by Chad Bidwell
Why would you choose USA as your band name? I still don't know. I'm still learning how to conduct a successful interview, and I definitely learned some more things not to do during an interview. Still, even after I made the mistake of introducing gender issues, this was entertaining. I think I may have mentioned this previously, but what appeals to me so much about USA is their ability to play pop music without following many formulas, patterns, or expected pop song traits. Conversely, it could be quite possible that USA has digested so much pop music over the years that they're now able to vomit up every trick recorded over the past 30 years in a nearly-controlled stream of high pitches and harmonized esotericisms. And that's not supposed to make USA sound putrid, that's just what came to mind.
You will find referenced in this feature two USA albums: Ybissai Baby and Little Birds, both available from Drag City. Ybissai Baby was released first, and contained driving rhythms and unexpected twists and turns. Little Birds was released a little while later as what appeared to be an aborted concept album about either Chicago roads or Egypt.
I just noticed who recorded the two USA albums. What was it like to work with Bundy K. Brown and Jim O'Rourke? I've noticed that some other things that O'Rourke's been involved in have ended up sounding like something he might record (like the last Smog album). Little Birds doesn't sound like he had his hand in it at all.
Gene Booth (guitar, keyboards, vocals): Jim's a prince, Bundy's a great guy. Both share with me untapped reservoirs of love for the '73-'74 period of King Crimson, so how could working together be bad? Working at Solid Sound in Hoffman Estates opened up a lot of possibilities that weren't available to us at Soma, like the magic signal processor with effect names like "Brite 'n' Tight." Can you imagine what that sounds like? I don't remember the name of the wind effect we culled from that box for the moment in "Seven Faces," but it was somewhere around #154 or #155. Jim says he wants go all out on the next record, the only blatant tinkering (in the "Jim"ing sense) was some "clap" sounding drums triggered by Corre's kit on "He Hath Comet." Next time we may not get off so easy.
Devin Johnston (guitar, keyboards, bass, vocals): Both experiences were very positive, both of them worked to reflect the sound we wanted without being intrusive. Bundy had to endure our inexperience (and demands such as "we want that guitar to sound like it's underwater"); he had heard us live, and I think that recording is pretty faithful to the way we were sounding at the time. A year later, recording Little Birds, O'Rourke had far more to respond to (our songs were more developed). His advice was often instrumental to the success of those songs: at a chaotic point in the long process of recording "Seven Faces," he confirmed Corre's suggestion that the vocals needed redoing. I think one of his great strengths though is that he leaves no fingerprints.
Brian Calvin (guitar, keyboard, bass, vocals): When we recorded with Bundy, we had never even properly heard our vocals at all. We really didn't know what we were doing. We played live just as we did in our practice space and did very few overdubs. I don't think it was really a project where Bundy's aesthetic was in full view. For Little Birds, we wanted a different feel. We had now heard ourselves and desired some improvements in our "sound." Little Birds was written much more with the recording process in mind. Jim was great at helping us realize ideas we had and at shooting down some things that weren't working. But he definitely wasn't "producing" the record as he did with Smog. If he had, I know he would have made a lot of changes. We plan on having him as much more of a producer on at least a couple of the cuts on our next album. Did I mention that Jim is a prince?
Corre Dilworth (drums, vocals): It's great working with Bundy and Jim, because they're our friends and we love them. Bundy was real limited in what he could [do] because we only had seven working tracks at Soma. But I think Ybissai's sound suits those songs.
The songs on Little Birds are more complex and have a lot more going on than those on Ybissai Baby. How did a song such as "7 Faces" or "Ashland Flies" evolve? None of these songs sound like any one person sat down and came up with them. It almost sounds like three or four people came in with different songs and tried to cram them all into the same drum beat.
Brian: You basically got it right.
Gene: Democracy in action. "Ashland Flies" actually begins with the lyrical structure of Sting's (huge USA influence by the way, both pre- and post-Police) "Fields of Gold" so his "bla bla bla bla bla/ as you kiss her mouth/ and walk through field of gold" turns into our "in the lines the minds/ are preoccupied/ dreaming of the highway" etcetera. The basic idea is yes, like REM and even worse/better bands like them before us, someone brings something in and the rest hammer it into something unrecognizable. Even the lyrics in the above two cases involved throwing ideas into a pot with a premise, trying to out-funny (or whatever) the others and staying in the rhyme/rhythm schema. Actually I suspect a lot of bands just SAY that's how they work.
Devin: Both of those two began with a few parts Gene had come up with and (believe it or not) a sense of the sort of additive structure we wanted. More and more often, one member (or two together) will bring in the skeleton of a song, and we will collectively work on it; the result is, as often as not, entirely distinct from the original version.
Corre: Writing and recording "Seven Faces" was like giving birth to a three-headed baby. It was never, at any point, effortless. "Ashland Flies" came together really quickly. Gene had a skeleton and the rest of us filled in. I think you're right in that "Seven Faces" feels kind of disjointed. I think we pulled "Ashland Flies" off, though.
I heard some Mantis the other day. Is that you singing on that?
How did you get from there to USA?
Gene: Two steps forward, one step back.
How did the tour with Palace go? Do you contribute to many other Drag City projects?
Gene: A third were really good shows, a third really bad shows, Atlanta was amazing, Will doing his best Dolores O'Riordan -- it is, of course, regarded as the worst Palace tour ever in the history books, due to some hyper Canadians with email, but if you saw the Southern leg you know different. There's a live track of "Blockbuster" from that tour on the Felidae comp.
How long has Miss Dilworth been playing drums? She plays drums more like an instrument than like a set of drums. At the risk of generalizing... is it possible that women approach the drums differently than men? Instead of trying to hurt the drums, maybe they are more interested in playing them? I am wondering because I see similarities between the way Corre plays drums and the way that girl in Sleater Kinney plays drums. They both look for ways to turn it another instrument.
Gene: You may have really bitten it off with this one, bub -- I can't wait to see what she says. I'll bet money it will include the question "would you be asking her this if she was a man?" and even though this is her turf, I'm sufficiently piqued to ask myself. Would you be asking her this if she was a man? Why isn't there a question about the way men and women's guitar styles differ in this interview?
Devin: I'm sure that Corre will answer the question about her drums, though I would throw in the following: It would be difficult to trace her drum-style too directly to gender. However one deals with that issue, her responsiveness, and her ability to think beyond technique to consider how a song comes together, are pretty central to the way we sound.
Brian: I love the way Corre drums. I really prefer openness to precision in drummers. Like Mick Avory did for the Kinks, Corre pushes USA songs into a really different realm with her parts.
Corre: I've been playing drums about six years. As I'm sure you've heard by now, bringing up the fact that I'm female is dangerous business. I'm going to help escort you into the next century by not answering that question. Unless, of course, you want to hear some bullshit about the natural rhythm of my menstrual cycle.
What is the response like at the live shows? Here's my vision of a show in Chicago: You guys are playing to a crowd of 50 or so people, all of whom are in another band or two. One by one, they're either asked to come up and play their xylophone or drum machine or they just walk up and grab a mike until two or three lonely drunk souls are left to watch the spectacle. At this time everyone on stage decides that what they're doing sounds really good and an album is subsequently released.
Gene: I miss the days of live reviews. We're a completely different thing live, and it's funny, because your vision is pretty accurate, except that the 50 start onstage and leave one by one until we're all in the other room playing video golf. And there's a lot of heckling, but we call it "sharing."
Devin: Our live performances have really changed over the years. Early on, the music was fairly undisciplined, though we had a sense of spectacle in the presentation: dramatic skits, jokes, etc. On some occasions, we were greeted with some resistance: in Kalamazoo, I recall, playing with Gastr del Sol, someone kept yelling at us. Since then, we have worked to focus on our own UMOJA or harmony rather than audience response. As a result, the music has become much more spiritual. Nobody joins in from the audience, but we do.
Ybissai Baby = excited, confused, unfocused and focused adrenaline, drunk. Little Birds = precision, high pitches, brainstorming, drunk, late nights The next USA album = ???
Corre: The next USA album = pretty, sublime, melancholy, sober, free jazz -- scratch that last part -- pretty, sublime, melancholy, sober (but not sobering), poetry and luv.