Interview by Billy Hell
Thalia Zedek should need little introduction as the intensely emotive singer fronting the Thalia Zedek Band, Come, Via, Live Skull, Uzi and Dangerous Birds. She should but while critical acclaim exhorts the excellence of every record she makes, the fact that she was playing a massive European tour with just one British gig Upstairs at the Garage suggests that more people should be listening to her songs. Via was my favourite album of 2013, winning out over Bardo Pond, Melt Banana and Wire through sheer emotional weight. She has covered Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, and consistently writes songs of a quality up with their very best. From the darkly experimental Uzi to the hyper-intense mania of Live Skull to the most exciting live heavy rock band in the nineties after Nirvana died, Come, there has never been a scrap of deadweight in her artistic oeuvre, and that can't be said of either Lou Reed or Bob Dylan. Not content with just her songwriting vehicle Thalia Zedek Band and the currently dormant Come who reformed to tour in 2013, she recently started a new band called E. After going for a curry in Islington with most of her band and Alison from Thrill Jockey records, we stood outside her small busy dressing room and talked until the first band began to play.
Setlist for the gig Upstairs at the Garage:
"Fell So Hard"
"Want You To Know"
PSF: Why is Daniel Coughlin no longer drumming in your band?
TZ: He'd been playing with us for a long time and he found a job that was a little more serious and paid him more money. He needed to be there so it became difficult for him to tour.
PSF: Not a drumming job?
TZ: No, he's doing woodwork finishing for some big company. He had to get up early and didn't get much vacation. I think he was also a little burned out. I think he wanted a change. He's since got married and he's doing really well. He's still playing music in a band he's been in for a long time back home.
PSF: What's the name of his band?
TZ: They were Throttle but now they're 200 Billion Years, a dark metal band.
PSF: A completely different kind of music.
TZ: Yeah, but he always did that kind of stuff.
PSF: Before he played drums in Come?
TZ: Yeah, and during. He was always playing with other people, this one guy John Uberstreet, they had a band for like thirty years or something. It was called Throttle. John's in this new band with him with some other people he'd known for a while too.
PSF: How did you find Daniel when he came to drum for Come?
TZ: We were looking for a drummer and a mutual friend, this woman Tammy who's a photographer, moved to Boston from Philadelphia and she did some band photos for us. She knew we were looking for a drummer and she knew Daniel. She told us he was a really amazing drummer and he wasn't playing with anyone at the time. So through a recommendation of a friend.
PSF: Winston Braman, the bass player in your band, was in the line up that recorded the last Come album wasn't he?
TZ: Yeah he was. He played bass on "Gently Down the Stream" and he did a bunch of touring with us but he was kind of like half and half because he had another band Fuzzy at the time who were doing a lot of stuff at the time. He didn't do all the tours with us, but he did maybe like half of them.
PSF: You covered Lou Reed's song "Candy Says" but I was wondering if you'd consider covering another Lou Reed song as a tribute?
TZ: I haven't thought about it but he's an amazing songwriter so...
PSF: I was listening to "The Bells" the long title track of his 1979 album and I could imagine you covering that song.
TZ: I'm not familiar with that actually, I'll have to listen to it.
PSF: It's got Don Cherry on trumpet. It's this doomed jazz/rock suicide song, very over-wrought and literate. The rest of the album is a strange disco/jazz hybrid that's mostly a bit daft.
TZ: OK, I haven't heard that. He's done so many things.
PSF: There must be a lot of Lou Reed fans who haven't heard everything he recorded. I've never heard Mistrial or Lulu. You recently started another band, called E, with a guy from Neptune. Why did you start another band?
TZ: Just wanting to do something a little different.
PSF: Different in what way?
TZ: To play in a more collaborative situation. In my band I write all my own songs and everyone I play with has their own stuff. E is like a more traditional band type thing; just sort of bounce ideas off people more.
PSF: So more a jamming band than a showcase for songwriting?
PSF: Is it noisier?
TZ: Yeah, it is. We just put out a 7" single. Someone's bringing some over next week but I don't have any now. We have a website too that Jason Sandford put up. There's a song "Treeline" up there. The band's name is E but because of copyright- we can't do anything on the web with that so we call ourselves "a band called E." We'll be putting some more music up there soon. I'd gone through a three or four year period of feeling really stagnant and stuck. I found that playing with different people helped me through that so I continued to do that. I think it really important to get outside my own band and play with different people.
PSF: The last letter of Come is "e" but it's nothing to do with that is it?
PSF: Why did you call the band E?
TZ: We had a really hard time thinking of a name. There are three of us and E is like 3 reversed. We liked the way it looked. It's a weird frequency on a radio band, an E frequency, and Jason's really into all that electronics stuff. It also alludes to Neptune because Neptune's symbol is a trident like E turned on it's side anticlockwise.
PSF: Who else is in the band?
TZ: Alec Tisdale is the drummer. There's just the three of us.
PSF: Talking of letters, the last couple of albums you put out, Via and Six, have had three letter titles with the letter "I" in the middle. Is that entirely coincidental?
TZ: I think so. I was thinking more in a graphic sense. I like the shape of the word 'via.' 'Six' too I think is really cool word.
PSF: Well it is totally obvious why you called it "Six."
TZ: Yeah there are six songs on it and it's my sixth album since Come.
PSF: Unless you count some of the more obscure releases like that Australian tour CD-R with "Searchlight " on it and the Return to Sender Hell is in Hello live CD.
TZ: I was joking that we should call it "Sixth" as it's funny to say sixth.
PSF: That'd spoil the continuation of the three letter theme from "Via." Why did you decide to use "Via" as an album title? You had a band called Via after Live Skull and before Come.
TZ: Yeah, I had that band before Come and I had this old picture I was going to use for the cover of the record and I just always really loved the word ‘via.’ There as something about the picture and the photograph that went together. It was a period of transition for me too, and so to me, ‘via’ means street in Italy but in the sense that I'm thinking it means "by way of" kind of like a fluid type thing.
PSF: Via did "1000 Miles an Hour" which Chris Brokaw (Come guitarist) later recorded. Were there any other lost Via songs?
TZ: We recorded a few things. We did a song called "Cell."
PSF: That song must have given the band Cell their name because one of them was in Via.
TZ: Yeah, one of the guys from Cell, Jerry, was in Via but he never did that song in Cell. Actually "Off to One Side" was a Via song originally.
PSF: So is that the earliest Come song?
TZ: Yeah, with me and Jerry playing and Chris playing the drums.
PSF: I didn't know Chris played drums for Via!
TZ: He did only like three shows and he sat in on drums for one of the shows.
PSF: How many shows did Via play?
TZ: I think we played maybe four. The first show was at the Middle East. We opened for These Immortal Souls. We did a show at the Pyramid Club after that.
PSF: Rowland S. Howard of These Immortal Souls died a few years ago, and there seem to be a lot old people you've known who've died in recent years judging by your lyrics. There are a lot of references to dead friends.
PSF: There are angels everywhere in your songs too!
TZ: There has been a lot of death around me. "Julie Said" was kind of about this friend of ours who passed away, the guy who wrote the bio for Come. When we were doing the reissue of Eleven: Eleven some of the guys in the band were like, "We should get Shannon to write another bio." I said, "I think Shannon's dead." But I couldn't really remember because I'd lost touch and I had to look up the whole thing and relive it. My old girlfriend Julie told me he died ("Julie said friends are dead"). He was a really cool guy. He was a poet and we used to hang out a lot. When I was living in New York in the eighties we were both total messes but I saw him after that too and he was a very talented writer and published stuff and got a scholarship to go to China.
PSF: What was his surname?
TZ: Hamahn. He was really good friends with Michael Stipe actually, and the Athens, Georgia crew. I was hanging out with him when I was in New York. Vic Chesnutt was also another person from back in that era who died, and Jason Noble from Rodan.
Live at the Garage, London, March 2014
PSF: Come came back to life though! Did that happen because of the Eleven: Eleven reissue?
TZ: Yeah it was about the reissue really. We've always enjoyed playing together when we've gotten back together.
PSF: When was the last time the original line up (Thalia with Chris Brokaw on guitar, Arthur Johnson on drums and Sean O'Brien on bass) played before last year's reformation?
TZ: We played a Matador showcase in Las Vegas a few years ago. It was their anniversary.
PSF: Was that with Eleventh Dream Day?
TZ: No, but that was part of that tour. We did a few shows: one kind of solo at TT the Bears and then we did the Vegas show and then we did the Eleventh Dream Day show in New York. That was fun, we all enjoyed doing that. We always felt bad about Eleven: Eleven being out of print. When Glitterhouse offered to reissue it we were like, "Yeah definitely." And then Matador said they would do it in the States but they really wanted us to play some shows around it, which we were all happy to do, so...
PSF: Do you feel bad about Don't Ask Don't Tell being out of print?
TZ: Yeah, I guess so. Maybe that'll be next, I don't know.
PSF: Can I request right now that when it gets reissued you include all the B-sides (“Loin of the Surf,” “SVK,” “Who Jumped in My Grave?,” “Angelhead” and “City of Fun”), the Peel session and "Cimarron" from the "Ain't Nuthin' but a She Thing" compilation? "Cimarron" is such a great song but I guess there could be licensing problems with the compilation being on London records.
TZ: Yeah, but that was a charity thing so I can't imagine there's be problems.
PSF: "Cimarron" was almost the great lost Come song. You did play it at gigs but a lot of fans might not have heard that compilation or even been aware of it.
TZ: We played it on this last tour. It was one of the ones we kept.
PSF: The tour was billed as "Eleven: Eleven" certainly in Manchester at the Ruby Lounge, but it was more than that. I was so happy when you played "In/Out" from Don't Ask Don't Tell.
TZ: We only played songs that the four of us had played together before, but that was a lot more than "Eleven: Eleven."
PSF: Did you actually rehearse everything the four of you recorded? You didn't play "Power Failure" in Manchester and that's the song you played least from the first two albums at the many Come gigs I heard in the nineties. I think I only ever heard you play it once.
TZ: We did a different set list every night.
PSF: Was it a song you liked less?
TZ: I like it, it's just a really heavy song. I do like it a lot but it's really slow and really heavy. The guys in the band really love it and I really like performing it but it wasn't as though we played it every night. We did play it on the tour though.
PSF: Have you written any songs in Come or the Thalia Zedek Band that you've never played live?
TZ: Yeah probably some off that Australian tour CD-R.
PSF: Is "Searchlight" the song you're talking about?
TZ: Yeah, stuff like that and "Never That Mean."
PSF: Sean was talking to a friend of mine after that London gig and saying he'd really like to record some new Come songs. Do you think there's any possibility of that happening?
TZ: I doubt it. I don't know. I'm surprised Sean said that! I have a really hard time picturing a scenario where that could happen.
PSF: What does Sean do these days?
TZ: Sean is in New York working in film and is very reclusive. He's pretty distant and hard to reach and unresponsive. It's funny that he's the guy keen to work on new songs because he's the guy who, when we're all talking and CC’ing, everyone will be responding, but you won't hear from Sean for nine months. He's working a lot I guess, and he's got a son.
PSF: What's Arthur doing these days?
TZ: Arthur's in Atlanta with his wife Donna and he's a freelance copy editor, just working.
PSF: I was surprised to find a Tanya Donelly live album which he drummed on between his stints in Come.
TZ: He's done some tours here and there but I don't know if he's doing anything like that now. He's a great drummer. When he split from Come, he got a lot of offers.
PSF: "Afloat" is my favourite track from Six. That's you solo isn't it? I thought at first it was lyrically metaphorical, but Winston was telling me earlier it was a bout a real hurricane flood.
TZ: Yeah, it was about Hurricane Sandy. The studio we recorded Via in got completely destroyed during that. I had a lot of friends in New York and it was a really intense thing. They were evacuating the hospitals, like St Vincent’s, and it was crazy. New York City got completely flooded and a lot of parts of it got destroyed. I'd just put the finishing touches on Via when the studio in Brooklyn got completely destroyed. Luckily all my tapes were out.
PSF: Did you write "Afloat" back then?
TZ: I don’t remember when I wrote that song. Last year, 2013.
PSF: I was surprised there was a literal inspiration for that song. I'd assumed it was about emotional isolation.
TZ: The concept of New York City being flooded is just so bizarre, even though it's set around the water, you'd never think of New York as having anything to do with natural elements.
PSF: It usually takes most people by surprise when nature reveals its greater power.
TZ: They'd run out of gas and other stuff. I live in Boston, two hours away. We were like refugees from New York. I had enough gas in my car to get to Boston. The power was out for quite a long time.
PSF: Six is quite a low key record in that there are no noisier songs. Via and Trust Not Those in Whom Without Some Touch of Madness both end with the noisiest songs, but Six finishes with "Afloat," just you and your guitar, one of the quietest songs. There are a couple of songs on Six that almost seem like lullabies- "Julie Said" and "Dreamalie." Do you think you could call them lullabies?
TZ: I don't really think about it that way.
PSF: You might not be heading for the sweetest sleep with those songs.
TZ: No. They're sort of lulling but "Dreamalie" kind of kicks in.
PSF: A line from "Dreamalie" "It's an act but I'm not in it made me think it's about being left out of something.
TZ: I think the line prior to that is important: "There's a crisis every minute, it's an act but I'm not in it." It's like a drama in a literal and figurative sense. When someone's making a big drama, it's an act.
PSF: The word "Dreamalie" rhymes with lullaby. It's a word you made up isn't it?
TZ: Yeah, it's kind of dreamily, dream a lie, Dream of Life (the title of Patti Smith's fifth album). I don't know. I'm not really that...
PSF: "Midst" is an instrumental. Did you never think words would go with that music?
TZ: Yeah, pretty much.
PSF: You haven't done many instrumentals. There was the Come cover of Swell Maps' "Loin of the Surf."
TZ: I did one on the first record Been Here and Gone, "Tenth Lament" but yeah it's been few and far between for instrumentals. I don't know, it just came out. I just wrote it and was just like, "This is definitely an instrumental." I wanted to do it with the whole band. We were working on it but we were in between drummers at that point. It was a difficult time signature so I ended up recording it by myself.
PSF: Do you pay much attention to time signatures when you write songs?
TZ: I do somewhat, but I don't necessarily know what they're called, not in the way a drummer would when they're like, "Oh this is 6/8 switching to 7/8."
PSF: When I wrote songs on guitar, the bass player would always tell me everything’s in complicated time signatures but I just played what I thought sounded good.
TZ: Yeah, that's what I do too. I'm aware of when it's jumping around.
PSF: "Fell So Hard" seems to be about two lovers, your first and last, both of whom you fell so hard for.
TZ: Yeah, that's what it's about and in a way role reversal; someone being really young and finding your first lover, and you're a total mess, like I was a total mess when I was really young. Then the last time being older and having a younger person, it's kind of like being on the other side of that.
PSF: So is that your girlfriend Heather who was crying for her mother?
TZ: She wasn't crying for her mother but when we first started going out, it wasn’t long after her mother passed away.
PSF: So that's a very personal song.
PSF: There are quite a few reoccurring themes in your songs. "Last Mistake" was a Come song and that phrase has come back in later songs. "Walk Away" has come around a few times I think, and storms.
TZ: I do that sometimes.
PSF: The biggest one is card games, "Winning Hand" and "Evil Hand" especially. Do you play cards much?
TZ: No, but I used to be into reading tarot cards a lot.
PSF: What do you think of tarot?
TZ: It can be a useful tool for analyzing your life sometimes.
PSF: How did you meet the other members of Dangerous Birds?
TZ: I met them because we were all in this record collective Propeller Records, and I was in a different band called White women. Laurie was in a band that might have just been called Laurie Green. She did stuff with Billy Bacon. Marjorie and Karen Gekus were both in a band called People In Stores on the same record label. They put out EP’s and single on Propeller Records.
PSF: Do you remember anything about writing and recording the Dangerous Birds single?
TZ: We had the songs for a long time. We had a lot of songs. We went in and this guy Joe Cunio recorded it and it was one of my first times in a recording studio. I think we recorded five songs and put some on a single and some on other EPs.
PSF: Was there a White Women record?
TZ: There's a White Women track on a Propeller cassette but I'm actually not on that track.
PSF: Were Propeller Records helpful and supportive?
TZ: Yeah, definitely, very supportive. It was a collective.
PSF: What were the role models for Dangerous Birds?
TZ: Probably Mission of Burma. We were really into them and played with them a lot.
PSF: A great band, and the last band I interviewed for Perfect Sound Forever. Did you feel a part of the Boston scene?
TZ: Yeah. Salem 66 were around at that time.
PSF: I loved that band.
TZ: I loved them too.
PSF: They never toured Europe as far as I know.
TZ: Probably not.
PSF: There are some really uplifting guitar riffs on Natural Disasters, National Treasures.
TZ: And great lyrics.
PSF: One of the singers was a really good singer too.
PSF: Yeah, Judy Grunwald. Well they were both good. Do you know what happened to them?
TZ: They just broke up. Judy lives with Dave Minnehan from the Neighborhoods. He played with Aerosmith and he plays in the Replacements new band. He's one of the guitar players and he has a recording studio.
PSF: None of them play in bands anymore?
TZ: I don't think any of them are playing anymore.
PSF: That's a shame. The other singer was called Beth Kaplan...
TZ: I'm not sure what she's up to.
PSF: You have another Caplan, Lisa Caplan who has taken photos of you. How do you know her?
TZ: They're not related. Lisa used to go out with Daniel. She was his girlfriend for a long time.
PSF: Rewinding back to Dangerous Birds, why did that band break up?
TZ: I really wanted to play a different kind of music. We were way too pop and I was growing out of it. I was really young and growing in a different direction.
PSF: Was anyhting more recorded apart from the single?
TZ: Yeah there's a ton of rehearsal tapes and stuff like that.
PSF: Do you think you'd ever release those?
TZ: I don't know, maybe.
PSF: Something from your past that really should be released is the Live Skull Peel session with that song that never got recorded elsewhere.
TZ: That's all being reissued now on Desire. I think they've put out the first couple of Live Skull records, the first album and the first EP.
PSF: Do yu know what happened to the other members of Dangerous Birds?
TZ: Laurie's living out in Los Angeles, still playing music and doing artistic stuff, writing and making music. Marjorie lives in Boston still and is married with a kid. I think she still plays a little bit. Karen still lives in the area but not Boston.
PSF: Would you play music with them again?
TZ: I don't think so.
PSF: It won't be like Come if you put out the rehearsal tapes then?
PSF: Do you think if a label offers to reissue Don't Ask Don't Tell you would do another Come tour?
TZ: I don't know.
PSF: I think it'd be a good idea.
TZ: Well, maybe.
PSF: Do more people come to see Come or the Thalia Zedek Band?
TZ: I'd say probably Come, although sometimes it's different. It's gone up and down.
PSF: Do you remember the first record you bought?
TZ: I think it was the New York Dolls Live in New York.
PSF: Do you remember the last record you bought?
TZ: It was at a show, a band called Whorepaint from Rhode Island. They're on Load records.
PSF: So they're pretty noisy then?
TZ: Yeah. They're amazing.
Also see Thalia Zedek's website at Thrill Jockey
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