Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Rebecca Stephens Interview

The Rebecca Stephens Interview - August, 2010

Hard to believe that it's only been just 3 years since I became aware of the existence of Rebecca Stephens.

The mutual long-time devotion to the greatest BeachBoys-Velvet Underground hybrid band ever - The Jesus & Mary Chain - led me to an internet friendship with one Sir Andrew Von Pip (though it was actually his "Lush" page that was the very first contact - through a mutual JAMC head). Studiously becoming familiar with AVP's work - I couldn't help but notice an enthusiasm for this band called The Pipettes. On closer inspection I had to agree there was something special and intoxicating about their overall presentation. Spotting that there were coming to my home city of New York I made plans to attend the show.

Here is evidence of what that show was like:

It was all such an optimistic and innocent time, November of 2007. Who knew that a mere one year later, the world would come crashing down in global economic downturn that still hasn't recovered.

This combined with the easy access new technology in the hands of the people created an unstable environment for bands and record companies everywhere. The game had changed considerably. Musical coalitions splintered and individuals went their own way.

Which leads me to the current status of Rebecca Stephens. Back in those heady years of 2006/2007 - she performed with these Pipettes. She was the "smart" looking one. Yes, just as pretty as the other two (three pretties in a row) she bore the distinction of wearing glasses. There weren't too many glamorous female vocalists who wore them. Sure, there were folk singers, I suppose. Is that what you would call Lisa Loeb?

Becki however, looked like she enjoyed reading. That she spent time in Libraries. But there was this "punk" personna attached too. She had "Riot" attached to the front of her name. As in Riot Grrls. From my point-of-view, she seemed to have a bit of Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon in her as well. Well, that's how I saw it (skewered perspective that might be).

Between the time she left The Pipettes and up until now - there were some rumblings of her making music with various collaborators.

Let's see if we can fill in some of the blanks, via this direct interview with Ms. Rebecca Stephens (formerly the artist known as Riot Becki, then Quiet Becki, now simply Becki)

Hi Becki,

As I've been intermittently internet stalking you for near 3 years now, I think it's time for a proper interview, wouldn't you think?

Yes, indeed.
So -I've gotten the impression that you have something of a "performance school" upbringing. Is that safe to say? Did you have dance and theater (acting/performance) training throughout your formative years?

I began learning to dance at the age of three, taking tap and ballet lessons, which always culminated in an end of year performance of some description. As I got older I performed in dance festivals and absolutely loved the pressure that the competition element gave to your performance. Slowly our end of year shows included singing numbers, and having grown up watching musicals (Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire amongst my favourite performers), my love for singing and performing grew. At school I was always in plays/musicals/choirs and that’s really where my passion formed and grew, but I don’t think it’s the same as having a ‘performance school’ upbringing. My parents weren’t pushy, I never had to do ‘jazz hands’.
What about singing? Was there any guidance of any sort in that department?

It’s funny as I’ve always been aware of my lack of technical experience when it comes to singing, despite having been in numerous choirs. I can’t remember ever actually learning to sing. Not that it comes naturally. My voice is still developing and growing and I’m really excited when I hear it do something different, when I push it in a new direction. But, no, I’ve never had any guidance, just kind of figured it out for myself as I’ve gone along.

At what point in time were you approached about joining this band called The Pipettes?

I was entering my final year at University when Bobby asked if I fancied joining a Sixties inspired girl group called The Pipettes. It sounded like a fun concept and a project that would reignite my passion for performance, so I decided to join.

I had read where up until that point, you had never been in any kind of band before. That you didn't really play any instruments (though bashed about on the drums somewhat - but really - who hasn't done that?)

Nope. I had never been in a band and didn’t play any instruments. I could bash out a few chords on a guitar and play a 4/4 beat on a drumkit, but that was about it. When we were kids, my brothers and I used to write songs, but that was my only songwriting experience. Although, they were ruddy great songs!

The legend goes that Bobby Barry and Julia (now Indelicate) concocted this idea to make a band called The Pipettes (though in retrospect it appear that he had one idea how it should be, and she a considerably different view of it all). Who approached you first about joining the project? Could you please expand a bit on this?

To be honest I’m not sure any of us ever actually knew who had come up with which details of The Pipettes. Legend has it that Julia and Bobby were out for a drink and concocted the plan and the name, but the drunken idea actually grew and The Pipettes was born. I’d known Bobby for a good few years when he approached me. The same goes for Jon and Joe (as Seb wasn’t in the band initially), but I hadn’t met Julia or Rose before. Rehearsals were so much fun, lots of booze and hilarious banter. Slowly everyone else started to write songs and we realised we were actually in a band that was ready to do gigs. It was all quite organic really.

After the heady rise of the Pipettes to the level they achieved - did you see the drastic fall coming? As I point out in my preamble here, no one is pinning the blame for this on any one single individual or incident. I personally believe that economics and the changing times are far more responsible for so many bands having crashed and burned (or simply limp on in a damaged state) than anything else.

I’m sure most bands go through a change or shift between first and second record, and I wouldn’t describe the last couple of years of The Pipettes as a ‘fall’, just more of an unusual or dramatic shift than most bands go through. When you’ve been touring songs that were written almost five years before, it’s hard to keep the love and passion alive. All you want to do is move forward and write and perform songs that express where you are now. We all knew there was going to be a change to the band. I’m not sure anyone was surprised.

You toured the world with the Pipettes. Got to see many different countries and their fans. How was all that?

That was always my favourite part. We weren’t a studio band, quite the opposite, we thrived in the live arena. Without an audience, only half The Pipettes’ message was conveyed. Before the band I hadn’t really seen much of the world and I was so in awe of all the different places and cultures that we saw on the road. It was interesting to see how conservative English audiences are, especially places like London, in comparison to pretty much every other country we visited. It’s a shame really, as the UK makes some amazing music, but it’s just not supported in the same way as most of the rest of the world.

After you left that band, you dabbled somewhat with writing songs with some people. Those of us who continued to follow your musical output were pleased to hear some of this work. Is there any chance that the songs you did during this time period can still be salvaged and presented to the public?

I have taken a couple of the first songs I wrote when I left The Pipettes for Projectionists. We’ve updated them and made them ours, which is great. But, I’m very much about looking forward and seeing what we can create together rather than referencing anything that was written in the past.
I refer specially to a project you called "Electric Blue". Songs like "Getting Nowhere" showed off your voice and songwriting in a delightfully strong and retro vibe. You sing about "unguarding your heart." "If that's not falling in love" was joyously peppy and made me wanted to go to a sock hop with Ronnie Spector. "Somebody's Help" was magnificent. Great vocal interplay, an amazing hooky "ooooh oooooh" and piano tinkle. Brilliant song, actually. Even "Teenagers In Love" had an innocent charm.

Randy was the first person I wrote with after leaving the band and he has a very retro aesthetic, his band The Booze supported us a few times when we toured America. I love Power Pop (like The Nerves and Rubinoos), so it was great fun to do something punky but with a pop sensibility. Unfortunately it became clear that sadly we weren’t going to be able to continue making music together - although Randy went on to play in Joe’s band and write with Gwen - so Electric Blue will forever be those four songs suspended in animation for the rest of time.

Which brings us to the present and your current musical project called the Projectionists.

The song "I Never Wanted Anything" presents a different kind of accompaniment to your voice. Replacing the 50's-to-60's retro feel is what sounds like 1970's era prog-rock mellotron. At least in the beginning. Your voice is even more prominent (and that's a good thing). Then the drums come in - bright and charging. It's a gorgeous arrangement. Your voice has never sounded better. The cascading layers of voice on the chorus gives me the chills. Its perfect. And the lyrical sentiment. I know the feeling - "I don't want it anymore". "Please don't make me go back" and "I'm not that person anymore."
I suppose there should be a question in there . . .

Ah, thank you very much! It was the first song we wrote and completed together, based around a ridiculously lo-fi home recording I made on my Yamaha and then developed by Pete and myself and then the rest of the band. I wanted to keep things simple – especially the vocals – so that we could concentrate on arrangements and layering. It represents a rather poignant time in my life, I was writing rather a lot, and had no idea where I was going.

OK - so you and drummer Pete recorded these songs at keyboardist Christian's pro recording studio? How long did it take to complete this song? How much of it did you write? All the lyrics?

Yeah, all the songs that you’ve heard so far were demos of mine that we’ve expanded and I’m the only lyricist at the moment. I’ve absolutely loved having that personability with what I’m doing now, the words are mine, I’m involved in all the arrangements. It should have been daunting, but when Pete and I got together it just flowed. We locked ourselves away in a basement studio in Manchester for four days and came away with four complete songs. When Christian offered us studio time it didn’t take much longer to complete them. Then when Sam and Paul joined we just replaced the guitar and bass parts with the parts they had written. ‘I Never Wanted Anything’ was the first to be fully completed, and was recorded over a few months, which we began before I moved up to Manchester. Travelling from Brighton to Manchester definitely makes the creative process longer!

"Lovers Game" sounds near jazzy. Vocally you stretch out a bit more. Almost Rose Dougall-like. Has your former bandmate there (who's own music is amazing) been any kind of influence on you?

I love what Rose does, she has this vocal and melodic ease that is so clearly ‘Rose’ and very different from my own style, which definitely isn’t as effortless as hers. It’s vocally different as it’s the first song we wrote as Projectionists and I enjoyed how much we played with the vocal for that, although the initial melody was written from my sickbed around a guitar loop Pete had written.

"Someday" continues with the clean, upfront, unaffected approach to your vocals. In this time of popular female vocal bands that rely heavily on reverberated vocals (Best Coast, Dum Dum Girls, Frankie Rose & The Outs) you appear to be steering clear of this trend. Is this by deliberate design?

It’s funny you should say that as my favourite trick with my vocals was to always double track and layer with reverb. I did this with all my own demos. However, when we re-recorded the songs with the full band double tracking sounded too weak and all the reverbs sounded false. It comes down to how confident I felt with my vocal performances. It took a while, but as time went on we’ve gradually stripped layers off and revealed the vocals a bit more, kept them as bare as possible. Although I still love a bit of reverb. Christian and I have discussed building our own reverbs, which would be fun.

Are you familiar with those bands I just mentioned?

Unfortunately not, I will have to check them out.

Could you describe what feminism means to you? How you perceive its concept?

There are so many different types of feminism and feminism encompasses so many things. My feminism is fairly liberal (although some radical themes slip in there sometimes!) it’s entirely hard to explain. I believe that society should look at all things with an even eye and not through a judgmental one. Many people discuss how men are the root of women’s problems and negative treatment, yet women constantly undermine one another and can be each other’s own worst enemies. The older I’ve got, I’ve understood how important it is to look at situations and regard them individually rather than push them to one side or categorise them too generally. For example, I find the constant use of sex to sell anything and everything exceptionally frustrating. Artists such as Christina Aguilera and Lady Gaga effectively sell themselves on sort porn or erotic fantasies, it’s almost become a competition to see who can be the most hardcore. I find it so derogatory and debasing, people have become so used to seeing women running around in their underwear that it has become normalised and I find that sad. It’s still sexual exploitation, even if a woman is fronting it. There just doesn’t appear to be the political edge like Madonna in the eighties, when feminism was beginning to implode, women were gaining their independence and sexual independence. Madonna was not only a product of that, but helped empower women to gain independence and confidence. Nowadays it has the opposite effect, with more and more young girls choosing a ‘glamour’ lifestyle than wanting to achieve in business or science etc. It’s easier to get ahead in life by using your body than your head, that’s the message being sent to young women. However, it is important to note that it’s about understanding cultural and social changes rather than denying a woman’s decision or rite to express herself in the way in which she has. And I’m also pleased to see that the word ‘feminism’ is beginning to lose its’ negative connotations and more women are standing up and proud to say they are feminist.

So you did your first live show recently. Sharing with a bill with a band called "I Blame Coco" - which apparently is fronted by Sting's daughter. How was it sharing a bill with her? Was she all "I'm Sting's daughter - back off - I get the better dressing room" - or was she cool (or did you have little to no contact at all?)

Ha ha, we were first on so I didn’t have any contact with her at all. Although she came to the pub afterwards and was apparently lovely, unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to speak to her. It was a really great bill, all female fronted bands as Natalie Findlay supported too. She’s great and one to watch out for. I have to say I Blame Coco weren’t what I was expecting at all, although Coco does sound unbelievably like her Dad, which was bizarre. They were really interesting. It’s a shame I couldn’t see anything from where I was stood!

How do you feel the show went?

The show was great. We were on first, so had no idea what to expect, but we got to play in front of around 100 people who were all really responsive. I was so nervous before we went on, but by the second song it felt so good to be back on stage singing my own music and watching people nod their heads with enjoyment. I’d forgotten what that feeling was like.

Your performance?

Vocally I’m so much stronger than I was three years ago. I feel so much more confident in myself and my abilities. I just need to feel confident in letting go of the mic-stand when I’m on stage. But, hey we’ve only done one gig!

What's next for The Projectionists?

We are currently in talks with a label to release our EP, which will hopefully come out this year and also involve a small tour. But, we’re really just concentrating on writing and recording songs for an album, which we would love to release next year. Oh and we’re playing with Florrie and Seebauer Jenny on September 16th at Kraak Gallery, Manchester.

Listen to The Projectionists wonderful music here:

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Summer Concerts in New York: The Music of Sonic Youth and NEU!

Summer in New York City is truly one of the best times there is for live concerts. It seems like everytime you turn around there is another free show being promoted. Big shows. Take for instance a little band that's been around for a few years that some may have heard of - Sonic Youth. In 2008 they gave us all an amazing 4th of July performance. In 2009 there was a live in-store appearance at Apple's 'temple to technology' in Soho . This years installment happened on the final day of July this year - an incredible live performance in Brooklyn's Prospect Park as part of the wonderful series that is the Celebrate Brooklyn! events put on by the Bric Arts Media Organization.

A mere one week after this stunning performance, Sonic drummer Steve Shelley was back onstage (again, free of charge to the masses)as part of the Out Of Doors concerts series at Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center, New York City. Much like his primary bandmates, Steve has the time, energy and desire to branch out and involve himself in other projects. For this Lincoln Center event (and a handful of other select shows) Steve teamed up with German art rock pioneer Michael Rother for a reinterpretation of Rother's early 1970's music, which he recorded with the band NEU!. Calling the project Hallogallo2010 (which was the name of the first song off of their debut album in 1972), these shows would be the first live presentations of the music by any member of these influential musicians in 35 years. Filling out the live band was bassist Aaron Mullan. This particular performance was presented on a gorgeous night, accompanied by a truly outstanding light show.

First up, though was the Sonic Youth event. In my own twisted imagination I feel partly responsible for this band actually doing yet-another free live summertime show. After the wonderful outdoor show they gave us on the 4th of July two years ago, I wrote an enthusiastic and heartfelt blog review about it. In February of this year I spotted a notice announcing that Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore would be performing live at the White Columns gallery for his Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal.
Yes - I bought the "limited edition" t-shirt

Bringing a printout of my 4th of July 2008 show review with me to this event (anticipating the possiblity of giving it to him to read) I was doubly delighted to discover that the band's female member (and Moore's spouse) Kim Gordon was also in attendance. Not having any definite goals but lately rarely one to squander an opportunity, I saw an opening at one strategic point in the night (during a break between readings) and summoned up the courage (or just simple enthusiasm) to approach Kim (Thurston was otherwise engaged running the event). After the obligatory awkward initial exchange (though oddly, somewhat relaxed) I told her I wanted to give her something. She said "what" and I presented her with my printout of that concert review from 2008. I then asked her directly if she would read it. I was giving her an out, that if she wasn't going to read it, I wouldn't burden her with having to take it. She replied that "yes" she would read it. Later on in the night (much to my surprise and obvious delight) she still had it in her hand (didn't she have any place to put it? A bag or something?) The point here is that I want to believe that after reading this delightful and appreciative recap of their live outdoor event from 2008, they decided to do it again in 2010. Yes, I am insanely taking credit for their Celebrate Brooklyn! live outdoor show. Well, maybe partial credit. (Or, perhaps none at all.)

The real point here is that I've been a fan of the band Sonic Youth for 25 years. Whenever I become aware they are doing something here in the city (be it individually with their side projects, or as the full band) I will make every effort to attend. The concert they put on at the Celebrate Brooklyn! event may very well be the best show of their I've have ever attended. Understand that I first saw them in 1990. You never forget the first time and that will always be a magical night for me. I also had exchanges with various members of the bands at other artists shows. At one Dinosaur Jr. show (happening around that same time - early 1990's) Kim was hanging out with some friends and I told her about the 15 page handwritten letter I had sent them. She misheard me and said "you sent a 50 page letter?!" I said no, no "only" 15. I then said it probably wasn't all that interesting to read - I said I was being an "immitation rock critic." She laughed. How ironic it is that here, 20 years later, I'm still doing it.

So it's now Saturday night, July 31, 2010 and the massive crowd at beautiful Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York is full of anticipation as Sonic Youth is about to come on.

What we were treated to was a "greatest hits" show, or rather greatest deep tracks show from their most influential (and in most fans opinions, their best) albums. In fact, no song from even 1990 made the set. It was strictly all the classic stuff from 1985-88. Last year the band did an extensive tour in support of their latest album The Eternal. Those shows where heavily weighted with that brand new material (as was the June 9, 2009 Apple Store show).
You needed one of these to attend the Apple show. They were free, but you had to sign up the day before.

Brooklyn July 2010 was very similar to July 2008, where at that show the band featured many songs from their quintissential album Daydream Nation. I loved that set at the time, as they also mixed in some material spanning their post-1990 releases. For instance "100%" and "Drunken Butterfly" from 1992's Dirty, "Bull In The Heather" from 1994's Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, "Skip Tracer" from 1995's Washing Machine, and then jumping to their most recent album at that time, with "Jams Run Free" and "Pink Steam" from 2006's Rather Ripped.

However, Brooklyn 2010 included two songs from my all time fave album of theirs (1986's EVOL), when their encore included Kim's sultry "Kiss Me In The Shadow Of A Doubt" and the song that made me forever their fan "Expressway To Yr Skull."

In addition to a number of full song videos, I put this 9 song medley video together, which gives a considerable overview of the band at this show:

What I have always liked best about Sonic Youth is their ability to create and continue to build tension throughout a song. For me the true genius of the band has always been the complimentary (yet different) dynamic between guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore. With Lee being the more serious and (earlier on) more accomplished guitarist - and Thurston bringing a cut-loose punk style. What has remained most consistent about both of them over the years is how they've embraced an artists attitude towards experimentation and mutation. Though the band wrote "rock songs" their complete disregard for the way traditional guitar playing was supposed to sound made an indelible impression on how I perceived everything relating to music since. Re-discovering that their roots were some of my own (Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham), I never completely understood what those two sound pioneers were actually doing. Sonic Youth presented the right balance and mix to my ears. As for Kim's contributions to the band, they are hardly any less signficant. She has combinded intelligence, an artists sensibility, amazingly obscure lyrics, great looks/sex appeal with a punk female attitude. Although possessed with a limited vocal range, she has never allowed this constraint to prevent her from taking front and center on so many of the bands classic songs. Her raspy voice is actually soothing to my ears. Much like Bob Dylan, if you believe in and are fully committed to what you are saying, the listener quickly adapts to the voice.

So I'm dutifully sitting in my seat in the press/photo/patrons area at Prospect Park. It's a lovely night and the people around me talk, eat and in general chatter about what's to come. I engage in a few conversations and then the moment arrives. One song, two song, three song, four songs in - that's it - I'm out of my seat and joining the ever growing crowd pressed up close to the stage. Drawn to the "excitement" like a moth to the flame. That flame is powerful. It pulls me in. I'm standing right in front of Lee and just marveling at how he looks like a superhero up there.

Standing in the center position is Kim. Her stylish presence creates an additional layer of excitement. At one point she walks out on a little ledge in front of the stage and people are touching her leg like she is a Saint. That somehow all their terminal psychic and emotional diseases will be cured if they can have just one touch of greatness. Thurston was positioned the farthest from me (off to the right). He leads the band with a quiet understated authority. On this night his playing alternated between all out aggressive strumming and the cool, controled plucking that those particular songs called for. He's still the primary voice of the band, singing 8 of the 15 songs played (with Kim singing 5 and Lee, 2).

The full set list (in order) Candle, Brother James, Catholic Block, Stereo Sanctity, Hey Joni, The Sprawl, Cross the Breeze, The Wonder, Hyperstation, White Cross, Mote, Shaking Hell, Shadow of a Doubt, Silver Rocket, Expressway to Yr Skull.

In one report of the show I read where Steve's drumming sounded fuller in the mix than on many of their records. I would have to agree that the overall balance of the instruments afforded a clarity not always captured on their recordings, and yes in particular the drums. As a result I could really focus on what Steve was playing (while taking in everything else as well). Being up so close and seeing everything in such detail only drove home how solidly structured Steve's playing is. His use of tom toms to mark out and propel the rhythm is an important element worth noting. I would witness this same quality a week later when he performed with Hallogallo2010.

The Sonic Youth experience continues to have a profound influence and affect on me. I hope they continue to play free outdoor shows in New York for as long as I live. I can't imagine not being in attendance for any of them.

The following Friday, August 6, it was off to Lincoln Center on the upper west side of Manhattan for the aforementioned Hallogallo2010. Though I had scattered associations with the music Michael Rother created with his German art rock band NEU! (I was more familiar with Kraftwerk and Can - two of the biggest names in German experimental music) I was curious to hear how Steve Shelley's playing would fit in with a different band. The discovery turned out to be a most rewarding one, as Steve's studiously structured style added a modern feel to the 30 year old music.

My initial introduction to the music of NEU! actually came by way of a cassette tape trading relationship with a fellow music fan in 1995. During one of our swaps I received a tape titled "an homage to NEU! / Scar Tissue remixes"

Some of the more memorable tracks on it was Michael Rother's "Neutronics 98" (a tribute to Conny Plank); Download's "Hallo Gallo"; Kahn's "Fur Immer" and my fave track of all on there - Sunroof's "Hero."

In anticipation of attending this show, I began the process of acquiring more NEU! music. Though there were songs with vocals on these records, this live show was strictly an instrumental affair. Rother's guitar playing brought to mind the many wonderful ambient pieces that Robert Fripp is known for. Lou Reed has also gone is this direction as well, with his Metal Machine Trio performances of last year.

Throughout most of the pieces, Steve's drumming modernized NEU!'s well-known 'motorik' rhythm, which features a persistent driving 4/4 beat. With Shelley and Mullan locking down the rhythm section to this unyeilding beat, Rother was free to soar above it all with extended guitar jams guaranteed to delight any fan of that sort of thing (present company very much included).
Rother also played a variety of electronic instruments - keyboards and sample generators, from behind a large covered table. During these heavy electronic passages, Shelley made brilliant use of his mallets, creating rushing crescendos on his cymbals. At other points the 'motorik' could be heard via a steady sticks on highhat. On yet another piece, Steve made creative use of his tom-tom's via those same mallets.

The lightshow on the huge screen behind the band added an overall trippy effect. Pulsing orbs and flowing cell-like amoebas alternated with geometric shapes and large splashes of color. Providing visual motion to a music anchored by a hard rhythm, and improvisational ambience.

For those seeking further information, additional background on either of these bands, or would like to hear more of the music from these two shows, check out the below referential links:

My 2008 Sonic Youth show review:

Additional Videos of Sonic Youth at Prospect Park, 2010

Expressway Edit:

Additional Videos of Hallogallo2010 performing the music of NEU! :

Official Sonic Youth website: