Interview: Austin Lucas. Shared Catharsis.
Austin Lucas has traversed the worlds of punk, metal, folk and country. His dark lyrics, sweet vocal tones and acoustic, rootsy sound combine to raise audiences to rebellious rowdiness…or enthrall them into complete adoring silence. You just can’t predict what an evening in the musical company of this engaging troubadour will bring. After a month in Europe on tour, he still arrives perfectly on time with ample energy to chat before his London gig at The Boston Music Rooms. He speaks enthusiastically about the importance of respect for others when you find yourself in a foreign place, the possibility of forming a new hardcore band, why the best place to sing is in the middle of the crowd, the ongoing drive to fund his burrito habit and life pre and post recording and touring with Chuck Ragan.
You’ve been in Europe on tour for several weeks, how’s it been going?
It’s been mostly really good. Last night in Plymouth was really fun, a really packed, rowdy crowd.
Do you prefer it when the crowds are rowdy?
No! I like when they’re ordered and sweet and attentive. I’m totally a sensitive singer-songwriter. I like to captivate the people and have them be completely silent [laughs] but that being said, it can be really fun having a really rowdy crowd.
Do you think there’s a big difference between the crowds at your shows?
My fan base is like really diverse. You have these like big beardy tattooed punk rock guys and you have like old, traditional country music and Americana fans that are in their 50s and 60s and you have a lot of emo girls. It’s kind of crazy. [Laughs] So, if you have a lot of the hard drinking, rowdy rough sort of crowd, then it can really end up influencing how the show goes. Now if only five or six of those kind of people show up on any given night and it’s a lot of the more older type crowd or just more the beardy punk guys, cos those guys and their girlfriends, they’re there to cry, so they’re not talking, then generally it’s a really quiet show. But sometimes just two or three really crazy people, that just are not willing to give up, can ruin a show. To me that’s what’s important in life – recognising the fact that you have to be respectful of the situations that you’re in. I mean, I’ve lived a lot of places, I’ve toured extensively in Europe, Australia and the United States and the one thing I’ve learned is that you have to know where you are. You have to pay attention to who you’re talking to. But mostly my fans are super intelligent and really amazing and pretty perceptive to what’s going on.
Mostly I want to get down with folks and talk about some serious stuff and have them listen. I love to entertain people and have them have a great time, but I’m a sensitive artist type. I don’t do this for any reason other than the fact that I crave attention and approval. [Laughs] Anybody that says they do it for any other reason is completely lying to you. People who do this and excel at it are certain types of personalities and if we can’t admit that, then we’re struggling. Like all my friends who are singer-songwriters that are any good at it at all, we all have so much in common and none of us are really easy to get along with. Most of us just accept that and love each other anyway. [Laughs] It takes a certain type of personality to do this work. It’s a job but it’s a calling. It’s a calling that turns into a job if you really work on it and if you don’t really work on it, it’s never going to be a job, unless you’re the luckiest dick ever and fuck you! [Laughs]
What’s your approach to songwriting? Is it something you feel that you channel or do you treat it like a craft that you practise to get better at?
I mostly write when I feel like writing, because I’m lazy. But I do try and regiment myself and get on a schedule where I make sure that I write. I live in Nashville and I sometimes write on Music Row in an office with other dudes who write hits. I mean I don’t write hits particularly, I don’t think, but you know, I try to. [Laughs]
How does that work – is it like turning up to an office and you have set hours?
Absolutely. Yeah, you’re like OK we’ll meet up at 10 and we’ll work til 2. It’s actually usually a room like this, it’s not like an office with a desk, nobody sings in a position of power in a nice like swivel chair or anything like that. I would love it if I could just magic songs into the fucking world, but you can’t do that, it takes work. You have to put in the time. People are always like “I can’t sing” and I’m always like “you’re crazy, it’s just you haven’t tried!”. Maybe I have a slight disposition to being able to sing in key better than other people, but if I hadn’t been nurtured at it, if I hadn’t started working at it since I was like two years old, then I wouldn’t be as good at it. If I hadn’t started writing songs when I was 12, then I might not be as good at it.
Do you remember that first song you wrote at 12 years old?
Well actually the first song I wrote was when I was seven and I don’t remember anything about it except, that me and my friend Ryan wrote it on a snare drum and a ukelele and the only thing I remember was at the end it said [singing] “and then we kissed”. But when I was 12, the first songs I wrote were for a band called Lost Souls which was a punk band that I was in when I was really young. We had a song called Censor This that was about parental advisory, about censorship and stuff like that. I mean it was just profanity and anger, you know. [Laughs]
Do you think you’ll ever want to go back playing in punk/metal bands?
I have friends in Nashville and we talk about if we should start up a hardcore band or something like that and I think we might. I do this because I love it the most. I put on my first solo show in 2000, I was 21. It went from me playing more aggressive music all the time and me doing this sometimes, til this became my career. So this became the thing that was real, where I could tell that I would be able to make a life out of it People’s order of their favourite things in life, it’s always like “is it food or sex, is it food or sex?”. Mine’s like “singing!”. And I’m not going to tell you the rest of the order. [Laughs] But definitely singing, it’s so cathartic and perfect. When you’re in it, it just feels right. As long as the crowd’s quiet and stuff. [Laughs]
And is there new material in the set you’re playing on this tour?
I’m playing one new song. I have an album that’s going to come out at some point this year but I’m not playing a lot of stuff off of it. This is mostly like golden oldies, like hit factory [laughs], it’s the best of all the records and I’ve got a lot of records. I’m playing at least two or three songs off every album.
Can you tell me something about the new album?
It’s a concept album. It’s about three best friends that grew up together in Southern Indiana and fall in love with each other and ruin each other’s lives.
I saw you play at the Windmill in Brixton a few years ago with Jon Snodgrass…
Oh, with Cory and Jon and Chad and my sister as well was at that…
Yes, and you got down into the crowd to play…
Oh yeah, I do that schtick everyday. [Laughs]
I just wondered what that’s about because to me that seems like the heart of the punk ethos, where the crowd and the band are all on the same level, are all equal?
Yes, that’s definitely part of it. I grew up playing a lot of house shows. In the States that’s really common, to play in somebody’s basement or living room or their backyard. When you play those shows there’s not a stage, there’s just you and people standing there or sitting down. I would say that from 2000 to 2008 it was completely DIY. If we’re getting biblical, I have like BCR and ACR, which is Before Chuck Ragan and After Chuck Ragan. That’s before I did Bristle Ridge [the 2008 album with Chuck Ragan] and after. After I did Bristle Ridge things changed completely for me. But before that everything I did was house shows. If from 2000 until 2008 I played like a thousand shows, safely 900 of those shows were in somebody’s living room or their basement or in a bar that wasn’t made for music and I was just like standing there with my guitar with no PA.
That’s how I learned how to perform for people, so when I had to switch over to being on stage it was really crazy. It took me a while to adjust. I wasn’t used to accolades at all, I wasn’t used to signing autographs or having people take pictures for me. It was completely and utterly foreign to me and uncomfortable. The way I was able to keep myself tied to where I was and still to this day the reason I do that [play in the crowd] is because it’s really important to me to bring that down and be able to be a part of the crowd. The one thing I hate worse than anything is a tall stage. I want to connect with people and the best way to do that is to be closer to them. It’s one thing to play in a big room full of people on a big stage and they know your songs and they’re excited to see you and you can connect with them still. But most of what I do is like win fans every day. When I come to Europe, generally speaking, I’m a little bit more known than I am in the United States, but in the United States, which is like eight months of every year of my touring cycle, it’s just eating shit and just trying to win people over and I cannot do that on a big stage. I always know when I’m getting a crowd and I’m really drawing them in, when we’re standing together on the floor. That’s what I was taught and that’s where I learned to do what I do. That’s why I became the songwriter that I am, playing on a dirty floor with a bunch of other dirty people [laughs] and having a really, really good time and being together, sweating on other people.
To me, that’s what music and rock and roll is all about, that shared catharsis, you know what I mean? Where everybody is just soaking and everyone’s sharing in this energy. I think that being on stage can really separate you from that and I don’t think that’s healthy for you as a performer. Can you imagine being the Rolling Stones? The only thing I can think of, when I think about being at that status level, is just absolute fear of being completely disconnected from humanity. Who in the fuck wants a pampered lifestyle where everything is given to them and they have no connection to other human beings? I have no interest in being a god. I may be a rock god, I kind of am [laughs] but as much as I want as many people to hear my music as possible, I never want to lose touch with who I am and with the people that exist on this planet. We’re all part of the same thing. Why would you ever want to remove yourself from a collective? It’s much better to be part of a collective, it’s much better to share life.
Given that you do so much touring, do you have a chance yourself to go and see other shows and other artists much?
When I’m home I see a lot of shows actually and that’s because I live in Nashville and everybody comes through Nashville. I would say two or three nights out of the week somebody that I’m friends with is touring through Nashville and I’m out and about.
Whose performances have inspired you recently?
Last year I saw this woman Anais Mitchell. She’s a folk singer. I saw her on my day off in Winchester. Every single time I see John Moreland play it completely breaks me apart and builds me back up again. Also my friends, they’re actually on tour right now in Europe, Cory Branan and Tim Berry. Especially Cory Branan, he’s just a genius. I got to be around Joey Conizer while he was writing a new record and that was really inspiring.
What would you like people to take away from your show, after they’ve come to see you for the first time?
Lots of merchandise they bought at the merch table. [Laughs] Burritos are expensive! I would like it if people at least walked out with enough stuff so that I could get four burritos. Per person. Not just four burritos. Although I’ll leave happily with four burritos. I was making that joke on stage for the first week of this tour and I was like, if you go to the merch table and spend 20 Euros, you’re literally contributing four burritos to my life and people were coming up and saying ‘can we pay with burritos, here?’. And we were like actually, you have burritos handy? If you have them then, yes, they are currency.
With the invention of a new currency and a refreshing take on being a rock god, I leave Austin to prepare for the show and I join the audience for our shared catharsis on the dirty floor. Rock and roll actually never felt so pure…
Interview and photography by Imelda Michalczyk www.rebeladelica.com 22 Feb, 2015. London.
Austin Lucas is also on New West records here: http://www.newwestrecords.com/artists/austin-lucas