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Clocked In: A conversation about the difficulties of working and touring with Little Big League’s Michelle Zauner

little big league

I called Michelle Zauner on the phone a couple weeks ago and this is what she said to me: “I forgot this was happening.”

It is easy to forget things are happening, especially in the summer. Plus Zauner was on vacation, in Oregon, the state where she grew up and where she lived before attending college at Bryn Mawr, before making Philadelphia her home and before starting the band Little Big League.

It was recently announced that Little Big League signed with Run For Cover, the Boston label that released the new album by fellow Philadelphians Modern Baseball, You’re Gonna Miss It All. A new Little Big League LP, the follow-up to the well-received These Are Good People (Tiny Engines; 2013), is expected to arrive later this year.

In addition to her work as the singer and guitarist in Little Big League, Zauner also makes music under the name Japanese Breakfast. Last month, the Seagreen Records label released her cassette American Sound & Where Is My Great Big Feeling?

Zauner is clearly very busy with music, but when she’s not on tour, she works elsewhere. For this new installment of Clocked In, we spoke with Zauner about her non-music-related work history, from clerical work at her dad’s truck broker business, to bossing a grill at Bryn Mawr, to holding down the comic shop Brave New Worlds. Continue reading →

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Clocked In: A conversation about bagging groceries and driving school buses with Strand Of Oaks’ Tim Showalter

Dusdin Condren
Photo by Dusdin Condren

A couple weeks ago, Strand Of Oaks’ Tim Showalter had just returned from a European press tour. “I’m just hanging out, cleaning the house,” he said, speaking on the phone from his home, in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia. “It’s rock ‘n’ roll Tuesday! Or, wait, it’s Wednesday. Shit. Sorry.”

“I didn’t sleep for like four days,” he confessed, attempting to justify not knowing what day it was. “I didn’t have to play shows while I was over there, I just had to talk to people, so I figured I’d just stay up and party, and rage it out. I think I had a mixture of lack of sleep and alcohol psychosis. I was having a hard time deciphering between dreams and reality. Was I dreaming or in the park? I didn’t know. But you gotta do that sometime… it keeps the beast alive.”

Showalter’s beast, Strand Of Oaks, is alive and well. He was overseas promoting his new album, Heal, out today via Dead Oceans. Unlike previous albums Dark Shores and Pope Killdragon, Showalter abandons metaphors and sci-fi concepts on Heal, where he sings about pain and love and the joys of being lonely in a no-frills kinda way. The new album’s noticeably heavier — more rocking — too, and Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis even drops in to rip a solo on early single “Goshen ’97.”

This Friday, Strand Of Oaks will play a WXPN Free At Noon show. In the meantime, here’s an interview with Showalter as part of a new column, “Clocked In,” which focuses on the past and present work experiences of Philadelphia-area musicians. Before he became Strand Of Oaks, Showalter held various jobs, from Kroger bag boy to second grade teacher. He told us all about them.

What was your first paid job?

Well, I always worked for my grandpa, doing construction jobs. But my first paid job was at a Kroger grocery store, in Indiana. I was part of a union. It was real. I was paying union dues at 15 for a bagging job. I was fantastic at it. I’m not very good at a lot of things, but if it’s ordered, and I have an exact purpose, I love it. And I loved making efficient bags for the ladies.

I actually quit this job; this doesn’t sound true, but it’s true. It was summer, in Indiana, and there was a tornado warning. The sky was turning yellow and pink and that’s a sign you need to get underground immediately. The tornado was there! So I had this mean old woman that was my boss, and she told me to go get the shopping carts in the parking lot so they wouldn’t blow away. I was thinking, “Fuck you, Cheryl! I quit! I’m not going out there to get the carts!” I definitely quit that job on account of a tornado almost killing me. We all went to hide in the freezer, and after that, I just rode my bike home and that was it.

Have you ever been fired from a job?

Nope. I’ve never been fired. I like working, so I always try to do a really good job no matter where I work. I quit a job after one day once. I was on a roofing crew, when I was 17, working with all these 30-year-old coke-heads. I was there for like six hours and they were just the craziest, meanest guys I’ve ever met. I was out in the sun, not getting paid much, and lifting plywood on a roof. They were doing bumps by their trucks, and I was like, “Nope, I’m not doing this, this is not what I want to do.”

That sounds like a bad scene. What sort of construction work were you doing with your grandpa?

One of my best summers ever was when my grandpa and me built a seven-stall storage garage, which took most of that summer. He was a farmer, and a typical midwest kind of guy. One day we had to put the trusses up on this garage, which were like 14 feet, to support the roof. We had to put up 7 or 8 of these, and my grandpa was like, “Make sure these are all put up when I get back in a few hours.” I didn’t know what to do at first, but I eventually rigged up a wench system with a Ferguson tractor, and I found a way to stabilize them and nail them in. That’s how I got my grandpa’s respect. I had to put up 14-foot trusses.

Was he impressed?

He was super-impressed. He let me take one extra water break that day. You’d think working with your grandpa would be this easy experience, but it wasn’t. It was 14 hour days, and we’d start working at about 5:30 a.m., to beat the sun. I would work all the time, so I’d work with my grandpa in the morning, and a lot of summers I had two jobs. I’d do construction all day, and then when I was 16 or 17, I worked at this place called Hollywood Connections. I was in charge of the snack area, and I had no idea how to make the snacks. I got no training, and I had no idea how to use the cash register. I worked there for two months and I had no idea how to do the job.

What sort of snacks?

There was a little pizza grill, and nachos, and things like that. I kinda learned how to make the pizza, but I’d tell people I’d make them this super-pizza and just put everything I could find on it. I didn’t know what I was doing! I had just finished working out in the sun with my grandpa for 8 hours and I was exhausted. It was a good way to meet girls, though. That part was fun.

Preparing people’s food incorrectly is bad. I used to make salads and desserts at this fancy restaurant in Virginia, and I once burnt salt on top of a crème brule instead of sugar. I didn’t notice, sent the dish out, and the customers were upset about it.

Oh, man. Luckily, I never worked in food. That job was the closest, but it doesn’t really count. I never worked in restaurants or learned how to use a cash register. I did all manual labor through high school, then in college… well, first, my dad had a car dealership. That was my favorite job ever. I would wash cars for my dad and do minor detail work, like fix bumpers. People there called me an “aqua technician.” It was so fun. I never got to hang with my dad because he worked 70 hours a week, and this job was great because we got to hang in the office, like two men rather than as father and son.

I’d sit in the back of the dealership and play my stereo really loud and wash and detail cars. One day, this dude showed up; I think he was friends with my dad or uncle. His name was Pete, and he had this huge collection of antique cars. He asked me to wash them and do full details. He said the only rule was the I had to drive them around. So, one summer, when I had just got my license, I was driving around in a ’69 Corvette to the movies, with girls. I drove a ’53 Cadillac, a ’71 Camaro. I’ve toured the world as a musician, but if I could just go back to Indiana and cruise around in the summer, in a white ’71 Camaro… I’ve never had more fun.

Continue reading →

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A conversation about books and television with Angel Olsen (playing Union Transfer with Kurt Vile on May 18)

ANGELOLSEN-1Angel Olsen, the Chicago-based singer-songwriter, released a gorgeous and haunted and joyous album last year titled Half Way Home (Bathetic). And when she was in Philly last winter, she stopped by the WXPN studio to record a Folkadelphia Session, where she performed three songs from it. One of them was an extended version of “Lonely Universe,” where Olsen tries to make sense of a tragic world where the source of life has just died. It’ll bring you to your knees, and then lift you back up on your feet. “You won’t always be walking the safest streets,” she sings. “But you can find your way home.”

Olsen has since signed with the Jagjaguwar label. A release date for her upcoming album has not yet been announced. But, she says, “I’m working on some new things. I don’t want to force them, though. I have some vague idea of when I might record, but we’ll see. It will be sooner than later because I don’t want to wait too long. It has to come naturally.”

In the meantime, you can catch Olsen live in Philadelphia as she performs an opening set for Kurt Vile on May 18 at Union Transfer. We recently caught up with Olsen while she was touring the West Coast, and we spoke to her about television shows, books, painters, movies, and some other stuff. Here’s what she said.

The Key: Hi Angel. What’s up?

Angel Olsen: Not much. I just played Phoenix. It was really fun. Now we’re in Tempe, Arizona. We’re looking for a swimming hole. We’re going to a place called Kenyon Lake. And now I’m drinking some coffee. I just woke up like 30 minutes ago, so I feel like I’m going to be very experimental with answering these questions.

TK: Good. It’s Friday, and everyone’s over everything. So I won’t ask you all the dumb questions interviewers usually ask like, “How did you get the name Angel Olsen?” I’ll just ask you some random questions like this one: Do you watch television?

AO: Not really. But I got really into Downton Abbey over the winter. Me and my friends did. It was pretty ridiculous. I don’t know what’s so good about it—I couldn’t tell you. I’ve never been a television person, but I watched a lot of that. And I always go back to Freaks & Geeks. Every episode is so perfect. But I only really watch television in the winter because there’s nothing to do in Chicago and I get tired of going out and forcing myself to do things. But, in the summer, I’m normally out riding my bike, or getting some tacos, or running around outside. You know, living. Continue reading →

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An Interview with the Directors of ‘We Juke Up In Here!’ (screening at World Cafe Live on Saturday for XPN Music Film Fest)

We Juke Up In Here!, the new documentary film by blues fans and historians Roger Stolle and Jeff Konkel, returns to Philadelphia this Saturday as part of the XPN Music Film Festival. Stolle (the owner of Clarksdale, Mississippi’s Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art) and Konkel (the owner of the Broke & Hungry label) also co-directed the 2008 film, M For Mississippi: A Road Trip Through The Birthplace Of The Blues. Much like that film, We Juke Up In Here! explores the rich history of the Delta blues. But this time the focus is specifically on the past, present and uncertain future of Mississippi’s juke joints. Though Stolle was extremely busy organizing the 10th Annual Juke Joint Festival – a four-day blues fest happening this weekend in Clarksdale – The Key was able to catch up with him and Konkel to talk about the new film.

The Key: How does We Juke Up In Here! compare with your last film, M For Mississippi?

Jeff Konkel: They’re both different sides of the same coin; they follow an interrelated, intertwined story. M For Mississippi was a road trip film shot in 2008. The idea was to take viewers through the Delta area and meet these various characters, mostly musicians, in the various places they haunt, including juke joints, front porches, their homes, house parties, and so on. And so we introduced viewers to about a dozen of the old guard—the traditional players in Mississippi playing the traditional style of blues. We Juke Up In Here! tells a similar story, but we focused on the juke joint owners, and those venues, which have been the traditional proving ground for these Delta musicians.

TK: What is a juke joint?

Roger Stolle: A juke joint is a real deal blues club. It’s an African-American owned, quasi-legal blues establishment that probably started out in the cotton plantations. As the music and the people moved into town—normally on the other side of the tracks—these clubs became the proving grounds for blues musicians. And it’s where it became something that would eventually be recorded and would move North, but this is the place where blues is the most natural.

It’s sort of like a “blues club,” but more like a house party, except the proprietor of a juke joint doesn’t really want you at his house. Continue reading →

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A Lifelong Quest: Two Philadelphia effects pedal companies strive for the perfect sound

TSVG
The TSVG Team: Perry Shall, Yamil Emedan, and Mike Klein

On a recent Thursday morning, I went to the new headquarters of TSVG, the boutique effects pedal company that relocated from West Philadelphia to the Fairmount neighborhood a few weeks ago. “Headquarters” is actually the home of Mike Klein, the pedal designer who founded TSVG in 2011. He has two designated workspaces in his new home, one in a small spare bedroom, and the other in the basement. Making pedals is now Klein’s full-time job, but he claims there aren’t any plans to move TSVG into a larger, separate workshop.

“I really don’t need any more room than I already have,” explains Klein while standing in his kitchen. “It’s not like there are a bunch of people working in here. It’s just me and sometimes one other person. I eat my breakfast, and then I go downstairs and start making pedals. That’s what my days are like now.”

Klein’s living room is doubling as a conference room this morning. On top of his coffee table are the six pedals TSVG is currently pushing: a fuzz box called the Angry Jeff; the Emperor, an overdrive pedal; two boost pedals called Hard Stuff (one designed specifically for basses, the other for guitars); a 1960s/70s-inspired fuzz pedal called Keystone Fuzz; and the Red Eye, an overdrive pedal TSVG’s website describes as “perfect for living out your ‘Arena Rock’ fantasy.”

Sitting around the table with Klein are his high school pal Perry Shall, whose artwork appears on all of the pedals, and Yamil Emedan, a longtime friend who has recently become Klein’s apprentice. All three of them are pedal-junkies who play in local bands. Shall’s in Dry Feet, Emedan is in Can You Canoe and Tortuga, and both Klein and Shall are in Hound. As you might expect, they all use TSVG pedals.

tsvg pedals
The TSVG Pedals

“I’ve played a million boost pedals before, but these are the first ones that actually work,” says Shall, who admits he’s incredibly biased. “Most boost pedals just don’t boost. I play loud music all the time, and these pedals really explode, man!”

Shall’s not alone. Among the musicians currently using TSVG pedals are Best Coast’s Bobb Bruno, Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster, Circa Survive’s Brendan Ekstrom and Philadelphia guitarist Nick Millevoi, of Many Arms. “The Hard Stuff pushes my tone into some seriously aggressive territory,” says Millevoi. “I’ve never used another pedal that’s able to overdrive my amp in this way. The fact that it’s hand-wired point-to-point is a serious bonus. I think it gives them a vintage tone you won’t find on any pedal that was built from a circuit board.” Continue reading →

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Interview: Joo Won Park wants you to listen closely (playing Studio 34 on Saturday)

Last Tuesday morning, the musician Joo Won Park was standing on the JFK Boulevard Bridge holding a small recording device near a flock of seagulls in order to capture the sounds they were making. “You have to be very quiet and very patient,” he said softly, trying not to startle the birds. “When I am making a field recording, I have one rule: I always wait until I think I have captured the best sound of the day, and then I keep recording for five more minutes. The best sound always happens after you think you already have it.”

Park, 33, grew up in Korea. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, and his doctorate from the University of Florida. He has lived in Philadelphia since 2008, and is currently an assistant professor in the music department at the Community College of Philadelphia. He also composes, records and performs using a computer, toy instruments and field recordings.

Park kindly shared with us the piece he made using his field recording from last week’s meeting at the 30th Street Station (stream it below). About the finished piece, he said: “The first part is a collage of field recordings I made that day. The ‘outside’ sounds (hail, seagulls) and ‘inside’ sounds (train station, resonance of the metal poles of the bridge) are mixed into one soundscape. As the piece progresses, the sounds become more unnatural: the hail sound turns into a hectic melody, the voice becomes incomprehensible echo, and the pole sound with larger-than-life reverb signals the end of the piece.”

Though Park mostly works as a solo artist, on Saturday night, he performs in a duo at Studio 34 with Julius Masri (Superlith, et al.). Before we went out on the bridge to chase seagulls, Park and I walked around the train station and talked about his music and the importance of listening closely to what’s happening around us. Continue reading →

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Five Things That Inspired Mary Lattimore’s Debut Album, The Withdrawing Room

Mary Lattimore, the Philadelphia harpist, has performed and/or recorded with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Daughn Gibson, Meg Baird, Tall Firs, Kurt Vile, Nightlands, and many others. (From March 25-31, she’ll be one of the two harpists performing as part of Nick Cave’s HEARD•NY at Grand Central Terminal). And her debut solo album, The Withdrawing Room, will be released in late March by the Desire Path label. Lattimore has recently been performing in duo with Arc In Round’s Jeff Zeigler (electronics/synthesizer), including a gorgeous 34 minute improvisation at one of our recent Folkadephia Sessions. Zeigler makes a few appearances on The Withdrawing Room, and the duo’s next concert is this Thursday at Kung Fu Necktie.

“Just like on the album,” says Lattimore, “when Jeff and I play live, it’s all improvised. I’ve been trying out a starting-point, a basic melody, but it takes different turns and changes into something different each time. I am still experimenting with ways of sustaining, and want to get more pedals to play through. Right now, I just use my Line 6 green looper and by repeating notes really fast through the effects, it can create a sort of wall of glitter where you can’t really hear the attack, which I like. Right now, I’m preferring more of a hazy and dark sound, or a wash of color, rather than a sharp, clear harp, stringy pluck.”

In preparation for Thursday’s show, and her debut album, we asked Lattimore to tell us about some of the things that influenced The Withdrawing Room. Continue reading →

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Interview: Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo on John Cage (playing the Philadelphia Museum of Art on 1/4 – 1/6)


Lee Ranaldo is best known as the guitarist and co-founder of Sonic Youth, inarguably one of the most essential American rock bands. But his work outside of that band is just as adventurous, ranging from the singer-songwriter oriented album he released last year on Matador, Between the Times and the Tides, and his more feverish experimental work with critical voices like Mats Gustafsson, Zeena Parkins and William Hooker, and in groups like Text of Light (with Christian Marclay, Alan Licht and Ulrich Krieger ). In addition to his numerous music projects and releases, Ranaldo is also a visual artist and writer.

Ranaldo is performing several times in Philadelphia over the weekend as part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Dancing around the Bride,” the massive ongoing exhibit celebrating the work of John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. For these performances, Ranaldo will be interpreting several Cage scores, as well as performing some of his own work.

I caught up with Ranaldo a few days ago on the phone from his home in New York City to talk about his personal relationship with Cage’s work and legacy.

The Key: Did you ever meet John Cage?

Lee Ranaldo: I saw him at a few events around New York in the 1980s, but we weren’t really that friendly.

TK: Do you recall your first encounter with his work?

LR: I think it was “Rainforest IV,” with David Tudor. It was definitely mid-70s, when I was just arriving at college and starting to hear a lot of different avant-garde and 20th century composers, from Edgar Varèse to Karlheinz Stockhausen to John Cage.

TK: What was your first impression?

LR: I would liken it to the one I first had when I encountered mid-century avant-garde American film: at first you don’t know what to make of it, and then you realize it’s an entirely new language that you’re trying to understand. In a sense, you have to work your way into a language, or into a new art form; it’s like coming to an understanding of abstract painting. Continue reading →

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The Key’s Year-End Mania: Elliott Sharp’s Top Five Local Albums To Listen To Loudly With Headphones

For The Key’s year-in-review, we asked our trusted sources – our writers and photographers, XPN’s on-air staff, fellow bloggers in the Philly scene and even a few musicians – to send us their Top Five Whatevers. Could be the traditional music route – albums, songs, concerts of the year – or it could be only loosely connected. We’ll be sharing these recaps every day through to the end of the year. Today, contributing writer Elliott Sharp shares his top five local albums to listen to loudly with headphones.

 

1. Bee Mask – When We Were Eating Unripe Pears (Spectrum Spools)

The experimental electronic musician Chris Madak stretches sounds so far your ears will rip, and bleed, and it feels delicious, like an unripe pear.

Continue reading →

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Interview: Bing & Ruth’s David Moore on creating an all-encompassing live show (playing The Barnes Foundation on 12/14)

“If I don’t keep myself busy, I’ll go crazy,” says David Moore, the Brooklyn-based composer and musician. “It has to be music all the time.” Depending on which day of the week it is, you can find Moore playing in one of the following bands: the Piledrivers, which he calls a “skate-punk/old-time fiddle band”; Langhorne Slim, the folk group led by Pennsylvanian Sean Scolnick; or Pepper Johnson, the folk/country project Moore recently started.

And there’s also Bing & Ruth, the 11-piece ensemble (woodwinds, strings, voice, guitar, percussion, synthesizers) that plays Moore’s ambient, classical and experimental compositions. Given the complications associated with touring such a large ensemble, it’s an extremely rare occasion that Bing & Ruth is performing at The Barnes Foundation on December 14. The group will play two sets, one focusing on new material from an upcoming album, and the other showcasing pieces from 2010′s illuminative and entrancing City Lake.

In a recent phone conversation, I spoke with Moore about Bing & Ruth, the challenges of working with a large ensemble, and creating live experiences where unpredictable things can happen. Detours in the conversation took us, naturally, to boomerangs and Jimmy Buffett. Continue reading →