Home / Music / Artist Interviews / INTERVIEW: Alt-Country Rocker Chris Stalcup

INTERVIEW: Alt-Country Rocker Chris Stalcup

 Hi Chris, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Thank you, I am doing great. We just finished our first few album-release shows and they went really well so we’re all looking forward to the next run.

Can you talk to us more about your single “Downhearted Fools?”

“Downhearted Fools” isn’t my usual breakup/heartbreak song. It’s about a point past all that when you realize that you might have to be back out in the dating world again and you start to begin to take measure of your own self worth. Where I was at in life when I wrote the song, I didn’t want to have to go through all that again. I started thinking about how complacent I had become, and how I was fine with that—I didn’t want to be a comparison for someone new. It is a time that can put you in check on your own self confidence. You may not be the same person you were a few years ago, but hopefully you’ve gained other valuable traits that can compensate. This song is about realizing the confidence you may have once had and trying to reinvigorate it within you. “Downhearted Fools” was my anthem to get me through, and I soon realized it became as much for others, as well.

Did any event in particular inspired you to write this song?

“Downhearted Fools” came about as a conversation I was having with my buddy, Kerry. We were talking and found out we were both going through the end of our relationships at the time. As best I recall, he said to me “I guess we ain’t nothin but a couple of downhearted fools.” My whole ride home, I kept thinking about that statement. I walked in the door and picked up my guitar and just started hammering out what I felt it meant to me in the form of chords and melody. In a few minutes, I had the chorus down and the verses were flooding in faster than I could write them down. So really, this song came out of that conversation and those feelings it brought up.

Any plans to release a video for the single?

Yes, the video was completed last week and it kicks all kinds of ass. I really wanted to portray the emotion of the song through the actors. Working with Director Nathan Mowery, we built a storyline of a young couple falling in love and then the magical, mystical point where things somehow go sour and you don’t know what happened for it to get that way. We knew the only way to really show that type of caring emotion was to have an actual couple, so we brought in our buddy Brandon Stiles and his fiancé Rebecca Johnson, and not only do they have a great timeless look on screen, they absolutely nailed the emotion. We shot the whole thing in three nights. I wanted as much authenticity in the video as possible, so I asked my buddy Kerry to be in it. Kerry plays the present day version of a late 1960s Brandon. Kerry’s dad had a beautiful 1968 Chrysler Imperial we shot a lot of the scenes with so the whole thing feels quite timeless.

Why name the record after this track in particular?

This song and the record originally had a different title. It was going to be called “Where The Devil Don’t Dare Stay,” which was also the title and the chorus of the song that is now “Ogeechee River.” The song “Downhearted Fools” was originally called, “(I Ain’t Like) All Them Other Boys.” But I was never really totally happy with the title for the song, so it was a welcome coincidence when it was brought to my attention that the Drive-By Truckers have a song called “Where The Devil Don’t Stay.” I ended up changing my song “Where The Devil Don’t Dare Stay” to “Ogeechee River,” which made a whole lot more sense anyway since that was what people were starting to call it, but it left me needing a new album name at the 11th hour. I had been planning to call this album Where The Devil Don’t Dare Stay for so long that I was really struggling with renaming it. I went through all the songs and tried to extract a title from them that felt like it represented the album best. “Downhearted Fools” seemed to really capture the emotion of the whole record. I feel like I got lucky with that.

How was the recording and writing process?

The recording process has certainly developed for me over the years. I have worked with [producer/engineer] Ben Price for about 15 years now, and ever since doing my first record with him in 2002, he said that one day he’ll get me to record an album with the whole band playing live. I had been recording drums and bass, then layering in guitars and vocals etc. Back then, I felt it was the best I could do—the studio was my creative outlet but it was also a place I could hide my lack of talent behind overdubs until I got the right take. But over the years, as I’ve grown as a musician and a songwriter, and as I’ve surrounded myself with amazing musicians, I have enough confidence now in my ability that I can play the songs live in the studio with the whole band instead of relying on overdubs. Playing these songs on the road night after night with the band has definitely helped. Also, I quit drinking in September 2013 about the time I finished my previous record, Dixie Electric Company. That album was recorded as a live band, but I was still drinking pretty heavily which, looking back on it, affected the stamina of my vocals. Downhearted Fools had a lot of keeper vocals that I feel really capture the energy along with the rest of the band. I dont recall that we ever ran a song more than 3 maybe 4 times before getting the right take. We had been playing a lot of these songs out on the road, so we knew what we wanted to do with them and how we wanted them to feel.

Writing this record was a little different that my previous albums. Last year, I hit a stride of songs—”Ogeechee River,” “Downhearted Fools,” “(Dont Let Me) Die Lonely,” “Get You Off My Mind”—that I felt really embodied where this band was headed. I was writing from a new place in some regards, where before I’d been writing most of my songs from the comfort of home, these songs were born on the road. I was channeling the energy we were getting back from the crowds into something that was new to me, songs that feel like they have a sense of hope about them. I remember playing “Downhearted Fools” for the first time and seeing people start tapping their feet and bobbing their heads, and I felt at that moment that I was onto something new. I ran with that feeling and the same thing happened with the other songs. I also had a couple songs that didn’t make it on Dixie that I knew had to be on the next record. “However You Want Me” was one of those—it’s a song that we were getting great response from and, in hindsight, I think it worked out for the best. It fits this album much better than Dixie. We had been playing it so much that it had grown immensely. And there were a couple of others on the new record that didn’t make it on Dixie—“Pete and Clyde” and “Moonshinin’.”

I remember finishing writing “Burnin’ Up These Highways” in the parking lot of the America’s Best Inn in Bristol, Tenn. We were out on a Southeast run and had spent the night with a friend in Richmond Hill, Ga.—where I wrote “Ogeechee River”—and ended up in Bristol a few days later. I just couldn’t get this song out of my head—I woke up with it on my mind, so while the rest of the guys were sleeping, I went out to the trailer with my guitar and finished it. It had taken me a while to feel comfortable playing it live, but now it’s one of my favorite parts of the night.

“You, My First Love,” I wrote for my first real girlfriend on her birthday a few years ago. We haven’t seen each other in forever but we’re still friends and I felt inspired to write a song for her on that particular day. I remember recording it in GarageBand on my iphone and adding rudimentary keys and a pretty awful drum beat to it. I was so reluctant to send it to her because of the flaws I knew it had, but it was important to me for her to have it on her birthday, so I sent it anyway. This time last year that song was completed on the same day, and it just so happens that Downhearted Fools the album was released on the same day, her birthday, Sept. 16. It feels like there is some sort of fortunate alignment in the universe pulling this album together.

What was it like to work with Ben Price and how did that relationship develop?

As I mentioned earlier, Ben and I have been working together now for about 15 years. We did an LP and an EP together, then he moved pretty far away for a few years, too far for me to travel to record. During that time, I was still making records and worked with some other folks, some I love dearly like Zeke Sayer and some whose names I have purposely forgotten. When Ben came back, we reconnected on an EP and have now done three more LPs together with plans for many more. Ben has had a profound impact on my music. He has pre-produced, produced and engineered all of my albums. Not only does he get stellar sounds as an engineer and studio owner with fantastic gear, he is also great at being an objective ear for you during the process. I jokingly call him my psychologist, but in many ways it’s true. I’m more open with him than anyone else, especially when it comes to expressing my desire to make and record music. There have been many sessions where I ended up just talking through things with him without even recording a note. These talks, though, are what have helped me come to terms with why I bother to write songs in the first place. Early on, Ben and I became friends and we seem to get closer with each album. I feel lucky to be able to say that.

How much did he get to influence the album?

Ben had a huge influence on this album in many ways. For one, we record in his environment—he’s created this studio as a comfortable and trusted place. He’s the one you entrust with your every breath and emotion during this time. An engineer can make or break a recording session, and Ben is flawless. Everything runs smoothly and sounds amazing. As a producer, he gets the best out of you by sincere evaluation of your performance. The studio can be a scary place. Not only is the clock ticking on your hard earned dollars, but you have your soul exposed and you really need people around you to protect that. So when you ask how much did he get to influence the album, it is safe to say—a lot. I would have made a record with or without him, but it wouldnt be this record. This record was nurtured in all of its various phases in the comfortable, competent and trusted hands of Ben Price. Ben and I make a great team. I hope to always record with him.

How has music “saved” your life?

Wow, that is a huge question. Early on, I was affected by music—the emotion I found within different songs moved me, allowed me to find solace in knowing there are others out there who feel the need to express themselves in song. I felt comforted by this, especially as a young man trying to figure out who I was and how I fit into this world. Even as I struggled, I knew it was ok to be me, whoever that was. Now, I still struggle with that notion, especially as a songwriter writing my own songs, but each one fills a different void in that understanding. Listening to music saved me by giving me something to hold on to, a sense of hope.

Making music, though, has saved me in a multitude of ways, most of which I am not particularly proud of. For one, especially pre-sobriety, the time I have spent in the studio and playing music kept me from that many more opportunities to be in bars, and subsequently, the inevitable no good things that happen past midnight (like fights and jail). Post sobriety, this entire process, especially the making of this record, has given me a much greater sense of purpose. I thrive off of the energy of the guys in the band when we play live, and off the feedback from the audience. I depend on them, and the output of this band depends on me, the best me, and that means me being sober. I am better in more ways than I can count now. I don’t want to let these guys down. I don’t want to let my fans down. I don’t want to let anyone down. And I don’t want to let myself down. I don’t want to wake up wondering who I have to make apologies to. When I started Chris Stalcup & the Grange, I had Jonny Daly come in on guitar for the Dixie album. He was about 15 years sober, and he talked to me about sobriety. I wasn’t ready just then, but as this project turned into a live band, I didnt want to let him down, either. I knew he would never be in a band with a guy he couldn’t rely on. Our first gig as a band, we opened for Lucero in Atlanta. I was so happy, I thought I deserved all the whiskey at The Masquerade and I’m pretty sure Ben Nichols and I drank it all together, but I don’t remember any of it. My bass player Jim Vollrath showed me the pictures the next day, and I was so pissed off at myself for having achieved such a personal high—playing with Lucero, one of my favorite bands—and not remembering the awesome night it seemed I had with Ben Nichols. That was a turning point for me. I guess you could say Lucero saved my life!

What role does Atlanta plays in your music?

Well, I’ve been here my whole life. I was born and raised here. I am obviously affected by it. Someone recently wrote that my songs are unapologetically Southern but I dont think I really try to leverage any of that in my songs. I live here, record here, my bandmates are here, most of my friends and family are here.

I don’t really care for the city life, though, so I stay away from downtown as much as I can now. Atlanta has many wonderful things that I have certainly enjoyed over the years, but the traffic is not one of them and it just keeps getting worse. That’s probably true anywhere, I guess. I like being just close enough to get into the city if I absolutely have to, but for the most part I tend to stay on the outskirts. In that regard, the role Atlanta has had on my music is really more polar—it’s driven us to play more out of town, which has certainly been good for getting our music out there.

Many good and bad experiences, from the passing of your canine companion to sobriety—which one actually lead you to write this album?

Aww man, all roads lead here. I think all of it led me to be more fearless with this record. Woody was one of the best companions a dog could be. I have lived in this place with him here the whole time, and now that he’s gone, there is a void for sure. I went through his passing sober and I can remember every minute of it all. In the past, I would have numbed the pain, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have those distinct memories. The breakup with the girlfriend at the same time made it that much more difficult, but I figured if I could make it through all that and still not run for the booze, then I could make it through anything. I was upset for sure, but I wanted all those emotions to be channeled into positive energy. Nothing good would have come from going back to old habits. That also means not being afraid to write a song like “Burnin’ Up These Highways” or “You, My First Love” and put them on this album. I’ve talked a lot about Ben Price, but if it wasn’t for Bret Hartley producing this record also, I would have smothered that song in additional melodies and instrumentation. Both Bret and Ben pushed me hard to keep it as sparse as possible. I think I was scared to let it be so naked. Ultimately, I realized I was scared to not be able to hide behind anything or anyone else. I still get nervous every time I play that song for the same reasons. Beyond the lyrics, it really epitomizes what I was going through during the recording of this album. In some ways, this album is a rebirth for me personally as I turn the page on a new chapter.

The album intends to be somewhat preachy or more like a confession?

I do my best not to preach, and I guess there might be a confession or two in there, but I would say it’s more of a celebration of letting go and charging ahead—a testament to being both fearless and hopeful.

Any plans to hit the road?

We are hitting the road some more here at the end of the year. A few more shows in September, and then we have a few shows throughout the winter. Our schedule is at www.downheartedfools.com.

What else is happening next in Chris Stalcup’s world?

I’ve been working on new songs and mapping out the next record. I haven’t put alot of effort into new material, though, so I can push Downhearted Fools as far along as I can, but I’m already feeling the itch to get back in the studio and go through this whole process all over again.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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