Interview by Scott Hunter, from Filler #2, 1994
Boston’s Come is THE band equipped to purge your innermost demons. In fact, few bands in recent memory cradle depth and tension with such stirring results. That’s not to say they’re all doom and despair. Invariably, Come offers redemption and sullied hope, epiphanies delivered via a cacophonous musical assemblage.
Singer/guitarist Thalia Zedek’s musical résumé could well read as a who’s who of seminal avant/art rock bands. Taking cue from her idol Patti Smith, Zedek immersed herself in the Boston scene of the early ’80s. Her work with Dangerous Birds (postpunk/pop) and Uzi (goth/thrash) solidified Zedek’s local reputation.
But it was her work with New York noiseniks Live Skull, longtime contemporaries of Sonic Youth and Swans, that gave Zedek a truly noticeable forum. Zedek’s final recording with Live Skull, 1989’s Positraction, still ranks as one of noise rock’s finest moments.
In 1991, Zedek hooked up with then Codeine drummer Chris Brokaw. Brokaw had started jamming (on guitar) in Boston with drummer Arthur Johnson and bassist Sean O’Briend. Johnson and O’Briend were both Athens, Georgia boys who’d served in local bands the Bar-B-Q Killers and Kilkenny Cats respectively. The merge with Zedek resulted in Come.
After a debut Sub Pop single, “Car,” they signed on to Matador Records and released the “Fast Piss Blues” single, followed shortly thereafter by their debut album Eleven: Eleven. Critical canonization was virutally unianimous as Come were hailed as the real “Blues,” and crowned by the British press with the usual overwrought superlatives.
The recently released follow-up Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, again with Matador, desembowels any supposed link with the “Blues.” The astringent chemistry of Come coupled with a vision toward a new kind of rock (a la the Patti Smith Group, Television) renders Don’t Ask Don’t Tell a true masterpiece.
We managed to interview Arthur and Sean immediately prior to their Halloween support gig for Dinosaur Jr. in the swanky backstage dressing rooms of Massey Hall.
I understand you were scheduled to headline your own gig two days ago at the el Macombo but that got blown off. What happened?
Arthur: We originally had a date in Toronto but because we were touring with Dinosaur they don’t really want us to be playing a show in advance because that would affect the draw — theoretically it would affect the draw — and that’s one reason we’re on the bill. They liked us and they also hoped we would increase the draw for this show.
Arthur: Yeah, theoretically…I’m not saying it would, that’s just the way promoters think and I can’t really argue about it.
That’s too bad because last time you played Toronto you were opening for Sugar and we were really excited about seeing you headline your own full set in a more intimate venue…
Arthur: Yeah, I’ve been to the elmo before, it’s cool and I guess it’s real historic. I know that Elvis Costello’s live record was made there…didn’t Stevie Ray Vaughn do an album there too?
Sean: The Rolling Stones…
Arthur: But this place (Massey Hall), Chris Brokaw our guitar player was telling us how this is where, like, one of the greatest jazz records ever recorded was done, a historic concert with Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus, so we’re really excited about playing here too.
Oh exactly, there’s definitely some history in this building.
Sean: Sound-wise it’s supposed to be preferable too.
So what’s the tour with Dino been like?
Sean: This is our first show.
Arthur: We’ve played with them before, we toured with them in England a year and a half ago, and we’ve done a scatter of shows with them in the States.
There seems to be a vortex in your sound which is unlike just about anything I’ve ever heard before. I hate using words like “cacophony” and “swirl” and stuff like that, but your sound has a really unusual pull but it doesn’t seem to be typically effects-riddled. Is that a process you actively go for in your production?
Sean: Well, we like that to be the outcome I suppose, but we don’t consciously make an effort to do that…
Arthur: It might be because we don’t listen to each other enough to play something more euphonious (laughing), so it ends up being a lot more noisier. I dunno, everybody gets into doing something they wanna do and sometimes, usually in a good way, there’s some creative abrasion.
Who does your production then?
Arthur: Carl Plaster, who’s our soundman tonight and on the Dinosaur tour, has been in the studio with us almost every time we’ve been in, and he co-engineered it with this guy Mike McMackin, who’s worked with Codeine.
He did the piano on the new record?
Arthur: Yeah, he did the piano and he was with us for the whole recording. But then, after doing one set of mixes with Mike McMackin, we ended-up needing to remix the entire thing and that was with Carl and a guy named Bryce…
Arthur: He’s worked with Pavement, he’s done just some great stuff, and he’s worked with Sloan.
There was a number of studio mishaps I understand.
Arthur: It seems to be everyone’s bread and butter…
Sean: Yeah, that’s the angle on this record. The angle on this record is that we overcame misfortune and natural disasters to put something out.
So Carl, who’s doing your live sound now and worked on the new record, had he been doing live sound for you previously?
Arthur: Yeah, he’s been doing a lot of live sound for us for awhile.
So you wanted to duplicate you live sound on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell?
Arthur: Definitely. He’s been working with us live…well, one of our first ever shows was opening for Dinosaur in Boston…
Sean: We didn’t really know him then.
Arthur: Thalia knew him and our manager had worked with him, and something just really clicked. He really seems to be into the band and he has a lot of ideas as to how he thinks we should sound–that really helps a lot, because it’s hard to go into the studio and really know how we’re going to sound or how it’s going as we’re recording and how to get a better sound.
I presume he’s a hands-off producer and just lets a lot of things go.
Arthur: Yeah, Carl’s not, like, he’s not twiddling knobs all the time…
Sean: I would say we want things to sound in the studio just like they do live, but a little better and more enhanced. And hopefully the best versions we can pull out. We have piano and some overdubs but we don’t employ too much studio stuff.
Oh no, I think the production’s amazing. As far as the songs themselves, do you come to the studio with the material all written or is there a creative process where you jam it all out?
Arthur: Usually we all get together and write a short story…(pause)…no, I’m sorry…
Hey, I like that…
Sean: We usually start with the endings first, then go backwards…
Arthur: Actually, our endings are usually the things we have the most problems with.
Sean: Yeah, we’ve got some new material but we can’t seem to get the endings of the songs straightened out.
So there’ll be some new stuff tonight?
Sean: No, not tonight…no, that’s a sticky point at the moment…
Arthur: I’m a slow learner. I’m a slow writer and an even slower learner. I’m having trouble.
Maybe you’re just a perfectionist.
Arthur: Um, yeah, a perfectionist with an unbelievably low standard of perfection. It’s just a little above something I can reach quickly. I think with Thalia and Chris, I dunno, I think they have a better handle on the new stuff we’re working on at the moment.
Sean: Yeah, I think definitely they’re songs that Thalia’s been working pretty heavily on during our time off, so she obviously has a pretty firm better idea what she wants to do with them.
Arthur: There are, for sure, some songs on our record that were written as jams like “Finish Line,” even several songs we did that had parts written for them where jams definitely got added.
Let’s Get Lost” sorta seems like one of those.
Arthur: Actually, y’know, the main part that comes up right before the break that god dah-dah-dah-duh, Thalia had the arrangements and chords and progressions and vocals all written, but I don’t know if that middle part was originally there or not.
Sean: I don’t think they were…
Arthur: It was just a matter of when we started playing that it sorta lapsed into that stutter beat rather than a straight rhythm. Thalia had it written more as a straight rhythm and… um…I don’t even know if she liked it originally, but we stuck with it.
Sean: It worked really well…
Arthur: Yeah, that’s just about my favorite song to play at the moment.
It seems like the album’s centerpiece — maybe because of the length of it, it really seems to stand out.
Arthur: Yeah, I think when we were recording it, it seemed like a song that needed a particular place on the record.
Sean: We definitely love “Let’s Get Lost” and when we were sequencing the album we figured it had to go somewhere in the middle. There’s a definite instrumental in that song.
Arthur: It was interesting when we were sequencing, Chris, in particular, was very particular and trying out a lot of really different things, and I think songs like “Poison” and “Get Lost” just clicked together, they seemed really great. Then we had one, “In/Out” and then “Wrong Side” that we thought were really good songs, then we stuck them together and it just seemed to really make total sense…
Sean: It was cool, one after the other. As far as the rest of the album, we got pretty argumentative at times (laughs).
Arthur: We could sometimes never decide, finally, things kept changing. I think we even actually went ahead and sequenced it, then went in and started to snip the tapes and put it all together, then we did the whole thing over.
On the first record it seemed as though initially there was a mutual admiration between everybody when you got together. Has this played itself out and you now think of yourselves as a unit?
Arthur: Do you mean (laughing) that we’ve now gotten a lack of respect for each other?
Sean: I don’t think there was any respect in the beginning…
Arthur: Yeah and we still don’t respect each other in the morning.
The band’s based in Massachusetts, but both of you guys are from Georgia, right?
Arthur: Yeah, Shawn and I are both from Athens.
Sean: Legendary Athens.
Arthur: We’re the underside of the legend.
Sean: The tail end.
Arthur: Yeah, we came out of the …what?…the third wave, is that right?
What was the first wave, the B-52’s and REM?
Sean: We were sort of on the back end of the second wave. We crested the second and third wave….
Arthur: We rode the third wave right down to the beach-head of Dreams So Real and other bands that wiped it out.
So you guys knew one another in Athens?
Sean: Yeah, I’ve known Arthur for, gosh, about twelve years. We’d actually lived together there…Arthur’s an amazing drummer.
As musicians, did you want to escape the whole Athens thing?
Sean: A little bit, yeah. That “been there, done that” kind of thing, and the band I was in at the time was getting pretty tedious. I guess you could put it down to the proverbial creative differences.
So you and Arthur both decided to move North then?
Sean: Independently, yeah. I had the occasion to get a job cooking on Martha’s Vineyard.
You could afford to live there?
Sean: Yeah, actually the place that hired me put me up, which was a definite plus, and that was my motivation for coming up. I was kind of thinking about becoming a cook at that time, thinking of going to a chef’s school and I needed some experience. Basically I needed to get out, so I moved to Martha’s Vineyard for the summer. Then Arthur moved up at the end of summer with his girlfriend, who’s he married to now, because she was going to Boston College. Then I moved to Boston. This was October of ’89.
So did you pack in the whole cooking thing?
Sean: After that summer I was still thinking about it…
What were you, like a sous chef or something like that?
Sean: I was working under the sous chef, six days a week, during the heavy tourist traffic.
Did you ever feel trapped on this little island with all kinds of filthy stinking rich tourists?
Sean: It was kind of cool actually, I never left the island once in the whole seven months. I just worked and drank, basically… went swimming.
So how’d the music get back into your life?
Sean: I’d never given up playing and when I was in Boston a friend asked Arthur and myself separately to play with him, and Chris, our guitar player, ended up playing with us too. We played just one show, but Chris liked the way he and Arthur and I played off of each other, and then Thalia just moved back into town, into Boston, and we need a singer.
How is Matador treating you?
Sean: (pondering) Oh, gee (laughs) they’ve been pretty great. They’re definitely a much busier label than they used to be, plus they have several bands all releasing things at the same time. They’ve got really great people, but they’re really swamped at the moment.
Arthur: For us it’s been a little difficult at times. I can understand that we’re not a priority as much as, say, Liz Phair is because they’re being besieged by all sorts of press reports and such.
We interviewed (Matador co-owner) Gerard Cosloy last issue and you were one of the select acts he cited as being really excited about.
Sean: Yeah, he’s been real supportive. Don’t get the idea we’re complaining. They’ve got a lot on their plate and, obviously, every band would like to get more attention than they do. The label’s going in all kinds of directions, it’s difficult for them, but you’re right, Gerard’s a big booster.
Well, you seem to have your own publicity department in the form of respect of other musicians who’re always talking about you.
Arthur: Yeah, we’re really lucky. Dinosaur asked us to do this tour with them.
Bob Mould’s a big fan, he mentions you all the time.
Sean: He’s cool that way, he’s a really big supporter. He’ll speak out and carry a band… he’ll put your name out there a lot if her really likes you, and he backs it up.
How does the distribution deal with Atlantic affect you?
Arthur: Um, I think the only effect on us is that it means when they need to give us money usually they’ll have some money to give us.
What sort of deal do you have with Matador, an album-by-album or a multi?
Arthur: Just the one album. We did it on the first and we asked to do it with the new one and they said that’s fine.
Isn’t that Matador’s general policy with most of their roster unless it’s somebody like Liz Phair?
Arthur: She’s on a multi-record deal, but she’s on Atlantic, and Atlantic wouldn’t let you sign with them and Matador for anything less than a multi-record deal.
It’s different for Pavement.
Arthur: Well, Pavement was the exception. When Atlantic and Matador had struck their deal there was no way that Atlantic could’ve gotten Matador and not get Pavement without having egg on their face.
Do you ever get fans at shows shouting out old Live Skull or Uzi song requests?
Sean: No… I think it might’ve happened a couple of times in Germany, maybe…
How well are you received over there?
Sean: We more or less play places like clubs over here, but we also play youth centers and a few places like co-ops that’re worse than that.
Arthur: It’s not like we get tons of fans at the shows over there but the ones that come out definitely seem to know our material — the record was out. They’ll yet things like, “Sad Eyes! Sadd Eitz! SADD EITZ!” It’s pretty cool. German fans can be really reticent at times, though, they don’t always want to come up to you and talk after shows. They just don’t do that.
Sean: I don’t know if it’s the language barrier or if they just don’t fell comfortable talking to bands. It’s great touring there, though, the fans are pretty enthusiastic.
How do you feel about the British press? Some of them have caught on to some of your element…
Arthur: The NME’s been slagging us. I haven’t read it yet but from what Chris said…
Sean: I had a feeling that would happen.
Do you generally try to ignore the press then?
Arthur: It’s hard to. I mean, if somebody writes something about you, it just seems like human nature that you’ll want to pick it up and read it. It’s hard to ignore. With the British press, there seems to be no middle ground — they’re either writing in superlatives about how it’s great or how it’s garbage, the worst. It’s all about extremes with them. I don’t mind that though. I don’t necessarily think that everything we do is gold. In fact, I’d much rather read a really strongly worded negative review than damning faint praise. Indifference is the worst.
If you read all the press about Come and hadn’t ever heard the music, you’d think that the band was a blues outfit. You’re always being referred to as “bluesy” — does that ever bother you?
Sean: I think it really did at first. It’s something we get asked about a lot and yet we never really hear it ourselves.
When the word “blues” is tossed around sometimes a big red flag comes out and scares people off.
Arthur: Yeah, somebody was telling us that. You don’t want somebody to get a notion of you that will affect whether they even listen to you, just because you’re described inaccurately with some generic term like “blues.” I mean, I like blues and that certainly wouldn’t prevent me from listening to it, but it would have me thinking about something else and I’d rather people not have that.
Then how’d you prefer to describe your music?
Sean: I guess there is sort of a bluesy feel to some of it…
Arthur: No, no, no.
Sean: But that’s not how I want it described.
Arthur: I’m always quick to quip off descriptions of other people’s bands but I decline to do it with our own.
Other than the radio, which probably never touches your record, the printed word is sometimes the only access that people unfamiliar with your stuff will ever get to learn about you before buying it for themselves. Have you made any videos?
Sean: We’ve made a couple of videos.
Are you happy with the way the band’s presented in them?
Sean: Hmm… two of them are good, but the one that actually got played on 120 Minutes…
That’s a big video show in the States?
Sean: Yeah, on MTV. I think they played it five times or something.
Arthur: One of the times we were the last video of the show so they were just running credits over it.
Sean: That video, “Submerge,” from the first record, was the one we had the biggest budget on. We needed a video really quickly so we hired a friend of ours to make it.
Arthur: It was done really fast — conceived, filmed and edited over a weekend and he had to get the props and help and stuff and everything. Considering that, it looks fine, really MTV quality which was the whole point. Unfortunately it makes us look really serious — which is what, I guess, we probably look like when we play — but we like to think we’ve got pretty good senses of humor and the video just makes us look kind of overly moody.
Sean: We just had some friends do some work on another video for us off the new record and we thought they did a great job. It’s a really goofy video and they try to depict each of our separate individual personalities.
Arthur: They didn’t tell us what everyone was going to do and worked with us each individually alone for a couple of hours.
So you’re not totally uncomfortable making them?
Arthur: No, not beyond what camera shyness I already have.
So they don’t have you preparing for like eight hours in a dressing room powdering up your faces?
Arthur: No (laughing)…. Sean did…
Sean: Get lost!
Arthur: You were too, for like 15 minutes to half an hour before you filmed your spot.
Sean: I was taking a shit. I didn’t know what I was going to do but I knew that I didn’t want to do it. I was dragging my feet.
Arthur: I thought you were all fired up.
Sean: It took Julie and Amanda, the video makers, to get especially pissed-off at me to get me off my ass.
Arthur: Yeah, but your stuff was the best thing in the video (laughing). Sean’s a natural performer, his stuff is hilarious.
Sean: Videos are a great thing but the whole MTV thing is pretty disgusting and gross. it’s totally fucked up.
Arthur: Yeah, for instance, they didn’t like it. Actually they didn’t see it — we were told that they wouldn’t like it so they won’t play it.
Sean: But getting on 120 Minutes before was a great chance for us to get seen by people who’ll never hear us on any big commercial New Wave or Modern Rock radio stations. None of those are playing us.
A support slot of Dinosaur’s great exposure.
Arthur: It is, but y’know, if it was me, I wouldn’t normally ever be coming to see us play this gig. I’ve always been a big fan of Dinosaur in the past but I just don’t like going to big shows and, besides, twenty bucks for a ticket is a lot of money to blow. I’d rather spend six bucks at a show in a club, I just don’t feel really comfortable about this. it’s just a lot of money for a show — you can buy two or three records for the same amount of money.
With a predominantly hardcore Dinosaur audience like tonight, does that affect your approach to playing live differently than if you were headlining?
Sean: We normally play a 45-50 minute show and we’re getting that tonight, so as far as the length of the show nothing’s changed. But it does affect certain song choices we make, but we’ve only just started the tour so it’s kind of hard to tell just yet what’s going to happen. Naturally, we’d like to be well-received. That’s the purpose of our being on this tour in the first place.
Well, good luck with the tour and we’ll look forward to seeing you the next time you headline.