Thursday, December 18, 2014

Five Questions With... Andy Fleming of Brother Trucker (Or Actually, Four)

Andy Fleming playing at the Fire Trucker Brewery in August
(Photo by Bonita Crowe)

I spoke with Andy Fleming briefly outside of el Bait Shop a couple of weeks ago on a Wednesday night. His band, Brother Trucker has been in the habit of playing there on the first Wednesday of every month, and coming into December, it had been announced that this particular night would be the last go-round for this monthly tradition. 

Jeff Bruning, or Bruno as he is known as publicly, is an owner of el Bait and the driving force behind the establishment's marketing genius. On KXnO's Morning Rush show several weeks ago he said that the music gets too loud, and in the winter time people don't have access to the patio like they during the summer. Bruno is a regular guest on the Morning Rush show, where once a week he goes into the KXnO studio and discusses everything that's new and exciting in the national brewing culture.

He went on to explain that when el Bait opened, there wasn't a hotel downtown, and his clientele wasn't as based on that fact as it is now. "We've had bands in that have been too loud and we've had people leave," he said. "We decided to just stop having bands play. At least for now."

Thankfully, he had a change of heart. Before Brother Trucker played a single note, Bruno announced that he was going to keep the first Wednesday of the month tradition going into the new year. Great news for fans of Brother Trucker. The fact that the place was absolutely packed might have had something to do with that. When I arrived shortly after 8:00, I didn't see too many people who weren't there to see the band. The place was feisty and jubilant.

After the band's initial set, Andy made his way outside for a moment, where I bumped into him at the entrance on his way back in. We stood in the frigid December air for about 10 minutes talking about this latest success and the music scene in general. People were walking in and out, and most everybody who passed by stopped to shake Andy's hand. 

He is highly revered in the local music scene, and people are automatically drawn to him. He calmly smiled and spoke to every single person that approached him. 

Andy Fleming is a troubadour on the stage, but he is a pioneer in other ways. I emailed him the next day because I had always been curious about why he had put the letters FUBVP on his yellow Strat underneath a sticker of the US Flag.

Andy Fleming has a message for Bob Vander Plaats
(Photo by Bryan Farland)
What FU stands for is obvious... but for those who don't know, BVP refers to local headache and anti-gay spokesman Bob Vander Plaats, who's annual Family Leader Summit gets way too much notoriety and fanfare among the ultra-right wing political class. Fleming has always championed the little guy and taken the side of the underdog. A song called "Downtown" that he wrote tells the story of a kid who, after his parents discovered that he was gay, was pushed out into the streets. The teenager was forced to make a new life for himself on the streets of Des Moines.


What exactly is the story behind the FUBVP on your guitar? 

About the same time my dear friend/musical mentor Bejae Fleming (no relation) and her partner Jackie Blount were tying the knot… legally, Brother Trucker was booked at the State Fair. I wanted to use our larger moment of visibility to convey - in the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Joe Strummer as well as Mike Cooley of the Drive By's - a message of solidarity behind those who deserve equality.

What kind of guitar is it exactly?

American Fender Telecaster purchased at Dirk Netwon’s Guitar Shop. Proudly. Dusty from Stuttering Jimmy/Slopcycle/Johnny Reeferseed and the High Rollers… bought the other blonde Tele hanging next to it at Drik’s… we’re kind of guitar kin in that way.

What would you like to say to Bob Vander Plaats if you had a chance to meet him? 

To go fuck himself. I’m kinda kidding. “Would (he) let Mike Huckabee’s son dog sit for him?…"

What drives you so hard to respect people's individual personalities? 

Mostly out of desire for giving what you hope to get back…the do onto others – value. – I honestly, seriously need to do a much better job in being able to articulate a true respect for those individual personalities I disagree with most. I’m really under-performing in that area.

As a husband, a father, a musician and a friend, Andy Fleming is a highly respected voice. I for one find it refreshing that he has chosen to use his guitar as a billboard to push back against Vander Plaats and the rabid message he preaches. Woody Guthrie played a guitar that has "This Machine Kills Fascists" written on it. It's nice to see Andy is in compliance with his hero.

Catch Brother Trucker at Wooly's tonight (Friday, December 19) where he'll be playing in support of David Zollo's CD release party along with BFD faves King of the Tramps. Doors open at 9:00.

And of course Brother Trucker will play el Bait Shop on Wednesday, January 7th. See ya there. 


Brother Trucker Official

Brother Trucker on Facebook

Monday, December 15, 2014

Grant's Tomb: The Forming (And Reforming) of Panthallasa

Forming a band can be one of the most stressful experiences to go through. A bold statement maybe, but I've found it to be true nonetheless. Finding the right people with the right chemistry, even though individual tastes may differ significantly, takes a lot of patience. I am not a patient person.

In 2012 I had sworn off playing in a band ever again. Past experiences had left a bitter taste in my mouth, some of it my own doing, others not so much, but I was content to close the chapter and move on with my life. I was engaged, had a steady job and was happy enough. Its funny, looking back, how routine and “normal” my life became. All of that changed in an instant.

I’ve always looked to music as a way to vent and exercise whatever was troubling me, be it playing music or just listening. One tragic event and everything that I had taken for granted had been ripped away. Where do you turn when something like that happens? I picked up the guitar.

I’ve always been a bass player, my fingers were too fat and too short to play a guitar and any time I tried people would smile and shake their heads. Better luck next time. At the suggestion of a close friend and former band mate, he said I should play guitar in a project I had been discussing starting up. At that point it was all talk, mostly over several cans of PBR, but once the idea had been planted I couldn't shake it. I was going to have to go back on my word and form a band.

Now, how does one go about forming a band when they have a reputation for quitting or getting fired from every other project they've been a part of? How do they convince other people to spend their time (and money) on something that the person asking them to do it might not even see through to the end? 

Fortunately enough, I already had a couple people on board, a bassist, and another guitarist.

The earliest rehearsals were without a drummer. Just the guitars working on half-baked riffs I had been compiling over the last few months. During one of those rehearsals, the singer and guitarist from the band No One (we were sharing a rehearsal space with them) stopped by. He came in to the room, looked around and immediately asked if he could sing. Sure. Crazy thing was, it fit. It was raw and visceral but still carried enough melodic undertones to keep it interesting. One down, one to go.

Our initial drummer try-outs were not the greatest. One guy barely had a kit, another guy showed up for an audition, told us he didn’t like metal and never called us back. The third guy who showed up had a full kit and a good attitude but couldn’t seem to play in any time signature beyond 4/4, which was going to be a huge problem. Things seemed pretty depressing, but I had an idea. I contacted an old band member who I knew could play and he agreed to check it out. 

Things… didn't work out.

Finally, Shane Mills settled in as Panthallasa's drummer.
(Photo by Bigfoot Diaries)
After nearly 6 months of looking, we finally convinced No Ones drummer to play with us, the rationale being “Hey, we share a rehearsal space, we already have your singer, we like you, you like us, lets boogie.” 

A few line-up changes later and we were ready to start playing shows. We had already recorded three songs with Griffin Landa at his Establishment recording studios to offer up as singles/demos for people to come check us out and to say “Yeah, we’re serious.”

With several shows under our belts, the time to record a proper release was at hand. We initially wrote four songs to record an EP’s worth of material with Griffin at the helm again, but in the 11th hour I sprung a fifth track on the guys, thereby increasing the cost of the recording sessions.

When you release a song, you’re making a statement. Not just this is who we are as a band, but this is who I am as an individual. Every person who contributes towards a recording is putting their name on it, be it the engineer, the bassist or the guy doing the artwork. “I am proud of this.” But what if people aren’t getting what you’re putting down? What if the reception is weak? What if they can’t neatly classify you as this genre or that? What if they think you suck? Yeah.

One thing I’m very fond of is sharing my opinions. On everything, but especially music; I have no problem telling someone why their favorite band is garbage or how much better the music I listen to is. I guess that makes me a jerk, but I think the intentions are good. When someone tells me about their new favorite hardcore band, I’ll suggest someone similar who (in my mind at least) delivers a better experience. 

When someone asks if I've caught the last episode of a program like “The Voice” or “American Idol” I’m quick to tell them they shouldn’t support that corporate waste and instead invest their time and listening into a band kicking it in the local circuit. Different strokes I suppose.

So, what happens now? What if every negative thing I’ve ever said about another band gets said about mine? “Yeah, the music is okay, but the singer is awful,” or “I don’t know, they sound pretty generic, I’m sure I’ve heard that guitar part somewhere else before.” 

It’s a scary thought and it makes you sympathize a bit more with a band or group you don’t necessarily enjoy.

Panthallasa takes a break during studio work
(Photo by Bigfoot Diaries)
My band is getting ready to release our EP “Care” here after the New Year and I’m anxious to the point where I feel sick about it. We’ve played most of the songs in front of an audience, but anyone who is involved with recording can easily tell you how different a studio track can sound from hearing a song live. 

Over the next several weeks, I’m going to be spending a bit of time detailing the process of creating it, from the individual songs to the ideas and themes behind the lyrics and sounds that were incorporated into them. This will all be from my perspective and I am only speaking for myself, nobody else in the band. I have put my soul into these recordings. I’ve also burned some bridges with people to keep my band and ultimately my vision on the correct course, and I’m going to be as honest with you and myself about it as possible.

My goal for this is to give you a glimpse inside my thought process, and show not just the triumphs but also some of the difficult decisions that are involved while recording and releasing a body of work. I hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

BFD Review: Aquamarine Dream Machine's The Abyss Stares Back...

"Once you look into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you." - Steve Quayle

The Abyss Stares Back... is the latest release from Aquamarine Dream Machine. I put the CD in my portable stereo about ten days ago, and I haven't taken it out since. For good measure, I don't really plan to anytime soon. It's become as much of a part of my nightly ritual as brushing my teeth and falling asleep to Coast to Coast AM.

While ADM has been a favorite local band for several years now, I was a bit skeptical about how their music would translate from it's live performance to a recorded product. As it turns out, I had no reason to worry. The album sounds amazing, and to be honest I was surprised to learn that it was mixed, mastered and produced by the band's guitarist Daniel Wipf in his home studio. 

It's extremely crisp, with none of that behind the scenes white noise that you sometimes hear on home recordings. The instruments are layered perfectly and it's obviously been tweaked to bring out the ultimate sound.

Dan Wipf in his psychedelic glory. (Stolen from his FB page) 
Dan is a great guitarist and I have felt for a long time that he often gets overlooked when local musicians are brought up in comparison to one another. He belongs at the forefront of that conversation - not at the back. He delivers with the best of 'em, and his Robert Fripp/David Gilmour style leave most in the dust. He has no ego - something I love about him personally - just this egalitarian way of making huge power chords that shift like beach sands in strong winds. 

His voice has come a long way. Once perhaps a weakness due to vocal insecurities, he now delivers on point, singing at full throttle. And the way he bends his guitar around his vocals... he methodically spins you further into the abyss.

The album contains six tracks, all originals. The music transpires from the bluesy "Long Time Coming" to the heavy riff oriented "Feed the Beast" to the noisy propulsive "Divines" from which the opening seems to have been borrowed from The Who (think "Sparks."). The six songs flow freely in and out of each other with meticulous design - another aspect to the album that obviously took a lot of thought.

The tracks:

Long Time Coming

Chasing Ghosts

Feed The Beast


Good as Gold

Under the Gun

Dan and Justin sounding off. (Photo by Sarah Cartwright) 

Justin Kurtz's bass lines are especially noted on "Feed The Beast," where his snappy motoric rhythms propel the song into a kaleidoscopic rabbit hole. There's such an encompassment to his style that it's easy to forget that he's playing until all hell breaks out. By then it's too late to duck, because not only are the walls caving in, the ground is opening you up and swallowing you whole. 

Duly noted, Joe Antleman's piano work is outstanding on this recording. While Kurtz is creating sonic sink holes, Antleman is taking you over the mountains and far into the sky. His style is that of a surgeon, articulate and sound, flawless and precise. As a musician, he's one of those guys who can play anything, and each time he settles into an instrument, he becomes it's master. On The Abyss Stares Back... he captures each song with spirit-driven figurations that slide on a scale from classical Baroquean style to bluesy smoky piano bar. He takes the lead on "Long Time Coming" and never relents throughout the rest of the album.

Joe Antleman performs at 2014's 80/35 concert. Photo stolen from FB. 

Nikoali Charikov provides the beat jam for ADM. His rhythm sails on auto pilot as he criss-crosses the fast changing melodies with relentless physical geometry. As the walls cave in around him he constantly rebuilds them, as much as an architect as he is a musician. As the newest member of ADM, he doesn't leave any voids. One great musician surrounded by others, he is the accelerant that drives the pistons on this well-oiled dream machine. 

With Aquamarine Dream Machine, the songs always come first. They don't rely on a shtick or gimmicks to feed their nest, they let their music paint the portrait of who they are. They are a foghorn in the empty sea, an essential cog to the local scene. 

The Abyss Stares Back... is as substantial and significant as any record I've heard this year. It's a must for my collection, and it should be for yours.

You can catch Aquamarine Dream Machine at Vaudeville Mews on January 2nd.


Aquamarine Dream Machine on Facebook

Aquamarine Dream Machine on Reverb

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Electric Jury and Strong Like Bear Converge to perform Pink Floyd’s “Animals”

Two Ames bands will join forces and perform Pink Floyd’s dark and critically acclaimed album 'Animals'. The show will take place in Ames at DG's Tap House on this Saturday night, December 13. Electric Jury and Strong Like Bear will each perform individual sets before joining to play 'Animals' in it's entirety.  

To enhance the experience, a light show will accompany the performance, provided by Entertainment Lighting Company.

"We won't necessarily have a flying pig," said Dylan Boyle of Electric Jury, "but a friend is making one to have on stage." Of course he is talking about the infamous flying pig that Pink Floyd featured at their concerts during the late '70s into the '80s.

Pink Floyd Animals

Although 'Animals' might not rank as high as 'The Wall' or other Pink Floyd releases, critics consider the 1977 release to be one of the band’s darkest and most harsh releases, lyrically. It remains one of just a handful of albums that have been given 10/10 by Pitchfork.

The album consists of three main songs – “Dogs,” Pigs (Three Different Ones),” and “Sheep,” and two short songs  - “Pigs On the Wing 1” and “2,” that bookend the album.

While the short “Pigs On the Wing” tracks convey an idea of a romantic escape from the struggles of life, the three longer tracks heavily dissect different classes and types of people in society through an Orwellian paradigm – business people (dogs), politicians (pigs) and the idiot masses (sheep).

"I think, for all of us involved, 'Animals' is our favorite Floyd album," Boyle explains. "There's so many progressive and interesting things happening in the music and a lot of really challenging parts." 

"Personally, I really enjoy the songwriting and concept of the album," he explains further. "The album's songwriting dissects humanity very well, and is driven by a kind of nihilistic view that political and economic systems are cyclical and nothing will really change, and your life will never really change, no matter how much propaganda business people, politicians and media personalities dispense."

Upon it's release in 1977, New Music Express called the album "One of the most extreme, relentless, harrowing and downright iconoclastic hunks of music to have been made available this side of the sun."

Also in 1977, Melody Maker’s Karl Davis called 'Animals' an “uncomfortable taste of reality in a medium that has become in recent years, increasingly soporific.” Interestingly, this medium has now gravitated to be the norm, and 'Animals' is as relevant today as it was when it was released.

Boyle agrees. "If you look at contemporary American society, especially the right-wing of our country - but also supporters of President Obama - the lyrics of "Sheep" are invigorating and describe my observations about our current political system exactly. The last line of the song, Have you heard the news, the dogs are dead. You better stay home and do what you're told, get out of the road, if you want to grow old is as telling then as it is now."

Strong Like Bear. (Stolen from their Facebook page.)

Strong Like Bear has been a staple rock act in Ames for the past five years and has released two full ­length albums. Strong Like Bear consists of Bryon and Rachel Dudley, Greg Bruna, and Jordan Mull.

Electric Jury is a surrealist blues experience from Ames, consisting of Adam Brimeyer, Caleb Swank, Vedran Surlan and of course, Dylan Boyle.

Boyle finishes by saying, "Doing this, for me has been musically challenging, inspiring as someone who tries to write songs, but mostly it's been therapeutic.

Fun fact: Roger Waters wrote Animals in part as a sneer to the punk rock movement, most notably Johnny Rotten who smeared Pink Floyd when he wrote "I Hate" in ink above their band name on a t-shirt he wore publicly. As a result, "Animals" was written in response to Rotten's nihilistic attitude.

Electric Jury on Facebook

Strong Like Bear on Facebook