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Picking Up Crumbs: Alec Ounsworth

23 Feb

Alec Ounsworth, high pitched wailer of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah whose blog-anointed, self-titled 2005 release launched a thousand Brooklyn bands, has struck out for himself. 2009 had him put out two far different-sounding records; the addled, Velvet Underground-dark Skin And Bones put out under the name “Flashy Python” and the rich, deeply funky and soulful Mo Beauty, recorded in New Orleans and put out on the Anti- label. But the records seem far afield only on the surface- both were the results of intense collaborative processes pulling from different pools of musicians. Matt Barrick of The Walkmen drummed on Skin And Bones with members of Dr. Dog and Man Man as well as Ounsworth’s wife rounding out the cast of friends that Ounsworth patched together for the record. Mo Beauty came about differently, helmed by Los Lobos‘ Steve Berlin and backed in the studio by heavy hitters like George Porter Jr. of The Meters and Stanton Moore of Galactic. In the end though, Ounsworth’s own voice is a both a changing force and a constant. The songs are his own (and one, “Obscene Queen Bee #2”, makes vastly different appearances on both discs) and his singing, which might have been pigeonholed from his CYHSY days, finds the adaptability of a man looking for new things in life that excite him. Ounsworth appears at the 400 Bar tonight with Ezra Furman and the Harpoons, a fine folky-rock outfit that whould bring an upbeat energy to open the show. You can read the edited version of the interview we conducted over at the AV Club, or the full transcript, for your edification, is below, in which Ounsworth reveals more about recording in ten days, not sounding like himself and who he really wants to collaborate with.

The first question, the question that leads to why New Orleans and why these songs has to be why Steve Berlin?

It was just a mater of chance really. I ran into Steve when I was in New Orleans and he suggested that we do a record and so it was as simple as that. I say yes to any producer that comes my way and asks to make a record.

You don’t have any criteria for it?

No no, it’s just that if they want to do it I’m up for it you know, let’s go [laughs]. Obviously I knew Steve was in Los Lobos and I had an idea of his credits as a producer and from everyone who I spoke to he seemed like a pretty trustworthy fellow.

Did Steve approach you before, during or after you were recording for Flashy Python?

It was kind of during, sort of the tail end. It was kind of the right time because that was just really hard to put Flashy Python together and to have somebody who I could lean on and make another record was a nice prospect.

It must have been liberating to be able to bring in those New Orleans musicians who you could trust put music behind your songs.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I mean it was similar for the two projects except that I had these guys for a certain amount of time and they were fully concentrated on this and Flashy Python was pulling everybody in when they were available. But in New Orleans it was pretty nice. I mean these are guys who can move around a lot more than most musicians that I’ve played with, you know what I mean? They have their own thing happening, but I can ask them to do five variations on one thing and they can come up with something distinct.

Putting their names on the front of the record is sort of a testament to these guys who helped you build this record.

Yeah, it’s also kind of and I don’t want to go too far into this kind of thing but it was sort of an experiment to see what it would be like playing with people like this. It’s not anything that I was accustomed to doing or I so readily would have done if Steve hadn’t asked me. So it was kind of a matter of exhibiting the strengths of these guys as far as they can fit into a song. And also that whole listing the names comes from the old jazz covers of somebody’s record.

Was there a moment during the experiment when you thought, “This is going to be alright”?

[Laughs] Maybe towards the end, I don’t know. I never think everything’s going to be alright. It seemed like it was shaping up, it seemed like it was going to be something. It was only ten days that we were down there, I didn’t have much time to think about it, I just had to push on through. It was a sprint. Flashy Python before was a marathon, this was a sprint. It was something. This is one of the reasons I listened to everybody, these guys were easy to communicate with on a level at which they could take things and assess them and then spit back out their interpretation of it. Steve was used to making this type of record and I was not, I don’t know how quickly I would do a ten day record again because it was pretty grueling and a pretty intense ten days but at the same time I think it worked out.

How much prep work did you come in with?

I had the songs pretty well structurally for a long time, some of them are pretty old and some of them were old and re-shaped and some of them are new. So there were a lot of them that were just orphans and I didn’t know where they should be, and it turned out that this opportunity presented itself and I decided that I wouldn’t abandon these songs altogether, I guess.

Why the Flashy Python name, why not just release Skin And Bones under you name?

That’s a good question, I don’t really know. I just felt that should be called by something other than my name or maybe my name didn’t seem exciting enough at the time. I wanted to use that name for something.

There’s an interesting story behind that name isn’t there?

I guess it’s somewhat interesting. It’s a name I took from my father, he was in the Navy back in the Gulf of Tonkin and he wasn’t directly involved, but he and his Navy buddies listened to call signs on the radio for other ships and on of the signs for another ship was “Flashy Python”, which is odd, I think it’s strange and he remembered that and I stole it from him. I go around stealing names, but at the end of the day it feels like names are like numbers that you’re assigned on a team and it really has nothing to do with the number it’s just who wears it finally.

Do feel that same way about song titles?

I put a little more thought into song title because I think they are more direct. It is hard to qualify an entire project, and that’s why it seems relatively arbitrary, the name that is finally attached to it, because you can go in a lot of different directions, but for songs you would imagine that you are specifically trying to represent something with each song, to a degree and so I put a little more effort into song titles.

Is there then a specific Pieter Breugel painting you had in mind when writing “That Is Not My Home (After Breugel)”?

Oh yeah, [The Landscape with] the Fall of Icarus where the farmer is out in the field and he’s falling and the farmer doesn’t notice, I felt like that related to the song and you can determine how yourself, I would rather not explain away why I think it relates to the song. I think the best stuff I’ve heard is stuff that doesn’t point out what the writer is talking about, it’s more like a painting than anything else, that’s music. For me lately stuff that I’ve been hearing doesn’t have any lyrics at all, it’s like, why do you constantly need to get closer, it’s not supposed to feel like, “Oh, this guy’s had a rough day” all the time or something like that. It’s supposed to feel like, I don’t really know, because things are nuanced, things are too nuanced to actually directly point out what’s going on in a song. That’s what I think.

So in your touring you are basically going to be backed by 3/4 of The Teeth as I understand?

They’re a particularly good band and I was surprised to find that they were no longer, a little over a year ago I think they broke up, and I needed a group of people, preferably in Philadelphia who were capable, fast, you know, to try and work on everything and they were around and available and definitely capable.

Cool, but it begs the question; do you expect a group of 20/30-something Philadelphia pop-rockers to play like aged New Orleans jazz and funk musicians?

[Laughs] I don’t expect anybody to play like anybody else, you know what I mean. I don’t even expect myself to be like I was when I was making that record and that’s why it’s so interesting to see Bob Dylan and people like this go out and do their songs over and over again because everything switches up all the time, whether or not the musician himself knows it. It’s definitely different, I mean if you’re coming to the shows, it’s not going to be precisely the way it was on the record. Honestly, I don’t really care for that, you can go home and listen to the record.

Which “Obscene Queen Bee” can people expect to hear out?

Oh God, that’s a good question, [Laughs] Probably neither of the ones that were on the record. That’s an old one, that was definitely an orphan. I think I’ve done twenty different variations of that song since I wrote it when I was twenty-one or twenty-two. It’s hard, I’ve got to assess who’s in the band and what their sensibilities are etcetera etcetera and try and keep thing moving in the context of what I have at the moment. It’s going to be different, we’ve tried it a couple different ways and I’ll be as surprised as anybody with how it comes out.

I’m not going to ask as to the status of CYHSY, but finish instead with this; if you had a dream collaborator for a project, living or dead, who would that be?

I think I would really be curious to see what it would be like to work with Robert Wyatt [of Soft Machine], and he’s still around and who knows, maybe I could somehow make that happen down the line here. But he is someone I want to see how he works, to draw from somebody like that. At the same time if it’s somebody that you admire to a large degree you don’t really want that either, you know what I mean? Because who knows what would happen in a situation like that, and I want to be able to keep listening to Robert Wyatt’s records.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

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    […] West Bank. El Perro Del Mar at the Cedar Cultural Center is a great place to be, chased down with Alec Ounsworth at the 400 Bar to slake your musical thirst. But before any of that goes down, get over to the […]

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    […] down their follow-up record, Rise & Shine, with Steve Berlin (member of Los Lobos, producer of Alec Ousworth and others) at Piety Street Studios in New Orleans. Rise & Shine blends traditional African […]

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