Following a handful of solo records and a wealth of material as leader of The Capitol Years, singer-songwriter Shai Halperin took up a brand-new identity as Sweet Lights in 2010. (Some may also recognize his name as part of the original line-up of The War on Drugs alongside underground icon Kurt Vile.) Halperin’s most recent solo effort, born out of an amassed collection of material and not enough musicians around to play it, retains the atmosphere of previous acts with foggy vocals and sugary melodies.
With an army-green facade out front and wood-paneled walls and retro furniture inside, Zulu Records is an established musical stronghold in the Canadian metropolis of Vancouver, British Columbia. More than a place to buy music (though it covers that angle pretty thoroughly), Zulu has become a family-friendly, cultural centerpiece of the community with a number of notable in-store performances, art openings, and a continued independent, DIY approach to business.
What was your motivation for starting a music store? / What is your background in music?
Zulu Records grew out of the ashes of an old store called Quintessence that specialized in prog and rock. It was 1981, music was changing, and there was a community of young punkers who were starved for all of the amazing imports coming out overseas. Zulu Records’ owner, Grant McDonagh, was one such fan with big ideas who saw his part-time job at Quintessence fizzle out and an opening present itself. Grant had ties to all of the great Vancouver punk bands and, in the early days, worked closely with this community, including later starting his own record label to press bands that he felt deserved to be heard. Today, Zulu Records concentrates completely on being one of Canada’s finest indie music shops, and it still prides itself on the model of building and maintaining community ties.
What is the musical community like in Vancouver?
Vancouver’s music community is tight-knit. Vancouver has always had a bit of an annexed feel to it; we are in the corner of Canada, and the city is geographically bounded and can’t really sprawl endlessly like other major Canadian and American cities. As a result, the spots where bands play, practice, and congregate haven’t really changed over the last 25 years. There is still a very punk/DIY feel to how bands go about doing things, as really we are pretty far away from the spotlight of the business in Toronto. In fact, we have more of a West Coast / Pacific Northwest vibe going on, and certainly, Seattle feels like kindred musical spirits.
The War on Drugs: “Comin’ Through”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/cominthrough.mp3|titles=The War on Drugs: “Comin’ Through”]
Though it won’t be the top result in a typical Internet search, Philadelphia-based The War on Drugs is definitely taking the title of America’s longest-running, most counter-productive conflict and making it its own. Aside from the very specific cultural reference and obvious inclination toward psychedelia, “The War on Drugs” is a vague band name — referentially devoid of musical context. That’s exactly why singer-songwriter Adam Granduciel was first attracted to the name when he came up with it years ago, drinking wine with a friend in Oakland, California.
Almost 10 years later, Granduciel and The War on Drugs use a discordant miasma of oblong and tangled tape-loops, anxious drum beats, gnarled knots of guitar riffs, and a dissociative lyrical narrative to speak to forgotten, lovelorn have-nots. The trio has undergone various lineup tweaks, including the subtraction of band co-founder Kurt Vile to his solo project, but it has continued to successively build upon its uncanny sound with each new release.
On its most recent release, Future Weather, the group’s sound moves away from the classic-rock influences to more ambient landscapes where Granduciel can better articulate the lachrymose environment that surrounds him. Yet, through the course of the album, The War on Drugs ultimately ends up in the same rustic dust storm of a musical illusion that it started in: translating the hum of a busy train station, crafting nomadic anthems for vagabond romantics with enough self-awareness and ambition to stave off desperation.
In advance of a North American tour with Destroyer, Granduciel recently took some time to answer a few questions about The War on Drugs, its “Americana” sound, and how it’s really just a kind of jam band.
From the live shows that I’ve seen, there seems to be a somewhat raw or spontaneous musical aesthetic rather than a polished one. Does that play a factor in how you prepare for live shows? Do you like to work out songs in a live setting as a way of making each show different from the last?
I don’t know which shows you saw because, really, it probably went one of two ways — the other way being legendarily sloppy, yet hopefully somewhat inspiring. We don’t really over-rehearse, though — just jam the songs for a few days before a tour, and things usually come together pretty quickly. After our practices for this tour, I’m really, really excited for the growth that we’ll see on this Destroyer tour.
Kurt Vile: “Baby’s Arms”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/KurtVile-BabysArms.mp3|titles=Kurt Vile “Baby’s Arms”]
During the few years that he’s been putting out proper records, Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile has played equally the singer-songwriter and the free-form sonic tinkerer. He seems unwilling to force too much to happen in either capacity. He’s sincerely catchy but shy of being blatantly earnest. He’s tempted by the inviting fizzle of tape hiss, reverb, drum machines, and Casios, but can put a simple guitar part at the front when it suits him.
His new album, Smoke Ring For My Halo, is a lot more orderly than Constant Hitmaker (2008) or Childish Prodigy (2009). The frequent, fun instrumental twiddling of Hitmaker is just about entirely gone, and Prodigy‘s push toward rocking clarity continues in a mellow acoustic vein. It no longer sounds like each song was patched together in slightly different circumstances and varying qualities of tape. He achieves a new consistency on Smoke Ring and doesn’t strain himself to get there.
Each Tuesday, Behind the Counter speaks to an independent record store to ask about its recent favorites, best sellers, and noteworthy trends.
Sporting two locations, (Fabulous!) Jackpot Records has served Portland’s independent music community for 13 years as both a new/used CD, LP, and DVD retailer and a record label that reissues lost treasures. We recently caught up with Burnside manager Patrick Dennehy to get some staff picks and see what has been trending.