by Soren McGuire
Every time we get the opportunity to interview one of the great, big bands here at Americana UK, we always write how they were alternative country before that term even existed and how much we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them. But this time, ladies and gentlemen, we can truly say that THESE GUYS are the ones who got the ball rolling in the first place. Back from a 16 year hiatus, Jason & The Scorchers are once again setting the woods on fire with their almost historic mix of rambunctious rock n’roll and classic honky tonk. They have a new album out titled Halcyon Times, and they sound better than ever. In this interview, Americana UK talks to founding members Jason Ringenberg and Warner E. Hodges about being back, being happy and being louder than ever.
So tell me. How did this reunion come about?
Warner - It was kind of a weird thing. We got offered to do a couple of festivals in Europe back in the summer of 2008, and I talked to Jason about doing it. We didn’t really have a functioning band back then, but I really wanted to do it, and he was like ‘if you can put together a couple of guys, then let’s do the shows’. So we came over and did eight or nine shows. I had played on and off in Stacie Collins band, so I knew Allan Collins, her husband, and we had once before previously used Pontus Snibb who had once saved us on a gig we had in Norway seven years ago when Perry (Baggs, drummer –ed.) started getting so ill he couldn’t do the shows. We’d just come over, do a couple of shows, no big deal, but we actually had such a great time. So in my head I thought it would be nice to use this band and record a record. One thing lead to another and here we are.
But by that time, it wasn’t really meant to be anything more than a couple of reunion shows, was it?
Warner - No. Hell, we didn’t have any songs! When Jason, our manager and I decided to do this, the first thing we started working on was writing new songs. We managed to get Ginger from The Wildhearts, Dan Baird and a singer/songwriter out of Nashville named Tommy Womack together, and the five of us just wrote 25 songs over the course of a couple of weeks. It was a really intense thing at my house and it was a really cool, creative things I’ve ever been involved with. At one point, we had five Mac’s set up in my house and people changing rooms depending on who had an idea.
How did it feel being back in the band and having to find a common creative ground?
Warner - Quite honestly, it was like trying to find a new way to create things within the band. Jeff Johnson, our original bass player is gone and we hadn’t done a studio album without him or Perry since 96. They were hugely influential in the creative side of the band. They might not have worked on every song, but Perry was a great songwriter and Jeff was very influential with how we developed the songs, each of us brought in. We kind of had to find a way to create songs in a new way. With Pontus being in Sweden, it was a lot of emails and stuff. But it was a cool thing, cause Ginger and Tommy and Dan all being real Scorcher-heads, they were our police force if that makes any sense. When we started playing the songs, they would go “no no no, that’s not what you and Jason do, you don’t wanna do that.” And it was very “wow”, cause here we had these guys who actually knew the band better than Jason and I did! I always felt we weren’t really done when the band split up, but I never knew how to continue making records when it was just Jason and I. So I think we did a great job with putting together a band we wanted to work with.
Jason, how do you feel about this reunion?
Jason – Well, frankly I was kind of apprehensive to do this whole project. I didn’t think we had the creative energy to do this, I didn’t think we would be able to come up with a business-backing for this, I didn’t think we would be able to come up with the songs, I really didn’t think we had any business doing this at all. I was afraid of all those things. I just thought it was a really bad idea. But I was wrong on all those counts, cause once we got into the process of doing it, it was incredibly exciting. The creativity was just explosive and I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. It felt very different.
What about the relationship between the two of you?
Warner - Well, we worked through a couple of things, thorns that had been there for years. But it was actually a real cool thing, cause Jason and I found a new way of working together after 25 years! I think it helped the record, cause we found a completely new approach. All the vocals on the album were cut live, and we had never done that before. It was like lightning in a bottle and we had a great time recording it. We had a blast. I didn’t want it to end. Normally, when you get to the mastering, you just want the damn thing done.
Jason – I think it’s a 100% better now. There was a lot of tension and dysfunction in the past, which I think contributed to our 14 year hiatus, but this time I think we had a lot of respect going back and fourth.
Did you talk much during the years when the band was defunct?
Warner - You know, we’re like brothers. We don’t talk all the time – we never really did – but when there’s something to do, we do it. The best thing that probably ever happened to Jason & The Scorchers was me doing a couple of solo records. I’ve been the guy standing in the middle singing now. I hope I’m a much better band member now than I was four or five years ago. I now tend to understand the problems, the guy standing in the middle, has. Dan Baird has this theory, that you’re not a good band member if you haven’t fronted your own band. If you have, you know the guy fronting the band a hell of a lot better. Jason and I both ended up having this profound musical respect for each other, 26 year deep. I understand how hard his job is, and I think he understands, after doing a lot of solo touring, that it’s kind of nice having me over there.
Jason, you mentioned earlier that you weren’t exactly keen on doing this. What flipped it around for you? When did this suddenly feel like a good idea for you?
Jason – It wasn’t really until we got into the process of writing this album that I realised that we were in fact on to something. You know, all the way up until we actually started writing the songs, I was sure this would be a bad idea and a waste of our time, but Warner was so adamant that we recorded, so I stuck to it. But when Ginger came to town and Dan Baird, Tommy Womack, Warner and myself got together to work on those songs, man, they were just monsters. They were the Scorchers songs we had been trying to write for 25 years, and they were just great. So I thought, I better get on that train or it’s gonna run over me!
Warner, how do you think Jason has grown as a songwriter and Scorcher over the years?
Warner - One thing I will say, his pre-conceived ideas for this record…you know, he wanted to ROCK. He had done this Americana, singer/songwriter solo records, and he puts it, he was tired of singing about dead Confederate soldier. He wanted to rock! He has learned to use his voice to his advantage, and he’s a way better acoustic guitar player than he was ten years ago. When you’re out there doing that solo thing night after night, it gets lonely, so he is definitely looking forward to this band thing. But yeah, Jason has always been a great songwriter.
Jason – I think it’s pretty much given at this stage that me and Warner have become better with age, not worse. For me, there’s several reason. Just being solo and performing solo all those years, doing thousands of gigs really forced me to become a better guitar player. It was really sink or swim for me to be honest. I had to get better or I wouldn’t be able to make a living. Another thing was me doing the Farmer Jason records for children. Doing that, singing for kids for five or six years, really made me focus more on my singing and pronunciation. When you sing for a four-year old, you have to really annunciate what you’re saying. So I think my voice is better than it has been for years.
How do you think the new record sits with your old work?
Warner – I had this conversation with Dan the other night, cause he goes with us way back. I hope we managed to find the fun and enthusiasm of Reckless Country Soul with Fervour, with Lost and Found sensibilities, if that makes any sense. For guys our age, it’s hard to make a rock record this deep make any sense. We found some youthful exuberance without sounding stupid. I think it’s kind of a career-defining record. You say that every time you make a record, I know, but I honestly think Halcyon Times is. The two new guys brought a lot of enthusiasm to it, and by having Dan, Tommy and Ginger helping us, we got everyone we wanted to write songs with, working on it. We managed to catch a little lightning in the studio. I listen to the record and it sounds like we’re having fun, and that’s what I was going for.
More fun than you had recording the old albums?
Warner – It’s a different type of thing. With those records, Clear Impetuous Morning and A Blazing Grace, we played as well as we could. The musicianship on this new record is quite a bit better. Pontus and Al bring things to the table that just weren’t there before. Hopefully, we’ve stayed true to the Jason & The Scorchers sound while pushing the envelope a bit. That’s what I hope we did.
Jason – I think Springsteen once said that you have artificially generate spontaneity, but in terms of spontaneity, that did not happen on this record. It was a ball recording it, it was fun and intense. Just emotional. There was this explosion of creativity and emotion in the studio. And we had this new rhythm-section with Al and Pontus, and those guys were GOOD, man. It wasn’t like they just filling in for Perry and Jeff. I loved every second of it. And I normally hate being in the studio…
Has the creative success that you experienced recording Halcyon Times changed the way you perceive the first part of your career?
Jason – Man, that’s a good question. Yeah, I think it has. There’s a certain amount of pride in what we’ve done, but there’s also a certain amount of “wow, why didn’t we do this before?!”. If we had put out Halcyon Times in 1986, Christ, we would have been a double-platinum band. That brings up a bit of frustration, but we’re just happy that we’ve finally made this record. We tried making it a long time ago – actually on Thunder & Fire, we tried to make this record. We just couldn’t do it.
Why do you think it took you and Warner so many years to make this, to be honest, perfect Jason & The Scorchers record?
Jason – I don’t know. That’s also a good question. I think I need time to process it before I can give you a good answer on that one. But having a dream team for this record was a huge help. These great writers we brought in, we were all thinking and pulling in the same direction. I don’t think that has happened before on any Scorchers record. Back in those days, the band really existed in a sense of tension. There was a chemistry of tension between the members of the band, a lof of conflicting musical elements in the band, but this time, that didn’t happen. There was no tension, everyone just got behind what we were doing. If you get Warner E. Hodges and Jason Ringenberg in a room together, pulling things in the same direction, that’s a pretty powerful thing.
Do you still approach country music the same way you did when you were all younger?
Warner – We don’t make a conscious effort any longer. But you cannot live in Nashville, Tennessee and not have some country influence. I would like to think – and I don’t know if this is the case – that because of my parents I was influenced by the correct kind of country music. You know, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Hank Williams, Waylon, that stuff. I don’t even approach it that way anymore, it’s just the way I write music. I like the Sex Pistols and I like Hank Williams, Jimi Hendrix and Merle Haggard. Good music is good music, bad music is bad music. My favourite part of a Scorchers show is still when we break into the classic cry-in-your-beer country, the hard stuff.
So you were like a new generation of post-Waylon country music outlaws?
Warner - Yeah, I think so. We were kids, so it made perfect sense to us. We lived in Nashville, we were 18 or 19, and Jeff had turned us on to the Sex Pistols. But we still listened to Merle Haggard too. I think we thought about it a little bit more in those days. These days it’s just what we do. To this day, I still don’t have a nice two-word way of describing Jason & The Scorchers. I never much liked the cow-punk moniker, we were slapped with, but I do understand why people called us that. But I wanted to be in a rock n’roll band, and the blues and country are what made rock n’roll. The blues just get a lot more credit.
Jason – If you look at modern alternative country as an extension of country rock, we did have our share of influence. It’s basically the same story as it was with Gram Parsons, Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman and all those people going through Son Volt and Wilco, combining high energy rock n’roll with roots music. That’s what we were doing as well. We invented our own spot in that area of music, and I like to say that I don’t think anyone’s done it better than us. It’s a hard thing to label.
Jason, you’ve been in Nashville for years. Has it changed to you?
Jason – It’s all unrecognizable to what it was when I first moved to town in 1981. When I moved here, it was really a provincial sort of place, a gentile Southern town. You had the Vanderbilt University and a little country music world, where in those days, if a country record sold a 150.000 copies, it was considered big news. When the Outlaws went platinum, that was, you know, Michael Jackson! But it was a gentile little town, and the rock community was just a small crowd of folks. I knew everybody in it. Now it’s no longer a country music industry city, it’s just a music industry city, you have pro-football teams and a million people living here. It’s just changed. Back then, I knew the country music crowd and the rock crowd, a few punk rockers. But I love Nashville, Tennessee and I always will.