Greg Humphreys Lucks Out – Part 2 – The Interview

As I said in my previous post, Greg Humphreys and I spoke for about 2.5 hours earlier this year. I hadn’t spoken to him since 1993 when I interviewed him for the San Diego fanzine 360°. I’ve cut some of the small talk here and edited for clarity, but this is most of the conversation, from Dillon Fence to Hobex to his solo records and wound up the interview talking about his new album with the Greg Humphreys Electric Trio, Lucky Guy. Go buy a copy and see a show and support one of the nicest, hardest-working men in music. The band plays the Brooklyn Americana Music Festival this Friday night September 23rd and tours the east coast this fall.


Your Older Brother – What have you been up to the past 20 years since we last talked?

Greg Humphreys – A lot of shows, a lot of livin’. Incredible adventures, lots of highs & lows.

YOB – We talked for the Outside In album, I don’t think we talked for Living Room Scene…How soon after Living Room Scene did the band split up?

GHumph – We did another year and a half of touring. Chris & Kent left the group not too long after Living Room Scene came out. We found some replacement musicians who did a great job, but by the end of that touring cycle we were pretty burned and feeling like we were hitting a wall with our label deal. Momentum was an issue.

YOB – You said they left the band, were they just burnt, or did they have other stuff going on?

GHumph – Yeah, I think a lot of it was that we really were a classic college band, where we didn’t really plan on making a go of it, it just kind of happened. I feel like maybe of our original group, I was the guy who was really ambitious and wanted to make it something. I think everybody did, but I was booking the gigs and writing a lot of the songs. We all were contributing, but it’s definitely something where when we hit a plateau and were treading water for a while and living the grind of touring in a van, Chris & Kent started thinking “Wait a minute, I thought I was gonna go to grad school” or “I had other plans besides just driving around all day, every day.” And we were just so young that what we wanted to do, both individually and collectively, kept changing. Chris ended up going back to grad school and now he’s a psychology instructor, and he’s got a career. So he’s very much an academic. But when we do these reunion gigs, he gets to get out and rock and scratch that itch. Kent and his partner have a business in Wilmington. And both of them did musical projects after Dillon Fence, so it’s not like they quit music completely. It’s hard to keep pursuing something if you can’t create momentum and have it have its own legs and not just be a labor of love.

Hobex – photo credit: Claire Ashby

YOB – Can you tell me about the transition to Hobex, how that came about?

GHumph – Well, I was deep into touring with Dillon Fence and at that point we were on what you might call the alternative rock circuit, doing tours opening for Lush and Weezer or the Lemonheads. And that was a pretty good fit for what we were doing at that time. But I was personally listening to a lot of funk and soul, a lot of Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield. I went on a big Curits Mayfield jag where I bought all of his out-of-print albums on Curtom…

(Greg’s adorable son comes in to say hi and the interview resumes after)

I guess for me, I’ve talked about this before, but somehow your creative spark becomes a grind, and then creatively you’re looking elsewhere to regain that excitement and enthusiasm. And for me it was like, with alt-rock or college rock or just, you know, straight-up rock & roll, I think I was really burned out on it because of the grind of touring. And the fact that at that moment, it was such an explosion of groups all of a sudden doing the same thing we had been doing. Whereas when we started, it was surprisingly easy for us to build a large audience because there weren’t a lot of bands doing what we were doing. We were reminiscent of bands like R.E.M. and The Smiths and bands that we had been listening to. When you would look around the southeastern college circuit, there were bands that were R.E.M.-influenced, but we were poppier and had different influences. For me, it was just a moment where I felt like we had made some really cool records that didn’t get played on the radio much, and then a lot of other bands that were doing something simliar were all of a sudden front and center. So for me it became like competing with your shadow. Like, ok, now I have to make another album like that and do the whole record cycle. And it just wasn’t inspiring to me. And the other original guys leaving was also a catalyst because they had been there from the start. So to have them not there, it just changed the dynamic of the band and I was just ready to do something different myself. And I was really excited about playing funk and soul, extending and expanding my musical vocabulary and my musical knowledge. Taking on a new challenge. I have to admit, there was an element of arrogance to it, where I thought “well, i’ll just start this whole compeltely different proejct and I will have the same or more success with something completely different.” I was definitely humbled by the road and going out and playing shows where the hundreds of Dillon Fence fans in this or that town didn’t come out to see my new band. It was like starting over in a lot of ways because the genre was just different enough to where people thought it was weird. Looking back now, there’s thousands of kids in funk and soul bands, so it’s easy to forget how weird that was. Like “what are these white guys from North Carolina doing playing funk and soul?”

YOB – Right, like now you’ve got St Paul & the Broken Bones and Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings

GHumph – Yeah! The cultural moment for the revisiting of that musical feel is more now than it was in the 90s, where we were a little more of an exotic bird, then.

YOB – So what you’re saying is that you’re a visionary and way ahead of your time. (Laughter)

GHumph – Yes (laughs) I’m saying that in the most humble way possible. (smiles) There’s something to be said for challenging yourself and taking creative chances. In terms of career, it’s probably not the smartest thing, but in terms of being true to your muse and following your creative direction, I feel like we ended up with some really cool albums and some really cool experiences. And Hobex had its own roller-coaster ride through the music business.

YOB – Where did you find the guys for that band?

GHumph – Andy Ware, the bass player, had joined Dillon Fence for the last year or so of touring. He’s a guy I knew from Chapel Hill. He was in a band called Satellite Boyfriend that was a contemporary of Dillon Fence in the Chapel Hill scene of the late 80s. They were really good and he and I had stayed in touch. I remember playing him some demos of some of the material and saying “I want to take a break from Dillon Fence and try something different, would you be interested?” and he was into it. It was one of those things where we didn’t have a plan. We weren’t even necessarily going to make Hobex a full-time thing. But as it started and unfolded, it just ended up being the thing for many years.

YOB – So you set out to write soul & funk music?

GHumph – There was an element of that influence in my writing for Dillon Fence. I’ve always been into funk, soul, Motown, Stax/Volt. When I was growing up, I listened to a station in Winston-Salem called WAAA which played Stevie Wonder, Al Green, just the classic 60s & 70s funk and soul stuff. So that was definitely part of my vocabulary. But I guess for me it was a reaction to what was happening, trying to pursue what was missing in my music and the music around me. A live band creating grooves, creating classic songs that were also super groovy and danceable and kind of an anti-alternative rock. Something that was far different from what was on the radio at that moment. It actually took us to a place where we were playing with other bands that were pursuing that, and a lot of them had come from jazz backgrounds. I remember playing a gig with Galactic, from New Orleans, and I think it was their first tour outside of New Orleans. Or a band like Greyboy All-Stars who were doing really faithful 70s James Brown-style stuff. They actually had Fred Wesley with them when we played with them. So, I guess it was kind of a burgeoning scene of funk and soul, and as we went on, it developed. When we were touring a lot, we were getting put on a lot of the pop/rock bills that Dillon Fence might have been on, but it wasn’t a great fit. And then as time went on, we ended up falling into the jam scene and playing a lot of the festivals, because those audiences have an affinity for for the groovy funk soul style. And if you look at bands like Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings and that whole scene, the festival circuit is a big part of their touring.

YOB – That’s where I first heard of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. There was a festival in Denver called Monolith and they played one of the nights. And like with festivals, you don’t know all of the bands so you start looking through the lineup and checking them out on iTunes and I found them and thought “Holy shit, they’re great.”

GHumph – Yeah, and I feel like playing the festival scene was one of the things that made me really step up my musicianship, because I felt like over the years I was put into a lot of positions where we were following Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings or following Fareed Haque or some guys that used to play with John Coltrane. So all of a sudden, you have to step up on the stage and follow all this incredible musicianship. So it’s not just songwriting and arranging songs and putting together a cool set, it’s really wowing the crowd and putting on a show. Just not bullshitting your way through it. You’ve gotta be a player if you’re playing to a festival crowd and you’re following someone who’s really good.

YOB – And you were the lead guitarist in Dillon Fence, right?

GHumph – Kent and I traded, but I did play a lot of the solos, yeah. For a lot of the songs I wrote, I would write two guitar parts and they fit together and created wider chords. And he did the same. So we definitely had – and still have – a very symbiotic guitar style, where we played so many gigs together that when we play songs together, we just fit together really well. He’s not as much of a soloist. When we first started, he played more solo-type stuff in the group. At this point, I’ve been soloing with Hobex so long that it’s a big part of my musical expression.

YOB – The reason I asked is because, listening to the music on Outside In, the progression is definitely there. Listening to Outside In, and then the solos on Living Room Scene are incredible. So for me, when you said “stepping up your musicianship,” I thought – wow – going up from those levels, that’s being able to recognize in yourself, like “I’ve still got another level to get to.” Which is kind of amazing that you were able to see that but then be able to deliver on it.

GHumph – I feel like with those later Dillon Fence albums I was striving for a big rock & roll sound, and a lot of those guitar solos were very composed. I was trying to create something reminiscent of a Brian May guitar solo or a Thin Lizzy guitar solo, a Cheap Trick-like classic two-or-three minute pop/rock gem.

YOB – How did your songwriting process change from Dillon Fence to Hobex to your solo stuff and now the Electric Trio? Or has it changed?

GHumph – I think so in the sense that I don’t like to repeat myself. I could write a song that is similar to “Living Room Scene” or “Something For You” or “Daylight,” but as a writer, I don’t like writing the same song over and over. So as I get older it makes it harder to write something that sounds fresh to my ears. One of the ways I feel like I’ve kept my writing fresh is by exploring genre. WIth Hobex, we had a good run and we had our trials and travails in the industry with record deals, but ultimately for our last album, I was producing it, I was the engineer, and writing the songs. I look at that album – it’s called Enlightened Soul – and I feel like it’s got some interesting songs on it but I also feel like I was maybe wearing too many hats and kind of being pulled in a lot of directions. Worrying about the engineering, worrying about the performance and not just being like “okay, I’m singing and I’m writing this, and I’m bringing my ideas to the table, but it’s a team effort.” What’s a better way of putting it? I feel like that album was a long and painful end to the band, where we were trying to create another era for the band with a fresh album but it took a long time to finish and the songs could have been better if I had been focused on just that, and not trying to keep us working and keep everything moving forward. We were all living in different towns at that point. We gave it a good shot, but by the end of that touring circuit for the band, I was done with Hobex for a while. The bass player, Andy, was too. He’d had a daughter and we just decided to give it a break and then just play occasionally. And that’s what we’ve been doing since then.

YOB – So how did you make the next transition into and through your solo records?

GHumph – For me it was a sea change in my life. I was no longer on the road, I was breaking up with this woman I’d been with for a long time. I was also, at that point, very burned out on van touring with a band and chasing it, trying to create and maintain momentum. If I had been slightly burned out at the end of Dillon Fence and needing a change, at this point I was just *really* done with it for a while. I didn’t want to quit playing music, but I wanted to get away from loud guitars and hauling gear and keeping the band working. I just wanted to return to really focusing on songwriting, so I put my electric guitar down and ended up making four solo mostly-acoustic albums where I was collaborating with a lot of different musicians. I was collaborating with jazz guys, and some of the local bluegrass musicians in the Triangle. I was still doing occasional rock gigs like the occasional Hobex or Dillon Fence gig, but only the very best ones. (laughter) You know, only the ones that were really fun or paid well or something we were all excited about. So I was still playing a few rock shows here & there, but for 5 or 6 years I probably did 10 or 15 rock gigs the whole year, and everything else was acoustic – listening rooms, coffee houses. I had some friends in that world and they introduced me to that world and helped me find my way. For me, that was the creative dog-leg turn that I took after Hobex. I just got away from being in a band. I feel like with my songwriting over the years, I’d come to rely on having a kick-ass band. So for me, in terms of songwriting, it was a real reality check. Like, ok, you’ve got to play 45 minutes to an hour and it’s just your guitar and your voice and your song, and every song’s gotta really stand up and be strong on its own. You can’t rely on a great rhythm section or a great guitar solo or awesome hooks. It’s gotta be more than that. That was a really good exercise for me creatively. And with the end of my relationship and the end of the band, it was just me expressing myself in the purest way I could. Which was: I was not very happy, I was trying to find my way. It was a lot of introspective sad songs. Sprinkled with some observational songs, or storytelling, or happy moments, too, optimistic moments. But overall, it was a period in my life where I was alone, musically and in my life. So about four years ago I met my now-wife at a memorial service for my best friend who died of cancer. He was my best friend in high school. Losing him was a real reality check for me, where I just saw my life in a different way. In that weekend I met my wife and she was just really amazing and we spent a couple of days together and we’ve really been together ever since. We dated long distance for a year or so. And I loved Durham and I love Chapel Hill, but I’d lived there so long and we wanted to be together, so I just decided to move to New York to be with her. So it’s the beginning of our life together and now we have a son and we’re married and for me it’s been the culmination of a lot of things I’ve always hoped for in my life, actually coming together. I feel like I always wanted a family and I always wanted that part of my life, but I always put it off because I didn’t want to give up my dream of being a professional musician. I feel like my priorities changed because I gave so much of my life to that and I guess in the end I feel like it made me a better singer, player, writer, what have you. I feel like I’ve had an interesting career, but ultimately I wanted something different out of life than I’d experienced thus far. This Electric Trio album, as far as the songwriting, I do feel like it’s hopefully capturing that happiness that I was feeling and that I’ve been experiencing. It’s not all sunshine and roses, but some of the songs capture that romantic moment where two people are coming together and it’s real. I’m happy that I was able to capture that in song for myself. We’ll see what happens with it. I want it to be successful, but I’m not as invested as I was with the previous two projects.

YOB – And you’ve got success in your personal life now, which can tend to fill you up in places to where you aren’t necessarily looking to the music or the band to fill you up.

GHumph – I feel like with Dillon Fence, there was a lot of sadness in my life at that time because I lost my father at a pretty early age, he was 50 and I was probably 23. So for me, a lot of the Dillon Fence stuff, there was a lot of melancholy and sadness on those albums because of his loss, and because I just wasn’t ready. I felt like a lot of my drive in trying to make that band happen was “I’m gonna play my way out of this and I’m gonna make this happen and then everything’s gonna be ok.” And of course then we had a level of success and it didn’t fill that hole in my life. So I tried to fill it with other things, weed or whatever. I went through lots of growing pains. And I didn’t have him around to help. So I think a lot of those hard lessons in life I learned the hard way because I didn’t have his guidance, and I didn’t realize how much I had relied on it until it was gone.

YOB – Yeah, I think about stuff like that too. I know he was a big influence on you ’cause we talked before about “Union Grove” and you told me about that being about the bluegrass festival. That song is about loss and hopefulness…you can really hear a lot in that song. With that said, do you feel now like you’re more complete as a person? All that way through Dillon Fence and Hobex and your early solo stuff, was that just all chasing after something that you now realize you have anyway?

GHumph – If there’s one thing I’m proud of or I’m glad about in my musical life, it’s that I feel like I was true to how I was feeling at the time. So I feel like that is who I was then. That’s not who I am now because we go through life and we change and we learn things about ourselves and the world and about music. We can’t be the same people that we were when we were 25. I think about artists, someone like Bob Dylan, like how can he be the same person now that he was then? But he’ll still write an album that expresses where he is now. I feel like a lot of it is armchair analysis where you have a body of work and you are a certain age and so you have to give it all shape and have it all make sense somehow. The reality is I probably did make some mistakes and I probably was very lucky. All I know is I kept trying to write that great song that expressed how I really felt, and doors kept opening. And as I’ve gotten older, it’s definitely gotten harder, because people have families, and you can’t really rely on all your fans coming out to a nightclub if they’re in their 40’s. At some point as an artist, you’ve got to transition to ticketed shows, or seated shows. If you’re a rock & roller, that’s harder to do. At the same time, I’ve put the songs and making records first, and then I try to make everything else work. I try to build my touring business, either with the groups or when I was doing the solo thing, and try to support the albums and reach the people that might like it.

YOB – Along those lines, you just did a tour in Asia. How did that come about?

GHumph – It was interesting, I’ve got some friends that live there. We were actually on our honeymoon, we went on a long honeymoon and we visited Thailand. A good friend of mine, David Burris, lives there part time. He was a producer on Survivor for many years, and he was also in a band called The Veldt, do you remember them?

YOB – YES! The Veldt was *amazing*!

GHumph – Yeah. The were great. I’m still friends with all those guys. But Dave was in The Veldt and he was in bands and was out of that Chapel Hill scene, but he was also part of a group of Chapel Hill people that were really into making moves. They all moved out to LA. One of the guys, Peyton Reed, was the director of Ant Man. He was also the drummer in Jonny Quest when they first started. We call them the Chapel Hill Mafia, but they’re doing really interesting movie & TV stuff out there. And Dave Burris was one of those guys and he grew to love that part of the world, so he’s been living there on and off for the last two or three years. I let him know that I was coming and asked him if he would maybe help me find some gigs. So he introduced me to a guy named Joe Cummings who is a travel writer, he does a lot for TripAdvisor, he’s kind of a Thailand expert for TripAdvisor. And he’s also a rock & roll guitar player. And he lived in Greensboro back in the day, so it’s the old “small world” cliché, but it’s true. I connected with Joe and he booked the gigs for me and helped put the backing bands together for me. So we did a show in Chang Mai in northern Thailand, and a show in Bangkok. It wasn’t a “tour” but it was fun, I met some other really cool people. This photographer Ian Taylor who is in a band called Roy Jet and he does a lot of great photography and we did a photoshoot with him. So, you know, my wife was just really cool to let me do that while we were on our honeymoon.

YOB – But it’s not like you were tied to your laptop and your iPhone and trying to score deals across the world. Of course it’s “work”, but it’s not “work” work.

GHumph – I got a taste for traveling and playing shows like that when I was doing my solo albums. An old friend of mine was sponsoring a stage at a big music festival in Prague. He wanted to bring over Hobex but it wasn’t really a big money deal. And Andy couldn’t afford to go because he had his family and it was just too much. So I went alone and my friend Bill Pixley helped me line up a backing band, and I got a taste for going to a far-flung place, lining up a group, throwing together a set and just going for it. It’s not like the super-arranged set with lots of twists and turns and arrangemental subtlety. It’s more like, “Let’s get some good players together and here’s some really basic tunes and we’ll do some funk and soul.” In Prague, there weren’t really a lot of people doing what I do. Okay – there wasn’t anybody doing what I do. (smiles) So I really got a taste for taking what I’ve done here and throwing it out there in a far-off place and seeing what the reaction is. And it’s usually good, so it’s been fun.

YOB – So your move to Brooklyn was to be with your wife. (Yes) You moved there a couple of years ago when you got married or…?

GHumph – I’ve been here for 3 years. Once I got up here I reconnected with a bass player named Matt Brandau who is a really talented guy. He’s about 10 years younger than me, but he had been living in Chapel Hill almost as long as I had, and had been in local bands. Most recently down there he was in a band called The Old Ceremony, I guess they’ve been on Yep Roc for 2 or 3 albums. They’re another really good band, good songwriter. Matt was one of the first people I called when I moved up here because I wanted to do *something*. I was still planning on going back and doing gigs at home, but I definitely wanted to pursue music up here and see what was out there. Matt and I collaborated on some demos and some songwriting. A tune I recorded with him was on my very last solo album, it was one of the only songs on the album that had a rhythm section and was more of a fleshed-out band sound. So we did some recording and writing together and we said “We’ve gotta try these out live.” He’s just a very positive, encouraging personality. So he introduced me to Keith Robinson, who’s a really talented drummer, originally from Texas. Keith and his wife had moved up, they’ve been up here for 6 or 7 years. Keith had been just kind of a Texas guy. He backed up a great piano player named Marcia Ball who plays Professor Longhair-like New Orleans style piano and she was in that Austin freak scene of the ’70s with Willie and Jerry Jeff Walker. She’s a big deal. Kind of under the radar as far as mainstream pop, but Keith has played some big gigs. He backed her up a long time. He played with a country guy named Charlie Robison who was on deck to be a big country star. I think he (Keith) just said “screw it,” but he definitely went through the wringer as far as doing the country circuit and playing the big shows. So he’s a very seasoned player and he’s got great shuffles. I’m really into that, playing a good blues or country shuffle. That’s part of that Texas thing with him, that’s a big part of their musical vocabulary. So, to have a rock & roll drummer that has that as part of his vocabulary is really attractive to me, because I like playing shuffles. So we started playing some shows and it just became something that I wanted to pursue. I guess I had taken enough of a break from it that I missed it and I was really enjoying playing electric guitar again. And these guys are bringin’ it, so it makes it fun when they’re bringin’ it, too. That being said, it’s back on the “touring, trying to create a story and build some momentum” train. That’s been interesting, because they’re both busy, they’ve got a lot of stuff going on. We’re just trying to plan it and make it worth everybody’s time. And that’s another thing about touring now, now that my wife and I have our little family, it’s harder to go “ok, I’m gonna be leaving for a week and I’m going to come back with, like, $500.” You just want it to make more sense financially and be worth your time and be leading to something.

Greg Humphreys Electric Trio – Keith Robinson, Greg Humphreys, Matt Brandau

YOB – So have you been making a living as a musician all this time?

GHumph – Yes and no. It’s definitely been the main part of my income. I do have some real estate business, some income that helps. Like I rent my house out in Durham. And I’ve got some investments. I’m not broke, you know, but I’ve definitely had some very lean years. And New York’s expensive. But my wife has a really good situation where she’s been able to work from home for the last year and she’s actually just started going back to the office. So I’ll definitely be doing some child care, which is fine with me. It’s a lot of fun. Playing some around the city and then a lot of my good work is still down south. Be it playing with Dillon Fence like on a big reunion gig or going a tour with the trio, that’s the zone where I still sell tickets and all the talent buyers know me and they know I bring it. Getting back into that has been fun. The Trio has had some really fun shows down there. And the Dillon Fence shows last year were off the chain. It was kind of weird how good they were.

YOB – I think I saw some video from Cat’s Cradle.

GHumph – Yeah, for the Be Loud! benefit. That was sold out, a lot of my favorite musicians were also on the bill. It felt like our generation coming together and raising a lot of money for a good cause. (The Be Loud! Sophie Foundation supports adolescent and young adult cancer patients and their families at UNC Hospitals – ed) It was cool to be a part of that. Just the energy in the room felt like that energy when we were really firing on all cylinders. And I think we were all like “Wow, this is amazing.” And then Hootie and the Blowfish invited us to open for their big show, so all of a sudden we’re playing in front of 8- or 10,000 people. When Hootie was really huge and took Dillon Fence on the road as an opener, Kent had already left the band. So they had never really experienced that when it happened the first time. So it was a cool closing of the circle to have them experience that. The Hootie guys have always been generous about sharing their success with their friends and so it was cool for them to see what that was like. And then we did a big show in Charlotte right before Christmas. And it was the same thing, just a lot of old friends. Our original drummer showed up and played a song with us. And we recorded some new songs, so we’re gonna do…it’s not gonna be a proper album, but it’s gonna be a couple of my songs, one of Kent’s really great songs. We still have to finish it, but it sounds really good and I guess we’re going to plan a release of it around a show or shows and it remains to be seen when and where those might be. It’s hard when you have some good shows like last year with Dillon Fence, you just don’t want to force it. We didn’t plan any of that but we ended up having a handful of really great shows.

YOB – How did you end up picking the songs for the new stuff? Is it just stuff you had lying around that you thought “This might be good for Dillon Fence?”

GHumph – Well, we’ve been doing reunions every year for, as Chris said in an interview, for longer than we were actually a band, you know what I mean? So we have this repertoire of songs that are burned in our brain, we played so many gigs and worked so hard that it’s just there when we need it. But at the same time, we’ve always wanted to add new material to the set. In the early aughts a friend of ours licensed the material and put together a best-of compilation. So we did a recording session at my studio and recorded an EP of new material, and I’m really proud of that. The engineering could have been better, but it was a very DIY project where it was just getting us back in the room creating and arranging. Doing some of Chris’s & Kent’s songs, and some songs I had written that sounded to me like Dillon Fence songs. And that’s really what it’s about. These two songs that I contributed, I did acoustic versions of on the solo albums but they sounded like Dillon Fence songs to me. So in the back of my mind I was always thinking “this should be a Dillon Fence song.” So when we came together I pulled these two and we’ve been playing them in the set live and it fits right in. It’s just the right kind of song for Dillon Fence. And then Kent brought a really cool song. He’s a great writer, and he’s never stopped writing. He’s just never really chased it since he left the band the first time. He did another band after Dillon Fence called Granger where he was the main writer. I just don’t think he was feeling the chase or trying to make it happen. But he’s never stopped writing and he writes really cool songs. The song he brought in was perfect. I think the new Dillon Fence material has that chemistry that we developed over the years together. I’m excited for the Fence fans to hear it.

Dillon Fence – photo courtesy of Greg Humphreys

YOB – One of the things I wanted to ask about – your vocals between Rosemary and Outside In changed. They got more full and confident, got a little more depth to them. Can you describe how that came about? For myself, there are a couple of songs that, when I was in one of my bands, I can point to and say “This is where I found my voice.” When you sent me the new record and I put it on and heard your voice I was like “Ahhh…That’s Greg.” It’s so great to hear that soulful, powerful voice that you have. That voice was on Outside In and definitely on Living Room Scene, but with Rosemary you can hear it starting, like the chorus for “Something for You” is like you’re holding back a little bit.

GHumph – Yeah, I think I’ve talked about this before in an interview way back, but one of my biggest regrets in my recording career is how my vocals ended up on Rosemary. There are so many people who are fans of that record and they love it, but when I hear that album I hear what I wanted it to be and what it could have been.

YOB – That’s tough.

GHumph – I was never really satisfied with my vocal performance on that album. I think it was very well recorded, it’s very clean, but as far as my vocal performance, I feel like I was a better singer at that point than what came across on the record. There are a few reasons for that, the main one being that we went to this…. Our producer on that album was Ron St. Germain, and he wanted to go… we collectively picked this studio in rural Massachusetts called Long View Farm, this really cool farm-turned-recording-studio, the Rolling Stones had rehearsed there and The J. Geils Band made “Centerfold” there. It had a vibe and a big barn as a drum room, so it had a big, roomy sound and you were very isolated and they put you up and they fed you. But…it was in a barn. It was above like, horse stables, with like…

YOB – Like an actual barn?!

GHumph – Yeah, the 2nd and 3rd floors was the studio and the ground floor was still a stable. So it was full of horses and, like, 10 barn cats. And I’m allergic to cats. I can’t remember if I had a cold or if it was just allergies, but my whole head was really shut down. My whole sinus area was completely stopped up. I had been in the choir growing up and I knew how to use my lungs and use my head and create a big sound and I felt like I really wasn’t getting what I wanted on that album. *And* with Ron’s production style, it was one of these things where he was used to working with super pro singers. So for a lot of the stuff, he didn’t feel like he was getting what he wanted, or maybe I just wasn’t delivering because my voice wasn’t where I wanted it to be. It just wasn’t as full and airy as I was hoping for. So we ended up doing a lot of that vocal work in a piecemeal fashion. Phrase by phrase, word by word. Not a full performance and honestly, not someone who is super experienced in the studio at that point and knew how to get what they wanted. So when I hear that album, I hear those vocal performances and they’re good, but they’re just not what I wanted them to be. Also at that point…. Ron had a really interesting discography. He had done lots of stuff in the 70s and 80s but more recently he had done the Bad Brains and Sonic Youth mixing, so we thought he was gonna rough up the edges a little bit, and he ended up giving a very clean, super “pro” mix of what the band sounded like at the time, not far from what we sounded like. For me, it’s a very clean record and my vocal performance is not what I wanted it to be. But it is, probably of the Dillon Fence records, it’s probably the most “pro”, the cleanest, slickest sound of all the records. For better or for worse. But I feel like with Outside In, in a way the production style and the choices we made were a reaction to Rosemary.

YOB – Where did you record Outside In?

GHumph – Outside In was at Fort Apache in Boston, and we hired Lou Giordano who, you know, started with Hüsker Dü and was very much a Boston rock guy. We told him we wanted big guitars and he gave us big guitars. And at that point, I was a little more confident in what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it vocally. As a singer, you’re always a stylist, and some singers sound like they sound and that’s it, but most singers – if you’re singing a lot over a career’s worth of music, your voice is going to change and your stylistic approach is going to change. I mean, look at someone like Neil Young or Dylan. People I look up to as a vocalist are people like Paul McCartney who can belt it and take you to church and sing R&B and soul when they want to, but they can also be very sweet and quiet. Stylistically they can approach a song in the way that the song needs and not restrict themselves to this or that style. Over time, that’s kind of been my attitude. And definitely moving on from Dillon Fence, it’s a factor of age, it’s a factor of lifestyle. If you’re drinkin’ and smokin’ and doing 200 shows a year, your voice is going to sound way different than it did when you were 18 and only drank beer on the weekend.

YOB – Going back to Paul McCartney, I was really surprised hearing him belt out “Helter Skelter”  recently and I was like “holy crap,” being able to still bring it like that was just insane.

GHumph – Yeah, he’s a hero of mine as a singer, for sure. That era of rock & roll is an inspiring era to me because they were into so many things, and they would try a country song. You know, “Let’s do a country song, let’s do an English drinking song, let’s try on different styles and see how they fit.” Whereas now it seems like everything is so genre-driven. Like, could Jason Isbell do a funk tune and get away with it? I don’t know. It just seems like every artist is in their own genre slot and there’s no mixing allowed.

YOB – Yeah, it’s funny, my friend Jeff Jones, who is a big Beatles fan, one of the things he said – which is hyperbole but it rings true in a lot of ways – was that The Beatles did every genre of music and they did it about as good as could be done. Like, country tunes…

GHumph – Well, they were fantastic writers. It all starts with great songs and played well, so they definitely delivered.

YOB – Even like “Honey Pie“, which is weird, and you’ve got “Birthday” or “Back in the USSR”, those are proto-punk tunes.

GHumph – Yeah, they’re very raw.

YOB – Yeah, and if you dig, the theory doesn’t really hold up, but they did a lot of different stuff and that’s where I get a lot of joy out of listening to The Beatles. It’s hearing the growth of an artist over a series of albums, even to the last album.

GHumph – I feel like with a lot of my funk & soul touchstones it’s the same way. Like Stevie Wonder would do a country song, or a song that’s influenced or inspired by country. Or Al Green would cover a Hank Williams song and say “ok, we’re gonna take Hank Williams and do it Memphis style.” It’s these people realizing great is great and genre is just a line in the sand that you can step over at any time. And that’s a big inspiration to me.

YOB – The last series of questions I want to ask are about the individual Dillon Fence records. You’ve talked about Rosemary and how you feel about that.

GHumph – The thing about Rosemary is I’m proud of it, because that was our collection of our best songs from over 3 or 4 years of being a band and playing. I think the songs are strong, but maybe it’s just me being hypercritical of my own performance.

YOB – So then how do you feel about Outside In? What’s your general rememberance of that time and the album itself?

GHumph – Outside In for me was wanting to make our Revolver or our Rubber Soul. The album where we went from just being a real catchy pop band to really making an artistic statement. Trying to make that perfect song cycle where every song is great and it takes you on a journey and you want to return to it. I think it also reflects a lot of the work we put in. After Rosemary we really hit the road hard and our manager quit and we found out we had a tax debt we didn’t know about so we ended up having to double down and play twice as many shows to stay afloat. So it was a combination of a lot of work and also maybe not as green. We were more seasoned, we were living the rock & roll band life at that point and not necessarily satisfied with our lives or where we were. There’s growing pains in there. It’s also us being influenced by what’s around us, like at that point the alternative rock moment was in full swing and I feel like we were influenced by that, there’s no question. We turned up the guitars and things were dirtier and a little rougher around the edges, but it was still the same band. We did not sound like Nirvana or Pearl Jam, we sounded like Dillon Fence. And looking back, that is why I thought that album would be more of a success. I feel like we reached an audience with that album, but I think we put a lot into that album and we were hoping we would reach a bigger audience. I think the music industry at the time was just looking for “Let’s just sign the band that sounds like Pearl Jam or sounds like Nirvana.” So you had all the copycat bands getting all the attention.

YOB – I heard Outside In because, I think I’d heard some of Rosemary before, but I was writing for the fanzine and the guy who was running that had listened to it and said “This is totally something for Sam” and handed it to me. Just the wash of how it opens with “Collapsis,” I’m like “Oh, man, this is so good!” But then the depth of “Union Grove“, “Any Other Way“…. “Any Other Way” still hits me, it’s just such a great love song. We actualy talked about this in 93 when we talked before. And “Headache“, *I* still love playing “Headache.”

GHumph – Yeah, it’s a power-pop gem. But that’s another thing about that record, is that it’s really deep with songs that could’ve been singles, but at the time, the way the business was, it was like “ok, you get one single, and then two singles, and then if you don’t have a hit, you’re out of luck.” A lot of it too for me was about the songwriting at that time. I was super immersed in songwriting. I lived on my 4-track. Some of it might have been THC influenced, I don’t remember. (laughs) But I was writing and writing and I’ve got tapes and tapes full of musical ideas and songs from that era that never made it to a record. I feel like for me as a writer it was a very productive time where the songs were flowing and we were able to capture and record them because we had something going on. I feel very lucky in that sense that we were able to capture some of that and put it on a record.

YOB – Where did you record Living Room Scene?

GHumph – We recorded Living Room Scene at Ardent in Memphis. We worked with a producer named Mark Freegard, who’s a British producer. He had some success with the Breeders, he produced their big single “Cannonball” and had some really interesting stories about how he did tape editing, like he chopped up random sounds and then mixed them up and taped them back together and dumped them back into the session and brought it up in the song. So he was definitely a “using the studio as a creative tool” type producer. I feel like a lot of the sonic artifacts on that album are him. Mix moves, sweeps, and also just sheer indulgence. That was the only album with Dillon Fence where we had 3 weeks to record, 2 weeks to mix. We were so used to rehearsing, getting it together, and knocking it out that it was an indulgent record for us. It was like “Let’s do 20 takes of this guitar solo and then Mark will comp it together for the perfect guitar solo.” We did a lot of that on that album.

YOB – There’s some pretty perfect guitar solos on that album!

GHumph – Yeah? It’s a very well-crafted album. One thing though, now that you say that, that reminds me, is that on all three of those Dillon Fence albums, we did a lot of demoing and some of the demos, especially for Outside In and Living Room Scene, are pretty awesome. So that’s one of the things I’ve thought about doing and we’ve talked about doing is releasing some the demos for the hardcore Dillon Fence fans because it’s like “Here’s a version of ‘Right Road‘ that I actually prefer to the album version.” or I prefer my performance, or the groove, the subtle things that are hard to quantify.

YOB – And it’s easier to do that now than it was back then, just release it and put it out there digitally and be like “Here it is,” instead of “We’ve gotta press records and cassettes.”

GHumph – Yeah, so that’s on deck, too, is kind of an Odds & Sods or rare & unreleased type thing for Dillon Fence and Hobex. But yeah, the Living Room Scene album was a very creative time but it was also when the band was coming apart at the seams. We thought it was a good idea at the time to go to Memphis…I can’t remember where Mark mixed it, maybe somewhere around New York. But we were away from home for  along time and I think it was just hard on everybody just to be away for so long and feel like we didn’t have lives. We were just sick of each other, it’s a very intense way to live when you don’t have time to reflect and recuperate.

YOB – My parents are from Memphis, actually. I wish I would have known you guys better, I could have sent you to Granny’s house for chicken & dumplings. That might’ve helped. (laughs)

GHumph – It’s an amazing musical town. That’s one of my fascinations and obsessions is Memphis music. I think that’s one of the reasons we did Ardent. We met Jody Stephens and I remember him playing me some live Big Star that they had recorded in Japan, telling me they were going to get the band back together. We were there. We were checking it out. More recently I did some songwriting with William Bell, one of the Stax/Volt soul singers. He’s one of these guys where you hear his anecdotes and you say “You need to write a book, man!” Him singing with Al Jackson Sr’s band, Elvis as a teenager coming to see the band. He’s the same age as Elvis so they knew each other. Just all the different circles and how they all intersect and Beale Street and the blues and soul just…it’s unbelievable.

So you have any songs on the new album that jump out to you?

YOB – “Lucky Guy,” to start.

GHumph – It’s catchy!

YOB – Yeah, it is, but like I was telling my wife, listening to it, I’m like, “This dude’s happy.”

GHumph – It’s pure happy, yeah.

YOB – But you don’t get a lot of songs like that. And that’s what we were talking about with “Any Other Way” as well, it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of good songs about being happy and actually being in love.

GHumph – And I can’t fake it. I can’t write a happy song unless I’m really feeling that in that moment, you know?

YOB – And “Crosstown,” for me it’s a good lazy bar tune, but with a beach sound. It’s just so easygoing, but it’s got that soul to it. And “Golden Bone“…this one is fantastic!

GHumph – With the slide? That’s the only instrumental on the album.

YOB – Yeah! It’s so big rock, but then you’ve got that section in the middle that switches from the gritty blues thing…for me, the middle section reminds me so much of Dillon Fence. (Later I realized it reminded me of “Hard To Please” from Outside In a little with a little of “High School Sap” from Living Room Scene.) It was so gritty and then broke into that middle section and I was like “Woah…” And then there’s “Lucky Guy” and “More Than A Friend…” Oh, so what’s the story behind “So Fucked Up“?

GHumph – I think that song is more of a storytelling song, it’s not as personal. It’s written from the perspective of two young people trying to make it and just feeling like our world is so screwed up that all they can do is just love each other and try to make it through. Trying to capture that feeling of hopelessness that I feel like is pervasive in our culture now. I’m not feeling this so much these days, but I know that feeling of just being beaten down by our culture and a feeling of hopelessness. I just think about people without a way out. Maybe it’s living in New York and being surrounded by humanity and feeling that feeling of people who are just struggling and living day to day. Lyrically, that’s what that song is about. And then it’s got that middle section that’s kind of a rock thing and that was just taking two ideas and putting them together and saying “I like this.”

YOB – Listening to “Lucky Guy” and those songs on the album, it was like, this is nice. It’s nice to hear that someone is happy. And like the song says, when you’re gone, people are going to get together and say “He was a lucky guy.” And you want to hear those kind of positive messages. And you’ve got the right musical style and the right voice to deliver it. Because you’re coming from a place of humility. It’s not “Check me out! I’m lucky!” It’s “Can you believe where I’ve got to and how good things are?”

GHumph – Wow. Thanks, man.

YOB – Yeah, thank *you*! Thank you for all the years of music, that’s a gift that I’m happy to have.

Greg Humphreys

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