One cold damp evening / The world stood still
I watched as I held my breath / A silhouette I thought I knew
I've written in the past both in StarVox and in my online journal about the surprising impact The Chameleons have on our underground scene -- particularly the L.A. Deathrock scene. We love them here, there's no denying that. Inevitably at every Release the Bats, they will play at least one Chameleons' song and as the floor fills with brightly colored mohawed boys and punk girls -- just as many who hit the floor for a Rozz Williams song -- my eyes get watery and my heart stops beating. It's one of the most beautiful moments of the night. Everyone knows the words. Everyone dances. This music means something to these people. Something about those heartfelt lyrics stirs something in all us. Something in the honest sadness and silver slimmer of hope that The Chameleons convey in their skilled musicianship speaks volumes, opens wounds and mends them.
Having said that, you can bet your last inch of eyeliner we were scrambling for tickets when we heard The Chameleons were finally doing a U.S. tour after their impromptu re-formation. The Knitting Factory in Hollywood had sold out of tickets very fast and a second date was opened and in danger of filling up fast. Would we miss the show? Would there be enough tickets to go around?
We would be rescued it seems. We had been sent our very own deathrock guardian angel in the form of one DJ Phaedrus -- enter James Mccaffrey. He might as well have gotten us our own private show.
Incredibly James announced that The Chameleons would be playing their very last date of this tour at no other than the Que Sera in Long Beach -- the very same tiny bar that hosts Release the Bats each month. Even more special, it was to be a semi-accoustic concert guaranteeing we'd see a unique show that other cities just wouldn't get. Furthermore, he had secured Shane Talada (Release the Bats/Ghoulschool/Element) a spot DJing that night. If there was anyone who gave James a run for his money in Chameleon fandom, it was Shane. I cannot imagine a more appropriate DJ and a nicer gift to a friend. Soon everyone was excited about seeing a band as legendary as The Chameleons in such an intimate space, inches away from the audience on a little, humble stage. It was almost too good to believe.
And someone spoke to me / Whispered in my earCurious about the man who brought us our very own Chameleon show, I asked James about his long history with the band. James said he had been a fan of The Chameleons since his high school days DJing in Chicago. He relates:
This fantasy's for you / Fantasies are "in" this year
"I had heard the single of 'In Shreds', which I then went out and promptly bought...but it wasn't until I heard the intro of 'Don't Fall' from Script of the Bridge that I became a really big fan. I subsequently moved to Florida, and though I was never able to see the band play live, I literally wore out my copy of Strange Times, playing it at other clubs. I always felt disappointed that I never got to see them play.
If we fast forward to 2000, I was working for a company called tickets.com, and I saw that The Chameleons were playing a couple venues that we did ticketing for up north (Great American Music Hall, Slims) and that they would be in California. Needless to say, I made arrangements to check out the Spaceland show and was blown away. Just a great gig. At that point, I realized that I wanted to book a show somewhere down the line, and lucky for me it materialized."
And cold, numb and naked / I emerged from my cocoonSo there's the background but how, we all wondered, did he manage to get The Chameleons to play such a small, unheard of venue?
And a half remembered tune / Played softly in my head
"We went through some false starts and stops before the Que Sera show came about. As many who follow the band know, Mark occasionally posts 'open letters' on The Chameleons official site (www.thechameleons.com) and I had emailed him a few times, and was surprised to get thoughtful, friendly responses from him. As it turned out, I really wanted an acoustic or semi-acoustic show from the group, as I felt that represented what they were up to in 2002, as opposed to 1982, since they had released two wonderful semi-acoustic records (Strip and This Never Ending Now).
After a little bit more thinking, I realized that the Que Sera would be perfect, and Benz and her staff were very receptive and deserve as much credit as anyone for making the show happen. We deliberately made it the last show of the tour, since the Que Sera was much smaller than the other venues they were playing."
Then he turned smiling / And saidOctober 24th came and we all piled into the venue that's become a second home for many. There were alot of non-familiar faces lurking about, indie kids and emo kids and older couples smashed in with a good assortment of RTB regulars -- truly a testament to the wide reaching influence of this band. The Que Sera staff were jovial and friendly as always -- remembering favorite drinks of their regular patrons with surprising accuracy. Knowing that the Que Sera doesn't really have anything in the way of "backstage" or a dressing room, I shouldn't have been surprised to see members of the band at the bar -- sitting and talking to fans as casual as anything -- but it was still odd to walk by and realize it was actually Mark Burgess sitting on a bar stool -- at the Que Sera -- in Long Beach, California.
I realise a miracle is due / I dedicate this melody to you
The opening band had canceled or had been canceled for some reason and even though I'm sure they're a fine band, it was probably for the better. When fans are dead set on hearing the headlining act, I don't think it matters much who opens. We just wanted to hear The Chameleons. The hours passed relatively quickly with good music being spun by the DJs. Some of the crowd worked off their anticipation by hitting the dance floor until we sensed It Was Time and gathered ever closer to the stage. And suddenly, as if by magic, there were The Chameleons playing time worn favorites against the old grey tie-dyed walls of the Que Sera. Mark's friendly smile lit up the room and all my fears about this show being too hyped to be good were vanquished within the first few seconds of music.
I don't remember the set list and they were snatched up afterwards too quickly to get my hands on, but I do remember the enormous range of emotions that night. From sadness to joy and fellowship with a room full of people who sang along, as loud as they could, sometimes over powering the band themselves. I remember the beautiful, hypnotic waves of music from "On The Beach," the extreme carefree giddiness of "Miracles and Wonders," the personal pain of "Tears" and the roller coaster ride of "Second Skin." I was a mess of goose bumps and tears when it was all over with. The deafening cheers and applause between songs left Mark speechless on several occasions. All he could do was blush and smile.
it was over we walked away as if in a trance. Surely no band has sounded
that good at the Que Sera. No man has coaxed such magic out of their instruments
as Dave, Reg, John, Kwasi and Mark did. No band more humble or grateful
to be there. I'm not sure what we did to deserve such a show, or if we
deserved it at all, but my eternal gratitude goes to James for making it
If this is the stuff dreams are made of / No wonder I feel like I'm floating on air
Everywhere / It feels like I'm everywhere
And after all that hard work, how did he think the concert turned out? How did the band seem to like it?
"The result was wonderful for me. It's not often that a person gets the chance to book a group as influential as The Chameleons at the height of their powers. I say this because although time has passed, the songs have been re-arranged and rediscovered and sound as relevant today as when I first heard them. And what a setlist!! I had never seen 'The Healer' played live, the version of 'Tears' gave me goosebumps, and the crowd singalong to 'Second Skin' sealed the deal. As an added bonus, a spot-on take of 'Moonage Daydream' concluded the show and left everyone in the house smiling ear to ear. I could talk about this for at least an hour, but I will summarize by saying that the group were generous to a fault, signing vinyl, cds and posters to anyone and everyone who asked. Quite a departure from some of the primma donnas I've come across in my years of attending and putting on shows. To quote Mark, 'From the minute I walked in [to the Que Sera], I knew this would be a top night. This is the place we would come for a drink if we lived 'round here'.
I don't want to speak for the band at all, but each member said that the Que Sera night was by far their favorite of the acoustic shows, hedging only to remember the South Paw in Brooklyn as the best performance of the tour. Of course, Mark has history up at the Great American Music Hall, since it was there that he first performed with the Bellows to get the whole reunion fires burning again, and I'm sure many fans can pick and choose their own favorite shows, because by my count they played about 40 different songs in their sets during the course of their jaunt across North America, but who knows? Maybe they thought so that night, and have reconsidered after some time off and considering the tour as a whole.
I *do* hope that some of the Que Sera show ends up on the DVD currently
in production. I'm not privy to the tapes, but I did give access to the
filmmakers, and though *I* know (and everyone else who was in attendance!)
just how great the Que Sera gig was, it looks like the bulk of the content
will come from the Great American Music Hall dates, judging from Mark's
most recent open letter. Still, I can only hope that Violet and Ken from
'The Scourge Productions' will maybe reconsider and choose to include more.
Ultimately, that's not my decision, but I know in my heart of hearts just
how great the show was, and look forward to seeing Mark solo and The Chameleons
proper in the months and years ahead."
It's like you fail to make the connection / You know how vital it is
Or when something slips through your fingers / You know how precious it is
Well you reach the point where you know / It's only your second skin
Someone's banging on my door *
*lyrics from the song "Second Skin"
2003 Tour - Final Confirmed Dates were:
September 28th Atlanta Echo Lounge CONFIRMED-
September 29th Atlanta (semi-acoustic) CONFIRMED
October 1st Washington DC The Black Cat - CONFIRMED,
October 2nd New York Knitting Factory 8:00 p.m (semi-acoustic) CONFIRMED
October 2nd New York Knitting Factory 11.00 p.m. Full show CONFIRMED
October 3rd Philadelphia Pontiac Grille CONFIRMED
October 4th Brooklyn - South Paw CONFIRMED
October 5th Maxwell's New Jersey CONFIRMED
October 6th Boston - Middle East Cafe CONFIRMED
October 7th Montreal Club Soda CONFIRMED
October 8th Montreal Club Soda CONFIRMED
October 9th Toronto Phoenix CONFIRMED
October 12th Buffalo The Continental CONFIRMED
October 13th Rochester - Water Street Music Hall CONFIRMED
October 14th Chicago Metro - CONFIRMED
October 15th Seattle The Showbox CONFIRMED
October 16th San Francisco Great American Music Hall (semi-acoustic set) CONFIRMED
October 18th San Francisco Great American Music Hall - CONFIRMED
October 20th Santa Ana Galaxy CONFIRMED -
October 21st LA The Knitting Factory - CONFIRMED
October 22nd LA The Knitting Factory - CONFIRMED
October 23rd San Diego Canes CONFIRMED
October 24th Long Beach Que Sera (semi acoustic set) CONFIRMED
~reviewed by Mike Ventarola
(photos from The Changelings' website; credits in cursor-over)
Editor's Note: This Interview was originally conducted for Projekt's Beneath The Icy Floe magazine. Our thanks to Sam for letting us reprint this interview here in it's entirety.
Since 1995, The Changelings have graced the world with their brand of Neo-Classical music. Although the underground music scene has demonstrated many radical paradigm shifts over the last 7 years, this enigmatic quintet continues to dig ever deeper into the wellspring of inspiration. The passionate zeal with which they approach their craft is not lost on the legions of fans who grow by leaps and bounds annually.
Having had the good fortune to interview the band members some years ago, it was evident that they are all unique, introspective, and humorous in their own right. Some of their answers contained herein will clearly show that they do not take themselves too seriously and certainly know how to still laugh at life. However, given the nature of personality conflicts that erupt with 2 to 3 band members, it seems astounding that after all this time that 5 of them can remain so tightly knit. When asked about this, Nick, Chandler, Damon and Regeana had these interesting answers. Paul Mercer was unfortunately missing in action by the time this was ready to go to press.
Nick: Candidly, both Regeana and I learned a lot of lessons of how not to conduct a band in our last group and we brought a lot of implicit " ground rules " with us when we formed The Changelings.
---We have a weekly boxing or wrestling match, whichever we're in the mood
for. We also employ punching bags with each member's face on it. If any
one of us has an issue with the other we just go an beat the living @$%$
out of it. No really, the real deal is we all have a great cynical sense
of humor, and we have our separate lives, so we're not always stepping
Regeana: I have a dart board with all the guys faces on it... no, really I think we all put the importance more on the music and less on the politics.
If you asked the members if they could put one word to each band mates personality, the answers would surprise you.
states, “The complexities of character and personality in these individuals
defy one-word descriptions. Not to be evasive; this is truly how
I feel, having worked so long with them. I would
do them a disservice in my mind to do the one-word-thing. That being said, these people are ‘kewl’.”
in his ever jovial sense asked, “ How about 2 words?” He then proceeded
to elaborate on his definition as follows:
Regeana - Genuinely Spacey
Paul - Perpetually Adolescent ( Paul - you know it's true! )
Damon - mysteriously eccentric
Chandler - amazingly responsible
added his creative word creation of by defining his fellow bandmates as,
damon- alwaysamakingthingsdifficult -don't hate me Damon ;-D
found Chandlers creativity conducive with her own thoughts and added:
Chandler - determinedtofly
Nick - disenchantedlyromantic
Paul - violinintheclouds
Damon - peskypirate
me - wow, that's the hardest. Uh... can anyone really describe themselves truthfully? searchingforfaerieland
The Changelings previously remixed Maelcum's Righteous Dub and Johnny Ether's Great Escape for the clubs. However, dance mixes are not essential for them to stay on top because their interminable beauty shines like a beacon from within the underground and beyond. Nick and Chandler had this to say about the process:
Chandler: ---There must always be an alternative to trends because that's all they are. We are an alternative. It's quite simple really. Sometimes people just want to hear real music.
Nick: I'd like to think that music created without trends in mind transcends them. I also think our listeners appreciate music with a timeless quality. The opposite of let's say....Limp Bizkit's audience.
we make the music we feel. Sometimes I wonder if it's coming from us at
all, there have been many moments while writing together that make me want
to believe in the muses. This music does not belong to us, but to the world
– a gift from inspiration, at least that's how it feels sometimes. If we
were to try and make formulaic dance music, we would be betraying our natures
somehow. I would love it if a DJ took some of our songs and used his/her
the bpm and made something else out of it though.
Previously, the band had been invited to the annual Anne Rice Vampire Ball until its discontinuation but is still regularly invited to perform at DragonCon, bringing them fans from all genre backgrounds across the globe. Damon elaborated upon this:
We played the last 5 AR Halloween parties up until last year when they
got too out of hand and raucous, and.. died. There are some great pictures
from these events on our website:
www.changelings.com. I met Anne several years back at a book signing in Atlanta and gave her a disc.
Regeana: We played at the Anne Rice Vampire Lestat Fanclub Halloween ball for many years until it disintegrated. The best and worse was in an old Masonic temple. I hope the Illuminati were impressed.
The Changelings continue to rely on their diverse talent for playing exotic as well as common instruments. This present outing demonstrates a slight departure from earlier recordings as some of the other band mates are even more prominent with their vocal textures and contributions along with the very gifted front woman, Regeana Morris. Each member within the group is a star in their own right with their own side projects. When they merge their talents as a family unit to become “The Changelings,” the result is nothing short of magical. When asked about the future of other band members including their vocals in the work, Damon states,” Probably so” while Chandler waxes a bit more on the issue, “Yes, after at least 14 years of practicing vocals where no one else can hear me I finally feel like I'm ready to sing to the world....maybe I'll become the new lead singer even, shuh....ain't gonna happen. Really, I do love to sing and any opportunity to contribute more I'll have to take advantage of.” Regeana adds, “I certainly hope so.”
This can only leave the fan and listener wondering what other gems this phenomenal band has up their sleeves to entice and excite us down the road!
Astronomica is their latest recording through Middle Pillar Presents, and is their best release to date. Like Projekt Records artist, Unto Ashes, who last debuted with Saturn Return, The Changelings also went skyward for inspiration. Astronomica represents lyrics of love, loss, longing and internalized fears. The tracks utilize galactic bodies, changing seasons, space travel and time transitions as thematic metaphors.
The CD cover merges a 1920’s sky Goddess with stars, planets and rocket ships, demonstrating the timeless grandeur of the recording itself. The beautiful digipak is as much a work of art to cherish as the music it safely houses. One can only hope that a poster of this beautiful cover will be in the offering at some point in the future.
The band was asked how the idea for Astronomica came about and if the intention from the outset was to make it a fully thematic project?
Chandler: ---It came about after months of no other ideas making any sense. Most of the songs have a space theme, but that wasn't planned at all....so we simply went with it.......sounds mundane eh? No divine inspiration here, not for the title at least. The music on the other hand!@##%#$%#^
Nick: I actually think it was a pretty organic process. We all seemed to be on " a space wavelength " during the time we were composing and recording the album.
Damon: We steered it in the “to the stars” thematic direction at different points in the crafting process. There was still a great deal of spontaneity and "jamming" in the creation..
Regeana: We took the framework of the stars and hung it with The Changelings sounds and feelings. I'm really disappointed that there aren't cities on the moon yet. Do they even watch the shuttle taking off in elementary school classrooms anymore?
From the opening track, “Departure,” one is clearly in for a majestic carpet ride into another realm. Swirls of Middle Eastern sounds, Celtic, Baroque and Neo-Classical take us away from the petty cares of the world to focus introspectively. This track then, is the step off the cliff from The Fool from the Tarot. Once the journey inward has begun, there is no returning to the old self that we once knew.
“Orbit” is a magnum opus with a life of its own, enthralling and entrancing the listener. The track stays with the thematic approach of the CD, yet also urges us to also question who we are and where we are really going in the ever increasing madness of the world.
“Mata Hari” takes sound through the Celtic and Middle Eastern paces, similar to Loreena McKennitt. Like the infamous spy the track is named after, Morris delves into the personification of deception where seduction is a weapon. Here, the deception is also lending itself to a pang of remorse that time itself cannot be made to stand still, bringing to fruition the potential that we are our worst enemy.
“Outrun Your Fears” somberly flows like rain against the glass pane. Regeana delivers this track like an older sister who is comforting a younger sibling. She offers hope and help in a wicked world. This is also a tune of one who crosses the void to break down the barriers for later generations will not have to endure the hardships and sacrifices that preceded the initial search.
“Veils of Gold” is an odd hybrid of Middle Eastern weaving between Medieval tones that shimmers like Salome’s “Dance of the 7 Veils.” Here, Morris refers to a “little sister” in the lyrics, as though there is a family traveling in space. There is an essence of hope that seems to die with each passing moment.
“Parallax” depicts life in space that depletes one of time, love, and sanity. We continue to travel in the spaceship with the band to see the reflection of our mechanized ingenuity causing a disparate reality between man and machine. Here, we are at the crux of the world today. Despite our advancements, communication is corrupted and that which was once held sacred is now brought to a level of a Big Brother experiment.
“Hypersleep” is an instrumental track that brings the listener into a tranquil state with touches of complications. Man has given his life and soul over to the creation of machine in order to explore and understand heaven. In its place, man’s soul has been virtually eradicated.
“Olympus Mons” features Damon on vocals. He does a magnificent job of tweaking the sentiment from this track. Here, man is faced with the slow realization that time is running out and there is nothing he can do about it but reflect. This is all metaphorically wrapped up with the ideation of spacecraft systems that fail and that imminent doom is merely hours away. In light of the current affairs plaguing the world today, a more timeless track could not have been written.
“See Emily Play” is a Pink Floyd cover that is very well done. This is probably the most “pop” style work we have heard The Changelings endeavor, but they make sure to own this song from the outset. Here, Emily borrows someone else’s dreams and can only hope to see another day.
“My Shadow, Your Ghost” brings us to the culmination and realization that we don’t clearly see the one we love in front of us until they are taken from us. Morris brings a heartbreaking vocal essence of tragedy to this track, making this the love song that came about too late. Essentially, one must question if it is a love song to ourselves and our lost innocence or a somber reflection of having lost ourselves in such a short span of time.
After listening to this grand work of sonic art, the band was further queried about what it was that they hoped the listener would grasp from their work.
---We want every one to listen to our music and just have more sex, and
get high, hehehe. For real, all we ask is that you be happy or sad or whatever
the song dictates..........enjoy, enjoy, enjoy! Music for most of us is
a sensual thing (no, i didn't say sexual - hearing is a sense), it's a
drug and we're all addicts. Music gives an emotional buzz that's runs
deeper than any chemical. Do more music.
Nick: I'd like our listeners to feel that there are others who share their unique tastes and sensibilities. There are magical, mysterious, strange and sensual things in this world and I'd like to think that we might bring some of those things to mind when people hear our music.
My experience is that our fans have diverse reflections and interpretations
of our music, based on their own perspectives. The favorite songs
and aspects of the Changelings
music that people tell us about are often very different from each other, and from our own intentions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We try not to ask anything of the listeners, but to simply be glad that our music is being appreciated. That being said, I would be happy if listeners
would decode some of the secret messages we’ve been hiding..
Enjoyment and an escape from the mundane everyday world. A 4 a.m.
around their living room naked.
Astronomica beautifully utilized tones and metaphors that only further make the listener to want to seek out the intrinsic meaning imbedded within the confines of the lyrics. The thematic approach of the heavens and space travel help to create wonderful imagery even for those who do not wish to dig so deeply into purpose and meaning. In spite of its morose message, Astronomica is a wondrous world of ethereal stylizations, Middle Eastern tones and Neo-Classical music which is bound to change the listening environment where it is played.
Paul Mercer: Violin and Viola
Regeana Morris: Voice, Hammered Dulcimer, Bass Guitar
Nick Pagan: MPS Orchestral Plus, CSX1, Nano Synth, Mini Moog, “Mellotron,” phased chimes and backing vocals.
Chandler Rentz: Percussion, Drums and backing vocals.
Damon Young: Guitars, Olympus Vocals
Label: Middle Pillar - www.middlepillar.com
can be ordered from Middle
~interview by Eric Rasmussen
We recently spoke with The Gathering's vocalist Anneke Van Giersbergen, and she shared some insight into the band's new album: Souvenirs. But first, a brief and important note: I had to fill in a few bits and pieces with brackets when my recorder decided to momentarily stop recording.
Eric: Why did you shift away from Mandylion and a heavier sound?
Anneke: It's just a natural evolution I guess. When we started this band, when the guys started this band, they were all really really young so you kind of grow up with your music. It changes because when you grow up there's so much more influences and elements that you can put into this music again. So I guess it's just a natural evolution of growing up and hearing, seeing [new things].
Eric: How would you describe the genre trip-hop, and how do you fit into it?
Anneke: We started using this word trip-hop, because it's kind of, how do you call this music... you know, it's kind of trippy rhythm wise, but it's not really hip-hop like Black music. But takes you on a trip, and therefore it's trippy, and it's still rock, but it's not heavy.
Eric: What musical inspirations have you had? What else inspires you?
Anneke: Well, just, we worked really hard to get good production this time with some contemporary sounds. We worked really hard on that, and the influences come also from some more music wise influences like Radiohead, or Elbow, or Sigur Rós or those kinds [of groups]. I love movies and such, other art, but also really life itself.
Eric: How have you tried to improve as a vocalist?
Anneke: I think the big difference between this period and the period before is that I became maybe even more personal with more dynamics. And I try every record again to learn some new things about me and about my voice and about how you can kind of show your feelings through your voice, because it's an instrument.
Eric: Who does most of the songwriting for the band, and can you tell us how a typical songwriting process goes?
Anneke: We actually all do, it's very much a group effort, but there are a few people who come up with the initial melody. I do write the lyrics and the vocal line, so everybody has their own different specialty.
Eric: Do you treat your songs differently when you play them live?
Yeah, it's more that they kind of go back to how we do rhythm in the rehearsal
room, it's more pure. When we play it live there's no third dimension that
you have of course on the records. Or you hear all those layers and there's
all sorts of sounds and samples and stuff going on. [Live shows go] back
to a more pure rocking sound. And of course we
have a beautiful light show which is very much enhancing.
Eric: Are you happy with The End Records?
Anneke: Yes, very much. Andreas is a very honest guy. I didn't see many people in the business who are as - he's very much with his heart into this business and you don't see that very often.
Eric: Are you pleased with the way the album turned out? Is there anything big you would change?
Anneke: Normally there's always something big that you wanted to do better but didn't really achieve, and now there isn't, so we're very happy with the result. We talked about it a lot - of course we took a ridiculous amount of time to make this album, like two and a half to three years, and we've re-written and re-recorded and a had a big chaos of experimental recording sessions. But it in the end it paid off because we had a lot of time to let the songs ripe like good wine. And so we achieved this big big goal I'm happy to say really, and I'll never do this again because it was really blood, sweat and tears [laughs]. We're quite happy now.
Eric: Do you have any final thoughts for your fans?
Anneke: Only that we hope to come see you guys [in the US] again because we had a blast in 1999. And so that would be great. We hope to achieve that goal in this year. And for the rest - hopefully people will pick up the record and give it a chance, that would be very nice.
Thanks again to Anneke, and be sure to check out our review of Souvenirs!
Gathering - Official Site:
Handsome Family: A Little Bit Creepy, A Little
~by Matthew Heilman
Gothic country? Surely I jest. However, I am quite serious. A few months back, the biggest controversy in Nashville was the poignant and painfully vivid video for Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” I have seen that video at least three dozen times at this point, and I am still an emotional wreck by its finale. Maybe it would have been The Man In Black and his timeworn voice that has sung of religious doubt, pain, death, addiction, love, and damnation throughout his long career that would have inspired me to dig deeper into the annals of Country music to find something of substance. But my curiosity was peaked months before Cash’s newest video, and it would be awhile before I was reminded of how utterly devastating the works of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline were decades ago, and honestly, how punk rock Johnny Cash was. I wanted Gothic country, however much of a paradox it seemed. I could hear it in my head, but no one, as of yet, came close to capturing what I could imagine.
I didn’t need to look much further than The Handsome Family, a husband and wife duo of musicians whose unique world of stark humour, murder ballads, and American tragedy is pure Gothic without the pretense of Halloween fashion faux pas and amateur drum machine based music.
My discovery of The Handsome Family was purely by accident and the result of imaginative whimsy. Any regular StarVox readers that have read my CD reviews over the past year or so and read regularly enough to note which reviews were written by me, will probably have noticed how jaded I am with the current genres of Gothic, Industrial, and dark metal music. I have been searching for something with a greater sense of urgency on the Goth spectrum of things, and overall and with music in general, more genuine and organic musicianship. Somehow, I ended up flipping through the channels and landed on CMT (Country Music Television). Fate decided that I would have tuned in to see a video by a female artist named Tift Merritt. Her sultry twang was arresting, and she was backed by four musicians that were delivering a kind of R.E.M. like jangle with a subtle tinge of country rock. I totally dug it. The next video was by Alison Krauss and Union Station, and was entitled “New Favourite.” The song is the title track of Alison Krauss’ latest release and it absolutely floored me. It is a song that wallows in the pangs of withered love, and it was the most straight forward and melancholic thing I had heard in months. A quiet, yet overwhelmingly dense rhythm was created by upright bass and muffled acoustic guitar chords, interrupted by punctual dirge-like percussion while painful slide guitar interacts with Alison’s soft pleading whispers. It was gorgeous. And utterly depressive in that decayed, Romantic way. The musicianship alone was praiseworthy, but the emotion was REAL.
So I started thinking…hmmm. My only exposure to country was via pop crossover acts and they were just as plastic as Britney Spears and Apoptygma Berzerk. But I began to imagine, what if there were country artists that were dark? That used these instruments to create the kind of emotion Goth bands are only reputed to fulfill. So I started doing some digging, and of course, the Internet yielded an interesting result when I searched for “gothic country” -- an A to Z list of “alt.country” or “insurgent country” bands. Bingo. Among those artists listed (Cowboy Junkies, Wilco, Son Volt, Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo, Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, and 4AD’s own Tarnation) there appeared a link to The Handsome Family, whose website was adorned with strange black and white woodcuts of Victorian children, log cabins, big ominous black birds, and other random creepiness. CDs with titles like “Through The Trees” and “Twilight,” with album covers consisting of gnarled black trees and sublime mountain peaks and song titles like “My Dead Bride” and “Poor, Poor Lenore.” What I found, of course, exceeded even my expectations. And here I thought I was on to something novel, and I could have created my own insane blend of Goth, Doom, Post Punk, Noise, and um…Bluegrass. And create a genre that could be described as “funereal twang gaze” and instead of coining a reference to German architecture I could call the band Antebellum to evoke some foreboding, haunted mansion in Georgia. But that is still to come, I suppose.
So I headed over to Amazon and bought the last two Handsome Family CDs. What I found was indeed, the band can be regarded dark and spo0ky to some extent and do merge the elements of Goth with Country (or if we are being really particular, folk). But what was delightful and unique about the Handsome Family is their extremely twisted sense of humour, which will appeal to a vast amount of strange folk the world over. Their music creates a surreal, disorienting effect – music that strums along, sweet as pie but with nightmarish and manic lyrical content that makes you stop and do a double take. It confuses you, but is vastly entertaining. There’s is a world of checkered black and white Tim Burton fantasy, with characters straight out of Edward Gorey’s most bizarre creations…but set in a fetid Louisiana swamp, a shadowy New England forest, or in the somber solitude of the Appalachian Mountains. And the contrast of humour and misery is perfectly, pure American Gothic.
Below is an email interview with Rennie Sparks, lyricist and visionaire of The Handsome Family. I hope that some of our readers will be inclined to investigate the same wind tortured pastures of Americana that I am currently infatuated with.
Starvox: How did the two of you meet and was it love at first sight?
We met sixteen years ago. I was walking around on LSD with this little white index card I'd soaked in red paint. It said, "Hello. My name is Hedwig Vogelsang and my purpose on Earth is to ravage and send raving the race of man." Well it seemed like a good idea as the acid was kicking in. Anyway, most people were highly disturbed by my little greeting card, but Brett just smiled and said "Howdy" and I haven't left his side since.
Starvox: You guys have lived in various places – Chicago, Canada, Albuquerque. Where are you living now? How has living there affected your art?
We've lived on Long Island, in Michigan, in Chicago, and now in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We started writing songs together in Chicago. We lived in a really dark and ugly part of town. It almost felt like we were living in a grainy black and white movie. Life was ugly and empty so I started writing songs about the forest. Brett's from out here in NM. His family are old Texans and dust bowl refugees so when he got homesick he started wanting to write country music like his daddy used to listen to. We moved to Albuquerque because Brett's family is near here. Plus we finally have the luxury of living outside of a big city now that we don't have to grovel for bad temp jobs between tours. It's beautiful out here in the desert in a stark and dreamlike way. Most of the time the sky looks like a painted backdrop and the mountains turn orange then red then purple as the sun sets. It's been inspiring. Our new record that we're working on now has a lot of songs about fire.
Starvox: How did you come up with the band name?
We were actually in someone else's band named The Handsome Family. Everybody quit the band except us so we were sort of saddled with it. It seems like a nice cross between The Carter Family and The Manson Family which is not far from where we live.
Starvox: What fuels your creativity? Lyrically and musically?
Brett (who writes the music) has always got melodies running through his head. He hums while he's eating. When he's asleep I notice his fingers moving sometimes as if he's playing piano in his dreams. I (Rennie who writes the words) feel like I get a sort of bulging feeling inside my head as if my head might explode if I don't try and write something. I obey my unseen masters.
Starvox: You make many references to nature and animals in your music. The album covers themselves usually depict natural scenery such as mountains, trees, or rolling fields. But the manner in which you portray nature is not your typical ‘easy life in the country’ – there is always an underlying sense of unease. Do you feel then that nature is inherently evil, or that mankind is being justly punished for not properly appreciating it and/or abusing it? (laughs)
Well maybe all of the above. We have ravaged this planet. Think how nice it would be here if there were no humans. There is certainly something wrong with us. Maybe we were some kind of alien gene splicing experiment back in the stone age. I often think it's just that darn thumb of ours that caused a lot of trouble. Who knows what kind of trouble elephants would have caused had they hands to make tools with. You're never going to amass a stockpile of nuclear missiles with only a trunk to work with. I have a vaguely psychotic theory that this world is a hell realm where bad spirits are sent to learn very basic levels of morality and that as each species on this planet learns its lesson it disappears. I think we'll be the last ones here tossing missiles at each other. I also have another theory that trees are angels who have incarnated selflessly in order to make oxygen for us. Am I creeping you out yet?
Starvox: What would you say are the prerequisites for a Handsome Family song? What kind of mood do you have to be in to write lyrics? Music?
I write the lyrics first and then give them to Brett. So, the prerequisite is me feeling like my head is going to explode if I don't write something. I write and write, but most of it gets tossed. I only keep the lyrics that seem absolutely mysterious to me as if they were found in a notebook left in a payphone booth and have nothing to do with me.
Starvox: The press and fans have come up with a lot of different ways to describe your music, but how would you describe your sound?
A little bit creepy and a little bit country. A friend once called it "Wilderness Music" which I really liked.
Starvox: I admit I haven’t heard much of your earlier albums (I just have the recent two) but it sounds as if there was a more ‘indie’ kind of vibe to your early stuff. Was there a conscious decision to move into a more folk direction? Would you ever consider integrating the two styles?
Well, after Kurt Cobain shot himself it sort of took the fun out of the whole scene for me. The distortion pedal really lost its magic for us after that. I think we're very much inspired by old folk songs so it comes out in our songs. There is such mystery and depth to even a song like "My Darling Clementine" if you really stop to think about it. There's a moment in the song where the lyrics are about watching the little bubbles of air coming up from her red lips as she drowns. That kind of imagery sticks with you. Hard to find that kind of thing in the rock world these days. Of course we like Nick Cave, but he's pretty much mining the same territory as us so he's not really an inspiration. But, we don't sit down and say "let's get folky." Mostly we just try to write good songs and then let the songs decide how they want to be played. If it's a good song then usually simple is best. You don't need a lot of loud distorted guitars if you have a good melody and a harmony.
Starvox: People have referred to you as alt.country but yet you sound nothing like Uncle Tupelo or anything like that. You do have more in common with someone like Nick Cave. I do not mean to take anything away from the uniqueness of the band, but are there other bands that are similar to you guys that you could recommend to your fans?
I really like Lambchop. Also Smog, Bonnie Prince Billy, Willard Grant Conspiracy, Giant Sand, Calexico, Vic Chestnutt. But, at the end of the day, mostly I listen to music by long dead people. For old folk songs that will shatter your heart into a million pieces see The Louvin Brothers or The Blue Sky Boys.
Starvox: Would you say The Handsome Family attempts to twist the stereotypes of mainstream country music into a kind of nightmarish reflection of itself?
Well, it's not a conscious effort, but thanks! Really, we couldn't give a fuck about mainstream country music. Again, we're much more interested in mining the dark veins of old American music. There is a dark, blood-soaked history here full of vagabonds and serial killers, the massacre of an entire nation of people, the ravaging of ancient forests, the dream of the frontier. Mostly we just want to write about what it feels like here in the evil empire of America.
Starvox: The effect of the Handsome Family can be quite disorienting. With music that at times is relatively upbeat and folky, and even some of the vocal melodies could be described as ‘chipper.’ But then the lyrics go something like “I shot my brother William five times in the back….I watched as his blood ran through the dead grass / I watched as the black ants crawled through his hands.” Do you intentionally attempt to mess with the non-discerning listener? Do old people smile and nod their heads, unaware of what you are saying?
It always seems kind of obvious to have really dark music with really dark lyrics. Kind of laying it on too thick. It can create a sort of melodrama that can border on silly. Of course that can be fun though. Joy Division is a great example of that. It's very romantic music in the end. But, real horror and real pain are often emphasized more when contrasted with a little light. I mean what would a real psychopathic killer have humming in his head while axe murdering? Probably something sweet and chipper. I heard that Jeffrey Dalmer was obsessed with the Star Wars movies. He had action figures.
Starvox: Do you guys play live much? Describe a typical Handsome Family concert?
Mostly it's just the two of us with a minidisc full of backing percussion and some odd noises. We like to talk a lot. Sometimes people find it odd that we'll joke around and then play a really dark song, but it makes sense to me. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
Starvox: What have been some of the strangest reactions to your music?
It's really odd in Ireland because people there are so, so morbid and have been through so much suffering that they find our music to be absolutely hilarious. We'll sing a line about the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon--"...they were clubbed and shot, netted gassed and burned..." and people will be falling out of their seats laughing. Then they all start singing along.
Starvox: “Twilight” is the latest album released from you guys. How long before another Handsome Family release?
We should have a new one released in the fall. We're calling it, "Singing Bones"
Starvox: How has the current war affected the two of you? Do you predict any of your opinions or feelings on the subject will surface in future material?
really see our songwriting as a vehicle for political expression, but I
do tend to write about the great clouds of darkness underneath shiny happy
America and about the bloodlust that lurks under our glossy Coca Cola vision
of "freedom". I feel we are a very, very sick culture. We have so completely
repressed all our understanding of death and suffering that we're actually
calling it "freedom" when we drop bombs on people. I feel sad for our troops
because they are young, idealistic kids who want to believe inthe dream
they've been fed. But, it's hollow. We don't love "freedom". We love power.
This disconnect between what we say and what we do is probably a big inspiration
for my writing--the surreal quality life takes on here sometimes in our
obsessions with youth and health and cheerfulness.
“Love, she fell in love
With the gravedigger’s son
Who was thin as the bow of his black violin.
Kiss, he kissed so hard
Her mouth filled with blood
Then he left her to cry where the red oaks die.”
-- Poor, Poor Lenore
THE HANDSOME FAMILY:
links of interest:
NO DEPRESSION (alt.country magazine):
MUSIC GUIDE – Alt.Country: