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On Deck: The Emperors of Wyoming

By ; December 19, 2012 at 7:38 AM 

The group of guys that would eventually form The Emperors of Wyoming–singer Phil Davis, guitarist Franklin Lee, bassist Peter Anderson, and drummer Butch Vig–first played together in the late 70’s but soon found themselves pulled in different directions.  Though decades later, they would find themselves pulled back together in one band.  One of these musicians, drummer and producer Butch Vig (The Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana), found his own way through his helping to forge the American alternative genre in the early 90’s. Davis, Lee, and Anderson all did time in various bands through the 80’s and earlier, often brushing up against one another and playing together in different bands, like Buzz Gunderson and Fire Town.  These on-and-off bandmates always seemed destined to make music together.  They might have drifted apart a few times but somehow through the years, they never really lost touch.  From their upstart bands hovering around Madison, WI, these four guys traded bands and switched musical gears like some people would change clothes.  Whatever seems to fit, right?  Speed back ahead to 2009 and they come together to form The Emperors of Wyoming.  With their debut record having been released this past September, the band is gearing up for the inevitable tour in support of the album.  Despite their busy schedules, lead singer Phil Davis and drummer Butch Vig took some time for us here at Beats Per Minute to write a little bit about some of their favorite records.  Listen to their cover of the traditional river song “The Pinery Boy” (covered by artists like Nick Cave and Sam Eskin) below and enjoy this double set of records in our latest installment of On Deck.

Selections from Butch Vig:

Tame Impala – Lonerism (Modular)

I’ve always been a fan of psychedelic rock, but Lonerism is loaded with more weird ambient sounds and synths than guitars, so maybe it’s not fair to label the album as such. Full of stylistic nods to Nuggets, The Beatles’ Revolver, early Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, and Todd Rundgren’s Wizard a True Star, the album is a true sonic adventure and fun as hell to listen to. And the songwriting is their strongest and most pop-oriented yet. (Also kudos to the Allah-Las, another 60’s style psychedelic rock band that I’ve been blasting lately)

Lana Del Rey – Born To Die (Interscope)

I keep listening to this album because it’s really good! If you can ignore the videos, press, hype, criticism and haters, Born To Die is absolutely brilliant, all twisted 21st Century film noir attitude mixed with a gorgeous, lush pop production. When I listen to it, I visualize David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive”. Lana Del Rey is the anti-pop girl, the ying to Katy Perry’s yang.

Neil Young – Live At Massey Hall 1971 (Reprise)

I dig the Chromatics’ version of “Into the Black” and it inspired to me to go on a Neil Young jag. Live At Massey Hall is quite extraordinary, just Neil unplugged, playing sneak peeks of the songs that would become Harvest and transform him into a superstar. The recording is stripped down, the performances powerful, emotionally bare, and unbelievably self-assured, as if he knew that he had raised the bar to a new level.

Pixies – Doolittle (4AD)

When I need to get my adrenaline going lately, this is what I crank up! The slash-and-burn dental-drill guitar riffs still sound unlike any other rock record I’ve ever heard, and the post-punk pop songwriting is superb. Long live the Pixies!

Led Zeppelin – Mothership (Greatest Hits) (Atlantic)

I’ve been on tour all year, and when I’m stuck in planes, trains and vans, I have a tendency to read rock and roll biographies, possibly to commiserate, possibly to absorb as an education and a warning. There’s a new oral biography recently released Trampled Under Foot about Zep that is quite entertaining. In the early 70’s Led Zeppelin WERE THE BIGGEST BAND IN THE WORLD, and when you listen to these songs, you realize how hard they pushed the envelope. Originally they played blues-based music, but then set the template for what we now call prog-rock or heavy metal, take your pick. They were dark and sexy, and somehow tapped into the blue collar psyche that enabled them to sell millions of albums. These songs are absolute gems, and really show how brilliant they were at their peak.

Selections from Phil Davis:

The Beatles – Beatles ’65 (Apple)
The Beatles – Revolver: First Runner-up
The Beatles – Rubber Soul: Second Runner-up

Influences are funny things. It all depends when and where you were, and who you were becoming at the time. The absolute genius and utter coolness of the Beatles kicked in when I was a kid taking swimming lessons at the University of Wyoming pool in Laramie. The hipster swimming instructors were blasting the brand new Beatles ’65 through the cavernous pool area PA and the reverby, heart-stopping guitar riff of “I Feel Fine” seemed to shake the concrete walls and follow you down into the water, to the bottom of the pool. I soon learned—and still believe—this band had it all and more, if more is possible, which I seriously doubt. They had a complete command of 20th century pop and rock genres, a melodicism Broadway and classical tunesmiths could only hope to discover, and ultimately a body of work that on a good day will still stop your heart and follow you to the bottom of the pool.

Johnny Cash – “Ring of Fire” (Columbia)
Glen Campbell – “Wichita Lineman,”/”By the Time I Get to Phoenix”: First Runner-up
The Vogues – “Five O’Clock World”/”The Hollies – “Bus Stop”/Donovan – “Hurdy Gurdy Man”: Tied for Second Runner-up

Shivery country, rockabilly, surf-rock, garage rock, harmony pop, folk-rock, psychedelia, Motown, novelty, spoken word—everything was on the table and on the jukebox in the ‘60s and taken together it was an all engulfing mind blowing musical paradise that really couldn’t have been improved on and seemed too good to be true. In the end it was too good to be true, as the music industry and radio industry figured out how to close the gates on letting the riffraff geniuses in, and creating marketing niches and categories to sell more product. All of the above singles were stunning and could be heard on most of the nation’s radio stations on any given night. Riding around in a car with the radio on when “Good Vibrations” came on, to be followed by “The Letter” and then “Shapes of Things,” was like having your own private art museum on wheels. Just about everything that blew out of the radio was a masterpiece. And if you were hungry you could always stop and get a root beer and a corn dog.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Reprise)
The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo: First Runner-up
Gram Parsons – Return of the Grievous Angel: Second Runner-up

Neil Young brought it all back home on his second solo record after Buffalo Springfield and provided a taste of country rock n’ roll nirvana-future with the one note guitar solo of his classic “Cinnamon Girl” that really was the note heard round the world, the one you never wanted to end. The early Byrds were seminal and absolutely addictive, but the Clarence White-era Byrds wrote the original book on modern country rock and Gram Parsons shaped it with songs so good, so pure, and so unique no one has really even ventured near them since, though God knows we’d love to if we could and some of us keep trying in vain, anyhow.

The Rolling Stones –  Let It Bleed (Decca)
Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks: First Runner-up
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – Deju Vu: Second Runner-up

Is there a better haunted, spine splitting guitar riff than the opening to “Gimme Shelter?” I’ve never heard it. Keith Richards came up with some of rock’s best guitar riffs, but this one was just downright scary and preternatural as the world after Monterey Pop and San Francisco nights turned violent and unknown, when the Charlie Manson grifters and scammers emerged from the shadows, from the margins of the culture and gutted and left for dead the guileless hippies, joints still in their stiff fingers, dead eyes staring at white birds in the sky. The marvelous traditionalism of Dylan and the warmth of CSN&Y were soothing and reassuring even if the messages on songs like “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Ohio” were anything but.

Richard and Linda Thompson – Pour Down Like Silver (Warner Brothers)
Jackson Browne and David Lindley – Love is Strange: First Runner-up
Sufjan Stevens – Come on Feel the Illinoise: Second Runner-up

Pour Down Like Silver is the apex of meditative, pure, heart-breaking beautiful folk-rock. Acoustic guitars with drums and sundry accompaniment don’t get any better than this. They can’t. It’s a mathematical and artistic impossibility. Jackson Browne is one of the great American songwriters of all time and he’s been amazingly strong and consistent throughout his entire 40-year career. You can skip a few decades of Dylan and not miss much, but that’s not the case with Browne. This live CD recorded in Spain, which covers his career with long-time Kaleidoscope cohort David Lindley and several Spanish percussionists, is an amazing testament to the power and beauty of two or three instruments and great songs played well. Sufjan Stevens is the only American acoustic folk-pop artist I’ve heard in the last 10 years to honor and rival the gold standard set by his predecessors. If you skip his pattern-painting Steve Reich instrumentals, you’ll be fine. This record joins John Wayne Gacy Jr. and Mary Todd Lincoln. How much more American can you get than that?

Be sure to check out out the debut album from The Emperors of Wyoming, out now on Proper Records in the UK and on Hillbilly Digital in the US (through Amazon or iTunes at the moment).  Head over to the band’s website–which has a note that a new one is coming soon–to see new videos and catch tour dates as they arrive.

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