July 07, 2010

An Interview with Alan Anton of the Cowboy Junkies

The first thing you notice about the new Cowboy Junkies album, Renmin Park, is how much it doesn’t sound like any other Cowboy Junkies album.

Informed by experiences guitarist Mike Timmons had while on an extended visit to China, the album echoes an Eastern vibe that blends well with the band‘s more familiar folk and Gothic distinctions. Drawing on an archive of raw audio footage that Timmons recorded during his stay—of local conversations, indiscriminate murmurs, and everyday neighborhood noise—the music reflects stark, sonic fragments of the culture.

Renmin Park is but the first of four LPs to be released over the next 18 months in an album cycle called “The Nomad Series,” its title coming from an equal number of paintings entrusted to the band—who along with Mike Timmins includes singer Margo Timmins, drummer Peter Timmins, and bassist Alan Anton—by Cuban-American artist Enrique Martinez Celaya. While the paintings will grace each album’s cover, they haven‘t really inspired any music yet, but Anton says, “It just clicked that that would be a good connection visually with what we’re trying to do with these four records.”

The Junkies are still mapping out the third and fourth installments of the series, but they’ve already made headway on the second, Demons. Comprised entirely of songs written by the late folk artist Vic Chesnutt, the album honors the songwriting of one of the band’s oldest friends who sadly, this past Christmas, committed suicide. “We were talking to Vic just last year about doing a Cowboy Junkies record with him involved in it. Obviously that didn’t come to task,” Anton says. “We felt that we owed him something.”

For now the Junkies are on the road in support of Renmin Park, translating its foreign influence to the concert stage in ways both inherently characteristic and altogether new. “We’re actually using samples for the first time in our lives,” Anton notes, underscoring the breadth of the band’s latest creative leap. As he suggests, though, considering the album was the brainchild of just one of the Junkies, it wasn’t a leap the others were immediately sold on taking together.

Was it difficult to take inspiration from something that three out of four band members didn’t experience? How did you work that out?

That’s what sort of happened. Mike said, “Here’s what I’d like to do.” And we all said, “Hmm, that’s interesting, but why don’t you go make your own record?” [Laughs] But then we talked about it more and it became more of a challenge for the rest of us to try to put expression to songs that were so specific for him and specific of his experience. That became the challenge, how to musically accommodate that expression. We worked it out in different ways and we’re actually pretty happy with the result. But yeah, we were a little trepidacious at first.

How did the songwriting work? Some songs are credited to just one band member; like, you’re cited as having written “Sir Francis Bacon at the Net.”

Mike came back with a bunch of street sounds that he’d recorded in China. And he handed them off to me and my friend, Joby [Baker], who owns a studio near me and who played drums and recorded it with me. We turned them into loops, bass and drums, added keyboard and other things. We sent it back to Mike, who put lyrics to the music. Then Margaret sang on it. And we took it from there. So my input wasn’t lyrical at all, just musical.

Because Renmin Park is such a departure from your band
’s prior works, is it at all jarring to play the new songs live mixed in with older ones?

Not really. You get so used to it during the process that it just becomes another natural thing for the band to do. But when you sit down and listen to it you say, “Well, that is really different than what we’ve done before.” We recognize that. And I think we’re going to go along that track for the next couple of records.

How are you approaching the Vic Chesnutt album [Demons]? How many liberties are you taking with his songs?

Well, the way we normally approach covers is to listen to a song—We’ve done stuff where some of us haven’t listened to the song, [but] obviously one person has to know how it goes.—and we sort of make it up from there. But with Vic, we’ve known him a long time; we know all his songs. We’re consciously trying to not copy them, but at the same time, there are some elements that really have to be in there to make it “Vic.” Our approach to it is to record it very roughly and not try to smooth anything out too much production-wise because that would be kind of “anti-Vic,” I think.

Even with what you’ve already completed, releasing four albums in 18 months still must be challenge.

Yeah, I think that’s sort of why we did it, just to push ourselves and to stay active and just be recording all the time. We’ve been at this 25 years. We just felt it was kind of boring putting out a record every year or two years. Let’s kick it up a bit and see what we can do.