I ran a brief feature on The Black Swans' tremendous "new" album "Don't Blame the Stars" in today's Alive, but I enjoyed my chat with Jerry DeCicca at Nelsonville Music Festival so much that I decided to run a larger excerpt from our interview here. Make sure to hit up the release show Friday at Rumba Cafe, 2507 Summit St., with Moviola and Alwood Sisters.
Alive: You've been talking about this album for quite some time now.
Jerry DeCicca: Iím super happy that it finally came out. We spent a long time working on it. I probably spent more time writing it than any other record. I think all of our records are different from each other, but I think this is probably our most different record in a lot of ways.
I agree with that. Why do you say so?
Itís more upbeat. The songs are in more major keys instead of minor kets. Thereís a different type of sense of humor to it. The songs are still serious, but itís notÖ Our first recordís very stoic in a lot of ways, and itís very humorless. I think you can have music have a sense of humor and still have it be about serious stuff. And a lot of my favorite songwriters like John Prine and Tom T. Hall and Jerry Jeff Walker have always done that. And this record doesnít sound like any of those guys, really, but I think it has a similar spirit.
The sense of humor comes out in the spoken-word song intros. I've heard those were inspired by a Willie Nelson album.
Other people do that too, like Lee Hazelwood had a lot of spoken-word stuff on some of his records. This guy Vince Matthews made a record I love called ďKingston Spring Suites.Ē Itís still unreleased. He made it in the 1970s. People like Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash and Shel Silverstein love Vince Matthews. And he had one hit. Well, he had a couple hits, but his big hit was ďLove In the Hot AfternoonĒ that Gene Watson did. He made this one record, and a lot of musicians in Nashville loved it, and itís still never been released. But itís a concept record, and it kind of has these spoken word sections in it. And I was listening to that a lot at the time and I really felt like it was something people used to do from time to time in the 70s and now nobody does it anymore.
I wanted to do it, and I felt like it complemented the songs well. I had been talking a lot more between songs on tour, but I really wanted my spoken word parts to be, like thereís an art to the spoken word parts on the record. They start out normal, then they gradually get weirder and a little bit more almost like poems by the end of it. I wanted it to be something where even though these spoken word things kind of introduce some of the songs, people donít really get sick of it. You know, they donít feel like they have to skip those sections, like they really feel like an integral part of the arc of the album. I definitely wanted toÖ
Yeah, a little bit. The recordís not really linear in any way, but I think all these songs share these ideas of identity, like a lot of the songs reference music. You know, the song "Blue Bayou" is about the song "Blue Bayou." Even in "Mean Medicine," the characterís talking about Jimi Hendrix. It's like this song about antidepressants and singing along to Jimi Hendrix. You know, it's about listening to the song "Manic Depression." Having a song about Joe Tex, even a song called "Worry Stone" about throwing a stone into the lake and then going to look for it with scuba gear is kind of set to the tune of "Sea of Love." It's sort of a musical pun. So the whole thingís really kind of about music and about identity and about your relationships with your friends and yourself and how you gain meaning from that. I just felt like having my own voice as sort of this character that's like a narrator throughout this thing doing these spoken word parts, it's just something I wanted to do with this record.
I know before you've called it a set of "agnostic power ballads."
I donít think the recordís anti-god or anything like that. But Iím not somebody who has faith in a higher power. I feel like that ideaís underrepresented in music somewhat. I feel like thereís plenty of gospel music that I really enjoy, that when Iím listening to gospel music Iím very moved by it. And how successful I think gospel music is for people that are not religious depends on the sincerity of the song and the delivery. And I feel like this recordís the same thing. I donít think you have to necessarily believe in these same things that I do, of artistic redemption, instead of something a little more spiritual in a god way. I think that itís a sincere record. It can be funny, but I think it's sincere. It's a weird record. And I mean, Itís short. Itís faster. I think there is a very clear idea of what the subject is from song to song and what the story is from song to song.
You were working with these themes even before (violinist) Noel (Sayre) died, right?
This record was almost done by the time this album was recorded. Noel recorded his violin parts three months before he died. The songs that heís not on, he wasnít gonna be on anyways. He was gonna write string parts for string sections for those songs anyways. Heís on the songs that he was supposed to be on, and a buddy of his wrote string arrangements for the other three songs, ďJoe TexĒ and ďBlue BayouĒ and ďMy Brother.Ē So yeah, itís strange that we made this record about music and friendships and things like that giving your life more meaning, and after Noel died the band became much closer than we were before. We were already really tight guys. Itís weird that the record is coming out three years later that Noelís on.
We were going to make a record and then Noel and I were going to go back out and do another tour. In the spring of 2008, it seemed like there was a lot of people interested in the band. We kind of put out this record "Change" that got a lot of good reviews. It didnít sell very well, but there was a lot of people who were interested in our next record. And then we just got sidetracked. Noel was my touring partner and a big voice in the band.
Do you feel like this album still represents where you're at as a band? A lot of us are just hearing it now, but you've been living with it for a while.
Kind of because itís more of a band album. In a lot of ways, it sounds like us. A lot of guys Iím playing with now, they werenít on the first record. It seems current to me. I keep forgetting, we play shows around as a two piece, but weíve played a lot of shows out of town the last couple years as a band, weíd go and weíd play those songs and people are just like ďWhat? What?Ē You know, itís so different. So it feels great that itís coming out, that people can hear this record that Iím really proud of and know what the band sounds like again. Words are Stuipid came out and I like that, but itís so limited, and it wasnít really a band record. Itís more of a studio thing, us getting together and recording. We do all these songs live. Iím still super into the record. I love these songs.
Got anything else coming up?
The next recordís done too. Itís already mastered and everything. So weíll see when that comes out.
Have you been playing any of those songs live?
We played one of them today called ďDaily Affirmation.Ē Weíve played one called ďBasket of LightĒ a few times. Itís a pretty weird record. Most of them kind of deal with Noel. Itís a strange record. A lot of the songs we probably wouldnít play live. Itís all done. Itíll probably come out next year. It doesnít have a name yet. It doesnít yet. I donít know why, but none of us have really talked about it. We recorded at Musicol with Adam and CDR, and I mixed it with this guy up in Akron named Ben.
I was wondering today when you were playing "Windshield Wipers," when did The Black Swans become a rock n roll band?
Thatís kind of a rare moment. Maybe weíll make a record more like that. Weíre working on a country record now. Weíre pretty much done writing it. You know, just trying to stay busy. Especially when somebody that close to you dies thatís a big part of your life and your band, besides just losing a friend, itís losing, like, thatís my thing. And I donít know, itís just made me even more engaged in my own music since then. Like once I finally came back from that, which took a good year, Iíve just been writing more than ever before and playing more shows. I just finished a group of demos to take to Nashville. Theyíre all songs with a female narrator. All the songs are written from a female point of view. Jon Chinn made some slick demos. Megan Palmer sings them. Theyíre mainstream country songs. So Iím just trying to do as much as possible.
You're touring a lot too, right? Do you do music full-time now?
I mean Iíve got a job while Iím in town, but I was on tour from Sept. 12 through the end of March with just one month break around the holidays. I donít know what it was, but it must have been well over 100 shows in the U.S., and then we went to Spain and Portugal.