Category Archives: Words

Lost & Found

“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”

— Allen Saunders (widely attributed to John Lennon)

TO BEGIN WITH…

converseLet’s start with the numbers, shall we? Everyone knows that the current economic climate is terrible, but nothing throws an ugly situation into relief like the harsh light of statistics. Youth unemployment rates are at record highs. Read More

Of Owls and Buffalo

Jesse Payne Self-Portrait

This odd bird is a nice guy: Jesse Payne plays at Rogue Tavern on Oct. 29.

In the not too distant past I worked in a downtown office-building food court, and one day as I trudged home from the fluorescent doldrums that filled my day, attempting to get the ringing of Fox News blather out of my ears, I saw a peculiar sight. Perched on the edge of the topmost tier of a parking deck was an owl. A big one. It was absolutely still, and I stopped and stared, wondering how such a beast had come to be in such a place. The next day, as I made my way back to work, I checked for the owl, and strangely, it was still there, stoic, unmoving. Before long I realized that it was a fake owl, probably left out to scare away pigeons and other vermin. Still, I took comfort in its presence. It was nice to know that there was an odd bird waiting to make me smirk as I traced my own footsteps on that familiar path.

Jesse Payne also has a thing for owls, and when I meet him on a lunch break from his own daytime gig, he reminds me of my fake feathered friend. Payne, with his rumpled hair and long beard, stands out in the crowd of clean-cut business-folk who are going about their lunches around us, an odd bird himself. Since I’ve got owls on the brain and Payne has featured owls in many aspects of his work, I ask him about his own attachment to them.

“The owls, man,” Payne exclaims. “Well, it goes back to my childhood. My dad, when I was six months old, obviously way before I can remember, brought me an owl from Washington, D.C., and that started this whole trend throughout my childhood, of pictures on the walls and like — I mean, we carry an owl with us on stage now, it’s pretty funny. [I like] that they’re nocturnal. I relate myself to that lifestyle. I always look tired during the day because I was up all night. I seldom sleep. Really, during the day I feel like I’m asleep all day, and nighttime it doesn’t matter how tired I am, I’m re-energized.”

All that nighttime energy has paid off in the form of the album Buffalo and companion DVD Kettle and Crow, which were released on Oct. 4. Although Payne began working on tracks for the album in 2010, an extremely rough patch of fate put a temporary wrench in the song-works.

“This last winter was really hard for us, on the road, because of stuff happening at home,” Payne says. “A family friend died, a neighborhood cat that was kind of my buddy died. We were on the road for a lot of hours, and [when we arrived] at on Ohio show, the local who was on the bill was standing outside the venue in four feet of snow turning people away. The venue hadn’t cancelled the show — they had closed completely. That started a whole trend. I broke a tooth on a nacho, from little things to big things.”

According to Payne, the misfortunes changed the album.

“I think the vibe of the demos going into the recording sessions completely changed,” he says. “It became a little heavier, a little darker.”

Both Buffalo and Payne’s previous album Nesting were recorded at Birmingham’s Capture Music Inc., a recording studio, production company and record label run by Mike Creager. Payne says it’s a key partnership.

“I wanted to try and find somebody that fit my style better, and when me and Mike started working together it was obvious,” he says. “I sat down and talked to him before I even said that I wanted to come record there, just to pick his brain about what he thought about music. He talked about ‘the nuances of noise,’ and once he said that, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll sign up with you.’”

Though Buffalo contains much of the soft, mellow warmth of Nesting, it’s occasionally harder-driving, and sometimes changes gear into full brood. In album opener “Take Me” — a lazy Sunday song if I ever heard one, filled with distant horns and plenty of breath — the bridge’s ambient undercurrent conjures images of wasteland, bringing a murky disquiet to the affair.

In contrast, the lighter second half of the album is the live audio from Kettle and Crow, which can by synchronized with the DVD. It has two versions of songs from the first half of the album, and the two best songs from his earlier albums, “Yards of Paint” and “Skeletons.” Although the live version of “Take Me” lacks the glorious horns featured on the studio version, the reimagined tracks are a nice change of pace. The DVD is gorgeously filmed and worth a look on its own right.

In many ways, Buffalo feels like an ending, with Payne resurrecting the best parts of the past for one last encore before he moves on to new things. He says he’s planning another album for next October, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a whole new bird.

Jesse Payne will play at Rogue Tavern’s “Peaches ‘n’ Scream” Halloween party on Saturday, Oct. 29. Buffalo and Kettle and Crow are available locally at the Charlemagne Record Exchange and Renaissance Records and online via downloads.jessepayneonline.com.

Orig­i­nally printed in WELD Birmingham on October 19, 2011.

The New Sound of the Shoals

The weight of history hangs heavy in Muscle Shoals. Not many towns as tiny as this Northern Alabama burg have such a strong connection with celebrity past, and the result is that Muscle Shoals’ national identity has been almost completely consumed by events that occurred there many decades ago. I refer, of course, to the legendary music that was created in the Shoals in the 1960s by Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Wilson Pickett, The Allman Brothers, Otis Redding, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Etta James and countless others at FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

Those studios were a haven for black and white session musicians alike, and provided an unlikely space for collaboration between the two in the racially divided Alabama of the 1960s. The resulting “Muscle Shoals sound” was distinctive and attractive, and it wasn’t long before the rock and R&B stars came calling, looking for an out-of-way place where they could peacefully lay down some of their best tracks with some of the best players available.

Music has moved on since then, and Muscle Shoals and its musicians were left trying to reinvent themselves. In the late 1990s, spurred by the success of Shoals band Drive by Truckers, the area began to see a resurgence of interest in the music it was producing. FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio still exist, and in their halls a new generation of bands are reinventing the definition of “Muscle Shoals sound” one track at a time.

Belle Adair

It came from the North: Belle Adair is bringing the new sound of Muscle Shoals to Bottletree on August 18.

Enter Belle Adair, who will arrive at the Bottletree August 18 with a few of their Shoals brethren for “Muscle Shoals Music Night,” a local celebration of the revitalization of the music coming from our northern neighbors. Belle Adair’s front-man Matt Green recently moved to the Shoals from Birmingham, and I had a chance pick his brain about the genesis of the new project.

“Belle Adair began as a recording project after three years of failed attempts to put together a proper band,” Green says. “From the start, we weren’t centrally located. Grey Watson (guitar) and I lived in Birmingham, Ben Tanner (keys/engineer) was working out of the Shoals area, and Matt Myrick (drummer) lived in Tuscaloosa. After a few marathon recording weekends in the Shoals without rehearsal and with maximal overdubbing going on, we ended up with a six-song EP that we released digitally early this year.”

The resulting eponymous record is gorgeous, with a slow, lazy open that gains speed into an energetic middle that will have you toe-tapping and then quietly winds back down. At its softest (as in the opening track “STN”), the album is comforting, full of deft harmony, wandering melody and ambient noise. At its most upbeat (in the single-worthy “Paris is Free”), it is accomplished acoustic-pop at its best. You’ll hear many of the familiar tropes of Americana here, but never in an obvious or clichéd manner.

The recording process was not an easy one for Green. “There was a lot of frustration for me at the time: trying to navigate weekend trips among four people and trying to put together a recording without any consistency and without prospect of playing live,” he recalls. “After a freak apartment fire and other life goings-on, I decided it was time to move back home to the Shoals area, but it took eight months or so to put together a working group.” After he was done, Belle Adair’s lineup was markedly different, now consisting of Green (guitar/vocals), Tanner (keys/vocals), Daniel Stoddard (pedal steel/ vocals), Chris James (bass) and Patrick McDonald (drums).

Ben Tanner, who works at FAME, also engineered and helped mix the EP. “Ben and I have been close friends since we were little kids, so it’s always been natural and intuitive working with him,” Green says. “He’s been playing keyboards with me since I started writing songs. We share an interest in a certain palette of sounds, from Wurlitzers and synths to pedal steel and more ambient textures, that heavily influences our choices in the recording process. He’s kind of my musical co-conspirator.”

Recently, the band reestablished their connection with Birmingham music when Travis Morgan, founder of local label Skybucket Records, began managing them. “Personally, I think Belle Adair is a treasure among the current bands in the Shoals,” Morgan says. “I don’t think any other bands that I’ve heard are taking song composition to the creative and fascinating production level that Belle Adair is. While I respect what Jason Isbell (of Drive By Truckers) and The Civil Wars are doing musically, I feel Belle Adair is doing something more modern and way more interesting.”

So, if you like interesting things and want to catch the new sound of an old favorite, head down to Bottletree on Thursday, August 18 at 9 p.m. Belle Adair will be playing with Shoals bands The Bear and The Pollies, and admission will be $7. For more information on Belle Adair or to download their EP, visit www.belleadairmusic.com . To purchase tickets, visit www.thebottletree.com.

Sam George is the Editor-in-Chief of Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to sam@bhamweekly.com.

Originally printed in Birmingham Weekly on August 18, 2011.

For the Love of Music

Birmingham doesn’t do rock stars. We aren’t the next “it” city, and we don’t have a “sound.” People don’t move to Birmingham to get famous and launch their careers. Don’t get me wrong, there’s more great music being produced in Birmingham than most people can imagine. We’ve got a community of bands who are committed, hard-working craftspeople, and their output is consistent and engaging. On most nights of the week, you can see a caliber of music played across the stages of our nightclubs and other venues that would rival any large city or “scene” town.

Yet, somehow, that music often reaches only a fraction of the people for whom it is made. Audience turnout is regularly anemic, and Birmingham bands are greeted on the road with surprise, as if it was inconceivable that such good music came from our fair city.

There is hope, though, and plenty of it. We have the bands themselves, acting as ambassadors for Birmingham every time they hit the road. We also have a host of new venues that have cropped up in the last few years, like Bottletree and Workplay, who are willing to put local bands forward and support the musicians as they experiment and grow, and who are also bringing in great and interesting acts from outside, so that they can get a taste of what Birmingham has to offer. We have new music festivals such as Secret Stages and BAAM! who are committed to bringing the world’s attention to the music we generate here. We have each other, musicians and fans alike, all mixing together in the streets and clubs, living our lives and each doing our small part to make the wheels of Birmingham keep turning.

Each of the artists on the following pages is an example of the kind of dedicated musicianship and willingness to persevere that is necessary to survive in a difficult musical climate. They are by no means the only bands to fit into this category, but they are a good representation, and I hope as you read through each of their stories that you see a reflection of your own struggle to live life fully.The next time you see one of their names on a bill, go out to the show. You won’t see any rock stars. Birmingham doesn’t do rock stars. What we do is make good music.

The Green Seed

The Green Seed

The Green Seed: (foreground to background) R-Tist, djFX and Complet. Photo by Liesa Cole.

The first time I saw hip-hop trio The Green  Seed, they were the last band on a long list at the Bottletree, and by the time they started, there were six people, including me, left in the crowd. Not that it mattered to them, because they killed that show. Down at the edge of the stage pounding fist with the lucky few, spitting lyrics with aplomb, they gave it all for nothing.

In Birmingham, you get to know the music by experiencing the music. The Green Seed know this as performers and as fans. “We did a show at the High Note Lounge,” Complet recalls. “We were in the corner, and we had never heard of 13ghosts, but they…were…awesome. I mean they slammed, and we were like, ‘Who is this? Why have we not heard of them before? Where has this been?’ If you want to be a part of this industry, or this network, this society, it has to be about more than just you. You have to not only be able to make good music, but have to be willing to expose yourself to the possibility of hearing good music from somebody else.”

These days, The Green Seed have become synonymous with hip-hop in Birmingham. They and the Birmingham-based LOBOTOMIX collective, a group that attempts to create socially conscious music that can stand opposite the negative reinforcement coming from commercial hip-hop, can now be seen regularly on a number of local stages.

The Green Seed’s take on conscious hip-hop has video game and comic book culture as its touchstones, but lately they have branched out lyrically to include social issues, including a song which urges you to “kill your television.” I concur, and suggest you head out to see some local music instead.

HROM

HROM

HROM: James Hrom. Photo by Liesa Cole.

“I’m not a DJ. I don’t really know how to do that,” James Hrom says. No matter though, what he does do is fascinating enough. Under the banner of his last name, pronounced without the ‘h,’ he performs a very specific sub-genre of electronic music known as Chiptune. If you know what the soundtracks to eight-bit Nintendo games sounded like, than you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Chiptune is all about.

Hrom began exploring how to perform his style of music live in the now-defunct Birmingham musical breeding ground of Cave 9 and says he only recently figured out the formula: “[Cave 9] is where I started to experiment with trying to figure out my show, what works, what doesn’t work, what people want to hear, what people don’t want to hear. It took a long time to figure that out.” Because of that experimentation, his performance has adapted to contain pure Chiptune mixed with more digestible music so that it is easier for electronica neophytes to get into the mix.

Still, Hrom is adamant about his status as a DJ, largely because when he says he plays electronic music, he is often misunderstood. Chiptune is time-consuming and difficult music to make, requiring an intricate knowledge of ancient programing techniques. Being able to meld such a labor intensive style into a live show that can adapt with its audience is a feat whose difficulty is not sufficiently conveyed by the title DJ. DJ’s play dance music, and what James Hrom does is much more than that.

Still, he understands the climate. “There is that weird stigma with electronic music that it is just some guy hitting play,” he says. “Even just writing electronic music, people are like ‘Well, I could do that you know. Just program it into a computer.’ There isn’t a lot of literacy in terms of understanding what’s going on, even between different types of electronic music. I’ve known people who have listened for years and are like ‘Chiptune music, what’s that?’” I’ll tell you what. It’s awesome, and in your backyard.

The Magic Math

The Magic Math

The Magic Math: (from left to right) Nick Recio, Van Hollingsworth, Meg Ford, Nat Yonce. Photo by Liesa Cole.

The Magic Math describe themselves as “colorful eccentrics,” and they do have a certain quirkiness about them. When we all sit down for an interview, lead singer and principal songwriter Van Hollingsworth takes pleasure in conducting, pointing my questions at different members of the group, and they delight in providing oddball answers, like suggesting that they play “retro existentialist cyberpunk music,” insinuating that the Birmingham music scene is “about to be dominated by The Magic Math,” and that what we all need around here is “more American Idol wins.”

When they’re not having a laugh, however, they come off as intelligent and sincerely in love with the music they make. Hollingsworth’s answer when I ask about the band’s name is a good example. “I like that they’re short words and they both start with the letter M,” he says. “Deeper than that, I like that they’re kind of antonyms. I mean, you have the mysterious and irrational magic, then you have the grounded and rational math, like left brain and right brain. And deeper still than that is the fact that all of music is really mathematical ratios. All music is magic math. But the magic part is the easy part to relate to. You know it’s magic if you’ve had an emotional response to music, but deeper and more mind-blowingly, it’s all math.”

Amen to that. Sonically, their sound is very diverse. Hollingsworth plays a deft acoustic guitar and sings upbeat songs with lyrics that betray more melancholy than the music would suggest. The full band’s sound strays from bouncy to beautiful, with tinges of world music and backed by warm strings. It feels like authentic folk music, à la Cat Stevens before he ran to the hills, emotionally resonant and built upon solid songwriting.

In fact, I take back what I said about their domination being an oddball answer. The Magic Math makes music that is infectiously good, and it might not be long before all of Birmingham has caught on.

Through the Sparks

Through the Sparks

Through the Sparks: (from left to right) James Brangle, Grey Watson , Jody Nelson, Greg Slamen, Shawn Avery. Photo by Liesa Cole.

The heart of Through the Sparks is Alamalibu, their home recording studio in east Birmingham, within shouting distance of Bottletree. It’s where they, and many of their musical friends, have spent innumerable hours honing their craft, one track at a time. It’s where they birthed their début album, Lazarus Beach, which received  national critical praise, and where they perfected a new model of distributing music to their fans via the internet that changed the way they wrote music, resulting in their latest album, Almanac (MMX) Year of the Beast.

In their case, as is often true, success wasn’t necessarily a ticket to anywhere. according to frontman Jody Nelson. “It was like we were the wrong band at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing, trying the wrong thing with the wrong model,” he says.
“We’d go out to play and there was literally no one there. Now we actually have people know who we are. We could go tour now, but now everything costs too much money. It’s just the perfect storm for everything wrong.”

Luckily, fame was never a big part of the equation for Through the Sparks. “I’m saying that we do care that it gets out there and we do our good stuff and we do well,but there’s nobody wanting to have gin and tonics with Oasis,” Nelson says. “Thank God, frankly. We’re all a little better off with Through the Sparks in town putting out a stream of tunes, and in many ways their craftsman aesthetic is indicative of the type of quality Birmingham can produce.

Nelson agrees with me wholeheartedly. “Our town’s Vulture Whale is a ton better than your town’s Vulture Whale,” he says. “If there was a total grid breakdown, and everyone was forced to live like zombies, we’d be fine on the music end. And people would go, ‘Oh, Holy S***!’ If you want to understand how greatly weird your town is, just look at the art. Not just music…I mean [visual artists] like Chris Lawson. This place, this whole place, there’s no reason for it to be here anymore. We’ve had to adapt. It’s a medical town now. But if you just look under the right rock, you know? Well, look under a rock if you want to, but there’s probably some slug under there listening to Thin Lizzy.”

Delicate Cutters

Delicate Cutters

Delicate Cutters: (from left to right) Janet Simpson-Templin, Chance Shirley, Brian Moon, Kevin Nicholson. Photo by Liesa Cole.

In total darkness, we made our way past firemen rescuing trapped fans from an elevator shaft, and I said to my friend Lee that we had just seen a true Birmingham show.

Half an hour earlier, we had been enjoying the Delicate Cutters album release show in the historic and gorgeously renovated Woodrow Hall in Woodlawn. The Green Seed had just given a typically energetic set for a bunch of reticent folks who weren’t quite ready for the type of stuff-strutting that a hip-hop show of that caliber deserves, and the Delicate Cutters were on stage showing off their brand new tracks, when the power failed. For blocks.

All of it, the strange harmony of hip-hop and mountain-rock, the sudden vitality in a struggling neighborhood, the infrastructure failure, was somehow right, somehow Birmingham. Janet Simpson-Templin, the singer-songwriter at the heart of Delicate Cutters, understands the strange and chaotic nature of Birmingham music. “When I started hanging around, I couldn’t decide if Birmingham was stuck in time 10 years behind the current or if it was staunchly individual,” Simpson-Templin says. “There were mysteries to me when I moved here. Where is radio?  Where is the press?  How do you guys even find new bands to listen to?  This was before the internet was the monstrous resource it is now.  I was asking everyone I knew. How did you find music? I had grown up with so many resources and none of them were here. Now, if there is true indie spirit in any music scene, I think Birmingham’s got it. As in all areas of creativity, this city is DIY. We have to. We now have several labels popping up, music bloggers, DJs, recording engineers and many, many bands.  All these things have been here before, but we’re in a fresh, new cycle. Things seem pretty exciting. It’s truly remarkable. There’s no distinct Birmingham sound. It is about the staunch individuality.”

Jason Brouwer

Jason Brouwer

Jason Brouwer. Photo by Liesa Cole.

Like many Birmingham natives, Jason Brouwer is an urban expatriate. “We had family down here and decided to take a break from the craziness of a big city,” Brouwer says. “I have two small children and decided Birmingham would be a nice place, especially with relatives. We wanted a patch of grass that we could go and sit on. Not a huge one. Just something.”

With a five–year–old and an eight–month–old, former Sufjan Stevens bandmate Brouwer has been confined to making music in the quiet hours when his children have drifted off to sleep. It makes him a bit of a musical recluse. “I have not played out at all,” he says. “I’ve pretty much been writing and recording and [working on the new record] back and forth with a friend in Chicago.”

That solitude has also informed the sound of his new record. “When you think about making a record with kids and dogs and things around and people going to bed at eight and things getting real hushed around the house, all those different parameters affect what you’re making and how you’re thinking about music,” he says. “I can’t just go and be John Bonham.”

Brouwer hasn’t always lived a settled existence. “I’ve lived a lot of places,” he says. “It’s kind of a tough story. I was born in Michigan, then I moved to Iowa, then at four years old I moved to Nashville, and most of my childhood was there until seventh grade I moved to Minneapolis, and then in high school I moved to Michigan and was there…I can’t keep track of the years. My dad was a pastor, so I guess that comes with the job.”

Well, he’s here now, and it sounds like he’s here to stay. “Here it feels like I’m really at home,” Brouwer says. “Like I’ve settled into place, and that’s really awesome because for a long time we didn’t have that. In Chicago, sometimes you needed to crawl into a box and hide because there’s so much happening that you can’t even possibly sort it out. I don’t think that’s a good environment for me anyways. It’s just white noise. It seems a lot calmer here, but there’s definitely still a fabric to the local music scene. It’s not just a couple of random bands. There’s a thing that’s happening.”

Dead Snares

Dead Snares

Dead Snares: Jeffrey Cain. Photo by Liesa Cole.

Late one night, years after his band Remy Zero’s success had pulled him from Alabama to Los Angeles, Jeffrey Cain found himself alone in a studio with the urge to create. His head had finally cleared from a day full of recording other people’s music and, as he began to write, he discovered that the empty nights allowed him space to make music that was truly his own. “I felt more honest than I had been in a long time,” Cain says. “Uncomfortably honest. It wasn’t pleasurable. Listening back was kind of like looking at strange pictures, or under a microscope at your face or something.”

Later, he sent the tracks to two radio stations but didn’t want the DJ’s to play the music because of his reputation, so he came up with what he thought would be a joke name. “I thought, ‘It would be hilarious if there was a band called The Dead Snares,’” Cain remembers. “And then I was listening to the songs, and thought, ‘This could be that band, I don’t know what this is, but it could be this band.’”

Not long after that, Cain realized that he didn’t need Los Angeles anymore, that he could make music anywhere. “I wanted to work on projects that meant something to me, and I think to stay alive out there you have to work on whatever comes your way,” Cain says. He made his way back to Birmingham, and began trying to find those meaningful projects. Since then, he’s brought many of the city’s best bands under the umbrella of his new label Communicating Vessels, and the resulting albums are wonderful to listen to and look at, a full package.

“There’s a soul that I hear in all the bands that I’ve worked with [in Birmingham], and it’s genuine, honest in it’s intent,” according to Cain. “It’s done for the right reasons.  Somebody’s not making the music just to become famous and to play the game and get on the hip tour. The people I’ve met here have a personal need to have to make the music, and I…music saved my life, growing up, in my town. I know when I see other people and know how bad they need it, whether someone is putting out their records or not, these are the real artists here.”

Jackie-Lo

Jackie-Lo

Jackie Loquidis. Photo by Liesa Cole.

Jackie Loquidis has always rocked, whether she was blistering your face with her all-girl group One Minute Go, kicking it on stage with her husband Jason Hamric in their band Twinside or bringing the flute in local band Sunny So Brite.

Twinside had been the project of the moment, and things were going well until Loquidis felt that she had begun to write songs that felt different than the type of music that Twinside was about. She and Hamric decided to shelve Twinside for the moment and focus on a new project centered on the new material. Thus, Jackie-Lo was born.

The couple is still working on the new tracks, which are being recorded in Vulture Whale’s Ol Elegante studio in Homewood, with Les Nuby on drums and producing. When I meet them there, the conversation turned to the current state of music in Birmingham.

“This is the most fun I’ve had and seen people have for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been playing music here since the early 90s,” Loquidis says. “Even though there was always a lot of talent, no one could ever get along long enough to make it happen.”

The bands certainly are getting along now. We’ve set up to talk near the back entrance, and while we gab, Jake Waitzman from Vulture Whale and Jody Nelson from Through the Sparks begin filming a video for an air-drumming competition.

“Back then you’d have four or five bands and if they could have all gotten along they’d be big,” Loquidis says, pulling me back into the conversation. “Also the world’s a little more accepting of the South now. There’s almost like a mystique, a Southern gothic kind of like. And that’s cool. If you traveled north when I was a teenager you’d get made fun of. And now it’s like ‘Oh, you’re from the South!’ Everybody loves the place.”

I get distracted again, because Waitzman, after repeatedly leaping from behind a couch, has begun replicating some intricate drum line, and a small crowd of various band members has gathered to watch. We cut our interview short to join in the festivities, and after a couple of takes everyone heads indoors, all these different bands, laughing together. Looks like Jackie Loquidis was right.

Vulture Whale

Vulture Whale

Vulture Whale: (from left to right) Jake Waitzman, Keelan Parrish, Les Nuby, Wes McDonald. Photo by Liesa Cole.

Vulture Whale always seems to be up to something, and right now it’s electronic cigarettes. We’re in the top floor of Ol Elegante, their studio in Homewood, and it looks like a make-shift test lab, with components littered across a work-table like some mad nicotine scientist has taken up residence.

Clasping their high-tech smoking devices, Jake Waitzman and Wes McDonald seem like a model of the modern musical entrepreneur, and they seem just as excited about their new business venture as they are about the latest album release.

They remember their roots though, before they had a recording studio of their own and dreams of spreading the electro-buzz. “It used to be the only place really to play was The Nick,” McDonald says. “I mean there were other places. But that was the only place that was really just original music, original bands. You would never catch a cover band at The Nick normally. I mean I’m sure it happens. The Nick was kind of it.”

McDonald continues, “A lot of people think they’re going to get shot or robbed if they go to The Nick, which is ridiculous. I mean The Nick is the most accepting place in town, really.”

“But at the same time, some people just don’t want to go,” Waitzman says. “The time slots are really late, so it was never really easy to get people to come. Girls don’t like the bathrooms.”

Now, there’s another venue that the fellas from Vulture Whale feel have changed the landscape of Birmingham music. “We can’t say enough about The Bottletree,” McDonald says. “What [they] did was bring in these indie bands that were on tour that would normally not have stopped in Birmingham because they would have said we don’t have any place to play. Bottletree has given us that place. Having all this great music come through I think inspires and brings together all the age groups.”

McDonald is quick to make the qualification that, though he has the benefit of experience when it comes to music in Birmingham, his is only one opinion and that younger musicians might disagree. “They might say our guys that are in the age of running things,” he says, “the bars and the record labels, that we’re just kind of terrible Nazis. Who knows?” At least he has the future of smoking to fall back on.

13ghosts

13ghosts

13ghosts: (from left to right) Andrew Vernon, Brad Armstrong, Jason Lucia, Sammy Boggan. Photo by Liesa Cole.

It hasn’t always been easy to make music in Birmingham, and Brad Armstrong of 13ghosts bears the scars. “I remember as a young artist trying to play shows, it was debilitating,” he says. “You’d finish the thing and you’d all be sitting around kidding each other about ‘Oh, we played a great show, man,’ but you all felt like shit because nobody turned up. It was a lot more competitive then. Fewer venues. It was really kind of cut–throat between bands. And really over the past four or five years it’s more of a cohesive thing. Everybody seems to be playing on the same team, supporting one another, and therefore it’s created a little tighter scene. An exchange of ideas and music. And they seem to inspire one another instead of trying to outdo one another. It’s much stronger.”

Even now, though, he keeps his head down and worries about his own work. “I really, really love playing on stage in front of people and doing it in the moment,” he says. “I love that, and I really love going to the studio and recording. And that’s the only two ends that I serve. And the rest of it I’ve kind of given up on it, man. I don’t f***ing care.”

Why should he care about the trappings of stardom? 13ghosts has never been about that. Born out of the death of a friend, their dark and fractured music has always had the feeling of necessity woven through it, as if they were unloading weighty burdens that would crush them otherwise. In fact, Armstrong scoffs at the very idea of working toward a hit record.

“Vulture Whale, they started in what, ’03,” he asks. “Hit record? No. Big sold out shows? No. Through the Sparks. We met in probably, ’02. It’s 2011. Hit record? No. Sold out show? No. Still f***ing whipping ass? Absolutely. The bands that are going to do it are going to f***ing do it regardless of record sales, regardless of the support network, regardless of anything, because there are no more record sales. That’s out the window. There is no hit record. Taylor Hicks has a hit f***ing record. What’s he bringing to the table for the town? Nothing.”

The Grenadines

The Grenadines

The Grenadines: (from left to right) Jesse Phillips, David Swatzell, Lauren Shackelford, Michael Shackelford. Photo by Liesa Cole.

It’s all well and good to talk about how great the music is here in Birmingham, but sooner or later, somebody has to take it on the road. Even in the internet age, there is no substitute for real-life face time. There is no quicker way to a fan’s heart than the radiant aura of actual sweat.

Songwriters and spouses Lauren and Michael Shackelford of The Grenadines recently returned from spreading the gospel of Birmingham music during a tour that took them up the East Coast from Atlanta to New York City. Everywhere they went, they found a receptive audience.

“It was really fun and pretty smooth,” Lauren says. “It was great,” Michael agrees. “Good audiences, good venues, good people.We got to travel, but didn’t have any crazy long drives. It was amazing. We met several really cool bands, we played in Richmond, which is probably my favorite venue we’ve played at, at a place called Strange Matter, with a band called Diamond Center. They were phenomenal.”

While the Shackelfords and their fellow Grenadines understand the value of touring, they love coming back to Birmingham. “It’s a tighter knit community,” Lauren says. “[When] you go to those larger cities, people are just spread out. They don’t really know each other. I feel like here, we’re kind of a small town.”

“People support each other here,” Michael adds. “We’re all having to struggle to expose people outside of this small region to what we’re doing. Because I think what we’re doing here, all the bands that are in this little conglomerate, surpasses a lot of stuff everywhere else, and it’s just a shame that it’s not getting as much recognition, which hopefully is going to change.”

I ask Michael what he thinks it will take to bring that change about. “Honestly, I know we do have Birmingham Mountain Radio, but I feel like we need listeners,” he says. “There’s a large group of people which I really do believe don’t know what’s going on right underneath their noses. Just getting outside of our little small community and spreading it to the other groups out there, that’s the way to do it.”

The Great Book of John

The Great Book of John

The Great Book of John: (from left to right) Alex Mitchell, Taylor Shaw, Bekah Fox. Photo by Liesa Cole.

It’s Thursday night, and though Parkside Café in Avondale should have a good crowd, it shouldn’t be packed to the gills like it is. Something’s afoot, and that something is The Great Book of John (GBoJ). Formerly the side project of Wild Sweet Orange guitarist Taylor Shaw, GBoJ moved to the forefront of his attention when that band splintered, leaving Shaw looking for a place for his creative output.

The last year has been a big one for GBoJ. They’re among the cadre of local bands who’ve been brought into the Communicating Vessels family of recording artists by Jeffrey Cain, and they’ve got a new self-titled album ready to drop August 16. As I navigate the narrow fissures that open and close in the crowd waiting for the band to perform, I realize that some of GBoJ’s forward momentum has rubbed off. The crowd buzzes in expectation of the performance while they wait patiently, even though the show begins almost two hours late. When it begins, the crowd crush forward toward the tiny stage with the urgency of the converted. What we’ve got here is a genuine following.

With good cause, by the way. The new album is a layered, soulful, heartfelt and passionate work, and gorgeous to listen to. It grooves and soothes, if you catch my drift.

Shaw says the growth of the band is a conscious choice, something they strive for. “I think it’s important to not lose energy or intensity,” he says. “I think I always want to change up some aspect of [our sound], in a way. I think that’s what I enjoy the most, the possibility of growth—the most creation we can do besides procreating. Until I have a baby, if I ever do, I think it’s the most capable of creating I can be. That’s my outlet.”

When asked about the sound of the current album, Shaw pulls out his listening list. “James Brown, old soul music,” he says. “A lot of Al Green, but I’m still so in love with Jeff Buckley or Radiohead. I’m obsessed with Bob Dylan.” Not that a list of influences can ever truly indicate what a piece of music sounds like, but it’s clear that Shaw has the ear of one who loves and listens to as much music as he can get, and that way lies the road to quality.

The Gum Creek Killers

The Gum Creek Killers

The Gum Creek Killers: (from left to right) Janet Simpson, Brad Davis, Duquette Johnston, David Hickox. Photo by Liesa Cole.

“I love Birmingham, and I love it for music,” Gum Creek Killers founder Duquette Johnston says, “because I think everyone gets to evolve into what they want to be as a songwriter, or a band, or whatever. Some cities have sounds, or have been pigeon-holed into having sounds, but in Birmingham there’s not a lot of that. There’s not another band that sounds like the Grenadines. There’s not anyone that sounds like Gum Creek Killers.”

Johnston should know, since he’s done a fair amount of evolving himself. When Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl discovered Johnston’s band Verbena in the late 1990s, he was handed the catapult he needed to escape Birmingham, but troubles of his own landed him in Etowah County detention, looking at a possible 10-year prison sentence and an uncertain future. Mercifully, he was given a reprieve—a 60-day stint in rehab-—and he’s taken his second chance and used it to make as much music here as he possibly can.

Since then, Johnston’s mission has led to the creation of many bands—Cutgrass, Duquette Johnston and the Rebel Kings and now The Gum Creek Killers. “I can’t wait on people,” he says. “I mean, I guess I could, but I really don’t want to, ‘cause I kinda feel like I’m lucky I get to write any music at all. I try to constantly be in a state of motion and creativity, and with The Gum Creek Killers, that’s attainable, and flows really well.”

With The Gum Creek Killers, Johnston does seem to have found a home where he is comfortable. The other members all come from other successful Birmingham bands and work collaboratively, so he doesn’t need to shoulder the burden alone, creatively or otherwise. “Everyone in the Gum Creek Killers is insanely intelligent and is really honed in on their craft,” Johnston says. “I mean to have a core group that all have the same type of goal—everybody carries their weight in the band on every level, creatively, traveling, expenses, whatever. It’s a united front and a big family. There are times when we all have our spouses with us on the road, and we try to get together and do Gum Creek Killer cookouts. It’s a family for sure; it’s an awesome family.”

Reversing The Lobotomy

An ear for hip-hop: Rashid Qandil's LOBOTOMIX crew are reviving the soul of hip-hop in Birmingham. Photo by Andy Stewart.

The hip-hop community is at war. I’m not talking about the East Coast vs. West Coast battle that resulted in the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. The war I speak of isn’t a war of egos and guns, fought with real hardware and ending in all-too-real results. The war I mean is a skirmish between ideologies, but the outcome is just as important, and the stakes are the very identity of hip-hop itself.

For the uninitiated, hip-hop began in the 1970s in the South Bronx as an expression of protest among the oppressed African-American communities living there. Its base was infectious and danceable, but it was socially conscious in its content, and had more in common with the protest songs of the late 1960s than any of the mainstream hip-hop that you can hear on the radio today. And therein lies the root of the modern hip-hop schism. As the genre grew in popularity and drew the attention of the hungry record industry, it was forced to cast off many of its political and social roots. Lyrics about getting out of the ghetto and the trials of street life turned into material wealth, casual sex and reckless drug use. Music that was largely credited with reducing inner-city gang violence became rife with it. In fact, violence became an almost universal presence, and as young hip-hop stars grew into that new environment, they began to ape it, reinforcing the gangster mentality while bankrupting themselves and killing each other.

In opposition to the current state of affairs, a community has begun to grow around the idea of re-instilling the cultural roots of hip-hop back into the mainstream consciousness. Here in Birmingham, one such group has been having remarkable success. Known as LOBOTOMIX, and lead by a DJ named Rashid Qandil, this hip-hop collective have managed to resuscitate the kind of socially conscious music that helped give birth to the genre and have gathered a large base of local fans in the process.

LOBOTOMIX didn’t start out with such noble goals. It began as a birthday party. “Two years ago, now, it was coming up on my birthday, and I hadn’t been doing anything for my birthday for a couple years,” Qandil recalls. “I would catch up with friends at a bar or whatever. I started thinking it would be fun to just get the turntables out like we used to, just play hip-hop and all get together. And then I thought, ‘You know I end up at Speakeasy for my birthday every year, whether it was the plan or not,’ so I called George [Cowgill, owner of Speakeasy] and asked if he cared if this year we showed up with some turntables and some friends and just hung out and played records. His confirmation came through six days before my birthday, so I threw a Facebook event up, called my friends and [future members of the LOBOTOMIX crew] Shaheed and The Green Seed, and everybody was like, ‘Cool, that will be a lot of fun.’

He got more than he bargained for. “Over a hundred people showed up, which was unexpected,” Qandil says. “The best comment I had was, at the end of the night when I walked up to thank some of the b-boys for coming, they asked ‘Who are you?’ and when I told them I was Rashid, they were like ‘Oh, it’s your birthday, can you have another birthday in two weeks? This is the most fun we’ve had in forever.’ It was then that I began to wonder why I wasn’t focusing on hip-hop. It was kind of that slap in the face, ‘Hey look, dude, you don’t have to keep this in the bedroom.’ I’ve been DJing for a long time, and had been frustrated because there’s a lot of music that I wish was more represented in Birmingham. I’ve always collected hip-hop, and I would mix hip-hop in to stuff. Right before LOBOTOMIX started for real, I did a couple of nights called LOBOTOMIX where I was trying to do a night that would progress from obscure down-tempo instrumental hip-hop through Brazilian street club music, through glitchy house into more energetic French house. Did not go over well. I would be playing hip-hop and people would ask, ‘Do you play trance?’ Towards the end of the night I would be playing glitchy electro house, and people would ask ‘Where’s more of that fresh hip-hop you were playing?’, I’m like ‘You can’t mix 89 BPMs into 130 BPMs and have it make any kind of sense.’”

These days, his shows are having a lot more success. LOBOTOMIX’s most recent show at the Bottletree, which featured a number of LOBOTOMIX DJ’s as well as members Shaheed and Supreme, The Green Seed and b-boy crew Kids in the Cypher, drew an impressive turnout for a hip-hop show in Birmingham. “The crowd was really responsive, people were up,” Qandil says. “As soon as stuff was happening, they were on their feet, up front and center, engaged, bobbing their heads, throwing their hands in the air. It’s not really a dance situation, but even before the live hip-hop started, and we just had DJ Tanner spinning records, the b-boys were up front killing the dance floor, and everybody was crowded around seeing what that was about. That’s something that you don’t see at shows in Birmingham.”

The LOBOTOMIX crew are all consummate performers, and Qandil says that he is very particular about whom he chooses to work with, given his mission: “The people who I work with are not making music because they want to become filthy rich, or get fucked up or get the ‘bitches’. They’re making music because if they don’t make the music it would make them crazy. I want to work with people who are making music because they have to make music, not because they see it as a path to something, or because they want to be iconic. I don’t really care if you want to be famous. I want you to be successful, but I want you to be successful because the music is something that is worthwhile.”

Being picky has its drawbacks. There is no real breeding ground for up-and-coming hip-hop kids, and though he sees potential for Lobotomix to serve as that kind of a space, he is wary of that path as well. “Part of what I want for Lobotomix is to provide a venue for people to come out of the basement and be able to perform, but part of the problem is that you have all these people who are completely unseasoned and don’t know how to stand on a stage and give a show,” Qandil says. “They can record an album, but on stage there’s no second takes. You have to have breath control, you have to have an eye for what the audience is doing, which is something you can only learn on stage, and there is no DIY scene for hip-hop in Birmingham. I do not hear people saying ‘I’m gonna have a hip-hop show in my living room and invite people.’ It doesn’t happen like it does for punk or rock music. It’s cool as a rock star to be in your garage rocking out. To be in a basement with nothing but a bust-ass amp, a guitar with four strings on it, still putting on a freaking show. But in the perception of most people who want to be in hip-hop, there’s this sense of the trappings of hip-hop requiring more than that. I think the generations coming up now are used to things being polished, and they have a misconception about polished meaning good. Putting three coats of varnish on something doesn’t make it any less of a piece of shit than it was before, but putting your heart and everything you have into it does make it better.”

After talking to him, it’s clear that Qandil lives by his own ideals. He genuinely loves hip-hop, what it once was and what it could be if the media mongers would stop destroying it one track at a time. If passion is the key to the creation of great art, than there is no better person than Rashid Qandil to shepherd Birmingham into the future of hip-hop. When you ask him about it, he bubbles over with enthusiasm. “What do I love about hip-hop?” he asks. “I love the way it makes me feel. I love the way it gives voice to politics, to society, I love the way that it screams party when it wants to scream party. I love the way it screams revolution when it wants to scream revolution. I love the way it screams ‘this is who I am’ and it can talk for so many people. Hip-hop is a voice that can power so much. I love the bass, I don’t even have to listen to the words sometimes, and the booming beats and the hook will drive me. I won’t be able to tell what you’re saying. My girlfriend gets really frustrated with me, because I’m like ‘I don’t know what you just said for the last five minutes, because do you hear what’s happening?’ I love the experience of hearing somebody who can take elements of so many disparate musical histories and cultures and mash them together. Hip-hop is like the new jazz. When jazz evolved into that free-form that spoke from the spirit, that’s what hip-hop has been doing since it was born. Real, honest-to-god hip-hop that’s not like this bubblegum, fast-food, bullshit hip-hop, which is all glamour and completely free of substance, but hip-hop that is driven from the soul. There’s nothing like that. Hip-hop speaks so loud and so well for so many people. If some kid from Cameroon in the streets of the ghetto, or who is downtrodden in France, can put some beats together and raise his voice and say, ‘This is who I fucking am,’ that’s a beautiful thing.”

Sam George is the Editor-in-Chief of Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to editor@bhamweekly.com.

Orig­i­nally printed in Birm­ing­ham Weekly on July 7, 2011.

Bang! Boom!

Fire is fascinating. Even if you are terrified by fire, it holds you in some amount of awe. Fire is the total destroyer, the giver and taker of life, which brought us out of the wild and gave us civilization. I know I’m sounding like a firebug, but I’m sure I wouldn’t be far off in saying that most people, at one time or another, have played with fire (and I mean in the literal sense here). It’s part of human nature, built into our genetic history. Even now, as a terrible wildfire consumes acreage in southern Alabama, we flock to our neighborhood fireworks hut, hastily constructed to feed our annual (or bi-annual if you include New Year’s Eve) lust for exploding trinkets. We will ration out those trinkets in the days leading up to “the big one,” like junkies with a valuable stash. Then, when the glorious time comes, we will gather en masse and all turn toward the same geographical point, like a slightly buzzed group of pilgrims facing Mecca. We will wait, expectant faces turned upward toward our metal god in the deepening dark, and when those faces are finally illuminated by the multi-colored glow from the pyrotechnics, we will be united for one moment as a city with a common goal—to enjoy watching things blow up.

Of course, there are other nobler reasons to celebrate the Fourth of July. Hooray for the founding of the United States! Hooray for the often-mentioned Founders and their ink-full instruments! Hooray for soldiers and their bravery! Hooray for what stability our crumbling nation has left. Hooray for a day off from work, and a long weekend. Hooray for fiery distractions. Hooray for you. Hooray for me. Hooray.

Here’s a thing—did you know that the only two signers of the Declaration of Independence to become president, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, died on the same day (July Fourth, 1862), the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration? I love Wikipedia.

There will be plenty to do around town leading up to (and during) the Thunder on the Mountain fireworks display, which will start at 9 p.m. and last for about a half-hour. Here is a list of various holiday events you can attend, if you can spare even a second from your regimen of bottle rockets, roman candles and M-80s:

Southeastern Outings 4th of July Picnic
UAB Campus Green, University Boulevard between 14th St. South and 16th St. South.
7 p.m.

Get a prime seat for the summer band concert and knosh on some grub at this outdoor picnic, sponsored by Southeastern Outings, a nonprofit organization “committed and created to serve people who enjoy being active in the outdoors,” according to their website. You will need to bring your own blanket and chairs, and any necessary picnic supplies, including food and beverages. Alcohol, smoking and dogs are prohibited. Free.

Fourth of July Barbecue Festival
Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church, 1728 Oxmoor Road.
10 a.m.-3 p.m

Our Lady of Sorrows will host the 62nd annual barbecue festival, the longest running barbecue festival in the state, featuring games, music and 5,000 pounds of barbecue. Attendees can browse through a rummage sale and enter a raffle to win a 2011 Toyota Yaris. All event proceeds go to the church’s building fund, school, charity fund and Knights of Columbus. www.ourladyofsorrows.com

UAB Summer Band Concert
UAB Campus Green, University Boulevard between 14th St. South and 16th St. South.
7:30 p.m.

The UAB Summer Band, which is made up of 75 musicians from all walks of the Birmingham area, will put on a free concert on the UAB campus green for the Fourth of July. There will be a variety of patriotic and pop music, and the band will sell chances to conduct “Stars and Stripes Forever.” $2 for one chance or $5 for three chances to conduct the band. (205) 934-7376.

“Jazz in the Park.”
Caldwell Park, Highland Avenue at 26th St.South.
5 p.m.

Though this technically isn’t a “Fourth of July” event, it’s on the day, okay? Magic City Smooth Jazz will put on this month’s Jazz in the Park show at Caldwell Park. The show will feature the Neo Jazz Collective, Fred Spraggins, the Birmingham Sax Trio, Van Burchfield, James Crumb, Jr. and Dwight Houston. Free. magiccitysmoothjazz.com

“Independence Day 1776.”
American Village, 3727 Highway 119, Montevallo
Noon-9:30 p.m.

Have a theatrical Fourth at American Village, a Colonial-style village to the south of Birmingham. Costumed impersonators of historical figures like George Washington, Patrick Henry and Abigail Adams will relate the story of the birth our nation. At 9 p.m., there will be an “up close and personal” fireworks show, accompanied by live, patriotic music played by the Montevallo Community Band.

Flag Making & Parade
Oak Mountain State Park, 200 Terrace Dr., Pelham
10 a.m.

For all you early risers who are looking for a morning holiday activity, I suggest you head out into the wilderness of Oak Mountain State Park. At 10 a.m., meet at the Campground Pavilion to make flags and other patriotic crafts, and then parade around the campground in all your spangled glory.

In summation, here are some photos of things exploding that ought to get you in the holiday spirit:

Sam George is the managing editor of Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to editor@bhamweekly.com.

Orig­i­nally printed in Birm­ing­ham Weekly on June 30, 2011.