Having written and released fifteen albums of sparkling, literate, jangly-distorted indie rock since his band’s inception in 1987 (as well as four works of comedic literary fiction and one book on the early films of Wes Anderson), John Andrew Fredrick found himself confronting an issue frightfully prolific types like him often face quite late in their careers: how to do something new, something different. A further dilemma: he knew he wanted to make a quiet acoustic and electric guitar record, psychedelic, of course, but with minimal drums, if any; yet he fancied writing and recording a dance record.
A dance record without drums? Impossible! Or, at least—interesting!
“I imagined Syd Barrett joining New Order, who really are my favorite band—with just the kick drum, the 808 state or whatever it’s called, for the pulse. I hoped I’d to make something as a sort of reaction against the shoegazey wall-of-sound that was The Gospel According to John, which had just come out and had inexplicably done so much better than many of our other, earlier LPs had. Typical me: ‘Oh, that worked quite well, commercially and critically—now let’s get back to our roots in obscurity!’”
Witches!, the new TBW album, was written around a song called “The Beginning of the End”—a sonic acoustic saga of a newly-shacked-up-with girlfriend who claims she sees a ghost in the singer’s apartment, one who looks “exactly like” her. True story, Fredrick says. As he was already, much to his surprise and delight, putting the finishing touches on a novel about a witch (a modern one who’s a big fan of Irish-English indie legends My Bloody Valentine), he thought he’d write a record around the same theme, but with a twist. “Dark at times—bits and bobs—as our music’s been, I don’t really have a quote-unquote dark side. I’ve only read one ghost story in my life—Henry James’s “Turn of the Screw”—and I don’t like horror pictures or any occult things or even historical stuff like the witch trials in New England. And yet all this witchy witch stuff just came out of me, you know? Perhaps it’s on account of I’ve lived with a witch or two,” Fredrick laughs, “but I don’t think of witches as exclusively a female thing. I mean, I could be one. There’s something of the magician or sorcerer in every artist, surely. Indeed we conjure themes and images as they are said to do, you know.”
Speaking of themes, one that crops up in the course of the record has to do with magical, inexplicable happiness. Fredrick says he had a line that ended up in the lead-off track, “Dances For Sad Footsteps Slow,” that attested to his being very detached from people and from life—and yet unaccountably happy. A mystery. Whether it’s in the joyous song about friends from London (where John lives part of the year) in “From Hampstead Heath,” or newfound love, as in “When We First Met.”
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Mysteriously happy, then: as are many of the songs here. With an edge, of course. They float, and sting. They’re heavy and airy. Scary, yes, sometimes—but one of them is as poppy and soaring and bouncy as the black watch can get, and has gotten. “I thought I’d put one song in like the ones we’ve had minor radio hits with like “Terrific” (from 1991’s Flowering) and “Meg” (from 2013’s The End of When),” Dr. Fredrick, taking a break between classes at California Lutheran University where he lectures in English, observes. “We wouldn’t be TBW if we completely resisted or suppressed the urge to bouncily re-write ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ or ‘Dr Robert.’ Even though you might hear in our new LP the ghost of another classic band that haunted the famous studios at Abbey Road (hint: Waters, Gilmour, Mason, Wright). The Beatles,” Fredrick laughs at his own silly pun, “ghost us all the time. And in the super uptempo ‘Georgette, Georgette’ particularly.”
“Life is really weird—it goes by really wow,” Fredrick sings in the homage to the witches in Macbeth, “The Weird Sisters.”Doesn’t it, just—go by really quite wow? For it’s been thirty years since the black watch’s first album, St. Valentine, came out in 1988.
Is this the final TBW LP? Fredrick’s threatened to quit so many times he’s lost count. “I think of it more as bowing out quasi-gracefully. Yet I’ve written two or three new melodies since we finished mixing Witches! this past week, goddammit. I’m a bit concerned about me. Maybe I just can’t stop. I mean, nobody ever went to any old Victorian novelist and said: ‘You ought to quit, old boy or girl.’ Or a painter like Francis Bacon. Yet there’s this feeling with pop music that… well, I suppose it’s to do with tarnishing the legacy. Though our legacy as a pretty cultist band isn’t all that bright for me to be too concerned with it being rubbed away! Haha. The response to the last record, and the handful of friends and associates who’ve heard this one, has been overwhelmingly positive. Scott Campbell (Stevie Nicks, Shelby Lynne) did a great-as-usual job producing, as did Rob Campanella (The Tyde, Mystic Braves) engineering. Though no one believes me, I think I’d like Witches! to be the full stop, the icing as it were, on the discography. We started off with an album that was all anti-romantic love songs (St. Valentine), and this one is sort of pro-everything, especially being in favor of the wonderment of Time and how we are all, if we look closely enough, bewitched by our separate and relative existences. So maybe, at last, I’ve said what I had to say and it’s all come full circle. And yet… you never know! Maybe this is, as the song about the ghost-girlfriend doppleganger goes, just ‘The Beginning of the End.’ No matter what, I hope this record, yes, casts a sort of spell on the listener. That’s the most important thing—at least I think it is.”
John Andrew Fredrick—guitars, keyboards, percussion, vocals; Scott Campbell—bass, drum programming; Andy Creighton—lead guitar; Tyson Cornell—lead guitar; Rob Campanella—piano, guitar, melotron.