Basement Tapes
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Since forming out of the remnants of the Gibson Bros, the wily Columbus, Ohio legends who bent blindman blues and varied forms of country to their punkish aesthetic in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the Bassholes have carved out their own path through the backwoods of weird Americana for more than a decade. A two-piece out of economy before such things were in vogue, guitarist Don Howland and drummer Bim Thomas (who replaced original skinsman Rich Lillash after a few years) have created a wild and varied catalog that adheres to no other template than the one in their own minds. Sure the same influences that informed Howland when he was with the Gibsons continue to reverberate in what he does, but with the Bassholes, he’s never stuck to any strict parameters, being just as likely to cover Joy Division as Blind Lemon Jefferson, and incorporating an idiosyncratic assortment of ideas lyrically and sonically.

Though once Columbus-based, Howland now lives in Asheville, North Carolina and Thomas, who also plays with This Moment in Black History, resides in Cleveland, making recording and performing increasingly sporadic in recent years. The band has only recently released a follow-up to the self-titled album that the Dead Canary label put out in 2005. For the new album (their seventh), the barely titled ...And Without a Name, the duo teamed with the reputable Columbus Discount Records, both to release the album and to record it (at Columbus Discount Recording). It is perhaps the band’s brashest album yet, skipping the esoterics for pure white heat.

I got a hold of Howland on the phone to discuss the new album and his continuing motivation for making music.

Let’s talk about this new record. The first thing that struck me was that it’s a bit noisier in comparison to the last one.

Don Howland: Yeah, it’s a bit noisier. That first song (“Little Boy Blues”) comes out of there completely fried.

Was that your intention going in or was it more of a product of working with CDR, as opposed to Workbook?

DH: Well, it was both. We’ve always alternated between a hi-fidelity, respectable recording and then a psycho one. The first one (Blue Roots) was psycho, the second one, Haunted Hill, was recorded in a big studio and kind of normal. Then Deaf Mix was weird and Blue Moon Turns Red Again was normal. We definitely went in there with that intention. But those guys at Columbus Discount were fantastic. The very first night we did the track, “Swannanoa River,” that became the sort of dub song on the record. When we went into the mixing room, Adam (Smith) was doing stuff a lot like early-70s dub records. At that point, I knew that he was a kindred spirit. I look at the record as a collaboration between the Bassholes and Adam and BJ (Holsapple) at CDR. All-in-all, those guys contributed a lot to the idea that we were going to make a really fucked-up record. They took it beyond where I knew it could go. I love the sound of that opening track. It sounds like a 1950s blues record with all the crap on the needle, and when the drums come in, it just explodes. That was the idea of the song, but those guys amplified the intention. It was almost like a hip-hop sensibility, where you take the good parts and isolate them with samples or by the way you mix it. They’re kind of like children of the Bomb Squad in a way.

In addition to just being noisier, there’s a larger ambiance to the record, and you’ve said in the past that each room that you record in has an influence on the sound. Would you say that’s the case here?

DH: Yeah, absolutely. The basement down there is as comfortable a place as any I’ve recorded in outside of my own basement. There’s something about a basement maybe. Contrasting this record with making the Dead Canary album—not saying anything remotely bad about Workbook or spending money on a studio—it just wasn’t much fun. Bim and I were going at each other a little and it was just like “fuck, fuck, fuck.” At CDR, it was a blast from the minute we got there. I’d be happy making every record that I make for the rest of my life down there with those guys. And really cool stuff happened. We were recording and all of a sudden this Italian guy walks in. It turned out it was some guy I met a couple years ago on a Bassholes tour and his band was playing across the street at the Carabar. So after we were done recording, we went over there and saw this really good Italian band. The odds of something like that happening are kind of slim and it just seemed to characterize the whole experience.

It’s weird, you’d think that the places that are expensive and have furniture and all that kind of stuff would be really nice. But the studio there is just a basement. It’s nice and dry, but it’s a basement. Still it feels a thousand times better than those places that try to look like a living room or something and cost a lot of money.

I don’t think people associate you with recording in fancy studios...

DH: No, not really! Workbook might have been the fanciest. The one Bassholes record that came out as a double-album (When My Blue Moon Turns Red Again), we recorded at this really expensive place in Los Angeles—expensive by my standards, like $80 or $100 an hour, which is insane to me. It was a place where famous bands went. There was carpeting everywhere. It was a very hollow experience. Recording at Sun Studio was like playing in the lobby of a tourist attraction. It was weird and cost like $100 an hour. There’s a place down here called Echo Mountain. It costs a fortune, and all these bands come down here to record now. It’s in a restored church, and they spent a fortune on it. I don’t want to go in the place or even know what's its address is. I don’t like places like that. Maybe it’s a character flaw, but I’ve always liked playing in basements.

You mentioned that with the Dead Canary record there was some conflict between you and Bim. Some bands feed off of conflict, but do you operate better when you’re getting along?

DH: I could easily name on one hand, or even just three fingers, the times we’ve been cranky with one another. I hate tension within bands, but we get along great. It’s a nice arrangement. He’s got his life and I’ve got mine, and when we get together, we can just be the Bassholes.

I can’t really see doing something like this, which amounts to just a little more than a hobby in terms of impact—you couldn’t do something like this, where there’s no money, unless you really enjoyed the company of the people you are in a band with.

Do you think you’d have had the longevity that you’ve had if you were trying to do this full-time and were in a van together six months out of the year?

DH: No, I went into the Bassholes hating touring, so that was never a consideration. Our one brush with fame, I suppose—on this level anyway—was when we had the Matador record. They wanted that over-produced double-album on In the Red (When My Blue Moon Turns Red Again), and instead I gave them Long Way Blues, which to me is by far the best record we ever did. It was just so freaking weird, they didn't promote us at all. We could have toured and played with Matador bands a lot, but we really didn’t do that. We opened a couple shows for Yo La Tengo. Man, talk about pain! Oh my god that was rough. I like people who have a particular sensibility to mine, and I don’t think there are that many.

One song on the record that stands out in particular is “(I Like) Smoke & Lightning”...

DH: I’ve been hearing that a lot. That was a home recording, like a lot of the songs on Long Way Blues. I’m going to record another solo album on the four-track, and stuff like that will be on it. I’ll probably be happier than on the last one.

I had a hard time tracking down one of those thumb pianos, a kalimba, for that song. I finally found one that was totally homemade; it was made out of a coconut gourd. I love doing stuff like that. I just have to get my head together to do more songs like that.

So that wasn’t done at CDR? You did it on your own?

DH: Yeah, but I overdubbed the kalimba at CDR.

Did you want that song to contrast with the rest of the album?

DH: I think of Bassholes songs more as mood pieces than as different types of songs or different dynamics. If the song’s the right kind of weird then it all fits together for me.

With the one song continuing from side one to side two, were you thinking of this record more in terms of an album as opposed to a collection of songs?

DH: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think the real reason people miss vinyl isn’t because of any of the hiss that supposedly lends warmth. It's just that the form is perfect, where you have 18-20 minutes to a side. It’s two halves to one whole instead of a mass of stuff. I love records that do that, where a song is the last groove on one side and then the first on the next. It’s cool.

I was curious about the thought behind covering “New Values,” seeing as that album is generally not considered some of Iggy’s best work.

DH: Oh, I don’t know—that was the last record that James Williamson played on. I think that was the one solo record he did that was fantastic and stood up to the two David Bowie–produced albums. And the song just kicks ass. Like “Search and Destroy,” it has a blasting James Williamson guitar solo that comes out of nowhere. I love the lyrics to it—I love everything about that song! The trick was to find somebody who can match that guitar solo. In Columbus, we only have to call Derek DiCenzo. The man’s an assassin; he just comes in with all this stuff and sets up and goes to work. So that solo came off. When you’re trying to do something like pay homage to a James Williamson guitar solo, there’s only two things you can do. You can try to sound like it and come up short or you can just blast it into the next universe. So yeah that worked out well.

Was calling the album And Without a Name a way to avoid titling the record?

DH: Yeah, pretty much! As I get older, it seems easier to come up with catchy guitar phrases, but the lyrics are another matter altogether. So I was thinking this was a way to have it be without a name and still have a title.

You said you were having a hard time with lyrics. Is it a matter of material?

DH: The songs are like little surrealist stories, and I can still do it, but it’s not at will. Stuff comes to me when I’m going to sleep, and I don’t know if I’m hitting some age or if there’s something wrong with me, but I’ll have a thought in my head and I can feel it dissolve the way a dream does when you wake up. I just don’t keep things in my head as long anymore.

You once said something like you’d rather be asleep than awake, that dreams are more exciting than real life. Do you still feel like that?

DH: Yeah, I’d still say that, and that’s why the whole prospect of death doesn’t scare me too much. But you can’t have a positive outlook on death or people think you’re suicidal or something. It’s really too bad the way we treat that whole idea of not existing. But life’s... a blast for a fair amount of time, but the hours in between get tedious.

The CDR blurb for the album makes it out to be political. Would you agree with that?

DH: Well, things got a little rushed at the end and Adam did that. I thought that was an interesting take on it and sounded good, but the record is no more political than anything that’s preoccupied me before. The Wooden Tit record got kind of political. The guy playing bass was the editor for a paper that compiled pieces from foreign press and Reuters that we don't get, so it looked like a left-wing magazine even though it was just reporting the truth. The ’90s always seemed like a nothingness, kind of empty, like the way people remember the 1950s. It seemed like, well, an extension of the ’80s, which was a total nothingness. But now there’s no ignoring how completely messed up things are. That’s a lot of people’s sensibilities right now, whether they acknowledge it or not. People are preoccupied—even if it’s just on a subconscious level—but preoccupied nonetheless with this demise that we’re facing and the human inability to sacrifice or comes to grip with it. It’s sad watching people function. It’s pathetic. I’m speaking of the wider species, not people I know.

You touched on the solo album and Wooden Tit and you're also doing Burning Bus, right?

DH: Yeah, we went to Gonerfest. I don’t really like the garage rock thing and that whole mentality, but Gonerfest got it right. There was some really great stuff there. But I don’t know, that band is something to do, but it’s not the same as playing with Bim or Wooden Tit. The Wooden Tit bass player lost it for a little while so that band was on a multi-year hiatus. But I love that band, and that Wooden Tit record to me is as good as the best Bassholes records.

Is doing those bands a matter of wanting to make music and not having Bim around or do you find yourself able to accomplish things that you don’t think would work with the Bassholes?

DH: It’s fun doing music, and I don’t have anything else that I want to do with my free time. I feel liberated from relationships. I was in one that was time consuming, or psyche consuming. I got out of it, and I said, “Fuck, I’m totally done with this.” It was like taking off a yoke. A lot of the Bassholes stuff has overdubbed guitar parts, but I like what can be done with three pieces, four pieces or five pieces.

Having written about music yourself, do you find things written about the Bassholes to be preposterous or are you more sympathetic to music journalists?

DH: I’m more sympathetic, but the one thing that gets me is when they spell stuff wrong. Can’t they read! But not a lot has been written about the Bassholes, and of what has been written, it’s almost 100% fan-oriented, by people who like the band. So if someone likes the band, I’m always happen to agree with them. If we ever did sell enough records to put one out on a bigger label, then you’re making records being bought by people who don’t really care or get it. Then you crash after you’ve done that, not just for the fact that your records are in the cut-out bin, but that you attained something and failed. There would at least be the sense of a sad ending. We never had that or anything close to it, so I feel lucky that way. Or no, not lucky, as that never would have happened anyway by design.

One last question, since we are living in the age of the indie rock band reunions...

DH: Oh, the Gibson Brothers.

Any chance?

DH: Dan (Dow) and Ellen (Hoover) have always wanted to do it, and I've always wanted to do it, so it’s just been a matter of talking Jeff (Evans) into doing it. I’ve tried over the years. I don’t even begin to understand his thinking on the matter. It has something to do with him not wanting to be remembered for the Gibson Bros. He wants his more recent stuff to say who he is. But of all the bands who could do a really good reunion, it would be us because we sounded like retarded old people in the beginning and now we actually are retarded old people. I’d like to do it and record an album with CDR. You know what? After I get done talking with you, I’ll give Jeff a call about that again.