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Byron Shire
April 1, 2023

Sliding out of the Starvation Box

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This week seminal acoustic blues band The Backsliders play two gigs in our region. They are joined by their five-star support for the evening, Kristina Olsen. Mandy Nolan poses some questions

You’ve been called ‘the best acoustic blues band in the country’; what is it about your sound and your outfit that you think has created such an iconic status? We started as an acoustic act but have definitely blurred the lines over the years – in saying that though, by acoustic I believe it is in reference to the influences on the band – the early 20C blues artists such as Robert Johnson and Fred McDowell. The status is probably because we’ve been active for 25 years

Have you always felt inclined to pioneer your own individual sound rather than emulate the music you love?… was this a conscious process for you or did it just happen? Originally we did arrangements of early blues songs by some of the great masters, and in fact our new album, alongside the originals, has a number of treatments of songs by our blues heroes. It’s always been about presenting the music we love in our own way.

How would you describe Delta-Blues wall of sound as a genre? It’s a term I made up – kind of a spoof of Phil Spector’s (the famous producer) production style called the ‘Wall of Sound’. In our case we try to do what US multi-instrumentalist David Lindley calls ‘Little Big Music’ – make as much noise with three people as possible.

Who are the musicians that have most influenced you? It’s a long list and covers a variety of genres – in the blues ilk, the biggest influences are Mississippi Fred McDowell, Charley Patton, Son House, Lead Belly, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Skip James, RL Burnside to name a few. In more eclectic mixed genres it’s Ry Cooder and David Lindley, Tom Waits, Dave Tronzo, Marc Ribot… then of course there’s Vietnamese master guitarist Kim Sinh. In dub it’s King Tubby and Lee Perry and instrumental hip-hop, DJ Shadow… that’s before we even get to soul, motown and funk!

What new music are you listening to at the moment? The new Ry Cooder album Pull up some dust and sit down; DJ Shadow The Less you know the better off you are; Tom Waits Bad as Me; The Black Keys El Camino.

What about films, or art; what have you seen that has moved you or you have found remarkable? 2011 films: The Help / The Tree of Life; music films: Cadillac Records (2008); earlier favourites Tin Men, The Apostle, Raging Bull.

Tell me a little about Starvation Box, your latest release; what is the story of the title? Lead Belly has had a huge influence on me, and we included a few of his songs on the album. His father, Wes Ledbetter, allegedly referred to Lead Belly’s guitar as a ‘Starvation Box’ – meaning that it was going to make Lead Belly poor. The irony was that after Lead Belly died in 1949, the US folk group The Weavers had an international hit with one of Lead Belly’s songs. Wes may have been right.

Did you end up achieving what you set out to achieve with the recording process? We are always striving to make albums that sound real – which is not as easy as it sounds. To quote Tom Waits, ‘music doesn’t want to be recorded’. With Starvation Box (and our last two albums, Left Field Holler and Throwbacks) we recorded at Jim Moginie’s (Midnight Oil) studio in Sydney. The room is perfect for us – in fact part of the wooden flooring was salvaged from the Antler Hotel in Sydney where Midnight Oil did some of their earliest gigs – and Jim’s approach is very much to achieve as analog a sound as possible.

What are the musical choices that you make that you believe define the album? With  Starvation Box we continue our theme of trying to present blues themes in a modern context – in this case songs speaking out against oppression and racism – often fuelled by tabloid-style media and ‘shock jocks’ – alongside songs that tell stories of the lives of our blues heroes.

What should we expect for your Byron show? A long set as usual – with a lot of material from the new album Starvation Box, interspersed with our favourites from the past 25 years.

The Backsliders plus guest support Kristina Olsen Saturday 8pm at the Byron Theatre, Community Centre and Friday at Currumbin RSL Soundlounge. For all tickets go to www.gaynorcrawford.com .

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