|Interview DAVID POE
June 2003 (by E-mail) www.davidpoe.co.uk and www.myspace.com/davidpoe
Groningen, the Rhythm & Blues Night 2003. Theo Oldenburg and I were working as a team for AltCountry Cooking, we had just finished an interview and looked for action. The big room was bursting at the seams already, so I checked the schedule and, pointing at the name of David Poe, asked Theo: "Who is he?" Theo had recently read an interview, he told me a few details, it sounded interesting enough and we went over to the stage in the entrance-hall.
A handsome young man with reddish hair played an acoustic guitar, joking about his imaginary band and the noisy setting, inbetween singing some of the most intriguing songs I had heard in a long time. Very nice voice, also a variety of musical influences from jazz to rock were noticable. When a plastic cup of beer was offered by somebody in the audience, he made an attempt to look everybody in the eyes while making a toast, otherwise something bad would happen, like having thirteen years of bad sex... Cool guy!
I always like cool guys, so I went over for a little chat after the show and then he played with The Jayhawks and finally, around 2 AM, while we were with another artist backstage-upstairs somewhere, David came in with Gary Louris. He suggested we should do an interview using mental telepathy... Let's see what finally came out. Grab a drink first, it's a nice long one!
Johanna: David, for people like me, who just recently got to know you and first heard you on "The Late Album", could you please tell something about your earlier musical efforts?
David: My first full-length CD was released in 1999. In keeping with the unwritten rule that solo artists are supposed to name their first record after themselves, it is entitled "David Poe".
It was produced by T-Bone Burnett. T-Bone played with Dylan in the 1970s on the Rolling Thunder Revue and is an amazing singer-songwriter in his own right. He and I met here in New York while he was working on music for a Sam Shepard play called "The Tooth of Crime", and wound up collaborating on one of the songs for the play. Mr. Burnett has written about love, death and politics like everyone else, but is particularly deft at addressing apocalyptic matters in song.
But T-Bone is especially well-known for his production work. He made records with Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison, The Wallflowers, Gillian Welch, Sam Phillips and several others of note... and also masterminded the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", which simultaneously reignited the career of country legend Ralph Stanley and increased worldwide banjo sales by roughly 1000 percent.
Before that, my first recorded solo effort was an independently released EP entitled "The Glass Suit", with drummer Sim Cain and upright bassist John Abbey. Sim Cain also produced it. Sim played with the 1990s incarnation of the musical rhinoceros horn known as Rollins Band. As a drummer, he's as much a slow blue flame as a steam engine, and thus has worked with a wide array of musicians, including several New York downtowners like Mark Ribot, who makes a guest appearance on my first LP.
Beyond that, I've done some production work myself: with Jenifer Jackson, a superb singer and writer from New York who I recommend to anyone who appreciates the films of John Casavetes; with my talented buddy Morgan Taylor, who writes songs about rocket shoes and magic pterodactyls and also opened the shows on our most recent European band tour; with Regina Spector, a Russian ballerina porn star from New York that everyone will be hearing about sooner or later because she's so fucking cool; and with Kraig Jarrett Johnson from Minneapolis, who played with The Jayhawks for the "Sound of Lies" and "Smile" CDs and tours, and also with Golden Smog.
I'm as excited about Kraig Jarrett Johnson's project as anything I've ever done. He and I met while I was on tour with The Jayhawks in 1997. Last year, we went out to the Joshua Tree area in sunny California's Mojave Desert and worked on a bunch of his songs, then went to Minneapolis in the dead of winter to record them. Some people know Joshua Tree as the place where Gram Parsons lived and died, or from that album by U2; but most importantly, it's a beautiful, charmed, enchanted desert where weird shit tends to happen, and did.
Kraig and I recorded with Ed Ackerson, the guitarist and singer of Polara; Marc Perlman of The Jayhawks; Jim Boquist, who played in Son Volt and also on the newest Gillian Welch record; and a drummer named Peter Anderson who playes in IFFY, another great band from Minneapolis led by Kraig's enigmatic brother Kirk Johnson and a wondrous bassist named Tommy Merkl who lives close to Amsterdam.
Kraig's record and the band that came out of it is called The Program, and it will be released next year. I'm playing guitar and singing in that band as well, and we're doing some shows with Golden Smog this summer, which will be a thrill.
J: Your bio calls you a "Midwesterner", where are you from originally and why did you make the choice for New York City?
D: I moved to New York City to escape America. I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan -- a kind of hash bash of academic liberals, falafel stands and what's left of the deadheads. But my real hometown is Dayton, Ohio, the birthplace of aviation and Martin Sheen.
In New York, I worked as a soundman at CBGB's Gallery for four years and then signed to Sony/Epic. Instead of the palatial penthouse high above the streets of Manhatten that I now share with only my robot dog, I lived back then in weird communal joints with other musicians who were all earnest and searching and happy and poor together. We played a lot of music.
Best of all, I heard some amazing music for free while working at CB's, including some of the first American appearances by Radiohead and PJ Harvey, lots of shows by Patti Smith, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Chris Whitley, Marc Ribot, John Zorn, Vernon Reid of Living Color, the short-lived acid-jazz phenomenon that included Soul Coughing, even Lisa Loeb. It was fun.
I sort of miss those pre-media conglomeration days when weirder and less mainstream stuff seemed to have a better chance of being heard. Now the music industry is sort of like some evil donkey clown with a bomb in its jaw.
J: "Deathwatch For A Living Legend" is a fascinating song, where did you get the inspiration from?
D: It's an imaginary song, but also a comment on the cultural phenomenon of lifetime achievement awards -- those nostalgic tribute nights celebrating public figures who are at death's door but have otherwise been ignored by the mainstream for several years.
I was thinking of Johnny Cash when I wrote it -- because I love him so much and I think he felt generally spit on by country radio, even when he was making what I consider to be some of the best records of his career, with Rick Rubin -- and imagining how he might have felt at one of those big tribute nights when others sang his songs, perhaps badly, or when strangers sung his praises despite the fact that he probably sees himself as an ordinary, if lucky, man who's done good and bad and everything in between during his time on earth. The character in the song is facing his end and coping with this horrible illness, as Johnny Cash is with Parkinson's Disease.
In the song, the living legend in question is sort of coming out of his body, reminiscing along with the audience and also feeling guilty for accepting any accolades because he knows he'll meet his maker soon, that he'll be judged by a higher power.
Please forgive me for quoting myself, but the song says: "They'll read a speech to right all my wrongs, eulogizing for too long... then the youngsters will sing all my saddest songs, and cut the good parts out" -- I may have been thinking of someone like Leonard Cohen there, an expert writer of multi-versed songs who has had to live with the fact that some cover renditions of his stuff have only a few of many verses to them... apparently, the ones that the singer determines to be pertinent.
But the idea of having a deathwatch for a living legend reflects a culture resigned to its own morbid fascination. It's a grinning skeleton that's been spray-painted gold to look more appealing. You know, "Better give (Peter) O'Toole an Oscar before he croaks on us."
I got the idea for the song after meeting Joni Mitchell at this tribute for her that was held here in Central Park a few years ago. She spent the night listening to 25 people sing some of her greatest songs, and some of them were great -- Chaka Khan, for instance, turns out to be a huge Joni fan and she can sing the shit out of anything -- but then some of the performances were really horrible, unforgivably bad.
Anyway, I spoke to Joni Mitchell backstage -- I mean, she's a living legend if ever there was one, in my opinion -- and I said "tonight must have been really gratifying," and she responded winkingly with something like, "yeah, but some of the songs I didn't even recognize until the singer got to the chorus" and we laughed.
She wasn't ungracious in the least, but seemed to be commenting that not only had she forgotten some of those songs but also that they were rendered virtually unrecognizable due to some lame, unprepared singers. She also told me her theory that Miles Davis was alive and reincarnated as a fish, but that's another story.
Now I hear that she's quitting show biz in part because she's been roundly ignored by the music business for so long, and that's just a huge drag, a huge loss to the culture. But I'm sure there will be another tribute show for her, especially if, God forbid, it is learned that she's got a terminal disease -- people will scramble to prove to her that she was in fact loved, and to prove to themselves that they had the good taste to do it. I guess that's how it always is when someone dies, you express your love too late.
But there's nothing wrong with an individual or a culture taking its opportunity to say good-bye to someone dear to them. One slightly grotesque element of it is how the television networks keep video obituaries of older celebrities, like Charlton Heston or Willie Nelson, at the ready. It's done just in case they kick the bucket unexpectedly. I mean, that's just how TV does it and I suppose it's very practical.
But it's not as if the song is negatively judging the idea of a sentimental, nostalgic tribute. I was just attempting to reflect on the idea of a culture waiting for one of its own to die in a sort of surreal journalistic way, which is how it is in most of my songs. I try to leave out my opinion and just report the facts, sometimes with a little commentary or critique of my own.
And sometimes I try to extrapolate on the song's theme to illustrate something more universal or historic, like when the character in the songs prays for compassion and forgiveness, or in the end when it says "as the century was giving it's last gasp... we marked each super genius as he passed... like killers we recorded all crimes, and hung them on the wall... and they can't destroy it all... before the heavens fall and open like a scroll."
That's referencing a line from the book of Revelations in the Bible that describes the apocalypse as the opening of a scroll from Heaven -- apocalyptic enlightenment -- and also the Nazi's frantic attempts to burn up all the records of their atrocities before the fall of Berlin. Which probably happened in Baghdad and maybe will someday in Washington, too.
I'm surprised at people's reaction to that song. I mean, a lot of people comment on it, even though it's one of the last songs on the record and I don't really sing it in my own voice. It almost didn't make the record at all, because even though I stand behind it compositionally I found the recording slightly "novelty".
The band and I have been closing with "Deadwatch" in our live set, partly because Sim Cain's drum beat, which he calls his "Elvis in Vegas" beat, is so fast and furious that it's hard to follow. And in a live setting I sing it an octave higher in something more like my own range, so it's a good candidate to show up on a live album someday I guess. Gary Louris played the guitar riff on the recording. Al Perkins played lap steel. We recorded it in Nashville, with Brad Jones.
J: You recorded "The Late Album" in five different locations. Do you use something from the surroundings for your work in the studio? Do you sound a little different in yet another studio or are you able to capture the same feeling and sound all the time?
D: Well, I usually call whoever's in town. In New York, where I live, I play with Sim and lately with Morgan Taylor and a keyboard genius named Fil Khrohnengold. Josh Rouse, Jim Hoke, Al Perkins, Butterfly, Jacob Lawson and Dave Henry came by when we were in Nashville. In LA, I've played with Jon Brion, Ben Peeler and once with Don Heffington. Minneapolis is star-studded.
We were making that record while we were touring another one. But I was happy to do it that way, it felt very rock and I got to work with a lot of different people. Brad Jones, who produced the bulk of The Late Album, was patient and inventive and I've already recorded part of the next record with him.
Steve Rosenthal, who owns and operates the Magic Shop in New York, a fantastic studio, helped get a lot of the project off the ground. Steve was also responsible for remastering all the American folk music recorded by Alan Lomax, Otis Redding, and the entire Stones catalog, and has great ears, great big ones.
J: On your album you sound quite different from what you do on stage with just an acoustic guitar, it's both really great by the way. Your song "The Drifter" has also an extra "quiet" version. Have you ever considered to make an acoustic (live) album?
D: Probably, yeah. But the next record is a rock and roll record. We're playing some of it live already, "Gun For A Mouth", "Softcore", and "Stick With The Kid".
J: I noticed that the legendary countryrock hero Al Perkins played pedal and lap steel on your album. How did you get him to play with you, you knew him before in person? Which one of the old songs he played on (for example with Chris Hillman, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons or...) do you like best?
D: I guess my favorite would to be "Torn & Frayed" off "Exile on Main Street" by The Stones. I assume Al was involved with The Stones through Gram, who as legend goes introduced Keith to country music while Keith was turning Gram on to, uh, something else.
Al Perkins is a working musician. We called him, he came by one afternoon. He played that song in one take. His playing is also the best thing about another song on "The Late Album" called "Never I Will".
I sincerely love all that stuff Al played on, but I don't know all of it intimately. Musically, my roots are deeper in British Invasion stuff like The Beatles and The Zombies, and Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, and some vocal jazz like Chet Baker or Julie Londen, you know, more that stuff than Gram or Emmylou. It's not that I don't love them, I do; I just can't honestly lay claim to it as an influence. And I find it ironic that anyone would hear my stuff and call it Americana or folk or rootsrock or alt-country or even singer-songwriter music.
I mean, I grew up in The Midwest but I didn't live on a farm. I didn't have a cow; I had a dog. I'm just rock and roll.
True, I often play acoustic guitar, which I guess is traditionally associated with folk or country. But that's mostly for sonic and practical reasons, not because I'm a purist.
Without speaking for anybody else, I think the same could be said about a lot of the so-called alt-country people -- I mean, they certainly checked out Hank Williams along the way but I think a lot of them would cite Neil Young or The Clash as more major influences, at least when they first picked up a guitar.
This musical myth has proliferated that everyone's wearing cowboy boots and picking banjos on the front porch, when in fact they're probably programming a drum machine in their rehearsal space in some basement in Brooklyn. Which is cool!
I'm not saying it to burst anyone's bubble, or implying that anyone's not authentic. But this kind of harmony, these songs played on instruments made of wood, this idea of people getting together wherever they are and drinking a beer and singing together, it belongs to everyone and it's not just rooted in the past and the most relevant parts of it, to me, are hybrid rather than pure. I'm sure Woody Guthrie would agree. Did anyone ever call him alt-country?
J: You played at The Rhythm & Blues Night in Groningen, did you like it there? Did you have a chance to see and do something, other than playing?
D: Loved it there. Saw Jay Farrar and Mark Spencer play. Bobby Bare Jr. and his band did a killer Smiths cover. Joined The Jayhawks for a few songs. I loved it.
I never get to hang out as long as I like on tour. But we did walk around in Groningen, had some tapas, went into the square that afternoon and walked around the market, hit a coffee shop, got loaded with some girls we met. I hope they'll have me back again. I was totally into it.
J: On this tour, you were with The Jayhawks, opening for them, joining them on stage. You have been support act for Bob Dylan. What was that like? Did you learn something?
D: Well, I prefer to play my own shows with my own band than open the show for someone else. The solo thing is just something I've learned to do because, for logistical or financial reasons, I've had to go it alone more than I ever intended. My plan wasn't ever to be the solo guy; it just kind of ended up that way because every band band I ever had broke up and I knew that I would always show up for my own gig. But I'm grateful for that, not only because of the opportunities I've had to play but also because I've learned to hold my own in a variety of situations. So I'm thankful for every chance I get to play for a new audience, even if it is someone else's.
What have I learned from my opening gigs? You want the dirt? Tori Amos is a grand lady. Chris Whitley is a poet who's fluent in the blues but developed his own dialect. Glenn Tilbrook is a cheerful trooper with a melodic gift. Joan Baez is an idealist who never gave up. Lloyd Cole knows the ladies. Bob Dylan is a seer. And The Jayhawks are one of my favorite bands, one of the best bands playing right now. Also, they can party.
J: I noticed that you like interaction with your audience. Is there an obvious difference between an American and a European audience?
D: I prefer to play over there. The audience seems less jaded somehow. Maybe they just appreciate the fact that we've traveled so far. Also, beer is stronger in Europe. Some places, drugs are tolerated more than others. All of this works in my favor.
J: Did you ever get a reaction from somebody who listened to your music, that was so important in one way or another, that it's still on your mind?
D: An artist in Philadelphia said she painted to "The Late Album" while she was pregnant. Some people have told me that my first record was the soundtrack to a breakup. Mostly folks say they listen to it while driving or working or whatever, which is fine with me because I want the records to be functional somehow. To tell you the truth, it's humbling to think of someone integrating a song of mine into their life, as I have with so many other people's songs. And thankfully, I haven't heard of it inspiring any serial killers or Hollywood blockbusters. But there's still time.
J: What can we expect in the future from David Poe?
D: Another record in 2004. After that, I don't know. Porn, maybe. Or a children's album.
J: Good luck!!!
D: Thanks! I hope no one attempts to translate all this. Sorry I shot my mouth off, but I always do.
Love and peace.
Interview by Johanna J. Bodde, previously published on Real Roots Cafe, The Netherlands.