Published August 8, 2015 [Podcast link]
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Yep, yep yep. Me again. Michael Phillips, and hello from THIS IS NOT A TEST land. Recorded live in the city of angels, Los Angeles California. No one who lives here calls this the city of angels. I have no idea where that comes from. I should probably look it up, but I’m too busy right now talking to you. I don’t think that regular people came up with any of the weird slangy kind of names we have for things around here. I’m pretty sure they all come from local TV news shows and real estate developers. They just start saying ridiculous shit to sell scrub land or make their news show different and they repeated them so relentlessly that they just trickled down into use. Like “The Southland.” The Southland? What the fuck is that? It’s like Homeland. Makes no god damned sense in English. But when I moved out here the one that really got me was “The Inland Empire.” If you’re from Los Angeles you now what I’m talking about. And if you’re from “The Inland Empire” you really know what I’m talking about.
It’s like cult speak, The Inland Empire, because it isn’t an empire of anything. It’s the opposite of an empire. It’s dry, hot land full of people who can’t afford to live in the city or need a lot of space to manufacture meth. No one even wants to drive through it. I shouldn’t say that. I’m sure that isn’t true of the entire area, or all of the people who live there. I’m generalizing again, and that isn’t fair, is it. So let me just say to my friends in Hemet, and Chino and Victorville and Lancaster – god bless you, you ridiculous fuckers. I don’t know how you do it, and my hat’s off to you. One day this job I have is going to go away and I’ll probably be living in Lancaster myself, in my car in the Walmart parking lot, so I shouldn’t joke. I might need someone’s help someday and they’ll hear my voice and say, “Wait a minute, aren’t you the guy who called Lancaster a shit hole on your Internet podcast? We all heard that!” then I’ll be screwed.
Do you go to a lot of concerts? I really don’t anymore, but I sure used to. It was all I wanted to do when I was a kid, go to shows, so it pretty much was all I did. All of that arena shit in the 70s, I was there, with my pimply smiling face pressed up against the barrier in front of the stage. When I got a little older I started going to see music in the bars and clubs: punk rock, reggae, everything that I was interested in, and none of it was exactly arena rock. Seeing bands in those smaller venues really turned me off the big arena shows, naturally, so I stopped going to them. It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve ventured out with Carol to some bigger shows. Not in arenas, usually in theaters or outdoors, at the Greek or Hollywood bowl. And now that I’m really older, the whole ordeal of going to see live music is something that I’m less and less interested in. It’s a young people’s game, all of that standing around and jostling and wrist bands and sweatiness.
But we do go now and then, and a few days ago we went to see First Aid Kit. If you’ve never heard of them, First Aid Kit is a pair of Swedish sisters playing a kind of folky-country-70s inspired kind of music, which sounds a little unlikely, I know, but somehow they make it work. They more than make it work, actually, they’re great. And on paper they are everything I don’t like about young bands – they’re mining familiar territory, they’re from Sweden – nah, I’m just kidding about that. But I do often wonder why so many young musicians are content to keep plowing the same fields that have been plowed for the past 60 years, but they do, and we’ve talked about that here before. Probably too many times. But luckily we don’t listen to music “on paper,” so I appreciate First Aid Kit without holding anything against them or having any preconceived notions.
And you can certainly plow those old, often-plowed fields if you know what you’re doing, if you have a creative spark and if you’re genuine and talented and can write good songs. Plow those fields, go ahead. And First Aid Kit has all of that going for them, so I look at them as people who would have been great no matter which style of music they came up through. Good is good, and those two are good. One of the things I love about them is their harmony singing. I’m a sucker for harmony, and sibling harmony has that extra special something that you can’t put your finger on, and certainly can’t replicate with a random bunch of singers. The Roches kind of mastered that three sister harmony thing in the 70s and 80s, then went away or fell out of favor or whatever. Not that they were ever hugely in favor or popular or even widely known. But the Söderberg sisters, Klara and Johanna, really hit the sister harmonies out of the park. The two of them are more powerful than the three Roche sisters. Not that sister harmony is a competition, though I’d go see those kinds of sporting events.
Another thing I’m not too keen on where a lot of young bands are concerned is when their music all sounds the same. And I’ll tell you right here and now in front of god and my dog Gemma that First Aid Kit songs can tend to sound a little same-y. They kind of live in a galloping 6/8 time signature, and the vocal patterns tend to be similar, but again, every one of your songs can be the same, but if you’ve got everything else working, no one will care because it will still be interesting. Chuck Berry wasn’t exactly mixing things up a lot, and there are plenty of others who’ve built 20 year careers on the back of not only one kind of song but one song, so that’s not always a problem. If you’re not into a style of music it’s all going to sound the same to you anyway, so it’s not really the worst thing you can say about a band or a musician. I suppose the worst thing you can say is that it all sounds the same and you don’t like any of it.
And the fact that they are Swedish and playing music that is very much American is also something that could make you doubt the sincerity or authenticity of someone, but that’s also not really a valid reason to dismiss anything. Especially since “American” folk music really came from old European songs, so when you look at it that way, A couple of Swedish kids probably have more claim to it than Americans. If authenticity was a reason to dismiss a band we’d have to dismiss the Beatles and pretty much every white person who ever played rock and roll. Which, in retrospect, maybe we should have, but we didn’t. And really, I suppose American roots music can grab hold of you while you’re sitting in your bedroom in Stockholm just as much as Jamaican roots music can grab hold of a kid sitting in a bedroom in St, Paul. The love is valid, it’s the execution of the music inspired by that love that’s a crap shoot. But First Aid Kit doesn’t disappoint there. They’ve got it down, regardless of when they caught on to it, or whether they were weaned on it. Which, apparently they weren’t, since it seems their parents were more fond of early New York punk style music, and First Aid Kit definitely is not that.
But concerts, yeah – not too enthusiastic about going these days, and when I found out that the First Aid Kit show was going to be a general admission show in a church, I was really not down with it, as they say. But the first time they were supposed to come to America we had tickets but then the show was canceled because of visa problems or something, and we missed them last time through, so it seemed like the church was meant to be for us. “The church” I’m talking about is the Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire boulevard here in Los Angles, in the middle of Koreatown. Apparently they’ve done quite a few concerts there, but A) general admission is bullshit, and B) church pews are not my idea of comfort. Which makes sense since they aren’t designed to be comfortable. You must suffer for your god, everyone knows that. Funny though, we also saw a reading by Lena Dunham in a church in Pasadena, and they had thoughtfully provided cushions for the hard wooden pew seats, but it was still weird.
And to top it all off, Immanuel Presbyterian is not air conditioned. Which might not seem like a big deal, but in Los Angeles in August with 1500 people stuffed into it, it is a big deal, and it was hot, miserably hot throughout the whole evening. We also saw Fiona Apple on a miserably hot night, but that was at the Greek so we were all outside sweating together, which is somehow better than sweating together indoors. I mention Fiona Apple because that was probably the last truly great concert we’d been to, and it was really something. Talk about someone ripping the songs and the music from their guts – it was that kind of show. And First Aid Kit was just as good and incredible, though in a different way. The highlight of the night for me was when Johanna picked up an autoharp and said, “Since we’re in church, we thought we’d sing a couple songs off-mic.” and they stepped down off the stage and stood there right in front of us singing New Year’s Eve and Ghost Town out into the church, no amplification, no bullshit, just singing. I’ve never seen anyone do that. I’ve seen a lot of bands and musicians venture out into the audience for different reasons, but never to just stand there and sing.
And I know the people in the back of the church or way up in the balcony probably couldn’t hear it very well, because, it’s a huge cathedral and acoustically they’re not the best places for sound. But even though I’m pretty sure half the audience couldn’t really hear it, and despite the fact that we were a Los Angeles audience, which is typically a rude audience that doesn’t give a shit about you or the performers, the place was dead silent while they sang. I mean not a rustle or a cough or a clearing throat. You could have heard a nose piercing drop, and that was astounding all on it’s own. It takes a lot of nerve to get up onto any stage and say, “Here I am, look at me, these are my songs,” but to get down off that stage, and stand right in front of your audience and sing without the benefit of any kind of sound system really takes some balls. And did they nail it? Yes, they nailed it. Their singing and harmonies are tight, but still somehow stay loose enough to be endlessly interesting. They sing like they mean it, and that’s all I ever ask of anyone who stands in front of me on a stage – or off the stage.
And if I gave you the impression earlier that they are one trick ponies, allow me to disabuse you of that notion by saying that the third song they played after the off-microphone songs was a cover of the Black Sabbath song War Pigs. It wasn’t done ironically, near as I could tell, they really seemed into it, and it was heavy, man. Not Black Sabbath heavy, because nothing is that heavy, but heavy all the same. They played another cover as the first song in their encore, Simon and Garfunkel’s America, a song that highlights their strengths and demonstrates their greatness. A greatness I still can’t put my finger on other than to say it’s just raw talent and chemistry and timing. And I do have to wonder if not being American, or not being native English speakers also plays into it. There’s a purity that someone from outside of the culture can bring to our music that it would be impossible for a native to do. We come at this music – whatever American music you want to talk about – with our preconceptions and our experience, we can never come at it raw and fresh.
And the symbolism of the evening – intentional or not – wasn’t lost on me, as they performed there in the church in their white dresses, like Swedish angels come down to make Los Angeles clean again. A lot of the audience seemed to be First Aid Kit followers, rather than fans. I mean like they’d follow those girls off the edge of a cliff. True believers, you know. Kit-ies, I’ll call them. Has anyone else ever called First Aid Kit fans Kit-ies? Probably. But if not, you heard it here first. And I’m sure that to the Kit-ies it was very appropriate, angel imagery and all. I know I said the audience was very different from a typical Los Angeles audience, and they were, but there were still a lot of cell phones popping up. Not as many as at a more mainstream show, I’m sure, but still a lot. We we so close to the stage that it wasn’t terribly distracting, but it’s still so…listen, I won’t go on and on about the practice of using your god damn phone to take pictures and video during a concert, even though I could go on and on about it for the next fifteen minutes, but I won’t, except to say this: if you – my dear listener and close personal friend – find yourself holding your phone up over your head at a concert to take pictures and/or video, you are an asshole and an idiot. I’m sorry. You know I love you, but that’s why I’m being real with you. It’s like telling you when you have kale in your teeth or a booger hanging out of your nose. If you’re holding up your phone for half of the show, your behavior is moronic, deal with that however you see fit.
But First Aid Kit. How long can they continue on and still play like they mean it? How long can they capture the raw essence that they capture right now? Who knows. They’ve made three albums, and if history tells us anything it’s that there are rarely more than three good albums in any band. Maybe they will be one of the exceptions. I don’t know. All I know is that right now, at this moment in time, they are perfect. If you let it, their mournfully uplifting music will fill you with joy and make you feel human again. It hits me deep, that’s all I can tell you. And that’s all you can hope for with any art. You should turn this off right now and go buy all of their records. And if you have a chance to see them, go. They’re playing 200 miles away? Go anyway. Put a sleeping bag in your car and start driving. Pick up hitchhikers to share the cost of gas. Buy a ticket from a scalper, sneak in through the back door. Do whatever you have to do. You won’t regret it. Even if you’re old like I am, and you think your concert going days are over. They may be, I don’t disagree with you, but make an exception here. In fact as we were waiting in line to get in – because it was general admission – the two people in front of us were a father and daughter, and the two people in front of them were a father and son. A lot of parents with their children. It was like a 1980s KISS concert.
But yeah, I’m definitely too old for this shit now. Especially in these “alternative” venues and for christ’s sake, general admission? I thought I was done with that 30 years ago. It’s so uncivilized. And I should say that the seats at Immanuel Presbyterian Church were not hard wooden pews, but some weird kind of hybrid 1920s movie theater seat and church pew. So – more comfortable than sitting on a slab of wood, but still not comfortable at all for more than 15 minutes. I’ll tell you where they should have concerts – at movie theaters. The small ones will the big comfortable seats and the stadium seating. No one could stand in front of you and you could sit back and watch and listen in an acoustically nice space…sure, it wouldn’t exactly be a great deal for the bands since most movie theaters are 60 or 70 seats these days, but fuck the bands. Let them do a month in each venue. It’s funny, because most of the time when we do venture out to concerts it’s only because we know the venue is easy to navigate and we’ve got really good tickets.
In the 70s all those arena shows I went to, they were all general admission. If we really wanted to see someone up close we’d go wait in front of the giant doors – sometimes for hours – just so we could be first to run through the hockey arena in an idiotic and unseemly dash for the stage. And usually we made it. We waited overnight for Led Zeppelin once and I almost got crushed when the doors finally started to open. Maybe because I was punch drunk from lack of sleep and drunk drunk from the cooler full of beer we brought with us to make the waiting a little more bearable. You could do things like that back then. But now it’s so easy to go to stubhub and pay two or three (or 10) times face value for a good reserved seat in the first two rows. And that’s how I know I’m too old for these things. because when I’m sitting in those seats that I paid $400 for I turn around and see all of the young people looking at me like I’m an asshole because they know I just bought that seat with my old man money and they should really have the seat because they care a lot more than I do, I know they’re right. They should have the seat. So maybe we’ll retire from going to concerts. Go out on a high note with First Aid Kit. That probably won’t happen, but the bar has been raised, so it’s hard to imagine we’re going to see anything that good in the near future. First Aid Kit. 99 stars and three thumbs up. For real.
Well I read an interesting statistic the other day. Apparently half of the people who start podcasting quit before they get to episode 7. Then half of those that remain quit before episode 20-23. Since this is episode #33 of THIS IS NOT A TEST, I guess I’m in that 25% who are too stupid or masochistic to give up. I rarely give up on a book or a movie of a TV show before I see it through to the end. Well, maybe not TV shows, I will bail on those if they don’t pan out in five or six episodes. One recent exception being Wayward Pines, which I talked about recently and which I should have kicked to the curb after a few dismal episodes. But I’ve really enjoyed a lot of shows that I didn’t like at first, like Breaking Bad, so I tend to give them a little time to find their footing. I don’t expect to see any results from this, what we’re doing here, for at least a year, whatever those “results” may be. I’m not even sure, to tell you the truth. The long term result is to get a few people to ride along with me here, some kindred spirits as they say, and then when we’re on the road together, maybe you’ll be more likely to buy something from me. Like, say, a book. Or more specifically, the memoir I’m hacking away at. Go check out episode #20 for a taste of that.
So it’s contrived in that sense, all of this, but I’m not a seller or a marketer, so it can only be so contrived. Meaning I can have an overall goal or reason for doing this, for starting it, but the thing itself, what you’re listening to now, is always going to be real. It’s always going to be shit that’s rattling around in my head that I want to get out, or feel compelled to get out. Like a blog or a website or a record or a zine or screaming from the top of Mt. Wilson, a few miles north of me here. So whatever the reason for starting, it doesn’t really affect the thing I’m doing. It’s always going to be what it is, which in this case is me pontificating or philosophizing or droning or listing things or telling you about a church I went to. Whether that’s interesting depends on the cut of your jib. Depends on how weird and dissatisfied or astounded and confused by human behavior you are. I assume that since you’re here you’re kind of like me in some of those respects. We used to find each other at punk rock shows, now we congregate and commiserate here on the big machine in the sky. Which is pretty cool if you think about it. Not that the dingy little clubs and zines and hangouts weren’t cool in the past or aren’t still cool now. This is just a lot more convenient. We don’t have to put on pants or makeup or get into a car or bus or train to gather and be weird together.
And on that blue note, I’m going to blow on out of here. See you on the next train.
Oh, if you’re keeping track of my neighbor’s chirping smoke alarm, it’s still chirping. Five weeks now. But now rather than once every 30 seconds, now it’s chirping twice every 15 seconds. That’s 11,520 chirps every day. You know, if you’re keeping track. Yes, they still live there and hear it all day every day, they still haven’t fixed it, and yes, they are still bat shit crazy, every one of them.
Okay, sayonara fellow humans, and stay gold.
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First Aid Kit at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, August 5th 2015, Los Angeles, set list:
The Lion’s Roar
Our Own Pretty Ways
Shattered and Hollow
New Year’s Eve
My Silver Lining
War Pigs (Black Sabbath)
America (Simon and Garfunkel)
King of the World