"The ocean: It's all about the vast blue that engulfs two thirds of the planet. The human being cast against that abyss creates an interesting bit of perspective. I think the sailors of the time were dancing with death, and these were their tunes. They resonate with people on some internal level that is not immediately obvious because it's not in our memory, it's in our blood. It operates on a cellular level. It's what makes us feel so alone."
So first of all a sea chantey (often spelled shanty) is a work song that was sung on the ol' ships in the day. Rhythmically they matched the activity speed of these men hauling on lines. Many of them are really filthy. Many are very beautiful. They aren't really sung these days because modern day rigging doesn't really need a lot of people working in the same rhythm for long periods of time. A sea song is a song about a life at sea from a narrative or personal point of view. A pirate ballad is a song telling a tale of pirates. I knew none of this when Brett Gurewitz and Andy Kaulkin asked me if I wanted to produce an album of sea chanteys for Anti/Epitaph. Without thinking, I immediately said yes - it had instant appeal for me as I knew absolutely nothing about the subject and the potential for failure was huge. Actually, I did have a starting point. And it was "Blood Red Roses".
As a mere PRAT at age 15 I listened non-stop to the radio station WDAS-FM in Philadelphia. WDAS at the time was an eclectic commercial rock station that played the most adventurous music of the time, like King Crimson, Dr. John, Jimi Hendrix, & Captain Beefheart along with the Firesign Theatre, Orson Welles Radio Shows, Yoko Ono, and Impulse!-type jazz in the late hours. With that type of programming, the station basically appealed to teenage boys with lots of acne and no girlfriends. Anyway, on Sunday nights at 10 PM there was a folk music show hosted by Gene Shay, a music scholar and magician. At the time, folk wasn't really my kind of music - I liked Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, etc., but that was the extent of it. I listened anyway because if it was on WDAS, then it must be worth listening to (it was the 70s folks!). Shay played the best - Cisco Houston, Dave Van Ronk, Bert Jansch, Sandy Denny, Mississippi John Hurt, and I also remember hearing John Jacob Niles on that show. One particular evening, Shay programmed a whole show of Sea Chanteys. Besides being in some Popeye cartoons, I never heard this type of call & response music and I couldn't wait until the show was over. But there was one song, "Blood Red Roses," which was fascinating. Accompanied by the sound of chains, it sounded like a bunch of drunken mental patients singing "Go down ya blood red roses - Go Down!" It was a powerful and endless song and, though it was over 35 years since that night, I was able to sing most of it.
Going backwards a bit - this project was actually born in the mind of film director Gore Verbinski and enhanced by the actor Johnny Depp. They were filming "Pirates of the Caribbean II" and very much ensconced in a lot of pirate culture and songs of the time. Gore is a long-time friend of Brett Gurewitz and they discussed recording a multi-artist record of this stuff. Brett pointed out that sea chanteys were kind of an early form of punk music and would make a great album. Now all they needed was some Bozo to spearhead this. Anyway I got offered the gig and we are caught up now.
Looking at a blank slate, I started by going to a few record stores, spending time on eBay & other online services and started collecting all the relevant recordings I could get my hands on. At first, I was a bit concerned that most of these songs and chants don't really have song structure as some of us like. Many of these songs are verses over and over again with a one line chorus like "heave ho boys heave away" (hey wasn't "The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald" a sea chantey - NOOOOO!!!! - it was actually a railroad chantey). But, as I continued, it occurred to me that with exception of some collectors and scholars, this was a totally unexplored kind of folk music. From the different ports these songs come from - Liverpool, Cape Cod, South Australia, etc., one can hear melodies that later popped up in folk and pop songs and in particular, in Beatles songs - they were from Liverpool where they probably grew up with some of these melodies in their subconscious...seems like a good theory anyway.
I found some amazing recordings, including these Alan Lomax produced chanteys of real old sailors from America and the Caribbean - great traditional ones by Paul Clayton, A.L. Lloyd, Lou Killen, Bob Davenport, Ian Campbell, Oscar Brand, Peter Hawes, Dave Van Ronk, and many others. Also many of these songbooks contained songs that had basic sheet music but no existing recordings, and a few books of sailor lyrics with no melody.
I don't know why but I had a difficult time actually getting started. I had collected about 400 of these. Then, using my IMPECCABLE taste and INSTINCT (i.e. lazy procrastinating & guesswork), I narrowed them down to 75 songs that I thought would be right for this record. This process took a few months - I kept getting calls about which artists were committed, etc. but I hadn't figured out whom to contact yet and kept researching.
About two months before the due date, I knew that actual recording had to start. Something about how to interpret the material and make an album of it still eluded me. I talked to my old colleague and friend Bill Frisell about the project. He was spending some time in Seattle and we thought it might be interesting if I just came to Seattle for a few days and we'd "find some people and do some stuff".
So without even a studio booked, up I went. Rachel Fox in New York was frantically trying to find a place to record on 14 hours' notice. Meanwhile Bill and I contacted Robin Holcomb, Wayne Horvitz and Eyvind Kang who were around and got them to come work with us. And it was discovered that the New York-based band Akron/Family were rehearsing for a tour in Seattle. I love all the artists that record for Michael Gira's "Young God Records" and knew their work. Somehow we reached them and I talked them into joining Bill and Eyvind in becoming the "house band" for the Seattle sessions. Also, it was rumored that the great Baby Gramps lived in the Seattle area. A few phone calls later, we located him, and miraculously, he was in town.
We booked a fantastic studio called Bear Creek and moved in for the next two days. All converged and it became an amazing scene - artists from different worlds - many meeting for the first time, interpreting and discovering this music together. We started with an approach that became the norm for the project - playing a bunch of the sea chanteys - picking one - learning it and recording it all within a few hours. Akron/Family cut the ribbon by trying a chantey and a song. Baby Gramps came in looking like Mr. Natural. He had a great version of "Cape Cod Girls" that he'd been singing for years and also wrote one himself called "Old Man of the Sea". Robin Holcomb came in prepared as usual with a beautiful arrangement of "Dead Horse". Frisell did a solo number. There also appeared people in the studio who seemed to wander in, but, if they wanted to sing, so let them - almost everyone there led in a chantey or two - by the end of the second day it seemed like the group had been together for years and it was sad to break it up. I left Seattle with nine songs.
This became the approach for the whole record - get a starting point with a few artists, show up in town, see who's around and record for a few days. In London it started with Bryan Ferry & Nick Cave with Kate St. John and Warren Ellis wrangling the band together, Gavin Friday in Dublin, Joan as Policewoman in New York, & the great Jack Shit trio in Los Angeles. Basically there was hardly a plan when going to a town and the same thing happened - I left with a whole bunch of great tracks - and it was always a drag to break up the musicians assembled.
This project pushed the envelope for the go-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, figure-it-out-when-you-get-there approach more than any project I've ever done, and there has been quite a few done in this direction. It was liberating, fun, and enlightening, and all learned a lot. In fact enough for almost 4 cd's were recorded. On one occasion, we recorded 8 songs with 8 different artists with the same band all in one day; two of the artists didn't even know about the project until an hour before getting called to come over NOW! - for example, in the case of White Magic, Jim White told me about them while we were listening to a playback and I asked him to call and invite them over - two hours later they appeared, went in the backroom with a cd of some chanteys while we were recording other tracks, then came out a few hours later, and we cut "Long Time Ago" with some of the house band.
Considering how this was all recorded, I don't think it sounds at all un-together or sloppy. Maybe the extensive research helped, maybe the nature of the material lent itself to it, but whatever - it came out pretty cool..and it actually got done.
Many many thanks to Andy Kaulkin, Brett Gurewitz, Captain Jack, Gore V. Rachel Fox, Jeff Abarta, Pamela Esterson, Martin Brumbach, Eric Liljestrand, Deidre at Westlake, Liz Devlin, Howard Wuelfing, Edward Helmore, Kathy Schenker, Joe Boyd, Frank Callari, and all the other bully boys and girls who will be saved from the plank on Volume 2 in 2007, Michel Gira, Marc Almond, Robyn Hitchcock, Philip Morgan, Wayne Horvitz, Jessika Kenny, Stephan Smith, Jon Brion, Kembra Phaler, and an extra thanks for Jenni Muldaur for being our "Wild Goose" and for her invaluable help in the UK and New York.
I'll be seeing you.