By: Dennis Cook
In their 25 years together the Cowboy Junkies have shown an unerring knack for crawling inside the music of others. While their originals merge soulful, familial warmth with jet black eddies, they’ve also shown a voluminous appetite for quality material by Neil Young, Grateful Dead, Fred Eaglesmith, Lou Reed and many others, elevating their selections well beyond the usual easy hit of a cover by truly inhabiting the pieces and unearthing something new in them. However, the band has never dedicated a full album to another artist before Demons (released February 15 on the band’s own Latent Recordings), a carefully selected and lovingly executed set of Vic Chesnutt songs.
A longtime friend of the Junkies, Chesnutt’s music writhes and breathes in strikingly fresh ways on Demons, which offers both insight into Chesnutt’s songwriting and celebrates a life cut woefully short. Originally, the band planned to record an album with Chesnutt but his overdose on Christmas Day of 2009 made that impossible. Instead, Demons serves as a poignant reminder of what a stunning, unique craftsman and personality Chesnutt was, with the Junkies bravely exploring some of the most shadowy parts of his catalogue, including the mortality meditation “Flirted With You All My Life.” Demons is both celebration and memorial as well as a testament to the Junkies’ own winning skill as interpreters.
Today, the Cowboy Junkies – Margo Timmins (vocals), Michael Timmins (songwriter, guitar), Peter Timmins (drums) and Alan Anton (bass) – are operating as one of the most independent acts in rock, running their own label and increasing what was already one of the strongest fan-band relationships going. A sense of freedom and unharnessed creativity infuses their work these days – a rare thing for a band in their third decade.
We spoke to Michael Timmins about Demons and where things stand with the Junkies in 2011.
JamBase: It’s a cool idea – and sadly, eerily timely – to do a whole record of Vic Chesnutt songs. How did you get into his music in the first place?
Michael Timmins: Margot’s husband gave us a copy of West of Rome way back when in the early 90s. He’d seen Vic at SXSW and just knew we’d connect with it. We all fell in love with the record and that was it. At the time, we were working on songs for Lay It Down and actually threw the song “West of Rome” into the mix. But, we never felt we’d captured it properly, so we dropped it. Then, by coincidence, we went down to Athens, Georgia to record Lay It Down. Even though it was Vic’s stomping ground, we never hooked up with him during the month we were there. Then, when Lay It Down was released, we got in touch and he opened a bunch of shows for us on that tour.
JamBase: The first time I saw him live kind of blew my mind; such a scene with his battered instrument, wheelchair and nakedly curmudgeon attitude. Was he a surprise to you?
Michael Timmins: Yes, he was and I think even more so for our crew. At our first show together, our sound guy looked over at me and said, “Oh my God, you’ve got to get rid of that guitar.” But that’s his sound – that beat up nylon string guitar with a crappy pick-up in it that he just shredded and hurt people with. It was just great, and I loved the audience reaction to it, too. Initially, you just go, “What the hell is going on up there?” He made no attempts to endear himself with an audience. It was a fantastic experience to watch him every night.
Then, we stayed in touch, visited when we were near each other, and did another tour in Europe together that was even better. We also invited him to the Trinity Revisited concert to help us on that project. From a musical point of view, things just got better and better. I got to see what a professional he was. He put on these airs of being sort of a hack and I think he always felt self-conscious or inferior about his musician skills. No matter how much praise he got from those around him, I got the feeling you never felt up to snuff. But he was always so good and so professional and he was so lauded by his peers.
Getting a good review is one thing but the respect of your peers is what it’s all about. These are people who know the insides and out of making records and playing live, and those people, more than anybody, were into what he was doing. Obviously, he was an extremely complex person, and that’s what’s so great about his songs, which reflect that and don’t hide it. It’s all there.
What do you find so appealing in his songs, which dovetail beautifully with the Cowboy Junkies own work?
When we came up with the idea to do this record we all knew we had to do it, but then we wondered can we do it? Are we going to be able to transform these songs into Junkies songs?
When we cover a song we want it to become our song. We don’t want to just copy it. It’s gotta be seamless with our catalog, and these songs are so personal and peculiar to Vic – everything from the production to the structures to the lyrics and how he sung them. Then, we began to work on them and study them a bit to figure out how the hell to approach them. Soon we figured out that this was going to be fun, except for Margot, who asked, “What about me? [laughs].” She was nervous, and so was I. I didn’t know how she was going to pull it off, from the phrasing to the weird humor and references.
He had such a dark, dark sense of humor, but if you get it, well, you get Vic.
Exactly. She began to study them a bit, and she came to them fairly easily. She can sometimes take a bit of time to figure out how she wants to sing a song but she came to these fairly quickly. She studied them and found her own way into them. There’s humor but also a great deal of sorrow, and she found that. She also wanted there to be a lot of celebration, celebration of Vic, in these versions.
There’s a strong band vibe on Demons where one picks up on the whole group being in the same room capturing a sound together.
That was really important to us. Vic’s records are very immediate sounding. Ideas are being thrown at tape and then we move on. At least that’s the way it sounds even though the truth was more complex. We wanted to keep that immediacy. Pete would figure out a groove and we’d go for it and move onto the next one.
As a band in general, the Cowboy Junkies seem to be in a real renaissance right now. Not being on a record label may be the best thing to happen to you folks in some time.
It’s definitely opened up a lot of things for us. I don’t know exactly why, but there’s no need to second guess what you’re doing because nobody is going to ask you about it [laughs]. You don’t have to go into somebody’s office and explain what you want to do to get approval. There’s nobody else there. We just sit around and decide what we want to do and then do it. It’s been really healthy for us, and because it’s so difficult to sell records these days, it’s nice not to be beholden to anyone to have to sell x-number of records.
We’ve always done the music we want to do but there’s been that little added pressure when somebody invests money in you, whether through promotion or production costs. You are beholden to them to sell some records. Now, there’s not even that pressure. If we want to sell a thousand copies of [a release] then we sell thousand. We don’t have to look at the bottom line where these guys need to sell 50,000 copies to get their money back. There’s none of that, and it’s been refreshing.
There are a growing number of ways to reach people who appreciate that purity of intention. The Cowboy Junkies’ Clubhouse Subscription is a good one, offering a lot of exclusives, live material and other unique perks over and above digital access to the band’s new releases.
Michael Timmins by Susan J. Weiand
We’re always adding more, too. It’s just a matter of reaching people and explaining it to them. There are so many cool opportunities and things you can do with the internet these days. It’s been amazing to put a lot of things out we never could have on a label. We have our own studio these days, and it’s just so easy to put out live recordings now, too. The only real challenge is letting people know and explaining what we’re doing well.
Luckily, that’s something we’ve done almost unconsciously since the beginning, finding our people and relating to them in the club that night. It was important to us to break down that wall even before the internet. We never really bought into the idea that we’re onstage and you’re not and that makes us three feet higher than you [laughs]. We were never comfortable with that kind of thinking. With the internet you can do that even more. By revealing yourself even more it really breaks down that wall.
I think you’re a band that’s well served by offering up a deeper, broader narrative. Unfortunately, the Cowboy Junkies’ soundbite is from a time very early in your career when you were more of a radio presence, the time of “Sweet Jane.” I always want to tell people who have that impression, “Do you know how many dead bodies there are in their songs?” [Timmins chuckles loudly at this]. There is a very dark side to this band that doesn’t get mentioned by casual listeners and most critics. The internet gives you chance to meet people who are open and even enthusiastic about getting the band’s big picture.
It’s amazing! And again, we don’t put up the wall in person as well. Margot mingles in the crowd, and if you show up at sound check you’ll usually get into the sound check. If you show up at the bus, we’re gonna come out and talk to you. That’s one of the beauties of being on tour – you get to meet people who are interested in what you do. What an amazing thing to travel around and meet these people. It’s a really special thing, and we never forget that. When these people want to come up and have a conversation I’m fascinated to find out what they do and where they’re from and why they’re here. It’s just a cool thing.