Americana Highways made a pit stop to chat with Gurf Morlix just the other day. It turned into a wonderful serendipitous conversation about his new album Impossible Blue, Ethan Hawke, Blaze Foley, Mike Bannister, Red Young, and satisfied heartbeats and more. Read on and see for yourself.
AH: You wrote a warm acknowledgement of your drummer Rick Richards, adding “as if there was any question” after his credit in the liner notes to your new album. How important is a great drummer?
GM: Drums are really important, and finding a good drummer is difficult sometimes. There are a lot of people who can keep the beat and just sort of bash away, but finding a drummer who is a musician, who plays the song instead of just pounding, is a rare thing. And Rick Richards is just a master, and I use him on all of my records, and I have been for nineteen years, and I use him on everything I can. On other peoples’ records if there’s no drummer I’ll ask him. Because he has the exact same pocket that I have. He puts every note in the exact right spot and I want to point that out to people any chance I get. He is the secret weapon.
AH: Why did you title the album Impossible Blue?
GM: Blues music is in all the music I like. All the music I like is influenced by the blues music, even if it’s not necessarily blues music. All the music that I don’t like has no connection to the blues. I hear blues in the Beatles, I hear the blues in Bob Dylan, I hear the blues in Hank Williams. It’s all infused by the blues.
But the ‘blue’ in the title is a line from one of the songs. And it’s asking how sad can a person be. It’s “Backbeat of the Dispossessed.”
AH: “Backbeat of the Dispossessed” is a song about Michael Bannister, would you say more about this song?
GF: Michael Bannister was a really good lifelong friend, we’d know each other since junior high school. And we’d been in bands and lived together, and he was having some problems, and we’d drift apart and then back again, but I always knew that I’d see him again. But then all of a sudden he checked out. Voluntarily. And that was pretty tough to take. And then I found myself wanting to write a song, and I tried. I tried a lot and I tried for years, and that song took me about seven years before I was satisfied with it. Because it was so close, and it is such a ricky subject. But – how sad do you have to be to do that? I don’t know that I could ever feel that bad.
AH: Peter Case told a story from stage about you, Mike Bannister, and someone named “Tornado” and according to him you gave car concerts out?
GF: Michael had this gigantic Mercury, and it was blue, and Peter has a song about it: “Old Blue Car.” We used to ride around in that car and he, and Victoria Williams, and Bannister, and Tornado played the sitar. We’d ride around in that car and we’d play in the car. It was so big you could put a mattress in the trunk and live there; it was a giant boat of a car! (laughs)
AH: For this album, you’ve written songs that are exceptionally emotionally genuine. “Turpentine” is a very emotionally open about things going wrong, and but then “Hearts Beating In Time” is so intimate. How did that one come about?
GF: Say you’re laying in bed, and you’re satisfied, and you’re exhausted, and suddenly you realize that your hearts are beating in tandem. And not just for like ten seconds, but for minutes. And it’s a pretty remarkable feeling.
AH: Is it a challenge to share this intimate type of song in front of a group of strangers?
GF: When you’re a songwriter you have to learn how to be brave. I have said this a few times recently: I probably wrote 200 songs before I learned how to write a good one. Part of that is dropping the defenses, and you kind of have to learn how to stand naked. And it’s not easy. And it took me a long, long time. It took me 30 or maybe 45 years of writing songs before I was able to break through that and lower the defenses and now it’s easier because maybe I’ve cracked the code a little bit.
AH: Maybe you trust people a little more?
GF: I don’t know about that, but I know you have to be willing to go out there as a songwriter.
AH: Your songs are noted for their degree of minimalism, and I wonder how much that comes from years as a producer, listening, and wanting voices and instruments to avoid stepping on each other’s toes or speaking all at once.
GF: I do like to be able to hear everything. But as a producer I have produced things that are sonic squalls, because sometimes that is appropriate for a certain record. I have nothing against sonic squalls. But if it’s a direct naked song, I want to hear the emotion of it. Heavy-handed arrangements can mask the song. The song needs to be right out there, just coming from your face.
AH: You grew up in Buffalo, NY. Would you share some of the unique qualities of the Buffalo area that shaped your perspectives?
GF: There was a blues and R & B scene in Buffalo. And there’s so much snow certain times of the year there’s not much you can do, so music really came in handy when I was a teenager.
There were clubs in Buffalo where you could go see blues artists and there was a really great blues show on the radio growing up. And there was a blues musicians’ scene that was connected to the Toronto blues musician scene, which included the members of the Band. A lot of these Buffalo musicians who were ten years older than I am, were going up to Toronto to play, and the Toronto blues musicians were coming down to Buffalo to play, and that was really important to me. My first hearing of the blues was in that scene.
AH: What is it like playing with Red Young?
GF: Oh man, he’s so good. I’ve seen him play in organ trios where he’s kicking the bass with his left foot on a big old Hammond organ and playing amazing solos with his right hand, and chording with his left hand all at the same time. He’s one of the best B3 players on the planet. I had that song “Spinning Planet Blues” as soon as I wrote that song I thought “I hear Red Young playing on that song. He’ll just nail that song perfectly.” He came in and I put the song up and he played exactly what I knew he would play. It was perfect.
AH: How was singing with Jaimee Harris?
GF: She’s great, she’s a consummate professional harmony singer, she has a great voice and a great ear for the harmonies, and she also just happens to be a really great writer and a really great singer – she has the goods and she’ll have a successful career because she’s got what it takes.
AH: You were instrumental in getting Blaze Foley the recognition he didn’t get when he was alive. Were you part of the new movie Blaze (2018), directed by Ethan Hawke?
GF: Yes! Ethan Hawke called me up and said “I know who you are and I think you should be part of this,” and he laid out the plan. My first reaction was: “I hate Hollywood movies, and I don’t like bio pictures as a general rule. I find them kind of clunky. “ It took him a week or two to convince me to do it – I was just afraid they’d make one of those bad Hollywood bio pics about a musician. I agreed to do it but I asked him to promise me he’d make a work of art, not a Hollywood movie. And he said: “I promise.”
And he delivered. Everybody came through on that film, and it was because of Ethan’s energy. I was involved in the sound track and I’m in a few scenes in the film. He kept telling everyone “we have a chance to make something really special here” and Ethan’s energy made people try as hard as they possibly could. It came out really good. It’s one of the best movies of that type. It’s a tender love story, and it’s not a story about a drunken musician who gets murdered. That’s in there, but it’s a love story primarily. I like talking about Blaze it’s just really important to me.
AH: And you had worked on earlier album of Blaze Foley’s stuff.
GM: I released an album in 2011 that was all me singing songs . I may have found a better title for it. But I’m really proud of that album. I wanted to get his songs out into the world and I think that’s starting to happen now. Blaze’s career continues to be on this upswing. Mike Judge did a series called “Tales From the Tour Bus” and it was eight stories about country music legends and the last one was about Blaze. And that’s really exciting!
AH: What’s coming up next for Gurf Morlix?
GM: I’m touring south through Florida with some other shows coming up out West!
Check the website for tour info and to order your copy of the cd: