Kevin Bowe on writing with Paul Westerberg, the current "scene," and his record release at Varsity tonight
Kevin Bowe has seen it all in the Twin Cities. After cutting his musical teeth opening for the Replacements and Hüsker Dü in the '80s, Bowe later directed his talents towards songwriting for artists as diverse as Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Etta James, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and 3 Dog Night. He also helped produce and engineer records by the Meat Puppets, Communist Daughter, Freedy Johnston, and Chris Koza.
Now he's back with his first full-length record of original material in over a decade, Natchez Trace, and he's throwing one hell of a party tonight at the Varisty Theater to celebrate its release. Bowe was kind enough to take some time and talk to Gimme Noise ahead of his record release party to talk about how the record came about, the talented musicians who appear on the album, and what it was really like writing a song with Paul Westerberg.
Can you explain the origins of Natchez Trace, and how the project evolved over the five years you spent writing and recording it?
A long haul.... The Natchez Trace is a trail that settlers in the south used to migrate west. My dad was going to do a trip along that route, but he died a few years ago before he could get to it, so that's where the name came from. The record started as kind of a disorganized side project, but when I started playing with Peter Anderson on drums and Steve Price on bass (us 3 all play with Alison Scott and now Freedy Johnston as well), then I realized we were a band. The band I've been looking for all my life actually, it's not easy to find that perfect bass/drums/guitar triangle. Trickier than it seems.
So I had already recorded "Every Little Bit Hurts" with no bass or drums but then I did the rest of the record with Peter and Steve and eventually started writing with them in my head since we have kind of evolved into a Minneapolis version of the Wrecking Crew. We've recorded several records with Alison, several film and TV pieces, some songs with Freedy and many other artists. We don't even have to talk any more, we just start playing.
How did all of the collaborations come about, and how do you think having other artists involved with your project informed and improved the songs themselves?
These people are my heroes, quite literally. Anything I do is already informed by Paul Westerberg's songs, or at least anything I do that's any good. For him to help me write a song and come over and listen to all the songs and help me with ideas was just beyond words. It's a very cool, and a kind of strange, friendship we have. We're SO different in many ways, but in a few very important ways we see things very much the same. To have my pal Chuck Prophet come and play guitar on "Waitin' For The Wheel" was so perfect, that song was made for his Telecaster. He was doing a gig at the Turf Club and stopped by the studio to lay that down the day after. We had written songs together before and had kind of hit it off right from the top.
I think I met Chuck through our mutual pal Duane Jarvis, who died a few years ago. I actually wrote "Just Restless" with Duane, that's on this record too. When you get older all your music and your life and your pals all kind of just get mushed together, I think. Nels Cline from Wilco is a friend of a friend and he just stopped by the studio and blasted that solo last time they were in town doing a gig. Very nice guy. Very tall guy. The Meat Puppets put their own freakness on "Devil's Garden," some banjo and guitar. I mixed their Sewn Together album a couple of years ago so we were pals from that.
Who else? Freedy Johnston sang harmonies, we've been hanging out touring together and we cut some stuff in my studio so that was easy. Scarlet Rivera was just two ships passing in the night, but man just listen to her gypsy violin on "In Too Deep" and you can feel her vibe so strong. Am I forgetting anyone? Probably but you get the idea. These people are my heroes, my favorites.
You have spent quite a bit of time in the past playing in support of other musicians and writing their material. How did those experiences affect your own approach to songwriting and the decision to start making music for yourself?
Well, I actually DID start making music for myself, it's just that it sucked and I wasn't getting anywhere. Then by the time I got better at it, I had a couple of lucky breaks writing songs for other people and that worked out really well, so I focused on that for a long time, with Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Etta James, Lynyrd Skynyrd and 3 Dog Night (no, I'm not making this shit up, I swear. And yes it's as weird as you think it is). Writing with and for other artists and even more so, other WRITERS made me a way better songwriter, I think. I stole from every single one of 'em and I'm glad I did.
You co-wrote a track with Paul Westerberg on Natchez Trace, "Everybody Lies." How did that specific songwriting partnership materialize, and how easy was it to work with Westerberg given your long-lasting musical friendship?
I wouldn't describe anything with Pauly as being "easy" per se....but this was pretty seamless. I asked, he answered and he wrote the bridge and tweaked up some of the rest of it. That circle of fifths thing on the bridge is classic Paul, well beyond my chording skills. And him using the substitute 6 minor chord on the last chorus was really cool.
It sounds like he wrote the verses too but it's just me imitating him. Hence the seamlessness. I wanted him to play the guitar solo on it, but he was like "no way, you do it," and then I ended up getting Nels Cline so that worked out well.
Have you written any other songs together that we can look forward to hearing sometime in the future?
I'll never tell. A girl has to keep some secrets to herself.
This is your first full-length of original material in over ten years. What was the motivating factor behind making a new album after all this time, and has the writing and recording process grown any easier for you after all these years?
Way easier, mostly because I can do everything myself and I own my own studio, so I don't have to trust anyone else, pay anyone else or wait for anyone else. I love that independence. I really don't like rules in music or being told what to do, whether it's by the major labels back in the day or by hipster music mafia people now. I think it was easy (but slow!) making this record because I made it ONLY for myself. I'm happy if other people like it too, but I didn't make it for them, this one's just for me. I spend a lot of time doing stuff as a member of a team or working for an artist or whoever and this record isn't that.
Are there any particular themes or lyrical threads that tie the record together for you?
You as a listener probably have a better idea on that than me, but right now I'm looking at the songs and here's what they're about:
Relationships that are very powerful and deep and strong, but very destructive and nasty
Very large and sexy Martians
The Okemah Prophets
You have a whole host of talented musicians who have contributed to the record, many of them from the local music community here in the Twin Cities. Does the current local scene inspire you as a musician?
Define "scene"...I love a ton of the musicians here, always have. We have an unbelievable well of great players here. As far as the "scene" goes? I guess I'd define "scene" as anyone involved in the local music business who's not really a musician. That part.... you're asking the wrong guy, I've never been able to break the code here. I've never been on the cover of City Pages, never had any luck with local radio or media or any of that stuff. But it turned out to be a good thing for me, because that's what forced me to search for something else, something bigger than my own backyard. If I would have been successful here I probably never would have gone off and done the freaky stuff I've gotten to do.
But the locals here are so inspiring and great, I can't imagine doing this without Peter and Steve, I love Chris Koza, Communist Daughter, Farewell Milwaukee, Davina and the Vagabonds, lots of other locals. LOVE lots of the Rhymesayers stuff, the latest Brother Ali killed me. Jeremy Messersmith, I love his writing.
How have things changed in the Twin Cities scene since the halcyon days of the '80s?
I'm not really a very nostalgic person by nature, every year I'm alive is my favorite year that ever was, so it's probably more about how have I changed. It's boring when older people talk about how much better things were back in "the day". Screw "the day," it's never coming back. Today is "the day." I could never have had my own studio and make my own records back then. I was a little cuter, but I was stupider and broker and not as good on the guitar so forget it, I don't wanna go back.
That said, I do miss seeing the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, that was so much fun. And I miss the originality and uniqueness that punk music, or whatever you wanna call it, had back then. I mean a lot of the stuff they call "indie rock" now is neither indie, nor rock. Like the Righteous Brothers who were neither righteous, nor brothers. But I jest.
I guess calling it indie rock now is the same as Castro calling his regime "La Revolucion," right? If you've been in power for 20 years and you own everything, you ain't "La Revolucion" you're "El Status Quo." Doesn't mean the music is bad, but I just think there's a lot of posturing and positioning and marketing surrounding that kind of music, just as much as there was around corporate rock in the late '70's which is why there was a NEED for punk rock.
I also miss the fact that punk used to just be an umbrella term for "all of us misfits who don't fit in with Journey and Styx." I mean, you'd see bills with Los Lobos playing with Dead Kennedys. Now it sometimes feels like indie rock is more for the cool kids, not the misfits. I've always found the misfits more interesting, it's important to look after them and make sure they have music to listen to like we had the Replacements and those kind of bands. My favorite quote of the week is someone saying to me, "Dude, your music just isn't indie enough for a Target commercial." That pretty much says it all.
Alison Scott provided vocals on a few tracks from Natchez Trace, and will also be releasing her new record along with you at the Varsity Theater on Friday night. How did you two begin working together, and what did she bring to your songs that appealed to you?
We met years ago and I produced her first record- we had such a great time working together and I was so floored by her voice and her songwriting (trust me, I'm not easily impressed by other people's writing! Ha! I get pretty snotty about that!). So, we started working together with management and producing and me playing guitar for her and stuff. But she didn't bring anything to MY songs that appealed to me, it was HER songwriting and voice that appealed to me.
The real answer to that question is simple--just listen to her sing. Almost anyone who listens to her sing gets it. She doesn't necessarily sound LIKE Adele, but she has a lot of things that are the same things I love about Adele. Alison is about songwriting and singing. Period. No hipster bullshit, no image, no nothing. She's got incredible songs and an incredible voice, that's it. If you want dancing and costumes and "back story" and post college alienation posing, go shop somewhere else. I like that. The strange thing about working with Ali is that this artist has sold over 10,000 CD's. Sold out the Dakota for about 15 shows. Tours all over the Midwest, just got a huge MN State Arts Legacy grant to underwrite a tour of performing arts centers, has a HUGE and loyal following...all with virtually no local radio and very, very little local press.
I am completely clueless why they don't play her on the radio, but they just don't. She is almost systematically excluded from anything having to do with Minneapolis music "scene" stuff, but the really interesting thing is that that has not slowed her down one bit. Her numbers are growing every day. I've never seen anything like it. It's probably her shitty manager's fault!!!!! But again, sometimes the kids that aren't very popular in 7th grade homeroom are the ones that go off and invent the internet or whatever. So it is what it is, we're having a great time and starting to expand our following to Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and stuff.
What can we expect from your show on Friday night? And is this the first step towards you playing and performing live around the city (and country) more frequently in the future?
Yes, yes I promise. Looking to do a European tour as well. Wherever and whenever it's fun, we'll play. I'm not really "career-ish' about my band, I save all that for my other projects, but we will play for sure. This Varsity show is cool because a lot of the guests on both CD's will be there. The Laurel Sting Quartet!!! Desdamona, Johnny and Molly from Communist Daughter and a few others too. Hey if anyone wants us for a gig or a house concert or anything I'm easy to find.
Kevin Bowe & the Okemah Prophets are performing tonight at the Varsity Theater along with Alison Scott. Tickets are available here for $15 ($12 with a valid student ID). The event is 18+, with doors at 7, and showtime starting at 8:00 p.m.
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