May 22-28, 2003
A Man Up
Father and Lilys frontman Kurt Heasley takes responsibility for the band he keeps rebuilding.
For Kurt Heasley, a funny thing happened on the way to major-label superstardom. The leader and sole permanent member of Philadelphias enigmatic, ever-evolving Lilys went from receiving rave reviews in Time for 1996s mod-revival Better Can’t Make Your Life Better to being a man without a label in the span of a few short years.
Following the release of 1999's The 3-Way, corporate restructuring at Sire Records left Heasley's Lilys to wander. In the four years since, Heasley's been mostly missing in action, musically, save for a couple of experimental and vault-clearing EPs. It seems fatherhood will do that to a guy.
Now the father of three (his first child was born around the release of Better; his third in 2000), the historically flaky frontman -- whose band's roster changes with the weather -- has adopted something of a new outlook on his career. He at least talks a good game about responsibility, and, in the wake of his first proper full-length of the millennium, Precollection, professionalism.
"I think when there was a How much money can I make on tour?' element of the band is when I stopped even really trying to communicate," says Heasley of the impetus for his recording hiatus. Seated on the floor of a friend's Northern Liberties apartment where parts of Precollection were recorded, taking a drag of a cigarette, he continues, "It was always just constant damage control. And that's when I was like, OK, fuck that. I have to do this differently.' If I'm going to be working on the level of big business, I need to sign every check. That's just the way it feels better."
It's a shocking statement from a guy long regarded as, to state it diplomatically, difficult to work with. His reputation for "only doing it the way I wanted to do it, when I wanted to do it" was earned, he admits.
But these are different times, and this is, perhaps, a different Kurt Heasley.
"I've got kids to take care of, but it's not just my kids I'm taking care of," he explains. "When you take care of yourself, you are able to, in a crunch, take care of others. Even if you just see one, do one, teach one, teaching by example. This is not a time for talking. This is not a time for naturalists to go against mechanists. It's not a time for throwbacks to say, Computers are bad, man, the alt-nation is jive.'"
Newly aligned with a label -- England's Manifesto -- with more of an interest in the band (Lilys, who released Better Can’t Make Your Life Better on Che Records, ended up on Sire in much the same way customers of CoreStates are now with Wachovia), Heasley seems poised to push his musical throwback machine into the 21st century. Though Precollection is peppered with the mid-'60s British mod pop that defined Better and The 3-Way, Heasley and company weave in elements of the murky sonic texturing of Heasley's 1995 Lilys offering, Eccsame: The Photon Band.
The result is an album that, while not Heasley's finest, shows that he's not been sleeping on his songwriting talents. You won't find any cut-to-the-bone hooks. And after the requisite several listens it takes to fully appreciate the album, it probably won't supplant prior installments in the Lilys pantheon. But there's plenty to recommend. The title track has all the makings of a sleeper cult fave while the lilting "Catherine (Let a Positive Stream )" finds Heasley doing his best Morrissey impression. Songs like the dreamy, bucolic, bedroomy "Will My Lord Be Gardening" and swift-moving "Squares" show off Heasley's range.
Recorded in fits and starts over the last couple of years, Precollection's long gestation period could have something to do with unevenness.
"Mike Musmanno [the album's producer and engineer] is used to executing ideas that have already been conceptualized and just need to be put on a multitrack format and have a stereo image created," explains Heasley, "and I'm more like, Man, what's happening right now.'"
A man with laser focus but limited attention span, Heasley needs to hit while the idea's hot. It explains the band's high turnover rate (Heasley says there are now 63 Lilys alumni), and the fact that his best work was done in the mid-'90s when he was turning out about an album every year.
"I love turnover in the band because some people can't add to the student-teacher relationship. I need them to teach me what they want to do in the band so we can quickly move into that area," explains Heasley. "You always reach these incredible compromises, hopefully they're democratic, but I guess they're more like mono-monarchies. I guess it is democratic. You're giving each person a stake in the law but I've always been the majority holder."
"This was, Be a man up, take care of little things first,'" explains Heasley of taking responsibility. "If you feel this pressure, then clean your workshop. Make sure that stuff's tight. You've got a family. You can't teleport between two places."
Lilys record release show, Sat., May 24, 9 p.m., $10, with Sounds of Kaleidoscope, The Last Wave and DJ Breedlove 500 Plus, The Khyber, 56 S. Second St., 215-238-5888.