A self-professed “sucker for short pop songs filled with hooks and devoid of filler,” Drive-By Trucker Jay Gonzalez has spent the last four years composing a five-song medley that incorporates influences ranging from the Beatles and the Who to Joe Jackson and Bread. Writing about life events, the five songs on The Bitter Suite are marked by the loss of a relative, a separation with a musical partner and missing his family while traveling the world.
Taking to Kickstarter last May to fund the pressing of The Bitter Suite to vinyl, the multi-instrumentalist with a penchant for kitsch songs and recording devices, Gonzalez fabricated what may be the world’s first acoustic keytar, nearly doubled his Kickstarter goal after showing his tongue-in-cheek approach to music and life in his campaign video.
The Bitter Suite marks Gonzalez’s second solo album since joining Drive-By Truckers in 2008. Gonzalez kibitzed with PopMatters about the album, his musical influences, crowdsourcing and the allure of vinyl.
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You just released your second solo album, The Bitter Suite It’s a concept album that’s been simmering for about four years. How do you maintain your enthusiasm for a project that’s gone on that long?
It’s done over four years, but it was spread out. Basically, when I was home from touring I would work on it for a while, and then leave it. It was done over four years, but it wasn’t a consistent four years. By the time I put it away for a little bit and then come back to it, it would renew my enthusiasm. Then once we started actually recording it, I was excited about doing the whole thing. It was really coming together at that point.
Listening to the album, it’s 13 minutes and five movements, if you will. But you span the last half-century of pop music, everything from the Beatles to Todd Rundgren, Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello, Young Fresh Fellows and even Weird Al.
Sure, I love all that shit. I had Weird Al in 3-D on cassette, and it was one of my favorites.
Aside from those, who were your musical influences when you are working on this project?
A lot of the ones you mentioned; I’ve always liked the genre-jumping records, pop records from the 1970s in particular, like Harry Nilsson, like Nilsson Schmilsson. A lot of those guys, like I said, Joe Jackson, too, seems to be a genre-jumper; Billy Joel and all these guys were pop guys, but within the span of an album, a short album usually back then, they jumped around from a lot of different things with Tin Pan Alley or pop or whatever. I liked that. Somehow making it work and not sounding disconnected or anything. That was the idea with this one. I had five different songs that were all thematically linked, but not intentionally. It was something where I just decided to see if I could put them together and in an order that would make them work together. It was sewn together. It wasn’t like I wrote it in a linear way from beginning to end, all working together. So lyrically it works together; it’s not like Tommy or “A Quick One While He’s Away”, where it’s a storyline going through.
You you talked about the music and how it’s consistent. There’s a circularity to it, I noticed from the first song to the last song. Are you using saw in the song?
Yeah, the intro is a sample of a saw that I played on a different song. I lifted it off a recording that I did that I never finished, and it fit right in. It was supposed to be the first song [“Light Side of the Leaves”] that does the whole tornado metaphor. It was written while we were playing in Memphis one time and a tornado was coming. I got some cheap percussion thing, where you pull on a spring connected to a drumhead, and it does this explosion sound. So I tried to combine all those and make it sound bad weather-y.
Cool, thanks. Then I try to bring it back in the end to tie the whole thing. Not that it’s going to tie together completely, but it hopefully helps. It ends in the same key as it starts in, so that was a happy coincidence. That’s the thing when you spend such a long time period of time coming back to something, you revisit it and see things that you hadn’t seen in it before, like if you’re cutting it in two weeks and trying to finish it. I wouldn’t have tried to do as much of the embellishments.
You and I are relatively the same age, so listening to the album for me was like a trip down memory lane of my childhood and hiding away in my bedroom listening to AM pop radio.
Totally. That’s the thing. Those seem to be what stick with you when you’re writing. It’s almost like, the more and more I do it, the more I seem to be revisiting that era, the first era that really grabs you. That’s definitely it, the AM ‘70s radio, early ‘80s.
Aside from that, what was your musical upbringing?
My folks are musical, but they didn’t play any instruments or anything. I have two sisters, and we all liked music a lot. My parents had me take piano lessons. It was when I was seven, and they forced me to the old lady down the street. It was cool, but she was a little strict. That lasted three or four years. Then I picked up guitar as a teenager, and basically played that from then on. Then when I moved to Athens, Georgia, I played guitar and bass in bands, but then the easier way to get into a band was to play keyboards. Even though I was out of practice and hadn’t done it a lot, fortunately playing in rock bands with several guitars, you don’t really have to do a lot. You just try to find the right thing and do it. The simpler the better.
I played in this band called The Possibilities. They were right up my alley musically, the ‘60s-‘70s pop thing. I could use all the keyboard tricks that I wanted to try, like the Cars’ synthesizer lines or something like that, all the Mellotrons and finished keyboard sounds that I was wanted to use, but never had an outlet. I was suddenly able to attempt to do that. So I started doing this stuff after, it was basically continuing from there and trying to mix it all together, all the shit I learned from them and other bands. The first album I did [Mess of Happiness] was a demo, just home demo stuff that my friend Chris Grehan, who produced this one, helped me clean up. It was horribly recorded at home, but at some point I realized it was going to be like the finished thing. That was definitely a similar thing musically, but that demo spanned over like eight to ten years or something. It’s not as tied together. We did this one, it was Chris’s idea to ... I had sent him the original thing I did at home, the whole demo. He thought it would be a good idea to go into a friend’s studio and really try to make it sound good. It was fun. We probably went back into that studio several times over the next couple of years and tried to tie together and layer stuff at home as well. He lives in New York, Brooklyn. It was long distance. It’s pretty common these days, I guess.
You talked about the samples with the saw and the keyboards. What other instruments do you use on the album?
I tried to do different ones for each song to try to differentiate it a little bit. On that first one is a buzzy sound and a velocity-sounding keyboard. That’s like a Stylophone, which is a little tiny keyboard that has a stylist. I think it was from the ‘60s. It was a toy thing in England. They reissued them. When you touch the metal tip of the pen to the metal keys, it’s a pretty ungodly-sounding buzz. You layer it a bunch and then put a bunch of reverb on it, it has an interesting sound.
Did you use your acoustic keytar on the album?
I didn’t. The B-side of the vinyl is an etching that my friend who does all the artwork did, Jeff Owens. I think he just tied it into that. He thought it looked cool. I didn’t actually use it on the album. I haven’t really released anything using that yet, but I’m hoping to do it for the next album.
How did you come to devise that?
Boredom at home. I’ll always go into the kid sections of the Salvation Army and look for little cool keyboards that somebody missed. I feel guilty about it because some kids might really enjoy it, but probably not. I picked that one up. It was real small, and I was trying to think of a way to make solo shows more interesting. I don’t really do the singer-songwriter thing. I have a hard time stripping it down and playing and sustaining a whole show doing that on the strength of the song. I was trying to think of a way to make it so I could do both at the same time, using the keys and the guitar. So at first I duct-taped it onto an old guitar. That was the easy part; the hard part was figuring out how to play it. We just picked a couple of songs and spent a while doing it. You really have to tailor it to the thing. Otherwise ... you can’t really improvise.
Have you talked to Scott Baxendale [Athens, Georgia-based guitar luthier who’s make custom guitars for Drive-By Truckers] about making you one yet?
Not yet. He fixed a guitar that I used that had Velcro on it. He was like, “Do you want me to take the Velcro off?” I was like, “No, man. It’s for that keytar thing.” He laughed. It would be fun to have something that slides in like a cartridge or something, like a real nice wooden holder or something that’s literally built into the wood. That would be pretty awesome. I might need to talk to him about commissioning that as the next one.
You had mentioned performing the songs live. You have a show scheduled next month in Athens. How do you go about that? Are you going to perform the songs of the album in its entirety?
Yeah. We actually did a couple of shows last month, and we actually played the whole thing a couple years ago before it was even released. The guys in the band, Chris, who recorded it, he plays guitar in the band. God knows he’s heard it a million times, so he’s got it down. We’ve got several other guys from different bands that have been in town playing. They really enjoy the challenge of just maintaining it and playing through the whole thing straight. So, yeah, we’re going to play it straight through. We usually put it right in the middle of the show and make it the centerpiece. Knock on wood; it’s been going well. It hasn’t fallen apart mid-song yet. You have to take a deep breath when it starts.
Given the background of the album with the power-pop influence, how important are lyrics to you? How do you view pop lyrics versus singer-songwriter or even Truckers’ type lyrics, where there’s a story there?
In my case, as I get older I try to make the lyrics ... they generally seem to work the best when they’re actual autobiographical lyrics. All the ones in this suite are based on something and all from the same time. I don’t do quite as well storytelling and making up stories. I don’t think with that genre, with the power-pop genre, it’s as necessary to have a great meaningful lyric. I think people are mostly listening for the hooks, the melodies and the arrangements, which is good. I feel like that’s not my strongest suit, but I feel like with this one I felt like at least I had it all tied together. They’re not going to read like poetry on a page. It’s not going to be like, “Oh, this is great.” But hopefully you try to make it at least good enough with the lyrics tied to a good tune. I used to do the nonsense lyrics just to hang melodies on it, but at a certain point I might as well try to make it at least make some sense in some way. Like I say, I think it’s necessary in the genres that I picked on this. But the “Almond Eyes” love song, I tried to make it heartfelt. If you’re doing it, you really feel it. If it’s not a horrendously cliché lyric, then it’ll work.
The one thing that really sticks out about the album to me are its melodies. That’s where some of the influences that I drew from come in. You had mentioned “Almond Eyes”. The first band that popped into my head when I was listening to that song was Bread. It takes me back to listening to my mom’s cassette tapes in the bedroom.
Totally. Between the melodies and the chords, that longing. No pun intended, but that’s the bittersweet tune that tugs at you. I love Bread because of that. That one song, “Everything I Own”, he [David Gates] wrote it for his dad; it’s heartbreaking. And even “The Guitar Man,” which is like, if you read the lyrics to “The Guitar Man,” it’s fucking hokey, but with the melodies and slide guitar and that mood that David Gates gets, it’s heartbreaking. It totally changes it from “I’m a guitar man coming to your town” kind of thing to the loneliness and traveling on your own and playing music. It’s been done so much, but in that context it really works.
It never gets old if it’s done right. That’s the beauty of it.
That’s the key. Definitely, it’s great when the lyrics and the music are equal or level. A lot of the stuff I grew up on was pop songs, and you’re just trying to hold their attention for 3:50 or 3:10 or whatever or whatever a 45 would be.
And then as you grow older, you get into your puberty years and metal comes in and it’s a whole different world.
I don’t know how that one didn’t sneak onto this record. Maybe that’s the next project: move into the 80s and see where it goes from there. 80s synth-pop and mid-to-late 80s hair metal, which I probably could do as well or better, but I won’t. We had Sebastian Bach from Skid Row play at a club the day before we were there and the back room was trashed. I guess he’s doing it. I guess that’s what you do when you’re Sebastian Bach.
You’ve got to live up to that.
Yeah, he’s not going to get up there and sit on a stool and play an acoustic guitar ballad at this point. It’s not going to work. Either that or people are going to throw shit at him and walk out.