We are crazy with the interviews here all of sudden. Today, Jennifer talks to A.L.X., singer of Love Crushed Velvet.
Love Crushed Velvet, last seen on NTSIB participating in the Beatles Complete on the Ukulele event, will be putting out a new record in the middle of April. Recently, I sat down with lead singer A.L.X. to discuss a variety of musical topics:
During the Beatles Complete on the Ukulele event I thought I heard someone say you were from Austria. That’s since been cleared up – you were born in East Germany and later moved to the United States – but in the process of straightening that out, you dropped a tantalizing reference to having briefly been a cult celebrity in Austria. What was that all about, because it sounds like a good story.
It was one of those weird things about being in the right place in the right time. I ended up living there back in the ’90s – I was actually a student at the time. Even though I was born in Europe, have European parents and was used to going over there to visit, I wasn’t used to actually living abroad. It’s a big difference between staying with your family for several weeks versus someone just throwing you – 18 years old, 19 years old – into the middle of a European city.
During the first couple of weeks I was just checking out all of the music clubs and ended up falling into a circle that – unbeknownst to me at the time – included some of the top rock musicians in the country. And when you go there as a young American singer from New York – and I only realized this in retrospect –you don’t have to be great, all you have to be is half-decent and have attitude. Just the fact that you’re American, they will embrace you. So being American, being from the New York area, and being a rock singer – the kind of doors that opened were just unimaginable to me as a young kid.
So within 2-3 months I ended up having a band with a bunch of guys who were quite well known – Falco’s guitar player, Peter Kruder (one of the Kruder and Dorfmeister founders) played with us for a bit – and it was great fun. It didn’t last very long – in retrospect, it felt like five minutes–but it opened up a lot of doors to me over there. That was an important period in my life because it gave me a sense of affirmation that, “hey, I can do this!” Even though it’s now a distant memory, and what I’m doing now musically really doesn’t relate much to that period, it was still a great thing to experience when you’re an 18 or 19 year old. If only I’d realized how much harder it would be every step of the way since then–because you just assume that it’s going to be so much easier everywhere else you go from that point. And then you get back to New York and no one gives a shit who you were when you were somewhere else, and it hits you: “Damn, this is gonna be hard!”
So now, this new band you have going, Love Crushed Velvet, how did that start?
I’d been playing with a couple of great musicians in one of my solo projects, and we’d become good friends. Thommy Price, who was the drummer for Joan Jett and the Black Hearts, and with Billy Idol right before that, and Jimi Bones who was with Blondie and also with Joan Jett at one point – had been playing in support of a solo album that I’d cut a few years earlier. We’d been playing the music from that A.L.X record for about a year, and it eventually morphed into a completely different sound. The songs changed – as songs often do anyway. You can play a song with 30 different musicians and it’ll feel like 30 different songs.
The direction of the music took on a very interesting feel. Thommy’s drumming has a very crisp and powerful–but not heavy-handed–snare delivery. Listen to the Billy Idol records from the mid-’80s, you can really hear that in there, and as we started playing we found a sound that was really very different from a lot of rock you hear nowadays, which is often either big radio cockrock or really indie and alternative. I love a lot of the alternative music out there, but there wasn’t that much of it that had that combination of being big and muscular yet had an alternative feel to it at the same time. So that’s kind of the birth of Love Crushed Velvet.
I’d started writing around the sound of this band and everything just fell into place very easily, really from the first studio sessions. I’m too close to the record to tell whether it’s good or not, and it certainly took a long time to record. But it wasn’t a difficult album to make. The songs, the vibe, everything fell into place very easily. So I’m hoping it’s the start of a good thing and a long thing.
I’ve listened to the record a couple of time now, and in the song, Love Crushed Velvet, the “love crushed velvet” that you’re looking for – what is that? What does that mean?
If you look at the lyrics, not surprisingly, the song is about sex and how so many of us mask our sexual identity as something else. Because our sexuality is really the core of who we are, our essence as people. It’s not in our heads, it’s in our hearts. And that song really just explores the whole concept of chasing who we really are from that perspective. Just allowing ourselves to be free on that level. And the video we made of the song played with that idea, with the concept of having multiple masked identities.
Okay. So your next big gig in New York is Earth Day?
The next one that’s firmly booked is Earth Day. Between now and then, we will probably end up doing three or four Love Crushed Velvet shows. The other thing I’m doing is I’m traveling around a fair amount doing an unplugged tour—solo–and taking the Love Crushed Velvet songs and stripping them down on an acoustic guitar. I’ve done five or six of those shows already. Between the Love Crushed Velvet band shows there’s sometimes time and space to kill and we still want to get the music out there – this is just a different way of doing it; a more intimate way of presenting it.
All right. Now, Google tells me you also run a chemical company?
Running is a big word. It’s essentially a green technology company and is something I fell into. I’ve kind of grown up around it, it was a family business that I was involved with it one way or another since I’ve been a kid. I’ve never seen myself as a person who could do just one thing, and I love the yin and the yang aspect of having two different lives. Being a musician can be a very esoteric thing. The business side of music is a disciplinary, regimented thing, but I’ve always hated the music business and want as little to do with the business side of it as possible. But this other business, I find it really interesting. I travel for both worlds, so I can play music on the road and do the other business at the same time. It’s a nice balance against being too free-form as an artist, which I fall into far too easily.
I had a stray thought about lacquers for guitars –
We do that too. Those are my favorite trips! Yeah, you get with the guitar companies and you talk about the lacquers, but basically you sit around all day playing the guitar.
That sounds like the best business trip ever.
It’s amazing. So, what kind of music do you like?
Big drums and dirty bass lines.
Well, that could be a lot of things. What was your transformative song? The one that really woke you up?
It was Beat It. I remember being in the kitchen, and hearing it on the radio for the first time – I was really young, obviously – but that opening guitar riff came out, and I remember really distinctly reaching out to turn it up. And I’ve never been much of a Michael Jackson fan beyond that, but that opening riff, I have an almost automatic Yesssssssss!, punch the air with both fists response.
Fall Out Boy did a cover of it, and when I was at Bamboozle a couple of years ago – this was before he [Michael Jackson] died, they don’t play it now that he’s dead – they played it. I was in the back of the pit, being squashed by the crowd, and they launched into it right as I was deciding to get out, and as I’m walking past the security dudes, I’m waving my arms in the air.
And then – I didn’t realize until I was getting out – but in order to get out you had to walk towards the stage, through the line of security dudes. And I had to really focus on not stopping and staring at them on the stage, so I didn’t get in trouble. But as I got towards the front, where I could see the kids with their faces turned up towards the stage and bathed in the light and the guys really focused on what they were playing, and Patrick Stump’s voice soaring over us, I thought This is where it is, this is where the magic happens.
Also, uh, Welcome to the Jungle, because I’m predictable that way. And Dr. Feelgood. Anyway, that’s a good question. What was your transformative song?
I’ve had a few of them. The one that woke me up was, ironically, a Billy Idol song. It’s from before I had ever heard of him or Generation X: It was the last Gen X single, Dancing With Myself. This was god knows how long since they’d been broken up already.
I was living in the suburbs at the time, and you couldn’t hear anything like that on the radio there. But one night I came across this alternative station that would play older punk and new punk, that wasn’t Bruce Springsteen, that wasn’t the Eagles, all the kind of stuff that didn’t move me musically when I was, I don’t know, fourteen or something like that. And I remember there was this radio show that used to come on at 10 o’clock at night, and as soon as the show started – b-tchk b-tchk bnar nar nar came out of my radio and I was like, “Fuck!” It had a simple rhythm and incredibly simple guitar line, yet just felt like it was going to explode out of the speakers, it just had so much energy.
And finally now, after having made a number of records, I can figure out how they created that, how they gave that much energy in the studio. But at the time it really opened me up to punk and all those punk bands. And fortunately–or unfortunately–I was a generation removed from it already, so I was really too young to be in that scene. So what I had to tap into were really the later generation of post-punk bands coming up around New York at the time. But that Gen X song opened my eyes to a different, more simple, more energetic kind of music. It was a jolt to my central nervous system at the time. That really woke me up to the accessibility of it, it just had two or three simple notes that could make people dance and go crazy.
So this is always a fun question. What was the first show you went to?
The first show was the Kinks. I had a friend who was a couple years older than I was – I was thirteen or fourteen – who was a big Kinks fan, and this was the late ’80s so by that point, in retrospect, the Kinks were sort of on their downhill slide. They probably hadn’t been relevant for six or seven years, but they were still great. The two things I remember were how often Ray Davies changed his jacket, and how much pot smoke there could be in a big place. But it was cool. There was something I loved about the Kinks–they were dirty, but were still sophisticated.
I got to know more about them over time, and learned about Ray Davies. He’s a pretty interesting cat, very literate, very smart, very thoughtful guy. But at the time, it was all about simple riff rock with a lot of pot smoke and a lot of different jackets. It made an impression as my first show. I think it was at Roseland, so being at a smaller place like that, with a great band and that kind of atmosphere, was quite different than being at an arena show. The world that I was exposed to attracted me and scared me at the same time.
My first show was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, in an arena, and Lenny Kravitz opened.
Yeah. And I was also, like, fourteen, and had no idea that openers existed, so I was like, Who is that? That’s not Tom Petty! And this was – ’89, Full Moon Fever – so he was on his up-tick again.
He’s brilliant, Tom Petty. He’s such an underappreciated songwriter. It’s funny, when I was younger, I never cared for his voice, it wasn’t appealing to me. And if I don’t like the way the singer sounds, I just can’t get past it. I now like his voice, I appreciate it for its distinctness, and looking at Tom Petty as a songwriter, god he’s good.
I went out after that and acquired his back catalogue at Tower Records. Which took some doing, in 1989, since everything was still on tape. Which actually brings me to my next question: What was the first album that you bought – record or tape or CD or whatever?
Led Zeppelin IV.
Interesting. Yeah, mine were Born in the USA and Nervous Night. I think I used my birthday money – I was 11.
Led Zeppelin IV was a record that I got turned on to it by older friends. And Zep, just like that Kinks concert, was enticing but scary. When you’re a kid of thirteen and you listen to Led Zepplin for the first time, you’re not quite sure what to make of it. Having been around it for thirty-some odd years, we’re now all so used to it, it’s a part of our vernacular, it’s almost like it’s in our bloodstream, but hearing that for the first time – especially Black Dog– you can see why people thought they were Devil worshippers way back in their era. Because it’s scary but it’s sexy. It’s all those things rock and roll is supposed to be, really, and at the highest level. So that was my first record.
What was the last one that you bought?
It doesn’t have to be a record record. Album. Collection of music! I haven’t – oh wait, I have bought a record record. Not on purpose, though – it was part of a larger band package. I don’t even own a record player! I do have a walkman, though. It’s kind of beat to shit, but I’ve got it.
I’ve kept my old records, but I don’t store them in my apartment. They’re somewhere in the basement of my mother’s house because if you live in Manhattan, you need a certain amount of space for record players. It’s not like CD players, which you can just stick in any corner. Record players, you have to be able to open them up and move around them. You need accompanying square and cubic footage around record players.
But the last CD I bought, it’s this cool band, I’m not sure where they’re from, called Diamond Rings, and I bought them about a month ago when I was in Houston. There’s a great record store there called Cactus Music, it’s just fantastic. There are no record stores left anymore, so this is now one of the great record stores in America. It’s relatively small, but they do live bands and showcases in there, and is everything a modern, relevant record store should be. They were playing Diamond Rings when I was in there, and I was like, cool record!
Circling back a little bit – I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the Beatles Complete on the Ukulele event, since my normal Beatles tolerance is . . . somewhat limited.
That show was mostly about bands interpreting the Beatles, and interpreting the Beatles, it’s an education. Look at their choice of chords, their choice of structures, their choice of melodies. When I grew up I was the same way–I was never really moved by the Beatles, I didn’t find them dirty or sexy or edgy enough.
My objection is that they’re, like, really irritating wallpaper after a while.
Yeah, well, they’ve also been overplayed.
Yes, they play the same five songs all the time, and then I’m like, Enough now.
But, I thought the Beatles thing last week – it’s interesting to hear the songs played by someone other than the Beatles, because they become new songs, in and of themselves. And I remember standing at the bar with my bandmates and we were just chatting, and then hearing Hey Jude, having someone else play it –
On the accordion, no less!
– yeah, and it’s just such a fucking good song. It just gets bigger and bigger and bigger – as a songwriter that song is a masterpiece, it’s just so well done.
But the dirge-like pace at which the Beatles played it is excruciating after a while. I have to say I developed a whole new appreciation for I Am the Walrus. I think it was Black Bells – they were the first ones up after the Uke mob – and I’m pretty sure they did I Am the Walrus because they really stomped through it, and I was like, This is a great song! . . . wait a minute.
When I heard the original version of Hey Bulldog, one of the ones we covered, I wasn’t excited by it – am still not. I don’t care for the way it’s mixed, I just don’t respond to it. But when we got together and broke it down, suddenly you’re like, hey, this is a cool song. Taking that James Bond-y guitar line that George Harrison’s playing and making it your own…
A lot of their music is like that. When you strip it down to it’s core essentials, just as writers, their sense of melody, they’re just an amazing creation. They’re so strong, there’s not a lot of weakness in their catalog. You can argue with how it was performed – but they also did so many different renditions of their songs. If you go back to collections of the Beatles outtakes, some of the songs have four or five or six different versions of them. In a few cases they were all released in some form or the other.
So how did you get involved in the Beatles Complete on the Ukulele thing? Do you get invited to that?
I got invited by Roger Greenawalt–he and I have known each other for a while and have done a few different projects together over the last ten-twelve years. He was the first producer I met when I moved to New York. I cut some demos with him, back, hmm, right at the tail end of the ’90s? And Roger produced four songs on the Love Crushed Velvet record.
While we were cutting the Love Crushed Velvet tracks, he was conceptualizing the Beatles on the Ukulele thing. Two months later, he did his first Beatles event at Spike Hill [a bar in Brooklyn] which was much smaller, much funkier, not the quasi-spectacle it is now. I ended up getting up and doing a couple of songs, and he’s invited me and the band to come back in subsequent years, so this is actually the third time doing it. I was there when it started!
From the beginning!
Thank God not on video, that first time.
Apparently he’s doing Led Zeppelin on the ukulele next? Is that what I hear?
Yeah, he’s been talking about it for a while. I haven’t gotten invited yet – I’m hoping that means it hasn’t happened yet.
I’m actually terribly intrigued by the prospect of Led Zepplin on the ukulele. I think Immigrant Song with ukulele might be quite dramatic.
If you think about it, Zeppelin on the ukulele makes more sense in some ways than the Beatles on the ukulele, because Jimmy Page used nonstandard tunings on most of his songs. They had mandolin, a lot of other things going through their records. A lot of Zeppelin has that sonic frequency of the ukulele underneath it. Even if it might not have been the ukulele per se, it might have been a mandolin instead, but they give a similar effect. I can see it working.
Maybe he can try the Rolling Stones on the ukulele next.
That one I’d be a little bit more careful with.
That might be awkward.
You can’t ukulele-ify the entire world.
That’s true. Still. It would be funny. I would be entertained by the Rolling Stones on the ukulele.
I would be entertained by Nine Inch Nails on the ukulele.
[cackling with glee] That would be PERFECT. [manages to contain laughter] Anyway, that’s about all I had, so, in conclusion, thank you so much for meeting with me today, and for letting us put one of your songs up for people to download.
Song: Problem Child
I like it because: It’s a gleeful bad-boy anthem, and also an interesting bookend to He’s Not a Boy, which is a “You can’t change a bad boy, you just have to love him as he is, and really, would you have him any other way?” song by The Like. The two bands are very different, musically, I just enjoy the way these two tunes “talk” to each other.
Listen to the record streaming at bandcamp: Love Crushed Velvet