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Working Playlist – an interview

Wesley Stace writes music (for about two decades he was known as John Wesley Harding, a singer-songwriter who released seventeen albums under that name, starting in the late eighties) and books (he’s published four novels, of vastly varying scope). He also runs a series of variety shows he calls his Cabinet of Wonders, bringing together authors, musicians, and comedians. His next one is at City Winery on Saturday night, with Robbie Fulks, Kristin Hersh (of Throwing Muses), Siri Hustvedt, The London Souls, Eugene Mirman and Rick Moody. A month later, also at City Winery, he’s uniting Janeane Garofalo, The Milk Carton Kids, Robert Pinsky, Josh Rouse, Southside Johnny, Andrew VanWyngarden (of the band MGMT), and others. He lives outside Philadelphia with his wife and children and he recently had an email discussion with about his listening habits. He provided a Spotify playlist of some of the songs mentioned below.

Working Playlist


When do you typically listen to music?

The bad news is that I can’t work – write words, write songs, or even read – with music on. I just end up listening to it, fiddling with it, arranging it. My father informed me of this when I was about eleven; I realized he was right when I was about thirty. I can’t even write this playlist with music on. So most of my listening is done in the kitchen cooking (a daily event which I can eke out for ages) or on the road, when I might listen to something louder, or something proggier, that I couldn’t get away with at 6 p. m., such as Judas Priest. The lyric of “Electric Eye,” with its warning of constant video surveillance, was way before its time: perfect car music.
Do you ever use music as research?

All the novels have been about music in one way or another – the last one, “Wonderkid,” was about a band who make rock for kids. Much of the plot of “Misfortune” was communicated through old ballads and I immersed myself in them, particularly as sung by Shirley Collins. She, now a young seventy-nine, was recently our oldest guest in the Cabinet of Wonders and certainly the most thrilling, given my love for her work.
Presumably you listen to music specifically to prepare for the Cabinet of Wonders shows?

There is an ever-evolving iPhone playlist called “Cabinet Rehearsals” and often I’ll be listening with pleasure to something that’s coming up on a Cabinet, perhaps something the band has to learn for a guest; often, too, things are coming up on the Cabinet simply because I loved listening to them in the first place. Occasionally, I like an album, such as Ned Doheny’s 1976 “Hard Candy,” so much I simply email that person through their website and hope they reply. Luckily, he did, which ended up with him, my band and me in a dressing room in Santa Barbara practicing those amazing harmonies – it’s probably the Eagles – over and over again.
Are there people you’re listening to whom you would like to have on the show?

Always. Right now, Matt Berry. He’s a comedic writer and actor (with a fine, surreal sitcom now called “Toast of London”), but he also makes music, sometimes right on the edge of parody, other times, serious, proggy and deep. The sleeves make you think the record will be funny, but you can’t make music this good without loving what you’re doing. “Solstice,” from “Kill The Wolf” is the best piece of “Symphonic Rock” (as they still call it in Europe) I’ve recently heard, despite all the modern Prog made by studious musician-technicians. The Mike Oldfield-esque solo at the end is monster.
What is it that appeals to you about prog rock, old and new?

I think it’s important that I completely missed out on it as a teenager, due to my proud distaste for the people who liked it. I like the crazy ambition and right now I am fascinated by the murky place where rock tried to go classical in the 70s:a case in point, Rick van der Linden. (It turns out that Rick Wakeman wasn’t necessarily even the greatest prog keyboard player called Rick.) He’s Dutch, and wasn’t even in Focus, though he was in Ekseption and, best of all, Trace, whose last record, a concept album based on The White Ladies, I recently found at Vintage Vinyl in New Jersey. It’s great that it’s based on a concept about which I have no concept at all, but that the narrator is intoning in a manner suggestive of Werner Herzog is perfection: “She has been captured by The White Ladies, to dance… a dance free from ‘uman sorrow”.

That’s why Matt Berry is half way there; nowadays playing it straight just sounds like pastiche anyway. As for actual contemporary prog, Opeth – who until quite recently growled in a comical deathly metal manner – are now leading the pack by some way. Their last album is epic, beautiful recorded and even a little poppy, a la Muse. This is definitely car music, although my wife recently remarked that it sounded like Pearl Jam.
Are there songs you feel like you can’t share with your family?

Asa Chang and Junray’s music is totally unplayable in the kitchen, mainly because it’s a little scary, though the video is far more scary. I don’t even want to know what they‘re on about. I’m scared to find out how that achingly beautiful repetitive string part relates to the vocal and percussion. Don’t watch the video.
Is there any music you and your kids can agree on?

A lot: Ramones, The Beatles and even that last Taylor Swift single: I’m lucky in that I don’t mind hearing things over and over. They always seem to improve. Cornershop’s read-and-sing-along “What Did The Hippie Have In His Bag?” is perfect for everyone. The first time it went on, my daughter actually read along, turning the pages as intended, as others danced. She then, in a bold and unexpected move, “improved” on the sleeve by drawing a thought bubble for the Hippie which revealed the contents of his bag as “cookeis for everybody.” Kid’s things get drawn on!

Parquet Courts appeal to adults and children alike, in the same way Cheap Trick used to. I love their way with a dumb riff. They sound like no one else. The lyrics are always excellent: one line pops out at you every now and then, and it sticks with you, while the rest fly by until you catch up again.

Another popular kitchen choice is Claude Bolling, whose dynamite “Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano,” recorded with Jean-Pierre Rampal, was a surprise 1975 hit. The jazz/classical suite became a bit of a cottage industry for Bolling – “Concerto for Classical Guitar and Jazz Piano Trio”, there was even a Yo-Yo Ma “Suite for Cello and Jazz Trio” – but the first one remains the best, unless you hate the flute.
What are some of the ways you find music?

I am very good at listening to the suggestions of people I trust, because I know I’m not good at finding new music for myself: I don’t read the music press. My listening is often influenced by what gigs I’m going to see or what I’ve just seen. I love to make a mix tape for whoever’s going to the show. There were lots of great gigs last year – Barry Gibb, Stevie Wonder, King Crimson: all amazing – but the best club show I saw was Goat, a masked psyche ensemble from Scandinavia with a humorous bio and a stunning mix of krautrock, trance and vocals chanted by two energetic female singers. “Words,” was the stand out new song at the gig, and no disappointment when it subsequently turned up on their second album, “Commune.”
Is there anything in particular that you can’t resist?

That’s a great category, probably dominated by the first few Mike Oldfield records or things on that part of the map, like those wonderful Penguin Cafe Orchestra records or the weird David Bedford concept albums. Lately, and it’s not far away from that, its been anything from Frisk Frugt’s uncategorizably brilliant, beautifully packaged and recently released, “Den Europaeiske Spejlbue. Somewhere between prog, whimsy and arty classical, sounding equally hand hewn and computer programmed, it doesn’t so much demand to be played, as request politely. Irresistible is the perfect word.

Also occupying a left of the Penguin Cafe-like space for me right now is Ballake Sissoko, a kora player from Mali. “At Peace” is a sparkling album from top to bottom, light, airy and supremely melodic, beautifully structured.

And since I keep mentioning them, “Southern Jukebox Music” is one of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s many ravishing melodies: perfect kitchen music. No one doesn’t like it.