Lilys’ Kurt Heasley talks ‘Brief History of Amazing Letdowns’ reissue & lots more in BV interview
It's an exciting time to be a Lilys fan. While they haven't released a new record in over a decade, bandleader Kurt Heasley has reignited the flame in recent years, reissuing their first two albums and putting together a new lineup of the group for shows. There is more archive digging on the way: earlier this month, they announced that Lilys' great, '60s pop-inspired 1999 album, The 3-Way, would be getting its first-ever vinyl pressing on February 26 via Sundazed (preorder).
And now comes word that their 1994 EP, A Brief History of Amazing Letdowns, is also being reissued, this one by Frontier Records who also reissued Lilys' Escame the Photon Band and In the Presence of Nothing a few years ago.
Amazing Letdowns contains one of their best-known songs, "Ginger" (which appeared in a '90s CK One commercial and a '00s Cadillac ad), made our list of Best Shoegaze EPs of the Early '90s, and has been woefully out of print pretty much since it was released, and hasn't been on streaming services either. This new reissue will be out February 12 and comes in expanded form, taking five of the six songs from the original EP and replaces the sixth track (which was "Glosseder" on the vinyl and "Evel Knievel" on the CD) with previously unreleased song "G. Cobalt Franklin." Additionally, the reissue adds four songs (recorded in 1994) that were on their 2000 split EP with Aspera Ad Astra.
You can listen to "G. Cobalt Franklin" and the whole of the new A Brief History of Amazing Letdowns reissue below and you can preorder it now.
These will not be the last Lilys reissues we're likely to see, either. Three more albums -- 1996's Better Can't Make Your Life Better (which contains their UK Top 20 hit "A Nanny in Manhattan"), 2003's Precollection and 2006's Everything Wrong Is Imaginary -- have yet to get the reissue treatment, and there are dozens of unreleased (in some cases, unfinished) tracks from the last 12 years that have yet to see the light of day, too. One of those unfinished tracks ended up being completed and relased as "Unheard Of Curiosities" for the Lodge 49 soundtrack, and was the first new Lilys song in ages.
We caught up with Kurt to talk about the reissues, Lodge 49, getting songs placed in TV commercials, playing Top of the Pops, Neko Case's greyhounds, the possibilities of future tours once COVID is out of the way, and a whole lot more. A hyper-intelligent, hyper-literate and very funny person, Healy talks at lightning speed, free-associating and swerving through tangents. Over the course of our hour-long phone conversation I was doing good just to be keep up. Read our free-wheeling talk below.
So it's been about four years since you last played shows and did those reissues of In The Presence Of Nothing and Escame the Photon Band. Now we've got two new reissues basically coming out at the same time. What was the spark that made all that happen?
The television series Lodge 49 used some of our songs, and awoke the current incarnation of Warner Music. [Both Better Can't Make Your Life Better and The 3-Way came out via Warner imprints/subsidiaries Che/Sire, respectively.] This was the third Warner Bros. Records owner since '99. Like the guy who owned Warner Bros sold it to Edgar Bronfman Jr a couple of years after we were done on the label. Then Len Blavatnik bought it from Bronfman, Jr. And when you have that level of top down reorganizing, there's nothing organizationally left. So I basically flew out to LA and I was like, "Hey, I don't mean to be a total douche, but that Kurt Heasley, that's me. I'm Kurt, that guy from this television show," They realized after six months of not taking any payment, "Oh wait, this is one of ours." And a couple of days after Business Affairs got wind that Che/Sire was "one of theirs," they took the check. A few days after that, [those albums] went up on iTunes.
We've just been in contact like, "Okay. Hi, like I said, I'm Kurt." And so basically all year was attempting to discover our current relationship -- Lilys current relationship -- with the Warner Bros. products. That's what I have to refer to them as, they're no longer records. They're these things in a database, in a filing system probably in Ohio. Something really just dark. Not Ohio. Ohio's great. I'm talking about Warner Bros' filing cabinets. As we were leaving LA, Sundazed reached out to Rhino Records' Jason Jones who said, "Oh, this is amazing. Sundazed wants to do a [reissue]." I was like, "Wow, that's really incredible. Have them contact me."
Well, I guess I got a Facebook message six months later. Again, its both perfect and incomplete and messy and unpredictable. And in a strange roundabout way, I'm not sure what's going on. I can honestly say I don't think anyone knows. My first Beau Brummels record was a Sundazed pressing. So I'm like, "Okay well, there we go." Beau Brummels were so hot back in '91, you had to buy a reissue. [laughs] Introducing the Beau Brummels, listen to that shit. That is Love Rock 101. I'm like, "Oh, it's true, man. Wait a minute. Did Sly Stone produce this? What the fuck was going on in San Francisco?" [Laughs] Sorry.
Ha ha, no, that's all right. Just hanging on for the ride here.
Freestyle again, my love of all things -- "hmmm, I'm not sure how that all connects, but that's what I've got."
Sundazed definitely feels right for The 3-Way and would probably feel right for Better Can't Make Your Life Better as well.
I know! There was this... Back then, we were coming from Crass and Skinny Puppy and noise through a filter of Dinosaur Jr into My Bloody Valentine. Plus all of our childhood inspirations of being five years old and loving "The Porpoise Song" from the Head soundtrack. We were just attempting to add a visual component, theatrically, to the expectations that this narrative on Better Can't Make Your Life Better and The 3-Way embody. You know...muscle car séance and emergent technologies and loss of consciousness, oh my god...fucked up stuff, I've got an encyclopedia of it. John Waters did more in five movies than anything you people can ever do. The Cry Baby/Pink Flamingos/Desperate Living benchmarks of "is it cool?"
I know you grew up in John Waters' hometown. I still remember in Serial Mom, they go to [Baltimore hard rock club] Hammerjacks, and the teenage son says to his dad, "Try to act cool, Dad. It's Hammerjacks."
"It's Hammerjacks." That was even on WHFS in DC. Hammerjacks bills got read out on the coolest cutting edge radio station... and you could feel the college rock marketing angle. It was like "Wow. And everything Bill Hicks was laughing about the marketing people." He's like, "Oh, there's a wonderful demographic that's disenfranchised. A hot emerging demographic. Come on, Bill." And in a way, there is the value of the analytics, like understanding. I'm not sure how the monetization of saying, "Oh wow, we have found truly suffering group." It's like, "Let's send a snake oil salesman in there." Which, is it my business? No. Am I buying snake oil? No. If someone asked me, "Kurt, I have all this snake oil. I think I'm going to put everything in it. What should I do?" I'm like, "Probably something else, not that." They're like, "Thank you." But no one's asking me.
Speaking of marketing and just steering things a little bit back to these reissues that are coming out. A Brief History of Amazing Letdowns opens with "Ginger," which has been used in not one, but two major commercials, both of which I remember seeing on television and basically doing a double take. There was the CK One commercial from the early '90s which also had a Luna song in it. And about 10 years later, or a little bit more, there was a Cadillac commercial, right?
There was the summer. Basically what I called it was the Cadillac Summer.
Do music supervisors just all love the Lilys, or do you have a theory on all this?
Do you remember Ditch Croaker?
I remember the name.
Tim Barnes, who played drums in Ditch Croaker and is still an incredible productive percussionist, was an associate editor at this video post facility Lost Planet in NYC. The producer who was shooting the CK One campaign said, "Oh, my God. I need something..." that is not what they were dealing with in 1992, 1993... "if you have any ideas musically, just give me what you've got." And Tim, who had been letting me sleep on his couch, he's like "Oh you know, I just got this CDR whatever of Kurt's demos." They're not even out yet, I don't think. And Tim just makes a mix tape and first song on was "Ginger."
Now, of course, it's kind of ironic because all "Ginger" really starts with is, A) a cymbal, B) me playing guitar, which is basically trying to pick a riff out of a chord. I'm not really playing single notes, but you're attempting to hear me go, (singing the riff) "dah dah duh. dah dah." And it's like Iggy Azalea. There's nothing but a kick drum and a base line and a vocal going on. And you're like, "This sounds huge." And it's like, "There's nothing going on." And they're like, "Exactly." And that's what the floor tom does, [singing] "bom bom bom." It's not the pursuit of perfection. Obviously, there's the ideal, but I'd rather let the process, looking for the ideal be what gets left in the recording rather than sitting and spending non-productive amounts of editing time. There's a certain amount of, "Hey, we're just going to mute that lip smack." That kind of editing, that makes sense. "Oh, there was a little drop. I can just cut that and we'll be fine." Versus, "We're going to redraw everything. We're going to CGI your vocal melody."
So I think there is that rub of recognize-ability, that rub of reality that maybe some music supervisors love. It's in the realm of right, but there's something about it like, "Yeah, it sticks out a bit. That could be good. That could work in our favor." It's worked in our favor, so I've taken crazier risks personally, professionally, creatively, because you have to say yes. In my contract there was "no candy, no beer." But everything else, I'm game. They're like, "You're the next fragrance." And I was like, "Sure, why not? Let's do it." I'm waiting for them to pitch "Mike And Ikes Extreme Sweet" and to be like, "Oh, I gotta pass, man." It never happened, but it could, you know what I mean? Then later, they're like "Cadillac." I'm like, "Are they still made in America?" They're like, "Absolutely." I said, "Green light that motherfucker. Let's do it." They're like, "Do you like Cadillacs?" I'm like, "I've actually never ridden in one. Oh wait, I was in a trunk in '86. Let's not talk about that story." That's it.
Whereas the Levi's ad that used "A Nanny in Manhattan," I imagine [director] Roman Coppola probably knew who Lilys were.
Yes. With "A Nanny in Manhattan," there was that moment of, "Oh, this is really kind of fun." In that "five year olds who accidentally fall in love with a Carole King song produced for a Monkees episode" kind of way. We were playing it live somewhere while they were shooting the commercial in Glendora. They were like "Hey, we have a working edit through the commercial, and we would understand if it's not your thing." And I was like, "Are there Mike And Ike Super Sweets involved in this, or is it literally just Levi's is getting into the non-denim business for a second?" They're like, "Yeah, just White Tabs." And I was like, "Fucking, really?" I can't say no, ever.
It was a Top 20 hit in England, right?
There's a couple different ways to look at how it charted in England. There was an awareness of the song, and there was a very strong showing, but there was no... We went over for a week, we played two shows and Top of the Pops, and that was it. And I think even though it had made the Top 40, the reality was that Levi's had two other very, very large campaigns that used these out-of-the-blue artists and, to their credit, the sections of the songs they used were interesting. But when you listen to the whole song, you're like, "I don't know if I'm ever listening to that again." You remember Babylon Zoo. Do you remember Babylon Zoo?
I know the name, that's all.
You're going to go, "Okay, Babylon Zoo Levi song. Well, Kurt was generous. I don't know if I would listen to that whole song again." Whereas anyone in 1998 who comes across Lilys goes down this bizzarro rabbit hole of 12-strings and drone rock and three-part chorale harmonization. They're like, "What is this?" Yeah, it's a little hard to categorize." They're like, "It's over. No more. If you can't check a box, we don't want it." But it allowed us to keep going, basically without saying, "You must embody this opportunity." It's like, "We'll do our best." We did our best.
A little bit more about the Brief History reissue. Now, the original, there were different songs on the 10" and on the CD, but both of those songs, the different ones, are not on this new Frontier reissue. Why not put everything on there?
Well, there was three iterations of the record. I was attempting to get the most amount of what we had musically from the highest definition of source material. Original mixes of the five songs from A Brief History of Amazing Letdowns that don't include the [Evel Knievel] stunt anthem. The CD track that really, like the 10" track, they were energetic ideas we had in the seven hours in the studio. They spoke to the mood but not the music. The song from the spring of '94 that we never released, "G. Cobalt Franklin," even though it is a DAD-GAD guitar tuning --sort of post-rock -- this sludge, it actually fits [on the reissue]. And the reason we put it at the end of Side 1 was to basically point in the direction [of the songs on Side 2], it's all connected and it's all changing, so pay attention.
Past these two reissues, are there more on the way? You've got three more albums, basically...
Yeah, there's a lot of... I mean all of this record-making is basically to underwrite our Love of People habit, our Live Music habit and... even if we're just spending a dollar to make a dollar, and all we get is the visibility of "Hey, you're doing something," that's great because LIlys are an odd duck.
In some ways it's amazing these are coming out at all.
I have been maybe not enjoying the greatest amount of fruits but there are, let's say, much more talented and capable people with a lot more training that I felt were maybe forced to compete on levels that they were not meant to be competing on. And they did not get through that gladiatorial entertainment system unscathed. I'd rather have 30 years of the story about me -- "Oh, what's that smell? Oh, my God. 'Kurt from the Couch' just made breakfast" -- than when I try to analyze like, "Oh, can you imagine it going differently?" It's just like, "No, what do you mean?" That's to somehow question the great order of things. It's like, "Look up. Those stars are bright all night. You don't have to do anything."
That's a good attitude.
But now that we have a foot in the door, to a degree, at Warner Bros, now that we have these old Spin Art records safely nestled and creating...there's of course, a few more records. I mean, just the stuff we haven't released that's new over the last 12 years. I'm waiting for the vibration to pull me to it. It's like I don't need to get my dream hunting spear and go plod into the jungle looking for something... I have it. It's actually more like I'm the butler. I'm taking care of serving our guests. And rather than taking a lot of things halfway there, there's the general art of dissolving obstacles to let these new relationships form. A lot of the people that were involved 25 years ago aren't around anymore. So it's like I can't be static. I must be able to flex with the current times. Everything Wrong Is Imaginary, Precollection, Better Can't Make Your Life Better, Services For The Soon To Be Departed. The Sub Pop single. I'm like, "Tony Kiewel, What up? We need to talk. We need to generate more odd." We need to get odd.
Tell me a little bit about "Unheard of Curiosities," which is the Lodge 49 song. Was that a brand new song that you did for it, or was it something you had in the archives?
I had written two songs basically telling parts of these stories from Season 1 of Lodge 49, because [series music supervisor] Thomas Patterson had hinted that they wanted to have an original piece of music. And I was like, "Wow, let me know." Well, they finally did. They're like, "Can you have it back to us in two weeks?"
It was so fast, but I had been thinking about it for nine months. But the difference between me sitting around an Ashram playing acoustic guitar and finishing a production, they are not the same thing. And basically, I think whatever limit I had on a credit card, like 500 bucks, I bought a ticket to LA and I said, "Okay, let's do it." I think Thomas Patterson asked me, "Are you solvent?" It was a real learning experience. Like, wow, if I had nine grand open on a card, I would just go and get, like, drums, bass, keys second vocalist, three days in the studio to track the instrumentations, do the vocal arrangement and mix. What ended up happening was Michael Musmanno and I, in his living room, with a Sennheiser 441 and the dream. I was basically playing him both of these pieces I had written and he's just making these eyes at me like, "Come on, seriously. Like what are we going to bring a studio in my living room?" It got really serious because he was like, "I hear that these are your ideas and they're great ideas. Do you want to go and get us a few thousand dollars for studio time?" Now I'm really learning the definition of solvent.
What he ended up doing is, after we had been listening to a lot of Grace Jones, as one trying to make great recordings does -- it was maybe one o'clock in the morning --- he's just going through rough mixes and scratch mixes of the previous 17 years of our friendship. And he came across two acoustic 12 string performances from, I think February of 2009. These were from around the time that I did vocals on Middle Cyclone, the Neko Case record. There was a lot of songs that weren't on Everything Wrong Is Imaginary that Michael Musmanno and I were still working on in 2008 and 2009. So this was this really strange long song I had written about these animals that Neko had in her house. And Mike looked at me and he was like, "What does this make you think of?" I was like, "I remember the greyhounds. I remember Neko's greyhounds." It was like "we're going to have more of chance making something from this than with any other idea. Start here."
I woke up the next day and I recorded a part on a new guitar. He was like, "Close. Give me one more." Okay, number two. He was like, "Now, we're talking," and we sat down and started writing this song about Lodge 49 which involves all these animals that were living at Neko Case's house and then we get to this point where there's now an outline of these animals, and me getting dropped off at the airport. It got really weird. So here's these, the greyhounds and getting on the plane and, y'know, life, and not really understanding and about home. Home is where the heart is, and I don't know how great of a song it is, but it's pretty sincere. And it's pretty raw and there's a lot of, like I said, Grace Jones involved.
It fit the show so well.
The second season of Lodge 49, it was literally like a 10 hour movie. It was the most bizarre...if it takes another 10 years for that thing to be a banging hit, it's happening. [Creator and Lilys superfan] Jim Gavin is an actual brilliant, brilliant thinker who can write it down in these long ways. I don't understand that kind of clarity. That's like, "Wow. I have so much to be inspired by in this life still." A lot of it that I'm not actively ignoring, I'm actively adoring. Ooh, that got really Steve Powers for a second. Zing, Steve! The dog, it ages, it learns new tricks, it eats weird things between its toes, it's a dog. It doesn't care.
If things return to normal are there any tentative plans to tour like you did four years ago, but maybe with The 3-Way and Better Can't Make Your Life Better era songs?
When Jay over at Sundazed contacted me, I was like, "Oh my God, this is amazing." And I went into this flurry of talking to everyone I know, even writing, I think, Carl from the New Pornographers for help with lawyers. Literally, of course, within 36 hours it was sorted out but we're still sorting it out. And there are many pieces involved. Believe me, this is like trying to turn the USS Nimitz. Left is going to take a few hours, man. "The engines are strong and straight lines are easy. Course corrections, that can be a little time and energy consuming." Attempting to bring all of the Frontier stuff, '91 to '95, into '96 to '99. I get basically one shot to create the communication for this organization, basically starting now. Starting a week ago where we're like, "Ah, gosh. I don't really have a plan. Anybody got a plan?" They're like, "Fucking Trump's out!" But I'm like, "Okay, yeah. But what's the plan?" Then they're like, "Oh shit, oh yeah. We should call some people." I was like, "Ah, you mean I'm not the only one? I thought I was the faker." No.
So we're all literally, we worked through it with our eyes closed for five and a half years. Now, we're attempting to open our eyes and continue working through it. But the way the ensemble sits right now, there's a couple of people to do two intense 45 minute blast sets. I don't know, I call them blasts. But highly focused in the way we attempted to develop the set in 2015 and 2017, because there are a lot of players who are just more fun to play with. Less stress. There's more of an emphasis on the purpose than its importance. When you're in your 20s, you think everything is important, rather than thinking are your eyes forward, is your neck free, are your shoulders wide? Is this you? Or is it all the strutting around.I think a lot of people mistake posing for posture.
I was at my most nervous when I found myself posing, because I could not create that understanding of "what do they want from me? What do these people expect? Were they not around the last five years? Do they not know?" So let's see if we can make this easy for everybody and now. Corbin, Aaron, the other players, everyone's in a place where we could actually do some Generals of Soul. One song, stop it. Next drummer, another song. It would be like, "Goddam, this is a review. This is 30 crazy fucking years."
[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]