Whether you know it or not, you will be familiar with John Wheeler, but whether your acquaintance goes no further than Hayseed Dixie’s rollicking bluegrass versions of AC/DC songs, or the introspective poetry of ‘Keeping Your Poop (in a jar)’, you could be forgiven for thinking he wouldn’t have much that was interesting to say that doesn’t concern beer or guns. In fact, Wheeler, whose thoughtfully serious solo album Un-American Gothic is out this month, has a PhD, and an informed opinion on everything to go with his undoubtedly anarchistic side. And the man loves to talk; in fact, we talk for 25 minutes before I reach my first question, one which surely most listeners must have asked themselves…
Was Hayseed Dixie a joke, at the beginning?
I just didn’t think anything about it one way or the other. I thought I’d sell 25 copies, and people would play it at parties. It wasn’t a joke, more an experiment, I had my own little studio, and I was recording demos for songwriters, which was still a viable business because at that point, there was a bit more of a record industry left. I was making a decent little living off it, which was allowing me to make some money, buy equipment, and sit around and play acoustic guitar and fiddle all day. So the first record, was actually mostly played by myself and Mike Daly who played pedal steel for Hank Williams Jnr, and I got the guys in who played on demos. I made a lot of goofy records, or maybe I should say experimental; I made a record called Beat the Meatles, which was pornographic remakes of Beatles songs, which was really just an excuse for me to try to reproduce their sound. Some of those records were original; me and a friend went out, drank beer, and wrote songs about every one of our ex girlfriends; there were stacks of these records, and this was just an experiment, you know, “I wonder what that would sound like”. Then one day, about three months after we’d made it, it started turning up on morning radio shows, and we had done nothing to promote it, just made 25 copies and that was it.
I started getting all these phone calls that the record was being played, so I thought “If this record is getting played, I might as well try to get a record deal.” Only one record company was interested, and I thought it would sell 4,000 copies, and I’d get to play live a bit, but the damn thing sold a quarter of a million copies, and I thought “We’d better get out and play some shows”, and the record company was really keen to have a follow up, but there was no band. So, I got some guys together, with no expectation that it would become a career, we thought we’d just do a little tour, and you know, that was 2001, and here we are now! We never really had any sort of plan or any vision, but we just followed our nose, and by the time we got to 2005, when we found someone to put the record out in Europe, we had become a pretty good band.
What’s important to you musically? How do you decide what gets on a record and what doesn’t?
Mainly we’ve always just tried to keep the vibe the same, which has proved to be a little bit difficult over the years, with record labels saying “How can we make this bigger”, but we just want to keep the themes as drinking, cheating, killing and hell, the four key elements of any blue collar music. We basically keep things pretty much the same.
Wait a minute, that’s not even remotely true; you made an album entirely in Norwegian in 2011!
All the songs are still about drinking, cheating, killing and hell, and it still sounds like Hayseed Dixie, it’s just in Norwegian! We had been doing a lot of work in Norway, and we got drunk in a bar in Oslo, and thought “Hey, why don’t we just make an album in Norwegian?” I guess a lot of people have crazy ideas at 2am in a bar, but maybe not everyone follows them through the next day! A lot of people in Norway said it was great because when has an American band ever done a record in Norwegian? I don’t think it’s ever been done.
For all the mayhem associated with Hayseed, the band members are seriously capable musicians; what’s your relationship with mainstream bluegrass audiences like?
I don’t think we have a relationship, but really, that scene is actually not very big. Put it this way, we never played any America bluegrass festivals! I really feel that in a lot of ways, Hayseed Dixie has turned a lot more people worldwide to bluegrass instruments than any of these real traditionalists. I’ve never understood that traditional attitude; it’s like if rock and roll all had to sound like Buddy Holly. The worst thing about it is that it’s not even any fun for them. There’s enough stuff in the world that ain’t fun, man. We’ve played a lot of folk festivals; I actually live in Cambridge because I met my wife at the Cambridge Folk Festival. I didn’t go there to meet a wife, but you know, we got to Cambridge, and they had only provided half of our beer rider. That’s really important to us, so I leaned on the guy with the radio a bit, to get someone who could solve our beer problem, and along comes this chick with red hair and green eyes, and I ended up marrying the woman who I had to shout at about the beer.
So, Hayseed has been a big success; what was the drive to do a solo album?
After 11 years, it started to feel like an assembly line, like we were just delivering the show, and we weren’t really enjoying it any more. The mandolin and banjo players were just sick of it, they just wanted to go fishing. I enjoy it, but I like travelling by motorbike, learning enough of the language to piss people off and start a fight, and you know, just get the best out of it. They wanted to take a break, and I had some songs which aren’t a million miles away from Hayseed, but aren’t about drinking, cheating, killing or hell, they were more like story songs, so I made a record of that. I like to learn about the places I visit, the history, what’s the industry, what it used to be, and those conversations are really behind those songs. I met a guy in Pontypridd, a teacher, who would be trying to teach kids basic arithmetic, and they’d be saying to him “I don’t need to know this. I’m never gonna get a job”, and you know, there are some places where, if you want to be the person you can really be, you have to leave. The thing is, you can still feel a connection to the place you come from, and it can be kind of bittersweet, and I went back to the hotel and wrote that as a song. The people who come to our shows to have a real good piss-up and hear guys play rock songs on a banjo real fast may not get this record, but for those who enjoy our original songs, and our humour, they may enjoy it a great deal. I also hope there will be some people who will like my solo record who didn’t like Hayseed Dixie. You know there’s a whole echelon of people out there who, for some reason, found Hayseed a little lowbrow, and I think that’s a shame.
You’re clearly not a man constrained by the conventional. What record would you make tomorrow, if you knew you couldn’t fail?
Actually, I’ve been really getting back into the piano recently; it was my first instrument, but I gave it up when I was at college, because I was making money playing college parties and electronic keyboards were stupidly expensive. Anyway, I hadn’t played piano in about 20 years, but now I want to do a rock and roll version of Saint-Saens’ second piano quartet. I’m not talking about playing it with the London Philharmonic, oh no, I’ve got it arranged for piano, guitar, bass and drums, I want to absolutely rock it out all to hell. I’m working on it, but it’s piano fireworks all over the place; it’s stupid hard to play, with lots of call and response with the orchestra. I think if I could find the right cats to do it with, I think it would blow people’s minds, or maybe they’d just say “What the hell?” I guess it could be the end of my career, but you did ask. I really like the way acoustic guitar and piano work together; my wife is really worried that my show will end up really expensive, because I’m way too much of a purist to use a digital piano; I’ll end up needing to take a piano everywhere with me, and then I’ll spend hours messing around and tuning it every time. It’s not just the sound, you need to feel that instrument vibrating under your fingers; I’m damn sure I can tell what chord I’m playing by the keys vibrating, even if I can’t hear.
You’ve played over 1,000 shows with Hayseed; what have been your best and worst live experiences?
Everybody that grows up in a town has a particular venue that they really wanted to go and see bands at, and in America, you probably couldn’t even go there until you were 21. There was this venue in Nashville called The Exit Inn, which has been there since the 60s, and when I was at college learning to play, all the bands I wanted to see played that room. It’s not a huge room, only like 400 people, but we played that place one January, when the place was covered in snow, and we sold the place out. Something kind of sunk in to me that night that I actually was a professional musician, I was standing on the stage where I always wanted to see other people play, not thinking “I’ve made it, I’ve arrived”, but just thinking “I’m legitimate”. It’s not that significant in terms of gigs, I mean we opened the main stage at Glastonbury, though that was just kind of like playing at people, they just looked they were on a television set; it was hard to feel I was playing to them, it was more like playing in their general direction. Selling out the Exit Inn on a snowy January night meant more than that to me.
Then there was one time in 2003 when we got booked to play a caravan and camper convention. We turned up, and there was nobody there under the age of 70, and there was no alcohol. The woman walked up to me and asked if we could play ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’, and I asked if she had heard any of our records, and she said, “No, but I heard y’all are one of the best bluegrass bands out there”. So we went out and played a set of traditional bluegrass songs, which was fun, but then afterwards, people wanted to buy records, but our first record was ‘Highway To Hell’, and we couldn’t sell ‘em that, and the second one opens with ‘I’m Keepin’ Your Poop (in a jar)’, and our t-shirts had “We’ve got big balls” on the back, and on the front it said “Hayseed Dixie – because it ain’t gonna lick itself”, so we told them we didn’t have anything to sell. I like to think that one of those old ladies walked into WalMart, saw ‘Highway to Hell’, and thought “It’s those nice boys that played at our RV convention”, and got a bit of a shock.
Neither of those was the funniest though. We somehow got booked to play a show supporting Lynyrd Skynyrd, and we’re there in front of 26,000 people and someone shouts out, “Freebird!” the way people do, and we thought, “Hey, why not?” So we’re playing a bluegrass version, and I’m doing the lead parts on fiddle, and you know, maybe when you’re supporting a band, playing their material is bad form? So I look over to the side of the stage, and there are all the guys from Skynyrd, and they think it’s hilarious, and are giving us thumbs up. Then we look to the other side, and there’s all their management and promotional team, and they’re all flipping us the bird and cursing. We chose to exit the stage on the band’s side…
1,000 shows must have given you some insight into getting a great stage sound; what gear do you use?
I have never in my life heard a pickup system in a guitar that actually sounds like an acoustic guitar. I’ve tried every system on God’s grey earth, and it baffles me that we can put a man on the moon, but we can’t make a guitar sound like a guitar. I have two pickups in my guitar now, a magnetic one and a pressure zone one, and I end up with more from the magnetic one, because I can do that without feeding back, which you can never do with a piezo, but the sound is a bit more mid-range biased than what you can do with a PZM. For me, the Baggs Ibeam sounds better than most of what else there is out there, but it’s just not that loud, and I’ve found the same thing with any mic system I’ve used. My sound guy puts more of the PZM in the house mix, and my sound guy will turn the magnetic up when I solo. You have to use active direct boxes; passive ones are no good unless you already have a really hot signal. I think the Countryman is the best, and nobody is paying me to say that.
I play a Collings, I got turned on to them years ago; I used to love the sound of Lyle Lovett’s guitar, some of which is just that he’s a really good guitar player, but some of it was definitely his guitar. He thanked Collings in his CD case, so I went out and bought one, and they were nice enough to give me one for touring, which I have used ever since. On the records, I play a Collings SJ50, kind of a little jumbo, with two Schoeps small diaphragm condenser mics in a stereo pair.
Fiddle wise, the absolute best fiddle pickup is from LR Baggs; the pickup is built into a bridge, so you have to get someone to actually cut your bridge for you. I don’t really know why anyone sells anything else.
John’s debut solo album Un-American Gothic is due for release on Feb 42013, and whilst it’s not quite bluegrass, fans of Americana will be very happy with it. Expect a few twists though, this is John Wheeler, after all; the slow, mellow piano version of Eton Rifles, recorded to ensure that David Cameron (who claims this is his favourite song, despite it being a damning indictment of him and all he stands for) can understand the lyrics properly.