You are new to us here at Americana-UK. Where are you from? What’s your musical heritage?
I'm from a small town in between Austin and Dallas Texas of about one thousand people called Itasca. Pretty much no one knows where Itasca is unless you're from there or happened to be out of gas in the general area. My dad and grandpa got me on the musical roller coaster at the early age of 4 by putting a fiddle in my hands. I sawed away on that for 10 or so years before picking up a guitar and deciding I wanted to sing. When I was 2 or 3 my dad used to listen to Willie Nelson's "Red Headed Stranger" while I sat on top of his favorite classical guitar. So that's the type of music I started playing after I picked up the guitar. Learning tunes by the likes of Waylon, Willie and Mr. Cash. From there, again influenced by my father, I began to dig the blues. At first Stevie Ray Vaughn and other likely cats. But then I wanted to know who their influences were. That traced back to Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix. I absorbed myself in this for a while until I wanted to know their roots. Eventually I made it back to Son House, Fred McDowell, Sam Hopkins. I just worked my way backwards through the decades until I found a music that was so real and honest that I had to stop and appreciate. This is where I began to become my own musician. From these roots are where I began to grow my own musical existence. Finding myself, both musically and personally, evolving, devolving and honing my craft is what brings me to the present.
The Shovel vs. The Howling Bones is a brilliant record. Has this been a long time coming for you? What’s the journey to this album been like?
First, thank you for the kind words. Yes, the album has been a long time coming. I now truly understand the term "labor of love". There has been a lot of blood, sweat and tears lost over and during this record as well as many starts and restarts.
The journey has been stressful and on occasion almost too hard to handle but I wouldn't trade the experience for anything and I would do it all over again the exact same way. The title of the album sums up the journey well. The Shovel and the Howling Bones are the same entity. The same person. It's basically a story of self deprecation. Tearing down dreams the same time you’re trying to build those dreams. Trying to bury yourself but at the same time, howling and contesting your burial. That's my existence and the underlying theme of the record.
Your sound comes across as very natural and from the soul. Would you agree with that? Is your music close to your heart?
The album is a narrative of my life and emotions since I was a child. All my songs, including the new ones I am writing now come from a very deep place in my gut. I can't write about what's popular and seldom do - I write about love. I write about pain, strife, doom and gloom but I write what I feel. When I write or perform I do so with every fiber of my being otherwise it doesn't seem worth it to me. I don't write and play my songs for fame or fortune. I do so as therapy. Medicine for the soul. Although if anyone would like to use my music for fame and fortune, let's talk.
There is a huge dose of Southern American folk music, reminiscent of chain gangs and a very tribal presence. Are these the places where you draw your influences or is this your own interpretation of something else?
It is where I draw a lot of inspiration. I listen to old library of congress recordings from the early 1900s, Alan Lomax's field recordings and old bluegrass. Some of the earliest chain gang songs and field hollers are the most real music you'll ever hear. No fame or glory. Just singing to get by. From their heart and soul. I think any musician can draw as much as they'll ever need from those recordings. It's a lesson in why the human race makes, or should make music, it's good for you. Also the folk and roots aspect of the songs are my audio interpretation of my childhood. We had a farm when I was a kid, we canned our fruit and vegetables in mason jars. Picked peas, corn etc. I have a very special place in my heart for those days. The days when I still felt a sense of innocence. I try to grasp and relive some of those emotions in the roots based music that I write.
Does writing flow easily for you?
I will go through long spells where all I need to do is put my pen to paper and the song will come. I don't know where they come from, but they just flow readily. Then the river will dam up and I've got nothing. Or just a bunch of stuff that sounds like something I've already done. I used to panic and think I'll never be able to write another song. The last song was the last song I'll ever write. But the dam always breaks and they flow again. I've learned not to fight the blocks. For me, if I try to write through the blocks, I just end up writing garbage. I just wait it out and it always comes back. I guess the answer is yes and no. It's really easy until it's not.
Tell us about the recording of the record. It feels like it was quite an intense session. Where was it recorded? Who did you use?
The album was recorded at The Finishing School in Austin Texas. It's George Reiff's place who was the co-producer along with Ray Wylie Hubbard. George has been a part of a lot of great projects like The Band of Heathens, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Shinyribs as well as played bass for Ray, Jakob Dylan, The Courtyard Hounds and Chris Robinson and The New Earth Mud. George adds a spice, a tone, a magic that I could not live without. Ray has been a mentor of mine for many years and I owe a great deal to his wisdom and guidance. Ray and George together create a perfect storm of genius.
There’s a lot of interesting sounds on the record. What other instruments did you use? Did you use any other musicians?
We used anything we could find. Bird feeders, a guitar that was found submersed in dirt, doubling as a potted plant. Cardboard boxes were heavy players in the recording process. A hacksaw even made an appearance. We also had an arsenal of old Gibsons and Silvertones, Supro and Alamo amps, 1950's projector speakers.
The drums and just overall greasy thumping groove of the record was executed by the unrivaled and infallible Rick Richards. He is by far the coolest drummer I'll ever meet and it was an honor to have him as the backbone of this project. I can't and don't want to imagine this record without Rick. Other legendary Austin musicians were Derek O'Brien (guitar), Jeff Plankenhorn (mandolin), Bucca Allen (accordion and piano) and Idgy Vaughn who sang backup on "Trucker's Love Song" and made that song rock. My wife Alissa also sang backup and banged on various cardboard boxes which was a fun experience for us both.
Do you have a favourite part of the album? Maybe just one song or part of the whole process that particularly stands out?
I think my favorite song would be "Mud Puddles" because I think it gives a sneak peak of where the music is headed. It's all about evolving and growing and Mud Puddles is a step in the direction that some of the new songs are taking. We're going to get much more experimental and raw in the next record. Staying true to what I do but thinking outside the box and getting even darker and more foreboding. My favorite event though would be when we recorded Clementine. It was the last song recorded on the last day at about 1am in the morning. We were all strung out and dead tired. We all sat around in a circle in the studio, hit record and played it one time through.
The ‘one man bluesman’ is a common site around venues these days. Why do you think this is becoming more popular? Although it sounds clichéd but would you say that with the success of bands like The White Stripes it’s made this type of music more accessible to fans?
On an artistic level, I think people are digging a more raw music these days instead of the highly produced wall-of-sound bands. I am grateful to people like Jack White, Seasick Steve and The Civil Wars because I believe it has brought about an interest in a more bare, raw, basic music. It's the way a lot of music started, very basic and primal. Everything is cyclical. It'll swing the other way again but I'm enjoying the ride while I can.
On a logistical level, with economies crashing right and left, it just makes more sense to travel as light as possible. The more sound you can make out of one person, the fewer musicians you have to use and the less it costs you to do the gig. I never really intended to do a "one man band" thing. It just kind of happened. Ray told me to learn to be self-contained. Learn to carry the show by yourself, then add people as needed. That was my plan. But as I practiced, I started adding this and that until I became this loud, big sound. People started to talk about me for that reason so I figure, at least they're talking.
What has been the best show you’ve played so far? Do you have a memorable moment of being on the road or playing live?
I played the Lone Star Music Awards in San Marcos Texas about a year ago. The whole production was very well done. The venue was a theater that had a big and beautiful sound and the audience was the best I've played for. Some of the shows make you feel like a bonafide rockstar, that was one.
Will we be seeing you in the U.K anytime soon? Will you be touring the U.S in the meantime?
We are working on two UK tours right now. The first will likely be in or around September and the second will hopefully include some festivals. One of my top goals for this year and this record was to play the UK and we are very excited to finally be making that a reality. The UK has supported me very well and we want to show our appreciation by coming over as often as possible. In the meantime, we will be working the record in the states by touring it nationally. We'll probably be hitting the West coast and Deep South first with more dates to follow.