Category Archives: music

Flashbulb Flashback: Matt Cliff / Hand of the Man // 10.31.13

When he was fifteen, Matt Cliff was looking for a job. Combining his love for drawing and music, he approached Denton’s Polka-fusion icons, Brave Combo about show posters and they took him under their collective wings. Nearly a decade later, he spoke warmly of their influence on his career, “You never know how people will react when you’re a kid, it was a truly great opportunity.”

I met Cliff one afternoon last summer and learned he’s a thoughtful young man. His work is more human code than product or artifice. And as he mentioned quickly, he is consistently driven to be the best possible version of himself. He speaks with clarity reflective of the precision in his lines.

“I’m still super green, but I’ve learned how ruthless folks can be. All I’m concerned with is figuring out how to be truly happy.” It was his album art for The Black Angels record Indigo Meadow, which pushed his profile as an artist to the next level.


You know how it is, walking around a record store, looking for a record. Then a cover with its own gravity, you are drawn to something you may have never heard of before, but you think, “If these guys were cool enough to put this on their cover, there must be some other cool stuff in there.” Those are the records that find you, and the exhilaration is driven by artists like Matt Cliff.

Set towards his craft as an adult he looked for artists that suited his style, “You want to work with bands you like, so I’ve always sought them out. When you start, you might work for free, but all that time eventually translates to bigger projects.”

Working in pen and ink by hand for significant blocks of time, Cliff has developed a style reminiscent of the Godfather of Rock and Roll Art, Wes Wilson, who drew a piece for the Angels’ last album, Phosphene Dream.

“Art is a physical thing for me. I do a lot of line work; I think when you work on anything you should be exhausted. You should feel like you’ve done something.”


“It wasn’t until I sat down with Christian (Bland) that I knew it was a big deal.” As the two discussed the scope of the project, an adoring fan interrupted their meeting. When the fan asked who Cliff was, the Psych Fest impresario introduced him as, “our new artist.” If you listen closely, you’ll hear a wow in the corner of your mind, remarkable to hear someone feel a literal payoff for their work ethic.

December of 2012 into the New Year, Cliff created a half-dozen drawings for the liner notes. Back in Fort Worth, he sought inspiration with the album on repeat. Just over a week into the process, he received a call from Bland telling him the band wanted him to do the cover as well. Another wow.

Inspired by covers from the mid-60s – Disraeli Gears, Rubber Soul etc. – he rendered photographs out of flowers, based on the record’s title Indigo Meadow. Consulting the band throughout the process, photographer Courtney Chavanelle shot the images Cliff drew into the existing artwork.

Losing his father as a young boy, Matt Cliff his family remains central in his life. If one looks close, hidden references to the other Cliffs may be seen. Beyond buried treasure, The Black Angels encouraged the artist to enrich the visual play with structural palindromes and other illusory tricks which mess with the perceptions

“I realize how incredibly lucky I am to be able to translate what is in my head to a piece of paper. Many people never find a way to express themselves.” His voice is crestfallen rather than condescending or self-righteous, Matt Cliff has certainly found working hard at what one loves is key to happiness. He continues on his path, committing his talents to many fine artists like Spoon, Wilco and Tame Impala.


Flashbulb Flashback: One Man’s Mess / SXSW @ Trailer Space // 3.22.12

“Never look a mystery taco in the mouth.”— Rule #1 of SXSW.

Trailer Space is part-adventure part-record store nestled amidst Austin’s thriving East Side. At 12th Street, I see a shirtless young man coasting on a skateboard. He’s got a digital camera shooting out in front of him and a forty in his other hand. Into the heart of the Beast he glides. Past the Longbranch Inn, I drive past the State Cemetery – generations of Texans devoted to the Republic. The ambiguous swirl of a dozen bands crests over the hill of headstones.

I enter to find owner Spot Long cleaning up; he recounts the previous night’s rowdy conclusion, “All I know is as soon as the Puerto Ricans saw that fire juggler they started chunking Garlic Knots.” Launching the aforementioned projectiles were party rock band Davila 666.

The shop is a repository for things that have fallen through the cracks. The walls bear a patchwork of show posters and oddball photos of the family that has grown up nurtured by the embrace of beer, records, chaos, whiskey and mischief. From the bands that practice in the space to the collectors on a mission, there’s a wobbly logic to the atmosphere. Including, of course, folks looking for neighboring pizzeria East Side Pies.

Attention turns from a Washington Post article featuring the shop when a customer asks for a broom to get after an Unwound record caught between the racks. Once the errant vinyl is rescued, we return to the question of more beer, Trailer Space simply asks that you Bring Beer.

And bring beer I did – a case of High Life, upon each can young Loretta perched casually. The afternoon unfolded drunkenly with a party for Chicago’s Trouble in Mind Records with rocking sets from a smattering of label-mates including Austin’s Hex Dispensers, Portland’s Mean Jeans, Ohio’s Wheels of Fire and Bay Area trio The Wrong Words.

Shots of Rebel Yell Bourbon burned the evening into night, where the 12XU showcase devolved into smashed records, flung Twizzlers and thousands in scattered Monopoly money. If only I’d been able to hold out. Several folks described Death of Samantha’s late night set as a favorite of the weekend. Once my legs failed, I sought refuge on a nearby porch where members of a local duo strummed through a lazy set.

Spot Long is still chuckling early the next afternoon when he quotes one of his helpers, “You white folks sure like to make a mess, but you never want to clean it up.” The fellow showed up early to remove the previous night’s wild refuse. It may be the understatement of the year, but it led Spot to shrug, “We had 69 bands not counting repeats, we had four bands play three times. Pretty much everybody was cool, but there are bands that come to town looking for people to kiss their ass. We treat everyone the same.”

Clearly the egalitarian nature of the store doesn’t suit all comers, but for those who are drawn into the salty talk and rowdy antics it has become a thousand square foot incubator for the spirit of rock and roll. One band consistently inhabiting the store is The Golden Boys. Their newest album, Dirty Fingernails has a photograph of Trailer Space on the cover.

The Golden Boys play a jangled form of rock and roll, so concentrated it turbo charges the libido and sends howls screaming from your guts. The store and the Boys were on display Monday after the festival. Anthony Bourdain and his crew stopped by to shoot, concluding their Violet Crown visit. As the shop was prepared for television, zombied locals filed in with cases of beer under their arms.

The great traveler was present – off to the side by the arcade games – with a can of Pearl beer. Members of the crew sang along to songs they’ve clearly kept in heavy rotation. The crowd of festival survivors rocked along, still standing after riding atop the colliding waves of work and party. Spot Long observed from behind the counter with a cocked brow. Bruises fade, tons of trash is carted off, and the city staggers towards normalcy. I drove home through a thunderstorm, each switch of the wipers flashing me back to another fragment from my 72-hour visit.

Flashbulb Flashback: Origin Story // 8.2.12

Remember the rush of ambivalence when you didn’t care about anything yet still wanted to believe in something? Your insides twisted from losing faith in the ignoble structures of civilized life – phony eyeballs lagging with the imprecision of an infant. At some point you’ve got to snap the elastic and feel the pop. Back when Guns and Roses took over, middle school was dominated by socially engineered initiations. The kids old enough to attend weekend dances drank and had sex in the halls, at least oral sex – at least, that’s what we heard.

A friend and I had stolen a carton of Camel straights and were dedicated to smoking every single butt. In tree houses; with girls by the creek; listening to DRI or AC/DC records on listless summer afternoons. Eventually, we just wanted more music, we had a lot of smoking to do. Sometimes uninvited, we foraged through the collections of our friends’ parents and older siblings. Frank Sinatra and Black Francis sonically shook hands. I sold my first song that summer for records and a skateboard I never rode – it was a thrashy number called, Test Tube Baby. The day I wrote it, the fellow who bought it doused a culvert in gasoline and sent the flames skyward.

Later, on a visit to a busy Waterloo Records, a hurried cashier accidentally slipped a copy of Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz record in with my copy of Sonic Youth’s Sister. My understanding of music, as well as my life, were revolutionized, as a quest was initiated towards moments Lester Bangs spoke of when he said, “Don’t ask me why I obsessively look to rock and roll bands for some model for a better society. I guess its just that I glimpsed something beautiful in a flashbulb moment once, and perhaps mistaking it for prophecy have been seeking its fulfillment ever since.”

The Flashbulb Moment is less likely if your eyes are blind to it. Audra Schroeder, over at The Observer, wrote an article, How Not to Write about Female Musicians, How Not to Write About Female Musicians talking about male writer’s sexualized criticisms of female artists. You should read it and the Village Voice article it refers to, both are sharply written. Schroeder’s description of a music editor rationalizing why women have no place in rock and roll is not unique, I’ve heard of such cranks basing their conclusions on the fact that guitars are an extension of the penis. As Gilles Deleuze says, “Freud sees nothing and understands nothing.” Nothing is profound if you don’t allow it to be; I’m guessing these fellows never heard Mo Tucker, Kim Gordon or Exile in Guyville. Of course, the ancients forebade females from studying math because they were sure it dislocated the uterus. The little dictator is hard to move beyond.

Nearly ten years ago – as an employee at Waterloo – I was lucky enough to see Kim and Sonic Youth perform a rare in-store, which proved to be yet another Flashbulb Moment.

Flashbulb Flashback: Let The Artists Laugh / Sonic Youth @ Waterloo // 7.31.02

It was truly the stuff of legends. As the word came down from the man, Waterloo’s owner John Kunz, that Sonic Youth would indeed be performing a rare in-store. Employees got silly and the buzz grew. All we knew was they had requested tennis balls, duct tape and two cases of moon pies. What more could you need, one of the greatest bands of all time mysteriously requesting apparent props but disclosing nothing. When the day came more rumor ran rampant, such as the only reason they were doing the in-store was because they had gotten the record company to support a shopping spree and they were out to spend as much of the label’s money as possible (each member rented their own car to drive to the performance). And a performance we got, as I walked in I realized there was no predicting what would happen, the stage was covered with amps and guitars, but most interestingly there was a guitar duct-taped to the back wall of the store (to one of the office windows) and all the way across the store from that was a tennis racket and several containers of balls.

The store was well over capacity, full of all levels of indie kids and some just curious. Finally we heard an old school bike horn squawking and Steve Shelley beating a drum like a vaudeville act was entering. The room went wild as the band single-filed onto the small stage.

Thurston bent down to the mike, “Thank you we’re the Flaming Lips!!” I recalled his coming the night before with Shelley and O’Rourke talking about how they felt the new Lips album went across but not out further. “We are going to perform five new compositions that we came up with on the drive over here.” He spoke throughout as though he were out of breath and maybe more excited than you would expect Thurston Moore to be about anything. “And Lee is going to work on his serve over there, sort of surreptitiously.” He motioned to the set up with the tennis balls.

I. The first piece was a “duet” with Kim and Thurston both strapping guitars on, amps cranked, starting across the stage from one another they slowly walked towards each other until the instruments were touching and sparking feedback intensely. On one level, (CLAAANNG!!!), Lee connects with a serve and his amp rings out) it was a beautiful statement on the energies that emanate from people; on another, as Kim was giggling throughout, it was great artists having fun flirting with the line between absurdity and profundity.

II. Next, we find out just what the Moon Pies were for. Steve climbed up on Thurston’s shoulders with a guitar. The rest of the band got off the stage in the throng, (CLAAANGG!!! Lee goes up 30-Love) they lobbed the Moon Pies up at the guitar which Steve used to knock them away giving a resounding “CLAANNG!!” to retort to Lee’s “CLAANNG!!!” Occasionally, Thurston would take a Moon Pie in the face but he struggled on in the name of art.

III. Lee came away from his practice serves and got on stage with Jim and Thurston, setting up a small boom box Moore and Renaldo grabbed guitars. Once turned on, we heard the Rush song “Fly By Night” and O’Rourke lip-synched, as the song hit the chorus the other two, guitars plugged in, starting madly noising in accordance with the prog-rockers. This went on for the song’s entirety.

IV. Thurston explained that for the next piece each member would get a minute, exactly one minute, to make a song using only the end of the guitar chord. He started by placing the tip of the chord on his nipple (CLAANGG!!!, Lee couldn’t resist.) Steve put headphones on which were plugged into the boom box playing another classic rock anthem which only he could hear and played the tip of the chord along with the rhythm. Lee returned from practice to play a simple tune with his thumb off and on the tip. Which gave way to Jim O’Rourke’s selection of a kid from the audience (who in my books must be the coolest kid in his 3rd grade class) who played a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors and upon each delivery of the challenge Jim would press down on the chord placed behind his back. Finally Kim came up, and as she is women and wise, saying, “I think I’ll just plug it into a guitar.” So she did and played a noisy little ditty.

V. The final piece was a composition they had prepared for the night before while they were selecting records at the store. The records were taped in pairs together making little vinyl mitts, which Lee, Thurston, and Jim strapped to their hands after putting guitars on. Steve and Kim were instructed to play a song that the others would scratch and slap the records over the top of, it was noisy and chaotic but mostly a bunch of fun. The records would break apart and assistants would place new ones on the empty hands keeping things going, as the ideals of Resonance and Disintegration were played out in a most jovial fashion.

For the entirety of the performance people were calling out for them to play songs, people who thought this was just going to be another in-store, people who weren’t going to the show in two days. But the fact was there was a show in two days, and most of us had seen Sonic Youth play songs before but none of us had ever seen them be a little silly and make an open display, which seemed to comment on the nature of Art-Rock and art in general. But Thurston, in the end, acquiesced and performed solo renditions of the first two songs from Murray Street (The Empty Page, Disconnection Notice) with calm reserve. I was a little disappointed that he ended with songs but they did sound perfect and reminded us just how good these people are at what they do, going from absolute silliness to adroit playing.

The show two days later at Stubbs built on those ideals with the newly assembled quintet showing off more texture to play with. And as they went back to old favorites from Daydream Nation (Kissability, Eric’s Trip), everything was new with a new context and many times the songs disintegrated into the noise experimentation of the SYR records where they first started performing with O’Rourke. It was the most balanced Youth show I have ever seen, it was fertile with a newness found in the huge interplay between O’Rourke and Renaldo. Finally they physically coincided, slamming their guitars into each other as things fell apart and Thurston knelt on stage screaming, offering a lecture on the nature of technology and finally dropping the microphone to the stage with a punctuating “THUD!” There was noise, there was song, and it was all new; they left the crowd dizzy and numb forgetting where they had left the cars.

Flashbulb Flashback: Foxtrot Uniform / Big Getting Bigger // 6.26.13

Down the street from the corner of drunk and hammered was where I first met Kenny Uptain and Kelly Test. Keys Lounge was packed for Foxtrot Uniform and Quaker City Night Hawks, a blur of contagious rock. A pair of yin-yang raconteurs with whom I quickly fell in with leading to substantive musical conversations as well as finely hewn guff giving.

From such inebriated origins, our acquaintance grew as I caught them all over town. Love Shack, Woodshed, Lola’s, and Kenny swapping songs with other songwriters. There was no telling where I might catch the duo, but then time passed and the next time I saw them the two had become four. With nudging from their friends Oil Boom, the foursome without keys, debuted at Lola’s in a thunderous return from hibernation. Those damn caterpillars sprouted wings in a gnarly display of rock prowess. Adding another guitar and bass, the songs had teeth and the grooves of old had new profound depth. The transformation would not be complete until they added the delightful Katie Robertson on keys. A set at Magnolia Motor Lounge saw the roots elements coalesce with tangled-hearted Southern soul as smooth as old bourbon. Two weeks later, running errands, Edge of the World came on KXT and I realized Kenny was a really soul singer at heart.

On a sun-draped Sunday afternoon, I sat with the band atop the beautimous rooftop of The Live Oak. With smiling eyes behind his shades, Kenny lit a cigarette and told us about the gig from which he’d just come as he gazed into the bright blue sky. The rest of Foxtrot Uniform – Robbie Saunders, Katie Robertson, Zack Busbee – sat to my side.

We learn Kenny is disappointed to know Ray-Ban is owned by an Italian company before he explains FU’s evolution from two to five after autumn’s Huj! Huj! Hujrah!, a gritty groove-monster dressed for heavy rotation. Sipping a beer, he turns to Robbie, and asks, “how’d we meet you, idiot?” Despite Kelly’s cynicism, Robbie was discovered in Kenny’s efforts to troll social media for a bass player. He would slide over to guitar after they tracked down rugged bass player Zach Busbee.

Fiinally, Ms. Robertson was found at Basement Bar, as she recalls, “They asked me to go on tour with them that night.”

In the past month, they’ve been doing pre-production tracking in Cisco — grown up recording comes later. Kelly interjects during the discussion of recording timeline, “Y’all are just making up terms. We recorded some stuff. It has been a few months. Good to mess around and see where we take it from there.”

At this point, Uptain slips into a gruff-throated character, “And then I murdered a women who wouldn’t quit yelling in 1971. I spent 12 years in prison in Tennessee. And that’s where these songs came from, my bunkmate was a man named Blue. He passed away and I took his songs.” Returning to mock diva form, he mock instructs me, “Write all that down, Lyle.”

Flashbulb Flashback: Forest Aten / Fearless Clarinetist // 5.11.14

On a bright afternoon last August, I met favorite social media follow and Clarinetist with The Dallas Opera Orchestra Forest Aten. He effortlessly took me into the world of the Pit. Educated amongst great talent at UNT and SMU, Forest joined the SMU’s faculty while still a graduate student. Shortly thereafter he found his place as a contract player, immersed in music for the past 35 years, performing for all but ten of those with The Dallas Opera.

“We all make compromises in order to perform at the highest level,” he tells me how he became involved assisting fellow musicians negotiate contracts. Back in 1981, realizing he needed something to occupy the off-season, Mr. Aten took his love for Scuba diving to the next level as a guide on international Scuba-based trips, “the two seasons worked together perfectly, allowing for great travel. Wherever we took a group, I arranged goodwill showcases with local accompanists, often at the Embassies.” He passed on his spirit of adventure to his daughters, taking them on those Scuba expeditions.

He continues with élan, “Musicians tend to be quite adept underwater, it must be related to the total awareness required for performing in an orchestra.” Indeed, both activities lend themselves to a state of consciousness known as “flow,” presenting us with cascades of optimal neuro-chemicals. In fact, diving and orchestral performance share essential elements necessary for the flow state; as Forest described, there must be what is known as “deep embodiment” once one has established a “rich environment,” which manifest what writer Steven Kotler describes as, “a combination platter of novelty, unpredictability and complexity.”

Forest speaks enthusiastically about those he has worked with or been inspired by, his tone shifts as though switching gears on his motorcycle. Theorists who study flow states further describe how the process can be amplified by guiding others toward their own flow states, so it makes sense that Forest Aten’s teaching life is not limited to Scuba.

With his wealth of experience, coaching is another way our fearless Clarinetist maintains this optimal psychology, at places like Durango’s Music In the Mountains or the Arundel Festival  in England. For over a decade he has participated in Kammermusik based in Santa Fe. Formed in 1996 by nurses who performed in Kansas City, they offer professional teaching for adult amateur musicians. Allowing folks access to the significant benefits playing music offers, preeminent players from across the nation tutor privately and develop small groups for one-of-a-kind performances. Originally focused on woodwinds, they eventually expanded to include strings, “It is extremely rewarding work, the camaraderie tends to bring folks back year after year,” the yearly colloquium recently moved to Santa Fe University.

The Coaches’ show is an opportunity to perform in uniquely brilliant groups, he recalls the rarified air he has shared in the desert. Fascinating students seek this environment – spanning between ages 18-80 – doctors, lawyers, educators, pilots and physicists come for a week of making beautiful music. “The whole process is refreshing, working in an environment with such enthusiastic people. We try to keep the instruments in their mouths, keep them playing the whole eight days. We know they are committed, no matter their skill level.”

In 35 years, Forest Aten has seen the world of symphonic music through booms and busts, declines and resurgences. Companies are uniting these days to develop new works, and he explains that this reduces local risks and balances out the conventional tendency towards performing the hits. With production budgets towering above Symphonies, the Opera’s orchestra acts as the engine of a massive machine, manifesting pure sound to the audience, “We are unknown, we live in a pit.”

Flashbulb Flashback: Count on The Cush // 11.12.12


Recently I chatted with husband and wife duo from The Cush. Burette and Gabrielle Douglas fluidly alternated while recounting their history. Beneath the individuals as well as the music there is inherent patience, no point is forced or over-articulated. On record, songs organically unfold as though ordered by crystalline imperatives. Throughout their run, The Cush have been able to sustain this patient, thoughtful approach, as Gabrielle explains the mode of releasing three records in the eleven years, “We thought it was important to go out, experience life and come back and create.” And they did, leaving Texas for Vermont a few years back, Burette adds, “we were wanting something fresh,” and the transition proved vital to their progression.

After spending most of the 90s with area band Buck Jones, it was reasonable for them to seek a new creative environment.” Moving up to the more tightly packed North East, the group established dual citizenship. They have worked with great musicians in both areas, allowing them to carve out a place for themselves amongst the music scenes in places like Brooklyn, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The time they put in is evident in performance as well as on record, and the songs connect with folks, imbued by genuine craft, Burette says, “Not much phases us, its all about making good records. With each new project, we take a sonic step forward.”

Those records have garnered them attention throughout the States and abroad as well, allowing them to tour Europe, performing in places like Berlin and Stockholm, “They take care of artists over there,” Gabrielle adds, looking forward to their next visit. In addition to tours, there have been festivals, a couple of years ago they were part of The Black Angels’ killer Psych Fest that also included Pink Mountaintops, Warpaint, Silver Apples and The Raveonettes.

The Cush makes smartly mixed albums, marvelously presenting an elegantly strange beauty that unveils itself without fail. Starting with 2001’s self-titled record, they have continued to create noise pop with a solid psychedelic undercurrent. Littered with unexpected sounds, perfect sonic moments recall slowcore favorites Bedhead, American Analog Set or Knife in the Water. Tunes that drift along on the clouds of a changed time, the listener falls into the spaces between notes – a hint of lo-fi, soft touch, drone, the kind that slows your breathing. The steadiness of a track like “Precious Time,” entrances as the melody capers out into infinity. Or “I shout love into the atom,” which comes on with a machine’s intensity, fluttering out on wings of vibrating tones.

Returning home, this last year has been a tough one, seeing Burette through recovery from a broken hip. For a while, he was chair-bound for playing and stuck on the crutches to get around. He tells me that the screws will come out soon. They are laying down scratch tracks for the next record and look forward to hearing more of the great music coming out of Fort Worth, as Gabrielle points out, “Almost every show we play with local bands has blown my mind. Its very genuine around here, people are doing what they love to do.”