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Interview with John Schooley

  • Interview with John Schooley by Crizia Giansalvo

    originally published on Black Milk Magazine


    1- First, I gotta thank you. If I start to go down into this sick side of r'n'r it's thank to "We told you not to cross us". Which album change your life?


    Probably “Missing Links – Volume 3”, the Norton Link Wray compilation. I had never heard of Link, and a friend suggested I check him out. It's funny, because the guy who suggested that I listen to him was this old hippie that was friends with all these horrible jam bands. We were friends but had completely different taste in music. But he was from the east coast and had seen Link back in the day, and figured he was up my alley. So I went to the local record shop (Whizz Records, the one the last song on the Revelators album is about), and Vol. 3 happened to be the one they had in stock. So I took it home and I put on the track “Growlin' Guts” because I liked the title. It really knocked me out and made me realize what rock n' roll guitar was supposed to sound like.


    Of course, I'd been prepared for that moment by being introduced to lots of blues and early rock n' roll, and I'd heard some punk rock like the Ramone's and the Sex Pistols, but Link Wray really seemed to bring it together for me. I was pissed me off, because I thought it was a crime that I hadn't heard any Link Wray records before that! If there was any justice, Link Wray would be famous and Eric Clapton or whoever would be the one who nobody had heard of. But I'd had Clapton forced down my throat and had never heard Link before, which was just wrong.

    2- The Revelators were one of the most important bands in the 90s garage. On your myspace's blog you weren't so nice about the mainstream music of those years. What it meant be an indipendent artists in the pre-internet era?


    Being a musician around when the Revelators started, there were very few bands that we felt were on the same page as us. Being on Crypt, we would play shows with lots of 60's style garage bands, but I never thought we were very similar to bands like that. I like 60's garage, but the Revelators weren't playing that type of rock n' roll. We were drawing from a rootsier time frame – covering old blues and rockabilly and country stuff, and mixing it with punk rock. We kind of lept over the 1960's. There was also a fashion element with the 60's garage that we never latched onto. But being on the label that put out the “Back From the Grave” records, we got lumped in with the 60's bands. Anyway, we felt like it was a very small pool of bands and fans that would like our music. Most of the music that was popular, even the independent stuff, was pretty bad. I guess it's not any different today – in most eras, the majority of the music being produced is bad. However, it was much harder then to find out about anything, and to reach the people who might like your band. Had the internet been around, we might have been able to find a lot more people who liked the Revelators. As it is, it has taken a decade or more for word to get out.


    On the other hand, a positive aspect of that era was that people bought records, and listened to them all the way through. I think now, everybody has their ipod on shuffle, and few people listen to a single album all the way through. Then, when you made an album, you could have some expectation that people would actually listen to the whole thing. Now, people download mountains of stuff, and they may never actually listen to all of it. I have something like 70 days straight worth of music on my itunes right now. There is just so much music available, that it almost seems kind of hopeless that anybody will everything hear anything you do.


    Looking back, I think that I was really lucky, in that I managed to be in bands that got to put out some albums and tour before then internet really took over and changed everything. It was fun to think that something you created could make its way all over the world. Even if you only pressed up a few copies of a record, they might end up in all the corners of the globe. The physical object making the rounds like that is somehow more satisfying than the thought of a file being spread around virtually.


    Now is a great time to be a music fan, because you can get online and find almost anything that you want to hear almost instantly. However, the flipside of that is that its a terrible time to be a musician right now. Since people buy fewer records, that's one less thing that you can sell on tour. I've never made any money being a musician, but you make even less today, with fewer people buying records. The good part is that you can post your stuff online and people all over the world can hear it easily. But without being able to sell copies of your record, that's just one less way to pay for getting to tour and actually play for those people. Also, there is so much other stuff out there that its' hard to make anybody care about your stuff. Frankly, I'm still coasting on the fact that my first band was on Crypt a decade ago.


    I really feel like I witnessed the end of an era – the era of physical recorded media. I think starting in the 1930's when 78's really became popular, through the end of the 2000's and the end of the cd era, was kind of the golden era for music. I think music is going to be an art form of lesser importance in the future. There were still painters after the Renaissance, but painting wasn't as important culturally. For me, growing up in a small town in the middle of nowhere, music was a window into the larger world. Music was an art form that introduced me to different kinds of people and different ways of thinking. With the internet, music isn't going to be what serves as that window anymore. People will still listen to and create music, definitely, but it is going to be just one of many entertainment options and not a kind of religion like it was for people before the internet. Kids aren't going to have to rely on music to get introduced to the outside world, or as a way to form their identity. But there may be other art forms that take over and serve that purpose. I don't think there is necessarily any reason to mourn, it will be interesting to see what happens next. There is also such a huge mountain of music from this golden era that it can take a lifetime just to digest it all.

    3- At the end of 90s, the charts said welcome to the White Stripes, which many people saw like pioneers of a new garage. I'm curious to know what do you think about it : underground commercialization, underground mystification by the masses or the mainstream industry, sometimes, can see a ray of light?


    One thing that I thought it was funny was that when the Revelators were around, people always asked us “Why don't you have a bass player?” It's not like we invented not having a bass player, there had been many bands with no bass before us, from the Gories and Oblivians all the way back to the Fendermen. And the Flat Duo Jets were a guitar and drum duo who had been around for awhile, so it wasn't at all innovative. We were a little different in that we had guitar, drums, and a singer. But nobody knew about those other bands outside of a very small group of record nerds, so people seemed to have a really hard time accepting it for some reason. It just annoyed them that we didn't have bass guitar. I always thought we sounded great, and never missed the bass. In fact, having played with bass later in the Hard Feelings, there are things about the guitar/drums with no bass lineup that are much more fun, musically speaking. But, when the White Stripes got huge, not having a bass player was suddenly some groundbreaking thing. Which was annoying because I had been in a band that had already done something similar years earlier!


    I thought the White Stripes were merely okay, they weren't anything special and certainly weren't better than lots of similar bands who had come before them. There was a crop of mediocre bands at that time like the Black Keys, the Detroit Cobras, and the Greenhornes, who went on to be much more popular than their quality would seem to warrant. That said, the White Stripes were probably the best of a bad lot.


    Of the reasons the White Stripes got successful, their music is way down on the list. You had the matching outfits, the red and white motif, the “are they brother and sister or not?” rumors, lots of things that maybe gave people something to talk about but that don't have much to do with music. I think those things had much more to do with the success of the White Stripes than anything musical. I mean, the Deadly Snakes first album and the White Stripes first record came out at about the same time, and “Love Undone” completely slays the White Stripes debut.


    Another thing to keep in mind is that the things that I dislike about the White Stripes are actually the things that made them popular. The matching outfits, the cheeseball songs about childhood, that's what most people latched onto. I remember Tim Warren talking about the White Stripes and saying “All those songs about childhood feelings? It's PEDOPHILE ROCK!” Which I thought was a hilarious assessment. This is a guy who put out records by Teengenerate and the Oblivians, so obviously he does not have mainstream tastes. The things I liked about the White Stripes, like the slide guitar and blues influences, were not what made them palatable to the mainstream. If the band had sounded like what I wanted to hear, or what Tim wanted to hear, they never would have been popular.


    The White Stripes and the other bands that got a lot of press at that time were really the last gasp of the major label record companies, and the mainstream music press, having any influence. There was a kind of a manufactured enthusiasm for these guitar-based rock bands. It was the close of the era when people actually read record reviews in magazines, and when anybody still cared what a music journalist might think. Now, if you hear about a band, you can just go online and hear them, and decide yourself if you like them. Being in Rolling Stone or Spin was still a big deal then, but now – who the fuck reads Rolling Stone or Spin anymore? So partially that little bubble of garage-ish bands was the last gasp of big media forcing stuff down the publics throat.


    The thing is, the number of people who actually listen to music is really tiny People will be involved in music for all sorts of reasons, and rarely do they have anything to do with actually listening to or appreciating music. How many of these people who were big White Stripes fans went on to listen to any other similar bands? Jack White was good about giving props to the bands and musicians that influenced him, but few people who bought White Stripes records went on to listen to any of those bands. For many people, it was simply trendy and they were the band of the moment. I'm sure you can name a number of bands that you think were much better who never had even a fraction of the success that the White Stripes had. As a musician and a music fan, you have to make peace with the fact that there is no justice. There are always going to be people who get fame and wealth who you think aren't that great, while there are others who you think deserve to be huge who labor in obscurity. Like Link Wray vs. Eric Clapton.

    4- Let's talk about the one-man band dimension. Often you talk about your rural roots, an elementary and archaic concept well linked to an one man band.


    Compared to some kid growing up today, I might as well have been born in another century. We lived in the middle of nowhere, no internet, no cable, our phone was on a party line. It was maybe 50 miles to the nearest record store, and it wasn't a good record store. I bought cassette tapes at Wal-Mart, it was a big deal when I found Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker tapes. I did chores and fed animals and drove tractors and milked cows and pitched hay bales and did things that weren't so different from what kids growing up on farms have done for hundreds of years.


    The small family farm like my parents had is largely a thing of the past. I had to move to the big city for economic reasons, like people in rural areas have been doing forever. Family farms are going the way of record stores. If I had stayed in my hometown I have no idea what I would have done. It wasn't even an option for me, I wanted to get the hell out of there, anyway.


    I never even played guitar with another person until I was maybe 20 years old. So I had time to develop my style on my own, I suppose. I had already decided what I wanted to sound like before I ever played in a band with anybody else.

    5- This archaic research brings you to explore the roots of American music, artists never really appreciate and know by the american society. Which artists,in your opinion, brought a fundamental innovation to music,but it's not well recognized?


    I don't know, I'm not really concerned with innovation. Innovation in music is overrated. I like music because it conveys emotions. Technical aspects are secondary to me, to a point. I like musicians whose individuality comes through when you hear their music. I like to be able to hear something and instantly know who it is, be it by the guitar tone, the sound of their voice, the songwriting style. But the thing with music is there is no consistency – there are some musicians I love who are very technical and whose style was innovative, like Little Walter, and there are some like Hound Dog Taylor, who is famous for saying “When I die, they'll say “He couldn't play shit, but he sure made it sound good!””

    6- All this can be linked to your work at the Austin History Center. What the relation between history and r'n'r? In your life what you have done except play in great album?


    Well, all this talk about day jobs isn't going to sound very exciting, but keep in mind that this is the U.S. and there is no social safety net or national health care, and I don't have rich parents to sponge off of, so I've always had to work. Being in a band, I've worked in a variety of glamorous day jobs between tours. While I was in the Revelators I worked at a pizza place, in an office, at a warehouse, at the midnight shift at the post office, and as a delivery driver. Exciting stuff. When I moved to Austin and started the Hard Feelings I got a job at a local record store that provided health insurance, which is a big deal in the states. So I stayed at that job for a long time, which gave a a chance to learn a lot about music and hear lots of records. It was a great job to have as a musician, and I was very fortunate.


    However, around about 2005, when my first one man band album came out, I could start to see the writing on the wall as far as the future of record stores and I knew I had to find something else. I always liked record stores, and had even considered opening my own, but the world had changed. Also, I'd had the chance to tour Japan, but I simply couldn't afford it. I figured I had to start making more money than I could at a record store to fund this money pit that is my “music career.” I couldn't keep jumping from shit job to shit job. I wanted something that would provide some intellectual stimulation and be interesting to me, and I had no interest in selling anything, or making any sort of profit for some corporation. And of course I wanted something that would still allow me time to play music. I had to actually consider what I wanted to be when I grew up, so to speak.


    I'd always had an interest in history, and with the collapse of the record industry I became interested in what would happen to the history of American recorded music. With all the copyright problems, there are so many recordings that are in danger of being lost. I was also frustrated that American music got no respect in the academic world, event though it has been such a huge influence on American culture. I considered going to grad school for American Studies or something like that, and focusing on popular music, and maybe carving out some kind of niche in academia. But, I couldn't see spending a lot of time writing academic papers about these recordings when the actual recordings themselves were in danger of disappearing. I wanted to make a more practical contribution.


    So I began to look at audio preservation, which is a field that is kind of in its infancy, since recorded sound has only been around a relatively short period of time, especially compared to paper. Eventually, I ended up at the Austin History Center, the local historical archive. I'm currently in graduate school, studying archiving. I've tried to tie my interest in recordings into my job. I've been working with the oral history collection, trying to digitize all these old cassette tapes. I just did an oral history interview with Walter Daniels. I've been trying to get more material related to the underground music community in Austin into the collection. Tim Kerr donated his archives to the History Center, so we have a box with a bunch of Big Boys t-shirts and punk rock zines, which is pretty cool.


    We have a lot of oral history interviews with local folks, some of the 30 years old or more, and none of the recordings have been moved to a digital format. The cassette is a dying format, and the window to do something with these tapes is closing. And our collection is just one of many around the country that are facing the same problems. People seem to be under the impression that everything is already digitized and available online, when really very little is available that way. Most things are in dusty books or on deteriorating tapes and a lot of it is going to disappear before it ever gets digitized.


    Since I'm working and going to school at the same time, it is going to take me a few years to finish. After that, hopefully I get a job at the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian or something like that! Or, I stay in Austin and finish getting all these cassette tapes digitized.

    7- Analyzing the American society and traveling across Europe , what differences you saw between the two continental in rock'n'roll?


    It seems that the European bands seem to put more of a priority on style. More emphasis on what clothes the band members wear, and what kind of equipment they have. More expensive amps and guitars in Europe, compared to American bands. I've always played cheap amps and cheap guitars, because I was poor. I think that is more in keeping with the aesthetic, if you are playing trashy rock n' roll. Most of the Crypt bands were not bands that had expensive gear and vintage amps. Americans are usually less stylish than Europeans, and tend to dress like slobs, anyway. If you walk down a street in Europe, people are just much better dressed than they are on the average street in the U.S., so I think that the bands end up being more concerned about their stage attire than Americans.


    Another thing I've noticed is that Europeans seem to pick the worst band names. I don't know if it's a function of English not being their native language, or what. The Japanese can pick some ridiculous band name and it seems charming somehow, but there are really some horrible European rock n' roll band names.


    This is all superficial stuff, though. As far as the music, it is hard to generalize anymore, because the internet has really made everything a lot more homogeneous, all around the world. There are fewer little pockets of regional sounds than there used to be. You can listen to some bands, like Feedtime, and say “They sound Australian!”, even if you can't put your finger on exactly why. Now, instead of being influenced by the other local musicians around you, you are influenced by whatever you hear around the world that you like, so it's harder to pin down any sort of regional sound. I think this has led to bands sounding more similar around the world, which is too bad. I don't know that I could pin down a distinctive European, or Australian, or Japanese sound anymore.

    8- Sometimes Burlesque Shows entertain your live. In the last years this kind of show had a great come back, thank also to sites like Suicide Girls.What do you think of this phenomenon?


    Well, I like attractive women, and I like it when attractive women aren't wearing very much. But I don't see it having much to do with my music.

    9- Not only you played in the Revelators, but also in the Hard Feelings ,on tour with R.L. Burnside and on the debut album of the South Filthy. Want you tell me about those experiences?


    I've talked about the Revelators and touring with R.L. a lot in interviews, and I don't really have any good stories left that I haven't already told a million times. On youtube there is a long story that I typed up about touring with R.L., from the dvd of my show with R.L. in Norway:




    I only played on one track of the South Filthy record, so I don't really have any good stories about that, either. Walter was the only band member who was there when I recorded my little part.


    Just watch the Anvil documentary, and you can see what every tour with the Revelators or Hard Feelings was like. (Minus the successful shows...)

    10- What are your future projects?


    When I got back from my last tour, I really felt kind of bored with the one man band thing, like I'd done all I could with that format. It was still fun, but it was no longer challenging. So, I decided to learn a new instrument just to keep it interesting for me. I did a Dock Boggs song on my last album, on guitar, and I wanted to do some Uncle Dave Macon songs. But they just didn't sound right on guitar. So I decided to learn banjo so I could play those songs and have 'em sound like they should.


    I've picked it up pretty quickly, and I just now started playing banjo in my shows. It took forever to get the sound right – I had to try some different pickups, and it took me some experimentation to find a setup that sounded good. I ended up getting extra heavy strings, and tuning it down a whole step. This made it easier on my voice, and it sounds better amplified. Amplified banjo has way too much treble, and it was kind of painful for the audience when it was cranked up and tuned normally. Tuned lower, it has some bass and it doesn't hurt when it gets loud. The big problem for me is that it tears the hell out of my hand, and I end up with blood all over the banjo head after a show. I can't keep my fingernail grown out enough, and with no fingernail it isn't loud enough, so I end up pounding the shit out of it to compensate. So, some blood gets shed...

    11- Last question, a curiosity.. how it's going with the new glasses?


    I don't get called Buddy Holly anymore, so that's a plus.