Interview with Brad Armstrong, lead singer/songwriter for the critically-lauded, Indie favorites 13Ghosts, about what happens when copyright law hurts, not helps, musicians.
By Lynn Ginsburg
PPM: Let’s start from the beginning. What does the name mean, and why did you choose it?
BA: We were trying to find a name that spoke to the place we were raised, and something that spoke to our state of mind when we started the group. ‘13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffery” by Kathryn Tucker Windham was a book we’d all been familiar with when we were kids, and it seemed to resonate with us, with the kind of records we wanted to make and where those records were coming from. We were marginally aware of the William Castle movie (or rather Buzz was; he was the old movie buff in our group), but it didn’t seem relevant to us. Then, a couple years later that god-awful piece of shit movie came out and we were like, crap, should we change the name of the group? But by then we’d done dates with the Blake Babies, the Drive-By-Truckers, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, etc, and we felt like it would just complicate things to change it. I wish we had, in some ways, because now I guess we really are married to it. We’ve been going way too long to change it now.
PPM: How did the band start—a bit about your history from the beginning up to the present?
BA: In the late nineties a close friend of mine committed suicide. He was also a close mutual friend of Buzz Russell (my good friend whom I would eventually form the band with). Buzz and myself had been in a band when we were in high school with the friend who had committed suicide. When he killed himself, I was living in New York at the time, and I came home to Birmingham for the funeral. Buzz and I ended up at the funeral drunk, and started talking about a record we ought to write about him. But we actually did it, we wrote and recorded the album at what became Otterworks, which is 13ghosts studio now. The record was a pretty heart-on-sleeve and not for public consumption album, but we liked working together again, so I decided to move back from New York and Buzz and I started a band. We made a couple of self-released records in the early 2000’s and hooked up with a lawyer who shopped us to the majors. We were on the table with some of those guys and 9/11 happened, which kind of shut everything down.
“We’d been in the showcase rat race for a couple of years at that point, playing for people who thought we were over the hill at 25.”
We’d been in the showcase rat race for a couple of years at that point, playing for people who thought we were over the hill at 25 (Atlantic really said that–said we were too old. I was 25!), so we decided that we wanted to just make a bunch of songs that we liked, and if it genre-hopped we didn’t care. We didn’t expect that anyone would pay any attention to it at all, and that was fine. Our drummer quit during the recording sessions, and it was just me and Buzz, so we called our myriad rock and roll friends around and asked them to come finish the record with us. We were lucky in having talented and some well-known friends like Maria Taylor (Saddle Creek, Azure Ray), John P. Strohm (Blake Babies), Taylor Hollingsworth (a well known solo artist, and also guitarist for Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst), and nineteen others. That’s how we ended up with like four drummers and I think there were about 27 guest musicians on that record, and that of course made for the outrageously disparate styles of the different songs.
But then the really weird thing happened–we started getting serious press attention and a lot of it, with really positive reviews. Pitchfork gave Cicada a 7.8 and a glowing review, with more of the same in magazines and newspapers like PopMatters, Splendid, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Orlando Sentinel, and a whole lot of others. I was blown away. I was back and forth between New York and Birmingham, doing little tours when we could, and we scored a national tour in 2006, opening for Maria Taylor, and did well, and came home to talk about the next record.
PPM: To my ears the standout on Cicada (and considering how many standouts there are, that’s saying a lot) is the song Robert J. Is that about your bandmate who took his own life? It’s an unbelievably sad song, but it’s just got this straightforward, stark poignancy to it that makes it all the more sad–just a barebones acceptance of the inevitability.
BA: Robert J. is interesting to me, as a kind of case-study. I’m always reticent to talk about this, but this time I think I will. I am fully aware that I may be costing myself fans when I talk about this, or making people think I’m disingenuous, but I think I ought to go on record about it, since you ask.
In late 2002 I had a phase where I was listening to Songwriters, with a capital “S,” because I was interested in the form. There’s always a form, and a formula, for those kinds of story songs. Like Dylan’s 7 Curses, or stuff by John Prine, or Don McLean, or The Boss, or whomever. And I really thought the form was great. So I was listening to Cat’s In the Cradle by Harry Chapin, and I was thinking about the structure of that song. How you set up a situation with three or so verses about some character or characters, and how you bring it all home in the last verse about how it affects or changes the protagonist of the tune. So I decided to try and write one. I wanted a sad subject matter, so I thought about this buddy of mine who is Robert J. I changed his name to Robert because it had the same number of syllables. Everything in the song is absolutely accurate to life until verse four. That’s where I tried to make the turn and do the thing that Chapin and all the greats do, make it sad and show how it affected the narrator. Of course the real Robert J. went to rehab a couple years later and cleaned up and everything. Not nearly as interesting, as far as tragedies go, I guess.
I tell this story because I think it makes an interesting point. Every other song on Cicada was written from the gut, and we almost didn’t put Robert J. on the record, but I fought hard for it. But it turns out that Robert J. is the song that has gotten the absolute most attention of anything we’ve ever done. When I hear from a fan that a song has made a difference to them, it is about Robert J.