Gurf Morlix Talks about “Eatin’ At Me” and Much More
It might be a slight exaggeration to suggest it would be easier to name the artists Gurf Morlix has not collaborated with rather than those he has. He’s worked with Lucinda Williams, Warren Zevon, Tom Russell, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Robert Earl Keen, Ian McLagan, Buddy Miller, Julie Miller, Slaid Cleaves, Butch Hancock, Jim Lauderdale, Blaze Foley, Peter Case, Eliza Gilkyson, Mary Gauthier, Sam Baker, Ruthie Foster, Rod Picott, BettySoo, and Patty Griffin, to name a few. Okay, maybe it wasn’t an exaggeration after all.
In addition to his work as producer, engineer, and player of just about anything with strings, Morlix is a talented songwriter and his latest album, Eatin’ At Me (Rootball Records, 2015), is a rust-belt inspired masterpiece. Unlike Proust and his madeleine, Morlix found inspiration in the “smoky memories, they haunt my mind” of his childhood and “Born in Lackawanna,” “Dirty Old Buffalo,” and “50 Years” form the nucleus of his best and most personal album to date. Morlix returns to Buffalo and discovers that the city has changed. Bethlehem Steel is closed, the jobs are gone, the air is clean, and the city is gentrified, but “if you scratch the surface, the grease will show.”
In addition to the “Buffalo trilogy,” the mysterious spooky groove of “Elephant’s Graveyard,” “The Dog I Am” (which may or may not be a metaphor), and “Orphan Tears” are other outstanding tracks on this gritty album. If there was any doubt — there wasn’t in my mind — this album proves Morlix is also an outstanding singer-songwriter.
Hal Bogerd: I was really excited when Eatin’ At Me arrived in the mail. I popped it into the CD player and it was a couple days and many listens later when I really looked at the cover. What is that cowboy hat sitting on?
Gurf Morlix: It’s a log that I split to burn in the woodstove. I split that thing and it fell in half and all these black ants had chambered it out. They had hollowed it out and it was a queendom of ants in there. They all ran away and I put it next to the woodstove to burn it and it just sat there. I never could bring myself to put it in. And it sat next to the woodstove for 15 years. Every time I went to burn it, I’d think, “No, it’s too beautiful”.
Finally one night I was up late — that’s when I get my ideas, my filters go down late at night. That’s when I do my songwriting. I looked at that thing and I thought, I wonder what that would look like with my cowboy hat on it. And it turns out it looks like Jack Palance.
I took some pictures and it ended up being the album cover. People have asked “Is that a beard of bees?” “A slab of meat?” I think it is possibly the best album cover I’ve ever seen.
Mother Jones reviewed Eatin’ At Me and they loved the album. They were going on about how good it was and then the review said “don’t be deterred by the spectacularly ugly cover art.” I was shocked. Really? It is one of the most beautiful images I have ever seen. I thought about it, realized that the person who wrote that is probably an insectaphobe and is creeped out by the fact that ants were in a log.
I know you were born in, and grew up near, Buffalo. Could you talk a little bit about how that experience was the inspiration for several songs on this album?
That Great Lakes area, they call it the “rust belt.” It was really gritty back in the ’50s when I was growing up. I was born in ’51. The Bethelehem Steel plant on the shore of Lake Erie, just south of the city of Buffalo, was in the city of Lackawanna and was just belching this orange smoke and soot into the sky. You could see it. You could see the orange and black particles in the air, and it stunk. You could just about cut it with a knife. It smelled really bad and the houses in Lackawanna were coated with this soot to the point where you couldn’t tell what color they had been painted. And the cars in the driveways. you couldn’t tell what color they were because they were coated with this orange and black soot. Those people’s lungs had to be coated with that.
I grew up 10 miles south of there, and the air was fine. It came fresh off of Lake Erie. It was really awful back then. Every time we had to drive through Lackawanna on our way into Buffalo, I’d hold my nose. It stunk! It went on through the late ’60s until the steel plants closed around 1970.
I had never really written about growing up around there. I hadn’t written about the area or the people that I knew back then. Something triggered it, I don’t know what it was, and all of a sudden I got a flood of songs about growing up around Buffalo.
If you were a kid growing up in Lackawanna, did that just seem normal?
Yeah, you would just be used to it. You wouldn’t even think about it … until you realize it could be better.
I had not heard about the Allman Brothers incident you mention in “Dirty Old Buffalo.” Do you know what happened to the guy that stabbed Aliotta?
Yeah, I’m not saying that’s karma, but a few years later he jumped out of an airplane and his parachute didn’t open. What I found remarkable about that was he [Twiggs Lyndon, the Allman Brothers’ tour manager] stabbed the club owner [Aliotta] because the club owner was fucking with them about the money. He went to jail and they got a hot-shot lawyer, pled insanity, and demonstrated how insane it was to be traveling on the road with the Allman Brothers [while] on every kind of drug known to man. And it got him off! That was the first big drug insanity defense and it worked really well.
“Dirty Old Buffalo,” “50 years,” and “Born In Lackawanna” are all autobiographical. Did you ever think of the album as a concept album, a Buffalo album?
I didn’t quite have enough songs to make it a total Buffalo concept album. And you know that attaches a stigma to it. I had some other songs that didn’t make the cut for whatever reason, but I didn’t want to have be just that one thing. I don’t know what it was that all of sudden got me writing about it.
You know with Facebook and Twitter and all the social media, I’ve been contacted by people that I went to school with. When I graduated high school I just wanted to be out of there. I didn’t want to see anybody again. It’s not that I didn’t like some of those people, I just hated high school. I feel like I should have quit school when I was about ten, but I wasn’t smart enough. I graduated and then I just left. But now I’ve been contacted by people I grew up with, taking to them on Facebook and email, they come to my shows and I find out that I like them.
How long did it take you to write those songs? Were they collected over years?
I’ve been taking longer and longer to write songs. I write a lot but I’ve learned to keep working on them until I get them as good as I can. I’ve got songs I’ve been working on now for five years and I’m still not done with them. But when I am I think they’ll be good.
There is a line in “Born in Lackawanna”: “go to college or to Bethlehem Steel.” You didn’t go to Bethlehem Steel.
I went to college in Fredonia, New York, for about a year and a half. I didn’t know what I was doing. You graduate high school and next is college. But I did want to be a musician, and I knew that. When I finally realized I should just get out of college and I was just wasting my parents’ money, I did quit.
Is that when you went to Texas?
I went to Key West a couple times in the early ’70s and kept getting dragged back [to Buffalo]. I finally left and went to Austin in early 1975. It was a great move. It was really happening in Austin when I got there. That lasted for about six years and then I started running out of opportunities in Austin. I wanted to tour and make records so I moved out to Los Angeles, and that was also a really good move. I was out there throughout the ’80s and hooked up with Lucinda Williams out there, and started producing records. As soon as I realized I could do that, I moved back to Austin in 1991.
Is the Peter described as “Peter was his brother’s keeper” in “Born in Lackawanna” Peter Case?
Nope, that’s a different Peter. We were in different bands. I think Peter’s first time on stage was sitting in during a break of my band back in Hamburg in 1966 or so. But he was younger, so that isn’t him in that song.
“Elephant’s Graveyard” is a pretty spooky, mysterious song and it reminds me a bit of “Hypnotized” by Fleetwood Mac.
I don’t know “Hypnotized.” I just think of “Elephant’s Graveyard” as being noir-ish. I bailed on radio in the ’70s. After the Beatles broke up, all I listened to was Bob Dylan and The Band and then Hank Williams and Muddy Waters. I gave up on the radio. It was the worst decade. I’m sorry, that you had to grow up through some of that. I know you’re a little younger than me. It was the worst decade.
Okay, we’ve got a definitive answer.
In every way.
The one constant on Gurf Morlix albums other than Gurf is Rick Richards.
I met Rick when I was living in Houston playing with Blaze Foley in the late ’70s. Rick was just this skinny little kid who played the drums. He was this little rock drummer and he wasn’t all that good, but he was playing the same clubs I was playing. After I moved out to L.A. and I came back to Austin, I was playing with Donald Lindley, who was Lucinda’s drummer. Donald had moved to Austin and I wanted to start a studio and recording team with him. Donald was maybe the best musician I’ve ever played with. Donald got cancer and died. I thought, what am I gonna do now? I don’t have a drummer. I ran into Rick, who I hadn’t seen in 10, maybe 15 years, and I saw him play drums and he was great! I thought “My prayers are answered.” I use him on everything I can use him on. I just think he’s a fantastic musician.
Those first two albums you did with Lucinda Williams put both her and you on the map of many music fans. That’s when I first saw your name and then it seemed like your name kept popping up everywhere I looked, and then it got to the point where I had to check it out if Gurf was connected with the album.
Those albums are what got us out there. There’s no doubt about that. They’re really good albums.
And that was your first stab at producing.
Yeah. I think they sound great. I always knew I could do the production thing and then all of sudden I had the chance. Lucinda got offered a record deal and she said “Who’s gonna produce it?” I said “I am.” And it worked out fine.
I know you’ve worked with Sam Baker. What an amazing songwriter, and what an amazing story.
Incredible story, incredible songwriter, and a pretty amazing human being. I’ve only done a little bit of recording with him but we did a lot of shows together where we would just sit and trade songs all night. We just had a blast. Sam turns any room he is in into a little living room. He’s a great writer and he’s one of only two people I know that died and came back to tell me about it. Therefore he knows things that I don’t know and he knows things that you don’t know. It shows in his writing.
He told me it was just stupid moon June songs before the train explosion. You learn so much from going through some horrible trauma like that and coming out the other side. He knows some things and he’s a very smart person.
If I mention a few artists you’ve worked with, would you say the first few things that come to mind?
A class act and a genius. Genius is a word that is over used but Warren was a genius. No doubt about it. He was not normal and he was an incredible songwriter.
Patty Griffin — another class act and a great writer, but a beautiful voice. When she sings with me she makes me sound better … somehow.
Tom Russell is really smart. He’s a great writer. One of the most literate people I know.
Dave Alvin — completely committed to his art. I love Dave’s passion.
Robert Earl Keen.
Oh man, another class act and a great writer. I produced a few records for him and he’s the only person that I would produce a record for that wouldn’t have the songs until we showed up in the studio. He’d go out into his trailer and hole up and write the whole album in a couple of days before recording started.
Robert’s the only person I would trust to do that. I asked him once if we had to do a double album and you had two more days could you write another album. He said “Yeah, I think so.”
I get the feeling that you’re as much of a coach as a producer on the albums I’ve heard. You’re really good at getting the best out of the players without dramatically changing their sound. With some producers, I hear an album and wonder, where is the artist?
There’s a bunch of those omnipotent producers out there. Once in a while that works. You get somebody like Daniel Lanois and you put him together with Emmylou Harris and they make Wrecking Ball and it is a great album. But I might not have been. I never wanted to do that. I feel like every record I produce sounds different because of the artist. I’m not looking to put my stamp on things. I’m trying to help the artist make the best record they can make and still sound like them.
Could we take a minute and talk about Blaze and Townes? I never saw Blaze but I did get to see Townes. One evening at Fitzgerald’s in Houston, Townes came out with Rocky Hill. They never made it through a song. Rocky finally took his guitar and walked off stage. At the time I remember feeling pissed off, and now looking back I feel guilty about not appreciating the sadness and tragedy or understanding what he was going through and the demons he was fighting.
He had demons, there is no doubt about that. Every time Townes would fuck up like that he would come back and make it up to the club. He’d come back and do his best to do a good show, and that happened a lot. He couldn’t even bring himself to go on sometimes. I can’t imagine living in that kind of pain. I wouldn’t trade my life for all the great songs in the world.
Blaze had his demons too. He was a pretty bad drunk, he did a lot of drugs and he had behavior problems, but what an honest writer. I’m always struck by how every line of his is so real and honest. He was just a great songwriter.
In Duct Tape Messiah you hint at some problems with Blaze’s drinking getting in the way a little bit.
Getting in the way a lot. He started blowing off gigs because he wanted to keep drinking with his friends. That’s not good. You’ve misaligned your priorities when that start’s happening.
You’re this young guy from Buffalo moving to Texas, and getting into country and folk music … was there anybody that took you under their wing?
I never really had anybody helping me out. I knew that I wanted to play with songwriters and to play original music. I came to Austin and met Blaze and started playing with him, and Houston was a really great songwriter scene, in the Montrose area. It was really happening in the late ’70s. There were a dozen clubs I could walk to from my house. I ended up going out to L.A. because I didn’t want to just play clubs in Houston all the time.
Ian McLagan passed away last year and I know you were close. You dedicated “Voice of Midnight” on Last Exit to Happyland (2008) to Kim and Ian.
Kim had died in a car wreck and he was just lost for years, as you would be. I wrote that for him after she died. Six months later or so, I called him up said, “I wrote a song for you. I don’t think I can sing it for you.” And he said “That’s good I don’t think I can listen to it.”
I emailed him a version of it and I don’t know when he ever listened to it. He came to one of my gigs a year later, I knew he was there, and I played it while I was looking at him and I was afraid I wasn’t gonna get through it. I got through it and I went over and hugged him on the break, and I said, “Well, I made it through the song.” He said “Yeah, I did too, but just barely.”
And you played with him in the Bump Band.
I produced a record for him called Best of British and just kind of fell into the band by playing guitar on some of that record. I knew all of those songs and they were playing around Austin. There wasn’t any touring or anything. Then I got too busy to do it. I had to back out of that, but I loved playing with him. He was in the Faces and the Small Faces. They both really rocked. The Small Faces weren’t huge in America but they were in England.
When I joined Mac’s band, it was a rock band and there was already a guitar player. Scrappy Jud Newcomb was playing so I was the second guitar player, so I decided my role was to just fuck everything up and make it as dangerous and sloppy and loose as I could. It was really fun.
Are there any projects you’re working on you’d like to talk about?
I produced a record for a guy named Blackie Farrell. He’s a songwriter from California and he’s been a successful songwriter for the last 45 years but he’s never put out an album. He wrote a song “Mama Hated Diesels” that was a big song for Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen. He wrote a song called “Sonora’s Death Row” that’s been covered 33 times or something. It’s a great song. Bill Kirchen and I decided it was time for Blackie’s album, so we produced this album together. It’s not out yet but it’s coming soon. He’s a great songwriter and an amazing human being. He didn’t want to peak too soon so he waited 45 years to release his first album.