David Ford: An Interview

david ford

David Ford is a singer songwriter who honors the tradition of the punk and DIY attitude of Joe Strummer, infused with off kilter, often dark, lyrical content. Songs for the Road, which was warmly praised by the folks at the New York Times and a dozen other reputable rags has become a frequently listened album on my iTunes library, fitting nicely between Glen Hansard solo/Frames stuff and Ray Lamontagne.  Ford’s use of looping technology and the one shot/one take video intrigued me initially, doing all that filming and performing live takes some serious coordination. I recently sent a handful of questions to Ford which he graciously answered, albeit in a quicker manner than I have posted this. Enjoy.

[Some other singer/songwriters I highly recommend are Steve Poltz, Liam Finn and Tim Barry.]

1. What is the biggest difference, creatively or conceptually between Songs for the Road and I Sincerely?

I think all the clichés about the difficult second album are true. It’s easy to create something honest when nobody cares what you are doing and that was certainly the case when I recorded my first record with no thought given to its place in the competitive music market. Trying to maintain a spirit of independence was difficult when it came to making a follow-up. Where the first record was given space to develop an identity, the second had to fight like hell for its own. I definitely wanted to make a bigger record, to put more into arrangements whether they are sounding like a band or an orchestra. I like to think the songs are in charge of the record and as a performer or producer, I just want to do right by them.


2. Did you find yourself utilizing any new or different techniques to compose the songs?

No, I have my way of writing, which I have found to work best for me. Essentially, I ignore the process of songwriting and allow it to happen accidentally. So I never try to write, never set aside time to write, never co-write. Instead, I trust that I will be inspired and that ideas will arrive and take musical form. It’s a pretty reckless foundation upon which to build and it means I am less than prolific but it also means I do not doubt the sincerity of my songs because songwriting has never felt like it is a job.


3. How do the songs begin, melody, idea, lyric and where do they go from there, melody then lyric, chorus then concept? (I’m interested in the process and realize there may not be just one way you compose the pieces.)

Mostly I start with a tiny piece of the song, a line of melody with a lyric. Often it will be a line of verse, which feels to me like it perfectly captures a mood or sums up an idea. I then use this as a foundation from which to build the song developing the ideas and characters but hopefully staying true to the spirit and essence of that first idea.


4. Both vids I’ve seen for “Go To Hell” give the impression that they are ‘One Shot, One Take’ compositions, how much ‘editing’ goes into post production of these videos?

I have always liked making one-shot videos. I like the realness and honesty of it and also the challenge of keeping a film interesting without relying on clever editing. So the aim is to use no edits at all. There is one cut in the go to hell “buried alive” video, which is used only to avoid me actually being killed-although we were considering risking it anyway.


5. How the hell are you doing all that looping in “Go To Hell”? How much of this technique do you think will eventually develop into your own composing style?

There are a number of different methods and machines I use for looping. At shows I use the electro-harmonix 2880 and boss RC-20 loop stations. In the studio environment, the looping is done by the pro-tools recording software. Essentially it’s like any normal recording session; everything gets mic’d up/plugged in and recorded, the only difference is that each instrument track repeats every 4 bars and i have to get it right the first time, every time. For me this is only a performance technique and forms no part of composition. Writing songs should be all about art, inspiration, romance not technical dexterity.


6. Is looping a product, style or tool?

I think part style/part tool. You can use looping as a tool for enhancing the live arrangement of a song, for adding texture, harmony and rhythm. Alternatively it can be part of the fundamental fabric of a song. When I play “State of the Union” live, the loop station contributes as much to the intensity of the song as the lyric or melody. Mostly, I see the loop machine as a toy and a friend.


7. Who shoots the vids?

My best friend (who goes by the name ‘Cock’) and I have always made videos together. He points a camera better than most and it’s always easier to work with friends. Since I have been spending all my time in America, we weren’t able to work together on the last shoot. A guy called Wes shot the “Go to Hell” live film.


8. What do you use to put everything together once the shot is complete?

The beauty of the one-shot video is the lack of editing involved after filming. Setting up and planning the shot can be time consuming and often we end up shooting the same thing several times before getting it right, but all that we do, post shoot, is to line up the audio and apply any treatment to the video; often black and white, high contrast with added film grain for a little grit and grime. Mostly I use Final Cut Pro software but for the more straightforward films iMovie is so easy to use and gets the job done.


9. The song “Go To Hell” is great but how all those elements come together, visually, make the song more intriguing, do you feel that the visual medium combined with the music/performance aspect of things adds or detracts from the standard listening experience?

I think “Go to Hell” the song and “Go to Hell” the live video exist as 2 pretty different things. I don’t think the film casts any particular light on the meaning of the song and as such could be seen as inappropriate. It was more an exercise to see how far we could take the live loop technique and the spectacle of that rather than enhancing the emotive nuance of the song…but we have another film to do that. This is all part of the creative liberation that comes from not being tied to the one-size-fits-all marketing machine of a major label. I get to make videos as an extension of the creative process rather than as a desperate sales tool.


I prefer this one shot/one take version of “Go to Hell” even though the other is captivating.


Here is the artsy version of the video for “Go to Hell”


Lucero: An Interview with Ben Nichols

Lucero: Blood in your veins is Rock and Roll
Lucero is a southern rock band that had their ears battened by Nashville swagger during childhood, then turned to the irreverence of Punk music in adolescence. While the styles of music seem polar opposites, the reality is they complement one another very easily. Lucero isn’t reinventing the wheel, but the band has busted its ass for rock ‘n’ roll, and the top of the hill is getting closer (relatively) because of perseverance and drive.

Ben Nichols (vocals, guitar), Brian Venable (guitar), Roy Berry (drums) and John Stubblefield (bass) call Memphis, Tenn., home the few weeks out of the year they are off the road. Although Lucero started off as a country music side project with Nichols, Venable and a violinist playing to a few friends, it later blossomed into the full-time touring machine it is today. Lucero’s 2003 breakthrough record, That Much Further West, proved the blood that flowed through its veins was full of vitriol and rock ‘n’ roll, even though many of the songs are doused in bar-room country twang and 3 a.m. beer tears. That Much Further West was lauded by folks at Rolling Stone and Pitchforkmedia, and had MOJO calling them the “Johnny Cash torch carriers.”

Of course, one could get all that extemporaneous info from their bio, and an even more intimate look into their life as a band by seeing the forthcoming documentary Dreaming In America by New York Filmmaker, Aaron Goldman, a story of life on the road with one of the hardest working indie bands on the tour circuit today.

The first time I heard Lucero was at my brother’s house in Colorado. We put Tennessee (released 2002 on now defunct Tigerstyle records) in the stereo and ruminated over every chord, finishing a bottle of Old Granddad or some such rot gut. What struck me most wasn’t the stripped-down, country-fied sound but vocalist Ben Nichols’ whiskey and cigarette-worn voice. He sounded like an old soul, pouring Rust Never Sleeps and Harvest era Neil Young through a Jawbreaker-Dear-You sieve.

There was a sincerity and honesty in his voice that spoke of long days on the road, working hard to play music, partying hard, and just scrapping by to make it to the next show-all while half-a-step short of hanging up the guitar and throwing on a tie to go work for a living (or to suffer some slow cubicle death, depending on the view). As the temps rise this year and the UV index increases to the point where going outside means entering a giant microwave, Lucero’s new record, Nobody’s Darlings, is sounding more like a great late-summer night, backyard barbeque soundtrack when you could get bit my a mosquito and not contract some terrible virus.

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Ben Nichols over the phone while the band got ready to play in Little Rock, Ark. [This is an interview/feature I did for the musicedge.com. I have since seen the band a few time but my favorite was in Austin, where I was approached by a heavy set gentleman at the bar who offered to buy my PBR Tallboy. At first I thought he was joking. He then assured me his intentions where good, “I’m the PBR rep for Texas. Just want to thank you for your support.” I smiled and said, ‘its good and cheap. Punk rock champagne.” Then I flailed my arms drunkenly to Lucero]

ME: How old were you when you first picked up a guitar?
Ben: The first time I played some music with some other guys I was fourteen. I played bass-cause it was 4 strings instead of 6, one note at a time. I figured I could hack that. One friend got a drum set and another got a guitar for Christmas so I wanted a bass. So up until this band started I was a bass player. I wrote songs on the bass and I’ve been a songwriter since I was 14 too, just not a good one necessarily. I’ve always been working on songs.

ME: How much has your own song-writing process changed from the time you were 14 up until the last record? Are you pretty prolific, still writing right now while you’re on the road?
Ben: I actually have a pretty hard time writing on the road. I kinda have to be isolated, or I can’t get anything done and it’s tough to concentrate. I’m fairly self-conscious. Even when I’m at the warehouse where I live, the walls are really thin and when you know everybody can hear all the awful stuff you’re trying to sing through, trying to find the right parts, it’s distracting. Most of the songs I’ve ever written have been in the back room of a furniture store that my uncle and my father own. I have a key so I go up there and stay up all night long screaming my lungs out and nobody will ever hear it. That’s actually been really helpful. Finding a place where I can get away. That’s usually where I go to write songs. The process of it hasn’t changed much at all. When I started writing on the bass I always took the philosophy like: All right, I’m not the best musician in the world. You can make a good song out of really simple parts.

The most emotional impact of a song comes from the music going one way and the vocal going another way, and the contrast between the two is what really kinda communicates a certain feeling. As long as you don’t screw it up with really awful lyrics, that’s all it takes. A good two chords and a nice vocal melody and just words that aren’t bad and it can be really powerful.

ME: Once you get something down, something you’re pretty comfortable with, do you take it to the band and does everyone shape it and mold it?
Ben: Yeah Yeah. That’s kinda the process. Usually I’ve got a few different guitar parts and piece them together. Then you have your verse and your chorus and maybe a bridge, maybe a guitar solo. A lot of the times I won’t even have lyrics but I’ll have a vocal pattern. Get it hammered out. … Then I take it to the band, and I’ve got my ideas about what the song should sound like. It kinda grows and evolves as the band learns it. Sometimes it ends up completely different than I thought it would be.

ME: How did the movie get off the ground (Dreaming in America by Aaron Goldman)?
Ben: There was this guy that wanted to make a film, he lived in Manhattan, he saw us play in at the Mercury Lounge, and just by chance wrote us a letter that we looked like the kind of band he wanted to follow around for a while-and so he came out on the road with us. A friend of his followed us around in a car for about two months. They would come to a recording and when we were at home. Random interviews with different people and people that know us. Ended up a full-on documentary on the last year of Lucero’s existence. I’m looking forward to it. I’m kinda nervous. TALKING. Hopefully we don’t come out completely stupid.

ME: Did he start filming post-Tiger Style post-That Much Further West?
Ben: That Much Further West had probably been out for a few months. We were touring a lot. Actually I guess it was fall 2003. Then we toured all 2004 without a record. Now we just finally got a new record out [Nobody’s Darlings]. It might have been that long ago when he saw us. Then he followed us around for a lot of 2004, and a little bit of this year. It was a little bit of the tour for That Much Further West and a little bit of us working on new songs that are on Nobody’s Darlings. Then he came down and got a few shots of us at the barn recording Nobody’s Darlings.

*Nobody’s Darlings was produced by industry veteran, Jim Dickenson (The Replacements, Big Star, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) in a barn at Dickenson’s Zebra Ranch. Dickenson’s sons, Luther and Cody had helped Lucero record their previous albums.

ME: How did that session go in comparison to That Much Further West?
Ben: It was a lot more similar to the self-titled record, which was also done in Jim Dickinson’s barn, but Jim wasn’t the producer. It was us taking advantage of Luther and Cody Dickinson’s time. Both records, the new record and the self-titled record, were both recorded live with the drums and the two guitars done in the same room. The bassist was running directly into the board. We would just do four or five takes of a song and pick the best one. We went into this record with the idea of making a straightforward rock ‘n’ roll record with not a lot of extras. The idea was to make a record that sounded very true to the way we sounded live. We went in with that attitude, and Jim Dickinson’s job was to make sure we didn’t mess that up. So there are a lot of first takes and solos. Jim really wanted to capture the very basic core soul of the band. I believe in that somewhat.

To me, it sounds like a very good, raw and bare-boned record. So that’s what we went in to do and that’s what we did. There is still some stuff I would love to go back and add or change, but its good to have one of those types of records under your belt where it is just a band: there it is. We didn’t add anything to it; we added an acoustic guitar to a couple of songs. I’m very proud of it. I think with the next record, it will be a combination of [live recording and overdubs with more instrumentation]. I think we will take a little bit of time to add a few flourishes here and there. That Much Further West was basically recorded track by track. We did that all on our own. We engineered it all on our own and tracked everything on our own. We spent a lot of time on that. Now when we erred to the other side, I think some of it got a little bit out of hand. We are still learning how to make a good record. Eventually we will put all this we are learning to use. I don’t think we’ve done everything right yet but we are getting close.

ME: I read a quote somewhere by you that said you were inspired by a lot of the stuff that the Pogues and more specifically Shane McGowan had done.
Ben: Its just amazing music. What really puts it over the top, I think, Shane McGowan is a brilliant lyric writer. A lot of the songs just hit home effortlessly. He has a good way of telling a story. Even if it’s not his own story, he can tell a story in a very personal way. That’s something I’m trying to get better at.

ME: Speaking of writing, are you the type of writer that continuously writes even when you’re on a road; as far as lyrics and words or keeping a journal?
Ben: I wish I were. We are actually out on tour right now with a guy named Cory Brannan who is a really good songwriter. He is one of the opening acts on this East Coast tour. He is in the back of the van just writing away all day long, or whenever he has a break. I consider him more of a real songwriter. Myself, I kinda have to wait for something to pop into my head. Then I have to struggle for months trying to construct lyrics around that one idea or one phrase. Again, its like writing songs and writing music really takes getting away from everything else. Just staying up all night for a few nights in a row and bashing it out. Then going back and editing it and singing it back there in the furniture store all night long. Then coming back the next morning and realizing its all crap and doing it all over again the next night. It’s much more of a struggle with me. It may be good to exercise that part of my brain and write constantly, but right now I’m just trying to get to the next show on time. I got to get to sound check, then an interview with somebody, come back, make sure everything is squared away for the show, find a Bank of America so I can deposit the money for the checks I wrote before we left town with a balance, and that kind of stuff. So I don’t really write on the road, I’m too busy driving the car.

ME: Have things business been able to pick up for you guys a bit now since you changed over to East West?
Ben: We’ll see. We’ve had a very strong first week of record sales and all the shows have been pretty good. We’ll still see how that goes. Working with East West has been really nice. And the deal we made with them is a really cool record deal. So they’ve put a lot of work into it, and there has been slightly more money than there has been in the past. It’s definitely not a major label deal in any form or fashion. Its pretty much structured exactly like an Indie deal.

ME: That has bounced off your own label right? Liberty and Lament)? A partnership or something?
Ben: Yeah we started an imprint and started a limited liability corporation and got a business bank account. We started a small business. So basically under that, we own the master recordings. In most record deals you borrow the money up front and pay it back as you go, but when it’s over they own the master. With this deal it’s the same thing but in the end we own the masters. What we gave up for that scenario was basically to say to Warner Bros. that we wouldn’t sign up with any major labels. To tell the truth, I wouldn’t plan on signing with any major labels anyway. It’s an easy thing to give up in exchange for ownership of our records. Now if Warner Bros. comes to us and says, “We’ve been following you at East West. You’ve been doing great and we want to sign you,” we’ll see how it goes when it comes to that if it ever comes up. We might just go to the East West deal, through these two records, and the deal’s done. That’s that. It’s a really cool deal and we have that kind of infrastructure already built for the existence of our own label. We continue to put out our own stuff or maybe even do records for other people; I have no idea how far that’ll go. But it’s nice that it’s there.

ME: That’s awesome. Sounds like things have really picked up for your guys.
Ben: Yeah, we’re busy as hell and it’s going really well.