If you’re like me, and know next to nothing about the 77s, I guess you’re going to have to take Doug’s word for the fact that this legendary alternative rock band is worth your attention. After I had a gander at it myself, I suppose I can vouch for him. (Apparently he knows a couple of things about good music… who’d a thunk it?) This one’s for the books… [Just now discovering 77s introduction by Levi Macallister]
Hey, this is Doug.
Hey, how’s it going?
Doing good, doing good.
Were we supposed to have an interview at Cornerstone? I can’t remember.
No, I wouldn’t say, “supposed to.” I was given your information about two or three weeks before Cornerstone and never got around to actually picking up the phone and making in happen. I saw you at Cornerstone, and said, “Hey, can we do it here?” And you kind of said, “Yeah, we can probably do that.” But it never happened.
I remember. I think Jeff told me that you might do that. And there were a couple other guys that were around…
And it got a little confusing. It was real hectic for me, you know?
Yeah, no worries. I don’t do a lot of work at Cornerstone anyway … I review what I see and help my wife run the booth but I don’t do a lot of journalism stuff beyond that…
Haven’t we spoken in the past, years ago?
Uh … probably so. I don’t know if we’ve ever done a proper interview. I mean, I know I’ve spoken to you at concerts and whatnot…
You’ve been to Austin, Texas a few times.
Oh yeah. Yeah, that horrible club that was haunted…
You remember that place? It’s kind of like a bar. You walk in – and I can’t remember if it was split in half or what the deal was – but everything went wrong and it was just like it was… it was like it was jinxed. It’s haunted to me… it was really bizarre.
There’s one called “Babe’s” that you might be talking about … with the hamburger joint on one side.
Yeah, that’s it!
Yup, I think it’s completely haunted. I mean, there are always the usual gremlins at a gig. But this – this went beyond that. There was something not right.
And we all sensed it.
That’s strange. I met MXPX. They played there one time and they ate at Taco Cabana afterwards and they all got food poisoning.
There you go. There you go … see? Getting food poisoning on the road like that…
Now is that the hamburger joint on the side?
No, it’s a fast food Tex-Mex place. It’s kind of a cool spot, cause they’re open 24 hours and you can get fajitas and stuff.
Well, I mean … that’s just gonna happen every once in a while. But, the fact that they played Babe’s and then had it happen … there it is, see?
Alright, well anyway.
So there’s the myth. Alright, I’m ready to go if you are.
Have at it.
Okay. When you look back in retrospect on this album, Holy Ghost Building, what do you think will be the story of this album? What will stand out to you?
Well, the way it was received and recorded. Because [it is] unlike other albums that are always about “original material.” You compile a bunch of original material, and then you record it somehow… This came from our drummer being on the road with Jackie Greene… You know that guy?
He’s this sort of blues/pop guy. You know, he’s pretty popular around the country. He hasn’t had a hit yet, but he really sells out all the rooms he plays. Plays big rooms. He was on Verve for a while, and then Phil Lesh hired him to be in the Phil Lesh Band. So he’s gotten more interest from that. He does a lot of roots/rock kind of stuff, you know. R&B. Americana. And from Bruce being on the road with him, I think Bruce was trying to find a way to get us back in the studio again. He suggested that we try. He just said, “Why don’t you go find a bunch of old gospel songs and we’ll record those our own way.” You know, just forget about writing songs, let’s just do some old, classic stuff. Whatever you want to do. So I went and did a bunch of research, and I found all these great gospel blues songs and stuff like that, you know? And it was a real education for me. I mean, I’d heard a lot of this stuff over the years, but I really immersed myself in it this time. I put together a cassette of as many of these songs as I thought would be good to do. And we set up the band live in a large warehouse studio downtown. We had two different sets of drums depending upon what the vibe was… so that we could all play live. And then I would put on the cassette and say, “Alright, check this song out…” The minute we heard one we liked we’d say, “Alright, got it” – we’d go sit down, and we would just record it in one go. And we’d keep doing a few takes until we felt like we got it, and then we’d move on. So, the concept of recording live, on the fly, with songs that we either barely knew or had never heard before, you know … meaning that they were all head arrangements. Everything was done right at the spur of the moment. This was something that really appealed to me, because I love working that way. If I were in comedy or acting, I would be in “improv theatre” and doing it like that, because that’s where I really work best. And it’s also the same way that Elvis Presley recorded his material in the 50s. Either he or the producer would bring in a stack of singles that had been submitted by songwriters – or they were old songs that Elvis knew – and they would work it up on the fly and record it and that would be the record. It would go out just like that. So, for me, it was like coming full circle and, not only with our band, but just with the whole approach to record making, in rock and roll and everything. In some cases we were doing the same material … we were tapping from the same group of songs that Elvis had his played back then.
That’s what’s nice – is that none of this was … contrived. It wasn’t like I sat down and masterminded, “Okay, we’re going to do a sun studio session” or something like that. I mean, nothing could be further from my mind. This was all about following up with our drummer Bruce’s original intention. You know, he had a simple concept that he thought would be effective, and that he knew I would like. And sure enough, it worked really well. Of course, you know, then it took over two years for us to finish the record.
We had to be the 77s eventually. That’s how we did it. We wasted two years overdubbing and meticulously going over it like a clinical experiment, you know? But my goal all along was to make sure that the energy of that original sessions was kept, both sonically and live-wise. And we held firm to that. So the record that you now hear has all the sound and the sonic qualities of the tracking sessions that we did.
I wasn’t aware that it took so long to come out. I don’t think you even came close to squelching the energy that I hear on there, so … it’s a good job.
Well, fortunately we didn’t beat it to death. After the original tracking sessions were done, we waited a couple of months, and then I went in with Mark, our base player, and proceeded to do any guitar overdubs that were necessary. You know, because we are a three-piece, some of this music, well, most of it needed a fourth guitar, and some extras. So we did that and then, gosh – several months went by and then I went in and did the lead vocals. And then maybe a year went by, and we came back in and did the background vocals, you know? We were all just too busy making a living and doing other projects. So it wasn’t that it took that long. It’s just that we did it in our spare time.
And we mixed it ourselves, which is something we hadn’t done since back in the Pray Naked days, which was also a really good learning experience. I just felt it was a healthy project over all. It didn’t have all of the usual drama and, you know, bad things that can happen to bog a project down. We were all very into it, and we learned a lot and there was a lot of good, positive emotion towards it.
Nice. Well, let’s go back in time and look at each of the 77s album releases, what do you remember…
What?! Oh no! You want to go over all of them… ha ha!
It can be short and sweet.
You’re going to kill me. All right…
What stands out about each?
You want to start at the beginning?
Well, Ping Pong Over the Abyss, for me … I know how important it was to so many people that heard it, at the time that they heard it. Because, in “Christian Rock Music,” there probably wasn’t anything quite like what this was at the time. I’m not sure what it was; I just know that it wasn’t like anything else that was being put out. And so whoever did find it and bought it and ended up liking it – found something new in their life. Particularly lyrically, I think. It wasn’t so much music that was unique; I think it was more the lyrical approach was a little bit bolder and more honest. It dealt with grittier issues than a lot of CCM rock, I suppose. It’s very hard for me to be objective about it. That record was put together with stuff that we were doing locally, and in high school, colleges and prisons … youth authorities. We were basically just a church outreach group, you know? All of that material was just kind of thrown together for that purpose, we never intended to make an album and hoist it on the world. By the time we recorded it – which was four years down the road – the recording was rushed. I always felt like it was a bunt instead of a grand-slam. I never felt like it really captured the energy of the live shows. But if you get the CD release of it, you’ll hear some of the live shows as bonus tracks… so you can hear more of what we were about at the time, which was a much better band that I think was represented on that record. But, the record seems to mean an awful lot to a lot of people. I am grateful for that aspect of it. But it’s not my favorite.
Alright, well All Fall Down?
All Fall Down was a real huge quantum leap … creatively. We still had some leftover material from Ping Pong that I’d written with our old drummer, Mark, that got onto All Fall Down. That’s some great stuff. but the new material also reflected out new drummer, Aaron Smith, and what he brought to the group, as well as just a real focused attempt to be more pop – more hip. Charlie was producing and he helped bring some of those elements in. He helped us to take what we were doing a little more seriously, rather than just the “boys from the church.” He felt like we had more potential as a pop group. I really like the front cover, and I like how a lot of the songs were done. Again, you know, I look at it now and I can’t really listen to it. You know, some of it I like, some of it I don’t. But this record really helped follow up what we did with Ping Pong in a major way. It got a lot of college radio air play and was probably the great lost pearl of our catalog. Had it been managed differently, we probably could have gotten somewhere with that record. I think it had a good overall appeal. But that was not meant to be…
Well, you just want to keep on moving on?
Let’s see, the next album is called 77s or The Island Album. This one is a huge disappointment for me. Not so much song-wise, but the fact that we were made to re-create our demos that we liked a lot, for the record label, and always felt that they had a bland, kind of antiseptic quality to them. Except for two songs that we were allowed to keep, as some of the original demos – “I Could Laugh” and “Pearls Before Swine.” If you buy the CD version, you’ll hear the original demos and see that, once again, the demos reflect more where we were at. Which brings me back to Holy Ghost Building because we didn’t have a demo process with Holy Ghost Building, we merely recorded what were demos, used them as masters… That’s really, I think, something I’ve just had a revelation about, just now. That’s the way I like to work. Record it once and walk away. I mean, that’s the way Bob Dylan works, that’s the way Van Morrison works. It doesn’t always work out, but if you have control over it, I think that’s what captures the original energy of any performance. Capture it before you really know it too well and you start to fool around with it. If you can record something while you’re still learning it, you’re probably going to get something more magical than after you’ve played it a million times and, you know, sort of all the explorative energy is gone. But yeah, The Island record is okay, but it was a commercial flop. Island didn’t do anything with it. You couldn’t find it in Christian bookstores, you couldn’t find it in regular record stores, you know? But we put it out, and, they didn’t support our tour or anything, and then, a week later The Joshua Tree came out by U2, and it’s all just a haunting, painful memory. Ha, sorry. Are you writing all this down?
I got a tape recorder, so I’ll transcribe it later.
Okay, good. I hope this doesn’t all come out sounding negative.
Ha. Remind me to tell you the Galactic Cowboy’s story if you’ve never heard it, when we’re done.
Okay. Gosh, that one rings a bell. Who are the Galactic Cowboys?
They were one of Sam Taylor’s protégés after King’s X. They’re from Houston and came out with two albums on Geffen, and I think four albums on Metal Blade. And it kind of broke up ‘cause they couldn’t keep it going. But, what was next for you guys as an official release, was it Drowning with Land in Sight?
The next record was called Sticks and Stones, and that was still with the original group. We just kept going, recording demos, trying to get a record deal. And that album is basically made up of mostly some leftover tracks from earlier years and also the demos we were trying to use to get a record deal. It was our most successful album to date, because we went back to Word records and, Joe Taylor and Gene Eugene put it out on their Broken Label. But that was during the time when Tony Shore worked there and they were able to get the label to put a lot of marketing muscle behind it. And it sold very well, and re-established us in a huge way. So that was the high-water mark for us. It’s a great record, and it’s probably the one that I’m most proud of. I always look at that and go, “Yeah, that’s good.” I don’t sit back and dread hearing it or feel badly about it. It’s just one good song after another and the production is crude, but it gets the point across. We had total control over it, and that’s the thing I liked most about it.
That’s great, I always thought that was kind of a collection of demos. I didn’t fully understand it was a…
Well, it is. It is in a sense that the back half of it is kind of just demos that didn’t go anywhere. But the front was really demos that we were recording of new material to try to score a record deal and we were playing a lot of showcases in Hollywood and came very close. But no one ever heard “that one song.” They’re all looking for a hit single because that’s the thing that’s gonna make it work. And for whatever reason, they didn’t consider anything that we brought to them a “hit single.” Which is kind of a drag because, you know, “Nowhere Else” was great, you know.
“The Way Love Is” was great. And some of those even got air play on some very hip San Francisco rock stations. So, you know, “Hit-Shmit” – if they put something behind it, they could’ve done it, you know? Cause all that stuff had been recorded years earlier. I think it came out in 1990, but that stuff had been cut in like, ’86 and ’87.
I thought it was still good, I thought it was still fresh. I think ’88 was probably the last year that we … well … we did some of those in ’88 I guess. Anyway, after that we put out our live album, called 88. And it was a great live album, I’m really proud of that one. I’ve been told by many people that it’s one of the best live albums they’ve ever heard, ever. And that always makes me feel good. I don’t know if it’s true or not … I mean, come on man, Frampton Comes Alive? But it is a good one, and I’m proud of it. And I think for the same reason I’ve been telling you over and over again is that album, Live 88, sounds an awful lot like Holy Ghost Building to me. It’s the way the bands sounds in its most natural state. It’s got this kind of bluesy, rockabilly kind of swing to it. And that’s probably what we really are, and everything else we’ve ever done is just an experiment. It’s us trying to be pop guys. Us trying to be experimental, or us trying to be progressive, or cool, or whatever it is we’re trying to be. And when it comes right down to it, the things this band does is just rock n’ roll. Straight up, old-timey, you know? Kind of rockabilly blues… very Texas, you know?
Does that make sense? Move to Texas!
Yeah, take residence in Austin.
I just think of it as Texas Roadhouse music, kind of, you know? Like, you remember The Doors? You remember Roadhouse Blues?
Yeah, to me, that’s a 77s record. When I hear that I think of myself and our band doing that, because that’s what our band feels like it’s supposed to be – it’s just this bluesy thing and me just kind of being real nasty over it. You know, that’s just kind of what it is. At least at its best. It feels like that’s what the heart and soul of the band really follows … but the lyrics say something else altogether. The lyrics are personal, they’re challenging, they’re honest, they’re brutal, convicting. I especially like the fact that Holy Ghost Building is full of true Christian songs that really say something. That’s one aspect of it, to me, that it’s something we left behind twenty-five years ago, that I’m glad has come back, but in a different kind of way. It’s not me preaching, it’s these old guys, you know? But the lyrics really say something, and what they have to say I think is more relevant now than it ever was… anyway, I’m digressing… Okay, so after 88 came, let me think, Pray Naked?
Yeah, I think that’s right.
Yeah, Pray Naked. Which is another album I’m really proud of. Not everything, but there’s some real gems on there, and I think overall it was … the way it came across was really good. And it followed up Sticks and Stones really well. The controversy over the title and all of that … it just got us more publicity than ever, so we were doing really well back then. My favorite song that we’ve done on there – “Self-Made Trap” – is on that record. That’s just a really good record. I love “Nuts For You” which is just us doing the rockabilly thing. I love the cover and all the pictures in India with all the gurus and everything … I just think that’s really cool. I’m amazed that Word records allowed that, but wouldn’t allow the word “Naked” in the title … So retarded.
Anyway, next was Drowning with Land in Sight … which I also think is a really good record. It’s uneven for me, but it’s got some really great stuff on it. We probably compressed it too much though. Sonically, it’s a bit murky. But it did really good for us, and it came at a time when our guitar player, David Leonhardt, was undergoing chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s Disease and he almost died. I was going through a divorce and, you know, it was just a really horrible time in our lives but we managed to brave on and finish the record. And I think the record reflects a lot of that misery and darkness. But it … you know, a lot of people liked it. A lot of people said it helped them through some dark times themselves, so we all kind of suffered together in that boat. But then that group broke up… that was the second group of 77s. Dave Leonhardt left, got married, went to Atlanta, and Aaron Smith moved to Nashville. So that effectively ended the tenure of those guys. What we did then was we re-released the first three albums on CD in a box called 1,2,3.
And we grabbed Bruce Spencer from Vector, and went out on tour to promote that box set as a three-piece. We did a tour with The Throws and Curious Fools. So once we came back from the tour we decided to stick together as the 77s – as a three-piece. We were gonna change the name or something, but we decided to just keep it. And we locked ourselves in a garage for three months and came up with what became Tom-Tom Blues, which is a real gritty, loud, sort of experimental, hard –rock thing. We were listening to a lot of Sound Garden and stuff like that. It reflected more of the “three-piece power-trio” mentality. And I like about half … I love half, and I hate the other half of it. I think I feel the same way about all of the 77s albums, you know. Thirty, forty percent of it I love, and the rest of it I despise. It either didn’t come out right, or we didn’t get it down right or some sonic problem, or there’s a lyric that embarrasses me or the vocals suck. So they all have their moments. I thought that record was a flop at the time, but evidently I found out that it sold really well. So we followed that up with this thing called E.P. – which was five songs – which I really like a lot. It sounded good. I like the songs. I didn’t like how some of them were done, but it’s got some really great moments. And then we had expanded the E.P. into a thing called Late, which was E.P. plus alternate mixes from Tom-Tom Blues and some other related demos and stuff. You know, live stuff. Gosh – I don’t know what we did after that… A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows.
That’s probably the low point for our band, because I pretty much checked out emotionally at that point and just kind of left the writing and the whole thing to Bruce, our drummer, and Mark, our guitarist, and our bass player. And I think my lack of involvement kind of shows. But once again, there are some amazing songs on Golden Field, so it isn’t a complete loss, it’s just one that we kind of emotionally rejected as being uncharacteristic of the band. We don’t have good feeling towards it. It took us forever to finish it, and we almost chucked it, so on and so forth. But it has a nice booklet in it. The next one we did was this thing called Direct which was a short-form album, six songs. So I guess you could call it another E.P. I suppose. We recorded half an album and quit, and there it is: Direct. Very nice. It’s not great, but it’s good, and it also has some classics on it. Gosh, in the course of me going through all of this I realize that my feeling towards everything we’ve done is about the same. I like two or three, and then the rest I hate. So there you have it.
Well this one, being half of an album, by that theory, it should’ve been your best, then.
Well, ya. It was okay; it just kind of came and went. We didn’t press that many of them, we sold them all, and that was it. We did do a Christmas short-form album for our fan club which, I think, is probably one of the best things we’ve ever done. If you’ve heard the Christmas album…?
I don’t think I have.
Yeah, the Christmas thing’s great. We cover Chuck Berry’s “Run, Rudolph, Run.” I think we created the definitive version of it. I think it’s better than Chuck’s, I think it’s better than Keith Richard’s, it’s better than, you know, Bryan Adams’ and anyone else that’s ever cut that song… it think the 77s own that one. We re-did “Blue Christmas” – re-wrote it completely. It’s just very nice, and I hope to finish it one day.
What’s the name of that album?
It’s called, Happy Chrimbo. The British call Christmas Chrim for short, but they spell it “C-R-I-M-B-O”. I’ve created what I call a new holiday, which is the limbo between Christmas and New Years. Which is my favorite time of that whole season. Cause, you know, the rush is through and you can just relax and enjoy all your gifts and hang out with the family, eat all the food.
So, I call it “Chrimbo.” I said, “Let’s call it that.” We put out a few fan club releases, but there’s nothing to write home about with those. Just collections of garbage that was laying around … it’s fun to listen to though. I think I’ve covered everything… oh no! Wait! There was another live acoustic album called Echoes of Faith. That came out around ’92 or something like that… because Aaron had got out on tour with Michael Card a lot, so he was gone all the time. So, Mark, Dave and myself went out as a three piece acoustic trio and that was around the time of all the MTV Unplugged fad, you know?
So, we recorded one of the shows and put it out, and it did really well. That’s another great album, actually. I totally forgot about that. But there you go … Echoes of Faith. That one probably falls in between, uh … before Pray Naked, I think. Yeah, I think it came out before it.
So there you go. Kind of tedious.
Yeah. I appreciate that. You’ve got kind of a nice catalogue to look back on. It’s nice to, uh…
Well, it could’ve been worse, I guess. I mean, the fact it exists at all I think is a miracle… that you can have a band that really has no real, true commercial success per se, but it’s still recording and making decent albums twenty-five, thirty years down the road with virtually no help except for our fans and people that care about us. I think there’s a story there somewhere.
Yeah, that’s kind of a good transition into my next question… I’m kind of curious how you feel about your career at this point in regards to being a working musician, and I’ve got a hypothetical question that might reveal your thoughts on this … So, let’s say you’re in an airport, and you’ve got a layover, and you’re sitting next to Charlie Sexton, Jimmy Von, or even John Mellencamp … how do you feel about yourself while talking to these guys, and what do you say when they ask you to describe yourself?
Ha ha! Wow! Wow! What a question. Um, I guess I can answer that in two parts, and one is that … I’m not sure, but I think I could probably hold my own with those guys as a musician as a player … maybe as a singer … I’m not sure. I’m ambivalent about my singing, you know? But I’d say as a player, I probably feel that I could be a peer with them to some degree, depending on the day. As far as career goes, I’d be ashamed to tell them what I did, or how I did it … except to say, “Well, I’m an independent.” An indie musician. Just working for whatever gigs I can grab. I put out thirty records, none of them have sold much but I’m still doing it at my age … you know, blah blah blah blah – I’m proud of that. But the only thing I would be able to say that’s different from what they’re doing is that there’s a spiritual aspect to all of this that – to me – is so much larger. So much more profound and more substantial than any amount of commercial or musical success that you could have. All that comes down to is whether you have the faith to believe that really matters, you know? I don’t know what that would mean for those guys. Maybe each one of them has in their own way. That kind of thing going for themselves. You know, maybe Mellencamp looks back at his life going, “Well, I’ve gotten” – and he probably gets thousand of letters, too, from people saying, “Your record helped me through a hard time” or something. I’m sure that’s true. It’s just that in my case, God asked me to do this in some strange way. It was a calling. So at the end of the day, I have to measure my success more in that realm, and only God knows what that success is, because I can’t measure that, you know? I’ve had people tell me. I get a lot of emails and letters about what this music is to them, or what it’s done for them, but that’s a secret, hidden thing. That’s something that I keep locked in my heart. And it helps me during the times that I feel like I’ve been a failure. Because in the world’s eyes, I would look at my career and say, “Okay, survivor, veteran, but failure.” You know? Spiritually, I don’t believe that’s true at all. And the only evidence that I have of that are these people that tell me so. And they’re these sort of silent majority out there, because I kind of know who all our fans are – [at least] on the surface. But then there’s all these other people that I don’t know about. And those are the ones that write to me, and tell me things. And they all say to not give up. They all beg me to not give up. And it seems like I get those on the days where I feel like giving up. Maybe those are little messages from God trying to tell me to not give up – because that’s usually what I want to do, a lot of the time. You know, when it all feels useless, or that it’s been a waste, or I’m ashamed of myself. You know, I think I suck … I’m not good enough. Any amount of negative thoughts that can creep in when you don’t feel like you’ve really done the job or succeeded in the way you’d hoped can beat you down. But yeah. I don’t know if that answered your question but I’d have to say that there’s a hidden dimension to what this band was and what it did that can only be measured in the Trinity. It can only be measured by God, because I have no way on knowing what that really means, or what it did, completely. I only see a shadow of it. But I would hope that I could go on one of those guys’ tours and play really great guitar and hold my own with them, you know? That part I feel okay about. I mean, the particular musicians you mentioned are easier for me to measure myself against. I think if you’d have picked some other guys I’d probably just say forget it! You picked guys that I … well, I think that I can kind of hang with those people, you know. I think I can hold my own. I wouldn’t want to go up against Jimmy Page, you know what I’m saying?
There’s other people that I wouldn’t want to mess with. But on a good day, you know, I can do way better than him. Like I’ve heard Jimmy Page do some crappy records, too, and do some crappy shows.
But on the average, as far as some of the iconic quality of someone like that and their overall ability … it’s just so stunning, you know? I don’t like to mess with that. I never compare myself with people like that.
I just say well in another time in another universe maybe it could’ve been me. But that kind of thinking pointless, you know? You just try do what you do the best you can. And I know on some days it’s great. On some days it’s amazing and some days it just isn’t.
Well, I’ve got a question. And I’d like to ask Elton John the same question about his 70s hit songs, but this one’s for you. How do you deal with the potential tension of pressure that some fans might put on you to return to the glory of the Island Record’s era?
HA! HA HA HA! Can I get that in writing: “The glory of the Island Records era.” After hearing my story, I mean, that’s a self-negating question, I think. Because I don’t see that as the glory of anything. Well, it’d be like asking, you know … Rembrandt … no, not Rembrandt … who’s the guy that cut off his ear?
Yeah, you don’t ask Van Gogh, “Paint Starry Night again, man!” It’s like – he did it once, that was it! I don’t look at those times as glorious. I wish I could write another song as good as the last, but I’d have to be who I was that day, in that part of my life again. I wouldn’t try to write something like it again. I don’t know, I’m glad that we don’t have fans like that anymore that … they may think those things, but I never hear about that stuff anymore. I think they’re grateful to get anything from us at this point because we’re so, laconic, you know? We’re just so sporadic as far as how we release stuff, and how it’s very rare anymore. So, I think that question might’ve been more relevant ten years ago, because Island Records was twenty years ago. But I think that probably isn’t a question that matters anymore, really.
I think people are just grateful that we’re even doing it at all and if we put out something good then they’ll take that. I know as a music fan myself, if I have something in my mind about what an artist is and what an artist sounds like – when they become that for me, down the road, I really appreciate it. That’s why I hate REM now, you know? Because they refuse to be the great band that made me fall in love with them and dream dreams all those years ago. I don’t think they’ve done a thing since Monster that’s worth a (bleep) When I hear it, I just hear them trying to be this really grungy rock band and not succeeding. Now that’s just my opinion … there may be some people that really like that stuff. But, for my money, when they settle down and do something that’s got those folky, sort of guitar arpeggios and Michael Stype is singing … you know, really smooth and beautiful, and the melodies are smooth and evocative … then I’m in love with REM. But I hear them do this rock stuff. There are other bands that do that way better, and I don’t get anything from that. So, yeah. There’s probably people that think of us in those terms. There’s some aspect of what we did in the past that they’re waiting for us to get back to. And that’s why I’m happy about Holy Ghost Building because I have a feeling that this record is probably going to satisfy those people more than anything else we could ever do ever would, you know? I think it has more of what people think 77s is than just about anything we’ve done in the past fifteen years or more. I hope so, anyway.
I think you’ve successfully done that.
I hope so. And I’m glad that we didn’t try to. I’m glad that it just happened as a matter of course. And that’s because I was playing stuff that’s part of my heart and soul. Those old songs – the old blues, old gospel, and bluegrass, too. We did an Alison Krauss/Ralph Stanley thing, we did a couple of Bill Monroe tunes. I grew up on that music. My dad listened to the hillbilly radio station every Saturday for hours and even though I didn’t appreciate it then I certainly appreciate it now. I wish I could go back in time and be that little boy again with my head now and listen to what he listened to. Because that’s –interestingly enough – that music has become in fashion and in vogue recently through the O Brother soundtrack and so many other influences that have crept in. That American roots music has come back in a real powerful way. And I just love integrating it into what we’re doing. It’s a relief for me … I don’t have to try to write something that’s as cool as Radiohead or something … something stupid like that. I can just be myself and play these great songs and interpret them in my own way. And I think it comes off a lot less pretentious, a lot less contrived, a lot less forced. It feels natural to me.
You mentioned doing a bunch of research on that. I’m just curious as to where you did your research, and how?
Well many years ago a friend of mine who’s part of a lot of Usenet groups – he collects vintage American music – he had millions of mp3s on file that he put into collection called “Bucketfull of Blues” and he gave me, like, sixty CDs which were full of mp3s which meant there were probably three or four hundred tunes per CD – so I waded through all of that, and then I did some other internet searching. I went through my collection at home, talked to anyone else that had stuff, and just boiled it down from all of that. And as I was going I got into some research about certain artist. For instance, I discovered Charlie Patton, which was a complete revelation to me, because up to this point I’d always thought of Robert Johnson as kind of the centerpiece to that whole movement of music. And what I saw in Charlie Patton was a far more complex individual in that he wasn’t just doing blues, he was doing gospel, and field songs, and work songs, and, just … anything. And he did them all with this extremely haunting quality. Bob Dylan considers him a hero. Talk to Dylan about Charlie Patton … he won’t shut up. Now I understand why. I also rediscovered Reverend Gary Davis, who was just a name to me. Now I put a face on the name and see a lot of what he did. He was one of the more obnoxious progenitors of this music, and took credit for a lot of the songs that he probably didn’t write. But he was such a unique interpreter of them that I believe his place in that whole world is cemented and very worthy of any fame he has. I think he brought together, in a lot of ways, an awful lot of that material in a way that could be listened to. He was a more contemporary figure and his recordings were good. When you listen to Charlie Patton, it’s really hard to hear him because it’s recorded in the ‘20s and ‘30s and it sounds like it’s a million miles away, whereas Gary Davis’ stuff was high fidelity, and so you could actually hear was he was doing, you know? And listen to it a little bit more often because it was easier on the ears.
Yeah, he’s great.
I really appreciated him. This whole thing with the guitar evangelists … some of this ground had already been covered by Glen Kaiser and Gerald Mansfield years ago…
Mm-hmm.[tape cuts out]
… I thought, well, we must be right on target, you know? Spot on. For once we made a hit move, because we did something that’s now, you know, that other people we really admire are doing. Thankfully, their record doesn’t sound anything like ours. I mean, theirs is a real artsy, moody, kind of atmospheric piece. Ours is really straightforward, really conventional. Traditional, you know? I would hope that if we were to follow this record up, the next one we would do would be… we’d do it the exact same way, but with an eye to become for artistic, rather than basic and traditional, you know? Cause I really like that, that Krauss/Plant album. It’s just a real valid statement to me.
Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing them live.
Oh, yeah, I’ve heard that’s the show of the decade. I’ve heard that’s the show people will be talking about for years and years to come. Dave Leonhardt went and saw it in Atlanta and it just blew him away. Evidently they get Alison up there singing “Rock” – what is it? “Black Dog?”
And they do it Zeppelin style. They put him through it.
Yeah, my goodness.
Which I think is just great. And they probably make Robert sing some bluegrass thing and do it authentic. I love that whole thing. I think we missed it. I think we were on tour when they came to San Francisco, which upsets me a lot. And hopefully they’ll film it… hopefully there will be a DVD down the road and I’ll enjoy that.
Yeah. Well tell us a funny story about something strange, funny, or embarrassing about your compatriots in the 77s or the Lost Dogs.
Oh gosh, where would I begin with something like that? Strange, funny, embarrassing? I mean that just goes on for days. I don’t really know how to answer that. I think you need to narrow it down a little bit.
Okay, maybe something that – when you get back together after you’ve been apart for a few months – let’s say the Lost Dogs –
What’s something that – when you think back on a story – what’s one of the ones that keeps coming up again and again?
Oh gosh! There are a lot of those. Most of them have to do with Gene. There’s a funny one that happened in Europe that I did not see. They were all somewhere – I think they were in Belgium or something like that. We had some days off, so they all went to Belgium, and we had our pedal steel player – Gregg Kellogg – with us on the tour. It was Gregg and Tim Chandler, Burley Drummond, and then the four Dogs, right? I took off somewhere else, and so those other guys all went and did a day where they were just going to different cathedrals and site-seeing. They ended up in Belgium, and they were sitting around in these kind of rickety chairs in an outdoor villa somewhere. Having a snack or something. And I guess Gregg Kellogg, the pedal steel player’s chair was not very sturdy, and it was kind of rickety – more rickety than the other guy’s. And they somehow got into this discussion about the Beatles. And they were talking about, you know, “What’s your favorite Beatles’ album? What’s you’re favorite Beatles’ song?” They’re just tossing it around, tossing it around, and eventually it comes time for Greg Kellogg to pipe in with what his was and Gene was like, “Oh, well, I always liked Rubber Soul!” Or something. And then Greg says, “I always liked Heeeelp!” And he falls over, and the chair collapses and he falls flat on his (bleep). There you go man, it doesn’t get better than that. And I swear I’m not making this up, it was true.
But there’s lots of those. I mean, gosh, when it comes to stories, the Lost Dogs are all about stories. That’s why we enjoy the tour so much.
Gary has the most stories. But we all have stories from our days. In Christian music there’s a million stories and all of that and it’s great to go over them.
Alright. I’m curious if you’ve read any of the recent outsider’s perspectives on Christian rock, like, Body Piercing Saved my Life, and there’s one called Rapture Ready…?
Yeah, I’ve noticed that stuff coming around. I guess all I have to say about that is it’s fascinating, but I feel like it’s too little too late. I really wish that commentary would have been around back in the “glory days” – if you will – of this music. I feel like whatever Christian rock is, or has become, is so oblique and watered down or so transmuted into the general market. I don’t really see it as a genre anymore. Now that may be just my own narrow and limited observation, but I have a hard time believing it’s really a relevant topic. But evidently these writers think it is … and I guess they’re non-Christian writers?
I haven’t read it. But I find it interesting. I’m glad that we were listed by that one guy in Time magazine, or New York Times, I think it was. He had our song “The Lust” in his top ten great CCM songs or something like that, which thrilled me a lot. I got to send that link to my parents and say, “See, I’m legit!” You know? Cause parents need that kind of thing. They don’t really know that you’re doing anything until you it’s in the paper, or someone else says it and then it’s like… oh! well, I guess he is…!
Right. My dad finally bought a copy of “Body Piercing” and it has a chapter called Doug Van Pelt, and so, I’m getting that – kind of – right now.
Oh really? Wow, heck – well I would read it on that, then … so you get your own chapter?
Yeah, it’s pretty … uh … crazy.
That’s really neat. So is it a good read? I mean is it worth…
Yeah, I think it’s real fascinating. I mean, I always love and outsiders perspective on anything, cause it’s just –
Now wasn’t this the Jewish guy?
No, this guy doesn’t have enough faith to call himself an atheist. I think he calls himself some esoteric phrase with the word “agnostic” in it. The other guy is a Jewish guy that wrote “Rapture Ready” and I’m in the middle of that and it’s pretty funny.
Yeah. I guess I probably should read these only for, I guess posterity if for no other reason.
Yeah. I became friends with the guy who wrote “Body Piercing” and I’ve sent him mp3s of like “The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes and the Pride of Life” song. Want to make sure he knows what’s good, besides just what other people are telling him.
Well is there anything else you’d like to add or touch on?
Oh my gosh I don’t think so! I’m exhausted! I feel like I’ve spent my whole adult life with you in thirty minutes.
Well good, now we can be friends.
Yep. Do you need photographs for this thing?
Yeah, just one good, high-res photo would be good.
Of the band?
I’m going to give you … I think Jimmy took a picture of us at Cornerstone that’s not a flattering picture, but it’s recent and I think it may work for you.
I don’t know that this is a high-res, but I can get it for him, probably. Why don’t you give me your email address.
Okay. It’s “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Okay. Alright, I will forward this pic to you, and if you like it then I’ll have Jimmy try to get you the file.
And I’m doing this against my own vanity. I look at this and I go, “God, we look poppy in this picture!” But it’s got kind of a no-nonsense, “no-bs” look to it. It is what we look like right now. I mean, it’d be great to run a glory days picture of us, if you have one.
Yeah, I’m sure I do.
There’s lots of those. But this might feel a little better. It just feels more honest to me.
Yeah, I always like current.
And it’s got kind of an attitude.
Good deal. Before I go I need to tell you the Galactic Cowboys’ story.
In a nutshell. They took forever to release their debut album. They were micromanaging every single details from artwork to press releases to individual tracks and everything. It was incredible. They guy – I think his name is Gary Gersh – he was like the A&R guy with A Golden Touch in 1990-1991…
Oh, I remember that name.
Okay. Somebody asked him at a press conference, “What are you going to do now that you’ve lost Aerosmith?” Cause Aerosmith was still signed to Geffen but they signed this unheard-of, one hundred-thirty million dollar signing bonus to go back to Columbia when their deal with Geffen was over. His response to that question was “We don’t need Aerosmith, we have the Galactic Cowboys.” And the hype amongst all the A&R guys and the PR people was that this was the new future of music. They married the throwing harmonies of the Beatles with the heaviness of Metallica. It was really something fresh and new, just like King’s X. So they were being told, every time they turned around, “This is the future of music.” We’re going to put the entire muscle of Geffen records behind your release. And the A&R guy said, “Okay, I’ve got one more album to put out here, and once this goes out there it’s gonna do nothing, it’s gonna just be a little plop in the pond. Then we’re going to focus the entire muscle of Geffen behind Galactic Cowboys.” Blah, blah, blah. Well, that one album happened to be Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana. So that’s the Galactic Cowboys’ story. They got completely ignored by what happened with Nirvana.
I have a story with one difference … I never saw us as the next great anything. It was a favor deal. They pressed twenty thousand, leaked it out, and pretty much buried it, you know? Although they did put a track of our on their sampler right there with the Comsat Angels, my favorite band, and Steve Winwood, Traffic, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, a bunch of other people. They didn’t hate it … there just wasn’t a lot of motive there because it was a P&D deal. It wasn’t really a true record deal. Which I didn’t know at the time. If I had known that, I would’ve tried to get out of it. But we just did what we were told in those days.
Yep. Well thanks again for your time.
Sure thing man, thanks for still thinking of us and, it’s always meant a lot to me… I mean, have you been with HM since the beginning?
Yeah. I started it in 1985.
Yeah, it seems to me that we’ve had conversations in the past where you were very supportive of our band in spite of not being “heavy metal” you know, when that was the big emphasis.
I always have appreciated that because that made me feel a little bit more legit, you know? That you go outside of your metal box to include a rock band. Even though we’ve had moments of metal energy, perhaps, here and there.
Yeah, I wish the sound man at Cornerstone would have had you cranked up when you were playing “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”
Oh really, when we did the main stage thing?
Yeah, I don’t know what the stage vibe was like but it could’ve been so much more…
Was it the whole band, or just me?
The whole band.
Yeah, he just ran it kind of low?
Well, what’re you going to do? It’s a worship set, you know? We had no intention of doing that song. That just sort of like … we needed to follow that energy up because everyone else was rocking out. We were going to go up and just do three ballads and call it a day, and I just felt like – nah, you know what? we really need to do something more, like, what we’re about. We didn’t play it at the Gallery Stage. That set got cut, too. That’s alright. I think we played okay. We had a week to kind of go out and play before we did it. Cause it’d been a year since we played. It was good to get out and kind of do it.
But it was plenty loud on stage.
That’s good. Sometimes you don’t know those things.
Yeah. It wasn’t extremely loud but we played good. We gave them something good to mix, and I wasn’t aware that they were running it really low but, whatever, that’s fine.
Yeah. It wasn’t bad, it was just … when you know and love the song, you just want to hear it breathe a little bit.
Well, at least we didn’t lose our way through the changes.
Cause that’s an easy one to do that. I tried to play it more Zeppelin-like, too. Their version is like garage punk, you know? We kind of took it more into the hard rock/metal place, which, again, that recording was never supposed to be released. We did that just for fun. And then Word heard it, and insisted it go on the record in a prominent place. Like, you need to start with the that. And I didn’t want to. I thought, “We just did this for ourselves … maybe it’ll be a bonus track one day.” But the more I thought about it, I just kind of figured that for this market, most of these kids that are buying this art haven’t heard the Zeppelin thing. It was kind of an obscure thing at the time.
And I felt for that market it was probably a good idea to have us do it, and it was. It did well for what it was. But I never wanted to lift that up as anything because you’re messing with something that is a classic.
Yeah. It was nice in the context. Glenn and Dale were doing their retro roots thing, and so they were always giving it the old Blind Willie Johnson standard treatment, and you guys kind of gave it that rock energy, so it was nice to kind of hear that.
Sure. And the main reason we learned it was to see if we could. It’s a challenge – like, can we get all the way through that without losing our way? Can we count through those gaps without it sounding like we’re counting? It took us about a year to get it right … it’s kind of a pain. But yeah, it’s fun to play. I enjoy it.
Alright my friend.
Well, let us know if you need anything else – if you have any other question that comes up. You should have that photo up right now.
I just got it. It looks great. I would love to have that.
You like that? Okay, I’ll try to get a hold of Jimmy. I’m pretty sure he’s the one who shot that. I think so.
I need within the week, if at all possible.
Oh, not a problem.
Alright man, take care.
Alright, if you need any help with anything, let me know. I’m on your side.
Okay. See ya.
Take it easy.