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TAS Features

The Boxer Rebellion's SXSW Blog: Part Two

The Boxer Rebellion's Piers Hewitt, who have been blogging for The Alternate Side at SXSW, not only made it through music festival madness, but the drummer and his bandmates also had the chance to transcend Austin fun with a more globally-relevant concern - the SXSW4Japan telethon benefitting survivors of Japan's earthquake and tsunami disaster with R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, Hanson, North Mississippi Allstars and more.  

So that was SXSW. On one hand, it feels like the longest week ever, on the other, I'm pretty sure I only just got here. Since Thursday we seem to have filled in more stuff than I thought possible, including two more shows, one for Baeble Music at The Phoenix on Friday afternoon and then finishing up at midnight outside at Cedar Street Courtyard for Steve Madden. Quality stuff, last night especially.

There have been quite a few highlights over the past couple of days. Seeing The Joy Formidable rip our ears off (in a good way) at Buffalo Billiards was definitely one. Them returning the favour and popping down to our show last night for one too many was also another. Lovely guys who, if you haven't checked out before, then you really should.

Also, we had a call rather late on Thursday to be part of something quite special that has occurred over the last couple days. The guys from Hanson (who are obviously a lot older than when I first knew of them but still look annoyingly young!) spearheaded an excellent fundraising idea for Japan. Everyone, not least us, have been touched continually by what has been happening over the last week or so, and it really does beggar belief every time I tune in. It's also very easy to watch the rolling news of events like that and feel very helpless, so we really did jump at the chance to get involved. So we popped down to the downtown studio they were occupying and recorded a stripped-down version of one of our songs.

Also popping in just after us was a certain Michael Stipe, and to stand there and have our picture taken with him under the umbrella of something so meaningful was a massive highlight for me and the boys. So get involved and donate if you can at SXSW4Japan.

Thank you, Austin, for giving us such a great week. We look forward to returning to the circus sometime.

-Piers Hewitt, The Boxer Rebellion



Generationals' SXSW Blog: Part One

New Orleans' gutsy rock duo Generationals, the team of Grant Widmer and Ted Joyner, release their sophomore album Actor Caster on March 29 and they're debuting much of that terrific new material at SXSW this week, including two gigs tonight, March 18 and another on Saturday, March 19. We're pretty pleased that they're blogging about their Austin adventures for The Alternate Side too. 

If you happen to be in Austin, check out the Generationals tonight at Cedar Door at 9 p.m. and then later, early Saturday morning, at the Park the Van Records showcase at Mi Casa Cantina at 1 a.m. On Saturday, they'll be at the KUT Cactus Cafe showcase at 12 noon.

We started our tour in Denton, Texas, at a festival called 35 Conferette. Over the past few years we have noticed some newer festivals popping up in towns that are on the way to Austin and this is one of the better ones we've been to. The snow was fun, we were lucky to have an opening slot for Local Natives who drew a huge crowd. After the show we got a little motel room at a Howard Johnson in McKinney, Texas, where we hung out and watched cable in a lair-like situation for the next three days until we came south to Austin. With the exception of a Sunday night show in Dallas with Lost in the Trees, we barely left the hotel.

On Tuesday we made the trip to San Marcos for a show at the Triple Crown which is about 30 minutes south of Austin. We didn't hit the stage until 1 a.m. which gave us plenty of time to hang out with our friend Dante Alejandro from Hacienda, who stopped in to hang out with us on his way home to San Antonio. Hacienda is one of the best rock bands in the land and they're excellent dudes. The show in San Marcos was cool, the bar was full of drunk college kids on spring break. We all barfed together in unison and moved on. We rented an apartment in South Austin to serve as our official headquarters for SXSW, so we drove back there after the show and crashed.

Wednesday morning brought us into "the s**t." We showed up in downtown Austin with eight shows and three recording sessions on our agenda for the four-days of SXSW. Last year we had a much lighter schedule but we still ended up getting pretty tired (even our hometown paper railed us for looking exhausted onstage) so we knew we had to conserve our energy. Luckily the first party we played was the Forcefield/Terrorbird dayparty at Red 7. The crowd was so huge and so many good bands were playing that it was really easy to get excited for our show. We took the stage right  (see below) after Braids (see above!) and Cloud Nothings.

Thursday was equally fun; we started the day out with a taping for our friends at Radio K at the EAR Studios in East Austin. The station manager Jon Schober is a friend of ours and we had a good time hanging out with him and our friend Shivvy who came to hang out with us at EAR. After that we headed straight to Waterloo Records downtown where we had a really great slot for the day party (see below) right between the Greenhornes (see above), Toro y Moi and Jessica Lea Mayfield. It was cool to see our new record Actor-Caster for sale at the store since it doesn't come out for another week and it's not on sale anywhere else yet. Waterloo is our favorite record store.

After another day party on the rooftop patio at Cheers on 6th Street, we called it a day. Tonight, March 18, includes four more shows including our showcases for The Orchard at Cedar Door at 9 p.m. and also for our label, Park the Van, at Mi Casa Cantina at 1 a.m. We'll play one more SXSW show in Austin at KUT's Cactus Cafe on Saturday, March 19, then we head to Laredo for our second year in a row to play at Old No. 2 [Café and Grill], which was one of the funnest events of the year for us last year. Will report back more soon!

- Grant and Ted


Esben and the Witch SXSW Blog: Day Three

British rockers Esben and the Witch - Daniel Copeman, Thomas Fisher and Rachel Davies - have been documenting their SXSW experiences for The Alternate Side. The trio, who recently released their debut Violet Cries on Matador Records,  plays Latitude 30 in Austin tonight, March 18, at midnight.

Cling film
Skins + Sliders
Shower curtains
Wet hair
Another haul
Go! White!
15 floors.
Wind, roof, bubbles.
Rumbles, growls.
Monitor on, monitor off.
3rd floor? 5th floor?
Weaving, strangers
Peppered, bruises.

- Esben and the Witch
March 17, 2011

Esben and the Witch SXSW Blog: Day Two

British rockers Esben and the Witch - Daniel Copeman, Thomas Fisher and Rachel Davies - have been documenting their SXSW experiences for The Alternate Side via a daily blog. The trio, who recently released their debut Violet Cries on Matador Records,  plays the Fader Fort at Pine Street Station in Austin tonight, March 17, at 6:45 p.m. CDT. 

For the rest of their SXSW schedule, check Day One of Esben and the Witch's blog here.


Walk / Talk.
Winged skeletons.
Chicago Dog.
Sexy voice love.
9v chase.
Fountains, banks, milling about.
Standing still.
A haul.
Lactic acid.
Familiar faces.

Esben and the Witch SXSW Blog: Day One

British rockers Esben and the Witch have made a dramatic splash with their darkly emotive, haunting debut, Violet Cries, out now Matador. The Brighton-based trio, who embark on a short North American tour later this month, is making their debut at SXSW this week and The Alternate Side asked the talented threesome of Daniel Copeman, Thomas Fisher and Rachel Davies if they'd mind blogging about their experiences. Happily, they agreed. Here's their first day ... with photos:


Morning queues.
Misplaced immigration.
Severe Mutilation - Puerto Rico.
Unlocked doors.
40 winks.
A paranormal ideal for living.
Blown amps.
Bus awaits.
Don't disturb me / I'm not moving.
Chaos causing lady.
Branded T Shirts
Walk through streets.
Through parks.
To river.
Unsolicited call.

- Esben and the Witch
15 March 2011

Esben and the Witch's SXSW Itinerary and North American Tour:

March 15 - SXSW M for Montreal Showcase, Spill, 10 p.m.,212 E. 6th St. March 17 - Fader Fort
March 16 - SXSW Flavorpill/I Rock I Roll Day Party, Lipstick, 24 (RSVP only)
March 16 - SXSW Windish Booking Showcase, ND Studios, 8 p.m.
March 17 - SXSW, Pop Montreal party, Beauty Bar 2:30 p.m.
March 17 - SXSW, FADER Fort, 6:45p (RSVP) March 18 - SXSW Windish Day, Emo's Jr, 3:15 p.m.
March 18 - SXSW BBC/Huw Stephens showcase, Latitude 30, midnight
March 19 - SXSW Mess with Texas, Eastside Drive, 2:40 p.m. (RSVP)
March 21 - Casbah, San Diego
March 22 - Bootleg Theatre, Los Angeles
March 23 - Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco
March 24 - Mississippi Studios, Portland
March 25 - Sunset Tavern, Seattle
March 26 - The Waldorf Hotel, Vancouver


TAS Interview: Mountain Goats

If you're hoping to catch the Mountain Goats at New York's Bowery Ballroom later this month, you'd better have a ticket or you're out of luck. John Darnielle and his bandmates, bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster (of Superchunk), have sold out all three gigs, from March 24-26, just days before the trio release their new album, All Eternals Deck, on March 29 via Merge Records.

Darnielle chatted with The Alternate Side's Russ Borris last week and the conversation veered like a bumper car from songwriting, to Hank Aaron to the trailer for the 70s horror flick, "It's Alive."  The band also played a few songs from All Eternals Deck; check out audio below from for the earnestly-titled "Liza Forever Minnelli" which Darnielle confessed was inspired by an idle saunter down Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

Hard to believe that Darnielle just marked twenty years as the Mountain Goats; his enthusiastic release of cassettes over the years might lead some fans to scratch their heads when trying to determine where All Eternals Deck officially falls in the band's discography ... which Darnielle explained:

Russ Borris: Album number 18?

John Darnielle: I guess. I consider it album number three. Every time we change it up a little bit it just feels like a total fresh start. It’s like a totally different band than the one that toured as a two piece for about five or six years and a way different band than than me and Rachel [Ware]  who went over to Europe in ‘95.

Russ: So there’s certainly a lot of different things musically going on in this record. Some of the harmony vocals ….

John: “Prowl Great Cain?” That is John Congleton’s idea. What happened there, that is actually not a harmony, it’s a previous take and John just flew in a little line, he said “let me try something” and flew in a previous take where I’m singing different notes and made them harmonies. Really fun.

Russ: So it really just comes together right?

John: Yeah, it was John and an idea on the fly. Which is how all the best ideas come out.

Russ: Did you approach things differently working more in the trio sense now?

John: We play a lot live. A lot of the stuff you’re hearing is the core, like the song “Liza Forever Minnelli,” that’s live, that’s just sitting there playing and then I add the vocals later. So I don’t think I do approach it differently. The ideal situation is that everyone is playing it live. I just add stuff to decorate it in the sense of adding gold leaf to stuff or whatever but the core is usually as live as we can get it.

Russ: How long did it take to put the album together?

John: We recorded at a really leisurely pace all through the year. This is the way that we started doing things on Life  of the World to Come. To stop going in to Make The Record. Because that’s what you usually do; you dig in for two weeks. But it’s really stressful because what happens then is that you have two weeks to determine how your next year is going to be. Man, it’s horrible every time and if you get sick during the session you’re out of luck. So instead we go in for three days at a time with a few new songs. There’s no pressure. If the session tanks, it’s just a three day session. It winds up costing more to make the record but it takes almost all the stress away. It just makes so easy to sit around, three guys playing songs together for a couple of days. Then you hit the road. So we did that. Three times together and then I went up to Boston with Brandon Eggleston to put “High Hawk Season” together with some singers up there.


Hear Mountain Goats do "Liza Forever Minnelli" live in Studio A


Russ: The song “Liza Forever Minnelli” is a true story. Is it yours or someone else’s?

John: No, it’s mine. I got deadly ill on the last tour and had to leave the tour for a day or two while the tour bus went ahead. I had to hang in L.A. just to recover. It was some very strange Martian flu. I stayed and I went for a walk one day just to get out of the room because I literally been doing this lie-still-and-don’t-move-sick thing and I went for a walk and I saw Liza Minnelli’s star [on Hollywood Boulevard]. I always related strongly to Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli and I later came home and wrote a song about the walk.

Russ: The “Hotel California” reference was nice too.

John: Thank you very much! It’s because it’s a song about going home and thinking things about when you were younger in the home where you come from. “Hotel California” is a song about not being able to go back to stuff, but at the same time, the sentiment the way it is expressed is so treacly and stuff. It’s a very complicated thing. It’s a well-written song, but when you’re talking about that strange feeling of home and what it means to you, you need to be respectful of the extreme complexity of that sentiment instead of reducing it to simple nostalgia.

Russ: Do most of the songs come together in this way in which you’re thinking this much? Because you’re so literal when you’re writing.

John: When I’m tellilng you about it, that’s me, that’s my reading of it. When I’m writing, it’s very automatic and natural. I don’t sit there and say, “Oh, I’m going to write about this.”

Russ: I was talking about this being album number 18, but when you started doing demo tapes and putting things out on cassette, did you think that you’d get to a 20-year career?

John: No. And I still don’t. I just sit around and do what I do. To me, not to be all cantankerous and stuff, but if you think too much about career, whatever you’re career is, you’re doing it wrong. I just sit around and play guitar and piano and write songs and read books and I try to think as little about that stuff as possible. I always have because people can smell it if you’re thinking about how this is going to impact my so-called career.

Russ: Has there ever been a point when you’re writing or playing a show and you go, “I don’t think I’m going to do this anymore.”

John: No! No! I love it! I hope I’m still doing this until I’m 90. I enjoy every single second I’m ever playing music; my worst day playing music still beats the tar out of my best day cleaning toilets.

Russ: I’m trying to recall the best day I had cleaning a toilet. There was a lot made, before the record was released, talking about producers and Erik Rutan, who’d been Morbid Angel. Some people saw that as an odd connection, but you’re a closely associated metal dude.

John: Yeah, I listen to a lot of metal. People think that musicians have more constricted listening habits then they do. When I wrote to Erik, the first thing he did was look us up and said, “Oh, you’re on 4AD. I love Dead Can Dance.” Right? So he’s a big fan of that kind of stuff. Now we don’t sound like Dead Can Dance much, but Erik listens to a lot of different kinds of music. I think genre tags are mainly there to make sections in record stores of which there are so few left.

Russ: And to make people comfortable.

John: I think genre is kind of a false construct. Music is a continuum, not a series of boxes in a cabinet.

Russ: So you’re working with Erik and he comes to you from a whole new standpoint.

John: And it’s a whole different way of working because when you’re making death metal, you record four bars at a time. You don’t sit down and play live. We play live. So it was a very different habit for him. We brought Brandon down to build a bridge because Brandon’s been working with us forever and it worked out just beautifully.

Russ: There’s a misconception that people who do death metal aren’t really musicians.

John: Oh my god, these are some of the best musicians on the planet aside from jazz musicians. Seriously. Those guys can play. The worst death metal guitarist is still three times the guitarist I am.


Russ: “Birth of Serpents” was the song you did on Letterman. How was that experience?

John: It was amazing! He had Hank Aaron on. Seven hundred and fifty-five home runs! Hank Aaron!

Russ: And you got to shake his hand.

John: Yes! It’s insanity! Freaking out! Hank Aaron. A hero and a very present and great guy. He has a real spiritual power to him.

Russ: I saw that there was some 70s occult and horror film influence in this record?

John: It stems from being frightened by commercials for movies I didn’t see when I was a kid.

Russ: Just because they were spooky trailers.

John: Oh my god, “It’s Alive.” Did you ever see that one?

Russ: They did like three sequels. I don’t recall the trailer, I did see the film.

John: (assuming an announcer’s voice) “This fall, the Johnsons are having a baby. They’re very excited. And all of their friends are looking forward to the birth. There’s only one thing wrong with the Johnson’s baby. It’s alive!” (everyone laughs). I mean that stuff got inside my spine when I was a kids. You’d see this commercial and it had very little to do with the movie, but your own fears of stuff. This was the power of a lot of these 70s movies, like “Burnt Offerings.” There’s less going on. There’s long, slow segments of dread and of the fear of the unknown. That’s what the 70s stuff is all about. Like “Rosemary’s Baby.” You know there’s one satanic orgy segment but outside of that there’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going on. Is she just crazy? And then finally, when she sees her infant ….

She gives birth, it’s a hard birth, they take the infant away and when she comes around she asks to see the baby and they bring the baby in and she looks at it and looks up and says, “What have you done to his eyes?” And Ruth Gordon says, “He has his father’s eyes. Hail Satan!” And it’s like one of the scariest moments of all time and you’ve waded through two hours of a fair amount of boredom for it. That’s kind of what 70s horror and occult stuff was about was this questioning of whether the world you were looking at actually has some dreadful thing behind it that you’re never actually going to see.

Russ: I’m impressed you could recount the whole trailer for “It’s Alive.”

John: Among horror fans it’s a classic trailer. Go to YouTube and look it up. It’s so awesome.

Russ: So how does that affect the record?

John: It just affects my writing. The things that I’m thinking about and dwelling on. This is why the term “concept album” always gets derided is because if you can feel which song is there just to draw a line in a plot, it’s boring. All I do is write what’s in my mind and look at what’s going on once I’ve already done this spastic, mantic kind of gesture and then I just take not of it. When I’m sending them out to Peter and John, I sort of weed through them and pick out the ones that seem to go together.


TAS SXSW Preview: Tennis

Tennis, the married duo of Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore, are in the midst of a headlining tour supporting their breezy, buoyant debut album, Cape Dory, a collection of sweetly-sung songs with a salty spirit, inspired by an eight-month sailing trip along the North Atlantic coastline.

The much buzzed-over band, who opened for The Walkmen last fall, play two gigs in Manhattan and Brooklyn next week, on March 2 and 3. They'll also make their SXSW debut in a few weeks. The Alternate Side caught up with Riley, who emailed us at a roadside stop as the couple traveled by van to a Kansas gig, and he told us about the pressures of SXSW, sailing and the accidental birth of their beautiful record:

TAS: I'm so struck how your eight-month sailing trip was the catalyst for these songs on Cape Dory. What was it about the sensation of that freedom, the sea, a solid year of being on water that most inspired you creatively?

Patrick Riley: We are too! We didn't write them on board, our boat was really small and barely had enough electricity to power one lamp. The overall simplicity to life at sea was what most influenced our album. Our lives were reduced to mainly the first few tiers of Maslow's Hierarchy. In this sense, we were connected to our environment and came to think in relation to it. Our album was just suppose to be a representation of this simplicity.

TAS:  When did the trip take place? Any near catastrophes you recall? 

Patrick: We left January of 2008 and returned in August of the same year. There were a lot of near catastrophes in the first few months of sailing; everything from groundings to near collisions with ships. We were really only used compass navigation for the first 6 months of our 7 month cruise so you could imagine the inaccuracies.

TAS: Your more beautiful recollections of that time?

Patrick: Everything is more beautiful when you cut out light pollution, some of the most beautiful places were 100's of miles away from civilization. The tranquility is what most amazed us.

TAS: Where is your boat now and are you plotting another trip? 

Patrick: Our boat is in Elizabeth City, North Carolina at the moment, but we are planning a short trip in April. Our boat's name is Swift Ranger. We didn't name it. The thing we remember most about sailing our boat is the way she finds a "slot," a term referring to when the helm is balanced with the seas and wind - it's a pretty magical experience.

TAS: Any similarity between sailing a boat and playing a guitar?

Patrick: Playing guitar could be seen the same way; it's always nice when the tone matches the room and the reverb matches the vocals etc. etc.


TAS: And I suppose it's a dopey query, but how does a duo so influenced by sailing come up with a name like Tennis? Did you realize how impossible it would be to Google yourselves?

Patrick: We really weren't planning on playing music for other people, Tennis was strictly person in its creation. It was really just a name we often jested about ... we are very white people.

TAS: You've got SXSW fast approaching - is it your first? How are you preparing to survive the no-sleep, too many gigs, tacos and decadence?

Patrick: This will be [our] first time at SXSW and our drummer James [Barone]'s  third time. To be honest, we are not that excited to play down there. It's going to be soooo hectic: no sound checks, very little set up time, no sleep, crappy sound systems, no parking, $$$$, etc. I'm sure we are going to be ready for a break after SXSW.

TAS: It seems that it's easy to think of bands/artists like The Sundays, Kirsty MacColl or Cocteau Twins when listening to you music, but I read that The Shirelles were the real seed of Tennis, overheard in a bar in Florida. What is it about that girl group sound that so intrigues the two of you? 

Patrick: I think it just reminds us of a time when music didn't need to be over-intellectualized, it could just be there to make you feel a certain way. Everything about that era was more simple and raw and I think that's what we learn most from.

TAS: Songs like "Waterbirds" and "Seafarer" are strikingly beautiful - and also quite different. How has  your "sound" developed?

Patrick: It actually is just a blend of our two writing styles. Some songs have more of my influence in them, some have more of Alaina's. Some are, what we think, perfect blends of the two. It's just a matter of what blend we want to use at the time.

TAS: When the deal with Fat Possum came about you must have been thrilled. What is it about the label that appealed to you?  

Patrick: Yep! We really hadn't fully committed to music until they expressed interest. Fat Possum is one of those traditional labels with the fewest amount of restrictions. It's the dream label. They have really helped us to create Tennis, if we went with another label that required a producer to shape our sound, I don't think we'd be in the same position we are now. We can honestly say, no one helped us make our album.

TAS: Did you feel concerned to be so heavily "buzzed" about? Did that put undue pressure on the two of you, especially since you only really began gigging last year.

Patrick: We're not big internet users so we didn't really notice it for a while. It didn't put very much pressure on us because we weren't ever treating music as a career path or source of income. We only recently have created some sort of "pressure" on ourselves...


TAS:  How have you been developing your live show? Given all of the touring you've got ahead this year, what are some things you've learned on the road that work for you ... and others that don't? Did The Walkmen offer up any good advice?

Patrick: I think any band that plays 50 shows in just a few months is going to learn something a lot of which is going to be ineffable. We've certainly changed equipment a lot; I've gone from playing with no effects, to just reverb, to changing amps numerous times, to jumping my amp, etc. Alaina went through the same thing. It has honestly just been a struggle trying to find the exact sounds we want to use for performance which, thank god, we think we have.

TAS: You keep a wonderful blog called White Satin Gloves which details your sailing (and your lives) with much passion and vivid detail - do you love sailing more than music? 

Patrick: For the longest time we would have told you that sailing was far superior to music. Maybe it still is, but I have to say we are really getting to love playing music. There's really nothing better than writing a new song and falling in love with it.

TAS: You were able to accomplish your dreams (and buy a sailboat) by seriously saving money - how did you accomplish that? Are you planning any more sailing trips?

Patrick: Make every sacrifice. That's it. As for sailing trips, our next one will be in April. But our next long distance trip will be in October.

TAS: You're on tour now with Holiday Shores and La Sera - what's been most exciting about headlining your own shows?  

Patrick: Touring has really taken a turn since playing with other bands we love. It's a lot different went you have another van full of friends right behind you for the length of your tour. In that respect, we have been far more comfortable and far less home sick.

TAS: Are you writing on the road?

Patrick: We have been writing a lot on the road which we never thought was even possible. The songs feel a bit different but they have been just as exciting to write.

TAS: You've lined up some festivals too?

Patrick: We will be playing Primavera and Lollapalooza this year.

TAS: There are so many wonderful duos - like Beach House, Slow Club, Phantogram, Wye Oak, Savoir Adore, scores more. What are some of your favorite girl-boy bands - and why?

Patrick: Handsome Furs takes the cake for us. Plague Park is one of our favorite albums. Really like that first Pink Mountaintops album too.

Tennis Winter Tour Dates:

Feb 25 Horseshoe Tavern Toronto, ON, Canada
Feb 26 Il Motore Montreal, QC, Canada
Feb 27 Iron Horse Music Hall Northampton, MA
Feb 28 Great Scott Boston, MA
March 02  Bowery Ballroom New York, NY
March 03  The Bell House Brooklyn, NY
March  04 Johnny Brenda's Philadelphia, PA
March 05 Rock and Roll Hotel Washington, DC
March 07 Local 506 Chapel Hill, NC
March 08 Grey Eagle Asheville, NC
March 10 Basement Nashville, TN
March 11 The Earl Atlanta, GA 12 MarThe Social Orlando, FL
March 13 The Orpheum Tampa, FL
March 15 The Parish @ HOB New Orleans, LA


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TAS SXSW Preview: Sharon Van Etten

Singer and songwriter Sharon Van Etten quietly released one of the more extraordinary albums of the last year, the mutable and deeply moving Epic, which not only showcased her knack for textured yet organic composition, but her ferocious, pining vocals. Few albums were as simply rendered, but exquisitely executed, as this album which garnered Van Etten not only chiming critical acclaim, but a cadre of new fans.

Currently opening for The National in Europe and preparing for another North American touring beginning this March, an admittedly jet-lagged chatted with The Alternate Side over email while in London and updated us on her road trip, her work with The National's Aaron Dessner on her third album and how she plans on surviving SXSW in a month.

TAS: You're on a relentless tour schedule right now and you're also headlining venues. How has your set list altered and are you including a lot of new material? 

Sharon Van Etten: We have been playing a mix of old and new and really old songs. Now that I have drummer, Ben Lord, and bassist, Doug Keith, to help me reinterpret my older songs as a trio, I am learning how to lean back into the beat a bit and not depend solely on the anxious strum of my guitar.

TAS: You've also flipped from acoustic to electric guitar, correct? How has that adjusted the temperament of your live shows?

Sharon: We've been playing as a three piece and I have been playing mostly electric guitar, as of late. There is more energy than my sit down, acoustic, sad, broken hearted time.

TAS: In February you played one of my favorite venues in London, the Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen, and you're touring through Europe until March 3, opening for The National and doing some solo shows.  What reactions do you get from UK and European audiences?

Sharon: My touring history overseas is very brief. I have been to the UK twice and I have been received well. I opened for Meg Baird and Great Lake Swimmers. I was solo then. Now it's been almost 2 years and I have a band. The new songs are a natural progression, but different. People seemed to like my solo guitar stuff, but I'm nervous for this time around. I hope it goes well.


TAS:  You're working with Aaron Dessner on your next record. Do you think you'll be doing some work on the road during your European tour?

Sharon: I don't know. I hope so. I have no idea what to expect. Everyone involved with The National has been amazing to get to know and although I am a bit anxious, this is such a special opportunity. My only fear being that it's a bit out of my league and there are places I've never been to....

TAS: What has Aaron, as producer, brought to your process as a singer/songwriter? And what has he shown you about yourself - and your music - that you might not have known before?

Sharon: I like Aaron's process a lot. He trusts my instincts with my basic guitar and moving vocals. It's important to both of us to keep the rawness of the core of the songs. He pushes me to test my comfort level and helps reexamine my songs in the opposite way. It's funny because I'm so used to be being the only one playing, it's hard for me to let go and rely on a band ... experimenting with the guitar strum implied and a church organ in it's place. He's building my confidence in the structure of my songs. He's showing me to how to accentuate my strengths by focusing more on the vocal performance.

TAS:  You also have a really lovely relationship with Megafaun - what work have you been doing of late with them?

Sharon: Brad Cook just came out to our Bowery show and sang and played bass on a couple songs. We're hoping to do some shows together late this year. I know they're releasing the Songs of the South this year. They are such lovely and productive and positive people.

TAS:  The thing that's so striking about your album Epic is the mercurial nature of the album; every song seems to have sprung from a different fragment of who you are as an artist.  What inspires you to mess about constantly with your own sound?

Sharon: I don't know. I just play guitar and sing. I don't know if I'm going to come up with a song or what it will be, I just record it. I have so many failures. Sometimes last year's fail is a song someone else helps me love a year later.

TAS:  What artists or bands have thrilled you over the years? 

Sharon: The last few years there's been so much! Lower Dens, Meg Baird, The Antlers, Tiny Vipers, Low, Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark, Scary Mansion, James Blake, Patti Smith, PJ Harvey... my list is too long!

TAS:  Of your new songs, what has emerged as a 'favored child' and why?

Sharon: I think "Love More" was the first song people really responded to. It came out before I recorded Epic at Miner Street in Philadelphia with Brian McTear. It was harmonium and vocal centered. Probably my most confessional song to date. I think that's why people respond to it.


TAS:  Given the bluntness and longing of your lyrics, are you quite critical of yourself? Do you find yourself regarding 2009's Because I Was In Love as something quite remote to you now or do you still relate strongly to the person you were when you wrote those songs?

Sharon: It feels very distant. I like that it's like a little Sharon frozen in time. That was me then. Now I am forced to remember.

TAS: I read in an earlier interview you did that while in Tennessee, you were thwarted initially by a boyfriend who didn't believe in your talent and you wrote in secret. Do you regret that phase of your life ... or do you feel that the very secretiveness of your pursuit made it that much more precious to you?

Sharon: I don't regret it. That time definitely had an affect on me, an affect I'm not sure I understand yet.

TAS: You've got SXSW in about a month - a return visit. What are your survival tips for making it through a week there with voice (and health) intact? Any bands or artists you're especially excited to see?

Sharon: Ha ha. Don't drink, don't smoke, don't talk - which is very hard to do... get sleep and pace yourself. Low is a band I'm excited to see. I've never seen them live before.

TAS:  You've been back in snowy New York for a while. What is it about this city that fuels you creatively?  

Sharon: There are so many productive people and it is expensive to live there. It kicks your ass. So many people had it so much tougher way before I was born...

TAS:  What changes do you hope 2011 will bring in your life? Your music?

Sharon: I am hoping to be a more honest, more giving, more confident. I am taking steps to get another band member, step up arrangements.   

Sharon Van Etten's Remaining Winter/Spring Tour Dates:

Fri 02/18/11 Eindhoven @ Netherlands Cross-Linx Fest
Sat 02/19/11 Groningen, @ Netherlands Cross-Linx Fest
Sun 02/20/11 Rotterdam, @ Netherlands Cross-Linx Fest
Tues 02/22/11 Poland, Krakow – Studio w/The National
Thu 02/24/11 Poland, Warsaw – Stodola w/The National
Fri 02/25/11 Germany, Berlin - C-Halle w/The National
Sat 02/26/11 Denmark, Aarhus – SCC w/The National
Mon 02/28/11 Sweden, Lund - Färs & Frosta w/The National
Tues 03/01/11 Sweden, Stockholm – Cirkus w/The National
Thu 03/03/11 Finland, Helsinki - The House of Culture w/The National
Fri 03/04/11 Finland, Helsinki - The House of Culture w/The National
Thu 03/10/11 Baltimore, MD - Metro Gallery
Fri 03/11/11 Raleigh, NC - Kings Barcade
Sat 03/12/11 Atlanta, GA - 529
Thu 03/17/11 Austin, TX - SXSW
Fri 03/18/11 Austin, TX - SXSW
Sat 03/19/11 Austin, TX - SXSW
Tue 03/22/11 Tucson, AZ - Solar Culture ^
Wed 03/23/11 Phoenix, AZ - Rhythm Room ^
Thu 03/24/11 San Diego, CA - Soda Bar ^
Fri 03/25/11 Los Angeles, CA - The Satellite ^
Sat 03/26/11 Costa Mesa, CA - Detroit Bar ^
Sun 03/27/11 San Francisco, CA - Bottom of the Hill ^
Tue 03/29/11 Vancouver, BC - Media Club ^
Wed 03/30/11 Portland, OR - Doug Fir ^
Fri 04/01/11 Boise, ID - Neurolux ^
Sat 04/02/11 Salt Lake City, UT - State Room ^
Sun 04/03/11 Denver, CO - Walnut Room ^
Mon 04/04/11 Omaha, NE - Slowdown ^
Wed 04/06/11 Minneapolis, MN - Cedar Cultural Center ^
Thu 04/07/11 Milwaukee, WI - Pabst Theater ^
Fri 04/08/11 Madison, WI - University of Wisconsin ^
Sat 04/09/11 Chicago, IL - Lincoln Hall ^
Sun 04/10/11 Cleveland, OH - Beachland Tavern ^
Tue 04/12/11 Toronto, ON - Drake Hotel ^
Wed 04/13/11 Montreal, QC - Casa Del Popolo ^
Thu 04/14/11 Boston, MA - Brighton Music Hall ^
Sun 04/17/11 Washington, DC - Red Palace ^

# with War On Drugs, Sebastian Blanck
% with Julianna Barwick
^ with Little Scream


TAS New Year's Eve Special: Dave Sitek of Maximum Balloon

New Year's Eve might be the equivalent of the Superbowl for working DJs; it's a daunting responsibility to provide the perfect party soundtrack as 2010 segues to 2011 (let alone the pressure of sensing what to spin leading up to midnight and beyond).  WFUV's Rita Houston caught up with Dave Sitek of Maximum Balloon and TV on the Radio and they discussed, among sundry things, the art of the DJ.  Dave, who did a club DJ tour as in lieu of touring behind his Maximum Balloon debut, chatted about the making of the album, the immediate future of TV on the Radio, and played us some of his personal earworms.

The interview below is edited from a WFUV broadcast  which you can listen to here.

Rita Houston: You’ve got a nice radio voice!

Dave Sitek: I’m trying to get your speakers pregnant.

Rita: So we can add guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, producer ….

Dave: Landscaper, griller ….

Rita: and a man who is trying to get our speakers pregnant on your resumé. Fantastic new record. This is as much a solo record for you as it is a side project? It seems that this is a bit of a pleasure journey for you, is it?

Dave: It is, but solo might not be the right word for it because there is 13-18 heavily involved people on it. Almost as much as me. But I think in general, I made the record for fun. The traditional trajectory is: I’m going to start a band, and then you design a t-shirt, and then you find a practice space and then eventually you write a song (laughs) to catch up with the t-shirts. But I never even designed the t-shirt; for me it was just making songs with my friends and I knew I wouldn’t have to go on tour with it and they wouldn’t have to go on tour with it so it just became about the song. I think a lot of times in the traditional architecture, it’s about all of the other things. But there are no other things, except my scratch ‘n’ sniff sticker collection that I might be selling.

Rita: That is an interesting distinction, though. There’s no pressure of having to tour this stuff. You can just play it and get it right.

Dave: And just have fun. I mean, I have fun, in varying degrees, doing my day job and I definitely have fun with my band, but there’s all these things that come [with them] that are just not musical. That’s not to say that they’re not fun or interesting, but they’re just not musical and I think this was a concentration on “what does it sound like” which is ultimately what I’m getting into (laughs).


Rita: You definitely have the power, the originality, the experimentation that we’ve come to expect from TV on the Radio records which much more of a dance thrust behind it. Is it like pulling the curtain back and going, “Dave Sitek’s a dance head!”

Dave: Well, I’ve always been a dance head. And I think that the arena for TV on the Radio, it’s a very human and giant dynamic and we’re trying to accurately represent what it’s like for these times, which isn’t always a dance party. But I’ve always made TV on the Radio music; when I started it with Tunde [Adebimbe], it was made on dance music equipment so most of what you hear on TV on the Radio that most people think is a drum set is a drum machine (laughs). Most of what [fans] think is a guitar is a synthesizer. So there’s a lot of stuff that I’ve been doing in the past, I just never really cut loose at 130 beats per minute. I think it would sound kind of corny if we were singing about global warming over 130 bpm! (laughs) I’m sure there’s a way to do it, but we just haven’t cracked that code yet.

Rita: Why did you decide to call it Maximum Balloon? I’m getting the sense that there’s a deep sense of humor that runs through your stuff and of course the puns abound when you call your record Maximum Balloon.

Dave: Yeah, and to me, I’m more than a producer, I’m a terrible band namer (laughs). So I was just trying to figure out the one that was the most bizarre. Magnetic Landslide was in there for a second. Inward Scissorhands (laughs). All of these terrible band names and I thought, “this isn’t going to work.” But Maximum Balloon - there was absolutely no imagery associated with it, you couldn’t even picture what the hell that was and I think that was kind of what I was going for because I don’t know what in the hell I’m doing.

Rita: I love how on your website your fans are part of a “high flyers” club.

Dave: Yeah, yeah. There’s some innuendo in there wrapped in mystery, rolled in papers (laughs).

Rita: You must have some phonebook - you’ve got everybody’s digits.

Dave: I’ve got a pretty funny Rolodex. I’m still missing some key names.

Rita: The vocalists who turn up on the record run the gamut from David Byrne to Karen O. Tell me about the track that opens up the record, “Groove Me.”

Dave: That was recorded with Theophilus London who is extremely talented, spontaneous and highly energetic. We always joke around because he’s a young person and I’m not really around young people a lot (laughs). He just showed me how to use Twitter. Everyone’s regretting that. We were working on songs for his record and then I’d been working on [the music for “Groove Me”] and he said, “I want to get on that!” And I said, “This is for my record.” And he said, “I don’t care!” So he just threw it down and the song came to life from there.

Rita: But it sounds a little like you pushed him outside his normal thing? Because he’s normally a rapper and there’s some soulful singing there.

Dave: Yeah, he’s killing it. Wait until you hear his record; he’s singing all over it. I don’t think he was really approaching it like, “Oh, I’m gonna sing on a record.” But when I was playing him some other song he was working on and I was showing him the lyrics and he was singing along with it, I was like, “Why don’t you just sing?” And he said he’d never really sung before and his label thought he was a rapper, I thought he was a rapper and he thought he was a rapper. And I know that he knows he can sing. As far as I could tell, he’d never really put out anything where he was singing. So I was like, well, anything I do is either wrong or inappropriate or something, so why mess around when you can f*** around? So we just messed around with this other track and that came out so well that I was really confident that he could sing on this one. That song gets your speakers pregnant. Now they’re going to have two babies. Octomoms.


Rita: There’s a track on this Maximum Balloon record, about halfway through, “Tiger,” that I think your sense of humor comes out.

Dave: I just want you to know that I sing “meow, meow, meow” with the most serious voice you’ve ever heard. It’s a real serious track to me.

Rita: I just picture dancing in a club and then suddently vibing into what the song’s about. Who wrote that song?

Dave: Aku and I. I was in the studio waiting for another band to send me some stuff over the internet and it was just taking forever for them to upload it. And I don’t do well with spare time. I’m either drinking goat’s blood or making music and there was no goat’s blood around and I was like, I just gotta make something. My longtime friend and engineer Chris Coady, I was in New York for a couple of days and we were in his studio and I was just used to making stuff so he was like, “might as well plug the drum machines in.” So then I made a drumbeat, then I made a bassline, then I put a guitar part on it because I’m severely impatient I just started writing lyrics and I wrote the first verse. Right as I was writing that, Aku [Orraca-Teteh] from Dragons of Zynth called me and said, “hey, I heard you were in town.” And I said, “yeah, I’m screwing up some vocals, come in here and fix them.” So he came in there, sang them and I knew there was no reason for me to it. We started writing and he wrote the chorus and I’ve always wanted to put animal noises in a song and since I’m a jackass, I thought a donkey sound would be most appropriate. But “meow, meow, meow” fit better with “Tiger.”

Rita: How does dance music work in your life? Are you out there clubbing in Williamsburg or Greenpoint?

Dave: Never. I’ve never, ever been a nightlife person. Anytime anyone has ever seen me out they just assume that my mixer broke and someone’s fixing it and I’m out drinking until they stop. But I’ve never been a nightlife person, though I’ve always been influenced by dance music. I absolutely love it and I listen to it all of the time. For the most part I work 18 hours a day and I love what I do so when I start, I just keep rolling and then by the end of it, it really has nothing to do with anything than making the speakers come to life for six or seven minutes and then just letting it go. Dance music’s origins are so much older than rock ‘n’ roll and I think rock ‘n’ roll is derived from dance music which is derived from Afrobeat and it just goes on and on. I think the lineage of dance music is hypnotic, it’s working with your heartbeat, it’s working with your body and I think it’s the ability to really lose yourself and not get caught up in the intellectual side of things. I mean, you can - there’s music made for counting. But in its origin, music is vibration. Our bodies are vibrating, the speakers are vibrating; it’s this symbiotic relationship.

Rita: You can still possess and connect to it without even getting out into the clubs. I feel the same way because I wouldn’t even necessarily know where to go.

Dave: Just eat a pound of mushrooms and find yourself there, in some dance tent with fluorescent paint on your face, saying, “How did I get here? I don’t know, but I need to get to an ATM!”


Rita: But you’ve got to be soaking up the scene somehow?

Dave: Oh, I definitely do. I’m friends with a lot of DJs and I feel that DJs are the equivalent to jazz musicians in a way because they have a deep, intrinsic knowledge of their material, they’re willing to hear something once and throw it into the mix somehow and it’s this ongoing relationship between the beats per minute and the crowd and you’re reacting to the crowd, reacting to this knowledge of the material that you have. So when you hang around with DJs you look at music in a much freer way. I think a band is much more habit-oriented. To me, DJs are musicians in their own right. I spin with this guy DJ Earl, The Granwizerd, who was on Morgan State University doing their hip hop show and I just learned as much from him as I would a great drummer because his perception of how music works, how it works with the crowd and how people react to it. When held up against its alternative which is to play “Jumping Jack Flash” in your 70s again and again and again, regardless of the experiences you’ve accumulated, there’s a feeling that you have to be faithful to that material in its original form. I think in DJing, you can play something that was made 20 minutes earlier, and that’s kind of fascinating. Then you add Ableton and Serato into it. Music is about to make another giant leap based on technology and I think that more than just being able to download, the ability to take millions of pieces of music and process them live and change that process as you go will inevitably change how we can hear music.

Rita: It’s going to be like folk music again; the music will just get into people’s hands and they’re going to do it.

Dave: Yeah! You used to have to save up all of this money for turntables and mixers but if you own a laptop which you use in your everyday life anyway, you can download software and the next thing you know you’re taking all of these pieces of audio and accumulating them. When I DJ - I’m kind of a terrible DJ in a weird way because I don’t really care if it’s something that anyone knows or if it even works. Sometimes I’ll take New Age records and slow them down and run them through tremelos. But I’m perfectly aware that the most qualified people to do this are 16 years old (laughs). It’s like I’m the old guy just figuring out stuff way later. Like I just figured out the VCR, “Look! There it goes!”

Rita: And what is going on with TV on the Radio?

Dave: We’re just being lazy. Everyone’s got their own stuff going on, everyone’s doing varying degrees of things and just trying to live our lives. Especially from start [in 2000] to our break, Tunde and I have being going on for years. Tunde is wildly talented and does so many things that a lot of things had to be put on hold for him for ten years. Kyp [Malone], everyone in the band is just so talented at other things. We had to put everything off because we were going from album to tour to album to tour. Two of us have kids so it’s time to step up and actually be there and not miss the good stuff.

Rita: So maybe a year’s break?

Dave: Whenever we’re inspired to write the next Volkswagon commercial, we’ll do that. The funny part is that the best musician in our band is our drummer, [Jaleel Bunton].  He plays guitar a thousand times better than me and a thousand times better than Kyp. Kyp actually said to me one time that he considered tuning your guitar cheating (laughs). Gerard [Smith], our bass player, is actually the other most talented person in our band. So they have to suppress all of their genius to deal with me, Kyp and Tunde. It’s a very strange dynamic and a lot of different things. But because our relationship to each other is the only important thing, it works out and what happens on a record is because of that dynamic between us.

Rita: You brought your laptop today - what songs do you like?

Dave: One track I’d love to play is “Vitamin C” by the band Can. I know it wasn’t written with nutrition in mind, but I think it’s hilarious that it’s so dopey that he’s singing about “Vitamin C.” This is an older track of Can’s and it’s on Life Style.


Dave: There’s a song that Randy Newman wrote called “Baltimore.” It’s a phenomenal song and more than being phenomenally performed, it’s super accurate. And when he wrote the song - I’m from Baltimore - everyone in Baltimore was up in arms about it because it was too honest. Before they turned the harbor into the ESPN zone, Baltimore was a hard-ass place to live. He wrote this song and all of these DJs got p***ed off and protested. So they boycotted it. Then Nina Simone covered it and her version is just bananas. I think her version of it is so well done that it takes you a minute to realize what the song’s about and once you do, it’s heavy.


Dave: There’s probably 150 versions of this song out there, but this one in particular, if you’re driving, you’d better put on some diapers because you’re going to [wet] your pants when the chorus comes in! It’s just totally nuts. It’s on a compilation called Superlungs, Volume 2. It’s “Stay With Me Baby” and it’s from a singer named Terry Reid.


Dave: I love "Deus" from The Sugarcubes for a multitude of reasons. I was about 14 or 15 when that record came out and I was landscaping. I got the cassette and I put it on; you’re out there with a mower, making grass look like a ballroom floor in the suburbs. I kind of always felt like the guy from The Sugarcubes - the guy who interrupts and yells [Einer Örn]- he’s like the hard-assed version of Fred Schneider from the B-52s (laughs). But it’s his most mellow performance, I think. Maybe he was like, “I won’t do it to these guys this time.” The drum sound is just so corny, but it’s a really well-done song. I remember listening to that song over and over again. And back in those days, because I’m old as s**t, you had to rewind. So I’m rewinding and rewinding, just because I wanted to hear that song over and over again. I’ve been to Iceland many times. TV on the Radio played the Airwaves Festival which happens in downtown Rekjavic and I remember the drive from the airport to there and the drive back and remember thinking that there was a lot more that we weren’t seeing. Before we went, I’d asked Angus from The Liars about Iceland and I this was his description and it’s spot on: (assumes Australian accent) “Plane lands. Door opens. You look around. Moon!” I remember as soon as the plane landed, I got out, looked around and it looks like the moon. It’s crazy. After we left I decided I’d come back and explore a little bit so I rented a car and drove inappropriately far. I drove up to the north fjords and all the way around the entire island, because I do photography, and I got to places where people just don’t exist. There’s no trees, there’s nothing. There’s black sand beaches; it’s really far out. I found out later that where I was driving was illegal or you’re supposed to tell the State Department that you’re going there because there’s no rescue anything. And I’m driving up glaciers like a nitwit. But I took some remarkable photography up there. This is what I do to relax: I go to the coldest place, in the dead of winter, and take photographs. I’d made myself some mixtapes to listen to while I was driving around and suddenly Sigur Rós made complete sense.