This past week was the culmination of all the hard work that Positive No's guitarist Kenneth Close and vocalist Tracy Wilson put into Richmond, Virginia's Fall Line Fest (both have been part of the planning committee), but, helping to put together the details of a two-day festival is just one aspect of the duo's nature. Positive No are part of a larger, homegrown scene, supporting other Richmond artists in the process through their community work, and outsiders through Tracy's record label.
No's Wilson runs Richmond-based independent label Little Black Cloud which has been around since 2007, and at the end of August celebrated the label's eleventh release, with a 12" for hardcore band, Teargas Rock (ex-Born Against/Life's Blood), and a special release of a 7" for their own band on the independent label, Negative Fun out of Raleigh, NC. Positive No's Negative Fun release is part of an exclusive 'Subscription Series' launch for 2014 which began in June and has so far released singles by Bad Daddies, and Midnight Plus One, as well.
The hardcore and punk background and 'do it yourself' aesthetic is just one more embracing side of a band that boasts its lead singer from early 90s post-hardcore band Dahlia Seed (NY/NJ), and recent-post, electronically-induced Ringfinger. We first met Positive No when they came to play a show in Philadelphia. After attending their intense performance, and listening to their first EP, "Via Florum," we have become a huge fan of the group's solid post-rock sound. The band's EP, Via Florum, was recorded this past year with J. Robbins (Jawbox, Burning Airlines, Office of Future Plans) at his studio, Magpie Cage, in Baltimore, where the band plans to also record a full LP later this year and early next - to be released in early 2015. As running a record label and being in a band have been Wilson's raison d'être, we thought we would start with a Little Black Cloud:
Girl About Town: Tracy, is starting a label, something that you would recommend?
Wilson: "Nooo. It's pretty much about being super anal retentive and doing things efficiently. There's nothing about putting out a record that's ever absolute... there are always a hundred hurdles whether it's financially, checking up with pressing plants because with Record Store Day they are more behind than ever, and meeting timelines. [Actually] Teargas Rocks played a weekend worth of dates without records, and meanwhile they were playing these shows to celebrate the release of this record. It's kind of my worst nightmare. Though, if you have absolutely no pressure on yourself to do things in a timely or successful manner, you should absolutely have your own record label. While it's very empowering and exciting to have it all in your hands, it's also a financial burden and stress that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy."
Something that you can really appreciate in working with Negative Fun as another independent label?
Wilson: "Absolutely! I think in general, I'm always in awe of anybody who likes the music I'm a part of enough to want to release it. It's such a huge compliment that anybody would want to invest the time and energy and money and to put out something that someone else is doing, and Chris [DeFusco] is really one of the nicest guys on the planet to make that. I haven't met his other partner, but I can only assume that he is also as fantastic as Chris is. It's such a relief to have a time out, not have it in my hands, and to actually be able to think about making the music, and not pressing plans, cover art, and the inserts. For once, it's just about the music, which is a really big treat, and then to have Chris be such a super-swell, guy, is just really cool."
How did you meet Chris?
Kenneth Close: "God! Twitter? [laughter]
Chris knew a friend of ours from Richmond named PJ Sykes whose band, Hoax Hunters was working with Negative Fun to put out their full length. I want to say that Chris was looking to do the singles club and PJ [Sykes of HH] had given him a couple of recommendations of bands in town, that he might want to work with...which is how our name came up and how Hot Dolphin came up (They also have a single coming out through the subscription). Chris had bought our EP, he had posted about it...through Twitter, through his blog and stuff, so we kind of got to know him through that."
Wilson: "It's crazy that, really, social media (in a lot of ways), introduced us to some amazing people: like yourself."
I definitely feel really fortunate that we had the chance to meet and connect online and then in person. Positive No has fast become a favorite of mine. It's really great that Negative Fun is putting this together - as such a large undertaking, there is definitely a lot of work that's gone into it. Are the two songs that you have for the 7" the last of the 'older' material that you'll be using before the new album?
Close: "I guess it depends on how you define 'old'… the new album will be comprised of material that were in the first batch of songs written that didn't end up on Via Florum, and a few more older songs of Tracy's that we think are going to fit in. Some nice, kind of slower, quieter, songs that we didn't really have... darker tracks. For the most part, probably half the record that was written over the course of the last year, and the other half has just started rolling over the past couple of months."
Positive No was hoping to have the album finished for late this year, but due to a few member changes (a new bassist and drummer are being brought up to date) have been very busy indeed. Close elaborates, "We're definitely 2015 now. We might get it recorded in this calendar year, but... Yeah, I think...any time you change a member out, you want to play a lot of shows, you work a frightening amount of hours if you have a job....I just thought we would be a lot further ahead by now... I think there was a bit of, not necessarily writer's block, just that, the songs that we were coming up with were....." and, in true couple-style, Wilson finishes Close's thoughts on the delay, "We were very careful in the songwriting for this.... I mean, it's come quickly - but not so quickly that we had twelve or fourteen songs written in one month... it's definitely taken six or seven months of really fine-tuning things, especially with new member - having him fit into the way we write that made sense for him, and vice versa. Then just to be able to afford to record is difficult because the label [Little Black Cloud] is 'me.' I'm barely breaking even most of the time, so to also be able to pay for vinyl and recording is hard."
For Positive No's 7" release party with Teargas Rock, they played at an alternative venue called Black Iris. Close told us a little bit about this historic local venue and artist-run business.
Kenneth Close: "They write songs for... I don't want to say commercials - it's a lot more than that. It's actually a bunch of musicians from a bunch of different bands from the 90s and early 2000s that started their own music production house. It's a three-storey building and on the bottom floor there's a gallery and a performance space."
As well as being on the creative team for this year's Fall Line Festival (in its second year running), guitarist Kenneth Close is also the one behind Positive No's design work when it comes to band-related ephemera. Close was keeping the design for the 7" under wraps right down to the wire this past month but, we were assured, had it well in hand. The two new tracks released on the 7", "Automatic Cars" b/w "Slumber Sequence," are essential and strong tracks on their own, but each with unique differences. The A-side for Automatic Cars is absolutely the strongest vocal from Wilson, with a forceful growl that slides into Wilson's tremendous and husky vocals on the chorus. The guitar work is the light against a heavyset bass line and a sonic background of noise, and the breakdowns at both :40 and 1:40 with only vocals and drums are terrifically set. Tracy Wilson tells us more about both songs, below:
What was the feeling that you wanted to evoke, both with the songs and the look of the cover?
Wilson: "Well, I guess I'll start with the songs, which is kind of an interesting turn of events. It started with my Ringfinger record. I had this little Zoom RT-123 drum machine and I had written a bunch of demos that included "Automatic Cars." It didn't fit in with any of the other material, it was too...'rock sounding,' and in my head, I envisioned a sort of....like...noisy...Fugazi...kind of thing. It just didn't really work with my more 'electronic' record. I always hoped that the song would have another life, and amazingly when we brought it to practice, it ended up actually working.
The B-side, "Slumber Sequence," is...from the...early...90s? I think? I had never really had a lot of confidence as a songwriter when I first started learning how to play guitar, and it was right around the time that Dahlia Seed was happening. There were probably fifteen songs that I never did anything with and I was too shy to really bring them to the band back in the day. A few years ago while we were in the process of moving into our new house, we found a bunch of my old cassettes. We were slowly going through some of the tapes and a few songs sort of...captured our interest again. Kenny was like, 'I don't know why you never did anything with these; we should try to rework a few of them.'
These songs were recorded on my answering machine as I didn't have a four-track at the time. I would shove a guitar pick in the 'record' section so it didn't stop and then I recorded the song that way. The end result is that we had this truly terrible cassette versions of the song to try to work off of. Bringing this song back to life was sort of like rebuilding a faded puzzle out of new parts.
Lyrically "Slumber Sequence" is probably one the few songs that I've gotten abstractly political about and my disinterest in 'big box' religion telling people how to live their lives, especially with gay marriage being such a huge topic over the last couple of years. Virginia keeps wobbling back and forth between almost passing the marriage law and then rescinding their decision. It's been really frustrating when we have so many wonderful gay friends who would love to get married as well as have access to their partner's health care or insurance plans. It is so sad that that this equality still isn't available to everyone in our country.
That's a really long-winded answer!" [laughter]
Are these songs more indicative of what is coming for the new album? Your vocals on the A-side, especially - as they lean toward a growl, showing your Dahlia Seed background coming through. Was it a throwback to this original material being from so long ago - and was this your intention, or did you push yourself to get this sound and make it heavier?
Wilson: "I think, recording Via Florum, I was coming out of a decade of recording in an apartment building, and having to be really self-aware of how loud I was being. I did not want to bother my neighbors so all of my Ringfinger record is very hushed. In Dahlia Seed I sung very loudly but I definitely went to this very quiet head voice when I began making music again at home. It wasn't until we started playing live again that I could certainly rediscover the loud voice that I had lost in the decade since. Then after my accident from several years ago (being hit by a car), it affected how I heard sounds in my head and the volume of sounds I could be exposed to. In general, being loud was not really an option when we first started the band, and then as I healed, and could handle more loud volume, I, myself, became louder too. It was a process that included rediscovering my old voice and getting my strength back from the accident.
I'll let Kenny talk about the art for the 45 that we didn't get to, because we kind of skipped over you! Basically, these songs are just a hint of what's to come on the full length."
Close: "Artwork-wise, I think you'll see... It's clearly by me. I think there are some pretty typical views that I tend to incorporate in a lot of the artwork that I do, but it's almost the exact opposite of Via Florum. It was what we wanted to do, and needed to do for two songs that didn't really feel like they fit on the EP. I had an idea to make it super-duper complex, and it just wasn't going to be as interesting as I thought it was on the front-end so I diverted back to the original idea which was a simple take on lyrics from Automatic Cars."
Wilson: "I don't even know what it's going to be - I haven't seen the final version quite yet."
So does Kenny usually keep his artwork for the band secret from you?
Wilson: "No...I get brought in during stages to see if he is on the right path. We weirdly have such a similar visual goal that I just kind of let him do his thing."
Close: "I like to bring Tracy and the others in just to make sure that they don't feel like it's out of left-field or completely off as it's being worked on. For the most part, the constructive criticism results in a better end product, so I appreciate the contributions that the band makes. Typically, I think they let me 'roll with it.'"
Wilson: "I think it's really special to have a band situation where we get to be creative on two levels. I know that other bands might not be as fortunate to have the fine artist-type in the band, so it's really amazing to be able to make these sounds together and then Kenny can also create visuals exactly the way we'd hoped them to be. I know for record-buying people like myself, large cover art is really important, so to have somebody to be able to bring that vision to life within our own band is an honor."
You recorded Via Florum at Magpie Cage with J. Robbins. I am a Jawbox fan from back in the day - I would see them every time they came through Detroit. Are you working with J. again?
Close: "Yeah. The goal would be to record with J. again. That was a 'pretty' big deal... we're the same way, and can't believe that we're working with the guy from Jawbox, and he's still writing these really cool songs..."
Wilson: "J. is a 'pretty' big deal at our house too..."
Jawbox's "Dreamless" is easily still one of my favorite songs.
Wilson: "We didn't have to explain anything to him. I worked with him for Ringfinger plus I've known J. since basically high school. We have run into each other for years through music and have remained friendly over the years but you just don't know how that's going to work in the studio. I enjoyed working with him so much when I did the vocals for Ringfinger, that I kind of pitched the idea of trying to do Via Florum with him. It was really comfortable. It's so nice to not have to explain what you're trying to go for and J. got it immediately. He seemed as giddy as we were as we started to record and it feels really nice to have somebody you look up to be super excited about your recording process in a way that didn't seem like he was in it to earn his day's money with us. He was a really valuable, creative force in the whole process."
It's great that you'll get to work with him again. I'm sure you're really excited about that.
Wilson: "Hopefully January, is what we're trying to aim for, it's all about saving our pennies to make that happen."
Close: "Yeah, we worked pretty freakin' hard this year to pay off the last recording, which I think we are literally a show away from doing."
Wilson: "We have the new t-shirts ready too. Every little bit helps."
I loved the concept that you had for the Kim Gordon-inspired, "GIRLS INVENTED PUNK ROCK NOT ENGLAND" t-shirt that you have for sale on Little Black Cloud's label store to help raise funds. It's such a perfect inspiration in format to help you get your project closer to where you want it to be.
Wilson: "People also love stuff that doesn't necessarily have to do with 'the band,' which is kind of funny too."
When I received mine, I also loved that it came with a document talking about the inspiration behind the shirt, and why you decided to sell this particular idea. It is a really engaging merch and business idea, and I think it's a real blessing when you can mix the two - even when one isn't necessarily directly related to the other... speaking of mixing the two, that reminds me that you are both involved in the committee for Richmond's Fall Line Festival. Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement there?
Wilson: "I'm on the board and I'm also on the booking committee, as well as the logistics team."
How long has Fall Line Fest been around for?
Wilson: "This was our second year. We really wanted to create a festival that reminded people what a special city we have when it comes to the music, art, and food community. The two day event also follows the footprint of our First Friday art walk."
As we closed out our hour long chat with the duo, Tracy took a moment with me to note that she is having so much fun, and the end result, the end reason for doing anything at all has always been, and will always be, the music, and that without the support of fellow musicians and artists they would not be doing what they were doing with such success. She is thankful for that, and humble. Take a listen to Positive No's Via Florum EP and you'll hear it too: even though Richmond wasn't her home town growing up, you can tell that she's made it into her home, with references from the historical to the political; a surprise, support, or a friend is always around the corner.