"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
In 1990, Randall Poster co-wrote a movie called “A Matter of Degrees,” about a would-be law student protesting the corporate takeover of his college radio station. It starred Arye Gross, Tom Sizemore and Wendell Pierce from “The Wire,” and if you’ve never heard of it, you’re among the vast majority. It’s not an especially good movie.
But it has a good soundtrack that features the Lemonheads, Uncle Tupelo, Giant Sand, fIREHOSE and Yo La Tengo. This was well before the Lemonheads became MTV mainstays, before Uncle Tupelo ushered in the alt-country movement, and before Yo La Tengo became indie-rock lifers. Twenty-two years later, the soundtrack comes across as strikingly prescient, a lasting memento of a forgettable film.
Poster executive-produced the “Matter of Degrees” soundtrack, helping choose the right songs by the right acts, and it launched a career at the gap between the music and film industries. Since then, he was worked in some capacity on more than 50 feature films and HBO series, including every Wes Anderson film, the Dylan hazyography “I’m Not There,” the glam-rock period piece “Velvet Goldmine,” and Richard Linklater’s “Suburbia” (which, like “A Matter of Degrees,” was a flawed movie that produced a great album).
The mark of a Randall Poster project is its breadth and depth. He seemingly has a vast knowledge of pop history that covers everything from ‘60s garage rock and folk to vintage French pop, from mainstream country to the darker corners of current indie rock and underground hip-hop. Rather than specialize in one genre, his curiosity leads him all over the map.
It’s difficult to calculate the impact Poster has had on popular culture in two decades, especially considering that he also licenses music for commercials and lately has begun producing tribute albums (last year he oversaw last year’s “Rave On Buddy Holly,” and his “I’m Not There” soundtrack was essentially a Dylan tribute). In short, he finds new ways to introduce underground bands to mainstream audiences, an especially compelling enterprise at a time when album sales are cratering and touring becomes increasingly difficult for lesser-known bands.
Poster’s latest project is not a soundtrack, but it’s influenced by them. “Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac” tells the story of the famous classic-rock band that goes beyond the bed-jumping songs that made them famous to examine their earlier days as a U.K. blues-rock band. In other words, Peter Green figures as prominently as Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood. To portray these different facets of the group, Poster invited an array of musicians to contribute covers: The Lee Renaldo Band with J Mascis cover the late ‘60s hit “Albatross” while the Crystal Ark turn “Tusk” into an electronica jam. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top blusters through “Oh Well.” Antony renders “Landslide” nearly a capella and completely hypnotic.
Speaking by phone from the West Coast, the New York native discussed the similarities between soundtracks and tributes, the transformative power of cover songs, and A$AP Rocky’s Buddy Holly sample.
Why Fleetwood Mac? Why do they need this kind of tribute treatment?
I think really what spurred us on was just the range of the catalog. This was a band that had very distinct eras of membership and sound, and it was my ambition to try to draw the line from Peter Green through to the more recent Fleetwood Mac repertoire. It comes out of a love of the music and just my feeling that it was a really interesting collection of songs. I think part of it is the powerful and enduring quality of and emotional attachment to the Stevie- and Lindsey-era songs that are most obvious to people, but I really wanted to celebrate the artistry of Peter Green in that larger context. It’s really a challenge to do that in fewer than 20 songs. If I had my druthers, we would have done 25 to 30 songs. Even then, you would be leaving out what people would think of as the most obvious or the most important or their favorite Fleetwood Mac songs.
There seems to be a very strong storytelling aspect to the album, as though you’re telling the story not only of how this band influenced subsequent generations, but also how Fleetwood Mac evolved. It almost plays like a soundtrack in that regard.
Growing up, vinyl was your primary music delivery format, so I’ve always been somewhat album oriented, especially when you make soundtrack albums for movies. It’s always been our goal with the Wes Anderson soundtracks to try to create a companion to the film: If you play the record the way we’ve organized it, somehow the story comes through. So making these tribute records, I think of them as movies. And so how do I tell the story in that range? How do I detail the range of styles and emotions through the sequencing and through the variety of voices that you can gather for something like this? It’s a bit of a ghost narration in there, but it’s there.
Were there any in particular that stand out as particularly apt or strong covers?
This is my prejudice as a parent of this thing, but I don’t think there’s a weak track in the collection. We approached a lot of artists who have a lot of personality and they really tattooed the songs. As I’ve been living with these songs for months and months, there’s one or another that will be my favorite for a week. But I really like the deliberate interplay between the songs. And so I’m really pleased with everything that we have. I will say, it’s always a thrill for me to hear Bonnie “Prince” Billy. What really knocked me out was how he took a song that really is such a staple of FM and made it sound like this Appalachian folk song. When that kind of transformation happens it’s kind of breathtaking.
One that stood out to me is “Silver Springs,” by Lykke Li. I guess I had never listened that closely to Stevie Nicks as a songwriter, but that song is just devastating.
You have to go to YouTube and the Dance tour — one of the last big tours that Fleetwood Mac did. They did “Silver Springs” and Stevie would sing it at Lindsey. It’s really something to see. Lykke Li is really a huge Fleetwood Mac fan and was totally inspired by Stevie Nicks. It’s a bit intimidating to take on Yoda in a way, but I think that she really did an incredible job in owning the emotion. When you do a bunch of these tracks, you really get a sense of the lyrical qualities and songwriting expertise. It can be very vivid when you hear other people do the songs. On Best Coast’s “Rhiannon,” I paid attention to certain words in the lyrics that maybe I hadn’t before. And again I think that’s really what makes a tribute record worthy of your attention.
On “Just Tell Me That You Want Me,” you’re not only dealing with the breadth of Fleetwood Mac’s catalog, but you’re also managing a lot of artists coming from various worlds. Is diversity an end in itself for a project like this?
Yes. Working on these kinds of enterprises allows me to reach out to artists that I want to work with or that I want to help orchestrate into something. What happens, though, is that you have these artists in mind but then as you’re trying to tell this story of Fleetwood Mac, you see where you want to bring one or another artist in to help render a particular part of the story. And you want to engage artists. You don’t want to go in as a dictator. You do want to engage them and draw them out a little bit and find inspiration from these artists themselves in terms of what they are attached to or what’s important to them in Fleetwood Mac. On a certain level you preconceive and then you follow the path that gets laid out in front of you in terms of who’s involved and who else seems to be a good counterpoint or a reinforcement of a certain musical idea or spirit.
So there’s a certain element of serendipity in putting one of these albums together.
Definitely. That’s where hopefully some of the magic comes. It’s not all coming from one creative point of view. There is this collision of different musical energies that I think make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Or at least I hope so. That’s what I try to do. I like the variety—not only in terms of the variety of artists, but also the fact that the artists work with different producers and bring different sounds to bear. Hopefully it doesn’t come off like babble. Hopefully it becomes more like a working mosaic.
That seems to reflect the way people listen to music today. They’re not just listening to one genre, but to many different kinds of music.
I agree. It’s funny, last year we did this Buddy Holly tribute record, and then yesterday I saw this video of this new track by A$AP Rocky, where the refrain is, “It’s so easy to fall in love.” I’m so glad something like that happened, and I would love to have brought that element to Buddy Holly, but I don’t know how I would have forced it or made it happen just by wanting it to happen. Nice to hear it when it does.
What are your own listening habits? You seem to cultivate a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of not only what happened in the past, but what’s happening now.
I work very hard to keep up with what’s going on right now. And that’s always been as a seeker, seeking out what was at the front line of music. It’s more challenging when you’re going back into a particular era or something that has a regional focus. At that point, it’s not so much that I have an encyclopedic knowledge, but I know where they keep the encyclopedias. Basically I study and research and then frame what I need to do musically. It’s not like I know every song ever done, but I do know how to supplement my own knowledge with experts.
Even going back to something like “A Matter of Degrees,” a large part of your work has been as a conduit for underground bands to find a larger audience and create an environment where these people can be heard. Do you think of that as a specific goal?
That’s one of the great treats in terms of what I do. I can sometimes provide the vehicle to give something a different kind of exposure. That’s the nice thing about working on all of the things that I work on: I find something that I’m in love with, and over some reasonable period of time, I can generally find some vehicle to carry it. It’s very exciting when you have the ability to share new music with a wider audience. Sometimes the value of doing things in a movie is that by giving music a visual context, it puts it out into the world with an even greater electrical charge coming off it. So part of the mission has been to celebrate and support what I thought was great music.
When you did “A Matter of Degrees,” indie culture adhered to this notion of selling out — that placing songs in commercials or even certain types of movies or television shows was disingenuous. I feel like this generation that’s active now has totally disregarded that prejudice. Do you feel like you’ve had a hand in that development?
In terms of the evolution of the digital age, I think certain artists have been forced to look at synchronization in different ways, really, by virtue of the fact that in many ways it has replaced radio as a vehicle to a broader audience. Over time artists have grown more comfortable seeing their music in commercials. Also there’s just much, much more music in commercials. I do think that it’s important that artists maintain some sense of integrity, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that you say no. It just means that you still have some control of what your music is married to. I think that bands are so much more comfortable with it just because it’s all around us. It’s less exceptional syncing your songs to a commercial than it might have been 20 years ago or 15 years ago. It’s certainly keeping a lot of bands alive, so that’s a good thing.
As someone who came of music-buying age in the early 1990s, I associate tribute albums with the CD era. How does a tribute album like “Just Tell Me That You Want Me” function in the digital world?
I think that the majority of albums that will sell will be digital, and I think the digital natives don’t know anything different really. I always felt like with all the shifting delivery systems, there’s always going to be a demand for music. People are always going to want to hear great songs. So regardless of how you get it, I think it’s worthwhile to create it.
You mentioned earlier that you had wanted to keep going with this Fleetwood Mac tracklist. Would you consider revisiting the band’s catalog for a follow-up?
I’d be happy to. Let’s do it again in 10 years. Sure. I think that we’ll look at it 10 years from now and there’ll be another angle to take on it. It’s pretty solid stuff, so I think you could keep pushing it. I think probably I’ll try to do a couple more in between this one and the next Fleetwood Mac project. I’m just about to start a Civil War music project that I’ve been carrying around for a while. It’s traditional Civil War songs, but focused on the music and tradition that the boys brought to the war. It will have artists from the country, bluegrass and pop worlds, and some people that will surprise you, too.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)