HOOSIER HOMECOMING: Jon McLaughlin closes out first Like Us tour with show at Deluxe

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Jon McLaughlin is no stranger to playing shows in Indianapolis, having grown up in Anderson, and it is common knowledge that whenever he returns to play a show here audiences are in for a treat.

This Saturday night he’ll return to play Deluxe at Old National Center for the first time, the final performance of his fall tour, where he’ll be promoting his sixth studio album Like Us which debuted in October. That album, produced by John Fields, manages to bridge the gap between the early piano songwriting he featured on his debut, Indiana, and the pop-based songwriting of OK Now which first introduced his music to a broader audience. This best-of-both-worlds approach serves McLaughlin well, proving that a decade into his career he’s still got the songwriting chops to find wider audiences.

Before a Thursday-night show in Minnesota, McLaughlin spoke to Hear! Hear! to discuss that record, the first concept album of his career, his experiences working with LA Reid when he first signed to Island eight years ago, and how his songwriting has evolved over the course of his career.

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I saw on the video you posted online that this is your first time playing Deluxe. Minus all the fireworks you say we won’t be getting, do you have any big plans for the show?

We’ll mix in a little bit of Christmas music, but it’s not an actual holiday show this time. We did our first Christmas tour last year, and we did a bunch of shows at the Jazz Kitchen at the end of that. But we’ll throw in a couple songs this time too. I’ll say we’ll probably play longer than usual since it’s the last show of the tour. We’ve also got an opener, her name is Tess Henley, she’s killer.

On the new album you use the same producer who helYou med Indiana and OK Now, which showcased two sides of your musical personality. This one brings those personalities together. Was that intentional?

The first record with John Fields was during a time where I was in a phase where I wanted to write more on the guitar. Those were the songs that came about at that time, and John is a great guitar player and he can really take that … if you want to do that 80s pop thing, he can take it and run with it all day. So it was a really fun album to make but production-wise it really threw a curve-ball to the fans. So this one we did together, I told him before we even started, ‘here’s the rule for this record — you are not allowed to touch a single guitar unless we both talk about it, sleep on it, and decide this song actually needs it.’ So we approached it very differently. But these songs that we brought in, they were already a lot more piano-based, so I knew going into this record that even though I was going to use the same producer, I suspected the sound I had in mind would go over a lot better with the fans than the last one.

I really liked “You and I” where it starts out with that a cappella opening before you ever hear a note of piano. Did it start out that way or did you just decide it sounded better opening with only the vocals?

Yeah, I wanted it to be all a cappella initially, and maybe we would have some kind of tag thing coming in. We experimented with it, but in the end it felt right to just make it feel very live and raw with the piano coming in later.

That’s a hard thing to pull off, doing anything with just straight vocals, unless you’re a group like Pentatonix where you’ve got all the different voices to work with.

Right, exactly.

When I went back to listen to OK Now, I found the line from “Four Years” where you said “they tore my high school to the ground / and put a new wing on the East Lot / on my old parking spot.” and that drew me into “Don’t Mess With My Girl” because I noticed that same kind of insecurity projected through almost false confidence. At this point is that just part of your style?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if it’s a constant thing where I see it that way or if it’s kind of my persona. It may be a little bit of both. I was doing an interview in DC a couple weeks ago and the guy was being funny but he was going through the lines of “Don’t Mess With My Girl” and he’s like ‘okay, 150 pounds, is this you?’ and I was like ‘that’s not really true. I weigh 160, but 150 sounded funner!’ There’s a little bit in that song that’s the real me, and there’s the part where I take on a character. But that line from “Four Years,” that’s all true. They actually tore my high school to the ground.

Right, I saw that you and a baseball player are the most famous alums of Highland High, but the school doesn’t exist anymore.

Yeah, it exists but it’s a middle school now.

Has it been difficult staying true to your Hoosier roots throughout your songwriting career?

The question I get the most is ‘how do your Hoosier roots influence your music?’ And I don’t think it’s a conscious thing. Someone from Hawaii is Hawaiian but they don’t walk around thinking ‘okay I’m from Hawaii, I’m from Hawaii. I’m ordering a coffee but I’m not doing it as a Hawaiian.’

Everything’s not accompanied by a ukelele.

Exactly! That’s how you picture it but it’s not reality. But being a Hoosier influences who I am to some degree. It’s inevitable because that’s where I’m from and it’s where I’ve lived for thirty years of my life. So I don’t exactly know where Indiana stops and I start, but I think it definitely has influenced who I am as a person. When I’m actually conscious about writing, though, I’m just writing from my perspective.

This is your sixth album. At this point you’ve had plenty of live performance experience and time to stretch in the studio. Which do you prefer, the solace of studio work or fleshing songs out in front of an audience?

Definitely live. They’re both great, the studio can be really under a microscope, but that’s the case for both really. You’re not going to get up on stage and have merely an okay show. At least in my experience it’s either a great show or I really walk off stage and I know it was terrible. And it’s the same in the studio. The goal is to do something magical, so you write this song and and you think the song is ready to be recorded, you’re determined you’ve written the right song. You go into the studio aiming to make a finished song that moves people, and when that doesn’t work you can definitely get into a swamp where a day just feels off, or maybe a couple days. It’s so intense! It’s either intensely awesome or intensely terrible. So I love them both, but playing live is just my favorite thing about being a musician. I absolutely love it.

Do you ever work songs out in front of a crowd before taking them into the studio for that treatment?

I’ve changed my thinking on that. I’ve been on both sides, because I’ve definitely had songs that I’ve played out live as soon as I’ve written them … I get excited so I play it. And I suppose this is a good thing, because sometimes we’ll play a song and realize right away it’s not working. It’s not gonna make the album. But even the ones that feel great, when you go into the studio to record them, we look back on the version we played together before and realize that back when we played it live we didn’t even know how the song could sound. We shouldn’t have even been playing it yet.

It’s interesting that some of the songs you’ve recorded, but didn’t make it on an album, have gone on to work well with other artists. Did you ever imagine one of your songs would go on to be recorded by Beyonce?

That’s actually an interesting story. These two guys, Tricky Stewart and the Dream, they actually wrote that song. And they, along with LA Reid who was running Island/Def Jam at the time, they wanted me to record it. And I listened to the song and I could tell it was a great song but it didn’t sound like me at all. I’d never recorded an outside song, so there was a lot of back and forth, but in the end I wound up going out to Vegas to their studio and recorded it but the whole time it never felt like my song. Before the record came out, and that was slated to be the first single, I wrote “Beating My Heart,” and LA Reid heard the new song and said he liked the song better so let’s make that the lead single.

I bet that made you feel good that he liked your song better than the outside contribution.

Right, it definitely felt more like me. And I’m not saying that “Smash Into You” is a bad song, but it didn’t feel like it fit with me. So my version was out there but Beyonce ended up recording it and it’s become one of those things where the whole story never really got out there.

I thought it was cool that LA Reid actually liked your original songs from your pre-Indiana demo enough that he insisted they make the cut for Indiana because they were his favorites. It seemed you two were a good fit.

Like any record executive versus artist thing, you don’t always see eye to eye. I don’t think that has ever happened, it’s more typical for the artist to be like ‘I want to do this my way, this is what sounds good!’ and the record label says different. And I look back on a lot of those battles and I think ‘they were totally right! That song was terrible! Why was I fighting for that song so much?’ But that “Beating My Heart” situation was a nice situation where I ended up winning that battle and that song was the first single instead of “Smash Into You”.

Is there anything about the new album you would want fans to know but maybe they don’t already know?

The thing with the new album, which I think is definitely evident if you’ve listened to the album front-to-back, this is really the first somewhat concept album I’ve done, if I can call it that. This is a record where I had some songs that were good songs, and they were good enough to make the album but didn’t fit the concept so we didn’t put them on. Whereas in the past, I really just picked the ten, eleven or twelve best songs and made an album, tried to figure a title out that worked. This one actually has a common theme which is a relationship. I wanted to write an album that had all the different emotions involved in the ups and downs of a relationship.

You really nailed it on the closing song, “Walk Away”. It’s hard to write a song about divorce that doesn’t come off as overpowering. It reminded me of a piano songwriter, Lucas Jack, and the songs he’s written in the same vein. He’ll get right down to the bone lyrically, and that seemed what you were going for.

Yeah, that song wasn’t the one I originally wanted to end the album with, on that note lyrically, but musically it’s definitely the way the album needed to end. I’m a sucker for sad songs though.

One last question. I was looking through the list of artists you’ve toured with and Sister Hazel popped up. My wife and I are big fans of them. How did that come about, and what were they like to tour with so early in your career?

They were really the first band that took us out on the road! That was nine, almost ten years ago, and we were with them for most of the summer and some of the fall of 2006. That year we were with them a lot. I love those guys and they will always have a special place in my heart because they were the first guys to take us out and we learned a lot on that tour. The very first show, I don’t even remember where it was but someplace in Florida, but we were playing a show with them and we hadn’t even met them yet. We’re nervous and it was only like the 30th show we’d ever done, and we’re backing our van into the lot and we accidentally backed our trailer into their bus and broke their headlight. We literally hadn’t even said hello, but that was how we introduced ourselves. Of course they were totally fine, they treated us great and I see them every now and then … we’ll go on the Rock Boat and relive that experience.

NAPTOWN VIRGIN: Lucas Jack makes his first Indianapolis appearance at Union 50 tonight!

I’ve been following Houston songwriter Lucas Jack now for several years, since the first moment I heard his album Sun City and wrote about it here. That album unfortunately never got the traction he wanted (explained further in the Q&A below) but he’s had the option to “trim the fat” and relaunch the album under the name Before I Forget, traveling the country and giving these cinematic songs the live treatment they clearly deserve.

I sat down to talk with him by phone earlier this week, in advance of his Union 50 debut here in Indianapolis. It’s a free show, so there’s no excuse not to spend your Friday evening downtown hearing some great music. Show starts at 10:30! And read on below for his take on turning Sun City into Before I Forget, the cinematic lyricism of Billy Joel, and why he’s really excited to start playing Indianapolis on a regular basis.

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It’s funny, because I recently was sent a copy of your new album for possible review, and after listening I realized it was mostly the same songs as Sun City.

Yeah, I sold out of Sun City, I sold all my CDs and I got a new manager, and the new manager was like ‘we need to work on new product,’ all of this stuff. And he basically said I had too many slow songs. We needed to take the five or six slow songs out and get it remastered to make it a little bit louder. Then we were able to re-release it in a better way, because the first time I released it I just put it on iTunes, you know? I didn’t do it right. So this time I tried to do things the right way. For the thousand people who bought Sun City and they come to a show and say ‘is this the new album?’ I tell them they can just have it because I know they already bought it. But for the most part, most of the world had never heard Sun City, so Before I Forget is new to them. I have a ton of new songs that I just can’t wait to get back into the studio and record. And I usually don’t bring this up, I just bring it up with you because we did talk about Sun City before [back in 2013].

Plus I’m old school, right? I’ve been following you for a while.

Yeah, it was my first release and I just didn’t do it the right way so not enough people heard it. But Before I Forget is really a remastered, re-released trimming-of-the-fat edition of my first record. And I’m really actually much happier with the way the songs flow and the way the whole album works. I do have a couple new songs I like to play at shows.

I was going to say, because you’d talked in the past about all the new songs you had ready, and you were excited to get around to recording them. It sounded like that kind of got put on hold.

We play all the new songs live. We recorded a live album when we played at the Majestic Theater in San Antonio, the show where we opened for Foreigner … we recorded that show and that has a bunch of new songs on it.

How did the Foreigner fans react to your music?

Man, it was by far our best show. Everyone there was really into it. When people pay $80 for a ticket they’re usually a little more attentive. We made so many new fans at that show — I still have people who come up to me and say ‘hey, I haven’t seen you since Foreigner, but I’ve been following you online!’ We must have made a thousand fans that night, we sold two hundred CDs, it was phenomenal.

Of course in general the days of selling music are over. CDs are the promotion for a live show, and I’m thrilled about that because I’m much happier on stage than I am in the studio. I like recording and I really enjoy songwriting, but what I really like is performing. And I want to sell people music if they want to support what I do, but I would rather have them come out to a show and sell the ticket to a show than a piece of plastic with my songs on it.

Do you like to twist the songs up when you play them live, do they grow with the audience?

I really like playing new songs for a crowd. I play new stuff all the time. I write a song a week, something at that pace, so I have tons of songs and I try them out constantly. I’ve had some die-hard fans who come to all my shows, and those are the fans I really target — they’re part of my process. And what I like about playing live is I can change the song if there something I don’t like. I can change lyrics I don’t like, last night I changed the lyrics to a chorus and it was so much better. Of course I had to tell my bass player who was singing harmony, so he had to remember a new lyric. My bandmates aren’t always crazy about it. But there’s no mystery involved, I write a song and I want to get it out there. I write songs that I hope will connect with people and you really get to feel that if it happens at a live show. And if a song doesn’t work you get to see that too. After you’ve played it enough times you know when to just shelve one.

I’ve always liked your lyricism. I’m glad to see “Paralyzed” still made it on the new record because as far as the lyric goes, that song is the most cinematic you’ve got.

I can feel that song every time I sing it. It’s a very specific song about a very specific night in my life … walking up to my gate and it’s raining, walking inside, upstairs, through the bedroom and then laying down on the ‘frozen bathroom tiles.’ It’s just a vignette of one night and it makes it easier for me to sing and stay passionate about these songs, because they are so specific to my experience. I really feel like I’m telling a story every time, in particular with that song.

It reminds me a lot of Brenda and Eddie from “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” by Billy Joel, as if we can peer in on their lives twenty years later.

I love that song! ‘A couple of paintings from Sears, a big waterbed that they bought with the bread they had saved for a couple of years.’ We listened to that song … my band doesn’t listen to a lot of pop music, they’re into jazz, music-major types. They have degrees, and are very very good at what they do. But I make them listen to these old Billy Joel songs and we listened to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and they really liked it! I said we had to learn how to play it, because of course it has three different movements, key changes and some really significant time and tempo shifts. But that’s such a great tune and I definitely appreciate it — I’m a huge Billy Joel fan, and i’ve always appreciated how vivid the pictures he painted of people were. People, places, towns … if you listen to a Billy Joel song you know what he’s singing about.

I’ve wondered in the last couple years, have you had any new people you’ve found who inspire you when you get the chance to listen to new music?

I really like the new Dawes album, All Your Favorite Bands it’s called. I’ve listened to it at least fifty times. I just saw them in Austin and actually got a chance to talk to the guys again. I’d met them at Bonnaroo, then saw them again backstage at Stubbs and it was phenomenal. But I also love Langhorne Slim and the Law …

I love them!

I met him in Austin too and got into his music. I also really like Jason Isbell, his Southeastern was just a great album and he followed it up with another that’s really really good. I’d say it might even be better than Southeastern.

I thought it was great when Bruce Springsteen dropped his name last year in an interview, pulling him up on his iPod playlist and calling him an amazing songwriter.

I should pull up my playlist and tell you all the people I’ve been listening to. I’ve been riding in the van a lot, and when I ride I don’t always listen to music … sometimes I listen to audiobooks. I read it years and years ago but I’ve been listening to “Underworld” by Don DeLillo, which is a really great book. My desert island book would be “White Noise” by DeLillo.

I could tell you read a lot when I realized how much “Bonfire of the Vanities” influence there was on “You Belong to the City Now.”

I love “Bonfire of the Vanities.” [Returns to playlist.] I know everybody’s already onto this guy but the band Bahamas, they’ve got a great new record. There’s a song called “Waves” and I’ve been really jamming that. I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Dylan lately, Blonde on Blonde, Visions of Johanna, and on repeat the other day, maybe twenty times in a row, I listened to “Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” one of the songs he never performs live. But it’s a crazy song about the Jack of Hearts in this bar … nobody knows what the song means, and of course Dylan is so cryptic he’ll never explain what his songs mean.

And even if he tells you you’ll never know it’s true.

No, he’s funny. But yeah I’ve been listening to a lot of Dylan, Leonard Cohen, he’s had a flurry of new work coming out and I’m so happy for it.

So is this your first proper road-trip getting outside of Texas?

We took a tour to a lot of these cities last year but we played smaller clubs and we didn’t have a manager. So, like a lot of things, I just kind of threw the tour together and got gigs where I could. We didn’t get radio or press in any of the cities, so we didn’t have great turnout. This time around we’re doing everything a little bit more ‘correct.’

So have you played in Indianapolis before?

We didn’t play Indy last time. So this is going to be the very first time we play Indianapolis, is at Union 50. But hopefully we’re going to be coming back in November or December and start touring, playing Indianapolis once every four months or so. Indianapolis is a really cool market. I’ve been really watching Indianapolis because it’s always near to shows I’m booking, like Chicago … or Kalamazoo [laughs]. And Indy’s really seemed to have a renaissance as far as Downtown, local music. There are so many more places to play. When I was in college in Chicago, people didn’t go to Indianapolis to see shows … I knew people from Indianapolis and there just weren’t as many places in 2000 as there are in 2015, there are so many cool clubs now.

We played Little Rock this tour and had a really great show at a place called Juanitas, and they liked us so much they offered us an opening slot for Phantogram and Matt Kearney, so we’re playing a couple sold-out shows in support as well. Those are exactly the fans we’re trying to make, and it’s a really great club in Little Rock, right on the river. We also had a really great show in Wichita, got a lot of support and good press there, and a good show in Norman [Okla.], and 250 people who showed up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. That’s where I grew up, the hometown show, so it was a lot of friends and family … in fact one girl who opened for us, Megan Hickman, she’s from Chicago, she’s going to be playing Union 50 in Indianapolis about a week after us. We’re going to follow each other around the country, since she’s on tour as well.

INTERVIEW: Frankie Rambler

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Frankie Rambler onstage at the 5th Quarter Lounge (Credit: Jonathan Sanders)

On a severely stormy Saturday night at the end of May, I happened to be safely tucked inside the 5th Quarter Lounge in Indianapolis awaiting a triple-threat of locals — Speedbird, Mardi Belle and the Fuss — and a band called the Fever, who were making an Indianapolis pit stop while here from Germany. But it was the mild-mannered opener, just a lone cowboy-hatted singer and his guitar, who won me over right off the bat.

Frankie Rambler, who you may also know as the bassist for Indianapolis rockers We Are Gentlemen, kicked off the night with a tight blend of psychobilly and acoustic folk, songs constructed around vivid imagery and bare-bones acoustic hooks which proved particularly barbed. I was so impressed I just had to pick his brain. The result, this rambling five-minute interlude recorded behind the 5th Quarter at well past midnight, should prove an effective introduction to a performer I think you’ll be hearing a great deal more from.

Watch a video from his set here, then dig in!

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Frankie Rambler

Night Ramblin’ outside the 5th Quarter. (Credit: Jonathan Sanders)

So how long have you been doing the solo performing as Frankie Rambler?

For about six years now, actually. I’ve been writing and trying to bring everything together for that long. It’s been three years that I’ve been playing live.

I heard you describe yourself as psychobilly. I kept hearing that in my head as I listened, as if Tiger Army and Ward Hayden of Girls, Guns and Glory were put together on a stage.

I’m a big fan … I like Tiger Army, and when Nick 13 did his solo stuff and took a break from them for a while, I liked that it was a little more country sounding. I’m a big fan of Necromantix, Koffin Kats, and a local band from [Dayton] Ohio called the Loveless. I love them too. They’re good dudes to just sit and have drinks with.

I like when singers from bands go solo and they switch up the expectations like Dustin Kensrue when he split off from Thrice and did all that really crazy-good acoustic country stuff.

Yes. [Nods emphatically.] Kind of the same thing with JT from Hawthorne Heights. They had their almost screamo rock and roll stuff, and he does the solo stuff where it’s just him and an acoustic guitar, so he can really let his folky roots show. I appreciate when artists do that.

So what were your goals as a solo artist? What do yo want to get across via your songs as Frankie Rambler?

Really I just want to play and have fun. With this psychobilly stuff, it’s not just your normal love songs. I really incorporate a lot of the horror themes and make it as gory as I can without scaring my grandma. My mom hates it, but she also loves the fact that I’m playing music and having fun with it. That’s really the main goal.

Do you have an album out yet?

I’m in the middle of working on one. We’re aiming for the end of July, beginning of August.

What should people expect from that? Are you working solo or with a full band?

On the CD I’m playing guitar, bass and then I have a drummer friend who’s going to throw some drum tracks down. But when I perform it, for now, it’s just me live. Eventually I do want to put a full band together but for now it’s just me and my acoustic guitar.

Any other shows coming up that people should check out?

Right now no. I play open-mic nights mainly on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Aristocrat and Tow Yard Brewhouse so people can catch me there. It’s always glad to hear how people react, and when you realize they enjoy it.

Is there anything you ever wish people would ask you about but they never do?

Whew, that’s a good question! Wow … no, I can’t think of anything! Give it a couple more years. I don’t really get a lot of people asking me questions, they just tell me they had fun listening.

So you haven’t gotten to the point where you have questions you wish no one would ever ask?

I’ve had some people ask me why I write the stuff that I write. And just from what I’m into, with old horror movies and stuff like that, I enjoy that so I want to put it into music. But some of my songs are actually inspired by real events. Like the one song I played tonight called “At Your Bedside,” it’s all about going to my ex’s and taking care of our child while she was sick, and I just got this idea in my head: “I could kill her in her sleep!” And she loves the song, so I can’t … she’s not upset or anything! But it’s one of those songs where it was fun to write, a real life situation I got twisted up morbidly.

Is there anything else you’d want people in Indianapolis to know about you?

Not off the top of my head … you’re good! You keep stumping me! I really try to push the envelope when I write. There are other bands that kind of do the same thing I’m doing and have for years, and I try not to mimic their sound or ideas. I try to make it my own.

“HEAR! HEAR!” EXCLUSIVE: The Venom Cure – “On The Other Side”

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The Venom Cure

I wrote about the Venom Cure back in February after their performance in the Birdy’s Battle of the Bands. And though they did not advance to the semifinals, I was impressed with their EP On The Other Side Pt. 1, which amply showcased their blend of symphonic-tinged 80s stadium rock. I’ve since seen the band perform at the Emerson Theater and the quality of their live set was no fluke. Now they’re ready to launch their second EP, On The Other Side Pt. 2, which will debut at Slamology Cartruckshow this coming weekend at Lucas Oil Raceway. To get you primed for the show, they’ve agreed to debut the title track from that EP here at “Hear! Hear!” A thundering blend of early Bon Jovi with a hook echoing some of U2’s biggest stadium showcases, “On The Other Side” aptly picks up where the first EP left off. “Is there life on the other side of pain?” Steve Nicolas wails on the chorus, emoting at near-Steve Perry levels, and even at five minutes in length, the song doesn’t outstay its welcome. There’s definitely life in this single, and it has me excited to hear what more there is to offer on the new EP.

Be among the first to check it out here! Then comment below … are you ready for the Venom Cure?

FEATURED SONG: Good Guy Bad Guy – “Hello Cleveland”

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Indianapolis’ Good Guy Bad Guy in action at Birdy’s Live

Rockin’ and a Rollin’ all day long, these guys from Indianapolis just love the act of being in the band … as they put it: “Playing loud and aggressive music to get you moving. Grooving to the sweet sweet sounds of two guitars and a drum. Look for songs about sex, wrestling, sex again, rock and roll.” Check out their latest, “Hello Cleveland,” as our featured song of the day! Then catch them June 20th at the St. Anthony’s Parish Festival (337 N. Warman Ave, Indianapolis), where you can hear more of their originals plus a bunch of covers they’re itching to bust out!

Read their interview with “Hear! Hear!”

THE LIVE WIRE: Among The Compromised at Birdys Live tonight!

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Eleadah Kemp, lead vocalist for Among The Compromised, during the finals of the Birdy’s Battle Royale (Credit: Jonathan Sanders)

I can’t think of a better way to relaunch “Hear! Hear!” than with an update on Among the Compromised, my favorite new band from the whole Birdy’s Battle Royale experience! The band played its first three shows as part of that Battle challenge, making it all the way to the finals, and though they would eventually fall short, it wasn’t for lack of trying. That performance they gave in the last round showed real pluck, a willingness to take risks with their sound that few other bands would be willing to attempt in the finals of a big-money competition. Eleadah Kemp remains my favorite singer in the city, with a voice that deserves to become a national threat, and there’s no reason to think they can’t join Battle winners Brother O’ Brother in becoming Indianapolis’ next huge thing.

If you’ve wanted to hear the band break out in a fuller performance than the Battle format would allow, tonight’s your big chance! They’ll take the stage at Birdy’s this evening after a little opening help from venue booker Henry French — who I’m told can really rock the stage when he’s not singing the praises of Jose Cuervo — and Indianapolis’ Dressed In Red, recent winners of the Indy in Tune showcase. Doors open at 8, show starts at 9. If the previous three Among the Compromised appearances are any indication, this will be one of those shows you simply don’t want to miss. Especially if you’re a fan of women who rock — I’ve seen a few videos of Dressed in Red in action, and Mel Reffey definitely has her share of this city’s rock and roll charisma.

That’s what I’ve come to love about Birdy’s Live in the first place, the venue’s willingness to take risks on unproven bands, and then when they show what they can do, the venue backs them with future headlining opportunities. There’s a lot of competition in the Indianapolis scene for your concert dollar, but keep Birdy’s on your map. You won’t be disappointed.

Watch videos of Among the Compromised and Dressed in Red below:

INTERVIEW: TimeSlip

TimeSlip’s Mark Taylor at Birdy’s Live. (Credit: Jonathan Sanders)

In honor of tonight’s first of three “Battle Royale” second-round bouts at Birdy’s, in which TimeSlip will be participating, Hear! Hear! brings you four new videos, interspersed amid this fascinating conversation I had with the band’s lead singer and songwriter Mark Taylor. He had a lot to say about the band’s songwriting focus, their disinterest in being “mainstreamed” and how much he loves their southwestern sound being compared to the cinematography of Breaking Bad.

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Can you tell us a little about how you started the band?
That’s something of a long story.  I guess you could say it began when I was watching my granddaughter, who was about 4 at the time, playing with other children out back.  It was clear she needed to learn some social skills in a structured environment.  We couldn’t afford pre-school but Fishers United Methodist Church was nearby and I started taking her up there for Sunday school. There was a regular service during this time so I would hang out and listen to the message.  I filled out a guest card and mentioned I played guitar and was subsequently hounded until I gave in an joined their worship band.  Immediately the two people running this band bailed and left me holding the bag.  I had to quickly assemble a group of musicians and that’s how I found Curt Grasso, who is a wonderful classical guitar player by the way.  I got my friend Mike Haemmerle to run the sound board as he had deep experience.  Once I learned he had played sax and bass clarinet in high school and could read music I hounded him to buy a bass.  I knew he was a natural bassist – and he is!  Eventually the worship band thing started getting old and they phased that service out.  I wanted to form a secular band anyway because I had left a very good jazz band back in Tempe, Ariz., when we had to leave to come to Indianapolis for family reasons.  We found drummer Tim Baumgardener through Craigslist. Tim has been very active on the Indy music scene, especially as a radio host.  I met Brad Moore at a Christmas party and hounded him until he gave in and agreed to play keys for us.  I met Guy Holbert through my friend Allen Stratyner who is very active in the Indianapolis blues scene and the best harmonica man in Indiana, hands down.  TimeSlip in its present form has been together since last summer though some of us go back a couple of years playing together in that church band.

Tell me about your writing process and what you think makes a well crafted song?
First I have to tell you about our music and my overall approach.  I write almost all the material we play though Curt is coming into his own as a song writer and has penned a couple of songs.  Many of my songs originated as little motifs I created that were intended as instrumental pieces for that jazz band in Tempe I’d mentioned earlier.  Timeslip started off playing covers to get a sense of one another and learn to work together,  but my aim was always to get to originals using a sound that people would enjoy.  I’m not a good enough guitar player to make it in the Indianapolis jazz scene but have a genuine love for jazz, artists like Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, etc.  I got the idea to write music that would appeal to a rock audience but incorporate a lot of jazz elements, my stealthy way to get the typical pop/rock listener to listen to something like jazz.

But seriously, I want to learn something when I write and play, using jazz structures pushes me to increase my understanding of music in general.  Other well known artists have done similar things — Steely Dan, Spirit and Zappa come to mind. The Police, who were very crafty in their writing, are probably the group with the most success.  Anyway, most of the stuff I write comes from little instrumental motifs that I composed for the Tempe band.  I simply expanded and added lyrics.  Lyrics are the hardest part of what I do.  I cannot write lyrics that are not genuine and from the heart so I refer back travelling in my earlier life, growing up in Colorado, living in the Arizona desert, and honoring people who have been important in my life.


TimeSlip – “Sad Joann”

Is it difficult to find songwriting inspiration?
I have found that I have to MAKE myself sit down at the piano and write, inspiration doesn’t often just appear in my head.  I sit at the piano and begin experimenting with various chord-leading concepts with my left hand and then fiddling around with scales over those chords with the right hand – this is referred to as “key of the moment” where the scale is constantly moving based on the chord being played.  I use very deliberate constructs like the V7 to the I chords to add tension and release at just the right place.  I also experiment with various tried and true progressions like I IV V, ii V7 I, I vi ii V and look for different ways to mix and match these.  I use a lot of chords with bV and V7 sus 4 because these seem to create a real sense of spaciousness and mystery.  Those kinds of chords fit that kind of desert jazz rock theme I like to use in my writing.  The band pokes fun at me because nearly every song has a Major 7b5 or a minor 7b5 somewhere in the chart.  Eventually progressions and melody lines will shake out of that experimentation and I have things I can stitch together to make a song.  My writing got much more interesting when I learned music theory concepts.  They aren’t necessary for writing but as an analogy, if I’m going to build a house I want as many tools at my disposal as possible.

For the lyric writing I sort of meditate on what does this music lead me to within myself, and then I’ll take that and run through memories until I find the appropriate story that goes with the mood.  Now the problem with this approach is you have to remember that the listener needs to be able to relate the song to their own life experience. But that is essentially the process.  Zappa used to drop little “doo dads” (his words) in his compositions like poodles, tweezers, etc.  I have a couple of those too.  I have successfully incorporated the word “ghost” in nearly every song I’ve written.  Don’t ask me why because I don’t know.  It’s just something I noticed cropping up in my lyrics (Jung would have loved this I’m sure) and now it’s very deliberate.  I write the lyrics and think “how can I get the word ghost” into this song.  It’s just something fun I’m doing.


Timeslip – “But You Weren’t There”

How has your writing shifted recently as you work on new material for the band?
Recently I have been experimenting with telling stories of a non-personal nature in a couple of recent pieces.  I wrote a kind of “fractured fairy tale” book a couple of years back — shameless self promotion, it’s available on Amazon.com under the title MOOSE LIPS. So I just tried doing the same thing, tell an entertaining story but over a rhythmic form. “Day of the Dead” is based on a true story that happened in the old West near Prescott, Arizona.  I took those events and added a ghost story.   The song “Dos Cabezas” (Two Heads) refers to a ghost town in Southern Arizona, I added a supernatural bar (“where nobody cares about your name”) that appears if the visitor to the town is in the right state of mind, a kind of Twilight Zone story.  I recognized a need to get away from introspective moods in my songs because so much of what we do is cerebral in nature and, you know, when people go to a club or a festival, they want to have some fun.  I think the finest song I’ve written is SAD JOANN and there’s some pretty serious stuff in that song (child prostitution and exploitation).  In order for me to write a song that is “cheerful” I have to sit down and say “lighten up Mark, write something that it fun already!” 

I rarely write in straight up major/minor chords.  Once you get that extended harmonic pallate that jazz is built upon under your skin it is very hard to think in major/minor (I iii V) terms – and that’s a problem because your typical listeners haven’t had their ears conditioned to accept those sounds. A quick story about this:  I recall sitting in a parking lot in Salt Lake City while traveling with friends.  They put on Miles Davis at Fillmore East and I said “I will NEVER like this shit!”  Boy was I ever wrong.  Miles is one of the key people I draw inspiration from today.  His music informs almost everything I do though most listeners likely won’t make that connection.   Miles is also all up inside Joni Mitchell’s music. Much (but not all) of what listeners respond to comes from conditioning by guys in suits who decide is “marketable” and “air-worthy”.  That’s changing with the advent of the Internet.  Jack Bruce is an artist I admire who has successfully bridged playing “pop” with a lot of pretty sophisticated musical devices.  Most people know Jack as the bassist and lead vocalist of Cream, but even in that band, Jack wrote almost all of their music, he was able to bring elements of jazz into a wildly successful band. 

The writer has to fashion the music and lyrics in such a way that it sounds familiar but has unexpected twists and lyrically you want the listener to apply the story to his or her own life.  An example of this is found in our Song “But You Weren’t There” where the singer is telling someone that they waited all day but that someone never showed up.   It could be a lover, a drug dealer, God, even a dog!  Whomever, the listener gets to decide who that is.  At the same time you want to expand that listener’s experience.  They should feel:

1.  I know this, I’ve been here (in this feeling) before

2.  There is something different about it this time… oh! there’s a surprise I hadn’t expected

3.  I know what this guy is saying!  I can relate to it

You see, it takes both a musician and a listener for music to appear.  This is why I shake my head when I attend a concert and see someone continually snapping pictures throughout the show.  That camera is getting in the way of the process needed for music to appear.  I hope that doesn’t sound pretentious but it is absolutely true.  My goal as a song writer and performer is to make the hair on the back of the listener’s neck stand on end at least once during a show.  There is an energy that arises between a musician and someone who is really listening.  I saw Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie many years ago in the Paramount Theatre  when I was hanging out in Seattle.  After the first piece they played you could have heard a pin drop in that crowd.  That was so powerful of an experience.  I want to make music that facilitates that kind of participation in the moment by listeners.  And also to have a rockin’ good time too!

Does the band ever write songs together?
No, I typically come armed with a chart for the players.   Curt is doing the same.  It’s rather like creating a blue print for a home and then leading a group to build that house.  I bring that and then the band builds the house together and each member gets to add their own ideas about how we decorate that house, colors, are the shutters, etc.  The guys do whatever they like as long as the ideas stay true to the function of the song itself.  Brad and Curt have been very helpful in arranging the songs I bring.  Occasionally someone will make a little mistake and new ideas will grow from that.  A good example of this is my song “Ajo Way”.  I was listening to a rehearsal recording and the bassist made a mistake.  That little flub inspired me to put together what we call the Ajo Interlude in the middle of “Ajo Way” where we have all of that beautiful, soaring guitar weaving going on.  A real sense of setting out on the open road in the Sonoran Desert was inspired by a bass guitar flub.  

What song by another artist do you wish you had written?
Depends on context.  It’s always about context isn’t it? From a pure musical perspective it has to be Jack Bruce’s “Out Into The Fields”.  There are several versions of Jack’s tribute to the great Otis Redding out there and they all make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.  I need to take the time to analyze that song and figure out how he’s doing that, it’s lightning in a bottle.  The West Bruce and Lange version is literally Wagnerian in scope – you can find that on Youtube.

From a lyric stand point it would be words by Pete Brown (Jack Bruce’s writing partner)  The words to “White Room” are so amazing  “Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes” Are you kidding me?  Jesus that’s incredible stuff in that song – look up those lyrics!  I’m also very fond of Brown/Bruce  Theme for an Imaginary Western.  Those lyrics are cinematic in scope.  I’m also a big fan of just about anything Adam Duritz writes – “Round Here” will always make my hair stand on end, especially his version with The Himalayans.

From a cash perspective it would  be “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf or maybe “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter. Can you imagine the royalties those two songs continue to pull in after decades?  Comfortable retirement for writing a song!


TimeSlip – “TimeSlip”

What do you wish someone would ask you but they never do?
Why do you feel jazz music is so important in American culture?

What would you do with your songs if given the chance to do a proper studio recording? is it difficult to get the spontaneous nature of a live performance into a recording?

I like to hear a lot of layers and small nuances in recordings and would like an opportunity to hear our songs produced with that in mind. I would also welcome the creativity of a producer outside of the band. I think you can get too close to your music and become somewhat possessive with little room for creative “evolution”

I think the live experience will always be more dynamic and organic  in nature compared to studio work and that’s the way it should be. Recordings are simply reference points to navigate by when you are playing live. I’m not particularly interested in rehearsing the band to sound exactly like the recording. In my mind there is no creative growth in that approach. I don’t look at songs as being static in nature. It may sound a little mystical but I think songs appear and then take on a life of there own.  Every performance of a song SHOULD be different. I’ll quote the late great reed flute man Eric Dolphy here: when you hear music it is lost in the air; you can never capture it again.

How have fans reacted to your evolving sound? Are you happy so far with the band’s progression?

Well we are really only just building a fan base though a few have been following since the beginning  I think the are hearing the writing getting better and better; more sophisticated but without being pretentious or sterile. A couple of the fans have been to some of the places out in the desert that I write about and it gives me tremendous pleasure when they tell me ‘”Yeah, you really captured the spirit of the desert.”  I’ve received numerous favorable comments about what we are doing so people “get it” even if they don’t necessarily understand the mechanisms we are using to get that wide open, spacious sound

I’m very happy with the band’s progression. We have the right musicians to manifest that sound I’m after. Tim can swing those drums exactly the way I hear them in my head. He’s really getting it together with sensing the power of dynamics instead of just pounding away. Brad is superb on keys and more importantly he keeps me on my toes and challenges me to write interesting stuff. Curt is great at complementing my guitar parts. I’ve never found anyone to play guitar with who really gets the concept of “orchestrating” through inversion of chords Curt and are are never playing identical guitar parts. Mike is a natural bass player. He started about two years ago and he’s rapidly reach a place where he’s doing interesting and sometimes surprising things with his bass lines. He’s worked very hard. He needs more confidence in his playing. Guy brings the soul and spirit to me, nothing is as personal and expressive as a wind instrument. I’ve given up some of my solo space just so I can hear more of his playing.


TimeSlip – “Day of the Dead”

I love the desert imagery you put into the arrangements of your songs. It’s almost like putting into music what Breaking Bad‘s cinematography did for showing the American southwest in a new light. Is that something you’re consciously doing, or is it just a natural offshoot from your time in Arizona?

I love that breaking bad reference!  I write about the desert because I simply feel so connected to life, our planet, God or whatever word you want to use for a sense of the sacred.   The places I sing about are in an area that the Tohono O’Odham people regard as the world naval where Li’Ito created the world. I can really feel that same stirring when I’m out in the Sonoran Desert.  There is something of a deliberate “branding” we are doing with the Southwest. There’s so much to write about and it gives us something I think is rather unique in Indianapolis. We’re that psychedelic jazz rock music from the desert. I like that lable.

Any parting comments?

I only wish more American audiences could appreciate “jazz” music.  When pop exploded in the 60’s,  jazz artists got left in its dust and that’s a shame.  Jazz takes the listener to a place that is very unique in that moment – very Zen in concept.  It is SPECIAL! even SACRED! People are missing out on some wonderful music.  It took me a while to “get it” and it only comes from being willing to open your mind up to new sounds.  Jazz is America’s cultural gift to the world.  It’s very popular in European countries and in Japan.  Many of America’s great artists ended up moving to Europe because they could not find work here.  That’s sort of tragic really but you know that old saying, “A prophetic is never accepted in his homeland.”