Craig Kinsey: Digging Down to the Roots of It All
The last time I chatted with Craig Kinsey — “The Reverend,” as many people know him — he was working on a novel. He’s a man I consider with great respect to be the Godfather of the Houston Americana Music Scene, and back in 2012 he was living in a sweet little 1920s Montrose-area apartment. Since then he’s moved on to a gorgeous 1950s mid-century modern apartment, which I instantly recognized from my Houston Mod book on Harwood Taylor.
Being the fan of mid-century modern that I am, it was exciting to Google Map his address and discover that he lives in a place I’ve wanted to visit for years. I joined him there to discuss his upcoming album release party and to hear about the behind-the-scenes story of making his amazing and ambitious new album, American Roots and Machines.
SCR: Last time we got together, you told me about your novel. How’s that going? Did the novel turn into the album, or are they separate ideas?
Craig Kinsey: We were hoping to release the novel along with a clothing line, but the woman who was designing the clothes went to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where the novel is set, and she was so inspired by the place that she now lives there, so that kind of put a kibosh on the whole clothing idea.
I’ll still plan on doing clothing in the future, but it will be on a smaller scale than it would have been with her. The novel was going to come out with a clothing line based on what the characters wore in the novel. So now that’s on hold, but I’m going to come back to it and release it in 2015 or 2016.
Is that a book deal or something you’ll self-publish?
It would have to be a tremendous deal to go with anything other than doing it ourselves. We can print out a small amount and make more money per book sold.
It’s good to hear the novel is still in the works; I thought maybe the novel had become the album.
There are some vague themes that overlap, because it all comes out of me, but it’s a totally different thing.
Where was the album recorded, Sugar Hill?
I no longer record my basic tracks in studios. I like to find a cool place and bring the engineer in with his equipment where there’s a vibe, so that’s what we did. We went to a friend’s place outside the Loop. We turned it into a whole-day gathering. Gradually through the day, more and more people showed up. We had it all timed out as to when people would come to record.
By the end of the night, everyone was “doing well,” and we recorded some of the big group singing that you’ll hear on the album. I wanted to have a party and reflect that in the music. Then we went back and did overdubs at Steve Christiansen‘s place, called The Treehouse, at Sugar Hill. We also did a gospel choir at Sugar Hill. Mike Whitebread and I had to plan everything and record it all in one day.
The band was well-practiced before we got to the recording. We actually recorded extra tracks in that same day — there are six to eight songs to go on another album in the future.
Are these songs you’ve been playing live? Will your fans recognize a lot of them?
Some we have, yes, but “Gettysburg” we’ve never played live. I can’t remember all of it!
Tell me a little bit about Splice Records, your new record label.
If everything goes according to plan, I’m working on a record label called Splice Records. Right now, I’m the only artist recording and releasing music on the label, but we’re feeling our way into what the business aspect of it is. I want to help my friends out and get their music out there and going on national tours. I’m going to hit both coasts and we’re hiring a publicist. Did Sarah get you an invite to the show?
Yeah, of course… Tell me about the album release party — do you want to tell everyone about it, or do you want the details to be a secret?
I want to tell everyone so they make sure to get out to see it. First of all, we’re going to have a tent on one side of the stage and a couch on the other. We’ll have Dem Damn Dames bringing people from the audience up and into the tent. Inside the tent, there will be things for people to play with.
There’s an artist from New Zealand we’re working with named Heath Brodie who goes by the name of Journey Through. He does nature art and lets nature and animals and people destroy his art slowly out in nature. I asked if he’d like to do some art that people could destroy, and he said, “I’d love to do that,” so we’re going to suspend a giant bird’s nest above the tent, with giant eggs in it suspended above the tent if we can make it all work. The eggs will be piñatas that we’ll bust open and throw stuff out to the audience.
We’re going to have Alicia Gianni from the Houston Grand Opera come out during the show. “Puccini’s Drunk Again,” one of the songs on the album, is based on “O Mio Babbino Caro” by Puccini, and you can hear opera singers riffing in the back on the album. So I asked Alicia to come out after that. I told her, “We’ll let all the instruments fall away, and it’s just you and Mike Whitebread, and you do the whole aria right in the middle of the show!” She’s gonna walk down through the crowd and then, boom, it will go into “Tramps and Freaks”.
So we’ll be mixing it up with all kinds of Houston musicians. Opera singers and the symphony are in the Houston music scene and so is the Ballet — mixing that in with this Americana rock and roll thing I’ve got going on.
How have you tapped into that part of the scene? Are these people fans of yours that tell you they’re in the opera?
Friends, fans and people who want to have fun. If I find out someone has a talent, then I ask them if they want to join the party on stage.
It kind of reminds me of The Manichean playing at the Alley — that’s the closest I’ve gotten to “High Art” mixing with rock and roll in Houston.
Yes, I was sorry I missed that, but I enjoyed your article and pictures!
I want to hear some of the stories for some of the songs; there are a lot of great themes going on. Is there a concept running through the album?
I didn’t think of it as a concept album at first, but it did start to turn into that. If there’s a theme running through the whole album, it’s the juxtaposition of our roots, like in “Gettysburg” — both the good and the bad, and then the future of the world and machines. There’s a chant on the album called “American Chant,” which is based off of Homer‘s Iliad and then it’s mixed with old American church chants which I got from the Smithsonian Institute.
I listened to the call and response of those chants and then I wrote lyrics that were similar to the Iliad, but instead of talking about the war in Greece and Troy, I was talking about America and our founding, and then the last verse is based on Nietzsche, who said, “The telegraph the press, the machine, and the train… Their thousand-year effect on humanity no one has yet dared to surmise.” So I turned that phrase into where it rhymed and I made a lyric about it.
Here we go into the future. It started with the telegraph, the press, the machine, and the train, and now we’re in the Computer Age, and what is the good and the bad of that and how do we carry our American roots into that future? Then on other songs I mixed up a lot a bunch of different styles. I purposely wanted to write in different styles. I wanted numerous American influences to be represented, so as you heard, there’s folky stuff, Appalachian music, garage-rock that sounds like Weezer, a lot of different styles.
What struck me the most and what everybody’s going to be struck by is “Gettysburg” — can you tell me more about that song?
That was the song that made the album take so long to release! We had all these other songs, and then two things happened. I watched Ken Burns‘s documentary, Gettysburg, which is phenomenal! And then I went to Gettysburg and I stood out in the field and laid down. We hired a tour guide to take us around the whole place, and when we got to Pickett’s last stand and the charge, I was looking out at the field and I asked him, “Can you go out there?”, and he said, “Sure!”
I said, “You can just walk out there on the battlefield? Well, why is no one doing it?!”, and he goes, “I don’t know.” And I said, “Well, I’m goin’!” I just left everybody and walked out into it and laid down on my back. Before that, we went around the whole city in a car. It was an all-day affair. That day made me want to tell an actual story, a long song about this place. So I thought, “I’m not gonna worry about time limits. I’m just gonna tell the story if it’s five minutes or eight minutes or if it’s fourteen minutes!”, which it ended up being.
First of all, I had to figure out the story. I had to figure out the plot points. Why does this rebel soldier go to the Union side? I had to have a change-of-heart scene. It has to be where the listener believes he would do that. So he comes across the slaves, including one named Apollo, and the music stops and breaks down into a chorus of “Jacob’s Ladder” that Kam Franklin and friends of mine in a group called Soulfruit sing.
Then I have the man, Johnny Moore, ask the slave Apollo, “If you’re a man, tell me what your desires are.” And he replies, “A Bible on my shelf and a ring on my girl’s hand.” And then Johnny looked into his eyes and he saw himself, because “That’s what I want!”, and he puts his hand out, and Apollo jumps up on the horse, and they take off to join the Union Army. They strike up a friendship, and we see what happens to them. Then I had to think about what happens to Apollo at the end of the story. What’s the link to get him to come back… I’m really proud of how it turned out.
It sounds like a movie in itself!
I might do it in prose and put it on the Website for people to read. It was rough just figuring out the plot points. Then I had to put it all together. There was a time where I was going crazy and I just had to go out to the woods. So I got my camping gear and went out and camped for three days. I had my papers spread out in my tent under a lantern and wondering, “how is this going to work?” And I made it work. I’m a big fan of John Keats and long poetic stories. I really labored to put everything into this album. It’s not just, “hey, that rhymes.” And I advise everyone go camping to write their next album!
Tell me how you put the album release show together, like getting Buxton and the other bands to play.
I always want it to be a party. I want the emphasis to be on the party even more than the CD release. As for Buxton, I found out later that they had been coming to our Helios shows and that we had been an inspiration to them. And meeting them, I came to love those guys. So it was a dream to have them play and come full circle, with Buxton playing with us.
The Happen-Ins includes a friend of mine, Falcon Valdez, and he said, “how about we get The Happen-Ins?”, and it was great to get them on. It was important to me to get an Austin band on. People think that because I have my shirt, “I’m not moving to Austin”, that I hate Austin, but it’s the opposite! I love Austin! But the shirt is more about I love Houston — the emphasis is on staying in Houston, not “Screw Austin!”
People are reading way too much into your shirt!
That’s how humans are. Not all of us, but anyway… Another guy named Hayden Jones is playing a few songs to start off the show. He wrote me and asked to get on the show, and I told him it’s already full, but then I thought about it, and he’s very cool and I like him, so I told him that I wanted him on if he could just do a few songs as people are filing in and then he’s going to join us at the end for some covers. I believe there’s going to be a Hall and Oates, and a Talking Heads cover.
That’s great; I had Hayden Jones play Madness on Main Street and really like him. He’s an up-and-comer, for sure. So what’s next after the album release?
Well, we’re going to tour after this. I had a show in Dallas and afterwards the manager told me, “Reverend, you put food on a lot of people’s plates tonight.” And I realized that because I do this, they all got paid. I realized it’s not just for me. It’s not enough for me to just put out an album. I’m content to sit in my room with my books and my YouTube. But when I realized I could benefit my friends, I decided we should do a national tour. It’s not about Craig. It’s about paying my friends and my band, as well.
More recently, I watched another Ken Burns documentary called National Parks. It clicked in my head: “I CAN GO CAMPING WHEN I TOUR!” So the tour is going to be planned around campsites. We’ll sleep at campsites the whole tour. It’s also about all the people I get to visit when I go to places. I can’t wait to see Elizabeth in Oklahoma and Travis when we go here or the Eureka Springs girls when we go to Arkansas.
I’m looking forward to stories from the road! END
(Photos #2 & #4 by Jill English Photography; photo #3 by Jay Dryden.)