Sunday, August 18, 2019

A Very Candid Conversation with Goodnight, Texas

Goodnight, Texas, 2018 (Avi Vinocur, left; Patrick Dyer Wolf, right)      
Avi Vinocur and Patrick Dyer Wolf are the bandleaders of Goodnight, Texas, a folk rock band. The name, Goodnight, Texas, comes from the midpoint between where Avi and Pat lives. Avi lives in San Francisco, and Pat lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Their sound and their approach to writing songs is unique because they embodied a certain time era with each album. 

Goodnight, Texas writes about different time eras in their music. Their first album, A Long Life of Living (2012), contains original music of acoustic songs that are reminiscent of old-timey music from the 1800s. One of the songs, “The Railroad,” was used in a Coors commercial in 2018. On their next album, Uncle John Farquhar (2014), Goodnight, Texas wrote original songs about the Civil War and Appalachia with music that sounds reminiscent of that period. Their most recent album, Conductor (2018), is written about the early twentieth century and their original songs reflect that era. There are plans to do an album that will contain music that sounds like it takes place in the future. In addition, they have recorded two EPs, An Even Longer Life of Living (2017), and The Senseless Age (2019).

Goodnight, Texas plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the San Francisco Giants, which they have been doing since 2017. Avi also played with Metallica late 2018, in which Metallica did an acoustic set for their All Within My Hands charitable foundation. Avi played mandolin, guitar, and sang backup during the Metallica show. 

This is the first interview in which I’ve interviewed two people at the same time. In our candid conversation, Avi and Pat talk about how the band started and their interest in recreating music from different historical eras. We also discuss how they got to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the San Francisco Giants, how Avi got to play with Metallica, and what their future plans are.

I want to thank Nichole Peters of Jensen Communications for setting up the interview, but most of all, I want to think Avi and Pat.   

Jeff Cramer: This question is for either of you and who wants to start: What formed your interest in music?

Patrick Dyer Wolf: I have a memory of sitting on the floor in my parents' bedroom and  looking up at my dad sitting on the bed playing his acoustic guitar. I think the guitar was an Applause, which is a subset of Ovation (a guitar company). The Applause is not a great guitar.

I just remember being dumbfounded at what he was doing with those strings. He made me a tape and called it “Pat's Rock Tape,” which was a Dire Straits song, and then there were a bunch of James Taylor songs. I think I was six or seven—that's the memory I have that made me want to play music.

Avi Vinocur: Well, there is a debate on this, but I got really into piano when I was around six years old. I don't know why. Then I got into guitar after I heard Green Day. I felt like I could do something like that and started playing songs from Dookie. This was in 1994, I think. Then in high school I got really into Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles and started playing a lot of sixties’ songs.

JC: It's interesting you're mentioning all these artists, but your band doesn’t sounds like any of them. How did you came up with the sound of Goodnight, Texas?

AV: I think we were both interested in how some people like to play characters and have concepts for their act. We had a collection of songs that all sort of felt like they may have existed in a different time period.

We were covering songs from the 1800s, and we were writing songs but just trying to make them feel like they belong in the 1800s. We used some stories that we heard from that time period.

We both really love American history, and so writing historical fiction or biographical music seemed to kind of make sense.

PDW:  I remember we had been playing together with just two guitars—a little bit like Simon and Garfunkel. I mean, Garfunkel didn't have a guitar, but at some point Avi got a banjo and I remember thinking, “Oh, that's a whole different tone.”

And then at some point Avi started playing the mandolin. He can really play a guitar, but then he just transitioned to the mandolin as his lead act.

AV: I got a mandolin from a guitar show. I think the mandolin was from 1918, and right away I wrote twelve songs on it, like within a week. It just felt like this instrument had been built to be playing these songs. I don't know, it just made sense to me in some weird way.

I had an old mandolin before that and tried to write songs on it, but I didn't really have any luck. But once I got this really old one, it was—

PDW:  It's not like a straight-up bluegrass sound that we're going for or that he is going for. I think it's a little bit darker.

We’re not trained on traditional bluegrass playing, but we're playing these bluegrass instruments like the mandolin.

AV:   Goodnight, Texas is the midpoint between where we live. Bluegrass and folk is not something we necessarily grew up with. My family is from West Virginia and Maryland, and I had relatives that were mandolin players and fiddle players in my family history, but none that I was close with. But the band's concept came from also just sort of finding out about them.

JC: How did the first album, Long Life of Living, take place? 

PDW: We recorded most of our stuff at Avi's apartment in San Francisco. We’d sing and play the songs first before we put any drums. We ended up putting the drums on afterwards, and we played a lot of the drums ourselves.

AV: I think we sort of started recording the only way we knew how, which was just to play guitar and sing live. So most of the songs on that album are actually a live performance of us playing and singing guitar. And in doing that, we realized we kind of wanted to make it rock out more, and we didn't want to redo everything so we just played over it. I think we ended up with something really kind of dark and heavy, and heaviness has just kind of been in my soul forever.

PDW: That's the quote.

A Long Life of Living cover (2012)

JC: I want to talk about one song on the album, "The Railroad,” which is a semi-instrumental song. The vocals don’t come until the end of the song. That was also the first song I heard from you guys.

AV: That was just something we kind of worked on for the rhythm and melody. We initially had lyrics for the first half and it was a little bit different, but it just wasn't working quite right, so we decided to trim the first half down slightly and leave the vocals out of it and then put this whole section at the end with the vocals. [To hear “The Railroad,” click here.]

I play the drum take for that song, and then I play some guitars and mandolin and banjo over it. Then Pat plays the slide, and our friend Jonathan Kirchner plays bass.

I think we had different lyrics. Initially the song was about Pittsburgh called "Pittsburgh Grit.”

PDW:  Was it about a handshake?

AV: It was about a really strong, firm handshake, but it just didn't fit, so Pat encouraged me to change the lyrics. We did, and I think we changed them further after that. The line, “Their backs are turned,” was sort of kicking around for a while in my head, and that's kind of how it came together.

I was really into a lot of traditional and spiritual music like "Rosie,” (an African-American prison song from 1947) and  stuff like that. I wanted to try to make something that felt like that kind of song.

PDW:  Maybe like a year ago Avi sent me a voice memo that he found of us working on this song in my parents' dining room just figuring out the structure of it. You  can hear my dad in the background yelling about some insurance snafu he was having or something. It was great.

JC: You were mentioning earlier that you came up with real life stories you had heard, or you just like to write historical fiction. Your first single, "Jesse Got Trapped in a Coal Mine” . . . was that Jesse's unfortunate incident something you came up with, or was it based on something?

AV: I wrote that one, but it wasn't a true story. It was kind of similar to some stories that I had heard from my family in West Virginia and Maryland, but it wasn't anything specific. I kind of just went with it.

But that being said, we've met a lot of people whose families are in coal and who even have members of their family named Jesse. I think we met someone in Nashville whose great-great-grandmother’s husband was killed. Her name was Jessie, and her husband was killed in a mining accident. So it's like it may be true. I definitely made it up, but I think it may have actually happened whether we realize it or not, like a lot of stories. [To hear “Jesse Got Trapped in a Coal Mine,” click here.]

JC: Also from that album is “I’m Going to Work on Maggie's Farm Forever.” Was Bob Dylan's “Maggie Farm” the inspiration behind the song? Is it referring to the same farm that Bob Dylan is referring to?

PDW:  Yeah. It’s definitely a takeoff of sorts, and I think it's sort of like an alternate ending, an alternate universe take on it, of the chronicle of uprisings or rebellions that have failed or have been squashed and don’t get remembered. It’s kind of like a testament to the suffering and effort that people go through that doesn't really come to anything. [To hear “I’m Going to Work on Maggie’s Farm Forever,” click here.]

JC: So from there we look into Uncle John Farquhar (2014) album. Tell me how that got started.

PDW:  Uncle John Farquhar came from the semi-historical semi-idea like a family scrapbook partially remembered and oral tradition that might not be true . . . you know, like the movie, Big Fish. (Big Fish is a 2003 film about a frustrated son trying to determine the fact from fiction in his dying father’s life.)

AV: Big Fish. I was going to say that.

PDW:  Our album is named after my great-great-great-grandfather, John Farquhar, but the picture on the album is his nephew, Edwin Freer Bogart. We thought that was a funny joke that no one would get except us because it’s a picture from 150 years ago. Nobody is going to know.

Uncle John Farquhar cover (2014)

AV: What if somebody wrote the wrong name on the back of the photograph? Then throughout the future and history everyone thinks that's the person's name, but it might not have been.

 We wrote some of Uncle John Farquhar on the road. We were touring behind our first record a lot and spent a lot more time with our drummer, Alex Nash, and bass player, Bobby Kendall, at the time. We were sort of developing the songs on the road, like we had concepts for how they went and we'd come home and record them.

And then the songs would get a little more swing or a little more bouncy, and we tried to incorporate that into the album on a few of the songs. In addition to us playing drums, we had a friend play drums on a few songs on Long Life of Living, but Alex Nash played drums on the whole record.

Bobby Kendall and Scott Padden, our drummer now, both played bass on a few songs on that record too. It was sort of a transitional record for us. We were changing members, but some of the songs we had for a long time. I had the song "Dearest Sarah" since 2006. I just never recorded, but I had written the lyrics, and then I changed the rhythm and the instrumentation of it in 2012, and then I decided I really wanted that to put that one out there.

JC: In the sixties, a lot of then-contemporary artists did songs on Vietnam. In the last decade, artists did songs about Iraq. But with "Dearest Sarah,” you went back to the Civil War.

AV: Yeah. I mean, I've always been fascinated by that period in American history, and the song is based on a real letter written between Sullivan Ballou and his wife Sarah in Rhode Island. To me, that letter has always been one of the best pieces of American writing.

Sullivan died in July of 1861 at the First Battle of Bull Run. So that is a true story, and that song is sort of interpreted from his letter. We don't break that one out live super often because it doesn't really fit in some of our bar shows, but it's a pretty depressing and stark song. [To hear “Dearest Sarah,” click here.]

PDW: The actual Uncle John Farquhar was a preacher in Pennsylvania and he went to visit some troops during the Civil War at different battlefields. He gave a  sermon on the National Day of Mourning for President Lincoln's death.

JC: Yes.

PDW: We found the text of his speech and put it in the liner notes. So that's another thing that was true from our family perspective. It’s not well-known to history, but we were trying to weave that in with the “Dearest Sarah” story.

JC: In addition to the Civil War, “A Bank Robber’s Nursery Rhyme” sounds like it could fit in the historical decade of the Wild West.

PDW:  "A Bank Robber's Nursery Rhyme" comes from a riff I had written in college. Maybe eight years before that song was recorded, it was called "Slow Down Hoedown" at the time. We kind of re-imagined that one.

JC: "Slow Down Hoedown" sounds like it would have a different lyrical concept than “A Bank Robber’s Nursery Rhyme.”

PDW:  There were no lyrics to “Slow Down Hoedown.” It had a different structure, and it kind of slowed down toward the end. But we kept one of the main riffs from “Slow Down Hoedown.” [To hear “A Bank Robber’s Nursery Rhyme,” click here.]

JC: I want to talk about the song "Moonshiners.” I’m familiar with it during the seventies era. Burt Reynolds did a lot of films around that time that revolve around moonshine. But I'm sure the era of moonshine in “Moonshiners” is not the seventies.

AV: Yeah, the first record sort of took place in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and this one sort of took place at end of the nineteenth century into the beginning of the twentieth century.

In "Moonshiners,” as the characters of our songs sort of head south and time passes, they get further and deeper into Appalachia, and I think that's where a lot of that moonshining was going on. It was a sort of isolated mentality that a lot of people felt in those regions in that period. [To hear “Moonshiners,” click here.]

What you get is something very different than what Pat and I grew up with, and that's why it fascinates us.

PDW: I mean, a lot of the people up in the hills were Irish immigrants from Avi's side, and maybe like 80 percent of my side are Irish immigrants. It's just very interesting. People came over to find a new life and escape a terrible condition, and you ended up funneling into a city like a lot of my ancestors did, or you made it up into the hills and found banjos and washtubs or whatever and started making this music that we eventually became fascinated with.

Over the course of a century, there was a lot of isolationism up there and an interesting culture. I think it was very interesting for us to kind of ponder this when we were making this music.

JC: I read in Wikipedia that you sang the national anthem.

AV: Yeah.

JC: How did that come about?

AV: We're big baseball fans, and I have the good fortune in San Francisco of knowing a couple of people who work for the Giants. They let us know that if they had a cancellation they would try to get us to do the national anthem. And they did finally in 2017, and we did it.

We got a good review from the Giants’ sportscaster, Dave Flemming, on the radio and they've asked us back every year since then. [To hear them perform “The Star-Spangled Banner,” click here.]

JC: It would be 2017 when you released your next EP, An Even Longer Life of Living, and 2018 when you got to making your next album Conductor.

PDW:  Yeah, so Uncle John Farquhar was 2014, and Conductor was 2018, and in the middle I had a son, Damon. So that was one thing I was doing. We actually recorded a lot of the material for Conductor in late 2015, and a series of setbacks just kept us pushing it back.

We put out EPs in the meantime, so we had that. And it just it finally came together in the spring of 2018, feeling like the right time from all angles.

AV: I'll add to that . . . at the beginning of 2016 we sort of lost a lot of parental figures. Pat's father passed away. My grandfather, who was sort of like my father, passed away two weeks after his dad did. A year or so later the following year 2017, Scott, our now drummer—he was our bass player at the time—his mother passed away from cancer. We were thinking to try to put Conductor out at the end of 2016, and then the presidential election happened, and it was like no one had time to think about music right now.

JC: Yeah.

AV: Conductor would have just gotten buried under everything with the election, and it just didn't feel right. The further we got from it, the more we decided to just kind of keep waiting until it felt right, and once the beginning of 2018 came around we were I think we're ready to get angry or something.

Conductor album (2018)

JC: I mentioned Bob Dylan earlier. On Conductor, the song, “Takin’ Your Word For It,” sounds a little like Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. Were those guys influences for that song?

PDW: I wouldn't say no. I think another big influence would probably be the Band.

AV: Yeah, the Band was big influences on us with all their songwriting. I got really into Planet Waves by Bob Dylan back then.

PDW:  I felt like we could fit that kind of a sound in with sort of these American tales and it sort of was part of the story and it seemed to blend in and have a little bit of be sort of led by the bass, kind of a funkier bass line. So it seemed to kind of fit. [To hear “Takin’ Your Word For It,” click here.]

JC: Which decade is Conductor (2018) referring to?

AV:  I think this is moving more into the early the Dust Bowl and the beginnings of Prohibition and that period. It does take place further west out in the plains than in the southwest.

PDW:  Yeah, we sort of think of it right at the point when America is starting to become the world power and figuring out what to do with itself as that's happening. Electricity is really becoming a thing. Automobiles are becoming a thing.

We added electric guitar for the first time on that record.

AV: We don't have any electric guitar on the first two records. Pedal steels. [Pedal steel is a musical instrument played like the Hawaiian guitar, but set on a stand with pedals to adjust the tension of the strings.]

PDW:  Conductor is the title, and there is a spiritual want for somebody to rein in all that power America has and to figure out what to do with it. That's like the conductor of an orchestra.

JC: I also understand that Avi got to play with Metallica around that time. How did that happen?

AV: Yeah, that was the end of last year. I was fortunate enough to know those guys and have worked with them before on a side of things such as a studio tech. They’re aware of our band and they know I play mandolin. They were doing an acoustic show, and they wanted to kind of fill out their sound.

I had sang with James Hetfield at a benefit show in 2016, and we figured out that we could harmonize pretty well together. So when it came time for Metallica to figure out what they wanted to do for this acoustic show, they asked me to do it, and they asked if I knew a percussionist. Then we got this pedal steel player and keyboard player.

So the four of us kind of sat in, but I got to sing and play mandolin on the whole set. I played a little guitar too, and it was just a trip. It’s one of the most unbelievable things that's ever happened to me. [To hear Avi perform with Metallica on “The Unforgiven,” click here.]

JC: It’s interesting to know that the music can still be heavy even though there are only acoustic instruments.

AV: Yeah. Heavy is definitely like an attitude and a feel more than a tone—more than any specific guitar tone or type of guitar. They happen to do it with electric guitars and through high-gain amplifiers, but the songs kind of translate any way you do them, and the heaviness still just imbued in it.

I will say that doing that show with them was  one of the most high-energy shows I've ever done, and we were all sitting on stools. I can't even imagine what it's like to play with them and running around with electric guitars.

JC: I understand you've done a EP, The Senseless Age (2019). 

The Senseless Age (2019)

AV: In my head I sort of think of our albums as part of like the long running story, and the EP is the extraneous almost bonus material. Like side—

PDW:  Side dishes.

AV: Yeah, side dishes. But yeah, there is like elements of the sixties and the nineties even in these songs. There’s a song that sounds like it could have gone on A Long Life of Living. It’s a little instrumental one, “For My Mother’s Wedding,” which is one I actually wrote for my mom to walk down the aisle to. [To hear “For My Mother’s Wedding,” click here.]

They're five songs, and you put them together and they go together, but they all sort of have an independent feel from one another. "Blood Brothers" is probably one of the heaviest songs we've recorded. I'm really proud of how that turned out. [To hear “Blood Brothers,” click here.]

JC: Yeah. So I take it you're on the road touring now?

PDW: Yeah, we are. We played in Newport, Kentucky, last night, and we're playing in Cleveland tonight. [Note: It was July 28,2019, when I spoke to Goodnight, Texas.]

JC: Are there any other shows that you're planning to do?

AV: We're doing some festivals. We're doing a Mile of Music Festival in Wisconsin. We're doing the Sweet Pea Festival in Bozeman, Montana. We're doing the West Coast in October. Actually, on this run, we're finishing the Midwest and the middle states until the middle of August.

In October, we're doing the Northwest coast with the Brothers Comatose. Yeah, we got a lot of touring on the docket behind the EP and our next potential record.

Goodnight, Texas (Pat, left; Avi, right) performing in 2018
JC: What is the potential next record?

AV: It takes place in the year 2145.

JC: Wow, it's futuristic.

AV:  Yeah, it's all synthesizers, and drums have become unpopular. The robots don't like drums . . . so, yeah. We’ve got a bunch of songs that I think go together pretty well, but I don't know. They definitely have a unique sound, but I think they fit in line with what we've also done, and we're getting them together.

We've got twelve or thirteen partially recorded right now, and we've got a whole bunch more that we've written. We usually take our time. I think it's worth it to take your time and do it right.

JC: For an upcoming band doing a different, original, unique sound like you have, what would your recommendation be?

AV: Definitely listen to Korn.

JC: Korn, okay.

AV:  No one has ever sounded like Korn. I don't know how they made it work.

PDW:  And, you know, Tom Waits. I think to try to define it in your own mind is like a TV series. Then it’s just seeing what fits on the show, what doesn't make sense with the plot or the setting . . .

AV: I mean, you're always balancing between what people know and what they haven't heard. If you season a little more of what’s  unknown to people, you can be more exciting in that sense.

JC: The last question I'll ask is how would you describe where you started off with the Long Way of Living album to now with The Senseless Age?

PDW: I think we've been very fortunate that we have been able to make it happen over this time. We live on opposite sides of the country—the two of us. Scott Padden, who is playing drums, and Adam Nash, who has been playing bass, although he is an incredible guitar player, live in California too. There are logistical hurdles for us to even exist, and we have been very lucky of the good fortune that's been working out in that the Internet has been helping us out just attracting bees to the nectar.

AV: We're just trying to see if this whole thing can work. So far it's still working somehow.

Goodnight, Texas in 2018 (Pat, second from left; Avi, third from left)

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