“Roger Daltrey doesn’t like my record, that’s what I heard,” says Petra Haden over the phone, riding in a tour van somewhere through the badlands of Wyoming. “He just didn’t care for it. But it doesn’t even matter.” Daltrey’s not alone — Haden’s new album, Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, is already one of the most controversial recordings of the year, and it’s only been out a little over a month. The album — an entirely a cappella rendition of the Who’s classic 1967 song cycle, The Who Sell Out — has drawn attention from NPR, Rolling Stone, USA Today and, natch, the blogosphere. (Favorite posting: “Even my wife snapped, ‘What the hell is this? Is this a joke? She completely ruined that album!’ ”) Maestro Townshend reportedly is delighted: He’s called the album “exquisite,” and credited Haden with no less than challenging “the entirety of the established dynamics of traditional pop-rock.” The combination lark, labor of love and science experiment is also doing robust business (“We’re making them as fast as we can,” says a rep from the New Jersey–based Bar/None Records) and popping up on many “Best of 2005 (So Far)” lists. The 33-year-old violinist/vocalist — whom friends call “Pet” — has been perfecting her footing on this sonic territory since her first solo outing, 1996’s Imaginaryland. That experiment was a collection of multitracked chamber chorales that sounded like Bach, Brian Wilson and Captain Kangaroo giving a backyard tea party. With that experience under her belt, she began recording the Who material in 2000, as a sort of hobby-slash-challenge presented to her by ex–Minutemen/fIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt. But almost immediately after beginning the project, Haden was struck by a car at a Venice crosswalk, suffering a broken leg, cracked pelvis and brain contusion. “Usually people record when they’re mad,” she told me during an interview nine months after the accident — and after pressing my fingertips to her ankle so I could feel the titanium bolts holding it together. “But I went through this writer’s block period. I even stopped listening to music, and that’s not like me. I just rented a lot of movies and talked on the phone.” It makes sense that a covers project would have appealed to Haden under the circumstances — as well as the meticulous, brain-teasing technical aspects of recording multilayered harmonies on a Tascam 8-track. (Haden finished recording it in a wheelchair.) In Haden’s playful paws, one of rock’s first concept albums becomes a concept album about re-creating a concept album — the result of a musical convalescence as much as a physical one. Aside from this album, Haden recently released a collection of intimate duets with guitarist Bill Frisell (a frequent collaborator with her jazz-bassist dad, Charlie). Haden’s currently accompanying Portland freak-folkers the Decemberists on a spring minitour. Oh yeah, she’s also planning on working up a live rendition of The Who Sell Out. We checked in with Haden to see if her newfound fame has gone to her head. L.A. WEEKLY: How has all this new
attention affected you — if at all?
PETRA HADEN: It’s different! I didn’t think it would get this much
attention, so it makes me feel really good. I still feel kinda shy, but playing
in the Decemberists has made me less shy. I dance around and beat up Colin [Meloy]
onstage . . . [Laughs.] He beats me up too, with his tambourine.
I heard you guys do a tasty live
version of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights.”
Have you done other covers?
We’re doing the Who song “Armenia City in the Sky.” We have to do it!
You said that “Sunrise” was the hardest song to re-create for the album. Why? That was the prettiest song, and I was a little intimidated — I didn’t think I
could pull it off. The guitar chords are in a jazz rhythm, and it was difficult
for me to get that down while listening to melody at the same time. It was like
that trick where you pat your head and rub your stomach. It was frustrating at
times because I didn’t really have a working microphone for a few of the songs.
And even after Watt gave me instructions on how to use the 8-track, I didn’t bother
to write any of it down, so after every song I was like, “Wait, what do I do?
I put this knob to what?”
Any plans for re-creating other 1960s British
Actually, Pete Townshend wants me to record a Kinks record — I think it was the
Village Green Preservation Society one.
How do you plan to “re-create your re-creation” of The Who Sell Out live? I want it to be an all-girl thing. Right now I have 10 girls [including sister
Tanya and three members of local band Sounds of Asteroth], which is perfect. So
far, we’re just practicing and not really worrying about sound effects or even
drums. We’ve only had a few rehearsals. We’re just getting the melodies down,
working out who sings what harmony, who feels comfortable singing alto and who
can’t sing high at this or that part. We’re gonna do the live show sometime this
Are you going to conduct or sing,
I’m going to sing, definitely. I actually did think about getting a conductor,
’cause it would help! [Laughs.] Everyone who I am singing with has really good
ears, so I’m not worried at all.
If Mr. Townshend wanted to conduct, would
you let him?
Oh God. [Laughs.] If the Cookie Monster wanted to give me good recipes for cookies, would I let him?
PETRA HADEN | Petra Haden Sings: The Who
Sell Out (Bar/None)
Up with pea pods!
Albums are homes, built from the need to carve out order, and make a place where
meaning can manifest from nothingness — and hang out longer than three and a
half minutes. A well-crafted album is a sign from the artist to herself that
she deserves a home in this world, and a gift to the listener that says: You
As a concept album about a concept album, Petra Haden Sings:
The Who Sell Out is a flamboyant celebration
of this most unique and (supposedly) endangered art form. (Though I personally
doubt that downloading will ever kill full-length recordings. Truly, the only
’pods we need are pea pods, and space love pods of the future.)
By the way, Haden’s version of “Our Love Was” is a killer. Between Townshend’s
superromantic composition and Haden’s rather matter-of-fact reading, the song
rubs a terribly tender spot on the old ticker. It seems as if everything around
me stops when I hear it, because nothing in the world matters more than the
expression of love. I can’t even say which version of the song is more devastating,
because “Our Love Was” now exists for me as a sort of holy trinity: Haden’s
version, the Who’s, and then the thing itself. The real song. You know. The
spirit of the song that dwells in both.
But the album-tribute album is nearly a baby-fad. MTV2 has a show called Album
Covers, where (among others) Dashboard Confessional covers R.E.M.’s
Automatic for the People. If stoned enough, one
could also, possibly, argue that Brian Wilson’s Smile is a tribute album
to a dream record. And let’s not forget those string-quartet tributes to Nevermind,
Pet Sounds, et al. (on Vitamin Records), which are shockingly
Other nutters who’ve taken a vinyl fetish to its ultimate conclusion:
George Benson, The Other Side of Abbey Road (1969)
The Bee Gees et al., Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978
Pussy Galore, Exile on Main Street (1986)
Philip Glass, Low Symphony (1993), Heroes Symphony (1997)
Various Artists, Legacy: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (1998)
Nels Cline, Interstellar Space Revisited: The Music of John Coltrane
Ann Dyer, Revolver: A New Spin (2000)
Mary Lee’s Corvette, Blood on the Tracks (2002)
Carla Bozulich, Red Headed Stranger (2003)
Branford Marsalis Quartet, A Love Supreme Live in Amsterdam (2004)
Screeching Weasels, The Beat Is on the
Brat,(1998) (covering “Ramones”)