Home > Around Town > Alt-country icon Tim Easton plays the Brass Rail
Alt-country icon Tim Easton plays the Brass Rail
By Sean Smith
Fort Wayne Reader
If you need an idea of how highly regarded singer-songwriter Tim Easton is, you need know nothing more than Wilco served as the guy’s backing band his second solo album The Truth About Us (2003). Among alt-country fans, Easton is considered one of the brightest talents out there, with four albums to his credit, (his first, Special 20, came out in 1998) and the fifth, Porcupine, due in April 2009. Last August, he released an album with fellow songwriters Leeroy Stagger and Evan Phillip that, like much of Easton’s work, has received an enthusiastic response from critics.
Easton stops by Fort Wayne for a show at the Brass Rail on December 11. The Ohio native currently lives in California, where we caught up with him as he was finishing up work on Porcupine.
Fort Wayne Reader: I hear this won't be the first time you've been in Fort Wayne.
Tim Easton: I saw Bob Dylan there a couple years ago. I was in the area, bought tickets and drove with a friend from Columbus, Ohio to see the show, because I love baseball stadium shows. I recall he played “Masters of War' and I called Lucinda Williams and held the phone up because she had been playing that song, too. She was just like anybody else you would call from a concert. She didn't really understand what the hell was going on.
FWR: Who were you influenced by growing up in Ohio?
TE: Growing up in the Akron suburbs, I was influenced by my brothers' musical tastes. Also, my mother worked in a library and I was able to go into the library and get a lot of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Doc Watson records. Then, your average Beatles and Stones kind of a thing was going on, too.
FWR: Were there any decent radio stations around when you were growing up there?
TE: I don't think that The Buzzard or the big, rock station in Cleveland … No. As a matter of fact, I drive through Ohio today and it still feels like the same, exact classic rock is playing from when I was in high school. Obviously, there's great radio to be found and I do look for it. My dad and I listened to NPR on the way to school in the morning.
FWR: Was there anyone else in your family that was interested in music?
TE: My brothers played guitar and they hipped me to the blues.
FWR: So, I'm interested in learning about your first band, Kosher Spears. With a name like that you could have been playing any kind of music.
TE: You'd think it was like a klezmer/folk band. We were a skiffle band that played with a washboard, washtub and acoustic guitar. Skiffle can get pretty corny, pretty quick. We would cover some contemporary songs in that style and we wrote our own songs. We played a lot of songs by Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Hank Williams. I was in a skiffle band. (Laughs) I was following in the footsteps of certain Liverpudlians.
FWR: Was that in college?
TE: It was in college and we lasted about two or three years. Eventually, it evolved and it had an upright bass. It was a band that we could play on the streets at festivals. It was fun, portable and a way to learn. The washboard player and I went around Europe on a couple of trips. He's my best friend and was the best man in my wedding a month ago. He runs a chicken shack in New York City called Dirty Bird To Go. We ran around Europe on a couple different stints and we would just play the streets and do our gypsy thing.
FWR: Then you grew out of it?
TE: (Laughs) No, just getting warmed up. That was a way to learn how to perform, being a street musician.
FWR: What can you tell me about your next group, The Haynes Boys?
TE: The Haynes Boys was a rock 'n' roll band from Columbus, Ohio who actually got a record deal and put one record out.
FWR: They were already up and running when you joined on vocals?
TE: Yeah and then I kind of turned into a Stalin character and started telling everybody what to do. I wasn't as successful at it as … I wish I would have changed the name. That was one of the worst named bands of all time.
FWR: Was that the last name of brothers in the band?
TE: No. They were named after some troublesome kids in a neighborhood of one of our college roommates. The name was there before they asked me to join. We stuck it out for awhile and made one really, really good album. I love it.
FWR: Is it still in print?
TE: No, but you can get it on eBay if you search really hard. I'm a fan. It was great, because the band had a lot of time to tour and get the sound together. The album is basically us live, pounding it out. To me it's very satisfying. It's not exactly polished, but it's definitely authentic.
FWR: After that you started doing the solo thing?
TE: Yeah. It turned out that The Haynes Boys' drummer got signed to a major label deal and I didn't want to be the leader of a band where for other guys it was their side-project. I wanted to have a band that was focused.
FWR: That first album, Special 20, had the song 'Troublesome Kind' on it. That has got to be one of my favorite songs of all time and it was the first song of yours that I ever heard.
TE: Thank you. Yeah, I get requests for it all the time. I haven't played it in 10 years. I just never play it. It's just one of those songs that resonates with people. I listen to it now and I'm wondering where I got that country voice from. I guess I was just trying to find my voice. Lyrically and musically, I love it. But, I get a little shaky when I hear the vocals, just based on whatever kind of character I was trying to portray. People come up to me all over the world and ask me about that song. I know that it has to have some sort of staying power.
FWR: A co-owner of the bar that you're playing at is a friend of mine who introduced me to you through that song.
TE: (Laughs) Maybe I should learn it again.
FWR: I'm politely trying to twist your arm to play it that night. But, as far as your current music goes, you just released the ESP album (One For the Ditch) and are about to release your next solo album, Porcupine.
TE: Yeah, I just listened to Porcupine an hour ago. I just got the last mixes in and it's going to come out April 28th on New West and I'm really excited about it. But, the Easton Stagger Phillips album is something that you can only get on-line right now and that's an album that I made in a cabin in Alaska last January with two other songwriters and I just love it. We just toured Europe, and it's a very simple folk album made with three songwriters. You have to go to Easton Stagger Phillips' MySpace page in order to find the record. I think you can get it at CDBaby and I'll have some copies with me, too.
FWR: How did you meet those guys?
TE: I met those two guys the same way you meet a lot of other songwriters in the world, just traveling and crossing paths. We're familiar with each other's music and mutual fans of each other's music and we finally decided to do something about it and make a record and it turned out very simple and very effective.
FWR: So, is it along the lines of Crosby, Stills and Nash?
TE: Yeah, except that our harmony singing is not quite as good as theirs. I don't know how else to put it. It's coming along. It's getting there. That's the whole idea is to have some harmony singing going on and you have bands out there now like Fleet Foxes that are doing a similar thing. When we made that record we weren't exactly a band, we were just three friends getting together to play some songs. But, now we've toured behind it in Europe, where we have a record deal for One For the Ditch, and we've become a band by touring and focusing. Actually, we made a whole other record while we were in Europe just on the stuff I carry with me to record on. So, Easton Stagger Phillips is a very busy and very hard working group of songwriters.
FWR: Will you guys tour the United States?
TE: We will tour the U.S. a little bit in January and a little bit in March. We'll be in the mid-west in March.
FWR: And after that Porcupine comes out and you'll be touring for that, correct?
TE: Oh, yeah! That's a little bit louder. I went down to the same place where I made Special 20 and I used the same bass player and a drummer named Sam Brown, from Columbus, Ohio and the same producer, Brad Jones [Josh Rouse, David Mead, Chuck Prophet].
FWR: You're living out in California now?
TE: Yeah, I've lived in Joshua Tree for a couple of years now. I have lived in a lot of different places, but I own a house here now and this is a great place to come back to when you've been on the road. There's nothing to do here, except go hiking and make art.
FWR: Did you check out where Gram Parsons had his 'viking funeral' once you were out there?
TE: That was one of my first little roadtrips when I lived in L.A. I came here and visited that site, Cap Rock. I bring a lot of musicians up there that come through. I didn't move to Joshua Tree because Gram Parsons died of a drug overdose here. That part – I don't want to celebrate any part of that. It just happens to be an artistic community two hours outside of a huge entertainment complex.
FWR: I've never traveled any further west than St. Louis, which isn't truly west. Anything out there I don't know much about.
TE: The minute you get on the other side of the continental divide, it changes your thought process. The sky opens up a little bit wider. There's a little more space in between everything. It changes you. You can't help but be affected by the landscape and the people, too. I'll always be a Midwesterner. I never tell people I'm from California. I just don't. When I'm traveling around the world and people ask me where I'm from, I say Ohio.
FWR: I've always been curious about the song 'J.P.M.F.Y.F.' [Jesus, Protect Me From Your Followers] Was that based on an actual occurrence or is it a general statement?
TE: Yes, that was Joshua Tree. A guy knocked on my door and told me I was going to go to Hell. Which, I just don't think that's the way it should be done. If you listen to the song, it's actually a caring song. I just want to remove the hateful part of that. There's no message of hate. There's things in the Bible that have changed with time, that's all there is to it. There's certain fashion stuff in there that they say is an abomination. There's food things, too. If you eat this, you're going to go to Hell. Obviously, times have changed and I just can't think that Jesus, himself, would be that angry. It's just ridiculous the way that some people who have microphones in their hands act on T.V.
FWR: I just watched a documentary recently, For The Bible Tells Me So, which deals with Christianity and homosexuality.
TE: I just watched that two days ago! That's probably why I started talking about the fashion and the food thing. I never read that and I got a whole new perspective on that song. I hardly ever sing that song, either. You can imagine it causes a little bit of a situation. When I'm playing a good-time bar, I don't play that stuff. People have accused me of getting too political lately and the fact is, as a folk singer or an American citizen, it is part of your job to be active. I'm not participating in politics themselves, so my job is to sing about it and maybe hold up a mirror and look at some things and ask some questions about what we're doing here. I think that everybody should participate and vote and, maybe, participate in actual service to your community. That's how it's going to be a better place. So, that song was kind of a gut reaction to what had just happened to me. If you read the whole thing - there are plenty of great Christian and religious people – it's not an attack on religion or Christianity, at all. It's basically pointing out that you have a decision to make. Do you want to be the angry, fearful Christian or do you want to be the loving, caring Christian?
FWR: So, what can we expect to hear at the show? Any chance of hearing some of the ESP songs?
TE: I'll play a couple of the ESP songs solo, I'll play songs from over the span of all my records and I'll play some to suit that particular night. I always love coming to a town to play my first time. It's always special, because it's another American town that I get to come to and meet new people. So, I'm looking forward to it.
Tim Easton wsg Lee Miles
Thursday, December 11th
The Brass Rail
8 p.m. / $5 / 21+