Bad Livers - Deconstruction of the labels
If the chat around the cooler is to be believed, we are in the throes of another sthetic shift. That is, we have already moved past post-modernism, which near as I understand mostly amounted to cleverly chewing the past into new bits; reconstituted culture. (It's all about packaging.) The fancy new kid's called deconstruction, which seems to be a highly decorative and utterly dysfunctional movement bent on chewing the past, the present, and the future into utterly unrecognizable and impersonal bytes. Computer-assisted dada, if you will. Which is probably a long-winded way of saying we're lost. Adrift and afraid, gasping for substance like fish on the dock. Or, as the Sex Pistols had it 20 years back, No Future, except this time it's for a failure of imagination, not hope. This, in part, explains the fond glances we've been taking toward our cultural past: the glorious '50s kitsch (sorry: art moderne) which graces so many hip homes and secondhand stores, old metal cars (a British friend thinks his 1974 Plymouth Duster is some kind of classic), BR5-49's wardrobe. I Love Lucy, The Brady Bunch. Now, believe me, I know that's a lot of trash to throw at three early-middle-aged guys who live in Austin and play banjo, fiddle, bass, tuba, accordion, guitar, whatever, and squirm audibly even at the suggestion they might be a bluegrass band: the Bad Livers, who don't drink. A trio given equally to heartfelt gospel and Surfer-esque chaos. Songwriter Danny Barnes (banjo, primarily) will identify himself as a Christian, though his Jewish comrade Mark Rubin (bass and tuba), who punctuates the conversation with "amen" and no irony, is quick to point out that Danny also practices tai-chi and meditates. Straight lines rarely happen in nature, and it's the colliding arcs that are responsible for most of what's worth looking at or listening to. Anyway, that's what good music does: It sweeps you off somewhere and drops you, unexpected, splat in the middle of an idea you didn't know you had. And that's what the Bad Livers -- Danny and Mark and Ralph White (fiddle and accordion) -- have been up to these last seven years, which amounts to 1,500-plus shows and four full-length releases. Not without a price, that. There's a new CD, Hogs on the Highway, a new label (Sugar Hill), and a new member. "Last fall, when the Bad Livers were out doing some shows," Barnes wrote in an e-mail update, "Ralph woke up one morning and indicated to Mark and I that he was wore out on touring....It was a moment of realization for all of us. Mark and I realized that we were enjoying what we were doing more than ever. And we felt positive about our business and where we were going. Ralph, on the other hand, felt that the rigors of touring and 'the business' had taken a serious toll on his attitude." The upshot is that, while Ralph and Danny may continue to write together, Bob Grant, an old friend who picks mandolin and guitar and presently lives in New York City, has joined the band. Beginnings. Pick any spot to start, but mostly it's called living. Rubin began off a tuba player, back in Oklahoma. "It's been a long, strange journey for me," he says over the phone, while Danny chimes in from the receiver on the fax machine. "I was setting myself up for a career as a classical musician when I was in high school, by being a tuba player. Right about my senior year of high school my father passed away, and that just knocked the stilts out of a lot of the plans that I had made. "At the same time I was getting really involved with punk rock music, and I'd stopped playing tuba and got an electric bass, and hung around the punk rock scene up in Oklahoma City; bands like the Flaming Lips came out of that little bag. I guess I moved down to Dallas in '84, and just kicked around. "That was about the time I felt that all the promises that were made by the Minutemen and Black Flag and bands like that had pretty much gone to hell. Dallas was a good place to be, because there was a lot of great music going on, and I used to go see this band Killbilly play. I bought a string bass and joined them. Simple as that." Simple, but Mark still had to relearn to play the bass. "It's a new instrument entirely," he says. "I had been playing electric bass, and I pretty much well-versed myself in a lot of different styles -- country-western and blues, and I did two years in a reggae band up in Oklahoma City. With the upright bass you have to totally relearn the instrument from the ground up, and I'll let you know, honestly, the way I play bass is a lot different than, I'd say, 99 percent of the bluegrass players out there. I play a lot more percussively because we have a trio, and everybody's got to work extra hard live." Barnes, raised in Texas, also comes from slightly off the bluegrass track. "My mom and dad's folks are from Alabama and Tennessee," he says. "Even though we grew up in Texas, I was always inundated from a very early age with Grand Ole Opry acts. Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt, all those kind of guys." Danny and Mark ended up in Killbilly together, Mark in what Danny describes as the band's first serious incarnation, and Danny for a few tours. Later, they both ended up in Austin, where Ralph White was a neighbor. "I met Ralph at a little restaurant by my house," Barnes recalls. "They had a little jam session down there on Sundays, and he played fiddle and accordion. We got to playing -- we'd meet on Sundays and play at this little jam -- and I just hit it off with him. We got to talking, he liked fishin' and huntin' and stuff like that, and we became good friends and it just snowballed into this little deal we've got now." That would be the Bad Livers, who began dangerously near to a novelty punk-bluegrass fusion. Which is what happens when you live in Austin and all your friends are in punk rock bands. Indeed, the first single was a cover of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life", but they grew out of that quickly enough into whatever it is they've become. That part is a bit touchy. "I used to tell interviewers a long time ago that I have way too much respect for bluegrass music to say that we have anything to do with it," Barnes offers. "Yeah," says Rubin. "There's certain little hoops that you have to jump through in order to be a bluegrass band. We've probably violated quite a few them." Such as? "Well, the accordion is a certain no-no," Barnes starts. "No tubas, no short pants on stage, things like that," the well-tattooed Rubin adds. "We don't have a style created whereby things are held up against this and then tossed away and evaluated through this style," Barnes says. "We're pretty adventurous in what we're doing. That's not really accepted in the traditional form. Because we played to kids, and to people that didn't really have an education in bluegrass music, we were free to do whatever we wanted to. That made it real advantageous for us, because we have a lot of different influences. I look at acoustic music as being this big thing, and bluegrass is like a slice of the pie, but there's so many other things in it." "I'd like to be able to say that we came up with this great idea, but we didn't," Rubin concludes. "We just did what we did, and we just followed our muse. It dawned on us that people outside of Austin really liked what we were doing, and we put on a good show, and we played real well. They didn't at first get attracted to us because we played bluegrass per se, or because we played folk music." This constant need to label things is one of several ways we now sort ourselves into tribal clans. Sheila is a punk rocker, little Ramona's gone hillbilly nuts. Otherwise, we all shop at the same dozen stores at the mall. No surprise there; have to belong to something, and odds are these days it's not going to be a family, a church, a neighborhood, a job. But it makes music -- which, fundamentally, is just invisible waves of sound dancing against your eardrums -- a curious quilt. We are challenged with the introduction of a new instrument, the computer, which allows, on the one hand, for the synthesis of organic sounds (and the creation of non-organic sounds), and on the other for sufficient market research to identify the segment of society most receptive to those sounds. Add onto that -- and imagine yourself trying to write a song or 12 against this backdrop -- the cultural imperative to recycle the past (and the present) at an ever-escalating speed, and utter uncertainty as to what the present or the future might hold, and maybe that's why people view deconstruction as some kind of logical and pleasant exercise. Just tear the whole machine apart so it can't work, and let the parts rust. Is it just me, or is alienation the central theme of post-WWII Western culture? The Bad Livers, to their infinite credit, have found a way to expand the hidebound traditions of bluegrass. To look simultaneously forward and backward. And to do so with tremendous joy. This, incidentally, does not place them in league with New Grass Revival and its extended alumni association. "You know," Barnes says, choosing his words slowly, "I think those guys are great players, especially Sam Bush. I'm a big Sam Bush fan. But that music, to me, is a kind of pitch that I never swung at. It reminds me a bit of Al DiMeola, or something like that. You can't deny that it's great music, or good picking, but it doesn't really speak to me personally." "What negative thing can you say about a guy who makes a living playing banjo?" Rubin asks. Still, the Livers are quite obviously headed down a different road. Danny's apt to drop names like Captain Beefheart along the way, but he's hard-pressed to see much connection between the boundaries his songs push and New Grass's experiments. "The light that they were growing to was a different light than what we were growing to," he offers. "We're more interested in organic grooves and relationships between the instruments, rather than creating scenarios whereby you can take good solos." "I think the key word that Danny used there is organic," Rubin says. "Unfortunately, sometimes when I see bands play I get the idea that they kind of came up with an idea and now they're trying to force that idea into being. Whereas I'm much more interested in music that just kind of happened." "I think what we're trying to do is, we're exploring the relationships of the instruments to each other, rather than the solo being the main thing," Barnes picks up. "Compositionally, how I'm driven is, I look at what the composition's come from as sort of like theme songs to little movies that I make up in my brain. I'm trying to evoke moods and things like that." Jars of Clay aside (they're a Christian faux-alternative rock band that mysteriously appeared on the Billboard charts last year), it's bloody hard to inject anything resembling rock music with anything resembling spirituality. That is, if you want it to come off. It's a seamless matter with the Bad Livers, always has been a part of their music, shows up mid-set and amid their recordings. A while back they recorded the cassette-only Dust on the Bible, a collection of ageless gospel songs. It's cassette-only because it was recorded straight to cassette in Danny's spare room, and the fidelity's not up to their standards. But the songs flat swing. "Mainly what I want to do, I'd like to have the opportunity to do that rascal again, you know," Barnes says, while Rubin laughs in the background. "I'd like to try to do that one again, and do it right. That was like the first recording I made in my home studio, and it's pretty rough. I think I spent about 24 bucks on the whole thing, and that was just buying cassette tape. "Also, the more that I do this, the more that I'm interested in composition. I really would like to have the opportunity to make a gospel record that was all original pieces, 'cause I feel like, that's really my voice, and what I feel like I have to add to the world of music is a vision that's sort of an idea, rather than dragging up a bunch of songs and just playing them." That makes it no less curious to hear Rubin's seconding amens dotting the conversation. "It's kind of an interesting question," he says. "Why do you have to be Christian to sing, or be involved in, gospel music?" "One of the things I really enjoy about gospel music is it's just this incredible groove and vibe that's just...so much of our music today doesn't really help you out very much in terms of spirituality or philosophy, you know?" adds Barnes, and Rubin's question never does get answered. "Gospel music has always interested me because it has a connection both lyrically and musically. If you ever read interviews with Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, even guys that weren't necessarily particularly religious people, they certainly were well aware and quite respected the power of gospel music, in that it has levels of communication in it that are beyond mere music and lyric." "It also appeals to why I got interested in music in the first place," Rubin says. "It's because it seems to do things you can't touch." One of my theories about live music is that when it works really well, it has the ability to disintegrate the existential solitude that most of us dwell within. "Amen," Rubin says. "Absolutely. I was a symphony musician for a long time, and I know that to be true. When you're a member of a big 150-piece orchestra and you're playing in front of 2,000 people, you can break down the walls to where it's all just one." Another kind of beginning. We're watching another generation of rock musicians re-examine hillbilly music. It's a natural for aging punks, who respond to the shared sthetic demand for absolute honesty even if the standards of virtuosity are different. But the roots of the tree have spread far and wide by now, and the matter of authenticity (witness Gillian Welch, say) becomes murkier and murkier. For the Bad Livers, who have to some extent done the post-modern thing and swept together a handful of seemingly unrelated musical notions, it hasn't been much of a reach. Even Rubin's tuba, which seems so natural a part of their music that it's hard to remember what a novel approach it is in traditional bluegrass circles. "When I was 10 years old, the first cat I saw that I really liked was Stringbean, who's got a bad rap," Barnes says. "He's a really great banjo player. And I really liked his rhythm, he's just got a super funked-out rhythm. He's sort of like George Clinton in his rhythm. Obviously Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley and Don Reno, those are the big three. I really got into John Hartford's playing, especially his music in the '70s. All the clawhammer players I can get my hands on. So yeah, normally one would assume that I would be from Appalachia or something, based on the banjo playing, but I come by it honest in terms of my family." "I think there's a danger of over-regionalization, too," Rubin adds. "What with the great '60s folk scare, and the fact that we have records, and we all have TV now, all that stuff gets pushed around." "I think it's important to note," Barnes says, "that there was a part of American music development where you could almost tell what part of the country someone was from, based on the style of music that they played. Mass communication has smeared that all around, where it's hard to tell anymore where your influences are from. Also, you're exposed to all the records at one time. "Someone that was playing music in the '30s, he was exposed to innovations in order. Right now if someone's interested in bluegrass music they can go down and buy all the records at one time, which is a different thing." Likely because their peers were mostly in punk bands, the Bad Livers ended up on Quarterstick, the more experimental imprint of Chicago's louder Touch & Go label (The Jesus Lizard, stuff like that). That's where 1992's Delusions of Banjer and 1994's Horses in the Minds were released (Dust on the Bible is also available through Quarterstick, or was). Still, it was a weird fit. "We're all friends, you know, and they are the biggest fans. When we first started working with them, there was this discussion, I guess it was in '91, where they kind of looked at us and said, 'You know, we don't do this kind of thing. It's not what we do,'" Rubin recalls. "He reminded us of that, after the second record kind of ran its life. And we all pretty much agreed, well, it's been a great run, and we love each other, and we're all good friends, but we need to attack a little differently, shift course just a little bit in our business." The process of finding a new label wore on, and Hogs went through various incarnations as they wrote songs and sharpened ideas. "It's hard to really call it a bidding war for banjo records," Barnes laughs. "We certainly have talked to a lot of different labels, probably 10 or 15, but it's just hard to come together on it. "We sort of got the sense that a lot of the people approaching us were coming to this only because they were trying to cover their ass, which seems to be the big affliction of the music industry. Not to really try to do quality work, but just to cover your ass. So, in other words, somebody was going to get in trouble if we signed to a different label and did well." Long story short, they ended up at Sugar Hill, which places them at the far edge of a pretty traditional bluegrass label, instead of the far edge of a pretty traditional punk rock label. And while their punk rock leanings may be a little less obvious this time out, that's apt to be as much the ravages of maturity as anything. "I knew we were in trouble when I went over to Dan's house and he was going, 'I just don't have enough songs,'" Rubin laughs. "I realized when he wrote 'em all out that he had actually 26, all together. And then I looked over at what he had been listening to recently, and he had [Captain Beefheart's legendary] Trout Mask Replica, and there are 29 tunes on it. He was just assuming that that's what it took. That was a big slap in the face. We'd been down in the ditch for so long that we'd forgotten what the sunlight looked like up at the top, you know." And the songs that didn't make the cut onto Hogs? "Um, use 'em for the next record," Danny laughs. "It's called recycling," Mark finishes. Grant Alden is co-editor of No Depression, senior editor at the deconstructivist Raygun magazine, and wrote this piece while planning to close his art gallery back in Seattle.