By Jeb Gavin
OK folks, strap in because this is going to be a rough one.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones are playing the 9:30 Club Friday the 11th and Saturday the 12th of November. As a preview of the show, my editor set up an interview with founder and bassist Jesse Phillips. I, diligently, prepared for the interview by listening to their records, reading their press clippings and releases, and then promptly forgetting everything I knew about the band, music, interviews, and in some cases the English language itself.
This was not a great interview. This wasn’t even a mediocre interview, because at least in those you can edit it a bit, slap on a little polish, and you end up with a few decent quotes to feed the Internet. Instead I led myself down blind verbal alleys. I made unforced errors. At times, I took an adversarial tone against my own questions. Had I any proper training as a journalist, my hypothetical journalism professors would’ve been struck dead by the shittiness of this interview. Those poor, nonexistent bastards.
Anyhow, what follows can only be described as a waste of a good bassist’s time.
Hi, this is Jeb Gavin from Brightest Young Things in D.C., calling to speak with Jesse [Phillips. The guy knew his own name, which helps when conducting an interview.]
Yep. Yep yep, this is Jesse. How are you?
Not bad, yourself?
Doin’ well, thanks. Just out for a little stroll in Toronto here. [Small talk achieved!]
Excellent. I was just wondering why I was calling a Montana number, but that actually doesn’t help clear that up. [I really said all that. I’m still unclear on the area code thing, and also why I felt the need to bring it up. I guess it could’ve been a VOIP number, but I like to picture a press office out in the middle of nowhere Montana- perhaps a cabin somewhere with a giant phone bank system rerouting press calls so no one can give out a phone number to their friends. A great filter in the wilderness protecting artists and celebrities from journalists and such…]
[Stretching my luck, I attempt more small talk. It does not go well when I ask if he’s had a lot of interviews, meaning that day. He has done quite a few interviews, but it’s more like 25-30 over the past month. I further attempt to clarify and use weird, almost comically incorrect phrasing to convey a sense of ease. This does not come across over the phone.]
So you guys are coming to D.C., I think it’s your third time coming to D.C.? [I had meant third time playing the 9:30 Club. I know they’ve played shows in D.C. at other clubs because I attended at least one of those shows. I did not correct myself, rolled with it, hoping the resultant answer would be more interesting than the wrong question.]
It’s probably more than our third trip, honestly. I guess we started out maybe- is it Arlington that’s just right across the way there?
Yeah. [So very, very insightful JEB.]
We played a little club over there a couple of times, the name escapes me. We’ve done the Rock and Roll Hotel a couple of times and we’ve done the 9:30 Club at least on two other occasions prior to now.
I was able to find the two 9:30 Club shows I hadn’t realized you’d played the Rock and Roll Hotel [I knew this, I’m not sure why I said otherwise.] I’m actually sitting about a block [at the time, three blocks] away from there right now.
Yeah, that’s a cool spot.
Yeah, it’s a nifty little spot. It’s not a “monument,” the same way the 9:30 Club is? [Because framing my next question requires me to tarnish the excellent Rock and Roll Hotel. Did I mention I’m an idiot?]
The 9:30 is an institution, for sure.
[I now attempt to draw parallels between the music scene in Alabama and the scene in D.C.. Let’s follow along to how bad this gets.]
It’s also that the city’s kind of built up rather rapidly which leads me hamfistedly to my first question [yeah, actually said that in an interview, adverb and all]: you guys are from Birmingham, how much do you think being in Alabama, being in Birmingham- in Northern Alabama specifically affected the sound, affected what you wanted to play… [Birmingham is in the center of the state, though technically geographically more north than south. I’m actually quite good at geography and cannot account for this error.]
It definitely has an effect. A lot of the old guys from the Muscle Shoals scene are still just kickin’ around there. The fact that you can actually just sit down and have conversations with those guys or go see ’em play occasionally, something definitely rubs off on you. And we hold all of those guys in that scene in super-high regard. Some of the best music ever recorded came out of Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Our band is designed not to mimic that but certainly the lineup that we have in the band with the Hammond [B-3 organ] and the horns allows us to engineer sounds that are evocative in the same way. There’s a big part of that there. Plus, living costs are low, it’s real easy to come home to, it’s easy to live- everything’s slow and easy there. It all factors in.
[Changing tacks I try instead to ask about the band’s personal connection to the scene and its roots.]
I was doing a little “Six Degrees of Separation” in preparation for the interview, I know your guitarist Browan [Lollar] played with Jason Isbell on the 400 Unit…
He did! [He wasn’t actually that excited] He was with Jason for I want to say about five years, and he left right before Jason started undergoing his rapid growth into what he is now. Jason’s gotten a lot, lot bigger over the last couple of albums… [Jesse now explains how Browan came to Birmingham for his then girlfriend, now wife, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones recruited him as soon as he was living in Birmingham. I am trying to politely interject to make my string of connections.] He grew up in Florence [at this point it’s clear to me Jesse wants to correct my geography but is too polite to point out Florence is over 100 miles north of Birmingham. It’s about the distance from D.C. to Philly and I’ve given him the impression I think the former is a suburb of the latter] with a lot of those Muscle Shoals guys, playing with them, playing around and seeing them play. I think that’s definitely a big part of his narrative.
[Picking up where I left off…] That’s kind of where I was going with that, because I know Jason [apparently we’re on a first name basis] played with Patterson Hood and the Drive-By Truckers, and obviously Patterson’s father David Hood was the bassist over at FAME [studios, from whence the Muscle Shoals sound comes. And back to D.C. in 3, 2, 1…] In some respects in D.C. it’s kind of the same- you can kind of wander around and you’re never more than a phone call [like from D.C. to Toronto by way of Montana] or a couple of blocks away [like Birmingham to Florence, obviously] from somebody who was vital to the hardcore scene or someone who was essential to the go-go scene.
It’s pretty crazy. They call it the Tri-Cities- Sheffield, Muscle Shoals, and Florence, they’re all kind of smashed up against each other. There’s all kinds of legendary musicians walking around, songwriters- Spooner Oldham, Donnie Fritts, David [Hood] is still up there, Kelvin Holly lives there. It’s crazy, it’s a weird little town where you can throw a rock and hit somebody who’s done big things. It’s pretty neat. There’s no real egos up there, everybody’s just sort of a musician- nobody really let anything go to their heads. And there’s this passing-of-the-torch, spiraling effect where one musical unit sort of spins off another one and carries on.
[Pivoting, desperately pivoting.] You guys are touring behind your newest album, Sea of Noise, what new stuff did you bring on board, new influences that got you from the last to the next?
We had the benefit of a lot more studio time this time around. And with that comes the opportunity to experiment. The first record [2014’s Half the City] was done in five days, all the tracking, a couple overdubs, and to get the thing mixed.
That’s really surprising, the first album sounds really- I don’t want to say restrained but it’s very deliberate in the… [I’m trying to compliment him on how good it sounds, and couldn’t come to the word “good” without calling it “simple” which it isn’t] …you sort of strip anything extemporaneous [this was not the word for which I was searching. It doesn’t even make sense. I hate myself now and would like to retreat to a wooded mountain area and forget the English language] from it.
[Plugging along like a good sport, even though he is totally convinced he’s speaking with a lunatic.] We had no idea what we were doing at that point, we just got the opportunity to make a record. The guy who made the first one, he’s a keyboard player with the Alabama Shakes- Ben Tanner, he just sort of had this window of time when he was off the road and said, “if you guys want to make a record, I’ve got these five or six days right here.” And so we did it. We just went in and did it. Played every song two or three times, took the best take, and moved on to the next one. It was all made with our hair on fire for sure. The Sea of Noise thing was cool because we sort of got to really think about what we wanted to do before we got in there in to a really nice studio up in Nashville called Sound Emporium. We were able to spend time messing around with different amplifiers, using different drum set ups, using reverb chambers, all kinds of things. And we got to mess around with some of the arrangements- we got to have a string arranger come in and help us with the strings legendary [seriously] Memphis guy named Lester Snell [listen to the strings on the theme to Shaft if you doubt.] We had an expanded sonic palette this time around, a lot more options, and we wanted to push the boundaries a little bit, see where we could go with it. Get a little stranger?
Is Lester how you guys got hooked up with- was it the Stax Chorus? [Not a real thing.]
Oh, that was the Tennessee Mass Choir, but that was recorded at the Stax Museum. That came about through our engineer on the record, Jeff Powell, he worked at Ardent and now he’s over at Phillips Recording. He somehow knew those guys and got it lined up. It was pretty cool to have the entire Tennessee Mass Choir in the Stax Museum in the room where they keep Booker T’s old organ, just to have all those voices fill up that room.
It must be very difficult not to want to sit down and just -not even pound on it, just touch the keys [referring to Booker T’s organ. I am a child.] Just as a random aside- have you ever heard McLemore Avenue? [I probably pronounced it “McLenmore.”]
That’s the one that’s all Beatles covers, right?
Yeah, that’s the one. [Enter inane babbling on my part about a great record not enough people know. I trot out it out in conversations to shore up my music nerd cred when I can feel threatened. Exactly what you want when conducting an interview. I’m cringing listening to myself here. Jesse has it on vinyl.]
We were working up a cover of “I Want You/She’s So Heavy” last year sometime, and we definitely used a little of the Booker T version in our version, rather than just cover it straight up as a Beatles tune.
[Again, another weak pivot, wherein I try and guide the conversation towards their tourmates and opening act Diane Coffee, who to me sounds like the Beatles just on the cusp of Rubber Soul. It’s poppy but a bit trippy without being too over the top. I’m not sure I can bring myself to transcribe us bantering about chord progressions because at this point Jesse knows this is a bad interview. But the opener is solid and you should get to the show early to see them.]
One last question [mercifully.] D.C. tends to have a weird chip on its shoulder, collectively, just locals. [<sarcasm> it’s totally OK that I made that blanket statement for the sake of setting up a stupid question. </sarcasm>] John F. Kennedy was once quoted as saying, “D.C. is a town of northern charm and southern efficiency.” [Two things here: who aside from precocious 12-year-olds feels the need to shoehorn a JFK quote into an interview they’re conducting, and also I managed to mess up the quote. It’s actually, “Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.”] Would you consider D.C. a Southern town?
[Jesse voices a polite response in which he muses that D.C. is its own entity; a government town without an industrial past. He is right, D.C. was manufactured. He also doesn’t think D.C. is a Southern city. Feel free to fight about it in the comments.]
[We say our goodbyes, and he ends the call at this point and likely goes to shower off this interview. I should have done the same. I am out of practice and owe Jesse Phillips a better interview.]