July 24, 2007

Music Issue 2007: That sound you hear is innovation (pt 5)

Your Black StarJEREMY JOHNSONSinger, guitarist: Your Black StarYou’re a devout Cubs fan. Why?I was actually born into it, as I would imagine most Cubs fans are. My whole family is from the North Side (of Chicago), and it’s just a fact of life I suppose … I try to get to Wrigley at least twice a year. We’ve got a great team this year, and the ball has finally started rolling — we just need to channel our emotions into more wins and keep it rolling! How has YBS evolved musically since you all first started?Well … it’s basically a different band. The only constants have been Drew and I. Since (bassist) Brandon (Duggins) joined, we’ve gotten a lot more aggressive and heavy. Also, the almost-100 shows a year doesn’t hurt when you want to be tight as a trio.You worked with a producer, Erik Wofford, on Beasts, which was recently released on Hawthorne Street Records. Why did you decide to do that, and what did the band gain from that experience?With Erik, we came out winning on all sides. We gained a like-minded producer, a great friend and finally someone who could really capture what we had in mind. We had a great time working in Louisville, but we really needed to get out of town, away from any distraction to a point where the reason we were existing was to complete the record. We also wanted something a little less modern and produced-sounding. Initially, we went with Erik because we fell so much in love with the sounds of the Black Angels record (Passover). We had recorded so many times, and even the good results were still so different than how we actually sound live, so we figured we’d give up trying to capture that and just make a record that sounded like it was recorded in the early ’70s: raw, live, old, not unlike Passover. What we came to find out was that Erik doesn’t produce for a certain sound, he didn’t make the BAs sound like the lost Velvet Underground record, they already did; and we ended up finally coming out of recording with an album that perfectly captures our live sound. Erik records live to tape and knows how to make a band sound like themselves. He’s a goddamned genius.What subjects do you tackle on the new EP? Are there any recurring themes?This is a pretty dark record. Not that our previous releases were all smiles and sunshine, but it was written at a time for us that was kind of confusing and where we were all at a pretty frustrated point. I don’t want to give too much away, but when you decide to tour a lot, and you’re not well known, the money runs out, you get a lot of unfulfilled promises. Coming home after a month of touring can be awkward, and it can make a person feel bitter. We started from there and realized that you can’t sustain yourself with those kind of feelings, and as we wrote, we got back into why we wanted to do this thing in the first place and just wrote to have fun. It’s funny how we tend to have to constantly rediscover that before we really break through when writing a record.Name your favorite beer from every country that you’ve toured in and why.Japan: Asahi super dry: crisp, clean and you can buy it in giant cans, which you can drink legally on the street.Australia: It’s a tie — Cooper’s Pale: hoppy, delicious, but expensive; Victoria Bitter (or VB): not nearly as good, but half as much money.New Zealand: How the hell should I know? Everything there was so fucking expensive, and we were out of cash anyhow. We drank what the bartenders would give us.England: True English folks will wanna hit me, but Caffrey’s Irish Ale. Used to be my favorite in the States, but they don’t distribute it over here anymore. Also, Carling is not nearly as bad as they think.Scotland: They made us drink scotch.USA: I’m a Cub fan and a Bud man. —M.H.JAMIE BARNESWhy do you write songs, which is to say, what keeps you creating music?I suppose it’s an impulse. I don’t really know how to do anything else. I’ve sold phones, books and mattresses — none of which proved profitable. I believe that everyone has been entrusted with a talent. Maybe some have more than one. I don’t know. No talent is more important than the next. But it is vital that everyone shares their talent with those around them, so that no one lacks. Musicians need insurance adjusters just like ballet dancers need auto mechanics.jamie Barnes: Photo by Kelsey NoelleWhat approach did you take for writing and recording The Recalibrated Heart?The record started to come together after I abandoned all of the calculated and intentional approaches I originally had planned. I wanted to make a more cohesive (dare I say conceptual) album … but everything seemed forced. I tend to overthink things, and when I open my mouth, I start to stutter. Six months into recording, I chucked everything and started over again. Working out each song individually proved more satisfying. The setup was just me in my makeshift home studio with one mic and lots of overdubbing.What do you think is music’s position in politics? Should it have one at all?Sure. What’s the old saying, “Art is a reflection of society”? What worries me is that most of the recent political/protest songs seem to just bark and spit at the current administration. I’m no huge Bush/Cheney loyalist, either … but I think a good political song is one that speaks to the heart of people. Social change can only happen after personal change. We all need to realize that every member of the human race is a big walking mess. No one is immune to this fact. That is why there are jacked-up governments with jacked-up policies inciting jacked-up wars. If we focus on our own heart, then hopefully that will radiate outward and eventually shake and adjust the standing authorities. I think the songs that were born out of the Civil Rights era are a huge testament to this. The human conscience is the best place to start with reformation. I know I constantly need to re-evaluate my thoughts and actions, because I’m an idiot who needs to keep growing. Hence, The Recalibrated Heart.What is it like playing solo? Are you a solitary person?I wouldn’t call myself a social butterfly by any means. I live a pretty quiet life. But I’m more dependent on relationships and communication than one might think. First of all, playing solo is a lot easier. There are less calls to make, less days to clear for rehearsals and less ways to split the money at the end of the night. A lot of my material works better with less instrumentation, too. With that said … I have played on occasion with a full band, and it has been a lot fun. Currently, I have started a new project with notorious Louisville session players Jason Tiemann, Mike Cosper, Doug Elmore and Rebecca Dennison. I am the youngest in the group and the most musically ill-equipped. But I think people will enjoy what we are secretly working on. It’s jazzier and trippier. The good Lord has placed a lot of loving, selfless people in my life who amaze me with their constant love and support. The most influential is my patient wife Kelsey, and we will have celebrated five years together this fall. —M.H. GILL HOLLANDOwner, SonaBLAST! RecordsGill Holland has two offices. There’s the office that doubles as an art gallery, with four white rooms, a couple of Macintosh computers and batches of CDs, wrapped and ready to ship.His other is Jenicca’s Café & Wine Bar, where, on a breezy afternoon, he’s drinking iced tea and gushing about why he traded in Manhattan for the East Market Street gallery district. “There’s a lot of art here, a lot of public art,” says Holland, who relocated from New York this year to Louisville with his wife, Augusta Brown Holland, of the prominent Brown family.When Holland bailed, SonaBLAST! Records came with him, and he’s sunk his teeth into the music business, which is by far cheaper than producing films, where he made his initial mark.Gill HollandThe label’s primary focus is singer-songwriters (Mark Geary, Kelley McRae), but he’s taken on bands like Chapel Hill’s The Old Ceremony. Sona’s newest signee, Jamie Barnes, came after Holland saw Barnes open for Geary at Uncle Pleasant’s. Holland bought and re-released The Recalibrated Heart, and a compilation, Music for Independent Coffee Drinkers, now shelved at every Heine Brothers.Caffeinated could describe Holland, too: His enthusiasm could power LG&E as he talks about the state of the music industry, and what this will mean for listeners in the future. “The day of the old record label is over. Word of mouth is more important now.”He still keeps one foot in film — “I like it because it synthesizes all the art forms.” He co-produced Spring Forward, which starred Louisville native Ned Beatty, with Michael Stipe, and is executive producer on The Adventures of Power, about an air drummer, that stars Adrian Grenier (“Entourage”).He’s constantly on the lookout for new, interesting artists to add to the SonaBLAST! roster, even if the job means little sleep. “We’re getting back to the troubadour era,” when music was disseminated from artist to consumer one-on-one, he says, as opposed to the ’90s. “Touring is more and more important. We’ve almost come full circle.” —M.H.GABA GAVI Singer-songwriter“Music has become an accessory where it used to be a necessity,” says singer-songwriter Gaba Gavi. “I’m not anti-technology, but we are in an instant-gratification society, which makes it difficult to let good things rise to the top.”Gavi, 25, the son of Moldovan immigrants, hopes good things arise for him, too. His solo album, The Things We Want to Hear, produced by Rusted Root’s Liz Berlin, has been out for almost a year, and he’s still peddling it near and far — like the Virgin Islands, where he’ll play a string of dates in mid-August.Gavi started playing guitar after attending college in Boston, where he was entranced by the city’s all-ages scene. “I’m young, but for what I wanna do, I’m almost past my prime in a way,” he jokes.Gavi wasn’t aiming for a particular genre; singer-songwriter is, in his words, “just what came out.” His material draws comparisons to John Mayer and Elliott Smith. “I’m a hopeless romantic. I guess I always have been.” —M.H.DAN MONTGOMERYRapper, owner, Gully Fam Records Ahem: Dan MontgomeryDo we know you? Raps under the name Batman, owner of Gully Fam Records since January 2005. Label now has five artists: Redik, Subjekt, Don Mackins, Poetic the Street Soul Assassin and BatmanAlright, top albums: Jay-Z, The Blueprint; Nas, Stillmatic; Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the 36 Chambers; all Ludacris.Motives: “A lot of people were coming to me with different songs and different styles, just pushing a whole lot of different music. I never had any interest in actually performing music, so I just decided to study up on the music business aspect.”First release: The Grand Entrance compilation mixtape in Summer 2005. “At the time, I was still in school, and there were a lot of people coming to the studio. There were nine or 10 people we were working with on a consistent basis. We decided the best way was to put out a compilation and combine our efforts.”Easier said than done? “Oh, yeah. We started working on it at the end of January; it didn’t come out until the end of July. It took a long time just getting everybody together.”About that name … “Gully’s just another term for ghetto, hood.” Fam represents, of course, family.How does your label work? “There’s no advance up front. We work so closely together, we all understand what our goals are. It’s a 50/50 split, which really goes right back to the artist because that money’s going to the next CD. If I sell more records than the next man, I’m gonna make more money, but that money’s gonna go to the label.”Which neighborhood? “Downtown. I didn’t have too many complaints. Everybody has their moments, but it wasn’t too crazy. It’s definitely my favorite part of the city by far. Everybody from the city has to come downtown some time.”Why hip hop instead of, say, accountant or politician?“Rappers talk about the same life that I lived. We all pretty much go through the same stuff, the same struggles. A lot of people think it’s just talking on a beat, but it takes a lot of talent to actually put that stuff together.”All business? “That’s where my heart is. I love business in general. I always wanted to run my own company. I have a major ego problem, I guess you could say. I’ve got to work for myself.”DERRICK BONDMC, owner: Street Musik PromotionsDerrick Bond is nothing if not determined. He’s sitting outside BBC on Fourth Street doing what he does in between shifts at Rocky’s Italian Grill: promoting his mixtape, Hood Medicine, and answering annoying questions from people like me.Each day is a gift for Bond, a former drug dealer who spent most of his 20s locked up. Asked how he endured years of confinement, he points to my white legal notepad. Writing. Just … writing.This regimen yielded Medicine, a stark collection of street themes coated in a thin, silver lining thanks to tracks like “Louisville, Stop the Violence.”When he did finally exit the joint, Bond swore, like so many convicts do, that he’d never look back. True to his word, he’s now married and is a thankful homebody. A good night for him is hanging out, pen and pad in hand, sculpting verses he knows will elevate him to the level of rap’s precious elite.Don’t confuse his docile lifestyle with being soft: During a show two years ago at Ballatore’s night club on Poplar Level Road, Bond overheard a hater mocking him. Bond had his DJ pull the plug, then proceeded to freestyle for 15 minutes, leaving the sold-out audience awestruck.Bond is now 37, a monumental feat when you consider his home turf: the Cotter-Lang housing project in West Louisville.Built in the 1950s to house low-income, underemployed residents, Cotter-Lang was so drug-ridden and violent that the city used federal dollars to raze it, putting in its place Park DuValle, a mixed-income enclave of apartments and starter homes. Though he doesn’t hold himself up as saint, Bond hopes to use his experiences as a lesson for youngsters who grow up looking over their shoulders. “I’ve learned that you can turn your life around,” he says.His next project, 10 Tablets of Game, promises more of the intensity and, above all, the positive reinforcement he says poor people in Louisville need. —M.H.