He took his name from a character from The Simpsons, grew up on Johnny Cash but knows his way around The Jesus & Mary Chain too, and has a certain passion for classic country misery. Oh, and he’s from Leeds. Ladies and gents, meet Mr Plow, one of the most interesting artists to emerge on the UK Americana scene for years. In this, his first interview for Americana UK, we speak to Mr Plow about his new album, The Book Of Common Despair, genuine country roots and why they don’t really matter at all as long as the songs are good. Which, indeed, they are in his case.
Interview by Soren McGuire
First up - how the hell does a young, British man end up a country singer of sorrow, death and despair?
I've been listening to country & rock n roll ever since I can remember. I'd listen in as my older brothers used to play Elvis, the Cash prison albums, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee vinyl when I was in primary school. First record I ever owned was one of those cheap Camden albums - an Elvis one, with Guitar Man on it. Still have it somewhere. Although as a teenager I listened to and played indie and alternative stuff like Velvet Underground and Jesus & Mary Chain. As I went on, I just wanted to play and listen to something more simple, more raw, so I regressed, or progressed backwards, depending on your point of view.
Do you feel it's "easier", more artistically rewarding playing country music than plowing your way through another version of Venus In Furs?
I don't know if it's easier. It would be probably easier for me to cobble together some list of art-rock druggy nonsense than attempt to put together a story of sorts - but doing the former would feel less genuine, although it's fair to say that an Englishman born in the 1970s has no claim to any genuine country music roots. Country just seems to work for me - it's more satisfying, it suits the sum of my musical parts, if you will.
Who's been your biggest influences so far? I hear a lot of Johnny Cash in your music.
It's no secret that there's a lot of Cash in there - the starkness, darkness and simplicity, the twang and shuffle. Also the classic country misery of Porter Wagoner & George Jones. Old country from the 1940s-1960s - Kitty Wells, Hank, Sun rockabilly, surf guitar such as Dick Dale and Link Wray, old Gospel such as Sister Rosetta Tharp - a whole raft of rootsy stuff really.
Where do you find the inspiration for this darkness then? Where do you go to get that country noir vibe going?
It's maybe cliched to say so, but misery and despair is pretty much everywhere - TV, newspapers, all rich sources! Plus I've a fairly active imagination, to take little scenes, parts of stories, and expand on them to create semi-fictions. Add to that the enduring fun of tales about good and evil, the temptations of man, perhaps a few of my own personal demons - we all have them ..... Then listen to some George Jones, Porter Wagoner, Louvin Brothers, and mix it all together!
As for sorrow, death and despair - that's just the way it turns out, warm and affectionate doesn't really seem to work for me, and darkness is much more fun. Suits my voice and 'rudimentary' guitar technique too!
You describe yourself as a little bit of country, a little bit of rock n'roll. If we look at the demographics of country music, that would make you alternative country. Any thoughts on that?
I suppose it does - alt country's a broad label I guess, as is pop or rock. I suppose your 'standard' alt. country model would be along the lines of Wilco, Ryan Adams, etc. - emenating from the Gram Parsons school. Gram Parson's was tiny, wasn't he? Which are all cool, but Gram apart it's not something I'd listen to, and not really anything to do with our sound. I suppose the tags gothic country, or country noir, are more apt.
Tiny? I don't know. But a lot of people reckoned he was a right twat. And Wilco aren't really country anymore, are they? But yeah, you're right. But what's your own definition of country noir then? I mean, if you listen to old stuff, like Porter, Lefty, Bill Monroe etc etc, there was always this dark edge to their music, right? It was always The Long Black Veil, if you know what I mean?
Yeah, like you say, a lot of traditional country is essentially 'noir' - from The Carter Family onwards – with stuff like Poor Ellen Smith, Will The Circle Be Unbroken - even traditional tunes like Tom Dooley & Knoxville Girl. Kristoffersen was…is fairly noir too, and the beautiful misery of Tammy Wynette in the 60s/70s - not noir in terms of musicianship and orchestration, but such depths of misery in her voice. Contemporary 'noirists' - my new word - are folks like the Handsome Family, and Nick Cave - who may not be country per se, but certainly sing of 'dark material'. Though if you asked me tomorrow, I'd probably give you a different answer - defining something is a dangerous business, it only ends in tears.
Tell me about The Book Of Common Despair? Is it some sort handbook on how to feel completely fucked over by this first Y2K-decade, set to a soundtrack of old George Jones records?
It might be a handbook, more a compendium of fictional and factual tales about what fate can bring, and how it does indeed screw people over. A friend summed it up as 'bad things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. Bad things happen' And who does pain and suffering better than George Jones. If Cash confronted his issues musically, then George just revels in his sorrow.
Where did you get the name from? I Googled you - aparently you're also a comedy punk band from Vancouver...
Yep - there's the comedy punk Canuck Mr Plow, and also a Texan stoner rock Mr Plow. We have a tripartate understanding though - I have the pan-European rights. But the name's taken from the classic Simpsons episode - Homer buys a snowplow truck and becomes Mr Plow, clearinng Springfield's driveways with great success, until he is usurped by Barney Gumble - aided by Linda Ronstadt - as The Plow King ....
Well, it sure beats "Max Power"
Or Rory B. Bellows ....
How much of a role does your UK background have on you as an artist? Where are you actually from, if you don't mind me asking?
I grew up in Leeds, so I'm proud to be a stubborn, opinionated Northern Monkey. Although it may well sound as if it has no bearing whatsoever, I'm sure it has plenty. If I was creating & playing music in a place where Americana thrives, amongst like-minded people, then I'm sure it'd sound different - I don't know in what way but I'm sure it would. As it is, here in splendid isolation, I listen to what I like, write and sing what I like, make up my own rules, promptly break them, and muddle along as I see fit. If it sounds fake, then that's because it is - there's no way I can play country noir and be authentic. But who can - how many Octogenarian, former share-cropping, multiple murdering, multiple marrying singers are there nowadays?
Mr Plow’s The Book Of Common Dispair is out now on Pink Box. For more info, go to Myspace.com/mrplowsplace