Kris Kristofferson

Millennium Man
On Stage & Screen, Kris Kristofferson Remains as Much a Cult Figure as an Icon
By Andrew Clayman

Published in The Nashville Scene, September 2014

At roughly the halfway point of his half-century long career—sitting snugly between Big Top Pee Wee and the second Highwaymen record—Kris Kristofferson played the lead in a low budget 1989 sci-fi film called Millennium. In comparison to his legendary achievements as a Rhodes scholar, Army captain, Nashville renegade, and prolific songwriting genius, this minor cinematic misstep might seem like an odd moment to single out. But for an artist who earned his stripes largely by avoiding the safe commercial choice, Kristofferson’s failures often say as much about his unique persistence in American culture as his successes.

And indeed, Millennium was a failure both critically and commercially. The time traveling thriller was based on a book by John Varley and was helmed by veteran director Michael Anderson-- leaning more toward his work on Logan’s Run (1976) than his Oscar-nominated Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Paul Newman had initially been in talks to play the lead role of Bill Smith, but numerous production snarls saw the job fall to a then 53 year-old Kristofferson, who—like so many revered troubadours of the ‘60s and ‘70s—had fallen a bit out of step in the ‘80s. Not only were album sales down, but a once promising acting career had seemingly hit the wall, as well.

Back in 1971--corresponding with his emergence as Nashville’s new hit-making golden boy-- Kristofferson had appeared in his first movie, paradoxically called The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper’s ill-conceived follow-up to Easy Rider). From the beginning, the country star looked well suited to the big screen, with an icy blue-eyed glare that communicated both his Swedish ancestry and rough-and-tumble Texas roots. He did a few more post-Spaghetti westerns before expanding his horizons and audience with Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) and the blockbuster Barbra Streisand vehicle A Star Is Born (1976), for which Kristofferson earned a Golden Globe award. After the colossal bomb that was 1980’s Heaven’s Gate, however, any lasting momentum was merely the consequence of things going down hill. Kris was tagged with Golden Raspberry nominations for “Worst Actor” for both Heaven’s Gate and 1981’s Rollover. And within a few years, he’d be reduced to TV movies, Pee Wee Herman sequels, and doomed-to-fail genre films like Millennium.

And yet… the Kristofferson mythos persisted. Much like the futuristic beings he encounters in Millennium, Kris seemed to have a magic portal through which he could always travel back and reconnect with his past, maintaining the integrity of his earliest work while transporting fans into whatever seemingly disparate, often weird project he might be working on in the present. Even Millennium, for all its cheesy special effects and predictable plot twists, manages to succeed at making us hopeful for a world in which tough guy Bill Smith—softened by love and the friendship of a robot—is left to repopulate the Earth with Cheryl Ladd and her glam-rock pompadour. “If humanity has to depend on one man,” you think to yourself, “it might as well be the guy who wrote ‘Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.’”

Kristofferson’s unique versatility and invulnerability to backlash might also have a lot to do with the fact that his superstar status never really made him a pop star. While his 1972 album The Silver Tongued Devil and I did hit the #1 spot on the US Country charts, he’s never actually had a solo album reach higher than #21 on the mainstream Billboard 200 chart in his entire career. And for all his undeniable merits as a lyrical scribe, Kristofferson hasn’t notched his own Top 40 single since “Why Me” in 1973. Many of his most beloved songs—“Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “For the Good Times”—achieved their greatest success when covered by other artists. The surprising truth is that-- unlike his fellow Highwaymen Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson—Kristofferson is really as much a cult figure as he is an icon And in a way, this may grant him more freedom in all his artistic choices, be it a gritty acoustic album or a fluff piece family film (you can currently see him in Dolphin Tale 2).

As for the grizzled troubadour side of the equation, the 78 year-old Kristofferson has but one tour date in his performance calendar for the remainder of 2014—this Saturday at the Ryman Auditorium. His last studio album, 2013’s Feeling Mortal, was the third in a trilogy of Don Was-produced folk albums designed to bring the legend back to his heart-on-the-sleeve roots. Creatively, it seems to have worked, as Kristofferson’s analysis of his own remarkable life and inevitable demise result in some pretty astonishing original songs from someone who could have just as easily put out some Rick Rubin style covers records. Of course, the independently released Feeling Mortal failed to move many units, but Kristofferson doesn’t seem to care—as the final chapter of his career is fueling some new inspiration rather than tapping old reserves. It’s all remindful of those final words spoken by the wily Sherman the Robot in the dramatic conclusion of Millennium, a film with a 13% approval rating on “This is not the end,” he says, channeling Winston Churchill. “This is not the beginning of the end. It is the end of the beginning.”

The Clean

Down & Dirty with The Clean
Kiwi Legends Embark on Farewell Tour (Maybe)
By Andrew Clayman

Published in The Nashville Scene, August 2014

If ever a band could be described as “sneakily vital,” it’s The Clean. As the best known export from New Zealand’s esteemed Flying Nun record label, the Kiwi garage-popsters became one of the more influential indie acts of the ‘80s-- despite taking the majority of the decade off. By the time the trio of David Kilgour, Hamish Kilgour, and Robert Scott returned from a seven-year hiatus to tour the States for the first time in 1989, their few existing EPs and singles were widely hailed as touchstones for rising American bands like Yo La Tengo and Camper Van Beethoven. In the 25 years since—backed by an only slightly expanded catalog—the Clean’s reputation has wavered surprisingly little. They’re still the cool kids from further down under, and their rare tours are greeted with the appropriate enthusiasm.

But is this the last hurrah?

Singer/guitarist David Kilgour, who founded the Clean in Dunedin, NZ, with his brother/drummer Hamish back in 1978, has said that this current US jaunt could very well be the band’s final farewell. Bassist Robert Scott, meanwhile, has heard similar threats before over the course of 30 odd years.

“I haven’t really gotten that in my mind yet-- that it’s the last one,” Scott says. “I’m more looking forward to just catching up with everyone in America [Hamish Kilgour lives in New York] and having some good shows. If it is the last tour, I’d be pretty sad, because when we’ve been over the last few trips, it’s been really enjoyable and the crowds have been great. So, we’ll see. But you know, minds often change.”

Rumors of The Clean’s demise date as far back as 1982, when the Kilgour brothers began working on their own separate project and Scott started up what would become another beloved (and still active) band, The Bats. Throughout the years that followed, however, all three musicians remained immersed in the Flying Nun family and the unique movement known as “the Dunedin Sound”—which included similar jangly guitar bands like The Chills, Tall Dwarfs, and the Verlaines.

“From the beginning, It was an incredibly creative and supportive community, in terms of working together and sharing ideas,” Scott says. “There wasn’t any competitiveness or animosity or anything like that. It was all very friendly. So it did feel like something special was happening. But at the same time-- because communication was so slow-- the feedback from overseas and elsewhere was quite sporadic and took a while coming back. You weren’t getting a flood of Facebook messages saying ‘your band is great!’ You’d get a little note that took three weeks to get here from San Francisco saying ‘we like your stuff.’ So yeah, we knew something special was going on, but it’s only in hindsight all these years later where you can look back and realize how much of an impact it really had.”

Following their 1989 reunion, The Clean finally got around to releasing a proper full-length LP (1990’s Vehicle) and gradually followed it up with four more over the next two decades, culminating in 2009’s hook-laden Mister Pop, released in the US on Merge Records. Live shows have been few and far between, with all three members working on their own pursuits. But when the trio does re-convene, Scott says it takes about “one minute and thirty” to get back in sync.

“I think it’s just part of our DNA by now. Once we’ve plugged ourselves in and Hamish is behind the kit, it’s like there hasn’t been a break really. It’s pretty easy.

“With both the Clean and the Bats, there’s been an element of luck,” Scott continues. “You have these people you play with in your youth, and you find out years down the line that you can still make music together. The way we communicate and stick with a simple approach—it makes it easier to scoot around any possible blocks or ruts. …And luckily we’ve still got a lot of creative juice within us to keep coming up with stuff.”

The Clean haven’t lost their knack for inspiring other bands, either. Twenty years after Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus cited them as a key influence, current indie-rock favorites like Real Estate, Times New Viking, and Crystal Stilts have said the same-- although word apparently still takes a while to reach New Zealand.

“People do talk about the bands that were influenced by us in the past, which is great. But I hadn’t really heard much about a new lot,” Scott says. “If it’s true, it’s extremely flattering that our music can still be influencing people this far down the line.”

Both the Clean’s longevity as a band and lasting appeal with listeners may boil down to the timelessness of their music—a melodic brand of loose, energized guitar pop that shows no clear allegiance to any particular era.

“That’s very important to us,” says Scott, “but it’s also something that’s completely unconscious in the creative process. I think part of it is the approach to melody and song structure, which in some ways—especially when it comes to my own contributions—is more traditional and folk oriented. It’s quite basic music, really. But it’s the kind of music that doesn’t seem to date itself. It sticks around.”

Time will soon tell if the Clean—as a touring band—do the same.

Festival Poster Pecking Order (Essay)

Decoding the Festival Poster Pecking Order
After the Headline Acts, Big Event Promotions are a Font Size Free-for-All
By Andrew Clayman

Published in The Nashville Scene, April 2014

Willy Mason is a 29 year-old singer/songwriter who’s always garnered more press in Britain than his native New York. Anna Lunoe cut her teeth DJ-ing in Australian dance clubs before opening for M.I.A. in 2006. And Nashville’s own Plastic Visions are an up-and-coming noise-rock band pushing a debut EP. What do they have in common? For lack of a better term, “product placement.” All three acts are currently bottom-liners-- the smallest font sizes on the promo posters of three major American music festivals (Bonnaroo, Coachella, and Lollapalooza, respectively). And while it’d be absurd to judge any musician by their position on a marketing team’s totem pole, it’s also hard not to wonder how they got there.

Coinciding nicely with the collapse of the traditional record industry around the early 2000s, the rise of the non-touring, super-giant music festival brought with it the internet’s annual guessing game of “who’s gonna headline where?!” It’s sort of like the festival circuit’s answer to fantasy sports. Long before official line-ups start leaking out in the early spring, eager beavers start tracking the tour schedules and rumored reunion plans of A-list bands—Nate Silvering the logistics into astute predictions of which acts will top all the bills of the various mega-fests. It’s how the “surprise” return of Outkast at this year’s Coachella turned into a foregone conclusion.

Spoiler alerts aside, though, there’s actually a far more interesting brand of “festival poster analytics” that exists beneath the much-ballyhooed first row. The stylistic arrangement of the remaining 50 or 60 performers, the subtle cascading assessment of their relative worth to the marketability of the event-- it’s a high school “who’s cutest” list full of endless intrigue. The pecking order of the almost-theres and the also-rans; the fading greats and the next big things—the seemingly arbitrary and yet weirdly scientific system that decides whose name will catch your eye first on the side of a bus or an internet banner ad.

According to the Lollapalooza line-up, for example, Lykke Li is now roughly four rows more marketable than ex-Rilo Kiley siren Jenny Lewis. Ms. Lewis, however, still sits four rows above the far more buzzed-about hip-hopstress Iggy Azalea. And over in the Bonnaroo line-up, Damon Albarn gets prime real estate two rows above Lauryn Hill. Is Albarn getting credited more for the success of Gorillaz in the U.S. market than the relative failures of Blur? Also, who the hell is making all these decisions anyway?

Well, the Scene found one of them. Bryan Benson is the Vice President and Producer at AC Entertainment—the Knoxville-based promotional company that runs the mighty Bonnaroo in Manchester as well as Knoxville’s own experimental Big Ears Festival.

“Obviously, with different events there are going to be different approaches to the design of the poster and layout of the line-up,” Benson explains. “But the standard model is the headliners on top, and then from there, it’s kind of the next biggest artists on down to the bottom where you have more of the developmental local and regional acts. You can usually attribute it to where an artist is going to perform at the festival. So, as an example, an artist who’s playing the main stage right before a headliner on a given night will likely be listed up near the top of the poster, as well.”

Sounds simple enough, but there is also a chicken-and-the-egg factor at work, here, since companies like AC Entertainment are also involved in booking those stages in the first place. So what really goes into determining the pecking order?

“The initial booking process is really a collaboration with the artists and their teams and managers,” Benson says. “With Bonnaroo, we have a team that works on booking the lineup, and it definitely can take some back and forth to make sure each individual talent is in the best possible place. Obviously, if we have an artist who sells a certain number of tickets across the country—say they’re playing to 1,500-2,000 people every night—they’re probably going to get a higher billing. You’ll also have certain artists that are sensitive to where they are on the poster, and others where it isn’t that big of a deal to them, as long as they aren’t completely misplaced.”

So there are, in fact, occasions where an artist is directly pushing for a bigger font size?

“Yeah, it happens all the time,” Benson says. “Sometimes when you’re working with an artist, their representative will say, ‘Where are we going to be in the billing?’ before we have even done that step. So, as a buyer, it’s important for us to take that kind of a comment and say, ‘okay, this is going to be a sensitive kind of subject for this act.’ We’ll make notes along those lines. And sometimes it happens the other way; where we announce the lineup, put the artwork out there, and then I will inevitably--as any other talent buyer will--get a couple of calls that day with questions of ‘hey, why am I down there?’

There must be occasions where you do have a half dozen artists who basically have “equal claim” to a certain spot based on their agent’s requests, ticket sales, etc. So what’s the tiebreaker, so to speak?

“Well, for Bonnaroo, you have to consider that we’re showcasing so many different types of artists-- across all genres, really. So we look at the billing or poster order for Bonnaroo sometimes along the lines of-- we don’t want to group a couple of the EDM acts right next to each other, or a couple of the rock acts right next to each other. Because as the fan reads the poster, we want to show the diversity of the types of programming that we’re showcasing at the event. So that’s another thing that factors into it. But other than that, there’s not a whole lot more to it. You know, we’ve been doing this a long time. And as curators, we take pride in making sure we present our lineups in the right order as best we can.”

Basically, Benson could have just gone with the standard axiom: You can please some of the people all the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all the time. And in the end, maybe all this obsessing over musical power rankings is a bit silly anyway. Sure, there’s a chance Willy Mason, Anna Lunoe and Plastic Visions could have leapfrogged some people with the aid of an attack dog agent. But when the Scene asked Plastic Visions frontman Kane Stewart how he felt about his band’s billing at Lollapalooza, his answer was telling, if brief.

“Fucking stoked!” –Kane Stewart

Turns out that getting to play at one of the biggest music festivals in the world might still matter more to some artists than their position in the line-up.

A Bonus Philosophical Take

Richard Harper, Jr. is the drummer for the Nashville band Fly Golden Eagle—which can be found in row 27 of the Lollapalooza line-up. In stark contrast to Kane Stewart, Mr. Harper had some thoughts on this issue. And they are as follows:

My thoughts on festival line ups and their usage of band names and their sizes, while still rather infantile in scope, has not been without attention and a growing interest. For instance, I've noticed the typographical and design aspects of festival posters in the modern American era generally started with a pyramid shape pointed up or down. Now, with the advent of social media and the general air of progressivism, more liberal and in-tune designers use an equal sized font for every band name, a notion I find rather distasteful and spineless. A pecking order should most certainly be established to remind both the general public and the bands themselves who's the top dog. But with one caveat: that any band could become the largest-fonted-band on a festival poster if they be willing to set their sex aflame, as it were. Or perhaps just get way into occult imagery.

There's a whole discussion to be had on visibility, style, and "underground music" (how our consumerist society - a consumer of styles - can be whipped into a frenzy based on the size and kernelling of a random assembling of letters). However, I generally find that art and words make for soggy logs: a union better suited for a recently renovated Burger King or a well-honed advertising firm.

In my mind, when I see Fly Golden Eagle, our band name, or any other band for that matter, on a festival poster specifically, I am more persuaded to purchase a double cheese burger or a pair of locally-sourced denim jeans than to have my creative energies agitated. However, my whole thoughts on the matter cannot be summarized here. A complex discourse to say the least, one that is both my torment and my delight.


Richard Harper Jr.


Happy Alone
Saintseneca Spins Isolation Into Folk Gold on Anti Records Debut
By Andrew Clayman

Published in The Nashville Scene, January 2014

Winter’s miserable post-holiday slush has enveloped Columbus, Ohio, and Zac Little really ought to be hibernating. As the well mustachioed singer/songwriter behind the indie-folk outfit Saintseneca, Little spent the better part of the past two years fleshing out the tracks for his band’s much anticipated Anti- Records debut, Dark Arc. But with the record not due for its official release until the robins fly home in April, an uncomfortable holding pattern has set in. Some musicians might twiddle their thumbs in anxious anticipation. Little is keeping busy. 

“My goal is to have two records worth of material done by the time [Dark Arc] comes out,” he says. “I like to stay ahead of myself, so I wanted to set a fairly ambitious goal of what I’d like to do before the release date. And it kind of keeps me sane to have to work on things. I like work. It makes me feel better.” 

It should come as little surprise, then, that Saintseneca is also hitting the road for a good chunk of January—a time when most bands are daydreaming about festival season, not driving their van to Boston in a blizzard. 

For fans of the more psychedelic and soft-spoken segments of the neo-folk pie, however, seeing this band in the “offseason” could provide a pretty rewarding preview of big things to come. That’s because Dark Arc—backed by Anti and re-recorded with famed producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley)-- has the early scent of a cult favorite. 

“When the idea was first proposed about reworking some of the songs with an outside producer, my reaction was basically, ‘Eh, I don’t know. I think we’re good. I feel like we’ve got this,’” recalls Little, who had spent a solid ten months recording an earlier version of Dark Arc in Columbus. “But obviously, I was interested once I heard that we’d be working with Mike [Mogis], because I really respect his work. He’s made a lot of great records that I really like and that have been influential on me. So that was exciting. And then when I actually spoke with him on the phone and got a feel for his approach and his philosophy, it felt like a good fit. I didn’t really have any question at that point.” 

And so Saintseneca headed to Omaha and re-emerged as something far more dynamic than a troupe of Appalachian folk revivalists, as some had declared in the past. On Dark Arc, Zac Little’s once minimalist compositions seem to miraculously twirl from sparse acoustic arrangements into layered space-rock jams that Built To Spill would be proud of. For every quiet back porch ballad like “Fed Up With Hunger” (a duet with bandmate Maryn Jones) there are radio-ready, sing-along anthems like “Happy Alone” and “Only the Young Die Good.” 

“I suppose we’re pushing more against being labeled as a folk band now,” Little says. “I feel like early on it’s harder to tell people what you do—to describe that. And I guess now that sort of label does feel a little… reductive.” 

Lest it be mistaken, Little is far from ashamed of his folkie roots. Growing up in Appalachia, he has credited the isolation of his rural youth for inspiring much of his songwriting. Now, working within what he calls “a very nurturing music scene” in Ohio’s largest city, he’s maintained that appreciation for solitude—just with a slightly different perspective. 

“The word ‘isolation’ can have a sort of negative connotation,” Little says. “So I think of it more like a retreat maybe. If I choose to stay in for the night and work on stuff alone, it’s about finding a certain sanctuary of mind rather than being disconnected. Really, it’s more about being connected than disconnected.”