Archive Interview – James McMurtry – Live in Europe CD

When James McMurtry released Live In Europe, I interviewed him from a tour stop in Biloxi, MS.

James McMurtry recently released his second live album, ‘Live in Europe,’ last month, with songs recorded during his first European tour. It contained a CD and bonus DVD. I spoke with James on November 15th from his hotel room in Biloxi, MS. He was on tour with the Drive By Truckers. Besides being one of the finest singer, songwriters in America, he’s a fantastic guitar player. His previous two albums, ‘Childish Things’ and ‘Just Us Kids’ are both critically acclaimed. A conversation with James is always candid and brutally honest, which in turn makes his songs so powerful. You realize he truly believes in everything he writes and says.

DM: Hello James, how’s it going?

JM: Hey, Dale, it’s going OK.

DM: Thanks for taking time to talk today, I know you are on the road and are really busy.

JM: It’s OK, I have a little time. I just got in my hotel room and I have some time before soundcheck.

DM: Well, to start things off, I love the new live CD/DVD you just released. I thought ‘Live in Aught 3’ was a great live album, so I was excited to hear you were releasing another live collection. Was it done to document your recent European tour?

JM: No, it actually started as a DVD project. There were several venues over there that were set up to film. The Paradiso (in Amsterdam) actually has multi-cameras mounted on the walls. At that time, there was actually a company called ‘Fabchannel’ that was doing live web streaming out of there. They were all setup to do the shoot but our German rep at Blue Rose Records wanted to do a video shoot at The Ratsche in Geislingen. We didn’t really like the way the Geislingen show looked. We didn’t like the way it was lit, so we didn’t use any of that footage. The audio was pretty good so we were able to use a couple tracks from there for the record. The Paradiso show was surprisingly pretty well lit and shot, but what I didn’t know going into it was that they weren’t going to save the raw footage.

DM: Really? That’s not good.

JM: Yeah, so I couldn’t really edit it well. There was a lot more material, and the guys filming it were Dutch, so they didn’t know the words. They were just filming a band the way they film a band. It was kind of cut on the fly, they had someone in the back working all the cameras that are mounted on the walls. A lot of times they would cut from a vocal line to the kick drum peddle and it ended up looking goofy for the most part. I thought, ‘Well, I can’t really charge money for this.’ I can make a record out of it and add the best of the video clips as a bonus DVD, so that’s what we did.

DM: OK, that explains a lot, because I’m such a huge fan of your live shows, that was going to be my only complaint. I wanted to see the complete show.

JM: Well, that was another thing, when we decided to release it on vinyl too. To do a double vinyl release would have been too expensive. I hadn’t done vinyl in so long that I was afraid to go out on a limb with a double vinyl album.

DM: What was the reason you wanted to release it on vinyl? I’ve noticed more artists are doing that lately.

JM: It’s kind of making a comeback. They now have these turntables where you can rip the album straight to your iPod. They even work pretty well using them as a regular turntable. Anyway, vinyl limits your length. After about 20 minutes per side you start to losing fidelity.

DM: I really liked the addition of Ian McLagan on keyboards. What a legendary musician! I can never pronounce his last name correctly.

JM: McLagan. (James says it correctly) Yeah, it can get confusing with Sarah McLachlan, John McLaughlin, but its Ian McLagan. His nickname is ‘Mac.’

DM: On the DVD, I really liked the ‘Laredo’ clip that featured Jon Dee Graham.

JM: Yeah, I really liked that one too.

DM: It was funny when he was talking about the music critic. Was he really in the audience?

JM: I don’t know, he probably was.

DM: Of all the video footage you got, is there any of it still left that you could release at some point?

JM: We might filter some of it over to, just to have a better presence there. Unfortunately there were just a lot of goofy camera angles. They kept using this one shot, from across the stage, of Mac. They were shooting through a forest of mic stands, and I’m asking myself, ‘Why?’

DM: That’s crazy. If you’re going to take the time to film a live show, do it right.

JM: It’s a wonder any footage made it out at all. We had to give them another $3000 to multi-track it so I could mix it right. Had I know we weren’t going to get the raw footage properly edited I would have canned the whole project. By the time I realized this, we were already three grand into it.

DM: This was your first European tour, right? How did the fans react to your music?

JM: Yes it was and we just got back from our second tour over there.

DM: So it obviously went well…..

JM: Yes, it did well. A lot of the British shows sold out, probably because of McLagan. During our second tour we didn’t sell out as many shows. Another factor this time was that the economy is even worse over there than it is here. And it went down even more between the first and second tour. But our first tour was pretty successful.

DM: What was the transportation situation like over there?

JM: It wasn’t real bad, we had a van and a driver plus a road manager. He drove the van and helped with the gear. On this last trip he wasn’t available, so we got a friend of his, a lady named Christine. She was half German and half Scottish and she worked out perfectly. The logistics of touring overseas can be rough, especially the load ins. A lot of times you have to carry equipment up and down a flight of stairs or park the van several blocks away and pack your gear down a sidewalk. Sometimes we’d barely have room to squeeze the van down the narrow city streets.

DM: You always hear stories about the weather in England.

JM: Oh man, it was pretty dismal. Lots of cold rainy days, but we did have some sunny days in Scotland, which they don’t usually have at that time of the year.

DM: This was your first time to tour overseas but had you ever visited England before?

JM: I’d been there before. Actually when I was twelve I was in a movie called ‘Daisy Miller’ that was shot in Switzerland and Italy. (1975 movie starring Cybill Shepherd and Cloris Leachman. James played the part of Randolph C. Miller, Peter Bogdanovich was the director)

DM: Now there’s a bit of trivia about you that I didn’t know.

JM: So, yeah, I’ve been overseas a few times but this was my first time to play music over there. I would love to go back and tour southern Europe. The thing about touring Europe is that you have to have an agent and a label for every territory.

DM: Really?

JM: Oh yeah and our only licensee was in Germany so we did pretty good there and in Belgium and Holland, but when we got over to England it was tougher. We made some good connections there, so now if we can get a British licensee for our next studio record, we’ll be rolling over there.

DM: Often artists will release a live album to give themselves some breathing room between studio albums. Your last two albums were brilliant, so are you writing songs for the next record?

JM: Well, I haven’t really been writing much.

DM: You’ve probably been too busy…

JM: I used to write when I was under pressure. I’d book studio time and then hope that I’d get the songs written. I’d wind up getting some of them written, then I’d book another session and do it again. That way was pretty expensive because it takes awhile. So this time I’d rather have all the songs written before I start booking any studio time.

DM: Do you have any written?

JM: No, I don’t have anything, but I think it’ll come together. I don’t really want to write the same way, I want to find another way. Maybe do something a little more groove oriented.

DM: I can understand that. Your last two albums were very similar in their sound and song topics and are two of my favorite releases from the past few years. The cool thing about releasing a live DVD is that now fans can see what a fantastic guitar player you are. Didn’t you film some shows at the Continental Club in Austin for a live DVD release?

JM: Yes we did but unfortunately it didn’t look very good, so I didn’t put it out.

DM: Any chance it will ever see the light of day?

JM: No, it was just too dark and it just wasn’t that good of a performance.

DM: I understand that. I’ve shot some video myself at the local clubs and the lighting is often very dark.

JM: In Europe we had the other problem, it looked like it was lit with a welder. In that Geislingen show, it was just a stark white light.

DM: I noticed on the DVD that the crowd seemed to be really into your music.

JM: Generally they are very familiar with your music but they don’t move as much. Usually they just stand there and look at you.

DM: That’s got to be a different experience for you, as opposed to playing the Continental Club on a Saturday night.

JM: Oh yeah, very different, much more reserved.

DM: You mentioned earlier that you haven’t written anything new recently, but with such strong material to draw from on the last two albums, I’m not burned out on those songs yet.

JM: Well, thank you very much, that’s good to hear.

DM: Is Ian going to continue playing with the band?

JM: Oh no, he’s off playing with John Mayer and making real money. He went to Europe with us because he didn’t have anything else to do. We worked him to death so he doesn’t want to do that again.

DM: And he’s not a spring chicken anymore, he could probably tell some pretty wild stories of his days in The Faces, or playing with the Rolling Stones.

JM: Man, he can drink us all under the table. That guys got more stamina than any of us. I don’t know how he did it, but he would come out of a pub with like four pints of Guinness under his coat and not spill a drop. Then he’d get in the van and pass them out to us.

DM: Speaking of that, how was the food and accommodations over there.

JM: At times it was just like starting all over for us. We had to really trim expenses so we stayed in some of the crappiest hotels there. But it was fun, Mac and Jon Dee were fun to be around. We had a good time but it was pretty rough in places. Over here we have Priceline, so we can stay in Hilton’s for Motel 6 prices because the hotel industry is hurting so bad.

DM: Yes, our economy here still hasn’t rebounded. I thought it was fitting on the DVD when you play ‘We Can’t Make It Here Anymore’ and said that you hoped you wouldn’t have to play the song anymore but I’m afraid you’re still going to have to keep playing it awhile longer.

JM: The song is dated now because if you say damn with the war you’re talking about Afghanistan and it’s a different matter. I didn’t really want troops to go into Afghanistan initially because historically that’s always been a bad thing for westerners, but Bush could have finished that. He could have done that but he didn’t. There’s a long list of things he could have done. You know, Rumsfeld said ‘there are no good targets in Afghanistan, there’s lots of good targets in Iraq.’ What he meant was, there was stuff in Iraq we could blow up and Halliburton could rebuild on our dime for a mint.

DM: That’s true, there’s not much in Afghanistan that’s worth rebuilding.

JM: It’s not going to make them any money. That’s why we went to Iraq because it made them a pile of money.

DM: Obama inherited some tough problems to fix. Do you think he can do any good?

JM: Only if we are committed to helping him fix the problems, and therein lies the problem. We can’t just put him out there and say do it or and if you don’t you’re screwed. No, if we want something done, we all gotta do it.

DM: The politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, seem to just want to argue with each other rather than actually trying to solve any problems. Few seem to want to get behind anyone and help.

JM: You’re not going to get the Democrats to get behind him, much less the Republicans.

DM: I can’t watch the political talk shows anymore because all both sides do is argue. No one seems to focus on trying to work together to resolve any issues, they just try to make the other side look bad.

JM: And this whole thing on health care, they had a chance to really do something here and now they are wimping out on us. Whether we like it or not, socialized medicine is coming and it’s just how broke the average American has to be to finally go for it.

DM: James, we could talk about these issues for several more hours, but you have a soundcheck to do and I have a deadline to meet, so thanks once again for taking time out of your day to talk to me. I always enjoy our talks and thoroughly enjoy your music.

JM: No problem, I think I’ll grab a bottle of wine and head to soundcheck.

DM: Sounds like a plan to me. Take care buddy, talk to you soon.

JM: Thanks dale, see you later.

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