Breathing Music: An Interview with Langhorne Slim

Langhorne Slim
The Way We Move

Langhorne Slim’s version of folk music developed from a deep respect for the lyricism of Bob Dylan and the punk-rock leanings of the ’90s-era alternative bands to which Slim listened. His music has pushed traditional folk fare toward rollicking, rock-tinged arrangements which demand listener interaction. Developing that sound took years of extensive live touring, but until now fans haven’t had the opportunity to hear his recorded music in the same light. In the years following the release of Be Set Free, his fourth full-length studio album, Slim set out to play as many shows as he could, showcasing his band’s performance chops. When it came time to record the band’s latest, The Way We Move, the band — for the very first time — chose to record the music live in the studio setting. The result is the band’s most immediate record, an album for people who don’t think folk needs to be a dirty word.

An interview with Langhorne Slim kicks into high gear quickly. With little time wasted on small talk, he sat down with PopMatters to discuss his need for both a live and studio outlet, his lack of genre-jumping restraint, and the need for bands to have the right support coming up.

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When you were on Kemado Records, you put out two albums in two years. And it’s been three years since the last one, Be Set Free. How did you use that time between records?

Basically, we’ve just been touring nonstop. We’ve been on tour eight or nine months out of each of those years, and then when we have time off, I write my tunes. And when we’re on the road I write my tunes. I don’t think it’s quite been three years, but it’s been maybe two and a half years since the last record. But we’ve filled that time with touring nonstop.

You write music for restless, active listeners on your new album. How did you achieve the live sound in a studio setting?

We recorded everything live, for the first time, which I believe is among the smartest things our band has ever done. I think our main strength is as a live, dirty raw kind of band. So before [on previous albums] we would do all the instrumentation — the guitars, bass and drums, keyboards and whatever — and then I would sing on top of that and we would add various other instruments. This time we cut all the basic tracks live, which, for us, is the way to do it.

For someone who tours a lot live, do you feel you need to have that studio outlet as well to get new ideas out?

Yeah, I think it’s a totally different creative release and I need both of them. For me it’s always come more naturally to perform live and have that as my outlet. That I was kind of born with, whereas the studio stuff has been a learning process. But on this record we’ve had a blast — I’m having way more fun with it than I’ve ever had before. Both are crucial. Some bands don’t tour as much or maybe members of those bands don’t quite need that movement or action as much, but for me, I feel like a shark. If I stop doing that, I fear I will die. So I need to always be on the road, heading into the next town, playing live music.

Still, there’s a lot of magic and beauty and awesomeness in the writing process and the recording process, and in the recording process you get a lot tighter in a different way with the people you play with. For us, we really grew to know each other as brothers and musicians on the road, and then when we locked ourselves in this home studio in New York for three and a half weeks, it really solidified our bond. So both are super important.

Counting Crows’ lead singer Adam Duritz said recently that sometimes he feels he’s said everything there is to say about his own music, so he’d rather talk about the bands he tours with. Is there anyone you’ve been listening to recently, or you’ve toured with them, and they’ve just set your ears on fire?

The last band we were on tour with, Ha Ha Tonka, who we’ve known for several years and we toured with them a couple years ago, they’re amazing dudes and a great, great band. But we’ve been extremely fortunate that we’ve really never gone out with a shitty band. We’ve only had one shitty experience, which I won’t get into at the moment, but it was a brief shitty experience. The others have been absolutely amazing, from Lucero taking our band out for the first time — they were they first band to take us out on a national tour – to just countless bands. Like I said, we were just on tour with Ha Ha Tonka, and we’re going to go out later this summer with Jessica Lea Mayfield. I’m not just blowing smoke, it’s the real truth – we’ve been really fortunate that the bands we’ve gone out with, either supporting them or them supporting us, we’ve been fans of them both musically and off-stage. That’s the way to do it.

I’ve heard stories of bands who don’t even talk to each other on the road. But from that first experience with Lucero, they really showed us the ropes and were really cool to us when we were just a baby band.

That’s how it was when I was recently in Louisville to watch Counting Crows’ Outlaw Road Show, and I spoke with one of the opening acts, Filligar, from Chicago. And they were talking about how great it is that Adam comes out and introduces them all himself, and then he sits out there on the stage and watches everybody’s show. And he’s doing that every single night. I can’t think of a better way to encourage up-and-coming bands.

Yeah, hopefully in that case, you care who you’re out with, and if you’re in a position to help them, you take that opportunity to spread the word. I mean, there’s a lot of great music out there and we all need a little help getting our music out there no matter how big or small, known or unknown someone is.

I wanted to ask you about the letter David Lowery of Cracker wrote –I don’t know if you’ve seen it — about the NPR intern who said she’d never owned any. Do you spend much time worrying about how your fans obtain and consume your music?

Yeah, I did read it. But no, I don’t. I don’t spend much time at all worrying about it. After reading that, he makes a strikingly great point. I’ve always been in a bit of my own bubble. What I’m concerned with mainly is writing great music or making great art, then getting it out there to as many people as possible. That’s where I put my concentration. But it’s impossible not to see the points he’s making in that article.

Do you think there’s a middle ground between valuing everything like an iTunes model and calling people who illegally download music thieves?

Yeah, for me, music downloading is a way of getting music out there. So I thought that in this day and age, there might be a middle ground, though I think he’s right in a lot of ways. For me, the way I viewed it is this: I’m not going to sell a shit-ton of records. The chances are not good. Adele does it, some other folks do it. But most people don’t do it. People come up to me a lot at shows and say “I heard you on Pandora,” and other ways like that. For someone like me, it broadens my audience, and I feel the more people who know my music and connect with it, the money will follow. For me that’s the way it is. I’d rather a ton of people hear my stuff. Hopefully they get it and connect with it, rather than worry about the dollars and the cents in an immediate way.

I’ve wondered sometimes if I’m a musical hoarder. I have all this music I’ve collected over the years on a big hard drive and I only listen to a percent of it at any given time. Do you think focusing so much on valuing music and owning it keeps us from appreciating the artistic expression?

See, I’m out of touch with this because I still have my cassettes and my 25 CDs in a hippy punk rock tie-died bag in my van. So I’m listening to the Oblivions and the Misfits on CD and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on cassette, and I don’t have a hard drive or an iPod or anything like that. That’s not really my world so much, so you would know better than I.

I read somewhere that you described your life as a musician as “living in a bubble.” And that interested me because I remember reading Slash talking about being in Guns ‘n’ Roses and not knowing what to physically do with himself if he wasn’t kept busy writing or performing music. When you’re not writing or touring, how do you get used to not living that musical life?

Well, I do live it all the time. What he’s talking about is different than what I’m talking about. I think if you work as a paralegal in a law office you’re living in a bubble, or if you’re in tenth grade, no matter what you’re doing, you’re living in your own personal bubble. I don’t know if there’s really any way to get out of that. But this is the life that I live and it is all of me. Thankfully I’ve got friends that I spend time with and I travel a lot. So I’ve got other shit that I do, but music is my life-force. I breathe it.

You’ve said before that you’re your harshest critic. Do you think being hard on yourself as a songwriter makes the music you produce better, or do you find yourself getting in your own way?

Both. I don’t really write with my band, I write the songs and bring them to the band and they make them a lot better. But when I’m actually sitting, writing a song, I’m not saying “this sucks.” I’m trying to make music that I love and music that will last. Hopefully it’ll move people and that’s my dream, my goal. Music has saved my life; it just means everything to me. I want my shit to have that kind of connection with other people. So you have to be a little hard on yourself. It can’t be that every chord you strum is magic. But it’s not like I’m just sitting there beating myself up all the time. It has happened once or twice. I have whipped myself occasionally. [Laughs.]

People always seem to ask musicians to describe their music as though it’s always necessary to pin it down to one style. Do you think artists would create stronger music if they weren’t held down by genre expectations?

I don’t think a lot of artists are really held down by those expectations. I think those are things that are created by journalists, and to create sections in a record store. Maybe there’s a place for it, and that’s fine, but I don’t know any artists that I think are constricted or restricted by those things, because I think people are trying to express through their music the way they really feel and what they’re moved by. So, no, I think the people who are really focused on making music are doing it without that weight. It’s about the music, not the genre.