Category Archives: Interviews

88bit Music

Rob Kovacs is a classically trained musician from Cleveland, Ohio who works to arrange, perform and preserve the music from NES games of the 1980s on piano. His work can be seen on his YouTube channel 88bit. The version of Bloody Tears from Castlevania II that he discusses here has since been released. As he was leaving the interview, and we were bemoaning the lack of information about the original composers, my mind drifted to the old delta blues singers of the 1930s. Legendary artists like Son House and Mississippi John Hurt were mostly forgotten until the folk revival of the 1960s, when they were coaxed back into studios to make the documents of their music that continue to inspire to this day. Will video game music composers be viewed by subsequent generations with the same reverence? Rob thinks so, and he gets specific on the techniques he uses to produce his arrangements, as well as his personal history and connection to video game music.

T: How did you start playing video games?
R: I actually started because my family, my Dad, acquired ten arcade games: Super Pac-Man, Donkey Kong Jr., Popeye, Centipede, Space Invaders, Asteroid, a game called Star Castle, which we don’t have anymore. I don’t know how long ago it was, but I talked to my dad, and he doesn’t even remember that we had it. My Mom does sort of, my sister does, but there’s a debate of whether or not we had this tenth game.

T: Have you replayed them?
R: I was at my parents recently, about a month ago, and I thought “I’m going to replay Centipede.” And the cool thing about Centipede is that it saves your top scores. It’s the only one we had that did it. So we had top scores for twenty years. Me and my brother-in-law would battle who would get the top score. So we would keep trying to get each other’s name off. I eventually had all the top scores. I thought, “I’m going to to play again,” and I ended up playing for almost an hour trying to beat my top score. My gosh, I might beat it. My nephew who is thirteen started watching. I got so amped trying to get my top score. I surpassed my top score which had been up for fifteen years. 

T: Was this an introduction to home console, with longer games
R The only thing my sister had was an Atari. I think I was five or six, I got the nintendo for Christmas. Most amazing Christmas ever. I got Karate Kid, Golf, Mario Bros was in the box. 

T: Mario had distinctive music. And you were a music kid too, right? So you’ve been playing music as long as you’ve been playing video games?
R Yeah, that’s accurate. When I was three, I would tinker around the piano, and my sister played piano, she’s twelve years older. She’s pretty decent. I loved when she played, so I would try to copy her. I started making up my own little tunes. Real little, started taking lessons.

T: The two things are linked, your family’s connection to video games and your family’s connection to music?
R: They’ve been a part of my life from the very beginning. 

T: Which became more important to you? When did one over take the other?
R: When I was 14, music became more important. I sold almost all my Nintendo games. I had about 40 at that point. In a way, that was so I could focus more on music. I sold them all with the box and everything for $2 a piece. And now I’m a collector. It was the biggest mistake of my life. I didn’t get rid of all of them. I didn’t fully give up on video games. I kept the multiplayer ones that I could play with my friends. And I kept the Super Nintendo. And still played computer games. The newest system I’ve ever owned to this day is a Super Nintendo. 

T: So the two are definitely linked. What do your parents and sister think about the 88bit thing?
R: My sister thinks its cool. She’s always been super supportive. My parents saw me, I got to play at Severance Hall, at the smaller hall, I can’t think of the name, for make music day. I did a short 20-minute set on a huge Steinway piano. My parents wanted to come to that. It was the first time they’d seen it live and they were curious. 

T: Do they understand that nostalgic connection for you? 
R: I’m sure they do. The songs I play are the less known ones. That’s what I played at the concert. I didn’t think they’d be into it or really get it, but they do like classical music and piano music so I asked what they thought. And my Dad said, “It’s like classical music. I’m really impressed. It’s really good,” and I was really glad for that. That’s what I’m going for. I’m trying to take this music out of the toy realm and present it to people who might have never listened to it. Or if they did, they’re older than me and it’s just kids playing it and it’s obnoxious sounds.

T: When did you start thinking it was music? 
R: I was in high school and my friend who was pretty internet savvy found a transcription of the Mario Bros theme, with all three voices. And he played some of it on piano. I thought, “This is so cool” and I had my band do an arrangement for the High School Rock Off 2000. We did an arrangement of Super Mario Brothers. In the US, I have to imagine, it had to be one of the earliest video game covers, live. At least that I’m aware of. It was a blast. It was at the Odeon. It was packed. People started crowd surfing as soon as we played that song. 

T: Was it a rocking arrangement?
R: Yeah. We blended the first and second level. We added the pause button. Everyone would stop and pick it back up.

T: I know that you went to conservatory and really started focusing on contemporary classical music . You did your thesis on Steve Reich. Where was video game music in your head for you at that time?
R: Pretty non-existent. When I first started there, I did that arrangement of the Mario Bros theme that the band did. But I wasn’t thinking about video game music during college. No one else was.

T: Did you play games to relax? 
R: I didn’t play much. I played some during the summer, computer games.

T: So you did classical music, and then you had a pop band, Return of Simple. What made you come back to video game music after your experience in pop and classical?
R: I was living in New York and I can’t remember exactly why, but I wanted to make an arrangement of Airman Theme from Mega Man II. Even before then, me and Gary Thobaben who was the bass player in Return of Simple, we played some games at home. He was living with me and once talked about doing a vocal arrangement with our then drummer who could sing. I don’t know if there are any vocal arrangements of Mega Man. That would be pretty insane. But that was just talk. Then I moved from New York, and decided the arrangement for Airman. It took a ton of work to arrange it and practice it and play it up to speed. But I finally made the video and it did really well. It has about 10,000 views pretty quick. It got a small interview by Game Informer and a couple other blogs. It did well, and I wanted to do the whole game, but I never got around to it. I never finished another video.

It wasn’t until a several years ago when I was teaching. I had a student who wanted to learn Bloody Tears from Castlevania II, Simon’s Quest. I figured out a simple version for her, and I thought I could do a really cool version. So I started arranging, and fleshed out a very classical sounding but very true to the original, just putting it on piano and adding octaves. It sounded badass, and I thought I should do as many Nintendo games as I can. This sounds sweet. The challenge is really high and I love it. One day, I had this idea to arrange music for video games, specifically NES games . I love the limitations that it has just the three sounds and the noise channel.

T: I know next to nothing about the technical process by which music was created. How is that music being played on the NES? What’s going on?
R: People think it’s a recording that’s being played, and that’s not the case. It’s a sound chip which produces the sound, like synthesizer. It’s an 8 bit sound chip. I’m not a computer guy, so I’ll explain it as best I can understand it. So the sound chip is making the sounds and it gets told to make the sounds by a code that’s already been written. So when you play the game, it will cue the codes. Plus the sound effects are when you get a mushroom and it cues that. Or it shoots a fireball. So all these sounds are technically being performed by the game. 

T: But there’s not much variation? It’s not like if you play a piece on a violin or a different violin over there?
R: Yeah, they all sound the same, and the part will be on a loop and will sound exactly the same every time. 

T: You mentioned they work on a loop. How do you think of taking a looped thing and arranging it into a piece that has an arc?
R: Sometimes I will just loop it, if it’s short. But as I’m arranging it and learning it, just get several ideas. Hmmm… I can expand it? Just like composing, you start off with an idea and think how can I do more with this? Same kind of idea with these small video game pieces. Not all of them. I try to expand them, give a little bit of shape, a beginning, a middle and an end.

T: You’ve played Final Fantasy, and I love that game because, and this won’t surprise you at all, is because it’s so narrative. You have to get your levels up and have some action, but ultimately you’re watching a story. When you play pieces from Final Fantasy, it seemed like you were pretty keyed into the game. How do you add the other emotional content of the game into the song?
R: Stuff from Final Fantasy is so well-written. It’s clear that Nobuo Uematsu is on different level. I recently transcribed the battle theme from the original Final Fantasy, and I barely had to do anything with it, other than solve a few of the limitations of the sound chip itself, moving a few notes up and down the octaves, where they should have been.

T: What’s the register of the chip?
R: The chip is actually pretty wide, but as you get further away you have different problems. You also have the limitations of the TV that they’re probably hearing the music on. They don’t have subwoofers. Nintendo is mono anyway. Fixing some of those, it came out really easy. I didn’t have to do anything with it. Some of the other pieces, more rare games, there’s this game called Arkista’s Ring, it has a couple looping songs and there’s a lot room to make it grow. Those are the games I have more fun with. 

T: Do you think that comes from your experience in minimalism, where you’re often presented a theme with subtle changes? Is it hitting that button in your brain?
R: I wonder that. I think there’s a lot of crossover between minimalism and video game music, especially early video game music, because video game music was so short. The themes are not long, they’re looped. But they’re not minimalistic in the way Philip Glass or Steve Reich is. They’re not small bits of information. There’s usually a melody. But I think there is some crossover. 

T: But the skill in general. Jazz improv is different from the mutations of a minimalist piece, which is different from a noise artist. Where do you see the additions you’ve made?
R: I guess more closer to minimalist, because I’m not going full classical romantic. Some people do and they sound great. Martin Leung, the video game pianist, he does great stuff and it’s very flourish-y. I try to stay away from that. I try to stay true to the feeling of the game. Just trying to get all the notes is super difficult, but if I can add to it, that also enhances the feeling the music is trying to convey, not a lot, maybe some harmony, maybe some octaves, maybe some percussion somehow. 

T: You mentioned the sound chip has an effects channel. Do you do the coin blip from Mario to add grace to it?
R: Yeah, so you touch on two things. There are five channels on the NES. One is sound samples, sometimes you’ll have voice over, it’s usually pretty poor, crushed voice sample. Sometimes they use it for drums. Mario 3, for instance has a sampled bongo in it, these Jamaican-sounding drums, and those are samples. They sound great. That’s a rarely used channel. The other channel is a noise channel that doesn’t have any pitch, just white noise. A lot of times that was used for drums. Now you have three left, and those were your tones. You can have up to three notes happening at the same time. Those were your limitations of the NES. Sound effects also used the music channels. Like in Mario, when you jump, that takes away one of the music channels. The music drops out. You don’t notice it. They usually pick the counter voice or the middle voice and that’s gone every time there’s a sound effect. Sometimes, yeah, I will try to throw in different elements. Like in Marble Madness, I’ll try to throw in the death sound. When you beat the level, there’s a little victory theme. 

T: What do you draw on when working this? Do you record it and play it back and try to figure it out? Or do you try to extract it from the cartridge and digitally transfer it?
R: From what I’ve researched, there isn’t a good way to rip it from the rom and put it into notation. What I end up doing is, there are NSF files that are the music files, and I’ll put them through another program called Famitracker NSF Import, which will import the sounds and play it and show all the notes being played. That also allows me to isolate every channel. So I use that and then transcribe them into a notation program, Sibelius, and write out each voice, all three, and sometime the sound channel as well. So once I have the notes all transcribed, then I try to play them and to figure out a way to combine all three voices. 

T: When you transcribe in that fashion, that’s not like what you would hear when you play the game?
R: First is just figuring out what the notes are and the rhythms and then writing them out in three different lines, like if you had three singers or three violins. Then I have to arrange and combine them into two staffs for a piano. Where to put the third voice is usually the hardest part. Because it’s usually some sort of mix of both hands. 

T: In most piano music, there’s a bass and treble. Do most video games operate on a similar principle?
R: A lot of times on piano, there’s a lot of chord action and you can’t do that. Because a chord is three notes, and it would take up all three notes and there would be no melody. So a lot of time you have melody and the bass and for the chord, they’ll arpeggiate it. So that middle voice is moving a lot.

T: It can’t actually play a chord, but it suggests it.
R: I try to play it like it is, that’s the challenge. It’s harder. It’s more similar to Bach or baroque music where you have three or more voices happening at once and there weren’t a lot of chords there. It was single voices that, when they line up, they create a chord. In that way it’s very similar, except it’s a lot more rhythmic, super syncopated and super fast, especially Mega Man, very high bpm. A lot of stuff is 150-180, and that middle voice they’re just making a counter melody and it’s super busy and funky.

T: A lot of Bach music was played on harpsichord which has difficulty forming chords. So the synthesizer chips were unable to play chords?
R: You could, but it would block it out. You could only play up to three notes at once.

T: Could you change the timbre?
R: You had two triangle waves and one pulse wave. Maybe I have that backwards. From there, you could vary the shape a little bit. Especially the square wave.

T: But your piano is going to have a piano sound. You make your best guess as to what fits where?
R: Sometimes all the voices will be in the same octave, in the same register. Mega Man, I keep going back to Mega Man because it’s great, all three voices for Metalman are all right around Middle C, so I have to pick what’s supposed to be the bass, and they do that by changing the timbre. Even though it’s not actually lower than the other pitches, it’s more woofer sounding, I’ll drop that down and the melody is higher and clearer sounding.

T: And then you spread that out to make it playable on a piano.
R: Yeah. The chord thing is interesting. Composers get around that by programming a chord in one of the voices, and it would oscillate through the notes super fast, arpeggiate through the notes.

T: So if you’ve got three voices, one goes 1-3-5, the second does 3-5-1 and the third 5-3-1?
R: You could do that. That happens that sometimes when they’re doing a delay effect. Even just the one voice alone. One voice was bass, one voice was melody, and then one voice would sometimes do a chord by cycling through the notes super fast.
There’s a guy named Tim Follin, who does amazing stuff. If you listen to his work with the game for Silver Surfer, for solstice. You’ll hear that. You’ll hear these glistening sounds, and its one of these voices being a chord.

T: This brings up another equally interesting question. What do you know about the composers who worked on this?
R: I know very little. It’s hard to find and I want to know more. I recently watched a cool documentary called Digging in the Carts which explores the composers of video music, especially early on. They interview the guy who did the music for Gimmick and he just works on a rice paddy and doesn’t do music any more. The game wasn’t released in the US, but the music is great. They interviewed him and he talked about how much effort and work went into it and how much pride he had, but he never got any feedback because all the people playing it are kids. They’re toys. So recently he found out the band The Advantage did a cover of it. He was so thrilled and so happy to hear that his music was staying alive.

T: A lot of these people are still alive, right? If you were a 20-something composer for hire in the ’80s, you’re only in your fifties now.
R: I know two of the people who worked on Sonic the Hedgehog live in Cleveland. One I know really well, Leonard Dicosimo.

T: You’ve joked about using this as an excuse to rebuild your video game collection. What are you working on next?
R: It justifies me having over 300 video games. As far as the music I’m working on, I’m working on Star Tropics. Working on more Final Fantasy. Bunch of Megaman 2 stuff, Castlevania 2. I just recorded Bloody Tears recently—I’ve had that for a while—I’m going to release that soon. 

T: Is the goal to have an album based on one video game or one composer?
R: Yes, I d love to do an album based on one composer or group of games. Or by publisher. I’ve got to figure out the copyrights.

T: You’ve also talked about publishing the arrangements as sheet music. Who gets paid there?
R: Probably the companies that released the game. I know it’s up in the air. At one point, it wasn’t even considered copywritten music because it wasn’t recorded, it was performed by the chip. A lot of big games have been re-released, and that music is clearly copyrighted, but a lot of the rarer games.

T: I’ve heard the term abandonware, because everyone associated with it is gone from the industry.
R: I’ll have to cross that bridge when I come to it. I want people to play it. Part of the reason I’m doing this is to help preserve and keep this music alive. Music needs to be performed to stay alive. I don’t want to be the only one performing it. I want to make arrangements that other pianists can program in their own concerts.

T: What do you know about who else is out there?
R: Martin Leung is really popular. He went to CIM actually. He’s not from here, but he went to school here. He does more romantic style. When you think of big romantic piano pieces, that’s his style. He’s done hundreds of games. His first video was him blindfolded playing all Mario Brothers in the early 2000s. One of the early viral YouTube videos. He’s had a career now playing video game music. There’s tons of band that play and make arrangements. Descendents of Erdrick, Bitforce, the Marcado Brothers.

T: What other types of performances would you like to do with it?
R: I’d love to put on concerts, like classical concerts. An hour and a half with an intermission of just video game music on Steinway piano. Some ensemble stuff as well. In addition to that, I’ve started playing video game conventions. I was in Austin recently for the classic games fest.

T: How much do you think people need to know video games in order to get it? Or do you think it stands up on it own?
R: I think it stands on its own. I think if you played anybody the raw sounds from the video game, the 8 bit sounds, not everyone is going to like that sound. In fact, anyone who didn’t grow up with that is not going to like that sound. My parents do not like that sound, for example. It sounds annoying. But when you take it off that sound and put it on real instruments , it gives it a more human quality and the music can speak for itself. My parents didn’t recognize the music, but they enjoyed it. My parents are biased, so that’s a bad example. But I played at neosonic fest here in Cleveland, it’s a new music festival, contemporary classical, I did a 45-minute set of video game music, and I had a lot of people in their 50s-60s who have never heard any of this stuff. They were like “I’ve never heard any of this stuff. That was fantastic. This is from a video game?” I was so happy to have that response because that is what I was going for.

T: Was that due to its similarity to classical music or on it’s own merit?
R: I think it sounds new. It has a fresh sound to it. It sounds like nothing else you would hear on a piano. 

T: What’s your plan for the future of this? How do you want people to hear this?
R: The YouTube channel is a lot of people’s first exposure to it.  That’s generating requests and bookings for live performance. I’d love to do a full evening classical concert.  But I’m definitely going to keep doing YouTube.

T: And publishing the transcriptions?
R:  I don’t publish them commercially.  I offer a PDF download as an award to my Patreon subscribers.  I don’t think we talked about Patreon at all. I’ve had it from the very beginning when I posted my first video.  I sent out a mass email and some social media posts and a handful of friends jumped on. It adds a huge motivation for me.  I get some monetary support and just knowing people care enough about what I’m doing really makes a difference. 

You can see more videos via Rob’s YouTube and support him via Patreon

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Soundtrack for Your Record Store Day Playlist

What better way to celebrate Record Store Day than with some new music! Specifically, a song all about how awesome record stores are.
The Junior League is a project by New Orleans transplant Joe Adragna. His sixth release since 2006, the latest album Eventually is Now is a mix of true stories and inspired tales.  The lead track, Teenage Bigstar extols the virtues of record stores and the great things that happen there. It chronicles two true stories from Joe’s life. Aptly named, the song strikes of Teenage Fanclub meets Big Star. 

Verse one recalls the day Joe met Alex Chilton at a New Orleans record store called The Magic Bus. Joe was a Big Star fan and quietly mentioned it to Chilton, not wanting to bother him. Chilton casually waved it off and instead grabbed the records from under Joe’s arm to see what he was buying. Chilton held up Joe’s copy of Beach Boys Live in London and started talking about how great they were, how he toured with them in the ’60s, and what a great drummer Dennis Wilson was. Chilton took out the record, handed it to the clerk, asked them to play Barbara Ann, and started playing air drums along to the beat. 

Verse two is inspired by the night Joe went to see The Minus 5 and wound up taking Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck and John Ramberg to that same record store. They talked about The Beatles and The Monkees, and after the show Joe vowed he’d make a record if it was the last thing he ever did musically. Lucky for us, he’s still going strong. Check out the rest of Eventually is Now on Bandcamp or Spotify. 

 

Jr League band eventually is now

 

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Shaun Fleming, Diane Coffee, 5 Albums that Changed My Life

Asking anyone to name five life-changing albums is no small feat, but Shaun Fleming, songwriter and frontman for Psychedelic Motown band Diane Coffee, handles it like he handles everything else: with style and grace.  So here’s his list, in no particular order, along with some pictures we made last night before his show at Cleveland’s own Beachland Ballroom and Tavern. 

“I don’t know if these are going to by my favorite albums of all time,” says Shaun. “But they will be ones that changed my life.” 

Shaun Fleming, Diane Coffee by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson

Donovan: The Hurdy Gurdy Man
Donovan, The Hurdy Gurdy Man album artwork
“I was in high school. I wasn’t really into music quite yet. I was just getting into theater and improv comedy, which helped me kind of open up. I was also a big skateboarder and I heard a song in a skate video that was super weird — it was very Donovan — it had a crazy sax solo. I remember, this was right when Limewire and Napster came about, but I didn’t have that because I thought it would ruin my computer. So I had to find the track name and go to Tower Records and ask them about it and they had to look it up. So I got this record, and at this point I only knew stuff that was on the radio. I’d never really heard anything from the ’60s and ’70s or anything like that. It was really bizarre, really new and I just fell in love. I got really obsessed with Donovan and bought every single record I could. I started wearing kimonos around, drinking a lot of tea; I mean, I was that kid in high school. I told my Dad about it and he was just like, ‘Oh, yeah, Donovan. You know, I played with Donovan a couple times.’ So I think that record pushed me into learning about music and discovering what was actually out there.”

4. Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon
Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon album artwork
“I remember the first Pink Floyd song I ever heard was Comfortably Numb. A friend put it on a compilation mix tape, and I was like ‘What is this?! What is this beautiful piece of music I’m hearing?!’ I remember people with Pink Floyd T-shirts walking around high school, so I knew the name before I knew the music, but didn’t really understand what kind of music that was. So I went to Tower Records and picked up my first Floyd album. I saw that (Dark Side) cover and I’d seen people wearing T-shirts of that triangle artwork, so just grabbed that one. Then I put it on it was just— and still, those last few songs— There’s only a couple albums where I actually always cry, and that one still brings me to tears, especially when I hear the whole thing front to back. I put together a cover band in high school, and all we did was Floyd and Beatles almost exclusively. Like, we did all of Dark Side of the Moon, we did all of The Wall front to back, we just were obsessed. That was my first band. So maybe that record started me down the path of being a stage musician.”

Shaun Fleming, Diane Coffee by Mara Robinson

3. The Beatles: Abbey Road
The-Beatles-Abbey-Road-Album-Cover
“I was touring with Foxygen and it was our first time going to the UK. I was reading a Beatles book at the time and I remember as soon as we started driving around the UK, it felt so different than anything else I’d really seen. I started listening to Abbey Road and I swear to God I listened to nothing but that record on repeat the entire time I was there. I don’t know if it changed my life. There are very few things that really changed my life. But that one holds a special place. All those memories. First time I was ever touring, and it’s England, and when you do that, when you make that sort of leap, it was like, ‘I made it. I’m a rock ‘n’ roll musician now, really doing it.’ And that’s another one of those records that makes me tear up every single time.”

2. Young MC: Stone Cold Rhymin
Stone Cold Rhymin Young MC album cover
“That was the first CD I ever bought with my own money. I was, I think, eight years old and my Dad took me to the record shop. I think I just grabbed the first thing that looked like something I might like. Even though there’s very little about that album that’s cool except for Bust a Move. I probably liked Bust a Move and I got the record because of that. It was the first record I ever bought, and I still put that record on all the time. I can rhyme every single verse on every single track. That changed my life just because it was the very first. I started buying CDs after that. That’s a good one. That’ll live forever. Bust a Move will never die. (laughing) Just the rest of the tracks will.”

Shaun Fleming, Diane Coffee by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson

1. Third Eye Blind: Third Eye Blind
Third_eye_blind_self_titled
“I really liked that record. It was incredibly melodic. I think when I was just starting to get into music, they were my favorite band at the time because they were what was playing on the radio. That’s all I would listen to was pop radio and stuff like that. I remember when I first started getting into music, when I first got a guitar from my Dad and started learning how to play, that was the first record I broke down and started listening to with the ears of a musician. I started trying to learn everything and figure out ‘How do they get those kinds of sounds?’ This was even before I started recording, and I started to understand how a record is pieced together. ‘Why does this sound the way it does?’ Noticing all of those little details. Plus that record is just amazing. It’s such a good album. I remember spending a lot of time learning how to play Jumper on acoustic guitar. I was that guy at parties. I’d bring my acoustic guitar. There’s a fire pit, and maybe some people have some beers that they took from their Dad, and I’m playing Jumper on guitar. (laughing) I was the epitome of a ’90s high school movie, and that record helped.”

Shaun Fleming, Diane Coffee by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Shaun Fleming, Diane Coffee photos by Mara Robinson

Shaun is currently on tour in support of his new Peel EP. There are a lot of good bands, but not a lot of performers. I’m glad I found Shaun, who satisfies both. 

Click here for more photos of Shaun Fleming and his Diane Coffee bandmates

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Carl Newman Talks Depression, Insomnia, Trump on new album

When Carl Newman of powerpop outfit The New Pornographers answered my pre-show phone call he responded, “Hey, (Blown Speakers) I’ve got a song by that name.” So if he didn’t already know we were fans from our past shenanigans, our name was probably a good indication.

The band’s most recent album, Whiteout Conditions, is the first album with new drummer Joe Seiders, after longtime member Kurt Dhale left in 2014. It also marks the first album without a single song by Dan Bejar, who was busy making a new Destroyer album.

“Ultimately our schedules just didn’t fit. I’m amazed it was the first time that happened,” said Newman.

Carl Newman, The New Pornographers by Mara Robinson
Carl Newman by Mara Robinson

While Bejar’s absence on Whiteout Conditions was noticeable, it made for a more cohesive album of only Carl Newman songs. But with seven core members in the band, all spread out over great distances, everyone else managed to put their signature stamp on this album and the recording process remained status quo.

“Working on my songs is a similar process every time. I maybe get it in my head that I want to make a different kind of song, but it’s still just going in there and trying to figure it out. It always feels like a puzzle to me. It’s just a process of trying a lot of things and seeing what works. To a certain degree, a lot of it comes back to being a music fan. I record something and then try to listen to it as if I were the person buying the record. If I think, ‘yeah, I would like this,’ it stays.”

Newman once tweeted out a message that songwriting isn’t easy. During our chat, he elaborated. “There are some parts I find easier than others, like the chord structures and melody and rhythm, and that’s what I start with almost always. And then I have to figure out how to fit the lyrics around this. That’s where songwriting becomes work.”

The New Pornographers by Mara Robinson
The New Pornographers by Mara Robinson

A few songs on the album, like title track Whiteout Conditions, and Second Sleep deal with common topics in music and art: anxiety, depression and insomnia, but still keep that upbeat New Pornographers pop sound.

“I try to write about things in a hopeful way. It’s about trying to get out of it. It’s about fighting it,” says Newman.

The New Pornographers by Mara Robinson
The New Pornographers by Mara Robinson

“Then you have songs like High Ticket Attractions that’s less about internal struggle and more about the external struggle of what’s going on in the world. It was 2016 when we were making this record, and the election, and there was that fear that if he won it would be as bad as it is right now. It’s terrifying to me for a number of reasons. It’s policy, but also you realize, ‘Holy shit, he reflects a massive chunk of America.’ I’m sure there was the Russian election hacking, and I’m sure there were nefarious things going on. But even with all of that, there are still tens of millions of people who thought, ‘I’d rather vote for him over her.’ That part is scary.

I think millions of people woke up the next day and thought, “Wait, this isn’t the country I thought it was. We have to readjust. The country we thought was America, it was a myth. This is America now. ”

The New Pornographers by Mara Robinson
The New Pornographers by Mara Robinson

After tours for Together and Brill Brusiers hit Cleveland’s House of Blues, it was nice to see The New Pornographers return to the Beachland Ballroom. If Neko Case had been there, she would have been happy, after being vocal about her fondness for the venue from the stage and her Twitter feed. In her absence, Kathryn Calder and touring singer/violinist Simi Stone filled in on songs like Colosseums, Champions of Red Wine and Mass Romantic.

Kathryn Calder, The New Pornographers by Mara Robinson
Kathryn Calder by Mara Robinson

The band hit songs from all seven albums with a 21-song set list and minimal between-song banter. All Carl asked of the audience was one simple request:
Don’t call him Hot Carl. 

The New Pornographers by Mara Robinson
The New Pornographers by Mara Robinson
The New Pornographers in Cleveland
Blaine Thurier by Mara Robinson
The New Pornographers by Mara Robinson
The New Pornographers by Mara Robinson
Kathryn Calder, The New Pornographers by Mara Robinson
Kathryn Calder by Mara Robinson
Simi Stone, New Pornographers by Mara Robinson
Simi Stone by Mara Robinson
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Goldmines Interview and Photo Recap

If you ask anyone in Goldmines how they’re doing, chances are they’ll say that they’re really busy. Cleveland’s femme foursome of Mandy Look, Jeanna Lax, Heather Gmucs, and Roseanna Safos are ready to keep their momentum going into 2017. After spending the end of last year supporting their self-titled EP release, Mandy and Roseanna took a moment from their relentless schedules to speak with Blown Speakers, before their recent performance with R.Ring and Split Single at the Happy Dog in Cleveland.

So R. Ring, are you excited to play with them?
Mandy Look: Yeah. Roseanna’s like, “What, one of my main idols is stopping through?”
Roseanna Safos: My only main, I mean, her, and the other one is Kim. You know what I mean?
ML: Yeah. And she’s like, up there for me.
RS: If I really explained how happy I am, it’d sound scary. We’ve played with Kelley. We’ve played with The Breeders before, and then we played with R. Ring, too. And then I’ve played with R. Ring too, with other bands. So we kind of know each other. My friend plays drums for her, so they asked us to do the show together, and I was really, really happy.
ML: Yeah, it was awesome!
RS: We were all just like “!” — Also Kelley Deal shared a Goldmines video, and that was pretty cool. So we’re excited for the show. I can’t wait.
ML: I do appreciate how political Kelley Deal has gotten, too. Not incredibly political, but for the right reasons. Speaking for musicians, and about how we need healthcare, and how we need things like the ACA. We’re going to try to work different angles to be friends with her. So I may talk to her a lot.
RS: Yeah. You do that.
ML: Yeah, I’ll do that, and be like, “If you ever need a guitar player or a drummer, we’ll drive down and practice!”

Do you feel the same kind of commitment to those kind of issues? You know, being a band from Cleveland and experiencing everything that’s been going on lately?
ML: Definitely. One thing that’s happening now is that you can’t do just one thing. It’s like the gig economy. You play in a band, but you also have to work a day job, and if you wanna be able to pursue any kind of art, you’re gonna be poor. Unless you’re born rich, you know? For the most part, like 99% of people. So I think those things are very important, to continue the arts and affect the community. Because, I mean, communities will just die out if you don’t have the artists, and they’re not really making money. I mean, not like they used to. Being in a band, I think a lot people don’t realize how much playing live music brings to the community. When you come see a band, you’re going to the restaurant next door to eat dinner, or you’re going to a nearby store to pick something up, you’re tipping the bartenders, you’re helping a small local business.
RS: And you’re gonna spread happiness.

Goldmines Cleveland band by Mara Robinson
Mandy Look of Goldmines by Mara Robinson

Ready for the split

The Thursday night dinner crowd at the Happy Dog comfortably occupied the back tables and choice spots along the bar. While most folks were enjoying a tall draft or a tricked-out hot dog, Roseanna and Mandy were both sipping coffee and fueling up for practice later that night.

ML: We’ve all been so busy lately! We can’t get together and speak!
RS: But we’ve all been the busiest we’ve ever been, I feel. But we still do it.
ML: Yeah, sort of. Yeah. We make it work.
RS: We gotta get back on a regular schedule. We all want it.
ML: I’m sure, as you know, everyone’s lives just get in the way. And it seems like we’ve got the most attention this year when we’ve been the least active, in a way. Which is cool. I guess it’s cause we released a record, so that helps push out things.
RS: And it took forever for the split to come out.
ML: Yeah, but it’s coming out at a good time.
RS: Our split’s coming out with Shitbox Jimmy. Well, our record just came out, but our split with Shitbox Jimmy is coming out. Do you know where I booked the show for the release? You don’t know. But I booked it at The Phantasy Theater, just to be fun. I used to play there in the ’90s and had a ton of fun, and I know what it’s become. So I got a hold of them, and I’m like, “We’re gonna do it my way.” They were so excited to do it! We’re going to do it with my cover, one of my door people, no pre-sale, no credit charge. It should be a really fun show. A good excuse to go to the Phantasy before it turns into condos probably.

That’s a shame. It’s good that you got something going on with it, though.
RS: I know! Actually the guy who books there, he was in my very first band in high school. So he was like, whatever you want. You can book it or play it, you can do whatever you want. That’s cool.

Goldmines Cleveland band by Mara Robinson
Heather Gmucs and Roseanna Safos of Goldmines by Mara Robinson

RS: The songs, that record, our split, Heather made like how many? Like, Heather does the Wax Mage thing. And I think they’re all sold out, the ones that she made. How many did she make?
ML: I think 50?
RS: OK, so that’s just her own thing, like she’ll make like 50 cool albums. When do we get them?
ML: I think she said she was putting them into production.
RS: It’s exciting! It’s gonna be really good. Shitbox Jimmy side is awesome, too.

So Wax Mage is Heather’s project?
ML: Yeah, she and Sarah Barker, and they kinda just run it out of Gotta Groove. Gotta Groove lets them do what they want, and they just pay Gotta Groove for it in their time, which is awesome. For Gotta Groove, too, because they’re not taking ownership of them. It opened up a whole new world for Heather where she was kinda running a label. It’s just something she always wanted to do. Even though it’s not officially a label, but I think with Quality Time, they partnered up in a way, where Quality Time, they’re doing the work to do the distribution and stuff, and Heather does pre-sales to help pay for the record production. It seems to work.
RS: And they do cool compilations.
ML: And it’s cool for Cleveland, because people around the world are following them. With the Goldmines record, people have bought them across the country just because they’re more interested in the record art, in a way. But then they get the music and Heather’s like, “I’ve been getting a lot of feedback on the record.” And that’s cool. It’s good they’re not disappointed in the record they’re buying. So it’s very symbiotic.

Goldmines Cleveland band by Mara Robinson
Roseanna Safos of Goldmines by Mara Robinson

Back in the van

On top of all of these preparations for their new release, Goldmines embarked on a tour of the Midwest through the month of April in support of acclaimed songwriter and Cleveland music legend, Craig Bell, formerly of Rocket From The Tombs, The Down-fi, and Mirrors.

RS: When I played with Bim in Obnox, he was just like everywhere. And The Gizmos. He saw Goldmines play at Studio-A-Rama. Mirrors played there, and he remembered when he saw me play with Obnox in Indianapolis. And then, when Goldmines played in Indy, he would go see us. So we know each other pretty well, but he just loves Goldmines. So he asked us to do it. He actually wanted to do more shows, but Mandy’s been super busy with her work. Craig Bell is the nicest man on Earth. He’s so active in so many projects like all the time.
ML: I wish we could’ve done more. We were supposed to do a couple more.
RS: Indiana would’ve been fun, but Mandy’s just busy. I mean, we’re all pretty busy. Very busy. But, that Columbus show we’re playing with DANA, too. Have you ever heard of DANA? Columbus band, DANA. They’re really cool.
ML: Did you tell me about them? Or have I heard about them?
RS: Uh, they’ve been playing a few times, they’re on Instagram and stuff. But they’re cool. They’re kinda harder. The lady plays like a Theremin.
ML: Oh! Heather was showing me a video, she saw them playing on a thing. She said it sounds amazing. Oh she’s going to be so happy.
RS: Well, I told her. And I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve known that band for a long time.”

RS: I got a new van. Well, I got a 2015 Dodge Minivan. Pretty new. It’s the nicest thing I’ve ever had. I’ve had, this is like my seventh one. Transmission issues. Always transmission. But that’s why I built my credit up like crazy. Because I never had credit. For this reason, for this van. So I got the van, saved up money. It’s pretty cool. We’re gonna hit the road and not be fearful.
ML: Which is really exciting for our band.
RS: So we don’t have to rent.
ML: That stopped us. Actually, you wouldn’t think a van would stop you, like not having a vehicle to travel in. We used to travel so much because in HotChaCha we had a van, and going out of town was not a huge ordeal. You don’t take two or three cars. It’s like, now we can just hop into her minivan like a family.
RS: One of the other things we did, we rented. And it sucked. And it’s so expensive! And then, before there, we borrowed a van, and then we had some trouble. And it wasn’t our van. We were responsible but felt kinda shitty and we kinda felt like, “What? Why are we..?” So I got a van.

Goldmines Cleveland band by Mara Robinson
Jeanna Lax, Mady Look, and Roseanna Safos of Goldmines by Mara Robinson

Riding the next wave

While Goldmines continue to promote their latest releases, they’ve also focused on crafting new songs and sharpening their musical ideas. Their signature sound of sixties-style vocal harmonies doused in reverb-driven guitars and supercharged with hard garage rhythm comes from a wide range of influences.

ML: I think when Goldmines started I had this idea of us being ’60s influenced, kinda like the girl-group thing, but more like ’60s garage rock, you know? I just love it. Now, I’m like really into this idea of us being more like a Heart-esqe, glammy band.
RS: Yeah, that would be cool.
ML: Our new single on the split is really rockin’. It’s probably my favorite song I’ve ever written. It’s really tough and cool and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s cool, very cool. So that’s kinda where I’m drawing from. I mean, of course, I like everything. The ’90s is probably my prime time of growing up music. I’m trying to get back into that. I don’t really go on my iTunes. I don’t know, it sucks with technology. You get rid of all your CDs and you have all your iTunes. I don’t really even look at my iTunes anymore. But I need to get into it. Like, there’s too much Sebadoah I haven’t listened to, and I’m like, “I used to love that album.” Then I always think of all these other albums that I want to listen to, or these weird bands.
RS: I gotta force myself to go buy a record this week. There are some new artists that really, really grab me, and I just have to have it, but not so much like I used to.
ML: (to Roseanna) Are you drawing from anything?
RS: Like in, us, in Goldmines?
ML: I don’t know. I guess.
RS: I’ve been trying to get into like a post-punk kind of thing. Well, because I heard some old HotChaCha stuff, that split we did with We Are Hex. And we were just fucking around, and it technically wasn’t that great, but what you did on your part was so good, well because you’re so good at that style, too.
ML: I felt that kinda in Goldmines. Now I can play chords.
RS: Well, yeah, because we’re not that band. You know what I mean?
ML: In HotChaCha, I didn’t play one chord ever. I was just playing notes.
RS: But you’re so good. You’re creative.
ML: I don’t think I knew how to play chords. No, I did, yeah, I did! I just liked technology.

Goldmines Cleveland band by Mara Robinson
Jeanna Lax and Mandy Look of Goldmines by Mara Robinson

RS: (Notices song playing in the background.) Oh, I love this song.
ML: We’re looking for a song to cover.
RS: Oh my God! I would love to cover this!
ML: I think we could cover this.
RS: We’ll do it our way.
ML: You know, we’ve had a lot of ideas. And then we try and do it, and like if it just doesn’t fit into how we are, you know, we don’t push it. Usually, honestly, I think everything I’ve covered we’ve been at a bar together and was like, “We should cover it!” We’ll probably end up covering this, because it’s just gonna — It’s like always a magical happenstampede.

Goldmines will perform next at the release show for their upcoming 12″ vinyl split release with Shitbox Jimmy on Friday, May 5th at the Phantasy Theater in Lakewood, Ohio. The “Cinco De Mayo” celebration is presented by Panza Foundation, Wax Mage, and Quality Time Records, and will include Goldmines, Shitbox Jimmy, Dime Disguise, and The Safeties.

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