All Ears

A tale of 10,000 Maniacs

10,000 Maniacs. Photo by Don Hill

UPDATE: We’ve just been informed that the 10,000 Maniacs show has been postponed due to unforeseen circumstances. Please see their website for any info on when they may be back. 

ALL EARS It’s a wonder that the “new” 10,000 Maniacs (playing Sat/17 at The Independent) singer isn’t known to everyone. Especially since Mary Ramsey has been the triple-platinum selling alternative rock group’s frontwoman for decades.

“Most people are aware of Mary,” 10,000 Maniacs’ founding keyboardist, Dennis Drew told 48 Hills. “But some people are just out of the loop. After a show, I’ve had people say to me, ‘Is Natalie [Merchant, the original singer] coming out to sign?’ I tell them, ‘It’s not Natalie, who quit in 1993; it’s Mary Ramsey.’ And they say, ‘Wow. Well, Mary was great! Is she coming out?’”

But Ramsey is already familiar to fans who’ve been paying attention. In fact, she toured and recorded with the group as a viola player and backup singer—and appeared on the band’s MTV Unplugged (1993) —before stepping into the frontwoman role. Her first studio album with the group, 1997’s Love Among the Ruins, even produced the Top 40 hit cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This.”

It was 16 years earlier, in 1981, that 10,000 Maniacs first sprang out of Jamestown, New York and, with a revolving group of members, went on to release 20 albums, including the Merchant-fronted favorites In My Tribe (1987), Blind Man’s Zoo (1989), and Our Time in Eden (1992), which collectively featured the hits “Like the Weather,” “What’s the Matter Here?”, ”Trouble Me,” “These Are Days,” and “Candy Everybody Wants.” Ramsey appeared on the last six albums up to 2017’s Live at the Belly Up.

Before the six-piece of Ramsey, Drew, bassist Steve Gustafson, guitarists John Lombardo and Jeff Erickson, and drummer Jerry Augustyniak takes fans through four decades worth of beloved material, Drew chatted with me about the days to remember, from the Maniacs’ meteoric rise to Merchant’s departure and the band’s continued successes.

48 HILLS Why did the band name itself after the ’60s horror movie, 2,000 Maniacs?

DENNIS DREW You have to remember the era. It was a punk rock name. We wanted to keep the “Free Bird” hecklers away. We identified with the Gang of Four, The Clash, Love Tractor, and all the new wave punk rock bands.

We had a book of movie titles. The last three choices we considered were Men Against the Arctic, Dick Turpin’s Ride to York, and 2,000 Maniacs, and we thought 2,000 Maniacs was not as impressive as 10,000 Maniacs. We wanted to scare away any non-believers.

48 HILLS What gave you the strength to keep going in the early years, when the band was struggling?

DENNIS DREW Who would quit the best job in the world? Besides, it just kept growing. The whole thing was working.  We played to some small crowds, for sure, in ’81 and ’82. But we took a leap of faith and moved to Atlanta in ‘82 for about three months and started to play to more receptive audiences.  Buffalo was good to us, and only 90 miles from home in Jamestown.

But the thing is, it just worked and people loved it and we loved each other and still do. Everyone wrote songs, we shared everything, and our families gave us tremendous support.  I lived at home until I was 30!

48 HILLS How did touring with R.E.M. change things for the band? What made Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant work so well together?

DENNIS DREW That was a big break playing in front of 15,000 people all around the country and it taught us how to play big rooms. And R.E.M.’s work ethic and the way they treated everyone was a learning lesson.

Michael and Natalie were just kindred spirits, just two young songwriters learning their craft.  A couple of twentysomethings winding their way through a wicked world.

48 HILLS What was so special about that period from 1987-1993, when the band was achieving major commercial success, that made it such a wellspring of creativity?

DENNIS DREW When John [Lombardo, founder] left, whatever power struggles were going on ended.  We realized we should probably get our shit together and produce. John wrote quite a bit of the earliest stuff and worked with Natalie on lyrics, so the rest of us now had to step up and we did.

Plus, we just kept getting better every day, every gig, every rehearsal. We learned a lot from [producers] Joe Boyd, Peter Asher, and Paul Fox. We wanted to get better. We didn’t think we’d already made it. We were hungry. So we kept getting better, and we’re still getting better.

48 HILLS Did it feel like that level of success would go on for far longer?

DENNIS DREW Not really. With Natalie, we knew she would leave at some point. That’s why we made some of the choices we did. A lot of industry people were pulling at her. From about 1987 on, every time we finished an album’s tour, all our crew and management thought, “That’s it. She’s definitely leaving now.”

But Natalie had an internal plan. When she hit 30, she decided to take the reins of her own career. Before we even started rehearsing Our Time in Eden, she told us it was the last album with us. She would have toured with us for several more months, but we were married and having kids, so we were like, “It’s OK. We’ll miss this, but we’ll be OK,” and we are.

48 HILLS Was there ever a thought about breaking up post Merchant?

DENNIS DREW No, never.  We knew she was leaving when we started rehearsals for Our Time in Eden.  Hence the title. I remember talking with Max Weinberg from the E Street Band. He substituted for a few weeks when our drummer Jerome broke his shoulder in 1992. He told us we’d be fine after Natalie left because we all wrote the music. He encouraged us. But even at a much lower level of money and fame, this a really great job. Why would we stop?  We started writing Love Among the Ruins in 1994 and two years later we had a new record deal with Geffen.

48 HILLS Describe the 10,000 Maniacs sound.

DENNIS DREW We have pretty much the same sound. We play a wide variety of styles within it including folk-rock, real Irish folk music, loud grinding rock styles, R&B-inflected toe-tappers, lush ballads, and new wavy- and Caribbean-influenced dance music—the usual thing we’ve always done.

With Mary in the band, we now have two soloists, so we, for lack of a better term, jam more than we were allowed to in the old, old days. We improvise and have more interplay between us. Back then, the focus was all about Natalie. The focus is on the music now.

48 HILLS Is there another album coming up? What can you tell me about it?

DENNIS DREW We certainly plan on more albums. We started to sketch out ideas this spring. Then some of our equipment was stolen including the hard drives with music on them. But the police recovered all the important stuff.

Money is an issue. Time is an issue. Three of us have other full-time jobs. I am the GM of a community radio station in Jamestown, WRFA. But, for the other three, this is their main income, so money is an issue for them personally. We can’t afford to stop touring and interrupt the cash flow.

10,000 MANIACS
Sat/17, 9pm, $35-$40
The Independent, SF
More info here.

The B-52s at 40, still dancing that mess around

The B-52s. Photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem

ALL EARS Getting weird is good — great, even — when you’re The B-52s (playing Mon/12 at Mountain Winery). Everyone’s favorite party band has been doing it since long before it was a meme.

Over the past four decades, the far-out foursome made up of frontman Fred Schneider, vocalists Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, and multiinstrumentalist Keith Strickland, pushed boundaries with its over-the-top Atomic Age aesthetic, sprechgesang, “Appalachian”-style vocal harmonies, and innovative instrumentation.

The group also came up with some of the most excitingly oddball lyrics almost a decade before releasing more commercial successes like “Love Shack” and “Roam.”

It all started back in 1979 when the post-punk band issued its self-titled gold-selling album, featuring such fan favorites as “Planet Claire,” “52 Girls,” “Dance This Mess Around,” “Lava,” and the band’s first-ever single “Rock Lobster.”

In a year still mostly dominated by such top-selling disco artists as the Bee Gees, Chic, Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, and KC and the Sunshine Band, the self-described party band from Athens, Georgia was alternately writing about the fiercest extraterrestrial vixen, female identity, a woman who’s not a piece of stinky cheese, a love that burns hotter than lava, and a beach party drawing both real and fantastical marine animals.

But how did Schneider come up with lines like, “Why won’t you dance with me? I’m not no Limburger” from “Dance This Mess Around”?

“I came up with that, and Limburger was a sour note,” The B-52s frontman told 48 Hills. “Who would call a sour note a Limburger? Well, the lines sort of just come to me. I just like to write surrealist poetry, so I guess it’s easy for me to write those sorts of crazy things. I have a harder time writing anything commercial, but I don’t care.”

I spoke to Fred Schneider, who’s celebrating The B-52s’ 40th anniversary with a 40-plus city North American tour, which hits the Bay Area next week (Mon/12 at the Mountain Winery), about the seminal debut LP, what keeps the band together after four decades, and whether fans will ever see another band album.

48 HILLS You initially moved down to Athens, Georgia, not to form a band but to study forestry. What were you going to do with that degree?

FRED SCHNEIDER Well, I was naive. I thought by taking wildlife management, I’d be doing conservation, and let’s just say I was wrong. I wound up switching to journalism and I liked Athens so much that when I dropped out, I stayed. Thank God, because I didn’t have any career plans.

48 HILLS When you think back to the recording of The B-52s album, which turned 40 this year, what are the strongest memories that come up?

FRED SCHNEIDER One minute I was washing pots and pans at the vegetarian restaurant I worked at and the next week, I was flying to the Bahamas to record, and we did the album in three weeks. If only we had the money, we could have paid for it ourselves and not had to give all the money to Warner Bros.

48 HILLS John Lennon famously raved about your first album in a Rolling Stone interview shortly before his death and even cited “Rock Lobster” as an inspiration for his Double Fantasy album. But The B-52s record was described by one critic at the time as drawing from pre-Beatles pop culture. Were John Lennon and Yoko Ono influences on The B-52s?

FRED SCHNEIDER Well, I always liked Dada and Surrealism and my poems were influenced by that. They sort of popped into my head and I’d write them down whether it was on a napkin or whatever for a creative writing class that I took. We did Yoko’s music a lot and I liked John’s writing a lot. He was influenced by Edward Lear, so I read a lot of Edward Lear’s books. So a lot of that was a big influence on me.

48 HILLS Why did you cover Petula Clark’s “Downtown” on the first album?

FRED SCHNEIDER We were doing that all along. It was Cindy’s favorite song and we just butchered it. I guess [the songwriter] Tony Hatch was apparently going to sue us, but [the album’s record producer] Chris Blackwell told him, “You’re going to make a lot of money,” and he did make a lot of money.

48 HILLS You always get described as a sprechgesang enthusiast. What does that mean exactly?

FRED SCHNEIDER It’s German for talk-singing. I never sang. I can’t remember the last time I sang until Keith and I started doing some basement tapes. Then we had a one-time band called Night Soil. We did one show for like three hours and we did the same four songs over and over.

So I guess it’s because I wasn’t a real singer. I was writing poetry, so I decided to speak the lyrics rather than sing them the way most people do. Although I do sing a lot more now.

48 HILLS 2008’s Funplex was one of your most successful debuts as far as charting and you’ve said that you pretty much broke even with that album. Would you ever follow it up with another?

FRED SCHNEIDER Probably not. We might do some songs, but I don’t think we’ll do another album. I can’t imagine doing another album, because we all live in different places around the country and we’d have to pay for it ourselves like we did Funplex.

48 HILLS In 2013, The B-52s announced that Keith Strickland would no longer be touring with the band. What led to that decision?

FRED SCHNEIDER He got tired of touring. It’s grueling. We’ve cut back, because I’m not going to constantly take a bus anymore, taking sleeping pills and trying to sleep and then getting up and slugging my way through the day till we have a show.

48 HILLS What keeps The B-52s together?

FRED SCHNEIDER Duct tape. [Laughs] No, we’re good friends. We hang out. We have dinner together. We’ve just stayed friends and care about each other and look after each other. Then we also have our own projects, so we don’t get bored doing The B-52s.

48 HILLS I want to talk about some of your side projects. I recently rewatched your video for your mid-’80s solo single “Monster” and it looked pretty tame to me, even by 1985 standards. Why was it banned from MTV?

FRED SCHNEIDER I don’t know. They had “Love in an Elevator.” They’re stupid. They said that the hot dog with the hat looked too much like a penis and, to me, it looked like a hot dog with a hat. There’s no explaining it. Or maybe Warner’s thought I was going to leave the band, so they didn’t want MTV to play it. Who knows what goes on behind our backs? I’m serious. I’m too blunt. [Laughs]

48 HILLS I love your more recent side project The Superions and am totally obsessed with the “Who Threw That Ham at Me” song. What inspired that track?

FRED SCHNEIDER It’s the first disco shoplifting song. Let’s just say, when I start writing songs, I don’t think of the commercial viability of them. It’s more important to write a fun song or a good song.

A friend of ours said he had heard an urban legend and it’s always some older woman in a housecoat who gets up to the cashier and a canned ham falls out from under it and they turn around really quick and go, “Who threw that ham at me?” I’m one of the few people who’d think that’s a great idea for a song.

48 HILLS Getting back to The B-52s, you’ve been described as “campy,” “kitsch,” and “wonderfully ridiculous-looking.”  

FRED SCHNEIDER No, we’re not campy. We know what we’re doing. Camp is like Liza Minnelli’s ex-husband and kitsch means garbagey. We’re surreal.

48 HILLS But do you think that perception prevents some listeners from taking The B-52s as seriously as they should?

FRED SCHNEIDER They probably don’t get it, but who cares? We have enough fans that we don’t have to worry about things like that. And if people say negative things, I’ll just tell them to go fuck themselves. So who cares?

48 HILLS What was one of the most important lessons you learned in the 40 years that you were with the band?

FRED SCHNEIDER If you have no skills, start a band. I dropped out of college and didn’t know how to hardly do anything. I could cook and wait tables, but I couldn’t play any instruments, though I lucked out and got a good job as the meal delivery coordinator for the Athens Council on Aging for Clark County. But when the band came along, I had to quit.

48 HILLS What’s next for The B-52s and what’s next for you?

FRED SCHNEIDER For The B-52s, we’re starting our seven-week tour and then we’re also going to be doing shows next year. We’re going to work with Keith tentatively at the end of the year on two new songs for a box set that Warner’s is putting out.

Then I’m promoting The Superions’ LP that we have out and the Christmas album and I’m working with Public Enemy bassist Brian Hardgroove on an album called, “The Vertical Mind.” He’s a fan, and we hit it off really well.

THE B-52S
WITH OMD & BERLIN
Mon/12, 6:30pm, $55-$125
The Mountain Winery, Saratoga
More info here.

All hail the ‘Timeless’ return of Imperial Teen

Imperial Teen by Jonathan Grassi

ALL EARS Imperial Teen was just being “a little bit cheeky” with the title of its sixth studio album, Now We Are Timeless, according to singer-guitarist Roddy Bottum. Some might say very cheeky, after seeing the album’s cover on which these words are very calculatedly placed over a photograph of a melting iceberg.

“Like, it’s practically as obvious that the band being ‘timeless’ or the music we make being ‘timeless’ is as absurd as the notion of icebergs being ‘timeless,’” Bottum told 48 Hills. “We meant to address the world, global warming, our involvement in the grander scheme of totality, music, and artwork, and the temporary nature of our interaction, and the concept of ADD. Mostly we were speaking of the importance and magnitude of artistic output and the weight that we put on that.”

There’s actually a hyper-awareness of the lack of time they have to devote to the band, on every occasion the indie-pop quartet—formed by Bottum (Faith No More), singer-guitarist Will Schwartz (Hey Willpower), bassist and backing vocalist Jone Stebbins, and drummer and backing vocalist Lynn Truell in San Francisco in the mid-1990s—records together, now that all the members live in different cities across the country and have varying outside commitments.

Time’s fleeting nature is a theme that ties many of the album’s catchy songs together, whether linked to the acceleration of global warming (“Timeless”) or the impermanence of relationships (“I Think That’s Everything,” “Parade,” “The Girl”).

The band bangs its point home in its new video for its mid-tempo electro-driven track, “Don’t Wanna Let You Go,” which follows New York-based artist and drag queen legend Tabboo! as he makes himself up in his East Village apartment before heading out to deliver impromptu dance performances in public spaces around town.

Tabboo! is probably most famous for designing the hand-drawn fonts exhibited on the original Wigstock banner in the mid-’80s, not to mention Deee-lite’s World Clique album cover in 1990. But he and fringe artists like him have become increasingly forgotten over the last three decades as queer culture has become more mainstream, and gentrifying and progressively less affordable metropolises like New York City—and San Francisco—have exiled its artists.

The video seems to make the case that queer heroes like Taboo!, who continue to create art, shouldn’t be lost to time.

I spoke to all four members of Imperial Teen, who return to San Francisco this week (Fri/2 at the Rickshaw Stop) about the new album, their “timeless” tracks, and the difficulties involved in making the band work almost a quarter-century later.

48 HILLS In “Don’t Wanna Let You Go” you celebrate Taboo!’s place in queer history. What, in your opinion, is Imperial Teen’s place in queer history?

RODDY BOTTUM We put our first record out in a time when being queer in a band felt kind of badass and revolutionary. It was really inspiring to create and to write with that judgmental aura breathing down our backs, so to speak. It put us in a bind as a band in a way that we felt the need to define ourselves and put a credo of sorts into the world in the way that a full non-queer band would never have to do.

So we had a role in queer history, for sure. We felt a need to write our history and live it and make declarations in a political way. That doesn’t seem as important for young queer kids these days. To be at the forefront of that movement was remarkable.

48 HILLS The song “Walkaway” is about the distance from others that many of us feel in our hyperconnected world, and I know you recorded the album in the cities each of the members lives in. Can you talk about the recording of this album and how you manage to maintain the connections with each other and make the band work when you’re so far apart?

RODDY BOTTUM It’s an easier time to be able to get over geographical barriers. It’s a lot easier to share music and create things together while being apart.  That said, we didn’t do a whole lot of that. We mostly got together two at a time, sometimes all of us, writing and working in fits and starts and putting songs together until we had a full album worth of material.

Getting ready for our live shows is really difficult. We usually have to fly to Denver because Lynn has a big family there and it’s just easier for us all to convene there and do what we do. I’m in NYC, Jone is in the Bay Area, and Will is in LA. It actually couldn’t be more tedious. The fact that we’re able to make it work is a testament to how much we love what we do.

48 HILLS About the track “We Do What We Do Best,” the band said, “the individuality of our collective voice is all that we have and it’s what we do.” Can you elaborate on this?

RODDY BOTTUM We do a really specific thing together. I don’t know bands that work as we do. Our friendship kind of motivates our output and is a direct channel to the writing that we do. It’s unique and a thing that only we can do. That’s the thing that we do and we do it to the best of our ability. That’s what the song kind of gets at. The fact that the title is cheeky and outrageously stating that we do what we do best makes us laugh collectively.

48 HILLS How have you changed from the band we see in your 1996 debut video, “You’re One”? 

JONE STEBBINS  I think the biggest change is that I’m 20 years older than that person in the video! Really though, I feel pretty much exactly the same!

LYNN TRUELL That was our first video and the first single of our first record ever! It was an exciting time… at that time, we did not know the story we would be writing, the conversations that would occur around our lyrics, and the fact that we would unconsciously continue to write melodic pop songs with deeper and sometimes darker meanings than what at first was realized.  It was our attempt at what we all wanted to be in a band, switching instruments and all singing and writing stories about life and experiences. And then it became our sound.

Over the years, we have challenged ourselves in breaking out of our comfort zone with new approaches to songwriting and adding more digital and diverse audio sensations.

48 HILLS How do you explain the enduring success of your 1998 single “Yoohoo”? Did you have any idea that that song would live on the way it has?

JONE STEBBINS When we first were coming up with “Yoohoo,” I knew it was going to be a favorite! It’s quirky and strange and a little haunting…Of course, being used in the movie Jawbreaker added to its enduring success. That hallway strut scene ended up being iconic in an underground way.

48 HILLS What is your life like today outside of Imperial Teen? What are you up to when the band’s not recording or touring?

JONE STEBBINS I live and work in the Bay Area. I own a boutique hair salon. I’m out with my Muttville rescue dogs all over the Bay Area. I also camp as much as possible with my little vintage 1954 trailer.

LYNN TRUELL I have a family of five, plus two dogs here in Denver. I am managing two teens and an autistic son that requires a lot of one on one. I play some DJ parties as a drummer, have accompanied a dance project, have done some session work, and am thinking of starting a drum troupe.

48 HILLS Jone, is it still possible to make it as an artist in San Francisco?

JONE STEBBINS I still live here. The socio-economic thing is very real in the Bay Area. It’s always possible to be an artist, but it’s a lot harder than ever to maintain.

I moved to San Francisco in 1987 and was working a minimum wage job, paying $125 a month rent for a room in a big house. Obviously, it was a lot easier back then than it is now. It’s sad that housing, studio, and creative spaces are so astronomically priced now.

48 HILLS How do you keep the queer value of resistance alive as gay has become more mainstream?

WILL SCHWARTZ I think our value of queerness is kind of intrinsic in the band, and we don’t really have to try or make a disingenuous effort with it.  We don’t look at it like, “Oh, gay is so in right now.” We just do what we do and hope it resonates with a wide swath of people.

48 HILLS What’s it like coming back to SF to play a show?

WILL SCHWARTZ We haven’t played overall for years until just this past weekend. But coming back to SF, where several of “our people” and family and friends still live, will certainly be special.

48 HILLS What’s coming up next for Imperial Teen?

WILL SCHWARTZ We have a few more shows booked here in the US. We intend to book some shows on the East Coast, and are hoping to make a short trek to the UK and possibly other parts of Europe.

Although we are all close as friends, we also have separate lives and commitments to other projects and people. However, we really do love our time together and the experiences we have doing all things Imperial Teen. With this new record out, we are focused on planning and hanging around each other and playing these songs live as much as we can. We love being Imperial Teen.

IMPERIAL TEEN
WITH THE YOUNGER LOVERS & DJ AARON AXELSEN
Fri/2, 8pm, $15-$18
Rickshaw Stop, SF
More info here.

Revolution music: What’s soundtracking protests around the globe?

Ricky Martin joins the Puerto Rican uprising. Photo via out.com

ALL EARSIf I cant dance to it, it’s not my revolution,” the old anarchist-feminist saying goes. And it’s true, every uprising needs a good soundtrack, though we’re a long way from Pete Seeger leading a massive singalong of a brand new tune called “Give Peace a Chance” outside the White House in 1969.

One of my most cherished travel hauls is a generous handful of rap CDs, bought on the streets of Tunis during the 2011 Arab Spring. Back then it seemed that hip-hop and social media could actually change the world for the better (a strange apex of American soft power that seems so long ago). And they in fact did, bringing down several dictators and authoritarian regimes—even if Tunisia’s attempt at a non-theocratic democracy is the only one that stuck.

During Tunisia’s transformation, booming rap—surprisingly well-produced and charged with a popular political fervor that American hip-hop had been missing since the 90s, at least until Killer Mike and  Run the Jewels came out—poured from every car and storefront; El Général’s inescapable “Rais Lebled” was the new national anthem.

Currently in the US, it’s weird that even in a musical environment that propels “This is America” to the top of the charts for months, we can’t summon the matching street energy to protest the infuriating miscarriages of justice in the Eric Garner case. But the symbiosis of revolution and music continues throughout recent protests around the world.

PUERTO RICO 

So it turns out there is, in fact, a huge swath of the US population willing to protest in the streets for days to turn out a homophobic, misogynist administration rife with corruption. Hmmmm. Kudos to the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans—including musical heroes Ricky Martin and Bad Bunny—who thronged the capital to bring down Governor Ricardo Rosselló.

Ricky Martin rode into the protest waving a giant rainbow flag, which is more actual Stonewall spirit than any mainland Pride parades have been able to muster. Bad Bunny is also a queer icon of a sort: the zillion-selling reggaeton artist is an insanely charming ally, a laidback trickster who plays with gender, paints his nails, and gamely flirts with his friends in his breezy videos. (Can you tell I love him.)

Bunny’s irrepressibly fluffy spirits turn edgy on Puerto Rican anthem “Afilando los Cuchillos,” literally “sharpen the knives” which roils like the protest crowds yet still exudes the satisfying smack of the guillotine. (The track leans more into apocalyptic trap music than reggaeton proper, which is usually much more light-spirited, but you can hear the connections.) He’s teamed up with fellow reggaeton stars Residente and iLe for the track, and of course can’t resist being the most fashionable protester on the truck.

Here’s more on the song, and for the uninitiated, a nice primer on reggaeton by 48 Hills writer Caitlin Donohue.

SUDAN

During the first half of this year, tens of thousands of Sudanese people turned out in the streets to demand civilian rule and the end of authoritarian Omar al-Bashir. They succeeded in chasing him out, and a shaky power-sharing agreement between the military and the populace is currently in effect, supposedly on the way to democracy.

One anthem of these protests, which were full of all kinds of music and celebration (most concerts, parties, and drinking were all punished under al-Bashir’s rule), was “Dum,” meaning blood, by Ayman Mao. The song has all the bass you want to shake a regime down, and the lyrics are perfectly blunt as well. When he performed “Dum” live, crowds would punctuate each line with “Thawra!” or revolution.

Rassasa hayya (Live ammunition)
Wa yagulu layk mattata (And they tell you it’s a rubber [bullet])
Dayl janjaweed (They’re janjaweed [militia members])
Janjaweed rabbata (Janjaweed thugs)
Galu al-gaddiya (They said it’s all)
Halwasa wa Hawwata (Hallucination and fanboyism)
‘Amleen ‘usbajiyya (They act like thugs)
Wa ihna nas shaffata (But we’re conscious people)
Ma basheel bundugiya (I don’t carry a rifle)
Fi yedi balata (In my hand is a brick)
Barjum al-fasad (I strike corruption)
Barjum al-wasata (I strike nepotism)

The Nation has more on the song, which has a touch of Caribbean bravura to it, but there were many other like it in this flowering of revolutionary music. Even classic Sudanese music legend Mohammed Wardi’s protest song, “Surrender,” written when al-Bashir first took over in 1989 and Wardi went into exile, was pressed into service in a series of remakes like the one below. Here’s a great guide to many more Sudanese uprising songs from 500 words mag.

HONG KONG

In the case of the millions that turned out in Hong Kong to protest a law they felt tied them closer to China (though of course it’s more complicated than that—and still developing) the soundtrack to their massive demonstrations,  which caused Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam to withdraw the legislation, is wonderfully complex.

Christian groups and others chose “Hallelujah to the Lord” (see above video) as their anthem, afraid that religious freedom would be threatened. Others demonstrated to an electronic remix of a classic South Korean protest song that was also favored by the millions who ousted South Korean President Park Geun-hye, called “March for the Beloved.”

In an affirmation of every theater nerd’s dreams of revolution, crowds are roaring “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Broadway chestnut Les Miserables. Chinese supporters have even resorted to communicating about the Hong Kong protests using song lyrics, to get around censorship.

On the hipper side of things, young people in Hong Kong are adopting Korean pop anthems. The K-Pop “invasion” of the US charts has been one of the most refreshing things to happen to music here, in an era where there are lots of interesting things happening. But Korean pop domination has been a long time coming, with surprising political roots.

K-Pop’s not just a phenomenon on these shores. Hong Kong demonstrators have embraced a K-Pop classic from 2007, “New World” by Girls’ Generation. The feisty, complex confection may not seem anthemic to US ears—we like our stompers!—but “New World” has soundtracked many Asian Pride parades, and its aspirational lyrics of “a rough road ahead, waiting for a miracle” to “end the haunting,” are perfectly poetic.

In ‘Rusalka,’ water nymphs, a frog king, and humanity’s destructive nature

Rachel Willis‐Sørensen as Rusalka. Photo by Cory Weaver

ONSTAGE Leah Hausman worked on Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka with Sir David McVicar five years ago for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Now she is directing the revival version of his production at the San Francisco Opera (June 16-28). The piece sticks inside you, she says, and she calls getting to use her background in dance and movement in the story of a water nymph falling in love with a prince and wanting to be human, “delicious.”

The Czech opera is a great story, Hausman says, rich with folklore and myth. “We all love a fairy tale, and it’s so simple and bold,” she said. “It’s full of mystery and magic.”

Hausman said she enjoyed digging into the folklore and archetypal figures in the story. Rusalka means “unquiet dead being”: unlike mermaids, water nymphs have legs, not tails, and can leave the water to sit in trees. Hausman thinks Rusalka’s father, the water goblin, Vodník, and the witch, Ježibaba, also have fascinating stories.

“All the characters come out of a big history,” Hausman said. “Vodník is the frog king and the father of all the water. He can be terrifying as well as playful. The wood sprites tease and poke at him, at their peril. He can swallow them up. He’s got a dangerous side.”

Ježibaba, the guardian of the forests, is also called Baba Yaga. “She’s like the old bag lady who lives in the woods,” Hausman said. “She has a big history in Europe and Celtic myths. They list all the amazing things she can do, like turn a man to a monster and a monster to a man.”

The staging of this Rusalka shows the harm humans do to nature, with the beautiful pond in the forest dammed, carcasses of forest creatures that have been hunted, and a storm ripping through the forest and destroying it.

The first image we see in the opera is of a beautiful painting of nature, which puts us into the world of representing nature, rather than being part of it, Hausman says.  

Director Leah Hausman

“It’s really there and we don’t ignore it in any way,” Hausman said about the divide between man and nature. “The characters speak about it so vividly. When she asks to become a human, instead of going ‘Oh, what a great idea,’ Vodník is shook to the core. For the world of nature, humans are nothing but full of destruction. Baba Yaga says the only way a human can be a human is by shedding each other’s blood.”

The story of Rusalka seems relevant now, Hausman says.

“There are big divides in their world, and somebody converting to the other side is a really big deal,” she said. “The gamekeeper is freaked out by Rusalka because she comes from the world of witches and witchcraft. It’s a really rightwing attitude of ‘let’s get all those people out of the palace and drive them away.’ It’s a so-called comedy, but it’s really dark.”

Rachel Willis‐Sørensen as Rusalka and Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince in ‘Rusalka.’ Photo by Cory Weaver

The cast for Rusalka includes soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen singing the title role for the first time, and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Ježibaba and bass Kristinn Sigmundsson as Vodnik. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who’s the Prince, has played the part several times. 

The prince is a difficult role, Hausman thinks. 

“It could just be the asshole prince, the guy you really hate, but I didn’t want that,” she said. “There’s something so ultimately human about him, and we get the fact he’s a tortured soul.”

RUSALKA
June 16- June 28
San Francisco Opera
Tickets and more information here

At 83, piano legend Larry Vuckovich recounts a ‘Fascinating Jazz Life’

Larry Vuckovich

ALL EARS Pianist and composer Larry Vuckovich has been a headliner in the Bay Area jazz scene for over 60 years. His creative approach to the music keeps on getting better.

I first interviewed Larry in 2000, and we’ve become friends over the years. I most admire his versatility. He can play hard bop, mellow ballads or a fierce Latin montuno. He plays equally well on solo piano or with a big band—and everything in between.

On June 19 at Yoshi‘s he’ll be performing one of his more popular programs, “Fascinating Jazz Life,” featuring the music of Dexter Gordon, Bobby Hutcherson, Mel Torme, Horace Silver, and Vince Guaraldi. Vuckovich doesn’t just dig out these performers’ old sheet music. He actually played with them.

“This is a tribute to all the greats I’ve been associated with over the years,” said Vuckovich in a phone interview from his home in Calistoga. “It’s my way of paying back to the jazz community.”

Larry back in the day

OLD TIME SF
Born in Montenegro, which was then part of Yugoslavia, Vuckovich and his family emigrated to the US in 1951. Larry was 14, and he went on to attend Lincoln High in San Francisco. Although he studied European classical piano, he was soon drawn to the pulsating San Francisco jazz scene.

The City was full of jazz clubs in the 1950s and ’60s. Vuckovich remembered El Patio ballroom located at Market and Van Ness, above a car dealership. “That was where the white jazz bands played,” he said, noting the segregation of the time.

He would then walk down Market Street to the Paramount Theater, which showed movies and had live performers as well. He heard drummer Louie Bellson play with Duke Ellington.

“I remember Duke played a white piano.” 

Vuckovich began sitting in with various jazz groups, and his talent soon became evident. Vuckovich—a white, immigrant kid with a strange accent and an impossible to spell name—soon found a home in the multi-cultural world of jazz.

Many of the jazz greats performed at the Blackhawk, on Turk and Hyde streets in the Tenderloin. He heard Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. He also met famous pianist Vince Guaraldi who was then playing with vibraphonist Cal Tjader.

Vuckovich became Guaraldi’s only student and frequently visited his house in Daly City. They later recorded a two piano quintet album.

In 1965, only a few years after turning professional, Vuckovich went on tour with famed vocalist Jon Hendricks, a co-founder of the seminal vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. 

Hendricks not only gave Vuckovich informal lessons in jazz history, he passed on his pro-civil rights, progressive political views.

“Don’t believe the newspapers,” was Hendricks’ succinct advice to Vuckovich.

Hendricks was a talented composer and lyricist. He became famous for co-writing the English lyrics for “Desafinado,” composed by Brazilian master Antonio Carlos Jobim.”

“I wrote it in five minutes, and the royalties sent my kids to college,” he once quipped to Vuckovich.

‘BLUE BALKAN’
Vuckovich began leading his own groups and had a big breakthrough with his 1980 album “Blue Balkan.” The recording fused jazz with Serbian, Roma (Gypsy) and other music from that region.

Balkan music “stays in your system,” he said. “I came here in 1951 but it took until the late 70s to have an inner urge and put some things down on paper.”

The title tune “Blue Balkan” reflected regional folk music, but the other inspiration came from Hungarian classical composer Bela Bartok.

“Bartok spent five years going to different villages in the Balkans and North Africa collecting melodies. He made the harmonies more modern. He really knew the music.”

“Blue Balkan” really stands the test of time and sounds as innovative today as it did nearly 40 years ago. But at the time, Vuckovich didn’t know if jazz audiences would find the music appetizing.

“It’s like eating food you don’t know,” he said. “You put it in your mouth. It’s either good or it’s not.”

TALENTED COMPOSER
Vuckovich is a talented composer. Like many musicians, he can hear a melody in his head before writing it down.

He can also remember a tune after hearing it once, assuming it isn’t too complicated. That may seem magical to us non-musicians, but he explains that most jazz tunes stick to recognizable forms and structures.

“You have to photograph it in your ear,” he said. “You can see a pattern. It goes through those keys and changes. Most of the great tunes are sophisticated, but they are not complicated.”

Larry Vuckovich turns 83 this year, but like all the jazz musicians I know, he plans to keep on performing as long as he can stumble up on stage.

“Thank God I’m feeling good,” he said. “I don’t take any medication. I eat organic greens.”

He also swears by the helpful qualities of raw garlic, which he consumes daily.

“It helps medically and keeps the vampires away.”

Larry Vuckovich presents his “Fascinating Jazz Life” program at Yoshi’s on June 19 and Filoli in Woodside on July 28.

While best known as a foreign correspondent, journalist Reese Erlich has written about jazz and blues for over 25 years. Listen online to his Jazz Perspectives podcasts.

Queercore legends Team Dresch return to swing the bat of love

ALL EARS He’s a kid. He likes wearing wigs. “What he’s looking for/He won’t find in school,” Jody Bleyle sings, her strong, declarative voice rising to a challenge in the first line and descending into disappointment on the second. It’s late on a restless night, and the boy is listening to music, looking for something he can’t seem to find.

That is, until Bleyle flips the song’s descriptive point-of-view, commanding herself, “Hey you, say what he needs to hear.” Which she does, as the music turns inside out in a way that captures self-recognition and affirmation, sending shivers up the spine: “Queer sex is great/ It’s fun as shit/ Don’t worry Jesus is dead/ And god don’t exist/ And swearing is fun/ It’s funner than piss/ That it’s stupid is a cruel and classist myth.”

The kid is Psychic Al, a character in “Musical Fanzine,” the penultimate song on Team Dresch’s 1996 album Captain My Captain. Psychic Al would be in his mid-to-late 30s today. As for Team Dresch, how applicable is their music to the year 2019? We’re about to find out, as just months since Bikini Kill’s brief but celebrated reunion shows, the group are set to tour and also re-release their two albums, Personal Best (1995) and Captain My Captain, as well as a singles collection, Choices, Chances, Changes. (They’ll be performing June 22 at Bottom of the Hill.)

There’s another answer to the question of how relevant Team Dresch are today, and that answer is plenty. There is no equivalent band to “the team” on the musical landscape today. Queer and especially trans and women’s rights are under attack in the Trump era. The Personal Best song “Hate the Christian Right” and Captain My Captain song “I’m Illegal” could apply to the state of being female in the South and Midwest, where growing waves of anti-abortion legislation are robbing women of autonomy, including in response to crimes such as rape and incest. The present-day picture is scary and infuriating and demands the sort of direct statements and actions that have always been core elements of Team Dresch’s overall project.

But Team Dresch aren’t just relevant in terms of all-queer lineup and explicit politics. They’re also radical in sheerly musical terms—this is a band that unites punk energy and explosiveness with melodic pop immediacy and Shudder To Think-esque math rock complexity to create roiling songs that sometimes go through a series of metamorphoses before reaching a conclusion. Next to what they’ve made, a lot of today’s punk- and garage-influenced music sounds basic. There’s even some unique ingenuity in the group’s name, which recasts the fractiousness that defines so many groups into a mutually supportive team formation, with eldest member Donna Dresch functioning as a wise captain of sorts while Bleyle and Kaia Wilson trade off vocals.

If boygenius is a female supergroup today, Team Dresch certainly functions as one. Queercore or homocore true pioneers Fifth Column even wrote a song called “Donna” about guitar and bass goddess Dresch, who played with proto-grunge dudes Screaming Trees and helped forge Olympia’s celebrated punk scene through the zine and label Chainsaw, the latter of which released Sleater-Kinney’s galvanizing 1996 album Call the Doctor. The sole female member of Hazel, Bleyle had her own label, Candyass, which released Free to Fight, a genre-spanning compilation devoted to teaching fundamentals of self-defense to women and queers. Before Team Dresch, Wilson fronted her own band, Adickdid.

The film Personal Best is an Oregon- and NorCal coast-set 1982 movie that includes soft-lit lesbian love scenes, women’s steam room banter, a Bruce Jenner lookalike, a fag joke, athletic montages set to everything from the Doobie Brothers to marching bands, and Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly as an iconic tortured duo: the straight woman with same-sex leanings and the the lesbian who knows her identity. With a winking nod to the movie in its on-the-mark flirty cover art and the straight girl kiss-off song “Freewheel,” Team Dresch’s Personal Best moves from anthems (“She’s Amazing”) to dedications (“Fake Fight”) to a song that’s the sonic sister of Lizzie Borden’s radical 1983 movie Born In Flames, “#1 Chance Pirate TV,” where Bleyle moves from reassurance to defiance on the thrilling final lines: “Sometimes it feels alright/Like when you rip up a picture of the Pope.”

One of Team Dresch’s innovations is in the structure of its songs. Vocal baton-passes within a single composition were a commonly uncommon trait of Northwest women’s bands of the era, such as Excuse 17 and, of course, Sleater-Kinney. The approach reached one zenith of dual or dueling complexity in the title track of the latter’s 1998 album The Hot Rock. But Team Dresch mine similar territory earlier on Captain My Captain’s “The Council” and “Yes I Am Too, But Who Am I Really?,” a femme-butch dialogue of sexual freedom where Wilson’s proto-pup pleas of “Boss me around/Please, I want you to” are met by Bleyle’s command “I wanna watch you lose control.”

Heroism in sound—and friendship and erotics and solidarity too—Captain My Captain is filled with such moments. Marked by present-tense lyrical assertions, built over drummer Melissa York’s rapid and faultless tempo changes, it’s a conversation between two vocalists with attractive voices: Wilson’s shifts from shy confession to screaming rebellion, Bleyle’s present-tense pivots from sharp sarcasm to the very embodiment of seizing power. Electric moments abound, as Wilson nimbly navigates the pitfalls of a relationship in “107” and Bleyle faces agoraphobia with the help of her girlfriend in the direct “Don’t Try Suicide,” the band’s most popular song online, thanks in part to its use in the 2000 documentary Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street.

Captain My Captain opens with a snippet of phone conversation between Bleyle and pioneering punk dyke folksinger Phranc, who is then honored as the “Uncle Phranc” of an affirming queer family set against an emotionally manipulative mother in the song that follows. Sometimes it takes an uncle to impart necessary advice, such as not to fuck with straight girls and not to take pills. Speaking of necessity, just how necessary is Team Dresch’s return? The question is answered with typical clarity by a couplet at the end of the song that began this article, “Musical Fanzine”: “Sometimes I can’t remember why I want to live/Then I think of all the freaks, and I don’t want to miss this.”

I recently got in touch with Team Dresch’s Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson to discuss the group’s plentiful dynamics – bold and direct song titles over winding or even oblique lyrics, to cite just one example – and the feelings that come with a reunion.

48 HILLS What’s it like returning to the songs today as listeners, as the songwriters and performing them?

KAIA WILSON It’s like riding the most amazing gay-ass bike.

It’s an honor, it’s amazing, and it’s also so fun. We all love each other (we are family) and we have the most incredible people who like our music and come to our shows to feel the loud distorted celebration of queer love.

JODY BLEYLE Playing the songs feels even better than it used to because we’re better players and we love each other more. It’s so fun to be loud and sweaty together. Listening to the songs can be more complicated because it’s just me alone with my ears and thoughts, but every time I listen I appreciate more what great musicians my bandmates are.

48H Different bands in the NW at the time traded off vocals, but in Team Dresch it really feels like a passing of the baton. Was there a point when you hit upon the dual vocal approach, and how do you feel it developed in the band over time?

KW Our band just shared the spirit of the punk message we were all attracted to, which for us was all about making shit up, sharing equally in all the collaborations, and not following “rules” of the mainstream song makers. Also, it adds so much to the dynamics of our songs to mix up vocals like we do, and to get both singers’ voices in some of our songs is the pinnacle of that.

JB It evolved as we wrote more songs. The heart of the band is that original need to find each other, so we’ve always worked towards collaboration, even though it can be hard.

48H What were your favorite bands then, and what/who do you listen to now?

JB Then: Joni Mitchell, Ut, Throwing Muses, Queen Latifah, Soundgarden, Suzanne Vega, Tone Dogs, Patti Smith, Public Enemy, Kate Bush, fIREHOSE, Everything But the Girl – and all the friend bands that we were lucky to play with so many times. I still listen to those bands, and let’s see, now I listen to Elite Beat, Janelle Monáe, Lizzo, Roseblood, Gillian Frances, and the new Versus EP!

KW Then: Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Versus, Slant 6, Cold Cold Hearts, Come. Now: Same as before, add Lizzo, H.C. McEntire, Janelle Monáe and [some] awesome new bands in PDX – Roseblood and Hurry Up.

48H Can you tell me about the character of Psychic Al and the inspiration behind him?

JB He’s my brother! He was probably 14 or 15 when I wrote those lyrics. He came out to me and Mel [drummer Melissa York] on a Team Dresch tour around that time. We told him that he was young and that if he changed his mind we’d still love him. (He’s still gay.) I was probably projecting my own experience onto him, but I think we were all looking for things in songs and hoping that when you opened a cassette tape it would have a long paper insert filled with secrets to unfold.

48H ”Don’t Try Suicide” has been used in the documentary Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street, and has reached a lot of listeners online. Do you hear much feedback from new listeners about that song?

JB We do. It’s a deep and painful way to connect with people. We’re often asked whether we think it’s easier to grow up LGBTQI+ now and to come out, and sure, it’s easier on paper, but that doesn’t make it easy and painless and uncomplicated for each real person.

48H Songs like “Hate the Christian Right,“ “I’m Illegal” and “To the Enemies of Political Rock” feel very applicable to the present moment. How does it feel to be reemerging in and engaging with the music industry and overall political climate right now?

KW It’s weird, sad, but not totally surprising that so many of our more directly political songs are as relevant today as they were 25 years ago.

I think our band has this lovely musical/activism chemistry, and that it would be such a waste for us not to step up to the plate right now during Trump fucker years, and take our swing at this horror show of the political Right; even if we are swinging our bat of love, for queers, for all marginalized folks, because love and creating a space to feel alive, connected and empowered is as important as when we say fuck you. But also, we are gonna make sure to say fuck you and keep fighting.

Jody’s lyric in “Yes I Am Too, But Who Am I Really”—”some people get it, lots more people need it”—sums it up for the struggle, through all the eras, since whenever humans started being dicks.

JB The political climate is horrifying and the more I act against it, the better I feel. I’m on the fundraising team for the Sunrise Movement in Portland. Sunrise is a youth-led movement to turn the Green New Deal into a reality. They’re brilliant and inspiring and working strategically to create a world that will be not horrifying – it will be a party that you don’t want to leave. To me, playing with Team Dresch right now is a chance to give some love and soak up some love and help build the Sunrise Movement. And it’s really really fun to play music and jump around with [drummer] Marcéo [Martinez], Mel, Kaia, and Donna in every political climate.

TEAM DRESCH
June 22, 8:30pm, $15/$17
Bottom of the Hill, SF. 
More info here. 

Time is on Passion Pit’s side, as classic ‘Manners’ hits 10

Photo by Jean Claude Billmaier

ALL EARS When Michael Angelakos first toured Manners, the 2009 debut of his then-rising project Passion Pit, he couldn’t hit the high notes. A side effect of the anti-psychotic medication Seroquel, it turns out, is paralyzing your vocal cords. 

Angelakos was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 17 and speaks so candidly about his mental health as to often surprise interviewers. “When I was making this record, I didn’t think I was going to be alive much longer,” he tells me, rather offhandedly, of Manners. 

Manners came out on May 15, 2009. Now, Angelakos is taking the album on tour for its 10th anniversary, backed by a crack squad of musicians tasked with performing songs that haven’t been played live in nearly a decade. 

“It’s not like I’ve been very positive about touring in the past,” says the New Jersey-born, Boston-based musician. “But it’s jarringly therapeutic and strangely easy and fun getting back in the rehearsal and playing these songs.”

The tour kicks off in Tempe, Arizona on April 30 and includes a San Francisco stop on May 5 at the Masonic. The run wraps up May 25 in Washington, D.C., with Chicago’s Riviera Theatre the venue for the album’s true anniversary.

Compared to the blunt lyrics on later albums like Gossamer and Kindred, Manners is a little more poetic. I asked Angelakos if returning to these songs is easier because the lyrics aren’t so directly reflective of his experiences.

“To me, that stuff actually conjures more specific emotional spaces than the more diary-like storytelling of Gossamer,” he says. “The more abstract and the less on-the-nose I was with the lyrics, the more I feel what I was feeling then.”

Angelakos turns 32 next month. When he released the first Passion Pit EP, 2008’s Chunk of Change, he was 21 and thrust rather suddenly into stardom at the peak of indie pop’s cultural ubiquity, He made the EP as a Valentine’s Day gift for his girlfriend, but friends liked what they heard, and word spread fast around the campus of his alma mater, Emerson College.

The project found enough fans to enable Angelakos to drop out of college and pursue music full-time. But like many bedroom projects airlifted onto the national stage in the post-MySpace era, Passion Pit wasn’t quite prepared for fame.

For one, there was the experience of putting on a façade at shows. (“That’s literally the title of the album—manners.”) In a Pitchfork cover story, Angelakos described playing a packed SXSW set for enthralled Columbia executives before breaking down in tears backstage. He got signed but immediately checked into a hospital after returning from Austin. 

In 2012, at the peak of Passion Pit’s success, Angelakos canceled much of the Gossamer tour to seek further treatment. He’s described guzzling liters of liquor a day during the sessions for the record, barely aware of what he was doing, and regularly attempting or threatening suicide.

Then there was the response to the music itself. Passion Pit’s records got a lot of good reviews, including praise from Pitchfork at the peak of its influence. But some music fans objected to the singer’s falsetto. Others dismissed them offhand because their neon synths put them in line with popular bands like Phoenix and MGMT.

Critics even faulted Angelakos for being honest about his mental health. “They thought it was a way of selling the record,” he recalls. “Ironically, it kinda did because it got attention and was important to people.” 

But he always had a feeling in the back of his mind that “at some point, people would get it and the people who publicly dismissed it would come around to it.” 

Now Manners, as luck would have it, is something of a classic in the indie-pop canon.

Angelakos is excited about Just Like Heaven, the Long Beach festival he’s playing the day before the SF stop, whose lineup is devoted to bands who hit it big around the same time as, or earlier than, Passion Pit—Phoenix, MGMT, Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear. He doesn’t seem too miffed about being considered an act from a bygone era and might even agree with that assessment.

“We were one of the last bands to pop off the way we did,” he says. “That was the end of the music industry as we know it. Calling it an industry now is too much credit. We don’t make CDs anymore. Bands don’t get signed the same way. We were one of the last ones.” 

Besides, Angelakos has a fondness for Manners. He calls it his most “misunderstood” record—though he points out that, because he’s not exactly shy about divulging the details, there isn’t much to misunderstand about Passion Pit. 

“I’ve always been proud of the fact I finished it,” he says, perhaps implying that he wasn’t even sure how much longer he’d be alive while making it. “But now, I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I pulled off this record.’ It’s pretty ambitious for a debut record.”

Passion Pit continues to release music, most recently 2017’s excellent Tremendous Sea of Love. But with the initial shock of fame gone and the expectations for the project a little less strenuous than when following a hot major-label debut, the singer’s found a little more clarity. 

“After turning 30, I’ve been figuring out who I am more than I ever had before,” he says. “I never had time to do that in my 20s.” 

PASSION PIT: ‘MANNERS’ 10TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR
Sat/5, 8pm, $39.50+
The Masonic, SF. 
Tickets and more info here

Please Do Not Fight reunion collects a scattered scene

Please Do Not Fight. Photo by Aaron Blumenshine

ALL EARS Pursuing music often begins with a simple realization: that it could be you up on that stage. And before he started the Redwood City rock band Please Do Not Fight in the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, Zen Zenith was just a kid staring goggle-eyed at the pop-punk bands that dominated Bay Area clubs in the late ‘90s. 

The Matches, with whom he’s still friends, wowed him in particular. “They had rehearsed moves and such incredible stage presence,” he says. “There’s one song where people get down low. These are clichéd things now, but it was the first time I’d ever seen it. I was like, ‘how do they know how to do this? How do they know we’re all gonna jump at the same time?’”

After playing in a few short-lived bands, Zenith formed Please Do Not Fight in 2007, at age 24. That year, the project released its sole full-length, Leave It All Behind. Counterbalancing pop-punk sugar rush with spiky, sophisticated lyrics and a chilly, lonesome atmosphere, it’s the kind of album one could see inspiring the same underground cult love as American Football’s debut or Duster’s early records.

Please Do Not Fight and many of the Bay Area bands they performed with (Picture Atlantic, Dizzy Balloon, Rin Tin Tiger, Finish Ticket, Bird by Bird) rejected the self-deprecating scuzz of the contemporaneous SF garage rock movement and embraced a friendly, clean-cut approach. Mike Shirley-Donnelly of Curious Quail, which shares multi-instrumentalist Erin Machado with Please Do Not Fight, met Zenith at a Picture Atlantic show—a band he was first drawn to because they made Dungeons & Dragons references onstage.

Zenith was never into the “cocky rock-star thing,” as he calls it. But with his imposing physical presence, full-throated roar, and confessional, clearly annunciated lyrics, Zenith was certainly a magnetic frontman. 

To Zenith, being a “frontman” doesn’t mean what it used to mean. “It was becoming more about sitting in front of your computer and being on social media,” he says. “It was all recording stuff on your own and then getting the band to do it later. The thing I loved about it—getting together with your friends and being social—was less and less what the work was.” 

After releasing two more EPs, Zenith disbanded Please Do Not Fight in 2013. Initially he intended to rebrand the project and work with the same musicians in a different musical milieu, but instead he moved from Redwood City to L.A. and focused on hosting and promoting shows, taking what he describes as an “extended breakup from music.”

He and Please Do Not Fight guitarist Geoff McCann started a project he describes as a mix of musical and stand-up performance. But it was mostly a private endeavor for kicks, and when friends asked him to pick up the guitar at the shows he hosted, he remained stubborn. 

Yet something itched in the back of his mind in spite of himself, and soon he found himself queuing up old videos of the band. 

* * *

Please Do Not Fight will reunite Friday, April 26 at Bottom of the Hill. It had to be Bottom of the Hill, Zenith says—the venue where he saw bands like the Get Up Kids as a teen and, later, where he would play once his band made enough connections to play real club gigs instead of bowling alleys and restaurants. 

“At first I was like ‘No, thats never, ever gonna happen,’ he says of the reunion. “But enough people asked that I started talking to Geoff and Erin and Kubes about it.”

Machado and drummer Brian Kubes are the other two members of the core band. They agreed, but a new complication arose: Kubes still lived in LA, while Machado lives in Vancouver. 

The full band—including Justin San Souci of the Matches, who continues the band’s long tradition of revolving bassists—will only be able to rehearse once in the same room prior to the show. 

Zenith isn’t worried, though. In LA, he claims, bands are expected to learn their parts separately in between practices as opposed to the more rehearsal-oriented approach he finds in the Bay Area. And Machado is a veteran of remote rehearsals and recording, as Curious Quail’s members are likewise dispersed across the country.

“I’m not worried about it,” Zenith says of this unconventional pre-show preparation. “And I’m probably the person who plays music the least out of the four of us.” 

The show isn’t just a Please Do Not Fight reunion but a reunion of the “old scene.” Curious Quail, who played frequently with Please Do Not Fight before Shirley-Donnelly moved to the Coachella Valley, will perform earlier in the evening. Talk, the other opener, contains several members of the defunct Picture Atlantic. 

The scene to which Please Do Not Fight belonged exists today in a scattered form, and some of its individual members have found fame on their own. Kevin Sullivan of Rin Tin Tiger performs as Field Medic and recently signed to vaunted indie label Run for Cover. Louie Diller of Dizzy Balloon found minor chart success with the band Holychild. Finish Ticket are signed to Elektra Records and have played with acts like Ed Sheeran but released their last album in 2013.

Please Do Not Fight will probably never reunite again. The geographical distances among the band members are too vast for regular reunions to be a thing, and Machado is committed to her dual gigs as Quail member and music teacher. But while preparing with McCann and San Souci, Zenith began to feel some of that old jones for music creeping back in and hopes to use the reunion as a springboard for something new—most likely a solo project, he’s concluded.

“When I was playing music it wasn’t just about playing music,” he says. “I also got a social life from it. It helped me with my mental health because writing songs is very therapeutic. I got exercise out of it by jumping around onstage. I’m realizing in the last couple years how much benefit music has brought to my life, and with this show I’m excited to do more music to bring all those things back in.”

PLEASE DO NOT FIGHT, CURIOUS QUAIL, TALK
Fri/26, 8:30 p.m., $15-$18
Bottom of the Hill, SF.
Tickets and more info here

Contemporary fado queen Mariza comes to SFJAZZ

Fado, the mournful and soul-stirring music of Portugal, is coming to San Francisco this week. Whether you’re a fado fan or new to the genre, it’s time to hear Mariza, one of the world’s great fado singers. (She’s here April 12-14 at SFJAZZ.)

Rooted in the early 19th century, fado draws on some of the same inspiration as American jazz and blues.

“Fado was born almost the same way as blues because of the slaves and what they were singing,” Mariza explained to me during an interview in Barcelona, Spain and in a subsequent email. “They were singing about feelings of life. Fado explores those same feelings.” 

Like the early days of jazz in the US, fado was a popular urban music style distained by the countries’ elites. The Portuguese upper crust considered fado to be the music of pimps and prostitutes.

“Fado was born by the sea, produced by the sailors and African slaves,” said Mariza. “It’s a music from the working classes.”

Fado, which translates as destiny or fate, combines European melody, African rhythm and Arabic cadences into a unique musical form. It’s a stripped-down musical style usually featuring a singer, one musician playing the round-shaped Portuguese guitar and another playing classic guitar. The singer carries the plaintive melody while the guitars provide rhythm and some melodic interludes. 

Mariza explained that in the early days, fado lyrics served as a “newspaper with singing. People didn’t know how to read. So they used music to spread the news.”

Of course conditions are different today. She reads a lot of poetry to gain inspiration for new songs. “I work with composers and writers who compose for me. Then I choose what I think is the message.”

Mariza, whose given name is Marisa dos Reis Nunes, was born in 1973 in what was then the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. She moved to Portugal with her family at the age of three.

Mariza, who is of mixed Portuguese and African descent, periodically visits Mozambique. “I always go there when I can to get in touch with my family, to be in touch with my roots. With age I feel more this African side calling, it [is] part of who I am.”

Mariza started singing fado in Lisbon when she was five years old. “My parents had a little tavern. In the neighborhood where I lived fado was a kind of living school of music.”

Then as a teen she started listening the popular rock bands of the time such as U2, Supertramp and the Rolling Stones. She wanted to sing rock. “I was trying, but my English wasn’t very good. I didn’t understand it. Fado was always my first love.”

In Argentina, tango lost popularity among the youth for many years until undergoing a revival in the 1980s. To this day some young Brazilians consider bossa nova old geezer music. So it’s not surprising that fado his seen popular peaks and valleys in Portugal.  

Fado luminaries such as Amalia Rodrigues (1920-99) brought legitimacy to fado and modernized the art form. But the next generation listened to more rock and roll than traditional Portuguese music.

Now the young generation shows their emotional support for fado, said Mariza, part of their appreciation of Portuguese culture. “They are trying to protect this music, trying to pass the message.”

“You don’t’ have schools to learn this music,” she continued. “You learn on the streets. It’s passed down from older generations.” 

Mariza noted that fado is part of the Portuguese culture, an urban music that expresses emotion and true feelings. “Even if you don’t speak a word of Portuguese it is difficult not to be touched by the intensity of fado.”

For non-Portuguese speakers, fado can sound uniformly mournful. While there are happy, up-tempo fados, the genre does indeed feature a lot of lament and longing. In fact, the Portuguese concept of saudade (longing) plays a central role in the music. 

For example, Mariza sings “Ja Me Deixou” (He Already Left Me). The song’s protagonist suffers a lot because of a love who left. He says the “saudade walks with me.” But suddenly the lover returns and the longing goes away. “It has a happy ending.”

Fado has become one of the most popular musical styles in Portugal, and has spread throughout Europe and the Americas. But for Mariza, who regularly plays large jazz clubs and concert halls, fado always takes her back to her parent’s small bar.

“If you go to Lisbon, to a taverna, you see people commemorating life with a bottle of red wine. Sometimes you listen to a very sad fado. But they are enjoying life. They are cleaning the soul. Then everyone is smiling and happy.”

Mariza
April 12-14
SFJAZZ 
Tickets and more info here. 

While best known as a foreign correspondent, journalist Reese Erlich has written about jazz and blues for over 25 years. Listen online to his Jazz Perspectives podcasts.