Interview by Gareth Thompson
Ben Chasny (Six Organs Of Admittance) and Donovan Quinn (Skygreen Leopards) reunite as New Bums with Last Time I Saw Grace, their second album of acoustic psych blues for Drag City. Like twin brothers wrapped in memory and mystery, the duo offers an eerily soulful set that crackles with joy and anguish. It’s a world where backwoods riffage and creeping rockers meet Delta interludes in godforsaken moodscapes. Chasny and Quinn refract their voices into various personas and narrators, from dogged underdogs to roaming drifters. By the end they leave us rustified and crazed, off on our own psychedelic walkabout.
MOOF: Acoustic musicianship was key to T. Rex’s early work which feels like an influence on this new album. Were you ever Marc Bolan fans?
BC: I was definitely into the early Tyrannosaurus Rex records about 25 years ago when I first started recording. I love that story about Bolan in the studio telling a producer they needed to read Lord Of The Rings if they wanted to “get” the music. Funny guy.
DQ: Definitely. Bolan had an audacity and humour to the way he approached songwriting that I always admired. It could change from moving to ridiculous to bizarre to traditional, within the same verse.
MOOF: What about the Chicago or Delta blues of Otis Rush and Charley Patton? There’s elements of that in your guitar work.
DQ: My blues influences would be Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson and Elizabeth Cotten. Around 13-14 years old I got a Robert Johnson box set and it blew me away. There’s an almost creepy intimacy to songs like ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ that not many have captured. Michael Hurley’s Folkways recordings have a bit of that too.
BC: Yeah, the Robert Johnson box set was big when I was growing up. I was also really into Robert Wilkins. He had a crazy fingerpicking style and I loved his voice. Son House and Blind Willie Johnson were also big for me. I guess I got into the acoustic Delta guys more than the electric Chicago stuff.
MOOF: It’s amazing to learn you used no female backing singers. How did those high harmonies come about?
BC: Thank you. I’ve been getting that comment since I put out my first record. I don’t know. I love Prince, what can I say? I love falsetto. I think in a former life I may have been a castrato.
DQ: Looking at us both, you’d imagine we were tough dudes with voices in such a low register that only ancient, mythical rock creatures could comprehend our sub-bass utterances. And yet Ben has a beautiful upper register that shaped certain tracks on the new album.
MOOF: The songs enter a world of surreal realism without being specific. Are you challenging yourselves when writing like this, or the listener?
DQ: It’s a style that’s been developed over the years. The challenge is finding a way to make it feel real, through all the little details, but not drown out the space for abstraction where a listener can apply their own experiences and vision.
BC: Donovan is a master of that style, it’s in his solo work too. He’s a voracious reader so I think there’s a million worlds swirled up in his head, yet his own are always unique. It’s a pleasure seeing what he comes up with.
MOOF: Ben, you’ve said that living down the street from Donovan helped you learn about writing. Donovan, where do your literary influences come from?
BC: Well, I don’t know if I learned about writing from him. But that’s only because he has a style that can’t really be learned from and I already have my own. I guess I did learn a few moves, if you will. Things such as switching up the flow, the descriptive diversion tactic, the harmony of analogies. Things like that.
DQ: Witold Gombrowicz, William Gaddis, Beckett and Proust are favorites I go back to. Lately I’ve been reading Clarice Lispector and finding a lot of inspiration in her stuff. ‘Cover Band’ from our new record was directly inspired by Gaddis’s The Recognitions. If you’ve read that, it might seem strange it led to a song about a bar band covering ‘Candle In The Wind’ but sometimes ideas manifest in funny ways. The vision of a bummed out cover band had been with me a while. A cover band is usually about having a good time and providing nostalgia for an audience. So when I imagine someone on stage playing ‘Candle In The Wind’ and having an existential breakdown over it, I find it simultaneously funny, depressing, and moving.
MOOF: Both the New Bums albums suggest rural and urban grooves alike. Where does that dual aspect come from?
DQ: I grew up on a horse ranch but have lived in San Francisco for 15 years and both environments have wormed their way into me.
BC: Likewise, I grew up in an extremely rural area. When I take friends out there they can hardly believe it. We got water from the river in our back yard. Like Donovan, though, I’ve lived in cities for over half my life. So yeah, a little country, a little city.
MOOF: The video for ‘Tuned To Graffiti’ evokes that same dual quality. Where did you find this wasteland-wilderness site?
DQ: Our friend Jason Quever from Papercuts turned us onto that location. He came along for the drive and helped out David Enos who directed the video. We were looking for a natural setting that had been decayed and effaced by generations of people and were lucky enough to land in the right spot.
MOOF: Nice masks you wore, by the way. Have you kept them?
DQ: Those are David Enos designs. He probably has them in the vault. Enos makes amazing short films and videos that often have strange creatures, so we were stoked to get a couple for ‘Tuned To Graffiti’.
BC: I didn’t actually participate in this part of the video. I never wore a mask. Through the magic of cinema the viewer is tricked into thinking it’s me.
MOOF: You cover ‘Wild Dogs’ by Tommy Bolin (Zephyr, Deep Purple) and give it a lonesome vibe. What drew you to the funky-fuzzy original?
BC: I grew up on that song. I used to have a Tommy Bolin t-shirt when I was 12. The guitar intro is pretty close to ‘The Needle And The Damage Done’ but when he hits the chorus chords it’s released from the similarity. I always play the song on tour in the car, as it’s a bit of a road number, so it finally felt right to cover it. Plus there’s that part in the guitar solo where the two guitars are panned but they sync up, which I love. I can’t solo like Bolin, but I did try giving a nod to that part. His work on Billy Cobham’s Spectrum record is amazing too.
MOOF: ‘Hermitage Song’ sounds suitably austere, given its imagery. Does the hermit lifestyle appeal, even within a cityscape?
BC: I’ve loved the idea of hermits for a long time. I named my record label Hermit Hut based on a quote from Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics Of Space: “The hermit hut is a theme that needs no variation, for at the slightest mention of it, phenomenological reverberations obliterate all mediocre resonances.” I often hear Slayer’s opening riff to ‘Raining Blood’ in my head after reading that quote. It’s pretty tough.
MOOF: Closing cut ‘Follow Them Up The Slope’ is a grand pagan-gospel hymn. What’s the idea behind it?
DQ: I always liked the visual of a procession moving up a hill. It inherently has a heavy religious feeling, but being “stoned on rum and coca cola”, while following ash-scattering figures, brings the story back into the realm of mundane experience where it keeps a foot planted. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything by saying what the story exactly is. But the song can be seen as someone looking into a past that’s very distant, yet they still see themselves and a loved one in it.
With thanks to New Bums for their participation. Read our review of their upcoming album Last Time I Saw Grace, here
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