Interview: Jimbo Mathus on How Life is an “Incinerator”

Interviews

Jimbo Mathus has a new album coming out in a couple days (April 5th): Incinerator (Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum), produced by Matt Patton and Bronson Tew of Dial Back Sound, coming out on the Big Legal Mess label, and featuring Lilly Hiatt, Andrew Bird, Kevin Russel, Alex Holeman, Schaefer Llana, Buck Bennet and more. Mathus had hinted on social media that this album would be more of a personal accounting than any of his previous work, and a unique project; that’s all it took to prompt Americana Highways to call and find out more.   When Jimbo answered the phone, he said he was looking out at the cityscape of the city of New Orleans.  We dove right in.

AH: What are the layers of metaphor within the title track and the album title: “Incinerator”?

JM: This record is about pulling a lot of strings together for me in my life, going way back to things that happened in the past and tying them back to now. Since I started writing something like 30 years ago, I have written something like 300 songs, and recently I was inspired to want to tie all these loose ends together.

The significance of the concept of an “incinerator” goes back to the days when I was a deck hand on barges, I would ride on the petroleum barges way back in the swamps of Louisiana and Texas — we used to go way back up in there in these little barges. And the vision in my memory is the flames flowing out of the petroleum plants off on the distance– the burn-off.   It’s this apocalyptic looking swamp.

I was a deck hand, living on a boat, moving barges around, which were carrying different products. Some could have grain, soybeans, gravel, coal, and down South once you got up into the intercoastal waters and off the big river, you’re back up in the swamps for three or four days, and you do 24 hour watches when you’re parked back in these dark swamps, because the Cajun will slide up on their pirogues at night and steal all your shit out of your room. They’d creep up like raccoons and steal you shit our of your refrigerators, or your freezers, or your tools out of your tool room. There’s alligators, of course, and snakes falling out of limbs and then in the distance you can see these flames blowing out of this burn-off.

And so in the song “Incinerator” it says “swamp lay glistening, the quick silver rise” that is the pollution, there’s so much pollution back in there. “There’s refuse and whale heads” — it’s incredibly polluted in places there from the factories. “Acadian rhythms and blood feuds” — that’s the people the real primitive people, with these blood feuds you know. And then it’s the marching of time and the big cosmic clock that’s grinding all the time, and we’re all grinding down. And where do we go? Where do our souls go? And I started thinking maybe our souls go into the sun. And burn up there giving the world light until another soul comes down. So I started thinking about the sun and how it burns and gives light and how we have light and our light burns out. I grabbed ahold of that; I woke up one morning and I grabbed a guitar and the song just fell out.  It’s just two verses but it says a lot. I started thinking: What if human souls fed the sun and gave life back to earth? And how powerful is the sun? It’s so powerful. And how lucky are we to be in this place in the cosmos?

What if you’re just a pure burn-off? What if you are those flames burning? If all that’s left after your physical body goes is light. That’s as good an answer as any. I read a lot of alternative archaeology and alternative history writers like Graham Hancock and they talk about all the mathematics and the improbabilities of what we think we know so I try to think outside the box on those things.

AH: Every day is a fresh challenge sometimes.

JM: That’s when you’re in the incinerator.

It’s like when I saw this black dude on a bench in this little town when I was driving around Mississippi not too long ago. He looked very ancient. So I pulled the car over and went and sat on the bench by him and started talking. And he didn’t want to talk a whole lot. And so after a bit I said, “Well, I guess I’ll roll. It’s a beautiful day the Lord’s given us. “ This was on a Sunday. And he looked at me with these eyes and said “So far.” I stole that line, and I say it all the time.

AH: Lines like that stick with a person and come back over and over again. Also, though, it’s amazing that you see people as full individuals, you don’t just pass by people.

JM: Yeah. And that ties into the record too because a lot of the songs are about people passing. All the people living in this wild place together.

AH: In your recent Squirrel Nut Zippers’ release Beasts of Burgundy you have a song “Hey Shango,” about Congo Square, and you work with a lot of African American blues artists, and you play a lot of music with African American musicians. To what extent to you credit African music with influencing American (and Americana) music?

JM: I play with blues artists probably more than any other musicians. I credit them with everything that I do. American music is equal parts of the African American influences mixed with the European and Anglo influences.

As far as blues, rhythm and blues, jazz; you have to credit African influences with all of that.   Appalachian forms are a different strand, and now that’s commingled. Hank Williams credits a black gentleman in Montgomery for showing him how to play the blues. Rufus Payne, “Teetot,” his name was. And Bill Monroe credits a black gentleman, Arnold Shultz, for showing him and his Uncle Pen the blues and he incorporated that into bluegrass. He gave him his rhythm. And then Jimmy Rodgers incorporated the black blues into country music. So it’s tied so closely together it’s like a zebra. It’s like Jim Dickinson told me: “In a zebra you can’t pull the black lines from the white lines, you just see the pattern, and it’s so incredibly interwoven.” It’s like a beautiful puzzle.

And I do get the privilege of working with a lot of black blues, gospel, and Memphis soul players.

AH: I’ve seen stories and pictures of you literally playing on the porch with people sometimes.

JM: I do! I work with Fat Possum Records, which has a history of finding the people who are the true folk artists. I also work with Music Maker Relief Foundation and I’ve done several records with them, working with artists like the Vine Sisters from Carolina. And Ironing Board Sam and all these cats, it is a huge part of my writing, and you are the first person to ever ask me about that.

AH: You also seem to work communally, with Fat Possum and Dial Back Sound and other projects.

JM: I am surrounded by an incredible structure right now in my life. I’ve got two studios I can work out of: one is Fat Possum’s Delta Sonic studio in Memphis and the other is the one I cut Incinerator and many other records on: Dial Back, and then I’ve got the Big Legal Mess record label and the Fat Possum crew that helps me. So there is a lot of support for this record right now and I’m in a good place.

AH: “Sunken Road” is a beautiful, emotionally open vulnerable song, with lines like “I can’t do it alone.” And you’ve said this record is an open acknowledgement of the fleeting nature of life.

JM: It’s an acknowledgement of people and how important they are in your life, and how they affect you. That song in particular was written in response to someone who passed suddenly — one of my biggest inspirations and best friends. Robert Earl Reed. I called him the Reverend because he seemed like he was on a mission. He started writing songs in his 40’s; he had never played guitar or anything. He had been a bail bondsman and a stock broker; he had been at every end of the spectrum of life. And he was the closest thing I ever had to a brother.

We got together and he wrote a whole lot of songs and I covered many of them: “Tallahatchie” is one. And I would take his raw songs and they were so easy to transform into these masterpieces. And we were running partners all through the forests and the swamps and the little towns up there in Mississippi.

That song, “Sunken Road” was inspired by Robert Earl Reed. He knew all the sunken logging roads and he’d just turn off the road and we’d just ride through the woods, like all night. He knew all these places. When I wrote that he was still alive but it was near the end, and just like all those songs do, it just fell out. I just picked up the guitar and the song fell out.

I never recorded it though. This was about 5 years ago. There are a lot of songs on this record that have just been sitting around from different epochs.

AH: And this is the song that features Lilly Hiatt also?

JM: Yeah. This entire record was an experience with people I trust. First of all, I played piano on this one. I cut this record in a couple days with Matt Patton on bass, and he’s a brother, and Bronson Tew on drums, and he’s a brother. And I got the live microphone to sing into, and then I just turned it over to them. They did the guitar and produced the whole way the songs turned out. They produced it in a real sense of the word “produced.” I completely took my hands off the wheel, unless they’d ask me to come do something. So it was Matt Patton’s idea to get Lilly Hiatt as a duet, which turned out great. And that’s why when you trust people you can make great things happen.

AH: “Alligator Fish” is one of my favorite songs on the album, with its dirty tone and creepy lyrics. That one is more playful but still has some darkness. How important is it to preserve the entertainment element in music?

JM: Nice! I can’t stress the importance enough, at least in the way I do it. Music and songs are communication. The way I grew up communicating in the deep South was, you know, people talk a lot of shit. People know a lot of crazy jokes, people know all kinds of sayings, talking is an art form down here. Speaking, conversing, storytelling, is an art. So that’s the way I grew up communicating, and then also growing up around music, hearing how my Dad and all my people who played, how they carried on.

AH: On Instagram, you posted videos of you playing with “kinfolk.” Were they really kinfolk?

JM: They were, those were guys I grew up playing with. And you know I have the song on Incinerator “Give Me the Roses,” with Buck Bennet singing high harmonies on it, I grew up under him, his daughter is my age. He still plays dobro and sings like an angel. So that’s me and him singing the duet there. That’s the kinfolks’ band.   The fiddle player is Steve Butler; and there’s Bobby Isbell, Steve Craig, and Ernie Welch. The whole band, that’s the old cats, I rounded them up to record, and it ended up I said we ought to do it just to have something. And then it ended up wrapping up the story of the record so well, because I had that. And I gave that to Bronson and Matt and said that could be the last song on the record and they agreed. So that’s just me and a bunch of old coots on the mic.

AH: And that song is so perfect! “Give me the roses while I live,” instead of waiting until it’s too late.

JM: Right! It’s hard to appreciate each person in our day-to-day life, and that sums up the record. But you know there is also loss, and crazy joy, longing and missing, and things like that on there. It’s all about people.

AH: “Really Hurt Someone” has that cool string section in it.

JM: I feel like with that song I was able to finally transform the blues into a new sound. That is a blues song but it sounds nothing like the blues. But if you really listen to the way the vocals lies in there it’s the blues. And I was finally able to mutate the blues into something else, and that’s the song I did it on. And to me that’s the most important song on the record, because that’s the hardest thing to deal with, when you know that you hurt someone, really hurt someone. It was coming to grips with things in my past that I have to acknowledge and then finally move away from. I wrote that one back in 2003.

These songs were all necessary and now I realize there was a reason I didn’t use them in the past, and that is that it just wasn’t time for them yet. It shows you a lot about time, too, the album. Because it shows the importance of patience. Patience in songwriting, and patience as an artist that you don’t have to put everything on there that you have right now. You should have patience, and the songs should be important enough to you where you can intuit and see where they’re going to go someday. If it needs to be now, that’s fine. If it needs to wait 20 years, that’s fine too.

So a song like “Never Know What You Got Til It’s Gone,” is probably from 1990. It has never been to the party, it has never been played out, I don’t think I even played it for anyone. So that’s going back 30 years of my life! (laughs)

AH: Where do you keep them?

JM: I just keep them in my memory. Those 300 I’ve released, that doesn’t count the probably 500 more that I know verbatim. Country, R & B, rock ‘n roll, I bet it could be closer to 1000. Brains are weird! And that’s part of the record. This is me. This is my everything. It’s a funny thing. But that song is 30 years old.

And as the record was shaping up, and I sat there and started hearing the songs that were really working, I was meditating on it, and that song came back and it was a perfect place for him.

I see things visually and as metaphor, it’s like I have a huge junkyard in the field of my imagination, and I know where all the cars are. I can run way out to the back part of the junkyard to get this fender out there that I need for something now.   Maybe I put that fender out there 30 years ago, and so I may go back 20 or 30 years ago and stick something from then on a song now, and call it done. So it’s like a big pull-apart junkyard of chords, and arrangements, and different literary or music related things, and I just run around in there and pull things apart.

AH: Thank you for letting us take a tour of your junkyard.

JM: hahaha! It was my pleasure!

Check for tour dates, here: https://www.facebook.com/jimbomathus/ and purchase Incinerator here:

https://biglegalmessrecords.com/collections/jimbo-mathus/products/incinerator?variant=15713573666859

 

 

 

 

 

 

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