Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My Ethics for a T-Shirt

I feel close to you people, so it's confession time: I'm a whore for t-shirts (that's size XL if you're wondering).

It started in college, while writing for my school paper. I was sent a package from some PR firm hired by MTV to promote the winner of a Battle of the Bands-type contest. Along with a press release and cassette (yup, I'm that old), there was a black t-shirt. I think they got to play at the MTV Beach House all summer (remember the MTV Beach House?). I was still in J-school at the time, and had already taken my ethics courses, so naturally filled to the brim with smugness. I wasn't going to be swayed by a T-shirt... But, man this was a cool shirt. It was for the winning band (if you consider playing at the MTV Beach House winning); a crappy alt/grunge group from Maryland: Bovox Clown (still remember 'em, that's how cool their logo was. It was this creepy grinning clown face on a black background).

A week later, I was wearing the shirt, so after much internally struggle, I felt compelled to write about this sub-par, paint-by-numbers grunge band... and I did. You never forget your first time. For the record, it was a very matter-of-fact article free of any superlatives or gushing accolades.

Flash forward about a decade and I now have two dresser drawers jammed so tightly with short-sleeved band T's that they don't quite shut all the way.

I get a slew of CDs send to my door each week and try to listen to every single one, at least once, but sometimes it takes a month or so to get through the rotation. And sadly, I still manage to get swayed by a band t-shirt. I'm pathetic. I can admit it. 100% cotton is pretty much all it takes for your record to move to the top of the pile - no matter how lame I think it's going to sound. Trust me, I'm not proud of it, but it's true... Don't judge me! I get paid on average 0 dollars and 0 cents for my reviews and articles, so let me keep my spoils.

Have I ever given a band a shitty review despite receiving graft? Sure. Ever given a shitty band a good review because of a shirt? Nah (it's a shirt, people, not bars of gold).

But, I've also gotten swag from some very cool bands (for those keeping track, I'm wearing a Mental Records T right now, home to some killer bands like Automatic 7 and Chesterfield), so I think it all evens out in the end.

Imagine what I'd write for a hoodie...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Unprepared for Interview

I like to think that I do a pretty good job of prep work before interviewing a band. I dig around on their Web site, read over bios and press releases, listen to the record a few times and occasionally troll message boards looking for recent rumors about, and online feuds with the band.

If the group is willing to give up 20-30 minutes of their time I can at least make sure I've done my homework. However, I do have a full time job that has nothing to do with interviewing bands, and a 3 month old and wife at home, so every now and then I forget that I have an interview lined until the phone rings and a 212 or 310 area code pops up on caller id.

Over the years I have learned to stall for a few minutes while I get online and frantically pull up the band's MySpace page, bio or Wikipedia entry.

Here's a quick list of good stalling questions I have started to collect (please feel free to toss out more in the comments section if you can think of them, because I probably have an interview tonight that I've already forgotten about):

  • Tell me about the new album - is there a theme tying together the songs? Classic stall. Unless it's The Who's Tommy or Green Day's American Idiot, who gives a shit? Certainly not the person reading these interviews, but it never fails to illicit at least a three minute response. Plenty of time to Google the band and come up with a couple of questions.

  • Any good road stories from the current tour? This one buys you about five minutes, easily. The answer, though certainly interesting to the person telling it, is almost always incoherent, rambling and never quite as funny as he/she thinks it is. Kind of like listening to someone describe a dream they just had.

  • How did the band first get together? ... Or the reason why I always skip the first paragraph of any band bio. The answer is either: We all went to school together, but weren't really friends at the time; We played in different bands around the scene for years; or I placed an ad in [insert local alternative weekly]. Unless you found your bass player because your mom brought him home from a bar one night, the story is never really that interesting.

  • What inspired the album cover? I have NEVER once printed this response in an interview, but it also never fails to bring about an extremely detailed answer filled with vague descriptions of symbolism and other weird shit that only makes sense if you're stoned.

Any others I should add to the repertoire?

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Few CD Reviews

Here's some recent CD reviews, by category.


Boys Like Girls – Boys Like Girls (Columbia)
Like the third tier grunge bands that were thrown on the band wagon just miles before it officially ran out of gas in the mid 90’s (I’m looking at you Candlebox), Boston’s Boys Like Girls is proof that the music industry is casting one last wide net trying to grab the last remaining emo/pop-punk bands that were somehow overlooked over the past couple of years.

Churning out heart-on-their-sleeve pop songs with as much creativity as they put into choosing their moniker, Boys Like Girls deliver less than a dozen quickly forgettable teenage crush tracks on their debut. It’s hard not to pass a cynical eye over the band that seems like they were put together in the back room of a Hot Topic. They fit the mold perfectly, complete with asymmetrical hair cuts and go-to producer Matt Squire (Panic! At the Disco).


Imperial Teen – The Hair The TV The Baby & The Band (Merge)
If you haven’t heard of Imperial Teen by this point, you likely never will… and that’s your loss. Fronted by former Faith No More keyboardist Roddy Bottum, Imperial Teen plays power pop like few others. It’s no coincidence that almost every mention of the band is followed by a few lines about Fountains of Wayne, who formed around the same time, clear across the country; both groups play smart, catchy power pop unlike any other bands. The only big difference is Imperial Teen’s boy/girls vocals.

The Hair The TV The Baby & The Band is a reference to the other jobs held by members of the group (hair stylist, TV music writer and mother). This, their fourth record, shows Imperial Teen still writing brilliant pop nuggets as catchy as anything on their first three outings. It’s hard to find a stand out track on the album, as each are nearly flawless, but “Everyone Wants to Know,” which sounds like the last great song The Breeders never wrote, is destined to be a band classic. It’s been five years since they last put out a studio album. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another five more years for the next one.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Bit Appropriate

So I know I'm not the first to point this out, but how foretelling is this Bad Religion song?

God and the Rock Star, Pt. II

As a follow up to my entry a week or two ago about young punks and headbangers who start bands as an outlet for their religious fervor, here's a somewhat related piece on rockers who find God after success.

In doing a handful of interviews recently with some of the bands I was really into in the 90's, I've started to run into a number of rockers who have suddenly "found God".

The Smoking Popes
The reason the Popes broke up years ago was because singer Josh Caterer decided to embrace Christianity. Not just show up at church every now and then, but "I'm-going-to-quit-rock-and-everything-it-stands-for, turning- my-back-on-everything-I've-created"kind of embrace. A great band cut down way too early.
A couple years ago, the band decided to get back together to play a handful of shows and record a live album. In the interview I asked Josh about the whole God thing and he said he simply wasn't happy with all the drugs and drinking that surrounded the band. He became born again and quit rock music all together for awhile, focusing on religious tunes (never bothered to check them out - read God and The Rock Star, Pt. 1 for my feelings on Christian music). He slowly got back into rock through a new band Duvall, then finally realized God probably doesn't hate good music and got the band back together. I caught one of their come back shows at The Masquerade in Atlanta last year and they were amazing (though Josh did take the opportunity to preach once or twice from the mic. You could see how uncomfortable it made the others in the band).

OK, this one took me by surprise. The Knoxville power pop band turned out a slew of brilliant records in the 90's and early 00's. (Though "Sucked Out" is the only song people remember. Go figure.) I found out they were doing the reunion tour thing, as well (which, by the way makes me feel old as shit). In doing research for the interview, I discivered front man John Davis had another one of those spiritual awakenings that seem to be going around, again thanks to booze. Copying off of Josh's paper, he also started working exclusively on Christian songs. I finally spoke with John recently and he was super cool, but I chickened out and didn't ask him about embracing God (so no big answers for you. Sorry). By the way, he strating to rock again, as well.

Couple of weaker examples:

Korn guitarist Brian Welch
In his case, I think he's just using his sudden spiritual awakening and cult-like new life as an easy excuse to walk away from a truly crappy band.

Alice Cooper
The same guy who used to guillotine himself on stage in the 70's is now a golfer, PTA dad and (gulp) Republican. He's also found Jesus. Again, in this case, I think he woke up one day and realized that he was a washed up irrelevant former rocker whose biggest accomplishment was playing "School's Out" on an episode of the Muppet show. Devil horns for the shock rocker!

So after much thought on the issue, I am left with one of two answers to the question of why rockers turn to Jesus:

1. Years of hard partying and meaningless groupie sex makes you search for a deeper meaning.
2. God is actually a roadie, converting the masses, one musician at a time.

Any thoughts?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Sell Out!

Nothing brings trendy indie kids and punk rockers together like their mutual love to debate whether or not a band is selling out. Whether it's The Shins licensing a song for a McDonald's commercial or Against Me! signing a deal with Sire records, everyone suddenly has an opinion.

In the Washington Post last week Bill Wyman took the selling out debate to a new level with an actual mathematical formula. Named aptly enough The Moby Quotient (for those who forgot, the baled-headed vegan made every single song off of his album Play available for licensing), the formula "determines the degree to which artists besmirch their reputations when they lend their music to hawk products or companies."

Each factor is ranked on a scale of 1 to 10; the number assignments can be subjective, but the formula is useful in gauging the relative outrage fans should feel with each instance of this continuing cultural blight. The higher the result, the greater the degree of selling out.

So, as Bill points out, the fact that a Fall Out Boy song is used in a Circuit City commercial should warrant very little outrage from fans - these emos kids have made no secret that they like the cabbage. More money means more guyliner!
On the other hand, someone like punk rock Godfathers The Clash, rightly got a lot of flak when "London Calling" showed up in a f-ing Jaguar commercial. Yup, the common man's band, who continued to squat in abandoned buildings even after signing a record deal, saw it as appropriate that their legacy be tied to a car for rich bastards. White Riot indeed.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

God and the Rock Star

One of the biggest surprises for me about covering bands (and in particular punk rock) is the overwhelming amount of groups that identify themselves as Christian rockers. Metal may have had Stryper in the 80's, but now there's a full blown movement, complete with weekend long festivals devoted to Christian metal, punk and hardcore.

I was talking to my editor at AMP this summer about the stacks and stacks of CDs that have been coming to house recently from Christian punk bands and she started counting off every genre and sub genre that now has its Christian component: Christian metal, Christian hardcore, Christian pop/punk, Christina emo, Christian Oi punk and, I swear to God (there you go), Christian rockabilly.

The phenomena is so big that the Vans Warped tour last year held nightly bible meetings. Seriously! The tour that made a name for itself bringing gnarled punk vets like the Buzzcocks and Pennywise to rock suburban mall rats hosted daily discussion on the temptations of booze and groupies... Isn't that why most started a band to begin with?

Is being Born Again a fad for Gen Y? Is this what rebellion has come to: Toting a bible and an unhealthy amount of guilt for simply having normal teenage urges?

It's hard not to think there are more cynical reasons for band branding themselves as Christian rockers. There is an entire audience that will snatch up your music, simply because you give a shout out to your Lord and Savior in the CD booklet, regardless of how shitty your band may be. Quick name a great Christian rock band (and no, U2 does not count). Switchfoot? Creed?

There also seems to be something very unsavory (if not out right blasphemous) about exploiting some one's religion to make money. If it's simply about "spreading the Good Word" than make your music available for free via download. Don't roll you big tour bus into town, sell tickets for $60 a seat and then gouge the true believers at the merch table ($40 for a hoodie! WWJBuy?). There is not much difference in my mind between Oral Roberts in the 80's saying God wants you to send him money and Christian rockers getting tweens to fork over their babysitting money, all in the name of God. I'm sure when Jesus was carrying the cross through the streets, he was thinking "I really hope people will be able to make some money off of my sacrifice some day. Please exploit me!"

There is also a rule in Religious Rock Star Bible stating that once you start to draw attention from mainstream press, you then have to refuse to answer any questions about religion and, in many cases, turn your backs on those kids who bought your records from the Christian bookstores (the Judas Rule?).

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Death to the Record Label?

So it's not earth-shattering news that the traditional system of delivering music is stumbling toward a freshly dug grave.

It took about half a century for musicians to catch on, but they have finally come to the conclusion that they are getting screwed big time by the major labels (smaller record labels are the exception, as many discover these bands, nurture them for years and watch some jackass A&R guy from Warner walk into the club with ironed jeans and a FallOut boy t-shirt and walk out with the band). They come up with the songs, write 'em, record 'em, cram into a van filled with stale farts and pop tarts and tour the country for about two years, collect a check for a few thousand bucks and do it all over again, while some douche from the record label takes a moment from counting his money to remind the band how lucky they are to be doing what they're doing (cue the maniacal laughter and thunder clap).

In a recent letter, hardcore vet and Throwdown front man David Peters claims that buying CDs actually encourage the current system to keep on keepin on.

"I encourage our fans to acquire our album however they please. The philosophy I’ve adopted is that if you’re supporting disc sales, you’re keeping the old model around longer…the one that forces dudes like me to tour 9 mos/year if they want to make ends meet with a career in music. If you wanna really support a band, "steal" their album….help bury the label….and buy a tshirt when you show up at their show and sing every word."

Great thought, but that brings up a larger question: Once the current system crashes and all label heads lose their jobs, who's going to buy all the coke and hookers? Tom Sizemore?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

One Hit Wonder Vs. the Boss

Are you f-ing kidding me?

Musical punchline Tommy Tu Tone and a handful of music reviewers are now alleging that the opening chords of Springsteen's latest "Radio Nowhere" are (maybe, possibly, I think...) a rip-off of the One Hit Wonder's "867-5309 (Jenny)."

Really? The Boss - one of the greatest rock musicians... well, ever - is going to swipe chords from Tommy Tu Tone?

That's like Steinbeck plagiarizing a passage from The Baby Sitter's Club.

Apparently Tu Tone remembered who he was and this afternoon has said he will now send a letter to Springsteen's manager assuring him that he will not sue. (Why not, he got the publicity he needed. Hey, did I mention Tommy has a new record coming out? Lucky timing!)

Friday, October 5, 2007

Quote of the Day (Maybe Even the Week)

"When a gun gets whipped out like that, someone is going to get shot..." Councilman Bill Summers said.

Holy crap! From an AP story in Clarksville, TN, a guy shot himself in the head after the zoning board voted against his request.

CLARKSVILLE, Tennessee (AP) -- A business owner shot and killed himself during a City Council meeting Thursday night after members voted against his request to rezone his property, witnesses said.Ronald "Bo" Ward, owner of Bo's Barber Shop, had told the council his business would go under if he couldn't get his home rezoned as commercial. After the 5-7 vote Thursday night, Ward stood and walked toward the council.
"Y'all have put me under. ... I'm out of here," he said before shooting himself in the head with a small handgun.

I covered zoning board meetings for years in Maryland, New Jersey and Massachusetts and the most exciting thing I ever saw was a board member fall asleep in front of everyone... and I talked about that for weeks!

Music News
CA punks Strung Out (their latest record, "Blackhawks Over Los Angeles", is amazing by the way) had just checked into a crappy Days Inn in Philadelphia. They'd been there about 20 min. when they looked out their window and saw someone driving off with their van and trailer (with all of their instruments, all of the t-shirts they sell at the shows and a bunch of personal belongings). Way to go City of Brotherly Love! Suddenly Detroit doesn't look so bad.

If they're coming through your town be sure to catch Strung Out on the "Philadelphia is Full of Assholes" Tour.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Bands Who Pissed Me Off... this week

As some of you know, I work in PR for my day job, so I understand that reporters can often be demanding. They can be pushy, at times, and some are completely filled with an untitled sense of self-importance. Most however are very cool, just doing their job and can be a great ally in promoting your clients. (editor's note: I used to be a reporter full-time before selling out and going into PR, and was kind pushy at times, but thanks to karma I have learned my lesson.)

As a writer for music mags., I try to be accommodatingly. I don't randomly slam bands in articles for no reason (the gloves come off with reviews, however). I know interviews are not the number one reason people start a band. If someone is taking the time to sit through an interview and answer the same questions again and again, I feel a little bad turning around and trashing them in print for no reason. I love music and a lot of the bands I interview are not doing this to get rich (and clearly neither am I, because I don't take a paycheck from most of these mags) , but simply to play music. I have an enormous amnount of respect for these bands. I'll even throw the publicist a bone and promote one of their up and coming no-name clients if they have been helpful in the past. Then there are those I will never work with again...

I hate, Hate, HATE, with the red hot intensity of 1,000 suns, when publicists come begging on bended knee for a write up of their band and then never quite follow through once I have agreed to write about them. Two recent examples.

John's List of "Bands That are Dead to Me":


Christian pop-rockers MXPX (which by the way, got a huge following with the Born Again crowd and then got pissed off a couple years later when anyone called them "Christian pop-rockers"). I did an interview with the drummer or guitarist - can't remember which - a couple years ago and the guy was a real dick. He could not be more uninterested if he tried. Every answer was "yes" or "no" regardless of the question. I had about 15 questions and the interview was over in less than 10 minutes. I had to go back to the publicist and ask for an interview with someone else (not much better the second time around, but I was on deadline and had to turn something in). Earlier this year, with the release of their latest crappy CD, a new publicist scheduled and interview which the band skipped... twice. MXPX, you are dead to me. Go to hell.

2. Yellowcard

I know, I was shocked to realize they were still around, as well. They had a tween hit a few years ago with "Ocean Avenue." Their flack begged my editor for a feature, so I offered to write it. We agreed to an e-mail interview and I sent over the questions. A few days go by and the publicist hits me back with an e-mail telling me he wanted to cut a couple of the questions (apparently, the question, "So, there were a couple of line up changes on this record?" was going to bring the band to tears.) "John, (you are asking me) how did you know a couple of guys quit the band?" Good question: Because the jackass publicist mentioned that in his pitch to my editor ("they have a new line up!"). I told him that was cool, we could scrap the whole interview if he wanted to nit pick the questions. He quickly replied that no, he was just going to change around the order and then send them on to the band. Well it's been close to three months now and still no response from the publicist or the band (their album tanked by the way. Coincidence? Looks like someone's going to be applying for that job at Hot Topic, soon.)

That's it for now. I'll let you know if I add someone else to the list.

On a positive note, here's a couple of really good albums, I've been listening to this week (i.e. bands that are not MXPX or Yellowcard): Bruce Springsteen's "Magic", American Steel's "Destroy the Future", The A-Sides "Silver Storms" and The Frantic "Audio & Murder".

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


Does anyone else see irony in the fact that Jenna Bush just wrote a book while her father can't even read a book?

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

An Open Letter to Bono

Dear Mr. Bono -

I've defended your borderline sanctimonious preaching for years. I stood up to those who screamed "traitor" when you met with Jessie Helms (I took some shit for that one, by the way). I still bought the last two sub par U2 albums (and I NEVER buy music any more - except when Springsteen puts out a record). I even shrugged when I heard you were helping bring Spiderman to Broadway (seriously?).

Then I read about you penning a song for the new Spice Girls greatest hits album. Indefensible! Mr. Paul David Hewson you have gone too far this time. With this letter I am officially severing our fan/musician relationship.

I'm heading out to where The Streets Have No Name, In God's Country, because I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking for. Walk On.

Good day sir.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Free Publicity for Crappy Bands, Part 1

So mediocre goth-rockers the Schoolyard Heroes have got to be thanking Satan for their latest stroke of luck. The band, which does a pretty weak rip off of everyone from The Cramps to Danzig, has manged to piss off a group of fanatical conservative parents with their goofy faux devil rock lyrics. Citing satanic references, the parents are circulating an online petition.

To quote the petition:
THese (sic)are satanic priests in their pulpits on stages and in clubs around the world. They understand the power in music and how they can plant their ideas in your children to make them do anything. THey (sic) want to kill your children and their lyrics state this very thing.

Not since Marilyn Manson has such a crappy band managed to garner such a mother load of free publicity thanks to clueless parents. Here's the equation: Pissed off parents = coolness seal of approval for mall rats with cash to spend.

I first found out about this controversy from the band's record label which issued a breathless press release spelling out the issue (they were also kind enough to provide a link to the pissed off parents petition). Clearly the record label knows how to play the game.

Parents I implore you. Let's address the real evil: Celine Dion's never ending Vegas show. The fact that she can charge $7 for a commemorative Celine Dion spoon is proof that Satan walks amongst us!