After Dark: A chat with Wray

“Hypatia,” the title track from Wray’s sophomore album, feels alien, yet organic; dreamy, but defined.

The band’s use of gauzy layers of distortion and motorik/ostinato rhythms draws comparisons to My Bloody Valentine and Neu! To my ear, there’s something about the southern roots of this trio that lends muscle and sinew to the spun-glass textures associated with dream pop and shoegaze. But don’t take it from me — Wray has caught the ears of critics at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal (paywall).

The percussion in Wray’s songs leans inexorably forward without disrupting the ethereal mood. The resulting ambience reminds me of a time-lapse video where city night lights, viewed from above, take on the appearance of electronic circuitry or perhaps some complex organism, its arteries pulsing.

W1I recently saw the Birmingham band — David Brown (bass, vocals), Blake Wimberly (percussion), and David Swatzell (guitar, vocals) — perform at The Gutter in Brooklyn.

Afterward, David B. and Blake answered some questions by email. Topics include: visual effects used at shows, road snacks, and favorite books. (Spoiler alert: Blake names After Dark as a fave. I love Murakami and I think Wray’s music complements the Japanese novelist’s semi-lucid dreamscapes with their unresolved contradictions.)

I asked them the silliest question I’ve ever posed to a band: Which astrophysicist would prevail in an arm-wrestling tournament? Their answers are sublime. The interview & Wray’s upcoming tour dates are after the jump.

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Of pedal steel and poetry: A chat with J. Tom Hnatow

After years on the road performing first with These United States and more recently with Vandaveer and The Mynabirds (among other bands), J. Tom Hnatow now calls Kentucky home. The multi-instrumentalist and producer/engineer is as eloquent about his craft as he is about his favorite poets. Here, he shares his thoughts on the connections we make through music and on why Homer’s Iliad is the perfect read for a band on tour.

J. Tom Hnatow’s nickname is “The Llama” (and his last name is pronounced like the intergovernmental treaty organization). A longtime D.C. resident, he’s now based in Lexington, Kentucky, where he’s a producer/engineer at Shangri-La Productions. He identifies pedal and lap steel as his primary instruments, but he’s also wicked good on guitar, dobro, and banjo. I recently chatted with Tom after a Vandaveer show.

By way of background, Vandaveer is the alt-folk project of Mark Charles Heidinger. Vandaveer tunes are by turns wry, jaunty, and wistful. My favorites are like a controlled burn of a fiery confessional — their structure and dynamic control an equipoise to the lyrical content of ceding control to the darkness.

In the band’s stripped-down incarnation, Mark sings and plays guitar while Rose Guerin offers up crystalline harmonies that imbue the songs with a haunting intensity. In studio and on some tour stops, Vandaveer’s sound is fleshed out with a rotating cast that includes Tom on pedal steel and Phil Saylor on banjo. I’ve written about their music before and I finally got to see the foursome live on an eve of the eve show (that is, on December 30th) at The Hamilton. I wish I could describe just how sublime it was.

To remark that the band’s sound is augmented by Tom’s playing is to barely scratch the surface. Though the capacity crowd was pressed hungrily against the stage, Tom rarely glanced out at the audience. Rather, his gaze was focused alternately on his bandmates and down at his instrument as he wove gossamer strands of sound, manipulating tones and textures — a sort of chiaroscuro — all subtle, altogether poignant.

Here’s a taste of Mark, Rose, and Tom at a Stone Room house show in 2013.

Adopting the narrative style of Homer, we begin the conversation in medias res. I asked Tom to share the story behind the llama tattoo. It all started with the Davis, California, venue hosting a Vandaveer show.

The [Davis] guy emailed and said, “We’ll give you twelve bottles of wine, and as a pre-show thing, you get to visit a winery, and we’ll give you food. So what else do you need on your rider?”

Mark, as a joke, said, “Well, actually, we need a petting zoo.”

The guy responded, “We can do that. We can do this thing — but, well, there’s not going to be any llamas.”

And Mark wrote back and said, “Oh, that’s alright. We have our own llama. It’s fine.”

Image: Vandaveer (Facebook)

So we get the poster for the show. It’s this beautiful silkscreen poster, and there’s this llama on it. And Mark said to us, “Welllll, that’s awesome.”

I was at the point where I was planning my next tattoo. I had it designed. And Mark said, “You should get this. Get the llama.”

It happened that the guy who did the poster is from Lexington [Mark’s hometown and Tom’s current home]. And I said, “We gotta do this, we gotta act on this, otherwise my willpower…”

So the next show we’re playing is in Portland. And at the show, this woman is sitting down in front furiously texting and we’re thinking, “God, this is really obnoxious.” But then she says, “I got you an appointment. Ten a.m. tomorrow.”

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No guilty pleasures: A chat with Lydia Loveless

Lydia Loveless performs at DC9 on Wednesday, September 24. Get your tickets here. Photos from her DC9 show after the jump.

lydialoveless_bs219promo_horiz_whiteHer voice is like a good whiskey — a warm, tantalizing smoothness followed by a fierce kick that reveals potency and fire. Lydia Loveless delivers punk-inflected and country-infused songs that are a bit Loretta Lynn and a bit Replacements, but ultimately and undeniably her very own brand of swagger and smarts. It’s an addictive combo, and it’s no wonder Rolling Stone named her as one of “10 New Artists You Need to Know.”

Following a tour with the Old 97s this spring, Lydia Loveless is back on the road. Over the weekend, she answered a few questions via e-mail.

Q. I read that “Hurts So Bad” was inspired by a book you read about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Are there other stories — from novels, films, poems, etc. — that have found their way into your music?

Yes, Verlaine and Rimbaud for instance. I wouldn’t say anything I write is strictly about one thing, but inspired briefly by things I observe or read and then stretched as far as I can take them.

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Ha Ha Tonka: On “Lessons” and life on the road

The folksy indie rock band is as adept with powerful electric guitar riffs as with pensive bluegrass-tinged harmonies. Earlier this week, they took a moment to chat about life on the road and the inspiration behind their new album, “Lessons.”

07/22/2014 update: Scroll down for photos from Ha Ha Tonka’s July 20, 2014 show in D.C.

Hey Washington — Ha Ha Tonka is playing this Sunday, July 20, at Rock & Roll Hotel (tickets here). When they’re not making music, these guys listen to NPR. Now what’s more D.C. than that? You have to check ’em out.

HHT_Lessons_Promo_2_0Ha Ha Tonka’s “Lessons” is a beautifully-crafted reflection on middle age and middle America, on ambition and regret. With evocative harmonies, a dynamic mix of electric and acoustic instrumentation, and lyrics that are smart, honest, and accessible, this is music that is as rousing as it is revelatory.

The Missouri band’s sound can be likened to early Wilco, the Avett Brothers, Old 97s, and Kings of Leon — but the comparisons don’t quite do Ha Ha Tonka justice. The band (named after a Missouri state park) takes driving guitar riffs, bright mandolin, saloon piano, thumping bass and drum, and four-part harmonies, and transmutes these elements into something quite addictive. Lead singer Brian Roberts has a voice that lends itself equally well to raw, anthemic rock and forlorn, confessional ballads. If you appreciate nuanced storytelling through the medium of a Southern rock song, “Lessons” should be on your summer playlist (CDs & vinyl here, digital download here).

Earlier this week, the band answered some questions by e-mail about life on the road and the inspiration behind their latest record.

Ha Ha Tonka performs at Rock & Roll Hotel in Washington, DC on July 20, 2014.
Ha Ha Tonka performs at Rock & Roll Hotel in Washington, DC on July 20, 2014.

Q. What was your earliest music memory — do music prodigies start out banging pots and pans on the kitchen floor like the rest of us, or did you go straight to strumming chords?

Brett Anderson (keys, guitar, vocals): Mostly pots and pans at first. Then a conscious effort to play something later. I started playing guitar when I was 13. It devirginized me as a musician.

Q. What was the first record you owned? If you were to name a handful of albums that captured your attention, say at ages 10, 15, 20, and 25 — what would those be?

Brett: I owned a tape of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Played it till it wouldn’t play no more. 10 — Michael Jackson’s Thriller. 15 to 25 — everything Pixies.

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Four lads in a band: A chat with Kodaline


When Kodaline was first entering our music consciousness, their Facebook bio identified them simply as “four lads in a band.” Now with a chart-topping debut album under their belts, the Dublin-based band has been performing to capacity crowds from Milan to Montreal, London to LA. I first wrote about their music last year after hearing them at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., supporting Airborne Toxic Event. When Kodaline returned in early 2014 — this time in a headlining tour — I was thrilled for the opportunity to chat with Jay Boland (bass guitar) and Steve Garrigan (vocals, rhythm guitar, harmonica, keyboard). Here’s the interview, along with some photos from the show.

I heard you guys finishing up sound check just now.
Jay: Yes, so we’re getting ready for our third gig in Washington! It’s awesome. [U Street Music Hall] is a really cool venue as well. Next time the 9:30 Club. That’s the plan.

That would be exciting. I love that venue.
Jay: [W]e started this tour in Toronto in the Danforth, and that was the last gig we did with everyone on our first tour in the U.S. So we’re starting our big headlining tour in the U.S. in the place where we finished last time. It’s a good cycle. And it was all within about a year.

You guys have been busy.
Jay: [laughs] It’s been non-stop.

Jason (Jay) Boland of Kodaline
Jason (Jay) Boland of Kodaline

Apart from sound check, do you have other pre-show routines, rituals?
Jay: No, nothing, really. We’re very lackadaisical before the show. Warm up a little. We love playing gigs so the energy comes up the second you go up there [on stage].

Vinny [drummer Vinny May] has a Playstation case that he built for his new PS4. He got it for Christmas and he couldn’t bear to leave it at home. So he built a case with a screen in it and that’s his touring game system. And so we end up playing these really stressful computer games.

Because touring isn’t stressful enough.
Jay: [Laughs] Exactly. We were stuck on the freeway for about 12 hours the other night. Broke down on the way from Philly to Boston. But we got there in the end.

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