Up off the Killing Dirt Floor
While you won't see slave written on his cheek, Chris Whitley, like Prince and George Michael before him, has finally been "liberated" from the bondage a major label contract can become. Currently touring in support of his mellow and gorgeous new record Dirt Floor, Spinonline's Sandy Papile spoke with the blues guitar virtuoso about Tricky, recording in a Vermont barn, and his new found freedom. SPINonline: Was Dirt Floor a response to your loyal fan base? Was it a response to their reaction to Din of Ecstasy? No. I have three records out on Sony, and my loyal fan base likes Din of Ecstasy, and also likes Living With the Law and Terra Incognita--which is a little of the two. There was no real deliberation in making this record; It's a response to being off of Sony: I can make a record now and put it out quickly, which I haven't been in a position to do ever. Before I was signed I was completely unknown so no one would put out a record without it being promoted or having a tour. Making this record was like I need encourage myself to write. Do I need the sanction of a big label? I don't need it right nowand perhaps I can make some money. I mean I do hope someone likes it and buys it, but mostly I hope that it's worth buying. So what kind of freedom has being off of the major label given you? It's freedom in some ways, but I did the record in one day, and everybody worked for nothing. People that liked me or my stuff worked because they wanted to. It seems like having more freedom has given me a responsibility to being liberated--you get ambitious real quickly. You're like "Why notYou know I hope the biggest thing" I originally made this because I needed to write and because there are some people that would like to hear it. And I can get it done quickly because I've thought about it for six months. When you make a record that costs money a lot of opinions get involved. It's like someone's investing in you and they want to check it all out. It makes you second guess and think twice--the process really dilutes the purity. That's the biggest freedom, but I think part of that freedom is discovering that the hard way. When I was first signed I guess I was flattered that I even got signed at all and I didn't take control. I wasn't involved in the contracts, marketing, and all this s**t I didn't know anything about. I romantically believed it was okay. People are sold so much s**t that everybody feels ripped off enough to always feel like '"is this real, is this good, is it cool, is it authentic?" I just want it to remain pure, not jive-ass. I just wrote some stuff I just wanted to, needed to write. If I brought it to a major label I'd have to second-guess things. It's creatively inorganic. Did having these people who like you work for free and putting it together in such a short time make it that much more personal for you? What are your feelings toward the album generally? It feels rewarding in a different way. It's fulfilling because you're making it with your hands. Its not like a machine where you stick in something and it comes out. It's more personable, more personal. The record itself, the work itself, the songs, and everything are what they are. I needed to write. I don't know if it's the best or worst or anything. But it wasn't like trying to go back to Living With the Law. It was just trying to be unaffected by stuff. I often feel like the most ballsy thing a guy artist could do now would be make the quietest possible s**t, that that'd be more rebellious. I think women should be screaming and men should be really quiet. That seems more rebellious to me than men screaming over real aggressive music. I like hearing guitar music lately with women singing. I know its fashionable and everything, but it just seems culturally right. Guys and guitars, it just seems like I've heard so much, I mean aggressive guitars certainly. I'm sick of the energy. I didn't necessarily want the record to be all intimate and stuff but I definitely wanted it to feel like innocent and clumsy and fragile and s**t. It seems like so much stuff is so cool that you don't really know who the person is. I always found that it's much harder to expose yourself, like being naked. That takes balls it seems like, kick against the pricks. It's vulnerable--that's the word. The whole album was written before you went to Vermont to record. How long did that take? In two months I wrote it. Which is the fastest I've ever written that many songs. book Did you do it that way because you were on a deadline or because just what happened? I pushed it back a couple times. I wanted to write it all in a month. It wasn't like I set a certain amount of time for myself, but Craig Street, the guy who produced it with me, basically encouraged me because I was actually ready to throw all the songs away. I recorded it all in a day except the last song, "Loco Girl," I wrote the last verse that next morning and then we recorded the song that next morning. You recorded in a Vermont farm. Did that have any effect on the recording, because I know you lived there for a while when you were young? Yeah, it was more like a vibe. I originally planned to do it in my apartment all on a DAT recorder. But, yeah. It was my dad's farm-house that nobody lives in. When I first was signed, I was signed based on a tape I had done in a Walkman in that barn. I loved to play in there, it's a shop and the motorcycle that I raced was still there. The pictures on the CD layout, are they from there? It's in my apartment. I have a pile of metal junk over my fireplace and the two little chairs are like children's chairs that I put there and asked Chris Nofziger to shoot a picture of it. I wrote most of the songs sitting at this table looking at this stuff and I look like this stuff, but it's not like, "Come home with Chris Whitley. Chris is a friend of mine. We hadn't seen each other in a couple of years. I met him through a Rolling Stone thing I did in '91. He shot all the pictures for it and we got along really well, I think he's one of the few real artists that I've known in New York City. He's 30 years old and he used to print for Richard Avedon. Is there anybody that you look to in modern music that really turns you on? The people I think are the most happening--of what I've heard-and honestly I haven't heard loads of stuff, and there's so much out now-- I really like Bjork and Tricky the most; I think Tricky's the only blues guy alive today. I mean I think that's like modern blues to me, and it's not stuff I've listened to a lot. I listen to Thelonious Monk and Nat King Cole. I think they're the most original for creative reasons, not pop culture--I like all that as well, but I don't need it. What's next? I'm writing the next record now and I'll probably be using like electronic s**t and the next band I put together will be just keyboards, drums and acoustic guitar; groove, but really quiet, dark but intimate. There's another kind of intensity I want to get at.