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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gill Landry Reflects On His Work With The Kitchen Syncopators & Old Crow Medicine Show, While Delivering His Own "Piety & Desire"

Hi Gill. Thanks so much for taking the time to participate in this interview. I'd like to begin by discussing your early work, and then we can work our way through your musical trajectory, and end with your current work. 

My goal is to discuss the span of your career, including your early work with The Kitchen Syncopators, your experiences as a member of Old Crow Medicine Show, and then we can take some time to really dig into your own albums and songwriting.

Indulge me if you will, by sharing some of your earliest musical experiences.

Gill Landry: The first song I remember ever hearing or singing was "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" by Crystal Gayle. My ma had the record. Although I come from a Cajun family, growing up with the old folks speaking French when they didn't want you to know what they were saying, I'm sure I heard Cajun music but mostly on TV commercials advertising fairs at Burton Coliseum. I wouldn't say Louisiana had any musically cultural influence on me when I was kid. I didn't have a particularly musical family, and I mostly listened to top 40 radio. I didn't reconnect with Louisiana as a source until I was on my own.

When did you start playing music?

Gill: I got my first guitar when I was 5. I was inspired by my uncle who was married to a woman from Holland. They used to sit around and play Fleetwood Mac songs and he was really into Bruce Springsteen. I believe that Born In The U.S.A was my first cassette. He used to dub me lots of tapes of what he was into, but I was too young to get most of it. The first tapes I bought for myself was License to Ill by the Beastie Boys and Raisin' Hell by RUN DMC, which was also my first performance. I lip synced "My Adidas" with my friend Bobby Shaw at an elementary school talent show.

That is great. I have a feeling that some readers may only be familiar with your work with Old Crow Medicine Show. Before we discuss your work as a member of Old Crow, I'd like to start by asking you about your earlier work with your previous band, The Kitchen Syncopators. Can you discuss how the band got started, and take us through its history?

Gill: The Kitchen Syncopators came out of a Vaudeville show that Me, Felix Hatfield, Woody Pines, and Huck Notari were doing called The Songsters. It was a Bread and Puppet-inspired cardboard theater which featured a lot of early American music we were picking up off of our friend Baby Gramps. We'd been starving in shacks in Eugene, Oregon, when me and Woody went to the Oregon Country Fair one day to try busking. I think we made $300 bucks that day, which to us was a fortune at the time.

That winter, I went to New Orleans with the phone number of Lissa Driscoll, which I'd gotten from Gramps. She put me up in her place in the Marigny, and she took me into her band. She showed me the ropes of the streets down there. She also taught me a lot of my best material at the time. She was a good mentor. I eventually moved into a one bedroom shotgun on Dauphine and then Woody came down, and we tried hitting the streets together. It was rough starting. It wasn't as kind to us as the northwest farmers markets and festivals. We were on the verge of throwing in the towel when Ryan Donohue and Slim Nelson joined us and we built a sound. Everything sort of took off for us in our own way.

The Kitchen Syncopators

Reflecting on those years, what would you say was most rewarding for you from your experiences in The Kitchen Syncopators?

Gill: Everything about the Syncopators was rewarding. I had the most purely wonderful and adventurous times of my life running around with those guys. There were no rules as to where we could go or what we could do once we started busking. We eliminated the need to book gigs, and we'd figured out a circuit from the Northwest to New Orleans. We cut out the middle man and it really worked for us for a good long while, and it probably still could. Eventually, we built a following in the Northwest and started playing proper venues and filling them, which was all built from the street up like Old Crow Medicine Show had gotten started, which I think was the kindredness that eventually brought us together.

What led to the end of The Kitchen Syncopators?

Gill: The Syncopators stopped for me because I couldn't see a way to grow within the medium. After 6 years of it, I had a psychological block, which put me in the way of it. Specifically, as far as how to use washboards and resonator guitars in a way that was new and interesting to me. I'd scoured every early recording of every great artist I'd heard of, learned my favorite songs, and played them to death. I tried writing songs to fit the sound but they always came off hammy to me. I realized that I couldn't find a way to communicate lyrically what I wanted to say over that sound, and it was so based on busking that it had a built-in set of dynamics I didn't know how to change. So I just moved on.

The recordings by The Kitchen Syncopators are out of print. Are there any plans of re-releasing them?

Gill: Not as of now. I appreciate that the Syncopators existed at a time when things could still die. Some things are better that way. Sometimes I wish the internet would get amnesia.

Let's move into your work with Old Crow Medicine Show. How and when did you connect with Old Crow, and how did you become a member of the band?

Gill: I met them in New Orleans in 2000, I think. We were both busking over Mardi Gras. We'd been on a similar path: both of our bands started at the same time, but on different coasts. We were each studying the same songs and music. We were even performing a lot of the same songs. They were doing them more as old-time stringband numbers, while we did them with more of a New Orleans country blues and ragtime vibe.

I didn't join them until 4 years later, when Critter quit and they were looking for someone to fill in. Our mutual friend, Sam Parton, suggested I give Ketch a call. So, I did, and he said that he thought I could be the guy. He asked me how my clawhammer and dobro playing was, and I said it was "rusty but good". I didn't even own a banjo at the time and hadn't heard of "clawhammer" before, I was a guitar player.

That is really funny.

Gill: Yeah. I went to a place called The Folkstore in Seattle, and bought a Goodtime banjo. I got a five minute lesson from the proprietor, then I went back to the house I was flopping at, and practiced it for two weeks before I went to meet the boys. I played it on the Opry and at Doc Watson days. I must have just been god awful.

You should have seen the look on that guy in Seattle's face when I told him that I needed to learn to play clawhammer in two weeks because I was going to replace David Rawlings (who I hadn't heard of at the time) who'd been a fill in, in Old Crow Medicine Show. It was priceless. I guess I did something right because they kept calling me back.

I'll never forget it: Kevin Hayes picked me up in Nashville for the first time, and we were headed out to Whites Creek where Ketch was living, and as we crossed the Cumberland River, it smelled just awful. I asked him "What's that smell?" and he said "Hot new country" 

Did your experiences working with Old Crow influence your own solo recordings?

Gill: They're two separate things. They are completely different ways of approaching recording. I learned a lot working with Old Crow, but I wouldn't say it influenced how I work on my own records, most likely because I had worked on many of my own records before I ever recorded with Old Crow. Old Crow tries to get everything in one take, which is exactly what I did with the Syncopators, but for my own records, it was whatever got the results I wanted. 

Can you discuss the writing and development of your album, The Ballad of Lawless Soirez?

Gill: Over half of the album is filled with songs that I had written since I started writing songs. The other half came about in the months leading up to the recording itself. Some were finished in the studio, some of the best ones actually. I think I work better under pressure.

At the time, I had just left Old Crow because Critter was coming back, and I didn't know what I was going to do. I knew what I didn't want to do, so I called up Nettwerk Records and sent in some demos, and then had lunch with them. Without them even hearing me live, or me having a band, or even having done one show, they signed me and sent me a check- the kind that nobody writes anymore. I wasn't even given any guidelines really, other than that they wanted 12 songs, and 45 minutes of music. There was no conversation as to what the music was expected to be, and I wasn't sure I'd get the chance at this kind of freedom again. So I did what I wanted to do.

I didn't have a band, or an act, so there were no definitions as to what this record could be. So that's how I approached it, and that's how I would like to approach all of my records, no matter what happens in the future. I don't at all feel that I achieved what I heard in my head, but there are some good moments, and it was a good start. I came to feel that songs should get the treatment that best supports the concept over whether I'll ever be able to perform that recording live, which was a new concept to me. This is to my detriment in some regards that it's not so easily packaged, but at the end of the day, I've got few regrets about it.

I hired my friend Nick Jaina, who had worked on the demos I'd sent Nettwork, to produce it. We decided to be experimental with it, not freakishly experimental, but we wanted to just try and create soundscapes around the songs that fit the songs. The fact that the album is cohesive, if it is cohesive at all, is somewhat accidental. All your basic musical food groups are represented: drums, guitar, bass, etc., but putting mariachi horns and harmonizing musical saw on Lawless Soirez, and things like that, from where I'd been coming from previously, was very inspiring and a lot of fun. 

I've read that you have described your latest album, Piety and Desire, is a "love song" to New Orleans. How has New Orleans influenced your musical development?

Gill: New Orleans completely influenced my musical development with the Syncopators, as well as my own writing. It's the place where I honed my chops and learned to survive as a musician. It's dirty, it's raw, it's full of sex and death, and raw passion that swings like a pendulum through the human spectrum.

When I first arrived, there weren't too many kids our age trying to work the street, but the old guard was still there and they were kind to us. They were full of tough love that taught us many tricks of the trade and how to play for the dead ones. It's a lifestyle of fringing the system artistically, and it is it's own dysfunctional family. But for some, it is the only family they've got. I learned a lot about people on those streets, and I shared some powerful moments with a lot of those people, and we shared some things you can only see when your crouched down on Decatur with only 5 dollars in your pocket and a lot of big ideas on your tongue.

New Orleans showed me magic, horror, abundance, and depravity, at a time in my life when I was starry eyed and romanticized the hell out of almost anything. The place treated me right. I don't go back much anymore, not because I don't think it's an amazing place, but because it's haunted by different ghosts now, the ones I don't care to reconcile with.

The album has a very moody, layered, cinematic, feel to it. Can you describe the musical mood, feel, and/ or the atmosphere you were attempting to convey across the album?

Gill: I wanted it to be like a beautiful ghost that kind of frightens you, but you also find yourself attracted to.

Can you discuss your approach, and writing process, lyrically?

Gill: It's always different. Sometimes I'm listening to the radio and I hear something wrong because it's turned too low and is out of key with the road, and the melody gets stuck in my head and I jot it down. Other times, I sit down at the piano and try to learn something and something else comes together by accident.

I follow feeling as much as possible, it's not a calculated thing, in the sense that I'm mostly trying to avoid formula even though I am most certainly adhering to one. I spend a good deal of time on writing lyrics. It's a process where the story reveals itself to me, more than me revealing a story. It all comes together through the processing of ideas.

The Felice Brothers

The new record has an impressive roster of amazing guest players: The Felice Brothers, Ketch Secor, Brandi Carlile, Jolie Holland, and Sam Parton. Can you discuss your experiences collaborating and recording with The Felice Brothers as your band for the record?

Gill: The first show Old Crow did with the Felice Brothers, Ian Felice told me that they had a studio in upstate New York in a remodeled chicken coop, and if I ever wanted to go up there and record some of my songs with them that they'd be into it, and they would be my band. I had burned out their self-titled record all that fall, and couldn't believe it. I jumped at the chance.

I love that band's sound and songwriting as much as the greats I grew up listening to. Their vibe resonates with me and their code is uncrackable and righteous. I learned a lot from those boys. I love them as people most of all. They come at it all from a very deep place. It's wild, and it breathes like a forest on mushrooms receiving messages from pigeons, just in from some dark city streets. Even if it's firing on two cylinders, it's going somewhere worth following. 

Having worked with such an impressive bunch of collaborators and players over the years, is there any one of your friends that you haven't worked with that you would like to?

Gill: I'd really like to work with more of the Louisiana artists that I've met over the years, New Orleans and Lafayette folks. I'm really interested in working with people who come from different backgrounds and look at things differently than I do. I like to keep an open channel, and those things usually become apparent within the process.

I've been writing a lot with my friend Felix Hatfield, from the Syncopators and the Songsters. He is one of my favorite songwriters. I would really like to make an album of his songs with him someday.

You performed some dates with The Felice Brothers, as well as some solo shows. Were you performing your sets solo or with a band?

Gill: I did a little of both. About half the dates I did with my friend Odessa Jorgensen on fiddle and harmony, and the rest I did solo. I'd love to have a twelve-piece band but I haven't fouled 11 people who hate themselves enough to starve for my visions. 

What's coming up next for you?

Gill: I'm moving to London in February to release Piety over there on a label called Communion. Then I'm going to do some touring and I'll expatriate for a while.


  1. This is great! I'm doing a piece on Eugene buskers at the moment. Still pulling it together.