It's a strange day in midtown Manhattan. Although the morning rain that shut down the subways has (literally) cleared by noon, most New Yorkers are still frantically derailed. But at an East Side diner, Jody Porter appears detached from it all, consumed, it would seem, by quite the opposite dilemma.
In a few hours' time, the guitarist/singer/songwriter will be en route to England's Reading festival, his last stint with Fountains of Wayne before leaving to play full time with Astrojet. At 30, Porter has spent a decade traversing these time zones, but tonight's eight-hour flight will be especially exhausting.
"I'm still trying to get over my jet lag," he explains. "After a one-month tour, we flew from L.A. to Japan, spending two-and-a-half days on flights alone. Playing live is the payoff, but I'll be glad to be putting an end to this part of the business for a bit."
Speaking with Porter, words are expressed slowly, selected carefully, and laced with a lot of well-chosen modifiers, like the restrained elocution of someone who's either very deliberate or simply too tired to hasten the conversation. I forgot, he used to live in England.... Never mind, back to Japan.
Fatigue notwithstanding, "The Fuji Festival was uninhibited Japanese fun. The kids go crazy over there, moshing-even to the ballads and slow songs. So I guess you can be big in Japan, whether you're a tourist or a pop star."
While it's slightly difficult to visualise the pit ("Denise" perhaps, but "Troubled Times"?), the kids' enthusiasm is not surprising. A wickedly clever, well-hooked ode to teenagers scouring the city to escape suburbicide, Utopia Parkway (Atlantic) is clearly one of 1999's finest pop output. And though it's doubtful their Japanese fans have ever even heard of that Long Island thoroughfare (much less cruised down it to catch light shows at the Hayden), ultimately the Fountains' second LP achieves a universal appeal-the kind that makes albums, well, hard not to like.
For Porter, that appeal has culminated in a heavy tour schedule, including stretches with the Lemonheads, Smashing Pumpkins, and Imperial Teen: "It's been a lot of fun, and we've covered a lot of ground. When I joined the Fountains in 1997, I let the guys know that once I had a full album's worth of songs to record, I'd head off to do my own thing. So the time has come."
Though Porter was raised in Charleston, South Carolina, "Even when I was a kid, I always had more of an understanding of British style," he says. "When I was six, my father bought me a Fender Mustang, so I've been playing guitar and writing songs since I was a little brat."
Later on, after attending two years of college, he moved to New York, where the Belltower formed during the late '80s. Though the band would soon relocate to England, their first transatlantic visit was earmarked with difficulties: "We had one-way tickets and not a whole lot of cash. We were just there to prospect, but got sent back before we ever left Heathrow." In hindsight, he admits, "The gold nail polish didn't help matters much."
But despite their initial setbacks, the Belltower were soon resident in London, where their success grew rapidly over the next three years. During the height of U.K. "dreampop" or "shoegazing" (depending on your aesthetic perspective), the band released two EPs on Ultimate, a U.K. indie label; then signed with Atlantic/EastWest to release Popdropper, an LP Porter wrote and produced.
Having to record "wherever there was a studio available," the album transported the Belltower to some intriguing locales, including the home of John Entwistle (John Entwistle Band, former Who). "When we stayed with John, he gave me the keys to his attic. There were about 250 vintage guitars up there, so I used a lot of his collection for the record."
After releasing Popdropper in 1991, the band met with increasing acclaim, as their "Outshine the Sun" single reached the number-three spot on the British Billboard charts. From there, they went on to play Reading, Amsterdam, and Paris, before returning to the States, where the Belltower eventually disbanded.
(EDMUNDS NOTES: Er, Outshine the sun came out waaaaaay, before popdropper,this was the re-release......and it didn't chart in the UK, at least not outside the indie charts....it did go to number 6 in the CMJ Import chart though)
"For the next few years, I did a lot of writing and recording," says Porter, who at the same time linked up again with drummer Tommy Hamer (also ex-Belltower). Hence, the two began laying the groundwork for Astrojet, whose roster would ultimately be rounded out by bassist Jeff Berrall and guitarist Chad Murdock.
In 1997, he received a call from another former bandmate, Adam Schlesinger (Ivy, ex-Belltower), who encouraged Porter to join his current project, Fountains of Wayne. Meanwhile, Astrojet regrouped in Northampton, Massachusetts, where they have continued to rehearse for the past year. "We've been getting it together whenever we can," Porter says. "So we've been doing this for a while, but now we're taking it to another level."
By now, the chaos is dying down in Manhattan. Taxis are vacant, the gridlock has lifted, and a sense of calm descends upon the city. Astrojet, however, "is ready to blast off," Porter says of the band's forthcoming attack on New York. Currently in the process of relocating, Astrojet plans to be playing out by November.
Equally eager to get back in the studio, "I'm excited about getting in, exploring different sounds, ideas, and tones," he says. "I have so many songs I've never even played for anyone-about two-and-a-half records' worth of stuff to record." After hearing Astrojet's demo tracks, it's all pretty gorgeous stuff, frankly.
"For me, it's about trying to get it down on tape as unadulterated as possible. I think that's what all people who write songs aspire to do-get it as close as possible to the way they hear it in their heads."
While he's not set on any specific date, Porter expects to release Astrojet's first offering by early 2000. "The new millennium could be an exciting time," he says. "In fact, we may be the first band to make a triple debut album, just to get rid of these backlogged songs.
"Ultimately, it's been important to first let Astrojet grow organically as a band, rather than just getting it out there as a product. I tend to lose respect for these 'just stick your tape together,' sessiony vibes. Of course, you can never dictate how your music is going to be received. You can't control who's going to like it, who's going to get it, or who's going to like it because somebody else gets it. But now, because we've come together as a band, we feel comfortable putting it out there on a big scale."
In 1991, Porter was quoted in Melody Maker: "As long as it's demented, as long as it's saying something, it's cool to flirt with pop music." When asked if this still holds true: "Pretty much so. I still love the classic pop songs, but what really does it for me is Revolver-era Beatles, a song like 'Tomorrow Never Knows.' It's pop music, but it's a bit more eccentric.
"Actually, a friend of ours in Northampton has a project called Wank Factor 7 and Rising. They recently played a show, and I sat in with Kevin Shields on guitar (My Bloody Valentine) and J Mascis on drums (Dinosaur Jr.). It was this fun, brilliant thing with everyone building an improvisational wall of sound.
"Certainly that's what was happening with the Belltower back in the day. So, what we're doing now is more or less a continuation of that avant-garde style, but with a bit more of a pop sensibility. What Astrojet does is rock, but it's also a lot of other things as well. It's experimental, it's noisy, it's pop-it's everything all in a nutshell, really."
Melody Maker June 15 1991
CHIMES OF FREEDOM
Their debut EP, 'Exploration Day', was an MM Single Of The Week.
Their gigs are drawing increasing numbers of wide-eyed devotees. Their future is the stars.
STEVE SUTHERLAND meets THE BELLTOWER.
Pics: TOM SHEEHAN (Edmunds' Note: These are in the Gallery)
Jody Porter spent his 19th birthday drinking Jack with Keef. A friend of a
friend hauled him down to the studio where the gnarled old Stone was
recording his solo LP and the wide-eyed, hollow-cheeked Jody was allowed to mess with Keef's Telecaster. The neck was so wide Jody couldn't get his hand around it.
" It was the first guitar l never wanted and it was Keef's!"
What does that say?
" Kill your heroes."
Jody Porter spent his 20th birthday in Quiz Show Hell. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, he'd lived most of his young life in Macon, Georgia, here his pa hung out with The Allman Brothers and wrote screenplays. But the scene was too sleepy-slow in the South for a would-be guitarslinger, and Jody moved where the action was, to LA.
" You'd see Bob Barker from 'The Price Is Right' walking down the street like your worst nightmare," he says now, still visibly shaken. "Everybody's real medallionesque out there. It's a little tacky."
Jody wasn't into metal. The boy moved on.
Jody Porter spent his 21st birthday in shock. Resident in NYC, the willowy Jody had formed a band with a slender, cat-eyed beauty called Britta
Phillips and they'd played the clubs getting pretty much nowhere as biker rock, Living Colour musorock and big production values dictated the terms of the trend.
The loving couple who liked to spit at each other when they fought had just hooked up with Detroit drummer Nino Dmtryszyn when Jody heard another friend of a friend had been knifed in the throat in a coke deal. "Okay, the guy had problems," Jody told pals, "but he didn't deserve to die."
Within days, Jody was going home when he saw a pimp chasing some guy down his street, waving a gun. Jody made it inside, locked the door and got scared to go out. The way he saw it, America was on the fast track to damnation. He'd seen gross racism in the South and now he was embroiled in a " crack / AIDS Armageddon" in the North.
" It's gonna kill everyone," he told Britta. "It's gonna kill us. It's like a scary movie. We gotta get out."
Jody Porter spent his 22nd birthday in ecstasy. He was on stage with his band, The Belltower, in Paris. His eyes were closed, the feedback was
mounting and he could hear Dave from Levitation whooping down front. He hadn't slept for 24 hours and he wasn't about to sleep for days. Partytime!
Jody had located his band to Britain almost a year earlier and, within weeks, it had all fallen together. They had an agent, a manager, a record
company and a new bass player from Brighton called Mark Browning. The press had been kind, the gigs were going great and their first EP, "Exploration Day", was Melody Maker's Single Of The Week. By a mixture of good luck and
better judgement, The Belltower were happening.
" Everything's more open-minded over here," says Jody over a breakfast double Jack. "You can just go off where you want, you don't have to stick to the straight format and people will relate to that.
" I read something the other day that more or less said it. I can't remember what paper it was in but it said English audiences are more in tune with
what they like. I think that's true because you don't have the big corporate things like MTV coming over here, making you know all the words to songs you didn't even wanna know in the first place. So people are less infiltrated with crap - they can make up their own minds what they like.
" Consequently, I'm less inhibited writing here. The songs I've been writing recently are a lot more spacious, a bit more heady, whereas before I was
just trying to come up with something raw that would appeal to myself because everything was so glossy in the States. Here you can pretty much do
what the f*** you want."
Jody's wearing an old "President Ouayle" tee-shirt, Edvard Munch's The Scream screaming from his chest. Jody's shins are bruised to f***. Britta'd
got in a rage this morning and kicked the shit out of him. He cuddles her now as she sips her pint of IPA, her black jeans splashed with pink paint
from the house they're decorating by way of rent in New Cross.
I've just asked Britta, who writes the songs Jody doesn't, what "Outshine The Sun", the damn-near perfect pop single that starts the EP, is about. She's stalling like mad.
" What was I writing about? Oh? Hahaha..."
" What would Bob Dylan say to that?" asks Jody, helpfully.
" lt was a personal thing. I don't think I was aware what it was about until after I heard it, y'know? It's a sort of... uh... I don't wanna get really specific about this. It's like an envy song, y'know? People are saying it's really positive, but when I wrote it it was more like. I don't want to say who it was about or anything like that, that would be too embarrassing. It's just about someone coming away and, y'know, overtaking you, outshining you,
y'know? That sort of thing... haha."
" We need Bono here," says Jody. "He'd tell us what it's about man. It must be related to God in some fashion. Or the universe."
" I think the songs take a very negative emotion and make them feel very blissful, very high," says Britta. 'l don't think any of the songs are like
'Hey Happy Day!' but I think you can get a blissful feeling from expressing any emotion. You can feel hatred, but if it's expressed, you can actually
feel great expressing it."
" That's what music does," says Jody, "magnifies life. It makes you able to cope and feel things."
'When you get on stage you're not yourself any more. It just comes through the air, through the music, the vibe of the place, whatever," says Britta.
" It's different all the time.
" I think I feel most focused and the most like myself when we're performing or recording rather than in everyday life because there's no boundaries
there. And you can't carry it over. After the show you're back into yourself."
" Making music is magical," says Mark. "There's something so strong with four people playing together creating something..."
" It's a drug," says Britta, "an addictive drug..."
" If I'm really immersed in what I'm doing, I don't really remember from when I go on till when I come off," says Mark.
" It's guitar meditation," says Jody, and he smiles. "Feedback..."
Jody's real pleased that l like the "Exploration Day" EP but he thinks it's a crock of shit. It was done almost a year ago with Levitation's Terry Bickers sympathetically producing but, even though they ditched their plans right there in the studio and went for the moment, the EP doesn't sound
spontaneous enough now.
The next EP, he says, will be more in keeping with where The Belltower are at. They'll record it soon with The Who's sound engineer at the controls
because they want it to approximate as closely as possible their live sound - a sound which, incidentally, is baffling as many people as it's delighting.
Although The Belltower make sense in the current climate, they don't quite fit snugly into the honeyfeedback scene. They've been compared to
Television, The Pixies, Jefferson Airplane and Patti Smith -all and none of which make sense. I'd chuck in Throwing Muses and Green On Red (Jody's like Chuck Prophet's half-brother; a consummate, skinny, dry, tasteful, cocky guitarist), but none of this rings true with Britta.
'It's funny being compared to other bands because a lot of the bands people say we sound like, we've never even heard or haven't heard enough to be influenced by. I suppose the good thing is everyone says something
different. I don't know what we sound like. I'm too close to it."
" I went out in the audience the other day and listened," says Jody. "I had about a 20 foot lead, so I said, 'Hey man, I'm feeling my oats, I'm gonna
walk out 20 feet. It sounded pretty good but, fortunately, it didn't sound like any of those bands we've been compared to.
" All we want to do is something that hasn't been done before and I think we're refining it every day that we're a band. lt's basically just trying not to do the same thing as we've done before. Have influences, that's cool.
But don't repeat 'em. There's only a few albums that I really get into but I'd never wanna make those albums again."
" You hear people say guitar, bass and drums are nothing new but that's not the point. The same instruments are being used but it's all coming from
inside you," says Britta. "You've got a sound inside your head that's constantly changing and you're sort of going for that ultimate noise sound
music that connects with people. Our ambitions are just to make really great music that we like to listen to and can be proud of rather than going for
being 'Top Of The Pops' major pop stars."
Jody has this theory that The Belltower are good in proportion to how much sleep they get. Less sleep, less good.
" We're up all night sometimes, just staring at walls and stuff. It's not very healthy is it? We're only doing this because there's nothing else we can do. Mind you, I'd like to be a tube driver. You'd see a lot of the world that way wouldn't you?"
You'd see people diving off the platform.
" I wouldn't blame 'em for that. I feel like doing it myself sometimes.
you feel you need some relief? I do. I try to kick off every day but I just
can't make it?"
Jody's staring into his sixth double. It could be the Jack talking.
How does he try to top himself?
" I wrack myself emotionally."
I should ask him how he squares quitting New York in fear of his life with daily trying to shuffle off his mortal coil, but he's been irresistibly drawn to the soccer video game and, what with the World Cup coming up in the USA, it seems churlish to interrupt him. The more participating Yanks the merrier.
The "Exploration Day" EP is available now on Ultimate.
Thanks very much to Keg for finding this!
Page By Edmund Hornsby