Monday, November 13, 2017

INTERVIEW: Chris Shiflett (May 2017)

There’s a brilliant portrait of Chris Shiflett in the booklet of his latest solo release, West Coast Town, which depicts the Foo Fighters axeman looking ever so slightly bemused while modelling a Stetson. Prior to joining Dave Grohl’s stadium titans in 1999, Shiflett honed his chops in the California punk band No Use For a Name and San Francisco’s resident cover oiks, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (for whom he still serves as recording guitarist) - and one might suggest that the image perfectly captures the incongruity of a punk rocker from Santa Barbara now finding himself fully immersed in country music.

Nowadays, Shiflett hosts a regular country podcast, Walking the Floor, while practising what he preaches as a solo artist during periods of Foo Fighters downtime (the Nashville episode of the Foos’ Sonic Highways series is a must-see, not least for Shiflett’s evident delight at finding himself in the genre’s spiritual epicentre).

West Coast Town is a curious hybrid: recorded in Nashville, yet boasting a bright and resolutely Californian sheen, it manages to make blowing off steam between headlining festivals and enormodomes sound like a grand old wheeze. Shot through with an underlying sense of fun and a tongue-in-cheek eye for the genre’s lyrical staples, both the spirit of the playing and Shiflett’s love for this music are in glorious abundance throughout. It’s the perfect encapsulation of his own personality: both relentlessly good-natured and hopelessly likeable.

When I was younger, I used to regard country music as something of a joke - and yet as I reached my 30s, I found myself not only empathising with it more and more, but also wanting to listen to not much else. Now, I first became aware of you some two decades ago in No Use For a Name – so my question is this: why is it that so many former punks always seem to end up gravitating towards country?!

I mean, that is a really... it’s an interesting question, because there are so many of us that, you know... I don’t have a great answer for it, but I think that there’s a real connection in, like, attitude and spirit between a lot of like the honky-tonk legends - certainly like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, people like that who have that rebellious streak in them. I mean, there’s certainly a straight line from that to somebody like Mike Ness, you know? I mean, for me personally, I think Social Distortion was a big bridge between those two things, and through that band I sort of became aware of a lot of the country stuff - and because of that band, was sort of what led me to take an interest in it. Um - but I can’t really... I don’t know, for everybody. I think there’s also something that happens as a musician, like: you know, you get a little older, your tastes mature, and things open up to you that you didn’t really connect to before. And, like, a lot of that old country music - it’s not really the same now, but the older stuff, that was music that was geared to grown-ups; it wasn’t, like, teenybopper music. It was adult-themed music, and I think you maybe need to have lived a little bit for the lyrics to mean something.

I was going to ask if, like you say, perhaps it’s a genre that people ‘grow into’ over time - but you seem to be so up on it that I’m guessing it’s more of a long-standing interest of yours.

Well, it’s something I started to get into... I don’t know, probably in my late teens, I started buying some of those records and followed that back a little bit. But there was a real turning point for me, which was when I was in No Use For a Name, you know, the singer for No Use was really into all the alt-country stuff that was going on at that time. And that was a big bridge for me into the older, ‘classic’ stuff. But there was also a point where, you know, I knew that I liked it, but it was just a genre that I hadn’t really explored much and I didn’t know where to start - it’s so big, and there’s so much... it’s just like, where do you begin? So I asked a friend of mine that’s a country musician, and he gave me some good starting-point tips; it was like my honky-tonk starter kit. He pointed me in the right direction, and from there it was kinda off to the races.

I can’t quite pin down what it is precisely, but it seems to me that is what really makes this record come alive is the fact that it operates in that very specific space where roots meets rock - the roadhouse,  the bar-room, the honky-tonk. Is that a product of your own experiences being on the road over all these years?

Oh, for sure. I mean, I think that that...  for me, this record is like equal parts rock’n’roll and honky-tonk, and punk rock sprinkled in there - like, all the stuff that I listen to a lot, or is all my sort of primary influences. And, you know, it’s interesting that you said that - was it born out of my own experiences on the road, because in a way it was: I really wanted to make a record that was going to be fun to go out and play. To play live. And because of that, I wanted to keep it ‘up’ - you know, I wanted it to be kind of an up-feeling record; more of a Saturday night record than some of the stuff I’ve done in the past that I feel has been a little more minor-key and kinda down, you know. So, that was certainly... I had that in mind, you know, what’s this gonna feel like to go out, to be in a bar and play these songs.

There’s obviously various different strains of country music, but it strikes me that the Bakersfield country seems to linger quite heavily on this album. Despite being recorded in Nashville, it does have a very ‘Californian’ feel to it – particularly in terms of the brightness of the sound. Who are your favourite country artists: are you more of a traditionalist, do you go for the new school, or are you just a bit of an all-round connoisseur?

Well, I mean, there’s so much great music being made right now between guys like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, and I love all that stuff - probably my favourite record from last year is that Lori McKenna record, you know? That record, I just go back to over and over. So I love a lot of the new stuff that’s happening, but for me I delve in really deep into Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and all the sort of honky tonk, ‘Bakersfield sound’ stuff that was sort of attached to that: Del Reeves, people like that. Wynn Stewart is a big one. If you’re talking, like, what are your desert island artists you’d want to have with you, it’d be that era: mid-sixties into the early seventies era of country is really my favourite. But you know, there was tons of great stuff in the seventies made - there’s always good stuff, but I tend to... I just like the way records sound from that time period, from the fifties through the eighties to me is when records sounded the best.

It’s quite interesting that country as a whole has grown in critical respectability over the last few years - you had Sturgill Simpson getting nominated for a Grammy, you’ve got people like Lydia Loveless getting all the plaudits, and labels like Bloodshot are considered really cool all of a sudden. I was wondering how that squared with your experience of it growing up, because it’s always been quite the ‘uncool’ genre, particularly from the rock side of things.

Yeah, I mean, probably one of the... You know, there was a show over here called Hee Haw when I was growing up that was supposed to be a country version of Laugh-In or something: it was really kinda low-rent, idiotic humour [laughs]. And that kind of stuff probably had a large part in shaping my opinion - when I was a kid, my opinion of country music was it was just corny, sappy, heartache love songs, and it didn’t appeal to me at all. But it’s funny, if you go back and listen to some of the stuff from that era, there was a lot of corny, shitty country music coming out - but there was always, like, an underbelly of really incredible stuff happening. I think it’s the same in any era - you’re gonna have your slick, pop, mainstream side of things, and that’s always gonna be the most popular, the stuff that’s on a larger scale, but there’s always going to be the underbelly of people doing it a little bit differently: a little more rootsy, or whatever. I dunno, I don’t wanna bag on any... you know, everything has its merits and everybody’s worked hard to get where they’ve got, but my own personal taste in music and in culture in general has also sort of gravitated to things that are always just a little bit off the beaten path.

The thing that really tuned me on to country as a kind of bridging point was Gram Parsons - I noticed that the song Cherry on this record feels like quite an homage to him, particularly his track Ooh Las Vegas. Are you a particular fan of his and, if so, where does he sit on your country continuum?

I mean, I do - I am definitely a fan of Gram Parsons: like a legendary figure in bridging that gap between rock’n’roll and country music. And I love that sound - that California country sound of that time. It’s funny, like, the influence - when I first heard Gram Parsons, the work he did with the Flying Burrito Brothers or even, like, Sweetheart of the Rodeo that he played on with The Byrds, that all sounded like straight-up country music to me, but when you actually A-B it with what mainstream country music sounded like at that time, it’s pretty radically different, and that’s how you can really see how big of an influence that he had on mainstream country music. You know what I mean? Because if there was no Gram Parsons, there probably would’ve never been an Eagles; if there was no Eagles, we might’ve never gotten to Garth Brooks - it’s like, it’s reflected back on mainstream country music in a huge way over the years, I think.

The album’s title track is the most obviously autobiographical song on here – and quite nostalgic, in a sense. At the same time, it seems to be about the limits of nostalgia, and the fact that the place you grew up in has irrevocably now changed, not necessarily for the better. Is that how you feel revisiting your hometown?

Well, I grew up about an hour and a half north of LA in Santa Barbara, and my wife’s parents are still up there; my brother’s still up there, so we get up there pretty frequently. And I still love the place and am super nostalgic about it, and will probably someday move back there - but yeah, it has radically changed since I was a kid. It’s funny, not too long ago, someone posted on Youtube this video that was like my high school in 1987... I guess I didn’t realise this at the time, but they made a video yearbook, right? Somebody posted it on Youtube, and it’s fucking incredible because things change slowly over time and you don’t see it ’cos it’s, like, slow. But when you look back at video footage of what my hometown looked like in ’87, it’s fucking radically different, man - that kind of really brings it into focus, you know? And things change and that’s just the way it goes, but I had struggled for a while: I really wanted to write a song about growing up where I grew up, because I think it was an interesting time and a place kinda like no other, and that’s what I was trying to get at in that song.

Let’s go back to that time when you were growing up in Santa Barbara. You’ve played in a lot of different bands, and different types of bands over the years – who were your main formative influences as a kid, or the artists that really turned you on to music and made you want to pick up a guitar?

Well, the big ones for me were, I mean, it was my brothers’ record collection. I had older brothers and we listened to a lot of Beatles and Stones, and Deep Purple... Kiss was a huge one... just basically all the classic rock of the seventies. But it’s an interesting thing, I see this with my own children, where... when I was a kid, a lot of sort of like ‘pop culture’ was still remnants of my parents’ childhood. So like, when I would stay home from school and watch re-runs on Channel 5, it was all re-runs of movies and shows from like the forties and the fifties and the sixties. So although I didn’t grow up in that time -  that’s like my parents’ childhood - but I was way more connected to that era of American culture than my children are to my childhood. When my kids try to watch a movie, I’m like “YOU GOTTA WATCH KARATE KID!”  - they watch, and it’s terrible to them! They don’t get it at all, because technology has moved so fast since then, whereas it hadn’t changed - like, as a little kid in 1979, I could watch a movie from 1948, and it was different, but it wasn’t that different: you know, phones still looked the same, things like that. Whereas now, things have moved so fast that I feel like my kids have no connection to my own past. It’s weird - I think that has a huge effect on, you know, the culture at large. I don’t remember what your question was now, but as far that nostalgic connection to the past, I think that’s where a lot of that comes from.

Interesting you should mention The Karate Kid - do you have to show them the remake? Because that’s not good, is it...

They loved the remake! And they watched the remake first, so for them, watching the original was like: “What’s this shitty slow version of that other movie that we liked?!” [Laughs]

That must be really upsetting...


So what do they think of the bands you play in now - are they able to relate to them, or do they just gravitate to whatever’s coming along at that very moment?

Well, I mean, my kids have very kind of varied musical taste - they love the Foo Fighters, and they hate country music. So I don’t know how much they like my solo record, to be honest! [Laughs] You know, I was thinking they would much rather listen to the harder rock stuff. I was gonna say, it is like universal in my family that when I’m in control of the stereo, I basically get shouted down. Like: “NO COUNTRY! TURN THAT SHIT OFF!”

But surely you should tell them that you get to dictate the terms, since you bring the dollar in...? Surely they should respect that...

Well, that’s right. We would get along great!

There’s quite a revealing moment in the Foo Fighters’ Back and Forth documentary where you talk about joining the band and there was that moment when Pat re-entered the fray, and you thought you might be on your way out - just as, in your words, your felt like your dreams were about to come true. It struck me as quite an interesting thing to hear from someone who comes from a punk rock background – you’re almost not supposed to admit that you want to be a big rock star.  Was that always in the cards for you? Did you always want that?

Well, you have to bear in mind when I was a little kid that I listened to rock music - I wanted to grow up and be Ace Frehley. That’s the reason I picked up a guitar in the first place: I wanted to be Randy Rhoads or Ace Frehley or one of these guys... or Keith Richards. Those were my heroes when I was a kid. But it changed. When I got to an age when I was playing in bands, making records and touring, music - and my taste in music -  had changed radically from the time that I’m, like, ten to the time that I’m twenty is like a massive shift in my taste in music. So when I was in No Use For a Name, I was totally immersed in that, and that scene - but I was never somebody that was hung up on, like... I always... I wanted to make a living as a musician, because I didn’t want to have to go get a fucking job! I had a lot of jobs, and I didn’t like ’em. They sucked, you know what I mean?! If the option is go play guitar and make a living, or don’t do that and go work in fuckin’ Starbucks, obviously I would prefer to play guitar and make a living do that.

When you’re a kid, you don’t know what being a rock star is - the reality of it is not what you think. I don’t know what you think - you think you’re just running around in limousines and acting like a jack-ass all the time, whatever! [Laughs] When you’re twelve years old, that’s what you think of as being a successful musician. But by the time you get there, you’ve grown up different - your sense of things, your interests, it’s all different, you know? And so you’re not, like, behaving in a way... I dunno, “rock star” is a dirty word; I just think of myself as, like, a musician - and one that’s lucky enough to get to make a living at it, you know? By the time I was ever making records and touring, all that stuff, I was in No Use For a Name and that was my life, you know? That was the scene: it was NOFX and it was Pennywise, it was Lagwagon, and it was us. And that was what the music world around me had become; your interests change and you adapt to it, so... You know, when you’re young like that, you sorta... anything that came before, you wanna pretend you never liked and make fun of or whatever, but I was never one of those sort of people - I never thought about it in terms of the economics of it; I just wanted to go play, and if I could make a living at it, great.

It seems like between all the different bands you play in - Foo Fighters, the Gimme Gimmes, your solo work, Chevy Metal - you’ve kind of got the best of all worlds. It must be quite nice to be in a range of bands where you literally don’t have to apologise for any of your tastes …

[Laughs] Right, yeah! I think that comes with growing up too, you know? I don’t have guilty pleasures anymore - I just like what I like. And I like a lot of different types of music - I’m about to turn forty-six tomorrow, why would I feel bad if I want to go and play a fuckin’ 38 Special song in a cover band somewhere, you know what I mean?

I feel like the Foo Fighters are becoming a more ‘musicianly’ band, particularly on the last couple of records. I had Rope on the other day, and it struck me as a really intricate song for what’s essentially a big rock single. Is that you that plays the solo on that track?

It is, yeah.

That’s an incredibly interesting choice - when do you make the decision to go for something that’s more of a soundscape than a conventional solo?

Yeah, that was an interesting... Putting that together was funny, because Dave generally in Foo Fighters tends to shy away from having, like, shreddy, spaghetti ‘rock’ solos on the songs. That’s never really been his taste. So on that one, I remember when we were recording up at his house, he came in that day and he was like: “Dude, you should put down, like a full-on shred solo.” And I was like, “Alright - I can do that, sure!” And then we started going down that road and then he was like: “Nah - let’s not do that...”, you know what I mean?! [Laughs] And then it kind of evolved into being, like... That’s where being in a band, you’ve got, like, Dave’s gonna have his input into what it’s gonna be, and then there’s everybody else in the room, then there’s Butch producing it and James engineering it, so it becomes this other thing of, like, everybody else’s ideas kind of blending together and you get the compromise - what’s on the record. It’s funny you asked about that - I remember I did that that day and I didn’t really like it, you know? When I was done, it wasn’t really my taste, so I came back the next day and I was like: “Let me just do another pass at it.” And I did a full-on, like... I doubled it, and it sounded like Skynyrd or something. And of course, we didn’t use that version of it! [Laughs] Maybe that’ll show up on the rarities/out-takes box-set someday!

Over the years, you’ve had the chance to not only meet a few of your heroes, but also to play with some of them as well. I was watching the Chicago episode of Sonic Highways the other day, and you seemed particularly stoked to be jamming with Rick Nielsen – who’s been the biggest deal for you out of all of them?

Oh man, it’s hard to narrow it down - there’s been so many of ’em, I can’t even remember all the people I’ve had the chance to jam with over the years. Ummm, who were really good ones...? John Fogerty was really fun to play with, he was great... Certainly Rick Nielsen, that’s a big one for sure... I mean, I remember like literally just after I joined the Foo Fighters, one of the first things we did  go to London to do press for the album that was about to come out. And as we got off the plane and we go to the hotel, Taylor was like: “Hey, I’m going to go and have dinner with Brian May - you wanna come?” ...Sure! I’d come from, like, a month prior to that I’d been in the van with No Use For A Name, then all of a sudden it’s this whirlwind thing and I’m sitting at a table having a curry with Brian May. It was pretty bizarre, and surreal.

Conversely, they always say “never meet your heroes, as they’ll only let you down” – is there anyone you’ve met who’s been a heartbreaking disappointment?!

Ummm... I can’t recall anyone real heartbreaking - I generally find that most of those people who are really, like, they have these incredible careers and are icons of music or whatever, they tend to be really comfortable in their own skin. You know what I mean? They’re not like... They’re just cool, you know? It’s usually the young bucks that can be problematic! [Laughs]

Let me put it another way, then – you play in a world-famous rock band who I suspect occasionally runs in celebrity circles; who’s the biggest douchebag you’ve met over the years?!

[Laughs] God, I can’t say, because I’ll probably have to see those people at a festival somewhere down the line and I don’t want to have a beef! But you would be surprised at how little my life interacts with celebrity culture - I just do not exist in that world, man. I go home, I sit with my wife and kids, and it’s very quiet and suburban compared to what you might think, you know?

I want to ask you about Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, because I’ve been following them basically since …Have A Ball came out. I’ve seen the band live on a couple of occasions – the last time was on the tour just before you put out the Diva record, and Spike was getting very annoyed because it was the last night of the tour and he was clearly well up for a party, but it was a miserable Monday night in Birmingham and the crowd just didn’t seem to be having it. But I wasn’t interested in that – I kept watching you, and the entire time you were just chuntering away on your guitar with a sort of beatific smile on your face.

I’ll tell you a funny story about that, and you’ll probably not believe me, but that wasn’t me. That was my brother, Scott! We look very similar, it’s funny, he gets mistaken for me constantly - I have people seriously come up to me all the time like: “I was at your show in Des Moines last week!” I’m like: that was my brother Scott! One of our promoters down in Australia texted me a couple of years ago - he texted me, like: “I’m in Melbourne in the crowd at your show!” and I’m like: “Dude, I’m in LA. I can’t see you, that’s my brother...!” And I know that dude well, you know what I mean?! Like, we’ve spent time together! So it’s funny, we do look very similar. My brother Scott’s a ripping guitarist - he not only does the Gimme Gimmes touring side of stuff, he’s the bass-player in a band called Face to Face; that’s sort of like his main gig. But yeah, he’s a ripper, man!

Well, the question I was going to ask is that I imagine it must be funny as hell to you that what started out as a bit of a joke has now become a sort of viable second career with its own Greatest Hits album…

Totally! No, I know - it’s bizarre, ’cos when we started that band, literally the whole concept of it was that we were just going to play gigs every now and again in San Francisco, ’cos we all lived up there; we would just play little gigs in bars, and it was just an excuse to get free beer and party with our friends. And in the really early days, we weren’t even going to put out records or anything - and then Mike had the concept to put out only seven-inches, and each seven-inch would come out on a different label. That was the idea, and we did that for a while before we put out the first record. But it is really interesting to see, ’cos in the years since, I’ve pretty much missed out on the touring side of it because I’m usually working with Foos or whatever, but it has become like a real band! And they have, like, a big draw now, they do really well. It’s great, you know?

Given the sort of music you make as a solo artist nowadays, are you the person who pushed for the set of tunes that became the Gimme Gimmes album …Love Their Country?

No! It’s so funny -  I had had nothing to do with that; I played on it and was involved in that side of it, but it wasn’t my concept at all. And it’s funny, because that was quite a while ago now, and if we were to do that album now, I’d probably, like... I don’t even remember if I suggested covering any of those songs, you know what I mean?! I was listening to country music back then, but it’s funny - you would think that would’ve been my baby, but it wasn’t at all.

If you could do the ‘Redux’ or the Director’s Cut of that album, what sort of songs would you want to put on there - or did you cover all of them on your last album?

Yeah, that’s a tough one because the thing you gotta understand about covering songs for Gimme Gimmes - and Mike has this down, he really has this worked out, where there is like certain songs; they might be your favourite song of all time, but it doesn’t make sense as a punk rock song. It’s gotta be a certain tempo; it’s gotta be when you speed it up, the vocal still has to work - there has been so many songs over the years that we’ve attempted to record that you just go: “Nah. This doesn’t work. This doesn’t work like a punk rock song.” So the songs that make it onto those records are the ones that have been, you know, tested and work in that style.

Which ones over the years then have been the great lost Gimme Gimmes songs that we’ll never hear?

Ha! Oh, god, I don’t remember - there’s a bunch for every album... It seems like every album, somebody comes in - or we probably all come in - with songs that we really want to record, and it just doesn’t work and you have to let go at a certain point. I’ve always just deferred mostly to Mike - he drives the train, the concept train for the Gimmes, but... I do remember attempting to do like a Gary Glitter version of a Madonna song called, um... oh, what the fuck is that song called... True Blue, I want to say...? It’s one of my favourite Madonna songs, and it just sucked. Didn’t work. Had to let that one go.

I hadn’t intended on asking this, but you know on those records where you do like the version of another punk band’s song as an intro - a version of a Dead Kennedys intro, or something like that - do you ever get in trouble for that, or do they always see the funny side of it?

I don’t think anyone’s ever gotten mad about it - I think probably most people dig it, but I don’t know! I don’t even know... I personally haven’t gotten much of any feedback from the people that we’ve covered, you know? There’s been so many - it’s funny now, because we’ve been doing that for so long that now when you go into it you’re like: “Well, we should ape the intro from... whatever... this old TSOL song - ah, fuck, we already did that!” We did that four albums ago, can’t do it again. Damn!

I suppose what would be the ultimate is if you had people actually pitching their songs to you - like, Madonna phones you up and asks you to do a version of True Blue or Like a Prayer...

Yeah. Yeah! Like a Prayer might even be one of the ones - did we try that one? I don’t know, there was a bunch - with some of those people, there’s so many great songs that they have, but they don’t necessarily all work. You know, Fat Mike had a great concept once, that was: Gimme Gimmes albums are always covers, but he had this idea to write an album of originals, and then record it, and call it Songs From the Future. And then take each song, and have a band in the future record them, and put them out! [Laughs] So that in retrospect, it will have been a covers record when we record the songs from the future. [Laughs]

Seems like a lot of work for not much benefit there...

I know! I’ll tell you what, the funniest - you know we did that Japanese EP? And to me, that was, like, Spike’s finest moment - singing all those songs in Japanese, it was amazing. And, uh... I don’t think anybody gave a shit! But god, it was the best idea! [Laughs] It just kind of didn’t really connect...

So, finally - you’ve been playing music now for well over two decades, and I always ask this of people who’ve had a long career: what are your five favourite songs you’ve either written or played on, or what are your five favourites, or what are the five that you’d most like to be remembered for?

Mmmm! Jeez, Louise... I would certainly say All My Life would be one of those... uh, the title track from my new record would be one of those, West Coast Town.... there was a Jackson United song called All the Way that I just always felt connected to... oh, what would be another one... ummm... Maybe Long Road to Ruin - I always liked that one, that song always struck a chord with me. It’s hard when, you know, there’s so many that have happened over the years. Um... you know what Gimmes song was probably my favourite we ever did was Summertime, off the... I don’t remember which record that was!

That’s on the musicals record, ...Are a Drag.

Oh, yes. What is that, is that five...?

Yeah. You don’t remember getting dragged up on the cover for that album...?

Yes. Yes. My favourite memory from that album was we played the Folsom Street Fair, which is like a hardcore, S&M-flavoured street fair in San Francisco, and we did it all in drag like we are on the album cover. It was... it was quite a day!

I was going to tell you actually, I’m on the inlay cover of the country album - really tiny on the front row of the balcony at London Astoria.

No shit!

That’s like my little piece of rock history I’ve been involved in...

Oh, wow! Was that when we played in 1998?

No - I’m going to say around about 2008, 2009...? It was just before that album came out, and everyone was wearing blue rhinestone suits and stetsons. It’s barely noticeable, but that’s my little ‘lame to fame’, I guess...

Love it. Love it!

West Coast Town is available now on SideOneDummy.

INTERVIEW: Sean Rowe (March 2017)

With the likes of Rag‘n’Bone Man and Hozier reaping commercial dividends preaching a new kind of gospel, the time has never been riper for a Sean Rowe breakthrough. Over the past year, To Leave Something Behind - the moving song which accompanies the climax of recent Ben Affleck thriller The Accountant - has proven a poignant gateway for many to the world of the US singer-songwriter. Fittingly, the long-player it prefixed - New Lore - offers a rich melting-pot of folk, country, blues and soul which distils Rowe’s previous material down to its emotional essence.

Rowe’s wisened, oak-hewn baritone comes from way down deep in the gut and packs considerable emotional heft: think Ray LaMontagne with the timbre of an old bluesman. Recorded in Memphis’s historic Sam Phillips studio, New Lore is a beautiful, rich-sounding record on which the singer’s wounded croon conveys a power and depth far beyond his years.

On the last record, you tried your hand at a number of different genres and musical styles - New Lore seems a much more focused collection than your last album, would you agree with that?

Yeah, I’d say so, sure.

Was it the case that you felt like you’d exhausted a lot of the possibilities musically last time around and decided you were going to hone things down on this album?

I don’t think it’s so much that - I just think it’s more of, um... you know, the more I’m at this, the more I do this kind of work, it’s easier to see sort of see through the smoke. It’s kind of like once you have a certain thing you do really well that you figure out over time - just sort of honing in on that, and trying to distil it down to something that I feel is like the most effective way to connect with people. And that really, you know, has a lot to do with my voice. As a musician, as a writer, everyone has something that they do really well - there’s a thing that is just theirs, that if you’re being honest about it, no-one can really touch it. You know, and no-one can really do what you do, if you’re being authentic. So, I think just distilling that, trying to figure out what that is exactly, took me kind of a long while - so the more I record, the more I perform, I sort of get it down to the essentials for me, you know? So I think if the record is more focused, it’s partly because I’m older - and you hopefully get wiser [laughs] as you get older, you know, so I’d say that’s why it’s a little bit more focused than the other ones, maybe.

The album’s got a wonderfully rich sound to it - I was wondering how you came to record it in such a legendary facility.

Yeah - well, the co-producer I worked with, Matt Ross-Spang, he’s doing really well now; I first heard of him actually through the work he did with Jason Isbell. And, you know, Matt, he works out of Memphis, what was formerly a studio owned by Sam Phillips himself - but also Matt has a lot to do with Nashville recording, too. You know, the sound that’s happening out there - his hand is in that stuff as well. I just really like his aesthetic, and I really like... I mean, the history around the place I recorded, Sam Phillips Recording, and of course Sun Studios all tied in together there in Memphis really drew me in. You know, because partly the music I was listening to when I was younger was, you know, Otis Redding from Stax and early rock‘n’roll: Johnny Cash, Elvis... So as a kid, I was really influenced by that music that was not of my generation - that music transcends generational gaps anyway, so yeah, that was partly the draw was ’cos of the music I grew up on.

There’s a documentary I saw recently about Muscle Shoals, and how that as an environment feeds into the music that comes out of it. Is Memphis one of those places where you can feel that energy and that history when you arrive there?

Yeah, the players we had on the record were this group of people that I had never met before; most of these cats were like the ‘Memphis sound’ people - they were like the house band of the studio, so everybody knew each other really well except for me! [Laughs] I was kind of going into that thing blind. But there’s a definite vibe out there - there was a feel to it, and that’s what I was after. But it’s a balance; I didn’t want to overload the songs with a ‘Memphis sound’ just because I could - I mean, first and foremost it’s about the actual songs, and how I could make them the best that I could do.

Did you find that the songs ended up coming out differently as a result of the environment it was recorded in, particularly as a result of the players?

Yeah. Yeah, I think so - it’s hard to pinpoint what makes the record sound the way that it does in the end because there’s a lot of factors coming into play, but I know for sure it wouldn’t be the same record if I wasn’t in that spot; it would sound different. So I think being there was inspiring enough that... you know, it’s also nerve-wracking too, but I kind of like the pressure of it all too, going into a space like that where you know some amazing music’s come out of that, and some people that were in that building you’re recording in are legends. So yeah, that kind of pressure creates a mysterious kind of excitement that can build on a record, and it can definitely have an effect on the sound that you end up with, so I’m sure that had a profound effect on the end thing.

This is a very loaded word, so I mean it perhaps not in a literal sense, but the overall sound is almost “religious” in a way - particularly a song like Promise of You, which has that really stirring gospel feel. How do you feel about that as a description of the album’s overall sound?

Yeah, I mean... I think when you get into talking about gospel... you know, gospel is inherently religious in its thematic quality - however, it transcends that, too; it’s more of a personal connection in the song, and a yearning song that could be about anything. So that is the draw with gospel, I think, is that it doesn’t matter that it’s religious in its context and intent; what’s important is the connection that happens between the song and the listener, you know. That sort of desperation and yearning, and total authenticity - that comes across, and I try to put that in everything that I do. So in essence, it’s all gospel, you know? It’s coming from the heart; it’s coming from a place of genuine desire and need, sure.

Do you think maybe ‘spiritual’ is perhaps a more fitting term?

Um... it depends on who’s saying it and what they mean by it, but yeah, I think I would call it that; you know, in a certain way, everything is spiritual if it’s trying to find something outside of yourself - trying to connect with somebody or something in a larger picture, you know: that’s spiritual. It’s all that.

The song that really jumped out at me (for perhaps want of a better phrase) is The Salmon - character sketch, autobiographical, or a mix of the two?

Yep, it’s all of those things. It’s all of those things. Sometimes I just like to create an overall feeling - not really necessarily spelling it out in terms of a narrative, but just creating an overall feeling of it that people can relate to: that maybe they can put themselves into and really feel it, so that was one of those things. You know, sometimes my storylines are not very linear, not very detailed in terms of the specifics, and that’s okay because it depends on what you’re really going for. What I was going for was a feeling, as I say.

Since your last release, Hollywood came calling and you had a song featured on a mainstream soundtrack - what sort of impact did you find that having? Did it have a really noticeable effect on your profile over the last couple of years?

It’s been immensely helpful, to be honest, yeah. It’s a song that was really dear to me when I wrote it - it didn’t really fit on the records I was doing, however, and I was pretty bummed that it kind of got lost in the shuffle of the records. And along comes this film, and they felt it was really right for this scene - and just the timing was perfect: to be right before this release, and for the song to have the impact that it did, that was very surprising. I knew it had a universal appeal to it, but I didn’t think... the song is pretty long, you know; it’s certainly not a pop song. But for me - and I’m still working on kind of a small scale, but from anything I’ve done, it seems to be the song that’s resonated with the most people, you know. So that’s surprising to me, and very... it’s comforting.

And I guess it’s better it being a song that you really like, rather than one you feel isn’t particularly emblematic of what you do.

Yeah - and there’s certainly songs I write that I call ‘songy-songs’: they’re more like a feel-good song. Not that they’re poorly-written, it’s just that I wouldn’t say there’s an excessive amount of depth to them. Sometimes it’s just on the surface and that’s okay - it’s how it makes your body feel. But with this song, there is depth to it, and I took a lot of care in writing it, so it’s nice to get that kind of recognition for that song.

Your website biography lists you as “Singer, Songwriter, Forager” - I only found this out the other day, but you actually run Wilderness Classes, which is probably a first for any musical artist I’m aware of! How did that come about?

Well, that seed was planted when I was a kid - I was real fascinated with... oh, living off the land, what that would mean, and how to go about doing that. So I lived at a wilderness survival school for a year when I was younger; I took a lot of courses and a lot of it was self-directed learning - I spent some time alone in the woods doing just that, just living off the land and building shelters. But nowadays I primarily focus on foraging as means of keeping me connected to the land, and also to provide some of my food intake over the year. So it depends on where I am - if I’m touring, I’ll certainly forage on the tours too, but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve done some in Europe too on some tours that I’ve done out there - so I’ll find, like, parks, I’ll find forests, fields, all that stuff when I have a break, and I’ll just harvest the plants that I know, bring ’em back home, cook ’em up!

What’s the best place you’ve found then for foraging around the world?

Well, the North East is great - the further you go south from the north-east, the more you have available for a greater portion of the year. So where I am in upstate New York, I’m limited by the winter for what I can harvest - but from May through let’s say the end of October, there’s always something out. And really, like, what I’m doing right now is processing acorns into flour, and traditionally that was done in the north-east, but more so in the west: on the west coast there were tribal peoples out there who their main staple food was acorns. And acorns from Oaks are found all over the world, which is cool - I mean, there are cultures in different countries that use acorns for flour. It’s just not well-known you can do that anymore, but I have a lot of fun processing that, and I make all kinds of stuff from flour, so it’s been really fun doing that lately.

I read a lot - and think a lot - about where society’s headed in a post-industrial age. Though seems to be a particularly pertinent issue for people like yourself who have children, it seems odd that more people don’t take more of an active interest in connecting with nature. There’s a book I read called The Long Emergency which details how important this is going to be in decades to come - I wonder if perhaps you’re rather ahead of the curve on this one.

Well, I think I realise the value - and especially there’s a palpable feeling I get: if I’m sitting at the computer too long or I have just, like, the busy work side of not being on stage, if I do that too much and don’t get out in nature, I really feel that in my body. And sometimes tells me okay, it’s time to take it away from this. So I think there’s something internally that is a biological thing that we’ve evolved to in nature, you know, of course. For many, many... most of our lives as humans were spent outside - it’s only very recently that we’ve become as modern as we are in how we live now. So I still feel there’s a biological connection there that’s being unfulfilled by the lifestyle we live now. And getting too caught up in that... I feel it, so I have to go the other way, you know. I imagine it’s the same for a lot of other people that might just not have another outlet for it.

The song Gas Station Rose seems to tap into the idea of being lost in the wilderness or dwarfed by nature; of being “on our own”. Without wanting to get too grandiose or existential, is that how you feel as a member of the human race, or am I reading too much into the metaphor?

Yeah, I tend to use... I think nature in and of itself, when you’re talking about themes, there’s just some grandiose imagery to work with there, and it’s woven throughout a lot of my songs ’cos it’s just meaningful. It’s the same with religion - I’m not a religious person in terms of any sort of doctrine, but I use those themes because they’re powerful and they’re tools; you can understand them. You know, sometimes I’m not really specifically talking about being in the woods, but I’ll use that as metaphor, for sure. And sometimes it is what I’m talking about - this song I have called Madman directly addresses that on my last record, so it’s both, really.

It’s perhaps inevitable in the current climate that any American artist gets asked about politics, but as someone with a deep affinity to the natural world, what’s your perspective on what’s going on in your country at the moment in terms of environmental legislation?

Yeah, I think it’s very... it’s become like a cartoon world right now. I think it’s very scary as a parent to be following what’s happening right now and not knowing how things are going to look, because the way that our government has now put us on this path - and hopefully it won’t go on for more than four years! - but it’s like, when you put jobs or the economy of higher importance than clean air, clean water and clean food, that’s like biting yourself on the ass, you know? That’s like a concept that a third-grader would get, you know? You know what I mean, the fact that we have a President that first and foremost what he’s about is terrifying, you know. It’s terrifying. So we try with our art to expose that kind of lunacy, you know - and art can do so much, but nobody knows what the end result of this is, it’s just the lunacy of it and, as I said, the cartoon quality it has is very troubling.

As someone who is an activist in their own way, do you find it something that challenges you to keep at it, or do you find it more dispiriting?

Yeah, I find it both - it is dispiriting, but when you look at it, there is no alternative but to either perish or keep fighting; keep fighting in your own way with what you can do. I think you tend to look at things differently if you’re a parent and if you have kids, because they’re inheriting the world at some point - they can’t do anything right now [laughs], and they’re gonna get this world that you leave them, so... It’s just when you have such lack of sight as a leader, it’s just mind-boggling, it really is. So I’m doing what I can to keep myself up.

Finally, this is a question I asked of Micah P. Hinson, who’s someone who has a similar sort of feel to his voice and conveys similar sorts of meaning. He had quite a funny response, so I was wondering what your answer would be. Do you feel like an ‘old soul’?

An old soul...?


...Sometimes I just feel really old! [Laughs] An ‘old soul’. When I can feel the arthritis in my knees, I wonder what the hell happened to me! But, uh... you know, I feel very much connected to place, and this idea that we don’t need to keep growing economically to find our value, and to find meaning out of life. There’s this idea that, like, the wheel just keeps turning, and nobody’s ever happy unless we get to this next point, you know. And I think that we’re looking in the wrong place; I think that if people could just stop for a minute and realise what they have - and just how privileged we are to see the beauty around you... I think if that’s being an ‘old soul’, I believe that at one point humanity as a whole was much happier than we are now. I don’t know if that answers your question, but I feel kinship to the people that came before to and have found meaning in their lives just from what’s around them.

I’ll tell you what, that’s a much nicer answer to the question than I might have anticipated, so it’s as good a place as any to leave it!

[Laughs] Alright!

New Lore is available now on ANTI-.

INTERVIEW: Craig Finn (January 2017)

Jettisoning much of his parent band’s lyrical grandeur, Craig Finn’s solo releases offer a more reflective version of his familiar stumbling, goggle-eyed worldview - the foggy Sunday-morning comedown to The Hold Steady’s hedonistic Saturday-night house party. His latest, We All Want the Same Things, continues this trend with ten new songs focusing on disparate characters all struggling to get by from day to day in post-crash America.

Given what a distinctive vocal presence Finn exhibits both live and on record, it’s perhaps surprising to find that the bellicose style he’s perfected over the years is in itself something of a persona. In conversation, he’s far less boisterous than I’d expected - providing yet one more stage of removal for an artist who’s chosen to focus so much of his own work on the lives of others.

You’re one of the most distinctive voices that I can think of in music - both literally and figuratively - yet it’s quite rare that you seem willing to explicitly place yourself at the centre of your own songs. Obviously Preludes and Newmyer’s Roof are recent exceptions to this, but I was wondering why it is that you’ve chosen to focus on the lives of other people in much of your work.

Well, I guess I’ve always liked telling stories, and I think that oftentimes there’s an expectation for songwriters to be confessional, you know? Like, people think that if you write a song, it’s supposed to be about you on some level - in a lot of cases, people make that assumption, whereas I don’t think novelists or filmmakers are held to that same standard. You know, I don’t think people think Quentin Tarantino does the things that happen in his movies.

For me, it’s a way to tell bigger stories that are maybe more dramatic using characters - I think that, especially with The Hold Steady, you trying to find something that matches the bigness of the music, so characters allow me to tell bigger and more dramatic stories than what happened in my everyday life. In the solo work, I’ve been able to put myself more in there, I think, because it kinda happens at a lower volume and thus provides more space to be vulnerable and maybe a little more intimate.

Who are these people? Are they people you know? People you invent from scratch? People who you see out and about and decide to invent histories for...?

All of those - I mean, a lot of characters are composites of people I know, you know, taking a little bit from one person and a little bit from another person. I’m also a fantastic eavesdropper [laughs] - I listen to a lot of conversations, and living in New York is great for that: you can hear people on the train or in cafés, or whatever... and sometimes I just make up people; I get a lot of inspiration from reading books, you know...

But I think that, especially in this new record, the characters are largely unremarkable. They’re people just trying to get by, trying to get through - and on some level, people just trying to survive. On this record, I tried to create characters that are very believable and, you know... unremarkable.

What is it that attracts you to the people on the peripheries - the hoodrats, the downtrodden or the kind of people whose stories don’t generally get told?

Well, I mean, in The Hold Steady and my earlier work, I think that some of it was that there was a lot of desperation, so they did big... their stories moved quickly, meaning their backs were against the wall and they had to kind of strike back or strike out. And that made for good drama. I think as I’ve gotten older, I’m more interested in people who are making slower movements and trying to get through. I also felt like in the past year, obviously, but in the past few years we’ve seen a lot of, in this country - well, everywhere - a lot of people just trying to get by. And um... normal people: how things affect them, and things like... I mean, I don’t think the record’s very political, but I think about in our country, like how health insurance would affect most of these characters on the record - and how things like that... how the average person is just trying to get through.

I watched a film the other day called Killing Them Softly, starring Brad Pitt - on the surface it’s a small-scale crime and revenge thriller, but by the end it becomes apparent that it’s about the slow death of American ideals and a comment on the inaccessibility of the American Dream. The cover of the new album seems to really tap into that sentiment: the idea of things just trudging along, people just going about their lives, trying to get by from day to day. Is that how you experience life in America?

Yeah - I mean, for the most part, I think a lot of people, you know... I mean, I live in Brooklyn and I get to be a musician and travel to all these great places, so I mean, I feel fortunate on that. But I also, from going all around, I just did a tour where I was in Ohio, and Michigan, and Pennsylvania - I was in all these places that you kind of read about all through the election as being a little more downtrodden or having these issues. I do think a lot of these people are reflected in my songs, as they’re kind of doing what they were told to do, you know? They’re working hard, and they’re showing up, and they aren’t doing anything crazy - but it’s still not working. And, you know, they’re disillusioned because of that. And in a lot of the cases in this album, they’re sort of partnering up with other people in some kind of imperfect version of love, just to try to get through; you know, just to cut expenses, if you will. And to partner up to push a world where even if it isn’t, like, a Disney romantic version of love. And the album cover I think is, like, people are literally trying to get somewhere through bad weather, and that sort of speaks to that.

I haven’t seen that movie you’re talking about, but I think I read the book - the guy who wrote a couple of really good books, whose name’s escaping me now, but he talks a lot about people who are kinda pushed to the edge of something - they’re not necessarily... you know, they don’t start out as bad people, but they’re kinda... they’ve got their backs against the wall.

The album’s title is obviously quite telling given the current social and political situation in your country - I’m interested to know how you square that sentiment up against the new politics of division that seems to be taking hold.

Yeah - and the record was named before the election, but that certainly... whenever I named it in 2016 there was still a very divisive landscape going on. And it’s a line from a song - that’s often how I get the titles for album, I was going through the lyrics and saw that one, and I said: “Well that’s pretty much perfect”. It’s darkly comedic in some ways - we’re obviously so divided right now, I mean, it’s pretty much right down the middle! At the same time, I do believe that on some level it’s true - I believe that we all want the same things: we all want health, security, safety, freedom, etc... We just disagree on how to get there. You know, I think that’s important... that makes me feel better to remember, that maybe some of these people that I see on the internet, and... not as much in real life because of where I live, but you know - maybe we’re closer to them than we think.

Bruce Springsteen is the obvious reference point for songwriters who reveal a sort of universal truth through the lives of others, and I know that he’s made quite a big deal as time’s gone by of returning to the lives of his early characters to check in on them. Have you done that over the years? Are there any characters that you’re particularly attached to?

Yeah, I mean, I’ve thought about... in some ways, I’ve kind of checking in on them even though their names may change, I’m sort of checking in. When I started to write with my first band, Lifter Puller, we wrote a lot about the most debauched people, you know? And then Hold Steady, I think, we tried to write about the high and the hangover. And more nowadays I’m writing about: where are these people now? They’re 35 and they have children and they’re just trying to get... they’re trying to live a straight life, if you will. But I’ve thought about checking in, and I have had these sequel songs over time, but I’m always worried that it’s going to turn into a... I was joking with someone that at some point it becomes too late to revisit them, and then you’re into Crocodile Dundee III.

And no-one wants to be that, because that was terrible, wasn’t it?

[Laughs] Yeah - that was an aside because I saw it one day on TV, we were watching it with the band and we were like: “Why did this get made?!” And it turned out it came out thirteen years after Crocodile Dundee II. Which is... yeah, too far gone!

This is perhaps a bit of a loaded question, but are you one of these people yourself, or you take a bit more of a detached view as someone who’s able to travel?

Well... I mean, I think I’m more of an observer. I think that I’m fortunate to not have to be so much of that person, and not have to punch a clock. And, you know, just because I don’t have any kids or anything, I have a little more freedom in my life than a lot of people my age...? You know, that’s... I’m sort of able to move about a little easier [laughs]. So I think I’m more of an observer, but I do understand that, and I do understand... I will say that do very much understand the persistence of people - I think that’s something that, as an artist, you are in touch with: just working every day and just crossing your fingers that something gives. That it leads to something breaking or, you know, something... good. And the last record was called Faith In The Future - that’s everything from being an artist to being a cab driver: showing up and doing your job, and believing that it’s gonna lead to something better than just staying in bed.

One of the people you’ve always reminded me of a little is Mike Doughty, formerly of Soul Coughing - he has a kind of detached drawl that’s similar to yours, and seems to always have one eyebrow slightly raised. How would you react to being described as ‘arch’ in relation to your characters?!

[Laughs] Yeah, I mean, I think I am always looking for something a little bit humorous and maybe detached, but I do hope that some sympathy comes across, or some empathy for these people, because arch to me sometimes would make me say... it would make me think that was lacking, so I would hope that some sympathy and empathy comes through.

Do you think that you know more than your characters do, or are they more like unreliable narrators?

No. I don’t think so, I don’t think I know more than anyone the older that I get, I really don’t. I think that there’s been times when I’ve looked back, there’s a few songs that seem a little preachy on a couple of later Hold Steady records, and I’ve realised that after the fact - like, late, you know? And I think that in the last few records I’ve really made a conscious effort to try to tell a story and then get out. You know, leave it there - rather than editorialise, or whatever.

The songs are so literate in the first instance - and in fact, something like God In Chicago isn’t necessarily even a song in a conventional sense of having a melodic through-line. How do you actually put a song together? Do the lyrics come first and the music second, or do they evolve in tandem with one another?

They tend to... like, lately they’ve really evolved in tandem, but I mean... in most cases, they tend to start with the first line. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever written a chorus before a first verse. So they kind of unfold like the story’s told, almost - and in some cases, I’m trying to figure out what the story is. And I only have a first line - sometimes I have a story, but I need a way in. But it’s really just telling the story, and I think even the way the last two records have been produced, a lot of decisions sonically have been to put that story first. In the case of God In Chicago, I brought that to the producer, Josh Kaufman, and I was trying to make it into more of a song - more of a traditional song - and he was like, “You know what? This is cool. Let’s try this”. And it ended up being sort of an experiment in how it’s... you know, right on the edge of just being a spoken story, but at times it matches up with the music, at times it doesn’t, etc. So, it can happen all different ways.

You mentioned earlier with The Hold Steady about the highs and the lows - one of the things I’ve noticed, particularly with this album, is that the grandeur of the music acts as a sort of counterpoint to the numbing reality of the lyrics and the situations the characters find themselves in. Is that something that’s intentional on your part?

I always love that - I mean, I think that The Hold Steady often had, like, party music set with terrible things happening! [Laughs] And in this case there was an attempt to create kind of, like, beauty where otherwise you might not see beauty. And that’s sort of the role of the music, with these horns and pianos and something kinda heralding the arrival of an otherwise mundane situation.

There’s a couple of tracks that really caught my ear on your last solo album that I wanted to ask you about. The first was Newmyer’s Roof, which has that incredible back-story of you watching the Twin Towers come down, and again with your partner actually being in the building on the day. Obviously a lot of time had passed between those events and the song emerging - so why that narrative, that recollection or that sentiment now, at this time?

Well, I think that I’ve always gotta date backwards about ten years [laughs], and I think with some distance you can kind of find out... sometimes it’s interesting to find out what’s interesting about that time...? And what struck me about 9/11 and that song is that, looking back, I was really interested in the hangover that New York felt for a number of years after that - in my personal life and, I think, just the city: the way that people kinda drank more and went home with people easier, etc. So I was kind of just obsessed by how that put a bunch of things in motion: in my case there was a divorce, but at the same time, a few years later in that hangover I started The Hold Steady, and that became a whirlwind where I went around the world a couple of times and it sorta spit me out the other side, wondering what happened in 2014, you know?! The it was time to process it and write a song about it.

The other was Sarah, Calling From A Hotel, which really lingered long in the memory for me - particularly that lyric: “The last thing she said to me before she hung up the phone was / Here he comes. He’s got a gun. I gotta go.” I was wondering where the inspiration for that song came from.

Well, it was... It’s actually not too far off from some of the songs on this record, and I think it’s the idea of, you know, ‘true love’ or security. And I think in the case of Sarah, she goes with someone who’s, you know, financially secure, but maybe not emotionally so, and ends up being dangerous. So she’s trying to... she’s giving up on some version of love she might have had before for a quote-unquote ‘better life’. Ah, it doesn’t... [laughs] There’s times when it might remind me of our new First Lady! Ya know, who sort of sometimes feels like a hostage...!

There seems to me to be a very definite split in tone between your solo work and that with the band, so I’m wondering: how do you decide what becomes a Craig Finn solo song and what becomes a Hold Steady song?

It’s kinda... it’s become kind of easy. With The Hold Steady, it’s the process of us getting in a room mainly, and Tad usually has some riffs we play on, and I start yelling into a microphone, and a few hours later we have a song. And with this, I’m just sit with an acoustic guitar and create at least the skeleton of a song by myself. And, you know - which isn’t to say The Hold Steady wouldn’t play those songs, but when I’ve brought ’em in having been creative that way, we sorta haven’t been very successful in being able to ‘Hold Steadify’ those songs, if you will. So almost by getting it to that point, kinda complete with just an acoustic guitar and my vocals, it almost inherently becomes a solo song.

Despite a shift in tone towards a more reflective outlook on later albums, the band seems to still be quite defined by the aesthetic of Boys & Girls In America - does it frustrate you that there’s still this perception of you as the hard-partying boys, or is it just something where you think “We can work around that”?

[Laughs] Well, if anyone’s paying attention in any way, I think it’s good! So I’m happy to do that. And you know, it’s true that I don’t feel the same always as when we wrote Boys and Girls - that’s not how I feel in my mind, but it’s very easy when we get on stage and plug in the guitars to say “Alright, well this is going to be a party, and I’m ready for this”! [Laughs]And, ah... the music can, you know, get me there very quickly. So, I do very much relate to both sides of that.

I’ve got to ask for all those who are interested - what’s the status of the band at the moment? I heard you got together played some reunion shows over Christmas.

Yeah, we played four shows in Brooklyn and they were amazing - Franz [Nicolay] was playing piano with us again, so it was a six-piece line-up of The Hold Steady, which I believe to be the best line-up of The Hold Steady yet; Steve Selvidge who came in after Franz was there, too. And I think... I don’t see, like, any massive touring, but I definitely see more shows in the near-future, so it’s just a matter of... I think what we did was really nice, like playing a bunch of shows in one location over a weekend,  and I think we’d like to replicate that in different places, rather than any big month-long tour. I think it’s finding spots to play multiple shows, and making ’em really special for that, rather than just overdoing it. So I think, you know, we’re looking for the next round as we speak.

So we can look forward to something more like ‘An Evening with The Hold Steady’, would be the way it’s billed...

Yeah, I mean, or a weekend. A whole weekend...

I dare say many people wouldn’t be able to handle that, to be honest! Just a couple more questions for my own amusement more than anything else - I’m a big fan of Josh Ritter, and I was wondering how you came to hook up with Sam Kassirer on this record.

Oh! Well, Josh Kaufman produced the record, and he plays in Josh Ritter’s band with Sam, and they’ve worked on a lot of stuff together. And so Josh said if you need a piano player, I think we should get Sam, and so Sam came down - I hadn’t met him until the sessions, but he worked out great, he was a great part of the record and played on a lot of them.

Did he come up with that little musical twist in Preludes that kind of divides the verses up?

No, that was Josh Kaufman who came up with that, and then... that’s also a flute, so Stuart Bogie the horn player, the reed player, the wind player who did that - I think Kaufman came up with kind of the melodic line.

It’s a really clever bit, I think - it’s kind of the musical equivalent of going: “And then a few minutes later...”

[Laughs] Yeah, no - it’s a really nice thing, it’s certainly a tone that I don’t think has appeared in any song I’ve done before.

And finally: what your five favourite songs that you’ve written, or which are the five that you’d most like to be remembered for?

Oh! Okay, um... Well, I’d say I’m going to have to pick, like, one from Lifter Puller, my old band, which shall be Nassau Coliseum... and from The Hold Steady, I’d say Stuck Between Stations and Positive Jam... and then, ah, let’s go with two from the solos... which would be, I’d say, Newmyer’s Roof, and I’m gonna say God in Chicago, as I’m really high on that one right now.

I have to say, I’ve always really liked Southtown Girls, which has a really nice sentiment that captures the band really well.

Yeah, that’s a... you know, they’re all my babies! [Laughs] It’s so hard to pick favourites, I like that one too.

Ninety Bucks on this record, that’s my standout - a surefire single if ever there was one.

I hope so! I hope so. That might come next.

We All Want the Same Things is available now via Partisan Records.

INTERVIEW: The Screaming Blue Messiahs (September 2016)

Though today best-remembered for their lost hit I Wanna Be a Flintstone, The Screaming Blue Messiahs - bassist Chris Thompson, drummer Kenny Harris and combustible, cueball-headed frontman Bill Carter - cut quite a swathe through the hideous yuppie largesse of 1980s pop.

The furious rockabilly riffs and Clash swagger of 1984’s Good and Gone EP announced their arrival with shrieking ferocity. Though 1986’s Gun-Shy saw their visceral live sound somewhat diluted by major-label production, it nevertheless carved a neat path between the band’s manic performances and later more stylised recordings - best evidenced in re-worked version of early standouts Let’s Go Down To The Woods and Someone To Talk To. 1987’s Bikini Red found the band pursuing a slicker, more studio-driven approach and, in a more just decade, I Can Speak American would have joined I Wanna Be a Flintstone in the charts. By 1989’s Totally Religious, they were trading in clanging, alien soundscapes incorporating post-punk elements - in turn pre-empting the mechanical grind of bands like Fugazi.

With such a distinctive 1950s US pop-culture aesthetic - atom bombs, Cadillacs and images of youthful rebellion loom large throughout their catalogue - the Messiahs found themselves somewhat adrift in an age of yacht-rock and Reaganomics. Though the trio were granted a fleeting taste of mainstream recognition when they were personally invited to support David Bowie at two stadium concerts, mounting tensions caused them to disband soon after the release of Totally Religious - an LP which sounds like music run through an industrial mangler.

With members of DC lynchpins Jawbox and Fugazi paying tribute in the liner notes of collated for posterity in a new retrospective box-set, Vision in Blues, it’s clear that the band’s influence still persists. However, the scuppered possibilities of its futuristic soundscapes are clearly still a sore point for Bill Carter. The following interview - conducted with each band-member separately, via email - makes for a fascinating case-study in how old resentments die hard.

In many respects, the band’s sound acted as a sort of distillation of every major phase of rock‘n’roll up to that point: rockabilly, blues, mod, garage, punk, New Wave... Did you see yourselves as a continuation of that lineage, or were you trying to forge something new (especially with the second album)? If so, looking back, how successful do you think were?

KENNY: I don’t think that any band thinks too deeply about continuing a lineage of any kind. All the musical genres you mention were certainly in the mix but we were just trying to make the best racket we could. In terms of how successful we were, some people got it but lots more didn’t.

CHRIS: Of course we were influenced by previous genres, especially British R&B and for my part American Blues which I had been playing for years before I started playing electric music. Also we wanted to forge something new which is usually the reason for starting a new band! 

BILL: All bands are a product of history. Some of our material was too retro and limited rhythm-wise in concept. I think in our case the musicians involved combined with stripped-down format (bass, drums and guitar) also had its limitations.

In the early recordings I argued with Vic Maile a lot about some things sounding too traditional rhythmically and structure wise. His argument was that I was trying to be too obscure and that I should do what everyone else does and copy good songs you like. To some extent he was probably right. Kenny did end up having to stand on a stool with a skipping rope whirling it around trying to record whirling dervish sounds. However, the more cyclic Twin Cadillacs, Destroyer and Sweet Water Pools do work better for me - especially live, particularly because of the connection and audience involvement [which was] a bit like dance music at the time. Chris and Kenny did not write any songs so they got sent to the pub after we finally got the drums done… resentment was starting to build…

Working with Howard Gray (who later became a member of Apollo 440) on Twin Cadillacs, he used to talk about the Messiahs’ repetitive, hypnotic-type songs and how they were not that far away from trance-type stuff that was happening at the time and the way it worked on the people who came to see us. By the end of the set people were starting to get sort of mezzed.

We had a lot of problems with the record company as far as what tracks they liked. They wanted a traditional rock band for the USA and were not keen on the more linear cyclic songs that we did with Howard Gray.

With such a strong 1950s
US pop-culture aesthetic, you seemed like a band somewhat adrift in the 1980s - particularly in Britain. Did that make things more difficult at the time (particularly in a commercial sense), or were you quite happy to be off on your own musical trip?

CHRIS: I grew up in 50s pop culture in North America. We were a niche band and although we were not mainstream in the UK we seemed to be very popular in the rest of the world.  

KENNY: We were more than happy to plough our own furrow. We were never part of a scene and never wanted to be.

BILL: The Screaming Blue Messiahs were a self-fulfilling prophecy. We were never going to be a commercial success.

Following on from that, what are your memories of supporting David Bowie in stadiums? Did these constitute a career high, or did they serve to juxtapose that scale of success against the plight of smaller bands on the independent circuit?

KENNY:  I can only answer for myself here, Bill and Chris may give totally different answers. While it was an experience never to be forgotten, scary while exhilarating at the same time, I don’t think we should have done them. We were playing songs off the newly recorded but not yet released Bikini Red, using gadgets that we so far had only used in the studio, live for the first time. I don’t think we were ready for gigs that size but that’s just my opinion.

CHRIS: We were in the middle of recording when we were approached and were very involved in the studio so playing with Bowie was a welcome distraction. I had no conception of our success or failure at that moment. I thought we were doing well and it was great to play with David Bowie.

BILL: A great opportunity given to us by David Bowie who was very supportive, cheerful and upbeat. I knew we were on the wrong stage when I heard Harvey Goldsmith condescendingly introducing the band like a karaoke compère at a Butlins holiday camp.

What’s your favourite period of the band showcased here - is there a specific album that you’re particularly proud of, or which you think shows the band at its best?

BILL: It’s difficult to say because the whole thing was so flawed and contentious at the time. The live album sounds better than I thought it would.

CHRIS: My favorite period of time was when we were making Good and Gone. I felt I was part of something great and I was very happy with the album. We were all working well together at that time both on stage and in the studio.

KENNY: My favourite album is Bikini Red. We went into the studio after months of touring and so were as match fit as it was possible to be. The songs were great and we were back in with Vic Maile producing. Good times.

You were known for your splenetic live shows, and it’s been widely acknowledged (even by yourselves, from what I gather!) that the studio albums never quite captured the essence of the band in that respect - do you feel that the live album included in this box-set goes some way to redressing that balance?

KENNY:  I do think there’s some good stuff on Zurich and it’s the only live recording I’ve heard that has got tracks from Totally Religious on it.

BILL: The re-mastered  Zurich live recording sounds better than it used to. Twin Cadillacs sounds good, and Accident Prone… a lot of noise for a 3 piece.

CHRIS: The live shows and the albums are two different things. Personally I like both and the recorded material sounds even better as time goes on.

With the box-set providing a chance to look back at your career in its entirety, what do you think your legacy is? Do you hear yourselves in any modern-day acts, or have you since been cited as an influence in the intervening years?

CHRIS: I am sure that we influenced people as others in turn influenced us, but it does not define me. I was playing for years before the Messiahs and I still am.

BILL: I think the music speaks for itself.

KENNY:  I am not the type of person vain enough to sit down and think about our ‘legacy’. I think that if one starts to think along lines like that, one is in danger of turning into Bongo from the U2s.

What have you all been up to since? What happens when the musical dream splutters to a halt - and did you remain friends?

CHRIS: As I said, I am still playing. Nothing has spluttered to a halt as far as I am concerned. I am still friends with Kenny Harris and we play together regularly.

KENNY: Chris and I carried on playing for a while and we were hired as a rhythm section for an American Cajun fiddle player called Pierre Le Rue. I also did stints with bands like The Inmates and The Men They Couldn’t Hang. More recently Chris and I started playing together again although this time he’s playing guitar. So Chris and I are still in touch.

BILL: It was not a musical dream, it was a reality… and it did not splutter to a halt, it was a combination of well-thought-through decisions.

In my opinion, Totally Religious could have been an all time classic album. Chris Thompson and Kenny Harris did not want to record in the USA and were totally creatively uncooperative and more or less on strike, leading to serious problems recording the album.  Kenny got sent home and I wanted them both sacked.

I decided then that it would be the last time I recorded or toured with them. Subsequently Elektra dropped the band. Some bands might have carried on but the dynamics had not changed in the band. So creatively it was a dead end for me. The band split up in 1989.

I spent some time in Baltimore. I now live in London. More recently if it had not been for my good friend Howard Thompson who signed the band to Elektra Records, I would have had no knowledge of this box-set release because nobody contacted me about it . I am currently considering taking legal action against Chris Thompson and Kenny Harris to among other things stop passing themselves off as The Messiahs.

In the meantime I am enjoying life. I am working on paintings and videos at the moment… and some musical ideas...

Finally - taken as a whole, how do you feel revisiting the material on this box-set? Does it feel like something of a distant trip down memory lane, or is it still as vital or relevant to you?

BILL: Ambivalent. But it is great news that Warners have finally licensed The Screaming Blue Messiah’s excellent re-mastered 27-year-old box set which is released on Easy Action as a body of work... flawed as some of it is.

CHRIS: Partly it is a distant memory, but I am flattered and pleased that Easy Action Records have put it out. 

KENNY: I think most of the stuff still stands up pretty well, although I couldn’t sit down and listen to it for very long. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but there’s only so many times you can listen to stuff you’ve played a million times without getting a wee bit sick of it. In some respects it can’t help but be a trip down memory lane, but it doesn’t feel as distant as you would expect.

Vision in Blues is available now via Easy Action.