Mixed Media

Quiz: Who's More Metal, the Cat or the Owner?

| Fri Apr. 11, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

Metal Cats, a new book that compiles photos of headbangers with their felines, made us wonder: Who's more metal, cat or owner? Take the quiz below, featuring some of the book's photos, to find out.

 

Photos from Metal Cats by Alexandra Crockett, published by powerHouse Books.

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WATCH: In the United States of John Roberts, the Billionaire Minority Are Opressed No Longer [Fiore Cartoon]

| Thu Apr. 10, 2014 12:59 PM PDT

Mark Fiore is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and animator whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Examiner, and dozens of other publications. He is an active member of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, and has a website featuring his work.

Stephen Colbert Is Replacing Letterman. Here Are His Best—and Worst—Political Moments

| Thu Apr. 10, 2014 11:27 AM PDT

On Thursday, CBS announced that Stephen Colbert will replace the retiring David Letterman as host of Late Show. (Mashable reported last week that Colbert was the network's top choice to take over for Letterman.) When Colbert leaves for CBS, he'll be leaving behind The Colbert Report at Comedy Central, where he has played the part of fake conservative cable-TV commentator since 2005.

We're assuming that once he starts his gig at Late Show he'll be doing less left-leaning political satire than he's used to. So here's a look back at his very best—and very worst—political moments over the past few years. And no, #CancelColbert does not make either list:

THE BEST:

1. Colbert slams the Obama administration's legal justification for killing American citizens abroad suspected of terrorism: "Trial by jury, trial by fire, rock, paper scissors, who cares? Due process just means that there is a process that you do," Colbert said in March 2012. "The current process is, apparently, first the president meets with his advisers and decides who he can kill. Then he kills them."

"Due process just means that there is a process that you do" is pretty dead-on:

 

2. The Colbert Report's incredibly moving, stereotype-smashing segment on the openly gay mayor of Vicco, Kentucky: "To get your point across, sometimes you just gotta laugh," Mayor Johnny Cummings told Mother Jones, after the segment aired. "That's how I look at it. So I thought, OK, The Colbert Report would be perfect."

"If God makes 'em born gay, then why is he against it?" a Vicco resident asks in the clip's moving final moments. "I can't understand that. I've tried and tried and tried to understand that, and I can't."

 

3. Colbert on The O'Reilly Factor: Bill O'Reilly still seems to think that Colbert, the satirist, is doing great damage to this country.

 

4. Colbert's roasting of President George W. Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner:  "Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32 percent approval rating," Colbert said. "But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in 'reality.' And reality has a well-known liberal bias."

For a transcript, click here.

 

5. Colbert's surreal congressional testimony: He testified (in character) before a House hearing in 2010 on immigrant farm workers. He offered to submit video of his colonoscopy into the congressional record:

 

6. Colbert was a two-time presidential candidate who used comedy to highlight the absurdity of the post-Citizens United election landscape. Here's his recent letter to the IRS, in which he requests the opportunity to testify at a public hearing:

Stephen Colbert Comment to IRS

 

THE WORST:

1. That time he used Henry Kissinger as a dance partner: The former secretary of state and national security advisor has been accused by human rights groups and journalists of complicity in major human rights violations and war crimes around the globe: In Chile (murder and subversion of democracy), Bangladesh (genocide), East Timor (yet more genocide), Argentina, Vietnam, and Cambodia, to name a few.

So it's odd that Colbert would feature him in a lighthearted dance-party segment last August. The video (set to Daft Punk's hit "Get Lucky") also includes famous people whom no one has ever accused of war crimes, such as Matt Damon, Jeff BridgesBryan Cranston, and Hugh Laurie:

 

2. The other time he made Kissinger seem like a lovable, aging teddy bear: Kissinger was also on The Colbert Report in 2006 during the Colbert guitar "ShredDown." The following clip also features Eliot Spitzer and guitarist Peter Frampton:

 

Colbert's apparent coziness with Kissinger is even stranger when you consider how Colbert has blasted "the war crimes of Nixon," and has said that he "despair[s] that people forget those." Perhaps he forgot that "the war crimes" he spoke of were as much Kissinger's as they were President Nixon's.

Anyway, viewers can hope that when he's hosting on CBS, there will be fewer musical numbers featuring war criminals.

Meet the Artists Behind the Giant Poster Targeting Drone Pilots

| Wed Apr. 9, 2014 2:21 PM PDT
Two weeks ago, artists unfurled this giant poster of a drone-strike survivor in a field in northwest Pakistan.

On the night of August 23, 2010, an American drone destroyed a home in Danda Darpakhel, a village in North Waziristan, Pakistan. The strike was meant to target a Haqqani network compound, but also killed Bismillah Khan, his wife, and two of their sons, aged 8 and 10 years old. The family's two young sons and daughter, whose names and ages are unknown, survived.

Now Khan's daughter's face has become part of the first-ever art installation aimed at an audience watching from the sky: American drone pilots.  Two weeks ago, artists spread out a large poster of the girl in Khyber Pakhtunkwwa, the Pakistani province that neighbors North Waziristan. The image on the sprawling poster comes from a photo (below) taken by Pakistani photographer Noor Behram a few hours after the strike on the girl's home. 

The artists call their project #NotABugSplat, a reference to "bug splat," drone-pilot lingo for kills.

A girl and her two brothers after surviving a drone strike in August 2010  Noor Behram/ Reprieve

The artist collective, which includes artists from France, Pakistan, and the United States, set up the poster with the help of the British charity Reprieve  and a Pakistani NGO, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights. They hope that the poster will make drone operators empathize with the people who live under their gaze. "We were considering whether to put words in the poster, but decided against it, since the photograph already speaks a thousand words," one of the members of the collective, who asked to remain anonymous, told Mother Jones, "Her eyes say everything."

When the artists arrived in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, they were greeted by "warm, welcoming" villagers, who helped them unfold the gigantic image. The 90-foot by 60-foot poster took an hour and a half to unfurl. At ground level it looked like a bunch of pixels. But once the villagers saw a photo of the image taken by the artists' own remote-controlled mini-drone, they were ecstatic. 

Unfolding the image #NotABugSplat
Villagers with the poster #NotABugSplat.com
The poster as seen from the artists' own drone #NotABugSplat

To get a sense of the scale of the poster, it helps to look at the road winding besides it, dotted by miniscule people who are "about the size of bugs", says one of the artists.

The strike that killed most of the girl's family also destroyed or badly damaged five other houses, killing at least nine civilians who were part of a community of Afghan refugees that had been there for two decades. The girl and her brothers were taken in by family members on the other side of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

More than 100 days have passed since the last American drone strike in Pakistan. The #NotABugSplat artists hope there they won't have to make any more such posters. "But if the need is there, we will do more," says the collective.

Dear Hollywood: Please Don't Make the New "Battlestar Galactica" Movie About Drones

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 4:07 PM PDT

Universal is planning a major film reboot of the sci-fi franchise Battlestar Galactica, according to a report in Variety. Jack Paglen (Transcendence) has reportedly signed on to write the screenplay, and original series creator Glen Larson is set to produce.

I have one modest request: Don't make it a movie about Obama's killer drones. Please. Don't do that. It's super zeitgeist-y, but please, just don't.

The rebooted Sci-Fi Channel series, which ran from 2003 to 2009, garnered much critical acclaim, in large part because it was smartly topical and political. That reboot focused on war between human civilization and the cybernetic Cylon race. The series worked as an allegory of the War on Terror, and incorporated themes of religious extremism, suicide bombing, and state-sanctioned torture. Many images called to mind the Iraq War, Nazi occupation, and the Vietnam War.

So it would only make sense if an upcoming film version of Battlestar Galactica were also deeply political. And with the Bush years in the rearview, Hollywood has frequently (almost relentlessly) turned to drone warfare as a go-to subject for big-budget political critique in the Obama era.

Here are a few examples of drones in big Hollywood fare released in the past year or so:

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is about "civil liberties issues, drone strikes, the president's kill list, [and] preemptive technology," according to its directors.

2. RoboCop (2014), which features autonomous killer robots called "drones" that are prominently used in an American invasion and occupation of Iran ("Operation Freedom Tehran," it's called). OmniCorp, which designs and manufactures these military robots, wants to put this technology to use in law enforcement in the United States. Thus kicks off a national debate on civil liberties and so forth.

3. G.I. Joe: Retaliation, in which the democratic President of the United States is a foreign-born imposter who uses killer drones on American citizens overseas, and desires a world rid of nuclear weapons. (REMIND YOU OF ANYONE???)

4. Pacific Rim, which has drones in the form of gargantuan robots called Jaegers (the robots fight amphibious monsters called Kaiju).

5. Iron Man 3, which fits in snugly with the rest of the Iron Man franchise drone imagery.

6. Star Trek Into Darkness, which covers the ethical question of extrajudicial and targeted killing of terror suspects operating outside American borders.

(And it appears this drone warfare movie is in the works, too.)

This seems like it's on the verge of being played out. If Jack Paglen is looking for something fresher to weave into his script, maybe he can go with US special operations in Africa.

Chupacabra Spotted! News at 11! How Local News Created a Monster

| Tue Apr. 8, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

Arlen "Bubba" Parma of Ratcliffe, Texas, was minding his property last weekend when he came upon something he’d never seen before. Four-legged. Hairless. Making an otherworldly noise. Naturally, he brought it home to his wife.

"I said, 'Bubba, that looks like a baby chupacabra,'" his wife, Jackie Stock, told the local ABC affiliate.

Jackie and Bubba believed they'd stumbled upon a Latin American vampire beast that guzzles the blood of livestock. They decided to take it as a pet. The myth of the chupacabra, the ABC station reported, "has been around for decades."

On further examination, there are a lot of Bubba Parmas out there. Although the wildlife experts who invariably weigh in on alleged chupacabra sightings say there is a simple explanation—a skin disease called mange that cause quadrupeds' skin to fall off—dozens of local news outlets have reported sightings over the past three years. But this rash of reporting on chupacabras isn't just entertaining journalism—it's also bad journalism. With just a handful of exceptions, none of these news outlets ever tell it straight: The legend of the chupacabra is barely old enough to buy cigarettes. It's not mysterious. It's not a legend. It's not "decades old"—not even two.

I'm familiar with this problem because, like many Americans, I receive a daily Google News alert for the word "chupacabra." It's a wonder I ever leave the house. If there's a four-legged creature afflicted with a skin condition, chances are an Area Man and a local news crew won't be far behind. In Falfurrias, Texas, a taxidermist nearly broke down in tears when he came upon a still-fresh corpse. In Picayune, Mississippi, residents hid in their cars from a creature whose true identity they discovered after Googling "hairless coyote." A 13-year-old in Inez, Texas, dropped a suspected chupacabra with a .257 Weatherby rifle after spotting it outside his bedroom window.

The beast can apparently swim. It was spotted in Belarus, and in Ukraine, where residents claimed it killed their rabbits. Russian farmers blamed it for the slaughter of 60 sheep, prompting the government to issue a formal notice that "there are no fairytale creatures in the Lukhovitsky district." Last year, it was spotted in the savannahs of Namibia, where villagers reported a "dog-headed pig monster" terrorizing the community.

These stories would be terrific if they weren't so consistently misleading. In local news reports, chupacabra sightings are frequently presented as a handover from previous generations. "Chupacabra sightings have been rumored in North America, Mexico, and Puerto Rico for more than 50 years," an Arizona CBS affiliate explained to its viewers, after a Tucson meteorologist reported spotting one on the way to work. "The legend of 'El Chupacabra' dates back to the 1970s," reported Biloxi, Mississippi's WLOX after the sighting in Picayune. KLTV of Tyler, Texas, identified the chupacabra as "a bloodthirsty predator of Mexican lore." The Associated Press called it "folkloric legend," after another close call in Deer Creek, Oklahoma.

The real story of the chupacabra is decidedly modern. Although myths of vampire creatures are longstanding, the first known reference and eyewitness account came just 19 years ago, from a Puerto Rican woman named Madelyne Tolentino. Researcher Ben Radford laid out the details in his 2011 book, Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore. Radford, who deserves a medal or something, tracked down Tolentino and identified the inspiration for her account—she had just seen the movie Species, which came out in 1995 and features an alien almost identical to the animal Tolentino spotted. Radford offered a $250 reward for any earlier reference to the chupacabra and is still waiting.

Every once in a while, a news outlet demonstrates its ability to procure homespun commentary from locals about hairless vampire demons without sacrificing its journalistic cred. Good Morning America, for instance, cited Radford's work in a story about a retired wildlife biologist in Lake Jackson, Texas, who had whimsically reported a chupacabra sighting to the local press only to find himself the subject of a media frenzy.

But the most common strategy is to teach the controversy. "Some people think it exists, others say it's just a mangy dog," reported KENS of San Antonio, referring to a mangy coyote spotted inside the city limits. A Phoenix ABC affiliate offered that an unidentified creature might be a vampire beast or a badger. "What do you think?" the station asked readers.

In the meantime, the flood of sightings seems to be increasing, no doubt buoyed by people who have seen local news clips about previous encounters. "I actually Google Imaged 'chupacabra' and it looks just like the other images," a San Antonio woman said last June, after spotting what local biologists insisted was a coyote with mange. "They said it was one of them chupacabras or whatever," said Matthew Harrell, the Mississippi man who bagged a creature in a place called Pigtown. "That's what I'd call it because it looks just like it." The chupacabra isn't a Puerto Rican phenomenon anymore; it's a local TV one.

The vampire dog isn't real. We're all just suckers.

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Read Ronald Reagan's Letter to the Late Mickey Rooney About the Time He Rescued a Dog

| Mon Apr. 7, 2014 9:00 AM PDT

On Sunday, Hollywood actor Mickey Rooney died at the age of 93. He was with his family when he passed away at his North Hollywood home.

"He was a tremendous talent, and someone at 5-foot-tall that everybody looked up to," actor Billy Crystal said on Monday. Rooney had a long, successful career on stage and screen, one that included reigning as the top moneymaking movie star from 1939 to 1942 (his streak came to a halt when he enlisted in the Army). He starred in films such as Love Finds Andy Hardy, alongside Judy Garland, and Breakfast at Tiffany's (in which he—nowadays notoriously so—played a full-throttle Japanese caricature).

Rooney was also a friend of actor-turned-most-powerful-man-in-the-world Ronald Reagan. Below is one of President Reagan's letters to Rooney and his wife Jan, written in 1985. The president invited the couple to a White House dinner. Rooney couldn't make it, and wrote back, "Damn it! It's always when I'm working, but thank goodness that I am." Here is Reagan's reply, in which he writes about the time he and Mickey Rooney met:

Dear Jan and Mickey,

Sorry you can't make it June 12th but you have an ongoing rain check. While we'll miss you we're happy you are working 'cause that means pleasure for a lot of people.

Mickey I'll bet you don't remember the first time we met. The year was 1937 or thereabouts. I was new in Hollywood living in the Montecito apartments. Someone had run over a dog in the street outside. You came in to look for a phone book so you could find the nearest veterinarian and take the dog to him. I figured this had to be a nice guy and I was right.

Nancy sends her best and so do I.

Sincerely, Ronald Reagan

Click here to read another one of President Reagan's letters to Rooney.

Portraits of People Living on a Dollar a Day

| Mon Apr. 7, 2014 3:00 AM PDT
Subadra Devi left India after a drought killed her crops. Now she's a laborer in the Himalayan foothills.

Living in a wealthy nation, it's easy to forget that a whopping one-sixth of the world's population subsists without stable sources of food, medical care, or housing. More than a billion people around the world are believed to live on a dollar a day—and often less. While the circumstances leading to that sort of extreme poverty are varied and complicated, the situations faced by the planet's poorest are depressingly familiar. A new book out this week painstakingly documents the circumstances of some of them. Written by Thomas A. Nazario, the founder of a nonprofit called The Forgotten International, and vividly reported and photographed by Pulitzer Prize winner Renée C. Byer, Living on a Dollar a Day: The Lives and Faces of the World's Poor offers a window into these people's everyday lives, and calls for action on their behalf. I spoke with Nazario about his motivations, global inequality, and how to avoid the savior complex.

Mother Jones: Tell me a little about why you created this book.

Thomas A. Nazario: It grew out of a foundation I established about seven years ago. I was tired of spending time with people on the street all over the world who had simply been forgotten—by their families, by their village, and by whatever communities they might be associated with. There seemed to be so many of them, particularly in developing countries. It hit me that something had to be done. I wanted to bring to the attention of the world community that every day these people exist on almost nothing. We spend an awful lot of time in malls and taking care of ourselves and our immediate needs, and these people never enter our consciousness. Why does it take a typhoon or an earthquake to wake up people to the truth that far more people die of poverty every day?

In a New Delhi slum, six-year-old Vishal Singh cares for a baby while her mother is away. Renée C. Byer

MJ: What was your selection process like?

TN: I wanted there to be some cultural and ethnic and racial diversity. I certainly didn't want to just focus on places like Africa, or those first places we think of when we think of extreme poverty. I also knew of circumstances that existed in given countries that were really quite compelling. So I came up with 10 countries and began to organize trips. That doesn't mean we caught every story we wanted to catch, but there were also stories we found along the way.

A six-year-old herds cows for his father in Ghana. The family's economic circumstances make it unlikely he'll ever go to school. Renée C. Byer

MJ: Which stories affected you the most?

TN: There are three. One was the kids who live on an e-waste dump in Ghana. That was quite compelling for a variety of reasons, but I think if you look at the book and see those photographs and read that piece, it'll hit you pretty hard.

"We hear terrible things about sweatshops and phone centers, [but] in many ways they've done more to lift people out of poverty in the last 20 years than almost anything else."

Another piece was a family in Peru that lives on recycling. That, in and of itself, is not a big deal. Recycling is probably the second-largest occupation of the poor. But [the mother's] personal story, about how she had been abused by two different husbands, how her boys were taken away because they were needed to farm, and she was given all the girls—and how her kids will probably not ever go to school. She gets constantly evicted from one place or another because she can't find enough recycling to pay the rent. When we left her—we gave everybody a gift of at least some kind for giving us their time and telling us their story—we gave her $80, which is about as much money as she makes in two months. She fell to her knees and started crying. Not only did I learn that 25 percent of garbage produced in developing countries is picked up by individuals like her, but that one of the biggest drivers of global poverty is domestic violence, and how women and children are thrown into poverty largely for that reason.

Eight-year-old Fati scavenges scrap metal in an e-waste dump in Accra, Ghana, and carries it in a bucket on her head. She is crying from pain caused by malaria. Renée C. Byer

The third story that really touched me was about a woman and her family in Bangladesh. She works in a sewing factory about 8 to 12 hours a day, six and a half days a week, and makes 17 cents an hour. Of course we've heard about these sweatshops. They fall apart, they kill people, the working conditions are terrible; people sleep on the floor. But instead of finding someone who was beaten up emotionally, we found someone who was smiling most of the time because she was getting a regular salary, her husband was working, and she actually had a husband who was a kind and gentle fellow. That made it possible for her to keep her kids in school, to educate them properly, to have some hopes and dreams for them in the future, and to probably break out of poverty—if not in this generation, then the next. That meant the world to her. The truth of the matter is that, even though we hear terrible things about sweatshops and phone centers, in many ways they've done more to lift people out of poverty in the last 20 years than almost anything else. That was a realization that I didn't expect.

Hora Florin, who grew up in Romanian orphanages, spends his nights near underground heating vents to keep warm. Renée C. Byer

MJ: There are many contributing factors to poverty, and gender can be a huge one. Can you elaborate?

TN: It's one of the biggest reasons why women and children live in poverty. Not only do they make far less than men doing the same kind of work—even if they get the same kind of work—but often they're saddled with raising the children, and that keeps them at home. So they have a limited number of hours and they usually work in labor markets that are informal at best. If you couple that with the fact that they are often required to get water for the family—which in many cases takes three to four hours a day—and that they have to get the food and so forth. Many families think of women as a liability rather than an asset, which is why they're often sold as children into prostitution or trafficking.

The women of Nkwanta, Ghana, carry cassava, an edible root that they farm. Renée C. Byer

MJ: Climate change plays a big role, too. People on the financial margins are more likely to be affected. Did you see that playing out at all?

TN: We met a woman in Bolivia. She's over 80 years old. She works her own little farm. She grows wheat and beans. And she frankly didn't like us— largely because we were from the US. Over the past 20 years, she says, her wheat no longer grows, there's not enough rain, there's too much heat, and her beans are almost worthless. She says the biggest reason for this is countries like the United States putting so much carbon in the air. Her climate has changed and made it impossible for her to live. She lives on a mountainside where there used to be quite a bit of rain, snow, and fresh water. Climate change is affecting an awful lot of the poorest of the poor. When you think that subsistence farming is the largest job of the world's poor, it's no wonder they're the first to feel the effects when there's not enough rain or there's more drought or flooding.

Nine-year-old Alvaro helps out with the family's alpacas and llamas since his father died. He was one of the few children in the book who attends school. Renée C. Byer

MJ: According to Oxfam, the 85 richest people have as much money as the poorest half of the world, and 70 percent of people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last three decades.

TN: It seems to be getting worse and worse and worse. When we talk about poverty, we talk about how that is associated with lifespan. If you live in a very, very poor country, you'll probably live about half the time that you' live in a rich country.

The other thing that's troubling is that we have a number of billionaires in this country, and they control an amount of wealth so disproportionate that it's frankly immoral. I think the more people learn about that, the more I think we're looking at conflict resolution in parts of the world where these kinds of wealth disparities exist. The more it becomes obvious and the more it becomes troubling, the more people will rally around that and the more it will seem unfair. That's one of the reasons we had the 99 percent movement not long ago.

The Kayayo Girls of Accra collect waste or serve as porters for wealthier residents. They often live in communal settings near or atop the city dump. Renée C. Byer

MJ: We often hear that a disproportionate number of the poor are in the Global South—with one-third in India alone. Why is that?

TN: I think there are some historical reasons—certainly imperialism, and totalitarian systems, and government structures that have used the masses to build wealth have played a part. A country like the US really began to build wealth during the time of industrial revolution—once that happens and you build universities and provide young people with education. Then it kind of snowballs: Countries get richer largely because they have the infrastructure, the education, and the kinds of benefits that you'll find in a wealthy country. Two hundred, maybe 250 years ago, there really wasn't a big difference between rich countries and poor countries, rich people and poor people. We were pretty much all poor. Now we have enormous wealth in some countries and very little wealth in other countries.

Hunupa Begum, 13, and Hajimudin Sheikh, six, beg for food in New Delhi. Begum is blind and Sheikh suffers from abnormal fluid build-up in his head. Renée C. Byer

MJ: There's a concern in the international development sphere about people acting out of a so-called savior complex. How do we separate this from genuine concern?

"My experience is that most poor people actually have a pretty good sense of what would improve their lives."

TN: One of the mistakes we often make is we go in on our white horse and try to dictate what might be best for other people instead of being far more inclusive and spending time with indigenous communities and really asking them. My experience is that most poor people actually have a pretty good sense of what would improve their lives and the lives of their children. They just don't have the money or the means to get there. It's that top-down thing that's a problem, particularly if you have a white face and you're in a community that sees no white faces. You really do have to work with people and come in with translators and get a sense of what the real needs are and help from the bottom up.

Ana-Marie Tudor in the Bucharest, Romania, home from which her family faces eviction. Renée C. Byer

There are some things that almost always help alleviate poverty, and one is, of course, education. There's almost nothing terribly political or ugly about providing decent schools in villages that have none—or clean water, or things that are so basic that no one's going to argue with.

One message in the book is that you don't have to be Bill Gates or Warren Buffet to go out and help. Everybody—particularly those in the middle class—are people who have enough money to go out once a week and buy a nice dinner. All of those people need to make a concerted effort to once a week or once a month really carve out a little of the funds that they don't need and help somebody, whether it's an individual or a family or a village somewhere or a school. We all have a duty to make the world a better place.

The Best R&B Group You've Never Heard Of

| Mon Apr. 7, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

The "5" Royales
Soul & Swagger: The Complete "5" Royales 1951-1967
RockBeat

 

the 5 royales soul and swagger

Their songs were covered by everybody from James Brown and Ray Charles to Mick Jagger and the Mamas and Papas. Steve Cropper, the renowned Booker T and the MG's guitarist, recorded a tribute album celebrating the group, recruiting the likes of Steve Winwood and Sharon Jones to sing. Though highly regarded by R&B connoisseurs, the "5" Royales have never received the widespread acclaim their hardcore fans believe they deserve, but a new collection intends to change that. Packed with raucous uptempo stompers and spine-tingling ballads, the essential five-disc, 141-track set Soul & Swagger makes a persuasive case for the Winston-Salem, NC group's greatness. The key ingredients in the Royales' sound were the pleading, gospel-tinged tenor vocals of Johnny Tanner and the stinging, bluesy guitar of Lowman Pauling, and while "Dedicated to the One I Love" or "Think" might be the initial standouts, there are dozens of other equally exciting tracks here. Check out "Monkey Hips and Rice," "Catch That Teardrop" or "The Slummer the Slum" and prepare to be converted. Resistance is futile!

San Fermin: From Classical Concept Album to "Orchestral Indie Rock"

| Mon Apr. 7, 2014 3:00 AM PDT

San Fermin didn't start out as a band. In the summer of 2011, Ellis Ludwig-Leone took his newly earned degree in classical composition to a secluded artists retreat in Canada and returned with a 17-song score for 22 instruments, which he titled San Fermin. Even after recording it, with 22 musicians, "It didn't feel like a band yet," he recalls. "It felt like an album I had made."

But Ludwig-Leone (a fitting surname) wanted to perform his composition, so he set about recruiting a smaller, core group to do it live. "The idea was to find players who could read music well, and who could also exist in a rock band setting," he says. As a result, San Fermin the concept album evolved into San Fermin the band, whose powerful sound matches the album's elaborate layers while upping the rock. The eight-member ensemble, which includes a trumpet, baritone sax, and violin, creates swelling climaxes and tight harmonies reminiscent of The Dirty Projectors, landing in a genre Ellis defines as "sort of orchestral indie rock." I caught up with Ludwig-Leone, who handles the band's keyboard duties, along with Stephen Chen (sax) and Mike Hanf (drums), in advance of a sold-out San Francisco show.

The dynamic between concept album and rock band is just one of San Fermin's underlying contrasts. Ludwig-Leone loves "when a song has something in it, and also has the exact opposite in it, and they somehow coexist." Consider "Sonsick," written just months after his college graduation. It's about young adulthood and the realization that "your decisions have long-range consequences at that time in your life." The song "feels like a party, but it also feels like a panic attack. And those two things together have this weird friction."

"It's not just candy," he adds. "It's got some salty aspects to it as well."

The album hinges on a back-and-forth dialog between characters with opposite ideologies. There are emotional, grandiose lyrics sung in Allen Tate's deep bass, countered by the down-to-earth responses of Rae Cassidy. (On the recorded version, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius share lead female vocals.) Ludwig-Leone establishes tension by "having the male and female voices sing very different things," a device he expects to continue in the future.

San Fermin is noteworthy for its precise musicality. "A lot of people studied theory and composition in this band," drummer Hanf explains. "We read into it a bit to make it sound good." Several members boast a mixture of classical training and rock band experience.

"They are bringing the creativity of people who actually write music to their parts," Ludwig-Leone says. "Probably 50 percent of Steve's notes at this point are embellishments of what I once wrote." Chen, the saxophonist, doesn't deny it, and adds that his bandleader "just discovered a new line that I've been playing."

"It's well-balanced," Hanf chimes in. "It all goes back to Ellis to make sure everything's cool, but the people who want freedom to try new ideas, have it. I improvise a lot, pretty much every show. And if it sounds good, it sounds good. If it doesn't, it gets nixed. It's kind of nice to have one person be like, yes or no." He says the band's willingness to experiment gives the live shows a "state of tension" that's exciting for the performers as well as the crowd.

Ellis agrees. "On the record, it's one thing, because that's a document. I want to control a lot more on that. But once you start playing live, if you're not using the talents you have, you're just being a stupid bandleader. And it gets boring."

The song "feels like a party, but it also feels like a panic attack. And those two things together have this weird friction."

As San Fermin develops further, fans seem to like what they're hearing. "I'm doing taxes—oh my god, such a terrifying thing anyway," Ellis says. "I'm going through the receipts, and even from September it's crazy to see the number of people who were in the room. We've seen a lot of very explosive growth. The first time we played in Portland, there were 90 people. When we were back, there were 400, and there was a line out the door—it was oversold."

"We always ask people at the merch table, 'How did you find out about our band?' It's useful for us," Chen says. They credit Sirius XMU and NPR, including a Tiny Desk Concert in October, with bringing in early fans.

Hanf notes that they also benefited from the endorsement of "Paul Krugman, of all people! That was the funniest one, I think. He was backstage [before their Bowery show] with Peter Sagal, just drinking beer on the couch."

"Such a surreal backstage!" Ludwig-Leone exclaims. "I had to get out of there, it was too much. It was like every person my dad listens to on the radio!"

The attention is paying off: San Fermin heads for Europe in April, returning to the United States in time for performances at Firefly, Summerfest, and Lollapalooza. Chen says the small stages they started out on "definitely constrained our ability to jump around and interact with each other physically. At festivals, we get a nice big stage. People are hearing the music in a cool new way, and also getting to experience our band visually."

Watching San Fermin live in San Francisco, it's obvious they're having fun—coming to the front for solos, dancing around, and playing off one another and the audience.

None of this was what Ludwig-Leone pictured when the band first came together. "I thought the prime place for us to play would be performing arts centers, because the album itself is really lush, and there are some songs that rock hard, but it's really this sort of introspective thing. And now I actually feel the opposite: When we play at seated venues, we're a little freaked out, because we're so used to revving up a crowd at a rock club...So there's this weird give and take, where you have to be able to do the chamber music sound, and also the rock band sound."

Somehow, San Fermin makes it all work. "It feels greater than the sum of its parts to me," the bandleader says. "There's all sorts of stuff in there that wasn't there when I wrote it, and is very specific to our live show. I think 'The Count' is our favorite thing to play live. That's the song where we take it the furthest out—like totally off of the page."

Hanf explains: "It goes straight from composed music to like eight bars of entropy, [then] right back into where we were before."

Behold. (The entropy begins at 2:25:)

Now, as Ludwig-Leone composes San Fermin's followup album, "I think of everyone as I write for their parts." Inspired by what the group has done with songs like "The Count," he says the upcoming album "feels like it's often very controlled. Small, small, small…big crazy…small, small, small. That's the energy you get from having a band doing their own thing. That's one of the many ways that touring has shaped the writing process."

While writing San Fermin, he "didn't have the luxury of hearing songs until we recorded them, so I would bring people in one by one. But now I write the song, give people the music, we try it live, and then we can make adjustments. It's much more personalized to the players."

The band members are busy with other projects, too. Ludwig-Leone recently composed a score for a ballet. Chen doubles as sax for Great Caesar Band. Hanf, who has put out solo records and serves as an "on-call, hired gun" drummer, says San Fermin marks "the first time I've actually drank the Kool-Aid" and spent months on the road with a single band.

The side projects are helpful for San Fermin. "I think that's one of the things that really makes this band work," Ludwig-Leone explains. "There's so much creative energy in the band, but at the same time, the writing—it comes from me. I think we avoid some of the pitfalls of having a bunch of different cooks in the kitchen, because these guys all have their own creative outlets."

Unsurprisingly, the members of San Fermin draw their musical influences from a variety of sources. "I would say that literally every kind of music has been played in the tour van," says Ludwig-Leone.

"We've gone everywhere from Whiskeytown B-sides to obscure classical music to Taylor Swift," Hanf adds. "And we love music. We're dorky about it; we really get excited when we listen to good records or when somebody throws on something new." Ellis draws inspiration from the "big, concept-y records" of Sufjan Stevens; the first time he heard Illinoise was "a very formative moment."

"But being in the van is amazing, because I swear to God it's everything. Even things you wouldn't think would get in the van. Like, the most intense screamo music, it's there. At least 50 percent of the music Rae listens to was recorded before 1930. It's really all over the place."