I noticed on the front and back covers of Burning Daylight, you're holding a can of beer. Are you a beer guy?
I don’t know if I’m a beer guy and I’m pretty sure it’s the same can on the front and the back. But I do enjoy Mexican beer.
Was there a reason you chose a photo of you holding the beer for your record?
I don’t think so. Those photos were very unposed. We were hanging out at the end of a session at the end of the night. Those pictures were taken on the property of where we recorded. We’d had dinner and were walking around these big sand dunes at dusk.
The front cover was a picture that Tyler Evans took. He’s one of the guitar players on the record and one of my friends for a long time. It just kind of felt right.
You got your start in The Black Swans over fifteen years ago. In a Pitchfork review, one of my favorite music writers William Bowers wrote, "While so many borderline smug avant-gardists are creating (self-conscious?) freak-folk, the Black Swans' attempt to freakify standard folk song structure…is welcome and laudable." He tied you to freak-folk, which (in my humble opinion) is not a descriptor that has aged well. It’s lazy and it includes everyone from Animal Collective to Joanna Newsom to Sunburned Hand of the Man. Did you feel any commonality with those type of artists?
Not really. Those weren’t records that I listened to. And not those artists specifically, but a lot of people who played in the [freak folk] scene were kind of trying to recreate something from the past. To me, a lot of it felt like fan fiction.
We were also from the Midwest, and weren’t using a lot of reverb. There was fashion involved in it too. I’m a hippie, but not a hippie in that way. That’s one way to put it. We were playing my version of folk music, and it was stranger in different ways than what people thought of with the freak-folk scene. Some people at our shows were into [freak-folk], and there were a lot of really good players in that scene. It was driven towards English folk music. Improvisational music. Renaissance style music. And I don’t mean that in any kind of bad way, it’s just not what we were into.
[William Bowers] is a good writer. And I really appreciate the fact that the review he wrote was for an EP I put out myself and put twenty promo copies in the mail, And it got a lot of reviews. You used to be able to do that then. We didn’t have a publicist. We just made a record and put it in the mail. And he responded to it. That review definitely opened a lot of doors. That’s for sure.
Is William Bowers a guy you had read a lot? I remember him from that era as this gonzo writer who wrote these highly entertaining pieces.
We’ve never met in person, but when The Black Swans first record came out, we were on a label that was not very active. Delmore Records. They hadn’t put out a record in a while, and after ours, they basically became a reissue label. They put out a Karen Dalton reissue. Some Peter Walker stuff.
I didn’t know how to get my music heard by other people. I barely had an email account in 2004 when that record came out. I had read a William Bowers essay in Oxford American and also saw that he wrote music reviews for Pitchfork. I didn’t really know what Pitchfork was. I didn't read music web sites. But I knew knew he was a music writer who wrote an essay in that I loved. It was this pretty long essay about teaching English at a community college. So I looked up his email and asked him if I could send him our CD.
He wrote a crack review for our first record. And he wrote a review for our EP. And like it said, it opened a lot of doors for the band. It was great that you could put your music in the mail and have it connect like that.
Does that still happen today? Are there publications where you can still mail a CD and request a review?
i don’t know. I still do it. Not necessarily to a music writer, but if I have an experience with another artist, I’m definitely not shy about sending that person my record. It’s not to capitalize on anything. I know what you have to do to make a living in music, and I don’t do those things. But I don’t know if people can just put a record in the mail. I think you have to navigate a lot more metadata to make things happen.
Your first solo release was Understanding Land in 2014. Three or four years passed before your next solo record - Time the Teacher - was released in February of this year. Then, you turned around quickly with the release of Burning Daylight in September. I'm curious why you released two records this year, especially after having waited so long after your debut?
It wasn’t very intentional. After I put out Understanding Land, I was already writing songs for Time the Teacher. I had sent my guitar and vocal demos to my friend Jeb Loy Nichols. He said, “Let me produce this record for you.” And he took me out of the world of white-guy-with-acoustic-guitar. He wanted to take my songs and put them on a different palette. So he produced Time the Teacher with Benedic Lamdin. They replaced my acoustic guitar with a piano player, and I sang over top of it. They added horns and bass and some singers. That just took a while to do. And once they finished it, they had already put some time and money into it, and it had gotten pitched around to a couple of labels but never moved forward with them. It set back the release, so that record had been done for over a year before it came out.
During that time, I had played a show in Austin. The guy from Super Secret Records saw me play and said, “Do you want to go out to Sonic Ranch and make a record?” So I wrote songs that were geared to be played with a live band. And a drummer. You know, cutting live on the floor. So it just kind of happened that [Burning Daylight and Time the Teacher] came out in the same year.
From the viewpoint of the listener or the consumer, these records came out yesterday. But from the viewpoint of the artist, there’s always a much more complex story behind it. Sometimes a long time passes.
Right [laughs]. We recorded Burning Daylight thirteen or fourteen months before it came out. But it think that’s the natural course for most artists. I don’t think anyone gets their record released quickly unless they’re going to be generating [revenue]. I don’t know if “trendy” is the right word, maybe “of its time” with different effects or mixing techniques that two years later sounds dated. I don’t really do that, so it doesn’t really matter when the records come out. But you’re right - the process of writing and releasing a record takes so long that by the time it comes out, you’re talking to people about songs that maybe connected with you three years ago [laughs].
Do you feel pressure to release albums on a regular schedule or can you release your music in a way that's not beholden to the traditional album/tour cycle?
I’m always working on songs and I’m always thinking about music and records. But there’s definitely no pressure. The only pressure is maybe what I put on myself. I don’t think there’s many people in the world - maybe ten people - where it matters to anybody if they ever make another record again. There’s plenty of music in the world already that we could spend the rest of our lives discovering. To me, it’s what I do with my time. I write songs. I play guitar. Occasionally I help other people make a record. Those just happen to be things I’m interested in. Like some people who do gardening. Or wood cutting. Nobody’s making money on music that’s not mainstream. I don’t know if they ever did. Definitely not anymore. So there’s no pressure.
On your Bandcamp page, you label the albums you’ve produced as "outsider" music. You've worked with Will Oldham, someone I'd identify as a consummate outsider. What is it about this type of artist that resonates with you? Does outsider-ness inform your songwriting?
I think I used that word as shorthand more than anything else. To me, “outsider” means somebody who is an artist. That they’re an outsider is a byproduct of their art. They’ve been marginalized in some way. I don’t think anyone intends to be an outsider. They’d be crazy if they did. But the people I’m drawn to are - through no fault of their own - outsiders. They’ve just created something that isn’t mainstream. I would love to produce somebody that did not fall into that category. But I don’t know if that person would want to work with me or if I’d ever have that opportunity.
I’ve worked with a lot of people who did not have a lot of other options to make records. And they were people that I understood how to help them make better records. I would be able to facilitate it as an advocate and a musician and a lover of records. That’s something that I value. To help somebody move their music forward. To help create something that they wouldn’t be able to create without my help. And most of the people I’ve worked with have let me have a go at it. They’ve gone into with the idea that, “This is your record, Jerry.” So I’ve made the records that I want to hear by people whose music I love.
Another outsider in your orbit is Anthony Braxton, a free jazz horn player you asked to contribute to Time the Teacher. He thought about it before politely declining. What was it about Anthony that made you want him on your record? Are you just a big fan of his, or was there something else pushing you to ask him?
I am a big fan. And Jeb, the producer, is a big fan. When he said he wanted to produce Time the Teacher, we knew we wanted to bring in horn players. We knew what type of players we wanted to use. There is a structure to the songs on the record, so a free jazz player would have to work within the structure of the songs. But we thought, you know, let’s shoot for the stars. So Jeb called Anthony up and was able to have a pretty good conversation with him. Jeb used to go see him play in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he was living in New York. So they had a good conversation about that, and [Anthony] understood what we were going for. He was just too busy.
We ended up using players in London that were great. Really beautiful horn parts on that record. They are very English, and I don’t know if a lot of Americans would have approached the songs the same way. I think there’s a lot of humor in my songs, and those horn players responded to that. There’s some very funny horn playing on it. I think that’s what makes the album really work. The musicians have a playfulness and a sense of joy with the lyrical content.
Total opposite end of the spectrum - for Burning Daylight you proudly cite John Mellencamp as an influence. What were you channeling when writing songs influenced by him? That’s not someone you see thrown around in hip music circles very often.
When I had the chance to make this record and the label said I could go out to Sonic Ranch, I looked at the studio and realized it was a rock and roll studio. They gave me a budget, and I didn’t have a drummer. The first person I called with Ryan Jewell, but he was on tour with Ryley Walker. Ryan had played on Understanding Land and is an old friend from Ohio.
So I asked this guy Gary Mallaber to play drums on the record. He played on a lot of records I love from the 1970s. He’s always somebody I was really interested in because he played on so many of my favorite records. Way before the internet, I was like, “What’s the deal with this guy?” He played on Moondance, which I loved. He played on a Springsteen record from the 1990s called Lucky Town, which I loved. He played on all the Steve Miller Band hits. The first Gene Clark record. So I called him up and he said he’d love to do it. So I made the decision that I was going to write songs that worked in a more rock and roll context.
When I was in high school, all of my favorite songwriters were guys like Mellencamp and Springsteen. Elliott Murphy and Graham Parker. I probably had five or six Lou Reed records before I knew the Velvet Underground existed. I was really into this idea of songwriters that are not folkies. People who are doing something more physical musically but still with a lot of meat on the lyrics.
John Mellencamp may get a bad rap, and some of it he deserves. But he wrote a lot of great records, you know.
I loved your guest spot on the Brokedown Podcast, especially when you said you got into the Grateful Dead via their studio recordings over their live tapes. Do you prefer the studio stuff to the live stuff?
I guess it depends what kind of mood I’m in. I knew the studio stuff long before I knew the live tapes. I got into the Dead when I was in eighth grade because of “Touch of Gray” on the radio.
And that’s a fantastic studio cut.
Crazy good, right? I loved that song. I still love that song. I bought the In the Dark cassette. It’s still a great record. I was just going to the record store in the mall. And each week, when I had some money, I was buying a different Grateful Dead cassette. I started my eighth grade year wearing a polo shirt and at the end of it, I was wearing an orange and yellow tie-dyed Blues for Allah shirt. And then next year I was going to shows.
It wasn’t until I started going to shows that I knew what the Dead sounded like. 1988. 1989. I had no idea that’s what it was like. The only live stuff I had was Europe ‘72 and Skull and Roses and Reckoning. I got to the shows and was a little confused at the first one [laughs]. Everybody would get really excited about certain songs, and I was thinking, “I didn’t know that was one of their popular songs.” All I knew was what I was experiencing in my bedroom with the cassettes I bought at the mall.
Other than “Touch of Gray,” is there another studio cut that stands out to you?
After In the Dark, I bought Skeletons From the Closet and that sort of became my guide. I liked this song and that song, so I bought Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. And then I bought the Skull and Roses cassette because it was a great looking cover. And there were no liner notes, so it took me forever as ninth grader to figure out who wrote “Me and My Uncle” or to realize that it wasn’t even a Dead song. I knew the Chuck Berry songs, but I didn’t know that some of those were Merle Haggard songs.
That’s still how I find new music. I don’t use any streaming services. I’m still finding out stuff from liner notes. Looking at album covers and then trying to search out stuff. And the Grateful Dead are an amazing band to do that with. It’s endless.
The greatest cover band of all time.
Yeah. I would go to the library and look up stuff about the Grateful Dead. I did an eighth grade reading report on the Dead [laughs]. I got through their albums and cassettes, and very early on I was able to get into Jesse Fuller and Elizabeth Cotten. They did get me into Merle Haggard too, but I probably already knew Buddy Holly. It was definitely an entrance for me into the world of folk music. The Jerry Garcia Band album Almost Acoustic was a huge album for me. I was really into the whole world of their music, but the cultural aspect and the live shows - I didn’t have a lot of interest in that. I enjoyed their live shows, and I have a ton of tapes. Got more into that when I went to college. But I like the records. My old band The Black Swans made records in a similar way. We hired our friends and played in makeshift studios. Our records could have sounded better if we did it with more money. But that’s what the Dead did.
You mentioned Skeletons From the Closet was important to you. No self-respecting Dead fan would ever claim the greatest hits album as their favorite, but it's the first one I bought.
It wasn’t my favorite, but it was compass.
It’s a special record to me. It means something to me because of when I got it. And the album art stands out.
Yeah. It’s iconic.
So where do you stand on greatest hits albums in general? A lot of people say you can’t listen to greatest hits, that you have to go album by album.
I guess it depends. There’s a “greatest hits” and there’s a “best of.” I don’t know if people listen to those anymore, but when I was in high school, it was a good place to start. It was at a budget price and you could get it through your Columbia tape club in the mail. And it was a great way to check out a band.
What are some Greatest Hits or Best Of albums that stand out to you? For me, I think the Allman Brothers did one of the best.
Sometimes you buy one and realize that every song sounds the same. Tom Petty Greatest Hits. Steve Miller Greatest Hits. Even The Doors. You never get to hear how a band goes off to the left. I had an early Best Of The Velvet Underground CD. It was almost like the Chuck Berry one. You would have no idea how experimental they were.
They don’t put “Sister Ray” on the Greatest Hits.
I don’t think so. “Heroin” is on there though. But the rest of it is a version of their pop songs. I don’t if people still buy those or not, but they were definitely a great entrance point for me.
Especially as a middle schooler buying cassettes.
Yeah. They were all like $5.99 or $6.99. And they carried them at the mall. We would go to a good record store [sometimes], but I couldn’t walk there. I didn’t have a car until I was seventeen, and even then the car didn’t go in reverse. So I wasn’t going super far [laughs]. I could make it downtown or to Cincinnati once a month or something like that. So I was kind of limited to the mall.
It was such a different means of discovery than there is today. To think I was buying records in the Lou Reed section and I didn’t know he was in another band a couple letters down the row. Even with Skeletons From the Closet, I was looking at these Grateful Dead CDs and cassettes and wondering what record “Mexicali Blues” is on. I still don’t know why “Mexicali Blues” is on Skeletons From the Closet. I don’t ever really want to hear that song again, you know [laughs]. It was pretty confusing to me at the time.