The first thing you notice about Slim Cessna is that he lives up to his name. He’s both tall and thin with an open smile (complete with gold tooth) and an open attitude. This is the bands first visit to Ireland where they are due to play four dates after which they return to play in the UK before heading for a gig in Moscow. The bands roots go back to the early 1990s and the band has evolved since that time into something quite unique in both its recorded and live entities. We sat down prior to the gig in Whelan’s to discuss the band’s career and outlook. Cessna explained the genesis of the band which started initially as an offshoot of his main band. One that also briefly included David Eugene Edwards of Woven Hand and 16 Horsepower. “The Denver Gentlemen was my main thing but I started the Auto Club because I wanted to experiment with playing country music; even more so than what the Gentlemen were doing. I learned some chords on the guitar and got some buddies in and we started messing around in my basement. We didn’t really have a plan to do anything other than to drink beer (laughs). All of a sudden then it got busier than we were with The Denver Gentlemen so that became the main thing.”
The influences on his musical journey were as much non-musical as they were musical. Living and working in Denver meant that the presence of some extreme weather conditions should not be underestimated. “ A good storm is pretty influential. They happen rapidly and then after it can be total calm and peaceful. We don’t try to use that on purpose but that we do anyway. There’s a lot of space where we are.” He felt such forces would just as easily be reflected in the music as they might in the content of the lyric writing. As well as having the environment play its part on their music it has also meant that touring has to be a planned exercise. “It is a long distance from Denver though to anywhere else” Cessna explained. “Kansas City is the nearest town east and that’s 9 hours drive. Salt Lake City is 7 hours west and there’s not a lot of anything in between. When we tour we work out a route that makes sense as doing a one-off show is impractical unless we are in Denver or a surrounding college town.” All well and good but adding an additional layer to the bands continued existence. “We have to make it work to survive” Cessna adds. The continued existence of any band depends on there being a means for the band to play and to record. Something that was made more difficult in the past when various members lived in different places. “We were living in different places, he explained. “I was living in Pittsburgh, which is 2000 miles from Denver for years and I raised my family there. But in the last 3 years I have been able to move back to Denver. Dwight’s also back in Denver and that has helped us to consolidate things and we can tour whenever we want too. For me there’s no extra trips involved. That’s been pretty good.”
In terms of their recorded output the band have recently set up their own label (SCAC UnIncorporated) and also produced their most recent album The Commandments According to SCAC themselves. Both Cessna and guitarist Lord Dwight Pentecost taking the helm for that process. Something that was a learning curve for them both and one that they hope to revisit when they begin to record their next album. “The Commandments album was the first time that we done all of it by ourselves including having it on our own label. But the next one will be better. Because we learnt a lot doing it. All of a sudden we found ourselves with a deadline but I still think it turned out great. I love the album. But there’s certain things that could have been thickened out here or thinned out there.”
Cessna revealed that Munly Munly, his fellow singer and banjoist, was the main songwriter for the band. “Munly writes all of the songs for all of the bands.” This includes the offshoot DBUK or Munly and The Lupercalians as well as Sim Cessna’s Auto Club. How they made the choices as to which song suited which of the different bands was, he felt, pretty much down to Munly. “I suppose it just depends what mood he’s in which band the songs are for. It’s kinda fun for all of us. They’re all completely different musically. Different kinds of story telling. There are different worlds that Munly creates and it’s pretty fascinating for us to explore that with him.” Having such an enigmatic character in the band was “like having a Flannery O’Connor in our band.” It gave him and the band the opportunity to be involved in a singular creative process “It’s a privilege for me to help bring some life to those characters in performance and in my interpretation of what he’s writing. That has been amazing. Sometimes he brings a lyric to us or often times the whole chord progression. We then build from there. We cut and paste. Sometimes the songs end up going somewhere he didn’t intend and he probably doesn’t like it but it’s a democracy.” One that has an obvious starting point though. “Munly as always be the primary and initial songwriter and he’s very meticulous and we don’t apply any pressure to him or to ourselves.” This process has meant that they don’t want to force it in any way but to ask that they try and deliver something that they can feel proud of. “It always takes us longer than other bands because we always want it to be perfect.”
In previous visits to Europe the band had tended to play in the larger cities rather than to do something more of a tour. This current longer tour was due to the band working with the Punk Rock Blues Agency (who book “twisted roots and blues” across Europe). As regards this visit to these shores Cessna reasoned that it had been hard to get shows here but also in the UK and Scotland as previously they had only played in London. “It’s harder for us to make money doing more shows but we know we have to do and we have to bust through - and hopefully we can. This trip isn’t going to be financially successful (laughs). We knew that coming in though. But we’re very happy to be here.” This shows that the band realise that opening a second front in Europe could, in the long term, give a band an additional audience to appreciate their music.
The band, since their inception, have created an identity, one that has been consciously considered and administered. The graphics especially have been, along with the photography an important constitute of that overall image. “We all do that, though Dwight does a lot of it. All our photography is by Gary Issacs from Denver. We try to keep things in the family. There is a certain branding that’s important to us, a certain visual sense, even with the show.” Along with the image, which can only take a band so far is their music which has become a blend of different sources and strands that have been blended to create the SCAC sound. “When we started, and I’m the only original member of the band now, I just wanted to play country music with friends, the music that I grew up with. I had played with punk rock bands and we were getting closer to that with the Denver Gentlemen.” However that soon seemed to fall short of being as satisfying as he had hoped. “I really wanted that, but in a weird sort of way it just got kinda boring (laughs). Well not boring, that’s the wrong way to say it just wasn’t as satisfying, especially as this started to become the main thing.” that however changed soon after when the key members of the band joined him. “When Munly and Dwight joined, and that was probably 18, maybe 19, years ago now everything took a left turn. Almost instantly we didn’t have the same rules. We knew that this isn’t going to be a country band. But the root of it is still American folk music.” In the process they realised that what they were creating and refining was something that was every much based in the collective consciousness. Something that soon found it’s realisation in the songwriting. “For whatever that’s worth. we let the songs become their own personalities. They have to go where they’re supposed to go without worrying about any preconceived structure or genre.”
There is no escaping the religious element of the music, the balance of sin and redemption, the balance of Saturday night and Sunday morning. This is something that Cessna has grown up with and so incorporated that Christian ethos into the fabric of the music. “That was really important to me, a huge part of it. I was born in the church and my father was a Baptist preacher.” As we talked he told me that, surprisingly it may seem to some, that U2 were a big part of the music he loved growing up. “Touring bands didn’t really come to Denver except for during the summer - we had Red Rocks Amphitheatre which U2 made very famous. I was at that show. I was grabbing the flag - you can see me in the movie. I was a 17-year-old knucklehead (laughs). I was a huge fan in the 80s with Boy and October especially. People don’t like them sometimes in my circles but I say “you haven’t heard Boy and October!” Those were amazing albums. Red Rocks was a great show and Bono is very influential in my life as is David Byrne, as well as many of the greats from the 1980s.” Another factor in his enthusiasm was that U2s’s music and message was music that was acceptable to his parents. That they were considered uncool by many of his contemporaries was something that he considered was because in retrospect “that some of the people that say they don’t like them are just trying to be cool. It’s just one of those things because they’re successful. People say the same things about the White Stripes and how stupid is that? One of the great rock bands of all time.”
I wondered then was there a time then that he might have rebelled against that. “I never rebelled against that. That’s not necessarily to say that I stayed in the church. I go back and forth with that even now.” A strong factor that emerged during his growing up with that framework was his particular love for gospel music in all its forms. “I have always really loved gospel music. The pure form of it. I mean I love Bob Dylan more than most anything and I think his greatest album is Saved. It is so powerful. You don’t have to believe in any of it, but it just hits me. That kind of music - Mahalia Jackson, Hank Williams, gospel. It’s all amazing.” This is the gospel according to Slim Cessna - on that day, at that time. Hopefully SCAC will find further converts on future visits.
Interview by Steve Rapid Photograph by Kaethe Burt O'Dea