Thursday, February 26, 2015

Interview Time with Daniel Coston

Daniel Coston's photos of musicians have been on album covers and in tons of books and magazines. He's written books and keeps a blog here. He's the busiest man in showbiz and has to drive 5 hours in freezing rain to take photos somewhere tonight, so let's get started.

Remember some details, if you can, about the following photo shoots...

Elliot Smith

In 1999, I got turned down over the phone for a press pass to the Rolling Stones show in Charlotte that night, and ten minutes later, got a phone call offering a press pass to the Elliott Smith show that same night at Tremont Music Hall in Charlotte, NC. Elliott came onstage wearing a vintage Rolling Stones t-shirt. I still haven’t seen the Stones, but I still think I ended up where I was supposed to be that night.

Elliott was really good that night. The crowd was so quiet and reverent, Elliott got spooked and thought that they weren’t into the show. So he just said, “Goodnight”, and that was it! He came out to sign autographs after the show. I talked to him for a few minutes. He was very nice, and didn’t talk much beyond a whisper. I still have the album he signed, “To Daniel, XO Elliott Smith.” A few years ago, I decided to scan my photos from that night. I finished about half-a-roll (I shot four rolls of film, that night), started looking at the photos, and just…. stopped. A flood of emotions really hit me. Hard. I still haven’t scanned the rest of the photos. I need to. Someday.

James Brown

I photographed James in 2001, when he played Founders Hall in Charlotte for a benefit. They told those of us who had press passes not to attend the soundcheck before the show, as the organizers were afraid that we’d aggravate Mr. Brown by hanging around.

They had put all of the media in a room above the stage, promising us that James would come in to say hello before the show. Ten minutes before showtime, I realized that this wasn’t going to happen. I waved at my Observer editor to tell her that I was going to the stage, and proceeded to run down the stairs, and made my way into the first row. As I settled myself, James and the band walked out on stage, leaving the rest of the media still waiting upstairs.

What happened to Mr. Brown between soundcheck and the show? Your guess was as good as mine. Another problem was that you put that large a band into a venue with that much stone, and the echo was so bad that you couldn’t even understand what James was saying to the audience. But hey, I got some great photos.

Elvis Aaron Presley Jr.

A weird show. It was an odd assortment of people that were trying to raise money for the old Carolina Theatre in Charlotte. All of the sudden, this guy came out on stage. He did Elvis’ whole act, with the scarves and Vegas-era routine. He spells the Aaron differently than Elvis did (Aron), so that’s the quirk on that. He tried really hard to “be” Elvis, even in talking to him after the show.


I only photographed the band once, at Tremont Music Hall in 1998. I wish I’d photographed them more. I did photograph the post-Mark Sandman version of the band a number of times. Good music, and I really liked the people in the band. 

The Kingsbury Manx

I think that their first album is just a remarkable, beautiful album, and still is one of my favorites. Most of their first six shows were spent opening for Elliott Smith, and they returned home to Raleigh for their seventh show, in February of 2000. I had come up to Raleigh with the band Those Bastard Souls, who had been staying at my house the previous two days. I don’t know why I got so bullheaded about this idea, but I told myself that I was going to get posed photos of the Kingsbury Manx that night.

The Manx had gotten drunk with their friends before the show, and the music that night was a bit messy. At one point, I found a platform behind the stage. This, I decided was what I needed for my posed photos. I somehow got the band to all stand on this platform, with their heads almost touching the ceiling. There was a florescent light just above, which allowed me to shoot without a flash. The band later admitted that they couldn’t remember the shoot, but the photos got used for a number of years.

Guided by Voices

I got into Guided by Voices about the same time that I got into the Velvet Underground. Both bands were very important in opening my ears to the beauty of Rock & Roll. I interviewed all of the original band members in 1996, and photographed them for the first time in 1997, after Bob Pollard had installed a new band lineup. I think I ended up photographing them about 15 times and have photos in two of their albums. I’ve had my ups and downs with the band, usually due to things going on with (or people around) Bob.

In all, thrilling, perplexing, fun, confusing, stunning and frustrating. Much like being a long-term GBV fan. That being said, if Bob called tomorrow, yeah, I’d go. With that much history, why wouldn’t you wish for one more chapter?

Ian McLagan and Pete Townshend

I really loved Ian McLagan. He was one of my all-time favorite people to photograph, hang out with, or trade emails with. I still can’t believe that he’s no longer on this physical plane, but wherever he is now, I hope that he knows how much I and many others loved him, and still do.

McLagan held a tribute to Ronnie Lane at the 2007 Austin Music Awards, as part of the SXSW Festival. After a couple of songs in, he introduced Pete Townshend, who was the festival’s keynote speaker that year. McLagan (or Mac, as he was better known) was very close to Townshend. He called Townshend “Uncle Pete”. After they played “Kuschty Rye”, a song from Townshend’s great album collaboration with Lane, Rough Mix, Townshend walked over to Mac. He put his hand on Mac’s head, and rubbed his spiky hair. Townshend turned towards me and the audience and made this “Ooooh” sound and face, like it felt really nice to touch. Mac just cracked up. Then they played “Whatcha Gonna Do About It”, with Townshend doing some full-on windmill moves. After the show, Mac saw me and shouted out, “Daniel! I was hoping that you were here! Did you get some photos?”

You took pictures at a 1983 Beach Boys concert and a 2012 Beach Boys concert. Please compare and contrast the two events using as many Beach Boys song titles as possible.

I grew up in Seneca Falls, NY. My dad a got a job in Charlotte, NC in 1983, and told us that summer that we’d be moving in October. I was stunned. Suddenly, I felt “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” As a sort of 'sorry we’re moving' present, he announced that we were going to the NY State Fair to see the Beach Boys. Did we go to Syracuse in a “Little Honda”? “409”? “Little Deuce Coupe”? Nope, just dad’s Citation. My dad brought along his Canon AE-1 camera, which later became my first camera. The bleachers for the show were temporary, and at one point during the show, the whole grandstand began shaking from the weight, as everyone continued to “Dance, Dance, Dance". I remember taking at least one photo with dad’s camera. It was thrilling to see a show like that in person. I remembered it “All Summer Long”. 

Over the years, I’ve met and photographed all of the Beach Boys. I actually met Carl Wilson and the others at Farm Aid in 1996, which was the first major concert I ever photographed. Did I think that Mike Love and Brian Wilson would ever reunite? “God Only Knows”, but I would’ve guessed not. When the tour came to Raleigh, I photographed it for a Beach Boys fan magazine. There were a lot of “Heroes And Villians” that day, but a lot of villains at the venue, who were over-bearing and under-prepared for the large crowd that turned up. They had made all photographers put their gear back in their cars, so during the second set, I told the staff at the front gate that I had to go eat some “Vegetables” and proceeded to go back to my car so I could sneak my camera gear back in - in my socks and back pockets. Suddenly, I had my camera for when Brian came out front to play bass and take final bows with the band. The music was “Wonderful” and something that I felt lucky to photograph.

When I saw the band in 1983, I remember thinking, “Wow, I wish that Brian was here with the band.” 29 years later, it happened.  Dare I say it, it was “Fun Fun Fun”.

Everyone at a concert is taking lots of photos and/or videos on their phone - and uploading them to the internet before the show's over. Is this a good or bad thing? Some bands care and some bands don't care. Do you care?

My feelings are mixed on this. When I started photographing shows, there was hardly any other photographer in sight. Now there’s tons of cameras in a crowd, of all kinds of quality. On one level, I love that things are being documented that wouldn’t have been in previous years. There is a difference between experiencing a show, and experiencing it through your camera. For me, it’s a part of my make-up. Sometimes, I feel like I have to take photos. But it does keep people from taking in the experience in full.

Where's Daniel?                                                                  (Photo by Doug Shockley)   

Some videos, when they sound or look good, can allow an artist to get a lot of exposure on social media. A bad video doesn’t do anyone any good. I’m okay with people uploading videos. The more you fight it, the more that some people are going to do it, as we’ve seen with some bands (the recent tours of Neutral Milk Hotel are a good example of this). That being said, I do find it fascinating (and frustrating) that venues and artists want to restrict photographers, and let people run riot with camera phones. I think they feel that they have to restrict SOMETHING, so they take it out on those that they can restrict. The photogs aren’t the ones that’ll have their work on Youtube for the rest of eternity. 

You've lived in Charlotte, NC a long time. Traveling musicians often want to do something after playing a concert and before settling back into the tour bus or hotel room.  At some point in the past, your knowledge of local late night restaurants had to come in handy with a musician you admired. Please give an example.  

In August of 2004, I spent a night in Morgantown, West Virginia, boxing 20,000 albums for a friend of mine. All by myself. I slept on the floor of this 120 year-old building, waiting for the moving van to arrive. I got back home at 6pm, and fell asleep for an hour, totally exhausted. Scott Avett called and woke me up. We talked for 20 minutes, and I had to ask him later what we talked about. 

Somehow, I got myself to the Neighborhood Theatre that evening for a show with Burrito Deluxe. The band featured Sneaky Pete Kleinow of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Garth Hudson of the Band. It was a good show, but I told myself, “I’ll say hello to Pete and Garth, and then I’ll go back to bed.” Garth and I started talking about records, and he mentioned an obscure 78 rpm record, and I said, “Wait, I have that record.” Garth said, “I’ve never met anyone that knows about, much less owns that record.” The record had been made by the Communist Party of New York City during the 1930s, and somehow had ended up left in a cottage that my dad’s parents bought in 1960. I'd never realized the origins of that album until Garth told me.

After a while, Garth asked if I knew of any good places to eat that were still open. I recommended the Landmark Diner. Garth said, “Are you going?” and I said, “Yes, I am.” Garth, Sneaky Pete (who was celebrating his 70th birthday that day) and Jeff Davis (former Amazing Rhythm Aces bassist) piled into my car. I had to throw trash from my backseat into the trunk. Garth sat upfront, Pete and Jeff in the back. At one point, I started laughing. “What’s up, Daniel?” Garth asked. “I have been on so many road trips with the Basement Tapes and the first two Burrito records,” I responded, “and now you guys are in my car!”

Garth Hudson and Sneaky Pete Kleinow

Garth and I sat in a booth, and Pete and Jeff sat across from us. We all talked records. At one point, Rick Danko came up in conversation. I tried not to to bring up the Band, as I knew that every fan had done that with Garth that night. Garth smiled at the thought of Rick, paused, and looked up at me. “You and Rick would’ve gotten on great,” Garth told me. “You both like to laugh.” I have no idea how I kept it together after that. I thanked him for saying that, but inside, I was a puddle on the floor. 

I dropped off the band at their hotel, and Garth said as he got out of the car, “Man, talking to you tonight has inspired me on some things.” I inspired him! I eventually went home, got up the next morning for a video shoot, and proceeded to have one of the worst shoots I’ve ever had. Subjects throwing hissy fits, you name it. I lost a couple years’ worth of work, thanks to that shoot. Would I have changed a thing about the night before? Not on your life.

There are about 100 albums out there that have a photo you took somewhere on them.  What's your favorite album cover for...

The Who - Who's Next, photo by Ethan Russell

Big Star - Radio City, photo by William Eggleston

The Kinks - Village Green Preservation Society, photo by Barrie Wentzell

Stevie Wonder - Talking Book, photo by Robert Margouleff

David Bowie - Ziggy Stardust, photo by Brian Ward

The Beach Boys - Friends, illustration by David McMacken - reflects the music inside and the band coming more into their own as songwriters

Fleetwood Mac - Bare Trees, photo by bassist John McVie

The Monkees - Headquarters, photographer unknown

Creedence Clearwater Revival - Green River, photo by Basul Parik

The Velvet Underground - White Light/White Heat, photo by Billy Name

The Beatles - Revolver, illustration by Klaus Voormann - Almost all of the photos in the collage were taken by Robert Freeman, and he deserves credit for that. Everything about that record is a stunning revolution of ideas. I should mention that the photographers that the Beatles worked with were all a big influence on me

Nilsson - The Point, needlepoint by Kathy Torrence & design by Dean O. Torrence

The Moody Blues - Days of Future Passed, painting by David Anstey

Bob Dylan - Bringing it All Back Home, wonderfully realized photograph by Daniel Kramer - reflects the kaleidoscope of ideas that Dylan was fast becoming

The Small Faces - Ogden's Nut Gone Flake, design by Nick Tweddell & Pete Brown

The Lovin' Spoonful - Do You Believe in Magic, photo by Charles Stewart

The Byrds - Fifth Dimension, photo by Steve Horn & Norm Griner

Donovan - A Gift From a Flower to a Garden, photo by Karl Ferris

The Rolling Stones - Their Satanic Majesties Request, photo by Michael Cooper

Love -  Forever Changes, illustration by Bob Pepper 

(This interview is from February 2015)