Letís begin with one fact: Slim Cessnaís Auto Club is the best country band in the world. One of the reasons you can tell is that itís impossible to create a hyphenated genre name for them. Theyíre not "no-depression-bloodshot-records-alt-country." Theyíre not "nouveau-bluegrass-cowpunk." More accurately, theyíre all of those and much more. Theyíre a bunch of guys who look like they crawled out of a swamp in Mississippi, but who actually hail from Denver, Colorado. There are six of them: Slim Cessna, (vocals and guitar); Munly (vocals, ukelele, guitar, mandolin); Rumley (steel guitar); Ordy (drums); the Reverend Dwight Pentecost (banjo and double neck guitar with Jesus/Mary changing hologram); and Danny Pants (bass and lipstick). They sound like Hank Williams yodeling with Mojo Nixon, Carl Perkins and Sid Vicious in a plane filled with drunks as it nosedives into Graceland. They will come to your town, they will drink your beer, they will give a Gospel message to the good people, they will wail about Satan and the Lord, and they will make the scales fall from your eyes. They also do weddings.
In the last year, the Auto Club has signed to venerable punk label Alternative Tentacles, and has released an inarguably great album, Always Say Please and Thank You. Their inexorable climb to the pinnacle of musical acclaim has begun. I had a nice long chat with Slim recently about the ups and downs of being the most visible member of such a strange-looking, great-sounding gaggle of malcontents.
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Splendid: Can you tell us your real name, or is Slim you real name?
Slim: Well, itís my real nickname. Itís what everybody calls me. Iíd just as soon leave it at that.
Splendid: What kinds of music did you hear around the house as you were growing up?
Slim: Mostly gospel and country music. Itís not like my folks really listened to a lot of music. My mother was in the church choir, and those kinds of things. If there was music playing in the house, it was gospel. On car rides, though, my dad listened to country music on the radio. And we were allowed to have Johnny Cash records.
Splendid: Is that the same music that influenced the rest of the Auto Club?
Slim: I donít think so, no. And even for me, that was my influence mostly when I was little. As I got older, I was more interested in punk rock music. And I still am into that, also. I guess I just never stopped loving country music. And some other people in the band never had anything to do with country music growing up.
Splendid: Thatís kind of surprising. How long have you actually been playing and singing?
Slim: It seems like Iíve been playing and singing my whole life. As far as this band goes, I think itís been around for eight or nine years.
Splendid: Alternative country music has been all the rage for a few years now. Have you found that thereís more interest in your kind of music over the last couple of years than before, or have you found thereís not much difference?
Slim: I don't know. It seems like now more people listen to our music, but I think that has more to do with us than with what's going on in country music.
Splendid: It seems like you guys don't have much in common musically with a lot of alt-country bands.
Slim: Right. I'm not really bitter about that now, but a few years ago, I guess I was. I had been doing this kind of thing forever, you know, long before there was such a thing as alternative country music. Not to say that I did it first. I think a bigger reason we've
been more successful is that we're working much harder at getting around the country when we tour these days. We've been pretty successful in New York; we've been trying to go to the West coast a lot more. For a long time, we would just stay in Denver, and we kind of liked it that way. We were comfortable being a local band. Then I ended up moving to the East Coast, and that changed things. The situation now means either I have to go there or they have to come here. That changed a lot about the way we do things.
Splendid: What do your wife and kids think of the stage Slim Cessna? Is that any different from the way you are normally?
Slim: Kind of. A lot of what we do is this big, huge showbiz thing that obviously is us joking around. But sometimes it's not that. I like to entertain my kids, and we all like
to kid around, so there's some of the stage Slim in that.
Splendid: When I think of that hat that you wear, I can't help but think of David Byrne wearing the big suit in Stop Making Sense. It's almost as if you are taking on a larger representation of yourself onstage.
Slim: There's a lot of that in the band. I mean, obviously I don't walk around Rhode Island wearing a huge hat and an enormous belt buckle. The thing is, we might think of this as dressing up, but it's an important part of the show. I'm actually very insecure, and the few times I have forgotten the hat for a show haven't been good times. There was something important missing for me and I think that translated to the audience.
Splendid: So where did the Reverend Dwight Pentecost (the band's guitarist/banjo player) get his name?
Slim: That's the only fairly deliberate name change in the group. Mostly, they just go by their last names. But he really is a reverend.
Splendid: I noticed on your website that he performs weddings.
Slim: Yeah. We haven't actually done one yet, but we're ready.
Splendid: Well, I could get married if that would help you get this show on the road. I'd have to find a girl first, but right after that, we could go for it.
Slim: Sure. I'll play at your wedding. We'll travel. Dwight can perform weddings in most states. We've gone into some detail on this.
Splendid: You're a full-service band.
Slim: That's right.
Splendid: How did you decide you were an "auto club?"
Slim: Several years ago, before the band even started, when I was just singing and playing guitar with my friends, there was this frind of mine who had a whole bunch of cars. His name was John, and he had all of these cars. And they weren't cool cars; they were old, junky cars, but he had about fifteen of them. So we started calling ourselves San Juan's Car Club, as a tribute to him. Over time, it mutated a few times, and it ended up as the Auto Club. I'm not sure why. I think we were trying to play off of the idea of low-rider car clubs, imagining a club like that, but with our friend's old beat-up cars instead of cool cars.
Splendid: There was a major lineup change between your previous album, American Country Music Saved Her Life, and this album. What happened?
Slim: A couple of years ago I decided that I didn't want to be in that band any more. It wasn't the guys in the band or anything. I just needed to take a break, and so I sort of shut everything down. Rumley is the only guy from the old band who is in this one. He was also my neighbor and best friend so we still got together all of the time and played music together. Then a couple more friends started showing up, and a whole new band started coming together. It was all rather unintentional, really.
Splendid: Jay Munly is in this incarnation, and he was a solo artist before he joined the band, right?
Slim: He still is.
Splendid: Was it difficult integrating somebody who had established his own
sound into a band setting?
Slim: It never really occured to me. I think the fact that he was my friend was more important in that decision than anything else. At this point, in fact, I think it's kind of ridiculous that it sounds like it's "my" band. I've asked the other guys if we could change the name, but they're pretty attached to it.
Splendid: Now that you are touring more, do you find that there are any parts of the country where people seem to "get" what you're doing more than in others?
Slim: Well, by now we sort of feel like we have an idea. For instance, in New York, it seems like there's something happening. But I can't help but think that the next time we show up there, there could be nobody there, because up until now we've been playing big bills with other bands. Chicago, too, seems to be a good place for us.
Splendid: Your next show in New York is in a bigger club than you've played here before. Do you feel like this is a big step up for the band?
Slim: Yeah, though we did play a show at the Mercury Lounge, and a lot of people showed up for that one. But there were some other bands that played before us, and so I'm sure some people showed up to see them. I just hope that some people show up for the next show.
Splendid: You mentioned earlier that you have a great interest in punk music; so is it strange to be the only country band on Alternative Tentacles?
Slim: No, it's actually very natural. My hometown is Boulder, Colorado, which is also Jello Biafra's hometown. When you're a freak and a punk rock kid growing up in Boulder, Jello Biafra is the whole world to you. Granted, I'm not as starstruck of him now -- I knew him for a long time before we got on the label. Still, in many ways being on that label is a dream come true.
Splendid: How did a sound like yours, or Sixteen Horsepower's (though they are very different sounds) end up coming out of Colorado? It seems like a very Southern Gothic kind of music.
Slim: I don't want to say that it's because Dave and I are good friends, but way back when we were sixteen or seventeen years old, the two of us were playing music together. We both shared an interest in the same kinds of music. In fact, that's a major part of why we got to be friends in the first place. We were both teenagers, both outcasts from other things, involved in church, and into punk music. We had a band together for a few years. So we were very musically influenced by each other. Still, I don't think we really sound very much like them at all.
Splendid: It's not so much a similarity in your sounds so much as it is the fact that these two bands don't sound like anybody else, which kind of makes you think of them together.
Slim: Well, there are definitely similarities between us, and I don't want to downplay that.
Splendid: On your latest album, you have one particular song that really points out the band's originality -- "Unto the Day" sounds like nothing I've ever heard before. Where did that song come from?
AUDIO: Unto the Day
Slim: That was a tune that Munly brought in. I can't remember if he had the whole thing or just the tune when he came in, but he played it at rehearsal, and we all went to work on it. That one actually came very easily, unlike some of them. We just ran through it a couple of times, and
we had it.
Splendid: I noticed it was the only song you guys decided to release as a live recording on that album. Was it important to have the crowd feeling in that song?
Slim: Actually, we were listening to that live recording in Boston while we were making the record and we were trying to think about how to record the song. We decided we would have to play it live in the studio to make it work right. So if we had to play it live, we figured we could save a lot of effort by using the live recording we already had. In fact, that recording is of the first time we ever played that song live.
Splendid: You mentioned that some of the songs take longer to come together. I would assume that would include the songs that have multiple parts, like "Pine Box" or "Hold My Head."
Slim: Sometimes we will have something (and I think both of those are good examples), and we will think that that "something" is the song. Anyway, it ends up feeling like it isn't going anywhere, and it either goes away, or you figure out what else you're going to do with it.
Splendid: The outro chorus to the song "Hold My Head" is almost six minutes long, and just repeats over and over. How did you know that would work?
Slim: I think we were just laughing about what people would think if we did that. So we tried it, and it turned out really great.
Splendid: Yeah, I almost turned off the CD the first time I heard it before I heard the voices coming back.
Slim: We try to do it that long when we play live, but I just can't possibly scream that long live. Sometimes I'll just let the band play it a couple of times, and then that gets boring, and then we have to stop. If you'll notice, on the record, it's just a loop of me doing that, because I'm singing in an octave that I can't do more than a couple of times without
totally trashing my voice for the rest of the evening.
Splendid: You managed to have your very own "Hey Jude" on the record. I can't think of any other song that has a chorus that works that well and goes on for that long.
Slim: We had been playing it live for a while and trying to keep it going as long as we could. We kind of got a kick out of the monotony of it, the repetition. And then we noticed that often, the crowd would get whipped into a frenzy if we kept it going. It would build even though we weren't doing anything different. So we tried to get that feeling on the record.
Splendid: There's an obviously Biblical feel to a lot of your songs, but more Old Testament than New Testament. You mentioned the church choir earlier -- is that the sort of church that you went to? A sort of Old Testament style fire-and-brimstone church?
Slim: No, my father is a Baptist preacher, so his style was very New Testament. But as far as images, things that are biblical that stand out in my head, that's the Old Testament. And the problem is, I can't stop thinking about them. It's driving me crazy. I tend to think of the darker side of these things.
Splendid: You say you can't stop thinking about them -- is that a philosophical thing, or a fixation on the imagery, or what?
Slim: I just have this problem, if you can call it a problem -- I grew up in the Church, and it took me a long time to come to terms with the possiblity that I am not a Christian. And before I came to terms with that, I spent decades worrying about whether I was going to go to Hell. At least a part of me thought the whole thing wasn't working out, and when I finally came to terms with it, I realized that I was probably not a Christian, but I still can't stop thinking about it. It really makes me crazy. The back-and-forthness of it. Whether it is true or not, it was driven into my head as a little kid, and that can be maddening.
Splendid: To follow up, it seemed to me that the song "Jesus Christ" is something of a surprise in that respect. From the sound of it, you would expect a kind of anti-religious song, but it seems to me to be a very honest, heartfelt, and questioning kind of song.
AUDIO: Jesus Christ
Slim: It is very honest. I am not trying to be trite or anything, and hopefully the song didn't come out that way. I think that song came out very well, especially the minor chord section. Any Christians that I know, that's the moment on the record where they are going to be pissed off. All I was trying to say though is, God, I don't know what the fuck's going on and I'm just figuring it all out.
Splendid: Describe the average Auto Club groupie.
Slim: Groupies? I guess there are some, at least in Denver. They seem really...lonely? There are certain people, and this is not meant to be cruel, but they show up to every show. And I wonder, because I could never do that, no matter how much I liked a band. To show up to every show they play in their hometown? It amazes me. Of course, they're very nice, but you'd think they must be lonely.
Splendid: So what's the deal with Munly? He seems to have almost an undertaker's demeanor on the stage.
Slim: Yeah. He carries that off the stage into regular life and scares the hell out of people. He's one of the nicest guys in the whole world. He's wonderful with kids and animals and the whole thing. People shouldn't be scared of him.
Splendid: What would have to happen before mainstream country music could become good?
Slim: I don't know that there's much good that comes out of the mainstream whatever genre you're in nowadays. Maybe its always been like that. It seems good that it's that way to me, though, because that means there's something viable about underground music, and that makes underground music very attractive to me. Which isn't to say that I don't want to be
successful. It's just exciting to me that there is really horrible music out there that everybody loves because they're told to. Not being a part of that kind of means that you belong to something. I guess there is some good country music now...
Splendid: Dwight Yoakam. Lyle Lovett.
Slim: Yeah. I like those guys. But sometimes I don't know why I like what I like. The other week, I heard some Randy Travis, and I knew I wasn't supposed to like him, but I did. Then I heard some Shania Twain song, and I knew I wasn't supposed to like that, but I really did. It's the one that goes, "You're still the one I run to..." And it wasn't in a cheap sort of way just because she's pretty, or something like that. I want to sing that song... I just remembered that now, that I wanted the band to learn that song so I could sing it. Not because it would be funny, though it would, but because I actually like it.
Splendid: Wrestling cage match between the Hank Williamses: Senior, Junior, and III. Which one walks out alive?
Slim: Junior kicks all of their asses.
Splendid: Strange choice.
Slim: Very unpopular choice. I've gotten in arguments before for taking the side of Hank Williams Junior.
Splendid: You like Junior better than Senior?
Slim: No, not better, but he would certainly win in a fight.
Splendid: Sure. He's huge.
Slim: Hank Williams Senior, there was a period of about five years of my life where I couldn't stop talking about how great he was. And I still think he's great. But after a while, the music all starts sounding kind of the same. It's about the same things...there's only one song that goes to a minor chord! There's something much more fun about Junior. And since there's nothing awe-inspiring about him, he makes me feel good, because I see him as just a big dorky guy. I see Johnny Cash the same way. He was tough through the fifties and the sixties, but then he allowed himself to be a dork through the seventies and the eighties, and made miserable records of which I own at least twelve. I shouldn't say they're miserable, because I love them, but nobody else will listen to them. Then that guy Rubin made him dark and mysterious again, and that's cool. Still, that's not the Johnny Cash I relate to, and I can't relate to Hank Senior, but I can relate to Junior.
Splendid: Have you ever gone country line dancing?
Slim: No, but somebody said that she had written a country line dance to "Goddamn Blue Yodel #4".
AUDIO: Goddamn Blue Yodel #4
Splendid: That I would like to see.
Slim: So would I. I never saw it, so maybe she was lying to me. This woman told me that she had taught her whole class this dance, and I suggested she do it at the show. She said it would be too embarrassing. Maybe she was making it all up.
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Brett McCallon brings the word of God to the masses from the back of his Ford Econoline van.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | live photos - george zahora :: credits graphics ]