Friday, August 30, 2013

I Dreamed I Saw Paul Bunyan Last Night LP

Chaperone Records will soon be releasing a soundtrack to the Meeting Charlie Parr documentary titled I Dreamed I Saw Paul Bunyan Last Night.  Details about the release on the Chaperone website here and pre-order here.  The LP will be out on Sept. 24 and includes a DVD of the film and a digital download of the soundtrack with bonus tracks.  Limited edition of 200.

MP3s of the full 13 song soundtrack can be purchased through iTunes and Google Play.

I Dreamed I Saw Paul Bunyan Last Night

1. Midnight Has Come and Gone
2. 1890
3. Coffee's Gone Cold
4. True Friends
5. Jesus on the Mainline
6. Just Like Today

7. Cheap Wine
8. Rattlesnake
9. Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The American Soundtrack interview

"I think that everything that I’ve done or seen or heard influences my writing and I end up with a lot of threads that include a mash-up of philosophers/philosophy/theology/advice from my Dad/advice from my Mom/advice from homeless Vietnam veterans/bits and pieces of songs and stories from others like Robert Pete Williams, Bukka White, Jack Rose, Gabe Carter/observations from my kids/observations from my dog/conversations with the mailman/conversations with the guy who fixed my furnace..." 

Read the full interview at The American Soundtrack

Monday, August 19, 2013

Christian McShane interview

Begin by talking a bit about how you and Charlie first met and began playing music together.

Back in 2000, I had just started working with Aaron Molina in Duluth, MN, on what would become the band "if thousands". An old friend of mine named Elliot Harris stopped by our practice space one night and wanted me to listen to a cassette he recorded of a guy named Charlie who was new in town. I had no idea anyone played that kind of music anymore, much less as honest as I heard. When Elliot told me it wasn't some kind of archival recording and Charlie was indeed alive and lived in Duluth, I didn't believe him.

I'm fairly sure the first time I ever played with Charlie was on King Earl. Charlie and my own band (if thousands) were performing a lot around that time, and we were both beginning to get reputations around the Duluth & Minneapolis music scenes on different sides of the fence: Charlie on the folk/blues side; and if thousands on the rock/experimental side. He had all our albums up to that point (which surprised the heck out of me) and we had all of his (which surprised him). To this day, I'm sure he's still the only musician of his genre that's an if thousands fan. Usually, musicians from those two sides of the fence are repelled by one another. Still, we became friends regardless of what kind of music we played (which is the way it should be, anyway).

Back to King Earl. Charlie knew I used a theremin in if thousands. One day, he said we should play together. He on resonator, me on theremin. I told him he was crazy. I said it would never work because they were too dissimilar instrumentally. Charlie said his resonator was from the 1920's and the theremin was from the same era, so it would be fine. He convinced me, even though I thought it would sound awful.

We began recording "Miner's Lament" in the same fashion that I would revisit on many future recordings. There was no practice, no rehearsals. Just an "ok, let's go!" from Charlie and down goes the record button with me grinding my teeth in front of my theremin, hoping I could keep my hands steady enough to hit solid notes. That was "Miner's Lament", as well as everything else I've ever recorded with him thus far. One take, no practice (because there's never enough time anyway) and that's it.

There's an immensely simplistic beauty in recording this way. Most musicians record a song to death in order to get it "right", and in the end, there's something lost. If you beat a song to death with retakes, overdubs, effects, and recording tricks, it loses it's original fire. Charlie though - - what you're hearing on his albums is first takes. Real Charlie, always. If a second or third take actually gets on an album, it's because something major was awry like recording problems, broken strings, dogs barking in the background, etc.

Rooster sounds very different than King Earl, I would describe it as maybe broader or more expansive. Was creating a more diverse sounding album something you guys talked about before the recording sessions?

Yes. Those days were some of the best times I've ever had in my life, musically speaking. I also haven't laughed as hard since. At the time, Charlie and I were working together a great deal on a side project called "Devil's Flying Machine". In the end, I think we accidentally influenced each other a little without trying. At that time, Rooster ended up being broader and expansive (like if thousands). A large chunk of if thousands' album released at around the same time (i have nothing) ended up being largely acoustic (like everything Charlie does). To this day, I continue to accent more on acoustic instruments over electronica in if thousands, and it seems like Charlie has at least one drony, intense song on all his albums. It's just one of those nice things that happens when musicians collaborate in the right way. Or maybe I'm just full of it.

Which Rooster songs did you perform on?

Ukelin on "Dead Cat On The Line."
Cello on "Bethlehem."
Rhythm guitar on "Wild Bill Jones."
Rhythm guitar on "Ellen Mayhem."

This Ukeline discography has an entry for your (or the devil's) Ukelin. What's the story behind that instrument?

The Ukelin is a bizarre thing. A friend of mine, Haley Bonar, was working in an antique shop in Duluth around that time and called me to let me know that a weird instrument was in her store. Of course, I went as soon as I could and bought it for $50. I had no idea what the heck it was, but it looked old and cool. It smelled like a farmhouse basement. After researching (and trying to play it) I found out that the Ukelin is a beastly amalgamation of a ukulele and a violin from the early 1900s. It's nearly impossible to play. No, actually, it's definitely impossible to play. I've heard sound files of "professional ukelinists" and it still makes you squint. People find them all the time in the rafters of old homes and stuff and think they're worth a bunch of money, when in reality they're worth about $50. There was a reason why the last person hid the thing in the rafters.

However, you can also make some of the most ungodly teeth-grinding, crappy sounds with it, which is all I can do with it. If you could bow a dying seagull, it would sound like a Ukelin. Charlie insisted I use it on the album. On "Dead Cat" there's a strange sound in the background that starts around 3:00 and sounds like feedback from Charlie's resonator. That's the Ukelin. Since then, it's come unglued and nearly snapped in half, so I glued it back together and bought a special clamp to hold it in place. My wife wishes I'd throw it away but I can't seem to part with it. Charlie nicknamed it "the devil's own ukelin". I believe it truly is from hell.

The Devil's Flying Machine was mostly active around this time period. Can you talk a little about what you and Charlie were trying to accomplish musically with the band and how that project evolved?

The band name comes from a recording from the one & only Reverend J.M. Gates called "Devil In A Flying Machine". Charlie & I were driving around one day listening to an archival recording and thought it would make one of the best band names ever, so we made a band. It was originally meant to be a drone-inspired project, focusing on the somewhat creepy, dark, death-heavy underbelly of old folk music in the vein of Doc Boggs and the like. We practiced honing this idea for quite some time, but we found that audiences went crazy whenever we played the super fast foot stomping stuff, so we gravitated in that direction and grew farther and farther from the original idea. Not long after, we added David Frankenfeld on drums and an old gas can instead of a snare. It's an old worn-out yarn, but we really had no idea the band would get as popular as it did. We thought everyone would ignore us. Near the end of the first hiatus (around 2007), about 300-500 people would show up whenever we performed. Then we took a break, as Charlie's touring schedule became more intense. We decided to give it another try in 2012 with a much larger band. Charlie, myself, a drummer, upright bassist, violinist, harpist and a washboard player. The audiences went crazy, but it was a bit too much. We barely fit on stage and it was even farther away from the original idea. The Devil's Flying Machine is currently on yet another hiatus until we figure out what the heck we want to do with it.

Any other memories or stories from the Rooster sessions you'd like to share?

"Wild Bill Jones" was a total accident and wasn't originally planned to be on the album. I heard Charlie perform it once on stage and really liked it. We were sitting around waiting for Tom (Herbers, the recording engineer) to set some things up and I told Charlie we should give it a try just for the heck of it. We did just one take of the song. The scratchy vinyl record sound to the song is actually Charlie's finger picks hitting the banjo head while he's playing.

Finally, tell us about what you've been up to lately and whether you'll be working on some new if thousands material in the near future.

if thousands will be releasing their first full-length album since 2005 this Fall (2013). It will be available for free on our website. My wife, Jessy, myself, and our son Payton currently live on a small hobby farm where we raise heirloom chickens and red wattle pigs. We're signing the papers this week on a 40-acre farm about an hour southeast of Duluth and we'll be moving before Thanksgiving this year. In addition to what we currently do, we'll also be raising turkeys, sheep, milking goats, and cattle in due time. With any luck, moving closer to Duluth will allow me to perform more often like the old days!  

Sunday, August 18, 2013

An oral history of Rooster

Charlie Parr: "Those songs on Rooster, most of them were written around the time that most of King Earl was written, which was over a period of time from about 1997-2004. I had tried to write a short story which had turned into a short novel and I passed it to a friend who was also a very good writer and an honest man and he told me that it wasn’t very good although it had its moments. So I took those moments and made songs out of them. “Cheap Wine”, “Gone”, “Public Record Rag”, “Samuel Grady”, “Dead Cat on the Line”, and “One Eyed-Jack” are all from that bad little book, which might explain why they all feel related, at least to me. The little book focused in on a neighborhood and a pretty unsavory shut-in named Eddie who narrates the action from his window, making up a good part of the story that he can’t really see but feels qualified to make conjectures about. So it’s a series of digressions that start from a simple event but by the end of the story you’re left kind of wondering if the initial event wasn’t the only real thing in the whole story. Anyway it was a bad idea and the digressions ended up being better songs in any case.

My favorite song on the record is “Bethlehem” and that had to do with a dream (nightmare) I had about my Dad after he’d passed on. When I woke up, trying to remember the dream and figure it out (all I can see from it now is my Dad lying in a giant kidney-shaped pan in a hospital corridor and me yelling up and down the halls for help but there was no one around) for some reason I started thinking about Herod. I thought about what kind of horror it must be for any parent in any time to lose a child because of some greed for power or money or nonsense like that. Then the song showed up.

The traditional songs on the record are “Samson & Delilah”, taken from both Blind Willie Johnson (who was arrested for singing it in front of a local government building) and Reverend Gary Davis; and “Wild Bill Jones”, an old murder ballad that was covered by the great Dock Boggs and had a powerful effect on me and my relationship to the banjo.

It was a great time, recording this record. Tom Herbers brought up all sorts of cool old gear including the largest ribbon mic that ever lived, we had a bunch of good friends stop by including Molly Maher and Dave Carroll, Karl Anderson played bass and my friend Christian McShane brought a thing called a “Ukelin” over, which we decided must be satan’s favorite instrument (at least his particular one, which made us all cringe). Mikkel and I lined up behind the giant microphone and we just played, like we always played, and made it work. Not much changes around here."

Tom Herbers: "Rooster was all recorded live to analog tape, using one microphone. No mixers or compressors or equalizers were involved in the recording. The "mixing" of Charlie's voice, guitar etc. was accomplished by moving the microphone around until the proper balance was achieved. This is true for all the guest players as well. Players and instruments were moved around the room in relation to Charlie and the microphone. This is a classic technique that was used in the early days of music recording. We were all set up in one room at the school, so we would record some, listen to a playback through a single studio monitor speaker, make adjustments as needed and then record again. That was the basic process. The microphone we used was a beautifully restored RCA 77A ribbon, circa 1932. (Special thanks to Wes Schuck at Two Fish Studios in Mankato for loaning us the microphone for the sessions.) The microphone was plugged into a vacuum tube Ampex MX10 mic preamp and from there, straight into one channel of an Ampex ATR-102 half inch 2 track recorder. Glorious mono sound."

Mikkel Beckmen (washboard/percussion): "Coming off of the immensely well-received King Earl Record, which Charlie and i recorded live in about 3 minutes, the success of which i think puzzled Parr, Rooster required a bit more science as we were using a huge, ancient microphone that took two people to lift and which, like some Galilean solar system rendering, required us all to orbit around its central location in an old boxing studio somewhere in downtown Duluth, measured off at different lengths depending on the loudness of the instrument being played. I, like Pluto or Neptune, or some Gospodorian roadside monument, floated furthest out, around the 15 foot mark. It was June 2005 and people everywhere had been on the march in Seattle, in Genoa and Cancun, demanding an end to globalization, and what Subcommandante Marcos called a global machine that devours flesh and defecates money, while ever mellow Duluth stayed cool by the lake. We also stayed cool in the dusty, dormant gymnasium, methodically and professionally creating a backdrop of sounds to accompany Charlie's take on the human condition and collection of stories - of farmers driven from their land to the bar, of oppressed women in the madhouse, cheap wine drinkers, desperate workers. Well prepared as always, and working efficiently, Charlie led us through the songs, and after 1 or 2 takes we moved through the process with ease. It seemed at the time that all of us were tired fathers of toddlers or infants. That, coupled with the almost church-like and serious atmosphere of a sparring gym, where everyone whispered a lot and went about as if in a museum, created, i think, an intensity that is clearly heard in Cheap Wine, Bethlehem, Ellen Mayhem and indeed the entire thing. I may have driven up to Duluth and home again to Minneapolis in a single day, enriched and filled with quiet satisfaction. That session was 8 years ago and now I am sitting here in Oregon waiting to play a show with Charlie and we will play some of those songs and they will be new all over again."

Dave Carroll (banjo/"Rooster"): "When Charlie asked if I would record a tune with him for his Rooster album I was thrilled. I had been a fan of Charlie for a few years so I was also pretty nervous. The studio space was huge, and so was the mic we recorded with. It was as big as a football. Charlie played the song once while I figured out my own part, and then we recorded it. I think it took us 2 takes. The whole experience was awesome. I was really new at recording, as well as playing, and Charlie made it easy on me. I'll never forget it."

Molly Maher (slide guitar/"Cheap Wine"): "When Charlie asked me to play on "Cheap Wine", I think I asked him, "Why?" I was living in a studio above Third Ear, where he recorded it. I remember coming down stairs, walking into the studio and saw 2 mics set up. One for him and one for me. Really my knees were shaking. I had just realized we were tracking live together. I'm not a strong lead player, hell, I'm not a strong guitar player in general. Once Charlie started singing though, I was swept up in the story. Swept up in the melody. I'm still haunted by his phrasing. I can hear him singing the word "I". I remember the way it came out from his mouth, the way he sang it, the story he was telling.

A while later, I got to play the song with him at the Turf for the release of the record. It felt so good to be back inside the story with Charlie. Here's a photo from that night."

Karl Anderson (upright bass): "The remarkable thing about recording Rooster was the marriage between Charlie’s production style and the recording equipment he used. Any other modern studio session involves a lot of “punching in” with recording software to correct bad notes, adjust vocal and instrumental intonation issues, add harmonies or other backing instruments, etc. Charlie didn’t want the manufactured sound, and the vintage equipment he found didn’t allow for that kind of editing. We all played acoustically into one giant old ribbon mic, so once the tape started rolling there was no going back to change what happened. As a result, when you listen to Rooster you hear exactly what you would have heard if you were with us in the studio instead of the illusion you get from other albums."

Christian McShane (Ukelin, guitar, cello): "Those days were some of the best times I've ever had in my life, musically speaking. I also haven't laughed as hard since. At the time, Charlie and I were working together a great deal on a side project called "Devil's Flying Machine". In the end, I think we accidentally influenced each other a little without trying. At that time, Rooster ended up being broader and expansive (like if thousands). A large chunk of if thousands' album released at around the same time (i have nothing) ended up being largely acoustic (like everything Charlie does). To this day, I continue to accent more on acoustic instruments over electronica in if thousands, and it seems like Charlie has at least one drony, intense song on all his albums. It's just one of those nice things that happens when musicians collaborate in the right way. Or maybe I'm just full of it."

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Rooster LP

Get your copy of the new Rooster LP from Chaperone Records and check out their post about the release, Rooster Redux.

Download a free Chaperone Records 2013 sampler.

Some reviews and interviews from the original album release:

Charlie Parr's New Weird America (City Pages)

Rambles.NET review

Charlie Parr's Rooster and the Case for Authenticity (Flak Magazine)

The Turnpike interview and performance