Edward David Anderson shares some Lies & Wishes and big, big truths
It’s no secret that Edward David Anderson knows how to make you think, feel and tap your foot. Anderson and Backyard Tire Fire spent a decade creating music that dwelled in a territory where twang and crunch roamed freely alongside of fetch-you-up-solid-on-the-first-listen hooks and cool melodies. Combined with Anderson’s knack for writing lyrics that could often stand on their own legs without a tune in sight, Backyard Tire Fire was truly the thinking-, working-, every-man’s band.
But Anderson and his Tire Fire mates reached a point in September of 2011 where it was mutually decided that it was time to put things on “an indefinite hiatus.” The band’s explanation that “We all just have lots of other things going in our lives right now” was an understatement: the period that followed was a particularly trying one for Anderson and his family. Part of the process of dealing with it all was letting his muse speak out – and Anderson managed to channel his feelings into some of the most powerful music of his career.
His new solo album Lies & Wishes (produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin) is catchy and hooky and weird and cool – easy to listen to casually and deep enough to provide inspiration and hope if you’re in the market for such things. Anderson has pulled off the feat of baring his soul without making you uncomfortable; of putting a tear in your eye to go with the smile on your face; of providing insight that, at times, bumps hips with some fine, fine grooves.
In short, Edward David Anderson has crafted some beautiful music out of some hard times.
Edward spoke openly with us about loss, love and healing – along with the joy of a cheap guitar, the beauty of a woodpile, and the magic of a poor man’s theremin.
BR: Edward, when I first listened to Lies & Wishes Wilco’s Being There album immediately came to mind – not a soundalike thing, but a definite common vibe.
EDA: It’s so funny that you should mention that. Do you know who Dennis Cook is?
BR: I know his work – he’s a great writer.
Well, Dennis is an old friend of mine; I love Dennis. He’s done bios for me and liner notes … I’ve known him for a long time.
Anyway, Dennis sent me a questionnaire a while ago. There were, like, five questions – one of them was, “If you could have dinner with any three people in history, who would it be? And would dessert be?” Or something like that … “Here’s a handful of questions; fill them out when you have a chance.”
And one of the questions was, “Name an album which has a spiritual kind of resonance with you.”
And I kept thinking about what albums have changed me; have had a profound effect on me. And I kept going back to Tonight’s The Night … Blonde On Blonde … Exile On Main Street … Revolver … Rubber Soul … Los Lobos’ Kiko … all these old-school ones that helped shape who I am as a musician.
And then I was, “What’s something a little bit newer – in my adult life – that’s had a profound effect on me?” I got thinking about it – and the album I wrote down was Being There.
That was the album that kind of changed the course I was on. It made me want to be a songwriter; it made me want to experiment with arrangements and dissonance and interesting sounds. It’s an album where you can hear the Stones and Beatles and Neil Young … but it’s also fresh and different. It was one of those things where all of those worlds collided for me and I wore that album out – I loved that album.
So you’re right on with Being There – that’s one of my favorite records of all time.
One of the elements I feel is common is the fact that Lies & Wishes is so personal and reflective and honest – just a soul-wringer of an album – but it’s not a downer … not at all. That’s a rare feat to pull off, but you did it.
Thank you. I need to give a good bit of credit to Steve Berlin on that one. He took tunes that maybe were a bit down-tempo or whatever and reworked them into up-tempo songs … and I think that really changed the face of the record.
Steve’s one of my favorite people in the world; he’s like my father figure in the music business. We’re good friends; we talk; he’s always willing to give advice. The fact the he wants to work with me on my records is humbling and blows me away – he doesn’t work with just anybody. Steve’s not going to work with you if he doesn’t like your tunes. It’s really mind-blowing to me because I’ve been a huge fan of his for 20 years.
Steve has the ability to listen to a group of songs and almost visualize it as a record. The first time I sent him, like, 30 demos of new songs, he chose 11 of them. He already had an idea of how the sequence of the record should go before we even started. He was able to kind of see beyond to the big picture right from the beginning. And I think he sensed that even though there were good songs, the record needed some up-tempo to it.
And that’s the thing: you’re dealing with some pretty heavy subjects, but it’s not what I’d call a dark album at all. It’s simply real.
Thank you. “Nothing Lasts Forever” is a song that’s written basically for my father, for instance. It’s a song about my dad after my mom died: not having a clue; not having a direction; not having a purpose – completely lost and depressed. Even though he was surrounded by all of us, I know he felt completely isolated and alone.
When I first wrote “Nothing Lasts Forever”, it wasn’t anything like what it turned out to be – it was slower; I was playing mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitar … it was nothing like what it turned into. But Steve brought the tempo up; concocted a better arrangement on the spot. All that stuff happened organically – all those little parts.
He did the same thing with “Son Of A Plumber” – a down-tempo, Steve Earle kind of thing that I had going on, all capo’d up on the steel-string guitar with harmonica. Steve Berlin kicked the shit out of that tune, too. He said, “Let’s make it up-tempo; let’s change this; let’s make this more you than Steve Earle.”
It’s a sweet tribute of a song, but I remember thinking when I first listened to it, “Put a little more reverb on it, crank up the drums and you’ve got a surf tune.”
Yeah! It’s so hooky – I mean, it had a hook before, but I think Steve knows how to bring the hooks out even better. That’s one of the things that make him a genius. That’s why Leo Kottke said that “Steve Berlin is the only producer that knows how to be a producer.”
Now that’s a tribute.
Oh, yeah. (laughs) I opened for Kottke at a gig at City Winery in Chicago and we were sitting in the back. talking about Steve. Leo looked at me and goes, “You know that Steve Berlin is the best producer in music, don’t you?” I was, like, “This is coming from Leo Kottke – one of my heroes,” you know?
Steve has the ability to hear things that I don’t – and that’s why it’s a really good musical collaboration. It’s my tunes and his musicality … and it really yields good results. He’s able to see the big picture and recognize how an album should flow. I think those two tunes specifically – “Son Of A Plumber” and “Nothing Lasts Forever” – were completely changed around and I couldn’t be more pleased with how they came out.
And the result is as you mentioned: some of the subjects are very intense – very, very reflective – but they’re not downers, you know?
That’s the thing: I was glad that there were lyrics to refer to. The vibe of some of the songs is actually deceiving. It’s as if … say … you and I are in a room and you’re talking about some pretty heavy stuff, but we keep the lights up, you know? With a good fire going in the fireplace and not letting it get cold and dark.
That’s right – that’s good to hear.
If you don’t mind, just lay a little groundwork about all that was going on in the time leading up to this album.
It was definitely a hard few years there.
Backyard Tire Fire was a 10-year project. It started in a basement in Asheville, NC in 2001 and we basically – with no backing, no nothing – took that shit national and international. We had a good agent; we had a good manager; and we worked our asses off. We played in, I think, 46 states … played up in Canada … did everything from Mountain Jam to High Sierra to Wakarusa to 10,000 Lakes to Wanee.
We worked really hard … but it came down to the fact that Tire Fire just couldn’t keep on going. You could sense it; it was going to implode – and you could either put it on hiatus or we were all going to end up not being friends.
And to be honest with you, the timing of the dissolution of Backyard Tire Fire was right for everybody: our drummer and his wife were about to have their first child; my brother – our bass player – was just about to get married; my wife’s mom – who’d had a long battle with dementia – was in the final stages and declining rapidly … this was all stuff that was going on. As hard as it was to put Tire Fire on the shelf, the timing was right: we needed to be here ; we all needed to be around our families and friends and people we cared about. After 200-plus shows a year for a decade I needed to be here for my wife; our drummer needed to be there for his family; my brother was getting married … the timing was actually right.
And who would’ve thought that a year after my wife’s mom died, my mother would die? We didn’t see it coming; she’d been battling cancer for a long time, but basically what killed her was the treatments – the radiation damaged her beyond repair.
The fact that I wasn’t on the road meant I was around for that period: I was able to sleep on the couch and be there when she was in hospice; be there to help my dad and my family. I would’ve hated to have been on the road and trying to do both.
So, to be honest with you, being off the road for the first time in a decade was a good thing. It allowed me to be where I should be as a good person; a good husband; a good son. As difficult as it was to take something that we’d built up from basically nothing and put it on the shelf, in hindsight, the timing was right.
And this was the period that birthed the songs on Lies & Wishes.
I think in trying to wrap my head around losing my wife’s mom and my mom, I just needed to write. It makes you reflect on your own marriage, you know – seeing my dad and my wife’s dad watching their spouses go … you realize how temporary everything is and how lucky you are. It brought a lot of songs out; I was able to take this hard period of life and turn them into songs.
Which is why these songs feel so personal …
Yeah – that’s where I was coming from. This was songwriting in its purest form, coming from its purest place – not writing because I wanted a hit, you know? I was writing because I had to; I had to get this shit out.
The title song, “Lies & Wishes”? That’s the last song my mom ever heard when she was in hospice. I brought that song to her. What you hear is basically the demo, recorded in my basement. We recorded the drums in the studio.
I wanted to ask you about the arrangement of that song: it could easily tell its story, played on the back porch with just a guitar – but then there are all those great splashes of sound and the big ol’ drum. How much of that was Steve?
This one I’ll take credit on; that whole arrangement is from my basement. I cut the original drums in my basement, but I’m not that good of a drummer (laughs) so we recut them in the studio. The rest is the demo. There’s a moment in the middle section where you can hear me breathing – which you’d never hear on an album, but Steve said, “There’s a vibe here that we’ll never be able to recreate in the studio.”
And he was right: I was writing it in my basement that morning with the tears streaming down my face. It was the heaviest shot I’ve ever had to deal with: saying goodbye to the person who was always my number one fan.
My mom was the first person to say to me in my early twenties, “Why don’t you write your own songs?” Nobody’d ever asked me that before … I was playing all Neil Young tunes and stuff. Saying goodbye was really, really beyond painful … I was in the basement, exorcising my demons and that song came to fruition.
There’s something about writing from that kind of a place; there’s no bullshit – not even slightly. It’s very pure and honest and you’re trying to get raw emotion out because you don’t know what else to do with it. I’d never really experienced anything like that in my life. Watching my mom go was as intense as anything I’d ever dealt with; I really didn’t know what to do except to put some of this stuff into song and melody. That’s my religion; that’s what I do.