Since we interviewed Cory Branan during our recent SXSW coverage last month, we decided to have some fun and dig a bit deeper the second time around with the punk-meets-roots troubadour. For our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One, we went track-by-track with Branan to get his thougths about each and every song on his compellingly adventurous new album ADIOS.
“I Only Know” (with Laura Jane Grace and Dave Hause)
Branan: This one is a minute and 46 seconds of sustained optimism, which is about as long as I can go down that route. The song originated when I was just playing guitar as my son was running around the house one day. I was just playing along to his energy, making up a melody, and singing gibberish lyrics. Eventually, it started taking shape from there.
As the song started taking shape, I immediately heard Laura Jane Grace’s voice singing along with me, so I knew I’d have to have her on the record. I never really invite anyone to be on my records unless I sort of already hear them in my head naturally. Likewise, I always heard Dave Hause in my head for another song on the album, but when he started to do his vocal for that song, I already had Laura’s finished vocal for this one and I thought “Let’s take a crack at a three-part vocal here.” Both of them can sing above me and it just came together so nicely.
Branan: The whole idea about this being a “death record” is more because there needs to be some “story” for the press side of things. While there are a lot of songs about death, there’s also the bigger theme of “what do you do when the veneer wears off” – when you’ve been kicked in the teeth and the ass enough that you’ve lost your idealism. I wanted to approach that authentically without coming across as being naively optimistic.
When I first wrote “Imogene,” I had that opening instrumental part and I felt it could be a big riff, but in a laid back, Stax Records sort of way. For the first time, I played all of the guitars myself on this record. So I wrote parts relative to the vocals and I didn’t have the same worries I’ve had in the past about trying to figure out how to recreate something that a flawless player like Luther Dickinson contributed that I’d never be able to play myself. Over the years, I’ve been learning that what you do in the studio doesn’t have to be exactly how you recreate it live every night. So I’ve been trying to put more personality in some of the vocals like “Imogene” where it feels appropriate and not just always be as intense as I am when I’m playing live, which is a different beast altogether.
Branan: This is a song about a girl living in a small town that makes her feel even smaller. It could be set anywhere in the world, especially a lot of the places I’ve lived. When we were recording this one, we were getting dangerously close to Springsteen/E Street territory, but that’s the direction the sound wanted to go. Coming out of that sophisticated bridge, I initially wanted to take the song down, but it just wanted that sax solo so bad! Robbie Crowell, who played drums and keys on the record, also played the horns. I told him “I know you’re a tasteful player, so that lick you’re going to save for the end of the solo, I want you to start with it.”
Later, I was messing around one night and I ran that part through my old Jimmy Page Tonebender fuzz pedal. So it’s actually a sax solo run through a fuzz pedal, giving it that ‘50s sound of naturally overloading the microphone.
“Yeah, So What”
Branan: This one’s actually an old song that I wrote years ago. We just cut the record so fast that we had some time to play around with some of my old stuff and the band locked on to that one so fast. Anytime you use certain instruments in a certain way, it’s going to feel like a nod to a particular artist. Anytime you throw a Farfisa or a Continental on a revved up song, you’re going to hear Elvis Costello and The Attractions. We also kept the drums dry on that one, which sounds like early Police, Zenyatta Mondatta territory. The vocals were also doubled and kept dry to let the organ take over the room, and that’s a technique that’s been used by everybody from Billy Joel on “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” to Ziggy Stardust. That album rocks so hard because of the way Bowie’s vocals come right out of the speaker into your face like that.
“You Got Through”
Branan: I wrote “You Got Through” literally the day before we started recording. I got to the studio ahead of the band and our engineer Andrew Ratcliffe had an old Martin acoustic guitar, like from 1921 or something. It looked like it had been pulled out of an old shipwreck. It was so beautiful. It ended up being the main acoustic guitar on the record. I started playing it and had already been working out some of the lyrics on the way to the studio.
It ended up being about a guy looking for true love but going about it the wrong way in the wrong places. I thought it’d be nice to have a song about the empty side of sex but that was still naively hopeful.
Branan: This is another old one. I wrote this one within a year of my father dying and he’s been gone for seven years now. When I first wrote it, I didn’t play it live because I thought it was too specific and too insular. I usually will cast things in a different light and not be so autobiographical. I was just afraid that it didn’t open up enough to be useful for other people. Luckily, my wife encouraged me to get out of my own head and play it live a few times to see what happened. As soon as I started playing it a few times, the response was remarkable. Initially, I thought the stoic father who didn’t say a lot of words was a southern thing. As it turns out, it’s not a southern thing at all. It’s just a father-son thing. It turned out to be a lot more universal than I thought.
It’s tricky to put a whole life in a three-minute song and I also wanted to do my old man justice. He was a funny guy with a big heart. He was a lot things and I wanted to find the right thing that was the anchor to the song that still felt human and real. I mean, the second verse was about some of the shitty advice that he gave me. I wanted to show him as he was. He was flawed, but he was my father. He was a giant and this is my broad-stroke tribute to him.
Branan: That particular town is a little nothing town and the only reason I know about it is because I used to date a girl from there. However, I’m really proud to be from Mississippi. I was born in Memphis and raised in Mississippi. I’m proud of the musical heritage, but it’s a double-edged sword because there’s a shitty reason that the music comes from there. It’s a complicated region. Some of the better parts of the European tradition are still in there – some of the gothic elements and such – and there are some awful attitudes and ideas that are hanging on as well. Some of it just feels so locked in time. Small towns don’t have much separation of people, so the mingling of cultures leads to some of the worst racial clashes and it also gave us rock and roll, you know? Like most hometowns, I love it and it breaks my heart.
This one also taps into my whole eternal grip with small towns about people not minding their own business. I grew up where if somebody’s not getting hurt right in front of you, you keep to yourself. People don’t seem to do that in small towns. They want to know about everything.
“Cold Blue Midnight”
Branan: I had the idea of writing this song as being sung to a woman from the perspective of someone that is dead. As a subtle narrative shift though, in the last verse, the guy’s not even there. It’s just her and her grief the whole time. She’s letting her grief sing to her and she’s singing the last verse. From a songwriting perspective, it’s a hard pivot to do and there’s no way to draw attention to it that wasn’t clumsy. I wanted it to feel like quicksand, like something that’s very comfortable to sink into before the panic sets in.
Sonically, I try to tell stories with the instrumentation as well. So those giant Black Sabbath riffs and the fuzz guitar that come in, those aren’t just jarring for jarring’s sake. I’m always working to support the lyrics and I love the lulling, hypnotic parts on that one.
“Another Nightmare In America” (with Dave Hause)
Branan: I started writing this one a year and a half ago or so. It’s an anti-police brutality song that’s both nuanced and not nuanced. I understand that everyone who’s involved in a wrongful shooting is not a racist, but I also get that unarmed black teenagers get shot and unarmed white teenagers don’t. It’s pretty clear. It’s not an anti-cop song or an anti-law and order song. I mean, cops don’t even like racist cops. It makes them look bad.
This was another song I was doing a sonic experiment with, trying to make it so catchy that you sort of bop along and don’t exactly catch what’s going on in the lyrics. It’s like how we go through the day and don’t acknowledge these things that are really happening. I tried to make it hyper-catchy, but it starts with that line with no music, so it dares you to try and not listen.
Branan: That’s another tricky one, maybe autobiographical, maybe not. It’s about a young songwriter who gets really romantic about dive bars and the whole tortured songwriter thing. The idea was to have this crusty old bartender who needed an untrustworthy trait, so I made him sexist. But he gives the young guy really good advice that has nothing to do with his sexism. It’s tricky, multi-layered stuff!
Branan: Originally, I had this one coming from a different perspective, but I don’t like to do the whole “She said this, then I said that” songwriting. So I thought I’d just sing it straight, which makes some of the lines a little disorientating. It’s a fun bonus for me to sing it that way though. This one’s also a part of the whole “loser’s survival kit” thing, asking yourself what do you do with the leftover pieces.
“Don’t Go” (with Amanda Shires)
Branan: Amanda really knocked this one out of the park. We go way back. When I first started touring, one of the first bands I ever toured with was Thrift Store Cowboys out of Lubbock, TX and she’s in that band. She’s a total pro and I loved singing with her.
This one was another where I casted things a bit different: my grandfather wasn’t in World War II but he was in the Korean War. The song was sort of an ode to my Mamaw, my mother’s mother. A lot of my family is very southern Baptist, teetotalers, very strict, and straight-laced, but lovely people. My Mamaw was a wild card though. When she died, oh man, the stories they were telling. During her funeral my Grandfather kept trying to hide some of the pictures, like her in a bikini holding a big string of catfish. During a catfish dinner at church one night she handed the preacher his plate where she had swapped out the fish for a bunch of fried sweetgum balls. She was hilarious. There was so much life and so much personality in this one woman. “Don’t Go” is my homage to her.
Branan: With “Visiting Hours,” I joke around that I finally got to save someone in a song. I had the image of everyone giving up on this one guy except his buddy. I was driving around in Minneapolis in the fall and all the leaves changing made me think it looked like someone hit pause on a fireworks display. That was the image for me of someone being there at the end. Sonically, we went full-on with this one. I had Robbie bring in all his different synths and had him double-up lines and harmonize with them. I told him, “We’re saving this guy and it takes double-harmony synth to do it.”
“My Father Was An Accordion Player”
Branan: This one’s actually a cover by my buddy Andy Grooms of The Pawtuckets. It’s the first cover I’ve ever put on a record. That’s another one that came from us standing around after recording so quickly. I had the song in my head for days and we decided to give it a try. Right before we did, we saw Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings out in Oxford and we got really super drunk. When we got back I was like “Turn the mics on, this is how we need to record it.” We laid it down blind drunk and it worked out so well.
The song is actually completely true. It’s about the parents of one of the drummers who used to play for The Pawtuckets. His mother used to go out with Elvis and his father was a famous accordion player back in the old radio days. His dad didn’t like Elvis and the line about the “pretty punk kid who made it big” is almost verbatim. It feels like the most Memphis song. It doesn’t feel like it fits the album thematically, but it was so fun to cut and works so well as an album closer.