The Lynnfield Pioneers
The Lynnfield Pioneers may very well be New York’s best kept secret. Though their urban garage funk is obviously the product of the city that they call home, the sound also fits easily into a model of our ever-expanding, yet ever-shrinking world; the trio of fervent record collectors have so many influences that the music sometimes ceases to have any discernible point of origin whatsoever. Of course, if this modern life were truly represented by the Brooklyn group, then pre-millennium tension would be a whole lot more fun.
Shortly after forming in 1995, the Pioneers released a trio of singles on their own Lampshop imprint, the first being the triple whammy of The Newport EP : “Newport,” “Automatic,” and “Sabbatical”. “Newport” is a raging shoutalong, Dan Cook’s Farfisa organ bleating and wailing while he does the same. “Sabbatical” was a single’s single, a breakbeat dream of adolescent intentions. The sound quickly piqued the interest of jaded music lovers across the tri-state area, one of who was Matador Records don Gerard Cosloy. After an awkward, two year courtship, he signed the band, consisting of Cook (he of the angular guitar, Moog, wheezy, skittering Farfisa, and half-sung, half-ranted vocals occasionally reminiscent of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon), Mike Janson, who adds the other angles on his guitar and windpipes (though, to be fair, they’re often the same angles, bumping into one another at awkward points), and percussive powerhouse JP Jones, whose beats make Russell Simmons sound like he’s sucked down too many glam pancakes in cough syrup.
The Pioneers have been called everything from “Kraut-rap” to just plain “wrong”; their first Matador release, 1997’s Emerge , was a minimalistic rave-up of hip-hop punk rock that bopped and screeched along as if Rancid had never happened. The rawness of Emerge , with its deceptive, soft-focus cover art and sloppy, dynamic insides, may have been a bit too stark for the indie audience at large, and the boys went back to the drawing board. The result is Free Popcorn , to be released on May the 18th, and I shit you not, the platter blazes like a record store roof on fire. From the Shaft-like opening strains of “Astral Plane,” to the lazy, fuzzy punk guitar cacophony of the disc’s stoned closer, “Get Into It,” it’s clear that the Pioneers aren’t just fucking around anymore… this time, they’re really fucking around. The disc’s held up in the middle by a triple crown: the sparse, interstellar groove of “Anamaxamander”; the laid-back shout-out insanity of the title track (did he just say “Toulouse Latrec”?); and then the jump-up-and-down shredder “Exoskeletons.” The record’s definitely spacey, letting the band’s allegiance to the funk side show through plain enough; “Accolades,” featuring Home’s Brad Truax on bass, is full of blustery bravado and beats, like Bootsy and the Beasties gone to Berkeley. The songs segue in and out of tune, up and down and around definable styles, the common threads being a loosey-goosey song structure and an ass-shakin’ sensibility. It’s party music, to be sure, but the partygoers are hopped up on amphetamines, and the house band is the Mark E. Smith Intergalactic Explosion.
I called up the affable JP Jones at his Brooklyn abode, where he rested, full of brisket and Manischevitz, fresh from a seder at his wife’s family’s house.
So, how was the seder?
I wish it was more serious. I grew up in a Catholic household, and I never believed in Catholicism, but I’ve always been drawn to the Jewish religion. I appreciate when it’s serious, and I’m not even Jewish.
But you guys are such a fun band! It’s strange to hear that you value solemnity like that.
It’s really weird, but making this record, we took it seriously, and our goal was to make sure that people danced and had a good time. It made me realize that with our first album, how our seriousness came through, even though we totally didn’t mean for it to be that way. We thought of Emerge as being a happy, punk-pop album, with weird stuff going on. And I think that, in the end, people just took it too seriously, like it was art-rock or something. But with Free Popcorn … when we came back from our final tour for Emerge , we knew that no matter what the songs would be like, we knew that the next album would have to be fun.
Even the name…
Yeah, we made sure that even the title reflected the nonseriousness of the matter.
My impression of Emerge was that it had a sort of circuitry fire sound to it; the new record’s got a much more 110% energy to it, like everything connected and the juice is on full. Do you think that you’ll finally escape the lo-fi label, once and for all?
We sure as hell hope so. The funny thing about the lo-fi tag is that the only thing we really think of as lo-fi is our first single, because we recorded it at an eight-track studio. Our second single, the one that really broke things open for us, was recorded in the exact same way that we recorded Free Popcorn , in the exact same studio. This new album is 24 tracks, but we sure as hell didn’t need to use 24 tracks. For us, it’s always been funny that people say “lo-fi.” We don’t hear it that way, and I definitely don’t think that Free Popcorn is lo-fi; it’s stereo hi-fi, guaranteed to get the party happenin’.
You didn’t just play drums on the record…
No, I did not. Last year, we started to fool around with playing different things. Mike and I switched instruments, because Mike wishes that he could play the drums, like me, I guess. I like the way that he plays drums, and the drums are the last instrument that I learned; guitar was the first instrument that I learned, when I was about twelve, and I got to play guitar on this record, on “Real.” That’s also the song that Mike plays drums on. I play keyboards on songs, bass on some of the songs, as did Mike, and that definitely contributed to freeing up the record, having Mike’s rhythmic ideas, and my harmonic ideas, to play off.
There’s some mysterious instrumentation on Free Popcorn that I just can’t figure out. Is that a sitar on “Open Spaces”?
That’s actually just Mike’s guitar, with the treble all the way up. We were recording the song, and he came up with this solo, and the notes that he came up with were really interesting. When it came time to actually lay the solo down, he did something to the amp and to the guitar, and all of a sudden it sounded like a sitar. That’s one of our favorite moments on the record.
And what’s that sound on “Anamaxamander”? The one that sounds like a trumpet being played backwards?
“Anamaxamander” is one of the songs that I produced, under my nom de plume of DJ Squirrel. That’s a sample from a very old, Turkish record of traditional music. It’s some instrument that no one can really identify; it might be an aud, though I’m not quite sure. I also produced the track “Time to Get Dumb.”
Where did the DJ Squirrel name come from?
Well, when we went on our first tour, a couple of years ago, the band discovered that I have this fairly uncanny ability to remember the places we need to go within a city, like between the club and the hotel. Mike and Dan used to say that I was the Squirrel, that I could remember all of these different roots, like nuts. When we started fooling around with the sampler, and coming up with the more hip-hop tracks, one of them said “DJ Squirrel’s at work.”
I can picture you running around, picking up pieces of popcorn.
Right, because DJ Squirrel stores up the nutty beats, so when it’s time to spill ‘em, he’s got a whole cache.
I really like the idea behind the cover for Emerge : that it represents something that you’re not. Your sound is definitely easier to pin down in a subtractive sense, as opposed to what it’s made of. In a word, what’s the latest thing to be left out?
In a word?
Yeah… what’s the one thing that the Lynnfield Pioneers are definitely not right now?
First of all, I want to tell you, that’s a really good question. There’s, like, three things I want to say, but I have to pick one.
Well, you can pick more than one, if you really want.
No, I like the idea of simplicity. I don’t want to say that we’re not serious, because I don’t want to make it sound like we don’t give a shit. We do give a shit. The thing I want to say is, we are definitely not in the mood to not have people dancing at our shows. We are definitely not in the mood for bad attitudes; we want people to dance. We want people to bob their heads and move.
Since I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing you play live, describe your live shows as opposed to the records.
We used to be called chaotic, and the three of us could never understand what was chaotic about it, because we don’t jump around and wear gigantic wigs. Although, we wish we did… we really should have worn wigs right at the beginning of our career. It really would have helped us a lot.
You could have been like Lynnfield and the Angry Inch.
People described us as chaotic, and we never saw it that way. We came to realize that they were describing the sounds that they heard. People used to just come and stare at us; that’s a big New York thing; people are there to listen to you, and be serious. And we’ve always hated that. Now, we’re going to be touring with a bass player, since there’s bass throughout this record. Hopefully now, with a bass player, our live show is going to be one big party. People just drink a lot, and when we start to play, they just move.
What’s up with the tour?
We’re going to start the tour about a week before the record comes out, and we’re going to go till the beginning of June. Then we’re going to take a couple of weeks off, and then go back out again.
Is it true that your bass player broke his leg?
Yeah… John [Heneghan] works at the place where we rehearse, and there’s a basketball court a couple of floors down. He was playing a game and he came down on it wrong, and it snapped in two pieces. That was about two months ago, and he hasn’t been able to work, because he has a big old brace on his leg. We’re hoping that he still has the brace when we go out on tour. It makes him look really tough, ‘cause he’s a big, tough-looking guy, even though he’s a really sweet teddy bear. With the leg brace, nobody will fuck with us.
So they’d better dance.
Exactly… or they’ll be sorry.
Getting back to the people standing around with their arms crossed… you guys got some pretty quick response from some seriously jaded folks…
Yeah, we were really happy about that, and we were really surprised. We knew, right at the beginning when we started playing together, that the three of us were going to make music that we liked. We put out our first single, The Newport EP , and we didn’t play a live show till five or six months later. So, when the first couple of shows were announced, there were actually people who wanted to see what we were about. Fortunately, that included some people that helped us move things along.
Like Gerard Cosloy?
Yeah… and Evan Dando. Thank god for Gerard, and that he loves us and supports us, but, hey, Evan Dando was at our third show, and he was really happy about our performance.
Too bad you couldn’t do more for his career.
I know… I wish we could. We’re thinking that maybe he could produce our third record.
So do you ever feel overshadowed by any of the bigger guns at Matador? Or is the label just one big happy family?
I wouldn’t use the word “overshadowed.” When we signed to Matador, in the beginning of 1997, Pavement had a career already… Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was blowing up, and Liz Phair was a burgeoning superstar. People had heard of Railroad Jerk, they had made a couple of records, and here we are, coming on there… it’s not that we felt overshadowed, but we definitely wanted to follow in the tradition of those bands. But, as we put out our second record… we were really sad that Emerge didn’t get a fair listen with more people. We’re looking to the release of Free Popcorn to bring our stature up to the next step. The three of us still have a lot of great music inside us, and it’s only going to help if people give the record a chance. And I’d rather be on Matador than on a label like Island.
Especially since they’re not around anymore.
Well, it sounds like it’s time for you to go.
Yeah… it was nice talking to you, Stefanie.
It was great talking to you, too, JP. Good Pesach.
Thanks… Chag Sameach.