Peter Guralnick on Sam Phillips & Sun Studios
Peter Guralnick has written extensively about American music for decades including a two-part biography on Elvis Presley, the biography Searching for Robert Johnson and an acclaimed trilogy on American roots music. Now he's back with a comprehensive look at Sam Phillips called The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll: How One Man Discoverd Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley and How His Tiny Label Sun Records of Memphis, Revolutionized the World. If Sam Phillips, Sun Studios or Sun Records are new names to you, Peter wants to take you back to 1950s and 60s for what many historians call the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Sun was home to black and white artists of the era who were merging genres like country, gospel, and R&B in ways unthinkable at the time. And that kind of freedom of spirit and enthusiasm, in addition to the idea that everybody has a song to sing, were the tenants of the Sun sound, even more than sonic hallmarks like "slapback echo."Go to episode 523
Allen Toussaint, musical legend out of New Orleans, died on November 10 at the age of 77. In honor of his passing, Jim and Greg revisit their 2013 conversation with the great pianist, singer, songwriter, and producer. Toussaint began playing music at the age of 7 and throughout his career collaborated with a who's who of the New Orleans scene: Dr. John, Huey Smith, Irma Thomas, Earl King & many more. The piano man also wrote dozens of classic songs that have since entered the rock canon, having been covered by artists like Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, DEVO, Warren Zevon, and Patti Labelle. Allen joined Jim and Greg in the studio after the release of his album Songbook, a live recording that documents his career via a series of solo piano shows at Joe's Pub in New York City. Allen talked about about the origins of his most popular songs like "Fortune Teller" and "Working in a Coal Mine," as well as "Whipped Cream," which became the theme for The Dating Game.Go to episode 520
Low Cut Connie
Philadelphia rock ‘n’ rollers Low Cut Connie was founded in 2010 by lead singer and pianist Adam Weiner and drummer and guitarist Dan Finnemore. They later added musicians James Everhart, Will Donnelly and Larry Scotton to round out their 1950s-influenced, signature sound. A key element of their music is the use of a piano to pound out some raunchy, rock tunes and make people get up and dance. They've released three albums so far: Get Out the Lotion, Call Me Sylvia and Hi Honey. Even President Obama is a fan, he put the group's song "Boozophilia" on his summertime Spotify playlist alongside artists like Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. The band visited our studio a few weeks ago where Greg and Jim asked them about how they first formed, their career ups-and-downs and singer Adam Weiner's experience with the TV show The Voice.Go to episode 519
Our guests this week are garage rockers, Twin Peaks. This 5-piece up-and-coming band from Chicago consists of singer and guitarist Cadien Lake James, bassist Jack Dolan, guitarist Clay Frankel, drummer Connor Brodner and recent addition, keyboardist Colin Croom. They started the group back in 2009 as high schoolers and later decided to drop out of college to pursue music full-time. Some of their influences include The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and The Stooges, which you can hear in their debut album, Sunken, released in 2013. Last year, they released their second album, Wild Onion, to critical acclaim and in 2015 performed at Lollapalooza. Their youthfully energetic performance style, guitar-based rock and roll and playful song lyrics make them a draw for young adult music fans looking for something other than EDM. Jim and Greg spoke to them a few weeks ago at the Goose Island Barrelhouse in Chicago and gave a performance afterwards.Go to episode 516
Despite its location in a relatively obscure part of the South, Muscle Shoals, Alabama was home to some of the greatest studio musicians of the 1960's and 1970's. One of those pros was our guest Spooner Oldham, keyboardist and songwriter at FAME Studios. Spooner played piano and organ on hits like "Steal Away" by Jimmy Hughes and Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman." Pretty soon, record executives from the North were sending artists down to record with the excellent house band at FAME. Spooner provided the drive behind Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally," and even rescued a stagnating Aretha Franklin session by coming up with the iconic keyboard line for "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)."
Along with his collaborator Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham wrote huge hits like "Cry Like a Baby" by The Box Tops and "I'm Your Puppet" by James & Bobby Purify. After leaving Muscle Shoals, he played with Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bobby Womack, and more, and continues to perform with acts like Cat Power and Drive-By Truckers. In 1972, Spooner recorded his own album Pot Luck. It was largely forgotten except by cult record collectors, but now is being honored with an overdue reissue from Light in the Attic.Go to episode 515
This week, Jim and Greg talk to shock-rock legend Alice Cooper. Cooper was born in Detroit but later moved to Arizona for high school, where he was a teenage jock in a rock band. His group, The Spiders, performed around Phoenix and LA for a few years before they changed their name to Alice Cooper (Alice's real name is Vincent Furnier.) Their first couple albums Pretties For Youand Easy Action didn't gain much traction but once they teamed up with producer Bob Ezrin, they found success with the album Love It to Death. A string of popular records followed such as School's Out, Billion Dollar Babies and Welcome to My Nightmare but for a time, critics couldn‘t see past the group’s on-stage antics. Alice is perhaps most famous for his special brand of shock-rock including props like snakes, guillotines and even straight jackets. Now, he put out a 15-CD box set, The Studio Albums 1969-1983 and is touring with his new supergroup The Hollywood Vampires, which he formed alongside Johnny Depp and Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry. Jim and Greg were very excited to speak with Cooper and discuss his on-stage persona, sobriety, music catalogue and relationships with other famous artists.Go to episode 513
This week our guests are the art punk innovators, Wire. Their first album, Pink Flag, catapulted the band to critical success in 1977 with its unusual song structures with shifting bursts of sound. Over the years, Wire has refused to stop making new and different music, at times refusing to even play older material live. After that incredible first trilogy of albums, Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154, they took some time off and reemerged in 1987 with a very different sound. That phase lasted until the early '90s and the band again went away. But in 2003, they reunited again for a third phase of their career that is still going strong. They released their 14th studio album this year, which showed up on Jim's midyear best-of list
Jim and Greg were lucky enough to host a special performance and conversation with Wire in front of an audience at the Goose Island Barrelhouse in Chicago. The current lineup includes guitarist Colin Newman, bassist Graham Lewis, and the very soft-spoken drummer Robert Grey, all of whom were with the band at the beginning. But Jim started out the interview by asking the newest member of the group, guitarist Matthew Simms, about how he got the call inviting him to join the band.Go to episode 512
Dr. Oliver Sacks
As critics, Jim and Greg have always suspected that music affects the brain, but they needed an expert to confirm their hypothesis. This week, we're re-broadcasting their interview with the late Dr. Oliver Sacks, author of the book Awakenings, which later went on to become a film starring Robin Williams. His 2007 book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain is a collection of anecdotes illustrating the powerful effects music can have on the brain. Sacks relays his clinical experiences working with a range of patients including individuals who struggle to connect with music's melody, Parkinsonian patients who depend on music's rhythm, and Alzheimer's patients who find comfort in music's emotion. These people use music as a lifeline and a way to connect to the world-something rock fans certainly understand.Go to episode 511
Our guest this week is the alternative grunge band out of Nashville, Bully. The group is fronted by Minnesota native Alicia Bognanno, with drummer Stewart Copeland (no, not the drummer of The Police,) bass player Reece Lazarus and guitarist Clayton Parker. In 2013, the band signed with Columbia on their Startime International label and in June of this year, released their debut full-length album, Feels Like.
Jim first saw Bully perform at SXSW this year in Austin and was blown away by their sonic power and emotional lyrics. A few weeks ago, Bully came into the studio and while unfortunately Greg couldn't be there, Jim had a great time talking to the members about their past professions, '90s nostalgia and their unique sound.Go to episode 510
Few groups can claim the sustained success of The Isley Brothers, in no small part due to the contributions of our guest Ernie Isley. The Isley Brothers formed in the 1950s as a doo-wop vocal group in Cincinatti, scoring huge hits with the wedding staples "Shout" and "Twist and Shout." They managed to survive the British Invasion, assisted by the incredible playing of their young guitarist Jimi Hendrix. With the addition of two more brothers, Ernie and Marvin, the band started to branch out into funk, soul, psychedelia, rock, and disco. It's this willingness to defy categorization that's led to the Isleys' longevity – the band scored the rare feat of charting in six consecutive decades.
Ernie Isley picked up where Hendrix left off on guitar, creating an unmistakeable tone featured on hits like "That Lady" and "Summer Breeze." But his contributions as a songwriter were just as vital, including a pair of sociallly conscious anthems in 1975: "Harvest for the World" and "Fight the Power," which Ernie penned in the shower before a trip to Disneyland. The Isleys' influence continues to be heard today in the hip-hop realm. Artists from Ice Cube to Notorious B.I.G. to Kendrick Lamar have crafted iconic songs from Isley Brothers samples. The band is now being honored with a massive boxset called The RCA Victor & T-Neck Album Masters (1959-1983), and even that just scratches the surface of the Isleys' long career.Go to episode 509
"Happy Birthday" is a song nearly everyone knows, so it seems like it should belong in the public domain. However, for several years now there has been a fight over whether the song is for the public or is the copyright of Warner/Chappell Music. Jeffrey Brown, a prominent trademark lawyer, joined us this week to discuss the case which appears to be wrapping up soon. Jeffrey believes that Warner will actually lose their claim to the copyright, and may have to pay back millions in licensing fees because the song should never have been copyrighted to begin with! Sound Opinions will continue to follow this case and we wish you all a Happy Birthday in the least costly way we can.Go to episode 508
When digital music piracy began dominating headlines in the '90s and early 2000s, many understood the issue to be a phenomenon perpretrated by a horde of anonymous hackers. But in his new book How Music Got Free, author Stephen Witt has traced a large part of the story back to a single individual with a name. Dell Glover, an employee at a North Carolina CD manufacturing plant, smuggled out hundreds of major recordings and helped leak them online before their official release date. So while the record industry was aggressively prosecuting college students and other members of their own consumer base, one of their own employees was in fact responsible for the bulk of their piracy issues. Stephen Witt joins Jim and Greg to discuss Glover's accomplishments, the ethics of file sharing, and the music industry's inept response.Go to episode 507
Music And Strategy (MAS) executive producer Gabe McDonough joins Jim and Greg for a conversation about the role of music in TV commercials. Nowadays more and more musicians are selling their work to advertisers in order to increase their popularity and make some extra cash. But what does this mean for the integrity of musicians and the emotional value of their work? Gabe offers his perspective on the issue and discusses famous commercials such as the Royal Carribean "Lust for Life" ad and HP's "Do You Realize?" spot, in addition to commenting on the role of the music supervisor and the artistic nature of the modern advertisement.Go to episode 506
Mo Ryan and Matt Zoller Seitz
As television viewers, Jim and Greg have noticed that TV seems to be better than ever in terms of quality and sophistication. One element that plays a vital role in the success of a show is the music. From The Americans to Empire to Transparent, music is capable of indicating a mood, era and even at times replacing dialogue in storytelling. Acclaimed television critics Mo Ryan of The Huffington Post and Matt Zoller Seitz of New York Magazine, Vulture.com and rogerebert.com join Jim and Greg for a discussion about music's role in television past and present.Go to episode 506
In 1976, Kate Pierson joined the genre-melding music powerhouse, the B-52s, and the rest is history. The Georgia-based band started out playing at local parties, then clubs in New York and eventually in venues around the world. Their self-titled first album showed their innovation, kitsch and creativity with hits like "Rock Lobster." However, the group reached the peak of their fame in 1989 with the release of their album, Cosmic Thing. Outside of the band, Pierson has collaborated with talented artists like R.E.M., Iggy Pop, The Ramones and most recently, Sia. Finally over 30 years after the inception of the B-52s, Kate Pierson is releasing her first solo album, Guitars and Microphones. She talks about the past, present and future of her career in music.Go to episode 504
Australian psychedelic band Tame Impala made a huge impact on the US with their 2012 album Lonerism. Jim and Greg were particularly smitten with it, as the album took top slots on both critics' Best of 2012 lists. Tame Impala stopped by our studios in 2013 for an interview and live performance. This week we're revisiting that conversation, just in time for the release of the band's new record Currents. Lead singer Kevin Parker talks about the band's influences, both expected (The Flaming Lips) and not (Supertramp), and his desire to work with producer Dave Fridmann. The musicians also debate whether actual psychedelic substances contribute to a psychedelic sound. Certainly you don't need them to enjoy the result.Go to episode 503
Senior Pitchfork editor and music critic Jessica Hopper joins Jim and Greg in the studio for a discussion of her new book The First Collection of Criticism By a Living Female Rock Critic. This career-spanning anthology includes Hopper's controversial pieces on pop icons Lana Del Rey and Miley Cyrus, her famous Village Voice article on the R. Kelly controversy that emerged after an interview with Jim himself, and other notable reviews by the accomplished critic. Hopper discusses her start as a fifteen year-old fanzine writer, the challenge of separating the art from the artist, and the significance of the female voice in music criticism.Go to episode 502
Georgia-born musician Mackenzie Scott emerged out of the Nashville scene in 2013 with a critically-lauded debut under the moniker Torres. Her 2015 followup Sprinter, recorded with PJ Harvey collaborator Rob Ellis, has earned even more acclaim, including a spot in Greg's Best of 2015 (So Far) list. Torres joined Jim and Greg in the studio to discuss her emotionally charged and unconventional songwriting. She became devoted to music early on, idolizing Taylor Swift as a teen and then earning a college degree in songwriting. Her songs are both intensely personal and also sung behind the guise of characters, drawing inspiration from varied sources like the Old Testament and J.D. Salinger. Torres explains how music allows her to confront feelings about her childhood when other methods of communication have failed.Go to episode 501
Zola Jesus, the alter ego of electronic singer/songwriter Nika Roza Danilova, has already released five studio albums, despite being only 26-years-old. While her first album The Spoils was a lo-fi effort recorded in her bedroom in 2009, Zola Jesus has since developed an expansive, orchestrated sound featuring gloomy synthesizers and string arrangements. In creating her atmospheric songs, she draws equally on her love of classical music, industrial and mainstream pop. Her latest album Taiga is named after the Russian word for“forest,”appropriate as the music manages to evoke the feeling of the deep, dark woods. The woods are, in fact, close to her heart – though currently based in Seattle, Danilova grew up in a small town in northern Wisconsin. She joined Jim and Greg for a conversation and live performance at the Virgin Hotel in Chicago. Zola Jesus discusses the difficulty of seeking out transgressive music in an isolated community, her childhood love of opera, and taking inspiration from filmmaker David Lynch, who also remixed one of her songs.Go to episode 497
Tom Scharpling & Jon Wurster of The Best Show
The Best Show seamlessly combines the elements of comedy and music and subsequently has built up a cult following over the years. The program began on WFMU back in 2000 and continues today as a podcast. The hosts, comedian Tom Scharpling and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, call into the show in character, adopting the guise of various inhabitants of the fictional town of Newbridge, NJ. The Best Show recently announced its 16-disc box set and live national tour to celebrate its anniversary. Scharpling & Wurster join Jim and Greg to talk about some of their favorite calls, characters and moments throughout the show's 15-year history.Go to episode 496
Indietronica act Passion Pit recently released its third album of electronic pop Kindred, eliciting a Buy It from both Jim and Greg. This week, we revisit our 2012 interview with Passion Pit frontman Michael Angelakos, who joined Jim and Greg in the studio for a frank conversation and stripped-back live set. Passion Pit first found success after Angelakos posted some songs on MySpace in 2008 and the track "Sleepyhead" quickly exploded on the net. Passion Pit have since released three critically acclaimed albums and toured the world. The danceable tracks and high production values of the band's music can be deceptive. If you don‘t listen closely, you can miss the highly introspective lyrics that explore Angelakos’s own experience with addiction and mental illness. As Michael tells Jim and Greg, the band had to cancel dates so that he could deal with issues related to his manic depression. The contrast between upbeat music and dark lyrics, Michael explains, is what he's always found interesting in pop music, and it's the key to the Passion Pit project. Despite the often harrowing content, Michael says his music is ultimately hopeful – an effort to achieve transcendence amid tough circumstances.Go to episode 495
Joy Division only recorded two proper studio albums before lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980. But those releases, a string of fantastic singles and Curtis‘ own legend continue to impact fans today. But, as is often the case with legends, there’s a lot of fiction amongst the fact. And Peter Hook, the hugely influential bass player in Joy Division and New Order, wants to clear a few things up in his book Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division. First, there's the tragic image of Ian itself. True, he struggled with depression, a failing marriage and a debilitating case of epilepsy that would lead to his death. But, Peter describes a beer-drinking prankster full of joy when it came to the music. He also admits that he and the band weren't initially crazy about the sparse, moody sound Joy Division fans adore today. Much of that credit goes to producer Martin Hannett. For more on Joy Division listen to this episode.
Then, of course, we come to New Order's bitter divorce. Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Peter achieved more success than Joy Division. They disbanded in 2006, but recently reunited without Peter. Listening to the interview, you can hear the hard feelings, but Peter admits he'd play with those amazing musicians anytime. So how did New Order fare on their 2013 release without Peter Hook? Check out Jim and Greg's review.Go to episode 494
The punk band Against Me! formed in Gainesville, FL in 1997 by then lead singer Thomas Gabel and guitarist James Bowman. The band took the aesthetics and ideals of punk rock and filtered them through the lens of classic rock, indie rock and folk to create a sound all their own. Against Me! landed a major label deal with Sire Records but then things began to change. They were dropped by Sire, the band began to break apart and Thomas Gabel began a gender transition to Laura Jane Grace. Laura Jane has documented her transition in the band's 2014 critically lauded album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. She and the group sat down with Jim and Greg late last year to discuss the evolution of her personal and musical life. The band also played songs from their 2014 record, to which Jim and Greg both gave a Buy It rating.Go to episode 493
Carrie Brownstein, Corrin Tucker and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney had released their most critically lauded album to date, The Woods, in 2005 when they decided to put the band on indefinite“hiatus.”Now, 10 years later, they have returned with a critically acclaimed new album, No Cities to Love, and sold out shows across the United States. Greg sat down with Carrie, Corin and Janet earlier this year and talked about the Riotgrrl origins of the band, why exactly they decided to go on hiatus and why it was important to them to make such a high energy new album. Greg and Carrie Brownstein also talked about her new found fame as 1/2 of the comedic duo with Fred Armisen in Portlandia.Go to episode 489
Hal Blaine of The Wrecking Crew
Hal Blaine may not be a household name, but if rock ‘n’ roll is all about the beat, then the 86-year-old drummer is arguably one of the biggest rock stars alive. It's his stamp you hear on some of the biggest records of the 1960's and early '70s. He recorded with Elvis, The Mamas and the Papas, Sam Cooke, Simon & Garfunkel, The Carpenters, Jan and Dean and even Barbra Streisand. That's 38 chart-toppers to be exact, and over 5,000 songs. So if we're comparing successful outputs, that really makes his only rival The Beatles!
Of course the idea of a session musician is something we're familiar with today, but many listeners can probably still remember their own revelation that their favorite acts might not have played their own songs. You expect that of The Monkees, but The Beach Boys? The Byrds? Many of their songs were actually recorded by Hal Blaine and The Wrecking Crew – a loose organization of California studio players whose members included Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, Earl Palmer and more. There was an unspoken pact to keep their hit-making machine a secret, but as time has gone on, they've gotten their due. Hal Blaine was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, and last month saw the release of The Wrecking Crew, a new documentary directed by Denny Tedesco, son of crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco.Go to episode 488
Jac Holzman on Elektra Records
Before there was a Merge or a Matador there was Elektra Records. The great American label is celebrating its 65th anniversary, and so Jim and Greg return to their conversation with Elektra founder Jac Holzman. They spoke with him in 2011 when he was being into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Jac talks about launching Elektra as an independent folk label out of his dorm room in 1950. Eventually the roster grew to include every genre of music – blues, rock, funk, world and pop. It became the home to The Stooges, the MC5, Love and Queen, and, Jim adds, some notoriously difficult personalities. But Jac insists no artist was too hard to handle. He did use caution when out drinking with Jim Morrison, however.Go to episode 486
In the annals of rock ‘n’ roll there are few bands cited for both their critical acclaim and commerical sales. One is Pink Floyd. Its drummer, Nick Mason, joins Jim and Greg to talk about the U.K. band's history and recent decision to reunite to release what many believe will be its final album, The Endless River. Mason is the only member of the band to survive all of its squabbles and play on each studio album. He explains how The Endless River is a tribute to the Pink Floyd's iconic keyboardist Rick Wright. He also recalls the early dynamics between David Gilmour and Roger Waters and how he feels about the band's legacy with its 15th (and final?) release.
Love Pink Floyd? Check out this dissection of The WallGo to episode 483
Run the Jewels
Rapper Killer Mike and rapper/producer El-P are have both enjoyed a long history of critical acclaim. But it wasn't until formed a duo - Run the Jewels - that they enjoyed widespread attention and acclaim. The idea to work with El-P was suggested to Killer Mike by Jason DeMarco of Cartoon Network. Their bromance formed instantly, and the result was 2013's Run the Jewels and then 2014's Run the Jewels 2. Both were free releases, but Jim and Greg still said“Buy It”and added was the album to their Best of 2014 lists. This sophomore effort maintains the original's humor, but also adds more depth and more social and political commentary. Check out their special set from the new Goose Island Barrel House here in Chicago.Go to episode 481
Stanley Booth on the Rolling Stones
In 1969 music writer Stanley Booth somehow talked his way onboard the Rolling Stones' famous American tour ending at the Altamont Speedway. And he didn't just live to tell the tale, he wrote the book on it. The True Adventures Of the Rolling Stones has just been re-released on its 30th anniversary. Stanley recounts the events at Altamont which ended in the death of concertgoer Meredith Hunter at the hands of a Hells Angel. This was documented in Albert and David Maysles' concert film Gimme Shelter. Stanley also shares his impressions of the individual Stones, with this tour occuring at the height of the band's fame (and infamy). After initially bonding over a shared love of the blues, the writer developed deep friendships with Mick, Keith and the gang. But, he shares, his favorite Stone will always be Shirley Watts.Go to episode 479
Mary J. Blige
With album titles like My Life, No More Drama and Stronger with Each Tear, Mary J. Blige's music reads like an autobiography chronicling her pain and her joy. And now she's added a British chapter to her life. Mary's 13th release The London Sessions captures her 21-day long residency at a London studio where she collaborated with some of the best young artists in the British soul and club scene—names like Sam Smith, Emeli Sande and house duo Disclosure. The result harkens back to old doo wop and soul, but it's also completely fresh. And of course, it's as honest and vulnerable as what we‘d expect from the veteran singer. Ever since her breakout with 1991’s What's the 411, produced by Sean Combs, music has been MJB's "Therapy," as she sings on the new record. This is especially true of 1994's My Life, which spoke to her abusive relationship wtih K-Ci Hailey of Jodeci. And on the positive side, 2005's The Breakthrough was inspired by finding love with Kendu Issacs, her husband/manager of 11 years.Go to episode 477
In nearly 20 years, Spoon has managed to release 8 albums, all of them worth a listen, according to Jim and Greg. That is no small feat. Their latest, They Want My Soul, is a real expansion of their sound, from minimal post punk to a more grown-up soul. Lead singer Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno founded the band in 1993 in Austin, and they talk with Jim and Greg about how they have stayed relevant for so long, working with producer Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Low) and calling back to "Jonathan Fisk."Go to episode 476