Backyard Tire Fire Explores The Places We Lived
A roadhouse trio with a philosophic soul, Backyard Tire Fire – Ed Anderson, Tim Kramp and Matt Anderson (Ed’s brother) -has the ability to be any region’s greatest bar band. Owing in large part to Ed Anderson’s prolific songwriting skills, the Bloomington, Illinois based group has crafted a sizable and varied catalog, blending together outlaw country, traditional music, Southern blues and classic rock. They can be as ragged and dirty as the greatest bluesmen on one song and as thoughtful and reflective as the most introspective singer-songwriters on the next. Their versatility has served them well: they’ve shared stages with the North Mississippi Allstars, Reverend Horton Heat, The Radiators and Clutch, finding common ground with all of their fans.
After the dissolution of Ed Anderson’s jamband from his college days at Illinois State University (Brother Jed), the amiable, folksy musician started working on solo material. For one show, Anderson wanted to play with a rhythm section and his old bass player, who was working at a pizza parlor with Kramp, recommended the young and eager drummer. After playing one show, Anderson asked Kramp if he wanted to come down to North Carolina to start a band, an offer Kramp immediately accepted. They settled in Asheville, North Carolina and Athens, Georgia for periods of time but ultimately came back to the Midwest, where needing a bassist, they turned to Ed’s brother Matt. While bands with brothers tend to be a volatile affair, there’s no such tension afoot with the Tire Fire. “We’re a couple of good guys and we’re good friends. We just happen to be brothers,” explains Matt.
Earlier this month, Backyard Tire Fire came through New York City in support of their recently release The Places We Lived (Hyena Records). Before their Thursday night gig at Pianos on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the band sat for drinks and spoke about the new album, the wealth of songs at their fingertips and some of the stereotypes that plague the band.
A personal collection of songs, The Places We Lived finds Ed Anderson, the group’s songwriter, reflecting back on his roots and touching on themes based around hometown ideals and situations. Although there’s a sense of nostalgia, Anderson wasn’t originally aiming for that as an overarching premise. “The songs on the record really weren’t chosen for any specific reason. There was no real agenda,” he explains in his customary genial manner. “It’s not a concept record but all the songs revolve around the same idea, being at home and coming back,” says Kramp.
The Places We Lived is replete with Anderson’s recollections, coming from his point of view and spoken in his voice. However, he’s doesn’t look at the album as his personal memoir. “Perhaps more so as years go by,” says Anderson. “I haven’t written too many nostalgic kinds of tunes.” As for the somewhat wistful feel, “It might have something to do with my older sisters living a few blocks from where we grew up and thinking about the house where we used to run around in and the crazy cornfields in the back.” They are experiences he shared with his brother Matt. “The Places We Lived’ was written with him in mind,” he explains. “We both ran around those same cornfields, we went to the same church, we both know that neighbor across the street that would drive around in his John Deere.” Matt’s memories don’t vary greatly from his brother’s. “I can identify with a lot of things he writes,” explains the bassist. “I know what he’s talking about. People could take them different ways the way they want to. That song in particular is about the street we grew up on.” As for Kramp, who didn’t grow up with the Andersons, “That’s why I’m in the band. Ed writes such good songs and I’ve always wanted to be in a band with a great songwriter.”
Like all touring bands, the road provides inspiration, even if it comes in the form of making the heart grow fonder for home. “It’s all over the record: songs about home, being away from home and coming back to home,” says Anderson. “Specifically, there’s a track on the record called Time With You’ that’s got a real chaotic piano section and the words of that song are almost taken verbatim from my wife’s point of view a conversation I had with her. I think we were in Burlington, Vermont or someplace really far away,” he recalls. “You field calls like this every now and again. Really, my wife’s pretty fantastic in all ways and supportive but every now and then something comes up where you should be there and you’re not. So that song, I got off the phone with her and laid down on the floor with an acoustic guitar and started strumming and writing and that middle section in that song – the dissonance, that kind of weird atonal piano stuff – was supposed to signify the way I was feeling in my stomach after that conversation. I think that for most touring musicians, the easiest thing to write about is being on the road and being away from home. It’s really what you’re thinking about.”
In order to get the proper feel for certain songs, they experimented with some different effects in the studio, learning that sometimes the most expensive equipment doesn’t get you the sound you’re looking for. “To get the rain effect on Rainy Day (Don’t Go Away),’ we used the shittiest microphone that we had,” laughs Anderson. “Tom Waits does that kind of stuff all the time. Interestingly, recorded music doesn’t always have to be with a $3000 microphone. Sometimes you can get a really cool sound and capture the theme of the song with a $10 Radio Shack microphone. That’s why it sounds gritty and dirty and nasty. We tried it with a couple different microphones. Ultimately, we liked the way the cheapest one sounded.”
Due to the enhanced ability to distribute music over the Internet, The Places We Lived turned into the Tire Fire’s Let It Be, recorded before their 6 song Sick Of Debt EP but released after. Given the long passage of time, the Tire Fire is confronting the eternal dilemma of promoting the current album while new songs are consuming their creative juices. “All artists feel that way,” explains Anderson, experienced at dealing with the conundrum. “You always feel that your best stuff is whatever you’re creating at the present time. You should feel like that because it’s the new stuff that keeps it all going. If you’re not writing and creating what are you doing? You’re going to start to become a cover band of yourself,” he reasons, answering his own rhetoric. “For us, we always feel like the new stuff we’ve come up with is the best because you’re growing, you’re learning more as a person. You’ve more experiences, you’re more a world traveler and you feel like the more you live, the better you write. It’s tough sometimes, specifically with these tunes on this current record. We went a while without playing them, on purpose; 75% of this record didn’t get played live because we knew it was going to be released at some point and we were going to play the songs every night for a year or more; we didn’t burn ourselves out on them so they are still fresh. A good song is a good song. If you’re not in that moment, you can be brought back to that moment because the words and the melody mean something too you and everyone is on that same page.”
A humble band from the Midwest, Anderson finds humor by the random brushes with celebrity they’ve encountered that have arisen from shared roots. The Tire Fire’s most famous and ardent supporter may be Adrianne Curry, the sister of their tour manager Nick Curry. The model hosted the band’s New Year’s Eve party in Illinois and she and her husband Christopher Knight (aka Peter Brady) graciously house the band when they come through California. On this recent trip to New York City for the Pianos show as well as one at Union Hall in Brooklyn, the Tire Fire crew had time to catch their first Broadway show, Hairspray starring fellow Illinoisan George Wendt. The Cheers star repaid the favor, coming down to the Lower East Side for the Tire Fire’s NYC gig and along with the rest of the crowd got a healthy dose of Backyard Tire Fire in rowdy bar band mode as they blasted through bluesy versions of “Downtime,” “Welcome To The Factory” and “How In The Hell Did You Get Back Here?,” covered Roger Miller’s “King Of The Road” and Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns & Money” and debuted the comically scathing “Indie Hipster Tastemaker Wannabe.”
An extremely prolific songwriter, Anderson seems possessed of the ability to create an unlimited quantity of music. To an outsider, it’s like Anderson has revived the whole They Might Be Giants philosophy of creating a song a day. It’s a schedule Anderson downplays. “I haven’t written a song in the last three weeks,” he laughs. “I probably could sit down and force out a song a day,” he says after some consideration. “I don’t really like to force the songwriting though. If it’s there and you feel it’s something, then you follow that wherever it takes you. To force it or push it seems like the instant recipe for cheese. There are certainly a lot of bands out there now that crank out cheeseball stuff that people really love. Maybe they weren’t feeling it and had to get something out there because they needed to get a record out and had been on the road so much so they forced something that wasn’t that good,” he speculates. “I really don’t want that to ever happen to us.”
“I don’t write much on the road. There’s too much happening and I’m too tired,” he explains. “Usually it takes a couple days at home to let all the experiences sink in. I have a studio down in the basement and I’ll demo ideas down there. It’s easy to be influenced by the road when you’re gone for 200 days and that’s kind of what’s on your mind,” he says of his inspiration for material. “At the same time, I just wrote this song, “Jimmy, Bob & Jack” which is a fictitious story [about an attempted robbery]. I was up late one night and I wanted to see how many verses I could write and I wrote nine,” he says of his foray into mixing short stories with songwriting. “As it started coming together, I thought I’ve got a pretty good story here.’ It’s fun sometimes to step out of the box and write something different.” In addition to opining in song that he would like to be Tom Petty, Anderson points to the gravelly voiced Floridian and Neil Young as his songwriting models. “They helped me realize that you don’t have to write crazy arrangements,” he explains. “If you have a good melody and something to say lyrically that’s original and from the heart, you can go over the same two or three chords for however many minutes straight.”
Anderson’s love of all types of music fuels the Tire Fire’s road house eclecticism. After going through the typical classic rock indoctrination that most music fans go though, Anderson started to branch out. “I started listening to more blues and county, Willie and Waylon and Hank Williams. There’s nothing on the new record that sounds real country at all but that’s where the pedal steel comes from and possibly the alt-country label,” he says, referring to the penchant of many scribes to place them in the genre. “I can see where that label comes from: you can’t call this band a country band or a blues band and you can’t call us an indie band. We’re kind of in between, which is a good thing and a bad thing. Hopefully, we appeal to a large group of people but at the same time it makes it harder cause they can’t slap a label on us. In the short term it hurts a little bit: we’re not a jamband, we’re not an indie band, we’re not a country band we’re just a rock and roll band that can do a lot of that. We enjoy Bitches Brew as much as we love Bill Monroe. To focus on one kind of music and only that type of music sounds boring to me. My favorite records are like The White Album where nothing sounds the same.”
The wealth of material at their fingertips contributed to the release earlier this year of Sick Of Debt, a free gift to everyone feeling the crunch of the sluggish economy long before it became an everyday headline. Anderson laughs off any comparisons to Radiohead and their innovative pricing scheme. “We gave away one EP that we recorded in three hours in our friend’s studio,” he explains. “It was a promotional thing. I liked doing it. Ironically, the title of the EP was Sick of Debt, which if we were sick of debt, why were we giving the thing away but we figured everyone else was sick of debt too so we could give this to them.” The process did give Anderson some pause as to the future of the music industry. “I think it’s a generational thing that’s happening where younger people don’t understand that there’s value to music. They’ve gotten music for free since they’ve been going to get it and downloaded it going back to Napster. It’s a pervasive ideology which goes against the concept of buying CDs. I’m not saying that nobody buys records. I mean, we’re selling records. I’m preaching a bit but I haven’t bought a record in a really long time. It doesn’t make it any easier on touring bands.” Given his druthers though, Anderson would adjust his purchasing habits considerably. “When I go into a record store where there’s actual records . . . vinyl,” he says, pausing a second. “If I ever get to the point where I can throw a little money around, I’d love to drop it in a record store. If you go into a really good one that has some serious vinyl – old jazz and blues records that have been played just a handful of times and there’s not a scratch on them – those are the types of things I salivate over.”
For the rest of the year, the Tire fire plan to tour behind The Places We Lived and then go back to the studio to record the next album, which would be the band’s fifth. Typically a trio, the band is currently working as a quartet with longtime friend Fish Carpenter playing electric guitar. Carpenter, who has a beard similar in style to the Andersons and their tour manager Curry, jokes that he can blend in with the band simply by looking like a long lost brother. Prior to this tour, Carpenter learned about sixty new songs and the infusion of another voice has sparked the Tire Fire. “They [the songs] are all changing. New life, new player, new outlook,” raves Anderson, sounding excited about the prospect of expanding the band. “I told Fish he can hang around as long as he wants. He’s a great guy, easy to get along with and I love playing with him. He blows my mind. We’re enjoying having him and I foresee that continuing into the near future. We bring him in and we’re playing songs we haven’t played in a while and they feel fresh. It’s so different to have all these parts covered instead of trying to adapt the recordings to a power trio,” he says, referring to the impossibility of playing guitar and keys at the same time. “We’ve been able to be more true to the recordings.”
The band is aware that being a hard-working, hard-rocking Midwestern band is a bit of a stereotype. “I think people may have a tendency to write us off as non-intellectual,” explains Kramp. On this subject, the drummer becomes quite animated. “We’re a group of guys from the Midwest with unremarkable backgrounds; we can get mistaken for a bunch of beer-drinking hell-raisers – which we are – but that doesn’t mean we can’t create something of value.” Anderson, who provides the words for Tire Fire’s philosophical soul is more bemused by the subject. “How intellectual can a band named Backyard Tire Fire be?” he jokes.
Kramp doesn’t shy away from being proud of BTF’s strengths. “This band is good at playing loud, raucous guitar, raising hell and drinking a lot of Budweiser,” he says with glee. “We are good for that but only when the situation’s appropriate.” “There are certain people that don’t want to hear some of the songs we have because it doesn’t make sense to them. They think, Well, this band’s just supposed to be loud and make me want to drink,’” explains Anderson, taking a pragmatic view. “I think over time we’ll be less perceived as rock and roll rednecks from Illinois.”