By the time you listen to his latest album Heart Like a Sigil (due March 11 on Flower Moon Records), Brad Armstrong will have already moved on to writing and recording his next record. This desire to chase creative conquests yet to be conceived is what has kept the Alabama-born singer-songwriter in the game for so long, and it’s also what will keep listeners entertained and invested in his music well into the future.
I recently sat down with Armstrong to discuss a time for “Time After Time,” ruminating over ruminations, and why he keeps his vinyl in a box under the stairs.
Americana Highways: When I read your bio I was sold from the first paragraph because for me, hair metal was my initial musical love, and so it seems it was yours. Let’s talk showmanship and on-stage flair to start, which were things those bands excelled at. Are there any aspects of that live, shot-from-a-cannon energy that you bring to your performances today?
BA: (Laughter) Well, not really. I came to rock and roll through those bands, and my first band started playing in probably 1989. I was a big Black Crowes /GnR /Jane’s Addition guy at that time, and for my first shows I went down to the Goodwill and found a crushed velvet blazer and women’s blouse with the ruffles on the ends of the sleeves and went for the Jimmy Page thing. But by the time I was actually performing on the regular, I was probably more a product of the Gen X thing—Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins and Pavement, and all that from the early ‘90s, and the rule of the day was any overt showmanship was frowned upon. If you turned up to the show in anything other than what you went to work in you were trying too hard, and you had to come off like you barely cared to be there at all. I was hyperconscious of that, as we all were. Rock and roll is more about cool than anything else.
AH: A lot of those acts never got the critical praise, but when you look at a band like Cinderella, they were doing stuff musically that was, in my opinion, seriously overlooked. Beyond the stage, how do those earliest musical roots impact your songwriting today?
BA: I have had that exact thought. Regarding Cinderella, they were straight up a product of the times—all those shitty keyboards, gated snares, and all that. Tom Keifer was really cool, and had a really sleazy way of playing guitar—in the Keith Richards/Izzy Stradlin school—and it was really great. I feel bad for all those bands in a way, because their sounds are so dated and it was so corny. I remember making records in the early 2000s, being very conscious of that, and not using reverb on anything. The logic was that Exile on Main St. still sounded great, and Simply Red and Tears for Fears sounded like 1984, period.
Reverb on drums was strictly prohibited for me until like 2012.
AH: Would the Brad who was rocking out to the Crüe’s Shout at the Devil be surprised by your latest album Heart Like a Sigil if he had a chance to preview it back in 1983?
BA: I am sure. I don’t think I would have listened to more than two minutes of it. I didn’t discover Tom Waits until I got into college. In the early ‘90s somebody turned me on to Rain Dogs, particularly “Gun Street Girl,” and I probably didn’t step on a distortion pedal again for 10 years. Although, maybe that isn’t totally true. There was this secret part of myself that I kept hidden, and I never would have admitted it to anyone at the time—I mean never—and that part really loved “Cruel Summer” by Bananarama and “Time After Time” by Cyndi. So there was some measure of diversity in my taste, I just wouldn’t cop to it.
AH: Heart Like a Sigil is due to drop in just a few days. This is now your third solo record. What kind of emotions do you juggle with as you set to release new music on the masses? Is it still just as exciting as it was with the debut?
BA: Well, yes and no. What I take away from making a record is completely different now. In the old days, we made a record and then it was all about the release process. Now, it’s all about the record itself. My emotional involvement with the process ends when I send it to mastering. There’s one more little moment when I listen to the mastered thing in my truck, then I am completely over it. I give it to the label and they do their thing, and I do whatever I am asked to do, but I’m on to the next thing pretty quick. Usually when I make a record, I have a certain vibe or feeling that is happening in me when I’m doing it, and by the time I am done I am wishing I had done this other thing with it, so I start doing that other thing.
AH: What would someone learn about you in sitting down to listen to Heart Like a Sigil front to back?
BA: That I spend a lot of time ruminating on some seriously bummer shit. (Laughter) There’s a lot of me in these records, but there’s a lot of character stuff too, and I write a lot about characters that are horrible, or that have no real bearing on my character. To listen to my stuff, you might think I was a dark magic guy, or southern gothic evangelical, or even religious in any way. I write a lot about God and Christianity and faith, and spirituality and ghosts and death and all that, but I am strictly atheist and don’t believe in the supernatural and I’m a science guy all the way down.
AH: You grew up listening to albums. That idea of a full, front-to-back journey is not something we—the listener—experiences much in these days of streams and spontaneous singles. That said, it’s what I loved most about Heart Like a Sigil, that it started me in one place and then took me to another… with all the right stops in-between. How important is it to you to give your albums their own individual identity and how do you go about choosing the track listing once you know what songs are making the record?
BA: It has always been paramount. I started conceptualizing what a record was and should be listening to stuff like Pink Floyd. I always felt like a record should be like a novel or movie or something, and I’ve always kept that in front of me. I loved hidden tracks in the early 2000s, and I loved the connective tissue you would put between songs. I have definitely gotten away from that, probably because of the times, and also because it started to seem like a distraction. As for how the songs are ordered, it’s all about balance for me, and thematic sequence, and not clumping stuff that has the same vibe, and how songs end and begin, and whether the keys work together to lead from one to the other. I think about it a LOT. And, sadly, it is no longer noticed much. (Laughter)
I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately. One form I absolutely love is the EP; the Archers of Loaf vs. The Greatest of All Time is one of my favorites, and in the last 20 years, it’s always been prohibitive to try and get a label to do one, because you can’t charge as much but it costs the same to produce. Streaming has maybe changed that. I have been fighting against this medium for a long time, same as I fought against changing from tape to digital (which didn’t happen until my first solo record). I don’t mean literally fought against it, I mean I was resistant and talked shit about it all the time. But maybe it’s time to roll with the times; I don’t wanna be some dinosaur creaking around with my double LP talking about how Pro Tools sucks to anybody who will listen.
AH: I’m assuming in those early years as a music listener you were listening to vinyl before cassettes took over the world. With that said, what is that feeling like holding your own music pressed on vinyl all these years later? Is there some magic there that speaks to the kid you were?
BA: I mean, yeah, I guess so. Like I was saying before, the magic for me is when it moves from my head to some physical (or digital) medium. Having the thing go from a little thing I’m noodling with on the couch to a thing with drums and pianos and fiddles, that’s the magic for me. I am definitely not hung up on the product. I don’t have any degrees hanging on my wall and the copies I have of my records I have are definitely in a box under the stairs.
AH: From your band days to now, you have a number of albums under your belt that add up to one impressive catalog of music. As you look back on them as a whole, do they end up being a bit like yearbooks in your life, highlighting who you were at a particular time and place?
BA: One hundred percent. Honestly, I find most of them painfully sophomoric. Maybe less so in my solo work, but certainly it’s still there. I always feel like the thing I just made is the thing I’ve been trying to make and wishing that it was the first thing and that all the other stuff wasn’t out there. And then by the time the record actually comes out, I feel like that about the new stuff. When I started, my goal was to have a shelf with all the shit I had ever made up on the wall and as I lay dying I could look up at it and think, “Okay, great, that’s a life and that’s what I did with it.” And now I think of it like, “Here’s all these snapshots and they were moments and they were fun or good or crappy” or whatever, but it’s just the detritus of a life, no more beautiful or ugly or meaningful or arbitrary than anything else.
AH: Someone comes to you tomorrow and says that you landed the opening slot on a massive multi-city tour, but the kicker is… you get to pick the headliner. Who would it be and why?
BA: (Laughter) I mean, part of me says it should be somebody who kind of does my thing but not as well as I do it so I could blow ‘em off the stage every night. (Laughter) I dunno. I feel like the best thing about touring is the sort of temporary family thing that happens between everyone involved. It doesn’t always happen, if the other band or their crew are assholes or something, but I have been pretty fortunate. I love that feeling when you’re five days into something and you realize you are looking forward to the other band’s set, and you all hang out after and make big plans at the end of the tour to do it again and to keep in touch, and you never do, and that’s kind of what is beautiful about it. Like everything we have is temporary, the house you own (or don’t own), your career, your life, the sun, etc. And you have these beautiful intense relationships and they don’t have time to get soured by age or anything, they just exist as these perfect snapshots of human companionship at its absolute best.
All that said, probably Tom Waits, because, you know, Tom Waits.
AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
BA: Not even a little bit. I already know what it’s gonna look like. I’m gonna be making records, whether anybody is listening to them or not, and I’m gonna get the same fleeting satisfaction from finishing one, and it’s gonna last about a week and a half, then I’m gonna start feeling the seeds of discontent sprouting, and I’m gonna start writing another one. And what if I took that journey and found out it wasn’t gonna be like that? I don’t wanna know that, man. I’m already a nihilistic fatalist. Can you imagine what that would do to me?
For more information self-proclaimed nihilistic fatalist Brad Armstrong, visit www.bradarmstrongmusic.com.