Interview with Jason and the Scorchers
By Wil Forbis
In past articles, I've mentioned that I first discovered alt-country pioneers Jason and the Scorchers while trolling through the music collection of the Seattle Public Library during the mid-90s. But I didn't fully immerse myself in their music until I moved to Sacramento, California at the tail end of 2000. Totally friendless, I spent many a Friday and Saturday night driving around aimlessly, blasting obscurities from my cassette collection on the stereo. The Scorchers figured prominently into those nights, and I used a local secondhand music store to fill out my collection of their releases.
Rock music's strength has always been its embodiment of youth; the young being a class of citizenry unburdened with the preconceptions and biases of their elders. But this strength is also a weakness; rock music has often seemed faddish, un-anchored and unconnected to anything substantive. Country music has suffered from the inverse problem: it's so possessed of a sense of timelessness that it's appeal is often lost on young people. The genius of the Scorchers music was the marriage of the two genres. They combined the full on combustion of riotous "every day another broken heart" youth with the dense, cultural fibers of Americana.
As the years went on, Jason And the Scorchers seemed to break up, get together and break up again --- more times than I cared to count. And as the first decade of the 21st century stumbled to a close, the safe bet was that they were finished. Not so. Over the past year lead singer Jason Ringenberg and guitarist Warner E. Hodges assembled a new rhythm section and released "Halcyon Times," a collection of all out rockers that simultaneously nods to the past and keeps an eye on the future.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to conduct interviews with both Jason and Warner. Jason was on the road performing as his alter ego, children's music performer, Farmer Jason. Warner was in Denmark playing with his other full-time gig: rock band Homemade Sin featuring former Georgia Satellites singer-songwriter Dan Baird. (In what is a sign of the times, Warner and I conducted the interview using the video chat functionality of Skype.)
WF: When you and Warner first decided to make the album that turned into "Halcyon Times," your concern was whether the band would be able to write material that would hold up with the rest of your catalog. How did that process go? Was it free-flowing, or was it pulling teeth?
JR: Going into it, I figured that it would be really difficult. I anticipated it would take a year at least to write a great Scorchers record. But we put together this unbelievable dream team of songwriters to help us. Me and Warner, Al Collins, Ginger from the Wildhearts, Dan Baird, Tommy Womack, Rich Fagan, Artie Hill... this whole team of people who were crack writers. We all camped out at Warner's house for a couple weeks and just nailed it. It didn't take but just a couple months to do the whole record. I've never done a record that fast in my life.
WF: How did you arrange the distribution of power between the band and these people you had coming into offer their ideas?
JR: Well, the band is not a true democracy. It is a democracy between me and Warner; we share the decision-making processes and we both have equal say and veto power. As far as the other writers, they were all real fans of the band, so we took what they said very seriously.
WF: What's your favorite song on the album?
JR: Probably "Beat on the Mountain." It just stands out and people are really latching on to that song as something special.
WF: There's a lot more harmony vocals on this album than the Scorchers' earlier work. Who brought that to the table?
JR: That was really Warner's thing. He really wanted to do more harmonies on this album. He's been singing a lot in the past 10 years. And when you have Brad Jones coproducing a record you're going to have a lot of vocals because he's such a great vocal producer.
WF: I want to talk about "your" music which encapsulates both Jason and the Scorchers and your solo material. There's been some discussion about its duality --- it's one part country, one part rock/punk. But I haven't seen much discussion about the fact that there's cultural and political aspects that go along with that divide. Country is thought of as traditional and conservative while rock is more hedonistic and countercultural --- at least it used to be. I'm wondering if you ever have any challenges reconciling those two halves of the equation.
JR: (Laughs) No one has ever asked me that.
WF: Let me provide a way of thinking about it. My dad was a journalist, and when he wrote, he had this person in mind --- it was actually my grandfather --- that he was writing for. My grandfather was fairly astute but not particularly worldly. So when my father was writing, he was always keeping in mind what this symbolic target reader would know about the world, and what would need to be explained to him. When you're writing, is there ever a sense that you're writing some material for a target "country guy" and some material for a target "rock guy"? Is there ever a concern when you're writing a country song along the lines of "what's the rock guy going to think" and vice versa?
JR: It's definitely an issue. I faced it really heavily on [Ringenberg's solo album] "Empire Builders" which was a purely political record. It was antiwar... anti-Iraq war, I should say. I found a lot of my fans really vehemently disagreed with me, especially the old Jason and the Scorchers fans --- dudes from the South who have been the core of our audience for years. A lot of them were offended by the stance I took. I had long discussions with a lot of them; it was really quite cool.
WF: I know you have a song on that album --- "Rebel Flag in Germany" --- that earned some of the ire you're talking about. But I've also heard you essentially say that you don't want to just play music for liberals. How do you keep that gate open for fans across the political spectrum?
JR: Well, I think I'm moderate enough to do that. And I doubt I'll ever do it again, quite frankly. I think next time I'll do my voting in the voting booth, and hold discussions in the more traditional ways of discussing politics. I'm not Steve Earle, you know? I'm just not that kind of guy.
WF: He's certainly the performer you think of when you think of "progressive country guys."
JR: It really affected me profoundly that "Rebel Flag in Germany" so offended people. I was quite upset about it. I mean, these are my fans, you know? I realized some of these people want to beat me up! They thought "White Lies" was their favorite song and now they want to beat me up!
WF: There's a political aspect to that duality between country and rock, but there's also a kind of cultural disparity. Did you ever have issues with that?
JR: In the early days of the band, that was a real problem. We were so rock 'n roll, but we were also so country at the exact same time. Certain country folks just didn't know quite what to do with it. And the rock folks... I remember opening for the Ramones on one of our first national tours in 1982 and every night was completely different. Some nights would go over so well, and some nights they wanted to kill us! Because of the cowboy hats and the twang, you know?
But now, I don't think it's an issue whatsoever. These country boys know as much about rock 'n roll as rockers in the city.
WF: I know you've done some work with (alt-country songwriter) Stace England. What do you think of this concoction of his, what I would call the "historical rock opera?"
JR: (Laughs) I just never know what he's going to do next. I was at his house after the "Salt Sex Slaves" album and asked, "So what are you doing now, Stace?" [He says] "Well, there's this African-American filmmaker from the early 20th century named Oscar Micheaux..." I almost laughed. "How do you think of these things?" But somehow he pulls it off, and people get interested in it.
WF: You've done some songs --- even on the new album --- that are historically themed. And it strikes me while listening to "Halcyon Times" and Stace's material that you don't hear a lot of this kind of songwriting coming out of the northwest or the East Coast. It seems like this kind of song writing is really the province of the South and the Midwest. What makes the history of those locales so intriguing?
JR: I think a lot of artists are connected to the history of both the South and Midwest, but for completely different reasons. In the South, the sense of history is profound. And it's a living history. The Civil War still lives here. Every Southerner feels affected by the Civil War. The rest of us don't really think about it too much, but it really affects them. Both African-American and white Southerners.
The Midwest is one giant museum. I love going there because there's no growth. There's malls, of course, but you don't see them the way you do everywhere else because the Midwest is depopulating. It's really evocative. You go out into those little towns and you see all these empty houses and empty factories... railroad tracks that have gone into decay. It's absolutely frozen in time.
WF: So who is Farmer Jason?
JR: (Laughs) I speak about him in third person unless I'm on stage and actually become the character. My inside people joke about it all the time... "Farmer Jason would never do that," or "Farmer Jason is kicking Jason's butt!" And then Warner will go with it and make a joke: "Farmer Jason is offering me way more money than the Scorchers. I'm going with him!
WF: It's got to be an interesting twist to your career.
JR: I'da never dreamed it. I never even remotely imagined it. Until I had my own little family, you know, and started singing songs with them. And decided to make this little character.
WF: It seems like when the Scorchers came out in the 80s the record label had difficulty figuring out how to define you. Do you think you would have to face the same problems if you were discovered today?
JR: I don't think we would have had nearly the problem we had back then. But we also wouldn't have had the explosive chemistry of exploring that music and exposing it to the world. We exposed that intersection where punk rock and country meet --- we did that single-handedly in '81, '82, '83. So, had we come out in the new millennium, we would have missed out on all that. And I wouldn't have missed out on that for all the fame and money in the world.
Warner E. Hodges
WF: I really enjoy the new album.
WEH: Thank you very much. I think the fact that we managed to do a nice piece of work this deep in our careers is pretty cool.
WF: I talked with Jason a bit about the songwriting process for the new album. What was your take on it?
WEH: All of our songwriting is based around an acoustic guitar. Even with the new album, the all-out rock songs started as acoustic songs.
This time around it was really weird. We got together and we wrote a mess of songs real fast. Normally when we write a song, there is a direction right off the bat. You know, it's a country song, or it's a three chord boogie-woogie or it's kind of a country two step. This time we were just writing a pile of songs. The only thing we took into consideration was "Will Jason be able to wrap his head around this song and sing it? Is it a good song for Jason to sing?"
WF: What determines that?
WEH: It was weird because our outside writers --- Dan and Tommy and Ginger --- all have preconceived ideas as to what Jason and the Scorchers are to them. It was funny to watch these guys outside the band take so much care with our songs and our direction. You'd have thought it was their band too. I'm in a band with Dan Baird and he took as much care with the material we wrote together for this thing as he does for Homemade Sin (Warner and Dan Baird's band.) And Ginger and Tommy were the same way. We were all asking, "What will Jason be able to wrap his head around lyrically?" That was the guiding focus for the songwriting on this record.
12 or 13 of the 14 vocals were done live when we cut the tracks. We managed to catch lightning in a bottle in the three-day period that we recorded most of the record. We had two spontaneous combustions --- the creative side and then the recording. I don't know if we've ever had that kind of creative burst that quickly and intensely --- shy of the first time the original band got together and we realized we were onto a little bit of something.
WF: And when was that moment? Back in the 80s...
WEH: Jason had done two shows with a version of Jason and the Scorchers that Perry, Jeff and I were not involved with. One of the shows was opening up for Carl Perkins, and the other one was opening up for this little band called REM. I saw the Carl Perkins show and Jeff saw the REM show. Jeff had started hanging out with Jason; I got involved via Jeff and I brought in Perry to replace the original drummer. It was New Year's Eve of '81 when we played our first show as Jason and the Scorchers. We knew that night that we had found a pretty cool little chemistry. Everyone had fronted a band before so you had four guys vying for the front of the stage. (Laughs.)
WF: And that worked as a strength?
WEH: Yeah, and it's kind of a weird thing because Perry can't really do this anymore -- he needs a kidney transplant. But Pont, our new drummer, is like Perry in that Perry was a keyboard player and lead singer that could play a little drums. Pontus is a really good guitar player and fronts his own band. He's a songwriter and understands how songs are built. He comes at it the same way Perry did.
WF: The drums are there to support the songs.
WEH: Exactly, not "look at my drum solo." That doesn't mean the drums weren't ferociously played; Perry was a ferocious drummer. But he also knew how to build a song.
WF: Who's a guitar player you love that people would be surprised to hear you love?
WEH: I'm kind of all over the map. I love Albert Lee, I love Danny Gatton... all that country super picker stuff. Brad Paisley is a monster guitar player. Some of the songs... ehhh, but he is a monster guitar player. Vince Gill is a guitar playing fool. There's a new kid in Nashville named J.D. Simo who's 24 and he's frighteningly good.
But also I'm a Jimi Hendrix guy, I'm a Jimmy Page guy. I absolutely love AC/DC. The Rolling Stones... all the Mick Taylor era stuff is the rock 'n roll I cut my teeth on. My problem was that I had an older brother ramming Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin down my throat and I had my parents ramming Merle Haggard and Hank Williams down my throat. I played drums in my parents' country band for years. All these years later, if I've got a style, it's because of all these influences that were thrown at me. I've got Dan Baird now wearing me out with the Beatles, The Band and Dylan --- all this great stuff. It's like Dan is taking me to school --- to music school.
WF: How did that connection with Dan Baird come about?
WEH: I've known Danny since 1984. The Georgia Satellites were out opening for the Scorchers before "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" skyrocketed. They were managed by the same people we were and our old drum tech was their tour manager --- a guy named Kevin Jennings whose other claim to fame was discovering the Black Crowes.
Danny moved to Nashville about 15 years ago and produced a couple albums for for a local girl named Stacie Collins. I've played a bit with Stacie --- her husband Al is the new bass player for the Scorchers --- and one thing led to another. I was cutting a solo record about four years ago and Danny played on it. While we were cutting that record, Dan's guitar player had to leave Homemade Sin. They had 12 Danish shows that they had already canceled twice. He asked me if I would go just do those 12 shows with him. We had an absolute blast and by the fourth show were writing songs. Since then we've done one album and are getting ready to do another one.
[In Homemade Sin] I'm playing with three of my heroes. Mauro Magellan is one of my three favorite drummers and rock 'n roll. John Bonham is dead, that leaves Phil Rudd and Mauro Magellan. And Dan Baird has forgotten more about guitars and amps than most people will ever learn. Keith Christopher, the bass player, has played with everybody -- hell, he wrote a song that Ray Charles cut. It's those kinda guys.
WF: You're just about to release an album during a period of great upheaval in music industry. There's MP3s, music piracy and the general devaluation of the song. Can an artist still make a living off music as a product or does there have to be some additional strategy?
WEH: The last time the Scorchers made a record was the mid-90s and the climate was completely different. Now, it's the wild West out there. Dan's got a great thing going on in Europe; he sells a few records in America. He sells in Japan and Australia. We've managed to tie the Scorchers thing to that. There's ways to make a living in the music business but the publicity machine that the major labels used to provide an artist is no longer there. I know how to make rock 'n roll records, I know how to make country records, I don't know what to do with them once I get them made.
The other side of the coin is if you make a record and get it out there and have a name for yourself, you can actually make a bit of money. In the old days, if you sold 5000 records for somebody you were getting dropped. Nowadays, if you sell 5000 records out of your garage, that's a success.
WF: You mentioned that Europe and Japan and Australia are receptive to this music. Why them and not the United States?
WEH: Well, to use the example I was using: Dan's got a guy, Mick Brown, who owns Jerkin' Crocus Records in Europe and he got Dan up and running. Mick has found a way to make it work in Europe; he doesn't have a lot going on in America.
WF: Do you get a sense that Europe is more receptive to American music because it's not "their" music? It's intriguing because it's different?
WEH: Maybe. I got a buddy who's in a band from Holland and they just got a bunch of shows in the Midwest. He was saying they got the show simply because they're from Holland and not America.
WF: What would you tell someone starting out a band in this current environment?
WEH: Learn your trade. Fluke (W. S. Holland), the drummer that played with Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, said, "Don't learn to play good. Learn to play long."
WF: It's like saying, "Don't be one of those actors who's a flash in the pan leading man. Be a character actor who has a career that lasts 50 years."
WEH: That's my favorite line in "My Favorite Year": "I'm not an actor! I'm a movie star!"
I'm fortunate to be at the age that I am, out here playing rock 'n roll with my best friends and getting paid to do it. What more could I ask for?
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