There are few musicians out there talented enough to play a show like Aaron Lee Tasjan does. The former Madison Square Gardener, Alberta Cross, New York Dolls, BP Fallon, and Semi Precious Weapons member has being doing his own solo thing since moving to Nashville after creating a strong name for himself in the NYC music scene throughout the 2000’s. His Crooked River Burning EP that came out via Rockwood Recordings early last year perfectly captured his unique folky-rock style that has earned him a growing and dedicated following across the country. I was able to sit down with ALT for a bit before his amazing show at SubCulture last week to talk about the music of his that I’d been listening to and carefully dissecting and learning from since college.
P&W: You know you and I have a bunch of mutual friends from back in my Ohio University days. The fellas from Yellow Light Maybe and Erica Blinn? I used to open for them at their shows in Columbus and they were the ones who initially turned me on to the Madison Square Gardeners back when I was like 19. You playing any Gardeners tunes tonight?
ALT: I am! I’m opening with one actually
P&W: Awesome. Don’t tell me which one! Unless it’s “My Ex-Girlfriend (Is a Bad Lesbian On Drugs)” I fucking love that one.
ALT: I got a request for that one in Mobile, Alabama. Some guy walked up with a piece of paper in the middle of the show and it said ‘so and so wants you to play My Ex-Girlfriend (Is a Bad Lesbian On Drugs). You know up here in NYC people are artsy, and in the south people are not so much. They’re a little less tolerant sometimes of poetic whimsy songs so that was a little weird. I love that song though, and it’s funny that a lot of people still ask me about it.
P&W: I hope you noticed that I put Crooked River Burning on my list of top albums of 2014
ALT: Oh wow, thank you so much man
P&W: I wish you could’ve added more songs onto it though
ALT: Well I wanted to but we just didn’t get to it. I had a tough year last year with trying to keep everything together and keeping everything moving forward, because there were a lot of moving parts. This record really took off on iTunes, which was really unexpected. No one thought that was going to happen. The problem was that when it did take off no one really knew what to do because we didn’t think anyone would buy it (laughs). So last year there was some heartbreak there because it was the first time people had responded that way and we couldn’t really hang on to that wave. I still feel really lucky about that experience and Ken Rockwood is an amazing guy to work with to help put it out and I’m proud of what we accomplished despite not being able to scale the mountain with it. The album that I just made with it is a full-length record and I’m really excited for people to hear that.
P&W: When will that one be coming out?
ALT: It’ll probably be out in August or September I think. It’s called In The Blazes. I recorded it out in California with this guy named Eli Thompson who is BADASS. He’s in Father John Misty’s band and he produced the first two Delta Spirit albums.
P&W: I love the song “My Camera.” It was one of my favorite new songs in 2014. What’s that second chord though? It’s a tricky one to figure out
ALT: F-sharp Major. Like F-sharp dominant 7. It’s like a major 2 kinda thing. I probably got that idea from maybe a Beatles record or an old Johnny Cash song. It’s a classic kinda thing but really underused. There aren’t a lot of songs today that use a slightly more interesting harmony. You don’t need to do a lot. I think people overthink it sometimes.
P&W: Yeah but that’s easy for you to say, you’re really good at it. Was there a different strategy with the songs on the album coming out later in the year than with your previous project?
ALT: You know I’ve written so many songs this year that it was more about figuring out what kind of album to make. Once we did, we got it together and I spent like two weeks recording demos of all the songs and sent them out to everyone in the band to learn and get a feel for and I don’t think anyone got the email. I showed up in California to make the record and they were like “So what songs are we doing?” I didn’t even say anything I just figured it’d be pretty interesting. I’d just play a song for them in the control room, and then we’d roll and just record it. So it was a very in the moment kind of record. The thing is these guys I’m playing with are so good, that it almost makes it better for them not to here it. The songs on this record seem like they’re so close to falling apart but never do and it creates a really exciting energy that you don’t hear any more with maybe a wrong note or an out-of-time feel. I like it to feel funky, gritty, and a little weird. We did 10 songs in like 5 days and it was pretty much mixed by the time we were done tracking just because that’s how Eli works.
P&W: Since you moved down to Nashville, do you see yourself different as a musician and songwriter than yourself when you were a New York musician and songwriter?
ALT: Not consciously. There’s different kinds of people playing music there so you’ll hear different things than if you’re in New York. I mean this scene in NYC formed so much of what I do. I’d catch a show every Monday at The Living Room and met so many people like Chris Morrissey with whom I formed a band. It was a great little scene. Like the guys who were in the Madison Square Gardeners just happened to be around, and not doing anything. I couldn’t believe that I found a band that were that good and had nothing to do! We didn’t even have songs when we started we covered The Jayhawks or Townes Van Zandt. When I’m down in Nashville I just do my thing and people will say- “You’re not from around here are ya?” It’s funny to see a kid getting up on stage down there in front of all these people who are more versed in country, but I do my own weird versions. I do love that classic country like Johnny Cash where it was more like rock and roll and that’s what works for me and people see to respond to it. I’m just trying to get people to have a good time or dance or shout something out. A lot of performers don’t like hecklers but I fucking love them man, like come to my show and yell shit at me.
P&W: I can see that, it’s just a different way of connecting to your listeners. I couldn’t imagine how un-intimate it would feel playing a stadium show.
ALT: I’ve never wanted to do that, being a stadium guy. I’d rather play in clubs, bars, and small theaters. That’s where my people are at anyway. My thing isn’t a fashion or movie star thing, I’m writing songs for people that are thinking and wondering how their life is going to work out and shit like that. Those people are sitting in bars and bowling alleys and they’re my people.
P&W: I’m so in love with the LES and Williamsburg music scene and I love CMJ, so when my time comes when I’ll pack my shit and leave NYC for the last time the thing I’ll miss most is that scene on Ludlow/Essex/Orchard Streets. Is there a same local music feeling like that in Nashville?
ALT: I loved that same scene man. That’s how I met Julia who’s also on the bill tonight. Some of those people are still some of my best friends that I think about all the time and wondering how their gigs are going. Nashville for sure has a similar scene with amazing people with tons of talent. It’s cool to be in a different version of that, but I do think about the old NYC scene. I mean the Gardeners used to play every Monday night at the National Underground for like a year and a half, and I miss that I really do. It was wild and free and the people who owned that place were just insane people, so we fit right in. We were our own brand of crazy and it all came together and God I think about the stuff we did back then. I sang “Free Falling” there with Patterson Hood from Drive-By Truckers man it was amazing. When I think about it now it seems like something from a book. Even if I came back now though it’d just be different ya know? It’s never the same as your memories build it up to be.
P&W: Do you travel more now than you did when you were living here?
ALT: Yeah, especially this year with heavier touring. I enjoy it though and enjoy meeting people and seeing people’s reactions when they hear my music for the first time and not knowing what to make of it (laughs). You’re not going to get that staying in one place all the time, you gotta get out there and go to a bar where people have nicknames and there’s no taps, just a tub with cans of beer. I want to go somewhere where you come out of there with a story. That’s what those people, like real American people are doing and that’s what I connect to and write about.
P&W: When are you going to tour Europe with the Foo Fighters and take over the world?
ALT: (Laughs) Well that’d be fun. I played Reading with Alberta Cross back in the day, and a friend of mine, Andy Harrison from Ohio was working for Dave around that time. I don’t remember if it was Foo Fighters of Them Crooked Vultures, but he said, “If you see Dave, tell him Andy from Columbus says hello.” So we were in catering and there’s Dave Grohl so I went up and told him my friend Andy Harrison from Ohio said to say hello to you and he went off about how cool Andy was and asked if I was from Ohio, I didn’t know it but Dave used to live in Columbus when he was a kid. So of course we started talking about all these great Ohio punk bands that were around in the 90s and he was really knowledgeable about it. We had a great chat about it. It’s weird because in the last year I feel there’s been like a Foo Fighters backlash with people trying to call them out on whatever but when it comes to music I know what I like and I know what I don’t like, but I hate how judgey it’s become. You could have a great band and people could say “Oh well it’s too poppy.” Well you know what man go put on your boat shoes and get your fucking synth out and play some music that rips off Joy Division. I’m into music that’s real and I wanna hear somebody sing about something they know that I don’t, and I feel Dave Grohl does that and it’s great. You can’t argue with the popularity of that band. It’s the same thing with people who rip Dave Matthews. Look maybe he’s not everyone’s cup of tea but the dude has got at least something going on because he’s as big as the god damn Rolling Stones. That’s pretty famous from a band from America these days (laughs).
Article by: Tommy Shackleford
Photos by: Lesley Keller