Monday, July 14, 2008

AMERiCAN RELAY: Brangin' The Hard Boogie from The Colorado Hill Country

American Relay will be playing The Deep Blues Festival on Sunday July 20th. Nick Sullivan(guitar)and Alex Hebert(drums)took time out of their busy schedule to emerge from their bunker-like blues fortress in the bowels of Denver's historic Armory building to answer a few questions via email:

How long have you guys been playing together?

Nick Sullivan- We played our first show just over three years ago as American Relay.

Alex Hebert- Before that we spent about 8 months banging on various instruments, trying to find our dynamic. We also endured a free-jazz saxophonist (a friend and co-worker), and a fire-spinning ‘harmonica player’, (also a friend and co-worker.) Oh, and an early show as something called ‘homage’, or was it ‘ohmage’? I swear we weren’t hippies.

You guys compliment each other really well. Y'all are tight as hell but yr so tight that it's loose. I see that Alex plays drums as well as guitar. Which came first? and do you think that Alex's knowledge of guitar is what makes you so symbiotic?

NS- I think the symbiotic aspects of the band are based more in being a duo then anything else. Being able to fill out the sound with just drums and guitar is a big part of what we do and also how we play together. I try to play the whole guitar and what isn’t filled between the guitar and the basic elements of he beat is where Al’s amazing tom work comes in to keep our “wall of sound” going.

AH- Isn’t Nick sweet. Compliments will get you everywhere. Early on we both discovered our strengths and limitations, through playing various styles of music we were interested in, but it always seemed that when we brought it back to the blues, or our best approximation of the blues, that things really gelled on all the levels we were looking for. As for guitar v. drums, drums came first. Guitars were always something I flirted with, but never went the distance with. Then I bought a dobro, and the raw percussive nature of it drew me in, got me inspired, led me to explore music in new ways, and has added a whole new element to our sound.

How did you happen to start playing together?

NS- We met at The University of Colorado at Denver, after had Al posted a bulletin saying that he was looking for a band, and looking for one that was more about what he didn’t want to play than what he did. It wasn’t clearly defined, but stated that some of his influences were R.L. Burnside and Tom Waits. I had wanted to start up a band at that time and it was music to my ears.

Had you been in bands prior to American Relay?

NS- This is the first band that I have ever played in.

AH- I have played in bands since I was a teenager. Never anything very serious, punk-rock mostly, which was a great playground for a lazy drummer with lots of energy. My favorite band was ‘When Eskimos Attack’. The name says it all.

Corn and Oil was produced by dudes who had worked with Chet Atkins, Back Street Boys, and Steven Seagal. How'd that come about?

NS- We have been real fortunate to work with some amazing audio engineers in Clark Hagan and Bret Stuart. I went to school for audio engineering and was fortunate to cross paths with Clark who had just come back to Nashville after working with Chet Atkins for the last ten years of his life. He brought me in under his wing and introduced to me to a recording heritage that goes back to Elvis and Roy Orbison, old school methods that really made those records back then have an everlasting quality to them. Bret Stuart is a whole other story as he just showed up at a studio that Clark and I were both in the process of installing. He is one of those “gorillas” that engineer music to sheer you ears off. Along with mixing most of the first back street boy’s records, and of course Steven Seagal’s “blues” record, he also has worked with a diverse range of artists including Arturo Sandoval, Keith Richards, Run from RUN-DMC, and Rockwilder. Having Clark and Bret bring their expertise to “Corn and Oil” helped us get an old school sound that could also hang with the modern recording styles of today. It is almost impossible to replicate the recording environments used on all the classic old-school records and to get even close to that sound took a lot of engineering and gear. I think with “Corn and Oil” we came away with a record that kept it rootsy but is still a modern sounding record.

Did you get to check out Seagal's infamous guitar collection or get Kevin from BSB to give you any vocal exercises or choreography tips?

NS- I can fortunately say that we have not had any personal experience with Seagal or the BSB’s. The only reason that we worked with Bret Stuart was because he wanted to escape Los Angeles/Orlando and came to Denver to get away.

How do you think your sound has changed from the time you recorded Corn and Oil in 2007 to now?

AH- Since we released the record, and I use the term ‘released’ lightly, we have played close to 150 shows, and done 3 west coast tours. Our experiences over the last year have definitely had a huge impact on our playing and our discovery of music. I personally find myself reaching farther and farther back into blues, gospel and early folk music, and it seeps into what I want to hear when we play. Those influences are present on a lot of the new stuff we are working on, and I think have improved our older songs too.

NS- I think we are becoming more in tune with ourselves as players and livers of the blues, as opposed to a couple of punks with instruments and some old blues records. Personally, I feel like I am more comfortable with myself, especially as a singer. I also feel very grateful to be putting out roots based music and being a part of such an important heritage. I look forward to the next record and expanding the boundaries of what blues records can sound like. We are going to be recording in some really unique rooms and that has as much of an effect as the gear you use.

y'all are playing The Deep Blues Music and Film Festival in a few weeks. what does that mean to you?

NS- Everything really. To have an event that brings together the artists that encompass the family aspect that we have within our blues/roots community is huge. I think that we are part of a musical revolution right now and I say that from the amount of reaction we get from night to night. So many people are in disbelief that we are playing this music that has such effect that they can’t explain. The Deep Blues Festival gives us an event that we can rally behind and show that our strength as an artistic community is much more powerful than just the individual band.

AH- We have made a lot of new friends over the last few years, and many of them will be at this event. Some of them we get to meet for the first time in person, which is pretty exciting in our day and age of e-mail and myspace networks. This is also our first festival gig and I can’t think of a better place to get our proverbial chicken wings wet. And hell, I heard you’re gonna be there.

Which is reason enough for anyone to attend The DBH. cough. ahem.

what's the word on the next record?

NS- Hopefully we will start tracking in August and finish the thing in November for the holiday shopping season. In between then and now we will be trying to grow money on trees to make that happen…

Any new stuff recorded?

Not yet.

Will you be working with Clark and Bret again? Corn and Oil does have, as you say "a rootsy but still modern" sound that does a really fine job of getting you out of the garage without wiping all the grime and dust off.

AH- We are looking to release the second record at the end of the year. A couple of older songs that didn’t make it onto Corn & Oil will be on there, but the rest are tunes we’ve been working on while on the road and over the summer. We haven’t even finished writing all the songs, but I’ll start cutting drum tracks and my guitar parts in August. We will take a similar approach on the new record, but we are gonna try some new things too. There will be some tracks featuring the dobro, and we’ll be recording some tracks with room mics in an old Armory we call HQ in 5 Points. That’d be our hood in Denver.

NS- Clark Hagan will be on the project but Bret is back in Florida supposedly building a studio next to the biggest strip club in the world. We will be going for a the less is more philosophy on this record and I am pretty sure we can some tape for drums which is the absolute best situation while still working in the digital realm. There definitely be a guerilla style ethic on this record as far as how and where we record so it should be interesting to see how it all comes out.

Let's talk influences a bit. Your MySpace page lists everyone from Fat Possum Records' Asie Payton to Pearl Jam. I also hear a good dose of Kenny Brown in your tone Nick. How did you happpen to come to the dark side or Fat Possum related side of the blues? I know i'n my case i'm a musical explorer and I want to hear everything that exists in music at least once. But I had a hard time finding a blues artist (Howlin' Wolf being a big exception) that moved me deeply until I heard Junior Kimbrough. You talk about searching for your sound. Was there one blues artist in particular that really knocked you out and made you decide that this was the sound you were looking for?

AH- I have always liked the blues, mostly in the form of early Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, but when I heard ‘Ass Pocket of Whiskey’ by R.L. Burnside and the Blues Explosion, that was definitely genre busting, and led me to explore alot of the lesser known artists of the past and present. What really sealed the deal for me when it came to American Relay’s sound was seeing the Juke Joint tour in 2004 with T-Model Ford, Cedric Burnside and Kenny Brown. That’s when I turned to Nick and said, ‘this is where it’s at.’

NS- I am still in the midst of the guitar tone odyssey and am slowly dialing in how I want my guitar sound though there are still some financial obstacles to overcome in that area. Kenny Brown is for sure someone I look up to not only for his tone but his overall playing style which is super tasty and nasty at the same time. I also look up to Elmore James for his tone and style and would one day like to get into more of that acoustic-electric sound as it just has that searing soul scorchin’ aspect to it.

You mention doing a lot of show in the last year. Any particular shows that really stand out? Any particularly outstanding venue the other artists should know about?

AH- Our shows here in Denver keep getting better and better, last weekend we played with the Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band our ‘bum-core’ friends SlakJaw at the Bluebird Theater, and we had a full-on tent revival. It felt like people were embracing what was happening, letting go, sweating, that it was something larger than just some bands on stage. One of the best nights I’ve ever had playing music. If yer ever in the Northwest, gotta play the Axe and Fiddle in Cottage Grove. Not a lot of money in it, but its a cool venue and its run by great people. Probably our most memorable show on the road, just for the sheer chaos of the event, was in Reno at the Zephyr. The Zephyr is kind of a hippie joint, but this night the place was filled with 200 drunk punk-rockers. After people started throwing beer bottles at the walls during our set, the owner/manager got on stage, took the mic from Nick, thanked the bands, and told the audience ‘get the fuck out.’ That’s when he got nailed in the head with a ceramic ashtray, the bartender pulled out a baseball bat, and all hell broke loose. So we played a couple more songs.

I'm sure that, like me, there are a lot of artists that you are looking forward to seeing at The Deep Blues Festival. Any artists in particular that you are excited to see?

AH- The Pack AD(BC) and Gravelroad(WA) are two of my favorite bands touring right now, its always good to see them again. I’m glad I finally get to see Bob Log III. It was about 12 years ago I randomly caught a Doo Rag show, and that shit blew me away. John Schooly finally. I’m bummed we can’t make it for the first day of the fest, I really want to see T-Model again, plus the Juke Joint Duo, and Hezekiah Early and Elmo Williams.

NS- I will be happy to catch as many of the artists on the bill as I know if they on the roster then I am looking forward to seeing them.

Let's say you've got a five disc cd player. Who's on it today?

AH- Charlie Parr, Furry Lewis, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the discs from ‘An American Anthology of Folk Music’, and some Buzzcocks for good measure.

NS- Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings, Willie Dixon, Jimbo Mathus and Knockdown Society, Daniel Lanois, and Antibalas.

Last good book you read?

NS- Charlie Wilson’s war, EPIC.

AH- I finished ‘What is the What’ by David Eggers on our last tour. It’s the story of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, but is kind of an amalgamation of the shared experience of the thousands of people who have had to flee their homes and abandon their lives due to the violent power struggle in Sudan. It is actually an uplifting book, believe it or not, and there is some great insight on our own American society in there too.

Nick, if American Relay is the first band you've been in what were you doing prior?

NS- I kept myself busy exploring more electronic based music with drum machines and synths and also learning the audio engineering side of things. I was never really into playing in bands as I didn’t find there was the right people or right musical direction so I usually just stuck to being a bedroom based guitar player up until American Relay came along.

What was the first song you mastered?

AH- Probably ‘Curtain Call’. Nick came up with the riff one night, showed it to me, and I think in one session we pretty much nailed it, and it hasn’t changed much since.

Do you guys come from musical families?

AH- My grandfather was a drummer in Morgan City, Louisiana, playing in Dixieland bands in the 1930’s before he bought a truck stop and started raising a family. In my home growing up, music was always celebrated, even if my folks weren’t necessarily musically inclined. My mom plays some guitar and piano, and I was surprised to find out how many old folk tunes she knew at a recent reunion of old family friends.

NS- To a certain degree, my parents met in a church choir and my dad has been known to play the harmonica and duclcimer.

Did you try having a bass player as you started woodshedding to find your sound or was the Never Knowing When To Shut Up Annoyance of having a harmonica player enough to turn you off to any other members?

AH- We tried a few bass players in the first year or two, and we still get bass players at shows bugging us to this day, saying things like ‘Y’all sound great, but if you had a bass player...’ Most of them were either too traditional, too drunk, or too tall, and we don’t need anyone making us look any shorter. We did have one session early on with a friend of ours who would have been perfect, but his band wouldn’t share.

Where did the name American Relay come from? are y'all super-patriots or was there a UK band called Relay or...?

NS- Well once we knew that our music was going to be based around the blues I think I personally related the relationship between the blues and the good ol’ USA as powerful bond within our history and was a connection that brings a lot of pride as well. I can’t say I have too many of those relationships with my country these days and so when it came to a name we wanted something that had a latent meaning rather then a more ambiguous one. It comes down to being a band that tries to connect with our American musical heritage and keep it in peoples faces as not to forget about it. Thus American Relay came around after some lengthy word play…

Last Question: For the folks we pity who have not heard you what does American Relay sound like?

AH- Remember that ‘this is you brain on drugs’ tv commercial from the 80’s with the eggs frying in a cast iron skillet? It’s like that, only Howlin’ Wolf is fryin’ those eggs, and he’s got some bacon in the pan too. And he’s on a motorcycle.

NS- Two men standing a combined 11 feet tall trying to revive the soul of American Blues rock ‘n’ roll with sweat, soul, and amplified fury….

Thanks guys! The DBF will be my first chance to see American Relay. Several other bands playing the fest have told me American Relay is not a band you want to have to follow. See y'all on Sunday!






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