As published in Arthur No. 33 (Jan 2013)…
A career-spanning conversation with JACK ROSE, American musician, recorded just a few months before he died in 2009
By Brian Rademaekers
When I started covering music in Philadelphia in 2007, my beat—the city’s crumbling post-industrial river wards—felt like a veritable nexus of weird folk and psychedelic experimentation. The Espers clan and their compound, Fern Knight, Fursaxa, and heavy-hitters like Bardo Pond were all there, churning out a storm of beautiful, strange music that seemed in part a product of the ancient, twisted alleyways of Fishtown and Kensington.
Here, Jack Rose was the benevolent, unassuming King—a master set apart from his peers by a massive presence and an indomitable, mystical talent that elevated him from mere musician to magician. He was a dark alchemist, transforming calloused flesh, polished wood and taut steel into the intoxicating, intricate worlds of sound that were his music. Not that Jack — Jack the giant, hulking Virginian — would ever presume to wear a crown; it was just something that he brought into the room with him, disarming all with a humble warmth offset by a blunt, caustic confidence that he wielded like a knife at just the right moments. These days, most of the musicians from that scene are gone from the neighborhood, though none as gone as Jack.
When I first heard Jack’s 2005 album Kensington Blues, I was thunderstruck, lost in awe that such a masterpiece not only existed, but that it was made in my time, by a man whose elbows polished the same bar counters as mine. Listening to Jack’s recordings was great [see sidebar for a complete discography] but best of all was seeing Jack live, spreading his gospel in church halls or little clubs or living rooms and, finally, along the banks of the Delaware River for a summer concert series shortly before he died.
Watching him amble up to his chair with guitar in hand signaled the start of near-religious experience. He would hunch over the instrument, cock his head to the side and, with closed eyes, unleash wild syncopated layers of rhythms, leaving listeners rapt in a sort of devastated trance. Here was this giant bearded man suddenly becoming seamlessly enmeshed in his guitar to create these idiosyncratic spells that were at once as delicate as flowers and as forceful as hurricanes. Seeing that miracle in the flesh, there was nothing else like it in the world. For me, it was like being a jazz freak in the ’40s and living down the street from Charlie Parker.
So began a years-long obsession. I felt compelled to document this genius quietly living in our midst. And Jack obliged. It never seemed to bother him that some reporter from a little local paper was always pestering him, asking for details about a show or politely begging for an advance copy of a record. In that way, Jack betrayed the appearance of a dominating, cocksure master and revealed a man with a very big heart.
My pretext for interviewing Jack in the summer of 2009 was his forthcoming long-player on Thrill Jockey, Luck in the Valley. Jack was elated. He and his wife, Laurie, had just bought a tidy little brick rowhouse a few blocks from the city’s blasted Port Richmond waterfront. He bragged about his new car, a Honda that he loved for its efficiency in carrying his guitars from gig to gig. He raved about a pizza joint he’d found down the street, about how quiet his block was. To him, the Thrill Jockey release was the milestone he’d been awaiting, a culmination of years of hard work and mastery that meant he could finally say he was making good bread on the merit of his music.
For three hours, he let me follow him around the house, tape recorder in tow, as he smoked and poured tea and pulled LPs from his wall of records. He was a man satisfied, a musician reveling in the feeling that his art was finally about to find the place in the world that it deserved.
When Jack died a few months later, I groped through the shock, looking for some way to respond to the ugly, gaping hole that had so suddenly appeared, and decided on transcribing the whole of our conversation from that summer day on Ontario Street. That tape is presented here, and captures Jack in a bright mood at the peak of his career, ruminating on everything from his first lessons to his labor on “Kensington Blues” to the joy of landing the Thrill Jockey deal.
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Jack Rose grew up in Fredericksburg, Va., where he lived until he was senior in high school. He then moved to Richmond, Va. for college, where he studied English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Later, he would move to Blacksburg, Va. where he met Mike Gangloff and Patrick Best, fellow members of Pelt.
ARTHUR: When did you start playing? Did you have musicians in the family?
JACK ROSE: I started playing in high school, started playing classic rock. I just picked up the guitar because I wanted to play “Stairway to Heaven,” like everyone else. I discovered blues right around the same time, too, and I started doing fingerpicking at about the same time that I was taking lessons for electric guitar…I was about 13. It was pretty early on.
Do you think that had anything do with where you grew up?
No, that was pure luck. I was sitting on my porch, and there was a kid next door to me and he was sitting on his porch, he was from New Jersey, visiting his parents. I guess he was about 17, and I heard this fingerpick guitar. I had heard some fingerpicking on some Zeppelin stuff, but this was something different, so I went over and asked him what he was doing. He was playing some Mance Lipscomb song, and he had this book…it had tunes by (Mississippi) John Hurt, Gary Davis, Mance Lipscomb, and I think there was a (John) Fahey tune in there as well. So what I did was, I borrowed the book until I could get a copy myself. Then I bought the records they suggested. I’d pick the tunes I wanted to play and then get the records.
That was pretty lucky run-in. What year was that around?
Yeah, it was totally by chance. I guess it was around 1985? 84? I showed my guitar teacher what I was doing, and he said, ‘Well, can you sing?’ I said no, and he told to just forget about it and stick with the playing. And I did.
Yeah, Howlin’ Wolf, and Buddy Guy… He was trying to make me into a jazz guitar musician, but I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
So your immediate attraction was to blues guitar?
Yeah, I liked guys Buddy Guy and Otis Rush and Link Wray and Muddy Waters, and I liked Howlin’ Wolf a lot. I had this electric blues band called The Mice. I was like 15.
That was your first band?
No, I had a band called Naked Lunch. Then there was Ugly Head with Patrick before Pelt we joined Pelt. That was my first record I put out. Pelt sounded like post-Sonic Youth, Husker Du and stuff like that before that. I started ordering all these records from Forced Exposure, and I turned Mike onto that and we started listening to all this stuff from them.
What sort of music?
Dead C, and a lot New Zealand stuff like Dadamah, Gate, some English stuff like Simon Wickham-Smith, Richard Youngs, and also Sun City Girls…
Jumping from electric blues and more traditional stuff like Howlin Wolf and Buddy Guy, what attracted you to that?
Well, there was no jump, really. I mean, there wasn’t a jump from that to that. When I first went to college, I got into the Stooges, I got into Television, I got into Captain Beefheart, which was the next logical step into that stuff. But I guess for my age, it should have been hardcore from the beginning, but it wasn’t. From that, I got into the weirder shit.
What was it that attracted you to that weirder stuff, things that weren’t as constructionist?
It was just like everything that was being put out at the time, produced, was like very indie rock. Some of that I still like, like Pavement and all that sort of stuff. I think that out of the indie rock stuff, the only thing that really holds up is Pavement. You had all this stuff like Teen Beat, and Dischord…we were just kind of sick of it.
When we got into the Sun City Girls and The Dead C, we wanted something that wasn’t going on, and you know, friends of ours were making that sort of music… My friend Jason Bill joined the band Charalambides, and through them I got into all the stuff on Siltbreeze, like Harry Pussy, and Brother JT and Strapping Fieldhands…
During this period, were you still interested in playing fingerpicking style?
Not really. Mike (Gangloff) had started playing banjo, and I still had a few blues records—I had sold a lot of it because I was broke all the time—so I played him some of those, and he asked me if I could (fingerpick). I said, ‘Yeah, I can do a little bit.’ I was really out of practice, and I didn’t do anything too serious. Then, when I moved to Blacksburg, I started listening to Matt Valentine of Tower Recordings, and that turned me on to all the British folk stuff. So I started listening to Incredible String Band, and messing around with the guitar a little bit, and then Mike was like, ‘Ah, we should start doing this old time stuff,’ so we started up this first old time band called the Lick Mountain Ramblers, but we never put anything out. It was me and his wife Amy, on autoharp. But it was a real tough time for me because I had cut my finger in a cuisinart and got eight stitches. It was really hard to play that stuff because you’ve gotta hold those chords down for a long time. I couldn’t do that, so I started doing things in open tunings and trying to figure out how to play those songs, but in open tunings. I mean, I started doing open tunings with Pelt because I just wanted to do something different to try and it was good to get drones going. But when I was doing old time stuff with Mike, most of those older guys had done that stuff played in standard tuning…but after a while, my finger would just kill me and I would just stop playing in the middle of gigs because I couldn’t take the pain.
Was this at the beginning of Pelt?
Pelt started in Richmond in 1995, and in ‘96, I moved out to Blacksburg. Mike was already out that way about 50 miles west. So when I got into town, he was getting really into the old time thing, and he drafts me into this ad hoc band (to do some fingerpicking). It wasn’t that good, because I just wasn’t interested in doing that, you know. But then I started doing the open tuning stuff to be able to keep up with the banjo playing. That was going at the same time as Pelt. Patrick was still in Richmond. Then I moved to Philly, in 1998.
Were you doing else besides Pelt at the time?
When I moved to Philly, I knew I wanted to make some solo music, but I didn’t know what I wanted to make.
Were you starting to become really interested in fingerpicking at the time?
In about, ’96, ’97 I got into John Fahey, and it just blew my mind wide open.
How did you first come across Fahey?
Well, I guess Byron Coley wrote that article in Spin in about ’94. But I never paid any attention to him when I was learning to play, even when I had those books. I looked at a picture of him and I saw that he was a white guy, and I was like, ‘I don’t care about that. I want to learn from these old black guys. He can’t be that good,’ I thought. So I never knew anything about him. Which I would say, at that point, when you’re that young and in your teens, your musical development is really important, and I am going to say it was probably good that I didn’t hear him then. My taste hadn’t quite been fully formed yet, and I can imagine that if I got into Fahey, that would have led into Leo Kottke, and that would have led to other stupid bullshit like that. I wouldn’t have had any context for it, and I would have probably ended up going full on into that Kottke stuff because it was just hot guitar playing. Thankfully, I didn’t hear that. It wasn’t until my late 20s when I heard Fahey, and I was just like, ‘Aw, man!’
You do just about all of your stuff in open tunings. Is that something you got from Fahey, or because you hurt your finger…?
No, I didn’t get it from Fahey. I got it from that book I read when I was kid that had that “Frankie and Johnny” song, and I was like, what the hell is that? I would look at it for like two weeks before I would try it, because I only knew how to do standard tuning. So I would look at and think it was really cool, but I was really scared. As a kid I would be really paranoid that I would never get it back in tune again. But I got over that. Then in college, I would hear experimental tunings in the Sun City Girls stuff and I wanted to try it. I got my “open c” tuning from this guy Christian, a chef in Fredericksburg, a really great jazz guitarist that plays gospel jazz. I was sitting in Apple Music, owned by Mike Chafin, and I was playing in the tuning that I used for most of my Pelt stuff, and he noticed that I was in open tuning, and he showed me the open c. That’s my favorite tuning. Then I heard it in Fahey and recognized it. It’s real low.
Do you think listening to bands like Sonic Youth, and some of the more abstract bands with drone elements helped give context to Fahey?
Yep. Because, like I said, Fahey is this icon amongst so many types of people, people who are into drone music…all sorts of people, all walks of life. People who I think, you know, are horrible players and make horrible music, but they still make that connection with Fahey. He himself wrote off all his later work, and he wanted stuff to move forward…he was definitely against all that Windham Hill, Leo Kottke bullshit. But if I had heard Fahey when I was in my young teens, I would have moved on to the other guys, and who knows what would have happened. I may have dropped Fahey altogether, because I would have associated him with these other guys. If I had heard it when I was 15 or 14, I wouldn’t have any idea what to think of it other than it was good guitar playing. I wouldn’t have any idea of who the man was.[Coming to him later,] it all made a lot more sense to me, and it made all the difference.
So when you heard Fahey, how did that impact what you were doing?
The first record I heard by him was Fare Forward Voyagers, and that is an incredibly droney record. So, I was already doing that kind of stuff. Hearing him do that stuff, with a kind of drone background that I already had, and of course, also at that point I was already heavily influenced by the Bishop brothers, Rick and Allen, so all of that just kind of came together and just kind of made sense. And, of course, I was listening to [minimalist composer] Terry Riley, and I just made all these connections between these different types of music.
How did you bring that into Pelt on albums like Ayahuasca?
Well, we recorded that in about 1999, and we were making our first attempts at that stuff, and I also heard Robbie Basho at that time. When I first moved to Philly, after about six or seven months, I got some Basho records, and that helped too. So we were starting to incorporate that stuff, and I was incredibly frustrated with it, because what I was hearing in my head, I wasn’t getting on my fingers.
I imagine it is pretty hard to get to that level.
Yeah. I knew that if I was going to be any good at it, I couldn’t work. And then luckily, I got unemployed, and when that happened, I was able to take advantage of that…that’s when I got really really serious in trying to develop a way of playing. So it was about late 1999 that I started getting really serious about the guitar.
Your music has the feeling of being played by somebody that has really dedicated themselves strongly to learning, and to learning not just that style, but to developing your own style. What was it that pushed you to take it to that level?
Thanks, man. When I first started getting back into that stuff, I was getting really into Fahey, but I don’t think I ever fully digested all his music. And the way I kind of heard my playing at the time was kind of like second- or third-rate Fahey. So I took more cues from Basho back then because he had such a freer way of playing, and it was a lot more interpretive, so I would listen to him a lot. And then from there, I kind of got my stuff. If you listen to my first record [Red Horse, White Mule], you’ll notice that I’m not doing much double-thumbing in the Fahey-type style…on my first two records I was trying to make something that… really can be clear-cut when compared to Fahey. For somebody who is really into the music and gets into the guts of the records, they would see that it really doesn’t sound much like Fahey because I’m intentionally not doing some of that double-thumbing. On Opium Musick, I do. But on those two records, I am intentionally staying away from doing any sort of Fahey-isms. Just because you have to have your own style of playing. There is no point in it [otherwise]. Yeah, you have to copy people in the beginning because you have to learn from it, but at a certain point, you have to break with that and just go for your own thing. Of course, later now, I have no qualms about stealing from Fahey, at all. You know, just because I think now I am a much more comfortable player, more comfortable in my own skin, than I was back then. So stealing from him, and being more, I guess, blatantly American-sounding is fine by me.
Do you think what you’ve developed then is a sort of homage to players of the past as well something that is your own style and moving forward?
I mean, you have to look to the past — that’s what you do…you have to look at the past in order to move forward.
When you started to bring that stuff into Pelt, things like the ragas, were they into that?
Yeah they were into it, but it was really Mike that dragged me into it, I didn’t go into it willingly for the Ayahuasca sessions. I felt like I was kind of forced into it, and I am sort of thankful in a way that I was. If I didn’t have someone like Mike riding my ass, I probably wouldn’t have done anything. He was always getting on me about really learning how to play, and we had lots and lots and lots of fights. We got pretty angry at each other during those years.
Because he wanted you to go in a sort of Fahey direction?
Well, Fahey, or even just completely acoustic. And I wasn’t ready to do that, and Patrick wasn’t either. This was when we were making Ayahuasca, and there was a mix of electric and acoustic. But Patrick and I were not ready to make that leap yet. Listening to some of the tapes from live gigs, I just thought that it sounded terrible. It was really difficult to try and reconcile that drone sound with the old-time. For a while, it seemed like the old-time was pasted onto this like, drone aesthetic that we developed. Because we all lived in different places, we couldn’t practice six times a week and develop this old-time/drone sound, and so it took a while for it grow.
Do think that the blend of old-time and drone hit its peak on Ayahuasca?
That is my favorite Pelt record, and acoustically, my favorite is Pearls From the River. We finally incorporated all of that, and that was our first record that was entirely acoustic. When I finished Opium Musick, I went right to work on Pearls From the River.
So you were already doing solo stuff at that point?
Yeah, I was doing solo stuff and Pelt concurrently for a little while.
What pushed you to really starting focusing on the solo career?
Well, I put out those first two records, and did a couple little tours around that. I was still playing to nobody and for no money, which is what you gotta do. So, Raag Manifestos came out, and then the interest from Europe started coming in… In 2004 I did couple of tours, a couple of East Coasters and a couple of West Coasters…and they actually went okay. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I wasn’t going broke either. I was still coming home with a little cash. Mike had kids, and he could really tour, but for me, it was easy.
Is that in part what led to the dissolution of Pelt?
Kind of, yeah. The last tour Pelt did, we went over to Europe in late 2006 and…at that time I was really happy playing the Pearls From the River-type music, but those guys went in a totally different direction I just wasn’t ready to go into. And it is really odd, because early on in Pelt, Patrick and I were like the drone keepers — that was what we did. And Mike, he would play melody on top of that. Then, when I started getting into the fingerpicking thing, I started to get into the melody as well. But then Mike went even further into drone, which I would have been into years ago, but at that point I had no interest in hitting gongs or anything like that. So when we tried to do these songs and play raga pieces, Mike and I would be stepping all over each other and it was getting really frustrating that we weren’t communicating that well at all. And it was mainly due to distance. We were trying to do these interweaving call-and-response lines, but you can only really develop that if you’ve played with someone and have been doing that stuff like every day. So I was kind of getting frustrated with that, and the solo thing was going really well, so I began to think it would be best if I just went and did that and not really worry about Pelt.
At want point did you go from really liking the American stuff to digging more Eastern influences and ragas?
I liked the Eastern stuff in college, and I got turned onto it by the Sun City Girls. And my really good friend Jason [Bill], lived in Houston and Houston has a really huge Indian population. I would go there in like ’92 and 94, and go to these Indian shops and buy these tapes with sitar music and listen to them.
Fahey did some raga-type songs too.
Yeah, sort of. He Americanized them, more or less. Which is cool. Fare Forward Voyagers, I think, was probably his most raga-esque.
Do you think Fahey was heavily borrowing from stuff that came before him? The American Primitive style, where did it come from? How do you think it developed?
Well, he was stealing from early American guitar and banjo players and that sort of stuff. And he was also stealing from classical music, Tin Pan Alley songs and just anything he liked. He put it all together into one big thing, you know.
[Guitarist] Glenn Jones brought up something really interesting when he said that nearly every acoustic guitar fingerpicker he ever met has been an Orientophile. All of them are into this Eastern stuff, because if you listen to these ragas, there is a lot in common with American blues because of some of the rhythm cycles and the kind of notes and the scales.
Do you share the opinion that the guitar is the ultimate American instrument?
Sure, yeah. I’ll be the millionth guy to say this, but it is a limited instrument and a limitless instrument at the same time. You’ve got a limited range, and on a fretted guitar you’ve got 12 notes to work with and it is such a small range. On sitar, you can’t really tune it up at will all the time because there are a lot of strings. But when you are tuning a six string, man… you can use a lot of different tunings and combinations, and you are playing all these neat chords and melodic patterns. You can’t do that with a piano or a wind instrument. So, I would say that the ability to put the guitar into so many different types of tuning, you are offered so many different possibilities for different types of structures and chords and melody. And of course, when you throw a slide into that, it’s a whole other thing…it a much more vocal type sound. Plus, rhythmically, the way the guitar is built, the way it is set up with the strings…it’s like a band in a box. Listen to Blind Blake recordings. He sounds like an orchestra. And it’s portable. I would say that only instrument that could top it might be the harmonica, because that’s the ultimate portable instrument.
You ever try the harmonica?
I tried it, but you know, I’m terrible at it. I’d never be as good as Harmonica Dan, so why bother trying?
When I was out in Virginia with the Black Twigs recently, I did record this one song with on the banjo because I found this easy picking pattern… and I was able play it on the guitar, so I tried it on the banjo to get some kind of rhythm going on it and it sounded a pretty cool. Nathan plays banjos on it, so we’ll have two banjos on it and it’s pretty good.
At what point were you in your development when you hit Kensington Blues? What were you trying to do with it?
It was November, 2005…A lot of that record was developed from this idea I had of being able to incorporate all sorts of different elements of guitar music that I had figured out. I wanted to put it all right there—everything. A lot of those ideas were developed on Raag Manifestos, and you can hear an early version of “Now That I’m a Man Full Grown” on that triple LP compilation that I did with Six Organs of Admittance, MVEE, Dredd Fool, Fursaxa…I was also working on an early CD-R of Dr. Ragtime. So with those and Raag Manifestos, I was trying to combine all those elements. At that time, I was starting to get more comfortable with Fahey-esque playing because I discovered that on couple of those songs, like “Kensington Blues,” I played them a couple of times and they never sounded right to me. And that’s because I had the rhythm wrong. I had been accenting the four strings, which is the upbeat. But I noticed that on a song like “The Great Santa Barbara Oil Slick,” Fahey was accenting the downbeat. I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve been playing that wrong this whole time.’ When he was accenting the downbeat, I realized that where the jug is in jug band music, that’s where the rhythm is. So then I started playing all that on the downbeat, and all that stuff, the Fahey stuff, the ragtime stuff, all the blues, it all came into place.
For the first three records, probably the reason I never did any of that stuff, and I certainly attempted it, was because I was playing it wrong [laughs], for like two or three years. So I had to fuckin’ relearn the way I was playing to make sure I was emphasizing the downbeat. Once that happened, it was clear.
So you think that discovery is what showed up on Kensington Blues?
Yep, and from all the records there on out. Yep, because, well, I figured out it was all in the downbeat, I was like ‘Wow, OK, now I can really play all this stuff.’
The actual song “Kensington Blues,” was that something you wrote after the fact, or was that something you wrote to reflect where you were living?
Well, I called it “Kensington Blues” because it sounded better than “Fishtown Blues.” But, that song took me about a year and a half to write. In my old house on Cedar Street, that’s where pretty much all those songs were conceived…that’s where I refined all that material, in that house. Right before I went to Europe and all that jazz, that was when we moved to Fishtown.
Would you consider Kensington Blues to be a blues album?
Nope. I would consider it to be an American album, but not a blues record. There’s not any real blues on it, I’m not playing any 12-bar blues. “Rappahannock River Rag” is about as close to blues as I get on that one.
Sometimes it seems like you went straight from Pelt into your solo career, and now you are just working your way back into playing with a full band, but it’s not really that cut and dry, is it?
No. But after that European tour in 2006, I pretty much quit the band…but I have an invitation to come back. It was pretty hard, you know, Mike (Gangloff) and I were pretty mad at each other.
At one point, you said that Kensington Blues was a hard album to live up to, but with this latest release, Jack Rose and The Black Twig Pickers (Klang, 2009), you said this album is the closest to your heart.
Oh yeah. On this, I am playing the music that I fell in love with when I was a kid, and I’m getting to play all these tunes that I’ve always liked since I was a young kid and I’ve loved for most of my life. That music is the most important music to me, and I love all of it. All those songs are old songs, except for “Kensington Blues” and “Revolt.” A number of those were picked by Mike and the Twigs, and I picked a lot of them.
Who picked “Little Sadie”?
I picked that one, but I knew that was a song that Mike has played on banjo for a long time. I was doing some weird recording gig for a friend…one of them was “Little Sadie.” I knew the tuning it was in, and I was basically was trying to do the banjo part, but then I switched to different tuning and it worked out really well. The part I came up with for “Little Sadie,” I was really proud of that, and I was like, ‘Well shit, I gotta use that again.’ So I showed those guys, and Mike has become a really amazing fiddle player over the years. I said to Mike, ‘I’ve got this down on the banjo part, you should play fiddle on it.’ And so he is playing fiddle and Nate (Bowles) is playing fiddlesticks, an old Hammerstein family trick.
What brought you from really developing the solo stuff to doing albums like Dr. Ragtime & His Pals and bringing in the accompaniment?
Well, I always wanted to do that. I mean, starting with Opium Musick I had accompaniment with the tambora on one track and Glenn Jones on guitar on another. I always like that stuff, and a lot of my favorite tracks from Fahey were the ones where he had accompaniment. I like guitar duets, I like jug band music, and I like early jazz and string band stuff. I always have. The earliest Fahey recordings were 78s on the Fonotone label, and there was this one where he is playing with this like ad hoc jug band, and that is one of my favorite recordings he has ever done. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s Fahey and he’s playing in a fucking jug band!’ I think there were only one or two tracks where he ever did stuff like that, and I guess I’ve always been obsessed with that track because you don’t hear a lot of fingerpicking on old-time string band records. You hear a lot of the guys doing the pluck-strum thing, but not a lot of the intricate fingerpicking in a group context.
Another reason [Jack Rose & The Black Twigs] is really close to me is that we do all these old songs, but we’re not copying anyone. These are our arrangements, but they’re not stupid and shitty, you know like, a lot of those crust punk old-time dudes who can’t fuckin’ play and they’re strummin’ around and shit…there is no subtlety to the music. But all those, those are our own arrangements, man. Probably the closest to anyone’s arrangement is when we’re doing “Sail Away Ladies,” because I got that from a Fahey record. But all the other stuff, those are our own arrangements.
As far as a style or a genre or an ancestral heritage, is there a way that you would identify that stuff? Is it blues, bluegrass?
What we’re doing? No. If you read a lot of blues biographies and stuff like that, the one thing that has been brought to light is that in the 1920s and 30s there were no ‘bluesmen.’ You played what people wanted you to play, and everybody knew all different types of music. Somebody like Robert Johnson, he knew the hits of the day, he knew how to play country and western, he knew jazz and he knew how to play blues. They all did, because, you know, they’re on the street playing a song and somebody would say, “Play ‘Three Coins in The Fountain.” Well, they’re not gonna say no. The only performer that could remotely be considered a ‘bluesman’ would be Skip James. But, that’s because he is so fucked up and weird. But he still knew how to play string band music. All those guys did, every single one of them. The notion of a ‘bluesman’ is nothing but a fuckin’ white construct by blues scholars. Even these collectors, as great as they are because they’ve rescued so much American music from the garbage can, they say “Well, that’s the purer sounding blues, the stuff from Mississippi,” or whatever. And now we know that’s bullshit. So on (Jack Rose & The Black Twigs) we had that mindset, that American music, for me, and you’ll see it if you look at my record collection, country and blues and all that shit is together, because it is American music. Like blues, old-time, bluegrass, jazz, jug band, Cajun…it’s all like the same continuum. And that’s the kind of mindset that we were all in, that it is all there.
Do you feel like that you’ve sort of swung away from the Eastern influence, and you’re more heavily into making strongly American music? Is that a groove you want to keep in?
Oh yeah, definitely. The one I’m working on now is like that. There will be some more raga-esque stuff on the next record too, we’ll see where that is going to go. There are five tracks already recorded, ready to go.
Where do you go from here? How do you feel like you can continue to develop and grow as a musician on the guitar?
I don’t know. It’s really weird…I always think the last record I make is going to be the last one, but there is always something that comes along that piques my interest. Like the one I am working on right now [Luck in The Valley], I got back from the second session, and I was like ‘Wow, shit, I’ve got a lot of work to do.’ And I’m sort of thinking like, ‘Ah god, I gotta come up with some songs.’ But the other day I came up with this one I think is really great, and when the Twigs get up here I’m going to play it with them, and it is probably one we are going to record. But yeah, sometimes after every record I finish… [pauses] With the exception of the one I did with the Twigs, because making that record was one of the most relaxed experiences I’ve ever had.
Where was the Jack Rose & The Black Twigs LP recorded?
It was all recorded in Virginia, at Mike’s house in a shed at the back of his house. We had an 8-track and few mikes that we put in this shed that had amazing reverb, so what you’re hearing on that record is that there was barely any EQ and mixing, it’s all that room sound. There was a little tweaking here and there, but not much. We’d sit down one day, work on the tunes and play them, and then the next day, record them.
How many takes did you normally need to get it down?
It depends. Like on “Goodbye Booze,” that was about 10 takes, but that was because the shed was freezing cold. That was in the winter of 2008. But then in the summer, we did two tracks down there for my new record, and it was hot as hell, and it took about three takes and they were all really good. But I think we took the second takes for both of those tracks.
Do you have a favorite from the Jack Rose & The Black Twigs LP?
Ah man, it’s tough because I like them all. But I’d probably pick “Goodbye Booze” because that is a side of sentimentality you don’t ever see from me. That’s as about as sentimental as I’ll ever get. And it is a great song to end a set with, you know. Because, when we did that song, I’d never played anything like that on slide guitar before, and that’s like the most country I’ve ever sounded with the slide. I have to pick one more, and that would probably be “Special Rider” because I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone doing a version of that on the slide guitar because, I can play it in regular six-string tuning and it does all these kind of choked octaves and stuff like that. But when I was playing it like that, it just didn’t sound right to me. But we were able to translate it into slide really well, and that is my arrangement. You know, I took a lot from the Skip James version, obviously, of course, but that is still my arrangement. It’s mine, you know. Mine. And I’m really proud of it.
On Luck in the Valley, are you going solo or are you going for more accompaniment?
Some of both. I just recorded up at Black Dirt Studios with Nathan, Harmonica Dan, Glenn (Jones) and Hans Chew. There was this spontaneous jam that happened between Hans, Nathan and Dan, and I was upstairs with Jason talking. We came down and Hans was banging the shit out of the piano, and Nathan was into it too, and Dan is blowing the shit out of the harmonica and luckily Jason had the mike set up and we recorded it. It was really raw and awesome.
What were you looking to do with I Do Play Rock and Roll?
My friend Corey from Three Lobed got in touch with me to see if I wanted to do something for this series [Oscillation III], and when he called me I was really hungover and I just said yes. A couple days later I realized I agreed to something, and I was like ‘Fuck, man what am I going to do?’ So I went through my archives, and found the stuff for the first side, which I thought was really good… I found this 12-string raga [“Calais to Dover”] that was really good, “Sundog” was recorded out in Western Pennsylvania, and the six-string track [“Cathedral et Chartres”] was originally on A Raga for Peter Walker, so it was basically a live album. On “Sundogs,” it’s played with a bar, and you rest it on the guitar and scrape it. When you’re playing with a Stevens Bar, that’s what it’s called, and it’s got all these little nicks and scrapes and you just drag it along the strings to create these harmonic frequencies. There is no picking, it’s just that, and that’s all it is. And it is only a very small fret radius. It was recorded at this place near Kutztown, and when I finished, nobody clapped, nobody. They were just looking at me. [laughs] I think a lot of people were expecting fingerpicking, but they didn’t get any of it. That was the only piece I played.
Who named the album?
I did. It’s after (Mississippi) Fred McDowell: I Do Not Play Rock ‘N” Roll.
Do you think “Kensington Blues” is your most poplar song?
Yeah, I guess. I mean people seem to like it, and I play it at almost every set I do. It feels like a theme song.
We did a version of “Kensington” on (Jack Rose & The Black Twigs LP) and I think it turned out really nice. On that song, I’m playing it the same, and (the Twigs) just kind of jump in. But with the exception of “Revolt” and “Kensington Blues,” all those tunes we came up with together. A lot of people have mentioned, and I think it’s cool, that it doesn’t sound like Jack Rose, it sounds like a different unit. On a lot of songs, I really just lay back which is great to do because I get to play this like cool, old-time, more bluesy parts that I don’t get to do that much when I’m playing solo.
Have you ever thought about doing something electric, like the new Richard Bishop album, Freak of Araby?
I did a collaboration with D. Charles Speer last summer, and that was fun. It’s not out yet… We did four tunes. I played electric on three tracks and acoustic on one. It was fun, but I don’t feel the need to plug back in. The reason why I did play electric was because I wanted to record live, and the only way everyone can hear you is if you play electric.
Tell me about that tiny pressing of 78s you did.
Well, Twig Harper and Carly Ptak from Baltimore, they had some roof problems at their warehouse, and I played at the True Vine bookstore. And they said, ‘Hey, mind if we bootleg ya?’ And I was like, yeah sure, why the hell not. They said, ‘We’re gonna bootleg you, and press six 78s out of it. We’ll take three, and we’ll give you three.’ Well, three showed up in the mail. I sold the first one when I had to go on tour. I was going out to ArthurFest on the West Coast, and I needed a plane ticket, so I sold the first one online for like $500. The second one I sold for around $200 because I had played it a couple times.
What are you listening to now as far as contemporary music?
Well, I just got the new Sylvester Angfang II double LP, which I think is really great. Glenn Jones’ new record, which hasn’t come out yet, I really like a lot. The new No Neck Blues Band record, and also Cian Nugent’s live record from last year I’ve been listening to a lot. He’s one of my favorite new guitar players. I think the new Why We Love single is good. Birds of Maya, I think they’re the best band in Philly right now. I saw those guys for the first time when they opened for Endless Boogie, and man those guys are just like masters of the blues, it was just fucking great. I was blown away.