August 18, 2012 by Dan Swinhoe
Following on from the interview with Butch Vig on his new country album, we talk to the frontman of Emperors Of Wyoming, Phil Davies.
DRS: How did you guys all meet?
Phil – Frank and Pete and I played in Buzz Gunderson, a country-rock band in the ‘70s that played every honky-tonk, fireman’s ball, wedding, frat party, barn dance and drunken biker party in south central Wisconsin over a four-year period. We knew Butch from his band, Spooner, that came on the Madison scene in the late ‘70s. Butch and I started recording together back when he was learning to record using Steve Marker’s (Garbage) four-track, taking our recordings to WORT-FM to play on the air in the early ‘80s. Soon, Butch and Steve founded Smart Studios with an 8-track analog recorder and we all kept on learning how to do it better. Fire Town did videos, recorded for years and toured, so Butch and I sort of came up together and had worked together well for a long time.
Wisconsin is the place that connects the band, has it been an influence on your music at all?
I think what makes Wisconsin a great place to create music is whether you’re a Fire Town or a BoDeans or a Garbage or a Bon Iver, a brilliant newer Wisconsin artist, you’re kind of isolated from the trends and the influences of bigger cities on the East and West coasts. You feel like you can do your own thing, pursue your own musical vision, without everyone watching you and judging. It’s liberating. Prince always said that was one of the best things about doing his music in Minneapolis—he was outside the currents and trends of the larger cities. Throughout the making of The Emperors of Wyoming record, we felt like we could do anything, that we could bring in and combine all kinds of influences and sounds, from drum machines and electric sitar to swells of pedal steel to psychobilly electric guitar. It all starts from the songs, but after that anything goes. It’s a mash up of American musical styles and genres, sometimes three or four in a single song, and that’s because we like them all and synthesized them into new songs. The entire record was made with NOBODY else hearing it. Nobody, except the four of us—nobody coming into the studio, no leaked tracks, no record company people, no radio people, no managers, no booking agents, no media people whatsoever. Because everything was in our four personal private computers and that was it! We created our own private musical world that we played in for three years. That’s about as pure as a band record gets.
What was it like reuniting with former bandmates? How have you changed?
It was actually quite easy. With Butch and I, yeah, we took off 17 years from working together, but we didn’t miss a step when we got back together, except that obviously he had gotten a lot more experienced recording, producing and writing, and so had I in singing, songwriting and recording in my home studio. I had recorded a solo record by myself and continued writing songs so I was working on it personally throughout. Frank and Pete and I had been in touch all the time over the years, talking about music, corresponding. It was amazingly smooth and easy. It also helps that we’re all similar Scandinavian (three Norwegians, one Swede) types from small Wisconsin towns, and we’d all been in enough bands to avoid all of the band ego ‘shit’ that can happen and wreck things. There is NONE of that in EOW, and thank God! And we’re all just big music fans, always have been, always will be. We all feel deeply fortunate to have grown up in the heyday of American pop, the ‘60s, which was just an explosion of creativity and new music and incredible energy in every town in America. Every little town in America had garage bands playing a huge array of everything. They all had followings and most of them were brilliant in their own way. So we all shared very broad but similar influences. My thing was always writing songs—I’ve been playing guitar and writing songs since I was 15—I’ve been doing it now for 40 plus years. Pete and Frank are superior performing and recording musicians, have been playing just as long, and Butch does it all and is extremely experienced in putting it together.
Was there any worries about unconsciously repeating what you did with Fire Town? Did you bear in mind what you’ve already done [together and individually] when working on Emperors?
I write songs a certain way, in a personal style with certain chords and a melodic bent, and I focus on themes that captivate me, which Duke and I did in Fire Town, when we wrote the songs together. There is a lot of country influence in Fire Town in songs like “The Mystery Field” and “In the Heart of the Heart Country” and “She Reminds Me of You.” But really, there were never any songs like the swamp rock of EOW’s “Brand New Heart of Stone,” or as pure country as “Never Got Over You” or “Cornfield Palace” or “I’m Your Man,” or quite as hard rocking as “Avalanche Girl” or “The Pinery Boy.” So while you can hear melodic traces and of course my voice and vocal style, I think EOW moves into new ground for me. “Cruel Love Ways” wouldn’t be out of place on a Marshall Crenshaw record, and “Sweep Away” gets to the post-“Harvest” place that I think Duke and I talked a lot about, but never quite moved to in FT.
Frank and Pete and I all played pure country together, and in my song writing, country has always been a big influence and continues to be. I listen to country radio all the time. At some point in American music, Buddy Holly blurs into Johnny Cash into Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, which blurs into Bob Dylan into Neil Young, into the Dillards, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Buffalo Springfield and tons of garage rock. They’re all interested in the essence of the song, they’re all mavericks and willing to take chances. It’s all part of the same thing and a musical continuum that just keeps going and going.
You formed in 2009, what took so long to record the album?
We actually worked on A LOT of music that did not make it onto the record. I wrote between 25 – 30 new songs. We worked up a lot of complete songs that we decided not to use or release or finish. So it was a process of trying things out, completely writing them, performing and recording them and then, often, not finishing or releasing them. And we all had other things we had to do to make ends meet. As Frank, said, life got in the way.
What was the writing/recording experience like? How was it different from your other bands?
This was the most fun of any recording I’ve ever done. In my case, it takes about 10 seconds to get down to my basement studio and everything is set up and ready to go, I can be up and recording in five or 10 minutes. Doing vocals this way was exhilarating. We would play to mp3 mixes of a song’s basic tracks so the arrangement and the tempo was all there and other than that, no rules whatsoever. If we wanted to try a guitar sound, a part, a vocal part, anything, it was easy as pressing Record and trying it. There was NO pressure to create something that someone else wanted, it was just what we all dug and thought was cool and were happy with. For the next record I think it would be fun to get together for a few days and write some songs and record basic tracks and then take them back to our personal studios and work on them. But we will never be a band that moves into a studio for four or five months to record nonstop together. I’ve done that and I’m not going back to it. I think our method worked so well for us because we were always motivated to write and record. As a songwriter you’re driven by the feeling that there is always a better song you can write, so you keep doing it, and trying for it. Same goes in recording and production. There was never any obligation and feeling like we just have to get this done. If the spirit didn’t move you one morning or one night, you just came back another day and started fresh. And it hadn’t cost you a penny. And maybe overnight you got a new idea or came up with a better way to play a riff or change the vocal harmony or verse line.
Did Butch produce the album? Are you pleased with the results generally?
Phil – I think we all LOVE the results. We got it all exactly how we wanted it, and we didn’t feel we were done until we did get it that way. Butch of course ALWAYS brings a much needed and great perspective on everything we were doing; but Frank created more of the entire instrumental sound and texture of the record because he played and blended so many instruments to build the sound. We all contributed parts and ideas and although one person might do more of one thing than the other, it always felt and does feel like a band collaboration.
What are your aims with the album once it’s released?
Our main aim was to write and record a complete and original country-rock record that we thought was cool and that we thought people who liked certain styles of rock and country might like. Whereas when we were starting out in the ‘70s playing music, our audiences were confined to a couple of neighboring counties, now in 2012 our audience is potentially global, anywhere in the world where people like classic American musical stuff.
What has the reaction to the album been like from people who’ve heard it?
Proper Records UK chief Malcolm Mills heard it and said they all dug it at Proper so much they just wanted to put it out and expose people to it. That’s a great tribute to Malcolm Mills and Proper – that’s the way the classic record company guys, the legends like Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler and John Hammond and operated. It was extremely exciting to connect with a true music fan who immediately understood what we were doing musically and also happened to run a record company!
You’ve gone for a very Wild-west aesthetic, any reason?
We’re huge fans of the western land baron era, of the turn-of-the-century American West of the late 1880s. We’re all big fans of western films, the movie “Tombstone” and the show “Deadwood.” It’s a timeless era and one that people all over the world dig. The American Frontier and the settling of the West—this was America’s very own history and always will be. So we had the band name and then we decided we should honor the name with classic clothes and a classic look from that era. In fact, we had the band name first, then almost immediately Frank designed the album cover, before we’d recorded an entire song. The cover is filled with historical figures and that was the vibe, that we’re bringing all of these past and present influences together in the music. The record is like the CD cover.
What’s the plan with Emperors; Tours, Festivals, second album in the near/far future etc?
We really want to work at promoting this record so as many people as possible who like this type of music get a chance to hear it. That will take some time and work. We would LOVE to come over to Europe in 2013 and play around. That is our hope, that we can get some gigs that pay well enough that we can come over and play in the UK and beyond. Put on those hats and collarless shirts and vests and let her rip!
On your Facebook there’s a picture of a drum kit in front of a green screen, what can we expect from the video?
Frank Anderson is directing it and putting it together. We’re all in it performing. And just like the record, we’re videotaped separately but will be together as a band. It should be visually stunning. Frank is a cinematic innovator and a student of film, so we know it will be good, real good.
Do you think Butch’s reputation help promote the band, or hinder it since he’s so well known for being a rock musician/producer?
Butch is one of the best, and best known, record producers in the world. So, his reputation and the work he has done in the world of music and in his professional career over the past 20 years has been a terrific help. What’s surprising to most people is that while he is deeply involved and a full member of the band, it’s a truly collaborative effort, more like making a film, which is equally collaborative. We’ve all been doing this for a long time. We stuck at it, learned how to do it, and didn’t give up, because we loved doing it.
Won’t your respective schedules make it difficult to focus on Emperors?
No, we’re All Systems Go on focusing on promoting the Emperors of Wyoming and constantly working on new material as well. Certainly, all of us have other projects, and Butch will surely be producing new records for other people, but he was producing the Foo Fighters latest record while we were recording this record and it was never a problem!
Anything you’d like to add?
Can’t think of anything except, what are your favorite EOW songs?
To read an edited piece on Sabotage Times, Click here