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This was an interview I had chasing for a while and it was finally on this night that I caught up with Slaid Cleaves. There is something about Slaid, everytime I see him, it rains. Due to the rain and a noisy club, we made our way out to the van, and there, I got one of the best interviews I've ever done. Slaid was open about everything he felt while coming up in Austin, and anything else I asked him about. He's a great man with a talent for writing some wonderful songs. Hope you enjoy this interview as much as I do.
Samuel Barker: I noticed on your website that you played keyboards in a band in high school, are there any instruments you play besides guitar and keyboard?
Slaid Cleaves: I don't play keyboards anymore, so no, I don't play anything else.
Samuel: Did you ever take piano lessons or anything when you were little?
Slaid: Yeah, as a kid, sure, for a few years.
Samuel: How long have you been playing guitar?
Slaid: I picked it up towards the end of high school, I guess, but I didn't start singing until I was around college age, 20 years old or so.
Samuel: What were some of the early things that got you into playing music?
Slaid: Well, I played my parents records when I was a kid, 3, 4, 5 years old. They were The Beatles, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash. Then I started buying records when I was in older. I got into Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, it was the early 80's. Then I formed a garage band with a buddy in high school. I put those piano lessons to use. Then in college I started writing songs and playing on street corners, then I graduated and played in bars. Then I moved to Austin about 10 years ago.
Samuel: Yeah, I was reading where you said that when you moved to Austin someone told you that in about 10 years you would be doing something, did you believe that when you first heard it?
Slaid: No, I didn't think it'd take 10 years, damn. I thought it'd take a year or two...three at the most. But it took nine years to get anywhere.
Samuel: Do you think it helped prepare you by taking your licks coming up in the Austin music scene?
Slaid: Yeah, and after years of failure it makes you wonder if what you have is good enough to get you to the next level, so it made me work a lot harder to write good songs. It was a hard lesson, but the end result was good, it made me better. The hard times made me try a lot harder.
Samuel: I know when you played here with Charlie Robison, he said that you were one of his greatest influences/inspirations, is it rewarding to hear someone with stature to say you're one of their influences?
Slaid: Yeah, it was a huge thrill to hear that. I had no idea he was into my record, and he's been telling the world about it, bless his heart. I really appreciate him for doing that. I know how he feels. There are a lot of people we think are brilliant and we aspire to, like Adam Carroll, and he's just starting out. He's really got it down. I really thank Charile for spreading the word like that.
Samuel: Who are some of the better up and comers in Austin right now that you enjoy or enjoy playing with?
Slaid: I like Adam Carroll a lot, I like Nathan Hamilton a lot, I love Eliza Gilkison's records, she's amazing. I like the new Ray Willy Hubbard a lot.
Samuel: What really led to getting on Rounder, did you ever play SXSW?
Slaid: Yeah, I played that every year. Actually, the first connection was that one of the guys from Rounder saw me play at a loading dock on a tip. He stayed with a booking agent whenever he came to Austin, Cash Edwards, they were good buddies. Ken Irwin from Rounder, who was one of the founders in the 70's, would stay with Cash each year and ask who the new promising kid was each year. I had been around Austin for around 2 or 3 years making a few friend. Cash told him to go check me out. I played at a little outlaw SXSW show at some loading dock somewhere. Ken came to see me and liked it. I gave him my little indie tape. We kept a conversation going over the next few years trying to convince him I was serious. When it came time to do the next album, I sent out demos to a lot of record companies, and Ken was the only one who got back to me. So in 1996 we signed a deal and "No Angel Knows" came out in 1997.
Samuel: You're from Maine originally right?
Slaid: Yeah, I lived in Virginia until I was 5, then I moved to Maine. So I spent my school years in Maine.
Samuel: So, you were playing there first before you came to Austin?
Slaid: Oh yeah.
Samuel: When you play in the New England area now, is there anyone who remembers you from before you moved to Austin?
Slaid: My fan base has died out there a bit because I only get to play there once a year. It's like any other place in the country, I only get the play there once or twice a year.
Samuel: I noticed you've stepped up in the world with the van, is it a lot better than driving around the country in the Dart?
Slaid: Well, the Dart was a lot cheaper, this thing is a hog. Costs a lot of money to get this thing going, but I can't put all my guys in the Dart.
Samuel: So you've been traveling as a full band now?
Slaid: Yeah, pretty much since Broke Down came out it's been consistently a full band now. It's a different band everytime. Sometimes it's one or two guys and others it's three or four guys.
Samuel: Yeah, I noticed at soundcheck that Gurf and Ollie weren't here, are they out and about.
Slaid: Yeah, Gurf goes up to Canada for the summer, so we won't be seeing Gurf for a while. Ollie is in the process of moving to Texas, so he had to go to Chicago to get all his stuff together.
Samuel: Are you still touring right now?
Slaid: Well, I'm home for a day, then I leave for a three month tour. I've been on tour for about three years now.
Samuel: With all these laps you're doing around the US, do you notice if there are more people coming out to shows that know the lyrics and get into the set?
Slaid: Oh yeah, Broke Down was a real stepping stone. I went from playing to 12 people to playing 100 or maybe 150 people. That's a big difference, you can't make any money playing to 12 people every night.
Samuel: I know we have KPFT here in Houston, and KIKK is starting to play more alt. country and singer/songwriter music, has it been better since some radio stations are starting to play this type of music?
Slaid: Yeah, they're still the minority, they're hard to find, but there are around a couple a dozen really cool stations out there that are paying for my lunch. You look at a town, and the reason I'm doing well in that town is because there is cool radio in that town. Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, there is great radio also in Philidelphia, Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, D.C, Durham, and San Jose. That's pretty much it.
Samuel: Well, I know growing up with radio the way it has been, is it enlightening that even a small minority of radio stations are embracing people who are doing it themselves?
Slaid: Yeah, it's getting a lot easier for the home recording guy because the technology is getting better. Things like the internet are leveling the playing field a bit. We've gained some advantages in the past few years. We're still a million miles away from mainstream radio, whether it's country or pop. We're not a part of the AOL/Time Warner/McDonald's machine, and we never will be. The cool thing is that there is an alternative to that. It's more homespun, it's more intimate, it's smaller venues, but still great shows. It's smaller budget record, but they're still great records. Man, the greatest record I've heard in a long time is the new Ray Wily Hubbard's new record. It blows me away, and it was done in a home studio, Gurf's home studio. We're doing things on a smaller level and small indie radio stations are all a part of that picture.
Samuel: I notice both you albums on Rounder were recorded with Gurf...
Slaid: Yeah, but the first one was recorded in a regular studio, and the second one, Broke Down, was at the home studio.
Samuel: Does he have a normal studio area?
Slaid: No, he has good equipment, but it's just two bedrooms connected with some cables. There are no special windows and no leather couch, you just sit on the spare bed and Gurf sits at a chair in front of the machines. A couple of ADATs and a good board.
Samuel: That's impressive, the album is very well produced.
Slaid: Well, Gurf knows what he's doing. It doesn't take a whole lot today, for $10,000 you can have a studio it used to take a million dollars to make.
Samuel: I know Gurf played with Lucinda Williams a long time, how'd you two get hooked up?
Slaid: I loved his work with Lucinda, I thought it was the perfect sound for that kind of music and I figured my music would fit well with his sound. I self-produced my few records, and when I got with Rounder I finally had enough budget to hire a producer. I sent some demos to Gurf and he really liked the demo songs and he had some time, so we did No Angel Knows together in 1998.
Samuel: I know you picked up the story for "Breakfast In Hell" up in Canada, was it interesting spending time up in Canada seeing how everything was up there?
Slaid: Yeah, it was beautiful. Gurf goes up there every summer to an old family place. It's a cabin on the lake. I went to visit him when I had some time off a few years ago and he told me the story of Sandy Gray at Sandy Gray falls. It was such a perfect story, there was no way I couldn't write a song about it. It was a nice visit.
Samuel: Was it strange at first when you moved from Maine to Texas, with the whole climate change?
Slaid: Yeah, it was all very exciting to see the different landscapes, the wide open spaces, the hill country, and the limestone cliffs and stuff. We were thrilled with the change of scenery and we were thrilled with the weather. We moved down here right after Thanksgiving and it was miserable up in Maine. We came down here and started grilling on our porch in January and we thought we were the smartest people in the world, and then when it got hot again, we booked a tour up in Maine.
Samuel: Where is your favorite place to play around Austin?
Slaid: Well, we love Green Hall. There's just something great about that place, the history. Fun mix of people, people who know your music and a lot of tourist come through there, not boring tourists, but interesting tourists. A great staff there as well.
Samuel: I see when you play here in Houston you're usually at The Satellite, or Anderson Fair, are there any other place you play around here?
Slaid: We played at Rudyard's a few times. I really love Anderson Fair. They were really supportive of me in the beginning. I would play there for 6-8 people time after time. They'd pay me and be like 'Don't worry, we used to have Lyle Lovett play here to 6 people and Robert Earl Keen play to 6 people, and look where they are now, don't worry, we believe in you." There are a lot of great people at Anderson Fair.
Samuel: Did it help to keep you going to hear that even Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen started off that small?
Slaid: Yeah, it helped me keep my faith. It's real demoralizing to do a lot of work and have no one show up. It's hard when you lick stamps, send out mailers, call people up and only 6 people show up.
Samuel: Are you writing any new songs?
Slaid: No, I'm just trying to hold my head above water and finish this tour. It's hard traveling. It takes all my energy to go place to place, keep the band band together, finding meals, rooms, and gas stations. Keeping the van going and keeping the van happy. I'm looking to do a few local shows in October and I don't want to be doing anything for November, December, January, or February. I just want to sit on the couch, eat bon bons, watch some movies, and read some books.
Samuel: With you playing the Robert Earl Keen festival and you playing with Charlie Robison, is there a sense of community amongst Texas musicians?
Slaid: Yeah, I think so, I think there is a community. Ever since I moved to Austin I was struck by how much competition there is in Austin, and there isn't any cut-throat competition in Austin. People support each other in Austin 100%. People have been helping me out quite a bit and I've helped out my favorite people and it's a good thing all around.
Samuel Barker is Senior Editor. Contact him at email@example.com.