SOME (MUCH YOUNGER) PERSON here has put together a circa 1999 playlist at the café where I write. And so I am revisited by “How Bizarre” by OMC, “MMMBop” by Hanson, “You Get What You Give” by The New Radicals, and “Brimful of Asha” by Cornershop. Basically, what was playing in the music store where I worked in ’97 – ’99. We marked up those one-hit-wonder compact discs something mighty. I think OMC’s disc was selling for something ridiculous like $17.99. If it was really in demand, like KORN (but with a backwards R) it might be $18.99. The dream was that some local oligarch would walk in on Friday night half-drunk on whatever, stinking of cigar smoke, and buy out the whole lot. We sold a lot of that Elton John remake of “Candle in the Wind” after Princess Diana died, and, of course, all of the Notorious BIG and Tupac posthumous releases (DMX has now joined them). Hip hop was really gory then. I remember DMX’s album was called Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. This was not Run-DMC or Public Enemy.
As I see it, the late ’90s were a time when pop music was just a bit more open to new sounds than it had been throughout the ’80s. I wasn’t around in the ’70s — well, for a few weeks — but ’80s pop was less DIY. Everything from Duran Duran to Bananarama to New Order and Depeche Mode seemed so overproduced, and most of the post-glam rock was the same. Even their hair was overproduced. It was the era of overproduction. The idea of some guy making songs in his basement and becoming a big star didn’t really happen until Nirvana broke down the gates, and all of those “alternative” acts came flooding in. Beck arrived with “Loser,” and it actually got played on the radio. That didn’t happen in 1989. In 1989, we had Phil Collins and Billy Joel, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Cher and Rick Astley.
There was no “Loser.”
But afterward, you saw these pop groups start to bubble to the surface, and they brought with them guitar-driven, self-composed songs. Hanson were three brothers from Oklahoma. New Radicals was really one person, who wrote and produced all the material. Cornershop was an actual band, with a riff-driven pop song that vaguely resembled some of the material that came out in the very distant halcyon days of the late 1960s. Even Smash Mouth arrived and dared to do a farfisa solo on a record, and it sold amazingly well. They covered The Monkees (!) The doors were again open. You could basically do anything, and if you got lucky, you could be a success.
The late ’90s were a very funny time, I think, in retrospect. The music was ridiculous. The adoration and obsession with celebrities was overboard. The movies — Rushmore, Election, Eyes Wide Shut, Fight Club — were only getting better and more prescient. And there were all of these teenagers growing up, just a few years younger than me, who seemed much more potent as a collective force. You saw them on these shows like Total Request Live hosted by Carson Daly. It seemed like there were just billions of teenagers all of a sudden eager to buy Backstreet Boys and Eminem records. It was like Baby Boomers, Part II.
I remember talking to one kid at the music store who tried to convince me that Third Eye Blind were the second coming of the Beatles. This was in 1997, so he was maybe 14 or 15. I thought, “Are you joking?!” But he was dead serious. He was walking around with an acoustic guitar slung on his back and claimed to know how to play all of their songs.
PS. I was working with Max, a hippie traveler John Coltrane devotee who was 10 years older than me, in the shop, and we used to joke that Hanson was actually like the 1990s version of the Beatles. Max hit upon the idea that we should slip some LSD into Hanson’s fruit juice, and that they would subsequently produce the 1990s version of Sgt. Pepper’s. We schemed to produce tie-dye t-shirts showing Hanson swimming in trippy psychedelic colors with the slogan, “Dose Hanson.”
It happened like this: I was walking back from the supermarket in the evening, which for Estonia in early November is actually late afternoon. The temperature was about 39 degrees Fahrenheit, 4 degrees Celsius. The weather was, more or less, miserable. A faint mist, a faint fog, some sluggish traffic. I crossed the intersection, came up by the other shopping center and past the apothecary and looked into the windows there, and saw my own reflection.
I could see my German officer’s jacket and the flat cap I bought at H&M, the one that makes me look like my grandfather. But for a split second, I saw 1995-era Hackett there, vintage Brendan. When he had that weird in-between yellow afro, not long, not short, and would gesture with one hand, as with a pipe, and talking out of the corner of his mouth about things, as if he actually knew things. Hackett’s always was a deeply philosophical soul. He liked to listen to Robert Johnson.
What also struck me was how alike we still were. We were both then and now terrifying. Was there anyone in our class who hadn’t turned out terrifying? Denzler was inarguably terrifying, but then there was Cover, who was an entire other class of terror. DeVerna, the attorney, had aged into respectability, but he was certainly still terrifying deep down, and Grande, as good-natured and friendly as he was, no doubt hid some kind of dark side. He moved to Maryland. Nobody who moves to Maryland lacks a dark side. Then there was Hackett, gesturing with his hand, his shoelaces always untied. Why were the shoelaces untied? He tied them, but they came undone.
I had never listened to his EP, Just Not Today by The Bern Band. I had promised him that I would. Somehow, I never got around to it. You know how you buy a book and intend to read it, but you never do? That’s what happened with Hackett’s EP. So in homage to this spectre of young Hackett, I decided to give it a listen. The time had arrived.
The first thing I can say is that the guitars are plump. This guy knows his guitars. He is painting this masterpiece with guitar. There are bold, emotive, Picasso-like strokes. Spiralling earworm blackhole cosmic grooves and fills. Vintage 1995 Hackett could not play like this with his crappy Ibanez with the Grateful Dead sticker on the smashed-up part. We played covers of the first-year guitar player canon, such as “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room,” “Pinball Wizard” and that’s really about it. Hackett was not actually a wunderkind, prodigy kind of guitar player. I met plenty of musicians who could outdo anyone when they were 14 years old, but he was more of a disciplined devotee of the instrument. He worked on it every night. He rehearsed. And, over time, he got really good. Hackett was also an incredible listener. Hackett listened to people. He had a lot of empathy. He applied this empathetic ear of his to the craft of music. He listened to songs the way a bank robber might put his ear up to a lock, waiting for that tell-tale click.
This record has plenty of classic rock influences all over it. What I think is great about it is that you can’t really tell where it all came from though. It’s almost like that classic William S. Burroughs “cut up method,” except The Bern Band did this to classic rock radio. The Beatles mixed with Led Zeppelin crossed with maybe some Grand Funk Railroad and Thin Lizzy and The Jam? Am I leaving anyone out?
I just can’t figure this one out. Where did this all come from? He’s also honed his vocal delivery into I don’t know what. Some kind of Robert Plant meets Steve Miller meets the Eagles? Who the hell are you, man? Hackett has become a rock and roll shapeshifter.
The other piece of The Bern Band, the Bruce Foxton to Hackett’s Paul Weller, is Dave Trump, who is also an old high school friend, yet not terrifying in the least. He plays bass on this record and apparently contributed 100% to the project. He is clearly an old pro on the instrument. My favorite stretch is on the track “Midnight Run,” where Trump cranks out beautiful, melodic basslines that will remind any player of why they first fell in love with this understated but incredibly fundamental instrument. The drummer, whoever he is, is also good.
Years ago, I almost connected with Hackett in Stockholm. I had an afternoon to kill while I waited for the ship back to Tallinn, and he was there with wife and baby. But they were on a boat somewhere out in the archipelago. I told him though about a great music shop near Slussen, where they sold vintage guitars and basses, including a Rickenbacker I like to visit and gaze at, and the next day Hackett went down there, sized up the same Ric, and bought some t-shirts. So if we play our cards right, we might all wind up back in the music shop in Stockholm one of these days. Until then, old friend, many rocking riffs.
EVERY OTHER DAY I catch sight of Tomás del Real leaving the house on Posti Street. It’s a sprawling, timber, 19th century structure across from the courthouse, and the South Americans have settled into the apartment at the far end. In the evenings, I can hear them singing through the windows. Sometimes I peek through to watch them play. I am not sure if Tomás is actually living in the house or visiting. Del Real turned up in town with his guitar and some other Chileans maybe a year ago. Suddenly, there were these dark-haired musicians milling about, the kinds of nomads who carry the winds of Los Andes with them wherever they may venture.
Del Real was one of them. He’s got thick hair, a scruffy beard. He likes to wear sunglasses. I know almost nothing else about him, other than that he is one half of Don’t Chase the Lizard.
The other half of this indie folk duo is the Estonian violinist and vocalist Lee Taul. I see her around town too. Usually she is either coming from rehearsal or going to rehearsal or getting coffee while taking a break from rehearsal. Sometimes she prickles with electric enthusiasm. Sometimes she is frustrated with the slow pace of a project. Sometimes it is raining and she is taciturn. Sometimes it is sunny and she looks more vibrant and Latin than Tomás the Chilean. Sometimes she has been rehearsing with her fiddle all day and yet no new ideas have arrived. Sometimes Lee has a really brilliant idea.
Taul and del Real met at some kind of musical camp or event years ago somewhere in Europe. When del Real found himself in Viljandi, a town of about 20,000 people steeped in culture that serves as a kind of Glastonbury or Roskilde for this Northern European country, they reconnected. Del Real had just washed up on Estonian shores after leading a peripatetic existence that took him from Chile to México to the US, then back to Chile before embarking for Europe.
“I spent a year without performing and filling myself up with anxiety, not being able to develop much as a person,” he says of this time, which coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic. “I decided that I needed to explore other possibilities, so I moved to Europe with one of my friends.”
During this period, they decided to reach out to old friends they had made at ethno music camps, including from Estonia, which del Real had visited years ago. “I had good memories of Estonia from my past, so we decided to hang out here,” he says. “I connected deeply with the place, the culture, the people and the nature, so that week turned into a year, and here we are now.”
Del Real also got a residency at the Pärimusmuusika Ait, or Estonian Folk Music Center, a converted manorhouse barn that serves as the hub for folk music. It was here that he and Taul began to compose the songs that feature on Don’t Chase the Lizard’s debut album Huracán.
ESTONIAN WINTERS ARE WEIRD. Anyone who has ever lived through one can tell you that. From about November through April, the ground is covered in snow and ice. Sometimes it melts a little, only to be reinforced by double the amount of white cold. Days dawn and end with sheets of the sticky stuff falling all around. Time doesn’t stand still during an Estonian winter. There is no time. In a way, the hypnotic character of the Estonian snowfall found its way into Don’t Chase the Lizard’s songs. It is this strange yet appealing overlap between northern natural elements and Latin rhythms that colors the group’s music, like João Gilberto mixed with a little Hedningarna.
Del Real wrote most of the songs early in the morning. There was an almost monastic quality to the composition process, steeped in solitude and peace. He would wake, work, and send his ideas to Taul, and the two would build on them. “I was the winter resident at the Ait, so we started to work while being very much in isolation from the world,” says del Real. Because of pandemic restrictions, there wasn’t much activity at the Ait, which is located adjacent to the ruins of 13th century castle and a wooded lakeside landscape. With few visitors, they were especially isolated.
“All the tracks from the album come from that experience,” says del Real, “being in our little bubble and around nature.”
Within two months, they had an album’s worth of material. “Huracán” was the first song written for what would become the group’s debut album. “It was very early in the morning and I couldn’t sleep so it was almost like having a conversation with your subconscious,” he says of the song. “Lobos” was the last composition. By the time it was written, the duo had started to play live.
THE GROUP’S FIRST CONCERT took place in the Ait itself in February and by March, they had released their first single, “Buscar la Luz.” The single has a soothing, undulating quality, held together by del Real’s splendid guitar work and the droning quality of Taul’s violin, which adds color and depth to the melody, topped off with sincere lyrics and beautiful harmonies.
The duo appeared on several Estonian radio programs in the early spring before making their Tallinn debut at Philly Joe’s in May. From there, they flew over the ocean to take part in Folk Alliance International, where they had an official showcase in Kansas City in May and performed at the Kansas City Folk Festival. Once back in Estonia, they played the Seto Folk Festival in July and opened for Rita Ray in Tallinn the same month. They are also scheduled to play at the Ait’s Harvest Party concert this coming October.
In the meantime, Don’t Chase the Lizard racked up more than 30,000 streams on digital platforms with its singles “Huracán” and “8,” incidentally the eighth track on the album, which was released in July. “8” features more intricate guitar work, with a hushed, almost prayer-like quality to the vocals. The violin work takes its time, no note is wasted, every tone is supple and adds to the sound. Credit is due to Kaur Einasto, who recorded the album in Viljandi, as well as to Jorge Fortune, who edited, mixed, and mastered it at Estudios Triana in Patagonia, Chile.
According to Taul, the concerts have gone quite well, and the crowd’s positive feedback has surprised the duo. “I don’t know if it’s the fact that the folk audience is used to a different kind of music, and ours has had a refreshing effect, or that the songs, mainly in Spanish, give the program a special flavor,” she says. “In any case, we have been satisfied with the results.” Taul notes that audiences in the US received the group warmly and that the group made new contacts. “We met amazing musicians, producers, and agents,” says Taul. “We can only hope that some future cooperation will come out of those interactions in the future,” she says.
“I think people have been reacting very well to the live performances,” agrees del Real. “It seems that people connect with feelings and sounds that seem genuine to them,” he says. People have particularly been intrigued by the combination of Chilean and Estonian sounds. “It’s attractive to see how two people from opposite regions of the world have a sound that might fit together very well and become something quite unique,” he says.
GOOD ALBUMS are likethe best novels, of course. They have a way of effortlessly reaching you on their own time. Someone might give you a book and urge you to read it, but you put it aside until one day, out of boredom, you pick it up and devour it all at once in a few hours. Likewise, someone might give you an album and ask you to listen to it, but it might take time for the right moment for listening to arrive. In my case, it was a Sunday morning in August when Huracán presented itself to me. The sun was already shining, I was about to take a shower and go to the cafe to get some coffee. Many of the big milestones of the summer, such as the annual Viljandi Folk Music Festival, had passed. I myself was in a calm morning contemplative mood.
Each song on Huracán is a treasure to be savored in its own way, unwrapped slowly and delicately. The voices reach out to you. While well produced, it’s a bare bones recording yet with stirring atmospherics. It sounds like it was recorded in an old church in the Andean Mountains. There is del Real’s guitar and Taul’s fiddle, plus their exceptional voices, del Real’s intimate delivery and Taul’s intuitive and sensitive harmonies. There are no electronics gurgling in the background. There are no distractions. It’s as if they are right there with you playing in the room.
I will always recall that moment of putting on those songs and letting them play. They seemed like the best way to start a quiet Sunday morning in the first week of August. It was kind of funny as well. This music, written in isolation in the winter, somehow made sense in summer. Huracán, the ultimate winter album, had unwittingly become the ultimate summer album too.