Dark Nights and Brighter Days for Jimbo Mathus
JPG: I like the terms you come up with this time to describe the music – “more ultra chrome and less sepia tones.” Was that something that just flew out of your mouth at some point during the recording or was that like a verbalization of the attitude of what you wanted the album to sound like?JM: It became obvious to me that it was just sounding like a… I mean, I’ve read accounts of being in battle with bullets flying all around like a wind that you’re leaning into, and it became…I felt like we were landing into a fuckin’ battle. Everything was so fierce. This burning sound. It was pretty inspiring.
We cut all those songs in like a 24-hour span, between the band being all hyped after being out on the road and then bringing Roscoe down, who’s a rock ‘n’ roll guru as far as I’m concerned. The guitar parts on there are just heartbreakingly beautiful, rock ‘n’ roll guitar. I don’t know how you can do any better, you know? They got behind us and they fill in, put your soul on the line in front of a microphone. That’s the way I looked at it. It became obvious once I started, “Wow! This is really working.” (laughs)
JPG: Subject wise, other than “Casey Caught the Cannonball,” it seems like there’s more lyrical emphasis on religious imagery, mentions of salvation on this album rather than a focus on history, which happened on “White Buffalo.” we talked a lot about there. Was it just your mood of not wanting to go into that again or what brought these subjects up and that type of writing?
JM: Well, like I said, the more you’re doing it this way you’ve got somebody that you’re bouncing ideas off of…like I have to be my own editor, usually in my life, because I produced a lot of my own records and I have to know that there’s a certain point where a song is gonna go, “Okay, I’m comfortable to show this to my group and learn this and take our time of putting this as a song to consider for recording for an album.” So, there’s all that self-editing that goes into it. I don’t feel comfortable just throwing some crap out there and wasting time on it. I feel like if it’s not good enough, you don’t release it. You don’t have a lot of time usually, see what I’m saying? It’s not like we’re living all in the same house and we can practice all the time but we did. It was a little more deep.
The songs that I normally write, subject matter that I don’t normally think about, but then maybe they wouldn’t make the cut. In other words to me, I would feel too self-conscious. I would feel too personal or something. I need something upbeat.
A song like “Medicine” that might not have ever got shown to anybody. Nobody really needs a song about the death of a drug addict and how that also relates to the medicine we take every day and our pharmaceutical society. That’s a little heavy. It’s not like a party song. So, I might have had reservations about sharing that or just the way a junkie becomes attuned to his own world. And the fix, being like kids, ordering people around and that’s how they develop this little cult around them. So, different experiences that I see and I go through.
“Writing Spider” is just really talking about the act of writing; how your own writing reflects your life and your own life reflects your writing — back and forth — and how it ties into a bigger cosmic equation. Nobody asks to be born. No one asks to be here at all. No one has asked to be here in this life. We’re given this. And then, acts of writing ties into that. Creative things are visceral to our life, to our existence as humans.
People aren’t thinking about this all day because people are busy. They’ve got to fuckin’ work. But hey, I’m the missing link. I’m privileged in a way to be a writer. Also, the point of that song, that I take it seriously. I read the writing on the wall. So, it’s things that I think about.
JPG: You’re one of those philosophy majors that is actually using your degree and making money off of it.
JM: Exactly. Yes. (laughs) The education has paid off, I guess you could say. I was telling my wife the other day that a philosophy major at Mississippi State had just gotten a Rhodes Scholarship. I took all the classes of philosophy that they had at Mississippi State then I dropped out. It took me about a year. When I heard this on the radio, getting a Rhodes scholarship, a dude from Jackson and I was thinking, “Isn’t that cool?” She said, “It’s interesting. There’s not exactly a whole lot…what can you do with a Philosophy degree?” I said, “Well, you can be a songwriter.” (laughs) “Be an entertainer. Like me.”JPG: There you go! One other song I want to ask about….”Burn the Ships” with the line about lives by the sword will die by the sword. Is there any basis for that because that is one of those big Biblical lines that…
JM: Yes, tooth for a tooth, eye for an eye. Old Testament shit. Tthe concept for it came after reading about the Conquistador era of Spain taking over South America, invading South America and how the tragedy involved in that time period. How much history was erased. It’s an interesting fact I came upon that the Conquistadors, once they arrived, when the ships finally landed where they agreed where they were going to colonize be it anywhere in the Americas, they would send one boat home and then they would burn all the other ships, so no one could escape and go anywhere.
They’re like, “Hey, we’ll see you in five years. We’ll come back.” (laughs) And so they were trapped there. That’s the imperialism. Of course, their swords destroyed untold wealth of culture of Southeast and Central America. So yeah, that “Burn the ships so they can’t go home.” Of course I mention Nero, one of the great imperialists, and then America is the next in line.
That Old Testament justice, a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye, a hand for a hand, and all that shit as long as you lie to ‘em. That’s just the primitivism that comes back into society eventually. No matter what the lofty ideal is. It always turns into just a fuckin’ blood bath…so far. (resigned laugh)
JPG: I guess you could add the Iraq War into that.
JM: Correct. So now, we’re so invested in the Middle East. We haven’t burned the ships.
JPG: Not quite.
JM: There are things being burned daily. (sigh) Political things. All the world it’s different but it’s still the same and it all comes down to the violence of war. Just commenting on that.
- JPG: Trying to take this in a happier direction. On White Buffalo you were doing a lot of videos for that album.*
JM: I did maybe six or seven videos. I could make that happen. “Hawkeye Jordan” [on the new album] that’s about a friend of mine up in Carolina that’s exactly like the song says. People used to write songs about bad men like Stagger Lee, Casey Jones and all that. I said, “Man, I don’t think nobody I know like Hawkeye’s that’s worse.” So, it was like modern gift making going on. He deserves a song. He deserves a Southern rock song like that, based on an actual good friend of mine.
“Shine Like a Diamond,” that’s written for my wife, Jennifer who’s really super. She gives me the biggest encouragement of anyone over the past three years, putting this crew together and putting my music together. She really has. What we are able to do together, it got me feelin’ real good. It got me very positive about things.
Maybe, it’s feeling positive that’s enabled me to dig a little darker on some of the other songs. I’m feeling a little more comfortable talking about some bad things because I’m in a positive light. I’m feeling good things and I love where we’re at. There is a light side of it as well.
JPG: What I was getting at with the videos. You were using White Buffalo as a springboard into other artistic outlets. Are you planning that with Dark Night of the Soul ?
JM: We’re steaming ahead with that. I’ve produced all those with Repent Films. Maybe you’re thinking of the one that had the marionettes in it that I did — “Poor Lost Souls” video. We started putting images with that and the editing software that we bought, and the iPhone. We cut all those on iPhone, the majority of the videos and get film technology back in our hands so it doesn’t take so many people to do those little films; just trying to use technology to do cool art.
We’re going to do the same thing this year, exact same thing, but better. There’s a lot of visually stimulating material on the record, I think, and I look forward to putting the films with the songs.
JPG: Last thing, I read that you made your first professional recordings in 1983 at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios. What was it like playing at such a historic place like that? Does it stick with you now and what does it do to you just being in that atmosphere?
JM: Well, I think the gris gris sticks with you even if you don’t know it at the time, even if you don’t know what you’re doing or where you are or what the bigger context is. I think the gris gris sticks with you.