From what I have read, Leaving the Commonwealth has been best described by their own Thrill Jockey press release: "This album is southern by lyrical setting, country by instrumental arrangement, rocking through its rhythmic heft and most certainly contemporary in attitude". I could not have said it better myself- so I'll leave it there.
The band's discography is long and can be traced back to 2006. In addition to his efforts with The Helix, D. Charles Speer (Shuford) has been a member of the No Neck Blues band for 15 years and counting, as well as numerous other projects (which you can read more about here).
D. Charles Speer (Shuford) has also released his own solo albums, including this year's Arghiledes, which is an exploration of 20th century style Greek music, and throughout, Speer utilizes a wide array of traditional instrumentation including trichordo bouzouki, baglamas, worry bead percussion on whiskey glass, zills and many more.
I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Mr. Shuford about his personal musical history, working with guitarist Jack Rose, his own discography, and some of his influences.
Who were some of your earliest musical influences?
David Charles Shuford: I liked Mussorsky and the Doobie Brothers a lot when I was 8 or so...
What was your first instrument and how did that lead to others, as well as set you down a path of music?
DCS: I took some piano lessons when I was very young, which instilled a certain knowledge of written music but not much instrumental discipline. In my teens I got an electric guitar and my uncle Randy gave me some lessons then. I fell in love with bass in my later teens and really focused on that for a good number of years. Eventually bouzouki and mandolin emerged as instruments I really dug and wanted to learn so I followed those paths as well.
What compelled you to learn music, and could you discuss some of the artists, records, or musical experiences that inspired you most to write and perform your own music?
DCS: I was definitely obsessed with music for as long as I can recall, and my parents had music on the stereo very often. Real range of stuff, classic rhythm and blues like Otis Redding and Percy Sledge, high opera, classic rock, church chanting. I was more of a music lover as a child, as my piano lessons had less than stellar results. I put a little too much pressure on myself as a kid I think.
In my teens I really got into post punk stuff and the desire to play music became stronger. I was a bit of a late bloomer with playing in bands, didn't have a real group in high school, just jammed in a nearby friends' (the Zurn family) basement. But seeing shows from the Jesus Lizard, Dirt, the Melvins and such really made me want to play noisy rock. That taste developed into avant and out music realm and the No Neck Blues Band was a great outlet to get involved with to make those sounds happen.
How did you connect with Jack Rose?
DCS: Jack was on the underground for years playing great stuff with Pelt and eventually started developing his solo repertoire. I met him in Philly at the Philly Record Exchange. Originally Byron Coley got us in touch with each other.
Can you describe your experiences touring with him and your experiences recording Ragged and Right?
DCS: Jack was a super-intensely opinionated and amazing person to be around. He took care of his business right, always ruled the gigs, and had a good time after the show. He was the biggest supporter the Speer band had while he was alive and we all owed him great thanks. He was so enthusiastic, a total energy source.
Can you briefly take us through the other 2 full albums that you have recorded with The Helix, leading up to Leaving The Commonwealth?
DCS: The After Hours sessions were very intermittent and really just of the process of getting the band together. Most of it was recorded with just me and the original drummer Moose. The surprise outro of Canaanite Builder was a highlight. I just kept playing after the "song" had ended, Moose had left the drum room. He could tell I wasn't stopping my wah abuse any time soon, so he went back to the kit and just played along. It was a beautiful open moment and the music reflected it.
Eventually Marc and Hans joined in the following months and added their skills to the record. Distillation was more of a balanced effort creatively, with multiple songwriters and vocalists contributing to the blend. My favorite memory of the Distillation sessions was the tracking of "Shorty" both the live basic track and the guitar overdubs. We were just operating at a super high level that day.
When I listen to your records, I find myself very much taken with the range within the band's sound and instrumentation, as well as the richness of the lyrical storytelling. Can you discuss your writing process with The Helix for Leaving The Commonwealth, both musically and lyrically?
DCS: Some songs begin with a kernel of idea which leads into further research, "Battle of the Wilderness" is one like that. Others start with a phrase or riff that pops up and I just build around it and flesh it out. The songs on Leaving The Commonwealth are kinda epic in length and scope. It was not a conscious decision, but they all fell into place nicely, seemingly creating a commonality. I like songs whose lyrics are intelligible to the listener. I don't demand a straight love song or narrative, I just want to make out the content. This is at odds with a lot music nowadays that obscures the vocal into aimless whispers. Not my favorite style...
How do you see Leaving The Commonwealth connecting most to your previous efforts?
DCS: It is extension of the themes and musical settings laid out on the previous band albums. I feel like it was our best presentation of certain roots and rock elements. The next record may be a little more exploratory structure wise and even lyrically.
What would you say distinguishes Leaving the Commonwealth apart from the band's previous efforts together?
DCS: There was more careful attention paid to studio layering of discrete parts than on previous LPs. We did more a live band feel on the others, so I wanted to utilize the studio to conjure the 70s country feel with certain instrumentation like the Nashville tuned acoustic I used on some tracks. "Le Grand Cochon" obviously tapped into the realm of Cajun instruments - if you want the sound, you've got to access the tools of the trade!
You have balanced a number of musical projects over the years. I'd like to ask you how your solo work and your work with Helix overlaps and feeds into each other for you?
DCS: It is all a continuum of beauty and joy. Technical advances I make in one area of playing can inform and affect another vastly, sound wise and compositionally. Knowledge is usually helpful to have on all fronts, so I try to soak in as much in as I can.
Arghiledes, is rooted in 20th century Greek Music. Can you describe how the conception behind Arghiledes came together, and discuss your inspiration for the record?
DCS: My mother is Greek American, so Greek music in church and family gatherings made its impact early and often. I got way into Cafe Aman, Smyrneika and Rembetica styles about 10 years ago. I've just stockpiled home recordings for years that shared a middle eastern edge and it just came together naturally. I put some images of my grandparents families from Greece and Newnan, GA as a tribute to them.
Who are some of your biggest influences lyrically?
DCS: Harlan Howard, George Jones, Jerry Jeff Walker, Bob Dylan, Michael Chapman, Herman Melville, Hoagy Carmichael, Donald Barthelme, Christopher Smart, James Merrill, Dave Bartholomew, and countless other songwriters and authors.
Biggest influences musically?
DCS: Roy Nichols, Waylon Jennings, John Cippolina, Jack Casady, Takashi Mizutani, Erkin Koray, Sun City Girls, Carl Perkins, the Wipers, Neil Young, Howlin Wolf, Swans, Sun Ra Arkestra, Cecil Taylor, Pandit Pran Nath - this is more a list of my favorites than traceable influences, but they all have their cumulative effect on my various muscial outputs.
What are some of you guilty pleasure albums?
DCS: Not really guilty about it since I'm mentioning it, but I really dig the first Blue Oyster Cult record, the one with a good amount of Richard Meltzer lyrical input. The production on Keith Whitley's records is pretty ugh (function of the mid-80s) but his singing is so good, it makes listening worthwhile.
What would fans be most surprised to learn about your record collection?
DCS: I don't own a single 78, just never got the right needle for them!
Most prized recording in your collection?
DCS: Probably one of my Sun Ra Saturn originals, Magic City maybe? I cherish my Agitation Free 2nd copy too.
What have been listening to lately?
DCS: Been getting into salsa/boogaloo a bit. The Royals and Roy Cousins and Dennis Bovell for some roots reggae/dub sounds for the summer. Late 40s Bob Wills radio transcriptions. Decimus!