Interview: The Dead South, Regina, SK, Kanada

Kind of like happy very sad

Im Gespräch mit The Dead South

TDS02_PhotoByBrandonWhiteEines schönen Tages, ich höre mir gerade nebenher den Soundtrack von I‘m not there an, spült mir YouTube ungebeten einen Song vor die Ohren, der mich leicht irritiert hochsehen lässt. Ein gezupftes Cello, eine fies eingängige Banjo-Hookline, drei Stimmen, eine rauer und besser als die andere. Irgendwie Bluegrass, aber nicht ganz, irgendwie witzig, aber nicht nur, und irgendwie … ehm, gut. Definitiv sehr gut. Das ist aber gar nicht meine Musikrichtung, und ich bin mir nicht mal sicher, ob ich hier nicht gerade auf die Schippe genommen werde. Warum zum Geier habe ich dann das Gefühl, gerade etwas Wichtiges gefunden zu haben, ähnlich wie damals, als ich zum ersten Mal über Front 242 stolperte, und könnte es bitteschön einen noch unpassenderen Vergleich geben? Was genau tun die vier freundlichen Herren mit ihren Instrumenten in einem Brunnen, uhm, in einem Rapsfeld, äh, auf einer Verkehrsinsel? Wer ist das, was spielen sie sonst so und warum zum Teufel ist das so … gut? – Es waren The Dead South, sie machen auch sonst großartige Musik, über den Rest denke ich immer noch nach. Drum dachte ich, ich geh‘ sie mal fragen.

Kurzer Rundgang durch die Bandgeschichte: The Dead South sind Nate Hilts (Vocals, Gitarre, Mandoline), Scott Pringle (Vocals, Mandoline, Gitarre), Danny Kenyon (Cello, Vocals) und Colton „Crawdaddy“ Crawford (Banjo, Background-Vocals). Alle vier stammen aus Regina, Saskatchewan, Kanada, und kennen sich schon fast ihr Leben lang; genauso lange spielen sie diverse Instrumente. Auf der Bühne macht sich das durch ein Verständnis der Musik und untereinander bemerkbar, das man selten so findet. In der jetzigen Formation – und in diesem Genre, wenn man es so nennen möchte – gibt es sie allerdings erst seit 2012. Damals setzten sie sich zusammen, um Bluegrass spielen zu lernen, nachdem sie vorher in allen möglichen anderen Musikrichtungen unterwegs gewesen waren: Metal, Punk, Rock, Klassik, um ein paar zu nennen. Das Ergebnis ist ein Stil, an dessen Benennung schon ganz andere gescheitert sind – „Nu-Folk/Bluegrass mit diversen Einflüssen“ scheint der kleinste gemeinsame Nenner zu sein. Vieles daran ist tatsächlich Bluegrass-typisch: der oft mehrstimmige Gesang mit wechselndem Lead, der Einsatz der Gitarre und oft auch der Mandoline als (sehr energische) Rhythmusinstrumente, das durchgehende Banjo-Picking, der stoisch gepluckte Bass (ja, ich weiß, Moment). Nur machen sich gleichzeitig und untrennbar damit verbunden ganz andere Einflüsse bemerkbar, mal klingt es nach 90ies oder Alternative Rock, mal nach Indie, die Attitüde ist gründlich Punk, und Folk-Punk wohnt eh nur einmal die Gasse runter. Nate Hilts‘ Stimme klingt immer ein bisschen nach Grunge, Scott Pringle gäbe auch einen hervorragenden Singer/Songwriter ab, was Colton Crawford auf dem Banjo spielt, ist mindestens so sehr Metal wie irgendetwas anderes, der „Bass“ ist ein Cello und Danny Kenyon wechselt fließend zwischen Plucking und Slapping und klassisch gespielten Passagen, die den Songs die überlebensgroße Atmosphäre eines Filmsoundtracks mitgeben.
Diese Filme, die Geschichten, die in den Songs erzählt werden, sind sehr düster. Sehr albern. Zutiefst tragisch, komplett banal, extrem beklemmend, völlig absurd, herzzerreißend traurig, Moment, meinen die das ernst? Wie Danny Kenyon in einem anderen Interview mal sagte, „it‘s kind of like happy very sad“. Just.
Die erste EP The ocean went mad and we were to blame nahmen sie 2013 auf, noch ohne Label im Rücken. 2014 wurden sie von den Hamburger Devil Duck Records unter Vertrag genommen, brachten ihr erstes Album Good company heraus und tourten das erste Mal in Europa; 2016 folgte Illusion & doubt. Davor und danach erspielten sie sich auf diversen Touren in Kanada, USA und Europa eine zunehmend solide Basis. Dann ging mit etwas Verzögerung das Video zu „In hell“ (von Good company) durch die Decke und erreichte mit über hundert Millionen Views eine Menge neuer Leute, Schnarchnasen wie mich, die sonst wohl alles verpasst hätten. Anlass genug für eine weitere Tour-Runde durch die USA, England und schließlich – jetzt – Mitteleuropa, während gleichzeitig das nächste Album in Arbeit ist.
Während all dem blieb das Line-Up nicht immer ganz dasselbe: Erik Mehlsen aka Del Suelo und Eliza Mary Doyle vertraten zeitweilig Danny Kenyon und Colton Crawford; seit letztem Jahr aber ist wieder durchgängig die Originalbesetzung am Werk.

So! Nachdem das runtererzählt ist, bin ich in Bremen auf dem Weg zum Schlachthof, einem – ach was! – früheren Schlachthof (ein eindrucksvoller Ziegelbau mit eigenem Wasserturm) und jetzigen Kulturzentrum, in dem später am Abend The Dead South ihren Tour-Auftakt spielen werden. Der Zeitplan hat sich etwas verzögert, ich höre noch die letzten Takte des Soundchecks und damit das Ende eines der neuen Songs, der später beim Konzert nicht gespielt wird. Zu kurz, um viel darüber zu sagen, es klingt unverkennbar nach TDS, nur anders; immer ein gutes Zeichen. Etwas später sitze ich in einem semi-aufregenden Backstage-Raum mit Scott, Nate und Colton um einen Tisch und kann, yay!, alle meine Fragen loswerden. Oder fast alle.

Regina, SK, ist zwar mit knapp 200 000 Einwohnern keine wirklich große Großstadt, aber Hauptstadt von Saskatchewan und Universitätsstadt, es ist da also schon was los. Die Kunstszene ist aber eher im benachbarten Saskatoon beheimatet, wie Nate am Anfang des Interviews erzählt; das sei auch die schönere Stadt, und viele Leute aus Regina zögen früher oder später dorthin um. Ich frage nach, wie leicht oder schwer eine Band es unter diesen Umständen hat, ihren Platz und ihr Publikum zu finden.

SB: Was it easy to find your place when you started out, or was it a bit difficult to find spaces to play, people to work with?

NH: Spaces to play-wise it wasn‘t difficult because …
CC: … we‘d just play in everyone‘s house. It‘s acoustic, so …
NH: We‘d play anywhere – we played people‘s houses, any bar, any event, anything that was open …
SP: … mikes, yeah. Anything.

SB: So you‘re not aiming at any specific audience, but just playing for whoever wants to listen.

NH: Yeah, pretty much.
SP: We‘re kind of fortunate with our style of music. It is inspired by traditional bluegrass, so there are a lot of older folks hat really liked our music, but then it‘s edgy enough, too, that the younger kids were getting into it, so … yeah.

SB: You‘ve been working on a new album – how far have you gotten?

Everyone: It‘s done!
SP: It‘s recorded, anyway.
NH: We went down to Alabama for two weeks and did it real fast.
CC: We had a couple of days to spare, too. There was a few days we were just kind of sitting around in the studio, twiddling our thumbs …
NH: „How does that sound?“ – „Sounds good!“ – „… yayyy …“

SB: What was special about recording in Muscle Shoals? Was it the atmosphere? A lot of great people have recorded there.

NH: Yeah, there is a sea of great people that have played down there, it‘s quite incredible.
CC: It was the first time we recorded outside of Regina. So we just went to the studio during the day, then went back to the Airbnb, and we were just playing music all night – and then back to the studio. So we were sort of – saturated. Before, we would go to the studio during the day, then we‘d all go home and live our regular lives in the evening, come back … But this was just – total music for two straight weeks.
SP: Allowed us to get really focused, without any distractions. And working in the NuttHouse with Jimmy Nutt as a producer was a big step up for us as well. He‘s a pretty good producer.

SB: Is there a release date yet?

NH: We think October.

SB: … and a title?

NH: We don‘t have the title yet.
SP: I guess we should be getting on with that pretty soon.

SB: How do you go about writing the music? Someone coming up with an idea and everyone adding the parts for their own instrument, or swapping ideas around …?

NH: It will be anything from that to someone coming with something that they‘ve pretty much done most of. Or just an idea – then we build off of the idea all together.

SB: The lyrics are mainly yours [meaning Nate] – or are you all writing some?

NH: The lyrics is mostly me, but Danny will do a bit and Scott does a lot of lyrics as well.
SP: Like with the music, we will collab, too. Someone already wrote some lyrics, and we‘ll all work on it: Maybe this word should get changed, or that line can be different, or something.

SB: In general, is the idea that the one who wrote it, will sing it as well?

NH: For the most part. Scott wrote „The dead south“, but I sing that one. But I think all the other ones are whoever wrote it, sang it. Except for „In hell“. Danny wrote „In hell“, so he does the chorus and we sing the verses.
SP: And „Good lord“, too. You [Nate] wrote the lyrics on that, but I get the verse on that one.

SB: I like the contrasts there: Some of your songs are quite upbeat, but come with really dark lyrics – or the other way round, like „Every man needs a chew“. You have this incredible song and then, some lyrics about a guy taking a shit …

SP: YES
CC: That was one of the first songs we wrote –
NH: – the very first one –
CC: – and we were just making each other laugh, sitting in the basement. We never thought we‘d even play a show. This was really just to have fun, just to goof around. So now it‘s on a record, and people are singing along, and … it‘s even funnier now.
NH: Yeah. The idea was just to have fun, and hang out with each other and play music, and it‘s one from there.
SP: Even now, on stage, it‘ll catch me, and I‘ll think about what I am singing – „What am I doing right now? How did I end up here?“

SB: Yeah, that‘s the feeling I get when I catch myself singing along to that one.

NH: „Wait a second!“
SP: „What am I listening to?“

SB: On Good company, there‘s a song called „Ballad for Janoski“. Who is Janoski?

NH: It‘s a pair of shoes. – We didn‘t know what to call it. We were sitting in the garage, I looked down and I was wearing Janoskis, so: „Let‘s call it „Ballad for Janoski!“

SB: And what‘s the song about? I never really got that one.

NH: It was one of those songs where I was just sitting in my living room …
NH & CC [singing]: … sitting in your living room … [the first line of the song]
NH: … and then it all just started coming out.

SB: I think that‘s a kind of clever way to write, because you get a lot of empty spaces for people to find their own interpretations …

NH: Yeah. – At the very end of that song, the na-na-na-nas – this was a change, but never changed it. And then there was like thirty thousand na-na-na-nas at the end.
CC: The end of that song – we never thought that would finally stick.
NH: No!

SB: When you‘re in the studio, how big is the temptation to do stuff you can‘t reproduce live, given your current set-up?

NH: We actually try and stay away from that a bit. We‘ll do a bit of it, like adding in some ride cymbals and stuff, maybe some noise effects. Our sound man can make those if we choose to do it live, so that‘s cool. But nothing too extravagant.
CC: We don‘t want people to come to the show and be let down, or not getting what they were expecting. We‘d rather give them more than what they were expecting. So we try and avoid putting too much on the record that we can‘t do live.

SB: And I guess you‘re trying out the songs live before recording them?

SP: We usually try to play most of the songs live before we record them, so we can get them really practiced up, and know if we like the song – and know if everyone else likes the song, too. Sometimes, things will change after you played them live.
NH: You get a sense for how the crowd‘s doing it. For example, „Gunslinger‘s glory“ is already, what, seven minutes long. Originally, it was closer to nine. We cut off a whole section, because we were playing it live and were like, nah, this is just too long. Even for us, it is just too long.
But there are some on Illusion & doubt that we hadn‘t really played live before. Same with this new album, too. Some we came up with on the spot, and just went and recorded it.

SB: Do you feel there‘s a general direction you‘re progressing in? From Good company to Illusion & doubt, it was getting more complex, on the whole – ?

NH: And it‘s getting more complex again.
SP: That kind of naturally happened, cause we had all never played this style of music when we first started.
NH: OR these instruments. We‘re learning everything as we go.
SP: Right. On Good Company, I had only been playing the mandoline for a couple of years; Colton, the same with the banjo. But now, it‘s been seven years. We‘ve all gotten better at song writing and better at playing.

SB: As all of you play instruments besides those you currently play in the band, do you ever think about bringing them in? The piano, or the trumpet, …

NH: We‘ve had pedal steel on Illusion & doubt, where we had a friend come in and play pedal, and we‘ve actually brought them with us a couple of times to play. But other than that, no. ‘Cause then you start having to bring out more people and more instruments, and it becomes a lot of stuff that you have to travel around with. We don‘t have 30 guitars in a trailer, like some bands … we have our guitars, and that‘s it.

SB: … and a lot of strings, I gather.

SP & NH: Lots of strings, yeah.

SB: I think somebody counted 20 broken strings in one show.

NH: I believe that. Our last show in Bremen, I think it was close to 20 for sure. I broke at least one to three strings every song.

SB: And Danny has two bows with him on stage.

NH: One is just as a back-up, in case one breaks or if he loses it. For example, we were playing in Montreal, Canada, in November, and Danny left his bow a little too close to the edge and someone stole it. And that‘s like 1500 dollars that they stole. That‘s not cheap.

SB: Of course, I have to ask you about your videos. Is the main aim just to do something that you have fun with and people will enjoy …

NH: Pretty much.

SB: … or do you actually try to add something to the music?

NH: No, we basically just come up with ideas and laugh about it, and then go and do it.
CC: Yeah, if we think it‘s kind of funny or weird.

SB: Do you ever see the danger that people might reduce the song to the video? If you see the video first, then you have exactly those pictures stuck in your head. And I only fully realized what a great song „In hell“ really is, by its own right, when I listened to it on the album, finally.

SP: The video gets you in – then it did its job. And I think that‘s good. Eventually it will lead you to the albums and other things, but … everyone has to start listening to a band somewhere.
NH: That one was such a simple concept. Our friends [from Two Brother Films, the production company] were like, hey, lets try changing the background scenes, and we said, ok, sure. It‘s a lot of different locations, but it worked out.

SB: I think the pace you‘re keeping, since that video went viral, is quite high. Did you have a vacation in the last few months?

NH: We just took one.
CC: Yeah, for four weeks.

SB: Still, it‘s gotten a bit more since that video, right?

NH: Oh yeah, lots has happened. But basically, what we did even before that video went big, was that we were just touring ALL the time. We started touring and we liked it, and we found that it was a good way to keep going, and growing in communities and other countries.
Then that video hit and then – not only was it more shows, but they wanted them bigger as well. So we really had to work on making sure that we were being smart about it, so we don‘t get tired and want to quit, pretty much. – It‘s working, thus far.
SP: We‘ve been really fortunate, too – we‘ve started bringing on team members that help us out, crew and management. It‘s allowing us to continue doing what we love without burning out.

SB: So by now, you can just focus on the music?

NH: Yeah, definitely a lot more.

SB: Would it even be possible now to hold down another job? I read that Danny is still working as an engineer –?

NH: That‘s Danny‘s choice – he loves his other job, so he does both. The rest of us, this is our main job now. We‘re also very fortunate that way, we worked hard at it and it‘s paid off.

SB: Some final questions. Which bands are you listening to at the moment? I think all of you listen to metal, sometimes?

CC: A lot of Meshuggah and Black Dahlia Murder. Those are my two favourites.
NH: I‘ve been listening to a lot of punk – a band called Idles, Bad Brains, and Bad Religion. And I listen to Misfits a lot, again.
SP [almost apologetically]: I‘m listening to pop music. Glass Animals, a lot. And Royal Canoe, they just dropped a new album out.
NH: Royal Canoe is a very good band, if you‘ve never heard of them. They‘re from Canada and really cool.

SB: Which of your songs would you recommend as a first listen to people from the metal community?

CC & NH: Probably „Banjo odyssey“.
NH: ‘Cause of the riff, and everything.
CC: The riff, and the stupid lyrics, yeah … I would say „Banjo odyssey“, for sure.
NH [to CC]: I don‘t know, there‘s a couple ones where your banjo‘s just flying …
SP: „Deep when the river‘s high“. That one‘s pretty heavy.
NH: „Bastard son“, a little bit. Your solo there, too, is wicked.

SB: Where‘s the most headbanging going on at your shows?

SP [pointing to his own head]: Right here! [True enough.]
CC: I think the most metal crowd we ever had was Montreal. There was a big moshpit going on. That was awesome.

SB: If you had to describe your band, or your music, in terms of not music, but of a movie, or a movie scene, or …

CC & SP: Quentin Tarantino.

SB: Any specific one, or just in general?

NH: That‘s tough. A lot of his films that aren‘t even Western still have a Western feel to them, or a gangster feel, so …
SP: They all have that similar style, though, you know – it‘s slowww …and then everything comes together at the end, and everyone dies.
NH: Weird scenes.
SP: It‘s like in our songs, where we‘re nice and pretty – and then you get to a point in the song where it‘s like [BLAM!] – oh – shit.
CC: And everyone dies.
SP: … and everyone dies.

SB: Would you find it strange if I compared you to a Buster Keaton movie?

CC: That‘s … interesting.
NH: A Buster Keaton movie?
CC: They‘re a silent film guy. Kind of like Charlie Chaplin. Kind of silly …

SB: Kind of sad and funny at the same time.

CC: That‘s cool, I like that.
NH: I‘ve actually pictured that for a video before, doing a silent film.
CC: That‘s a good idea, too.
SP: … a … silent … music video … ??
NH: Well, you would play the song …
SP [not heeding that]: No one‘s ever done that. We should do a silent music video!
NH: We should do that, I agree.
SP: Everyone would be commenting, trying to guess what song it is …

SB: If you were allowed just one piece of music to play for the rest of your life, which one would you choose?

NH: I would play „Saturday night“ for the rest of my life. I love that song.
SP: I‘ll sing that one with you.
CC: Does it have to be a song that I can currently play? No? – „Maple leave rag“ by Scott Joplin. That‘s the one.

SB: Final one: Is there any interview question that you would like to answer, but never get asked?

SP: That question! That‘s the one. Never had that one before.
NH: For me, personally, it‘s not the questions so much. It can be, but it‘s also the conversation that can go about it. Sometimes, when some people ask you a question in interviews, it‘s very cut and dry: „What is this?“, so you say it, but they don‘t let you build on it. And [blam!], next question. That‘s not really cool.
CC: Yeah, it‘s not really – talking.
SP: You know, you don‘t ever hear about any of the negative or hard stuff that bands have to go through. Not that I want to be asked that either, but I was just thinking, what kind of question would I want to hear an artist answer that I‘m a big fan of? What would I want to know about my favourite artists? And sometimes it‘s kind of nice when you get a bit of history as to how they got where they were, what were some highs and some lows. But at the same time it‘s maybe not easy to share the lows all the time. So, don‘t know if you actually want to get asked that, but …

SB: Actually, I was wondering whether I could possibly ask you anything like that. I mean, there‘s a lot of darkness in your lyrics. And frankly, some of your music, or the mood of it, reminds me of a program against depression I once was in – everyone there had this complete shit in their lives going on, and everyone was funny about it, and joking around a lot.

NH: That‘s the thing, right?
SP: A lot of people actually have mentioned that to us, that they have struggled with depression or any kind of mental disorder, and listening to our music helps them quite a bit, so – glad that it does.
NH: A couple people said things like they were going to kill themselves, and started listening to some of our songs, and they didn‘t. And they listen to the songs still and take a reminder of why they enjoy being alive now. Which is just cool.

SB: I can imagine. That‘s why I wondered if you, well, knew a bit more about not being just happy.

NH: Life is an interesting thing …
SP: Humour is a great way to deal with difficult issues, and we combine that in the songs.
NH: It‘s important to learn how to laugh at things. If everything is taken too seriously all the time, it can be very harsh and hurtful to yourself. If you can learn to accept it and laugh about it a little bit, that makes it all feel much better.
SP: Lowers the weight you‘re carrying around. – That‘s a good question, actually, bringing up the issue of mental health with musicians. Because I think it‘s something a lot of musicians who live this lifestyle, deal with.
NH: And not enough musicians talk to each other about it, either. Because a lot of them, especially when you‘re doing the road all the time, don‘t know how to talk to each other. And then, when you finally do, you start opening up – „oh, you‘re feeling that, too? Wow, ok.“
SP: People on the outside just see the glamour and the spotlight.
CC: They just see the Instagram version.
SP: As they do with everything in life.
NH: I would say, tips and tricks, though? Tips and tricks for the readers and listeners would be, if you guys have something going on, talk to people. Being closed doesn‘t do any good. And it only gets worse if you keep it locked up.

Und dieses Schlusswort lassen wir mal so stehen. Draußen scheint die Sonne und in ein paar Stunden wartet noch ein Konzert, das gespielt und durchgetanzt werden möchte.

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  1. […] vor acht Uhr abends; erster Termin der Europatour von The Dead South. Ein paar Stunden nach dem Interview bin ich wieder im Venue, diesmal brav mit Eintrittskarte und mit sehr vielen anderen Leuten. Der […]

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