Interview

Joe Rut's Musical Toolbox

Joe Rut photo by Myles Boisen

Managing to stay connected to his muse while keeping his feet on the ground, Oakland, CA-based songwriter/guitarist Joe Rut wields an impressive toolkit of wit, lyricism and musicianship. His latest CD, Stolen Tools & Stereos (out Oct. 25), exemplifies this winning combination of inspired writing and base in alt-country, folk and Americana music. Produced by Rut along with Steve Jarvis and Dave Lichtenstein, the 12-song collection traverses a range of subject matter, from humor-infused drinking songs to intricate explorations of the heart’s mysteries masquerading as songs about birds and porcupines. A top-shelf band, bolstered with impressive turns by mandolin great David Grisman and pedal-steel ace Bobby Black, add that much more shine to the finely crafted material.
As he prepared for the release of Stolen Tools & Stereos, Rut answered some questions about his musical path, writing process and more.

How early did guitars enter the picture? When did you first start writing and singing your originals?

Joe Rut:  I remember singing along to my parents records: Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Sammy Davis Jr.  But even before that, as far back as I can remember, I was always making up songs and singing them to myself.  Just little ditties about what was going on around me.

In 1974 when I was 7, I used to listen to a neighbor in Bakersfield practice the pedal steel guitar through his open window.  I was mesmerized by the sound, but I didn’t know what it was then.  I thought it was just a guitar, and that if you “played it right” you could get it to sound like that.  So, I always kind of had this idea that someday I would play guitar like that.  I didn’t realize that the pedal steel was a whole different instrument until years later.

In 1979 or so I was into Kiss, and I begged my parents for an electric guitar so I could learn how to do “that.” They bought me an acoustic guitar and sent me to a guitar teacher that taught me “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”  That didn’t really float my boat. The teacher subscribed to Guitar Player magazine though, and a couple lessons in he got a new issue with Ace Frehley on the cover, silver face paint and all.  “That!!!” I said, “I wanna do that!!”  “Son”, he said, “that’s not a real musician. He’s a joke.”  I put my guitar in my case, walked outside, and sat on the curb to wait for my mom to pick me up.  That guitar sat in my closet for the next 5 years til I met this guy named Dante who knew every Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones riff.  In the pre-Internet era this was arcane, magical information. You couldn’t just look this stuff up.  

All along, I still made up songs in my head, and once in awhile one would resonant enough that I would write it down. I still have all of those in a box. I filled up notebooks full of lyrics in high school. I bought my first electric guitar when I was 19 and played in some cover bands, but didn’t really focus on my own writing or singing originals til I was in my mid-20’s. I have  a lot of 4-track tape demos from back then. They’re pretty awful.

Have you ever lived somewhere other than the Bay Area? Considered leaving? How does/has geography influenced your music? 

 I lived up and down the San Joaquin Valley for the first 10 years of my life. My dad built concrete bridges for Caltrans, so we were always moving to the next bridge job.  Bakersfield, Bodfish (in the Tehachapi mountains), Sacramento, Marysville, Stockton. etc. All these places were rural or right on the edge of town, and the assumption was you’d be moving on soon. I think that somehow permanently wired my brain for space, motion, and a sense of impermanence.

A few years ago, wanting more time to concentrate on writing, I sublet my place in Oakland, and hit the road for the better part of year.  I lived in a roughly converted Ford Econoline van with my dog, Potato, and drove around California doing nothing but writing.  All day, every day. Nothing else.  
I do all of my writing in my head, as opposed to with a guitar in my hand, so literally, no matter what else I was doing that year, I was working on one song or another, sometimes a few at the same time. Before I left, some friends gave me a 3-inch-thick antique account ledger and told me to fill it up with songs. I did what I could.  It’s a lot of songs!  I call it “The Pretty Good Book.” It was an incredibly fruitful, dream-like and often hallucinatory exercise to indulge in a writing experience that prolonged and immersive.  I’ll be mining that material for the rest of my life.

What is your earliest memory of your mind being blown by a song?  Who do you count as your main influences and who are you listening to/inspired by now? 

Songs have “blown my mind” so many times it’s amazing I have any mind left, but perhaps the first was Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” off Bringing It All Back Home, which I borrowed from the public library on vinyl when I was 11 or so. This song just crackled with energy and seemed so saturated with meaning that anything I had been listening to on top-40 radio seemed bankrupt by comparison.  Each word seemed to have a whole world hidden behind it, orbiting just out of sight. I still remember suddenly having the odd and distinct feeling that the distance between where I stood and where the sun went down seemed infinitely larger, and the idea that a song could be the cause of that feeling was exciting and scary. Todd Snider blows my mind constantly, but for me his songs are more like looking at a ship in a bottle. I look at all of the emotional detail, humor, sense of narrative, internal logic, and scratch my head as to how he got it all in there, sails billowing, rigging taught. His best ones make me laugh and cry at the same time. 

The list of musicians I admire is practically endless. If Todd Snider is master of what to put in a song, Robert Hunter is a master of what to leave out. He leaves these amazing ambiguous spaces that allow you to enter the song. Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt, Dylan of course, John Doe from X.  Leonard Cohen’s ability to bravely cut to the heart of the matter is always inspiring. Guitar-wise: Joni Mitchell’s and Jimmy Page’s use of alternative acoustic tunings was eye-opening for me.  Clarence White’s amazing early B-bender work.  David Lindley’s supernaturally supportive counter-melodies with Jackson Browne, as well as his stunning solo output...  Frank Zappa’s greasy distorted modal Gibson SG wailing.  And of course Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. Weir always seems to get short shrift compared to Garcia, but he really invented a whole new dialect for rhythm guitar.

My listening this week: The Moore Brothers, Aimee Mann, Hard Working Americans, Sun Ra Live at Pit-Inn Tokyo, Miles Davis Fillmore 1970, Meat Puppets II, Guy Clark, Nick Cave, Warren Zevon, Guided By Voices, The Fugs, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bombino. This was just my last road trip.  It’ll be a whole new list tomorrow.  

I think you may be releasing more than Stolen Tools & Stereos. Are you a write-every-day kind of writer or do you wait for the muse to strike? Describe a bit your approach to writing.

Yeah, my goal this year was to record four full albums.  In addition to Stolen Tools & Stereos I’m about 90% done with two other albums.  One is all acoustic Americana songs from my road trip, the other is a full-on psychedelic rock/pop album.  I plan to record another one live at the CD-release show for Stolen Tools.  As to when they will get released, who can say? I came back from my van trip with a couple hundred songs written in “The Pretty Good Book”.

As to process, I write almost entirely in my head, working on lyrics, chords, melodies, and arrangements all at the same time.  I never write lyrics and then set them to music later.  I don’t even understand how people do that.  I’ve tried, and it never works for me. I’ve also learned that “the muse” doesn’t like me to write anything down or pick up an instrument before the song is mostly done in my head.  Once it’s set in stone in my head, then I can pick up an instrument and figure out what chords I’m hearing without danger of it disappearing in a puff of smoke.  If I try to write parts of it down or pick up the guitar too soon the spell is broken.

I’m writing in my head almost all of the time. Most of my friends and family have seen “the look” when they are talking to me and suddenly I’m just somewhere else.  I’m usually pretty good at being in two places at once, holding a conversation and working on a song at the same time, but sometimes the pull of the song is too strong and I’m just gone.  There’s a pretty constant stream of ideas that I’m observing, monitoring. Out of that stream, there’s probably 4 or 5 things every day that make me say, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I just observe it and a little bit of a song just presents itself, fully formed.  That’s a gift from somewhere.  It’s maybe 10% or 25% of a song. Then I need to focus and actually work to finish it, which can take a long time.  That’s why the van trip was so great.  I actually had the time to finish things.  Most ideas just fizzle and go nowhere and I move on to the next thing.  Maybe it fizzles too.  But then a month later, a line will pop back into my head from one of the fizzled ideas.   I just have to trust that if it is “good” then it’ll hang around long enough to reveal more of itself.  If I forget it, there’s probably a good reason.  I’ve learned to be patient.  Sometimes I just need to let things percolate in the periphery.  You’ll spook it if you look directly at it.  It’s like looking at a dim star.  It disappears if you look at it directly.  

Can  talk about your song selection and recording process for Stolen Tools & Stereos? Have you worked with these players & engineers before? Anything different about your approach on this recording compared to previous recordings?

I have been working with this core group of musicians for years now.  John Hanes (drums), Dave Jess (bass), Steve Lucky (keys), Jason Kleinberg (fiddle), Val Esway and Heather Davison (vocals).  We had a bunch of previously unrecorded songs rehearsed for my last Great American Music Hall show in 2012.  I really liked how they were sounding, so we quickly went into the studio after the show to record them. Stephen Jarvis (Audio 51 rentals) was helping produce those sessions at 25th Street Recording in Oakland, and he pulled in a couple extra musicians to augment that lineup including some heroes of mine; mandolin great David Grisman, pedal steel wizard Bobby Black, and harmonica ace Will Scarlett.  Stephen and engineer David Lichtenstein really challenged me to up the ante on what we could achieve, both sonically and performance-wise. We had worked together on my previous album, Joe Rut: Live, and had a really comfortable working relationship.  You have to have trust in the room or it gets weird, and I trust these guys. 

After those sessions I bought the van and hit the road to write for a year, so the album got put on hold.  The rest of the songs on the album are the result of a van, a dog, time, and the highway.  When I got back I did a couple more days at 25th Street with Scott Amendola (Charlie Hunter, TJ Kirk) on drums,Tom Drohan (The Shut-Ins, Belle Monroe and her Brewglass Boys) on stand-up bass, and Steve Lucky (The Rhumba Bums) on piano.  Plus I did a few days recording on 2” analog tape with Danny Allen at Baby Buck Studio in Oakland.  Danny is a great musician, writer, and engineer who I trust enough to fail in front of, which is important if you want to grow past what you already know.

The biggest difference between this and my previous records is that I used to overdub most the different instruments myself, trying to make it sound like a band.  This record is really a collaboration, with the band members bringing in their ideas and with the basic tracks recorded live in the studio.

What can audiences expect at your release show, and will you be touring in support of the CD?  

We’re doing a two-night stand at The Back Room in Berkeley, Nov 11 & 12.  It’s a really great intimate room, and it will be a different setlist each night. In addition to Stolen Tools & Stereos, I’ll be doing songs from all of my other albums as well as using the shows to debut and record brand new songs that will serve as the backbone of yet another album.  Most of these songs were written on my extended road trip.  I’ll be doing some stripped down acoustic arrangements, as well as bringing in the band and some special guests.

For more information on Joe Rut and Stolen Tools & Stereos visit http://joerut.com/