Storied Austin Drummer Hunt Sales Gets His Shit Together
Forty years of junkiedom ends in debut solo album for Tin Machine drummer
Gold teeth, mobster shoes, a gilded grim reaper hanging around his neck, tattoos: Hunt Sales looks like someone you met in jail. Ink on the lower knuckles of his right hand spells out "Jew," with a Star of David punctuating the pinky finger. Across his bicep runs the callous denouement "& Then I'll Be Dead."
Even so, Sales, 64, remains a lifer to only one institution – music. Son of pie-faced comedian Soupy Sales (born Milton Supman), he acquired a musicians union card and began drumming on NBC's Hullabaloo show with Sixties teen rock outfit Tony & the Tigers, who made their television debut in 1965. Five years later, Todd Rundgren's Top 20 hit "We Gotta Get You a Woman" featured his beats, as did various recordings for Lowell Fulson, Bootsy Collins, and Eric Clapton.
In 1977, he and his brother Tony provided the rhythmic oomph powering Iggy Pop's classic Lust for Life album. Famously, the percussionist received no writing credit for his iconic beat on the title track – one of the most recognizable drum parts of the last 50 years. On the wall of his Southeast Austin home hangs a gold record (sales of 500,000) for his part in David Bowie's Tin Machine, 1988-92, also alongside Tony Sales on bass.
Hunt took up Austin residence not long after Tin Machine split, initially palling around with late Fabulous Thunderbirds bassist Keith Ferguson. Like Ferguson, he existed as a preternaturally talented addict and lived "under the radar." Four decades spent shooting dope and smoking rock came to an end last year.
Now, his debut solo recording drops Friday, Jan. 25, on Fat Possum subsidiary Big Legal Mess. Sounding legitimately dangerous, Get Your Shit Together turns in a rare, unsanitized rock album spiked with blues, soul, and Sales' potent wailing about hookers, dope, and personal reckonings. On "Angel of Darkness," he incarnates a tortured soul man at an existential crossroads in the darkest alley in town, while the acoustic guitar-lined "One Day" squeezes optimism from a harvest of hard times.
Austin Chronicle: You're releasing your first solo album in your 60s. How did that come about?
Hunt Sales: The record deal was a fucking fluke. I didn't go looking for a deal. Labels want young stuff. It's all trap house, and Latino, which is fine. Rock & roll is the minority and what gets put out it isn't really rock & roll. I've been working on this trio, the Hunt Sales Memorial, for years and this was just where opportunity and preparation meet.
Will Sexton introduced me to Bruce [Watson] from Fat Possum. Will was working on some instrumental tracks in Memphis and I'm playing drums. We're writing shit in the studio and Will tells him, "Hunt's got this great song" talking about "Sorry Baby," which is a really out-there song talking about "sticking needles in my neck." So Bruce said, "You wanna do a single?" I said, "Fuck yeah."
The deal was to record two songs, a vinyl single. I ask him, "Could we put four songs on it? I want to maximize it." He says, "Yeah, but you gotta keep it 7-and-a-half minutes a side, for pressing reasons." Fine. I come back to Austin and we work on six or seven songs, then I show up in Memphis overprepared and the Fat Possum guy sees us cut six songs in one day.
The next day, I get a text message: "Forget the single." What the fuck? Then I read on, "Let's do an album." The guy saw my work ethic and my groove. So I do another six songs. The label head produced it with me and I'm glad I had him. He's got a good sensibility.
AC: The single "One Day" is about planning to get your life together. Is this a self-help record?
HS: No. "One Day" is about everybody. You shouldn't have eaten too many Twinkies 'cause you don't like gaining a couple pounds. Or "I'm gonna stop fucking this person, because I really don't like them. I like to fuck, but I feel weird after I fuck them. I'm going to do something about it." That's what that song is about. It's about all of us.
I've had to take a long look at my bullshit. I don't want to be perfect and I'll never be perfect, but I look in the mirror and I see all the teeth missing. I see the damage that was done. When I go to give blood, it's almost impossible to get blood out of me, because I've shot every fucking vein. So, I'm forced to look at my past.
AC: What's the lowest thing you ever did during your time as an opiate addict and crack smoker?
HS: The lowest thing is just the self-worth of living that way. You get to a point where you say, "Fuck it, I'm in too deep. Let's just live this way," and it just becomes part of you. I was what they call a functioning addict for 40 years – still showing up to gigs and sessions.
I came up around jazz musicians that were dope fiends, Art Blakey and other people like that. They had habits and played. I got to a point where I'd borrow drums in this town to do gigs because all my shit was in the pawn shop. That doesn't feel too good. I'm a drummer, and I have no drums because of my behavior: selling off your soul, selling all your shit, pawning all your shit, and living like a fucking animal.
AC: What changed when you got clean?
HS: There was a moment where I gave a shit. Some people were disappointed in me, but the main person that was disappointed in me was myself. For one minute, I gave a fuck and said, "This has gotta stop." You know that feeling you get when you play music? I kind of went, "Wow, maybe I could use that and have a little more faith." It's kind of a faithless thing to run like a junkie, a crackhead and shit.
Why did it take so long? I don't have the answer to that. Why do people drink? Why do people snort coke? Why do people shoot dope? Because it fucking feels good. I didn't stop because it doesn't feel good. I'd be a liar [saying that].
But there's no dental plan. There's no retirement plan. I consider myself really fucking lucky. Physically, I got to the place where I was getting ready to die. I knew that. The body can only take so much. There's a lot of unknowns who have died, then there's a lot of other fuckers like Tom Petty, that we all know, who died, too.
AC: When "Lust for Life" comes on a movie or commercial, what goes through your mind?
HS: That I'm not getting paid. I have some pride for it, but I live so much in today I don't give a fuck about that shit. It's an accomplishment, I guess, because it's inspired some people and that's a good thing.
That was so long ago. When I did that record with Iggy, Lust for Life didn't mean what it means now. Back in the day, you could find Iggy Pop records in the cut-out bin for 89 cents. He lived long enough for it to come back. So, now, Iggy Pop is a millionaire. Back in the day would anyone have thought that would happen?
AC: When's the last time you and he connected?
HS: Years. When he went out and toured Lust for Life with Queens of the Stone Age. ... Yeah, I'm alive, so is my brother, Tony, so is Scott Thurston, and so is Ricky Gardiner. The only one that's dead is David [Bowie], who played keyboards on that tour.
AC: What's your favorite memory of David Bowie?
HS: Hanging out with him in a park in Berlin with his son who he'd just taken custody of – seeing him just being a father, not "David."
AC: What was he like?
HS: He could make you feel like you were the only one in the universe. He could be a very sweet guy – and he was. Then there's this other side of people like him, the sharp business side. They don't become worth hundreds of millions from nothing. I have a two-way thing with a lot of these people I've worked with: them as artists, then the business side of things.
When musicians are asked why they started, they say "the chicks" or "I wanted to make a lot of money." Me, at 6 or 7, I wasn't thinking about record deals. I wasn't thinking about bitches. It was always all about the music.
AC: Which musicians that you were exposed to through your father had the biggest impact on you?
HS: When I was little, I went to a recording session of my dad in L.A. He made these records that had comedy and singing. That day there was this drummer, Earl Palmer, on the session. I saw him play drums and I went, "That is fucking cool!" Between that and some New Orleans shit I heard when I was a little kid, that's what made me want to play. It was all because of Earl Palmer – this slick, badass, motherfucking black drummer.
AC: What did you take from the jazz and R&B musicians of your youth that you later applied to rock music?
HS: Swing. I saw drummers that when they got up and played, they made the whole band sound different. They were that good. That's what I aspired to be.
AC: You hung with Jimi Hendrix. Under what circumstances did you meet?
HS: I first saw Jimi Hendrix on my dad's variety show at the Paramount Theatre in L.A. He was playing guitar with [Lil'] Richard before he got discovered. I ran into him a few years later in New York and we were bullshitting. He goes, "You wanna come down to the studio?" I said, "Fuck yeah. What time?" He said, "Come down about 5." I said, "Okay, 5pm tomorrow." He said, "No, 5 in the morning."
So here I am, 15 years old, getting all dressed up and my mom says, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm going to see Hendrix." Even if she said I couldn't go, I would have gone anyway. So, it's 5am and I'm hanging with him as he was working on his third record. That was some really cool shit to experience.
AC: I hear you have a Herculean practice regimen.
HS: To bring it on how I want to bring it on, the only way to do that is [to] rehearse – you dig? I try to rehearse five days a week. Most athletes at my age have retired. I'm doing right now what I was doing at 11 years old: practicing and playing on drums every day. Except now I play guitar, too.
The guys I was exposed to as a kid – Buddy Rich, Shelly Manne, and all the jazz drummers – I saw examples of guys that were 50, 60, and 70 that were badasses, and I knew that it was possible to bring it on when you got older.
AC: What does this new album mean, within the context of your life?
HS: There's a line on there that says, "There's nothing in my eyes, except if you look deep you'll see this little boy who is this man, who beat himself into submission, only wanting to be human. Now he's mad, angry, and insane." That's basically where I'm at. Half the time I feel like I'm out of my fucking mind. Then I'm the most sane fucking person in the world.
Musically, this record shows my roots. I wouldn't call it straight rock & roll. I wouldn't call it soul. I wouldn't call it blues, but I am a blues singer. I'm not singing about the Mississippi Delta. I'm singing about, "I should have been fucking you, but I had a needle in my neck." Now that's some blues. That's my blues.
The Hunt Sales Memorial plays in-store today, Thu., Jan. 24, at Waterloo Records, 5pm, with the new album’s release show following on Thu., Jan. 31, at Antone’s.