Ive tried to follow pretty closely everything youve done in the last few years, putting out three records and producing some for other artists, so first I wanted to ask if it was as much of a whirlwind for you as it seemed?
Hmm, probably not. It probably wasnt as intense as it should seem to me, mainly because it was fun for the most part. The making of this stuff was really fun, and it didnt really seem like it was going that fast, just because the material was there. But I noticed that everyone around me was up for the challenge of getting it done, and knew that it was going to be really hard. And at that time I wasnt necessarily into doing a lot of press for anything because I knew the work schedule itself was going to be really intense. I thought that it was going to go really quick, and in retrospect I dont think it strained me in some kind of unreasonable way. The only negative projection that I can think of now is that the songs were happening so fast that if they had not gone down and been released, then we would have lost some great tunes. Most of them were really great live, and in fact Im just starting to find my footing with some of them. The Cardinals and I are just musically falling in love with parts of Cold Roses that never got a chance to get played, and "29 has become a band favourite to play. If those songs werent out there, we probably wouldnt be playing them now, and playing them better in some cases. So the process is super-important to serve the songs the best we could at that moment. They had to come out.
On Easy Tiger, the band is still the Cardinals?
It is the Cardinals. Some of the tracks are just me not doing everything, but close to doing everything with [guitarist] Neal [Casal] or [pedal steel guitarist] Jon [Graboff] coming in later to fill in the blanks. I kind of looked to them when I started making it, because I wasnt really sure I could make it. I wasnt sure how I was going to do a record more stripped-back, more from my perspective, because theyre such good friends and good band-mates. I just care to be around them when Im playing, so I think they gave me a lot of confidence. At some points, a track would come up and Id be like, "God, Ive gotta cut this track but I dont want to play all the parts, so they were just there for me. Its a weird example, but I like to think of it like how it was with the Grateful Dead when Bob or Jerry wanted to do solo records and they would end up calling the rest of the guys to play on them. For me, I just have a comfortability with those guys. The funny thing was, I wasnt confident about many of those tunes because they were just so me, you know? The way I found a way to live in them was by asking those guys, which ones do you want me to pursue, or which ones do you think are worthy? Those guys would always pick the hard ones. Theyd say, like, look man, this is a good tune. I know its kind of heavy and you might not want to go digging through all that emotional information, but that ended up making it fun for me by giving me a different perspective through the arrangements. Neals very pushy when it comes to that. Whenever Id be like, Ah, this song sucks, hed say, Come on, lets just play it a couple times and by then you wont be thinking about it. Hes usually right. I typically like the songs that are more riffage, or have a more general overview. So Im so glad that they were there in that way. If I had done it myself with just acoustic guitar or piano, it would have been such a different record with such a different approach.
Yeah, my initial reaction was how concise the record is. It made me think that it might shut up some of your critics who think that you dont know how to edit yourself.
But what are they really talking about when they say that? I know what you mean, and Ive wrestled with that when I think about what some critics have said about me. But then I think, well, theyre not a gang, theyre individual people, although sometimes they seem to get a vibe about what something is by looking at what other critics have said or written. The idea that Im prolific I just see that word and hear it in questions all the time. Its one of those things thats been passed from journalist to journalist. Its a fail-safe thing to ask me about, whereas my opinion is that the work speaks for itself. It isnt really about whether Im prolific, its just the output that I have. In my mind I always think, Im prolific compared to what? Is it the modern idea of what a consistent musical flow would be for a person? I guess for me, music is so often not dangerous, or not bothersome, that I dont understand the negative connotation.
Right. I guess its just that so many artists today arent allowed to develop naturally and explore so many different areas like youve done.
Right. But some of that was work, though. I think, if anything, some of it was because I just pressed forward so hard, thinking to myself that the work was going to speak for itself, not me. And I see that a lot. I see people who should probably make five records in the time it takes to make one. Maybe five years later someone like that will realize theres so much to learn from what they used to think was a mistake in composition. When I go to museums, I like to look at an artists work as an overview of, say, a ten-year period. Sometimes the missteps always seem to precede an epiphany, and I really like that. I really like peaks and valleys. Theres a lot of beauty and subtlety when composition breaks down in order to find a new way. Stories need their very calm and seemingly useless passages in order to make the next event more than it is, like in a movie when theres a lull. That makes the next huge event as it should be. I guess I follow that kind of thinking, and I think music can handle it.
That begs the question of what epiphany you had with this record, and to me the obvious hint is the last track, "Taught Myself How To Grow Old.
I think thats the heaviest one. I think thats the one I was waiting for. That happened in, like, five fucking minutes too. I did that and two other tracks that are b-sides in one afternoon in the studio that Im at right now. [Producer] Jamie [Candiloro] was mixing some stuff and I said I had a couple of ideas. We waited a few days, because I was feeling a little too emotionally intense to try to level out one song after the next the way I normally do. So I took a break I only live a few blocks from the studio and I ended up finishing the words for "Taught Myself right before I cut it. Then I didnt listen to it for a week. I know why, because I never would have been able to sit down and work on something like that, which is kind of brutal. [Pause] But sonically, Jamie has a style thats all about clarity. We dont hide anything with him.
Yeah, I was going to say that the albums got such a cool, mid-70s glow to it. To me, it doesnt really sound like your other records.
Yeah, and Jamies in the Cards now. Hes playing piano and other stuff, while working on the box set. Hes a true bro to everyone in the band, so he just integrated so perfectly. When I produce, I like a lot of depth and mystery, and have things be a bit obscured or sound nasty and ratty. I used to think that Hüsker Dü records sounded like that because it was a style they were going for, but Jamies opinion is it was as good as they could make it they were in a garage. Im like, no they did all this on purpose, so thats the approach Ive taken on some of the stuff Ive produced. But for Jamie its all about less interference. And its fucking tough, because when were trying to cut a track and its not working, I used to think it was the sonics, but for him, the truth is right there in front of you. If its not speaking, it doesnt mean that Im crap or the songs crap necessarily, it just means that the song doesnt communicate as well as others. Thats terrifying for me who writes tons of shit. Its a cool challenge though.
What was it like producing Willie Nelson then?
I learned a lot of life lessons mostly. I mean, he works very quickly and it was very spare. We didnt see him a lot, because the sessions were over a couple of different months. And also when it came up that it was something we were going to do, I was adamant that if the Cards were going to back him up, I would have to produce so we wouldnt have to worry about someone interfering with our sound. So they agreed to let it go down the way it went down in the studio, and I put some limits on what was going to happen in order to keep the integrity of the recording. It reminded me kind of how Jack and Meg White work, the way that their limits make them seem stronger and more able to be resourceful and economical. In thinking about that, I wanted everyone to set up in the room around Willie, with only [drummer] Brad [Pemberton] wearing headphones, and everyone using ratty old amps so that the main thing everyone heard was Willies voice and guitar. It was cool because it made everyone listen really hard, and I think it enabled Willie to throw the band a little more, and suck them in. It turned into a real healthy struggle. But other than that we didnt see a lot of him because I think he was pressed for time, and maybe recording in New York was a little overwhelming for him. It was just a different process. I think hes used to coming in with the track already done and just singing over it.
You mentioned a box set. Is that on tap next?
I think so. Ive been mostly working on artwork for it, Jamies been putting it together, which is great. Theres been so many records that were lost in the shuffle in between the records that came out, it really was funny that theres never been a lapse in working. In between Heartbreaker and Gold, and Gold and the subsequent records, even in the last few years theres been completed records, some that leaked to the Internet but not in their finished form, and some that no ones ever heard. It seemed like a good idea to put it all together into one insane, awesome box set that people could go to if they wanted. I asked Jamie to help with it because some of the audio is damaged, and some of it had never been mixed. Like, theres a record called 48 Hours that Ethan [Johns] did that people have had for many years because of the Internet, but with a lot of tracks missing. So theres things like that, as well as things like the record I wrote right after Heartbreaker called Suicide Handbook, which would have been Gold. Whatever people have heard of that never got mixed and doesnt have the strings and other tracks I put on it. Hearing all that stuff again has been kind of mind-blowing, and Jamies been great in putting it all together. But for the time being, the band and I just want to go out and tour Easy Tiger, and for the first time Im really feeling like I want to open up and talk about the process.