Q&A and video: Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band on Warped Tour, T-Pain, and rural Indiana
Contributor Benjamin Opipari interviews the Reverend Peyton, of the American blues band Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band, before his performance Saturday at the 8X10. Also: video of the band in action.
When we tell our friends how a band sounds, we usually resort to comparing it to another band. But what if the band in question truly sounds like no one else? Consider The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band.
The three-piece, which hails from rural Indiana, consists of The Rev on bottleneck slide guitar (the oldest of which was made in 1935), his wife Breezy on the washboard, and his cousin Aaron “Cuz” Persinger on drums and five gallon bucket.
They have no need for a bass, since The Rev’s picking style allows for him to play both parts on his guitar (as he once told the band Ha Ha Tonka, “Boys, we don’t need no bass player. My thumb plays the bass.”) They record live to analog tape. And their songs are mostly true stories - yes, he does know someone whose brother was on the show “Cops;" his brother did steal a chicken from the Fort Wayne Zoo, and his mama does make the best fried potatoes.
Fresh off a slot at Warped Tour and a show at Merriweather Post Pavilion, they are now touring in support of their new release "The Wages," which entered the Billboard Blues chart at No. 2.
Midnight Sun: Your songs all tell stories. How do you consider yourself a storyteller? There are lots of different kinds of songs. There are songs that tell stories, there are songs that share emotions, there are songs that are just dance songs. I want to be diverse. I might start singing about food and end up singing about what they are doing to the water. I want to sing about everything. Songs should be about life, and life is about a whole bunch of things. I want to tell stories about regular people.So when you write a song, you start with a story in mind. Absolutely. And I like plain-speakin' songs. Not songs where you wonder what they are about. People shouldn’t need a degree in critical literature to figure out a song.
MS: And how do write songs with a washboard in mind? When it comes down to it, even slow songs are dance music. And there’s nothing more danceable than a washboard. That instrument started with regular people who didn’t have the money to afford real instruments, and by accident they found one of the most rhythmic instruments on the planet.
MS: We talked about the importance of melody the last time we met. I’ve always been struck by how much you focus on the melody of the words, not just the music. Your words can stand as melody without music. Absolutely. I think that’s why we can play in the remote parts of Italy, where they don’t speak any English, and people love it. It’s like an opera. It doesn’t matter what she’s singing.
MS: Give me an example of a song that you’ve heard with the power of melody. Once I got a hold of a Cajun song with these little French girls singing down in Louisiana about 80 years ago. It was gorgeous—the melody was so lonesome and beautiful. I thought, “Man, this has got to be one of the prettiest things I’ve ever heard.” So I did all this research, trying to figure out what they were saying. And I found out it was an old sea shanty, about a lost ship. The crew has to draw straws to determine which one of them they are going to have to eat so that everyone can survive! It’s the least beautiful story I have ever heard, with the most beautiful melody. I thought, man that’s the power of melody.
MS: That sums up why your music is so popular, the attention to the melody. It’s why you were such a hit with the kids on the Warped Tour. One of the things about that tour was that when I was that age, music meant so much to me. I so cherished all the times I got to see live music. I want to turn those kids onto something real from the heart.
MS: And on the day I saw you at Merriweather Post, you were on right before Mike Posner. You won over a lot of his fans. That’s the hope. I have never wanted to be a museum piece throwback. I want to make music for the here and now, even though my roots are deep. Whether our fans are 16 or 60, I want ours to be “now” music, and I want those teenagers to like us as long as they are alive. I don’t want to make music that sounds like a certain era. For instance, you can hear certain songs and know immediately that it sounds like the early 80s. Like that T-Pain vocal style, where they play with auto-tune, is gonna sound so dated in five years. Even if they are good songs, they are going to be ruined by the production. I want to stay away from production fads, and that’s why we record live to analog tape, to get as organic as possible.
MS: What do you like about your old guitars? An old guitar has magic in it. As old wood and old metal ages, the sound really comes through. The most important thing is the feel, because onstage when it’s run through giant PA systems you start to lose some of the sound. But those big fat necks on those old guitars—I just love the feel of them. I started out on old, cheap guitars with big necks and high strings. Now, it’s what I’m used to. They just feel right.
MS: A few years ago you had major surgery on your hand and were told that you could forget about ever playing the guitar again. How did the injury make you a better guitar player? I thought at the time it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me, but it ended up being the best thing. It taught me a lot about myself and how to be a better person. And when you are a better person, you’re a better player. When I got my hands back, I was so much better. I was always a decent picker, but it gave me my own sound. And as far as an artist goes, that’s the most important thing.
MS: But what did it do to you physically? For whatever reason, my hands and my mind just worked better together. During that time that I couldn’t play physically, I was playing in my mind. I spent so much time thinking about it. My mind got stronger and that made my hands stronger.
MS: How does touring make you a better songwriter? That’s the nature of the business now. Playing as much as we do makes you a better musician, which makes you a better songwriter. At the end of the day, it’s about melody. I get a lot of ideas on the road.
MS: What was it like touring in Europe? We’ve been there about a half dozen times. Our music is huge over there. Regardless of what people think of Americans politically, they love our music and our culture. And our music is about as American as it gets.
MS: Any countries or cities that receive you particularly well? Probably the biggest is Vienna and Berlin. And of course London. But my favorite show was in this city called Angermunde in the eastern part of Germany. That place was about as far away from home as I can imagine. We sold out that venue, the first time it had ever been sold out. It was amazing. Hardly anyone there spoke English. But they sang along with the words, and more importantly the melodies, where there are no words. And that just proves how universal music is, regardless of the language.Catchy melodies transcend borders.
The band performing at Warped Tour:
Ben Opipari interviews writers and songwriters on his blog, Writers on Process. He has written for the Washington Post and academic journals. Erik Maza edited this post.
Photo: Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band official website