The Popdose Interview: Marshall Crenshaw

Written by Music, Popdose Interviews

It’s been a busy time lately for Marshall Crenshaw: He released his 10th studio album, Jaggedland, last month; it’s his first proper release in six years, and his first for the Santa Monica-based label 429 Records. In addition to keeping up his usual touring calendar, he contributed a slowed-down, moody rendition of “Supernatural Superserious” to the R.E.M. tribute concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall a few months back, and last month he became one of the first musicians featured in the “Drop” series of intimate performance/conversation events at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.

After working primarily in home studios and with makeshift assemblages of musicians over his last several records, Crenshaw laid down most of Jaggedland at the Sage and Sound studio in L.A. His band included legendary drummer Jim Keltner and former Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and the album was helmed by Jerry Boys. A prolific producer/engineer whose resume dates back to the early ’70s, Boys cut his teeth on folk-rock (Steeleye Span, Richard Thompson, 10,000 Maniacs) but came to Crenshaw’s attention via his sterling work on recordings by various members of the Buena Vista Social Club collective – particularly 2003’s Mambo Sinuendo, by Ry Cooder and Manuel Galban. That album’s dark exoticism is evident all over Jaggedland.

Stormy River (from Jaggedland)

Popdose caught up with Crenshaw last week; he was at home in Rhinebeck, NY, beginning a brief respite from the road that precedes more extensive touring later this year (starting in September in the upper Midwest). He proved ready to talk about matters both old and new – including a detailed analysis of his rise and stall as a Next Big Thing during the early ’80s.

How did the gig at the Grammy Museum go? I was sorry I missed it.
I thought it was nice. I was appearing with a guy named Bob Santelli [the museum’s executive director, and a longtime journalist and author, who hosts the “Drop” programs]. I’ve known him since day one – he was one of the first people to write an article about me. I figured it would be a cool experience where I could cover a lot of bases. I played a few songs, and half of it was Q&A. Some interesting questions, too.

Such as?
One guy asked me if I thought I’d make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! That question blew my mind, that anybody would come up with that as a possibility and ask me about it.

Well, we did a story last year about people who send around petitions to get various acts into the hall. Anyway, we all know you’re a student of pop, rockabilly, honky-tonk, and god knows what else. As such, are you a fan of the Hall of Fame, or the various music museums in general?
(thinks for a minute) Yeah, I guess so. I’ve been to the Hall of Fame a handful of times, and I tend to enjoy myself there. My favorite tour I ever got there was of the storage lockers, the stuff that’s not on public display. We were rummaging around there and we found Eddie Cochran’s guitar case! There was all this stuff in there from when he was touring, and it was fascinating — there were all these European string brands, miscellaneous little things. We also found one of Ike Turner’s Stratocasters, so I played that for a little while. There’s this ancient bootleg video of Ike and the Kings of Rhythm playing in a TV studio in St. Louis, and that’s the guitar he was playing in the video. I also played Buddy Holly’s banjo for a little while. One of my favorite things, coming from Detroit, was a document signed by all five members of the MC5 acknowledging they’d been dismissed by Elektra Records.

Sounds like the makings of a great History Channel documentary.
Yeah, somebody definitely could do that. You know, it’s easy to be cynical about that whole thing, of memorializing the music of the past, but whenever I’ve been there I’m always moved. The people there are really smart, and care about what they’re doing and about preserving these artifacts. One part of me thinks it’s a crock of shit … but, like I said, I’m always moved, so there must be something to it.

Listening to you talk about it makes me think there’s still a curator in you, waiting to come out. I remember how much I loved the Hillbilly Music, Thank God! series you did – it introduced me to a lot of music I hadn’t bothered with when I was a kid, even though I grew up in the South. Do you ever think you’d like to do more of that kind of thing?
Not really. You know, I’ve loved all those little side trips I’ve been able to take, but that’s what they’ve been. Anything that doesn’t involve playing the guitar is a side trip. I like to get involved in different things, but it’s really about playing the guitar. That’s what I feel like … that’s my vehicle through this life, is the guitar.

Tell me about the R.E.M. tribute a couple months ago. What was the vibe like at that show?
I always love those multi-artist hangs. I live up in the country, so I don’t live near a lot of my peers. The people I have contact with up here tend to be the parents of the kids my kids hang out with – there are not a lot of people from my tribe, you know? So those multi-artist things are a gas, ’cause I see people I haven’t seen in years. It was a great social experience, and the music was terrific.

Was that your first time playing Carnegie Hall?
It was my first time playing the big room. You know, I’ve played the basement before [Zankel Hall]. I don’t know, man – I got up on that stage and I thought, this is a sign that I’ve lived my life right.

And you got to sing the most current song of the whole night.
I just went to [R.E.M.’s] iTunes page and found that one. I didn’t even know it was their latest single. I did what I do a lot, which was to say, “What would this sound like if we cut the sound right in half?” So I asked Calexico [who backed him on the song] to cut the tempo in half.

Speaking of people performing other people’s music, tell me a bit about the Ronnie Spector EP of your songs, which I hadn’t heard until recently.
Well, that was recorded a long time before anybody heard it. It was recorded around the time we did La Bamba [in 1987]. That EP was entirely the doing of Alan Betrock [producer of Crenshaw’s first single, “Something’s Gonna Happen,” and author of Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound]. He was such a visionary – he also founded the [seminal punk-rock] magazine New York Rocker, you know? But that [girl-group] music spoke to him, so I figured when he got a chance to work with Ronnie it was probably a real dream come true for him. He played a bunch of songs for her, and he told me that the songs she really loved were my songs.

It was a treat for me to meet her, too. I really went to town on those Phil Spector records from the early ’60s. At the time we were making Ronnie’s record I was involved in a bunch of different things, so I wasn’t paying that much attention to what happened to it — we cut the tracks, and they didn’t get released for years. By the time I heard it, many years after the fact, Alan was gone [Betrock died of cancer in 2000 at age 49]. That really broke my heart. But, you know what, those are by far the best covers of my songs that anybody has ever done.

From Ronnie Spector’s Something’s Gonna Happen EP:
Something’s Gonna Happen
Whenever You’re On My Mind

Your songwriting has become a bit darker in recent years, particularly on the new album –
Which one of my records isn’t dark?

Well, OK, maybe its fairer to say that you’re writing about more mature, more complex issues than you did when you were starting out. Adult relationships, politics, mortality, as opposed to chasing girls, breakups and new love affairs. Do these types of lyrics come as easily to you now as they did earlier in your career?
It’s never been easy for me, for different reasons. I have high expectations for myself, high standards, and whenever I start putting an album together I’m conscious of the fact that I don’t want to fall short of those expectations. I take a lot of care with the details, you know? I just let it take as long as it takes to get it how I want it.

It’s been going well lately. I really got on a nice roll toward the end of this record – it was tough going at first, but once I got about half the songs done, my confidence level was really high.

Jaggedland certainly takes a different tone from most of what you’ve done before, not only in the lyrics but in the playing as well. Was that a goal? How much of it was a product of working with Jerry Boys?
Jerry was a huge factor in the way the whole thing comes across. My Razor+Tie [label] records were at least 50 percent home-studio records, whether they were made in my home or someone else’s. This was my first record in long time working with a professional recording engineer. Jerry lifted things to a high level — for me it’s a huge step up. Not to knock any of my Razor+Tie records — they are the best work of my career, as far as I’m concerned.

You clearly seemed to be going after some of the same flavor Boys brought to the Mambo Sinuendo record.
Mambo Sinuendo will be played at my funeral – that’s how much I love it. Working with Keltner and with Jerry Boys was like a dream team, and it all stemmed from my enthusiasm for that record. It was a real joyful experience to record with those people. Plus, the place where we were recording – I had never heard of Sage and Sound before, but it’s been there for 40 years or something. Studio A in there is a gorgeous room. The floor and walls are all stone, and the combination of colors in the room is amazing — it’s just conducive to doing good work.

We were sitting in that room and saying to each other, “How great is it that we get to work in a place like this?” And when we got in there and I heard the playback of the first song, I thought, “I have successfully morphed myself into Mambo Sinuendo.” Which is exactly what I was going for.

Sunday Blues (from Jaggedland)

Is it going to be difficult to replicate that sound onstage? I saw that your most recent gig, last week, was a solo deal.
Lately I’m playing either solo or with a four-piece band. I love to play solo, so that’s going well. But the tour is going to be a full-fledged band tour, and the band I have now is well, well up to the task of nailing this stuff and delivering the goods. I’ve played a handful of shows now with David Mansfield on steel guitar — I figured out that that’s the perfect fourth instrument for my music, a steel guitar. It’s like an orchestra, that instrument, it can do so many things. And David gets it right from his soul. I’ve got the perfect band for me now – these guys are just solid New York musicians who’ve been around the block a thousand times, and know their stuff.

I’ve seen you play live about a dozen times, in various contexts, and I’d like to get your perspectives on just a few of them. The first time I saw you was in my hometown of Blacksburg, Va., when you were touring behind the first record. As I remember it, you gave off a vibe like you were just riding a big wave.
I remember that night … I remember I was wearing these really weird green pants. Yeah, that was a memorable night. A good show.

In 1985 I saw you open for Howard Jones at some arena in Chicago. That seemed like a real “together again for the first time” situation. Did you do a whole tour with him?
Yeah, we did a whole tour. It was … dreary. I always hated those things! We went on a handful of those arena tours, and I didn’t dig it at all.

I had put my band together with my brother in New York City [around 1980]. We started playing in clubs, and we immediately blew it up. I loved that – that period when we were the top local band in Manhattan. That was a magical time, but pretty soon we got into the record biz, and all of a sudden we were out there doing these arena shows in big-time suburbia, and it wasn’t where I wanted to be. When I think back on it, I should have been pragmatic, and not agreed to some of these tours that I did during those years.

Were you pushed into them by Warners?
It was more the management I had at the time. [Crenshaw and Jones shared the same agent for a spell.] They’d come up with something, and they’d say, “Why don’t you go on tour with Howard Jones?” and I’d say OK. I’m not knocking the people on that tour – they were perfectly nice. But if you saw me at any of those shows, you could see that I was thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?”

Was that tour the worst of them?
That was … a bad one. It was just incompatibility, a lack of potential to reach that particular audience. We had this nice circuit of places that we’d hit when I was headlining my own shows, where you could see everybody, feel everybody in the room. But I just never could get enthusiastic for those big arena shows, where the fans of one act probably weren’t the fans of the other act, and you couldn’t really communicate with the audience.

I mean, I never liked going to big rock shows even as a kid, when I was in the audience. Often as not I’d walk into the arena a fan of whatever band I was there to see, and I’d leave hating that band. I don’t know what would turn me off – I just never liked it. I remember this one time I got dragged by a friend to a Ten Years After concert in Detroit, and I nearly got killed afterward. We were messing around, doing things we shouldn’t have been doing, and after the show we got separated and I wound up walking the streets of Detroit late in the evening. It was just a place I wasn’t supposed to be. A friend of mine finally drove by and gave me a ride home, or I don’t know what would have happened.

In 1988 or so I saw you do a show in DC, you and Don Dixon & Marti Jones on the bill together.
Yeah, that was two nights at the Lisner Auditorium [on the George Washington University campus]. I had Kenny Aranoff in my band at that point, a really great band, and having Don and Marti around —that was a blast.

And then in 1991 you played the Chestnut Cabaret in Philly, and you opened with “Flirtin’ with Disaster.” That was probably my favorite moment from any of your shows.
That was another nice band — we really bonded on that tour, enjoyed playing together. It’s been a while since I had a tour like that, where I played every night with the same band. A while back I found a cassette in a drawer of a show I played in Poughkeepsie – not on that tour, but on another one, when I had my brother in the band. I dug listening to that again. The way that show was paced, I could tell listening back that I had a good feel for how to create excitement, and how to get the response I was looking for from an audience.

Is that a skill you have to re-learn every time you go back out?
Nah, you don’t lose it, it’s like riding a bike. Last week I played a show in front of a couple thousand people in New Jersey, and it felt just like that. Your reflexes just take over, and they know what to do.

Not that I’m dying to get you to revisit your Beatlemania years, but considering the wide range of covers you’ve performed onstage over the years, have you made a conscious decision not to do Beatles covers?
Well, I used to play “I’m Only Sleeping” when I first started playing solo. And we can’t forget “Soldier of Love,” from my first album. Somebody I knew had the Beatles’ BBC recordings long before they were released officially, and that’s where I first heard it. I didn’t hear Arthur Alexander’s version until after I’d recorded the song. I actually called the publisher to get a lyric sheet, to make sure I hadn’t recorded them wrong — even though the record was already coming out, so it was too late if I had gotten them wrong.

I haven’t deliberately stayed away from Beatles songs. I have mostly good memories of Beatlemania. I don’t know if I would have said this 20 years ago, but it was a real positive thing for me, a real turning point in my life. I stepped through a threshold when I did that show. I’d already traveled around the country by that point, and I had been all over the West, just getting a close-up look at the country. But Beatlemania brought me to New York, and that was just love at first sight. And then when we were on the road, we’d spend two weeks in this town, four weeks in that town, so I saw the whole country up close and in detail.

It was during that time that I became a songwriter, that I learned how to define myself and express myself, and figured out what kind of music I wanted to make. That was when it all came together.

It’s been nearly 20 years since you made an album for a major label. How do you remember those years – as opportunity? As pressure? Do you feel like Warner Bros., in particular, took you as far as they could have?
Certainly not, no. Like I mentioned before, we caused a lot of excitement in New York [at the beginning of the ’80s], at a grass-roots level. I knew a lot of bands in that era who would do a lot of rehearsing but never play a gig before they’d audition for labels, and they’d break up if it didn’t work out. I didn’t do that — I felt like we did it the right way, building momentum in New York to the point where the labels came looking for us. I had two solid offers [from majors], and I actually took the one for less money. I don’t know if things would have been better if I’d gone the other way.

Along the years I’ve gotten a lot of apologies from people who worked at Warners, and I keep finding out different little facts about things that happened there. I had a couple of people whisper some interesting things in my ear when Karin Berg [his A&R rep at Warners] died a couple years ago. I don’t want to go into too much detail about what Warners did wrong – we could also talk about my own mistakes and shortcomings during those years – but it’s fair to say that I got ambivalent real fast. When I got into show business it started to smell funny to me right away.

In the end, I was glad just to get out of that major-label thing. I was offered an extension by Warner Bros. [in 1990, after the Good Evening album], but I didn’t take it – and when the Back Door [imprint] at MCA blew up, I got some other offers from majors, but I didn’t take them. It used to amaze me, the time and money that was wasted in the process of making those records. I didn’t like working that way at all.

As long as we’re on the subject, I have a copy of the British “U.S. Remix” EP that featured tracks from Field Day stripped of Steve Lillywhite’s production work. Were you in any way involved in the creation of that EP? How do you look back on the whole blowup over Lillywhite’s production on Field Day?
(laughs) Be sure to note that I’m laughing. I had nothing to do with that. I don’t like that remix record at all! I really loved Field Day, even though it was a dumb idea to do a second album in such a hurry after the first one. I remember listening to the playback and feeling as good as I’ve ever felt about one of my records.

There was never a problem for me with Steve’s production, and Karin, who was my A&R person in New York, loved it, too. But the people [at Warners’ headquarters] in Burbank didn’t like it because it was a real explosive sound. They came back and said, you ought to do this or that, but I told them to go away and don’t bother me. That had a lot of bad repercussions later on. (sighs) That whole thing was a fucking monster train wreck.

For Her Love (from Field Day)
For Her Love (remix) (from the U.S. Remix EP)

I remember when that remix EP came out, there was a lot of discussion in the music press about how it fixed everything Lillywhite had done wrong.
That was just my manager trying to backtrack. He went around me [on the EP], and I let him do it. I loved Field Day. It had been really hard making my first album – I had to shove it through so many hoops, at the label and with various people. I know it’s a good record, but if you listen to my demos of those songs [some of which surfaced on the 9 Volt Years CD in 1998] they’re so much more what I wanted than the album turned out to be. There was an … absence on the album that was released – it was a watered-down version of the record I’d tried to make. There was no tension, no distortion. So I went radically to the other side with Field Day.

Someday, Someway (demo)
Someday, Someway (from Marshall Crenshaw)

I’d wanted Steve involved because he was making a lot of records I loved at that time — I loved “I Will Follow,” and XTC’s “Generals and Majors.” What I dug about them was that they were very minimal, but he made them into something monumental. There was a really cool atmosphere about them. This might not make sense to anyone but me, but the explosive drum sound on those records reminded me of old Chess [label] records – of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. Steve never heard that himself – he wouldn’t make that comparison – but that’s part of what made things work with him, coming from different perspectives and arriving at the same point. And we really dug each other, too. We clicked personally, as well as in other ways. It was a really great experience, making that record.

Then the shit hit the fan. I continue to reject 99 percent of the criticism of that record. Maybe my vocals were too low [in the mix], but that was me, not him. I read a quote from Steve that was really sweet – he said that he knew the cost for me of the dislike that people at the label had for the record, and he even kind of apologized for it, which I thought went too far. But there’s nothing Steve did in that studio that I wasn’t completely in agreement with – I was there the whole time, standing over his shoulder, and I was happy with the way it came out.

What was the cost for you at Warners? Did the label start trying to dictate producers, or exert more control over what you were doing?
No, there really wasn’t any of that. We just went forward from there, but the whole incident scrambled my brain pretty much. I can’t fault anything that happened [with the label] afterward.

It was really weird, because Karin and I were genuine friends. I went to visit her a year before she died, and we picked it right back up. But there were other people [at Warners] who hated my guts or my manager’s guts. The New York people and the Burbank people were always disagreeing over how things should go, and we were in the middle of it, in this sort of no-win situation.

It’s interesting to hear you lay this out, because so many people have spent so much time trying to figure out why, after how great the first album was and how much praise it got from the media, you didn’t become more successful than you did.
Yeah. Well, I haven’t liked to talk about it that much. We had a lot of buzz coming out of New York, when we had first signed with Warners and we were doing the first record. And when things didn’t go as expected, based on all of that, it was a high-profile train wreck. My way of dealing with it was to pretend it didn’t happen. For years afterward, I would just dance around any questions that anybody asked me about it. I know what happened – especially now that some of the old Warners people have opened up to me about things that happened without me knowing about them. And I know people still wonder about it, and at this point I’m willing to talk about it – but only so much, you know?

Once your relationship with MCA ended [in 1991], did you use your experiences with majors as a guide for what not to do afterward?
I didn’t approach it that way. It wasn’t about fixing things or backtracking, once I started the Razor+Tie portion of my career – it was about going forward. I hate to backtrack – I’ve never known it to do any good. I have very strong mixed feelings about my major-label records. I know there are lots of people out there who love all the records I’ve made, and they’ve put my whole catalog in their iPods. I love knowing that. But when I look back on it, it was hard for me to think clearly while I was making those records.

I’m really happy with the state of things now, the way things feel. I just know myself really well now. I had a real jones to make another record, a real sense of where I wanted to go with it. It’s a real pure artistic statement, and I have a lot of pride in it. I know it’s gonna be a real uphill slog, now that the album’s out here in the marketplace, as far as this stage goes [promoting an indie-label album]. I just know that, when I was conceiving it and making it, I stayed on the righteous path all the way.

Long Hard Road (from Jaggedland)

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