“OK, we’re starting off on the wrong foot.”
Thirty seconds have passed in my attempt to interview the Deadmen, and Josh Read is already playing peacekeeper.
The 38-year-old former frontman of Revival is the soft-spoken one of this group, and while he sort of resembled Daryl from “The Walking Dead” at the Deadmen’s 9:30 Club performance this summer, he’s shed that unkempt look for something more high and tight. He still has facial fair, because everyone in the Deadmen has facial hair.
Read’s call for civility, however, does not appear to be resonating.
“Forget this,” Justin Jones interjects incredulously.
But as is often the case with the Virginia singer-songwriter, he’s messing around. Or, at least, you hope that he’s messing around. Jones’ deadpan can be impenetrable. And in the company of his bandmates, packed into a small room backstage at the Black Cat, he’s not passing up many opportunities for a good quip.
There’s a lot of laughter when you’re in close quarters with the Deadmen. There’s a tangible sense of familiarity and shared experience between them. The four core members – Read, Jones, Justin Hoben, and John Scoops – have known each other for years and years, as bartenders and fellow DC musicians and friends and eventually bandmates. Read, Jones, and Hoben have each fronted their own bands – and in some cases, continue to do so – and so they’re comfortable answering questions about their music.
It makes sense, then, that the Deadmen’s rock ‘n’ roll would sound like such a natural combination of their songwriting styles. The project has taken time, though: Four years have passed since BYT first talked with the band, and yet the Deadmen are just now putting the final touches on a proper full-length debut, which they hope to have out in March.
The band gave listeners a good idea of what to expect earlier this year with two releases, The Deadmen EP and the Crystal 7″: A sound that cuts across a large swath of the American landscape, from rollicking bar rock to lonesome folk balladry, with everything in between fair game. And nearly everything builds to a glorious crescendo of electric guitars.
It’s mid-November when we meet. Aside from Jones, no one has yet changed into what’s become the band’s staple ensemble: All white everything.
“That’s how you shed the plaid thing,” Read tells me. “Because if you go all black, then everyone thinks you’re an outlaw or Johnny Cash.”
The Deadmen EP and Crystal 7″ are out now on Eight Gang Switch Records.
What’s the experience of working and performing with other songwriters been like?
Justin Jones: Personally, I love it. It takes a lot of the pressure off the whole thing. When you play as a front man of a band, it’s less fun. There’s a lot of stuff that you have coordinate and think about. You’re in charge of almost everything. With this band, nobody’s in charge. Nobody coordinates anything! [Laughs] And if nobody shows up [at a concert], we still have a lot of fun! There’s something very liberating about it.
Justin Hoben: I don’t like taking the lead at all. When I’m on stage, I don’t really know what I’m doing in terms of what things should sound like. It’s nice to have people to defer to.
Jones: We basically tell him how to sound.
Hoben: I just stand with my arms crossed until soundcheck is over. It works great for me.
Are you writing songs specifically for the Deadmen at this point? Is there are a character to the type of songs you bring to this band?
Jones: I think so.
Josh Read: If I’m writing a song, I think that the Deadmen can play it – whatever it is. Part of the whole point [of the Deadmen] is that we bring all of our different styles together.
I’m not doing anything outside of this band, because I don’t really want to. I don’t want to fucking tell people what to do. I don’t want to book shows. It’s more fun to play with these guys. In my opinion, you’re talking about some pretty capable songcrafting ability. It’s pretty hard to beat.
So, anything I write, I figure that if I can’t sing it well, then these two probably can. Plus, I pretty much don’t write songs anymore.
Jones: That’s the other thing. You might be cranking out some songs, but I’m writing a song, like, every two or three months. [Laughs]
Read: I’m working on some shit long term.
Hoben: I wrote one of the songs on the new record eleven years fucking ago.
Jones: Our next record will likely be a greatest hits. [Laughs] The Essential Deadmen.
Read: It’s being mixed right now.
Jones There’s not really a plan on it right now. There’s no timeline that we’re shooting for. I would say we’ll have it out by SXSW, ideally. So maybe there is a timeline.
Hoben: Or a deadline anyway.
Jones: A deadline. It’s part of the timeline. It’s at the end.
Hoben: It’s Terminus.
Read: Ostensibly, the concept was that we were going to finish mixing it [this] Sunday, and master it over Thanksgiving weekend, but we don’t know if that’s a reality or not.
Jones: We’ve been talking about that for a while. It’s long e-mail thread. I can forward it to you. [Laughs]
When were the songs tracked?
Hoben: We had a week set out in late June.
Jones: And then it took longer than we thought. We wrapped up in late September.
Read: It was a funny recording process, because we set aside a week, and then none of us were available. So, we just started recording. We got the drums in that week, and then we got the drums in following two weeks, and then we started doing guitars and vocals. Then we went out and played more shows than we had before we started recording, so we changed all of the songs. Now we’ve gone back to try to finish the songs and inject those changes into them
Jones: That super cohesive live vibe.
Hoben: There wasn’t a time in the recording process where all of us were in the studio together. It was a situation where someone would go to the studio any time that he could.
Read: We’re still trying to figure it out.
Jones: I actually sent some songs to somebody, and he asked if we tracked them live. So I said, “Yes.” [Laughs] So, we tracked live.
Had any of you ever made a record like that?
Jones: No. [Laughs] This was our first experience like that.
Hoben: Well, the seven-inch was similar. That was done in Justin’s basement, and it was sort of done one at a time.
Read: Interestingly, all of the albums that we will have released by SXSW will all have a different drummer on them.
Jones: And the next one will too. [Laughs] Goddammit!
What do you guys keep doing to kill off your drummers?
Jones: We’re not killing them! Drummers just seem to have a weak moral fiber. [Laughs]
Hoben: No, drummers have a lot going on, and if you don’t get one when he’s in a really vulnerable moment, then you can’t tame him the way you want to, and he has the freedom to go play with all of his other bands.
Read: Drummers are in high demand.
Jones: There are, like, five good ones in a hundred mile radius. And we play one show every six months.
Hoben: It’s hard to make it worth it for a drummer.
Jones: Or… it’s perfect.
Did that sort of disjointed approach have any effect on the songs?
Jones: We weren’t writing the songs in studio. We had already played all of those songs live as a band. We weren’t like, “Well, here we are. What do we do?” We knew what exactly what we were going for.
Read: It’s different from writing a record in the studio.
Do you remember when you first met each other?
Hoben: I remember that I played a show at DC9 – I think opening for a band that Josh was in. We both had the same guitar.
Jones: I don’t think DC9 existed back then.
Read: It was Velvet Lounge.
Hoben: Fine. Whatever it was –
Read: My whole band backed him up.
Hoben: No, we played before that – when you were in Speed Freaks or Getaway Plan or –
Read: The Getaway.
Jones: The Getaway Plan? [Laughs] This was Justin’s pop punk stuff.
Hoben: I met Justin [Jones] when I was working at the 9:30 Club, and he started working there. There weren’t many Justins in the town at that point.
Jones: We were the only two. We looked it up.
Read: I used to play shows with bands that John [Scoops] was in, during the 90s, but we never hung out.
Jones: I met John when he was playing at 9:30 with Typefighter. I started talking to him outside. I think I called him a day later and said, like, “Want to play in another crappy band?” Will [Waikart] is in Typefighter, as well.
Hoben: I met Will last Thursday.
Read: I met Will whenever – the Friday before.
Jones: And they’ve been together ever since. [Laughs]
Read: I went down to see Typefighter play, because I knew that he was going to play with us, and I wanted to see how he plays.
Will Waikart: And then they couldn’t find anyone else to play.
Read: I met Justin [Jones] because he had a hot bartender girlfriend.
Jones: I didn’t know that part of the story. [Laughs] We’re all learning stuff tonight.
Read: He’s going to beat me up now.
What happens when one of you brings a song to the band? Do songs take a different direction than they would if left your own devices?
Read: We don’t have a dialogue in the sense that some bands do – they’re more sophisticated than we are. We just kind of let the songs progress. Or else it’s like, “Here’s a tune. Here’s how it goes.” And everyone plays it. And then over a series of months, it changes. We’ll work something out, and then forget all of it and work something else out.
Jones: Since any of us being capable of directing the aesthetic of a song, it’s cool when someone brings something to the band, because at some point, somebody is going to have a brilliant idea, and it’s either going to be shot down or we’ll say, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” It makes the songs better. We’re definitely better as a group than we are on our own.
Read: We play all of my songs differently than I would have absent this group. “Old Stone Bridge” started out as a rhythm track and vocal in my head, from a dream I had about people [standing] at RFK Stadium, and now it’s this pop punk thing.
Jones: Going back to the pop-punk roots! We’re going back to the Getaway Plan!
Hoben: I’ve been listening to Justin’s solo songs and what Josh did with Revival for a long time, so it’s incredible when someone brings a song to the band and I get to actually give input – even little things like, “It would be awesome if we double this section.” We’ll try pretty much every suggestion. Some of them sticks, and some of them don’t.
Read: We try to let each other play whatever someone wants to play.
Hoben: It’s a safe place.
Read: The concept is to be like: Everybody do what you think is right, and if it sucks, somebody will eventually say something – quietly.
Hoben: It still hurts, though.
Jones: Quietly… through the mic on stage: “Don’t do that ever again.”
Hoben: I try to write funny things! I have lots of funny lines!
Jones: You need to dig into our lyric book, man. [Laughs]
Hoben: Yeah, dig into our b-sides and the back catalog, man.
Jones: We were actually just talking about this.
Hoben: I feel this way about Brandon Butler, who was one of our drummers. He is one of the funniest motherfuckers in the world, and his songs are so fucking dark. I don’t know why it happens.
Jones: Maybe we’re funny because we get to let go of that stuff.
Hoben: Maybe that’s true.
Jones: That’s what I tell my wife. She asks me the same thing. She’s like, “Why doesn’t your personality ever show in your music?” And I’m like, “Well, it is. It’s just part of my personality that I don’t want to show other people.”
Read: I was thinking about this the other day. I was listening to country music radio, and this guy comes on who I know is married to a very successful country music singer – Miranda Lambert – and he’s singing a song about heartbreak. And I’m like, “You got married last year. We all know that. You’re not unhappy.” So, he’s a fucking liar. We might sing about some of the darker aspects of our personality, but it’s pretty cheerful a lot of the time too. It’s just that we like rock ‘n’ roll.
Jones: Some of it might sound darker than it is. We might write a sad song about cheeseburgers.
Read: “55 Days” sounds like a really angry song, and it is about the more dangerous side of life, but it’s also in many ways a cheerful song.
Jones: Let’s go party, bro – I got two grand in my pocket!
John Scoops: I never thought about it like that.
Read: The singer keeps getting rid of a mean guy.
Scoops: The good guy wins in the end.
Jones: That’s a story of good and evil where good wins.
Hoben: Well, evil and slightly less evil.
Jones: We’re splitting hairs at this point.
One of you posted the Steve Albini keynote address and suggested that while you weren’t fond of him as a person, that what he said rang true. What everyone’s reaction to it?
Hoben: I posted that. It was long read.
Jones: It was a long read!
Hoben: I still think Albini is kind of an asshole. That was during the week where Taylor Swift had pulled her songs [from Spotify], and Dave Grohl was like, “Just fucking play music!” And for those two people, it doesn’t really matter. I’m assuming that they both have mansions.
Jones: That’s why I was so frustrated with the Dave Grohl stuff. Of course he can say, “Look, just give your music away!”
Hoben: At the same time, Nirvana was a working band at one point. It’s got a legacy, and he’s able to do his thing. From our perspective, though, it’s not that we’re not trying to “make it” – it would be awesome if a song got picked up for some sitcom that gave us an amazing paycheck. That would be great.
Jones: It would be really odd if it was a sitcom. [Laughs]
Hoben: Well, you know what I mean, like with the Refreshments and “King of the Hill” – I’m sure those guys are fucking living large!
Read: I think that we’re trying to be realistic in today’s culture. Tonight, there are six bands playing the Black Cat, and I saw Dante [Ferrando] walk by and he was like, “Man, I hope we make some money tonight!” And it’s like, “How the fuck could you not make money?” It’s because you don’t make money. It’s expensive to run shit. We’ve tried to shy away from goals set by the industry. We set goals based on our artistry.
When we bitch and moan about the industry in interviews, it’s not that we don’t love being on the road, paying $5000 a week for a bus because you can, and all of that type of shit. But we do have families, and that is important. It’s not worth your whole life disappearing into a van if the industry doesn’t give a shit anyway. So, we try to concentrate on the music, as opposed to having a goal, like, “We’re gonna get famous!” Realistically, I’m 38 years old – I don’t think I want to be famous. It would be a drag to have people bugging me all the time. But I would like to be successful. That’s our goal: To be successful in our industry.
Jones: To create a massive socioeconomic shift.
Hoben: That’s what I was thinking in the shower this morning: “We should create a massive socioeconomic shift.”
Jones: It’s not a big deal! It could be done!
Hoben: The goal was to make a great record. It’s not that anything is out of the question, although a lot of things are.
Hoben: [Laughs] I mean, who knows? I think the finished product is going to be awesome. And someone is going to be like, “Hey, that’s awesome!” And we’re going to be like, “Yeah… so what should we do with it?” And they’ll be like, “You can do this.” And we’ll say, “That’s not going to work. What else do you got?”
Jones: “How about this bajillion dollars?” “Perfect! That’ll work!”
Hoben: I assume some guy will show up with a cigar, lighting it with a hundred dollar bill, and be like, “Hey, boys. I gotta deal for you.”
Read: We’d like to put it out and play shows.
Jones: The goal was to make a record.
Hoben: We’re getting there.
Justin, I once helped put on a charity show with Justin Jones and Driving Rain, and in our e-mail we described your music as “alt-country,” and that drew a pretty strong rebuke from you. I was always curious: Why the knee jerk reaction to that descriptor?
Hoben: I think he prefers the term “yallternative.”[Laughs] We’ve spent many a night debating which term we prefer: “alt country” or “yallternative.”
Jones: I may have gotten upset about it because it had been a long time since I had put out a country-sounding recording. I did one album that sounded like that, and all of a sudden I was an alt-country dude.
Read: We call it the alt-country ghetto. Once you get in there, it’s very hard to get out. There’s only one band that ever made it as alternative country, and that’s Wilco. That’s it. Everyone else, it’s Americana or Rock ‘n’ Roll. If you’re in the alt-country, you get booked at certain clubs with certain bands. They don’t cross over.
Jones: I got so annoyed with it that I would refuse to wear, like, western snap shirts. I was trying desperately to distance myself from it, because it didn’t represent me. I would never call this band alt-country.
Read: But other people might.
Jones: There are other people that probably will.
Read: If we got up on stage and all played acoustic guitars and wore western shirts, then it would be alt-country.
Jones: That said, I’m always pushing us towards the country side. [Laughs]
Read: He’s always trying to sell us on country.
Jones: Now I’d like to go back there.
Hoben: Well, too late. They don’t want you anymore.
Jones: Now they won’t have me.