Y Spy: Save the Warehouse

Warehouse Stairs

There was a great era in my life, between living in California and Washington, when my hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin was amazing in ways it wasn’t before. I’ve lived in La Crosse for a total of 27 years, and for a majority of that time my hometown has bored me to tears. There’s a carefully crafted sense of belligerent apathy in La Crosse, an omnipresent boredom coupled with a refusal to do anything to erase that boredom. Don’t rock the boat, the apathy has always said. In La Crosse, this leads to a chicken and the egg question where I have to ask: is La Crosse boring because it’s drowning in alcohol, or is La Crosse drowning in alcohol because it’s boring and doesn’t know what else to do?

            Whatever the answer may be, hail to the heroes who fight that apathy. In the four years of my return to La Crosse, I saw my hometown in a completely different light. This change wasn’t just in my head, though. In this era, there was a seething underground punk scene, the development of creative venues like the Root Note that weren’t just watering holes that incidentally played music over the fog, the renovation of River City Hobbies from a good comic book store into an amazing one, and the evolution of the Second Supper from an Onion also-ran into a weekly newspaper with gigantic balls. (Appropriately enough, the first Supper issue I read in the new style had a cover story about this story’s subject.)  I wrote for the Supper for three of my four years back, and as a result I saw and did things I never expected I’d see or do in La Crosse.  It was a time when I truly fell in love with my town like never before.

            But like all things La Crosse, entropy and apathy reasserted themselves. Many of the upstarts were phased out or absorbed into the status quo. The Second Supper got bought out and completely lost its edge. It now has a fourth of the page count it boasted in its heyday, it comes out monthly instead of weekly, and the precious little material left isn’t much more than an events calendar and a syndicated advice column. The guys who all but ran the house show punk scene in La Crosse moved out to Washington, and knowing a sinking ship when I saw one, I moved out here with them. Here, I found improv comedy and stand-up scenes – two scenes which will almost certainly never take root in La Crosse – and now I can’t see myself ever coming home to stay.

            It’s getting worse. Now, even the few old, fun institutions are fading. River City Hobbies recently closed following the death of owner and all-around amazing guy, John Vach, leaving La Crosse, a moderately sized city, completely without a comic book shop (and no, Barnes and Noble doesn’t count). Now, the Warehouse, which has for decades served as the stalwart enemy of La Crosse apathy and the city’s only music venue for people who aren’t into bar blues and jam bands, is days away from closure.  Should this happen, La Crosse loses its only all-ages hangout for people who don’t want to be barraged with Jesus pamphlets, and La Crosse as a whole loses a vital part of its culture that never gets replaced.

            Here’s what you can do to help. Go to Indiegogo’s “Warehouse Rescue Campaign” page.  Donate anything. Share this with your friends. Tell everyone you know. Become the Girl Scout cookie entrepreneur you were always meant to be.

           Because on August 23rd, it’s over.  Done.  And if the Warehouse doesn’t meet its goal, La Crosse, Wisconsin gets even more boring.  To those of us from La Crosse, the Warehouse seems like it has always been around, but if you and I do nothing, it won’t be anymore.

            THIS IS IMPORTANT. I dare you to give a shit.

            Warehouse owner and all-around amazing guy, Steve Harm, recently talked to me about the details of the Warehouse’s financial woes, what he plans to do about it, and why he never regretted standing apart from the typical La Crosse apathy and creating something difficult and beautiful.

Warehouse owner Steve Harm, with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails

Warehouse owner Steve Harm, with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails

Y Spy: So let’s start with the basic question: what’s the current fundraiser to save the Warehouse all about?

Steve Harm: Well, we have been successfully amassing a pretty serious amount of debt over the past 5 years, which really started when we got conned into buying the building next door by the tenant who quickly filed bankruptcy and took off leaving us with a huge amount of commercial space to rent. The original idea was that the 2nd building, a school of cosmetology, would fund the Warehouse. All ages no alcohol venues don’t survive as independent entities anywhere, but the Warehouse has always had the caveat of a first floor commercial tenant and 4 more band tenants in the building. That’s how we have squeaked by for 22 years.

But the guy who ran the beauty school approached me in late 2007 about buying the building he was in from the owner in Minneapolis. He was afraid that a local developer would buy it and move him out or seriously jack his rent. He offered us a solid 5 year lease, which meant we’d have consistent income for 5 years minimum, allowing us to have extra money each month (unheard of for the Warehouse) AND be able to put in new windows, upgrade the sound system, do a bunch of brickwork, etc. All we needed to do was take ALL of the equity that had been built up in the WH over the past 17 years, borrowing 100K more for roof work and electrical improvements and a new HVAC system for both floors, and we’d have that constant stream. Something we had never been able to count on. What could go wrong?

What went wrong was that the guy cleared out all the student loan deposits and tuitions from the school here and his school in Madison, ran to Florida, bought a house in the Florida Keys, and filed bankruptcy. Untouchable for us, leaving us 6 months into 2008 in the middle of the real estate bust, with a giant commercial building surrounded by a downtown full of empty buildings.

So our first plan was to try to find another school of cosmetology to move in. We spent a couple months cleaning and upgrading. We marketed the space to all of the cosmetology schools in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, but in that economy, no one was biting. Selling that building has been problematic, because developers (the only people who would pay for commercial buildings right now) want to pay pennies on the dollar.

Y Spy: Are developers being cheap because of the downtown location and the cost of renovating old buildings, or is this just the general nature of the beast these days?

Harm: Developers are cheap because developers are efficient. At least until recently there has been a glut of property downtown. The City of La Crosse even added to the problem by building the Transit Center a block away, with 12000sq. ft. of commercial space available. So property owners were basically competing with the City to lease property, on a City-built property that we paid for.

On the fundraiser end, we’re trying to raise enough to pay off the property taxes, catch up on several months of mortgage payments and pay a little on the loan to get the payments down a little, pay off other various debt (contractors, city fees, state inspection fees, insurance, BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, water bills, accountant fees), replace some critical parts of the sound system, and do enough renovation work on the leasable space to make it more attractive so that it can again be what keeps the Warehouse running.

Y Spy: Have there been any other problems lately?

Harm: About 8-10 years ago, the payola practice of “buying” on to big tours for smaller bands started working its way down to smaller venues. It became normal for local bands in Minneapolis and Madison to have to buy $500-$750 worth of tickets to a show just to be able to play that show. That made things harder for us with agents, as Minneapolis or Madison could always offer substantially more for a tour, because they had $1500-$2500 to work with right out of the gate — they were taking no chances, they had guaranteed income from local bands. I would not, will not ever do that to local bands. Young bands have to pay for equipment, rehearsal spaces, vehicles, trailers, promotional materials, recordings… they should never have to pay to play.

Y Spy: Is touring for most bands even worth it, when practices like this are becoming the norm even at the ground floor?

Harm: No! It is getting SO hard for young bands. First, there are too many of them, and it is really easy to tour because of the internet. That is a problem. Pre-internet, it took at least a morsel of brains to put a tour together. Actually, it was a tremendous amount of work. Now, bands have it really easy. So that clogs the highways of America with vans and trailers. But because of the tremendous amount of bands, there are also a tremendous amount of shows. When we first started, the only places you could see all-ages shows in Wisconsin were in Green Bay at RockNRoll High School, in Milwaukee at the Rave, and at the Warehouse.

That was actually a GOOD thing, because it made every show an event, unique, special.

Y Spy: Now there’s a surplus of disposable labor.

Harm: Yes there certainly is. And they are all hungry to play, so all those hungry guys are chewing off their own legs by overplaying and not making shows an event.

Y Spy: Didn’t you have another recent fundraiser?

Harm: There was a fundraiser last year to help pay for our cabaret license. Those only cost around $125, but the City ties in a tax called the “Personal Property Tax” with it. The Personal Property tax is a tax on everything besides income. A tax on every chair, table, microphone, light, etc. etc. etc. It is not a very high percentage tax. Ours should be around $200. But you file it by April of the previous year, and if you miss the filing, they decide that you need to pay a “doomage”.

Y Spy: Sounds ominous.

Harm: We missed the filing 2 years in a row (my mistake), but on this year’s filing, we would normally owe around $200. The City billed us… hang on to your britches… $6,900. A penalty of almost THIRTY FIVE times the actual tax.

Y Spy: Wow. Do you feel like the city is trying to shut you down on purpose?

Harm: I tried to get the Assessor to come down on that $6,900, tried to get the City Attorney to intervene, nobody gives a shit. “It will be lower next year” was the best I could get. They did give me the option of “making payments,” but is making payments on something I should not have to pay really doing me a favor? I’ll bet you if any of the big players downtown made that filing mistake, the City would take care of it mighty quick. Me, I’m a nobody. I don’t show up at City Hall screaming, I don’t call the mayor and get something changed, I don’t have secret meetings with the old boys’ club. I work ridiculously hard, and so does everyone else here, to provide an alcohol free venue for kids that no one in this damn town will appreciate until it is gone. Like us here or not, no one ever fell in the river and drowned from too much music at the Warehouse.

Y Spy: This isn’t the first time people have gone after the Warehouse. The guy from Fayze’s, the lady running Jules, a few other locals, I’m sure ‒ you’ve racked up a few complaints over the years. I’ve always felt that La Crosse’s reaction to the Warehouse was never that different from the plot of Footloose. Those damn sinful kids and all that. “Why can’t they be satisfied with Crossfire?”

Harm: Yeah, we’ve been a pariah sometimes, but not really for any legit reason. I know Chris from Jules gets pissed when her all-day coffee customers can’t park on Pearl because we’ve got some band vans parked. But those band guys, and concert kids, get a lot of coffee there. Even when there is a tour bus parked out front, it does not deter people from going to Jules. If anything, it attracts some curious people who end up getting coffee. Fayze’s… I think that was a misunderstanding that we probably could have rectified with a more open discussion with the Wakeens. They’ve turned out to be some very nice people. But it turned into Footloose at a City Council meeting; that was actually kind of awesome. Yeah, I always hear about “the Warehouse Kids”, when they really mean “those Crossfire Kids”.

I don’t want to rip on Crossfire too much, I get that they are trying to save troubled kids with Jesus. And you know, if they can save troubled kids, I really don’t care HOW they do it. But that place got over $800,000 in renovation donations, plus most of the contractors worked for free. Have they had more effect on kids in this area than The Warehouse? Less? The same amount? Or the real question: Have they had a million dollars more of an effect?

Y Spy: But they have the Looooord! It is an unfair double standard, regardless of their intentions.

Harm: Yes it is. We get “Jesus” bands all the time, bands that preach at length during their set. As long as the kids aren’t booing, I don’t care. But I have a talk with them after the show. I tell them that instead of preaching to the kids from the stage, they would be better off setting a good example when they are meeting kids at the merch table or anywhere else in the Warehouse.

We are built on the most important part of Christianity ‒ treat people like you want to be treated. I think teaching kids that is more important than teaching them anything else. Everyone knows morals ‒ they are mostly inherent. But I always tell Christian bands that Christians are the ones who give Christianity a bad name, so try not to talk down to kids or force-feed them Bible verses. Instead, be good examples.

Y Spy: Is this desire to teach kids the reason you’ve never sold alcohol?

Harm: Well, not entirely. It is a MAJOR misconception that I hate alcohol. I don’t. I love a well-crafted small brewery beer. I just never have time and am perpetually so overworked that one beer will knock me on my ass. But La Crosse has a rich brewing tradition. Turn of the century, this town had more breweries per capita than Milwaukee. I understand where the drinking culture, and with it, the alcoholic culture, came from.

Kids are going to drink. It is unavoidable in this town.

Y Spy: The problem is that there’s little else to do in town but drink. And it makes La Crosse incredibly boring.

Harm: We just try to delay that for a few years by providing over a 100 sodas that are from all over the world, to show them there IS interesting stuff to drink out there. Australian root beer, for example. It’s delicious.

Y Spy: I had way more adventures before I started going to bars. I felt really boring once I started barhopping. The way they are used in La Crosse, bars really suck the joy and fun out of a place. Drinking in bars has a lot of ritual and habit to it, and I’d call La Crosse a town drowning in ritual and habit. Your place is one of the few places in town which goes against that.

Harm: Well I see that, because “Warehouse kids” invariably “grow up.” I see them hitting 21 (or 20, it seems anyone can get into bars downtown if they put a little effort into it). Some of the kids complain that they don’t see their friends anymore, because “everyone goes downtown”, but the reason everyone goes downtown is because everyone is going downtown. I understand the need to have a few drinks socially once in a while. But La Crosse… damn. Who exactly “has a few drinks” when they go out? They might DESCRIBE it that way.

Y Spy: Alcoholism created out of boredom and a lack of imagination and options.

Harm: And APATHY.

Y Spy: It’s so goddamn hard to get people to care about anything there. It’s why I left.

Harm: La Crosse has a great “arts” scene. Pump House, Community Theater/Weber Center for the Arts, Jason is giving is a go at the Cav, Root Note does some great shows for their clientele, Popcorn is always jamming with jam bands jamming their jams… and we do metal and acoustic and hip hop and rock and pop and punk and wrestling and freakshows and industrial and gothic and ska and such.

I expect that if we go down, some local bars will attempt Sunday or Monday night “teen nights”, maybe with bands. Those are always the worst idea ever, because they are designed to make those teens feel comfortable in that bar atmosphere specifically, so that when they hit 21, they know where they are going. I hate that bullshit. It is so obvious.

It will be interesting/embarrassing to see who the vultures are. That’s for sure. Who has the least class first. Because you know that someone is out there right now planning on capitalizing on our 22 years of ingraining booking agents with the knowledge that La Crosse is a good stopover, even if what they actually mean is that The Warehouse is a good stopover.

Y Spy: So financially, musically, and culturally, what would the Warehouse have been if it wasn’t an all ages venue and instead sold alcohol?

Harm: If we were a venue, but we had sold alcohol the entire time?

Y Spy: Yeah.

Harm: I don’t think we would have lasted. I think the supply of locals would have dried up, because that “drinking age” band would not have wanted to haul their gear up 49 steps. Not when they are already playing that week at the Popcorn, next week at Stein Haus, tomorrow at Del’s, then at JB’s. There would be no point to add one more location to their schedule, especially if it was up 3 flights of stairs. We’d probably have a way-above-average amount of customers going to the hospital from falling down the stairs drunk. That front door wouldn’t be glass anymore; it would be half metal like Top Shots. I just don’t know if it would have worked at all.

I know we would have had a hard time getting many of the bands we did, because many of them insist on an all-ages crowd. Bands aren’t dumb − they know who buys Tshirts and hoodies and shorts and, yes, sometimes music (vinyl these days): teenagers. Bands can tell you what it is like trying to get bar customers to part with $10 for a band shirt when they can get a $2 PBR instead.

Kids don’t come here to hang out. You can see that. They come to see bands. They are attentive. They WANT to see the band do what they do. Bands love it.

Y Spy: True. When I lived in California, shows were little more than a forum for preening, bored douchebags who have nothing else to do that night but be seen. I’ve always argued that kids in the sticks are way more excited about shows than people who can see amazing shows any day of the week in big cities.

Harm: Well, that’s another angle on our financial woes too. Let me explain.

As I lecture bands constantly, booking agents have gotten lazy. It used to be, 2 bands would go on tour; the local promoter could add 1 or 2 or 3 locals. Makes a great show, and local bands would get all their friends to come. They could do these shows in any sized market.

Now, agents put together 6,7,10 band shows that are so big and need so much money that it completely prevents the show from happening in small markets. Agents just run them through the same 30 promoters in major markets, and they no longer have to think about routing or secondary markets. This causes a hardship for us, because those 2 national band/3 local band shows can be house-fillers. And what is even worse for the national bands on those megatour packages is they end up only playing in major markets, where kids are going to see ANOTHER 10 band package next week, and another the week after, and that band who thought it was great to get on this “big” tour finds out they are just a cog in the machine.

Take the same band and run them through smaller markets, their shows are huge, because EVERY kid there loves them and becomes an honest-to-god fan, as opposed to the 10 band shows in major markets where they are just one more band of the 60 that played that month. BAD FOR EVERYONE.

Y Spy: Once again, nothing but disposable labor.

Harm: Yup. I explain that to bands who are on labels and are parts of those big tours; they don’t really get it. Then they play a Warehouse show, and they sell more merch per capita than ANY of the big shows. They sign more autographs. They even sell MUSIC. THEN, they get it.

Sometimes, I feel like we are a music school on so many different levels.

Y Spy: Well, and you’ve hosted actual courses on touring, too, with Martin Atkins.

How sheltered and insulated do touring bands get?

Harm: They definitely get into a routine. Just to back up and relate: If we can get this fundraiser to work, we are going to try to find a way to set up the Warehouse as a non-profit (my accountant already calls me “anti-profit”) and get access to various grants etc. that would let us bring in lots of national speakers like Martin Atkins, host monthly musician’s meetings, bring in musicians for music clinics (why have a guitar clinic at Dave’s when he could set it up here in a performance space), make the building available for local film students to shoot band performance videos, learn location recording, etc. I see a lot of expansion possible with reorganizing.

Y Spy: Nice. So not just treading water. How is the fundraiser going so far?

Harm: Definitely not treading water. With a more secure future, we should be able to do some really creative, beneficial things. The fundraiser is at $20,000 with a loooooooong way to go. But only until Aug 22. After that the bank is going to come down on me with a furious wrath.

Y Spy: So it’s pretty much do or die?

Harm: It is definitely do or die. It was “die” when I walked out of the last bank meeting. To tell you the truth, we started this fundraiser to throw a wrench in the machinery because that was the only option other than handing over the keys. The bank has backed off, because they are watching this to see what kind of support we get.

Miracles have happened in the past couple months. [Refers to articles discussing Jack White and The Killers donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to save hometown venues.]

Y Spy: Any ideas for provoking said miracles?

Harm: Last night I wrote to NIN’s manager, a friend who sets up the piano every night for Elton John, and Fall Out Boy’s manager for the third time. The tough thing is actually getting through to these people. There are thousands of people in the entertainment industry for whom the entire amount of our fundraiser would be a throwaway for them, no sweat at all. But regardless of how it seems like people use twitter or facebook, when they are at that level, they have people managing their social networks. The level of insulation between common folk and Robert Downey Jr., for example, is astounding. So just getting one of those people to read a letter or look at a video is damn near impossible. But I see kids who are posting on pages every day that I never would have thought of. And I think that kind of appeal, from kids who come here, is really important.

I am hoping that 22 years of treating bands fairly will generate enough karma. If I was not an eternal optimist, I sure as hell wouldn’t have been here living day to day for 22 years, fighting bill collectors, tax collectors, and the Man. I always have hope.

I will maintain that hope until 11:59pm, August 22nd. Then, we shall all watch the vultures.

 Warehouse Stairs 2

Please Help. Donate anything. Spread the word.  On August 23rd, one way or another, this ends.

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Y Spy: Meklit Hadero

Meklit Hadero sounds like a lot of things: a full-throated jazz pixie, a guitar folk whisperer, a cool and self-collected slinger of R&B.  One thing she never sounds is boring, and I’d also throw in complacent into that mess of things Hadero is not.  A lifelong traveler, the Ethiopian-born singer has collected a vast swath of styles, mixing them together into “On a Day like This,” an album released last year in which Hadero sings of setting roots in San Francisco.

            But in talking with Meklit Hadero, one gets the strong impression that her musical ambitions – goals which are blatantly larger than sound – don’t begin and end with the recording of songs.  Having formed an artistic group of fellow Ethiopians known as the Arba Minch Collective, Hadero has explored and challenged her roots with an intensity that is hard to match.

 

Y Spy:  Let’s start with the basics.  Who are you, and what is your musical background?

 

Meklit Hadero:  I’m a vocalist and a songwriter originally from Ethiopia.  I was born there and grew up all over the States: in Brooklyn and in Florida and in Seattle.  I’ve been in San Francisco the past seven years.  The music kind of sits at the crossroads of three different traditions: the American songwriters, jazz, as well as bringing in some Ethiopian music and influence.  I primarily play with jazz instruments, plus I bring a lot of improvisation into the live shows.

 

Y Spy:  How has traveling around internationally as well as within the United States affected your musical perspective?

 

Hadero:  When people ask me what my influences are, I tend to think less about who are the artists that I model myself after and more about what the sounds are that I’ve absorbed growing up.  For example, living in Brooklyn for six years, the place I grew up in my childhood years, jazz was everywhere.  It was in the subways and in the streets.  So was early hip-hop.  That sort of soundscape, the streetscape, of New York felt like it was an important sonic ingredient.  Then, of course, growing up and having my parents play old Ethiopian cassettes.

There was a constancy of sound as a presence in one’s life, and how those sounds then get interpreted as songs, and where they come out, is something of a mystery.  But it does happen, and that was a big part of how I developed this particular approach to making music.

In terms of influences, though, I’d say that my biggest influences have been my voice teachers, people who taught me what the voice is and what its expressive power as an instrument is.

 

Y Spy:  How did you put together On a Day like This?

 

Hadero:  I wanted to make it as a tribute to my first five years in San Francisco, because at the time I wasn’t sure I was going to stay.  I had just done a residency at the De Young Museum and was about to go to Oxford for a few weeks to do the TED Global Fellowship, and then I was going to travel for three months.  I called it my cliff; I had no idea what was going to happen after this particular period of time.

It was just about two months before I left when I said: I have to make an album before I leave.  I realized that I wanted to capture the period of time that had happened.  So it was really about who I had been playing with for those five years of developing those songs, bringing together all these jazz musicians who I had played with and who were a big part of my musical community, but also bringing together a lot of musicians from a collective of classical artists called Classical Revolution that are all about changing the way classical is played, making it more accessible.  They have chapters in ten or twelve cities, but they started in San Francisco a few blocks from my creative home at the Red Poppy Art House.  That’s how I brought people together.

 

Y Spy:  As you’ve said, On a Day like This mixes together a lot of styles.  Was it difficult, considering this, to constrain all of these different directions to something as finite as an album?

 

Hadero:  I have real faith in multiplicity.  I feel like people have a lot of capacity for bringing together complexity than is offered in a lot of marketing.  Nobody’s really one genre.  It’s really hard to label anyone’s music.  The best descriptions of music are poetic.

I never thought of it as limiting; I thought of it as a window.

 

Y Spy:  Were there any styles that you do wish you had explored more on this album, or that you would like to explore more on a future release?

 

Hadero:  I have a few releases coming out.  I’m actually in the middle of two albums right now.  Gabriel Teodros is a Seattle-based MC who, with Burntface and I, went to Ethiopia in May as part of this collective that travels there annually to connect with artists, traditional and contemporary.  We just finished recording an album which we call our Ethiopian hip-hop space opera.  So I’m working with two MCs, and it’s all with beats, and in it Gabriel is a half-alien, half-human coming to Earth for the first time.  It’s a really theatrical, big production, and that will be out in January.

Also in January is a simultaneous release with an Oakland-based soul singer called Quinn Deveaux.  We’re doing soul interpretations of indie rock and art rock songs, with a few originals on there too.  Some David Byrne and Patti Smith, but really bringing the soul roots of that music to light through this collaboration.

I’ll continue to make the music that is interesting and inspiring to me, but I really don’t feel limited by style.  Collaboration lets you grow in that way.

 

Y Spy:  It seemed that in the old top-down musical model, musicians would release work every two years or so, but there wasn’t a whole lot of recording or outside activity inbetween.  Do you feel like people are becoming more open to collaboration now, being that the terms aren’t so dictated from the top?

 

Hadero:  That’s exactly what it is: the terms aren’t dictated from the top.  We’re also in a place where nobody knows what works, so there are no rules.  You might get pressures from all sorts of sides to be more defined and hyper-focused in your scope, but now nobody knows.  So try something!

Part of what makes me empowered is my relationship with Porto Franco Records, the label I work with.  They’re based in San Francisco, a father-son team, and they are ridiculously supportive.  They’ve helped me make these records, and they really believe in their artists – and I think they believe in artists in general.  That’s been a relationship that has made a lot of this possible.

 

Y Spy:  What do your recent touring plans look like?

 

Hadero:  As I mentioned, we were in Ethiopia and Kenya in May.  I’ve been doing some summer touring; this particular tour starts in the Bay Area and winds all the way up the West Coast.  I’m doing an East Coast tour in October, hopefully heading to Europe in November.  But right now, aside from these short tours, I’m trying to finish up these albums and gear up for January.  2012 is going to be really tour intensive.

 

Y Spy:  How did you go about gathering fellow Ethiopian musicians to form the Arba Minch Collective?  Were these people you already knew or people you sought out?

 

Hadero:  Kind of both.  There was a website called habesha.com that came out in 2001.  It started as a website to bring together Ethiopian-American and Eritrean-American artists.  It was at the height of the tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea.  What they ended up doing was bringing together and finding Ethiopian-Americans, Ethiopian-Canadians, Eritreans, and artists in diaspora.  They started writing about them, they started compiling lists, and suddenly there was a place where you could find out what all these people were doing all over the world.  It kind of underlined this emerging generation.  On Myspace you started finding out about people, and then there started being conferences where people would get together.

This network of artists who were doing work that I really loved, that I had been paying attention to for quite a while, I started meeting them when I started performing a lot.  There was an awareness, you would say.  What happened was that I found out about something called the 1,000 Stars Festival that brought together 56 ethnic groups from the south of Ethiopia to play their music together.  They’re distinct ethnic groups with different cultures, different music, different food even, and they came together in this festival and danced and sang for three days, for 50,000 people from Ethiopia.  I thought: I had to go, but how much more powerful would it be if it wasn’t just me that goes, but a whole generation that’s in this process of defining itself and could really benefit and learn from going to this?  So the group started for a particular experience.  The festival was cancelled, and we went anyway and had an amazing time traveling throughout the country and connecting with a burgeoning artistic movement.  Our first trip was in December 2009, and our second trip was this past May, and we will continue to make annual trips.

 

Y Spy:  In America, culture seems relatively formless and changing, taking connections for granted.  What is the importance to you of having these connections with artists from your homeland?

 

Hadero:  In a way, it’s about reality.  What I realized is that, growing up in the States, my whole experience of Ethiopian culture was filtered through my family lens.  There were the stories that I would hear, experiences that particular people would have, but that’s such a small part of this grand picture of culture.  What I realized is that things are changing there, fast.  They’re changing extremely fast.  Every time I go to Ethiopia, it looks different.  Infrastructure is growing so fast, and I think it’s also in a process where there are huge pressures happening, too.  If I really wanted to understand what was happening, I couldn’t rely on these filters.  I’d have to go, but I had to go again, and again, and again, in order to have an accurate picture.  If I ask myself why, my tendency is to answer with almost intuition – because I have to know, because I have to learn.

 

Y Spy:  How does that compare with the artistic connections and your perspectives about and with America?

 

Hadero:  I read in the New York Times, ten years ago, that 70 percent of New Yorkers are foreign born.  That blew my mind!  For me growing up there, that was the norm.  Diaspora was the norm.  I know it’s not like that all over, and borders are real, and contested, and challenging.  But we also live in a place of multiplicity, and we can’t deny that.  That’s what the world is like, and if we want to prepare ourselves for interacting with the whole world, we kind of have to be a little bit curious.  And music reflects your times.

 

 

Meklit Hadero will play the EMP Level 3 Stage at Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival at 9 pm on Saturday, September 3rd.  Her album, “On a Day like This,” is available now.

Y Spy: Dredg Strips Down

Dredg has built a long career out of taking rock music to unexpected and panoramic heights.  Mixing anger with orchestration, sound with visual art, the band is nothing if not ambitious.  Last year’s “The Pariah, the Parrot, the Delusion” stands as one of the most forward-thinking and imaginative rock records in recent memory, and yet Dredg is by no means content to rest on those laurels.

Currently on tour supporting Circa Survive, Dredg is also making the final preparations for its newest release, an as-yet-untitled work which vocalist Gavin Hayes describes as more stripped down than Dredg’s recent output.  Yet if their choice of producer – hip-hop impresario Dan the Automator – is any indication, basic won’t equal predictable.

In our conversation, Hayes also discussed his recent status as Seattle exile, the band’s increased velocity, and stories of treasure hunts and fake cops.

Y Spy: What’s the status of the new album?

Gavin Hayes: We finished recording it; it’s currently being mixed and will probably be mastered and totally finished in mid-November.

Y Spy: How did it come together?

Gavin Hayes: Actually this was a much different approach than pretty much all our records.  I’ve been living in Seattle for the past couple years, so most of this record was written remotely by email and sending music back and forth.  I’d say about 80% of the record was written remotely.

We’re also doing this record with Dan the Automator, who’s an artist as well.  He had sent me some music as well.  I think on three of these tracks, if all three make it, it will be a sort of Dredg/Dan the Automator collaboration.  He wrote the initial music and then we added to it and I wrote and sang the lyrics.

We wrote it pretty quickly for us.  It was written and recorded within a year.

Y Spy: Were there any specific reasons why this one took less time to make as opposed to the spans between your past releases?

Gavin Hayes: It’s just the way things work now.  Our last record took so long, and I know we didn’t want to take as long with this record.  I think with the attention span of the masses now and how accessible music is, you have to expedite your material and your records.  I guess you can compare it to cinema; in the 80s or early 90s a movie would come out in a theater and wouldn’t come out on VHS for a year, sometimes longer.  Now with DVDs, it comes out right after.  You might as well get it out there and keep your name at the forefront.

Y Spy: Do you see yourselves releasing at a quicker pace from here on?

Gavin Hayes: I definitely do.  I’d like us to release another record after this one in early to mid 2012 depending on how things go.  We already have a lot of material that we wrote from this record that wasn’t recorded.  There’s already a starting point to a new record from some of this other material we didn’t approach.

I think we’re better at writing faster.  Writing remotely as we did on the record is almost more productive, because you don’t have four opinions in a room.  You have a solitary period of being by yourself and taking your time, and then sharing with everyone after.  The opinions come after the fact.

Y Spy: You’ve previously noted that there were a lot of songs written for The Pariah, the Parrot, the Delusion that didn’t make that cut.  Is any of that material coming out on the new album?

Gavin Hayes: We actually recorded two songs that were written around the Pariah time.  They were songs that were great but didn’t necessarily fit the record.  We’ve tweaked them a lot since, and they make more sense with this record, especially with some of the rhythm changes and other things we added to them.

Y Spy: How many new songs do you expect to not make this album’s cut?

Gavin Hayes: I’d say we have five to ten songs that we didn’t record, that are in about 80% complete format.

Y Spy: Many musicians seem to throw those excess songs away because when they record songs, they want them to reflect their current state.  Did you feel odd bringing songs back from the Pariah period?

Gavin Hayes: Initially, it did, but as I said we’ve tweaked them enough so they don’t feel the same anymore.  They actually work better with this album; it seems more fitting for them to be here.  One of them, especially, feels like a new song.  We updated enough to where it didn’t feel like we were backtracking.  They’re good songs, so why not share them with people?  They are recorded now; it’s not a guarantee that they’ll make the record, but they’ll be out there one way or the other.  Why throw something made away?

Y Spy: How have you advanced the band’s formula on this new album?

Gavin Hayes: Working with Dan the Automator, whose roots are in the hip-hop world and whose production is kind of in that vein.  We wanted to have it be a collaboration with another artist who brings something new to the table.  We’ve been friends with him for many years, and we’ve always talked about doing a record, and he’s had a clear vision of what our band can be.

We sound like a rock band still, but the rhythm section is a little more consistent.  It’s not as jumpy.  I’d also say this production is rawer.  We recorded this really quickly.  Drums were done in two or three days.  Everything was: let’s sound like a rock band, get in, and do it.  I feel like because of that, we’ve limited some of the overdubs we would do.  That was the goal at the beginning of this project: let’s take away instead of adding to this record and let each aspect of the band cut through.  Not blanket it with overdubs.  In turn, it sounds bigger and clearer.

Y Spy: It’s interesting that you’re working with a producer who comes from the hip-hop world, a style which is rife with sampling – especially in light of your previous stances against sampling.  Is there any sampling on the new record?

Gavin Hayes: There’s no sampling.  Everything’s live, but some of it has that feeling.  He constructed drums and made beats, but they’re not samples.  And even when there are loops, there are live drums with them.  All the instrumentation is performed.

Y Spy: Is there a story or lyrical theme to the album?

Gavin Hayes: This isn’t really a concept record for us, but to me a lot of it is about distance from loved ones and separation.  A few that I’m thinking of are about my sister who is in the Army, and me trying to relate to her situation as an artist touring for two months and coming back to my everyday normal life.  That transition is always a little weird.  So a lot of it is about her being able to confide in me on some level, and distance from family and friends.  That’s kind of the undertone to a lot of the material, a longing.

We didn’t want to restrict ourselves to a concept album and just wrote the best material we could.  But there’s definitely a feeling to the whole record which could be construed into an idea.

Y Spy: Are you planning any other creative aspects to the album?

Gavin Hayes: We’re working on the visual side right now.  We have a lot of ideas being thrown around right now.  We’re always very into the art and how it’s presented and making sure each album has an identity, visually as well as auditory.

We’re definitely going to do a video.  We want it to relate it to the album artwork.  We do have a few friends who make videos; one guy’s a photographer who has been experimenting with videos and doing creative stuff.  We don’t want to make a generic video this time.  We want to make something that stands apart.

Y Spy: How goes your current tour with Circa Survive?

Gavin Hayes: It’s going really well so far.  We recorded a day before we went on tour; I was in the studio at 6 a.m. finishing vocals.  The next day we had to go to our guitar player’s brother’s wedding, and then we flew out to Atlanta the next day.  So we were without rehearsal, other than playing together in the studio which is a whole other beast.  The first show, we were probably the most nervous we’ve been in years.  But it turned out well.  We did a little hippie acoustic jam in the back to refresh, and just went.

We’ve toured with Circa Survive before.  We’ve toured with Codeseven numerous times.  We’ve all been friends.  Animals as Leaders are sharing a bus with us, and they’re good people.  Because of that closeness, we’ve been able to bond quickly.  Beyond the music it’s kind of a reunion tour for a bunch of friends who haven’t played together in years.  That’s sometimes more important to me than what happens on stage.

Y Spy: Are you playing new songs on the tour?

Gavin Hayes: We’re playing one as of now.  We might add another one.

Y Spy: What’s the instrumentation for this tour’s show?  Do you have any guest musicians coming with?

Gavin Hayes: Not out East.  Out West, mainly in California, we might have a friend come out and do some backup vocals and guitar playing with us.  Nothing too fancy, though.  We didn’t have time to prepare anything crazy for this tour.  We’d like to present something a little more grandiose, but we’re just being a rock band on this run.

Y Spy: What are your touring plans after this tour?

Gavin Hayes: It ends December 5th in New York, and we’re doing some headlining dates on the way home.  We’ll take a break for the holidays, and if our record comes out as planned in February or March, we want a basic tour around that.  If we could get a great supporting slot, we’ll do that around the time of the record.  If not, we’ll do a headlining tour.  After that I’m sure we’ll go overseas.  The European market has been good to us, actually better than the U.S., so it’s important that we go back and forth between them.  After that, maybe a few more runs, and then hopefully we’ll have another record on the way.

Y Spy: On your website, you held a treasure hunt which promised 18 winners two lifetime tickets to any headlining Dredg show.  How did that go?

Gavin Hayes: It went really well, actually.  Some of the clues were really obscure, and I can’t believe that people found the treasure.  It was buried up in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  That’s where it ended, but there were a lot of places they had to go, all over the Bay Area, anywhere from into the mountains to behind a street sign near the beach to a library.  And people found it, and they got to name a song on the next record.  They ended up naming the song “Long Days and Vague Clues,” which I assume was based on what they went through.

I think our fans enjoy being interactive with us and doing interesting things like that, and we try to present something like that every time.

Y Spy: Also, there’s a video of you on stage getting busted by fake cops in Europe.  What happened?

Gavin Hayes: The time we were in Germany before that, we got in trouble for being drunk late at night, and we broke bottles or something.  We had the Berlin police send us a note saying we owed money.  It was the perfect setup for a prank, so Drew our bass player took that as a cue to set up a pretty elaborate prank.

He hired two actors to play Berlin P.D. and come on stage.  They looked so real, head to toe police outfits, and I was sold.  They came on stage and said we had to stop, and said that either we pay them 2,000 euro or they’re going to take us to jail.  So we got backstage and everyone’s laughing at us.  That was that.  Hardest I’ve ever been pranked, by far.

Y Spy: When and why did you move to Seattle?

Gavin Hayes: It was for personal reasons, family reasons.  That happened about two years ago.  I’m actually going back to California about early next year.  It was always a temporary move, but I like it up there.

Y Spy: How has the city affected your musical and artistic work, and is it difficult to coordinate with your bandmates?

Gavin Hayes: I made a lot of trips down to the Bay Area, so we did have weeks where we rehearsed and wrote together, but now we can trade music on the internet.  Me not knowing many people in Seattle, not having a group of people I hang out with, I didn’t do much.  From that side of things, I spent more time being creative and productive.

Y Spy: Do you generally work better in a state of exile?

Gavin Hayes: I definitely do, especially when recording vocals.  I love being on my own with my headphones.  It’s much different than being in a room and being on the spot, and trying to have everything be right.  But I like being in a room with the band and improvising; that sets the tone of the song and retains the energy of the band.  From there, I feel like it’s more productive to put it under the microscope and be on my own and focus on the lyrics and melody and make sure everything’s working properly.

Y Spy: As part of a band that has long established itself, is it easier to keep going at this point?

Gavin Hayes: I guess it depends on what you mean by established.  We don’t have a hit song or anything on that level.  When a band puts out a hit song, that follow-up record or single can be make or break.  We grew up with Papa Roach; they had a huge single, and then their next record did really well but not as well.  But now they’ve found the way to maintain their career.  Their records are still doing really well, they’re playing huge shows, and they’re still a very successful act.  If you do get to a certain level you’re probably going to have a certain loyal fanbase that you can rely on.  I don’t think it’s ever that easy to maintain it, though.  It adds more expectations and pressure to your project, or an idea of what your band is.

For a band like us who has been together for 15 years, stylistically things have evolved.  No matter what you do, things are going to change.  You still have fans whose favorite record is your second, your third, or your first.  That’s when they thought you peaked.  Or you have those who think that your last album was your best.  You have all these varying opinions and outlooks of what you should and shouldn’t be.  For our band, we’ve always wanted to progress and keep ourselves interested, and not regurgitate the same record over and over, to keep moving forward with who we are as musicians and people.

Y Spy: So at the moment, how do you view Dredg?

Gavin Hayes: I view our band as confident and aware of what we are.  I like where we are now as opposed to where we were five years ago.  We know who we are, and this is what we do, and we’re not trying to prove anything.  I guess it’s from all those years together.  There’s a certain wisdom of the business now, and just how shit works, and a distaste of the business, which I like.  We’re not flattered by anything in the music world – it’s almost more disgusted by it.  I think that’s a great outlook to have.  It’s allowing us to go down our path and make the records we want to make.  We’ve kind of always done [that], but I feel like we’re more adamant and confident about that direction.

Dredg plays El Corazon in Seattle on Wednesday, November 10th.

Y Spy: Less than Jake goes to TV Land

TV/EP

On their latest release, veteran ska punk band Less than Jake has taken an amusingly odd turn.  As a title like “TV/EP” may indicate, this is a covers collection of 16 theme songs and commercial jingles, few longer than one minute, reformed into the Less than Jake style.  It works out really well.

Trombone and bass player Buddy Schaub described Less than Jake’s newest offering as in keeping with the band’s tendency to veer off into strange territory.  In our conversation, he noted other precedent-setting ventures from the band, including the Travolta-channeling ‘Greased’ EP, which would make an album like TV/EP feel inevitable, yet great fun nonetheless.


Y Spy: TV/EP is a brilliant idea.  What led you to make it?

Buddy Schaub: Back in our early days, we used to cover [the theme songs of] Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days.  We used to do that live at shows and at some point we recorded a few of them.  They were thrown together and half-assed, so for the last few years we had been talking about really doing it for real.  The idea kept escalating, and eventually it came to be what it is now.

The idea kind of came from how you can get those CDs that are all TV show themes.  I’m pretty sure that some other band has done this, but we tried to do a completist ideal.  The concept was like you were sitting on a couch in front of a TV, changing channels.  If you go to our website, we put a continuous stream of the commercials and TV shows that go with each song.  I actually did the video myself.  Having the videos go with the music was the culmination, the truest form of what the idea was.  It’s definitely more of a complete picture, and there’s a little teeny clip of us I snuck in there.

Y Spy: Why did you choose the particular themes and jingles that are on the album?

Buddy Schaub: I don’t know.  Laverne & Shirley we had done before, so we wanted to give that a fair shake.  That was one of the first ones, and while we were practicing we’d brainstorm ideas.  JR stays at my house when we’re doing stuff, and Chris came over a few times and we were going through YouTube videos.  Once you Google one old 80s commercial, 65 of them come up and you keep going through.  We picked songs that we thought we could pull off, stuff that was a bit of a variety and wasn’t all one time period.  Yet there wasn’t a completely methodical plan to how it went.

Y Spy: Was the making of the album a quick process?  There are a lot of tracks on TV/EP, but they’re all really short.

Buddy Schaub: It actually came together really fast.  I thought it was gonna take a little longer than it did.  Once we had taken what we were gonna do we worked it out at the Warehouse a little bit.  At a certain point we just started recording them.  We did it all at Roger’s house.  Once we got the drums down and started putting down the basic tracks it was really easy to start layering the other stuff.  You don’t have to worry about writing lyrics because they’re already there.

It was a great experience because the songs are short and the commercials are even shorter.  But they pack so much songwriting into that little bit of time.  There are crazy harmonies, still a verse chorus verse, a bridge sometimes.  They still manage to pack a full song into a minute, so it was really cool to get into the head space of people that write jingles and TV show themes.

Y Spy: Are you going to be playing these songs live?

Buddy Schaub: We’ve been doing a bunch of weekend shows and throwing them in there.  We’re not going to do the whole album or anything, but we’ve been playing four or five of the songs.

Y Spy: One of the great things about this album is that you’re not taking yourselves too seriously as musicians, and you’re just having fun.  Was the intention to get out of your usual mindset and do something a bit sillier?

Buddy Schaub: Yeah.  We were getting ready to write some new stuff, and we hadn’t done it in a while, and we thought it was a good way to get back into the swing of things.  We still had to do some sort of writing for this and make the songs our own.  It was a good warmup.

Y Spy: You’ve announced a new U.S. tour.  What are its details?

Buddy Schaub: We’re coming back in January after going to Japan and Europe.  It’s starting mid-January, we end somewhere in California in February, and we fly over to Australia to do the Soundwave Festival. It’s pretty much all over the U.S., and it’s with two bands called the Supervillains and Off with Their Heads.  We’re still figuring that out.

Y Spy: Are you preparing a full album?

Buddy Schaub: We’re definitely writing songs.  I’m not sure exactly what we’re going to do with them yet.  We’ve already got ten shelves of songs that we got done before this onslaught of touring that we’re getting ready to start up.  After we come back in January, we’re gonna either try to finish demoing out some of the ideas or see how far we can get with them.  I’m not sure what our plans are yet, but there will be new material.  Hopefully you’ll be hearing original music from us in the upcoming year.  Never fear!  There’s always new stuff to be written!

TV/EP is available now.  More information can be found at www.lessthanjake.com.

Y Spy: Vienna Teng Is Vanishing

Alex Wong and Vienna Teng

This weekend’s Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle will serve as the last performance by pianist Vienna Teng before she leaps into her new life as a graduate student.  The music world would do well to be envious.  Over the past decade Teng has amassed a catalogue of heartwrenching songs spanning the gaps between pop, folk, and classical music.  With producer Alex Wong being made an equal partner, the duo recently released The Moment Always Vanishing, a magnificent live album which expands Teng’s established songs into full-live orchestrations.  It’s a fine (and hopefully very temporary) stopping point.

With Wong popping in to expand upon a few points, Vienna Teng discussed the formation of their team, making the live album, and walking away.

Y Spy: As opposed to your previous releases, The Moment Always Vanishing is credited as Vienna Teng and Alex Wong.  Is that a permanent change?

Vienna Teng: I’m actually going away from being a full-time musician right after Bumbershoot, so I guess that is an open question.  I’m gonna be starting grad school about two days after we play.  I would say yes in the sense that Alex and I definitely intend to keep working together and to make music together, but we’re also independent entities.  He definitely has his own projects.  It was more a recognition of a collaboration of peers.

Alex Wong: It’s definitely something that we talked about.  The show became more of a collaboration, and it felt appropriate. We’ve talked about other collaborations that we would like to do, something outside of the pop world, maybe more of a theater-type show.  The live shows are going to come to an end, but we’ll definitely be making stuff for a long time.

Y Spy: How did you come to work together?

Vienna Teng: We actually met at an open mic long before we started working together.  We became friends, and I was a huge fan of his band that played that night, the Animators.  We stayed in touch, so whenever our paths intersected we would do a show together.  Eventually it became an annual thing that for the holidays, since we both grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, we would both end up at home with our parents and we’d play a show in San Francisco together.

About three years ago, his schedule opened up and he offered to play with me, which was really exciting for me.  He’s a really imaginative live player as well as a good producer, so I wanted to see what the songs would be like if he got to reimagine them from his perspective.  That’s what we’ve been doing for the past three years, and people have really been responding to it, so we wanted to make a live record to commemorate.

Y Spy: How has Alex’s presence changed the live show?

Vienna Teng: I played solo for pretty much the entire first year that I was a full-time musician.  That’s where I was most comfortable for a long time.  Alex is the first person I’ve collaborated with; it has become a very solid partnership.  I’ve gotten to be comfortable with this other person on stage and feel completely in sync.

We’ll be playing Bumbershoot as a duo plus extra firepower, which is inaccurately named the Vienna Teng Trio.  Alex will be playing a custom percussion setup that he’s developed for the show that we do.  He plays a lot of acoustic instruments that he hooks mics on and then runs through different effects.  It creates a really cool half electronic/half acoustic sound.  He also plays keyboards and guitar, and a lot of exotic percussion instruments, and he sings as well.  What’s really cool about what he does is that he multitasks, so he’ll be playing drums and keyboards and a percussion instrument at the same time.

We’re also joined by a guy named Ward Williams who plays cello and electric guitar and sings.  It’s really fun creating that much sound with three people.

Alex Wong: Since we’ve started working together on the live shows, we’ve definitely spent more time deconstructing songs and trying to reconstruct them as duo.  There’s a lot more attention to layers and sounds, and how to tell the story with more interesting arrangements.

Y Spy: How did you go about making a live album?

Vienna Teng: We decided to record in what we call our two hometowns: San Francisco and New York.  We did two shows in one night in New York, in a place called Joe’s Pub, and we did two shows in San Francisco at the club where we’d have our holiday shows, The Independent.  We just wanted to capture the energy of those two cities.  We caught the best performances of those four shows and made it into a single show.

Alex Wong: The show had been developing for the last year, year and a half, before we recorded it.  We both had been evolving our parts and setups for this live show, and it became this thing that felt pretty unique, and it started to become farther removed from what was happening on the studio records.  We wanted to have something that represented what we did together live.  A lot of the songs are different in arrangement and sounds, and there were a lot of people who were asking for that version of those songs.

Y Spy: There’s a lot of back and forth between you and the audience, and you explain a lot of what’s behind your songs.  Was that always the plan?

Vienna Teng: That was a fan request.  We put a live DVD of a special show in Philadelphia where we had a bigger band that we never toured with.  People enjoyed that, but they did say that there wasn’t any talking on that DVD.  We had cut it out because we thought that I’m just talking, just blabbering, so who wants to have that?  But for some reason that was something people said that they enjoy about the show, so we decided to include it.

Y Spy: As opposed to a lot of live albums, yours put the stage talk into separate tracks, giving the listener the opportunity to keep it or skip into the action.

Vienna Teng: We kind of went back and forth with it.  We didn’t want to put all the talking at the beginning of tracks, because that’s a lot to fast forward through.  We’ve also heard albums where they’ve put the next song’s intro at the end of the previous track.  We just made them separate so that people could create a list of just songs.

Y Spy: One thing that stood out on the live album was the extensive use of loops in “The Last Snowfall,” which contrasted with a lot of songs which sounded more straightforward.  Was the idea to bring more electronic and production techniques to the live show?

Vienna Teng: There is a fair amount of electronics going on in certain songs.  Other songs are “No Gringo” and “Gravity.”  There’s a little bit of looping or sometimes effects that Alex, Ward, and I are using.  Hopefully it sounds seamless most of the time, and people wonder afterwards where all that sound was coming from.

Maybe “The Last Snowfall” was the least subtle.  Because on the studio album it was five or six people singing, I knew I couldn’t perform the song unless I had some other way of doing it.  I bought that looper and was experimenting with it, so that arrangement came out of buying a new toy and figuring out how to do that song which would be impossible to do otherwise.

Alex and I have one rule: that we don’t want to include anything prerecorded in the show.  We think it’s really important to create something where the audience is aware that all of it is happening in the moment.  There is that tightrope walk, that whenever I do “The Last Snowfall” all of the lines are being sung in front of everybody.  It’s not like I had a bunch of backing vocals that are prerecorded and are never wrong.  There’s something about the organic nature of creating things live, even if you’re creating and recording them live and then playing them back.

Y Spy: How did you release The Moment Always Vanishing?

Vienna Teng: We have a very generous record label, Rounder.  They said that live albums don’t sell nearly as well at retail.  We truly understood that they didn’t want to throw all their firepower behind it, so we said that we wanted to make it for our fans, and asked permission to print a set number of copies and sell those at our shows and online.  It’s not an official Rounder release, but it definitely came out with Rounder’s blessing and a bit of their support.  We’re very grateful for that.

Y Spy: How did going on to grad school and putting your music career on hold come about?

Vienna Teng: The program I’m going into is basically Sustainable Enterprise Studies, so it’s a dual degree in Environmental Science and Business, an MBA and a Master’s.  It’s something that has been a dream of mine as long as pursuing music has been.  It just felt like the right time to go.

I was recently thinking about how much joy I get from running away to music, rather than having it be my full-time pursuit.  I think that a lot of good music will come out of procrastinating on homework assignments.

Y Spy: Have you had other moments in your career when music wasn’t your top priority?

Vienna Teng: Only in the very beginning.  I’ve been super lucky; pretty much from the time I quit my software engineering job in 2002, I’ve never had a day job.  [Music was] the thing that paid my bills – sometimes barely paid my bills.

Y Spy: Are you still gathering new songs?

Vienna Teng: Yeah.  Recently I was at home for a while and started writing again.  I have this idea for an album that’s in its very starting stages.  I’m a very slow writer, so I think it’s gonna take a couple of years for all the songs to take shape.  There will be a studio album in the future, but not yet.  Maybe in the meantime I’ll release something a little lower pressure, like a holiday album or an album of covers, or a bunch of assorted songs that were co-written with friends over the years.

Y Spy: Alex, because of the level of work you’ve done together, will it be hard to adjust to music beyond Vienna Teng?

Alex Wong: Definitely.  I really enjoyed working with Vienna.  She’s an amazing talent.  I will miss playing with her.  This project has consumed more of my time than anything else over the last couple years.  There will definitely be some withdrawal.

Y Spy: What else have you been working on lately?

Alex Wong: Most recently I did a track on Elizabeth and the Catapult’s upcoming record.  I just finished producing Ari Hest’s upcoming record.  I produced The Paper Raincoat’s existing record, which is also my band.  I’m singing and playing guitar in that project; it’s a duo with Amber Rubarth, who is another singer-songwriter.  I will be touring with the Paper Raincoat and working on some more production and writing projects in New York.

Y Spy: Vienna, as you’re about to take this big step in your life, how do you feel about your musical career to this point?

Vienna Teng: I feel really good about it.  It’s one of those paradoxes in that I feel that I couldn’t leave music unless I felt like I had gotten where I should be, but at the same time when you get there, you think “Why am I leaving?”  The only answer I can give is that, somehow, music gave me permission to move on.  That’s how it felt.

Y Spy: Was there a certain point when you felt that you had achieved everything you set out to do?

Vienna Teng: No.  I don’t think so at all.  I don’t think I’ve checked everything off my list.  There are people I haven’t gotten to collaborate with yet, instruments I haven’t learned to play.  I’ve never completely self-produced my own album, which I hope to do someday.  Bumbershoot is definitely a big thing that I would have had on that list to check off, so it’s nice that that’s happening right before school starts.  There’s still a lot of exciting stuff in music that I would like to do, but I think it crossed over into “That would be nice” rather than “I can’t give up until that happens.”

The Vienna Teng Trio will play Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival on Sunday, September 5th at 8:30 pm. “The Moment Always Vanishing” is available now.  More information is available at www.viennateng.com.

Y Spy: Hypernova Goes Solar

Hypernova: Kami, Jam, Raam, and Kodi

Hypernova doesn’t want to be your One Iranian Band. In fact, if the band’s country of origin wasn’t tacked onto every scrap of its press and promotion, one would never know the difference. Its recently released first full-length album, “Through the Chaos,” stops short of being cheerful, but it is a full-bodied rock record with a spring in its step and a promise of a bright future. If you’re expecting cheap shots against the Ayatollahs or President Ahmadinejad, however, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Instead, Hypernova’s themes of love, sadness, and rebellion are universal, readable without a frame of reference – and the accompanying music is great fun to dance to.

It’s difficult to avoid the subject of Iran coming up in connection with the band, and to be fair, it is part of the story. What this band has gone through to get where it is puts the majority of so-called rock rebels to shame. In our conversation, Hypernova’s singer, codenamed Raam, was content to discuss the band’s history with Iran, so long as it never became a dwelling point. Throughout, Raam minced few words, freely speaking his mind on his band and life, never fearing to be self-critical. Yet whenever we moved into more political subjects, he always turned the conversation back to the music. This wasn’t an evasion, but an implicit statement of where his focus lies.

Y Spy: Many bands that come to America become advertised as being from their home country, and Hypernova is no exception. Do you ever get tired of your band being looked at as an ambassador for Iran?

Raam: Oh, all the time. It’s hard being pigeonholed into this idea that you’re of interest due to the nature of where you come from. It takes away from what we’re really about, which is the music. We want our music to speak for itself, and we want people to appreciate that and then care about the story and what we’ve gone through. To us, that is secondary. We came here to be able to play and share our music. We didn’t come here with an idea of being peace ambassadors or [to be] this image that people have made us out to be. Obviously I do feel a responsibility in representing my culture, my country, my history in a more positive light. But that’s a cool thing on the side.

Y Spy: How did Hypernova come together?

Raam: I met my drummer at a military camp ten years ago in Iran when we had to do our mandatory time. We didn’t do the full two year service; we only did a couple of weeks, which was more like a summer camp for kids who could afford to buy off the military thing. We both loved rock and roll, and we started our first band together. I didn’t play any instruments, but I spoke English so I became the singer. For several years we played on different names in the undergrounds of Iran. We went through many different members, and eventually we came up with the lineup that is Hypernova now. We realized that we were on to something while playing as Hypernova for these last couple of years, [so] we decided to let go of everything else in our lives and commit ourselves full-time to this, to what we love, the only thing that we’re half-decent at.

Y Spy: What influences did you bring into making music, and how does one find such influences in a theocracy?

Raam: Growing up in Iran we used to have bootleg cassettes. I still have my collection back home. We used to trade mixtapes and whatever we could find. It’s very hard to find new music; people just shared whatever they had. We came across all these random and obscure bands, but also the big bands like Queen and Pink Floyd. We listened to all sorts of rock and roll: punk, new wave, garage, Britpop, grunge, indie. We just kept listening to as much as we could, trying to find our own sound. We started up in a very garage, punky band, and developed and evolved. To this day, we’re still expanding our musical horizons. We’ve been trying to confine ourselves to a specific genre, but it’s harder and harder to listen to rock music now because it has a way of seeping into your brain, causing you to lose the originality of your creativity without even knowing it. So I try to limit myself in terms of listening to rock music.

Y Spy: How does one operate a rock band in Iran?

Raam: It’s not an easy thing to do at all. The whole nature of the game is: it’s illegal. You can’t perform publicly; you can’t distribute your music. You have to do everything on your own, whether it’s putting on underground shows, or recording, or distributing. It’s quite a hassle. There’s no money to be made in this. There are always people making fun of you, [saying that] you’re crazy trying to be a rock band in Iran. But the whole idea behind rock and roll is the ability to dream of being a rock star someday and putting everything into your project. For us, we’ve been through so many struggles. We just believed in ourselves so much and we were so passionate about what we were doing that we just never gave up. We worked harder and harder in the hope that we could one day leave Iran and travel around the world and be able to play freely, without fear of reprisal.

There’s only so far you can go in the underground scene. Ultimately, you’re gonna have to leave the country to tour and distribute your music and be heard. The Internet has become very helpful in sharing your work, but there’s so much competition to be heard. We’ve been very fortunate to make it this far. When we first came [to America] there was so much hype around our story that I didn’t feel we deserved all this attention. I was embarrassed about a lot of it. But as musicians, we were just trying to get a break, trying really hard to make it. We’re such hard workers and we know that we have so much potential. Hopefully down the road we’ll get to the place in our lives where we’ll look back and say that we did something really cool, that we did something that we believed in.

Y Spy: Did you have run-ins with the law in Iran?

Raam: All of us have been arrested on random things. In terms of our music and underground shows, we were so careful. A couple of parties got raided but we never got arrested. We were very careful in terms of always bringing lookouts and having extra money put aside to bribe the police if they came. You can bribe the police, but you can’t bribe the moral police. Those guys are pretty tough.

We planned things out in advance to make sure that [the shows wouldn’t get] too crowded. That was one of the problems – once the word would get out, everybody would want to come. One of our friends threw this big concert, and several hundred people showed up. Obviously, it caused such a commotion that the cops showed up and took a couple hundred people away to jail.

Y Spy: You recorded your first EP (“Who Says You Can’t Rock in Iran?”) while in Iran. What were the processes involved in recording and distributing this?

Raam: There was a friend of ours who was a producer. We had built this in-home, really crappy studio at our place and started recording demos. We put bits and pieces together, sometimes at my place, sometimes at his place, using whatever knowledge we had at the time. We usually sent it by email to all our friends and fans. We didn’t have a CD first; it was a very basic way of getting an introduction to what Hypernova is all about.

Hypernova live at Studio Seven in Seattle

Y Spy: When did you decide to come to the States? How did it happen?

Raam: We came to the States in 2007. I had heard about this festival called South by Southwest, and I decided to send one of those crappy demos to the festival. I didn’t think they would care about us, and when they sent us a letter [inviting us to] the showcase, it was one of the coolest days of our lives.

We had to go this whole process of getting petitions for work permits, having to go to the U.S. consulate in Dubai to apply for visas. This whole process took so many months, waiting for the paperwork to go through. There were so many security clearances because of the nature of where we’re from. The first time, they denied our visas because we were unable to prove that we are a legitimate band. How do you prove that you’re a legitimate band when there’s no musical press, when everything is underground? We got very lucky that the people who were doing our paperwork got in touch with the New York Senator’s office of Charles Schumer. They sent a fax to the U.S. consulate. We don’t know what they wrote, but the next time we turned up for an interview, two weeks later, they didn’t even interview us. They just gave us our visas. We were absolutely surprised.

When we came here, we had no intention of staying here more than a couple of weeks. We had round-trip tickets for three weeks, and we didn’t have that much money, just a guitar and a suitcase. We didn’t have a clear idea of how the music industry operates. One thing led to another, and three years later, here we are, still! We got signed, we’re doing tours, and hopefully we’re going to be doing tours in Europe and the rest of the world pretty soon. It’s been a journey full of ups and downs and many adventures, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Y Spy: What’s your current legal status in the States?

Raam: Currently we’re on entertainment visas. Hopefully we’ll be able to get more permanent status as we achieve more success. No band from our country has ever come as far as we have. We sort of set the bar in terms of rock and roll from Iran; now we’ve opened the way for so many other bands to do the same thing. So many people have supported us and our cause over the years that I wanna help out and be there for the kids back home who believed in me and gave me a chance to do this.

Y Spy: Each band member goes by a pseudonym, the given reason being to protect family and friends back in Iran. Is the government’s reaction to your music a real danger?

Raam: Some of my friends who are musicians and have gone back, they’ve been arrested at the airport, they’ve been hassled, their families have been hassled. [Due to] the nature of the jobs that some of our parents have, some of them are in very delicate places. To be honest, I’m pretty sure that none of [the authorities] know who we really are. One thing that we’re trying to be conscious about is staying away from a lot of the Iranian press, because they try to politicize things. We have very strong ideals and we stand up for what we believe is just and right, but at the end of the day we want to be first about the music.

It’s a hard thing. Because of the nature of where we’re from, a lot of people try to politicize the band. I hate questions like: “What do you think about the nuclear standoff between the U.S. and Iran?” What do you want me to say? I don’t even know how to answer that question. I’m for the abolishment of all nuclear arsenals. Sometimes they don’t realize that we’re a bunch of kids who came here for the love of music more than anything else.

Y Spy: Let’s discuss your song, “Viva la Resistance.” It’s a song that feels political, but could be read as a normal rebellion song if one didn’t know the origin of the band. Was it meant to be specific of your country, or a more universal song?

Raam: I write from the perspective of a kid growing up in the underground of Iran, but within a global context. The first album is a pretty simple, straightforward album. The whole idea of “Through the Chaos” is to tell the story of all the things we’ve been through to get where we are today. All the songs are very personal, but anyone in the world can read between the lines and lyrics and relate to it as well.

Y Spy: How was “Though the Chaos” put together?

Raam: We were in L.A., and we were very fortunate to find people to help us out in finding proper producers, or helping us with funding, and getting the album recorded. We met the producer, Herwig [Maurer], and we got Sean Beavan, who has done Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, to mix the album. The whole process didn’t go exactly the way we wanted it to. It was our first real take at a studio project, and we were very naïve. In terms of understanding how the studio works, we weren’t that knowledgeable. The whole process seemed a little rushed. In the end, I’m really proud and happy to finally achieve something that kids have tried for back home. At the same time, we always strive for perfection, and I don’t feel that we were able to do justice to the sound that is Hypernova. But it was an interesting process for us to learn.

Y Spy: What would you do different on the next album?

Raam: For the next album, there are a lot of things that we’ll do different. If you’ve seen the live show, so many people are blown away. We’re a live band first, then a studio band. I understand how hard that is to transfer that raw energy of a show to a polished studio album, but hopefully in the future we’ll be able to represent the richness and fullness of the band more in the way we are live.

Raam at Studio Seven in Seattle

Y Spy: One other song that caught my attention was “American Dream,” which describes idealism turning into disillusionment. How autobiographical was that song?

Raam: It’s the idea of not being able to go home to the life we once had. Once you get a taste of this whole crazy, insane rock and roll lifestyle, it’s hard to go back to the normal, innocent kid who you once were. Everybody has this dream of coming to America and trying to make it here. We were no different than anybody else. When we came here we accomplished many things, but there was a price we had to pay. There were many sacrifices, especially in L.A. There was so much vanity catching up with us that I realized that I had turned into anything I had ever hated in this world. It was asking myself: is this the life that you wanted?

Y Spy: Was there a culture shock involved in this?

Raam: I was born in Iran, but during the 80s I grew up in the States for six, seven years. My bandmates haven’t been that familiar with life outside of Iran, so it was a bit of a culture shock in the beginning. Very quickly, they adapted to the lifestyle. In terms of coming to the States with nothing and having this rollercoaster of a life, it really messes with your head. There are a lot of things in this line of work that mess with your head. You always have to stay grounded and stay humble, and not let your ego get out of control. Just do what you love without fear of consequences. It’s just sometimes so hard. There’s all this madness around, but that’s the cliché of rock and roll.

Y Spy: What songs on the album have hidden meaning?

Raam: I feel like our song, “See the Future,” tells the story of these two kids who fall in love during the war. Growing up in Iran, I still remember the sounds of sirens going off when bombs are falling on the city. All of us went through really crazy things during the war. I think that song’s another really personal song, trying to figure out what’s going to happen at the end, for all of us who are on this ride. But from the first song to the last, [“Through the Chaos”] is a very simple introduction to what Hypernova is. For us, it’s trying to find our sound. Both musically and lyrically we’ve really evolved ever since we recorded this [about] two years ago.

Y Spy: What has reaction been to the album?

Raam: It’s been really overwhelmingly positive. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that so many people are digging the album and enjoying the tunes. As artists we have to play these songs so many times. Sometimes it gets hard for you to get in touch with the meaning of the song when it becomes so repetitive for you. But that’s the beauty: even though you write a song, sometimes I feel like you’re not the fully rightful owner of the song. Your fans who listen to the song, they relate to it sometimes more than you do. We don’t even listen to our own music.

We’ve gotten so much praise; there are also critics who gave negative reviews, and I appreciate that, too. It keeps you grounded and reminds you how much harder you have to work in becoming a better musician and a better band.

Y Spy: Have you met any prejudice in America?

Raam: We had some hate mail when we came here in the beginning, people telling us to go back to our country. We didn’t know much about a lot of Americans. We toured for 36 days, and we’ve seen so many great things in America, so many cool people that I would have thought otherwise if I hadn’t met them personally. That’s one of the cool things about our journey: we’re able to bring people together through music. We play Midwest America, and there are all these people who have never seen someone from Iran. They’re very skeptical about us at first, but after our shows they connect on such a personal, human level. Everyone realizes the fundamental human truth that we’re all really the same. Our similarities outweigh our differences.

Y Spy: As part of a band that has literally had to fight for its music, how do you view the convenience and availability of music, which today often feels produced by default?

Raam: Obviously the convenience of being able to walk into a venue, playing and drinking their beer without worrying about the police is a great comfort. But at the same time, it makes people complacent, sort of indifferent as well. You have to work that much harder to entertain people; I think that’s a really cool challenge, actually.

I see people on the subway in New York all the time who are such amazing musicians that I wonder: how did this guy end up in the subway? Every day I hear a band or musician and wonder: how is it that no one’s ever heard of this? You realize how hard it is to make it in this industry. There’s so much competition. Almost every single person I know in [my] neighborhood is in a band. Because of the internet, people have been given this power to share their music freely without the big record label monopolies dictating what’s going to be distributed or not. At the same time, what do you listen to? I listen to a lot of classical music, because trying to catch up with all the music is just so hard.

There are so many bands that I wonder why they’re even playing. I’m surprised that a lot of people even pick up a guitar and start playing. I assume everybody starts out like that. Maybe there are too many bands in the world. Maybe it’s better to have bands and musicians than people who make atom bombs.

Y Spy: With music coming from every angle and often as a corporate product, what is its role today as a tool of legitimate dissent?

Raam: The reason why governments like Iran are afraid of artists and musicians is because they understand that art and music have this ability to inspire people the way that politicians can’t. I think that’s why they try so hard to put [them] down. [In terms of] the corporations of the West, it’s become very difficult, because the corporations have a pretty strong grasp on the market. All the radio stations and music television stations are dictating what the general tastes of the masses should be. But there are a lot of cool people finding innovative, creative ways of trying to share their music and staying true to what their ideals are. Everybody has a price; it’s just how low it is.

Hypernova

Y Spy: What are your touring plans for the future?

Raam: We’re going to be touring across the States in mid-June, which is very fun. For us, the ultimate form of freedom is when you’re on the road, and you don’t have to worry about the landlord and the rent and all the other nonsense. When you’re on the road you don’t really think about anything, and that’s such a blissful state of mind. Every night, you’re going to be playing in front of an audience and they’re going to be digging your music – or even not! It’s the opportunity to travel and meet interesting and new, crazy people. Every city we go to, we find the weirdest people; we party with them; we have the times of our lives. We’ve become so addicted to this lifestyle of change and variety; it’s really hard for us to stay put.

Y Spy: So adventure trumps stability.

Raam: We’re all about the adventure. It’s not going to end anytime soon for us.

Hypernova is Raam, Kami, Kodi, and Jam. “Through the Chaos” is out now. More information can be found at www.hypernova.com.