Byron Isaacs Delivers Solo Debut With 'Disappearing Man' (album stream + interview)
Bassist with the Lumineers and a member of Lost Leaders, Byron Isaacs issues emotionally potent record that's been a long time coming.
Byron Isaacs issues his solo debut album, Disappearing Man on 15 June, although it's hardly the first album the Houston, Texas native has recorded. After moving to New York in the 1990s, he moved through a succession of gigs, eventually forming Olabelle, which also featured Amy Helm and keyboardist Glenn Patscha. In the last 15 years he's recorded and/or shared the stage with an array of performers that includes Levon Helm, Bruce Springsteen, Roseanne Cash, Willie Nelson and Ryan Adams. In addition to the band Lost Leaders (an act he's scheduled to record a new album with in 2018), Isaacs is a touring member of the Lumineers.
Co-produced by Hector Castillo (David Bowie, Björk, the Brazillian Girls) and Brian Cullman (Lucinda Williams, Ghazal), the record features Patscha, guitarist Chris Masterson (the Mastersons, Steve Earle, Loretta Lynn, The Golden Palominos), drummer David Berger (Amy Helm, Alice Texas, Justin Bond, Mary Fahl), percussionist Joe Bonadio (Sting, Boz Scaggs, Roseanne Cash) and arranger John Lissauer (Leonard Cohen).
Dark-edged Americana dominates on Disappearing Man. These are not songs populated by handclaps, soaring choruses and banjo solos. Instead, they're eerie portraits of things that show up on the porch of your psyche in the middle of the night, beaten and bloodied, leaving you unsure if you should let them in or turn them away ("Crazy Love"). "Seeing Is Believing" feels like a lonely stroll through a meadow, contemplating one's fate and matters of the heart. Meanwhile, "Shadows" bites and barks like Captain Beefheart but with his musical psychosis tamed into a coherent but disquieting walk through dangerous places in the heart. "Losing You" has all that but also promises to become the kind of song that gets busted out a pickin' parties and open mic nights for some time to come.
Ultimately, Isaacs, whose accomplished bass playing is an anchor throughout, knows how to wrap all things weighty in a catchy melody and rhythms that buoy the listener along from end to end, emerging with one of the most tuneful and memorable collections of songs about the state of the human soul in recent memory.
What made this the time to record a solo album?
It was a convergence of perfect things. For one, I'd gotten off the road and been away long enough that I'd lost all my other work. I hit the ground with an empty plate. But I had this record and it felt like it was time. I didn't have a lot of other distractions. The Lumineers have some time off so I knew I'd be able to put this out and really do it right. I just never really felt like I had the time or the room in my life before. Either my kids were too young or we were financially too strapped.
And I'll always prioritize somebody else's stuff over my own. It's a way for me to earn a living and at the same time, it's about getting over myself. It's a lot less treacherous for your ego to be a sideman. You put yourself front and center, then you've got a big old target on your Alfred E. Neuman face.
I'd also written the bulk of these songs during the Bush administration. Some of the themes that appear on the record felt less urgent while we had Obama in the White House. Then, suddenly, it felt like some of these songs on the record needed to be heard. I felt the fire again.
If one just glances at the song titles, there are words such as "losing", "disappearing", "shadows." This sense of things slipping away. Was that on your mind while you were writing, this idea of passage?
Definitely. When I first moved to New York, I was surprised by how easy it was to slip through the cracks. It's really intense when you're a young, struggling artist and you move here, to this town, where you really are just anonymous. It doesn't matter how much of a star you might have been in your little hometown before you came here. You really get slapped down, not just to size but to microscopic levels.
I felt like I was disappearing and then I'd look around and see people truly, actually disappearing. It was scary. I started thinking about what was important to people and it seemed liked money was more important than human life. And then corporations are officially people. But these are people who can't actually go to jail or suffer the death penalty, so they're actually better than people. In so many ways it felt like humanity itself was under fire.
It also seems like art is being devalued more and more every day. There's so much art going around and there's many artists. You're basically doing it for free unless you just happen to be lucky enough that people want to pay to come see you play. There were so many ways in which it felt like we were disappearing.
And you have gentrification. The city fathers discover that art is a draw, they develop the area where artists live for cheap and soon your painters are out of their lofts, the baristas can't stand to live over the bars where their bands play for a five-dollar cover.
The pattern here is super fractured, dangerous neighborhood attracts artists because they can afford to live there. A scene starts to happen, word gets out. Then the people with overflowing income want to live there. They move in, gentrification begins, the artists have to find a new place to live. They hit another neighborhood and keep getting chased out. People want to be where they are and then come in and force them out. It's a brutal little cycle.
To be a great artist there has to be a fire lit under you somewhere. It's hard to have that kind of burning ambition to overcome all obstacles if you don't have obstacles. I have felt not only the sense of community diminish because if you're comfortable you don't necessarily need to rely upon community. I also sense the quality of art going down. The old guard is still at the height of their powers but the artists who are moving in, and there are still some poor artists moving in that have a fire lit under them but I see a lot of what might just be dilatants.
I think life has to scare the hell out of you at some point in order for you to make art that's going to have a real fire to it.
What was that moment for you?
The first whole year that I was in New York I was constantly petrified. I could barely afford where I was. I had no safety net. If I ever had extra money, which I never did, my mother desperately needed it because she was living hand-to-mouth back in Bloomington. Then she moved in with my sister in Texas who was in the process of divorcing her husband and they were desperate. There was nobody in my family that I could turn to. There were only mounting debts that I would inherit.
New York was a very scary place in 1994. Less scary than it had been 10 years before that. I was working jobs that were just sucking my soul. I worked at the Strand Book Store in the warehouse, which is actually on the fifth floor. You unload a truck, load it up onto the elevator. I would shrink wrap and catalogue and box books. It sucked. I was there 9:30-6:30 and you had to clock out for lunch.
Then I worked in a rehearsal studio for a while. I was getting berated by musicians that I admired. I was really getting my ego handed to me but I was the kid behind the desk who was supposed to set up microphones. The people who came in and new I was a struggling musician? Sometimes they'd be nicer to me but a lot of times they'd be meaner.
And I knew that I had to get out of there and make a living as a musician, just doing it. I'd do these terrible jobs and then got out and play all night. I was exhausted all the time. I got mugged a couple of times, once at gunpoint. I got jumped a couple of times by guys with knives and ran and fucked up my hands and had to go to a recording studio with my hands in bandages.
It sucked but I toughed it out and found out that my story wasn't nearly as bad as what some of my friends had experienced. That was just part of the process. If you wanted to move to the city and be a starving artist you were going to starve. Or you were going to move back home. But I didn't have any home to move to by that point.
There was no place left. Indiana was not there for me anymore. I couldn't move to Texas and be another saddle bag on my sister's three-legged pony. At that point it was do-or-die. I just had to do it. I had to figure it out.
You mentioned some of the songs dating back to the Bush era. Is it hard for you to sit on material that long?
I've written other albums since then, just not solo albums. I've got another band, Lost Leaders, we're working on our third album right now. Before that we had another name and had put out an album and an EP under that name. I had been doing stuff with my band Ollabelle, contributing songs to that and co-writing with people. I worked with Jim Keller, Amy Helm. Levon Helm cut a couple of my songs. I had outlets.
Meanwhile this thing was just sitting there annoying me. But then Obama was elected and I thought, "I wouldn't put this out now, exactly." A lot of stuff still stood but I didn't want to put "Man of the Times" out just then. It all didn't feel quite as urgent and, of course, with all these other things going, I had a sense of momentum. There was a time where I thought I might let it go. Who needs another debut record from another unknown singer-songwriter? Is that something the world needs? Hopefully.
And the older I get the less burning I get to put it out right away. Does the world need it? No. Can I afford it? No. Am I unable to be productive? No, I'm productive. I'm always doing stuff. But my schedule was such and finances were such that I could put it out.
I did pull a couple of songs off and add a new one in. "Losing You" is new. The rest is old but I still like those songs.
Did you record the album with everyone playing together?
The bulk of what you hear was done live. We spent some time doing pre-production to narrow down the sounds and get the general tenor of each song. With the exception of "Losing You" all those songs were recorded in one go. There was a period of some overdubbing. It sounds like there are more overdubs than there actually are. Glenn Patscha did a lot of gorgeous keyboard layers. He's got magic hands. He's can make all kinds of shit happen simultaneously.
When you're a sideman, how much of it is playing the notes and how much of it is taking notes on what to do and what not to do?
It's always school. That's just something that came with those desperate times and trying to figure out how to become a viable musician who could make a living. I quickly found out that every time I'm on stage I've got to be paying attention and there's stuff to learn. Every time. Sometimes it's stuff not to do. But most of the time I'm looking for good stuff to take away from every situation.
If you have that mindset you'll find good stuff in pretty much every situation. Whenever possible I'll got out and check out the bands that are playing on any given night. It's so valuable just to take it all in. Some of that has happened traveling with The Lumineers.
We started off traveling in theatres and clubs and stuff I was familiar with. But then, very quickly, I moved on to something that was very much outside my experience and outside of their experience too. Headlining an arena tour was new for all of us. That was pretty cool to experience. My favorite way to make music, personally, is a small club. I like the energy of an intimate experience. Going into arenas was an intense experience and then going out to see the opening bands every night was too.
What was amazing was when we got the gig opening for U2. Every single night I was out there watching U2's show. I was really taking in everything. That was really valuable. It was incredible. I'd look around and see that every one of The Lumineers was out there too. Every single night. There wasn't a show that anybody missed. We were all out there. Rapt.
Some of us weren't necessarily fans before this but became fans because of it. The guys in U2 can project so much energy and so far and wide and so clearly, it's unbelievable the combination of simplicity and power they have of each note that every one of them is playing all the time. It is mastery. Mastery at almost a metaphysical level. It's crazy to watch.
They can project to thousands of people all at once and make it feel intimate. Good God! Wizards. Truly wizards. We were all paying very close attention to that.
Had you gone back to Indiana that wouldn't be on the table.
Of course. I have to go back and remind myself how difficult it was. It's easy to think back on just how busy I was, all the bands I was playing in and how rich and fertile it all felt and how it feels in retrospect. But if I really put myself in the mindset I had back then I can remember the desperation that there was. It was really cool times and I got to make all kinds of really cool music with all kinds of really talented people.