“Oh dear Jake, there are games in your head…”
History repeats itself. History never dies. History is re-interpreted, re-imagined and re-told by countless people. Revisionism keeps our ideas on their toes, our views are challenged when lost documents resurface. And then there are the darker passages of history. Those that history classes gloss over.
Yes, Jackson, I’m looking at you, you murderin’ bastard.
Enter The Payroll Union, a band who married history and gothic Americana in an abandoned Pennsylvania church. Their dashing looks were geared towards the ruffian and the storyteller, not the dandy rich guy. A certain brooding approach to reality is countered with songs that go for the hoedown nature of Americana, but always keeping in mind that the tales narrated in every song are straight out of the history books.
The native American genocide, John Wilkes Booth, the Hamilton-Burr duel, our haunting past, ever so present when you read the atrocities and injustices of the world. The Payroll Union speaks of things long gone. But are they truly gone?
I ran into them when they were called Pete David & The Payroll Union, back in late 2010. They had just spent time at Crystal Ship Studios, a place refurbished entirely by Tim from Bromheads. I remember the place well as it was just beside one of my sampling stations by the River Don. Anyways, Pete David sent a copy of ‘Richmond town’ and I kinda liked. It was ‘Ghosts’, though, the Once Upon a Western-inspired track, what really sold me on the band. The lyrical depth, the haunting banjo line, the warmth of it all being captured on tape. It was a magical thing.
And that magic did reappear at least once per album. Your Obedient Servant might very well my fave moment of theirs. Impossible to choose just one track from this bunch, as it included pitch black moments like ‘Julia Died of Cholera’ and ‘General James Wolfe’. Moments that cut deep. Brutal stuff. But even at their most sombre, there was a sly grin, a memorable bassline, an energetic drum beat that could still make you move and react. Never lay down, keep fighting until your last breath.
The Mule & The Elephant felt like a breaking point. The simple but effective songs became intricate. The quilt was now a tapestry, ochre, burnt orange and olive green. The oral tradition style of lyrics moved into philosophical musings, historical re-creations and lamentations. ‘South’ and ‘Out of Missouri’ were as stark as they came, but once you started to explore the album, your eyes accustomed to the void and you could start to see, in that pitch black cul-de-sac, a million bright spots. It’s not an easy album to listen, and that’s a fact, but it’s rewarding as hell and if you still need to tap your foot, ‘Hard times’ is a good night at Joe’s rag & ale house.
I lost track of the band during my last year in Sheffield. The last two times I saw them live, I wasn’t in the right head space and I started to wonder where was it all heading. I’m not sure what happened during the recording of Paris of America and I don’t mean to pry, I only know that whatever was hinted at The Mule & The Elephant, Paris of America conjures it up beautifully, making it almost perfect. Make no mistakes, the songs are still on the darker shades of grey, and you might see a sliver of hope amongst it all, but it’s a portrayal of how we are slaves to our own history. Our good and bad deeds, haunting us forever. Paris of America is a harsh listen, but killer tracks like ‘Blood or Bread’ and ‘The Winter of ’41’ are great starting points that should make you a usual to their haunted saloon.
The band are still around, with Pete David consistently putting out a podcast called Backwater and guitarist Tom Baxendale trying his best to make guitar rock great once more (his new album is pretty good!) Whatever you think of history, you gotta admit it’s one of the mightiest subjects a maybe, just maybe, the world would be a little better if we paid attention during class.
Words: Sam J. Valdés López