Since dropping “Western” from the genre title, and the Porter Wagoner show so long ago gone off the air, and with June and Johnny Cash six feet under, and Dolly Parton having not graced the cover of a major magazine in nearly a decade, country music has grown pandering. So often playing out that timeworn trope of country verse city, in which, opposed to the hustle and depravity of city life, the simplicity of country living is shown as offering the only real sanctity—sorry, but the thought of driving down a dirt road just doesn’t turnover the pick-up truck of my heart. Do not fret, however, I believe I’ve the solution. Give everyone in Nashville a copy of the complete stories of Flannery O’Connor and a ticket to see Slim Cessna’s Auto Club.
Call it Southern Gothic, Gothic Americana, Death Country, whatever it is, it’s exactly the sound you want out of a bar band. Jello Biafra once upon a time called them “the country band that plays the bar at the end of the world.” (He then signed them to his label, Alternative Tentacles.) And won’t we all be so lucky to at the end of the world, the universe’s biggest and baddest party, to be singing together in a drunken chorus “Child of the Lord” as if the bar’s bandstand were a pulpit.
If Southern Gothic music of the likes played by Slim Cessna’s Auto Club can really redeem today’s country music, then there’s certainly hope it can redeem you, too, my most deviant and deprived fellow Washingtonians. See Slim Cessna, like the Blues Brothers before them, are on mission from God. They’re here to save the Americana deep down in our musical souls. Luckily, BYT was blessed enough to get an interview with Slim, the self-acknowledged Elwood, i.e. the Dan Aykroyd, of the group’s two front men.
Slim Cessna’s Auto Club recently released a compilation album, An Introduction For Young And Old Europe, which includes a DVD with live concert footage. Also, check them out when they come to town on May 31 at Hill Country.
When you record a live performance. Is there something special about the show? Do you know it’s been recorded for forever? How do you keep the performance feeling spontaneous knowing you’re being recorded?
The thing about the DVD is we did have it film, and it was at a tiny little club called The Lion’s Den. The DVD is taken from three nights, so it’s not all one show. We played three shows to celebrate our twentieth anniversary, and this was also the first venue that really ever paid much attention to us. So we thought it’d be fun to play there. It’s like capacity hundred people, and it was a lot of fun.
So there were cameras, but I think so many people are filming us with iPhone’s anyway, it didn’t really seem much different so we were able to keep things spontaneous.
What’s it like to sing a Gospel song in a bar?
(Laughing) I don’t know. We’ve been doing that all along, so I guess I’ve gotten used to it. I’m not sure. Even Jello Biafra got a kick out of that and sign us to his label: Alternative Tentacles. So I think with an understanding of rock n’ roll and the history of American music its actually quite relevant and can be powerful, whether you believe in that or not. It’s a very effective music to get people to lose themselves and to—I don’t know.. It’s like any good rock show really.
Except for you’re singing about Jesus.
I guess so, but it’s not preachy about Jesus. It’s more telling stories about people that are going through some interesting situations.
I knew that you were on Jello’s label and he called you guys the bar band that’ll be playing at the end of the world. So do you have any predictions about whether we should expect some on-coming apocalypse?
(Laughing) But doesn’t it seem like that’s always the case? I think that people were probably saying that a hundred years ago. I don’t know if things are any different now then they were. Everyone is still throwing shit at each other.
Seriously, it would be sort of a unique historical moment if we actually believed it wasn’t going to happen, if we all agreed that this wasn’t the end. Next question: Could and should everyone rock a white cowboy hat?
I do believe it’s a good look, and I do use it. I won’t be opposed to everyone wearing a white cowboy hat. The world would look much better.
Now about a white suit, do you have one of them?
You know I had one that I wore often during shows, but it just got so dirty, and there was nothing to be done with it, and I decided I did not feel like going through the hassle. So I prefer a black suit just because it doesn’t matter anymore.
That’s the only reason? To wear a black suit means something in country music, right?
I suppose it does. You know sometimes I wear a brown suit; I actually go back and forth. I don’t know if a brown suit means anything to any people, except that brown is a good color on me.
I think it means that your black suit is at the cleaners. Like if a pastor showed up in a brown suit that means he’s in his second Sunday’s best.
I think you have a point.
You guys have a few of you in the band and have been kicking around the country for twenty years now. You guys are basically the Blues Brothers of alt country, is what’s going on, right?
(laughing) Wow, that’s a compliment actually. (laughs again) We’re pretty good dancers, too. Personally, I’d say that Dan Aykroyd, his moves, in the Blues Brothers, is quite an influence on me. It’s pretty good and doesn’t get worn out at all. It’s timeless.
Do you have an explanation as to why pop country music sucks so hard right now?
That’s an interesting question, isn’t it, because pop country music in the seventies was amazing, and in the sixties. It just turned into something else. I think it’s just beyond all of our control, and I don’t know if it’s appropriate to call it country music, expect for maybe the part of the country that most of it comes from. You know I think in any of this though, you can look at all music and say there’s good songs and bad songs, in whatever kind of music that you like. And ever once in a while there will be a song that affects me, though I don’t go looking for it. It’s not like I’m listening to country radio and playing attention to anything anyone is doing.
But I heard a Toby Keith song a couple weeks ago, and it actually brought me to tears, and I was surprised by that and horrified. But you know what a good song is a good song and that’s all I can say about that.
You guys work with all kinds of genres. You do the whole Americana spectrum. Is there a favor kind of song you like to write or play, possibly in terms of music or theme?
Boy that’s a tough one. I think that all of our songs, even though there’s a lot of different influences that go into these things, and it’s coming from a lot of people—there’s six of us that are creating something—and we’re using all of our gifts and all of our talents, and Munly is writing all of the songs, unfortunately he’s not speaking with us now. Using his talents, and over the years coming to recognize what our strengths are, and he’s such a gifted writer—its like having Flannery O’Connor in your band—so the rest of us have to process where he’s coming from, and its interesting to find your own voice in that and to find where you are and get your head straight with that. For one to not disappoint him, and for any other to make the song as good as it can be. And I think its safe to say that our music is inspired by the landscape of where we’re from. We’re pretty proud of being a Colorado band, and the landscape and the sky and the mountains and the storms… I’m not sure I’m even answering your question, but that has a lot to do with where our music comes from. And there can be chaos and there can be beauty in the same song, and I think that’s how our weather patterns can be where we grow up. Without really playing attention to it or noticing it but thinking about it long enough to try and figure it out, I think that’s a good answer.
I like it; I’m with you. As a band you guys have been around for a while, longer than a lot of bands. What keeps you guys together and things fresh?
Well we’ve had lot of people come and go (laughs), but Munly and Dwight and Danny and I, we’ve all been pretty much consistent and steady for at least sixteen or seventeen of the twenty-three years. And it’s hard to say how we’re able to do it, but somehow its become more like family even than friendships, and we have each others back and we love each other and its just so easy with these people. And now our drummer, he’s been with us for a couple of years and I feel that that’s a lifelong relationship, and Rebecca joined us a year ago and we feel the same about that. So hopeful now (laughs)… But any other thing about that we all live in Colorado again, and maybe that even made things easier—not living in the same state. But now we’re back and it’s been really good. We’ve all been back in Colorado for about a year… Boy I’m just rumbling on, I’m sorry.
That’s okay. That’s what’s suppose to happen. I ask the questions and you give the answers. It’s going good.
I’m very thankful and blessed to be surrounded by people who like me, and actually want to perform with me and make music with me. I think all of us, I don’t think we’d felt in anyone else’s group, even in childhood we were the last ones picked. We just kind of belong together and we stick it out.
Did you guys share any rock n’ roll fantasies? Do you remember you’re earliest rock n’ roll fantasies of who you’d want to be, of what kind of music you’d want to make?
When I was growing up, my father was a Johnny Cash fan, almost exclusively it seemed, because he had all of his records. So I grew up with that and I knew all of his songs by heart since kindergarten or first grade. So I think I always wanted to do that and I always wanted to be him. Of course as you get older you realize that impossible. I’m not even saying I’m a huge Johnny Cash fan right now. I mean he has some terrible songs and some amazing songs, I guess just like anybody. But it was very influential for me and is a big part of who I am, and I don’t know how to speak for others in the band for that question. And then in the eighties I was a teenager, so I had all of those influences, and that kind of music, and Jello Biafra was one of my heroes, and then years later he became my friend. So that’s kind of cool.
So when you guys are in D.C. you’ll be playing at Hill Country Live, which is both a BBQ spot and music venue, which is kind of different but not all that weird. What’s some of the stranger venues you’ve played at over the years?
Well we played—and we came up on this almost twenty years ago—there were a few weddings we played that were absolutely terrible. I’d say the strangest and also one of the incredible shows we ever had, although there was only a handful of people, fifteen-twenty people, we played at a curling club in Perth, Ontario. And I’m not even sure how that came about, and there was no special event going on, it was just us going in to play the lobby of a curling club.
And you still remember it?
Oh yeah, absolutely.
What made it a good show? How can you have a good show with fifteen people?
Well gosh we’ve been doing this long enough I’m sure we’re going to have more good shows with only fifteen people. It’s just how it goes sometimes. But we certainly played our share of those.
But you don’t mind it? It isn’t the worst?
You know honestly if you’re playing for fifteen people in a curling club in Perth, Ontario, that’s a lot different than playing for fifteen people… I don’t know, anywhere.
Fifteen people in Perth, Ontario is a crowd, it’s a riot.
(Laughing) That sounds mean, but in Perth I think that’s as close as to a riot as they’ve ever come.
I’m not trying to mean. I’ve never been to Ontario. They seem like polite folks.
They are. We actually have a few shows in Ontario coming up on this tour, and Toronto and Ontario in particular are always amazing.
What’s their background to country music? Well I guess it is the country; it’s the North Country.
Yeah I don’t know. You know Shania Twain is from Ontario. There’s another example of country pop music, though this was from a while ago, like nineties or whatever, boy she had some pretty good songs. I’m not afraid to say it. (Starts singing “You’re Still the One”) When you heard that song in the grocery store its amazing.