John Wheeler, a member of rockgrass band Hayseed Dixie, releases his solo album ‘Un-Ameican Gothic’ on February 4th. Here we hear about the new album, Hayseed Dixie and even British Prime Minister David Cameron…
1. What are you currently up to?
Well, the plan is to do a tour in late February and March to coincide with the release of the album. I don’t think I’ll be doing any recordings until I get done with this upcoming tour. I am writing some songs though. The problem with making records is that you don’t get to find out what the audience thinks of the songs until about 9 months after you’ve recorded them . . .
2. Could you take us through the new album ‘Un-American Gothic’ (e.g. ideas behind the songs etc)
Well, this might take a while . . . but basically, all of the songs were written during the Hayseed Dixie tour last year, which took nearly 8 months. So they are either about things that happened during the tour or conversations I had with various people I met along the way. “Little Houses in a Row” was started in East Tennessee and finished in Pontyprydd, Wales.
“Down at the Exit” was written is an airport bar in Orlando, Florida as I contemplated Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept that Hell is other people and that eternal life would be the worst form of Hell, since you could never get away from the bastards that are making you miserable. My personal deepest Hell would be either a sports bar in an airport or a Slug and Lettuce on the Fulham High Street.
“Doomsday Dance” was written in a hotel room in Liverpool during the riots – a I looked down at the street from the window and watched people celebrating the carnage and looting their own neighbourhood shops
“Walk Between the Raindrops” was originally inspired by my interactions with the various immigration systems and border guards in different countries, which are all quite frankly variations on a rather absurd joke. Before I had a proper “Spouse Visa,” I used to tell the folks who check passports that I was a rich trust-fund kid and didn’t need a job – just to make the process faster because actually using my work permits would normally take about 30 minutes of my life and require me to answer a boatload of dumb questions . . . one more time. This worked everywhere, every time, and it was quick. Later, as I started writing verses for the song, it became more of a declaration of independence from the life that the world and society are built to channel everyone into. It became, to me, an anthem of my own freedom and a celebration of the travelling lifestyle I have lived for the past 20 years. And since it rains so much in the U.K. I think it could also be a defiant stance against the English weather – like Jeremy Paxman standing on a Georgian side street in Kings Lynn, a firm look of disdain on his chiseled face, fixing one falling raindrop above him in the azure sky with a steely gaze . . . just daring it to try and land anywhere on his Ede & Ravenscroft pin-striped jacket. Maybe that’s what it’s about too.
You get the idea . . .
3. The new album is very enjoyable and you cover so many musical styles. Were these songs built up over a long period of time or was it a case of getting out some musical ideas now that you could not do under the Hayseed Dixie banner?
Hayseed is a very specific brand and while it certainly represents one part of my personality, I have a lot of interests in musical styles and ideas which it would be impossible to shoehorn into the band – at least not without fundamentally changing what the band is. We approached that line on our “No Covers” record a few years ago and while I genuinely love that record, it’s really closer to a John Wheeler record with Hayseed Dixie playing on it than it is to a Hayseed Dixie record. I think we all realised at that point that we could either seriously evolve Hayseed or we could keep it as it is and has always been, a Rockgrass shot in the face, and all go do some side projects. We opted for the latter approach.
4. The cover of the Jam’s ‘Eton Rifles’ is very different from the original. What made you choose this song and did you purposely try to make it so sound very different from the original as often many cover versions stick rigidly to the original version?
Well, for starters, I’ve always loved this song. But when I heard David Cameron say that it was his favourite song of all time, I thought . . . maybe Dave hasn’t actually heard the words. So I was trying to do a version of it in which the words couldn’t be missed.
5. Have you been surprised at how well Hayseed Dixie has taken off in the UK and Europe? Do you prefer playing tom a festival crowd and winning over new listeners or to a headline tour where it will be people who are already fans of the band?
Personally, I prefer to play to between 500 and 800 people. That’s a big enough crowd that everybody feels anonymous and free to raise hell, but it’s still small enough that I can see individual faces in the audience and try to communicate directly with them. When it gets bigger than that, it starts to feel like you’re playing “at” them rather than “to” them.
And yes – I remain surprised by how well the band has done in the UK and Scandinavia. But I’m also very grateful, in large measure because it has subsidised my motorbiking lifestyle for the past several years!
6. What made you want to start making music and who have been your musical influences?
Man, I can’t remember not wanting to play music. My earliest memories are of sitting in front of my mother’s record player pretending I was playing along on a tennis racquet.
7. What’s planned next for Hayseed Dixie?
I think we’re going to play some festivals this summer. I don’t know which ones yet.
8. What have been the live highlights and why?
Well, opening the Main Stage at Glastonbury in 2005 was quite a charge. I believe that was the biggest crown we’ve ever played at (see above). Shepherds Bush Empire in London the first time was really fantastic too – we had never done our own headline show in any place that big and that grand before. Also, playing at a party for AC/DC was pretty cool.
9. Has the internet helped you get your music out there or has it in some ways hindered it by websites offering free downloads? Do you still rely heavily on CD sales as opposed to download?
I don’t know. I sincerely don’t. The internet has definitely destroyed the profitability of recorded music, which has made it difficult to get record labels to pay for promotion since they’re not sure if they can recover their investment . . . this leaves bands in the very shite position of having to pay for their own promotion. But the internet, particularly YouTube, has definitely brought people to our live shows, which is where we all earn the bulk of our livings anyway. It’s a double-edged sword. On balance, I couldn’t tell you whether it has been a net help or hinderance. But regardless, it is here to stay and we all have to live in the world that is, not the world we wish existed. Change is the only constant. Evolve or die. You can never step into the same river twice. Vorausgesetzt, dass die Veränderung ist die einzige Wahrheit, dann man auch ändern muss.
10. What do you enjoy doing in your time away from music?
Motorbiking, reading books on history and economics, going around and actually properly visiting some of the friends I’ve made while touring.
David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 2 August 2020.
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