Spearheading an ambitious new EP release series, I spoke with pop songwriter extraordinaire Marshall Crenshaw last month amidst a tour with the Bottle Rockets that brings him back to Chicago on Thursday, June 6 at City Winery...
As the internet continues to establish a new paradigm for the release of recorded music, major labels have begun to fade away, putting ultimate control back in the hands of the artist. It's with that mindset that Marshall Crenshaw finds himself overseeing a new project that will eventually result in the release of a series of six new EP's over the course of two years, each on ten inch, 45 rpm vinyl (and high quality digital download).
But Marshall Crenshaw has always kept a pretty diverse portfolio. In 1987 he portrayed Buddy Holly in the film La Bamba and was also part of a 1993 episode of the cult TV hit The Adventures of Pete and Pete on Nickelodeon. In 1994 he published the book Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock 'n' Roll in the Movies, while currently, in addition to his duties as a recording songwriter, he also hosts "The Bottomless Pit" (a radio show that airs Saturday nights on WFUV-FM in New York). But since 2011, Crenshaw has toured on and off with southern roots rockers The Bottle Rockets and that tour brings him back to Chicago this Thursday, June 6 at City Winery.
I spoke with Marshall Crenshaw over the phone last month about his new EP series, the state of radio in America, touring with The Bottle Rockets and much more...
Q. So the new series of EP’s that you’re in the process of releasing are being distributed digitally and on vinyl and were funded by your fans through Kickstarter. What’s it like for you after so many years of releasing music via major and indie labels to take what I’m assuming is pretty much complete control of the project from funding to creation all the way through to release?
Marshall Crenshaw: Well, it’s kind of a mixed bag. It has its pros and cons I guess you could say. I’m super happy with the actual object. The records are nice, the music is nice. The artwork is lovely. All of that stuff, I’m really satisfied with from that standpoint. It’s just that it was kind of labor intensive in ways that I didn’t really anticipate. We ran out of stock at one point (which is good in the sense that people bought all the records that we had. But then there were orders that we had to make people wait till we could fill).
We’re trying. We’re just kind of learning it as we go along. The fact that I’ve had complete autonomy with the whole thing and that I’ve created something that I’m happy with… that’s the great part of it.
Q. So a new EP roughly every four months (the second of which was released [on May 7th]), each consisting of a new song, a cover and a re-recording of a Marshall Crenshaw classic… Why re-record the old songs?
MC: Well, it just so happened that I had versions of some of them in my archive that I liked. That’s really how that idea came about. About two years ago or three years ago, my manager said to me that I do really accurate remakes of some of my older recordings. Because occasionally, a fair amount over the years (I mean, “Someday, Someway” has been on a bunch of movie soundtracks and TV soundtracks and stuff), there was kind of a little fad going on with a lot of groups doing this particular thing where they would re-record their old stuff and the idea of it was purely of a financial concern (the [hope being that] next time somebody wanted to use the song in a movie, maybe they would use the version that I own instead of the version that Warner Brothers Records owns).
So I went ahead and did that and I did like a half dozen of them and really only about one or two of them were satisfying in the end. It was just really hard for me to… I could play all the notes but it just sort of didn’t have the right spirit a lot of it. So most of those are gonna get buried but there are a couple of them that are good. There’s two of them that are good.
The version of “Mary Anne” that’s on the new EP, I really like it a lot. It’s an acoustic version that I did for a movie that never came out. How about that? Anyway, I just was really happy with it. I think it’s lovely. It kind of puts another spin on the song. It just kind of brings out another layer of emotion in the song. So I think it’s worthy and I’m glad that it’s out.
The same is true with the version of “There She Goes Again” on the first EP. It’s just a different interpretation of the song. It kind of redefines the song a little bit, updates it for me. It just sort of reflects how I feel… it’s worthy, you know? It doesn’t replace the older version but it’s a worthy interpretation of the song so that’s kind of how that works.
Q. I’ve read that you’re a much bigger fan of the single than you are the full album. Certainly that idea lends itself well to the current state of music distribution… but that said, why do you prefer the single?
MC: I don’t know why I prefer it. It’s just kind of personal taste I guess. It’s something that I can’t really put my finger on. But I’ve always been like that. The whole thing of now being able to cherry pick tracks from albums on the iTunes store, that’s like a dream come true for me! I hate to say this but I can just think of a lot of times where I’ve bought albums and ultimately (and it almost doesn’t matter what album it is), I just find that I have those three or four tracks that I go back to over and over again. It’s just the way I’m wired. I don’t know why that is. When I used to really get into listening binges many years ago, it would always just be singles: 45’s and individual album tracks. So I don’t know why but that’s just kind of how it works for me.
Q. A big reason for my love of music is the fact that I grew up listening to the radio. I host a radio show now that I don’t get paid for because I love to do it. Some people say radio is dead… but as kind of a rock historian and host now of your own radio show, where do you see that medium heading?
MC: Well… that’s a good question. One problem that I have (one beef that I have I should say) is [when] I drive around the country, it seems like the left side of the radio dial (where all the college stations used to be) is now mostly populated by… I guess at some point in time, a lot of college stations got sold off due to budget concerns or whatever and they kind of got snapped up by Christian broadcasting networks. And that really kind of irks me. And I’m not knocking religion… but sometimes I scan these stations and, to me, it’s just all about thought control and lockstep thinking where there used to be all this variety and diversity.
The other thing is, I used to really love to travel around the country and listen to radio stations in different parts of the country because there would be a lot of regionalism and just things that would come out of left field. And there’s still some of that but there’s less of that now. There’s too much homogeneity in radio now as far as I’m concerned.
But, you know, there’s also still lots of great stuff. As soon as you say something negative, I always feel like you’ve got to balance it out because really there are a lot of people out there who are trying and doing cool stuff. I have a lot of stations bookmarked on my phone, stations from around the country. There’s this one really great station that I found down in Mississippi that I have bookmarked on my phone. But sometimes in certain parts of the country, I scan the radio dial and it just seems like the whole thing is kind of dominated by brain policing for me. There’s a lot of commercial radio in a lot of places that just really comes at you like a bunch of noise. I don’t know. You’ve gotta just sort of dig for the cool stuff I guess. I like satellite radio. That’s really good. Of course I like NPR. A little of this, a little of that.
Q. I’ve heard you say that music probably kind of peaked around 1967. Do you still listen to new music?
MC: I don’t know if I ever really did say that. And if I ever did, I should’ve kept my mouth shut that day because that’s insane. There’s tons of good music out right now. There’s all different genres coming from all kinds of different places in the world. No. If I ever said that, I’m sorry I said it. I said a lot of things when I was young that are completely inane to me now. I guess that’s one of them.
Q. So who are some of the new artists out there that you like?
MC: Let’s see… I like The Felice Brothers. Can you hang on a second? Just a minute… Don’t go away!
(Begins looking through the music on his phone)
I’m here, take your time...
MC: Let’s see… I’ve got some new stuff that I recently downloaded by Steve Bernstein (He’s a jazz artist that I just worked with). Adrian Legg (he’s a great guitar player). Yo La Tengo! Do you like them?
I love Yo La Tengo, yes...
MC: I love Yo La Tengo. Yeah, absolutely!
Q. So you’ll be back in Chicago [on Thursday]with The Bottle Rockets at City Winery. On paper, on first glance, it doesn’t necessarily sound like the perfect match but in the live setting, it totally works. In 2011, I saw that show in Chicago at Lincoln Hall and if memory serves, you guys actually said from the stage that you were still working out the kinks and I think [The Bottle Rockets] even said they were still learning some of [your] songs… but I ultimately called it one of my favorite shows of that year. What’s it like performing live with those guys?
MC: It was pretty brand new at that point. I think maybe it was one of the very first gigs that we did together. I was still kind of grappling with the tone that I was getting (I hadn’t played electric guitar on stage with a band in a while). But now, it’s very broken in at this point. We’ve really done a ton of shows. The last batch of gigs that we did was earlier this year. In January we did a tour that started in Ohio and went down into Florida. And that was my favorite ever. It was just so locked in. You just go out and the music kind of plays itself at this point which is kind of ideal right at this moment. I just really like the guys a lot. I love the way they play. So now we just get up and do it and it’s pretty cool.
City Winery in New York is a very friendly spot for me so I’m kind of curious and anxious to see what’s up with the one in Chicago.
Q. You’ve performed so many times now at so many venues throughout Chicago. Is there anything that stands out for you about the city? Any favorite live memories?
MC: The whole thing from start to finish has been great. I love Chicago. I love the fact that people there are interested in what I do. The last big shows that we did there were the two shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music and people just really give it up for us there. I love that.
A real peak experience though for me in Chicago was a show, kind of a side trip type of thing that I did at Symphony Center (I don’t think it was last summer, I think it was the summer before), but it was part of a concert series there called "United Sounds of America." I got put in charge of putting on the show that was supposed to be a musical salute to Detroit and I really put my heart into it. I put a ton of thought into it and we did it and it was fantastically memorable and wonderful. Both of my parents were there (my father just passed away a little while ago). But that was a super proud moment for them to come and see me play at a place [like that]. Symphony Center is a cool venue in Chicago. Dare I say it’s like the Carnegie Hall of Chicago? Maybe that’s going too far but anyway I was just really happy about that whole thing. That was great.
I also used to love playing at the Park West back in the day because we were all young and crazy and it was always exciting and it’s a great spot on the map for me and I love it.
*** This interview was conducted by Jim Ryan
(Details on Thursday night's Marshall Crenshaw & The Bottle Rockets show at City Winery after the jump)
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Live at City Winery
1200 West Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60607
Thursday, June 6, 2013
Doors open at 5:30PM
Show starts at 7:30PM
(The Bottle Rockets will play an opening set at 7:30, and then join Marshall Crenshaw on stage for his)
Click HERE to purchase tickets