On the heels of recording a new record, Sorrow and Smoke: Live At Horseshoe Lounge (get it Sept. 6), Austin’s Slaid Cleaves sat down with us to answer a whole new batch of questions about performing, storytelling and the best show he’s ever seen.
Q: The new record is a live one, how did you approach that?
A: I had a closet full of CDs from last shows burned over the years; and just sort of casual things, you know. Tapers would make these and send them to me, or I’d set up a data sound, kind of record the show or something. Anyway, I just didn’t have the energy to go through them all and try to find the best ones. Anyway, I’d always wanted to make – well, for years, I’d been thinking about making a live record and didn’t have the heart to go through all those ones in my closets; so I thought, “Let’s start fresh and let’s go somewhere special and, you know, make it a special evening.”
I came upon the idea of planning a show at the Horseshoe Lounge, which was a place that I had mentioned in a song that I do just about every night. So I liked that idea, that connection. And so we did sort of a Facebook last minute invite and played an impromptu show there, which was just a whole bunch of fun. We actually recorded one night; and then I didn’t think we had enough good material on that night so we recorded a second night. So after the second night, we had enough for a double record.
When you put in on Facebook, did you open it up request-wise?
No. I do that pretty much every night. I open things up to request for a couple of songs. Usually I try to find out who came the greatest distance and make sure that they get to hear the song that they came to hear, ’cause some people come a long way.
Q: How do you handle those occasional requests for the song that’s not yours?
A: Well, I’ve recorded a bunch of songs, my friends and I, in which sometimes people assume they’re my songs; so it happens often that people request a song by a colleague of mine like Adam Carroll or Karen Poston or Rod Picott and I’m always happy to do those.
Q: What do you feel makes for a good live record?
A: I think input from the audience is really important, so that’s something we tried to get. And that’s one reason I wanted to play at the Horseshoe Lounge, because I knew that there’s no stage there. Really we’d be shooting by the shuffleboard table behind the Budweiser sign – pool table. So we’d get a lot of audience interaction both just atmospheric kind of beer clinking and people talking. But also people shouting requests or, you know, giving a shout out Michael, my guitar player, that night. So I think that’s an important thing.
Also, I wanted to put out a depiction of what my show is like, which is somewhat different from the records, which are beautifully produced and kind of lush, you know, and perfect. And, you know, we make everything sound all perfect on a record, but live, you know, things are not perfect; and there’s notes and there’s forgotten words and all that kind of stuff. So a little bit of that, a little bit of that rough stuff is on the live record.
Q: The Horseshoe Lounge is a special little place. But what are some other favorites, either here in Austin or elsewhere?
A: The Cactus Cafe is a go-to hometown gig. That’s where I’ve played probably more so than many clubs in Austin. I also like playing at the Saxon Pub, which was a place that I used to play and did open mic when I first got to town 20 years ago, just about. Those are my favorites in Austin.
There’s a place in New York City called Joe’s Pub that’s a really exciting place to play. A really great kind of night club down in Manhattan, so that’s really exciting. Oh, there’s called One Longfellow in Portland, Maine, which is always kind of a reunion show when I play there. That’s where I got my start professionally.
Q: On the record, you talk about older songs that don’t get played as much when the new album comes out. How do you know when a song’s ready to kind of come back into rotation?
A: I’ve never thought about it. Sometimes it’s because I notice people are requesting it, so I think, “Well, I better learn that one again.” Sometimes it’s because I need to give it a rest and I realize after a couple of years that it’s okay to bring it back in again.
What happens normally is I’ll play the songs that are on my latest record; and when a record comes out for the next year or two, I’ll be playing all the new songs. And of course, nobody wants to hear those songs ’cause they’re on a new record.
And then three years later when I come out with another record, I’m playing all the new songs, but people wanna hear the songs from the previous record, which half are taken out of the set. And I’m getting old enough so that I have quite a few to draw from, and so I’m trying to mix it up a lot more this year that I have been in previous years. I’m trying to do a lot more requests in the last couple months and just sort of challenge myself and see if I can remember some of the old ones.
Q: What about the stories? Do you plan on telling a certain story for a song or do you make it up as you go along?
A: That sort of evolves almost like the actual writing of the song – the story that sets up the song. Not every song has a setup, but most of them do; and some have a couple of different setups I can choose from. And those develop over the years.
Honestly when I put a set together, I base it on the flow of the setups, the stories, and the songs, and how they flow into one another. The setups to the songs, they’re almost like their own little songs, you know. They start with some kind of inspiration, and then I have to work on them and to make them fit the song that it’s setting up. It’s something I learned from people like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Fred Eaglesmith who I opened up when I was starting out. It’s a very effective means of keeping the audience interested instead of just playing song after song.
Q: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen from the stage?
A: Well, it was probably a few years ago, I was playing in Boston and there was a big-screen TV in the background playing a Celtics game; and I asked them to turn it off and they wouldn’t. So when I played an unplugged song, I went and turned the TV off. Kind of had this gospel on. It was kind of bothering me, it was distracting. And I was summarily fired from the gig.
Q: Where was your first concert?
A: A complicated answer to a simple question. I took piano lessons as a kid, so I did piano recitals at the end of the year. So all through junior high and our grade school even; and junior high and even into high school, I think. Yeah, early high school I would do piano recitals. And then I got into a garage band and I played keyboards in the garage band with my old buddy Rod Picott, and we played a couple parties. And then I played in kind of a bar band. And then we fired our lead singer and so I had to sing a few songs.
That’s when I started singing. That was about 1982. I was 18. And then I picked up guitar in college and started singing on sidewalks as a busker student musician. And around 1985 – so that’s when I first like played guitar and sang in front of people, but that wasn’t really a stage. I guess and then I started doing open mics and playing bar gigs a couple years after that. And so it was a very stop and start – kind of mismatch and trying, and not knowing what to do next. Just forging ahead.
Q: Do you do anything special to prepare for a show? Just not necessarily a recorded show, but as you’re gathering up your stuff going to set up, do you do anything special outside of the instruments and the obvious?
A: I try to make sure the sound is really good and – yeah, just normal stuff like that. Lately, I’ve been doing vocal exercises out in the car, either before the show or before dinner or something; try to keep my voice in shape. Usually when I play in a different town every night normally when I’m touring; and so I try to find out something about the town or remember something about the last time I was in town and work that into the show.
Like when I play in Maine, there’s a lot in one of my songs about Old Milwaukee, like Old Milwaukee Beer. In Maine they call it Old Millinocket. They drink Old Milwaukee, but they call it Old Millinocket which is sort of a dingy kind of mill town up in the middle of nowhere. So I’ll replace Old Milwaukee with Old Millinocket and people may get a kick out of that.
Q: What was the best concert that you’ve ever attended?
A: I saw some pretty good ones when I was a kid. I saw Bruce Springsteen only one time in my life. But I was 16 and I was a huge fan, so that made a big impression. But the year before that, I was 15 and I saw The Who at the Boston Garden, and that had kind of reverberated with me for quite a while. Those were moments of just sheer, sheer power and energy and excitement and enthusiasm; both those shows.