Interview With Neal Casal

Posted in books, essays, music, photos with tags , , , , , , , , , on Wednesday, 2010 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

In 2010, singer/songwriter Neal Casal released his photo book chronicling his time with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, A View of Other Windows. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Neal recently for an intimate conversation about music, photography, and the Cardinals.

Todd Levinson Frank: You’ve obviously been documenting the Cardinals for a while, when did you think it could and would make a decent book? If the Cardinals hadn’t “ended” in 2009, would this book have still come out this soon, or did the timing work out that this book would put a nice bow on the Cardinals era?

Neal Casal: I didn’t know these photos would make a decent book until the book was about 90% finished. I doubted the quality of the work until very late in the game. Once it was finished though, I knew it was up to standards and that we had achieved something special.

I didn’t start taking the photos with the intention of making a book, I was just doing it because I loved to take photos of my band mates. The idea of the photos being a book came much later.

TLF: Both a guitar and a camera are instruments of art, tools of trades, and are dependent on their design and the technology utilized to bring them to life. But a song or a jam can be made up out of thin air, whereas a picture has to be taken of something. So playing music is creating (or recreating) something while photography is capturing and freezing something. What are some similarities and differences between how you approach the guitar and how you approach the camera?

NC: Music and photos are the exact same thing for me. A photo has to be taken “of” something, and a song has to be “about” something. A photo is a song and a song is a photo. They both come out of thin air, and they are both about capturing and freezing something.

There’s a dual action that exists in both of these mediums, and in all things when they’re operating at their best. If you look at the photographs I take, and the music that I make, you’ll see and hear very similar qualities in both. My individual aesthetic is applied to whatever instruments I’m utilizing at the time.

TLF: Musically, the Cardinals have been known to start at a jumping-off point, say, a song like “Easy Plateau,” and then just ride it where ever the jam goes. Have you ever (knowingly or accidentally) had a similar experience with photography? Like you set out to photograph a sunset and ended up finding a bunch of cool birds and bridges instead? Or maybe just head out for the day with your camera with no plan and see what you end up with?

NC: My photographic life is nothing but one jumping point after another, that’s all there is for me. I never plan photos or set anything up, so I just head out for the day and follow where the light leads me. Some days it’s great, other days not at all. You have to be prepared to roll with the ups and downs.

And if I am called to do a specific thing, it always ends up being something different than was originally planned. That’s what keeps it interesting for me.

TLF: Was this book already completely finished and “in the can” by the time bassist Chris Feinstein passed away, or was it a conscious decision to just celebrate the Cardinals and let him live on through the images and music as opposed to turning it into some sort of memorial?

NC: The book was finished and printed before Chris passed away, I want everyone to know this. If there was a chance to say something about his passing in the book, or to have made a dedication, or some appropriate gesture, we certainly would have. There are no words that can ever do justice to the way we all feel about this, but we certainly would have tried, or, at the absolute least, acknowledged it in the book.

TLF: I’m sure there were plenty of albums and bands that inspired you to want to play music. Are there any photographers that made you want to pick up a camera?

NC: The best thing about photography for me is that, unlike music, I started doing it with no influences at all. It was a totally free flowing thing and I wasn’t trying to emulate anyone. I had no idea who anyone was, I had no aspirations other than to just enjoy the incredibly liberating feeling it gave me. Well, I probably had some influences because of how much photography influences all of us, but it was a subconscious thing.

I didn’t study photography, I had no knowledge of it, I started doing it by accident. After I got better at it, I began to discover photographers, and now I collect books and try to see as much photography as I can. But in the beginning, I was truly working in a blissful little void of my own making.

TLF: Can you compare holding the final version of this book, all printed and ready, with holding your first real CD you recorded, complete with cover art as a finished product?

NC: There’s nothing like holding your first record in your hands for the first time, it’s such an exciting feeling that’s never forgotten. But honestly, this book gives me an even better than my first record did.

I guess it’s because photography was so much more of a long shot than music was for me. It’s the high point of my creative life so far.

TLF: A couple guys who I assume are heroes of yours, Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia, both dabbled with painting. Ryan Adams recently had a well-received art exhibit of his paintings in NYC. What do you think about the connection between music and the visual arts, or is it just natural that the creative mind of a musician is drawn to other artistic avenues?

NC: It kind of goes back to the thing we talked about before, which is that, in a way, all art is all the same. Guitars, cameras, and paintbrushes, are very similar instruments when you get right down to it. They’re just conduits to bring out your feelings and your point of view about the world and your life. This is an oversimplified statement, but I don’t like to over think these things. Just grab an instrument of your choice, dig in, and see what you can extract out of yourself.

TLF: In 2007, the Cardinals played a bunch of acoustic shows as Ryan recovered from an injury and couldn’t play guitar, he only sang. How did that challenge you guys to re-imagine the music and the live show? And is there a photographic analogy? Would it be like switching to a different camera, or lens? Or shooting in challenging light or capturing something in motion?

NC: Those “Blue Cave” shows in 2007 were great because it forced us to focus on details that had been passed over previously. It gave Ryan a chance to really concentrate on his singing, which was always great, but leaped to an entirely different level at that point. It forced the rest of us to really learn those songs, and come up with airtight arrangements that would translate in any live situation. It forced me to step forward on guitar, and for all of us to work on our harmony singing, and tighten down our playing. It was a very strong, hard working, era for us, and we made a huge progression as a band in a short time. In photographic terms, it’s like switching to a macro lens so that you can photograph the tiniest veins on a leaf.

TLF: Other reviews and interviews have mentioned that your inside access as a band member made this much more interesting than simply a book of tour photos captured by outside photographers. When did you start to feel like you were on to a real photo-journal that would capture a band and its moment in time, and not just taking a bunch of personal pictures of what you were doing (which happened to be touring with a band)?

NC: I’d been approaching my life as a real photo journal/journey long before I joined the Cardinals. I photograph almost every day of my life, so when I joined the band, I just continued doing what

I was already doing. It’s just one continuous stream for me. I don’t think of my photos as personal. I take them quite seriously and think of it more as documentary work. Even if no one but me ever sees them, that’s how I’m thinking of it.

TLF: Could you imagine touring with a band and capturing them just as an outside hired photographer? If you could go back in time and chronicle any tour as a photographer, what band/year would it be?

NC: I’d love to hang around with a band and photograph them as an outside guy. I think I could be really good at it. Well, I say that now anyway. Maybe I wouldn’t like it once I started doing it, but I’d love to give it a try anyway.

If I could go back in time, I’d like to be in the deep south, particularly Mississippi, in the early part of the 20th century, photographing the early blues music that was created there.

TLF: One thing captured in the book is some of the time you guys spent recording with Willie Nelson. what was that like?

NC: Working with Willie was an honor of course. Pool was played, whiskey was drank, joints were smoked, shit was shot.

Oh yeah, we recorded some music too. One of the highlights for me was sitting at the piano and teaching him to sing “Songbird.” He would ask me “Ok, how do you phrase this next line?” I’m thinking to myself “Willie Nelson is asking ME about vocal phrasing. Wow, is this really happening?”

TLF: Did you ever feel a bit more conscious when photographing Willie and Ryan? Like “okay, I’ve GOT to get some good pictures of them together, but still have it be natural and casual”?

NC: I’m always thinking that I’ve GOT to get some good photographs no matter who or what I’m shooting. There’s no difference between Willie Nelson and a leaf on a tree as far as that goes.

TLF: What are some of your favorite rock photos? There was always something about that one of Jimi Hendrix’s shadow on his amplifier that I thought was great. Are there any photos (or album covers) that you love or think of as the perfect link between music and photography?

NC: For me, Jim Marshall is the king of all music photography. His photo of early Dylan kicking the tire springs to mind immediately.

TLF: Can you envision doing another photo book? Say, just on scenery, or a random collection of photos?

NC: Music photos comprise only a fraction of my work. I have thousands of photos of other things and dream of one day creating a book out of them. It’s just a dream, but it feels good to dream it once in awhile.

TLF: The title A View of Other Windows comes from the Cardinals song “Evergreen.” How did you come to use that and what does it mean to you in terms of this book? Or was it simply an easy Cards-related title with “View” in it? What others did you consider? Any others from Cardinals song lyrics or titles?

NC: I searched around through Ryan’s deep well of great lyrics and came up with that title. It was the first name I came up with and much to my surprise, the publishing company accepted it immediately. It just works y’know?

I love the title because it suggests being able to see many different layers, or angles, of a particular thing. There’s mystery and depth there, and it’s kinda thought provoking in a way. It takes a minute to really think through all of the different things the title could mean. I like that.

TLF: It seems a lot of critics and fans see this book as a great snapshot (pardon the pun) of the Cardinals as a band. It provides both closure and tangible evidence of the memories. Do you know if there might be a live DVD and/or live CD that might also put a bow on the Cardinals era?

NC: I have no information about any of that.

Neal Casal captures Ryan Adams shamelessly showing off his Black Flag tattoo to one of his heroes Henry Rollins (who manages a casual, I'm-not-flexing flex).

TLF: I’ve read (usually direct quotes from Ryan) that there was a chunk of “rock” material recorded before and/or during the Easy Tiger sessions, tentatively titled Cardinals III/IV. What can you tell me about those sessions and the prospects of them seeing the light of day? (Does this crop include stuff like “Arkham Asylum,” “Trouble on Wheels,” “Typecast,” “Breakdown Into the Resolve,” or is it an entirely different crop that wasn’t played live?)

NC: There’s a truckload of great songs from both the Easy Tiger and Cardinology sessions that haven’t seen the light of day yet. We recorded so many songs, 4 or 5 records worth of material. We were pretty unstoppable there for awhile, pretty amazing when i stop and think about it. I have no clue what will happen with them. “Breakdown Into The Resolve,” I think we may have played that one live a few times. Yeah, we played “Arkham Asylum” a lot in 2006 too. I remember that now.

TLF: Wilco, Drive-By Truckers, Avett Brothers, Magnolia Electric Co., Jack White and his various bands, Bright Eyes/Conor Oberst, Ryan Bingham… these are some of the more popular contemporary artists that have a lot of fan-base crossover with the Cardinals. Do you dig on any of their albums, or ever have a chance to check some of them out live?

NC: It’s a great time for music these days. I listen to all of those records and try to keep up with what everyone is doing, there are so many good bands out there. As for songwriters, I think Conor Oberst is a really gifted lyricist, he’s always blowing my mind with some amazing turn of a phrase.

TLF: I know you’re primarily a “Stones guy,” but what are your favorite Beatles and Dylan albums?

NC: Well, I’m a Dylan guy first and foremost, and so is every other rock musician whether they know it or not. He’s the one who wrote the book for all of us, and that’s an inescapable fact.

Blood On The Tracks is the Dylan album that changed my life forever, but lately I’ve been listening to New Morning a lot. I go through different phases with all of his records. I listened to that song “Up To Me” the other day and wondered how a song so great could have ever been left OFF of a record. Dylan is the real king.

As for the Beatles, I heard the last few songs on Abbey Road as I was walking around in an antique shop today, and it really captivated me. Talk about putting a bow on the end of an era, a decade, and a band. What an incredible way to wrap things up. So sad, majestic, melodic, and poignant. A lot of people like to trash the Beatles but they really were such an extraordinary band.

TLF: Finally, what are your plans, musically, for the near future? Will you be getting back to doing solo albums/tours; will you be forming or joining a new band? Will Ryan or any of the other Cardinals figure into those plans?

NC: I figure I’ll always be out there making music in one way or another. Either as a solo flyer, playing guitar for someone else, taking photos, whatever it may be. I’m into it as long as it’s up to standards y’know? Cardinals family always figures into everything I do. Whether they’re actually there or not makes no difference. We all bonded in a way that will never change. We’ll be making music together in some way or another, that’s my prediction.

Too Bad HBO Hard Knocks Already Committed to the Jets

Posted in sports with tags , , , , , , , , , , on Monday, 2010 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

They should really send a second-unit crew of HBO’s NFL Hard Knocks out to Oakland for some Must-See reality TV. Interesting report out of the Bay Area: Raiders head coach Tom Cable claims that the conference call that he held with owner Al Davis and newly acquired QB Jason Campbell did not touch on the subject of who would start. Cable says there will be a competition among Campbell, Bruce Gradkowski, Charlie Frye, and Kyle Boller, and JaMarcus Russell.

Wow, look at that list of QB’s one more time. It’s like the Warm-Body All-Stars. Four QB’s cast off by the Redskins, Bucanneers, Browns, Rams (and Ravens), and a former #1 overall pick by the Raiders who’s pushing 300 pounds and pushing Ryan Leaf for biggest bust ever.

Well, at least they’ll benefit from throwing to Darrius Heyward-Bey! Wait….

The Top 10 Hip-Hop Albums of All Time

Posted in music, top 10 lists with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on Tuesday, 2010 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

Narrowing down the Best Hip-Hop Albums of All Time to ten is a challenge. If you search the internet and ask all your friends, you will likely get a lot of similar lists (but there will always be differences and debates). In fact, there could probably be a great top 10 list of incredible rap albums that were left off the list below (hence the 15 honorable mentions). Choosing only ten was difficult enough, so these are not ranked and appear chronologically.

Public Enemy – It Take a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
Please disregard any list of the best hip-hop albums of all time if this isn’t on it. Nothing ever sounded like this before, and only a few imitators and some other Public Enemy albums sounded like it after. “Bring the Noise” wasn’t just a song title, it was a mission statement. The music, the lyrics, the message, Chuck D’s clear delivery: this was an album that simply couldn’t be ignored.

De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
While Buhloone Mindstate or Stakes Is High might be their “better” album, there’s a reason “3 Feet High and Rising was and still is hailed as a classic. They made it cool to be peaceful and artsy. For better or worse, they practically invented the hip-hop skit and certainly broke ground by sampling off the beaten path stuff like Steely Dan and French language instructional tapes.

A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)
Straight-up beats, rhymes, and life propel this jazzy masterpiece into almost everyone’s Top 10. Often imitated but never matched, this is the kind of album that even impresses people who think they don’t like rap.

Nas – Illmatic (1994)
Perhaps the undisputed classic rap masterpiece. Expert beats and production from DJ Premier perfectly showcase the lyrical fury and on-point delivery of a young Nas on his incredible debut.

Gang Starr – Hard to Earn (1994)
A bit of a hidden gem here, though most hip-hop fans are down with Gang Starr (Guru and DJ Premier). They had several good albums, but this one is a real standout.

KRS-One – KRS-One (1995)
KRS-One probably deserves his own list collecting his Boogie Down Productions albums with his best solo stuff. Most lists usually have BDP’s By Any Means Necessary, and rightfully so. But this one is the true banger.

GZA/Genius – Liquid Swords (1995)
One of the first and best solo albums from the extended Wu-Tang Clan family. While it’s certainly hailed as a classic in the hip-hop community, this is the needle in the haystack that the masses have never heard of.

OutKast – Aquemini (1998)
The pre-cursor to their future classics like Stankonia and Speakerbox/Love Below, this one has all the elements and was so original and so perfectly executed by Andre 3000 and Big Boi. It not only put the South on the hip-hop map, it pushed the envelope of what rap music could be.

The Roots – things fall apart (1999)
It’s so hard to pick just one album from the Roots, and since their live show is so legendary, they aren’t usually found on lists of the best rap albums of all time, but they should be. “Illadelph Halflife,” “Game Theory,” the eclectic “Phrenology,” or raw “Do You Want More” could easily make this list. But “things fall apart” was hip-hop artistry from a band just hitting their stride.

Mos Def – Black on Both Sides (1999)
Mos Def’s collaboration with Talib Kweli (Black Star) could be in this spot, but Black on Both Sides gets the nod. It’s sprawling yet consistent, lyrically driven but very musical and textured. This is another great album that may have slipped through the cracks of the collective (un)consciousness.

Honorable Mentions:

N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton
Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die
Dr. Dre – The Chonic and Chronic 2001
Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP
Wu-Tang Clan – 36 Chambers
Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique
Black Star – Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Boogie Down Productions – Edutainment and By Any Means Necessary
Raekwon – Only Built for Cuban Linx (and pt 2)
Jay Z – The Blueprint
Run DMC – Raising Hell
EPMD – Strictly Business
Redman – Doc’s Da Name

Generation X: the Last Cool Generation

Posted in essays, misc.blurbs, music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on Wednesday, 2010 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

There’s been much ink spilled (back when ink and paper were still widely used) about Generation X (my generation, born in the mid-60s thru early 70’s). And then I think they named the next one Generation Y (or Generation Next or The Millennials), and now they’re up to Generation Z, or the iGen (ugh, talk about forcing it).

But long after Douglas Coupland’s novel of the same name put “Generation X” on the map, I’d just like to say: We are the last cool generation. For many reasons.

We remember life before Xbox and Wii. I played freakin PONG with two "paddles" (lines on the screen) hitting a "ball" (a dot) back and forth. That was it. That was the whole game. Now, just the commercials for video games look better than the movies we grew up on.

Not only did we wait for our favorite song to come on the radio, but we did so with our cassette players setup to record and then tried to release the Pause button right away to tape the song. In fact, I used to blast records through an old stereo, with a boom box sitting in front of the speakers so I could copy it to a tape.

We wrote letters on paper and sent them through the mail to be read three days later. We used phone books. We used payphones. We used maps. We had to research our school papers at the library, with encyclopedias. We had to look shit up in books. The internet didn’t exist or was still in very early infancy when we were in college. We weren’t sitting around in class with our laptops.

We watched three TV channels plus PBS and waited until the 11pm local news sportscaster came on to show us highlights, until, if we were lucky, we had parents who could afford cable if and when it was finally available in our neighborhood. And we were already 12 by then.

So yes, we are the last cool generation. And all the little whippersnappers who followed us think they are the cool ones.

They can kick our ass at Playstation but they never played outside in the yard until it got dark enough that you could only see the ball when it was in the air. They make fun of clunky out-of-date CD players; I actually owned an 8-track tape player. They started drinking coffee when they were 15 and now they think drinking crappy beer like Pabst Blue Ribbon is cooler than being accused of being a “beer snob.” They think everything is overrated, underrated, or just totally random.

And of course they only like bands you’ve never heard of.

I think it’s funny how all these emo hipsters love to love anything that’s underground indie lo-fi crapola and it’s cool to say U2 sucks or Radiohead’s not great anymore or the White Stripes aren’t cool cuz Jack White’s gone Hollywood and sold out cuz he’s done a film soundtrack and been in a movie with The Edge.

Meanwhile, all these crappy bands sound like early U2 (but not as good) or wanna-be Radiohead or minimalist retro White Stripes. Ironic. Oh, wait, but being “ironic” is the coolest thing, right? I don’t know, I’ve lost track.

They cry and cry and cry that "oh you should check out THIS band and too bad THIS band isn’t as famous as Coldplay!" But then soon as 42 other people start agreeing and liking that band, they jump ship cuz "they suck now."

You suck. Go fix your eyeliner.

And now’s the part where I end the rant and you fill up the comments section (or the emails you use to forward this to your hipster buddies) saying how I’m just a bitter old man who doesn’t get it and I’m a hypocrite cuz I wrote a condescending blog post admonishing the cooler-than-thou people who do stupid shit like write condescending blog posts. That’s cool. I know I’m gonna drive home in my Honda from my day job and probably just go to sleep early. And you’re gonna peep your iPhone for some new App that plays old games like PONG or helps you organize all your stuff that makes you uniquely you. Just like everybody else.

The Ultimate Super Bowl Book

Posted in books, sports with tags , , , , , on Thursday, 2010 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

If Bob McGinn hadn’t titled his new book The Ultimate Super Bowl Book, everyone would have called it that anyway.

This fantastic new book is not only a great resource full of facts and stats, it’s also very well written. It isn’t just a bunch of dates and results: it goes beyond those basics we all know and delves deep into each game and how and why it was actually won on the field.

There aren’t any glossy photos or filler in The Ultimate Super Bowl Book. McGinn doesn’t just rehash the most famous moments of only the best games. He retells the story of each and every Super Bowl through his own reviews of the game films and the fascinating interviews with the players, coaches, and assistant coaches involved in the game.

Throughout the book, McGinn also mixes in several interesting Top 10 lists as sidebars. Another great aspect of the book is the fact that he lists the entire coaching staff for each team. We all know and remember the head coaches, but seeing and recognizing countless names among the coordinators and assistants is a useful football history lesson beyond the considerable information found in the text.

It’s incredible to hear the key players and coaches recount not only the big memorable moments but also the underlying strategies and perhaps unseen plays that swung the game one way or the other. Oftentimes they sound as if the game had just been won (or lost) last week and not years or decades ago.

McGinn, a longtime sportswriter for the Green Bay Press-Gazeett and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has been a finalist for the Mccann Award for excellence in pro football writing and was selected as one of America’s Top 20 Sportswriters by Men’s Journal. His expert storytelling and game recaps make this even better than just an exhaustive Super Bowl reference book, though it serves as that too.

I can’t recommend The Ultimate Super Bowl Book highly enough, especially at just around $14 at Amazon. Also available direct from the publisher, MVP Books.

A Quick Review on How We Got Into Iraq

Posted in politics with tags , on Friday, 2010 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

Andrew Joseph Stack IS a Terrorist

Posted in politics with tags , , , on Friday, 2010 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

Can anyone explain to me all the hemming and hawing by both the media and government/law enforcement officials about whether to use the word “terrorism” to describe Joseph Stack’s suicide crashing of a plane into a government building?

You know damn well if his name was Mohammed Al-Something or Jheet M’Droors that it would be Terrorism. But no, this was an American white guy named Andrew Joseph Stack. Well darn if that name doesn’t sound more “Presidential” than Barack Hussein Obama.

The Associated Press reported that “Police in Austin, Texas, say the crash of a small plane into a building that houses the IRS is an isolated incident and not an act of terrorism.” Really? THE GUY PURPOSELY CRASHED A PLANE INTO A GOVERNMENT BUILDING. He also left a manifesto/note with such gems as “violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer” and “Nothing changes unless there is a body count.” How is that not terrorism?

Another news report noted, “The FBI launched an investigation and Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican from Austin on the Homeland Security Committee, said the panel will take up the issue of how to better protect buildings from attacks with planes.” Yea? We’re gonna launch an investigation and have some panel take a little gander at this all-new out-of-the-blue idea of crazies attacking buildings with planes? Cuz that hasn’t happen since this one obscure time on September 11, 2001 when planes were crashed into those tower thingies and the Penta-something. Might want to look into that…

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported this nice little backtracking from White House spokesman Robert Gibbs by saying he “initially said that the incident did not appear to be related to terrorism but later said that he meant that it appeared not to be a foreign-based plot by a group such as al-Qaeda. He declined to rule out the possibility that the crash was a case of domestic terrorism.” Yea, he declined to rule out the possibility that maybe this coulda possibly been, y’know, umm, something sorta related to that thing that only Muslims usually do. Starts with a T.

Of course, when that guy opened fire at Fort Hood, that was definitely Terrorism cuz his name was Nidal Hasan.

It’s ironic that this country’s media and government LOVE to label anything and everything Terrorism if and when it will help their ratings or their political agenda. But when it comes with a white face and a “normal” name they all scratch their heads like they’ve just seen a unicorn.

Just last week Tom Engelhardt had a great piece on our irrational fear of terrorism and then of course today Glenn Greenwald nailed this whole subject of why we’re avoiding the T-word when talking about the plane crash in Austin.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.