Martin Sexton Sidles Up To The Wonder Bar
Unlike other artists justifiably complaining about the rigors of kissing the ass of radio personnel and lacking supporters at their own record label, Martin Sexton remains content to simply be plying his artistic trade.
He envisions the music that he creates as a songwriter, and reinvents on a concert stage, like that of a channeler who acts as a mechanism for communication that originates from out of his being. He just happens to be in the right place at the right time to “catch” whatever his creative muse offers him.
While Sexton is more than willing to allow himself to entertain a crowd, he’s also aspiring to develop something that touches listeners, and especially himself, on a deeper level. It’s that desire, a pursuing of soul music in a time when easily marketed product is the norm, that doesn’t make him an easy sell to executives who only deal with demographics, but a passionate one for those that discover his abilities.
So, Sexton remains a cult figure with a slowly-building following. For many, what transformed them into such devoted fans are lyrics that tastefully deploy the human condition, vocals that cover a wide range (think Otis Redding morphing to Robert Plant) and a musical style that encompasses rock, blues, soul, folk, tin pan alley and gospel.
His Atlantic Records debut, The American, became an intimate musical portrait of his travels throughout this country. His current effort, Wonder Bar, aimed to mimic in tone, not rigid style, the fm radio of his 1970s youth; where the Beatles and Led Zeppelin rested next to Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Frank Zappa.
At the time of this interview, Sexton is enjoying his day off from the road by hanging out in Vermont. He enthusiastically talks about the warm, sunny weather, sitting at cafes and antique shopping. For him, there’s a different definition of success, one that he’s grown comfortably into with the passage of time and the realization that becoming a full-blown rock star isn’t the penultimate moment of one’s creative life.
JPG: Are you in Vermont for a show?
MS: Just for pleasure. I come up here to chill out in the woods. Shop, have coffee. Hang out with the hippies.
JPG: Sounds good.
(I wasn’t able to attend Sexton’s nearby concerts in Cleveland or Pittsburgh but I did catch him in Las Vegas in an intimate room at the House of Blues. This brings up his references to Sin City in his work.)
JPG: You use Las Vegas as a location in your songs, "Casino Foundation" and
MS: There’s "Hallelujah," (sings a line in the song) "...my angel’s gone to Vegas."
JPG: Why is that? Is it based on personal experience mixed with characters in the lyrics?
MS: It’s definitely a mixture of experiences. Vegas is sort of the mecca of gambling, losing your shirt and making a million dollars all in the same day, the place where you wouldn’t think an angel would go to try her luck.
I thought it was interesting if my angel had gone to Vegas. Then, the other Vegas references are more about Reno, the workingman’s Vegas. Just about a hippie girl, who has a kid, has run upon some bad luck and now she’s going to try her luck in Reno. Finds herself in a big jam. She’s in a bit of a quandary. Should she sink her jeep and collect on the insurance money or should she sell her ass in the big time Las Vegas, Nevada and try to pay off her sugar daddy.
JPG: That’s one of the things I found interesting about Wonder Bar, a lot of the characters, a lot of the situations, are hard luck stories or sad and frustrating situations. Then, you end it with "Golden Road," a sense of the positive. Even the line, "It’s alright mama." Was that intentional when putting it together?
MS: Not really, the songs kind of came about individually. That tune just seemed like a good closer, almost like a lullaby. And it’s a nice positive thing. Bring your troubles down to the river at sunrise. I can’t remember what the lyric is. Oh, "Bring your song to the river at sunrise." (laughs that he momentarily forgets his own lyrics).
"It’s all about bringing your shit down to the river and washing it clean."
JPG: Washing it clean, coming down to cleanse yourself, sounds like biblical references. Another thing about "Golden Road," I don’t know if it was intentional or not but the first guitar break sounded like it came from Led Zeppelin circa "Physical Graffiti."
MS: Definitely. Definitely. I’m trying to think of the Jimmy [Page] sound. There’s a certain Page sound, which is his Les Paul. The tone turned all the way down, just through an old Fender amp turned up to 10. That’s what I used on that. I was definitely going for that Page-esque thing, trying to think of what song. I’m thinking of something from “Physical Graffiti.” There was this particular song I was thinking of. It’s a real fat sound I love.
Zeppelin is so in my sauce. It’s everywhere. I probably have three different little tips of the hat to them during every show. Some more obscure than others, might be a little lick from "Stairway [to Heaven]," solo in the middle of a tune. Even a lot of the shit we do in this tune, "Gypsy Woman," there’s a lot of Robert Plant stuff in there, off their live stuff, "The Song Remains the Same."
JPG: As far as I’m concerned that’s a good thing to do.
MS: All that classic, meat and potatoes, rock and roll. Most of my influences were dead before I discovered them. Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Beatles, anyone. Zep, Doors, all that stuff.
JPG: I always wondered about your musical taste and influences because I’m looking over some of the reviews and the array of comparisons that come up when people talk about you, from the vocals to the music itself. When you see all that do you tend to agree or do you think, ‘Here we go again’?
MS: I guess it depends on the comparison. I always appreciate a different comparison, something more obscure. Sometimes, it’s not even in the ballpark. I don’t know. I guess you got to compare it to something. You gotta let people know what it’s like. Describing music is hard to do. Dancing about architecture. Talking about music is like dancing about architecture. Frank Zappa, right? I think it was Frank Zappa [who said that]. He’s dead.
JPG: We’re getting very dark here.
MS: Another fucking great dead man, Jeff Buckley. I get a lot of comparisons to him.
JPG: Well, you’re still alive and kicking. Anyway, I was just thinking about this in my anger towards radio’s extremely tight playlists. I got into your music through my wife’s interest. She happened to see you on “The Today Show” or “Good Morning America.”
MS: Probably about two years ago.
JPG: That’s how it all started. She saw you, talked about it. I tried to surprise her with a Valentine’s gift of your album but it turned out awkward cause I didn’t remember the name and didn’t want to tell her I was getting it for her. So, I looked on the internet. Saw some guy, Martin Simpson.
MS: Oh no. He’s some guitar player. I knew him.
JPG: I gave her that. David Hidalgo was on the album, so I thought, This should be good.’
MS: He’s great. It’s funny though. I used to run into that like four, five years ago. I came out of the folk world. He’s more of a folk hero. There would be a couple of times, I was opening for someone and they were gracious enough to thank the opener, How about a round of applause for that Martin Simpson?’
Me and Martin actually met up at a festival years ago, traded laminates.
JPG: Did it get you to a better spot in the backstage area?
MS: (laughs) Oh no, not at all.
JPG: So, that’s how it started. She saw you perform and was immediately into it. I listened to “The American” and immediately got into it. The point of all this is you receive critical praise, people see you live and get into your music, yet you seem to be a victim of conservative radio playlists ignoring you.
MS: Oh, I’m not a victim. Radio. I don’t know, I do what I do. People come to shows, they buy records. I keep doing what I’m doing. I have some luck with radio, whether it is commercial or listener-supported or college.
But the bulk of my career has been generated by the fans. I’ve come to really appreciate the situation I’m in, professionally, because I have the blessing of having a direct line to my listeners. There’s nothing really between what I’m doing and the people who are listening to it. It’s not generated through the media so much. It’s not shoved down anyone’s throat through the press or MTV. People are attracted to it rather than having it be promoted to them.
It’s been a slow, sometimes painfully slow, growth, but the good news is that it’s not going anywhere. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I had a hit last year, had a sold out tour and made lots of money and this year I can’t get arrested because the radio’s not playing my record anymore.’ I was envious years ago of all these people who were getting these hit records. Now, I don’t hear from them.
It’s a beautiful thing. What I’m doing is grown slow and strong, sort of like an oak tree. It’s not going anywhere. The people come back. They bring people. Every time I go out it’s bigger and better places. Every record sells more than the other. People are getting fed up with the shit they’ve been marketing.
JPG: With the release of The American in 1998 on Atlantic records, were you like, Uh-oh, I have the big machine with me now?’
MS: I wasn’t fearful. I was hopeful that it would broaden my horizons. It did.
JPG: If they would have had you do a video for one of the songs and pushed it similar to other chart successes, and “The American” sold one, two, three million copies, you may have become what you saw from others – here today, gone tomorrow.
MS: Maybe. I would hate for that to happen. I wouldn’t turn it down if the opportunity presents itself. I wouldn’t want to shoot myself in the foot, but it’s just nice to have a career that’s not solely dependent upon something that’s completely out of my control and completely fickle and completely subjective. It’s great having a direct line to the fans. There’s no big corporate entity between us.
JPG: Is that what brings you out on the road so much? Is it as much desire as your way of promotion?
MS: It’s what I do, how I make my living. It’s how I deliver my goods to other people.
JPG: But some artists, they’ll have certain segment of time. Here’s the album, then tour for two months or so…
MS: I do relate it to the record. I try not to go more than a couple times into each city, behind the same record, because I think people after that, they want something new. Understandably.
JPG: As far as your latest recording, Wonder Bar, it took me a few listens to get used to it. I think maybe because there was this intimacy, smoky club sort of atmosphere on “The American” whereas “Wonder Bar” sounds like a “big room” type of production, more open and bigger. Somewhere I read, you said it was a fuller sound. Am I reading too much into it?
MS: The room was bigger where we made it. I think it has the same sparseness on some tunes as “The American” and the same girth as some tunes on “The American.” To me, it ranges from a big slow burn rock anthem to a hushed just guitar and vocals. It happens on all my records. It’s a live record. Me live with Tony Levin [on bass], David Sancious [on keyboards] and Joe Bonadio [on drums]. Like all the records I make, pretty much, it’s a live vocal, almost like a live radio broadcast with a few overdubs added.
JPG: How did you hook up with Levin and Sancious? Never think of Levin in a capacity other than his work with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel.
MS: I’ve always loved his work, he’s creative as hell. Great bass player. I gave him a call. He was familiar with what I did and was interested. Heard the songs and really dug ‘em. Thought they had something to offer. It was great.
JPG: Now when you play live, you’re back to a stripped down sound, you on guitar and vocals and Joe on drums and percussion.
MS: To me less is more live. It’s great. If someone hasn’t seen us do what we do, me and Joe onstage, they’re always a little flipped out. Like the stage manager up at this nice theater in New Hampshire, Colonial Theater, he almost didn’t get it. He’s like, Wait a minute! You guys can’t sound like that. There’s only two of you onstage.’ It was funny cause he sees music every night. He sees bands. He sees solo people. Just the bewilderment on his face and the excitement in his heart was really beautiful.
That’s why I like to be just a guy, or two guys onstage because if you got a whole band up there, they expect to hear a whole band. If you got a guy up there with a guitar, maybe a drummer, they expect to hear that. What they hear is something is different. You get a certain value out of that surprise factor that is worth its weight in gold. It also leaves more space in the air for what I do, not clogging it up with anything and it also calls upon me to do things that I wouldn’t have to do if there was a bass player there or B3 [organ] player. I have to play the basslines with my thumb, and I have to do the solos with my voice. It demands this performance from me and I try to rise to the occasion.
JPG: A line from a past press release has this line from you about performing, “getting my heaven on.” Is it almost like a hypnotic state?
MS: It is. It truly is like that. The adrenaline’s pumping. The energy of the audience is thick, coming right at me. My eyes are up, slightly glazed, just going off, man. It’s like great sex. It’s spontaneous, passionate, sweaty, noisy, great.
JPG: At the same time, it brings up something else that I’ve noticed, in bits and pieces through the songs and a little through what you’re talking about, the idea of spirituality. I’m wondering about the idea of creativity and spirituality and how they intersect and influence each other and influence your work.
MS: I’m not sure how to answer that.
JPG: I gathered this from reading past interviews where you talk about your roots — Irish-Catholic middle class upbringing, meat-and-potatoes spirituality which you marry to bits and pieces of spirituality you find out on the road, whether it’s gospel or Native American or Buddhist…
MS: That’s it. That’s my spirituality, like a quilt, like a cafeteria style spirituality. Take a little here, I take what I like and I leave the rest.
JPG: You’ve become a patchwork Catholic like I have.
MS: Yeah. I’m culturally a Catholic but, honestly, spiritually, I really don’t have anything to do with that right now. I’m more of a, I don’t know this earth-based, hopefully, spiritually-connected guy. I just try to keep a conscious contact with my higher power. Try to improve it, try to be a channel of God’s will. I think that is what I would strive for, to be a channel. My favorite prayer is “The Prayer of St. Francis,” “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace…”
I need to get out of my own way. If I could lose my will and just do God’s will, I’d be on the right path. Luckily, I feel like I am in the flow. I feel like I am in God’s flow.
I really do feel like I’m doing the work I’m meant to do. Meeting the people I’m supposed to meet. Spreading the seeds.
JPG: Actually, I’m glad you said that. It brings up something I was going to mention at the very beginning, meat-and-potatoes, middle class working man music, that and the idea of the road and spirituality and working off one’s roots reminded me somehow of Jack Kerouac. Picking up experiences to influence you and going with it.
MS: I love that, “On the Road.” I want to make my own “On the Road” some day.
JPG: Do you feel like a modern Beat artist, subconsciously, the way you approach things?
MS: You know I’d like to, but I don’t because I don’t write enough. Sometimes I beat myself up because I’m not writing enough, not out there with my little notebook writing down everything. Although I do have a good memory. I log it in there. I try to bring a video camera with me too. Get people on film. Speaking of video, there are film crews that are following us around this tour. It’s really neat. They’re doing all this film of the shows and on the road stuff. So we’re going to have that film.
JPG: Funny that you mention that you don’t write enough. I had the impression that you were the type who had a ragged notebook in your possession and wherever you were you were writing ideas down.
MS: Striving towards that.
JPG: How did you end up writing so much of the album at the Wonder Bar restaurant?
MS: Because, when I co-write, I do it with Ned Claflin. It happened purely functionally. He lives in Boston. I live in western Massachusetts. So, we needed a place that we could each drive an hour and meet up. Worchester. He knew of an old pizzeria, the Wonder Bar. We’d go in there, one, eat, then write through the afternoon while it was not too busy. They didn’t care. It was great. Slowly, we got to know them. Started writing more tunes.
Just a wonderful old 50s pizzeria with characters coming in and out of the doors. Mickey is our favorite waitress. I think she’s 86. Bobby, the owner, always got a story when he was [around]. Seeing Jimmy Hendrix in the front row. Showing his pictures he has of Clapton. Wood panel walls with [jukebox] consoles you put a quarter in at every booth. [Listen to] Jerry Vale. All old Italian guys, war vets hanging out. Just a vibe, not pretentious. By the way, the pizza’s some of the best in the northeast.
JPG: West of Chicago, you pretty much are out of luck as far as pizza and tomato sauce. That’s been my experience.
MS: Sweet marinara. The stuff they try to give you is like Ragu.
JPG: I should let you go so you enjoy more of your off day.
MS: It's a beauty here. Have a great day. I sure will.