Now Hear This
Tuesday, April 06, 2004
"Civilization" David Byrne Grown Backwards (Nonesuch)
"Au Fond Du Temple" David Byrne Grown Backwards (Nonesuch)
"Love - Buildings on Fire" Talking Heads The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (Sire)
"Potato Chips" Slim Gaillaed Jazz Singing (Universal)
"Warning Sign" Talking Heads More Songs About Building and Food (Sire)
"Wouldn't it Be Nice" Beach Boys Pet Sounds (Capitol)
"New York Groove" Ace Frehley Ace Frehley (Polygram)
"I Was Made For Loving You" Kiss Dynasty (Polygram)
"Millennium" Robbie Williams The Ego Has Landed (Capitol)
"Tinseltown in The Rain" Blue Nile A Walk Across The Rooftops (Virgin)
"Sorry Signs on Cash Machines" Mason Jennings NHT Exclusive Peformance from the Album Century Spring (Architect/Bar None)
"Crown" Mason Jennings NHT Exclusive Performance from the Album Use Your Voice (Architect/Bar None)
"Empire Builder" Mason Jennings NHT Exclusive Performance- from the Album Use Your Voice (Architect/Bar None)
"Genius of Love" Tom Tom Club Tom Tom Club (Sire)
"Never Mind" Heads No Talking Just Head (MCA)
John Flansburgh Hey, everybody! Welcome to "Now Hear This" on WNYC in New York City. I'm John Flansburgh , known by some as the guy with glasses in the band, They Might Be Giants. But right now, I'm your host on "Now Hear This."
"Now Hear This" is an hour-long survey of the popular musical landscape. And we also look at some more uncharted territories as well. If you're an active music fan or just want a better sense of what you've been missing, "Now Hear This" is here to put it all together for you. There's no velvet rope, no need to find a silver skipper, and there's no long-term hearing loss.
On this show, we'll introduce you to Mason Jennings, a great new songwriter. We'll also get an inside glimpse into the world of musical ghosting. And we have a special two-part look at the Talking Heads, with former bandmates David Byrne and Tina Weymouth. All this, and even more, coming up on "Now Hear This."
Our first guest is David Byrne.
Now I've gotta come clean here and tell you that I probably used my fake ID to get into more Talking Heads shows than any other band when I was in high school. So I was really jumping up and down when I found out I could get David Byrne into the show. He's got a new album out. It's called Grown Backwards. And this song is called "Civilization."
Much of the album reveals a more relaxed and reflexive songwriter. But on other tracks, Byrne's unorthodox sense of adventure remains fully intact. Here's a very different kind of track off the album, Grown Backwards.
I want to ask you about your new album. You have this new record. Grown Backwards is the title of it. There are two opera pieces on the record. And what are the titles, 'cause I'm gonna get them wrong.
David Byrne One is-oh, gosh, I'm gonna get it wrong, too. "Au Fond du Temple Saint." That one is from an opera called The Pearl Fishers, by Bizet. And the other one is "Un di Eterea," by Verde.
John Flansburgh Now, obviously, you must be a fan of the music.
David Byrne I don't have a huge knowledge of opera, but I heard these and some other tunes somewhat recently, and it dawned on me-these are great tunes! And some of them, I could sing. And you don't have to do 'em with that voice. You could do 'em with a regular voice. Kind of scale it down a little bit for, let's say, contemporary tastes.
John Flansburgh Oh, and you did it with Rufus Wainwright, as well.
David Byrne Rufus, I knew, is a big opera fan. And I thought, should I call him up? See if he wants to do this? Is he gonna feel like this is sacred territory-great to listen to the great singers do this stuff, but-I'm not gonna touch it!
John Flansburgh Well, it is kind of, you know, a clash of the unlikely titans of non-opera
David Byrne [Laughs]
John Flansburgh For the two of you to be singing these things. And it's a piece that's for two male voices.
David Byrne It's for two male voices talking about some woman that's walking there, that comes into their point of view.
John Flansburgh Now, did you change the key?
David Byrne No, I kept the-the key is the same, which is kind of handy. 'Cause you can-you can just go to the store and buy the music for the whole deal, not that you want the whole deal. And then you just go, oh, well, there's a song right there. Let's do that part. So as long as-if you're in the same key, you've got a head start. So far, I can still hit those notes.
John Flansburgh The longer you sort of sing opera, you might catch a case of diva-ticulitis, and find yourself wearing a scarf, or something.
David Byrne Yes.
John Flansburgh During the warm summer months.
David Byrne [Laughs]
John Flansburgh But I guess that the fact that your new album has these two operatic pieces and admits all these new songs, makes me think about a larger question, you know, looking back on all the different things you've done. Do you go: "Well, that really worked," or: "That didn't work"?
David Byrne Yeah, I mean, I do look back at things sometimes and go: "Boy, oh, boy. Glad you got through that." And all I can say to myself is: "You know, you just have to keep in practice." And not everything you do is up to snuff. But sometimes it's like drawing or something. You just have to keep your hand moving so that, that way, you won't get whatever writer's block. So you might turn out crap at some point. 'Cause you don't know. I mean, when I did-I've done stuff that isn't so great. And I think they're-some of 'em-are pretty good at the time. And now I look back at them, and I think: "Oh, boy. Slipped that one by." [Laughs]
John Flansburgh But it's not just about keeping active. But, I guess, how important is it to you that David Byrne's work be associated with being experimental, or sort of going beyond the obvious? Because you really don't repeat yourself that much. You try out a lot of things in a lot of different formats. You're pretty-you're pretty rigorous with the materials, as they say in art school.
David Byrne Well, it's important to keep myself interested, keep myself excited. But I realize that, for somebody else, doing a couple opera songs is no big news. But for me, it's a big deal. I'm not so terrified that I'm gonna get my head chopped off, although I might.
John Flansburgh The second half of the record kind of goes into a song cycle that's a little bit more personal, and a little bit more observational. And there's a song with the refrain, "I'm glad that"
David Byrne That's one of my favorites.
John Flansburgh It reminds me of a Noel Coward kind of impulse that gets very observational and very relaxed. And it seemed like a very unlikely sort of landing place for the feverish David Byrne that I saw in 1978 at the Paradise Club.
David Byrne It has this melody that I found myself, kind of singing it, or maybe humming the tune to myself. And I thought, "Well, that's not the cartoon that you would normally kind of gravitate towards. Maybe you should see what you can do with it." That's gonna be a challenge, because the melody sounds like "Teddy Bear's Picnic."
[Sings a few bars] And then I thought
John Flansburgh It doesn't get any better than that.
David Byrne "Teddy Bear's Picnic." Watch out!
And you know, in figuring out what I was gonna play, what the band was gonna play, and what the arrangement would be, it was like: Stay away from "Teddy Bear's Picnic."
John Flansburgh [Laughs]
David Byrne This gotta be-it starts off light, and it's gotta get a little darker. But watch out, also because, with that kind of melody, I just started figuring out the chords that would support that melody. And I realized: "Oh, God, I'm like doing all these jazz chords that I barely know to follow the tune." And I realized that if an arrangement just basically followed those chords, it's gonna get really dark sounding. 'Cause they're really kind of these dense, sometimes dissonant chords. And lyrically, I guess I thought: "Let's see what happens if I go from light-I'm glad, you know, I'm glad I'm alive, I'm glad I can see, I'm glad I've got arms and legs and everything, to stuff like, that you're not supposed to be glad about.
John Flansburgh So you're going out on tour to promote this record?
David Byrne You could put it that way. While I'm out on tour, I have a new record, in case people happen to like this stuff.
John Flansburgh [Laughs] What's the format that you're gonna play the songs off the album with?
David Byrne It's a pretty big band. It's breaking the bank. Ten musicians. Six strings and kind of a rhythm section: drums, percussion, bass, and myself.
John Flansburgh So you're gonna be able to do the operas.
David Byrne Yeah, I can do the operas. I can do all the stuff, pretty much. And we'll do some Talking Heads stuff, but arranged for the strings, doing some of the guitar lines.
John Flansburgh What songs?
David Byrne Let's see. Some are kind of obvious. We do "Night Melody," this very pretty one where the strings do the synthesizer lines. And I'm talking to Steve Barber-the arranger-about maybe trying "I Zimbra." To see if the strings can do all these kind of vaguely African guitar lines, along with me. But that might be a really unexpected way to go. You know, you expect, with the strings, it's gonna be: We'll do all the ballads.
John Flansburgh The sort of early, very picky stuff could be done with pizziccato strings very effectively.
David Byrne [Laughs] Yes!
John Flansburgh I think "For Artists Only" could be quite the show stopper.
David Byrne [Laughs]
John Flansburgh I really want to tell you, it's been a tremendous pleasure and a real honor having you on "Now Hear This."
Mr. David Byrne.
David Byrne Thank you.
John Flansburgh Here at "Now Hear This," we like to look at people in the music business who are beyond the chart-toppers and the usual suspects.
Mary Wood is a very successful songwriter and singer. Her work is some of the most heard music on television and radio. Her songs have been recorded by Britney Spears, Aretha Franklin, and Kiss. But you may have been distracted when you've heard Mary's songs because the stars performing them were holding out Pepsi cans at the time. It is fair to say Mary Wood is the queen of the New York City jingle scene. She's recorded hundreds and written thousands of jingles. Mary, welcome to "Now Hear This."
Mary Wood Thank you for having me.
John Flansburgh We want to welcome you to commercial-free public radio.
Mary Wood [Laughs] Exactly!
John Flansburgh This is one of the few avenues where your work has not saturated the market. So now you are conquering, probably, the last remaining place
Mary Wood [Laughs] That's right.
John Flansburgh Where your voice can't be heard. So, for our listeners who are totally unfamiliar with the jingle writing process, how do you write one? How does it start?
Mary Wood Well, generally, the way it starts is, you know, we get a call from the advertising agency. They usually will have some idea of what they want their tag line to be. For example, you know, "the joy of cola." They'll give you that. And then, you know, I try to ask a lot of questions about who they're trying to target, you know. What kind of energy, and the music they might want. If they have any visual ideas that might be married to the music. We just try to get as much as information from them about what they're thinking. And then, we'll kind of do it two ways. A lot of times we'll go through and try to find a good beat that feels like it's at the right tempo and has the right energy. And then we'll just sit with guitars and start kind of jamming and try to come up with some good melodies and good feelings. And then from there, once we have a musical feeling that we like, then we'll go back and try to make all the words fit in, and do it that way.
John Flansburgh One of the real tricks of jingle writing is interpreting what the client tells you.
Mary Wood Absolutely.
John Flansburgh And I was talking to a jingle writer who's a real veteran. And I'm sort of asking him for advice. And he said, "If the client says they just want something funky, just run away." Because it basically means they have no idea what they want.
Mary Wood [Laughs] Good advice.
John Flansburgh But specifically, he was saying that, you know, funky is a really good example of a kind of music that means-to one person, it means Motown. To somebody else, it means hip hop. To somebody else, it means, like Philly soul. To somebody else, it means disco. To somebody else, it means, you know, probably it meant funkadelic. Yet you are given the task to get funky.
Mary Wood Yes. It's very interesting. I had another example of that recently, where we were trying to do something. We had a conference call, and they said, "Our client really wants to do something with an island feel. We really want something islandy. It's gotta be up. It's gotta be blah-blah-blah. But make it contemporary." You know, so make it like islandy contemporary. So we said okay. So we kind of did a bit of a dancehall, you know, islandy feeling thing. We actually really loved it. We sent it in. And they say, "Well, it's too reggae." Well, you said islandy. Like [laughing] I don't know what else that means.
John Flansburgh For me, the interesting side effect of getting called in to do jingles is, one of the great benefits is that you actually get to work with the pro whistler.
Mary Wood That's true. Yeah, you do have some fun, yeah. It's amazing who you get to call. There are those times where you say, wow, you know. Call the guy from Lion King who plays all those amazing recorders, because we need to do this thing, you know. So. Or find a guy who can play bagpipes. That is really fun.
John Flansburgh And you've also worked with a lot of like big celebrities. I mean
Mary Wood Yeah.
John Flansburgh You did this Britney Spears jingle.
Mary Wood Yeah.
John Flansburgh Did you actually, you know, get to break bread with Britney?
Mary Wood Well, I wouldn't call it breaking bread. But yes, I did work in the studio with her and was at the shoot for the commercial. I spent a good amount of time with her. You know, we're not fast friends, but certainly we're on a first name basis. She was sweet.
John Flansburgh Not like Aretha or Gene Simmons.
Mary Wood Right, exactly. Aretha and I are pretty tight at this point. [Laughs]
John Flansburgh Actually, have you done more than one thing with her? Was it just like a
Mary Wood Yeah, I've only done that one thing. But I was, you know, lucky enough to be able to fly to Detroit and, you know, produce the session, which I have to say was pretty darn intimidating. [Laughs]
I think, at first, she was a little weird. She was like, who are these ad people that are gonna try to tell me what to do? She was little bit, you know, hesitant. And then, once she started singing and we were just, I think, we were just floored with how amazing she was. And we gave her, you know, the respect. That first moment of having to hit the talkback and say, "Can you do it again?"
John Flansburgh [Laughs]
Mary Wood It's sort of like, who am I to tell Aretha Franklin to
John Flansburgh Right. "A little more energy, Aretha."
Mary Wood Right, exactly, you know. Let me just sing it, how I'm hearing it.
John Flansburgh Is jingle writing in and of itself an emotionally satisfying thing for you? As a songwriter and a musician? Because I, personally, think of it more as craft.
Mary Wood Yeah, I do a lot of songwriting as well. And I always feel like the minute that you try to make writing a jingle your art, that's the end. Because then you become so emotionally attached to something that you really have no control over, and it's really not expressing your true feeling. So I always try to keep that in mind. Even though, of course, you get wrapped up in something, and you're working so hard on it, you have to care so much about it. But you have to be very careful not to cross that line and say, like, "This is my art." Like you said, it really is a craft for me, as well.
John Flansburgh Well, Mary Wood, it has been a pleasure having you on "Now Hear This." Thanks for coming to the show.
Mary Wood Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
John Flansburgh Hey, hey, hey! It's time for the Cool Album Alert, where "Now Hear This" takes unique advantage of the radio medium and plays some music that you've probably read about, you've probably heard about it. You might have even bought it on a street corner. But it's not getting played on commercial radio.
This week's selection is the Gray Album, by DJ Danger Mouse. And let me tell ya, it breaks every copyright law a couple of times. DJ Danger Mouse took the vocals from rapper JZ's Black Album and put it over samples from the Beatles' White Album to create the Gray Album.
Now I have to warn the Ringosexuals in our audience, the Beatle lovers who prefer that legacy unsullied by sampling and remixing, you might want to turn your radio down for about a minute.
This track combines the Beatles' "Rocky Raccoon" and JZ's "Justify My Thug."
Here's the hit from the Black Album, "Change Clothes" with a remix of the White Album's "Piggies" bubbling underneath.
You've been listening to DJ Danger Mouse's Gray Album. As you might expect, Mr. Danger Mouse has been hit with a wave of cease and desist orders from EMI, the Beatles' record label. But we thought we'd give you a free sample of it right here, on "Now Hear This."
Coming up on "Now Hear This."
Tina Weymouth "You mean, like a band? I don't see how," I stammer. "I mean, well, with both of us being bass players, we're in great bands already."
John Flansburgh Tina Weymouth, bassist for Tom Tom Club and Talking Heads, reads her rock 'n' roll essay about the unusual mating rituals of punk rockers.
Tina Weymouth "No," he says. "I mean, we would make a great couple. Like, I could be with you."
John Flansburgh This is John Flansburgh , and you're listening to "Now Hear This," on WNYC.
If you're jonesing for The Free, we've got an mp3 for you of the full-length version of our theme, "I Hear a New World," originally recorded by Joe Meek and the Blue Men, but performed here by Robin "Goldie" Goldwasser and me, John Flansburgh, of They Might Be Giants. Go to www.wnyc.org. Just go to the "Now Hear This" page, and download it now.
This is the Beach Boys' classic hit, "Wouldn't It Be Nice," off the Pet Sounds album. It features some really great rock drumming. On the album cover, it's bad boy heart throb Dennis Wilson. But we now know, on this recording, like the vast majority of Beach Boys songs, it's actually session musician Hal Blaine playing the drums.
Tales of musical ghosting-those rumors of who really played what on hit records-are as old as recorded music itself. And many of these rumors will remain forever a mystery. But here's one story that we actually got to the bottom of.
Anton Fig has been the drummer on the "Late Show with David Letterman" and a session musician for two decades. Fig has played with everyone, from Bob Dylan to Booker T and the MG's. But there's something else.
Anton Fig actually played drums, uncredited, with the rock band Kiss on some of their biggest albums. Sure, it was Peter Criss, the drummer for Kiss, the guy with the cat makeup, who was credited in the liner notes. But it was actually Anton Fig pounding the skins.
Fig, a South African, lucked out early on in his move to New York with the opportunity to back up Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley on Frehley's solo album, which included the kitsch classic, "Back in the New York Groove."
But when Ace Frehley called him in to work with Kiss, Fig wasn't completely sure what he was getting into.
Anton Fig I knew, really, nothing about Kiss. The only thing I knew about Kiss was an ad on the back of a bus for a live tour. The next thing that Kiss did as a band was the Dynasty record. And Peter, at that time, I believe he had broken his arm or something like that, and they had a certain schedule that they had to stay on. So I guess Ace must have recommended me to them. Because they asked me to do the record. Then after that, they had to do another record, which was Unmasked. And I don't know what happened. I just assumed that they broke Peter's other arm, because they asked me to that as well.
John Flansburgh Now, were you sworn to secrecy?
Anton Fig I was sworn to secrecy.
John Flansburgh Did you have a privacy agreement with them?
Anton Fig I never signed anything, but they-you know, they compensated me well to say nothing. And I honored that for years and years and years. I never said-I never told anybody. And it's only since Gene released a book, I guess, whatever that was called, Kiss and Tell, or something like that, and he says that I played on the Unmasked record. And then there's a remastered version of Dynasty, and it says on the liner notes that I'm playing on it. So I figured if they-you know, if it's coming from the source, then there's no harm in me talking about it.
John Flansburgh Well, you've obviously had a very illustrious career since then. But wasn't there a point where, you know, you're a young man, you're in New York, you're struggling as a studio player, and you have this incredible credit of a couple of multi-platinum records. Weren't you itching to tell people, like, "Hey, that's me on the radio."
Anton Fig I mean, my closest friends knew. But I just didn't-I just didn't. You know, I thought it was fair. I mean, they were-I was called in to do that, and I just thought that's what the gig was, and you understood it going in, so.
John Flansburgh No secrets need to be revealed. But have you ghosted for any other famous drummers?
Anton Fig Ahh
John Flansburgh The pause is telling it all, Anton.
Anton Fig [Laughs] I'd have to say, kind of-well, you know what? No. I've done some other ghosting. But I'm no -not on that level.
John Flansburgh Ghostwriters are brought in when people, obviously, can't write. Body doubles are brought in people can't cut the nude scene. What is the circumstances that you find people have brought in for ghosting on a record?
Anton Fig Any time that I've been called in to do something like that, I've always said to the producer, and probably to my detriment, I said, you know, "Do you really wanna do this?" Because I feel that I messes with the confidence of the band, especially the drummer. And that it's not fair, because I guess the tested implication is the guy's not cutting it, you know, if you get to the bottom line. And so they have to bring someone else in to play. You know, and I know, I mean, put yourself in that person's position. It wouldn't really feel that good. So I always go, for the better of the project, you know, are you sure that you really wanna do this. Because if there's any that you can kind of get it not to happen, I think that's the best thing to do.
However, once having said that, if the guy still wants to do it, you know what I mean? You, then okay, fine. I'm going to obviously get something out of it, for doing it. You know, I'll get a-maybe not another credit, but I get to work on another record.
John Flansburgh Our guest has been Anton Fig, drummer for the "Late Show with David Letterman." Thank you so much.
Anton Fig Thank you very much for having me, John.
John Flansburgh Comedian Janeane Garofalo is a passionate person. From standup to film, to free range punditry, throughout her career, Janeane has been an outspoken advocate for her own personal, musical obsessions. She's here to take part in our next segment, Guilty Pleasure/Hidden Treasure. Janeane, welcome to the show.
Janeane Garofalo Thank you. Thank you for having me.
John Flansburgh Well, Janeane, it is time to play our game, Guilty Pleasure/Hidden Treasure. Just for the listeners out there, to explain what the simple rules are: Guilty Pleasure is a song that you hide when your cool friends come over. It's something that you suspect everyone knows and possibly might even hate. It's the song that you sing when you're alone in the car. So tell us about your choice for Guilty Pleasure.
Janeane Garofalo Robbie Williams. It's a song called "Millennium," off The Ego Has Landed.
From the very first time I heard it, I loved it, 'cause I love the James Bond song also that it's sampled from. But I also got to watch him perform it live. And I loved his campy faux arrogance. Just his whole schtick when he sings this live.
If there's anything that is guilty about it, I have a massive crush on Robbie Williams. I find him very funny, and very attractive. And I guess that's where the guilt comes in, is that I have this massive crush on such a youngster. I think he's only like 24 or something. And he used to be in a boy band called Take That, which I liked.
John Flansburgh Now Robbie Williams has a very strange career. For people out there who aren't aware of who he is, he is enormous internationally. He's one of the biggest international musical stars. And yet he is virtually unknown here, by pop standards. I mean, he lives in Los Angeles now, and I think he can probably go to the 7-11 pretty freely without being disturbed.
Janeane Garofalo I actually saw him when I was walking my dogs in Union Square Park here in New York. And I stared at him with such a degree that he actually stared back at me with almost like what looked like alarm on his face. Because I don't think he gets recognized a lot here. And I had noticed him. And I'm sure he loves not being noticed here. 'Cause he cannot go out of his house in-and I think he was afraid I was gonna shout or say something, 'cause that's the look on my face, when I saw him. 'Cause he's so gorgeous, and he's got the most gorgeous green eyes. And I've always wished I could see him again, just to follow him around, 'cause I just think he's divine and funny.
I just love it. I could listen to it over and over again.
John Flansburgh This next segment of the show is Hidden Treasure. It's the answer to Guilty Pleasure. A song where our guest selects a song that they believe the audience has probably not heard but they really want to share with them. Tell us about your choice, Janeane.
Janeane Garofalo Okay. This song is by a Scottish band called the Blue Nile, off a CD called A Walk Across the Rooftops, which came out in the mid-eighties. And the song is called "Tinseltown in the Rain."
It evokes in me the most melancholy feeling, like in the pit of my stomach. I love the song, and I love the band. But this particular song is just so sad to me and makes me feel sad because the first time I ever heard it was on the alternative Boston radio station.
It was the summer before my senior year of college. I did not want to go back to college, Providence College in Rhode Island. I was living in Somerville, Massachusetts, in a terrible apartment. I had started doing standup already. I didn't want to go back for my senior year. I just wanted to start my standup career. I couldn't sleep. I just had insomnia over the fact that I didn't want to spend another abysmal year at Providence College. And the song just came on, and it just captured how depressed I was.
But this "easy come, easy go" line
And all this talking is only bravado, me talking about how I was gonna drop out-right here, it was unbelievable. Like, I would always tell people, "I'm not going back to school." [Laughs] And I thought, this guy is on to me. That I just felt the Scottish band had seen through me, at some point, because I was saying to people, I'm not going back to school. I'll be-by Christmas, I'll be a standup. And when that line came, all this talking's only bravado, I thought it was talking directly to me. And it was raining outside, and this song is called "Tinseltown in the Rain."
And yeah, I guess you could equate Tinseltown with show business. And I really just thought that this song was a message of, "You're not gonna do it. Just admit it. Go back to school. And say uncle." [Laughs] You know? You're done. Just quit. So in a way, I love to listen to this CD. But it really brings me down.
John Flansburgh Our guest on Guilty Pleasure/Hidden Treasure on WNYC is Miss Janeane Garofalo. Thank you so much for coming out.
Janeane Garofalo Thank you for having me.
John Flansburgh Do you like what we're doing at "Now Hear This"? We want to know. Go to www.wnyc.org.
Coming up, we'll have a live performance from Mason Jennings. Even though he's been called "the new Dylan" way too many times, he's still not afraid to pull out an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. I'm John Flansburgh , your host, and you're listening to "Now Hear This," the radio show on WNYC.
John Flansburgh I'm your host, John Flansburgh , and you're listening to the radio show, "Now Hear This" on WNYC.
Mason Jennings is a prolific 27-year-old from Minnesota. It would be easy to say his mellow acoustic approach is out of step with the over-amplified and hyper-electronic 21st century music scene. But I am happy to report that the deeper you dig into his songs, the more you'll get. It's my great pleasure to introduce, live from Minneapolis, through the miracle of ISDN lines, Mason Jennings, and the song, "Sorry Signs on Cash Machines."
John Flansburgh From last year's critically acclaimed Century Spring album, that was "Sorry Signs on Cash Machines," with our special guest, Mr. Mason Jennings, along with Chris Morrissey on bass and Brian McCleod on drums. So, Mason, tell us the story behind "Sorry Signs on Cash Machines."
Mason Jennings Well, I got engaged a couple years ago, and that was a huge step for me, to ask my girlfriend at the time to marry me. And I just feel like it was like going into like-I don't know, I mean, just kind of like-I was pretty broke at the time, and just didn't know really know what I was gonna end up doing in life. You know, 'cause music isn't very stable. You know, it's not a stable thing to do.
So, just sort of saying, "Believe in me." And putting it into the sound of music, and believe in us. And just sort of trying to put that feeling of how important she is to me, and how important making a family can be to me, you know, and just trying to capture that in the sounds. You know, all these burning battlefields are now behind us. It's like leaving a part of my life and entering into what I hope to the building of a palace, so to speak.
John Flansburgh Mason, I was reading in some of your press that you started your musical career as a drummer. And I'm just curious why you gave up the carefree good times of pounding the skins for the unsettling burden of playing the acoustic guitar and singing and playing the piano.
Mason Jennings I'm not sure. I think it has something to do with attention span or something. 'Cause it was always right in the middle of the song, I'd always get some great idea that was like the perfect fill, you know, the wickedest fill ever. And then it would just-the fill would happen, and then the people in front of me would turn around and look at me. And I got uncomfortable, being looked at all the time.
John Flansburgh You got negative reinforcement as a drummer, so you decided to become a front man?
Mason Jennings Yeah. I think that's what it was. Because that way, I was looking at the drummer. You know, I was giving the eagle eye.
John Flansburgh I've been listening to your record quite a bit and it's been getting a lot of spins in our apartment. And one thing that really impressed me about it is just how ambitious it is in its purity. Most songwriters, especially young songwriters, are kind of preoccupied with very current stuff, sort of musical fashions. And it seemed like there was something very timeless about what you did. And it really came out of a singer-songwriter tradition. And I'm just curious how you got started writing these kinds of songs. Because it seems very different.
Mason Jennings Well, thanks, first of all. And I guess it's a starter for me, 'cause it's just the reason I do music. I keep asking myself, you know, why do I do it, and why do I write? And for me, it's just to make myself, like give myself some hope, rather than to get out there and travel and to play in front of girls that are rockouts. I just want to be able to sit by myself in a room, play a song, and feel some sort of hope. In the same way that, when you read a good book or, for me, when I read a good book, it's not-religious isn't the right word. But it's something really sacred about a really good song. And I don't know, I feel like I'm just kind of hunting for that a little bit.
John Flansburgh It seems to me like you're trying to write great songs. That is-that's a very different kind of impulse than just writing songs for fun.
Mason Jennings It's not like a project-based thing for me.
John Flansburgh Yeah.
Mason Jennings A lot of my friends say that they do it, like they enjoy to make stuff. It's like making paintings. But for me, it's not-it's definitely like, it feels crazed, it's inside me. It wakes me up and stuff. Like I do a lot of other art that I like to do, kind of, as a fun project. But this-it's like-I don't know. I mean, for one thing, I grew up in a really kind of weird environment, family-wise, and stuff. And it just was a way for me to feel like I was putting myself on the map and existing. So it kind of has a deep root of like why I started writing. And I think maybe that comes through. It's just, I kind of have to do it.
John Flansburgh Do you feel like yours songs are sort of exercising some sort of autobiographical part of your life?
Mason Jennings Yeah, I mean, it's definitely like it's autobiographical, and I think all my songs are, in some ways. It's like-sometimes I'll change words so they're not so autobiographical, just 'cause I feel like it's too much showing somebody your pictures or something.
So, yeah, it's exorcising and it's also, it's character building. It's like trying to build my own person, like myself through the music. I guess it's a growth experience. If I can focus hard and put my attention toward something of beauty, then somehow, the rest of my person and my personality will follow. It's like setting a benchmark for being a good person or something.
John Flansburgh Let's hear something off your new album. It's called Use Your Voice, and it's on Architects Bar/None Records. What is the song you're gonna play for us now?
Mason Jennings It's a song called "Crown."
John Flansburgh Mr. Mason Jennings, off his brand new album. That was "Crown," off of Use Your Voice, on Architects Bar/None Records. Mason, we don't make comparisons on this show. But when you play the harmonica and acoustic guitar in the folk rock tradition, it's very hard not to think of all the sort of new Dylan scare rumors that go around with you. Is that a heavy burden?
Mason Jennings No, it's like-it's like my benchmark. This summer, I was just sitting in-you know, I'd be driving around in my van and listening to music. And I'm just always inundated with: Should I shoot for the radio, or should I shoot for popular culture? What should I be shooting for with my songs? What's the goal? And I'm like, man, it's for hope. It's to make myself feel engaged in life. And then I went back to Dylan and listened to him, and, man, I don't know. He's the best thing that I know of. The best music that I have heard. So that's kind of my goal.
John Flansburgh In terms of the career that you're having, what does it mean to be on an indie label for you at this point? Is it just a practical thing, or-what are your ambitions?
Mason Jennings My ambitions are just to get better at songwriting. I mean, honestly-and recording. 'Cause it's hard. Especially if you're trying to shoot for something that you have in your head. And I'm just not there yet. So I'm thinking, all of my life, by the time I die, I'd like to be getting close to what I'm shooting for. And the thing with labels is, if somebody's in to helping me out on that journey, I'm totally into working with them. But that's kind of my criteria and my ambitions, so.
John Flansburgh Well, what's changed for you? You've made a number of albums at this point. Is this your fourth album?
Mason Jennings Yeah.
John Flansburgh What were your goals with this new record?
Mason Jennings With the new record, I was hoping to finally find a band that I really felt comfortable with, work with all acoustic instruments, and be able to be in a studio and be natural, which means to me like not have headphones on and just be comfortable, and spend some time in there just playing songs, rather than putting little guitar parts on things, or sort of decorating the tree, like figuring out little doo-dads and things. And it's expensive being in the studio. So we sort of save up enough money that I can go and sit there for three weeks at least and just play songs. And then be able to get something that I feel like is unique, like a unique takes of songs where it's not pasted together but it's actually like a moment in time. So that was what this album's for.
John Flansburgh You don't do the overdubs?
Mason Jennings On the last record, like Century Spring-a lot of it's overdubs and worrying a lot about pitches, and making sure everything was kind of "perfect." This one, no, I was just making-kind of just ran with it. And just felt-at the end of the day, I was just listening to the songs and felt, if I got goosebumps from them, and if I did, I'd leave them.
John Flansburgh That's a really unorthodox way of working. I think, even just the sound of the drums alone would drown out everything else.
Mason Jennings Yeah, we did-like, I would be in a different room. And we'd pump it through little speakers and stuff. So it was sort of-it wasn't completely naturally. But it was not pieced together after the fact. It was a take. We were all doing it together.
John Flansburgh So, but the little speakers are okay, but not the headphones?
Mason Jennings Yeah, I can't really hear. The volume-it's something about volume. I can't hear my-like, how I sit in a room and play. I end up adjusting in some strange ways that I can hear afterwards. I don't know. It's kind of weird.
John Flansburgh It's not for me to judge the method.
Mason Jennings [Laughs]
John Flansburgh Well, we sure want to thank you for being on the show. And I want to introduce your band just one more time. That's Chris Morrissey on the bass, and Brian McCleod on the drums. You've been listening to the music of Mason Jennings. His brand new record is out, and it's called Use Your Voice. And thank you for being on "Now Hear This."
Mason Jennings Oh, thank you for having us. Thanks a lot.
John Flansburgh If you're interested in hearing more of Mason Jennings' music, or more of any of the artists you've heard on "Now Hear This," visit our web site at www.wnyc.org
Our final guest on "Now Hear This" is Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads and the Tom Tom Club. As the female bass player in Talking Heads, she deputized an entire generation of young women to join rock bands. And then in the Tom Tom Club, she recorded this song, "Genius of Love," which is one of the most sampled tracks in all of hip hop.
In the recent Rhino anthology of punk rock called No Thanks, I was surprised to read this highly personal essay about her early days in punk and her close encounters with the boys of the New York scene. She's here to read it on "Now Hear This."
Tina Weymouth Let's rewind to 1975. It's the hottest summer on record, and we're at CBGB's on the Bowery, in New York City. Our band, Talking Heads, have arranged a couple of double bills, together with the band Television to make a mutually more interesting and better-attended show for both of us. The members of Television nod greetings to us at soundcheck. But we know little about them, apart from their great music.
Now I have been living with my boyfriend, Chris Franz, for two years. He's the drummer of Talking Heads. But no one seems to realize this because we live where we rehearse. A few people think we actually have a ménage a trois, together with David Byrne. But that is all they know.
So we watch Television finish up their soundcheck. After, I start to set up my gear, and Richard Hell-he is the bass player for Television-he asks me to have a word with him, in private. I look over to where Chris is setting up his drums and think, "Ah, gee, what the hell?" I'm curious.
Richard insists we speak outside on the pavement along the Bowery. Like Chris, Richard is from Kentucky, so I find now that his bad boy reputation belies a genteel breeding that bleeds through in spite of himself. Slow and deliberate, with an easy articulation of expression, very self-possessed, Hell is dressed in a gray buttondown shirt and slim black jeans. His tall silhouette forms one long, sexy swoon. He comes right to the point.
"You and I, we should get together."
I am most surprised. "You mean, like a band? I don't see how?" I stammer. "I mean, with both of us being bass players, we're in great bands already."
"No," he says. "I mean, we would make a great couple. Like, I could be with you. Because we could belong to each other."
Now this is a really romantic way to talk to a girl, but awkward and unexpected, under the circumstances. I find that he is leading me around to the alley in back of CBGB's, which is under a flophouse. Bums lie on the ground. There is garbage, vermin, and vomit. And the walls are so scummy, no artist wants to lay graffiti on them.
For a split second, I find the idea of being Richard Hell's mate tantalizing, and terrifying. But Richard is pursued by dozens of groupies. And I am nothing like the fabulous girls who go with musicians. Beebe Beule, Cyrinda Fox, or the incomparable Debbie Harry. I instantly picture him throwing me over for another, which helps me to sound unfazed.
"Don't you feel you and I, together, would be like trying to mix oil and water?" I say preposterously.
"No. It would be real cool," he assures me, turning to one side, whipping it out and proceeding without further ado to piss a strong stream against the alley wall.
Whoa! I have to avert my eyes and tell him Chris is already my steady boyfriend. Richard says he's going to talk me out of it, but I can't see how. He finishes. We light up cigarettes, circle the block, and walk back into the club.
I do not mention any of this to Chris. After, I admire Richard more every time we meet. But my bond with Chris will prevail. Richard and I will remain friends, within a certain pissing distance.
John Flansburgh That was Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, reading her essay from the liner notes of the new punk rock compilation, No Thanks.
Well, that's our show. "Now Hear This" is produced by Kerry Donahue, Jocelyn Gonzales, DJ Haber Mouse, Michael Raphael, and me, John Flansburgh . Our executive producer is Stacy Abramson. Our theme "I Hear a New World" is sung by Robin "Goldie" Goldwasser. Thanks to Todd Barry, Andy Gensler, and Alyson Levy. For more about what you've just heard, or if you just want to say hi, go to our web site at www.wnyc.org. So long.