The Maverick’s Maverick
Interview with New York singer songwriter Johnny Dowd who is performing live in Liverpool on October 20th at Dumb Bulls on Dublin Street.
By Paul Tarpey
If you haven’t seen it before the USA is about twenty or so scattered clutches of tall buildings mapping out endless desert. But somewhere in this landscape there is space for madness to hide. Johnny Dowd is a Griot for these spaces. I’ve seen his type before. I saw Randy Newman at the end of the 70s. I saw Kinky Friedman in the early 90s. A quick check on the calendar has shown it’s time for more of this. Your comparisons for Dowd will be different so there is no point me telling you why mine are the right ones. We can discuss it after you have been to see him.
New York singer songwriter Johnny Dowd is arriving in Liverpool on October 20th to play Howl At The Moon at the perfect Dumb Bulls in Dublin Street. He isn’t as well-known as most of the comparisons but he may well be one day so go fuck yourself if you missed your chance to see him in his natural habitat.
His stuff is generally listed as a kind of Americana but the music is really just there to punch his fables deep into your spleen. And he’ll use whatever weapon is at hand. The man himself (spoiler alert) has suggested that his song Betty will give you some kind of an idea. I won’t argue with that although you might want to try Sexual Revolution from his new album Execute American Folklore as well to sample the ragged guitar and beats shrouding his deadpan dark humour. He is a man of over sixty years but that time hasn’t been spent obsessing on the music biz. You will hear real life and you’ll shudder at the recognition. It really would be an absolute bastard of an event to skip.
Tickets are available from Probe Records or here ents24.com/liverpool-events/dumbulls/johnny-dowd/4752097
If you want to know where the glorious Dumb Bulls is then follow this link. And read this exclusively exclusive interview: postmusicshow.blogspot.co.uk/p/drop-dumbulls.html
What should fans expect from the new album?
Tuff beats/honest lyrics. If u don’t like one song don’t give up, the next song will be in a somewhat different style. It’s a good record to drive around in yer car and and drink beer or get high. Like they used to say on AMERICAN BANDSTAND, it’s got a good beat and u can dance to it.
What was the process it took to fund it?
My wife, Kat Dalton, set me up with and ran an indiegogo campaign. People responded. They opened up their hearts and their wallets.
How does he feel about his songs being labelled as ‘uncategorisable’?
Fine with me, a great compliment. I understand why someone would dislike my music, it makes them uncomfortable. It’s a mix of ingredients that don’t seem to go together, like marshmallows and Mexican food. Possibly people that dig my tunes enter into the same space/ time continuum where/when the music was created, I guess you’d have ask a “fan”.
I grew up in the 50”s and 60”s in a small town in Oklahoma, Paul’s Valley, I haven’t changed much since then.
His lyrics could stand alone. Has this opened up other areas of writing?
I could never write a novel. I’ve written poems but they are the same as my lyrics. I guess they could be thought of as story poems—poems to read aloud in bar full of drunk people. I can write more complex lyrics because I am unencumbered by melodic restrictions. I can’t sing.
Does humour always emerge from the stories or does he just want to make people laugh?
Absolutely both. Probably more than the shared space/time continuum as far as why someone would like my music is a shared sense of humor. I do love to make people laugh. At some point I would like to put a stand-up routine together. I do have one joke ready for this tour about a man with a large orange head.
What does he regard as absurd about performing and about life?
I’m always amazed just before I go on stage that I am about to do something and people have paid to see it. Life/death, u could call it absurd or u could call yer momma. In the end of the it won’t matter.
How does becoming a solo artist at a later age reflect in his music and the reaction to it?
I’m not sure I really started at a later age. I was 16 emotionally.
[alternate answer) I had a buttload of experience to draw on. Reaction to the music? u would know better than I. That’s one of great things about music. Age is irrelevant. In a marketing sense it’s a mixed blessing. I’ve never really thought of myself as a solo artist, my focus has been on being a good band leader.
How has performing changed over the years?
I enjoy performing more than ever. Before I hit the stage I say to myself and to my band members “let’s have some fun.” And we always do.
If he could pick one moment of serendipity that meant his music reached a larger audience, what would it be?
When I made the cover of Rolling Stone
How would it feel to be much more widely appreciated after he has gone?
Honestly I don’t really care but I would love to be more widely appreciated NOW
If he could tell the people of Liverpool to listen to one of his songs before coming along to the Liverpool gig what would it be?
Another tuff question? I’m going to assume u are familiar with my music so I’ll let u answer that. The song BETTY off my record NO REGRETS might be a place to start.
If he could tell them to read or listen to anything else what would it be?
Captain Beefheart/link wray/sun ra/james carr/sinatra
jim thompson/bible/william trevor/harry crews.
What are his expectations of a Liverpool audience?
Lots of pints being drunk and a request to do a Beatles tune.
Johnny Dowd is an American alternative country musician from Ithaca, New York. Typical of his style are experimental, noisy breaks in his songs and strong southern gothic elements in the lyrics as well as in the music. There is also a strong undercurrent of black humor and the absurd in his work.
Although his early albums were most celebrated in the alternative country community, he has never quite fit into any particular genre. As a singer-songwriter, his music is most often compared to that of Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Captain Beefheart.
In 2001 I pulled a CD off the front of a magazine expecting the usual wash of corporate indie and limp Americana. Instead there was a track called Big Wave by Johnny Dowd.
It sounded like something from another planet: Theremin style keyboard, surf guitar, tribal drums and a croaked lyrical tale worthy of Flannery O’Connor, of a man driving round a
dusty midwestern town with a surfboard strapped to the roof. Never leaving. A thousand miles from the ocean, but still defiant:
“I don’t care what they say in this one horse town/cos they ain’t ever surfed waikiki, when the big wave comes crashing down”
Expanding his horizons from the Alt Country pallete, his later work includes dirty keyboard grooves and twisted drum machines to go with the darker than black lyrical humour.
15 years after being entranced by that song, I have the chance to put on a gig by one of music’s true originals. You can be two types of “outsider artist”. The type people know about like Daniel Johnson or Tom Waits, or the type that still drives their own car across Europe to play at a tiny venue in the docklands of Liverpool.
Johnny Dowd is the latter, and this will be an extremely special gig. Don’t miss it.
Tickets online and from Probe records and Dig! Vinyl
Appearance in documentary: Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus
Videos and info
Local Support added:
Dead Hedge Trio
Medicine Stu+Blues Steve
What does alt country mean to you? The term’s largely redolent of breezey Americana types like Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo and The Old 97s, but at the weirder end of the scale are the likes of Johnny Dowd. The 68-year-old’s music draws from the same well as the aforementioned trio, albeit with gothic undercurrents, chaotic discordancy, minimalist electronic pulses and an idiosyncratically dark sense of humour. This rare visit to Liverpool represents an unmissable chance to catch a maverick who’s pursued his own unique vision since the 70s: we strongly advise you to take it.
DROP the Dumbulls, 8pm, £8