Friday, October 18, 2019

Chicago band The Lilacs releases first new album in more than 25 years, will perform free show at Phyllis' Musical Inn


Chicago band The Lilacs are in fine form on "The Lilacs Endure," the power pop quartet's first new release in more than 25 years.

To celebrate the release of the album, The Lilacs will perform a free show Oct. 19 at Phyllis' Musical Inn, 1800 W. Division St., Chicago. The Last Afternoons also are on the bill and the music starts at 9 p.m.

I had the chance to talk to Ken Kurson and David Levinsky about the new album.

Q – Great talking to you. The name of the new EP is "The Lilacs Endure." Is it a good feeling to have just released your first release in more than 25 years? In sitting down to make the record, what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them?

David Levinsky: My goal was to do the best that we could do with a pretty amazing alignment of circumstances. The songs were good.

The rhythm section was made up of long-lost friends. The producer, Richard Lloyd, had played on one of the great rock albums – Television’s "Marquee Moon." Considering there were no rehearsals, we had never played with this rhythm section, and these are first and second takes, the results are astounding.

Neither Ken or I are Neil Young, but yes, we met our goals. We worked up to capacity. This is the best Lilacs record.

Q – "The Lilacs Endure" is produced by Richard Lloyd, known for his work with the band Television and Matthew Sweet. How did you hook up with him and what do you think he brings to the table?

Ken Kurson: I am a voracious consumer of rock ‘n’ roll memoirs, so when Richard Lloyd’s book "Everything is Combustible" came out, I pre-ordered it and read it without putting it down the instant it arrived. 

I also listened to the audiobook, because Richard’s flat and direct affect as he relates these unbelievable adventures elevate an already excellent memoir to some sort of new performative art form. I have been an enormous fan of Television’s perfect first album and underappreciated nearly-as-good follow-up from the moment I heard them.

So after I read it, I had that urge you sometimes get to meet the author of a book that moved you. I play in a cover band in New York called The Editors with Ira Robbins, the brilliant rock journalist and founder of Trouser Press.

I asked Ira if he knew Richard and of course he did, and he put me in touch. I was a little bit afraid of Richard’s reputation for brutal honesty, but when I emailed him he was friendly and approachable and said he’d be open to hearing about the project but wouldn’t produce unless he heard something that would benefit from his input. 

My wife and I drove to a crazy bar in upstate New York to see him perform a solo show. It was a revelation. Richard doesn’t have a classic singing voice, but his otherworldly guitar playing combined with the utter heart he brought to this collection of really excellent new songs from his latest record, "The Countdown," really moved me.

We talked a bit But I still wasn’t sure he’d be interested in producing The Lilacs because at that point this “project” was just recapturing two great songs from the old days – "Monica" and "Blue Spark" – that had never made it to tape. But then Dave sent me a new song of his I hadn’t heard, just a demo of him playing guitar and screaming on his iPhone.

The song was amazing, “Shadow of Doubt.” With its Sticky Fingers groove, I thought I heard a hit if we got the exact right drummer on it and recorded it right. Moreover, it inspired me to write a song for the first time since I left Chicago in 1993.

I don’t know if you call it competitiveness exactly, because I’ve always loved and championed Dave's songs and I consider all songs by any of us equally to belong to The Lilacs, but it did make me feel like “Shoot, if Levinsky can do it, I can do it.”

So I sat down and wrote “I Saw Her First” and thought “Wow, this is pretty damn catchy.” I later discovered that Dave had actually written "Shadow" a while ago, so it wasn’t quite “new” but it was new to me.

So I sent all these demos to Richard and asked if he found them production worthy, and he did, on the condition that we practice the vocals and commit to a studio in Tennessee – he lives in Chattanooga – that would bring out the bar band feel.

He picked a place he thought was appropriate for our sound, which turned out to be Scotty Moore’s Studio 19 in Nashville. I practiced my vocals on the phone with Richard and he gave me exercises to do on my own which I committed to.

He really liked Dave’s guitar playing from the other Lilacs records I’d sent and I sort of knew after I got a sense of Richard that he and Dave, who had never met or spoken, would instantly hit it off because of their shared weird obsessions with everything from old time guitar sounds to ancient middle eastern mysticism. Richard was the best kind of producer.

Most producers have the reputation of being either very heavy-handed like Mutt Lange, where it almost becomes their record and they cowrite some of the songs and every record they produce sounds like a Mutt Lange record no matter how different the artist. Or being very light handed where they sit back and let the band be great but you wonder how much they bring to the table other than encouragement.

Richard was the best kind of hybrid because he let us rock when we were in the pocket and making a joyful noise. But he also issued strong correctives when our guitar sound wasn’t quite on point or we were morphing into a jam band that didn’t really fit our pop sensibilities. 

But to be honest, part of the way in which Richard elevated our experience is just the awe in which we all hold him. Sitting in a room with a guy who had played on four or five of the greatest records of all time, a guy who literally learned at the knee of Jimi Hendrix (and had the honor of being punched in the face by the great one), I think that just gave us confidence not to feel like old guys in rock ‘n’ roll fantasy camp. 

Here was the guy who had literally booked CBGB‘s and discovered many of the bands that wrote America‘s punk songbook, and he had chosen to invest his time with us, so maybe we really did have the right to ask for three minutes of an audience’s time.

Q – I understand The Cars were a big influence on the band. Ken, I saw a picture of you with Ric Ocasek from last year. How did The Cars influence your band?

Ken Kurson: I’m so glad you saw that picture! The Cars were an enormous influence. 

"Just What I Needed" was the first song my first band ever covered, and learning song structure, guitar melody, harmonies and just how fucking great Ben Orr’s voice is were all foundational in my desire to play rock music. I don’t know that Ric was particularly influential on my songwriting, per se, because his obscure and often incomprehensible lyrics are the exact opposite of my own, which are always very direct.

Where Ric would talk about “nuclear boots” and “drip-dry gloves,” if I say “I drank vodka with Diet Rite,” I mean exactly that. But The Cars were a hugely important bridge for me in terms of taking essentially a punk aesthetic and marrying it to these irresistibly catchy pop songs with the musical proficiency of the rock ‘n’ roll gods.

I only met Ric that one time for an hour in the photo you saw, but it meant a lot to me that many of my friends told me that they thought of me when he died.

Q – I understand the songs on the EP were cut live. Why was it important to the band to record the songs in that fashion?

David Levinsky: The Lilacs play rock and roll. Rock bands are best in sweaty little bars like Phyllis’. That’s what we wanted to capture – four people who know each other and like each other in a room playing rock and roll. Is there anything better than that?

Q – The late Jim Ellison named the band and produced the band's first album. What kind of impact did he have on the band?

Ken Kurson: Jim Ellison was a huge influence on The Lilacs and thank you for preserving his memory by asking about him. Firstly, Jim named the band and gave us a ton of our early shows, including opening for Material Issue just as they were becoming a big national act. 

As you mentioned, he produced our first EP, "The Lilacs Love You," and even played a little guitar on the song “It Seems Like Years.” More than that, Jim was an inspiration to us simply because the genius of Material Issue was so simple.

Write good songs, look really cool, work really hard, and the labels will come a-callin’. Jim had been my friend for years before The Lilacs because he was a big fan of Green and had even played rhythm guitar in the band for a bit before I joined. 

We played dozens of shows together, and I watched how professionally he approached even the tiniest gig in an airport hangar in Carbondale.He acted like a rock star way before he became one.

Jim took a lot of abuse in Chicago’s very judgy indie rock scene for the crime of being careerist, but I saw the way his businesslike approach to rock benefited not just his career, but also his songwriting.

If he admired a band like The Tweet he would listen to “Fox on the Run” over and over until the vocal build up on “A Very Good Thing” was more like a Material Issue song than a Sweet song. Rock ‘n’ roll is such a formulaic enterprise.

I’m addicted to these videos by this guy Rick Beato, who does these incredibly thoughtful explications of what makes a song great. He’ll take apart a song like “Limelight” and explain why it really is alternating measures of 4/4 and 3/4 rather than single measures of 7/4.

But the fact is if you wander too far from a Charlie Watts backbeat, it might be a good song, but it ain’t rock ‘n’ roll. That Jim Ellison was able to take these very elemental chord progressions and craft them into a very distinctive Material Issue sound inspired me.

After Jim’s suicide, I wrote a long obituary. His mother called me in New York crying on the phone and thanking me for having captured his personality.

I wrote the liner notes to the band’s final LP. But man, I can’t help but think how many great songs never got written because of the early deaths of so many rock n roll greats.

And I wonder if those sad early endings played a role in us deciding to end The Lilacs at the peak of our powers in the mid 90s. Dave and I can be quite intense people, especially when we were young, and that doesn’t always end well.

Q – David, I understand that you stopped making music from 1998 to 2012 as you pursued religious studies. What brought you back to music?

David Levinsky: A mentor who died a few weeks ago pushed me to reintegrate things I left behind in order to become an “adult” back into my life. So I started studying Hasidic texts again and I started playing rock and roll again. One of the best decisions I ever made. This show is for him and for all of the others no longer with us who helped us.

Q – What's next for the band? Are you working on new music?

David Levinsky: We are writing music and for the first time we plan on writing music together. If we can put a set of good new songs together, it would be great to record another album.

In the meantime, we have a show in New York City at the International Pop Overthrow Festival on Nov. 6.

Q – Do you see this as the next chapter in the band?

Ken Kurson: I do! Only hashem knows what’s next, but we sound pretty fucking good.