Thursday, May 18, 2017

REVIEW - Roger Ebner: New World

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Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist Roger Ebner is one of the quietest and most unassuming cats you’ll ever meet - until you let your guard down and he hits you over the head with an aural sledgehammer.

An avid musician for more than four decades, Ebner was one of the 30-plus musicians who comprised the “25th Anniversary” lineup of Pigface that brought magic and madness to audiences at Reggie’s and the House of Blues in Chicago last Black Friday and Thanksgiving. As seen below, his contributions to this most recent incarnation of the infamous revolving-door musical maelstrom ranged from the incendiary (the show-opening “Insemination”) to the serene (the transcendental “Closer To Heaven”). At times, his saxophone wails were just as powerful as the multitude of drummers keeping the beat throughout the proceedings.

Ebner’s participation in the Pigface circus was not just an opportunity to explore sound with a few dozen new friends; for him, stepping on stage for those two nights meant overcoming an obstacle that once threatened to destroy his life.

After suffering from a mysterious physical ailment that robbed him of his ability to play music for several years, Ebner was finally diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2010. After a few months of proper medication and therapy, he slowly regained his ability to play saxophone (his primary instrument). Ebner’s extensive post-therapy musical output includes the fourth album by his long-running band Yeti Rain (Stars Fall Darkly), the Irresolution album by the Progressive Improv project Ebner/Kopecky/Walkner/Blake and collaborations with Chicago House DJs on the Pool House and Aathee labels. Along the way, he started Music For Movement, an entity founded to raise awareness and funding for Parkinson’s research. Most recently, WGN-TV hosted the below segment on Ebner as part of its Living Healthy Chicago series:

With a portion of the profits from its sale going directly to the cause, Ebner’s latest release, the six-song New World, is an extraordinary statement on the healing power of music and one man’s willingness to pour his passions, struggles and successes into song. Ambient and often quite relaxing, New World easily fits in more with the World music-driven Bill Laswell/M.O.D. Technologies camp (or the less abrasive side of the RareNoise Records stable) than with the typical aggression of Pigface. He is joined on the recording by guests Joe and William Kopecky (both of the Wisconsin-based group of the same name) and percussionists Craig Walkner (Yeti Rain/Fringe Character/Bascom Hill/Far Corner/Snarling Adjective Convention) and Dimitar Dimitrov (who credits include the Black Metal project Haiku Funeral with William Kopecky and the equally dark Corpus Diavolis).

Considering Ebner’s connections to the Chicago House/Industrial world, it’s little surprise that the excellent “Redline” (featuring Joe Kopecky on guitar) effortlessly mixes his Jazzy sax with a Wax Trax!-flavored electronic pulse. Exceptional (and often dirge-like) guitar work from Joe Kopecky, bass playing by William Kopecky (also of Yeti Rain) and percussion from Walkner and Dimitrov add considerable power to “As The Sun Rises” as it grows in intensity over seven minutes, while William Kopecky adds his low-end skills to the equally percussion-driven “Walkabout.”

New World’s finest moment, “Louise,” finds a completely solo Ebner delivering the same kind of Jazzy, smoke-filled-room-at-3am vibe you’d expect to hear on a really good Bad Seeds song, while a soothing piano/keyboard mix (augmented by some fantastic wind synth) drives the one-man-band title track. Ebner also completely oversees the exquisite “Morocco Night,” a nine-minute number highlighted by Eno-esque ambience and tasteful percussion.

One of the magical things about the Pigface experience is that there are literally dozens (hell, hundreds) of individuals involved who have their own unique stories to tell and musical gifts to share. Roger Ebner is among the best of the lot, and New World serves as a brilliant introduction to what he has to offer.   

New World is available at Roger Ebner’s official website.


Words for Chris Cornell

Like many, I started my day deeply saddened by the news of Chris Cornell’s passing.

Chris’ work with Soundgarden has been a major part of my experience as a music fan since I snuck downstairs as a young kid in the late ‘80s and saw the video for “Loud Love” on Headbangers Ball. I loved them instantly. When the Seattle scene overtook the music world two years later, Soundgarden remained the strongest band of the lot. Then came Superunknown – in my opinion, the definitive masterpiece of that era. That was more than a record – that was truly a soundtrack for a generation. It also solidified this man’s immortality.

Last year while visiting Seattle, I was delighted to come across the Sub Pop store at the Seattle–Tacoma International Airport. I immediately went to find some Soundgarden, and I walked away with (among many other goodies) the double-vinyl reissue of Screaming Life/Fopp. Listening to it now as I write this, I’m amazed by how well this music holds up three decades after it was recorded. Truly hard-hitting and innovative. (I’ll even go this far - “Nothing To Say” could have found a comfortable spot on The Stooges’ Fun House.) It is heartbreaking to know that Chris and Soundgarden will now be referred to in the past tense forever.

But my God, the power I’m feeling in these grooves right now is immense.

As of this writing, many reports are stating that Chris’ death was likely a suicide. That makes this morning’s news all the more intolerable. Today serves as another reminder that we must always keep an eye on those closest to us – those who seem to have an idyllic existence on the surface might actually be the ones with the greatest potential to say goodbye too soon. If anything positive comes out of today, please let it be the greater ability for us all to spot someone’s decline before it is too late.

Rest in Peace Chris.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Where the Alphabet Starts with Z: Revisiting Tones on Tail (and More) with Poptone

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“I sound 25 years younger than I did a month ago!”

Those were among the first words former Bauhaus/Tones on Tail/Love and Rockets guitarist Daniel Ash said over the phone to me following an especially productive rehearsal at a studio in Burbank. The level of enthusiasm in Ash’s voice was hard to ignore as he detailed the birth of Poptone, the new band he has formed with drummer and fellow Bauhaus/Tones on Tail/Love and Rockets bandmate Kevin Haskins and Haskins’ daughter Diva Dompe. Poptone offer a career-spanning set encompassing music from all three of the pair’s legendary acts. Longtime fans who’ve loved Tones On Tail’s sole album (1984’s Pop) and Ash’s lead vocal turns in Bauhaus or Love and Rockets now have an opportunity to witness these moments in a live setting.

After making their onstage debut via two sold-out shows at the Swing House in Los Angeles late last month, Poptone launches a tour tonight in Tempe, AZ that will keep them on the road through October. (Confirmed dates – with more to come – are available HERE.) Additionally, the band have launched a PledgeMusic campaign for a digital album (due out in October) culled from live studio recordings and the best of the 2017 shows.

Poptone is a dream come true for those who grew up absolutely loving this material (most of which hasn’t been performed live in nearly a quarter century), but the reality is that this whole thing wasn’t supposed to happen at all. For years, Ash had absolutely no interest in performing live on stage, let along playing any of these songs in front of an audience. One evening earlier this year, he fell asleep in his living room while listening to music on headphones. When he awoke several hours later, the desire to hit the stage was once again at the forefront of his mind.

“I can’t explain it; it suddenly, after all these years, felt completely right at that moment in time. It was a complete turnaround from what I had been thinking for many years…It suddenly became apparent at that time that I should actually go out and play live again. I never thought I would do that. It just crystal clear to me at four o’ clock in the morning; it was so obvious. People had been pestering me to do it for a long time. We have a guy named Christopher the Minister; he’s basically our manager and a personal friend of mine for many years. He’s wanted me to go out for years and years, but it’s never felt right. I really got burnt out and jaded with the whole thing several years ago. I was just told that it’s been about eight or nine years – maybe even 11 years – since I’ve actually gone out on the road.”

Before long, Ash was talking with Haskins about where to go next. Like Bauhaus and Love and Rockets (which both featured Haskins’ brother, the incomparable David J, on bass and occasional vocals), Poptone is a family affair. When the topic of a bass player came up, Dompe was a clear choice.

“The chemistry is really good; she really fit in instantly,” says Haskins. “It’s like finding the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle that fits perfectly. I find that, as a rhythm unit, we lock in really well.”

No stranger to performing, Dompe has been releasing “utopian avant-Pop” music for years now. Formerly of the Los Angeles band BlackBlack (which featured her sister, Lola, on drums), Dompe is working on her fourth full-length album, Fungal Symbiotic Cyborg Astral Humanoid, which is her first release under the moniker “Diva” since 2015’s Divinity in Thee. Last month, she released Zjumk, an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR)-triggering instrumental New Age album under the moniker Yialmelic Frequencies. (The Bandcamp page for the release describes it “musical experimentations from Starseed Diva Dompe channeled from her home planet Yialmel.”) Dompe’s various creative and/or meditative adventures are detailed on her official website.

Naturally, she had more than a passing familiarity with all three of her father’s bands growing up.

“I definitely appreciate it from a fan-listener perspective. I think my dad’s always been in really innovative bands.”

So which of the three groups does she prefer the most?

“I feel like it changes as I go through different changes in my life. Maybe I would have been more into Bauhaus as a teenager and kind of matched that energy a little bit more, but I really like the innovation and quirkiness of Tones on Tail. I’ve also really been just enjoying the Love and Rockets songs a lot. It kind of has a happy Pop side to it, much more than the other bands.”

“When Kevin suggested to me that Diva audition on bass, I immediately said yes,” says Ash of Dompe’s arrival in Poptone. “I love the way she looks; I was thinking, ‘If she can play as good as she looks, it’ll be fantastic!’ She’s very visual, and I think that’s going to be very powerful for the band. She’s great new blood in a band setup like this anyway, and the fact that she’s Kevin’s daughter is of great interest to the public. I think it’s going to be a real plus. The chemistry between the three of us is great. It’s quite quirky; it’s not obvious Rock ‘n’ Roll at all, because Diva’s not like that. She’s not a Rock chick at all. I like her whole persona a lot. It’s not that obvious Rock ‘n’ Roll thing. That’s very appealing to me. We’ll put it this way – This is not Metallica! It’s very Tones on Tail.”

Fans who’ve heard the songs that comprise the wildly eclectic (if sadly short) Tones on Tail discography know exactly what Ash means. Formed in 1982 as a side project away from the then-peaking Bauhaus, Tones on Tail found Ash (and eventually Haskins) joining forces with bassist Glenn Campling. A pair of EPs (1982’s eponymous effort and ’83’s Burning Skies) preceded the release of Pop, a solid – if utterly bizarre – album that elevated the vibe of Bauhaus’ more experimental moments to the nth degree. The whole Tones on Tail adventure was over by ’84, with Ash and Haskins soon to reunite with David J for a long career as Love and Rockets and Campling settling down with a career in commercial art. Unless they somehow caught Tones on Tail’s small American live jaunt 33 years ago, the Poptone tour is the first time that US audiences will be able to experience this material live.

In an uncommon move, Poptone recently posted their entire set list on their Facebook pagerevealing an intriguing selection of songs that weighs heavily on Tones On Tail’s limited (but greatly revered) back catalog.

“We’re basically choosing the tracks that we perceive that people want to hear,” Ash explains. “They don’t want to hear some obscure number from a solo album; they want to hear their favorite tracks. I can’t say ‘hits,’ because we didn’t exactly have any hits; none of the bands were really commercial in that respect. But we’re looking at the tracks that we think are obvious that people want to hear. It’s very simple; we’re not playing anything obscure.”

(For the record, the set does include “Flame On,” a track from Ash’s long-running solo career.  Additionally, they’ll be performing covers of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” – which they used to do live with Tones On Tail – and Adam and the Ants’ “Physical.”)

Not surprisingly, going back in time to re-live the Tones on Tail era has been an interesting experience for Haskins, who had to dig up the old sound effects used during the band’s original run for the current string of dates. (“He has them all on floppy discs!” says Dompe.) Like Ash, he is excited to finally be able to perform this work for a new generation.

“Once a year over the past three or four years, Daniel and I talked about doing Tones on Tail again. For both of us, it was one of our favorite projects, and it’s never been revisited…It really didn’t get to see much light of day. So we kind of thought it would be fun and great to do those songs. They still stand up today and sound interesting. From mostly talking to my daughters’ friends and going to events, I just got a feeling that [both] young and old people would be interested and really excited to hear that material. Plus, Daniel sang all those songs, whereas we’re a little bit limited with Bauhaus and, to a certain degree, Love and Rockets as well with song choices.

“I must give Glenn Campling a nod, because his input on Tones on Tail was amazing,” he adds. “He’s a super-talented guy, and everything he came up with – bass lines, keyboard parts, vocal harmonies – was amazing work.”

(After years out of the spotlight, Campling recently resurfaced with a new project called Lonestation.)

Those who catch a Poptone show will take part in a celebration of a musical history that has spanned three bands and nearly four decades. Not surprisingly, the experience of working with Haskins and Dompe in this way has led Ash to reflect on his past – especially his brief-but-fruitful time with Tones On Tail.

“The chemistry in Love and Rockets, Tones on Tail and Bauhaus is very, very different. It’s weird; give or take a member and it completely changes with the chemistry of the people in those three bands. I do recall though with Tones on Tail, it was the most fun for me. There were no commercial pressures whatsoever, but at the same time, I did want to make commercially accessible records. I wanted to make music that sounded like it came from another planet, but it was very accessible and not just obscure for the sake of it. I think we achieved that with Tones on Tail. We’ve been rehearsing songs like ‘Twist,’ which is a very strange, funny song. The lyrics in that are really on a planet where the alphabet starts with ‘Z.’ It did sound like music from elsewhere, and it’s dated very well. If you listen to that stuff now, it could have been made by some band last week. [Tones on Tail] could have happened in 1983, 1973 or 2017. I think it stood the test of time really well. You can’t really pinpoint it; it doesn’t really sound like anything else. I remember at the time that I was very influence by [Brian Eno’s] Here Come the Warm Jets in particular, where Eno would use various styles of music and join them together to create a new sound. I think that’s something we did with Tones to a degree.”

More than three decades after the release of Pop, Ash remains proud of the release and what the project accomplished during its sporadic two-year career.  

“It’s definitely a minority who knew about it. We put that album out, and we did a tiny, little tour in England in 1983 and a tiny, little tour in the US. But because [Pop] was a great album, it sort of built up over the years. It got a reputation because it was one of those special records. I’m not embarrassed by saying that, because I’m satisfied with looking back [on it]. You can listen to it now and it still sounds fresh, and that I’m pleased about.”

The Poptone set also includes the Bauhaus classic “Slice of Life.” Although it remains a brilliant number and one of the brightest spots in Bauhaus’ recorded history, the track had a considerable influence on the band’s tumultuous breakup in 1983 – ultimately leading singer Peter Murphy to split with the other three members for 15 years.

“The first two weeks we were in the studio, the original idea was for us three to go in there and put some backing tracks down, because Pete got double pneumonia,” Ash recalls. “The chemistry was completely different. We were originally just going to put backing tracks down, and then a couple of the tracks turned into fully finished ones – ‘Who Killed Mr. Moonlight?’ and ‘Slice of Life.’ That was the beginning of the end for Bauhaus, because the chemistry had changed… I think it had started to fracture the whole Bauhaus thing. It was getting to that stage where it had gone as far as it was going to go.”

The resultant album, 1983’s Burning from the Inside, remained Bauhaus’ final studio release for 25 years. After successful (if at times internally combative) reunions in 1998 and 2005, the band reconvened in the studio in 2016 to record what was eventually released two years later as Go Away White. By then, Bauhaus had once again disintegrated, leaving Go Away White to wither on the vine without a tour or even promotional interviews to support it. With even diehard fans often unaware of the album’s existence (and thus missing out on “Adrenalin,” “Black Stone Heart,” “Zikir” and other absolutely stellar moments), the album is destined to wallow in obscurity – which suits Ash just fine.   

“I don’t ever listen to that album. I personally have got bad memories of when it was recorded. We were in the studio for a grand total of three weeks; we wrote, recorded, produced and mixed everything in three weeks. I have to say the atmosphere was not good in the studio. We sort of all dissipated after those three weeks. I can’t comment on that album; I can’t listen to it. I’ve just got bad memories of making of it…I don’t know what the public perception is of that record; I just keep having to keep away from it. It’s all the way in the back on my mind. I don’t ever think about that record.”

Haskins is slightly more complimentary towards Bauhaus’ apparent swan song.

“For some reason, just last week, I don’t know what I was doing, but I did listen to a couple of tracks. Maybe it was just in my car and they came on; I’m not sure – it was very random. I seriously haven’t listened to it in years, so I can listen to it more objectively [now]. It kind of surprised me; it didn’t really feel like, ‘This is a Bauhaus song,’ but it was good. It’s difficult to critique your own work. When we finished it, it didn’t really feel in a general sense like Bauhaus or the image of Bauhaus I have in my head. I think it holds up, but it sounds like a bit of a different band to me. It’s a very odd feeling to think about it. Although the early work had a certain kind of eclectic nature to each record, it has a strong identity. I think Go Away White has a strong identity, but it has a different one.”

Of course, the fact that Ash and Haskins are working together again – and throwing “Slice of Life” into the mix – has led many (this writer included) to inquire about the possibility of the two working in some capacity with Murphy and David J again. After all, all four members of Bauhaus are still among the living, while Haskins and David J are brothers. What are the chances of the four co-existing creatively once again – either as Bauhaus or under an entirely different umbrella?

“I have no idea,” replies Ash. “If you said to me a year ago that I’d be doing this right now, I would have said, ‘Not in a million years.’ I’ve given up on giving predictions on stuff like that now, because with the creative process, you just really don’t know what is around the corner. I often think that it’s actually out of the individual’s control; it’s something that comes over them. I never would have thought two months ago that I’d have this revelation at four o’clock in the morning that what was blatantly obvious to do was go out and play in a band called Poptone with Kevin and Diva. I had no idea of that – not even a hint of it. Then, suddenly it came to me, and I don’t know where it came from. So I can’t answer you one way or the other; I’ve given up on answering that stuff.”

“I’ve learnt to never say never,” comments Haskins. “I didn’t think we would reform Bauhaus. With Love and Rockets, we did a couple of shows in 2008, and I didn’t think that would have happened. I certainly didn’t think what we’re doing now would happen. Like I said, once every year, Daniel and I would talk about doing some kind of project with the music from the bands, and he’s always been very resistant to that. I can understand some of that point of view, so I really didn’t think this was going to happen – and just out of the blue, it happened. [Another Bauhaus reunion] is possible; I feel it’s probably unlikely, but you never know.”

What does appear very likely at this point is that Ash and Haskins will enjoy working together with Dompe under the Poptone banner. Although the music business certainly isn’t known for building long-running working relationships (let alone long-standing friendships), the duo has stayed together through three bands and nearly four decades of career twists and turns. Clearly, something between them works.

“We get on really well,” offers Haskins. “We just really enjoy each other’s company, and we have a lot of fun. Daniel always makes me laugh – and not just [with] his appearance. I’m just kidding! He’s a very funny guy and very witty. We just have a good time, so I think obviously that helps. That’s a very important part of the puzzle.”

 “You have pretty different personalities,” observes Dompe to her dad. “You compliment each other, especially creatively and professionally. I kind of get to have what you have and what he has together.”

“He’s been in all three bands; there’s a constant there,” concludes Ash. “Add to that the fact that his daughter’s playing bass, and it’s quite a thing; I think it’s a bit of synchronicity going on there.”

Official Poptone Website