Phantom Power & Spiritual Benefits
The Return of the Bad Livers
Fri., Feb. 14, 1997
L-R: Mark Rubin, Ralph White, Danny Barnes, and Bob Grant
photograph by George Brainard
"Oh!" enthuses "the loud guy with the tattoos," upright bassist/tuba player Mark Rubin. "That means they get breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the UniCal Union at highway 76 and I-10! That's a heck of a deal!"
"We'd wake up real early," intones his quieter partner, banjo daemon Danny Barnes, "make a pot of coffee and jam."
"We'd drive far off in the country," Rubin continues, "meet a buncha nice old people, and play music all day."
"And if it's Tuesday," Barnes breaks in, picking up the thread, "we'd drive back in time for the Texas Old-Time Fiddler's Jam at Artz."
It's tempting to take that tack, even though we shouldn't. For while we've just now gathered a lot of information about the Livers, their driving interests and motivations -- their relentless, almost obsessive devotion and immersion in pure music-making -- this facetious journalistic device is almost as confining as that ancient bugaboo of, "Oh, yeah! They're those freaky punk rock refugees who picked up acoustic instruments and play goofy, high-speed Iggy Pop and Motorhead bluegrass covers." And if anyone gets the itch from reading this piece to purchase the Livers' brand-new Hogs on the Highway CD (their first for stalwart traditional music specialists Sugar Hill Records), they'd find "bluegrass" just as confining and unnecessary a slot.
"The band has sorta become a vehicle for the compositions we produce," Barnes muses over a cup of good, strong Kerbey Lane coffee. (Rubin opts for a cup of coffee with a shot of espresso -- what he calls "the Danny Barnes `I-need-to-drive-all-night-to-get-to-the-next-gig' special.") "I think I have 41 compositions that I've published now, all of which have been recorded by the Bad Livers. And we've created a vision -- sort of a form, if you will.
"You know how, say, punk rock is a culmination of forms -- plus some sort of fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants creativity thrown in? You can look at it and see the Fifties part of it, the Sixties part of it, and then what was going on at the time. You'd just throw all this stuff in a pot and create this thing. And ultimately, the best examples of that tend to transcend even their form. For instance, if you're a real music fan, when you hear something that's real, real good, it doesn't matter what the form is. You can appreciate it. Like me, I don't really know very much about classical music. But sometimes when I hear a certain piece, it really moves me. I feel the same way about rhythm & blues. Certain things just speak to you beyond their forms.
"We've created our own form. It's a sound, and a culmination of sounds that doesn't really exist in any other band. And we've created this through a lot of sweat and blood, hacking it out on the road. Really, the compositions are sorta what we've decided we're going into. They're the vanishing point, where we can see all this stuff going in to. And if you listen to the CD, we've created our own form.
"There's a lotta things that sit side-by-side in our universe that you just don't find on other people's records. This is something that we have to contribute to the betterment of the universe that no one else has, so we're pursuing this with everything that we have. Ultimately -- hopefully -- our music will transcend even the form that we've created. I think we have, because we've got a real cross-section of fans: For instance, we have the rock & roll folks that really like our music, as well as a lot of really old people that like our music. We have people from all these different walks of life that really enjoy what we're doing. So, I think we're being successful at that."
Rubin hammers home that the Livers have arrived at this form through "an organic process," chipping away at their music like a sculpture, eliminating certain elements (the "goofy" punk rock covers), maybe adding others. And it's all been done simply through the process of touring, playing shows -- just doing it. And the evolutionary process has certainly been audible through the course of the Bad Livers' discography.
After their first single -- a rollicking Bill Monroe-on-crystal-meth romp through Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" -- said hello to the world beyond the Monday night rowdies gathered at the Saxon Pub, they released a Paul Leary-produced gem called Delusions Of Banjer. It offered no evidence of the Liver's original bluegrass-via-punk repute, save for their interpretation of the Butthole Surfers' "The Adventures of Pee Pee the Sailor." Two years later came Horses In the Mines, even thicker with Barnes' originals and boasting a production job more authentically Library of Congress than Leary's hi-fi treatment on Banjer.
The new one, Hogs on the Highway sits somewhere comfortably between the two previous full-lengths. The point of the band (and the album) is those Edward D. Barnes compositions (or else those by "Trad., arr. Edward D. Barnes," whom Rubin calls his "favorite songwriter, next to Pub. Domain"). The production is more crystalline and three-dimensional than ever, cut for the most part at Barnes' own Minner Bucket Studios and showcasing those originals and the attendant hot picking to better-than-ever effect.
Yet both Barnes and Rubin emphasize that it took a long journey through the spiritual night just to arrive at the point of Hogs. One of the main reasons you haven't held a fresh Liver platter in your hands until this moment is because "We had to figure out what our goals were." All the goals the band had set for themselves had been met: They were able to tour internationally to an assured audience; they could sell albums; and they were on the Touch & Go label, which is the ultimate goal for many musicians in the indie-punk world, thanks to a) the sheer number of quality acts Touch & Go has given the world -- Didjits, Butthole Surfers, Jesus Lizard, just to name a few -- and b) the humane, honest treatment the label provides, which has enabled it to build such a strong artist roster.
The Livers have even had testimonials from a plethora of musical luminaries, such as members of the Old 97s, who say the local trio are directly responsible for hipping them to country music, traditional music, and the phantom power and spiritual benefits inherent in playing without electricity. It's apparently become a standard post-show ritual for the Bad Livers to be approached by at least one person and told that they were the inspiration for the testifier to sell his original Misfits vinyl and all manner of other punk rock rarities, buy a dobro with the profits, and pursue a more traditional (though slightly warped) musical path.
Thus, to find new goals, change was necessary. And as anyone with sense can attest, change often comes with some attendant pain and sacrificial bloodshed. It was not the easiest thing in the world for the Bad Livers to make the switch from Touch & Go to Sugar Hill, which had been courting the band for seven years. "I've had [owner] Barry Poss' business card since our first SXSW showcase," says Rubin.
"I wanna say something about Touch & Go and [T&G chief] Corey Rusk," says Barnes. "That's one of the coolest guys. The label is run by the nicest bunch of people, and it was all positive. We're still in business on these old records, and they're still selling, and we get statements from them."
"So, when you say we've left the label, that really isn't true," says Rubin. "Our next record isn't on that label, but we're still very much a part of them."
"But the main point is," emphasizes Barnes, "Sugar Hill has experience selling banjo records. Touch & Go doesn't. It's like when Evan Johns put out that record on Alternative Tentacles. It's a great record, and that's a great label. But there's only so much that they're gonna be able to do with it. What really gave us our legs was that Corey Rusk let us do whatever the hell we wanted to do. So we were kind of allowed to develop on our own, and that's a great thing. But ultimately, what we're playing is traditional music. No matter how you want to look at it, it's got banjos and fiddles and accordions and bajo sextos and bass fiddles. It's basically traditional music. So we went with the best label in the world for acoustic music."
"Talk to anybody at any label," says Rubin. "When you talk about new acoustic music and bluegrass music and progressive bluegrass music, there is not a finer label working!" Also in Sugar Hill's favor is the fact that the label has, over time, signed some of the Lone Star state's finer, edgier singer-songwriters, including Terry Allen, James McMurtry, and the late Townes Van Zandt.
"It's like Mark says," adds Barnes. "They're the Touch & Go of bluegrass."
"They are!" enthuses Rubin. "Think of all the bands out there! Being on Touch & Go would be the apex of their entire career! They would have put out their own records, or been on a smaller independent, then it would be," he gasps for dramatic emphasis, "`We're on Touch & Go!' And that would be the apex of their career! Only a major, beyond that. For us, we were there. We were Grandfather Hip! We were like, `Well, we're there already!' And everybody there are these huge, freaked-out fans. They sold our records for us, not because of their great distribution system, but because they were so into the Bad Livers. But our records are filed under `punk rock' everywhere. So we're missing out on fans who are predisposed to acoustic music. The only way we were able to get to those people was to go out and say hello to them in person."
"Another thing that's important to note here," says Barnes, "is that our audience has gotten more educated. Like the people coming to see our shows six, seven years ago, they were asking, `Where can I get these records?' Now they've got them. They're now more educated about this music than they were originally."
Now, after working out an agreement with Sugar Hill over the course of six months' careful negotiations, the Bad Livers are happy. "It was an important thing, because we wanted to be on a label that can sell banjo records," explains Barnes. "Part of growth is -- let's be honest here -- that we want to sell more records this time than we did last time. We did better last time than we ever thought we could have possibly done. That's great, but we've got new dreams, now. It took several years, but we've got 'em."
Unfortunately, the new dreams of Barnes and Rubin were not shared by the Bad Livers' third founding member, Ralph White III. Hogs is concurrently the last Bad Livers album to feature White's fiddle, button accordion, and mbira, as well as the first to feature the mandolin and acoustic guitar of his replacement, New Yorker (and former Austinite) Bob Grant. Ask Barnes or Rubin why White left, and depending on the circumstances, you'll get all sorts of answers.
Belligerent drunks at gigs who approach Barnes with hostility over the issue get the polite explanation that "he got tired of dealing with all the drunken people talking to him after gigs when he's trying to wrap up his cords." ("One lady told me, `Oh! I thought that would be the best part, dealing with the public!'" grins Barnes.) Rubin likes to joke that the Livers cut into White's "kayakking time." But the reality is, as Barnes tells it, "One day I woke up in a hotel, and Ralph rolls up out of bed and he looks up at me, and he indicated that he was about ready to go to the [nut] house. After 1,500-some-odd shows, I can't say that I blame him, because it's really tough. It's not easy trying to deal with the business."
L-R: Mark Rubin, Ralph White, Danny Barnes, and Bob Grant
photograph by George Brainard
"I think as time went on, Mark and I were becoming more and more encouraged and willing to put more and more time into it, and more and more eager to see what our rewards might possibly be," continues Barnes. "Conversely, Ralph was becoming less and less interested in touring and putting out records. The band grew into a touring and recording entity. Ralph enjoyed the gigs, but he didn't enjoy the part in between the gigs. You only get to play about 45 minutes, then you have about 23 hours of basic crap to deal with. I looked at him and realized, `We're gonna have to do something here. Will we be able to go on?' I mean, what do you do when Paul Weller no longer wants to be in the Jam? We started it with him, and that's what the band has been for 1,500 gigs, two CDs, and a cassette. We were quite concerned and we were pretty much considering throwing in the towel."
They didn't. Rubin and Barnes instead parted amicably with White, then put in the call to Grant, who was a Bad Liver for a series of gigs in 1994 before they realized that expenses precluded the Bad Livers morphing into a quartet. The difference between Grant's and White's instrumental specialities means the Livers' instrumental flavoring has changed, with White's predominant fiddle contributions now supplanted by Grant's flatpicking. (Grant's ponytail also chafes against the perfectly geometric 1959 George Jones crewcuts his bandmates now favor, but neither Barnes not Rubin wished to incur the wrath of either Grant or his girlfriend by enforcing a dress code.)
Still, as Barnes puts it, Grant "can just flat-out pick!" He has a musical degree from The Berklee School of Music and an apparent Brian Jones-style ability to pick up an alien instrument and figure it out in a short amount of time. (They recently handed Grant a tenor banjo shortly before a gig, and claim he wailed on it.) Barnes also surmises he should be able to mold Grant into exactly the sort of player his originals need.
There, in a nutshell, is the state of the Bad Livers' union, 1997. They have a new home with an organization better adjusted to their unique phantom overtones and caffeinated drive. They've lost a fiddle, but Barnes has gained a new roommate on the road. ("I snore real bad," smirks Rubin, "and I'm a real night owl.") White, meantime, can catch up on his kayakking, and possibly make the album Rubin and Barnes believe White has in him. (He's been working lately with Los Pinkys' Bradley Jaye Williams in the Gulf Coast Playboys and reportedly has several excellent songs in him.)
The retooled Bad Livers, meantime, feel free to "go into the future" and pursue the "spiritual quality" which they see as the defining element of their unique hybrid. "All the old guys I learned to play from," says Barnes, "never played in a bar, never had a record deal, never went on tour. Yet they get more joy, more spiritual dividends from playing than any band I've seen outside of maybe Toots & the Maytals."
"Ever notice," adds Rubin, "that in reggae, they never use negatives? You will never hear `no,' or `down,' or any other related words or concepts."
And somewhere amongst the odd phantom overtones and pogo drive the Bad Livers manage to pull from unamplified wooden boxes, you will also find a place where seldom is heard a discouraging word. Where the soul of man will never die.
The Bad Livers celebrate the release of Hogs on the Highway on Saturday, February 15 at Stubb's and at a Waterloo Records' In-store on Tuesday, February 18.