Can you talk to us more about your song “Corpus Christi”?
Joe: It was one of the first songs Eric and I wrote together. The music came first, and really suggested a mood for the lyrics. When we first started playing together, we each had a lifetime of guitar playing behind us, but Eric had recently picked up the banjo. We went into writing songs thinking a lot about American music traditions – folk, country, blues, bluegrass, primarily music from the American south and southwest, but we were trying to build something new.
We wrote everything on acoustic instruments – guitar, 12-string, dobro, banjo – which definitely influenced how we the songs evolved.
I like the storytelling aspect of songwriting. The character in Corpus Christi starts the song in a bad place – he’s been shot and is driving across the desert, trying to get back to someone from his past. I guess it’s really a song about longing.
Eric: Corpus Christi was the first song we wrote where I took an Appalachian style of clawhammer rhythm playing on the banjo and made it work in a very different and pretty far-removed style of songwriting. I taught myself the banjo by listening to the Anthology of American Folk Music, and the Old Smithsonian field recordings of musicians in the early 20th century that pre-dated Bluegrass. Players like Dave Macon would incorporate multiple styles of banjo playing into those old-time songs… his music was pretty wild and unhinged. I just embraced that spirit of banjo playing, and Corpus Christi is a song I was able to put that dynamic approach into practice, but in our own non-traditional kind of way.
Did any event inspire you to write this song?
Joe: Not specifically, but most songs are an amalgam of experience and invention. Sometimes as a songwriter, you’re just trying to express a feeling, and the story is a way of communicating the feeling. The narrative is exaggeration or pure fiction, but the emotion expressed is real. Of course, you’re also trying to tell a compelling story with imagery that works with the music.
The desert is a character in this song and a lot of others on the record. I lived most of my life in Tucson, Arizona. The desert is very cinematic and has been a big part of my life. It doesn’t surprise me that it keeps coming up in the songs I write, even though I live in California now.
In this song, I was thinking about that disconnected feeling of driving across the desert in the middle of the night, being between places, physically and emotionally. Driving towards something or driving away from something.
Ultimately, it doesn’t have a very happy ending. (There are a lot of dead bodies scattered throughout the songs).
Eric: Joe’s lyrics really create vivid imagery, and I tend to see music just as strongly as I hear it. Corpus Christi inspired me to embrace the storyline from a cinematic perspective and write something that moved with the peaks, valleys, and intensity changes. The song goes through some broad dynamic territory, so there was a lot of room to mix up a few banjo styles… clawhammer, bluegrass-style fingerpicking, and simple open strumming. So, I wouldn’t say a specific event inspired me, but rather the challenge of writing music in a completely new way.
Any plans to release a video for the track?
Joe: Not at the moment, although it’s something we would love to do. We recently recorded some songs at a Long Beach studio for an upcoming EP. We recorded everything live, with a drummer and bass player, and shot video of the sessions. Those videos will probably surface along with the EP.
Eric: Unless someone gets it on their phone during a live performance, it might be a while. I think it would make a good short film.
The single comes off your new album Peripheral Vision – what’s the story behind the title?
Joe: It’s the title of a song on the album, but making it the album title was a bit of a nod to the fact that we aren’t exactly making mainstream music here. The song Peripheral Vision is about not being able to appreciate someone right in front of you, and it’s probably the most country track on the record.
Eric: For me, the idea of Peripheral Vision as the album title went beyond the lyrics on the title track. Peripheral vision is what you see in the far edges of your visual field… I like to think people can hear music in that way too… in the far edges. I heard someone suggest once that your peripheral vision is where you see ghosts if you’re inclined to look for them. There may be a few spirits floating around on the album, musically, so to apply the idea of peripheral vision to music makes for some interesting imagery.
How was the recording and writing process?
Joe: Sometimes the music comes first, sometimes it’s the lyrics. I’m always looking for something to spark an idea for a song – an experience, a turn of phrase, sometimes it comes out of the feel of the music.
We developed a collection of songs that seemed to work well together, and wanted to record them as a duo, originally. We didn’t have a band together at that point.
We recorded the album at WaveLab, a fantastic studio in Tucson. I had worked with Craig Schumacher at WaveLab a few years earlier, and have always loved the records that come out of the studio – Calexico, Giant Sand, Neko Case, Devotchka, Iron and Wine, etc. I knew that we could get the feel of the songs we were looking for there.
Eric: It was great… best studio experience I ever had. I was thrilled to make this record out in Tucson. It was a perfect setting for what we ended up accomplishing, and it was great to feel like we were a part of the WaveLab tradition of recording. As far as the writing process in the studio… there were some periods of intense woodshedding throughout the week to refine or retool parts before tracking, but that was a lot of fun, too. Sometimes great things happen in the pressure of the 11th hour.
What was it like to work with Joey Burns and how did that relationship develop?
Joe: I know Joey and John Convertino (of Calexico) from when I lived in Tucson. I played music mostly solo then, and opened for a lot of bands, including Giant Sand, when Joey and John were in that band. I really love what they developed in Calexico. They make such interesting and evocative music.
When I left Tucson to attend graduate school on the east coast, literally, as I was leaving – car packed – getting coffee on my way out of town, I ran into Joey. He asked if I was planning to record, and said he’d be willing to record with me. I drove away feeling I’d really missed a great opportunity. After grad school, I moved to the LA area, (I’m now an art professor at CSU Fullerton), and continued writing music, along with painting and teaching.
Right before we went into the studio, I contacted Joey to see if he might be available and interested in playing on the songs. A lot of years had passed. I’m not even sure he remembered that earlier conversation, but he agreed to join us, which was fantastic. Joey is an amazing musician, and I love what he brought to the songs.
Eric: Joey was pleasure to work with… a musician’s musician. When he committed to the session, it definitely inspired us to take the recording to a new level. He was instrumental in creating the environment for the songs to become fully realized. It was really nice getting to know Joey as a person, too… and we can’t thank him enough for his musical generosity.
How much did he influence the album?
Joe: Eric and I recorded our parts together live for most of the album. Joey played bass over the tracks, which really opened up the way the songs sounded and felt. Craig Schumacher brought in other studio musicians, and we built on top of that, with Fen Ikner on drums, Connor Gallaher on pedal steel, and Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet (also of Calexico). Craig also played a lot on the album – Hammond B3, Wurlitzer, mellotron, and some harmonica. Eric and I overdubbed additional guitar and banjo tracks.
Eric: It was great to go into the studio and see what the songs inspired from Joey and the other musicians. Joey’s bass lines are really unique. They established a rich, dynamic flow through all the songs. I’d say his influence was also evident in the musicians that came in to play on the album. Calexico makes such creative music, and to be able to work in the same environment that they record in, with access to the instruments and players WaveLab has available, it couldn’t help but influence the sound of the album. Our stripped-down acoustic duet became radically transformed in several songs, The Distance in particular. Where else would we have ended up with a song with banjo, mariachi trumpet, and mellotron on a moody southwest inspired ballad…?
What role does Southern California play in your writing?
Joe: Initially, moving to southern California made me more aware of the environment I came from, by contrast, so I wrote a lot from that mindset, but California has certainly seeped into the songwriting. Being near the ocean is certainly a plus to living in California, and Step Outside was inspired by time spent around the ocean.
Eric: Being a California native has been hugely formative on everything in my musical life. My deepest musical memories go back to early Van Halen, The Doobie Brothers (pre-Michael MacDonald), the Eagles, and all the Laurel Canyon legends. I like to think that the way those artists were inspired by California, and their stylistic freedom is a tradition that comes through in our music as well. The instrumental track, The Ballad of Huell Howser can’t get much more California. I wanted to try and capture Huell’s enthusiasm for the beauty of what he called California Gold with a big 12-string guitar / Dobro duet that feels like its driving off into the sunset.
What aspect of confusion and resignation did you get to explore on the record?
Joe: Hmm. Confusion and resignation? I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m ever aiming at something that specific or singular. The protagonists in the songs find themselves in a lot of different situations. The man and woman in The Distance are certainly at cross-purposes, and that’s their particular story. I’m hoping to suggest imagery and stories that cover a lot of territory, including humor, while leaving some room for the listener to project their own experiences or ideas into the songs. Locking everything down limits where a song can go.
Empire is a song that has a certain feeling of resignation to it. Eric calls it an apocalyptic lullaby. That one came together during the recording sessions. Eric and I had our guitar parts, Joey wrote a great bass part for it, and Craig played a really beautiful, unusual line on this weird little instrument called a phono harp. The song does contain a kind of weariness as to where we collectively find ourselves right now in the world, with our complicated histories, and our uncertain future. But again, the attempt is to allude to things without stating them outright.
Eric: Joe wrote all the lyrics on the album, but the song Empire was the first song where I chimed in on the overall lyrical concept before Joe ran with it. I guess you could say it’s an ode to resignation in a way since it contemplates the end of humanity… in a peaceful & beautiful way. Definitely more resolution than confusion in that tune.
Any plans to hit the road?
Joe: If the opportunity arises, but we’re both pretty busy right now. Eric is a professional photographer and teaches at Laguna College of Art and Design, and I am busy teaching and painting, as well. But we’ll likely be playing some gigs here in southern California.
Eric: We’d love to get out on the road at some point and share the songs. We’ve played in Nashville, and were invited to do a radio show out there on WXNA where we got to perform live. We’ve also played in Tucson when the record came out, but were keeping it local in Southern California for the time being.
What else is happening next in Alpha Mule ́s world?
Joe: We’re developing new material with a bass player and a drummer that we’ve started playing with.
Eric: Our upcoming EP is a solid representation of where we are right now. It was an opportunity to record some great songs that we actively play in our live set that simply wouldn’t fit on Peripheral Vision. We also re-recorded a couple of songs from Peripheral Vision that have changed significantly, now that were working with a rhythm section here. The EP was the first opportunity to bring them into the studio mix. We’re very excited to put something new out while we’re writing new songs as a band for the second full length album, which is well underway.