Graham Lindsey's music is haunting and beautiful. It's steeped in the traditions of Country, Folk, and Americana, but he never really sounds like either one. Instead, there's a quality of his music that feels almost funereal, as if it's the voice of the past coming back to remind you of your ultimate destiny. It's hard not to be affected by his songs, and from the first moment you experience him, you'll definitely be transfixed. I know I was. He just recently released his second album, Hell Under the Skullbones, which was an impressively maturation of the sounds he delivered on his debut album. For our talk, we got him to talk a little about his past, and a little bit about the making of music. It's an enjoyable read, and it's one I certainly do enjoy.
I know about your previous past as the precocious drummer for preteen punks Old Skull, and then you released your solo debut in 2003, but what were you doing in between? Were you making music on a regular basis?
Not really on a regular basis. I was a member of Old Skull for two years. I quit them in 1992, I believe. So between then, during those eleven years, I was playing in punk rock and emo bands here and there, playing my guitar, songwriting a little bit. Around 1995, I started to do my first real stand-out shows, with acoustic guitars, bass, more punk rock stuff with me solo. I did that for a few years, but then I just stopped. Between 1997 and 2001, when most of the stuff on Famous Anonymous Wilderness was written, I was just by myself.
I know you have a punk background, but was there a moment that made you decide "I want to do something different musically," or was it a gradual change?
Yeah, in stages. In stage after stage and level after level, a lot of musicians go through that sort of thing. I was really, really young at the time I was going through that, and I wanted to hear something different, and I wanted to do something different, and I thought that I could do it. So I think it was just a gradual build, to the point where I dropped electric guitar for acoustic guitar.
What prompted you to release a solo album?
I guest just writing the songs I had written. I had about seventy or eighty songs written between a two year period. I narrowed it down from those songs I had to the eleven that were on the debut. I guess I didn't have anything else to do with 'em, but I just didn't want to sit on 'em, either. I felt I had to get 'em out after having them around for a few years.
So you decided to take that plunge.
Yeah—kind of like vomiting! (Laughs)
During the time you were writing the songs that became your debut, were you playing out live?
Here and there. During the formative period, during those years where I was screwing around, I'd write two-bit songs on acoustic guitar, just kind of feeling it out, getting my bearings. I was playing live quite a lot. Then I wound up moving down to New Orleans, then after that to Brooklyn, then Nebraska—pretty much all one right after the other. I guess I gained a lot of material for the later songwriting I was doing in 2001 to 2003, just from all the experiences I was having. So I wasn't really playing live all that much. Oh, I'd do a few shows here and there, playing for twenty people, most of which were friends of mine, that kind of thing. But at that point I wasn't interested in the whole economic monster that is this business. I just wanted to get my songs out there. I feel now it is important for an artist to keep that monster at bay, and to realize that you are a songwriter for the song's sake, not for the money or the comfort.
I also noticed that the songs on the new record are a bit more arranged, and there's a band, whereas the debut was just you with a guitar.
There were some songs with a bit of additional instrumentation on the first album, but I deliberately wanted to keep that paired down, due to the background of the writing of the songs. I don't want to say I had a strict vision for what I wanted to do on that first album, but I know what I wanted and what I didn't want with this latest album. Me and Steve Deutsch, my engineer and producer, we were much looser with our ideas; we thought, "Wherever these songs take us, let's follow it, and let's not have such a deliberate tension on the songs." Whether the finished songs are "better" or not isn't up to us; these songs are what they are. I didn't want to replicate Famous Anonymous Wilderness note for note, either. There's a tendency for artists to piggyback on past successes, and they wind up putting out the same album time and time and time again. That's boring.
How did you meet up with Morris Tepper and Van Dyke Parks?
That was pretty much courtesy of Steve, who's been situated centrally in LA for a long time, and he's worked with a lot of musicians throughout his career. He either had personal relationships with them, or he knew a guy who knew them. WE went through with someone who was a little out of reach, and then someone else. A name would pop into our heads, and I'd say, "well, you know, Morris Tepper would sound great on this song, with the pattern this song has, let's see if we can get ahold of him," and, sure enough, we did! It all pretty much came together that way.
I'm sure you were impressed, working with these two legends. Were there any things you took away from working with them, in terms of musical ideas?
They brought something I wasn't deliberately looking for. But it was very exciting hearing them, you know? Especially with Van Dyke Parks—he brought something much more musical to the song, more ideas than I had originally heard. Ultimately, working with them, it helped my songs, it was a whole "What if?" scenario that really worked out.
One thing I've always been struck by is the arrangements. They're very nice, and they're kept very simple and basic. When I was visiting your Myspace site, I listened to a few of the live tracks you have posted, and basically I could tell no real difference between the live and the studio tracks, because of the stripped-down nature of your songs. Is that part of the reason you tend to write more minimalistic arrangements?
Yeah, exactly! I like to, when I write…when an artist is on a record, it's different from an artist live. I know that I'm – I don't want to say that I'm let down, but I'm definitely not interested when an artist, during a live performance, is replicating every single sound verbatim that is on their record. I think the whole idea of music should transcend the musical exercise. As far as minimalism, this latest album, it's not as minimal; it's more arranged, and it has more layers and textures. But when I perform solo, I try to fill it all in. I don't want to be the pussyfoot folk singer up there. I try to fill in that space that's natural with solo performers, there's a ferocity that's.. (inaudible) But I do like the minimalist approach, and with me, that's what music's been about all the time, when I'm sittin' on the porch, or strumming on a guitar, that's the tendency about how I make music. I don't want to be puritanical about it, though. (Laughs)
Considering you come from that punk background, with what you do, the quiet but powerful emotional nature is equal to the emotional rush of what punk is about.
I've spent 15 years annihilating my ears, listening to punk rock. I still do it! (Laughing) But the real primitive punk rock, the three-chord, bam-bam-boom-boom chords of punk rock, it's three or four instruments playing, and to me it's arguably comparable to one big acoustic guitar. I think of what punk rock has gone through now, but also to me as an artist playing acoustic guitar, the loud and big sounds can't quite compare if you're really focused on one little guitar.
To me, it's not how loud or insane you can play, but it's how you can bring yourself across lyrically as well. I think if punk rock is partially emotional, if you see people going batshit insane on the dance floor, I think you can get the same kind of mental emotion by having your lyrics up front and having what you say be the focus.
Absolutely. It's ripping the song out of the artist, then ripping the artist completely out of the song, and then letting the listener carry it on. To me, that's what makes sense. The music that's affected me most in my life has done that. I think it works across the board, no matter what genre of music you like.
One final question: how does it feel—and I don't make this comparison because I think it's clichéd…
I think you know what's coming next… (Laughter)
Of course I do! (Laughs)
How does it feel to be compared to Bob Dylan? Everybody I have played your music to says, "this guy sounds just like Bob Dylan!" I know on some levels you have to ignore that element—I know I do, because I don't think, "oh, this guy is trying to sound like Dylan," because it's just the way you sound when you sing.
Right, well, good for you! (Laughs) But going back to punk rock for a little bit—during the heyday of indie-rock ten years ago, you'd go to a show and you'd hear of a band that was coming through. If you'd never heard of 'em, you'd ask people what they sound like, and people would say, "oh, they sound just like Fugazi," because at that point Fugazi was one of the big bands, and there were people trying to emulate Fugazi's style or what have you. That comparison didn't mean shit to me. It didn't tell me anything. I think it's laziness. It's irresponsible and it's dangerous for any artist to deliberately go about trying to sound just like another artist. It truly is dangerous and not responsible for a music lover or a critic to indulge in the tendency to equate an artist with another, and that's as far as they go, with nothing more than a few seconds to determine or go further into a band than just a few notes into a song. It's like saying, "what's the sky like?" "Oh, it's black" without mentioning the stars. It tells you nothing. You miss the point of what the sky is about.
So, what's next?
Next, I'm going to be touring in the Netherlands and Europe this December, and after that hopefully a tour of the US, or at least a West Coast tour, and writing the third album, of course.
No plans for an Old Skull reunion in there?
Uhh, I hope not! (Laughter)
Graham Lindsey's latest album, Hell Under the Skullbones, is available now on Spacebar Recordings