Riding A Dark Horse:
A Conversation with Myssouri About War/Love Blues.
(photos from the Myssouri website)
My original intention was just to do a review of Myssouri’s long awaited new CD: War/Love Blues. It was released in December 2003 and marked their second full length in roughly four years. Rabid fans like myself had been fed sparsely on EP’s, mp3’s and promos of new songs as they worked their way through new material. I was eager to write this up and then the realization hit as I sat listening to it for the first time in a darkened room through headphones – Myssouri is never easy to digest and thusly, never easy to write about. The band has consistently defied categorization and has been the subject of many different interpretations. They’ve been called everything from gothic rock to “punk-injected Spaghetti Western dirge” to American Blacksong. They’ve drawn comparisons to legendary performers and yet they are more than that. They’re more brutal and descriptively graphic then Nick Cave ever was, more in tune with the darker elements of fire and brimstone than Sixteen Horsepower, more surreal and nightmarish than Pink Floyd and at times, more mysterious and shrouded then the man in black himself.
I had to consult the dictionary five times in the first song alone just to decipher the lyrics completely and a few of the songs were enough of a surprise that I had to listen to them several times over to get at what the band was presenting. These are not songs that you can take casually into possession. These are songs with barbs and spikes that grind and stick and stab on their way down. Even with the most benign sounding song, seemingly harmless, there are layers upon layers to sink into once you scratch the itch. Chad Driscoll from Listen.com said once that Myssouri is “music that must be lived in to be understood, not merely listened to and forgotten.” Soon I had more questions and more discoveries than I could fit into one CD review so by necessity it turned into a feature story and gave me an opportunity to pick the brains of one of my favorite bands, yet again. I knew I ran the risk of over-analyzing it and turning it, as Michael would later say, into “meaningless pink-grey ooze” but I won’t make any apologies. These are things I wanted to know.
Upon first listen the easy thing to say is that this is a very different CD from their original release, Malamerica. It’s still dark and moody with the edges framed in ghostly American Westerns but there’s some additional elements thrown in that were hinted at on the EP’s and promos - a bit of pop, rock and as the title would suggest, most definitely blues. It might be a good guess that this change was partly the maturation that comes with a sophomore release and partly the gelling of band members. The band line-up – which had seemed to plague them in the past – had firmed up and allowed them to finally grow, experiment and move forward from a solid base.
Mark Rogers, Myssouri’s guitarist, filled me in on the band’s interior status: “Myself and drummer Chris Reeves were on the demo as well as the new record. Cade Lewis (bass) is back from the old days. Chris and I have been in the band for 3.5 years and 4 years, respectively, and have been with Myssouri longer than all old members put together. Myssouri, of course, is more of a band now with coalescence of songwriting, technique, vision, arrangement, and personality. The heart, voice, and soul of this band are timeless and unchanging and Michael Bradley [vocalist] is the anchor of this band. A big difference from the old days is that Michael and I write songs together now, he brings material to the band on his own, and the raw ideas are digested and interpreted by a talented and musical rhythm section.”
ROOD BOY BLUES
And with that difference the band seems to be taking bold stops forward with renewed confidence. In short, they’ve come out of the corner swinging with all they’ve got. Take the very first song. “Rood Boy Blues” will absolutely knock you for a loop the first time you hear it. If it doesn’t, well, I’d say you’re already dead. It starts off with the crackle of scratchy vinyl and a ghostly, lonely guitar riff before thundering to life with an electric guitar jangle and a full on freight-train rhythm section punctuated by climatic vocals and a wailing guitar solo that snakes itself into a tornado.
I asked Michael about the odd intro and he replied, “It was supposed to 'bookend' the song--but in the interest of time, we put it at the beginning only. But it was just a slide 'sister' part that Mark would sometimes play as a sort of prologue/epilogue, and I just put some brainless words to it. Wanted to start the album out with 'ear candy'--intriguing the listener to say, ‘what the hell?’”
Michael’s vocals are the best I’ve ever heard here and by the end of the song he’s worked himself up into such a fury that it’s almost scary. There’s a dangerous free-spiritedness about it. When asked if it was a conscious decision or just a side effect of their development as a band, Michael related that it was “a conscious decision born of the loosened atmosphere created by having an actual BAND. These guys can play their asses off, and I’ve been freed.”
And if the music itself sounds big and threatening (it literally reminds me of a tornado winding itself up as it gets ready to flatten everything you own…) the lyrics add a whole other layer of bleakness. Starting with the title I had to look up "rood" just to get my bearings.
Michael shed some light on it: “I can't quite remember how, but probably upon hearing the term ‘rude boys’ used for Ska, it made me think of a bunch of crucified boys, as I've been using the word ROOD (as an exact simile for crucifix) for years now. My guitarist and co-writer, Mark Rogers, came up with the riff in his earliest days upon joining Myssouri, and for some reason I just titled it ‘Rood Boy Blues’. As you can probably tell, I enjoy using the word 'blues' in a title, whether or not the song is stereotypical 'blues'. Because that to me goes back to mythical Americana: the blues. Exclusively, originally American. Of or concerning the low-down state of the soul. So if it's 1-4-5 or not, who gives a rat's ass. Labeling, terminology, deconstruction. Analyze ANYTHING for too long and you boil it down to it's primal essence: meaningless pink-grey ooze.”
The lyrics have their trademark imagery and thematically remind me a lot of another Myssouri song "One Holy Thing" where the last line is "I love you like a threat." Michael says the two songs aren’t related in any way and just exactly what this song represents may lie buried behind the eyes of the enigmatic vocalist forever. While we guess and add our own interpretations, in the very least these lyrics are artistic, beautiful poetry in the darkest sense of the word.
Symbols linger in the sutures where I've stitched our lives together.
Michael commented it was “a late add to the album. I liked it, and was surprised to hear the positive reactions from the other members as it developed. I guess I figured they'd think it was too overtly 'dark' or Bauhaus. I wanted the central voice in it to stir up images of the last ubermensch on earth. Just a'lordin' over stuff and a-pontificatin'...”
MARCH TO THE SEA
Michael replied, “You're the first person to acknowledge that it IS a sad song. I think songs like March add a great dynamism and diversity to our roster, our LIVE roster in particular, but it's hard to get a crowd into it if they've never heard it before. I'm hoping folks will love the song from the album, then call out for it live. That happened alot with tunes from Malamerica. Familiarity is EVERYTHING.”
Mark added, “[ I ] love that you notice the rise and fall of emotions and the pull of the chorus verses the verse structure. Mission accomplished. Masterpiece.”
Michael agreed on the quality of the video: “The video is excellent! How many unsigned bands can put such a handsome video on what amounts to be, for all intents and purposes, a new debut? So thanks to Nick Rosendorf for all his fine work. Regarding the overall THEME of the video, I just want to say that Floorless does not, in any way, advocate violence towards women! I sometimes get concerned when I see the video that people will misinterpret that.”
On a humorous side-note, there’s some farm animals wandering around the set in the video – some chickens and one ram. While doing research on the web for this article I came acress a note on a Jacob Sheep newsgroup where their owner talked excitedly about her sheep and chickens becoming movie stars in Myssouri’s video.
Michael laughed, “Ha, yes! I've seen that. Glad EWE noticed. Hope we didn't RAM that image down anyone's throat!”
When asked about the differences between the two versions of the song, Michael says the CD version is “longer, more fully realized, confident, brash and sexy. If I listen to this one, then the demo version, the demo sounds stiffer to me.”
Mark continues “Floorless Jig is closer to what I always wanted it to be: an apolcalyptic juke joint boogie. I thickened the guitars, added more dreamy delay effects (the boomerang echo during the mid section after Michael says "I am the Great I Ain't!!!"; the delay appears, then moves from speaker L to R and comes back in like a coyote yelp). Michael is GREAT ON IT. Myssouri HAD to re-record this, I think, because the power of it just was not coming through in the demo version. At the end, for example, the feeling had to be frantic, panicky, and like the entire building was coming down on you in flames.”
“This is our preferred version,” Michael said. “The demo was just that. And it was a song we struggled with for a long time. Liked it, but didn't LOVE it. I couldn't figure what the problem was, but we re-worked the chorus, and now, while it IS one of our more 'pop' songs, it is undeniably catchy, and hopefully soulful.”
Mark agreed, “We rewrote the chorus adding a lilting quality to it. The middle section after the first chorus is my favorite place; I love it when we all are strumming and playing together and the slide comes in very simple. I love the organ on it too. It just sounds better to me now.”
THE OTHER PEOPLE’S
“The voice is Mark's,” Michael says, “I edited together some of the background sounds, and blended it with the raw acoustic performance of his. I think he said 'Aww, Christ, man!' after he was told to play it yet again--like a 6th time. But it was originally intended to be a somber homage to the NYC twin towers. That 's why I liked the footsteps. And the sound like a hurricane coming in. Or an airplane. Lends a whole new meaning. Ultimately, though, it was titled 'The Other People's Money Stomp' because of the blues we had about being unable to do this record without Other People's Money. And the stomp is self-explanatory. Naming it something like Manhattan Requiem would probably have come off as too heavy-handed.”
Mark explains further: “‘Other Peoples' money is me playing an old National Dobro guitar. Michael gave it reverb. That is my voice slowed down and garbled. It originally was written a while back, I originally wanted to call it "Manhattan Requiem" for the victims of 9-11 (especially with the sound effects in the song that MB added that sounded sort of like a plane coming at an innocent person saying "aw Christ Man") but in the end, the song is best called ‘Other People's Money’ because that what Myssouri had to turn to to pay for this record. It is sort of a sad admission.
Besides, didn't Michael say once that a gypsy woman/psychic told him that his fame would come later in life with other people's money? The 'stomp' is in line with the blues context of the record.”
MY ONLY LOVE
Michael, “Thanks. My favorite. The ending is a ‘Comfortably Numb’ -style ride into the infernal recesses of the quivering brain. And the chorus is completely unorthodox for the more standard blues progression of the verse. This one came together quickly in rehearsals and we knew we had something.”
Sometimes the best things come easiest.
DOWN IN FLAMES
When asked how the song developed Michael commented, “The guitar riff is Mark's--given to me on a low-fi cassette. Cade Lewis added the very Beatle esque bass riff that became a defining feature. No lofty intentions here. It just became what it became when I added my voice and lyrics to a composition that didn't seem to warrant any severe changes. We actually have lots of songs that are like this--'uncharacteristic', yet totally Myssouri.
But look--go back to The Doors first album--you'll hear hard driving numbers like ‘Break on Through’ and dark, somber ones like ‘End of the Night’ and mystical epics like ‘The End.’ But interspersed are songs like ‘Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)’ and ‘Soul Kitchen’ that show a lighter heart and re-freshened attitude. They say: ‘We're not a one-course meal’. Neither is Myssouri.”
Mark agrees: “Down in Flames represents that Myssouri can do a lighter song and surprise you with songcraft, touch, and restraint. Same with [the song] ‘I Got It All’. I love the juxtaposition of a catchy melody with lyrics that are heavy.”
THE EYES OF OTHERS
I GOT IT ALL
“The lyrics are nonsense that has come true! Musically, this one started
out like ‘Down In Flames’--with a cassette and repeated listens with headphones
and a notebook. Once we decided to include it on our recording sessions,
it took newer, more confident form, mostly via Chris Reeves and Cade, who
definitely lent it that 'Nirvana' vibe--of kind of a 'slacker ennui' you
might say. It fit the lyric though. Dejected, resigned. But
not totally hopeless. It's Zen, really, in it's willingness to let
go. That's why it ended up as the last track.
Mark, “Peter Greens' Fleetwood Mac (‘Man of the World’, ‘Albatross’, ‘Oh Well’, etc.) are a major influence on me. I think that they are underrated for being a songwriting band, not just a blues band. The later Fleetwood Mac were an unavoidable part of my listening to rock radio as a kid but, when it comes down to it, the reverb loneliness that came from P. Greens' Mac haunts me to this day. He is the greatest of the guitarists to come out of the UK until Johnny Greenwood.”
RIDING A DARK
Mark: “I feel so good about this record. I have no complaints and I look forward to supporting it and continuing to play and record with this band. It just seems to capture exactly what we wanted; maybe it was not everything that everyone in the band conceptualized it to be in the beginning but when it was all said and done I think that we all knew that it was something special.”
Michael: “Live shows have been consistently uneven. Our playing is usually fine and strong, and my voice has only strained once or twice. We're formulating a 12-city tour. Hopefully we'll hit the west for the first time later this year. But audience response is so hard to measure with an objective eye when you play the same damn venues in the same damn city over and over. Sometimes it's great, but other times it seems people just don't get us. I hear Myssouri on the radio, and it sounds so much stronger than anything I hear before OR after it. And yet we haven't really broken through to a LARGE audience yet.
I sometimes feel that people want to be TOLD what is cool and hip and worth seeing/buying. We'll just have to see what happens when War/Love Blues and Myssouri are heard beyond the southeast states. We're ready to record another album now. But we'll have to bite our tongues and be patient. These songs deserve to be fleshed out.
Our collective goal was to burst triumphantly out of obscurity! And we WILL succeed!”
Michael Bradley: vocals, guitars, sounds
Mark Rogers: lead guitars, lap steel, vocals
Cade Lewis: bass guitars, vocals
Chris Reeves: drums, percussion, vibes, vocals
Official Myssouri Website: