Commit: An Interview with Steve Earle

photo credit: Ted Barron

Earle digs through a mutual past for a new album of Townes Van Zandt covers, and he explains what it was like knowing, and being heckled by, the songwriter himself.

Steve Earle is a fixture in the singer-songwriter firmament. Even excluding his first run of hugely popular records (before his reconstructive stint in prison in the early 1990s), he's had more success in more ways than almost any of his contemporaries. When he got out, he was both sober and determined to make good on his promise to a fellow inmate not to blow this chance. He's been making exceptional records, at the terrific rate of nearly one per year, ever since.

Earle is that rarest of birds: a songwriter's songwriter who has maintained a commercial viability. Yet he is also an astonishingly prolific writer and producer, an actor (his role as Walon on HBO's The Wire was central to the redemptive themes of the fifth and final season), a poet, a progressive activist, a continuously-touring musician, a husband, a father, and a recovering addict. The man is an inspiration to anyone who holds a pen, and not just because he is good at what he does, but because he remains impressively zealous about it all. There's no quit on his horizon, no complacency in his tone. When I reached him by phone, he immediately apologized for missing our previous date, listing a series of prior commitments that got in the way. He's "holed up in Woodstock working on a book", he told me, "and it just slipped away" from him. Fair enough.

To my mind, the best interviews are the ones where you don't have to say anything. Where the guy at the other end of the phone just wants to chat and, for whatever reason, has decided to talk to you about exactly the stuff you hoped he would. Earle hit the ground running when I told him I was calling to talk about his recollections of Townes Van Zandt, in anticipation of his just-finished album of covers of his mentor's stuff. Having lived on a steady diet of Van Zandt and Earle since I first discovered them (in '92 and '88, respectively), I simply couldn't think of anything else I'd rather be discussing. Listening to a living master as he tells of his formative relationship with the man whom many consider to be the greatest songwriter to ever put pick to strings -- this was my enviable experience. And, best of all, he came to play. I got one question off, and from that moment forward Earle barely stopped for breath. It got to the point where I was literally interrupting him just to get a word in edgewise. It was like getting caught in some kind of verbal tornado, all swirling with the chaos of an artist's mutable certainties.

There's passion, and then there's fucking passion.

Could you talk a bit about your relationship to Townes Van Zandt? You were just a kid when you met, right? How did you fall in with these older guys?

I was 17. I was in Texas, and I was playing coffee houses for the most part because I was too young to play bars. And I had heard of Townes for, god, probably two or three years before I met him. I probably first heard of Townes when I was more like 14. I was living in San Antonio and San Antonio is kind of weird. It was, then and now, more conservative than anyplace else in Texas. It's a military town and, you know, you were just a lot more isolated artistically, and in a lot of ways. But, there was one coffee house there, and there were people that came from Houston and Austin down there to play and they played Townes' songs and started talking about him, so I started tracking the records down.

And then by the time I was about 16, I moved to Houston on my own -- I left home when I was 16 -- and I saw Townes play quite a bit because by that time I knew who he was and he played Houston on a fairly regular basis. He was kinda from there. I mean, he was from Ft. Worth originally, but most of his friends were in Houston and in a lot of ways he was sort of spiritually and artistically from Houston more than he was from anyplace else. He went to Law School there ... well, took a pre-law course there, and that's where he got out and first started playing gigs. It's kinda where he started out.

I had been in the same room with him a couple of times, and I'd seen him play a lot, but I actually met him when he was in the audience -- part of a very small audience -- when I was playing a place that we both played called the Old Quarter in downtown Houston. It was 1972 sometime.

Is there any truth to the story that he heckled you from stage before you'd ever been introduced?

Oh yeah, absolutely, absolutely. That's exactly what happened. He was very respectful while I was singing, but he was trying to get me to play the "Wabash Cannonball", which I didn't know. And finally I had to admit it. But, then I played one of his songs and he shut up.

He was 11 years older than me or something like that ... You know, I hung out with a lot of people that were older than me just because, well, I don't know. That's just the way it was. My uncle who was five years older than me gave me my first guitar and I kind of hung out with him, and learned to play from him ... And then, you know, I was the youngest guy hanging around this coffee house where I first heard about Townes, and I was the youngest guy in the group of people that, you know, was basically a cult that existed in Texas with Townes at the centre.

Photo: Ted Barron

There's a real wisdom to your early material and it seems amazing that it came from someone that age, but, you've got to wonder that if you're hanging around with these guys, some of their age and experience is going to rub off on you.

Well some of it. Some of it is real age and experience and you're able to emulate it when you're that close, true. And, yeah, I did plenty of that. I think everybody, when they're learning, does.

You're famously on record for saying that Townes is the greatest songwriter of all time.

That's not exactly what I said. It wasn't a quote pulled from an interview, it was a blurb. I was asked for a blurb for a sticker for a record that Townes was putting out. And what I said was Townes Van Zandt was the best songwriter in the world, and I'd stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that. That's exactly what the quote was. I know, because I, you know, I made it up, and (laughing) that's how I can remember it verbatim.

I mean: do I think Townes was a better songwriter than Bob Dylan? No. But: do I think he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath? Yes. And I think Bob Dylan believes that, too.

No argument here. You place pretty high on people's lists yourself, especially for fans of the Americana scene, or whatever you want to call it. Can you talk about Townes' influence on your writing?

I learned to do it from him and Guy Clark, you know, almost directly. I mean, there were other people around, but, they both took an active interest in me, and I (along with everyone else I knew) worshipped them, and especially Townes. I guess he was... It's always shown in what I do. On this record I kinda got back in touch with how much, you know, I am Townes in some things that I do. The way I play guitar comes from Townes, and from Guy, and John Prine to some extent. [...] A lot of what I do has to do with, you know, Bob Dylan and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but the people who are sitting across the room from you are a much more powerful thing. You can see what they're doing, and you can see where their hands are on the guitar. So that's huge, and I was really lucky. And, all of us, including Guy and Townes, you know, we can all say that what we have in common is that we saw Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscombe in the same room. At the same time. On more than one occasion.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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