Category Archives: general

Q&A: Jon Rauhouse on playing with Neko Case, growing up in Phoenix’s music scene and the legacy of the pedal-steel guitar

Jon Rauhouse is a master of all things stringed – from the pedal-steel guitar to the banjo to everything in between. Besides being a card-carrying member of Neko Case’s band, Rauhouse has offered his extensive talents to tours/recordings with Calexico, Billy Bob Thornton, Jakob Dylan and so many more.

What’s more, we’re proud to call him an Arizonan – a true native and an influential figure in the local scene.

Jon was kind enough to spend a good chunk of time on the phone with me ahead of Thursday’s Neko Case show in Phoenix – a homecoming for Rauhouse that will include his own opening set.

So how has the tour been?
We’re having a blast. Total great crowds – Chicago was awesome and we got to see a bunch of people we know. And Mavis (Staples) was on and I’d never seen her before and it just blew me away.

How long have you played with Neko?
It’s been 13 years, I think. Well, the first thing I did with her – I think it was ’99 and it came out in 2000, but I’m not good with dates. I met her before that and sat in with her a couple times when I was with the Grievous Angels, and we did that recording of “Favorite” that was on the five-year Bloodshot compilation. I think that came out in 2000, but we recorded it in ’99. And then early in 2000 she asked me to tour with her, and I’ve been touring with her ever since.

That leads into what I was going to ask about how you two met.
We were on the same label and I was touring with Sally Timms – her and Sally were friends and we would hang out. I was playing with Calexico in Austin for a bunch of shows. And I was in a hotel in Austin, and it was crazy, I think that year I sat in and did 14 shows during South by Southwest. Neko was in the hotel room and she’d come by and hang out with me and (wife) Jennifer and she just offered me the gig.

She said, “Would you go out on tour with me?” I said yeah. And she said, “I can only pay you 15 bucks a day.” And I said, “Let’s do it.”

15 bucks a day – you probably had to get a little creative.
Well, it was 10 more bucks than what Grievous was paying me (laughs).

Well, now look at ya.
Exactly. I’m glad I hung in there.

Looking at Neko’s career arc – and I think I saw her the first time years ago at the old Nita’s Hideaway – are you at all surprised by her success?
Not as much because it’s been 14 years. We did years of driving the van ourselves and playing in sports bars to people watching ballgames. A lot of people remember that, but a lot of people don’t because they hear about her and when you get bigger more people hear about you and they weren’t there for that. They can hear me tell this story and all that, but they just can’t picture it. We literally slept in the van. When you tour like that, it’s like, OK, you draw straws to see who guards the gear and sleep in the van.

It’s been gradual, but it’s been really nice for me because it’s just gone slowly upper and upper and better and better.

What’s it like recording and arranging records with her? Is it kind of a democratic process or is she arranging everything and you guys are following her lead?
She writes all the stuff, definitely all the lyrics. The stuff I’ve done with her I’ve gotten credit for was because she just couldn’t figure where to take a section – you know, she knew what she wanted to do vocally but couldn’t figure out what would match underneath it. I would go, “How about this or how about this?” and you find something that works.

But she definitely has an idea of what she wants in her head about how the song is going to go. She’ll hear something in the studio that somebody does and be like, “Oh, we’re using that.” For me, anyway, she never tells me what to play or whatever. I just go in and do my stuff and if she doesn’t like it, she’ll say, “No, that doesn’t fit,” but usually she just sits and if she doesn’t say anything, then it’s all fine.

Plus, I’d rather have direction when I’m doing work on other people’s records because it’s their record and I want ’em to be happy.

So what about your record? What’s the plan for your next release?
Well, I’m almost done and I’m trying not to jinx it. I’m hoping I can get it out sometime next year – early next year maybe. It’s really close. I gotta get a couple more days in Wavelab.

So the last one (Steel Guitar Heart Attack on Bloodshot Records) came out in ’07 …
Yeeeah, goddamn it (laughs).

You’e obviously an in-demand guy, is it hard for you to concentrate on getting your own stuff out?
It is for two reasons. One is that I’m bound and determined to use really good people, like Kevin O’Donnell on drums and Will (Lovell) on bass and Tommy Connell as the main bunch of people.

But everybody is crazy busy, so like right now I’m trying to maneuver a day because we got two weeks off in between the end of major touring and the beginning of going to Europe for three weeks.

And another thing is the cost. It’s flying Kevin someplace or trying to get somebody and I’m trying to get Robin Vining now to do some piano stuff and now he’s out with Jimmy Eat World. It’s good for everybody that everybody’s working.

And you’re OK being patient with that and waiting it out?
I am, yeah, because I want the guys to play. … I want to use good musicians and guys I love. I like how it’s turning out and the stuff we’re doing. It’s hard for me – there’s so many things I wanna do, like TV themes (“Perry Mason” interpretation) and I’ve written a bunch of my own stuff and I’ve written a bunch of stuff with Rachel Flotard.

But it’s hard. In this day and age it’s hard to put out an 18-song record when you’re only gonna get paid for 11.

Are you less inclined to push yourself to get an album done when that’s the case?
I think so because if I end up spending a ton of money, you never recoup it. I put ’em out anyway, and I’m gonna just because it’s what I do and it’s the kind of stuff I like and nobody else does it and I just hope somebody else will hear that kind of stuff and choose that path.

Are pedal-steel players considered a rare breed these days?
Yeah, they are. I’ve been talking to a lot of people about that recently, and right now I can think of me, Greg Leisz and Eric Heywood are guys that actually go out and tour and play with people and do other people’s records. There are guys in bands that double up, like I do, too, with Neko.

It’s a complicated, hard thing to play and it takes time to learn it. And I’m not slagging everybody, but the attention span of a lot of people is to not spend that much time with something. So you’ll see a guy that dabbles with it and he’ll play it on a record, but they’re not known as that kind of a guy.

And I go to the steel guitar conventions just to see the old guys, and most of them are gone. I’m usually one of the youngest guys there, which is really frightening – I’m 55.

For the non-guitar players among us, what makes that instrument so unique and so complicated?
Well, with the pedals and the knee levers, you can change the pitch of strings. You can do that while you’re playing it. It gives you more of a vocal sound – like how you can move a voice without it segmenting up. You can find some of that on a guitar, but you can’t do it like you can on a pedal steel.

It always struck me as an emotional instrument. Like you said, you can really pull some things out of it.
Yeah, and that’s the reason I ended up playing it. I was in Phoenix 35 years ago when I got my first one. But I’d been listening to a guy, his name is Mike Hardwick – he lives in Austin and he still plays, he’s awesome – but I was just blown away by what was coming out of that thing. You know, I’d heard it in recordings, but actually then seeing someone do it and how it was going on – that’s what I was going to end up doing.

“I feel an obligation to pass it on and hope somebody picks up on it because the pedal-steel guitar has treated me very well in my life and I hope other people pick it up because it is a dying thing.”

Can you remember practicing and how much you were practicing when you first started?
I was young, so I was 19. And I drank a lot (laughs). I practiced a lot. And the dumb thing I did was practice barefoot. And so when I started bringing it into clubs and playing it out, I had to relearn how to play it with shoes on.

But I’d get up in the morning and start playing it – I’m sure I was driving my neighbors crazy.

So you didn’t start playing it until you were 19?
Yeah, I started playing banjo and steel guitar – I think banjo first and then I got a steel guitar and was playing them at the same time.

That’s interesting that you picked it up – I don’t want to say 19 is old – but at a later age.
It’s older than most people pick up musical instruments. There was a banjo at my house and I ran into a guy who was a killer player. I didn’t play, but my brother bought the banjo and he passed away. So it was just at the house. And I asked this guy if I could get banjo lessons and come to find out he lives like six houses away from me.

That was the banjo and I taught myself how to play steel guitar. There was no real teaching material. I had a guy show me how to tune it. You just had to figure out what people were doing on records. And that was the hard part. Because if you go with famous guys like Ralph Mooney, who did all the early, early Merle Haggard stuff – most of those guys were like mad scientists. Nobody was really making them; they were making them themselves. Bud Isaacs also had a weird pedal setup. There’s still some things I can’t copy because the pedal setup and knee lever setup is different on a lot of different steel guitars.

So I did end up teaching myself. There was nobody to go to.

There were no YouTube instructional videos when you were learning.
Nope. No, there weren’t. There was one book that was good that had the floppy record in it and that had like four songs you could play to and it had the musical tablature and you’d have to figure that out. So I learned those four songs and just had to go from there.

That’s incredible. And it’s great because I guess you learn your own style, right?
Yeah, a lot of people tell me when they hear me play on stuff they know it’s me. And that’s a huge compliment. But I think it’s because I wasn’t around anybody to learn from directly.

You said there’s a pedal-steel convention. Is that a yearly thing?
There’s several around the country. The big one is in St. Louis every year. There’s one in Phoenix in January. It’s awfully awesome. They bring out all these crazy steel players that come in and just rip it up. It’s something to see at least once in your life.

You said you go and there are some guys who just aren’t there anymore. Do you feel some sort of obligation to soak up what the older guys know and can teach you?
Oh, definitely. I wrote an article for Fretboard Journal about Bud Isaacs. He’s the first guy to ever use pedals in motion during a song, in 1953 or 1954. … He’s been doing it for decades and he’s in his mid-80s. He’s awesome and just talking to him … I think that’s the thing that a lot of younger people don’t understand is all the older musicians who have all this knowledge. The older musicians, there was a brotherhood to it. They shared a lot of stuff. I don’t know if that’s going on anymore.

But I do feel an obligation. And I feel an obligation to pass it on and hope somebody picks up on it because the pedal-steel guitar has treated me very well in my life and I hope other people pick it up because it is a dying thing.

Do you see many younger players or people asking you about it?
I get a lot of requests to do stuff that I can’t do; I can’t just teach because I’m always on the fly. … There are younger people, but I think a lot of people are so intimidated by the thing that they are afraid to play it out. …

The hard thing is it’s such a lug. I gotta lug so much crap around. A lot of people just don’t wanna do that. They will for a while, and then they’re like, “This isn’t getting me anywhere, I’m not making any money,” and they don’t do it. To a lot of people’s credit, too, when I was doing it, I could check eight things at the airport and not get charged for it, back in the ’90s. I literally would check an amp in a seat. Now I have to check five things when I travel now and it’s over $400 in overages. You can’t do that if you’re in a band that’s not making money.

What would you do if you were not a musician?
I have no idea, and I didn’t know I was going to do this. I graduated high school in ’76, and in Phoenix at that time there were not very many jobs and not much going on. I almost joined the Army just to get paid. I’m glad I didn’t. I just started playing music. I got real lucky. We just started doing it and people liked it. We did work a lot. Back then you could work more and you’d actually get paid – not a lot, but you would get paid. I swear to God, you get paid less now than you did back then. All the people I love in Phoenix right now that are doing gigs, they’re making less money on those gigs than I made on those gigs back in, you know, 1980.

Tell me about the Phoenix scene. Where were you playing? What was it like then?
Well, back when I was playing the drinking age was 19. … There were all these clubs that had what people now call Americana music. It was bluegrass stuff, country stuff and rock stuff. It was very fun, but you had to play four sets a night and you had to bring your own PA.

You’re an Arizona native, and more impressive is that you’ve stayed here. You’re a guy that could have easily moved to Nashville.
The hard thing about that is if you’re a musician – I’m what you would call a successful musician but I do not make a ton of money. I do fine, but I work a lot. If you go to Austin and you go to Nashville – like I saw Ian McLagan playing happy hour in Austin for, like, beer money. There’s so many people there and so many good people in those places that to get in and to get in that level, somebody has to die. Yeah, you can come and you can be really good, unless you wanna do it for nothing, then you’re screwed.

I stayed in Phoenix, and every time I wanted to leave – and I almost left a couple times – my situation changed and I started playing music because I was here. So I stayed because that’s what I wanted to do. It has worked out for me and actually there is a scene in Phoenix, where you can play and people can get gigs in Phoenix. There’s a lot of towns you can’t. And seven or eight years ago in Phoenix, not so much. Not so much as there is now.

It’s amazing to see the growth of musicians and fans here. Shows are selling out all the time now. Like you said, seven or eight years ago you could be sure to just walk up to a show and get a ticket, no problem.
And you could see somebody really good and there’d be 20 people in there – somebody that just played Los Angeles to 2,000 people. I have no idea what was going on in Phoenix at that time.

It was really weird because I was traveling so much, I would leave and come back and every time I’d come back I’d noticed there’d be like, “Oh, what’s going on down here on Roosevelt?” And then there’d be a couple places to go see somebody and somebody I know would be coming through town and play. It just kind of built from there. And you gotta thank Charlie Levy (of Stateside Presents) on a lot of that.

But there is a scene here now. And there’s even a country scene. That just couldn’t happen. When I was in Grievous Angels, there was just Nita’s Hideaway (in Tempe). That was it. And any other place we’d go play would be closed in a week.

As a guy who has been here and seen it grow, is it gratifying to see?
Yeah, because at one point it was great and then it kinda tailed off. Raising the drinking age to 21 killed everything. Because that’s where bars were making a fortune. Bars didn’t have to do anything. You just throw up a couple of barrels and a board and start selling beer and you’d have students in there like crazy. Then when they figured out, “Oh, wait a minute. That whole group is gone and now we have to do promotion and all this other stuff.” Then it just became a ghost town.

A few bands did come out of that – the Gin Blossoms, the Refreshments and all that kind of stuff – but not very many. Then it slowly built up and got better again.

I guess the key is getting people from other cities to realize that.
Yeah, and it’s one of those things where if you’re on tour and coming up on a weekend, you want to play Los Angeles or you want to play Tucson or you want to play Texas. Phoenix was out. And where would you play? If you were small, you’d play the Mason Jar. … And now Charlie’s put up the Crescent. There are places now more conducive to actually listening to music. And I think that’s why more people stop now because you can play a Thursday night in Phoenix and do Friday in L.A. But before it was like, “Man, Thursday night in Phoenix, there’s gonna be like four people there.”

And there’s a myriad of people coming through – it’s all different styles and kinds. And Cibo has got the carriage house out back and you can go see somebody really awesome in a setting that you’d never get to. It’s awesome that people are doing things. And there’s the Lost Leaf, too.

Speaking of local music, did you have local influences while you were coming up?
There was a band called Yesterday’s Wine that played and they wrote their own music, they were great. They still would be great. I found their CD the other day and put it on – it’s better than half the stuff you hear now. The guy that was playing steel in that was why I went and saw them.

There’s another band, a bluegrass band, called the Normal Brothers that were amazing. Steve Thomas was the banjo player in that band. And the steel guitar player in Yesterday’s Wine was Mike Hardwick, who plays with Jon Dee Graham and he played for years with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and he played with Jerry Jeff Walker when Walker was big. See, that’s the thing: There’s all these working-class musicians and guys who come out of Phoenix and really do stuff and still do stuff, but nobody knows who they are.

As you’re touring now, are you able to step back and really take it all in?
Yeah, you know, we just did Fallon. And then we played this killer show in New York for Pandora, and it was great. It was with a bunch of people who won a contest to get into the show, but it was all Neko fans, so it was like 400 people jammed into this place that just all loved her. It was awesome.

The thing for me is I never take it for granted and I also think it could all go away at any second. … Enjoy it while it’s happening because it can all just stop. Right now, the band’s just burning and everyone’s having fun and everybody’s glad to be here. It’s really, really fun and everyone’s enjoying it and I’m really glad.

Vampire Weekend: Step, as inspired by Souls of Mischief’s Step to My Girl


Musical synergy works best when you least expect it, offering a sense of surprise and inspiration all at once.

I knew the guys in Vampire Weekend were fans of hip-hop from past interviews, but I’d barely listened to the new album, let alone read the countless articles about it, before digging into Modern Vampires of the City on a vacation last week that required some road-trip material.

And that’s when “Step” stopped me dead in my tracks. The album’s third song stirred my subconscious, gently reminding me of a Souls of Mischief demo from long ago called “Step to My Girl.” The title was an obvious link, not to mention the familiar melody and chorus (you have no idea how much time I spent on the Hieroglyphics message boards back in the day). It all clicked – in one beautiful, mind-blowing moment in the car with my wife somewhere between Louisville and Cincinnati. Did Vampire Weekend really dig into Souls of Mischief demos to construct this ode 20 years after the fact? Was I really this excited about it? Yes and yes.

A Google search turned up my answer (and confirmed that I need to stay on top of music news more often). Singer Ezra Koenig told NPR in May:

“Souls Of Mischief I’ve always loved. I kind of associate them with the first time that I really started become a music fan as a young teenager. This song apparently was recorded around the time of their first album, which was called 93 ’til Infinity, but it never made the record and it floated around as a bootleg for awhile. I only discovered it five or six years ago but it always really stuck with me, especially the chorus. I didn’t know where it came from but they’re kind of like scratching somebody saying, “Every time I see you in the world, you always step to my girl.” Slowly as I listened to this song, I found myself kind of writing this alternate song based on that phrase. Later we found out that that in of itself is a sample from a rapper called YZ. We didn’t know that at the time. This was kind of the inspiration to write this other song that became ‘Step.'”

Even two months before that, in March, Koenig referred to the Souls influence on Twitter: “Who’s gonna draw out the Step family tree? Souls of Mischief (shoutout 2 those legends), of course, but then it gets a lil more complicated.”

Adding to the story line is the fact that Souls of Mischief have embarked on the “Still Infinity” tour (Aug. 14 at Club Red in Tempe) to mark the 20th anniversary of the release of 93 ’til Infinity, a favorite of mine and a downright classic. It’s clear I love when indie rock and hip-hop commingle, and twenty years later, it’s cool to see Souls’ influence at work in a most unexpected way.

Frank Turner: The Modern Leper (Frightened Rabbit cover)

Another Record Store Day has come and gone. I’m less willing these days to wake up early and fight crowds, not to mention kill my knees by squatting to flip through records (I’m old, OK?).

Still, I was able snag what I really wanted on Saturday at Stinkweeds with the Built to Spill Live album on vinyl. I would have been overjoyed if I was able to find the At the Drive-In Relationship of Command reissue and/or the Frightened Rabbit Midnight Organ Fight reissue. But the reality is this: I rolled in at 11:30 a.m. There wasn’t a chance in hell there’d be any left for me, and that’s OK.

But just when I’m coming to grips with this, I see this cover of “The Modern Leper” by the English folk/punk rabble-rouser Frank Turner, who tackled the song at a Record Store Day in-store performance, and I’m reminded again of just how great Midnight Organ Fight is – my favorite of 2008.

Even Frightened Rabbit took notice.

David Bazan, Will Johnson and Matt and Bubba Kadane are Overseas


Based on name brand alone, you’d have to figure Overseas has the making of something incredible. And then all you have to do is listen to “Down Below” for confirmation that, yes, this will probably be just that.

There’s David Bazan (Pedro the Lion, Headphones, solo career). And then there’s Will Johnson (Centro-matic, South San Gabriel), who trades singing duties with Bazan. And, oh, yeah, there’s Matt and Bubba Kadane (Bedhead and the New Year, who are freaking great). Pretty soon, people will start throwing around that “supergroup” word, though it’s hardly some glamour project. These guys share a pretty rich history.

As it is, I’m reaching obsessive levels with the song “Down Below.” I’ve already pre-ordered the album, which comes with an instant download of it, but “Down Below” is currently owning me and I really don’t want to listen to anything else. Bazan’s lyrics are gut-wrenching in ways I feel like I haven’t quite figured out yet.

The Overseas album comes out in June, or you should just pre-order it and get that instant download.

The National: Demons


If the lack of activity over the past month wasn’t a clue, I haven’t been feeling particularly inspired lately. Cue a new song from the National – just in time. I won’t even pretend to be anything other than the unobjective fanboy of the band I’ve been for the past eight years.

“Demons” is the first official leak from the forthcoming album Trouble Will Find Me, due out May 21. Where 2010’s “England” – and so many National songs before it – slayed me with triumphant crescendoes, “Demons” settles into a comfortable groove from the get-go. Matt Berninger, as usual, sings a tick behind the beat, giving the song an almost unnerving flow. But his talk-sing baritone keeps it together until the knockout, insecure chorus: “But I stay down, with my demons. I stay down, with my demons”

And I’ve been harping on this for years, but I think we can all agree that drummer Bryan Devendorf is the unheralded star of this and so many National songs. His drumming is a study in restrained control. As much as I love seeing a drummer become unhinged, there’s something similarly satisfying about a drummer who makes a statement by being understated, a composed level of self-control and confidence that reigns over a song. And Devendorf has done it here. Again.

Nightlands: Oak Island


Eric, who discussed Toro y Moi in his last post, is back for more, this time discussing War on Drugs bassist Dave Hartley’s solo project called Nightlands.

One album I’ve really been getting into these days is Nightlands’ sophomore release, Oak Island. Nightlands is a band I’ve only just become familiar with in a sort of Six Degrees of Separation (or Kevin Bacon) sense. I’m a big fan of Philly low-fi singer/guitarist Kurt Vile, who is, along with Adam Granduciel, one of the founding members of The War on Drugs. These days, Kurt Vile plays solo, but Granduciel is the guitarist for Vile’s band and the frontman for The War on Drugs. Nightlands is the side project of The War on Drugs bassist Dave Hartley. Got it?

Hartley seems like quite the multi-faceted musician, which is always intriguing to me. Sure, he plays in multiple bands, but that’s not that uncommon, at least within the confines of the indie-rock world. A rabid fan of the 76ers and the NBA in general, he also moonlights as a basketball writer for two different websites: Top of the Key for Philly music blog The Key, and Death Dunk for Impose Magazine. As someone who DVRs as much NBA TV as primetime television, I really appreciate both his love for his team and the honesty with which he assesses it. I also like that he’s got a special affinity for not only the star players, but also the blue-collar role players. The “lunch pail” guys. The Todd MacCullochs of the world. The Matt Bonners. The Paul Shirleys. I’ve always been someone who loves talking and reminiscing about the random minutiae of sports, and Hartley really nails that in his posts.

He’s also a hardcore sci-fi “enthusiast” (notice I went PC in favor of the more pejorative “nerd-burger”). You could be quite literal in describing Nightlands’ work thus far as either “spacey” or “dreamy.” Spacey in the sense that his his passion for sci-fi certainly pretty obviously finds his way onto Oak Island, which Pitchfork accurately described as “a big-concept, low-budget rendering of the space age sound redolent of any of the movies that came out as an immediate result of Star Wars.” It’s dreamy in the sense that he apparently wrote his debut album, Forget the Mantra, by putting a tape recorder next to his bed in an effort to gather musical ideas conceived mid-slumber.

Both of these qualities are on display in the video for the first single, “I Fell in Love With a Feeling,” a quick blend of strummy guitar and horns that reminds me a lot of Destroyer’s last album (certainly not a bad thing in my view), and Hartley’s voice morphed into a sort of one-man robot chorus.

My first instinct was to try to view Nightlands through a War on Drugs-colored lens, but that’s pretty immediately ruled out as an option as I began to listen to Oak Island. One project seems to have little, if anything to do with another, which is pretty perfect for a multi-instrumentalist/basketball blogger/sci-fi fan – a guy who’s clearly his own person and would seem to hate being or doing what you’d expect.

Frightened Rabbit: Backyard Skulls (video)


I’m ashamed to admit that my last post on Frightened Rabbit was in August 2011. I mean, we had such a good thing going. But last year’s State Hospital EP slipped through the cracks, and now the band comes roaring back with Pedestrian Verse, the band’s fourth full-length studio album and first for a major label (Atlantic).

I ask for forgiveness – and I also ask that the band return to play Phoenix again (we have such great memories).

Let’s start my road to redemption by posting this video for “Backyard Skulls,” a song off Pedestrian Verse, which along with Light Up Gold by Parquet Courts, has so far commanded most of my attention in 2013. Here the band performs at what appears to be the remnants of some high school dance, a seemingly innocent scene set against the sort of harsh truths for adulthood to come: “Backyard skulls / deep beneath the ground / those backyard skulls / are not deep enough to never be found.”

The steady evolution of Toro y Moi


Eric is in Hawaii – eating exotic foods, surfing, laughing at us peons – but he was kind enough to leave me with two posts while he’s away. Here’s the first.

Toro y Moi played Crescent Ballroom on Jan. 30, for the second time in a year (bookended by Geographer at Rhythm Room the day before and Pinback at Crescent the day after, no less). I’m not sure what musical lottery we won here in Phoenix that week, but I wasn’t about to question it. His 2012 show, despite putting me in full geezer mode with the overwhelming underage section, was one of the best-sounding shows I went to all year.

Not that it’s the reason I like him so much, but it doesn’t hurt that Chazwick Bundick is also a fellow South Carolinian. I lived in “South Cackalacky” from when I was just a wee lad of 5 years old until just before my sophomore year of high school, when my dad’s job moved us to Illinois. When your home state’s musical heroes pretty much begin and end with Hootie and the Blowfish and Marshall Tucker Band, you can begin to understand how rarely I’m given the privelege of SC artists about which to get excited.

After seeing Toro y Moi this time, I found myself looking back at a short but already impressive catalogue and how it’s developed over the years. Through these past few years, Chaz Bundick has consistently explored new musical landscapes with each new album. On 2009’s Causers of This, Toro y Moi was a one-man band with a synthesyzer and mixing equipment. He was quickly lumped in with other “bedroom” recording artists such as Washed Out and Neon Indian and firmly inserted into a brand new, conventient square box of a subgenre called chillwave, the basic idea being dreamy pop as heard through a musical Instagram filter of sorts. Tracks like “Blessa” and “Talamak” had bloggers and critics abuzz, “Blessa” being of particular note for its oft-discussed, resonant line, “I found a job I do it fine/Not what I want but still I try” as being something of a mantra for young people coming to terms with a take-what-you-can-get post-college reality check in 2009.

The next iteration of TyM expanded Bundick’s reach beyond that of a solo project. He had already channeled his more electronic tendencies into his side project, Les Sins, which produced a double-sided single, “Lina,” in 2010. This was an intriguing, brief tease along the way to what I consider an essential album, his official sophomore release, 2011’s Underneath the Pine. While Pine‘s production is still largely rooted in the dreamy, spacey waves of that got him noticed with Causers, it also displayed an overtly dancier, funkier side with tracks like “Still Sound” and “New Beat.” Around the time of the release of the album, I got to see my first Toro y Moi show. The first chance was as an opener, circa-Causers of This, for the Ruby Suns at Rhythm Room, something I kicked myself for missing a hundred times over.

I’m not sure if I had been misinformed or just imagined it, but my understanding of Toro live shows pre-Pine involved Chaz, a microphone and DJ equipment. But when I saw them headline the South by Stateside showcase (including other soon-to-break-out artists Foster the People and Geographer) at the Sail Inn in March 2011, there was ol’ Chazzy on keyboard and vocals, a guitarist, a drummer and bassist. Toro y Moi had graduated to being a “band” in more traditional sense of the word. I wasn’t expecting it, and the live show admittedly felt distinctly different than the album, almost like a slightly abstract interpretation of it. All of this is not to say that it was in any way amateurish or took anything away from the sound of what’s become one of my favorite albums – it just felt like two very different animals, the live show and the album. I definitely walked away impressed and wanting more.

What’s been really consistent, though, each time I’ve seen a Toro show has been Chaz Bundick’s stage presence. For such a seemingly soft-spoken, intellectual, sheepish teddy bear of a guy, he plays with a confidence and swagger beyond his years and on-the-surface personality. The effortlessness with which he plays is really impressive to me, like I’m watching that kid destroy the Dance Dance Revolution game in the lobby of the movie theater, all the while with an “ain’t no thang” half-smirk on his face.

I saw them next in August 2011 at the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, underneath a canopy of shady trees with a cold beer in my hand. By that point, having already worn out Pine as a soundtrack to almost everything in my life, this was to be one of my favorite shows. That spring and summer, and well after, I played the album pretty much everywhere. The CD was always in the car and on my iPod when walking, hiking or biking. I really enjoyed seeing the world through the lens of that particular album, and it’s just something I’ve never gotten tired of.

With January’s release of Anything in Return, Toro has ventured into some newfound sauve territory. The first two singles, “So Many Details” and “Say That,” are slow and sexy, with catchy hooks and quite a bit more bass thump than previous fare, and “Rose Quartz” exudes a healthy amount of swagger. “High Living” is similarly stretched out, allowing Bundick plenty of space to work into some deep Courvoisier-in-hand grooves.

I don’t want to say he’s “grown up” at this point (he’s still only 26, after all), and he seemed pretty self-possessed in his early 20s, but it seems that he’s hit a more adult stride with this new work. He recently moved away from home to live with his girlfriend in Berkeley, which doesn’t seem coincidental for me. As someone who’s had that moment where you decide that moving across the country is something that you are definitely all of a sudden going to go ahead and go through with, even though you’re leaving everything you know behind and have no idea what what this new place will bring, I can attest that it can be hard to look at yourself as a kid afterward.

I knew from the first listen, this album has a lot of replay potential for me, just like everything else I’ve heard from him, and I’m excited to see what I find as I peel back the layers. Hearing the new stuff after only maybe two or three times prior to the show, it wasn’t as familiar going in as I’d like for one of my favorite bands, but that happens. Although I couldn’t “feeeeel” it as much, I also have a gut reaction that Anything in Return will usher in new era for him and broaden the fan base further. Although I have a pretty personal relationship with the music, I’m happy about that. I recommend it to just about everybody and genuinely want more people to experience it.

I also feel like the live show is only becoming more integrated as Chaz goes along and adds more layers. The crowd was dancing and smiling throughout. Yeah, I was mouthing the words to about 75 percent of the songs. So what? I’m not exaggerating when I say that people were freaking out about some Toro, you guys. Deafening cheers and chants demanded an encore, and there was a palpable ecstatic buzz that filtered out into the lounge area post-show. I can’t wait to see what’s in store next time I see them.

New old Rival Schools album: Found


In 2011, 10 years after debuting with the excellent United By Fate, post-hardcore outfit Rival Schools returned from a hiatus to release Pedals, a solid effort that seemed to comfortably pick up where the Walter Schreifels-fronted band left off a decade prior.

But somewhere in between there was a “lost” album – that most mythical concept. Rival Schools have their own version, and what once was lost now is Found (sorry). On April 9, the band will release Found, a remastered collection of those lost tracks originally meant to serve as the second album.

Below is a stream of one of the songs, “Indisposable Heroes” and a Q&A with Schreifels (unedited by me) that the group’s marketing firm included with the email blast about the album. It offers all the details you’d want about the unearthing of Found.

Continue reading New old Rival Schools album: Found

Ex-Mazarin frontman Quentin Stoltzfus recruits the Walkmen for new project Light Heat

Quentin Stoltzfus

It’s been a long time – too long – since I’ve mentioned Mazarin’s name on this blog. To be exact, it’s been more than six years. That was in November 2006, when Mazarin was forced to retire its name because of a cease and desist order by an attorney hired by another band with the same name. Long story short: Mazarin retired its name and, worse, retired as a band, playing a final show in December 2006 in its hometown of Philadelphia.

It was a shame for Mazarin to endure such an abrupt ending; the 2005 album We’re Already There is a wondrous piece of pysch-pop. The Walkmen thought enough of the album to cover one of the songs, “Another One Goes By,” and include it on their 2006 album A Hundred Miles Off.

Here we are in 2013, and that synergism has come full circle. Mazarin frontman Quentin Stoltzfus has resurfaced for a new project called Light Heat, and he’s backed by Walkmen members Paul Maroon, Matt Barrick, Peter Bauer and Walter Martin. Spin premiered a new track, “The Mirror,” and instantly you can feel the influence of Barrick’s pulsating drums. This pairing is a very welcome development.

Light Heat’s self-titled debut album will be released via Ribbon Music on June 25.

Check out two tracks below.

Light Heat: The Mirror

Light Heat: And the Birds…