Interview with Never Nervous

Syd from Louisville’s preeminent arts and culture blog Never Nervous chatted with me about all the things right before the debut of My Crummy Valentine. It was a nice conversation, so it’s here below (but please give ’em some traffic too!).

I was first introduced to the work of Michael Powell under the guise Kenny Bloggins, a moniker which he certainly lived up to via his work at the now defunct site The Decibel Tolls, a precursor in so many ways to Never Nervous. From there, Powell has written for a few places around town, which puts the two of us in very similar circles, although we usually cover different beats. On top of that, Powell is part of the Vectortone group that bring some of the most compelling music out there to town; they are literally helping to make Louisville a more interesting place one weekend at a time. This weekend, Powell and company are hosting My Crummy Valentine, a themed show featuring cover sets by My Bloody Valentine (featuring Powell on guitar) and The Breeders with visuals by Spettra. We caught up with Powell to ask about his music, which you can check out below, writing, and ice cream!

Never Nervous: I’m familiar with your work behind the scenes, through Vectortone and via your writing, but what can you tell me about your music?

Michael Powell: I’ve played in a few projects off and on over the years, but haven’t gotten anything off the ground during my time in Louisville so far because of whatever circumstances outside our control or someone, sometimes me, got too busy. I recorded an EP of songs released on James Friley of Idiot Glee’s cassette label under the name Meridian Signals a little while back. I had the intention of forming a band around it, but that too was a false start. Since that project was also really shoegazey, I’m actually planning to recycle a couple of the sonic textures I created for those songs that would fit well with the My Crummy Valentine live band. So aspects of those old songs will be reanimating in a certain sense though a new thing, which is cool.

NN: What can you tell us about My Crummy Valentine? What prompted this show and why? Are you a big My Bloody Valentine head? Why the Breeders?

MP: Being a promoter as well, we’re often tasked with thinking up holiday-centric events. Valentine’s Day is tricky one to come up with something interesting and not terribly cliched. My friend, business partner, and spiritual advisor Zach Hart and I were talking about it one day and how the idea of, like, a My Bloody Valentine tribute would be novel and fun and totally perfect on a number of levels. And I immediately starting coming up with some ideas on how you could pull it off relatively successfully, and started getting excited about playing music again too. Loveless has been in pretty heavy rotation in my life since I was 16, so I already know all the songs really well. They are a top 10, maybe top 5, favorite band for me.

The Breeders tribute came together totally independently. Shelley Anderson from Brenda mentioned to me one day that she had been working on putting a band together with Vanessa Blades from Bungalow Betty, absolutely one of the best new local acts right now, and Russell and Boyd from The Winger Brothers. And given that band name, well, it also fits the Valentine’s theme, right? Both artists came from the same time period and share a similar audience too, so it just made total sense. Everything fell together perfectly.

And I’m really stoked that Spettra was able to come on board as well to add a touch of visual hypnosis, as you would expect to see at a My Bloody Valentine show proper. Their live visuals add so much to the experience.

NN: What are the challenges in successfully pulling off that Kevin Shields’ sound? What are you playing? Just pretend like we’re a guitar magazine all the sudden?

“The first truth a guitarist wanting to emulate Kevin Shields must accept is that My Bloody Valentine themselves can’t totally replicate their own sound live.”

MP: The first truth a guitarist wanting to emulate Kevin Shields must accept is that My Bloody Valentine themselves can’t totally replicate their own sound live. The number of overdubs and random esoteric equipment that built the Loveless sound is next to impossible to duplicate in a live environment. So when sculpting the tones, I referenced live videos more often than the records themselves, both for practicality and my own sanity.

I play a Stratocaster instead of a Jaguar, which is Shields’ weapon of choice and he rides the tremolo arm heavily while strumming to create that trademark MBV swirling effect. That’s not ideal on a Strat though, so I use a Whammy pedal instead, along with a Big Muff, reverse reverb, delay, and a Digitech multi-effects processor, which some analog gearheads turn their nose up at but, ya know, it’s not King Crimson.

Yeah, it’s really tricky to fit that much sound within a signal without clipping or totally distorting, so that certainly took some trial and error. MaryLiz Bender is also on guitar, she’s playing a Jaguar actually, so we’ll both be recreating that glide guitar sound but using different approaches, which yields a pretty cool effect and helps fill out the sound. She and I definitely spent some time trading notes on how to best interplay both our parts to create a whole greater than the sum.

Getting the sound just right turned out not to be the biggest challenge though, which was surprising. MBV songs seem simple under those layers of fuzz and reverb, but they end up deceivingly tricky because that band, save for maybe “Only Shallow,” rejects pretty much any traditional song structure.

NN: How did the band come together? Did you call in favors or shake folks down mafia style? Did you help assemble the Breeders cover band too, or did you put out a call? I’m thinking like Bat-Signal type of thing, but with maybe the cover to Last Splash instead of a bat.

MP: I’m in the market for a bat signal, if anyone’s sellin’. Please signal boost, literally.

The group came together super naturally. I floated the idea of a Valentine’s weekend MBV tribute with various musician friends of mine, mostly during late night conversations on the Zanzabar patio, and a couple of folks were really enthusiastic. Zach Driscoll was super stoked at the idea at the get-go, so that’s when I knew this thing could really take off because he’s such a wellspring of talent. I’m actually totally still in awe of who all was able to come together for this – MaryLiz from Twin Limb, Chris Johnson of Maximon and Projector, of course Zach who’s not only a tour de force in The Deloreans and Maximon but channelled both Prince and Ad Rock in other recent live tributes, and JC Denison who helps hold the whole dang thing together.

You’d have to ask Shelly and company about how The Breeders tribute got together, but given that Brenda did a few sets as The Pixies last year – and they were awesome – it seems like a natural progression.

NN: Tell us about Vectortone. How did that start and why? How would you describe what it is that you do?

MP: Zach Hart, of We Listen For You fame, and I had been working together for a couple years on our own as a boutique creative media firm – my background is in graphic and web design, publicity, copywriting, et cetera – and we were both friends with Mark Evans, who had his production company Holy Carp, booking the Zanzabar calendar and some bigger events too. He’s a killer talent buyer, but doing 150 shows a year without a support system is practically untenable. Merging made sense. So we had a couple conversations and, like Captain Planet, by our powers combined Vectortone was born in the spring of 2016. Actually, I very purposefully incorporated our company on March 11th because that’s 311 day and that was funny to me because I’m a big stupid idiot.

“I very purposefully incorporated our company on March 11th because that’s 311 day and that was funny to me because I’m a big stupid idiot.”

Being a small company, we all do a little bit of everything. I’m lead on all the media aspects – so all the posters, graphics, and visual assets around everything we do – that’s me. I also handle a lot of our marketing and media outreach, and often I’m on site for the shows managing artist and venue details. And I book a few of our events too, though Mark’s responsible for the lion’s share of the talent buying. Basically, it’s kind of a nightmare for my parents to figure out and then try to describe to others what I do for a living.

NN: What goes into setting up an event? What are the stresses inherent to putting on a good show? What do you do to get a bad show back on track?

MP: It varies night to night, honestly. Some of our larger productions have turned out really smooth and some random one-off nights have proven, um, significantly more challenging than we expected. We try to run a pretty tight ship and the folks we work with make things easier, and for that we’re thankful. A lot of our calendar is based on our relationship with agents and artists, and we keep an ear to the ground on what’s going on in Louisville and what type of productions make sense for the city and for the rooms we work with. Occasionally we get to book stuff we like too, but of course if we only booked stuff we were into, we would not be very successful… as much as I would love to watch Brazilian psych every night of the week with 20 other people.

I think if you asked five different promoters what the biggest stresses are, you’d get five different answers. Sound issues, talent running late, box office hiccups – there’s a number of factors that can derail a night. A significant component of our job is problem solving on the fly. The biggest threats are generally mitigated by working with good people who help us do our job, like Zanzabar. We often get to partner up with Production Simple to co-promote as well, and those shows run like clockwork. They’ve given us a great learning experience. They are our sensei.

NN: Got any good show stories?

MP: Oh, I definitely do. I’m not gonna tell ’em in print, but I will over a beer.

NN: How did you get into writing? Where did you start off?

“I was awarded Most Likely to Win a Pulitzer by the senior class, which I, uh, am still working on and I shan’t let them down.”

MP: In high school, actually. I was on the newspaper staff and we were total troublemakers. I enjoyed a couple trips to the principal’s office for controversial content. And not to brag of course, but I was awarded Most Likely to Win a Pulitzer by the senior class, which I, uh, am still working on and I shan’t let them down. After trying out a few different programs, I ended up majoring in journalism in college, but graduating right after the newspaper industry was in free fall and right before the recession truly sucked. That’s how I ended up picking up a lot of the various skills I do now that benefit us as a company. I still love to freelance on the side for a little beer money and some new bylines.

NN: What subjects do you gravitate towards the most? What do you consider your strengths and weaknesses?

MP: Love it or loaf it, I’ve always admired VICE’s approach to the craft, which certainly makes living in the birthplace of gonzo feel appropriate. Anything that fits that mold piques my interest immediately. And I’ve gotten a few features on VICE, which was a major personal goal of mine to cross off. The food column I launched in 2015 at LEO Weekly, Welp!, was meant to sorta adopt a lot of their attitude-forward voice, but for food. For someone reason, food writing is one of the last bastions of feature writing that’s a little too serious or self-important. Which is ridiculous because, ya know, food. Welp! is the response to that. I mean, it’s clowning on Yelp right there in the title, so…

I do fear I’ve typecast myself a bit though. For example, some of my recent features in the LEO include the time I went to a cloud competition vaping party, or when I attended the NRA convention despite being a total pacifist snowflake, or when I schlepped it to the Gourmet Man Food fest and judged every dish on a really stupid metric of corny constructed masculinity that ranged from Ron Swanson to Ryan Seacrest… I sometimes feel like my beat might just be ‘absurdity.’ So now whenever there’s something a bit ridiculous happening around the city, LEO editor Keith Stone nudges me over email or text. It’s like, here’s something truly bizarre, send Powell in. But hey, I guess made my bed.

Outside of that though, a lot of my work the past few years tends to deal with technology, food, and culture, though I did some more hard reporting last year, flexin’ those atrophied J school muscles covering the Pride parade in the wake of the SCOTUS decision last summer, the demonstrations around the November election, stories like that.

NN: What’s the most fun writing assignment or assignments you’ve had and why?

MP: Nobody can accuse me of lack of range, interviewing both Ira Glass and Guy Fieri in back-to-back features last fall, and who are two men I admire but for totally different reasons. Actually, that whole feature was a blast. I un-ironically love Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and I will defend it to the death. I mean, I did – I wrote 3,200 words on the subject, putting foodies on blast. Salon quoted part of the piece in a feature they did on the “Fieri-ssance”. I got to meet him in person at his restaurant too and, man, I geeked the hell out. So yeah, the Venn Diagram overlap between Guy Fieri fans and My Bloody Valentine fans is probably real small, but here I am.

“So yeah, the Venn Diagram overlap between Guy Fieri fans and My Bloody Valentine fans is probably real small, but here I am.”

In 2015, I did a piece on 610 Magnolia’s Inferno dinner, which is a four-course meal that gets hotter with each dish. It’s one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written because, first, being a spicy food fan and eating Chef Ed Lee-prepared cuisine for an assignment… nice work if you can get it, right? But with the writing itself, I tried to introduce a psychedelic quality over the course of the piece as the extreme heat kicked in, think House of Leaves meets that episode of The Simpsons where Homer eats the super hot chili and has a trans-dimensional experience with a talking spirit guide wolf voiced by Johnny Cash. I was having so much fun that I think I knocked out the whole, like, 1,500 words in two hours.

And festival coverage is always pretty awesome too. I’ve covered Pitchfork, SXSW, a few others over the past few years. I do Forecastle almost every year. They’re always a nice reunion with media friends from around the country and you get to see some artists you like up close and I get to sweat out all the beer I drank throughout the day. All good things.

NN: Where is Bubba Sparxxx right now? What do you think of as his greatest legacy?

MP: In college, I had Miss New Booty as my ringtone on my super cool LG flip phone as a joke. In the end though, to borrow a phrase from The Bee Gees, the joke was on me since I think I actually paid for that thing, even in the presence of all those really cool flash ads on MySpace where you’d get a free ringtone if you pinned the porkpie hat on Pete Wentz or whatever. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t ruminate on what Bubba Sparxx is up to right now. I think he’s in Florida, and I’d like to think he’s at an Olive Garden somewhere testing how unlimited the salad and breadsticks truly are. And maybe he’s into meditation these days too. Maybe he’s jet skiing with DJ Khaled on the side. That’s major key.

NN: Describe the perfect ice cream.

MP: Gelato.

NN: What non-musical things get you fired up? What have you read, eaten, drank, and watched lately and why?

“My favorite movie of the year thus far is probably the clip of Richard Spencer getting punched in his dumb Nazi head.”

MP: I used to be a news junkie on the reading and listening front, but in 2017… man, I had to take a break from the fuckery. Being mad all the time, while anger is a weapon, was just… unhealthy, bad for the chi. I’m taking an official hiatus from stuff like Black Mirror because that shit is too real to retain entertainment value.

Good comedy has provided some much needed mana. I love IFC’s Documentary Now, which granted, is a little niche, but their send-ups of documentaries and fine cinema is pretty pitch perfect. And Andy Daly’s Review, for those who like their comedy a little dark, boasts one of the finest plays on an A-B storyline. Podcast-wise, I frequent Comedy Bang Bang and The Best Show with Tom Scharpling, formerly The Best Show on WFMU.

I’m a daily reader of the Lucky Peach blog, as they address that aforementioned issue of food writing’s stuffiness head on. My girlfriend recently got me one of their cookbooks, so I’m looking forward to exploring some of their crazy takes on combining, like, curry paste with cucumber salad. I recently finished John Perkins’Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and enjoyed digging into the covert world of how exploiting international contract jobs built American empire. You know, some light reading. My favorite movie of the year thus far is probably the clip of Richard Spencer getting punched in his dumb Nazi head.

NN: What is your top three desert island albums and why?

MP: I feel like desert island albums shouldn’t necessarily be your favorite, but rather what are the least annoying for you to hear repeatedly in perpetuity. I could vibe on Stereolab at any time every day, in part because of their beautiful repetition. It’s hard to pick just one – let’s say Mars Audiac Quintet for now, digging into that period between space age bachelor pad music and when three chords was one chord too many for them. Same deal with Boredoms’ Vision Creation Newsun, which could also serve as a pretty triumphant soundtrack for hunting wild island boar. And while Beach Boys might be an obvious answer for beach music, The Beatles were better, so Revolver.

I purposefully did not list Loveless. That would be pandering.