Langhorne Slim “Set Free From Expectations”
by Ryan Henriquez
Langhorne Slim sings Pavement songs in the shower. I learned this while drinking Yuengling with him at a Holiday Inn Express a few hours before his sold-out show at The Bell House in Brooklyn.
Slim has been living out of a suitcase since the October release of his third full-length LP Be Set Free on Brooklyn imprint Kemado Records, home of Oâ€™Death, Dungen, and TK Webb & The Visions. Be Set Free is Slimâ€™s second critically-acclaimed release for Kemado, which he has supported through incessant touring, including noteworthy appearances at the nationâ€™s premiere rock and folk festivals, two genres heâ€™s been straddling his near decade-long career. A Letterman appearance and song placements in acclaimed indie films and a national commercial have only helped to lift his profile, which should carry well into 2010 and beyond. After a quick European jaunt this month, heâ€™ll close out the year playing a few shows with kindred spirits the Avett Brothers.
While Slimâ€™s albums have shown steady growth and nuance both in terms of songwriting and musicianship, his live show has never been anything short of epic. The style, swagger, and stomp Slim brings to the stage are electro-magnetically entrancing. While the songs themselves are stirring and timeless (which doesnâ€™t hurt), on stage Slim is something of a throwback. He melds the panache of a vaudevillian travelling showman with the grit of a rail-riding dust bowl folk balladeer, all filtered through the â€œeverymanâ€ aesthetic of a 70â€™s-era Bruce Springsteen. But what lends Tom Waits-like magic and authenticity to the whole affair is the beading sweat â€“ the old-fashioned, back-breaking work ethic that ensures Slim is going to connect every time with each and every last person in the room â€“ not just the fans, but the band members, bar backs, and bathroom attendants to boot.
Like The Boss before him, Slim emigrated from the Northeast suburbs to downtown Manhattan just as soon as he could. Leaving behind the small town of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, Slim found his footing in the same East Village open mic singer/songwriter scene that launched the careers of Nellie McKay, Jaymay, and Jeffrey Lewis. Slim was eventually lured to the seedier side of cafÃ© culture, migrating a few blocks west to the risquÃ© performance art scene centered about the Bowery Poetry Club and its merry band of art star revelers. Lean and scrappy, Slim found his honest, soulful lyrics and folk strum resonating in the ears of both these disparate audiences, and soon anyone else who stumbled upon him.
For Be Set Free, Slim and his band the War Eagles (bassist Jeffrey Ratner and drummer Malachi DeLorenzo) swapped the bustle of New York City for the more idyllic environs of the Pacific Northwest, and tapped Chris Funk of Portland lit-rock stalwarts the Decemberists to produce. Slim in fact hopes one day to call Portland â€œhome,â€ if he can ever find it in him to settle down, which may prove quixotic for a vagabond like Slim. Whether heâ€™s steamrolling you with his boot-stomping barroom brawlers, or leaving you lump-throated pining for your true love with a heart-wrenching ballad, the stage is where Slim belongs — prancing across the floor, climbing the bass drum guitar aloft, porkpie hat flying off every third song or so. Reeling you in.
When The Deli caught up with Slim in his hotel room last month, heâ€™d just stepped out of the shower, somehow looking no cleaner than when heâ€™d stepped in.
Recycling some socks?
So here we are at the Holiday Innâ€¦.
Itâ€™s good! Clean, dependable. Itâ€™s got a TV which is nice. Oooh, the Phillies game is on.
Speaking of which, you sang â€œGod Bless Americaâ€ this past summer during the 7th inning stretch of a Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park. How did that come about?
Weâ€™d been asked to play the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Iâ€™d been a volunteer there when I was 14 or 15 years old. One of my favorite radio stations, WXPN, was involved with the Festival, and I got a call from their program director: â€˜Hey, would you be at all interested in singing â€œGod Bless Americaâ€ at the Phillies game?â€™ I thought it was prank. And when I realized it wasnâ€™t, I got really scared. But then I thought to myself, I might have children and grandchildren someday, and I would like to take them to a Phillies game in some far off time and tell them, â€˜Ya know Grandpa sang at a Phillies game 150 years ago.â€™
Were you nervous?
I get nervous for my own shows, but this is a different thing. Weâ€™d played Lollapalooza the night before, and I was nervous for that, but this I was almost physically sick about. When you write your own music and youâ€™re performing it, you have a different handle on it. But this is singing fuckinâ€™ â€œGod Bless America!â€ Wait a minute. Thatâ€™s not good. I really shouldnâ€™t say â€œfuckinâ€™ God Bless America.â€ Oh well. So anyway, I get to the ballpark. My whole family is there, and I am just a nervous wreck.
â€¦and the nerves are getting worse with each passing inningâ€¦
Well, but this is how it goes for me. It gets worse and worse until the time I need to go on, and then for some reason Iâ€™m okay. If only I could come to grips with this fact, then for the rest of my life I think I would be a calmer individual. But so what happens on this particular sunny day in Philadelphia is that the Phillies just start getting massacred. To make matters worse, the home plate umpire ejects Shane Victorino, one of our best players, who was playing centerfield when he got tossed. It was a completely bizarre play, and the fans start going bananas. Screaming â€˜WHAT THE FUCK?!â€™ and â€˜YOUâ€™RE A FUCKING IDIOT!â€™ at the home plate umpire.
That canâ€™t be helping the nerves.
Iâ€™m pacing back-and-forth terrified. People are losing their minds. And now itâ€™s my time to go out there and sing. I hear â€˜Ladies and Gentlemen, WXPN presents Langhorne Slim!â€™ and the crowd just starts in. â€˜YOU FUCKINâ€™ SUCK! FUCK YOU ASSHOLE!â€™ And Iâ€™m thinking, â€˜What can I do to calm these good people down?â€™ So I say, â€˜EVERYBODY!â€ â€“ and I meant it with love â€“ â€˜ITâ€™S GONNA BE OKAY.â€™
Oh, thatâ€™s a mistake. Youâ€™re not winning them over with that.
What an idiot I am. In that moment, it was the stupidest thing I could have said. I think people thought I was condescending, and people were, well, you can call it â€˜heckling,â€™ but it was something much, much worse. It shook me, man. I watched it once on YouTube, and I thought, â€˜Wow, I donâ€™t need THIS in my life. I donâ€™t EVER need to revisit this.â€™ [laughter]
Save that for the grandkids. Let them watch it.
Donâ€™t get me wrong. It was great to sing it. Not that I sang it great but I didnâ€™t do it a disservice like Roseanne Barr. I gave it what I could. But the Phillies fans were just in no mood for a song.
Well, Phillies fan famously booed Santa Claus too.
My grandparents called me the next day: â€œOh you made the newspaper! It says â€˜Folk singer Langhorne Slim joins the joins the ranks of Santa Claus and an injured Michael Irvinâ€™â€¦.
I recently heard your song â€œWorriesâ€ in a national commercial for Travelers Insurance. With as hard as itâ€™s become for a recording artist to make a living, do you laugh off notions of â€œselling outâ€?
[Licensing] is not something I ever thought about growing up just wanting to play music. When this opportunity came about, at first I told the nice people that I work with Iâ€™m not interested. It made me feel weird initially. But ultimately I liked the way they used the song and the way they presented it â€“ it felt a bit more artistic â€“ and the commercial sort of looks like a cool music video.
When I interviewed Billy McCarthy from the band Pela, he said, â€˜Whenever you hear one of your favorite bands get a song in a commercial, rejoice, because thatâ€™s the sound of food in their refrigerator.â€™
Itâ€™s become easier for bands that are â€œcoolâ€ to maintain their street cred and not be considered â€œsell outs.â€ But itâ€™s still surreal to be watching a Yankees game and all of a sudden I hear my song. I donâ€™t know how to describe the way I feel about it. Itâ€™s definitely putting food in the refrigerator, that is for sure, but itâ€™s something that I never expected or wished for.
Was there a different thought process behind licensing your song â€œElectric Love Letterâ€ to the indie film Waitress in 2007?
Well, I didnâ€™t license anything to Waitress. An old label [Narnack Records] I used to work with did, without mentioning anything to me. However, Iâ€™m very happy it is in the movie. My mom went to a film festival in Philly and called me and said, â€˜Why didnâ€™t you tell me you have a song in this movie?â€™ And I said â€˜What are you talking about, Mom?!â€™ So thatâ€™s how I found out about it. But hey there are way nuttier things out there. If thatâ€™s the worst thing that happens to me, then Iâ€™m doing ok.
Itâ€™s also a way to get your music into new ear holes.
More than I realized. I didnâ€™t think people would see a film or a commercial and then look online to find out who it is, but it seems that some folks do just that.
Nick Drake experienced a renaissance after â€œPink Moonâ€ was in that Volkswagen spot.
I hope heâ€™s enjoyinâ€™ it somewhere.
Yeah his is a sad story. What a talent.
From what Iâ€™ve read he was a little confused as to why he didnâ€™t catch on a little bit more.
You lived in NYC for many years, and got your start in the Sidewalk CafÃ© open mic scene. What was that like?
It was great for my confidence. The first night I got up there, thankfully it went well, and that was a real shot in the arm for me. So I started going all the time, and through Sidewalk I met the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players who took me out on my first national tour and overseas to England. Then I sort of switched over to Bowery [Poetry Club]. I wanted to be â€œthe songwriterâ€ guy at the avant garde performance art place. Donâ€™t get me wrong â€“ I loved Sidewalk, but it was a lot of singer/songwriters getting up there with their acoustic guitar, doing what I do. I guess I wanted to be with, you know, weirder folks.
The Art Stars crew?
Yeah, and the Oâ€™Debra Twins and Collective: Unconscious. It was some far out shit. Tina Trachtenburg [of the Family Slideshow Players] introduced me to that scene. When I walked in and saw some of the crazy stuff going on, I thought, â€˜OK, now Iâ€™m gonna get up there and play my little love song?! No way.â€™ But the reception was good. When I was coming up, even when I was still in school [at SUNY-Purchase], I was always playing shows with hip-hop artists and heavier rock nâ€™ roll bands. Iâ€™ve always been an â€œacross-the-boardâ€ kinda guy. To this day, I think itâ€™s a shame the way shows are booked. â€˜This is an acoustic thingâ€™ (gestures left) â€˜this is a louder thingâ€™ (gestures right), and God forbid you mix it up. Itâ€™s ok! Our brains can handle these things!
So the new record, Be Set Free. I think youâ€™ve got a real classic on your hands.
You tapped Chris Funk of the Decemberists to produce. How did that come about?
Over the last two years Iâ€™ve become really fond of Portland, Oregon. I thought at this point Iâ€™d be living there, but that hasnâ€™t quite happened yet. I just feel good out there. I donâ€™t know a better way of puttinâ€™ it. So for whatever reason I got into my brain that it would be a good idea to make a record out there. I was talking to my friend and booking agent [Kevin French of Paradigm] who also books the Decemberists. He recommended Chris, got us together for drinks, and after meeting him I just thought â€˜Ok this is the dude.â€™ Of course Chrisâ€™s primary gig is with the Decemberists, but I think [producing] is going to become a big thing in his life.
Your last record was produced by Sam Kassirer, correct?
Yeah, Sam produced our last [self-titled, Kemado 2008] album in his studio, and our first album [When The Sunâ€™s Gone Down, Narnack 2005] was produced by Malachi [DeLorenzo] who is our drummer. Both Sam and Malachi were in the recording sessions [for Be Set Free] and it was interesting to have three producers in there at once. Itâ€™s amazing, but it can get a little hairy sometimes.
A lot of cooks in the kitchen?
A lot of cooks in the kitchen, but theyâ€™re all really good cooks!
I think your vocals matured a lot on Be Set Free.
That was a big thing for me. Iâ€™ve often thought that my voice is just stronger for some reason performing in front of an audience â€“ maybe itâ€™s the crowdâ€™s energy. But in the studio Iâ€™d listen back to the tracks and think â€˜Ya know, Iâ€™m a better singer than this!â€™ A few people have said Iâ€™m not the greater singer on this one either, but theyâ€™re wrong. Iâ€™m alright. [laughter] Might not be the greatest, but Iâ€™m alright. But no, I felt like I sang on this record, and that was important to me.
With the way you perform, are you ever worried about your voice, in terms of protecting it?
Iâ€™m only worried about it when itâ€™s bothering me.
I was read an interview recently with Journeyâ€™s lead singer, Steve Perry. He pointed out that, while all the other musicians in a band improve their skill the more the play â€“ they develop calluses and a better handle on their instruments â€“ itâ€™s the complete opposite for the singer. For the singer, the more you use your instrument, the more youâ€¦
Well, now after this conversation, Iâ€™ve very worried, yes. [laughter]
Sorry, I was just curious if things like smoking cigarettes factor in.
Well, Iâ€™ve just quit smoking. Iâ€™ve been off the smokes for almost two months. Itâ€™s my first time trying to quit.
Howâ€™s it going?
Iâ€™d love a cigarette right now. But Iâ€™m not going to have one. So quitting helped, but also Iâ€™m not a trained vocalist, and Iâ€™m sure the way I sing is probably not the right way of singing. Iâ€™ve taught myself some techniques that work for me â€“ Iâ€™m sure somebody else could teach me a million more â€“ but the nature of how I sing, itâ€™s been rough on my voice. I will lose my voice maybe once a tour, and thatâ€™s not a lot of fun.
Was the finished product of Be Set Free what you set out to make?
It doesnâ€™t work like that for me. The ambition is just to make a great record. I just try to write good songs and then hope for the best. I thought I was going to make a more upbeat, â€œdance-ierâ€ record, but it just wasnâ€™t what I was writing at the time. And [producer Chris] Funk was great with that. He said, â€˜Man, that [dance-ier] stuff — itâ€™s not the shit that youâ€™re writing. These are good songs letâ€™s work with these.â€™ But every time Iâ€™ve made a record, there is at least one moment where I think to myself, â€˜Is this the biggest piece of poop ever?â€™ And it takes a little while, and then you realize â€˜No, itâ€™s not the biggest piece. Hopefully itâ€™s not even a small piece.â€™ [laughter]
The album feels a more textured and experimental than your earlier releases.
Sometimes people who like your first record or your second record wonâ€™t be that excited about you taking a departure on your third. I hope people understand that these are natural changes. People who draw pictures, or sculpt, or cook, or make music â€“ you need to keep moving, or else you drown.
You wrote a lot of Be Set Free in Northern California, and then recorded it in Portland. Do you think these geographic locations found their way onto the album?
No, but Iâ€™m sure that they did. I canâ€™t tell. People will often ask me about the â€œPennsylvania influenceâ€ in my music, and I just have no idea what that means. Iâ€™m just writing music. I happen to live in the place. In New York Iâ€™d often hear, â€˜This isnâ€™t very â€œNew Yorkâ€ music.â€™ â€˜Well, fuck you! Iâ€™m living in New York. Iâ€™m writing this music. This is New York music!â€™ For the songs on this record, I was living in a little house in Napa Valley, with coyotes and shit in the back. It was a much-needed move and a drastic environmental shift from New York City. I had time on my hands to write and a beautiful place to do it in. But there were still days that I would come out onto the porch and look at this amazing scenery â€“ like Monet or one of those guys whoâ€™d move to the French Alps to be inspired â€“ and just think, â€˜Well, Iâ€™m depressed today. This is the most beautiful place Iâ€™ve ever seen, and I canâ€™t come up with anything on this guitar.â€™ [laughter] So Iâ€™m sure it did influence or inspire something, but it wasnâ€™t tangible for me. I canâ€™t tell.
Youâ€™d signed to the major label V2 Records [in 2006], and then that label went belly up shortly before they released your album. What went down?
We were fortunate. Weâ€™d been on a label called Narnack Records. And then we signed to V2, and that was a big step up. I mean, I donâ€™t meanâ€¦.but yeah it was a big step. It felt good. And they put out an EP, and about a month before the release of the album we got a phone call saying, â€˜The label is no more. Here are the masters. Good luck.â€™
Wow. They just gave you the masters?
Oh yeah. So we were fortunate man. Some other bands — their records came out shortly before they found out [V2 was folding], and then those records were lost, you know? It was a little tough for us because we werenâ€™t very well known. It wasnâ€™t easy to find another home. It took time. But you meet and trade stories with other bands, and you realize everyoneâ€™s got such shit stories that ours doesnâ€™t even compare. Itâ€™s hard to stay calm and stay grounded and just do your thing and try to be happy. But [with V2] it was ultimately a blessing in disguise. At the time it sucked and it was scary, but then we got a really supportive label [Kemado] interested that now puts out our records.
I would guess a smaller label like Kemado gives you a bit more creative control?
Thatâ€™s a bit of a misconception. We were only on V2 for about 16 seconds, but in those 16 seconds, they werenâ€™t saying â€˜Wear this,â€™ and â€˜Play your music like that.â€™ It was certainly by far the biggest â€œteamâ€ of people that Iâ€™ve ever been around — Narnack was 4 or 5 people Kemado is small too. When I first got signed to V2, I remember sitting around a conference table full of people discussing what my expectations were for the [album] release. Iâ€™d certainly never done anything like that before. But it never got to the point where I felt â€˜controlled.â€™
OK, so itâ€™s time for the clichÃ© desert island questions. Youâ€™re on a desert island, and you can only bring with you one album, one book, one movie, and one delivery menu for the restaurant thatâ€™s going to feed you for the rest of your life. Go.
No woman. Nothing. So break it down for me. Start with the album.
And you just want me to come up with these things?
Off the top of your head.
Thereâ€™s nothing on the top of my head. The top of my head is empty. Itâ€™s the lower part of my head thatâ€™s got all the ideas. Alright. Album. Weâ€™ll do a double-disc Nina Simone Anthology.
Thatâ€™s a lot of tunes at least.
Maybe I can meet some pirate or something that could burn me some of hisâ€¦I donâ€™t know. I guess not. Okay, so whatâ€™s next?
Well, Malachi [DeLorenzo] has been reading this, and Iâ€™ve started reading it and have been loving it, so Iâ€™ll say the Sammy Davis, Jr. autobiography. Itâ€™s called Yes I Can. Weâ€™ll work with that on the island.
Thatâ€™s a lot of time with the Candy Man.
Yeah, well, thatâ€™s good!
Alright, so a movie.
Maybe The Godfather? Army of Darkness? Itâ€™s so easy to second guess this shit.
And finally, delivery menu –from the restaurant thatâ€™s going to feed you for the rest of your days.
Well, House of Vegetarian on Mott Street is one of my favorite places, but I donâ€™t think they deliver. If we can start getting them to deliver, Iâ€™ll do that.
Are you a vegetarian?
Yep, for over fifteen years now.
Thanks for taking the time, Langhorne.
Thank YOU, man.