by: Thomas D. Mooney
Scott H. Biram is a modern bluesman. He’s a man of the times–one where the modern bluesman mixes country, folk, metal, southern gothic charm, singer-songwriter feeling, and equal combinations of mythic and grounded tales.
That’s what you’ve come to expect from Biram over the years. Put on any of his albums and you’re getting all of these things in various doses. He’s a renaissance man in many ways. He’s never a virtuoso or prodigy in anything specifically, but pretty damn good at everything.
Take the old Mance Liscomb song “Alcohol Blues.” Biram stays true to the Texas bluesman, but also has the nerve (in a good way) to add his own to it. I mean, how many people can you imagine throwing “motherfucker” into a blues standard and just owning it? You can probably count them all on one hand.
Still, it’s one thing to cover a song and another to make it your own so much that it feels perfectly at home with songs you’ve penned yourself. Biram doesn’t play certain songs just for the sake of nostalgia and he doesn’t write things to sound like they’re from years back. It’s this strange balance that he’s been able to find. It’s modern and vintage at the same time without ever feeling insincere or faked.
i suppose the key to the whole operation is the genuine feelings that Biram’s singing and playing about. They come across and are felt regardless if he’s country crooning about trying to get to heaven, telling stories about Vietnam weed and friends, or telling you just how much he enjoys whiskey and moonshine.
We caught up with Biram last week to talk about songwriting, working in the studio, and his latest album Nothin’ But Blood. He’s playing tonight (Friday, June 13) at Backstage Lubbock. Watch/Listen to “Slow & Easy” below.
New Slang: You’re really known as being a “one-man band.” Is there anything you do in studio to kind of ensure you’re able to play songs in a live setting? Obviously you’re playing some things more simplified live, but do you ever worry about going too far and recording something you’re not able to do live?
Scott H. Biram: No. Basically every record, I have to rewrite for the stage. Not necessarily lyrics or parts, but it had to be changed. You know, some things do have organ solos. That’s just as easily replaced by a guitar solo, but percussion, on stage I have really no percussion. I just have this stomp thing that goes to these big subwoofers. If it’s something I can tap my foot to, then it’s something I can stomp to, then it’s something I can play and have a beat for. I can’t really make any crazy time signature songs [laughs]. I do percussion every show, but I don’t every song. The “one man band” thing, it’s worked for me so far. It’s something when a four-piece band plays before me and then I get up there and I’m louder and more full sounding than they are [laughs].
NS: Yeah. One of the things that I think can be often overlooked with singer-songwriter types is the music aspect. Your guitar tones are really important to what you’re doing music wise. They’re just as important as the lyrics you’re singing. But, they can be glossed over by people when they describe you and others as just singer-songwriters. What’s kind of your process for finding various tones and textures from your guitars? How often do you try and figure out more ways of playing?
SHB: I play guitar all the time. I don’t play as often as I used to when I was younger, but that’s really just because I’m busier with other things these days [laughs]. But most of my practicing happens on acoustic guitar in my living room. I don’t plug my guitar in at home very often unless I’m going to the studio soon. Plus playing multiple guitars helps. Each one has its’ own characteristic. As far as being in the studio goes, I have a whole bunch of amplifiers and things and I’ll go through them. If one doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. I’ll try different mic placements. Things like that. I kind of have a vision in my head on how something is supposed to sound like and I’ve been doing this so long, I’ve got a pretty good idea on how to get there. A lot of it is me emulating sounds I’ve heard over the years. Music that I like. Getting sounds from old Metallica records. Old Black Flag records. Old Lightning Hopkins songs and bluegrass songs. Something that usually happens is these sounds that I like, they can be so different, and then they’ll end up fusing together and coming out all their own. Like that song “Around the Bend” on the new record, it’s really heavy metal in the middle, but at the beginning, it totally feels on the porch hillbilly music. It’s really drink some moonshine and then smoke a joint and having his mind blown for three or four minutes and then back to sitting on the porch [laughs].
NS: Yeah. When listening to that song, I was expecting it to go in one direction and it veered off in another. That’s something I think people like to say they do, but don’t actually do. The whole taking a bunch of various kinds of music and fusing them together for their own thing. I think some get comfortable getting into a certain sound–which is perfectly fine by me, if you’ve found something that really works, that’s great–but they also love to say they’re influenced by a laundry list of genres. Listening to you, it really does feel like you go into these different personas. Your voice, you’ve got multiple singing styles. How do you decide on how you’re going to sing something? Or does it just happen and you go with it?
SHB: Yeah, the different inflections on different songs. I’ve been singing since I was a little kid. Just to myself. Growing up in the ’80s and hearing all the different stuff from the ’80s, stuff like Huey Lewis and Cyndi Lauper, but then my dad playing a bunch of things like Leadbelly, Lightning Hopkins, Merle Haggard, and some classic rock. Then I really got into bluegrass. In my twenties, I was in a couple of bluegrass bands. To me, I’m not trying to copy people when I sing, but I feel like that’s the way to sing it sometimes because I’ve heard it done that way so many times. So it kind of naturally goes into that place. I guess it’s partly, as a kid, I did a whole lot of impersonations and maybe I’m doing impersonations in a way. There’s enough of my real voice that bleeds through though that keeps it from being just straight copying.
NS: I was reading a couple of interviews you’ve done and you mentioned that a lot of what you think are your best songs came together really quickly. Some things really only took five or so minutes. But what off this last record do you think was the most difficult song to write or get finished?
SHB: The first song “Slow & Easy.” It’s one of those where it came out pretty good. The production is well done. But to me, it felt like it was a little contrived and that’s what was so difficult. It was really hard. When I have to work that hard on a song, I find where I’m asking myself if I’m saying this because I feel like it needs to be said or is it coming from my soul? It was really frustrating, but I think it came out really well. I wrote the bridge to it and finally thought I got somewhere with it. I had that song for about a year. I played it on stage a few times without that bridge and I felt it just kept going on and on and nothing came to any head or anything. When I put that bridge in there, it made me feel better about it. And this goes back to the first question you asked, the studio version, it doesn’t really have any percussion. It has these bombastic, explosive kick sounds at the beginning and end, but there’s not a driving beat to it other than my guitar playing. I finally figured out on stage that I have to play the quarter notes with the kick sound and that helps drive it to the live audience. It’s weird like that. I don’t know what it is about that, but that’s what it took. I still don’t play it every show. I just finished up a tour of a few weeks and I think I played it once [laughs].
NS: [Laughs]. What’s usually your number when it comes to getting ready for a studio record? Are you generally someone who’s more comfortable with more songs than needed for a record or do you go in with a few less and then try and figure out what else is needed once you’ve got a better idea of where you’re going with the record?
SHB: I’m always writing, but I have to make myself stop otherwise I’ll feel like there was a song that didn’t make the record that should have been on there. Sometimes that’s jumping the gun. You want that song to have some time to grow. Give it six months or a year. So I’ll close the floodgates and just concentrate on what I have. I tend to have 10 to 14 songs ready and that I know I can make a record with. I have that list and start off with the ones I’m most excited about. Sometimes some of them aren’t working out, but I have so many covers that I have from old blues and bluegrass people from when I did more covers, that I’ll bring out. Sometimes you do need something that’s a little more down home if it’s starting to get a little too rocky or singer-songwritery, but there’s not enough southerny bluegrass feel. That’s when I’ll think about throwing in an old standard. That’s kind of what happened with “I’m Troubled” with this record. Honestly, I’m a little troubled with that song [laughs]. I almost wish I’d have left it off. Even though I do try and put different kinds of music on my records, that one is a little out of place even for me.