Music

Hunt Sales Sings About Love, Hate in "Angel of Darkness" (premiere + interview)

Jedd Beaudoin
Photo: George Hancock / Courtesy of Conqueroo

Veteran rock drummer Hunt Sales Memorial's Get Your Shit Together provides snapshots of life's darker side with rays of light filtering in, which he tells us about in this exclusive interview.

Hunt Sales returns with a new album, Get Your Shit Together, on January 25 via Big Legal Mess through Fat Possum. The album, released under the name Hunt Sales Memorial, may be pre-ordered now. In addition to work with Todd Rundgren and Iggy Pop (he provides the unmistakable intro to "Lust For Life"), Sales was a founding member of Tin Machine with his brother Tony, David Bowie and Reeves Gabrels. He has also worked with Lowell Fulson, Bootsy Collins, Los Super Seven and has fronted a variety of bands in his storied career.

One might wonder if the name Hunt Sales Memorial is gallows humor. Maybe. Consider that Sales, now 64, spent decades struggling with drug addiction and poverty. Those days, he says, are behind him now, having undergone a kind of rebirth after embracing sobriety.

In 2017, he was invited to play some gigs in Memphis by his good friend Will Sexton. Sexton introduced Sales to Fat Possum/Big Legal Mess mogul Bruce Watson (who co-produced Get Your Shit Together). What was initially intended to be a single quickly became an album with the tracking done at a brisk pace. Joined by musicians such as guitarist Tjarko Jeen and horn players Jim Spake and Art Edmaiston, Sales emerges with a record that summons terms such as "unflinching", "unapologetic", and "harrowing".

It's been said that debut albums are often the reflection of an artist's entire life and, though Sales is a music veteran, it's certainly true of Get Your Shit Together, with its tales of drugs, romantic strife, and the wisdom that age brings. Sales' unmistakable candor is evident on "Angel of Darkness", for which he has now completed a video ahead of the album's January 25th street date.

"The song is about relationships and love, the fact that you can love someone so much and then at the same time you fucking hate them," he offers. "Like the line in the song, 'There's a thin line between love and hate, and I cross that line every night and every day,' I believe to love someone and then at times to hate them is pretty universal when it comes to relationships. To hate someone means that you really and truly care about them, because if you didn't care about them your feelings would be indifferent. You wouldn't care enough to hate them."

The video, which Sales co-directed with George Hancock, came together quickly. "The video idea was put together in one day and shot the next", Sales recalls. "The girl in the video I found was stereotyped as a beautiful, but selfish bitch. When I asked her to do the video after meeting her in a Memphis bar she turned her back on me in mid-sentence. At that moment, I knew she'd be the perfect bitch for the video."

Speaking from his home in Austin, Texas, Sales discussed the origins of Get Your Shit Together while also offering some insights into his playing and career.

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You don't really hold anything back on the lyrical front with Get Your Shit Together.

I try to keep it real. Somebody asked me about the song "One Day" and said, "Oh, you wrote it about your mom and dad." That song is not about my mom and dad. I mention them in the chorus but it's about all of us putting things off. "Next week I'm going to do this. I'm going to quit smoking. I'm going to be nicer to my wife."

There's a tendency to look at biography and marry it to what we hear in the art.

The record is personal. I thought that would be cool. I'm not ashamed of anything. I'm good with stuff, as good as I can be. I think there are similarities with other people. I look at the similarities rather than the differences. I hope there are some similarities in the songs where people can listen and go, "Yeah." I guess it comes from my age and where I was at when I was writing this stuff.

Did the material come together once you knew you were going to make an album or were there some things that you had around and said, "Maybe this is the right time to record this one"?

I had a few of the tunes for a little bit. I've got tons of stuff recorded but when I got this deal with Big Legal Mess, I decided to sit down and write a bunch of new songs. "Sorry Baby" is an older song. I wrote that years ago and it's the one I got the deal with. The label was worried that it couldn't get played on radio. "Instead of making love to you/I said, 'fuck it'" and "I put that needle in my neck."

I was at the airport, going back and forth between Austin and Memphis, and spotted a copy of Time with a guy shooting up on the cover. The whole issue was about the problem of drugs in America. There are a lot of people dying. It's not unlike it was in the 1930s in this country when you could get morphine and buy stuff out of catalogs. I'd say it's worse than that now. There was an epidemic back then and there's one now.

When I saw that cover, I spoke to the guy at the label and said, "It's Top 40 now." I don't know that they'll play that song on the radio.

The record has a raw, visceral quality. Was this about going in and getting the best take as quickly as you could?

Exactly. Here's how it went down: I cut six songs in one day. After I cut each song, I'd grab a mic and do the vocals. We'd do another song, I'd grab the mic, do the vocals. With "It Ain't Easy", I sang and played drums at the same time. I did that on a Tin Machine song as well.

So, on this record, we did six songs, then the next day we'd put the saxes on. The third day I'd make rough mixes and then leave. I came back to Memphis, cut six more songs. Same thing: A vocal after every track. So, all those vocals you hear are typically one take. Real fast. Old school, as opposed to laboring and laboring over stuff. We spent a little more time mixing but we didn't spend too much time on that either.

I'm glad you mentioned "It Ain't Easy." I love that track. To me, it's like vintage Humble Pie.

Oh, cool! To me, this record sounds somewhere between those Stax records and Motörhead. I've done sessions with people where they want things this way and that way. They spend a lot of time in their really expensive studios.

You've made a lot of records over the years. Some guys are first take, best take, others chase through a longer process. Is there ever an advantage to spending three days on something?

You can make some happy mistakes when you don't know what you're doing. The performance is so important. I tried to capture that making this record. I wasn't trying to make product. I didn't think it was necessary to put too much on there. I tried to make it a performance. With "It Ain't Easy",that's the second take. When I did Lust For Life with Iggy, we did that in about four days. Maybe five days.

[Laughs.]

When I started doing commercial session work in the late '60s, early '70s, for car commercials, other things that I've done … those sessions, man… You go in there and they want to get them done in three hours. Everything. It's union. You go over three hours and they have to pay more money. I guess I have it in me to go in there and do it fast. I've worked for people who have turned a three-hour session into a 10-hour session. Was it any better? I don't know.

You have such an identifiable style. How did that develop? Were you focused, as a session player, on having something that would make people want to call you to get a specific sound?

I'm aware of a lot of stuff and then I'm not aware of a lot of stuff. There's a lot of great drummers out there. Everyone has their own take. I've listened to everybody, coming up as a drummer, whether it be Art Blakey or Mitch Mitchell. I mostly listened to jazz drummers. I played jazz for a little bit but, basically, I'm a rock 'n' roll drummer. But my background and my interest as a drummer as always been jazz.

I get that.

My fantasy, when I was younger, was to play with Count Basie. To play with him or Duke Ellington. I used to go see them gig. I got to know Buddy Rich too. He talked to me, several times, about drums and about his take on stuff. I remember asking him, remember this is a 12-year-old boy, maybe 11, "What are the best drums?" He basically said, "They all stink. You just have to put heads on them and tune 'em right."

[Laughs.]

You like that one? So, my take is: Listen to all those great people.

It helps.

If you want to know how I got into playing drums: I was at a recording session. I was between the ages of six and seven-years-old. My dad [comedian Soupy Sales] had a bunch of records. I went to one of the sessions. I was already listening to music, remember The Beatles had not come out yet. Surf music was real popular. For some reason, I really liked this band called The Orlons. They had a song called "South Street." Do you know it?

I don't.

It's a New Orleans, funky thing. That's the first single I bought. Anyway, I went to this session and Earl Palmer was the drummer. When I saw him play, I said, "That is what I want to do!" It made that big of an impression on me. I never got to know the guy. I don't even know if I ever saw him again in person. But, at that age, seeing him, blew my mind.

But that's when I started. I took lessons from Bill Douglas, who taught me rudiments. I went through a succession of other teachers: Jim Chapin, I went to the Cozy Cole Drum School on 48th Street in New York. I studied with William Kessler. He was a big band drummer in the '30s. He had his hair slicked back and wore old-style suits. He smoked cigarettes from a cigarette holder. He gave me ear training. He'd play vibes and I'd play drums and copy what he did. He'd have me keep beats with brushes. Different tempos. We'd go back and forth. That was my early ear training.

By 11, I had a musician's union card and a social security number. I started recording at Bell Sound. Then I had the band with my brother, Tony and The Tigers. I was 11 years old, taking drum lessons and working with producers Hugo and Luigi. You know them?

Yes.

I was in an adult world. Working with people 10-20 years older than me, making records. The Rascals were my dad's backing band. I'd go to these shows and got to know Dino Dinelli, a monster drummer. I probably play the way I play because of him, Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich, Shelly Manne. I've played with soul bands, Bakersfield country bands, whatever. All that stuff is filtered through me. A lot of people would say, "Lust For Life." I've done that. I did that. But there's more.

How much was it about going and listening to guys and talking to them and then how much was digging in and practicing?

I'd already been on a record with Todd Rundgren called "We Gotta Get You a Woman", which was Top 5 and I started taking lessons with Freddie Gruber who made me evaluate myself. I didn't want to end up like a lot of other players who can't really play. I'd take one lesson a week from him, sometimes two. I'd quit school. I practiced 10 hours a day, six days a week, for three years. The only playing I did was going out to Compton, where they had organ trio music, there were five different clubs I'd go to during the week, at night. Every day I'd wake up and practice all day. It changed me from doing Todd's record to what I did later.

Did you do a lot of sessions after that?

I wanted to be on the road. The rock 'n' roll band thing. I didn't put much interest in the sessions game. I was more interested in getting my technique together.

You moved to Austin some years ago, and now you have this brand-new record coming out. A new career, in some ways, at 64.

You could call it repaying dues but I wound up playing every club and shithole in Texas for about the last 20 years. I'm in my 60s. I don't think of myself like that all the time. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I feel like that kid sitting in the room practicing all day. I've tried to hold on to that.

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