The Defibulators Kick Start Your Heart
When The Defibulators released their 2009 album, “Corn Money,” critics described the band’s raucous and straight-to-the-heart music as “Carter Family-meets-Ramones” (AMG) with a “CBGB’s-meets-Grand Ole Opry feel” (Crawdaddy).
With their new album, “Debt’ll Get ‘Em,” the band lives well beyond the promise of their first album and the critics’ praise, delivering a blistering, let’s-get-down-to-the-truth, eclectic mix of musical styles that push and stretch the boundaries of country music by blending genre-bending guitars, fiddles, and banjo with the often haunting vocals of Erin Bru and the won’t-let-you-stop-thinking lyrics of Bug Jennings. One thing’s for sure, the songs on this new album won’t let you sit still, whether it’s the chicken-picking guitars and dance-floor fiddles of “Working Class” or the Commander Cody-like guitar heavy instrumental, “Rumble Strip,” in which Chris Hartway’s guitar moves from Don Rich’s Bakersfield sound to Dick Dale’s surf guitar and Bill Kirchen’s jumping Telecaster grooves. At the same time, on the smoky ballad “Real Slow” Bug Jennings and Erin Bru channel the “Grievous Angel” harmonies of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.
Every song on the album, according to Jennings, deals with the consequences of not taking debt—both literal and figurative debt—seriously. “Pay for That Money” features Bru’s haunting voice layered over mournful fiddles as well as lush echoing and shimmering guitar chords and asks “what do you get when you burn/through your plastic stacks.” “Working Class” follows the exploits of someone who “grew a crop of credit cards and never saw the bill…[who] could’ve been a doctor…but didn’t see the point to earn/more dough than I could drink.” “Real Slow” and “Let That Ponytail Run” plumb the depths of debt that lovers incur when they chase after the ephemeral beauty of a love that might not ever have been in the bank in the first place.
No Depression caught up with Bug Jennings, who plays banjo and rhythm guitar and writes most of the band’s songs, by phone a few days before “Debt’ll Get ‘Em” was released and chatted with him about the album and the band.
How did the band get together?
I moved from to New York City from Texas, and I started working at this barbeque place called Blue Smoke. One of the bartenders there was really into country music, and he started quizzing me about country music; he figured since I was from Texas I must know a lot about it. But, I didn’t know really anything about that music except for the insipid pop country I heard on the radio, and I wasn’t interested in that stuff. So, I started digging into country then and bought my first Hank Williams album at a record store in the Village. Chris Hartway (Roadblock), our Telecaster player, worked with me at Blue Smoke, and we discovered out mutual love of country music. The Defibulators really started as a dare: some other musicians at Blue Smoke had a punk band and they asked us to get a band together to open for them at a club down in the Village. I grabbed Chris and Erin Bru—I met her in elevator—and we put together a set of rockabilly tunes—we did a killer version of the classic weeper, “Don’t Sell Daddy Anymore Whiskey”—and mixed in songs by the Misfits and Black Flag. We knew after that night that we had to keep doing this. I felt the itch to really dig into country music. Here in New York there are not really any expectations about country music or what it should sounds like, so we had the freedom to experiment and to reclaim country music.
How did you decide on the band’s name?
Well, it’s the one name that Roadblock didn’t shoot down. When we started thinking about a name, I was playing around with the word heart, but most of the names I threw out there just didn’t seem to work. Then I thought about a defibrillator, and it’s a fascinating device, you know. It shoots a bolt of electricity through the torso and gets the heart moving again. There’s something archaic about the process and advanced about the device at the same time. But the name really does fit us. Our music gives out an electric shock, revives you, and gets you up and jumping.
Who are some of the band’s musical influences?
You know, the harmonies in country music, like the Louvin Brothers, really drive our music. I grew up listening to Tejano and Cajun music, so that sound stayed with me. But, man, the music that means the most to us includes Buck Owens, George Jones, Bob Dylan, The Monkees, Nirvana, The Byrds, Gram Parsons, The Flying Burrito Brothers, especially Clarence White, and BR549. We love the aggressive, piercing harmonies of The Farmer Boys [a country music duo out of California, Bobby Adamson and Woody Murray, who recorded for Capitol in the 1950s, who often toured behind Webb Pierce, Carl Smith, and Elvis, and who recorded the rockabilly single, “Cool Down Mame,” in 1956], and Ronnie Hawkins was a big influence, too. The Reverend Horton Heat turned Roadblock (guitarist Chris Hartway), who also builds his own guitars and amps, onto country Telecaster. And it’s clear from the last song on this new album that Hee-Haw was a huge influence on us.
Tell me about your process of songwriting. Any particular methods or approached you use?
I (Bug Jennings) am the main songwriter. The melody and lyrics have to come at the same time for me; it’s a more organic process Ideas come randomly to me, and I’ll jot them down as they come; I have lots of notebooks with scraps of lyrics that never amounted to a song, but every now and then I might go back and pick up an idea and turn it into a song, if the melody comes along and fits with the words. I’m really trying to avoid clichés in my songwriting, especially with country songs. I’m trying to twist or turn something that’s not so obvious. I try to make a song interesting to myself. I want to end up writing more directly but more effectively. Man, writing country music is a challenge; the songs sound so simple, like there’s nothing to it—you know, all surface and the meaning is evident—but there’s a lot to it. I want my songs to be simple and affecting at the same time. I hope the songs I write and that we sing give the people who listen to us something they can bring to it themselves and work a little bit to figure out the song’s meanings.
What’s the story behind the song “Holy Roller” [the album’s opening song]?
I wrote that song a long time ago. We were stuck on a two-lane highway behind this decked out church bus. We were getting kind of frustrated, and I thought, you know, this Jesus bus keeping us from getting where we’re headed is like some evangelical force that we’re all trying to get around. These evangelists “sell salvation across the nation/to another lonely guy,” but they end up leaving people behind and never really offering good news to folks; they come in like a whirlwind, change people’s lives for a day or two, and then leave them without having offered any guidance about what comes next. Plus, I think most of this pop Jesus country stuff, like “Jesus Take the Wheel,” is just pandering to the audience. There’s a lot of heavy-handed religious connotations in country music, and wanting to get around that Jesus bus was like wanting to get around those kinds of kinds of country songs.
As a North Carolina boy, “Cackalacky” spoke to me, since that’s how we often refer to our home state. How did that song come about?
It’s always struck me as odd that Southerners would come up here to New York City to try to make it in country music. This song tells the story of a banjo player from North Carolina—”North Cackalacky”—who moves up to Brooklyn—”got a Bushwick gig”—and makes it big in the indie music scene—”Pickin’ like a chicken with a bb gun…Had that crowd goin’ with a slew foot jig.” Man, this guy’s thinking he’s leaving home and never going back again ’cause he’s gonna make it big. But reality in Brooklyn is bleak, and he meets his demise in a mysterious way. He ends up going back home in a way he never imagined he go back there—in a pine box. We play this song in a weird time signature that matches the poignant reality of the story.
What about “Hee-Haw in Heaven”? Sounds like a tongue-in-cheek take on the television show.
No, man; this is an honest-to-goodness ode to that show. It really changed a lot for me. Sure, there was lot of silliness on there, but the music was real and good, and Buck did really got back his career because of that show. The show showed me—and a lot of people, I think—that country music could be fun.
The Defibulators are:
Erin Bru—Vocals, triangle
Bug Jennings—Vocals, banjo, acoustic guitar
Roadblock (Chris Hartway)—Telecaster
Metalbelly—Washboards, harmonica, percussion
Smitty the Giant Fiddler—Take a guess
David Dawda—Upright and electric bass