This Spring, Jimbo Mathus and Andrew Bird released the outcome of a monumental team up, a major reunion in music making for the former bandmates of Squirrel Nut Zippers. The album, These 13, is a truly haunting collection in many ways, blending tradition and modern methods seamlessly and creating a powerful sense of the past in the present day. They also played a concert streamed from Ojai, California, on April 12th that was their first time playing the album together with an audience, and that too, had its own musical identity, capturing differences in sound and vocals that made it unique. Alongside both the album and the concert, fans could also enjoy a documentary that accompanied These 13, discussing the songs and their more than 25 year relationship, also capturing Bird and Mathus playing album tracks together in an outdoor setting.
The true story behind how the album came about is pretty idiosyncratic, like both artists, and came down to a desire to create a body of music confined creatively to two individuals, their ideas, and their playing methods. Jimbo Mathus joined us to talk about the making of These 13, his own musical sensibilities, and some of the stories behind these highly memorable songs.
Americana Highways: I was able to watch the Ojai livestream (on April 12th) and enjoyed it a lot. Was that the first time that you and Andrew Bird have performed together on a livestream?
Jimbo Mathus: Yes, I guess it’s the first time we’ve performed together [for this album], period. We only recorded and that was all before the pandemic. We released the record in the middle of lockdown, so that was our first official performance together, so that was wonderful.
AH: I learned a lot about the inspiration and creation of the different songs on the album These 13 by watching the show and hearing you and Andrew talk, but also by watching the documentary that was made about the album. I got to watch the 40 minute “Director’s Cut” version, which was excellent. In terms of timeframe, when did you and Andrew start putting things together?
JM: I’m coming up on about two years since he contacted me. We started the conversation at the end of 2018 and did a session for six or eight titles, then at the end of 2019, we did another session. We had written more in the interim. Then that was it, it was in the can. We just did it on our own. It was a two-year process, but we only saw each other twice, and that was in the studio.
AH: Wow, that’s amazing how much you accomplished in that time. How many takes did you do on things?
JM: Just generally one or two. That’s the way he and I have always done things anyway. Any recording session we were in, we started doing that as much as 25 years ago. We try to get the first or second take because after that, you start losing the cool bits. They start to get ironed out. Like there are songs from Sun Studios in Memphis where you can hear the phone ringing in the office, but they are like, “Fuck it! This is the take, man.” There are no edits or moving things around, and that’s the way we did it.
AH: That’s much less common to do things that way today, of course, but I would say there’s a kind of counter-movement among some bands to go back to a live sound if they can get it.
JM: The technology has made it so possible to screw your own stuff up. It’s sort of unnatural in music. We just stick to the old tried and true since back in the Zippers we used to record that way.
AH: So in these recordings on These 13 that we can hear on the album, are you and Andrew reacting at times to surprising things that the other person is doing?
JM: Oh, for sure. Absolutely. We hardly even rehearsed the songs. We knew what key they were going to be in, and the basic arrangement. They are arranged. Generally, what you’re hearing on the record is the first time we played it all the way through, literally. Sometimes I’m messing up and we’ll just go with it, or he messes up and I follow him. We’re listening very closely to each other to anticipate and just run with that. That leads to a lot of surprising things. Like on “Jack of Diamonds”, you can hear that it just kind of falls apart at the end. We could have redone it, but it wouldn’t have been as cool, and it wouldn’t have sounded right. We did it right, so the end is the end.
AH: I was observing the differences between the recordings on the album and the performances that I saw and heard on the livestream. The main thing I noticed was a difference in the vocals. The vocals on the album blow me away because they are really smooth and refined.
JM: Yes, they were lower and quieter.
AH: The livestream vocals sounded richer and grittier, though, in a way.
JM: More spirited. When performing, you want to add that energy to it. When you’re in a studio, it’s almost a solemn space, it’s so quiet. You’re listening almost for posterity. When you’re performing, at least the type of performer I am, you want to put a little more oomph into it. You also just get off-script.
AH: Are you and Andrew planning on doing more live stuff for These 13?
JM: The Newport Folk Festival is going to be the big one, but maybe some TV stuff. And maybe some more down the line. There may be more gigs next year. That partnership is there forever. I think you can see that on the film and the different clips and songs that we’ve released.
AH: The documentary and the livestream concert were very high quality productions, but has it been a hard decision whether or not to do livestreams and how to release them?
JM: I’ll be glad to get back in front of people. If they are gone, it’s not the same to me. I don’t know how to explain it, but the music itself is just a means to get people to react, for me. It’s something I’m good at and something I’m passionate about, but without people it’s missing half the equation. Of course, when I’m sitting there with Andrew, we can entertain each other. For Andrew, I think it’s the same for him as well.
The livestream concert was really exhausting in a weird way, it felt like I’d run a marathon. We were talking afterwards about the energy and adrenaline that you get from the audience that, in a weird way, evens out the energy you’re putting out there. I realized that I’ll be glad to get back in front of audiences over this pandemic. I thought I’d had enough of it, just doing it for so long. I thought, “I’ll never say that I’ll miss being on the road,” but I do! [Laughs]
AH: You usually really play a lot of shows per year.
JM: For decades!
AH: Considering that, it is surprising that you miss the road again. But you’re so ingrained now, your whole DNA has probably been affected by all these years of playing. You’ve been mutated.
JM: You just nailed it right there. I have been officially mutated.
AH: When you and Andrew started talking about working on songs, what were you saying about the style and the direction you wanted? Did you know you wanted to dig up so much tradition to bring to light? I know that Andrew hasn’t done as much of that in recent years…
JM: We talked very little. We mostly communicated over little, short texts. I had actually saved the entire text chain of how the album got created, but something changed on Andrew’s phone and the entire thing got deleted. I wish I could publish it.
AH: No! That’s so tragic.
JM: It would be fascinating to look at. It started with, “What do you want to do?” And he said something like, “I used to like that Charley Patton thing you used to play, ‘Elder Greene’.” So I knew he was wanting to go in a folky mode. I would send him a lot of songs, way more songs than we used. They were just little demos on my phone, of forty seconds of a minute. And he’d either say, “No, not what I’m thinking…” or immediately send me back a memo that had a chorus that he’d written, or another verse, or he’d changed it up in some kind of cool way. So it evolved naturally.
He had a concept of me and him, with no other instruments, and that was the starting point. Then the songs got a center of gravity and started pulling together. Once I saw what he was liking, I sent him more of that. He was like an editor to my writing, and he also acted as a Producer with the whole concept of the quietness, with just the two instruments. We just created a little team and sallied forth.
AH: It’s fascinating, because the way that conversation creates things, in any form, is pretty crazy.
JM: I think of texts like telegrams. I get a lot of inspiration from texts because people are just shortening their ideas into words, which actually make great song titles. They are trying to say in two or three words what you’ve been talking about. I get tons of song titles off of text chains with my friends. I sent a friend a picture from Los Angeles, with a beautiful sunset, and they texted back, “sunset over the city.” And then I had a new song, called “Sunset Over the City.” Texts and voice memos are my things.
AH: Texting is also like the compression of song lyrics. Do you write long and then edit to get a shorter form for lyrics?
JM: I don’t. I actually go the opposite way. I have the title and then I just put as few things as I possibly can in there to make that title come to life. I’m not like a Dylan writer who writes verses and verses. I try to write the minimal possible, so it’s more like the Romantic Poets’ style of poetry, where they try to compress the words as tightly as possible, and have the most rhythm, rhyme, and meaning. The other thing about texts is the spellcheck feature. You’ll type in this word, and then another word will come up that’s even cooler. And it’s vaguely related but it rhymes somehow. I often mishear what people say in an outside conversation, but I like what I thought they said, and that becomes a title. Mishearing is a big component for me.
AH: That’s a really cool source of phrasing. Of course, mishearing song lyrics is something that’s been going on forever. It changes the songs. Even before the Blues, mishearing lyrics leads to alternate versions.
JM: For sure. That’s spoken word. That’s social music that grows up amongst people in society. That’s the kind of writer I am. I’ve always liked lyricists like Ira Louvin, simple writers more than the Dylans and Leonard Cohens. That’s all cool, it just doesn’t move me.
AH: Are you more inclined toward storytelling traditions or away from them, based on that? Of course, you can still tell stories very briefly in songs.
JM: Oh, sure. Look at These 13. Look at “Bell Witch.” Look at “High John” and “Red Velvet Rope.” They are little stories, for sure, in my mind. Andrew says that he doesn’t think of himself that way, but I do. He writes more lyrics than I do, and his songs have more complicated lyrics. I write less. I do see myself that way.
AH: As a storyteller?
JM: Yes. Andrew’s concoctions can be based on real things in his life, but he makes them more fictional. I try for more non-fiction, but put in a poetic way. But look at “Bell Witch,” which tells a literal story. Like with so many of my songs, you can find out more about whole stories in there, with different events, places, and people.
AH: Can you tell me more about that story?
JM: The Bell Witch was a haunting in Tennessee before the Civil War, in the earlier part of the 1800s. This haunting happened to a family and it became popular in the newspapers. The daughter, Elizabeth Bell, was the one that the spirit went to the most and would speak through her. She married a man and moved to Mississippi, where she became Elizabeth Bell Powell. She’s buried two miles from where I’m speaking to you now. When I heard about this folk tale, I thought, “This has to be a song. It has to be!” I visited her grave. It’s based on songs like “Long Black Veil” and the murder ballad songs about graveyards, that type of thing. I’m not trying to break the mold, I’m just trying to tell another story.
AH: Something that I found compelling about this song is that there’s a gentleness to this haunting idea that’s just relentless. That’s pretty alarming and interesting and captures the imagination. It’s almost like a companionship.
JM: That goes back to the power of words. Some of the lyrics are things that she said under possession, like the Bell Witch was a “soul that was shut out of heaven.” At the end, he says, “I love the Bell Witch,” so that’s kind of alarming.
AH: Yes, it’s like he’s converted or persuaded over time.
JM: Yes, she’s sleeping next to him and whispering in his ear. It’s kind of weird! But just those few words, “right next to me” says more than twenty more verses. So that’s my point exactly.
AH: What about the song “Train on Fire,” which I heard on the livestream concert and in the documentary?
JM: That one is actually on the last Squirrel Nut Zippers record, [Lost Songs of Doc Souchon] but there it was just me and Andrew. We still like to play it. It was inspired by heavy Gospel, African American music, and Appalachian hardcore holiness church lyrics. Sometimes when you go into a laundromat, you see these little religious pamphlets. Some of them have these really crazy fucking messages, man, and I read them. One on of them, on the cover, it said, “Time’s passing like a train on fire.” And it had an old etching of a train burning, and Hell as a hole over there. Again, it was a random title from a random place.
AH: That’s a great title. It’s a great visual. It’s kind of the opposite of “The Midnight Special”. The song feels very foreboding but very ambiguous.
JM: It leaves out the religious aspect of, “Time’s passing like a train on fire, and you better get right with God, because Hell is a hot place for all eternity.” [Laughs] I left all that out and just left all the creepy parts in.
AH: That’s right!
JM: It’s a dark road and it’s flying by.
AH: I have to say, the song feels very 2020 and 2021 because of all the apocalyptic and foreboding things.
JM: Yes, and a lot of the songs on These 13 deal with heavier things, too. There are themes of life and death, like on “Three White Horses”, where it says, “You’re going to need somebody when you come to die.” Then there’s “Dig up the hatchet and pass it around…”
AH: That one is a dark, hilarious song. I heard you and Andrew talking a little bit about how you passed the lyrics back and forth on that. That one sounded like it started with the title too, right?
JM: Absolutely. I had that title in my notebook for, probably, fifteen years. I knew that someday it would be a cool song. So when talking to Andrew, I thought, “Let me try this song this way.” I gave him 20 seconds or so of the song and he really liked that one. I wrote the cellphone lyric in it.
AH: People are really picking up on that one lyric because it shows your willingness to combine modern life with traditional elements.
JM: Well, how much drama do cellphones cause in peoples’ life? A LOT.
AH: Gigantic drama.
JM: My version was initially more violent and redneck. It was a hardcore Honky Tonk type of thing. Andrew added a gentleness, a reconciliation, and more of an acknowledgement of the message than I had.
AH: On your most recent solo album, Incinerator, the range of sounds is very interesting, too. The song “Incinerator” itself sounds almost like Psych-Rock. You don’t limit yourself in terms of genre, do you?
JM: No. I really like that record, Incinerator, of all the ones I’ve done. But I write so many different types of songs that I have plenty for Folky Blues type stuff, like with Andrew Bird. I have done the Solo Sounds records for Eric Ambel, where I go in and play a whole record, just with a guitar. I did The Replacements, “Let It Be,” and Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. [listen to one from that one, here: Video Premiere: Jimbo Mathus Solo Blues Guitar Performance of Lucinda Williams] I’ve done about four of those records for him, and your guitar has to be quiet, clean, and resonating. My ear was trained to that, and I was grateful for that when I came to work on Incinerator and with Andrew on These 13.
Jimbo Mathus has recently returned to live performances and you can keep an eye on what events he has coming up on his Facebook page here https://www.therealjimbomathus.com. Find his music here: https://orcd.co/these13. Read our earlier interview of Jimbo on Incinerator, here: Interview: Jimbo Mathus on How Life is an Incinerator and his Key to the Highway interview, here: Key to the Highway: Jimbo Mathus. Find more on the Solo Sounds series, here: Eric Ambel’s Sampler and More