"At Home on the Range"
From cutting hits singles to jamming with the Dead, Bruce Hornsby goes where the music takes him
(Metroland, April 22, 1999)
For Bruce Hornsby, chops are everything. The celebrated pianist, songwriter, and singer, whose career highlights have included hit singles ("The Way It Is," "Mandolin Rain") and a long working relationship with the Grateful Dead, has continually pursued challenges that force him to expand his range, deepen his knowledge, and, well, show off his chops. "I always leave room for improvisation in whatever I play," he says. "I have an interest in pursuing a virtuosity in the instrument."
No one who's ever heard Hornsby go to town on his grand piano would deny that he's proven his virtuosity over and over again. Blessed with a great ear for melodies and the good taste to compromise between the wonky wanderings of way-out jazz players and the homogenized lines of pop performers, Hornsby has accomplished that rare feat of winning over fans with his accessibility, and musicians with his technical facility. And during a recent phone chat from a stop on the tour that will bring him to Proctor's Theatre tonight, Hornsby talks about the middle ground he's found between expression and indulgence.
For instance, Hornsby says that over the many years he played with Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, the late Jerry Garcia, and various other members of the Dead, the lure for him was never the jam-band improvisation that many listeners associate with the Dead's live shows. "The improvisational aspect, to me, is overrated," he says. "The shows are not so spontaneous as you might think." Hornsby says that his current shows are in fact more off-the-cuff than any Dead or Furthur Fest gig he's ever played. He says that at a recent tour stop, a fan requested that Hornsby and his band play a medley of an obscure album cut, Sheena Easton's "Sugar Walls" (on which Hornsby played), and a Thelonius Monk cover. "I thought, 'This is so odd -- let's do it,'" Hornsby recalls, adding that he opens up his shows to audience requests so he'll be forced to stay on his toes throughout each gig.
In recent years, Hornsby's affection for musical exploration has led him to integrate jazz more heavily into his sound. Although jazz is a root element of his style -- along with rock, bluegrass, and myriad other forms -- Hornsby records such as "Hot House" (1999) feature jazz-style instrumentals alongside Hornsby's signature pop songs. The artist says that although it may seem to some listeners that he's tinkering, seeking common ground between genres has always been the point of his music.
"My first impulse when I started the band, [Bruce Hornsby and] the Range, was to form a latter-day Band, you know, Robbie Robertson and those guys," Hornsby says, referring to the seminal outfit that backed Bob Dylan when he went electric and subsequently innovated a folksy rock sound. "The piano ended up taking over, but we were way into accordion, mandolin, hammer dulcimer . . ." Hornsby goes on to list other backwoods instruments and describes how rusticity runs through his albums with the Range, his solo efforts, and even the music he made with the Dead.
Rusticity is also featured prominently on Hornsby's latest album, the two-CD collection "Spirit Trail." "It's a little different," he says. "My last two records were a little more jazz-influenced. This time it's a little more simple, a little more Southern." Hornsby describes how tunes such as "Sad Moon" have a New Orleans feel and how numbers including "King of the Hill" hark back to old-time gospel and soul.
Even in the space of a short phone call, Hornsby is funny, mildly sarcastic, goofy, provocative, and articulate, so he should take fans through a variety of moods during his show tonight. One thing that's sure to pop up at Proctor's is Hornsby's odd relationship with Schenectady, where the venue is located.
In the '70s, one of Virginia native Hornsby's first bands called itself Schenectady because all the big city names -- Boston, Chicago, etc. -- had already been taken by other bands. And what the band lacked in skill -- "If you knew how to play an instrument, you couldn't be in the band," Hornsby recalls -- they made up for in enterprise. The band wrote two plays about themselves, and Hornsby says the title of the second play explains why he's excited about tonight's show: He'll get a chance to prove he's a true "Son of Schenectady."
Bard in the Booth"
With a stack of unpublished novels to his credit, Stanley Blakeman is more than just your neighborhood movie projectionist
(Metroland, March 14, 2002)
"About 90 percent of this job is just walking around and turning things on," observes Stanley Blakeman, a projectionist at the Spectrum 7 Theatres in Albany.
Blakeman slides out of the multiplex's smallest projection booth -- the one he calls "the coffin" -- then walks through an upstairs men's room to reach one of the other booths. For about an hour, he zips back and forth, activating the projectors for each of the seven theaters. According to a pedometer he once strapped on, Blakeman walks the equivalent of about eight miles each shift.
This wiry man with long, shaggy hair and a hermit's dense beard does his job with practiced ease, gracefully threading strips of film through the various pulleys and gates of the projection system. He even reacts to a crisis with aplomb. The "Italian for Beginners" print in theater No. 3 snaps right after he starts the projector, so Blakeman grabs a splicer, joins the two broken parts, and rethreads the picture, taking less than a minute to do so. Then he peers through an observation window at the patrons below him. "It's rare that anybody will thank the projectionist," he says. "It's rare than anybody knows there's somebody there."
Despite his hirsute appearance and the solitude of his job, Blakeman isn't a recluse. He's been married to jewelry designer/hospital worker Merricat Blakeman for more than 30 years, and he's also a prolific writer. He calls his books "psychological bildungsromans," borrowing the German term for books about personal growth, and his oeuvre includes seven novels. Although the first was completed in 1974, none has been published.
Born in Rawlings, Wyo., Blakeman studied theater at University of Wyoming, where he met Selkirk-born Merricat. After school, he and his wife moved from Wyoming to the Capital Region so he could pursue a career as an actor-director in New York City. That didn't work out ("I didn't have enough ego to get through those really bad times," he says), so Blakeman sought another way to make a living. All the while, he continued writing novels.
After a stint as a security guard, Blakeman took his first movie job in 1978, managing a now-defunct East Greenbush drive-in called the Auto Vision. "That was seven months of hell," he says, "what with the neighborhood kids setting fire to the field behind the screen and them going around breaking up the speaker poles. By the end of the summer, I was quite frazzled. I learned a lot about people."
A few stops and starts later, Blakeman found permanent work as a projectionist in 1981, the same year he began working for the Spectrum's owners at their first theater, the 3rd Street in Rensselaer. Although he says he considers himself a writer first and a projectionist second, Blakeman digs many aspects of life in the booth.
"I watch the credits because I like the names," he says. "One of my favorites is Brick Mason. I've seen him on a few. I think he's like an art designer or something. Sometimes I'll remember very clearly what a movie was about, but I won't remember the title or director. I showed 'Fiddler on the Roof' for a month, and I knew all the words."
Blakeman's post atop the Spectrum gives him a unique vantage point for observing colorful moments. "We had a cross-dresser at one time come in as a man," he recalls. "People came out of the theater and said 'There's someone in there making a nest.' He was changing into women's clothes and drinking Listerine and yelling at the screen. That was one of my favorite moments."
The projectionist says that one of the pleasures of his job is seeing how audiences react to onscreen thrills, chills, and weirdness. "'Mulholland Drive' -- there were certain scenes where I liked to walk in just to see the audience reaction," he says. "After a while, you can predict what's going to happen. People don't realize what they look like from above."
Sections of Blakeman's novels have been written in the booth between movie starts, including parts of "Icons," which came closer to publication than any of his other tomes. Completed in 1982, the book is the second in an ambitious trilogy. "The trilogy started out in Russia with this acting couple -- their theater life -- right about the time of the revolution, and it got them through to when they're exiled in Scotland," he explains. "The second novel is about them adopting a little Scottish boy and moving to America. It turns into political science fiction." The Scottish boy grows up to become a subversive in a United States overtaken by right-wing extremists.
In 1988, after more than two dozen publishers turned the book down, a small press offered Blakeman a "subsidy publishing" deal, in which the author funds printing costs while the publisher handles marketing. "The only reason I did it was I was so frustrated with having all those books -- it was my sixth novel, and I hadn't had any luck with the others," Blakeman says.
After Blakeman sent in his sizable investment, the publisher flew the coop. Years of legal battles followed, and Blakeman eventually reclaimed the copyright to his book as well as a fraction of the money he invested. "It was very frustrating when 'Icons' was almost published," he says. "The letdown was horrible. It almost stopped me writing entirely. The world's rough out there in literature. The last few years have been really difficult for me to keep on writing after that whole debacle."
As he's completed one novel and started another since the "Icons" incident, it's clear that Blakeman has made peace between the rigors of the marketplace and his need for creative expression. And even with his busy writing schedule, he's found time to pursue other hobbies: He plays the flute for relaxation, and he's working toward a pilot's license. "I soloed on the 16th of February, right before I turned 50," he says proudly. "That was one of my goals."
Blakeman says he's comfortable with the path his life has taken. "I don't feel like I've done nothing other than projecting," he notes. "I think I've done enough other things in life -- my life's been a learning experience. I'm psychologically sound enough to realize that some people make it in their chosen profession, and some don't."
Still, Blakeman takes pride in the work to which he's devoted much of his life. "There have been times where I've gotten prints that are so destroyed that I've been embarrassed to show them," says the man who once stayed at the Spectrum from 11:30 PM to 5:30 AM to reassemble a print of the epic "Sunshine" after it spilled off a projector. "I have enough sense of professionalism after 30 years that bad prints are an irritation to me -- I feel like I'm cheating the audience."
Novelist Vincent Zandri's hard-driving work ethic pays off with the launch of a mystery series about a prison warden
(Metroland, Jan. 21, 1999)
"I don't feel badly admitting that I want an audience," says novelist Vincent Zandri, 34, as he powers through a hearty two-beer lunch in a cozy Albany bar. "I want a huge audience. I want a Stephen King-sized audience." Zandri, whose literary adventures have included journalism, serious fiction, and now the first book in a planned series of crime thrillers, doesn't have any pretension of crafting art for which the world is holding its breath. Instead, he's happy to write commercial books, because doing so will earn him an audience for more personal work down the road.
Ironically, though, Zandri first embraced the mystery genre for personal reasons, not professional ones. "I got tired of books that put me to sleep," he says with characteristic bluntness. When he started reading mysteries, he was hooked by the economy and speed of the storytelling. "You can't have a decent detective novel that's not completely plot-driven," Zandri notes. "I sat down one day and said 'I'm going to write what I read.'"
That decision proved fortuitous. In late 1997, Delacorte Press signed Zandri to a two-book deal with a six-figure payday, and his first book for Delacorte, "As Catch Can," was published last week. The book's protagonist is Jack "Keeper" Marconi, a jaded prison warden haunted by his wife's recent death and the brutal 1971 Attica prison riots, which he barely survived. When a convicted cop-killer escapes during Marconi's watch, the rush to recapture him stirs up a morass of corruption, politics, and betrayal.
Zandri, who has already completed his second Marconi novel and is deep into a third, says he uses himself as a model for his character. "I think it's one thing to write a novel that stands on its own and that may have nothing to do with the writer's life," Zandri says, "but if you're going to write a series, you can't help but have that character be an alter ego."
Another model for Marconi is Zandri's friend David Harris, the former warden of Green Haven prison, where much of "As Catch Can" is set. Zandri cowrote Harris' as-yet-unpublished autobiography, and while researching the book, Zandri toured prisons and spent a night in a cell at Sing-Sing. Zandri says the night started him thinking about a prison warden who becomes a detective, which led him to create "Keeper" Marconi.
Like his fictional doppelganger, Zandri once made a career change that altered the course of his life. Raised in Latham, Zandri had worked for his father's construction company off and on since he was a teenager, doing writing on the side but still figuring he'd take over Zandri Construction Corp. when his father, Richard, retired. Yet when he and his wife, Megan, were on their honeymoon in late 1988, Zandri realized he had to choose between construction work and writing. During the next decade, Zandri wrote articles for papers ranging from Albany's "Times Union" to New York's "Newsday" and long-form projects including a novella, "Permanence," which was published in 1996. Zandri says his intense desire to land a book deal drove him to develop a nearly obsessive work ethic.
"My wife says 'I thought when you got a book deal, you would finally relax a bit,'" Zandri says, "but I've tasted the success and I want more. I haven't taken a day off, other than Saturday, in two and a half years, and my day consists of getting up at 5:30 and writing till noon, then hitting it again in the afternoon. I'm at a certain level of success, and there's another level I want to reach. As far as I'm concerned, this is one step on the ladder, and I have a long way to go."
Zandri, who lives in Albany with Megan and their two boys, Jack and Harrison, says it's been a time of adjustment since he signed with Delacorte. He says the financial security of the book deal is a comfort after years of skating from one freelance job to the next, but he doesn't want to get too comfortable. "The huge change is that when you're writing and you don't have a deal, you're like 'What's the risk?' But once you're under contract, there's pressure to produce a novel that's good. I'm still doing everything the same, but there's always this pressure in the back of my brain. I'm not complaining -- I'd rather have the pressure than not."
Zandri says he's confident that his relationship with Delacorte will continue with more two-book deals, and he's anxious to see whether the Marconi books earn a following. But when asked bigger questions, such as how many copies the book has to sell to justify a sequel and whether a possible movie adaptation will materialize, Zandri demurs. "I don't want to think about numbers or any of that stuff," he says with a laugh, "or else the ulcer just gets deeper."
* * *
(Postscript: As of late 2006, two "Keeper" Marconi books had been published, including the sequel "Godchild.")
Daughter Also Rises"
Sally Taylor wants to be known for more than famous folks Carly and James
(Metroland, May 18, 2000)
"The way I see it, music can be medicine," comments Sally Taylor. "It can open up places in your heart and in your soul that you either didn't know existed or that you closed off at some point."
Members of Taylor's family have been using music to open people's hearts for decades: The folk-popster is the daughter of James Taylor and Carly Simon, and the niece of Kate and Livingston Taylor. Since she hit the road last year for her first-ever tour, she has been using live shows to differentiate herself from her famous relatives and reveal her own way of touching listeners' souls through music.
Taylor, who sings and plays guitar, recently completed her second self-released album, "Apt. # 6S," and will perform at Valentine's on Saturday with the other members of the Sally Taylor Band -- lead guitarist Chris Soucy, bassist Kenny Castro, and drummer Kyle Comerford. During a recent phone chat from the outskirts of Boston, the open, upbeat singer explained that "Apt. # 6S" represents a stylistic change from her debut CD, 1998's soft-spoken "Tomboy Bride."
"I think the difference is mainly that we've been playing out for a year now, and the majority of the places we play are clubs, so I think my writing was sort of influenced by some of the venues we played," she explains. "It's hard to play folk music to people who are trying to hook up and party and stuff like that. I think a lot of the new songs are more upbeat pop. If we're playing a coffeehouse, I play a geared-down set -- I don't play as many rock tunes. I think that my music can be suited to either crowd."
"Tomboy Bride" was recorded in Colorado, where Taylor lives, as a personal project. But when the disc sold more than 7,000 copies via the Internet and at concerts, the album's success nudged Taylor to record a follow-up. "Apt. # 6S," which is named for the singer's childhood home -- Simon's apartment on New York's Upper West Side -- features accessible pop driven by gentle melodies, organic rhythms, and Taylor's clear voice. The disc's intimate lyrics reflect the personal nature of Taylor's music.
"I've been observing now that the first set of our show tends to be more about love and springtime and how great life is, and then the second set seems to be about breakup a lot," she says. "I've been through a couple of depressions in my life, and I've been thinking about the difference between being alone and being lonely. I would say that being alone is a great thing -- having time for yourself without anybody else. And being lonely is being surrounded by as many people as are available to you, and still being without yourself."
In classic singer-songwriter fashion, Taylor uses her own experiences as fodder for songs and for entries on her popular road journal, which can be read at www.sallytalor.com. "I guess that makes us a little more accessible as a band than other bands in our position, which is that of a nationally touring independent band -- not too high-visibility, sort of just underneath the radar," she says.
While Taylor notes that many fans arrive at shows because they read her road journal and are curious to see what she's like in person, she acknowledges that her lineage is a big part of her drawing power.
"I would say that people's curiosity drives 'em out to see me," she says. "The first 15 minutes are spent, basically, trying to figure out who I sound more like. After that, they settle into some sort of comfortability level with who I sound like, and then they just enjoy the music. That's the ultimate goal."
Taylor observes that being compared to her parents is the biggest disadvantage of her heredity, then corrects herself: "I guess I wouldn't call it a disadvantage -- it's more of a challenge. It's so funny, because I get all these opportunities -- people come to me and they want me to sign a record deal, or they want me to do this magazine or this paper -- you know, 'People' magazine will call, or 'Extra' will call, and I'll think, 'Wow, yeah, that sounds like a good opportunity.' And then I have to pass it by what I really want, and how I really want to be perceived."
But Taylor stresses that both of her parents offer crucial support, and says that even though she wants to be seen as an individual, she's proud to be part of a family tradition: "I can hear both of them come out every once in a while, and it makes me so happy to hear them. They're so deeply ingrained in my heart, how could they not come out in my voice?"
Writer Neil Gaiman lays low between the end of "Sandman" and the launch of his movie career
(The Source, March 12, 1997)
Neil Gaiman loves death.
Or so it would seem, based on the two comic-book miniseries he has written about her. In Gaiman's surreal, unpredictable fiction, Death is a spunky young girl who wears punk-rock clothing and an ankh necklace. She's all business while escorting souls to the great beyond, but she's also funny, innocent, and sexy.
"I'm talking with Warner Bros. right now about writing and directing a Death movie," Gaiman, 36, said in a recent interview. "And it's interesting looking at actors for that. There's a short list of about 10 people in my head, but I think I'll have to eat lunch with them all individually before casting the role. That might be hell, but I can think of worse things to do than have lunch one day with Natalie Portman and the next day with Christina Ricci and the day after that with Winona Ryder."
Gaiman will know his Death when he sees her, or, more specifically, when he talks to her. A deliberate, meticulous speaker, Gaiman relishes conversation, whether he's being interviewed or interviewing someone else, which he did for several years as a journalist in his native England, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Conversation is also an integral part of his fiction, which includes a novel, "Good Omens" (cowritten with Terry Pratchett), and a collection of short stories, "Angels and Visitations." But Gaiman is best known for a project that began in late 1987, when he reworked an old DC Comics character, the Sandman, into a mythical figure called Morpheus, the Dream King. For the next eight years, Gaiman built a seductive universe around the character, one of a septet of godlike beings controlling the flow of life.
By the time Gaiman ended the series in March 1996, the "Sandman" franchise -- including hardbound collections, toys, and spin-off series -- had become the most profitable brand name in DC's "mature readers" line. The phenomenal success of "Sandman" didn't go unnoticed. "Rolling Stone" contributor Mikal Gilmore wrote a rhapsodic article about "Sandman" that helped the series secure its cult status, and then personalities as varied as writer-director Clive Barker, novelist Norman Mailer, and singer-songwriter Tori Amos spread the word about Gaiman's enthralling stories.
Amos' appreciation of Gaiman's work was returned in kind: She mentioned the writer in two of her songs (1994's "Space Dog" included the lyrics "I'm getting this story twisted/ Where's Neil when you need him?"), and Gaiman modeled a "Sandman" character, Delirium, after the singer.
But the series brought Gaiman more than just admiration. The BBC commissioned him to write "Neverwhere," a six-hour miniseries that premiered last year. Avon Books paid him a reported $1 million advance for several fiction projects, and Warner Bros. optioned the movie rights to Sandman and Death. Roger Avary, the Oscar-winning cowriter of "Pulp Fiction" and the director of "Killing Zoe," is slated to helm the Sandman movie, but Gaiman has kept Death for himself.
"'Sandman' was 2,000 pages of comics -- which is about 4,000 pages of script," Gaiman noted. "If someone had told me at the beginning that I was going to have to write 4,000 pages of script, I can't imagine what my reaction would have been, but I don't think it would have been either confident or friendly.
"It's a very odd thing now to go back and reread the original outline I did for 'Sandman' in 1987, and I did that recently," he continued. "What became very obvious was that the tone, the milieu, the incredible mix of genres -- wandering quite cheerfully from high fantasy down to low horror and over to historical drama, and so on -- all that was there in the beginning. It was definitely all stuff that I wanted to do."
The first year of "Sandman" was a slow unraveling. Morpheus was introduced as a prisoner in a basement, and through the series' first few months, readers learned more and more about the character and his world. Although Gaiman knew roughly where he was headed, he kept his eyes open for unexpected opportunities.
"As a writer, I've always preferred the 'falling off a cliff' approach," he explained. "I'm the kind of person who, as a writer, would much rather jump out of a plane and hope that I can knit myself a parachute before I hit the ground. That's where a lot of the excitement and a lot of the fun is. What it also means is that when you make a mess, you make a much bigger mess than you would have done if you had a game plan."
Gaiman said his journalistic work prepared him for his comics career, in a roundabout way. "I learned an incredible amount just doing interviews," he explained. "I discovered word economy and I discovered speech patterns, because I'd have to take 6,000 words of interview in a notebook and turn that into 2,500 or 3,000 words of interview for the page. I learned how to reproduce the impression of speech patterns and take amazing liberties with rewriting sentences. Every now and then I'd have people ringing me up and saying 'Nobody's ever quoted me so accurately.' And I would tell them 'I didn't quote you accurately. What I wrote was what you meant to say, and that's why you think I quoted you accurately.'"
Cranking out thousands of words each year for newspapers and magazines left Gaiman with a realistic view of the writing process, which helped him when he began the "Sandman" project. "For all of the romance and all the glory of writing, a writer may as well be digging a ditch," he said. "Writing has in common with ditch digging that it's something you do until it finishes. You put one word after another, and that's how every book that's ever been written in the history of humankind has been written."
Lately, Gaiman has been planning his transition from comics to movies. He's currently adapting the 1993 miniseries "Death: The High Cost of Living" into a screenplay about the one day each year Death walks the Earth as a mortal to remind herself why life is precious. But Death's cinematic fate hinges on the success of the "Sandman" film.
"I don't believe the 'Sandman' movie is in development hell, but it's definitely in development heck," Gaiman said. "Roger [Avary] is rewriting the script -- I've taken no pass at the script, nor would I -- and he is starting to discover what I've been saying all along. The story is not exactly movie-shaped. So I wish him the very best of luck in that. I really hope that he gets to make a great movie. Better him than a Joel Schumacher-y kind of director
"Roger and I were driving around recently, doing the 'Casting Sandman' game," Gaiman recalled. "The 'Casting Sandman' game is one that I've done -- either willingly or unwillingly -- during interviews, over breakfast, or in casual conversation with people for nine years. Yet all of a sudden, when I said to Roger 'You know, I think David Thewlis might make an interesting Sandman,' I realized this conversation suddenly had weight. It's no longer a couple of people bullshitting."
Gaiman's ideal Morpheus is either Thewlis or Daniel Day-Lewis, and Natalie Portman is his first choice for Death. But he knows it's unlikely the roles will be cast to his satisfaction. "I would rather the Sandman were an English actor," he commented dryly, "but I think Warner Bros. would much prefer Brad Pitt."
If Warner Bros. botches "Sandman," Gaiman will try to take it in stride. He's already had practice watching his work transformed into unrecognizable merchandize. DC has licensed "Sandman" key chains, T-shirts, posters, Tarot cards, and even bookends. "It's very odd to see products like the bookends," he said, "because it has nothing to do with me. It suddenly becomes realer than real."
And if Warner Bros. turns "Sandman" into a hit, Gaiman is ready for that, too. At the time of this interview, Gaiman was in the midst of promoting the BBC premiere of "Neverwhere." "Each morning, the fax machine is spewing out dozens of reviews and serious articles about the series," he said, "and I'm looking at them and trying to connect this enormous publicity machine with me sitting in my gazebo at the bottom of the garden making things up."
* * *
(Postscript: As of late 2006, neither the "Sandman" movie nor the "Death" film have materialized, but Gaiman's humming along just fine, thank you, with a string of hit novels and no fewer than three movies based on his writing due in 2007.)
Evil That Men Do"
Merciless playing and morbid lyrics make death-metal outfit Skinless the area's masters of disaster
(Metroland, Nov. 22, 2000)
If Satan got hopped up on speed and shot spears of hellfire at the members of Iron Maiden to make them play faster and louder than humanly possible while the Prince of Darkness roared bellicose rhymes about death and destruction, the result might sound a bit like Skinless' songs. The Saratoga Springs-based quartet, who recently signed with indie label Relapse Records, aren't posturing when they describe their sound as death metal: With a repertoire that includes "Extermination of My Filthy Species," "Milk and Innards," and "Fetus Goulash," Skinless find nothing so rewarding as conjuring tunes that sound as if they were belched up from the underworld amid a cloud of sulfur and a spurt of plasma.
While front man Sherwood Webber, 22, and guitarist Noah Carpenter, 26, the group's principal songwriters, are quick to acknowledge that a lot of their doom-and-gloom posturing is ironic, they walk it like they talk it. On a Friday evening in Saratoga Springs, Webber has a braided goatee, white-boy dreadlocks, a lip ring, and a Goatwhore hoodie. Carpenter has a long-sleeved Internal Bleeding T-shirt, and proudly shows off tattoos ranging from an undead baby to maggots to a skull with horns. They both down a steady stream of dark beers as they huddle around a table in Saratoga bar Bottoms Up, yelling with glee whenever a Maiden song thunders from the jukebox. The place is so loud, in fact, that the lads are told this interview is "going to be a sonic challenge."
"That's OK," Webber responds. "That's what we're all about."
"It's always been my goal to be the heaviest band in the area," Carpenter adds.
"I think the basis of the band is just fucking up people's conceptions of what things are," Webber says. "This music is all about extremities. We try to invoke any kind of chaos at a show we can. It's a spontaneous theatrical thing that happens."
"It involves him jumping off high places most of the time," Carpenter clarifies.
Webber says that because death metal is a love-it-or-hate-it genre, people gravitate toward the band's music because of a very specific need: "If they're looking for something heavier than Limp Bizkit or fucking Godsmack, they came to the right place. There's nothing pretty or soothing about our music."
Spinning the nine tracks on Skinless' first full-length album, the self-released 1998 disc "Progression Towards Evil," validates the duo's description. Throughout the record, low-riding guitar riffs churn, grind, and slice with a ferocity and darkness that would make Cannibal Corpse proud; meanwhile, the band's rhythm section (bassist Joe Keyser, 23, and drummer Bob Beaulac, 26), pound their instruments so mercilessly that listeners half expect to hear a guitar neck snap or a bass drum explode from the pressure. Topping the mix are Webber's vocals, guttural blasts that spew from his diaphragm with punishing grit and darkness. While the album is almost unremittingly fast and hard, the group's sense of humor shows in the vulgar movie soundbites that connect songs: The album begins, for instance, with a friendly voice saying "Grab your girl, grab your pole, let's take a trip to the old bunghole. Roll 'em!"
"In our early days, we were trying to be offensive and funny at the same time," Carpenter says. "Most of the lyrics [on "Progression"] were written in the early days of the band, when we didn't take ourselves as seriously. The whole gore thing in death metal gets old, though. Sometime in '98, we went in a more thoughtful direction."
Carpenter, the only original member left, started the band in 1992, when he was a student at South Glens Falls High School. Skinless have been playing in and around Albany since 1995, and the current lineup has been in place for three years. (Webber joined in 1994 as the band's drummer, then moved to the mike in 1996.) The group became a national act after the release of their CD, which earned them gigs across the country and caught the interest of several metal labels. Skinless played their first American tour in late 1999, and they've also played a handful of gigs in Germany and Czechoslovakia. Earlier this year, the group chose from several offers and signed with Relapse, the label behind Amorphis and Nile.
The band are just finishing their second album, "The Foreshadowing of Our Demise," which Relapse will issue in February; this weekend, the band will tape footage for a corresponding concert video. On Black Friday, the band will tape their performance at a multi-act Valentine's show, so fans are encouraged to come out and, as Webber puts it, "go fucking nuts."
Going fucking nuts is the core of Skinless' approach, the band's brain trust explains, because the appeal of death metal is the adrenaline rush that accompanies playing and moving with hard music. "I really feel that metal equals freedom," Webber says.
Predictably, though, the musicians' chosen style wasn't an instant hit with their relatives. "I think at first my parents didn't understand what the fuck was going on," Webber says, "especially when I was in my basement and it sounded like some kind of monster."
"I just say [to relatives] it's mostly for a younger audience," Carpenter adds. "It's crazy heavy-metal stuff. My family, they don't understand -- but they're happy to see me doing something I love."
While the Skinless crew note that some of their tunes are pure fiction -- including, one hopes, "Bobbing for Heads" -- they say they draw some ideas from their life experiences. Consider, for instance, Carpenter's recollections about writing "Tampon Lollipops": "It was inspired by me working as a janitor one year and having to clean the women's bathroom. I had to dump out the bins between stalls, and it seemed pretty gross. So it inspired me to write the song. I thought it would be pretty offensive."
Yet, as Webber explains, the band are now more inclined to tackle serious issues than conjure nasty images involving feminine hygiene products. "I think the biggest challenge we face is just trying to keep things fresh," he says. "That's why it takes us so fucking long to write songs."
Webber says he keeps journals, and says that when his bandmates present him with completed music, he often digs through his journals to find the sentiment that matches the sound: "It's feelings that I can only get out under the pressure of writing music. On a normal day, I wouldn't talk about it. It may not even be an idea, but a feeling I get when the lyrics I just wrote spun lyrics after that. Everybody wants to transcend what their limits are, and this is our way of doing it."
The band members say the songs on "The Foreshadowing of Our Demise" reflect their new, more mature approach to songwriting. In classic metal fashion, the title cut is an apocalypse parable, accompanied by a cover image of a gas-mask-clad skeleton in a fetal position. "My take on the whole thing is he was the last living person on the face of the Earth after the shit hit the fan," Webber says. "It's kind of a morbid fantasy of what will be."
"It's a serious statement," Carpenter says of the new disc. "There's nothing really humorous found within."
Morbidity aside, Skinless are happy with how things are going -- they think they made the right choice by signing with Relapse, and they've got nothing but praise for their homegrown fan base. "We wouldn't be where we are without the local scene," Carpenter says. "There's bigger turnouts for local death-metal shows in Albany than in New York City."
Though the band are focused on preparing to unleash "Foreshadowing" onto an unsuspecting world, they also are pursuing another goal. "We wanna make this a metal bar," Webber says as he gazes at the décor of Bottoms Up. "We want to make our buddies come here and get drunk and listen to Maiden. Demand metal! Actually demand metal everywhere!"
As if to underline his point, Maiden's ear-burning live version of "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," culled from the metallurgists' 1985 collection "Live After Death," blasts over the bar's speakers, causing both Webber and Carpenter to beam with nostalgic glee.
"We listen to other shit," notes Webber, "but metal's our god."
Hell and Back"
How a spiritual journey led William Peter Blatty from writing "The Exorcist" to directing cult-fave thrillers
(The Source, July 24, 1996)
In the glare of a lightning flash, we see rivulets of rainwater stream off the brow of a stone gargoyle's face. When the lightning flashes again, we're inside the mountaintop castle atop which the gargoyle sits. A rhythmic, crashing sound rouses one of the castle's residents, U.S. Army psychiatrist Col. Kane, who finds a mental patient pounding a sledgehammer against a stone wall. The patient says he's punishing the wall for resisting his attempts to pass through it. "I think that your problem may lie with the properties of the hammer," Kane says calmly. Satisfied with the psychiatrist's hypothesis, the patient gives up the hammer and slips away, leaving Kane alone with his tortured thoughts.
This strange, disquieting scene is typical of 1979's "The Ninth Configuration," a forgotten masterpiece recently resurrected for home video by writer-director William Peter Blatty. Blatty spoke with "The Source" last week about the more than 35 years he's spent writing stories that mix the spiritual with the supernatural. Blatty, 68, made his biggest mark with the blockbuster 1970 novel "The Exorcist," and he won an Academy Award for writing the 1973 film version. He made his directorial debut with "The Ninth Configuration," then returned to the director's chair for 1990's "The Exorcist III." Both pictures flopped at the box office, only to develop cult followings after their initial releases.
Blatty adapted "The Ninth Configuration" from his 1973 novel "Twinkle, Twinkle Killer Kane." The story, about a secret facility in which shell-shocked veterans are studied in order to weed out fakers, blends comedy, suspense, theology, and several achingly human dramas. The tale is seen through the eyes of Capt. Cutshaw, a brilliant astronaut who inexplicably aborted a launch. "I thought 'The Ninth Configuration' was an expression of a very important idea, which is a religious idea I had all through college at Georgetown University," Blatty said. "It is Cutshaw's search for two things: God and goodness in man. It's the Biblical question of 'Show me one truly good man, and I'll have hope,' and he finds that in Kane.
"This was rather a unique piece of material," Blatty added, "and it really needed the writer to be the director." Blatty recruited an ensemble cast led by Stacy Keach (Kane), Scott Wilson (Cutshaw), and Jason Miller, the Oscar-nominated star of "The Exorcist." The filmmaker rehearsed his ensemble for two weeks, and shot the film in just over eight weeks on location in Budapest, Hungary. "Everything you see on the screen was on the page," Blatty said. "The cast was magnificent. I rarely had to go beyond three takes."
Despite his inexperience behind the camera, Blatty developed a distinct style mixing long takes with quick-cut sequences in which static shots are joined to create a cumulative effect. "I like to construct the feeling and the smell and the taste of a place with different features through a mosaic," Blatty said. "I can shoot a dozen still-lifes and use the best three."
"The Ninth Configuration" failed in theaters twice. United Film released Blatty's original two-hour version, and then New World Pictures cut the picture to 105 minutes, the version that was subsequently available on video throughout the '80s. When New World's videotape went out of print, Blatty convinced Warner Home Video to issue the original version. "There's quite a cult following of the film," Blatty said, adding that cast members often meet fans who've seen the picture 10 or more times. "My basic aim was just to get it back in print so people who cherish it could get their hands on it. I'd like everyone to rediscover it."
With its blend of spiritual and horrific elements, "The Ninth Configuration" was drawn from the same well as Blatty's most famous story. During his Georgetown days of wrestling with philosophical questions, Blatty encountered the story of a real-life exorcism, which started him down the long road toward creating his notorious best-seller. "I never intended to write a novel," the author recalled. "My hope was that someday I could accumulate enough evidence of possession to write a nonfiction book."
As with "The Ninth Configuration," "The Exorcist" evolved from a desire to validate the existence of the spiritual world. To Blatty, possession was proof that "you do have a soul, and there are spirits. Evidently, there are some bad ones out there."
Blatty spent years collecting news stories and consulting with religious figures, brewing "The Exorcist" on a back burner while he established himself as a novelist and screenwriter. When the book was finally released in 1971, it caused a sensation, and whiz-kid director William Friedkin ("The French Connection") was hired for the movie version. "Bill Friedkin, who directed 'The Exorcist' so brilliantly, decided to cut out some of the theological material," Blatty recalled. "Although I was the writer and producer, the director was in control." Friedkin's movie is brutal, and the element that won the most attention was 13-year-old star Linda Blair performing gruesome sex acts and hollering violent obscenities. Blatty said he doesn't regret the changes Friedkin made. "What if I'd gotten my way? God knows I don't know what it is in the film that has such an overwhelming effect on people."
The author was not involved with the film's first sequel, 1977's ludicrous "Exorcist II: The Heretic." But his 1983 novel "Legion" featured an "Exorcist" character, Detective Bill Kinderman, investigating a murder case with mysterious ties to the events in the first story. Blatty served as screenwriter, producer, and director on the movie version. "Legion" underwent massive surgery during editing, when a major special-effects sequence was added and the title was changed to "Exorcist III." "The head of [production company] Morgan Creek decided that you can't have an 'Exorcist' movie without an exorcism," Blatty said. "I just couldn't shake him."
Blatty's picture has more humor and ambiguity than Friedkin's, and Blatty made a conscious decision not to replicate the sexuality and vulgarity of the 1973 picture. "I think it was acceptable in 'The Exorcist' in terms of 'This is supposed to be a demon, an evil, filthy spirit.' Nonetheless," he said, "I cringe at those moments." Despite Blatty's efforts, "Exorcist III" suffered the same fate as "The Ninth Configuration." It failed at the box office, only to gain cult status on video.
The director said that even after the hard knocks of his filmmaking career, he's not done telling stories in his signature style. "I've got a ghost story that may see the light of day before very long," he hinted, "and I'd love to write another Kinderman novel." Up next for the author is the novel "Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing." "It's a funny book about the making of a possession movie," Blatty explained. "It's a bit of a catharsis."
No matter what the future holds, Blatty will forever be known as the author of "The Exorcist." "It doesn't bother me," he said, "but I've written other things, some of which may be better than 'The Exorcist.' I wish my comic novels were more widely read."
For now, Blatty's happy to have his first movie available again in its original form, because he feels the picture was misunderstood during its initial release. In 1979, critics attacked "The Ninth Configuration" as pretentious and gloomy. "I don't see it as dark at all," Blatty said. "I see it as wonderfully hopeful and optimistic. The movie is about the search for God, really. I don't think there's anything else that's important in life."
Blatty said that his own long search, which began in his college days and continued through years of writing about possessions and exorcisms, ended happily. "I've found what I was looking for," he remarked, "and I'm trying to share it."
Filmmaker John Sayles reflects on a singular career that's being celebrated at dual events this week
(Times Union, June 6, 2002)
How respected is maverick filmmaker John Sayles? The Schenectady native is the honoree at not one but two lifetime achievement tributes this week even though, at age 51, he's a long way from concluding his career. "They have to give these things to somebody, and they're kind of relieved when it's somebody who's still with the program," Sayles remarks by phone from San Francisco. "But it's nice. We've been able to get away with the kind of movies that we're making for over 20 years now."
The writer-director (and frequent actor and editor) behind such acclaimed films as "Matewan," "Eight Men Out," and "Lone Star" will be feted at Images Cinema in Williamstown, Mass., and at the Lake Placid Film Forum. Both events will feature screenings of Sayles' new movie, "Sunshine State," a look at how social changes affect the lives of various Floridians. The ensemble cast features Angela Bassett, Edie Falco, Timothy Hutton, Mary Steenburgen, and many others.
"Images Cinema is 85 years old," says Sandra Thomas, the theater's executive director, "and being able to present John Sayles' work is arguably the most spectacular film event since we opened."
"John represents everything that we strive for here," says Kathleen Carroll, artistic director of the Lake Placid Film Forum. "His filmmaking is so unique, and he's one of the true independent voices in American film."
"To me, 'independent' has always gone beyond where you get your money from," Sayles says. "To me, it's a question of 'Do you get to make the story that you want to make? Did it come through a committee, and was there a thought behind it that wasn't a marketing thought?' We're lucky in this country to have this alternative, so every once in a while you can get a movie made outside of the Hollywood system."
Born in Schenectady in 1950, Sayles received a psychology degree from Williams College, and won an O. Henry award for a short story prior to publishing his first novel in 1975. His second novel, "Union Dues," was nominated for a National Book Award. After notching several screenwriting credits, Sayles became a director with 1980's "Return of the Secaucus Seven," an Oscar-nominated ensemble piece that many consider the model for Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill."
Sayles' directorial efforts are sophisticated, literary treatments of socially minded topics including political corruption, labor organization, and homosexuality. Just as his left-leaning politics inform the stories he chooses to tell, his geographical background enters into his films. Sayles notes that traces of his local roots aren't hard to find. "It's certainly gotten into some of the movies, especially 'City of Hope,' which is about the kind of eastern urban centers where the raison d'etre -- the factory that used to support the city -- has disappeared, and what happens then," he says.
Sayles began his movie career writing B-pictures including "Piranha" and "The Howling," and he continues to moonlight as a script doctor on blockbusters including "Apollo 13." "Unlike most directors, I actually get to work with other directors," he says. "Most of them just meet each other at film festivals or panels or something like that. Working for another director, you get this little window on how they do it -- how they think about casting, how they think about story. It's kind of cross-training for me. Although your emotional investment is never going to be the same as it would if it's your own story, you're using all the same muscles."
Sayles will next flex his muscles as a cowriter on "The Alamo" (slated as Ron Howard's follow-up to "A Beautiful Mind") and a new directorial project about North American women traveling to South America to adopt babies. In typical Sayles fashion, the new movie will be a low-budget ensemble piece. The filmmaker, who uses "we" and "our" when referring to the authorship of his movies, says the new picture will continue his tradition of offering as many perspectives as possible.
"Many of our movies, if not all of them, have fairly strong secondary characters who become closer and closer to primary characters," he says. "So a lot of it is just thinking about the way that people see the world, and realizing that you can have four people in the same room and the same situation and they can have four very, very different ideas of what's going on because of where they're coming from."
Singer-songwriter Rosanne Raneri ends a three-year recording hiatus with a new album and a new attitude
(Metroland, July 8, 1999)
"I saw a T-shirt recently -- and bought it -- that had the word 'authentic' on it," singer-songwriter Rosanne Raneri says. "I really want to be a person who's living passionately and authentically, and that's where the music is coming from. The main chord, the spine of the music, is speaking from the part of me that is wanting to be really true and not back down. Not back down from life, anything. And not just be a 'responsible person,' as my dad would say. But be responsive to things and be awake."
Although Raneri has only been a part of the Capital Region's music scene for about five years, her search for personal and musical authenticity has earned her a rarefied stature as a favorite of fans and fellow musicians alike. Since releasing her debut album, "Frantic and Weightless," in 1996, Raneri has scored gigs opening for Rosanne Cash, Maria Muldaur, and Rickie Lee Jones; has won top honors in several local publications; and has been included in the book "Solo: Women Singer-Songwriters in Their Own Words" alongside Sheryl Crow, Jewel, and Sarah McLachlan.
Later this year, Raneri will release her highly anticipated sophomore disc, "Parhelion" -- named, appropriately, for a natural phenomenon of magical luminescence -- and the new record is a milestone in a self-discovery process that Raneri says came to a head around the time of her 30th birthday in March.
In a casual two-hour conversation on a brilliant Sunday afternoon, Raneri is gregarious and thoughtful, at one moment staring off into the distance while she collects herself before articulating a deeply held belief -- and at the next breaking into the booming laugh that issues often and easily from her bright, open face. Raneri's personality has many facets, but the two most visible this afternoon are her introspection and kindness.
The meandering but revealing talk begins at the home of Raneri's grandmother, Louise, in a blue-collar Schenectady neighborhood. Raneri lives in this comfortable house, which is tastefully decorated with pictures of Raneri's large extended family. An East Greenbush native, Raneri has lived in the Capital Region all her life, save the years when she attended the State University of New York at Geneseo. But when asked where she'd like to spend the afternoon, Raneri doesn't suggest an old haunt -- instead, she recommends an out-of-the-way park on the Mohawk River to which she was recently introduced by a friend. More and more, Raneri is eager to explore new places, new sounds, new experiences.
Sitting on a park bench with the softly churning Mohawk in front of her, Raneri says the music on "Parhelion" reflects her newly liberated emotional state, citing the song "Equator" as an example.
"'Equator,' to me, is about a woman's journey of independence and how it can feel like a walk through the desert," she says. "Something that was startling to me is the lyric 'What goes unsaid is in the silence resurrected.' That shook me. I used to think I could save myself by not saying things, but whether or not you say it, it's there. You have to own what you're thinking and your beliefs and who you think you are."
Raneri recalls a specific instance, which happened several years ago, in which she bit her tongue and regretted it. "One of my biggest pet peeves is when I hear comments about weight and looks and beauty," she says. "I was taking a graduate acting class at the University at Albany, and there was a classmate who was commenting about how 'fat' women in the industry, like Carnie Wilson, weren't making it because of their looks. I never said anything. I went home and cried." She adds that the student who made the comment was also a teacher, and she recalls wishing that she had said to the student, "Do you realize how easily with such a small comment you can shut some people down?"
As Raneri describes this missed opportunity, she talks in a rush of emphasized words and phrases, expounding on how societal and cultural body-type iconography informs such widely held stereotypes. It quickly becomes evident that even though Raneri rarely has disparaging words to say about other people, there is something she hates: ignorance. And because she's been hurt by ignorant statements in the past, she's determined to use her newfound boldness to comment on ignorance whenever she encounters it.
"If it really gets to be too much or I think I've hurt somebody's feelings, I'll apologize," she says of the confrontational comments she issues comfortably these days. "But I won't sacrifice what I feel by letting it go."
Raneri says "Equator" isn't the only song on the new record to reflect the changes in her character. "Most of the songs are inspired by people I know," she says. "'Set Me Straight' is sort of calling someone on their behavior of living on the surface, and I'm saying, 'What are you gonna do when it gets real?' The verses are really kind of describing the ghosts that follow you if you try to run from yourself. You can't outrun them."
Raneri's music is as expansive as her far-ranging thoughts about life and accountability. Even though "Set Me Straight" has a propulsive beat and a sharp, intense chorus, the song (as heard on a rough mix of "Parhelion") sprawls over several minutes, especially when the verse-chorus-verse interplay gives way to a long vamp in which Raneri coos, sings, and even howls the song's title again and again to hammer home the impact of the words.
Expansiveness is a theme that runs through both of Raneri's albums. There's the sheer force of her voice, which has a full, throaty sound so filled with emotion and rich autumnal colors that it's alternately beguiling, soothing, and overwhelming. There's the somewhat obsessive detail of her lyrics, which Raneri uses to methodically explain the nuances of concepts that fascinate her. And finally there's length. Two cuts on "Frantic and Weightless" broke the eight-minute mark, and it's telling that the shortest number on the disc was called "Unfinished."
"Parhelion" features several more epic songs, and Raneri doesn't make any excuses for her style. Instead, she says she's using the freedom afforded unsigned artists to explore various flavors, inflections, and modalities.
"Some people joke with me, 'Why do you feel like you have so much to say -- can't you cut some of the verses out?'" she says. "I do feel the ability to write three-minute songs, and I'm not opposed to three-minute pop songs as long as it's OK for me to be saying something that's a little gritty and maybe poetic."
There's plenty of poetry on "Parhelion." Even a quick scan of the album's song titles reveals the kind of evocative imagery that Raneri uses: "Vanishing Point," "Day of the Dead," "So Does the Sea." But in a sense, the lyrical aspect of the album is the least informative about where Raneri's at musically these days, because most of the songs on "Parhelion" were written years ago, around the time that "Frantic and Weightless" came out.
More revealing are the vocal and instrumental leaps that separate "Parhelion" from its predecessor. Working again with her "Frantic" collaborators, producer Tony Markellis and recording engineer Scott Petito, Raneri sought to expand both the way she uses her voice and the arrangements she puts around it. "Equator" and "Set Me Straight," for example, have some of the most varied vocal lines that Raneri has sung and feature surprising instrumental flourishes such as atmospheric electric-guitar figures played by former Capitalander Michael Bassett.
Raneri says that her first record sounds guarded when she listens to it now. "It feels like there's veils," she says. "I wanted the veils to be taken away. I wanted to give the feeling of, 'This is me -- what you hear is what you get.'"
Raneri adds that even though simplicity and sincerity are still central to her music, she feels herself evolving out of the traditional singer-songwriter model of a woman and her guitar. "I'm giving myself permission to admit that the direction I'm going is less of a folk thing," she says. "The direction I'm going in is more electric, more experimental -- even a little poppy. I do hear drums, and I do hear more in the way of electric guitar and experimental sounds. Definitely edgier."
When asked to cite albums that indicate the sound she's going for, Raneri enthusiastically mentions Sarah McLachlan's "Surfacing," Annie Lennox's "Medusa," and Bruce Cockburn's "The Charity of Night," all of which employ lush melodies, dense arrangements, and unexpected instrumentation (or, as Raneri puts it, "luscious possibilities").
"The songwriting really is just so 'on' that they're not compromising lyrical content," Raneri says. "Those songs are not only thoughtful, but there are sparks happening -- there's magic. I don't like to use the word 'sophisticated,' because it sounds pretentious, but they're taking chances -- the arrangements, the layering is gorgeous. You hear all the layers, and you get lifted up by this sound. I would love to go there."
The other element of Raneri's musical growth -- the change in the way she uses her voice -- has been evident in Raneri's recent live performances and is impossible to miss on the "Parhelion" rough mix. She's been developing her middle range and improving the ease with which she slides from her full-on belter's shout to the more supple parts of her voice. On some new tracks ("Conquered," "Not Quite Philadelphia"), the effect is incredibly sexy -- even if that adjective sparks conflicting reactions in Raneri.
"If I was going to talk clinically and analytically about the quality of the voice, I would take it as a compliment, because I do like to play with that quality," she says. "If I was going to think of all the baggage that comes with the word, I might not take it that way. 'Sensual' instead would be a great compliment. Usually when people compliment my voice, they comment on the power of it. So it is kind of nice to hear 'sexy,' because it is kind of nice to be seen that way. It's nice to have someone acknowledge that I have that kind of power too. When I get up to sing, I feel like a brick shithouse of a performer who has this brass-and-trumpet bustier. I would like to have that softer side."
Because Raneri is excited about her new musical direction, opening up her singing, and emboldened by the freedom she discovered when she turned 30, this summer is a precious moment in her life. And while she's having fun putting the finishing touches on "Parhelion," she's also enjoying the challenges of her day job. As coordinator of the Cultural Affairs Program at Hudson Valley Community College, Raneri conceives and books special events involving artists and live music. She also teaches acting at HVCC and keeps meaning to pick up her art supplies and get back to painting and drawing. Rosanne Raneri is swimming in culture, and it's inspiring her to test the boundaries of what she can accomplish artistically -- and personally.
"I feel like a door opened and I can go barreling forward," she says. "I feel like I have to make good for myself -- I've got the courage and I've got the desire, and I've got to use them."
Five years after scoring with "One of Us," Joan Osborne takes another shot at fame
(Metroland, Oct. 12, 2000)
It's been said that a hit single is the worst thing that can happen to a musician, and the success that Joan Osborne enjoyed with "One of Us" seems to prove the point. Written by ex-Hooter Eric Bazillian, the catchy tune pissed off fundamentalists by envisioning a God with mortal failings, and was slammed by critics who found its imagery cloying. Even worse, the song became ubiquitous before listeners knew who Osborne was, putting her at risk of becoming a one-hit wonder known for a tune that had little to do with the rest of her repertoire -- a repertoire that includes such libidinous ditties as "Let's Just Get Naked."
Five years after "One of Us" dominated the airwaves, music fans have an opportunity to get to know Osborne all over again, because she recently released her long-awaited sophomore album, "Righteous Love," and is supporting the disc with a club tour that will bring her to Saratoga Winners on Saturday.
Osborne explains that the long downtime between albums wasn't entirely intentional. "There's a record I made with the guys in Cracker, with David Lowery producing," she recalls. "I presented that to my person at the record company that I was with at the time [Mercury], and he didn't like it enough to release it. There were other times where I would be in the studio, working with someone, and we'd come up with a bunch of material, and I wasn't satisfied with it. Ultimately, I feel like it's better to wait and have something that you really believe in."
Chatting by phone from a recent tour stop, Osborne is surprisingly soft-spoken for a singer whose vocals often explode with bluesy passion. The Kentucky-born film-school dropout perks up, however, when discussing favorite adventures from the last few years, such as the lessons she took from late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, and the time she spent producing records by R&B act the Holmes Brothers and Schenectady, N.Y., gospel singer Bethenia Rouse.
Osborne says that running the boards for other artists helped her reconnect with the excitement that made her pursue music in the first place. "For me, there's always the challenge of remaining fresh and remaining open and remaining an amateur, in the sense that I do it for the love of it, even though I do it for a living now," she says. "So any time I can be with someone like Bethenia and reexperience that perspective, it's a good thing for me."
Once Osborne finally hooked up with producer Mitchell Froom (Crowded House, Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega), the problems that plagued previous recording sessions dissipated. Completed this spring, the new album features Beatlesesque pop, libido-driven R&B, soulful ballads, and several other styles, and Osborne says that the album's retro feel was informed by the tunes she listened to while recording the disc.
"I was listening to 'All Things Must Pass,' the George Harrison record that he did with Phil Spector, and you can certainly hear some of that influence on the structure of 'Poison Apples,'" she explains. "I was listening to music from even before then -- an oldies station was the only station that I could get in this 1961 car that I bought. It only had an AM radio, so instead of listening to talk, I'd listen to the oldies, and I just sort of became interested in the construction of the songs back then. But I don't know that I was worried so much that ["Righteous Love"] would sound contemporary enough or modern enough. I mean, in choosing to work with Mitchell Froom, I guess I felt like my bases were covered, 'cause he's definitely got a very modern sonic sensibility."
While Osborne's primary focus right now is touring behind "Righteous Love," she launched another major project the same day the new album was released -- heroinemagazine.com, an online journal devoted to the accomplishments of extraordinary women. Celebrating such women is a typically committed gesture on Osborne's part, because the singer has a long history of activism.
"I would say that anyone who is passionate about the world that they live in and feels the need to be involved in the world should be involved," she notes. "I'm one of those people, and whether it's a convenient thing for me or not, I'm going to express the opinions that I have and continue working with the organizations that I'm working with, like Planned Parenthood. I think that's everybody's responsibility, not just celebrities."
of the Soul"
After struggles with addiction and a string of tragedies, composer-pianist Cole Broderick scores with a musical celebration of Saratoga
(Metroland, Dec. 9, 1999)
The day that pianist Cole Broderick played his senior recital at the University of Miami set the tone for more than a decade of his life. "When I went to college, I didn't do anything but practice classical music -- I loved jazz, but I was working intensely on classical," he recalls. "I was the first one to introduce jazz into the recital. I played Toots Thielmans' 'Bluesette' with a jazz trio. It broke up everything -- you know, you go through a recital and it's like 'Is he gonna get through it?' I played brilliant at my senior recital because I stopped at Mother's Lounge at had four stiff scotches on the rocks. That was a crutch I used for confidence."
After setting aside the stifling intensity of studying classical music at the same school that, years later, produced jazz great Pat Metheny, Albany native Broderick dove into a dozen years of hard drinking and easy living. He graduated from college in the late '60s and spent the Me Decade shuttling between Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Lake Placid, N.Y. And even though he had studied piano since he was a child, the only playing he did during those years was in lounges or to show off with friends.
By 1983, Broderick's intimates realized he had pushed his luck far enough: He had become an alcoholic and needed help. "A lot of people don't come out on the other side of that kind of stuff. I lost so many friends, it's unbelievable," he says. "My brother Bill said 'Either you straighten yourself out or I'm gonna drop you off in downtown Albany, and you can fend for yourself.' I went to AA for three years, and that's when I got back into my music."
Two years into his recovery, while he was still trying to decide which musical direction to take, Broderick met his future wife, Suzanne, at a 1985 Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. They married in 1987, but Broderick's reverie was short-lived. Over the span of three years in the late '80s, his parents, sister Carol, and brother Bill died. (His older brother, Eddie, is still alive.) Sustained by his marriage and his music, Broderick concentrated on making up for lost time in his career.
During his wild years, he worked in, among other things, restaurant management. But when inheritances from his family liberated him to become a full-time musician, he submerged himself in jazz to strengthen his composing and performing chops, which led to the 1993 formation of the Cole Broderick Quartet. That same year, the quartet landed a second-stage slot during the Newport Jazz Festival at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. By that point, Broderick had settled in a Saratoga Lake cabin built by his father.
"I retired from drinking to a camp in Saratoga and healed myself, so Saratoga took on a kind of spiritual quality to me," he says. This connection inspired him to cut the album "Springtime in Saratoga," and Broderick's wife was so taken with the disc that she encouraged him to record albums for the three other seasons. Between 1993 and 1998, he did just that -- along the way recording everything from the gentle ballad "Springtime in Saratoga" to the bop-influenced number "Potato Pancakes" -- but his most ardent cheerleader never got to hear the resulting box set, "Seasons in Saratoga: Volumes I-IV." Suzanne Broderick died of cancer in 1995.
Now 54 and both optimistic and realistic about what the next part of his life will be like, Broderick has proof that his wife's idea for a musical cycle based on the four seasons was a good one. In July, "Billboard" selected the set as a critic's choice, and Broderick recently signed a deal with the Arcadia Group, which licenses music for use in movies, TV shows, amusement parks, and other venues. Locally, several of his songs have been used in TV commercials, and his group has won awards including a nod as Best Jazz Combo in "Metroland's" 1999 Best of the Capital Region issue.
"You just keep doing what you're doing and enjoying what you're doing, and you're gonna get to the next level," Broderick says brightly. "What can stop you is jealousy and competing with other people and comparing yourself to other people."
True to his word, Broderick doesn't cite other musicians as reference points when asked to describe his work; instead, he describes the reactions that he hopes people will have when listening to the songs on "Seasons." "I'd say the type of jazz I write would satisfy the avid jazz enthusiasts, but I hope there's one song for everybody. It covers all the ages, but not everybody likes all of it. But a song like 'Potato Pancakes,' the first song on 'Autumn in Saratoga' -- everybody likes it.' It's got that feel and groove you just got to move to. You hear it and just go 'Yeah, yeah!'" (For the record, his accessible music spans several genres, with influences from straight jazz, bop, R&B, funk, and rock.)
Despite the fact that he recently completed writing, performing, and producing four albums of original music, Broderick is humble about his accomplishments and constantly mentions his collaborators -- including Marcus Benoit, Rick Eckberg, Gene Gerone, Ray Jung, Rob Kovacs, Tony Marvelli, and Keith Pray, all members of the quartet at one time or another -- as integral to the creative process.
"I hide in my quartet," Broderick says. "People tell me to smile more. I have a hard time selling my CDs when I'm playing. I'm always trying to give recognition to the guys in my band, because if it wasn't for them, there'd be no music. I don't even think it's my music, to tell the truth. It might come from some spiritual force, and I just put it down."
Still, a measure of chutzpah was involved in the "Seasons" project, and Broderick says that even though he plays regularly at venues including the Van Dyck in Schenectady, he encounters reluctance from some scenesters, who perceive him as a well-to-do poseur. "I have a reputation as 'Who the hell does this guy think he is with the "Seasons"?' They think I fell into stuff, but it took a lot of hard work. Who I think I am is I had the money to promote myself. Every cent I make, I put into my recordings. I get $400 from playing out, and I put another ad in 'Jazz Times.' I'm very frugal. Right now, I'm afloat on my own, without any help from my parents' resources."
Because he's been through experiences that would have defeated some people, Broderick tries to make the most of what comes his way -- and also tries to share his good fortune. To honor his late wife and siblings, all of whom died from cancer, he donates $5 to $10 from the purchase price of every "Seasons" box to Hospice of Saratoga. And while he looks forward to the future -- he's dating and wants to have a child -- he's acutely aware of his own mortality.
"I could go right now," he says half-seriously. "As far as old age, I could go up to Lake Placid and sit in a cabin. You could just check on me once a week, and if I croak, set me aflame. I'm sure there's an afterlife. That helps in not being afraid to die."
His cavalier attitude about death notwithstanding, Broderick is energized about life these days. He's even planning a return visit to the world of classical music, which he walked away from after college. In April, he'll play a fundraiser for the Arts Center of the Capital Region, and when he talks about his preparations for the show, he's filled with the same confidence he had when gearing up for his senior recital at the University of Miami. Only this time, his confidence comes from his soul, not a bottle.
"My repertoire is brilliant, I gotta tell you," he says. "It's not some pansy-ass 'a little Bach, a little Mozart.' It's Liszt, Schubert, Chopin. It's stuff you gotta have balls to play, and I won't play it unless it feels awfully good to me. You know when it's good -- you can feel it in the piano." He pauses a moment, then explains how the Arts Center gig meshes with his other musical exploits: "I just sat at the keyboard and played jazz on a moment's notice. After playing Rachmaninoff, it was, like, effortless. My hands were flying -- there's no question my classical playing enhances my jazz.
"My whole game plan is to entertain and put some good music out there and to do something that makes me feel good," he says. "When you go through death like I have, you look at things a lot differently."
Meet a woman named Jewel, who's as serious about her songwriting as she is about her yodeling
(The Source, Aug. 30, 1995)
"I don't believe in 'You can't feel good unless you bleed,'" said Jewel Kilcher. Coming from a singer-songwriter whose intimate debut album, "Pieces of You," has invited comparisons to the work of Tori Amos -- a woman who sings about surviving hardship -- this is saying something. "I love Tori," Kilcher said, "but people always lump women together if they're emotional."
Kilcher's solo performance Aug. 18 at the Empire State Plaza in Albany, N.Y., dispelled comparisons to the solemn, arty Amos. The 20-year-old Kilcher, known professionally by her first name, was a bubbly entertainer, quick to interact with the crowd and full of playful energy.
"I have this little song about myself," she said ironically to the crowd of about 300, introducing "I'm Sensitive," with its refrain of ". . . and I'd like to stay that way." During the tune, a half-naked reveler in front of the stage imbibed a bit too much spirit, and was carted away by Plaza security. Without missing a beat, Kilcher improvised: "They always take away the guys/ That dance around and have fun/ He's sensitive/ And he'd like to stay that way." Big laugh, big applause.
Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, Kilcher swung smoothly from that moment to "Angel Standing By," a simple hymn she belted out with a clarity and power that silenced every just-out-of-work-on-Friday member of the crowd. Doling out equal parts humor and beauty, and pausing only for brief remarks, Kilcher steered her show fast and true.
Kilcher has spent most of her life onstage. Growing up in rural Alaska with a family of entertainers, she performed as a yodeler throughout childhood, then sang in bars with her father during her adolescence. She has written poetry since her teens, but she didn't write songs until a vocal scholarship brought her to the lower 48, specifically Michigan.
She lived in her car for a time, wandering through Mexico and California, all the while collecting stories. "When you have limited experience, it's hard to even ask the questions about life," she said during an interview conducted while walking around the Plaza before the show. Kilcher said she got around her inexperience by inventing fiction about people she met; as she remarked, "I don't write about my life much."
This has led to confusion over songs like "Daddy," with its lyric "Last night I saw you . . . with your white hood, Daddy." Laughing, Kilcher said "My poor dad has to live with that in a small town in Alaska." Similarly, "Pieces of You" has been "read into," she said. The song uses the word "faggot" while asking about intolerance, and Kilcher is frustrated that some have read it as anti-gay. "It's just the opposite," she said.
But Kilcher doesn't want to bend to political correctness. "I don't think I have an obligation to be a voice for anything but what I feel," she explained.
"Pieces of You" is exactly that -- a record of Kilcher's feelings. The album includes full-band tracks like "Who Will Save Your Soul" (the single), and several acoustic numbers recorded live in a coffeehouse. Owing to Kilcher's friendship with Ben Keith, a longtime Neil Young collaborator, "Pieces of You" was recorded at Young's Woodside, Calif., studio. Young also provided his sometimes band, the Stray Gators, to back up the young Alaskan. For now, Kilcher's supporting the record without any musicians accompanying her onstage.
"I miss the energy of a band," she said, "but I've only been playing guitar for four years. I can't play in time with other musicians." Kilcher is the first to admit that she's still learning. She's also the first to admit that "Pieces of You" was an exercise. (She'll continue to explore songwriting with her next exercise - she's been commissioned by Sean Penn to record music for his upcoming film "The Crossing Guard.")
Despite her ebullient stage manner, the subject matter of Kilcher's songs is often dark. "It is harder to create subtlety and beauty," she said. "I want the album to reflect where I was when it was written." "Pieces of You" is the outcome of a long self-discovery process, and Kilcher denies that growing up in public this way presumes on the audience. "Getting to know yourself should never be thought of as self-indulgent," she said. "We need to share our stories."
Kilcher sees that sharing as a tool that storytellers provide, a tool that helps listeners find their way. "You should touch each other," she said of her relationship to audiences. "It's no fun to stand up there and not give and receive. It's like a math formula -- what plus what will make them listen."
Kilcher caught the Plaza audience's attention with her unexpected closing number, a yodeling song. She warbled through a chorus, then asked "Want me to go faster?" After a few such exchanges, Kilcher was yodeling nearly too quickly for ears to follow. Once the show was done, Kilcher attended to a long line of autograph-seekers and well-wishers until the last people left were two young boys. "Jewel, yodel fast as you can," one asked. She complied, then said "Sounds like a machine gun." Gesturing with an imaginary gun, she mowed them down, and they went on their way, laughing.
Kilcher has played a broad variety of venues, from bars to outdoor festivals to coffeehouses. Sometimes audiences are right with her, and sometimes listeners don't know what to make of her. But she's happy either way, because, as she said, "Two hours of a bad show is better than one shift waitressing."
Close and Personal"
Robert Redford on "The Horse Whisperer," directing himself, and Capital Region hospitality
(The Source, April 16, 1997)
Monday afternoon, Robert Redford decided he was ready for his closeup.
When Redford arrived in the Capital Region earlier this month to film scenes for his new movie, "The Horse Whisperer," he neither hid from nor sought the spotlight. Fans spotted him in restaurants around Saratoga and reporters sneaked onto the "Whisperer" set last week. But until he met with a handful of journalists and photographers for a press conference in Ballston Spa Monday, all the public saw of Redford were glimpses.
Trim and handsome, Redford, 59, was all business and all charisma. His thick, blond hair dangled loosely across his forehead and his intense blue eyes created instant intimacy between the iconic movie star and a roomful of strangers. "It's very important that people know that film companies are guests," Redford said. "In the end, we can't do what we want to do without the cooperation of the community." Redford said he called the press conference to express thanks for the hospitality the Capital Region showed his crew during the first week of shooting, which began April 7.
Based on Nicholas Evans' best-selling but critically panned 1995 novel, "Whisperer" is a landmark film for Redford, who won an Academy Award for his directorial debut, 1980's "Ordinary People." This is the first time Redford is directing himself. Asked whom he consulted for advice about directing and acting at the same time, Redford quipped "God," then added "He hasn't answered yet."
In "Whisperer," Redford stars as a Montana equine specialist who helps a young girl and her horse recover from a crippling accident. Redford says the story appeals to him because it touches on themes that run through all his films: relationships, spirituality, nature.
The film is set in New York City, Montana, and Connecticut, but "a combination of us not being ready and a weak winter knocked Connecticut out of the picture," Redford explained. Saratoga County is doubling for Connecticut, but "We knew we were gonna be right on the edge of winter. God gave us a break because we got that big snowstorm last week." Redford said he never considered faking the dangerous accident scene that opens the film by shooting it on a soundstage because "You can never capture the textured feel of reality. It was good for the actors [to shoot on location], and -- I'm an actor."
Redford's celebrated career in films such as "Barefoot in the Park" (1967), "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969), and "The Sting" (1973) took on new weight in 1976, when he executive-produced and starred in "All the President's Men," Alan J. Pakula's drama about the Watergate investigation by "The Washington Post." Subsequently, Redford split his time between mainstream entertainment films and socially conscious personal projects. With Redford in front of the camera as well as behind it, "Whisperer," which Touchstone Pictures plans to release in December, will probably reach a larger audience than any of his previous directing efforts.
Redford said he likes "the idea of jumping back and forth" between acting and directing projects, although his success as a director makes it difficult for him to work as an actor for hire. "I try to keep myself out of that situation," he said. Referring to the troubled production of "Up Close and Personal" (1996), which went through 27 screenplay drafts over eight years, Redford said he doesn't enjoy working on films when he doesn't have a say in what happens behind the camera. "As an actor, you physicalize what you feel," he explained. "As a director, you orchestrate what you feel. You're able to use all of yourself."
Although its journey to the screen has been graceful compared to the "Up Close and Personal" imbroglio, "Whisperer" was in development for two years. Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth adapted the book, and Richard LaGravenese revised Roth's script. "We're not exactly doing the book," Redford said. "The main difference is I don't die in the end."
Redford waited eight years before directing his second film, then another six before directing his third. Yet "Whisperer" comes just three years after "Quiz Show." Redford is accelerating his directing career, but he said that production of "Whisperer" is "not rushed," adding that he delayed filming until a final screenplay was completed. "It's complicated balancing out two characters and the animal, who is a character," Redford said. "Getting that tuned right takes a lot of time."
When a reporter asked Redford to clarify how he expects to draw a performance from a horse, the director answered "It's not exactly 'Mr. Ed' we're doing here."
By lending his marquee value to unconventional films throughout his career ("Jeremiah Johnson" in the '70s, a string of documentaries more recently), Redford became Hollywood's avatar of independent film. He founded the Sundance Institute in 1981, and its annual film festival is now the proving ground for American indie movies. "I think the film industry needed a jolt in the arm," Redford commented.
For the last week, Redford has given the Capital Region a jolt in the arm, and the response he's received here makes him eager to visit again after "The Horse Whisperer" wraps. (The production moves to New York City in May, and then to Montana.) "People have been nothing but really friendly," Redford said. "And that isn't always the case." Redford explained that filmmakers are grateful whenever they encounter hospitality on location, because "We're all a long way from home. We're displaced refugees."
on the Verge"
After years of chasing mainstream success, all-female band Antigone Rising gains notoriety by rocking to its own beat
(Metroland, June 22, 2000)
You've heard the story before: singer-songwriter moves to L.A. in search of a major-league musical success, gets frustrated, and moves home for a normal life. Well, here's that story with a twist: Cassidy, a one-named musician from New Jersey, moved to California in the early '90s and gave up on the West Coast music scene a few years later. But when she came back East last year, she hooked up with the two guitar-slinging sisters who anchor pop-rock outfit Antigone Rising -- and now, Cassidy says, she's making the best music of her life.
"I knew these girls back in '93, and then we sort of went separate ways," Cassidy recalls. "I think we all tried really hard for the major record deal, and I think we all tried to tailor our music, our sound, our look, everything, in order to get the big deal. I mean, we pretty much chased our tails for a few years. And we've found that now, doing what we're doing and being honest about it and just doing it for enjoyment and for the fans, we're actually getting a much better response."
Long Island natives Cathy and Kristen Henderson, who have been playing music since they were children, formed Antigone Rising in the early '90s in Greenwich Village. The group, who will perform at Valentine's tomorrow, originally were a harmony-driven folk-rock ensemble. But with the addition of a powerful rhythm section -- bassist Teri Avella and drummer Dena Tauriello -- the band developed a muscular pop-rock repertoire that ranges from catchy ditties ("Negative Lane") to down-and-dirty rockers ("Messiah Girl") to heartsick ballads ("Michael").
The quintet's hook-filled sound turned some influential heads, including that of noted producer Tony Visconti, whose credits include David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and T. Rex's "Bang a Gong (Get It On)." Visconti caught Antigone Rising's first gig after Cassidy's return to the fold, and offered to produce "New and Used," an EP that was released in January. The band also caught the attention of VH1: Antigone Rising are among 10 finalists, chosen from about 1,000 entrants, in the cable channel's "VH1's to Watch" competition.
Lead guitarist Cathy Henderson says that because all of the band's members are female, they're more willing to explore emotional territory than an all-male or mixed-gender group. "We just find that when you work with all women, there's a kind of bond that happens -- there's more openness, more freedom," she notes. "And let's face it, there's a gimmick with all women. The fact that we're all female has always sparked people's interest. There's not a lot of girl bands out there, and there's not a lot of girl bands that are good out there."
Calling from New York after a recent recording session, Cassidy and the Hendersons say their current success is sweet because it's been achieved on the band's own terms. The Visconti and VH1 connections arose after fans caught the band live, and part of the budget for the group's upcoming album is coming from fan donations solicited via the Internet. "It really just goes to show that there's a huge need for indie music -- that people believe in the dream," Cassidy says. "They want to see you keep doing it, and they'll support you. Just because it's not on the radio doesn't mean they don't want it."
Kristen Henderson, who plays rhythm guitar, explains that the band's sound has evolved to include the strengths of the various members. "There was definitely a time in the band's life where a lot of our songs were midtempo, and it felt like the show would drag," she says. "So we definitely went on a surge and we intentionally started writing upbeat songs. If it was, like, a dark moody ballad, it would come into the band, and the band would be like, 'OK, let's speed it up,' and it would turn into something like 'Choke.' I'll write it like a Shawn Colvin song and Cassidy will sing it like a Pearl Jam song, and then we land somewhere in Antigone Rising land."
Cathy Henderson says that the band currently has their strongest lineup ever, but adds that she and her sister are prepared to roll with whatever changes the future holds. "We bring in our sibling issues, there's no doubt about it -- there are times when it's easy for us to work together, and there are times when we clash," she says. "The one thing we always know is that we're never gonna walk away from each other, so we know this band will march on no matter what.
* * *
(Postscript: Antigone Rising eventually signed with Lava Records, releasing the single "Don't Look Back," cowritten with Rob Thomas, in 2004, and the Starbucks-exclusive live album "From the Ground Up" in 2005.)
A popular radio show is part of the Zucchini Brothers' quest to prove that kids' entertainment doesn't have to be childish
(Metroland, March 7, 2002)
Bet you didn't know the Northway goes to Zucchini Land.
Every weekday, a radio show called "The Zucchini Brothers" transports young listeners to a magical place where young Jack, Sam, and Steve Zucchini never grow old, and never run out of ways to educate and entertain themselves. If you want to see what Zucchini Land really looks like, take the Northway to Clifton Park and drive into a quiet subdivision to find the house where the assorted Zucchinimobiles are parked. Drift through the living room, where a miniature drum kit emblazoned with the phrase "my first band" sits by the fireplace, then trek down to the basement. There, across from the washer and dryer and surrounded by shiny insulation, is Zucchini Land. But it's not the candy-colored kingdom you might expect -- it's a utilitarian space crowded with microphones, keyboards and, of course, the Zucchini Brothers.
As longtime fans of the area's most prominent children's entertainers know, Jack, Sam, and Steve actually are grownups who have been performing as the Zucchini Brothers for more than a decade. The musicians, all in their mid-30s, aren't really siblings, and they prefer not to give out their real last names.
The group's radio show, which debuted in December 2000, airs locally at 3:30 PM every weekday on public station WAMC (90.3 FM), and is broadcast on nearly 50 stations across the country. One reason the Zucchinis are jazzed about the show is that it enables them to spread the word about their expansive view of children's entertainment. In addition to Zucchini Brothers songs, the show features the music of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Paul Simon, the Beatles, and even Natalie Merchant -- with the intent of breaking down boundaries between kid-oriented and adult entertainment.
"The cool thing is there's nobody giving us a play list," Jack says, "as long as it's music that would be good for public radio."
"We have a pretty good concept of what we want to do," Sam adds.
The concept of the show -- in which kid versions of the Zucchini Brothers play, learn, sing, and listen to hits ranging from '30s swing tunes to '90s folk-rock numbers -- is a natural outgrowth of the concept behind the band itself. The three men met while studying at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, and they first began playing together as a rock & roll cover band. All were interested in education -- Steve originally wanted to be an elementary-school teacher -- so they eventually combined their interests by forming a children's-music group.
For the last five years or so, the musicians have been full-time Zucchinis, and they just released their third album, "Safe & Sound," which offers musical advice ranging from "Don't Talk to Strangers" to "Learn Your Address and Phone." And while performances are still the band's primary source of income, they hope the radio show will eventually attract a deep-pocketed sponsor. The Zucchini Brothers say their ultimate goal is to become a nationally recognized brand name in kids' entertainment, but they acknowledge how ambitious a goal that is.
"It's a hard business to make money in," Sam says.
"It's dominated at the top," Steve adds, "and we're in the middle."
The Zucchinis become impassioned when delving into the harsh economic realities of their chosen genre. They note the huge gap between the prices charged for children's concerts and those charged for grownup shows, then say that many kids' entertainers get out of the game because they can't compete with corporate behemoths such as the Walt Disney Company. "It's tough, but we're a family," Jack says. "That's why we're still together -- because we are like brothers. We're constantly looking for new ways to get what we feel inside out there."
Jack's family analogy makes sense as the Zucchinis put together bits for the show, with the help of fellow performer Susan Meyer. Meyer, a mother of two, was a vocal fan of "The Zucchini Brothers" since its debut. She regularly e-mailed suggestions on how to improve the show, and told the Brothers that the program needed a female voice. The Brothers took her advice and added her character, a child named Susan, last September. Meyer also cowrites the shows with Jack, while Sam handles the technical end of the program and Steve researches songs for possible broadcast.
As the Zucchini Brothers and their honorary sister work together, they exhibit the comfortable interplay of a clan, laughing at each other's foibles, complimenting each other's best efforts, and sometimes just hanging out. At one point, Jack and Susan flip through magazines while Steve preps a musical selection and Sam tinkers with his digital editing machine. The four seem to approach the task of creating "The Zucchini Brothers" with the ease, and occasional friction, of a family making dinner together.
The show is created virtually one line of dialogue at a time, with Sam constantly adding newly recorded bits to previously taped segments, then playing everything back to see how various takes sound when put together with music and sound effects. It's painstaking work -- more work, the musicians say, than they ever expected -- but each daylong session produces several days' worth of shows.
On this Monday, the performers zip through sequences like a "Word of the Day" segment introducing listeners to the meaning and usage of "familiar," and a scene in which Steve makes slime for the gang to play with. The sound of crackling slime is provided by Jack, who snaps bubble wrap in his hands while peering over his glasses to read his script pages. Steve stands across the basement by his keyboard, speaking lines with high-pitched ebullience. The taping goes smoothly, despite flubbed lines, until Sam encounters a technical glitch, at which point he utters a four-letter gem unlikely to become the next "Word of the Day." A moment later, Jack ends up in the peculiar situation of acting opposite himself: As pretaped bits of his normal speaking voice are played back, he rises in his chair to speak lines in the frantic, breathless pitch of Pete, the shoe-store guy. Sam oversees the whole enterprise like a director, offering Jack this advice on his characterization: "Let's get it a little more like he's freaking out, as usual."
Interestingly, this kids' show is created without the direct involvement of any kids: Recording sessions involve four adults acting like children and presuming children will dig what they're doing. The Zucchinis say that they've been performing for youngsters for so long that conjuring kid-friendly merriment has become, in Sam's words, "second nature."
"A lot of this, as a writer, is based on my own experiences," Meyer says. "Like the slime show. I made slime with my kids last month and had such a good time that I said, 'We have to do a show about that.'"
"We're still doing enough gigs that we still have enough interaction with kids," Jack says.
The musicians feel strongly that children's entertainers shouldn't condescend to children, and they dislike the widely held perception that musicians who perform for kids are slumming. "There's a misconception that people who couldn't make it in the big world become kids' musicians," Sam says fervently, "and that's bullshit."
Meyer adds that she digs how the Zucchini Brothers' music appeals to adults, herself included: "Like, the first time I heard 'Mr. Ding-A-Ling,' I swore the Dead recorded it."
Still, the Zucchinis remember who their core audience is, and they say they're always looking for new ways to reach their youthful listeners. "Being a parent helps me do this better," Meyer says.
"I know how to think like a kid," Jack says. "I can't grow up."
And while you might think that being part of a popular children's program would make the Zucchinis heroes in their own households, Steve -- the only Zucchini Brother who is also a parent -- says that's not necessarily the case. "My kids know that this is what their father does," he notes. "People on the outside are like, 'He's a Zucchini Brother!' But they're like, 'OK, dad, when's dinner?'"