Tift Merritt: 5 Albums That Changed My Life

Tift Merritt is a critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter from North Carolina, out now with  Stitch of the World, but another wonderful addition to an already impressive catalog.

Though often designated by others as a folk & Americana artist and commonly compared to Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris (quite often both in the same sentence), Merritt’s whole career has been marked by an eclectic approach to all kinds of music.

She started out in the local North Carolina alt-country scene, gradually winning the attention of fans and musicians alike alongside fellow Carolina native Ryan Adams. Adams would ultimately connect Merritt with his manager and help secure her first deal with Lost Highway. Ever since her 2002 debut, Bramble Rose, Merritt has challenged herself artistically, actively pursuing new directions and working with loads of different folks while maintaining her ridiculously high quality throughout.

For Stitch of the World, her second release on Yep Roc, Merritt  looked inwards, calling upon her personal recollections from the time between 2012’s Traveling Alone and now. In doing so, Merritt created a record that marks both a musical and thematic departure from her previous work.

Since releasing Traveling Alone, Merritt had been on the road for two years, recorded and toured with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein and joined Andrew Bird’s band. In her own words: “Suddenly, I was turning 40, getting divorced, and scared out of my mind. So I decided to take a year off the road to see what would happen to me if I just stopped touring… On a friend’s ranch in Marfa, Texas, in the middle of the high plains without a car headlight in sight, I did just that, and when I did, I started to do what I always do: the humble work of marking life by writing.”

And wrote she did: ‘What made my time off special was that I had a regular writing routine. I was private. I followed my heart and my craft. The story of being a writer is the story of being devoted over a long time.’

Come fall of 2016, Merritt found herself expecting a child with her boyfriend, recording with Hiss Golden Messenger and partnering up with Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam for the new album following the pair’s chance airport encounter.

Recorded in just four days at Ocean Way in California, the terrific Stitch of the World was produced by Beam and Tifts band, a band that also includes Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello), Jay Bellerose (Sara Watkins, Punch Brothers), Jennifer Condos (Over the Rhine) and Eric Heywood (Pretenders, Son Volt).

As an artist who has most certainly put out her fair share of classic albums already, we invited Tift Merritt to present 5 albums that changed her life. She graciously returned with some interesting picks in addition to some lovely prose to match.

 *   *   *

George Harrison: All Things Must Pass

I listened to this record so much in the early days of our band, on tour. The playing, the chords, the music are so creative, so beautiful. The lyrics are poems. I love that George was not the main writer for the Beatles, but had all of this elegance in the wings. Such a beautiful way to talk about an ending. What I take most is his spiritual hunger, that music and sound can be how one searches for meaning, for peace, for depth.


Emmylou Harris: Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town

I learned every song on this album. “Two More Bottles of Wine” and “One Paper Kid” were both in my earliest gig setlists when I was 19 or so.  I remember searching for a female role model in music — When I found this record, everything started to make sense.  Emmylou, Carole King, Kitty Wells — those were the women I wanted to be like and looked up to.


Delaney & Bonnie: Home 

This record really influenced my writing after Bramble Rose. I love the loose, earthy feels. The players are mostly Stax house band, Steve Cropper! This record is teaming with good feel.


Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde 

My dad gave me this record and it was in the cassette deck of my car turning over and over and over for a couple years straight. The power of the words as a driving force in a song really unlocked my mind about what kind of worlds could be made.


Joni Mitchell: Ladies of the Canyon

Talk about someone who is one of a kind.  Her tone, her point of view, the worlds she makes, her raw power.  Joni is inspiration on so many levels as a female, an artist, an individual. Her music really does sound like a painter made it. The chords are colorful and dissident and evocative in completely creative ways. This was a soundtrack to my a certain period in my life, but anytime I put it on even now it envelopes me.

Originally published on read.tidal, January 2017
Bjørn Hammershaug

Grant-Lee Phillips: Past & Present

For almost 30 years, Grant-Lee Phillips has shared his deep, burnished tenor voice through a slew musical constellations.

After moving from Stockton to Los Angeles for film school, the California native got his start in the critically-acclaimed but largely forgotten band Shiva Burlesque, which, after two albums, would evolve into Grant Lee Buffalo.

Despite rave reviews, overseas buzz and successful tours with R.E.M, Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins and others, Grant Lee Buffalo never translated into moving large units of CDs, and in 1999 they called it quits. In the wake lays a row of classic albums   Fuzzy (1993), Mighty Joe Moon (1994), Copperpolis (1996) and Jubilee (1998) – all using a different approach to their signature sound of rootsy instrumentation, epic songwriting and electrified Americana.

After the breakup of Grant Lee Buffalo, Phillips set out for a journey on his own, spending the noughties nurturing a solo career under his own name. This includes such album highlights as 2001’s Mobilize (praised by All Music as ‘comparable to the finest moments of U2, David Gray, R.E.M., and Radiohead’), the stellar 2006 covers album Nineteeneighties and the poignant Walking in the Green Corn (2012) where Phillips translated his ancestral legacy into the present era.

Since then, Grant-Lee Phillips has left California and settled with his family in the rolling hills of Tennessee, and a quieter life resembling both the San Joaquin Valley of his upbringing and his parents’ mid-southern roots.

This is the backdrop to his latest dispatch on Yep Roc Records. Entitled The Narrows, the album is a concentrated nexus of romance, recollection, historic struggles and tragedies, and peerless craftsmanship – coupled with the hopes, fears, and isolation that accompany transition, according to the label.

Grant gathered a trio of musicians, including drummer Jerry Roe – grandson of eccentric guitar virtuoso and songwriter Jerry Reed and multi-instrumentalist Lex Price, settled in Dan Auerbach’s (of the Black Keys) Easy Eye Studio, which also gave them access to his collection of museum-quality vintage equipment. The Narrows deals with the tension between past and present, foundations and freedom, also captivating the southern spirit and energy along with Phillips’ journey into marriage and fatherhood, and the passing of his own father.

‘Discovery is what I love the most about songwriting,’ Phillips shares. ‘When it comes to albums, I tend to let the through-line reveal itself as I gather a collection of songs. Recurring themes tend to arise organically, and I enjoy encountering them like fresh webs in the morning.’

Grant-Lee Phillips shared five albums that changed his life in some shape or form.

*   *   *

Van Morrison: Astral Weeks

I must have discovered this album some twenty years after its debut in 1968. There’s really nothing else like it, nothing since. To steal a line from the title song, it’s an album that never fails to transport to “Another time, another place.” One can’t help but be swept up in the spiraling energy of “Sweet Thing,” “Cypress Avenue” or “Madam George.” Dizzying, breathtaking, Astral Weeks is a work that transforms itself and it’s listener with every spin. I regard it as an oracle.

Strangely, I always feel as though I’m hearing it for the very first time. There’s something in the gestural brush strokes, the details, the blazing intensity of both the lyric and Van Morrison’ s seemingly possessed vocal performance that transcends rational bounds. One song invisibly bleeds into the next. Undulating, breathing, ever rotating with the symmetry of a mandala. Perhaps the most spiritual collection of songs ever captured on record.

Featured Track: “Sweet Thing”

Gillian Welch: Time (The Revelator)   

I had the good fortune of first hearing Gillian Welch and David Rawlings around 2000 or 2001, when they stepped onstage by chance one night at the Largo in L.A., back when it was on Fairfax, across from Canters Deli. David and I spoke upstairs about this old guitar he was playing. He was pointing out that it had no truss-rod, as though this could in some way explain the electricity flowing through his fingers. Gillian too couldn’t have been more unassuming. Together onstage, they possessed a divining rod, tapping into a source as potent as it was ancient.

Floored by this set of original songs, along with a Buddy Holly cover or two, I went out the next morning and hunted down the album, Time (The Revelator) by Gillian WelchThere isn’t a word or a note out of place on these ten songs. Every song feels as though it has been slow cooked and simmered to perfection. Effortless, truthful, even prescient. No other song hits the nail on the head like “Everything Is Free.” If ever there was a Cassandra for the music business, Welch would be it… for this song alone.

Featured Track: “Revelator”

Elliot Smith: Elliot Smith

Around ’97 or so my friend Jon Brion went out and bought about 15 copies of a quiet-voiced singer and gifted guitarist named Elliot Smith. Jon, whose talents have earned him wide admiration as a producer and composer, was on a mission to spread the word about an artist who he himself had just encountered and was beginning to work with. “You have got to hear this!” Jon said. The album was simply called Elliot Smith. It would be followed by the albums Either/Or, XO and Figure 8 before Smith’s death at the terribly young age of 34.

At a time of musical grandiosity, Elliot had emerged with a very contrasting vision. His originality, almost whispered rage and isolation spoke to a generation with the kind of honesty and sophistication not heard since Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. The album Elliot Smith coincided with my casual friendship with Elliot. He, Jon and I shared many an off-the-cuff night on stage at Largo, colliding like bumper cars as we worked our way through old cover songs, even tackling the Bowie/Queen duet “Under Pressure” one night – none of us with a straight face. I remember those laughs well, just as I recall the impact of encountering Elliot Smith’s artistry for the very first time.

Featured Track: “Needle In The Hay”

David Bowie: Hunky Dory

David Bowie’s Hunky Dory stands out in his staggering catalogue. Like Picasso, who is associated with so many distinct periods of output, it’s criminal to settle on one favorite Bowie album. But this list wouldn’t be very honest if his impact wasn’t rightfully acknowledged in some degree. Low was the first Bowie LP I bought but Hunky Dory is one that I go back to the most frequently.

Bowie’s love of Dylan, The Velvets, The Stones, Andy Warhol culminate in an album that is majestic at times and primitive at others. I’ve heard that Hunky Dory is an assemblage of various songs that were not originally conceived as a whole. Bowie often employed lyrical experimentation, such as the cut-up writing methods of Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs. Hunky Dory functions as kind of a cut-up. The effect of all of these songs juxtaposed together increases their magnitude, making for a very singular album.

Featured Track: “Life On Mars”

The Band: The Band (The Brown Album)

The seeds that were planted long ago, when The Band recorded songs like “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Whispering Pines” are still yielding a bountiful harvest. That mythic and pastoral landscape continues to draw new pilgrims. I’ve been tracking those footsteps as long as I can recall.

The Band is one of my major influences. So whether we call it Alt-country, Americana or whatever, we have Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson to thank for there being a road to begin with. They were here first. Blessed with some of the most expressive voices and musical virtuosity the ages have known, The Band were galvanized around songs that seemed to have existed forever and were built to last forever. Sung with the pain and joy of life’s experience, the unvarnished and divine music of The Band is a treasure to share.

Featured Track: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”

Originally published on read.tidal, May 2016
Bjørn Hammershaug

1970-tallet: 100 Favorittalbum

Bortsett fra en liten fraksjon av siste halvdel har jeg med noen ytterst få unntak liten musikalsk bevissthet fra 1970-tallet. Dette er altså i det store hele musikk som har kommet meg til gode i senere år, i en jevn strøm av godlyd som tilsynelatende aldri tar slutt. 1970-tallet er ikke bare tiåret for noe av historiens aller beste musikk, men også en periode som skjuler et utall av epoker og musikalske revolusjoner. Fra sen-hippie vibbene i begynnelsen av perioden til den kjølige postpunken som ledet oss inn i 80-årene er det nesten ufattelig at bare 10 år har passert. Dette er et forsøk på å rangere de 100 feteste platene, og for å skjerpe lista noe er utvalget begrenset til to titler pr. artist.

Klikk deg inn hit for listen over 70-tallets beste enkeltlåter

Neil Young: On the Beach
(Reprise, 1974)

Nick Drake:
Bryter Layter
(Island, 1970)

Miles Davis:
Bitches Brew
(Columbia, 1970)

Marquee Moon

Tago Mago
(Elektra, 1971)

Big Star:
Third/Sister Lovers
(PVC, 1978)

The Stooges:
Fun House
(Elektra, 1970)

Pink Floyd:
(Harvest, 1977)

Soft Machine:
(CBS, 1970)

The Clash:
London Calling
(CBS, 1979)

…and the best of the rest….

Blondie: Parallel Lines (1978)
The Modern Lovers: s/t (1977)
Suicide: s/t (1977)
Neil Young: Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Leonard Cohen: Songs of Love and Hate (1971)
Black Sabbath: Masters of Reality (1971)
Alice Coltrane: Ptah, the El Daoud (1970)
Can: Future Days (1973)
Brian Eno: Another Green World (1975)
Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks (1977)

Nick Drake: Pink Moon (1972)
Gram Parsons: GP (1973)
Neu: s/t (1972)
Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks (1975)
Creedence Clearwater Revival: Cosmo’s Factory (1970)
The Congos: Heart of the Congos (1977)
Pink Floyd: Meddle (1971)
Miles Davis: On the Corner (1972)
Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures (1979)
Patti Smith: Horses (1975)

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: Déjà Vu (1970)
Warren Zevon: s/t (1976)
Alice Coltrane: Journey in Satchidananda (1971)
Deep Purple: Made in Japan (1972)
Shuggie Otis: Inspiration Information (1974)
The Jam: In the City (1977)
Elton John: Honky Chateau (1972)
Tangerine Dream: Phaedra (1974)
Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance (1978)
Townes van Zandt: Live at the Old Quarter (1977)

Tom Waits: Blue Valentine (1978)
Ramones: s/t (1976)
Gram Parsons: Grievous Angel 1974)
Jackson Browne: Late for the Sky (1974)
The Clash: Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)
Nilsson: Nilsson Schmilsson (1971)
The Stranglers: Black and White (1978)
Kraftwerk: Autobahn (1974)
Pharoah Sanders: Thembi (1971)
Stevie Wonder: Innervisions (1973)

Al Green: Call Me (1973)
Buzzcocks: Singles Going Steady (1979)
Judee Sill: s/t (1971)
Iggy Pop: Lust For Life (1977)
David Bowie: Low (1977)
Hawkwind: Space Ritual (1973)
Joni Mitchell: The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)
Popul Vuh: In Den Gärten Pharaos (1971)
Lee Clayton: Naked Child (1979)
Robert Wyatt: Rock Bottom (1974)

Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On (1971)
Jackson Browne: s/t (1972)
Vashti Bunyan: Just Another Diamond Day (1970)
George Harrison: All Things Must Pass (1970)
Faust: IV (1973)
David Crosby: If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971)
Caetano Veloso: s/t (1971)
Funkadelic: Maggot Brain (1971)
Sly & the Family Stone: There’s a Riot Going On (1971)
Bert Jansch: L.A. Turnaorund (1974)

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run (1975)
Wire: Pink Flag (1977)
Electric Light Orchestra: A New World Record (1976)
Uriah Heep: Salisbury (1971)
Ramones: s/t (1976)
Talking Heads: Fear of Music (1979)
The Specials: s/t (1979)
Elvis Costello: My Aim is True (1978)
Bob Dylan: Desire (1976)
Joe Ely: Honky Tonk Masquerade (1978)

David Bowie: Station to Station (1976)
Bill Fay: Time of the Last Persecution (1971)
Gil Scott-Heron: Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970)
Frank Sinatra: Watertown (1970)
Sun Ra: Space is the Place (1973)
Van Morrison: Moondance (1970)
The Beatles: Let it Be (1970)
Gang of Four: Entertainment! (1979)
This Heat: s/t (1978)
Richard Hell & The Voidoids: Blank Generation (1977)

Residents: The Third Reich ’n Roll (1976)
The Last Poets: s/t (1970)
Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (1978)
Harmonia: Deluxe (1975)
Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers (1971)
Swell Maps: A Trip to Marineville (1979)
John Cale: Paris 1919 (1973)
Faust: Faust IV (1973)
Herbie Hancock: Sextant (1973)
Devo: Q. Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)

Bjørn Hammershaug

Polyvinyl: Keeping a DIY Mentality Since 1994

In 1994, while still in high school, Darcie Knight and Matt Lunsford founded Polyvinyl Press, a photocopied fanzine that covered the DIY music scene in Champaign-Urbana, IL and the greater Midwest.

Their motivation was simple: to spread the word about bands they loved. Furthering that philosophy, they decided to release a split 7” with the third issue of the fanzine. Within a year they had issued Braid’s first 7” Rainsnowmatch and a 20-band compilation called Direction. Not long after, in 1996, Polyvinyl Records was born.

– We never wrote a business plan or decided that we’d start a record label, says Lunsford.

– We dropped out of college. We scraped together whatever resources we could to put out records.

Polyvinyl’s first big releases were Rainer Maria’s debut album, Past Worn Searching (1997), and Braid’s 1998 breakthrough, Frame and Canvas (1998), which gave the label its first taste of national exposure and opened the gates for a wider repertoire of artists.

– We worked hard, continues Lunsford, and we learned as we went along. We kept our DIY mentality and we always tried to match the level of work and commitment of our bands.

Twenty years later, with two more offices in San Francisco and New York, the label is still a 100 percent independently owned and operated company.

With a catalog of more than 300 releases from over 100 artists – including American Football, Braid, Rainer Maria, of Montreal, Xiu Xiu, Deerhoof and Japandroids – Polyvinyl is recognized as a home for some of the more vital indie music of the past two decades.

I talked to Polyvinyl co-founder Matt Lunsford about early days, milestones and lessons learned in twenty years of Polyvinyl.

Braid (Photo: Paul Drake)

Braid (Photo: Paul Drake)

How did you get into the music business in the first place, and what motivated you?

Pretty much by accident. Darcie and I were lucky in that as teenagers there was an awesome music scene around us. There were DIY shows and bands throughout the midwestern United States and we were excited by learning about them. Bands like Cap’n Jazz and Braid were playing shows in our hometown, set up by friends of ours. It was so exciting that we were motivated to spread the word and help out in any way we could.

What labels where your own role models, or say, guiding stars, when you started up?

Definitely labels like Dischord and Touch and Go, because of both their ethical and regional approach to being a label. Also labels like No Idea, who were putting out all sorts of bands in a regional and national way and sort of curating a scene.

What does Polyvinyl represent or stand for as an institution?

Polyvinyl most definitely believes in putting artists first. In everything we do, from our simple 50/50 profit splitting mentality, to allowing our artists to make the albums they want to make.

In your opinion, what is the greatest achievement in the history of Polyvinyl? What are you most proud of during your 20-plus years in existence?

Probably the fact that if you ask any of the 100+ artists we’ve worked with over the past 20 years, they would vouch for Polyvinyl being fair, honest and hard-working!

What’s the secret behind keeping the spirit alive for a long period of time?

We’ve never gotten caught up in trying to make a quick buck off of an artist or album. We believe in helping artists build and sustain a career.

Did you have an initial idea back then on what Polyvinyl should be and how it could evolve in the future?

Essentially we believed in keeping things simple: making fair financial arrangements with our artists, allowing them creative control and working hard. That has served us well… and even in 20 years of the ever-changing music industry those principles have held true.

American Football (Photo: Chris Strong)

American Football (Photo: Chris Strong)

What does being ‘indie’ mean to you?

To me, being ‘indie’ is a lot less of a ‘sound’ and much more a general term for being independently minded. This extends from our staff to our artists to who Polyvinyl works and partners with.

The indie-scene has gone through various mutations over the years. In what ways have these changes affected Polyvinyl? And how have you adapted to changes in the music industry? 

I think both of these questions relate to way people consume music. It’s changed so much in 20 years. Polyvinyl’s goal for so long has been “tell the world about music we are excited about.” In the pre-internet ’90s it was all about 7”s and CDs and fighting to get our records recognized and in retail stores.

As that has shifted, one of our hallmarks has always been to embrace change and use it to accomplish our ‘tell the world’ goal better and faster. As digital started to come about, we were suddenly able to reach people so much more easily. The depth and range of music that average music listeners are exposed to now is incredible compared to what it was 20 years ago. It’s an amazing thing.

Any regrets? Anything you would do differently if you had a second chance?

Not really. We’ve always been able to learn and grow from any mistakes we’ve made along the way, keep a positive outlook, be excited about the records we are putting our and turn lemons into lemonade.

of Montreal (Photo: Chad Kamenshine)

of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes (Photo: Chad Kamenshine)

*   *   *

5 Milestones in Polyvinyl History

By Matt Lunsford

Rainer Maria:
Past Worn Searching

This was our first full-length album by an active band. Still a huge milestone as it represented our shift from doing 7″s, EPs and compilations to actually BEING the label for a band.



Frame and Canvas

The landmark third album from Braid, and their first for Polyvinyl.




American Football:
American Football

When this album came out, American Football had played about a dozen shows, drifted apart and never made any more music. Over the next decade the album slowly and continually sold, becoming an influential record for a whole generation. In 2014 the band reunited to play shows for the first time in 15 years.

of Montreal:
Hissing Fauna Are You The Destroyer?

This is Polyvinyl’s best selling album to-date. Consistently named in lists of ‘Best albums of the 2000-2010 decade.’



Celebration Rock

The second album from Japandroids. Following the success of 2009’s Post-Nothing (also on Polyvinyl), it received nearly-universal critical acclaim and carried the band into two years of non-stop touring.


Bjørn Hammershaug

Originally published on read.tidal.com, July 2015

1960-tallet: 100 Favorittalbum

En høyst dynamisk liste over mine 100 favorittskiver fra 1960-tallet – og en høyst personlig rangering, skjønt da den var ferdig ble den til forveksling identisk med den etablerte 60-tallskanoen, med mange av de største tungvekterne trygt på plass. Det ble derfor ikke en så original liste som jeg hadde trodd og håpet, men den er til gjengjeld veldig sterk, og understerker periodens posisjon som da alt kunne skje – og der alt skjedde, ikke minst innen musikken. Det er tre små år mellom “Please Please Me” og “Tomorrow Never Knows”. 1960-tallet var tiåret da musikken tok steget fra singleformat og låtfokus til albumformat og konseptkunst. Det er tiåret da tenåringene  ikke bare fikk frihet fra voksengenerasjonen, men grep mulighetene som bød seg og skapte sin egen identitet. I USA dannet Vietnam-krigen lange skygger over samfunnet, og sammen med økt bevisstgjøring, et skarpere politisk klima, urban uro og ikke minst sosialt og kulturelt engasjement, skaptes en motkulturell bevegelse som strømmet fritt gjennom til musikken. 1960-tallet ga oss Newport og Antibes, men også Woodstock og Altamont. Det var ‘A time for greatness’ og det var ‘the summer of love’, og det var den tunge nedturen som fulgte i dens kjølevann.

Det er ikke mangel på gode plater som er den største utfordringen når 100 favorittalbum skal plukkes fra dette grensesprengende tiåret, utfordringen ligger mest i begrensningens noble art. For å hjelpe litt til, så er utvalget avgrenset ned til to plater pr. artist, ellers ville nok f.eks. The Beatles, John Coltrane eller Miles Davis vært tyngre representert. Rekkefølgen er noenlunde korrekt organisert.

For 60-tallets beste låter: People in the Sun: 100 Favorittlåter fra 1960-tallet

The Velvet Underground & Nico: s/t
(Verve, 1967)

John Coltrane: A Love Supreme
(Impulse!, 1965)

The Beatles: Rubber Soul
(Parlophone, 1965)

Nick Drake: Five Leaves Left
(Island, 1969)

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
(Reprise, 1969)

Miles Davis: In a Silent Way
(Columbia, 1969)

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band: Safe as Milk
(Buddah, 1967)

The Stooges: s/t
(Elektra, 1969)

Frank Zappa: Hot Rats
(Bizarre, 1969)

The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland
(Reprise, 1968)

….and the rest of the best….:

The Velvet Underground: White Light/White Heat (1968)
Can: Monster Movie (1969)
The Byrds: Younger Than Yesterday (1967)
Love: Forever Changes (1967)
Dr. John: Gris-Gris (1968)
Creedence Clearwater Revival: Green River (1969)
Bob Dylan: Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced (1967)
Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1966)

John Coltrane: Live at Birdland (1964)
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica (1969)
The Beatles: Revolver (1966)
Bill Evans: Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961)
Otis Redding: Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul (1965)
Leonard Cohen: The Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
John Fahey: Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites (1965)
Ornette Coleman: Free Jazz (1960)
Pink Floyd: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
Miles Davis: Miles Smiles (1967)

The Byrds: The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968)
Crosby, Stills & Nash: s/t (1969)
Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (1968)
Bob Dylan: Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
James Brown: Live at the Apollo (1963)
Caetano Veloso: Tropicalia (1968)
The Band: Music from Big Pink (1968)
Townes Van Zandt: Our Mother the Mountain (1967)
Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison (1968)
Pharoah Sanders: Karma (1969)

The Soft Machine: s/t (1968)
13th Floor Elevators: The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators (1966)
The Flying Burrito Brothers: The Gilded Palace Of Sin (1969)
The Kinks: The Village Green Preservation Society (1968)
Alice Coltrane: A Monastic Trio (1968)
Townes Van Zandt: For the Sake of the Song (1968)
Van Dyke Parks: Song Cycle (1968)
Os Mutantes: s/t (1968)
Terry Riley: A Rainbow in Curved Air (1969)
Raymond Scott: Soothing Sounds For Baby Volume 1 (1962)

Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963)
Fairport Convention: Unhalfbricking (1969)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Axis: Bold as Love (1967)
The Seeds: s/t (1966)
Blue Cheer: Vincebus Eruptum (1968)
Tim Buckley: Goodbye and Hello (1967)
The Doors: s/t (1967)
Sonny Sharrock: Black Woman (1969)
Archie Shepp: Mama Too Tight (1967)
The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet (1968)

MC5: Kick Out the Jams (1969)
Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
The Zombies: Odessey & Oracle (1968)
The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds (1966)
Silver Apples: s/t (1968)
The Sonics: Here Are the Sonics (1965)
John Fahey: The Transfiguration Of Blind Joe Death (1965)
Eric Dolphy: Out to Lunch (1964)
The United States of America: The United States of America (1968)
Yusef Lateef: The Blue Yusef Lateef (1969)

King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
Led Zeppelin: II (1969)
Dusty Springfield: Dusty in Memphis (1969)
The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle (1968)
Jim Ford: Harlan County (1969)
Shirley Collins & Davy Graham: Folk Roots, New Routes (1964)
Etta James: At Last! (1961)
Tony Joe White: Black & White (1968)
Bill Evans: Waltz For Debby (1962)
Thelonious Monk: With John Coltrane (1961)

Monks: Black Monk Time (1966)
Tim Hardin: 2 (1967)
Isaac Hayes: Hot Buttered Soul (1969)
Buffalo Springfield: Buffalo Springfield Again (1967)
Jan Johansson: Jazz på Svenska (1964)
Nico: Chelsea Girl (1967)
Scott Walker: Scott 2 (1968)
Various Artists: A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector (1963)
Roland Kirk: I Talk With the Spirits (1964)
The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World (1969)

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Kontakte (1964)
The Red Crayola: Parable of Arable Land (1967)
Sandy Bull: Inventions for Guitar & Banjo (1965)
Howlin’ Wolf: s/t (1962)
David Axelrod: Songs of Innocence (1968)
Robbie Basho: Venus in Cancer (1969)
Alexander Skip Spence: Oar (1969)
Amon Düül II: Phallus Dei (1969)
AMM: AMMMusic (1966)
Pierre Henry: Messe Pour Le Temps Présent (1967)
The Holy Modal Rounders: The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders (1968)

The Cynics: Rock’n’roll is a very jealous bitch

Pablo Gonzalez, Angel Kaplan, Gregg Kostelich and Michael Kastelic. The Cynics for 4-4

The Cynics ble dannet i Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania i 1983, og har holdt det gående mer eller mindre kontinuerlig siden den gang. Med ett bein i garasjerocken og det andre i en pøl med relaterte stilarter tilhører de en eksklusiv gruppe artister som The Cramps og Dead Moon: Standhaftige, rettroende og ikke minst sikre leverandører av pur, uforfalsket Rock. Stor R.

Sentralt i bandet står Gregg Kostelich og Michael Kastelic, førstnevnte gitarist, produsent og grunnlegger av det helt supre plateselskapet Get Hip (i tillegg til The Cynics, ansvarlig for utgivelser med blant andre A-Bones, Thee Headcoates, Gore Gore Girls, våre egne Kwyet Kings, Sloppy Seconds, Hellacopters og en drøss andre ujålete band). Vokalist Kastelic har vrengt lungene sine i tre tiår, mens rytmeseksjonen har derimot vært svært omskiftelig.

Det har ikke alltid vært like lett å bli en del av partnerskapet til Kostelich og Kastelic, forteller den omgjengelige vokalisten til meg:

– The rhythm section changes over the years are very frustrating! I guess Gregg and I are both very extreme personalities, so sometimes we just drive people nuts! I also think we’ve had some people who like the idea of being in a band but they are not really true musicians.

– Rock and roll can be a very sad and hard life sometimes and if you don’t have it in your soul, then you can’t hang for decades like we have. You find other things that take priority like families, love or real jobs. But rock’n’roll is a very jealous bitch and she won’t let anything or anyone be more important, she owns your soul. Adam and Nathan, the two brothers we have in the band playing bass and drums now, are real musicians, and live only to play. This makes them my favorites ever to play with.

Psychedelic lollipops & midnight special
Jeg ber Kastelic fortelle litt om bakgrunnen til hvordan han og Gregg startet det hele, og han kan berette om hvordan tilfeldigheter førte dem over til en viktig innflytelse: Blues Magoos:

– Gregg and I have had a very similar musical development over the years. We both have childhood memories of hearing 60’s stuff like the Stones & Paul Revere and The Raiders and especially The Blues Magoos’ Psychedelic Lollipop album. We both have that record in common big time. My grandfather was a policeman and they arrested someone who had stolen a bunch of records from a little radio station. After his trial the radio station had replaced the records so my grandfather gave the stolen booty to me. It was stuff like The Blues Magoos, The Foundations, and of course The Animals, and it really blew my mind after listening to Winnie the Pooh records until then.

– As we were children in the 70’s we of course were drawn to the Bowie/Stooges/Cooper scene. I was really into Roxy Music, Eno, Velvet Underground, John Cale, Bowie. I remember seeing The New York Dolls and The Sparks on some TV show called Rock Concert and the David Bowie 1984 Floor Show on some show called The Midnight Special when I was about 10. I had a feeling that there was something more important than music going on. This of course led us to end up in the 70’s Punk scene. We were both in lots of punk bands in the early 80’s and late 70’s. Unfortunately punk rock only really existed until 1978, so being totally disgusted that our beloved punk rock had been corporatized and homogenized, we went back to the earliest music we remembered. Well it was that primal 60’s stuff that really sounded more punk than anything! We weren’t the first to realize this, and we soon discovered there were bands like The Lyres and The Fleshtones who were doing this sound.

Revenge of the living
Dette soundet har The Cynics i stor grad holdt seg til siden de startet i 1983. Det har ikke medført den store kommersielle suksessen, men det er en skjebne Kastelich ar slått seg til ro med:

– I’ve spent my life in the world of ‘sex drugs and rock’n’roll’ but it was a decision that I made when I was just a child. Of course I had planned to be very rich and very famous, and that part of the plan never really worked out now did it? That started to become less and less important and now I’m actually grateful it never happened. If we had gotten money and fame I would probably be dead now.

Michael Kastelic har vært gjennom en ganske tøff periode. Det tok 8 år fra Get Our Way (1994) til den talende titulerte comebackplaten Living is the Best Revenge (2002). Hva skjedde egentlig?

– I find it really hard to believe. I was on drugs and a little jail time during that period. I also believe I had a nervous breakdown and was suicidal. It all seems like a dream now and in retrospect, it only felt like it was a few months, not years. At any rate there is no excuse and I cannot figure out why we don’t record more. We usually end up playing so much after a record comes out that recording a new one gets put aside…

Hvordan vil du beskrive deres hittil siste utgivelse som ble til i samarbeid med Tim Kerr?

– I really liked working with Tim Kerr. He has a fantastic attitude that puts you at ease, yet keeps you on your toes and trying your best. I think it’s a really great record. I really love the songs “Revenge”, “Making Deals”, and “I Got Time”. I also think the cover and layout are really outstanding.

– I still hope, in my mind though, that someday we can make a record that I will just love more than anybody else’s!! This could probably never happen because I can’t really look at my own work and be objective. I think I can feel it if a show is going well, but a record could be different at different times. Sometimes a record sounds great, and on a different day I don’t love it. Living is the Best Revenge is the best garage record I’ve heard in a while. It sounds best if you play it really loud and listen in a different room!!

Get hip, or get lost
– Personally, I’ve never been happier in my life. I think the band has a lot of really good fans who dig our music and that makes for really great tours and shows. I would much rather have a bunch of really cool people who know what the music is about, than to try to convert the world of assholes to garage rock. We still preach the good word, but remember, it’s Get Hip or Get Lost!!

Hvordan har bandet utviklet seg gjennom årene?

– I believe we are more focused now than in our early years. Older? Of course. Wiser? I dunno’ but I hope so. More Cynical? Maybe less cynical and more accepting of our fate. I think we’re more relaxed and comfortable in our own ugly skins, but that’s only natural. In most ways it’s still the same as the first show ever, every time we play I still get the same feeling. That feeling when Gregg’s guitar and my voice blend together to make this unique and thrilling sound. I’m really a fan of that perfect live show sound. It seems like we’re getting more of that magic lately than in some previous line-ups.

Som en av de opprinnelige garasjerockerne der ute, hva kan du si om dagens tilstand for genren?

– The state of garage rock today I think is very good. I realized this again when we put the band on MySpace and I see again how many young people are really into the sound and how many young bands are so good at it. There are of course always people who are trying to make garage rock into a commodity, and tell you that bad new wave like The Strokes is garage rock. But who cares? They can’t kill the punk spirit just by misrepresenting it. As long as there are snotty young brats, whether they have basements, or garages, or just make music alone in their rooms, then garage punk will live in the subterranean dark caves as it always has and always will. That’s where it belongs and the hip people know where to find it.

Hva kan publikum forvente av en konsert med The Cynics ?

– With Adam and Nathan in the band we like to do a straight forward ‘power set’, we call it. Just bang-bang-bang song after song without any breaks or me babbling. We try to do the songs that people like to dance to. You never know though, they can certainly play some of the ballads beautifully and we will try to throw in some different selections for each show. What can you always expect from The Cynics? The singer will be drunk and the guitar will be loud!

Kastelic kan også gi følgende eksakte beskrivelse av vårt land:

– Every time we have been to Norway it has been cold, expensive, delicious food and very beautiful. Beautiful people and beautiful scenes. The land, the air, the architecture, the fashions – I love it all! I know everyone in Norway knows how to dance and shake! I know the food is rich and filling! I know the liquor is very expensive!

Noen spesielle minner fra tidligere besøk?

– I remember going to the cool college radio station in Bergen in ’94, riding a train and seeing both moose, and the town of Hell, eating moose steak, playing in a fallout shelter, having my sinuses explode on a plane to Tromsø, hanging out with The Launderettes, Johan from Thee Mono Sapiens, Egon – the rock’n’roll mayor of Tromsø, how bad King Kahn’s body odor smelled in Moss, eating at a Chinese buffet in maybe Bergen again… In other words I have nothing but fond memories of Vikings and cavemen and cavewomen!

Sier Kastelic, som har hatt en nær-døden opplevelse også her:

– One time, we took a plane from Oslo to Bergen, and our tour manager & merch person took the van to the next place after Bergen. They almost died in a van accident in the ice & snow. If we were in the van we probably would be dead because all the backline crashed through the passenger area. So I know that Norway is lucky for us and the Nordic Gods approve!

Vi får håpe det går bra også denne gangen. Det er i hvert fall ingenting som tyder på at denne gjengen ikke gir alt når de nå igjen nærmer seg norske scener:

– As far as playing the punk garage in front of people, it’s something I can’t STOP doing. It’s an addiction worse than the smack. It is also very selfish on my part because I think I’m having a better time than the people in the audience!! Really, when I see people smiling and dancing it makes me so happy I want to cry. Sometimes I do cry…

Bjørn Hammershaug

Dette intervjuet ble først publisert i 2006.

Ze New York Groove: Michel Esteban & ZE Records

New York in the mid 1970s was quite possibly the most dynamic and vibrant music scene the world has ever witnessed.

In the midst of a broken city, where rising crime, frequent blackouts and piling garbage made up the scenery, artistic spirits from all over found a creative haven to express their own art. The city’s miscellaneous scenes also opened up for a multitude of constellations across different genres, embracing both the nihilistic and the hedonistic.

A cultural melting pot thrived in this urban wasteland, stirring up sounds never before heard, setting the bar for forward thinking music for decades to come – not to mention leaving some of the world’s greatest recordings in its wake.

In the middle of it all, Michael Zilkha, the affluent heir of a U.K. retail chain, and Michel Esteban, owner of an iconic Parisian concept store, willfully entered the zeitgeist and became crucial parts of it all – absorbing both the filthy no wave and punk rock from CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, as well as the energetic and rhythmic underground disco from clubs like Paradise Garage and the Loft.

In 1978, Zilkha and Esteban founded ZE Records as an imprint to embrace both these trends.

In just a few years they released significant and influential recordings by artists like Was (Not Was), Suicide, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Lydia Lunch, James White (a.k.a. James Chance), Cristina, Lizzy Mercier Descloux and many others. The sound of ZE Records and the sound of New York are inherently linked. Both nourished the meetings of different genres, tastes and ideas – whether it was avant-garde, salsa, calypso or noise – blending it all into a hybrid of global grooves and urban decay.

Earlier this year Light in the Attic re-released Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s seminal debut record, Press Color, attracting renewed attention for both Descloux and ZE Records. We used the opportunity to Skype up with Michel Esteban, currently based in Thailand (and recovering from a broken collarbone due to a recent motorcycle accident) for a chat about ZE Records and his fascinating career, as well as French new wave, British punk, and of course the brilliant heyday of the New York underground and downtown scenes.

Was (Not Was)

Was (Not Was)

Michel Esteban was far from a newcomer when he started up ZE Records with Michael Zilkha.

His Parisian store, Harry Cover, specialized in imported records, books and rock merchandise, and became an epicenter in the French capital for local new wave bands.

– Yeah, it turned into an important place for Parisian bands, so I soon became involved with music. We had a rehearsal place in the basement, and this band Marie et Les Garcons came to see me with a demo. And I just said, “Let’s release it as a single.” It was very simple. That’s how it all started; just as a fun thing at the beginning. I had no idea of distribution deals or anything; we just sold it from the shop and through mail order.

Esteban had at the time already spent some time in New York, writing for the Village Voice and covering the new sound as publisher of Rock News, writing about artists like Ramones, Television and Patti Smith, and connecting it with the bourgeoning downtown scene. He had previously published Patti Smith’s books, Witt and The Night, leading to a friendship with John Cale, who Patti introduced to him to while Cale was producing her iconic debut, Horses. 

– I sent the Marie et Les Garcons’ demo tape to John in New York, and at that time such things took ages. But two-three months later he mailed back and said he’d like to produce their song “Re Bop” in New York.

How will you describe the scene in New York back in those days?

– At that time, New York underground was like 50 or 100 people, and you always met the same people around. Most of the people you met at CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City were in bands, or they were groupies or friends of the bands. Also, there were not too many places to go to.

– In such an environment it was only natural that Talking Heads opened up for The Ramones. Musically they were very different, but you know, that happened at CBGB’s. After the show everyone just hung out by the bar, all the musicians stayed there, and they were all more or less like friends, even though there were lots of differences between people. Things happen like that, and I don’t think then we realized it was of any importance.



Did you sense that there was something new in the air?

– It was definitely something new, and definitely a break from the past, at least for a couple of years. It didn’t last that long. That’s why I call my upcoming book ‘Right Place, Right Time.’ It happened in the right place, at the right time. I don’t know why. Things go in circles, five years prior nothing much happened, and then it suddenly exploded, and lasted for three or four years.

– I was lucky enough to be there, and I was lucky enough to be in London and witness the beginning of The Sex Pistols, The Clash and the birth of British punk. I saw all their first gigs too. When Malcolm McLaren came into my shop in Paris he played me the demo of the Sex Pistols and asked me to come and see them in London the following month. It just happened.

What was your experience of New York the first time you arrived?

– It was just like expected, because I was such a big fan of New York. And New York for me was the films of Martin Scorcese and John Cassavettes, and the music of The Velvet Underground. So when I arrived in New York in 1974, I was in the film. When you went to Times Square in ‘74, it was not Disneyland, it was Taxi Driver.

– I’d been dreaming of New York for so long, and being 22, 23 at the time, for me it was a dream come true. It was a fantasy. But it was real. New York at that time was a very interesting place. It was bankrupt and violent, but lots of things happened. So for me it was just great.

From 1977 and onwards, Esteban started spending more time in New York than in Paris.

Around that same time John Cale called and wanted him to join his new label, Spy Records. Spy was a joint effort between Cale, Esteban, Jane Friedman (John and Patti’s manager) and Michael Zilkha. The collaboration lasted just a few months, until Zilkha and Esteban decided to start their own label: ZE records. One of the early key figures in the ZE circuit was his then-girlfriend, Lizzy Mercier Descloux.

How did you meet up with her in the first place?

– It is a very romantic story. I lived on rue des Halles in Paris, where I had my shop in the basement and my apartment on the fifth floor. Lizzy lived right in front of my building. I saw her the first time on the balcony, and thought she looked like a, you know, a really lovely girl. She was always riding a bike, and parked it in front of our building. So one day I just put on a note, telling her she looked nice and asked if she’d like to drop by my shop. She came, and we stayed friends for 40 years.

Lizzy died of cancer in 2004, but left behind her a vast catalog of music and art. Together with Esteban, she became an integral part of Harry Cover and the Rock News magazine. She joined him over to New York and together they befriended people like Richard Hell and Patti Smith.

– [Lizzy] was very instinctive. She never wanted to be a professional or learn too much. In a way that was good, but that was also her limit. It’s great for the first album; when you’re fresh and want do discover everything – even if the professional musicians and the studio say no. So, in the beginning it’s a quality, after a few albums… it’s not a quality anymore. You have to learn things in a way. But she was like that, more of a poet than a singer and musician.

Lizzy Mercier Descloux

Lizzy Mercier Descloux

Descloux followed these instincts on her debut album, Press Color, recorded over just a few days in February 1979 at Bob Blank’s legendary Blank Tapes studio.

– We came into the studio without one song. We had two ideas: doing cover versions of “Mission Impossible” and “Fire.” That’s it; the rest came in the studio just playing with the musicians.

What are your thoughts on ‘Press Color’ today?

– I still love it, because I can still see in detail how everything happened. And 35 years later people not even born at the time love it, and I’m amazed to read all the wonderful reviews, like when Pitchfork recently gave it a Best New Reissue. Great! I’m not gonna complain! But if you had asked me that question in 1979, I’d be like “Come on, we won’t care about this music in 35 years.” But it’s still there. And people enjoy it, so I guess we did something right.

During its existence ZE developed into an independent and varied entity with a particular esthetic line, covering the arty New York underground scene and the strong individualities that composed it.

At the height of their powers, ZE was hailed as “the best independent record label in world” by Melody Maker, and “the world’s most fashionable label” by The Face. Their influence on modern music is indisputable.

As Spin wrote a while back, “Like all great independent imprints, ZE took chances on oddballs nobody else would. And on the dance floor, at least, it had hits. These have been compiled in countless sequences over the decades, and their influence still echoes through contemporary music – from M.I.A. to Buraka Som Sistema, LCD Soundsystem, Electric Six, Ke$ha, Scissor Sisters, K-Pop, and New Orleans sissy bounce.”

Kid Creole

Kid Creole and the Coconuts

Ze released a steady stream of landmark releases, including James White and the Blacks’ Off White (1979), Lydia Lunch’s Queen of Siam (1980), the eponymous debut by Was (Not Was) (1981) and The Waitresses’ “I Know What Boys Like” (1982) – just to name a few.

Are there any of your own releases you hold especially dear?

– Oh, there are lots of them. I really like Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Material, Lizzy, Cristina, the second album by Suicide is really good. I absolutely love their song “Dream Baby Dream.” You know, we only did albums with people we liked, absolutely not in a music business sense with promotion, expectations and all that. We just did it! Fortunately we had money, and we had a good distribution deal with Chris Blackwell and Island Records. But basically we were just kids wanting to have fun.

You mentioned Suicide and the notorious Alan Vega. Did you become friends with him?

– Well, not exactly friends. [laughs] But obviously we knew everybody. You know, Michael [Zilkha] was the son of a billionaire, which is very rare in the music business, while I had some money from my shop. We literally were the two people with money. We were the bank to people whose life was very difficult in New York at the time. So that relationship was a bit strange, and something especially Michael had to manage when a guy like Alan Vega came up and demanded money. But we managed, and looking back 30 years later I think we did pretty good.



How will you describe the relationship between you and Michael?

– Almost everything we did was something we really wanted to do. Some ideas were mine, some were Michael’s work, and I was not crazy about all of them. We were different. I’m French, so even if I speak English I cannot read Shakespeare in English. Whilst Michael was raised in England, he went to Oxford and he was more into lyrics than me.

– I was into the music. The first records I bought as a kid – by The Beatles, Stones or Beach Boys – I didn’t understand a fucking word. It was all about the music and the spirit of the words. Michael read the lyrics first. He signed Davitt Sigerson for example, because he loved the words. I was not too crazy about the music, but that was his thing. And that was OK too.

What are your views on the music being made today?

– Look, I’m 64 years old. I’ve been listening to music since I was 10. I’ve been listening to so much music; it’s very difficult to impress me. When I hear new music I often say, “well, it’s not bad, but it reminds me of this or that,” you know? Listening to stuff that reminds me of music I’ve already experienced doesn’t really excite me.

– What excites me today is when I listen to something I haven’t heard before. Now I listen to lots of hip-hop music, there’s some productions there that’s just… wow! I’m not crazy about the lyrics and the melodies are sometimes not there, but on the production side there so much great stuff. For me, that’s new. I like a recording that says, before this there was something, after this there’s something else. I like albums that changes things, like what Massive Attack or Björk achieved in the ’90s.

James Chance, 1980. (Credit: Edo)

James Chance, 1980. (Photo: Edo)

Do you feel ZE Records has gotten its due recognition?

– We never cared about that when we started. It was all about just doing it. When the album is done, it’s done. Of course you’re happy if it sells and gets good reviews, but there’s nothing else you can do. It’s done, and you did it the best way you could at that time. I enjoy good reviews, but there’s nothing to do about it.

– Neither Michael nor me were looking for big success or recognition, we were interested in what we wanted at that time. Same thing as now: I’m living on a paradise island, just doing what I want to do. And to me that’s the most important thing about life. The rest – success, glory, money – if it comes, okay, but don’t sacrifice anything for it.

In 1982 Michel Esteban left New York and ZE Records to pursue other solo adventures, while still working with music as a producer.

Michael Zilkha closed down ZE Records two years later, in 1984, but in 2003, Esteban relaunched the imprint, which has released more than forty albums since 1978.

Bjørn Hammershaug

(first published on read.tidal.com, October 2015)