The acclaimed musician, songwriter and performer CHRIS SHIFLETT has been in the UK this week playing a brace of ultra close-up ‘n’ personal acoustic London shows.
We described his new solo album “West Coast Town” as an intoxicating froth of jookie-joint honky tonk and energised rockabilly — and the recording has earnt much respect and praise from the alt-country community.
We caught up with Chris to discuss his Country music journey and making his latest solo album.
How did the show [at the legendary 100 Club in London] with Australian Nic Cester go last night?
“It was a really fun show. Nic, who’s the singer from Jet lives in Italy right now and he has a full Italian band that’s cool and groovy and sounds really good. He’s got a solo record coming. When the concert came up we thought — hey yeah! We need to get on that for sure. He was great last night too.”
“But then we needed to find another place and the only thing that I wanted to find, was to put me in the smallest room so when the Water Rats was mentioned as an option I thought I’m pretty sure I played the place a few years back with Jackson United… So we’re playing with [the Cornishman] Sam Palladio [from TV drama series Nashville] and we keep hearing that Country Music is becoming more popular here in the UK. And it’s funny, that show, even though its supposed to be, like, mainstream Nashville I think a lot of the music on there has more in common with Americana… which obviously is an overlap, but I think that’s the cool thing about that show that actually its turning people onto what I think is maybe a better side of Country Music.”
“And if you think of the honky-tonks up in Bakersville then this is a neat fit. That’s where I’d play to farm-workers and guys that work in the oil-fields… that’s definitely at the heart of where honky-tonks comes from. On the West Coast, in particular, it’s kind of a rougher thing, they always say, like “Country music out of Nashville came out of the Church but Country Music on the West Coast came out of the honky-tonks…” and I think that’s true.”
“For me, to come over and play a gig, I just wanted to find the smallest room. Because it’s just me and an acoustic guitar and I think it works better in a party session,when its down the pub with your buddies…”
“It’s interesting playing acoustic shows because, of course, normally I’d be doing this with a full band — a four-piece, over in the States. But its expensive to bring everybody over … and the songs are just written on an acoustic guitar but that’s not how I’m used to performing them. So it’s exciting, its fun…”
“Most of the stuff I would wind up playing is the sort of stuff I would listen to. Because Dave Cobb [the Nashville based Grammy award–winning record producer ] wound up played most of the acoustic guitar on those songs so I was doing more of the lead stuff. And you can’t really do that and sing at the same time… So I had to kinda figure out “the other” guitar part of the songs.”
When you write, don’t you just write as you strum the acoustic guitar?
“Yeah, I guess I’m strumming the chords there. But it’s different, you know, singing and playing live as opposed to just being in my studio. And almost all the time you track the vocal separate anyway.”
“But I did a bunch of acoustic shows though, kinda getting ready to put the album out. Cos I knew that it would be uncomfortable and I wanted to really get a handle on playing the songs in, like, the shittiest circumstances… because I knew then that if I went out with a band it would feel very comfortable. And it did, and it’s nice.”
Tell us about the songwriting process…
“Yes, well Brian Whelan [ the Dwight Yoakam band] is a good friend of mine… actually he came on and did some of the touring with us… and, although we’re friends, I’m also a huge fan of his, as a singer and a songwriter. So I had a bunch of songs and I think we, like, co-wrote four tunes together and they were songs that I had gotten as far as I could get ’em. In other words, I kinda had a song but I knew it wasn’t good enough. So I got together with Brian and he really helped a lot. He changed the odd chord here and there, maybe simplify this part or that, change the vocal melody a bit… I haven’t done a lot of co-writing but because me and Brian are friends and played together, it was comfortable.”
“It’s funny how many times, by the way, that I reference smoking… I don’t smoke! I kinda ‘party smoked’ when I was younger but I was never much of a serious smoker then when the record was done I realized I referenced smoking in, like, every song.”
“I tend to write a lot about a certain period of my life. And I think a lotta that has to do with my life now… it’s really nice. I’m married and I have kids and I drive a mini-van and I take my kids to soccer-practice and we live in a nice neighbourhood and I’m not super-drawn to write about it, I don’t even know how I’d write about it…”
“I tend to write about the time in my life that was a little more chaotic… although maybe on my next record I need to explore more what’s happening now, you know. I remember having a conversation with Peter [songwriter Peter Case] and I told him I always write about the period of my life from late teens to early Twenties and Peter he said, “We live in the most chaotic interesting time ever, in the history of man… so how can you not write about shit that’s happening now?” I said, yep you’re right…”
Did you have a blue-collar job prior to joining the Foo Fighters in 1999?
“I had all the shittiest jobs you could ever imagine. The worst job I ever had, hands down, was washing dishes at Don the Beachcomber. It was like me and some ex-cons and I hated that job so much I didn’t even go back to get my pay check.”
“At a certain point when I was living at home I dropped outta high-school and just going to the beach everyday and my Mom was a probation officer and when I turned eighteen she said, “I got you a job at the probation department…” I was like, “What?” She basically made me get a job as a clerk and that job was, like, really life-changing! Through that job  I saved up enough money to buy an amp and put my first month’s security deposit down on an apartment in L.A. that I moved to at the end of the year with a guy I was in a band with and so it propelled me into leaving home and it always gave me that thing that I always worked in low-end office work… From that point on I was always a clerk.”
“At one point I was making, like, ten bucks an hour, I was doing great. I got the rent covered but so many of my friends just didn’t have jobs… I always had a job. I was the guy that was out all night and still got into work at eight in the morning.”
Did Country Music come though your family?
“My Mom was into James Taylor, Fleetwood Mac… My Dad was the one that got us into some good shit: Dylan, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Marley that kinda thing… but really it was my older brothers that I followed musically. And we didn’t listen to Country at all.”
“I look back on my childhood and the way that Southern California felt back then and the remnants of the Country music scene… for example when my Mom was a kid Country Music was everywhere. Variety shows on TV, concerts in every town… But that wasn’t my experience. But there were remnants of that still left that I never noticed when I was growing up.”
It wasn’t till I was much older and got into some Merle Haggard, and a lotta that stuff , the stuff that I still love, that I realized. Oh yeah, when I went to the Palomino and I didn’t really realize that club was a famous old honky-tonk in L.A. And I went to the The Foothill Club [Long Beach] and I thought it was a dumpy old place and I didn’t realize the significance…”
How did you start in Country?
“In the punk-rock scene there was always an underbelly that were drawn from a lot of roots music and there was always this rockabilly contingent, swing music, people with pomaded hair and all that kinda stuff and I loved all that shit! But it wasn’t like my first love. Although it was something that I was into.”
“Anything that was old and retro from, like, Frank Sinatra to whatever… I was kinda drawn to that. There was even that kinda influence in the Stones. But I remember buying a Patsy Cline record when I was 18 when I moved to L.A. So that, and maybe Johnny Cash, Hank Williams — obvious stuff like that… they kinda drew me in.”
“And it was a little bit later when I was in No Use for a Name and the singer was into all the Country stuff that was happening in the 1990’s like Bryan Adams, Whiskeytown, Old 97’s … all that stuff. I loved that and it started to lead me down that road. And from there it was a hop-skip-and-a-jump to Buck Owens.”
So you went down to Nashville to record?
“The reason I went to work with Dave Cobb was that I’m a huge fan of his sound so I wanted his input on my record, I really did. When my instinct was telling me to resist I really tried to keep my mouth shut. And I’m glad I did. And coming from a rock ‘n’ roll background where the sound is less producer driven but what Dace Cobb did… well, he was the most important guy in the room.
So, how it worked was, I had some time off last summer and my wife was taking our kids outta town to visit folks and I wasn’t going on that trip so the stars aligned and so I planned three weeks in Nashville, making the record. And it was heaven, you know? I had never spent that much time out there and it allowed me to be totally 100% in my record. That’s all I did. I didn’t really go out to see bands, I would just wake up every day and I’d be thinking about whatever it was we were working on that day.”
“The way that Cobb works is different to any other studio session I’d done before… Normally you get into the studio and you’re like go, go, go! Work, work, work! We gotta jam as much as we can… But he doesn’t work like that! He’s like, “Heh, let’s start at one in the afternoon.” And we’d get in there and kinda fuck around for a couple of hours, drink coffee, eat and shoot the shit. And only then we’d start working and get one song in the can and he’d be like, “Lets go over to the village and look at guitars…” And my natural reaction is, “What the fuck are you talking about? We’ve got to get this shit done. We only have three weeks. We’ve got all these songs…”
“And it’s fumy because about mid-way through I was thinking, “We’re not gonna get this done… What the fuck am I gonna do? I’m gonna have to come back and finish stuff.” And I swear to God we worked right up until the last day I was there. The very last day I was there at, like, two in the afternoon we finished the final mix. And the album was done. And that was it.”
“He’s got a pace that he works at and he knows what he’s doing and I would sure like to go and make another record with him. But the next time I will be more like, “Wooh, yeah! Fuck it yeah… Relaax!”
Congratulations on an authentic and exciting record and thanks for speaking to us.
Neil Mach was chatting to Chris Shiflett in London.