“I like cryptic stuff,” says Don Howland. “I’ve always gravitated towards the obscure. And it’s not just the obscurity of it I like. It’s what makes it great, but still obscure. I think it gives freedom. I don’t think you lose the spirit of what makes rock and roll good when you stay obscure.”
Don Howland has lived in Asheville for over ten years, and has managed to keep his local obscurity intact. He was a resident for at least three years before he even played a show (at Vincent’s Ear, of course) and didn’t start an Asheville band until 2005 (when he formed two). He’s never been featured in an article or even a Smart Bet in this publication, let alone any of the dailies.
And yet, Howland has been a known and respected musician and writer in underground rock and roll for almost 25 years. His music, an unsettling combination of country blues and punk rock, is at times abrasive and at times lovely. His intense, often funny songs are full of strange, oblique imagery. And he usually sings about sex and death.
His records are uncompromising in content and presentation, very personal and often obsessive snapshots of his head and soul space at the time he records them. Some people like them. More, probably, even if they heard them, would not. And that makes them obscure, and it also makes some of them great.
A cult figure’s cult figure, Howland’s released well over a dozen LPs and many more 7” singles, under his own name and with his various bands – the Gibson Brothers, the Bassholes, Burning Bush and Wooden Tit. And, having recently passed 50 (he celebrated by compiling his favorite 100 songs of all time), he remains committed to tending his unique creative path, recording a new album with his long-time primary project, the Bassholes, that sounds as uncompromising and contrary as anything he’s ever done.
He’s also preparing to reboot the all-local Burning Bush, with Doom Ribbons/Track Rabbits drummer James Owen and the Labiators/Suttree string section Chad McRorie, Christian Riel, and Paul Parsons (late breaking news: Eric Hubner is filling in for an injury-sidelined Parsons).
Initially formed in 2005 to play GONERfest in Memphis, and sidelined after playing only three gigs, Burning Bush is the largest band Howland’s ever fronted. In its original incarnation, Burning Bush melded Howland’s take on punk and blues with a more traditional rock band format in a way that was musically explosive. But Howland seems even more excited about the band this time around.
“It’s so much better than it was in 2005. Those guys have gotten really good, and James and I are really intuitive by this point. It’s more honed – we took the best of what we did last time and went beyond that. I can’t wait to record this band.”
Burning Bush will play at the Admiral on June 14. The Admiral has shows infrequently, and space is always limited. Advance tickets will be available. And as one of the attendees of the band’s sole Asheville performance in 2005, I can tell you: There’s no way I am missing this.
The Gibson Brothers: Becoming a Dedicated Fool
“I’ve been hooked on music for, like, 45 years,” Howland says. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and fell under the spell of rock ‘n’ roll music via his father’s fondness for Nuggets-style “garage rock” 45s, and with soul music at his first show, Ike and Tina Turner, live at the Ohio State Fair. He was the perfect age when punk rock hit Cleveland in the late 70s, attending first-wave shows by bands like Pere Ubu.
“I love Ohio-ness. Columbus has something about it. There’s always been weird stuff going on that you wouldn’t expect. It always has. There’s a darkness and maybe a playfulness at the same time that you don’t get other places.”
After moving to Lafayette, La. for a time (mainly, he says, to watch zydeco bands) and attending the Chicago Art Institute, Howland returned to Ohio. It was here he discovered his aptitude for teaching, a daytime profession he’s maintained ever since. He also met two keys to his artistic growth – country blues music of the 1920s and ‘30s and a budding rockabilly perfomer named Jeff Evans.
“That music was a revelation,” Howland says. “I loved the lyrics. They’re so surreal, but so American at the same time. Weird metaphors, oblique images, stuff like that. That and mid- to late- 80s hip-hop was all I listened to for a long time.”
He also started attending shows by the Gibson Brothers, then a duo consisting of Evans and guitarist Dan Dow.
“When the Gibson Brothers started it was just Jeff Evans and Dan Dow, and they were doing Charlie Feathers songs almost exclusively, and it was horrible. But charming. They wanted a drummer so they said to me, ‘Hey, do you want to play the drums?’ And so I played the drums. But I don’t even understand drumming. I think about it too much and I mess up. There’s certain things you just can’t think about. So Ellen Hoover became the drummer, and I started stepping out and singing blues songs. By the time we recorded our first album I was doing three or four songs a set. It was a time when I really didn’t know what I was going to do and it really kind of saved me.”
This lineup of Gibson Brothers is fondly remembered by record enthusiasts for a string of 7” records and two albums, Big Pine Boogie and Dedicated Fool. Originally releasing their music on their own OKra label, they eventually moved on to ‘80s indie powerhouse Homestead records.
While working the same fields as Tav Falco and the Panther Burns, the Gun Club, and the Cramps, playing wrecked, post-punk versions of obscure rockabilly, blues and garage, the Gibson Brothers’ source material was a little bit older than most of the roots-conscious punk bands. They also projected a good-timier, less hard-druggy vibe than the Gun Club or the Panther Burns, and didn’t concern themselves with costumes and image like the Cramps and their many antecedents.
And unlike the many of the artier primitive bands of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, the Gibson Brothers always sound like they’re in love with the songs they’re trying to play – the enthusiasm overcomes the amateurism and makes it joyful. And if their records have more than their share of jokes and laughs on them, there’s always a sense that they’re laughing with rock ‘n’ roll rather than at it.
“I think the thing with the Gibson Brothers was … it wasn’t a joke band, we were trying to be as good as we could … but it was a riot the whole time. It all came out of things that we laughed at. It was really lucky Jeff and I met up with each other. We both reinforced each other and got it out there.”
The Gibson Brothers’ lineup changed for their third album to include Jon and Christina Spencer, on refuge from Pussy Galore, making the album Memphis Sol Today and helping Spencer make the transition from the art punk of Pussy Galore to the more get-down pleasures of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. But when Evans moved to Memphis, Tenn., in the early ‘90s, Howland stayed in Ohio, making it too difficult to maintain the band. It was then he started the Bassholes.
The Bassholes: I’d Rather Have Roaches Than Rats
Over the course of the last 15 years, the Bassholes have released over a half a dozen albums of Howland’s extremely personal take on the blues. There are a number of blues/punk duos (Doo Rag, Mr. Airplane Man, White Stripes, Black Keys, etc.) but none sound quite like the Bassholes, who got there before any of them. Started with the last Gibson Brothers’ drummer, Rich Lillash, the Bassholes have been Howland and drummer Bim Thomas since 1994.
“There was no conscious thought about a two-piece band,” says Howland. “It was just very little hassle. But pretty soon I started tuning to whatever sounded in tune that night, and you can’t really have another guitar player if you’re doing that. The country blues showed the way, you just sit down to do it, without bothering to tune.”
While Howland’s music with the Bassholes doesn’t sound much like Captain Beefheart’s, there are legitimate parallels between the two that extend beyond the fact that “Wooden Tit” is (maybe) a Beefheart reference. Although purportedly Beefheart disliked Trout Mask Replica’s “field recording” style production, Howland embraced that aesthetic for the Bassholes, releasing many of his albums in a deliberately low-fidelity setting. Both Howland and Beefheart take their inspiration from the country blues, but both use the form to express some deeply personal emotions and poetic flights of fancy that bespeak higher literary aspirations (re: book learnin’) than is usually credited to the originators of the country blues. Both punctuate their music with blasts of noise. And both have a tendency to make their voices sound really weird.
“The Bassholes is almost like a person, instead of a band. It’s like a living thing. Whether you love or hate it, is that it’s not fake. All the dark stuff is really real, it’s not like I’m making it up. And people respond to that.”
The first three Bassholes albums came out on California-based In the Red records (a label Howland has shared with fellow Ashevillian Greg Cartwright and the Reigning Sound, go figure). Two of the albums, Blues Roots and Deaf Mix, were recorded in Howland’s preferred low-fidelity production style, while the middle album, Haunted Hill, was recorded at a real studio and focused on his punkier, uptempo numbers.
Eventually Matador records asked Howland to do a record for them. And although he had recently recorded a series of high-fidelity sessions in California (eventually released on In the Red as the fondly regarded When My Blue Moon Turns Red Again), the record he gave Matador was a group of murky, augmented home recordings, sounding as though it had been recorded in a studio inside somebody’s head while they were having a series of very weird dreams.
Muted and morbid, lyrically introspective (and twisted), Long Way Blues 1996-1998 was more focused in its haunting, sustained mood than anything he’d released before, and Matador, expecting a noisy “garage” record, had no idea what to do with it. It didn’t help that it opened with a weird hip-hop style sonic collage that probably scared away anyone casually scanning the album’s contents at a listening station. It legendarily became their “worst selling record ever.”
“I wanted to do something really great for Matador. I love listening to that record, especially on headphones. To me, it’s the perfect Bassholes album. But somehow it sold 20 percent of what our records would for our other label, In the Red. It just vanished. I still get statements from Matador saying I owe them money for the record! My brush with fame. It was like a blind date that turns out horrible and you can’t wait to get home.”
Beyond the Land Beyond the Mountains
Right around the time Long Way Blues was released, Howland moved with his family to Asheville, but a series of personal catastrophes made the transition difficult. This dark period of Howland’s life is chronicled on his only solo album, Land Beyond the Mountains, released by Birdman Records in 2002.
“That album was recorded right as I moved here. My marriage crashed, Jim Shepard [a friend and influential fellow Ohio “outsider” musician] hung himself, I got in a really bad car wreck … I was just really … it was a dark time. And people come up to me, and they go [whispers] ‘I really love the solo album.’ I think that that record speaks to people who have experienced genuine depression. Because I was depressed.”
The album is indeed a harrowing listen. Released years before there was a market for “loner folk” records in the post-Pitchfork world of indie rock, I don’t know many records more haunting than this bleak, sad record, made in a small house in Asheville. It begins with a cover of Pearls Before Swine’s song “Sail Away” that sums up the album’s mood in the line “I don’t want to escape from reality/I want reality to escape from me.”
The CD version of the album also features unbelievably black-humored liner notes, written pseudononymously and posthumously, chronicling his own death by a particularly gruesome suicide. Many members of his audience didn’t know if the liner notes were real or fictional. The entire presentation is a lot to take.
“Most people don’t have any interest in getting that out of a record – to confront some kind of nearly suicidal depression. It’s a small niche, the catatonically depressed garage punk scene.”
After confronting the heart of darkness, Howland was able to start looking for a more local outfit for his music. Temporarily shelving Burning Bush, he found it in the three piece Wooden Tit, with Owen and bassist Eamon Martin.
“Wooden Tit got focused on a kind of dark, hard rock sound. It was hard charging and lean and a lot of fun. I was super happy with that. The kind of music I’ve always liked and wanted to be able to do. We got kind of a local following, mainly I think because James is such a good drummer, and people will always come to see a band with a good drummer.”
He also released another Bassholes album, Bassholes, around this time. The record’s concept was to take the odder, low-fidelity work of Dead Mix and Long Way Blues into a bigger studio. The results were excellent, making for what was probably the most listenable-to-the-general-public record of his career, with some truly fine songwriting that reflected the concerns of advancing years without getting sentimental about it. But Howland was not quite satisfied with the results.
“Over the years I’ve made a big production record and then I fix that with a really weird record, and balance that with another big production record. This latest record is a direct response to the last Bassholes record, which was really clean. For a Bassholes record. I definitely would rather be on the weird side.”
As yet untitled, the latest Bassholes album is defiant and rude, waggling its tighty-whitey covered ass and spraying slobber at the world in true, unrepentant rock ‘n’ roll style. Many of the songs are interrupted by blasts of noise and improvised musical insanity that outdo an already pretty obtuse career, and the lyrics aren’t getting any more friendly, although the gallows humor is still intact. “I want to leave this world the way I came/cold, naked and without a name,” Howland shouts on one of the songs.
The album also has some of the haunting, quieter moments that make so many Bassholes records so unsettling. When I remarked on one of the songs’ particularly eerie atmosphere, Howland seemed pleased.
“That one, and Long Way Blues, and the solo record, are all basically home recordings. Done in the living room, in various states of duress. So yeah, that atmosphere is palpable. It’s the atmosphere of my living room.”
Despite his acceptance of his status as a musician whose playing for himself and a limited audience (“The only thing I’ve ever gotten out of music is some friends and a handful, literally, of devoted fans, or at least their ashes.”) it’s easy to see that Howland will never stop.
“In Columbus, we always said we’d do it ‘til we died. I just really love music,” says Howland. “You could do a five-word article on me and just say that. For some people, music saves them. There’s something that gives you a euphoria and sense of recognition. Hearing the first Ramones album, that did it. All of my friends from high school have gone off and become successful, lawyers and directors of alumni relations departments for large colleges, stuff like that, and as soon as I heard that first Ramones album there was no way I was ever going to do that. Some people just don’t fit in. And they need rock music.”