The Colonel Vs The Iconoclasts
In my capacity as writer for north-east arts and music magazine Narc, this month I got to interview The Colonel – Mr JD Wilkes – from The Legendary Shack Shakers on the occasion of their comeback from what proved in the end to be a pretty short hiatus. It’s fair to say I was a bit overexcited about interviewing him – he’s something of a hero of mine, and somebody I knew would have a lot more to offer than the usual “well, we’re dead chuffed with the new album and we start the tour next week in Bristol, it’ll be mint” nonsense. He was as charming, thoughtful and flat out warm and welcoming as I’d hoped and the interview ended up being far longer than the double page spread in Narc would be able to accommodate, so Claire Dupree at Narc was kind enough to let me run the entire conversation here. So here it is, largely verbatim (although I should point out that JD is quick to laughter and whatnot, and that sort of thing looks terrible typed up.. ).
So you’ve just gone back on the road after the break?
“We did some warm up shows before the big debut at the Muddy Roots festival and we’ve been on the road for 5 days since then, doing the north east corridor… We’re in Michigan now”
And does it feel good to be back with the band?
It feels real good, we’re having a ball and it’s good to be back on the horse. We have a Hammond organ player now (Adam Holliday, from guitarist Rod Hamdallah’s side project), and it’s sounding really nice and full and cinematic. We’re much more capable of representing the way we come across on records now… we’re getting close to that, it’s fun to hear it come alive every night.2
I know that the hiatus was originally linked to the medical issues Brett (Whitacre, drummer) was having (he had to have a pacemaker fitted). Was that the whole reason, or did it provide a useful point to stop for a while?
That was a major factor, alongside road-weariness and just a really hectic schedule for ten years straight. We all have other projects we do, other art jobs on the side, other bands we like to indulge in so it was good to take a break. We did a play in Copenhagen last year so we still haven’t had a full year off, officially. We were hired to be a band in a play (called FUBAR), an avant-garde Danish play about the black market gun trade in Africa. I’m not sure why they called us.. I guess we sound pretty bombastic and we’re southern, so some of us own guns which is ironic and odd… It wasn’t a pronouncement of anything political, it was just an exploration of the topic, and they saw us on youtube and fell in love with the music and they thought it would be good to write a musical play around our tunes. A lot of tunes we had to learn, we’ve never played them live. They were supposed to bring it over to America but something fell through. There’s a whole trilogy, we were the middle installation… it was cool because we got to set our amplifiers and drums in the theatre and leave them there, and then clock in every day. We got to stay in an apartment, see some of Copenhagen, it was like having a day job. It was an easy job to do, and we got to be citizens of Denmark for a week (and a month, doing the show, the year before). Very avant-garde and art damaged and like something Tom Waits would be involved in…”
Now the Shack Shakers are back, are there plans for new material?
We just did a few demos to shop around for label opportunities so in the process we’ve got a couple of new tunes in the set now, and we’re planning on going back into the studio in December, January, something like that, and come next summer we’ll release a new record.”
I know that for the last album you tried self-releasing the album? How did that work out – not that well, presumably, if you’re looking for a label?
“It was a sort of co-op that you assembled piecemeal label duties from, an a la carte label service, but they didn’t really do a very good job so we’re thinking about going back to a traditional label situation, someone we can trust. What do we know about running a label? There’s a lot of things that a label do for you that are indispensable, as we learned… But the Muddy Roots label is re-releasing the album, Agridustrial, that we put out ourselves and hopefully it’ll finally get some attention that will see us through to the new record. It’ll have new sequence and new mastering.”
Whether it was a lost album or not, in many ways Agridustrial sounded to me like the album where you really nailed it – you’ve talked of the tension between your roots in country and gospel and the band being from a punk and hardcore and rockabilly background, and it felt like it all gelled on that album. Is the new one going to carry on where that left off?
“You’ll be able to hear how this next record came out of Agridustrial – in the songwriting, the structure and the subject matter – and we’ll have Duane Dennison probably do some of his guitar work as a guest, he’s signed off to help on the next record. It won’t be so noisy…”
Obviously in the UK we’ve got a pretty good handle on rockabilly and country and whatnot but one style – and this is definitely part of the Shack Shakers sound – that we really don’t get is polka, but I know it’s the big deal in the US and they only just stopped giving a polka grammy and such… Can you tell me something about that?
“Polka when it’s very happy go lucky is just kind of grandpa music, but if you put a minor chord to it, it becomes like carnival music – Moorish and arabesque and it has these ancient qualities. I always thought that gypsy music was the blues of Europe, it has these blue notes in the scale that hint at pain and loss and struggle, whereas the major scale of your typical Yankovic polka is a little too satisfied…”
Although in some ways there’s little obvious musical connection, I’ve always seen your work as nearer to Tom Waits than any of the more obvious comparisons. Similar subject matter – hobos and carnies and dwarves – and an embrace of a broad cross section of American music. Does that resonate with you at all?
“I do connect with that, it’s something I think I’ve always appreciated, even as a little kid, anything uniquely American and lost in the past, those tragic scenes – dusty roads, crumbling dilapidated towns, fading ghost signs, slipping into obscurity. The poetry and the magic of all that, the aesthetics of all that, is perfect for songwriting. And Waits nails it. There’s a lot of people who dabble in it, it’s like Waits has spawned his own genre, but of course it goes back to Captain Beefheart and the art damaged blues of the sixties.. . Kerouac and the Beat poets, Jimmy Durante, Louis Armstrong and Howlin’ Wolf… all these tragic, down on their luck characters. Waits puts it all together in more of a punk way…”
You’re active in so many fields – as a writer, as a comic artist, a film-maker, a sign painter, and with this band and The Dirt Daubers. There’s obviously a strong thematic link between all of this and I know you made your film Seven Signs as a response to the BBC’s Searching For The Wrong Eyed Jesus movie, which you thought misrepresented the south. So what do you think is the overarching narrative, the common thread – is it a preservation process?
“By presenting it I’m hopefully presenting it. If you can just reach one person you’ve succeeded. It’s not just some rock band, it’s a cultural force, a brand that is all about preserving and educating… so many bands, it’s just about ego and fashion and swagger, but for me I want it all to reflect back on how cool and beautiful American aesthetics is. Right now I’m fighting a battle for the preservation of a ghost sign that was recently revealed in a demolition down in Paducah, Kentucky. It’s for a patent medicine – really eye-popping colours, beautiful. I’m trying to be quite outspoken in preserving this because you can print up all the books with all the old photographs and you can even recreate murals, but to preserve something that still exists from that time, that is our history, it’s not the tip of a hat, it’s a surviving relic from a time when we were a more neighbourly, communal culture. And sure, there are bad things about those days but there’s something aesthetically pure and innocent and timeless about this stuff, it reminds us of who we are. We’re paving over everything and painting over everything and putting up another Walmart . You guys have your castles, you’ve got your cathedrals, you have your own aesthetics that go back millennia. We’re a young country but why not take a chance to establish who we are before some asshole contractor comes along and knocks it down, know what I mean? So when are we going to get a chance to have our mid-century modern, our art deco, our post-modern architecture… it’s all good, it all goes to tell the story of who we are, but there won’t be anything left if everyone’s an iconoclast.”
There seems to be so much empty imitation at the moment – in the US but in the UK too, people sticking on some dungarees and picking up a fiddle and claiming to be authentic…
“Yeh, I want to feel it in my bones, I want to inhabit it. From when I was a little kid, I still remember the trappings of that old weird America, the old man with a hat sat at a lunch counter using old expressions and dialects that are dying off now because of television and the internet. I still want to be a decanter or a harbinger of that, to carry some of it into the future. Like I said, if I can touch one person…”
It was through Seven Signs that I first came across Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and they’re now one of my very favourite bands. Obviously Slim and Munly are fascinating characters, do you see them as kindred spirits? And who else do you consider that way?
“Oh definitely, yeh, but they’re much more of a kind of spaghetti western gothic gospel band – there’s that regionalism that’s so important! They’re taking element of their landscape as a backdrop, you can almost see the rippling mirage of the desert in their music.. and you hear the church organ too, and that’s what I grew up with, I grew up singing in Baptist churches like that. To see all that getting thrown out in favour of this contemporary Christian handclapping praise music written by a team of Nashville songwriters after shit tonnes of research and focus groups and what not. It used to be one person wrote a song, he was a poet he poured his heart out and it made you feel something, more than a team of songwriting professionals in a lab cranking this crap out. Slim Cessna are true artists and they’re touching on something that’s familiar to me and it’s nostalgic and personal and it’s cultural. Them and the Pine Hill Haints and a new band called The Tillers, another band that’ll just break your heart with the pain they sing about, but it’s authentic, it’s not like tragic for tragic’s sake. You can just tell the moment you hear it. You can’t explain it.. if you could explain it, then it’s not real. You can’t put your finger on what it is, but they got it, Slim Cessna and Pine Hill Haints got it, there’s a handful of bands that really get it. Everything else is just kind of a put on.”
“That’s a thing with European rockabilly bands, they play it better than we do. They’ve learned it inside out and they know it but it frustrates them that they’re not American and there’s this weird kind of attitude you get from them when you’re over there. But we’re just playing the way we grew up playing. Like, we didn’t grow up in the fifties but we like that stuff, that’s in there too. But we have a lot of other weird things that we grew up with, that influenced us. It’s important to be authentic to who you are, instead of putting on some minstrel show, some period-perfect replication of something you imagine happened sixty years ago…. Man, there’s even Kaizers Orchestra, a Tom Waits-ish Norwegian polka band that sings in a dead Norwegian tongue. Amazing melodies… They’re fantastic. They’re a perfect example of a band who took their own music and their own language and infused modern sensibilities – not just to be modern.. their psychology informs it and makes it their own, they’re pure to who they are and that’s really what’s important, I think.”
You don’t have to answer this if you think it’s too personal, but I’m curious about your relationship with religion. You’ve said you grew up in it, and it features in a lot of your songs, but not in an uncritical or overly serious way. So do you consider yourself a religious person?
“I’m not an iconoclast. I grew up that way, I have certain sentimental connotations and nostalgic memories and experiences, but then I have a lot of bad experiences of it. I’m just careful not to throw it all out, because one thing I’ve discovered is even if you take away religion, people still behave in good ways and bad ways, in abusive ways and exploitative ways. You see that in politics, and even in music – in the cliques that form around certain musical movements, like indie rock. You have preachiness and sanctimony and hypocrisy, all those things are human qualities, they’re not just religious qualities. You take away religion, like we’re becoming more secularised, and those human qualities are being expressed through other avenues. It wasn’t all religion’s fault! People suck!”
“So I don’t want to dismiss old gospel music just because I’m not religious any more, in fact that’s my religion – the music of it, the way it makes me feel I’m connected to something larger than myself. ‘m getting chills just talking about it. Old Brother Ely, or when Roscoe Holcomb sings some old primitive gospel Baptist hymns and winds it out till it’s 10 minutes long and you listen to every note. It’s so haunting. It’s important to not throw all that out just because we’re not into Jesus, you know? Running through this conversation, and running through our contemporary times, it’s iconoclasm, throwing everything out, like everything that reminds us of the past is bad. Well, let’s pause and reflect on that first.”
Finally, your reputation as a maniacal, live wire frontman is well established. Is it a pressure to live up to that, night after night?
“Luckily it’s kinda what happens anyway. If people want me to keep pushing the boundaries, they’re gonna be out of luck because I’m 42 now. But I like to goof off… when the first note of the song starts, it’s like starting a car. I’m in a different frame of mind and from thereon out, I’m inhabiting the songs. It happens naturally, it’s not a put on. I mean, sure, I’ll have to put it on a little bit if I’m feeling under the weather but I find that once I do that, and push myself a little harder then it becomes natural as the set wears on. Sometimes you need to give yerself a kick in the pants, so the only thing that I could say is like a pressure is from me to get into it.”
The Legendary Shack Shakers tour the UK in late October. You should go.