Billie Eilish on surviving her teenage years and being her own director

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“The thing that’s worked,” Billie Eilish says, “is to just make what I wanted to make and expect nothing.”

Of course, making what she’s wanted to make has delivered far more than that: When Eilish took the stage at the ACL Music Festival in Austin on Oct. 5, she towered over a crowd that seemed impossibly vast. Untold tens of thousands of fans stretched beyond any given sightline as the 17-year-old whipped up a crowd already reeling from the 95-degree heat.

Roger Ho/Courtesy ACL Music Festival

A few hours earlier, Eilish sat at a much smaller spot — the Bonus Tracks stage, which ACL added this year as a low-key place to record live interviews for podcasts such as this one — for a conversation about her life and career. The crowd, though scaled down and situated in a shady oasis next to a wine bar, was no less fervent. Some had watched her brother Finneas perform his own set across a field a few minutes earlier, but many more had hunkered down for hours to secure a prime spot.

Eilish’s career began in earnest when she released “ocean eyes,” a moody bit of synth-pop written by Finneas — whom she calls “the most talented songwriter I’ve ever met in my life” — via SoundCloud in 2016. The singer was 14 at the time. That song led to an EP (2017’s Don’t Smile at Me), followed by this year’s millions-selling debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?Combined, Eilish’s songs have been streamed roughly 17 billion times, while “bad guy” finally topped the Billboard Hot 100 in August after a record-setting nine-week run at No. 2.

Of course, that nine-week run coincided with the record-setting 17-week streak achieved by Lil Nas X’s eternal “Old Town Road.” For her part, Eilish insists she wasn’t following the charts.

“I didn’t give a f,” she says. “I didn’t even know. Like, I didn’t even know. Like, bro. And then paparazzi followed me around the airport, like, ‘How do you feel that Lil Nas is No. 1 and you’re No. 2?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t give a f! Let him live! Damn!’ Like, why can’t he have a No. 1, you know what I mean?”

In this interview for All Songs Considered, Eilish talks about getting through her teenaged years, directing her own videos, prepping for a world tour, experiencing art with synesthesia and much more.

Special thanks to KUTX or helping make this interview possible.

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

Adrianne Lenker uncovers the mystery of Big Thief

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Big Thief’s new album, “Two Hands” is out now. It’s incredible and honest and mysterious. And I’m hoping that you’ve listened to this masterpiece. We love it, too, and we wanted to know more about this ethereal piece of beauty.

This is our conversation with Adrianne Lenker, the lead singer of Big Thief.

Big Thief | Courtesy of the artist
Interview with Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker

One of the things in listening to this album and other albums is that I love the mystery of Big Thief. There is something mysterious that you capture and have in your music. So I appreciate you giving me the time right now to swim in that mystery and kind of pick things up and put them down. And I appreciate that because it’s something that is really special about your band.

In “Forgotten Eyes,” you talk about “the forgotten tongue” and I wanted to know, what is the forgotten tongue?

I think there is a language that exists that we have forgotten. It brings our commonalities to surface rather than creating more separation. It’s more so what we’re paying attention to, there is a lot of distraction.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve felt like I was in a dream. I’d ask my mom, “Am I in a dream?” all the time. Randomly, I would just get this overwhelming sensation because a lot of it feels like an illusion to me. It’s this Matrix-y kind of vortex of focus on something that isn’t the thing itself.

Everything that we’re conditioned to focus on since we were kids — the text that we were taught in grade school, and the conversations we had about history or health — you learn about sex, but you learn about the least important part of sex. You learn about history, but you come to find out that it’s all biased and written from the perspective of the conquerors. Everything is always preparing you for something else in the future, which is basically embedding this anxiety in you.

It’s all coming to this point of being able to have some kind of a job that would give you stability. Its ultimately financial stability that we’re taught to strive for. We’re not taught how to find nourishment for our individual spirits as kids, or how to find meaning, or how to be able to work through our vulnerabilities and insecurities with other people, and how to listen to other people, and to practice non-judgement or nonviolent communication. Those aren’t the things that we are really focusing on. So it feels like this wash of distraction that keeps us locked up and only inhabiting some small percentage of our capabilities as human beings. I actually feel that there is this connective tissue threading through everyone on planet Earth that we’re aware of, but we are distracted from being able to feel it.

It’s this thing that ties us to the Earth herself. We’re actually just one organism, and if you zoom out even just a little bit, you see that we are one ball floating in space, and Earth is like a body that’s breathing and living, and it’s the only home that we have. There are so many languages that we learn, languages of separation, like political jargon saying “Are you right wing? Are you left wing? What religion are you? What’s your orientation and your gender?” And this and that. We’re just taught to compartmentalize all of these things as opposed to focusing on the stuff that binds us together. We don’t usually tap into what that stuff is.

I think music is a language that brings everyone together. Even if you don’t understand the words that are being said, you can understand the spirit of what’s happening. There is a language of love being the focus, being the beginning, middle and end of everything, being that ultimate connective thing. Like the love between a mother and a child. Maybe all of us having relatively short lifespans in comparison to Earth, we’re all, in a way, like children. And we aren’t practicing this language of love and reciprocity with the Earth. It’s because we’re not really taught and we’re not sitting down with our elders and asking stories, or having wisdom passed down to us. All of our elders are actually sitting in nursing homes tucked away. I think it’s something we know deep down in our spirits the way that we know how to breath, but it’s just forgotten.

With getting caught up in what we’re supposed to do, and like you said, ultimately the financial burden of what we’re conditioned to do. How do we break free of that? How have you broken free of that?

Well, I haven’t really broken free of that because the very thing that I do does depend on some level of navigating through the system that exists. I think that ultimately, it’s a pretty radical paradigm shift that needs to happen. And people get very freaked out when you start talking about dissolving borders, or money not existing, or having money not be the focus of it all. And finding a way of life where we can actually gather the nourishment that the Earth provides. The Earth provides everything we need, and there is plenty if only we learn how to, for instance, grow our own food, and only take what we need. To play a small part focused more inwardly on the various microcosms where maybe you only focus on one patch of the earth and the community that’s around you. Be a part of that rather than focusing on all the distraction in the conversation that’s happening in the maze of constant political crisis.

You know, what if you just shut that off for a second and focused on healing what’s right in front of you, and even in yourself too?

You are in a position where you also have to focus on so many people. How do you navigate that? Trying to concentrate on giving a loving relationship with yourself, the people around you, and with the body at large.

Well, I think what’s also daunting is navigating the wilderness of my own psyche. Going in there is what feels the most difficult at times. But the more I work on cultivating my own spirit, it’s just natural. I don’t have to think about how to give to other people, I can just be in that space of trying to work on myself and hopefully that light shines a little bit.

I find that to be difficult because, for whatever reason, sometimes it’s easier to give to other people than it is to give to myself. Then I find myself just getting depleted if I’m neglecting, or if I focus on trying to make music that pleases anyone else. I think the only thing that really works at the end of the day is concentrating on wanting to practice this self-forgiveness and a form of unconditional love for my own being. And staying there in presence with myself the way I would if I had a child. You know, just being there, and paying attention and giving as much care as possible.

Adrian, that’s beautiful. I think that that’s really important and it’s a really difficult thing to do.

I think anyone would collapse under the pressure or idea that they could hold everyone in their space. It can be overwhelming in a beautiful way. Just getting to play a festival, or a show, and looking out and seeing so many faces and so many people showing up with open hearts. It’s really a gift. We’re making ourselves really vulnerable and baring our souls, and the audience ends up doing that in return.

This is really amazing. Thank you so much for this.

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

Yours Truly: Valerie June lets her heart lead the way

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Radio Milwaukee’s new video series Yours Truly brings you up-close portraits of artists reflecting on their creative journey. On this week’s episode, we were honored to welcome Americana singer-songwriter Valerie June, who released her most recent album “The Order of Time” in 2017 on Concord.

In this intimate conversation, June discusses the path that led her to Memphis and how it took a debilitating illness to convince her to pursue her dream of a career playing music. She also talks about how following her heart eventually led her to New York.

For more videos with artists we love, subscribe to 88Nine Radio Milwaukee’s YouTube channel.

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Y La Bamba on vulnerability, love for family and discovering self

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On Labor Day weekend I got the opportunity to interview Luz Elena Mendoza, also known as Y La Bamba. Click the audio to listen to our chat below.

Interview with Y La Bamba
Gabriella Cisneros for NPR Y La Bamba fronted by Luz Elena Mendoza | Gabriella Cisneros for NPR

To break the ice I started off the conversation with a question that 88Nine’s Dori Zori always asks during her interviews. What does your childhood smell like?

It smelled like smoked vegetables, carne asada and wood. My parents worked at a saw mill and their clothes would be covered in like plywood. That smell was in the garage or on and my dad’s clothes whenever I hugged him.

I noticed a sonic shift in from your first album “Alida St.” to now “Mujeres.” What was the thought process behind making such a powerful record?

It’s always been an exploration and it’s crazy because we’re all in our worlds. I’m in my own world and the more with “cognitive dissonance” and realizing how things are playing out, I’m like, ‘WHOA, okay!’ I’m understanding so much more about myself as we speak. Music has been something that I came across in my early age and it wasn’t because my parents gave me an instrument, it’s because I heard Mariachi music, grouperos and boleros. I was influenced by the harmonies and the ability to express yourself so passionately, it was such a normal. However, I’ve always written songs on my own, even if I didn’t have any instruments. It was a way to communicate.

Fast forward and being where i’m at now, I never really have expectations for people to hear what it is that I’m doing. When I write or when I am learning something new, whether it’s gear related or that I can be my own producer, that is a big deal. I’m just starting to enter safer spaces where I can explore that and also claiming my space. It takes a little bit of both and that’s why it’s so different. I’ve been growing as a person and instead of seeing what you can take from me, I want to invite you to share with me as I am documenting sound and my story. That’s how I see when I hear musicians like Juan Gabriel and Cat Power.

I feel like what went behind this album was just pure vulnerability, not being afraid of it and just doing it. There were a lot of tears shed, because I was thinking about my mom. This album was specifically for my mom and everything I do is for her. She may or not really understand that it’s for her, but I’m really fighting for her, because she’s still busy surviving. Every single album I’ve ever made or anything I’ve ever done has always been for my family. They’re the first people that come across my mind and stay with me. When I go up and sing, it’s exhausting. Going up and playing every single day, I think about them. It’s hard to deny that. It’s very charged by the behavior that surrounds healing “ancestral trauma” and still protecting my family and myself.

The Latinx community doesn’t have consistent spaces like Los Dells for bands like yours to play. What’s the importance of Los Dells?

Well, usually when I’ve played around this area, which hasn’t been a lot, certain types of crowds that are genuinely present, but I always have to do a lot of labor to protect myself and make sure that I feel safe. Are they going to receive this well? Is that even important? I just wanna make sure that I just wasn’t someone’s good Thursday evening of sound and ethnic tokenism. I don’t want to be that. I played Bumbershoot and like Seattle loves us. We have a good relationship with Seattle, but I was excited to play this festival because of the lineup. Now because I am here in this space, I trust that we’re all going to be in the good hand. I was like, ‘Whoa! Okay, this obviously for Latino communities! And hell yeah, bring all this to Wisconsin. I don’t even see that in Portland!’

Since our conversation a few weeks ago, Y La Bamba has dropped a new EP called “Entre Los Dos.” The music continues to represent what she’s about, what she’s learning, while sharing the culture with her fans. Here’s the latest single, “Gabriel.”

Thank you Y La Bamba, Felix Contreras from NPR Music’s Alt.Latino, the crew at 88Nine and most of all the team at LOS DELLS!

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

Denzel Curry finds spirituality in boxing and reveals his most treasured memory

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Radio Milwaukee’s new video series Yours Truly brings you up-close portraits of artists reflecting on their creative journey. For this installment, we sat down with 24-year-old Florida rapper Denzel Curry, who is enjoying a breakout year thanks to his excellent new album “Zuu.” Pitchfork described it as “the best, most dynamic, and altogether hardest album of his career.”

In this intimate conversation, Denzel explains his love of UFC and anime. He also shares his background in drawing and teases a graphic novel he’s been working on. And, of course, we ask him what his childhood smelled like.

For more videos with artists we love, subscribe to 88Nine Radio Milwaukee’s YouTube channel.

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Yola on the magnificence of Mavis Staples and finding acceptance

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Radio Milwaukee’s new video series Yours Truly brings you up-close portraits of artists reflecting on their creative journey. On this week’s episode, we were honored to feature English roots and soul singer Yola, who released her stunning new album “Walk Through Fire” this year on Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound label. We’ve had her single “Love All Night (Work All Day)” on regular rotation here at Radio Milwaukee.

In this intimate conversation, Yola recalls her airport encounter with her hero Mavis Staples, discusses the importance of creating an environment that allows you to self-actualize and wonders how Martin Luther King Jr. kicked it in his downtown.

For more videos with artists we love, subscribe to 88Nine Radio Milwaukee’s YouTube channel.

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Nick Offerman speaks from the heart about his love of Tom Waits

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Nick Offerman is best known as Ron Swanson in “Parks and Recreation.” He’s also an accomplished woodworker, writer and public speaker. He is coming to Milwaukee this Thursday, Sept. 12, to the Riverside Theater.

He’s also a Tom Waits fanatic, something I can relate to. I used to host a radio show called “Tom Waits and Tom Waits play Tom Waits” where I impersonated Tom Waits and played his music and music that influenced him, so his enthusiasm was well-matched. We discussed his (many) favorite Wait songs.

Nick Offerman | Photo credit: Michael Gomez
Nick Offerman and Justin Barney on Tom Waits

Nick, what is the last song that you couldn’t stop listening to?

The last song I couldn’t stop listening to is called “Hold On” by Tom Waits.

I’m so thrilled by this because Tom Waits is my favorite artist of all time.

Well then, we have a lot in common.

Let’s talk about Tom Waits. He is a very unique artist. What do you think makes him unique and what do you like about him?

Oh boy. Well, I mean, you know, is his sensibility, his, his talent, his taste, his very peculiar character and his sense of humor and his romance. Also the sort of mysterious collaboration with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, who is co-credited on a lot of the writing, but no one ever knows exactly who does what. He’s the troubadour for the romantic with a twinkle in his or her eye.

I think the most underlying thing about him is his romance.

Yeah. That’s what first hooked me. A young lady in college played me, “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” on a the guitar. That was the first inkling I had of him. Unfortunately I wish she had been playing it to me, but she was auditioning it for me, asking if I thought it would be good for her to play it for the guys she wished she hoped she didn’t fall in love with.

[Laughs]

So from the get go, I was like, “Oh, Jesus, what is this? What is this bewitching, romantic, gorgeous tale?” So then his early records, I was always struck by his take on “Somewhere” from West Side Story. It’s one of the gruffest renditions of a song that is somehow, at the same time, filled with heartbreak and tenderness.

And you either get it or you don’t. Cause I remember then playing it for my mom and dad and saying, guys, look at this incredible artist. He’s been recording since about the year I was born, 1970, and check out this version of the “West Side Story” song. And I played it and my dad [characteristic Nick Offerman laugh]. My Dad is a simple Midwesterner, so  he says, “Sounds like he got in a fight and someone punched him in the neck.” I said, you know, “Dad, you don’t understand me.”

I think people love the gruffness of his voice and that kind of like wild man carnival barker. But I am more into the ballroom balladeer myself. You spoke about his humor, which I think is such a huge part of his music. He’s this carnival barker, but he’s also funny.

There’s no one funnier. I mean, to touch on what you said, the thing about the gruffness in his voice, it’s a legitimacy. The gravelly voice immediately tells you he has been there. Like any shit you can think of. He’s seen it. He paints these worlds of carney backstage characters and, you know, legless table top piano players, and you’re like, yeah, I believe from the way you’ve created this voice and this persona, I believe that you have emptied bottles of cheap rum with these characters. But then, yes, and that’s why it’s funny.

Across my life, I had a theater company in Chicago called the Defiant Theatre and we colored as many of our productions with Tom Waits music as possible. We would use instrumentals from “The Black Rider,” as like scene shift music. He has really been the soundtrack to my life.

When “Mule Variations” came out in 1999 that was just sort of the pinnacle. I was, I don’t know, was 28 or 29. I was coming of age, sort of graduating from the wild youth of my twenties. And, uh, it was really, really hard to pick a song for this program from that record because there’s five or six that I feel are just the anthems of my life. Um, not only the ballroom balladeer of which you speak, but there’s a couple of messages on that record.

One is, “Get behind the mule.” It’s a song, but it’s also the chorus and it’s basically saying, you know, every day you got to get behind the mule and plow. If you want to live, right, you got to get up and get to work.

And then later there’s a song called “Come On Up to the House,” that is basically a sort of comforting, admonition, saying, “Look. The world is hard. You know, things have not gone great for any of us, but come on up to the house, everyone get together around the table and that’s how we keep going. That’s how we make everything. Okay. We will always have tragedy and hardship, but if we come on up to the house, everybody stick together in a family or community and that’s how we will succeed and get through it.” And I mean those are deeply wise ways to go about achieving a healthy life. So besides being moved by his music, you know, you could embroider those things on a pillow and they are words to live by.

So, why “Hold On?”

Well, uh, I knew you were going to ask that and I don’t have a succinct scientific answer. That record, I was shooting a movie in New Orleans called “Lush” when that record came out and I went out and I got it on vinyl and CD. I was staying in an apartment of somebody on the prop crew. It was a low budget movie. And I had the day off. So I was able to just put on the record and consume it. From the moment I heard that song, it just is the epitome for me of the romantic heart of Tom Waits music bursting with love. And the sort of, hopeless nature of, you know, it brings to mind his earlier song “Stone Blind Love,” just the sensibility of being so in love that you can’t stand it. So just musically it almost makes me tear up. When I just hear the music start. And then beyond that, the lyrics, the story, the descriptions of this girl, another sort of misbegotten character who just seems to be in search of love, but she’s standing outside a store dancing in the cold with no music. Like, um, there’s some something, there’s something about it that just, it’s a pushes my love button.

There are a few people that can write, or have written with that kind of musical romance and then that just kind of pure love that I feel as well when I listen to that. Um, perfect.

There are two other songs on that record that are so… god damn beautiful. One is called “Take It with Me.” Uh, and Megan used to sing that with her band years ago. With her previous band years ago. And imagine. Imagine feeling this way about Tom Waits and then you marry someone with incredible pipes. In fact, that was one of the first moves, unbeknownst to her, when we met, we were doing a play, and she had recorded her first record with this previous band called Supreme Music Program. And she said, “Hey, I just recorded some songs with my band, can I play them for you?” And the first one we listened to was “Ruby’s Arms,” an early, early beautiful Tom Waits song. I mean, just a heartbreaking ballad.

And you know, I was like, “Well, okay, I’m screwed. You may do as you please with me, ma’am.” The other, equally gorgeous song on that record is called, “Picture In a Frame.”

My God.

Yeah. That was the song I chose for the walking into our wedding. Megan chose Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.” And then as the recessional I chose “Picture In a Frame.”

I think of that every time I put a picture in a frame or see a picture in a frame. It’s such a small act. To see the poetry in that is something that I don’t think anybody else has done.

No, no. Especially in the prolific a way as he has done. I mean, we’re talking about, going on 30, 40, going on 50 years of songwriting. Yeah. 50 years. I mean, I’m 49 and I feel like I’ve gotten a little work.

It’s unbelievable. And we’ve left out, you know, countless records and songs, but there’s one other, one other lyric I want to point out that it is just blows me away every time.

It’s on “Real Gone” from the early 2000s, and it’s a song called “Day After Tomorrow.” It’s about a young soldier who is at war in the Middle East and he’s been promised that he gets to go home the day after tomorrow. And it has these lines that actually quoted in, uh, in my book, “Gumption.” They’re so gorgeous, that I’m shutting my eyes cause I’m doing all of this without, uh, a reference, but, he’s thinking about the other side, the soldiers on the other side and says, you know, “I imagine they don’t want to die anymore than we do. And we’re all praying to the same God. So tell me how, how does God choose whose prayers does he refuse? Who, who rolls the dice and who spins the wheel on the day after tomorrow?”

And that simple notion of that simple sort of antiwar, John and Yoko notion of like, if you just stop and think about it, none of these, none of all of these young men and women would prefer to be here getting ready to kill each other in the name of what? Oil profits? But it’s such a succinct way of putting it. And again, like you said, he, and presumably in his collaboration with Kathleen, they are able to glean the most gorgeous and moving sentiments out of the tiniest gestures.

Yeah. I remember I was graduating from college and I was applying to all these jobs and I was getting rejected from one after another and they, like the timeline was closing in. I had two months to graduate and I had nothing to show for it so far. And I was going down the street and I was listening to the song “On The Nickel” and in “On The Nickel” he says, “The world keeps on getting bigger when you get out on your own.” And I lost it. It was my whole world. How succinctly to just put it like that. My entire life and my entire education to say the world keeps getting bigger when you get out on your own. It was just crushing.

Yeah. I mean, you know, that’s, that’s great art. When anyone can see themselves in it, when it’s emotionally applicable to anyone’s life situation across the decades. It’s timeless. It’s huge. So from that record, I’m not going to think of a song title might be “Kentucky Avenue,” but there’s that song that ends with, “So you asked me what I’m doing here holding up a lamppost, flipping this quarter, trying to make up my mind. If it’s heads I go to Tennessee. If it’s tails I buy you a drink. And if it lands on the edge, I’ll keep talking to you.

That’s great. Okay. This has been such a wonderful 20 minute conversation about, an artist that we both love. So thank you. Thank you so much.

My pleasure. And I mean, it’s, you know, it’s just a drop in the bucket. We’re going to have Ken Burns come over and we’ll do a whole seven part series.

Yes. Exactly. Thank you.

Yeah. I appreciate it. And, um, I’m glad that I’m not alone.

Yeah, me too. All right, Nick.

All right, well thank you. Have a beautiful day and I’ll see you in Milwaukee.

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

Craig Finn decodes secret messages in The Hold Steady’s new album

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The Hold Steady are America’s bar band. Now, the bar has a little more dust on it. It’s been around for a while, but it’s still well attended by the regulars. It’s more The Newport than Hacienda Brewing Company. Let’s face it, The Hold Steady have always been a dive bar band.

“Thrashing Through The Passion” is the seventh studio album from bar flies The Hold Steady. They’ve brought back Franz Nicolay for the first time in a decade and it feels like a reunion. The horns are louder. The verses are bigger. Raise your mugs in the air The Hold Steady are back! Lead singer Craig Finn has always been the man at the front. He’s Jesus Christ the morning after he turned all that water into wine. In “Passion,” our hungover hero’s got parables with new characters and looming figures. You never know what’s going to happen in a Hold Steady album, so we went right to the source and called Finn from a booth in Seattle tell us what he can about this next book of their Bible.

How was seeing The Rolling Stones yesterday?

Stones were amazing. I couldn’t believe how good it was. It was obviously fun to see, but the showmanship is just incredible. I’ve been to arena shows recently, but it’s been a while since I’ve been in a full-on stadium show. There aren’t that many bands that can do stadium shows at this point. I was just marveling that we saw him play about 20 songs, but we could have rewritten the set list with 20 different songs — all huge hits. That really is insane. I’m really glad we got to go.

Do you have a favorite Stones era?

I’m very into ’em. My favorite Stones album, at least what I say it is, is “Goats Head Soup.” You know, there’s sort of four classic records that people point to: “Sticky Fingers,” “Exile on Main St.,” “Let it Bleed” and “The Beggar’s Banquet.” But right after that, when they get into “Goats Head Soup,” they start wearing makeup and capes. I liked that. I like the darkness. They’d been so famous and such big rock stars for so long, that they sort of left reality. I also really like going into the later ’70s and ’80s stuff, like “Emotional Rescue,” where it becomes very New York. They started incorporating stuff like disco and new wave in the sound.

I love that idea of accomplishing everything you were supposed to. Where the only thing left to do is get weird.

Yeah. I mean, they gotta keep going, and “Goats Head Soup” has some really strange stuff on it.

So, your new album, “Thrashing Thru the Passion” is out tomorrow.

Yeah, it’s pretty exciting. The second half has come out digitally over the past few years. We’ve been releasing music periodically over the past few years, just digitally, and really enjoyed that because there’s this sense of finishing a song. There’s no manufacturing time, marketing plan or whatever. It’s just like releasing music to the fans. But when we went up to Woodstock to record these five songs and put them together, they just sounded so much like the front side of an album. So we decided to make it an album. It’s interesting in 2019. Obviously people listen to music different ways — streaming is a big thing. But there are still people out there and in our fan base that don’t engage with anything unless it’s an album. So you’re trying to please a few different types of people. I always sort of thought these singles would become an album. Sort of like the first Clash record that was a collection of singles. The Stone Roses’ first album was a collection of a lot of music that had come out before. I always saw us doing things that way, and that’s sort of what this is.

Well, I think that a big part of The Hold Steady experience is the full album. There is a certain something about Hold Steady records that have a through line of reoccurring themes that start in the beginning and come back around. It is one of the joys of listening to your records.

Yeah. We obviously grew up with the album as the preferred format. So, I tend to think of things that way. We have a few albums in particular that are very much designed. “Separation Sunday” comes to mind — it’s “the concept album,” so to speak. But you know, I think that’s there in this one too. I think that there are things that you’ll notice are popping up in several different songs. It was just revealed to the world in a little different order.

What’s revealed? Tell me your secrets. 

Well, when I say revealed, I mean that people aren’t hearing them all at once, so to speak. There are phrases, and for instance, on the front side alone there are several different mentions the military figure, The General. So you can listen for that, and see what you think.

I read every Hold Steady album through the seven layers of what it could be. To me, “Thrashing Thru the Passion” is a reference to the passion of the Christ. Of course, it could not be. Can we confirm or deny that?

I think you probably know, I like things that mean many different things. We’ve talked about the Christ passion, but at the same time, I think that there’s a sense of the passion we feel for the band and for making music. There’s also the lustful idea of passion. All of them can plug in to work in this case. We actually talked a lot about the title, and spelling “through” as “thru,” which is kind of the first time modernity has crept into The Hold Steady — at least in titles. I’ve gotten used to spelling it that way through texting. So, we thought of the passion, in the sense of the biblical passion, that’s very old juxtaposing with “thru” in this sort of modern-text spell was interesting in itself.

I love that. So the last time you were in Milwaukee, you were touring Craig Finn solo albums. You were on stage here talking about the difference between Craig Finn and Hold Steady. You had said that with Hold Steady albums, big, huge moments happen. Then I was listening to “T-Shirt Tux” and there’s the line, “Tiny triumphs and massive failures.” And I was like, that’s the whole thing.

That is sort of the whole thing. It feels tiny when you triumph, but massive when you fail. These are perceptions.

That is so true. Why is that?

I think it’s because we are our own worst enemies. It’s very hard to love yourself as much as you love others, or a small baby or something like that. You can’t treat yourself like that. It’s very hard. It would be wonderful if we could, but you know, somewhere in there lies our humanness.

The Hold Steady | Photo courtesy of the band

So you had said before that on the Hold Steady records, your job is primarily in songwriting. How is that for this album?

Yeah, especially in the lyric writing. Usually Tad, Steve or Franz bring in the music, and it’s not always arranged. It might be a couple parts that go together, and I’ll write words to each part, and then we talk about how to construct it. So it starts out as an individual effort, or two individual efforts. Then as we start putting it together, it becomes more collaborative in the practice space and  studio.

I think the last time you were here, you were playing at Cactus Club and talking about how the relationships we all have are imperfect and how they change. How has your relationship with The Hold Steady changed?

Well, we’ve all gotten older and mellowed in some way. Four of us have children — I’m one of the people who don’t. I think that changes people, usually for the better. Also, in the last five years I’ve become a better musician and I think that’s from playing with different people. That elevates you. So hopefully I’m able to bring something new to this record that I wasn’t able to in 2014.

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

Jeff Tweedy searches for joy amid the darkness

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On Oct. 4, Wilco will release their 11th studio album, “Ode to Joy.” The album comes on the heels of two Jeff Tweedy solo albums, “Warm” and “Warmer.” The album doesn’t skirt around the fact that we are living in a charged time. Through “Ode to Joy” Jeff Tweedy tries to find joy in love, companionship, friendship, and family. “This is my effort to figure it out,” Tweedy tells us. 

Annabel Mehran

Let’s talk about your new record. “Ode to Joy” is coming out, and they sent it to me early. It’s a great listen. I think it could be called “Ode to Love,” as well. I feel like there’s equal parts love and joy there. 

I’ll take your word for it.

Do you not think so?

I think it could be — joy is involved in love. I think that it’s always hard to write a whole records’ worth of material without talking about a love or referencing love — even in its absence. So, yeah, I think the whole record is about having small emotions and small personal concerns and — in our current political climate — feeling like they’re overshadowed by some awareness of deeper suffering. Even in a global sense and outside of your realm, love is a part of that. I mean, love, joy, companionship, friendship and family are all worth fighting for. For me, if you’re not enjoying or are supportive of those things that are worth living for, you’re eliminating some desire to make things better. 

For sure. Maybe the ode is to love in the absence, as you said, because that is everywhere. But you mentioned “small emotions” — why did you key in on small? 

I think a lot of people in this moment spend a lot of time being outraged at big problems. They are outraged from a distance, and overwhelmed by global concerns at the expense of fully appreciating and feeling our own emotions. In some cases, people are even feeling ashamed to have joy, or be in a positive state of mind when there’s so much to be aware of that is disturbing or upsetting. I don’t know how humans evolve past that. It’s a relatively new thing to know of all of the world’s suffering, every second of every day. That’s beyond whatever political climate we find disturbing. It’s a new thing. I’m concerned about it, but I also think that we’ll figure it out. This is my effort to figure it out, I suppose, and to be comfortable owning the small moments of joy, as well as the bigger understanding of my good fortune in the world, you know? 

Yeah. Having an understanding of the entire human suffering at once is so overwhelming, and it can be so exhausting. My friend tweeted about enjoying a TV show the other day, and then my other friend got in and was like, “How can you be talking about this thing that you’re excited about, when you know this other tragic thing happened?” It just seems so unfair to stomp on this person’s honest joy in something.

It’s not a zero-sum game. Does your friend that’s shaming people for having a moment of joy understand that him not enjoying that TV show doesn’t give that pleasure to someone else?

That’s so true. It’s almost what I wanted to say in that moment. I just said nothing because saying something felt pointless. But it is your job to say things. You’re in a profession where you are expected to speak and you have the burden of responsibility.

I don’t feel like that’s my job. I feel like I have opinions, but like anybody else, I’m a citizen. As a citizen, I feel like I’m doing my best to be a good one. I stay aware, and I contribute. My job is to be inspired, to keep making things and hope that somebody will stumble across them and become inspired to make something themselves. It’s more of promoting this idea that aligning yourself with creativity rather than disruption is a good idea.

At shows like yours, I feel like there is a sense that we can all agree on what makes us happy. It’s this thing that we can do outside of our typical circle, with people that may have different beliefs than us, and you love something together.

Well, I think all concerts are kind of that. I think that, at their best, public gatherings are an unparalleled human experience. It’s a way to really get some sense of community that we don’t normally have when isolated in our own homes. I think all of our rock concerts, sporting events and things like that are really helpful in that regard. They are something where you can kind of lose yourself and feel like you’re a part of something bigger, but at the same time, not feel alone.

Yeah. You know, I went to church for the first time in a long time, a couple of weeks ago, and I had that same feeling there. There’s so much going on there that I was conflicted about, but I loved singing along with everybody else. I knew all the words too. I loved having the go ahead to sing as loud as you want with everyone. It was great.

Yeah. There’s nothing that can replace that. One of the best things humans have figured out how to do is sing together. A lot of people that don’t have church in their lives look for it and search for it. Rock concerts have a very similar function.

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

The Get Up Kids on growing up

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The Get Up Kids have been a big part of a lot of “kids” of a certain age. They formed in 1995 and by the late ’90s and early ’00s they were hitting their stride in the middle of the power pop/emo movement of that era. Before the decade was out the band spun out and disbanded. After a couple solo albums from lead singer Matt Pryor the band got back together and last year they signed to Polyvinyl Records and this year released the triumphant albums, “Problems.” We have been spinning the song, “The Problem is Me,” on 88Nine.

Matt Pryor called us from a hotel in Miami to talk about the band and the new album. 

Shawn Brackbill

I’ve always loved your relationship with your audience and their relationship with you. Everyone is always singing all the words during your shows. What has been your relationship with your audience with “Problems” coming out? How are you thinking about your audience when you are making a new album?

When you’re trying to create something like an album, you have to take this leap of faith that the people who already like your band are going to get it. I think if you’re like, “Oh, I don’t think we should put this song on the record because our old fans won’t like it.” That it’s disingenuous. We’ve made decisions that were based 100% on creativity, and 0% on business. We have sometimes been less successful on those things. But because we’ve always taken the creative approach first, we have a certain amount of integrity where everybody knows we might try something different, but we’re still gonna try and be really honest with ourselves.

You have to do kind of a give and take because you want to play the new songs even if nobody knows them, or you want to play some songs that are just fun for us to play- which right now is the new songs! But then there are the 10 songs that we feel we have to play otherwise the audience will be bummed. You know what I mean? We’re very cognizant of that.

Yeah, it’s got to work.

We’ve never been able to pretend that we’re not having fun, and whenever we’ve been in situations where we’re having a bad show, then it’s like — we are having a bad show.

We’re performing to have a good time, and the audience is there to have a good time and we want to do that together. 

When I get a disconnect from the audience though, I sometimes notice this new contingent of the disgruntled significant other. It’s like a couple, where one partner is really, really into us and wants to be in the front row, but then the other is dragged to come see us play and can’t be bothered. They are right in front of me with their arms crossed or checking their phone. It’s kind of a new wrinkle.

Oh my god, I’ve seen that at shows. You know, I’ve brought people to shows like that…

I’ve been that guy at shows, but I stay in the back. Why do you want to be in the front if you’re bored?

We are playing “The Problem Is Me,” right now. Could you tell me about the meaning of that song? 

Well, it’s a story of a friend’s second divorce. At one point he was kind of like, “You think it’s me? Do you think I just shouldn’t get married ever again?” And I was kinda like, well, it’s at least half you. No relationship is a one way street. 

The song is about taking personal responsibility, and admitting that you shouldn’t be so mad at someone for leaving.

That can be a tough thing to admit.

Well, you know, that’s why we go to therapy.

Yes.

And then Rob had this guitar riff and then we arranged it trying to create a blur and bounciness to it. We were really happy with the way it turned out. I had originally written the song as a full story, so it never repeated. The chorus was actually different every single time.

We’ve made decisions that were based 100% on creativity, and 0% on business

-Matt Pryor

What are you most proud of with this record?

I really liked the song “Common Ground” that we had Kori from Mates Of State sing on. She just came in and added this kind of like, “Nah, Nah, Nah, Nah,” that was exactly what the song needed. And I dunno, I like the introspective songs on the record, like “Salina” and “Common Ground.” The funny thing about “Salina” is that it’s this silly little slice of life- not really a song about much of anything, but it’s this really epic song. We thought about writing bigger lyrics for the song, but it’s a slice of life. Normal life. 

What is “Salina” referring to?

Salina is a town in western Kansas that’s about two hours away from where we live. The story of the song lays with my wife and my son’s relationship. It has this component of me being gone, that we’ve always had the whole time we’ve been together. But eventually when she had to go to Salina for a work training for two days, I surprisingly didn’t know what to do. I was just like, “What is wrong with me?” When we flipped our typical dynamic, I was weirded out. I try to be better about it now.

What’s the last song you couldn’t stop listening to?

“Morbid Stuff,” “Kids,” “Free At Last,” and “See You At Your Funeral,” by Pup.


88Nine Radio Milwaukee