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March 2020: Trouble of This World Q&A

By Paul Slade
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Murder Ballads
Secret London

Mike released Trouble of This World, his next Uncle Sinner album, on March 16, 2020, and was kind enough to send me a copy. Two weeks later, we conducted the following e-mail interview.

PlanetSlade: The new record sounds great. Where did you record this time?

Uncle Sinner: "I moved out of downtown Winnipeg in 2015, returning to the area near the north edge of town where I grew up. The album was recorded in my basement, which came lined with barn boards from the previous owner's old family barn. I had a vinyl copy of The Times They Are A-Changing on the couch for most of the recording, and usually after a take I would look over and ask Bob how I was doing. Most of the time his expression in response was brooding and unconvinced, but at other times he beamed and gave me a thumbs up."

What were your thoughts as you started planning the album? What did you want to retain with your approach from Let the Devil In? What did you want to do a little differently?

"I wanted to have more time and put more thought into things like arrangements, mix and harmony. I'd been inspired in part by listening to my son Dylan's music, which is very nicely arranged and mixed, and that caused me to listen more closely to those things when listening to other artists.
"There will be people who prefer my older stuff because it was a bit more casual, but that's OK. This album still has songs like Can't Keep From Crying, Rocky Island and Motherless Child, where I recorded live because it was crucial for the guitar and vocals to be fully cohesive. And there are still little mistakes here and there.
"I wanted to try playing more instruments this time too. I'm not much of a mandolin or harmonica player and I've never played bass or percussion before. Also, I'm learning how to sing harmony comparatively late in life, though it's not the first time I've sung harmony. I did what I could do on my own and got help from others when I needed it."

I know you put a lot of thought into which tracks should open and close the record. Tell me a bit more about that.

"I wanted to start the album in a similar place to where the last one ended - a relatively sparse banjo-driven track, followed by a fast breakdown at the end. On Let The Devil In, that was Wayfaring Stranger/Wabash Blues, and here it's Creation Myth.(1)
"[If you don't count the two bonus tracks], the record ends with Jubilee, which was how I resolved all the themes of creation and death that permeated the album. I sang and played that arrangement of the song to Dylan when he was a little sprout, over 20 years ago. So ending the album proper with Jubilee was a very conscious decision to acknowledge that people disappear but through music, language and memory they leak in to future generations.

'There'll be people who prefer my older stuff because it was a bit more casual, but that's OK.'

"If you think of the album as ending with the two bonus tracks [Jack o' Diamonds #2 and Long Steel Rail #2], then it all loops back to my first album, Ballads & Mental Breakdowns, where those two songs first appeared. They have the same basic melody, but to me the interest is generated by the endless variations on that melody. Both songs end with the same idea, which is that I will continue on in this way until I die. With Jack o' Diamonds that's a grimmer notion, given its theme of addiction, but with Long Steel Rail it's more ambiguous-that's why that song went last of all."

What's your process for choosing songs when planning a project like this? Do you deliberately go looking through your collection for stuff to cover, or is it more a case of selecting those songs already in your head that just won't leave you alone?

"That process has become more deliberate. With the first album, for example, nearly half of the songs were recorded without any sense there would ever be an album. Now I choose songs that have been kicking around in my head, sometimes for a very long time, and which seem to fit alongside the others I'm considering.
"I'd jammed on Long Gone with my friend Matt McLeod back in 2012, though I didn't write the additional verses till about five years later. I have previously released a Glory in the Meeting House recorded back in 1999. If the songs fit the themes and feel of the album, they get included. The final one I chose for this record was That Suits Me, which I hadn't tried playing till the day I recorded it."

Which of the new album's songs were you playing on your mini-tour of Europe in 2018? Did the audience reactions at those gigs influence your choice of material for the new record at all?

"I played Gallows Pole, Motherless Child, Rocky Island, Our Little Things, Into Grace and the two bonus tracks on the tour. Some of those, like Rocky Island, didn't get any special audience reaction, but I liked them so I knew they were going on the album. Sometimes the songs I like to hear most are the ones that no one else really singles out, such as Move, Daniel from the last album. It's OK that some songs seem to be mainly for me.
"That said, there were some risks I took, especially towards the end of the mini-tour. Our Little Things and Into Grace were not conceived as Uncle Sinner songs - my intention with those had been to release them as part of my songwriter project Prescribed Fire. I wasn't sure that people would respond to those two songs, but they did. Since people had responded well, and since they fit the themes of the album, they got included. If not for the tour, they probably wouldn't be there."

The new album's clearly in the same tradition as Let the Devil In, but I thought I detected a couple of differences too. You seem to take a slightly less playful approach to the cover versions' lyrics this time, for example, with less rewording or adding new verses of your own. Is that fair?

"I think the trajectory is in the opposite direction, actually. Maybe it seems that way to you because of Can't Keep From Crying, which is as straight a cover as I've ever done, but that was done as an intentional tribute to Blind Willie Johnson. Some of the changes in other songs are subtle: in That Suits Me, for example, I changed 'I never have known such love before' to 'I never really felt any love before', which amused me and destabilizes the song [in quite an interesting way]."

Were there any verses you added which are fully your own? I wondered about the final verse of Gallows Pole, for example, which I can't recall hearing on any other version of the song. (2)

"Most of the songs have original verses. Gallows Pole, more than any other song, is for my deceased friend Matt (aka Fuller Vengeance), who died a year and a half ago. He loved Led Zeppelin, but I had to change the chords, melody and theme of the song so that it wouldn't be a Zeppelin cover. Imagine being sued by Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement!"
"Instead of it being a variant of the song type where a woman is offered to the hangman, who sleeps with the woman and then hangs the person anyway, I wanted it to have a different end. The man in my version has become so defiled in the world that his mother and father have abandoned him, which is also what happens in the John Jacob Niles version I mention in the sleevenotes. (3)
"I added the brother/friend who throws money at the problem hoping to help things, like throwing money in a wishing well. The point isn't that people shouldn't try to help each other, but that it's not always going to end well. Sometimes people slip off the edge anyway."

The line in God's Not Dead about Him kicking people while they're down jumped out at me too. Was that taken from one of the old versions you discovered and, if so, can you remember which one?

"I first heard that song in North Carolina in 1997 and always wanted to cover it. I'd heard Ginny Hawker and Tracey Schwartz play a blazing version of it. I emailed Tracey to ask where it was from, and he directed me to The Cooke Duet's out of print album. Their version is fantastic.

'Gallows Pole is there for my friend Matt, who died 18 months ago. He loved Led Zeppelin.'

"The song was intended to be comic relief so, yeah, I added 'He kicked me when I was down'. It was supposed to get more extreme, in that the next verse went 'He fucked me half to death'. This still greatly amuses me and is likely what I would sing live, but in the end I didn't want to alienate anyone with the studio version. It's about a character who blames God for misfortune. Instead of the more explicit joke, I wrote, 'He picked me up again', but it's not really clear whether it's God helping a person or just picking them up for the pleasure of smashing them down again."

The new album as a whole has a slightly fuller sound than its predecessor. There are certainly more songs where you're double-tracking yourself, playing both (say) banjo and guitar and overlaying them. Again, was that a conscious thing?

The only song where there's absolutely nothing overlaid is Jack o' Diamonds. Long Steel Rail, I only added very minimal additional harmonies. This was a conscious choice, as they were songs I'd recorded with Matt, and I wanted to make sure I left lots of room for the dead to play along.
"The fuller sound elsewhere is partly me having the luxury of time, with none of my equipment rented or borrowed. For the last album, I only had a week with a rented pre-amp. This time I started in early December and finished recording the last major tracks in late February, working largely on weekends but sometimes during vacation time or on weeknights if I was fired up."

We get more of your own originals too - three this time round as opposed to just one on Let the Devil In. I assume this reflects some growing confidence in your own ability as a songwriter. Does that ring true?

"Partly. I do write original tunes, but most of them would not fit the feel of Uncle Sinner. I am not prolific in any sense, but my next large project will be to release songs I've written over the past 25 years or so, though most are more recent than that because I tend to like those better. Whereas Uncle Sinner has a certain sound, with themes of death, isolation and illness, Prescribed Fire is more about my own life and relationships."

You seem to be stretching out a little more in style too, venturing outside your trademark primitive blues here and there for a wider style of acoustic ballads. Into Grace is the obvious example here, but I got a similar feeling from Rocky Island's musical setting too. Is there any truth in that, or am I just imagining it?

"It's a conscious expansion of feel and style, and foreshadowing my songwriter project a bit. That said, I've always included more of what you might call melodic songs, such as You Got to Die or This World Can't Stand Long. Most people need an occasional break from the primordial stomp."

I was trying to work out what surface Dylan was using for his drumming and percussion on this album. It doesn't sound like a conventional drum, but it doesn't sound quite like foot-stomping either. What exactly was he hitting to make that weighty, slightly deadened sound?

"Working in a carpeted basement required me to re-think percussion - the stomp wouldn't come through on carpeted concrete. I bought a cajón, which is a Peruvian wooden box that you sit on and can hit various ways to get various sounds. We just went for a very basic stomp sound, but it is much more versatile than that. I did the cajón pounding about half the time, and Dylan did the rest."

I thought the harmonium drone he provided on Rocky Island was a great addition to your sound too.

"After hearing the initial mix, Dylan suggested the harmonium. I was so thrilled after we recorded it. Rocky Island is probably my favourite song on the album. Everything sounds right in the pocket. I'm not sure I'll ever reach Rocky Island - it's a place of respite like Shady Grove that seems to fade as you approach it. If anything helps me get there, though, it'll be that harmonium!"

One of the pleasures of your albums for me is that they offer such an education in 1920s blues and gospel. I'd come across most of the people you mention as inspirations here, but others like the Landfordaires and Luther Strong were new to me. Why is this practice of carefully acknowledging all your inspirations so important to you?

'It was Dylan who suggested the harmonium. I was so thrilled when we recorded it.'

"I'm a white guy from Manitoba. I'm not out to appropriate anyone's culture, so citing my sources is really important to me. If people have more specific questions about where things came from, I always respond. It's also helpful for some who like what I do but are curious about the source material. I've never heard Skip James sing Motherless Child, but listing him as an influence on that track allows people to seek out more. It's my way of saying, 'You like this? Well, listen to Skip James, who was a master of this style'."

You dedicate Our Little Things to Vic Chesnutt. What was it about his music (or perhaps his life?) that made you want to salute him with a song here?

"I first saw him in 1993, when I was still in my teens. I was just floored by his intensity and style. He inspired me to try a different kind of songwriting, as I wasn't catching much downstream from Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell [at the time]. The song itself is more about me than Vic, but the style is pure Vic. I wanted to write a song to help try to fill some of that hole that he left."

You cite both Bob Dylan and Tom Waits as inspirations for Long Gone. The Waits influence is clear in the song's instrumentation (shovel, seeds etc), but where does Bob Dylan come in? And who's ID Stamper? - he's another guy I'd never heard of before.

"Tom Waits got the nod for the Bone Machine-style found percussion, and also for the style of singing which was very much stomping on my vocal cords with some swagger. Bob Dylan's mentioned because there's an unreleased harmonica/vocal song he did on a 1961 Minneapolis hotel tape called Lost John - the harmonica part I play is an allusion to that, though I play it slower and less skillfully.
"ID Stamper was a singer and dulcimer player, [who started playing in the 1940s]. A friend pointed me towards him years ago. He sounds like an absolute Kentucky titan with battleships for boots. I wrote more verses for this track, since the snippet I found only had the one." (4)

Into Grace is the first straight-up autobiographical song I can recall hearing from you. Can you tell me bit more about the time in your life that inspired it and why you wanted to crystalize that experience into a song here?

"Yeah, it's a departure in that I tend to reveal less of myself in Uncle Sinner songs, relying more on understatement and metaphor. But this song is very specific and autobiographical.
"The Alex I mention is a guy named Alex Hooker who lived in Boone, North Carolina. In 1997 I was at something called the Swannanoa Gathering in North Carolina to hone some banjo skills. Alex and I shared a dorm room, and he was very kind to me even though I was five flavours of fucked at the time from all the changes in my life. The oldest river in the States, which I mention in the song, is the one that flows from life into death, and I'd recently had to watch that first hand with my mom, whose middle name was Grace.
"I was touched that my son sang on the New River Train part - he's the voice that sounds a bit like Elliott Smith. The New River Train part is, again, a looping back from death into new life, so it meant a lot when he sang in front of me for the first time since he was a snapper."

That Suits Me brings a touch of humour to the album, which I liked a lot. But what the hell are "hypocrite shoes"? Any theories? (5)

"Ha! Well, I guess the point of it is to be on your guard, because hypocrites are everywhere. The song is definitely intended to be comic relief."

We last spoke at your Mechelen gig in August 2018. How did the rest of the tour go?

"Some of it wasn't ideal, but I would use the smaller pass-the-hat gigs as a chance to practice and try things out. The final show in Bremen was a treat; it was hosted by Dad of the Dad Horse Experience in an old schoolhouse. They cooked us great food, and, as with Mechelen, some people had actually travelled to see the show. 'The bottom was low and the treble clear,' as Townes sang. (6)
"Bremen reminded me most of home: fairly flat, fertile, and maybe overlooked sometimes. I loved it, just as I loved other places for being so fantastically different from home."

Anything else you'd like to add about the album before we close? If so, now's your chance.

"The album's liner notes include an acknowledgement that it was made on Treaty land. Nearly all of Manitoba is Treaty land. Reconcilation with Indigenous people is a huge issue here and my cajón drumming on Glory in the Meeting House was intended as an expression of gratitude for that culture and for the land we share. It's an important song, because it is so illustrative of that fertile intersection of African-American, Anglo-American and Indigenous-American music we call North American folk music."

Trouble of This World is available now from Bandcamp, iTunes and all the usual online retailers. You should buy it.

1) "I live on land so flat you feel as though you can see the arc of the earth," Mike later told me. "That's the arc in Creation Myth, bending people (living and dead) back to you."
2) The verse I had in mind goes like this: "Sundown, sundown, moon on the rise, / I think I see the hangman coming, murder in his eyes, / I thought I heard a little silver, I thought I heard a little gold, / Down in the well of the hangman's pockets, walking to the gallows pole."
3) You can hear the JJN version, along with many of the other inspirations Mike drew on for this album, by visiting the playlists on Uncle Sinner's YouTube channel.
4) There's more info on ID Stamper here. And here's some audio showing those battleship boots in action.
5) More lyrics from the album: "Well the devil wears those hypocrite shoes, that suits me (x3), / If you don't mind, he'll step on you."
6) This line's from To Live is to Fly, by Townes van Zandt: "Well, I'll miss the system here, / The bottom's low and the treble's clear, / But it don't pay to think too much, / On things you leave behind."

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