Thursday, March 06, 2008

Corb Lund

Because I'm still in recovery mode from Deerhoof at the Phoenix last night, I'm not at the same venue tonight to see Corb Lund--despite the fact that the Albertan's latest album, Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier!, is perhaps the finest Canadian country record in recent history. And I'm not just saying that because Corb paid me to do so--which he did, because I penned his official bio when the album came out last fall.

I've been a big fan since I reviewed his second solo album (and first CD, following a debut cassette) Unforgiving Mistress in 1999 for Exclaim; I gave its 2002 follow-up Five Dollar Bill a five-star review in Eye Weekly, at a time when Lund had trouble making the Tranzac look full during a NXNE gig; I also picked it for that paper as one of my top three releases of 2002. After that, word of mouth about the power of Lund's songwriting pen and his live performances started to spread, and by the time of 2005's Hair In My Eyes Like a Highland Steer, Lund earned gold records for both that album and Five Dollar Bill--oddly enough, awarded on the same day.

Yet Steer sounded like Lund was laying low and backing off after the tour-de-force of Five Dollar Bill, where every track was a stone cold classic. One song on Steer was a goof-off called "All I Want to Do is Play Cards"--and it sounded like it.

The new album, Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier!, isn't a complete concept album, although many songs deal with the role of cavalry in the history of warfare. There's also material about Mormon relatives ("Brother Brigham Brother Young") and Albertan family reunions, but no matter what Lund's literate lyrics are about, he writes with an effortless intelligence and sense of character that's rare in any genre. It's also why his audience is so diverse, which he considers his greatest career achievement.

And another thing--and I'm not just saying this because he paid me to--is that Lund is one of the most down-to-earth and engaging people you're ever likely to meet, which makes him a dream interview under any circumstance.

The bio I wrote is here. Corb Lund himself can be found here in the near future. Toronto locals note that if you missed him tonight, he's playing Guelph and Brampton next week.

Corb Lund
September 17, 2007
Locale: phone from his Albertan home

There’s a long tradition of historical narrative in country songs, from Johnny Horton and Johnny Cash to Geoff Berner. Are there other examples you draw from?

Marty Robbins, some Willie Nelson songs. Story songs are largely missing from the mainstream, and even a lot of alt/roots/underground country. I'm a storyteller, and I've never had much luck with the pure free form/word painting/poetry kind of lyric writing. But the first songs I ever sung I learned from my grandfathers, who were ranchers, and they would sing these ancient cowboy tragic story ballads that had been passed down through oral tradition in the west, before recorded music: “Strawberry Roan,” “When the Work's All Done This Fall,” “Little Joe the Wrangler.” Those are my bedrock, touchstone songs.

One of things I really enjoy about your writing is how distinctly Albertan it is, and yet it’s translated so well not just in Canada but internationally as well. Does that surprise you at all?

I believe that if you write honestly and authentically about your own culture, no matter what it is, people will pick up on the realness and the universality of it. My family's been in Alberta chasing cows for over a century, and in the American west long before that, so that's where I feel at home. I think regionalism is largely missing in commercial music. Everybody's going for generalities, when sometimes the interest is found in the quirky details.

I always use the example of being a young guy growing up on the prairies and hearing Bruce Springsteen; hearing songs about New Jersey slums was the most alien thing ever, very much outside of my life experience. But I got it because he wrote it so well, and with so much humanity. Same goes for The Eagles in Southern California, the Stones writing about living like rock stars, Stan Rogers singing Maritime stuff, whatever. That's the writer's job. If the specifics ring true, interest is held, and universality is achieved. I think: that's the goal anyway!

I guess my point is that I had the same insecurities about whether people outside of my culture and geographical area—the Western Canadian prairies and foothills—would be interested. But so far they have been, as far away as Europe, the UK, Australia. Hell, even Toronto (laughs).

For an album about the cavalry, I’m wondering if there was a decision to avoid more recent references to war, with the exception of the brief mention of the Afghan soldiers in the title track. Was that inevitable because of the decline of cavalry, or is it easier to tell war parables with historic distance?

It wasn’t really a decision, at least consciously. I tend to dig around for exotic detail, and everybody already knows about the stuff on the news. Plus, I've never been much of an overtly political writer. I know some people are, and I respect that form of art. And I do have very strong beliefs about those kinds of issues, but I also think that there's a place for music that makes people feel deeper things than current events. It interests me more to go for more timeless themes, and reach people that way. Despite all the crazy shit that goes on in the world, people still need to be able to just feel good for awhile, and get in touch with the spirit they forgot about because they've been watching the election coverage so closely, etc., etc.

What’s the story behind the song “Student Visas”?

It’s about a guy I met on tour once in the States. He had a crippled back, and we drank beer and he told me his story about his time illegally, covertly in Nicaragua with the US military. Every couple minutes he'd stop and say, 'I'm not supposed to be talking about this,' but then he'd continue. He had some things weighing pretty heavily on him. He would vacillate between soldier/tough guy/bad-ass talk and super heavy crippling remorse. I think he saw and did some pretty heavy stuff. It’s strange for a Canadian to run into that because we read about it and see the movies and read the books, but in America, you actually run into guys from Wyoming, or wherever, that actually did that stuff. Heavy duty.

I know you’re a voracious reader. Was there anything on your recent reading list that inspired these songs?

Oh yeah. Gabriel Garcia Marquez: No One Writes to the Colonel and Autumn of the Patriarch. A bunch of cavalry histories, tactics, battle stuff. A whole slew of French foreign legion books, starting with Beau Geste. And I always read Hunter Thompson's political stuff every three years or so, to keep sharp.

You’ve spent a lot of time outside of North America in recent years. Where do you do well?

We’ve been hitting England regularly for the last few years, and our last few tours have been in 200-300 seat clubs. Australia is getting good. We haven’t been there in over a year, but they’re playing the heck out of us on their version of CMT. It was okay before, but all reports say it will be better next time. In America it’s still a slog, but we’re getting better in Texas. Which is good, because that’s where a lot of people start, a lot of songwriters.

I imagine it’s harder to stand out down there.

It is and it isn’t. They rabidly support live music down there. The audiences seek out original stuff all the time—especially stuff from Texas. There are a lot of guys who make a living just playing in Texas. But on the other side of the coin, there’s this Texan songwriter thing going on. And a lot of it is really good, but it’s just like anything: a lot of it is also really derivative and it’s been done before. After the first couple of tours, people started to pay attention to us, because we’re unique compared to those guys. But we play the same bars, to the same audiences. Because of my background, there’s enough Western stuff in there that they get that part. They’re always surprised that there are cowboys in Canada.

Whenever I’ve seen you—which, the first time, was a tiny cafĂ© in Waterloo with Geoff Berner

Right, where Scott Wicken worked, right?

Exactly. The Raintree. And I’ve seen you at much larger venues since, and every time I’m amazed at who comes out, and the diversity of the audience.

It’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? As you probably know, the only people who came out were people like us who seek out indie music and fans of writing. Since Five Dollar Bill to some degree and to a larger degree with the last record, because of CMT and some of the mainstream country play we’ve been getting, it’s a mixture of the aforementioned hipsters plus regular country listeners. Especially out west, we’re really resonating with the cowboys because of the lyrical content. It’s a mixed bag. I’m proud of that. It seems to cross a lot of societal boundaries. I look into the audience and see ironic cowboy hats and non-ironic cowboy hats.

My heroes are the guys who transcend style, whether it’s Neil Young or Willie Nelson or Dylan. Willie Nelson is a country singer, but he’s just Willie, you know? And Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett are others. They start out in whatever scene suits them best, and they grow to a point where it’s not necessarily a country fan that goes to see them. Most people who go see Willie Nelson aren’t country fans, they’re Willie Nelson fans. Hopefully, well-written honest music can transcend those boundaries.

To me, there are several strengths with your music. First of all, it’s a great band playing great melodies. But there’s a lot going on in the lyrics—both narratively and with creative vocabulary—that even if the music didn’t hook you first, you can instantly tell that there’s something different about it.

There are different levels to it. I worked for 15 years to develop that. Spending 10 years in a rock band helps. It was an indie band, so we were thriving in a scene where uniqueness was encouraged. Compared to a lot of other country artists and songwriters, I think I have a better grasp of band arrangements. I know a lot of guys in Texas and up here who are roots songwriters, and they go in to make a record and just hire guys to play on it. As far as I’m concerned, there is no substitute for a good band of unique players and taking them on the road. That brings a whole new dimension to it. I could take my songs and play them with studio guys and it would be okay. The lyrics would be there and the melody would be the same. But it wouldn’t have the same personality. I think my experience in The Smalls made me aware of that.

There are some people at the shows who like the music because it sounds like old country, and there are some people who focus on the lyrics and sometimes you get into the music and two months later you realize that it’s interesting.

Speaking of your band, I read that you played Glastonbury this year but that you played it solo. Is that correct?

No. The band was there. We played two sets. One was on a side stage with the full band. One was on the main stage with no drummer. As it turned out, we could have used the drummer, but communication got mixed up. I thought I was supposed to do it solo, but I got my bass player and guitar player just to show up and they let them play.

How did you land that gig?

I don’t know! And I especially don’t know how we landed the mainstage gig. It’s a really big deal over there. All my British friends were like, ‘Brilliant. Brilliant, Corb.’ It’s kind of a gateway gig: if you play Glastonbury, you can play any other festival you want. Especially the main stage. We were on right before the Waterboys. The headliner that night was The Who. I didn’t get to meet them but I got pictures of their road gear.

What are some other career highlights of the last two years?

We played a big show in Calgary that was really cool. We’re starting a festival next year called the Corb Lund Cabin Fever Music Festival. You know how [Fred] Eaglesmith has his annual picnic thing out east, right? It’s going to be like that. We’re at the point where we can do that. I want to get the country fans to come and expose them to a lot of other roots music they may not have heard of. We played the kick-off show outside in downtown Calgary and had about 3000 people. It was a triumphant show on our home turf with a bunch of friends’ bands opening. It was a mini-festival. Hopefully next year it will be a full-blown festival somewhere else in the country.

Not in Calgary?

No, probably Red Deer area. In a rural setting. Then Ireland was really good. We went there three times last year and it’s one of my favourite places to play.

I hear a Celtic influence here as well, melodically speaking.

A little bit, eh? Here and there. I swore that would never happen. But it kind of fits historically, like a Civil War thing, because they used a lot of Irish melodies.

“I Wanna Be in the Calvary” sounds very Irish to me.

I keep sayin’ it’s the Pogues meet Johnny Horton. Berner played accordion on those tunes, eh?

Right. And then those two records went gold at the same time—how did that happen? Was Five Dollar Bill still selling steadily when Highland Steer came out?

Yeah, it peaked at about—I don’t know, 35,000 or something like that—and it was always poorly distributed. Highland Steer reached a wider audience, and then a lot of people went back and bought the old one. The fact they hit at the same time was a total fluke. We had a hell of a party.

The last time I saw you was at the Hillside Festival last year, and a large part of the set was still the Five Dollar Bill material.

I’ll always play those tunes. About four or six of them, anyway. I’m always interested and a little nervous in seeing how a record does. I’m pretty sure that the people who like songwriting and are into indie music will dig this record. I hope the country fans will like it. It might be too challenging for them, I’m not sure. There are three or four tunes on there that are straightforward enough to hook ‘em in.

I’m not that well-versed in that audience, but are you underestimating them? Are they really so conservative that they’ll run screaming from mariachi horns?

It’s not that, it’s just that they’re used to getting their stuff down the pipe. There’s a very small percentage of the population who seek out music like you or I do. Most people work for a living and have kids—especially in the rural areas—and even if they hear something they like, they don’t have time to dig around for it. So they turn on the radio or CMT and tap their toe to whatever. And because of the corporate nature of the business, most of the stuff that comes down the pipe is pretty bland, right? Same with corporate rock. But I’m finding that when presented with something different or interesting, they will actually like it. So far it’s worked for me for whatever fluke or reason, and my stuff is being played on country radio beside a lot of the shit.

This is still a country record, though. You haven’t gone pop or anything.

It’s the same thing with this festival I’m talking about. There are so many bands that I know in Canada that I would consider to be country or country-based music that’s clearly outside of the general parameter of radio country fans. I think that country fans—especially rural country fans, who still have a strong taste for old country—heard them, they’d actually really dig it. So that’s my mission. I know a lot of people in the country world who are totally stuck playing in a trap. They might like really interesting stuff, but because they came up through the country system, they have no choice. If they put out a weird record, people would be freaked out.

That’s true of corporate rock, too.

Sure. But I hope my ground has been prepared, because on the last two records there’s some weird stuff going on. Not for you or I, but in terms of a straight country audience, there is.

What do you know about [figure skater] Kurt Browning's performance of “Expectation and the Blues” and how did he hear your music?

I met him at a CBC special a couple of years ago for the Albertan centennial. It was an hour-long special on Albertan music and me and Ian Tyson and a bunch of people were featured. Kurt was the host. He’s actually quite a country boy, that guy. He started out in rural Alberta as a hockey player. His dad is a hunting outfitter, taking guys on packing trips. He used that tune for a skating routine, which is a bizarre choice, don’t you think? (laughs) Especially that song! He did that in America, too. In New York, I think.

Your website says he did it for Gretchen Wilson’s Country on Ice NBC Special.

That’s right! Weirdness.

How often do you actually get to hang out with horses these days?

Not as much as I’d like. We shot a video for the "Calvary" song, so I get to ride in that one. The irony of what I’m doing is that I’m singing about this stuff, but the more popular and successful I get, the less I actually do it.

Which is why you have to reach back into history for material.

Maybe. But I rode at my folks’ place last month when I was home. I can’t keep a horse now because I’m gone so much. My dad is a veterinarian, and we keep cattle and about four horses for working the cattle.

And what is your rodeo past? Trick riding? Bulls?

When I was younger, I did junior bull riding, or steer riding, until I was 15. I did a bit of steer wrestling in high school, which is where you jump off the galloping horse onto the steer. That’s right about the time I got into Black Sabbath, so I retired and got into music. But a lot of my cousins and uncles and grandpas, they’re all cowboys.

All the ones at the “Family Reunion?”

Ha! Yes. That’s my tune for all the “Truck Got Stuck” fans [Lund's CMT breakthrough video hit]. That song has been killing the country fans live for a couple of years, so that should be good. And just to clarify, I’m not hung up on the country fans, but they’re the only ones I suspect will be challenged by this record. In the end, it’s good, because 15 years from now when I have six or eight more records out, I want to leave a canon of work that is unique, where I’ve been able to follow my own vibe throughout. So I’m not afraid to stray away from it now. I feel like I’m a country artist, but I don’t feel constrained by that.

Are you writing material now?

I got one about my German motorcycle. I got a couple of more drinking songs, including one I’m working on with Berner called "Powerful Thirst." I’m kind of off it now, because after the record was finished I just shut down because I was so burnt out.

Do you research this material, or is it stuff you’ve been reading anyway and then it manifests itself in song?

The latter. Then I check my facts sometimes. Mostly it’s based on stuff I already know about. For the "Horse Soldier" song I had to dig around to make sure my shit was correct.

What is “The Horse I Rode In On” about?

That’s the classic song about a performer painting on a smile. That’s partially true. I played this big rodeo in Ponoka, the Ponoka Stampede, which is one of the oldest rodeos in Alberta, in front of 12,000 people. I rode through the audience to the stage in my full calvary regalia. And I was having a crappy day, so I turned it into a song. They had to have security clear a path. I had a sword and a gunbelt and the whole nine yards.

Anything else we should talk about?

Yeah, we should talk about [producer] Harry Stinson. This is the third record I’ve done with him, and he’s awesome. I don’t mention him enough. He’s a big reason for the success of the band, with helping us arrange the songs. I get most of it done, and then you work on ten songs for a year and you’re sick of ‘em. Then he’ll tell us to speed them up or change the key or add a fiddle. And he’s a great singer: he does all the backup vocals.

He’s based in Nashville, isn’t he?

Yeah, he’s one of the only music guys based in Nashville who is actually from Nashville. His dad was a bus driver there. He’s a civil war buff too, so we had fun talking about this record. He’s a drummer, too, and he’s into all that re-enactment stuff. He dresses up as the drummer guy for those things. That’s actually what this new video is about.


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