He may have only just released his first record, but Arkansas Dave has had a life as full and varied as any classic country song.
Growing up in a conservative Christian household, Dave got his start playing drums in church, and by the age of 12 was playing music full time. After studying audio engineering at college in Austin, he played in a string of local bands before touring with legendary blues musician Guitar Shorty. Earlier this year he released his self-titled album, recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to critical acclaim.
I spoke to Dave at the start of his European tour about the record, his upcoming dates in the UK and why he chose to cover Tom Waits’ Chocolate Jesus for his first single.
Hi Dave! Whereabouts are you?
We’re in Copenhagen right now, just sitting on a nice patio at this cafe. It’s been pretty nice up here.
You’re out on tour in Europe at the moment – how’s that going?
Man, so far so good. We started in Copenhagen and had a great turnout at the Mojo Blues Bar, and then went up to Sweden the next night and now we’re back in Copenhagen tonight. I’ve got a day off today so just wandering round the city and sort of seeing the sights.
Is there anything you’re particularly keen to see whilst you’re over there?
Yeah, we’re just kind of wandering round. I went around the city and I saw the… I can’t remember what it’s called but it’s one of the oldest theme parks in the world. It’s like downtown Copenhagen. That was pretty cool. The square downtown’s really beautiful. Y’know, being a medieval town it’s got such history. Some of the streets are older than my country [laughs] so it’s pretty cool.
You’re over in the UK in July as part of this tour. What can people coming to those shows expect?
Well, expect some good time rock and roll. I mean we’ll be all over the UK, so hopefully if you miss you one show you can hop over to the next city. We’ll be there starting July 6th all the way to July 22nd, I believe, playing everything from Maverick Festival to the Birmingham Jazz Festival and a few club dates in between, so should be a good time.
You played a few acoustic shows here last year as well – do you find UK fans react differently compared to the US or other places you’ve been to?
Well last year when I came over it was just me and my guitar player, and we were just doing a duo, acoustic-type set. We got a really good response. I feel like people are very receptive and very supportive, in fact, so I quite enjoyed myself when I was over here last year and it really set the groundwork for being able to come back this year. So I brought my full band this time, so it should be a good time and I think it might surprise some folks if they watched me last year, because I’m bringing out the full band and my album’s out now. So they’ll be able to purchase music and really get a feel for what the album sounds like live, so I’m excited about showcasing the songs in that respect. I think the fans are really gonna dig what we’re doing. The first three shows we’ve played already on this tour we’ve been getting a lot of good responses and sold lots of vinyl, so it’s promising.
What’s the one thing you’ve learnt from touring and being out on the road?
Several things. I guess just the fact that when you’re travelling so much you kind of get bored on the road, so you might wind up buying more snacks and stuff than you would normally. I try to really be smart about my purchases and go to the supermarket to buy stuff to make sandwiches and snacks and everything, so every time we stop to get fuel or take a break we’re not just buying miscellaneous things. That’s a huge thing that I think you don’t really realise until you’re out there on the road, just how much money you spend on just snacks and drinks and stuff out of sheer boredom [laughs]. That’s a good piece of advice for any young artist about to hit the road.
Your new album came out in April – can you tell us more about that?
Yeah, it was released on April 20th. I did the album down in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with the current line-up of the Modern Day Swampers. A couple of the guys that are in the line-up now, they’ve been playing down near Muscle Shoals since the 60s, and just cut the record live on tour like it was done back in the day. So it’s a very old-school feeling record, but with a newer production quality, so I think it kind of mixes the best of the past with the future and mixes that analogue vintage sound with a newer kind of approach to production. My songwriting is pretty eclectic so the front half of the record is pretty much blues rock, Southern rock type and then about halfway through the record I kind of go towards more of a ballad and psychedelic sound in a couple of the songs. I’m really proud of the album. Obviously I’m getting some good reviews from it and I think people are really enjoying it. It’s kind of a breath of fresh air but at the same time it’s nostalgic enough to where it’s familiar, so I think having that nostalgia but it’s a fresh album is exciting to a lot of people. And it’s exciting to me to be able to be the one that gets to play these songs. So I think given time and more people hear it more people’ll be turned on to it.
Was that idea of having two different halves something you were conscious of when you were making the record?
Well you know, I guess the kind of idea behind me releasing an album that was kind of different from the head to the tail was just really a way for me to showcase my writing style. And I don’t really want to be pigeonholed into one genre, y’know? While I could be considered Americana the lines have been kind of blurred, especially in the last 20 years, on what the definition of Americana music is. Traditional Americana music, it’s very much like folk music, y’know? It involves a lot of acoustic instrumentation and a lot of songs that really tell the stories of other people’s lives and history. Americana and folk music were pretty much a way to pass down stories and information and history to the next generations through song and words rather than written history books.
So I feel that the best way that I could describe the entire collection of songs that I put out was Americana, because being from the South I felt that altogether I consider the American sound, so really the only way that I could describe the music is Americana rock and roll. It kind of goes from standard blues rock, Southern rock sounds to a more intimate vibe in some of the songs, but they all tell my life story. So I guess the way I structured the album, as far as the track list goes, I just wanted it to kind of take the listener on a journey. And I feel that this collection of songs to me is the best way to introduce myself to the world as an artist, and I didn’t want to label or title the album something different than myself. That’s why I chose it to be a self-titled debut, because I wanted the songs to be synonymous with me. And I feel that these songs, if you don’t know me, you’ll have a pretty good understanding of who I am as a person after you listen to the full record.
Were there any songs that were particularly easy or particularly difficult to write for this record?
Well I wouldn’t say any of the songs were really difficult to write. The way I write is I don’t sit down with a pen and paper and a guitar with the intent of ‘I’m gonna write this song like this’. I definitely have constant ideas and lyrics and melodies that are always tumbling around in my head, but I really just look at songwriting as if I’m just merely the vessel and I was just lucky enough to capture this lightning in a bottle. I feel that songs are just everywhere throughout the universe, and if you’re just keen enough to listen to it you’re the one that gets chosen to have the song. It’s not like the songs are already written, but I feel like the ideas and the inspiration from each song that’s created are just out there in the world, and if you’re not willing to go out there and experience life then you’re not gonna have a chance to have that song. And there’s been several times that I have these ideas and lyrics, and I go back and I’m like, ‘damn, what did I say about that?’ I forgot to write it down, so I’m like, ‘well, I guess it wasn’t meant to be’.
I kind of just look at it as it’s a way for me to channel my emotions through music and really convey the human experience, because it’s a unique ability to be able to write a song. But to be able to write a song that conveys emotion and conviction, it’s not easy, but to me it’s just part of who I am. I guess it’s the honesty that I have as a person and how I write, so no songs are truly difficult to write. I would say some of the songs were more difficult to record than others. There were definitely times with the record in the recording process that I looked at my producer and I was just like, ‘f**k off dude, I need space’, y’know? [laughs] But it always wound up being a good thing, because at the end of the day it turned out to be a really good recording. So no matter how many walls that I had to hit and mountains I had to climb recording it, me and the producer pushed through it and finished it together. I’m really glad that he pushed me to that edge because had he not pushed me that far, I wouldn’t have known my limits and known what I was capable of. So it was a really, really life-changing experience for me and I’m looking forward to getting back in the studio to do the next one.
Your lead single from the album was a cover of Chocolate Jesus by Tom Waits. Why did you choose to release that song first?
Well, it’s kind of a multi-faceted answer. The reason why I chose it was being a new artist and being pretty much unknown to the world, no-one really has an idea what you’re capable of doing. And the thing about being an artist nowadays, it’s really hard to capture the attention of people and hold the attention. And so by doing a cover song, it was giving me the ability to really have a yardstick to measure me up against Tom Waits’ classic rendition of his song Chocolate Jesus. And by comparing the two, you’re able to kind of see what I’m capable of as an artist, being able to reinterpret another artist and especially a legacy artist like Tom Waits. I really feel like that was gonna be able to be a way to introduce myself to the world but as a serious artist and not just a musician just putting out music.
And by doing that, I guess the idea behind releasing that first was for my next song, Squeaky Clean. Like I said earlier when I went to England last year to do the tour – I went to England, Germany and Switzerland – we were doing the duo thing, which worked because there’s a couple of songs on the record like Chocolate Jesus and Squeaky Clean where it’s acoustic and it’s a broke-down, bluesier type of song. To me it made an easier transition for listeners that hadn’t seen me previously perform in that light kind of see what I’m capable of on the record, and why that made sense for me to do that. It wasn’t just like a solution for me to come over and play a few shows, it was more about it’s a part of my act, it’s a part of who I am.
And the Chocolate Jesus song itself, the lyrics really spoke to me as well. I grew up in a very Southern, Christian, conservative household, and I grew up playing in church and going to church every time the doors were open, pretty much. And that has this sense of rebellion within the lyrics against the idea of what church is, and basically in a nutshell what the lyrics are saying is that the little boy, the character in the song, is just really going to Sunday school so he can go to the candy store after and get some chocolate after Sunday school, y’know? And for me that chocolate Jesus was the drums. I started off playing drums as a kid and I learnt how to play drums well enough to play in church, and by the time I was 12 I was a full-time drummer for the Great Worship in my church all through high school. I remember telling my grandmother that the only reason why I go to church is to play the drums, and I play the drums because it makes me closer to God. And I felt like that was very much in line with the message that Chocolate Jesus had. But in all honesty, when we were going through all the songs that we were considering covering, my wife suggested covering some Tom Waits, and then specifically mentioned Chocolate Jesus and I was like, ‘yeah, of course’. So I gotta give her credit for that as well.
What’s the one song you wish you’d written?
That’s a tough question. Y’know, there’s so many songs out there and so many influential artists, it’s a really hard thing to answer. But I guess just the first thing that pops into my mind is anything by John Lennon. John Lennon was such a huge influence on me. And it would be a cliche to say Imagine, but that song’s just so beautiful and the message is so great that it’s just one of those songs that everybody in the world knows, and it’s just got such a positive message. And that’s what I’m really about, spreading love and making sure that people who listen to my music come away from it with a sense of positivity, even if the song has kind of a more aggressive, angry tone to it. I feel that anger when expressed healthily is a healthy emotion, and if you’re able to harness that in a way that’s not gonna be detrimental to you or anyone else it’s just part of human experience.
So I think another song that I might consider covering is called Steel And Glass. That’s another song by John Lennon and one of my all-time favourites. So I could pick through his catalogue and pretty much any of his songs I would very much wish that I’d written. But y’know, again as I was saying earlier, songs are merely a vessel. As a songwriter you’re really a vessel for the song. John Lennon was just tapped in and had that ability to really express what everybody in the world, especially at that time, was feeling. And whenever you have songs and songwriters that transcend culture and genres and really expectations, that’s whenever you really have somebody that’s got something to say and something substantial that people can gravitate towards. And I think that’s really what songs are about, they’re the playlist of our lives. So there’s songs that you remember your greatest memories. You can remember your first kiss through songs, you can remember mourning a loved one’s death through song. And songs can express so much that any good song out there you can listen to it and relate to it. If it wasn’t your song you kind of wish ‘oh man, I wish I had that idea’. But yeah, John Lennon I would have to put at the top of that list, for sure.
What does the rest of 2018 look like for you?
A little bit of both [writing and touring]. My goal is to kind of get on a schedule of touring during the summer and into the fall, then a break from touring and playing a few one-off shows while I focus on making music and writing. I’ve got a few songs demoed, I’ve got a couple of new songs in the setlist already so the fans who’ll be seeing me in the UK will be able to hear a couple of tracks that will be on the upcoming album. So that’s kind of what my next six months is looking like – finish up this tour and I’ll probably go back out for a couple more weeks in the fall, and then hit the studio pretty heavy in the wintertime. I truly feel that winter is, at least for me, the most creative season. Just the energy from the winter equinox, it pulls to me and I feel really able to go back and focus on that, because springtime comes and you’re ready to get out the house, ready to play your new songs. And summertime is all about the experience of just being alive. So I really wanna get on that circuit of being on the festival scene and touring during the summer and taking a break for a month or a couple of weeks and then hitting it back on the road, and every winter I get back in the studio and I’m at least writing and doing some recording. So that’s kind of what I’m hoping the next six months look like. But you never know so I’m trying not to keep too strict a schedule.
Arkansas Dave’s self-titled debut album is out now. You can see him on tour in the UK this July:
6th July – Maverick Festival, Ipswich
7th July – Maverick Festival, Ipswich
8th July – The Stag Inn, Hastings
11th July – The Doublet, Glasgow
12th July, The Atkinson, Southport
13th July – The Green Note, London
14th July – The Pennoyer Center, Pulham St Mary
19th July – The Chapel Arts, Bath
20th July – Birmingham International Jazz & Blues Festival
21st July – Summertyne Americana Festival, Gateshead
22nd July – The Sun Inn, Dedham