The Director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, Ted Gullicksen, died suddenly in his home the night of October 13th or morning of October 14th. There will be a memorial service this coming Sunday at Mission High. I didn’t know Ted personally, but when my mom and I were wrongfully evicted during dotcom1, the SF Tenants Union was very supportive. Ted and the Union have provided assistance to so many San Francisco residents over the years.
I have been listening to Sondre Lerche’s music for over ten years, which is a very long time for me. Since 2001, Sondre has released eight diverse, genre-spanning albums, including the jazz-inspired Duper Sessions, and two film soundtracks, including a haunting score for The Sleepwalker, a 2014 film directed by his recent ex-wife Mona Fastvold and starring Christopher Abbott (Charlie on Girls). I have seen him perform at The Fillmore, Swedish American Hall (RIP), Great American Music Hall, Bimbo’s, and a handful of places in Austin, Texas. I have seen him perform solo, with a full band, and everything in between; whatever the configuration, he always impresses with his distinct voice and shredding guitar.
Sondre’s latest album, Please, dropped a few weeks ago. Please was written in the aftermath of his divorce with Fastvold, and with it, he reinvents himself again. The album’s first single, “Bad Law,” was one of my top summer jams, combining a super charismatic dance riff with chunks of distorted guitar.
This Thursday, Sondre Lerche is playing at The Independent. I had the pleasure of chatting with Sondre about his record, upcoming tour, the color of his music, the idea of guilty pleasures, and why San Francisco is his favorite city in America.
MM: Tell us a little bit about your newest record, Please. I read that it was heavily inspired by your recent divorce. What was your process like? How was it conceived?
SL: I started out wanting to free myself from the regular recording cycle. I just wanted to do one song at a time, to be able to record instantaneously and enter into collaborations without having to carry the weight of the whole record. I just wanted to open up a bit. I usually write really thorough songs that limit what you can do in the studio, so I tried to open myself up to surprise, to surprising myself. There was a lot of music I was listening to that I realized comes out of a completely different process, and I was curious about what that is. So that’s how it started, and as I wrote more and more songs, I thought I knew what the record was about. And then all this stuff happened in my private life, that just forced me to reevaluate a lot of things. One of them was what this record was about; all of these other songs just started coming. I realized that certain things were more urgent than others, and the album just changed. I think it came out of the necessity of ventilating and trying to find reason in what is happening to you. And the studio is just the perfect place to figure out stuff, to get it out. I guess it’s a cliché, but it turns out it’s real.
MM: The first song on the record, “Bad Law,” is such a great dance song, despite being quite dark lyrically. What is that song about?
SL: It’s a song that took a lot of time to write. It started with that riff, and then I recorded the bass and drums, which was new – I usually start out with guitar. I had this idea of the sort of paranoia you feel when you pass through customs. As a Norwegian flying into the States, even though I now have a green card and have nothing to hide, I always feel a certain paranoia. So I wanted to play around with that ritual, where you feel so watched and pressured, that in the end you started doubting yourself, and maybe you do have something to hide. Maybe that’s how the police get people to confess things that they didn’t do. In the end, you’re just so worn down. It felt like a reasonable metaphor in the context of the record and everything else.
If you’ve watched Netflix’s first original animated series BoJack Horseman, you probably noticed that the opening credits sequence totally rules. Maybe you also happen know that one of the composers of the theme music is Patrick Carney, drummer for the Black Keys.
Oh, are those acts a little too underground? Well then maybe you’ve heard his past work with Tom Waits, the B-52s, Elvis Costello, and They Might Be Giants.
Once, Harvey Pekar wrote a comic about him:
Ralph is a rare jazz musician who brings something that it’s sorely needed to the genre: a sense of humor. You can’t help but smile every time you see him play. But it’s not a gimmick, it’s in his DNA. Tom Waits once described him best: “He’s guided by some other source of information. He’s like a broken toy that works better than before it was broken.”
We chatted with Ralph recently about the theme song, and other pretty interesting stuff:
MM: So how did you get approached to do this project?
Ralph Carney: Patrick from the Black Keys was asked to do a theme for the show and he sent them this track that we already finished last November. It was his first tune from his newly built home studio. The producers loved it. They edited it down from 4 minutes to 30 seconds or so.
It was a lucky break. Patrick and I have been trading files on and off since around 2007 but nothing had ever come of any of it till this.
MM: So you had no idea you were writing something for a show about an anthropomorphic horse?
Ralph Carney: Haha nope. It wasn’t really composed for the show, but it worked for them. I got a text from Patrick in April saying, “I think we have a sync deal.” I thought he meant something about plumbing.
MM: It’s awesomely sax-heavy. When I first heard it I thought it was a lead guitar. Then other parts of it sound like a guitar chunking out power chords. How many tracks of saxophone are on there?
Ralph Carney: There are 3: tenor, soprano and baritone. The soprano didn’t make the theme but there is some in the 4 minute version that will be out on iTunes soon, I hear. And one bass trombone part.
MM: Haha awesome. Can’t wait to hear the whole thing. Patrick Carney has been pretty open about your influence on his musical career. Did you encourage him a lot as a kid?
Ralph Carney: Well I know he liked the Tin Huey record on Warner Brothers, and as he got older he thought it was cool he had an uncle who was on a record. Not sure if I musically influenced him, though.
I turned him on to weird children’s records and the Shaggs when he was in high school and came to visit in 1996 or so.
MM: Oh yeah, the Shaggs influence is clear.
Ralph Carney: His first musical output which I have on cassettes is pretty out there. That is why I was kinda surprised when he played me the first Black Keys stuff. I thought Dan was an African American. Also, I didn’t know he (Patrick) was a drummer. The rest is history, I guess.
MM: How long have you been in San Francisco?
Ralph Carney: Since 1995. I moved to Oakland in 1989, two weeks before the earthquake.
MM: Glad that didn’t scare you off. Do you think there’s been much opportunity for the working musician here?
Ralph Carney: It depends on what you are trying to do I guess, I think it is harder for young people in rock bands. Too expensive. But as far as the kind of gigs I do, it is not so bad, plenty of restaurants and bars to play old music.
You have heard it all before from Patti Smith, David Byrne, etc. Meaning here, NYC, etc. are no longer cheap like in the mid to late 70′s.
MM: Maybe I’m venting now, but it also seems like the going rate for the working session musician hasn’t changed since the ’60s.
Ralph Carney: Agreed! I sometimes wonder what I was thinking and then a thing like BoJack comes up.
MM: What else do you have going on musically these days?
Ralph Carney: Just recording stuff for various singers in my home studio. And then local gigging.
(Editors note: Ralph is being modest. “Various singers” includes St. Vincent. Here is his playing on the track “Digital Witness” on her record from this year.)
Ralph Carney: I just played a wedding for Roman Coppola. That was exciting, seeing Nic Cage yell at his kid.
MM: Haha the goth kid?
Ralph Carney: Hahaha, I don’t think he was there. They were a lot younger and not goth. There was a lake and Cage yelled to be in the water where “I CAN SEE YOU!!!” (in his best Nic Cage impression)
MM: Yeah, plus goths don’t swim.
Ralph Carney: Hell no!
MM: Where are you playing these days?
Ralph Carney: Well I play all over S.F. and now suddenly Alameda.
(Editor’s note: More Ralph vagueness. I happen to know Ralph blows on his bizarre assortment of horns every Wednesday 8-10pm at Amnesia with Gaucho, and every 3rd Sunday at the Riptide with the Cottontails. Also various nights here at there at the Rite Spot Cafe under his own name.)
Thanks Ralph! I should also mention that all the fantastic character design in the show was done by the Bay Area (now LA) artist Lisa Hanawalt, but that, as they say, is another interview… hopefully!
After 6 weeks of pony riding in Iceland, exploring Malta, hosting his annual hammock camp at Burning Man and literally holding down the fort during the rainstorms, KJ Paul is officially back and in action. Get your song list ready for September!
According to MM reader Chino, he’s a “stop and chatter and a direction changer” (and he likes Ramen):
We crossed paths outside of JapanTown in SF. He saw our excitement when we recognized him and said ‘You guys wanna go this way with me’ We switched routes and chilled. He gave us an opportunity to banter & didn’t rush it at all. The whole thing was really human & made our day. Thanks Fred!
Gotta admit that I’m kind of surprised he’s not a stand-in-liner. For the record, if anyone recognizes me on the street, I’m a “turn around and run away shrieking-er.”
Killer photo by Fred Larson, from the SF Chronicle archives. He looks like he could be a dock worker in San Francisco in 1957, or a member of Thee Oh Sees in San Francisco in 2007. (Or a Hollywood superstar in San Francisco in 1987.)