MILKING THE COW BLUE: A Conversation with Don Howland of THE BASSHOLES
Oct 16, 2008, 07:19
The Bassholes, like any truly great band, are without a place. They don't fit neatly into any preconceived niche. But think about it—what interesting person isn't unique in some way? Naturally, the same logic applies to bands. The Bassholes record for labels like In The Red and have played on garage rock bills, but they're hardly garage rock. Their originality and idiosyncratic qualities immediately distinguish them from the dress-up play theater that is 95 percent of the current garage scene. The first time I saw the Bassholes play, Don Howland was walking around in an old, hole-ridden Run DMC t-shirt that was too small for him, and every time he bent over to pick something up, you could see his midsection and the top of his underwear. Seeing someone walk around like that at his own show gives you a pretty good feeling that he hasn't spent more time trying to dress like his favorite Standells record cover than working on making good songs, you know?
If you choose music based on matters of class, image, hipness or other such non-musical factors, it's understandable why you wouldn't like the Bassholes. But if you listen for the music itself (or even for the lyrics), it's nearly impossible not to appreciate songs like “Cockroach Blues” or “(She Said I Had a) Problem.” It's as real, and as human, as rock 'n' roll gets in the '90s.
In addition to his musical prowess, Howland's a great interview. His blazing intelligence and his way with words (he's an English teacher by trade and a former music critic) make his conversation, as well as his lyrics, both very funny and insightful.
Your Flesh: First of all, what do you think of your new album (Long Way Blues)? Are you happy with it?
Don Howland: Matador wanted to get the sessions that are going to come out as the In The Red album.
YF: The really hi-fi one?
DH: Yeah, the high fidelity stuff. So I'm not sure how they like it. To me, it's my favorite one.
YF: Yeah, mine too.
DH: I wanted to give them a record that was an honest Bassholes album. The California stuff is kind of an aberration. I really like the Matador [record]. Whether anyone else does... The people at Matador seem to, though.
YF: That's good.
DH: Yeah, at the secondary level [laughs].
YF: Are you doing another album for them?
DH: Well, that was a one album contract. They gave us a little money. They're not going to lose much, even if it hardly sells, so... From what I understand, they've enjoyed working with me because I'm happy with anything they do. He [Gerard Cosloy] said he'd like to [release another album], but it depends on how their bigger records sell, I suppose.
YF: On the new album there's a variety of fidelities. Some of the stuff almost sounds like it was recorded on a boombox. Is that done in a studio, or is it really done on a boombox?
DH: Unless I'm mistaken, everything was recorded on the same four-track recorder. So it was more a matter of the room and where the microphones were placed and that sort of thing. They were recorded in different places—some [of it] was recorded in the basement over on Maynard where we practiced, and a lot of the stuff was done by myself, and then we did some overdubs at Mus-I-Col [Columbus studio—Buckeye].
YF: So it just depends on the room.
DH: With something like that, like on any record, you want to aim for... you don't want to bore people if you can help it. So you kinda vary stuff, but not so varied that it sounds like you're doing “one of these” and “one of those” or something.
YF: I'm thinking of the solo, really lo-fi stuff—that was done for effect, then? I'm thinking of “Long Way Blues,” where it sounds really faraway.
DH: Does it?
YF: Or, “Or Was it Just a Dream?”, where the one riff is really loud and the rest kinda sounds like it was recorded from down the hall.
DH: You know, it's the same thing with anything we do—trying to do the best... Trying to get the best sound possible and letting fate dictate the results. There's a lot of accidental things involved. But there's nothing done for any intention except trying to get the best recordings possible.
...I guess it's really just total ineptitude. [laughs] You know, it's a four-track recorder with different mics. Never, never is there a choice made like, “I'll use a $14 mic to get a faraway sound and a $30 mic for the big, close-up sound.” Never.
YF: Yeah, what do you think about lo-fi, people who intentionally record in lo-fi?
DH: It's not the kind of music I listen to. I was kind of oblivious to the whole thing. You're talking about bands like Guided by Voices and Pavement?
DH: The early Pavement records... And all the Mike Rep stuff, too. For me, it was always just a matter of liking the sound and the feel of old 78s—I never had any of it on the actual 78s, but the stuff that was reissued by labels like Yazoo. And I found that I could... not approximate that sound, but that when I tried as hard as I could with the equipment I could afford, I got a similar sound and feel. So it's never been a matter of caring what anybody else was doing. I just figured I'd keep on doing it. I'm sure that fad will abate...Well, it's pretty much gone already. It'll probably come back in a little spasm somewhere in time, but I just don't really care. Other than those old 78s, all of the stuff I listen to is really high fidelity. And with a lot of the stuff on that Matador record, I was thinking about hip hop or dance music. But just thinking about it... [laughs]. I don't think the record sounds like it at all.
YF: The last time I talked to you, I brought up blues and you said that the only influence blues had on the Bassholes is in the tone of the lyrics and not really the music...
DH: Yeah. I think the thing the Bassholes took out of blues is a general approach, more with the lyrics than anything else.
YF: But the new album has a couple of songs that seem more directly bluesy to me. Is that fair to say?
DH: Well, that one song, “Cabooseman Blues”...
YF: Yeah, “Cabooseman Blues” and “Long Way Blues,” I think...
DH: I'd been listening to a lot of stuff like this Rev. Robert Wilkins CD I got that has some stuff I've never heard before, and this two CD Blind Willie McTell thing, and I made both of those songs up right around that time. Yeah, I can't say it's deliberately not bluesy or anything. Those two songs, you're right, sound like they owe a lot to country blues. They definitely do.
YF: Considering your interest in so-called black music, I've always wondered... Was it your idea for the Gibson Brothers to dress up in blackface?
DH: Jeff and I are pretty much on the same wavelength as far as our sense of humor. I can't remember on that one. It might've been.
YF: I have a single where you guys are in blackface on the cover.
DH: Right. That didn't really cause anybody any problem, but we couldn't find any blackface makeup so we took black nylon stockings and cut holes in them for the mouth. [laughs] It was pretty ridiculous walking around my neighborhood looking like that. In a way, it was a joke, but in another way it was kind of making a point, too. I think, and I think even Jeff would say this, that pretty much all of what's good about music is black. You can't help but come to that conclusion if you're willing to cook it down or trace it back or whatever. So everybody's kind of doing that, really—in blackface, in some sense. But it wasn't supposed to be heavy, it was supposed to be retarded and insulting. It's like that “White Nigger” single.
[It]was a cover of a punk song by the Avengers. We did it, and for a cover we used a flyer for an organization down in Memphis that just discusses race matters. I think race is something that people don't really want to think about too much. It's a huge problem, the way people deal with each other. So it's nice to tweak that every once in a while in some totally insignificant way like the Gibson Brothers or the Bassholes [laughs].
YF: The Matador album is the first Bassholes record with a lot of drummerless songs. Was that done just because the songs you were writing sounded better without drums? Or was it to emphasize the lyrics?
DH: Well, when I make up songs, I send my family out for an afternoon. I give them twenty bucks and tell them to go get dinner and take a hike—literally, in a park or something. I'll tape the songs then and make a decision whether I'm going to go ahead and do them as a band or... whether they'd sound better with drums or not. I'm getting pretty near forty now, pretty mellow [laughs]. When we go to New York this time, I think I'm going to stay in a motel so I can get some sleep.
YF: Rather than sleeping on someone's floor?
DH: Oh, yeah. To me, it's really good that we play a pretty loud rock style in person because that's what people want to hear and there's nothing more boring to me than watching a solo guy on stage, like a Mark Eitzel or something [laughs]. To me that's just so... indulgent and dreary. But that's not to say that I don't like to listen to it, you know?
YF: But in the live setting... Right, I understand what you're saying.
DH: I don't think Bassholes records, even the ones like Blue Roots, ever really were for party rockers. [laughs] I can't see people drinking a lot of beer and getting down to the Bassholes. Again, I really love the sound of those country blues records, and of course there's no drums anywhere near them. Besides dance or trip hop or whatever, the stuff I like the most is probably bluegrass, and there's no drums on that, either.
YF: I said before that I'm not really much of a lyric person... Maybe it's because there's a lot of drummerless stuff on there, but I really found myself paying attention to the lyrics on the new record.
DH: Oh, that's nice.
YF: And you were saying something last time about how in a post-literate society, nobody cares about the words anyway. And of course you're an English teacher, so you obviously care about words—you said as much before, something about how you think you can sing better than you can play guitar.
DH: Which isn't saying much. [laughs]
YF: So does that affect the way you view writing the lyrics? Do you give more attention to the lyrics than to the music?
DH: I don't think so. We're talking a lot about how I make up songs... Do you think anybody cares? [laughs] I don't know. Usually with the lyrics... I try not to think about them too much. Like with anything in a post-literate age, it seems like everything's been done. So it's pretty much just inspiration. If I read or hear something that makes me think, I'll go off from there. There's nothing wrong with being derivative.
YF: No, not at all.
DH: When you hear good stories or whatever, you can bend and twist them and shape them into your own words. I think that's kinda what I do. I just can't believe how bad most lyrics are anymore, that's the main thing. I'm not really worried about myself. People either say nonsense stuff or just dumb stuff. I try not to do that as much as I can.
YF: Don't you think that the music can communicate a message too?
DH: Oh yeah.
YF: Even if the lyrics are dumb?
DH: I'm with you. I always listen to the music and the chord progressions first. For me, the chord progression is the whole song. And then the way the drums and the rhythm work with it. And then, after the tenth listen or so, I start listening to the words. Then if the lyrics are there on top of it, you have a good song. I agree with you. But that's the thing with those garage rockers—to them, the music is the only thing. There's just a beat, and you don't even have good chord progressions. It's just the volume and the beat are everything. I was raised on the Beatles and Motown and stuff. The kinda stuff that passes as garage rock is inadequate in the pop way. It just doesn't get you in the pop sense at all.
YF: When you pick a song to cover, is it just always songs you like? Or do you ever cover something just because you like the lyrics or something?
DH: No, the song has to be the whole package. If it had stupid words, a good melody wouldn't... When you think about songs you really love, it's gotta have both. That means it's a song you've listened to so much that you know every in and out of it. I've been listening to music hard for so long that there's a lot of songs like that. So that's how. They've got to be songs I love.
YF: Like that Joy Division song you covered [“Interzone” from Unknown Pleasures]?
DH: I've loved that song forever.
YF: I like the Joy Division version, but yours is just...
DH: Well, I think a lot of that's because of the harmonica. It just kicks it into a whole other dimension. The thing with all the Bassholes covers, and the same thing with the Gibson Brothers before that, was us trying to do the song exactly the way it was. That Joy Division song, that was the best I could do. There's no interpretation going on, it's, “Oh shit, I can't play that so I'll have to make it a little easier, change it just a little.” And then the two man limitation changes everything around.
YF: You used to be a fanzine writer, right?
DH: Uh huh.
YF: How come you stopped doing that?
DH: I wrote for The Offense... Tim Anstatt's magazine. And then I wrote for the New York Rocker for the last couple of issues, and I lived in New York City and wrote for the Village Voice periodically, and then I wrote for Spin for a while. And it just became a matter of what to write about. Those magazines weren't really receptive... they just weren't into the kind of stuff I was. And it just became a matter of finding anything I liked. The '80s were bad enough, and the early '90s were pretty bad, too. I couldn't throw myself into anything wholeheartedly.
YF: That's been part of my problem, too.
DH: Yeah, it's tough. What bands can you get excited about?
YF: And what magazine worth its salt would want to waste pages on articles on those few good bands?
DH: Right. There are some good magazines, but I'm not sure that they pay a whole lot. I got interviewed by some guy from a Swiss magazine, but he did a piece on Al Green for Spin and some other stuff... I think you can do it, but it's a lotta lotta work. And the other thing is, you get to a point where you just realize you're writing... Like you're doing me a big favor by writing an article, a big favor. Hopefully you'll get paid substantially or can use it for a resume. But you're basically writing press releases for people. You've really gotta want to do it. I used to think “The people need to hear about this band and I'm doing them a favor.” But when you think about it, you're really just a poorly paid branch of the record industry. [laughs] So that gets discouraging too.
YF: Plus you probably just run out of bands to write about, like you said.
DH: Right, that's the first thing I said, and that was definitely true. I wrote about the Cheater Slicks in the Village Voice, and I thought that was as much of a triumph as I was gonna pull off. That was a pretty good time to wind it up, I figured.
YF: That was one of the last things you did?
YF: Peter Davis [Your Flesh publisher] told me that he read something you wrote about Clawhammer where you spent the whole time talking about something besides the band.
DH: I could show you that. I wrote it as a short story where a guy is going to a museum in the future and there's a Clawhammer record on a jukebox display.
YF: He was raving about how brilliant it was.
DH: Oh really? That's good. That was actually my favorite thing that I ever wrote. That was nice that the Village Voice let me do that. It was just a weird story that had nothing to do with the band [laughs]. I guess I could've kept going with writing, but when I got married and had kids, it just became a matter of not having any time. I have time for one hobby. This is it.
YF: Actually, that Clawhammer story seems to fit with what you['ve] said before ...that your favorite lyrics are the ones that don't make any sense, or the ones that tell a story you can't understand.
DH: Exactly. For me, I like to be asleep a lot more than I [like to be] awake, and dreams are a lot more interesting than real life for the most part. It's trite I suppose, but I like that dream logic where you're never sure what's going to happen next, and where there's a lot of sex and violence. I used to really, really love the Cramps, the way they would suggest stuff but not take it over the line into pure graphic...
YF: On their early stuff, anyway.
DH: Right, right, the early stuff. I like sex and violence quite a bit [laughs], but they're so run into the ground at this point. I try to write stuff that's kind of exciting, for me anyway, without being graphic at all.
YF: Yeah, what about the fascination with “twisted” or lurid subject matter in your lyrics? Every time I tell someone I'm talking to you, they're like, “Oh, Don Howland, he's twisted.”
DH: Oh yeah? Well that's nice to hear, I guess. I don't know about being really twisted, but it's the same obsessions everybody has. Some people write songs about how bad they feel and how sorry for themselves they are.
YF: Indie rock?
DH: Yeah, and I never liked that. I like stuff that tells a story that you can't understand—like we were talking about the other day, the surreality of the old country blues records. In a lot of cases they're just using slang and I don't have any idea what it means, but in some cases just because there's nonsequiturs in there. I like that. I like surreal stuff. When you start talking about dreams, the things that always turn up in dreams are sex and violence. At the same time, I keep it pretty toned down because I think what used to make rock 'n' roll really good was the suggestion of evil. Instead of now, where you've got it mass-marketed with Marilyn Manson, although Marilyn Manson is nothing but Alice Cooper.
YF: Yeah, exactly.
DH: But it's just everything. All the in-your-face shit, you know, gansta rap. Evil's at K-Mart now. But I think you can still get a vibe off of suggestion. Not crossing the line, but just suggesting things and letting the mind go with it. It's like looking at a girl in a bikini is sometimes a lot better than looking at a girl naked. Your mind should still be allowed to... and this sounds very pretentious, but it's not really twisted, it's just suggested, I think.
YF: Without being Marilyn Manson.
DH: Yeah, right, or pretty much anything [laughs]. Everything's too graphic for me. I'm trying to remember if we talked about this before. That interview we did during the summer was good. I think it was probably much better because my brain is very brittle now. That was done during the summertime when I can think a little bit. But now I'm pretty fried.
YF: That's just from your job?
DH: Yeah. Beyond the frustration, I'm just in a classroom all day and not using much of my brain.
YF: It's just trying to keep the kids sitting down, right?
DH: Yeah. You're just in kind of a vacuum all day. You're so fried from the discipline work that you don't really want to read or talk to anybody when you get off of work either, so it kind of feeds on itself.
YF: Oh yeah, did you say you're playing in New York?
DH: We're going to do two shows opening for the Blues Explosion in bigger theaters just to see what that's like.
YF: That'll be good.
DH: I don't know that we've ever played for more than three hundred people. So it'll be nice to see what it's like playing for a thousand.
YF: You guys don't tour too much, do you?
DH: No, not at all. And I don't intend to change that, either.
YF: I can understand that perfectly.
DH: It's that sleeping on the floor thing as much as anything else. Those hours waiting to get paid and waiting to get to the person's house who is going to put you up, and then you've gotta make small talk and stuff until you can finally get to sleep [laughs]. I just want to get to sleep as quickly as possible.
YF: Having to stay up until three in the morning probably doesn't help either.
DH: No. I just can't handle it. I'm used to getting up at six. Even in the summertime, I get up at six. It just makes me so... I get really neurotic and tired. Again, another situation that feeds on itself. I get to be pretty unpleasant. [laughs] If we get to go to Europe again, that's different because you're going against the time zones. You're staying up until three in the morning and it's actually only nine at night or whatever. I like that a lot.
YF: Are you guys going back over there?
DH: I don't know. People have asked and supposedly they're willing to front plane tickets... The Cheater Slicks just had a good time over there.
YF: Yeah, they seemed like they had a good time when I talked to them.
DH: That's encouraging. I would definitely do that. The best part of the whole thing has been to travel and meet people and go to places I never would've been able to afford to go. That is one thing I'm definitely going to try to pursue. Everybody in a band wants to go to Europe.
YF: So when is the In The Red album coming out?
DH: It's supposed to be in early June, I think. ...Have you heard the In The Red album?
YF: Bim [Thomas, Bassholes drummer] played me a tape last summer. But it's been awhile since I've heard it.
DH: No kidding. When it comes out it'll be two years old. I haven't heard it in about a year myself. That gets kind of frustrating. Deaf Mix was two years old when it came out.
YF: Yeah, I remember that getting put off and put off and put off...
DH: Yeah, so it's not like there's anything current about any of this stuff. You wonder if you're going to get killed or die of old age before the record comes out... About the only satisfaction, other than getting some pretty small checks occasionally, is opening that box when the record comes out and they finally get around to mailing you some after they've been in the stores for two weeks [laughs], and you crack that paper sealer tape and open it up. That's a nice feeling. It's the finished product. That's one thing about teaching, there's no finished product. That's a real frustration. For all your work... The way the educational system's geared now, you don't get to experience that too often.
This feature article from 1998 originally appeared in Your Flesh #40