Dead Confederate’s Ragged Glory
If Neil Young is the Godfather of Grunge (along with a few other rock ‘n’ roll sub-genres), then Dead Confederate are among his (numerous) great-grandchildren. The lineage was evident long before the Athens band played their handful of shows as 2010 gasped its last breaths, covering Neil’s mid-70s cry-of-anguish Tonight’s the Night. If it wasn’t exactly “fun” and “festive,” as the band described it, it was a cool move and certainly appropriate given Young’s influence not only on Dead Confederate directly but also those bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s that likely had a far more massive impact on the young ears of those scrappy teenagers from Augusta who’d eventually coalesce into Dead Confederate around 2006, after they’d relocated to Athens.
So allow me, if I may, to take the Neil thing a bit further. Not so much musically; though the sound reflects it to a large degree, I’m not saying Dead Confederate are the next coming of Crazy Horse or anything so audacious or ridiculous. It’s more the way they’re evolving, particularly singer/guitarist T. Hardy Morris and the manner in which he’s diversifying and finding different outlets for different moods, fresh personnel and configurations for songs that beg for it, much as Mr. Young does. So we have In the Marrow, the third full-length album of Dead Confederate’s dark, dirty Southern downers, released on April 16th via the band’s Spiderbomb imprint. We have Diamond Rugs, more of a loose, raggedy, fun bar band that emerged in the past year featuring Morris, Ian St. Pe from Black Lips, Steve Berlin on loan from Los Lobos and the heart of Deer Tick; it’s not so much Hardy’s CSNY as perhaps the Bluenotes upended with a ceaseless supply of cheap beer and ciggies. And we have Audition Tapes, Morris’ debut solo album due this summer on Dangerbird Records – ten reflective songs, solid and fully formed but more subtle, seasoned with country-folk flavors.
“It’s fun because every experience is a little different,” offers Morris on his creative expansion. “It’s not something that I set out to do from the beginning, but…I would always kind of write songs that didn’t fall into that category or this. I guess now I just kinda stumbled into having different ways to compartmentalize it. Like Diamond Rugs and these kind of blues songs, these bar rock songs that I had. I didn’t create a place for ‘em, they just kinda found a place through playing in Dead Confederate for years and having friends in music. You just keep doing what you’re doing and keep writing, and that shit’ll find a place somewhere, I guess. It’s the way it seems.”
“It’s all from the same (place), it doesn’t seem that different to me,” Morris continues. “It’s kind of what naturally comes out. You know, I’ll write in different styles a little bit, like for my solo record that’s coming out. It’s a little more folk-tinged and it’s got pedal steel and stuff. But you know, I only wanted to incorporate pedal steel because it’s a super somber and expressive instrument.”
Dead Confederate’s music can be somber, certainly. Some of it sounds depressing as hell, to the point that I tell Hardy they should include a promotional razor blade with every copy of In the Marrow, in lieu of a download card. A lot of it’s viscerally powerful, and songs like “Vacations” rock in a fist-thrusting, hair-flinging ritual much like their standout track from 2008’s Wrecking Ball, “The Rat,” while others – album opener, “Slow Poisons,” for instance – build sinuously but never quite succumb to the boil, keeping tension at an apprehensive, tenuous perch. Some songs (“Big City Life,” “Winter Waters”) amble at a pace as weary as Hardy’s lean, lonesome voice, like a desert drifter hitching a ride to the next hopelessly broken heart. Then there’s the all-out shockwave of electric guitar catharsis within the title track, a spectrum simultaneously occupied by both Sonic Youth and Pink Floyd, two touchstones Dead Confederate are certainly used to seeing next to their name by this point. The album leaves me worn out and rundown, like I’ve spent a week in hard labor for something I didn’t do.
“I mean, if you were to ride around in our van (with us), you would certainly not think that it’s the same dudes… It’s like full-on laughter all the time. Bustin’ jokes, laughing a lot, drawing pictures, recording shit, just being complete goofballs the whole time,” Morris contrasts. “And I’ll ride in other people’s vans, with other bands that have a lot more happy-go-lucky type music, and I’m like, ‘This is boring as shit.’ They’ll just have their headphones on, or they fuckin’ hate each other, and it just sucks. Even though our music sounds so angry and menacing and gloomy, we have a blast. I think that’s kind of our way of expressing the negative, through the music. In everyday life we try to take it as it is and be happy about it.”
“I’ve discovered, certainly,” he continues, “that my favorite albums by certain artists are their sad, I’m-about-to-kill-myself record. And I don’t know why – that’s just what I like. I like when it feels like it might be the last song they ever wrote. That’s what people wanna hear – that desperation. It’s real.” Ergo, their Tonight’s the Night tribute.
I do like In the Marrow. I just happen to like Peyote People a lot more. That was the seven-song EP they released last December, just weeks after they’d recorded it in a two-day flurry at Chase Park Transduction in Athens, same studio where they cut In the Marrow but dissimilar circumstances. Produced by bassist Brantley Senn and initially intended just as a quick demo session for some new songs Hardy had written after In the Marrow’s completion, the songs on Peyote People have an immediacy, a certain life to them, that’s palpable and refreshing.
“Once we did a couple of songs, we decided, you know, ‘Demos? Why record it now and then sit around and think about it and record it again later? This is it!’” says Morris. They resisted the temptation, however, to go back and re-sequence the yet-to-be-released In the Marrow and add some of these fresh recordings, opting to keep them separate. “In the Marrow, we did that as a long session with (producer) David Barbe, and had a different drummer and everything [original drummer Jason Scarboro left prior to In the Marrow to start a family; JJ Bower played on those sessions, while Chattanooga-based Nick Sterchi has since joined the band], and Peyote People was this other thing that kind of all fell together,” Morris explains. “I kinda wanted to keep them as their own respective things. In my mind, that’s how they went down, and I’d rather (play) that music later and remember the way we did it.”
Diamond Rugs is an example of another loosely defined setup that evolved and eventually resulted in something much better than anyone expected. Dead Confederate had done plenty of shows with Deer Tick, so the thought of Hardy settling into a downtime endeavor with that band’s singer/guitarist John McCauley and keyboardist/sax-man Robbie Crowell wasn’t all that unfathomable. Ian St. Pe’s inclusion isn’t as obvious until you hear the rootsy, ramshackle rock the Rugs rattle out, and the sense of humor therein, and then it all makes sense. Steve Berlin? That’s sorta off the wall, a whole other generation, but as Morris puts it, “when Steve showed up, it started taking a little more shape. It was cool, crusty rock to begin with, but Steve, he gives it a little bit of class. It’s still shitty but it’s just enough (class) to make it a little more serious.” The band’s self-titled album [Partisan Records] is a fun, unpretentious goof. Better yet, see them live if you can, in a dirty dive bar where liquor is the soup du jour, where there ain’t no fucking DJ booth, where they’re in their element. With all of the mother bands gearing up for their own new records and tours this year, Morris says it’s likely Diamond Rugs will go on hiatus for the time being, but don’t be surprised if they resurface again at some point. “I want it to kind of happen when it happens – kind of like the first one – and not force it too much. But I think it’ll happen.”
In the meantime, of course, we’ll be treated to Audition Tapes, his first outing as a solo artist.
“I’d always written some more folky, quiet songs that never worked with Dead Confederate or anything,” he says. “Every now and then we’ll do one of the super chill songs that come from that realm, (and) I’d always planned on recording a ‘solo’ record at some time, but it just never really happened. It’s not boring or sappy. I think it sounds great.”
At its core, Audition Tapes is really not all that far removed from Dead Confederate – perhaps not as gloomy/boomy, but it’s recorded with a full band, and some songs stampede while others slither. Matt Stoessel plays pedal steel and Thayer Sarrano sings backup, just as they do on “Big City Life” on In the Marrow. But Hardy’s voice is up front and direct, his words are clearer and the songs seem a bit more introspective – in fact, he alludes to a “theme” pervading the material on Audition Tapes:
“It’s kind of about growing up where I grew up, down in Augusta…growing up in a town where there’s not a whole lot to do other than get in trouble. I think it’s something that everybody could relate to. It’s definitely not my love ballad/heartbreak record, it’s not about that. It’s about adolescence and the hard knocks of growin’ up and bein’ a kid. Smashing mailboxes… It wasn’t until I was about halfway through the record, or more than that, even further along, and I had this song that I was planning to record, and I was listening back, and the song sounded really good but something wasn’t doing it for me, and it was because…the meaning didn’t fit with the vibe of all these other songs. It wasn’t until I heard that that I realized I was writing so much about that one little period in my life – even if it’s just one moment in a song that kind of kicks back to that time of my life. Those were pretty formative years. I guess I’m still doing the same shit I was doing when I was 15, you know? I’m not smashing mailboxes, but I’m still playing the guitar and I still eat Life Cereal, hahaha!”
Before our conversation ends, I ask Hardy if he’s happy.
“I am very happy,” he immediately responds.
But you’re not gonna start writing happy songs?
“No, no,” he cautions. “I’m sure Neil’s happy. And he’s still writin’ sad songs.”
Photo by Jason Thrasher.