Artists On Albums: AOA#34 (Yo La Tengo’s James McNew on Seizure)

James McNew (Yo La Tengo and Dump) on…

Chris Knox’s Seizure (Flying Nun Europe, 1989)

Chris Knox - Seizure

Chris Knox – Seizure

In the late 80s, Homestead Records released domestic versions of several records originally issued on the Flying Nun label from New Zealand.  It was the way I (and lots of people) first heard The Clean, The Chills, The Verlaines, and the Tall Dwarfs. I instantly and expensively began hunting down every title in the Flying Nun catalog. I was hooked.  I loved the heavenly pop of Look Blue Go Purple and the Bird Nest Roys, as well as the magnificent roar of The Gordons. What the hell was going on down there? What was this magical place? Also, where was it? (I didn’t do very well in school.)

The Tall Dwarfs were my favorite of all.  Poisonously psychedelic and weird, yet smiley and hopelessly catchy. Their songs were Beatle-y and Eno-y, as much as I could discern back then, but they were also twisted and confusing, filled with unidentifiable sounds. Whatever they were doing to make this music, I just couldn’t figure it out; there were guitars and organs, but there was all this other… stuff? Their album credits mentioned ‘tapes’ – what did that mean? I knew Mission Of Burma used tapes, somehow, but this didn’t sound anything like them. I had never heard anything like this (I still haven’t).

Homestead Records was also home to the Happy Flowers, or as they were known to me, the greatest rock band in history. They lived in the same town as me (Charlottesville, VA) and I idolized them. I occasionally made myself useful by filling up my car with their gear and driving with them to their out-of-town gigs. On the eve of their first European tour, they got a gig at CBGB, opening for The Clean and Chris Knox of the Tall Dwarfs. It was a great show (the Flowers honored an audience request for “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and Mr. Anus began the second verse with “Now I’m ready to close my eyes/Now I’m ready for a birthday surprise!”). The Clean were effortlessly overpowering, tossing off one incredible hit after another as though they were making them up on the spot. Between the two bands was Chris Knox’s solo set, and it blew my mind forever.  He was of average height, with bleached-blonde hair, wearing beach shorts and plastic thong sandals, playing a white Ovation Breadwinner.  He also had a wild-eyed, leering grin that never went away.  His set was amazing – all new songs I had never heard before, each one instantly memorable.  Between each song he said hilarious, scabrous things. At the end of his set was a fuzz-drenched, blood-curdling cover of John Lennon’s “Mother” that haunts me to this day; I never saw him play it again.  His set gave me insight into the universe of the Tall Dwarfs, but the only thing I could think about was all those goddamn SONGS he did.

I got my hands on Seizure as soon as I could.  It was everything I hoped for.  It was even better than every detail of the set I’d been meditating on for months. Each song instantly became a part of my life. As far as I was concerned, it was on par with the Beatles/ Stones/Kinks/Who/Floyd/any classic pop music I had ever heard on the radio, and it meant just as much to me.  But this was on its own, happily hermetic trip.  It was as great as the classics, but it was also shockingly personal and urgent.  All the artwork was Chris’s, and the credits were in his handwriting. His songs were funny, tender, smart, and tough, all at once.  The arrangements and recordings were stripped down to the Breadwinner, voice, and maybe a minimal rhythm loop of inscrutable origin (no bass, no drums, no other people), which made the sheer power of the songs unavoidable.  The lyrics betrayed real wisdom and experience, as well as his sense of humor, and he laid himself bare at every turn without ever feeling sorry for himself.  The album’s centerpiece, “Not Given Lightly” remains the most honest, perfect expression of love for another person that I’ve ever heard. The whole thing was an astonishing statement of independence, and it meant the world to me. It changed the way I heard music for the rest of my life.

Epilogue: In 1998, Yo La Tengo went to New Zealand for the first time ever.  We were in a pub in Auckland, and a stranger put money in the jukebox and played “Not Given Lightly,” just as any old American would play “What I Like About You” or “Sweet Emotion.” No big deal. I nearly burst into tears.

Notes On The Artist:

James McNew

James McNew

Since 1991 James McNew has been the longest-serving bass player in underground rock pioneers Yo La Tengo. Having made his tentative recording debut with the band on 1992’s May I Sing With Me LP, McNew has been more than just a four-string slinger for Yo La Tengo.  Having proved himself with his catalytic contributions to the trio’s seminal ‘90s triumvirate of 1993’s Painful, 1995’s Electr-O-Pura and 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, his increasing vocal, multi-instrumentalist and songwriting profile has mustered many individual stand-out highlights across subsequent albums (such as the transcendental “Tiny Birds” on 2003’s Summer Sun and the elegiac “I’m On My Way” from 2009’s Popular Songs) and he most notably led the way on 2002’s gleeful expletive-ridden Sun Ra-covering Nuclear War EP.

Before and in parallel to Yo La Tengo duties, McNew has not been creatively idle or anti-social.  Briefly being a member of near-ungoogleable fuzzy art-rock outfit Christmas for 1993’s much-delayed Vortex LP, McNew has also made guest playing appearances on recordings by Mark Eitzel, Brokeback, Sue Garner, Jennifer O’Connor and Man Forever.  However, McNew’s most singular work outside of Yo La Tengo has been through his modestly monikered Dump side-project.  Across five full-length albums and a long string of low-key singles and EPs, McNew has explored – largely through charming tape-hiss infused recording methods – dolorous lo-fi ballads, atonal sound collages, noise-rock jams, ‘60s garage-pop, brittle post-hardcore, ragged country-folk and imaginative covers of The Bonzo Dog Band, Prince, Ultravox and innumerable others.

Recent months have seen a spike in McNew-related activity through the release of Dump’s mischievous disco makeover of GG Allin’s “NYC Tonight” (as a multi-version 12” EP on Japanese label Presspop Music) and via the return of Yo La Tengo (with the much acclaimed Fade long-player on Matador).  On top of all that, comes Morr Music’s freshly-pressed and masterfully expanded reissues of the first two long unavailable Dump albums – 1993’s dreamily diverse Superpowerless and 1994’s slightly more rough-edged I Can Hear Music. Morr Music’s lovingly repackaged reissues also mark the albums’ first ever appearances on vinyl.  Hopefully, later and hard-to-find Dump releases might also get much deserved archival treatment in due course.  In the meantime, there’s certainly plenty to catch up with James McNew-wise.

Comments

  1. Chris Knox is an amazing talent. Most people here in NZ wont own or heard of Seizure, but as James writes, everyone knows and loves Not Given Lightly. P.S. I saw Yo La Tengo in Dunedin during that 1998 tour James mentions. It was an outstanding show.