You can also read this interview at the No Depression website here:
Interview with Alex Battles: Crooner, Charmer, and Brooklyn Country Trailblazer
by Chris Mateer
Alex Battles is a singer/songwriter living in Brooklyn, NY. Since 2001, he has appeared throughout New York City as a solo artist, and with his band The Whisky Rebellion, which plays his tunes in the fatback spo-dee-dee style. He also performs with Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues and is the latter half of the duo Foster & Bananas.
Alex has been putting on shows in New York City since 2002. In 2004, he started the Brooklyn Country Music Festival, CasHank Hootenanny Jamboree, and in 2005, The Johnny Cash Birthday Bash. His three albums, one EP, and one single are available for purchase and streaming through iTunes, Spotify, Rhapsody, eMusic, Napster, etc.
I met Alex about a year ago. We became quick friends over a few beers at a neighborhood watering hole, and quickly bonded over discussions on such varied topics as our mutual artistic mantras, musical influences, and what the best Woody Allen films are and why.
Considering that Alex has released FOUR albums this year, performs regularly throughout Brooklyn, and continues to be a cultural mainstay of the Brooklyn Country music scene, I needed to stop dragging my heels and finally sit down with the man to discuss his work in-depth. So, clearly, in light of all he has in production, it is undeniable that now is the perfect time to introduce my buddy Alex to newcomers to his music, as well as share our conversation with his admirers, friends, and peers everywhere.
When did you begin learning and playing music?
I took piano lessons when I was a kid. It was frustrating because I knew I wanted to play the music and didn’t understand why I just couldn’t.
I started playing banjo in college. It was my grandfather’s and it had been in our basement my whole life. My friend Morf showed me how to tune it like a guitar and play Hank songs on it. That was pretty much my last lesson. (I dedicated theGoodbye Almira record to him and this guy Eskey, who was the first guy to play me John Prine, Tom Waits, and Moonlight Mile.) Anyway, after that, I pretty much bought fake books and played along with records for about 8 years.
When did you come to New York?
January of 1995. I moved here because I couldn’t find a job in Ohio. I got a job here as a legal assistant. I moved to Park Slope a month later, and I’ve been here ever since.
When did you begin performing in Brooklyn/ NYC?
I brought my banjo with me when I moved to New York. It had given me a lot of comfort during the months when I making boxes on the apple cider line after college. Every now and then, I’d play it for friends at parties. But I’d always just say “Oh that’s just a hobby.”
One day, I was at a comedy show at Surf Reality on the Lower East Side with my friends. We saw that there was an open mike on the calendar and I decided to give it a shot. I worked up 5 minutes of my best material that I’d been doing for friends at parties. I called myself Jesus & The Fish because I thought it’d be funny to go onstage and say “Hi, I’m Jesus.” I had a little paper fish hanging off the end of my banjo. That was my comedy partner. My act was a character based somewhere between Steve Martin, Jack Benny, and Steve Allen.
When did the Whisky Rebellion get started? Can you discuss the band’s trajectory?
I started the Whisky Rebellion in 2001 with two friends from college another guy we found on Craigslist. My friend Wes, my first bass player, came up with the name and I took out the ‘e’ out of Whisky. We played a show and then broke up because I was just too stressed by the whole process. First bands are like that. Even when you’re 29.
In 2002, I reformed the band with three more friends from college. That’s also when I started writing songs.
From 2002-2006,the Whisky Rebellion was the name for whoever was willing to play with me. It started solidifying around 2007, by which time current members Danny Mulligan, Sammo, Shaky Dave, and Charlie Shaw were all in place. So now, it’s a band.
If I were to sum up the Whisky Rebellion, I’d say it’s the bar band of my dreams that plays the most kickass versions of my songs imaginable, while not making me spend time and money that I don’t have in rehearsal spaces.
We mostly play my louder, funnier songs, but every now and then when there’s a lull in the game maybe we’ll sneak in one of the quiet ones too. The third record in boxed set, Fatback Spo-Dee-O-Dee, Volume 1 was culled from five years of recordings the band made at Southpaw in Brooklyn.
In addition to your own songwriting and performing, you have also organized a number of festivals, events, and musical happenings in Brooklyn over the years. First, can you talk a little about CasHank?
I started the CasHank Hootenanny Jamboree in 2004 because I was not good enough to play at the established bluegrass or old-time jams in the city. So I started my own sandbox. Four chords, no plugs, all welcome.
I also had a rule on songs written before 1970 (before the Eagles) but that went by the wayside pretty quickly, as did the rule about electric instruments. Within a year or two, it turned into a monthly, lovely, drunken mess at Buttermilk in Park Slope. Then I kinda lost touch with it and had to end it in 2009. I think I’m gonna bring it back though.
How about Cash Bash?
The Cash Bash started at Lillie’s Bar in 2005. Lillie contacted me about doing a Johnny Cash show on Johnny’s birthday. I called up the best band I knew: The Lonesome Prairie Dogs of Jersey City, NJ, and asked them if they’d back me up on it. They worked very hard, and the Johnny Cash 73rd Birthday Bash was a success.
Since then, the show’s been an annual fixture in Brooklyn. We did five of them at Southpaw and then one at the Bell House last year. I love doing the show because I love singing Johnny Cash songs. I’m currently in the midst of planning the Johnny Cash 80th Birthday Bash, which I’m pretty excited about.
You have also put on the Brooklyn Country Music Festival too. How do you find the balance between organizing showcases and festivals with your own work?
I love putting on shows because I love making parties with fun music that people can come and dance to. The flip side is that it takes a lot of time and hard work, so you never end up making anything other than more shows. It’s addictive.
This year, I had three days at the Bell House for the 8th Brooklyn Country Music Festival. I knew I could do it and I knew it would be awesome. But the Bell House is also HUGE and I knew filling it with no press agent or national headliners would take 100% of my effort.
But I’d been doing that for seven years, and I decided to take a new path. I gave the Bell House their dates back and told everyone, sorry BCMF is cancelled until I make a record.
Then I released Alex Battles’s Album and started work on Goodbye Almira. I figured “Well, I can do a different Brooklyn Country Music Festival, more back to the way it was in its first year, and do it at Hank’s Saloon”, which I consider to be the birthplace of Brooklyn country music.
So that’s what I did and it was awesome! We had so many fun acts. Jack Grace Band, JP & The Gilberts, Uncle Leon, SIT & Die Co., Brownbird Rudy Relic, Michaela Anne, Megan Palmer, Cal Folger Day, and on and on. We all had a great time. I think next year I may scale it back up but I’m not too sure. Talk to me after the next Cash Bash.
That sounds like a ton of work! Can you describe your philosophy as an artist who works in such a wide variety of modes?
I just try to expand the universe as best I can every day. Whether it’s giving the cat some tuna fish or making a funny YouTube video. Any time you get all caught up in the expectations of where your art will take you, you miss the journey that it’s already taken you on. So now, I just make stuff and hopefully people will buy it and my landlord will stop sending me letters marked URGENT.
Alex, you have released 4 albums this year. Can you discuss the writing, recording, packaging, and distribution of these records?
I only recorded one record this year, but I released four. I’ve been recording at home, in studios, and at live shows for about ten years solid, so there’s a backlog of material to be released. As the head of the Alex Battles Music Company, I see myself as a frustrated archivist trying to present the works of this weird recluse named Alex Battles.
Alex Battles’s Album (June 14, 2011) was recorded between 2008-2011. I organized the tracks in the order of the time of day they were recorded, because it really told the story of what a day in my life was like during that time.
To be honest, it’s a fairly harsh portrait of a broken-hearted fuckup. I decided to just follow the path of least resistance and make the packaging the iTunes packaging, since I’d already let iTunes pick the name of the album. I didn’t get it mastered because I wanted people to have to turn it up when my neighbors are sleeping.
Goodbye Almira (September 14, 2011) was recorded in the summer of 2011. My goal with this record was to get over some huge hurdle songs that had been vexing me in the studio ever since I’d written them. I recorded 9 of the 10 songs at home on an AT2020. Then I took it to Richard Morris for mastering. That’s the only record I’ve had mastered so far.
Then came Fatback Spo-Dee-O-Dee Vol. 1 (September 29, 2011). I wanted to get this record out by the Brooklyn Country Music Festival because I thought I could sell some there. Of course, I ran out of money and couldn’t even afford blank CDs so that was the end of that idea. It was nice to get the tunes on iTunes though. Now at least, if I’m at a show and people wanna buy “You Live In Queens” I can tell them it’s on iTunes. It’s a fun party record that I’m very proud of.
The latest one is Ev’rything’s OK, Alex Battles (October 11, 2011). The day after the Brooklyn Country Music Festival ended, I decided to listen to all three of my records together in iTunes, so I could just get a sense of what I’d done and where I was going. As a music fan, I was still not sure “who” this Alex Battles character was. Was he the drunk on the first record? Was he the charmer on the second record? Or was he the wannabe rockstar on the third record?
Of course, I’m all those things. But in the end, who am I?
One of the pieces of advice I got during my ten years of trying to make records was from Andy Bean of the Two Man Gentleman Band. He said “One voice per record.” I’d followed that advice on the second and third record. But on the first, there were all sorts of different voices and that was the one that was resonating with me that day.
While maybe I am a rockstar/charmer/drunk which sounds like the right resume for getting a job in the music business, I’m also just a guy from Ohio whose proudest achievement is probably still that he went to the National Spelling Bee in 1985. I can sing one way for one record, but I don’t do that in my real life, so why start now?
So I went back into my computer and started finding stuff I liked that I felt summed up who I really was. That’s howEv’rything’s OK came about. As I formulated it, I said to myself, “Hey, you’re just making an Alex Battles mixtape for yourself. Don’t worry about anything else.” I’m really proud of that record. I also drew the cover picture for that one, as well as the Fatback Spo-Dee-O-Dee record.
It sounds like quite an expansive discography to be hitting the shelves (or digital mp3 retailers) relatively all at once!
I’m putting the four of them out as a boxed set this fall. I finished designing the packaging yesterday. I think that they now tell a pretty good story, which in case you missed it, I put at the end of the last record.
Aoife O’Donovan (of Crooked Still) contributed to one of you new albums, Goodbye Almira. Can you describe your collaborations together?
Aoife’s the best. She’s absolutely fearless. She just sees notes and hits them like it’s the Home Run Derby. I always compare her to Stan Getz when I talk about how she sings, because I can’t think of anyone who makes me feel as simultaneously soothed and aroused as those two do when they make music. I wish Stan Getz was still around so Aoife could make a record with him.
Ever since we met, Aoife’s been very supportive of my singing and songwriting. When I knew I wanted to tackle the songs onGoodbye Almira, I also knew that I had to have her here to get me through it. She did, and I couldn’t be any more happy with it. I hope we get to work together again someday.
Can you talk about the best aspects for you living working in Brooklyn?
I can’t talk enough about it. I feel so lucky to be a part of this community that constantly accepts, challenges, and inspires me. There’d be no Brooklyn Country Music Festival if Leon Chase hadn’t started the brooklyncountry.com website.
There’d be no CasHank if there were no Freddy’s Bar to host an old-time jam that I was not good enough to play at. And that’s just the tip of the damn iceberg. Jalopy. Sunny’s. Southpaw. Hank’s. All of these places have been willing to not only give a home to country, bluegrass, & old-time music in this city, but to support it and nurture it.
And the musicians themselves are always open to helping each other learn. I talk about leaving all the time, but damn, it is so hard to think about not being a part of this community. It almost breaks my heart.
What’s next for you?
I’m looking forward to telling more stories in whatever way they come out of me. The most freeing part of sending all this stuff from my computer to the universe was that it cleared a lot of pathways to other things I’d like to do like make a crazy boxed set out of manila folders and write musicals and paint pictures.
I’ve got at least two more records recorded that I plan on releasing within the next year. One is with my jug band, Banjorama! I’m pretty stoked about that one. I’m also writing a book about a dragon.
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