D. Charles Speer
. Charles Speer has done things you haven’t. Folk, Country and Rockabilly wells mined and harnessed to yield Some Forgotten Country, an album of home-recordings as metaphysical western, a handful of cover tunes as respectful homage, songs as well-oiled chants and vice versa. He also operates under the less cryptic alter ego, Dave Shuford, shaking strings and holding in place the veil with Harlem’s No-Neck Blues Band (NNCK) while cheering for whomever the Yankees are playing, which is ostensibly why this interview took so long to wrangle. The Internet? Not my first choice for a hand-to-hand, thought-to-trough rassle, but I am enjoying two fingers of mash while I type this—at work, fuckers. Speer would condone such action—as you’ll soon learn. We touched on few stones and hoisted others as far as we could. Rounding out the blah is my version of verbal Rorschach—a sort of ad hoc seat-of-the-pants, which always seems to run a rabbit outta the hat. However, there’s far more magic in the man’s music. But do enjoy this snapshot; it’s rather overexposed.
What is your earliest memory of music? Why do you think it has stayed with you?
I can't really recall a specific early musical memory which could be marked the first, just remember music being a powerful obsession of mine from the beginning of my memoria around 1980—a weird combo of classical and pop and whatever was around the house were my early joys—Grieg meets Tony Orlando do you believe in magic? Music is the total world—life in time—aliveness everything.
An electric bouzouki is hardly a common instrument. What attracted you to it?
Well, my early life experience was full of my mom's side of the family which is Greek, lots of parties that were influential for me—the first time I got drunk, the realization of the power of dance, the first times I saw completely hammered debilitated people making the world go round, and there was always bouzouki music happening—so this sound was lodged in deep there, although I didn't even think about Greek music until it had stolen my mind again.
When Monroe and the mandolin sound came back to me also—I saw that I needed to embrace my impulses—if I preferred double course instruments and their resonant burn, then I should proselytize their being and primacy as lead instruments.
Lyre, aulos, kithara—we're talking about instruments that were and are used for religious purposes/practice(s), and then turned right around and used to color thespian performances, drunken revelry, to fill idle time and combat boredom. I've only seen Greek dancing on TV; it appears that there's a lot of history and emotion packed into the dance and the sounds that surround it. Were you aware of the transcendental nature of the music at an early age? Did you bind the dance and music together in your mind and understand them as the means that they are? If so, do you apply this to your own musical process whether with NNCK or playing solo?
Dance is often an ecstatic condition in most cultures, and also a way to spell and act out community and local tradition in a very literal way. I saw the effects it had on my relatives (along with some good old imbibing) and figured that was a good way to go, to understand your own personal traditions and mythologies and keep those in mind through a public enactment. Music is a public experience (in live settings) so I try to keep the transformative possibility in mind at all times. I wish I knew more about the ancient Greek instruments, as I mainly know the "folk/popular" instruments from the last 200 years or so.
The song content of Some Forgotten Country is multi-faceted. There are religious references, notations on flora and fauna, self-contained ambiguities and light hearted takes on life and death—all of which makes for a sort of macroscopic program. What went into assembling the record, and how did you decide to piece it together the way you did?
It was just a series of meager personal firsts—the first time I could achieve such and such pattern plateau—the scene was overworked and then disappeared—glad to actually have the sound breathe elsewhere when it finally came out—some things get too held up.
It could be argued that traditional country music is just as big an influence on the No-Neck Blues Band and D. Charles Speer as classical chamber music for that matter. Do you find this apropos, and, if so, what is your connection to country music?
I believe the self tutelage of Giacinto Scelsi and Tibby Edwards are each dark wells of bounty— containing the alpha omega connection for my aesthetic—finely articulated screaming.
You've got one-note-wonder and coonass yawper; that's a hell of a program to reconcile. But I suppose the fun is in not trying to reconcile the two... No-Neck's power exists in its ability to apply a sort of cut-and-paste approach to composition, all the while drawing on everything from Black Metal to Folk to cerebral European improvisation (SME, AMM, etc.) Is this just an example of letting influence flow out of the music in a non-mimetic fashion—something that's obviously easier said that done? If this is the case, how do you just let sound be, let it happen?
Nothing too complicated here I think, just seven distinct personalities who all bring their personal obsessions to bear on the music. We luck out in that everyone somehow knows that NNCK is not the forum for regurgitating a style in toto. Other groups can be an outlet for boogie rock or disgusting blackness. But NNCK should be its own interaction which uses dialects brought from all corners, but maintains its own language. Non-idiomatic improvisation does not exist probably, but in NNCK I like to think it does...
Your singing voice is a mixture of Kristoffersonian solemnity and poetic recitation. Have you been writing and singing songs for a while, and how did you decide to release them commercially? Are you influenced by any particular vocalists?
Have been writing songs, very slowly, for only the past few years, of course the preoccupation with singing has been there forever, really just trying to relax into things—it's good to fast from neurosis. Many blues and country vocalists have the sprechstimme kind of approach—which allows the theatricality of the situation to impinge on the listener, showing the actual difference between talking and singing and the emotional investment therein. A selection of my favorite vocalists include Silas Steele, Red Foley, Nathan Abshire, Rita Abadzi, Essra Mohawk, and Madame Emily Bram although I know that I am so inexperienced a singer that I will surely never sniff these aforementioned folks' enema bags.
How did you get into Cajun music and Rockabilly? I can remember seeing Southern Comfort when I was a kid and freaking out over the music (the OST and the Cajun bands featured in the flick) and then I completely forgot about it until I heard Revenant's issue of American Anthology of Folk Music Vol. IV. Hackberry Ramblers’ "Dans le Grand Bois" ends the collection and it's such a contradictory music—happy sorrow, etc. I just played it over and over and over again when I first heard it.
As long as I can remember I always liked Cajun food and culture; alligators and swamps are appealing to a seven-year-old, yunno?! Didn't know much about the music, but then hearing the Anthology in the 90s, and those killer Joseph and Cleoma Falcon tracks, I was hooked on the accordion stomp and reeling emotions. After that it was buy every Old Timey LP on Cajun music (I think there were nine volumes at least), and then it became grab Swallow Records comps, and Goldband, and La Louisianne, among others. So my Cajun jones was really powered by the collecting engine that seemed to rule my life for about a decade (more oriented toward instrument collecting now, what can I say, I've got the hoarder bug!) My parents started going to Jazz Fest in New Orleans every year too, so when I accompanied them I got to see the musicians in action, including the Ramblers themselves—in their 80s and still smoking. Yeah, the Cajun vocal is such a live wire sound—I can't get enough of it!
Explain your connections and/or opinions on the following people, places and things:
Coastal mountain refugee—a fan of Bigfoot et al.
A perverse French fabrication—ruling class of julep hustlers—Tennessee makes a fine mash, too—but never can deny the prophets Elijah and Ezra and Old Foree and Weller have their place.
ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS
Another claimant greater by far than the pseudo—Simon Stylites.
A refuge for wayfaring strangers.
THE AMERICAN WESTERN
Still being remade with no chance at another Searchers.
My friend the devil—stirs up chunks of ligament and breathes holy fire.
A better sport than Hemingway.
An underlying subtext to all carnal indulgence.
THE PUBLIC BURNING
A fine treatment but what I need is SECRET HONOR.
All too human and a good thing to accept at an early age.
Celibate polymaths do exist—just appreciate what they do—you can never be one.
A real fine junkie who had a big hang-up on bottle nose girls taking bottles up their nose.
A bad shot yet infallible out of the closet.
Acceptable as beer only.
[Photo of D. Charles Speer by Ellen Warfield]