A few nights ago, I stumbled into a Tom Waits night at one of our local haunts, The Volstead, down here in lovely Austin, Texas. The night as a whole was entertaining; the Volstead has a creepy lounge vibe, so the context was perfect. And for a free show, the artists who played a few songs impressed me. They all worked the Waits-ian thing of being a little oddball with their delivery, working the room for the jokes and banter lost somewhere in the shadows or cobwebs.
If any cities can pull off a Tom Waits night, Austin is definitely on the short list.
One of those singers that I immediately enjoyed was Nichole Wagner. After belting out two Tom Waits tunes with a country twang, I wanted to hear what her original music sounded like.
On Wagner’s latest record And The Sky Caught Fire, the excitement for her music is validated. The country twang is in full effect, offering a little slice of Kacey Musgraves older songs, mixed with a little bit of The Civil Wars concerning vocal approach.
And The Sky Caught Fire feels very “Austin” with its production sensibilities, but also has a slight poppy feel to it, as well. While I sincerely enjoy Wagner’s vocals and songwriting ability, I was a little underwhelmed with the backing band. Something about “The Rules of Baseball” and “Let Me Know” has a darkness that’s not on front street, but permeates the air. Because of that internal expectation, I’d like to hear what Wagner could do with a band who was sonically closer to Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit or whoever is backing Margo Price.
Music nerd gripes aside, And The Sky Caught Fire is a solid country/Americana record. The production is bright, and the craftsmanship is there. If you’re looking for something that you could throw on while cooking dinner, this has that sensibility, which having a few good dinner records is never a bad thing. For a first record, this is a fine place to start kicking. At a slim 35 minutes, Wagner packs in a lot of punch in just a short amount of time.
If you’re down here in Texas, I’d suggest giving Nichole Wagner a shot out in the clubs. She handled those Tom Waits songs with velvet gloves and made them her own, which was transfixing. I’m definitely going to catch her live because I have a suspicion she’s capable of throwing fire when it’s her songs we’re listening to.
And the Sky Caught Fire is available on Bandcamp, Amazon, Spotify, etc.
Almost two years ago, Kasey Anderson opened
up in depth here about his spiraling descent from artist-on-the-cusp to
grifting, locked-up addict. He was then not quite a year post-prison. And while
there was still a hint of an artist’s confidence about him, it was tempered by
the gun-shyness you’d expect of a guy fresh from the halfway house and with a
long list of pissed-off victims, many of them former friends.
Little did he know that within a couple of months he’d begin
the long, cathartic and ad hoc
process of recording a comeback album. In fact, he really had no clue what
would come of the sessions, done virtually pro
bono by a collection of generous friends and musical colleagues from the
Portland indie scene.
Anderson’s voice on the telephone is stronger today. He
sounds healthier, no doubt buoyed by the album-making process that was critical
to his ongoing restoration as a man. The humility is still there, no doubt, but
the knowledge that he’s made a really solid rock ‘n’ roll record has put a
spring in his step. From A White Hotel,
released today on emerging label Julian
Records, is poignant, introspective and sprinkled with
Anderson’s trademark irony, starting with the title, a reference to his drab
lodgings for more than two years. Oh, and his name isn’t on it.
We caught up with Anderson with just a few days to go before
his nuptials, and talked redemption, recovery, the virtues of not being
preachy, and the inevitable Steve Earle comparisons. And the whole, stupid
“outlaw country” thing.
I’m curious about the
way your band is billed. I was partial to the name “Kasey Anderson and The
Honkies.” “Hawks and Doves” is the
name of an underrated Neil Young album & song; why the switch? Were you
worried about the local Portland anarchist community torching your pad to
protest your white privilege? Sorry, I know it’s low-hanging fruit…
Ha! No. First, I decided to do it under a band name because
of the way the record came together. I had written all the lyrics and had the
structure of the songs, but the instrumentation came together in such a
collaborative way that it felt disingenuous just to put my name on it. And The
Honkies, I didn’t want to go back to that because all those guys were such
strong personalities in their own right, and I just kinda wanted to leave it
there with those guys because I have such fond memories of that band.
And I love that Neil Young record. The phrase “hawks and doves”
is a political and military term. It seemed pretty appropriate for what’s going
on now. Plus, it just sounds cool.
The first time I
heard that song was on Scott Miller & The Commonwealth’s live album…
Yeah, yeah! From The V Roys!
And since it’s not
“Kasey and the Hawks and Doves,” just the band name, any concern that nobody
will know it’s you?
I don’t think it’s a horrible thing for me to make a clean
break with the work that I did and the life that I led as a solo artist. It
wasn’t a calculated move to do that; maybe it’s an added benefit? And I think
that the way it’s being marketed through the press, it’s pretty clear that it’s
a band I’m involved in.
This is a collection
of a dozen pretty dang good songs. How long have they been percolating? Did
some of these words get put to paper while you were locked up?
Yeah, about half of them were written while I was locked up,
during my second year in prison. “Every Once in a While,” for instance, is
about my first cellmate. That’s his story much more than mine. The other five
or six songs happened around after the election, in late 2016. It took us a
long time to make the record because of the way we went about it.
Tell me about this
band, and how you got the record made; I imagine raising funds to get an album
done might have been challenging for someone in your position.
The band is
Jordan Richter (guitars,) Ben Landsverk (bass, keys, viola, background vocals)
and Jesse Moffat (drums, percussion). Other folks who played are Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, Kurt Bloch, Ralph Carney, Kay Hanley and Dave
Jordan engineered it and owns a
recording studio in town. And I think right after you and talked last time,
some folks reached out and asked if I’d like to contribute a track for a
benefit record they were involved in. I told Jordan, “Hey, I’d really like to
do this, but I don’t have money to pay for studio time or to pay session
players.” And he said, “Are you sure
you want to do a benefit record?” (Laughs)
…I wasn’t gonna say anything. It was a real thing, though, right?
(Laughs) Yeah, it was a real thing. It
was to help this woman named Jennifer Holmes – who has since passed away – with
her cancer treatments. So once I proved to him that it was a real thing, he
said he’d get some people together. We covered this song called “Wise Blood” by
the band Tender Mercies. At the
end of the session Jordan said, “Man, if you ever want to just come in the
studio and roll tape, everybody gets your situation and knows that you don’t
have a bunch of money to throw into making a record. There are people willing
to play your songs for fun and just see where it goes.”
And that’s what we did. Jordan would
text a group of us that said, “I have this day where the studio’s not in use,
and you don’t have to pay me for the time.” So it took us more than a year,
because we’d do a day here and there, and everybody would go back to their
lives. So that’s how the record got made, and it was really generous of him to
And then I sent [the album] to several
of my friends and said, “I really don’t know what to do with this; I can’t put
it out.” I have a friend named Nathan Earle here in Portland who’s in a band
called The Get Ahead, and he told me about this new label, Julian Records.
“They seem to be looking for bands,” he said. “Why don’t you send it to them?”
I had planned to just try and put it out digitally, but the Julian Records
folks were into it, and took it from there.
That’s certainly fortuitous.
It’s very fortuitous, and the only way
it was going to come out physically. I mean it’s not really cost-prohibitive to
get an album out digitally. But this was very generous. Everybody seemed to
think the songs were cool, and were like, “Don’t worry about it right now,
let’s just see what happens.”
When last we spoke,
we touched on your being medicated for bipolar disorder, and how that can
sometimes stifle creativity in artists of all stripes. There’s a line in
“Lithium Blues” that says, “You took the words right out of my mouth.” Is there
a balance you find yourself having to strike between mental health and
Yeah, for sure. “Lithium Blues” might have been the first
thing I wrote in prison that I was really happy with. I had to go back and
figure out, okay, there’s an element of
magic to creativity, but there’s a much bigger element of math to it. And I know how to make a
song so that the pieces fit together. If I can trust myself enough to do that,
the rest will come along in time. That’s kind of what that song is about.We talked about this a little bit
before, but I had almost resigned myself that [playing music professionally]
was behind me, that maybe I could do some shows for fun from time to time. But
over the course of making this record it became clear to me that I still know
how to make a song work. Whether this is a thing I get to do on a larger scale
remains to be seen, but I was able to prove to myself that I can still put a
good song together, even when I’m not
up for five straight days.
An article in Glide mentioned that you’re training to be an
addiction counselor.Is there some
sense of duty there? Have you become more zealous about “the program” and
living clean? Maybe a little of both?
It’s a little of both. I have certainly become more zealous
about making sure that people who deal with mental health and/or addiction
issues – especially younger people – have someone they can talk to without
feeling judged or dictated to.
The name of your
band, as you mentioned, has political overtones, and there are some references
to current events on the album. But you didn’t lose your mind and start bashing
people over the head with your opinions, like so many artists have done since 2016.
Why do so many folks make everything about politics?
When I wrote these songs, one of the things I tried really
hard to do was invite people into a conversation rather than dictate to them
how they should feel about any given thing.
I really feel that’s a far
more effective way to engage an audience, if you want to have that
conversation. I have never responded to anybody – even when I agree
wholeheartedly with what they have to say – addressing whatever they imagine
their audience to be, by dictating what their thoughts or beliefs should be.
That just doesn’t work for me, and when I wrote these songs I tried really hard
to stay away from that. I wanted to ground it in narrative and open-ended
Yeah. It’s there, but it’s not preachy, and it’s
open to interpretation. And believe you me it’s refreshing. Because I didn’t
vote for the sumbitch, but I’ve had about a bellyful of being preached to by
guys whose music I otherwise love.
redemption is certainly a theme running through From a White Hotel. How cathartic was this whole process, and where
are you on the whole making-amends thing that started when you got out of the
Well, in terms of the process being restorative, the making
of the record – playing music with other people, being able to work on songs –
was really, really healthy.And it
was good to do it in a way that I didn’t have to feel like my life depended on
whether people liked these songs. Obviously I wouldn’t have put the record out
if I didn’t want people to hear the songs, but it’s not going to ruin my life
if there’s a deafening thud when it’s released. I’m still gonna be married to
this wonderful woman, I’m still gonna be helping people who struggle with
mental health and addiction issues. At the end of the day, the act of making a
record was rewarding in and of itself.
The amends thing? Well…the second you say you’re humble,
Ha! I guess that’s
(Laughs) Yeah. I’ll just say I’m really proud of the work
that I’ve done. I think I’m living out amends to people to whom I can’t make
direct amends. I’ve worked really hard at doing a good job of that.
By the time this
article runs you’ll have been married for about a week. Was Caitlin a part of
your life before you went away? How big a part of your road back to normalcy
has she been?
She was a part of my life. She wasn’t my girlfriend at that
time, but she was part of a close group of friends. My girlfriend at the time
was named Tracey, and she called Caitlin that night and said, “You’re not gonna
believe this, but he’s gone. He’s going to prison, so can you come get his
stuff out of my apartment?” So Caitlin went and got all of my stuff and took it
to Goodwill in East Los Angeles. A lot of us had drastic changes in our lives
around that time but we all stayed in touch for the most part. And Cait and I
stayed in touch while I was locked up, and she’s been so supportive. She was
never judgmental. It’s been one of the most positive things in my life – if not
the most positive – to have that
person with me every step of the way.
On the title cut you
say, “I ain’t no kind of outlaw, and I never claimed to be.” The wit and irony
are strong in you, Kasey Anderson.
(Laughs) Well, you know, that’s true. I never tried to
market any of the records we ever made as any sort of “outlaw country” thing…
Oh, wait! Gosh, see,
there’s so much irony I missed the irony.
I was thinking in the literal sense, in that you’ve done time and technically are an outlaw.
(Laughs) I technically am an outlaw, and that’s kind of the
point I wanted to make. It’s not all those artists’ fault that they’re being
marketed and trumpeted that way. But a lot of times I’ll read an article about
some “outlaw country” artist and think, “Man, I’ve actually been an outlaw and it sucks!”
You know, smoking weed doesn’t make someone an outlaw. My
mom’s 65 and she’ll smoke weed and watch Netflix. That doesn’t make someone a
badass. Figure out what you mean by “outlaw.”
Speaking of outlaws:
Everybody’s favorite badass, Steve Earle, gets a nod on “Clothes Off My Back,”
right down to the title of his 1996 post-prison album.I can understand why you could maybe
not resist a tip of the ol’ driver’s cap; it’s just too perfect. But aren’t you
afraid he might get a big head over it?
Um…no, I’m not. Because I think Steve knows how good he is.
He’s far enough along in his career that he knows he’s revered by people who
Very diplomatic, by
(Laughs) But the point of that song…Steve’s been sober for a
long time now, and he’s done a really good job of living his life according to
that. And so it’s an acknowledgement that I’m not anywhere near where this guy
is as a songwriter, and certainly not in my recovery. But I’m certainly a lot
better than I was five years ago.
Yeah. I was really
hoping you’d rise to the bait there.
(Laughs) I can’t.
Also, just to clarify one comment: my
issue with “Outlaw Country” isn’t with any of the artists, it’s with the folks
who use it as an easy/“cool” way to market and categorize artists. I don’t know
too many artists who are actively seeking that label. I know Sturgill and Aaron
Lee Tasjan for sure have poked fun at it in the past. That kind of marketing
and categorization, to me, draw attention away from how great artists like Sturgill
and Margo Price and Elizabeth Cook and those folks are individually, and makes
it into this one homogenous category. It’s counterproductive. Their work is
great, so let it stand on its own.
Newlywed Kasey Anderson is on tour. Check dates here.
From a White Hotel is available everywhere today, including Kasey's site.
I always thought I’d meet Anthony Bourdain. I was convinced that as my career evolved, we’d cross paths. I’d get to be one of those writers he loved, we 'd sit there, sucking down Lone Star longnecks in a roadside diner somewhere in west Texas or we’d be on an adventure down in Melbourne talking about why we loved the Ramones and The Stooges, too. About why books matter, why writing is a hard life, not dissimilar to the pirate mentality of a line cook.
Being a writer and someone obsessed with the kitchen, I assumed this relationship was a natural fit - game recognizing game. He was my idol. A beacon of hope that a punk rock loser could get a win. I don’t have many heroes, but Bourdain was a guy who’d battled his demons. As someone who fights depression, I thought I knew him.
We’d opine about Pam Grier flicks like Coffy or just how badass Michael Caine was in Get Carter. We’d order a round of Jameson’s and extol our love of Jim Harrison’s Legends of The Fall. We clink our shot glasses and then go on a bender of epic proportions. He’d dub me an heir to his throne, and we’d exchange texts and samples of whatever we were writing.
I’d see him one day in my travels and we’d bond about Tikka masala or Old Towne Inn in Chicago. He’d ask a few questions about The Rolling Stones best record and I reply, “fuckin’ Exile on Mainstreet, of course.” And we’d be off to the races.
It was a good fantasy, and now, it’ll forever remain only that – make-believe.
I know things because of him. I envied him because he’d shared meals with some of humanity’s most exceptional people when in reality, he was one of the finest too. Anthony Bourdain wasn’t just a host. He was the guy who snuck in the back door, leaving a crack open for the rest of us.
When people die, it rakes us over the emotional coals, challenging our sense of being, and purpose. Death dares us to ask: what does it mean to live genuinely? Can we carry on someone’s legacy, or did the memory of that person affect us as profoundly as we like to say on Facebook?
Losing Anthony Bourdain is a knife in the gut. This one hurts. Bad. How could someone who'd realized the dream, who seemingly had the (now)-perfect experience, burn it like a slip of paper into the ether? We’ll never know went on inside of his head. That was Tony’s choice, as he stared into oblivion, locked away inside his five-star French hotel room.
Folks from all over the world will muse about his greatness, his likability, his genuine nature, that he was an A+ original. They won’t be wrong. Every note and letter spent adoring his name will be a statement in truth: our species is better off for getting to know him over these last two decades.
Every walk of life watched A Cook’s Journey, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown. We voyeuristically imagined ourselves drinking a cold beer in the jungles of Brazil or wandering on the streets of Tokyo through his adventures. We learned new things about people on the other side of planet, just as they learned about us, over here in TrumpLand.
Anthony Bourdain taught us why food is important, why it binds across the lines of reality and what we’re willing to fight for. All cultures, all people center life around food, and whether seated on the floor or at a table, its an experience we all share as a people. If there’s a universal truth we all know, it’s that food makes us less assholes.
Even if you hate one another’s opinions, points of view, and guts, there is always the commonality of the meal. We’re drawn to the scent of flesh cooked over fire. Blame it on our hard-coded hunter/gatherer DNA, but it moves us, and Anthony Bourdain tapped into that.
We tend to be a lot less mean when a medium rare steak served with glistening plate of waffle fries is dropped in our laps. Anthony Bourdain dared us to sit at life’s table, no matter how awkward the conversation, to find a solution, in spite of the gravity of the world.
Before Kitchen Confidential, chefs were seen as these guys with folded arms in starched white jackets and big funny hats. We were let in on the secrets of the service industry, that everything wasn’t gleaming and pristine. Bourdain pulled the curtain back. He showed us the teeth of the pig, the hair plucked from the hide of the animal, and did so with a bloody, drug-induced irreverence.
That book changed our relationship to the food we eat. Everything was less about how a plate comes out to the table, but how we see the mechanisms of the environment, which it was centered.
Before him, the Food Network was just knives hitting the cutting board, not a real peek into the industry of service. The Food Network didn’t know what to do with Anthony Bourdain. Instead of embracing the weird, they laid their chips on safe programming. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to see how bad they wanted to make up for their error in later years. After just one season, A Cook’s Journey was pulled. To the Travel Channel went Bourdain and the beginnings of an empire were created.
Despite food being the pulse of No Reservations and Parts Unknown, the people are what made the body of work shine. Viewers into the world of Bourdain learned how to appreciate the far corners of the world, how the people in the streets, the dinner table or against the brass at the local pub, all wanted the same thing: an enjoyable life.
Parts Unknown stood as the last real bastion of counterculture America in the mainstream. Bourdain created cinema-inspired television on a network, a feat that changed the face of CNN from talking head machine into a place of experience and stories. Anthony Bourdain let the squares inside his orgy of life.
While Bourdain hit the nicest of the nice, he also slummed – it wasn’t about the luxury of the room or the number of Michelin stars dangling from the name, it was about the experience. He had drinks made from spit and cow’s blood, he devoured fresh caught snapper on the beach, pulled from a man’s cooler who couldn’t speak a lick of English. The narrative never changed: love the people, and learn their secrets.
Bourdain and his Zero Point Zero crew made television that wasn’t a bunch of fat white guys guffawing over a local beer and burger joint. That pedestrian shit was for the birds. Instead, they saw their chance to make high art, to challenge viewers and take them on the journey.
The Heart of Darkness, the movies of Federico Fellini, the car chases of Steve McQueen, a penchant for crime and darkness, books, and music all permeated the landscape of the show. While competing travel shows opt for canned guitar riff music you could find in an elevator, bands like Queens of The Stone Age, and The Black Keys wanted their songs featured. Margo Price, Ume, The Sword, the godfather of punk, Iggy Pop all got to experience the world of Bourdain, and the result remained centered around the love of art, no matter the medium.
The look and feel of his shows were never a hatchet job. The narration, the vibe, everything was poured over. Every shot mattered. The writing on the show was brilliant, honest and true. While Bourdain’s books and essays are testaments to his writing prowess, it was the guttural rawness of his scripts that ached, that begged the viewer to travel, to eat, to experience life.
The honesty of the subjects he took on is what made people adore Anthony Bourdain. He took us to Montana, to Madagascar, to Moscow. We saw the streets of New Orleans, the intensity of South by Southwest, and we got to know the tragedies of Iran and Myanmar. When Anthony Bourdain visited West Virginia, he handled the opioid crisis with care and humanity. He showed his character, it wasn’t devastation porn, but a portrait of a hidden America.
He was a brilliant writer, a storied cook, a former addict, and the guy you wanted to talk to at the party. And now he’s gone.
Brian Allen Carr summed up Anthony Bourdain earlier. I’ll end there because as a writer, it’s genuine, respectful and stabs like a dagger. Goddamnit, Tony, we’re going to miss you.
“Anthony Bourdain was Hunter Thompson, Fernand Point, and Studs Terkel wrapped up in one. He's the reason America eats at food trucks. He's the reason we take pictures of all our food. If you've Yelped, it's because of him. He was the most significant writer in recent memory.”