Live Review and Interview
CW Stoneking : the Thekla, Bristol
Bristol, Wednesday 27th June 2018. CW Stoneking performs at Thekla, a former cargo ship repurposed as a multimedia performance venue and moored in the Mud Dock of Bristol’s Floating Harbour. As good an opening to an evening’s entertainment as any… Henry Baroche reviews and talks to the great man himself.
Wandering about the hull of Thekla, having ambled on-board in the early evening ahead of my interview with CW, I had the tantalising sense that anything could be lurking around the metallic grey corners of the sloped corridors and hunched stairwells of this genuine artefact of maritime history. Is that a harpoon over there, or is it a Theremin? Is that the shadow of a pirate hipster edging across the wall? Am I going to hear at any moment the husky growls of a shipman telling me to move my landlubberin’ arse back on shore? Oh look, there’s a stage on this boat, and a bar in the back, and on the roof. You can almost hear the sighs of a thousand cargo ship workers collectively lamenting the fact that they boarded this ship several decades too early.
The interview, which will follow at the foot of this review, takes place in what may well have been an officer’s quarter, situated in the prow of Thekla. CW’s tour manager ushers me into the room, and I find CW lounging across a large couch by the door. He is an imposing figure of whom you are instantly wary, courteous. Complex, nautical-esque tattoos line his arms, and a black Stetson hat protects his slicked back hair above a marine blue set of denim clothing. He could feasibly be an Old Western outlaw who’s thrown the captain overboard and setup camp in his quarters. As a man who has often sung about and utilised history’s nautical expeditions, this to me seems the perfect setting. Anything seems possible with CW Stoneking.
From the bar that segues into the floor space of the auditorium, which by the time of his imminent stage arrival is packed, I hear the opening guitar licks of “How Long”, high enough to almost resemble a particularly melodic sequence of sonar tones. This is the opening track from his latest record Gon’ Boogaloo, and unifies the room before him as he rocks into his stride.
His set of 1 hour and 15 minutes or so sees a generous treatment of all three of his studio albums, King Hokum, Jungle Blues and Gon’ Boogaloo. The opening half hour is peppered with self-deprecating marks, which have often dominated his stage patter. Tackling some of his most challenging material, in the sense that many of his songs are heavily augmented by horn parts or bass and percussion, he’s set himself a high musical bar to vault over with but the use of his guitar and luscious vocals. After a particularly dexterous number, he exclaims, “I’m glad that one’s over. Or maybe you’re more glad than I am.”
These soon pass, however, most notably once the more animated parts of his set are brought to Thekla’s stage. “Goin’ The Country” seems to fill the space around CW with a host of characters, from the two main protagonists, the disbelieving, unadventurous fellow who is being corralled with all the benefits of quitting the city and moving to the countryside by his buddy, to the sense of adventure and the train itself that will be their vessel. “Dodo Blues”, a similar setup, except that here the two protagonists are conversing about a singing Dodo bird, who then goes on to incant a sweet, mournful tale of how everything was right when he was with his baby, and how he lost her. Both are received raucously by the assembled audience.
“The Zombie”, from Gon’ Boogaloo, further showcases CW’s adeptness in composing a catchy melody that carries the listener right to the heart of an intoxicating tale. The audience revel in playing the part of the female backing singers who appear on the album version, though CW is not afraid to stall the song and light-heartedly school them on just how that version was supposed to go.
For me, being so well-versed in his music and his records, I found myself listening to the sounds emanating from the stage speakers to have been reunited with the horns or percussion and bass that feature on the album versions by the time they’ve filtered into my earholes. I wondered, “Are the other people here hearing the same performance as I am? Do they hear him backed by every musician and instrument he has ever played with, or do they only hear what is here, right now?”
This is often the battle in one’s head when experiencing a stripped back arrangement of a well-known piece of music, between the present reality and the past glory. But here I feel this is a somewhat moot point. Whether you fill in the gaps in your head, or inhale purely what is before you, CW Stoneking puts on a truly engaging, varied, and beautiful solo performance. By the time he’s crooned his way through ‘Jailhouse Blues’, ‘On A Desert Isle’, and the gorgeous closer ‘Jungle Lullaby’, there isn’t a dull heartbeat on-board.
When next he may touch down on these shores, it is not immediately obvious. With his sporadic output, and clear liking of a reclusive lifestyle in tandem with touring every couple of years, it seems he is due another release within the next couple of years as a follow-up to 2014’s Gon’ Boogaloo. But then to make his art a precise one would be to mutilate some of the magic that is part of his genre-spanning, mystifying artistic approach.
In reflecting upon the show and the man, my wife conjectures that he reminds her very much of Nina Simone. Speaking of her own musical talent, Simone once declared that, “I didn’t get interested in music. It was a gift from God.” Any guess you may have as to where CW Stoneking’s supreme gift may have come from is as good as hers.
Have you played in Bristol before?
I’ve played here [Thekla] a couple of times, played around town a bit.
You lived for a while in the UK, is that right?
In Bristol, for two years. We had a good time, pretty good. Bit cold for me. We had to go. We had lots of small kids and that. It was really wet, we couldn’t take them nowhere, the park was all wet all the time. We were ducking in and out of shops, and I just thought that wasn’t a very good scene for small kids, so we had to get ‘em back home.
Bristol is at present a very 20s, 30s city; it’s very colourful, and there’s a lot going on. But perhaps for a young family it’s not the place to be.
It was ok, you know. And I was touring a lot, you know. I’d take the spinner, and go out on the tunnel or the ferry or whatever, and go for a week or two here and there. So we were touring a lot. I wasn’t really playing [in Bristol] like I was a local dude gigging in town. We played here a few times in the context of touring. It was fun, but kids are just difficult anywhere, you know what I mean. Certainly after being raised in a certain place.
That makes perfect sense. As I understand, you’re from Victoria?
That’s where I live now, yep.
[CW was born in Katherine, a remote part of Australia’s Northern Territory]
I see in my own muddled way a correlation between America and Australia. Do you feel that there is such a correlation? Is that where you get your love of American music? Or is it more complex than that?
I don’t really see them as similar. I feel like I probably, when I was listening to that music, I was perceiving it through a lens of some Australian aspects without realising it until spending more time in the U.S. The internal sort of landscape and that that I was experiencing the music in was actually more like Australia where I lived as a kid, more like the desert than Mississippi or any of those places.
You’re going to be touring the States once you’ve finished in the UK. Whereabouts are you going to be playing?
It’s a Southern tour, it’s all down South, about 20 dates, over three weeks. I haven’t toured a lot down there, just because I’m sort of touring in this cost-effective way, I just thought maybe I’ll put together a few tours where I concentrate a region. Lots of people, people maybe from Australia or overseas, they go to the States and they zigzag over to New York and LA. I’m kind of interested in penetrating a bit deeper. I spent three whole weeks instead of going around the whole place. I’ll probably go back and do more like that in other parts of the country. Put some records into the hands of locals and hope they play it to their friends. Let things go organically like that.
So still, even at this advanced stage of your career, you’re more focused on an organic approach to getting your music out there.
Yeah, that’s how I prefer to do it. I don’t really believe in any other way. I think that the person in our office in New York City, it doesn’t matter how much money you pay him, it ain’t going to change as many people’s minds as they’ll lead you to believe.
Unless it’s a door-to-door salesman approach, perhaps. [puts on noiresque American accent] “Hi, have you heard the new CW Stoneking record?”
Yeah, it’s better to get ‘round and do a few crappy little shows, maybe 30 people. It may be 60 who hear the record.
That seems like it has been consistent from the way you’ve put music out. The King Hokum record. Was that something you came to after a long time of trying to make it as a musician?
I didn’t really try to make it very much. I spent a long time not really getting any gigs, and then when I started to, I just liked doing my thing. I was trying to improve, but not really doing much in terms of getting a career together. But then, once I made the first record, I tried to get a label, and I was turned down by probably 20 something labels, and then I went for a really small one and they just, they didn’t really handle it that well. It had a good response, they sent out loads of promos of the stuff, got a lot of free publicity through radios, DJs, media and shit. But it wasn’t in the shops, I think they were too small, didn’t have enough capital, scared to take a risk and make it available. Once I was able to get out of that deal, that’s when I decided to do it myself and stay like that. I usually get a distributor in.
I’ve certainly not heard anybody like you on the scene: yours is a very unique music style. I guess the question that would have been circulating throughout their offices would’ve been, “Where do we put CW Stoneking?”
That’s what they told me in the start. Turned out it didn’t matter, they [fans] like it or not. It ain’t some record label gonna tell anybody why they should like something, really.
As a fan of your music myself, one of the things I really like it is theatricality of it: you’re playing a lot of the characters in your songs, there’s a kind of song writing and storytelling that you don’t find a lot these days. And there’s comedy, which is really rare in music, I find. Is that a conscious thing, or does it come quite naturally?
It’s my nature, probably, it just comes out.
And you’ve certainly shown yourself to be adept at rearranging existing material, whether your own stuff for the purposes of gigging solo, as you’re doing on this tour, or other people’s material. Your cover of ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes I particularly enjoyed.
It was for a radio segment, and they suggested it as an example. It was a strain of National Youth Broadcasting. They wanted people to come along and do a cover song. Sort of took it back, cut things out, simplified the lyrics. That’s what the segment is, it’s called Like a Version. We went and did it live on the radio.
That was with the Primitive Horn Orchestra. Last time you were here was with an all-female band of drums, bass and saxophone. Now you’re here as a solo musician.
It’s real mellow. I quite like it. With the last record, because I did away with the horns, partially because I didn’t know what to do with them with the type of music I was making, I couldn’t see the places as well for them. Jungle Blues was written with that type of band very much in mind. Whereas the next one, I got together with the guys a couple of times, and I just couldn’t hear a way to help it make sense. So having done that, and then with the electric, I had to step up a bit in terms of what I was playing on the guitar, and so I guess doing the solo shows is kind of like that again a bit. I haven’t done it across all my material, there’s some where I’d like to spend a good month per song and really figure it out, find a better guitar arrangement so you get as much of it as I can possibly do while singing. Some of them, I have like that, and it’s fun for me. If there’s a bass line that feels really integral, I’ve got to find a way to pull that off with a guitar part. So it’s a challenge, and I kind of like that.
Your first record, King Hokum, was a more solo affair in many ways, and that term has appeared throughout your career as a character and narrative tool. Where did the name ‘King Hokum’ come from? Most people vaguely know what ‘Hokum’ means – what does it mean to you?
I had it on a poster years ago. And I just had like a headshot out of a photo booth, and I bought some of those letraset where you rub those letters off out onto the page. I made a really plain CW Stoneking page, put “Blues, Rags, Hokum”, I put my types of songs I was playing. Back then I was playing lots of cover songs, old stuff, and then I liked to look at the word “Hokum” on the page. I started saying “Hokum” a lot, that’s what I decided to put on my posters when I was playing around those shitty little gigs. When I came to make the record, “King of Hokum” sounded kinda cheesy, but “King Hokum” I liked.
That character, along with the theatricality of your music, helps to give your audience a sense that they’re being immersed in a different world.
I think that’s what people like about it.
Do you feel that when onstage you’re playing a character?
I don’t really, I get asked about that a lot, the persona. It’s funny, when I’m singing a tune, where there’s something happening, like “Jungle Lullaby”. I don’t really feel like that, I feel more like a singer than a character. I’m trying to convey a feeling, I’m also thinking about a type of feeling. I know people get it like that. If you ever saw me act, I’m really bad like that. I can do it when I’m singing, I don’t feel I can act. If you put a camera on me, I’m the most wooden, just terrible.
I guess it’s almost the sense that it’s cinematic, and ‘Jungle Lullaby’, it’s almost as if Spike Milligan wrote the script. It certainly has the air of one of his tongue-in-cheek children’s stories.
It’s mean to be like lurid, some paperback cheap jungle comic book novel.
Perhaps more Joseph Conrad, then.
Yeah a bit of that, you know a dimestore version of Joseph Conrad set to music.
When your audience comes to see you perform, there is certainly the sense of it being a circus, with different styles, characters and atmospheres, which you play up to with your touring posters. When Gon’ Boogaloo came out, I was really impressed with how you managed to achieve rolling such a diverse array of genres into one pressing.
It was very tricky, because depending on how you arrange the songs, it can sound not so cohesive. Making the track listing was really the hardest thing of putting that together so it gave it the sense of unity. There were definitely ways that it didn’t sound unified. It took me a lot of doing.
Do you feel that there is as much of narrative in Gon’ Boogaloo as Jungle Blues, the latter of which has this great sense of adventure and expedition?
Yeah, I think there is more, in a way. Jungle Blues had a flavour, but I think, Gon Booglaoo was more personal in what’s behind the words, than perhaps I did before.
Do you feel that the more personal tone indicates that there is more confidence in your writing as you’ve continued to record and release music?
No, I wasn’t confident at all. No, I don’t know why it is. Perhaps I just sweated over it more.
It was 2014 that Gon’ Boogaloo came out. Have you got anything else in the works at the moment?
Well, I’m sort of working on stuff. The last record and this one, I wanted to work on something that I didn’t really know how to do, so it’s a little slow to learn something new.
Right. Because that is a real theme with your material, with each album seeing a progression, whether from a more acoustic sound to an electrified, or in terms of production. Gon’ Boogaloo only utilised two strategically placed microphones for the purposes of recording. Do you find that to be a challenge, or is it your preferred method of working?
As far as the record, technique, I didn’t really know anything about it on the first record. The last one, I wanted to record it simply, but not quite so simple as I did. It was just how it rolled on the day; problem-solving, moving shit along, that was where we got to in the end.
It’s old-school by default. Is it a simpler way for you to record?
It was easy, and it was fun. I wouldn’t say the way I did it, making it up on the spot, is the best way to showcase the arrangements of the song, it’s not really ideal for that. Probably a lot of my intended musical content, ideas in the songs probably didn’t really get revealed to their full potential, do you know what I mean? But it was how it came out at the time.
All words by Henry Baroche – author profile.
Henry Baroche has a band called Mad King Ludwig and the Mojo Co who fans of CW may also like.