Bad Livers – Deconstruction of the labels
“Yeah,” says Rubin. “There’s certain little hoops that you have to jump through in order to be a bluegrass band. We’ve probably violated quite a few them.”
“Well, the accordion is a certain no-no,” Barnes starts.
“No tubas, no short pants on stage, things like that,” the well-tattooed Rubin adds.
“We don’t have a style created whereby things are held up against this and then tossed away and evaluated through this style,” Barnes says. “We’re pretty adventurous in what we’re doing. That’s not really accepted in the traditional form. Because we played to kids, and to people that didn’t really have an education in bluegrass music, we were free to do whatever we wanted to. That made it real advantageous for us, because we have a lot of different influences. I look at acoustic music as being this big thing, and bluegrass is like a slice of the pie, but there’s so many other things in it.”
“I’d like to be able to say that we came up with this great idea, but we didn’t,” Rubin concludes. “We just did what we did, and we just followed our muse. It dawned on us that people outside of Austin really liked what we were doing, and we put on a good show, and we played real well. They didn’t at first get attracted to us because we played bluegrass per se, or because we played folk music.”
This constant need to label things is one of several ways we now sort ourselves into tribal clans. Sheila is a punk rocker, little Ramona’s gone hillbilly nuts. Otherwise, we all shop at the same dozen stores at the mall. No surprise there; have to belong to something, and odds are these days it’s not going to be a family, a church, a neighborhood, a job.
But it makes music — which, fundamentally, is just invisible waves of sound dancing against your eardrums — a curious quilt. We are challenged with the introduction of a new instrument, the computer, which allows, on the one hand, for the synthesis of organic sounds (and the creation of non-organic sounds), and on the other for sufficient market research to identify the segment of society most receptive to those sounds.
Add onto that — and imagine yourself trying to write a song or 12 against this backdrop — the cultural imperative to recycle the past (and the present) at an ever-escalating speed, and utter uncertainty as to what the present or the future might hold, and maybe that’s why people view deconstruction as some kind of logical and pleasant exercise. Just tear the whole machine apart so it can’t work, and let the parts rust.
Is it just me, or is alienation the central theme of post-WWII Western culture?
The Bad Livers, to their infinite credit, have found a way to expand the hidebound traditions of bluegrass. To look simultaneously forward and backward. And to do so with tremendous joy.
This, incidentally, does not place them in league with New Grass Revival and its extended alumni association. “You know,” Barnes says, choosing his words slowly, “I think those guys are great players, especially Sam Bush. I’m a big Sam Bush fan. But that music, to me, is a kind of pitch that I never swung at. It reminds me a bit of Al DiMeola, or something like that. You can’t deny that it’s great music, or good picking, but it doesn’t really speak to me personally.”
“What negative thing can you say about a guy who makes a living playing banjo?” Rubin asks.
Still, the Livers are quite obviously headed down a different road. Danny’s apt to drop names like Captain Beefheart along the way, but he’s hard-pressed to see much connection between the boundaries his songs push and New Grass’s experiments. “The light that they were growing to was a different light than what we were growing to,” he offers. “We’re more interested in organic grooves and relationships between the instruments, rather than creating scenarios whereby you can take good solos.”
“I think the key word that Danny used there is organic,” Rubin says. “Unfortunately, sometimes when I see bands play I get the idea that they kind of came up with an idea and now they’re trying to force that idea into being. Whereas I’m much more interested in music that just kind of happened.”
“I think what we’re trying to do is, we’re exploring the relationships of the instruments to each other, rather than the solo being the main thing,” Barnes picks up. “Compositionally, how I’m driven is, I look at what the composition’s come from as sort of like theme songs to little movies that I make up in my brain. I’m trying to evoke moods and things like that.”
Jars of Clay aside (they’re a Christian faux-alternative rock band that mysteriously appeared on the Billboard charts last year), it’s bloody hard to inject anything resembling rock music with anything resembling spirituality. That is, if you want it to come off.
It’s a seamless matter with the Bad Livers, always has been a part of their music, shows up mid-set and amid their recordings. A while back they recorded the cassette-only Dust on the Bible, a collection of ageless gospel songs. It’s cassette-only because it was recorded straight to cassette in Danny’s spare room, and the fidelity’s not up to their standards. But the songs flat swing.
“Mainly what I want to do, I’d like to have the opportunity to do that rascal again, you know,” Barnes says, while Rubin laughs in the background. “I’d like to try to do that one again, and do it right. That was like the first recording I made in my home studio, and it’s pretty rough. I think I spent about 24 bucks on the whole thing, and that was just buying cassette tape.
“Also, the more that I do this, the more that I’m interested in composition. I really would like to have the opportunity to make a gospel record that was all original pieces, ’cause I feel like, that’s really my voice, and what I feel like I have to add to the world of music is a vision that’s sort of an idea, rather than dragging up a bunch of songs and just playing them.”