By Kevin Broughton
In an age when independence is idolized and every person seems to be seeking his own lone wolf career path, Seattle-based roots band Western Centuries believes that the way forward is better together. Collaboration, inspiration and mutual admiration are what Cahalen Morrison, Ethan Lawton, and Jim Miller cite as the heart of their newest project, Call The Captain, the band’s third album, out on Free Dirt records and available wherever you purchase fine music. You can also find it at the Western Centuries store.
Western Centuries continue to evolve and mature. After two critically acclaimed albums – 2016’s Weight of the World and 2018’s Songs From The Deluge – the band’s follow-up features a new sound, a slightly tweaked lineup and a new level of songwriting prowess. Morrison and Lawton still take turns on drums and acoustic guitar. Thomas Bryan Eaton joins the band on pedal steel. But the core of the band is still the troika of writers/singers, each member of which brings his own distinctive skill set.
Morrison’s tracks have a Western feel and flavor. Lawton’s sweet, near falsetto vocals provide a soulful undercurrent. Miller spent 20 years with roots/jam band Donna The Buffalo and never wrote or sang a song. His growth as a writer and ongoing vocal confidence continue to impress.
Western Centuries tackle several complex and controversial issues on the new album – pipelines through Indian reservations and land-grant battles in New Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s to name a couple – but do so without preachy condescension. The topical issues don’t overshadow what the band has come to be known for: elite writing, poignant three-part harmonies and excellent musicianship and production.
It was great to catch up with Jim Miller, PhD – FTM’s official lepidopterist* -- right after his much-needed vacation in mid-March. He was quite expansive on that subject, as well as those of meeting Jim Lauderdale at the place Dylan went electric, and the non-need for a captain on a ship of titans.
So, how was your vacation?
It was…good. We went to a Wilco show.
There’s an egalitarian feel to this album, a real sense of balance. Twelve songs, four each by you, Ethan and Cahalen. In fact, they go in that order throughout the record: one from you, one from Ethan, one from Cahalen. Tell me about the mechanism of selecting tracks; I assume each of you comes into the recording process with his own batch of songs?
We do. And for this batch, we had toured with [playing] a lot of them; some of we had played on tour just a little. And some we had never played live, we just had a pretty good idea of how they’d go and worked it out in the studio. We do come [into the studio] with a pretty good feel, yet are open to any suggestions the other guys have when it’s time to record.
When you write a song you never know how it will sound with a band, unless you’ve played it with a band already. So you need to have some flexibility: “It might sound better with a chorus there,” or “a bridge might work here.” Or you add an intro that you just hadn’t thought of. That stuff just kind of evolves; you know what I mean?
Yeah. Is “Call The Captain” an ironic nod to the collaborative nature of y’all’s dynamic?
It is, because we feel we’re a ship without a captain; we’re out at sea with three guys and the rest of the band as well. We don’t have a real front man, so there’s no one guy in charge. It’s also a line in one of Ethan’s songs [“Every Time It’s Raining”].
Y’all recorded Songs From The Deluge in Lafayette, and there was a discernable Zydeco feel on certain tracks. For Call The Captain, you chose a studio in Nashville. There’s a distinctive sonic difference, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it the “Nashville sound.” There’s a soulful vibe to a lot of it. What were y’all going for in terms of sound, or feel?
I’m…I’m not…(pause) I’m the wrong person to ask that.
When I’m in the studio – and I’ve been in lots of settings, all kinds of settings – it depends on what you’re going for. Do you want an acoustic record or a rocking record? I’ve done all those things over the years. But I really don’t go into a studio setting with a firm idea about “the sound I’m looking for.”
Cahalen and Ethan, I’d say, have more of a set idea in mind. I’d say it’s like I have the least, Cahalen’s in the middle, and Ethan the most idea – pre-studio – of what we have in mind. Each person has a different approach when it comes to the recording process. And I’m the loosest of the three. I’m maybe…not as perceptive sometimes. I don’t always hear subtle differences. I just know what I like and what I don’t. But again, you’re talking to one of three writers. And each person has his different way of perceiving that. Which makes it fun, actually. It’s the fun part of this experiment we have, and in the studio it becomes very apparent, these differences in personality at play.
I just want the groove to sound good and the vocals to sound good. That’s what I’m going for.
You know in terms of and overall sound, though, this is Nokosee’s first time playing electric bass in studio. The first two records he played standup bass. So this opened up all kinds of tonality options for him and us. It makes the songs – for me – well, you have a broader base to work from, a broader pallet. Because a lot of people don’t hear the bass, but it’s the grounding of the whole sound.
So that was a big thing, I guess. Bill Reynolds, one of our producers, is a bass player. He had a vision for the bass parts. So that’s probably a lot of what you’re hearing in terms of a tonal difference. And that’s something that gave us all some confidence along the way.
“Heartbroke Syndrome” was the first single released from the new record, a song about someone who’s been through a crushing personal loss. You dealt with the loss of your parents in the final stanzas of “Wild Birds” on the last album.
I wonder if you’d elaborate a little on the story behind “Heartbroke.”
Ah…it’s a little…a little hard. It’s a friend of mine whom I’ve known…40 years? Anyway, she’s my age-ish. And she had a granddaughter die at 2 ½. Just overnight.
Literally overnight, one of those things, and there was just no reason. I still think they don’t know the reason. This little girl just died in her sleep. It was one of those losses that was so huge for my friend…her body didn’t respond for a while and she ended up in the hospital. She was so shattered. And that’s how that song came about.
It’s a song that’s hard to write. And I tried…I tried to end with an uplifting feeling.
Sort of, we’ve got each other, we’ll get through this together.
“But everything will flow right, we’ll gather back home. Lay down the dirt, our bodies renewed.”
Yeah. A semi-uplifting note, anyway.
There are several songs about heartbreak and loss, and some tragic – but not necessarily well-known – events. Would you say there’s a theme, or a common thread that ties the record together?
Hmm. It’s hard to find a common “theme” for the way we write our music, because we do so much of it in isolation. Those guys live in Seattle. I live in New York. So we only see each other when we’re going out on tour, or recording, or other special events or whatever.
There’s no intention, I’d say, in creating a thread. If there is one, I’d say it’s the times we’re living in. That’s such an overwhelming part; you can’t really get away from it. And I think that’s partly what you’re sensing. I have these “topical” songs. I don’t know if you’ve picked up on it…
Oh, we’re gonna get to that, in just a second, I promise.
Ha ha. But Cahalen did, too and Ethan did, too. We all did. But I attribute that to the crazy f*cking times we’re living in.
Y’all touch on some heady issues in your songs this time around: social/cultural, religious and political. I know this because of the detailed liner notes. What’s cool about it, in my opinion – and as someone who probably doesn’t share a lot of the same views – is that…I had to read the liner notes to get the full depth of it. There’s a level of nuance and subtlety that a lot of artists forsake these days, in favor of a skillet-to-the-face approach. (Other than “Space Force.” You don’t really hide the ball on that one.)
Well, the three of us really like that. Because the subtlety of the songs makes you have to listen to them a few more times. You’re not necessarily going to get it the first time around. And I think that’s cool.
It’s very cool. I’m just wondering if the nuance is a byproduct of the quality of the songwriting, or if there’s ever an intra-band discussion about the need for subtlety. You know, “Maybe we don’t need to hit people over the head with this?” Or is it more of an organic thing?
I guess it’s more organic. It’s more organic. And I think the music we all listen to has more of a subtle message. And our music comes out that way because that’s what we listen to. The stuff that smacks you in the face, it doesn’t last very long. Some songs, you may have a heck of an impact in the short term, but those songs don’t hang around very long. And all of us have quite an appreciation for music that’s been around for quite a long time. So that’s the hope.
Except for “Space Force.” I like that one because I hope it will be gone soon. Hopefully, we’ll never have to play it again, you know?
We’re getting to “Space Force” here directly.
Ha. But you know what I mean? Your favorite music, it doesn’t matter when it was written or what it’s about! You just know that there’s some emotion in it that you’re drawn to. And it could have been written in 1963 or 2013. It doesn’t matter. And that kind of approach, I’d say we emulate.
Topical, but not exactly temporal?
Exactly. I like it.
Let’s talk about “Space Force,” my favorite track. Jim Lauderdale sings harmony, then lead on the final verse – in addition to singing harmony on “Heartbroke Syndrome.” What’s the connection between you and Jim?
Many years ago when I was in Donna The Buffalo, we had played the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. He was on tour with Lucinda [Williams] for the Car Wheels record. And we were there just drinking vodka from the bottle and throwing a Frisbee, and Jim walked over and said, “Who are you people?” [Laughs] And somehow or another he just latched onto us. Out of that grew a friendship, and I’ve been friends with him throughout.
That song is funny because after I’d written it I thought, “This sounds like a song Jim Lauderdale could have written.
And so as we were recording it I got the idea of calling him up and saying, “What do you think about maybe singing on it?”
He had never heard it before. But Jim is like super-pro studio guy. He’s unbelievable. He shows up, hears it three times, you hand him the lyrics, and he does his part. You’re like, “That’s very convincing!” [Laughs]
Surely he and Mr. Miller will have you on the Buddy and Jim Show.
Well, we’re trying. We need to do that. You know, those shows are harder to get on than you would imagine. Even though we know them, it’s weird. I think that show is done out of Buddy’s home studio.
And Buddy Miller, he doesn’t know us; he’s probably never heard of us. And Jim is doing so much stuff it’s unbelievable. So getting in to focus for something like that, as much as we’d love to do it, is difficult.
The concept of a “Space Force” is low-hanging fruit for a timely, satirical song, but it works like a charm. It’s cartoonish – I kept thinking of “Space Ghost.”
There are references to 2001’s Hal and Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Did this song write itself? It sounds like it just poured out of you.
Yeah, it sort of did. If any of my songs on this album wrote itself, it was this one. And I don’t have songs like that. I wrote it in – what are we in, 2020? – yeah, I wrote it in 2019. And the concept of a Space Force – it’s such a joke. I’m like, “This isn’t even real.”
And I’ve become such a news junkie that when I read about it I say, “Space Force? What is the freaking job description for that?” So I started writing this thing down – and the other part about it is…Well, I was in Donna The Buffalo for a long time, and I liked the way that they wrote songs based on a chord progression that just keeps rolling. You know what I mean?
So that was the other part of it. I wanted to write a song based on a chord progression that just keeps going and going and going, which is super- Donna The Buffalo-ish. So, those are the two things that came together. And the words just popped out. But it’s not a song, I think, that’s timeless or anything. But hopefully there won’t be an actual Space Force, and the song will just freaking go away!
But at least it jams.
It does jam, yes.
And it does sound like a Donna song, now that I think about it.
It does, and that’s cool. We’re not Donna, we’re Western Centuries, but we succeeded in turning a live song that jammed into a studio song that jams. The thing about Western Centuries is, we want to be a really good live band. And we’ve got a lot of room to grow in that regard. I think it’s a lot of fun to go see a band and not really know what’s going to happen. When I go see a band, I don’t want to see them play it like the record; I already have the record! That’s what’s fun about being risky.
*So, yeah, Dr. Miller is the only lepidopterist we know. Bet your blog doesn’t have one.