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Moth Wranglers - With a little help from the Magnetic Fields, Sparklehorse and The Posies, LD Beghtol and Chris Xefos present a bewildering floorshow of pops' noble underground. Crud finds out how the Moth Wranglers are putting the ouch factor back into indie.



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 them both.

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 trained.

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?

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 mutually stimulating.

CRX: LD and I are the ringleaders of this circus that we bring to your speakers. Think of us as to Barnum and Bailey.

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?

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 it?

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 CDs.

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, too.

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 world.

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 may be?

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.

'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 style.

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 each other.

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…

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.

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 two flipsides?

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 us for.

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 small packages.

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 this track?

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 his words.

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

Relevant sites:
Band site -
Label site -


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STILL refusing to dumb it down.

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