Interview

The Hackensaw Boys Bring a Little ‘Charismo’ to Post-Brexit Britain

I caught up with Charlottesville, Virginia-based band the Hackensaw Boys, just prior to their first ever festival date in the UK. The band was there as part of a European tour to promote its new record Charismo.

Guitarist David Sickmen’s steely blue eyes widened and he broke into laughter when I asked him for a brief summary of the band's history. “How long do you have, brother?” he said. 

David Sickmen: We’ve been around since 1999 in various incarnations. I guess we’re more like a family than a band. ... It's been an odyssey, a constantly movable feast. People have moved back and forth and in and out and we've had our ups and downs.

[Sickmen himself took a 5-year hiatus from touring and performing, with health problems including a difficult throat surgery for polyps. He's back now, healthy and as enthusiastic about the music and live shows as ever.]

Alan J. Taylor: You've been famous for the turnover of your band members and for the live shows ... How have you incorporated all those changes? Does the upheaval affect the audience’s perception of who or what you are?

Right now we are touring to promote the new record Charismo. While I used to shy away from the band's personel turnover a little bit, I think it is something we should celebrate. It [has] been a little challenging, in that promoters never know exactly who is going to show up. [Laughs.]

I can honestly say in my heart of hearts that people who come to the shows seem to love what they see. They say stuff like, "We didn't know what to expect, but the show was truly awesome," and that's heartening. One thing we have learned is that we have to take it seriously and give the folks a great experience, and that is something we always aspire to.

We never want to do anything less than play our asses off. That has always been the ethos of the band, through thick and thin.

You’ve toured with and supported some amazing artists like Camper Van Beethoven and Charlie Louvin. How did those experiences rub off on you?

Yeah, we've been lucky enough to play at some pretty amazing places over the years.

Supporting and playing with Charlie Louvin was both an honour and a learning experience. Charlie was quite a character, and whils he was no angel he was no devil either -- but he sure did like a dirty joke or two. He was perhaps a little skeptical about us at the beginning, because we weren't perhaps as polished as he was used to. You know, he had this rough and tumble bunch of guys. ... He quickly learned how to love us and I think he was as proud of playing with us, as we were playing with him. He said it kind of gave him a shot in the ass, playing with these young, energetic guys. He taught us how to take what we do seriously, but to have a good time doing it. He also taught us about sticking with it, believing in what we did and what we were about … and that sure is difficult sometimes in music.

Your band has had a 10-year hiatus since the last full-length record. What's been happening?

That sure was a long time. For about five of those years, I wasn't in the band so I can't account for those.

It was hard to figure out how to make the new record. The band [was] busy touring and trying to keep our heads above water. Eventually, like many bands, we did a Kickstarter campaign, you know a crowd funded affair, and we managed to get the money together to make the record and pay everyone. We were lucky enough to get Larry Campbell [who's worked with Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Paul Simon, and Levon Helm] to produce the record, and that was just an awesome experience. It's been ten years [between records], but I think Larry helped to deliver a quality batch of songs which we are really proud of.

You've talked about the break leaving you more mature as a band and as individuals. What does that maturity bring to the table?

There’s a lot less emotional drama than there has been in the past -- when you’ve had a band with 25 members or more. We realized that we have to stop hurting ourselves, and that there is not a lot of time left to make this record. What we did decide, when we made this record, was that we were going to keep our opinion to ourselves and let Larry guide us. We went into the project with trust in Larry’s ability to do the right thing with the songs and the production. We decided to shut up and do what he said, and that only comes with maturity.

Tell me a little more about the instrument charismo. Where did the idea and design come from?

It was a necessity. We had a fella [Justin Neuhardt] who messed around playing spoons for us when we played at the Blue Moon Diner. Just before we went out on a 6-week tour, Justin came to us and said, “I can’t come on tour for 6 weeks JUST playing the spoons,” but at the time we didn’t want a drummer with a full kit, so I said to him, "Why don’t you just make something up?" So he did!

He came back with the very first Charismo, which he’d made out of tin cans, hub caps, and general scrap he’d found around the diner. It was pretty primitive, but when he hit it with those metal brushes and I heard that train sound, I knew it was what we wanted.

He’s made about a hundred of these things over the years, because they get a real hammering when we go on tour. Then, in the end, when we were making this record, we realized that the only true constant in this band from the very first tour on to the present day has been the charismo. So that is what we named the new record, because it personifies our work ethic. It’s like -- you have to put something together, then try to maintain it, find new players for it. You know, its like holding something together that looks like it could fall apart, and that is what this band has been about. It’s still held-together, and we and the audiences are having as much fun as ever.

You've talked lot about your musical style and influences. I hear words like bluegrass, old time, and folk. I recall a big debate between Pokey Lafarge and Billy Bragg about the origins of Americana music and skiffle was part of that dialogue. With Charismo in the band, do you think that skiffle music has been an influence?

Skiffle is something I’m aware of and I know the Beatles and lots of the rock and roll bands that followed had their origins in skiffle, but it’s not something we necessarily listened to. I guess I’ve never really thought of us having a skiffle influence, but since you bring it up -- and because we have a truly homemade sound -- you could say that the band has some of the groove and attitude of the old skiffle bands.

Oh, and one of those fellas you mentioned used to play with the Hackensaw Boys, but I can't say which. 

With the state the world is in at the moment -- the instability in the Middle East, Brexit here in the UK, and Trump in the US -- what role do you think musicians should play in the dynamic of what is going on? What role do you play?

I guess we are a band that wears our heart on our sleeve. I think many artists play it safe, but personally I really admire artists who take a risk. A good example is Neil Young, who was playing in California where Monsanto were trying to make it illegal to sell organic seeds. He was handing out seeds at his concert. I thought that was brilliant.

The only thing we can do, as a smaller act, is take people away from the day to day pain that they feel. Our work ethic is to make the shows and music enjoyable and draw the audiences in to what we are about, and hopefully that way we can raise their spirits -- and ours too. [Laughs.]

We’re not overtly political, but we might slip the occasional line into a song. Personally, I used to be a little more politically outspoken, but sometimes that can make the rest of the band uncomfortable, so we concentrate on the good-time feel in the shows now. Hopefully the people can feel that.

Also, I personally want to get away from the shit that is happening too. You’d be surprised how much musicians think when they are playing music. You can float away during songs, and sometimes you can find yourself sailing down a river of negativity. That began to happen to me a few years ago.

The reason I quit the band was because I could no longer think straight. I was becoming more and more sad and I couldn’t escape it. At that point, you begin to fail the audience -- you’re not an entertainer any more. So now I spend my time trying to connect with joy for two hours, or however long the show is, and that feels good. We hope the vibration of our music is conveyed in the performance, in an uplifting way.

What are your plans for the rest of 2016 and 2017?

Well, we're really looking forward to performing here at Maverick Festival -- it looks amazing. We’ve just been to Muddy Roots Festival in Belgium, and we are off to the Netherlands straight after this.

Believe it or not, this is the very first festival that the band has ever played in the UK. Its been a hard nut to crack. We would really like to play a lot more in the UK, so we hope this might raise our profile a little. We’d really love to come back next year with a big tour.

And there our conversation ended. For the record, the Hackensaw Boys followed the interview true to their word, and 'vibrated' the audience with a real wide-eyed, toe tapping, fiddle-led, hoedown of a show on the Barn Stage at Maverick UK.