When I first heard of The Paper Jets guitarist/vocalist Brian Erickson’s collection I admit I was a bit skeptical. After all I started the series with the idea to cover vinyl records. That is the special medium to me. Here we were talking about CDs. Those cold, small silver discs that I really don’t have any emotional connection to. However the more I mulled it over the more I thought, “why immediately say no?” Who was I to judge what medium someone has a connection with. After speaking with Brian through e-mails the more I came away impressed by his encyclopedic knowledge of music and his story.
The Princeton band’s frontman seriously knows music history. In fact he co-hosts The Great Albums Podcast where he along with Bill Lambusta discuss some of the most famous, and infamous, albums of all time. I could tell he, like myself, has a voracious appetite for music. This was a collection I wanted to see and a person I wanted to talk music with.
I asked Brian to pick a few albums out that were special to him. They are above. He provided a little background on what makes each one special to him.
The Velvet Underground – Final VU – An ultra-rare, Japan-only release of four concerts by the dubious post-Lou Reed Velvet Underground. Things like this really peak my sense of curiosity. Legacy bands like the Velvets often get the luxury of crafting, filing-down, and reconstructing their story to fit a particular narrative. But that’s not how things usually end. In real-time, The Velvet Underground sold a few thousand records and played to half-full dives to inattentive patrons. By 1970, Lou Reed, their leader more-or-less had enough, calling it quits but leaving the door open for emergent bassist/vocalist/Reed understudy Doug Yule to grab hold of the reins and keep the Velvets moving forward for a further three years, not realizing the eventual significance of his band’s output.
This set shows The Velvets as a road-weary working band, and Yule as its leader. Members come and go as they often do in any band (Yule himself replaced founding member John Cale) and The Velvet underground just keeps rolling because – as Yule said in the liners – “What else were we supposed to do, get real jobs?” Proof to me that even the most mythic bands still had to grind it out and put in their 10,000 hours.
Elliott Smith – Elliott Smith – The first Smith album that I truly connected to, though I devoured all of them fairly quickly. The music snob in me will tell you, “I found his music before he died.” But the human being in me is just glad I found it in the first place. “Satellite,” is unbelievably pretty and sad. I still sometimes have a hard time with “Needle In the Hay.”
The Velvet Underground – Loaded (Fully Loaded Edition) – The first Velvets album I ever heard. I didn’t care much for Lou Reed’s solo efforts (though ‘Berlin’ and ‘Coney Island Baby’ are great), but his work with The Velvets never ceased to amaze me. I lived in New York for a long time and would make a weekly commute down to NJ to practice with my band each week. This album (as well as Todd Rundgren’s ‘Something/Anything,’ and ‘Murray Street’ by Sonic Youth) often made the train ride with me. And maybe it speaks to my not-so-fond view of Lou Reed that I enjoy Doug Yule’s four songs the best. #MelodyFirst
Glenn Jones – My Garden State – My girlfriend Amanda has these two Brittany Spaniels, Felix and Sophie. Well last November, it became time for Sophie to be put to sleep. It was really sad, as the loss of any beloved pet would be. This album – from the leader of Cul De Sac, a Boston outfit known most for its work with Can’s Damo Suzuki – chronicle’s Jones coming to grips with the end of his mother’s life. He and his siblings are forced to sell her house and settle her affairs. But none of those cold, harsh realities are present on this album. Instead we’re treated to what might have been the music playing in Jones’ mind as he recalled his memories. Titles like, “Across the Tappan Zee,” “Going Back to East Montgomery,” and “Bergen County Farewell,” lend this guitar-and-banjo-only album a heft and weight that no lyric could possibly accomplish. It’s the perfect late-Fall album and a warm, comforting hand on our shoulder as we said goodbye to our beloved Sophie.
William Shatner – Has Been – When this came out in 2004, William Shatner was just starting to become the pop culture totem he remains today. But then, people liked to throw the term, ‘has been’ around when discussing the former Star Trek star. Shatner turned this negative connotation into a positive: “You’re right,” he would say. “He HAS been! And perhaps he will be again.” Shatner shows uncharacteristic vulnerability which – at age 73 when he made this album – is probably the best role he could possibly have taken.
Neil Young – Live at Massey Hall – The album that got me into Neil Young! Whatever it was, his voice, the songs they played on the radio; I’m not sure. I just couldn’t crack the Neil Young code. But when this solo acoustic joint hit shelves on March 6, 2007, it transformed everything I thought I knew about him. When I lost my father three weeks later, songs like, “On the Way Home,” “Tell Me Why,” and “Old Man,” took on a whole new meaning as Neil unwittingly helped me get through one of the hardest times of my life.
Harry Nilsson – Nilsson Sings Newman – In February of 2010, the relationship I was in began grinding to a halt. It was a cold, harsh winter and Harry’s bright, beautiful voice set to Randy’s sad songs was just what I needed. My band, The Paper Jets was humming along, but I didn’t feel great about much of anything I was doing at that point. When a relationship ends, you begin to question your adequacy and worth to others. I was singing like a backing singer and writing like a kid. This album pushed me. I started practicing singing for the first time, learning Nilsson’s nuanced vocal approach and Newman’s jazz-flavored, show tuney melodies. And while this album ends with dreams lying “buried in the snow,” what it leaves out is exactly what I began realizing: just dig deeper.
Tim Ryan – Love at First Night – Tim Ryan is not famous. He’s not even very well-known outside a very small circle of admirers. But he was my friend and he played on The Paper Jets’ ‘We Are All Strange Friends’ album. He was the closest thing to a true musical genius that I’ve ever encountered in real life and the closest thing I’ve ever had to a brother. He died in a terrible car crash in September 2011 so the world never got to know the Tim Ryan that I knew. He wanted SO BADLY to make hit records and have people listen to his music, so he produced this, his lone album, accordingly. “Live for Tomorrow,” and “Mistakes,” are my favorite. It’s a rare gift to be able to hear his voice whenever I want; something not always afforded when we lose a loved one. But it’s also bittersweet because – while this album is a fine starting point – the five-star masterpiece that we all knew Tim had in him was taken to the grave.
Tom Waits – Romeo Bleeding Live From Austin – I needed to make a good impression on some people I was meeting for the first time. I’m only okay at that, as I will come off as ornery or disinterested, mostly because I often am. Hiding the truth is hard sometimes. So when I need to be cool, Tom Waits, Mr. Unreliable Narrator, is my guy! This particular recording – a bootleg from a late 70s TV performance – is my favorite Tom Waits “thing,” ever. And just like some cat named Small Change, that night I couldn’t afford to flinch, either.
Ryan Adams – Love is Hell (w/ Japanese Bonus Disc) – What an album! This one hit me just as my angsty teens were ending and I was starting to transition into my angsty 20s. I had yet to pick up a guitar, but Ryan Adams was able to convey exactly what I was feeling at this most uncertain time in my own life. This particular edition of the album – one which cost me some money – is a Japanese import. It comes with a second disc of seven non-LP B-Sides. I needed everything; I’m a completist!
Tobias Jesso Jr – Goon – My favorite album of 2015 by a wide margin. Tobias channels Nilsson, Newman, Nyro, King/Goffin, and McCartney almost TOO perfectly. Melody is given the biggest priority which is the first thing that attracts me to great songwriting. Matthew E. White’s production is stately yet modest; the perfect early Spring record, when the mornings are still 30 degrees but you know the day is just going to get warmer.
Dave Brubeck – Brubeck Plays Brubeck – Brubeck goes indie! Okay not exactly. But this solo piano joint was a homemade, self-recorded effort by the titular jazz pianist. Allegedly recorded late at night in his Oakland, CA home while the rest of the Brubeck family was fast asleep, you can hear the urgency in Dave’s playing and the songs are better off for it. Too loud and he’ll wake his kids. Too quiet and the songs will lose their feeling.
As most jazz musicians are wont to do, there’s a good mix of covers and done-over originals. But the gem here is the eventual-standard, “In Your Own Sweet Way,” making its recorded debut. For that monumental song alone, this collection is well-worth it.
Digable Planets – Blowout Comb – In some alternate universe, people would be talking about Digable Planets the same way we talk about A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul; as early hip hop innovators. As it stands, DPs are still beloved and ‘Blowout Comb,’ sounds fresh as they day the album dropped. Thanks to the dude behind the counter at Small World Coffee in Princeton for turning me on to these guys in the pre-Shazam, hey-what-song-is-playing-right-now era. It took me forever to find (I don’t like to order music online if I can help it). Fortunately, Jack’s Music in Red Bank did the trick, oddly right before I ran off to the Count Basie Theater to see Randy Newman live.
Sly Stone – I’m Just Like You: Sly’s Stone Flower – Sly’s own little Montage of Heck. In 1969 after The Family Stone cut its classic ‘Stand’ LP, legend has it that Sly Stone retired to his bedroom only to emerge two years later with one of the era’s defining masterpieces, 1971’s ‘There a Riot Goin On.’ But this collection is completely disproves the myth, instead recasting Sly actively tinkering; refining the sound of The Family Stone via productions for offshoots Little Sister and 6ix. A few ‘Riot’ songs appear in nascent forms, recasting Sly as a funk Brian Wilson, endlessly tinkering in the studio between album until he got things just right.
I had a fascinating talk with Brian about his early musical listening, his collecting of CDs, what makes a great album, and whether Pet Sounds or Blonde on Blonde (released on the same day in 1966) is the better album. We sat down with him, his girlfriend Amanda and bird Mango.
How did you get started with jazz?
That was my punk and metal phase. I skipped that like most kids. They’ll draw their favorite bands on their backpack. I’m drawing Thelonius Monk, Coltrane rocks, Miles Davis rocks (after 1969)! We didn’t really listen to jazz in the house. I wasn’t really into music for a long time. I talk about this in the podcast, we just had a lot of greatest hits albums. So, I didn’t really start to get into music until later in high school and it started with jazz. I had a friend of mine named Mike Gamba and we sat next to each other in history class and he played the piano. I didn’t play anything. I played saxophone but I didn’t play any rock instruments until I was probably 20-21. So, Mike started talking to me about jazz music and I listened to the jazz radio station in New York, 101.9, which is now The Fan. Whenever, I hear them say “101.9, The Fan” I’m like oh yeah, the jazz station! It was a weird station that they would play smooth jazz and then they’d play actual jazz, also. So, I’d pay attention when a Wes Montgomery would come on and tune it out when Bogie James came on. So I said to him, “Oh, you like jazz music?” and he said yeah. So we rode our bikes to Borders Books and it’s a 12 mile bike ride. They had music and everything. So he said “check this one out, start with this” and he handed me Cantaloupe Island by Herbie Hancock. He said “you’ll know the title track ‘cause US3 did Flip Fantasia.” And, from there I said, “OK, this is Blue Note. What else is on Blue Note?” Blue Train and this was 1998 and there was no vinyl. It was all CD and cassette was on the way out. Miles Davis had a cup of coffee with Blue Note for a while and so I got a comp and found Kind of Blue and then that was it. I told my paternal grandmother that I started getting into jazz and she told me about Dave Brubeck who just became my all-time favorite. She had Take Five and Blue Rondo… you know, the hits. That was the first jazz album to sell a million copies. It’s criminal how that gets not listed on any lists of greatest albums of all time. I think Kind of Blue has now surpassed it as the best selling jazz album but it’s still right up there. Rolling Stone had Kind of Blue and Modern Sounds in Country and Western were the only two jazz albums on that whole list. It’s kind of a weird list anyway. But, Dave Brubeck, I really found something there. It was the way that he had interplay with him and Paul Desmond. You know, Miles Davis went through quintets like crazy. Like even this Jack Johnson record, he went through a couple of sets of players to make an album that ended up with two songs on it. Brubeck kept the same group together, racially integrated group, too, for that matter which is not a big deal now but was in the 50s. He kept the same group together for like a decade and they were commercially successful and critically acclaimed and were appealing to college aged kids. So, as I headed off to college I got Jazz Goes to College and the interplay and the fact that it seemed like a band or a brotherhood and sometimes with some of the other guys like Miles it was more of a “I’m bringing these guys in” and more hiring and firing. Of course he had a relationship with Gil Evans and Cannonball and Coltrane and Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, two thirds of Weather Report. But, it seemed like a brotherhood and there’s something to be said about the telepathy between musicians and Brubeck and Desmond are like soulmates… as close as any two musicians can be and it sucks that they just got swept under the rug. They’re regarded and they did this amazing stuff for a decade and they really challenged convention with the different time signatures and stuff and that even carried over into pop music eventually. I didn’t even realize that All You Need Is Love was in 7:8 and I’m not saying that The Beatles didn’t know what was going on but the things that Brubeck did carried into pop music which was kind of neat. Whereas Miles Davis took rock music and did something with it, like he took it and brought it in, and Brubeck and his quartet did something and brought it out. I consider them equals. It’s interesting because you read Davis’ book and you read Brubeck’s biography and there was definitely some kind of friendly rivalry. Davis would play basketball with Brubeck’s kids. There was a meeting between Davis, Brubeck and Clive Davis and Clive Davis said “we’d like you guys to get into rock music.” And Brubeck said no, I’ll get there and I get there and Davis said OK, I’ll try it. So, it’s interesting that they were both on Columbia and Brubeck ended up getting dropped and Davis did some of his most revolutionary work by adopting those suggestions and bringing in rock musicians like John McLaughlin the guitarist. So that was me in high school and about half of college.
When did you start to appreciate pop and rock?
I wasn’t completely unaware of it in high school. I liked The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, your Mount Rushmore groups. When I got to college, the first rock album I got was Whatever and Ever Amen by Ben Folds Five. It kind of made sense to me because I could connect the dots. He played piano and it was kind of jazzy. It had the Beatles/Beach Boys harmony stuff that I liked. They had a real sort of angular harmony about them. So, from jazz that was an interesting place to start. From there, I kind of jumped down the rabbit hole. From Ben Folds, I’d hear the stuff he’d cover. I knew Rain Drops Keep Falling On My Head so I’d listen to Burt Bacharach and then he’d cover Say Yes by Eliot Smith. So I devoured his five or six albums and then I’d see who he’s doing. And he’s doing Ray Davies and there’s The Kinks. Waterloo Sunset was what got me to the hits and stuff. My favorite is Lola and the Powerman Versus the Moneygoround. Strangers is such a beautiful song. So, from Eliot Smith, it became The Kinks and I got Big Star. Big Star became a huge part of my life because when we made our album up here and then went to Ardent Studios where Big Star did their work and the album got mastered by Larry Nicks who mastered their third album and did a trillion other albums. With The Replacements everything began to balloon out. Alex Chilton, Listening to Big Starr led to Todd Rundgren because they covered Slut in concert. Loudon Wainwright III, Motel Blues led back to Rufus who I think is fantastic. I love that kind of show-tuney stuff because I had a saxophone teacher, Sal San Martino, who got me a Broadway book so I was playing The King and I and West Side Story. Andrew Lloyd Weber is the Max Martin of Broadway. I didn’t know any better when I was ten. I’m doing 76 Trombones and Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Delovely. Everything was all backwards and wires crossed. I recently got in touch with him to let him know that I’m still playing and that he did a great job. I want to try and get him on an album. He’s still up in New York. So, from Ben Folds, everything branched out from there. My podcast co-host, Bill Lambusta, is a big Replacements guy. I went back to the Borders to get a copy of Let It Be and that was that. I’d listen to my parents stuff on vinyl but mine was all CDs.
Why CDs? Why are they important?
Because CDs were my vinyl. Vinyl has been co-opted. I have vinyl and I can show you some to prove it. We have vinyl-sized shelf space in our kitchen. But I grew up on CDs. I remember this old Garfield cartoon where Jon was taking an older lady out for a date and she said “Oh, I love records” and Jon said “OK, great” and they finish their date. He tries to start up his old equipment and it doesn’t work so he goes to a store and they say “What’s a record player?” So, he finally finds a store that’s called Really Really Old Antiques. The old guy behind the counter says “we might have one in the back” and Garfield intervenes and breaks it and Jon is mad. It’s funny because records were the poster child for obsolescence. I see the function in vinyl now. We all have our phones and we have Spotify. I can’t take a stack of CDs into work. This is what I grew up with so why would I switch formats and buy it twice? My parents have their collection under the stairs covered with all different seasonal decorations and stored the wrong way so they’re probably all wilted. But, as soon as CDs came out people couldn’t wait to get rid of that stuff. I feel dubious about new vinyl because of the way labels were with CDs. They can’t wait to charge you $23 to buy this album on vinyl like they did in 1997 for a CD at FYE. There were a few record stores where I grew up but I went to college at Ryder so I had the Princeton Record Exchange and a great place called Positively Records in Levittown Pennsylvania. Those places had CDs for super cheap. We could go right now with ten bucks and we could have all the Pearl Jam or all the Nirvana albums. Even when iTunes came out I didn’t see the value in it. I could buy this for 13 bucks or I could buy it used for between $2 and $6. I like to know who played on it and who produced. So Wikipedia is the new liner notes, is that a thing now?
As a CD collector, is album art still important?
Yeah! CDs get a bad rap because they kind of fucked it up when CDs first came out. Especially with legacy bands. The Who albums were terrible. They sounded like garbage. If they had waited a few more years to do it the right way, they wouldn’t have made as much money. They made a quick tape to disc transfer that sounded like crap and then they remastered them a decade later. Another reason I like CDs, too, is because legacy bands like with The Who there was a lot of stuff that didn’t come out and CDs gave them an opportunity to expand their classic era of material. So, if you like The Who Sell Out, Leeds, Who’s Next, Quadrophenia, Tommy… now there’s this whole second album’s worth of stuff. That kind of got exploitative after a while. Like this Kurt Cobain thing where you’re just listening to him scratch his fanny and put it on tape. But with The Beach Boys, The Who, The Rolling Stones, you’re getting an entire album’s worth of stuff you’ve never heard and it’s amazing. If you think of The Who with a song like Naked Eye, that song’s incredible! Just rare B-sides like Relay. You’d have to go crate digging and now it’s here for you. It’s neat, now instead of going all over you have it in one place. There was still an element of “oh, I got it” and now everything is everywhere. There’s no gate keeping you out.
Album art is still important but now they’ve gotten it right. The digipaks and foldouts were great. When CDs started getting big I was single digits so it wasn’t in my radar but by mid- to late-90s they got it right. The jazz albums, too, they generally got it right at the get go like who played on what.
Do you remember the first CD you bought?
The Ghostbusters soundtrack! I was seven years old. I had allowance and saved it up. My dad took me to Nobody Beats The Wiz and I dropped a $20 and that was it. It’s a weird album. It’s Ray Parker Jr. and then an instrumental version. They have The Thompson Twins and Laura Branigan. It’s very 80s.
And, the last CD you bought?
Yeah, the Ork Records compilation.
How often do you buy?
It’s slowed down a little bit and I think that’s because I make less impulsive decisions these days and having streaming helps. But, this album that we’re listening to now Goon by Tobias Jesso Jr. came out earlier this year and I listened that on Spotify and thought, Oh I should own that! So, it works both ways like if I kind of get the itch or I see an album out there that gets reviewed positively I’ll think “let me give that a listen.” I’m still not against owning music. I’ve got a friend whose collection was equally as significant and maybe even bigger than mine and he sold everything back. He kept 16 albums that all had a particular meaning to him. He had his zen moment of needing to go minimal.
When did you decide to start playing music and forming bands?
When I was in college, I had four really close friends and three of them played guitar. My roommate and two dudes down the hall from us. I used to sing in the chorus when I was little and I knew jazz and stuff so I had a little bit of a knowledge but I was never attracted to the guitar before. My friend, Drew Novelli, and I were trying to write some jokey songs and we wrote one about our Dean of Freshman. We recorded it and played it on the radio station and apparently he heard it and liked it. Thank goodness. I used it to get signed into a class. I told him, “well, we did write a song about you” and he signed me into it. So, we were trying to write these jokey stupid songs and I would say “can you make it go like this…” and he would just say “no, what are you talking about?” He was a good musician but he wasn’t a by-ear musician. He’s an on-the-page kind of guy so I couldn’t just hum him something I had to write it. I didn’t know how to write it. So he says “well, just play it” and I didn’t know how to do that. So, finally he says “just get a guitar and learn.” It was a weird spiteful thing like he got mad at me. So, I bought a guitar at Toms River Music and I took lessons for two weeks. I didn’t like the teacher very much. He didn’t like that I was left-handed. Being righty, you’d sit criss-cross but lefty we were mirroring each other so he didn’t like it. It was at the same place I took saxophone lessons so I thought this would be a good omen. He’s says “go out there and get a righty guitar, get a cheap one, $200-300, and then I can teach you.” I’m thinking “I don’t have $200-$300! I just bought a lefty acoustic!” I won’t even gratify putting his name on the record he was so bad. I was friends with a kid behind the counter, Charlie, who was in a local band and he said “don’t listen to that guy, he’s a D-bag, I’m sorry you even got him.” So I was going to stop coming. They had a policy that you had to cancel 24 hours in advance of your lesson and I’d gone to a Ben Folds concert the night before and got heat stroke and spent the night in the hospital. I came back the next day and called the music store saying I still felt wonky and the hospital told me to just go home and get rest and you’ll be fine if you don’t go anywhere or anything. So, the music store said it was up to the discretion of the teacher and he said “well, if you’d called yesterday…” as if I knew I was going to get heat stroke. So, I cancelled the rest of the lessons, gave up for a while and then when I got back to school there was a girl who lived upstairs, a friend of a friend, who had a couple of chord sheets and I just took them without asking. And, that was it. I started writing songs. I knew my function as a guitar player was to write songs. It wasn’t to become a shredder or a session guy. I wanted to write songs and I wanted to ultimately be like Brian Wilson. I liked that we same first name and I liked that he was able to send a band out and hang out and write the songs and then record the songs. I don’t want to play on the records. I want to write and produce. Let some other guys do that and I kind of got what I wanted for a while. I had this female singer, a friend named Michelle, who’s a fantastic singer and we sat down and I said “I think I can write music for you.” She asked if I had music I’d written and I said “I have tons of songs!” and I didn’t have any songs. So, she said to get back to me in a week or two so I started writing and that was it. My hand was forced and sometimes your opportunities are not given to you in the most timely fashion. So, this was it. My chance to write songs for someone and she couldn’t play an instrument so I’d have to back her up but that was fine. We made an EP and had it professionally pressed and did a tour around NY and NJ. She gave it up, didn’t really like it so I started looking for a band because I couldn’t find anyone else that wanted someone to just write songs. It was a cool thing because she was a female singer, singing songs written from a female perspective by a man. We’d have lots of conversations about stuff she was doing that would inspire the songs. She did end up picking up guitar and start writing stuff on her own just for fun. We still chit chat every once in a while.
You know a lot about music history. How does that help you with song-writing?
It’s weird but it humanizes it. There are no deities in music. Everyone makes mistakes and messes up. So, to me, making an album is a pursuit like someone wanting to drive race cars or play baseball. The pursuit of the most perfect thing. When you learn about rock and roll, jazz, progressive, any music… you learn that it’s the pursuit that gets documented on the record. It’s a series of feelings and little time capsules of where was I when this happened? What made me feel like this? It’s a genuine human expression that really resonates with me. Learning about people who are considered the all-timers. The Brian Wilsons, Alex Chiltons, your Pete Townsends… some of their biggest successes came as a result of their biggest failures. Who’s Next was supposed to be this big grandiose project called Lifehouse which was supposed to be this audio/video/live concert experience/multimedia, there was supposed to be a play and all this stuff. I actually just found it. He released all his demos and stuff eventually as the Lifehouse Chronicles. It’s arriving in the mail, I can’t wait. It’s kind of OK to see an artist fail because it reveals just how human and just how normal they are. People fail and people succeed. History is written by the winners. You think about the Beach Boys and The Beatles and their famous rivalry. The Beatles came out on top with Sgt. Pepper and all that but I don’t mind reading about the one who came in second place because I think a lot of the time when you fail. Sgt. Pepper is a totem, a pillar, of the 60s. It came out in 1967 the Summer of Love. But Pet Sounds, you could put on anytime, for anything and it suits any mood. The Beatles won the 60s but they were trapped. But, The Beach Boys may have won all-time because they managed to make an album that’s not trapped. Led Zeppelin won the 70’s but Who’s Next was great and I go back to that more than any Zeppelin album. Just because you win the day doesn’t always mean that you’re going to transcend that time.
Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde came out on the same day. Which do you like better?
Dylan’s great. I have my gold CD of Blonde on Blonde. They’re both great. It depends on my mood. I’m going to go with Pet Sounds. It kind of hit me at the right time. My first copy of Pet Sounds, I played an Open Mic contest and the winner got a gift certificate for recording time and the second place person got a FYE gift card which I won. I got Pet Sounds and Stankonia by Outkast. I knew the hits from Pet Sounds but when I went back to my dorm room and put the headphones on. The opening started and you sit there with your eyes closed and you just let it hit you.
Tell us a little about the Greatest Albums podcast.
Well, we go over an album track by track. We have guests. We let them pick what they think is great. We do a little of the history of the album. We don’t go too crazy. We tell you who played on what. We don’t go super deep into this happened on this day. A little background on the artist. How we got into them. How the guest got into them. Why they think it’s great. That usually takes the first half hour and then the remaining 60-90 minutes we just go track by track. It’s doing really well. We have a lot of fan interaction. We ask people to write in and they write to us. Somebody’s riding us hard to have us do Court of the Crimson King and I was listening to a little bit when we were heading to DeLorenzo’s last night. I’m thinking about it but I don’t know. It’s only five songs. It’s fair use as long as it’s critical review so as long as we speak on it critically we can use it. We typically only play 30-40 seconds but we might fade it back in if there’s a specific bridge or “this is where the Eric Clapton solo comes in” or something that we think is significant. We do a bonus song Thursday where we read listener emails, Tweets, Facebook interactions and we’ll pick a song by the same artist from a different album or we’ll have a song related like we did Tom Waits Rain Dogs so for Bonus Song Thursday we did Old 55 by The Eagles. So sometimes we’ll kind of throw that out there just to see what would happen if we did an Eagles song.
Who’s your cohost?
His name is Bill Lambusta and he’s got a couple bands himself. The Bootstrap Bandits is his song-writing and he plays bass in a band called Small Planet Radio.
Is there ever a time where you two disagree on what is a great album? Or do you have to come to a consensus that you both think it’s a great album?
Our rule of thumb is that we come at this as fans, not critics. I mean it’s critical review but we don’t get too harsh in our analysis so we try to find things we agree on. There have been a few where one of us has had to convince the other and a lot of the time it will be when a guest sends us a list. Bill will send me the list and I’ll say “we can do this one, this or this but we may be best off with this because of XYZ.” I’ll give my reasoning, I’ll make a case for a couple and he’ll just say “OK, we’ll do that one.” Sometimes it’s not any that I made a case for but I’ll listen to anything. We just did Say Anything’s A Real Boy which is kind of an odd selection because it came out about ten years ago. But, it’s cool because the girl we had on, Ronette, it was just something she carried with her when she was little and she had some stuff going on in her life. She talks about it all, it’s not private information. She went through XYZ when she was younger and this was all there for her. So, just because it’s not a pantheon album it was a very personal episode because it was great to her and we find greatness on our own terms.
What makes a great album to you?
It’s how you connect with it. The pantheon albums, a lot of people just connect to them. A lot of people like Thriller, Pet Sounds, Blonde on Blonde. It’s interesting because Pet Sounds was made with the idea that it would connect with people. Brian Wilson would say “I believe that music is god’s voice.” Whatever you think of religion, for him to say that and people who believe in a god that’s something that’s supposed to be a unifying entity. It makes sense then. He’s saying I want to make music that appeals to a lot of people. It’s kind of a neat thing about crate digging or music snobbery. It’s finding a band and making it all yours, too. Finding a band that’s playing at the Court Tavern and then five years from now they’re signed to Universal and they’re on tour. Those guys slept on this carpet! I remember those guys. They were mine. I got their cassette tape. I think a lot of it is personal. When an artist puts a song out into the world, it’s not theirs anymore. Whatever they think of it is completely null and void. Like we were saying before, some of the best success comes from failure. What the artist considers a great failure, the people could love it. It’s up to the person who’s receiving it, whether that’s positive, negative or ambivalent, it’s out of the artist’s hands which is why critical reviews have been such a big deal for fifty years. A whole industry has been established based on what other people think of music outside of what the artist thinks. The old saying is that the artist is the rarely the best judge of his or her own work.
Do you like performing live? Or do you understand why bands like The Beatles and Talking Heads said “OK, we’re just doing studio albums now”?
I do now. I used to hate it. Really didn’t like it at all. We kind of put a band together based around some songs I was writing and just sort of took it out and I was a very uneasy front person because I was just learning to guitar to write and not really to play so fronting a band and singing at the same time took years. I’ve been playing now for ten years and it took about five years to finally settle in and be comfortable and another couple of years to be something resembling dynamic. Whether or not anyone considers me a dynamic performer is up to them but it took a long time to be comfortable playing and singing. Now I’m fine with it and I like it more now than ever. That just comes with confidence and experiences of awful shows. We’ve had band members walk off stage and quit right there. Like get up from the keys and walk away. We’ve had things break and people freak out. Now that I’ve crossed the 30 threshold you’re thinking about the great ones. Every great one, their best work is behind them by thirty but I’m trying to take it back a little. Tom Waits didn’t get too deep until his thirties. There are a few out there. Wilco didn’t do their best work until later. It became a joke with us. When a friend turned 28 we said “congratulations, George Harrison was two years removed from The Beatles by 28.” But, now our collective of musicians we’ve done good work and making our album was an extremely validating experience and right now I’m going back to the music collection, Pet Sounds and Lifehouse, as I start demoing for our new album. The band has had our ups and downs. My cohost on the podcast used to be in the Paper Jets but we went our separate ways. We made an earlier album with him on it. It even had the first song I ever wrote on it which was kind of neat. We’ve had people quit so we had an old high school friend of mine come into the band and he played keyboard on our Strange Friends album. We welcomed into the band and he died in a car crash two weeks later. We’ve sort of been through it. Our music is, I hope like any legitimate artist, a reflection of our experience but I hope in not a heavy-handed preachy way. Just a reflection of where we’re at any particular juncture. The kid who was our keyboard player, Tim Ryan, actually made his own album, too. He’s a really interesting songwriter, very Beatle-y. We did one of his songs on the Great Albums podcast and Bill said it had a very classic pop sensibility to it. It’s a very 90’s album cover. It’s neat to think about all the places we’ve been. I actually told Tim about The Kinks because he was so into the Beatles. Listen to See My Friends, you know how The Beatles went Indian, The Kinks did that three years earlier. The Beatles weren’t the first ones to use feedback, The Kinks were! You gotta expand a little bit. I played him The Kinks and Elvis’ The Sun Sessions. It made him realize that they weren’t competing bands, they were different branches on the rock and roll tree. This is the Italian restaurant on north end and the one on the south end. They didn’t necessarily compete. They knew about each other but they weren’t directly clashing with each other. They were just doing separate things concurrently. Not everybody with in competition with The Beatles. Not everybody wanted to be and beat The Beatles. Everyone borrows. It’s the old saying, good artists create and great artists steal. I feel like Tim would have a few interesting things to say. It sucks, I wish he was here to talk. He wasn’t a huge album guy. By the end of his life, I had shown him The Replacements and stuff. He was getting there. It would have been neat to see him a few years later to see where that ended up.
We actually introduced him to the producer of this record. Another rock and roll cliché that the Paper Jets fall into is that we have a completely finished album that never came out called “Pictures Like This One.” Tim came in one day to provide some session bass or piano or vocals (I forget now) and he took a shine to the producer and ended up making this whole record together. They made it really clean sounding. It’s very FM. It’s like what a guitar band would sound like now. He had this classic old-timeyness about him that’s not there. Everything’s polished and perfect and he got a little down on himself when it didn’t really do what he was expecting it to do for him. So, he was at this weird cross-roads when we just said come on board, we have this record with 11 songs that you’ll just have to grit your teeth for two years but the next one you’ll write songs. Obviously, it didn’t make it past the studio.
Do you like producing?
Yeah, I got to produce an album for Jesse Elliot who’s from Princeton. I actually gave away my last two copies the other night. I got to produce the last Paper Jets album which was a hoot. It’s really cool. That’s what I like the best. With the Paper Jets album versus Jesse’s album, it was two different processes. With Jesse’s album, he wanted something very “band is in the room,” nothing too flourishy. So, the role was get these disparate people who’d never played together before to sound like a band. Take five takes and combine into one to make it sound like one. Since I’m in the Paper Jets, I already know how we’re going to sound I can make it more flourishy, a weird sound here or there is good for the context of the song to give it a personality. I think the best music has a real personality and that’s what I try to bring to it. I’m not that technical with it.
Harder to produce for yourself or other people?
For other people because you get more opinions that way. It’s easier to produce my self or my band. The band has their opinions but it’s easier because all work together than to bring someone from the outside. Usually, I just say “OK, you have three options: I can do everything you can lay your stuff down and come back in three months and I’ll have it for you; you can show up every couple of days and we’ll work on it together; or, I’ll just press record and that’s it.” Everybody always picks the middle option. I kind of wish someone would either say “just press record” or “I’ll do my thing and you do your thing and I’ll see you in a couple months.” The first unreleased Paper Jets album is probably unreleased because I picked the middle! It’s a pain in the neck for the producer because you have that vision and the worst is when they say the demo sounds better. Producing is just having the courage of your convictions. It’s almost like winning an argument. You have to prove your process every single time. We had a nice piece of success when one of our songs got on commercial radio. One of the Paper Jets songs got on 104.5 in Philadelphia for a whole two weeks. It was cool, we had our “That Thing You Do” moment where our manager sent out a text to us saying “Turn on 104.5 RIGHT NOW” in all caps. So we turned it on and were like “Oh my god!!” That lends credibility as a producer that it wasn’t a huge hit but at least it got there. A New Jersey magazine Jersey Beat put us in their top twenty last year and Jesse is hoping to make it this year which would be cool because I’d make it two years in a row. Bring in any producer and you’ll still question their process.
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