Q&A: Cadillac Sky's Bryan Simpson Tells Us About Working With Dan Auerbach, And Worrying About Getting Beat Up By Zac Brown. Also, He Gives Us A Bonus MP3.

Categories: Interviews

It warms my heart to see some good boys from Texas doing well for themselves--and Cadillac Sky heats this ol' ticker just fine.

Originally from Fort Worth, Cadillac Sky has gone on to considerable recognition and praise from bluegrass, roots, and folk fans across the nation for their genre fusing and impressive live performances--even getting a little love from CMT in the process.

And this year's been a big one for the boys, what with the release of their third record in June, Letters In the Deep, not to mention the filming of a music video for "Hangman" (see above), and being invited to join the on-fire Zac Brown Band for its musical booze-cruise to Grand Cayman.

It's all for good reason: The band's new record, produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, is a shining testament to their live sets, and also to the group as talented, humble individuals.

Now happy to be coming home, Cadillac Sky will be performing at the House of Blues in Dallas on Thursday, July 8, as part of their nationwide tour. I was fortunate enough to talk with lead singer Bryan Simpson about their upcoming performance, their new album, the tragic floods that destroyed much of their second-home state, Tennessee, and their upcoming ocean voyage in the name of Americana rock.

Check the interview out after the jump, where you'll also find an mp3 of the song "Trash Bag" off the new release, which the band was kind enough to pass along to DC9 readers as a free download.

Bonus mp3: Cadillac Sky -- "Trash Bag"


Originally, you guys are from Fort Worth, where are you based now?
We're based now mostly in a 15-passenger van. Otherwise, I'd say somewhere between Tennessee and Texas. We still call Fort Worth and the DFW area home, but there's sort of been a transition towards Tennessee. Our new guitar player's from Tennessee--well he's not new anymore, he's been with us about two years. I live in Tennessee now, as well. It's just to make traveling easier. But our hearts are certainly still in Texas. These days, we don't spend too long anywhere, to be honest with you.

Well, how is the road treating you guys thus far?

It's good. This year, we tried to wrangle the touring a little bit differently in order to have something to sing and write about. Nobody wants to hear about my view of the world from the backseat of a 15-passenger van, you know? So we tried to wrangle that and to keep things where we feel the priorities are in our lives. You know, it's always an adventure. You come off a tour and it's one of those things where people are like, "How'd things go?" And you're like, "Where do we start?"

How long is this tour going to last for you guys?
We're playing a show in Austin on the 10th of July. Then we're going to be off for about two and a half weeks, and we'll go back out in August and September. There'll be a couple weeks on the road, then we'll be off for a couple weeks, then we'll go back out. So it's pretty spotted like that for the next few months.

You're coming off the release of your new album, Letters in the Deep. How was it working with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys?
It was great, it was relaxed, it had a really cool flow to it. We had the concept before we even talked to Dan about how we wanted to make this record more like our live shows, where it was a lot more raw and in the moment. When I talked to Dan, that was the first thing he wanted to make sure we did, too. He wanted us to come up to his studio to record it basically so we didn't give ourselves any options. All of the equipment in there dates back pre-1976; there's no faders, there's no Antari's tuners, there's no nothing. It doesn't give you the option to use any of that stuff, which is great. So the record had no choice but to be raw and real and Dan really pushed for us to be comfortable with the areas of the record that aren't perfect. That adds a lot of humility and humanity to the record and also the idea that our scars are what make us beautiful. That's what we went for with this record. We're not a perfect band, these aren't perfect lives that we're living, so we should let the music reflect who we are to that extent.

You guys recorded it in four days. Was that a significant help? Being able to keep it that live and that real?

Yes. I don't think there are more than four or six tracks on any one song on the record. We set up a bunch of mics, went in there, caught a wave and just kept going with it. We had planned on recording there for 10 days. We looked up on the fourth day and we had recorded basically everything. On the fifth day, we went in there and just threw some extra stuff in. Dan has a bunch of toys sitting around his studio, like a Mellotron and some old Waterphone thing, which was an instrument I'd never seen or heard of. We just threw some added touches on there that Dan thought would be cool and they really helped add more character to each song. We actually went in there to record 10 songs and we ended up with 17 just because it was feeling so good inside of the studio. It was so relaxed that people felt more comfortable bringing something to the table and then when we looked back, all the songs sort of fit together right.

You guys added tracks to the album that weren't initially planned?
Exactly. We had just planned for the 10 and people kept throwing tracks in saying, "Let's try this. Let's try that song."  One of the things that happened is we added these vignettes to the record. There's like five of them and they don't last more than a minute. We had talked about using them, but we didn't know if it was going to work and we didn't know if we wanted to do it. But when we were listening back to the record, they sort of added a theatrical feel to it. And we were like, "Maybe this will work."  So we did these little vignettes that our banjo player, Matt, wrote and I feel like they tie the whole record together, honestly. They add a different element to it, an element that's really important to us. A couple of our guys grew up in the classical music world so you can hear that in these tracks. They kind of take on a Tim Burton-esque feel as well. So those were some of the things that got added to the record at the last second and just really, to me, make the record.

If you had to pick, which track is your favorite on the record?
I guess "Trash Bag." I just love how everybody's out of their element on that one. You got guys playing different instruments and I love what can come out of just being uncomfortable. I'm on guitar, David's on mandolin, Ross is on percussion; everybody's on a different instrument. Matt's playing piano--this piano Dan had in the studio that kind of sounds like an old Saloon piano. It has a really weird sound that a more accomplished piano player probably wouldn't even want to touch. But I think that's what gives the song a lot more character and personality--the fact that sometimes we just don't know any better. That song took the record to the place we wanted it to go to. I love to hear everybody singing on that song, too. It's really one of the first times on any record we've made that everybody actually gets in the vocal booth and sings. And what was cool about how we did the harmonies was we all sang at the same time on the same mic.  So there's this great blend that happens there. Then you've got the Mellotron chorus on there as well that's adding this chorus of past voices that really gives it this haunting appeal. So I think that's my favorite.  

Did you plan on mixing up the instrumentation? Or did that just sort of happen? How did you decide who was playing what on that track since you were each branching out?
We just messed with it a little bit. What a great gift it is to have guys in the band who all play different instruments. Also, to have guys that are willing to accept that sometimes they're not the best musicians on that instrument but are willing to say, "You know what? That's OK, we'll pick it up and go at it anyway and see what comes of it." I don't really know exactly how it came together, probably who picked which first. Sort of "grab and instrument and hold on." We knew it didn't need to be the same instrumentation that we usually use. A lot of times we'll sit down with a song, we'll have our general axes, and that will sort of be the canvas we paint from. But with that song, even from the first listen, we knew that wasn't where it needed to go.

The "Hangman" video--you guys shot that weeks before the big floods destroyed Tent City. What was your response to getting that news?
It was tragic. It was Roger Pistole's idea, the director of the video, to go down there and shoot. The lyrics of the song are "Hangman gonna get a rope around me" basically trying to overcome circumstance and that's just what these people were doing. I mean a lot of them have been dealt major blows in their lives. There's a lot of mental illness down there--who knows what that's a derivative of? I can only imagine the stuff that some of those folks have been through and here they were being a jolly bunch. We went down there and they were all in good spirits and very kind to us. It felt like they were trying to make the best of a really bad situation and to do what they could to keep the community together. One of the guys from Tent City actually makes it into the video and makes the video for me, just to see his joy. I really thought it was a shame when we heard the Cumberland rose over the bank 13 feet. That is still crazy to me. I know there's a lot of people there that were unaccounted for and a lot of those people, I'm sure, lost their lives. Our prayers certainly go out to the people down there that maybe even survived the flood but probably have no where to go now cause that areas been completely washed out. At the end of the video, we try to give people an opportunity to donate some money to an organization that's trying to help those people who have lost everything.

I saw that you guys are participating in the Sailing Southern Ground cruise alongside the Zac Brown Band. How did you get involved? Are you excited about it?
We are very, very, excited about it. Four of the five of us have never been on a cruise. We may be sea-sick the whole time while we try to play songs, but that should be interesting nonetheless. In April, we went to Merle Fest, which is a huge Americana, bluegrass, roots music festival, named in honor of Doc Watson's son. One day we did a side, in-between set, performance. We had our main stage show the next day and this was sort of a preview to that. We played like four songs, only about 20 minutes, and when we stepped off the stage, Zac Brown came up to me. He had his big bodyguard, this mountain of a man, with him. All these people were surrounding him and he was coming directly to me. I didn't know if they were gonna rough me up or what. But he walked up to me and said, "Hey man, I loved it. I want you guys to come on our cruise that we're having in September." And I was like, "OK, well, how does that happen?"  He was like, "You just show up. It's my cruise. You show up and you come play. We're gonna have a great time for four days, we're going to the Cayman Islands." And I was like, "OK, great!" But I really thought, with the Tennessee flood happening that weekend and everything, that this might get washed out to sea, no pun intended. But a week later, their manager contacted ours and said they wanted us on the cruise and ba-da-bing, ba-da-bing, there it is. It's pretty exciting for us.

You're not exactly Texas Country, and you're not straight-ahead bluegrass either. If you had to classify Cadillac Sky into a specific genre, which would it be? How do you think you'd define it?
Somebody called it "alt-bluegrass" and I kind of like that. I really think it's all folk music. Woody Guthrie said, "It's all folk music. We're all folk." I think we're just dumb enough to continue to try to be genre-less. I'm not sure that's the best call to make but we can't seem to find any other way to do it. When people come to see the show, the true legitimate bluegrass artists call what we do not bluegrass at all, and the crowd that is outside of the bluegrass world calls what we do more of a bluegrass thing. Mainly, we try to be song-centric, we try to be singer-songwriters that operate in a band, and we try to entertain.

Cadillac Sky performs Thursday, July 8, at the House of Blues.
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