The Osmonds were on to something with "A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock N' Roll." And cheesy as they may be, that sentiment pretty well covers the lineup at the Grey Eagle Saturday. Brooklyn's Andy Friedman and the Golden Winners share the stage with Asheville's raucous Brian McGee and the Hollow Speed and Americana jewels the Honeycutters. Xpress caught up with all three to talk about punk-rock and hugs, among other topics. Full interviews follow.
Xpress: You used to be called the Bee's Knees and now the Honeycutters. Do I sense a bee theme here?
Pete James: No, we hate bees. Don't you know about Amanda's horrible accident? Just kidding. It's mostly just what came to us and seemed like it would be easily remembered. We actually changed the name because there were other bands called the Bee's Knees and we wanted something that was all our own.
You started out as a duo, did you always write with a full band in mind?
Amanda Platt: I've never been really interested in doing the singer/ songwriter thing, so ever since I started writing I've sought out other musicians to flesh my songs out a bit. When Pete and I first started playing together we really wanted an upright bassist, and we thought that all our problems would be solved if we could only find someone to play bass with us. Happily, we found Ian on bass and also Spencer on mandolin and Mike on drums. We like to be able to make people dance, and for a long time we've been shying away from playing as a duo, but now we've sort of rediscovered it and I actually do have a number of songs that I've written that are quieter and more suited to the acoustic duo setting.
Your album cover is a little girl looking at two dead fish tacked to a piece of cardboard. What is that?
Platt: That's my mom. She really doesn't like that picture, but I don't know why. We think it's the coolest ever. Pete saw it this box of old photos that I have and he pegged it as our album cover right then and there.
Your Web site says you started out of too much coffee and not enough hugs. Are you getting more hugs now?
James: We'll never get enough hugs. We're very emotionally unstable and needy people.
Your songs make me sad in a good way. Does that make sense, and is that intentional?
Platt: I think that makes sense. I feel like a lot of my favorite songs do that for me. There's some sadness that is fulfilling and honest, so it feels good every so often. A lot of my songs come from that sad but hopeful kind of part of every day life.
If your album was the soundtrack to a movie, what movie would it be?
Platt: Pete's still writing it (in his mind). And it will be the best movie ever. And it will probably end world hunger.
What's your favorite memory of the Grey Eagle?
Platt: It goes without saying that it's always great to play there, the sound guys are awesome and you've got to love a venue with a plywood floor (is it plywood?). But one of the best times we had there might have been watching the Hackensaw Boys play in 2007, they all jumped off the stage and played in the middle of the crowd for an encore. It was face melting. That was a long time ago. I guess we don't get out much.
Brian McGee and the Hollow Speed
You started in a punk band. What drew you to country music?
McGee: Three chords, verse-chorus-verse-chorus, all within a two to three minute song. But if you need an actual artist to artist connection, the draw to country probably came from listening to Social Distortion's S/T album. They recorded Ted Daffan's "Born To Lose," which they most likely picked up from a Johnny Cash record. This was all taking place around 1994 when Cash's American Recordings had come out and I was hearing his name a lot. So that summer while Plow United was on tour, I picked up a cheap truck stop tape of Johnny Cash's Greatest Hits and it hardly ever left the tape deck.
Your music is half punk rock, half country. What are you at heart? A punk or a good ole boy?
Neither. I believe my good friend Billy Joel said it best, "What's the matter with the clothes I'm wearing? Can't you tell that your tie's too wide? Maybe I should buy some old tab collars? Welcome back to the age of jive. Where have you been hidin' out lately, honey? You can't dress trashy till you spend a lot of money. Everybody's talkin' 'bout the new sound. Funny, but it's still rock and roll to me.
What's the matter with the car I'm driving? Can't you tell that it's out of style? Should I get a set of white wall tires? Are you gonna cruise the miracle mile? Nowadays you can't be too sentimental / Your best bet's a true baby blue Continental. Hot funk, cool punk, even if it's old junk / It's still rock and roll to me.
Oh, it doesn't matter what they say in the papers / 'Cause it's always been the same old scene. There's a new band in town
But you can't get the sound from a story in a magazine…Aimed at your average teen / How about a pair of pink sidewinders / And a bright orange pair of pants? You could really be a Beau Brummell baby / If you just give it half a chance. Don't waste your money on a new set of speakers, You get more mileage from a cheap pair of sneakers. Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways / It's still rock and roll to me
What's the matter with the crowd I'm seeing? / Don't you know that they're out of touch? Should I try to be a straight 'A' student? If you are then you think too much. Don't you know about the new fashion honey? All you need are looks and a whole lotta money. It's the next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways / It's still rock & roll to me. Everybody's talkin' 'bout the new sound / Funny, but it's still rock and roll to me"
What is the most punk rock thing you've ever done and the most country thing you've ever done?
The most punk rock thing ever done was invading Hot Topic under the pretext that they had weapons of mass destruction. The most country thing ever done was moving to North Carolina.
Ever consider releasing a straight punk or straight country record?
I've already recorded three punk records and a couple handfuls of punk 7" records, so I don't feel I need to do that again. And as far as doing a pure country record, it's just not in me to do it. I would feel and sound like a fake. There are people doing it a whole lot better than I could ever do it. And with any musical style, the people doing it best are the people who have it in their blood, and can't not play a certain style of music. When it comes to me, I like rock and roll, and I hope I'm doing the lineage justice.
What is hollow speed exactly?
This is for the listener/reader to interpret.
What one of your songs do you think epitomizes your sound?
Right now the new tunes we're playing represent where my sound is headed or where we are at as a group. But when it comes to the album I have out right now, and I could only pick one I'd have to say "Clouded Glass." A runner up to that song would be "Hawk On The Highway."
What do you listen to?
Currently I am listening to:
– Reigning Sound
– Floating Action
– A.A. Bondy
– Bruce Springsteen —Darkness On The Edge of Town and Born In The USA
– Bob Dylan — Highway 61 Revisited and Desire
– Wanda Jackson
– Black Joe Lewis
– Link Wray
– Jackie Wilson's Greatest Hits
– Buck Owens s/t first Capitol Records release
– Numreo Records, SMART'S PALACE double LP
You started playing shows from the bottom up, including some time busking New York. What's the most interesting place you've ever played?
One of the most interesting shows I've ever played took place in the desert outside of Las Vegas with Plow United. We were told to meet in the parking lot of a Whole Foods type store. We then caravanned with about 15 other cars out into the desert to play on a concrete slab. Maybe the slab used to have a store or house built on it at one point. I don't know. The show was powered by a generator and we opened for a ska band dressed in wrestling tights and face paint.
What is your favorite thing to do besides play music?
My favorite things to do are listen to music, read about music, go see live music, hang around the friendly neighborhood record store, hang out with my wife, go out for tacos, go out for ice cream, go out to art openings … It's hard to imagine not being a musician. I can only imagine what it must be like to do it full time. And that is what I'm after. That is the goal.
Andy Friedman and the Golden Winners
Why the new band?
The new band comes from a desire to present a new sound and mood onstage, one that's closer in spirit to that of the recordings than what the arrangements in the live show with The Other Failures had become. I don't place either above the other, but after three years of traveling with the more raucous, electric sound of The Other Failures, I naturally wanted to explore other possibilities. Don't forget, it wasn't even five years ago that I picked up a guitar for the first time in my life. I was traveling with a poetry show, and people asked, "Why guitar and why now?" I had the same answer then that I do now, and I hope to be exploring through art and sharing the results across this land for the rest of my life. Next time I come through I might have an interpretive dance troop.
What should we expect?
The sound of The Other Failures is dark and gritty and the energy is unpredictable. It can get loud and raucous. If I had to describe the sound and energy of The Other Failures in concert in visual terms it would be represented by the Jacques-Henri Lartigue photograph called "Mr Folletête (Plitt) et Tupy, Paris," where a man in a suit is throwing is terrier across a river. The sound of the Golden Winners, on the other hand, is somber and wooden, like an Andrew Wyeth painting. Acoustic instruments. The music of dry logs getting thrown on top of one another out in the yard for a campfire or a wood stove. That's the sound of these songs. The sound and feel of the Golden Winners would be represented in Wyeth's egg tempera called "Groundhog Day."
Your songs are a bit cynical, are you?
Pessimistic, maybe, but certainly not cynical. In my opinion, anyone who goes through the trouble of recording music, writing songs to share, and traveling the country high and low to affect audiences big and small in one way or another cannot be called a cynic. This life on the road is a selfless act. Sure, I get something from it, of course, and you may not believe it but what motivates me is to share my points of view, emotions, and stories with those who might need them. It might be one person in a crowd of 200, but music and art offers a religious experience, and I've been lifted up, enlightened, and inspired by so many artists—whether in concert, on record, or in books—that I feel it's only fair to participate, to send my stuff out there the same way and reach who it will reach. I'm not doing it for the millions of dollars that I earn by doing this, the caviar that the venues provide by the bucketload backstage, or the women (young and old) pounding at the green room door from load in to load out. All that stuff is nice, sure, but I do it for the religion and the community it provides.
Any parallels between songwriting and illustration?
No, in some ways, and yes in others. For one, music is where I go to sort through my emotions, make sense of my life, and alelviate the pain of disappointment that comes with being alive. If my wife left me I doubt that I would lock myself into my illustration studio and draw portraits of celebrities. I would write songs. And speaking of drawing celebrities, that black-and- white style that I developed is designed to approach the subject as economically and without frills as possible. I just get the job done, draw it as I see it and feel it, and when it's done I put the pen down. The parallel there is that this is exactly the way I try and write songs, putting the least amount of pressure on myself, and I learned it from the satisfied feeling I get when I nail a celebrity. Well, I mean nail the likeness, not the celebrity. In song, I just say what I have to say and "rhyme it up," as Furry Lewis once said. It's a utilitarian approach.
How do you feel about being called the "hillbilly Leonard Cohen?"
It's fine. I'm not a hillbilly nor am I a reclusive Canadian zen poet, and I'm certainly not those two things combined, but I guess I understand what they were driving at. Maybe because I work with the New Yorker I have a sort of erudite thing going on, and that I only know three chords on the guitar? Like peanut butter and chocolate, put 'em together and you get Hillbilly Leonard Cohen? To tell you the truth, I'd be just as flattered if they likened me to peanut butter and chocolate. Another paper said "King of Art Country." And, back when I was doing my poetry and art slideshow a paper in Savannah, Ga. called me "The Johnny Cash of Painting." Now that I'm doing music, do you suppose that same writer thinks I'm the Johnny Cash of Music?
What's your favorite part of touring other than actually performing?
Definitely that caviar that I was telling you about earlier, and the millions of dollars. The knocking on the green room door not so much, as it gives me a headache and gets me jittery, but besides all that it's the things I see along the way. The real American landscape. Mostly what I'm talking about is the graffiti in bathrooms where I play. On a paper towel dispenser in Newport, Kent. recently I saw—scrawled along its white plastic face in black magic marker—"I'm soooooo let down." And then I saw a sign on a door somewhere that said, "Do Not Open This Door," and someone drew an enormous middle finger beneath the writing. Stuff like that. I like to honk at cows on the highway, it's like hunting. If one of them stops chewing grass and looks up at me it means I "shot" it. Try it, you will find that most of the cows are simply not interested, or they hear it all the time.
Read anything good lately?
In fact, yes. This summer I bounced back and forth between that book about Joni Mitchell's "Blue Period," Steve Martin's account of his years as a stand up comedian, a book I found about the history of American Popular song, and the second volume of Guralnick's biography of Elvis Presley.
What exactly is 'art country,' for those unfamiliar with the term?
I don't exactly know anymore. It had come from the old slideshow days, when I was pairing my spoken country-blues inspired verse with projections of my Polaroids, paintings and pencil drawings on a screen on stage. I don't remember if I called it "Art Country" or if a writer did, but it stuck, and they still call what I do "Art Country" and I still like it, but I'm not prepared to define it. I've had other musicians that I respect tell me that they feel that they are "Art Country," too. So, I don't know. Here's a pitch: come to the Grey Eagle for this show and see for yourself.
What's do you think is the most appropriate venue for your music?
Well, to be honest, a venue like The Grey Eagle is wonderful for what I do. The sound is big and great, the audience is welcoming and knows how to listen to songs, there's a great big stage. And they serve jambalaya not 200 feet from where the music is happening. But, really, put me in any room or rooftop or apartment where people are interested in listening, dancing, feeling the music and I will call that ideal. Not ideal: children's birthday parties, McDonald's, frat parties at Boston University.
If your music were the soundtrack to an action, what action would that be?
The fist video I ever shot was mostly shot in a grocery store while I was shopping. The song is called "Self-Portrait In White Knuckle Death Grip" and it's a song about making a life out of being an artist and taking chances, for better or for worse, and all the neurotic, depressing, and beaten results that can come with that decision, but how in the end you have to be satisfied for making the commitment. And this kind of stuff runs through my head all the time. I feel like I am hyper-aware of all the times that I am hurt, discouraged, elated, and successful, and I take it all to heart but all in stride in order to keep going. So, grocery shopping. All of my songs are a perfect soundtrack to grocery shopping.
Any fond memories of the Grey Eagle?
I've only been fortunate enough to play at the Grey Eagle one time before this upcoming performance. My fond memory was sound check. The sound is just wonderful over there. I don't know if people realize that good sound is created by the person running sound, not the musicians.
Why don't you live in Asheville? I think you'd fit in around here.
In fact, after my first or second visit I do recall picking up a real estate guide and bringing it home to my wife. Asheville kind of reminds me of the best that Brooklyn has to offer as well as the best of what a place like Woodstock, NY has to offer. That's where my wife is from and we leave the city and rent a cabin in the summer time up in Woodstock. So, in Asheville there is all of that at the same time, it seems. It's like peanut butter and chocolate. Asheville, if personified, could be nicknamed The Hillbilly Leonard Cohen, as well. Or an Urban Singing Miner.