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Ten Minutes With Terry Allen

Q&A with Lubbock son, multimedia don, and Cactus Cafe ace
Jim Caligiuri, 4:20pm, Wed. Jan. 16, 2013
Terry Allen’s new album, Bottom of the World Comes, arrives 14 years after his last disc. He hasn’t been sitting on his hands all that time, either. Music’s a fraction of what he does artistically, so the Lubbock native records when the time is right. Allen spoke from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He’s appearing at the Cactus Cafe Friday.

Geezerville: The obvious first question is why it took so long for another album?

Terry Allen: Because I was involved in a lot of other things. I did two huge projects – two theater pieces – with a lot of music. There was a piece called Dugout, which was a big video installation. Actually, it was at the Austin Museum initially. Then there was a theater piece that was performed at the State Theater and all over the country. It was called Ghost Ship Rodez and it’s still traveling around. So, it wasn’t like I was just sitting here waiting for my next record.

G: Do you actively spend time writing songs?

TA: I do. I write all the time, but visual art, theater, and music are all pretty much one thing for me. Focusing on one can bring a whole clutch of the others. So I don’t really make a lot of designations between the different groups. It’s just one thing.

The new record is the first time in a while I’ve done something like this. It’s kind of like my Juarez record in terms of instrumentation, even though there’s more musicians on it. There’s no drums, no bass, no real percussion except for me stomping my foot. It’s a different approach and there was a different approach to writing some of these songs too. I just took my time putting it together while I was doing other things.

G: How much of this album was a collaborative effort between you and the musicians that played on it?

TA: Well, from the start I wanted to do it really sparse and with a lot of spaces in the songs. My piano is kind of falling apart, but we made it work for us. There’s a couple of percussive clicks that you can hear, especially in the song called “The Gift.”

G: I noticed the piano sounds strange on a couple of tracks.

TA: Well it’s just because it was collapsing and I kind of liked the sound of it. I’ve had this piano for so long I can’t help but play it until it collapses.

G: The music was more your idea than the players though.

TA: It’s always a collaboration. I go in, I play the songs. Then we play them over and over until we kind of get a sense of how it’s going to work. Lloyd Maines and my son Bukka Allen were real instrumental in getting some sounds. I’ve worked with these guys for so long, it’s something that just happens when we go into the studio.

G: I understand you’re making a special set of prints that goes along with the disc.

TA: The record is totally separate from the prints. I’ve taken these songs and decided to make a set of prints. It will be a limited edition. I think there’s going to be about 30 boxes of them, but it’s not going to be a commercial release with the record. I’ve had the 11 songs transcribed and made into lithographs. If you can read music you could actually play them.

G: I was thinking that would be an expensive project.

TA: That’s kind of how I work. I get started on something, then the first thing I know I’m in a bottomless pit.

G: I read another interview where you said songs are like movies. Maybe it’s me, but some of the songs seemed kind of nebulous. I was wondering what kind of movie that would make.

TA: I think the songs are pretty clear as far as what they are, what they’re about. When you have a song, you’re taking specific images and editing them in a concise way. It’s similar to a movie. They just take much more time in editing and in the process. For me, songs are very visual and in that sense they’re like little movies.

Speaking of movies, I just found out that “Emergency Human Blood Courier” ends an Irish movie about all the women who have been murdered in Juarez. There are thousands of women who’ve been murdered there since about 1992. I’m really happy they’re going to use the song.

G: “Do They Dream of Hell in Heaven?” Where did that song come from?

TA: It came from the theater piece Ghost Ship Rodez. I thought it worked well with this grouping of songs. It’s totally different in the theater because it’s broken up by narration and dialog. The piece was initially in Nice in France, then it went to Mexico. We showed it here in Santa Fe, then Los Angeles. Some of the pieces are up right now in New York.

G: Is it easy to transport an installation around like that?

TA: No, there ain’t anything easy, Jim. Gimme a break.

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