“Way to Go, Ohio”: An exclusive Q&A with THE PRETENDERS’ Chrissie Hynde and James Walbourne, by Oliver Hall (Arthur, 2008)

Originally published in Arthur No. 32 (December 2008)

Chrissie and James (photography by Lauren Bilanko)

For the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, Akron, Ohio has always been a hometown in permanent decline, a place she fled for England. Now America’s greatest ex-pat rock ‘n’ roller sees the future in her past: a reborn urban core where counter-culture businesses, including her own new restaurant (vegan, of course), are helping restore progressive community to a downtown trashed by short-sighted greed. That sense of small-is-better renewal runs through her band’s new album, which features the playing of James Walbourne, an acclaimed young rockabilly guitarist who joins Hynde here for an exclusive conversation with Arthur’s Oliver Hall.

Photography by Lauren Bilanko.

Chrissie Hynde is in Hollywood on a short promotional tour of the United States to promote the new Pretenders album, Break Up the Concrete, which comes with a piece of seed paper that will grow flowers. Hynde likes to joke that the paper contains high-quality cannabis seeds, but my feverish experiments have yielded naught, perhaps because the “soil” in my neighborhood is plaster sand and the “water” is pure chlorine bleach. Just the sort of ungreen conditions of city life that Hynde wants to break up. Accompanying her on this trip is the Pretenders’ brilliant new guitarist, James Walbourne, fresh off of stints playing with The Pogues and Jerry Lee Lewis. Walbourne, a contagiously excited Brit in his late 20s, is about to join us here in their hotel room, and Hynde wants to make sure I’m going to bring him into the conversation when he arrives. “This magazine is different, so you don’t have to do the Chrissie Hynde Story,” she says.

For this tour Hynde and Walbourne have been playing mostly acoustic sets in radio stations and record stores. In L. A., they played at Amoeba Music and made an unannounced appearance at the McCabe’s Guitar Shop 50th anniversary show at UCLA. They briefly shook up the sleepy programming at KCRW, and I met them shortly after they’d performed on Sex Pistol Steve Jones’s local radio show, Jonesy’s Jukebox. At Amoeba, Hynde took the stage and declared “I’m a wreck” before undoing the top button of her jeans. The Amoeba show and the KCRW appearance were delivered from a fiery fuck-you-it’s-live point of view. The shows were a thrill, since Hynde’s voice sounds gorgeous as ever, and because if she occasionally got lost trying to remember one of her lyrics—which is not hard to do when your lyrics have as many non sequiturs as a Beckett play—Walbourne would improvise their way back to the song.

Chrissie Hynde’s voice as a writer and a singer is a hell of a thing. You could talk about the dramatic range of a voice that can sneer “You’re gonna make some plastic surgeon a rich man” and break your heart with “Kid” on the same album, or you could talk about her expert control of tone and pitch and the effect of her voice on an audience, or you could talk about her vocal tremolo, which immediately distinguishes her from other rock singers—you could talk about all these things, and I hope that you will, but the cold fact remains: your band will never, ever be able to pull off “Tattooed Love Boys.” For my part, I suspect that Hynde’s performances are so emotionally affecting because she has never given up on the hard work of trying to imagine a public domain in which she and her art and her bandmates and her audience might more perfectly coexist. On their 1984 recording of Hynde’s song “My City Was Gone,” the Pretenders depict what it feels like to return home and find yourself in an urban-renewalized ghost town, where all local distinguishing marks have been erased or paved over, and everyone works at the same shopping mall. I imagine that if the late, great radical environmentalist Edward Abbey were still above ground, he would be merrily whistling the new Pretenders song “Break up the Concrete” while jackhammering up great chunks of the interstate and throwing beer cans heedlessly over his shoulder.

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Behold! The Year’s Finest Rock Album: Oliver Hall on Julian Cope’s new one (Arthur, 2007)

Behold! The Year’s Finest Rock Album

by Oliver Hall

Originally posted Dec 11, 2007 on Arthur’s Yahoo blog


Not so long ago, people could hardly wait for albums to come out, and with good reason: the album, for a time, was as good a vehicle for an artist’s ambition as a novel or a movie. The sleeve was a big-ass 12” x 12” art object you could put up on your mantle and scrutinize for days. The record itself had two sides, a formal restriction that forced artists to program their material into two sequences of songs, which meant that the artist was forced to listen to his or her material at least once before dumping it on the marketplace, and also that the artist was encouraged to consider the effect that sequence has on a group of songs. The phrase I most often yell at other motorists in Southern California, “MY WAR SIDE TWO MOTHERF***ER!!!” would have no meaning if Black Flag had not carefully integrated the three songs on that side into a single, illegal experiment in face surgery.

It’s not just because Julian Cope has taken the care to split his latest album, YOUGOTTAPROBLEMWITHME, into two discrete sides that it’s the best album I’ve heard this year, although the sequence is a beauty; to my ear it sounds like the world ends at least twice on side one. No, it’s because Cope’s record, a psychedelic polemic against monotheist religions and a psychic snapshot of the present moment, is only new album I’ve encountered this year (it says “2007 CE” right there on the spine) that fulfills the enduring promise of the New Rock Album. If your local record shop carries it — if there is a local record shop — you will sight it by its yellow, red and black cover, which reproduces a quote from Gore Vidal’s 1992 essay “Monotheism and its Discontents” in all caps and bold type, beginning “THE GREAT UNMENTIONABLE EVIL AT THE CENTER OF OUR CULTURE IS MONOTHEISM” and ending “I NOW FAVOUR AN ALL-OUT WAR ON THE MONOTHEISTS.” Beneath the text, the image of a massive, longhaired heathen rocker banging a bass drum lovingly painted with Cope’s crest (which depicts Odin’s sacrifice of his eye), ought to give you a clue to the sort of freaks you are dealing with: devoted, literate, pagan psychonauts committed to busting their guts and the chthonic Nuggets chords in the expression of Cope’s vision.

Cope’s work (records, books, web — see http://www.headheritage.co.uk) since the landmark album Peggy Suicide has elaborated a mythology and disclosed a scholarly curiosity about the world that makes him seem more and more like a genuine English visionary in the tradition of William Blake. What makes YOUGOTTAPROBLEMWITHME so remarkable is the balance Cope is able to maintain between his own obsessions and the violence of the time, so that Cope’s personal mythology enriches, rather than obscures, his imagination of the lives of different tribes of people trying to live together, or trying not to live together, all over the world. When Cope quotes the piano from the opening bars of Patti Smith’s “Gloria” at the end of the title track, or builds “Can’t Get You Out Of My Country” around the breakdown from Them’s “Gloria,” he’s reminding you that rock’n’roll has always defined the sacred as what’s right there in front of you, and drives the point home by sneering the phrase “invisiblegawwwwd” until it begins to sound like a Homeric epithet. I regret to say that the vinyl sounds like it was mastered by an agent for the casuists, as it is not nearly loud enough for my purposes. Pick up the double cd–the Arch-Drude wants you to listen to it in two “sides”–so you can let those steam-whistle post-Ubu synths get in there good and deep to dismantle your brain stem so you can properly reevaluate your cosmogony.


Oliver Hall is a contributor to ARTHUR MAGAZINE

RADICAL TRADITIONALISTS: Oliver Hall meets FAUN FABLES (Arthur, 2004)

SIMPLE GESTURES
Oliver Hall raps with radical traditionalists Faun Fables.

Originally published in Arthur No. 10 (May 2004)

The airwaves are so saturated with false memories of childhood you can’t walk around without a helmet or you’ll become a legal idiot—I mean the playground loves of heartstruck emo people, the barely fetal fancies of Radiohead stillborn colder than forceps, the general irresistible reflex contractions against dilation of the idios kosmos, not to speak of Michael Jackson, Jon Benet Ramsey and her twin that lived, Britney Spears.

The urge towards the nubile has expressed itself nowhere more strongly than in folk music. Once a deeply weird idiom devoted to the mysteries of hardship, tradition, games, abundance and death, questionable politics have transformed folk music on the one hand into dead pledges of allegiance to corpses of the Stalinist left, on the other into personal confessional songwriting so banal as to make you yearn wholly and bodily for a gruesome fatal mining disaster. But there are a few musicians who have the brains and guts to struggle with the old questions, the old answers; in other words one thing you can do on a Friday night is witness the miraculous music of the Bay Area’s Faun Fables.

Mainly you should do this because Dawn McCarthy, the Faun of Faun Fables, can totally, cruelly possess an audience like no other performer I’ve ever seen except maybe Clevelanders David Thomas and Robert Kidney. Most recently I saw her do this at Spaceland in Los Angeles on Valentine’s Day, but I’d seen her do it—participated in the thrill even—seven or eight times before, in all kinds of situations. In bars throbbing with the old procreant urge, I’ve heard Dawn raise her voice to a pitch and volume no one could ignore, shutting up the whole meat market; at Faun Fables’ recent concert at downtown L. A. rockhole the Smell, she began the show walking through the audience yodeling, winning hearts and minds one by one with voice and presence. (Dawn: “If you talk about yodeling to people they laugh about it, and they go ‘Oh God, yodeling, that’s so corny and weird,’ but you just do yodeling and it does something to people. Must be a code in the DNA…”) Dawn and her collaborator Nils Frykdahl, of the heavy, funny, scary bands Idiot Flesh and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, tour the country playing avant rock clubs, churches, high schools.

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Le Tigre: Superheroes from some weird feminist alternative reality (Arthur, 2004)

Superheroes from some weird feminist alternative reality: JD Samson, Johanna Fateman, Kathleen Hanna

Life On Their Island
Oliver Hall talks utopian pop and practical politics with electro-dance bullhorn radicals LE TIGRE

Originally published in Arthur No. 13 (2004)

The October issue of Harper’s reprints something I haven’t been able to get out of my mind for days now: a passage of instructions, from a handbook for members of a Japanese student club, for gang-rape. The men of Super Free, “a now defunct club for students at elite Japanese universities,” gang-raped hundreds of women between 1995 and 2003. “Take away the woman’s shoes, purse, and cell phone so that she cannot get away before we have finished,” it says. “Take photos or a video of the rape and threaten to expose the woman publicly if she opens her mouth about what happened.”

To say nothing of rape, shame and humiliation are the secret weapons the powerful use in the everyday battles lost by women—and queers, nonwhites, the poor, weirdos. “Are you gay?” asked a girl I had just met at Club Screwball a few weeks ago; I was too drunk to articulate Gore Vidal’s thesis that “gay” and “straight” properly refer to sexual acts, not people, so I just said, “Well, not really.” “Then why are you funny? You must have been beaten up at school.” “Yes.”

Unlike Kathleen Hanna’s previous band, the great and legendary Bikini Kill, the band that inspired the thrilling Riot Grrrrrrl movement of the early ’90s even as it distanced itself from that movement, Le Tigre is not a punk band suspicious of its audience. All the members of Le Tigre, as I interviewed them independently from their locations in New York—JD Samson in Brooklyn, Johanna Fateman uptown, Kathleen Hanna downtown—spoke of their audience with a kind of awe, and I sensed that providing a special, free place for all those who have had to develop a sense of humor to live in the world, who have to cherish joy because it is a privilege rather than a right for them, gives all the members of Le Tigre a lot of pleasure.

This Island, Le Tigre’s new album and its first ever for a major label, is the kind of pop music you haven’t heard coming from your radio or TV in years—not retro, just painted in primary colors—but that’s where it belongs, making the carwash fun again. “X-out all self-supervision, get your keys out now start the ignition / We’re on the verge of. . .” what?

Rumors are circulating that there will be a Le Tigre float at next year’s New York Gay Pride parade. I begged JD to give me the details, but she said I’d just have to come see it. See you there.

ARTHUR: Your single “New Kicks” uses sounds JD recorded at the February 15, 2003 Iraq war protest in New York City. I was there, but I couldn’t get to the speakers’ stage where much of “New Kicks” was recorded. The police held us immobile between barricades, diverted the march away from the stage, and beat up a lot of people. Was the protest as fun as the song makes it sound?

JD: I think of the song as cinematic, dramatic—kind of an anthem in the sense that it’s for all the people that were there and have been protesting in the past few years, but I don’t really see it as a celebration-type song. My experience was more positive than some of my friends who were arrested and had mace in their face. I just kind of jumped over fences and tried to make my way to where I could hear the speakers. That was kind of my number one quota that day.

The part in the song where [Amy Goodman from Democracy Now]’s naming the list of places, that’s pretty exciting. That was actually from the radio broadcast of the event. When I came across that I was like, “Oh my god! What a good build.”

JOHANNA: What was amazing and made me really happy was realizing how huge it was. That’s what was sort of exhilarating about it, is that we felt really unstoppable and it was really out of the control of the police or anyone, and it felt like it couldn’t be denied because a whole huge section of the city was shut down. I don’t know if I feel like the song is a celebration of that, but we didn’t want it to be, like, a bummer song [laughs]. The song was actually played on Democracy Now. That felt good, it sort of came full circle.

Le Tigre’s appearance on Carson Daly’s late night show is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen on TV. What was that like for you?

KATHLEEN: We were really bummed when we got there, we were totally exhausted. You have to bring your equipment to that shit at like ten in the morning? And we don’t really have a crew, so we were doing it ourselves, and we got stuck in traffic for like two hours, and we hadn’t slept cuz we played a show the night before — we were just totally exhausted, and we were like “Why are we doing this? It’s so ridiculous.” And then we look on the TV monitor, and Carson Daly goes, “. . .and Le Tigre!” and we hear everybody scream! And they pan the audience, there were all these friends of ours that we hadn’t seen in forever that showed up, there’s all these girls in mustaches, and we’re like “Okay, we can do this.”

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THEY WERE AFRIRAMPO, by Oliver Hall (Arthur, 2005)

Originally published with photography and design by W.T. Nelson in Arthur No. 18 (Sept. 2005)

They Are Afrirampo
Oliver Hall encounters Osaka’s number one freedom paradise rock duo.

When Oni and Pikachu arrived at the Smell in downtown Los Angeles there was nothing about them that suggested the powers they would soon deploy on stage. Certain performers have a way of carrying themselves in venues that tells you not to approach them unless you have something important to say about the sound system or how many drink tickets they get, and Afrirampo, despite looking road-weary, and dressed down in floral prints with naked faces, held themselves with that kind of authority. Not that it stopped (male) fans from approaching the two, or the band from receiving them graciously. But they did not look like the creatures you’d expect to see after reading any of their press: sex demons, noise futurists, musical athletes, punk sibyls who, when asked for their favorite three albums of all time responded, “1. AFRIRAMPO 2.AFRIRAMPO 3. AFRIRAMPO”. . .

Here is the description of Afrirampo on the band’s website:

young Japanese girls rock duo from Osaka JAPAN!
Naked rock!!!!! Naked soul!!! Red red strong red dress!! Freeeeeeeeedam
paradice rock! Jump! With improvisation.
Sooo fantastic & wild performance!

Afrirampo’s recording career began with A (not to be confused with A’, presumably to be read “A-prime,” a collection of early recordings), a shrieking garage-thrash record with guitar, drums and two girl voices; if the music on this record has any antecedents, it’s the startling moments of weirdness and the playful, conspiratorial spirit of the ealry ‘80s Swiss female punk band Kleenex/LiLiPUT, who, like Afrirampo, enjoyed letting music wreak havoc with familiar vowels. Afrirampo’s latest release, Kore Ga Mayaku Da on John Zorn’s Tzadik Records, is similarly playful but more elaborate and scary, like classical theater. I interviewed them around the corner from the Smell, before they were in costume and makeup; a little over an hour later, their set came to a close with the crowd bearing Pikachu from the stage to the front door as Oni took over the drums and sang Sayonara! Sayonara!

My intention was to interview Afrirampo at the bar behind the Smell on Main, but as we turned from Harlem Alley onto Third Street, Oni exclaimed, “Japanese food!” They had identified something that would relieve their homesickness: a plain burger restaurant with a marquee-style menu behind the counter, sparsely decorated with objects whose strangeness I wouldn’t have noticed if Oni had not been so taken with them.

“I like frogs,” she said, pointing to the giant ceramic vase in the shape of two frogs on the counter. There were plastic pieces of fruit spread out like a rebus on the shelves in one wall and a painting of two ballerinas in a dance studio hung opposite.

“Looks like Japanese,” said Pikachu.

“European,” said Oni. They seem to contradict each other often in conversation in this breezy way, just as one of them will suddenly, frighteningly take over a song in the middle of a performance. When I asked them how music in Japan, especially in their hometown Osaka, is different from music in America, Pikachu frowned, “It’s the same!” “Very different,” said Oni. “Especially in Osaka, like underground scene? Noise? Strong, and also more deep, especially in Osaka, for now. Interesting, more than America.”

Oni seems to love the words “strong” and “deep,” referring, for example, to Keiji Haino, Acid Mothers Temple and the older generation of out Japanese musicians they’ve played with as “deep, deep, crazy old guys.” Despite these connections, Afrirampo does not see itself as a noise band. When I tried to argue that American noise aesthetics have more in common with Japanese noise’s love of pure sound than the conceptual abstractions of European, industrial noise, they seemed to think I am calling them a noise band.

“Not only noise music,” said Oni.

“Actually, not noise music,” said Pikachu.

“Strange music,” said Ono.

“I want to know more about strange music of America,” said Pikachu.

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