Friday, April 20, 2018

Elvis the Artist: The 'Searcher' Finds 'Rescue' in New HBO Documentary

By John Beifuss
April 9, 2018

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Has any entertainer — or is "entertainer" too limiting? — been as scrutinized, analyzed and idolized as Elvis Presley?

He was the King of Rock and Roll.

The Pelvis.

"A remarkable American original," according to biographer Peter Guralnick.

"The greatest cultural force in the 20th century," said composer Leonard Bernstein.

"A real decent, fine boy" noted Ed Sullivan. 

"Like Lord Byron in the wax museum" sneered a Time magazine critic, in 1956.

Eighty-three years after his birth in a two-room house in Tupelo and 41 years after his death in his 23-room mansion in Memphis, Elvis continues to attract new labels, new identities.

The latest — coined by Priscilla Presley and embraced by HBO — is an appellation that emphasizes the thoughtful artist over the show-biz icon.

Debuting at 7 p.m. (Memphis time) on Saturday, April 14, "Elvis Presley: The Searcher" is an ambitious, two-part, 206-minute documentary produced for HBO with the cooperation of Graceland, which opened its archives to grant the filmmakers access to material that never before had been shared with the public. (One example is an audio recording of Elvis' beloved mother, Gladys Presley, warbling a hymn.)

Intended to be definitive, the film also features "never-before-seen photos and footage from private collections worldwide," according to HBO.

Of course, the movie will be repeated many times in the coming weeks on various HBO networks. In addition, a companion soundtrack album will be released this week on vinyl and compact disc in several configurations, including a 3-disc "deluxe" CD that collects 75 songs, including familiar recordings, from-the-vault rarities and original versions of songs Elvis covered, plus selections from the soundtrack's original score, composed by Pearl Jam's Mike McCready.

"The idea is to rescue Elvis from the cartoon image," said director Thom Zimny, 52, recruited for the project on the strength of his work with Bruce Springsteen on the documentaries that accompanied reissues of "Born to Run," "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "The River."

"The hope is that people will get a sense of the real Elvis, because the voices in the film come from a place of truly loving the music of Elvis," said the New York-based Zimny, in town for a March 17 preview of the documentary at The Guest House at Graceland, the 450-room hotel that opened in 2016 on Elvis Presley Boulevard, just north of Elvis' former home.

"There's not a moment of pure celebrity," Zimny said of the participants in the documentary. "Everyone in the film, you had to feel that this person was never the same after listening to Elvis. Their life changed because of Elvis."

In much the same way, most of the people at the preview screening in the Guest House auditorium were devoted to Elvis. The audience primarily was made up of invited Elvis fans, seated among such notables as the filmmakers; Priscilla Presley; longtime Presley associate Jerry Schilling; Stax songwriter David Porter; Jerry Phillips, the son of Sun founder Sam Phillips; and other significant Presley-connected figures and scholars.

Schilling, 76, originated the idea of the documentary, along with Priscilla Presley. (Both are credited as executive producers.) 

"I knew there was a human, special story about Elvis that had not been told on film — an untold story of Elvis' creative desires," Schilling said. 

"I was with him when he said he would do 'A Star as Born' with Barbra Streisand," added Schilling, mentioning ambitions that were thwarted by Presley's manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker. "I was with him when he said he wanted to go on tour overseas,"

Such frustrations — epitomized by the substandard material that characterized Elvis' "destabilizing" movie career, to borrow a term used by musician Warren Zanes in the film — make up one of the documentary's storylines.

"I just don't think you can have a creative genius like Elvis and keep giving him the same stuff," Schilling said. "Elvis always was searching for different things in his life."

However, the movie emphasizes Elvis the Productive over Elvis the Stymied. As Zanes also says in the documentary: "He can pull in a wide range of genres, and they all come out Elvis."

Schilling said he and Priscilla Presley spent seven years trying to find sympathetic collaborators and a proper platform for the project. After connecting with Zimny and his team, HBO made sense as a destination.

Not only had the network hosted some of Zimny's previous films, but HBO has become known for its deep-dive musical biographies, including Martin Scorsese's "George Harrison: Living in the Material World" and Alex Gibney's "Sinatra: All or Nothing at All."

Written by Alan Light, "The Searcher" presents Presley's life more or less chronologically, but presumes that the viewer already is familiar with much of the Elvis biography. It emphasizes career choices — the first trip to Sun; the early RCA era; the post-Army releases; the embrace of gospel; the so-called "'68 Comeback Special"; the Chips Moman-produced Memphis recordings; the1970s return to live performance; the final 1976 "Jungle Room" sessions — over domestic activities. 

"I looked at him as an artist, and left behind the gossip and lifestyle details," Zimny explained. "There's no talk of the 'Memphis Mafia' or him giving away Cadillacs."

Narration is provided through archival sound bites and new interviews with Elvis associates, researchers, collaborators and fans, including Springsteen — "You could take the boy out of Memphis, you really couldn't take Memphis out of the boy," the Boss observes — and the late Tom Petty, one of several people recorded in the nick of time, so to speak. (The late Red West is another.)

The speakers are identified by onscreen text, but remain unseen. A stylistic conceit of Zimny's approach is to avoid the "talking head" shots typical of historical documentaries; visually, the film is constructed from vintage material (including home movies, fan footage and rare television kinescopes); a few evocative recreations (shots of a boy on a bike to represent Elvis' youth); and new atmospheric footage from inside Graceland that aspires to present a moving-camera complement to William Eggleston's famous still photos of Elvis' home.

"You end up living in Elvis' space," Zimny said. "There's no cutting to the person in a chair to take you out of that world." He characterized the result as "a dreamscape."

Some of the more "dream"-like moments place special emphasis on a particular song. Elvis' haunting Sun version of "Blue Moon" and the 1961 "Lonely Man" are heard essentially in their entirety; the latter's lyrics are particularly appropriate to "The Searcher": "It's a lonely man/ Who roams from town to town/ Searchin', always searchin'/ For something he can't find..."

The title, "Elvis Presley: The Searcher," was identified by Jon Landau, the Springsteen manager who is among the film's producers, when he took note of Priscilla Presley's comment in an interview that "Elvis was a searcher.;

Priscilla Presley said the documentary achieves its aim by recognizing Elvis' role as a "producer" of his recordings as well as an interpreter of songs. "One of the things people have said about him is that he was 'lucky,' but that is so untrue," said Presley, 72. "Elvis was born to be who he was. He knew from the very beginning what he wanted to do."

Said Schilling of the documentary: "It's a good one, man. There's so much misinformation about him out there, you walk around after you see it with a better feeling about Elvis than you usually do."

‘Elvis Presley: The Searcher’ is a beautiful way to rediscover the man who became King

April 13, 2018
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Here is Elvis, rehabbed at last and brought down from his lofty and lunatic afterlife as an icon, reminding us that he was once just a man.
Of course, he was never just any man, he was ELVIS — from birth, it seems. The surviving twin of a doting mother, raised up from the Depression dirt of Tupelo, Miss., and postwar slums of Memphis, opening his mouth in front of Sam Phillips’s microphone and seamlessly merging black and white American song traditions into a form that was new and everlasting. He was imbued with the holy spirit of gospel music and landed instead on something faddishly called rock-and-roll.
With a raft of producers that includes Priscilla Presley, director Thom Zimny’s insightful and stirring 3½ -hour HBO documentary, “Elvis Presley: The Searcher” (premiering Saturday), is a fine demonstration of how the passage of time can help place even the biggest and most overloved superstars into a blessed relief. The film is a calm and deeply empathetic recounting of Presley’s life, split in two. The first half takes us up to 1960 and his career-interrupting military service; the second half is, well, the rest of Elvis: movie star, obsessive workhorse, sweat-drenched showman, tragic figure.

A careful mélange of archival film and sonic clarity, “The Searcher” is a fine reassessment of Presley’s origins and impact. Its many sources, whether alive or dead (from Elvis himself to “Colonel” Tom Parker to writers such as Alan Light and Jon Landau and musicians such as Robbie Robertson and Emmylou Harris) are heard in interviews rather than seen by a camera, which helps maintain a serious focus.
Sound is far more important than celebrity here, and it’s plain that the people who helped produce “The Searcher” are fixed on the subject of artistry — the inspirations, the songs, the voice and the creative decisions that shaped the career. Serious scholarship also comes into play, even though the film is content to let the viewer decide how much of Elvis’s music is about absorption, as opposed to appropriation. His debts to African American music are accounted for, as are his contributions: “[Presley] pointed to black culture and said this is something that’s filled with the force of life,” says Bruce Springsteen. “If you want to be complete and fulfilled as a person, if you want to be an American, this is something that you need to pay attention to.”
“The Searcher” is a marvelous entry point for viewers who have only known Presley to be dead — as a statue or a postage stamp or a skydiving troupe of impersonators. It’s also a must-see for people whose exposure to his musical catalogue is limited to one or two hits, as well as those who still mentally cleave Presley’s story into thin and fat. (Although those periods still work for Zimny as a basic through-line.) It’s a film for anyone who has lost track of what circumstances made Presley a legend, as well as those circumstances that finished him off. Through the film’s epic span and fleetingly impressive moments of time-travel, it is almost possible to fall in love with him the way everybody else once did.
During a clip of Presley’s first TV performance on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s “Stage Show,” Zimny slows the film speed and the song is replaced by a divine interlude. Suddenly we are hearing the words of the late Tom Petty, here from heaven to explain so perfectly what we are watching:
“His body picks up all the intricacies of the rhythm. It’s so lighthearted, but it’s so deep and meaningful at the same time,” Petty says. “It’s such a magical thing to see, because of the kinescopes — just the way it distorts the image. There’s some beautiful thing going down there. And it must have been really incredible to see it with no warning.”
To see it with no warning. It’s on this point that “Elvis Presley: The Searcher” soars, making it possible to view someone as recognizable as Presley fully anew, the way he must have appeared in American living rooms, where he caused such a fuss.
The only place “The Searcher” feels noticeably incomplete is when the end arrives, perhaps out of deference to Priscilla’s involvement (the couple divorced in 1973) or perhaps as a trade-off for access to a trove of archival material. Elvis’s death at age 42 in 1977 is seen more as a release from misery than a preventable excess, and there’s not one peep about his amazing and profitable afterlife as a dead icon.
The documentary also seems determined to settle old scores with Colonel Parker, who died in 1997 and whose management of Presley’s career is portrayed here as cruelly constrictive and creatively tragic, choosing for his client a path strewn with cornball movies and, in the final years, Las Vegas servitude. A suggestive theory sort of hangs there: Even the King was beholden to the man, but still he rises.
Elvis Presley: The Searcher (3 hours 30 minutes) premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.

'Elvis Presley: The Searcher' Pulls Back the Veil on the King

The upcoming two-part HBO documentary tells the story of Presley's life through his music

By Andy Greene
April 4, 2018

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The Elvis Presley stories repeated most often these days are rarely flattering. Some emphasize his lethal appetite for fatty foods and prescription painkillers; others dwell on bizarre anecdotes like his meeting with Richard Nixon, where he warned the president that the Beatles had an "anti-American spirit." The overall picture in these tales depicts a sweaty, bloated country bumpkin in a sequined jumpsuit who is quick to fire a gun at his own television set. It's a pathetic, cartoon distortion of the man that has little relation to the musical genius from Tupelo, Mississippi, who played a crucial role in the development of rock & roll in the 1950s and continued to innovate within the art form for the reminder of his career.

The new two-part HBO documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher (which premieres April 14th) aims to finally restore the King to his proper place in the rock pantheon as a creative pioneer on par with Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Directed by Thom Zimny and produced by Jon Landau and Priscilla Presley, it tells Elvis' life story through his music, utilizing a treasure trove of unseen video, photographs and new interviews with his friends, collaborators and fans, including Bruce Springsteen and, in one of his final interviews, Tom Petty. "I wanted to attack and shatter the shorthand version of Elvis Presley's life story – that after the Army there was just bad films, bad recordings, bad tours and then his life was over," says Zimny. "This was a man driven by music, even at his darkest times."
The project dates back about four years to discussions Priscilla Presley had with Jerry Schilling, a longtime friend of Elvis who has been involved with the Presley estate for decades. "We wanted to tell the true story," she says. "And then we just happened upon HBO, and [president for HBO Miniseries] Kary Antholis really got it." The network reached out to Landau to get the ball rolling. "I said to them, 'My perception would be to attempt to tell the story of Elvis, the artist, straight through to the end,'" says Landau. "In other words, I wanted to take the second half of his career as seriously as the first."
Zimny was his first thought for a director. They'd worked closely over the past 18 years on a series of documentaries about Springsteen and were of a similar mindset about how to tell musical history on the screen. For this one, the filmmaker decided to record all of his interviews without a camera and just weave the audio across vintage photos and video alongside some new footage he filmed at Graceland. "I love the challenge of not using camera interviews," he says. "It forces you to look at the visual landscape completely differently. You don't have the safety of cutting to the person on camera, and you can stay in the dream world of the film."
Pivotally, Zimny was given access to the Presley estate's complete audio and visual archive. "He had carte blanche to go into it," says Priscilla. "I wanted him to get whatever he needed to make this documentary truthful." The director also sent his research team to scour the planet for previously unseen items and ultimately had more than 6,000 still images to draw from along with Super-8 footage, 16-millimeter outtakes from newsreels and the complete studio sessions from his entire recording career. "One of the key recordings we found was Elvis' mom singing gospel songs, which had never been released," says Zimny. "The landscape of this film is really built upon unseen archival footage that was buried deep in the vault."
Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready was given the difficult job of crafting a score for the project. "I knew it had to be someone who could capture the emotional journey of Elvis as an artist, but also his influences – all without it overpowering the tone of the Elvis story and music," the director says. "The composer had to be someone who understood the role the score would play in the two films, and they had to be somebody who could translate the emotional themes that I, who am not a musician, could only describe with words and visuals."
The first half of the documentary goes from Presley's impoverished childhood in Tupelo right up to the moment he was drafted into the Army, at the pinnacle of his fame, in 1958. Rather than recycling the dueling narratives that dominate discussions of his legacy – that he either single-handedly invented rock & roll ormerely copied rock pioneers and took all the credit because he was a photogenic white man – The Searcher explores "the complexities of an artist like Elvis," Zimny says. Much time is devoted to Presley's artistic journey and the rich musical terrain he was exposed to as a teenager. "I was aware of the storyline that Elvis took music from other people," he adds. "And it just didn't make sense after having conversations with Priscilla and, most importantly, [Stax songwriter] Dave Porter, who spoke with me of their time on From Elvis in Memphis and explained to me at length how the music of Beale Street influenced Elvis when he was growing up."
Part Two explores the difficult second chapter of Presley's life, when he returned from the Army and, at the urging of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, turned away from rock music in favor of B-moves and quicky soundtracks. The1968 comeback special led to a brief period of renewed cultural significance and amazing live shows, but the limitations of Parker's managerial abilities – including his refusal to tour Elvis overseas and team him up with the right studio collaborators – hobbled Presley's career throughout much of the 1970s. "The second part of his career involved triumph over a lot of adversity," says Landau. "He didn't have a George Martin or someone to push him creatively. Most importantly, the material wasn't what it should have been. When you get the soundtrack to Clambake, there's only so much you can do. Still, Elvis brought his personality to everything that he did. The worst songs he ever recorded, the ones he was the most disinterested in, the signature of his singing was right there."
The story of Presley's life is fleshed out by the voices of the people who knew him best and some of his most high-profile fans. Among many other interviews, Zimny spoke to guitarist Scotty Moore – who backed Elvis from his first Sun Records sessions through much of his pre-Army career – just a few weeks before he passed away in 2016.  Lifelong Elvis fan Tom Petty sat down with the director for an hour at his home studio shortly before he launched what became his final tour. "Isolation brings on drug abuse," Petty says, in comments that now seem unsettling in the wake of his death. "It had to be very lonely, we know that. There's a point when you have success and you get really wealthy, and there's the day the letter comes that says none of this will make you happy. He knew he had to find something, but I think he gave up. I think he felt outgunned and gave up."
To showcase Presley's latter years, Zimny zooms in on lesser-known tracks like "Hurt," a gut-wrenching song he recorded in Graceland's Jungle Room about a year before he died. (By that point, the studio had to come to Elvis since he didn't like to leave his house.) "He was at the end of his life when he sang that song," says Zimny. "It depicts his passionate love of music and acknowledges not just his sad loss in the world, but also the power and beauty of his singing voice."
For Priscilla, watching the final cut of the film was a heavy emotional experience. "I broke down because it was like déjá vu," she says. "When I watched the footage of him onstage, I felt like I was back in my booth in Las Vegas watching it and experiencing it. I was living it all over again."

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The McCabe Report is Just an Appetizer

April 17, 2018

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Al Drago/The New York Times
What a delicious hors d’oeuvre Michael Horowitz gave the world on Friday! The inspector general for Department of Justice finally issued his eagerly awaited (eagerly awaited by some of us, anyway) report on Andrew McCabe, the disgraced former deputy director of the FBI.
Note that this is only an appetizer. In the coming weeks, Horowitz will follow up with entrees on the FBI’s partisan activities in the 2016 presidential election and, later, another report on (if I may employ the term) collusion with the State Department.
As of this writing, it is unclear exactly what the scope of the inspector general’s inquiries will be.
Speaking for myself, I hope the dessert course includes a close look at the January 5, 2017 meeting at the White House meeting at which President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, NSA director Susan “By the Book” Rice, and acting Attorney General Sally “Insubordinate” Yates were briefed by the country’s chief spooks—former FBI director James “Higher Loyalty” Comey, NSA chief Michael Rogers, CIA chief John “I Voted for Gus Hall” Brennan, and James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence who delighted the television audiences everywhere when he instructed Congress that the Muslim Brotherhood was “a largely secular organization” that had “eschewed violence.” The country was in the very best of hands back then! What was the subject? Exactly what they were and were not going to tell the incoming administration about the ongoing investigation into possible Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election? The “knotty question,” as Andrew McCarthy put it in a searing column on the event, was how to “engage” the incoming administration while also keeping them in the dark. Amazing.
But I digress. We’ll have to wait for Horowitz to serve up the additional courses he has cooking. But right now we can enjoy his refreshing treat of McCabe-kabob, grilled to perfection.
Andrew McCabe, you might recall, was a central player in the pseudo-investigation of Hillary Clinton’s misuse of classified information and self-enrichment schemes while Secretary of State. He was one of the people who made sure that went nowhere. He was also a central figure in the get-Mike-Flynn operation and, later, the Great Trump Hunt that has been occupying Robert Mueller for nearly a year.
McCabe leaked information about an investigation to a Wall Street Journal reporter, lied about leaking in casual conversations with superiors as well as under oath. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, digesting a preliminary report on McCabe’s conduct, fired him in March 2018 (not even a month ago, but it seems like forever).
The Left got its collective nappy in a twist over that, claiming that it somehow impeded Mueller’s boundless fishing expedition and also that it was callous to Andrew McCabe because he was fired just a day before he was entitled to his full pension. (He did not, by the way, “lose his pension” as some reported, merely a final escalator, and it is not even clear that that will survive litigation.)
For his part, McCabe took to the pages The Washington Post to deliver a weepy threnody of self-pity and attempted self-exoneration. It was an embarrassing performance. “I felt sick and disoriented,” he sniffed. He complained of President’s Trump’s “cruelty.” Just as the President had been a meany to James Comey, so he was to little Andy. “The president’s comments about me were equally hurtful and false, which shows that he has no idea how FBI people feel about their leaders.”
But the meat of McCabe apologia is contained in these few sentences:
I have been accused of “lack of candor.” That is not true. I did not knowingly mislead or lie to investigators. When asked about contacts with a reporter that were fully within my power to authorize as deputy director, and amid the chaos that surrounded me, I answered questions as completely and accurately as I could. And when I realized that some of my answers were not fully accurate or may have been misunderstood, I took the initiative to correct them.
As the recent Inspector General’s report shows, however, every claim in those sentences is a lie. To wit:
We found that, in a conversation with then-Director Comey shortly after the WSJ article was published, McCabe lacked candor when he told Comey, or made statements that led Comey to believe, that McCabe had not authorized the disclosure and did not know who did. This conduct violated FBI Offense Code 2.5 (Lack of Candor – No Oath).
We also found that on May 9, 2017, when questioned under oath by FBI agents from INSD, McCabe lacked candor when he told the agents that he had not authorized the disclosure to the WSJ and did not know who did. This conduct violated FBI Offense Code 2.6 (Lack of Candor – Under Oath).
We further found that on July 28, 2017, when questioned under oath by the OIG in a recorded interview, McCabe lacked candor when he stated: (a) that he was not aware of Special Counsel having been authorized to speak to reporters around October 30 and (b) that, because he was not in Washington, D.C., on October 27 and 28, 2016, he was unable to say where Special Counsel was or what she was doing at that time. This conduct violated FBI Offense Code 2.6 (Lack of Candor – Under Oath).
Allow me to translate the central phrase here: “lack of candor” is DOJ bureaucratese for “false statements, misrepresentations, the failure to be fully forthright, or the concealment or omission of a material fact/information,” i.e., lying.
Bottom line, partisan hack Andrew McCabe leaked information to the media about an ongoing investigation because he wanted to help Hillary Clinton and harm Donald Trump. He then lied repeatedly about his behavior both under oath and in unsworn conversation with superiors. He deserved to be fired by Jeff Sessions. I think he also deserves to be prosecuted. But since he is a Hillary partisan and Trump hater, I very much doubt he will be.
Still, reading Michael Horowitz’s meticulously researched report is a bracing experience. And who knows, perhaps Andrew McCabe was prudent to assemble a $500,000 GoFundMe legal defense fund. “It is not easy,” Jonathan Turley noted at The Hill, “to transform oneself from a once-powerful public official terminated for cause to the equivalent of a late-night, mud-splattered stray seeking shelter. However, McCabe had the media, which portrayed him as a noble civil servant viciously and unfairly targeted by Trump operatives.” Thanks to Michael Horowitz, however, we now know that, far from “noble.” Instead, he was a lying, partisan hack. What we’ll find out next, I predict, is that he was also part of the largest political scandal in U.S. history: a concerted effort by operatives in the Department of Justice, the FBI, and other intelligence agencies to influence the course of a presidential election and then, when that didn’t work, to sabotage the people’s choice.

This meal is far from over. But I suspect that Michael Horowitz will be filling out the menu at least as robustly as that fisher of men, Robert Mueller.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Today's Tune: Lord Huron - When The Night Is Over

A Look Inside The Insular World Of Lord Huron

By Ian Cohen
April 16, 2018
Lord Huron @ Teragram Ballroom. 3/8/18.
Lord Huron at Teragram Ballroom March 8, 2018
Ben Schneider, as is his tendency, is trying to remember the night we met. The Lord Huron mastermind believes it took place after a show where his fledgling band opened for Avi Buffalo. I always assumed it was Abe Vigoda. Either way, this is definitely an “LA indie rock in 2010″ story. That’s the world Lord Huron occupied in their early days, long before they evolved into an expansive festival-folk juggernaut that will take their fizzy and fuzzy upcoming third LP, the Dave Fridmann-mixed Vide Noir, to a large outdoor amphitheater near you.
Schneider recorded his first two EPs, Into The Sun and Mighty, entirely by himself and pulled almost exclusively from the prevailing trends of 2007-2009: throwing bits of Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear, Local Natives, Animal Collective, and Fleet Foxes into My Morning Jacket’s abandoned grain silo. They had a bearded percussionist who wore a washboard like a catcher’s chest protector. A friend of mine considers herself the biggest Lord Huron fan on Earth — the type that will just let Strange Trails and Lonesome Dreams repeat for an eight-hour workday on Spotify — but says she missed out on the original EPs. Her excuse: “They were so hipster back then.”
This is funny to Schneider because he can’t believe he was ever anyone’s idea of the quintessential Silver Lake indie rocker. The generally press-averse 33-year-old has kept the same Michigan phone number since he was a teen (“I couldn’t shake it, I gotta stay true to who I am”). He found his first big break not at the Satellite or the Echo, but as a result of following his sister’s advice and handing out CD-Rs of his self-recorded EPs (with Kinkos-made artwork) at a festival in Big Sur. “We didn’t have time to think about [our goals], it just started happening,” Schneider shrugs. “When the other guys came out here just to play a few shows, we thought it was really just to play a few shows. And they just never went home.”
And my friend’s explanation is funny to me because…here’s Schneider and I throwing around antiquated industry terms like “hipster,” “buzzband,” and “CMJ,” and it makes me feel like a grizzled prospector. A time when Lord Huron could conceivably be an indicator of our present moment feels like ancient history or science fiction at this point. Early favorite “The Stranger” was included on 2012’s Lonesome Dreams and Lord Huron’s beginnings already felt at odds with the sound they’d continue to develop on Strange Trails three years later — a toothy, wholesome Americana whose doomed drifters and outlaws drew from Southern and Wild West legend and were given a geographically indistinct twang. Meanwhile, their sleek multimedia presentation was an extension of Schneider’s art school-to-LA trajectory and background in graphic design.
Both Lonesome Dreams and Strange Trails were products of Schneider’s capacity for proggy world-building, their fictional narratives supplemented by movie trailers, Instagram-supplied Easter Eggs, and comic books. The songs of Lonesome Dreams were modeled after the works of George Ranger Johnson, a 71-year-old adventure novelist who resides in Tucson and also is not a real person. The videos for Strange Trails are glimpses into its own interior narrative, which involves a roving gang called the World Enders. Even beyond hiring Fridmann to provide his typically blown-out, bottom-heavy mix to the surprisingly propulsive and virile Vide Noir, it features Schneider’s most opulent and ambitious rollout. The band made seven songs from Vide Noir available to stream at geo-locations across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, some of which include national parks, beaches, and a volcano. Lord Huron will also be releasing public access visuals that will air on local TV stations throughout America, and Schneider dubbed them on a handful of limited edition VHS tapes. There also comic books, the “choose your own adventure hotline” and the website, which contains more information about all of the above.
Clearly, Schneider recognizes that user interface has been the driver of Lord Huron’s steady rise in lieu of an explosive, aisle-crossing hit or effusive critical acclaim. After landing a couple of TV syncs, “The Night We Met” was included in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and subsequently confirmed platinum nearly two years after it was released. (I still don’t know what it takes for a single to go “platinum” in the Spotify age and maybe you don’t either.) Reviews of Lonesome Dreams and Strange Trails have been cautiously positive and increasingly rare while Lord Huron have been entirely uninterested in producing content beyond their own albums. Yeah, when you type it all out, Lord Huron are diametrically opposed to every single thing that’s passed for the indie rock zeitgeist in the past six years, a strident course correction from the aughts’ more earnest, folky, and collegiate aesthetics. This seems to suit Schneider just fine. “We never try to be part of scene,” he says, less a statement of independence than his casual admittance of how hard it’s been for him to actually keep up with any scene; he’s just now getting into King Krule, for what it’s worth. Despite all of this — or maybe because of it — Lord Huron are way more popular than you think.
Last year saw plenty of bands once viewed as Lord Huron’s elder superiors return after long hiatuses, finding themselves in a skeptical, if not outwardly hostile, critical environment. Many tasked themselves with justifying their own existence, not to their fans, but to the “narrative” that no longer seemed interested in indie rock, especially apolitical indie rock made by white men in their 30s. In particular, Ed Droste from Grizzly Bear groused about how the current state of the music industry is destined to destroy bands “mid tier or lower,” presumably including himself in that mid tier. “Nobody cares about the craft of songwriting, and it’s impossible to put on a good tour,” he complained, later clarifying his remarks which otherwise paralleled with the prevalent idea that bands like his are being discarded in the interest of click-chasing.
And yet, Lord Huron have succeeded by caring about little else besides craft and touring. “We’ve always put a lot of time and effort into our live show. From the beginning, that’s been something I didn’t want to skimp on,” Schneider explains. “When we were coming up in 2010, we saw a lot of bands who, for better or worse, just did karaoke,” and yeah, I’ll concede to his version of our first encounter because he clearly remembers that year in its most accurate terms. “Because we’ve put so much time and effort into it, people are willing to watch us play live, and we’ve toured a lot. I still get goosebumps when I see that anyone in the audience knows any of the lyrics, it’s still a surreal experience for me.”
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STEREOGUM: On what part of the live experience do you focus most of that extra “time and effort”?
SCHNEIDER: The first thing that we keep in mind is that it’s not gonna be the same thing as the record. It’s just not, no matter how hard you try — and I think that’s a healthy thing. It should be a different experience than sitting at home and listening to the record. So right off the bat, you have to let go of some of the instrumentation because we just can’t tour with a 20-piece band. It’s just making sure it sounds good — as simple as that sounds, it’s the thing we won’t compromise. There are some songs that people request a lot that we don’t play even though we want to, just because we’ve never been quite able to get it there. “Frozen Pines” is one we’ve struggled with for a long time, it’s just hard to describe why we can’t get it right, but we’ll keep trying. There are a couple from Lonesome Dreams and even “Mighty,” we’re always struggling to get that one to sound right because it’s so dense. It changes when you have your own front-of-house, but back then, we’d be playing 10 shows at SXSW just trying to explain to the sound man, “no…I’m serious, I want more reverb.” That was a constant struggle for us.
STEREOGUM: Likewise, it can sound gauche for a band to say that they were able to achieve their goals on an album on account of having more time and money, but how did you take advantage of a major label’s resources?
SCHNEIDER: It was nice to be able to work with Dave Fridmann. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and especially with the sound we wanted to get with this record, it just felt like a really great fit. He’s an incredible guy. It’s also just having the ability to pay people to help us make these videos and these films and all that, because I want everyone to benefit from it. But it’s also the time, that always seems to be the thing — on the road, you can’t really do much else besides be “on the road.” You can try to fit in working on other things and I’ll write a little bit, but it just takes up so much time. We know how important it is, so we’ll keep doing it.
STEREOGUM: Fridmann’s always been a big name for people like us in our 30s who came up on late-’90s indie rock. What were the albums he’s produced that made you think, “we gotta get this guy”?
SCHNEIDER: He’s been so consistent — he’s just always been a name that’s popped up on records, basically my whole life. From the very early Flaming Lips stuff through The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi up to Tame Impala, even Baroness and stuff like that — he’s just done so many cool things, he always brings something fresh to whatever he works on. This is a very bass- and drums-heavy record, that’s his thing, so he’s the guy to call.
STEREOGUM: Was there a sense that Lord Huron had settled into a groove after Strange Trails?
SCHNEIDER: For us, [Vide Noir] was more about setting loose ground rules for this world, and then, it’s whatever feels like a good fit or colors it in an interesting way or adds something. I was just really into writing songs on bass and baritone guitar and it felt like it fit within this vibe very well. I never had that sense where “we’re reinventing ourselves!” or anything, it’s really just following what we’re interested in and making this thing that seems interesting to us. There’s plenty of acoustic guitar still on there, but usually, it’s distorted and blown to shit.
STEREOGUM: This is more of a nocturnal, insular album than past Lord Huron records. Have you thought about how this might translate in festival settings?
SCHNEIDER: That’s definitely something we’re thinking about and we’ve always struggled with that a little bit. We’d really like to be able to have “our show” and control the environment a little bit just to enhance the experience as much as possible. The reality is you gotta do these festivals and…they’re pretty fun in their own way. We just realize it’s not the same thing and you gotta have a different set list or type of vibe you’re trying to communicate. It’s nice that we have a deeper catalog where we can pick songs that fit that setting more than some of the stuff that might fit our own show a little better.
STEREOGUM: The lyrics of “Ancient Names (Part I)” and Vide Noir in general show an interest in the occult and superstition. Has there been anything recently that’s inspired you to look more into these realms?
SCHNEIDER: I think it’s just an interesting way to think about the future or your fate or whatever’s coming your way — to consider if there was some way to foresee that at all. And a big thing I was thinking about with this record: I’m all for science and I believe in it and I’m happy to see a lot of the destructive superstitions and strange beliefs we’ve developed over the years being destroyed with our scientific discoveries. Another part of me laments their loss. Superstition and religion, for all of its negative effects, has this interesting beauty to me that humans have created, especially mythology, legend and fortune tellers, things like “the 13th floor of a building.” All this weird stuff that’s been irrefutably overturned that we still hang on to, I’m interested in how we preserve some of that stuff just because there’s a certain truth and beauty in it.
STEREOGUM: Such as, “The Balancer’s Eye.”
SCHNEIDER: “Balancer’s Eye” is one we created ourselves, making up our own myths as we go. We’re trying to keep it so all that stuff is still around in this world too. You’ll see things that appeared on other records, ideas or names cross over to [Vide Noir]. In movies and literature and comic books, I’ve always liked where there’s connectedness or crossover. We need someone to control the lore and keep tabs on it [laughs].
STEREOGUM: Are there hardcore Lord Huron fans that point out discrepancies or contradictions in the worlds you’ve created?
SCHNEIDER: We definitely have some fans who are deep into it, which is helpful, they can kinda help us sort things out. Because a lot of times, I don’t even know what it means.
STEREOGUM: What new influences were you looking toward to help build this world?
SCHNEIDER: One thing that’s maybe a strange inspiration is Raymond Chandler, and I was trying to get that kind of vibe, even down to the title. I wanted to pay homage to the old noir and sci-fi. The picture he paints of LA is so iconic and so appealing to me. I can still see it when I drive around, the world he was describing in those books. I love the idea of someone going on an odyssey through the city trying to figure something out.
STEREOGUM: Even going back to the first EPs, I’d describe most of the narrators in Lord Huron songs as just that — this kind of lone, masculine figure trying to make sense of a world that’s seemingly passing him by. In the past couple of years, there’s been a more critical view taken of Old Hollywood and especially the more stereotypically masculine writers like Raymond Chandler, Norman Mailer, and such. Have you had to reassess what this means for your writing?
SCHNEIDER: The character that often appears [in Lord Huron songs], for better or for worse — I’m not gonna deny it’s some component of me. Whatever I write, I start from a nugget of something that happened to me or someone really close to me and let it spin off into fiction. But the way I always look at that character was a kind of false masculinity. If you think about what ends up happening to this character or group of characters, it’s often foolishness and in some cases hubris, and they generally end up ruining themselves. The way I’ve always thought of it was that I was casting a critical eye towards that sort of male trope in a lot of ways — it’s false. And I think it’s often a trap for people. It’s something that maybe I’ve struggled with a bit and the idea of being a loner, maybe it has appeal in a fictional way but if you really think about what that person’s life is like, it’s like…not such a rosy picture.
STEREOGUM: That’s a similar perspective I got from talking to artists like Greg Dulli and George from Twin Shadow about Confess — their imagery and lyrical content presents as machismo, but they’ve both viewed their past work as cautionary tales. But given the dialogue of 2018, are you concerned that people will just take lyrics like, “she went west to chase her dreams/ she took my money but she didn’t take me” at face value?
SCHNEIDER: I love seeing how different people interpret what we do. It’s interesting, a lot of people contact us about using our songs in their wedding or something and I think they’ll only fixate on one part of that story because almost always, they end in a way that I don’t think you want to associate with your marriage. I think that’s cool, though. I’m sure you’re never gonna please everybody, but I try to approach songwriting in a somewhat responsible way, or I’m honestly assessing it. But it’ll be interesting to see that, I do wonder.
Vide Noir is out 4/20 via Whispering Pines/Republic Records. Pre-order it here.
TAGS: Lord Huron

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Pathetic Comey Spectacle

Former FBI director continues his lying self-righteous preening.

April 17, 2018

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Disgraced former FBI Director James Comey is making a pathetic spectacle of himself as he pitches his book with a whirlwind media blitz. Comey’s Sunday interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC managed to achieve higher ratings than its floundering American Idol lead-in. However, the ratings did not even rise to half the number of viewers who tuned into the Stormy Daniels interview on CBS’s Sixty Minutes last month. Each interview was a tawdry attempt to smear President Trump. However, compared to Comey’s self-righteous façade under which he sought to obscure his own misdeeds of lying to Congress under oath and leaking information he prepared while still the FBI director, Stormy Daniels came across as the more believable interviewee.
Comey told Stephanopoulos that an ethical leader is “someone who realizes that lasting values have to be at the center of their leadership.” Such a leader, Comey said, must “focus on things like fairness and integrity and, most of all, the truth.” Comey claimed that President Trump, whom he compared to a “mob boss” for demanding absolute loyalty, does not meet that test. "Our president must embody respect and adhere to the values that are at the core of this country,” Comey said. “The most important being truth. This president is not able to do that.” Comey’s verdict was that Mr. Trump is “morally unfit to be president."  
James Comey fails miserably in meeting his own standard of truthfulness. He lied to Congress under oath, for example, regarding when he reached his conclusion that Hillary Clinton’s e-mail transgressions did not merit prosecution. He testified that he had not decided to exonerate Hillary Clinton until after she was interviewed on July 2, 2016. It turns out that he had been involved in the drafting of a letter exonerating her weeks before key witnesses, including Hillary Clinton herself, were interviewed. Comey admitted to Stephanopoulos that by May of 2016 – about 2 months before he publicly announced his recommendation not to prosecute Clinton – he knew where the investigation was headed. While claiming that he had an open mind should new facts emerge, Comey said that “after nine or ten months of investigating, it looked like on the current course and speed, this is going to end without charges.” He reached that conclusion without the benefit of a grand jury, which would have been customary in cases of such gravity. “Lot more flexibility,” he said in explaining why no grand jury was convened. Comey’s whole stewardship of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation gave him “lot more flexibility” to maneuver the outcome in Hillary’s favor. 
Comey substituted in his draft exoneration letter, and later in his public exoneration statement on July 5, 2016, the phrase “extremely careless” for the legal term “gross negligence,” which appears in a federal statute covering the handling of classified information under which Hillary Clinton could have been prosecuted. Here is how Comey tried to rationalize what he had done:
“So my first draft, which I wrote myself, said, ‘Gross negligence.’ It's a lawyer term. And the reason I used that term is I wanted to also explain that I don't mean that in the sense that a statute passed 100 years ago means it. And then my staff convinced me that that's just going to confuse all kinds of people, if you start talking about statutes and what the words mean. What's a colloquial way to explain it? And elsewhere in my statement I had said, ‘Extremely careless.’ And so they said, ‘Just use that.’ And so that's what I went with.”
Even though Comey admits having found sufficient facts on which to base a case of “gross negligence,” he decided to muddy the record by substituting a colloquial expression that means pretty much the same thing but avoids using the actual statutory language. Then he claimed, contrary to the operative statute, that only a finding of “intent” would merit prosecution. Comey himself could be found guilty of obstructing justice by playing legislator and judge rather than the FBI director responsible only for investigating and reporting the relevant facts to the Department of Justice.
Regarding Comey’s own corrupted view of obstruction of justice, Comey repeated during his interview with Stephanopoulos his description of a private one-on-one discussion he had with President Trump that he claimed gave rise to his concerns about possible obstruction of justice. The president had directed other participants in a prior meeting, including Vice President Pence and Attorney General Sessions, to leave the room so that Comey and the president would be alone for a subsequent talk. Comey said this was so unusual that his “antennae were up.” According to Comey’s account, President Trump said he hoped Comey would “let it go” with regard to former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn who was under criminal investigation at the time. Comey said he “took it as a direction” to drop the criminal investigation. That was only in Comey’s mind, however. Nothing the president actually said, as reported by Comey himself, amounted to a direction. Moreover, Comey did not say that President Trump followed up in any way to make sure that the “direction” Comey imagined was carried out.
Nevertheless, Comey claimed in the Stephanopoulos interview that the president’s request, made during the one-on-one discussion, was “certainly some evidence of obstruction of justice.” Yet, during the same interview, Comey shamelessly whitewashed the whitewashing of Hillary’s private server and other destruction of potential evidence. He said that his team “could never establish, develop the evidence… that anybody who did that did it with a corrupt intent. And most importantly, any indication that Secretary Clinton knew that was happening and knew that it was an effort to obstruct justice.”
In Comey’s mind, a request for leniency by the president of the United States, who has full pardon power under the Constitution, could rise to the level of obstruction of justice even though there was no follow-through by the president and the investigation of Flynn proceeded without interruption. Comey’s hatred of President Trump led him to the conclusion that a simple request for prosecutorial discretion, not a command, which was well within the president’s constitutional authority as the nation’s chief executive officer, could rise to the level of obstruction of justice. However, the destruction of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails under congressional subpoena, and the wiping clean of the server on which they reportedly resided, lack any indicia of “corrupt intent,” according to Comey. Did it ever occur to Comey that the very act of destruction of such evidence without any credible justification indicates consciousness of guilt, which merited a grand jury investigation? Obviously not, since he let Hillary off the hook. 
Comey descended into the gutter during his interview with Stephanopoulos when he said, “I don't know whether the-- the-- current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It's possible, but I don't know.” Comey was describing his disclosure to then President-elect Trump unsubstantiated accusations that had appeared in the infamous Steele dossier, including the alleged prostitute episode. The fact that Comey would even consider the possibility that such tabloid disinformation, based on Russian sources, could be true is bad enough. What’s worse is Comey’s utter unethical behavior in not telling Mr. Trump that the Steele dossier had been financed by his political opponents. Comey told Stephanopoulos that he did not feel it necessary to reveal that fact because “it wasn't necessary for my goal, which was to alert him that we had this information.” We shouldn’t be surprised, considering that Comey’s FBI had left out from its FISA court application seeking a warrant to spy on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser, that the Steele dossier used to support the application had been financed by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Comey himself signed the misleading application.
James Comey abused his position as FBI director and turned his office into a shield for Hillary Clinton and a sword against President Trump, Comey's protestations of virtue notwithstanding. He deserved to be fired and now deserves to be criminally investigated for lying under oath and illegally leaking government-owned information for personal purposes.