Sunday, July 21, 2013

Talking Zero Boys, records and yoga with Paul Mahern / Interview

Paul Mahern with the Zero Boys in Seattle 2011. (Cat Rose photo)

By Andy

Paul Mahern is exactly where he wants to be in his life.

He knew from an early age that he was meant to be involved with recorded music, and here he is at age 49, owner of Mahern Audio, Mahern Archival Preservation and White Arc Studios in Bloomington, Ind. Over the years, he's either engineered or produced music for John Mellencamp and The Fray (gold, platinum, double-platinum and Grammy Award-nominated records), Iggy Pop, Toxic Reasons, Sloppy Seconds and many more.

"I was really obsessed with recording equipment. As early as probably 13 years old, I would go to the news stand and sit (and read) the recording magazines and fantasize about big boards and tape machines and equipment. And that was always more important to me than learning how to really play an instrument or become a virtuoso musician," he said over the phone a few Sundays ago.

He also thrives in the role of singer/songwriter for longtime punk band the Zero Boys, a group that unleashed the blistering, melodic and highly touted "Vicious Circle" album in 1982.

Recently, the band released its first new material in 20 years with the four-song EP "Pro Dirt" on 1-2-3-4 Go! Records. It covers all the Zero Boys bases within the tunes, from the early "Living in the '80s" EP to the "Vicious Circle," "Make it Stop" and "The Heimlich Maneuver" LPs. It's been well worth the wait and I was stoked to receive my yellow vinyl copy in the mail; just as pleased as when Mahern mailed me the "Vicious Circle" and "Master Tape" compilation LPs in '82. Vicious circle -- how about coming full circle?

"I am very, very happy that for the most part, people have been very supportive of the new 7-inch record that we just put out. I feel very protective of the Zero Boys legacy and I wanna make sure that what we're putting out is our best attempt at the same quality, but at the same time keeping it light and kind of humorous," he said.

Mahern also teaches two audio engineering courses at Indiana University (IU), and was also lead engineer on the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded Sound Directions project at the Archives of Traditional Music, an IU and Harvard University co-authored paper on best practices for audio preservation.

Following is a Q and A with Paul-Z, as he's known in his Zero Boys world:

--Tell me a little bit about the (new) songs, where you got the ideas for the songs and what type of things are on your mind nowadays?

Well, that's interesting. We toured together as a band in Europe at the end of last summer and we played for about a month. We had a couple of new band members, and that was also the first time that we had done any kind of real extended playing together in years and years. For the last 5-10 years, Zero Boys have been playing 2-5 shows a year, at the most. We've just been playing old material and we haven't really been writing that much, so I think that there was something about being on tour for an extended period of time that kind of gave us an opportunity to consider writing, spending a little more time on it. (The new band members) kind of brought in a fresh energy.

After the European thing, we decided that we would start getting together in the studio for rehearsals and see if we could write together. After a couple of times, we decided to start setting up the microphones and we just started recording. There (were) no previous songs, there was no previous concept, we all started working together in the studio, and out of that came those four songs. (Editor's note: He added that there's an album's worth of songs in the can, as well.)

I think that those songs a little bit all tie together with this humorous look at the post-apocalyptic concept that people seem to be somewhat obsessed with at this particular point and time, have been for as long as I can remember, but it seems like the whole 2012 thing and all that. So, I think that was just in the air at the time, and so, all four of those songs are kind of a look at where we're at as a group of beings on the planet Earth, I guess.

--The music's got a foot in early Zero Boys and then later Zero Boys with a lot more melody in it, which I like. Do you think it's a pretty good representation of the band as a whole, over the years?

Every time you have a different group of people, you're gonna have a different chemistry and it's gonna result in a different product. The early Zero Boys musically in a lot of ways was directed by Terry Howe, who was our original guitar player. He was the guy who had the concept, he put the band together, he recruited me, he recruited Mark (Edward Cutsinger) the drummer. He was the one who had this vision, and then had a lot of the riffs and some of the melodic ideas very early on. (Editor's note: Howe left the band in '84; he died in 2001.)

Even though it's still me and it's still Mark, we operate enough as a democracy that everybody can write and play their own thing. So, inevitably it's different with each change of band members. But that being said, both Vess (Ruhtenberg), our last guitar player, grew up listening to the Zero Boys, and both Dave Lawson and our new bass player Scott Kellogg, these guys grew up listening to the Zero Boys. They're from the same place that we're from. And so I think that there is some continuity. But it's clearly different because there's no Terry Howe.

Mahern, Lawson, Kellogg and Cutsinger. (Courtesy photo)

-- So, speaking of the two new guys, how's it been working out with them? Still bring some good power live and in the studio? Are they good guys to be with right now?

Oh yeah, it's great... it's absolutely great. I think that they bring a lot of energy, they're super excited to be in the band, they're super easy to get along with. (Editor's note: He likens the last incarnation of the band as a 'somewhat dysfunctional marriage' and Ruhtenberg and bassist David 'Tufty' Clough opted to leave the band and not tour, so Mahern and Cutsinger brought in some fresh blood.)

--Is the Zero Boys still a great place to be after all these years?

It's super fun to do. I would say that it's afforded me some awesome opportunities. I don't really feel completely like it's the sum total of who I am. I think that when we play live and we play a lot of the old songs (from 'Vicious Circle') -- and if people in the crowd know all the words and they know all the guitar solos-- it really feels like a group event, something that's way bigger than just the people that are on stage.

Cutsinger, top, and Mahern in Seattle, (Cat Rose photos)

-- With 'Vicious Circle' being your guys' definitive album, listening back to that record, that still has a pretty big impact on a lot of people. Did you ever think that when you were making that, that it was something really special?

Well... nah...unh-uh (laughter). It's interesting that we're still basically in a lot of ways touring that record, cuz we're still playing on a regular basis to a lot of people that are hearing that record or have heard that record not that long ago and they've never seen the band live. So I feel like we're still kind of promoting this record that we made so long ago. And I feel fine with that.

As a record collector and as a recorded music fan, a lot of records that I have fallen in love with have been similar to 'Vicious Circle' in that they're of a style of music that I really like, be it '60s psychedelic or whatever ...and then I'll discover some record that I never knew existed. You try to get into a particular style of music and you digest all of the big names and then there's always that second-tier, third-tier band and you keep digging and you find these gems that are every bit as good as The Kinks or The Beatles or whatever, but you're hearing about it for the first time in 1985 or whatever. And I feel like that's what 'Vicious Circle' is. So I feel happy to participate in any way.

--What are a couple examples of those hidden gems? 

I feel like there's almost always something coming along. One of the biggest 'a-ha' moments in my life was discovering The 13th Floor Elevators. This happened probably in 1983 or '84, and I was already a pretty big psychedelic music fan, it was stuff like early Pink Floyd... but when I found that record -- in particular 'Easter Everywhere' -- I felt like I was listening to the very best record that had ever been made.

And then six years ago when I discovered the 'Cold Fact' album by Rodriguez, which was at a moment in time when nobody knew about it, or even a couple of years ago when that Death stuff came out of Detroit. There's always something that's being uncovered and brought to my attention. That's one of the reasons why I'm such a big fan of recorded music, eventually the cream will rise to the top-- sometimes it happens right away, sometimes it takes 30-40 years for it to filter into existence. But if people are still having that experience with 'Vicious Circle,' then I'm all for it.

--Yeah, it sounds as if it could have been recorded recently, it's got that timeless feel to it.

Well, I think that the advantage that that record has... on the surface it kind of appeared like an Adolescents record or maybe even a Germs record-- those were the bands that we were really into when we made that record. Kind of snotty young kids singing. But the difference is that the guys in the band were all in their mid-20s in the Zero Boys when we made that record... so I was 16, but Mark was probably 25, Terry was 23-24. Terry made his first record when he was a teenager, he put out a 7-inch record with a band from Ohio called the Insects. Mark had already been to New York and he was involved in the New York scene and hanging out with the New York Dolls and made a record with Jack Douglas as the producer. And Tufty the bass player was deep into the Indianapolis funk scene. These were guys who were great musicians... Tufty was just one of the best bass players still I've ever seen.

When you listen to 'Vicious Circle,' it's a little bit of a trick, where the lyrics (are from a younger point of view), the voice is kind of high and sounds kind of immature, but the playing on the record is just spot-on, super tight.

--I had talked to Tufty probably in about '88 or '89 when he was in Toxic Reasons. I had asked him about recording ('Vicious Circle'), and they had just put out that album 'Anything for Money,' and he had said that those were albums that he had gotten goose bumps playing on. He just knew that there was some good stuff going on there. So that had always stuck with me as far as some insight into recording that.

We rehearsed every day for probably two months before we made that record. I've been a recording engineer for the last 34 years, and I would say that there's probably only been a couple of other times in my career where I've witnessed anyone come into the studio nearly as prepared as the Zero Boys were to make that record. We recorded the record in a day. And you can tell that-- there's a certain immediacy to it that you don't get on a lot of records anymore.

Cat Rose photo

--What have you been working on lately?

I'm always doing something and it's always a bit different. Over the years, I've recorded just about every kind of music and have been involved in just about every kind of recording project. When I first started out, I was very much completely only into punk rock--- for a couple of years that's all I did was make punk rock records. Then my son was born in '84 and that kind of changed everything, and then I became a professional recording engineer who records country, gospel, funk, whatever anybody needed to have recorded.

Recently, I've just had a pretty big project (as special effects engineer), a collaboration between Stephen King and John Mellencamp that's like a radio play version of this musical that they wrote. It was produced by T-Bone Burnett, it's called 'Ghost Brothers of Darkland County'-- it's a pretty interesting project that involves a lot of Foley sounds.

I just completed a new album by these young ladies from Indianapolis called Lily and Madeleine, and it's the farthest thing sonically from the Zero Boys that you could imagine--- two young sisters, basically kind of acoustic folk music... their harmonies are just out of this world, absolutely amazing stuff. And it's super organic, and in that way I think it's very much like the Zero Boys.

And then I just finished a heavy metal/rock record by a band called Machine Guns & Motorcycles (featuring Cutsinger and Lawson)'s kind of a punkier Cheap Trick.

-- How has being involved with yoga affected your life? (In 2002, he trained to be a Kundalini Yoga teacher under Yogi Bhajan.)

It's great. I got into it as stress reduction mostly. My whole life I've been very much into spiritual concepts. I got my transcendental meditation mantra when I was 9. I feel like yoga and meditation are simple scientific tools that connect more with the entire aspect of ourselves. I feel 'why wouldn't I be into that?' I get the same thing from music. It's a pretty serious practice and it's good for my body and it's good for everything else. It seems to all completely make sense and is intertwined.

Cat Rose photo

Black Flag live in Seattle / Review

Black Flag's Ron Reyes. (All Cat Rose photos)
By Andy and Cat

As Black Flag raged, a guy in the crowd was so enthralled with one tune that he wildly began punching the air. His fists rocketed high and low --- and smashed a passerby in the face. An apology was given to the unfortunate victim, and the man's private boxing match continued.

And so did Black Flag, this touring version consisting of original guitarist Greg Ginn, second vocalist Ron Reyes and newcomers Dave Klein on bass and Gregory AMoore on drums.

Based on mixed reviews we saw, we weren't sure what we were gonna get. But don't believe everything you read, folks. The band and the Seattle crowd just clicked.

Greg Ginn and Reyes.

The scene was El Corazon last Friday night, and the sweaty crowd of old and young males and females packed tightly into the small club and gave it their all on most songs. When the band was ON, the fans with raised fists and loud voices kept pace by squeezing out every last ounce of their energy. For some, their time in the pit was shorter than others, as many fans either trudged out of the war zone on their own or had to be carried by friends to safety.

Black Flag blasted out of the gate fast and furious with "Revenge," "I've Had It," "Nervous Breakdown" and "Fix Me," and then a new song "The Chase" capped off the initial barrage.

The band kept rolling strong with a couple of new tunes alongside "Depression," "No Values," "Six Pack" and "TV Party," but they began losing steam as the second half of the set commenced. This is where some songs began to drag drumming-wise (but let's face it, nobody can play sharp-as-a-tack skins for Black Flag like Robo or Bill Stevenson) and Ginn relied on his theremin playing too much on the drawn out "Can't Decide" and new tune "Down in the Dirt."

Ginn was a man possessed on guitar for a while, but then went a little theremin crazy later-- and it was a bit painful to watch him shake his right hand near the instrument while the rest of the band looked as if they wanted to kick things into gear again.

And they soon did with "Rise Above" and "Jealous Again," which featured Reyes and Piggy singer Izzy Gibson prowling the stage and sharing vocals.


This gig gets a "B" in our grade book, and for the record, no Black Flag gig we ever saw back in the early to mid-'80s was ever close to perfect, so this is right on par. It's what live music is all about: hits and misses, taking chances and hopefully bringing it all back together for a walloping ending.

Appreciate this music, people. It's real, it's who we are.

Reyes' other band, the always rockin' Piggy, opened the gig and Good For You (featuring Ginn, Klein, AMoore and singer Mike Vallely) manned the second slot with their heavy, groove-oriented tunes.


Reyes and Gibson, top, Craig McKimm and Lisafurr Lloyd, below

... and one last word from Reyes ...

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Chatting with Big Country's Bruce and Jamie Watson

Bruce Watson in Seattle. (All Andy photos)
By Andy

With the weather topping at a scorching 89 degrees in Seattle on July 1, Big Country's tour bus rolled up to the front of El Corazon as a coterie of fans gathered round, clutching albums and posters for the band to sign.

Father-and-son guitar duo Bruce and Jamie Watson and drummer Mark Brzezicki hopped off the bus first to greet fans while singer Mike Peters (Alarm) and bassist Derek Forbes (ex-Simple Minds) followed soon after.

Later that night, in carrying on the grand tradition of the Scottish band -- minus lead singer/guitarist Stuart Adamson, who died in 2001 -- the quintet blazed through a handful of songs from its debut album, "The Crossing," plus stellar selections from its new one, "The Journey," and more.

I caught Bruce and Jamie outside of the tour bus before the gig while they were having a smoke break.

Jamie and Bruce Watson with Mike Peters.

---You guys have obviously been doing this for a long time and you've got kind of a revitalized group here with Mike on vocals and your son on guitar... how's it all going?

Bruce: It's been great. We've been over here for three weeks. We started in New Jersey, worked our way across the country, came all the way across the West Coast, come up to here and into Canada tomorrow --and every night's been fantastic.

---The crowds have been good?

Bruce: It's been better for us because we ain't been here in 20 years. And for us to come back to this magnificent country and check out the geography and the history -- we are complete tourists and we film everything and we're now making our own documentary using a couple of mobile phones, and it's great because you do not see this stuff everyday.

---What's been some of the highlights so far for ya?

Bruce: Monument Valley-- we shot a video there (for "In a Broken Promise Land" and it was premiered on the Fourth of July on their website). Just came from the Redwoods, I was down driving through the Sequoia trees and looking for Bigfoot; I didn't find Bigfoot, but I stood in one of his fuckin' shits.

Jamie: Going to see the Grand Canyon. There's not very many people from where I stay that get the opportunity to go out and do that and meet so many nice people, as well. We were at the Redwoods, the giant forest yesterday, so that was pretty cool. Just meeting all the nice people and getting out of Scotland for a wee bit, it's a bit too cold over there, you know?

---How does it feel to do this with your son? Obviously you guys are playing guitar together, but you're also probably bonding some more?

Bruce: Jamie and I have got an album out called "Another Anthem for the Damned," and then what happened was we got the call to play some 30th anniversary gigs with the Skids and that led on to us doing these anniversary gigs with Big Country. We're all one big happy family. You see that bus? That is our home (when on tour). It's what I call it, "camping on wheels." It's kind of crowded, but everybody finds their own little space. Some guys are on laptops, some guys are editing videos, some guys are just watching world TV out the front window.

Jamie on touring: We've all been getting on great, there's not been any tantrums as yet on the bus.

Jamie on playing with Bruce: It's great and I wouldn't change it for the world. I've been performing with my dad for a long time now, about six, seven years. When the Skids, Stuart's first band, reformed in 2007, I had to audition for them. And I got the gig, so me and my dad started working from then, doing things on and off for the Skids until 2010, and then we started working on our own solo album together and then it just evolved from then. Here we are now, we're still on the road and we're still going about three, four years later.

It's good, we always mess around on stage, like I'll be playing guitar and he'll slap me on the back of the head or something like that. Or if one of us makes a mistake on the guitar, we just look at the other one, as if to go, "That was him." We always have fun doing that and pretty much always take the piss out of each other.

Mike sings (and jokes) while Jamie plays.

--- I remember the DVD (Big Country's "Final Fling") and your son (then age 11) came out and played air guitar (actually, an uplugged mini guitar) at the end. What's it like having him side by side now, playing those classic riffs?

Bruce: It's great, because Jamie lives with me. When he lives with me at home, I'm his dad and I follow him around and I turn off light switches because he leaves them on -- and he's my son. When he's out on the road, he's a band member, you know?

Jamie: Well, I used to mess around on my dad's guitar. He used to have them lying all over the house, you know, they were everywhere, lying in the corner, in the washroom. Wherever you went, there was a guitar lying about. So I just picked up gradually doing that. But I started playing drums first, Mark used to show me how to play drums when they were in the studio when they were recording "Driving to Damascus." I was pretty much there the whole time when they were doing that, I even spent my birthday there. It was a great experience getting to know how a studio works and what the guys actually have to do to put into it to get this finished product, which everyone calls an album or vinyl, whatever, you know? It takes a lot of work and a lot of money. It was a great place to learn.

It's a bit weird for me because I've actually seen Big Country play, whereas these guys have never seen themselves play. I know exactly what they mean when "You're in the band now." So I wish I could stand up front and watch this gig, but you can't unless it's been videoed, even when it's videoed it still doesn't capture the complete full atmosphere, but it's close.

--- The new songs are great, by the way. How are they translating live? Does it feel just as good to play those next to the other ones?

Bruce: Yeah. What we do is we play a half-and-half set, we do an old song, a new song, an old song, a new song, so you get approximately 10 new songs, 10 old songs. And they kind of fit together. The setlist is different every night, so we don't know what we're doing until the last minute. And some songs we haven't played for awhile. Certain songs you can do in bigger venues, and certain songs you've got leave out for a different kind of venue. As long as we give them a majority of new and old, that's the main thing.

---The obvious question is how does it feel to have Mr. Peters out there fronting the band?

Bruce: It's fantastic. He's the only real choice I could think of to do this. We were only gonna get Mike and we would go off with a couple of charity gigs about two and half years ago. It was only gonna be three songs and so I asked Mike if he would do it and he jumped and said, "Yeah, I'll definitely do that." And then the charity gig got pulled, it didn't happen, but we came to rehearse anyway. All of the people on the website were going, "You know, it's the 30th anniversary coming up, you're doing it for the Skids, why don't (we) do it for Big Country?" I mean... OK! We've never stopped. It's just a complete rolling thing going on and on and on.

Jamie: He's a great guy. I've known Mike for years, and it's just good to be on stage with him, as well, and with Derek Forbes of the Simple Minds, he's on board now, and Mark's always been there, you know? He's my old pal.

Forbes, top, and Brzezicki.

---With your guys' great history and with Stuart and everything... With Mike ... would Stuart approve of what you guys are doing?

Bruce: Yeah, because way back on the last tour we did, with Mike in the support band, we were breaking up anyway, and Stuart was living in Nashville when he said, "It would be great if Mike could actually go out and continue with Big Country and I will do my solo stuff." But we never thought about it.

---With such a wide range of material to choose from, what are some of your favorite songs to play live?

Jamie: Oh, wow, I love playing "Harvest Home," obviously, "Fields of Fire," "In a Big Country," "Chance," I love doing all them, but I like playing (the new ones). They stand up on their own against them, I think. Everyone keeps commenting on how good they are, it's like the band's never been away. It's got different elements there in some of the songs on the album, but I think it's just a way of going that we're not forgetting about Big Country. We're here to do what we do and we want all youse guys to come along and be part of it, as well. I like playing "Last Ship Sails," that's a very punky one, and I also like playing "Hurt," it's sort of a nice quiet song, sort of reminds me a bit of like "Chance," but hopefully it can evolve that way, you never know. (It's got that) trademark sound.

----Growing up around the band and everything and knowing Stuart when you were younger, did you learn anything from him, anything that stuck with you?

Jamie: To be honest, Stuart used to play guitar and I would always watch him and say, "Oh, man, he's a great guitar player," but when they were recording at Rockfield, Stuart would sit and play the Playstation and computer games with you. He preferred to do things like that than going out and socializing as much. He liked to sit and have fun with the children. When we took days off, he took us out to the theme park with my mom and dad and his kids, and we all went out to this place called Alton Towers and we went round and spent the whole day there and hired a car. Just pretty much having a laugh-- him and Callum (Stuart's son) were great at cracking jokes together. So, we all miss him.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Fourth of July 2013 at the Bindlestick

The Shivering Denizens. (Cat and Andy photos)

When the Shivering Denizens play, people yell, dance and drink. On the Fourth of July, one small boy took his appreciation to a new level by kicking over a plastic chair, stomping around and then crawling on some gravel with mouth open as if he intended to eat the rocks.

Yes, it was one hell of an Independence Day for all.

With the Denizens and their country/punk brethren The T-Baggin' Bandits and pre-teen rockers Locamotive at the helm, the Bindlestick Coffee and Beer House in Snoqualmie, WA was the place to be. (Cat says, the peach sour elixir on tap was the standout pour of the day --- and evening, to complement the fireworks.)

Here's a glimpse into the festivities:




Happy f'n Fourth of July 2013!