You play banjo and lead guitar, just like Jerry Garcia. Are you a fan?
Yeah definitely. Especially when I play with Hiss. It feels really natural that that side comes out because of the nature of MC [Taylor]'s songs. There's a lot of that Dead feel in there.
Were you a Dead fan growing up?
No. I wasn't actually. It didn't happen until around my mid-twenties. That's when I started actually listening to the Dead. It's not that I didn't try to listen to them before that, but I wasn't there yet. I was listening to lots of other stuff.
Speaking of growing up, you’re a North Carolina native, right?
Actually, I moved to North Carolina when I was about fifteen. Before that, I was in Western Massachusetts. My family moved to Hillsborough and Durham. We moved to that area down there and I did one year of high school there.
You said in a recent interview that you learned to play music in church. Was religion a big part of your upbringing?
Yeah. It was a real big part of it. Pretty much up until the time my family moved, my dad was a pastor in a church. I was there all the time.
Is your dad still a pastor?
No he's not. When he decided to stop doing that is when we moved.
One of the first Dead Tongues songs that really hit me was “Black Flower Blooming” from the record Montana. You wrote lyrics about hitching a ride on I-95 leaving Zucotti Park. Did you participate in Occupy Wall Street?
Yes I did. A little bit. I didn't do a ton of camping or anything, but I visited a few camps up the East Coast. Stopped in Philly and then went and camped in Zucotti for about five days or so. Just for a little bit to get a feel for it. It was pretty exciting to me, so I need to get up there for a few days.
What was it about Occupy that excited you?
It was one of the first things that I saw in my lifetime where it seemed like a type of resistance that didn't follow the rules. It was actually upsetting the people it was meant to upset. Usually, it's all within the box, and anyone who tried to do it outside the box would hit a wall and it wouldn't go anywhere. It was exciting to see something like [Occupy] happen on that scale. Also, the reasons for it really informed a lot of people.
Your official press materials emphasize your life as a traveler and a hitchhiker. You’ve lived in a commune and currently live in a camper near Asheville. Kind of a an "off the grid" approach. Does the spirit of Occupy inform the way you live your life?
I suppose in some way, but not because of Occupy. My life informed why I was part of Occupy, not the other way around. I was already kind of in that realm, and it was more something that was more of a reaction based on my lifestyle.
I'm curious how things have changed with success of The Dead Tongues and Hiss Golden Messenger. You're traveling a lot. Staying in hotels. Going on TV. Have the trappings of success made that lifestyle more challenging?
I'm really excited about being able to play and travel and tour as much as I do. It's still a struggle in all of the same ways. I'm still not making money [laughs]. But I'm doing what I want, you know. It has changed the way I do some of things, like existing on paper [laughs]. I'm paying into the man and stuff like that. But I look as it as something I really want to do, and that I believe in, and that I think is a positive thing. That's a good way to step in. But just because you're a small part of it doesn't mean you have to support it.
Well I'm sure you're on your phone more than you used to be.
Yeah [laughs]. There's definitely a lot of phone time, for sure.
Another standout track from Montana is “Nostalgia.” It’s all instrumental with Eastern-style picking built atop a drone. It does not sound anything like a Hiss Golden Messenger song! In fact, it reminds me more of something Tashi Dorji would play. We’ve booked some shows for Tashi before, and I know you’ve shared a bill with him a time or two. Asheville has a vibrant experimental and underground music scene. How deeply tied to it are you?
I feel like I'm pretty connected. It's a smaller community out here where most people know each other or are connected in some way. At the same time, maybe not as much as I would be if I didn't tour so much. Since I am gone a lot, there are still a lot of people that I don't really know. But Tashi's great, and all the Nest Egg guys. It's a good scene up here.
When you play with them, do you check your Americana vibe at the door?
It depends. When I first moved to Asheville, no one here really knew I played music. I wasn't connected with the scene at all. I started meeting people, then I'd go out on tour, doing my Americana thing, but not really talking to people about it. Everyone thought I'd just sit in [with other bands] and do experimental stuff. But it was great. It would feel really good to come off of tour and do something really different here.
Is that part of the reason you left Durham for Asheville?
No. I really came out to Asheville because I was ready to move from the Triangle area. Not for any big reason but sometimes, you're like, "I really need to leave." I was ready. I moved out here because I was getting into old-time music. That was part of the reason, and the old-time scene out here is really good and informative.
The mountains were a huge draw too. I'd come here to hike a lot and would feel really revived by the mountains. It seemed like a vibe I was interested in checking out. I thought it would be a place that would hopefully inspire me a bit, and it totally has.
Your new record Unsung Passage is the first release for the brand-new label Psychic Hotline. What’s the background story with that label? How did you choose them to release your album?
I chose them because a friend of mine started [the label]. He's a guy I talk with a lot about what I'm doing, and he's always had good advice.
Is that Martin?
Yeah. Martin Anderson. So we were talking about different labels, and I was sending my stuff out to a lot of them. He and other friends and my manager and I were having conversations about it, and he said, "I've been spinning this idea for a while. I think it's going to happen. I think I'm going to start a label. I'm wondering if you'd want to do that." I said yes. It's nice working with people that you know and trust. You know they're in it for the right reasons. With him, we can call each other up and talk about stuff, as opposed to being removed from the whole label experience.
Phil Cook's new record is on Psychic Hotline too, right?
Yes. My record was the first and his was the second.
When you come to Charlotte for the show at The Visulite, who will be in the band playing with you?
I'll have a five-piece band, which is pretty much the core lineup of Unsung Passage. James Wallace on drums. Jeff Crawford on bass. Molly [Sarlay] will be singing and playing flute and other stuff. And Thomas Costello will also be playing with us.
How long has this iteration of The Dead Tongues been playing together?
Jeff, James and I have been playing together over ten years at this point. They've been a part of every record I've ever done. We tracked the record live, so you'll be seeing that band.
What do you have in store afterwards?
I'll go out West and do Pickathon, which is a great festival in Oregon. Then I'll come back and be writing the rest of August. Then start up touring again in the Fall.
Is that with The Dead Tongues or with Hiss?
It'll be The Dead Tongues.
We're really excited for your Charlotte show. I know you've played solo Dead Tongues here before but have you ever done the full band here?
I haven't. This will be the first time I've ever been there with a band. It's only the second or third time I've ever played Charlotte with my own songs. I'm looking forward to seeing what will happen down there.