Thursday, November 29, 2012

Killers Interview: Ballad Born

The Killers' new album, Battle Born, sounds like Meat Loaf. At first I hated it. Now I can't stop listening to it.

In the course of writing this story about the band for The Oregonian, I got over clunky lines like "Don't want your picture on my cell phone," and found myself absent-mindedly belting them. The record is sort of like variations on a theme. I appreciate the dedication to the experiment.

I also appreciated talking to drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. I love interviewing bass players, drummers, keyboardists--people who usually aren't the face of the band. It gives you a chance to ask more unusual questions. We had a great conversation about how drummers act on stage, and a lot of that made it in the piece.

It came up because when the Killers last played Portland, I remember noting how animated Vannucci was on stage. He's a fun guy to talk to, and apparently he enjoys Portland a lot and likes to wander around when he visits, so keep an eye out next week.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Blondie: Pretty Great For A Night With No Communists

Last month I got the chance to interview Debbie Harry for The Oregonian. I was a little nervous, so I I thought. I had 12 questions for the 10 minutes allotted and asked them all. Debbie is a pretty straight-forward conversationalist.

I was busy covering MusicFest Northwest the night Blondie played in Portland, but fortunately, I was able to catch the very last show of their tour in Port Chester, New York, last Sunday.

When I was listening to Panic of Girls over and over to prepare for the story, it struck me how different the songs are from one another. That's one point the album has been criticized on, actually. But I think it's just Blondie being Blondie. Seeing them live, it really stuck out how no two of their hits sound much alike. The new material fits right in the with the old as well.

The newly re-opened Capitol Theater was just about full, but it still wasn't hard to squeeze up into the fifth row. I had never seen Blondie before. The band formed before I was born. But in that intimate environment, and with the amazingly high level of energy Debbie brings to the stage, I felt just like I was seeing them in their prime.

Ironically, one person who helped create that impression was guitarist Tommy Kessler, who joined the band in 2010. When classic bands hire new musicians, I often find myself wondering how the hell this guy got the job. But Kessler is fantastic.

The acoustic parts of "Wipe Off My Sweat" sounded absolutely perfect. Kessler is all over the stage the entire time, even colliding with Debbie and having her strum his guitar for him. This truly gifted musician and performer adds so much to an already iconic band. I'm interested to see where his career goes from here.

Of course, while it felt to me like I was seeing Blondie in their prime, there were certainly nights of their career that won't ever be matched, I'm sure. I asked Debbie to tell me about one of her all-time favorite gigs, and this is what she said:
We did a show once in Bordeaux in the '70s and it was a college or university, and there was a lot of stuff going on in Europe at that time with communism and Bader-Minehoff and the IRA. There was a lot of turmoil, and all these political groups and everything going on. Of course there was a huge communist student group [in Bordeaux] and they actually broke all the doors and windows of the theater of this venue. We're there playing away, and it wasn't really super packed or anything like that. It was a nice audience, but you know, there was room. So I was thinking, "Oh gee, I guess they don't think much of Blondie in Bordeaux," and all of a sudden, the whole place was overrun with people storming in. It was the communists coming to see us! They didn't want to pay so they broke in.
Image: Debbie Harry in a rare moment of standing still. By me.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Beach Boys: All Of The Things We Like To Do

Al Jardine is my favorite Beach Boy. I always liked his voice the best. Something about his hyper annunciation just always gets stuck in my head.

When I wrote this article for The Oregonian about the Beach Boys' 50th reunion tour, I delved pretty deep into the song “Isn't It Time,” which, lucky for me, has a very cool part in it sung by Al Jardine.

When the Beach Boys performed at Chateau Ste Michele outside of Seattle last Friday, Al just looked so happy to be there. When “Isn't It Time” came around, I was the only person in my vicinity singing along. And Al made me look bad—he changed it up on me!

Instead of singing “Every time I think of you / And all of the things we used to” he sang “all of the things we like to do.” I actually really liked this change for the live setting. Since the song is about recapturing youth and there were a lot of older Beach Boys fans in the audience doing just that, he updated it to the present tense. It was such a small change, but it made me smile and look around at everyone dancing around me.

Oddly, this isn't the first lyrical quirk I've come across with this song. When I was researching my article, co-writer of the tune Jim Peterik told me that the chorus of “Isn't it time we dance the night away?” was originally, “Isn't it time we catch another wave?” Apparently Brian Wilson thought it was too similar to the band's previous material and suggested the revision.

Anyway, it was a great show. I kept hugging my friend Jake and I teared up a couple of times. I won't bore you with what it meant to me to see “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl” live. Instead, I'll tell you about the video that played behind the band during the title track of their new record, “That's Why God Made The Radio.” It featured footage of hipsters complete with tattoos and vintage chic outfits cut with old footage of the Beach Boys.

Now, mind you, Jake and I were some of the only hipsters in the crowd, although one of the band's keyboardists looked plucked from an Urban Outfitters ad. I wonder if they haze that guy and make him carry gear and stuff, because the way I took the video was the Beach Boys saying, “Hey, just so you know, we did it first.” If dads are the original hipsters, the Beach Boys are the daddy of pop rock bands.

Image plucked from Front Row Features.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mapping Witch Mountain

Witch Mountain has one of those stories that just writes itself.

The Portland doom outfit is suddenly taking off after 15 years (minus some hiatus time) as a band. It's an extremely unique career arc and detailed in this story I wrote for The Oregonian.

The piece focuses on their recent ascent and glosses over several previous break ups and reunions, but one is worth mentioning here. When Witch Mountain came back together in 2006, three members of the band at the time had all recently gotten divorces. Guitarist Rob Wrong told me, "Nothing quite spells doom like having all your wives leave you in a two year period."

This was the time I first discovered Witch Mountain. I liked what they were going for, but it was just lacking something. Turns out that something was singer Uta Plotkin, who joined the band 12 years into its existence.

The thing that struck me when I first saw Witch Mountain was bassist Dave Hoopaugh. He's very tall, I'd guess 6'5", with grey hair. Paired with the slight frame of drummer Nate Carson, the band kind of looked like a D&D adventure party with an ogre and an elf.

I was sorry to see Dave leave the band last year, but the new record is so phenomenal, I'm looking forward to seeing new bassist Neal Munson for the first time at the CD release show tonight.

Image: Sketch by Shaun Peace of the 2011 lineup.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Stars and Satellites

Trampled by Turtles was first pitched to me a couple of years ago as "bluegrass shredders." It was intriguing enough of a concept to get me to a live show, and I was thoroughly impressed with the energy of the rowdy crowd, although the music wasn't really something I wanted to listen to at home.

The Minnesota band's slower new album though, "Stars and Satellites," has been on constant rotation at my place. It's perfect warm night music. Like any departure from an established sound, it's taken some heat, including this little write up by my friend Andy at Willamette Week with a hilarious burn of a genre tag. I however, gave the album some glowing praise in my preview for The Oregonian, and was really psyched to see it live last night. 

Unfortunately, I forgot about the bane of quiet music: talking. The fans who packed the Crystal came to rock. The springy ballroom floor was the bounciest I've ever felt it. But they weren't quite winded enough to chill out through the quieter songs. Luckily, I have some of the lyrics memorized now, so I could fill in the gaps.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Another Brick in The Wall

Getting the chance to write about Roger Daltrey last fall and falling in love with Tommy, whet my appetite for classic rock Rogers. I was thrilled to get to write both a preview and review of Roger Waters' performance of The Wall at the Rose Garden for The Oregonian.

The preview presented a challenge. Unlike most people in my generation, my parents did not listen to classic rock. So I never heard The Wall until I was a teenager, and by then I was too into punk and not enough into pot to care.

So when it came time to write this piece, I listened to The Wall over and over again and discovered, that unlike Tommy, I didn't love it. I watched the movie, but still felt like I didn't get it. Why was it so long? Why all the funny voices?

 Finally, after talking to a couple of writer friends who are big Pink Floyd buffs, I realized the history of the album was the most interesting thing to me. So I researched and wrote an essay that kind of felt like a college paper. It was fun! 

The day of the show, I was wondering which Roger would win out--Daltrey or Waters.

Poor Daltrey never stood a chance. Waters put on the best show I've ever seen.

I think The Wall wasn't meant to be a movie or an album. It was meant to be a massive live production. I felt it. I felt it so much that afterward, another journalist I ran into and our friends didn't want to leave the building. We dreaded going out into the world where people didn't see what we just saw. As I walked back downtown, I ran into someone I knew. I told her I'd just seen the best show ever.

"Oh cool. Did you get new glasses?" she asked.

Image: Waters performs "Mother" in front of footage of himself performing it 30 years ago.

Monday, May 7, 2012

That Metal Weekend

Last weekend, Eddie Trunk, Don Jamieson and Jim Florentine, the hosts of the longest-running and highest-rated show on VH1 Classic, "That Metal Show," came to Seattle and Portland and did their first ever live performances together. I was entrusted with handling the media coverage and the media was very kind to us.

Eddie and Jim appeared on KISW 99.9 Seattle twice. Once on their metal show, "The Metal Shop," and again on "The BJ Shea Morning Experience."

Portland freelance writer Bob Ham did a great Q&A with Eddie for Willamette Week in which they break down all the important metal issues of the day. The Portland Mercury ran a preview, humorous as always. This morning, The Mercury's music blog has a detailed review of the show by Mark Lore, who also took the picture above.

Next up, Don, Jim and Eddie head to Chicago and Detroit June 15 & 16.

Friday, February 24, 2012


The NBA All-Star game is this weekend, but it's been kind of an All-Star month for the celebrity English lessons I produce for English, baby!

So far this season, I've enlisted the help of Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Grant Hill in teaching a bit of basketball slang to students around the world. This, along with the pandemic of "Linsanity" that is sweeping the globe and has people everywhere talking about NBA fans in Asia, enabled me to get the attention of Reuters, whose story has now been picked up by the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, NBC, and translated into Chinese.

In addition to D12, I also met KPTV sports anchor Dan Sheldon at the Orlando Magic media session. He produced this segment for his show, "Oregon Sports Final." I've been hoping someone would come along and put together a highlight reel of these interviews, and Dan did it just perfectly.

A reporter from the state-run Taiwanese media shot a story about these lessons today. Hopefully, the momentum just keeps building. Oh, and if you see Jeremy Lin, tell him I really appreciate him waiting to have his breakout winning streak until just after I shot the best two NBA English lessons yet, and I want to talk to him about some basketball slang.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

In Vino, Magus

When I first discovered wine, I was 19 and studying in Spain. While other kids liked to drink hard alcohol at the massive parties in the town square, I liked to drink wine straight out of the bottle. I would soak the label off so I just had the green glass with a cork sticking out. It felt like I was drinking a piece of history instead of just getting wasted, which was appropriate considering the city where I lived, Málaga, is more than 2000 years old.

It took a long time (and falling in love with a particular woman) for me to appreciate the wines of the Northwest after I came back. I'm thrilled to have had the chance to write a pair of articles about one of my favorites, Montinore Estate of Forest Grove.

Their wines are biodynamically grown, which makes them so magical I don't even have to soak the labels off to feel like some kind of ancient poet. I was shocked to learn that their biodynamic growing practices actually save them money, so I wrote about that for Sustainable Business Forum.

I also attended an event Montinore had in its tasting room on Valentine's weekend where couples could make their own special blend of Pinot Noir. It was fun to write a sweet, gushy story about it for The Oregonian.

Image: A row of grapes growing as nature intended at Montinore Estate.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

They Grow Up So Fast

Seems like only yesterday the Diskords were the talk of Portland punks who wondered how they could be both so good and so young. Now they're having their very own reunion show. At a bar. And not just any bar, it's the drunkest event of the year, the Slabtown Bender. Find the bit about the Diskords at the end of this preview I wrote for The Oregonian.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Top 10 of 2011

I, like most critics, have a top 10 list for the end of the year. See my choices below or take a look at my ballot on the Village Voice's poll.

1. Bright Eyes - The People's Key. For the first time ever, a fairly mainstream band tops my list. This was definitely my most-listened-to album of the year and I had the pleasure of reviewing it and a live performance of it.

2. Workout - Workout. I went to college with this Brooklyn glam outfit, but they have really blossomed this year with this fun music video. I recently listened to this album while having teeth pulled.

3. Radiation City - The Hands That Take You. This arty and vintage-fuzzy local indie band is blowing up. You heard it here first.

4. Mr. Gnome - Madness in Miniature. One of the most creative bands playing today reinvented themselves this year with a stripped-down rock 'n' roll sound.

5. YOB - Atma. The band that is putting Oregon metal on the map has done it again with an album you probably shouldn't listen to at night by yourself.

6. The Tomorrow People - Rose City Rose. I'm honored to be the first to review this extremely well-crafted album that emerged from a closet-sized studio in St. Johns.

7. Dirty Mittens - Heart of Town. I'm glad this class act finished their much-anticipated first full length before breaking up. Their shows were legendary, and it would have been tragic for their music not to be captured in an album that, when I reviewed it, made their future look so bright.

8. Witch Mountain - South of Salem. Portland's oldest and best doom metal outfit was way overdue for a second album. The cover alone makes it a classic, which is why I actually recommended it as a Christmas gift.

9. Cool Nutz - The Cook Up. The best known rapper in Portland made a foray into hipster crossover last year. Like many critics, I really enjoyed it. But in 2011, he quietly released a fully bad-ass return to basics. Versatility is the name of the game for this experienced MC.

10. Wizard Rifle - Speak Loud Say Nothing. The young duo that keeps Portland metal fresh gave the underground metal community a shot of irreverence this year with their debut album. Hard to believe I was their first interview ever. This is definitely a band to watch in 2012.

Image: Workout by Sunny Shokrae.

Best of:

Friday, January 6, 2012

Keeper of the High Rocks

Last summer, I spent a lot of time at a place called High Rocks. It's a park just outside of Portland, about 15 minutes from my house, where you can jump off a cliff into a river.

It didn't take long before I got to know Tiger. He's sort of a volunteer caretaker of the park, cleaning up trash and making small changes to the landscape to make the diving safer. I wrote a story about him for The Oregonian, and produced a radio story about him for Destination DIY, an independent program that airs on OPB.

Here's some video I shot while reporting the radio story. It's pretty ad-hoc, shot on my handheld digital camera. I wasn't planning on doing video, but when Tiger took me to his camp, I knew I had to capture it. He said I'm only the third person he's brought out there, but that he didn't mind if I filmed.

The camp is actually built into the side of a hill. Note all the lines holding it up.

And finally, here is Tiger's mode of transportation. He has a really fancy electric bike he built with his brother, but he keeps it at his brother's place. This is more incognito. Before Tiger filled in the landscape with sand, he wouldn't have been able to bring his bike to High Rocks like this.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Bladesmith of Hillsboro

Last month I took the hour drive to the beautiful small town of Vernonia, Oregon, to interview one of America's best bladesmiths, Murray Carter, for a profile in The Oregonian.

Murray is moving his Carter Cutlery operation to Hillsboro, just outside of Portland, and he's one of those treasures that when you learn about him, you just can't believe you didn't know he was in your community. Murray is bursting with energy and has had a very unique life as the first (and possibly only) Westerner to become an official member of a traditional bladesmithing family of Japan.

Murray's story is definitely too big for one mid-length article, so I hope do something more with him down the line for another mainstream outlet (he's been covered extensively by the knife press). Plus, every time I do a story about him, I'll get to quote the original Conan The Barbarian, which thrills me to no end. In the mean time, here's an outtake from our interview which covers what it was like for him to spend about half his life up to this point in another country and why he decided to come the US.
I was in Japan for 18 years, and I see a lot of guys who couldn't leave after they've been there for so long. They're in a cultural limbo. They're not Japanese, so they're not in their own country, and they're away from their own country, and it's like they belong to neither. It's a dangerous place to be because the longer you're stuck in that situation, the more difficult it is to remove yourself from it. Life just becomes too easy, too simple. There are no great consequences for anything you do short of getting in trouble with the law. I didn't want to get stuck in that rut. So I thought, now's the time move or get off the pot. Plus, they were never going to give me any kind of cultural recognition because I wasn't Japanese, and yet i was getting great recognition over here in North America.

I first learned about Murray because a friend of mine became a fan of his YouTube channel, where he offers sharpening tips and does zany stuff like chop down trees with machetes. It all came full circle when my friend pointed out that Murray gave me a shout out in his video blog (at about 10:30). How nice!