Executed American Outlaw
JOHNNY DOWD has been making records and touring since 1997. His latest album, Execute American Folklore was released last month. He plays Liverpool for the first time on 20th October at Dumbulls Gallery.
“I thought every record I made, with the exception of Wrong Side of Memphis, would be my ticket into the mainstream and big record sales. The fact that I have been wrong each time doesn’t discourage me.”
There are two types of “outsider artist”, those that make a decent living and get featured on film soundtracks, get a book written about them, maybe even survive on the outskirts of a major label (Daniel Johnston, Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits) and those that self-drive their rental car across Europe to play tiny gigs to a devoted following. Johnny Dowd is the latter. 15 or so releases into a career that started late (Dowd released his first CD in his late 40s) Dowd has flirted with flirting with mainstream success, been featured on the Americana documentary “Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus”, been selected by Matt Groening to play the New York edition of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival and covered a range of styles from country and folk through to twisted electro-funk.
Joe Florek called him at his home in Ithaca, New York state where he writes, records and runs his home removals business. Just so you can imagine his replies, consider each reply in this interview as a slow, measured, southern drawl (he was born in Texas, grew up in Memphis and moved north in his teens) reminiscent of Harry Dean Stanton sat on a porch with William Burroughs.
Bido Lito!: With some artists, you don’t really know what they do. You assume they exist in some kind of artistic bubble, writing songs and waiting for their muse to turn up. With other bands, such as Steve Albini’s Shellac, for example, they are very open about their day jobs and the time and money it costs to be an artist these days. How do you balance those things?
Johnny Dowd: Musicians who do it the way I’m doing it, basically a full time job and then the music second is because they aren’t financially successful enough. I guess if I was more successful I wouldn’t have that story, I would just be on the road playing music and making money. Because you need money to live, you know? When you were younger, you could go out on the truck all day and then gig at night and it was never really a problem, you had a lot of energy. In terms of balance, it’s never been a problem. I don’t have to go away anywhere to write. I can put the phone down now and just switch off and write a song if I want to. I can write in the office if I’m not out on the truck, or at home. I guess I have a pretty fast on/off switch as far as that goes.
In terms of success, there was a time a few years ago I was getting pretty pissed off, thinking maybe I should be more successful. That’s how it works with my regular business, you know? If you do a good job, and then people tell you and they’ll call again and give you some more business. It’s not like that with the music business, totally different. There’s hundreds of bands out there that I’m better than who are way more famous, but also there are bands that are better than me that never got out of their living room. If you’re looking for justice, it’s not in the music business, you know. But I love making music, and it’s like fishing or sex or anything you like doing; it’s enjoyable in and of itself. So whether you’re playing to 4 people or 4,000 once you have the amps turned on and everything, and start up, it’s fine. It’s good. Just the money at the end of the night is different. It’s a bit less.
BL!: How many albums have you released, is this about 15?
JD: Well, Maybe ten or so regular albums, but also some live stuff and some collaborations on top of that. This year I have my new album, Execute American Folklore coming out and a double album of demos and live stuff with my first band from years ago, Neon Baptist and then I have this one, long 25 minute song that is influence by Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew or something. That might be ready for the tour. (Thinks) Maybe not. What date is it? No, that won’t be ready.
BL!: Does it have a name?
JD: It might be called the Back End of Spring or the Black End of Spring. I dunno. It’s instrumental, so I can call it anything. I could call it Your Mama, you know? It doesn’t have to be called anything related to the lyrics because it’s instrumental. I’ve had that title for a long time, I might save it for something else. BL!: Do you write stuff differently now to how you wrote your first albums? Now you’re getting deeper into your career?
JD: I have changed a bit, I used to just do the traditional thing of sitting there with an acoustic guitar and working on a chord progression. Now I like to work with a drum machine, in a way because it’s more limited. I just get a beat going and then kind of freestyle over it. Not like freestyle rapping. But like blah, blah, blah, talking some lyrics over it until something comes. Or maybe I’ll have some lyrics lying around that will fit it. One thing about some people who maybe run dry when they get really old, some guys have been doing this since they were teenagers and by the time they get to 50 or 60, they’ve been writing for 40 years. But I only started when I was in my 40s, so although I’m 67 years old now, I’m only like……..20 in musical years so I still got plenty of ideas and songs, I reckon. My body is 67, but my musical mind is pretty young, it’s like the opposite of dog years. I haven’t exhausted the musical well.
BL!: Some of my favourite songs of yours are the story songs, where you’re getting one side of a conversation or a view of a character. You have a song, Betty, where you’re calling up an old girlfriend, asking for a leather jacket back that you gave here when you were kids. It’s like a less romantic version of Martha by Tom Waits.
JD: Well Martha is a great song. I used to like the whole thing back in the 60s, there would be comics like Shelley Berman or Bob Newhart and you’d only hear their side of the conversation for the whole routine, so you had to do a bit of work and imagine the other side. They were really funny, and I liked that kind of thing. I like some humour in my music, I like Nick cave and I get Nick Cave and Tom Waits a lot as comparisons but I like that there’s some humour in Tom Waits. No matter how dark the subject matter. And I listen to a lot of Hip-Hop , and there’s a lot of humour in that stuff too.
BL!: There’s another song called Big Wave, from one of your early albums that I used to be listen to a lot, it was on the cover of an Uncut CD about 15 years ago. It’s the story of a guy driving round West Virginia, miles from the ocean, but he still has a surfboard on his car and dreams of the big waves crashing down in Waikiki. That has a lot of dark humour in it. The image of this guy pulling up to the feed store in his truck with a surfboard on it.
JD: That’s it in a nutshell. That’s what I’m trying to do. No matter how weird or dark it is, there’s some humour in there too.
BL!: I saw on your Indiegogo campaign, you said “You people opened your hearts andopened your wallets” to raise $17,000 for the album and tour. You did that OK, but you sold a really beautiful old Hawaiian guitar. Was that a wrench or was it just something you wanted to lose so you could do the tour?
JD: Oh, I never learned to play that thing. So that wasn’t a problem in terms of being sad to sell it. I had it about 25 years and I always said I’d learn to play it and I never did. So I thought I’d let it go and help out a little on financing this tour. I always thought I’d learn to play jazz properly or learn to play like Son House or whatever, and then I thought I’m just going to concentrate on playing C, F, G in time.
BL!: You play a wide selection of styles, do you ever have to disappoint someone if they come up and ask for “first there was funeral” (from “….Wrong Eyed Jesus”) or some Americana stuff and then this new record has a lot of electro stuff on it, like an experimental version of Beck or something. Is that a pressure?
JD: Well, as far as this tour goes, I’ve got a drum machine and two other guitarists. So I’m going to play 4 or 5 songs of this album, some stuff off the other albums and then some stuff just me with a guitar, some of the folkier stuff, like “first there was a funeral”. So if you are a fan of any one particular era or style of Johnny Dowd, you should be happy. (long pause) Or I might not. I never have any fucking idea what I’m going to do, really (laughs). If anyone calls out a song, I’ll make a stab at it, But if it’s bad, it’s like “That’s your fault forshouting it out, I didn’t say I could do it”.
BL!: Obligatory Liverpool question, you grew up in the sixties, were the Beatles on your radar when you were young?
JD: Not really, to be honest, when they came out, later on I went back to them and I can appreciate the albums. But at the time, the first stuff, I didn’t think they were doing anything that the Everly Brothers weren’t doing better. I usually listen to more black music, RnB, James Brown, Otis Redding, Son House and these days the only new music I listen to is Hip-Hop, like Kendrick Lamar just came out with a bunch of great stuff. Some people might say well, I can’t hear anything like that in your music. But what I listen to and what I sound like are different. It’s all in there, somewhere.
BL!: How about writers? Harry Crews was in Wrong Eyed Jesus with you, and Big Wave reminded me of one of the deluded obsessives from Flannery O’Connor, both classic southern gothic writers. Are they anything of an influence?
JD: Oh yeah. I’ve read both authors extensively, that is at least as big as any musical influence on me, even as a kid, long before I was writing music, even, I was reading voraciously.
BL!: The venue you’re playing in Liverpool is famous for a Bob Dylan photoshoot, back in the 60s, I thought that might interest you.
JD: Well, I rate Dylan as a songwriter, definitely, so I’ll have to get my picture taken in the same place, and then play the show. Looking forward to seeing Liverpool. Sounds like a plan.
Johnny Dowd plays Dumbulls Gallery on 20th October with Park Doing and Dead Hedge Trio. Tickets in Probe and Dig! Vinyl or online here.