Bringing Down the Jazz Party, with Dash Rip Rock
Wildman Louisiana guitarist and songwriter Bill Davis has toured his ever-loving ass off with some version or another of his pioneering cow-punk band Dash Rip Rock for some 28 years. DRR’s sixteenth album Black Liquor (Alternative Tentacles) features fewer party anthems ala “Locked Inside A Liquor Store With You” and the band’s glass-ceiling 90s modern rock radio hit, “Let’s Go Smoke Some Pot.” The majority of Black Liquor was devised by Davis while crashing at a fishing camp in the marshland, only reachable by boat – as evidenced by many a Dash lyric, Davis holds the fishing rod as dear as the guitar.
But peaceful bayou surroundings didn’t inspire a peaceful album. Dash’s recent songs are a wee bit slower, leaving more room for Davis ultra-killer guitar shredding. But the lyrics, written with help from Davis’ girlfriend Cheryl Wagner (public radio’s “This American Life,”/ Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around), portend, in a sly, sarcastic, sometimes goofy way, Louisiana’s doom. Let’s just say “black liquor” is not a shot you’d suck out of some Coyote Ugly bartender’s pierced bellybutton.
On December 15, Dash Rip Rock play a rare New Orleans club date at Siberia to celebrate the release of Black Liquor. AntiGravity followed Bill Davis onto a small boat for an interview at the aforementioned inspirational Bayou Dularge fishing camp. But we talked about little outside of the many trout we were catching, and how to make a good ceviche.
So AG later met with Davis at Vaughan’s bar in Bywater to discuss his growing shred-abilities, his business dealings with Jello Biafra, his soon-to-be-released Billy Joe Shaver cover album with Tab Benoit, Dash Rip Rock’s recent induction into Louisiana Music Hall of Fame (after Cowboy Mouth, oh snap!) and the real meaning of “black liquor.”
(interview below this video I made of Bill Davis and me fishing with Jimmy Ford on Bayou DuLarge)
Out on the boat you told me Dash Rip Rock now have 17 albums?
That’s just albums, not 45s and whatnot. Officially Black Liquor is our sixteenth record. The next one is done, it’s with Tab Benoit.
And it’s a Billy Joe Shaver tribute album?
We have toured with Tab and worked with Tab quite a bit, and he’s a big Billy Joe Shaver fan. I was a marginally interested fan; I knew some of his hits. But Tab and his manager proposed that we do a Billy Joe Shaver cover album. Tab produced it. I sang the songs. It’s Dash Rip Rock playing, with Tab doing pedal steel, and we brought in a fiddle player. Lots of acoustic guitar. It’s a country record, but we put a few punk elements in there. We picked really obscure Shaver songs from like, his hidden acoustic tapes. It was an interesting project we did at Tab’s House out in Houma, right on the bayou, where he has a great studio called Whiskey Bayou. We fished while we recorded.
You seem to fish everywhere you record.
Tab had ponds stocked with bass! Studio in the Country, where we recorded Black Liquor with Ben Mumphrey has three ponds.
So Dash is back on Alternative Tentacles Records, your fourth album there. How did you first link up with Jello Biafra?
I met him back maybe in the late 80s at South By Southwest. We kind of had a record collector’s simpatico at the beginning.We were backstage at a show and he came up and introduced himself and said, “I bought your seven-inch,” meaning our first single, “Shake that Girl.” He said he found a copy in San Francisco and he said, “I bought it for $20.” That’s pretty stiff for a Dash Rip Rock record, but he said that was the going rate on that record.
Why ever release a record on another label?
We just always hopped around before we settled in with Jello. We were on 688 Records in Atlanta for a while, we were on Mammoth in North Carolina — Mammoth was incredible, it got picked up by Disney and they had some cool bands, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Juliana Hatfield and the Blake Babies. Then we went to Dr. Dream in San Diego, then we went to Ichiban in Atlanta. Alternative Tentacles is very fair to their bands, they’re very open, they don’t have any hidden books or numbers. They’re very helpful. And just being associated with his political brand is cool. That kind of lifts us up a little bit out of the typical southern band. It’s been amazing being associated with Alternative Tentacles.
Speaking of political… Black Liquor is sort of serious, almost, tackling a lot of Louisiana issues. Water, and the word “river” appear in almost every song.
There’s a lot of rivers, yeah man. Dash will have some whimsical stuff on each record but then some stuff that’s not serious or depressing but not so tongue in cheek or funny. There are a couple songs on this record that are funny – “VooDoo Doll” has some cool lines that make you giggle – but with this record we sort of skipped around the whimsy. I grew up here, I’ve lived in several different towns in South Louisiana, so we take up pollution and levees and the things that can go wrong down here and often do.
I can’t help picturing you at that fishing camp we went to or in that little boat out on those marshes fishing and writing songs about in your head.
Yeah, absolutely. Half of these songs were written out in Dularge on the bayou, away from civilization. You can really cut yourself off when you go out to these camps way out in the marsh. That camp has a swing on the front porch, and oyster boats are going by all day, and the seagulls are swooping around. It’s a real conducive atmosphere for just strumming guitar on the porch. The solitude, no neighbors. At nighttime there’s not a sound, and at 5 in the morning a shrimp boat goes by and that’s your alarm clock.
Dash played a party out there once, you said? It doesn’t seem like there’s enough space for a band to set up on that little bob of marsh.
We had a little boat and a couple of bigger boats and we put the PA and the drums and everything on the boats, and we do a party there every year. The public can anchor their boats and drink beer and watch the band. We’re lit by the bonfire. It really is awesome. There are a few people out there who know who we are, and a few fans would show up in their boats. When I was a kid growing up in Louisiana, we’d be skiing and we’d pull the boat into a bar and watch a band. That’s what the Black Liquor song “Meet Me On the River” is about: going out on your boat, bar to bar, checking out the music.
But it seems mostly like being out there contemplating the land pissed you off a little.
I’ve never made a record that was focused on the state – I always danced around it. But this one is where I tried to address things I like about Louisiana and also things I don’t like about Louisiana. “Black Liquor” is actually a term for a poison spill in the Pearl River that caused a major fish kill. Then there’s the levees breaking down in Braithwaite — that’s what “Dirt” is about.
Criticism is missing from a lot of regional art; so much of it is only pure celebration.
Treme tries to do that but they sort of miss the mark. It’s a good show and pretty representative of what’s going on, but in general the mood of the music and the way the portray the city is always trying to be uplifting — anybody that’s a downer is just bringing down the jazz party. That’s not what I think Louisiana is about. There should always be people bringing the blues. And that’s something Dash has suffered through the years: when we have some biting sarcasm about how things are going politically, we get, “quit singing about that mopey stuff.” We’ve had people say that to us [laughs].
So black liquor is not booze.
Dash has always been this drinking party band, but “black liquor” is actually a pollutant that was dumped in the river in Bogalusa. If you google it, it’s an weird substance, it comes from the paper mill and it is poison. But it can also be used as an alternative fuel, it can be added like ethanol to gasoline. Some people think it’s going to be the saving grace of the oil industry or whatever: a clean fuel that you can burn. But black liquor is a good thing and a bad thing – that’s what’s so strange about the substance. It’s good, but if you dump it into the water it will kill fish.
The writer Cheryl Wagner helped you pen the lyrics?
This was her first time writing songs and she’s a natural, and you can tell the craft that’s been put into the words, you can tell that someone like her chipped in. That’s what makes it special for me. I’d come up with rudimentary lyrics and then she’d pitch in her ideas then we’d put the songs together. She also came to me with two fully formed lyrical songs, “In This World” and “Black Liquor.”
The Dash songs seem to maybe be slowing down a bit.
You know, they are. “Touch of You” and “Beck Moi Tchew” on Black Liquor crank pretty fast, but we’re definitely away from that punkabilly cowpunk sound that was our signature in the 80s.
But you’ve sort of traded a little speed for a lot more crazy guitar shredding. How did you learn to play lead guitar?
There are some great solos on this record. You know, I just watched other guys play. I would go out to bars in Lake Charles and watch other bands, watch what the lead guitar player was doing. I would even watch videos when they started coming out on MTV and I’d pick it up. Then I moved to Nashville in 99 and lived there for six years, and I went out to see every guitar player, just sat and watched them. That just blew my mind. Then finally when YouTube started putting guitar videos up, that was all she wrote. There are so many great how-to videos: ‘How to Play a Country Lick,’ ‘How to Play a Van Halen Lick.’
It sounds like you’re saying you just got into playing lead guitar like five years ago.
Really, I did. Dash was so punk the first decade of the band that I didn’t feel I need to play leads. None of the punk bands had solos. There was no skill required to play punk rock, and we were a punk band for a long time. Then as the music changed a little bit I was like ‘What if I do a ripping lead here?’ And finally people started noticing. They love it. And the lead always sounds so much better if you make the proper faces while you’re playing them, if you grimace like you’re being shot in the gut, people go ‘Gawd, he’s good, what an awesome lead!’
Right, like it hurts him to be that good! So, your alligator guitar – or “alli-guitar” — that’s real?
It was made by John Preble who manages Bobby Lounge the famous lounge singer. He takes a telecaster and takes off the headstock and sticks on a real alligator head. Then he covers the body in Liquid Nails then takes a stick and uses his fingers and makes an alligator skin design, then he paints it so it looks like alligator skin. He made mine for nothing because I go around the country playing it and I have sold like six of those for him. Tab Benoit played it, Glenn Tilbrook (Squeeze) played it. It’s a weird piece of art that’s kind of ugly, kind of a hideous looking thing, but it’s kinda cool for Louisiana. I couldn’t take it to Europe because it had part of an animal body on it. They wouldn’t let it on the plane.
Since you began in 1985, what has been the biggest period for Dash Rip Rock?
It’s debatable. When we started in 88 89, being managed by Kelly Keller, and Jimmy Ford got us on tour with the Dbs. We did some huge tours behind those first three records, which were all top-ten college radio records, and then we were able to go to Europe, and I thought that might have been our biggest period. But then ten years in, in 96 we did “Let’s Go Smoke Some Pot,” and it was the middle of modernrock radio’s take-over with Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana, and the pot song did so well among all those grungy songs, it was sort of an uplifting moment on modern rock radio. Having a radio hit, suddenly you aren’t even playing clubs; in the 80s we played clubs and theatres, then with the pot song we’re playing these giant radio festivals. But those two periods, we sold the same amount of records.
Over 28 years, you’re probably gotten to meet and play with a ton of your heroes.
Oh yeah. I was a huge Cramps fan throughout the 80s and Ivy herself called and invited us to tour with them for two months. And since we were Ivy’s handpicked band, Lux was kind of jealous of us. We had this kind of love/hate relationship with Lux interior. They would come knock on my door at the hotel in the morning and we would go record shopping. To me that was hero worship right there. When I was in Nashville Glenn Tilbrook, the singer of Squeeze, contacted me through a friend – he played with us at VooDoo Fest this year – and he came to Nashville and I put together a band for him and we recorded his record Transatlantic Ping Pong. That was super huge for me; I was such a Squeeze fan through my younger years. I didn’t produce the record but I picked the band members and the studio. Then also meeting the Dbs and getting to know Alex Chilton here in town when I moved back from Nashville, that was another big thing for me. We had the same birthday and he was deeply into the numbers thing.
Tell us about your induction into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame
In the 80’s there were a lot of bands in New Orleans playing punk and new wave, and bands like Cowboy Mouth and Better than Ezra, bands that followed in our footsteps. We were the first band to get played at college radio nationally, the first to get in a van and tour. That’s why we got into the Hall of Fame. We launched a whole movement where bands used our model to go farther than we went with it. So I felt like the Hall of Fame thing was justified [laughs]
Was Cowboy Mouth already in there?
Yeah, they got in there before us. Better Than Ezra too. [smiles] I think they sold a few more records.
Often bandmates part on bad terms and never become friends again, but you actually toured with Cowboy Mouth in 2011. Why did you initially part ways with (ex-DRR drummer) Cowboy Mouth singer/drummer Fred LeBlanc?
When Fred was in Dash Rip Rock, Fred was offered a record deal, a solo deal major label deal. And we were on a indy! He left us to pursue his solo career and we stayed the indy route. We’ve always been friends, and we continue to write songs together. But it was a little ugly when it first happened; we were really hurt that he was gonna stomp out on us. We were in the middle of a deal with Island records when it happened. So it kinda burned us for a little while. The guy from Island then had a heart attack in his bathtub the week he was supposed to sign us. We’ve had some weird moments where we were right on the cusp and some weird twist of fate happened. But it’s just the way life is.
Dash Rip Rock play Siberia with King Louie and the Cons and the Prose on Sat., Dec. 15.