The Columbus, Ohio-based band, The Black Swans' have recently released their stellar new album, Don't Blame The Stars (Misra Records). I recently had the opportunity to catch up with singer, songwriter, and guitarist Jerry DeCicca, to ask him about the band's history, his production work, and the band's new album.
This interview is one of those special features that I have had the opportunity to work on that was born with the primary intention of exposing the band's work with new listeners, as well as for fans who are already familiar with the music of The Black Swans. Don't Blame The Stars is one not to be missed, and is already placed on my own short list of the best releases of 2011. You owe it to yourself to give it a listen- and continue to spread the word.
Lastly, before getting to the interview, I'd also like to share the news that next month, Jerry will be doing a Living Room Tour with Southeast Engine frontman Adam Remnant. Literally playing in people's livingrooms! Check it out here: http://misrarecords.com/misra-
What artists and/ or albums inspired you to begin playing music?
Jerry DeCicca: Geez, Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., the Grateful Dead's American Beauty, Lou Reed's New York, Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home. I loved music long before hearing them, but those albums I came across between '84-'89 made me want to pick up a guitar and write songs.
When did you begin writing music?
JD: When I was 15 and got my first guitar and learned 3 chords. That was a very long time ago. I wrote a song called "Mr. Blue" to the tune of "Buckets of Rain".
How and when did The Black Swans come together?
JD: Noel Sayre and I started playing music together in about 1996. Then, I moved to New Mexico, then Philadelphia. We started playing together again, this time as The Black Swans, in 1999 or so. We didn't release a record until 2004.
For new listeners, can you briefly describe working on Who Will Walk In The Darkness With You?, and how that led to the Sex Brain EP?
JD: Who Will Walk in the Darkness with You? was our first album, and it was a slow, stoic, and dark collection of songs that were written over several years and recorded over one. We did it in a studio with money whenever we had some and with a band that was more a group of friends than a steady line-up.
A label called Delmore Recording Society put it out who had released a Tom T. Hall tribute record that I loved and a Lawrence Ferlinghetti 7". I think they are strictly a reissue label now; they did the Karen Dalton tapes in the U.S.
With Sex Brain, I wanted to do something more smart than emotional and with a sense of humor. I wrote those songs quickly, recorded in a basement, and we released it ourselves. I drew the primitive looking cover: two figures holding hands walking into a giant sex brain surrounded by pink.
The band endured quite a significant loss after your 2007 LP, Change, with the passing of band member and good friend Noel Sayre in 2008. Can you describe Noel's influence on shaping the band's sound and writing?
JD: Noel was my first band mate so a lot of songs were written with his violin in mind. We had been friends for so long and played so much music together, I could always hear him while I wrote. He was the other voice in the band, for sure.
Noel was a very distinct player, and he was dramatic, sweet, and moving. I watched women swoon when he played many a night! Without that voice, we're a very different band. We'll always be less as people without him around, but I think we've survived musically by our ability to change and adapt and find new things in ourselves.
Can you discuss the concept behind Words Are Stupid, and how that album developed and came together?
JD: We wanted to make something new after Noel died. And we wanted to keep him in the band. I think some people read into those songs as being about his passing or our loss, but really it was a very fun album to make.
We swiped some tracks from his laptop and built songs around them. Took some bits and pieces of his violin, outtakes from a previous record, him goofing around with a kazoo, silly stuff he recorded drunk late at night in West Virginia. And I wrote songs about language and, what Strother Martin calls, our "failure to communicate". The band tried new things and we re-connected to one another in a new way.
I'd like to ask you a little about your production work. How did you connect with Larry John Wilson for the Larry Jon Wilson album (2009, Drag City)?
JD: I wrote some liner notes to a UK compilation that Larry Jon was on with Dan Penn, Tony Joe White, Donnie Fritts, and some other good southerners. My friend/ surrogate older brother, Jeb Loy Nichols, produced it and, through that, Jeb and I got a UK label to give us some money to make a record with LJW.
Then we twisted his arm for a couple years until he agreed. He hadn't made a new album in almost 3 decades. When the album came out, there was no U.S. label. Will Oldham heard it and recommended I send it over to Drag City.
Can you describe your experiences working with him on the record?
JD: I feel like I knew him pretty well, but I'm also still trying to figure him out in a lot of ways. Those recordings were almost all first takes. Very unconscious, long songs, with intense concentration. I think he had this strong aversion to making a record because of all the negative things that come with it, which is something I understand more all the time.
But once he committed to the song, singing and playing, he was all there in a way I hear in few people. He really gave a lot to his music. I hear that more and more on his records in the 3 years since we worked together. He was a great artist and I feel beyond lucky to have played a tiny part in that.
Can you talk about working with Bob Martin?
JD: I helped Bob make a record as a result of the Larry Jon Wilson album. Bob's first LP from 1973, Midwest Farm Disaster, might be my favorite songwriter album of all time, along with David Blue's Stories. It was a thrill to meet and work with him. We recorded it on the beach, like LJW, but further up east and then did some overdubs with The Black Swans in Columbus, Ohio. It still needs some work. There was never enough money to make it sound just right.
I think Bob and I have some different ideas about some things. He, like LJW, has a strong sense of regionalism in his music, both in his language and voice. A good folk label would be wise to release the album, but it hasn't happened yet, no one is really shopping it around. As is, the album is far better than the majority of songwriter records in the world today, which are pedestrian and without identity. A couple more bucks and it could be great. Bob is certainly a strong personality on and off the turntable.
What is most rewarding for you as a producer, and what have these experiences brought to your own work?
JD: I'm only a producer in a very old school sense of the word. I pretty much sit back and tell people what not to do, help choose songs, lie, encourage, hire/ bribe the right friends, and buy the bucket of chicken.
With my own music, it's taught me not to over-think too much, to stop fretting over the sound you have in your head and work with the sounds that you have available to you. Songwriters write and play their songs solo in their kitchens and then dream up these things to fill up the sound for a record. That's a good recipe for overkill. It can be crippling. I try to take my own advice: Less is more, mistakes can be good, it all comes out in the wash.
In August, I begin working on a new Ed Askew record. He's a major artist, his first LP from 1968 on ESP is classic, so I'm pretty excited.
On The Black Swans' new record, Don't Blame The Stars, is described on the band's website's discography page as a "concept album about being agnostic and placing your faith in music and friendship instead of a higher power, with nods to R&B, country, and rock and name-checking".
You name-drop quite a few references such as TV shows, musicians, and seemingly autobiographical narratives. Can you discuss your inspirations and songwriting process for these songs?
JD: I wanted to make something that lived in my world and not someone else's. I'm agnostic, and I love records and music, and I love my friends. Those three things are the defining factors in who I am and how I go about in the world.
The TV bit was more of a joke. Not that I don't like TV, I do. I like how it numbs my brain, but the spoken word parts aren't literal, but silly vignettes that reset the world of songs that most records plow through without a breath.
I've created a unique world in our records before, I think, but wanted it to be more joyous this time. Something that was smart and serious, but also fun and funny. Lee Hazlewood, Michael Hurley, Warren Zevon, Jimmy Buffett, John Prine, Joe Tex all use humor and brains together in a way I admire.
Can you talk about what music means to you personally, and how it has guided, influenced, and instilled a sense of faith?
JD: Music and all arts are how I've always made sense of the world in a way that some people use religion or faith. I've found solace in art and, to me music (even pop music) is art. I think I'm more drawn to music that is song-based because I like the sound of people's voices. I like hearing what they have to say and how they say it and how they sound when they say it.
Not that I believe there are answers on records, but I don't think people that are religious look to religion for answers either. I've found comfort in music, some peace of mind amongst the chaos and noise, something other than what society is jamming down our throats.
What was your approach to recording the new record, and your intentions behind crafting the "feel of it" as a whole?
JD: We recorded the album in three days in the garage that is on the album's cover. I wanted to create a world different from our other albums. The spoken word parts are funny and meant to take the listener out of the world of songs so they can re-set themselves from time to time, re-evaluate the experience of listening.
What is most rewarding for you working within the music community of Columbus, Ohio?
JD: I'd say being able to live somewhere where I don't stress too much about money, and being in a place where I can make music with my friends, work, tour, and go to the pool in the summer.
Who are your biggest influences?
JD: Kris Kristofferson, Larry Jon, Mickey Newbury, Warren Zevon, Tom T. Hall, Bruce Springsteen, Shel Silverstein, Iris Dement, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Steve Forbert, Richard Buckner, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, Vic Chestnut, Willis Alan Ramsey, and any rock-n-roll from the late 50s/early 60s,.
What have you been listening to lately?
JD: Johnny Paycheck, a lot of African records that are popular right now, Gabby Pahinui, Eddie Rabbitt , Hank Jr., and Jimmy Buffett. I know, I probably shouldn't tell people those last three I suppose...