Dark Nights and Brighter Days for Jimbo Mathus
Talking with Jimbo Mathus is a helluva good time. He laughs easily, is quite knowledgeable about history and culture – local and international – without sounding as if he’s lecturing you. The onetime philosophy major infuses his lyrics with a nod towards life’s Big Picture statements as well as intimate personal moments. It’s why you can find on his latest album, Dark Night of the Soul, a nod towards Spanish Conquistadors (“Burn the Ships”), the Casey Jones legend “Casey Caught the Canonball” and the junkie mentality (“Medicine”).
Working with Fat Possum’s general manager Bruce Watson throughout a year of recording demos before cutting down the material to its present 12 tracks, Mathus described the final result in the press kit as “a testament of his vision of me — and an accurate depiction of the way I experience life with its high ups and its far downs.”
He has enjoyed the music industry’s commercial highs and dealt with its lows. His career has bounced from the chart topping jump blues of Squirrel Nut Zippers to Chicago blues as a member of Buddy Guy’s band followed by the raw, gritty sound developed on his own albums and with Luther Dickinson in the South Memphis String Band. Despite any frustrations built up following years of trying to get his 11 solo releases to a wider audience, he takes solace in the opportunity to live a life as a creative artist. For him writing songs isn’t just a matter of framing his Mississippi Delta blues roots, country strains into a rough ‘n’ ready rock ‘n’ roll context.
At Fat Possum’s office for our phone conversation, subjects deal with the lengthy recording process, ideas behind several of the songs and how he keeps plugging away.
At one point Mathus asks my opinion of Dark Night of the Soul. I admit that I needed several listens before I fully embraced the album because it starts off with the title track, a much more subdued opener than 2012’s White Buffalo, which hit the ground running.
“It’s a little trickier,” he said. “I think you’ll enjoy it when you get to know it a little better. I thought it was a bold move on Bruce to put that song first. It automatically puts people kind of unsettled.”
JPG: You were working at Fat Possum’s recording studio for a long time. Usually, when you hear about someone working on an album, off and on for a year, you think this is going to be Jimbo’s big double album or…JM: …production piece. JPG: Yeah. Tell me about the process of how you still kept the results simple but ended up working so much.
JM: The thing that really took so long was just because Bruce Watson was encouraging me to come in with new songs every two or three weeks and just throw little sketchings out. That’s what we did. We demoed something like 40 songs. They may have been 45 seconds or a minute or two long. The most was four minutes long and ended up making it on the record.
It was just getting ‘em fresh as they were being written and throwing ‘em down. And then usually, the actual recording of the songs would take one or two takes. But it was just a matter of spending a year demoing.
JPG: Was it that Bruce didn’t feel or you didn’t feel you had 12 really strong songs or there was no pressure?
JM: Yeah, it was more like I live out there close to the studio so that we could do it. He was generous enough to allow me to just indulge in some stuff, goin’ in and just throwing off ideas that, normally, I would throw in the trash because I wouldn’t have time or the opportunity to try stick something on tape.
It was more like a luxury and encouragement by him. He liked what I was writing and wanted to see more, see where it would take us. Some of the stuff came through at the last minute. Some of it on the record were some of the first demo sessions I did.
So, we picked songs all throughout the year, just seemed to leap out at us…at him in particular. I was just kind of going with his feeling. Seemed like he had a feeling of where he saw this thing going. He was patient enough to just let me get there on my own. It was pretty cool. I looked at it as more of a luxury and a fun thing that we did.
JPG: Was it a matter that you gained that gained the trust and luxury to work so much in the studio after your last album, White Buffalo.
JM: Exactly. Yes, I do. Of course, I did the Blue Light EP on the Big Legal Mess label, Bruce’s own label, and he saw how I worked. That was supposed to be a 45 on the Big Legal Mess label, and he saw how I worked so well with the engineer down there, Bronson Tew, that he turned that into a six-song EP. Then, he heard White Buffalo and we did good work for him on that. Afterwards, Fat Possum wanted to pick that up.
This was just an extension of trust with him and my ability to work in his studio, which is right up my alley. So he could trust me and I would trust him with his opinion. He was like, “Man, I really like this.” It’ll be 30 seconds of something and then it would just fall to pieces. And I’d say, “Well, fuck, that’s all I know how to do on that.” He would say, “I really like this. Can y’all finish that?” I’m like, “Sure man. I’ll finish it right now.” (laughs)
That’s the easy part of my life, writing songs. (laughs) Hell yeah! It really was fun. There was no pressure whatsoever. He told me early on, “Man, after my first one or two demo sessions, we’ve got enough for a record here but let’s just keep doing it ‘cause there’s nothing stopping us.” So, that’s what we did.
JPG: Reading about working with Bruce, could the album have just been called “Bruce Watson’s Favorites?”
JM: No, it would be more…Bronson would come in and we would try to throw something together. He would engineer and then I’d bring him in there to play the drums and/or help me overdub a couple little parts or something ‘cause he’s a multi-instrumentalist. At the end of the day, by the time Bruce got off work at five, he’d come back out to the studio, check and listen to what we had done and he’d say, “I like this. This is hilarious. This is bizarre.” And he would listen to the demos and two or three days later, he would get excited about it…the whole year. Really cared about it.
As a writer, that’s the greatest thing you can have; someone who listens and cares about what you’re doing and is trying to make you do better, as an editor almost that you can bounce ideas off of that you trust. That’s more what it was. It was more Bruce.
JPG: He kind of influenced you to go with the darker material…
JM: You can call it an example of us collaborating. Having everything from the studio atmosphere, the engineer, he and I have been on the same wave length. It’s a strong record and something that I’m very proud of and I’m hopeful for.
JPG: Yes, should be. Now your band, the Tri-State Coalition has been together about seven years?
JM: Yes, some longer, but yeah, at least seven years is the average age of the band. These guys have been fighting it out with me. It seems as if we’re stronger than ever, somehow, although we’ve really met with very little success. We’ve had musical success and project success like the White Buffalo album but we’ve had a tough go of it trying to find an audience, trying to find a way to make a living and trying to get our music out there…because it’s been tough. We haven’t had the help of somebody like Fat Possum in charge that seven-plus years. We were doing it on our own and we were laboring in obscurity. Now, we’re trying to do a little something.
*JPG: No offense to Fat Possum but last year I really, really liked White Buffalo. I was really hoping for good things to happen and hoping to see your name on more musical festivals than I did. I saw it on maybe one or two, Beale Street and something else.
JM: That was about it. That was about it. It’s just so much competition, man. Unless you’re the flavor of the minute or else somebody that’s well-established already, you’re not gonna get a break. They’re not gonna give you a break. If you get some other kind of break then they’ll let you in their club. It’s just tough. I mean, I’m basically out on the fringes of the fuckin’ entertainment industry until I can get some kind of fuckin’ break. (slight resigned laugh) You know? And I’m not quitting. So…
JPG: Has it gotten any better because I know some bands and their agents have to work with festival promoters to get hooked up in the lineup. Does it look any better for 2014?JM: No! It’s not looking any better. (laughs) But you know what, here’s how it’s looking better. We’ve got this Dark Night of the Soul and a campaign behind it. We’ve got people that are gonna be spreading the word for us and hopefully, the music will…ultimately, it will be the music that does it and the sound. That’s what I have going for me right now is people that care about this music, either the Tri-State or the Possum or our fans that I already have. We just need to get a little bit bigger this year, and it’s gonna be the music. I always have believed that. I’ve never even felt that there was any amount of creative planning that could create art. This is no surprise to me. I’m in this for the long haul, man. This is not a passing thing for me. I’m 46 years old and still writing challenging music and combining things in new and creative ways. So, I’m happy.
JPG: As far as the music on the album, I felt vindicated when it was described as your hardest rockin’ album to date because that’s the way it sounded to me. Obviously, the blues is still the foundation but I’m hearing stuff like “Rock & Roll Trash,” which reminded me a bit of The Rolling Stones or “Writing Spider,” which reminded me of The Stones’ “Dead Flowers” hybrid with Bob Dylan. Tell me about the direction of the album and if these things are right.
JM: Well, it’s just more ways of reinventing blues, like you said. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll is. That’s what The Stones did. That’s what the great rock ‘n’ roll bands did. They drew their inspiration from the blues. I’m still reconfiguring it according to the plan of the blues. You combine it with poetry and all kind of different influences.
My own inspiration, I don’t listen to very much music. I never listened to a whole lot of The Stones, man. If I’m around the house, I listen to like a couple of Charlie Parker records. I don’t really listen to a whole lot. I just get ideas and they sound a certain way. That’s the bottom line. I can look and see how The Stones are attached to Mississippi Fred McDowell, Chuck Berry and Graham Parsons but everyone influences each other on down the line. That’s not going to stop. The most equal marketplace in the world is the world of real blues players and real musicians ‘cause that’s sharing on an equal plain. How it should be. I think the great musicians like Dylan and the ones you just mentioned, Keith Richards, they saw it as such and my own writing it just comes from myself.
- JPG: Now several of the tracks such as “Casey Caught the Cannonball” came directly from the demo sessions.*
JPG: And there were three others…
JM: “Burn the Ships” is a straight demo, just me and Bronson. “Casey Caught the Cannonball,” also “Medicine” and “Tallahatchie.”
JPG: Those songs have a raw rocking feel to them. Were some of these other songs more of a swampy blues type numbers until the Tri-State Coalition came in and then – Boom — it was more like a rock song?
JM: Yeah, ummmm, of course, nobody sounds like the Tri-State Coalition. There’s no getting around that. The only question was how really to bring them in on it. And we came up with a good answer. We recut some and some we left alone some because everyone agreed, something like “Medicine” — that’s my favorite song on the record — that’s a very tenuous song. There’s an interesting story to it. I think that’s hardly ever have been done with a whole bunch of people in the room, very personal. So others, I’m able to give up like a lamb to slaughter.
Plus, I had Eric “Roscoe” Ambel (of the Del Lords) on guitar on all the live tracking. So, we had three guitars on “White Angel,” “Rock & Roll Trash” and “Dark Night of the Soul,” it was a big sound. Roscoe is over on the left when you listen to your stereo. Matt [Pierce] is on the right, and it’s just incredible. The keyboards, what [Eric Carlson] does. He’s also got a piano in one hand and an organ on the other. So, sometimes we’ve got actually eight instruments going at the same time. The background singers, which were also there with us. So, it’s a lot of people playing very carefully and pretty well. It’s pretty jammin’.