Your father taught at a boarding school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Did you live on the grounds? What was that like?
Yes, that’s right, I grew up on the campus of Baylor School from the time I was born until the time I was about 13 or 14 years old. It was idyllic in a lot of ways. My bedroom window of the dorm we lived in was up fairly high on a cliff by the Tennessee River riverbank and looked out along the river to a point where it turned and vanished between Elder Mountain and Signal Mountain. It was right on the river surrounded by mountains…a beautiful part of the world. So it was kind of a Huckleberry Finn-like experience of playing along and in the river and woods, watching the long barges work their way slowly up the river and blow their low and loud rumbling fog horns. I used to signal the barges from my room at night by flicking my light on and off and the captains would sometimes shine their spotlights up to my window where I would try to wave to them...not sure if they could see me or not.
In other ways it was tough growing up there. It was a very homogenous and conservative environment and I never felt like I fit in with the students there who largely all came from powerful and wealthy families. In a lot of ways, it was an intense and formative experience.
In another interview, you commented on how playing and listening to bluegrass music with your grandparents was important to your development as a musician. What specific songs do you remember? Do you play bluegrass music anymore?
My grandfather’s brother, my uncle Russell, had a fantastic high nasal tenor and he could really belt out “Sittin’ On Top Of The World.” I also remember them doing “I’m Working On A Building.” They loved that one. They loved gospel music and were definitely “Christian folks.” When they played music, that was really the only time I felt like they ever let their guard down. The rest of the time it was pretty straight and narrow. So those nights out on under the carport where it sometimes got almost rowdy were really inspiring for me and got under my skin. I could relate to the feelings.
The four brothers sang as a quartet in the little country church in the community in Tennessee where they lived. It was the type of church where about twenty people attended, and you knew everyone and the men would wear overalls and chew tobacco. That sort of atmosphere. A real experience.
I don’t play bluegrass these days but I could certainly sit in and do it. I learned guitar in the flat-picking and finger-picking style with alternating bass and little walking bass runs. Never picked up the mandolin or banjo much, but I love to sing that stuff. I wish I had a higher-pitched voice…but I can belt the songs out raw like a proper hillbilly.
Your piano playing is often described as throwback - or it is compared to such forebears as Jerry Lee Lewis and James Booker. Yet you’ve also stated that you grew up listening to The Jesus Lizard and The Birthday Party. How do you reconcile those two seemingly opposite influences?
I definitely come at the piano from a kind of “unsophisticated” way I suppose. I don’t know...I was more captivated with boogie woogie than avant-garde or free jazz for whatever reason. I was really just captivated by rock and roll and New Orleans piano in particular.
When I picked up the instrument to learn it, I decided to start at what I could tell was the root of that stuff and worked my way up: Scott Joplin, Kid Stormy Weather, Memphis Slim, Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, James Booker. And of course those that sublimated genre and place: Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis.
But to the other part of your question, those that appealed to me most were those that were a bit crazy, or wild. Or even insane…perhaps dangerous. I mean, they don’t call Jerry Lee Lewis “The Killer” for nothing, and James Booker’s got more stories on him than about anyone I’ve ever heard of. Just ask anyone in New Orleans who remembers him and they’ve all got stories crazier than the next. So that’s what also inspires me with the more modern rock guys, the Iggy Pops, the Birthday Party-era Nick Caves, the David Yows. Those guys carry that unpredictable and raw torch that was extended to them from people like Jerry Lee and these juke-joint or Storyville whorehouse pianists who’ve seen it all that came before them.
It’s no different to me to hear of James Booker playing Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene,” stop and vomit into the piano, continue with some Chopin and then into some Fats Domino, than it is to hear of Jerry Lee tucking the microphone into his pants and climbing onto the top of the piano and combing his hair back, than it is to hear of Iggy Pop or Nick Cave or David Yow shoving the microphone into the backs of their throats and ripping themselves to shreds to get a feeling across...I think it’s the same thing.
What records or artists are you listening to these days?
Well I’ve been really much more into playing the guitar these days and kind of put the piano down for a minute and picked up the Martin and the Les Paul. My new album, though I do play a lot of piano on it, is really guitar heavy. I’ve basically just been listening to whatever I could get inspiration from guitar-wise, which for me has been Neil Young with Crazy Horse, specifically those archive “Crazy Horse at the Fillmore 1970” recordings that have the fifteen minute versions of “Down By The River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” I’m also listening to Mighty Baby, particularly “Keep On Juggin.” Also The Groundhogs, Cherry Red, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Ramble Tamble, that sort of thing. Acoustically speaking, Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, Tim Hardin, that stuff. My pal the English guitarist Michael Chapman showed me an open C tuning that he used and I just started experimenting with tunings and wrote a bunch of new songs for the album based on those. I went kind of guitar nuts.
Early success in the UK was an important step in your career as a musician. Some good press in Uncut magazine was helpful. How did you break into that market? Did you get there first and catch the attention of the press, or did the press pick you up first and provide an entrée onto the British scene?
I definitely owe any success I’ve had in England, and otherwise really, directly to the late and great American guitarist Jack Rose, who kind of took me into his fold and invited me to play on some of his records and also play live with him. Since he was so well respected, it really opened the door for me to a lot of folks, but specifically to Allan Jones and John Mulvey at Uncut who happened to love my first album Tennessee & Other Stories… They gave it a lot of high praise, which raised my profile considerably in the UK and allowed me to get a booking agent over there and do tours and radio and festivals and all of that fun stuff that I had dreamed of doing since I started trying to write songs.
It’s kind of en vogue to highlight what the UK music scene does better than the US, but I’d like to flip that around. What does the US do better than the UK?
Wow, that’s a great question, and one that I’m going to have a hard time answering. Suffice it to say that because of the sheer size of the US and the number of cities, there’s just a lot more music happening here than in the UK, in terms of the number of bands and groups and genres and venues and just all things from top to bottom. I think in some ways that is perhaps “better” in my view. But really when you get down to it, it’s just different in the US than the UK, from the types of people that go to gigs, to the way promoters and their networks function. Everything about it. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison - it’s just different, for better or for worse.
You lived at the Clermont Hotel in Atlanta for a while. I’ve only scratched the surface in learning about that place, but it seems like a pretty vibrant and colorful spot. What was your experience like there?
I lived there in the hotel for a while, when I was just starting to learn the piano and was basically putting my life together again after it almost completely fell apart (that’s for another interview!). I could spend an entire interview expressing the spirit of the Clermont Hotel and its place in Atlanta lore, but suffice it to say the vibe was perfect for where I was at in my life.
I was looking to learn all this early Twentieth Century piano stuff. The itinerant nature of the residents there and the architecture and everything was spot on for creating the mood and muse for where I wanted to be. It was a pretty down-and-out place, and I was pretty down-and-out myself. I got a digital piano and some albums and some sheet music and stayed in that room and learned to play piano for about a year and a half just before I moved up to New York City. I was hanging out with lots of people who were living in the hotel and also on the street. There was the gamut of humanity along that stretch of Ponce De Leon Avenue. It was a really powerful time in my life, a time of recreating myself and making big changes. I loved my time there and met a lot of really interesting people.
Jason Meagher of Black Dirt Studios has been by your side for a long time, both as a bassist in your touring band and as a studio producer and engineer for your records. What does he bring to your music?
When it’s all said and done, I think Jason Meagher will get his recognition as the genius and crucial catalyst that he is for so much music in the US. That’s not hyperbole. It would be just about impossible to overstate how so much music, going back to the early ‘90’s, has emanated through him directly and also through his Black Dirt Studio. I’d be willing to guess that for every album made in the last decade that you guys love and listen to at the Cream Puff Records store, there’s a degree or two of separation between it and Jason.
That said, he has always been my biggest supporter. He has played with me live and on record, has recorded countless albums I’ve played on and has invited me to be part of so much fantastically creative stuff. I’m truly lucky to know him and count him as a friend. He brings an air of creative support, enthusiasm, and experimentation to projects like no other that I’ve ever worked with, and he has ideas at every turn, or can play you some record during a break from recording that blows your mind and sets you off on the inspiration trajectory for your next album and you haven’t even realized it yet. He’s that type of a guy…magic really. And because Jason is so well respected and so enthusiastic and so freely sharing and excited about what he’s working on, he’s like the ultimate insider PR guy that you could ever have! I couldn’t tell you how many people became aware of my music and gave it a chance because he had turned them on to it out of genuine enthusiasm.
He told Aquarium Drunkard last year that there’s an unreleased version of “Linden Avenue Stomp” that you play keys on. What do we earthlings have to do in order to hear it?
I think it was me and Jack, Nathan Bowles, and “Harmonica” Dan. I reckon all you’d need to do would to be to have dinner over at Jason’s, and after eating one of the best meals you’ve ever tasted (made by him and his wife of course), you’d retire to the control room and he’d pull it up from some old DVR and crank it up on those studio monitors. Faders up!
You also play in D Charles Speer and the Helix. What’s the latest with that band?
Well, that was a hell of a band. I’d love to report something new from that camp, but as far as The Helix goes, we haven’t done much with D. Charles Speer since our last record in 2014, Doubled Exposure. In a lot of ways - kind of like the proto-band before it, The Suntanama - perhaps the world just wasn’t ready for it, or able to support it and sustain it for any real length of time somehow. Maybe like how geysers spring forth and dry up. Or oil gushers gush and are gone. Or sand bars rise and disappear. The Speer band has waxed and waned for the moment.
Me and David Shuford, Mr. D. Charles Speer himself, had dinner at a killer Ethiopian restaurant with both of our families last week. But as far as music goes, I think David’s group Rhyton has really taken over the muse from The Helix at the moment, but there’s been nothing put to bed or anything like that. We made four killer records and I wouldn’t be surprised if something gets stirred up again with folks from that faction before too long. In any case, many permutations of those players are all still doing stuff together in different forms or tangentially. The rhythm section of Rhyton is the rhythm section on my new album!
We could not be more excited for your show at The Visulite. Have you ever played Charlotte before?
Been to Charlotte many times, seen gigs in Charlotte, but never played Charlotte before. We’re excited to rectify that situation.
The Charlotte show falls at the beginning of an East Coast run. How often do you tour? What do you have in store this time? Are you sticking to the keys this go-round or will you be stepping out front on guitar too?
My band and I, or just me solo, will usually do a UK/EU thing once a year and also a US thing once a year or so, with multiple one-off shows in the NYC area or regionally for festivals or whatever we get invited to do. We love to play, I love to play, and we’re always looking to do it as much as possible. Because this new album is so guitar heavy and I’ve been playing loads of guitar recently, for this tour you’ll see me both behind the piano and with the guitar, and in fact you’ll see me behind the piano WITH the guitar. We’re looking forward to it.