article by jennifer kelly|
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The music that Langhorne Slim writes and performs feels deeply familiar -- the kind of sounds that might emerge from a scratchy 78 or drift off of a twilight porch deep in Appalachia. His songs are constructed from traditional materials -- voice, guitar, banjo and stand-up bass -- and they hew closely to the time-worn subject of love. Dig a little deeper, though, past the tangle of banjo and swirl of Hammond, and you hear something a little less historical, a little more punk, a little more eccentric and personal. It's something that would scare the piss out of most of the Oh Brother Where Art Thou crowd: a weirdly appealing eccentric vision that's as modern and city-based as its instruments are rural.
I recently spoke to Langhorne by phone, as he was getting ready for a New Orleans show with comedian Eugene Mirman, and learned that far from being a student of old-time music, he's more of a natural throwback. The first time he heard the word "bluegrass", for instance, was at an open mic in Philadelphia, immediately after having played some of it. And although he's taken on a stage name and dresses in character for shows -- porkpie hat and vintage suit -- he says his music is not a calculated act; it's simply how he sounds right now.
Splendid: So you're on tour with Eugene Mirman, aren't you? How's that going?
Langhorne Slim: It's going very well so far. We've had three shows. One in Philly and one in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We're in New Orleans tonight. We were in Atlanta yesterday. It's been great so far.
Splendid: So are people able to make the transition from what you do to what he does? Without getting lost?
Langhorne Slim: I think that's a very good question. I think that... touring with him makes total sense to me and to Eugene, and I'm happy to do it. But I think that for people who want to come out and see Eugene, it's a harder transition for them to make. Whereas when I've gone out and toured in support of other bands that are bigger than I am, it's been easier, maybe a little less work for me, to get the crowd into what I'm doing. But so far, although it has been really great, it's different in that sense, for sure. Because some people don't know... they don't know if I'm getting up there and trying to be funny. They don't know... in each town, there have been a few people that I've met that have been a little bit put off. But, you know, we'll see what happens in the next few shows. It's been interesting so far.
Splendid: But what you do, it's largely music, but there's also an element of performance and storytelling as well, isn't there?
Langhorne Slim: Yeah, and when I play live, that's it. Very much so. Which makes it... when I say it's a little bit more work, it's about that... say I'm in a situation where people are waiting out at the bar for Eugene and I've got a smaller crowd. With that performance arm, it's a lot easier to pull that kind of performance element off. It comes naturally when people are getting down with me, but if not, then it's more of just getting up there and playing my songs. That's the liability... I'm trying to convert the unconverted, I guess.
Splendid: Yeah, I think that's always a problem when you tour with somebody that's better known. He's pretty well known, isn't he?
Langhorne Slim: Yeah, there have been a lot of people coming out. I think it can be a problem, but also it can be... I don't mean to sound egotistical, but even as an opening act, when I get up there, I'm not thinking of myself in that sense. I'm thinking, here's my half hour up on the stage in front of people. A lot of them don't know who I am. And I do the best I can, so that it's a powerful show all the way through. Not like, well, there's the opening act, and it's obvious that's what he is. You know what I'm saying? And there are some situations where it can go over very successfully. In a show that is as diverse as this one is, where there are comedians, there's music, different things like that, you know, some people are just coming out to see the comedy or something, and when you're coming out to see music, possibly, you might be more willing to... And it could be, just possibly, that these last few shows, I've just had poor shows. I don't know. I'm going to keep trying.
Splendid: Hmmm. On your record, you've got about ten people playing with you. Is it just you up on the stage?
Langhorne Slim: It is on this tour, yes. When I've toured around, it has been just myself. When I'm back in New York, I play some shows solo, but I do a lot of shows with... Well, for me, I've only played with other people since I cut this album. Before that I've always been solo. And touring right now, I'm just by myself, largely because I'm opening up right now and I can't afford to bring people with me at this moment.
Splendid: Now, you mentioned that it made perfect sense to you and to Eugene that you're touring with him. What do you think are some of the commonalities?
Langhorne Slim: Well, first of all, we like each other as people. We're good friends. And from the time we met, I fell in love with what he did. And he obviously likes what I do as well. I find it kind of irritating when you play in a bar or something and they try to set it up like an all acoustic show or something. It can be great. I've always loved coming up and playing music, the kinds of music that I play, but I may have friends who have a hardcore band or hip-hop or something like that. I've always thought it was cool to be in shows that were a mixture of different kinds of things, whether it be different kinds of music or someone doing performance art, some kind of crazy thing, whatever it is. For me as an audience member, or being in a show, I find the shows more entertaining if they're mixed up and it's all good.
Splendid: Yeah, as long as it's good.
Langhorne Slim: As long as it's good, exactly.
Splendid: Now, you took your first name, Langhorne, from the town in Pennsylvania where you grew up?
Langhorne Slim: Right.
Splendid: What's it like there?
Langhorne Slim: In Langhorne, Pennsylvania? Wow... it is suburban. It is boring. It is shopping malls. Basically, I go back there because my mother lives there and I'm very close to my mom. But part of the reason I took the name was because when I left I felt like I wasn't taking much else. I also thought that Langhorne was a cool name. It's typical suburbs. I think like any suburban kid, I felt like I didn't fit in, or some kind of stupid thing like that. I hated it growing up there. I hope my mom doesn't read this... Well, actually, I hope she does. But now I actually enjoy going back there. Living in New York, I'm actually thankful that my mom lives so close. It's like an hour and a half away, and I can go and see her and be in a place that's quiet. It makes it easy to get out of New York when I want to do that. I've got some friends who have friends in Milwaukee or somebody's mom lives there. It's harder to get up and go when you feel like you need a break from it. At least I feel that way.
Splendid: My experience living in New York was that all the interesting people came from somewhere boring.
Langhorne Slim: Oh, yeah, sure. That's why you probably left. At least we perceived it as boring. It certainly was a slow town, for sure. I didn't make lots of friends growing up, which has proved good for me, because I was so different. If I'd had lots of friends and was having a blast, I wouldn't have played guitar or spent as much time with myself. Most people move to New York because it is so exciting and wonderful in that way.
AUDIO: In the Midnight
Splendid: Yeah, now your music really evokes a time and a place and a culture that doesn't exist anymore, even in Alabama or Appalachia or wherever it came from. There's probably no place that people would be playing music sort of unselfconsciously, the way you play it.
Langhorne Slim: Hmmm... I don't know if I agree with that. What do you mean?
Splendid: It's music you'd expect to hear if you pulled up to some one-horse town in Kentucky or someplace.
Langhorne Slim: I guess that's true and I must be so blind, because a lot of the reviews that I read say that my music has obviously been taken from an older kind of music. I guess I never thought it was so unusual. I think some people get the idea that I sat down and created this character and tried to make music in a contrived kind of way, but I just learned to play guitar and sat down and wrote songs. For instance, when I was maybe 13 or 14, I went to this open mic in Philadelphia, and this older guy came and talked to me and said, "Damn, this is amazing. You're like a little kid and you're playing bluegrass music." And at that time, I had never heard of bluegrass. I must have heard it at some point, or I don't know how I would have played it. It just made sense, that sound. That's just what came out of myself. So when you say it doesn't exist anymore...
Splendid: I mean that those towns in Kentucky would have a Wal-Mart now. They'd have a Burger King. Probably no one would know how to play that kind of music anymore.
Langhorne Slim: Right, right. I'm not trying to make music like I'm from anywhere in particular. I know that it must seem that way, but I'm from Pennsylvania. I'm a white, Jewish boy. I could play heavy metal just as easily. Well, I personally couldn't, but maybe if I'd sat down, that would have been the opening. Or like when I was growing up, I was always into hip-hop. But for some reason, this is the kind of music that I make.
Splendid: How did you first come into contact with it?
Langhorne Slim: I don't know, really. As I was saying, when I did that open mic when I was a little guy, I was turned on by that experience. Because this cool, older guy -- I always liked guys with beards, older men with beards, not in a sexual way, but... it hasn't gotten to that yet. But I thought it was cool that I had gotten attention from older people. I was always sort of attracted to older people in my life. So I got this sort of attention and maybe I separated myself from some of the other things that were going on. So maybe I tried harder to get into that. I don't know. I know that one huge turning point was that I had a girlfriend, my high school sweetheart, and her father turned me onto the Harry Smith Folk Anthology, which was... when I heard that, I was like, "My god." To this day, some of my favorite performances that I've ever heard on record are from that. And I don't know. It's not like I sit around looking into old time music. People are sometimes surprised when they come to my apartment, and I put something on, and they're like, "You like this?" I grew up liking all different kinds of music. Otis Redding is probably my favorite singer of all time. But for some reason, this is how it comes out. I've always felt that I need to make something and this is how I do it right now.
Splendid: I was thinking about how strange it was that you live in Brooklyn and make this kind of music. And then I started thinking about that whole Bleecker Street crowd, Fred Neil and Karen Dalton and Dave van Ronk. Really, there's always been urban music that's tapped into very rural art forms.
Langhorne Slim: Sure, and people have for ever, you know, argued about and thought it was strange or contrived when somebody like Joe Strummer or Bob Dylan did it. I'm not comparing myself to these people at all, but you know -- the white guy coming to the city and playing this music. I haven't gotten it so much with this album. I'm sort of happy about it. I'd love to say it doesn't affect me at all, but it does. This whole "Who do you think you are? You're not from down south. You're not this. You're not that." Well, I'm not claiming to be. I'm just playing this music because I love to play it. I'm not trying to make you love me or piss you off or anything like that. There has been this age-old debate about authenticity, which, to me, is kind of ridiculous. I mean, it makes sense if you play guitar or trumpet or if you paint pictures or something that, first of all, you might even want to... I don't even know what I'm trying to say. I'll try to come back to it if I think of a good way to put it.
AUDIO: Electric Love Letter
Splendid: Okay, now you had this EP out called Electric Love Letter and several of the songs are also on your new album. Did you re-record the songs?
Langhorne Slim: Yes.
Splendid: What's the relationship between those two records, if there is one?
Langhorne Slim: Well, they're brothers that hate each other.
The Electric Love Letter was a rushed experience. It was the first thing I had ever recorded. I had some home-recorded things that I had sold at shows for some years, but this was my first thing put out by any sort of record label. And I didn't... I wasn't... I think it's okay. If you ask me what the relationship is, I'm not sure I've answered that question, but I'm far more pleased with the whole experience of recording When the Sun's Gone Down. I had a better time with it. As I mentioned, I had a bunch of friends doing it with me. A lot of people from New York. Charles Butler, the banjo player, flew out from Nashville. We all sort of lived with each other for a while. Not lived, exactly, but we were hanging out every day. It really felt like we were just having fun. It was a beautiful experience. It was friends making a record. I was always able to arrange these songs; some of them, I'd had for a long time, and to have a friend of mine be on piano, saying, "I think this will sound cool.." My god, that's cool. It was really an exciting process in that sense. And The Electric Love Letter was more of a rushed job. It felt like a compilation of different songs that I hadn't recorded before, that I had in the back of my head, and I was just looking to get them down. So, I don't know. I don't know how to answer that...
Splendid: No, I think you just did, actually. Let's talk about some of the people you worked with on When the Sun Goes Down.
Langhorne Slim: Well, my good friend Malachi DeLorenzo, he plays drums right now in what I do.
(There's a short break as Langhorne moves from wherever he is to somewhere closer to the venue. Our cell phone connection remains miraculously intact.)
Malachi DeLorenzo helped produce and did a lot of engineering and played drums and different things. He's a good friend of mine. I had wanted an upright bass player, and he and this guy Chris Taylor, who is also a friend and a good engineer, had this friend, Paul, who's an upright bass player. They introduced me to him. Chris went to school with him. As for other people, Laine Brown is a an old friend that I met through playing... They aren't very exciting answers that I'm giving you right now, but it was really just a group of friends that I had. This guy Devin Greenwood, a friend of mine from Philadelphia. I tried to just get musicians that I was close with and comfortable with. We didn't do the album in a recording studio. We did it in my friend Chris and my friend Malachi's apartments, which is, for me, a much more laid back kind of experience. It's like a party atmosphere. It wasn't like we were getting wasted all the time. It was more like a laid back... friends playing music instead of like paying for this studio time, like, did we get the tape today? It just came more easily to have this group of people who were like family for that little bit of time.
Splendid: There are so many cool sounds on the album. The Hammond sound is really great and the banjo is neat. It's a lot of old-fashioned instruments...
Langhorne Slim: Yeah, sure.
Splendid: And as I understand it, the album was recorded in two sessions. You did most of the songs in July and then a couple more later.
Langhorne Slim: That's correct. We did most of the stuff in the first session. My friend flew in, Charles the banjo player, flew in from Nashville. We did most of the songs there. Then we did some overdubs with instruments another day. Basically the album was recorded within a couple or a few days, and then it took a while to... well, not everything was live. The vast majority of it was recorded over a few days and then we came back, or like a friend of mine would come up from Philly or something, and we'd put in an organ part or a horn part or something like that.
Splendid: Who is this James Jackson Tothe that you covered late in the album?
Langhorne Slim: James is an old friend of mine who is an amazing songwriter and he's done different projects. One is called Blood Group. He's doing something now that's amazing called Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice. Are you familiar with them?
Splendid: Yeah, the name. Your PR firm handles them, too.
Langhorne Slim: Right, which was a strange coincidence when I hooked up with Fanatic. They'd been doing James's stuff for a while. I went to school with him, and we became very good friends in school. Out of the people I know that make music, I've just been blown away by his stuff. We did a short tour together, he, myself and a friend of ours named Jeffrey Lewis. He's always changing the names of his projects. He juggles ten different projects under all completely different umbrellas. I can't remember what name they were going by -- It was like Totem or something like that.
Splendid: That was the one song for which you decided to put lyrics in the CD booklet.
Langhorne Slim: Printed? Yes, because that was the one... That was when we were doing the art afterwards, but I felt like it was the one that defines the feel of the whole record. The first time I heard "The Total Change", I thought it was a great, great song. So I called up James and said, "Hey, man, I think I'm going to record this song. Call me back and give me all the lyrics." And he didn't call me back. So I changed some of the lyrics. That's some people's very favorite song on the album.
Splendid: My favorite song on the album is "Drowning".
Langhorne Slim: Really? Not a lot of people say that.
Splendid: Yeah? Well, I've always been a little out of the mainstream. I like "Drowning" because I feel that love is a huge theme throughout your record, but that's probably the most ambiguous song about it.
Langhorne Slim: I never thought of that. But I would agree with that. My brother likes that one, too. So, now you and my brother.
Splendid: And one of the strangest songs on the album, I think, is "Mary". Isn't that about the, uh, Holy Mother type figure, not just some girl?
Langhorne Slim: People are saying that. Which... That's not how I intended it, but that's fine. Yes, it's more about a girl named "Mary", and that line, "Mother of my god", I think I was meaning more like a love analogy or even possibly a sexual one. But, yeah, others have taken it that way, and now it's sort of out of my hands.
Splendid: Have you gotten any nasty letters from Catholics about that?
Langhorne Slim: No, I don't think the record is out there enough, I guess, for that. But if that happens, I will... I was going to say that I look forward to that happening, but that's not true. But if it does, we'll take it from there.
Splendid: There are also two very short instrumental cuts, both of them keyboard tracks. Was that your friend Malachi? "Sisterhood" and "Handshaw Shuffle"?
Langhorne Slim: He played "Sisterhood" and I played "Handshaw Shuffle". We were trying to figure out a way to break up the album and have it be a cohesive thing. I don't know if that helps to achieve that, but it was the attempt. "Sisterhood" is supposed to have the same melody as "Mary". Most people haven't really heard that, but that's fine. He played that on Rhodes and I played the "Handshaw Shuffle" on Rhodes.
Splendid: If you had a band, would you be doing more instrumental songs?
Langhorne Slim: No, I don't think so. That was something I was enjoying because those songs are very different from the rest. I think that they fit in or I wouldn't have put them in, I guess. I enjoyed that as something different and as a way to break up the record. I just wrote something on the Rhodes that sounded kind of cool to me.
Splendid: Also, opener "In the Midnight" and a couple of the others have a very strong bluegrass flavor, and I think that comes largely from the banjo. Do you play banjo at all? Were you hearing this before you brought Charles Butler in?
Langhorne Slim: I play a little bit. Nowhere like Charles does. I can just sort of entertain myself with it, because I do love the banjo. But I'm not much of a banjo player. Do you mean, was I hearing the part? Yeah, I was. One thing about being able to play with these incredible musicians was... when I write something in my head, often I will hear other melodies or other instruments or other parts that I couldn't play as well as, or even as close to as well as, some of my friends. So with Charles, a lot of the time, I just give the musicians complete free rein. I play them the song and they add a part, and i say, "I like that" or "I don't like that" or "Let's try it like this." And then there are other melodies where I'll say to Charles or Devin, "I'm hearing it just like this." And I'll go "do-do-do-do-do-do" (He sings a bit of something.) and they will then replicate that on their instruments. That's a cool thing. I'm very lucky to have people who are willing to have completely free rein and be creative and come up with amazing parts and then the same musicians can put aside their egos so much so that I can say, "Can you try this?" and they try it.
Splendid: The lyrics are really good. They're very simple words, mostly, and very natural. I was wondering how close to the way they come out do they start? Do you have to do a lot of editing?
Langhorne Slim: A lot of times... I don't have a process that I go through. Not with great intent. But sometimes I'll think of a line, I'll be in a bar and someone will walk past me and say something interesting or intriguing. It may tell a story. and I'll take it from there. Sometimes, the lyric will come from that. And sometimes, I may have a song that's taken me a long time, and I'll go back and ...
(The phone cuts out.)
Langhorne Slim: Did you hear any of that?
Splendid: I lost you for about 30 seconds. It sounds like sometimes it's easy and sometimes it's hard.
Langhorne Slim: It's not necessarily hard... Sometimes it's more challenging. Like putting together a puzzle or something. But sometimes I'll think of the melody, I'll write the melody and come up with a verse and then the whole thing will just come out from there. Other times, it takes more time. I can't really force it. When it happens, it happens.
Splendid: Do you think the ones that you have to work at are better or worse than the ones that just come to you?
Langhorne Slim: It doesn't work that way. Then again, for me, playing live, some songs for me, some people say they're their favorites, and they might be my least favorite, because I'm playing them constantly. For myself, I get a little sick of them. I don't know...
(There is a brief break in the tape where the side runs out and I flip through a big pile of cassettes looking for one that doesn't have an interview on it.)
Splendid: I just wanted to ask you a couple of things about the album art. On the back, you're holding up, it looks like, a poster or a record or something. It says "Louis Cyr" on it.
Langhorne Slim: Yes, my father, believe it or not, was some sort of bodybuilder. And, in fact, he even still spends a lot of time at the gym. He's more muscular than most 50 year-olds. But, so he was into weightlifting... My father and my mother split up when I was two years old. But I had all of his old records and record player and stuff. And that is a puzzle, it's of the world's strongest man or something, that he put together and glued together. When I was a little kid, I thought that was kind of cool. It's just kind of funny. This very strong dude, looking at you like he does with this incredible mustache.
Splendid: I was reading about him on the internet. Apparently, he was in a race with four horses holding him back and he won.
Langhorne Slim: Oh, you're kidding. That's amazing. I'm so glad you brought that up. I didn't know if he was fictitious or not.
Splendid: He was from Quebec. I'll send you the link if you want. It's mildly interesting.
Langhorne Slim: My father would pick my brother and myself up on Sundays and we would watch -- it must have been on ESPN -- the strongman competitions. Stuff like guys pulling Mack trucks and stuff like that.
Splendid: And also inside, the art, there's a group of animals dressed like a wedding party. And then when you open it up, you're on the facing panel, and it looks sort of like you're in the wedding party. Where'd you find that and what does it mean?
Langhorne Slim: My girlfriend ... I'm actually not living in Brooklyn. I'm in Chinatown with my girlfriend. She was in some thrift store and found that painting. And found out later that I had always thought that was such a cool painting. Hopefully I won't get sued for using it. So that's really... it was just a thing that she got when she was in Europe ten years ago, and I thought it was really cool. When we were deciding on the artwork for the album, I had brought together a whole bunch of stuff I had collected, stuff I thought might look neat on the album. The designer over at Narnack, she put that together and it came out very cool. I like that painting. I can't even remember if it's like bunny rabbits getting married?
Splendid: There's all kinds of different animals. Two rabbits getting married, a crane and a crow, a bear... and then there's you.
Langhorne Slim: Then there's me. I like the whole feeling about it. Some of the art on the record could be kind of creepy. I don't know. I've gotten that message from a few people. I really like what she did with that.
Splendid: Okay, what's next for you?
Langhorne Slim: After this tour with Eugene, I'm going to London for a few shows. I'm going to the UK with the Trachtenburg Family Slide Show.
Splendid: You've played with them before?
Langhorne Slim: I have. I've done two short tours with those guys. They're good friends from New York. And then I'm going to keep doing stuff. I've got a couple of dates in New York. I'm sure I'll be back soon.
Splendid: I also wanted to ask you about this anti-folk label. I'm not even sure what that means. But you seem to get that put by your name...
Langhorne Slim: I will tell you why they do that. It's because when I first came to New York, I played a lot at Sidewalk Cafe. It's a great place. They've got an open mic. I went there a lot. I played there a lot. That's the connection. That's known as the anti-folk hub in New York City. So then, when I travelled to London for the first time, it was like "Anti-Folk". I've got nothing against it. I love a lot of the people who are involved in that, but I personally don't see myself as connected to it, other than in the sense that the people there were very, very cool to me. They gave me some of my first shows in New York City.
Splendid: What does it mean?
Langhorne Slim: I actually have no idea. It's sort of a rebellion against the stereotypical kind of lovey-dovey folk music. Maybe that's what it is? I really don't know. I don't necessarily see myself as "anti-folk". Folk comes from the German word "volk", for people, and if folk music is music for the people, then I consider myself a folk singer.
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Jennifer Kelly has your back, holmes.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - drew goren :: credits graphics ]