‘Whatever that magical thing is’ A pre-Twangfest interview with Langhorne Slim
Langhorne Slim has friends with crooked tails, guitars for sale on eBay and a burning desire for music and traveling.
On a rainy Brooklyn afternoon, Langhorne Slim stepped into a nearby shop to receive a perfectly-timed phone call from here in St. Louis. I was the phone call; he was the affable musician. We spoke about his raw rock ‘n’ roll and folk sounds, his new album “The Way We Move” and the comfort he feels on the road. Langhorne will venture to St. Louis to play Twangfest 16 at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room on Friday, June 8.
Joe Roberts: How are you? How’s it going?
Langhorne Slim: I’m good, man. I just came into this little shop here to get out of the rain. Hopefully you can hear me all right. But, I’m doing really well.
You’re on the road right now, is that right?
We got a house show tonight in Brooklyn. And then we leave for Boston tomorrow, which is the official start of our tour.
It seems like you’re on the road a lot. Do you ever catch a break?
Yeah! In fact, I’m just coming off of one right now that is way too long, about a month and a half of a break. Yeah, we tour all the time because I think it’s the way to get music out there, and also it’s just, I feel a lot more at home on the road, and inspired and free when I’m traveling and playing. So it’s a huge part of the lifestyle that I really enjoy.
When you do get a break, what do you do during that time?
Write music. See friends. I had a girlfriend for five years, so I’d spend time with her. I don’t have her anymore, so I don’t spend time with her. But, I’ve been traveling and I’m working on new songs. Just getting ready for the album to finally come out, you know.
It’s a crazy process. You just spend a bunch of time writing new songs and you record them to a record and then you got to wait five to six months for the actual record to come out. So I’m just really, really excited for this thing to finally get out there and to get back out on the road.
How do you think all of the touring has changed you as a person and as a musician?
I don’t know! I’m 31, I’ve been doing it for ten years. So, it’s pretty much most of my entire adult life. It’s just a natural thing for me to do. It was never a conscious thought. I never sat down and thought, “This is what I’m gonna do.” It was just a burning desire to write and perform and to travel with it.
I guess I never even realized that all bands didn’t travel as much. It’s only occurred to me when other people say, “You guys particularly travel a lot.” I’m sure it’s changed me as a person, I just wouldn’t know how. I think I’m just a person that is suited for that kind of lifestyle.
So, it’s just kind of who you are. It hasn’t really changed you, it’s just what you do.
I don’t feel that way. I just feel like I was born for it. Like somehow it’s in my bones or my blood.
You seem like the kind of guy who has a bunch of instruments lying around the house, and recently I saw…
Well, I did! I don’t have a house anymore! [Laughs] So I have a lot of instruments lying around in storage and at my mom’s house.
Oh, nice! Well, I saw recently that you had a guitar for sale on eBay. What’s the story behind that?
Basically, I just acquired or bought that guitar in California about, shoot, three or four years ago. And, to be honest I was trying to figure out what kind of guitar guy I was. And I’ve since realized that I’m really a Martin guy. So, I’ve got three Martins now. And I’ve kind of retired that guitar.
And just in moving on with different things in my life, I decided it was time to get rid of some things. So, I gave away some things, sold some things, and thought it would be fun to put that up there to see what might happen with it.
Kind of like a spring cleaning of sorts.
Exactly! Sometimes it’s important to do that, you know?
Oh, yeah! Now, it sounds like you’ve had a lot of guitars. What is your favorite one? Do you have one that would be an extension of you and your music?
Yeah! It’s a small body 1957 Martin with mahogany wood. It’s probably the coolest guitar I’ve ever played. So, um, that’d be the one, man. I feel like I finally found “the one”!
How exactly do you get the different guitar sounds on all your tracks? For example, on “The Way We Move” you have a very percussive sound, is that a particular guitar, a strumming technique you use? Or is that just your style?
I suppose, man. I’m not a trained guitar player. I learned to play guitar from my cousin, who I grew up sort of idolizing. And he taught me a few Nirvana songs and then I kind of developed my style or started writing songs by becoming obsessed with those few Nirvana songs, playing them over and over again. And then I got into, like, all different styles of music. But, I think just through my different — just being comfortable with my self and then just blending all this other music maybe lends itself to having a hopefully unique or distinct style. Yeah, just what comes out.
I know some artists are protective of their lyrics, music or songs, and all of that. How do you feel about discussing your songs or lyrics, and their meanings? Or do you prefer to leave that up to the listener to come to their own conclusions?
Yeah, I’d much rather leave it to the listener to come to their own conclusion. I like to talk about it and hear the other stories that other people come up with. I find that pretty fascinating. But I mean it depends on what the questions were. But, yeah, sometimes I shy away from it, I guess — I’m not the first one to say it, for sure, but the beauty of these things, I think, is that people connect with it, if they do connect with it at all, people connect with a particular artist or song or painter or whatever through the eyes they’re looking at it with. So, it’d almost be restrictive, I think, to say, “This is exactly what this thing means. So what whatever you’re taking away from it, if it isn’t exactly this, you’re wrong.” I think the coolest thing is that it can mean a lot of different things, it doesn’t have to mean exactly what it meant to me when I wrote it.
How do you write the lyrics? Are they primarily your personal experiences, are you telling stories, or are you reflecting on life? Or is it all kinds of different things going on in your lyrics?
No, on this record ["The Way We Move"] 99.9 percent [of the lyrics] are a reflection of my personal experience. And it’s pretty personal! [Laughs]
What’s the process?
The process is, I don’t know, I hear a melody or songs in my head all the time. Some are worth navigating around and getting into and making songs, and others kind of float by and I’m not there to grab them. But, the process — I don’t wake up every day at nine and get the guitar out. I’ve never had that kind of a regimen. In fact, I think that’s why I do what I do, because I’m terrible at doing that sort of work and being that organized. But for me it’s just an inspiration, when I’m fortunate enough to have whatever that magical thing is, I don’t know how to put it into words, just to be present and to capture it and try to turn it into something.
So it’s pretty much you exclusively doing the writing and the music, and then you present it to the band? Or do they contribute in that process, too?
That’s right, but they contribute a great deal. Basically I will write the song on my own. At this point a lot of us are in New York, but in the last so many years we lived in different places. The last two years I lived in Portland, Oregon and I would write the songs, or the vast majority of the songs and then when you go out on tour I’ll bring a song to the guys and play it for them at sound check or before the show or something like that. And we just get into it and see where the song goes.
I sense a bit of a punk-rock vibe to your music. Was there, or is there, much punk rock in your life, or was that just how it turned out?
[Long pause] Wow! That’s great! That you say that and hear that. Yeah! That’s what I want. To be in a soul-punk-folk band. That kind of music is all the same. Early blues and folk music, early soul and R&B — all that raw and rootsy music is very punk rock. It’s very stripped down and real and dirty and raw. That’s my favorite stuff to listen to and that’s the music I’m most inspired by.
Yeah. I’m sure you were playing in a series of bands growing up and before you…
I was not!
You were not! Okay!
Strangely. I was not.
How did it come about? How did you know you were going to do music and how did it become your sole project?
It just feels like it came along with me as a little dude. I dreamt and fantasized about playing in bands growing up, but I never really found people in the small town I grew up in to do it with. I don’t know why, I was just always really drawn to music. I tried doing acting and plays when I was really young. Sure, I was pretty good at it, maybe, but I wasn’t great taking direction from a director. So I thought, after I learned to play a little guitar, if I could write my own songs and had my own shows, it would essentially be a play that I was writing.
But I was just doing like open mics and living rooms and coffee shops. Anywhere anyone would listen to me. That’s when I was still living in Pennsylvania, and then moved to New York when I was 18 and thankfully I got a lot of support from my family and my friends. I was living in the city in East Village and playing these little open mics and people were really cool and supportive …. I always felt that I’d either be a poor, unknown musician or a musician that was known and makes some money. But there was never really a backup plan. It was like, this is what I got and so this is what I’m gonna do.
Let’s hear about your involvement with the PBS show “Sun Studio Sessions.”
That was a while ago. I think it still airs. It’s a really cool thing. I’d love to do it again, I feel we could do it better than we did. I think we did that like, shit, three years ago. What they do is they have bands that go into Sun Studio and a record in a very basic, stripped down way. It’s just a very cool project.
You’ve toured with plenty of other artists and bands. Are there any crazy stories?
There are probably crazy stories, but anytime anyone asks that I forget. There’s so much monotony and there’s probably so much crazy shit that happens that it all just blends together. But we’ve been fortunate, man, from the beginning we’ve toured with amazing bands. Lucero was one of the first bands that took us out on the road, and they were incredible to us. We did a few shows with the Violent Femmes, which were one of my favorite bands growing up. And that was amazing. There’s a long list of heavy hitters that we’ve been able to go out with. Yeah, it’s cool. It’s important on the road to have that kind of camaraderie with the folks you’re touring with. It’s a beautiful thing when you’re all together musically and creatively, but also to have that brotherhood.
What song of yours do you feel sum up what you and your band are all about?
I would say this entire new record. That’s the best thing we’ve done so far. If I were to pick some songs, I would say to give the whole record a shot.
We spoke earlier about discussing the meanings of songs and such and I understand you’re in the process of moving and you’re often on the road touring. What is your take on the song “How We Move” and what was the inspiration?
That song’s more about the lifestyle you live, maybe the way you strut. Maybe, about being kind of a freak, but a beautiful freak. An outsider, but with other outsiders, so therefore, you are in a family. I guess, if you’re an outsider in a family of outsiders, you’re an insider. It’s just a song about, you know “all my friends got crooked tails, that’s the way I like it, that’s just what I need.” That’s what it means to me, just having a group of beautiful freaks. Making art and kicking ass.
Langhorne Slim and the Law perform at Twangfest 16 on Friday, June 8.