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Published: 2004/11/30
by Mike Greenhaus

Reid Genauer: The Honest Hour

Reid Genauer sings in the third person. A talented singer, songwriter, and storyteller, Genauer has authored some of jam-nation’s most endearing anthems. Yet, for much of his career, Genauer has also hid behind a series of three-dimensional characters. Having lived out the jamband dream as Strangefolk’s co-founder, Genauer is well aware of both rock and roll’s spoils and its scars. And, with an aged perspective, Genauer has molded the Assembly of Dust into an "intentional" outfit, which can co-exist alongside the singer’s non-musical pursuits. Following the release of The Honest Hour, the Assembly of Dust's first live offering, Genauer stepped away from his trademark third-person persona, looking back on the evolution of songwriting partnership with keyboardist Nate Wilson and his split with Strangefolk.

MG- Recently, you dropped your name from the Assembly of Dust’s moniker. What was the impetus for this decision?

RG- Well, it wasn't even really a formal decision. It was just a long name [laughs]. There are occasions where that line is still kind of blurred [laughs].

MG- At this stage in AOD’s evolution, do you consider yourself a lead singer rather than a bandleader?

RG- No. It's kind of one and the same. Ultimately, what you're getting at, is if it's less about me and more about the other guys. Regardless of the name, or what I consider myself, the reality is we are a band with a shared musical vision and a shared camaraderie. But, regardless of that fact, I am the lead singer and, for all intents and purposes, still the leader of the band.

MG- While writing several of The Honest Hour’s new tracks, you collaborated with Nate Wilson. How has your songwriting partnership evolved?

RG- Part of establishing AOD's musical vision has been having more of a shared songwriting process. Nate and I complement each other nicely. It's almost like a business partnership or even a spousal relationship in certain ways. You look for someone who has a complementary set of skills and I think Nate and do. Typically, on the songs that we co-author, Nate will present some sort of musical idea, whether it's an entire chord progression or melody or just a little snippet. Also, generally, he lets me know how married he is to each song's different parts. If it's a very complete idea, I try to stick to his vision. Other times, he feels less attached to the arrangement, or even the song's feel, and I will use his ideas as a steppingstone. You tend to start cannibalizing yourself at some point. I think this is a chance for both of us to reinvent our sound and, in the process, find something new.

MG- When I interviewed you for prior to The Honest Hour’s release you said, "Our goal was for this to be a real ‘album’ rather than just a glorified bootleg, so it took some extra thinking in terms of what songs to put on and even how to perform them." Can you elaborate on this comment?

RG- It's really a sliding spectrum. How live something is isn't really black and white. Even in the studio there are many variables: whether an album was recorded track-by-track or recorded straight through. It also has to do with how well spoken the band is. On Britney Spears' recordings each drumbeat is manufactured, where jazz recordings are usually done in one take. I think the same is true for live recordings. On the far extreme of manufactured live recordings, bands will keep the audience noise and maybe the drum track. Then they'll go back and re-record everything. On the flip side, some releases are in the vein of the Grateful Dead's Dick’s Picks- – -where every awkward vocal harmony is kept. So, what we tried to do is capture the most polished version of the Dick’s Picks series. Really what we did was prepare a setlist and rehearse the shit out of it in advance so that we just knew the songs inside and out. Everyone was very confident and very focused on creating album friendly versions of these songs. When we are not recording, we can space out and let the jam develop for five minutes before it really kicks in. It’s a more casual conversation. When you know a song is being recorded, your goal is to have a more sized presentation. Ultimately, The Honest Hour’s driving force is showcasing the songs. We wanted to have our setlist a bit more dialed in before we stepped on the stage.

MG- What factors went into determining The Honest Hour’s setlist?

Predominantly, we wanted to record some of our newest songs. Secondarily, we wanted to reinvent some of the old Strangefolk hits and showcase what we are doing with them. And, finally, we wanted to make a concrete recording of some of my older songs which never made it on an album. "Man with a Plan," "Harrower," and "Paul Henry" are all brand new material. The two Strangefolk classics we put on there were "Speculator" and "Roads," and then there were some more obscure B-side songs. "Bus Driver" and "Fountain" have each really found their place in the Assembly of Dust's mix. They were always sort of the bastard, redheaded stepchildren of Strangefolk and now they are more fleshed out. They found the inner swan [laughs].

MG- Often times you tell your stories through the guise of a fictional character. Why do you compose in the third person?

It's less exposure on a personal level. You are putting yourself on the line, one way or another, by just standing on the stage. But you're that much more vulnerable when you are telling your own life story. In addition, it's a stylistic choice. I love musicians who put themselves into their music 100 percent. What I don't want to know is about your trip to the shrink. There are certain aspects of the human experience better left untold. So I find it easier, safer, and more anesthetically pleasing to talk through characters. And, truthfully, it's more creative because you get to play someone else. I imagine it's one of the things actors get off onyou get to be someone else.

MG- Who is your favorite character?

RG- I like the song "Sinner." It's a song I enjoy playing and it's a similar guy who comes around in the "Harrower" on the new album. He is kind of like an outlaw force living outside society. He smokes cigarettes, drinks brown booze, and corrals the ladies. He is a fun guy to play.

MG- When did you first realize AOD had escaped Strangefolk’s shadow?

RG- When we were able to play a set of music that was constructed around AOD material. I look to create a set of music that has an overall impact. There are so many variables which come into play: what tempo the song is in, how well can people relate to the lyrics, how well a song is known, if its on an album. When we got to the point where we had this desired impact by playing AOD songs, that is when the band started being a band, not just a project. That probably happened about a year ago.

MG- How do you balance holding down a fulltime office position and leading a primarily live band [Reid works at eMusic?

RG- We look at our tours about four months in advance. We figure out the places we want to play and the dates we want to play and how they overlap. Then we look at our personal commitments: weddings, other gigs, and, in my case, my obligations here. Then we look at the calendar and find the gaps. We basically do total, marathon woodshed practices. We will get together for three days, lock ourselves in a room, and practice for ten hours at a time. Also, what winds up happening before a run of shows, is we'll write a setlist in advanced for the first night and have everyone brush up on those tunes. Then we'll get together in the hotel room or basement of the club and run through the trouble spots before the gig. It's almost like studying for a test.

MG- Do you see parallels between the development of AOD and the development of Strangefolk?

RG- It's apples to oranges. With Strangefolk we had no idea what we were doing. We were willing to do anything. We'd drive eight hours to play for forty-five minutes for $50. Just stupid things—-there was a certain bliss and youthful enthusiasm. An excitement about it—-which was a benefit and also a cost. AOD is, for a lack of a better word, more intentional. Again, there are benefits and costs of that. The benefit is that everyone's expectations are sort of in line and, ultimately, the end product we are focused on is keeping the music fresh and entertaining. At different points in my life, the goal has been a necessity to make a certain dollar amount to pay rent. It's motivating in a lot of ways, but it's ultimately a shackle. Taking gigs that don't make sense taxes a band in different ways. There are pluses and minuses.

MG- Do you ever think about what Strangefolk would be doing today if you had remained with the group?

RG- Of course. I am blindly confident that things would have continued to go well —- but at what cost? As a musician, one of the things you have to get in touch with is what drives you. Is it just about making money? A lot of the time that's not what drives people to get into music, but you paint yourself in a hole where the reality is you have to pay rent. Very quickly that becomes the overriding directive. Now, my motivation is to create. I know it sounds cheesy, but it's the high which drew me to be a musician in the first place. It's a drug. It's weird. There are times when my gig schedule is lighter and I feel a weight on my overall psyche. Then I will play a gig and I feel a spring in my step. It's bizarre. It's food for the soul — a strange, but wonderful, thing.

MG- In Strangefolk there was more of a dynamic with additional songwriters and vocalists. To what extent has this been a challenge for AOD? How have you responded?

RG- Well, the honest truth of the matter is, for the bulk of Strangefolk, I had that responsibility and voice, which was augmented and supported by Jon and Eric. Ultimately, that is one of the things which led to the split. They wanted to kind of reinvent that voice for obvious reasons —- support your own genetics. The vision for what that voice initially was started to disintegrate. It's funny. I've taken a lot of criticism for pulling the plug and being the guy who walked away. That decision didn't happen in a vacuum and was based on a lot of very real pressures. One of the criticisms I have is that the rest of the members of Strangefolk have not been honest about their role in the demise. It winds up on my shoulders because I am ultimately the guy who walked. It's like if you get served bad food in a restaurant. You're pissed off and walk out without paying the bill. Whose fault is it? Obviously you're the last one to offend, because you didn't pay your bill, but, at the end of the day, you got served dog when you thought you were getting served duck.

MG- Switching gears, who tops your list of potential Jammy’s collaborators?

RG- Mavis Staples. I have been listening to the Staples Singers recently and she is on the top of my list. Jerry Douglas is another and Del Mcoury Band would be cool as well.

MG- Can you describe your 2004 Jammys experience from the first time you met Dickey Betts and Edie Brickell on through the performance?

RG- We basically met with Edie first and were kind of noodling around backstage. She is very improvisationalit was actually mind-blowing how she can take a progression and put words over the top. It was literally genius. So we were just back there noodling and she would come up with some cool little tidbits. It was great to get to know her and see her do her thing. Then we went over the arrangements for Dickey Betts' songs and tried to figure out how Edie could be featured in the set. Ultimately a few things happened. Dickey came in and I don't think he was briefed fully as to what everyone was hoping to do. And, at the end of the day, they were his songs and, unfortunately, what happened is we never found a great place for Edie to fit into the mix. The songs were a little out of her range. It came out well in the end, but I wish we had more of a spotlight on her. But, it was just so cool to play those songs which were landmarks of my musical upbringing. Edie is someone who has that little extra something with the way she interacts with the world

MG- Do you plan to return to the studio in the near future?

RG- Well, we are in the middle of The Honest Hour record cycle now. But, we certainly have the content and are eager to put it out —- so absolutely within the next year. Right now, we have enough material for, arguably, two or three albums. That's one of the big differences with Strangefolk. I remember signing a record deal for five albums. I thought, "I don't know if we even have five albums in us." Partly it was our age and partly it was out musical makeup, but with this band there is a clear vision to measure things against. There is a very productive, creative engine. I feel very confident in our ability to keep on cranking the wheel.

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