Moth Wranglers - a self-confessed and self-assured
'bi-coastal musical collaboration' between messrs, Barnum
and Bailey, LD Beghtol of New York City and Chris
Xefos of San Francisco.
Their debut album, NEVER MIND THE CONTEXT a gossamer
wrapped beer keg of ever so slightly underground pop
was released on October 2nd, 2001 on Magnetic Records
and what a sawdust and candyfloss listen it is too.
Part folk, part country, part east, part west the album
is an idiosynchratic floorshow of lip-biting erotica,
brooding conceit and delicious music-hall pleasure.
In the words of Prospero, a 'living drollery'. Never
mind the Shakespeare reference, though. In this context
it's simply 'piss-perfect'.
If their press release is anything to go by, Moth Wranglers
were formed in 1998 by Beghtol and Xefos to explore
their mutual love of 'obscure pop histrionics and arcane
instrumentation'. And as misleadingly clinical and methodical
as it sounds it's quite apparent in the way it listens.
With a wistful, though often playful lyrical content
often at odds with the wry, larconic style in which
they are delivered, the album showcases the mercurial
talents of pop-cowboys Ken Stringfellow of The
Posies, Stephin Merritt and Claudia Gonson
of The Magnetic Fields as well as likes of Sparklehorse.
However, this kind of galaxy of indie stars approach
belies an emphatically unique and ennobling album. Rich
in scope, rich in melody and rich in understanding.
If you've ever cared to fall in love with the likes
of Big Star, Mortal Coil, 4AD, Soft Cell, OMD and the
crowd-scene of eighties near-dos, then be prepared -
not to cry - but to brush those tears aside and embrace
the infectious sorrow of a new love. This is a great
album. This is a long interview. We hope you'll enjoy
Crud: Your press material mentions a mutual
love of 'pop histrionics' and 'arcane instrumentation.'
Are you saying you just love the same kinds of music?
Or is there a special, deliberate space provided by
Moth Wranglers to explore music 'intellectually'?
LD Beghtol: We love all kinds of music, but
my tastes tend to run towards the experimental and fucked
up with serious with digressions into country and gospel
and 19th century piano ballads and Chris is definitely
more classic rock and hard rock. What we both love,
though, is delirious pop of all sorts. And certain types
of early 80s music. And classical We're both classically
What's so nice about doing MOTH WRANGLERS is that the
playing field, as it were, is totally open for experimentation.
For me, that means I get to indulge in making pop and
other stuff in ways I probably never will with FLARE.
And get to work with some fabulous folks like Ken Stringfellow
and the Klezmatics and the divine Doug Hilsinger, among
others, who I would not otherwise get to, probably.
Chris is very well-connected. So that's an aesthetic
coup. And Chris feels totally free to exercise his many,
many skills as instrumentalist, arranger, songwriter,
vocalist, whatever, in ways he's never really had the
opportunity to do so before, or perhaps in what I hope
is a very sympathetic environment. This is how we can
make a single which has a ridiculously groovy, harmony-laden
mid-60s style folk-pop A-side I wrote and a whacked,
epic tape-loop collage B-side that Chris wrote.
Chris Xefos: Due to our similar age, LD and I
pretty much have common ground in many 80's English
and American - both above and underground pop. It's
a great starting place/common ground for us. Then, we
go off in somewhat divergent ways from there, me being
much more into the many facets of rock. I enjoy working
with LD because we do have that place to meet. Yet,
he's into so much other stuff, musically and otherwise,
that it certainly has helped to expand my vocabulary,
and learn about many different styles that I otherwise
would not. And learning is fun, right?
LDB: It's FUN-damental!
CRX: I've always had an interest in early American
'county/folk' music, and LD has a great knowledge of
that. And I don't know how much LD is into learning
about 'cock rock' but I certainly have plenty of knowledge
of that to share.
LDB: It's a weird balance. And it's totally fun,
because our only real criterion is that at the end of
the day we both like it.
Crud: How would you say the concept of the band
differs from that of your other projects, most notably
FLARE or the MAGNETIC FIELDS? Does it indeed have an
identity as such?
CRX: Moth Wranglers is not necessarily a band.
We are a project and by that I mean we don't intend
to have a particular 'band' identity. The identity for
this project is within the music. The music drives the
selection and inclusion of the performers and their
performances, the performers do NOT exclusively drive
the music and its creation, as would be in the traditional
sense of a 'band.'
LDB: Well, MW is different form Flare in a million
ways. First, Flare has an aesthetic in place: mostly
acoustic, lots of strings, usually very, very sad songs,
sort of skewed pop but really more involved in experimental
structures and forms. And Flare uses lots of non-rock
instruments like zithers and Marxophones and bells and
all kinds of stuff. And has no guitar solos and no kick
drum and not so much, really, in the way of rock anything.
And, basically, I'm in charge. I write the songs, do
the bulk of the arranging and have final say on everything.
The very excellent gentlemen in Flare certainly make
suggestions and often come up with their own parts and
everyone knows they're all infinitely more gifted as
instrumentalists than I am! But it's my project, my
vision, if you will and they respect that.
With Moth Wranglers, however, it's a total collaboration.
I don't think of something as 'my song' even if I wrote
it 100% myself, because Chris' involvement is integral
to the song's development. So Moth Wranglers is a partnership.
We both have our strengths I do the bulk of the lyric
writing, I'm perhaps a bit more prolific as a songwriter
and I have more experience singing but Chris is by far
the better player and technical person, and to a certain
extent manager and all-round seasoned music professional
and all that. So it works because we compliment each
other so well. And oppose each other in ways we find
CRX: LD and I are the ringleaders of this circus
that we bring to your speakers. Think of us as to Barnum
Crud: So how did the idea for the Moth Wranglers
- this Barnum and Bailey - actually spring up, and how
did you go about getting the circus started?
LDB: I'll let Chris start this one.
CRX: LD and I met briefly in 1992, prior to LD's
moving to NYC. After that we kept in minimal touch with
each other, until a common friend of ours - Paul of
TAMPER EVIDENT, who released the first Flare record
reintroduced us at the end of 1997. We spent some time
hanging out, listening to and talking about music and
art. Then our mutual friend suggested that we ought
to try working together. The Pixies tribute came as
an offer shortly after that, and we took that as our
test. And the test worked. We then started writing songs
together and it was downhill from there.
LDB: Well it was something like that, anyway.
It was certainly a very appealing change of approach.
But as for the name, we knew it could never be Beghtol/Xefos
or anything like that, because we wanted it to be more
about the songs than about our resumes, right? A few
names presented themselves, but I'd been dying to use
the name 'Moth Wranglers' for something for years since
I found it in the credits of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. The
image it conjures is so delightful. I like the idea
of renegade cowboys lassoing these rare, gossamer creatures
out of the air, in the dead of night, for who knows
what arcane reason.
Crud: Bearing in mind the almost casual way in
which it seems to have come together, it seems safe
to say that bands like Flare, and The Moth Wranglers
are not a part of the New York scene- or at least a
part of the UK press conception of the New York scene.
Does 'the scene' indeed exist as we've come to know
LDB: Well, for a start, MW isn't really based
anywhere since I live in New York and Chris lives in
San Francisco. If anything, we're based entirely on
magnetic tape and computer files and email and phone
calls! So I can't say MW is part of any scene, really.
As we say in the press release: Moth Wranglers is bi-coastally
Optigonal. Though I guess an argument could be made
that we're slightly more West Coast-oriented, since
lots of the guest stars on NEVER MIND THE CONTEXT are
from the left coast.
Crud: And Flare?
LDB: As for Flare being part of 'The NYC Scene,'
that's even more absurd. I /we are maybe part of a circle
- that being the Stephin Merritt/'Chickfactor' axis
but that hardly constitutes a scene! And I can tell
you that probably more people loathe me for that connection
that they do love me. Anyway, it's more a case of a
few people who happen to be doing similar things finding
each other and becoming friends and finding ways to
work together in a mutually fashion. It's kind of an
extended family that includes Mother West Studios -
the Flare home base, some pals in journalism and at
few supportive record stores, clubs and bars we patronize
or frequent. And a few very close friends and fans and
such. But Flare is largely ignored by the mainstream
press. Most of our fans are other musicians and then
just a handful of terrifically sweet people who're into
what we do and kind enough to come see us and buy our
As for the New York Scene that Crud is talking about,
no, I don't believe there is one.
Recently something called the 'New Uke, New York Festival'
happened here, and neither Stephin nor I were asked
to play! I mean, we both live for our ukuleles and we
certainly thought that would be common knowledge in
our home town. So it's clear that we're not and probably
couldn't be part of any scene here despite the success
of The Magnetic Field's 69 LOVE SONGS, or Flare's generally
excellent critical reputation or whatever. Hell, Flare
doesn't even have a gay following!
CRX: One of the reasons why I don't live in NYC
anymore - and I lived there for three years between
198891 - is because I never felt that there was any
ONE music scene there. Since NYC is so big, population
wise, there are many different scenes that thrive all
unto themselves, and each of these 'scenes' LD's ukulele
for example tends to get lost in the over-self-importance
that is NYC. Moth Wranglers draws upon many different
resources from all over the US, and once the bandwidth
gets up to speed, maybe the rest of the world will follow,
Crud: Typing bands musically, as either pop,
rock, underground or alternative seems to offer both
freedom and closure and yet without it a band can rot
in obscurity. On the other hand, a band that becomes
the figurehead of some movement or other can end up
rotting in the public eye making it difficult to proceed
creatively. How useful have you found 'tagging' yourselves?
Your album title alone seems to suggest you might be
conscious of this already.
LDB: So far we've only done that sort of tagging
as a bit of a joke, really, largely because there is
a great deal of humour inherent in MW, but also because
as a journalist/music critic myself I'm so tired of
idiotic, meaningless phrases like avant-pop and post-rock.
What the fuck do those mean anyway?
CRX: Yes, our debut album is called NEVER MIND
THE CONTEXT for a reason. The world is overflowing with
contextual arguments: Diet Coke, post-gay, post-modern,
post-apocalyptic, ad nauseam. Since there has been this
insane over-parsing of ideas, it is actually MUCH more
difficult as an artist to be able to create within a
unique space, especially if that space is a 'broad'
one, and have it be recognized. A band or artist will
rot in obscurity no matter if it is pigeonholed or not.
What we are trying to present is a freedom of expression
and appreciation that transcends all of those contextual
and otherwise ego-based restraints. Sure, our individual
pieces of music may be based in some familiar areas
or styles or sounds. But the album as a whole and the
idea of the project is to harness the power and freedom
that comes from NOT having to bundle it up in a nice
conventional piece of wrapping paper and tying a conventionally
pretty little bow around it and presenting it to the
LDB: Maybe we're trying to invent some new clichés?
I don't know.
CRX: It's much more like a pile of barf in the
gutter, full of everything that we might have ingested
recently and have spit back up.
Crud: You mention self-styled clichés, LD. You've
already been tagged everything from chamber-folk, to
chamber-pop, yet the most accurate for myself, at least,
have been the following phrases: post-ironic, largely
bearded, and 'be prepared to weep'. Care to comment
on any of those? These were your own references, right?
CRX: That's all yours, LD
LDB: Well, I don't think either Flare or Moth
Wranglers fits into any genre. MW especially is too
all over the place for that. As for 'largely bearded'
and 'post-ironic' bits, I employed them first in a Flare
press release when CIRCA came out last Fall, and lazy
journalists have just copied it from our one-sheet.
I wish they'd have picked up on 'chamber-punk,' too!
Anyway, it was our pal Gail O'Hara who warned readers
of TIME OUT NEW YORK about us with the phrase 'Be prepared
to weep.' Which we adored!!! Flare is certainly largely
bearded, as most of us cultivate some sort of facial
hair, and generally post-ironic. And I'm so extremely
tired of what people mistakenly call irony - you know
what I mean? It's usually just cheap, easy sarcasm or
something about a weird coincidence. And I hate this
kind of 'make a joke of everything' sensibility being
the default setting for self-expression or 'creativity.'
I find it much more interesting to say things in a very
straightforward manner, about unpopular things like
death, loneliness, bad sex, rotting relationships and
the funny and pathetic world we live in without having
to make a lame joke of it all. I mean, do we really
need more THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY? in our lives?
It's just too easy.
Crud: There's certainly humour and wit on the
album, but there's also an overall attitude that seems
peculiarly gentle, almost religiously so. Would you
say the record charts some kind of spiritual, or meditative
direction in any way? However unorthodox that direction
LDB: Certainly not spiritual, not for me. I am
a life-long atheist with no interest whatsoever (save
academically) in such things as spirituality, mysticism,
the new age or any such like. Our stuff is certainly
meditative, in the sense that many of the songs are
concerned with evaluating one's position on various
matters or with trying to find one's place in the world,
examining relationships and such. But that's very grounded
in reality. Certainly there's much reflection in most
of them. I mean, I'm obsessive and brooding, so I know
the language and the mood very well. Many of the songs
are full of questions - literally that I hope will spark
the listener to examine the stories in the songs and
maybe apply that sort of questioning to his own life.
But then it's important to remember that most of my
writing isn't primarily autobiographical. Many of the
songs are about conflict and struggle and identity and
all that, but it's not necessarily my own. Or Chris'
struggle and conflicts, you know... And just because
I quote the Bible, it doesn't mean I believe in it or
live by it any more than, say, THE WOMAN IN WHITE by
Wilkie Collins, or KILLING FOR COMPANY both of which
also inspired songs on our album!
CRX: If anything, I would have been trying to
exorcise some of my previous 'demons' on this record,
and since those perhaps lie in a more harsh and aggressive
environment, I think that might account for some of
the tone of the album.
LDB: True. But like I said, I don't think of
art - or good art, anyway - as primarily therapeutic.
And my issues or Chris's demons and how we each deal
(or not) with them probably wouldn't be that interesting
to the record-buying public. Maybe from an academic
standpoint, I guess. But like anyone's youthful traumas
and family horrors or whatever it's really only interesting
if it happened to you. Or maybe, if you're the psychologist
or coroner involved.
Crud: If we're talking about human concerns and
struggles grounded in reality, there certainly seems
a concern with human carelessness, and superficiality
on the album. Self-knowledge also seems to figure strongly.
The stand-out track on the album, for me at least, 'Six-Page
Letter' perhaps suggests this more strongly than others.
Does this song have a special resonance?
CRX: I think my answer to the previous question
applies here as well.
LDB: 'Six-page letter' was our first epic, and it
really fell into place remarkably well, so of course
we're very fond of it. And the song is largely autobiographical
and I'm admitting it which makes it an odd duck, canonically.
It was written as a take on epigram by Mr.George Bernard
Shaw, who wrote somewhere that 'only critics and madmen
write letters of over three pages.' I remembered this
a few years ago when some utter jackass who I barely
knew - and with whom I certainly had not been on intimate
terms - wrote me this inane letter telling me that he's
decided NOT to be in love with me. He said it was just
an impossibility, and he hoped I was okay with his decision.
I was like: 'WHAT?!?!?!?' I mean, we'd literally never
even so much as held hands. It felt like I was getting
a creative writing assignment from some delusional 14-year-old
girl. As you might guess, the his letter was six pages
long. When I finished reading it, I sent it straight
back to him with a short note saying I thought it best
he kept it for future reference. I should have taken
a big fat red marker and written a 'C-minus' on it as
that was the grade he deserved, both for content and
Anyway, years later I came up with the guitar riff that
forms the basis of the song, and somehow that situation
popped into my head and the lyrics fell right into place.
Actually, Chris and I both think the song is really
pretty funny ‹ though probably for very different reasons.
And in all fairness to the gentleman who penned the
original six-page letter upon which I based the song,
I must admit it arrived with sufficient postage; the
line 'I deserve more from you / Than postage due' is
purely literary license on our part.
Also, the song is meant to be about the death of 'slowcore'
Kind of like Fad Gadget's 'Collapsing New People' is/was
to the goth and industrial kids.
Crud: You did a song about British serial killer,
Denis Nilsen? Why the fascination? And why 'Turnabout'?
LDB: 'Turnabout.' Track two. It's a different
mix than the single we released, but basically the same
track. We certainly weren't going to name it 'Denis
Nilsen,' like all those dumb bands who name songs things
like Tom Courtenay and Ed Gein or whatever. That's way
too obvious, isn't it?
I'm heavily into the history of and literature about
serial killers, for a variety of reasons I maybe shouldn't
elaborate on. But Nilsen's one of my favorites, though
I'm also very interested in the American killer Dr HH
Mudgett. I'm fascinated by Nilsen because he's so incredibly
ordinary and so self-aware. He was just this guy, some
quiet little civil servant who did these extraordinary,
monstrous things. He knew what he was doing, he isn't
dumb or crazy in the classic dumb blood-lust psychopath
way most serial killers are, and further more, he's
talked quite lucidly about what he did and to a certain
extent why he did it. You don't usually get that in
a monster. Brian Master's book about Nilsen, KILLING
FOR COMPANY, is so fascinating.
Crud: Lyrically, the album seems full of contradictions:
remembrance/dismissal, confession/denial, souvenir/erasure.
In songs like 'Counts For Nothing' there also seems
to be both an ambivalent attitude to comfort - in that
it simultaneously both courts and rejects it. 'A Valediction:
Forbidding Mourning?' Just how metaphysical are ye,
sirs? The album seems riddled with puns and conceits.
CRX: To a certain degree those contradictions
may come from much of the music that I reference: The
Posies, Led Zeppelin, plenty of blues and country, where
the music and the lyrics would tend to be at odds with
LDB: Like the Smiths. Or the Carter Family.
CRX: I think that juxtaposition helps to expose
and, consequently, elevate each aspect that much more.
It's fun to have different aspects of a song contradict
each other. Again: Never mind the context.
LDB: Precisely. Or, 'please create your own.'
As for the latter part of your question, I'm not in
the least metaphysical, I'm afraid - zip, zilch, nada,
zero. But I do like the dramatic possibilities inherent
in reversals and contradictions. And seeing how people
deal with them both in the story and as a spectator.
Or listener, I mean.
Crud: That's not unlike metaphysicals like Donne,
using wit and the conceit to pursue the often salacious
flipside of sex and love…
LDB: As for 'Counts for Nothing', I'm a huge fan
of MFK Fisher, and on my first visit to SF to work on
songs with Chris (maybe two years ago?), I went plundering
through the city's justly famous used books stores looking
for her books, most of which are out of print. So I
found one titled 'Stay Me, Oh Comfort Me', which is
a quotation from the Song of Solomon. It's a collection
of her early writings. I tend to like the period just
before an artist completely figures it all out and develops
and 'high style' - some of it may be a bit clunky, but
I like diamonds in the rough. And Fisher's early works
are fascinating for many reasons - as much for the stories
they tell about her very, very interesting life and
travels and sorrows and all as for the way they document
her growth from a not-very-self-aware young woman to
a supremely self-assured adult. Who, incidentally, was
a really terrific writer. What's so great about Fisher,
though, is the way she documents and explores humans
needs and hungers and joys and traumas without an ounce
of self-pity or sentimentality or whining. HORRIBLE
things happen to her and those around her - a terrible
early marriage and messy divorce, a subsequent very
happy (though tragically brief) relationship, the beginnings
of World War 2 and many personal and professional set-backs
- but she's never pathetic, nor is she smug and self-righteous
about it all. She offers no solutions and no easy fixes,
not much in the way of redemption or 'hope.' But throughout
there's rather ascetic, very passionate belief that
self-knowledge and clear-eyed understanding is the only
way to go through it all. And that false words of comfort
are worthless and that second-guessing and living life
with your illusions intact is ultimately lethal. And
I think as a song, as a recording, 'Counts for Nothing'
pretty much encompasses a large part of what we're about,
musically. I mean, it's a post-Stephin Merritt loop
song by way of Philip Glass, with some Damon & Naomi
along the way, withŠ well, you get the picture.
Crud: Stephin Merritt, as it so happens, features
on the similarly ambivalent, 'Let Go, Let Me". The 'will
to power' features strongly here. Do you see 'release'
as a form of empowerment? How did this track choose
Stephin, as it were?
LDB: What's ambivalent about that? It's an S&M
song like 'Master and Servant' by Depeche Mode without
the chain rattles and booming drums. It's saying: 'If
you've spent your day, life - whatever - having to be
in charge and making tough decisions and being Mr Big
Important Man, maybe you want a little break from that?
Maybe you should just do what you're told, and nobody
will get hurt? And everyone will have a great time.'
Crud: Well it's ambivalent in the sense that
the deferral exists in a pretty controlled environment:
the bedroom. Ambivalent in that it forces together again
LDB: It's all about power play and domination and
submission. 'Release' in this situation is empowering,
I guess and, of course, sexual. I just extended the
metaphor a bit.
CRX: If you know anything about sadomasochism,
you know that being the Bottom holds just as much -
if not more - power as being the Top.
Crud: I couldn't agree more...
LDB: Right and you know they say the best Tops
make the best Bottoms. Also anyone who's familiar with
the American 12-Step Program will immediately get the
reference in the refrain; theirs is 'Let go, let God.'
Which we changed a bit, and I suspect people will hate
As for the song choosing Mr Merritt, it's pretty straightforward.
Chris and I were recording the song while Stephin was
at the very end of making 69 LOVE SONGS. I knew Stephin
could do a great Jim Morrison impersonation, so he sang
it and his version had the appropriately soothing, slightly
menacing 'Sex Daddy' quality we'd wanted for the song.
So, as the saying goes, sometimes big things come in
Crud: Something of a contrast to the rest of
the album, the track, 'Figure-Ground'. Sounds an absolute
joy of a session. Was it a conscious decision to the
'lift' the album at this point? What's the story behind
LDB: Well, in terms of sequencing, it seemed
perfect after our cover of the brilliant Crash song,
'Don't Look Now!' which is intensely sad. I wrote the
lyrics for 'Figure-ground' and Chris the music. Perhaps
he should start off?
CRX: Again, to highlight each piece, we would
want to turn the tables as quickly as possible, hence
the placement of 'Figure-Ground' within the sequence.
Though I'm not exactly certain how uplifting 'Figure-Ground'
really is, unless you consider raising a cross to crucify
someone or yourself uplifting.
Crud: Well it's there in spite of the narrative…perhaps
in the same way a 'wake' can be uplifting. Or perhaps,
at the very least, an excellent excuse for a piss up.
LDB: Chickfactor said that this song has martini
stains, which is certainly true. Heaps of our friends
in New York - Stephin, Daniel, Lisa Levy and Alison
Faith Levy, our pals Chuck and Andrew, lots of others
sing on it. We made sure everyone was plastered by the
time they showed up at the studio to record the sing-along
choruses. It was utter insanity. As you can tell from
Chris and me laughing our asses off at the end.
CRX: It was fun to write this one. I wrote the
music and melody on the tuba, taking cues from LD and
LDB: Which are about how people decipher what
a song is about. More questions, I'm afraid.
CRX: And it was certainly WAY too much fun to
record, especially the choice solo lines and the crowd
tracks - thanks to Daniel Handler and our other friends.
The choices for who'd sing what and their performances
all fell into place magically. I'm very happy with the
way this came out. It's like nothing I've done before.
Or will probably ever do again.
Crud: So what's coming up next for moth wranglers?
LDB: World fame, obviously. Vast wealth, groupies,
orgies, persistent drug problems, the difficult sophomore
album, the inevitable critical backlash, ultimate redemption...
CRX: We have MANY ideas on the white board. Several
of which are a CD-PE in Spring of 2002, a remix EP,
performances in major cities around the globe, another
full-length album someday, the MW winter holdiay/xmas
EP - and you thought we were spiritual now! And the
world's first digital link up of two Optigans, some
2500 miles away from each other.
LDB: You know, the usual stuff.
Interview and report by Alan Sargeant for
Crud Magazine© 2001
site - mothwranglers.com
site - magneticmotorworks.com