Wednesday
Jun142017

Amanda Anne Platt of the Honeycutters Interview

Amanda Ann Platt has fronted the North Carolina based band through five albums. The last three released on the Organic label. They are a band who are influenced by classic singer/songwriters and artists who would loosely have been called country in the past but now fall under the Americana umbrella. However as the main writer, singer and producer in the band she has decided for this latest release to use her own name in front of that of the Honeycutters. The music, judging from the last three albums, has been critically acclaimed and they have built a deserved solid following in the US and they hope to tour in the UK later in the year. Lonesome Highway caught up with Amanda recently and had the opportunity to put some questions to her.

After the previous relays it must have been liberating but also a little trepidatious to move from having The Honeycutters name out front now using your name?

Yes, trepidatious is a good word. I'm not particularly extroverted by nature, which is one reason I have always felt safer using a band name rather than my own. But it's something that has come up with every release, and now that I am the only original member (in addition to writing all the songs and singing them) I feel like it makes the most sense. We've had a lot of nice words of support from fans so I'm easing into it. 

As a writer are you continuously collecting ideas, titles and lines or do you have to specifically set aside a period of time and quiet to write for an album?

Constantly collecting. Our process before hitting the studio is one of narrowing down from a list of songs that I'm proposing for the album ... sometimes as many as thirty. Writing is a coping mechanism for me, so it's hard to imagine going months of the year without doing it. 

It's how I make sense of what I see in the world. I don't write a lot about the bigger stuff, politics and world events. It's more about processing the small moments I see-- the little comedies and tragedies of everyday life.

Growing up who and what were your influences that set you down this path?

My parents listened to a lot of classic country, blues, and bluegrass when I was small. Despite being born in the eighties I knew very little of pop radio until I was a teenager. We never had it on at home. My dad has an epic record collection of the aforementioned genres plus sixties and seventies rock and the Texas songwriters of those decades. They met and married in Austin in the seventies so they were strongly influenced by that scene. I think it rubbed off on me.

What sort of ambitions did you and do you now hold for a musical career. How important is ambition?

I think ambition is very important. With social media and internet streaming the scene is more crowded than ever, so you have to want it. That being said, I've never had a real clear vision of where this is going other than that I want to be able to keep doing it. My career has been a lot of small, logical steps, and if we carry on this way I'm fine with that. Just put the mic in front of me and I'll sing my songs.  

To get to this point you must have put a lot of miles on the clock gigging and recording. What have been the highpoint and the low points to date?

Ahahahahaha. OK let's start with the high points ... the first time we sold out a The Grey Eagle in our home town (Asheville, NC). Opening for Billy Joe Shaver was amazing. Sitting at Guy Clark's kitchen table eating oatmeal while he smoked cigarettes and talked songwriting. The low points? Our van breaking down on the last day of a two month tour, out in Montana. Going through a breakup on the road sucks too. 

Does the climate of what’s happening in the world effect your viewpoints?

Of course. I feel a lot of fear these days, as I think many are. It's an interesting time to be an American, which is the only perspective I can really claim, but I imagine it could be said that it's just an interesting time to be a human. I have some strong opinions but I try to focus, at least in my songwriting, on things that unite us rather than divide us. Rather than rage against someone who I think is wrong, I'd rather establish common ground and then see if we can't get to the bottom of what we're disagreeing about. I think that's the most powerful way to change someone's mind. 

What was it about this music that drew you in in the first place?

Honesty. It's not that I don't like pop music ... I do get into some of it. But I think that if someone can make you feel something with nothing but their words and a melody, that's a very special thing to experience. 

Over a period of time you have had some changes in the line-up of the Honeycutters. Is it a problem keeping platers together?

Not necessarily. There have been two major incarnations of the band, pre 2013 and post 2013. That change over had more to do with a romantic breakup and falling out. Since 2013 we've only had one person leave the band. Musical relationships are complicated, sometimes they end without a lot of closure. But that's part of making art together, I think.  

How do the economics of recording and travel effect the range and possibilities of what the band could do?

More than I'd like to admit. As a five (sometimes six) piece band we can't afford to do a lot of the gigs that say a duo or trio might be able to swing. I also have always been a firm believer in guaranteeing my band a certain amount. None of them are kids any more (not throwing them under the bus, neither am I!), they have families and mortgages and I would hate for them to be losing money playing with me. So we end up turning down some stuff because I can't afford to get us there and pay the band too. It does hold us back a bit. But I think it also keeps us happy and fed ... I love having the full band, I'm not very interested in doing the duo thing anymore. 

Of your own songs which ones are you especially proud of?

Hmmm. I love Marie, off our first album. Me Oh My, off the album by the same name. Blue Besides, from the On The Ropes album, as well as Barmaid's Blues. And off our new one I think my favourite might be Eden. I don't know though. That changes. A lot of the ones I really feel proud of we haven't recorded for one reason or another. I just like it when I can sing something every night and feel like I still believe it, like the words don't get less true.  

As co-producer of the album how do you achieve the sound that you want for an album?

Honestly the band has a lot to do with it. We have a lot of similar sensibilities, we love warm seventies tones. This time around we listened to all our previous records and picked out our favourite drum sound, guitar tone, vocals, etc. I'm not sure that we ever nail it - it's a constant pursuit. But it keeps us on our toes.

You have a team around you for management, radio and PR etc. Is that a vital part of survival in this day and age.

It is for me! I'm scatter brained and prone to fits of laziness. It's much easier for me to finish a song than it is to write an email. And for the promotional stuff, who wants to do that for themselves? It's much easier to say glowing things about someone else than it is to promote yourself, I think. 

Are physical sales the main part of how you sell or has the download (and streaming services) also played a major part?

I think in recent years we've seen it tip towards the streaming side of things. But we do sell a lot of physical product at shows and off our website. 

Finally, where are you happiest on stage or in the studio?

On stage, definitely. I love the studio but nothing beats the energy that comes from having all the players on stage, and an audience. That's connection. Nothing beats it. And I love my band!!! Did I already say that? They're incredible. And nice people too. It's a gift to be able to travel and make music with your best friends.

Interview by Stephen Rapid   Photograph by Eliza Schweizbach

Tuesday
May232017

The Americans Interview

 

This Los Angeles trio (usually accompanied by drummer) play rock ’n’ roll that has its roots in the past and is sighted firmly on the future. They come with some heavy duty endorsements. T Bone Burnett is quoted as saying “Genius twenty-first century musicians that are reinventing American heritage music for this century. And it sounds even better this century." While noted critic Greil Marcus stated on his encounter with the band’s music that "From the first rolling guitar notes, carrying sadness and defiance like dust, this sweeps me up: I want to know everything about where that feeling came from, and where it's going." To date they have released two EP’s First Recordings and The Right Stuff and a single I’ll Be Yours. The latter two by London-based label Loose Music. They made their Irish debut at the Kilkenny Roots Festival which is where Lonesome Highway caught up with lead singer Patrick Ferris.

The first question was about the origin of their name as it could be construed in many different ways as, indeed, it would if a local band from these shores decided to use the moniker “The Irish.” The explanation made more sense in context as Ferris explained that the name was taken from the book of photographs by Robert Frank that was first published in 1958 and showed everyday Americans going about their lives and looking both ordinary and extra ordinary at the same time. The band’s music explores a similar path and observation of life, love and its strange logic. Ferris felt that what had set the book apart at the time was that it wasn’t political but rather captured moments in people’s lives and that the band’s material was also biographical with snapshots of people going about their lives.

Ferris also elaborated on the connection with Burnett explaining that that they had crossed paths with the producer on a number of occasions as they were both LA based. “ We worked on a soundtrack first and he also sometimes curates a stage at a festival and he got is involved and then we worked on the American Epic TV show. We didn’t know he was involved when we started but we ran into him onset.” Burnett also joined the band onstage at The Station Inn when they played there during the AMAs. “He showed up about 5 minutes before we went on and played us a new song of his and said he wanted us to back him up, so we learnt it really quick (laughs).” 

The band are hoping to release their debut album in the next month or two. The recoding experience was not necessarily an easy one it would seems as Ferris explained “There was way too much at stake, especially these days when there’s not as much money in the music industry as there once was. Gone are the days, at least for bands like us were you can spend months on end working on arrangements and things in the studio.” They were working in Northern California for a two week period before going in to the studio and so they already had the songs for a long time and they were worked out prior to recording. They had thought about such details as finalising the arrangements and working out how certain guitars should sound at a particular point in a song. They approached it in a very logistical way reasoning that the more time they could save on such factors meant they could us the studio time more productively. They ended up recording the album in 8 days. “We really had to focus and get two songs done a day.” However in the process they also added some new songs that they hadn’t finished yet and so ended up working on them the night before they were recorded. The studio, Prairie Sun in Cotati, was an old chicken ranch that still had resident chickens was one that was conducive to work and full of equipment that suited the band. 

The band recorded the material in a live setting. “It’s important to us as we have never done it in a different way.” Although Ferris noted that he had heard good records done in a single track layered way it was not the way that The Americans record. “There’s two things you get, doing it together, the feel of the band playing together, which is very hard to imitate, as well as the mix between the drums and the amps.That live in the room feel.” That ambience, he felt, were the microphones pick up other sounds in the room was something that adds an excitement to the overall sound.  

In terms of the songwriting the breakdown is that the band work together on the music while Ferris writes all the words, though on occasion he writes both. “I tend to write certain kinds of songs on my own. Sometimes I’ll bring those in finished. If they’re more unfinished I’ll bring them in and we work on them together.” Ferris is not an on-the-road writer he explained other than writing little snippets and that he only really writes when is at home and disciplines himself to sit down and focus. “The only way for me to do it is to kick my own ass for weeks on end and force myself to do something that I don’t really feel like doing.” He finds that often a song comes from finding the right syllable rather than the right word. Finding a sound that works and then working out how that will affect the actual songwriting, that the right syllable has to work even if the line is good. “The open endless of a line can mean something important to someone and that’s a powerful tool.”    

The influences that Ferris mentions were important to him growing up was pre-war country-blues, something that they all got excited about when they were in high school. In terms of songwriting he names Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joanna Newsome as primary sources. He explained that the members had some common family links even though he was living in San Francisco and the other were in LA. “We had family friends in common and used to go and visit and I got to know Zac and Jake that way.” When he was in San Francisco Ferris was pretty much on his own in terms of the music he liked to listen to. He also meet players who stuck rigidly to their notion of how the much should be played and he wondered if there was a similar trend in Ireland. “In LA a lot of old-time fiddlers and guitarists who had a level of commitment to the old records that I hadn’t heard before while people today have this laser focus on these old records that means they want nothing to do with reinterpreting it they just want to honour it.” Which is that vexed oft-raised question of authenticity again. He found those players illuminating but also made him realise that that was not what he wanted to do himself. Those bands that strived to recreate the look and feel of an earlier era needed to be as good as those they emulated in order to validate what they were doing he felt. “That’s a tall order.”

Along with these initial Irish dated The Americans are playing their first European dates though they had played a one-off date in Berlin previously. “I’m wondering if people happen to like us or if they like everybody - but either way people have been very enthusiastic, I hope that’s because they thought that we were special (laughs).” Ferris thought that their dates in Europe has audiences that were free of a kind of cynicism that often accompanies a band playing rock ’n’ roll in the States. “After a time rock ’n’ roll became less of a cool concept and more like a franchise idea, or like your Dad’s music or something.”  

The Americans are beginning to define their own take on rock ’n’ roll and what it might mean to them and to their audience. Looking for, as their current EP title suggests, “the right stuff.” With a growing number of those who want to fly their flag it shouldn’t be that long before these Americans are having something of the impact that Franks photographs had in defining a point in time.

 Interview By Stephen Rapid and Declan Culliton   Photography by Kaethe Burt-O'Dea

Thursday
Apr202017

Holly Macve Interview

 

Holly Macve’s debut album Golden Eagle, released earlier this year, made quite an impression in the music press including Lonesome Highway, being hailed as one of the most impressive debut albums of 2017. Praise indeed for the twenty-one-year-old Galway-born UK resident who appeared at SXSW in March of this year and was credited by the New York Times as one of the twelve most notable acts at the festival. Macve took time out from her hectic touring schedule to chat with us in advance of her appearances at the Kilkenny Roots Festival.

Appearing at SXSW in 2016 and earlier this year, two years in succession, is an incredible achievement for a solo artist of your age out of the UK! 

Yes, I guess I was pretty lucky with that…! SXSW is a great festival to meet and gain connections with other people in the industry. You never know who is going to be at your show watching. It could be someone who becomes really important in your career. I was at the right place at the right time during a couple of my shows for sure.

The positive exposure you have received in the past twelve months seems to have generated an intense touring regime for you. Are you taking it in your stride or does it create its own pressures?

I’m really enjoying it so far, I used to be quite an anxious person and worry a lot but touring seems to actually help me to just take every day as it comes and not have any expectations. Maybe someday I’ll get sick of it but right now it’s pretty cool getting to travel and visit loads of places I never knew existed.

Does touring give you the space to continue writing while on the road or do you require solitude and a more peaceful environment to be inspired?

I need to be solitary. I’m quite a deep thinker when I am alone and touring doesn't always allow me the space to have big, silly existential thoughts (which tends to be important for my songwriting). I also start to panic a bit when I haven't written a song for a while so that’s where I may run into problems with touring in the future … I’ll need to make sure I leave lots of gaps.

Your album Golden Eagle has succeeded in striking a chord with audiences and reviewers of all ages. Is that a surprise to you?

It’s not something I have thought about a lot … but I’m glad that it does seem to! My Grandma’s a big fan, that makes me happy.

Old time blues, country and jazz all sit comfortably together on the album. Were these musical influences that you were exposed to growing up?

Absolutely. My mum’s record collection consisted of all of these. lots of Big Bill Bronzy, Hank Williams and Billie Holiday. She has great taste and taught me a lot of what I know.

How would you personally describe your music?

I sort of hate answering that question because I think it varies a lot from song to song. Whenever I get asked I say Alternative Country/Folk. Something like that! Let me know if you have a more interesting way of describing it! I sometimes think my way sounds a bit boring.

The opening track on the album White Bridge features the lines "I looked at the world with different eyes," which in many ways speaks volumes and captures, for me, much of what the album is about. How aware were you when writing the songs that the material, vocal delivery and playing are in fact quite unique?

I wasn’t really aware at all. I’m still not! They’re just songs that came out of me at that particular time. I was going through quite a lot and had many dark/ sad thoughts going on in my head. Writing is a way for me to release that and turn it in to something positive that hopefully other people can relate to also.

Your vocal style and delivery is quite unique. Did you study voice and music formally?

I never had vocal lessons, it’s just what comes out really. My mums record collection that I mentioned earlier probably helped influence it too. I was obsessed with singing from a very young age though. Often I would find myself rewinding certain parts of songs when I liked the way it was sung and listen to it over and over again. That was some sort of studying I guess …!

Your live solo performances exude the confidence of an artist that has been performing on stage for decades with the ability to silence the room from your first note. Are you totally relaxed when performing live?

Ah, Thank you very much. Yeah - I’m getting there! It’s definitely something that grows with time and experience though I’m sure I have a lot to learn still.

Are you more at home performing solo and in complete control or with a band?

Last year I found an amazing group of musicians to work with and there’s certainly a lot more fun to be had playing/travelling with a band. I think initially I was a little worried and cautious of the idea of playing with a band as it wasn't something I had done a lot of but I was lucky and came across the right people so it worked out pretty good. I do still love doing little intimate gigs on my own too though.

I’m really interested to hear what music you are currently listening to?

There’s a guy called Will Stratton who supported me on my headline tour a few weeks back. I got to listen to him every night during that time which I enjoyed very much! He’s great, I recommend checking him out.

You know that when you are performing in the UK promoters will describe you as a young lady from Brighton whereas in Ireland you will be "Galway born Holly Macve"! Had you visited or spent any time in Ireland during your childhood?

Unfortunately, not. I moved away from Galway when I was just a baby and haven’t managed to go back there yet. I feel quite a strong connection to the country and also to traditional Irish folk music though. Whilst I was being born we had Martin Hayes playing on a tape in the background, his music still always makes me feel very calm and at home.

The Kilkenny Roots Festival over the years has made a habit of featuring acts before their major commercial breakthrough. Jason Isbell, Alabama Shakes and Angel Olson particularly come to mind. Will we be adding Holly Macve to that eminent list?

Who knows! I’m very much looking forward to it either way. 

Interview by Declan Culliton

Thursday
Apr132017

Peter Bruntnell Interview

It would be difficult to describe singer songwriter Peter Bruntnell’s music any more accurately  than NME did when they wrote "Peter Bruntnell’s music should be taught in schools." His albums and live shows have been highly regarded by Lonesome Highway for many years and he continues to be regarded in the music industry as one of the finest UK artists of his time. Son Volt, Richmond Fontaine and Kathleen Edwards all had him support them on tour, an indication of how he is also regarded by his musical peers. Unassuming and humble, he is more likely to highlight other artists and their work in conversation rather than dwell on his own considerable output. Peter is the type of guy that you’d love to sit down with, have a beer and talk music. Which is precisely what Lonesome Highway did recently when he made one of his regular trips to Ireland.

How many years into your career at this stage?

My daughters twenty two now, so twenty two years at it now.

Easier or more difficult nowadays?

Actually, it’s easier. I was just sitting at the bar here in Cleeres (Kilkenny) with a pint of Guinness (laughs)  and I thought to myself this being the first date of the tour, I’m so glad that I’m playing in Ireland regularly now, thanks to promoter Willie Meighan and Clive Barnes. I’m not just saying this but it’s probably my favourite place in the world to play, here and Northern Spain which I’ve just played and love.

Was an early career ambition of yours for your music be heard in America?

No, I didn’t think that far ahead. America is so vast, in order to do anything there you have to have a big marketing team and trying to make it there for me would be impossible.

Is that why so many American Americana acts target Europe?

Yes, much easier for them to be heard over here and get tours that can pay.

You were well ahead of the posse in your condemnation of Donald Trump with the opening track of your current album Mr. Sunshine!

I really don’t know, most people I know think he’s pretty despicable. When I wrote that song he wasn’t even running for President. I was just writing it from the perspective of the poor Scottish people that got displaced from their homes and next minutes he’s President of The United States! It’s not exactly great is it (laughs).

I was very impressed to read that the album Nos Da Comrades was recorded in your home studio. Tell me about the process?

Well, we created a studio in the local village hall in Devon which I hired for £120 for a week. We set up and did all the drums, bass and electric guitar there. I went in there with two players and we tracked all the songs and got all the drums, bass and my guitar down in a week. I then did all the over dubs in my studio in my own house. I got James Walbourne and Dave Little to come down and play some electric guitar and that was about it. The album took about three years to write from the first song.

Has the Americana UK umbrella been helpful career wise for you as an artist?

Well I’ve been doing what’s now called Americana for quite a while, back to when it was called alternative country in the early days of Uncle Tupelo and then Son Volt and Wilco. It’s not a bad thing to be part of because there are folk that are sympathetic to that genre in different towns and will book you so it’s been healthy for me and very good. There was a time that I got a bit fed up with that tag but I have to say now that it’s been beneficial really.  I got nominated as album of the year by the association so that can only be good for my career. Similarly, the Americana Music Association in Nashville has taken off in recent years, I played it a few years back and was supposed to play it again in 2016 but couldn’t afford it. There’s a funding programme in the UK from the PRS and when I played there a few years ago it was great. I had Mike Heidorn on drums, the original Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt drummer, and Dave Boquist the original Son Volt guitar player was on bass for me and it was tremendous but I had the funding from the BRS. I was invited in 2016 but the PRS won’t support the same act twice so I then tried to organise some gigs to cover the cost. I got a few but it wasn’t going to cover it. My wife wanted me to use some of our savings to go which was really sweet of her but I couldn’t justify it to go and do maybe only one gig.

The Son Volt connection goes back a while, you mentioned James Walbourne when we chatted earlier who has played in your band and Son Volt. How did the connection materialise?

It happened because in the 90’s I played a festival in Hamburg called The Hurricane Festival. Son Volt   were my favourite band at that time and for quite a while before that. It just so happened that they were on after me on the same stage so I got to meet them and more astonishingly their crew liked my set which was the biggest turning point in my career. Before that I was under pressure from my record company to be somebody or play a certain way as record companies do, putting pressure on young artists or artists young to the business. I wasn’t that young but pretty new to the industry, having released my second album. Son Volt liking my stuff and then meeting them gave me such a boost and when they played their UK tour their guitar tech got in touch I was asked to support them on their five dates. Once I did that tour I became friends with them.  I then did a deal with Rycodisc to make a record in Boston and I asked the record company guy if he could get pedal steel player Eric Heywood and Dave Boquist the guitar player to play on the album. They thought that was a really good idea but I was basically too shy to approach them personally so the record company made the approach and it all happened. James Walbourne is one of my best friends, he’s doing fantastic with The Rails and just back from America playing with The Pretenders opening for Stevie Nicks. 

I was interested to hear your influences as a young guy, prog music and rock music being very much your choice of listening in the mid to late 70’s

Yes, I loved Genesis, still do (laughs). Foxtrot is a favourite album for me. I was in 5th Form at the time and listening to Thin Lizzy and Van Halen and the rock thing. I didn’t actually get the new wave thing at the time, thought it was a bit raw for my musical taste at the time.

Comparisons are often made with your song writing and that of Elvis Costello. Was he an influence?

Not really, I only bought The Best of Elvis Costello last year after I’d written the new album! I think perhaps the music has all come from the same place hasn’t it, a bit of soul with some Kinks and Beatles so you could say his influences were similar to mine. Writing this new album my influences were actually mid 60’s Kinks and The Who.

The album Nos Da Comrades released last year received such positive reviews. How did that reflect in actual sales and getting more punters to your shows?

It’s done as well as well as any album I’ve put out and I suppose that’s good because I decided I was going to be the record label for the album which I thought might earn me some more money. So, I did a distribution deal with a company in the UK and looked after the rest myself, trying to get airplay and all that. Considering that I didn’t have any marketing budget at all I’m pleased at how it has done and that people seem to like it. 

How difficult is it to get Radio airplay in the UK?

Well it is for me. I can only speak from my experience. You know what it’s like, if you pay a plugger to try and get your record on the radio you can throw five to seven thousand pounds at it and still come up with nothing. I just can’t do that, don’t have that kind of money knocking around and I know the likes of Bob Harris well enough to e-mail him. I don’t do too badly but it’s so hard without a huge marketing budget to get anywhere.

You’ve worked with Clive Barnes both in Ireland and the UK. How did that relationship develop?

That came about because I played with Clive in Kilkenny at The Rollercoaster Record Store Day about three years ago. I was just about to play a UK tour with Jeff Finlan and was driving to Cork with Clive and we were playing some of Jeff’s music in the car and Clive suggested we do a trio tour and I was up for it. Jeff thought it was a great idea so it ended up with me and those two guys in a car, touring around, having a great time and basically just happy to be given a chance to play somewhere.

Was the tour a singer songwriters circle format?

No it’s wasn’t. I thought it was going to be that way but they didn’t want to do that for some reason (laughs). So the format was, one night play I’d first, Clive did a set in the middle and Jeff played last and the next night we’d reverse it. Clive played guitar with both of us of course. I liked to play first and when I’d finished go to the bar, have a pint and watch their sets! The problem being on last is that I had  to follow Jeff and he’s really good and when he’s rocking he has a bit of Lou Reed attitude about him which is so cool, he’s fantastic I really love and respect what he does.

You’ve relocated to quite a rural setting it the UK. Is that environment inspirational in terms of your song writing having moved from London?

I don’t really know, possibly not. It’s a different scene where I’m living now. When I lived in London I’d meet up with James ( Walbourne) and we’d head up to The Borderline and watch the American bands that were coming over all the time, The Bottle Rockets, Chuck Prophet and people like that. I can’t do that now, the best I might get is a dodgy pub band locally. The scene has changed in London now though with not as much on offer. We used get acts worth seeing every week at The Borderline and in a small acoustic club at the back Andy’s guitar shop, not like that so much anymore. You guys are so lucky over here in Dublin and Kilkenny, great pub music, great Guinness, friendly people who come out to gigs in the middle of the week. In the UK, outside London, you can forget about getting people out to gigs Monday to Thursday. That’s why I love playing over here so much.

Interview by Declan Culliton

Sunday
Mar192017

Jim Miller Interview

Jim Miller talks about Western Centuries

Western Centuries debut album The Weight of The World featured in Lonesome Highway’s review of their favourite albums of 2016. The band are essentially a collaboration of three singer songwriters and blue grassers, Cahalen Morrison, Jim Miller and Ethan Lawton. They hooked up with pedal steel player Rusty Blake and bassist Dan Lowinger to form the band and seemlessly recreate the classic country / roots crossover sound perfected by The Band and The Flying Burrito Brothers nearly five decades ago. Lonesome Highway spoke with Jim Miller (co-founder of Donna The Buffalo) to get the history behind the formation of this super group in advance of their first visit to Ireland.

Where did the motivation come from to form Western Centuries?

We’re all bluegrass and old time country players so we actually started jamming together informally you know, traditional bluegrass stuff because all of us have been playing that all out lives. At that time Cahalen and Ethan had some original songs so we decided to see what the songs sounded like with bass and drums. We evolved from there but we didn’t take it too seriously at first. It was great fun so last year we thought, why not go ahead and take it a bit further.

Tell me about the Country Hammer project which featured Cahalen, yourself and Ethan and how it evolved into Western Centuries?

I’ve always loved singing traditional country songs and Cahalen grew up in rural New Mexico and his parents are big time country music fans. He had written lots of country songs but hadn’t gotten around to recording them and asked me if I’d like to help him. I said sure, but it wasn’t as if we were going to be a touring band. So, he had about twelve songs to put down on that record and I was just a side kick, they were all his songs. That basically was Country Hammer, it was put out but we didn’t tour with it, was more like a fun thing but we got a really good response. Ethan had his songs too,  I had played all my life as a backup guy which I didn’t want to be anymore, I wanted to be part of the creative side of things though I’d never written a song before. So I started writing too and we decided collaborate for the Western Centuries record. It was actually my first attempt at song writing. 

With three songwriters contributing to the album were the songs previously written and in cold storage or did you all write specifically for the album?

For me I wrote them for the album. For Cahalen and Ethan a kind of a mix, they had some in cold storage that they hadn’t tried in a country format and other ones they just wrote for that record. The fun thing is that now as we are working on songs for our next record when someone comes up with a great song it inspires us all, you think oh my god, I have to come up with an equally good song, which is a challenge but it’s fun. I can’t imagine being faced with having to write thirteen songs myself to put out a solo record!

Does that suggest that having three songwriters in the band is more  of a motivator  than ego crippling?

Absolutely, all three of us are inspired by each other. Ethan listens to Caribbean music and Cahalen listens to straight country and I don’t listen to much country at all, more Wilco and r’n’b and that kind of stuff. That pushes us in different directions which is exciting.

Are all of the band based in Seattle?

No. Cahalen and Ethan are based in Seattle, I live about sixty miles north of New York City on the Hudson river, our bass player Dan Lowinger is from Ashville North Carolina and our pedal steel player Rusty Blake is from Nashville. Four different locations across the country. I actually met Cahalen in Seattle, my wife was working there in grad school and I was just tagging along. We met at this party called Fuck Winter. The winter’s in Seattle can be very similar to what I think you guys have, never ending drizzle, so they have this annual party in January, it’s a jamming bluegrass party. I heard about it and went along and right enough it was jamming and drizzle that never stopped (laughs)

The album manages to maintain a consistency throughout even with the shared responsibilities. Was that your agenda or did it occur due to the compatibility between you?

It was our agenda but we weren’t sure that it would work. We were nervous about it but it seems from the reviews that it did work, though I can’t exactly say why. We really enjoy working together and maybe that comes out and also the addition of the pedal steel and the fiddle adds another dimension to the songs. Because we are all blue grassers we are way big on the vocals and we wanted three part vocals for the big choruses which has something to do with it as well 

Your own compositions, I’m thinking in particular of Rock Salt and The Long Game, very much recall the sound of The Band. Were they an influence on you as a young musician?

They are my favourite band of all time though I wasn’t consciously writing songs that sounded like them but somehow I must have created that sound because people keep bringing that up. if I want to listen to music in my car it’s always the Band and Levon Helm, played until the cows come home (laughs). They appealed to me because of the stories they told with their music and the fact that they had different vocalists, the whole cooperative thing is inspiring to me. The rest of Western Centuries, because they are younger than me, don’t know their music as much as I do.

Another song that you wrote Knockin’ Em Down tells of the less glamourous side of touring however tongue in cheek the lyrics might be. Is touring really that rough?

(Laughs) That was actually written about a different band, I’ve been in a lot of bands let me tell you. Starting at the age of nine! That song was written about a band I was in that every tour seemed to involve driving in snowstorms, all we seemed to be doing was spinning our car  wheels night after night!

The album as a whole achieves a wonderful classic country feel right down to the artwork. You used Bill Reynolds from Band of Horses to produce the album and recorded it in Nashville. Tell me about those decisions?

I’ve known Bill for many years, we both originally played in the band Donna The Buffalo, a rootsy cosmic hippy type band at that time. We really enjoyed playing together and Bill has done really well at production, working on a whole bunch of records. I pushed that idea with the band and I also loved the idea of making a record in Nashville. I mean, Emmylou Harris recorded three albums in that studio so when I even sat in the toilet in the studio I thought, my God Emmylou was here! (laughs). The artwork on the album was deliberate, the photograph on the cover was taken by friend of Cahalen in a small town in New Mexico, probably as far as you can get from humanity. The photo  taken by her shows her dad actually herding goats in the winter on horseback. We wanted an image on the cover that would convey something a bit deeper than ‘here’s the happy band ‘image or a picture of us leaning against a barn!

Have you toured in your previous musical life in the UK?

I was just in the UK a couple of weeks ago with a different band I’m involved with called Red Dog Run, an acoustic banjo, guitar and fiddle group playing folk and roots. We had shows in England and Scotland, part of the Gainsborough Friends of American Music Festivals. It was very much a one off, I don’t know how they even found out about us! Cahalen has toured lots in the UK over the years often with Eli West, I keep hoping that I can tag on to him and follow his burning star (laughs).

I see you’re playing Music City Roots in Nashville on April 5th and receiving high praise from Jim Lauderdale who hosts the show.

I’ve known Jim Lauderdale for twenty-five years. When I was in the Donna The Buffalo we made a record with him where we were his backing band, the album is called Wait For Spring and it’s a crazy assed record. He’s a nut and a half (laughs), such an endearing guy and somehow he got the idea that he was going to have us be his band, he wrote all the songs for the album and we recorded it in Nashville in a studio where he did all his earlier records.  You should check it out, it’s one of the wackiest things. He actually got this weird psychedelic painting of all of our faces on the cover. I check in with him regularly because he goes so hard, never rests, never stops, I don’t know how he pulls it off but there he is. 

We get the opportunity to see Western Countries live in Ireland / UK next month?

Yes, and we’re really looking forward to it, particularly Ireland. I think we’re going to do well in Ireland, that’s a hunch that I have (laughs). When I played in Scotland a few weeks back some people there were excited for Western Centuries to be playing there also and I’m thinking how did they even hear of the band! Our first date in Ireland is in Kilkenny is in a pub called Billy Byrnes and I believe It’s sold out and our Saturday show is selling fast too.

Interview by Declan Culliton