Caffeinated Chaos: Jono Diener Gets Real on 84 Tigers and Finding Your Identity November 17, 2022

Jonathan “Jono” Diener works well with a lot on his plate. As a music and comics writer, a co-owner of Rootless Coffee Co., holding down a full-time job in marketing, and a drummer for multiple bands, he always has many plates spinning.

His newest project is 84 Tigers, where he is joined by brothers Mike and Ben Reed, who have made a stamp with their band Small Brown Bike. The trio’s 10-song debut LP, Time in the Lighthouse, arrived on October 21st via Spartan.

Recorded with Marc Jacob Hudson in Michigan at Rancho Recordo, the sound of Time in the Lighthouse is a modern take on the kind of post-hardcore that originally came from the early 1990s. Think Quicksand and Helmet and add a melodic touch with a punk feel.

Previously, Diener spent many days and nights with The Swellers, Baggage, and BRAIDEDVEINS. Now with juggling a variety of jobs and bands, he has the time to play live shows with 84 Tigers and No Trigger.

In the past, Diener has publicly written about the struggles of being a musician and the realities of what you come back home to. He’s in a much more stable situation now.

“It’s the first time in my life I didn’t have to have a shitty job to have a good music life,” he says. “The joke was always if you’re in a band, you’re a barista.”

Thanks to his full-time gig allowing remote work, he doesn’t have to fret about having money in the bank on tour or off it. “Now I’m not afraid to buy dinner,” he says. “That’s the first time I’ve felt like that.”

Diener has seen a lot in his travels and has plenty of stories. But it’s about what’s ahead instead of what’s behind for him. He’s not one to sit back at a bar, recalling his high school days and how his football team could’ve gone to the state finals. He has a healthy attitude about moving forward with things.

“The first driver is anxiety,” he laughs, but he’s serious. “Ever since I was a kid, I was a person who would do my homework the second I got it so I could enjoy myself the rest of the time. I would always focus on, ‘There’s this thing I have to accomplish or else.’ Early on, I tied so much of my identity with The Swellers in particular; not only was I a drummer, but was also one of two songwriters. When that eventually broke up, that was a bizarre thing. There was a break in my reality; I finally had to go, ‘What is my identity? What do I actually want?’ And more importantly, ‘How do I get it?’”

He’s a creative person first and foremost.

“My constant is getting to be creative and making something from nothing,” he says. “Once I turned that switch on in my brain, as long as I get to do that in some capacity, that is my happy spot.”

As a band, 84 Tigers started in January 2021 as a COVID remote band project. Mike Reed sent Diener an email out of the blue, asking if they would like to make music together. Diener was already a fan of the Reed’s work with Small Brown Bike and Able Baker Fox, and freaked out (in a good way) at the chance to create with them.

Mike had over a dozen tracks as demos and Diener thought it would be an acoustic album. Diener had free range to do whatever he wanted with the drums when he recorded. But as soon as he heard the fully-fledged tracks with Ben Reed’s basslines, he knew this would not be some low-key solo album from Mike Reed.

Thus it led to Time in the Lighthouse.

Given the schedules of all three members, playing shows is tough, but they do happen.

“When we get enough time and sanity, that’s the next priority thing,” he says of more recordings planned with 84 Tigers. And what a start this great band has had.

From Demos to Diamonds: Pohgoh's "Weeds" September 20, 2022

Pohgoh reactivated as a band back in 2016, and they’re prepping to release a new 12-song album on November 4th through Spartan called du und ich. Its first single, “Weeds,” was inspired by frontwoman Susie Ulrey’s life with multiple sclerosis and life in the COVID-19 pandemic, and turned out to be another poppy gem from the Florida-based act. The interesting thing is, the final part of “Weeds” was written many years ago, back when Susie, her husband/bandmate Keith Ulrey, and Matt Slate formed a short-lived band called The Maccabees (not to be confused with a UK band of the same name). Their song “Blameless” would be partially resurrected for the three-minute wonder of “Weeds.”

Working with the great J. Robbins on the album at his Magpie Cage studio, du und ich is yet another grand entry in their extensive back catalog. We spoke with Susie directly about this song, why they brought back part of “Blameless,” and how the band usually works.

What's the story on bringing back a Maccabees' riff for "Weeds"? Was it discovered on an old tape or a riff that never left your mind?

When I was trying to come up with an ending for "Weeds," the chord progression reminded of an old song I'd written in 2000 called “Blameless." After struggling lyrically with the ending, I dropped the outro lyrics of "Blameless" in on a whim and it just felt right.

How much of the new LP was written from scratch versus riffs you've had before?

Pretty much the entire album was written between 2019 and a couple of months before entering the studio in the fall of 2021. "Not Cool" was written in 2017 almost immediately after recording our last album, Secret Club, that fall. The ending of "Weeds" is the only true moment of reaching back in time.

In writing riffs for the new LP, did you save tidbits on your phone or computer, or did you write them out?

We write two different ways. I either bring a song lyrically and on guitar to the band and we then arrange it together or Matt and Brian will show us a riff or pattern they've been working on and we'll sort of jam out parts until they fit, I then add lyrics after the fact. When I'm writing a complete song myself, I tend to record a simple demo on my phone.

J. Robbins once said some of the bands he works with only need to set up microphones and hit Record, while other bands need some guidance, but he wants the band to be who they are. What was it like for the new Pohgoh record?

The songs are, for the most part, as they were written. J. definitely gave us his two cents on a few arrangements, as well as additional instrumentation ideas, vocal harmonies, etc.

Spartan Spotlight #12: Scott Evans (Producer, Musician) June 3, 2022

To celebrate the upcoming release of Museum of Light's LP Horizon, we caught up with acclaimed producer/musician Scott Evans (Thrice, Heiress) to discuss his thoughts on the evolution of recording, working with Museum of Light, and his own band Kowloon Walled City, among other topics. Scott was also gracious enough to send us some behind-the-scenes photos of the Horizon sessions and a playlist of formative songs from his journey as a musician and producer. Enjoy!

What were some formative records of your youth?

Number one: a Black Sabbath Greatest Hits tape that my Aunt gave very young me. After that... the early Iron Maiden albums, Yes Close to the Edge, King Crimson Red and Discipline, Pink Floyd Animals, Slayer Reign In Blood, as much weird and fast metal as I could find. Eventually I found stuff like My Bloody Valentine Loveless, the first couple of Public Enemy albums, Skinny Puppy and Front 242, Naked City, Funkadelic...really when I was a kid every other record I found was formative.

At what point did you start playing music? What led you to the production world?

I started playing bass when I was about 14. Not too long after that I ended up with my first 4-track and a drum machine and I was hooked. It was the kind of thing where you sit down for a few minutes and suddenly it's nine hours later. Still is. That wasn't exactly "the production world" but it did kickstart my love of recording. But it never seemed like a possible career. I spent many years afterward slowly building up a home studio to record friends, but I had a day job as a programmer that took priority. It wasn't until relatively late in life that I started recording more bands.

Talk a bit about your production/recording arc -- in what ways has your process evolved with time (both philosophically and in terms of tech + approach)?

I've come to understand that you really can and should track bands playing together live, instead of doing scratch takes that you plan to replace under a microscope. When you record a great band together, on a good day it's almost easy. I do also love making records that are synthetic and "assembled", but the inbetween kind - make it sound like a real band when it really wasn't - that can be tough.

I've learned my personal aesthetics and what I'm naturally good at, but I've also gotten better at letting bands guide those things when they want. When someone else wants control I'm learning to pick up on that and embrace it, even if that means a record may not come out the way I think it could. It's not my record. I want it clear that the band has creative control; hopefully people never leave a session feeling like they were pushed into decisions they didn’t want.

And I'm working on my bedside manner. I'm sort of a heads-down-let’s-work person and not great at being a cheerleader. That coupled with being a sarcastic shithead can lead to frustrating moments for the band, and who wants that? So I'm learning to keep it posi.

Tech-wise, I don't think I'm doing things crazy different than I was ten years ago--it's just dozens of small refinements. Recording is like the venn diagram of aesthetics and abilities, and over time you build a mental database of both and how they work together. That's a lifetime thing.

I do love little workflow hacks. I don't much care what mic I use on a snare but I can go on about my favorite mic stands.

What's the latest with Kowloon Walled City?

In October we released a record called Piecework. A year after our labels ordered the vinyl, it's finally arriving. We're doing some touring while navigating real life. The usual.

What effect has increased accessibility/availability of home recording equipment had on music?

Oh it's vast. Incredible pop records are made with one mic and a laptop now. Calling it "home equipment" is actually a little funny since often people are using the same tools at home that we have in studios. That's 100% true with plugins. Anyway I've mixed home-recorded records that sound cool as hell. I've gotten demos that we just can't beat. I do lots of projects where we spend a few days doing live tracking, then the band goes home to record vocals, do programming, track guitars, whatever. It's great.

Are there any upcoming projects that you are particularly excited about?

I'm finishing up a new record for Covet, which has been challening and fun. I just recorded a gnarly new LP in Seattle for Great Falls, who I really love. I also have some cool mix projects queued up, but they're TOP SECRET.

What inspires you outside of music?

I love knowing experts. People who have spent years focusing on one niche thing are the best. Especially physical real-world stuff... cooking, building furniture, working on vintage cars, sewing... seriously, you name it. I love nerds.

What should people know about the upcoming Museum of Light release? Any specific, behind-the-scenes, moments from the recording sessions that you'd like to share?

I said something earlier about "on a good day it's almost easy," and that's what this record was like. Most of the songs are first takes. We had five days booked and basically ran out of work to do by day four. And everything sounded great. Rob is so goddamn good. All three of them are.

Sequencing and flow was really important to the band, so we had the whole album in a single Pro Tools session and got it sequenced in order with all the transitions and everything. That way we were able to hear it as an album and work on overdubs with flow in mind. I think I actually mixed each side in one long go too.

Any specific moments or songs on the record that you are particularly excited about?

The record is non-stop hooks so there's always a next part to look forward to. I love the whoa-oh-oh's in "Dethenger." And "Cal" was the first song I got a demo for so I'm always stoked to hear it.

Thanks for reading and listening. Prepare for Museum of Light's debut LP Horizon -- available June 10th.

From Demos to Diamonds: Rip Room's "Complication" May 25, 2022

Great songs don’t usually come out of thin air, so it’s fascinating how the process goes from idea to a finished song. Rip Room’s guitarist/vocalist John Reed shares how the band’s “Complication” from the forthcoming Alight and Resound came about.

How did this song come together?

“Complication" was the second-to-last song written for Alight and Resound. I remember I wrote the song very quickly, one of the rare cases where I sat down and all the parts just sorta came out. But when I started to demo, I realized it needed some sort of intro. So I played the main riff on a synth – the exact one escapes me right now – and modulated it until it was basically noise, et voila – intro! I ended up exporting that intro to my sampler pedal, and the sound you hear on the record (and when we play live) is that sample run through my AC30, so it sounds extra gnarly. The other thing is we had been playing most of the rest of the record live for the better part of a year, and we were feeling pretty fire. So I remember when I finished the demo I could already hear us playing it.

Rip Room · Complication (Demo)

The iPhone has really changed how bands document songs in progress. Do you guys record ideas on your phone?

Almost all of my ideas start as voice memo recordings. With the exception of "Complication" and "Get On In The World," every song on the record started as me playing unplugged with my iPhone resting on my leg.

Based on the final version of the song, how different is the song from how it was originally conceived?

The parts were all there, but the vibe wasn't. I usually use a metronome and/or a software drummer when I record demos, so live drums always make the song livelier and more organic. The tambourine during the middle section and the handclaps on the outro also give the song a real lift. There's also bass Rhodes doubling some of the bass lines which gives everything a little more heft. Besides that, in general, there's way less guitar noise – with the exception of the shrieking at 1:14 – and Tim [Green]'s mix is especially great on this one. He really builds tension with the echo that starts at sixteen seconds in, so fun to watch him do this live in the room!

Be honest, what do you like and dislike about the final version versus the demo version?

Listening back to the demo, I forgot that I actually let the intro sample run through pretty much the whole verse! I think that would have been rad, but the trade-off might've been that we'd have to play along to a click, which we didn't want to do. Also, I sorta miss the guitar noise, but it's oddly one of the harder things to nail in the studio. The clock is ticking and you gotta ask yourself, is doing another take of feedback really worth it?

How important is the demo process in Rip Room?

I think it's a critical part of making good records, and for me, it's a writing tool. It helps us develop songs very quickly, too. I can write a squirrelly bass part as a placeholder and Sarah will know "insert prog bass line here," or I can drop in a software drummer playing a forgettable beat and Gracie will get the vibe and make it awesome.

Rip Room’s Alight and Resound will be available on May 27, 2022.

Curious Minds: John Reed from Rip Room March 30, 2022

Photo Credit: Dan Lurie

Sometimes the easiest way to understand the present is to take a long, hard look at the past. Such is the case with music as well and the best way to attempt to put your finger on Rip Room's sound is to trace the twisting and turning musical path that it took to get here. Enter guitarist / vocalist John Reed. We asked John to cite some key musical inspirators and the result is a fascinating playlist that spans decades, while also making it abundantly clear how the band's musical leanings took root. Check out the full playlist and follow along on Spotify. Look for Rip Room's debut album Alight and Resound out everywhere on May 27th. Take it away John...

Putting together this playlist was a fun thought experiment, to say the least. Of course no one makes art in a vacuum, but before doing this, at least a few of the bands on this list I would have never thought of as a direct influence on my songwriting. Then Rip Room started playing shows and afterwards we’d hear things like, “that riff reminded me of so-and-so” or “you sound like this band crossed with that band” and I started thinking hard about what influences me. It’s incredibly humbling to hear a person tell you your band sounds like Fugazi — who doesn’t want that? — but there’s also an equal part of denial (we aren’t that good, come on!) and/or embarrassment (did I completely rip off this band that I admire so much?) but at the end of the day it’s important to appreciate and meditate on all the creativity and hard work (because yes, it’s hard work) that came before you. I hope you enjoy these tunes as much as I do.

Mary Timony Band - Curious Minds

Mary Timony's songwriting is so adventurous, and this song in particular has so much going on. Power-pop hook leads to prog break leads to spaced-out bridge and back to prog outro, all in four minutes? The best.

Fugazi - Epic Problem

Aside from the fact that this song absolutely crushes, I love that Ian MacKaye never shies away from getting personal in his lyrics, and he somehow does it while still staying oblique enough to keep things interesting.

Unwound - Demolished

There’s always been something spooky to me about Unwound. Like in the way that I imagine black metal bands want you to feel. The guitar break at around 1:30 comes out of nowhere and is so ghoulish in its simplicity that it’s hard for me to not put this song on repeat whenever it pops up.

Bellini - Rut Row

The band, not the drink, ya dummy! The riff, the weird breaks, and Giovanna Cacciola’s vocals are all so intense on this note-y mess of a song, it reminds me that sometimes more is more.

Erase Errata - Another Genius Idea From Our Government

This song is fun and pissed off all at once, and just when things really get going, the song breaks down into chaos and then just stops. It’s so decisive and restrained and it makes me feel like two minutes is the longest a song should ever be.

Slant 6 - Babydoll

Rip Room started out trying to imitate the Casual Dots, but it turns out I can’t sing. I can still hear some of Christina Billotte’s Slant 6-era guitar influence in our songs, though.

Man or Astro-Man? - Interstellar Hardrive

I love this band so much. Seeing them as a kid (I wanna say I first saw them when I was 15?) in the 90s blew my mind … probably the reason why I still don’t fuck around with chords if I don’t need to.

Minutemen - Political Song For Michael Jackson to Sing

Hard to pick just one Minutemen tune to draw a line back to, and I’m not sure that line even exists. D. Boon’s lyrics and vocal cadence always surprise me, but his earnestness doesn’t, and this song is equal parts thoughtful and hilarious to me.

This Heat - Horizontal Hold

Whoa. This song. What the heck? I always try to add one unexpected moment to every song I write because This Heat showed us all how to do it with this jam. No more excuses!

Yoko Ono - Why

Yoko Ono didn’t “break up” anything, and you’re an idiot (at best) if you think she did. Sure, I guess some people talk about their “personal taste” or whatever but Yoko’s vocals are way beyond incredible, Klaus Voormann and Ringo are super funky, and even John Lennon sounds like Arto Lindsay seven years before DNA here.

DEVO - Uncontrollable Urge

I’m such a sucker for staccato vocals and long guitar build-ups, and this song is full of ‘em. Fans of our back catalog may even hear some inspiration from one of the backing vocals on the chorus of this banger.

The Raincoats - Off Duty Trip

I love how effortlessly this song moves between its seemingly disparate parts. If you needed evidence that changing tempo or mood mid-song is a good idea, this is it.

Karate - Diazapam

Geoff Farina’s vocal delivery on this song is so cold and matter-of-fact, something I feel like I’m always trying to emulate. A good friend of mine once described my vocal style as “angry principal” and this song makes me feel like I’m sitting in the office awaiting punishment.

Lizzy Mercier Descloux - Wawa

The minimal, repeating bass and squirrelly guitar are so infectious and proof that you only need a few bass notes and a funky drummer to have a sick song. Everything else is icing on the cake.

The Story of Mountain Time's Saint Francis, Zookeeper February 22, 2022

We are so excited to be able to share the full story of Saint Francis, Zookeeper with you all.

Sitting down with the vinyl and seeing and hearing how it has all come together has been extremely gratifying. It feels like a truly special product, documenting a truly special time in my life and work. The prevailing feeling I held in those times was one of the absolute freedom of becoming. I felt emboldened to explore and expand and experiment, with no compass but my own heart and soul.

I am forever grateful that it was not a solo mission, but one on which I was spontaneously joined by so many wonderful people and players, who breathed a life and quality I could never have imagined alone into these songs.

A massive thank you is in order to Seth Woods, for not only being a coworker, a friend, a cheerleader, bandleader, and musical director, but also for helping to tell this story, first with his words and now with his voice.

And to Spartan Records for taking this project on fearlessly and passionately (and with that most important of artistic ingredients… a blind eye to the bottom line). ❤️

- Chris Simpson, February 2022

Spartan Spotlight #11: Chris Simpson (Mountain Time / Mineral) September 16, 2021

As we continue to tell the story of Mountain Time’s Saint Francis, Zookeeper we called upon ringleader Chris Simpson to discuss this fascinating time in his life and the lives of so many -- and in doing so, we were reminded of a simple fact -- change is a constant. No matter what plans we scheme or what goals we're steadfast in achieving...no matter how "in the moment" we are, the ever-changing breeze of life can whisk us away at any moment and point us in a new and sometimes uncertain direction. Read how change has impacted Chris' life and musical journey and watch part 5 of our ongoing The Story of Saint Francis, Zookeeper mini-doc below.

One of the hallmarks of life is change. It is inevitable in even the most ordinary circumstances. In my own and many others creative lives, it is even more paramount. The work of creation and expression involves constantly searching for new horizons. New ideas and new challenges. New images and symbols and connections. Several of the key players in the Zookeeper years eventually moved to other cities and states answering the various calls of their own hearts and lives. I went on a solo tour in Europe and lost my passport at the end, opting to lose myself there for a while as well. Meanwhile, Seth and Alex embarked on a four month exploration of the US by station wagon with only their guitars, tents and sleeping bags—the dreams and visions in their heads their only guides. We would all come back together in Austin at some point to work on another record that never saw completion, but the writing seemed to be on the wall for Zookeeper. My self-medication turned full blown drug addictions made it impossible for me to effectively lead the charge forward for some years creatively and we all ended up in different parts of the country by 2010 or 2011. The rest of the work we had started in those years lay dormant until recently. Monika and I were married in January of 2008. Seth served as our wedding officiant, and Alex put together a band to play a heart rending version of our favorite song, The Innocence Mission’s "Look For Me As You Go By" as we walked down the aisle. In 2011 we started adding to the family, and now are six where once there were two. When I returned to Zookeeper, for 2014’s Pink Chalk, it was largely on my own with the help of friend (and since collaborator/producer) Doug Walseth. The tide had turned in all of our lives and a new chapter seemed to be being written before our eyes. It's difficult to express how truly lucky I feel to have led Zookeeper and the voyage we undertook together. It is something that has shaped and will no doubt continue to shape my life and work for years to come. Zookeeper cracked open a shell that I had lived comfortably in for most of my life, letting the light and the world in in a way that felt almost too wonderful and terrifying to comprehend. It woke me up to the marriage of opposites that has always existed inside of myself. That exists inside each of us. The darkness and the light, the sweet and the bitter, the sacred and the profane, the chaos and the calm, the hero and the tyrant, the lost and found.

- Chris Simpson, 9/15/21

Saint Francis, Zookeeper is available now at streaming outlets everywhere and limited edition 2xLP is available for pre-order now.

A Stitch In Time: The Story of Mountain Time's Lost Song "Neon Heart" June 24, 2021

I wrote "Neon Heart" in 2004. At the time I had just started playing and writing on the piano more intently. The way music and chord structures opened up to me on the piano felt invigorating and I could sit and play it for hours just to hear the sound. I remember Neon Heart especially because its birth was accompanied by an intense labor and delivery. Sometimes songs come in a flash, that always feels like the most magical or special way for things to happen. Other times a song lingers in gestation over the course of months or years and gets formed and fleshed out, coming into focus very gradually. Neon Heart was another sort, where the song comes all at once but the process stretches over two or three days. I viscerally remember the song because I remember those days. I remember how sad it felt to sit inside the song for that long. I remember walking around in an almost fugue state—not always sitting at the piano working, but even, when doing other things, in some very real sense, still working on the song. It’s almost like an out of body experience. You’re still going to work and waiting tables and taking the dogs to the dog park, but the only thing that’s really happening, experientially, is the writing of the song. I was learning to surrender to the process in those days. In a way it felt more like the song working on me than the other way around. I remember coming out the other end, feeling as though I’d really been through something. I remember the deep sense of peace and satisfaction that came when the song was completed. The feeling that I had really seen something, really said something with it

We tried to record it a number of times over those early years in a variety of different spirits. This version started its life as a home demo recorded in my living room at the piano shortly after the song was completed. It has a lot of the sort of time stamps that I love. You can hear me running up and down the stairs to stop the tape after the vocal take. The sound of the dogs scratching and jingling their collars. A cheap delay pedal I was obsessed with at the time and was running everything through at different times in the mix (note the unmuting and delaying of the click track to simulate a clock ticking in response to a lyric).

I had completely forgotten about these demos until Seth Woods and Alex Dupree and I started meeting virtually to discuss digging into the recently digitized archives of all the old Zookeeper reels, and Seth (who has long served as Zookeeper’s de facto archivist) eagerly sent me a folder labeled “11th Street Demos.” I knew I wanted to give the Zookeeper EP and the Becoming All Things LP a vinyl pressing and liked the idea of combining them into a single 2xLP collection. When we started mapping out the times for the side splits it became clear that we’d have some room to work with for bonus material and we eventually agreed on the instrumental bookends being added to the sequence of the Becoming All Things LP—the Zookeeper reels have a number of these instrumental interludes captured on them (I even had "Substratum Dream Of A Flagpole Skater" as an outro in an early sequence of the Becoming All Things LP). Discovering there was still some space in the middle for something else, we quickly gravitated to the Neon Heart home demo. It had an elegance and simplicity that was endearing. I became curious about the idea of adding something new to the track—a modest modern accompaniment of some sort to bring it into the present. I sent it to Ariana Bina, who has been playing violin with Mountain Time and features prominently on the Music For Looking Animals LP. She added a few violin parts, creating an eerie stitch in time across it.

The song is about time, really. About the death of innocence. The experience of first noticing or being able to see the passage (ravages?) of time in your own life, in the world and the people around you. Which is an awakening and an unmooring at the same time. It was a heavy thing to conjure but it holds the seeds of healing and light that always accompany seeing. - Chris Simpson / Mountain Time


My neon heart’s got burned out bars
That used to flicker on and off but now have just gone dark And it doesn’t say what it used to say no more
My neon heart
This kid got lost right up the block
We searched for weeks around the clock
I saw him down the line
With arms that looked like a Mekong minefield, 1969
His mom stopped making herself up
Her face got old as time
The neighbors we just drove right by
Thanked God we had our pride
Were careful not to look her way
Or meet those ancient eyes
Last call falls hard outside this bar
And floods the streets with broken lives
That pay too high a price
For a dream that seemed so real we thought
It never could have died
But now I see how wrong we were
To think we’d sail right by
Cause the proof we need is everywhere
It bears us out in tides
And ties us to each other in the same lifeboat tonight
And the clock it knows there is only one direction we can wind This proof, oh all this proof it needs
A miracle tonight..

Spartan Spotlight #10: Jeff Caudill, Artist / Musician November 11, 2020

We were thrilled to catch up with a true renaissance man, Jeff Caudill from the bands Gameface and Low Coast to discuss his passion for... woodworking, of course! In the interview he discusses his interest in the craft, creative intersections between different mediums of art, and the perfect woodworking playlist. Enjoy!

When did your interest in wood carving begin?

I inherited a few tools and a decent work bench in my garage since my dad passed away in 2012 but only started using them a few years ago. My dad was really good at carving. He did more of your standard whittling and 3D type stuff. I was into painting and drawing when I was young but I let my skills go over the years while working as a graphic designer. I tried to get back into it but just don’t have the patience anymore. Photoshop is much more forgiving than oil painting. A few years ago I gave carving a shot and it clicked immediately. I don’t do the same type of work my dad did but I still think of it as a way to honor his memory.

What about working with wood interests you?

There’s a lot of physicality involved with making something out of wood. It’s more substantial than drawing on paper or painting on canvas and more rewarding for me. The process and the smell, etc. It’s similar to why I prefer vinyl over CDs or digital music.

From a creative standpoint, are there any similarities in how you approach both wood carving and songwriting?

Good question. I think I am a minimalist when it comes to both mediums. With songwriting, I think about ways to be efficient. How I can say what I want to say with the least amount of words, cutting away the superfluous? My woodcarving is the same way. It’s very stark and graphic. I only need to show the important details.

Can you talk about the types of tools you're using for this type of work?

It’s all chisels and gauges. And an x-acto knife. No power tools. And a fair amount of sandpaper.

Can you describe the type of headspace this kind of work puts you in?

These days, my idea of a good time is going out to the garage, turning on some mellow jams and getting my carve on. My breathing slows down and my mind wanders. My hands just know what to do. It’s my version of yoga or meditation.

What bands/songs are on your woodworking playlist?

It’s usually a good mix of acoustic based stuff. Some of the old Laurel Canyon scene — Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Buffalo Springfield and Tom Petty with some newer folk rock like Jason Isbell, Ryley Walker, Avett Brothers, etc.

For a total novice interested in the craft, where/how should they begin?

I’d suggest getting a set of gouges and slab of basswood and just start choppin’. I use pine because I like the grain and it’s a little more dense but I’ve heard that basswood is the preferred type for woodcarving. I’ve watched a few YouTube videos on the process but most of what I do has just come from trial and error. I think that finding your own way is just as important and satisfying as finding the right way.

Are there any particular carving projects that you're particularly proud of?

I’m used to working on projects no bigger than an LP cover but I recently had the opportunity to do a huge wall piece. It was easily 10 times the scale of what I’m used to doing. I had to buy some larger gauges and a lot more wood stain. I was actually really nervous about it when I started. It was like climbing a mountain. I had to plan it out and just do a small section each day. It took me about 6 weeks. It was an exercise in patience and perseverance and it came out great.

Make sure you follow Ramschackle Studio on Instagram to see Jeff's latest creations and stay tuned for some rumored new music from Low Coast in the not too distant future!

Spartan Spotlight #9: Christoffer Franzén, Composer / Musician September 14, 2020

We hope everyone is staying safe and healthy during these strange, strange times. How about some good news? We had the opportunity to catch up with Christoffer Franzén of Lights & Motion about sources of inspiration, isolation vs collaboration, life in Sweden during a global pandemic, and his brand new record The Great Wide Open - coming to vinyl this October on the one-and-only Spartan Records. Enjoy!

Can you tell us a bit about the journey that led you toward the Lights & Motion project?

Lights & Motion came out of a long period where I felt like I needed to get a lot of music out, but I wasn’t sure how to reach the point of being able to create what I could hear in my head. That threw me into a hard couple of months of severe insomnia, where instead of sleeping I would sit by myself in a studio all night long, learning all kinds of different instruments and trying to find the sound of what would eventually become my first album Reanimation. Looking back at that time now, it feels like a whirlwind. I used to leave the studio in the morning just before dawn and think to myself that no one was ever going to hear this music I was writing, and I questioned why I obsessed about it to such an extent. Today I am really grateful that I did all that.

When you began composing, was this the stylistic direction you intended to go?

I would have to say yes, although that is constantly changing in some ways for every album cycle. I am originally a guitarist, so I knew I wanted to incorporate that as a heavily featured instrument and blend it with ambient and orchestral elements because I also loved film music growing up. I initially had a very clear vision of what I wanted the music to sound like, and it was a matter of giving it enough time to develop it. It's been 7 years since I released the first Lights & Motion album, and throughout the following years I have experimented in different ways to keep the creative process fresh and inspiring.

Could you give some insight into your introduction to music and what steered you towards composing music?

My introduction to music was as a fan first and foremost. I got really obsessed with listening to music at a young age, and I could sit for hours just staring into a wall and listening intently on different albums. When I was 14 or 15, my next door neighbor got a guitar and all-of-the-sudden I realized that you could also play and create music yourself, not just listen to it. It may seem like a trivial observation, but it really opened up an entire world for me. I used to go in there everyday and borrow that guitar and slowly but surely learn how to play basic chords. I think in every musician's life the beginning is mostly about playing other peoples' songs. Then after a while you start to create stuff yourself, and that is the exciting bit. I never took lessons, and I didn’t grow up in a musical home at all, there were no instruments laying around the house, so in a way it came out of nowhere that I decided to do this. I played in bands as I grew older, and while it was always very fun it eventually fell apart like most bands do, and then I felt a bit lost in what to do next. I knew I wanted to continue writing, and even more so I fell in love with the process of production and mixing.

I used to hate relying on other people in order to do music because I wanted to do it 24/7. And somewhere around that time is when I began teaching myself how to do everything from initial idea to finalized song. It was a lot of trial and error along the way. It's easy to feel like you are getting left behind when every one of your friends is going away to get a proper education in preparation for having real jobs, whilst you are holed up by yourself in a studio, and I’m sure many musicians reading this will know what I’m talking about. I guess that is both the upside and the downside of having a passion in your life; you can’t really see yourself doing anything else.

Can you talk a bit about how your records have evolved over time? Are each of them completely distinct or are there any thematic throughlines that you've been revisiting across different recordings?

I would say that there are thematic throughlines running through the discography as a whole, but also for each and every release. They have pretty clear and distinct sonic trademarks for me personally as well. My first two albums were very crisp in terms of the mixing, with a lot of high-end clarity and a bit less bass-frequencies. For my third album Chronicle, I changed my mixing approach and the production on that album is much more ”full” and bass-heavy. Since I produce and mix the records myself, that part of the process is a very important one, and I don’t really separate it from the writing process; it's all part of creating the sound. Every time I start writing a new album, I will spend a substantial time thinking it over, trying to find something conceptually to tie it all down, and often there is a song or two that act as a foundation for the rest of the album to rest upon.

On The Great Wide Open, you introduce vocals for the first time on an album. What drove you towards making that decision and can you tell us a little bit about the two vocalists you collaborated with on the album? What were some of the exciting parts and challenges?

For The Great Wide Open, I took a long time to write and produce the album. I knew I didn’t want to rush the process, but rather let it bloom organically and see where it would take me. One thing people will notice right away is that there are two songs featuring lead vocals on the album, and the idea of doing this had percolated in my mind for quite some time. The first one written was ”Wolves," featuring the amazing Swedish singer and musician Johan Hasselblom. I was a big fan of his band The Animation, and I always thought he had a great voice. So one day I had written this instrumental piece and I sent it over to him by chance to see if it would inspire him to write something on top of it. I think he sent me a voice memo not long after and the entire first verse and chorus was there, and I was hooked straight away. He added something that I could never have thought of myself, and that is really what you are looking for in a collaborator. And then the last song we finished for the album was ”I See You," written with and featuring the Swedish singer Frida Sundemo. She has such a unique and ethereal quality to her singing, it's one of those voices that just takes you places. I had written her several months earlier and explained that I was a fan and asked her if she would ever be willing to write together. She was, and then it was just a matter of finding the right type of song for us to do together. Similarly to ”Wolves," I wrote an instrumental song, leaving space for the vocals, and sent it her way. She came back with this beautifully fragile lyrics and melody, and it was everything that I hoped it would be and more.

Other than that, the challenges in creating this album were similar to all the other albums I’ve made before it. It's always a huge undertaking, and you want to get your vision across in the best way possible, and getting the final 10% right takes months and months of tweaking. My biggest takeaway was that I wanted it to sound colorful, energetic, and fragile at the same time. It marked the start of a new decade for me, and the closing of the last one, and every album is like a time capsule of the time you spent making it.

What inspires you outside of music?

I am a huge cinephile and so films and tv shows inspire me a lot to create music. There are so many different vocations and art forms that collide when making a movie, and that fusion creates something that is bigger than the sum of its part. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and it can just be a little spark that ignites something much bigger. I guess that is the challenge and charm of creativity; you never know from where it's going to come.

How has living in Sweden influenced your art?

I have thought about this a lot during the past few years. Living in Sweden is amazing in a lot of ways; we have beautiful nature surrounding us, and in the summer we have days where it doesn’t really get dark until 1am, and then only for about 3 hours before the sun rises again. We also have the other half of the year where it gets really dark at around 4 in the afternoon, and the cold can be quite stifling. I think that is conducive to creating music though because there really isn’t a whole lot of other things to do but stay inside and work on your art. That might be one of the reasons why I have historically released new music early on in a year, because I have pretty much stayed inside and worked for 6 months straight. The cold, dark weather can be quite depressing though. I’m not sure if you can hear that in the music I make. I guess that is up for everyone else to interpret.

Typically are you working on your records in isolation?

Yes, my way of working is very isolating, and that is quite hard at times actually. I get up in the morning and head out to the studio immediately, and then I sit and write by myself for something like 10 hours. I try to be very disciplined and not really take any days off. I used to work all throughout the nights too, but I have tried to put a stop to that because it wasn’t really healthy or sustainable. But since I do all of the engineering and production myself, it's only me in the studio, with my instruments. I think people naturally need other people around them, so I have struggled quite a bit with that actually. At the same time I feel like I have to get all of this music out, so sometimes I describe it almost like a need and not a want to go and write. It's complicated.

Can you discuss your interests outside of music?

Well, like I said I really enjoy watching a lot of movies and quality tv shows. Some of my favorites these past couple of years have been The Handmaid's Tale, The Morning Show and Defending Jacob. More and more I like to get out to nature and just immerse myself in the forest and take long walks. I also play football, or soccer as you say in America, and that is something which I’ve done my entire life.

Does your approach or process differ when you are composing for film/TV versus Lights & Motion?

I would say yes and no. Writing for films and working with directors is such a different and extremely collaborative medium; you have to try and get inside their heads and understand what they are looking for, and then hopefully managing to produce that which serves the film. Compared to writing for Lights & Motion where I just do what I feel is right and go where inspiration takes me, film-scoring is much more of a structured craft. But that challenge is also what is rewarding about it; it's like solving a puzzle. I have written albums that I have released under my own name as well, Christoffer Franzén, and that is music that was never intended for a L&M release, but that I wanted to create regardless. Having my own name to put out stuff under is just another way to harness creativity and to not feel restricted in any way, musically or otherwise.

Any feelings that you'd like to share about the current state of the world?

It's a very strange time that we live in, with a lot of unrest in the midst of a global pandemic. I am not sure what to do to be honest. I find it hard to navigate. For myself, I just try to be decent and remember that we are all in it together. I think that is important not to forget.

Are there any upcoming projects that you are working on that you're particularly excited about?

Nothing in particular that I can really talk about right now. Covid has changed up a lot of things, so we´ll have to see how the rest of the year turns out. I have been locked inside my studio for many months now, social distancing being a natural part of a composer's life, and I have been writing a lot of new music, and it has definitely been affected by what’s going on in the world. When and where it will be released, not even I know. I’m just excited and grateful to be able to stay creative.

Lights & Motion's The Great Wide Open is available now for pre-order on vinyl here. This pressing is limited to 500 copies on two variants and includes an exclusive bonus track!

Spartan Spotlight #8: Tim Kasher, Musician / Filmmaker July 3, 2020

photo credit: Shervin Lainez

This week we caught up with Tim Kasher (Cursive, The Good Life) and had the chance to chat with him about Mountain Time, the music video for "Rosemary, Etc." (directed by Kasher), his foray into filmmaking, and the transitioning role of the music video. Check out the interview and don't miss the premiere of the "Rosemary, Etc." video below. Thanks for stopping by!

Can you talk a bit about your relationship with Chris? Have your artistic paths crossed in other ways over the years?

I'll always remember the night I first met Chris. Cursive was, I believe, first of four on a bill at the legendary Fireside Bowl in Chicago. I feel I'll botch this lineup, but I THINK it was Mineral / Get Up Kids / Rainer Maria / Cursive. Maybe around '97 or so. Okay, so I might not remember the specifics so well, but I do remember being so stoked and nervous to be playing on such an extraordinary bill. I was nervous a lot back then, as we were young and newly thrust into an underground music scene I was previously not terribly familiar with. As a self conscious kid, I found myself researching bands more and more often to stave off those awkward conversations where other scenester kids would rattle off band after band you weren't familiar with. I was feeling out of place.

BUT, I did love Mineral, had already seen them play back in Lincoln, NE a few months prior. One of the best shows I've ever attended, as far as opening my eyes to what was happening out there in the world and lighting a fire in me.

So, we hung at our merch table for most of that evening at Fireside, not really knowing anyone, but glad to be there. We also knew little to no one in Chicago, so were forced to get a hotel room for the night, a luxury we rarely afforded ourselves. It was the same hotel where Mineral was staying, and Chris was cool enough to pop over to our room to introduce himself and say thanks for the evening. Such a small gesture from the headliner, a band that meant so much to us. Clearly, as I relay this teensy tale, it had an impact on me. I know Chris must be terribly embarrassed when I tell this story! I've gotten to know so many good folk through the last 25 years of touring, but Chris and I have maintained a closer relationship, merely through the simple effort of reaching out and checking in.

When did you begin to pursue filmmaking/video production alongside music?

I started writing screenplays when I turned 30, as I had always daydreamed of working in film. Mostly, I just like storytelling in all forms, but film is our century's amazing blend of audio and visual technique, displayed larger than life in theaters. That's always been thrilling to me. Making videos is very hobbyist for me, a fun way to play around with friends and ideas. I suppose I first started with my dad's clunky consumer video camera rig when I was a kid, making ridiculous home movies, as many of us did.

Are there similarities in how you approach both filmmaking and songwriting?

Yes and no. I mostly want to tell a story in either medium, but the method of storytelling can be so different. That said, a video that compliments a song isn't necessarily so different from songwriting itself, as you only have a handful of minutes to get your idea across. I assume this is why so many songs and videos are abstract, haha.

Can you tell us a bit about the production process for the video -- it appears to have been shot in a number of different locations?

This is a very 'no budget' production, if you couldn't already tell, haha. But shooting without a budget can be a blast, as you pool whatever resources you have available to you. I decided to shoot this while on a Cursive tour so I could tell a story with various locations. Resourceful. My good friend, Jess Price, was out with us, and as she is an avid filmmaker herself, she was game to pitch in and even play the main character. She was returning a favor, of sorts, as Chris Simpson had already donated his time and charisma to 'star' in a video for Jess' band, Campdogzz, a video I had shot in and around Chris' home state of Texas while on tour a year earlier (also, very 'no budget'). Megan Siebe, who plays cello with Cursive, pitched in a lot as well, whether running the camera or playing various roles throughout.

We laid out a very loose storyline, then mapped out where we could relay the story via the various stops on tour. Some locales, such as Las Vegas, had to be city specific, others were more casual. We ended up shooting in Redding, CA, San Diego, Las Vegas, Fort Collins, CO, Colorado Springs, and it started and ended in Omaha. I may be forgetting one or two stops.

Can you talk about the decision to use the "traveling evangelist" as the protagonist for the video?

Chris and I lobbed a few ideas around before settling on this story. Chris had mentioned "Wise Blood", the Flannery O'Connor book we both admired. A lot of great imagery in that story, brought to life by the John Huston film starring Brad Dourif and Harry Dean Stanton. I melded those ideas into what would become this loosely told tale of a young woman looking for a new con. I told the story in reverse because I liked the reveal at the end (er, beginning), and also for the mere fun of having this video bookend the Campdogzz video, which was also told in reverse.

Are there any other filmmaking projects/videos that you've been working on that you're particularly proud of?

Plug time! Yes, I wrote and directed a feature length film, No Resolution, released in 2017. I struggled to find decent distribution but did manage to tour it around the country, showing it at some venues and a handful of Alamo Drafthouse Theaters. The distribution I did end up using for online streaming has since folded, so it's currently not available anywhere!

Any insight on how the importance or role of music videos has changed over the course of your career?

I waffle on this a lot. Clearly, the video is not the mighty vehicle it once was, when it had cable channels devoted solely to airing and promoting them. But now that our world has fully acclimated to staring at screens for everything always at all times, one could argue that there is space and usage for the music video again. I love them, as I grew up on them, but I prefer the 'no budget' route more than ever, as I am unsure how much attention people are offering to them over simply listening to a song on whatever streaming platform one uses. Regardless, it's still a vibrant, unique artform, and I'm of the opinion that the less money spent on them, the more interesting they are. That's the epitome of classic videos from the early MTV days, when labels weren't sure if videos would really take off or not so they'd throw $150 toward some college kid with a camera.

Inspirations, A Musical Journey with Chris Simpson of Mountain Time June 11, 2020

If there’s one thing that’s certain, listening to Chris Simpson’s Mountain Time uncovers layers upon layers of artistry that may be unexpected to long time listeners of his prior bands Mineral and The Gloria Record. On Music For Looking Animals, his affinity for songwriters from the 60s and 70s is on full display and the album is a looking glass into some of the music that inspired him from a very young age. We asked Chris to dive deep and come up with a list of songs that have profoundly inspired him as an artist — and the end result is a fascinating look into his world and how the sound of Mountain Time came to be what it is today. Explore the full list below and follow the Spotify playlist here for future additions. Mountain Time's new album Music For Looking Animals is available everywhere June 26th.

David Bowie - "Five Years"

I first heard this song shortly after learning that George W. Bush had won his second term as President. I felt entirely alien in my own country. It was the first time I think a presidential election had hit me in this way, like a wave of depression and darkness. It wouldn’t of course be the last, or even the worst such experience I would have. Something about the lyrics at the top: “Pushing through the market square/ So many mothers sighing/ News had just come over/ We had five years left to cry in.” It was just one of those moments where a song comes to you across a vast expanse of time, plants itself firmly in the present moment and rips your chest open. It also includes one of the great lyrical stanzas in my mind: “Think I saw you in an ice-cream parlor/ Drinking milkshakes cold and long/ Smiling and waving and looking so fine/ Don’t think you knew you were in this song…”

The Velvet Underground - "Sunday Morning"

This was the first Velvet Underground I really took in. This opening track going right into, “I’m Waiting For My Man” is one of my favorite opening sequences of a record. These guys were just so open and vulnerable and tough and out there all at once. They could feel like the sun shining down on you or the world caving in. But there’s always such an honest pure child-like heart to what they’re doing. Esteemed guitarist Tom Verlaine of Television famously said that he was so depressed upon hearing this record because he realized he had already learned too much to ever be able to play the guitar like Lou Reed did.

Van Morrison - "Sweet Thing"

In the phase that followed the dissolution of The Gloria Record I was adrift in every way imaginable. I had started to explore Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen’s early records and felt like what I wanted creatively and musically was to return to this kind of acoustic simplicity. I wanted to write songs I could play on my own on an acoustic guitar or the piano. Discovering the Astral Weeks record by Van Morisson was among the most exhilarating experiences of my musical life. I kept listening to it transfixed. I couldn’t stop. For a long time I wasn’t sure if I liked it. It felt like I was seeing behind some sort of curtain into the horrors and ecstasy of human existence somehow. The whole universe felt unmasked in it. There was nowhere to hide in these songs. Sweet Thing is so much more than a love song. It became the anthem to me and my now-wife’s relationship at the time and evolved with us through many struggles, eventually becoming the song we used for our first dance at our wedding.

Leonard Cohen - "A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes"

Around the time I was exploring all this music I was also exploring a whole world of writing and thinking that was equally fresh and astonishing to me. One of those writers/thinkers was Joseph Campbell and his book ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’ about the universality of the hero monomyth. I had the feeling that Leonard had read EVERYTHING and was giving it back to me with a wink and saying, “Yes, but…” His grasp of the human condition in all its beauty and ugliness made him feel like a wise and compassionate elder. An adorable owl with an eternal glint in his eye spitting Zen koans and wrapping your knuckles with a stick when you got distracted.

Bob Dylan - "One Of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)"

This is the first Dylan song that facilitated a deep dive into his entire body of work for me. I had embraced the early folk anthems, in all their earnestness. This was something else. Blonde on Blonde was the culmination of the controversial “electric” period, which left his diehard folk fans feeling betrayed and abandoned. After this there was once again nowhere left to go but somewhere else entirely. The instrumentation and feeling of this record was very much what I was after on a lot of the earlier Zookeeper recordings. I couldn’t imagine a more exuberant and blissful sound.

Neil Young - "Harvest"

Neil always stood out to me for that angelic, feminine voice. He has worked so long and fearlessly in essentially the same form song wise, but his melodies and voice are always so singular and stunning they transcend the repetition of the form. His view of nature was almost mystical but the mundane and human was always his muse. Harvest is such a beautiful love song. This is one of the songs I always sang as a lullaby to my kids at their bedtimes. They still immediately recognize it now when it comes on.

Harry Nilsson - "Bath"

Harry’s voice is unparalleled. No one could sing like Harry. The harmonies he effortlessly added to his own vocals. The orchestration and arrangements on the records. Because of the greatness of his voice, and the fact that he reinterpreted a lot of other people’s material, I feel like he is often overlooked as a songwriter. This is one of my favorites of his. The way the chord progression just keeps coming. I love the image of Harry coming home early one morning in the middle of a bender just to take a bath and head right back out into the fray again.

Big Star - "Nightime"

There is just something about Big Star’s Third album. It will always be mind-boggling to me that this came out when it did. This record was very important in helping me visualize the texture and palette I was looking for in the early Zookeeper days. The acoustic fragility enmeshed with the more atmospheric and unsettling elements. The ominous start and stop of the cello. "Nightime" was a revelation to me.

Graham Nash - "Military Madness"

Graham Nash’s Songs For Beginners was another big record for me in 2005/2006. Military Madness is such a perfect lead track. The growl of those background vocals, the lilting acoustic and piano, that crazy wah guitar. Graham’s singing is so crystal clear and just beautiful. And I loved the cover image. It was a record I held in my hands a lot as I listened to it. It felt at once homespun and otherworldly.

Judee Sill - "The Kiss"

Judee Sill came up a number of times in my explorations but never really sucked me in. Until… I was on tour with Mineral in South America. I was in a hotel room in Lima, Peru, exhausted and missing my family so much. It was the first day of school back home and things were very hard there without me. I felt helpless being so far away and not being able to be with my wife and kids. There was a coffee shop on a cliff overlooking a beach a short walk away which had been reported to be exquisite by my band mates and I had every intention of going there. But I was feeling so low, I was just lying in bed drifting in and out of sleep. I was listening to a playlist on my phone and it had ended and switched to Radio play mode based on the playlist when this song came on. It destroyed me instantaneously. All the walls were obliterated, inside and out. I ugly/beautiful cried uncontrollably as it unfolded. Across time and space. This song originally set down in 1973, 46 years earlier, and a year before I was even born. It cracked me open. Dissolved at once the barriers that separate me from both my inner self and the world outside. It felt like a vacuum was sucking me in and down and up and out all at once. And it was so heavy and painful and righteous and powerful. I listened to it on an endless loop for the next week as we travelled, trying to hold on to that experience and sensation as long as possible. It remains a profound emotional and spiritual experience anytime I hear it.

John Cale - "Big White Cloud"

John’s voice is so authentic. I came to him from the Velvet Underground record he features so prominently on. I think I actually heard some of his more esoteric later work first, but his 70s “pop” records became an indispensable part of my musical diet. This song was always one of my favorites, but there are so many. This one has that bright, sunny, pre-disco Bee Gees, reverby strings and plunky piano thing that just drives me crazy.

Leonard Cohen - "Avalanche"

This is the first tree that fell for me, leading me inexorably into the forest of Leonard Cohen. I had heard some of his more popular songs and liked them fine. I had the first record and thought it was very good. I was working at a 24 hour diner where there was a lot of music and drugs and literature going around. I was waiting tables one night on a graveyard shift and heard this song playing in the kitchen while leaning on the window where the cooks put the orders for us. I immediately went back into the kitchen and asked who it was and one of the cooks gave me a broken cd jewel case with that big font: SONGS OF LOVE AND HATE, and that picture of Leonard looking possessed or ecstatic. I stood there transfixed, ignoring my tables in the front of the restaurant and their orders waiting in the window. I made the cook repeat the song for me when it finished so I could hear the whole thing. I went the next day and got the record, and it honestly took me a long time to listen past that first song because I kept having to play it again every time it ended. There is such a literary and cinematic feel to it. I immediately picture some lonely hunchbacked creature on a blizzard swept landscape, living in a half underground cave or shelter, marching bravely out into the elements to address the world with his song. It was astounding. It still is. Leonard is such a master at painting a picture and leaving you holding the brush and mute with questions.

The Kinks - "Strangers"

When people argue about The Beatles vs. The Stones, my answer has always been The Kinks. Which is not to say that I don’t understand and respect what the other two accomplished or meant, or that I don’t enjoy their records as well (I do, quite a bit). But The Kinks always felt so scrappy and authentic and relatable to me. They were funny and fun and serious and meaningful all at once. This is one of my favorites of theirs. It also featured prominently in my wife and I’s wedding music and feels like an anthem for choosing togetherness and celebrating uniqueness.

Big Star - "Blue Moon"

The gentleness of the flutes and strings and arrangement, coupled with the vulnerability and fragility of Alex’s vocals on this track are chilling. And somehow, like in "Nightime" further up the list, there’s always an undercurrent that feels almost sinister or reckless, I feel like I can never relax into the beauty of it for fear that reality will drop an axe on me if I lose vigilance. It’s hard to explain, but so bewitching. And there are so many songs on this album that do that to me.

Bob Dylan - "My Back Pages"

From the opening lines on. These words are a blitzkrieg to the senses and consciousness. What a wonderful and truthful paradox . That we actually become less attuned to our own internal compasses as we age and get filled with ideas, less capable of seeing and knowing the truth. That justice is beyond optics and learned catchphrases, and that true education is visionary and experiential, not academic. That gaining wisdom and insight is akin to shedding layers of learned notions. That we can actually grow younger, closer to the source. This is Bob at his finest. Firing on all cylinders and busting at the seams of the form he embodied for his first four albums. After this there’s nothing left to do but go “electric.”

Harry Nilsson - "I Said Goodbye To Me"

Since middle and high school, when I wrote a handful of them myself, I have always been obsessed with songs about suicide. Harry’s incomparable voice is on full display here, playing with tremolo and vibrato like a cat plays with yarn. The delivery is uncanny and when he switches from words to woahs and ohs it somehow only heightens the emotional power of the narrative. I also love the whole doubling the vocal with a track where the vocals are spoken instead of sung. So goddamn good. The loss of Harry Nilsson’s voice is one of the great tragedies of American song in my mind.

Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young - "Our House"

This is one of those songs I grew up hearing on the radio forgot about and then rediscovered later (or so I thought) before realizing every note of it was already emblazoned in my consciousness. It has defined my vision of domestic bliss. I sang this to my children as a lullaby every night for many years. Sometimes they still ask for it. It will never not make me think of my wife and kids and be grateful for the life I have. It will never not make me happy.

Paul Simon - "Mother and Child Reunion"

One of the greatest gifts my mother ever gave me was Simon and Garfunkel. Bridge Over Troubled Water and The Bee Gees Greatest Hits Volume 1 were the two records in our family record collection I always stole and played in my own room. Years later the self-titled Paul Simon solo record was something I spent an inordinate amount of time with. I think Mother and Child Reunion is a perfect opening track. I was obsessed with the sound and the instruments, recognizing it as something different than Paul’s usual backing. Seeking out the source and finding that it was recorded in Jamaica with Jimmy Cliff’s backing band and members of Toots and The Maytals made me realize that maybe I didn’t hate reggae music at all. Much later I would actually take a deep dive into reggae and rocksteady, being able to listen to little else for many years. But I digress... this song is brilliant. The whole record is brilliant. I wish I could put the whole thing on here.

Van Morrison - "Slim Slow Slider"

The perfect end to a perfect record, or, as Lester Bangs called Astral Weeks, a “mystical document”. A song about seeing an old friend or lover on the street and not knowing what to do. Someone who’s gone now in more ways than one. Someone who’s dying and cannot be reached. Van is such a master improviser he makes planning or arranging feel cheap. Anyhow. Heavy, heavy beautiful stuff.

John Lennon - "Oh Yoko!"

Thought I’d reward anyone who’s made it this far with a light and uplifting final track. This song is not only one of the only explicit love songs of its sort that I can stomach, but also a master class in the simplicity of a great song. Only one word of the lyrics changes in each verse. Every other word is repeated each time, and yet I still feel like it’s too short. Like it could go on forever. (Surely there are some more things that John could be in the middle of when he calls out to Yoko?) Anyway, this song makes me happy to be alive and in love and breathing.

**I hope you enjoyed this list. I am not a music critic, and this is a small percentage of what I have loved and taken in and held dear musically throughout my life. I just wanted to share with you some of the specific music and artists that were inspiring me stylistically when I began this journey with Zookeeper and now into Mountain Time. Much love to everyone out there, I hope you find some joy here. It means the world to me to be able to connect with and share my work with you. - CS

Listen to the full playlist below.