A Band Called BUFFET

“I like runic, Druidic, cave painting, ancient, preliterate, from a time back when you were speaking to the lightning god, the ice god, and the cold-rainwater god.” —Michael Heizer

It’s like burning a field in preparation for spring planting: punk. Anacortes-based BUFFET has released their first EP, and with it launched their new band into the world with a live show at the newly opened Kennelly Keys music shop in town. The turnout was impressive. The set was fast and tight, hitting all the tracks on the new EP.

Choices

What happens to artists who quit? I imagine it’s like taking a carbonated beverage and shaking it up real hard, then having to decide whether or not you’re going to open it up or put it away and wait for things inside to calm down. Pressure. You do stuff, then you quit doing stuff, things build up, then you have to start doing stuff again. Jenn Champion made some very cool stuff with her band Carissa’s Wierd. Then she quit. Then she came back and started S. Her music exudes control and precision and confessional, passionate lyrics. Thing is, she has a lot of stuff to say. I hope she doesn’t quit, again, any time soon. But then, what does quitting mean anyway?

[Photos from The Business Presents in July.]

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Learning to Fall

The ShiversWhy does an artist set out on a journey to find his own unique language to say the things he needs to say, create two “sister” records early in his career (“More” and “In the Morning,” just a couple of years apart) that together contain 11 perfect songs among others, defining a vocabulary and voice, an astonishing accomplishment in these days of apathy and industry ruin, only to walk alone, deep into a personal wilderness, to search for something even more complex and revealing and experimental after inhabiting the very thing he was searching for since the early 2000s, and found? It’s something outsiders cannot easily decode. More records appeared, of course, each just a little more varied, each circling around similar subject matter and textures, some even changing personas completely.

The ShiversBut the patterns began to shift. Because, in the end, it’s about the burning questions. The questions that keep artists awake all night. The questions that wreck relationships, unquiet the mind, and haunt the escape of sleep. The questions that force the hard things to the surface, the dark things into the light, the dangerous things that can break a man. Artists can’t hide from the burning questions.

And so, the wilderness called, for renewal as much as for new directions or confirmations. What can I say about this artist now, at his latest moment of transformation? About this man, Keith Zarriello, his ever-changing identity as The Shivers, his music that opened The Business Presents music festival in July in Anacortes, WA, the artist who has come to define my longing for a direction for my small record record label, Untide Records, and which haunts my imagination about what might be possible for all his records as yet to be demoed, as yet to be recorded? The ShiversI want to say something to you that no one has ever said about him, something that will crash your world, like his music did mine, and make you see and hear what I see and hear in this artist’s teeming and tormented art. I want to do that, but then… I hesitate, and I don’t. Not here. Not now. I don’t because he’s my friend, but more important than that, vastly more important than that, I don’t because he’s still out there working, and something is changing, something new is coming into being. The wild places haven’t finished with him yet, so all remains speculation.

The ShiversMusic has always been the first art form because it requires no advance study to connect to those it connects to. You just fall into the music you love. If you love the music, if you love the language the artist has discovered for himself, you love it. There’s no need to write long arguments, proofs, about why you love it. You just do. It’s one to one, and remains so. Every song was written for you and it speaks to you as if you’re the only person who gets it, really gets it, because it becomes yours. We want to possess the people who can do this for us. But that isn’t possible, either. They belong to the wild places where their greatest songs are written. They belong to their searching, far away from all of us.

The ShiversOpening night, Keith walked into the venue, picked up his vintage Silvertone, plugged it in, and within minutes tore through his taut set list of songs from his decade-long conversion from novice songwriter to journeyman recording artist. It was a rare moment that felt all the more valuable for its spontaneity, vulnerability, and risk, coming from a man who only briefly stepped out of his wilderness mid pilgrimage. His search continues. The burning questions still have a firm hold on him. Every great songwriter travels this road, again and again. Pays the toll in a kind of existential loneliness and aloneness none of us can even imagine.

There remain many more songs inside this artist that will reveal themselves, in time. One day soon Keith will walk back out of his wild places, reformed as yet another new vision of The Shivers, and his records will literally speak for themselves. And those who know, will know. The music will fall into place, and those who get it, will, once again, feel his new writing is just for them. When the needle drops onto the first track, some of the burning questions will be finally be answered. But fortunately, not all of them.

The Shivers

[Where to find stuff: The Shivers on Soundcloud. The Shivers distro and retail from The Business. The Shivers on Bandcamp.]

Summer Music

Some recording artists, like some poets, can’t be discussed in the vulgar commercial terms of audiences, as Robert Graves famously said a zillion years ago when the world was so much younger than it is now, when the world was enraptured by her poets, the canaries in our coal mines of culture.

Advance Base

Advance Base

These recording artists, as indeed our dwindling number of poets, speak to people directly, one on one, not in groups. Whether on vinyl or in live performance, the job is about talking to one person at a time, continuously, with every word, every note, yours for the taking.

Advance Base

Advance Base

That’s the secret behind Owen Ashworth’s latest project, Advance Base, and his touring, but was also true of his other project, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. His recent appearance at The Business in Anacortes, WA (for the record, Anacortes is not a hipster town, you’re thinking of that other place), proved Mr. Graves right, even all these zillions of years later. Every song Owen offered up, with several selections from his latest LP, “Nephew in the Wild” (Orindal Records, 2015), which I wrote about… whenever, was like something personal, for each of us in the room.

Advance Base

Advance Base

The applause at the end of each piece seemed to crash in and stomp on the tenderness of what felt like something very quiet, very intimate, very… just for me, OK! But it’s the polite thing to do, to applaud when songs finish. And yet, every time, the noise of such annoying social conventions with Ashworth’s songs breaks the spell, which only reinforces the long dead, irascible Mr. Graves, all those zillions of years ago.

Real conversation has no need of praise or apology. That night, at The Business, everything, every story, every song, every feeling, every memory, was… just between us.

Hotter Than Hot

Selector Dub NarcoticEverything might happen for a reason, sure. While I can’t rule that option out, I’m thinking probably not, though. Most of the time any reason, or reasons, would be as random, or illogical, or inexplicable, or downright dumbass, without meaning, devoid of any planning, only turning out to be the result of the endless, boring, Selector Dub Narcoticrepetitive, and random mysteries of the moment with no more malice or forethought or “divine” engine behind it than the simple passing of time, the passing from youth into older age, from inexperience into experience: humans being humans. If there are happy accidents then surely there must be unhappy other things as well, all fuel for those hunters after drama and darkness.

Selector Dub NarcoticSometimes I wonder how I would be able to live my life if every time I make a mistake someone was there ready to put it down in print, to attribute it to a grand plot to upset the balance of right and wrong. I’d be so fucked if that were the case. Most of us would be. So fuck the recent bad press about Calvin Johnson and K Records and the upsets and sinking ships and legal briefs and drama hunters. We weren’t there, we don’t know, and those who were there are on it now, searching for a way out, a way back into the light. So we can all get back to the music, and our collective humanity.

Selector Dub NarcoticThing is, Calvin Johnson gave us so much cool: cool music, cool radio, cool record label, cool analog retro recordings, cool vinyl, cool cassette tapes, cool interviews, cool discoveries, all flowing through his teeming creativity and restless mind searching for the “new,” the exciting, to entertain and enthrall us. To have him close out the first night of The Business Presents, the mini music festival and brainchild of Nick Rennis and his own teeming, restless imagination for what a modern-day record shop might be in a ruined landscape where most people have no idea how to sell music, in a world where most people hate new music, was a brilliant healing moment at a time when the darkness seemed poised to win big victories against all of us who just want more great music, who just want to pause to remember fallen friends, who want kindness more than the hammer blows of media bullying. Selector Dub NarcoticJohnson’s Selector Dub Narcotic is just another band in his evolution as a performer, human, and unique creative explorer. Meeting him was exciting. Watching him perform was happy healing escape.

Things break. In Japan, they fix broken objects like tea bowls with gold to celebrate the break, to make it visible, to make it more valuable as a thing mended than as a broken thing to be thrown away. We all break things. We crash through our lives and leave our scratch marks on everything we smash into pieces. Selector Dub NarcoticPolymaths like Johnson and Rennis, surveyors and purveyors of what might be, challenge us by asking the important larger questions about why we’re here and what we should do with the time we have before us. The answers can be found, but it’s hard work. Each new insight slowly downloads into our brains and we move ahead, haltingly, randomly. We all run out of time. This is just a crazy experiment in being alive, people. Just do shit. Make shit. Be kind. And fix it when it breaks.

Riverman

Austin-based loner, wanderer, song-collector, explorer, experimenter, Afrolachian, curator of cultural inheritance, Ralph White is a man who would have amused the likes of Bill Monroe, the “Father of Bluegrass,” even as his versions of bluegrass cross boldly into the exposed and unprotected lands of punk. His tunings would have impressed the likes of Nick Drake. White lives and works outside of the small definitions that rule the rest of our lives. Just imagine what it must take, to let go that much, of all the structures and desires that bind us and keep us trapped in our limitations. Here he’s playing an in-store show at the exciting new space at The Business, two one-hour sets, unflagging in the summer heat, in Anacortes, WA; storytelling and camping and playing his unfolding songs up the West Coast, living close to the earth, traveling in light. The original riverman.

Regeneration

They’re back. Overcoming the loss of their lease at their previous location in Anacortes, Washington, and then recovering from a fire in their new location (before they officially took possession), The Business record shop has started its new life in Anacortes, in their stunning new digs at 216 Commercial Avenue (just a couple of blocks from where they were). It’s been emotional for Nick Rennis and Evie Opp, but they’re back with an expanded shopfront, an expanding distro business, and now a new subscription program. Browsers and subscribers needed. Their new subscription program is available for both in-store pickup and can be shipped globally.

According to Nick and Evie, you can choose from:
Distro- Cassette Subscription – One tape from their family of labels each month for 12 months. ($60)
Distro- CD Subscription – One CD from their family of labels each month for 12 months. ($120)
Distro- Vinyl Subscription – One record from their family of labels each month for 12 months. ($200)
Custom Vinyl Subscription – One record selected by their experts for you each month for 12 months (includes a fun questionnaire). ($240)
Premium Distro-/Custom Vinyl Subscription – One record from their family of labels plus one record selected by their experts for you and one 7″ each month for 12 months. ($500)
(Domestic shipping adds $50 to any subscription.)

Music is life. And The Business has been part of that life in Anacortes since 1978. It’s a project. It’s an experiment. It’s a testament.

The Business
216 Commercial Ave.
Anacortes, WA 98221 USA

Troubled Waters

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There’s an irresistible temptation to mention important literature and literary figures when it comes to reviewing the songwriting of Owen Ashworth. This makes him one of the most fascinating (and perplexing) modern recording artists to talk and read about. Whichever of his bands and records you choose to consider, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone or Advance Base, his latest creative venture, Ashworth garners impressive literary comparisons and faint praise in equal measure.

Photo: Tom Cops

Photo: Tom Cops

Ashworth’s work is respected. But his records seem to receive mediocre ratings by industry buzz masters. Or worse, he’s given patronizing or grudging recommendations that hardly inspire you to dash out and get his latest LP. It’s almost as if his writing style, very much in the dark (and similarly humorous or satirizing) tradition of author David Foster Wallace (to make yet another lofty literary comparison), attracts derision. Each new record raises hopes, but they mysteriously fail to fulfill the standards of most of his critics. How he misses is always ambiguous. It’s like the work connects, but the artist himself pisses people off somehow.

Thing is, we secretly all hate mirrors, even as we need them, in music and literature, to see ourselves. Mirrors make us feel rightly or wrongly judged. And Ashworth can be the saddest mirror of all. In the 1930s, author and peace leader Vera Brittain wrote about how lives lived in close and stifling proximity long for comfort, but thinking too much about reality can get in the way of living comfortably. The alternative: Stay put, don’t think. It’s still true: For some people, too much thinking only means trouble in paradise.

Photo: Tom Cops

Photo: Tom Cops

And that’s Ashworth’s challenge, song after song, record after record as he writes of troubled waters rising in quietly desperate lives. The people in his latest songs on the elegant new “Nephew in the Wild” (Orindal Records, 2015) are trying (in vain) to get clean, or signing leases and fighting with their landlords, or fixing up rusted out cars that just wind up on blocks in the backyard, or getting married too young and to the wrong people, or worrying about abusive pasts and dead-end jobs, or raising kids alone, all while praying for a world that still believes in prayer. Ashworth’s songs are about people thinking too much and paying too much. The songs obsess over the small things, but nothing quite works out. But along the way there are brilliant moments of wisdom and even humor, all of which makes for touching social commentary. Like this, from the song “Pamela”: “Your dad was seventeen/& dumb as a drum machine… Your mom was sixteen/& sweeter than saccharine….”

Photo: Tom Cops

Photo: Tom Cops

Every song on “Nephew in the Wild” fits together like an extended script, scenes about searching for missing lives, missing loves, and missing hope. They carry the load together. Even Ashworth’s signature lo-fi approach confounds some critics. His sound is a smart framework to keep things simple. The music is about the story and the feeling, narrowing the focus to close-ups and memorable fragments. His simplicity takes some things out of the equation and makes space for others.

In Ashworth’s universe the random events of the present predict the future, which makes the smallest things harbingers for troubles ahead. Just imagine if a song like his “Summon Satan,” played scratchy, like on an old vinyl record in another room, were to be used at the ending of a particularly dark episode of “The Walking Dead”: “You can worry about the future/You can worry about the past/You can worry about how long/this curse is going to last.” His is a warning of unstoppable terrible things to come. Everyone would need to have his music because it sometimes feels so good to feel so bad. Ashworth’s darkness would at last be in focus. And everyone else would finally get it.

[Artist photos by Tom Cops. Used by permission. All rights reserved.]

The Shivers: In the Morning

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[Editorial disclosure/confession: The Shiver’s vinyl release now available (“In the Morning,” 2015), is on our record label, Untide Records. Once again, I’m a music reviewer promoting one of our own. Just pretend this isn’t me writing, if that makes it easier or seem more fair.]

The Shivers, founded in 2001 and led by Keith Zarriello, created this raw and confessional “In the Morning” in an industrial Long Island City practice space in the borough of Queens, New York, in 2009. It arrived like a storm, a revelation after the band’s equally personal “Beaks to the Moon” (2008). In some ways, these two records complete each other, reflecting an interplay of unfolding relationships between the musicians, with their emerging confidence and confessional, exposed lyrics that, after this record, become the distinguishing characteristic of Zarriello’s musical vocabulary.

Captured in just a few intense days, this remarkable moment of songwriting, performance, and recording was initially drawn from a mixtape of more than 30 compositions and fragments, both demos and complete songs, in various states of development by Zarriello and Jo Schornikow. These sessions were captured low-budget on a four-track tape deck by Dan Hewitt, sound engineer, long-time collector and student of the New York music scene, and founder of State Capital Records, the record’s original label. Hewitt even recalls that one song, “Firenze,” was recorded to a flip phone in Montreal by Zarriello, and then eventually made it into the final release. A few songs, including “Insane,” were written in a matter of hours during the sessions themselves. Hewitt then mixed the record in his home studio in Jackson Heights, and it became the fourth record to emerge from State Capital, and the fourth from the band.

Two things characterize the moodiness of this record: each song’s emotional urgency, which borders on an almost pleading sensibility, like the opening “Just Didn’t Need to Know,” and the feeling that these songs somehow capture what it means to live and love in New York City. Many of these songs explore relationships, heartbreak, suspicion, even raw anger, painting a picture of New York as a place where it’s impossible to be happy.

Throughout, there’s a collaborative DIY feeling. Schornikow’s classically trained piano anchors it all, and Zarriello’s post-punk romantic guitar and vocals (influenced by bands like Spacemen 3 and Television) adds the raw heat, then all shaped by Hewitt’s guiding influence. A DNA test on this music would show strong evidence of a rootsy post-punk influence, the clue being Zarriello’s compelling cover of “Cheree,” from the groundbreaking synth-punk band Suicide. Everyone was working fast on “In the Morning,” as if the band sensed their perfect moment would pass too soon and the clarity would fade. Hewitt the audiophile set aside his perfectionism to insightfully record and mix this record as a pure lo-fi DIY statement.

Now completely remastered for vinyl by Alex Saltz at APS Mastering, NYC, this new vinyl release includes six bonus tracks, all envisioned at the time of the original recording but eventually shelved. Two of the bonus highlights include “Magazine Lover,” which until now has only been available as a digital download single, and an alternate version of “Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars,” which was released on the band’s luminous “More” (Silence Breaks, 2011) a few years later.