Tom Curless – Person of Interest

“Almost Ready for the Future” was one of my favorite records of 2020. Its follow-up, “Person of Interest”, released last week, is even better. The songs Tom Curless writes gain in strength, power, and expressiveness with every release. Take “Something for Nothing”, Bob Mould or Rick Springfield would be king if such a melody came to them. But it didn’t. It blew to Tom Curless and, trust me, that’s no coincidence.

On Bandcamp, ‘Person of Interest’ is described as ‘a rocking effort’. What is the most significant difference for you compared to ‘Almost Ready for the Future’?

The main difference between this one and the last one, “Almost Ready for the Future”, is that it is 100% me, just starting with a basic idea/structure and overdubbing like mad. The last album was primarily recorded with my band, the 46% (Chip Saam, Ron Vensko, and Ron McPhereson) live in the studio and then adding stuff here and there.

This one was more of a one-man show which can be a lonely endeavor but still gratifying in a different way. I called it more rocking as, for some reason, most of the ideas were somewhat aggressive electric guitar riffs or chord things; I mean, Scare Tactics that kicks off the record is one of the most aggressive tracks I have ever done, and it was fun to record!

I think I hear some Bob Mould influences, but it looks like there are so many more. Who are you influenced by, or, maybe better, inspired by?

I am definitely influenced by Bob Mould, no question, I absolutely adore both Workbook, and I think Copper Blue by Sugar is a masterpiece, the heaviness of that combined with the melodic sense and amazing tunes, really love it. Michael Lucas, who mastered the record, told me he heard Andy Summers, David Gilmour, and Alex Lifeson (he must have meant 80’s Alex Ha!) in my guitar work, and it’s a fair cop, those three loom large for me. I like a bit of atmosphere.

I like your lyrics, and I keep coming back to Street Kids because of some of the triggers that you built in there. Do the words come easy?

I am so happy you like the lyrics because that is the hardest part for me. The music always comes first, and then I try to get a vibe from the music to write a lyric. Sometimes a snippet will come to me, a line here or there, and then I run with it. Street kids is me trying to be a little like early The Clash, and thinking that way the lyric came pretty fast, the theme being I want the younger generation to wake up and live more in the moment, stop taking all their cues from social media and have their own strong opinions. OK, I can get down from the pulpit now, phew!

Something for Nothing. That’s a special one. It’s not infinitely hard to imagine this should be a huge hit. Did you think that too when you wrote it?

A huge hit would be nice! Hell, a minor hit would be nice! Ha. This one came to me one night; it must have been one of those good nights because it felt like it just appeared. The verse is obviously Zenyatta Mendatta, and then it runs smack into Pete Townshend in the chorus!

I was thinking it may be a bit too rip-off, but then I came up with the words and the melody on top, and I thought, hold on… this is pretty cool!

Then when I got the mix back from Nick Bertling, who did a FANTASTIC job, BTW, I cranked it up in the car and thought, I really like this!! This is a cool track. Did I really do this? If you start feeling like that, you know it is one of your better efforts.

The songs are out, and you probably know you released a great record. Or is it not that easy?

You are too kind. I never feel that way; I mean, I am proud of it for sure, and I put a ton of time and sweat into it but usually, by the end, I have heard the songs SO MANY times that I totally lose perspective and wonder if it is any good? It’s probably because I am sick to death of it…but it turns around when I can send the finished product out into the world, and people hear it with fresh ears. I am so glad you like the record!

Photo by Rick Warhall

Ryan Allen – I’m Not Mean (Q&A)

I’m not afraid to try new things, tweak old things, or do whatever I want in order to keep making new art.”, says Ryan Allen.

Being productive and not becoming predictable at the same time is not given to everyone. Ryan Allen manages to do exactly that, and he surprises with four wonderful jangle pop songs. “I’m Not Mean” is the first Pop-must-hear of 2022.

Did you start with the idea of ​​writing some jangle pop songs, or did it just happen?

I’ve been toying with writing something with a little more lightness to it, but wasn’t exactly sure how to approach it. Then I stumbled upon a podcast (shoutout The Vinyl Detroit Podcast) that had an interview with one of the founders of Sarah Records. That kind of kickstarted me going down a Sarah rabbit hole, which also led to listening to a lot of similar bands like Black Tamborine, Aislers Set, the Pale Saints…stuff like that. Even some newer bands like Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Crystal Stilts.

So yeah, I was just kind of drawn to wanting to make some very breezy, jangle-y, reverb-drenched simple pop songs. As usual, once I had the inspiration, the songs came fast and basically wrote themselves.

Where or How did you find the story for ‘To Be A Journalist’? The guitar sounds so SO beautiful here.

I majored in journalism in college and worked for a free arts & entertainment magazine in my 20s, so I’ve always had an interest in the practice. Now, however, journalists are basically replaced by “media personalities” who push the agenda of whatever network they are affiliated with, seemingly with little oversight.

This song kind of digs into that concept a bit, essentially saying that it’s easy for anybody with an opinion to just start blathering on about whatever they want in a pretty public forum, and how there are some pretty clear consequences when these media personalities decide to lie or stretch the truth for what boils down to monetary gain. Then I set all that depressing drivel to a cheery pop song. Haha!

It looks like it is easy for you the switch between genres?

I mean, no matter what type of sound I decide to tackle, it’s always going to have a focus on lyrics and melody. So to me, it’s all the same at the end of the day. Sometimes it’s going to be more punk-influenced, sometimes I’ll lean more pop, sometimes it’s got a shoegaze angle, or other times it’s hearkening to something super aggressive.

I think the most interesting creative people are ones that aren’t held back by people’s expectations of what they are “supposed” to do, and instead follow whatever their next muse is to the end. I’m not afraid to try new things, tweak old things, or do whatever I want in order to keep making new art.

The title song sounds intense and close?

I wouldn’t say it’s “intense” as much as it acts as more of a reminder. I’m pretty introverted and don’t get my energy from being around a lot of people…so social distancing works for me (haha).

But in all seriousness, sometimes I probably come off like a jerk or “mean” when I don’t intend to. It’s just that I get very quickly drained by social interaction, to the point where I sort of check out or say/do things that may seem insensitive….when, in fact, I’m very sensitive and compassionate. It just doesn’t always come off that way. So this song is sort of my plea to those around me to just be patient and understand the often-misleading plight of the introvert.

For every four songs you release, how many do you reject? Or is that not the way you write songs?

I knew I wanted to do something very short and concise for this project and didn’t want to go too overboard with it, so I just wrote these four songs and capped it. But I’m constantly writing.

We have a new Extra Arms album in the can that will come out this year, and I’ve got another 30, or so songs demoed that I’m just waiting to unleash on the rest of the band members for whenever we feel like working on new stuff. Obviously, some of those will get rejected, and in fact, there are a lot of songs that don’t see official release (which you can listen to via my “Rchives” release from 2020 here.

You are very productive. I can imagine some more music is in the making?

Always. As I said, we have a new Extra Arms album coming out in 2022 – most likely in late spring/early summer – that I’m extremely excited about. I think it’s the best record we’ve ever done as a band. The songs are really joyful, upbeat, and super catchy for the most part. I wanted to make a really fun and powerful rock record that was easy to listen to, and I think we achieved that. So look out for that one soon!

Thrift Store Halo – Enemies With Benefits (Q&A)

Enemies With Benefits, a 3-song EP by Thrift Store Halo, will be released on CD and via all streaming platforms on 2.18.2022.

Thrift Store Halo is an Indie Power Pop band hailing from Chicago. Yet their classic Power Pop sound is often compared to English greats such as Elvis Costello, Paul Weller, Graham Parker, and Nick Lowe.

Frank Gradishar (Lead Vocals, Bass Guitar & Songwriting) explains how the new songs came about.

How did this record come together?

Well, it’s been an interesting few years since our last EP, in 2019.

Obviously Covid has changed everything, and on top of that, our guitarist and my co-writer since 2016, Lance Tawzer (former Material Issue bassist/Lupins guitarist) took a new job heading up the Abraham Lincoln Museum here in Illinois, and moved house several hours away. With that move, we basically decided to end our tenure, which had been, very fun and exciting. It was an amicable split and we’re still very good friends. Lance still does our artwork, and I always like getting his opinion on my new music.

Initially, with Lance’s departure, I had actually thought that maybe it was time to shut the operation down for good, and just end it. But last summer, my partner in crime, Scott Proce (drummer), thought the time might be right to try and reform Thrift Store Halo as our original trio. We had previously contemplated that back in 2016, but it didn’t work out; that’s when we joined up with Lance.

So in July, 2021, Scott and I went into a little studio and just started playing again with Brent Seatter, our original guitarist who appeared on our first EP in 1996 and our 1998 LP, World Gone Mad. Brent is a really gifted guitarist and as soon as we got into a room and started playing with him, it just felt right. Having played together for so many years back in the 1990s and briefly in the summer of 2016, it’s as though we share a form of telepathy or intuition, which made it all very comfortable, for lack of a better word. Everything just kind of fell into place, very quickly.

I had such a back log of songs, and we had a few tracks from the 1990s, two of which, “Not Too Late” and the rather experimental track, “Shelter”, had been written back in 1997, so we had plenty of material to choose from and it was rather easy hitting our pace.

Then we called Kevin Mucha, the fourth “member”, who recorded, produced, mixed and mastered all our release from 2017 through 2019, and he was really keen on working with us, so we got to work recording finally in October, and we are really happy with how everything sounds. Likewise, our old friend Kenn Goodman of Pravda Records/Pravda Music Publishing here in Chicago is like family, and he has been such a great ally and he was very happy to help us get the record out and to the “masses”. It feels great to be sitting here and looking forward to another new release!  

The meaning of success has changed over the years. What would success look like for the new record?

The meaning of success certainly has changed! Honestly, I think the fact that I’m surrounded by friends and musicians who are still actually interested and excited to make music with me, record the songs and release the songs is a success in and of itself! Considering that I had seriously considered calling it a day, I feel really happy just to be answering these questions about a new release!

Now, back in the day, success for me, was definitely measured more by label interest, big gigs at the bigger Chicago venues and by getting our songs on TV and FM radio, and, of course, getting reviewed in magazines. We did quite well in the late 1990s on all those fronts, especially with TV placements; we had songs on some relatively big US shows, like Party of Five and Smallville.

For this record, I think it’s already a success because it actually got made! Now, the rest is gravy! Having people actually checking out the music is the best part. Thankfully, in this day and age, I feel blessed that there is such a strong and supportive online scene surrounding power pop and that we can share our music and interact with other artists remotely and via streaming. There are so many great indie internet radio stations out there, and we have been blessed to be supported by so many. So really, I am utterly content and happy with what we have done and what we are continuing to do!

How great is the urge to stay creative?   To keep writing songs and lyrics?

I write constantly. It’s just what I do. In a way, I suppose it is very therapeutic and cathartic. Not that my songs are necessarily autobiographical, but I love trying to tap into an idea or emotion and weaving it all into a cohesive 3- or 4-minute song.

I am always striving to perfect my particular brand of songwriting. I am amazed sometimes at what jumps out when I sit down with my guitar and start humming over some chords. I seem to go someplace else entirely, where it just flows out and writes itself. I wish I could figure out how it all happens, but then again, I worry I would lose the ability if I did.

With Lance, he would send me, in most cases, complete musical ideas, with verses, bridges and choruses, and I would develop the melodies and write the lyrics on my own. Sometimes we would sit together and write, which was also very cool. But, I wasn’t really needing to develop songs from scratch, as I had been doing previously. That was a unique challenge, trying to write lyrics for the someone else’s chords. But it was a fun exercise and I think we crafted some very good songs with that approach.

Now I am back to bringing in songs I wrote from the ground up, so to speak, into a group setting, where the songs will be reassessed, modified, and almost always, very much improved upon from my original ideas. I do not demo, not as such; I simply sit down and sing as I play guitar into my iPhone. I have toyed with the idea of getting a nice little home studio set up, but I think I know that if I do, I will begin to get too set on my ideas of what songs should sound like and I would risk being too dictatorial when it comes to fleshing out arrangements in the band. I don’t want that to happen.

I want the band to remain collaborative, team effort in terms of arrangement, feel and approach for the songs. While Scott and Brent might not write the lyrics or the original chord structures, they do rework them and force me (sometimes kicking and screaming) to develop the songs into their final arrangements, which I think, is very important. I trust the, and their musical instincts.

Put another way, it’s as though I “write” the blank coloring book, and then Brent, Scott and I color in the lines together to create the final picture. I really dig our approach. I might write songs, but those songs aren’t just mine. They belong to the band. That’s also why I share all royalties equally.

I have over a 150 songs in the vault – or cloud as it may be – at this point. Now, 85% or more of those songs might never see the light of day, but that’s alright. I like having the ability to throw open the doors to Scott and Brent and say, pick what you think are songs we can arrange and to see where they end up!

What’s the gig you will always remember? And why?

We’re not much of a live band anymore, for many reasons, but, without a doubt, the most memorable show we played was opening for recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees and British Invasion icons, The Zombies.

We opened for them at a “sold out” show in Lincolnshire, Illinois, in July, 2012, and it was incredible. It was such a pleasure getting to meet them, and see them, up close at soundcheck, and of course, during their set, which was stellar! They were very gracious and humble; true British gentlemen. And they were, and still are, so well-oiled, and full of energy. It was infectious! I remember having a great conversation after the show with the late Jim Rodford (who had been in the later-era Kinks and of course, Argent), who was playing bass for the band; he was full of great stories and was really, such just such a lovely guy.

Another show which stands out was a festival show in Wisconsin, back in 1998, opening for Eric Burdon – another British Invasion hero. The main memory of this show was when Eric’s drummer for that tour, the legendary Aynsley Dunbar, found his way into our dressing room while we were out walking around the fest; we returned to find him there after he drank every last beverage that was in the fridge! 

Cassettes are back. Which 5 five songs would make your first mixtape?

Great question – and a tough one! I would have to include:

1. “What Now” by Something Happens. From this awesome Irish band’s 1990 album, “Stuck Together with God’s Glue”, produced by the brilliant Ed Stasium.

2. “New Mistake” by Jellyfish, off their second album, “Spilt Milk”. A perfect power pop song.

3. “Everything Flows” by Teenage Fanclub, off their first LP, “A Catholic Education”. It’s perfectly grungy and provides perfect insight into what a great band they were destined to become.

4. “God Speed” by Velvet Crush, off the band’s 1998 “Heavy Changes” LP. Brilliant. 

5. “This Better Be Good” by Fountains of Wayne of their 2007 release, “Traffic and Weather”. It’s just a fun, and catchy song, with some excellent guitar work.

If I was allowed a 6th, I would certainly include “Still Breathing” by Green Day – love the lyrics, the attitude and the sound…Power-pop-punk?! Yes, please!

Daryl Bean – Mr. Strangelove (Q&A)

Daryl Bean had almost given up making music; he didn’t feel like playing covers at weddings and was convinced no one wanted to hear his self-written songs.

Last year Mr. Strangelove was released, an EP with four of Daryl Bean’s own songs. You can hear the pleasant influences that Squeeze and Pugwash have had on his writing style.

How did this record come together?

I’ve been writing songs for over 20 years, but I’m not very prolific – in fact, it took me 15 years to write the four songs on this EP! I had a period where I was very depressed and dissatisfied with being a musician and almost stopped entirely. I owe it to Andy Reed, who mixed the EP, for talking me “off the ledge” so to speak, and encouraging me to take the time and effort to fully realize these songs I’d written. Prior to this, they had been pretty rough home-recorded demos.

So, I did a Christmas single in November 2020 called “Holidaze” as a beta test; I’d written it over a decade ago but never recorded it, so I decided to try it as a beta test. It came out so well and was so much fun to do that I decided to take more of my songs, record them properly, and release them as an EP.

So, I spent the first few months of 2021 recording at home and Andy Reed’s studio in Bay City, MI. Andy mixed it, and by May, it was all done. I’m really happy with it.

When did you decide to start asking for opinions on the new songs?

I actually quite deliberately *didn’t* ask for opinions! I wanted to lean on my instincts and ideas, sort of as an exercise, because I sometimes let my need for external validation get in the way of doing what my instincts tell me to do. I wanted to make songs that I liked in a way that pleased me, so I didn’t ask anyone else. Andy and I would sometimes discuss arrangements, and he had excellent ideas that helped the songs a lot, but I didn’t want to make a record by committee. I wanted it to represent the best playing and producing I could do.

The meaning of success has changed over the years. What would success look like for the new record?

You know, I feel like the record has already achieved success beyond what I ever imagined. When I decided to do this, I steeled myself to the idea that I was making it for myself and that no one else would probably like it or care about it. So, it’s a fantastic thing when people who I’ve never met buy it and tell me that they enjoy it. And I’m always chuffed when I get an order to send a CD to another country – so far, I’ve shipped them to France, England, and Japan, and it just blows my mind that music I recorded in my living room in Michigan is going all over the world. I feel so appreciative that people like it.

How great is the urge to stay creative? To keep writing songs and lyrics?

I think that it’s a challenge, like it is for many people. Nothing is more exciting than having the tiny spark of an idea, playing around with it, and turning it into a real thing. But, I also have a job, and daughters, and all the other stuff in life that I want and need to be present for.

And also, those sparks of ideas can be hard to come by sometimes. So it’s a balance for me to make the time to be creative and pursue those little sparks while also being present and available in my life. Hopefully, it won’t take me another 15 years to write four songs for another EP!

As an artist, you choose to show your emotions to the world. Is it always comfortable to do so?

Definitely not. Another exercise for me in the writing and production of this EP was to let my guard down a little and talk honestly about myself in the songs. So you have songs like “Keeping Me Alive” and “Be Careful” which were about some very personal events in my life, and it felt very vulnerable to open up a little.

And although “Phoebe Waller Bridge” was written with tongue firmly in cheek, there was a little bit of hopefulness, like “but what if she *did* hear it and found it charming and maybe wanted to meet me?” I felt like it made the songs more satisfying for me to play and sing, and hopefully for the listener too.

You can pick three co-writers to write new songs with. Who? … and Why?

Thomas Walsh, Mike Viola, and Taylor Swift. Thomas records under the name Pugwash, and I just love his music to death. Mike because his writing is always so surprising and yet still so melodic and satisfying, plus I really want to be friends with him because he seems like the nicest, coolest guy.

Finally, Taylor because I loved Folklore. According to Spotify, it was my most listened to album the year it came out. I think of her like an early 70’s Joni Mitchell – her writing is so confessional and real, and I wonder if working with her would give me the courage to be more vulnerable in my own writing.

I’m going to cheat and throw Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge on this list as well – I wouldn’t be writing or recording without XTC.

What compliment you once received will you never forget?

Not to beat on how important Andy Reed was on the existence of this EP, but when I almost quit music in 2020, we had just started to get to know one another through our mutual friend Amy Petty. He had a discussion thread on his Facebook wall about things that frustrated people about making music, and someone had mentioned how they felt like quitting music. I agreed and said I was thinking about selling everything and getting out. Andy messaged me and said, “what are you talking about?”. So I replied that I didn’t like playing covers at weddings and bars, and I didn’t see any point in doing original material because who would want to listen to a 47-year-old guy sing his dumb songs.

Andy asked me to send him some of my songs, and we barely knew each other at the time. But I did, a week or so went by, and when he replied, he said, “I’m not going to tell you what I think you should do, but I think these songs are worthwhile, and you should make them the best they can be”.

I deeply respected his opinion, and the word “worthwhile” really stuck in my head. So, I think that’s the nicest compliment I can think of, for someone whose work you respect and admire to say that your work is worthwhile.

Those magical moments when you’re working in the studio. Which moment was the most magical?

Recording “Phoebe Waller Bridge” with Andy and Donny Brown in Bay City. I had an idea in my head of what I wanted the song to sound like, but Andy and Donny are such good musicians they took it a step beyond that. Hearing the first rough mix of it was a really lovely moment. I couldn’t believe that we got *that* in like 4 hours. Play with the best people you can, folks; you’ll never regret it.

Suburban HiFi – Superimposition (Q&A)

Just before Christmas, Suburban HiFi’s Superimposition was released. Greg Addington (Hangabouts), inspired by late 1970s rock, pop, and disco, wrote 11 great, very catchy songs. He explains to SSM how the record came about.

How did this record come together?

Once Covid hit, it was pretty clear that Hangabouts wouldn’t be getting together in a meaningful way to make an LP for a while. I’m always writing songs in various styles, and there were a few that I just didn’t think would end up on a Hangabouts record. Or what I think of as the Hangabouts sound.

So I started recording, at first as demos, in my basement studio. The first thing was Potemkin Honey. It was a different song then, more Freedy Johnston than how it ended up. I think maybe the third attempt is the one on the record. I started messing around with a Sequential Multi-Trak and found a sound I liked, and everything for that song was born out of that.

About three-quarters of the record was already written before I started. The rest came about during the process. Vinyl on the Radio and In Her Reverie were definitely written in 2021. But some songs pre-date Kits and Cats and Saxon Wives (Hangabouts), and I wanted to get them out there. Here Comes the Blood is one of those, for example.

When did you decide to start asking for opinions on the new songs?

I ask my wife for an opinion as soon as I finish something. I play it on an acoustic guitar for her, and once I track it, I play it for her. She doesn’t have to say anything. If she doesn’t move and says it was really good, I know it isn’t right yet! Once she starts moving around and the feet move, I’m probably on to something.

I always bounce stuff off of John Lowry and Chip Saam. Nearly all the songs were played for those guys before I even recorded them.

But in reality, if I really like a song, even if others don’t respond to it, I’ll do it. I think January Book may fall into that category. That one’s for Mom; rest her soul.

How great is the urge to stay creative? To keep writing songs and lyrics?

Honestly, for me, writing is a daily thing. I don’t set aside time specifically, but it would be nice! Sometimes I wake up with something to get down. Or I’ll hear an idea and jot it down. The preference is to finish songs once I get started, but I don’t have the luxury to do that most of the time.

So with many ideas, I sit down with John, and we write something. Or John helps with a chord here or lyric there. All of the Hangabouts songs that are John or I get written that way. But with a couple of exceptions, the songs on Superimposition were written by me.

My preference is to write with John or Chip. It’s important for me to have a writing partner that I can trust. Putting something out there is a vulnerable experience and having mutual respect for that is vital.

Lyrics are too often taken for granted. What is the line of text, or are the lines of text that you hope listeners will remember? And why?

I love this question because I often think that lines that resonate with an artist/writer aren’t necessarily the same ones that work for the listener. I remember an interview with Elvis Costello where he mentioned people would say how they loved the line, “I wish you luck with a capital ‘F’.”  But he liked the preceding line, “With these vulgar fractions of the treble clef.”

Personally, one of my favorite lines, for whatever reason, is in Fight on our Wedding Night. “When I see you, all will be forgotten, chiffon will turn to cotton.”  I guess I like the idea of forgiveness it alludes to. There is a formality to this big event, and it’s the event itself that is causing the friction for this couple, who just want to get on with it. In any case, the bridge hasn’t even happened except in the narrator’s mind.

Suppose you were to introduce your music to new listeners through three songs. Which songs would those be and why?

I’d probably choose Space Between Us, Fight on our Wedding Night, and Here Comes the Blood. I think they represent the album as a whole pretty well. They’re upbeat and pretty catchy, I think. 

The record is done, the music is out. Is the best fun done now, or is it just beginning?

I like the promotion part of releasing music. I wish I had more time to dedicate to it. I’d like to play some of these songs live, maybe with the Hangabouts. We played a version of Vinyl on the Radio a couple of months ago in the studio while rehearsing other stuff. Sounded great! Hangabouts are starting to record some new stuff again, and maybe this summer will be time to hit the stage again. I think everyone is itching to get out and do it. Additional Greek letters notwithstanding.