Interview – The Whiskey Priest

We love Seth Woods. Whether under the guise of Sad Accordions  (review, interview) or The Whiskey Priest (review, review), there’s something in the music he makes that grows to another plane guided by that wistful voice.

So, after having grilled him regarding Sad Accordions, we had to do some questions about The Whiskey Priest

1) Your music provides an organic feeling, like all elements on it are naturally integrated. In this sense, do you think a song can take a life of its own?

Oh, sure. I think it happens all the time. For me as a listener, I know the songs I love must have such a different life and story as they interact with me than they have interacting with the folks that write them. It’s the beautiful thing about creating things: art, music, film, dance, even life I guess. You make it, you intend it or hope it to be one way, but then it goes out into the world and is beyond your control. Whether it’s a song or a painting or your child.

It’s been strange having folks review my records these past couple years. The really positive reviews are the strangest, because someone will be raving about a song they liked (which is of course gratifying), and will start describing it, and I’ll be like “wait a minute… you think it sounds like Howe Gelb? You think it sounds like a peyote fever dream? Are you sure you’re listening to my songs?” but that’s the great thing about songs. They go out into the world, out into the air, and they meet people where they are, they interact with their past, their hopes, their fears, their relationships and their personality, and it can come across as something totally separate from what I intended in writing it.

2) What’s the role of lyrics in a song? Are they the main point or the periphery of the idea/feeling?

I think it depends on the song, and on the author, and on the listener. For me it definitely was about the lyrics for a long time. Less so these days. I think for me now, the point of a song is the feeling, the emotions it’s trying to convey, and everything should work towards that: the lyrics are as important in that as the drum sounds or the choice to use a mandolin versus an electric guitar.

I don’t know why I always come back to this song as an example of narrative  writing, but you get a song like ‘A boy named sue’, the lyrics can seem pretty damn important. It’s a story, and how are you going to tell that story without the words? But I think the feel of the band, the timbre of his voice, the pauses, it all helps to get across the story and the feel of the story – sort of touching, sort of sad, mostly funny and absurd.

3) The art of your albums is quite interesting. In this sense, how you do choose your own cover art?

So far, I just let Carrie Cook make my covers. She’s a friend of mine who is quite a talented artist, and she’s done the cover of both Whiskey Priest albums. I named the first album (and the title track) Wave and cloud after her painting. It just felt to me like it fit the tone of my music at the time (this was a decision that was made a couple of years before the record was even finished).

Same thing for the second record. I had seen this little paper square collage she had made with these horses on it, and i said “I have to use that for a cover!”  Originally, the first few records were going to be EP’s, all with covers from the same series of paintings that Wave and cloud is from. I only scrapped that idea because I’m a sucker for a long player. But Carrie is great. She’s been very gracious to allow me to use her art.

I guess beyond Carrie though, it comes back to the feel. Joy Gallagher, who’s the keyboard and guitarist in Sad Accordions, does a lot of the design for us – band posters, t-shirts, and the album art for the first record. She also did the layout and design for the second record, The colors and the kill, using an image of one of Ben Lance‘s paintings (Sad Accordions‘ guitar player). She’s really good at going for the feel of a piece, a record, a show lineup. She’s so good at it that it’s actually her day job!

4) There’s a common factor in ‘Wave and Cloud’, ‘Lost Wages’ and ‘Wages of Sin’, and that’s a constant breathing effect, like relief and peace. How has music changed your life?

Well, in many ways. I mean, too many to really think about in one sitting. It definitely gave me an outlet and a direction early on in adolescence. I’ve always loved music. There are cassette tapes of me as a small child running around belting out the themes from Star Wars or Indiana Jones, and that just somehow grew and transformed into learning how to play guitar, learning songs I heard on the radio, playing music at church youth group, things like that, and eventually I began to write songs, probably in early high school. And it eventually opened up relationships with other friends who loved music, then friends who played music, then friends of friends who were doing music regularly and/or professionally. It’s one of those kinda-cheesy-but-true things, that when you’re going on, day by day, a lot of things don’t make sense. But you get to a point and you look back, and you go “huh, look at that”. Music just about touches every part of my life.

That’s interesting that you hear relief and peace from those records and songs. I would say that there’s something to that. I get that at times from some really sad songs of others. I remember being in high school and listening to Recovering the satellites by Counting Crows, and there’s just some bittersweet heartbreakers on that record, but I would sing them, and feel them, and then afterwards feel both this comfort and this ache of some kind. I think hearing songs like that, there is comfort in… almost in feeling known or something, in that kind of gasp and cry that you make when you feel like “holy shit. How does this person know my heart so well that they could make a pop song out of it?” I felt that way big time when Okkervil River‘s Black sheep boy came out.  I really got creeped out a little, because it hit so close to where I was living life at the time, it was just unreal. And that of course goes back to songs taking on lives of their own.

I think for me, writing songs can be almost like confession. Not of specifics, not of needing forgiveness, but just of saying “oh my God, I’m having a hard time here and I need someone to know.” But really it’s mainly a confession to myself. I’m the one that needs to hear it, so I have to confess it to myself via song. Even recording it is really more self-directed. The fact that other people may or may not hear this thing I made is pretty incidental to the confessional aspect. I think the comfort comes in all those stages, the release and the peace. It’s comforting to have written something, it’s comforting to get to sing it after that point, and to record it and further flesh it out, and to play it for other people as well. It’s got to be similar to saying “hi, my name is John Smith, and I’m an alcoholic.” It feels like that for me, every step of the way. Freeing, relieving, even empowering.

5) There’s more than meets the eye in your music, as a net or gossamer of detailed (textured) sounds. Is there any philosophy behind this style?

You mean besides my unhealthy gossamer fetish?

I think I just love recording. I love records that make you work for it. Or at least that work on so many levels, that it kind of rewards you the deeper you go as a listener. Back to Counting Crows, I wrote a short poem when I was a senior in high school, about listening to music through headphones after listening to ‘Amy hit the atmosphere’ (for the umpteenth time) and hearing (for the first time) this faint acoustic guitar that comes in at the beginning of the outro, and is in for like two measures, panned off to one side, and then gets swallowed by this electric guitar. It blew me away! And I love music like that. I love Ben and Carrie‘s paintings for the same reason – every time you look at them, if you spend some time with them, you’ll see something you hadn’t seen before. It really rewards you, if you let it.

‘Spirit of Eden’ and ‘Laughing stock’ by Talk Talk are great examples of that kind of music. Priceless sounds.

6) Something that really caught our attention in the Lost wages EP is the sound, like an old gramophone or a wax recording. How did you manage to get this sound? I’m talking specifically about the song ‘Lost Wages’.

The usual means: necesity, boredom, lack of good equipment. Actually, that song is me in my backyard in Austin, with a ukulele and an old handheld tape recorder my girlfriend gave me. I went back and recorded some percussion after I dumped it into the computer, but basically it’s me playing a uke into tape recorder.

7) We followed your campaign to get yourself to England and play. How did it pan out? What’s your take on online donation campaigns?

It was great, all around. It was one of the most challenging things I’ve done, even with the fact that I had lots of help from lots of folks. But it was very much worth it. We met so many amazing people all over the country, played to really receptive crowds, and got to see beautiful landscape and cities. Definitely a high point in all of our musical journeys.

Working via Kickstarter was effective but also very nerve-wracking. It’s an all or nothing deal, so you set your goal and if you don’t make it, you get no money. Luckily we made our goal (with a little help from ourselves – we each put in a couple hundred dollars of our own). I’m so grateful to all the folks that helped us get over there. I know it’s probably a one-time deal (how many times can you ask your friends for $5,000?), but it was worth it.

8) ‘The borderlands at night’ sounds like an ambient piece from an 80s film. It’s quite beautiful and we’d love to pick your brain about how this song came to be.

This piece actually originated years ago. Ben and I had moved to Austin together in 2003 and were living in this apartment for a couple years. at some point that first year I bought a tascam four-track tape recorder, and would do a lot of messing around on it. I was toying around with the loop function on a delay pedal, and came up with the basic backing track of that guitar part. I recorded it while I had it looping, and for years wanted to find a way to use it, embellish upon it. It was originally just entitled “looped instrumental.” it sat on a cassette in my desk for about six years before I finished it.

9) Speaking of particular songs: ‘The Ballad of the Whiskey Priest’ is mesmerising. Would you like to talk about this song and its lyrics? Love the switch going off at the end.

Me too! That switch is the on/off switch for this fan organ I have, which was my first ever ebay purchase many years ago. It’s so tempting to keep that switch sound in every song I use that thing on!

I actually had written the lyrics a while back before my buddy Alex Dupree and I left town for this long three and a half month journey around America in 2006. It was part tour, part road trip, part soul journey-thing. Anyway, I really dug the lyrics, and had put some music to it before we left and played it once, but quickly forgot the music entirely, and so it just sat for a while. Then when I got that air organ, I started playing chords on the black keys, and this melody just popped out and I put it to those lyrics.

I originally recorded that song years ago for a compilation our friends Tim and Pat were doing for their community based non-profit called People not profit. They were great folks, and that was a really fun compilation. Sad accordions had a song on there, and Zookeeper, and Meryll, and a couple folks from Balmorhea, and a handful of others. Andrew Hernandez did the engineering on that song. Andrew is Meryll and is also who produced and recorded The colors and the kill for Sad accordions. Phenomenal musician and engineer.

10) Generally speaking, is there an umbrella theme for Lost Wages? ‘The Sparrow’ feels very sorrowful, like most of the tracks in this release.

There’s not an intentional theme for the record, but I think themes come out anyway, regardless of intent. I think there’s a sense of trying, striving, and failing or coming up short. I think there’s a sense of mystery or something greater than self.I think about ‘The sparrow’ (which is loosely inspired by a book of the same name by Mary Doria Russell), who’s narrator is a comfort to someone who’s been severely wounded, or ‘The ballad of the whiskey priest’, whose narrator is encouraging us to not cling to our names but let them be taken by fire, and that he will wait for us “in the next room.” I don’t know what I meant by those things so much as I know what they mean to me at the moment.

There’s also a need for comfort, for salvation of some sort. ‘Wages of sin’ has a lot of “need” in it, and ‘Wave and cloud no. 2’ has a pretty dependent person describing this person who comes “like a wave on the sea” to rescue them, but finds that the waves can also be dark and destructive. so there’s a danger of life, there’s sorrow, and there’s also hope, necessity, mystery, maybe even a sense of wonder.

11) How did you like Pozole?

It was great! my friend Gordon made a big pot of it for halloween, and gave us a bunch of leftovers. It gets better with time – each bowl was spicier than the last.

12) Any plans for 2012, either for The Whiskey Priest or Sad Accordions?

I’d like to work on both! I’ve been spending more time in Albuquerque these past six months, and Joy and Nathaniel just had a baby, so Sad Accordions is out of commision for the time being, though Ben and I have been talking about working on some songs together (via the internet).

I’ve been demoing a ton of stuff for a new Whiskey Priest record, which hopefully i’ll get under way sometime in the Spring. I’d really love to make it back over to the UK in 2012 as well.

We want to infinitely thank Seth and everyone in his bands for this fantastic music and the wonderful interview. 

Words: Sam J. Valdés López

The Whiskey Priest BandcampMyspaceFree song. Website. Twitter.

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