On the advent of Prism Analog's new live series, recording artists' live sets straight to tape, the Phoenix talked with Dan Stuart, the former frontman of legendary cult post-punk band Green On Red, who comes to Portland from Mexico this Friday, June 2. Stuart's new album, Marlowe's Revenge, is backed by the Mexican rock band Twin Tones, and serves as an excellent document of a long and storied life of reinvention and using rock music as a vessel for discovery.
Do you live in Oaxaca? What do you get up to down there?
I live in Mexico City now after four years in Oaxaca. I moved after making a record with Twin Tones and being drawn into DF's music and art's scene. Really DF (the Mexico City neighborhood Distrito Federal, or Federal District) is having its moment, like Berlin in the '90s I guess. Everyone wants to be there.
As someone who's done this many times before, what are you looking for when you're touring these days? What type of connections?
I enjoy it more now, I have nothing to prove and appreciate the little things that happen when traveling: an unexpected conversation with a stranger or a vista never seen before, for example. I just got back from Europe and was in Prague for the first time, so there's still a delight in discovering a new place.
When you started playing the style of music back in the late '70s, did you have an idea which way the genre would evolve? Bands like Wilco and other "alt-country" and psychedelic rock sounds so contemporary now, but early Green on Red stuff must have confused some people.
Well we started as a punk band in Tucson called The Serfers and opened for everybody from X to Fear. By the time we got to LA in 1980, things were changing and they called us post-punk, then neo-pychedelic and/or Paisely Underground, which turned into alt-country whatever. I never really paid attention. Green on Red evolved naturally as we embraced blues, country, folk etc. and gave ourselves permission to contribute to the canon. It's just notes and shit...
Music scenes and styles used to be so regionally specific, with independent labels representing sounds from certain cities. Now that music travels digitally, you don't see that anymore. What was it like making music in Tucson back then vs. writing songs now?
Tucson was like many other cities at the time, perhaps a hundred people who dug punk with half of them in bands. People forget that there was probably only a 100 places to play in the entire country, everyone knew everyone else and it was mostly sweet and innocent. The nastiness came later with major labels wanting in and bands in competition with one another. Bit for awhile it was beautiful. Now there is no music business per se anymore, so some of that feeling is coming back with the kids who can do what they want with no rules as how to operate since no one buys music anymore.
I haven't read your "false memoir" from 2012, but can you tell me a little bit about the difference between how Marlowe Billings and Dan Stuart write songs?
It's just a nom de guerre ... a way of hiding in plain sight. The character itself goes way back, back to Gravity Talks in 1982 which was released by Slash Records in L.A., who were always meddling and didn't allow us to call the record what we wanted. I just started recording the last of the Marlowe trilogy and am nearly done with the second Marlowe book. Then I'll probably bury him in Oaxaca somwhere.
What did you learn as a songwriter, or a person, from living outside of the U.S. in the places you've lived?
I've been an expat off and on all my life in different countries and am the child of an immigrant as well. I've never bought into the whole American Exceptionalism myth, although there are elements of truth to it. In Mexico I am a different person. I listen more than I talk, quite aware of being the "other." One acquires a degree of humility that is perhaps impossible back "home."
In 1995, you left music for about 15 years. What made you want to spend your time doing this again?
Well, my brain broke in 2010 and I really only knew how to make a record in a situation like that, so that's what I did. I left the business because I had made too many records and had nothing left to say. Probably after I finish the next one I will leave again. I'm quite proud of only having three solo records over 20 years—way too much dreck out there regardless of the stature of the artist.
Can you tell me the process by which you founded Twin Tones? How'd you meet those fellows?
Oh, they formed themselves several years ago and had recorded several albums as well as a record with Danny Amis from Los Straitjackets. Oddly, they formed Sonido Gallo Negro as an offshoot to play pyschedelic cumbia and that band is really taking off on the festival circuit in Europe and Latin America. Frankenstein's monster, as it were ... I'm very proud of them, all very talented.
What's the connection you have with Prism Analog? How'd you become the first of their live recording series?
Well, this cat Michael Whittaker who (lives in Portland and) goes back to the L.A. scene got in touch and pitched the idea, and myself and Tom Heyman were intrigued. We're happy to be the guinea pigs, studios have suffered along with everyone else in this tough new enviroment.
Dan Stuart and Tom Heyman + Erik Neilson | live recording session + concert | Friday, June 2 | Prism Analog, 222 Anderson St. | www.prismanalog.com
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