We Can Break Our Own Hearts: A Conversation with Andrew Duhon

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Hunter Holder

You have heard break-up songs – and even break-up albums – before, but you haven’t heard them through Andrew Duhon’s musical filter. That will change on May 25 when the New Orleans-based singer/songwriter releases False River, the follow-up to his GRAMMY-nominated [Best Engineered category] album The Moorings. Produced by Eric Masse [Miranda Lambert], False River is a collection of personal songs that finds Duhon reflecting on love and relationships in a style that has found him described as “A soulmate of Van Morrison, lyrically and vocally” [No Depression]. On Thursday, May 31, Duhon will perform at Moonlight On The Mountain. On the eve of his album’s release, he discussed False River, recording with his touring band for the first time and the influence of his musically-driven hometown.

Birmingham Stages: Andrew, thanks for your time. If you will, catch us up as you’ve been preparing for your tour and the release of False River.

Andrew Duhon: New Orleans Jazz Fest is a time for all the locals to exhaust the market with too many shows and – if you have a new record out – it’s a great time to let everybody know that you’ve got new music. We did something special for the CD release party – we did a listening party in the woods. I set up a turntable in a forest and had a chandelier hanging from an oak tree – it was kind of surreal. Only the people really anticipating the release found out about it through the newsletter and social media. I had no complaints about it – it went really well.

Birmingham Stages: In addition to enlisting Rayland Baxter for background vocals, you recorded False River with Myles Weeks, G. Maxwell Zemanovic and Jano Rix. If you will, talk about the chemistry and familiarity in recording with them.

AD: They came along as hired guns for the last record four to five years ago. We enjoyed making that record and we enjoyed each other’s company and musicianship, so we decided to hit the road together. A year into that, we found out that record was nominated for a GRAMMY and that was a nice boost. We just kept touring and, in the back our minds, we all knew that we were making music together in a way that, personally as a songwriter, I hadn’t made music that way. I hadn’t let other pieces inform how I was writing songs so it was a new venture for me to write songs with the trio in  mind. We got into the studio about a year ago and for the first time I made a record not as a songwriter with hired guns, but with a band that was well familiar with the tunes and had pushed the tunes themselves towards what they would ultimately become. That’s a nice feeling, to have a record that I think represents the miles that we put into it.

Birmingham Stages: Even though you were touring together and collaborating, did you and the band road-test the songs onstage prior to recording them?

AD: For sure. I think some of our more familiar fans would be only be unfamiliar with about three songs on the record that we didn’t play regularly. The rest of them were part of the set.

Birmingham Stages: There is a saying that an album is a snapshot of your life at that moment. I won’t ask that you bear your soul in this interview, but there seem to be a lot of personally-relevant songs on the new album.

AD: I’ve been bearing my soul for months trying to promote this thing. The Moorings – the record before – I think the title track was the sentiment I was feeling and that snapshot was, “I’m leaving but I hope to return. I hope the winds will push me back your way.” I think this one is more resigned to the fact that love was going to be imperfect. The fairy tale isn’t what we’re shooting for – sometimes you just miss no matter how bad you want it to work. Sometimes it just misses for reasons you can’t explain and some of these songs are the last letters that I’ll write her trying to explain that.

Birmingham Stages: In writing and recording these songs, have you found any healing and have you come out on the other side, so to speak?

AD: Sure. I was doing an email interview and I remember thinking, “Do I want to tell this story in prose or do I just want to let the songs be the songs?” In the end, I do want to tell that story even away from the songs. It’s my version of dealing with the way that love can just miss and be a lot different than the fairy tale might make it out to be. I think that’s important for all of us – we can let ourselves down and we can break our own hearts by expecting too much from companionship and relationships and we have to let each other be human. The best that I can do is be honest about those things and, artistically, it’s about figuring out what I have to say and what do I have to say that connects to the human condition in a way that other people might find useful.

Birmingham Stages: Given the time span since your last release and the collaborative nature you mentioned, does False River feel like a debut album of sorts?

AD: I feel like I’m growing every time I put out a record or anytime I write a song. It feels like fresh fuel in a tank and I haven’t felt that for four years. To tour, like you said, is a snapshot and to have a snapshot that is so fresh and so vivid to where I feel right now about songwriting – that’s invigorating. I can’t wait to share that with people.

Birmingham Stages: Even though you aren’t playing the style of New Orleans music that is associated with Dr. John and The Neville Brothers, you can hear a New Orleans imprint on your sound. If you will, talk about the city’s influence on you as an artist.

AD: I think you can hear a more overt intention in some music that we recognize as New Orleanian music, and for others it’s an involuntary osmosis of a place that’s so special. It breathes – you can feel New Orleans breathe and I like to think that there are cracks in the roads and the sidewalks because it moves and it moves you. When I hear people say that the music sounds like New Orleans, that works for me but I can tell that you I’m not trying to make it sound like New Orleans – I have no intention of mentioning red beans and rice or gumbo or a parade necessarily. But there’s an involuntary bleeding in from the city to the artist, no matter what kind of art you make. Artists in New Orleans are going to have that city painted on them somehow.

Andrew Duhon will perform at Moonlight On The Mountain on Thursday, May 31. Doors open at 6:45 p.m. and showtime is 7:45 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at www.musiconthemtn.com.

Listening Station: New Music from Brent Cobb

By Brent Thompson

It’s easy to categorize Brent Cobb as a Neo-traditionalist, but the singer/songwriter’s music has more in common with Tony Joe White’s swampy sounds and The Band’s countrified R&B than the music of Ray Price and Don Gibson. In fact, there’s even enough loose swagger in Cobb’s music to make Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker fans happy. Cobb’s latest, Providence Canyon [Low Country Sound/Elektra], is rife with soulful grooves and lively characters. In comparison to Cobb’s 2016 breakout Shine On Rainy Day, Providence tracks such as “King of Alabama” (a nod to fallen musician Wayne Mills), “Sucker for a Good Time,” and “Mornin’s Gonna Come” reveal a more confident side of his storytelling skills. Cobb’s cousin, in-demand producer Dave Cobb, keeps the songs thankfully relaxed and rather un-produced along the way. Ultimately, Brent accomplishes a difficult task – giving the listener familiar and fresh sounds at the same time.

I Can’t Do Anything But Me: A Conversation with David Bromberg

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Doris Joosten

Some artists have a style that makes categorization next to impossible and David Bromberg fits that profile. Like Randy Newman, Frank Zappa and Leon Redbone, Bromberg is a truly unique musical figure. As a solo artist and sideman, he has recorded with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, John Prine and countless others – while producing John Hartford’s groundbreaking Aereo-Plain album – in a career spanning more than 50 years. Aided by producer and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, Bromberg’s latest album, The Blues, The Whole Blues and Nothing But the Blues [Red House Records], includes original material alongside renditions of songs by Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson and Ray Charles. On Monday, May 21, The David Bromberg Quintet will perform at WorkPlay. Recently, Bromberg spoke with us by phone about his latest album specifically and his musical legacy in general.

Birmingham Stages: David, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to having you in Birmingham next week.

David Bromberg: I’m looking forward to it. I don’t know that I’ve ever been to Birmingham.

Birmingham Stages: With your large catalog of music, how do you comprise your set lists these days?

DB: Well, I’ve never in my life had a set list. Before we go onstage, I decide what I want to start with and then the tunes just come to me as we go along. Our band has a repertoire of what is getting close to 100 tunes now and we go in any direction we feel like. The band appreciates it – they never know what’s going to happen and every night is different.

Birmingham Stages: Of all the classic blues songs available to you, how did you select the ones that made it onto The Blues, The Whole Blues and Nothing But the Blues?

DB: Some of them came from what seems to work the best when we play it live and some of it is stuff that we just wanted to put together. For example, I wanted to do a Howlin’ Wolf tune but all of my favorite ones had been done to death. So, we took an old country tune and made up a lick that sounded like one that Wolf would’ve played and made a Wolf tune out of it.

Birmingham Stages: When you cover classic blues songs, is there a delicate balance between placing your own stamp on the material while staying respectful to the original versions?

DB: There’s usually something about a tune that attracts me, that I really like, so I try to get that in my performance. Truthfully, I can’t do anything but me.

Birmingham Stages: How did you and the album’s producer, Larry Campbell, first cross paths?

DB: I knew Larry from way, way back. When I was doing some production work in New York City, I got Larry to play on the recording so I was producing him. I started doing some of Levon’s [Helm] Midnight Rambles and Larry was the one who was pretty much responsible for anything at the Midnight Ramble. I did a CD called Use Me where I called up a number of people and asked each of them to write a song and then produce me doing it. I had stuff with John Hiatt, Los Lobos, Keb Mo’, Dr. John – there were a lot of people. Levon was one of the first people that I tried to reach, but the hardest thing about doing the CD was getting times when these people were free and when I was free. The time that Levon and I had set aside to do the recording turned out to be when he was post-operative recovering from an operation on his vocal cords, so he couldn’t talk, let alone sing. So Larry produced the sessions and he did such a wonderful job that I asked him if he wanted to produce a blues album with me and he said, “No.” He wanted to do an album like my old albums with everything but the kitchen sink and maybe even the kitchen sink. I didn’t even know he’d listened to those but we did one like that called Only Slightly Mad and then we did the blues album.

Birmingham Stages: You and Larry seem to be kindred spirits in that you’ve both contributed to numerous projects and neither of you are defined by any one genre.

DB: We kind of went to the same school in different years. Back in the day, I was first-call guitar player on a lot of records – I was on over 150 records. Larry is that on steroids. You name somebody really famous, they’ve hired Larry. He’s a fantastic musician and the more I work with him, the more I see his musicianship. He’s phenomenal.

Birmingham Stages: You went through a long spell in your career without releasing any new albums. Why did that happen?

DB: I stopped performing altogether for 22 years. I was burnt-out and I was too stupid to realize it was only burnout. When I wasn’t on the road, I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t practicing and I wasn’t jamming. I just figured that I had to find another way to live my life that I could enjoy, so I did that. I went to violin-making school and became a violin expert. Now I’m doing that as well as playing.

Birmingham Stages: Do you ever feel overlooked or underappreciated given your enormous body of work as a solo artist and sideman?

DB: The truth is I stepped away for 22 years. That I have any following at all is phenomenal – it’s really amazing to me. There’s something called the Americana Music Association. Back when I was performing, that word didn’t exist. I was Mr. Miscellaneous – nobody knew what the hell to do with me. Nowadays, they have this thing called Americana but the people who run that organization are all young and they’ve never heard of me. I understand why – I disappeared for 22 years. I’m on the other side of this and I’m amazed and delighted that there are so many people who still want to hear me play – that’s the best.

The David Bromberg Quintet will perform at WorkPlay on Monday, May 21. Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $30 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.

 

 

In A Deeper Way: A Conversation with Hop Along’s Frances Quinlan

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Tonje Thilesen

“The Philadelphia Sound” was once synonymous with ’70s Soul hits produced by Gamble & Huff. But a new “Philadelphia Sound” has emerged and it’s rife with raw guitars. Alongside The War On Drugs, Waxahatchee, Dr. Dog and Beach Slang, the quartet Hop Along – Frances Quinlan, Mark Quinlan (Frances’s brother), Tyler Long and Joe Reinhart – is turning The City of Brotherly Love into a bona fide Rock hub. Earlier this year, the quartet released Bark Your Head Off, Dog [Saddle Creek Records], a nine-song collection of anxious, restless songs led by Frances’s vocals and guitar. On Friday, May 11, Hop Along will perform at Saturn with Saintseneca opening the 9 p.m. show. Recently, Frances spoke with us by phone from her Philadelphia home on a rare day off between stops in Boston and Baltimore.

Birmingham Stages: Frances, thanks for your time. If you will, talk about the evolution of Bark Your Head Off, Dog. Were these mostly newer songs or had they been around for a while in bits and pieces?

Frances Quinlan: Oh, both – it’s a little on the messy side, the way that songs come to be. On some of them, the concepts were older with ideas we’d been working on since March 2016. “How You Got Your Limp” was written just a couple of months before we started recording. A lot of songs are formed by pieces of other bits of writing where put two ideas together.

Birmingham Stages: Do songs still evolve after you take them into the studio?

FQ: Absolutely and we try to allow for that to happen. That is the blessing and curse of recording – you have all of these opportunities to make it better but you’ll always be wondering, “Have we done everything? and “Is it really done?” So if someone has an idea to switch parts or bring in an instrument that no one has thought of, that’s exactly what the studio is for in my opinion.

Birmingham Stages: Philadelphia is making a great name for itself in the music world these days.

FQ: It’s a city with so much character. This is my tenth year living in Philly and I’m starting to feel like a part of the community in a deeper way. It’s financially still a viable place for artists which a lot of cities are not becoming anymore. I think we’ve had a lot of people move here for that reason.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process?

FQ: Personally, it’s messy and all over the map. I write pretty much everyday and there are always pieces lying around that could be good.

Birmingham Stages: Your recording career has spanned 13 years to this point. How do songs stay fresh and relevant to you even after you’ve played them literally hundreds of times by now?

FQ: We’ve brought out a couple of old songs that we haven’t played in a while and there are a couple of songs we put to bed on this tour because we’ve played them so much. Whenever we take a break and come back to something, we realize we’re playing a little differently and performing together a little differently so I think that in itself refreshes it. We’ve added a fifth member for this tour and that’s refreshed all of our material.

Hop Along will perform at Saturn on Friday, May 11. Saintseneca will open the 9 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $15 and can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com.

Always Showing Up: A Conversation with Jillette Johnson

By Brent Thompson

Photos by Anna Webber

“I really wanted to make a record that sounded the way that I sound live,” Jillette Johnson recalls when asked about her latest release, All I Ever See In You Is Me [Rounder Records]. Enlisting the help of Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton) for the recording, Johnson accomplished her mission. The singer/songwriter/pianist’s sophomore release is an 11-track collection of songs so well-produced that it sounds loose, natural and, well, rather un-produced. On Tuesday, May 15, Johnson will return to Birmingham to perform at Saturn as the supporting act for Parker Millsap. Recently, Johnson spoke with us by phone as she drove across Texas to join Millsap for their current run of shows.

Birmingham Stages: Jillette, thanks for your time. If you will, talk about the evolution of All I Ever See In You Is Me.

Jillette Johnson: We recorded that record two years ago in April. Some of these songs were floating around for a while because I had four years between my first release and All I Ever See In You Is Me, not because I didn’t want to make another record; I just had a lot of shifts in my team. My record label was bought by a larger label and dissolved by that label. The beauty of that is I had a long time to amass a lot of work. I made this record with Dave Cobb and I had a folder of songs – I think there were like 80 songs or something. He only got half of them [laughs] and I didn’t realize that until we were far into making the record. The songs that we chose were from an older period of time and that was because of a technical error, but I think we made a beautiful record that represented myself at that time. Sometimes it’s nice when those things happen because it’s hard to pick from a large catalog – it’s pretty overwhelming.

Birmingham Stages: Obviously, Dave Cobb is associated with a number of respected artists and successful releases. Given his high-profile status, it speaks highly of you and your songs that he chose this project.

JJ: My last record [2013’s Water in a Whale] was like going into a lab to piece together everything. When I took that record out on tour, I was giving different representations of the songs. So, my goal was to make the most honest-sounding record that I could. In my research of trying to figure out who would be the right person, Dave’s name kept coming up. I noticed that he was making records with artists that sounded like the artists. I sent a list of producers to my A&R guy with Dave’s name at the top and Dave listened to a bunch of my homemade demos and I flew to Nashville to meet him. We had conversations about artists that inspire us and we agreed on a lot of them. Looking back, it was a lot easier than it should have been because he’s so in-demand. Recording with him was really easy – he just captures who you are and where you are. He’ll fine-tune it in a really brilliant way, but I didn’t feel like I was being told to be anything other than who I was.

Birmingham Stages: Even though the piano isn’t an obscure instrument, it doesn’t seem to be at the forefront enough these days. It’s nice to hear it as the lead instrument on All I Ever See In You Is Me.

JJ: I agree and thank you. I listen to a lot of artists that write on piano and I think that’s why I listen to a lot of artists that aren’t my age or aren’t putting out records right now. There’s a lot that’s available to you harmonically and that’s exciting because I love being challenged and also feeling safe within a song. Randy Newman does an amazing job at that – his chord progressions are beautiful but you always feel like you’re in on the joke, too. I’ve been writing on piano for 20 years so it’s such an extension of me it’s hard to get away from. Sometimes I write on guitar but I always come back to the piano.

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about your writing process.

JJ: Even though there’s a lot of material floating around and I feel really strongly about a lot of it, this industry is really hard and I have a lot to prove to myself and it doesn’t have to do with a level of success. I want to be the best artist that I can be. To me, that means always showing up and writing more songs because I think it’s easy to count the songs and think that you’re done, but I don’t feel that way.

Jillette Johnson will perform with Parker Millsap at Saturn on Tuesday, May 15. Doors open at 7 p.m. and showtime is 8 p.m. Advance seated tickets are $16 and advance standing tickets are $13. Tickets to the 18+ show can be purchased at www.saturnbirmingham.com. 

True Blue: A Conversation with Devon Allman

By Brent Thompson

Duane Betts (left) and Devon Allman

Few surnames in rock music history carry as much weight as Allman and Betts. And though we can never see Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts together onstage again, we can now watch as the next generation shares the same stage. Devon Allman – the son of Gregg Allman and Shelley Kay Jefts – and Dickey’s son Duane Betts forged an early friendship while learning their crafts from two legends. During his career, the 45-year-old Allman has recorded as a solo artist, fronted Honeytribe and has been a member of the supergroup Royal Southern Brotherhood. His latest album, Ride Or Die, was released in 2016. On Thursday, May 3, The Devon Allman Project and opening act Betts will perform at WorkPlay Theatre. Recently, Allman spoke with us by phone from the tour’s stop in Asheville, N.C.

Birmingham Stages: Devon, thanks for your time. This tour is your first ever tour with Duane, correct?

Devon Allman: Yeah, we’ve been talking about it for 10 years or better and now was the right timing so here we are. We are two weeks into doing it.

Birmingham Stages: Though you two are lifelong friends, how would you describe the experience of interacting on a musical level?

DA: It’s amazing – we’re living our dreams. When we were kids out on tour with the Allman Brothers, we wanted to end up doing the same thing. To have it happen is pretty wild.

Birmingham Stages: What is the performing order on this tour?

DA: He’s got a brand new EP out – a six-song EP that just hit the market a week ago – so he comes out as the opening act and plays that new record and a couple of others. I come out and do a headline set  – [the set list] runs through the Honeytribe era, the Royal Southern Brotherhood era, the solo records and a couple of covers. I’ve got like nine records out now so I really try to do at least one [song] from each. Then he comes out to join me on the encore and that’s where we tip our hats to our heroes and the encore is long [laughs].

Birmingham Stages: How do you select the songs for the encore numbers?

DA: If you came out and did “Midnight Rider” and “Ramblin’ Man” every night that wouldn’t be any fun because they’re the obvious ones. Not to say they shouldn’t be done and they have been, but there’s a bunch. So I just go by the feel of the room and the feel of the band and I’ll throw it together a few hours before the show. When it comes to the encore and playing the Allman Brothers songs, we’re doing them true blue – we’re not doing our own interpretations. We’re trying to replicate for the listeners the original songs they fell in love with.

Birmingham Stages: As fans, we connect to those classic songs on a musical level. But for you, it has an added emotional component.

DA: I have to just think about the work. I have to think about how I can sing this song to the best of my abilities. I can’t think about missing my dad. Sometimes it creeps in – I can’t help it – but you really still have to do the work. I think that’s the thing that keeps me from having an emotional breakdown [laughs]. Last night in Charleston, there were six or seven people I saw in the front row that were weeping, so I think we must have reminded them of something.

Birmingham Stages: You’ve started your own record label, Create Records. If you will, talk about the evolution of the label.

DA: I started getting into production about seven or eight years ago and I wanted to be able to find new talent. Out on the road I’ll see some bands opening up, at festivals or I’ll go out to a late-night bar and see a band. I thought it would be cool if I had a vehicle to take in a band every year and a half and work with them and put their record out and have them come on tour and open for me. If I can launch 10 to 15 careers in the second half of my life, I would feel like I had given back. [The label] launches in the fall and the first release is by Jackson Stokes.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe your writing process?

DA: I’m really grateful for the iPhone with the Voice Memo because I can just sing into my phone if I have an idea or I can grab a guitar and play it into the phone. I typically catalog things that hit me. I pull out maybe 20 seedlings and then take three or four that are real strong and develop them into songs. It’s really like note-taking on the road.

Birmingham Stages: How do you view the musical climate in this day and age?

DA: Having the tools at your disposal, you can make a record on an iPad and you can market yourself from your iPhone and connect with people. At the core of it, you still have to write good songs and you still have to go play a good show. As much as the peripheral thing envelopes the industry, that will change and tweak and get more savvy but the core of it is still playing. I think it’s a good time. I think it’s a very self-empowering time and you can dictate your own terms. As long as you’re writing good music and playing in front of people, the word will spread.

The Devon Allman Project will perform at WorkPlay Theatre on Thursday, May 3. Duane Betts will open the 8 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $25 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.

The General Human Experience: A Conversation with Fruition’s Kellen Asebroek

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Jessie McCall

Kellen Asebroek calls me from Tuscaloosa as his band, Fruition, is opening for Jack Johnson at Tuscaloosa Amphitheater on this night. The band will join Johnson again the next night in Nashville before returning to Alabama to perform a headlining show at Zydeco on Thursday, May 3. Somehow, this three-day snippet of the band’s schedule sums up Fruition’s year to this point. Since releasing its fifth full-length album Watching It All Fall Apart earlier this year, the Portland, OR-based quintet has been on an unceasing tour. Known for a string of self-produced albums, Fruition enlisted the help of producer Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists, First Aid Kit) for its latest album. Since its release, Watching It All Fall Apart has elicited praise from Relix, American Songwriter and Alternative Press among other outlets. In the midst of his hectic schedule, vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Asebroek gave us his thoughts on touring, Portland and today’s music climate in general.

Birmingham Stages: Kellen, thanks for your time. How’s the tour going so far?

Kellen Asebroek: We’ve basically been on the road since the end of January – we put our new album out at the end of January – and I’ve basically had about two weeks off. It’s winding down here – we’ve got a couple of Jack [Johnson] shows and then Birmingham, back to Augusta, Tennessee and then we go home.

Birmingham Stages: We are enjoying Watching It All Fall Apart. If you will, talk about the creation of the album.

KA: There are three songwriters in the band – me, Mimi [Naja] and Jay [Cobb Anderson]. We all got together, laid down a bunch of demos and threw them into the pile. The songs that came out ended up being Watching It All Fall Apart. The songs are about love, the struggle for it, the general human experience of pain and hope and good times and bad times.

Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about working with the album’s producer, Tucker Martine.

KA: It’s the first time we worked with a producer. We worked with a producer on our very, very first studio album named Nat Keefe from the band Hot Buttered Rum. He produced and showed us the ropes of studio recording – we were just a bunch of kids. That sent us on a really good path to produce ourselves up until this last album with Tucker. We were a little hesitant about it because we enjoyed producing ourselves. But we met Tucker and hit it off and thought it would benefit all of us to work together, so we did.

Birmingham Stages: How would you describe the music scene in your adopted hometown of Portland?

KA: It’s great – there’s definitely a ton of music and most touring bands stop there. When we first started out there, there were more street musicians and buskers and that’s how we got our start. It’s a vey nurturing, supportive spot where people can do their thing and there’s a genuine passion.

Birmingham Stages: Some artists say this is a great time to be a musician with satellite radio, iTunes, Youtube and the instant exposure and accessibility that modern outlets bring. Other artists say it’s a challenging time to separate yourself among the crowd. How do you view the climate these days?

KA: I mean this from a comical angle as well as a serious angle – I think that this is probably the worst time for us to have tried to be a band [laughs]. Like you said, there’s access to everything and everyone can put it out if they do it right. It’s very competitive and you’re only going to make something of yourself if you have a really good product and you’re really good at hustling and know how to promote on the internet and use the tools to your advantage. Even if you do have a product, you might not get it heard. Back in the day, if you had a good product and a record executive liked you, you were put on a world tour with Led Zeppelin [laughs]. That’s not going down anymore. You have to forge your own path in this day and age. It’s not for everybody.

Fruition will perform at Zydeco on Thursday, May 3. Voodoo Visionary will open the 8:30 p.m. show. Advance tickets to the 18+ show are $12 and can be purchased at www.zydecobirmingham.com.

The Return of UnderOath: A Conversation with Chris Dudley

By Blake Ells

Photo Credit: Nick Fancher

UnderOath has a long history with Birmingham. Their first record deal was with Takehold Records, the Christian-centric Birmingham label that was acquired by Tooth and Nail that also hosted an annual festival called Takehold Fest in town. And it was at Cave 9 that Spencer Chamberlain performed his first show as the band’s lead singer.

The band parted ways with each other after earning a couple of Grammy nominations. That was around 2013, but they got back together to celebrate their biggest release and accidentally got the band back together for its first album in eight years.

Keyboardist Chris Dudley spoke with us about that record, how the band reunited and how the “scene” has evolved—if you want to call it a scene.

Birmingham Stages: Why did you guys decide to reunite and put out a record for the first time in eight years?

Chris Dudley: It’s a little bit of a long story, but the gist of it is—we hadn’t initially planned to do that. We broke up and a few years later, we realized that we had a ten-year anniversary coming up for Define the Great Line. The initial plan was just to get together and play a show for that—just a hometown thing to celebrate that record. 

That sort of snowballed from that into a weekend of shows into, “What if we played for a full week?” and that ended up being a full tour. We thought, “Okay, we’ll go out and do this tour celebrating those two albums; just have fun together.” It wasn’t a “the band’s back together” thing at that point. I guess it was about halfway through that tour when we realized: A – how much fun we were having and again and B – in those years since we had broken up, we had all kind of grown a lot. And at that point, Aaron [Gillespie, drums] had not been in the band in, gosh, I think eight years? He had grown a lot, our relationship had changed a lot—so we got to talking on that tour, “If we did want to do the band again, what would that look like?”

So that was the genesis of the idea. At first it was just wanting to get together and play a show, but we realized, “Hey, we can actually be a band and do it sustainably and not have to kill ourselves.” [laughs] It all ended up turning out well.

Birmingham Stages: What did you need to make it happen? Was that piece Aaron? Was it something else?

CD: It wasn’t Aaron. I think the biggest thing was me and Tim [McTague, guitar] and James [Smith, guitar] getting into a spot where we were comfortable with it because we’ve all got multiple kids and wives at home. When we broke up, the gist of that the three of us were not down for being on the road nine months a year; being gone all the time. And at that point, we were like, “We’ll do UnderOath at 100%, 110%…” because I started playing in UnderOath when I was 16-years-old and I’m about to be 35. That was the only thing we had known. And our view on it at that point was, “We’re either going to do UnderOath at 110% or we’re not going to do it at all.” But that 110% to us at the time just meant being on the road all the time. 

When we started talking about doing the band again, the big thing for us was, “This is a ton of fun. We’re having fun doing it. We love each other. But me and Tim and James aren’t going to do this as a ‘get the band back together’ per se unless we can come to some sort of agreement on being gone.”

Which we did. We got to a point where we’re really not gone more than three months a year, which has been beneficial in ways that we really didn’t even realize. When we are going out there—when we are on tour—we don’t feel obligated at all to be there. It’s really like, “We’re getting to do it again.” We’re having fun. We’re enjoying being on the road. We’re enjoying each other’s company. And we’re not to that point where we’re just tired of looking at one another and just wanting to go home [laughs].

That’s been great, and so far, it’s working out awesome. We’re about to head out on our first tour since officially being a band again. We’re pretty stoked on it.

Birmingham Stages: What have you been doing in the meantime?

CD: A lot of family time; catching up on time with my kids, which was great. I’m actually scoring some films which is pretty cool. I’ve been wanting to get into that for a while, and I’m finally doing that. I’ve got a couple of those that will be out this year. 

I’ve been writing a lot. Because I realized when the band broke up that I hadn’t written in a long time without feeling obligated to; UnderOath, there was always a cycle of writing and recording and touring and, when it came to write, I wasn’t writing because I felt like I had all of this music in me but because, “Well, we need to have a record out by summer of next year, so we need to start writing.”

After we broke up, I was doing a lot of writing and not knowing what the music was going to be for. As it turns out, a lot of that music ended up on our new record. 

Birmingham Stages: How did this collection of songs happen? Was it a lot of music that you already had lying around? Was it something you wrote together when you got back together?

CD: It was a little of both. When we decided that we did want to make a record, there was definitely no shortage of creative juice to squeeze. Because we had all been not writing together for years and we had a lot of ideas; a lot my stuff that was written but didn’t really have a home—Spencer [Chamberlain, vocals] had another band he had been doing for a while and he had a lot of material that he had written on his own; Tim had another band; Aaron is always writing. We had a ton of ideas, it was just a matter of getting together and working through stuff to figure out what the album was going to sound like. That was a whole process in and of itself because one thing that we didn’t want was that we didn’t want to try to write an UnderOath album. We didn’t want to try to write an album that “sounds like UnderOath.” We didn’t want to have it feel fake or contrived. “Now we’re writing for UnderOath, so the guitars have to sound like this.” We wanted to get together and the stuff that was exciting us and the stuff that we were pumped on, that’s what we wanted to be on the record. I think that’s a big reason why the album sounds as different as it does. We really threw out that idea of, “Oh that doesn’t sound like UnderOath” and it was more like “If we’re in the studio and we’re hearing this riff or this part of this song and we’re all laughing because of how excited we are about it, then it’s going to go on the record.”

Birmingham Stages: How have you managed to maintain a linear sound through a lot of turnover?

CD: I guess that’s two-fold: One, I don’t know that we have had a linear sound. It seems like every record that we put out has been a pretty big departure from the record before it. 

And two—as far as the “turnover”—it’s usually perceived as being more of a thing than it is, I think. If you look at Wikipedia or whatever—past members of UnderOath—that was almost all when we were in high school and nobody knew who we were. Once we got serious and we realized that this was what we wanted to do and we went all in, that was basically right when Spencer joined the band in 2002 or 2003. In my mind, that’s when UnderOath became UnderOath; Aaron left and came back, but even throughout that time, there was a lot of different music coming out. The record that we put out with Spencer was a lot more melodic, a lot poppier than anything we had done before. And when the time came for the next album, which ended up being Define the Great Line, the label and everyone is like, “Well, you need to lean into these pop tendencies. Write bigger choruses.” All this stuff. “Then you guys will be huge.” But that’s not what we were feeling. We wanted to be heavier and darker. And Define the Great Line came out and it ended up doing really well.

Basically every time we put out a record, it’s like, “Well, you should do this…” and we don’t want to do that. We want to go in a different direction. I think that’s a lot of the same for this new record. “You guys don’t want to alienate your fanbase” and all of these things that get said in certain meetings and such. But we were like, “Hey, we just want to write stuff that we are jonesing on and that’s it.” 

And that continues our streak of not having stuff sound the same and people liking it and a lot of people not liking it [laughs].

Birmingham Stages: Did you ever imagine that doing this was something that would earn Grammy nominations for you guys?

CD: Not at all. We get asked from time to time, “What are your goals with this record? What are your goals with this tour? What are your goals with this band?” And I always say, “Any goal that I ever had for this band was passed 20 years ago.”

Once we actually went out and we saw that there were people coming to our shows, that was more than we imagined would be—like I said, I started playing in UnderOath when I was 16 and we’d play on the weekends and we would go see—pick a band coming through our local venue and there’s 80-100 people coming to see them. For us, it was like, “Oh my gosh. Look at those guys. They freaking made it.” You know?

It sounds cliché and insincere, but it’s honestly not—every time I think back of the stuff—on paper—that we have achieved as a band, I’m always like, “Dude, no way.” Thinking back to where we started, I don’t have any more goals. I don’t have any more aspirations. Yeah, I’d love for us to play in front of a million people, but that’s just ridiculous. 

We never thought any of this would happen, and it’s so crazy.

Birmingham Stages: What do you think of the hardcore scene today? Is it still a vibrant, growing community or is it 35-year-old guys like us that were into it that are still into it?

CD: I guess it depends on how you define the hardcore community. In Tampa, there are a lot of good, local heavy bands coming out of that scene as there were 15-20-25 years ago. 

It’s different now because we’re older and we’re so engrained in what we’re doing and so busy with that that I don’t think we pay as much attention. There’s a band called Limbs that we are bringing with us on this tour we are about to do and they are a hardcore band from Tampa and they’re really, really good. We wanted to bring them on this tour because we think they’re sick and they’re from where we’re from. 

With the advent of the internet and how easy it is to get your music out, I would think that the “scene” is bigger than it’s ever been. You’re able to access music anytime, anywhere. You look at a band like Code Orange that is doing what, in my mind, is something completely different, but so much of what they’re doing is a throwback to bands from the early and mid ‘90s. You kind of see that coming back around. The fact that they are being appreciated as much as they are bodes really well for—if you want to call it that—the “scene.” 

Birmingham Stages: Is it challenging for you to make venues that hold 1,000 people feel more like that DIY type of spaces that you started out in? Do you want to do that?

CD: I don’t think that’s necessarily the goal. I remember playing Birmingham in the late ‘90s and playing in front of 50 people and there’s that energy you get that you can’t get anywhere else. But on the same token, there’s an energy that you can only get when you’re in a room with a lot of people or an outdoor venue. I don’t think it’s a better or worse vibe, but there’s something to be said for production and the scale of what you’re doing. I don’t think you’re ever going to get a big room to feel the same as a small room, but on the flip side, you’re never going to see a band in a tiny room and get that, “Oh my God. Look at that.” When you get 5,000 people screaming the same thing, there’s a feeling there that you can’t get in a small room. I definitely have a unique love and appreciation for both.

We’re trying to give that room the vibe that is right for that room. And that’s our goal for this tour.

UnderOath comes to Iron City on Monday, April 30. Advance tickets are $33.50 and can be purchased at www.ironcitybham.com. Limbs, Veil of Maya and Dance Gavin Dance will open the 7 p.m. show (doors open at 6 p.m.).

The Vibe is Live: A Conversation with Lech Wierzynski of The California Honeydrops

By Blake Ells

 

The California Honeydrops leapt to a new level when the legendary Bonnie Raitt discovered their music. Two years ago, the band opened for her at the BJCC Concert Hall and, for the first time since, they’re swinging back through on their own headlining tour. On Saturday, April 28, The California Honeydrops will perform at Zydeco.

Before the stop, frontman Lech Wierzynski spoke about that relationship with Raitt and how it raised the band’s profile. He talked about how he discovered blues and jazz music as a child in Poland and about how important the live show is to his band.

Birmingham Stages: The last time you guys came through, you were opening for Bonnie Raitt. How did you connect with her and how valuable was your time with her?

Lech Wierzynski: She came to one of our shows. There was a song that she wanted to record called “Here Comes Love,” which was a song of ours off the Like You Mean It album. She liked the song, wanted to record it, wanted to meet the band; so she came out to see us play at an underground club—like a warehouse. She came by and chilled out and we got to meet her and she was nice. A year after that, we got the call when she said, “Hey, maybe these guys can open for me.” And we said, “Oh, yeah, for sure.”

On the tour, we got to know her better. She’d come into our dressing room and sing with us when we were warming up and that led to her singing on the record. 

Birmingham Stages: Obviously, she’s one of the greatest of all time. What did support from someone like that mean to you guys?

LW: Obviously, there’s a degree of validation that you’re getting there, you know? It’s nice to know that someone that knows music loves you. She’s our number one fan. She loves the band, and that’s been really good for our careers. We were kind of ignored for a long time; we were written off as a party band. Having someone that’s a serious musician say, “Hey, these cats are for real” really raised our level of appreciation from other people that didn’t know about us. 

Birmingham Stages: You guys started out playing train stations throughout California and eventually, you sold out the Fillmore. How overwhelming was it to make that leap?

LW: It’s exactly what you said—it’s overwhelming. You’re used to being on the floor with everybody else; especially the way we play. We like to connect with the audience; we like to be a part of the whole thing. That’s an adjustment you have to make—to be up on a big stage away from your crowd. It can be a good feeling, too.

Music and money—art and money—are two things that really don’t make sense together. Because music is best in your living room with just a few people just jamming together. That  can be a peak musical experience; just jamming with a few friends and having a dance party at your house, you know? Trying to translate that experience into something like selling out a show at the Fillmore and making money off it is a tricky business. But we try to stay true to the roots of that feeling; of that small room feeling as we can.

Birmingham Stages: You were born in Poland and you created the band in California, but you have a bluesy, jazzy, New Orleans vibe. How did you find that sound within you when it maybe wasn’t really in your surroundings?

LW: I was surrounded by it. My dad listened to New Orleans Jazz; that was his favorite music. Louis Armstrong. Nat King Cole. Those were some of the only tapes we had in the car. That [expletive] was just on repeat, man. [laughs] 

Then you come to America when you’re a kid and the easiest way to fit in with the other kids is music, you know? The easiest way to grasp the culture is music. You get thrown in the fire and you think, “How am I going to fit in here?” So you gravitate toward something like that. That’s how I came to love music. 

One of my friends made me a tape of the Rebirth Brass Band when I was a kid. I was playing trumpet because I was listening to Louis and Sidney Bachet and stuff like that. So it just kind of came together.

I think I always wanted to do something that felt a little more acoustic; a little more intimate. I tried to put that together with the other influences; with some of the other music that I love. 

There was a guitar player named Snooks Eaglin out of New Orleans that would play a lot of Ray Charles with a guitar, and it was cool to see him do this rhythm and blues stuff in a stripped down setup. 

Birmingham Stages: Have you connected with some of those bands that influenced you? Have you played any with Rebirth [Brass Band]?

LW: Yeah. We’ve played a bunch of shows with Rebirth over the years in California and other places. We’ve opened for them a bunch of times; we’ve done co-bills with them. That’s an awesome experience because that’s a band that was a huge influence on us in terms of their vibe and throwing a party and having a good time. That second line beat—that’s New Orleans—and that’s been a big influence on us. 

Birmingham Stages: You released a live record really early on—relatively speaking—in your discography. Why was that a high priority for you to get that live recording out?

LW: Because we’re a live band, man. That’s where the vibe is; the vibe is live. You can’t fake that in the studio. We wanted people to hear us because that’s what we’re selling—the live vibe. Playing in a studio is alright, but playing a live show is much more fun a lot of times. We wanted to capture that fun instead of slaving away in a studio trying to get something perfect. We wanted something imperfect that’s got a good vibe. 

The California Honeydrops come to Zydeco on Saturday, April 28. Tickets are $12 in advance and can be purchased at www.zydecobirmingham.com. The Aquaducks will open the 9 p.m. show. 

Listening Station: New Music from Charley Crockett

By Brent Thompson

In October 2017, Charley Crockett was included in Rolling Stone’s “10 New Country Artists You Need to Know.” And while such recognition certainly heightens his exposure, it doesn’t begin to capture the scope of his music. Lonesome As A Shadow, Crockett’s fourth full-length album – and first of all-original material – finds him covering a wealth of stylistic ground but in a surprisingly cohesive fashion. Though you hear strains of Hank Williams, Sr. in “I Wanna Cry,” the classic Soul sounds of Arthur Alexander in “How Long Will I Last” and a nod to his fellow Texan Freddy Fender on “Goin’ Back To Texas,” it all somehow makes sense when played through Crockett’s filter. Produced by Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Zac Brown), Lonesome As A Shadow was recorded in Memphis at Sam Phillips Recording. Once known for busking in some of the country’s most noted musical cities, Crockett has turned his hardscrabble apprenticeship into a familiar-yet-unique sound that is finding its rewards.