Welcome to Ain’t Blue. I’m not really sure you would call this a blues album, but it is a blues-inspired album, that is for sure. Here’s the lowdown on how this came about and some comments on the songs. Depending on how you look at it, either this album has been a long time coming or started in August 2011.
Version 1. The first official blues record I ever owned was The Howlin’ Wolf London Sessions when I was just out of high school. I didn’t know who The Wolf (a.k.a. Chester Burnette) was but I knew who all the English rock stars playing on it were so I bought it. Loved that album. Still do. Though I didn’t put it together at the time, I had previously acquired a direct descendant of The Wolf, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. I had both Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off, Baby, which created a fermenting, evolving revolution in my mind. Beefheart’s dense, harmonically dissonant confluence would later lead me down the path to Ornette, Coltrane and Cage. The Wolf would lead me to Muddy, Son House and John Lee. At one point in my early twenties, I believed the only true road to salvation could be achieved by a sufficiently deep, meditative understanding and appreciation of Mr. Hooker. The way, the truth, the light. How, how, how.
When I started playing guitar in my mid-twenties, I didn’t learn other people’s songs much. I mostly wrote songs from the get go. Four of the earliest songs I wrote are on this album. From 1979, it’s There Be Killin’ (In My Town) – yes, it has all new 2012 lyrics – and Lizzy. Both of them are fairly simple songs that fit my late-developing guitar playing. Killin’ had never been recorded more than a basic built-in-microphone-cassette recording. Both were waiting, biding their time. Rollin’ On the Clay and Call On Me are both from 1980 and were played by my art-punk band of that time, The Adults. Call On Me was recorded by The Adults, who turned into The Colorplates and recorded it again – both were more frenzied versions than the newest. Oddly, Call On Me is my most recorded song. This is the 4th version. Pat Hewitt, who engineered the second version, told me it could be very commercial if done right. Hmmm, perhaps not. While the recordings I would do for the next 20 plus years would mainly alight in weirdo rock land, this blues notion, this blue tension, was always lurking somewhere in the background.
Version 2. Somewhere between 1998 and 2000, I got the idea to go record some old songs in a more blues fashion, went into the Art Institute studio on a Sunday and knocked ‘em out with a few pals. The songs were No Hammer, Lizzie, Rollin’ On the Clay and Call On Me. They didn’t really come out where I wanted to get to, but the idea was there. No Hammer was dredged up and recorded for last year’s Icons’ album Appointment With Destiny! The other three’s long wait has ended – they have finally got to CD this time.
Version 3. I finished recording The Icons’ second album in 25 years, Appointment with Destiny!, and released it last April. While I was working on Green Pajama Country and Sigourney Reverb’s album, I heard about a compilation of new recordings of songs from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music being released and decided to submit a tune under an alias, which I am known to do on occasion. That August I recorded a version of John The Revelator, though it was really based more on the Son House version that I love than the version on the Anthology by Blind Willie Johnson. I was pretty happy with it. However, it was rejected and ready for the Seattle “aesthetic dustbin.” I plowed through getting the annual Green Monkey Xmas album done, but the notion of doing something more along that blue line kept itching in my brain.
Once the Xmas album was posted on December 1, I went to work. A new version of Call On Me was first, started December 8. On Dec. 16, I began a brand new song, The Ballad of Carton IV. I played everything. When I got these two done I played ‘em for Howie, who thought I needed a better guitar solo on Carlton. I brought an old pal over to throw some licks down, but ended up sticking with my original solo. Things started moving quickly. My version of Smithsonian Institute Blues was started Jan. 7, a new wack at Rollin’ On the Clay and a new instrumental, Pass the Jug were both started the 26th. (People Want To Be) Free came in mid-February. By this point, having played every note thus far, mostly as a matter of convenience, I simply decided it would be that kind of record: I would play everything on the record, all Tom, all the time. I found myself doing more low vocals than I ever have, often singing an octave lower than I normally would. It seemed to fit the songs. March brought a new version of Lizzy, tax day April 15 Walkin’ In the Sky began and then it was May and time for The Sonics’ The Witch. By June, I was ready to put the pedal down and wrap it up with I Am Fretless, next There Be Killin’ (In My Town) and finally The Day I Died, which was written the month it was recorded.
The other big influencer for this record was Craig’s List. I started buying crazy cheap instruments over the last few years, acquiring mostly stringed things I had never touched before - a banjo, mandolin, lap steel guitar, resonator guitar, ukes, bulbul tarang (the Indian banjo), baritone guitar, a fretless bass, a melodica, a Peruvian charango. Some of this stuff would be used on a recording the day I bought it. Why waste time learning to play it? As a result, I usually did not play them in any traditional manner. I just looked at them as interesting sound sources and looked for sounds I liked. My basic rule was once they found their way home they were going on the record somewhere.
Now it’s in your hands. When I was working on this last January, I would say to people I thought I was making a blues record, but I didn’t think anyone else would think that. Now it is September and I think it sounds more “blue” than I thought it might last January. I am happy with the result. Hope you are too. That said, I don’t know that I will go this way again. For the next record, we’ll just have to see.
1 The Ballad Of Carlton IV
For me a new guitar often means a new song. This was the red 1967 Hagstrom II – the song came quick. Like much of this record, this has programmed drums with some real drum added. The ripping chords on the chorus are a ‘67 Hagstrom 12 string, which I love. The lyric is loosely based on the actual tale of Carlton IV who does some art/photo/video stuff for Green Monkey from time to time. He gets killed in the video for The Witch (just pretend). And yes, the b-b-b-buuh thing after the solo is my straight-on nod to Muddy Waters’ I’m a Man.
2 (People Want To Be) Free
Several tunes on this album started life as a guitar lick. This is one. I was dinking around while watching football on TV and recorded it into my phone. You can hear the announcers in the background on my little phone recording. The lyric started as a travelogue about when I was five but quickly left that behind, moving to a being a meditation on freedom movements. That is 100% real alto sax in the break and at the end. The “people want to be free” part was the very last thing I came up with in the song. I was mixing it when I decided to add a backup vocal. Now I can’t imagine it without.
3 Smithsonian Institute Blues (Or The Big Dig)
This song comes from Captain Beefheart’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby, the album right after Trout Mask Replica. I bought it at Yenney Music in downtown Olympia the minute it came out. I always loved this song. When it came to recording this song, I started with no plan, just a banjo. Don’t know anything about playing banjo, so I just hacked away. Added fretless bass and my 39 dollar mandolin. No preconceived notions – just hit record and see what happened. The key thing I knew I needed was a resonator guitar with a humbucker pickup and a glass finger slide. Got one from a guy in a Starbucks parking lot, went home and worked it. That resonator has served me well on several songs on this record. Don Van Vliet (and his fantastic band) was one of my true musical influences. Trout Mask Replica changed how I heard music forever. R.I.P.
4 Pass The Jug
The working name for this was Ukulele Blues for obvious reasons. I came up with the basic uke part, stirred and added some spices. The little counterpoint part is a charango from Peru, which is kinda like a ten-string ukulele in a different tuning. It can be heard more famously on Simon and Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa. I probably was trying to channel Ronnie Lane from whatever flimsy afterlife astral bar he is drinking in for this. A cheery palate cleanser.
5 Call On Me
I have been playing this song for over twenty years and I don’t know what any of the chords are in it. I just know where to put my fingers. I know what the chords sound like. This version is played on a metal-bodied resonator guitar along with fretless bass, fake electric wah-wah piano and programmed drums. I had never played fretless bass on a song before this and it is pretty different in terms of how you get from point A to point B effectively. Quite fun. I ended up playing fretless on at least half the songs on the record. The lead guitar on this is the previously mentioned red 1967 Hagstrom II. I bought it in the early afternoon and cut the lead that day. It is a totally bright, thin sounding guitar that seemed perfect for the non-tonal lead I was after. It made me very happy.
6 John The Revelator
When I first got Son House – Father of the Delta Blues a million years ago, I loved this song (Preaching Blues is pretty awesome too). When I saw the Harry Smith comp opportunity, it flipped my switch, even though I was really thinking about the Son version. This song has been done by many – my goal was to do the second best version of all time. The vocal was done in one live take. For the solo, I’d just had the banjo a couple weeks when I recorded this. Had no idea what the chords were - still don’t. I am not religious, but I was for the three minutes I was singing this. I did not hold back.
7 There Be Killin’ (In My Town)
There’s this bound book I used to use to write lyrics in pre-computer. This is song #1. Could not relate to the 1979 lyrics by 2012. Instead it became a topical song about the horrible killings going on in Seattle this year. By June we had reached 23, the total for the whole previous year. Originally tried to make it go with just guitar and vocal, decided it needed a couple extra bits.
8 The Witch
Taking this on was a dicey proposition to me. Basically I didn’t see any way I was gonna top The Sonics original Holy Grail version. I originally started thinking about this song while toying with the idea of doing a History of Northwest Rock album – all covers. I knew I’d need to take it somewhere different. Got the basic idea while driving down Aurora Ave. one day and sang it into my phone. The joys of modern technology! A red Yamaha SG guitar was my special friend on this song. Phil Bentz from Slam Suzzane (then) and Stafford and the Bentz Bothers (now) turned me on to these – great guitar. After I recorded this Howie sent me a quote from Rob Lind of The Sonics, saying they originally wrote it to be slower. Obviously I was diggin’ that on the psychic Sonics astral-plane-network-thingy. May make that History of NW Rock album yet.
9 I Am Fretless
I got the itch to try playing fretless guitar recently. They aren’t real common to buy. First I tried buying a fretless guitar made from an aluminum slab for 40 bucks on eBay. Didn’t really work – it’s in the project pile at the moment. Looking for more immediate gratification, I decided to find some unusual but very cheap guitar on Craig’s List. Yank the frets, putty ‘em up and bang – start playing. Found a Gorilla guitar. When the putty dried, this tune was the first thing I played. When it came time to record, I got the idea to try to work this bulbul tarang (Indian banjo) I had into the tune. I sat in my living room and tried to play two two-handed instruments at the same time to see if I could make them fit together. The idea seemed to work, so I did it. The little funny noise at the beginning is me dropping the tuning key on the bulbul tarang strings. It took several takes to get that just right. Stir in a little lap steel guitar and fretless bass and you can put a fork in it - done!
10 Walkin’ In The Sky
Another new guitar song. I got this very cool sea green hollow-body Dean guitar from author/jazz critic Lloyd Peterson and this song fell out of it. For the rhythm, I put on my best leather-sole shoes and wacked that wooden floor. I’m pretty sure John Lee did his foot tappin’ on a sheet of plywood, but it got close enough for me. The melodica came all the way from Switzerland just to appear on my record. The starting point of the lyric was a dream I had at least twenty years ago about a black man I had worked with at the Post Office floating around in the air just out of my reach, sat down like he was on a kitchen chair. It seems rather odd that I still remember it.
11 Rollin’ On The Clay
The first time this song got played in public was with The Adults in 1980 or so at the And/Or Gallery. Harvey, the other guitar player, was supposed to play slide. Forgot the slide. Went in the back room and found a pair of pliers. Worked. The tune is a simple, post-apocalyptic vision. With a beat. What’s not to like?
This is a song I never could get anyone to play in a way I liked, and it sat around forever. The groove had to be right. Took a whack at it ten years ago without success. I think I got what I wanted this time. This is built around the metal-body resonator and the Yamaha SG stars on the lead again. Techni¬cally this is a true story.
13 The Day I Died
From the first day I had an idea for this song I knew it was the last song on the album. It is also the last song I wrote for the album. I played this on a baritone guitar, which is normally tuned a 5th lower than a regular guitar, then I tuned it a step lower. Usually when I write lyrics, I sit down with some paper or a computer and pound away, tweak and so on until I have something acceptable. On this song I didn’t want to do that. I wanted the unfettered zeitgeist to stream from the unconscious. I did the basic track and then improvised many verses until I had something that seemed beautiful and resonant to me. What does it all mean? I will let you decide.
Tom Dyer September 2012