published: 22 /
Ex-Willard Grant Conspiracy guitarist , Paul Austin has recently formed a new band Transmissionary Six with Walkabouts' drummer Terri Moeller. In the band's first interview, he talks to John Clarkson about the band's eponymous debut album.
Transmissionary Six are a new Seattle based duo, which features the Walkabouts' Terri Moeller on drums and vocals, and ex-Willard Grant Conspiracy member and co-founder , Paul Austin, on guitars.
Austin formed the Willard Grant Conspiracy with its vocalist, Robert Fisher, in Boston in 1996 but they first met and became friends in 1982 when they shared a house together in Austin's home town of Portland in Maine. Eventually both shifting to Boston, they began their musical careers, playing and writing songs together in a string of unsuccessful groups, including two early nineties punk bands, Laughing Academy and the Flower Tamers, both of whom recorded unreleased albums. The Willard Grant Conspiracy was born out of chance when the Flowers Tamers' drummer Malcolm Travis went away to tour with Bob Mould in his then trio Sugar, and Austin and Fisher , at a loose end, were invited by their fellow band member, Dana Hollowell (now a member of Magic 12) to road test his new self-built studio Dog Leg at his home on Willard Grant Street in Sudbury, a suburb of Boston. The group and its name developed from there, and the recordings from this session made up the band's debut album, '3 a.m. Sunday at Fortune Otto's', which was self-released on Fisher's own small label Dahlia Records later on in 1996. The band also expanded into a loose consortium, with Austin and Fisher, its only full-time members, at the helm, and other personnel drafted in when available and as required.
Signed to the prolific Massachusetts Americana independent label Slow River in time for the release of its second CD 'Flying Low' in 1998, the Willard Grant Conspiracy has frequently since been bracketed under the alternative country tag because of Fisher's strong, narrative lyrics and its use of roots-based instruments such as mandolins, banjos, and strings, Described by Fisher jokingly on one occasion, as "punks with acoustics", its influences are, however, far wider, and encompass a wealthy musical ancestry which, beyond country, includes Bob Dylan, the American Music Club, the Velvet Underground, the Screaming Trees, Sonic Youth and the Triffids.
Two other highly acclaimed albums, 1999's 'Mojave' and 2000's 'Everything's Fine ' followed. The group also released various limited edition live albums and EPs, and played several extensive tours of Europe and the United States.
Austin, wearying of life on the road, and burnt out by music industry politics, amicably left the Willard Grant Conspiracy in June of last year, after playing a final tour of Europe. Before leaving the band, which has continued with Fisher in sole charge, he recorded some as yet-unreleased guitar parts in Slovenia for its fifth full studio album, which will emerge later this year. He also appears on the band's new mini-album, a collection of six traditionals, which recorded, over a two day session ,again in June, with the Dutch electronica duo Telefunk, has been released as part of the Konkurrent label's occasional 'In the Fishtank' series.
Since leaving the Willard Grant Conspiracy, Austin has moved home to Seattle, where Moeller and the rest of the Walkabouts are based. He and Moeller have a long standing friendship, and the Walkabouts and the Willard Grant Conspiracy have both toured together and also made frequent guest appearances on each other's records. They began writing songs together in the Autumn, and finding that they could work quickly and well together, naming themselves Transmissionary Six, went into the Seattle studio of a friend to record their eponymous debut album over the course of three nights in November.
The album, which is Austin's most low-key record since '3 a.m. Sunday at Fortune Otto's', was self-released in a limited edition of 1000 copies, and is currently only available In Europe from Pennyblackmusic. Described in early reviews as being "David Lynch music" and a cloudy dream far West of hope", it is a thoughtful, brooding album, that is melancholically beautiful in tone, and which, featuring delicate, reflective guitarwork, robust drums and impressively eerie and world weary vocals from Moeller, has drawn the duo comparisions with Hope Sandoval, the Red House Painters and Tindersticks. A second, larger edition of the album, which will appear in a different sleeve, will come out on the small Portland, Oregon independent label FILMGuerrero in May.
In his first interview, since he moved to Seattle, Paul Austin talked to Pennyblackmusic about Transmisionary Six, his reasons for leaving the Willard Grant Conspiracy, and the recording of the new album.
PB : Why did you decide to call your new band Transmissionary Six ?
PA : It sounded kind of mysterious... Like Mission of Burma or something. And I'm fascinated by the Transmissionist sound art movement of several decades ago, who said anyone can make music. It's not just for the upper class who can afford formal music schooling. You can make music with trash can lids and upside down pots and pans. My friend Dave from the Empty House Cooperative has an instrument that he made by putting long cello strings on a coat rack and playing it with a bow. The Transmissionists were totally punk rock.
PB : Why "the Transmissionary Six "though, when there are only two of you ? Could you ever see Transmissionary Six expanding beyond being just a duo ?
PA : I didn't at first, but I do now, because we have just been asked to do a live broadcast on March 30th on KEXP, a radio station, here in Seattle. The cool part about KEXP is not only is it a strong signal on the radio, which helps when the city is surrounded by mountains like this one, but they webcast at a really high quality 24 hours a day. So people listen all over the world. Hopefully lots of people will tune in, record it, burn it onto a CD and trade it around freely.
Anyway between the two of us Terri and I only have four hands total. So we'll need some help to play the songs on the record as well as the songs that didn't fit on the record. So on March 30, we're gonna fill our four vacancies.
PB : Why did you decide to move to Seattle? Was it because Terri and the rest of the Walkabouts are based there ?
PA : It was because Terri is here.
PB : Seattle is also well known for its prolific music scene. Was that another decisive factor ?
PA : Nope. I moved here simply because Terri is here, although the music scene here is really cool. It's smaller than Boston's and less competitive. Everybody plays with everybody else and because it's smaller it's easier to meet people to play with, at least for someone like me, who isn't very good at schmoozing. I kind of have to bump into people, I'm not so good at approaching them or organizing stuff. Luckily the bumping has been good lately.
PB : You've been friends with Terri for a number of years. The Walkabouts and the Willard Grant Conspiracy have regularly toured and played together. She also did all the drum work on 'Everything's Fine'. When did you first decide to form a band ?
PA : We never really decided to form a band. We just started writing songs together, and then it seemed like it would be cool to record them.
PB : How do you and Terri write songs together ? In what ways, if any, does it differ from the way you used to write songs with Robert Fisher ?
PA : Robert and I wrote songs in lots of different ways. He'd have some words, or I'd have some music, or he'd have some chords and some words... it happened pretty much every way. Terri and I have only been writing songs together since last fall, but the way we've done it up to now is that I’ll have some music, she'll suss out the rhythm, and we do the lyrics together. A lot of the songs have lyrics where the first line is hers, the second has come from me... we'll just scribble stuff down and then reshape it. Always pretty quick. The writing is like the recording, pretty intuitive, with no overthinking or teeth gnashing. Hopefully there's a purity in that. I don't think writing quickly, and deciding that when you record it's all gonna be first-take, with the mistakes left in, is a bad approach. It wouldn't work with an ensemble doing more orchestrated music, but this music we make is very spare so it works pretty well. I hope.
PB : Many of the lyrics, whether they are about sitting listening to Lambchop, or your experiences with depression, seem to be very personal. Is that a fair assessment ?
PA : They feel personal to me, and Terri would probably say the same about the stuff she writes. But I've had people tell me it's too vague too. You can't really tell what the songs are about at first because it's mostly imagery, not a more traditional storytelling approach where you have defined characters and the arc of a plot. But if people ask what a song is "about" and I tell them, they say "oh...yeah!..." and usually catch it right away. I like it better when they don't ask though. Leaving it open enough for the listener to complete it is something I learned from watching Robert and other lyric writers who I admire do their thing.
PB : Many of Robert 's lyrics are narrative in form. By making yours more abstract, was that then a conscious decision to experiment with songwriting in a different form and to break from the past or was that something which just developed naturally ?
PA : It wasn't conscious at all. We didn't sit down and decide to just go with the moment as some sort of, y'know, strategy. It's just kind of the way we are musically. It's a very honest way of making music. For better or worse.
PB : The album was recorded quickly in three nights. You've recorded albums in the past both quickly and also very slowly. 'Mojave', for example, took over three months. '3am' and 'Everything's Fine' were in contrast both recorded very quickly. Which approach do you prefer, the longer or the shorter one ? The new album has a very sparse, but also very fresh sound. Was that your intention ?
PA : The run and gun intuitive approach kind of suits Transmissionary Six's songs, I think, because they are really open, spare songs. We also recorded the whole record out of pocket - work the day job, record and make the record, pay for it as you go - because there's no record label behind it or anything. So fortunately that approach feels like the right one because that'sall we could do. If we could have afforded one more night, there'd be two more songs on the record. But so it goes. That's real life.
PB : It was recorded in a friend's home studio. Who was this friend ? Can you describe his studio ?
PA : Well, it's in his home, but it's not really a little home studio. He has some nice stuff. Really old microphones and warm tube gear, lots of analog stuff that gives a nice sound. His name's Tucker Martine. He does live stuff too with avant garde ensembles, where he sits to the side with a little pile of sound processing gear, catches bits of what's coming offstage, runs it through his weird equipment, and sends that signal back into the PA, so it all comes out together, indistinguishable from what the people onstage actually played a few seconds before he snatched a bit of it. It's unrehearsed. He just goes with the flow, and the band trusts his instincts. He seemed like a cool guy to record with. He works with some bigger names, too, and does pretty well, and we could never afford him ordinarily. But we were talking about what we wanted to do and he said, "well, this kind of thing is why I wanted to get into recording music in the first place". And basically asked us what we could afford and did it for that. He really did a lot to help foster the anything goes atmosphere... there wasn't any right or wrong way to record the drums, or to "make it rock".
PB : As well as guitars, you also play the piano and the banjo on the album . You're also credited as playing the "EQ Killer ", and for "field recordings". What were those ?
PA : The "EQ Killer" is this tiny little box that you can run instruments and things through. It eliminates entire frequencies by adjusting the controls. Despite the name, it's supposed to be an audio quality booster, but like anything else, if you ignore the manual and just turn knobs randomly, the results are a lot more interesting.
Field recordings are just what we call all the odd tapes that are woven throughout the song. Bits of voices and radio static and the hum and growl of engines passing by when I was sitting at a bus stop with my little tape recorder.
PB : When you recorded 'Transmissionary Six', while there was a cost factor involved, were you deliberately attempting to get back to basics as well ?
PA : No, there was no deliberate attempt to do anything like that. We just figured we'd decide as we went along how to approach each song. A lot of the stuff was accidental too. There's banjo on there because while Terri was singing, I was wandering around Tucker's basement and found this dusty old banjo in the corner. Fifteen minutes later we were recording it. And it came out really nice.
PB : How much rehearsal for the album had you and Terri done before you went in to the studio ? Did you know which songs you wanted to record beforehand ?
PA : Not really, no. We had about thirteen. We were house sitting for some friends here for a few days, taking care of their cats and stuff, in October. We had the whole house to ourselves. Terri plays drums sometimes in a mission for homeless people, and when she does she uses a really small, stripped down kit she calls her "mission kit". fits into her tiny car that way. Anyway she brought her mission kit over and set it up in the kitchen. I borrowed an amp, and we played for a couple of days in that kitchen. Man, I hope those people don't read this. They might be a little bummed at this. They have some very nice furniture, some of which we almost pierced with a wayward cymbal a couple of times.
PB : How often do you and Terri meet up to rehearse and to write songs ? Do you have a rigid routine, in which you meet up at set times to rehearse, or is that done very much off the cuff as well ?
PA : No routine. We'll be sitting around listening to something kinda inspiring, like 'Laughing Stock' by Talk Talk or a Joe Henry record or an Eels record or something, and I'll pick up a guitar and start playing something. And she'll start singing and scribbling notes on a brown paper bag or something. Later we formalize things and the lyrics are moved to notebook paper or something suitably elegant like that. When we move it from the old brown bag to regular lined paper, it's a symbolic gesture - a "song" is done. or done until we play it the next time, forget some of it, and do it another way, for better or worse.
PB : You're going to be doing the radio show. Will Transmissionary Six also start playing gigs and touring in the near future ?
PA : I've got no idea. If something came up and it seemed like it would be a cool thing to do, sure. But we're not gearing up to pay our dues in the rock club trenches, no. I kind of consider this a headphones record made by strange shy people for other strange shy people.
PB : The Willard Grant Conspiracy, especially latterly, became a very hard touring band. Do you ever miss the rigmaroles of touring ?
PA : I don't really miss it, no. Or maybe I should say I don't miss it yet. The best part of touring is seeing places you'd otherwise never get to. And you meet so many nice people along the way. The worst part is the part most people don't think of, which is that unless you're Smashing fucking Pumpkins or something, it's a grind. Driving twelve hours a day in a van is not fun. It might be fun when you're a 22 year old punk rocker but after you do it for awhile it's just enormous amounts of time down the fucking tubes.
Some people love it. But I can't sleep in a van, or read because it makes me feel dizzy and sick. So it's very long stretches that seem even longer. Except when you're driving. Then you have something to do, and that's okay. I kind of feel like all the touring was a privilege, though. I mean, travelling around the world playing your own music to people who have actually come to hear you and are glad you've come. You feel pretty lucky when you get to do that.
PB : Was it, because you were tired of touring, that you decided to leave the WGC ?
PA : No, it wasn't the touring, although Robert definitely likes constant touring more than I do. It was more... well, it was just time. Felt like time to do something else. My heart wasn't really in it anymore, we both knew it, and it just made sense to face that fact.
PB : When did you finally decide to leave the band ?
PA : Robert and I talked about it last spring, and when we toured the UK in June, we knew it was my last go-round. That same trip also included the recording sessions in Holland for the Fishtank record, and recording in Slovenia for the next WGC record, so I was there and playing on them, although it was definitely Robert at the wheel. I was just kind of sitting in the corner with a mandolin or a guitar waiting to be told what to do, kind of just being lame.
PB : Were you glad to appear on those two final recordings ?
PA : I'm glad I got to be on them, even if I was burned out and had a pretty shitty attitude at the time. In hindsight I'm glad I was included.
PB : One of the inevitable problems that hits any band once it signs to a fairly well established label, such as the WGC with Slow River, is that the focus changes and that it instantly becomes a business. You have to start worrying on a larger scale about being in a certain place at certain time and things such as recording and touring deadlines, interviews, how many people are turning up at shows, whether you can finance another tour to pay off the debts of your last tour and so on. The Transmissionary Six album has been recorded without having to worry so much about those things. Has that put a lot of the fun back into music for you ?
PA : Yeah. Totally. There's a lot to be said for having a day job, even if it sucks. Some people can have a career that's all music and still have fun. Steve Wynn, for example, who I’ve been lucky enough to meet and kind of get to know some, puts a lot of work into things beyond songwriting. Organizing tours, getting things together, promoting his records. But he still has fun doing it. Some people, like Steve, can do that, and more power to 'em. I'm not one of them. Unfortunately it took me a few years to figure that out and I left some shrapnel behind. But you never know until you get there, and it's not so unreasonable to say, "man, this isn't working for me. I thought it would, but it isn't". The trick is to remove yourself from the situation before you start poisoning it with your own disappointment and shitty attitude. If you're touring with five people and they are having a blast and you aren't, the last thing you want to do is ruin it for them by being the Uber Wet Blanket. especially if it's your friends and it usually is.
PB : Is it also the same for Terri ?
PA : I don't know. That'd be a question for her. She's on tour with the Walkabouts right now and I talked to her on the phone today and she's really enjoying it. If I was to guess, which maybe isn’t a good idea to do in print, but I’ll do it anyway, I'd say that maybe the two situations complement each other. The Walkabouts are like a family in way. There’s the music which is pretty great, and beyond that there’s a bond there and when you see together, you really pick up on that. It’s a cool thing to watch.
PB : You have released the new album in an initial pressing of 1000 copies, which you are selling by word of mouth and exclusively through websites such as Pennyblackmusic and CD Baby in America ? Another larger pressing of the album will, however, be coming out on the FILMguerrero label later in the year. Why did you choose to release this initial pressing first, and why have you decided to release it on FILMguerrero as well ?
PA : Well, we decided after we recorded it to make 500. But then we made 1000 because it was only 70 dollars more than 500! There's no goal to make it a career or anything. We just hoped to sell enough to pay off the debt of making it, and possibly even be able to put something toward making another one since there are more songs we couldn't get on this one. We didn't mail any to any record labels, or try to get "a deal" or anything. I mailed one to FILMguerrero because at the end of one song 'Rodeo Satellite' there is a little cameo by my friends Naim Amor and Marianne Dissard. Naim recently made a record that came out on FILMguerrero, so I mailed one to them with a note that said there's a little Naim cameo on here. I thought it would be fun for them to hear it. And John Askew, who steers FILM guerrero, wrote back because he really liked the record and asked what our "plans" were for it. And I just said we have no plans. If you really like and and want to put it out on your label, go right ahead. So he is.
It'll be in a really nice handmade letterpress sleeve made at an old fashioned print shop in Portland called Firefly Press. Putting it in such a nice little package probably erases any hope of making money off it, but what the fuck. That's not the point for us or for them and it's really cool to know it'll be in the hands of a little label that only puts out records they care about, that mean something to them. So it's kind of an honour that this Transmissionary Six record falls into that category in their eyes. I hope the record finds it's way to people who'll connect with it, because when I find records that I connect with, it's just the best feeling.
PB : '. Were Naim and Marianne's appearances recorded beforehand, or did they turn up at Tucker's studio ?
PA : I'm a big fan of Amor Belhom Duo. Those are great records. And it seemed like a cool idea to have little snippets of other people singing on there, and to mix it in, like you were sitting in a field in the loneliest town on earth, with a little radio, and suddenly this music fuzzes in from somewhere up in radio wave land. And I asked a few people to send me things I could use. It seemed like a fun way to include friends in the recording too. And Naim and Marianne wrote a song especially for it,
John Dragonetti aka "Jack Drag" sent me some stuff too. John's stuff I got totally involved in weaving into a long kind of cinematic soundscape that's really long and on cassette four track now and kind of really didn’t fit onto this little record anymore but will be available sometime somewhere. But Naim and Marianne's seemed perfect coming after a song called 'Rodeo Satellite'. I told them to just record it lo-fi because it was gonna appear in a little blizzard of static, but he recorded it hi-fi because he has hi-fi gear and it was faster and they were leaving home in two days to open a Handsome Family tour. He said I'd have to "lo-fi" it myself and that's what we did, which is no problem because Tucker has the EQ Killer bless his heart. We just stuck it on there, faded it up, and Terri and Tucker and I just looked at each other and knew it was just right there. I was so happy Naim and Marianne took the time to do it and mail it because it feels so nice having them on there.
PB : You also give the "great state of Arizona" a credit on the sleeve notes beneath Naim and Marianne's names. Why ?
PA : I've only been to Arizona once and I was standing there and this roadrunner skipped by. I had never seen a roadrunner. I thought they were fictious, that cartoon on TV was just made up. But there it was. And Mary Lorson was there and she was chasing it with her camera and it ran just fast enough to stay ahead of us. It looked like a chicken that had snacked on nuclear waste, totally bizarre. And in the desert! The desert is great. So it was like seeing alien chickens on the moon. I knew right then that Arizona was great.
The Amor Belhom Duo also live in Arizona. And usually everyone on records says 'appear coutesy Warner Reprise Records' or something like that. So it was kind of just a way of being courteous but saying where they're from instead of what record company they record for.
PB : You were the compiler of a really good American Music Club tribute compilation 'Come on Beautiful' about eighteen months ago, which featured, as well as the WGC, acts like Steve Wynn, Ida, Calexico and Vera Clouzot. You’re a long term fan of the AMC and Mark Eitzel, and, at the time you released ‘Come on Beautiful’ had collected together well over a hundred AMC bootlegs. Do you still have all of those bootlegs now that you have moved to Seattle ?
PA : Oh, yeah! I listen to them all the time too. I just got a few more. If a song like 'Western Sky' just blows you away and you want to hear it again and again, why listen to the same version when you can listen to dozens of versions? 'Cause they're all different. Especially with AMC. Every night was different. Sometimes transcendent, sometimes a train wreck, and often those two things were five minutes apart. That's really great. Mark Eitzel just puts it out there. As savvy a performer as he's gotten, there just seems to be something in him that forces him to put it all out there, total honesty. For better or worse. It's really inspiring. And he's the best lyricist I've ever heard. Ever. Hands down. The guy's throwaway lines would be the jewel in most people's songs.
PB : Compilations take a lot of work...
PA : Well, it never felt like work, because it was a labour of love. Y'know those old time preachers who drove around in a beat up car with a giant horn on the top, and they blasted the countryside with sermon while they drove? This was kind of a modern version of that. Just careening around with a megaphone talking up this underappreciated, stunning songwriter, and spreading the gospel. His songs have had a huge impact on my life. Huge. And to find a tiny little way to try and say thank you, and have people like Ida and Steve and Calexico interpret the songs they chose the way they did, I know they were feeling the same way. Usually when you put a compilation together people say "Well, who else is on it?". y'know, they want to make sure it's gonna be hip. But when I asked these people, nobody said that. They just said "American Music Club? Yes. How soon do you need it?" That was the best.
PB : Last couple of questions ! You've mentioned a day job. What is it that you are do ?
PA : Well, it varies and it's whatever I can find wherever I am. I don't have any real 'career skills', like operating computer databases or making windows weatherproof. So I just do what I can. I've done all sorts of stuff. Right now I'm a file clerk. I go to work in the morning, get a huge list of papers people at this medical research place want, and search them out from giant rows of folders of papers. And then I collect everything I got for people the previous day, and put that all back on the shelves. And then it starts over again. It's like that thing you always see on the back of shampoo bottles - "lather, rinse, repeat". My job is the file clerk version of lather rinse repeat. It's long hours but only temporary because unemployment in Washington state is the highest in the country right now so there aren't too many places hiring people where you can get health insurance and vacation and a monthly bus pass and all that too. So I'll do this until they lay me off and then I'll hunt for something else. I have some things that really fascinate me and I'd love to do - working in a print shop is one, running old fashioned printing machines, where you load in the ink and handset the lettering. I love working with inks and papers, just seeing how different colours of ink soak into different kinds of paper. But now everyone does desktop publishing by computer, so places like that are really rare. I think if I can save enough money sometime I'll buy some old printing machines myself, broken ones that would be affordable, and teach myself to fix them. And then try and have a little shop myself doing that. printing. 'old school'.
PB : You've released the album, and have the radio show in March. What other plans, if any, do Transmissionary Six have in the near future ?
PA : Just kind of taking it as it comes. Laurent Orseau and Eloise Steclebout at the hinah label have asked if we'll do a limited edition thing for them to come out in April, so we'll be doing that. A collaboration with Luc from Melmac in Paris, too (French electronica group-Ed). He's gonna create a backing track and mail it to us, and we'll finish it. And we'll create a backing track for him, and mail it to him, and he'll do whatever he wants with it, whether it's add another instrument or a vocal, or chop the whole thing up and turn it into something completely different. And we won't hear the finished song until he's done with it, and same on our end. That kind of thing is always really interesting and fun 'cause you have no idea, you just trust the other person's instincts, and it'll come out like nothing we would do if it was just us.
But beyond all that, I have no idea. Anything is possible. Just keep making music. It's what we love to do.
You know... lather rinse repeat.
PB : Thank you