by: Sarah Wilson
Red Dirt staple Jason Boland & The Stragglers released their eighth studio album, Squelch, a few weeks back (Oct 09). With Squelch, the band takes their well oiled, high-powered honky-tonk machine and remains true as ever to those roots in classic country, honky-tonk, and Red Dirt storytelling. That’s not to say the Oklahoma-based Stragglers haven’t continued expanding.
At roughly 15 years in, Boland and company add even more of a punk attitude to the mix. While Boland has never been afraid to have a fierce approach to songwriting, it’s here on Squelch where they throw a some nods to some of their favorite punk acts of the day. It’s never over the top. It’s never out of place or trying too hard to be different, but, it’s there. Frankly, it’s a refreshing take for Boland.
We caught up with Boland early last week to discuss the making of Squelch, songwriting, and what’s new for the five-piece Stragglers. They’ll be playing tonight at The Office (Oct 23) along with openers LiveWire.
New Slang: What’s the story behind the album name and art?
Jason Boland: I didn’t want to do another title track. Sometimes I think title tracks–which we’ve done on all but one–I think that tends to make the listener think that this song epitomizes the record, or sets some type of tone. And some times it does. I think the last one, Dark & Dirty Mile, I think that song did set the tone of the album. But I believe it was Grant [Tracy], the bass player, when we were recording the album, would chart every part and when it was done, he’d visually check off what was going on. He’s our resident doodler. He puts stickers on things. He is that guy. He just wrote squelch on the bottom. I don’t know if he had seen it on one of the nobs in the studio or just word popped into his head or whatever. Just it being a fun word to say, I looked it up. I remember it was on a knob, but I never really knew what it did as a kid. It suppresses the signals that aren’t loud enough to really come through, the stuff you’re barely catching. I think it’s just a metaphor for how bands like ours approach mass media, pop and what is going on with all the people who are the “must hears.” Sometimes you really have to suppress that noise to search out something good like Sun Volt’s last record or the great stuff that you’re maybe not hearing because of all the noise around you. It’s just one of those things that wasn’t over thought, it was organic. It is such a fun word to say anyways, we thought, ‘Let’s just call the album Squelch. We put a radio tower on the cover, and we went with a little bit of the dystopian–steam punk almost–past future feel to it. We’re always trying to make things somewhat edgy looking, or minimalist. We’d rather have our artwork say something rather than just put our pictures on it. The only one that has a picture of me is Live at Billy Bob’s, and that wasn’t even our call.
NS: You kind of mentioned the steam-punk aspect of this album. Looking at the more political side, this album stands out more politically charged, almost punk rock to an extent. Was that a challenge? Were y’all hesitant to pull from that or was it something that came out naturally?
JB: Well, we always tried. As you get older, you have hopefully a better understanding of maybe the fact that you don’t understand it. When you’re younger, you accept what you’re told, and in a lot of our lyrics, it talks about what “they” have told us. What you’ve been given, you take for granted your whole life. We have always fought for that edge, but being a country band, so many times in the studio, the natural progression by everybody surrounding you, how it gets mixed so many times–and not in a bad way–ends up being what they know: great country classics. There have been songs like “Ponies.” If you listen to it, you can imagine ways how a 20-something-year-old young person heard that when I wrote it. I enjoyed the way it came out, but I had it way more cow-punk in my head. This time we enlisted the help of Jim Ward, from At The Drive In and Sparta. I saw a picture of him and he had a pedal steel. And I thought, “Oh my god, the guy who did At The Drive In will get what were going for. They’re from El Paso.” We recorded it at The Orb in Austin, which is Blue October’s studio, and then went out and mixed it near El Paso. They were there to help us capture the emotion and the edge, but at the same time not wanting to over do anything or wanting to deviate who we are as a country band. Just to sharpen the knives on this one.
NS: Yeah, it’s cool how that translated. Was there anything particular y’all did on this album that you hadn’t done before–like how you let punk come out a little more?
JB: We just pushed more and more into the live recording realm of it. Our first album and our most recent before this were both mix to tape. In between the two, the digital world hit and every one started dumping everything into computers. “Give us seven takes of this and we will have enough.” What I hate hearing in the studio is, “we have enough.” There are a lot of people that are geniuses at that–splicing solos together and finding each word that is saying the most mathematically perfect song. It’s just not us. So we mixed to tape again, this one never hit the computers. Your take is your take, if you don’t like it we can always re-do it. We keep as much as possible. I know it’s a really strange concept, but like a bunch of people playing the same song at the same time. How crazy is that? I think they’re called bands.
NS: How weird, I’ll have to check that out some time. How long did this album take to record? Was it longer or shorter than past ones?
JB: It was shorter just because every time you say, “his time I’m not going to end up under the gun”–and every time, you do. We started on Sunday and were done by Thursday. Then we went out and mixed it in four. We cut 14, but only got 11 mixed. It was my fault for being a little too ambitious. You get songs you want to do, and alternative takes of songs. It was fast.
NS: Do you have a favorite song to play from Squelch? I was listening to “I Guess It’s Alright To Be An Asshole” and that sounds like the crowd wouldn’t be able to resist singing along.
JB: Yeah, that’s a fun one live. That’s immediate fun. One of my guilty pleasures now is getting to play electric guitar on songs. It was written in that punk spirit of say what you gotta say, say it fast and loud and get out of there. And then being a fan of the country music I grew up with, Clint Black and Mark Chestnut, “Holy Relic Sale” is a lot of fun live. It starts off like a ballad and ends up with a power ballad feel, all the while having that late ’80s-early ’90s country dancehall vibe. Those are two of my favorites to play live right now. “Lose Early” is fun. “Rodeo” is fun. That’s the cool thing. We don’t record stuff were not proud of and don’t want to play live.
NS: That’s the way to go. So you’ve shared the stage with some pretty awesome talent. Is there a certain artist you liked the best, or a particular night you can think of?
JB: Oh God. We have played with Merle Haggard a few times, and each time is just the coolest. Once you’ve played a Willie’s picnic, technically you’ve played with a lot of people. It’s not the same as opening for Merle. Those nights are always really special.
NS: Did you ever start writing a song that was emotionally too hard for you to finish? Do you ever go back to songs and try to re-work them?
JB: No, not too hard. Either I don’t care for them or I abandoned them. If they move me, there is no subject matter or emotion that is too difficult to go through, that means you’re on to a good song. I’d say if I bail out on a song, it’s because it’s just not speaking to me. Now, I have had some that have taken a long time to write, like I had the music forever, but you just have to wait on the muse and the words to find you at the same time you’re sitting there messing with it.
NS: So last question, who are you currently listening to?
JB: It’s a broad rang to death metal to jazz. I’m listening to the new Clutch right now. A lot of Hank Jr. lately–I’m back on a Hank Jr. kick. Muse, big fan of what they do. If I’m listening to country, it’s usually old stuff. It seems like at home it’s just a lot of Hank Jr. because my wife, she’s a big Hank Jr. fan too. It’s fun and it sounds great. We listen to so much country music, and were around so much country music that a lot of times you want to hear something a little different. I think we might go see My Morning Jacket in a couple of weeks and Clutch and Mastodon are coming through town. First and foremost, I’m still a music fan, and a lover for what music does to people.