INTERVIEW: Ben Folds

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ROCKIN’ THE RECITAL HALL

Ben Folds talks with Chris Familton about the current collaborative project he has termed ‘chamber rock’ and his personal and professional connection to Australia.

In composition and performance the piano is one of the few instruments that works effectively and consistently across the spectrum of musical genres, from blues to jazz, rock to classical. In the indie-rock world one of the artists it is indelibly linked to is Ben Folds.

In recent years Folds has been progressively widening his musical palette to include classical composition and his latest project came about when he’d written a piano concerto but “hadn’t thought what I was going to do with it so I thought I should flesh it out with some other pieces of music that I had in mind.” Initially his idea was to work with a number of different chamber groups but when he met with the sextet yMusic, “I didn’t want to work with anyone else. They’re an incredible group of musicians who create different sounds. They’re like a sports car with incredible acceleration that hugs the road versus an orchestra which is like a big cruise ship. This suddenly felt like a rock band and I wanted to write lyrics so it quickly headed off in that direction.”

The end result was last year’s album So There which finds both parties on equal creative footing and Folds retaining the energy and musical irreverence that has always been a hallmark of his songs. “I think that’s just what comes out. I was aware of not wanting to be too terribly formal just because there’s a classical group beneath me. I didn’t want to compromise my voice, that didn’t interest me,” Folds stresses. “When I’m in the studio it has to really be something that will hold my interest. As soon as I go down a road trying something, blending one kind of music with another kind, I can suddenly get so tired of that so quickly and don’t want to keep making that kind of music. It comes down to – if it is exciting me then we keep moving forward. I think that’s always been my way of operating.”

Many of Folds’ fans share a willingness to follow him through his different projects, filling seats in recital halls when he performs with yMusic and mixing with the classical crowd when he joins an orchestra. That desire to find a balance between his audience, musical styles and performance formats is one that fascinates him.

“It’s a unique rock show and you can also look at it as a unique classical show. There’s a place where classical and pop crossover music meets that has never really been interesting to me. This is a lot less formal and feels a lot more honest than a classical crossover gig. They have the tendency to get a little pretentious and I believe that if you’re expressing yourself, don’t do it in a suit and tie like that. Just kick it in the arse.”

Folds is bring yMusic down to Australia for a run of shows and though he currently calls Nashville home he has strong connections to this country, marrying and starting a family in Adelaide, collaborating with a number of Australian artists and enjoying early musical success here. “I think Australia and I were on the same page when I began. I think they really understood. Triple j really got Underground (1995) which didn’t really take off in the United States but it did in Australia,” Folds recalls. “The moment I landed there I loved the place. People were funny, the air felt good and it’s always been part of my life every since. I’d still live there if I could but I can’t, I have too much work to do over here but  one day I’d love too. Depending on how our election goes over here I might be there earlier. I hope Australia remembers me and has pity on me,” laughs Folds.

From the outside, Folds appears to have a comprehensive and possibly compulsive creative life. Recording, touring, appearing as a judge on a TV talent show, photography and until recently, running the legendary Studio A in Nashville. Is there time for non-musical pursuits?

“I don’t have much downtime for anything. As we talk I’m throwing clothes into a bag before we head out on tour, which is kind of the way I do things. It’s been suggested that if I take time off and have a life I’d have more to write about but I like living day to day, running around and being in different places and coming across different influences. When I stop it is just bad, like a fish out of water. I just have to keep going.”

With that in mind Folds is already looking ahead to the next tour and the next recording project as he continues to chase his muse. “I’m going to be starting an interesting solo tour with a lot of toys on stage after the yMusic stuff. We finish touring that in Australia and then I’ll move into the solo touring and begin writing a solo piano record after all that.”

INTERVIEW: Mikelangelo & The Black Sea Gentlemen

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A SHOCKWAVE OF MODERN MULTICULTURALISM

With a brand new album based on the Snowy Hydro-Electric Scheme, Mikelangelo talks with Chris Familton about the genesis and process of the project and how it relates to contemporary Australia.

Many musicians might be loathe to admit to making concept albums but basing your album around one of the largest engineering projects of the 20th century must surely make it just that? “Every album I work on has some degree of being a concept album, whether it is covert or overt. There’s always something that links the songs together, some subterranean narrative or overarching arc,” Mikelangelo reveals.

“This one is interesting because it came about when myself and The Black Sea Gentlemen met with an arts company called Big hART who have been around for over 20 years and who work with communities to tell interesting yet invisible stories. We’ve been interested in doing an album based on stories about the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme because it was such an explosion of mid-20th century European-ness when 200,000 men came out post-World War II Europe to work on the scheme. This little town [Cooma] changed irrevocably and it started this shockwave of modern multiculturalism around Australia,” explains Mikelangelo.

“My dad came out from Croatia as a migrant worker and worked on the scheme so it had always been of interest to me and a key to understanding more about him as he’d never opened up much about it,” Mikelangelo confides. That personal connection makes it more than just a history-meets-music exercise yet the project can also be viewed as a commentary on the current political climate around the issue of immigration.

“Big hART were interested in how the story stacked up as a positive refugee migrant story that has been accepted into the Australian identity and how that might reflect on our current inability to deal with immigration. All these people were moving around the world trying to find places to live, similar to now. If there is any message that comes through on a base emotional level it is acceptance. I think that’s a very simple concept that many governments peddle the opposite stance. Their narratives are so weak and thin that they’re coming apart. You can only lie for so long.”

This was the first time all the Gentleman wrote for an album,” says Mikelangelo of the songwriting process for the album. “They’re all vibrant songwriters with their own projects. They’ve always loved my songs but it’s evolved into me writing half the songs and the others writing the rest. Working with Big hART we got this creative residency time – a house in Cooma or a work space like an old church and so we could work for days on end together. It meant we could work on our songs and then bring them back into the group and we haven’t really had an opportunity to work like that in the past,” he enthuses. “That was an exciting way to work. My songs really came out of being interested in the men working in the tunnels and their trials and tribulations. That was my way of thinking about how my father’s life would have been then. Some of the other Gentlemen took quite different angles which makes the album really interesting.”

Working with arts companies, funding bodies and local councils means dealing with vested interests and expectations, yet at the end of the day, like the scheme itself, everyone seems to be very happy with the finished product. Mikelangelo recalls meeting with the local Cooma Council who “wanted a certain thing out of it” before adding with another bout of healthy laughter, “They appreciated us but they probably wanted a bit more Man From Snowy River and a bit less wog!”

INTERVIEW: Eric Burdon

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THE GRATEFUL BURDON OF THE BLUES

Eric Burdon has lived a rock ’n’ roll life defined by music, first carving out a name for himself as the singer of The Animals in the ‘60s, then with War in the ‘70s and across the ensuing decades, as a solo artist. Chris Familton talks with the 74 year old about the blues and his musical legacy.

The Animals’ first single, House of The Rising Sun, was the one that catapulted them into living rooms across the UK and right from the start Burdon had belief in the song. “ I did know, instinctively, that it would serve the purpose we had in mind. We were opening for one of our heroes, Chuck Berry, on a UK tour and we wanted something that would stand apart from any of his material, or anything that we were doing normally. We recorded it on a day off, after hauling our gear on the train into London. We did one take and that was the record,” recalls Burdon. “We knew it was good but we didn’t know it would displace the Beatles from the number one slot in America! Nobody could have predicted the instant and huge success of that record. It’s still cited as an influence on young musicians starting out today,” he says, proudly.

For all its success, there was also a downside, with the group’s first personnel change. “The only sad part is that everything happened so quickly, they just put Alan Price’s name for the arrangement credits. Their excuse was that they couldn’t fit all of us on the record, and not to worry, they’d sort it out afterwards, but the afterwards never came. As soon as Alan Price received the first check, he quit the band.”

Casting an eye through the long list of songs that Burdon has made famous, it begs the question about which ones hold the most meaning for him – personally or as a result of their popularity. Don’t Bring Me Down is a record I’m still very proud of and of course, you mentioned House of the Rising Sun,” says Burdon. “But the one that may hold the most meaning is We’ve Got to get Out of This Place, as it has meant so much to soldiers, from Vietnam up through the latest conflicts. It’s the one Springsteen said influenced everything he ever wrote,” during his 2013 SXSW keynote speech. “It’s hard not to feel proud of something like that.”

“The blues has always been the foundation of everything I do and all of the music I love,” states Burdon. It’s the ever present form that first inspired him to start singing, caused him to explore psychedelic and funk variations in War and the sound he keeps coming back to. “It meant a lot to me when I was a teenager in war-torn Britain and it does today. It’s the sound of liberation, from oppression and it was born of slavery. It’s the real thing now and it was then,” he stresses. That idea of the living blues has been Burdon’s creative cornerstone and his passion for it shows no sign of diminishing anytime soon. “Approaching 75, I have come to realise that one’s love for the music only deepens. Also, knowing that many of the great bluesmen continued playing into old age makes me feel unashamed to do the same. It’s carrying a worthy tradition forward. The word ‘retirement’ is not in my vocabulary. As Leonard Cohen says, “I’m slowing down the tune,” but as long as I have a voice, I will always use it to speak my mind and sing from my heart.”

2016 AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES

12TH. MAY WREST POINT ENTERTAINMENT CENTRE, HOBART www.tixtas.com.au

13TH. MAY CANBERRA THEATRE, CANBERRA www.canberraticketing.com.au / www.ticketek.com.au

14TH. MAY ANITAS THEATRE, THIRROUL With special guests The Kevin Borich Express www.ticketmaster.com.au

17TH. MAY ENMORE THEATRE, SYDNEY With special guests The Kevin Borich Express www.ticketek.com.au

18TH. MAY PALAIS THEATRE, MELBOURNE With special guests Joe Camilleri and The Black Sorrows / Renee Geyer  www.ticketmaster.com.au

20TH. MAY EVAN THEATRE, PENRITH www.ticketek.com.au

21ST. MAY EVENTS CENTRE, CALOUNDRA With special guest Kevin Borich (solo)

22ND. MAY BLUES ON BROADBEACH BLUES FESTIVAL, GOLD COAST

SONIC KICKS: J M S Harrison

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James Harrison is a busy musical man. When he’s not writing, recording and performing solo or with bands Charm and Old Etiquettes he’s putting together great bills for tribute shows (Bowie, The Smiths, PJ Harvey). He’s about to release his debut solo LP Tales Surround The Lighthouse Lamp and to celebrate that he’s heading up the Hume to play a show at The Vanguard on Friday, April 8th on a superb bill that also includes The Tall Grass (Jamie Hutchings + Peter Fenton), Peg and Sam Shinazzi and Mark Moldre with full bands. Harrison kindly took the time to answer our Sonic Kicks Q&A ahead of the Sydney show this weekend.

The first album I bought…

I started off buying lots of singles as a kid that I don’t care to mention, high school was a little blurry but probably the Deftones album Adrenaline was the first. After high school the first album I bought was XO by Elliott Smith. Things really changed from there…

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An album that soundtracked a relationship…

Automatically I’d say The Cure’s self-titled album. Renewing a love flame around 2004 that still remains. I think it was ranked their 2nd worst album by Stereogum but I was 19 at the time and a new fan so I loved it and still do.

An album that inspired me to form a band…

Dead Air by Heatmiser inspired me in my first band Charm. Funny how Elliott Smith inspired me to pick up both an acoustic guitar AND an electric guitar.

An album that reminds me of your high school years…

Given all the Brandon Boyd comparisons I got definitely Make Yourself by Incubus.

An album I’d love to hear live and played in full…

One of my favourite shows ever was seeing Something For Kate do their 10 year anniversary for Q&A with Dean Martin so think I’m sorted!

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My favourite album cover art…

Hmmm big fan of Doubt Seeds by Bluebottle Kiss artwork. And Come Across. I’ve always loved Drive-By Truckers artwork as well.

My guilty pleasure album…

I’m a sucker for Belinda Carlisle’s greatest hits!

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The last album I bought…

Had to buy The Smiths’ album The Queen Is Dead because I’d lost my old copy. (Shameless plug…I’m putting on a 30 year anniversary show for that album Friday April 29th at Corner Hotel)

The next album I want to buy…

Richmond Fontaine – You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To. I can’t wait to get my hands on their last album.

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INTERVIEW: Dan Kelly

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Hippie Days Are Here Again

Dan Kelly thought he was going to write and record and quick follow-up to his 2010 album Dan Kelly’s Dream but instead songs were scrapped and re-written, countries were explored and finally, after unexpectedly meeting an old friend in the main street of Nimbin the seed for Leisure Panic was planted, as Kelly explains to Chris Familton.

That jump-off point where a musician realises they’ve found the starting point for a new album can often be a difficult one to find. For some it’s a moving target, for others it’s a spark that keeps disappearing and reappearing in another form. For Dan Kelly it involved a scrapped album and a return to the drawing board before a chance meeting set him on course toward what would become his new album, four and a half years later than he expected.

“I wrote a song called Baby Bonus when I was minding a friend’s place up in the hills behind Nimbin and it was the first song where I thought I might base the record around a series of stories set in that region. I’ve gone to Northern NSW since I was a kid. Once I’d written that one I went back to a few other ones and adjusted the lyrics a bit. I often have placebo lyrics in place until I can come up with an interesting story. After that I ended up framing it with that and a bit about my travels in a meta-narrative, not exactly what happened to me. It’s written between the lines, in the lemon juice. The lateral life I’ve lived which has involved a bit of searching and all that. That song set it off, with a chance meeting with a friend in the main street of Nimbin who had just had a baby and I took on the role of a hippie woman in the song. Then I recorded some songs in a mud brick studio in Brunswick which is a cold-climate hippie kind of vibe. There’s a bit of hippie stuff to the record,” admits Kelly.

One recurring tool in Kelly’s songwriting style is the use of place names which give his songs geographical context. On Leisure Panic a list of native Australian birds is also recited and it transpires that Kelly has a fascination for landmarks and the natural world.

It is something I do and maybe it’s something I’ve inherited from playing a lot of Paul Kelly shows. I’m fascinated by beaches and mountains, I studied environmental science when I was a youngster and I like the way they translate into sounds. There’s a bit of synaesthesia like where you see colours as sounds. I do tend to place songs. I probably do tend to always write the same kind of song, hopefully improving it and giving it variation. It’s like some kind of mystical Japanese art where I’m incrementally delving into and expanding this one style I’ve been doing for a long time. I change the musical styles a lot but I do work variations on a theme which often involves naming a town or a spot. I do make things up though, there is a reference on the album to Strawberry City, fuck knows what that is, it just sounds good! The real and the unreal is all kind of interwoven, I really enjoy that. Most of the place names are real, places I’ve been and where stuff has happened.”

Each Dan Kelly album takes a different tact to those that preceded it. Even if his compositional style riffs on the same theme he places the songs in different musical worlds, from his early solo work with The Alpha Males through to the dreamier soulful drones of his latest album.

“The first record was influenced by things like Pavement and the more aggressive music I grew up listening to like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Jesus Lizard. I was living with The Drones and we were all getting into music together and they played in the band so I was really keen to do that stuff. We reformed recently and it was super energetic and lots of fun. I do find it hard to sing over that stuff though as I don’t have a mega rock voice and those guys were rocking. The next record delved into this tropicalia clean tone, more clangy Sonic Youth adventure music. The third one I wanted to do a Dylanesque surrealistic ramble of words. This one I wanted to be more meditative even though live it is still a bit crazed and spastic rock. It’s more soundscape-based. I definitely wasn’t in a rush to make another punk record though the next one might be. One of the challenges this was to play less and make it sound bigger.”

INTERVIEW: Moon Duo

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Anything Can Be Psychedelic

Moon Duo’s Sanae Yamada discusses their place in psychedelic music, adding a live drummer to their line-up and performing to the ashes of dead people, with Chris Familton.

As the name suggests Moon Duo are a musical pairing, the collaborative project of Yamada and partner Ripley Johnson. The latter is best known for his work with San Francisco psych/drone group Wooden Shjips but with logistical issues slowing progress with that band and Moon Duo becoming more prolific and popular they’re able to spend more time exploring their lunar landscape.

“This will be the first time we’re doing two Moon Duo records instead of alternating albums between the two bands. Wooden Shjips can be more difficult to organise and get them all together as some of them have intense day jobs and families so it is harder to organise. It’s easy for us to pack up and hit the road and John (Jeffrey – drums) is young, he’ll do whatever!” laughs Yamada.

Jeffrey joined the band a couple of years ago, replacing the drum machines they used on stage and in the process reinvigorating and breathing new life into some of the band’s songs.

“There are some songs that I’m way more into because we’ve found this other mode for them which is more dynamic than the recorded versions. A big part of it is having John who opens us up to be dynamic and flexible in a way that we weren’t before. We can play with tempo and length and explore realms on the spur of the moment which is fantastic for us. Having John was great because we could do this kind of man-machine thing where we programmed beats and then got him to recreate them with a human touch. I was really happy with how that worked out.”

Playing in new countries and in unique venues is another way to maintain enthusiasm and variety in their live performance. Recently, one such setting was the Bohemian National Cemetery Chapel in Chicago.

“That was amazing. That place just made the hairs on my arms stand up. It was a crematorium as well as a chapel so it had these walls with little glass cases full of urns with people’s ashes and photographs, mostly from the early 20th century. The room was round with a domed ceiling. Very spooky but very cool.”

There has been an increase in the popularity of psychedelic-based music, from Tame Impala to Unknown Mortal Orchestra, in recent years but does it constitute a scene and if so, is it one that Moon Duo feel a part of?

“I like both those bands but I feel the concept of psychedelic rock is very broad. The idea of psychedelia is to open up doors and possibilities and not put boundaries on things or box anything in. For me, anything can be psychedelic. For instance I find some of Herbie Hancock’s music from the mid-70s to be deeply psychedelic. There’s this minimal synth woman Laurie Spiegel who I really like and her stuff is super minimal but amazing and I find that extremely transportive in a psychedelic way. I guess I appreciate the label for our music but I think the current scene around that concept has a very specific sound aesthetic which we don’t really fit but I like the concept of psychedelia in general.”

MERCURY REV: The Director & The Cinematographer

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FROM THEIR REHEARSAL STUDIO AND AN AUTUMN HEATWAVE MERCURY REV FOUNDING MEMBER GRASSHOPPER CALLS IN TO DISCUSS THEIR NEW ALBUM, THE LEGACY OF DESERTER’S SONGS AND MORE WITH CHRIS FAMILTON.

Grasshopper and singer Jonathan Donahue have been at the core of Mercury Rev from the very beginning, enduring multiple line-up changes and a constant refinement of their expansive sound. Their new album The Light in You comes out shortly before they head our way for festival and headline shows and the new collection of songs comes out of a particularly turbulent recent times for both musicians.

“The arc of the album is the story of a person in a desperate or lonely kind of way and then by the end of the record, with the song ‘Rainy Day Record’, it’s the redemption or illumination that comes from slapping on a vinyl record and falling in love with the music you grew up with all over again. That was kind of what the two of us were going through and the music got us through that. The tough stuff was that Jonathan lost his house and pretty much everything he owned in Hurricane Irene and with me after Snowflake Midnight (2008) my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimers Disease and so she’s been living with my wife and I and she’s got worse and worse with her memory. Jonathan has known her for 20 years so it’s just been hard on everybody when that happens and you see somebody losing it.”

As important as the lyrical narrative is the widescreen psychedelic sound of Mercury Rev which, as Grasshopper explains, is present in the detail and arrangements right at the start of the songwriting process.

“Jonathan is like the director and I’m the cinematographer trying to capture it. We talk about in film language and visually how we see the songs. When we’re sitting around with two guitars and singing melodies we create what we envisage the strings sounding like or the bells or glockenspiel. It’s in the back of our mind all the time.”

Deserter’s Songs was a landmark album for Mercury Rev that took them from underground status to heroes of some cosmic Americana, seemingly in the blink of an eye. Its success also caught the band by surprise.

“It was really special to us. With ‘Everlasting Love’ on See You On The Other Side we thought we had a top ten hit and we listen to it now and think “what the fuck were we thinking!”. When you’re in the middle of it you don’t really know. You just try to stay true to yourself and try to get out the core of what’s in side of you. When we started Deserter’s Songs we didn’t have a label and halfway through we signed to V2 Records and then we had a deadline to finish it. We did it and thought we’d just have to wait and see what happens. We listened to it and were both elated and scared and then it took off and had a life of its own which was strange. Six months later we’re in England and hearing it in cabs, on the radio and in Sainsbury’s. It was surreal and unexpected. It’s hard to know what’s going to connect with people. A lot of it is timing I guess, it hits a part of people’s lives or it hits the zeitgeist of the time.”

SONIC KICKS: Deaf Wish

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Melbournians Deaf Wish have a new album Pain out via Sub Pop/Inertia on August 7th which finds them striking a rich vein of tangled careering avant-rock, genre-splicing its way through the history of post-punk, post-rock, no-wave and hardcore. It harnesses their propensity for tension, both its formation and release as well as the juxtaposition of atonality and dissonance that bands such as Liars, Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü and the 3Ds have mastered in the past. Guitarist Sarah Hardiman kindly took the time to answer our Sonic Kicks Q&A and give us an insight into the some of the albums that shaped her.


The first album you bought. 

I can’t remember but I can remember the first album I found. There was a second hand Salvos donation bin near my house and there were loads of records piled against it. I was flicking through and found this Rough Trade promo copy of the early Raincoats stuff, it is red with like these dark green African silhouettes dancing on the front. I still have it. I had borrowed a book from my library at high school on punk rock and it had The Slits in it – I didn’t like the Slits but I loved The Raincoats and I was obsessed with how cool all the girls looked in that punk scene. I felt blessed that day because I found the record – I felt like I must be a good person – the way you feel when animals like you, hahaha.

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The album that soundtracked a relationship.

I was living in London in the worst relationship I’ve ever been in and we used to play The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Darklands and I’d think, good tunes at least.

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The album that inspired you to form a band. 

That was Bikini Kill’s The C.D. Version of the First Two Records. My friend and I didn’t want songs to go past 2 minutes. We got drunk in my bedroom and wrote our first song which was about 1.5 minutes long. It was called, ‘Inn-Keeper’ after the Australian bottle shop.

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Your favourite album cover art.

I always loved the saturated colours and composition on The Gun Club’s Miami and the artwork for Hüsker Dü‘s Metal Circus. I felt with both records that I had uncovered a secret cult and that it was all for me – no one else knew them. And I would get emotionally bruised when others spoke about them as if they knew what it was about, I’d think, “But that’s my secret, they’re my cult leaders.” I felt I had found punk music that was outside of the prescriptive punk aesthetic. Both covers looked cool and dangerous.

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Spice GirlsSpice. I used to listen to it with my big love all the time before going out. You know, having drinks and dancing and getting in the ‘mood’ to socialise. I didn’t listen to music like that so I thought it was even more fun. I liked being taught how to relax and be silly, I was very serious back then.

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An album you loved but now have no idea why you bought it.

I have this album of Balinese Temple Music and I have no idea how I got into it, maybe in one of those patches I have when I think I’m gonna clean up my act and become peaceful and spiritual, but I still love it. I kinda clean the house and do gardening to it, just reassess.

The last album you bought.

Mulatu Astatke’s The Story of Ethio Jazz (1965-1975) – recommended by someone.

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