Red Meat Interview May 2007
Since 1993 Red Meat have provided real deal honky tonk Country and Western music from that most unlikely of Country Music Meccas San Francisco, California. If you see a Red Meat show, or meet any of the band, in particular front man Smelley Kelley, what comes across is that these folks are 110% authentic. No bullshit Santa Monica cowboys here. Or "plowboys" as Kelley will sometimes refer to himself, having a background in rural industrial work and farm labor, but not ranching or cattle. In fact nothing bristles Kelley more than someone questioning his roots or right to speak with his native Iowa-Missourian accent, or play hard driving, hard living, western music. Once a Texan challenged the band for being Midwesterners and, therefore, not up to the task of playing cowboy music. Kelley told him: "Y'all got some pretty good barbeque back there in Texas, but the next time you're in one of them barbeque pits, go out in back and you'll see what they're barbequing up is Iowa pork. Until you've pulled on them rubber boots and waded through a foot and a half of hog shit, and wrestled with a 400 pound hog to cut its balls off, don't be telling me about what country is and what it ain't." The point was given. Red Meat, whose line-up includes Smelley on vocals; Michael Montalto playing guitars and accordion; Les James on drums; Jill Olson, bass and vocals; Scott Young, vocals, guitar and trombone and revolving steel pedal musicians, piano players, violin and other instruments, have come a long way since their inception remaining independent of major labels the whole time. From their debut album Meet Red Meat, put out on Jill Olson's husband/manager's record label Ranchero Records (RanchRec@aol.com/ Owen Bly/4200 Park Blvd./Oakland, Ca 94602) the sky has been the limit. Persistence does pay off, and this particular garage country band has contributed a song to NPR's Car Talk, scored a song for the Academy Award winning film Monster's Ball and have employed the legendary Marc Linett, as an engineer. Linett is famous for, among other things, restoring Brian Wilson's lost epic Beach Boys album Smile. Better yet, San Francisco's proud plow boys have been able to travel America for over a decade, making friends and making music. They've made a few enemies too (very few) but then again every good Western needs a good villain. I met with Smelley and Red Meat's very polite drummer Les James at Smelley's house in May 2007. Smelley Kelley's place is a classic San Francisco late nineteenth/early twentieth century apartment consisting of a long hall with rooms leading off and a kitchen at the end located not too far from Haight/Ashbury. In Smelley's case it has been transformed into a distillation of Western Americana with cow skulls, John Wayne posters, a knife collection (including two wicked Japanese bayonets Smelley's father took from the Pacific Theater of World War II), Catholic Jesus statues, arrow heads and other such ritualistic arcana. The vibe suggests a cross between a New Orleans Voodoo church, the Alamo, a pleasant South Western road side diner and a Santa Fe, New Mexico history museum. Pretty damn cool digs actually, great atmosphere. Regarding the knife collection Smelley commented: "One of my great uncle's carried that pen knife in his sock. I don't know what he did exactly but he had a car during the Depression."
With Smelley Kelley and Les James
S: I've read a lot of interviews you've had on-line. Here's one by Martha McPartlin.
Sm: Oh that interview! Oh hell. That was a good interview.
I talk to a lot of people on the telephone and stuff over the years. Owen will call me up and say "Someone is going to call you," and I say "Yeah I'll be here."
We've had two different pedal steel players throughout our career and they both got married and had children. It's like a curse. We loose our steel pedal guitar players like other bands loose drummers choking on their own vomit.
S: They don't explode?
Sm: No they just get married and have children. As a matter of fact both of our former steel pedal guitar players are happily living. I know Max still plays but I don't know about Corey, he moved to Vermont with his wife. So we're a little shy about having steel pedal guitar players because they just get married and have a kid. The bottom line is once we stopped having pedal steel in our live shows Michael Montalto, our incredibly great, fucking electric guitar player started playing all this crazy stuff he wasn't playing before because when you have to compete with between two guitars you've got to arrange who is playing what and where, especially when you're playing double harmonies and stuff. The absence of a steel pedal player left Monty free to improvise and we got a lot of cool stuff out of him. He can even play a lot of the licks that people play on steel. It's crazy the noises he can make come out of a Fendcr Telecaster.
S: You guys all seem to have your own versions of the California myth. People come to California to become stars or make money. You would get time off from work and come out west from where you were from.
Les: When I came out to California I was playing in a band and the other guys just split and I thought well I can go back to Oklahoma and get a job, play in top 40 cover bands out there or try my chances here so I picked California. That was in '89 when I was 23. I lived for a couple of years in Seattle and Oregon before that. I stayed busy all the time. I didn't have a day job either. Just worked in bands all the time both in California and the North West.
Sm: I came out in '79 and Scott came out in '81 shortly after me. I was "Dude, I'm in California!" He got laid off. He was working at the Caterpillar plant in steel casings and pig iron. I had been doing industrial air conditioning and heating back there. We had periodic lay offs so I would take my free time and come out here in the summer or fall and party, goin' back when workers were needed. A friend of mine had a job on Second and Market remodeling office space so I just started working with him when on vacation. I started renting a basement room that I had to chase the rats out of when I got word that the factory back home was hiring again. I thought about how it would be snowing there real soon and how every place I'd be working wouldn't be heated. I figured I could freeze my ass off or stay in California. I picked California.
S: What aspect of heating were you doing?
Sm: I was doing sheet metal work, both residential and industrial. We'd install heaters or air conditioners in people's houses or we'd go into great big rubber and steel mills and food processing plants and we would go in and install bag houses. It was the 70's and bag houses were filter systems they would install in the smoke stacks of all these places according to EPA requirements. We'd fabricate bag houses the size of a typical San Francisco three-bedroom apartment and attach them to the sides of the smoke stacks. That's the side of the base of the smoke stack and not over the top. It would be a series of filters and you would have a big fan sucking at the base of this old chimney and the exhaust would run through the filters and then the filtered exhaust plume would go out through the smoke stack. Theoretically the toxic stuff would all get caught in the filters and clean waste would be released into the air.
Then you would do whatever you did. Probably pull 'em off, take 'em down to Arkansas and spray 'em around white trash kids to make sure they got cancer.
L: Or you can take it to the car wash.
Sm: Yeah take it to the car wash and then drink it.
S: In one of the interviews you said there wasn't much to do in your home town, so you would go truck surfing.
Sm: Oh yeah. Well you'd get really drunk and come up with these ideas. Yeah you'd stand on the roof of the truck and surf and hopefully, when you fell, would fall into the bed of the truck and not onto the road.
L: There wasn't a lot to do.
Sm: Yeah we were bored and there was a lot of drinkin.
Drinkin' age in Iowa back then was 18. So I'd get out of high school, go to a bar and have a shot of whiskey. We got totally trashed right after graduation. Everybody got real drunk and would chase each other around. A lot of fornicatin' and fighting. Blow stuff up too. A lot of fun but I could see where it was goin'. An old drunk who was missing several fingers!
L: And only 23 years old.
S: There's one guy in Dazed and Confused whose been out of school for a few years and likes to check out the high school girs and says: 'What I love about high school girls is I keep getting older but they stay the same.
Sm: I related to a lot of people in that movie because I graduated in '75 and they pretty much had that era down. They were a little off on the drug use. You can't get everything right. It's obvious Richard Linklater wasn't a Head in high school because there were a couple of things about that culture that he missed completely. He was someone who was obviously in an art class in high school with heads and he watched them but he didn't watch them that closely. They had scenes in the movie where people would be standing around in a circle smoking and joint and talking where somebody would double hit the joint. In the seventies nobody double hitted a joint. There was always somebody going 'Hey, hey, hey! Pass to the right!' Also nobody just sucked on a reefer. Everybody had a noise they made when they sucked on it. Everybody would smoke it down to the very end and then somebody would eat it.
'Hey what happened to the roach''
'Bob ate it!'
'Bob, you fucker, you always eat it!'
But that was the only mistake he made in that movie.
Everything else was completely there.
S: :There's the one guy who is "I came here to do two things: drink beer and kick ass, and SHIT THE BEER'S ALMOST GONE!"
Sm: [laughs] Unfortunately that was me. At a party I would try to find out in the first twenty minutes if I was going to get laid and if no woman would pay attention to me I'd start getting really drunk and amp up for who I was going to fight.
S: Unfortunately I went through that stage at 25.
Sm: Well mine lasted too long. It lasted a good eleven or twelve years. I've got a lot of stories. You and I are not large gentlemen. If you consider yourself a bar fighter in such circumstances you go out there and get your ass kicked.
S: A friend of mine took my photo after getting beat up by a whole bar and I had a great shiner. It was a good photo and ended up being a Tylenol ad.
S: People would ask me about it and I'd tell them the truth: I was acting like an asshole.
Sm: Yeah one of my favorite lines was 'One at a time or all together, it makes no difference to me. You're a bunch of pussies.' At the Philosopher's Club in West of Twin Peaks [San Francisco neighborhood], which I believe is probably under different management now I apparently pulled that line and they decided to go all together. That was back in the 80's and the Philosopher's Club back then was a WPOD hang out. WPOD stood for White Punks on Dope and they were a gang that took their name from the Tubes song. They were a bunch of racist white surfer dudes who drank a bunch, drove Camaros and wore work boots with Ben Davis clothes.
They were very clannish and if you didn't come from the Sunset District and weren't white you were going to come up on the wrong side of them. I was drunk and peckish and decided to invade their territory and they about killed my ass. They took most of the skin off my face and most of my whole body. They kicked the shit out of me although I was blacked out most of the time.
S: It seems like San Francisco has gotten a lot tamer.
L: Oh yeah. When I first moved here there were tons of music places, tons of live bands. All of 'em were good bands too. All up and down Haight Street you had places like the I-Beam and Nightbreak. I saw the Limbomaniacs, Primus and someone else for five bucks on a Wednesday night. There were like twenty people in the place. There used to be an all-day Sunday Battle of the Bands at Nightbreak. They had Sushi on Sunday at the same time so you could feed yourself with sushi while you watched the bands.
Sm: There was the Full Moon Saloon which was directly across from the I-Beam which is now the Red Vic Movie House. There were places down along Lower Haight. Most neighborhoods had five to seven live music venues each and they had acts seven nights a week. Hot bands would do a mid-week show to work out new material and see who would show up and what kind of reaction they would get.: There was Iron Horse Thursdays which consisted of hillbilly music. Jill was performing with the Golden Wedding Band at the time. She put this act together just so she could play on Thursdays. She had Big Lu from the Hell Hounds with her.
There were several people in that project. I remember watching them and going: "God what a good country band!"
They were good.
S: How did you go from being a poet to a singer Smelley?
Sm: I was sitting in a bar back in Iowa and I said 'You know I'm going to buy me a spiral note book and an ink pen. I'm going to California and tell everybody I'm a poet and get laid.' When I came out here I actually wrote and read some poetry and met some really great people. I actually learned how to do it and became a real poet. I was reading at places like the Meat Market in Noe Valley. I had a featured reading there one night and got three glasses of orange juice and a five dollar bill. Scott was laying in a band at a place the size of the Meat Market and got eight free beers and a twenty! Then people will fuck a musician before they fuck a poet you know' The grade of women available to musicians was also hotter than what was available to poets and getting into music just seemed like the thing to do. I always liked to sing too you know. I sang in a church back home then back in school I sang in choir and I met Scot in juvenile glee club. I would sing anytime anybody busted out a guitar. "Do you know 'Desolation Row'?" I would sing all the verses. We would have jam sessions at our house, me and Scott when we lived in the same place.
We played once at a birthday party at the Albion Club and some guy was 'Can you play Tuesday nights'' and we had to explain that we weren't a real band and the guy was "If you play Tuesday nights we'll pay ya."
I said "We only know eleven songs."
He said "Learn another eleven and come play on Tuesday,"
and we came to be a band.
L: I was in the Mockingbirds and saw them play at Sacred Grounds and really liked them.
Sm: We were at the Bottom of the Hill and someone pointed you out to us and said "That guy plays the drums." You were just singing at that show weren't you?
L: Maybe at that Bottom of the Hill show.
Sm: Yeah so we went "That guy plays the drums". Then we went out to see the Mockingbirds and were "Damn that dude plays the drums!" We were on our second drummer at the time and let's say that dude wasn't very committed to music. He had a lot of irons on the fire and was really limited as to when he could rehearse or play. Not only that ' you could dress him up in the fanciest cowboy suit and keep the microphone away from him and anybody could tell from clear in back of the room that there wasn't a bit of hillbilly on this guy. It hasn't been a prerequisite with the band but it helps with music to know where the songs were coming from. The very first time he couldn't make the show Les filled in and I said "let's have Les be the drummer. He's ridden horses! This man's actually shoveled shit! He knows how to play drums real good. Did you hear how he played drums?"
S: You've ridden horses?
L: Yeah my uncle has horses. I haven't ridden horses for a long time obviously. My uncle has a ranch but most of my family are pipe and oil field people. Oklahoma you know. My uncle actually owned cows but had side businesses too.
When Smelly and Scot asked me to play I said sure because I liked them anyway. If I can see them while I'm playing then I not only don't have to pay but even get paid to watch them from behind [laughs].
S: Scott writes most of your songs though?
L: Scott, Jill and Michael. Scott writes most of it, Jill writes some of it and Michael writes a little of it.
Michael writes the instrumentals. Mike's a picker. His whole family is like that.
Sm: Mike's a picker. He writes the pickin' ones. Like I've said I've known Scott since 1972. There were different times in different bands that I've tried my hand at song writing but when you've got someone like Scott sitting next to you and he's bringing these great songs it kind of makes you realize "You know I don't really need to write any songs because this motherfucker is the shit."
S: It was Jill who hooked you up with Dave Alvin right?
Sm: Actually we all kind of talked about it but Jill and Owen started stalking him ' literally. They went to a Dave Alvin gig down in LA and snuck back stage and were "Mr. Alvin, Mr. Alvin, here's are first album that we just put out. We'd love to work with ya. If you could listen to this and get back in touch we'd really appreciate it and we'd love to work with ya."
Then he came up here to play and Jill and Owen showed up and they were "Remember us? Have you listened to our CD?
Here's another one. We'd really like to work with ya." Then I got this call from Jill and Owen.
"Smelley you used to be a poet right?"
"Well there's a poetry reading at City Lights Book Store in North Beach. Dave Alvin's written a book of poems and he's come up to read it. Could you come with us?" So we all showed up and sat through the reading and Dave Alvin's poetry was actually pretty good and I was impressed. There were a couple of other people too who were just wankers. If you get one out of three at a poetry reading you've really lucked out. So anyway we went outside afterwards for a cigarette and he needed a cigarette as well so we started bonding right away. Like I said, I liked his poetry so I bought a book and asked him to sign it and right away we were "Here's our CD. We'd really like to work with you! As a matter of fact we're going to be playing in LA in two weeks are you busy on this date?"
He went: "Well I don't think so. Where are you playing?"
We told him Jack's Sugar Shack and all of a sudden he was "OH GOD I love Jack's Sugar Shack. I know the guy that runs the place."
We knew him too. He was this guy who used to manage the I-Beam up on Haight Street. Just an insane alcoholic.
S: That's Jack's Sugar Shack's owner, not Dave Alvin?
Sm: No, no. Dave's very under control these days. I don't know what he used to be like when he was young. He tells stories but he's a very together dude on his game and all about the music.
So anyway he liked that bar and we put him on the guest list so he came to the show and watched our set and after our set we were "Did you like it? Did you like our set? Did you listen to our record?" and he was
"Well I'm going to go home and listen to it tonight. I don't have very much time off this summer but I do have a couple of weeks and I will be talking to you." He actually did call us back after that but there was a five or six month stalking period involved before we developed a working relationship with him.
The first album we did with him we were a little intimidated. After that album we relaxed when we realized "Oh that's what he was going to do. That wasn't very painful. In fact it was pretty cool." So the next time we worked with him we were really at ease and you'll really be able to hear it on our new album.
L: The first album we did in ten days, the second in eight and this one in seven.
S: Didn't you work with the Beach Boys' producer?
Sm: Actually Marc Linett was our engineer, not our producer and he's engineered all the Dave Alvin produced records, they work together as a team. Marc mixes and masters the recording.
S: So Dave will say "Bring up the snair?"
Sm: No, Dave will say "We need a more energetic performance on that. Why don't you play with a polka beat?" and Marc says technically what he needs. They both listen for stuff that's been dropped.
L: From the very beginning we didn't really learn the songs before we went in because we'd have to change things. It would be first right off: 'No that didn't work. No try that. Do this, this, this and this. Okay that works better.
"That middle part you need to put this in. Can you play it through? All right." Then we have to learn the song after the fact. Take the record home and go through each of the songs we recorded and then learn how to play them again, the way they were on the records as opposed to the way we wrote them originally.
Sm: Dave would deconstruct everything and put it all back together. So we learned to leave all our arrangements really loose. That way we wouldn't waste any time sitting around going: "What do you think about this part?" We would just ask Dave what he wanted and he would tell us. We totally trust him because even if our song came out different from what we imagined it would sound cool with his production.
L: And Marc Linett is really fast and really on it.
S: I read an interview in Mix Magazine where he talked about how he put together the Beach Boys Smile album and he talked about how in the 60's you'd record live bands in a small room then in the 70's you had everybody in a sound booth with head phones which he said made the studio "totally dead."
L: Yeah totally separated.
S: Now, though, since punk rock anyway, bands like to be live again. So that's how he had to record Smile, which, he figured, is the way it was meant to be recorded back in the sixties, with the musicians playing live with the mics bleeding over. He had to hunt down the right analog tape too.
L: I bet he used 2. I think he uses 24s. That stuff is hard to find now. The company that made that stuff went out of business so you gotta find people that have extra stock and buy it all up. Last time we were at Marc's house we saw these pictures of him with Brian Wilson and Elton John on the walls. And we're "Hey that's by the pool! Right out there!" Marc was telling us: "I worked with him. I worked with him and, oh yeah, I worked with him too." We were "Really'!?"
Sm: The thing is Marc and Dave have a very close working relationship but Marc is a very high dollar sort of guy. A couple or three times a year he'll do a charity gig and take on bands like us or Los Straight Jackets for cheap because he likes the music and it's fun for him to do a low budget project because he's always having these prima donnas from Warner Brothers coming in and doing sound tracks. Sometimes that's not so much fun. Maybe he found us more down to earth.
L: Oh his wife made this big barbeque forus the very last day. She soaked these steaks in butter. It was awesome. He comes up to our shows.
Sm: When we were down in LA I had somebody come up to me and say "Smelley you guys work with Marc Linett right?"
"Yeah he's our engineer."
"Is that him over there in the corner?"
"Yeah, yeah. That's Marc."
"What's he doing here' Is he recording?"
"No he's not recording. He just came down to see our show."
Then the guy said "Marc Linett never goes to shows."
"Well he came to see us man."
I was scared to death of him the first time we recorded down there 'cause he's not real easy to get to know. He's super quiet. He's also very focused and he'll get super focused on one thing.
L: "Could you try it again?" That's all you hear. You get to know him through the head phones.
Sm: His head is pretty much hidden behind the board. Dave you can see. He's there in the booth and you can see whether he's happy or not.
S: So he's like the ultimate sound geek?
Sm: Oh yeah. He's King God Sound Geek.
L: He started doing live mixing with Frank Zappa. He just lucked into it after doing about ten years of studio work. This one guy who was going to do a show couldn't make it so he invited Marc to be the head engineer. He ended up calling him a second time.
Sm: Yeah everybody in the business heard that Frank Zappa used him twice for live tours so everybody was saying "This guy must be King God because Frank Zappa's kind of nit picky." When word went out all over LA that this guy could make Zappa two tours running it made him what he is today: this giant, and that is what he really is. We really lucked out being able to work with Dave and being introduced to Marc through Dave. He even dug what we were doing. The first record I was concerned that he really didn't like us and that we were being a burden to him somehow then I remember this facial expression he made and I asked Dave "Was Marc grinning?" and Dave said "Yeah he thinks that song is hilarious." That was one of the novelty songs off of 13 "The Girl with the Longest Hair and the Biggest Nails."
S: I was listening to Dave Alvin's West of the West album which is all California songs by or about Californians.
People who grew up here or got laid her or had their hearts broken here, whatever. The liner notes he wrote talk about how California doesn't have the same kind of depth of traditional music roots as Texas or Tennessee but there are roots.
Sm; Oh yeah. All kinds of Okies and Midwesterners ended up out here. Just like us. A lot of people from Virginia and Tennessee ended up in New York or DC or Texas way, but a lot of people from the middle: Colorado, Wyoming and all that ended up here. The crazy ones.
S: :There was a lot of country music on the radio where I grew up in Fresno.
Sm: There's a lot of hillbillies in Fresno. Bakersfield was where a lot of the scene was: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam -- but a lot of those guys play up in Fresno.
Brisbane was a big spot interestingly enough. There's a whole California country music circuit.
S: Where I grew up I totally rebelled against the country music thing. I thought it was stupid at the time when I was a kid.
Sm: Oh yeah, same as me. There was bluegrass all over where I grew up but I was a little headbanger and really into rock and roll until this one point where this friend of mine came over and said: "Hey man there having this music festival over in Missouri. It's like a camp out thing all day long. I got a little bit of hash and some acid and my mom and dad's station wagon. Do you want to go?" So I said sure.
When we got there I realized it was a bluegrass festival and I thought it was a little creepy with all these pig farmers all over the place. It was kind of frightening actually.
S: It was like Deliverance or something?
Sm: Oh yeah.
L: Times a million.
Sm: It was northern Missouri and they had all their stuff out but the longer the tweaken' went on the more I started thinking bluegrass was pretty good music. On Sunday morning they did Gospel when I was coming down. There I was crashin' and I had been sittin' in the rain all weekend. Everybody had set their lawn chairs on this horse race track where the festival was held but somebody had gotten drunk the night before, driven his truck up on the track and ran over all the lawn chairs. So there were all these wrecked lawn chairs and it had been raining and I was sitting in the mud and Jimmy Martin was on stage singing about Jesus. Now Jimmy Martin was just a reprobate, little, mean, drunk bastard but there he was singing about Jesus all red faced and hung over from the night before and I was crashing in the mud. That's when the feeling came to me: "This is truly the music of my people."
Listening to British dudes play southern blues is cool and good to trip on but this is what my ancestors were about and there's something really natural about this shit. I love country Gospel music.
Everybody would come up to the stage and say: "Now this is a real shame about what happened last night and I hope that young fellow sitting in that jail cell will see the light of what he's done." There were all these unhappy, old, fat people sitting up in the stands a few hundred feet further from the stage than they had to be because of that poor misguided young man that went all crazy on moon shine the night before.
S: A lot of those old country musicians really were hard working people, farm folk, miner's daughters and cowboys.
Of course they had the fucked up lives to prove it. I mean Granpa Hank had a fucked up life. Hank Jr. had a fucked up life. I don't know about Hank III.
Sm: Oh no, no, no. Oh Hank III smokes crack. Hell yes Hank III's got a fucked up life. Hank III's fucked up. He's a mess.
L: It was his own doing, having a fucked up life though.
Sm: Oh yes. You get a break like that, your daddy born like that and you go ahead and get a fucked up life that's by choice. You have the silver spoon rammed up your ass and then you go get a fucked up life, yeah that's by choice.
There were a lot of guys though. Charlie and Ira Louvin.
Charlie was a good man -- and still is -- righteous; Ira was haunted by the devil. He wrote some of the best Gospel music ever written but he beat his women, lied, cheated and stole. George Jones same fuckin' thing. Some of the people I most admire in music, they have a pea brain that just allows them to focus on music to the exclusion of everything else.
S: Have you read Cormac McCarthy's Child of God?
Sm: Oh yes. One of my favorite books. I never, ever wanted to empathize with a necrophiliac murderer. Never in my life did I think I wanted to do that. I didn't want to the whole time I was reading the damn book, but the dude makes you see things through the killer's eyes. "Well the motherfucker didn't have any choice but be a murderin' necrophiliac,
nobody was gonna love him." If he wanted any sex in this life he better kill something and fuck it because otherwise he wasn't going to get laid!
S: I think McCarthy takes the whole literary approach to psychotic rural Americana and raises it to another level.
S: Yeah he took where Faulkner left off and raised it up a whole notch. Blood Meridian is the same way. I love the dude's books man. Suttree is really good. It's not one of the hardcore books but it really does describe river life.
I grew up on the Mississippi and he really nails down white trash river life down to a "t". Good writin'. I love Cormac McCarthy.He kind of avoids the media spot light. He's like Thomas Pynchon that way, where he doesn't really have time for interviews or attention. He's busy doin' other stuff. We're not busy doin' other stuff. We love the media! Les James and Smelley Kelley: we love the media!
S: These days more and more people are living in the city and working in service, entertainment or finance. People don't do as much backbreaking physical work as they used to unless their from Guatemala. Country music is, almost by necessity, becoming city music with a country twang.
L: Scott has a song called "City Slicker" about that. "I used to be a hick but now I'm a city slicker," about morphing into urbanism.
S: Like a song that's classic honky tonk that erupts into a speed metal rift.
L: Actually there's this really nice buckaroo pickin'
guitar thing that has an entire psychedelic breakdown on our new album. That was Dave's idea. It works real nice.
It's really cool. He said: 'Let's break this down and do backwards guitar.'
S: I thought it was great when you did "Alameda County Line" and it's a honky tonk song all about urban struggle, trying to hang onto your place when the rents are sky rocketing and expressing that with country angst.
Sm: Well that's what living in a city is all about. The song ends up with me sitting stuck on the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge and telling a yuppie honking at me "I'll take a tire iron to your head and beat you so hard your own mamma won't recognize you!" Although I don't write the songs that part was me ad libbing. At the finish of the song Dave said: "Could you be this pissed off redneck?" I said sure. "I can do that. What do you want?
Somebody stuck in traffic?" So that was that whole bit. Me hollerin'.
I think one of the songs on this album is honestly one of the best songs Jill's ever written. I've been following Jill ever since her prior band The Movie Stars were playing back in the eighties. Every single show they did in San Francisco in the eighties, I was there. I watched her develop as a player and a song writer and I honestly think this is her best work.
S: Since I don't go to shows every week, what's the country scene like in San Francisco right now?
Sm: It grows and it dies. On certain occasions it's the really hip thing to do and so everybody goes out to see country bands, then all of a sudden there's fifteen bands, then it dies down to about three or five and it goes along for a while then it becomes popular again. We've seen that happened twice, at least, since we started.
S: I think there's trendy shit and then there's stuff people actually feel. At any given time there's bullshit bands.
Sm: Well yeah in the middle nineties all of a sudden all these punk rockers I'd seen in other bands started showing up at shows wearing cowboy hats. It was during the era Madonna wore a beaten up cowboy hat and people started showing up with scrunchy cowboy hats and Les started calling them'
L: Scrunchy lesbian cowboy hat trucker music.
Sm: The thing was while we don't have anything against lesbians, these bands were sort of intentionally denigrating the genre. Playing facetious trucker music.
L: They had the right sun glasses. A good example of one of these types of bands we saw in San Jose when we played with these girls, well girls and guys, and we were talking to them before the gig during the sound check and when they started playing they would stop between songs and affect southern rural accents like: "How y'all doin?" They weren't talking like that before.
Sm: They'd go up to the bar and say: "Can I have a Cabernet?" They were from Marin County and had yuppie jobs and SUV's but then they would get up on stage and go: "Well Thelma, How're y'all doing today?" and "Well ah don't know." They watched a bunch of Hee Haw and did a fake southern accent. I don't put on my accent. This British cock sucker wrote in this zine that my accent was a put on and I've never been more offended by the media. Pissed me off pretty hard. I'd lived in San Francisco for 27 years and I'd always had a good vocabulary but my mother never liked the way I talked because I emulated the people from Missouri more than the people from Iowa because Iowa's a very educated state. My grandmother went to college and my mother would chase me around the house with my double negatives and "aint's" and all that shit. I just liked the way people from Missouri talked and it helped me fit in better in the steel shop and the bars and kept me from getting my ass beat. When I moved out here I always made it a point to go back once a year to revamp my accent and Les can tell ya for a fact that I come back with my accent thicker. That British motherfucker honked me when he jumped to the conclusion that because I live in San Francisco I'm supposed to talk differently.
S: He wasn't really a limey. He was from Long Beach and he watched a lot of Benny Hill.
Sm: British piece of shit.
L: What was that wannabe trucker band down at the Doll Hut?
Sm: Something Trucker. What it was was that the guy who was the casting director for That 70's Show decided he wanted to have a facetious trucker band. He had a bunch of people who couldn't play their instruments although their bass player did have a set of original Hee Haw bib overalls with the printing all over 'em.
S: And the worst part is the motherfucker rolled in dressed like me! He was about my size. I was "What the fuck is this fucker up to?" and they got up and just butchered a bunch of songs. They only did one original song and it was about how they hated Red Sovine. Now how can you do any fucking thing about trucking at all and not worship the ground that Red Sovine walked on is beyond me. He was the god of trucker music as far as I'm concerned. Everybody else has done truckin' music, nobody's ever done a song like "Teddy Bear": Those fuckers can kiss my ass! Those motherfuckers had the gall to get up on stage and sing about how they hated Red Sovine! Fuck them.
S: I think a lot of punk rockers and hipsters got into country music because of Johnny Cash. And more power to him. I think it was great that Johnny Cash got turned into a big rock star again before he died.
Sm; Yeah it was great seeing that.
S: I think all those Rick Rubin records were great too. But one thing that angry, alienated, pissed off kids, or kids trying to be those things, can relate to are murder ballads like "Delia's Gone."
Sm: Oh yeah. You betcha.
S: I still relate to that stuff. But you guys don't seem to project that kind of darkness.
Sm: No we're a family show. We always have been. We meant to do it that way. You can go see us a t a gnarly night club and I'll tell some dirty jokes and toss around some nasty language but we love to do straight family shows like when we opened for Del Mccoury at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. The sort of show can be enjoyed by blue hairs as well as everybody else and nothing gets overtly political.
L: Because we were raised that way.
Sm: Yeah we were raised that way and it's what the music is about anyhow. There's some fun songs, some happy songs, some sad songs, some heart break songs, some novelty songs and a Gospel song, and that's what all country shows were until they became stadium rock shows with Garth Brooks and everybody else. That's all changed what they call country music, although what I call country music is still the same thing.
L: We try to keep things independent on our own label.
What's a big record company anyway' They're nothing but a big bank. They shelve your project and write it off and you still owe them money. Why would we want that'
S: Were you still partying when you started the band Smelley?
Sm: No. I cleaned up already. I've been clean and sober for 20 years. I wouldn't have been able to do Red Meat otherwise. I was very inconsistent when I partied. I'd get on stage one time and remember all the words and cues and would provide stellar comments in-between. I'd chat with the audience and be entertaining. Then the next time I'd be fucking up every song: singing off key, singing the wrong words, fucking with the audience, picking fights with people, coming on to women who were with someone already.
Many bad things.
In the Fillmore they had to pass a rule: no hard liquor before a show and no more than a six pack of beer. So I drank a six pack of beer before I went on and then I'd get two double shots of whiskey when I went on stage. I was allowed to drink once we were on. That way I wouldn't be drunk until we were all done.
S: It's all in the timing.
Sm: That's what I thought. This was back when I was usin'
and boozin' and it was all about how much could I do at any given time and still get away with it. I was functional. I always had a job but I was also always fucking things up.
My musical career would have gone off track if I didn't take steps to focus my priorities.