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Matson on Music

Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

October 20, 2009 at 3:51 PM

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Interview: Gossip's Beth Ditto

Posted by Andrew Matson

bethbethditto.jpg

"Four Letter Word"

When you get Beth Ditto on the phone, what do you talk about?

How the 28-year-old front-woman for Portland soul/punk/dance outfit Gossip is a plus-sized feminist, naked magazine-coverwoman, improbable fashion icon, and a proud lesbian constantly on her soapbox for equal rights? Or how, social causes aside, her singing voice is one of the best in pop music, a crystalline/ragged thing of bloody beauty?

No, you talk about "Music for Men," the excellent new Rick Rubin-produced Gossip album that will hopefully make the group as famous back home as it is in England, where Ditto is a superstar. And you let her talk about her guitarist, Nathan "Brace Paine" Howdeshell, who informed the sound of "Music for Men" more than most people realize.

Ditto appears with Gossip at 8 Friday, Oct. 23 at Showbox at the Market ($20-$22; 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com).

When we talked a few days ago, I told her the sleek, slow break-up stomp "Four Letter Word" was my favorite song on the new album. It's unclassifiable (power-R&B?), a radical departure from the group's previously straightforward punk rock with a disco beat. She said it was her favorite, too.

An abbreviated version of the interview will run the day of the concert in the paper-paper, but an extended version is after the jump.

Photo via Pop

You still live in Portland?

Yeah, of course.

Does everyone in the band live in Portland?

Yeah we all do. Everyone. Mm-hm. And our crew does, too. Julian's here, he lives in Seattle, he's our sound person, and our manager lives in Portland, too.

So do you think it's still OK if we consider you a local band in the Northwest?

I think so. I have always felt like a band from the Northwest. It never dawned on me that we weren't.

Just a second, I'm gonna put a shirt on.

Yeah, I'm really proud to be from the Northwest. There's a lot of good things going on there. And have always gone on there.

Even though you're so famous in England, you're not thinking about moving there?

I've always thought about it. And I wouldn't feel like I was abandoning anything, moving to London. I would...I wouldn't feel guilty or anything, I'd just be like, "I'm outta here." But honestly it just is so expensive. I have a partner that I've had for eight years, my family is here. But I think about it, of course. It's enticing. I have really good chances. I'm really lucky, in that it's not a very common opportunity for a lot of Americans, to just go there and live. So sometimes I worry that I'm wasting that chance. But I try not to dwell on it too much.

I guess if it's the right move you'll know.

Exactly.

Let's talk about the album. I really want to talk about my favorite song on it, "Four Letter Word."

That's my favorite one on the album, too!

I just can't play it loudly enough in my car.

Thank you! It's been making me really happy because people really like that song. And when we were finished with it, I was like, "That's my favorite one." And live, it's been going over really well.

That slow, robotic feel is a really good look on you. It's like you're leading the Decepticon army into battle.

Ah, that's amazing. Thanks for that, um, is that a Transformers reference? I don't want to say Gobots. Don't want to embarrass myself.

I love that you're singing with that "bring it on" energy, like you can't wait for it to rain. It's so goth to me, like "viva darkness."

Ah, thanks. Gosh, that's really nice. Every song Gossip writes is a love song. That's the only thing I'm really good at is writing love songs. And songs that are like, "empowerment!" anthem ideas. I'm kind of a one-trick pony. I'll admit it. And that song, out of all the love songs that we've written, which is a lot, is my favorite one.

Funny that you call it a love song, because it's kind of an "opposite of love" song.

Yeah, it is, but you know. Love isn't always positive, is it? The song is...yeah. The song is a harsh toke.

To me, there's all these little hiphop touches on that song. The little sandblock back and forth sounds, and the "Paul Revere" backwards cymbals, and the drums crack so hard. Especially, you know that part after you spell out L-O-V-E in the bridge and they come back in?

Yeah.

Murderous.

Ah, thanks. Live, it's so fun. All I can say is live, playing that song, it's so awesome. And Rick Rubin did make it. And he has such a huge history in hiphop, I think that is one of the more obvious songs that he has such a huge influence. But honestly, a lot of the sounds just came from Nathan screwing around. The record was three months long, took three months to make, and he was there the whole time. Me and [Gossip drummer] Hannah [Blilie] would fly in and out and take breaks, but Nathan was there the whole time.

So everything that's not you singing or Hannah playing drums was played by him?

Yeah, everything.

Wow.

I know! Rick really loved Nathan and was a really amazing supporter. Especially because in this band I get so much attention, positive and negative, I think people tend to forget that my band-mates are really amazing. Or the reason why people even notice is because we're a band, together.

Not necessarily like, "It's all about the music!" It's not like that. None of us really share that attitude, because I think good music is about so many other things.

But with Nathan, I think, it was really nice to see someone who's so important in music give Nathan a really huge boost. I feel like Nathan, for the first time, felt empowered to play all those things. Before...he doesn't know scales or chords or anything. He was just winging it all, by ear, and it's really nice to have that validation from Rick, I think.

It's easy to underrate him as a musician because he does so much structural stuff, and nothing flashy or "hard" to do.

Yeah. Not at all, yeah.

That's interesting that he built so much of the album with his building blocks. Little synthesizer building blocks.

Exactly. That's the thing, is that so many people can crank out a bulls__t solo. But every piece of inexperienced music Nathan makes is all really good. And that's what Rick said, too. Every day he'd be like, "Everthing Nathan plays is incredible."

What was that collaboration like? Rick Rubin would have ideas for types of sounds, and then Nathan would play the instruments? Or...

No, not at all. Everything came from our brains. When it came down to Rick getting really into it, it'd be like, "That's great, stop. Perfect. Don't try any harder." He wouldn't be like, "Play it like this: 'duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh." He'd be like, "Instead of doing this three times, do this four, and then play the part you just played four more times and see how that sounds."

We had, like you were saying, little building blocks, and Rick would orchestrate them. He might put the beginning part last, and the last part at the beginning. Stuff like that.

I was so nervous about lyrics before I went into the studio. For the first few records, they were barely audible because I didn't want you to know what I was saying because I was so embarrassed. But Rick, he was just really validating. Someone said once that "a good producer is like a good therapist" and that is so true with Rick. He's like the ultimate therapist, and music is his medium.

For most people, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity to work with Rick Rubin. That's great it went so well.

Definitely. The Gossip has been lucky. For one, we've been around for ten years. We're not pushovers. We know what we want, and we know what we don't want. And Rick Rubin is a really amazing person, so we felt comfortable making music with him.

You know, I think if we were a much younger band, I don't think we would've had the confidence to say "No," or to say, "I disagree with that," or to ask questions. Every single record got progressively better. We progressed as a band emotionally, sonically. That's a great thing about starting a band so young. I don't think a lot of bands get that. I think a lot of bands are bands for two years, get signed when they're 21. And I think that would be hard if we were a really young band to work with a guy like Rick Rubin.

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