like maniacs… I’ve got no interest there.

ET: Are you writing a book right now?

HR: I just put out one (Smile, You’re Traveling), and I’m editing two, actually. As far as writing, I’ve been mainly working on song lyrics, because we’re in the middle of a record. So that’s kind of been taxing my brain, but I’m about to gather some steam and start another book project

ET: You’re 40 now. In what ways have your priorities changed?

HR: I think over the years, the art — the work — has become more and more important. The ego not so important. The reputation not so important. What people think not so important. But the work itself, 100 percent important. I’ve never been all that vain, but I’ve definitely been self-conscious. I find that the older I get, the less time I have for that.

ET: How many Rollins Band tours do you think you have left in you?

HR: I think I’ve got a couple more laps around the track — a few more years.

ET: It seems that you could keep on doing spoken word, as opposed to the band, until you’re an old man. Is that something you could see yourself doing?

HR: Absolutely. I think I could potentially get better and better at the talking shows. You know, if I did it right I could end up like a Henry Miller or a Mark Twain — not on the level of talent, but in just being able to look at things with a wry, observing eye, seeing a lot of culture come and go. I think at 60, I may be way more insightful than at 40. I would definitely have an opinion that a 20-year-old should pause for an hour for.

Henry Rollins will perform spoken word shows at the El Rey Theatre April 11 and 12.