Interview with Sturgill Simpson

Having released an acclaimed debut album Sturgill Simpson has been touring in the UK (opening for Laura Cantrell and doing his own gigs) to support the UK release of the album, He is also about to bring out a second album and is excited about that. He is the sort of person who is happier talking about his music than about himself but is, like his music, opoen and honest. Lonesome Highway took the opportunity to talk to him prior to his first Dublin date.

Do you find it liberating to be playing gigs in a solo capacity?

I did it before I … well, I still don’t consider myself a professional musician, but it’s how I started out. The first gigs I did were playing by myself. After a year on the road with the band, where you can stretch out a little bit, you still have to follow a bookends regime. But for sets like this I never write a list. It’s about whatever the crowd feels, I feel. But it is very freeing.

Your recording to date have been with a full band though?

Yeah, I think it’s important texturally and there’s still a lot of sonic exploration that I want to do. Doing that without a band is tough, but someday, I’m sure, I’ll get around to the old hauntingly sparse melancholy acoustic album. I don’t think it’ll be the second album though.

You previously front the trio Sunday Valley who can be seen on YouTube. Did you release an album with them?

We did but it didn’t really get released;  we just put it up on iTunes ourselves. We sold it at gig and I think I’m still sitting on 800 physical copies at my house that I ordered right before the band broke up. They’re sitting in a corner doing nothing.

Did you have a natural break-up or did you feel the need to move on?

No, it was definitely on purpose. It was a local band that I played with in Lexington, Kentucky for years. It was never really the music in my heart,  even though I was writing all the music (laughs)! I just kinda reached a point where I felt that this is not what I wanted to do. That’s not best for everybody. I was mainly yelling over the top of myself. It was such a loud band so I never though of it as singing.  

Was that the punk rock influence coming out?

No. It was the punk rock influence in a lot the other band members. I never listened to much punk rock if I’m honest. It was a lot of fun and we had a good following in a local setting. It was fun until it wasn’t. I had realised that I had to do this other thing that I was doing at home by myself 

You’ve stated the influence that your grandfathers had on the music you now play. How did that come about?

Absolutely. Both my grandfathers, really; my maternal grandfather very specifically. He was a big influence just in terms of what he played and the guys that he listened to. We watched Hee-Haw and things like that as a kid. I just wanted to emulate that more than anything. But as a teenager you find things like Led Zeppelin and you steer off the path. In  my early twenties I came full circle and it’s been kinda consuming ever since.

But before coming full circle you absorb the influence that Zeppelin had in their music too.

Yes, very much so. They had folk, blues and country elements in their music. I mean any good music to me is soul music. I was exposed to and absorbed so much traditional country and bluegrass as a young child that after a while your palate says “enough”. Then you got to go see what else is there. 

In those Zeppelin days the only people I was aware of wearing Western style shirts were rock acts. Country was more a red neck thing and thus avoided to some degree.

(Laughs) Yeah.  Zeppelin and Cream. The redneck thing is still a big part of it. Which is weird but it’s more so in the commercial side of things in the States where it’s almost a marketing ploy to put that stamp on your music. I run from it every chance I get. 

Do you have any association with that underground thing that’s going on?

I don’t really have much to do with that and it’s a bit of a scene with some of the punk rockers who had heard Johnny Cash records.

You moved to Nashville; was that a move to get closer to the roots of the music?

That’s exactly why I did that. At the risk of sounding like a cliche and extremely egotistical I wanted to make the kind of country album I wasn’t hearing anywhere else. I had a number of songs that I’d been sitting on for a few years, though most of the album (High Top Mountain) was written while we were recording it. There’s a few I wish I could take back but mostly I wanted to make what I was taught that country music should sound like, or my interpretation of that anyway.

You have said that there’s an element of psychedelia in your music too.

Definitely. I have a second album that’s coming out over here soon. It was recorded back in October and that is very much a psychedelic country record. 

Barefoot Jerry-ish?

No more like if Merle Haggard dropped a bunch of LSD. Which maybe he has (laughs)!

That sort of cross fertilisation is interesting. In the 60s you had both The Beatles and Buck Owens, for instance, aware of each others music.

I’ll give myself away a little bit. I shouldn’t talk as much. But sonically what introduced me to that was a lot of the early Gene Clark or Godson Brothers recordings from the late 60s in California which were so psychedelic and the production approach with people like Clarence White and interweaving acoustic guitar was just so beautiful. 

Especially something like the Byrds Live At The Fillmore where you hear Clarence playing Eight MIles High and blending two strands of music together.

Oh absolutely. 

We talked then about the famous B-Bender that Clarence White played. Marty Stuart now owns and plays it regularly.

Marty and I have the same manager so when they’re doing the TV show taping I get to stop by every once in awhile. I got to pick on it one day and it  feels so weird, it’s almost like playing a hollow body. I don’t know how he does it. Marty tours with that thing. 

We talked about the talent of Kenny Vaughan and how he can play such a myriad of styles that are influenced by Jeff Beck as much as Roy Nichols and so many other players.

What I love about Kenny is that he can hit eight or nine different facets of music in one solo. He’ll sneak it all in there.

We were taking about all the different influences you have come through listening to country music.

Some people can get a little hung up on the tradition and purism side of things. This is 2014 and my producer (Dave Cobb) and I had a long conversation about that. He said “aren’t you worried that people will think you’re running from whatever the last record was?”  I said that I’d already made what I call a traditional record and I felt that I’m not running from it But I certainly didn’t want to turn around and do it again right after that. We incorporated a lot of things this time that will probably take people a little while to get used to. Then I’m not going to make a Merle Haggard record because he already did it and I’m pretty damn sure that I’d never do it as good as he did it (laughs). Taking it somewhere new is the only way it will survive.

We discussed how the better country retro bands in a live context do introduce a new audience to the music and artists of classic traditional country music that they may not come across otherwise. Music needs to be heard in a live context so that it becomes something living and breathing. But that’s only one aspect of the music that is now called Americana.

That can be a self made trap. Building a wall around yourself you become a novelty and I never want to feel that I’m putting a costume on. It’s a bit of a dangerous  road as you build a fan base and then that’s what they expect every night. But on the off-chance I ever play the Ryman I may want to walk out with a disco ball hanging from my suit though (laughs).

When you see an artist walking out on stage in a Nudie or Manuel suit and the light catches the rhinestones it’s like a light show and you know you’re going to watch that person. Jim Lauderdale does that …

… or Marty. He owns that. Jim and Buddy Miller though,  they crack me up. I did a radio show at Buddy’s house not too long ago and they’re both just the sweetest guys. They’re all about their shirts. They have a collection of amazing shirts. When Jim showed up he and Buddy spent about five minuets talking about the shirts they were wearing. I was like “what’s happening?”.

We enthused about how The Mavericks are a band who, while they have a respect for the traditional values they create something new that’s very much their own from a myriad of influences.

Raul is just about my greatest living musical hero right now. I love the In Time album. When the album came out last year I went down to the Siriuis station in Nashville as they were doing a little live in-studio acoustic concert. It was the best show I’ve seen in ten years. They weren’t even doing their “show” but it felt great and there were probably 40 people in this little room. It felt like it was levitating. It was just so good. 

Tell me something about your new album Metamodern Sounds in County Music?

We came off the road from what seemed like an infinite tour and we cut the whole think for a really good price in about four days. Our producer happened to have a week and a half off so I figured that we’d just done seven weeks of shows and we’re not going to get any tighter and I was sitting on a mountain of songs so we went in with my band to do the record. It was an honour and an extreme … I don’t know if privilege is the word … to have played with guys like Pig and those guys,  but I feel like I got my sound down a little bit more on this one. 

Your road band is you and your trio of bass, drums and guitar?

That’s it, just four little guys. We keep a very low stage volume. My guitarist plays through a little 5 watt Champ. I play my Martin and we kind of let the room do the work. We’re having a lot of fun. In Nashville if you walk in with anything over a 15 watt amp you don’t play there again. They say “well that guy doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing”.

Bluegrass was the next topic up for discussion and specifically the Station Inn. 

You never know who might walk in there. I’ve been in there and gotten free mandolin lessons from Ricky Skaggs. That was so surreal. It’s probably my favourite club in the world. We did our CD release there last year. That meant as much to me as playing the Opry. Bluegrass is what I absorbed and played the most. The first time I moved to Nashville was in 2005 (and) all I was doing was playing bluegrass. At some point, I don’t know, I just fell in love with a lot of the older writers and I started to write a lot. I used to just hang out in the Station Inn rather than playing with anybody other than infinite jam parties around East Nashville. I still don’t consider myself in the music business. I’m not going to meeting or anything. I’m just putting records out and going deeper in debt. 

Do you writing a lot?

I try to write everyday if I can. 

The first album you have said was, to a degree, autobiographical. Is the new one from a different perspective?

I probably don’t want to go into that too much but I kinda wanted to see if was possible to explore outside the box with lyrical themes and subjects through the guise of country music. As I said it is very much a psychedelic record. It’s introspective and everything else. There are no’ tear in my beer’  songs on this album. I felt I couldn’t sing another heartbroken song. I wanted to sing about black holes or Tibetan Buddhism or I don’t know what. It comes out on my label in the States and through Loose on the UK. I didn’t start my music career until I was 34 as growing up in East Kentucky everybody plays music but never in a way where you think I could do this for a living. You do it after work. So I did everything else first. With High Top Mountain I proud of all the songs but that first time as an artist and with a producer you’re feeling each other out. They have their ideas about what they think is best. With this new one I feel that I cleared my throat a little bit and got my sound. I’m pretty excited about the new record even though the first one has only just come out here. 

Finally on your travels have you come across anyone you could recommend or who has impressed you?

Yeah, we played a couple of shows with Jason Isbell and he’s just amazing. He’s a really, really sweet guy too. About half the times, unfortunately, when you meet people that you were just floored by or are in awe of, or you might just want to pick their brain,  they turn out to be giant assholes when you talk to them. They just can’t be bothered. A couple of times they’ve been real heroes of mine. At the same time I can understand it too. I definitely have some days where I shouldn’t be sitting at the merch booth. Outside of country there’s a lot of bands that kinda blow my mind like Tool. I admire what they do a lot. I thought that the last Daft Punk album was pretty incredible. I actually never leave the house when I’m home to be honest. If I’m on the road I don’t get out to clubs. So I kinda get into a hole where I end up listening to the same five or six record for six months. There’s three or four records that I listen to once a week. So I don’t know much about new music to be perfectly honest. But there’s a guy in Texas just put out a good album called Jason Eady (Daylight & Dark). I heard it in a friend’s house and I thought it was fantastic. Great writing is what tends to grab my ear.  

Interview by Stephen Rapid. Photograph by Ronnie Norton