By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
Although we sometimes pretend otherwise, most music journalists outside of New York or Los Angeles conduct interviews with national artists over the telephone. A bad connection can play havoc with conversations, as can problems with the equipment reporters use to preserve a performer's wisdom--or lack thereof. (My gear consists of a bottom-of-the-line Radio Shack cassette player and a flimsy suction-cup microphone that attaches to the earpiece of my phone's receiver.) And then there are the quirks of the individuals being quizzed. As an example, consider my chat several years back with Ziggy Marley, which was all but unintelligible because of a static-filled transmission (he was in Jamaica), Marley's Caribbean accent, and his decision to answer questions while chewing an unbelievably crunchy entree. When he said to me, "Yeah, man, the power is in the music, and the music will foment a revolution, understand?" what it actually sounded like was, "Yeh, mon--GRIND! GRIND!--da pow-er is in da mu-sic--GULP! CHOMP! GULP!--and da mu-sic will foment a revo-lu-tion--RIIIIIIIIIIIP!--unnerston'?"
But even this transcription nightmare cannot compare to the time I spent talking with Black. None of the blame could be left at AT&T's door (although Black was in England, his voice came through loud and clear), and my recorder and microphone weren't at fault, either; they functioned up to specifications. The rub was Black's voice--a Scottish brogue so impenetrable that, for the first portion of our interchange, I understood only around 30 percent of his words. Guttural syllables flew at me like shrapnel, and in the span it took me to reassemble his briefest sentence, two more had flown past me. In desperation, I asked him to slow down his speech for a while, but that only made matters worse: He executed so nasal an impression of me that my lame explanation for my tone--I was suffering from a cold--seemed even emptier to me than it no doubt did to him. Confusion reigned supreme. When he asked, "You liked our record, then?" (actually, he asked, "Yeeew lacked rrrrr reckert, thin?"), I failed to respond, because I had no idea what he had said. When he told me that he was a fan of Monte Hellman, director of the 1971 cult movie Two-Lane Blacktop, I thought he was singing the praises of Lillian Hellman. And so on.
In listening back to my tape thirty or forty times, however, I made a couple of interesting discoveries. As it turns out, Black is a bright, articulate fellow, and he knows more about popular culture in these United States than do many natives. The name of his band--A3 is short for Alabama 3--wasn't chosen at random: Black, who's in his late thirties, is fascinated by the place we call home, and the manner in which he filters this affinity through electronic music makes his group one of the more idiosyncratic ensembles making the rounds. And in a scene as bland as this one, that's a very good thing.
A3 has been described as a techno band, but on the two-CD set Exile on Coldharbour Lane (on Geffen Records), Black and his goofily monikered co-conspirators (vocalist Larry Love, harmonicat Mountain of Love, guitarist Mississippi Guitar Love, percussionist Sir Real "Congaman" Love, drummer L.B. Dope and keyboardist Spirit) sound like no techno band you've ever heard. For one thing, the album is filled with actual songs with actual verses, choruses, bridges and lyrics, delivered mainly by the quite understandable Larry. For another, the tunes draw upon sources unknown to most dance mavens--namely blues, rockabilly, gospel and country. John Prine's "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" is covered, and acts sampled include Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Burnette & the Rock 'N Roll Trio and the Reverend Charles Jackson. Of course, A3's work isn't roots music in the common sense of the term; the prevalence of synthesizers and other gadgetry ensures that. Moreover, selections such as "U Don't Dans 2 Tekno Anymore," a modified C&W stomp delivered with the most comical of Southern accents, can seem sneering and snotty--a novelty put-down--if you're in the wrong mood. But what saves Exile from its own excess is the obvious delight these lunatics take in putting Americana to their own subversive purposes. "Bourgeoisie Blues," which employs a gospel choir to defend old-school socialism, and "Ain't Goin' to Goa," described by a narrator as "sweet, pretty, country, acid-house music," are charmingly daft offerings that brim with equal measures of ridicule and warmth.
Thanks to some strenuous translation, I learned that this balance was one Black intended to strike. "We send up a lot of the economic and political imperialism of the States," he said, more or less. "And our song 'Hypo Full of Love' is a basic satire on the Moral Majority and the pompous attitude that you can change people's lives by taking their money from them. But at the same time, we're completely immersed in American culture. Everyone in Britain is. Britain is America. All the countries of Europe are satellites of America. There isn't any real sort of culture that we can call our own anymore. Everything is from America--everything of importance in pop culture, anyway. We are saturated with America, and that's all there is to it."
Not everyone east of the Atlantic is thrilled by this situation; a considerable part of the populace wouldn't be burning U.S. flags and refusing to attend Euro-Disney if they were. But Black seems to cherish American creativity almost indiscriminately. "I even like the tackiest pop," he enthused, as nearly as I could tell. "Like TLC. Look at 'Waterfalls.' That's so beautifully put together that it's fucking amazing. And even that gang stuff, like Warren G. and Snoop Doggy Dogg, is brilliant. Since the war, all the best music has come from America, and all the best paintings and films and literature, too."
This claim is not merely idle chatter: Black spoke knowledgeably about the novels of William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury) and Erskine Caldwell (Tobacco Road) and the films of Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil), Howard Hawks (Red River), John Ford (The Searchers) and even Leonard Kastle (The Honeymoon Killers). But it was music that made the largest impact on him. "When we were kids growing up in Glasgow, mate, there was a guy in every pub on every corner with a guitar and a drum box doing Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson songs," I'm pretty sure he recalled. "That's why we revere that music the same as we revere the Beatles and the Stones. We were weaned on it. It's so funny that people will go, 'Why do you do that Americana when you're from Scotland?' I say, 'What's unusual about it?' We've all been doing it since Elvis--since rock and roll started. I don't see anything unusual about it at all."
Nonetheless, the first music Black made on his own was of the dance variety. He was a DJ, and after hooking up with Larry Love (given name: Robert Spragg) during the mid-Eighties, he became a well-known figure on the British rave scene. "We used to host illegal acid-house parties," he very likely boasted. "But the music got boring after a while. So one night Rob, who's a massive country-blues fan, started singing Hank Williams songs while I laid down acid tracks. And that's how the original idea started."
The combo's shtick remained an underground sensation until a couple of years back, when domestic record companies decided that dance music might be just the thing to rescue the record industry from a post-grunge sales slump. Enthused by a couple of A3 singles, executives at Geffen came calling with checkbooks in hand, eventually inking the combo to a contract worth a reported $1 million. And even though the firm hasn't come close to recouping its investment thus far, the suits remain optimistic about A3's future, if for no other reason than that the band actually goes to the trouble of putting on a stage show, unlike the majority of its electronic brethren.
"So many of them are just not happening live," I'd be willing to bet Black pointed out. "Which is surprising to me, because this music has been around for at least ten years now. It makes me wonder why they bother performing on stage at all. They have all the big screens and the lighting rigs, but that's not enough. If you're going to do it, you need to do a rock-and-roll thing, and that's where we have an edge. We have a party on stage--a big party, where we can rant and rave and evangelize. We give you all the craziness, all the voices. It's pure fucking pantomime, with fucking incredible beats and sequences. It's not boring, that's for certain."
Audiences here are just now getting a chance to see if A3 lives up to Black's hyperbole--and Black finally has the opportunity to discover if the real America lives up to the one he's created in his imagination. "We've never toured there before, and I've only visited it briefly," he probably conceded. "So there are so many places we want to go. Like Graceland, of course, and Birmingham, Alabama, where my colleagues tell me more interest is being shown about us than anywhere else." He claimed to be unsurprised that Alabamans are excited, not offended, by A3's approach: "I knew they'd like it, because I knew they'd see the fun in there, and I knew they'd see our deep reverence for the musical forms. They might not agree with some of our politics, but a lot of people don't give a shit about the words as long as the music is good. And that's the vibe I'm getting."
Between shows, Black is also looking forward to finding other uniquely American sounds that he can refashion. "We've not worked on any jazz yet," he may have noted. "I've already got lots of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane--treated Coltrane horns that I've run backwards and sampled. And I want to meet Camille Paglia, the world's greatest living philosopher. She's a joy, that woman. I want to do a record with her; I want her to do a rap over my beats about Monica Lewinsky."
At least I think he said Monica Lewinsky. Then again, it might have been Tara Lipinski. Or Peter Tchaikovsky. Or Rodney Allen Rippy...
Chumbawamba, with A3. 9 p.m. Friday, March 6, Boulder Theater, 2030 14th Street, $15.75-$17.85, 830-