Thursday, November 3, 2011

John Wesley Harding interview

Sacks & Co.
John Wesley Harding & The King Charles Trio with Thee Minus Five starts its tour this weekend. The lineup is: Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Scott McCaughey (Minus Five, R.E.M.), Jenny Conlee-Drizos, Chris Funk, John Moen and Nate Query (all of The Decemberists). See concert dates below.

British alt-folk troubadour John Wesley Harding (real name: Wes Stace) came to prominence in the early ‘90s with acclaimed albums Here Comes the Groom and The Name Above the Title, college/modern rock radio hits (“The Devil in Me,” “The Person You Are,” “The People’s Drug”) and music videos on MTV’s “120 Minutes.”

Subsequent studio releases helped maintain a cult following here, thanks to frequent doses of keen humor, sharp wordplay and astute life observances. The singer/guitarist currently serves as artist-in-residence at New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University.

His latest stellar effort is called The Sound of His Own Voice. The textured tunes range from a grand, Pogues-styled sea shanty (“The Colloquy of Mole & Mr. Eye”) and English music hall (“Sing Your Own Song”) to swinging ‘60s pop (“Gentleman Caller”), sleek rock absurdity (“I Might Be Dead”) and Kinksian whimsy (“Uncle Dad”). Roseanne Cash, Laura Viers, members of the Decemberists, R.E.M., Los Lobos, Long Winters and Minus Five all make guest appearances.

I caught up with Wes last month by phone, from his home in Philadelphia.

Q: You frequently do the Cabinet of Wonders variety shows with special guests in New York City, but this month's tour will be different, right?
A: Yeah, I’m taking the exact same band on the road that made the record, which is really rare. I’d say it’s the first time in 23 years of making music that’s ever happened…Over the years, I’ve been a serial hijacker of other bands that I like. This time around, I had two albums I wanted to make: one with the musician members of the Decemberists, not counting Colin [Meloy], and the other was with Los Lobos. The one that came around first was this Decemberists one. We had an amazingly good time making the album, which I think you can hear on the grooves.

Q: The album has prominent harmonies and a more expansive sound than before. Was that a primary goal?
A: Not necessarily. With ProTools, you can make a whole album yourself, but sometimes it misses the gestalt of a band, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We were able to do things quickly because the songs were well arranged and properly rehearsed…I just love the way [Decemberists drummer] John Moen sings harmonies. His and Scott McCaughey’s voices sound fantastic together, so I pretty much left that to them. It definitely sounds full because it’s a whole band playing together without a click track. It’s the sound of humans.

Q: Referring to the album title, how do you think your singing has progressed over the years?
A: I really dislike the sound of my voice on the first acoustic album and probably the first two on Sire Records.

Q: When everyone seemed to compare you to Elvis Costello and the Attractions...
A: If I sound like Elvis, so be it. That’s fine. I think there are mannerisms that I hadn’t worked out how to do for myself. Which is completely normal. You don’t come into the world a fully formed artist…I think my voice started to settle down on [1992’s] Why We Fight and [1996’s] New Deal. When I hear those albums, it sounds like the beginning to me. The rest – even though I’m very happy with some songs and still sing them – I sound dwarfed by everything that’s going on

Q: One of the album highlights is “The Examiners,” based on a poem by John Whitworth. 
A: That is the only time ever in my career that I have set a poem by somebody else to music…Here’s why I did it: I’ve always had a little fantasy of being able to intone great lyrics like Leonard Cohen. To be able to speak fantastic poetry. I think I simply don’t see any of my own lyrics that I would have the confidence to declaim in that way. That’s why it’s important they’re somebody else’s words. They were so great; I could really let the music do what it wanted behind it.

Q: The song could fall into the category of what you used to call ‘folk noir’ and has a haunting quality which reminded me of Wall of Voodoo’s Stan Ridgway.
A: Totally. There’s a bit of Ridgway in there. I wanted it to sound like something off The Future by Leonard Cohen.

Q: Where did the idea for the acoustic based folk tune “There’s a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be)” come from?
A: People can think what they like, but it’s not a negative song about Starbucks. It’s about gentrification and the sameness of mall culture. I could’ve said a million things except Starbucks in there. Starbucks possibly wasn’t a wise thing to pick because so many people have made fun of it. I always think of a headline in The Onion [parody newspaper that read]: ‘Starbucks Opens in Starbucks Toilet For Customers Who Can’t Wait.’ Starbucks perhaps is an obvious target, but I just thought of it when we were driving down the road. Somebody said, ‘There’s a Starbucks where the K-Mart used to be.’

Q: Then there’s a Phil Spector Wall of Sound vibe to the final album track, “The World in Song.”
A: The moment we rehearsed it for the first time with this kind of particular arrangement that I had in mind and that big key change halfway through, it suddenly invited sleigh bells, 16 acoustic guitars, cowbell, timpani, etc. There was no way it could be anything but an album closer. Nothing could follow it.

Q: How did you get Roseanne Cash to add backing vocals on the intricate “Good News and Bad News?”
A: Roseanne is a recent friend. We met by chance at lunch in New York [a few years ago]. I asked her to do something for the university I teach at. She did and we had a wonderful day. Then I asked her to be on the Cabinet of Wonders. Now we just tweet at each other and go out for meals.

Q: In the literary world, your third novel “Charles Jessold, Considered as Murderer” – a 20th Century intellectual thriller – was published (under your given name) earlier this year. Are you pleased with the trajectory that path in your career has taken so far?
A: I’ve been absolutely thrilled.

Q: Releasing it as Wesley Stace meant you avoided the automatic stigma of musicians branching out into other areas.
A: You can put those words into my mouth. I don’t like to put too fine a point on that because I think it’s a little ungracious. When I see Josh Ritter put out such a wonderful novel [Bright’s Passage] this year, I think perhaps these works don’t get the attention they deserve. The world is often very happy to pat a musician who’s written a novel on the back condescendingly. In my situation, I was rather lucky. I wrote a novel and people got to discover for themselves that I was a musician. I wasn’t waving that around in their faces. I’m also no idiot. I realize I’m not as successful as Steve Earle, Josh Ritter or others in the world of music. I’m rather more avoidable than they are. But it’s been wonderful. I’m 45 years old, married with two children and writing is a great thing to be at home and do.

Tour Dates
11/5 San Francisco, CA…Red Devil Lounge
11/6 Santa Monica, CA…McCabe’s
11/11 Portland, OR…Aladdin Theater
11/12 Seattle, WA…Sunset Tavern
11/15 Philadelphia, PA…World CafĂ© Live
11/16 Vienna, VA…Jammin’ Java
**11/18 New York, NY…City Winery
11/19 Brooklyn, NY…The Bell House
11/20 Hoboken, NJ…Maxwell’s
+12/6 New York, NY...New York Public Library

**Cabinet of Wonders; guests TBA
+book reading, discussion, music w/JWH, Josh Ritter & others

More info:

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