The Lighter Side of
An interview with Americana’s premier avant-garde songwriter
Johnny Dowd is known for writing really macabre songs. However, his social-commentary tales’ addictive power lies in their ability to provoke imaginations into creating even more sordid scenarios. Like the effects of one of Stephen King’s better novels, Dowd’s music is just a starting point in a journey down a bizarre, depraved path hidden in the recesses of a seemingly normal person’s mind. He’s been compared to acclaimed rock-poet Nick Cave, and deservedly so — his drawled narrations could be the works of a middle-aged Cave, after a peyote bender/lost weekend in the Southwest, with musical accompaniment by a similarly-induced Tom Tom Club. However, the Oklahoma-raised songwriter’s new album, The Pawnbroker’s Wife, is being described by fans and scribes as a lighter look inside Dowd’s psyche. Indeed, the album begins with a somewhat cheery love song — but eventually careens into creepiness, including two depressing Christmas songs — a funeral dirge and an ultra-monotonous rendition of “Jingle Bells.” With much anticipation, I recently spoke to 52-year-old Dowd — a critics’ darling who signed his first record contract when he was pushing 50 — not knowing just what to expect from someone whom many have called “a genius.” What I soon discovered is that, at least on the surface, Dowd is a pretty average joe, albeit an extremely literate one. Soft-spoken, laconic, a master of irony, this trucking-company owner, fierce libertarian and staunch death-penalty opponent whose work has been touted by the likes of Sonic Youth and The Mekons answered my silly questions with the patience of a saint.
I’m sorry, I haven’t heard your previous albums…
They’re all pretty different — especially from the first one to this one.
How is this CD different, musically and lyrically, from your earlier efforts?
I think this record may be somewhat softer, lyrically. Musically, I played everything on the first record. The subsequent records have been using more and more musicians — that’s been the biggest change.
How did you bring the members of your band into the fold?
I met Brian [Wilson, drums] five or six years ago… he was working for me at my trucking company. Kim [Sherwood-Caso, vocals] — I’ve been doing stuff with her for ten-twelve years or more, in another band I had before I started putting out records. Justin [Asher, multi-instrumentalist]… I was looking for a keyboard player, and I heard about him word-of-mouth — he was living in New York City with some people I knew. He’s been in the band a couple of years now.
Does the band influence you, musically?
They have a lot of influence. I just bring in a song on a guitar, which could be pretty much a country song or a classic rock tune, and they mangle it from there. They make it more interesting than what it started out to be. I try to exert control… when I’m playing with a band, I like to hear what the other people are doing. I don’t want to play with three robots.
Some of your songs on The Pawnbroker’s Wife have an experimental, turn-of-the-’80s NYC feel to them.
Yeah, it definitely has an artsy-fartsy element to it. They’re influences that Justin and Brian bring into it… I kind of pre-date all of that.
I understand that you’re an avid reader. Read any good books lately?
Oh, this is embarrassing, I just finished a book that was really good… it was one of Philip Roth’s last books, it might of been the last one, I don’t know. I can’t think of the name of it [The Dying Animal — SS]. About a 70-year-old professor obsessively in love with a 24-year-old Brazilian beauty, who drives him crazy. A great book. Justin’s mother gave it to me, actually.
You’re known for writing songs about murder and other nasty subjects. This album has a vibe of… if not depression, out-and-out sadness.
Actually this is like my “happy” album [chuckles]. I think if you heard the other records your perspective might change, you’d think that this is a move towards the light.
Does the fact that you were raised in the Southwest allow you to write such desolate, violent lyrics?
Mmmm… I don’t think so. I think you’re just culturally influenced by that. Things aren’t that different — a murderer in one of my songs might wear cowboy boots; if I’d grown up in the Bronx, he might have Cuban heels. The motivation is pretty universal.
But it seems that the South, with the Bible Belt and all, is a bit more of a repressed atmosphere. Some of the goofiest things happen in the most normal-looking of places.
That couldn’t be more true. I think goofy things are happening everywhere; I think the perspective that you get in a small town, like where I grew up… you know everybody, from the day you’re born to the day you leave, basically — and everybody knows you. Your sense of what’s goofy and what’s strange is really skewed until you leave there. I would say that my viewpoint has more in common with small-town people than the South, particularly. Urban versus rural, that’s the big cultural difference — that and economics. A rich American has more in common with a rich Arabian oil man than he has in common with a poor American.
Do you view Christmas as a setup for failure and depression?
No, not really. I can see how it could be — if I’m sitting at home for Christmas in ten years, I would feel that way. But I’ve always had a good time at Christmas. It’s an easy subject for a sad song…if I wrote a sad song about death, “So what?” If I wrote a funny song about death, now that would be something. “Jingle Bells” is such a jolly tune…well, here’s the other side of “Jingle Bells.”
Your music is off-beat, to say the least. Who are some of the musicians that challenge your ears?
There’s so many people that I like. Roky Erickson from The 13th Floor Elevators, Captain Beefheart… I like people that take traditional American forms like blues or country, and put their own stamp on them.
One of your new songs, “Judgement Day,” seems to be about a specific person or incident.
You’ve heard of Karla Faye Tucker, the woman who was executed in Texas three or four years ago?
It was in general inspired by the death penalty, but her case in particular, I guess.
Are you against the death penalty?
No matter what?
No matter what, yeah.
So the law of the Old West doesn’t sit well with you?
Well, this isn’t the law of the Old West, this is the government. If somebody’s fuckin’ with you and you pull a gun and shoot ’em… okay, if you want to do that. But the government — nobody trusts the government, and yet you give them the power of life and death? Not to mention the many mistakes that have been shown they’ve made. I’m just not comfortable with giving someone that kind of power. I mean, I don’t trust the government to pave a driveway to my house, you know?
It took a long time for you to become “famous.” Did you have a lot of aspirations, or did you stumble into your niche somehow?
I’ve always been a big music fan, obviously. But when I was 32, I went to see that movie, The Last Waltz. I thought, “This looks easy. They’re obviously talented people, but they’re not geniuses or anything. How hard can it be to play the guitar?” Me and my partner went out and bought a guitar and a bass — and a drum set for my sister, and started practicing. It turned out to be much harder, obviously, than I had anticipated. I was intensely ambitious up until right before I put out my first record and got all this acclaim. At that point, I had just about given up, burned out by being so ambitious and getting nowhere. Seriously, I had given up on the whole thing. Of course, as soon as I gave up, I got a record deal… I had to recalibrate and get started again. I’m not so ambitious anymore. I mean, I want to do a good job, make a good record, give a good live performance — but I’m not consumed by it.
You’re regarded as hot stuff in certain circles…
People are calling you “genius”…
You weren’t getting anywhere for years, and all of the sudden, you’re touring with Sonic Youth…
How do you put that all in perspective, how did you deal with the change in your life? I imagine that people come up to you after shows and tell you that you’re the best thing since sliced bread.
We just did a gig in Belgium, a festival. About 3,000 people, totally indifferent. I must’ve had five or six Belgians come up and say, “I have to say, I really don’t care for your music at all. What are you trying to do?” I get that as much as “You’re a genius.” Some people really like [my music], and some really hate it. If I was younger, and people were calling me this or that, I might take it more seriously. At this point… I’ve got a pretty good idea as what a genius is, and it’s not me. I’ve got a little thing that I do, and there isn’t anybody doing quite the same thing. I pat myself on the back…but there’s a lot of excellent musicians out there, even in today’s shitty musical climate.
A slightly condensed version of this interview originally appeared in The Ballard News-Tribune (Seattle, WA).