There was only one real hiccup in my recent conversation with Endless Boogie guitarist/vocalist Paul “Top Dollar” Major, and it came when I asked him about whether he was able to draw on his extensive knowledge of classic psychedelic rock — Major is a noted record dealer and collector in NYC, where the band is also based — as fuel for the group’s extended, mostly-improvised jams. Chalk it up to the limits of human interpersonal communication — more particularly those that involve me stammering on a phone — but where what I meant to do was introduce a discussion of influences and use that to segue into a chat about artists in and around New York he considered to be carrying that torch now, he seemed to think I was asking if he ever just ripped off obscure psych records for guitar parts. Not at all my intent, and frankly, if I thought that had been the case, I wouldn’t have wanted to interview Major to start with, and their latest album, Long Island, probably would’ve sat in the pile instead of receiving the lengthy, laudatory review it did.
Even so, it led Major to a fascinating point about the idea of authenticity and some of his feelings and preconceptions of how an artist might best attain it or at very least drive most toward his or her own idea of it. As he succinctly puts it, one can push toward this notion of creative authenticity simply if you, “don’t think about it.” It’s a kind of anti-academic mentality that’s about as New York as pre-froyo Bleecker, born of post-Warhol neo-beat and an automatic shield against one — a critic, let’s say — who might call art a movement. I don’t know that I’d agree consciousness automatically saps art of its ability to capture an idea or make a statement, but he’s certainly got a point in being wary of overthinking one’s given approach, especially in the case of an outfit like Endless Boogie, whose improv jamming seems to arise out of a sort of trance-state and become a song like the moody and subdued “The Artemus Ward” or 13-minute Long Island opener “The Savagist” through after-the-fact editing — a very conscious process, but separate still from the actual creation.
As someone whose creative project (i.e. this site) directly involves a conscious critique of media, and as someone not at all immune to occasional bouts of overthought, I was intensely fascinated to hear Major discuss that balance. Coming as that turn did after talking about some of Endless Boogie‘s processes and how a record like Long Island comes together in terms of being recorded live, vocals recorded later, sometimes parts cut out from longer jams to hone in on a specific idea or feel, it was a different level of insight into what makes Endless Boogie so much of their place – Long Island‘s second cut, “Taking out the Trash,” is somehow even more urbane in its classic ballsy groove than “The Artemus Ward,” which shouts out 14th St. — and yet so distinct within those surroundings, their jamming ethic more common among European acts like Germany’s Electric Moon, with whom Endless Boogie will share the stage at this year’s Roadburn festival next month in the Netherlands.
Two more things about talking to Major, should you ever have the chance to do so. First, his laugh is infectious and it draws you in, makes you want to laugh with him (I was cracking up while he was talking about Phil Spector‘s hair), and he laughs a lot. Second, he jams. You can hear (and hopefully read) in the cadence of his words and the way he moves from one idea to the next that he’s someone used to improvising and thinking on his feet, so that he seems to be half a step ahead in his thoughts from what his mouth is saying, subtly getting ready for his next move even while his mouth is still grooving on whatever it is he’s currently talking about. There were a couple places where he got deep into that jam, but much like Long Island itself, in conversation, Major never failed to emerge with a cohesive idea.
In Endless Boogie, whose origin point seems to hover on average somewhere around the late ’90s or early ’00s, Major is joined by guitarist Jesper “The Governor” Eklow, bassist Mark “Memories from Reno” Ohe and drummer Harry Druzd. Long Island is available now as the band’s third release on No Quarter Records.
Please find the complete, 3,700-word Q&A with Paul Major after the jump, and enjoy:
Yeah, that sort of goes to the core of how we operate, or something. There wasn’t a lot of thought (laughs). It was something Jesper had, the name. I think there was a possibility of calling it Taking out the Trash or something, but then Long Island hit, and it’s adjacent to us, but it’s another world. We figured, okay, we’ll probably never get out to Long Island unless we start playing some shows out there, so we’ll just bring it here (laughs). And I don’t know, there wasn’t that much thought into it I don’t think, it just seemed appropriate. I guess sometimes we get into a twisted sense of humor, too, because I remember there was a period back in the mid ‘90s or something where we were thinking – not really thinkin’, but thinkin’ – if we did change the name of the band, what would be a great name? And we thought, we should just call the band Canada! And then we though, should we be “Canadian This” or “Canadian That?” and no, just Canada. So, Long Island (laughs). Unless, you know, Jesper has some kind of thing behind that he’s not revealing (laughs), I think it’s just Long Island for no reason (laughs).
Long Island is kind of its own world. It’s cut off from everything by the city.
Yeah, it is, and yet there’s these strong connections with rich people that go out to the far end and that, but otherwise, yeah, if I went over the next time we played a show in Williamsburg and started asking everybody, when was the last time you were out on Long Island, it’d be like, “Hmm… nobody in this whole room’s been there in the last year.”
How much of the album, musically at least, was improvised in the studio?
A lot of it. Most of it. There were minimal chord changes on the whole record. What happened with the first cut, “Savagist,” we had jammed through it a couple times on the riff, and then just did a live take. All the vocals, pretty much everything is live, on the spot, in the studio. I think later there might’ve been a little mixing things going on, balancing all the instruments, but it was totally live and basically an improvisation. The only structure it had was Jesper had the riff, and when he went into it, he was going like, “Oh, it would be cool to do some bursts and stuff,” so I stayed with the “High Mr. Red” and those bursts of guitar, and we figured where the groove goes, it goes. So it was a complete exploration. “Taking out the Trash” though, because it has the second chord, actually in the song, those were timed sort of to the vocals. I think about six lines, then we’ll change the chord, then it goes into the jam about two or three minutes in, and that’s all free, again, just jamming. But the songs, basically, all the songs, either the riffs were there, but they took shape in the studio and we messed around with it here and there, occasionally throwing in another guitar on a couple of the tracks or something like that, or having a fugue go through and stuff and listening back to the live thing and thinking, “Okay, pull the vocals out here, here and here,” when making stuff up, and just leaving that stuff in kind of thing. Like all of our albums, that’s pretty much live. They weren’t really pre-written songs. We may have jammed on them, like “Taking out the Trash,” a few years ago that we had the changes and we jammed it live a couple times and that was it until now, so that’s about as far as we get with writing songs (laughs).
It seemed like “Taking out the Trash” has a chorus. It’s the most song-ish of the songs.
Like “Smoking Figs” or a few other ones. It’s kind of rare when we do that (laughs), but there are changes, and those changes too, Jesper will come up with those changes and the song will arrive out of us just jumping on Jesper’s groove.
And most of the lyrics are made up on the spot too?
Yeah. Well, in the case of “Taking out the Trash,” we were calling it “Last Night” before, I had this idea “Last Night” and it was somewhat of a similar theme of the song with different words, and they stick after a while, I guess, and a few songs have become fairly standard, like “Smoking Figs,” the vocals are pretty much the same, but everything else is just really spontaneous, on the spot.
Is there something in particular that lets you know where the vocals should go as opposed to what should be straight instrumental?
Yeah, it’ll be a feel sort of going on. Once the thing’s going and we’re sort of locked in to this place, we’re really all listening so intensely to each other, it’ll become apparent when music takes a certain turn, like, “Okay, here’s a good place to start putting some words in there,” or some mouth noises, and sometimes it’ll be one-off, and sometimes it’ll stick. It’ll be interesting, because we’ll be playing “The Savagist” a lot soon, so it’ll be interesting to see how much of it becomes the keeper standard parts and how much is still in the moment. Because I’m usually like whatever place’s room, the people I talked to before, getting there, stuff like that, sometimes it’ll just pop into my stream of consciousness in the song, so I’ll be doing these little newsblasts or something. Way back, one of the all-time great newsblasts was, I think a show we were playing with the Blues Explosion at C.B.G.B., it was the same day Phil Spector got arrested for that murder, and it was this insane, nearly full-page picture of him with the biggest, weirdest afro ever. So of course, as soon as I started mentioning that in the place, everybody just came apart, because everybody was so stunned by that picture, it was like, “What else can you talk about right now except this picture of Phil Spector?” (Laughs) Right?
It was striking. I remember that picture.
I remember too. I had the paper downtown, and when I got to that page, I couldn’t stop looking at it. I’d see what’s happening the next page, you know, like earthquake or something, and I’d get about two sentences in and go, “Nah, I gotta look at that Spector picture again” (laughs).
Is there a difference for you between improvising on stage and in the studio?
Um, you know there is. It’s something I try really not to think about. I’m aware that there is a different sort of thing going on in the rehearsals and stuff like that, it’s just naturally kind of looser and more exploratory, because when I’m in the studio, I have it in mind, “Okay, I’ve gotta focus a little more,” but I think to get to the same place, basically, is the goal. I’d say I’m a little more aware sometimes, like, not trying to stay away from meandering, or being really conscious of being like, “okay, that’s enough of that,” or, “Let’s see where we’re going next,” since sometimes in the rehearsals we’ll stretch out for 40 minutes or something, and sometimes we’ll get there where it’s all pretty good, but that would be too much for – we’d have to put out a triple album to get three tracks on (laughs).
You could do an album that’s one jam.
That’s true. That might happen sometime. We have had some side-long jams in the past. That’s true. I guess, too, we’re thinking, me being a fanatic ever since a kid with the records and buying those first, when I was a real little kid, all these Hendrix and Blue Cheer and all these records and stuff, and that, conscious of an album as a presentation, too. So we do kind of want to balance things, and I’ve noticed not that we self-consciously thought of it, but there’s a long, sort of spooky mellow one that’s the third track on this album, and the previous one, it goes to there. We want to have some different angles to the band and then some of the accidents that happen in the studio come out and have the flavor, so there’s a whole menu there rather than the one vibe for too long. I guess the time constraint thing, thinking “Okay, we want to be a little more concise, we’ve got a thing to present that’s locked into the way it is,” rather than the whole way we approach everything live, which is our main thing.
I wanted to ask about “The Artemus Ward” and how that came together. It really stood out to me on the album for having that darker, moodier vibe to it.
That was a riff, Jesper had it, and we had played on it a couple times before, just improvisations and stuff, and not with those words, but it was just a groove. I think it was a little more hard rock the way we jammed it a couple times, and then in the studio when we were doing it, I don’t even know that it was really on the agenda. We’re trying to record four or five hours of stuff live in the studio to mess around with, and Jesper just started playing the groove, and everybody started playing and I got in a space and I had in my mind the signal man and some of those images. My girlfriend Briannan had turned me onto a book – I was looking for some inspiration – and I can’t think of the name of it right now, but a famous book about a hobo looking back on his hard life, so I was pulling lines out of there, dark images and great lines. But those were sort of in my head, but not even for that song, the jam, it just happened. Like the guitar play, that’s totally the first take. Entire thing, just the first take. We did tinker with that one. The problem was, they weren’t expecting that I would be doing vocals right then, so a certain mic was up – I know nothing about these things – then when it’s over, they’re like, “We gotta put this mic up and do it again,” and the engineer’s back there going, “Oh man.” He would call it “the single man,” like the single, unmarried dude, but it’s the signal man. So the vocal was redone, and I think there were some more words and images in there. Sometimes Matt and Jesper would come up to me with a piece of paper while I was doing the vocal, like with a line on it or something, and I’d toss that in with the other images I’m free-associating. And that’s where the Civil War-type things came from, was Jesper in there, and I was in my own head was the Signal Man, the spooky image of the signal man at a small train station somewhere, mysterious, late at night, gone wrong, and there’s this barefoot girl missing, and the whole kind of thing, it’s totally just in the moment, that song. I was excited too, how it came out, because oh, it’s really mellow and kind of spooky, and it gets creepier and creepier, and there’s no solution or something, like all those unresolved things are just hanging there forever. You don’t know where exactly you are. Are you in a train station downtown with some deranged signal man possibly jumping over your shoulder any minute? Or are you on 14th St. in the late ‘70s bopping down the street with a 40? Or on the subway? Or, you know, in the Civil War? Those guys tried it out.
You never really get to find out.
Yeah. It’s real atmospheric and it did just sort of gel on the spot. It wasn’t a pre-made song. It was just a jam where everything locked in right away.
With something like that, do you end up with this abundance of unused material for a record? How long are you actually recording?
I think each time – and I’m not sure exactly – but I think each time for each of the double albums, we recorded four or five hours in the early parts, everything live, and then went through them and figured, “Okay, let’s go with this one, this one, this one,” probably too thinking about that sort of, “It’s an album, so variety,” so, “These two jams are too similar, let’s go with that one,” and some of the ones that we really go for and have in mind, we just can’t get, it’s just not working. Something’s not working. Then there’s ones that are totally improvised in the studio and all of a sudden, “Oh, that’s one of the ones” (laughs).
Would you ever put out two records from the same sessions?
I don’t know. They’re sitting around, other tracks and things like that. I don’t know. Maybe at some date, or revisit the songs or something, but hmm, I don’t know. I think we always want to move on and do something else, but eventually maybe, going through there thinking, “Okay, what are the real winners?” We definitely grab the best stuff, I think. It becomes apparent which ones are working the best. But yeah, I guess there are other good ones that, for whatever reason, didn’t fit.
There’s also only so much space on a CD or two records too.
Yeah, you know, maybe because I do sort of have this orthodox thing too, growing up as a kid when an album, 40-odd minutes was the limit. A double-album would take it up to a CD now or something, so thinking beyond that, yeah. I don’t know, maybe that would be too much. Trying to think, who put out a side of archival stuff or something. Who put out a triple-album or a quadruple-album or something where it’s all great? I can’t think of… I think the double-album gets to the top. Except of course like some archival stuff like the 10CD or whatever version of The Stooges’ Fun House box set and things like that.
Kind of an exception on multiple levels. Pretty much any rule you’ve got, that’s an exception. Obviously you’re a well-known record collector and dealer, do you find playing and improvising these parts that you’re able to pull from that knowledge? Does that work for you in that way?
Actually, that’s an issue with me. It kind of, you know, bugs me – I mean, I understand it – but getting tagged as “record collector in a band,” because that summons up the whole idea of the “record collector rock” thing, which leads to, in a lot of cases, this academic approach in that, repeating things and homage to your stuff playing it. My knowledge of things certainly affects me, but I don’t really think about it. Like I never think, “This is trying to play like this person or that person” or whatever. When we’ll be talking about our jams, we’ll drop names, but for the feel, not to play like them. So the whole thing is like, kinda weird. I started playing guitar the same time I started buying records, when I was 12 years old, as a kid. I had a plastic guitar that my parents gave me, and it was back in the psychedelic days, so I had this plastic guitar with nylon strings, and I scrawled psychedelic art all over it and stuff, and then I realized – this was when I was first hearing fuzz guitars and what kicked me into paying attention to music instead of being a science or math nerd in grade school – I found if I put a pencil under the string in that guitar, it made an acoustic fuzz tone, so I’d be sitting there with that little psychedelic plastic guitar, putting on a Yardbirds single or something like that and trying to do the riff with the buzz on my guitar. The whole time, it’s like having those two reputations is, to me, it’s not a contradiction, but there’s this thing people have about authenticity or something, which I could understand when it gets academic, but I say to people, “Canned Heat were record collectors.”
Most people who play music are record collectors.
Especially nowadays. There’s this whole authenticity thing, I guess, like finding some great messed up Southern rock band that’s killer that was only heard but not on the charts before the media was plugging everything before the obscure bands were known, but of course now they are. I know all these bands and stuff are just naturally into music. It’s like it just evolved into people putting that tag of “record collector rock.” Another tag is what it is, everybody’s different or something, but it reduces it or something, like “an apple doesn’t try to call itself an orange” or something, like people can know too much and not be authentic, but I think you can know about something you’re into and be authentic too if you don’t think about it (laughs).
See, I never really saw the two as being mutually exclusive.
No, no, and like you said, everybody in a sense. John Lennon and people like that were record collectors too, listening to all the stuff that was out then, including the more obscure bands, and working to promote people they liked. It’s always there. I guess it’s just that conception. To me it’s not a thing, but talking about it, that tag just bothers me. It’s like calling anything, putting a label on it, diminishes it, I think. No matter what that label is, there’s bad stuff, great stuff, and every variety of stuff (laughs). I don’t think, with hearing old records, I don’t think, “Oh, I’m gonna use that lick,” or “I’m gonna try to do something.” It’s just when I’m playing, hearing all those things will come out. It’s not pre-thought. If I do something, I’ll go, “Oh that little bit sounds like so-and-so.”
Where did you guys find Skogstroll for the album cover?
Oh, the painting. Jesper found that. We were in Norway and we went to the Munch museum, and he saw I think a book there by this guy and started talking to somebody, and they said, “Oh yeah, the death metal guys are really into this illustrator, this guy’s art,” so I think the book was real expensive or something. He went back and looked the guy up online and was looking at some of his stuff, and he saw that picture, and he said, “Oh, that looks like Paul” (laughs), and he showed some people, and they said, “Oh, that looks like Paul,” (laughs), so I guess there’s this uncanny thing or something. He showed it to me and I was like, “Oh man, I’m looking in a really weird mirror now” (laughs). It has my vibe somehow. It’s just in there. So Jesper figured we gotta do something with that, and decided to use it as the cover.
And how did Roadburn come about?
Let’s see. I remember a bunch of years ago, we were playing at SXSW and Walter came there. We were playing a place called Beer Land, and he came up and said, “I have a festival. You guys play just the right vibe, I hope you can come to the festival.” After that, it took a few years. One time it was a conflict, and we weren’t getting overseas that much too, because we had to make it financially feasible and stuff, so the timing just didn’t work out until this year. We’re really excited. And then we saw him at ATP the last time as well, Walter, so it’s been in the works for a while, and I’ve been thrilled about it. I think that’s how it came together. We had some contact back when and finally, this year, everything was in place.
You guys are touring around that?
We’re doing Roadburn and I’m not sure. On the Facebook page that somebody has the Endless Boogie, there just got posted all the dates. I think there’s about 18 or something dates in Europe. We’ll be doing like three in Spain, a couple in Portugal, in Norway, Sweden, a couple in France, I think just one in England, and Switzerland and Germany. So we’re getting a bunch. It shaped up to get across most of the continent this time. From a couple weeks ago, I had a tentative list and it changed I think partially because before going to Europe, we’re gonna play seven or eight shows in Australia, and I think at first it would’ve been, and then play a show in L.A. and New York, and then the way it originally was, the next day we’d be going to Europe, so it got rearranged so there’s several days in between.
Rea busy, for us (laughs). We usually only get out for like tours a couple times a year or something where we get a bunch of shows in a row.
Do you know what you’re doing after Europe? Are there any other plans?
I don’t know. I imagine some US one will come together. That’ll probably be the next thing, doing a tour of the US. Beyond that, I don’t know, start thinking about making a new record. The way we move, after we start thinking about it, it’ll be at least a year (laughs) before we get it done, at the Boogie pace.
How long does that sifting through material actually take?
I don’t think very long. It’s just, uh, yeah, it’s not very long, because having the studio booked for the week or whatever, something like that, we’ve gotta get everything done, so we move pretty fast. We do record a lot of our rehearsals, and in the old days before we thought of playing a live show or making a record, we used to pop in a cassette and endlessly record our rehearsals and stuff, which is a good example, because there’s mountains of those tapes and you can go through a lot of stuff to find a jam that works (laughs).
Tags: Endless Boogie, Endless Boogie Long Island, Long Island, New York City, No Quarter Records