Most people know Aaron Lee Tasjan as one of the wittiest, most offbeat, brilliant, weedsmokin’ & LSD microdosin’ Americana troubadours writing and singing songs today. But steel yourselves, folk fans, because he’s about to follow his restless muse straight out from under the weight of everyone’s expectations into the kind of glammy, jingle-jangle
power-pop- and- psych-tinged sounds he hasn’t dabbled in since his younger days playing lead guitar for a late-period incarnation of The New York Dolls.
Really, the roots of Tasjan’s new record, Karma for Cheap, stretch even deeper, drinking up the sounds of a Southern California childhood spent listening to The Beatles while riding around with his mom at the wheel of their navy blue Volvo station wagon — back to the very first pre-teen year he picked up a six-string and started figuring out all the pretty little chords in those Lennon-McCartney tunes. Back to the pure, blissful unfiltered innocence of falling in love with music for the first time.
Karma for Cheap is Tasjan’s third LP and second for his label New West Records, based in his current hometown of Nashville. The record was co-produced by ALT and his friends Jeff Trott (Stevie Nicks, Liz Phair, Meiko, Joshua Radin) and Gregory Lattimer (Albert Hammond Jr.) and features Aaron Lee’s road band — guitarist Brian Wright,
bassist Tommy Scifres and drummer Seth Earnest — with whom he’s been touring heavily for the last two years.
While the stylistic shift from Tasjan’s palpably stoned ‘70s-country-channeling 2015 debut, In the Blazes, to his more sophisticated, introspective and lushly produced 2016 follow-up, Silver Tears, was relatively incremental, Karma’s rocked-up Brit-pop-influenced Beatles-Bowie-Badfinger vibes underscore a significant departure. The album boldly reimagines these vintage sounds, pushing the boundary of what can be considered Americana. With Karma, Tasjan establishes himself as an artist who not only evolves over time, but isn’t afraid to risk reinventing himself completely from one record to the next.
(Photo Credit: Curtis Wayne Millard)
Kevn Kinney is the frontman of the Atlanta-based alt-country band Drivin N Cryin; Aaron Lee Tasjan, who’s released three albums as a solo artist, was also briefly a member of DNC. Most recently, Tasjan produced DNC’s newest album, Live the Love Beautiful, out today. Here, the collaborators and friends discuss the new album, what it was like to be on MTV in the ‘90s, and making a record after being in a band for 34 years.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Associate Editor
Kevn Kinney: When did you first hear about Drivin N Cryin?
Aaron Lee Tasjan: I was a very young man when I first heard about Drivin N Cryin. I want to say I was 9 years old, and my family was on vacation on Nantucket. My parents wanted to spend some adult time — you know, be able to go out to fancy dinners, and they couldn’t take little monsters like me and my sister. So they got a babysitter, and she had MTV on and they played one of your music videos, and that was the first time that I had ever heard of or laid eyes on the band Drivin N Cryin.
Kevn: Was it the “Fly Me Courageous” video when I was wearing funny hats all the time and long trench coats?
Aaron: [Laughs.] It was the “Fly Me Courageous” video. There were some dancing ladies involved — for a man of nine, it was very exciting stuff. Quite provocative.
What was that like, [being] on MTV in the ‘90s? I mean, I’m in the music business now, and they’ll be like, “Hey, man, go over to that forest over there and cut us down a tree and chop that tree into little pieces of firewood and then start a fire using just the elements of nature. And if I like the fire you’ve started, I’ll put one of my logs on your fire,” which is a little bit different, you know. Tell me about the wild days of MTV!
Kevn: Well, the whole process of it was a lot of fun. As I look at it in retrospect now, I didn’t know it was so expensive. [Laughs.] It was like winning a contest, being a movie star for a day.
Aaron: Were you the guy who came up with the ideas for the music videos?
Kevn: No, you weren’t really allowed to do that. They had directors and who put it all together.
It was like winning a contest for a day — there were caterers, and there were cameras on rails, and it was like, “Wow, this is so cool!” You don’t make ‘em now, because I think those things cost, like, $50,000. So we don’t really do that anymore, but it was really a requirement. You had to have a video. Even if they didn’t play it, you had to at least be ready.
Aaron: It was like being on the radio, right? Like, that’s where people found out about new bands.
Kevn: If you were lucky enough to get on 120 Minutes, which was pretty much all you could really hope for. But when they started playing “Fly Me Courageous,” it was just fun to be recognized in airports, and things like that.
Aaron: Did that kind of change overnight when they started playing that music video, or did it take a minute for that to kick in?
Kevn: I think it took a minute for it to kick in. The main thing [was], I wish that I had a little more control over what it was about — in “Fly Me Courageous,” it’s a girl on a train. “Smoke” was a pretty good one, but then it got banned because it had a gun in it. I don’t know why, I mean, there’s plenty of guns everywhere now.
It becomes weird, because I’m not really an actor. It was weird that you went from Bruce Springsteen, who wouldn’t even appear on television — you had to buy rock magazines to see pictures of him. Even before MTV, he wasn’t going to be on Johnny Carson, you weren’t going to see him on Midnight Special. It was kind of cool.
Aaron: It is cool!
Kevn: You have to be wary of those blueprints, though. If I try to follow in those footsteps… You know, you’re not Bruce Springsteen. [Laughs.] It’s like Keith Richards; only Keith Richards can be Keith Richards.
Aaron: That’s a good point. Are you trying to tell me something right now?
Kevn: No, I don’t need to tell you anything. [Laughs.] Well, I enjoyed making this record, first of all. We wrote the songs in your living room; I thought that was great.
Aaron: Can you talk to me a little bit about that? Because I’ve worked on a few records in my time and that was my first time ever working on a record where we walked in to start pre-production and there weren’t really any songs to sing yet. So how did how does that work? I think a lot of songwriters I know, that would make them really nervous, but you kind of seemed to thrive. You were just picking these ideas out of the air and they were just working somehow. How do you do that, man?
Kevn: The thing is, you have to give yourself away. So it’s a bit of a channeling thing. I’ve made so many records that I just want it to be fresh, I want it to be hot off the press. When you tell me [that] I’m going to go into this place and do this thing, I’ve got something prepared, but I also want leeway for other people to contribute what they want to contribute. I don’t want to be too, “This is the song! This is what I wrote and this is what it’s going to be!” I do that for my own records, but when you’re going to be in a band… A band is not a person, a band is a band, so you have to say, I’m going to bring this idea to them, and maybe they have a better idea. Maybe they want to country-fy it, or make it rock & roll, or something like that. So I try to not get married to too much.
These voice memos on my phone are saving my life; I’m writing at soundchecks constantly. I can tell when I do something that’s kind of cool, and then I also know from experience: I’m going to forget this. If I don’t record it right now, it’s going to be gone. It might resurface later in life, but I can’t afford that anymore.
Aaron: I read an interview with Tom Waits one time where he said he had to set his mind to trap a song. Is that kind of what you’re saying? You’re kind of putting your mind in the place where the conditions are such that songs will kind of happen?
Kevn: Yes. I’m using all the forty years of listening to music and letting it scramble, and then hoping that it’s going to come out as something that’s going to happen. Which is why I’m not a big drinker, I’m not a big drug taker — the more natural I am, the more naturally I can access it. And sometimes I’m just kind of praying a lot for divine intervention.
But, you know I didn’t just wake up in the woods — I obviously listened to millions of hours of Thin Lizzy and Graham Parker and Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan and the Mamas and the Papas. That’s why we were excited about working with you, because we think that you have, for somebody in your 30s — I was excited to learn from all this generation of people that are 20 years younger than me. I don’t like to tell tales — I mean, I do like to tell stupid stories about being on tour busses and things like that, but musically I’m really excited about tapping into what people are doing. I’m not a know-it-all, and I don’t want to stick to older producers.
I have this song called “Stand Up and Fight For It” — “I’m not impressed by what you’ve done or what you’re gonna do” — I’m singing that to myself, I’m not saying it in a mean way to anyone else. That something I say to myself in the mirror: “Kevn, I’m not impressed by what you’ve done, I’m not impressed by what you’re gonna do. Tell who you are and where you’re at and what’s happening right now.” So we were very excited to work with you because you make great records and we’re very impressed by what you’ve done.
Aaron: Aw. Well, I’ll tell you one thing that I’ve noticed about working with you is — and this is something that I’ve just picked up on, not just helping with your new Drivin N Cryin record, but just working with you through the years — you do pretty much everything based on feel. Like, you seem to be paying a lot of attention to how things are making you feel and reacting to that. I noticed you know you came back in a couple of times while we were cutting vocals; I’m a fan of your voice — I love a particular voices with personality. That’s my favorite kind of singer, and you have one of those voices for me. So to me, everything you sing sounds really cool. But you had a certain feel you were going for on certain songs. You needed to sing it a certain way to get your emotion across. That kind of seems like something that you do even when you’re playing a show — I’d see you looking around the room at the people in the audience, and there’s no setlist. It’s like, we’re all doing kind of whatever it is that you feel like playing next. How did that come to be part of your creative process? Just being able to rely on how you feel and know that that’s something that is going to work for you every time?
Kevn: I knew what wasn’t working. What I used to do is, I would make a setlist, do the setlist, and I would wind up hitting on a song that I didn’t feel like doing, but I would do it because it’s on the setlist and everybody’s ready to do it — the sound man’s ready to do it, the light man’s ready to do it, and the band’s ready to do it, but I don’t want to do it and it’s terrible. I’m like, I just phoned that one in. It took me a little bit of time to talk to everyone like, “I’m not doing setlists anymore.” For some bands, they work perfectly good for them, but for me, I’m kind of selfish and if I’m not selling it, you’re not buying it.
I’m only making these records for myself to listen to — “Step By Step” is a perfect example. I really wanted Mike Farris to sing it. I wrote it for Mike Farris, and I called him and said, “Can you come down to the studio and help me?” He was on tour and couldn’t come, but I really wanted whatever that is that he has. I tried to do it and it was just a disaster. I tried to be a fake Mike Farris, and I was like, I just have to be me. Mike Farris, if you’re reading this, I wrote you a song and would love for you to do it.
Aaron: I’d love to hear that. Mike Farris is such a powerful singer. I mean, his work in Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies, obviously, but his solo work is just so spiritual and amazing.
Kevn: And talking about your voice, it’s taken a long time for me to come to terms with dealing with my voice. I appreciate it now, but I’m trying to be Mick Jagger, but I know it comes out like Ronnie Spector meets Ozzy Osbourne and Willie Nelson and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Maybe Willie Nelson thinks he sounds like George Jones, I don’t know! [Laughs.] If you play a trumpet part through a clarinet, it’s gonna sound like a clarinet.
Aaron: That’s true, man. I heard it had something to do with the shape of your skull and how your voice resonates inside of your face, basically.
Kevn: Well, the actual practicality of my voice, though, is that it was arranged so that I could hear it in the monitors — monitors in the old days were so terrible. You’d play in these punk rock bars and the monitors are destroyed and the microphones are destroyed, and the speakers are all blown. If you tried to sing like a crooner, you just couldn’t hear yourself. If I started nowadays, it’s possible I might have started singing in a lower register. But to hear myself [back then], I had to scream.
Aaron: I remember the bass player in Joy Division saying that in something that I read one time. They were like, “Playing the really high bass stuff was kind of innovative,” and he was like, “That was just the register I could hear myself in.” A lot of people develop styles out of necessity. It’s born out of what you need to do to do the gig.
I have another question: What is it like to make a record after being a band for 34 years?
Kevn: Impossible. [Laughs.] The funny thing, you’re wondering why you’re doing it. So first you have to figure out, why am I going to do this? I guess you do it as an excuse to go on tour, and things like that, but inside of that, you want to say, “What do I have to say? What haven’t I said?” I try not to repeat myself, and I’m also trying be a little enigmatic — like, I would never sing a song that had the words “Donald Trump” in it, because in 16 years, no one’s going to care.
What’s different now and what was different then? I’m a little more mature; I got a great guitar player that I would like to show off. Laur Joamets — it’s a gift to have him with us. And the time that we spent together with you — we never really documented that, so part of my thing was, I would really want to do a record with Aaron.
It’s funny, because I grew up with Brian Richie from the Violent Femmes, and I remember we were at a festival one time in a golf cart, and some fan yelled at him, “When are you going to make another record?!” He goes, “When you stop buying the first one.” [Laughs.]
Aaron: [Laughs] Man, what a luxurious position to be in, and mean it.
Kevn: Obviously they’ve made a bunch of records since then, but it was a great response.
Aaron: One of the things that I love about Drivin N Cryin is that as a band, you guys have been a champion for other musicians who’ve been a part of your band. You think of what some of your past band members have gone on to do: Joey Huffman, certainly, and obviously Sadler [Vaden] most recently. But what’s it like to be a band for 34 years and then have a guy like Laur Joamets walk in? As far as I’m concerned, I feel like he’s gotta be in the top five guitarists of our generation. How did that feel, being a band for so long and then having this new guy come in that really brings a musical pedigree of a super high level to the group?
Kevn: It’s definitely a responsibility. I want to take advantage of his expertise and his feel and his spirit. I don’t want to waste it. It’s a responsibility to live up to, giving him a platform for him to play — for me to teach him, and him to teach me. I feel like I’m constantly learning from all the musicians that I play with.
I try to keep the songs it’s simple; I think I talk a lot about how I don’t use a setlist, but I also don’t do the song the same way. I’ll do expanded versions or shorter versions, quieter versions. So they’re going to push and pull. It’s almost like skateboarding or surfing or something — if I feel like you can pull that ollie, I’m gonna let you go for it.
Aaron: For those of us who haven’t written a song that’s lived on for generations, do you ever feel like you have to overcome that when you’re writing new songs? Does that even ever enter your mind, like, Fuck, I have this song that everybody knows and expects me to play every time I play a show?
Kevn: If you’re going to charge people and they’re going to come see you, you have to remember, I have an obligation [to play the song]. Now, if I charge five people $5 to get in, I’m not playing it; but if I charge people $25 to get in and they’re expecting to hear it, of course I’m playing it. I would hate to go see Flock of Seagulls with my girlfriend and spend $30 on tickets, and then they don’t play any of their hits. Come on, man!
Aaron: Is the music business more difficult, less difficult, or just different than it used to be?
Kevn: I think it’s a lot better. I think that everybody has a chance now; everybody can make a record in their basement. I like that. You had to walk the gauntlet a little bit — you had to sell out some shows, which luckily we did; [you had to] have a few connections, which luckily we did. But we had to be in the right place at the right time — Kim Buie [of Island Records] had to be sitting there at that bar and see us. What happened to us was the perfect storm, so that was great, but if we lived in Augusta, Georgia, I don’t think anyone would have ever heard of us.
Kevn: Maybe! I don’t know. I mean, how discouraging — what would have happened? We do the first 50 shows and nobody comes, and the bass player wanders off and gets into a bigger band? But nowadays, even though it’s harder to get a record deal, you can still be accessible to the world. How great is Billie Eilish?
Aaron: She’s so cool.
Kevn: She and her brother make these records, and somehow my granddaughter thinks they invented the world. It’s fantastic. They made these records in their house and they’re fantastic. She’s honest, and I think it’s fantastic.
Aaron: Yeah, I agree. I kind of think there’s a lot made out of how [the industry] is dying or whatever, but I think what’s actually dying is the way of doing things. It’s a whole new set of rules these days.
Well, is there anything that you hope people will take away from the Drivin N Cryin record and then listen to it?
Kevn: Not really. You’ll have to ask me that in 15 years. [Laughs.] Right now, I’m just really proud that I can play people this record that Aaron made for us. It’s exciting to have people like it. It’s fun to learn new songs; I’m enjoying just the simple ABCs of it. I’m not sure what people will take out of it, and if I did have an answer to that, I would be totally wrong, because I have no idea what I’m doing. [Laughs.]
(Photo Credit: left, Curtis Wayne Millard; right, Lisa Mac)