James McMurtry On His New Album, Protest Songs + Americana
He may be one of the most honest songwriters alive today. His poetic lyrics, voice and inflection are all reminiscent of Lou Reed. From his debut album, 'Too Long In the Wasteland,' to his most recent effort, 'Just Us Kids,' the Austin-based alt country mastermind, James McMurtry, has always been more of a storyteller than a musician.
Needless to say, when his brand-new full-length, 'Complicated Game,' was announced (set for release in February), we here at Diffuser were a bit excited. His unadulterated Americana perspective has gone nearly seven years without a studio album to represent it, but believe us, the wait will be worth it.
While in New York City for a gig at the Mercury Lounge, we had the distinct privilege of sitting down with McMurtry to chat about the new record and his advice to up-and-coming musicians, among other things. Check out our exclusive interview below:
How did you approach the recording of ‘Complicated Game’ compared to past albums?
Well, the last four records I produced myself. I felt I’d run out of tricks. Everything I learned from John Mellencamp, Lloyd Maines, Don Dixon -- I used it all up, everything I remembered from it. I started repeating myself. So, I needed to go back to production school. I’ve been hanging out with C.C. Adcock and he makes good records, so I thought, let’s have him produce it.
How’d you start hanging out with him?
We know the same people. He hangs out at the Continental Club when he’s in Austin.
And this wasn’t a record where you locked yourself in the studio for two months and knocked it all out.
No. We can’t do that anymore. We have to stay on the road as much as we can to make a living. So, I’d come in for a week and lay down some tracks and go off on the road again. C.C. would bring in Benmont Tench or Derek Trucks or whoever he wanted to flesh it out while I was gone. A lot of the record took place in my absence, which was OK. I wasn’t surprised.
Is that the first time you did a record like that?
Yeah. Well, there are other records with occasional pieces that I didn’t see happen, but not like this.
How long did it take to make ‘Complicated Game’?
About a year. I started in December of 2013.
Was it all done in Louisiana?
Mostly done in New Orleans, yeah. It was at Mike Napolitano’s studio -- he co-produced it.
How do you think this LP is different than your previous efforts?
It’s a lot cleaner sounding. It’s more hi-res than what I do.
The first single, 'How'm I Gonna Find You Now,' definitely has ...
Well, that radio mix that was released, that’s different than what’s on the record.
It’s crunchy. It sounds like I’m singing through an amp. We liked it for radio, so we used it. We did another mix for the album, stripped down, because the rest of the songs are a lot more acoustic based. A lot of banjos and stuff.
When the single premiered, the Wall Street Journal said they could hear you “rapping” the lyrics.
Yeah, this is as close to hip-hop as I’ve ever gotten. The rappers would argue differently.
Are you OK with that comparison?
Yeah. Why not? It’s all music.
You played Pennsylvania last night, New Jersey the night before, and New York tonight. You play six nights a week. Do you approach certain shows differently than others?
If you use geographical references in songs, you have to use the ones that are local because that’s going to go over better.
What do you mean?
If I’m playing New Jersey, I’m better off with songs that are set in the Northeast. If I’m playing Montana, I’m better off playing songs that are set in the West. I have both, so that’s what I do.
Do you find a difference in your fans across the country?
Not really. Everybody likes to hear about themselves, that’s universal. It’s no different anywhere in the world.
You will probably forever be known, among other things, for your protest song, ‘We Can’t Make It Here.’ With President Obama in his second term, with us going through elections recently -- it still seems to resonate, albeit a bit differently, like it did when it was released on 2005's 'Childish Things.' Do you still find a spot for it in your set lists?
No I don’t. We played it live a lot, up until a couple of years ago. Then we quit for a few years at the beginning of Obama’s first term and then started playing it again because it didn’t seem to be changing all that much. Not to denigrate the President, I’m really glad that I can buy healthcare now. I couldn’t before. The overall picture, though, hasn’t changed that much. We played it again until we got sick of it. Then, we just dropped it. We have new songs to work into the set.
Do you have any other protest songs lined up?
Well, I had ‘Cheney’s Toy’ -- that was never going to be as popular because it’s just more of a rant, there’s not a character the listener can identify with. It was a fun rant and a cool sounding track, but it was not going to be what ‘We Can’t Make It Here’ was. I did get known as a political songwriter even though I’ve only written about three political songs in my whole career. You have to get known for something I guess.
Do you think things are much different today compared to when you wrote ‘We Can’t Make It Here’ in 2004?
I don’t think so. The same money is controlling everything. I don’t worry too much about the midterms because the same money owns both parties.
Earlier you mentioned that in order to make it as a musician, you have to tour. You don’t get a lot of radio play, you’re not going platinum -- but you’re still able to tour across the country and pack venues. You’re releasing a brand-new record, the Wall Street Journal is writing about you. What do you think it is about you and your music that has allowed you to do it since the ‘80s?
I never quit. I never quit working. I stay out there.
Would that be your advice to an aspiring musician? Never quit?
Yeah. That’s it. I hear that from managers and music lawyers. They say we’ve got these great kids but they don’t want to work. They want to do the videos and be stars, but they don’t want to be out there.
Since you mentioned kids, your son, Curtis, is "out there" it seems. I’ve seen him open for you. What are the conversations like between the two of you? Do you talk about the profession much?
We talk about which motels to stay in. He’s on the road now. He’s a worker. He’s getting out to the west coast next week actually.
Do you guys talk much about the business side of things?
Not so much because it changes so fast that neither of us can keep up with it. [Laughs]
Do you swap inspirations for songs?
No. He does his songs and I do mine. He’s good.
Yeah, and he does a pretty solid cover of ‘Gulf Road.’
He does. I’m proud of everything he does. I wish I would have worked that hard when I was his age.
How old is he?
He’s 24 I believe. Yeah, he’s 24 now.
How old were you when you worked with Mellencamp on your debut, 'Too Long In the Wasteland'?
I was 27.
Looking back on your career, how do you feel about where you’re at today?
Pretty good because a lot of the guys I started out with can’t do it anymore. A lot of people got knocked out of the game one way or another.
It seems like there’s a bigger understanding and appreciation for what you do, Americana and alt country music.
When I started, there was no Americana. That word didn’t exist, neither did alt country. Triple A radio didn’t exist, they tried to market me on AOR [album-oriented rock]. That’s all there was back then. When Triple A came up, I was No. 1 on the first-ever Triple A chart when there were only 25 stations reporting. Within a year or two, they’d blown up to where major labels had departments to work it. The day I was dropped, I was at Fordham University, basically introducing the Columbia rep to Rita Houston and all those people at WFUV because that was a major station. [Laughs] The next day I didn’t have a record deal.
It happened that quick?
I had been out glad-handing those people since the chart debuted, and Columbia wouldn’t pay any attention whatsoever, no major label would pay attention to Triple A when it started up. Then, suddenly, it became a thing. They sent a rep out with me as someone to take care of me, but it was really because I was already on a first name basis with these radio program directors at these stations. All those little stations that labels never paid attention to, suddenly they became important. So, they sent someone out with me -- and that’s how we knew we were dropped, because they started paying attention to us. You guys are done.
Do you still do a lot of glad-handing with radio stations?
Not really. Most of them are my colleagues now. At least the ones still doing it.
James McMurtry's 'Complicated Game' -- his first studio album in six years -- hits store shelves on Feb. 24 via Complicated Game. Get a limited edition 7-inch of the album's lead single, 'How'm I Gonna Find You Now' b/w 'These Things I've Come to Know,' at this location. Stay up-to-date with McMurtry's happenings and his always-growing tour schedule at his official website here.
Exclusive Video: James McMurtry Performs 'These Things' In New York City