Friday, August 26, 2011

Barrett Martin Talks About The Screaming Trees Last Words

Former Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin.

I recently had the privilege of talking with Barrett Martin, the former drummer for the Screaming Trees who has issued the Trees' Last Words: The Final Recordings on his own Sunyata label. In addition to being available for download at the usual places, Sunyata is currently taking pre-orders for the CD. If you pre-order from Sunyata, you'll get the CD in September, a month before the street date.

Barrett was driving into Sacramento while we chatted, and I was impressed by his ability to discourse intelligently about music while doing something else. Perhaps his multi-tasking skills should not surprise me considering that in addition to being a drummer, he is also an upright bassist, composer, visual artist, music Professor, and an an ordained Zen priest in the Soto tradition.

Barrett's drumming has been much in demand over the years, he did stints with both the Screaming Trees and Seattle grunge-rockers Skin Yard, and he has also drummed for R.E.M., Mad Season, Air, Luna, The Twilight Singers, Queens Of The Stone Age, Stone Temple Pilots, Victoria Williams, Greg Olson and others. Lately he's been known to play in his own, jazz-oriented project, The Barrett Martin Group, as well as the Seattle area bands Visqueen and CoBirds Unite (featuring Pure Joy/Flop frontman Rusty Willoughby).

Me: From what I understand the material on Last Words was recorded in 2000, is that right?

No. Let's see, we started in the winter of '98 and finished in the summer of '99.

Me: Okay, so it was recorded a little earlier than I thought.

Yeah, we did our last show in June of 2000, but the recordings were done well before that. They were kind of like demos for what would have ended up being another record. But we recorded it on 24 track machine onto two-inch analog tape. It was state-of-the-art recording at the time. So they're really just sophisticated demos.

Me: And what were things like inside the world of The Screaming Trees at that time?

Barrett: It was actually very good. Everybody was clean and sober. We kind of knew that it was the end of the line. But we had this last batch of--actually twelve songs--there are two outtakes that Van Connor is going to release on his new label next year. He's got a singles club, and he's going to release the two outtake songs through that. But we knew we had a good body of new work and we wanted to document it, but it was kind of for posterity's sake. There was a little bit of shopping the demos to try to find another deal, but that never materialized. So that's how it ended.

And when you went back and pulled those out again, was that this year?

Yeah, Jack Endino and I were working on my solo record, and I decided to pull the tapes out. We were in a studio with a two-inch tape machine--which is increasingly hard to find by the way--and I said "let's pull those tapes out and have a listen." That was January of this year. We had to bake the tapes in an oven to make the tape pliable again. There's a certain temperature and technique, and Jack knows how to do that. And when we put them on the tape machine the sound quality was actually quite high. So he cleaned the heads and we rolled it onto a hard drive right then and there. We put everything on the hard drive and then we worked from that.

And how did your impressions of the material, listening to it in the year 2011, how did they differ from, or meet, your expectations based on your memories of those recording sessions? 

Barrett: My personal opinion on rock and roll is that it has really degenerated over the last decade or so. People don't write good songs anymore, or they're just so eccentric and quirky and proprietary that they don't resonate with the general public  in the same way. And so--I'm a person who listens to a lot of music--I'm actually a music Professor now, and I listen to music from all over the world, and I still listen to modern rock and roll and punk and all that stuff. But when I listen to the music of the 90s, with the Screaming Trees just being one example, I like the way the Screaming Trees wrote songs. I like the classical approach to it, the good rhythmic and melodic ideas, the sophisticated lyrics, and approaching the song as the high art form, with the band as the interpreter of the medium. I think that it holds up exceptionally well, and actually in a weird way it's a little more appropriate now because that's really the best way to do it, and I don't hear a lot of bands doing that anymore.

Me: For me, I didn't realize how badly I needed to hear something like a new Screaming Trees album in the year 2011 until I actually heard it. And when I did, I heard a lot of those qualities that I think I had been missing, so I think your observations there are spot on.

Barrett: And I don't think the Screaming Trees were the greatest band of the 90s by any means. But I think what the Trees did was we wrote really good songs and put the priority on the song, and just recorded the song as a rock band. And that is a different approach than what people do now with electronics and [inaudible]. People don't really focus on writing great songs anymore, the approach seems to be more along the lines of "let's make a weird sounding record and claim to be inventing something new," but the classic forms are being forgotten.

One thing that I've noticed is that with the success of the Flaming Lips, who are a band that I actually used to really like quite a lot, and who came out of a similar milieu as the Screaming Trees, but at a certain point everything they did started to become heavily conceptual…


Me: …and the songs, to my ears, started to become secondary to these concepts that are kind of precious in my opinion.

After the Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots album, which was a concept album, and kind of odd, ironically after that they've become more popular. So [laughs] I don't know what the formula is.

I think you're seeing a lot of people following that model because it was successful. When something does become popular, people follow it. But I think part of the problem is, because of the success the Lips have had, that we've seen a lot more conceptual type projects, and solid songwriting has taken a back seat to that.

[At this point, Barrett wisely declines my invitation to blame the Flaming Lips for everything that is wrong with our current "post-rock" malaise.]

Last Words has gotten a lot of positive press, but even within the favorable reviews I've seen complaints about the sound quality. How do you feel about that?

I've seen a couple reviews that say that, but I don't really know what they're talking about, because this is analog tape recording, and that's kind of what it sounds like. I think it's actually a pretty "hi-fi" sounding record. And I don't particularly like records that sound shrill and brittle, as so many modern pop records do. I don't really know where that ethos came from. I think it has something to do with digital recording, but I'm quite happy with the sound of the album. Everybody in the band thought that this was a good, meaty sounding, analog record.

The whole thing with reviews too, to be honest with you, I don't take reviews very seriously, even the good ones. Because one of my mentors, Peter Buck from R.E.M., told me a long time ago, "don't even read the reviews because it's one guy, or girl, on a particular day, and it's their very particular opinion." So of course you want to get good reviews, but if there are a few bad ones…whatever. It's really never influenced me in the kind of records I want to make.

To my ears the album sounds fantastic. Maybe it doesn't meet some people's expectations of what a rock album should sound like in the year 2011, but most [new releases], in my opinion, sound pretty bad. As you say, they sound hard, they sound brittle, and they're often compressed to the point that there's no dynamics. Maybe that's the sound that people expect now, but I find the sound of Last Words to be phenomenal.

Barrett: Well it's also mixed by Jack Endino, and he's an incredibly good mixer. You know, he mixes as many records as he produces. And I think you're right, modern digital production has made records sound very shrill and brittle and high-end. I guess if people are listening on their little ear buds, they can't hear the full bass spectrum, or all those fat midranges anyway. And actually the best review I read was the guy who said "my definition of a good record is that you can turn it up louder and louder, and it will sound better and better. And bad records are the ones that the more you turn them up, the more shrill and painful they are." And he said the Trees record is one you can just crank louder and louder, and you hear more and more.

Me: Yeah, that was me.

Barrett: Oh, you wrote that. I didn't know that was your review.

Yeah, that's okay. Yeah, I think so many things today are recorded, mixed and mastered so that they can jump out at you at a low volume, but they become painful to listen to if you try to turn the volume up. And that's unfortunate, because I don't think you can get the full rock and roll experience at a low volume. Volume and dynamics are important elements in rock music.

Well, I'll tell you for this record, the albums we were listening to when we mixed it, for reference, we were listening to Physical Graffiti and Who's Next. Jack has a stack of CDs that he puts on as sonic reference points. That was the kind of sound we were going for and those were all analog, two-inch tape recordings.

Yeah and those are the kind of records that came with a note that said "This record is meant to be played LOUD."

Right, right, exactly. And there's a whole ethos to that approach, and it's a classic ethos. And that's what I'm talking about, people are forgetting the classic foundations of how to make great rock records. And what they're making are these shrill sounding, disco, rock, pop conundrums [laughs].

Me: One thing I've always wondered about is how hard was it for you to come in and replace Mark Pickerel, who was someone who had his own very unique style of drumming, and who had been with the band since the beginning. How was it for you to step into that seat, and how do you think you changed the band's sound?
Set the wayback machine to 1988. The Screaming Trees before Barrett Martin:
(L-R) Mark Pickerel, Van Connor, Gary Lee Connor, Mark Lanegan.
Barrett: Well, first of all, Mark Pickerel has been a friend of mine since the mid 1980s, so actually it was a pretty easy hand off. And actually Dan Peters from Mudhoney had been playing drums in the interim between when Mark Pickerel quit and when I joined the band. But I didn't try to sound like Mark. I just played the way I play, I never tried to alter the way I play to try to fit the Screaming Tress' sound. I think what happened is the Trees were at a point where they were ready to evolve to a new sound. They had all these new songs that were in a very early development stage, so when I stepped in, I just kind of naturally blended with them. And those were the songs that became the Sweet Oblivion album, which was the big breakthrough album. I think it was a combination of the fact that I'm stylistically different than Mark Pickerel, and the way that I interpreted their songs, it was just a really natural occurrence from both sides of it. So there was no problem in the hand off at all.
Me: Another thing I've wondered about is the fact that there was quite a time-lag between Sweet Oblivion and Dust, what happened during that period?
Barrett: The main thing that happened was that we spent a solid two years on the road promoting Sweet Oblivion. And then we came back to Seattle, and the label was pressuring us to make another record. They wanted us to capitalize on our current success and parlay that into the future. So we had been working on songs on the road, but contrary to what people think,  the road is not so romantic. It's actually kind of hard to write songs on the road because you're dealing with surviving on the road, and playing a show every night. And you're usually exhausted and there isn't a huge amount of time to dedicate to writing songs.
So we started to record what we now call "the aborted album" in the early winter of '94. We were working with Don Fleming producing and John Agnello engineering. And they were great guys, they were the same people who did Sweet Oblivion, and it worked for that record. But these sessions just didn't have the same spark. So we scrapped everything, and then it took a while to get George Drakoulias because of his schedule, so we weren't able to start making Dust until '95. So we had two years of touring, a year of trying to record, and then finally getting George onboard, and it took three and half years before the record was done, and by the time it came out it had been almost exactly four years to the date since Sweet Oblivion was released.
Me: And in that time in between a lot of younger bands managed to kind of cash in on the grunge craze. And unfortunately, not a lot of the bands who had been around and were either contemporaries of Nirvana, or even--like the Trees--predated them, not a lot of those bands managed to walk through the door that was opened up. How frustrating was that?
Barrett: You know, it isn't really so much frustrating as it is the way the major labels work. There are always a handful of bands that break through with a new sound. It usually happens about every five years. And you have these larger twenty-year cycles where you have major musical movements. And the major labels just figured out how to capitalize on what the Seattle indie/alternative bands--and not just Seattle, there were bands from New York and Chicago who were doing the same thing--but the major label thing is to take a cool new sound and just water it down and make it commercial drivel, and then surprisingly more people buy that. The more mediocre and watered down a product becomes, the more people buy it. And it's not just in music, it's in literature, it's in film. The dumbest, most poorly-written scripts end up being the biggest movies.
Me: Yeah, there's certainly exceptions to that, but as a rule you're probably right.
Barrett: Yeah, the exceptions are the outliers that are anomalous success stories, and you can't really explain why. Like Nirvana's Nevermind, which now has its big 20th Anniversary, that's a perfect example because that just came out of nowhere.
Me: Well, but it didn't exactly come out of nowhere. There had been a lot of bands building that scene up over the previous years, and the Trees were one of the bands who contributed to that. And it wasn't just them, there were a tremendous amount of bands building up underground recognition for that kind of music, to the point were a David Geffen would even be interested in it. Nirvana was the band that kind of blew things open, but there were a lot of bands that built the foundation for what they did.
Barrett: It came out of a garden of creativity, but what I mean is that that record sounds radically different from any Seattle record prior to it. It's this huge sonic and songwriting leap.
Me: Yeah, it was interesting to me because this all happened just after I graduated from college. I had actually booked [Barrett's previous band] Skin Yard when I was in college.
Barrett: Where did we play?
Me: This was at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.
Barrett: Yeah, we did a lot of college gigs.
Me: You may not remember this one specifically. But I didn't get the kind of turnout I was hoping for at the gig, and it was a little discouraging. And frankly we met with a bit of hostility from certain corners of the college, in particular the frat boy crowd didn't seem to approve of the kind of music we were trying to bring to campus. And then I remember the next year--I went back to visit the school after I had graduated--and Nevermind was blasting out of every frat house on campus.
Barrett: Right, well frat boys are not known for their progressive thinking, but they'll certainly jump on the coattails of something that's already in motion. What I remember from those Skin Yard tours, and we more of a weird, arty kind of band, and we never had any of that commercial crossover. But that's a good example of a sound that precedes what will later come. I did two years of touring with Skin Yard, and we just lived on the road in our little van, playing college gigs and staying at Motel 6's all over the U.S. and Canada.

Me: Yeah, you guys crashed on my floor, but one of you had to go sleep in the van to make sure your gear didn't get stolen.

Barrett: Yeah, one guy always had to stay in the van because of the equipment. But when we went to Europe in Winter of '91, we did tours with Nirvana right after Nevermind came out, and that was the last tour we did, and then we broke up. But when we played in Europe, we would play to a thousand people a night at our own shows. Nirvana was even bigger, but Europe was always more embracing of the new sound. Americans always seem to be a few years behind.

I remember talking to you guys at the time, and you were ecstatic because your latest album, Fist Sized Chunks, had sold 9,000 units. And I was pretty dumb about these things at the time, and I though "Wow, really? 9,000? Is that all?" [laughs]

Barrett: And what's ironic--actually I didn't play on that record, my first was 1,000 Smiling Knuckles, but I toured behind Fist Sized Chunks--but what's ironic is that selling 9 or 10,000 records now is a lot for an indie label.

Me: Yeah, it was a lot for an indie label back then too, and there was probably only a brief period of time where those wouldn't have been considered really good numbers. But you were definitely the drummer on that tour. I remember it well because the auditorium you played in had really high ceilings, and you seemed to be delighted to be able to take the drum sticks and toss them in the air as high as you could and catch them.

[Laughs]  Yeah, that was my "trick," to see how high I could toss the sticks. When the Trees were finally doing the big stadiums in the mid-to-late 1990s--Lollapalooza, stuff like that--we would have lighting rigs that were 30, 40 feet high, and I would try to get the stick up into the lighting rig. I'd say I caught it 75% of the time, and 25% of the time I missed.

You didn't miss at this show, and you didn't miss a beat either, which was what really impressed me.

Really? The great thing is, people love it when you catch the stick, but if you drop it, they kind of love that too.

I thought that was a lot of fun... I should probably let you run, but I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me, so thanks a lot.

Barrett: Thank you so much, and thanks for booking those shows way back in the day.

Well it was my pleasure, I always had a lot of fun doing that.

You're a true believer in the movement, even twenty years later.

Me: Absolutely!
The back cover of my Skin Yard "Start At The Top" 7" signed by Barrett,
Jack Endino, Daniel House and the late Ben McMillan way back in the day.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Barrett Martin

I just had a great chat with former Screaming Trees drummer man Barrett Martin about the Trees new release, Last Words: The Final Recordings and other topics. I'll post the interview here soon. In the meantime, I wanted to pass along word that the CD is now available for pre-order from Barrett's label, Sunyata Records. If you pre-order from Sunyata you'll get the shiny silver disc in your hands a month before street date and be the coolest kid on your block.

R.I.P. - Mike Flanagan

Mike Flanagan and Earl Weaver after game one of the 1979 World Series.
Orioles great Mike Flanagan was found dead near his home this past Wednesday. The Orioles pitcher, executive and broadcaster was only 59 years old. My heart goes out to his wife and three daughters, and all those who loved him.

I'll refrain from further commentary until more of the facts surrounding his death are known, but this is very sad news for all Orioles fans. Really it's shocking news that I'm still working hard to process.

In the meantime, read this 1991 Baltimore Sun column by Ken Rosenthal begging Orioles management not to deal Flanagan to the Mets at the trade deadline. It gives you a good idea of what Flanagan meant to the franchise and its fans. Later that year Flanagan pitched the final outs at Memorial Stadium.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Screaming Trees - Last Words: The Final Recordings

The Screaming Trees have a "new" album out. Last Words: The Final Recordings documents some recently mixed demos that the band recorded in 2000 while looking for a new record deal. That new deal never materialized, the band broke up, and the recordings sat on the shelf for eleven years until former Trees drummer Barrett Martin and producer Jack Endino mixed the songs this year. Martin has released the album through his own Sunyata Records label. At the moment the album is only available as a digital download, but CD and LP releases are reportedly in the works. It's currently available for the low, low price of $4.99 at Amazon, and if you don't buy it I'll never forgive you.

I first became aware of this release because my buddy Adam forwarded me a middling review of the album from Pitchfork. Typically, if the dudes at Pitchfork are lukewarm on something it turns out I love it, and this album is no exception. I suspect that if the Trees had been a big influence on The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, Animal Collective, or best of all, Kanye West, their music might sound more relevant to Pitchfork tuned ears. But the Trees did something that is absolutely unforgivable from the perspective of your typical Pitchfork reviewer; they rocked. Righteously. And for some people that is just an inherently uncool thing to do.

The Screaming Trees did not create clever deconstructions of popular song forms, instead they embraced heavy, psychedelic rock, and pushed their music to its absolute limits while working squarely within the rock aesthetic. If that does not sound intellectual enough for you, maybe the Screaming Trees are not your kind of band. Personally, I love them, and I think this new album can stand proudly alongside Buzz Factory and Sweet Oblivion as one of the finest of their career.

You'll have to forgive my enthusiasm. I may be a little biased. I watched the Screaming Trees play to an audience of 12 people at a crummy club in Harrisburg, PA back in 1991. (At least four of the people in attendance that night arrived in my car.) If the Trees were disappointed with the turnout, you would never have known it from their performance. It sounded like they made up their minds that even if there were only 12 people in the audience, those 12 paying fans deserved to have their worlds' rocked just as surely as if there were thousands in the club. A few nights later I saw them perform a sold-out show at the old 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., and while they were again fantastic, I think they might have actually rocked harder that night in Harrisburg.

What does that mean? Maybe nothing, but I just like to tell the story because it gives you an idea of what a great, totally committed band the Screaming Trees were.

Most of the other reviews I've read of Last Words have been positive, although they invariably criticize the "warts and all" sound quality. Personally, I think this album sounds great. Yes, it's a touch murkier sounding than their Epic recordings, but it sounds cleaner than anything they released for SST or Sub-Pop. That's more than good enough for me. The album lacks the distracting little production flourishes that producer George Drakoulias brought to their final Epic album, Dust, but to my ears that is a good thing. It's long been my opinion that bands are far more likely to ruin an album through over-production than by leaving things a little on the raw side.

I have a simple criteria for whether an album sounds good or bad. If you constantly find yourself wanting to turn the volume down, you have a bad sounding album. I don't care about clarity, or subtle layering of textures, if my impulse is to turn the volume down, there is something wrong. By contrast, if you constantly find yourself adjusting the volume upwards, you have a good sounding album. By that standard, Last Words is a great sounding album. Every time I play it, I keep cranking the volume.

Nearly as important as the crankability factor, Last Words does not sound like a collection of random demos and left-overs, but plays start-to-finish like an honest-to-goodness album, with subtle shifts in tempo and mood. The songs are uniformly excellent, and Mark Lanegan's singing never sounded better. He had four solo albums under his belt at the time of these recordings, and the added depth of feeling he brings to the material is evident on such songs as "Ash Grey Sunday," "Revelator," and "Black Rose Way." Likewise, Van Connor's guitar playing sounds much less restrained and mannered than it had on 1996's Dust. Barrett Martin's drumming is well-served by the mix, and (as always) is incredibly engaging and propulsive. Meanwhile bassist Gary Lee Connor gets in some catchy bass patterns as well as helping keep things grounded. In addition, there are guest spots from Peter Buck and Josh Homme that thankfully never get in the way of the group dynamic. The Screaming Trees may have been nearing the end of their storied career, but Last Words does not sound like a dying gasp from an artistically spent force. If anything it sounds more vital in 2011 than it might have had it been released in 2000.

I really cannot recommend this album highly enough. I know this "review" is little more than fanboy drivel, but I am a big believer in not pretending to be "objective" about subjects that one's life experience makes it impossible to be objective about.

**UPDATE: For those who still love shiny silver discs, the CD now is available for pre-order from Sunyata Records.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

R.I.P. - Bubba Smith

I can't say I remember him playing for the Baltimore Colts, but I do remember his Miller Light commercials, and my Dad talking about what a great defensive lineman he was.

"I sure hope those horses can swim." That was pure comedy gold.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

"Ain't nobody coming that ain't already here" The Blackfire Revelation Story


I was mightily impressed by the super-heavy, sludgy sound of New Orleans' Blackfire Revelation, who have recently issued their self-titled album digitally. Formed in New Orleans in 2003 by singer/guitarist J.R. Fields and drummer Hank Haney, the group released an EP, Gold and Guns On 51, in 2004 on their own Southern Reconstruction label, and the EP was later re-released by Fat Possum Records. In 2005 the band undertook a long international tour with New York noise rockers Unsane, then not much was heard from them until this year, when their self-titled full-length album appeared as a digital release. The album was actually completed back in 2005, but Fields decided to shelve the project. The reason for the delayed release is a fascinating story in itself, one I had the chance to discuss with Fields recently.

J.R. Fields onstage in France with Blackfire Revelation.

Blackfire Revelation has gotten some rave notices in the underground metal press, and rightfully so. But I think their music has the potential to appeal to those outside the metal audience as well. Fans of Blue Cheer, the MC5, the Stooges, Soundgarden and Green River will find plenty to appreciate in Blackfire Revelations' heavy, sludgy, Southern gumbo.

I had a blast talking with J.R. Fields about Blackfire Revelation, the city of New Orleans, life on the road, as well as Hurricane Katrina and its impact on his life and his band. Blackfire Revelation may be on hiatus now, but the music they made shouldn't be forgotten, nor should what the band went through to create it.

Me: I like both your releases, Gold and Guns On 51 and the new one Blackfire Revelation, but it's not the first music that comes to mind when I think of New Orleans. It sounds a bit more like Detroit 1969 to me.

J.R.: Well, the reason I live in New Orleans is because New Orleans is the freest city in North America. You can pretty much do whatever you want down here, whenever you want to. And I think that comes through in the music. Aside from it being kinda bluesy and kinda Southern, New Orleans has a big influence on what I do. It's raw down here. It's gritty. It could fall to pieces at any time. I feel like a lot of that comes out in our music.

Me: I've never visited New Orleans myself, but I've heard the same thing from many people, that it's the freest city in America.

J.R.: People here have a lot of freedom. You go other places and it seems the farther North you go the more rules there are. You can't drink in the street. Bars close. Down here you're left to self-control, and that can either make you or break you.

Me: It doesn't sound like the kind of place where you have to work hard to fit in.

J.R.: Yeah. I feel like a lot of people down here really aren't concerned with fitting in. We're kinda just lost down here in the swamp. It's really disconnected from the rest of the states. I can tell you from being in a band, versus maybe bands from L.A. or San Francisco, or New York or Boston. We have to drive a full day to pretty much get to any other major market, which would be Austin or Atlanta, which depending on traffic can take up to ten hours to get to either of those cities.

Me: I think, as someone who lives in the Northeast, that's hard for me to relate to. I live in Rhode Island now, and I'm just a few minutes from Providence, and that's just 45 minutes to Boston, and just a few hours to New York. Everything here is very compact, so we have different conception of space here.

J.R.: Right, and if you're a band from up there, you can kinda be a part of the scene in all those towns around you. You're just a few hours from a number of major cities there. Whereas down here, we're a little more isolated. And I think that lends itself to making the bands down here just kinda do our own thing.

Me: Before you formed Blackfire Revelation, I understand that you were in film school at University of New Orleans. What led to you decision to leave school and start a band?

J.R.: I was just sick of college and all the other bullshit. Up until a certain point, I always did what I was "supposed" to be doing. But I worked on a few films, commercials, stuff like that, and I realized I didn't want to be in college, and I didn't want to be in the film industry. What I wanted to do was play in a rock band and travel the world doing crazy shit.

Me: Is that where the "Revelation" in Blackfire Revelation comes from?

J.R.: Actually, Blackfire Revelation, the name, it actually came from a dream that I had right around that time. I had this dream, and there was this fire that was burning black, and the sound that it was making was the sound of tape hiss. And the fire didn't necessarily "speak" to me, but I guess it did, and it told me "Put your faith in music, and follow that, and everything else will fall into place." So, I had a "blackfire revelation," so the next day I thought it would make sense to call the band that.

Me: So you guys put out the Gold And Guns On 51 EP on your own and then on Fat Possum, and then you went on tour with Unsane in 2005, right?

J.R.: Yeah, we did a lot of shows. Over the course of a year-and-a-half we did probably 70 to 80 shows with Unsane in the U.S. and Europe.

Me: And that tour coincided with Katrina hitting. What was that like?

J.R.: Aw, that was crazy, man. You know, my birthday is August 27th, which was two days before Katrina hit. And we were actually playing a show that night in Hickory, North Carolina. We had seen in the news that a hurricane was coming, and we were kinda worried about it, but there had been hurricanes before, and usually they blow a few people's roofs off, and knock a few trees down, and some people stay and some people go, but a few days later everything is business as usual. So we didn't think that much of it. 
J.R. Fields of Blackfire Revelation
But we played the show that night, and we then we went back to our hotel afterwards. We checked in around two or three in the morning and we flicked on the T.V. and just saw this behemoth monster that was Katrina just looking like it was about to swallow up the city. And right then we literally just took a shower and went to the front desk to check out and go home. So we left right then and made a beeline for the city. But when we got to Meridian, Mississippi the roads had been converted and all lanes were headed out. They weren't letting anybody into New Orleans. So that kinda started several months of us moving around. We lived in Atlanta for a while, we were in Jackson, Mississippi for a while, we were in Memphis for a while, and we were in Oxford. We could only sit back and watch it play out on T.V.

Me: It sounds like it must have been a surreal experience. It's hard for me to imagine. You must have felt at times like you didn't know if you'd ever be able to go back.

J.R.: Yeah, we didn't. What a lot of people forget is that during the first days, after the city started filling up with water, they were saying on the news that it could take a year for the water to drain out of the city. So everything was really up in the air as to when we would get to go back and if we would ever get to go back. Which is a weird spot to be in. That's a situation that [laughs] you never expect to find yourself in. It's strange when they tell you your city is "closed until further notice." And especially for me, my dog was still in the city, and of course I had friends that were still here, let alone the few worldly possessions that I may prize were still in New Orleans. It was definitely a really strange time.

Me: Did you feel like you had become Wandering Minstrels from the Middle Ages or something?

J.R.: Well, I think maybe we felt like that already being on tour for so long. We were already wandering minstrels if there ever were any. But it's definitely weird just being vagabonds. For a while there we'd just play a show to make a few bucks. Luckily for us the guys from Fat Possum kinda took us in. We went to Oxford where they have a studio with a trailer out back. So we'd just hang out and watch the news and wait to hear something about when we could go home. It was crazy.

Me: I have to ask, was your dog okay?

J.R.: Yeah, he was. It's actually a funny story. He was at my wife's apartment (or my now wife's apartment, she was my girlfriend at the time). She lives above her shop (she has a retail shop here in New Orleans). When they looted Wal-Mart, she went over and grabbed one of those forty-pound bags of dog food. And she took two bins and dumped the food in there, then filled up another bin with five or six gallons of water for him. So she locked him in the store with the food and the water, and he actually saved her store from being looted, because he'd be in there barking through the window. Then after four or five days one of our neighbors was able to get in through a back window and he took the dog. And then he would patrol the block with the dog and a shovel and run off looters.

Me: Wow. [pause] How are things in New Orleans today?

J.R.: They're good…for some people. If you drive around New Orleans, uptown and in the French Quarter, and the older parts of the city, it looks like nothing ever happened. But if you venture into the Ninth Ward up into Lakeview, you'll see buildings that look like the storm just hit them yesterday, and it's been five years…There are still people moving back every day. Maybe they moved away, and now finally have the money to come back, or are just now getting their insurance money. I tell people all the time my son, who was born after Katrina, someday when he drives around New Orleans in fifteen years, he'll still be driving by bombed-out houses from Katrina.

Me: I think that's likely. I grew up outside Washington D.C., and when I was a teenager driving around the city, I'd see sections of the city that were still damaged from the riots that took place after MLK was assassinated a year before I was born. Parts of the city still looked like a war zone all those years later. So those kinds of scars can take a long time to heal.

J.R.: It's going to take a long time. And that's assuming that it doesn't happen again. I ask people all the time as a trick question, "Did you see the press conference where the Mayor and the Governor declared the levees are fixed and it's safe to return now?" But the truth is, that press conference never happened. People were allowed back, and we're still here now, but the levees could break again. There are still major infrastructure problems in this city. We're pretty much just riding this out on luck and the hope that we don't get hit by a storm of that magnitude again.

Me: Do you feel like New Orleans has been forgotten?

J.R.: No, I don't. New Orleans isn't the only place that has this type of shit. If nothing else, I think people should realize that the earth is a dangerous place to live. Look at what just happened in Japan, look at the floods in the Midwest, look at the fires in Arizona. Pretty much anywhere you live there's shit that Mother Nature is going to throw at you, and at the end of the day you really can't depend on the government or anybody else to come fix your problems. The best you can do is to deal with whatever blows Mother Nature deals you the best you can.

Me: I want to talk a little bit about your new release. The album was completed five years ago. Why was there such a delay in releasing it?

J.R.: I basically just shut down the operation. I came back after Katrina, and I wrote that record between October of 2005 and January 2006. Then we recorded the material and did a few tours, but then I just shelved the material to focus on some other things that I wanted to do. I just kinda rediscovered it a few months back, and I feel like it's something that deserves to be out there.

Me: I agree. How did that post-Katrina environment effect your songwriting and the sound of the record?

J.R.: Well, listening back now…I didn't listen to the record at all for three or four years, so listening to it now, I almost feel like I'm a third party. Which is an interesting thing to be able to hear your own music like that. Listening to the lyrics, I feel like every song, either directly or indirectly, states my anger or frustration at what was going on at that time. In the song "Diamond In The Rough" there's this one lyric that says, "Ain't nobody coming that ain't already here." I feel like that was how we felt at the time…here we are buried in bullshit, and the only people who were going to dig us out was ourselves.

There are a number of other lyrics that I feel like touch on the shit that was going on then. And listening to it now, I get comparisons all the time where people say "Oh, this album is so much heavier and angrier than Gold And Guns On 51." But it was a heavier and angrier time.

Me: Absolutely. And I think for me, as a listener, and maybe this goes straight to what the role of art should do, but it really hits you on a visceral level. It makes you feel that in a way that is hard to experience, or at least is a different experience from watching images on T.V., as horrible as those were to watch. I feel like the music on this hits you on a gut level and gives you a different way of processing those events and that environment.

J.R.: Yeah, and you know at the time I didn't say, "I want to make an angry rock record about all this frustrating bullshit." But listening back to it now as a third party, it kinda sounds like that. There are a lot of references on the record to Heaven and Hell. And that really doesn't have as much to do with religion as it does with the fact that anyone's environment at any given time can be Heaven or Hell. And at that time it was a toss-up as to which New Orleans would become, or if it would even survive or not.

Me: Absolutely. And I think it's a better album for not being an intentional, literal statement about post-Katrina New Orleans. I feel like a lot of times when people try to do that kind of thing, it doesn't really work.

J.R.: Yeah. The only song on there that's literally about Katrina is the opening track "Flood." That's the one song on the record that is really directly about the bullshit that was going down. So yeah, like you're saying it's not entirely literal, but it did help me process what was going on at the time.

Me: Do you think that you maybe needed a little bit of distance from it before you were able to put it out there for other people?

J.R.: I think I did, and I think I needed distance from music as a whole at the time. Which is why I've been on break for five years. For a two or three year stretch there we were either on the road or in the studio, or at home busting ass so we could either be on the road or the in the studio. So toward the end of that run there was some other shit I wanted to do in my life, so I had to lay it down to do that.

Me: What are your future plans for Blackfire Revelations, if any?

J.R.: Well, Blackfire Revelation, I'm not gonna say it's over. But Blackfire Revelation, to me, is what I do with Hank. I have a new band that I'm working on now called The Snake and Pony Show. And chances are that any future recordings or live shows I do will be with that band. I'll still play Blackfire Revelation songs, but as far as moving forward it'll be with The Snake And Pony Show.

Me: I'll keep an ear open for that. In the meantime, how can folks get the Blackfire Revelation material? I know it's on iTunes, where else is it?

J.R.: It's available at all major digital music retailers; iTunes, Amazon, Napster, Zune, eMusic. I'm pretty much just doing a full on digital release.

Me: Any plans for a physical release, or will this album only exist online?

J.R.: Just online. It'll probably just stay online. At some point in the future I might like to do a vinyl release if that makes sense financially. But for right now it's just digital.

Me: Well, I hope people get a chance to hear it, because I think it's music that shouldn't be overlooked, and it shouldn't be forgotten, so I'm glad you decided to go ahead and make it available.

J.R.: Well thanks! Like I said, I may not perform as Blackfire Revelation anymore, but if anybody wants to hear those songs, they can come see me live… And I'm hoping to have a Snake And Pony Show record out by the middle of next year.

Me: Well I'm looking forward to hearing more from you, and thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to me today.

J.R.: Well thanks for calling and take care.
J.R. Fields.