February 16-22, 2006
cover storyTall Tale Storyline
A brief history of the amazing Lilys.
Photographs by Michael T. Regan
The contents of Kurt Heasley's pockets are piled at the far edge of a table at Johnny Brenda's: one ring of keys, one hard pack of Marlboro regulars, one black miniature Bic lighter, one pack of gum, three index cards.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
The first card says, "You are old enough to organize!!!!!" The words, printed by hand, disregard the thin blue lines intended to guide them.
Card two: "That means leave a detailed note."
Card three: "That means call ahead of time."
They belong to his daughter, Tayt, 8, made after she recently wandered off on a whim into their Northern Liberties neighborhood and came home, safe and sound, in a police car. She must've slipped the cards into dad's jacket pocket when he wasn't looking. Lesson learned.
Heasley, the lanky, boyish frontman of the always-changing rock band Lilys, has spent much of his 34 years on one wandering journey or anotherdifferent cities, sounds, scenes, philosophical pursuits. These days, though, the famously flaky indie rock madman suddenly finds himself raising three kids on his own while still pursuing a career in music. That first index card sounds a little surprising coming from him.
The Lilys have a new album, Everything Wrong Is Imaginary. It's one of Heasley's finest yet10 occasionally noisy, often catchy rock songs. Beneath the grooving basslines and high, soothing vocal hooks, lies an undercurrent of anguish and discovery.
This is the seventh proper full-length in the Lilys discography, and once again, Heasley is backed by a completely new set of bandmates. And almost as often as he's swapped musicians, the Lilys' guitar-pop sound has been tweaked and retooled from album to album and whim to whimfrequently encouraging comparisons to My Bloody Valentine, The Who and Dinosaur Jr. This new one just feels like a Lilys record.
What does he want people to think or do when they listen to Everything Wrong? "It matters not. No expectations," he says. "Step one: Relinquish desire. Step two: Repeat. Step oneyou know what I mean?"
It's his changing tastes and locales that call for the changing lineups. The constant rebuilding doesn't faze him, and he never seems to have a problem recruiting able musicians. Meanwhile, the current castguitarist Michael Johnson, pianist/drummer Mario Lopez, bassist Chris McAllen and Tom Cason on electronicswill probably keep their options open.
Heasley's not quite clear on how many Lilys he's played with over the years. "Dozens and dozens and dozens," he says. When City Paper last interviewed him, three years ago, he'd guessed there were 63. The current estimate is 72. Seems right on pace for a band that started 15 years ago.
The Lilys family tree is something of a rogues gallery of national and local rockers. Archie Moore of Velocity Girl. Rich Costey, who went on to produce/engineer the likes of Rage Against the Machine and Fiona Apple. Thom Monahan of the Pernice Brothers, who's also produced Beachwood Sparks and Philly's own The Bigger Lovers. Quentin Stoltzfus of Mazarin. Art Difuria of Photon Band.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Recent attempts by Heasley to put together a complete list, for the purposes of this article, were unsuccessful. It's not a task easily undertaken, and his heart clearly wasn't in it. Several slots were filled simply with "you know who"to spare bandmates with whom there may be bad blood, he hintsand at least one person on the list never actually played with the band. He says his tenure lasted no longer than a conversation at a party (though Heasley recalls a practice). Perhaps you're a Lily as long as Heasley thinks you're a Lily.
Some lineups were put together only for certain recording sessions or tours. At other times the roster has morphed more organically, turned over naturally. There are no pink slips or honorable discharges. Any hiatus or pause in the band's progress can be an excuse for Heasley to reinvent and regroup. Occasionally, a bassist or drummer might survive from one CD to the next, but the average Lily's life span is probably less than a year. Of course this is how Heasley likes it, or at least has gotten used to it. He's experienced hit songs and critically acclaimed albums, as well as record label woes and heartache. Upheavals great and small have been constants in his creative and personal endeavors.
Kurt Heasley is talking about life. "This experience is made in the image of perfection. It's not perfection. And the fact that everything is one but the contents are allowed to slip around and appear chaotic until you resolve yourself to finding your rhythm. Not the rhythm. That's part of the mystery."
He has a way of turning regular old conversation
"You want complete and total perspective on your life? Die. Die happy. Die complete. Die in Hawaii on vacation when the volcano goes off."
into a psychedelic mix of self-help rhetoric
"That is excitement. People want to give what they see as an expert, an outside expert on their life, control. Do you want to be responsible for your own failure? Or do you just want to do it? Pick up and learn from it and move on."
or religious contemplation
"It's rough. The blame game is very popular. It also gets nothing done. I've heard the music of Scientologists. It sounds like Beck."
And even when it seems to make no sense at all, it speaks volumes about the man. He's always willing to talk love and death, sex and philosophy, god and drugs.
Heasley is mostly self-educated. Independent study, he calls it. He was expelled in the 10th grade for 42 unexcused absences. What was he doing instead of going to school?
"Learning how to program Emax II samplers and editing functions. Getting up on the Atari 1040 ST sequencing software. Eight hours a day of that, you know."
His family had moved around a few timesFlorida, Virginiabefore settling on D.C. when he was 10. It was there that he made the public library, the local music store and eventually the clubs, his classrooms.
So did he have a master plan once he dropped out?
"Absolutely not. I was the most reactionary saddest little six-foot-three black hair down to there. Then blond dreads down to there. And then pink hair down to there. You know, just continuously in-search-of.
"I had no problems with the in-search-of factor. Whatever the platform was, was able to dissolve at a moment's notice because the new, the moment had appeared, the moment to get ready for had appeared at that point. Constant training. Always in constant trainingwhich I think is either Sun Tzu or Lao Tzu or George Lucas, one of those guys. If you have the passion, temper it with the ability, to make sure you ride the donkey. That the donkey doesn't ride you."
Following his expulsion from high school, it was the advice of another D.C. club denizen, Nevin Forbes, which kept the kid on the right side of the donkey. "He said just do it right. 'It's going to take you about 12 hours a day for about seven days a week for about six years,'" recalls Heasley.
After his first band fizzled, he set about starting the Lilys project. And when the initial round of Lilys wilted within the first year, he found new ones. The first single, "February Fourteenth," came out in 1991, its title a tribute to My Bloody Valentine, the British band whose shoegazing guitar-pop was a big influence on Heasley.
The next year he moved to Lancaster, Pa. But why?
He pauses to formulate his response, a rare occurrence. "I had run youthful folly into the ground in D.C. I was more club culture [back then]. And a lot of my money came, all of my money came, from DJing or DJ-culture-related activities," he says slyly. He'd also been fired from his record store gig, and his self-esteem was low. He was looking to make a change.
Lancaster proved to be a good move, as that's where he wrote and recorded Lilys' impressive full-length debut, In the Presence of Nothing. (He lured some old D.C. pals to rural Pennsylvania for the recording.) It also put him in close enough proximity to Philadelphia to visit for shows and make friends there. He'd end up moving to an apartment above Philly Pizza Company on South Street in 1994, but not before recording A Brief History of Amazing Letdowns, the six-song EP that put the band on the map. The strumming guitar and Heasley's blissful falsetto turned the song "Ginger" into an indie anthem that made its way onto dancefloors and into a CK-1 commercial. (All told, four Lilys tunes have wound up in commercials over the yearsthe other three for Levi's, Nike and Volkswagen.)
After completing what would become 1995's dreamy, ethereal Eccsame the Photon Band, the 22-year-old Heasley began to wander. His journey took him to Boston, Hartford and L.A., among other places. Somewhere in there, he audited a class in naval engineering at Carnegie Mellon, just for the hell of it. And he wrote, recorded and reformed Lilys almost everywhere he went.
For a time, he found himself in a house in Denver, writing and recording while two soon-to-be indie luminaries, Robert Schneider of Apples in Stereo and Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, were working on their debuts in adjacent rooms. (Of the latter: "If I would even comment he would burst into tears and start throwing shit at me. I was like, I'm going to guess that you believe the Old Testament god is god, as opposed to the demigod. 'Cause I could really fuckin' see you getting into the 'Endless Universe' hard and fast.")
It was after 1996's classic, and classically titled, Better Can't Make Your Life Better, that popular success came knocking. Time gave it a gushing review. "A Nanny in Manhattan," a charming, catchy rock song, became a cult hit after turning up on tellies in the U.K. in an advert for Levi's. Unfortunately, the band's recording contract with the Che label was inherited by Sire Records after some corporate reshuffling. The Time/Warner imprint had little time for Lilys and the new CD, The 3-Way. Dreams of a hit video and that good ol' major label push were dashed. The CD went largely underpromoted, underpressed and underappreciated. Sonically, however, it was one of Heasley's finest, most fleshed-out records. Call it the Lilys' White Album.
Heasley moved back to Philly in 1999, and has collaborated with about half the local rock scene since then. Currently, Lilys are on L.A.'s Manifesto label, home to The Wedding Present and Dead Kennedys reissues. That's where you'll find 2003's Precollection and the brand new Everything Wrong Is Imaginary, but Heasley's soured on that label, too. Not enough attention paid to the creative process by management and too many threats written in legalese. Still Heasley refused to "crap out some refrigerator noise" to fulfill his end of the contract and set himself free. He didn't want to be "that guy."
Although he's firm in his command of Lilyshe calls it a republic, not a democracyHeasley doesn't exactly rule with an iron fist. "The newest guy or the most senior member has equal credibility in their opinion and their decision to operate. No one's told to shut up," he says. "Don't blow my trip. I am free. You are free. We can have the different trips or the same one."
When Gerhardt Koerner and Steven Keller, two Lilys from the Precollection era, wanted to part ways in pursuit of their own project, Heasley sent them off with a blessing. "HiSoft needs to happen," he says of their band, which just put out its debut CD. "I'm glad you feel comfortable to go out there and lay waste. I'm sure you will destroy if you just get to that point when you want to. Which is 12-hour days, seven days a weeks for about six years."
It's a packed house upstairs at the smoky Standard Tap. For many, this free show is a first glimpse at the newest new-look Lilys. A feedback issue has forced the sound guy to turn down the vocals, and the cramped stage affords no room for the keyboards, but the band sounds pretty tight. Half the crowd is surprised there's a band at all; sometimes a Lilys bill just means Kurt Heasley and a guitar.
Stage right, some peers from other Philly rock groups are bobbing their heads and sneaking hits off a joint in a corner. In a fit of spontaneous marketing, the merch guy is waving copies of the new CD over his head along to the music. Ten bucks a pop. He gets a few takers but everybody he knows by name says they didn't bring any money. Some try to score a freebie.
"C'mon," says the merch man. "Kurt's a single dad now. He's got mouths to feed."
Those mouths are his daughter, Tayt, and sons Aeroll and Karger. They're 8, 7 and 5, respectively. Their mother and Heasley's longtime mate, whom we'll call M, is currently living in Texas with her family.
In March of 2005, just as the recording of Everything Wrong was getting under way, their Northern Liberties home started to unravel. M suffered a psychotic episode and disappeared. Heasley found her and checked her into a hospital for a month. After she got out, M spent 10 days at home before disappearing again, this time for a month and a half.
The relationship had always been rocky. "Every time one of us would get our nose above water, the other one would come basically to make sure someone was drowning," says Heasley, who admits to his own battles with depression. "And that's crazy, doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results."
Heasley was making his first attempt at the vocals to a spooky, piano-tinged song called "O.I.C.U.R." when a friend called to say he'd found her walking down the street not far away. Heasley called her parents and asked them to fly in from Texas to pick her up. "I was like, I don't want the kids to see her," he remembers. "Whatever is going on up there, she is not gonna want to have to undo the memory of [it], 'cause there is no undoing."
With Heasley in charge of the kids 24-7, Everything Wrong's creative future was mostly left in the able hands of producer Mike Musmannowhom Heasley credits for getting Everything Wrong started in the first place.
M's recovery is going well, he says. She's planning to come back to Philly to be with her kids.
As for Heasley, he's busy settling into the role of a single parent. It's a full-time job and money's tight, but he's managing. Friends, most of whom are fellow musicians, help out with baby-sitting and support, but mostly it's on dad's shoulders. Reading to the kids at night, walking them to school every morning, turning them on to Of Montreal. He's becoming the kind of father who credibly can have his daughter write out an index card saying "You are old enough to organize!!!!!"
"I'm definitely becoming more consistent," he says.
Does that mean his wandering, carefree days are over?
"I can take the middle ground on this. I can take the middle pillar," he reasons. "Clean living is an absolute must and living a life of experience and experiment is also a must."