Last week I had the absolute pleasure of sitting down for a conversation with Swamp Doctor. Swamp Doctor is no stranger to the music industry having previously released tracks on Cherry Red Records (Dead Kennedys, Everything But the Girl) along with playing over 1000 shows in his career so far, including Guilfest (Main Acoustic Stage), Truck Fest (Supporting Chip Taylor) and Dingwalls where he met the legendary Lemmy (Motorhead) who was amazed by his performance.
My conversation with Swamp Doctor ran the gamut from musical influences to the effect of the global pandemic on the music industry to world politics – and more. Read on for our conversation in full, and to hear Laura Mae ahead of its 26th June 2020 release.
So, first of all – Laura Mae is incredible. It sounds like the child of Nick Cave and Johnny Cash. Tell me more about this unique sound and your influences.
I’ll try and keep it short! My dad was ex-National Service in the Royal Engineers and he was posted to Egypt. They all listened to American Forces radio in the 50s because the English forces radio was rubbish. He really got into country music. Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers, the Carter Family, all the early fifties country music and then later, Johnny Cash and all the other sort of late fifties and sixties country artists.
I picked up a guitar 13 and taught myself from a Paul Simon songbook, which is not easy – that took about a year! And ever since then I’ve been in bands, I’ve written music, I’ve had some published with my co-writer Jeb Loy Nicholls and some on my own. My love of music stemmed from that. And as a teenager, it was all punk, rockabilly and glam rock – those were my teenage music influences.
They also inspired me to get up and perform and try playing some music. So that’s how I got to this strange country-ish, swamp-ish, sightly funky sound.
With Laura Mae, I actually originally wrote it hoping that Larry John Wilson, who had an EMI album, his last album – would record. A friend of mine was an executive producer. So I was providing some songs for that, but unfortunately, he’d written a ‘Whore’s Trilogy’, three songs in one, as it were. He also had people like Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson writing a song for him, so I kind of got pushed out. I always write the songs. I wanted to do a very simple arrangement, make it very easy on the guitars, not too heavy. No percussion, a little cello going on, and my friend Hugo Martin doing a fantastic acoustic lead guitar, which I love. And you don’t really hear that nowadays; you don’t hear someone pick up a nylon string guitar and play a lead part on it.
Johnny Cash is a great inspiration. I’ve written many a Johnny Cash-style country song. On the album, there’s a bonus track called Smoking Chicken Joe. And that’s just very Johnny Cash-style. I mean, I’ve got hundreds of them; I have to limit it a bit because I don’t want to get overwhelmed. And Nick Cave, of course, is a hero to us all. What a voice.
My mum was the Elvis fan. She had his country album, I don’t know if you’d call it country. But he did songs like That’s When The Heartache Begins, There Goes My Everything, various country classics. I think the first one I remember was Elvis doing There Goes My Everything which I wouldn’t call a country song. But then my dad had all the Johnny Cash and the Hank Williams vinyl, which I really got into. That’s when I wanted to play the guitar because I had these very simple three-chord songs and thought ‘maybe I could try that’. Johnny Cash is great because he very rarely uses more than three chords and when you’re learning, that’s brilliant.
And I remember like the weird ones or the Louvin Brothers who said that Satan Is Real. They did a wonderful album, just Satan songs and their twin harmonies. And they bought one guy for the high notes. Wonderful. Just moves your whole soul.
And of course, the Carter family were early influences. I think maybe Hank Williams was the one I really focused on when I was younger because I just loved his take on everything. It’s very poetic. His lyrics are always a very interesting combination of his experiences.
And then latterly, through country, I got into the blues and a bit of funk and soul and swamp. And the artists like Tony Joe White and Tina Turner, who I absolutely adore, have a much more bluesy, funky sound, which I do like. And there’s a few songs on the album that tip their hat to Tina and Tony. Also, I had older brothers and sister who were into the Rolling Stones in the 60s, the Beatles and the Animals and David Bowie, they had all their albums so I could easily check them out.
We could definitely hear all of that inspiration in the song! You’ve also written for other artists too, haven’t you – tell us more about that.
Yeah, some successfully, some not so much. I mean, I’ve co-written a lot of tunes with Jeb Loy Nichols, who I think is currently on Rough Trade [Records], but he spent a while in America on Capitol Records and had quite a lot of sales over in the States at that time. And then I’ve written some stuff for Candi Statten. But she didn’t actually use the songs. She recorded it, but it never got on the album. That was another EMI job that she got not that long ago.
And then a few tunes we did – Groove Armada picked up on one of them and did their own version, which was great. And, you know, that was well paid, for a quarter-share of the rights. And I really enjoyed doing that work. To be honest, getting commissioned or asked to write for someone else is quite a joy; you’ve already got a personality that you can mould the ideas around.
I’m quite old. I’m fifty-eight, so my generation, we kind of like any music, you know, from soul, country, funk, rock, punk, you know, whatever it is, if it’s got something in it that we can identify with. And hopefully, that’s what I attempted to do with Laura Mae.
I don’t think too much has changed, to be honest. I think everyone I’ve spoken to in this blog and otherwise has said I think that the thing they look for in music is something they can relate to; that’s something that seems to transcend generation.
I think so. I love music that was done in 1928 as I do in 2020, you know, if they’ve got the right elements that appeal to me, it doesn’t matter. It can be hip hop, rap or anything. I never prejudice any music until I hear it. You’re right. It’s true. The younger generation, I’m hoping because they’ve got access on the internet, which I never had at that age. It’s quite an amazing thing that you can click on something totally obscure and you’re listening to it, you know, or a sample of it, in a very short time.
You’ve been making music since before the digital revolution, and now after it’s taken over – has it changed your approach to making music?
Oh, yes. Yes, it’s a lot easier. The old days of the 24-track studio and the balding producer. That was a real struggle. You know, it’s hard work and often you’d be trying to get a sound studio wasn’t going to ever provide. Whereas with the digital stuff and the sample rate now is so high that it just sounds amazing what you can do. So I think it’s great. You know, I think a kid in suburbia on his laptop is going to do a great job, hopefully, with very inexpensive tools. When digital music did start, to get that technology was hugely expensive. You know, when one of these early pro tools style programs, you know, there’s many, many thousands of pounds and now you can go and download or free one or whoever.
I love some artists that are completely obscure. They just about scrape a living at it but they’re fantastic. And without the internet, I would have never heard of them or bought their record. So, you know, I’m impressed with that. There are certain bands and artists who completely, you know, built their careers around an online presence. Funnily enough, when they do come to do live shows, they tend to be very well attended.
Has [the internet] changed the way you write or just the way you approach it as a whole?
That’s a good question. Not writing, because I’m just the geezer who sits down with a guitar and either has a riff or little idea for a lyric or a melody and hammers out on that; I’ve always done that. What it has done is mean I can go and do a little home demo of it, email it to the producer, and within days, we can actually be doing the recording. So in that respect, it has changed a lot in terms of actually going from the writing of the song into the production and beyond. So, yeah, that has made a huge difference.
But in the actual sitting down with an idea and writing something, I’ve always just done it with a pad and pencil and a guitar, that’s how I work.
Going back to writing for other people, do you always have someone in mind when you write a song – and how would you approach it if you were asked to write something for someone as opposed to writing it for yourself?
When I’m writing to someone who I know – and like, obviously – like Larry John Wilson, then I’m tailoring the whole idea to a guy from Alabama and the fallen woman that he sees in the town every other week. So I do try and put myself in the singer’s or the performer’s mindset, which is great because I personally I think you come up with some good ideas, and I actually find it easier writing for someone else to get an emotional expression out than [writing] for myself.
It’s tricky because it’s a very fine line between overstepping or under-stepping when it’s yourself, but with other people I find it a lot easier. If I’m writing for a specific person that I don’t know, often the case is that you’ve written this song already and they’re taking it and doing a cover or adapting it for whatever purpose. And to be honest, on the Groove Armada one I had no involvement in that process, I just had the original co-writing effort, as it were.
And it’s actually really nice to let someone else just take something and run with it. I actually find that very helpful and a lot less stressful than having to come up with it myself.
It must be quite rewarding as well to see someone take something that you’ve written and enjoy it enough to want to record it.
It’s great. It’s actually really great. And when Jeb does one of my songs or one of our songs or anyone – it’s great. It’s better than doing it yourself. There’s none of the stress. And if there’s criticism, it’s directed at [the performer], so this is a safe area to be.
But I think this album that’s going to be released, Swamp Doctor, is a long time coming. Because it’s only linking up with Silver Fox Records, who have paid for everything and done the promotion and got everything together, that it’s been able to be published.
How long have you been working on it?
Just over two years. We had about 18 months of production and about another half a year in post-production. I have several lever-arch files with everything I’ve ever written since the age of 13 and even a batch of envelopes, I do keep it, because you never know. I do peruse the back catalogue and think actually a really nice verse there, and the idea’s good. To be honest, something you thought 20 years ago might be as relevant today as then. You get those Churchill moments where you wake up in the middle of the night and think ‘well, that’s a good idea.’ and if you don’t write it down, it’s gone. So I’m very grateful to myself in that respect that I do tend to write everything down when it comes to you. Otherwise, you never remember exactly the next day.
I speak to plenty of musicians who have plenty of advice for aspiring performers, but from a songwriting perspective, what advice would you give to an aspiring songwriter?
It’s not easy. I mean, as you know yourself, when you write stuff you never know if it’s going to earn you a dollar or two, or if it’s just going to disappear into the ether, as it were. I think the best thing writers can do is write, but they need someone to perform it, to perfect it. Either themselves or a friend who’s a singer or performer, if they can get them to do their local pub gig, trying out the songs, it really helps. I do that with my own work. I’ve always tried out on the road, as it were, to see what response I get.
And, you know, if people tell me afterwards that they really like it and it’s a good idea, then I know I’m onto a good thing. If I get a negative response, then you might think, well, that song’s not worth it, or I’ll try changing it. From there, you should be able to do some home recordings to distribute it to those in the industry or friends that you might have a connection. It’s not easy, though. It’s incredibly difficult. Various writers, as you know, often have very different approaches of how they came to make an income from writing.
They might have tried one route and that didn’t work. And then suddenly they just did a silly little job for some advert and suddenly everyone wins. And so it is difficult. For myself, I’ve had a working career in house management for most of my working life. I’ve performed a lot and I’ve written a lot, but I’ve never really earned the money enough to be a full-time performer until now. The pandemic was unexpected but in a way, it propels one to do things you must do now rather than put them off to whatever time in the future.
So how has [the pandemic] treated you from a creative perspective?
From a creative angle, there’s a lot there and I’ve got a couple of songs I’m working on at the moment, and they are fairly topical, I think. As you know, Laura Mae is quite topical in terms of the isolation and the sort of lost hope that you can experience in life, obviously that theme comes in it back in fashion every few years or so. But, yeah, I’m looking forward to it. I’ve got a really good folk song and an amazing Irish fiddle player coming in to do the session on that. And another one about the freedom of speech should be an interesting protest song. So for me it has been a creative boost in one respect, but hugely disappointing with what’s been going on, obviously. I’m terrified of the effects of what is plaguing our nation and the globe at the moment. And unfortunately, we have to be honest, the UK has not really handled it in the best possible manner, I’m told. Which is a shame because we have a fantastic national health service. We do have free at the point of delivery [care]. There’s no reason in January or February, we couldn’t have taken some measures to help out the elderly and the care homes and the detainees and the hospital workers on the front line. We should have prioritized that, unfortunately, we missed the boat on that. We are now paying the price, I feel.
I don’t want to be too political. It does kind of highlight the system’s failures repeatedly, not just one failure, but repeated failures over the decades. Which does not bode well for the way they’re spending our money in the future. I’m very concerned about taxpayer money, I don’t like it being wasted on things. But we shall see. The real fear I have is that the income for musicians and performers, theatres, venues, pubs and clubs has disappeared. Will it come back? And will the venues and the musicians and the performers survive?
I know a lot of the venues are laying off staff at the moment, so even if we did get to a stage where a theatre or a venue can sell their seats or space they won’t have anyone working there and the musicians won’t be able to perform if they’re off the grid, as it were, from the income stream that they were used to before. And I know a lot of musicians who do earn a basic salary from their live performances, it’s sufficient, it’s good money, and they can – in normal times – survive very well and have all the accoutrements that you should if you are a working person. So, you know, those I worry about a lot, and I’m getting a lot of terrible stories Although they’ve had some tax breaks and some funding recently, it’s no guarantee they’ll carry on for another year or however long it takes to get the venues and open public spaces back working.
My whole life has been going out and watching live music, some of it by very well known performers and most of it by people you’ve never heard of those who are just fantastic local artists who are happy to do a Friday night show and give us a taste of their original talent. Where we used to play a lot in Portobello Road, and all the pubs and clubs down there, we used to have a thriving music scene and now – nothing to do with the pandemic – now it’s just turned into bistro pubs and residences and shops. So that has changed already in parts of London where the live music scene was already under intense pressure from the commercial pub and club industry that make more money serving a burger than they do putting on live music. And to be honest, managers of pubs and venues are very influential in what happens in the pub. You know, if the manager loves music, they’ll fight for some music budget from the landlord or the owners. But none of that will happen and would only be worse because of the lockdown and the inability to earn any income from these places.
It’s shocking. Consider the tradition of theatre, music and the arts in the UK. It’s one of our big exports. You know, there’s a serious amount of economy involved in it that they should not abandon.
It does seem surprising that they’re so desperate to cut budgets for [the arts], considering how much they could stand to make from it, but I guess that’s why they’re in charge and not us!
That’s true! Yeah, we need a musician to be prime minister. Somebody who can play the fiddle, or sing a bit. I think although Bill Clinton was a musician and he didn’t do anything. But just very quickly, on the end of it, in countries like Germany, you can’t lose your job so your wages are subsidized by the government until such time as the things open up again. So in Germany, they’ve taken the stance that they don’t want unemployment as a result of this crisis, we want to make sure that we come out of the other side and everyone’s still got a job, which to me is totally sensible in terms of protecting your workforce, people who are actually supporting the economy by working.
I think there’s definitely going to be a new normal to adjust to – I don’t think things will go back to being the same as it was before.
I’m hoping for something a bit different. I’m praying for something that addresses the needs of those who are in need. You’re right. No, you’re absolutely right, it can’t – there’s no point, we might as well go and lay down in our coffins now because going back to how it was is the problem that caused it in the first place. If it wasn’t how it was, we wouldn’t have been hit so hard by this.
I think that people are angry. I mean, you only have to look on the street, they’re having to board up the statues. They only tear down statues when empires fall and the people revolt. Fortunately, we’re not as far down the road as they are in the United States; I hear they’re suffering pretty badly at the moment from the effects of this. Unfortunately, I think it does take a war or a crisis or a terrible pandemic to get people motivated to actually look closer at what they’re being told and how their society and communities can respond. The question I think a lot of the Black Lives Matter and other such dissident voices are raising is that this is crazy. You know, this should not happen.
But going back to the Swamp Doctor, there is that sort of feeling on the album, I feel, that there is a sort of escape, I do think that there is something that has captured the moment and the mood. And to be honest, it’s coincidental. You know, it wasn’t anything we thought of or planned. I do think that the protests and the Black Lives Matter and all the issues that they’re raising now is something that is obviously pre-pandemic. But it’s taken the pandemic to get people motivated to realise, ‘hey, these things shouldn’t go on. What’s happening with our community policing and what’s happening with our money and our jobs?’
It’s very difficult. So I was saying about the album, we’ve caught some of that mood in the album of what’s happening now, but it wasn’t really planned. We originally planned to release it on the 16th March until such events changed it. But it’s funny how events overtake you. But sometimes, you actually are the part of the flow rather than drowning in the morass.
So it’s just going to be an incredibly well-timed commentary on the world?
I think so. I hope so. I’m working on the next traunch of the next album, as it were, which will be very much of what’s happening now in response, once I’ve learnt about what’s going on. Obviously, there’s quite a lot of commentary that one can make on what’s happened. And there has been some good music out there where they do concentrate on the current issues, not just in the UK but the US and other news markets.
So you’re working on the new album – what else is coming up next, any political aspirations?
I do volunteering for a free-speech group, and I do a lot of family stuff with my niece because I’ve been in lockdown with my niece and her two little kids. And now it’s given me the opportunity to write a lot, I’ve been doing some journalism, a bit of protesting, and a bit of online communicating on these Zoom channels that are great, and give you the opportunity to speak to more than one person at a time, which is fantastic. And just getting together some recordings, our great violinist is coming in to do a session at the end of this month. I’m really looking forward to that, he’s a fantastic fiddle player, very good CV. And hopefully, he can provide us with the little Irish fiddle-English folk song style I’m looking for.
And then we’re going to do some online gigs. You know, just small and very simple, maybe with one lead instrument. So there’ll only be three or four of us. It’ll be good to do it live, and we’ll do it on either the zoom or the StageIt or one of these platforms – as many as we can. And then we were supposed to be doing a promotional tour for the album, but that’s kind of on the back burner at the moment. We would love to get some dates for that.
As you know, it’s very difficult, you can’t book any venues the moment, they’re unwilling to take the risk. So I don’t know when that will happen. The tour would be small, a UK/Europe tour, but the whole logistics of getting four or five musicians to Europe or anywhere is a completely off the cards at the moment. So we’re planning it, but there’s no contract or dates been agreed, so that’s very frustrating. It is very frustrating not being able to book venues and sign contracts for the promotional tours, it makes everything very difficult. And also, in terms of income stream, because the initial tour is a negative expense, you know, the record company have to subsidize it. So, you know, that’s something, you know, they’re actually paying out for this thing so you definitely need to have dates and contracts sorted. That’s taken up a lot of time for the record company and myself, but it’s good – I feel like we’ve stripped it down to get a really good tour sound, so it’s just a matter of getting those dates.
I’ve heard in the States they’ve been using a lot of the drive-in theatres and running performances in those. […] I saw an article suggesting they’re setting one up in Cornwall.
Yes, they’ve had performances, music and stuff, which is a fantastic idea. It’s a shame we don’t have drive-ins in the UK. [Cornwall] is a fantastic idea, I’ll have to search that – that sounds very interesting. I’d love to do a drive-in tour. That sounds fantastic. Sounds very 50s, without being too nostalgic. Maybe more so in America, but they’re big. You can get a lot of cars in these places. The economy of it should work, hopefully, to make it worthwhile. I’ve been to a drive-in once in America and I loved it!
London born country artist Swamp Doctor is due to release his new single Laura Mae internationally on Friday 26th of June through Silver Fox Records. Laura Mae, featuring the haunting vocals of Alex Maclaine, follows the story of an older ‘lady of the night’ down on her luck watching the world around her, wondering how she got to this point. The video for the track is a hand-drawn animation by Hussam Aamir that depicts Laura Mae herself in a state of self-isolation as she contemplates life, her actions and how the world keeps turning without her engaging in it.
‘Laura Mae’ is the lead single from Swamp Doctor’s forthcoming self-titled debut album which compiles nearly 30 years of his back catalogue and features a handful of artists he’s worked with over his career. The album was produced by Sascha Panknin and James D Ingram over the course of two and a half years and a release date will be announced shortly.