Originally published in Arthur No. 24 (August 2006)
A slightly injured and slightly drunk Sunday afternoon with the Sharp Ease: singer Paloma Parfrey is tipsy with a beer and a bent trumpet and one sprained ankle, still limping after the part in last night’s show when she fell into a hole in the stage. But Sharp Ease write off injuries instantly. Two shows ago, Paloma had scribbled some broken glass all over her arm, and she was completely recovered within hours. That’s the resilience of the Los Angeles native—the same thing that keeps coyotes and deer poking around the edge of Echo Park also keeps the Sharp Ease alive and thriving. Early 45s like “T-Spin” and first album Going Modern (released last year on olFactory Records in cooperation with LA’s landmark all-ages space the Smell) outlined the Sharp Ease sound: Pixies and Slits with sax (by Anika Stephen) and keys (by Paloma’s brother Isaac) and cut-above lyrics by Paloma, who grew up in a commune and graduated into teenage rock ‘n’ roll band the Grown-Ups before she even graduated high school. Newest EP Remain Instant finds Sharp Ease recovering after a line-up shake-up (longtime producer/supporter Rod Cervera played guitar on this one, following original guitarist Sara Musser) for seven of their best new songs about life in still-unheard Los Angeles—the never-seen-on-TV co-ops and galleries and collectives that keep an out-of-breath outsider community breathing, where the Sharp Ease play their shows and sprain their ankles. Paloma and bassist Dana Barenfeld, drummer Christene Kings and new guitarist Aaron Friscia meet for beer and photographs at Paloma’s 1957 Airstream trailer.
Arthur: Paloma, exactly what kind of commune did you grow up in?
Paloma: My parents were both extremely politically active and they decided to join this commune after I was six months old to be able to protest regularly and feed the homeless. It was this thing in East LA—the Catholic Worker. It’s Christian-oriented, but not like hyper-Christian. Their work is to serve the hungry and protest nuclear weapons. So I’ve been protesting since I was six months old.
Christene: Paloma came out of the womb with a NO NUKES sign.
Originally published in Arthur No. 34 (April, 2013)
Zig-Zag Zapped Orange County, California psych rockers FEEDING PEOPLE left the church and entered the void. Now they’ve returned to sing their tales in glorious reverb. Chris Ziegler investigates. Photography by Ward Robinson
Feeding People come from the Adolescents’ “Kids of the Black Hole” country, the un-Disneyfied side of Orange County, California. They met in a church band and then spiraled off into the cosmos, putting out a record in 2010 on heroic hometown emporium Burger Records that out-freaked almost all the other extremely accomplished freaks already on that label. It sounded like the battle of all battles—trying to go psychedelic in a place where it would have been so much easier to go plastic.
Don’t get me wrong. They weren’t obviously frothing at the mouth. If you didn’t know your contemporary Orange County bandspotting minutiae, you’d probably have a hard time in the wilds of Fullerton figuring out who exactly is a Feeding Person and who is in Audacity or Cosmonauts or who works buying used vinyl at Burger, indisputable ground zero of Southern California’s teenage weirdo renaissance. They’re all on the thrift store/swap meet vibe, kids who spend weekends prying out the last surviving cool shit from the tar pits of suburbia. Maybe that’s Goodwilled punk and psych records or leather boots, maybe just a decent jean jacket. (Plus band shirts bought from the band, at the show, of course.) You wouldn’t be able to tell if Feeding People were there to play or just there to watch if you saw them hanging out by a stage.
Today, founder and singer Jessie Jones and guitarist Louis Filliger are the last ones left from the first line-up of Feeding People. And even though they’re 72 hours away from the release of their new album, Island Universe, they haven’t quite left that earlier era behind. It’s like they’ve still got ash and dust on them. They’ve … experienced things. They’ve got extra energy so they can muster extra quickness, extra brightness so they can see a little farther into the dark. When they start to talk, it’s like a door is thrown open—you’ll feel the air rush past, hear the slam.
Jessie is dark-haired, slim but not slight because of some not-quite-nameable quality of presence. Even two tables away, it seems like she’s right next to you. She talks less than Louis, but when she does, everybody else shuts up. Louis has the answers, the theories, the explanations. During the French Revolution, he says, they’d start their speeches with certain words that would really HIT. (He pushes some extra power into the word—THUD.) He’s been waiting to get these stories out, he says.
Everybody with sense who writes about Feeding People talks about how something else is coming THROUGH this band. They channel, they incarnate, they let something strange and cosmic come scorching through. It’s like Philip K. Dick—in 1974, he got zapped by some power cosmic just five driving minutes from where the Burger Records stand is now, and it led him to write two million words searching for ultimate truth. (“A: The enigma remains. Q: We have learned nothing,” Dick decided.)
Originally published in Arthur No. 25 (Winter 2006)
White Magic: Meanwhile, outside the city gates…
Black Hole White Magic By Chris Ziegler
Reviewed: Sunn O))) & Boris Altar (Southern Lord)
White Magic Dat Rosa Mel Apibus (Drag City)
I had Altar complete in my head before I ever heard it: Sunn O))) and Boris together to make the heaviest thing ever, an album that would burst cochlear membranes and the confines of three-dimensional spacetime. Modern music’s two most immovable objects: what would happen when they met? Maybe nothing—in fact, hopefully nothing, and Altar would be pure void, a subatomic drone that would go beyond Sunn O))) and Earth and Flood to the low slow B-flat hum NASA heard coming from a black hole around the same time Sunn O)))’s White 1 came out. “A million billion times lower than the lowest sound audible to the human ear!” NASA said, complete with exclamation point. That was the true sound of the universe, and if any humans could play along, well, here they were: two bands with discographies so colossal that you couldn’t deploy anything less than three syllables per adjective without feeling cheap and weak. (Cyclopean? Titanic? Hephaestean?) NASA called this new science “black hole acoustics” and that was the best explanation yet—better than the New York Times’ cutesy ‘heady metal,’ anyway.
But Altar is the un-heaviest. Six or seven minutes into opener “Etna” (played in the spirit of the volcano that will devour Sicily) presents the riff-vs.-drone grappling match the collaboration demanded, and it is satisfactorily hephaestean. Last year’s Black One and Pink anticipate these moments—Pink’s intro “Parting” especially, though Boris drummer Atsuo rarely pushes a straight 4/4 rock beat, instead mating drums to drone with a rush/recede dynamic that must have cheered the Coltrane students in Sunn O))). Black hole acoustics is science for space and gravity and not amplifier athleticism, though, so credit to Boris and Sunn O))) for Altar’s sidewise moves. Sunn O))) provokes orgasm and Boris melts minds—we know that and so do they, so let’s improv something else.
“Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)” is probably the songiest thing to ever bear a Sunn O))) stamp; Internet drones are straight-facedly calling it “folk pop” and while that’s a bit broad, it’s … understandable. Earth’s Hex had passages of twilight-zone quiet and “Sinking Belle” collects them together: reverbed piano that blooms and dissolves like ink into water with Jesse Sykes (singer from Seattle’s Sweet Hereafter) sounding like Nico at her frowniest, or actually sounding a lot like Sybille Baier, another dissipated ‘60s teuton-chanteuse. After that is “Akuma No Kuma,” an all-synth-no-guitar track (with Joe Preston growling through a vocoder) that fits the fire-and-fog Blade Runner opening, and after that the desolate “Fried Eagle Mind,” a wave of tube tone washing over Boris guitarist Wata’s ghost vocals. “Blood Swamp” has to float back home: rumble finally turns to roar as Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil gets a guitar to sound like something that breathes mud—or blood?—to stay alive. A hephaestean finale, sure, but not the truncated concussion both bands favor. There is clear-to-cloudy precedent for everything on Altar in the million billion minutes of discography belonging to Boris and Sunn O))), but it’s softness as much as the UNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNworgworgUNNNNNNNNNN we’ve known and absorbed. Three songs into Altar, the album start to float. Heavy is light.
* * *
I would hate to just bluntly ask White Magic if they actually believe in magic—too obvious, too impolite. But even a lump like me can tell that Mira Billotte’s songs about trees and wine and sun and sea refer to more than just a holiday fit for Fairport Convention. White Magic sings one thing and secretly means another, or several secret other things aligned in symbolic harmony. The band put a labyrinth on the back cover where they could have put a map. So I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
Billotte and a new set of supporters—including partner Douglas Shaw, Jim White from Dirty Three, Tim DeWit from Gang Gang Dance and noted New York percussionist Tim Barnes—built White Magic’s first full-length Dat Rosa Mel Apibus around her famously agile voice and the cascading piano melodies she plays to match Bert Jansch’s precision fingerpicking. Rosa is gentle on solemn guitar-and-voice songs like “Katie Cruel” (also covered by probable White Magic inspiration Karen Dalton) and “What I See,” but spins into psychedelic experiment like the sitar raga on “All The World Went” and the dub/reggae arrangement (and production!) for finale “Song of Solomon,” which is almost an Althea and Donna song until the accordion starts pumping toward climax. That’s a dizzy finish to a record that begins with a single piano note, and a happy release for the ideas half-hatched on 2004’s Through The Sun Door EP.
Billotte’s voice is (as always) a bird in flight, and she writes lyrics in careful camouflage, packing love songs and lonely songs with loaded notions of sleep and night and sun and light. It’s potent imagery that just begs projection from the listener. One verse of “Hold Your Hand In The Dark” and I was convinced we’d read the same Philip K. Dick essay: he said, “Sleepers awake!” and she sings, “You’ve been sleeping well, my friends/sleeping well/but if you wake, it may be too late.” Her tense mention of hands in chains and waiting in secret are from a particular idea Dick had about … well, too much of this might put this review to sleep. Different listeners discover different things.
Maybe that means Billotte is just writing easy absolutes—like everyone else, she loves love and dislikes… chains? But of course not. That seven-petaled rose on the cover is too close a copy of a Rosicrucian engraving; the translated title “the rose gives the bees honey” was a line used by alchemists to distinguish the search for spiritual truth from the search for worldly gain, and on Rosa’s second song Billotte sings, “Gone was our need for the things of this world/all we had was love.” Rosa feels full of these century-to-century connections. Hidden in this post-Pentangle piano-psych record is something ferociously righteous. White Magic believes in good research.
SERIOUS FUN Chris Ziegler and Kevin Ferguson visit veteran sui generis pop duo SPARKS in L.A. as they prepare to perform their 240-song oeuvre in a single month-long London engagement in May. “We’re actually better than we thought,” say the brothers Mael…
Sparks have about 60 days to finish learning the five million notes necessary to reproduce live their entire 38-year discography—20 old albums, select b-sides, one new album, and a special song for anyone willing to buy tickets for the entire month-long event in London—but brothers Russell and Ron Mael remain relaxed and ready in Russell’s home studio, where a portrait of Elvis watches over rehearsals so intense that Russell can’t stop singing his songs even in his dreams. Brand-new album Exotic Creatures Of The Deep will debut live this summer in London after prior nights each dedicated to an existing Sparks album—a marathon physically and psychologically and an occasion to revisit a band almost totally untangled from the industry music mess just miles away from Russell’s Los Angeles home…
Arthur: Ron said that you’ll be playing 4,825,623 notes during the complete 21-show run. That works out to about 230,000 notes per album and maybe 34 notes per second. Does that seem accurate? Russell: On some of the early albums it’s probably true—the Island albums are probably 64 notes per second. Those were really hyper.
Did doing that kind of statistical analysis on your lifetime of work reveal any greater truths? Ron: It’s actually a leveling. A lot of the ones we had maybe less love for are kind of good in retrospect. It would have been sad to go back and realize they weren’t very good. Russell: Fortunately that wasn’t the case. Ron: But we are prejudiced. Russell: We’re actually better than we thought.
So you’re not nervous. Ron: We’re still nervous. It’s awesome.
Awesome in the sense that building a pyramid is awesome? Ron: On all kinds of levels. It’s like going back to school. We haven’t even heard most of the songs for 20 or 30 years, and most of them we never played live anyway, so part of the process was figuring out how to do that. We couldn’t cut any corners—we’re doing everything, including a lot of b-sides as well. We’re figuring out how to be true to the original records and doing it live. It’s a good concert experience.
Are you offering any kind of Sparks Value Pack for the entire run? Russell: The golden ticket! For that you also get—we’re gonna record one song and give a CD of this one song to the people that choose to dedicate an entire month of their lives to Sparks. That warrants receiving a song that no one else will get. Ron: And there’s gonna be at least one book or maybe two about the whole experience afterward, and we’re thinking if we can get up the energy, we’ll try to keep a journal.
Why no hometown show in Los Angeles? Ron: We have a larger following in London. It’s so expensive to put this on that the only viable way was to do it in London.
Will you be including any Sparks alumni in the live bands? Russell: Each of the bands had a certain character to them—someone even suggested it’d be great if we had each of those bands. In a conceptual way, that’s good. In a practical way, I don’t know if it would work. It’s a real test to find people—the fans who are going to spend a month of their lives with us, and then for the band, musicians who want to stick it out for three-and-a-half months of preparation, which is unheard of. When you prepare for tour, you have maybe 20 songs, and this is 240. And you might say, ‘Oh, that’s not so hard,’ but when you think of songs on the albums that fade out and you have to have an ending for that song now. To figure things like that out times 240 is so time-consuming. Just the sheer volume you have to digest.
Are you dreaming Sparks songs yet? Russell: I’m singing songs when I wake up—I swear. And it’s not a happy dream. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t even shut them off!’
Can you think of an equivalent to the total creative energy invested in the Sparks discography? Half a cathedral or the Pennsylvania tablet from the Epic of Gilgamesh? Ron: It could never be done by a visual artist, really—we don’t feel like we’re doing imitation, and we don’t see them as finished, necessarily. When we play live, we’re kind of inventing them again. You hear of classical musicians that do a composer’s complete piano works—that kind of thing. But this is kind of trickier. I don’t know for a fact because I’ve never done that, but it seems like more things are involved. Russell: We’d be allowed to read music, but we don’t read music.