Feature: Soundtrack of Our Lives – The Special Pillow

The Special Pillow are old hands at this indie pop game, having recently celebrated their Silver Jubilee, but are still mixing up 60-pop with a touch of psychedelia here and a serving of antipodean 80s indie there. Their new mini-album ‘Worlds Finest’ is out at the end of the week, and see’s the band – bassist, songwriter, and majordomo Dan Cuddy (ex-Hypnolovewheel); charter Special Pillow member Katie Gentile (Run OnMad Scene) on violin and viola; longtime collaborator Peter Stuart (Headless HorsemenTryfles) on a staggering array of guitars; and Eric Marc Cohen (Fly AshtrayAutobody) on drums and percussion in the form that saw notable fans like Yo La Tengo (who covered the groups ‘Automatic Doom’ in 2015, jumping on board.

Their recent single ‘I Woke Up’ is a case in point – gritty riffs give way to Cuddy’s gruff delivery just scuffing up this uplifting indie / jangle pop that pulls at your heartstrings.

Ahead of the release of World’s Finest, we spoke to Dan from the band, who gave us his ‘Soundtrack of Our Lives’

The track that influenced you/us to start making music?

“Sub-Mission” / The Sex Pistols

Making music seemed impossible until I learned about punk rock, at which point it seemed imperative! My initial source of information was a copy of Caroline Coon’s seminal tome 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion, borrowed from my local public library: https://www.buffalolib.org/locations-hours/orchard-park-public-library

I am forever in debt to the bold librarian who chose to stock it. It’s hard to imagine now in a world where the first wave of UK punk bands are beloved heritage acts, but in the late 1970s, in suburban upstate New York, my enthusiasm was greeted with a mixture of incredulity and derision. We played a cover of “Sub-Mission” at the very first Special Pillow show, so I’ll choose that as a representative selection from my adolescent epiphany.

Tour bus favourite?

WFMU: www.wfmu.org

Whenever the Special Pillow band members are in the same vehicle, 99 percent of the time we are listening to WFMU, the incredible freeform radio station out of Jersey City, NJ. And unless it’s a Saturday night, 99 percent of the time that vehicle is being driven by Katie Gentile’s partner, Rob Weisberg who hosts the Transpacific Sound Paradise Show on the station. Katie sings the theme song!

Saturday night tune?

“Heaven and Hell” (live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970) / The Who

Saturday night is time to rock, huh? Since at least three-quarters of the Special Pillow are Who fanatics, I will pick the atomic blast of an opener from this live album. And I would let the rest of the record play, then follow it up with the Damned’s Machine Gun Etiquette.

And a Sunday Morning record?

“Fell from the Sun” / Opal

Timeless beauty and deep reflection and wisdom from one of the all-time great combos. Kendra Smith and David Roback (RIP) are fantastic individually and super-fantastic together, and this song is firmly rooted to the earth and skybound like mightiest of ancient trees.

The Cover we would love to play?

“Vacuum Cleaner” / Tintern Abbey

“Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” / Edison Lighthouse

“We Are Normal” / Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band

Our band has played very few covers over the course of the past 25 years, and there are some that tragically did not get too far off the ground. I’ll say it’s a three-way tie for saddest that we tried and didn’t manage to successfully work up these three classics. But there’s still time!

The best cover of all time?

Hüsker Dü / “Eight Miles High”

Hearing this incredible single blasting out of my friend Chris Xefos’s car stereo in a Long Island rock club parking lot in 1984 was truly transcendent; the day the world turned day-glo, for real. So many doors of melody and noise burst wide open never to shut again. Bob Mould’s ecstatic, desperately wailing vocals at the end of the track suggest he may have had a similar peak experience. Words fail, and the singer’s emotions become too intense for the song to contain. 

The best cover version of our music?

“Automatic Doom” / Yo La Tengo

That’s an easy choice, as our friends the magnificent Yo La Tengo did us a huge favor when they recorded a cover of “Automatic Doom” on their Stuff Like That There album in 2015. Not only is it a beautiful version, but the royalties have funded a few Special Pillow recording sessions. Ars gratia artis!

The best song we/I have written?

“Blue Always” / The Special Pillow

How am I supposed to decide? Every 1’s a Winner, Baby! This is the last track on our third album, and of course, in the streaming era, most people don’t stay tuned until the last track. They are missing out in this instance, the first Special Pillow song with a lead vocal by Katie Gentile. Why did we wait so long?

The song that I remember most from my childhood?

“Batman Theme” / Neil Hefti  

Every freaking afternoon, same-Bat-time, same Bat-channel!

Our/My favourite track made by friends?

“The Suck” / Sloppy Heads

A tough call, as I have a lot of talented friends. This spot could be filled easily and just as appropriately, with a track by Antietam, Dump, Fly Ashtray, the Martinets, Phantom Tollbooth, or Sleepyhead. (Among others!) But I picked this one as a two-fer: performed by the Sloppy Heads, a terrific Brooklyn trio that we’ve had the pleasure to play with several times in recent years, and written by my friend Stephen Hunking, who makes great music with Dew Claw and Grand Union and who I have known and played in bands with since high school: the Plastic Device, Hypnolovewheel, and XL Kings, which also includes Ariella Stok from the Sloppy Heads. Zero degrees of separation!

And by the band that should have been bigger?

“Trust” / The Pretty Things

Another tough call, in that most of my favorite bands are more obscure than I think they should be. I opted for this in memory of the great Phil May’s recent passing. This song has always felt to me like it should have been a huge hit, but it seems a little overlooked even in the rarefied realm of Pretty Things tracks.

The record I shall have at my funeral?

“Farewell, Farewell” / Fairport Convention

It might be a bit on-the-nose, but it’s hard to imagine something more appropriately funereal and gorgeous. Unless it’s another Fairport Convention song. “Meet on the Ledge”? “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”?

The record that makes me sad?

“Old Address of the Unknown” / Fastbacks

The emotional impact of a record comes from both inside and outside the record itself, and this one hit me during a rough patch in my late twenties. The poignant lyrics resonated with my miserable lot in life, and in tandem with the anthemic-but-delicate melody and performance, it still gets me choked up. “Meet the Author,” from the same album, Answer the Phone, Dummy, has a similar effect. Eternal gratitude to the Fastbacks for supplying important sounds at the right moment.

The record that gets us/me on the dancefloor? 

“The Boss” / Diana Ross

Somehow, this doesn’t seem to have endured as a disco mega-classic, but, dang, it most certainly is one. Maybe the song itself is too complex? An emotional journey as well as a trip to funky town, it was written and produced by Ashford & Simpson, who possess songwriting skills we mere mortals can only dream of, and who are also responsible for “Forever Came Today,” my all-time favorite Diana Ross performance, although not a dancefloor filler.

Check out the whole playlist, here

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