Flight Feathers, Interview with creator Babi Pal

A few weeks ago I did a review of a fantastic album by Flight Feathers, solo project by one Babi Pal. I wrote Babi about doing a short email interview, he was into it, so it happened and here it is.

What, you were expecting more of a sensational lead in? Fine.

Under the Radar and Under the Gun! We caught up to Brooklyn’s DIY folk-pop bad boy at his computer to ask the tough questions and get the steamy details about his solo project Flight Feathers! Stay tuned to hear what scruffy mellow jamster Babi Pal has to say about the hottest fashions, the latest tech trends and all the juicy Hollywood gossip, right here, on BOLLOCKS! (play catchy intro theme cut with clips of celebrities on red carpets).

Right, well here’s the interview.

So, in response to my claim of being “old” in the review of In The Darkness Of My Night you also claimed to be “old”; how old are you anyway and how long have you been a musician? Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m 34, married and have a 15 month old daughter, a mortgage and car payments. If that doesn’t make one old, I don’t know what does. I grew up in New Jersey, went to college in NYC and moved to Brooklyn right after. If I remember correctly, I’ve been playing music since the sixth grade. I had 2 friends who played guitar and drums, so I was recruited to play bass. That’s pretty much how all bass players get started right?
 What inspired the creation of TDOMN and what is the record about?

I had been wanting to make a solo record for a while now. Somehow having a kid initiated a period of hyper productivity, even though i wasn’t sleeping and was always busy, i knew i had to make the most of the couple of hours a week i had in the studio. There is this sort of prolonged sort of adrenaline rush that lasts for months after you have a child, at least there was for me. I don’t think parents would make it without it.The overall theme of the album reflects on what was going on in my life at the time, the passing of time, growing older, stuff like that. But there are also some straight ahead love songs as well.

Your bio on Flight Feathers describes the drive behind the project as a “yearning for the simplicity of the old days” yet TDOMN is, at times, surprisingly textured and complex. What does simplicity mean to you when it comes to music?

Yeah you got me there, I definitely went a little overboard on some of the tracks. When I refer to simplicity, i’m talking about 2 things. First, I’m referring to when i first started recording on a cassette based Tascam 8-track recorder, I had 2 mics and 8 tracks and that’s it. Yet those limitations somehow streamline the creative process, you commit to your decisions and that’s it, there is no undo button. And there is just something about the sound of that machine that i absolutely love. So in the recording of this album, i consciously tried to emulate the process of recording on a tape machine, and used a Shure SM57 for all my vocals. But working on a computer, it is just too easy to get carried away with tracks counts and overdubs and hyper editing. The other thing i’m referring to is the structure of the songs. A couple of the songs are just 3 chords and a bunch of verses, they don’t have choruses or bridges or anything. I got tired of playing songs with 5 parts and a dozen chord changes.

Have you always preferred to DIY when it comes to your music and is Flight Feathers your first one-man-show kind of project?

I’ve always been DIY from the very beginning. I just recently got together with the guys from my other band, Unbelievable Luck, that i’ve been with since high school, to transfer some of our old tapes to digital. We did the early stuff live off a mixing board to a tape deck. Then in college I got the Tascam 488. When I got my first apartment in Brooklyn, i had a drum set in the living room and all the recording gear in the bedroom.I had made a couple solo albums when I was in college, but not since then.

How does touring with a full band compare to the experience of performing and producing the music yourself? Which method is more satisfying creatively? Which is more fun?
I certainly love the sound of a band playing together live in a room. But the control freak side of me likes being able to dictate every aspect of the performance by playing everything myself, obsessing over every detail. I’d say playing live is more fun, especially when playing in other people’s bands, but if i had to choose live vs. the studio, i’d pick the studio.
How has hosting the album on bandcamp.com helped in earning exposure for Flight Feathers? How have Facebook and Myspace helped in getting the word out?
Bandcamp has worked out really well. They have taken the complicated out of hosting and selling music online. I am a terrible self promoter when it comes to music.  As of right now the Facebook page has 26 likes. Not exactly burning down the house. I have no idea how to get exposure on my own.
I first heard a cut from TDOMN during a segment break on Michael Ian Black and Tom Cavanagh’s “Mike and Tom Eat Snacks” podcast. So far you’ve had three tracks from the record featured. How did your end up there and have you earned any new fans from it (besides me)?
I know the producer Ian Sterns from playing in bands with him. Pretty much all of the exposure the album has gotten has been through the Mike and Tom podcast. I’ve had a bunch of downloads from people finding the album through there, some people even paid for it. But i’m happy that anyone is listening at all. That is why i like the name your price model of selling music.
From what I can tell you’re more or less kicking it local in Brooklyn when you play live. Is Flight Feathers being groomed for the big time or are you content with keeping it small and contained? What’s your next move?
Small and contained has been my move for a very long time. But i try not to make a habit of predicting the future. If a label calls, i’ll answer the phone. After that, who knows. I’d love for there to be an audience for the music, but that is not necessarily the end goal. I’m just happy that I am still able to play music at all.
Finally, how many pennies can you fit in your nose and what words of caution would you impart on the children who would attempt to mimic that behavior?

I can think of far better things to stick up my nose. Children should stick to pennies, they have very small nostrils, I can’t imagine they can do too much damage.

Once again, check out Flight Feathers’ album “In The Darkness of My Night” on Bandcamp.com at http://flightfeathers.bandcamp.com/

Rocktoberfest Acht

So yeah, my friends and I, in a bout of total unoriginality, started this annual party called Rocktoberfest back in 2002. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of beer and friendship and meat and rocking until you break yourself. If that sounds childish and/or unimportant to you, maybe you should attend Rocktoberfest before you go judging things you don’t understand. Or maybe you’re humorless California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who doesn’t seem to like anything at all, especially if it has ever a) been in a union or b) been poor. But I digress.

This year was the 8th annual Rocktoberfest (Rocktoberfest Acht in German. So Achtoberfest, as my pal Jom pointed out while quite drunk) and we held it at my friend Badier’s mostly former house in Menlo Park, which is dangerously close to Stanford University. Having a massive party in a house that is mostly empty is definitely the way to go. Less shit to break.

I’d like to think that everyone who attends  our Rocktoberfest recognizes that, like Hold Steady albums and good beers, the most recent one is always the best one ever. This year was no exception.

Somewhere in the haze of music, drunk, and smoke, I realized why Rocktoberfest feels like a holiday to those who attend it and, as a sort of bonus realization, why rock ‘n’ roll is not a terrible substitute for a religion (when it doesn’t suck, of course). Let’s deal with the last thing first: at its best, rock ‘n’ roll creates community. When you go to see your favorite band, you share in the pure joy of music with a roomful of strangers. The audience and the band are all plugged in to something much bigger than the sum of its parts. The potential exists in that moment to meet new people and make new friends. You don’t have to do that, of course, but you totally can. And maybe you should. Rocktoberfest is a celebration of an ever-expanding community that started with five guys in a house. Those five guys didn’t always get along by any means, but Rocktoberfest creates a unique present in which the past is mostly obliterated while people sing along to songs like “This Fire” by Franz Ferdinand (modified by us so that the chorus is now, “This beer is out of control/ I’m gonna drink this beer/ drink this beer”) and “Holy Diver” by Dio (we poured one out for Ronnie James Dio this year). Sure, it’s silly. But what’s wrong with being silly?

What happened at Rocktoberfest this year was what I  imagine happened around Joe Strummer’s famous campfires at Glastonbury. Old friends met new friends, some of us had wives to bring, others had kids to leave at home. But for several hours of a Saturday, everyone was cool with everyone. For my part, I was deliriously happy. You can do this anytime you want, and you should. Gather your friends and some drinks and some great music, and celebrate your personal community. Rocktoberfest Acht was a reminder of why I love music and – more important – why I literally love a majority of the people I know. It’s not prayer and it won’t save you from much besides boredom, but it could provide you with one helluva a great night.

So, in the great words of Mr. Craig Finn, “Let this be my annual reminder/ that we can all be something bigger.” Go forward, kids, be awesome to each other, and rock the fuck on.

I Can’t Review the New Hold Steady Album

Why, you’re wondering, can’t I review Heaven is Whenever, the new album by the Hold Steady? After all, they are my favorite band. It would seem to be a natural fit: they put out an album and I tell you all about how wonderful it is.

But that’s exactly the problem. I’m not going to pretend that Bollocks! is ever (or has ever been) even remotely objective, but at this point me reviewing a Hold Steady album is like an alcoholic reviewing beer. Except the Hold Steady won’t fuck up my liver.

So there’s no point in me telling you that Heaven is Whenever, despite the departure of Franz Nicolay, is probably the best Hold Steady album yet (someone on the interwub claimed that Separation Sunday was the Hold Steady’s “peak” but that’s probably the drugs talking. The best Hold Steady album seems to always be the latest one, which is really an achievement. Almost Killed Me is a great record, and they’ve only gotten better since then. I keep waiting for the Hold Steady record that’s going to disappoint me and they keep not making it). Of course I think that. At this point, it’s in my blood to think that.

If you’ve read Bollocks! much at all over the last two years, you probably expect me to say that Craig Finn’s lyrics are sharper than ever (standout lines include, “You can’t tell people what they wanna hear/ if you also wanna tell the truth”; “Heaven is whenever/ we can get together/ lock the door to your room/ and listen to your records”; and the simple, probably true, “In the end/ I bet no one learns a lesson”) and that Tad Kubler is still the most underrated guitar player in the world (opener “Sweet Part of the City” even features slide guitar and it sounds sweeter than honey dripping from the vulvas of angels*) .

So maybe you should find another reviewer to give you the nitpicky stuff. Someone will try to accuse the Hold Steady of making the same album over and over (which they haven’t) and someone else will say Craig Finn can’t sing (he’s gotten a lot better since Almost Killed Me and Heaven is Whenever is his strongest vocal performance yet). Pitchfork thinks “these new songs just don’t hit as hard,” so you can go there and try to figure out what about Heaven is Whenever warrants a score of 6.2. (Parenthetical rant:  I’ve got serious beef with scoring systems in general. If someone can’t tell how you feel about a record by what you wrote, you did a shitty job of writing. Almost every website rates things with numbers, stars, or grades like “A-“, which is bad. But Pitchfork’s numbered rating system is by far the most pretentious, goofiest bullshit ever. What the fuck are they judging, figure skating? Did the Hold Steady not land their Salchows and Lutzes to your liking? I suggest a new motto for you, Pitchfork: “No One Skates a Clean Program. Except Radiohead”) Perhaps Pitchfork didn’t notice the additional (and quite welcome) harmony vocals on nearly every track or the fact that Heaven is Whenever is heavy on chord-based riffs but not as heavy on Kubler’s guitar pyrotechnics (though those do make some appearances as well) .

You know who you should read? Probably that Robert Christgau guy. He’s a real intellectual about this shit and he’ll probably give you some good copy on Heaven is Whenever. He’ll probably tell you all about what’s wrong with it, from start to finish. But I won’t. Because I love it. Would I sit here and tell you all the bad stuff (which is far outweighed by the skull-crackingly awesome stuff) about my fiancee? No. Because I love her and I’m going to marry her and if things don’t work out, I just might marry Heaven is Whenever.

On the bright side, Heaven is Whenever has done some brilliant housekeeping for me here at the imaginary Bollocks! office. I no longer feel compelled to compile a list of my favorite albums of 2010 this December. Heaven is Whenever is my favorite album of the year – I listened to it six times the day it started streaming on NPR’s website and at least twice a day since then. That was before the fucking album even came out! Now that it’s out, there’s not gonna be a lot of time for me to listen to other albums in my car. I might as well roll out a little red carpet that leads to my CD player and forget that my other albums even exist.

So does this make me a Hold Steady fanboy? Possibly. Hell, probably. But I’m not gonna run to your blog and tell you to kill yourself if you don’t like Heaven is Whenever (this happened to me once when I had the temerity to not like an album. I won’t say which album, but the band’s name rhymes with Shmortugal. The Pan). Whether or not you like this album is immaterial to the fact that to my refined, devilishly handsome ears, this album kicks several buckets of ass.

So what is it, you might be inclined to ask, that makes me like the Hold Steady so damn much? Glad you asked. They consistently scratch an itch that I have for fun (listen to “Rock Problems” and “Our Whole Lives” and tell me those aren’t fun songs), literate rock ‘n’ roll music. Craig Finn’s musings on death and religion are not that far from my own – I believe, as he has mentioned before, that we are our only saviors. In a godless universe, we have two powerful things to help us out: each other and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not Nietzsche, but it’s not the worst ethos in the world either. But more than that, the Hold Steady has taken the music I grew up hating (I call it Alcoholic Stepdad Music, which should let you know everything you need to about where I’m coming from), music I thought was for dead-end buffoons in dead-end towns, and they’ve spit it back to me as something uplifting, positive, and goddamn entertaining. “Beautiful” is not a word that a lot of people would use to describe the Hold Steady’s music, but it’s beautiful to me.

So no pretense here. In an era of completely bullshit objectivity, I came here to praise Heaven is Whenever. There is nothing I don’t like about this album and if that ruins whatever credibility you were lending me, I can live with that (what the hell were you doing lending credibility to a blog anyway?). Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve only listened to Heaven is Whenever once today and that’s not nearly enough.

*If you’re unsure as to exactly how sweet that is, why not ask your reverend when you’re at church next Sunday?

The Sing-Along Songs Will Be Our Scriptures

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That image comes courtesy of a Google image search for “unprecedented awesomeness.” Can you guess what I’m talking about? Friends, Romans, people who only read this blog when I bash Axl Rose, I’m talking about the best band there is right now, period. I’m talking about The Hold Motherfucking Steady. When it comes to critical awesomeness, I can only be talking about The Hold Steady live.

Let me tell you how my last couple weeks has been. My band played a show. Pretty good, right? Yeah, then the drummer announced (literally at the next rehearsal) that he was moving to New York. On July 5th. July 5th is also the anniversary of my sister’s death and I found out on that day that the folks she lived with, who told me they’d find a place for her ashes, hadn’t done so yet. This is kinda important to me because 1) my sister wanted a physical place for her remains so that my niece would have a place to connect with her mom’s memory and 2) I was left in charge of all that shit (my sister’s last and perhaps finest prank on me) and I had to sign a form saying I wouldn’t abandon my sister’s remains at the funeral home (I will probably never do anything more fucking surreal than that again in my life unless Tom Waits shows up at my door randomly with a basket of home-made tacos). I’ve been staying with my boss’s dogs while my boss is out of town for a couple weeks, which means I get to occasionally visit my home, my fiance, and my dog. Oh yeah – my dog has had two fucking seizures in the last couple weeks, one of which was during the opening band’s set at last night’s Hold Steady show. The drummer who moved to NYC was supposed to go to the show with me, so I tried to hold a contest to give his ticket away in the spirit of Hold Steady-related charity. We all know how that went.

Point is, I really needed this show last night. And The Hold Steady did not disappoint me, oh no. No, they surpassed even the ass-breaking awesomeness of the first time I saw them at Lola’s Room in Portland.

The opening band was Mariachi El Bronx, which is the punkish band The Bronx doing their stuff Mariachi style. They were entertaining enough but gimmicky as fuck. Might want to hear those songs in their original forms, but I don’t care that you can dress up like a Mariachi band and rearrange all that stuff. Just. Don’t. Care.

As previously reported, I found out (via text message from my fiance) after Mariachi El Bronx left the stage that my dog had had another seizure. I also observed that a few of the 7 Obnoxious Assholes who show up at every concert were flocking near my position. As the show went on, I discovered whole groups of Set List Generators and one fat fucking alcoholic who spilled his beer on me – he was orbited by a couple smaller alcoholics who exhibited whirling dervish tendencies. You’d better read the Cracked article if you don’t know what I’m talking about here.

None of which, in the grand scheme of things, changes this simple fact: America’s best rock band, right now today, is The Hold Steady. I can see you about to suggest an alternative, but…just…don’t. There isn’t one.

They took the stage at 10:15 sharp, with Craig Finn walking up to the mic, giving a quick greeting and then launching right into “Hornets! Hornets!” from Separation Sunday. Wait. What? There are a ton of pretty obvious choices for opening song at a Hold Steady show (my money was on “Constructive Summer”), but Finn and company threw a delicious curveball with “Hornets,” starting a set that was dominated by Separation Sunday and Stay Positive.

You can, after every concert you go to, talk about all the shit that you wanted to hear that you didn’t hear. And I could devote some time to talking about how The Hold Steady didn’t even touch Almost Killed Me (not even their formerly customary closer “Killer Parties”) or how they didn’t play “Ask Her for Adderall,” which is one of their best songs. But the truth is, I don’t care. The SLGs in front of me kept calling for “Knuckles,” a song which I really love, but at the end of the day, you have to trust the bands you love to do the heavy lifting. That’s why they’re on the stage and you’re drunk in the audience. Sure, there was stuff I wanted to hear, but there wasn’t a weak spot in that show last night, so who cares if my preconceived notions weren’t met? Fuck preconceived notions! Also, I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that the neck tattoo may be the new tramp stamp.

What The Hold Steady delivered last night, for nearly two hours, was pretty much the Platonic ideal of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Joe Strummer is dead, but the humanist spirit and generosity of his being and his music lives on in bands like The Hold Steady. They created a set that, by its very nature, lifted people into the air and forced shouts of joy from their throats. You think I’m making this shit up? Go see The Hold Steady live – and the only way to do it is to get down front and close with a bunch of strangers. One cannot have a personal space bubble at a Hold Steady show. Perhaps their finest pairing of last was playing the title track from Stay Positive (which is designed to make their fans jump up and down and shout at the top of our lungs) followed by “Constructive Summer”, at which point I was, in whatever spiritual sense there is, in ecstasy.  When the entire audience not only sang, “Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer,” but actually raised a toast to St. Joe, I realized something completely awesome: almost everyone there last night knew every word of every song. They were all sing-along songs and they will damn sure be our scriptures. At least they’ll be mine. Let’s face it: “Constructive Summer” is a helluva lot more compelling than, say, Leviticus.

Though I have not wavered in my belief that Tad Kubler is the best guitar player on Earth (I will fight you if you think John Mayer is better than Tad Kubler. I will fucking fight you), he made yet another compelling case last night, scorching through the solo on “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” and actually improving the solo from “Joke About Jamaica” by using a wah-wah pedal instead of a talk-box. Kubler flew around the stage and made it look much – much – easier than it was. The guy gave me chills.

Los Angeles audiences are not, in my (not so humble) opinion,  as awesome as Portland audiences. The L.A. kids started out okay but showed early signs of fading, not bouncing nearly as much as they should have for songs like “Constructive Summer” and “Banging Camp” (there were a few, myself included, who held up our end of the deal). And, when it came to the encore, a lot of the people just expected the band to come back out and didn’t make nearly enough noise to deserve an encore.

However, I’m glad the band is nicer than I am (I really wouldn’t have come back out if I was them) because the encore was instructive: “Stuck Between Stations” followed by “You Gotta Dance (with Who You Came With)”, “Southtown Girls,” and ending with “Slapped Actress,” which was a very effective closer. Last night was my fourth time seeing The Hold Steady live and it was the best time because they were still able to surprise me. They played stuff I didn’t think they’d play and they crafted a set that was designed for maximum cardiovascular benefit – I’m literally sore today, which is the best indicator of how hard The Hold Steady rocked last night.

It’s Blitz!

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It’s hard for me to imagine a band that has changed as radically from one album to the next as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And yet, The YYY’s have a unifying spirit that goes through all of their albums and all 3 are bound together by Karen O’s intensely versatile vocals. While the hard copy of It’s Blitz!, the new phase of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, is headed to stores next week, they graciously released a digital copy (with acoustic bonus tracks) last week so that people like me could scarf it up like the greedy little piggies we are.

The title and that splattery album art might lead one to believe that It’s Blitz! is a return to the shouty, distorty days of Fever to Tell, but you don’t have to wait long to find out that’s incorrect. TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek (perhaps my new favorite producer) had a hand in the production this time out and the YYY’s have taken some of the poppier stuff from 2006’s Show Your Bones (it’s been three years between Yeah Yeah Yeahs albums and the same amount of time between Neko Case albums. Usually, such a long wait would be infuriating but, if the quality is on a par with Neko Case and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I’ll wait three years for every album from now on) to even greater heights, opening It’s Blitz! with the insanely catchy “Zero,” and following it with the dance hit of 2009, “Heads Will Roll.” So you start to think it’s a dance-pop record (like, say, LCD Soundsystem) but then you get to the soft middle of  “Soft Shock” and “Skeletons” (which is, by the way, the most TV on the Radio-esque of these tracks). So what the hell is It’s Blitz!?

Well, it’s a fantastic pop album by a band that has reinvented itself for the better on every outing. There are more synthesizers and fewer buzzing guitars than on past YYY’s records – and, usually, I’m a big champion on behalf of buzzing guitars, but Karen O and company have been there and done that. (If you’re hungering for buzzing guitars, though, check out their cover of “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” on the War Child Heroes comp) Ms. O’s voice is a tremendous asset here because she can coo and wail better than almost anyone in rock music, so the softer, more spacious tunes (like “Skeletons” and album closer “Little Shadow”) are appropriately vulnerable and the snarl and bite of songs like “Dull Life” (which does feature some electric guitar, but the riff sounds eerily like Blink 182’s “Dammit,” which admittedly caused me some discomfort at first. I notice it less on each listen, but check out the track for yourself and see if I’m lying) and “Zero” (which is stuck in my head in those rare moments when something from Middle Cyclone is not stuck in my head. Or Pavement’s “Silence Kit,” which has been lodged in there a lot lately) are executed with the full force of Karen O’s considerable power.

It’s Blitz is a brief offering at only ten songs (you can nab the version I got on Amazon with four acoustic tracks, but they’re all acoustic versions of album tracks – not unreleased goodness) but that can hardly be a knock against it since I find myself listening to the album again and again.  In my review of Vetiver’s Tight Knit album (did you read that one? Me either), I mentioned that if one were inclined to call 2009 “The Year of the Whatever”, one might dub it “The Year of the Singer-Songwriter.” It’s Blitz! might lead you to amend that and call 2009 “The Year of the Woman,” but I’m happy just to have the good music. Calling a year “The Year of  the _________” is the kind of bullshit labeling that I’ll leave to the folks at Entertainment Weekly or Rolling Stone or whatever magazine your parents read. What 2009 has been is a year of pretty great music from artists whom I expect to make great music. I would have been shocked – shocked – if the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had, in fact, turned out a terrible album. Just as, for example, U2 is incapable of radically altering their stadium pop sound, I submit to you that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are incapable of making a truly dreadful album. They’re too good at using every ounce of their musical talents to create fresher, better versions of things lesser bands have attempted (there are several tracks on the Radio Broker radio station on Grand Theft Auto 4 that make me miss the Yeah Yeah Yeahs tremendously. I forgive GTA 4 though because 1) it’s an awesome game and 2) it has a killer jazz station. You haven’t enjoyed GTA until you’ve run over pedestrians to John Coltrane).

And that’s what really occurs to me as I enjoy It’s Blitz! for the nth time, with no diminishing returns in sight. Like TV on the Radio or Tom Waits, they are able to synthesize their vast record collections and unique talents into music that blows right past good and crash lands in Essentialdom. They process the music that came before them and warp it into a fantastic New Something that’s at once familiar and infectious. America’s standards for pop music have crashed harder than the stock market ever dreamed of and now the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have come with a potent attempt to recalibrate our senses and point the direction in which pop should travel for the second decade of our young century. Of course, given the Billy Corgan-approved direction the music business has been heading over the last few years, you can expect fewer albums like It’s Blitz! and more like Chris Cornell’s new shit sandwich, which I’ll be drinking my way through this weekend.

So until then, I’m gonna crank up “Zero” a few thousand more times.