PASTICHE, HYBRIDS, AMALGAMS: Music and Interview with Exebelle & the Rusted Cavalcade
(Interviewer: Austin Eichelberger, Editor for SPACES)
Music meets Literature in the work of Exebelle & the Rusted Cavalcade, an alt-country/Americana band out of Richmond, Virginia, whose members include Philip Heesen, III, Kerry Hutcherson, Ryan Owenby, and Ben Willson. They have self-released five albums altogether: The Skeletor Sessions, The Antipoison Creek Sessions, C.A.F., Vivement l’Automne!, and, most recently, V.
Exebelle & the Rusted Cavalcade’s unique approach to blending canonical literature, modern music, and video, as well as reflecting Virginia’s folk tradition and the influence of artists and groups like Ryan Adams, the Band, and Neil Young, embodies the beautiful conversations taking place across the arts and and among artists everywhere, as they do in the music here, “Introduction to Songs of Innocence,” “The Long Pour,” and “Rosasharn,” drawing on just that kind of beautiful inspiration from writers William Blake, John Steinbeck, and Tom Wolfe.
Exebelle & The Rusted Cavalcade – Rosasharn
Austin: First of all, a little background: how and when did you guys come together to make music?
Phil: I formed the band with a fellow Richmond musician named Chris Wright back in September 2007. We worked on songs together and started to record our first EP that fall. Around this time, Ryan joined the band on bass and Kerry joined as a second electric guitar player. After a few drummers came and went, Ben joined the band during the Spring of 2010.
Austin: What musical influences have shaped, and which ones continue to shape, your sound?
Kerry: My favorite bands tend to be groups of singer-songwriters in which there are multiple lead singers and songwriters utilizing collaboration to co-write, arrange, and perform the music (e.g., The Band; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; The Beatles; Drive-By Truckers). We all write songs or parts of songs independently, and then we share those songs with each other, and co-writing partnerships or group-writing sessions naturally flow from that. When we put together a group of songs for a show or a recording, we try to feature the multifaceted singing and writing voices of the band, and in that way I think we’re following in the footsteps of the influences that I mentioned.
Austin: How do the artists outside of the band that you bring in for your E.P.s influence your work?
Kerry: They make it easier for us to get some sounds that we want to add without us having to learn how to play a bunch of other instruments, so I suppose that the fact that we have a lot of friends who are talented musicians helps us feel a bit more limitless when writing and recording. For example, if we’re working on a song and we say “A string quartet might work well during this part,” we don’t have to wonder where we’ll find the string quartet because we have very talented and generous friends who will make guest appearances on our records, and usually they do it as a favor to us that we repay in kind or in some other way.
Austin: One of the things we found really interesting here at SPACES is the exciting intersection of your music and canonical literature. Can we talk for a little bit about the literary influence(s) behind Exebelle & the Rusted Cavalcade?
Kerry: Reading has always been a passion of mine, and most of my songwriting influences, like Bob Dylan, are also avid readers and tend to approach songwriting as another way of telling a story.
Austin: What about the poems of William Blake? That seems like a surprising influence for a band that plays alt-country music. How did you get mixed up with the likes of him?
Ryan: I first came across Blake’s work in a British literature course at Longwood University. I enjoyed his work immediately and was interested in learning how much of his poetry was in response to social issues of the day in light of the Industrial Revolution. I was drawn to Songs of Innocence & ofExperience specifically because of the way he contrasts the evils of the world through two lenses. The poems in Innocence deal with themes, many of them religious, that address purity, righteousness, or, for lack of a better term, innocence. Blake praises the joys of the natural world as bucolic scenes fill the opening poems. Though the children in Innocence are facing hardships (for example, working as a chimney sweep or becoming lost in the night), Blake tells that each has the protection and love of a “heavenly father.” As someone who grew up in a religious environment, these images of God described as a protector, or a sheltering figure, were very much in line with how I remember envisioning a higher power as a child.
In Experience, Blake again touches on similar themes of nature and religion. However, in these poems, the feeling is dark, ominous, and bleak. Childlike optimism is replaced with a world-weary view of social systems and interpersonal dealings. Whenever I go back to this book, I am always struck by the simplicity of the way Blake breaks down worldly forces and ideas into “light” and “dark.” Though, in reality, things are never this simple, I think this was a clever way for the author to present his views on subjects and to display his adeptness at capturing the full range of human emotion and the human experience.
A number of years after taking the literature course, I was at Virginia Commonwealth University in training to become an elementary school teacher. I was in a children’s literature class and was assigned a project. The objective of the project was to come up with a creative way to introduce young students to authors, poetry, or texts. I knew immediately that I wanted to base my project on William Blake as many of his poems have a “sing-songy” feel and a familiar rhyme scheme that younger students would not feel overwhelmed by. I came up with a very simple melody and asked for Phil’s help. Phil worked his arranging magic and the demo for the Introduction to Songs of Innocence was the final project I presented for the class and it went on to be on our EP entitled Vivement l’Automne.
Austin: And Tom Wolfe? How did music based on his stories arise? Do any of the band members have a special interest in Tom Wolfe, his work, or his influence on the American writing community?
Kerry: Tom Wolfe is among my favorite active authors, and I’ve been reading his work since I picked up The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test back in college. A couple of years ago, Phil showed me a song that he was working on called “The Long Pour.” Phil had written the chord progressions for several sections, a catchy chorus melody, and lyrics for the chorus, which described a raucous barroom scene (“Give me the long pour; fill it again until I just can’t stand or walk anymore…”). Phil asked me if I wanted to take a stab at writing lyrics for the rest of the song, so I started brainstorming ideas for a way to build on the lyrics he had already written.
It would have been easy to write a typical country song about a heartbroken protagonist drowning his sorrows at the bar, but I figured the world has enough of those songs, so I tried to approach Phil’s chorus theme from a different angle. At that time I was reading Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, a non-fiction piece chronicling the lives of military test pilots like Chuck Yeager during the years leading up to the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. Wolfe describes the high-risk, adrenaline-driven lifestyle of these test pilots as they break the sound barrier, fly to the stratosphere, and perform death-defying aeronautics in pursuit of proving to each other that they have what it takes to be among the most elite pilots in the world (i.e., what Wolfe calls, “the right stuff”). When the pilots are off-duty, they are always competing with each other to prove who can drive a muscle car fastest or score the most women all while drinking each other under the table.
Phil’s chorus for “The Long Pour” seemed to be the sort of thing that one of the pilots from The Right Stuff might say, so I started working on some verse lyrics that further developed that theme. Many of the phrases that I used for those verse lyrics come from the test pilot jargon that Wolfe introduces to his readers (e.g., “punch out,” “auger in,” “wax some tail”). Phil liked the verses and the concept of writing a song inspired by Wolfe’s account of the test pilots, and he suggested that we work on a bridge that twisted the narrative slightly in order to better explain the connection between the verse and chorus lyrics. He suggested that the protagonist in the song be a former test pilot whose off-duty vices dulled and eventually overwhelmed his once-superior aviation skills, resulting in a life of regret and bitterness. Wolfe, in fact, mentions that a few of the pilots experienced this sort of unhappy ending, and since Wolfe didn’t elaborate much more about the lives of those guys, we picked up where he left off.
Austin: What about John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath? To be honest, I think your music fits the novel well – I think Tom Joad would enjoy your sound. But is there more to it than the smooth Americana flavors within the band’s work?
Kerry: I wrote “Rosasharn” in response to reading The Grapes of Wrath. Two of my songwriting influences, Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen, have both written great songs about the novel and particularly the protagonist, Tom Joad. My favorite character in the novel is Tom’s sister, Rose of Sharon Rivers (“Rosasharn”), and I decided that it was time for Rosasharn to get some recognition.
Rosasharn is pregnant throughout much of the novel, and as a newly-wed teenager who has suddenly been forced to grow up very quickly, she struggles to accept her situation. Life is difficult for the Joads as they travel to California in search of jobs and a new home, but it is particularly difficult for Rosasharn who is often portrayed as weak and victimized. Her husband deserts her and her child is stillborn, but rather than allowing this adversity to embitter her, Rosasharn triumphantly emerges as a symbol of the healing power of selfless communal love.
As for the sound of the song itself, there were certain elements that I included specifically for the purpose of paying tribute to or evoking some aspects of The Grapes of Wrath and the music that the Okies during the Great Depression might have enjoyed. One of my favorite chapters in Steinbeck’s novel is the one in which he describes the music and the instruments that the Okies would play to keep their spirits up as they traveled to California. There’s a paragraph in that chapter that describes the harmonica as the perfect instrument for a poor traveling migrant worker, so I made a concerted effort to feature harmonica playing in the song. There’s also some techniques like hand claps, boot stomps, and harmony/gang vocals that Exebelle uses in a lot of its songs, but I particularly wanted to use them in “Rosasharn” to emulate the sound of a group of Okies singing around a campfire.
Austin: Why, as a group, were you drawn to these influences? Was there an appealing factor for each member of the band?
Kerry: Obviously, I was drawn to Wolfe and Steinbeck because I was reading their books while I was writing songs. As for Blake, I have always really liked the influence of nature and rural life on his work, and when Ryan put a Blake poem in the context of an Exebelle song, that seemed like a good fit because a lot of our music explores similar themes.
Austin: How did you all work together to make the translations of these ideas represent the whole group?
Kerry: Our collective approach toward writing and arranging songs lends itself to this sort of thing. If one person comes in with an idea and the rest of us like it, we all work on it and add our individual bits to it.
Austin: Did your onstage presence have any influence on the videos?
Kerry: Not intentionally; if anything, the performances in the videos were most influenced by the way we rehearse. It’s relaxed, yet productive.
Austin: What’s it like to make a music video? Where do you even begin?
Kerry: Well, we didn’t have the time or budget to do a Peter Gabriel-caliber video, so we went with a simpler approach. The songs are performed in the way we perform them live or in rehearsal, except for “The Long Pour,” which we had to rearrange and strip down in order to eliminate the complications of recording audio for drums and electric guitars live.
Austin: At SPACES, we love artistic crossovers, so we’re going to have a little fun: Who do you think would win in a song-writing competition: William Blake, Tom Wolfe, or John Steinbeck? Why?
Kerry: I’d say Blake, given that his writing was fairly musical anyway, and given that he was also an accomplished painter as well as a writer it seems likely that he’d probably be a decent musician, too.
Austin: If each of you could only read one of those authors from now on, who would you choose? Why?
Kerry: Definitely Steinbeck for me. He’s my favorite author, and I never get tired of re-reading his work. His catalog includes non-fiction travelogues, short stories, epics, and more, so there’s a lot to discover and a lot to re-discover.
Ryan: I would also go with Steinbeck. I do enjoy reading Blake’s poetry, however, the Steinbeck novels I’m familiar with, Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, are ones that I loved initially and I can see myself going back to again and again in years to come.
Austin: Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know – about the video(s), about your influences (musical or visual), or about the band in general?
Kerry: We’re finishing up recording for a long-anticipated double album that ought to be released later this year. Also, if you find that you like the literary influence in our songs, it may interest you to learn that we’re in the middle of collectively writing a short concept album that is influenced by the works of Washington Irving, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others.
Austin: What do you hope your viewers feel – or have you left that up to them?
Ryan: I hope that viewers, after seeing the videos, will be interested in coming to see us live. These songs were all performed without a drummer in a more acoustic or stripped-down fashion. While we do perform with a similar set-up, we also frequently play with a drummer and electric instruments. We enjoy playing sets composed of songs that contain contrasting tempos, vocalists, and instrumentation. If you enjoyed the videos, we’d love to see you at a show!