Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Thirty-Four

Radio City with Jon Grayson and Rob Ross:  Episode Thirty Four

There’s never any time to rest between shows and once again, Jon and Rob come up with another riveting, interesting, thought-provoking and at times, downright hilarious conversation.  The duo start off with D.W. Dunphy’s excellent Popdose piece on internet trolls in the wake of Tom Petty’s passing; the “1984 – American Underground…” series continues with Meat Puppets II (the one that always got under the radar); the fall T.V. season is upon us and there are a few shows worth mentioning – especially since ABC has an interesting one, “The Good Doctor”; Curt Weiss’ book about Jerry Nolan of The New York Dolls/the “other” Heartbreakers, Stranded In The Jungle – Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride; Brothers Prince new 3 song E.P.; Sean Kelly of A Fragile Tomorrow goes solo – video debut for “Syncopation” with a very personal interview by Rob; of course, President Dumbass’ travels in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas and the phenomenon known as “In Our Heads”.

You always get more value than you ever bargain for with Jon and Rob.  So kick back, enjoy and let your mind be soothed by the wisdom imparted by these boys…

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Thirty Four

The podcast will be on the site as well as for subscription via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. Subscribe and let people know about Radio City, as well as Popdose’s other great podcasts David Medsker’s Dizzy Heights and In:Sound with Michael Parr and Zack Stiegler.

What’s THAT Supposed to Mean?: XTC, “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead”

In an era full of quirky bands, XTC may have been the quirkiest.

Their debut album featured primary singer/songwriter Andy Partridge leering at the Statue of Liberty amid musical settings designed to simultaneously build upon and satirize pop and punk. Their second album was a favorite of record-store browsers like me for its cover, a Monty Python-esque essay in plain typography informing us all that this is a RECORD COVER whose DESIGN is to help SELL the record.

Keyboardist Barry Andrews, whose off-the-wall organ flourishes had added to the hilarity of the first two albums, departed at that point. Enter Dave Gregory, sometimes a keyboardist but more frequently a guitarist from the George Harrison melodic school. And bassist Colin Moulding hit his songwriting groove with Making Plans for Nigel, a skewering of British parents forcing their kids through a regimented childhood and pre-ordained adulthood.

By the early 80s, they were ready for MTV with Senses Working Overtime, which alternated sparsely arranged verses with a sprightly chorus (all together now: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5! Senses working …”).

Then came the meltdown. Explanations have varied over the years, but all we really need to know is that Partridge was no longer able to play on stage. At the height of their careers, XTC quit performing live.

Fortunately, these were the days in which a band could still earn a living making these things called “albums.” While XTC regrouped without a drummer (Terry Chambers had an Australian girlfriend, and without live gigs, there really wasn’t much point in staying), they also formed a psychedelic side project called The Dukes of Stratosphear and settled into a nice groove releasing albums for a loyal cult following buoyed by a few “hit” songs on alternative radio.

Then they recorded a series of masterpieces.

Skylarking benefited from the discipline imposed by producer Todd Rundgren. It’s in some ways the rural answer (not that XTC’s base of Swindon is a tiny town, but the band was influenced by the fields around it as surely as R.E.M.’s early work reflects agricultural northeast Georgia) to Dark Side of the Moon — a set of musings on life and death with transitions between songs and moods.

And still, the decision-making was odd. Initial pressings of the album omitted the agnostic’s lament Dear God, a classic mix of Partridge wit and anger perfectly arranged with atypical rhyme schemes and brooding acoustic guitar — the bass notes under an A minor chord go A / F / G / F#, creating an ominous, uneasy atmosphere. It’s an alt-rock standard that barely saw the light of day.

Oranges and Lemons was XTC’s The White Album, a mixture of pop and more diverse styles pushed along by Moulding’s agile bass lines and guest drummer Pat Mastelotto on his way to King Crimson glory. My personal favorite is the chaotic Across this Antheap, a witty and poignant depiction of a society too distracted by “work” to address those in need. “The fur is genuine but the orgasm’s fake,” chortles Partridge before he takes liberties with the rhyme scheme: “We’re spending millions to learn to speak porpoise / while human loneliness is still a deafening noise.”

This album also found Partridge reveling in parenthood. The opener, Garden of Earthly Delights, is a remarkably optimistic tour of the world for his children, including such helpful advice as “Just don’t hurt nobody — ‘less of course, they ask you.” Next up is parent Partridge pledging to make up for his lack of education with a big heart in Mayor of Simpleton, which actually topped the U.S. Modern Rock chart and got airplay on our local “Skynyrd and Zeppelin 4EVER” station in North Carolina.

So if you had to pick a band that would gaze upon a rotting jack o’lantern and immediately think of heads on spikes at Traitor’s Gate, then turn the whole thing into a tale of a Jesus/JFK figure inspiring people but being murdered by the cynical powers that be, then use that as the lead single for an album called Nonsuch, you’d have to say XTC. Read the story at, which goes into vivid detail on scores of XTC songs and will destroy your productivity for the day.

On its surface, Pumpkinhead is rather cynical. A compassionate and charitable man (“showed the Vatican what gold’s for”) develops a following (“emptied churches and shopping malls”), and those who prefer the status quo of the oligarchy (“But he made too many enemies / Of the people who would keep us on our knees”) respond by questioning his sexuality (“Peter merely said / Any kind of love is all right”) and then crucifying him (“had him nailed to a chunk of wood”).

But like a lot of Partridge songs, this is deceptively hopeful. It has a sprightly setting, as American Songwriter notes:

While Bob Dylan may have been an inspiration to Partridge when writing, he and his band played the song more as an energetic romp than a balladic dirge, with a recording featuring booming drums, jangly guitar, and frisky harmonica.

The general populace in this song is receptive to Peter’s “peace, love and understanding” message. Yes, the rulers have him killed, but then there will always be more Peter Pumpkinheads — in all of us. “Hanging there he looked a lot like you, and an awful lot like me.”

We may not need one massive Peter Pumpkinhead. We need a little Peter Pumpkinhead in all of us.

So, this Halloween, why not leave your jack o’lantern out a bit longer than usual? Maybe we’ll be inspired. (Or maybe the neighborhood deer will have a nice snack.)

Popdose Video Premiere: ash.ØK, “The Unraveled”

Do you ever wonder what would happen if great producers recorded records of their own? Okay, some of them, like Mark Ronson, Terry Melcher, and any number of hip-hop greats. But what if George Martin or Phil Spector would have been like, “Screw it, I’m gonna become an artist in my own right?” I’d be willing to wager most producers have considered the proposition; some have jumped at it.

Ashok Kailath, aka ash.ØK, spent a chunk of his career behind the board before switching sides. His new effort, The Unraveled, gives folks familiar with his producing a glimpse into the inside of his mind. His sound is proof that when a producer creates, it’s a vibrant, unadulterated look at his or her personal aesthetic, unencumbered by other artists’ input. For Kailath, that means mixing world with dance, experimental with modern pop — he throws a little bit of everything into the pot to see what works. In short, it all does.

For the video for the album’s eponymous title track, Kailath collaborates with filmmaker Patrick Mason to complement the track, led by past-The Voice contestant Rebecca Loebe. As a midwesterner, the depiction of West Virginia and the Appalachian lifestyle is heart-rending and accurate; the quiet desperation of the characters matches the song’s yearning, steady (almost uncomfortable) calmness. It’s tense, but it’s life. And it’s a masterful work from a masterful producer.

Check out the video for ash.ØK’s “The Unraveled” below!

Album Review: Yes Selma, “Songs of Happiness”

When Chad Beattie, a 24-year-old from Baltimore, first told me about his bedroom project Yes Selma – a Dancer In The Dark nod – he referenced a lot of the Drag City musicians adored by those in the lo-fi singer-songwriter boom of the 1980s and 1990s. And, yes, listening to Yes Selma’s ambitious and ironically titled Songs of Happiness is like a stroll down that old road, a reminder of all of those familiar voices, however “poorly” recorded they were at the time.

Beattie loves himself some Smog. On some songs, he’s a dead-ringer for Bill Callahan in his early days, be it in the form of Forgotten Foundation (“Rock & Roll Band”), Julius Caesar (“Girls”) or Wild Love (the “Red Apples” piano homage “Without You”). Elsewhere, he cops Pavement’s Westing (By Musket and Sextant) or Daniel Johnston or even Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, all points of reference worth exploring. But Beattie shines brightest on the closing tracks, when he allows melody to rise above the dirge and follows his heart — singing over a clattery acoustic and canned drum beat (“Everyone’s Looking At Me”) or on the vaguely lo-fi-Buddy-Holly “(Don’t) Tell Me Why.”

This is not a record for everyone and Beattie seems aware of that. It’s a decidedly (and, I’d imagine, intentionally) uneven record, veering into found-percussion (“Tribal Assault”) and occasionally even Harry Partch territory (opener “Useless Eater”). When Beattie, though, hits the right combination of lo-fi, heart-on-the-sleeve delivery and solid sound construction – I’m talking here about the melancholy “Empty” or the buoyant but rough-hewn pop of “Outer Space” – he is most surely on-target.

Beattie’s lyrics grapple with depression and loneliness and such, the familiar fodder of the singer-songwriter, but he avoids the pratfalls of the overly serious “Tormented Artist.” And he does this largely by being inventive with how he dresses a song, be it in guitar squalor and hand claps (“Noise Poem”) or a cacophony of detuned strings (“Bouncing Slobs”). He seems more concerned with being adventurous and pushing the limits of a song’s structure than creating something with easily digestible verses and choruses, all clean lines and studio goo. And that’s a mission that, even if a record like Songs of Happiness has some less inspired moments, I can get behind.


Single Review: Tyranny of Dave, “Silence in Brooklyn” b/w “All This 4 U”

The antique-garde is rearing its head again.

After seven years of silence, Pinataland founder David Wechsler – whose bizarre orchestrette once emanated from near the epicenter of a NYC micro-scene fascinated with Old World themes, history, and oddball strains of Americana – returns with a self-released 7-inch single. And, man, is it worth tracking down when it comes out in a couple weeks.

The two-song single is a primer for the next record from Wechsler project Tyranny of Dave, 2018’s The Decline of America Part Three: Silence In Brooklyn. And, while it takes its attention to thematic detail and master-tone from Pinataland, its presentation is wholely other.

“Silence In Brooklyn,” the A side, “chronicles the afterlife of Brooklyn after rising oceans leave much of the borough uninhabitable,” Wechsler said in press material. But environmental destruction of a major metropolis never sounded so raucous. Didi Afana’s guitar is jangly, even soulful in an early Keith Richards kind of way and Ami Saraiya, Anna Soltys and Maggie Ward add a nice touch – cooing “shoo-waa” backing vocals – to the toe-tapping mix. Wechsler is the real star, though, rollicking over rolling toms, backing guitar and occasional electronic glitch as he spits out lines like “We were all in the stew/ We didn’t know want to do/ Whatever anyone said it seemed it was too late.” What’s surprising is how animated Wechsler sounds, how he sounds like he’s really cutting loose and breaking into his own.

“All This 4 U,” a B side laced with plenty of Velvet Underground lyric references, is a gem of a country ballad, where singer Nora O’Connor sweetly caresses lines like “It’s all for you/ You got it made/ Didn’t you know?” This is straight-forward, far from as obscurantist as some of Wechsler’s earlier work, and it confronts the listener head-on. A bridge at the two-minute mark, where O’Connor’s vocals are carefully multi-tracked and the lonesomely strummed acoustic guitar sounds like it’s accented with the hint of piano, will break you.

These two too-short songs will leave you counting the months until spring 2018. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for something new from North-Carolina-by-way-of-NYC antique-gardist Curtis Eller and his American Circus. Both these boys are out to show that, while one of the 2000s ripest undergrounds can’t be found in New York anymore, it didn’t die on the vine.

EP Review: Loscil – “Suns”

The songs are sparse exercises in stoicism at times, but – like most Loscil recordings, it seems –  there’s a lot percolating beneath the surface. Perhaps less than usual – but still a lot.

That appears to be the verdict for Loscil’s Suns, a five-track, 30-minute EP that ruminates on and explores some of the same palette as 2016’s excellent Monument Builders, but is less a successor than a companion to that record. The EP is available now through Bandcamp.

Toying with concepts of restraint and desolation, Loscil ambient-soloist Scott Morgan presents listeners with soundscapes removed from his familiar flourishes, from the sun-baked opener (the droning “Monument Destroyers”) to a song that thrives off only the occasional interjection of a bass note (the eerie “Animal Silence”). “Edifice,” unlike its neighbors on the outing, pulses with life. But Morgan’s “redux” of Monument Builders’ “Anthropocene” (track four of five on Suns) is a stripped-down, elegiac bit of electronic air, arguably the EP’s finest moment and far from the territory of between-LPs throw-aways. The closing “Beton Brut” shows flashes of promise – is that the sustained drone of a cello, mid-thought? – but, until the closing minute or two, falls somewhat short of “Antropocene (Redux)”’s scope.

It’s surprisingly unclear what narratives Morgan is trying to deliver or what messages he’s trying to share here. The “voice” – though, of course, this is all instrumental, all sound-pictures — is a little opaque. There are shades of environmental decay, of course, a strong theme on Monument Builders, but, for commentary on the destruction of nature, it’s seriously lacking in adornments.

All in all, Suns is a fine addition to the Loscil catalogue for those hungering for more content from the ever-moving Morgan. But, if I had my druthers, I’d stick with Monument Builders.


Soul Serenade: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” — Who Did It Best?

It’s that time again. Yes, it’s time to do your civic duty as a citizen of the soul music community and help to resolve an age-old question: one great song, two great versions, who did it better? Your vote will go a long way toward deciding this crucial question, so before leaving, even if you don’t want to read the rest of this, cast your vote below. You don’t have to input your email address or anything else. Just vote.

In the past maybe you found these polls too easy. Maybe you thought, “hey, is this guy kidding? This is a no-brainer.” But this week I’m convinced that I have a tough one for you. No one can say that the choice between Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips is an easy one. Oh, you might have your favorite, and that’s the one you’ll vote for, but calling either version superior is a stretch, to say the least.

Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” in 1966. Barrett, you had contributed mightily to the success of Motown with his early hit “Money (That’s What I Want),” had the idea one day while walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago. He’d been hearing the phrase “I heard it through the grapevine” quite often. There’s no telling if he knew that the phrase had its beginning during the days of slavery when slaves passed messages through their own version of a telegraph, the human grapevine. Whitfield helped Strong to flesh out the idea and a classic song was born.

It was neither Gaye nor the Pips who recorded the first version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” That honor fell to the Miracles in 1966 although it has been claimed that Whitfield meant for the Isley Brothers to record it first. Some say that the Brothers did, in fact, record it but no one has been able to come up with the recording. The Miracles version appeared on their Special Occasion album in 1968 but Berry Gordy, Jr. had decided that it was not worthy of being a single.

Meanwhile, Marvin Gaye got a crack at the song in 1967. Whitfield produced the five sessions that were needed to complete the recording. The Funk Brothers laid down the track and the Andantes sang the backing vocals. Gaye wasn’t happy when Whitfield asked him to sing the song in a key that was higher than what he was used to, but Whitfield had been successful when he got David Ruffin to do the same on the Temptations hit “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” so Gaye ended up abiding by the producer’s wishes.

Once again, Gordy decided that Gaye’s version was not single-worthy and it became an album cut on In the Groove. Later that year, Gladys Knight & the Pips took a whack at it. Once again, Whitfield was behind the producer’s desk. He had admired what Aretha Franklin did with Otis Redding’s “Respect” and wanted to get a little bit of that Muscle Shoals funk into the record. Hence the funkier arrangement.

Gordy still wasn’t convinced that he had a hit single but he reluctantly gave in and the Pips version was the first single to be released on the new Motown imprint Soul Records in September 1967. Their take on the song shot up the chart to reach the #2 position.

In August 1968, Gaye’s In the Groove album was released and when DJs began to play “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” regularly, Gordy rethought his earlier decision and Gaye’s version was released as a single in October of that year. By December, it was the #1 single in the land and remained atop the charts for seven weeks. It became the biggest single in Motown history until it was eclipsed by the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” nearly two years later.

Incidentally, Gladys Knight was not happy when Gaye’s version did better than hers. She accused Whitfield of using a track he had created for her group. Gaye denied the accusation, although, troubled by personal issues including the illness of his singing partner Tammi Terrell, felt that he didn’t deserve the success he had with the record.

Over the years there have been many covers of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” including an 11-minute epic by Credence Clearwater Revival. But there’s little doubt that the two greatest versions of the song ever recorded were those by Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight & the Pips. So which one is your favorite? Do you like Gaye’s soulful passion or Gladys Knight & the Pips quicker, funkier take? I know, you love them both. But if you had to choose just one …

Note: There is a poll embedded within this post, please visit the site to participate in this post’s poll.

Dizzy Heights #28: When the Doorbell Strangely Rang

Four weeks ago, I started a show with three of these songs, but kept putting it off because the idea was to play songs that sounded like fall, or at least the end of summer, and summer, where I live, was not ready to leave yet. So I waited. And summer is still hanging around, but not quite like it did four weeks ago.

We have two artists making their Dizzy Heights and Popdose premieres this week, starting with classic pop songsmith Jesse Terry, and later Australian electronic artist Fuzz pops his head in. That’s where the show pivots, but in a good way, I think.

I also shamelessly reference two staff posts in this episode (SYNERGY!). First up, Our Top 100 songs of the 2000s. A song I play in this show made the list…with one vote.

The Popdose 100: The Best Songs of the Decade

And I wrapped up with yet another reference to our, in my humble opinion, damned good list of love songs.

The Popdose 100: The Greatest Love Songs of All Time

Artists besides Terry and Fuzz making their Dizzy Heights debut this week: Dan Wilson (solo), David Mead, Hurts, The Hollies, Toploader, The Pernice Brothers, and Stephen Bishop. Yep, the Bish makes an appearance, and you can probably guess which song.

Thank you, as always, for listening.

Album Review: The Red Button, “Now It’s All This!”

You can have two dozen bands attempt to “sound like The Beatles” which is all well and good, but when you have a group like The Red Button, you know these musicians take it further than the “average” Beatle fans. The Red Button’s main catch is that they know how to CONSTRUCT a song; they know how to write a hook; refine a melody and give it that something extra special. To be fair, their influences aren’t just the obvious; they’re a bit more sophisticated and deeper – and most importantly, these guys KNOW how to get it on-the-one with their harmonies and arrangements.

And this album isn’t just a new release, per se; it’s a brand-new 6 song E.P. to go along with the re-packaging of their first two hard-to-find albums, She’s About To Cross My Mind (2007) and As Far As Yesterday Goes (2011).  Now these two releases are re-mastered and here with these 6 new songs as a double CD, titled after Ron Nasty’s famous press conference remark during the “Rutles are bigger than God” flap (go look it up and watch – if you never heard it before, well…  I can’t help you.  Although Nasty did go on to say that God had never had a hit record…).

If they didn’t record a song beyond “Cruel Girl”, it would have set an automatic legend; such an instantly powerful and memorable track – catchy and simply perfect.  And that 12-string guitar solo – yes…  “I Could Get Used To You” shimmers with its mix of organ and guitars and 7th chords – psychedelic pop at its lovingly crafted finest; “Hopes Up” walks right out of late ’64/early ’65, circa Something New or Beatles ’65 (let’s be realistic here – I’m referencing the American albums I grew up with and that’s all you need to know) and “Can’t Stop Thinking About Her” is pop-balladeering 101 and absolute sweetness.

“Girl, Don’t” is another Rickenbacker-sculpted pop masterpiece; “Caught In The Middle” is a good old-fashioned rave-up with harmonica blasting the opening wide and and riffs and meaty beats and harmonies – most bands would give their collective left nut for a track as good and lively as this; “Picture” goes in a slightly different direction – almost Beach Boys like with its piano arrangement and light touch and “It’s No Secret” is in that same vein of mid-’60’s “sophisticated pop”.  “Can’t Let Candy Go” is another bubblegum-psychedelic pop piece that just leaps out of the speakers and grabs you by the throat and shakes you in a groovy way; “Tracy’s Party” gives The Smithereens a run for their money (!) and “Solitude Saturday” definitely has that Magical Mystery Tour vibe.

The bottom line is Seth Swirsky and Mike Ruckberg are two dynamic songwriting masters/talents, full stop.  One listen to The Red Button’s new Jem Records release, Now It’s All This!, will tell you all you need to know – all this musical goodness is courtesy of The Red Button.


Now It’s All This! will be released on Friday, October 20th, 2017

Popdose Profile: King G & the J Krew Celebrate “Humpback’s” 25th Anniversary

Twenty-five years ago today, the beat was born.

It was the sound of young adults from Louisville – a sprawling collection of collaborators, most of them close friends since childhood – surging with ideas, and busting out with a declaration that they intended to live an unfiltered, untethered life of art and music. It also was an incredible encapsulation of a moment in time: a Bizarro-world hybrid of rap and rock, heavy on samples, levity and inside references, that pre-dated nu-metal and all of its posturing and faux-seriousness. In the years that followed, its example was overshadowed, obscured even, by the bands the project and this self-released CD begat – Rodan, Crain, Rachel’s, June of 44, Shipping News – but it remains a founding document, a kind of Rosetta Stone for those interested in finding it.

Twenty five years ago today, on Oct. 10, 1992, King G & the J Krew released Indestructible Songs of the Humpback Whale. And, all these years later, its “beat poetry with a beat” still resonates as loudly as ever.

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“SOUL POWER – the J Krew scheme / Plus faxed sample snack by Deadly D / Epicenter Mindquake = Kentucky / Over grass true blue not ever green / Non-amateur front beat-voice factory.”

Post-rock’s history is inscribed with at least one great rap album. And the 19-track Humpback – which now is available in slightly edited/bootlegged form on Bandcamp, for those looking to track down a digital copy – is nothing if not adventurous.

After a cut-and-paste hip-hop tribute to WKRW – “A.M. radio intro when the only solution is soul” – the group gets down to business with aggressive guitars, pounding live drums, and an even more in-your-face, trade-the-mic delivery (“Sit The Calm”). From there, it’s a funhouse trip of Public Enemy-style rap (“Land of 2000 Beats, Part Two,” “Blackout”), synth-infused R&B (“Bass: The Final Frontier”), beatboxing (“Downhearted Blues”) and enveloping sound experiments (“Big Angry Jazz,” “Biscuits ‘N’ Gravy”). The group even throws in a medley of Slint’s “Kent” with Midnight Star’s “Freakazoid” for good measure – complete with weeping strings.

On songs by which Noble, Mueller and King are most known – Shipping News’ “A True Lover’s Knot” and Rodan’s “Everyday World of Bodies,” say, or “Lloyd’s Register” by Rachel’s, complete with King’s film projections – elements are tightly interwoven, as inextricably linked and functional as the threads of a rope. Humpback, despite its sonic brazenness, has the same quality of completion, of interconnection – of ideas melding into mission, of a circle being completed.

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“Searchin’ high and low / Ever loser with a pick and an ax / Scopes out another frontier to jab his two-edged flag / A sword for a straight edge – they divvy the earth / Into orderly shapres for their money’s worth / Don’t mean to bust farmin’ food for guy / But strip minin’ for jewels.”

King G & the J Krew didn’t really form the way most bands do, with a practice session in a garage or an impromptu performance in some dusty VFW lodge. They started, though not at any precise moment or place, at duPont Manual – a public, magnet high school in Old Louisville, adjacent to the University of Louisville campus, seeking students with potential for high academic achievement.

Greg King, band name: King G (of course), and Jonathan Hawpe (Secret Weapon) knew each other since elementary school. But, on Aug. 26, 1985, the first day of his freshman year, King met Jason Noble (a.k.a. M.C. Diogenes) and a history and bond of friendship that extended nearly 30 years, into the tenure of bands like Rachel’s and The Young Scamels, was born. (They remained extremely close until Noble’s tragic death on Aug. 4, 2012.) Later in the 1985-86 school year, King met Jeff Mueller (a.k.a. Crawdad) – they were on the same bus home together – and, as a group, the ideas started percolating under the surface of things.

“Once we’d all met, the momentum quickly built in terms of deciding ‘WE ARE ARTISTS,’ in no small part due to some awesome teachers we had in the visual arts program there [at duPont],” King told me recently. “We all really dug in and worked our asses off on every art form we could get our hands on, really tried a lot of things out, experimented, and honed our technical skills.”

All three loved 1980s hip-hop so it was only natural that expressions in music soon followed, most notably in acoustically interesting stairwells.

“We’d find ourselves in the stairwells at school. Greg would beatbox, and Jason and I would harmonize. That sort of evolved into us writing rap music and making fanzines a lot, too,” Mueller said. “The band itself wasn’t necessarily a joke but we never took it too seriously. It was about collaging and mingling together as many weird things as possible.”

The collage aspect of their references became evident in fanzines like Daddy! London! and Nuclear Waist, publications – before the eras of the Internet or even desktop publishing – filled with pure drippings of late-80s culture, artwork, plenty of inside references, and sometimes-serious musings on the state of Reagan-era American politics.

By the time they completed their run of fanzines, they were getting attention. Even legendary, Louisville indie record store Ear X-Tacy was advertising within their pages. But the operation was decidedly lo-fi.

“I had a bedroom on the top floor of my house, with my parents’ bedroom below, so it was very much a little sanctuary for us to mess around on projects, undisturbed, for hours on end – and late into the night, as often happened,” King said.

The synthesis into King G & the J Krew as a musical outfit, however, is murky.

Was it the famed Run DMC show in the summer of 1988 that spawned their interest in starting a project? Was it King and Noble knocking back and forth beats to the Miami Vice theme song? Turns out Mueller, who later went onto a run as post-rock guitarist of note, kicked off the rhymes.

“Jeff wanted to rap the Jewish song ‘Hava Nagila,’ so I recall making a beat, writing a keyboard line to accompany it, and him rapping it. I think that was our first attempt at a song, as a team, I guess,” King said.

King had been composing music before that – he was classically trained on the piano and expanded his musical color-palette on the keyboard while listening to music like Tangerine Dream. Noble also toyed with the piano, though he and Mueller later found success on six strings.

The earliest King G recordings featured friend Alan Lett on guitar and a lot of experimentation with sound pedals, which the group used for sampling. The Krew’s first real achievement was SNUG, a 50-minute “EP” recorded to Hawpe’s four-track TASCAM and self-released on 200 cassettes in the summer of 1990, between the band members’ freshman and sophomore years in college. The recordings were both a riot to hear and rough around the edges – but a point of departure.

“It was really, really fun – but total chaos,” Mueller recalled.

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“Defying the notion of anti-jazz / When there is no sacrifice / No give and take, no solos — all silence / It’s all pounded out on bricks and metal / Mufflers.”

Given the fact that King G & the J Krew was “together” for the better part of a half-decade, they didn’t perform live much. They made their public “debut” in the spring of 1989, during the band members’ senior year talent show at duPont. It was, to say the least, strange but wonderful.

“We were nervous as hell. Jason dressed like a member of The Cure, sort of, and Jeff was at the height of his personal style. I wore a costume crown,” King said. “We had put together a song called ‘DIS,’ which combined the ‘Hava Nagila’ experiment from before, but as part of a super long opus, which included a stripped down a capella passage. It was one of the best experiences of my life, even though we caused feedback at one point.”

From there, into the halls of legend.

The group played its Senior Art Show; at a huge party at Hawpe’s house, which featured Drew Daniel, later of the acclaimed electronic duo Matmos, on “dark texture of some kind;” at Danielle Dostal’s birthday party; on KCAI (mostly “Biscuits ‘N’ Gravy”); and at Zodiac in Downtown Louisville on New Year’s Eve in 1991 or 1992.

And then the humpback went the way of the dinosaur.

“When you’re in your late teens, early 20s, when you feel like all you’re responsible for is yourself,” Mueller mused, “it doesn’t matter how many dishes you break. It matters how hard you break them. That’s where we were.”

+ + +

“If love, as the immortal P. Benatar says, ‘is a battlefield’ then Middle School is absolute Doomsday.”

Noble and Mueller had dropped out of art school by the spring of 1991 and were living in a house on Taylorsville Road in Louisville when they started work on Indestructible Songs of the Humpback Whale. With King, who soon left for another school-year at Kansas City Art Institute, they wrote and recorded “Bass: The Final Frontier;” after King left, they simply went from there.

“We kind of holed up in a couple of different houses and went insane – we just worked on rap music for a year,” Mueller said.

Enter Aaron Frisbee.

Frisbee, a friend of the group and intern at Alan Hart Productions, heard about the Taylorsville Road sessions and loaned Mueller and Noble an eighth-track cassette recorder – hardly state-of-the-art, even for 1991 – to up the ante on production.

He also arranged a bizarre meeting with a studio exec interested in signing King G & the J Krew to a professional contract. (No joke.)

“It was an interesting time, a fork in the road, where fate showed Jason and the group the Old Guard,” Frisbee told me. “Jason and his peers were more DIY, like Slamdek and Touch-and-Go. That really crystallized their desire to do it the way they wanted to.”

Tim Furnish, band name: Jor-El and later of Parlour, played “chunky metal guitar” for the band during its Taylorsville Road period.

“They were very animated and energetic. Always up to something silly. Became quick friends. Jason ended up staying at my parents for a while because he had a family issue and a crush on my mom. He’d later marry my sister,” Tim laughed.

“Jeff and Jason had an inseparable chemistry,” Tim added. “They riff off each other like no one else I’ve ever known.”

The chemistry of the moment was evident everywhere, it seemed.

From King’s journal at the time:

“The basement with bare bulbs and long twine drawstrings grew hot and languid, the cement walls turning inside out with the air, building on our backs some nights; so we would stop and go upstairs, where heat rose and some ferns grew on chaffing window sills. As a summer goes, our music met the august, burning in a Kentucky humidity, and we couldn’t complete it fully. I left the [drum] machine in my brother’s hands.

“Rewind to upstream. Early June, the Krew and I met in the wooded park of the Cherokee name, to discuss and intuit some lyrical ingenuity for the up and coming musical consummation. We hang on the stone block near the creek, leading to the Big Rock, and changed locale to a red chafing park bench, then to a fresh orange jungle gym, the trees very full in a summer wind, branches in every level from ground to the tops. At each spot we jumped around rhymes and meter times, but eventually left the park ‘cause nature was just too cool to look at just then.”

After King left, Noble, Mueller, and Furnish – Furnish was, by then, playing in Crain – moved into The Rocket House, an aging brownstone in need of some love and tenderness in Old Louisville. (The life of the house and its residents were chronicled in the famed underground film Half-Cocked. While some of the tone of that picture was spot-on, the film made the musicians’ efforts to make art seem more haphazard than they ever were.)

By this time, friends recalled, Noble and Mueller had “clicked,” a trait they displayed in Rodan, and, later, well into the 2000s with Shipping News.

At The Rocket House, they completed the record, amid countless indie bands practicing and passing through the space. Within months, Noble and Mueller would join Kevin Coultas and Tara Jane O’Neil in King Kid International; that blossomed into Rodan. Before it was released, Humpback already was becoming a footnote in larger histories.

“In a very real sense, the record was a blossoming of Jason and Jeff’s rock songwriting sensibilities, through the lens of a hip hop project we’d started as teenagers,” King told me. “My involvement was more ‘overt’ with SNUG, and bringing energy and gear to the table overall, and of brainstorming and encouraging weird ideas alongside theirs. And being co-author of the decision to live a life of art, at all costs.”

+ + +

“Kentucky, Baltimore, Cincinnati, K.C. / Everywhere full-force teenage on the street / Violence and dreams boomin’ system locust beat / From cassette-carrying King Krew EP / The locusts rises, we got animal sound on our side / Humpback the bass-shark, the snare-dolpin ride / Spreadin’ blue fire in the fleur-de-lis city / River fountain in the rear-view, we pull a U-ey.”

Indestructible Songs of the Humpback Whale was, like a Babylon Dance Band show or the 1984 Squirrel Bait demos, a document of the Louisville music scene – a snapshot in the community’s time and place that crystallizes something grander and more abstract than just the music contained therein.

“Towards the middle of the writing and recording of the CD, the Indestructible Songs CD, a huge community of people were helping us,” Mueller said. “There was Tim, Simon [Furnish]. Kevin Coultas from Rodan played on a song. It was very much like a Louisville Thing. It became a very serious project. We spent a lot of money and time making sure it was realized.”

“Jason told me he enjoyed listening to that record as much as anything he had worked on – it was very pure,” Frisbee remembered. “Not to be blasphemous, but I almost feel Jason was a messianic figure, the type who could hit chords and resonate with people. Really, he was talented musically but his real superpower was getting people involved in a cause.”

The core members of The Krew didn’t stray far from each other, despite the fact that, in the end, they didn’t all stay in Louisville.

Noble went on to King Kid International and Rodan after King G & the J Krew, then to post-classical ensemble Rachel’s, his excellent solo project Per Mission, and Shipping News. Mueller joined Noble in King Kid International, Rodan and Shipping News, and gained lots of recognition for his role as guitarist in June of 44. Today, he runs Dexterity Press. King went on to provide film projections for live Rachel’s shows, and develop a career in film editing and cinematography.

Were Noble still alive, both King and Mueller agreed there’d be some kind of celebration, some kind of new project or reunion, to mark the record’s silver anniversary, maybe complete with thick shakes.

Noble’s death remains raw in these hearts, despite efforts to focus in a positive way on his “Love Always Wins” attitude and extensive musical canon.

“What this does is it makes me miss Jason significantly,” Mueller told me. “It’s more about being proud of something I was a part of, but also marking Jason’s musical legacy.”

The anniversary also reminded Frisbee of a punk show in Louisville by some anonymous, touring Chicago-based band, where the band members heard tracks from the then-soon-to-be-released Indestructible Songs of the Humpback Whale.

In short, it knocked them over. As it does many of us.

“They said, ‘Man that’s music that cool people are going to be listening to,’” Frisbee said. “Now, 25 years later, cool people hopefully get a chance to hear it.”