P.E. Redefines the Concept of the Muse on Sophomore LP The Leather Lemon

Photo Credit: Vince McClelland

NYC experimental outfit P.E. get super weird on their sophomore record The Leather Lemon – and I mean that in the best way. Out March 25 on Wharf Cat Records, the album opens with “Blue Nude,” wherein singer Veronica Torres purrs, “You want to make me beg,” establishing a power dynamic right off the bat.

Musedom – or inspiration – is central to The Leather Lemon, which is brimming with mystery, romance and sex appeal. “Blue Nude” references Matisse, while “Lying with the Wolf” is based on a Kiki Smith work. But Torres (who writes the lyrics) isn’t just casually name-dropping fine artists. As she stated in a recent interview: “I’ve always been concerned with this concept of muse… women weren’t allowed to be creators, so they would just be put on a pedestal and inspire art, which I think is bullshit.”

That Torres is grappling with such ideas in her lyricism becomes all the more intriguing when you consider that she is the sole woman in her band, which is a Brooklyn underground supergroup of sorts, composed of members of PILL and Eaters. Jonathan Schenke, Bob Jones, Jonny Campolo and Benjamin Jaffe (who plays the guileful saxophone slinking its way through the whole record) write the music, but as the lyricist, Torres is the megaphone imparting the band’s message. In that sense, Torres flips the script – she is not the muse; rather, she is looking outward at the muse.

When I ask her about this, she makes sure to emphasize that she is “lucky [to be] working with really talented and supportive dudes.” That said, she notes that “the whole muse concept in a historical sense [is] not very far away. You can go to the museum now and get a Guerrilla Girls tote bag – which, I totally want that tote bag – but you know, it’s funny that you’re getting this deliverable item referencing something that was only 30 years ago, which was a piece about how women weren’t in museums.”

While she is critical of this particularly feminized nuance of the muse as a concept, let us remember that its contemporary definition is “a person or personified force who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.” While it’s a historically female word for the reasons Torres articulates, it really could be anything, and on The Leather Lemon, it is. 

It helps that several members of the band are visual artists. In fact, the album title comes from multi-instrumentalist member Campolo’s visual art practice. “The Leather Lemon is actually a phrase that Jonny Campolo coined,” Torres explains. “He was making these drawings out of lemon and orange rinds. However they fell, he would sketch them, and they often looked like people.”

The juxtaposition of these unlikely materials and textures speaks to a new era for the band. Wharf Cat describes the record as “a wild ride through chewy bubblegum pop, sweeping synthetic orchestrations, and mutant club beats.” Strangely enough, what the record evoked for me was the 1988 thriller Frantic, set in the smoky back rooms of Paris nightclubs against a soundtrack laced with Grace Jones and Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone. My mind wanders through the enigmatic, sensual amalgamation of jazz, synthy nightclub sounds, and ’90s Bjork, the last of which Torres emphasizes as a specific influence, although she quantifies it: “Can anybody be ’90s Bjork? No. But it influenced [the record].” At one point during the recording, Campolo even described the sound as “’90s Bjorkish,” to which Torres said, “That’s what I was going for!”

I found this to be the most evident on the latter half of the record, namely tracks like “The Reason for My Love” and “Magic Hands.” The supportive nature of the band knows no gender in the sense that everyone brings their weird, unique ideas and works together to layer them. “Someone will start with something, and then it’s just building, over and over and over, and there’s a lot of editing as well,” Torres states. 

“It’s nice to have people be so encouraging, enabling me to explore a different side of what I’m capable of musically,” she continues. “They’re also just so supportive of my weird lyrics.”

In that way the muse is fluid. Just as much as visual art and the idea of the muse itself are central to the album’s genesis, Torres says she drew equal inspiration from a more traditional source as well: “I’m in love, so there’s definitely love songs too.” So while she’s looking outward at the muse, she looks inward as well, and opens herself up to the possibility of being someone else’s muse.

On “New Kind of Zen,” she sings, “Make me part of your spiritual practice.” When taken in consideration with where we started – “You want to make me beg” – it sums up the idea that we contain multitudes. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. The muse is not a default position of creative resignation for women anymore; on The Leather Lemon, it’s just what you make it.

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Bush Tetras Celebrate Four Decades of Fuzzy-Guitared Funkiness On “Best Of” Boxset

Photo Credit: Bob Krasner

New York City in the early 1980s was a jungle of musical genres. No wave, hip hop, R&B, soul, jazz and punk informed the sound of the streets, clubs, parks and gyms, escaping from headphones and pumped from car stereos. Patti Smith had arrived a decade earlier, traipsing bookstores and vinyl shops during the day and riveting audiences at night with her unique spoken word-freewheelin’ rock, jazz performances at night. Madonna was wearing scrunchies, cropped shirts, fishnets and high tops, Debbie Harry was seducing CBGBs, and Talking Heads were pulling strange geometric shapes on stage. Afrobeat was emerging in the clubs and making its way into the percussive drive of punk and dance with street press reviewing Beastie Boys alongside Afrika Bambaataa. MTV was in its infancy, but there was no doubt the city was the place to be for music lovers, whether they wanted to thrash about wildly on dancefloors in the early hours of morning or pick up an instrument of some type and form a ramshackle band.

Out of this melting pot came post-punk progenitors Bush Tetras, who released their debut single “Too Many Creeps” in 1980. Splitting up in 1983 before their first studio LP was released, they’ve formed and reformed over the years, having evolved their sound through various iterations. Three album boxset Rhythm and Paranoia: The Best of Bush Tetras, released in early November via Wharf Cat Records, finally compiles their musical output, showcasing 29 songs (plus some live versions) from their catalogue stretching back to their formation in 1979.

Bush Tetras are practically synonymous with New York City, though Dee Pop (Dimitri Papadopolous), born in Queens, was the only New York native in the original lineup. With an intoxicating allure for outsiders, and a ‘weirder-the-better’ attitude towards its eclectic residents, the Big Apple’s siren call lured Cynthia Sley from Cleveland, Pat Place from Chicago, and their original bassist Laura Kennedy from Detroit.

“I had been designing clothes,” recalls Sley, who has lived in NYC for 42 years now. “I had just made all these stage clothes for Lydia Lunch for her tour on ZE Records. I was a visual artist, but I was really into fashion and film, and New York was like a Mecca. I just wanted to do something creative and I felt like Cleveland was limited… I felt like it was really happening in New York, everybody knew it was the hub.”

Originally an aspiring visual artist, Place had dance-punk cred already as a founding member of no-wave act Contortions, which was memorably featured on Brian Eno’s 1978 compilation No New York. She had also starred in feminist Vivienne Dick’s experimental films. Kennedy and Place were lovers who’d been living together for a year before Sley made the move. Sley recalls being cajoled into joining Bush Tetras, since she’d known Kennedy at art school in Cleveland.

“I met Pat through Laura… Pat had quit the Contortions and started up a band with Laura and Dee Pop. They started playing with Adele Bertei as a singer, but it didn’t quite work out. So then they strong handed me into doing that,” Sley says. “I was, believe it or not, a bit shy, so I had to be talked into it.”

The sense of community offered by music and art that rebelliously avoided pigeon-holing, gentrification and commercial motives was born of the scrappy, DIY attitude of young New Yorkers living downtown at a time when it was cheap, but dingy and dangerous. Still, women making music outside of the safe confines of folk, pop ballads or R&B was a novelty, and women wielding guitars they’d taught themselves how to play sent ripples of fear and excitement through the live music scene at the time.

“There was definitely a lack of women in music, absolutely, but I think because of no wave and Tina Weymouth on bass and Patti Smith, there were some new women coming on the scene that were really standing out and it made it a possibility for little punk girls like us to get involved in music,” Sley says. “We just thought, why not? You didn’t really need to be proficient at your instrument. I didn’t have to take vocal lessons. You just had to have the right chemistry.”

Bush Tetras with Clash drummer Topper Headon in 1982 // Photo Credit: Bob Gruen

There’s a lean, rangy swagger to Bush Tetras’ guitar riffs, a menacing rumble of fuzz escaping into distortion every so often. Sley elegantly enunciates every loving, brutal word in her sing-song/spoken word signature style, daring you to piss her off.

On “Sucker Is Born,” the somnific, languid strum of Place’s spangly guitar oozes with cosmically-charged atmosphere. Sley’s sultry croon emerges organically, an additional instrument: “Did you care at all when they found you out, or did you make it out…?” she asks. Minutes later, the drums wake up as if shaken wildly, the guitar emits furied distortion, and Sley wails, “A sucker is born!”

The pace is all go on the determined gallop of drums and sprawling guitar on the live version of “Run Run Run.” It’s a far cry from the Talking Heads-style smudged bass lines, high-pitched guitar tuning, synthesizer claps, deeply funky dance-punk of ironically titled “You Can’t Be Funky.” The clatter of odd percussion in some alien rhythm on “Moonlite” sounds like each band member recorded their parts to their own individual timing and somehow it just manages to hold together. The early influence of Afrobeat emerges in the eclectic, celebratory drums and deep, funky bass rhythms. Guitars chug along like revving engines on “Cowboys In Africa,” a cymbal punctuating the frenzy of angular, serrated-edge guitar and a drumbeat like hot heels running down New York pavement.

The pagan magic of “Rituals” is all-consuming in its gothic, baroque oddity: Nico-style droning vocals, dissonant, creepy guitars, the shake of tambourines, and the repeated mantra “I love you, but I love you, but I love you, but I love yoooouuuuu.” I admit to Sley that it’s a favourite, but immediately apologise for picking favourites from such a rich body of work. The song was founded on lyrics and a rhythm that Dee Pop had devised, Sley explains.

“That song to me has guitar and bass weaved together to form this kind of fabric for the vocals on top of it,” she adds. “The songs were very un-self-conscious. I don’t think we were really thinking of what was it going to sound like. We just kind of did what came naturally. We wrote ‘[You Can’t Be] Funky’ and ‘Cowboys [In Africa]’ all around the same time as ‘Rituals.’ ‘Rituals’ was Dee’s idea of that vocal line almost like percussion; it was very rhythmic, and we wrote it around that. It’s one of my favourites too!”

“I like ‘Stare,’ I like ‘Nails,’ I like ‘Page 18,’ I like one that we really don’t play anymore and it’s on the original Boom In The Night [LP],” says Place. “It’s weird listening to your own stuff, and I don’t do it that often… but there’s definitely tracks I listen to and think, ‘Hey, I really like that!’”

On Rhythm and Paranoia, the previously-unreleased “Cutting Room” finally gets an outing. Dee Pop had kept an archive and until his passing in early October this year, he was heavily involved in choosing and collating the boxset collection.

“Dee kept everything, so he found ‘Cutting Floor’ and that was a song we recorded with Henry Rollins,” recalls Sley. “Pat and I had completely forgotten about it. I don’t even remember singing that. I had no idea, so some things were really a surprise because I really did not remember that song.”

Really? She forgot working with the heavyweight Black Flag front man, Henry Rollins?

“Oh no! There’s not enough drugs in the world for that,” laughs Sley. “I definitely remember recording with him, but that song, ironically, ended up on the cutting floor. We recorded it but never released that song, and we’d do that. We’d have songs that we would play for a while and then we would discard them.”

As far as recording, Place and Sley have been prolific during the last two years. While they typically write in the same room, jamming and trading lyrics and riffs, their chemistry has remained potent even while co-creating via email along with new bassist R.B. Korbet (Pussy Galore, Missing Foundation). To date, they have ten songs as yet unrecorded, with a planned release in 2022.

“We were able to keep writing,” concludes Sley. “It’s a joyful thing to write in a very dark time.”

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Estonian Rockers Holy Motors Reimagine the Wild West on Horse LP

Photo Credit: Grete Ly Valing

Guitarist Lauri Raus and vocalist Eliann Tulve, the main members of Holy Motors, are from Estonia — but their music is infused with Americana roots, and they draw inspiration from movies about the Wild West.

They often get asked about how being Estonian influences their music, or how their country’s music compares to the United States’. But for them, songwriting is more about playing on cultural tropes and motifs than representing any real place. Accordingly, the band describes itself on Bandcamp as “a Tallinn, Estonia based dark twang & reverb band from a nonexistent movie,” elaborating, “it bows to engines and echoes and film-directors.”

“Estonia is mostly connected to peasantry and noblemen, and the states are [considered] more free-roaming, and that’s up our alley,” says Raus. “I wouldn’t want to write a song about a landlord putting peasants to work — it’s more fun to write about a cowboy. But we make it up in our heads; it’s mostly what we see in the movies. It has nothing to do with what the country is about.”

Their latest album, Horse, co-written by Raus and Tulve (with two songs, “Midnight Cowboy” and Trouble,” co-written by Hendrik Tammjärv), is based on a combination of these fictional stories than have captured their imaginations and their own life experiences. Incorporating indie rock and country elements with hints of shoegaze, it’s a collection of vignettes about loneliness and life on the road, with Tulve’s deep, meditative vocals taking the listener on a journey around the world from the beginning to the end.

The LP, released October 16 via Wharf Cat Records, opens with the catchy breakup song “Country Church,” then segues into “Endless Night,” which was based on the band’s experiences while touring in France, when a window in their hotel room was smashed. In the song, they imagine that thieves have broken in and stolen jewelry, a metaphor for the fears that haunt our minds. “There’s haunting throughout the album,” Tulve explains.

The next track, “Midnight Cowboy,” a ballad reminiscent of ’50s love songs, was also based on touring experiences; Tulve wrote it about wandering through Spain at night. “I kind of felt like the guy from the movie Midnight Cowboy, and I was imaging him,” she says. “I remember also just being kind of torn about something and just longing for someone.” She also had another pop culture trope — a girl in an ’80s movie waiting by the phone —in her head when she wrote it. “It’s kind of like being sad while everyone else around you is having the time of their life, like at an American-style high school prom,” Raus agrees.

In “Road Stars,” a slow, folky, acoustic duet in the vein of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Raus and Tulve imagine a conversation between a truck driver and a woman at a gas station, alternating between melancholy verses like “I’m as lonely as man in the makin’ of land” and the comforting refrain: “I know one day I’ll be better than before.”

“Matador” continues the theme of solitude, sung in a low, flat, almost monotone voice that conjures up ’90s grunge rock against psychedelic electric guitars. To close the album, “Come On, Slowly” paints the picture of an empty but idyllic town, “Trouble” sounds like something playing in an old Western movie scene as the villain approaches, and “Life Valley” is a jam they improvised in Leo’s Basement #2, the Berlin studio where they recorded the album.

Since they had to fly to Berlin with minimal luggage, they each just brought a guitar then took advantage of additional guitars in the studio, along with a drum set and percussion toys. Producer Craig Dyer accompanied them on synths, bass guitar, and vocals, and producer/mixer Leonard Kaage played organ, synths, piano, and bass guitar.

Raus and Tulve began playing music together in 2013 just for fun then evolved into a band, releasing their first full-length album Slow Sundown in 2018. “The first album was basically a collection of songs we wrote over five years — maybe it was even too eclectic for me, but it was still fun,” says Raus. “And then this album felt really different. Just a couple years passed, and things changed. I was happier with this one; it was more smooth creatively.”

The band is about to play their first live show since quarantine in their native country, then hopes to return to the studio to record more music next year. In the meantime, the current state of the world should give them plenty of inspiration for more lonely cowboy anthems.

Follow Holy Motors on Facebook for ongoing updates.