All posts by keithpille

The Kraken Busters

THE KRAKEN BUSTERS is a new podcast project I have going, telling the story of the somehow-mostly-forgotten conflict between the United States and an ocean full of angry sea monsters just after World War 2.

If you like Mike Duncan and Dan Carlin but wish their work had more giant squids and octopi, well, this is the show for you.

New episodes come out weekly. You can find the show at all of the usual podcast outlets, or stream it directly from the site.

I’ll Be Comin’ Around

Disc 2 Track 3

I’ve said before in this series that one of the enduring questions with the Bottle Rockets is “is Henneman singing from his own point of view, or voicing a character?” And that, if it’s his own POV, the stretch when the songs for the Rockets’ first two albums were written must have been a really weird time in his life.

Because once again, “I’ll Be Comin’ Around” is essentially a song about being horny; the speaker’s propositioning someone who’s partnered up, and saying that he is 1000% OK with any relationship configuration that gets him in the (back) door. I was going to reproduce a couple of verses, but it turns out that these are in fact *all* of the words to the song:

If he ever changes him mind
Thinks of leaving you behind
Or if you just want something more
When he steps out the front door

I’ll be coming around
Knocking your backdoor down
I’ll be coming around
Knocking your back door down

If he ever breaks your heart
Decides he wants to make a new start
Or if you just want to be vile
When he steps out for awhile

The speaker’s ready to get together if the target’s partner strays, or is up for whatever “if you just want to be vile.”

The weird thing is that this song that exists in the shadow of at least two different flavors of infidelity (one of them self-described as “vile”) somehow comes across as really wholesome, partly on the basis of Henneman’s gleeful deliver and partly on the basis of the relentlessly cheerful major-key musical arrangement. Wordless sections dominate vocal sections, including a repeated bridge that ticks along like a cheerful machine.

The tension makes the song; if the Rockets are usually very good at pairing form and content, setting them at odds here kicks the song into an interesting psychological space and makes you somehow low-key root for the vile homewrecker. There’s a lot of infidelity in country music, but it isn’t usually this cheerful.

The extent to which “knocking your back door down” is a euphemism is, I guess, up to the filthy-mindedness of a particular  listener.

Gravity Fails

Disc 2 Track 2

If The Brooklyn Side is essentially The Bottle Rockets with somewhat better production values, the pattern holds here. Contemplative acoustic opener gives way to big electric bar-band rocker (just a touch more polished this time).

“Gravity Fails” (note that Spotify misnames the song as “Gravity Falls,” which I’ll take as emblematic of the general way the Bottle Rockets don’t get the respect they deserve) is not a great song, in the sense that it doesn’t have anything profound to say about the human condition, but it’s a lot of fun and it rocks the house. As is often the case, the Bottle Rockets are here to examine the mind of a man trapped by his own desire to wander. It doesn’t quite have the chainsaw guitar of “Gas Girl,” its counterpart on the first album, but it’s got a driving beat and Henneman sells a lot of very convincing urgency with his voice. You know you’re an expert as using your voice to its full effect when you can deliver

Baby I’m saying please, please, please
Down on my baby blue blue jeans
Maybe it’s something in my genes
Maybe it’s something in my jeans

and have it land. A quatrain like that could be dire in the hands of a novice, but that last line still brings a surprised smile to my face every time I hear it, after nearly 30 years of listening to this album.

Uncharacteristically, it opens with an instrumental riff that the song returns to periodically, establishing the mood of minor-key urgency that dominates; there’s a tension between this and the bright major-key shimmer of Henneman’s guitar solo in the middle. I’m not sure exactly what the thought process behind this must have been, but it gives the song texture.

Again, not one of the great songs of all time, but a really enjoyable little gem showing how fun the Bottle Rockets could be in their standard Best Possible Bar Band mode.

For the Record: Ruby & Other Bluegrass Specials, Buck Owens (1971)

For the Record is an ongoing (I hope) series where I write a bit about albums that I have strong feelings about, good or bad.

Bluegrass is a weirdly bifurcated world. There’s a joy to the music; even when the lyrics are about heartbreak, misfortune, or murder, it’s impossible to feel too bad when you’re hearing fast picking and high harmonies. But there’s also a joylessness to the milieu out of which the music comes; no area of country music (or, indeed, of music in general, in my personal experience) is as hidebound and hung up on following the rules and doing it the way it’s always been done as bluegrass is. I know from direct experience that musicians-looking-for-musicians listings involving bluegrass will be the most prescriptive out there, and that to even think about getting into a bluegrass band is to run a serious risk of spending half your time bogged down in arguments about the right way to play bluegrass.

 Which is part of why Buck Owens’ Ruby & Other Bluegrass Specials is such a goddamned miracle. It’s an experimental, bordering on trippy, take on bluegrass that actually does take the music to strange new places.

Continue reading For the Record: Ruby & Other Bluegrass Specials, Buck Owens (1971)

Digging into Achewood

Quick note: this originally ran as two separate-but-related articles at the late, lamented Comics MNT. Alas, nothing is permanent on the internet; but I like these pieces too much to let them succumb to link rot. So here they are, together at last!

1. The Complicated, Slightly Better Manhood of Achewood

Remember Chris Onstad’s Achewood? If you care enough about comics to be reading the MNT and were online between 2000 and 2010, you must. For most of the first decade of this century, Achewood was one of the flagship webcomics when webcomics were an exciting new cultural space; it might not have had the reader numbers of some of the topical gamer strips, but its cultural presence was huge and it was very much the critical darling of the scene.

If you need a refresher: Achewood was a weirdly erudite, often filthy, funny-animal strip with minimalist Charles-Schulz-with-Adobe-Illustrator black and white art and aggressively unconventional lettering (almost certainly the only landmark comic to be lettered in the Chicago font). The cast was distinctive; the strip centered on Ray Smuckles, an oblivious but goodhearted thong-wearing rap mogul cat, and his depressed computer-programmer friend Roast Beef Kazenzakis. Other major characters included an avuncular novelist bear, another bear who loves food and The Cure, an eternally childish, bottomlessly naive otter, a couple of eastern European robots, and several others. And yes, all of these listed characters are male, and yes, that will become important later.

Continue reading Digging into Achewood

A Letter to Jeff Tweedy

So I’ve been threatening for over a year to write a 33 1/3-style book about the Uncle Tupelo album Anodyne, which has been a fixture of my musical world for–jesus–almost 30 years. The idea was stuck in permanent “I’ll get to it” status for a long time, until I read Hanif Abdurraqib’s great book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A tribe Called Quest. Sometimes reading a great book inspires you to get writing; so I did. And Abdurraqib’s repeated device of directly addressing letters to the members of Tribe seemed like a good idea worth borrowing. So: here’s the first little bit of stuff about Anodyne and Anodyne-related topics, and maybe being out here in the world will help make the rest of it come together.

Hi, Jeff,

So the weirdest thing is that, at least kind of, you seem to have written your own version of this letter (I don’t know to who; maybe you’re imagining someone like me writing it to you) in the form of the Golden Smog song “Can’t Keep From Talking.” It’s a great song about a fan reckoning with the weird imbalance in their relationship with a singer. “I know you don’t know me / but I know a lot about you / you’re the one who knows me / better than I do.” I think a lot about the neat turnaround happening with the language of those lines; but more than that, I think about the truth contained in them: fans know a lot about the artist, but are just part of an anonymous mass to the artist; but they became fans in the first place because the work of the artist so perfectly described what was going on in the fan’s head.

Continue reading A Letter to Jeff Tweedy

WASPS!

weiner-dogI lived with my grandparents during my senior year of high school. Surprisingly, given what was coming, this didn’t have anything to do with a big rupture with my parents or anything like that; my father had gotten a job in a tiny town in northwest Missouri, and I was convinced that graduating towards the top of a class of 8 people wouldn’t look as appealing to colleges as doing pretty well in a class of 230. So I suggested to my parents that maybe it made sense for me to stay in Blair, and they agreed. Legal guardianship was set up and, the day after I finished my junior year, I moved into what had been my grandmother’s bedroom.

It took me well into my adulthood to recognize that my parents were kind of crazy, but my grandparents were the kind of crazy that was easily visible at the time. My grandmother was both beset by legitimate health problems and an extreme hypochondriac; she also had absolutely no sense of personal or emotional boundaries (during my undergrad years, she would often call me and ask me when I was going to get someone pregnant so that she could have some great-grandchildren) and was very fond of building a metaphorical wooden cross and climbing up onto it. She was a heavy menthol smoker, but thought she was hiding it from everyone by doing all of her smoking in the bathroom with the door shut; this clever ruse was betrayed by the heavy menthol stank in the bathroom, and by the empty cartons of cigarettes jammed into the cupboard under the sink.

Continue reading WASPS!

The Iowa City Police Log

Every morning, I get up, consult the twitter feed of the Iowa City Police Log, and draw a one-panel cartoon based on it. This started out as a get-through-the-winter whim and has turned into a get-through-a-pandemic-hellscape coping mechanism. The resulting comics get posted to a Twitter thread and to my Instagram feed, in both cases paired with their inciting Police Log entry.

People seem to be pretty into these, which is great! TPT, Minnesota’s Public Television station, even did a short piece on them, where I talk about my process, my motivations, and the sort-of-intentional larger political point of the strips in an era where we as a society are rethinking the way police departments should be constituted. They also put KEITH PILLE – CARTOONIST on the screen, so I guess despite endless questions about my artistic identity, now I know: I’m a cartoonist.

PSA With Guitar

cover art by Rebecca Collins

MP3s

Spotify

So I recorded an EP of acoustic country covers of Clash songs (technically Clash and Clash-associated songs, since two of them are songs the Clash themselves were covering). I’m really proud of it. I’d like you to take a listen at one of the links above, and if you feel like downloading the MP3s, please feel free.

I started out the year planning on recording an Awesome Boys* album, but the plan was for it to be all noise rock, continuing the sound of the EP I recorded in 2019. But as the work started on that in February, I realized that my musical mood was shifting back towards country-rock (no doubt affected by all the time talking about Uncle Tupelo for We’ve Been Had). And then the pandemic hit, and the world full-on caught on fire, and I just couldn’t escape the feeling that we were living in Strummer Times. And that was just when the pandemic kicked off; in May, when Minneapolis burst into flames after a police killing and took the rest of the country with it, it seemed even more applicable. The first verse of “Know Your Rights” could be about George Floyd, for fuck’s sake. So the idea of an EP of country-style Clash covers gained a foothold in my brain and just kept taking up more and more space.

Uncharacteristically for me, I spent about a month rehearsing and working out arrangements for the songs I picked (my neighbor must have gotten so tired of hearing me work on “Straight to Hell” on my front porch). And I decided early on that I’d need to edit some of the lyrics. Which felt sacrilegious, given that Joe Strummer was a towering figure and I’m just a guy, but some of the words are so specific to his life and outlook that they didn’t work for me. Or, in the case of the second verse of “Know Your Rights,” the dystopian situation described by the Clash in 1982 is actually too supportive and generous to sound bad in the dystopian situation of 2020.

I spent about a week in early July recording basic tracks in my home studio setup, and then another few weeks mixing. My starting point for the target sound was the way Peter Buck produced Uncle Tupelo on March 16-20, 1992, but I wound up wandering a bit from that, especially because covid quarantine meant that I had to do all of this myself instead of being able to organically have a band vibe develop.

For cover art, my wife, Rebecca Collins, is a great collage artist who had recently started exploring punk-aesthetic collages. So it seemed like a natural thing to ask her to make a cover. We talked a bunch about what I wanted it to evoke: the Midwest, menace, humor, death. her results speak for themselves; and now we own several cut-up vintage copies of Guns and Ammo.

So, yeah. Check it out, and I hope you like it! Some day when live music is a thing again, I’d love to perform these live.

*You might point out that it’s confusing and stupid for me to record music in the real world and attribute it to The Awesome Boys when that’s the name of the fake band in my old webcomic that I always insisted wasn’t autobiographical. And you’d probably be right. But it seemed funny in 2011 and at this point I’m just kind of used to it.

The Nowhere Band Restoration Project

So for ten years, from 2007-2017, I made a webcomic called Nowhere Band that was about life as it’s really lived in a music scene: a series of misadventures that are great and fun and affirming and frustrating and maddening and which, ultimately, don’t end with fame and fortune. I wanted it to be as emotionally real as possible. I always felt like I did a pretty good job with that, and got some outside validation on that front, both from individual readers (who I always loved hearing from) and from Minneapolis media outlets like MPR News and City Pages.

As the years went on (and the art and general cartooning craft got better), the strip moved from being about people in a band to being about people who used to be in a band and maybe kind of still were but weren’t sure. Which I think is also a headspace worth exploring, since that’s where we all wind up! But in 2017, after several hundred installments, I ended the strip because 1) I was far enough removed from band activity at that point that I felt like I was running out of material, 2) I was getting ready to finish grad school and knew that my thesis project was going to eat up all possible cartooning time, and 3) since November of 2016, the strip had increasingly just been swallowed by the dread of living in Trump’s America. So I gave myself the gift of writing the strip towards a conscious, planned ending instead of just letting it peter out the way a lot of webcomics do (and the way it nearly had a couple of times previously).

Continue reading The Nowhere Band Restoration Project