THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 056
Greetings, my friends. I trust this finds you well.
Back once again with a fresh newsletter. This time around, you only get an interview as I was so swamped with work, I didn't have much time to spend listening to new music to review. That's the way it is, way it's gotta be.
What I did have some time to do was put together my second mix in response to Rolling Stone's recent "500 Greatest Songs" listicle. By the time I get to the end of this series in March, we'll likely have long forgotten the source of this project, but I'm having fun with it all the same. This set of 20 songs starts with the roots of modern music with some old country and blues and slowly works its way into more psychedelic territory. Download the mix here, and bug me if you want the track list.
Again, starting in November, the full version of The Voice of Energy will be available only to paid subscribers, with all manner of benefits and treats going along with it. Please dip into the past two editions to get all the details. Or just trust me and subscribe now for only $5/month.
With all that out of the way, please enjoy my interview with living legend Thalia Zedek.
For as much air gets sucked up talking about newly minted superstars or artists that have kept a steady burn of interest in their work for decades, my preference is to hang in the engine room with folks like Thalia Zedek. The lifelong Bostonian has maintained the most admirable of careers. Through four decades, Zedek has been a consistent presence in American underground rock—working steadily and generating enough interest and cash to keep the lights on and keep some wind in her sails. That's sustained her to varying degrees as a member of foundational noise rock groups like Uzi and Live Skull, and leading her own incredible projects like Come, E, and the Thalia Zedek Band.
It helps that she possesses a surplus of talent and distinction. Her songs are core cutters, drilling down to the details of our political systems, personal relationships, and the vices we indulge in to swallow the pain that comes with those. Zedek coats in all in a wail of distorted blues guitar and her unmatched shattered glass of a voice.
It's been a somewhat quiet year for Zedek thanks to the pandemic, but the temperature's rising. In August, she released Perfect Vision, an album that dug into the wet muck of our divided country and came away with sticky observations about the "sea of lies" and a need to join forces and "ride out some nasty weather," as she sings on "Binoculars." Earlier in 2021, her label Thrill Jockey re-issued Zedek's first solo effort Been Here and Gone. Originally released in 2001, this was Zedek's first step away from Come, the snarling rock outfit she led through the ’90s, and while it carried a touch of that group's DNA (her bandmates Chris Brokaw and Daniel Coughlin contributed to it), the music fulminated like an underground fire rather than blazing forth. And before the year is out, Fire Records will bring Come's second album Don't Ask Don't Tell back into circulation with an expanded reissue. All great news for the present moment as well as a hopeful fanning of the flames to keep Zedek active and inspired.
Touring has been such a big part of your life and the way you’ve been able to make a living as a musician. How have you survived the past two years of insanity?
It’s been kind of crazy. I’ve been really lucky that I’ve been able to get unemployment through the special COVID program, which also includes gig workers for the first time. So if you were in a business where you couldn’t work because of COVID, which was definitely the case for musicians and people who worked in clubs and stuff. So, thank God for that. That’s how I got by, financially. And giving a few lessons—a little bit of guitar teaching, but not too much.
It was just crazy. My band E had a record that was supposed to come out in April of 2020. We were supposed to tour, May-June of 2020. None of that happened, obviously, but I was pretty busy leading up to that. We eventually did end up getting the record out in July through a Czech label. It got held up in the various shutdowns in the pressing plant, but eventually our label got it out. I kind of got dizzy for a while worrying about all these various projects and where they were.
At some point, I had some of the songs for Perfect Vision written, and I knew I wanted to do another Thalia Zedek Band record, so I just decided to start sifting through all sorts of stuff and see if I could finish that record. I didn’t have that many songs, but I had two or three that I’d been slowly working on. I’d been recording ideas for a while, but when it became clear that this was going to last for a pretty long time, I just started demoing those and trying to get that together. So I had something to look forward to. We recorded it in December of 2020 and then mixed it in January. I can’t believe it’s been so long.
You’ve been putting out music for so long and so consistently, but I’ve always wanted to know about the actual writing of your material. Is it pretty clear when you start that a song will end up being a Thalia Zedek Band song or it’s going to be something for E or another project?
I think it’s pretty easy to tell. The E stuff is more or less written collaboratively. We all lived in Boston originally, and then Jason [Sanford, E’s bassist] moved to Boulder a few years back. I think we recorded our second record [2018’s Negative Work] just before he moved. Then the third record [Complications] was the first one we’ve done since he was out there. So the writing did have to change somewhat. It’s still pretty collaboratively written, but now it just depends on everyone coming up with some little ideas to give people something work on. And then they always end up being shaped or molded into something different. There was one little riff that I thought maybe could be something for E that’s on the Thalia Zedek Band record—this track called “Smoked.” It was something that I brought to E that everyone was like, “I don’t know about this.” Every once in a while there’s a question about something but I usually kind of know. If it’s something that I like and E doesn’t like it, I’ll hang on to it for myself.
Listening to Perfect Vision, there’s a cathartic quality to the lyrics and a sense of reflection about the bullshit that we’ve all be going through over the past couple of years. Was it important to you to have that outlet in your songs to pour all that out?
Yeah, I think it was. It was just such a crazy time. Everything that was going to politically was just unbelievable. I didn’t necessarily set out to make a political record or anything like that, but it was a product of the time for sure.
And you finished up mixing on the record the day that the insurrection went down on January 6th, right?
Yeah, we actually mixed it on January 6th. It was crazy because it was actually supposed to be mixed the week before, but the engineer I was working with, Seth Manchester, had to postpone because some family stuff came up. We had done some work remotely but January 6th was going to be the day that I was going to be in the studio with him and we’d finish the whole thing. I just remember Seth looked at his phone and was like, “Holy shit.” It wasn’t really clear to us exactly what was happening and we really had to the work done. There was a real feeling of urgency, like this could be our only chance because who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. So we were keeping tabs a little bit on what was going on and then also really just trying not waste any time. I don’t think we quite realized the impact or the scale of what was happening until later, but I knew that it was bad. It wasn’t until later that I realized how close Congress came to being taken hostage or shot.
We recorded the record in December, and the week before we were supposed to go record at Machines With Magnets in Pawtucket, the entire state of Rhode Island completely locked down because the COVID cases were so bad there. They made all businesses close. I remember talk to Seth, and he said, “Don’t worry, you can still do the session because we’re a private building.” He was getting tested all the time throughout the whole thing. So it was just a really dark time when we recorded the record and mixed it.
That sense of urgency that you were feeling during mixing, was that present in the sessions for Perfect Vision as well, considering how bad things looked at that time with COVID and Rhode Island getting shut down.
I think I was kind of operating with a bit of a sense of urgency for the past year or two anyway. I don’t know why. It was this feeling like I don’t want to put stuff off. I want to do what I can do and not put stuff off unnecessarily. When I planned the whole recording session during a pretty bad time for Massachusetts. I think Boston had maybe the third highest COVID concentration. It hit here pretty bad and pretty early. So I had to devise a way, like “How are we going to do this?”
I made a lot of demos at home. I used the lockdown period to finally teach myself GarageBand. It’s something I never had the patience for. But collaborating remotely became a necessity at that point so I learned how to do that. It definitely saved me. So I was making these elaborate demos for my band and keeping in touch with them a lot. And reaching out to musicians that I liked and might not have asked to play with otherwise. But because everyone was stuck at home and also working remotely, I thought I could ask people, “Hey, would you mind playing on this track or that track?”
I set it up so I had Winston Braman [TZB bassist] and Gavin McCarthy [TZB drummer] and we would rehearse together and record, but we would be the only ones. Everyone else would work remotely, like Dave Curry who plays viola with me. He’s also in this band the Willard Grant Conspiracy and he recorded their last two records at his house, so I felt pretty comfortable that he could do that on his own. We ended up going in and recording basic tracks of all 10 songs in one day. I came back for another day and did vocals and overdubs.
And Mel Lederman, who had played piano with me in the past, he was right down the street from the studio and came in. There was a song “Binoculars” that I felt was missing something. They had this beautiful grand piano in the studio. Alison Chesley from Helen Money sent in her cello tracks and she played keyboard on a couple of songs, too. She just did that remotely. Brian Carpenter did his trumpet remotely and Dave did his viola remotely and we just mixed it all together. It was definitely a different way of working and definitely changed the way I worked.
Those are the little details that I love about this project, and the last few records you’ve made. The viola and piano and little musical touches like that. As you’re writing these songs, are you aware of wanting those instruments in the mix or is that something that comes in the process of recording the album?
I think I realize it before I’m recording. I’m not really that into playing solo. I play solo shows from time to time, and it’s fun, but I definitely hear the music in my head being performed by a group. So when I’m writing the songs and working on the songs, I’m always hearing other stuff in my head and leaving room for other stuff. Other instruments that can come in and add melodies. I don’t write for the other people but I can hear what instrument I’m needing and who I want to ask to play or what kind of feel to have.
There’s definitely some back and forth with the guests. “Cranes,” the first song on the album, the woman who plays lap steel on that—Karen Sarkisian—we’ve known each other for years but we’ve never played together. A couple of years ago, she said, “Hey, if you ever need want pedal steel on one of your records, let me know.” I kept that in the back of my head. And when I had that song “Cranes,” I thought this would be the one. I can’t take credit for their parts but I did have the instrumentation in mind.
Perfect Vision is structured in an interesting way. The way I perceive it, the songs at the beginning of the record touch on these very universal concerns, but as it gets toward the end, it starts to take on more personal concerns and stuff from your life. Am I on to something there?
I never thought of it that way. That’s definitely true. That wasn’t what I was thinking about when I was putting together the sequencing. It just happened that way. I think I was thinking more of the musical tone and energy of fast-slow rather than what the songs were about.
“Tolls,” the last song on the album, really caught me out. It feels like it’s speaking to these very curious part of modern life where, because of social media and because of our connection to each other in the virtual world, it’s so much easier to see what your exes are up to. And that can sometimes make it that much harder to really let go and move on.
That was kind of written about a person that I know. Not myself, but someone I knew that was in a really bizarre relationship that was taking place in reality but also partially taking place on social media. So I guess what you’re saying is true, but it was really about a crazy relationship that I was observing and trying to keep a distance from it—and mostly succeeding. But the song doesn’t really mention social media at all.
No, you don’t. But you talk about seeing photos of someone, my mind goes to Instagram or Facebook since that’s where we tend to see photos of people we know anymore. Maybe I should be thinking more about physical photos
It was that. But it was more that I was seeing photos of someone who was saying that they were so happy and they were so in love but when I would see the photos, I was seeing something else. It definitely wasn’t about an ex, but it was about a relationship.
It is easier for you to write songs about other people’s relationships like that or do you have to feel some sort of connection to it? To have a stake in it in some way?
Generally I have to have some stake in it, but I do think, in a way, it is easier for me to observe other people’s stuff and be able to write about that more objectively than maybe something I’m going through myself. I feel like there’s a lot of drama in day-to-day life. I attract that kind of vibe. It feels like there’s been a fair amount of that. A lot of people have been having a really hard time in these past few years.
I wanted to touch on the reissue of Been Here And Gone that came out recently. If I have it right, this was your first official solo release, true?
Yeah, it’s the first one. I first put it out after Come had broken up. It originally came out on Matador under my own name. I didn’t use Thalia Zedek Band until later.
How was it for you, then, to put yourself out there after the dissolution of Come?
It was kind of weird. I had been doing solo shows for a few years. Before Come broke up, we took a pretty long hiatus and Chris [Brokaw, Come’s guitarist] was on tour with the Steve Wynn Band. It was supposed to be a few months and it ended up being eight or nine months. It ended up being a long time. People would ask what I was up to and if I’d want to do a solo show. I started doing that and playing with Beth Heinberg, who played on a couple of tracks on Been Here and Gone. I was doing covers and some Come songs that I thought I could pull off with just piano and guitar and vocals. I guess it started there.
I started writing again. Once Come broke up and I just decided to go in a different direction. So those songs are based on those solo shows that I’d been playing with Beth and then with Beth and Dave Curry, the guy who’s played viola on all of my records. I started writing quieter stuff that would go good with that sound. I got offered a show at the Brattle Theatre opening for Evan Dando, and I thought, “I don’t want to do this by myself,” so I asked Daniel [Coughlin] if he’d play drums on it. And me and Chris, we were still friends, so I asked him to play. The whole record evolved out of that show because Bryce Goggin, who ended up recording the album, he had been hired to record Evan’s set and he recorded us as well and sent me the tape. I was like, “Wow, this could be something. This sounds pretty good. I want to work with Bryce.” I had kind of worked with Bryce on [Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell]. It turned out he had this studio in upstate New York that was in this old church that he had just moved into. Once I got the songs mostly together, I e-mailed him to see if he’d be into recording basically the same stuff that we had done at that live show.
Was it helpful to have Chris and Bryce, these people you trust and had worked with before, help you start this next chapter of your career?
Yeah it definitely was. Chris is such a great guitar player, and I had Daniel [Coughlin] who had played on the last Come record and I’d done a bunch of touring with, on drums. They’re such great musicians and really tuned in to what I was doing. They were really good about switching gears and being, “Okay, this is different from Come. This is a solo thing,” and letting me not tell them exactly what to do, but I could be, “I want this. I want that.” They were very good to work with in that way. And they still are. We actually did just this release show in Boston where I got almost all the original people who played on the record back together. It was still there. I realized that they all played so well. The arrangements and the parts that they came up with were really beautiful and added so much to that record. It was really a pleasure to be able to recreate the whole thing with all of them again.
Yeah. At some point, Beth was the person that encouraged me to try “Manha de Carnaval,” and [the other two] were my ideas. “1926” was written by a band called V; that I knew from way back. We had a collective record label together called Propeller Records. I was a huge fan of them. This is the early ’80s we’re talking about. I always loved that song, and started playing it at some point. And playing it pretty differently from the version that’s on their record. It’s in a different key and it’s much slower. Their version was almost Byrds-y, even though they weren’t that type of band.
E (photo: Ben Stas)
Between your work in Come and E and your own solo albums, you’ve consistently released a lot of music over the past 30 years. Is that a reflection of how easy songwriting comes for you? Are you someone that frets over your work or do things flow pretty quickly?
It feels like I fret over it. There’s been times when I’ve taken a fair amount of time in between stuff. A lot of it comes down to a timing thing. I’ve found for myself I’m more prolific when I’m in different projects. It took me a while to figure that. I need to be in more than one band or more than one type of band. They all feed each other. I think that’s why it seems like I’m doing a lot of stuff. There was a period of time when I’d been doing the solo stuff for a while—and exclusively that—I took a pretty long break between records. At that point, I was feeling a little stuck, and I wanted to try different stuff. The last few years I’ve been trying to keep a good rhythm. For me, playing music and writing is something that, if I’m not doing it, I’m... I’m a much happier person when I’m doing it, put it that way. It’s something that’s healthy for me and it feels really good for me. I’m always trying to work on keeping going and not getting in a rut and being discouraged. For anyone that has done this kind of stuff for a while, that can be a struggle.
What comes next for you? Anything on the horizon we can look forward to?
I’m hopefully doing a bunch of touring. I’ve got a bunch of New England shows and New York stuff. I’m going to hook up with my old bandmates in Live Skull, who’ve started recording together again, and we’re going to do some touring together in December. I’m hoping to be able to do some touring in Europe next year.
Also, Come is getting a full reissue by Fire Records of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. One record will be the original recording and the other will be a bunch of outtakes. It will be followed in February with the release of Peel Sessions from ’92 and ’93. I’ve got a lot of stuff coming out and very much hoping to play live as much as possible, But, of course, that’s not entirely in my control. Just hope for the best.
Before I leave you, a quick rundown of some recent writing work of mine.
Out today is a really lovely documentary about the tragic folk artist Karen Dalton. For SPIN, I spoke to the co-directors of this film about avoiding rock-doc clichés and chasing down a white whale interview with Bob Dylan.
Today is also Bandcamp Day, when the music platform waives their fees for 24 hours to help support artists during this odd era. Over at Oregon Arts Watch, I offered up my monthly column highlighting great Portland music available for purchase.
OAW is also the home of my weekly column celebrating live music in the city with a preview and some concert reviews. This time around, I wrote about the wonderful Jeffrey Silverstein and the recent performances by Mdou Moctar and Negativland.
Finally, every month at Paste, I put together a column talking up new vinyl releases from around the world. The latest installment went live on Thursday, with some discussion of a big set of Laura Nyro's work, reissues of jazz classics, and a healthy amount of new music.
That's all I have for you this week, friends. Join me again next Friday when my guest will be footwork mastermind RP Boo.
Artwork for this week's newsletter is by Alda Mohr Eyðunardóttir whose exhibition i miss everything all the time is on display at the The National Gallery of the Faroe Islands through December 5.