Tom, you had a track on your last album Pirate Song so I assume that the theme was something that you wanted to explore further and that you have an interest in.
I wrote Pirate Song after a few tours of the Virgin Islands with Last Train Home and a band called the Big Happy. I thought I needed a pirate song, and so I found some glossaries on the internet, including talklikeapirate.com, and wrote a drinking song using all the terminology I could find.
Not long after I wrote it I was cast in the national tour of the Broadway musical Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash. The sixteen member cast, a mixture of musicians and actors, would gather in hotel rooms for late night, post-show jam sessions, and Pirate Song was always a big hit. My cast-mates convinced me to start writing a musical, and I began devouring all the books and source material I could find. As I wrote more and more songs for the project I realized how much fun they’d be to play with a band.
These are all original songs that you have written for the album. Was it difficult to write a set of songs around the one topic and what did you use as a reference source for the music?
It’s such a rich era that I even wrote some songs that were left off the album. It may seem like a stretch, but looking at the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in modern America, the project has given me somewhere to focus my sense of frustration. The pirates may have been a cruel and ruthless lot, but they rose out of dire economic circumstances with almost no hope of advancement.
As far as the sources go, I have to confess my retention skills are not great when I’m reading, (the only thing I remember from a year of taking Chinese is my translation of James Brown’s I Feel Good!) but certain passages in the books I read spark ideas for songs. Sheriff’s Dance was inspired by The Pirate Hunter, a book about Captain Kidd, and The Empire of Blue Water, about Henry Morgan with great descriptions of the cruelty of the press gangs, inspired In The Service of the King. Blackbeard has provided me with a lot, especially in Decked Out Like the Devil; his modus operandi was all showbiz, scaring his victims by weaving lit fuses into his hair, to the point that they would surrender with little or no fight. I now have a shelf filled with books about pirates.
Musically there were a number of major influences on the CD. On a trip to Australia in 2005 I saw and befriended The Bushwackers, the legendary 40 year old Aussie band that often draws comparisons to Fairport Convention and the Pogues. I was blown away by how much fun they were, and loved their songs about the bushranger Ned Kelly and about Australian history. Then while on the road with Ring of Fire I started learning Irish fiddle tunes on the mandolin, songs I’d first played in an old-time band in Chicago years ago. Those songs and the Bushwackers material colored some of The Blue Buccaneer. I also didn’t shy away from afro-cuban rhythms (a good part of the history of pirates took place in the Caribbean, after all.) I’m naturally more of a blues player, so when the material veered into that territory I played up what the “talk like a pirate” creators call my “Pirattitude”.
The album comes across as a lot of fun to have made, was that the case?
Without a doubt! There was Paul Griffith on drums, Lorne Rall on bass and myself and we went into Thomm Jutz’s studio, he’s been guitarist for Mary Gauthier, Nancy Griffith and others. I’d given them rough demos and charts and I gave them free reign. I was thrilled at how much variety they gave to the grooves. (At some point I’ve learned not to try to control sessions, and that anything the musicians I work with come up with is far better than I could have dreamed of.) After laying the basics I took the tracks home and started inviting my friends over to play. It all took place during the Christmas/New Year’s vacation, typically a very quiet time around Nashville,but there was a Jolly Roger flying just off the Cumberland River where a rowdy bunch of rovers were singing and playing.
I love it when musicians step out of their usual realm and play a style outside of what they’re known for. I had Peter Hyrka, Nashville’s Stephane Grappelli, playing Irish fiddle lines before his one-take nailing of My Little Pearl, and much of the back-up vocals were done by Phil Lee, Eric Brace, and Peter Cooper, Americana artists I play guitar for frequently. If it hadn’t been recorded over the holidays I would have had even more denizens of East Nashville coming by. My whole approach to the band is, much like the pirate ships themselves, to recruit on the spot.
You work both as a solo artist performing your own work and a sideman for others and have played with Phil Lee for a long time. Do you get a different degree of satisfaction from each role?
I do. When I’m performing my own material the greatest challenge is to get the mind to stop, much like an actor, because self-consciousness is the enemy of good performances. I don’t want to stop doing either because they feed each other. It’s easy to be a sideman when I believe in the work and the showmanship, which is the case with Phil. I also generally do my own set with Phil, and Eric Brace of Last Train Home has me do some songs every show, so I’m reaching people I may not reach on my own. I’m also able to see the perspective of both sidemen and band leaders, which eliminates a lot of frustration.
Having done some acting you seem well able to bring some sense of theatre to your performance. Would you like to explore the link between music and theatre further?
Very much so. I try to bring theatricality to all my shows, and I think that’s a very important aspect these days. With the proliferation of youtube and instant downloads, I think live performance is our major currency, and feel more akin to traveling vaudevillians than the rock bands I grew up with. I’m also going to finish the pirate musical, and the touring I do with The Blue Buccaneers gives me a chance to do more research.
You live in Nashville and often play in Austin but how is it for a professional musician outside those particular pockets of musical interest?
It’s especially great to tour to some of the smaller cities, where we often get a good response because they’re hungrier for music. I actually haven’t been booking many shows in Nashville the past few years, and am more apt to grab my friends, jump in the van, and go play in another town. I love Nashville because the level of musicianship and songwriting is so high, but other scenes have us beat as far as daring and originality go.
Have you any ambition to do another themed album or will you just let new songs dictate the direction of the music?
I do want to release an album of my Nashville songs, songs that I’ve written and co-written over my years here that are more firmly entrenched in the Americana and country genres. I’ve also always intended to put out an all electric record in the style of Tom Verlaine and Television, but I think that one will be put off forever! At the moment I’m still writing more songs for the musical.
Although you have been associated with and play roots music the scope of what you do and play is much wider do you put any restrictions on the music you make?
I don’t put any restrictions on my music, and my favorite music is when different styles come together. I can understand the fervor of purists and revivalists, but I’d rather hear something I’d never heard before, something with a little mystery. I used to hang art in museums, and a painter friend told me he never painted representational work because there was no need with photography, and I like that attitude. I place myself in the Americana field out of some ideal that I think Americana should represent, a melting pot of influences.
Have been a full-time musician/actor for some time how difficult is it for you to make a living these days?
Damn near impossible! As they say, it’s either snack or famine. Something usually trickles in just in the nick of time, though. The carrot on my stick is the dreadful jobs I’ve done in the past, ever reminding me to keep working!
As musician who have been your lasting influences?
There are so many but I can point out some characteristics that have influenced me. The Band created a nostalgia for a time that never quite was, which drew me in. Dylan and Waits transported me, and I liked that. As a musician I started out playing the blues. I had a piano teacher who figured out that I would practice more if she taught me boogie woogie. A lot of the artists whose writing I liked were into the Harry Smith Anthology, and when I was a child my family would sing folk songs.
You have played in Europe, how do you find the different audiences tend to respond to your music as there is a sense that the songs on The Blue Buccaneer would be probably be appreciated over here?
I’d love to tour with the Blue Buccaneers in Europe, and would especially like to recruit players over there to do shows with us. I’m working on coming over in the summer of 2012 if not sooner. It’s such a joy to play with new people, and I never shy away from it. Paul Griffith, Lorne Rall, and I did a tour of the Virgin Islands last month and were joined by a pair of seventy year old percussionists who took the groove to a whole new level. I hope to get some Irish and Scottish musicians to play these tunes when I’m over there, sort of my version of the Rolling Stones jamming with Muddy Waters.
Interview by Stephen Rapid, photograph by Ronnie Norton