In 1995 I was attending the University of Arizona in Tucson when a young photographer by the name of Damon Remillard restored my faith in new music. I was totally disgusted at the time with the then-current hip-hop, alternative music, rock, et al, focusing my ears instead on jazz, classical, doo-wop, and a certain band from the ’70s who played a lot of live shows. Damon gave me a copy of Palace Music’s Viva Last Blues, which came out that year on Drag City records, and it blew my mind. I think I listened to that album maybe a hundred and fifty times that semester. He also taught me the golden rules of music discovery—following the musician roster on the album to follow good players, and following record label rosters to find like bands. At the time Drag City was host to the Palace ([Music] Brothers), Smog, King Kong (the John McEntire project between Red Krayola and Tortoise), and the Royal Trux.
Damon was a Chicago native, Drag City’s a Chicago label, and Royal Trux were Chi-town yokels themselves, but D had little to say about them when I inquired. He told me they were “a big-time heroin band that had been on Drag City since its beginnings.” I imagined a bunch of gnarled, warped and riddled William Burroughs-esque 30-or-40-somethings playing messy, inconceivably swampy and introverted music.
I was a bit off. They’re not so ugly and they’re not introverted either.
Royal Trux have been making music for Drag City since the ’80s, which means that they either have enough money to avoid the lifeforce-sucking effects of withdrawal a la pre-fatherhood Johnny Depp, or they have that extremely rare personal vitality that rises above any narcotic self-indulging punishment.
Figure it out: Indie labels don’t have the cash to throw at high-flying rock stars—that’s Dave Geffen’s job.
Pound-for-Pound relies (a little) less on the smacked-out swampness and more on thin, spaced-out, hard-bodied blues licks that sound like something Led Zeppelin would have done with just Page, Bonham, and someone flipping through the radio dial (Royal Trux is just two people). The album bolts out of the starting gate with the first lyrics—“I’m ready for the wolfman/Bring on the bitch!” If that isn’t good enough for you, the track’s called “Call Out The Lions,” which sounds like something a Roman emperor in leopard-skinned trousers would yell at the bleeding gladiator over his tenth goblet of mead.
This is the kind of rock I like. This scratches the itch usually soothed by the Pixies, Jane’s Addiction, (am I from LA?) and early X. A truly unique, seedy rock record is so rare in these days of self-categorization. Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema been bleeding themselves for over a decade, and they ain’t run dry yet. By a long shot.
Iris Music records
Working at KBGA is sometimes reminiscent of those hip, youth-abusing web-programming sweatshops we read so much about in the papers, at least in that most of the computers my co-workers are using are playing music from hard-drive CD players and web-radio servers. Maybe, since it’s a radio station, more ambient sound than most places. The music is kept at a bearable volume but for the occasional, indulgent five-second blasts of Rage Against The Machine or Alice in Chains—I can deal. It’s actually kind of a nice sonic environment: I can’t hear my computer’s fan, for example. It’s the most anonymous of busy noise.
But this guitar caught my ear: a co-worker had booted up a ROM-enhanced CD, and on his screen was a blurry, live-action shot of two men, seemingly sitting on two kitchen chairs against white walls, with little acoustic guitars—smaller than a classical, bigger than ukuleles. The sound these guys were producing with two guitars was deep wide broad symphonic what? I could hear rhythm, some sort of bass line, a melody and harmony; it turns out one of them was playing a rhythm fretted to produce the rolling bass line I was hearing while the other ripped. These guys were so tight with the chords and lead that they could nail a rhythm hot enough to sound like a brush on a snare drum. Cut to an interview clip: Apparently hot jazz guitar is alive and well in France.
The man is Tchavolo Schmitt, and the music is called “gypsy guitar,” according to the liner notes. There are a few real-live genyuwine gypsies left in southern France that eke out a happy quiet living making a saint of Django Reinhardt. They emulate his sweet, swinging style in a few bars and at a few weddings, and Tchavolo is one of the best. One of the very best. His reputation was born playing at a bunch of gypsy weddings in the ’70s, recording only once to produce a full-length LP with the Hot Club da Sinti in 1981.
Never, though, has folk-music sounded (to my ears) so virtuosic. I mean, folk-music has that campy, down-home sound, and you can hear that too on Tchavolo’s record, true. There’s the accordions, the short-necked fiddle, there’s that CD-ROM clip of Tchavolo and the legendary Romane (one of those guys who only needs one name) in the French adobe kitchen—but this album, like the recently exploded Buena Vista Social Club, takes truly ethnic music to near-perfect levels of production. You can hear every brush of the fingernails on the wire-wrapped guitar strings—and it’s right on, every stroke.
Take a nap, water your garden, put a table out there with the red-and-white checkered tablecloth—heck, even dance to it. It all works. Tchavolo Schmitt has captured a corner of original music, done it with class and candor, and given us a classic.