Obsession by the La La Lettes

Underscoring their anti-pop leanings, the La La Lettes open and close their latest album, Obsession, with a knowing parody of repetitive pop music titled “Kiss Me.” Barely a minute long, the track gets at the heart of pretty much every song I hear whenever I walk into my local department store, and the title includes two-thirds of the song’s lyrics. The other third, if you’re curious, begins with the letter F.

As if to cleanse – or perhaps dirty – the palette, the album then launches into a 45-second assault of noise that resolves into “Man Overboard,” a fuzzy, overdriven tribute to 60s garage rock that calls to mind a bit of both Black Sabbath and Captain Beefheart.

Keeping the lo-fi 60s vibe going, the third track, “Elements,” proffers a loving echo of the late, great former Pink Floyd front man Syd Barret, and the remainder of the album carries through with an equal balance of fuzz and psychedelia with a little bit of soul thrown in for good measure.

Of particular note are the guitars on a track called “Kimberley,” a song that wholeheartedly evokes Iggy and the Stooges, and the horns towards the end of the album’s closer, “Landing.”

The real clue to what the album is doing, however, occurs in the final fifteen seconds with the (consciously) repetitive reprise of the album’s opening track. The effect here is to make the body of the album feel like a glorious interruption of the day’s regular dreary programming. To put it another way, it frames everything else as a big middle finger to mainstream pop.

Keep It Honest: An Interview with Adam Lewis

Based in Swansea, Wales, Thee Rakevines have been on my list of go-to underground garage rock bands since March of last year. Drawing on a wide range of musical influences, the band incorporates punk, 90s grunge, psychedelia, and jazz into a unique blend that’s as raw as it is captivating. I recently had a chance to chat with the brains behind the operation, Adam “Adda” Lewis, about his approach to songwriting, a return to playing live, and the eternal question of which guitar to bring to the next gig.

Let’s start with your latest song, “Everything Has Changed.” It’s a bit of a departure for you, as it’s just you and an acoustic guitar, but it’s also in line with the rawness of your other recordings. What’s the story behind that one?

Quite honestly, I’d been drinking brandy and noodling around on the guitar and singing nonsense lyrics. After an hour or so, it emerged as this and I recorded it in one take—on my phone! I then promptly forgot about it and rediscovered it late at night (after more brandy!) shortly before Xmas, and in my drunken state sent it for release, warts and all! It’s as deep as a shallow puddle in all honesty, but I liked the rawness and honesty of it. It’s a moment in time, I guess!

In terms of rawness and honesty, most of your songs have a kind of punk “get in and get out” sensibility in that they’re usually under three minutes long, which is somewhat of a rarity these days. Where does the instinct to keep it short, though not always “sweet,” come from?

I’d say it’s to do with the songs I heard growing up and then again where those songs led me in my youth. I was basically raised on a musical diet of Motown and 60s mod pop (thanks mam and dad!), so the three-minute radio staple was kinda ingrained. Then I got properly into the mod thing, which led onto the freakbeat and psyche thing, from there it was mid 60s garage punk from the USA and I realised that no better music had ever been made than what I heard on the Back from the Grave and Garage Punk Unknown comps. From there it was The Stooges and The MC5. I’ve basically spent my life trying to recreate those tracks—with varying degrees of success! I also buy into a kind of Kerouac-like approach: Write once, record in one take, release. Keep it honest.

I know that one of your big influences is the 1960s proto-punk band The Standells. How did you happen upon them, and how did that encounter with their music influence your future endeavors?

As I’ve said above, it was probably through the musical journey I embarked on as a young teenage mod. I found the Why Pick on Me? album in a back street record shop, bought it on the strength of the cover picture alone… and had my mind blown! The style, attitude, sneer—all there, all perfect! “Mr Nobody” is an absolute classic!! As I say, I’ve been trying to capture that ever since! Unfortunately, my talents are much more limited, but it’s been fun! And last year, Larry Tamblyn of The Standells liked a few of my tweets. Blew my mind all over again! I was like a little kid with excitement!

Am I right that you’ve been making music since the 1990s? What has your musical journey looked like? How has the music world changed from your perspective, and how have you adapted to those changes?

Yes, in the early 1990s, I moved to Leeds and got to know a lad called Jack White who asked me to start a band with him—only problem being I couldn’t play an instrument! He said he’d teach me, showed me a few chords and how to barre and it went from there! To be fair, I’ve never really progressed! Anyway, that ended and the band morphed into a garage punk covers band called The Tombstones, doing the songs we heard on the Pebbles, Garage Punk Unknowns and Back from the Grave comps. We had an absolute blast and it truly was a fantastic time! All ended when I moved back to Wales but that led me in a different direction again with a more alternative type of style with a band called Laughterhouse. We released a mini album (recorded at Mighty Atom Studios in Swansea) and promptly started the slow implosion that led to our breaking up and me taking a (long!) hiatus from making music for anyone but myself!

In terms of what’s changed, I feel that the music “biz” has maybe been democratised somewhat with the rise of—and ease of access to—the streaming services and so on. Unfortunately, the biz has cleverly used this to rip us off to even greater levels than they had previously! I guess everything has changed, but everything has stayed exactly the same!

Yeah, no kidding! In addition to Thee Rakevines, your main gig is playing in These Thrilling Lies. I know that band has been described as a cross between the Doors and the Stooges, but I haven’t been able to find any of their music online. Is that by design, or am I just looking in the wrong places?

These Thrilling Lies is the band I put together with a good friend (Tim, drums) after years (and years!) of vaguely saying we’d do it! We then had Adam come in on bass and Liam on keys. Adam then left to pursue other projects and we brought Ed in on bass! Primarily a live outfit, we do have some stuff out there on the likes of YouTube (videos taken at gigs), but we’re yet to properly record and release anything, though we have firm plans to do so in the new year! That comparison with the Doors and The Stooges was made by someone after a gig—made my night!! We’ve also been told our sound is brutal. I liked that!

These Thrilling Lies

Like other bands, These Thrilling Lies had to take a break from playing live as a result of COVID-19. Was there a silver lining in that break? And what was it like returning to live shows?

Well, the enforced break meant we missed out on supporting the bands Space and The Courettes at The Bunkhouse, a fantastic venue in Swansea! That was a real disappointment at the time but luckily the gig with Space went ahead in 2021—and was a blast! Unfortunately, The Courettes gig remains not played which breaks my heart as they’re one of my favourites among the current crop of garage bands!

If there’s a silver lining it did force me to give myself a shake and start writing some garage punk type stuff again and led to the collective that is Thee Rakevines, so it wasn’t all bad! Getting back to live shows with These Thrilling Lies had been amazing. The appetite for music never went away for performers and audiences alike and you can almost taste the relief that it’s all back. Well, the relief and the sweat—brilliant!! Sadly, we now have some new (and much needed!) public health restrictions in Wales that mean gigs and so on are back on a hiatus. We’d just like to send some love to all the venue’s out there that are struggling right now—x.

The many moods of Adam Lewis!

You mentioned back in September that your wife gave you a Flying-V guitar to celebrate returning to live gigs. That plus your Squier Mustang and Tanglewood Rickenbacker tribute gives you a good selection of different sounds and—importantly—different looks. Do you bring all of your guitars to every gig? If not, how do you decide which to bring? And does your choice of guitar influence your playing?

The Flying V has been something of an in joke with us for many a year! A big hero of mine is Dave Davies of The Kinks and if you’ve seen photos of the way he holds his Flying V, let’s just say he owns it! So yeah, I used it at our first gig back and tried to emulate the always cool Mr. Davies! In terms of the Mustang, I’ve always loved the ethos of just playing what you have, doesn’t matter if it’s a charity shop find or an expensive guitar, and the Mustang was cheap as chips but certainly doesn’t look or sound like it! The Tanglewood Ricky rip off was my first “proper” guitar and I’ve been using it since the early 90s—massive sentimental value! I tend to only take the one guitar to gigs and it tends to be chosen depending on what I’ve been listening to and/or what I’m wearing, and while it may not influence my playing (I’m not that talented!) it does influence the shapes I throw on stage!

Just to geek out on guitars a minute longer, I’ve looked around a bit, but I’ve never been able to find a Tanglewood Rickenbacker clone.* How long have you had yours, and where did you find it?

I bought it at a guitar shop in Leeds in January 1995. It was expensive for me back in the day, but there was no way I could afford a real Rickenbacker at that time and it perfectly captured the look and sound for me—in fact, I still haven’t seen or heard a better copy! It’s still the guitar I use the most and it still sounds great even after so much abuse in my heavy hands! Apparently, Tanglewood stopped selling them after Rickenbacker got involved so I’ve never actually seen another one in the wild. Even better, I occasionally post a pic of it on the Tanglewood Facebook page. It never stays up for long!! I swear they’ve disowned the Tanglewood TW-61, but I’ll keep reminding them of it anyway.

Apparently you’ve passed the music gene on to another generation. Your son plays in a band called String Theory. What’s it like having multiple musicians in one family? How much of an influence do you have on each other?

To be fair, my kids (and my wife!) were the driving force in encouraging me to get back into music with These Thrilling Lies and then to get Thee Rakevines collective off the ground! Cian has provided bass and lead guitar (as well as mixing and stuff, and where he hasn’t, Liam, the keyboard player from These Thrilling Lies, has taken the reins! I’ve also had my daughter, Byddia, provide vox on a few tracks and she’s allowed songs that I could never do justice to to flourish! I think having all of us making music is just fab. There’s always something going on and we definitely influence each other, if only via genuine critique. They’re not scared of telling me when something is crap—most recent release a case in point!

Any big plans for 2022?

Well, we’ve got a few more in the pipeline with Thee Rakevines—massive thanks to Cian, Byddia, Liam and Tetley for contributions so far! And hopefully we’ll be getting some stuff released with These Thrilling Lies! Other than that, I’m just looking forward to hearing some new stuff via the music Twitter community. Heartfelt thanks to everyone on there that’s supported us over the last year including you Marc, The Negatrons, Silva, The La La Lettes, Tommy Clarke and many, many others—too many to mention!

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Adam! I really appreciate it!

Thanks for having me man… Looking forward to some more stuff from you!!

*For non-guitar geeks, Rickenbacker guitars are incredibly expensive and have a pretty distinctive look. George Harrison and John Lennon played Rickenbackers in the early days of the Beatles, as did Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. Tom Petty often played one as well. And I think the company is pretty quick to put a stop to any other companies making guitars with a similar look and sound. 

Songs With Scenes and Themes: An Interview with Kelly Kintner

I’m going to guess that it was Chris Triggs of the La La Lettes who turned me on to the Kintners, a rootsy, Texas-based songwriting duo consisting of husband and wife Kelly and Keri Kintner. After all, a quote from Chris appears prominently on their web page: “Keri’s voice is like the angels.” Add to that heartfelt lyrics and honest, homespun musicianship—not to mention Kelly’s always-insightful Twitter feed—and it’s easy to see why so many other singer-songwriters (Brian Lambert among them) admire the Kintners. Curious as ever about the ins and outs of making music in the midst of a constantly-changing cultural and technological landscape, I was very pleased when Kelly agreed to the following interview.

I’d describe your sound as “rootsy” and reminiscent of the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? What draws you to this style of music, and how might the style complement your approach to songwriting?

We generally write songs with scenes and themes. We were feeling “O Brother” that day, I guess. If you’re referring to “Smoke and Mud.” Some days we feel James Bond, or Southern Gothic, or Hudson River. But that’s a huge compliment to be connected with that film as the music Director is T-bone Burnett, one of my heroes.

You recently taught someone to use GarageBand, and they consequently announced that they were going to become a singer-songwriter. Of course, anyone who’s ever tried to write a song knows that it’s more than a matter of having the right software. What is songwriting for you? What are the challenges, and why do you find it rewarding?

That’s a loaded question. Songwriting for me is basically me keeping out of trouble. Some people have video games, some people get lost in their work, if we didn’t have these things then we might turn towards self-destruction or something. I feel like songwriting is something productive I can do with my time. Improvement and achievement are the rewards. Just like in video games when the numbers go up, when I hear old recordings compared to new ones, I feel like I “leveled up,” ha ha.

Definitely! I’m also thinking about being an independent singer-songwriter as opposed, I guess, to an artist on a major label. Why do independent artists—and, of course, their art—matter?

Have you ever watched any of the race cars with all the stickers of companies they represent? Hey, being independent might not enable you to race on the big track, however, you don’t have to race at all if you just like cruising. You generally start out on the small races anyway.

Your song “Smoke and Mud” will become available on all streaming services on December 30. I know you’ve described yourself in the past as “not spiritual,” yet the song employs quite a bit of Biblical imagery. I’m curious as to how those two influences came together in that song, and also how you might see them at work in the world at large, particularly as they relate to the larger themes of that song—namely getting past temporary, albeit substantial, obstructions in order to gain a clearer perspective on life?

I was trying to evoke mood and atmosphere with those lyrics. My wife was helping me with her biblical knowledge. I just can’t think about old South without thinking about the Bible. I just had to incorporate the darker imagery from the Bible in the song when it started heading toward the swamp. Each verse, thanks to my wife, is a character. The first verse we have the main narrator, then the second verse we have Paul who was blinded as Saul, then David, then Jesus in the garden. Just because I don’t feel the Bible most days, doesn’t mean it’s not all around me.

“Smoke and Mud” also represents a team effort. The notes on your Bandcamp page describe the track as a “Collaboration on Twitter featuring a cast of all stars including Brady Jo, OrangeG, Kev Sharp, Jeff Harrington and crew.” Can you say more about that collaboration—how it worked, challenges it may have posed, how you overcame them? Or, more positively, why you enjoyed it?

Nearly everything we do is a collaboration on some level. We are currently working on an album where there are probably 20 or 30 people, I haven’t counted lately. I like writing the songs and performing acoustic and vocals if need be, but that’s about it. I would rather have professionals in other areas do the other stuff. I just think it makes the song sound better. Brady and I have been working a whole year on the album coming out at the end of January. Hopefully. We’ve broken a few computers on it. Sure it’s challenging with all the personalities and timetables. But you can plan for that. It’s all about trying to make your songs presentable to non-musicians. In our case we find it takes a lot of work and a team effort.

Who are some other artists you’ve enjoyed working with? What do you gain from such collaborations?

This is my favorite question. Bkbirge is amazeballs, as is Kev Sharp. Mixedbyadam has incredible ears and skill. Ben Shaw and Roger Brainard are frequently on my call list. Some of the best work I’ve ever done has been with Nathan Peter Illes. I’m going to build more about the people I work with on the website when the album comes.

I often get the sense from your Twitter feed that you’re looking for a sense of community among songwriter and musicians – and, more broadly, among music lovers. How well is Twitter meeting that need? What can it be doing better, or what might a better platform for genuine dialog about songwriting look like?

I’ve been on Twitter in the mornings for years and I have a sense of community there. But unless I try to keep it going it fades out like a match in the rain. This morning in fact I just started a private songwriters club on Facebook. And we have a website. I don’t feel like it’s Twitter‘s responsibility to make musicians better at hooking up. Twitter is fine. But it’s more like hanging out backstage with musicians than it is on stage in front of an audience. There’s a lot to be gained from it, it just may not be what you’re looking for.

I know that you work in a music store. Do you find a sense of community there?

I find local music scenes cutthroat and generally unnecessary for writing good songs. Maybe it’s just Texas. I’ve never had much luck with local music. As far as trying to develop community.

I’m also wondering if people still know what to do when they enter a physical store. Back when I worked in a music store—just as the internet was taking off—I liked meeting all the people who would come and go. It wasn’t just a place for business transactions. It was a place to meet fellow musicians and just chat about music. What’s it like in today’s world?

Most people who come into the store just come to hang out. That’s wonderful and we like it. We will even make them a cup of coffee.

You’ve written some music for film. What do you do to protect your work? Why is that so important

Movies won’t look at you if they feel like they’re going to get sued. So they’ve established protocols for songs before they even look at them. Register with BMI or ASCAP is the first thing. One or two googles and some good luck and you’ll be on your way.

In terms of “the industry,” such as it is, how do you navigate the streaming world? It’s clearly designed to financially benefit platforms like Spotify as opposed to the artists who make the music, but if we want to be heard, we have to play by their rules. How do you decide what to share with streaming platforms and when to share it, as opposed to making it exclusively available on sites like Bandcamp?

It’s simply not anyone’s responsibility, in my opinion, to blast my music to the world. I don’t know where this notion comes from. I am not entitled to an audience. But maybe if I keep working at making songs people want to hear, they’ll tell their friends about me. Then they’ll come see me play. I love Bandcamp because it feels like another circle of friends who support each other and listen to each other’s music, and I love those circles.

What do you have on the horizon? Any big projects?

We have an album coming, every song is a collab. Brady Jo is doing the production and BK Birge is doing the mastering.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Kelly! I really appreciate it!

Thanks so much for having me!