Friday, September 12, 2014

Dan Vallor On Reissuing Game Theory's Blaze Of Glory


I had the privilege of chatting with Dan Vallor, who co-produced Omnivore Recordings' recent reissue of Game Theory's first LP, Blaze of Glory. Originally released in 1982, Blaze of Glory has been unavailable in its original mix since shortly after its original, limited release. Dan and I chatted about this reissue, the late Scott Miller, and Omnivore's plans for the rest of Game Theory's long out-of-print catalog. Dan's enthusiasm for Game Theory's music and his determination that his friend's music be released with the love and care it deserves was evident at every moment during our conversation.

Could you give me a little background on your involvement with the band?
I met Scott and the band in the late winter/early spring of 1983, shortly after Blaze of Glory came out. I was introduced by a friend of mine who was a DJ at San Francisco State's college radio station, and was friends with Steve Wynn [Dream Syndicate] who was at UC Davis's radio station at that time. Scott was friends with Steve, and so we met through that connection.

And you served as a tour manager for them?
Yeah, I was their tour manager and sound engineer. My first tour was after Distortion was released and shortly after Real Nighttime was recorded, so this was the Fall of 1984. I had done some tours with Tav Falco's Panther Burns, The Rain Parade and The Long Ryders and I had worked with Game Theory around California and after Distortion came out. After Distortion's release we did a cross-country tour that ended rather catastrophically (we sacrificed the return home half of our tour when a better offer was dangled in front of us but that offer never came through…this resulted in a level of stress and poverty that eventually splintered the band). And then we did another tour in '85 with a new line up (just Scott and I from the prior tour) when we recorded Big Shot Chronicles in Winston-Salem. And then I took some time off and didn't do any touring for several years until the last lineup, the unreleased lineup, with Jozef Becker and Michael Quercio. We did a couple brief West Coast trips with that lineup. That was, by far, the best of all of my touring experiences.

I think there might be a track that came out on the Tinkers To Evers To Chance compilation from that lineup.
Right. Scott had mixed feelings about some of the original recordings on some of his older material. At the time, he wanted to re-record an Alternate Learning [Scott's pre-Game Theory band] song. He very much wanted things to be in a perfect state based on where he was at a given time creatively. So he wanted to re-work some of the original tapes, re-record some things, remix other things. He did that for Tinkers To Evers To Chance and for the Distortion of Glory CD that was released on the Alias label.

But Blaze of Glory is coming out now in its original form, re-mastered from the original master tapes?
That's correct. The band formed in August 1982, and I think they recorded Blaze of Glory in December of that year. It was fast-moving because by late winter it was out. And that's what you hear with this release.

I was curious about the artwork. I've never seen a copy of the original album, and I go to a lot of record stores.
You wouldn't have necessarily seen it unless you lived in Northern California, the Sacramento/Davis or Bay Areas. I think Scott sent some out to some radio stations and record stores to try and get greater distribution. But, the album was pretty hard to come by outside of Northern California.

So it was originally packaged in a garbage bag?
It was packaged in a small, white kitchen garbage bag. Inside was a lyric sheet and on the outside were stickers pasted onto the plastic bag. The Omnivore LP reissue is on a plain white sleeve with stickers that are similar to the original stickers that were pasted on. It was their idea but it's pretty much what my original copy looks like now, because storing an LP in a plastic bag is not really ideal. I remember the day we left for the tour in '84, I had a stack of the LPs that were already slightly warped from not being stored in jackets. I gave them all to a DJ friend from Berkeley who had driven up from the Bay Area to see us off.

That can be problem that with innovative packaging for LPs. You'll find that with copies of Public Image Limited’s Metal Box too.
Yeah it's funny, the first Alternate Learning 7" EP, which well preceded Blaze of Glory, was packaged with about ten pages of small inserts of varying sizes inside the sleeve, and some of those warped as well because there was so much bulk inside the sleeve. That imaginative packaging that Scott did was great, but sometimes it was hard on the vinyl.

Whose idea was to get this stuff reissued? Who was the prime mover behind this project?
Well Scott and I had been working on getting things out again for quite some time before he passed. And it was kind of a long process that had become rather frustrating. He had turned the effort over to me to figure out where to get them reissued. After he died it took a while for me to have the strength to revisit the project, it was hard but I eventually continued to work on it…it remained as important to me as it had been to us.

So this is very personal for you?
Yes. Immediately after he was gone I was sort of out of my mind. I couldn't think about reissues. Then in December of last year I tentatively approached a label that I thought he would've been really happy to be on, and they were very receptive but it didn't fit into their release schedule. Essentially we were in the midst of conversations with that label when I got a note from Robert Torin (who was the photographer for Game Theory and Loud Family) saying I should talk to Jonathan Segel from Camper Van Beethoven. They were in the process of reissuing their Virgin albums on Omnivore and Jonathan approached me and asked whether we would be interested in working with Omnivore as well. I knew Pat Thomas from his days in San Francisco (he owned Heyday Records and released albums from Barbara Manning, Chris Von Sneidern, Crazy Horse and many more), so when the discussions with the first label broke down, I went straight to Omnivore and said "let's do this." It was very easy to come to terms with them and they were very enthusiastic. Most importantly for me, Omnivore were in total agreement with Scott Vanderbilt (whose label owns the original albums) and myself about releasing these albums without exploiting Scott's passing and with respect for Scott's family.
I can't say enough good things about Omnivore. I knew we were in the right place when Pat went to pick up the original master tapes from Scott Vanderbilt, and he had all these boxes of tapes in his car, and he called me and said it was emotionally overwhelming for him to have all that stuff with him. To be honest, it was emotionally overwhelming for me to hear his response and to know that the tapes were finally in the hands of a label committed to doing them right after all these years. When you hear something like that you really know you're in the right place.

Were the original master tapes all available and in good shape?
Yeah. So far everything has been usable. We had some trouble finding a few tracks, but ultimately we located everything. We had to bake the tapes to make sure that they were pliable so they wouldn't fall apart when they get put on the machine. We have all of the original recordings and they sound excellent. 
Beyond that, when I was working with the band I sort of obsessively archived and documented them. I would frequently run the sound that I was mixing into the PA and run a sub mix into a tape recorder to record their sets. So I've got a whole lot of live recordings. And Scott had also turned over a whole lot of recordings to me over the years (I suppose he was less sentimental about those sorts of things than me in many ways…probably less of a hoarder too). Scott gave me a lot of recordings that no one had ever heard and we did some recording together as well. Kristine, his wife, and I went through what he had kept, and I'm working on doing high resolution 32 bit digitizations of those tapes for Omnivore. There's a whole lot of unreleased material. Some of it is unusable, and some of it is transcendently beautiful. For instance, for Blaze of Glory we reached all the way back to junior high. We used some little humorous tapes that Jozef [Becker] and Scott made when they were in seventh or eighth grade. He and Jozef would do these little musique concrète kind of things, little experimental vignettes, mashup kind of things. And what I guess you could call little skits. They were sort of done in an Ernie Kovacs style (he was an experimental comedian from the late 50s early 60s). 
We also took one track off the first Alternate Learning EP, three tracks off the Alternate Learning album, and then a batch of songs that Scott had given to me. And we had some good live takes that were from the original version of the band. These came from a local show in Sacramento and a live in the studio radio broadcast from when the band was first starting out. 
Have you heard of The Twinkeyz? They released two singles in 1977, one was called "Aliens In Our Midst." It was this amazing DIY record and is considered a classic by the DIY crowd, and I agree with that assessment. The band broke up in around 1979, and we included a recording of the leader of The Twinkeyz, Donnie Jupiter, making his first appearance since the band broke up performing with Game Theory. That’s one of the bonus tracks on the album.

Dan shared a lot of information with me about the other upcoming Omnivore Game Theory reissues, but since the details are still in flux out I can't share them with you (yet). What I can tell you is that all of the original Game Theory releases, both EPs and full length albums, will be represented. Current plans include a special "golden ticket" item that will be randomly included with one of the releases. All the albums will be remastered from the original master tapes, and each will include bonus tracks. There will be some unexpected covers, and at least one song will appear as a bonus track in a much longer version than was previously released.

In addition Dan told me:
All the bonus material that was on the Alias CDs of Real Nighttime and Big Shot Chronicles will be on the Omnivore releases. Although there are a couple switches. The Alias version of Real Nighttime was taken straight from the Enigma CD that was very briefly available. So it was basically the same digital master used by both Enigma and Alias. And the mistake that they made on Real Nighttime was they took the cover of Todd Rundgren's "Couldn't I Just Tell You" that was recorded for Big Shot Chronicles and they put it on the Real Nighttime CD. And then they took the song "Faithless," which was actually Fred Juhos' (from the Real Nighttime lineup) song, and they put that on Big Shot Chronicles. So those and one other will be switched back to their proper places. It's the kind of small thing that I think needs to be corrected.

Now that you mention it, sound-wise it's kind of obvious that "Couldn't I Just Tell You" doesn't really fit on Real Nighttime. It does sound more of a piece with Big Shot Chronicles.
Yeah. Particularly the difference in drumming style between Dave Gill and Gil Ray. You know, Scott's work with drummers can't be understated. He picked great drummers with their own styles, and the drummers that he worked with tended to be very interesting and integral to the projects that he was working on. And the recording is also different. Real Nighttime was recorded in Newark, California in the East Bay, Big Shot Chronicles was recorded at Mitch Easter's Drive In Studio in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (where REM's early records and Pylon's wonderful albums were recorded). So it is a different sound with each recording.
Having received my copy of Blaze of Glory (on pink vinyl, of course), I can echo all the positive things Dan said about Omnivore. Every aspect of this reissue has been done right: the packaging, the liner notes, the bonus material, the sound quality. Omnivore even gets the little things like the metadata on the downloadable MP3s perfect. The music was beautifully remastered for LP by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio, and the pressing on pink vinyl is noise free.

The music itself is the work of an extremely precocious young man and his talented cohorts who are bursting with melodic ideas and discovering the power of the recording studio. Finally hearing the album the way it went down back in 1982 is a positively electrifying experience. Occasionally, Miller's grasp exceeds his reach, but the home recorded quality has a substantial charm all its own. If this were the last we heard of Scott Miller and Game Theory, Blaze of Glory would be hailed as an obscure masterpiece among those who dig smart pop music. As it is, Miller would go on to create better, more fully realized music, but this Blaze of Glory reissue demonstrates that everything that made Game Theory great was in place from the beginning, just sometimes in embryonic form.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Game Theory - Blaze Of Glory


In one of the earliest posts I made on this blog back in the far off land of 2006 I lamented the sad state of Game Theory's catalog. A lot has happened since then, including sadly the untimely passing of Scott Miller, but one thing hasn't: Game Theory's albums remain ridiculously hard to obtain legitimately and fetch absurdly high prices among collectors.  Fortunately, thanks to Omnivore recordings, that will not be the case much longer. They have just announced a series of expanded reissues of the much loved Davis, CA group's albums.

The first reissue, appropriately enough, will be the band's debut album, Blaze Of Glory. This looks to be something special because it hasn't been available since its initial release in 1982. (It was kinda reissued on CD by Alias years ago, but that version was remixed and some songs were later re-recordings). In all my years of record collecting I've never once seen a copy of this record in a store, and even I, Game Theory devotee that I am, do not own a copy. Omnivore's reissue will be remastered from the original master tapes.

The album will be reissued on CD, limited edition pink vinyl LP (black to follow), and as a digital download. It will feature 15 bonus tracks, including recordings from Scott's pre-Game Theory outfit, Alternate Learning. Omnivore promises reissues of Real Nighttime, Lolita Nation and other Game Theory favorites are on the horizon. Thank you Omnivore!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Jayhawks - Rainy Day Music Remaster


It's not often you see a remastered CD that is quieter than the original CD. But that's the case with the new reissue of The Jayhawks' 2003 album Rainy Day Music.

Waveform for "Tailspin" from Original CD (2003)
 Waveform for "Tailspin" from Remastered CD (2014)

Kudos to the Jayhawks and remastering engineer Vic Anesini for getting it right this time. The music really does sound much more natural now. The quieter remastering suits the gentle grace of the music better than the louder original mastering.

The album was originally recorded and mixed to analog tape by Ethan Johns and (from what I understand) the upcoming 2 LP reissue will may or may not be cut from analog tape. In the meantime, the new CD sounds really nice, and has 6 bonus cuts.

The vastly underrated Smile and Sound Of Lies have also been reissued on CD with bonus cuts, and will also be subject to 2 LP reissues. Just don't expect the same substantial sonic upgrade as with Rainy Day Music.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

R.I.P. - Tommy Ramone


Rest in peace Tommy Ramone.

I loved how I was able to record all three albums to a single 90 minute cassette ("Why Is It Always This Way?" got cut off just before it ended if memory serves). No records ever spoke more directly to my own sense of misfit-ism than these three, and that cassette became a constant traveling companion.

A couple memories: I used to wait on Johnny pretty regularly when I worked at Kim's Underground (video store in the Village). He didn't say much and rented exactly the kind of movies you'd expect: Z-grade horror films mostly. One day I found myself standing in line at Bagel Bob's next to Joey. He was impossibly tall and thin and frankly didn't look all that healthy. I never met Tommy or Dee Dee.

Generally when in the presence of famous people I leave them alone. I figure that's what they want. And that's how I treated Joey and Johnny. Just left them alone. I wish now that, when I had the opportunity, I had just said "thanks" to them. Their music changed my life. As a young person just knowing there were people like the Ramones out there made me feel better, and recognize there was something beyond the world I had experienced up to that point.

Tommy, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, from the bottom of my heart, thank you!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Summer Sauce



New mix up on Mixcloud. Full track list below.

1. "Everybody's Talkin'" by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
2. "Não Vou Chorar" by Os Diagonais
3. "Mentira (Chega de Mentira)" by Marcos Valle
4. "Stereotype/Stereotypes, Pt. 2" by The Specials
5. "lemon firebrigade" by Haircut 100
6. "Burning Desire" by Orange Juice
7. "Drumbeat for Baby [12" Version]" by Weekend
8. "Berimbáu" by Os Ipanemas
9. "Samba De Uma Nota So" by Os Cariocas
10. "Delicado" by Percy Faith & His Orchestra
11. "Send Me No Flowers" by Nellie McKay
12. "Way Down In The Hole" by Tom Waits
13. "Mã" by Tom Zé
14. "Panis Et Circenses" by Os Mutantes
15. "August Day Song" by Bebel Gilberto
16. "After Sunrise" by Sergio Mendes & Brasil '77
17. "Casa Forte" by Edu Lobo
18. "So Nice (Summer Samba)" by Astrud Gilberto
19. "Love To Know" by Marine Girls

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Yoko Ono With Yo La Tengo - Live At Glastonbury



Yoko Ono performed with Yo La Tengo at this year's Glastonbury Festival. Apparently this video is getting a lot of hits from sites calling it the "worst live performance ever."

Here is a sample commentary from a site I won't link to:

Oh my god. This is bad. John Lennon is surely turning in his grave, because Yoko Ono just had the worst live performance ever.

When the Plastic Ono Band took stage at Glastonbury, fans gathered all around the stage to watch Yoko perform, but there’s no way they could have predicted the ear-splitting squeals that she "sang" into the microphone.

I don't even know where to start with such ignorance. First off, I'll admit that Yoko Ono is not for all tastes. That is no secret. But the idea that John would be "rolling over in his grave" at this performance is laughable. John loved Yoko and respected her as artist. A lot people never understood that, or simply refused to accept it. But the fact is he was an enthusiastic participant in her musical projects, some of which were actually a lot less accessible than this performance (I've heard Yoko sound way more out-there than this).

And the idea that there is no way fans at the festival could have predicted her "ear-splitting squeals" is equally absurd. Maybe if they were "fans" who had never heard of Yoko Ono and thought they were attending a Miley Cyrus performance they'd be confused, but this is pretty much exactly what anyone with even a passing familiarity with Yoko would expect. And frankly, the audience looks to be very much enjoying what Yoko and Yo La Tengo were laying down.

Yoko Ono doesn't need me to defend her. She is a strong, brilliant woman who for over 80 years has blazed her own path in this world. And she's done so in the face of tragedy and the kind of hostility that would shatter the ego of all but the strongest among us. I salute her.

Also, does anyone know where Ira got that shirt? Because I want one.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Musicians React To Pono: What Are They Hearing?



There is a real medicine show quality to this Pono promo video featuring famous musicians (David Crosby, Sting, Dave Grohl, Elvis Costello, James Taylor, Tom Petty, etc.) testifying to the life altering impact of Ponomusic. Each one has just been apparently blown away by a comparison between a hi-rez Ponomusic file and either a CD quality file or an MP3, or maybe an iTunes file (it's not totally clear what they've been listening to, and no context is given).

I never want to put myself in the position of saying what other people do and do not hear. I especially don't like to suggest that someone has been taken in by the power of suggestion. So let me be clear: I have no idea what these guys did or didn't hear, and I am not trying to imply their reactions are anything but 100% genuine. I'm also not saying they were suckered into believing they heard things that weren't real.

But as someone who has spent a lot of time comparing the sound quality of various digital resolutions, it is hard for me to accept that these reactions resulted solely from listening to music files with increased sampling frequency and bit depth alone. I have to believe something else is at work here. Quite possibly the different versions they heard were represented by different masterings. I don't  know, and it's not like Pono provides any concrete details.

All other things being equal, the difference between hi-rez (24 bit) digital and CD quality digital (16 bit/44.1 kHz) is just not that profound. I'm not saying there aren't differences (there are) and I'm not saying those differences can't be heard (they can under the right circumstances). It's just that the difference is very subtle and difficult to hear, even for extremely experienced listeners with excellent hearing.

Don't believe me? Here's three different music files, each the same 30 second sample of Nick Drake's "Hazey Jane II." The first is a 24 bit/96 kHz version that I downloaded from Universal music. The second is a CD quality (16 bit/44.1 kHz) version that I generated from that same hi-rez version.* The third is a 192 kps MP3 created from the hi-rez version. Listen to each of them (preferably using some sort of ABX tester to make the test blind). Make sure whatever device you listen on is capable of 24 bit/96 kHz resolution (you might have to change the MIDI settings on your computer). Decide for yourself if the differences between them match the hype you see in Pono's video. Personally, I do not hear it.

"Hazey Jane II" (24bit/96kHz)
"Hazey Jane II" (16bit/44.1kHz - aka "CD resolution")
"Hazey Jane II" (MP3 192kps)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Philips SACD 1000


Throwback Thursday: My old Philips SACD 1000. What a piece of crap. I paid [I wont say how much] for this player, the second SACD compatible player to hit the market. Shortly after the 30 day trial period ended it began malfunctioning. I sent it to Philips for repair (under warranty) five times or more. It never worked for more than two weeks straight again. I followed various internet discussions about this player, and as far as I could gather nearly every single one of them failed and could not be fixed.

Eventually Philips refunded my money, and I even managed to sell the player to someone for a couple hundred bucks for parts (it had some very high quality components under the hood). But it was not worth the frustration.

 For a variety of reasons SACD (Super Audio CD) never really caught on, and Sony and Philips quickly all but abandoned the technology (which was supposed to be a major upgrade over CD sound). (Yes, I know that some specialty labels still produce SACDs).

I keep this photo as a reminder not to jump on every "big new thing" technology and to remain skeptical of marketing hype, especially when it is presented with a lot of technical jargon that I do not fully understand. I later discovered, through blind listening tests, that when all other things are equal, I am unable to hear a dime's worth of difference between SACD and CD anyway. It's one of many reasons I'm not exactly chomping at the bit to sign up for Neil Young's Pono music service.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

College Radio Show: WDCV 88.3 FM, April 1991

WDCV 88.3, Dickinson College, April 1991, DJ Pete Bilderback by Pete Bilderback on Mixcloud



This is another of my college radio shows that I recorded. I don't believe this was my finest hour. The tape is dated April 1991, so this would have been just before I graduated. I seem to have already checked out. Three times I just let a record run into the next track, including the entire three song b-side of Sebadoh's "Gimme Indie Rock" 7". On the positive side, I let a little kid do one of the station IDs. I recorded some Beat Happening LPs over side two of the cassette, so I'm guessing the show didn't get any better from there.

A lot of my better radio shows went missing when my car was broken into outside the 9:30 Club (in the nearby paid lot no less). Or at least, I'd like to believe they were better than this.

Includes music by: Antietam, Dogbowl, The Fluid, Hypnolovewheel, Icky Joey, TAD, Beat Happening, Azalia Snail, Fishbone, Sly & The Family Stone, Buffalo Tom, Bongwater and Yo La Tengo.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Robyn Hitchcock - The Ghost In You



Robyn Hitchcock has a new album, The Man Upstairs, scheduled for release on August 26th on Yep Roc. Produced by the legendary Joe Boyd (Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Pink Floyd, R.E.M., Chris McGregor) the album features a mix of covers and originals, including a lovely version of The Psychedelic Furs' "The Ghost In You."

Hitchcock has actually been covering this song on and off live for many years now, and it's nice to see it make an official album appearance.  Back in 1988, A&M Records released a different version as the b-side to a promo 12" of "One Long Pair Of Eyes" to promote the Queen Elvis album. This version was recorded live at McCabe's Guitar Shop on July 30th 1988. I've uploaded a recording of it to youtube for listening and comparison.

I quite like the new, more arranged version, but this stark, beautiful solo acoustic version is tough to top.