John Linnell and the Statesmen

Autumn 1999 to Spring 2000

Personnel

John Linnell – vocals, keyboards, accordion
Dan Miller – guitar, keyboards, vocals
Mark Donato – drums, harmonica, vocals
Mark Lerner – bass, vocals

Joined on Conan show by:
Jay Sherman-Godfrey – guitar

Joined at Bowery Ballroom show by:
Wurlitzer 103 Band Organ (Bob Stuhmer, operator)

1. Back Story

This story starts out in late 1989. I took Nancy Howell on our first date, to see the Maudlins. I loved the band, and my friend and fellow former Oswalds member Stephen Lewis had just started playing lap steel with them, so it seemed like a good date idea. The show was at a little secret club in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called the Quiet Life, located on the ground floor of a former funeral home. It was run by WFMU DJ Nick Hill and musician and artist Brian Dewan.

The opener was John Linnell from They Might Be Giants (the keyboard-playing half of what was then a duo), doing a set of his State Songs; he’d been engaged for many years in a project to write a song for every one of the fifty states.

You can see the Quiet Life in the They Might Be Giants video for “The Guitar” (featuring Laura Cantrell on vocals).

A still from the video for TMBG’s “The Guitar,” shot at the Quiet Life, in a former funeral home. The terrazzo floor was very cold. The door at left led to a garage that had a drain in the floor from when they used to do embalming there.

That first date went well, and over the next years, a few things happened:

Nancy and I got married (in a ceremony presided over by Nick Hill). The Quiet Life closed (it didn’t last long), and Nancy and I moved into the ground floor space. Our housemates were Nick and his wife, Alex, and Brian Dewan and John Linnell. When Nancy and I had our children, the former Quiet Life—basically one large room—now housed our bed, two cribs, and my printing press. The freaky taxidermy forms you can see in the photo up there were still on the walls, painted in glow-in-the-dark paint.

2. Recording

Almost 10 years (!) after that first date (we had moved out of Brooklyn to Manhattan), Linnell called me to see if I could play bass on a few songs for a solo record he was making of his State Songs. Mark Donato was tapped to play drums on the recordings, which comprised 4 of the 16 songs on the album. We were both a little confused as to why Linnell wanted us, since he’d really only heard us as a rhythm section in Flat Old World, a rather non-rock, non-pop project. I was intimidated because even though we were pals, Linnell had played with some pretty serious bassists: Graham Maby, Tony Maimone, Danny Weinkaupf. But the recordings went well, and the record came out on Rounder.

State Songs CD cover

I’m not uploading any songs from the actual record here, just live recordings; it’s for sale at the usual places and is well worth your money. It can also be sampled in its entirety via Spotify or Grooveshark. I love this record; it’s so weird, so varied, and yet so cohesive. Linnell’s songwriting is even cleverer when you get inside it as a player: musical themes suddenly fit under one another halfway through a song, narratives unfold elliptically. It’s really fun as a bassist, too. “Oregon” has a bass line that climbs chromatically (and slowly) through all 12 tones. “Idaho” has a big fat pedal tone; certainly on a per-note basis, it’s the most I’ve ever been paid for a recording.

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The Oswalds

1988 and 1989, New York City

Personnel

Tom Adelman – vocals, acoustic guitar, songwriting
Mark Donato – drums and vocals
Stephen Lewis – guitar and lap steel
Mark Lerner – bass, mandolin, vocals

After Oswald Year One, new folks were added:

Henry Hample – fiddle and banjo
Charlie Shaw – drums (replaced Donato)
Laura Cantrell – vocals

Early on, we had some help from Bill Fink and Frank Randall (guitar).

Earlier band adventures with Tom Adelman (in college) and Stephen Lewis (in junior high and high school) will come up at some point in this blog (why am I doing this out of order? I forget), but suffice it to say that 1988 began with Tom finally arriving back in NYC so we could make the band we’d always talked about. For the prior couple of years, I’d been recording elaborate home 4-track collections with Tom whenever he’d visit. He was a gifted and prolific songwriter, and while we searched for a drummer, we started playing some shows as a duo right away, open mic nights at ABC No Rio and a space called Cafe Bustelo on E. Houston St., in a scene that was more about poetry and the nascent antifolk movement than the rock and roll we wanted to play.

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