From his vintage hat to his enormous 1920s banjo, Dom Flemons looks like he's time-traveled from a different era.
Flemons was in Carolina Chocolate Drops, a Grammy-winning group that's extended the tradition of African-American string bands of the 1920s and '30s. His new solo album, Prospect Hill, is his first since leaving the group. Flemons sings and plays guitar, banjo, bones, harmonica, fife and jug. The album reflects his interest in old-time music, blues, early jazz and R&B, and also includes a couple of original songs. Flemons grew up in Arkansas, and now lives in North Carolina.
By coincidence, Flemons recorded the album the day legendary folksinger Pete Seeger died. Seeger had a major influence on Flemons and was one of the reasons he was drawn to play the banjo. Despite the sad circumstances, they enjoyed playing in remembrance of him. "That's the thing about the blues, and string-band music is the same way — it grabs to a root and it brings you out of whatever spot [you're in]," he tells host Terry Gross. "Then you can project out that energy through the songs — and it was joyful."
Flemons recently joined Fresh Air in the studio to play songs from Prospect Hill and discuss what he loves about old-time music.
On the music that inspired him to play in an old-time acoustic style
"It started out with my interest in oldies, like doo-wop, '60s rock, '60s pop music, '50s rock 'n' roll... I just started pushing toward these styles that weren't particularly contemporary at the time. I also listened to other stuff like Green Day when they first came out, or Sublime and groups like that.
"But acoustic music at that time, there wasn't a whole bunch of it, unless a rock singer decided to do an acoustic-y ballad number or something like that, or adult-contemporary acoustic music. So when I heard Bob Dylan's first record, the self-titled Bob Dylan one, that really blew my mind. It made me think about guitar and harmonica, so I started doing that. I started learning everything that I could hear on the radio."
On his musical background
"I was doing a lot of busking. I played for a while in a group called The Wild Whiskey Boys, and so I played harmonica in that group, but it was always guitar, banjo and harmonica. And that was all I played until I came to North Carolina, and then I started playing the bones and the quills and the bass drum, snare drum, all the drums — I played that in school, so that was my actual formal training. I was in marching band with bass drum, and then I played auxiliary percussion from tympani all the way down to suspended cymbal to triangles and all that stuff. So [I got] a good sense of not just the main rhythm, but what the auxiliary rhythm that you put on top of the main rhythm was."
On doing imitations of performers when he sings their songs
"The idea that I had in my 16-year-old mind is that I'd hear these songs, and no one else knew what these songs were, so I'd try my best to replicate them so that people would get a sense of the song as it was performed by the original performer. At that time, I didn't feel like I had any interesting stories. After being in the business for about 15 years, just about now, I have some stories of my own. But at first, I didn't really have stories, so I would tell other people's stories."
On his large and tricked-out banjo
"It's an 18-inch head on here, and usually most banjos you see are maybe an 11-inch head in diameter. It has a very fancy pick guard, a very extravagant inlay, because this was actually made in Philadelphia; there's a small guitar-making studio that made this banjo. It has lights that you could clip onto the truss rod so that you can heat the head of the banjo, in case it happens to be a hot day and the skin gets moist and soggy, to dry it out... If there was more [humidity], the skin would start to sink down and the notes would start to sound kind of mushy... This was made circa 1924, and so this is an old vintage instrument that is one of a kind. And I'm really glad to be the owner of it."
The Pinterest interface is simple: Just click a button, and any Web page gets broken down into its constituent images. Any of those can be added to your own set of images, known on Pinterest as a board. Other people can find those boards, and copy what they like — or simply search through all the photos on the site.
Pinterest didn't take off among tech-loving men in California. Rather, it was young women away from the coasts who initially flocked to the site to plan everything from simple dinners to weddings. Now, it has tens of millions of users who have copied billions of pictures onto boards about everything from macrame to sports cars.
Pinterest is mostly known as a place people go to find things to buy or make. The company likes to say that Pinterest is about planning your future, but it's also just about seeing — visually — a bunch of interesting stuff on a theme, all in one place. So there are boards for wedding planning and child rearing and men's linen suits, but also for kittens and model airplanes and mountains. Some boards are just a mood like "monumental" or "cute" or "adventurous."
Despite this popularity, Pinterest has never attracted the same kind of press or adulation as the companies that grew up around the same time — businesses like Instagram, Uber or even Dropbox. Pinterest just isn't seen as a hardcore technology company that will follow the path of Google and Facebook. To some people, it doesn't feel like a world-shaping product. "It's just a digital scrapbook," people say.
But Internet companies are valuable in large part because of the kind of data that they possess. And Pinterest possesses some really, really interesting data. The first part of it is that they are a repository of things that people would like to have or do. They're a database of intentions. And that has got to be valuable to marketers and advertisers.
But it goes deeper than that. What Pinterest has created — almost unintentionally — is a database of things in the world that matter to human beings. While Google crunches numbers to figure out what's relevant, Pinterest's human users define what is relevant for a given topic. And because of that, they could become a legitimate competitor to Google, the world's most valuable Internet company.
That idea crystallized for me when I saw a heavy user of Pinterest playing with the service. She looked up nature photography. Then she started adding descriptors: winter, ocean, African. Each of these adjectives brought up an entirely different set of pictures, each with its own collection of moods and aesthetics. If what you're looking for is a thing or a type of thing out there in the world, Pinterest is more likely to serve it up to you than even Google. Frogs, sneakers, cloud formations, volcanoes, subway graffiti, footie pajamas — Google will deliver Web pages about these things, but Pinterest will show you a photo of the thing itself, and increasingly, the opportunity to buy it or get to it or experience it.
By letting people copy and label images, Pinterest created this rich database of persons, places and things. And it is just beginning to use that data to help people find stuff. With a programming team that's largely been hired away from Google, Pinterest has begun offering what it calls "guided search."
Pinterest co-founder Evan Sharp told me that guided search helps you find things you didn't know that you were looking for. If Google is great when you know exactly what you want, Pinterest can help you figure out what you want. As you search, Pinterest will suggest tags that you could add to help narrow your query. Search for hats on Pinterest and you might get "fedora" or "baseball" or "church lady" as suggestions.
The lesson here is that the simplest things we do on the Internet, when you multiply them by millions of people, create troves of data that were inconceivable at any other time in human history. And in many cases, the companies that possess the data we've created over the past five years are still learning exactly how to harness it to do new things, whether that's making more money for themselves, or delivering you up exactly the hat or photograph that you were looking for.
Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of The Atlantic.com, where he also oversees the technology channel, and a visiting scholar at Berkeley's Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society.
- London Grammar, "Hey Now (Arty Remix)" (Columbia)
- Porter Robinson, "Lionhearted feat. Urban Cone (Arty Mix)" (Astralwerks)
- Gabriel & Dresden, "New Ground" (Organized Nature)
- Basement Jaxx, "Never Say Never (Mark Knight Remix)" ([PIAS] America)
- Example, "10 Million People (Static Revenger Mix)" (Promo)
- SBTRKT, "New Dorp New York feat. Ezra Koenig" (Young Turks)
- Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime (Doc Martin Remix)" (White)
- Kraak & Smaak, "Mountain Top" (Spinnin' Deep)
- Zero 7, "Take Me Away feat. Only Girl" (Make)
- Claude Von Stroke, "Califuture feat. Barry Drift" (Dirty Bird)
- Duke Dumont, "Won't Look Back" (Blase Boys Club)
- Spada feat. Hosie Neal, "Feels Like Home (Bakermat Remix)"
- Jessie Ware, "Tough Love (Cyril Hahn Remix)" (Cherrytree/Interscope)
- Just Kiddin, "Thinking About It" (Win)
- Netsky, "Running Low feat. Beth Ditto (Todd Edwards Mix)" (Epic)
- Pharrell feat. Jay-Z, "Frontin' (Disclosure Re-Work)"
- Hudson Mohawke, "Chimes" (Warp)
I personally was responsible for emotionally bullying at least two of my critic friends into attending the poolside screening of Sharknado 2 that took place at the hotel where press tour happened a couple of weeks ago. I make this confession because we must establish the basic understanding that I am merciless when it comes to attempting to con people into watching extraordinarily silly movies. In fact, I tried, when the first Sharknado was on, to goad the NPR morning news meeting into caring about it ("There's this movie tonight! It is called Sharknado!"), and nobody fell for it. The next morning after Twitter exploded, I strolled into that meeting, boy howdy, and I said, "Now you see." And, of course, I reviewed it in full, because that is the job and I undertake it gladly.*
The first and most important principle for today is that there would be absolutely no point in watching Sharknado 2 on Wednesday night in seclusion. That would be like trying to play racketball in space. You need to either gather with friends or take to social media to get the full effect, because if you don't, you will be distracted somewhere around the subway sequence by a feeling of "What I am I ... doing?" On the other hand, provided you remain focused on making it a social occasion, you will be distracted instead by one of your friends asking you, in gleeful setup-punch line form, what you think the sharks are going to do when they get to the baseball game. I will not tell you exactly which of my critic friends did this.** I will also not tell you the punch line he had in mind.***
The good news is that even if you did not see the original Sharknado, you can probably figure out the plot of Sharknado 2. There's not too much in terms of complex plotting that will confuse you, and thematically, it's not too hard to figure out that the primary motif is bleeding to death.
The facts in brief: Fin (Ian Ziering) and April (Tara Reid) have become minor celebrities after saving California from the last sharknado, but (spoiler alert) it is possible that they are about to encounter another sharknado ... or 2. After an opening set piece that removes a couple of famous CGI'd heads, the situation continues to deteriorate. And despite the fact that most of this happens during the day and is on opposite a Mets game, the NBC coverage is anchored throughout by Matt Lauer and Al Roker, who appear to be working with a skeletal production staff.
Along the way, yes, there's some biting, and there's some fighting, and there are appearances by a surprisingly large number of famous people in surprisingly witty cameos. (The best moment of the poolside viewing I attended was when someone commented on Twitter with some bafflement that Judd Hirsch had crashed the Sharknado 2 screening, only to be informed that this happened because Judd Hirsch is in fact in Sharknado 2. If you see a list of cameos ahead of time, do not read it. It's much better to let them arrive upon your doorstep.)
The best reason to watch Sharknado 2 is that if you gather with enough people, someone will say something outrageous about what's going to happen next — partly in jest — and it will happen exactly that way. This happened twice with my buddy Alan Sepinwall. He not only predicted the major medical intervention of the film but also called its emotionally climactic beat way ahead of time.
Surprisingly enough, I found that the novelty had not worn off. By which I mean the novelty of watching a movie about weather systems with deadly, bitey, apparently vengeful sharks in them. (They have a taste for blood ... and irony.) Sharknado 2 is not a movie, really; it's an interactive video game called Make The Stupidest Joke First. And because they put the pedal to the metal and go full, screaming, bedazzled monkeypants crazy from beginning to end, it sort of works.
And by "works," I mean "is terrible and yet, in its way, divine," and I could tell you more about what that means, but I would ruin the moment where you will get to yell ... well, again, I really can't ruin it for you. I wouldn't dare.
*Please see all the comments about yesterday's Bachelorette post for the dissenting view that I should be ashamed. I do not rule it out.
**Erik Adams of The A.V. Club.
***"Eat the Mets! Eat the Mets! Step right up and —"
The Federal Reserve announced Wednesday it will ease up slightly on its efforts to stimulate the economy.
Fed officials said that there is still room for improvement in the labor market, but with the economy growing, they expressed concern that inflation might start ticking up.
Continuing its own recent trend, the Fed announced it will be buying fewer up fewer financial assets. It's on track to end its bond-buying program in October.
Starting in August, the Fed will buy $10 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities a month, which is a cut from $15 billion. The bank will also buy $15 billion worth of long-term Treasuries every month, down from $20 billion.
"Fed officials led by Chair Janet Yellen are stepping up a debate over when to raise interest rates for the first time since 2006 as unemployment falls faster than expected and inflation picks up toward their 2 percent goal," reports Bloomberg News.
Earlier Wednesday, the Commerce Department announced that the economy grew by 4 percent in the spring, rebounding from a disappointing first quarter earlier in the year.
But the Fed said it will wait to raise interest rates, which would have a dampening effect on the economy. Earlier this month, Yellen testified before Congress that although the economy is improving, its recovery is not complete.
Today's announcement states that the Fed will keep short-term interest rates low "for a considerable time" after its bond-buying program ends, especially if inflation remains under 2 percent.