Michael B’s Top 6 Songs from 2020

Now up on the Freeform Vlog: 6 songs that helped move Michael B through one of the more ferocious years on human record.

1. Smif N’ Wessun – Tools of the Trade

2. Geto Boys – Mind Playing Tricks On Me

3. Groove Theory – Keep Tryin’

4. George Benson – Love X Love

5. Digable Planets – Black Ego

6. Angie Stone Featuring Alicia Keys & Eve – Brotha Remix

Live Community Jukebox

To celebrate the launch of our Winter 2020 On Air Pledge Drive, a team of beloved Freeform Portland DJs joined forces to share some of their favorite tracks for our first-ever Live Community Jukebox! Music by Digable Planets, Janet Kay, ESG, Kitty, Cut Chemist, União Black, and more.

Do yourself a favor and subscribe to our Freeform Portland YouTube channel for updates.

And…while you’re at it, how about joining this rich community of radio lovers? Why not become a Friend of Freeform? This will help us cover basic costs so that we can continue providing eclectic programming and be a community space for Portland’s music lovers and creatives. Sounds terrific, yes?

Or maybe you’re in the mood for a one-time contribution. Any dollar amount, large or small would just thrill our pants off.

Finally, if you don’t have the cash right now, we would be delighted to receive goods that include: records, CDs and headphones in good working condition, office supplies, snacks, and more. If you’d like to make a donation like this, please email donate@freeformportland.org to get in touch.

George Clinton: Dada Revolutionary – by Sharyll Burroughs

I recently read that the Dada art movement was an irreverent, rowdy revolution.  While there are plenty of thick, overly intellectualized tomes devoted to Dada, rowdy and irreverent will do just fine when describing the work of funk music legend and Dadaist George Clinton. The problem is that the art world doesn’t have a clue.

For over forty years, Clinton and his fraternal twins, Parliament-Funkadelic, or P-Funk, have served up a Dadaist stew melding psychedelic rock, jazz, r&b, and gospel into infectious grooves with humorous, nonsensical titles such as Funkentelechy, Good To Your Earhole, Gloryhallastoopid, and Loopzilla. Clinton’s oeuvre was radically out of step with the pop and soul music emanating from the airwaves in the 1970s and 80s. For example, Cosmic Slop and Maggot Brain reflected the madness to Clinton’s method: unmitigated rejection of logic, not only concerning music, but regarding the very meaning of art, a theory well within the Dadaist credo proclaiming logic as a form of creative suicide. Tristan Tzara, author of the Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries, expressed, “Nothing is more pleasant than to baffle people.”

Bootsy Collins (top left), Grady Thomas (3rd from left), George Clinton (4th from left), (bottom row) Calvin Simon, Ray Davis, Bernie Worrell, Fuzzy Haskins, Michael Hampton of the funk band “Parliament-Funkadelic” pose for a portrait in circa 1977.
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The 10 Best Indie Albums 2020 – According to Molly Steadman

This time last year, I would not have been able to fathom the events of 2020. I never dreamed there would be a year when I would see no live music whatsoever, let alone when no one would get to see any live music. Artists who make a living from performing are reeling; venues are in danger of shutting down, and as of now there’s no end in sight.

Sometimes it’s best not to contemplate the big picture, when the big picture is terrifying and confusing and isolating. Sometimes the only way to get through is to take one step at a time and handle each day as it comes. Instead of mourning the lack of shows to go to in 2020, I’d recommend getting deeply familiar with the piles of new music that have been released this year, in preparation for someday, when we will get to see these songs performed live, knowing every word by heart. Focusing on the inevitable future joy that will come when people can finally pack into a venue again is a much more productive undertaking than despairing at the current state of things.

The amount of new records this year is a bright spot in the chaotic darkness that has been 2020. Some of them, while great, have been written about extensively already (Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Women in Music Part III, The Slow Rush). The following list consists of 10 records from independent artists who have released the best of 2020, in one writer’s opinion.

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Love Tractor: Noah Fence interviews Mark Cline and Mike Richmond

On November 6th, Love Tractor released the remastered reissue of their self-titled debut album, one of many classics made by bands to come out of the Athens, Georgia scene in the early nineteen eighties. 

Here is my interview with two members of Love Tractor, Mark Cline and Mike Richmond.

Noah Fence: Congratulations on the reissue release of your remastered debut album. I just heard it today, and was quite stunned. I have been a fan of the album since 1982, when it was first released, and I heard stuff on the remastered version I had never heard before. Can you tell me how this came about, what motivated you to do the remaster and get it released?

Mark Cline: We have been planning on rereleasing our catalog for some time. The first album was a challenge as the ¼ inch masters had degraded, so for the sake of sound fidelity we decided to simply remix the entire record. Nothing was added or subtracted, we followed Bruce Baxter’s original mix. To shepherd the project, we enlisted the help of former bandmate Bill Berry [REM] (who knows a thing or two about great records) to produce the remix, along with Dave Barbe behind the board. Both Bill and Dave knew the album intimately, Bill had even written a track on the album. The goal was to produce a faithful remix, but just make it clearer.

Bill said, “it’s as if cotton has been removed from my ears.” It’s quite remarkable how great it sounds — how alive it sounds!

Mike Richmond: Thank you, the first album was not only remastered, it was remixed, so there are some subtle differences between the initial release and this re-release.  We did a reunion show at the Georgia Theater in 2016 and from that time on we have been doing more LT things.  We have continued to play occasionally and we knew we needed to get re-releases going since our catalog is out of print.  

Noah Fence: When the band first formed, the band was an instrumental band. Was that conscious choice or direction? Or was that out of necessity, as no one wanted to be the singer or write lyrics?  How difficult was it being an instrumental band? Were audiences receptive?

Mike Richmond: Not really a conscious decision, but one that just kind of evolved into being fine at the time.  When the four of us (Mark, Army, Kit, Myself) got together to play and write we had great chemistry and the musical interplay that we had going didn’t seem to be lacking anything.  We weren’t making instrumentals that just seemed like backing for a vocalist.  And it is also true that at the time no one wanted to sing or write lyrics. I’ve come to the conclusion that the genre known as Instrumental Rock is the red-headed step child of musical genres and making music of that type destines you to cult status at best. There is no such thing as a really popular instrumental group.  The Ventures were doing covers of vocal pop songs so I don’t really count them, but it seems that people need vocals and lyrics even if they are really bad.  That said, we did have some great shows playing all instrumental music and then other times the audience would look at us like we just landed from Mars. 

Mark Cline:  We were art students when we released our first and second albums— school kids, we were making the music we wanted to make with no constraints. None of the songs needed vocals — we didn’t set out to write an instrumental album; it just happened. Trust me, if a song had needed vocals, we would have added them, in fact we put aside one song with vocals as it didn’t fit the feel of the record— and not because it had vocals— the song appears on Around The Bend. We have always written albums, not songs, perhaps this is why we are famously slow in releasing material. The first album is, in our eyes, one complete work — not a collection of songs. Fans and critics who know our music, know that not one LT album sounds like the other. We honestly didn’t think of the album as an instrumental album…although it didn’t have a human voice. To our ears it is complete, it is narrative, it is highly melodic and to this day it sounds fresh. In hindsight, it was not difficult being instrumental as we had no other experience. Audiences loved us; New Order, The Smiths, and other local acts copied riffs from the record so for us it was mission accomplished.

Noah Fence: I find that because the debut album is instrumental, it has a timeless quality. It could have easily been recorded at present. The interplay between the guitars, bass and drums, and the choices made by the engineer in producing the album left it free of anything dating it to the year it was recorded. When you were working on the remastering of this album, did you find that to be true for yourself as well? 

Mark Cline: We are wary of musical trends or hackneyed musical tropes, as corny as this sounds we are very much influenced by each other as opposed to say, “New Wave,” “Hip-Hop,” or some other trend in music. This is not to say we don’t consume tons of music— we do, but certainly not in any way expected of a band. We consider all our records to be timeless, especially this first album. It was written as a single piece of music not a collection of songs. We recommend people listen to it in one sitting. It’s only 35 joyous minutes long.

Mike Richmond: I agree, that album has a timeless quality to it.  I have to play it regularly because that is how I keep in practice.  I put on the record and play to it.  I never get tired of it, it is evergreen and uplifting, I always get a sense of liberation playing all 32 minutes of it during a practice session. When I think of how many times I’ve had to play those songs live, practice them with the band and hear it over and over again during remixes, remastering. It is amazing how fresh it always sounds. 

Noah Fence : Do you have plans to remaster and reissue more of your records? Your second album is also a favorite of mine, and considering how well the debut album has benefited from being remastered, I would love to hear a remastered reissue of the second album.

Also, prior to the release of this remastered album, the band released a seven inch single for Record Store Day, were the songs on that release new recordings? Are there any plans for the band to go into the studio and record new material?

Mike Richmond: Definitely, the second album is being prepared now.  I like our second record more than the first record.  It’s probably my favorite of our records.  Following that, we are also going to re-release our entire catalog.  The 7”, 60 Degrees Below and Festival became 60 Degrees and Sunny and FESTI-vals.  They aren’t re-recordings but we did add new things that emphasize the repetitive nature of those tunes.  The additions were influenced by the music of Phillip Glass.  We were recording new music until the Pandemic shut things down.  Very excited about our new music and we have at least 2 records worth of tunes that just need to be finished when things get back to normal more or less.   

Mark Cline:  We are in the midst of assembling our entire catalog for rerelease, “Around the bend” is up next, it will get a remaster and perhaps some bonus tracks. We are discussing timing of the rerelease now.

Regarding Record Store Day: In remixing the first album we knew we wanted to do something unique for RSD. After having played these songs for many years some of them had evolved, and we wanted to capture that with three special mixes. 17 Days, 60 Degrees Below and Festival had evolved over the years and now seemed the time to do enhanced mixes of the songs — along with the regular remixes. So, these are not new songs rather we have captured how the songs have evolved over the years. They are fuller, longer in places shorter in others, Instruments and dynamics have been enhanced, they are really lovely you have to hear them. 

As Mike said we have two new albums ready to record, certainly one is absolutely ready to go. I Think if Covid hadn’t hit one certainly would have been finished. I’m quite excited by it —the music is remarkable.

Noah Fence : I have a confession to make, when I first heard your version of the Kraftwerk song, “Neon Lights,” I did not know it was a cover. At the time it was released I had not heard of Kraftwerk or that song. Your version of that song is fantastic. I have heard other people cover it, the band Luna for instance, but I prefer your version.  Being a band out of Athens Georgia, which I assume means fundamentally the band is a dance band, is that what motivated the choice to cover that song? 

Also, I have heard that you performed under the name, “Wheel Of Cheese,” doing all cover versions and welcoming fellow Athens musicians to join you on stage, any chance there are recordings of these performances waiting to be released?

Mike Richmond: Ha! A lot of people say that.  I was backstage after a Flaming Lips show several years ago and Wayne Coyne said the same thing about Neon Lights.  We are all fans of Kraftwerk and decided to play it live, probably at a Wheel of Cheese show initially.  Most of the songs that Wheel of Cheese performed were barely rehearsed, we trashed them, everybody got drunk and it was a crazy wild time.  Certainly not your typical cover band.  We realized that our version of Neon Lights was actually pretty good so we went into the studio to record it and were just amazed at how good it came out.  There are probably some recordings of the Wheel of Cheese.  On one particular night Wheel of Cheese consisted of Warren Zevon, REM, Love Tractor and a few others.  Songs we did were, for example: Electric Avenue, Girls Just Wanna have Fun, Country Boy Can Survive, Roadhouse Blues, Rebel Rebel, Disco Inferno, You Dropped a Bomb on Me, Shattered.  I can’t imagine what a live recording of that night sounded like, but it probably sounded like a big mess, but probably a lot of fun to be in the audience and drinking.  Honestly, I don’t want to hear any WOC recordings, the memory will suffice. 

Mark Cline: We have all been huge fans of Kraftwerk, and you are not alone in thinking the song was ours. People say our version is the best, I have to agree, I do like Luna’s version. It was a song that we could really make our own, it lended itself to our style of music. The one requirement of an Athens band from our era was you had to be danceable, the Athens scene was a very participatory scene — the audience was as important as the band. To me our version of Neon Lights, is best illustrated as such: the band in an old Mercedes bumping down a southern red clay dirt road with NEU! blasting out of the 8 track stereo.

Wheel of Cheese was a way for us to blow off steam. Love Tractor and other Athens bands had started touring heavily, and we of course were expected to stick to our catalog on our tour dates, Wheel of cheese was a release from those constraints. Any Athens musician was welcome to play, the only rule being no rehearsal. So anytime Wheel of Cheese played you could expect members of The Method Actors, REM, Pylon and more to be onstage jamming out tunes. To explain Wheel of Cheese fully would take another interview. 

Noah Fence: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions today. Hope you and your families are all safe and well.

MARK CLINE: Thank you Noah!

The remastered reissue of “Love Tractor” is available now digitally and on LP and CD.

Essential Reissue: Yanti Bersaudara (LuMunai/Groovyrecord)

Reissues of women singers from the 1970s pop scene in Indonesia are few and far between. Luckily, LaMunai and Groovyrecord have teamed up for a re-release of Yanti Bersaudara’s incredible self-titled first record, which originally came out on Polydor Singapore in 1971. (“Bersaudara” is a Sundanese gender-neutral term akin to “Siblings”). The Yantis were a powerhouse sister trio, consisting of Yani, Tina & Lin Hardjakusumah, who sang in Sundanese, creating a beautiful spacey harmonic sound with psychedelic pop overtones. They recorded both solo and collaboratively until around the mid 70s, sometimes with folk outfit Bimbo. Today it is impossible to find these records in their original state. French-Algerian singer and musician Sofiane Saidi, owner of Groovyrecord, is an aficionado on the Indonesian pop scene of the 70s-80s, particularly recordings by women singers. While straight covers of Western pop songs were not uncommon, the really great Pop Indonesia records from the late 60s/early 70s era went beyond bland replication of existing hit melodies and instead synthesized the rich and varied local Indonesian musical traditions with sounds from abroad. Such is the case here. The backing band is uncredited, but, like many local outfits from the time (4 Nada, Eka Sapta, The Galaxies), they avoid overpowering the vocals with heavy rhythmic beats and instead focus on creating the ideal sonic palette for the singers to apply their craft. The interweaving and layering of Yanti Bersaudara’s voices is magnificent to hear. The mastering is excellent, and the packaging adheres to all of the original design elements. Jakarta-based LaMunai and Groovyrecord were also responsible for the acclaimed vinyl release of Harry Roesli Gang’s LP Titik Api earlier this year (see Karen Lee’s glowing review here), and we can’t wait to see what else they have brewing for future reissues. Anyone with an interest in psychedelic pop or women singers from the global south should buy this long-sought-after reissue now before it is gone.

Yanti Bersaudara – Rarakitan – YouTube

Available at Bandcamp

Radio in the Time of COVID-19

A reflection on radio life mid-pandemic by Noah Fence. Images by dj brzy.

Having already made the decision to sit down and write something, I open up a new blank document, give it a vague generic title — which I will change later as the piece comes together and correct title suggests itself — and then I pause for a breath, pause for a beat of my heart , feeling my head turn to the left and look out the window. Out there is a portion of a green forest, being hit by the sunrise. The bright light presents itself in pockets between the leaves — like lens flares, as a bit of breeze stirs the foliage. I make a considered effort to keep my eyes open to the brightness. I like the sharpness of sunlight.

As I write this, the world is experiencing a global pandemic, a phrase I am sure with which we are all too familiar, but one that I did not give much thought to prior to this year. I do not feel like it was something that I was warned about in high school. My parents never told me scary stories of the overreaching global pandemic, in order for me to obey the rules and stay in my yard and not wander out into the street. I do not recall ever scoffing at a story of a man stocking up on provisions and building an airtight, germ-free home for his family, as part of a conspiracy theory. I was blindsided, as I assume were so many people, with whom I no longer make contact.

I lost my job on April 1st. Since that time I have been at home. Inside the walls of a townhouse. I have been cooking. Making sandwiches. Eating crackers with pub cheese. Drinking water. Making tea. Scrambling eggs, coupled with cheese and pepper, often paired with wheat toast, or fried potatoes. Baking banana bread. Baking chicken. Steaming broccoli. Boiling numerous pots of rice — in the morning with raisins, and plain as an addition to dinner. The days blur together, as do my functions, my place in these things. I have a sense of who I am, but I no longer have a sense of who that person may be to other people.

I have for the longest time considered myself to be a radio deejay, a person who goes on the air for a couple of hours, to share a selection of music with the public. Knowing that sometimes friends are listening, but being even more keenly aware that more likely they are not. Instead, the radio show I present is often heard by strangers, perhaps regular listeners or random people that happen to tune in, catch a song they like and stick around. Or, of course, maybe someone catches a portion of my show, dislikes it and tunes out. It is the nature of radio and I have no desire to please everyone. When I do a radio show, I try to please myself, and then focus on the fact that by pleasing myself, I am likely pleasing someone else.

With deejay being such a strong aspect of the person I believe myself to be, it was very difficult for me when Freeform Portland made the decision to shutter their studios due to the Covid-19 virus. I have been a part of Freeform Portland since 2016, and my weekly trips from my home to the studio, my time in the studio broadcasting my show, and all of the time mentally preparing my show, were the focus of my week. Once the show was over, the cycle would repeat, week after week after week. All while I would rise in the morning, go to work, make my way through a day of work, return home and repeat that cycle five days a week. Work was never my focus, it existed as a necessary component to my decided focus on my radio show. Without work, there was no money for food, rent, or cups of coffee. Without money, there were no trips on public transit, back and forth to the radio station. 

However, since the beginning of April, there has been no money. There has been no radio station to visit. April upended what I viewed as my life. I went from slow motion to deadstop. Starting in April, I sat myself down in front of my laptop, and I am still sitting there four months later. I am like a stone sitting on a windswept landscape. Dirt and debris pile up against me, sometimes threatening to bury me. 

As you may know, Freeform Portland never stopped broadcasting. Yes, the studio was shuttered, and the volunteer deejays — who present their shows and make the radio station entertaining, engaging and a vital part of the radio landscape in Portland — were no longer physically able to do live music programming. Out of necessity, the station moved to pre-recorded programming. The deejays were asked to record their shows from home and submit the sound files to be slotted into a program that would broadcast the files to the public. This change was made almost seamlessly — and I doubt that many people in the listening audience noticed the change.  One of the sacrifices the station made in this switch was the schedule; the programming utilized was set up to randomly select a music file, at the start of every hour. This had the advantage of switching up the music being offered to the public more often, making the station more interesting; however, there were some deejays who opted not to participate in the making of sound files.

When I was informed of the station’s decision to continue on in this manner until it was safe to return to the studio, I assumed my radio career, such as it is, had come to a halt. I was at a loss as to how to make a sound file. I had no idea how I might go about recording myself, speaking to the audience and informing them of the songs they had just heard, to which station they were listening, and what might be coming next. Despite now having all of my music on my computer, the music was all part of itunes. I had no idea how to access the music itself, other than to burn CD-R’s or put music onto my ipod. 

It did not take me long however to examine the program I used to join together the archived broadcasts from the radio station. The station has always been recording the broadcasts, archiving them into hourly increments. I had found a web based program that I used to join together the two hourly sound files into one two hour file. I thought, well, if I can join two things together how about three? Four? Five? And so on. Turns out, I could: easy peasy. All I needed to do a radio show in this manner were MP3 files of songs that I could put together to form a show. You can not imagine how pleased I was to discover that I already had my entire collection of music in a folder on my computer somewhere, in the form of MP3’s. I had no idea. 

There was a learning curve. Aspects of the program I used to join the files presented themselves with further use. I learned how to crossfade songs. I learned to add a fadeout to the final song of the mix, so that my show would not end with a cold stop. I learned that I could use the same program to cut out blank spaces of songs, such as there are at the end, to make better segues between songs. And after making a few of these one hour mixes without any spoken parts, I found an app I could use on my phone to record my voice. It was as easy as speaking into my phone, emailing the file to myself, and including that file into the mix I was preparing, just like I included a particular song. 

This way of putting together a radio show was new to me as well. Being at home, with my entire collection at hand, created a different challenge of what to select. And there was the aspect of perfection. Selecting one song, and finding just the right song to follow and soon on. I found at first I labored over each song, choosing and choosing again, happy with some and then changing my mind. Which led to me spending way too much time on each mix and never being completely happy with the result. It was only after forgiving myself my faults, that I was able to charge forward with this new process, knowing that none of my live radio shows had ever been perfect. Why then should my recordings be so? With that attitude, putting together a mix soon took about the same amount of time as it would to listen to the mix on the radio. 

Despite the fact that the station had deviated from having a schedule in place, I very much wanted to continue to present a weekly show. I decided to go ahead each week with a weekly episode of my show, “It’s a Nice World to Visit,” divided into two parts, the first and the second hour. I knew that once I submitted them, they would be played at random, never likely to play in tandem. But after having lost the routine of my daily life to the virus, I felt it important to impose upon myself some rules, and keep to the commitment I had made when I joined Freeform Portland, presenting a weekly show. 

With all of my new found free time, I also was able to put together a number of hour long mixes in addition to my regular show: mixes of old rock n’ roll, mixes of dub music, mixes of instrumentals, mixes intended to have a calming effect. These mixes and more were all randomly programmed and played throughout the day on Freeform Portland, along with other mixes put together by other deejays. In this way the station kept broadcasting, even though some people were unable to put together mixes, or chose not to put together mixes. 

While all of this was going on, there were a few people at the station working on a program that could be used to broadcast pre-recorded mixes at a particular time, instead of at random: a system that would allow the station to resume scheduled programming, a system that would add a little order to daily chaos, a system that would be of help to the listening audience who might be fans of particular shows, so that they could now tune in at the scheduled time and actually hear that particular show. 

This program was implemented about a month ago as I write this piece. I have returned to making a two hour mix, once a week, to be played when my show appears on the schedule, Fridays at noon. 

There are still a few gaps in the schedule I am afraid, and when there is no mix scheduled, the system selects a random mix to be played. Deejays are still encouraged to add the occasional one hour mix. With my free time, I enjoy doing so. Deviating from the self imposed rules I use to put together my own shows, these one hour mixes allow me to play a few random garage rock songs, psychedelic tracks, or put together my impression of a dance mix. 

Scheduled programming is the return of an aspect of normalcy to the radio station. Perhaps the station will also at some point be able to allow deejays to broadcast live from their homes, from their own turntables and mixers. This would allow even more of the deejays at the station to participate in bringing music to the public.

All of this, all of this goes on while I sit at home. While I become ever more familiar with the walls of my home. With the dust in the corners. With the cobwebs that appear at ceiling corners. While my wife and I make trips in the car, often just to get out of the house, to feel less trapped. I lost my job. I lost the reason to leave my house on Fridays. I have had to come to grips with the fact that I am in fact frightened of contracting the virus. Whether the fear is based on fact or fiction, the fear exists. It keeps me in my home. I look for work, and I have a fear of actually being selected for a job, knowing that would mean exposing myself more often to a chance of contracting the virus. 

So I go round and round in the rectangle that is my living room, only really getting out almost as a spirit or astral projection of myself. Using the medium of radio, I still interact and engage, I still speak and play. I turn my best cheek to the public and let them see, let them judge. Let them be. 

No one knows for certain when the Freeform studio will be open again. Not until it is safe. Safe means when there is a vaccine. It will be many months of this routine, this new way of living. And after the vaccine, some doors will open, and some will remain shuttered. The new normal we are looking down the barrel at right now is only anyone’s best guess. If we all treat each other with kindness, patience, and wear our masks, we will all be able to see what happens together. 

Portland Guitar – An Interview with Jay and Max Dickinson

Jay and Max Dickinson of Portland Guitar aim to build guitars where sustainable sourcing and quality craftsmanship are the vital ingredients.

How did you get into crafting guitars?

I bought myself a book! Studied it for about ten years or so then bought a kit (it looked like firewood) and then bought another kit and then I was off.  I have been a wood worker for as long as I can remember. When I was 3 years old, maybe a little younger, my family was living in Heidelberg, Germany and my father and I found a piece of wood from a fence, it was red, and we made toy boat out of it. My dad was quite an accomplished wood carver and I watched and emulated him over the years, then adopted him as one of my heroes. I started puttering around in his shop; wood working and carving for the next 45 years or so until I decided that the corporate world and I did not agree with one another. In the meantime I had started thinking about building guitars having played one since I was fifteen. The first kit I bought looked like a couple of pieces of firewood where I had expected something more like the model airplane kits I built as a kid. My first attempt was serviceable and I was definitely infected with the guitar building bug. After building the first and then the second kit, I made an offer to my friends that if they paid for the materials I would build them a guitar. I got five orders in a few days and was set. I essentially got my friends to pay for me to learn how to build a guitar.  They got nice guitars out of the deal, I gained loads of experience, and everyone was happy. My next gambit was to make the offer of a guitar for twice the price of materials. Once again I was set, and with ten guitars under my belt I was feeling confident. I am now up to a hundred or so guitars. I have lost count.

Why did you choose the guitar over other instruments? 

Guitars are easy to build and I am lazy. Violins are hard and the customers are picky, pianos are really heavy, and I don’t play trumpet…so. The guitar is a cultural artifact above all else. It embodies the ethos of free and easy music that is easy to play and is accessible to the common person while having the potential of eliciting virtuosic performances from the uncommonly talented. It sounds good, is easy to carry (ever see a piano at a beach party?) easy to play, easy to acquire (serviceable guitars can be had for a couple of hundred dollars). I also play the guitar myself, so I have an inside connection with the instrument. I am my most critical customer. I love wood and what you can do with it. It comes with a certain spirit to it that if you are careful the guitar embodies. This stuff was a living being once; standing in a forest perhaps for a hundred years or more and then some jerk comes along and cuts it down. I think about the tree and its environment and what we are doing and its viability. Well, I can rescue some of that wood and give it a new life that will bring enduring happiness and joy to many people. In the future we are anticipating what new materials we will be using, looking into alternatives such as bamboo and hemp. But in the end, it must still be a guitar.  

Is there a specific sound your guitars have over others?  How do you achieve that sound?

If you will, we are striving to build guitars with a modern sound that is loud, responsive, harmonious, and articulate. We work to create something new while maintaining the spirit of the guitar. To build a better guitar I looked for where the problems were.  

The first is called intonation. A fancy way to say that the notes from the upper frets are around 5% out of tune due to the tempered scale the guitar plays in. I’ve found a way to fix the intonation in a way that is nearly perfect. This creates a sound that is crisp all the way up and down the fretboard. This is great for audio engineers and musicians who need every note to be on target. 

The second is in the mass and stiffness of the top. We’ve created an optimized system where they can both can be tuned. This means in large guitars we can craft big bass heavy low frequencies and in a smaller guitar we can craft delicate high frequencies. This creates for a sound that is unmatched to the other high-end brand name guitars we have tried. 

The Portland Guitar Shop in SW Portland

Do you both play guitar?

Jay: I have been playing for about 48 years and am fond of saying that next year I will learn how. This year I am practicing playing without looking at the fretboard. I started out playing violin in my grade school orchestra, but that ended when I broke my arm. I picked up the guitar when I was fifteen and have been playing ever since. I have never taken lessons, but have studied music theory so I understand the mechanics more or less. Unfortunately in the past I tended to play very technically. In the last few years I have been striving to play more intuitively, by ear if you will, (no, I don’t read music, ack, next year for sure) and to let my expressiveness come out. I think I am making progress; at least I am having a good time. I am not a musician, I am a guy that plays guitar for fun and can make a few sounds that don’t annoy too many people, but if you aren’t paying, you can’t complain. My main thrust in playing is blues based rhythmic progressions; I like to set up a rhythm and then jam to it.

Max: I’ve played guitar on and off form a long time. It’s a hobby that I’ll spend my life slowly getting better at. I played my first chords in middle school in a lesson from my dad. Then I started playing again in college then put it down for awhile and picked it back up when I joined Portland Guitar.  

What sort of music are you tuning into these days?

This is so trite, but I really enjoy most types of music, but some more than others. My go-to tunes includes a lot of jam band centered music, Grateful Dead et.al., Phish, Allman Bros., Beethoven, Dylan, Zappa, JJ Cale, Beatles, Marley etc.. On the radio I have been listening to a lot of jazz these days. It confused me for so long, so I decided to immerse myself in jazz until I got a handle on it (a fool’s errand I suppose). We saw Herbie Hancock play at the zoo and he was fantastic, but I couldn’t figure out what he was doing… that dude is out there. Nonetheless I decided to teach myself some jazz skills and have been making a little progress. I can pick out a few chord progressions these days. What’s more important though is the music we make ourselves. We don’t have to be virtuosos or anything to have fun. A couple of people, a drum kit, a few guitars and amps, a song or two and you can have a real good time. I call it electric parlor music. Music is the best!

Noah Fence interviews King of the Slums

On the occasion of the release of King of the Slums’ new album, Encrypted Contemporary Narratives, Noah Fence interviews Charley Keigher and Clarissa Trees of the band.

From the band’s bandcamp page:

King of the Slums are probably the most ‘under the radar’ and important band to come from Manchester. They started up around 1985 in the Hulme area of Manchester, but never considered themselves a ‘Manchester’ band – just a band with an arty background, a little self-indulgent and gritty, story-type songs.

Noah: Thank you both, for joining me and agreeing to answer a few questions. As I write this,  your new album, Encrypted Contemporary Narratives, is only a few days away from being released. Can you tell me about the writing and recording process for this album, and what it means to be releasing an album during this current pandemic?

Charlie:  We wrote the album in late October last year, we had a break before mixing it, the lockdown kicked in and we couldn’t get in a studio to finish it. But the mixing went really well and sounded fresh. So we are very pleased with it. We wrote a load more stuff during lockdown and are thinking about developing all that.

 Clarissa: Hi Noah, thanks for inviting us! It seems like another lifetime that we started writing the album, back in March 2019. Because I live in Scotland, there were lots of fragments of ideas bouncing back and forth electronically for a while, until we had the chance to get together and finalise stuff. Recording happened between September and March, in fact Charlie got his vocals finished only a couple of weeks before we went into lockdown here in the UK. Then it was just a case of waiting it out until we could get back into the studio and mix it all, which finally happened at the end of July. Sometimes it felt very frustrating to have so much unexpected free time but not be able to finish the project, but that was minor compared to everything else that was going on. And once we were in the studio again it felt great to get back to work in a very focused way. Now I’m just happy that it’s ready and I hope our music will help to cheer folk up a bit…

Noah: The new album is being released on your own label, SLR Records. Are you happy with self-release and self distribution that is available to bands today, via the internet and web sites such as Bandcamp?

Clarissa: I’ll let Charlie answer this one!

Charlie: You can essentially finish mixing a song at midnight and have it available for digital download the next day. But the physical release still takes forever, CD/VINYL. 

We do have a distributor for physical releases, so it being in a record shop is great and I think it’s a whole heap more special when it’s a tangible product rather than a file on your hard drive. 

Noah:  This is the group’s third album since reforming. Can you tell me about the circumstances that lead to the band reforming?

Charlie: I got kidnapped in Mexico city, the guy had a King of the Slums T shirt on, I got released coz I showed him my KOTS tattoo, I felt it was a sign to finish what was started. Been at it since.

Clarissa: I got an email out of the blue late one night in 2017 asking me if I’d be interested in working with a tiny, under-the-radar band called King of the Slums. The message included links to some of the old-school stuff (including the famous Snub TV performance of Fanciable Headcase) and also the more recent Manco Diablo album. At first I thought it must be a scam, then after I looked at the links and realised it was a genuine request I still almost declined, thinking that with my age and my classical background I absolutely definitely wasn’t cool enough to be in a band like KOTS. Then I had a think and it was a “nothing ventured, nothing gained” kind of moment…I decided I was up for a challenge, it would be an experience far outside my comfort zone but there was no harm in going for an initial session to see if they liked me! Well that initial session went okay and within weeks we’d started proper work on the Artgod Dogs album…

Noah:  The band seems to be a well established going concern now…I am curious about live performances. Was the band playing live very often before the pandemic? With the release of this new album, do you think there will be any live performance opportunities in the future? 

Charlie: In the early days we played out a lot. But since the reform, it’s very seldom due to logistics of the personnel, we live all over the UK, and I am incredibly fussy about accepting LIVE appearances. But I personally wouldn’t mind doing more stuff, if only to create a LIVE album, which is what I truly would like to happen one day.  

Clarissa: We’ve only played live four times since the comeback gig (at Night and Day in Manchester in June 2018). Logistically it’s very tricky because the band are geographically distant from each other, with Charlie in Manchester, me in Scotland and Stu (drums) Nic (bass) and Dave (live guitar) all in Sheffield. (Snake Pass is an infamous road that connects Manchester with Sheffield, over the Pennines, so it earned a place on the album after several journeys to rehearsals late last year, often in atrocious weather!) In principle though, we’d love to play live again, I think some of the tracks on the new album would be amazing live, but there’s so much uncertainty about what’s going to be possible with music coming back in smaller venues… I just really hope the venues and the industry get enough support to keep going until we can all get through this.

Noah: I discovered King Of The Slums in 1989, with the release of the album, Dandelions, and was blindsided by the band’s unique sound. The standard guitar, bass and drums are off-set by the inclusion of the violin, which often cuts across the sound of each song, and makes the band’s noise one that you can hardly forget or ignore. With the changes in the line up, and the break up and reformation of the band, how have you managed to keep the band’s sound so consistent?

Charlie: We did an album with no violin, MANCO DIABLO, which did really well, but then Clarrissa, turned up, she kinda gets it, the whole KOTS sound, so she is rather brilliant at what she does, so Violins, distorted/discordant and sweet sounding are back in and going real strong….

Clarissa: Great question! Sarah’s were certainly big shoes to fill, I felt the weight of expectation from the fans before Artgod Dogs came out, and especially before playing live for the first time. I listened to absolutely everything KOTS on repeat for months, to try and distill into my own playing whatever it was that made the KOTS violin sound so unique, and learning the back catalogue for the gigs really helped with that (nothing was written down, and there are no surviving isolated violin tracks from the old recordings, so I had to work it all out by ear). Artgod Dogs is a little bit different because it’s all viola, and the viola is a lot mellower than the violin. But since the Peak Human Experience EP I’m now back on the violin, so we tried in this latest album to capture that rawness again, with the violin as a character in the songs, a character with a personality disorder perhaps?! I have to constantly remind myself that people aren’t expecting the violin to sound beautiful, which is always what was expected when I was part of the classical world, and it still feels quite rebellious to turn the distortion right up on the amp and use the violin in such a percussive and rhythmic way. 

Noah:  Another aspect of the band that I have long enjoyed are the lyrics. The lyrics seem to be wry, witty and observational. Telling stories about people one might not always be so lucky to have met. Have you always been a writer, and turned your focus towards songs? Or did your interest in music lead you to the necessity of putting words to the music?

Clarissa: Another one for Charlie!

Charlie: Originally, I was the guitarist and was looking to find a vocalist for a few words I had written, alas I had to make do with myself doing vocals. The lyrics are usually written to amuse myself on some level. I then kinda put them to the band, with no intention of changing them at all. Clarissa does help me with the phrasing…

Noah: Thank you both again for answering a few of my questions. Hope you and your families are all well and safe.

Clarissa: Thank you Noah, it’s been our pleasure, thinking of you guys in Portland too.

King of the Slums’ new album, Encrypted Contemporary Narratives, is available September 25 on bandcamp