The point of this interview is to talk about records, so the first one I’ll ask you about is Sunlight Tonight. This is your debut as a solo performer, right?
How did it come together? What else do we need to know about the record?
Patrick Carney from The Black Keys plays drums on the album. Sam Dixon, who plays with Adele, plays bass. That’s the rhythm section, but I have strings on every song pretty much. I have harp. And trumpet. I do a couple of duets on the album. One is with Sol Seppy, who was in Sparklehorse, one of my favorite bands. There’s a duet with her, and there’s a duet with Faye Webster, who is from Atlanta.
Half of the album doesn’t have drums on it, which is something I’d never explored before. With The Whigs, drum and bass were the only other instrumentation other than me [on guitar]. The band was geared to that format, but now that I’m doing my solo thing, I’m out on the road playing with an acoustic guitar. When I got in the studio, I chose harp or cello or whatever suited the song the best. That’s what I did for Sunlight Tonight. No one’s expecting me to have a full string section on the road. It’s just for the album.
I listened to the single “Through the Canvas” and watched the video. I’ve seen The Whigs a handful of times on different tours, so I perked up when I heard the single. This is very different from The Whigs. Synths. Full orchestration. Is that something you’ve been wanting to do for a long time?
Definitely. There’s so many elements in music that I love. Horns. A female vocalist. They just didn’t fit into what the band does. In the purest sense, as a songwriter, if it’s just me and piano or a guitar and the song works, I know the bones are strong. And that’s how I made this album. I’d go on the road with just an acoustic guitar and play these songs. If people were into them, I knew that they could work like that. So then I’d fill them out. I had always wanted to look at songs and recording that way. Instead of them having to fit into this rock band.
It’s good that you can spread your wings, so to speak.
Honestly, just having been on the rock band circuit for so long - I’ve been in The Whigs for seventeen years. We’ve played a ton of shows with a lot of different bands, but over the years, I kind of knew in the back of my mind that I had more to give musically.
A lot of people do the three-chord punk rock thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s been really fulfilling for me to try out all the different sounds.
You’ve done the three-chord punk rock thing really well for a really long time.
Hell yeah. And we still do. We just played a month ago. And we’ll do plenty of shows in the future. It feels refreshing when I get back to that. It’s like driving a sports car or something. Fun. Loud. Fast.
What were you listening to during the recording process? Was there a band or a record that proved to be a particular source of inspiration?
Electric Warrior is where it began. A lot of it was visual too. Looking at the photos of [Marc Bolan]. And for whatever reason, I had never listened to that album before. It had a cool feel and it was acoustic based. He came from this folk place - freak folk or glam folk.
That’s how David Bowie started too.
Exactly. Both of them. I just loved that transition. It made so much sense to me that all those songs [on Electric Warrior] start out with an acoustic vibe. Approaching it from that angle, you’re more liberated to fill it out with extravagance. David Bowie would play a song on an acoustic guitar and it still ruled.
If Bolan and Bowie are your role models, there’s really nothing you can’t do.
Totally. There’s [also] this record by The Radar Brothers. It’s really slow. And Beachwood Sparks. Lots of really slow songs. I had always been into those bands and reveled in how slow the music was. It wasn’t something I’d really explored. A lot my album was based on rediscovering influences like that. Someone I might’ve listened to a lot during a time when their influence wouldn’t have transitioned well to a Whigs record. But the influences transition well into this solo project.
You formed The Whigs in Athens, GA, a town famous for its music heritage. What is the best Athens album?
To me, it’s The Glands. New West is reissuing a Glands box set. They haven’t released an album in seventeen years. Their singer [Ross Shapiro'] was a friend of mine. He passed away maybe three years ago. They’re reissuing the two Glands albums and releasing a bunch of unreleased stuff he’d been working on before he died. The Glands for me personally is the ultimate Athens album. It came out in 2001
So right around the time The Whigs were getting started.
Exactly. They were the band we more or less modeled ourselves after. I moved to Athens because of the Elephant 6 stuff. I loved Olivia Tremor Control and Elf Power and Apples in Stereo. Of Montreal. All that stuff. It’s what brought me to Athens, but by the time I got there, it had all pretty much gone away. But The Glands were this fun rock band that played uptempo rock songs and also slow psychedelic songs. Musically, the covered a lot of ground and we used to go see them a lot in Athens. They were definitely our favorite band.
As part of the press for the new record, you’ve made a point of saying you don’t take yourself too seriously. You have the promo photos to prove it. Which artists do you think of when you think of people who didn’t take themselves too seriously?
Honestly, most of the reputable, great artists. The Beatles didn’t take themselves too seriously. There’s so many photos of them shooting the shit, having a great time. Wearing goofy outfits. Whatever. Or The Stones. Or Bob Dylan. All of these people have a sense of humor, sure. But you can see that they were really having fun with their art. Mick Jagger is open to singing “Far Away Eyes” in a country accent even though he’s an English dude. The Beatles wore the Sergeant Pepper’s outfits, exploring different looks visually.
So it’s a visual thing. How they presented themselves to the public?
Yeah. I really love photographs, and Instagram necessitates a photo every time you make an announcement. I’ve got a lot of shows. A lot of activity. It occurred to me that photos with me on a stage with a guitar wearing jeans gets old very quickly. Growing up, my friends and I would put on a weird outfit and take a photo. It was a fun thing to have your picture made.
So when I’m tour, whoever I’m staying with, I’ll ask them if they have anything weird in their closet. And I’ll put it on and have my photo made. Everybody has that one weird jacket or something that they bought on a whim that they’d never wear to dinner. I grab that stuff. It keeps it interesting visually, color-wise, composition-wise. It’s a lot more entertaining.
What is the first record you ever bought?
Weird Al Yankovic. Alapalooza.
What songs are on that one?
“Jurassic Park.” “Frank’s 2000 Inch TV.” “Living in the Fridge,” which is a parody of “Living on the Edge.” But honestly, it’s the original “Frank’s 2000 Inch TV” that really sticks with me.
Have you ever seen a Weird Al show?
I haven’t but I’d really love to see him play a gig.
I think any kid who watched MTV would have to say that Weird Al was part of their childhood. There’s no one else like him.
Yeah. Nobody’s even close. The Beatles and The Stones are pretty different, but if you zoom out, it’s kind of the same. But Weird Al doesn’t have any companion.
What were you listening to when you decided to form The Whigs?
Most of it was local. Elephant 6. The Glands. The Strokes had just come out as I was finishing high school and going to college. They were so different than the music that I was into. Like The Dismemberment Plan. We were listening to them a lot when we formed the band. We were really into Grandaddy. Those were the main ones, but The Strokes were so different than all that stuff. They were a rock band.
You’re gearing up for a long solo tour. It will start this fall and go all the way through early 2019. What’s that going to be like? Will you have a band with you or is it all solo?
I’m actually deciding that right now. I’ll probably have one other person at some shows. The rest of the time, the majority will just be me. It could change. If it makes sense to have a band with me, then great. Until then, it’ll be just me. Honestly, I really like playing solo. It’s such a different performance. Like Neil Young . Or Bob Dylan. People that aren’t rock and roll bands. If you can listen to Kurt Cobain play a song by himself on guitar. It’s almost like a different sport.
Will you be playing Whigs songs or just solo songs?
When I first started off, it was all Whigs songs. Then as I would write solo stuff, I would do half and half. And then it became just solo songs. But if anyone comes to a show and wants to hear a Whigs song, I will try to play it for them. One or two a show.
Whether with The Whigs or solo, you’ve played Charlotte numerous times. What are your impressions of the Queen City?
I love Charlotte. It’s one of the first places we played outside of Georgia. There was this label Morisen Records and Chuck Morisen would have us up to play his showcase even though we weren’t on his label. We’d come up there and play with our favorite Charlotte band The Sammies. And also with The Talk. Or Marant.
The Sammies though. They were like our first band friendship. The two bands just got along really well. We’ve played The Steeple. The Room. Visulite. Evening Muse. Neighborhood Theatre. We’ve also played the Milestone.
I’m with you on all of those. The Room was pretty obscure. That was a room that didn’t make it, but that place was awesome. Never heard of The Steeple though. Where the hell was that?
It was next to Fuel Pizza. In a church. I don’t think they did shows there for too long. But we played with The Sammies there pretty early. They have a song called “Falling Out,” one of their big songs. I always associate them playing that song at The Steeple.