The rumors have been swirling slowly for a while now. A whisper here, a mention there, a mumble some place else. A bunch of bands, familiar faces to those of us who now them, intriguing mysteries to those who don’t, all seemingly converging on a single moment in time and space… San Francisco, California, for the most part; 1967, 1968, in general.
The Bevis Frond, the Higher State, the Chemistry Set. Love, Moby Grape, the Byrds. Box sets were mentioned, filled with flash 45s. Fruits de Mer was invoked because really, if anyone was planning such an enterprise, who else would you entrust with it?
And then one band broke the silence. One band, one day, who just happened to be talking about something else entirely, when the conversation swung around to the Grateful Dead. Which really isn’t a topic I personally ever encourage. But Ted Selke, the astral center around which the Seventh Ring of Saturn revolves, is less squeamish. And if you’ve heard the Seventh Ring of Saturn, you’ll understand that sentence instinctively.
“I have been a fan of California rock for as long as I can remember, from the Beach Boys, through the Byrds, the Airplane, Love and all the others. But when I first heard Workingman’s Dead in early 1971, it blew my mind. The songs, the playing and the harmonies were some of the best I’d ever heard.
“I quickly worked my way forward and back with the band’s catalog and joined their fan club later that year. It was the first fan club I ever joined, and they sent me a lot of cool stuff. Little records and diagrams of their cutting edge sound systems, and breakdowns of all their business dealings. There were drawings and tour dates and all kinds of other interesting stuff. LP-wise you can safely go all the way through Blues for Allah in 1975. The Dead were my favorite band of the ‘70s, and they’re still my all-time favorite after The Beatles. I saw them around 75 or 80 times starting in 1976 and continuing until the end. It was the best spontaneous creative rock music – collective improvisation around and in between song structures as was done in jazz, and as we try to do in TSROS.”
Which brings us to a couple of covers, “Cream Puff War” and “New Potato Caboose,” which the Seventh Ring of Saturn have recorded for…
“…for a box set that Fruits de Mer is compiling for release later this year. The box set will be called 7 & 7 is and it will feature seven current bands reimagining two songs each from a 1960′s U.S. psych band.” And you get a fair glimpse inside the Saturnian mind when you consider, with all the Dead songs out there to do, Selke goes for those two. “I wanted to pick a few of their more obscure early songs that weren’t played live as much during the era that I was seeing them and that would lend themselves to further psychedelicization.”
In other words – if you think the Dead blew your mind way back when, this fall is going to see their memory take it to plains you never dreamed existed. Because, until the Seventh Ring of Saturn got hold of them, they didn’t. There will be more news about the box set soon… now that the secret is on the loose, you bet your bottom bong-liner that we’re going to extract the rest of the tale.
But right now… and while Ted Selke is feeling so talkative… let’s find out more about the Seventh Ring of Saturn. Beginning with…
Background. Growing up in Western Mass.; hanging out in late 70s New York and Boston. Catching the Talking Heads, B-52s and Devo when they were good. Mission of Burma and the Neighborhoods. His own band, Kaspar Hauser, and a single produced by the ‘hoods’ Dave Minehan. Graduation in 1984, and a new band called Yellow Dog Contract, fronted by Jack Gould who had played in a band in L.A. called the Flower Quartet, and briefly augmented by one of his California friends, second guitarist Eric Avery.
Ancient history. “After graduation, I moved to Atlanta, GA where my parents lived at the time. I brought my drums and hoped to join a band as soon as possible….” In fact he joined several, including Arms Akimbo who played the east coast and toured with the Church, and an acoustic group called the Ethel Mertz Experience, formed with one Chris Robinson, the singer for “a young band that opened for us” called Mr. Crowe’s Garden. Who became, of course, the Black Crowes.
“I helped him look for a new bassist when theirs’ left the band in 1986. After looking for a few months, I offered to give it a try myself although I had only played drums in bands up to that point. I played with them through mid-1988 and helped steer them away from their initial R.E.M.- inspired sound into something with more of a rock edge.
“R.E.M.’s manager wanted to sign us to his new record label and he booked a show for us in NYC at a club called Drums. A&M Records had been interested in the band for a while, and they sent George Drakoulias out to see our show. We talked with him after the show and he told us that he was looking for a band that could emulate the sound of the Rolling Stones and he thought we might be right for it if we were willing to make some adjustments. These included tuning the guitars to open tunings and writing all new songs that fit the concept. For anyone interested in hearing how the band sounded when I was involved, there are clips from a few of our live shows on youtube.”
Selke was a Crowe until 1988, in a few more bands thereafter, and in 1991 he opened the record store that he still runs today, Full Moon Records. “I also started a record label called Third Eye and the first release was from a band called No Walls, whose guitarist and singer William Duvall joined Alice in Chains a few years back.” He joined a new group, Joybang!, in 1992, and bubbled under locally for a time…”We were a good live band and we got to open for some great bands of the time including Polvo, Blonde Redhead and Smashing Pumpkins. We got to meet Bob Thiele, Jr. who was doing A&R for EMI Records at the time and he got us some money from them to record a six song demo in 1996. Unfortunately, they didn’t hear the hit and Bob was concerned that they wouldn’t know how to market us, so he ended up passing and we called it a day that year.”
Around the turn of the millennium, Selke started recording music on my computer and decided to make his first solo album. “I wanted to pay tribute to all the great music I listened to as a kid, back when the 45 still ruled. So I envisioned the album as a collection of singles padded out with experimental stuff, as perfected by the Ohio Express on their self-titled album.
“I was also doing some instrumental space explorations with my friends Jonathan Beckner and David Bryant around this time. And I was going to a lot of Turkish folk music shows. So when Jonathan (a great guitarist and budding engineer) expressed interest in playing in a band, I jumped at the chance to combine the three interests – 60’s rock (especially The Beatles), Anatolian folk and free improv/noise for a starting place.
“We recruited our friends Jamie Reilly and Jeremy Knauff (both of whom worked in my record store) to play drums and analog synthesizer respectively and we started recording and playing live in late 2005. I decided to start over on the album and we worked on it here and at Real to Reel, a nice studio that Jonathan had just gotten a job at. I tried to record enough tracks so that there could be some layers to reward repeated listenings, but I have to give full credit to my friend Chris Griffin for the textures. We mixed the CD at his studio and did some remixes for the LP version there a few months later. And he’s helped me mix everything we’ve done ever since. He’s also a great mastering engineer….”
One of the self-titled debut album’s highlights, and a dead giveaway in the influence department too, is a magnificent version of “Sour Milk Sea” – and sharp eyes will see the album as a while dedicated to George Harrison. The Seventh Ring of Saturn have also cut a wild version of “Savoy Truffle” (for Fruits de Mer’s Beatles White Album tribute) and were in on the label’s Pretty Things and Hollies collections too.
Eclectic tastes effortlessly becoming eccentrically eclectic performances… seriously, if you think you know what those songs should sound like, track down how they sound on Saturn.
Selke: “I was incredibly fortunate to grow up with a lot of great music. My Dad loved classical music and jazz – he was going to see Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday and others in NYC after he got back from the war. And my oldest brother Gus was very into rock music and he kept up on all the newest releases. So by 1964, you could find me parked on the floor in front of the record player with my ears wide open.
“My 45 collection started with Chubby Checker’s version of ‘The Twist’ and the Surfaris’ ‘Wipe Out,’ which got me started on hand drums right away. Then the Beach Boys and the Beatles were my favorites and I would get my Mom to take me to the store when I had saved enough allowance to buy the newest Beatles 45, starting with ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ or whatever else was catching my ear the most on the radio at the time.
“I loved a lot of bands – the Stones, the Monkees, Tommy James and the Shondells, the Turtles, the Rascals…. There were so many favorite songs but I especially loved the ones with crazy effects like ‘Itchycoo Park’ or fantastic production like ‘Tomorrow’ by The Strawberry Alarm Clock. And I loved stuff that rocked so my mind was thoroughly blown when I heard ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Led Zeppelin. By that time, we had a stereo record player and I could put my head between the speakers.
“Another 45 I loved for it’s cool effects was ‘Stop Stop Stop’ by The Hollies. I picked up ‘On a Carousel’ (with picture sleeve!) when it came out and the b-side was called ‘All The World is Love.’ When Keith at Fruits de Mer Records invited me to pay tribute to a Hollies song, I looked for the most obscure one I could find and settled on that song, not realizing that it had already appeared on some psych-pop compilations like Insane Times.
“By 1970, I had collected (with generous hand-me-downs from my older brothers) a lot of 45s and I would take them to school every day on a rope so that I could listen during breaks with my friend Kent Jones, whose father was a popular local radio DJ. We had an imaginary band called Copper Skull and we would write little songs for it.
“Mine often reminded me of George Harrison, whose songs and guitar playing I loved on the Beatles records. I loved George so much that one of my earliest LP purchases was his Electronic Sound album, which was a surprise to say the least. I had started making the jump to LPs at that time, some other early purchases were Crown of Creation by Jefferson Airplane, Ball by Iron Butterfly and Outsideinside by Blue Cheer. My brothers had most of the classics so I was able to work around the edges.”
So far, so relatively stable. Now let’s introduce Evangelos Papazoglu and a healthy dose of Rembetiko to the mix….
“In the early 2000’s I started going to a monthly Middle-East music night at a venue in Atlanta called the Red Light Cafe. One of my first times there, I met an incredible baglama player named Namik Ciblak.
“He improvised on Anatolian folk music, which I had never heard, though I’d heard its influence on my Erkin Koray records. Then I met a younger band called Emrah Kotan and the Sultans and became a big fan of theirs. They would play at Turkish restaurants and I would be there whenever I could. As I got to know their songs, I would try to play them from memory when I got home each night. I eventually taped the band a few times and learned a few of the songs for our new band to play.
“The Sultans did a mix of new and old Turkish favorites, and we assumed that the songs we learned were Anatolian folk songs though we didn’t know the names of them. Eventually I saw Emrah again and sang the songs for him and asked him what the names were. One was called ‘Yedikule’ and the other ‘Teli Teli Teli.’ So after doing a little research I found that ‘Teli Teli Teli’ is actually a popular Greek song from the 1980s and ‘Yedikule’ is the Turkish-lyric version of a Rembetiko by Papazoglou from the 1930s called ‘I Foni Tu Argile.’
“So I started digging into Rembetika and found a lot of great songs for us to do, most of which are from the mid-1930s. Evangelos Papazoglou wrote a lot, as did Markos Vamvakaris and many others. Some of our favorites are Jiovan Tsaous, Stellakis Perpiniadhis and Anestis Delias. Unfortunately, the small amount of information on these people is in Greek and thus hard to read.
“The original songs have lyrics about hashish and drugs and prisons and pain and misery, kind of like a much druggier version of our Blues from the same period. The melodies are amazing, so we learned them on guitar and then built rock songs around them. Our guitarist Jacob Brown and I are playing seven of them now, and I’ve learned a half dozen more that we’re going to work on arrangements for this year. I think our next record will be a whole album of them, unless I try my hand at an original or two to include.”
Meanwhile, the Seventh Ring of Saturn had an album to complete. Or, rather, they’d completed it and now it was time to march onwards….
“We finished up the record by the end of 2006, at which point our guitarists told me that they would be leaving to start their own project. I was grateful to them for helping me get the ball rolling and we parted on good terms. Jonathan has played with us on occasion since then, and he contributed a guitar solo to the re-working of ‘Slip Inside This House,’ that I did with Jacob for [the Summer Solstice V compilation, released through] the Trip Inside This House blog.
“Jamie and Jeremy and I soldiered on and went through a succession of guitarists before Jacob joined us in 2008. Jacob is a fan of the harder rock I love from the late 60s– Hendrix, Zeppelin, Blue Cheer, Cactus, etc. and we started to move in that direction. In 2009, we were joined by another great guitarist, Joe Giddings, who played with us live and…”
And of course he was there as the band transitioned into the sessions for their next album, Ormythology, “before moving to Ohio. He’s now getting ready to move to California where he’ll be playing in a band with Mike Nesmith’s son Christian.”
Ormythology has been a protracted process. “It’s a very different record from the first one. I tried to make it the opposite in every way, the yin to it’s yang. It’s darker, harder, bigger and louder (if you turn it up). I recorded the individual tracks differently, and we’ve been incorporating some of the mixing ideas we’ve come up with working on the tracks for Fruits de Mer.
“The songs are ones we played in our live sets of 2009-10 – there’s an Erkin Koray cover and a song off the Hurdy Gurdy album that Jeremy sings lead on. And the Greek songs I learned from the Turkish band and another one from the Pebbles – Vol 3 LP. We also recorded ‘I’m Five Years Ahead of My Time’ from the same album but decided our version was too similar to the original to release.
“It is dedicated to the memory of our friend and band mate Jeremy Knauff who sang and played analog synth in TSROS. He was also our guitarist for a few shows when we didn’t have one in 2007 and bassist on our 2011 tour. We were very close friends and it was strange and difficult for us to pick up the pieces and carry on after he passed away in 2012.
“It has been a long time; Jamie finished the drum tracks in the first half of 2009. But Jacob and I wanted to tour and we wanted to take our time on the FdM tracks so we’re finally wrapping it up now. We gave out some advance copies at the Crabstock shows earlier this month but the finished record will be out in the Fall on CD and LP, with improved vocals and more overdubs and solos. I just got a Mellotron so I’ll probably throw some of that on there.”
Ah, Crabstock. Fruits de Mer. All things fishy. We mentioned the Beatles and Hollies already… you also perpetrated a magnificent version of the Aquarian Age’s classic “Ten Thousand Words in a Cardboard Box” for another fruity compilation, Keep off the Grass. And now there’s the Dead thing coming up….
“You asked about highlights in the band’s history. One is definitely our association with Keith Jones and Fruits de Mer Records, to whom we owe everything. We’ve been played on three different BBC Radio shows and three different WFMU shows as well. Joe Belock has been especially kind to us at the latter. We’ve been mentioned in Ugly Things, Shindig!, Record Collector and a bunch of other great magazines. And we’ve been very fortunate to have played shows with some great bands.
“The pinnacle for me was getting to open for Joey Spampinato’s new band in Boston a few weeks ago. I’ve been a fan of Joey’s ever since my brother brought home NRBQ’s Scraps and Workshop albums in the early 70s. He’s one of my favorite singers and bassists of all time, and he’s written some of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard since Brian Wilson’s. He’s in a band with his brother Johnny now, an amazing guitarist who I got to see many times with the Incredible Casuals in the early 80s and later with the final lineup of NRBQ.”
How did the FdM connection come about in the first place?
“For that I must give thanks to Barry Saranchuk aka Psychatrone Rhonedakk. He left a nice review on our record at CDBaby and I e-mailed him to thank him and let him know that we were getting ready to head up his way on our first tour. He encouraged me to get in touch with Keith at Fruits de Mer, as his friends The Swims had been lucky enough to do some tracks for the label. After he encouraged me a few more times, I e-mailed Keith and began a great discussion that lasted for a few months before we got our first assignment.”
Which was the Aquarian Age cover on the Keep off the Grass collection.
“Keith and I shot a few song ideas back and forth but there wasn’t anything we were both sold on yet. I started digging through my albums for ideas and came across the version on Think Pink, which I thought Keith would approve of. I hadn’t heard the Aquarian Age version and decided to wait until I finished ours before listening to it. That was pretty much the band playing live, we were back to the four-piece after Joe left. We played it a little differently than Twink but I didn’t realize how much license we had to reimagine our song until the album came out and I heard some of the other tracks. From then on, I resolved to make the songs less recognizable.
FdM are the market leaders in revisiting 60s psych, but what I find most exciting is the fact that few of their releases actually replicate the earlier recordings. There’s a very real sense of “today” to it… what’s your take on the 60s vs today debate, both in terms of what new bands are doing to old material, and how you see music in general as having changed
“I’m sorry to say that my interest in current music has been on the decline since the 1970s. There have been lots of great bands since then, but for me the number gets lower each decade. I had worried that the great music I loved as a kid might disappear forever, but now the internet will keep it available for a long time.
“In my record store I talk to a lot of people who would rather listen to something they haven’t heard from the past rather than something new. There was an emphasis on creativity in the 60’s and it was rewarded with record contracts and label support. But now the focus is on image and marketing and having a hit, which seems to mean coming up with something generic that sounds like something else generic.
“I know that there are a lot of bands and solo musicians making great music now. I’ve loved checking out the bands that record for Fruits de Mer and it was a lot of fun getting to play with some of them at the Crabstock festivals. I am hopeful that new music will get better overall as the internet levels the playing field and gives the more interesting stuff (new and old) a chance to be heard.
“I was very lucky to have an understanding Mom and Dad who let me pursue my musical dreams even though they would have preferred that I choose a more financially secure path.
‘I was also very lucky to grow up in the Berkshires in the 1970s. There was a fantastic outdoor venue called the Music Inn that was about a mile from our house and I could hitch or walk over to see amazing shows for around $4 each, if we couldn’t figure out a way to get in for free.
“We saw Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Band, Hot Tuna, The Eagles, Bob Marley, Muddy Waters, Herbie Hancock, Bruce Springsteen, The Outlaws, Poco, David Bromberg, Doc and Merle Watson and many many more. The air would be full of colored balloons and incense and the feeling was magical. And I worked for the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood for eight summers so I got to listen to a lot of great classical music as well. I hope to dig into some more of these influences as the TSROS journey continues….”