Chris Stamey of the dB's on Ork Records | Interview

by John Dugan

I emailed Chris Stamey with some (simple) questions about Ork Records and working with Alex Chilton for an Economist piece on the Numero Ork box. Here's the complete interview.

Television at CBGB

Television at CBGB

Hearing and seeing Television in 75 or 76, did you have an idea something new was happening? That this represented a new direction or not so much?
Much has been made of the way the band looked, the lack of shiny costumes and standard artifice, the lack of posing and rock-theatrics tropes. But the real--and very new--difference was obvious if you closed your eyes. They seemed to have sprung from a heritage that had lept over the blues and Chuck Berry, as if most of the 60s and 70s had not existed. It was an improvising quartet that touched both Albert Ayler/John Coltrane jazz and Midcentury Modern university music, with a freedom that was exhilerating and electric in the best sense of the word. I did connect it to a few rock things--the Hampton Grease Band live in the south, the Jeff Beck Yardbirds, a bit of the Who--but was riveted by the way the band sustained an attentive concentration. Listening, you had the sense that anything could happen at any moment, that danger was afoot, they were chasing down the molecules of time.

It's hard to say how that shock of the new happens. It's a flavor, difficult to describe. And rare. Like the judge said about pornography, " . . . but I know it when I see it." And there was no mistaking, from the first few notes, that Television was remarkable. They gave me hope.

A lot has been made of the whole CBGB scene, but I never heard any of the other bands that were remotely similar to Television.

And one clear difference--they rehearsed a lot! Extreme dedication there. They were a precision outfit when they needed to be, although keeping the guitars in tune without pedal tuners and guitar roadies made them seem less so. (There were no pedal tuners then, and no money for guitar techs, either, of course.)

One more thing: there was a sense that they were not lying to you the listener, and that they were trying to express difficult and perhaps important things in the same way that poetry does. It's hard to believe the degree to which most 70s rock was all about telling obvious lies to an enebriated audience, but I remember, I was there. 

What was the NYC "scene" around Max's, etc. like for you? Inspiring or not so much?
Max's was a nice club to play, but a bit weighed down by the legacy of decadence, maybe the VU live record had changed expectations there. Anyway, CB's was my hang, not Max's so much.  I could get in free at CB's but not at Max's!

What was your take on Ork Records at the time? 
I was somewhat on the inside, as Charles Ball from Ork was managing Alex Chilton as well (I was in Chilton's band), and he liked to talk about what was going on. I thought it was total chaos, another inmates-take-over-asylum situation, but it was true that the major labels were everywhere and that Terry Ork himself was constantly enthusiastic no matter what. But there was no illusion that it was a functioning business, just phone calls from pay phones and scraps of paper in pockets with holes in them. The book that comes with the Numero release talks about heroin a lot, but this was hidden from me, it did not seem like a part of this. The atmosphere was one of change and excitement, and it seemed like there was a lot of good-will toward the label from the NY press and label folks, that they, too, were ready for a sea change.

How would describe Terry Ork? Why would anyone make a record with him in those days?
Here is my description of Terry, from the book that comes with the record: "Terry was a benevolent presence in the scene. He was our Jerry Garcia, a smile big as all indoors, with a halo of chaos and insurrection. He gave everyone hope and encouraged all efforts, however nascent and tentative, with dreams of world conquest."

Do you think the label captured the spirit of that era?
"Little Johnny Jewel" is a great record that was their first but also their greatest accomplishment. It was influential in some quarters the same as "seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan" had been years earlier. I am not sure that the label ever topped that one. 

Is it accurate to call it the first punk 45 label?
This is a musicologist question, not one for me, what label were the 13 Floor Elevators on? The Seeds? It was probably the first American label to have such a strong French new cinema background. 

Was the label influential? Important?
Every Ork record was paid attention to because it was Ork. Same as Stiff. 

With the Cossacks, how functional was Alex Chilton? How did he fit into what was happening in NYC?
He was brilliant, very kind, witty/sardonic, and a very very good musician. He was a bit sad at times, getting over the end of a love affair. He gradually modified his approach to playing the clubs to fit the wildness of what was going on around him, both out of enthusiasm and also just a desire to be popular and draw bigger crowds (in my view). 

PLEASE listen to this, as proof of his attitude, from a cassette at a rehearsal right before he and I played CBGBs for the first time:

He thought we were going to be taking over the world shortly! That was the spirit. Maybe you should give this as a hotlink in your article? 

Many view this era in Chilton's career as a dark time, is that accurate?
He got worn down, later that year (1977), as he was dirt poor in NYC but with everyone buying him free drinks at the bars. But his playing in the later live gigs (not the Ocean Club record, which was the first gig after only 2-3 rehearsals) was fantastic, great guitar playing. 

You had him produce your first solo single. How was working with him in the studio?
I learned a ton. It was a master class in making the technology serve the art, instead of the other way around. See the Ork book. Here is an excerpt from my annotated songbook (as yet unpublished), New York Songs:

"[H]e found the Beach Boys side of the song when he produced it for Ork later that month, with just the two of us playing all the instruments and singing all the parts, Alex turning compressor knobs until they cried for mercy, commanding that we “sing like hounds” on the backup “ah-oop”s. He arranged it on the spot so that every instrument had a purpose, his drumming hitting just the beats that were crucial, his concise guitar solo a marvel of economy in the thirds-harmony style of the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” (the tune that was also the template for the rhythm guitar groove of his own classic “September Gurls”)." 

Ork teased a Chris Stamey album as a follow-up to "Summer Sun," but this never happened. Why?
They were broke. 

Christiane Amanpour on her new doc, Generation Islam

by John Dugan

TOC: One thing that you didn’t touch on, and I was sort of interested in was the kind of dollar figures you’re talking about. Because really, to build a school in some of these smaller places is probably on the order of the cost of a couple of laser-guided bombs.


Oh, much less, and your point is precisely correct that it costs very little comparatively to build a school and the reward is exponentially huge, and that’s why it’s such an amazing thing

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Jamie Lidell | Interview

by John Dugan

I chatted with my old buddy Jamie Lidell for TIme Out Chicago, roughly 7 years after I first wrote about him.

The U.K. electro-soul crooner calls Nashville home now, but he hasn’t gone country.

We’ve followed Jamie Lidell from his days as a Berlin-based beatboxer to more recent turns with a full-blown soul band. Now, the U.K. native is back with a self-titled album of aggressively funky tunes recalling early ’80s R&B in the best way. We caught up with Lidell via Skype as he toured his new one-man show in Belgium.

After moving around you’ve settled in Nashville.
It was like a Sun Ra move, you know? Space is the place. We realized, my wife and I, that we just couldn’t afford to stay in Manhattan and grow as artists and a couple. A few people told me to check out Nashville—one of them was Beck, the other was Pat Sansone from Wilco. We’ve got a great place and we spend most of our time at home.

You record at home?
[The new album] was entirely recorded and mixed at home. I never left the house for any of it, which is something I’m pretty proud of because I think I got a decent sound for a home recording. It was a pretty serious undertaking. I don’t think it’s for everyone, working out of home, but it’s definitely for me. The empowerment is something that can’t be underestimated. It’s ridiculous.

The album recalls early ’80s funk and boogie. Is that what you were going for?
Living in Nashville, we got addicted to this radio station called 92Q. Michael Baisden puts on this amazing show, it’s become a huge thing for us, they play these amazing jams. It reminded me of these hidden gems that I grew up loving and listening to that I’d put to the back of my mind. Drum-machine funk. And, because I made a lot of this music on my own, starting with a drum machine made a lot of sense. That immediately put me back in the ’80s in a sense.

Did you have a crisis being pegged as part of a wave of soul revivalists?
When I did Multiply and Jim, I was heading down the road of the blue-eyed soul crooner. To sing like I did on those two albums, I’m proud of all that stuff. When I made Jim, to try to follow with what I thought people wanted me to be, some part of me was a bit dead when I did that. It felt like I was chasing the money. There’s some great music on that record, and I don’t regret doing it. It’s an interesting challenge to stay relevant, stay popular enough to tour and stay true to the music you want to make. You’re always going to shake people off if you take a heavy turn.

What can you tell us about your current tour?
It’s a one-man show, so sonically I’m presenting new material and old material in a made-over fashion. I’m taking people back to the early house days, which always seemed a good setting for my voice, my horn of a voice. I’ve been tapping into my inner diva. I’m just belting it out over house music at the end. I get everything lathered up and at the end we have a wash down. That’s why they call it a rinse. You check your troubles at the door and rinse it out.

Published April 4, 2013

Jamie Lidell

Jamie Lidell

Os Mutantes | Interview

by John Dugan

For the many fans who fell in love with Brazil’s influential psychedelic group Os Mutantes during the three decades since they stopped playing together, it’s a dream come true that this cult favorite is having a reunion tour. And it’s a bit of a freak-out because they’re coming to Chicago for the first time to play at next week’s Pitchfork Festival. 

But what seals the deal is the fact that Os Mutantes (pronounced “ohs moo-TAN-chees”; it means “The Mutants” in Portuguese) founder Sérgio Dias will rock the giant, gold-plated, custom-made guitar—with distortion and delay effects built in—that his elder brother Cláudio handcrafted in the late ’60s. (Cláudio, though never in the band as a musician, engineered many of Os Mutantes’ custom instruments and effects.) “We’re gonna blow your head off! Get ready, man,” Dias laughs.

Once universally praised for its Technicolor pop-art albums—which combined literary references like Don Quixote with samba and psych-rock—the group had a May show at London’s Barbican that brought brothers Sérgio Dias and Arnaldo Baptista together onstage for the first time in 33 years.

Like the young Beatles tuning into Radio Luxembourg, the teenage brothers first heard rock via shortwave radio in1960s Brazil and formed a band with Arnaldo’s girlfriend, singer Rita Lee. The trio went on to become the backbone of the kooky, intellectual and artistic movement Tropicália, which rebelled against Brazil’s cultural and political stagnation. Mutantes made its way to Paris, where the band cut an English-language album. But tension between the brothers, heavy acid use, and Arnaldo and Rita’s breakup led to reshuffling in 1972, a move toward prog-rock in 1974 and the band’s eventual demise in 1978. Lee went on to Brazilian mainstream stardom and Mutantes faded into obscurity—Dias played jazz and new age, and Arnaldo spent some time in a mental-health facility.

But the band’s inimitable sound developed a cult following: Kurt Cobain invited the group to tour with Nirvana (even though it hadn’t existed for 15 years), members of Fugazi collected paintings by former Mutantes members, and Beck named his 1998 Mutationsalbum in their honor. Mutantes’ earlier albums became available on CD in the late ’90s—David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label issued a compilation of early material, and this year the group’s catalog is being reissued worldwide by Universal.

In one sense, the Mutantes comeback is right on time. “God, can you imagine if we surfaced in the ’80s?” asks Dias, who’s stayed hip producing underground acts in his São Paulo studio. “This would be a total disaster. It didn’t have anything to do with us. Now, I think the musical scene is more toward what we did and what we do. I think it was a very healthy way to come back and come alive again.”

It’s unclear who sowed the seeds of the reunion, but Dias’s account points to an ambitious festival curator in England. “I started to receive mail saying that we were going to play in London, and then suddenly we started to talk about it because we didn’t know anything about it,” he says. “It was really amazing. Suddenly I was talking to Dinho, the drummer, and he said, ‘If you want to, we can try. I can try to play.’ I never heard him say anything like that before.” Lee won’t be joining the band, citing family commitments. “She will always be a Mutante—she is more than welcome to come over,” Dias says. Brazilian pop singer Zélia Duncan will sing Lee’s parts on the U.S. tour.

The brothers and drummer Dinho (who joined the group in 1970) will play as part of a ten-piece band to reproduce the multiple layers of Mutantes’ recordings. “There’s a lot of things to be covered,” Dias says. “We don’t want to use a damn computer and play with a click. Everything is played. There’s flutes, there’s recorders.”

Mutantes will also mix in some English-language versions of songs to court the American audience. In addition to Pitchfork, they’ll play venues such as the Fillmore in San Francisco, where Dias saw psych blues band Ten Years After at age 17. “It’s outrageous—we’ve never been in the States and suddenly I’m going to be playing at the Fillmore,” he says. “It’s something that can make someone very humble and humbly proud of the right decisions that we took when we were at such an early age.”

Os Mutantes headlines the Pitchfork Music Festival Sunday 30.

Brazil's Os Mutantes, the psychedelic pop group that inspired Nirvana, Fugazi and Beck, plays its first Chicago gig at Pitchfork. By John Dugan Photograph by Nino Andrés