An Investigation of The Weather Underground

By Team JamBase Jun 5, 2008 5:22 pm PDT

By: Forrest Reda

The Weather Underground by Sonia Onate
I first became aware of The Weather Underground through a friend in San Francisco whose musical opinion I trust implicitly. He sent me a link to the band’s MySpace page and the first track I listened to, “Nickel and Dime,” immediately lodged itself into my psyche. The song’s melancholy guitar opening, accompanied by a couple “ooohs” lead to these lyrics:

You are not so nice
Public execution in the newspapers
My schooling interfering with my education
They say they told the story in the Sunday Sun
But I know what you do
Yeah, I know what you do
When the joke is over
Well, you just get older
And say
You are not so nice

The lyrical interplay between “public executions” and “education” and the singer’s performance, from the tremolo in his voice to the passion in the delivery, struck a chord within my soul. Then I heard “Neal Cassady” for the first time. My gooseflesh rose, my jaw dropped and I actually shouted with the joy of discovery. Even streaming on the Internet, the energy in this music is palpable.

I listened to “Neal Cassady” two more times, and dug into the literature presented on their MySpace page. Most young bands list their favorite groups in their Top Friends, or bands that they want to open for. The Weather Underground lists all manner of cultural figures from the last century who mean something to them, from Bob Dylan to Albert Camus. Their influences could be the curriculum for a college literature course.

The first time I saw The Weather Underground play was at a benefit show early on a Sunday night in Hollywood, out of their element in a half-empty room with shitty acoustics. Despite all this, the way that the band played together, locked into a communal beat, with lead singer Harley Prechtel-Cortez roaming the stage like he was channeling ghosts, even leaving the stage to balance on a table at one point, all this told me they were performing for themselves as much as the audience, high on the interaction with each other.

The Weather Underground :: 02.20.08 :: Silverlake Lounge
Los Angeles, CA :: By Josh Nelson
The next show I saw was at the Silverlake Lounge during the band’s residency. The place was absolutely packed with a mix of suits and scruffy Silverlake hipsters all searching for salvation, and TWU was delivering it. When “Neal Cassady” started there was an audible gasp and the crowd sang “oooooooohhhhhh,” pogo-ing up-and-down, offering rapturous applause that the band soaked in and reflected back ten-fold.

Prechtel-Cortez sings with his shoes off and rises like a snake coiled to strike. The interplay between him and the other musicians is like a ballet accompanied by sweet noise – he leans on bassist Ryan Kirkpatrick, grabs guitarist and keyboard player Shoichi “Sho” Bagley while he’s trying to play and walks back to drummer Diego Guerrero to bang his head to the beat.

Likewise, the band can’t help but grin at their singer. Kirkpatrick sings along without a mic, and Guerrero smiles and hammers away while Sho contemplates his older cousin (Prechtel-Cortez), who I would later find out persuaded the young Sho to drop out of school and join him in this magical mystery tour.

Prechtel-Cortez suggested that we meet at a park for this interview, talk and then play a little soccer. The day of the interview was hot, so I brought a bottle of tequila from my freezer to quench our thirst and spark conversation. I met the band and we wandered down a path looking for a spot to talk. An older Jewish man, completely unsolicited, approached us and directed us to a depression in the center of the park surrounded by trees. He told us that the combination of the location and the trees made it the best air to breathe in Los Angeles.

We situated ourselves in a circle with my tape recorder in the middle, passed the bottle and got to know each other. Whether it was the fresh oxygen, the tequila or a combination of both, our interview became a wide-ranging conversation about the band’s history, inspirations and aspirations.

The Weather Underground by Sarah Elise
A week later I would meet with the band again at a Mexican restaurant in Silverlake that is famous for its bowl of tequila soaked pineapple.

What follows are excerpts from both interviews, in the band’s own words whenever possible.

Prechtel-Cortez was born and raised in Inglewood, living with his mom in a small apartment above a mini-market. “They basically gave us almost free rent,” he says. “We were really poor, and then my mother remarried and we moved to New York.” He went to high school in Queens near Flushing, “where the Ramones are from,” but would find himself traveling back West after his stepfather passed away, with the intention of attending college. But, it didn’t quite work out the way he planned.

Prechtel-Cortez: It was a rough time. I was trying to find out a lot of things about myself. Things don’t always turn out the way you expect them to. I tried to go to college. I like academia – I’m almost the intelligentsia to a degree, but institutions are really hard for me. I’m sure they are for a lot of people. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but just for me, I don’t like just getting a grade, I like exploring things and going into them deeper, really immersing myself. When I get caught up in something, I really get caught up in it.

JamBase: From listening to your lyrics, reading your influences and meeting you, I get the sense that you are more educated than most college graduates, if not in the traditional way.

Prechtel-Cortez: For me, literature has always been the way in which we learn. Like religion or anything, it’s a doctrine in which you have realizations. The only way you learn anything is through experience – no matter what. You can read something that is really cool, but it’s only a doctrine through which you realize something. So, when you can read something and say, “Ah, I just experienced that,” you feel that you immerse yourself.

JamBase: I find that people read Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson and they want to go have the same adventures, but they don’t have the background – they haven’t read what they read, like Walt Whitman, for example. It’s the same thing with bands. They don’t go back to the influences of the bands they like.

Prechtel-Cortez: Exactly. Walt Whitman was the outlaw, the great American rebel like Mark Twain, Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, the America that I love, that we love, the “Song of the Open Road.” A lot of people try to live the life of Dean Moriarty, but you have to live your life and these things are just kind of footnotes that you read alongside the journey.

Kirkpatrick: There was such earnestness to their plight. Now, you would feel like your doing an American Apparel commercial trying to pull some of that shit off. No one had precipitated that to inform them that that was a cool way to behave or a cool way to approach their art. They just did it. That’s the beauty of it. That was it. You can’t do it again.

Continue reading for more on The Weather Underground…

There’s this great line in the Talmud – “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” A lot of times we put our own baggage into anything that we are. You go somewhere, no matter where you are, this is your home, this is your temple right here. Wherever you are, in the middle of nowhere, you’re bringing it with you. So, L.A. can eat you up, can do all these things to you, but it’s you. It’s your humanity. It’s how you reach humanity. How you feel about humanity is how you approach it.


Photo of The Weather Underground by Sonia Onate

JamBase: Describe what Los Angeles means to you.

Prechtel-Cortez: Los Angeles is kind of like a thrift store – you have to go and find the treasure. It’s not something that is right in front of you, but like Herzog says, “There’s a lot of substance in this town.”

JamBase: A lot of people – even those who live here – disparage L.A.

Ryan Kirkpatrick by Benjamin Hoste
Prechtel-Cortez: There’s this great line in the Talmud – “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” A lot of times we put our own baggage into anything that we are. You go somewhere, no matter where you are, this is your home, this is your temple right here. Wherever you are, in the middle of nowhere, you’re bringing it with you. So, L.A. can eat you up, can do all these things to you, but it’s you. It’s your humanity. It’s how you reach humanity. How you feel about humanity is how you approach it. People meet us and they go, “Wow, you guys are from L.A.? That’s so crazy because you guys are so cool.” This is the ground we’re sitting on. This has nothing to do with it. I mean, it has everything to do with everything, but see things how they are, not as you are.

Sho: There are some great natural features in L.A. like Crystal Cove in PV. I was also really into L.A. bands growing up – Black Flag, The Descendents, Mike Watt, Roaming Blackouts, punk rock culture in general. A few venues have some real history in places you wouldn’t expect, like in Redondo Beach. Miles Davis used to play at the Lighthouse, down on the pier. It’s cool to check these places out, to go where the legends played.

While Prechtel-Cortez is the defacto leader and voice of the band, The Weather Underground is very much a collective of musical revolutionaries. Each member contributes something to the band. Music is written democratically.

Prechtel-Cortez: There’s no contrivance to what we are doing. We throw the ball at the wall and some stuff sticks. Ideas are always going through my head. We’ll start playing something and everyone gets invested in it.

JamBase: Do the lyrics come before or after the music?

Prechtel-Cortez: It’s always different. There is a lot of patience. Bob Dylan said there are certain things you have to hold to yourself, because if they get out early they are too fragile. Patience creates fertile ground for ideas to come out. I think there is an understanding of what everyone does best. We all get along really well, and that’s kind of a blessing. I feel blessed to be allowed to be the principal lyricist. It’s like someone is giving me a canvas to finish a painting.

JamBase: You have released three EPs, but not a full length. Tell me why?

Prechtel-Cortez by Benjamin Hoste
Prechtel-Cortez: EPs allow us to flesh out ideas, and there is not much pressure. We have everything we need for the phase we’re at. The idea is to have longer careers. Basically we’re doing things our way.

JamBase: Are the new songs being drawn from the same artistic well as the first EP?

Kirkpatrick: I think they are way different now. I think we are growing. Everything is growing in different ways. Everything changes and the music changes too. It’s easier now. We’re more comfortable playing with each other. We know what everyone does best and we’re able to sit back and let each other do that thing that they do best. We wrote a lot of the songs on Psalms and Shanties together. At the end of that record, Harley and Diego would write together. There were a couple songs where they were locked up. I attribute that to the guitar and drums being easy to play together. You let your heart take over.

Guerrero: We all wrote the songs together, but Harley and I saw some shows together and got really inspired. And then Sho and Ryan came in later.

Kirkpatrick: For us to know where our parameters are is really liberating. Songwriting is a group process. It’s nice to let people take their time with things, while pushing each other to let them do the things they are really good at. Let the Tour de Force come together – four people doing what they naturally do best, all together.

JamBase: You’ve also been playing together long enough for things to gel.

Kirkpatrick: The live show is coming together. Playing on the road, man! Playing every night is great.

Sho: Now we know for sure that this is what we’re going to be doing for the long run.

Music is reincarnated through new artists mining the past. There is something in The Weather Underground’s music that has this quality, the timeless essence of the struggles in the fields or a lonely night on the train or walking down the street staring at the cracks in the pavement.

JamBase: What are you trying to share through your music?

Diego Guerrero by Benjamin Hoste
Prechtel-Cortez: An engagement, I think, being able to send some sort of message through music. As cliché and cheesy as that can be, I think we are trying to inspire. I know that it’s idealistic to think that you can actually do much or actually change things in an activist way, but we have that punk ethos to not shy away from a message. When the show’s over, you go home and there’s more to it – you have your life. So, take something from it. The music is first and foremost.

Kirkpatrick: One thing that has always inspired me is to watch the relationships that develop during live performances; also, the ability to communicate without having to talk. I think there is another form of understanding that gets passed around. Shows kind of breed that. You can almost feel that in the audience. You can even feel that after the show, that sensibility – tolerance, love, the experience. I hope it translates.

JamBase: From listening to the music, I’ve noticed there aren’t really any love songs. The one that you sing in Spanish [“Fight Song For The Desalojos”] sounds like it has some romantic themes. I read the translation and found it was a tribute to the days of working in the fields – nostalgia for a simple, honest existence – so I suppose you could say it’s a love song of sorts. Tell me about why you don’t write love songs, and tell me about that song.

Prechtel-Cortez: There’s a lot of that stuff that has already been written, and we can leave that to those people that do that really well. I personally think that the sentiment can sometimes be there. Like you said, “Fight Song For The Desalojos” feels like it’s a relationship thing. The Desalojos are evacuees, indigenous people from Guatemala displaced by these big coal-mining corporations from Canada and the United States. Canada is a big culprit actually. They take over this land, promise the indigenous people work and then kick them off while they are making profit off this whole different country. This happens often, and so yeah, the sentiment is there. The cool thing about lyrics and music is that is doesn’t always have to be what you think it’s about. You listen to The Smiths, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and it’s there.

Continue reading for more on The Weather Underground…

I think we are trying to inspire. I know that it’s idealistic to think that you can actually do much or actually change things in an activist way, but we have that punk ethos to not shy away from a message. When the show’s over, you go home and there’s more to it – you have your life. So, take something from it. The music is first and foremost.


Photo of Prechtel-Cortez by Benjamin Hoste

Kirkpatrick: I think from an outside perspective. I’m not a lyrical writer. I think that a lot of them have a thematical – I hate to use the word “universal” – but there are some poignant principles that can apply to so much shit, like “Something’s Got to Give,” just that statement right there, could mean so much. I always think about music in terms of listening to it in your car, and what you can be thinking about and how it relates to you, and I just think that specific example can apply to so many variances, so many directions. It can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Last summer my girlfriend’s dad was in the process of passing away and we had just finished that EP, and we would listen to that song and it would just floor us. I always felt a little bit of guilt because it’s our song, but at the same time, when you’re done mastering something you can step away and listen to different parts. A lot of the time, I am just listening through different things, hearing different things, and we were listening to that and it was fucking amazing. Anger, comfort, joy [trails off]…

Prechtel-Cortez: It’s great to have experiences like that, where you end up with certain songs [where you] get goosebumps and emotional, but there’s only a few songs that will actually make me cry.

Prechtel-Cortez by Brian Wright
JamBase: What songs make you cry?

Prechtel-Cortez: “Tom Traubert’s Blues” by Tom Waits. To be honest, if you listen to the lyrics of that song, what the fuck is he talking about? [Sings in a Tom Waits voice], “No one speaks English, and everything’s broken.” You know what I mean? I heard that song the morning my step-dad was dying. I was driving home. It’s one of those songs that triggers an association. Then there’s Nina Simone, “I’ve Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good).” There’s this part that she sings where it’s like she’s crying.

Kirkpatrick: Medeski Martin & Wood‘s version of “Hey Joe.” I love them, and they are not crying music, but the delicacy with which they play that song! They actually came to L.A. and they played that song and I cried to it live. All their other stuff is so [intense] but that’s the one where they give you the other side, so that one makes me cry. And also, it’s so weird, but there’s that song by Ween [that goes], “If you could save yourself, you’d save us all.” They are insane, totally fucking insane. If they write a ballad, it’s a fucking ballad all the way. If they write a punk song – snorting amphetamine, killing somebody – it’s all the way. I respect that about them.

JamBase: Tell me more about “Something’s Got to Give.” It’s a great song.

Prechtel-Cortez: “Something’s Got To Give” was inspired by Sam Cooke. Sho was playing Steve Cropper licks [and] it started to sound like Southern soul. Compared to Motown, Southern soul can lend itself to a little bit more feel, where as Motown lends itself to beautiful instrumentation. It feels more rock & roll.

JamBase: There seems to be a resurgence of soul music. I’ve heard comparisons of The Weather Underground to Cold War Kids and other bands like Delta Spirit, Two Gallants and Dr. Dog. All these bands sound like they’re from another time. What’s the connection?

Prechtel-Cortez: Maybe it’s cataclysmic. I don’t know those guys [Cold War Kids]. We’ve met them, we’ve hung out with a few of them and they are nice guys, but I think it’s just re-finding a lot of the things that are not really [trails off]… It comes up where you re-find The Beatles in your life, or you re-find the Stones, The Beach Boys – things like that – Stax Records or Northern Soul. Terry Callier explored all these other records that became that much more inspirational. It’s so new, so fresh to some degree. Sam Cooke, he’s becoming a big influence to a lot of people. He’s from L.A, too. South Central.

Kirkpatrick: Vinyl is a great experience. We all listen to vinyl. Those records are great to explore. There’s like these rare concert records that are $4 at Amoeba, and it’s like, are you kidding me? I got pictures to look at, words to read?

The Weather Underground construct their own CDs from blank cardboard, stamping the sleeves, even Xeroxing hand-written lyrics for the Psalms and Shanties EP. They share a passion and put their lives on hold for music. Sho left school to concentrate on the band, but Kirkpatrick, who graduated from the University of Indiana, has offered to home-school him on tour in general studies while Prechtel-Cortez teaches him a variety of subjects in which he is well versed. This underscores the brotherly camaraderie of the band. The interplay between members is easy. They continually compliment each other, and even finish each other’s answers in our interviews. There is much laughter and reverence for music and the road.

JamBase: What is The Weather Underground’s mission?

The Weather Underground
Kirkpatrick: We’re all just real creators. We’re trying to create something that we’ve never heard before. We all have a void in our life and we’re trying to create something to fill that void. We’re into the history of human beings and the history of art, the history of music and the history of American music in the 20th and 21st century. We want to be a part of it, akin to it, because we are interested in what we can contribute through how we grew up, who are parents are, our personalities, our failures and successes to that whole world of art. And we like to get out and play and be around people. We like to go to shows. It can be really reciprocal.

Prechtel-Cortez: There’s a great answer to all of this. Rock & roll and rebellion always go hand in hand, and that is the soul and blues that comes out of our music. The thing that we’re trying to emanate is that rebellion – the America that we speak of. To make this place a lot more livable, to improve it to some degree, in some way, shape or form, more than just ourselves. To do that, you have to know where you come from and I think we’re inspired by guys like Joe Strummer, Nina Simone, Marvin Gay, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding. Those are the things that we really try always to keep to the forefront of the mind. These guys are socially conscious, but I think it’s also really important to know that rebellion is not always just anger. I think rebellion has a lot to do with being. Rebellion is as American as apple pie.

The Weather Underground is a band seemingly from another time or an alternate reality where music is still used as a form of social protest as well as entertainment. Prechtel-Cortez sings the lyrics like he’s willing to die for the themes behind them. His source material is the writing of Whitman, Twain and Kerouac, artists like Yves Klein and a host of revolutionaries, including the group’s namesake, The Weathermen.

Since these interviews, The Weather Underground has toured the West Coast with French Kicks and are currently on tour with Matt Costa and Delta Spirit on their way to Bonnaroo where they play Thursday June 12 at the Troo Music Lounge at 9 p.m. Complete Weather Underground tour dates available here

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