Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Pickwick interview, plus the Death of Sam Cooke

I didn't know a damn thing about the death of Sam Cooke until this week. I've listened to his music for years, never very devotedly - although "Sad Mood" is playing on vinyl as I type this, based on a recent record store find. He's got some very, very enjoyable songs ("Saturday Night," "Chain Gang," "Wonderful World"), but I know nothing of the man himself. I only just got motivated to read up on him when I discovered that Pickwick's "Hacienda Motel" - also a fantastic song - draws on conspiracy theories around his death, which I also knew nothing of.
The part of the story that people agree on is interesting and unusual enough as it is: that Sam Cooke took a woman to a motel; that at some point, she ran out with his clothes and all his money; that he confronted another woman, who was working the desk at the hotel, in a rage demanding to know where the woman he had been with had gone, and that, after an altercation, said hotel clerk shot him dead. Oh, and Cooke was apparently pretty much naked at the time, wearing only a jacket and one shoe; and his last words were, "You shot me, lady." That's the official story. Cooke's death was eventually ruled a justifiable homicide; people who subscribe to this view also believe he had tried to rape the woman he picked up; that she only took his clothes (and money) because she was in a rush to get out of the room, seizing the opportunity when he went to use the washroom; and that he was intoxicated or high when he burst naked in on the hotel clerk.

It's not entirely implausible, I suppose - though the detail that Cooke's money was stolen by accident kind of stretches things a bit. But there are other details that don't add up: for instance, singer Etta James, who viewed Sam's body before his funeral, apparently reported that his body was beaten far in excess of what a tussle with a female hotel clerk would likely be able to inflict. His head, for instance, was apparently nearly removed from his body (an image referenced in the Pickwick song). It seems entirely plausible that Cooke was lured to the hotel and beaten as part of a conspiracy to rob him, and that the clerk was in on it; perhaps there was a pimp or other conspirator involved. There are people who go further with their conspiracy theories, as well, implicating Allen Klein, Sam's manager, and Cooke's wife, Barbara.

I have no idea about any of that, but I can say this decisively: this is the most interesting music-related story I've encountered lately, and I might never have read about it if it hadn't been for Pickwick (who play Friday at the Rickshaw, coming up here from their home base of Seattle). The song is great even if you don't know what it's about, but definitely gets more interesting when you do. I kind of love that about songs, songs that inspire you to do research; it brought back fond memories of my fourteen year old self, poring over lyric sheets, trying to make sense of the world through music.

It's been awhile since I felt that way, so thanks, Pickwick.
Below is an email interview with Pickwick vocalist Galen Disston. See also my interview with Rickshaw proprietor Mo Tarmohamed, further below; Mo actually helped out a bit on this one, since I don't really know my Pickwick all that well, and he suggested a couple of very helpful questions.

Allan: Are you a vinyl collector? What were the first singles or albums that you bought? Was the label Pickwick important to you, or were there other reasons you chose it as your band name? 

Galen: Yes. Also watches. I can't really afford either. I have that collector's tick. The first 7" single I bought was Richard Swift's "Buildings in America". But my dad's copies of Miles Davis' In a Silent Way and Grateful Dead's American Beauty were always around growing up. My parents bought me a combo CD/ tape/ vinyl player from Amway. Anytime you buy an all-in-one anything you know the quality is "top shelf". While we were touring in support of Can't Talk Medicine I bought a "Monster Mash" 45 in Kansas. 

I've been playing under the name Pickwick since 2005 when I moved to Seattle after college. Lou Reed was a staff songwriter for Pickwick Records, and I was impressed by his strange output during his tenure there. 
Is there a lot of soul and R&B in Seattle happening at present? 

I'm not sure. I've heard of Grace Love, and she fits into that genre. But the thing I like about Seattle is people just do what they do, regardless of genre. In Pickwick we try to follow our curiosity while allowing for as much creativity as possible. That's true of most of the Seattle musicians I know. 

Were into soul and R&B  and such from the outset, as a music fan, or was that a taste you developed later?

I guess I was into R/B bands like the Animals, Stones or Spencer Davis Group first. I didn't develop the taste for soul till I heard undeniable voices like Percy Sledge, the Supremes and O.V. Wright. But that was after Pickwick had started with its R&B leanings. I knew my voice had more capability than the folky Pickwick allowed, because I would sing loud in the car driving home from work. Currently I'm enjoying 70s output from soul luminaries like Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye. Their voices had reached a level by the 70s where you can't hear them working anymore. It's effortless and undeniably chill as fuck. 

Wikipedia mentions that there was a shift in your sound, after a 2008 tour of California, from folk music to the current R&B/ soul/ garage influences... what happened in California?

We played shows with friends Sandy's (San Fransisco) and Mount Holly (Los Angeles) and it scared the megachurch right outta me. I was blown away by their songwriting capabilities and intensity. I returned to Seattle determined to get in touch with whatever artistic source my friends had found. 

You mention in an interview for the Stranger that Sharon Van Etten's brother met you guys in Montreal and connected you... can you go into a bit more detail?

He was an early fan and came to our show there. When we asked her to sing on the track I think his familiarity with our band is what sealed the deal. She was very open to the song and timidly played around with it at first. It was amazing to watch her confidently interpret it by the end. I feel lucky to have witnessed that process by an artist I respect so much.  
The "Lady Luck" video is a fun little movie - as a bearded dude, I was totally identifying with the realism of bits of hair on the sink, but got taken off guard by what followed, which goes a bit further than I tend to in the shaving department. Who made it?

Tyler Kahlberg has made all our videos up to this point.
What's in the suitcase? 

The suitcase is full of gender specific restroom signs.
Besides "Lady Luck," do you do/ have you done other cover tunes in your live set?

Yeah, the Primitive's "The Ostrich", Chuck Berry's "Run Rudolph" and AC/DC's "Big Balls." [Nope, I don't know if Galen is joking either].

"Hacienda Motel" seems to subscribe to the idea that there was a conspiracy around Sam Cooke's death, but what do you believe happened? Is "the widow hides her face" line an indication that you think Barbara Cooke was complicit? How about Allen Klein?

I think Sam Cooke was becoming too powerful of a businessman. The fictional two men in the song who "hardly make a sound" are the conspirators overseeing the funeral in a silent victory lap.

Was Etta James a big influence on you? 
No, I prefer Nina Simone. 

Any singers you really admire? 

Marvin Gaye. His version of "I Heard it Through The Grapevine" is the work of a young vocal master, but "Inner City Blues" is transcendent. 

Mo at the Rickshaw was mentioning a darkness in your lyrics, including references to mental illness... he was wondering where that comes from? 

It comes from my fascination with the creation of art, and the often blurred lines of sanity present in those who create it. I've never done psychedelics, or allowed my narcissism to flare up and take over, but I tend to glamorize the possibility of crossing over into the realm of mental illness. It's probably fucking awful. I should be thankful I have a choice.
A lot of the music venues in Vancouver end up in the "bad" part of town - especially smaller, more off-the-grid ones, but also the Rickshaw and others - so there's a lot of interaction between the arts scene and the disenfranchised, and a lot of mental illness and drug addiction visible on the street just outside the venue... there are a few people who straddle both communities (Mr. Chi Pig of SNFU has had his issues with mental health, drug addiction, and homelessness, though he continues to tour and record). Is there a similar thing in Seattle - areas like East Hastings, where these worlds overlap? Does this play any part in Pickwick's history or songs? 

Our times loading in and out while in East Hastings have always been eventful: Wraiths jumping in front of our van and zombies tearing up dumpster phone books and wielding 2x4s. But Mo took me aside once before a show and assured me each of them is on an individual trip. Thanks to Vancouver's progressive safe houses for addicts, I've never felt threatened walking to the store across the street to get Canadian candy to bring home to my kids. 

Unfortunately Seattle's jungles of homelessness and addiction don't really overlap anymore with music venues. In the 11 years I've lived in Seattle the cultural trend of paving over anything unsightly yet interesting seems to be winning. Pickwick started up after Seattle's historic seediness had started to dry up, but I feel fortunate to have been able to start a band in a city that supports musicians. I hope Seattle continues to not only be a place that fosters the artists that make it interesting, but also has enough interesting stuff going on to inspire those artists. Wealthy lines of code and entitled youth ride sharing have not been sources of inspiration for me historically, but maybe I need to broaden my artistic horizons. 

 Are there new songs in the set for the show at the Rickshaw? Any word on the follow up to Can't Talk Medicine? Will it continue in the same vein as that album? 

Yes, we'll play a few new songs at the Rickshaw from our forthcoming record. We didn't limit ourselves to any genre or expectation while writing and recording, so I think people will be surprised by parts of the record.
 Any thoughts or stories on Vancouver, or other things you want to say about the gig?  

One time after we opened for the New Pornographers I had a mean lemon crepe. We look forward to coming back to Vancouver and the Rickshaw; a place with so many positive associations, and positive crepes.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

hope you guys come back to Salt Lake, I'd love to hear the new stuff.