Back in August, with Hurricane Irene bearing down on NYC and New England, Brooklyn singer/songwriter The Reverend John DeLore tweaked the lyrics to the old Leadbelly classic, “Goodnight Irene,” giving it a timely Gotham City theme, a musical plea to spare the island metropolis. DeLore recorded a solo acoustic version around 3pm on August 28, emailed it to a number of his musician friends across the city’s five boroughs, who in turn recorded additional parts and emailed them back to him. DeLore (a part-time sound engineer with WNYC’s Studio 360) then mixed the 19 tracks (there’s even a Glockenspiel!) for the final version, all of it conceived, recorded and produced within a ten-hour span.
DeLore’s inspired 2009 debut recalls, among other things, the loneliness of the road and the oddly absurd give-and-take inherent in relationships. His latest release, Little John The Conqueror, is an extremely well-crafted take on the hero’s journey. DeLore represents the new breed of DIY artists doing all they can to put their work out there. So far, DeLore’s work, in my opinion, surpasses most of, say, a band like Wilco’s efforts.
I recently spoke with John about the craft of songwriting, poetry, the resurgence of vinyl music releases, what he’d do if he ever met Leonard Cohen, the magic of train travel, and the history of Voodoo Viagra.
[Listen to Ode to an American Urn and Little John the Conqueror at DeLore’s Bandcamp site.]
You’re in Brooklyn, NY, now, but where are you from originally?
I was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, but mostly I was raised in West Allis, a suburb of Milwaukee. We lived on 119th street, just off National Avenue. Up the hill on National was a gas station called Super America. I remember walking up there to buy baseball cards back when they had that dry piece of chewing gum in every pack. I also remember that the Milwaukee Police used to drive down 119th during the summer and we’d flag them down to get these oversize Milwaukee Brewer cards that they handed out to kids.
The neighborhood was called Orchard Hills, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I looked back and realized what a misnomer that was. The orchard had been chopped down decades before, and the hills paved to create the neighborhood. Not that it was a bad place to grow up, but all the street signs and all the subdivision names bragged of a pastoral scene that was long since paved over.
I still have the occasional dream—especially in the summer—where I’m the kid who lived on that same piece of land back when it was still an orchard. In one of those dreams I remember we had a big farm dog that ran loose in the orchard. I also remember climbing way up into the top branches of an apple tree and looking down at a family of deer that lived on our land. They’d walk around and eat the apples that had fallen.
Is “Reverend” John DeLore inspired by other troubadours of the same title? Rev. Horton Heat, Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, Rev. Ralph (a Tampa blues pianist) are a few that come to mind. Or are you an ordained minister?
Back in 2006 I dressed up as a priest for Halloween. I took the black cover off of a Bible, glued it to a copy of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Capricorn,” and bought a real priest shirt & collar from a costume warehouse in Manhattan that was the go-to place for Law & Order. My friends dressed as Cesar Chavez, Fidel Castro, and Kim Jong Il, and another friend was Cameron Frye from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Later in the evening we were out on Avenue B when Fidel Castro started hitting on Rollergirl (from Boogie Nights). Her boyfriend—a human-sized bottle of Jose Cuervo—didn’t take kindly to Castro’s advances. Fidel apologized, but the bottle of tequila was still making a lot of noise. I’d just come out of the party we were at, and aside from the neck of his bottle, I had a good foot on Mr. Cuervo. Without being particularly confrontational, I poked him in the label with my bible. He said, “Easy there, Reverend!” and everything ended peaceably.
I guess from that point on, the prefix just sort of stuck. A band I was in had just dissolved, so I was looking for a new band name, or some kind of stage name. I billed myself as “The Reverend” at a couple solo-acoustic shows. People who knew me said, “Y’know? It kind of fits.”
I did eventually get ordained online and last year I officiated the wedding of my friends and musical co-horts, Kara Suzanne and Bryan Pugh. [Sidenote: If anyone out there needs a good reverend to officiate, I’m pretty affordable. Just know that I don’t plan on trimming by beard. Grooming costs a lot, and a man’s got to keep his overhead low.]
Your latest album, Little John the Conqueror has a more pastoral and country-folk feel than your debut album, Ode to an American Urn (2009), which is laced with a gritty folk-rock sound (including an outstanding cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Iodine”). Anything in particular prompt this change?
First off, I do think there are definitely seeds of the pastoral and country-folk on American Urn, at least in the songwriting itself. But based on what instrumentation we chose, and based on the more angular, indie-rock arrangements that resulted from some of those choices, a lot of the pastoral elements are masked. I mean, if you take a song like “Everybody Loves You Just the Same,” replace the electric guitars with acoustic guitars, and change two or three things in the arrangements, it could very easily be a great song to garden to. Not that you can’t listen to rock-and-roll while gardening. I just mean it would sound more “pastoral,” as you say.
On Little John the Conqueror, the first song after the opening instrumental is “Avenue A.” Aside from the banjos layered into the mix, the song is a definite carry-over from the rock approach of American Urn. It’s like a little fulcrum point between the two albums. And from there, your observation is totally accurate. “Avenue A” is a point of departure, leaving the urban to roam the pastoral.
I like to weave little moments into songs so that they converse with one another. A lot of it is pretty subtle such that people won’t notice it, but I like to think that they’ll feel it, or that they’ll notice it on a subconscious level. I don’t like to reveal these moments, but one example comes to mind here. The second verse of “Avenue A” describes the steam coming up from the steam vents in the city street, meeting the falling leaves. And then in the very next song, you get the correlative image of the fog—a sort of pastoral “steam”—settling down on the trees in northern Georgia.
The juxtaposition of these two images is intentional, and the narrative transition from one to the other is marked by the change in musical feel and arrangement. The driving beat gives way to the rolling beat, the overall density of the arrangement opens up, and the electric guitars give way to the acoustic guitar, harmonica, and pedal steel.
I get excited talking about these things, so I think I got a little off topic. You asked if anything prompted the change in musical approach. The answer is yes and no. I’ve always had an affinity for the narrative and folk aspects of American music, but the cross-country solo-acoustic tour I did back in 2009 probably brought these things to the surface. On that tour I played 42 shows in 52 days in 21 different states, traveling the entire way by Amtrak and Greyhound. I saw just about every landscape this continent has to offer, and I literally spent hours in the middle of it. I had a backpack, a guitar, and a rolling suitcase of CDs. It was beautiful, and oftentimes lonely.
A lot of the lyrical and narrative inspiration for Little John came from that experience, and on a musical level, I think the combination of traveling so much on trains, and spending seven straight weeks with nothing but my acoustic guitar probably led to a less electric, more pastoral mindset.
There’s nothing quite like the sound of a good pedal steel guitar, a magical quality, transcendent even. (Just the other day I heard one of the best examples in, of all places, a Camper Van Beethoven song from the late ’80s.) Who is playing that fine pedal steel on your album?
I really can’t tell you how much I love the sound of pedal steel. It’s got so much pathos. The ear will literally follow the sound of a pedal steel. To me it’s the aural equivalent of watching a bird in flight. Anyway, I’ve been producing my friend Kenny Cambre’s album for the last year or so. Kenny is friends with Rich Hinman, who has toured and recorded with the likes of Rosanne Cash, Ben Kweller, Marc Cohn, Bobby Long, Anais Mitchell, Justin Townes Earle, and Teddy Thompson. Kenny got Rich to come into Black Lodge Recording to lay down some pedal steel a couple of his songs, and while he was there I asked Rich to play on a couple of mine. He read the charts and did a “practice take—when I’m glad I recorded, because he played some amazing licks right off the bat—and then did two more takes of each song.
Little John the Conqueror opens with an instrumental, “Little John’s Theme” with distant sounds of birds chirping and a train rolling down the tracks, and your debut features a couple of traveling songs using percussion that mimics a steam locomotive (“Don’t Fall Asleep at the Wheel”, “New Song for the Crossroads”). I know how Paul Simon feels about the sound of a train in the distance, so how about you?
I love trains. They’re magical. And they’re musical as well. There’s the rhythm of their wheels, and there’s the dark, angelic melancholy of their steam whistles in the distance. It’s like a call of the wild for anyone with a wandering heart…it’s a sign of the possibility of escape. I think that’s what Paul Simon means when he sings about trains, “the thought that life could be better / is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.”
I also love a good road trip, but a lot of times you end up on a five-lane freeway that bypasses nature and bypasses the little towns. Amtrak’s trains still go directly through the heart of nature, and they go directly through the towns. On that tour, I would literally sit for hours at a time, not talking to a soul, just staring out the window at all these different landscapes. You could feel the rhythm of the wheels slowing down as the train glided heavily into some little town. You’d be going slow enough to read the street signs and look into people’s backyards…even into their windows. I saw some woman in Mississippi writing a letter at her kitchen table, and I think it was up in the Northwest there was some kid on his bike waiting for the train to pass so he could cross the tracks. And I saw at least a half dozen Dads out in their yards with kids in their arms, waving at the train as it went by. And then you pull to a stop at some train depot and you watch all these people saying hello or goodbye on the platforms. The whistle blows, the train sneezes, and off you go.
Other times I’d sit in the café car or the glass viewing car talking to complete strangers in a way that doesn’t happen on any other kind of transportation. In seven weeks I heard a hundred different reasons for why people were traveling: a young man heading to New Orleans to apprentice as a mechanic in his uncle’s garage in Louisiana, a woman on her first trip by herself heading to a bowling tournament in Arizona, an old veteran heading to an annual meeting of guys he fought with in World War II, a spiritually-minded guy who just got done camping in the desert heading home to Salt Lake City, a woman on her way to her father’s sickbed in Washington state. That last woman didn’t have a cell phone and had been traveling for 12 hours without having called ahead for an update. She said to me, “he may already be dead for all I know.”
Are you still “Couchsurfing“ on tour?
I haven’t done any lengthy or significant touring in awhile, which I’m a little bummed about. I’ve played a few shows around the Northeast and Southeast, but for the last 18 months I’ve devoted most of my resources—time, energy, and money—to finishing “Little John” and recording my third album. But when I do get back out to do some solo-acoustic touring you can rest assured that I will be couchsurfing. It’s a great community of people.
You’ve traveled here to Georgia (at least annually) and you mention the South in a number of songs, and Georgia in particular in “Northern Georgia Fog” on the new album. What is it about the South that attracts you or influences your songwriting?
Maybe it’s the thickness of the air that offers them better conductivity, but when I’m in the south I can feel spirits everywhere. And it’s not just human spirits. That’s where the line in “Northern Georgia Fog,” comes from: “the trees they loomed like vows.”
Likewise, the people in certain parts of the South seem to believe in magic more than the people up North. I really don’t know how to qualify or expand on this statement, but the people seem to have a deeper, healthier connection to the animal side of nature. It’s the same with their connection to music. It’s not that people up North don’t believe in magic or the animal side of being human, I think it’s just less acceptable to admit it in the light of day.
Plus—and this might be related to the density of spiritual energy—so much of this nation’s musical heritage traces to the South—the blues, country and folk music, spiritual music, rock and roll—they all get some of their soul from the south.
Maybe part of the allure for me can be attributed to the fact that I’m a suburban kid from the Midwest. Even though it’s part of the nation I grew up in, the South always seemed like a foreign land. I read American history as a kid. My impression was that “The North” was the seat of the Industrial Revolution, and “The South” was the seat of the Agricultural Foundation. There’s obviously a lot of tense history that goes along with these distinctions, but the fact at the center of it is that agriculture predates industry; the soil is ancient, the assembly line is modern. And in that sense, a place reputed for its fertile soil is closer to nature, closer to something organic and to something primal. On a mythological level, this is why so many journeys begin with an entry into the forest.
Judging by the depth and quality of your song lyrics and the reference to Keats in your debut’s title, it’s obvious you’re a poet, so I wasn’t surprised to learn you’ve published two books of poetry. Talk about those and the next book you’re planning.
An artist friend of mine recently said to me, “You know, I just don’t think poetry is a viable art form.”
An artist said that? Really? How did you respond?
I just nodded and said, “Okay. Got any of that beer left?” I make a point of not defending or discussing poetry too much, especially on anything less than four beers. Plus, the best way to defend poetry is to continue writing it. In any case, the way she phrased it made me think about the word “viable,” which basically means “capable of life (via).” When I hear that word these days, it seems loaded with commercial, business-world connotations. Sort of like the word “corporation,” which, at its root, is the organic notion of a body, or a “corpus.”
So to ask: “is poetry viable?” sounds to me like an economic question: “does the investment of time and creative energy into an art form yield enough of a return to rationalize a continued investment of energies?”
The way I look at it, though, is like this: there’s this huge cloud of creative energy floating over me, a cloud of inspiration that most people personify as “The Muse.” Now, the Muse looks down at me and says, “Is this kid viable? If I invest all this creative energy into John will he yield enough of a return for me to continue investing my energies in him?” In this way of looking at it, it’s up to me to constantly work at refining my ability to translate & transmute the ideas that I receive. I might turn them into poetry, music, a short story, some odd little painting, or even into a topic of conversation with a friend. But the fact is, I feel compelled and to a certain degree responsible for getting the work done.
I hope this doesn’t sound too esoteric or overwrought, but that’s how I look at it. If nothing else, it helps me keep the ego in balance. Not out of it, just in balance. It frames artistic creation as a more symbiotic relationship in which my “viability” is codependent with art’s “viability.”
With that in mind, I don’t really know if my poetry is any good, but I do know that it is an inseparable part of my viability—my life—as an artist. Without my poetry practice, my music practice would be nowhere. For awhile the written word and the sung word seemed like separate, compartmentalized efforts. But over time I’ve realized that that’s like saying the eyes and the legs are separate compartmentalized efforts, when in actuality, they’re interconnected. They form a corporation, so to speak. And that corporation is capable of walking, dancing, or jumping over a turtle who suddenly darts out in front of you.
So, yes, I’ve got two books of poems so far. The first one, Semper Virens: A Book of Poems in Five Acts, is out of print at the moment. I only printed about 50 copies of that one. The second is called Rough Draft of a Universe, vol. XI, and is available online. The third book—which will come out sometime in 2012—is Rough Draft of a Universe, vol. XII. Ultimately there will be four volumes in this series. The basic idea is that I’m taking notes on my time here on earth, writing out a “rough draft” of objects, people, dreams, and feelings that I want to incorporate into the universe that I plan to create when I get to that point. For example, I like flowers, but why can’t they sing? So somewhere in my imagined universe is a field of flowers that each give off a very quiet little musical note when they blossom. You couldn’t hear just one of them, but if there’s a whole field of them, you can sit on a hill opposite and listen to them.
Whoever or whatever force imagined this universe did a wonderful job. So why not borrow a few ideas? It’s just like folk music, really. It’s love and theft on a different level.
You also work as a sound engineer for Studio 360 at WNYC in New York. How did you land that gig, and how’s it working out?
Back in 2006 I abandoned an attempt at grad school and found myself confused and really broke. A good friend was getting married in Chicago and the thought of reconnecting with old friends sounded like good medicine. So I scraped up the dough for the airfare. At the reception my friend introduced me to his aunt, and right away I told her that her voice sounded really familiar. Turns out she did the news at WNYC, so I’d heard her voice in my kitchen about a thousand times. When I mentioned I was an audio engineer she said she thought the station was looking for some new engineers. So that’s how I got my foot in the door. I did a few things with the news department and at that time Studio 360 was producing an hour-long special on The Great Gatsby. The opening of the hour starts with a party scene at Gatsby’s house, and I did the sound design of that scene, plus a few others later in the hour.
Since then I’ve continued to do a lot of freelance work with Studio 360. It really is one of the best shows on public radio. Their whole M.O. is imagination, so in my book, they’re doing some very important work in promoting the continued practice of re-imagining the world we live in.
I’ve also done some work for a lot of the other shows produced at WNYC (On the Media, Soundcheck, Freakonomics, Radiolab, the Greene Space, WQXR). My heart’s true ambition is to devote all of my time to creating art—be it music or the written word—but while that’s in process, there’s not a better place to work. I’m constantly exposed to artists, thinkers, and amazing stories about everyday people. Plus, the people who work at the station are great thinkers and creators in their own right.
Your latest album’s title is an obvious reference to the various incarnations of John the Conqueror in African American folktales and as a magic root in hoodoo (later mentioned variously by Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley). Is this the spirit of the album?
Yeah. I believe in magic, and in things like spirits, totems, charms, and spells. But I also recognize almost all magic is tied to myth, and that most myth arises from our need to understand and explain. We live in a very strange world that we can’t fully comprehend, and we swim in a sea of things we can’t control. So to cope with the uncertainties of things like life, death, and rebirth, we invent systems of myth, magic, and religious tradition. These things help create a singular—or collective—psychic notion of control over the uncontrollable. Sacrificing a lamb on the altar of a fertility goddess is a way to exert symbolic control over the outcome of a year’s crops; eating a communion wafer is a way to symbolically unite with the son of god; and eating a magic John-the-Conquer Root is a way to symbolically unite with the procreative energy of the earth.
With the root, there’s also a little tongue-in-cheek humor going on, because the actual root has a somewhat testicular shape.
Yeah, they do look like a big pile of balls. Funny (or not) I’m reminded of Joe Christmas’s tragic end in Faulkner’s Light In August.
It’s the Voodoo Viagra. On a character level, John the Conquer was a sort of trickster hero in American slave mythology. He was extremely clever and always found a way of fooling and subverting his master. So all these blues singers who reference the root, or John the Conquer, are calling to mind age-old myth, age-old magic, and age-old humor. It’s wonderful that music can accomplish all of that at once. And if I think about it in those terms, it makes me realize how little modern music accomplishes in comparison.
As my album took shape, the character of Little John the Conqueror started to occupy my imagination. At first he was a kind of tongue-in-cheek alter ego, but eventually he became a fairly separate entity. So he’s primarily a historical character, but as with all folk heroes he’s partially born anew. In my mind, I can see him stepping nimbly out of fifth century B.C., into the deep South circa 1840, and then onto the curb of Avenue A in New York City, circa 2010. And just like his ancestor High John the Conquer—who shape-shifted to evade being captured by the devil—Little John changes shape and adapts cleverly to whatever new surroundings he finds himself in. That’s a good hero to have in your mojo bag.
LJTC is noticeably more complete than your debut, both lyrically and musically, as evidenced by the opening melody of “Little John’s Theme” reprised in the closer, “Blood/Thunder.” The sound is fuller and, I mean this in a good way, more polished now. Were you aiming for this before you began recording?
As I was charting out the songs for American Urn, I was conscious that the songs were stylistically varying. On a narrative, lyrical level it was obvious that they were more vignette than chapter. Again, we could have made arrangement choices that would have given the songs a more contiguous sound and feel, but instead we just embraced the idea and let the songs form more of a musical patchwork.
The main difference on “Little John” is that the songs were all written in a much shorter period of time, a lot of them being worked and re-worked simultaneously, which provided the opportunity to blur the lines a little bit and let them bleed into one another—both lyrically and musically. Also, because a lot of the songs were conceived on that solo-acoustic tour, most of them are songs of separation—some of them celebrating the exploration of new space, and some of them lamenting space between.
On a technical level, “American Urn” was recorded live in the studio, whereas “Little John” was more of an overdub album. Part of this choice was economical, and the other was that it allowed more time for crafting arrangements where instruments are working out themes together. There was also a lot of forethought that went into sequencing the album, tweaking lyrics, and even picking keys and tempos such that one song would flow naturally into another. It felt a lot like putting a puzzle together. At first I had a huge pile of color and shape, and the early stages were a lot of trial and error. But with every stage the puzzle began to take shape with increasing momentum, and as my band got more involved we had the advantage of extra hands helping to sort through the pieces. Eventually the process begins to guide itself, and the hand just moves without much thought. That’s the best moment: when your mind can sit back and enjoy the final picture coming into focus. It’s also one of the most powerful moments in creating something: when you become aware that the Art might have a consciousness of its own. Again, it’s a thin line you begin to walk: are you creating the art, or is the art creating you?
As for the repetition of “Little John’s Theme” at the beginning and the end, this is another tip of the hat to mythology. Just like Odysseus—and countless other heroes and protagonists—Little John leaves home, goes on a journey, encounters all kinds of odd characters and adventures, and then ends up right back where he started. We’re all born out of the earth and when it’s all over, we’re back where we started. Life, death, love and morality are all cyclical in this sense. But just because we end up back in the same place, it doesn’t mean we’re the same person. And by some strange math, because we are changed, the place we return to is also changed. It’s like that T.S. Eliot quote: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Blood, thorns, roses, trains, all seem to be recurring images in your songwriting. Care to elaborate?
All of the most powerful images embody two opposites unified in one object. They overcome duality. A rose is beautiful, but as the great Poisonous Poet of the 1980s sang, “every rose has its thorn.” Go look up the word “passion,” and take a look at the etymological root. Then think about what it actually means to be passionate about some thing, or some one.
As for trains, they represent a mode of escape and a mode of return. In this way, the railways form a large mechanized Ourabouros, the snake eating its own tail. It serves two functions in one body: creative and destructive forces forming a self-annihilating circle. Like the heart, one artery taking blood away from it, filled with oxygen, and then a separate artery bringing it back when it’s depleted.
But when I write, I’m not sitting there with my volume of Carl Jung, trying to craft psychologically charged lyrics. Most times I take the images from life, or from dreams, where even outside of symbolism, the image is just simply something that captures my attention. And then I just hope that it rhymes with another image.
“The Rose of No Man’s Land” begins with a melody very similar to the hymn “O Holy Night”. Is there a sacred symbolism to this song?
It was unintentional that the first line of my song mirrored the first line of “O Holy Night.” The “stars are brightly shining” is a lot like “a neon sign that’s beaming.” I think the lyric suggested the melody, because when I began to experiment with different melodies I realized the first line was just like “Oh Holy Night.” At first I was thinking, “Why does that sound so familiar?” I figured it out pretty quickly and decided to go with it.
It was funny to me, but also fitting. Instead of these religious characters being guided by the celestial light of stars up in the heavens, here’s Little John being guided by the light of a neon sign above a bar. Again, it’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but I do think that both of these scenes are filled with “sacred symbolism.” It’s dangerous to get all your wisdom from the tavern, but I do know a lot of wise men who sit on barstools. Likewise, it’s important to recognize the power of the stars, but it’s also dangerous to project all of your spiritual ambitions up into the cosmos.
What is your take on the state of modern poetry today?
There are countries and cultures in this world where poetry is still popular entertainment, where the poets are celebrities. That’s not the case in America at the moment, and I couldn’t tell you why. Personally, I think part of it has to do with a shrinking of the American attention span and a shrinking of the American imagination. So even though there are still poets out there writing great things, the collective imagination isn’t energized enough to put in the work necessary to approach poetry. Poetry takes work to understand and reality television doesn’t.
In the same vein, pop culture deals increasingly with caricatures. If I tell someone I’m a poet, I think a majority of Americans might still picture me as a beatnik lefty who runs around barefoot cursing the ills of mechanized culture. And this same portion of society has learned to dismiss this kind of person as a crazy character from the fringe.
First of all, I think people should start listening to the fringe a little more. Admittedly, there are some wacky voices out there, but history also produces a long record of thinkers who existed on the fringe and who pushed the boundaries of our understanding. Galileo is a great example. The other thing to keep in mind is that there’s no one template for being a poet or a free thinker. You don’t have to look like Rip Van Winkle or Einstein to be a poet. People have forgotten about guys like Carl Sandburg and Dr. William Carlos Williams.
But I also don’t let modern poets off the hook either. As much as there’s a proliferation of lazy readers, I think there’s a lot of lazy poets out there. I try to pick up a new poetry journal every couple of months, and even in the better-reputed journals, I find a lot of modern poetry to be either over-autobiographical and precious, or intentionally abstract. I am not setting myself up as an authority on modern poetry, but that’s my impression.
Other than yourself, which modern or contemporary poets do you urge people to read?
Well, again, I don’t really urge people to read my poetry; I don’t discourage them either. It’s out there and if you’re curious and have an extra $20 sitting around, buy a copy and see what you think. I’ll certainly appreciate the meal that your curiosity pays for.
With my songs I can look you in the eye and say, “These are really good songs and I think they are better than a lot of other songs you might listen to.” But with the poetry, I’m not going to sit here and say that my poems are better than other people’s poems. Not yet anyway. I readily admit that there’s a good chance you might read my poetry and lump some it into the Over-Autobiographical end of the spectrum, and some into the Over-Abstract.
But, if I had to list the poets that I like, I’d say Carl Sandburg has been my favorite for the last few years. He even gets a shout-out in “Little John the Conqueror.” I also enjoy Walt Whitman, John Ashberry, Rimbaud, large parts of Ginsberg’s body of work, about half of Dylan Thomas’s work, Lorca, and Rilke. I haven’t read a lot of him, but Gerard Manley Hopkins comes to mind as a guy who abstracts nature in a way that still feels natural. I always keep a copy of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” nearby to give me strange dreams.
I feel the same way about “Prufrock” — strange dreams indeed with that yellow smoke and crippling hesitation. It is like a love song that I can hear in my head while I’m reading.
Right. I’d recommend people listen to some recordings of Carl Sandburg and Dylan Thomas reciting their poetry. They don’t “read” their work, they “recite” it. It’s much more like music than most people would expect. The famous Dylan Thomas poem “rage, rage against the dying of the light” is wonderful on the page, but if you put on some headphones and really listen to the timbre of his voice, it runs down your spine like warm wine. And Carl Sandburg sounds like a well-dressed ghost who creeps right up to your ear to describe a mouse he saw the other day.
That’s one of my goals, actually: to learn to write and recite poetry in that fashion, but with my own voice. I think that will be more difficult than writing songs. And I think when I can accomplish that feat, I will be more likely to look you in the eye and say, “Listen to this!”
Your backing band is known as The Rolling Bombers. To me, it brings to mind images of a hippie roller derby team or a Bay City Rollers cover band. What’s the story behind the name?
We gave them that name on American Urn, but I don’t think they’re credited that way on Little John, even though it’s pretty much the same lineup. We took the name from the drum kit that Jay Frederick plays on the recordings, a set of Slingerland Rolling Bombers from the early 1940s. They were made during the war, and because the U.S. government was demanding so much metal for war goods, they required that all “non essential” goods produced during that era have only 10% metal. So Slingerland came out with these drums where the lug casings are hand-carved Rosewood and the hoops are Mahogany. The kick drum is the size of a hot tub. The whole kit sounds huge. The drummer who plays on a lot of T-Bone Burnett produced albums plays this same kind of kit.
Anyway, it was a spontaneous decision to credit the band as “The Rolling Bombers.” Right now the “Rolling Bombers” are Jay Frederick on drums and percussion, Steve Lewis on guitar, backing vocals, and pretty much all the lead guitars, John “Betty” Bettencourt on the bass, and Doran Danoff on the piano and backing vocals.
You co-produced your first album, and produced and recorded your second. What were the most daunting challenges involved with doing so?
Loss of objectivity is the number one challenge. After writing the songs, charting them out, rehearsing them, playing them live, recording them, over-dubbing, editing and comping, by the time you get to mixing the songs you can really be burned out. The album is still 6 months from being released, and already the songs are feeling old to your ears. This is where it is essential—at least for me—to have a good co-producer and/or a really creative mixing engineer.
On American Urn I was fortunate to have Steve Lewis and Bryan Pugh producing with me. When I got stuck on a song, they’d come in with fresh ears and tell me, “Hey, the tempo is supposed to be this,” or “that verse isn’t necessary,” or “let the piano take that instrumental section.” Actually, all the guys in the band were part of that during the recording, but when it was early in the morning, or late night after the band had gone home, Bryan and Steve were the main voices that brought objectivity back into the fold.
On Little John, because it involved so much more overdubbing and piece-by-piece arrangement, and because I did 95% of the recording on my own, by the time it got to mixing I was even less objective. Again, I was really fortunate to have Bryan Pugh as the mix engineer. Bryan has the golden ears of a great engineer, and the arranging ears of a musician.
We hadn’t really played a lot of these songs live, so Bryan hadn’t heard most of them, and this gave him the advantage of almost complete objectivity. Right away he was doing what I call “reductive arranging,” where instead of adding things to make an arrangement sound fuller, he was taking elements out. So instead of coming in at the top, the piano gets muted until verse three, or the electric guitar disappears during the bridge and re-enters at the last chorus. Instantly the songs not only gained in dynamics, but also in space. Instruments were treated in an almost theatrical sense, entering stage left to deliver a monologue, or to trade lines with another instrument, and then exiting again until the story needed them again.
The other biggest challenge—which applied more to the recording session for American Urn—was wearing the producer’s hat and the performer’s hat at the same time. These were low-to-no-budget projects, so I was handling the booking of the studio time, taking care of cartage for the drums, the scheduling of each day’s session, the scheduling of time to listen back to tracks, the coffee making, the food orders, and even sometimes, to keep costs down, the making of a pan of lasagna to bring to the session. So you’ve got all these logistical, left-brain things going on, but then you step in front of the microphones, and you have to forget the lasagna and about scheduling a piano tuner for the next morning. You switch your right-brain on and focus on creating the music.
The cure for this challenge is coffee in the morning, a little whiskey at night, and most importantly, a full faith in the people around you. You’ve got to go into that situation with a band that is communicative, energetic, and supportive of the songs. And you’ve got to have an engineer who isn’t just there to push buttons and twist knobs. Again, it’s a beautiful form of “corporation.”
Your cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Iodine” on your debut is quite mesmerizing. Have you ever met the man himself?
No, but I’d love to sit down over a bottle of wine. I don’t want to push it, but if he had time to watch a black & white movie, I’d be cool with that.
Who are you listening to these days?
I’ve been on a vinyl kick recently.
I hear you! I recently resurrected my old turntable after picking up an old Wyn Kelly album for $.25, Blues Breakers with John Mayall and Eric Clapton, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee albums for a couple of bucks.
Old record stores beat the hell out of iTunes. I picked up a Roy Orbison “Greatest Hits” LP in excellent condition for one dollar. One dollar! Do you know how good “In Dreams” sounds on vinyl? And I got a double-LP from the late 70s called “Country Comes to Carnegie Hall,” which was originally marked at a dollar but it was “half-off books and records” at the St. Vincent DePaul in Plymouth, WI, so it was only 50 cents. And now I’m in love with Don Williams and Freddie Fender. So I’ve been flipping between the $1 stack purchases and a bunch of other records.
Last year I picked up six Nina Simone records on vinyl which I can’t get enough of. She’s on my turntable at least once a month. I got a couple great John Hartford albums at a store up in Montreal that I’ve been digesting, and I picked up three Loudon Wainwright III albums at a street fair in Brooklyn.
As for newer records, I got Pavement’s double-LP greatest hits release last year as a Xmas gift. I’m a late arrival to the Malkmus fanclub, but I’m happy my friend got me into his music. I’ve listened to the new Bill Callahan album at least a dozen times, and My Morning Jacket’s new album is getting a lot of turntable time as well.
Digitally, my little iPod shuffle is currently home to Bon Iver’s new album, Kanye West’s Dark Fantasy, a bootleg concert of Townes Van Zandt from the late 70s, and a bunch of the re-released Beatles’ Mono recordings. I’ve got high hopes for the new Wilco that comes out in late September, and I am slightly giddy that the re-united Jayhawks are releasing an album in a couple weeks as well.
Can’t wait for that one either. They re-released their classic “Bunkhouse Album” last year on CD and vinyl. Great stuff. So, what’s next for John DeLore?
Production-wise, Bryan is finishing the mix the Kenny Cambre album we’ve been working on, and that should be out by the end of the year. After that Bryan will start mixing the album we recorded at the end of March, which is called “Songs From Church Avenue.” It’s a much quieter album than the first two. A little darker as well, but quite lovely, I think. The songs take place in a city in late Autumn, so we’re aiming to release it in late October as a sort of soundtrack for the season.
I’m also producing a kind of art film to go along with the album. My cousin Keegan Uhl is a filmmaker out in LA. He came over to NYC at the end of March to shoot footage of the entire recording session, plus a bunch of documentary-style footage around Brooklyn and in the city. We weren’t sure what we were going to get, but after going through some of the footage, it’s shaping up to be a really beautiful piece of music & imagery. We’re both really excited about seeing it come to fruition, but both Keegan and I work a lot, so we’re literally shoehorning the editing process into whatever hours we can find. It’s a fairly massive undertaking for two independent artists, so we’re currently in the process of starting a Kickstarter campaign to raise the last bit of money we need to cover the time and expenses of mixing, editing, and final production. If anyone is interested in supporting this project they can find out more at my website www.johndelore.com.
After this album is put together, I plan to spend a few months this winter editing the next volume of “Rough Draft of a Universe,” and booking some shows for 2012. I’ve also got a book of short stories that I’m working on, but that will probably take another year or two to fine tune.
Really, though, the main focus is twofold: one—making my music, and two—finding ways to get it out there. In the next year I want to get my band out on the road, and I’d also like to get over to Europe to do some solo-acoustic touring. Along these lines, I’m starting to work on getting some kind of management, label, and/or booking agent behind my music. I love being an independent artist, and I fully understand the sense of self-satisfaction you can get in doing something yourself. But I also know that some of things that take me ten hours of work and a hundred emails to accomplish, someone in the music business can make happen in ten seconds with a text message. The fact remains that “division of labor” is still the way to go for any artist who wants to concentrate on making his or her art.
Some friends have told me that the record industry is dead and that it’s not even worth it for an independent artist to deal with a label. That may have been true eight or ten years ago, but the game has changed. Instead of the three or four major labels that used to run the show, there are now a hundred or more smaller, more personal, and all around more agile organizations that are re-invigorating the musical landscape.
All that said, I’m not waiting around for anything to magically happen. The real thrill for me is in writing the songs, arranging them with the band, recording them, and then playing them live. If I have to release twenty albums independently, tour by train and Couchsurf until I’m gray in the beard, then by god, that’s what I’ll do.