With his fifth solo release, Last Exit to Happyland, hitting shelves today, and a release “extravaganza” to be held at the University of Texas’ Cactus Cafe on March 14 before beginning on a show-a-night schedule during SXSW Gurf Morlix is a busy guy.
Luckily, he was able to take a few minutes last week to chat with us by telephone from his hometown of Austin.
Q: Are there differences in working on your own album versus working on other people’s music?
A: It’s a little harder to get perspective on your own music, for obvious reasons. It just takes a little longer, you’ve got to sort of disassociate a little and step back. It makes it a little more difficult but it can be done. It’s not a major undertaking but it involves a little more process.
Q: Are there people you go to for feedback?
A: No, if I can step back a little I can usually tell what I need to tell. But usually it’s pretty easy for me to figure it out by myself. I don’t really have people around that I can sound these things off of.
Q: How do you go about writing new songs?
A: There is no process, you’ve just kinda got to wait for the mood to strike. Although, it seems lately that for the last few years that the mood usually strikes me late at night when I’m really tired, when I really need to go to bed and get some sleep because I’ve got to get up and do something in the morning. An idea pops into my head – “I better spend a little time on this and develop something,” so I’ll spend another hour and try to get something down so I can start polishing it later. But you’ve just got to wait for the inspiration to hit.
Q: Did you start the album with a theme in mind?
A: I never know what the theme is. I find the theme when the album is finished, it’s kinda funny. That happened on both the last two records. I didn’t know what I was writing about until I had everything recorded and sequenced and then I listened to it and went, “Ah, now I see what this is about!”
Q: Barbara K, Ruthie Foster and Patty Griffin all sing on the album, how did you choose them for the songs?
A: Well, they live in Austin, all three of those people.
Patty just has the voice of an angel, you know? My voice is kinda rough and dirty and I feel like I need something to balance that sometimes because it can get a little too rough and muddy and Patty just makes that happen. She’s just got these gorgeous pipes.
And for “Drums Of New Orleans” I wanted some really soulful wailing and there was no one else but Ruthie Foster, who just came and did that in 15 minutes and it was perfect.
Then on the song “Music You Mighta Made” which is about my friend Blaze Foley, Blaze and Barbara were really good friends for a short period right around the end of Blaze’s life and when she moved to town with that band Timbuk3 Blaze just kinda picked up on them right away. So they hit it off and it just seemed absolutely perfect. I always loved that Timbuk3 sound with Barbara K singing with Pat MacDonald. It just seemed like the right thing to do to have her come and sing on the song about Blaze.
Q: How did you decide to become a musician? Did you consider any other career?
A: I knew from the time I was 5 that I could sing, music meant a lot to me.
Then I saw Ed Sullivan, I saw Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show and just went crazy and then I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. And that did it, that just rocked everyone’s world that night, that Sunday night when they first came on. That stitched the deal.
Q: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
A: When I was really young it was just whatever my parents had, which was usually pretty bad although they did have some Glenn Miller. But I listened to the radio all the time, we listened to the radio during breakfast.
I had a little transistor radio, a little plastic rocket-ship looking thing when I was ten I had this radio and with earphones I would listen to it in my bed when I was supposed to be sleeping and I’d wake up in the morning and I’d turn that thing on.
I was glued to the radio and at night you could get, I grew up outside of Buffalo, NY and at night the air would just open up and you could pull in stations from Florida and Chicago and they were playing different songs than I was hearing in these other places. Radio was just my world at that point.
Q: How has your musical style evolved over the years you’ve been playing?
A: I started out hearing The Beatles and wanting to play that rock ‘n’ roll stuff and then you start writing songs. You know, I was a side man for a really long time I was working with Lucinda Williams for 11 years and always was playing with really great songwriters and so I was learning from them all the time about the songwriting thing. And then I finally put the things that they were telling me together and started writing some songs that I liked, this is in the last 4 years or so, and I think it’s just a distillation of all the influences , everything that I had been listening to, everyone I meet who’s music I really like I take little bits of that, it’s sort of a distillation prices.
Q: What kinds of music have you been listening to recently?
A: I’ve been so busy lately that mostly what I listen to is the music of my friends or the music that I’ve been making, which is producing records for my friends. I listen to a lot of old stuff, a lot of old blue, a lot of field hollers, I listen to prison chain gang recordings. I find a lot of interest in that stuff. I don’t run across much new music that I like but I really like Sam Baker, he’s a friend of mine. I think he’s a great songwriter.
And I just met a guy named Malcom Holcombe and he is incredible, he’s like no one else. I keep coming across these unique songwriters – for me it’s all about the songs. If I hear something in a song that I like I’m just completely taken with it.
Q: Is there anything else that people listening to your music need to know about you?
A: Oh, I don’t know what they need to know about me. I’d like for them to hear the songs I’m writing and if they want to know more beyond that they can ask me.
Once I got these songs that I like, I just want to play for anybody who’s willing to listen so I’m trying to play all I can right now. I just finished producing a bunch of records and now it’s time to start playing some shows.