Sunday, 10 April 2011
The GQ&A: Hayes Carll
I last saw Hayes Carll in a South Memphis strip club. This was after a River City gig, where the Austin-based songwriter had been the opener. When the main act ushered everyone to the strip joint, Carll invited me and my girlfriend along. The place was a Kid Rock-themed haze of mirrors, Confederate bikinis—"Ya'll give it up for Bocephus's favorite dancer!"—and Jägermeister bombs. Aside from realizing my girlfriend—now my wife—was cool with watching girls get all Cirque du Soleil on a pole, I remember being struck by how effortlessly Carll mingled with the crowd, a Camel Light dangling from his mouth and bourbon in hand.
Fast-forward a few years. Fresh off three critically acclaimed albums and an Americana Music Award, Carll, 35, has four songs in the Oscar-nominated Gwyneth Paltrow movie Country Strong and a new album KMAG YOYO out tomorrow. Before hitting the road—Carll tours roughly 250 days a year—he reconnected with GQ to discuss Memphis strippers, LSD, and just what the hell his album name means.
What was the name of that Memphis club?
I can't remember. It was famous on the touring circuit. The club had been shut down for prostitution and drug selling right before we got there and it was shut down immediately afterwards. I remember getting a lap dance and the girl said, "Yeah, I've done this for Sting and Bon Jovi." I thought, "Do they know you're using them for advertising?"
How'd you get your start?
On the Bolivar Peninsula, a 27-mile spit of land a ferry ride from Galveston. It was a tourist madhouse in the summer and ghost town in the winter. I played shrimper bars, honky-tonks, and bait camps, six nights a week, four hours a night. A lot of times for one or two people. I learned how to think on my toes, diffuse a potentially violent situation and keep people entertained.
Where do you meet the characters in your songs?
Harley Davidson factories, couches, sidewalks, backs of vans, and a fair number of strip clubs and casinos. When I first started out, it all seemed strange and intense. I grew up in the suburbs where everyone was white and fairly well off. I'm sure they all had their crazy shit in the closets, but they kept it there. Now, every night I see stuff worthy of a short story. Add too many drinks and narcotics at 2:00 a.m. and you get stuff that really shouldn't be seen.
Your songs were handpicked by music supervisor Randall Poster—The Life Aquatic, I'm Not Here—for the Gwyneth Paltrow movie Country Strong. No duet Huey Lewis style?
No. My highlight was when Gwyneth asked me to dance at the wrap party. Garrett sang "Hard Out Here". Slow dancing with Gwyneth Paltrow while Garrett Hedlund sang one of my songs was pretty surreal. It was like watching a better-looking, more talented version of myself performing my songs.
You guys two-step?
No, it was more like an awkward sway. I was a little out of my league at that point. The whole room was like, "Who the fuck is this guy?" I was asking myself the same question.
Your new song "Chances Are" has an old-school country sound.
I was thinking of calling it "Conway Twitty Lying Naked on a Bearskin Rug By the Fireplace in the Wintertime". The song reminded me of classic country when Kristofferson, Haggard, and Twitty sang songs that were sweet but you also wouldn't want to leave them alone with your woman. I always admired that. They were being sexual but not overt.
What is KMAG YOYO?
Kiss My Ass Guys, You're On Your Own. A military acronym. It's about a young soldier in Afghanistan who has a morphine-induced hallucination about working for the CIA. He gets hit by an IED and stuff goes through his head as he's hanging on. I wrote the music first and then needed something intense to match it, so I thought of blasting through the desert on a Humvee and riding a spaceship on LSD. I didn't set out to write a war or protest song but it kind of came together that way.
Quite the departure from tracks like "The Letter", written for your family.
Half are more personal songs and the other half are stuff I've gleaned from people on the road—rough times with the economy, the war, and the political divide. When I was done, I realized I had a bipolar record.
How do you balance life at home with touring?
I'm gone two-thirds of the year. It's tricky. When I was young, single, and hammered, that's all I wanted to be doing. Now I'm married with a young boy growing up fast. The motivations are different. I still love being on the road—I signed up for the circus and love every minute of it—but it's hard to be gone now for a month at a time where it used to be no problem. I try to make up for it in quality time. I may be gone for a while but can then be home for three weeks when things slow down.
It's Valentine's Day. Any advice for readers?
If you've got someone you simultaneously can't stand and can't resist, listen to "Another Like You." It's about Ann Coulter—"Smoking on a cigarette, talking about the deficit"—because I spend all my time watching talking heads yell at each other. I needed a foil so I included myself in the song. It was a fun exercise in berating myself.