Interview: Charles Normal (Thriftstore Masterpiece)

Interviews / July 8, 2013

This Tuesday, Side One Dummy will officially unveil Thriftstore Masterpiece’s reinterpretation of Trouble Is A Lonesome Town, the 1963 classic from Lee Hazlewood. The final product, masterminded by producer Charles Normal, resulted from a near 10-year process, filled with the joys of discovery, the untimeliness of tragedy and the transitional nature of music making. In the end, Normal, along with guest musicians like Pete Yorn, Issac Brock (Modest Mouse), Frank Black (Pixies), Courtney Taylor Taylor (The Dandy Warhols) and Eddie Argos (Art Brut) put together quite the experience, transforming the americana-esque sounds of Hazlewood into a modern and fascinating experience.

We spoke with Normal regarding the project, which began with the discovery of Trouble in a local thriftstore. Here he talks about the process of recording the album, along with the art of thriftstore shopping, something he’s obviously quite an expert at.

What do you remember about initially discovering Lee Hazlewood’s “Trouble Is A Lonesome Town” back in the early 2000s?

I picked up a pretty battered copy of it in a secondhand shop in the Grünerløkka neighborhood of Oslo, Norway. I recognized Hazlewood’s name through his affiliation with Nancy Sinatra and the string of hits they had together. I thought, “Well, this looks kinda cool, and I like his production work,” so I bought it. The big gamble. A couple of bucks. Funny thing was, I didn’t have a turntable at the time so I left it at a friend’s house. A few weeks later, I was visiting him and he put a record on. About 30 seconds into the first song I said “Wow, this is cool! What is it?” He told me it was the same record I had left there on my previous visit. So that was nice… sort of like a double discovery. I bought it, forgot about it, and then encountered it all over again. I took the record home and bought a turntable the next day so I could play it at home. Over and over, as it turned out.

What was it about the record that prompted this passion project?

Ha! It’s a long story! Norway in the winter can be a particularly dreary place. Cold, dark, and isolating. The Trouble record was like a postcard from home. It described a small, hot, dusty junction town in the American Southwest and the yokels who lived there. It was, for lack of a better description, a breeze of warm desert air that came through the stereo speakers and somehow warmed my sparsely appointed apartment. You know, when we’re kids, or teenagers, records speak to us in a way that they rarely do when we get older. They provide us with a soundtrack that eases our inner conflicts and concerns, and we really identify with them and the bands that make them. They can be a glimpse into a world that we want to believe in and inhabit. I’m sure you had records like that when you were a kid.

I kept coming back to this one again and again. Kind of like revisiting the same town every year or so. All those familiar characters were just a needle-drop away. I started thinking about covering one or two of the songs live, so I learned them on guitar. From there, it was a short leap to thinking about doing the whole album live, like a stage play, narration and all. I learned all of the songs and then thought, “Wow… it would be really cool to re-record the whole album song-by-song… maybe with a different style or subgenre of Americana for each track.”

If I’d known what a long undertaking it would turn out to be, I might have abandoned the idea as too fanciful. But then again, maybe not. Passion has no expiration date, at least not if it’s real.

The actual re-imagining of the album has been quite the journey. What was your initial vision for the project?

The original idea was to just have three singers. Frank Black, my brother Larry Norman, and Isaac Brock, backed by a Mariachi band. I went around to Mexican restaurants trying to find a good band, but there was a communication barrier, and the few guys I spoke with seemed to think I was out of my mind. At least they looked at me like I was. So, I realized that it would just be easier if I asked my friend Jason Carter to play drums, and then play the rest of the instruments myself. Mostly. And then, my brother died and it all came to a crashing halt. I put the tapes and hard drives on a shelf in my studio where they sat for a long time. I was bummed out. I probably would never have finished the album if I wasn’t encouraged by Isaac Brock to get back into it. So I dusted off the tapes and got back to work, slowly.

While recording I kept crossing paths with other friends and they would drop by to play on a track here or there. The album became more organic… it kind of started growing by itself. I played guitar and bass on one of Pete Yorn’s records, so I asked him to sing one of the songs, “Six Feet of Chain.” The British band, Art Brut, stayed in my house while they were in Salem recording their album, Brilliant! Tragic!, so one night their singer Eddie Argos and I drank way too many beers and then he took a shot at vocals on “Peculiar Guy.” His girlfriend, Dyan Valdés from the band The Blood Arm, was here too, so she did a spoken interlude during the middle passage. I think you can tell by listening to the song how much beer was consumed that night! Eddie’s vocals are distorted in the last couple of verses because he kept getting louder and I wasn’t paying any attention to the input levels. We were laughing too much between takes. But it sounded good distorted, so we kept it.

Anyway, the initial “vision” was quickly put by the wayside. I met Courtney Taylor-Taylor from the Dandy Warhols backstage at a Guns N’ Roses show in Seattle and we hit it off immediately when we discovered we both have little boys around the same age. It was quite strange I guess, sitting there in the green room talking about where there were parks with good play areas, and where to buy bulk diapers. Not exactly rock and roll. So he ended up singing “Look at That Woman,” which is the track I’m most proud of (streaming below). My wife, Kristin Blix sang on a track that I also like very much, “We All Make the Flowers Grow.” She and I have made records together for years. Okay, sorry for digressing… initial vision? Dropped.

How did Isaac Brock help to convince you to finish up the re-recording?

We had a long conversation one night that I’m not going to go into, but it was an important thing to me. I was at a Modest Mouse rehearsal session and was really inspired by watching them work out parts to new songs. It made me very happy, for no explicable reason. And then what we talked about late into the night kind of lit a fire in me, and perhaps under me, to finish the appropriately named “Trouble” record. Isaac is a smart guy. Certainly a savant, and maybe a genius. I’m afraid there’s really not much more to this story. It got me recording again.

You know many of these artists from prior work. But when looking at the roster of musicians involved in the re-creation, are you still shocked at the level of talent that’s participating?

I suppose the correct term would be “stoked” instead of shocked. It wasn’t until all the songs were finished and Jason Carter and I were mastering the record, putting all the tracks in order and splicing-in the narration parts that I actually heard the record for the first time. We sat back and listened to it in its entirety and it wasn’t until then that I realized that it was like a cavalcade of some of my favorite musicians and friends. So, yeah, I’m stoked that everyone took time out of their busy lives and careers to take part in this oddball project. I’m honored to call all of these people my friends.

How did you find yourself getting together with Side One Dummy for the official release, both on vinyl and CD?

The guy who co-owns SideOneDummy is a childhood friend of mine, Joe Sib. We grew up together in the San Jose/San Francisco punk rock scene and have hung out since then whenever possible. I was on a road trip with him awhile back, talking about our latest projects, when I told him about my Thriftstore Masterpiece idea, which was almost done. He liked it immediately and asked me to pitch it to his team at the label. I hadn’t even mixed the record when they offered me a deal. There was no reason to shop around to other labels at that point, which I certainly could have. I knew that it was a good home for the record. I’ve been signed to major and indie labels in the past, and this was the fairest contract I’d ever been offered. Good friends, a great label with an awesome catalog, and a visionary skill at taking long shots with unproven artists. What more could a musician ask for?

The record, like you said, was picked up in a secondhand store, thus the name Thriftstore Masterpiece for the collective. On that same note, the practice of shopping in such an environment is almost an art-form. When you enter into a thrift store, how do you begin to navigate the stacks and stacks of records?

Well, it’s daunting when the stacks aren’t categorized! But in smaller shops, antique stores and flea markets, you generally find albums that have some sort of common thread. They may have been purchased by a discerning shop owner, you know, hand picked to his or her taste. You’ll know after flipping through a dozen or so records if it’s your particular thing or not. When you go to garage sales you’ll usually find one or two styles of records… say, Blues and Classical, or Jazz and Rockabilly. But in big mega thrift stores you usually have to just dig-in. Go for it. Spend a lot of time on your knees going through crates. For hours. Then, plan on spending some time at home washing the cardboard dust and mildew from your hands, face and clothes! It’s like archaeology. You have to get grimy to find the treasure.

What would you consider your qualifications for a worthwhile thrift store purchase? 

I guess this doesn’t apply to books, but I think you CAN judge a record by its cover, at least most of the time. All of my favorite records have had art on their jackets that say something about what’s on the black circle inside. If you like the cover a lot, you’ll most likely dig the songs. Think about your own collection of “Desert Island Discs.” They probably have rad art wrapped around them. That’s what I’ll pick up first. If they are gatefolds, then it’s usually a bonus. Gatefolds are more expensive to make, which suggests that the label, band or artist were more concerned with aesthetics than the bottom line. They were presenting an idea, not cutting corners to make an extra buck. Lastly, the clincher is if it’s a record label I know and like. This doesn’t apply to major labels, not at all, but if it’s an indie label that you like already, you’re almost guaranteed to like the record. Think of Chess, 4AD, Blue Note, Dischord, Twin/Tone, Sun, Sugar Hill, Clay, and on and on. If you like one record from any of these labels you’ll probably like most of their catalog. I know I do.

Obviously, condition is a large part of the thrift store equation. What are some of the conditional factors you make sure to look for when digging?

None whatsoever. A record is a record. It’s not a CD or an MP3. If it has scratches, skips, and pops, then it sounds like a record. I know that many collectors are into grading records, and that’s cool, but it’s not really a concern of mine. Even the most pristine reissues of something like John Lomax recordings are going to sound all itchy and scratchy. It’s not about the fidelity to me, it’s about the songs themselves. To me, putting a record back on the shelf because it has scratches on the surface would be like refusing to watch a silent movie just because it’s in black and white, looks unfocused, and has a stuttering frame rate. If a used record sounds like a bowl of Rice Krispies, but I love it a lot, I might try and find a cleaner copy, but usually not.

What have been some of your other worthwhile finds besides the Hazlewood classic?

Over the years, I’ve found quite a few records in thrift stores and junk shops that have become classics in my world. The ones I’ve been going back to recently are Gabby Pahinui’s Best of the Gabby Band, a couple of George Formby records, and the Norwegian band Sister Rain and their album Wild Flowers Grow. As far as past finds that were worth money, a few years ago I found an Australian pressing of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy” single that I bought for seventy five cents and sold for five hundred dollars. That was a good find.

Currently, what type of record collection do you maintain?

Well, a few years ago I had around 4,000 LPs, but I spent a weekend going through them and weeded out the stuff I would probably never listen to again. I sold most of them to a fantastic independent store called Ranch Records here in Salem. I now have around seven hundred great records left. Which I guess is a decent size for a record collection, although it still seems a bit too large for my living room. The majority is “Rock,” whatever that means, but I have a lot of old Jamaican ska records, jazz, blues, hardcore punk…whatever. Records. Ones that I like.

The album is currently up for sale over at Side One Dummy, as it’s been pressed on brown and white starburst vinyl (limited to 1,000). You can also pick up the original, yet remastered version of “Trouble Is A Lonesome Town” through S1D. Both are available in a bundle, here.

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Christopher Lantinen
Chris Lantinen is the owner and editor-in-chief of Modern Vinyl. Along with his modest collection of sad sounding records, he collects his share of soundtracks and previously adored indie up-and-comers. Chris is currently a professor of journalism and public relations at Edinboro University in the Erie, Pennsylvania area.

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