Zane Campbell is seated, clutching a borrowed Martin D-45 and singing into a black ribbon mic boomed 45 degrees down towards his mouth: “The places I have gone/ people don’t come back alive. And the things I have done/ half of them I’m gonna deny.” The song begins like the first line in a back-pocket science-fiction paperback, and Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel guitar sounds like a giant octopus maneuvering underwater. Zane, Susan, Anna Roberts-Gevalt, and Walker Teret are all set up facing each other in a broken circle inside a basement recording studio in Woodstock, Maryland. I’m calling the songs and then monitoring the music from a pair of headphones near the computer that is capturing everything. They decide to overdub the pedal steel and fiddle solos. I suggest that Susan play something eerie. It only takes her once. “You sure don’t have a problem with weird, do you?” Zane says.
“Well, you wrote the song,” Susan, a stalwart in the avant-garde scene, replies. It sounds like she is finger painting with sound. Anna doesn’t take long to nail her fiddle solo; the only suggestion I remember giving was to try for a feeling like the knife stabs in “Psycho.” Her fiddle drags a flatline at the end of the song, and your blood pressure noticeably drops.
It’s the first day of recording Zane Campbell’s new album, a project I concocted, scheduled, and persuaded Zane to participate in. He seemed indifferent, but prepared. It was key that we get a complete take within two or three attempts at a song since we had very limited time (two rehearsals and four recording dates). There are no punch-ins whatsoever on Zane’s vocals; they are mostly first or second takes. As with the old blues and vaudeville performers, the best way to capture Zane on record is the most unobtrusive: Mic him and cut him loose.
Zane’s music is equal parts Hank Chinaski and Hank Williams. He’s an obsessive-compulsive songwriter and completely driven by art. He’s written thousands of songs over the years and his living room looks like the abode of an over-caffeinated and crazed child, wallpapered with colorful illuminated song manuscripts, black-light paintings, and cartoons. Country and folk music is in his blood from his uncle Alex Campbell and aunt Ola Belle Reed, who owned country-music park New River Ranch, recorded for Starday, Rounder, and Smithsonian, and brought mountain music from North Carolina to Maryland in the 1930s.
Alex spread that music far and wide through his radio broadcast “Campbell’s Corner.” It turned thousands of people onto hillbilly music, all the way from the Maritime provinces in Canada down to Florida. Zane’s other uncle, Guy Brooks, played fiddle with the 1920s string band The Red Fox Chasers, so the country tradition is on both sides of his family and goes way back, almost to the beginning of recorded music.
The family tradition that he is keeping alive is not just the transmission of a repertoire of folks songs, but more importantly the tradition of teaching everyone who wants to learn how to write their own songs and start a band. Spending time with him can be a master class in several different mediums if you know what you are looking for. He’s not only produced songs, paintings, drawings, and poetry, but he’s studied the old masters and various altered states intensively. He is articulate and entertaining, traits he shares with Ola Belle, who also loved to talk and teach from the stage and at home.
His collected work is voluminous and starts at a young age, giving you a high-definition picture of an artist’s journey. It’s informative and inspiring to see how different phases and stages of life are reflected in the art. Zane’s experience playing in and listening to early punk-rock bands is evident in his songs, but he absorbed his mother’s record collection too—mostly old-time fiddlers like Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers and bagpipe albums and traditional country music. All of these influences blend and reflect back into a singular style of singing and writing. His song ‘Post-Mortem Bar’ is an ideal example of that: Like a perfect country song it doesn’t age, but stylistically it is somewhat mutant.
About half the songs on this new self-titled album were written in the 1980s when Zane worked as a janitor at the Kolping House, a boarding house located on New York City’s Lower East Side. He condensed his experiences during that time period into some powerful songs, and a serialized comic book story, “The Alcoholic Janitor.” The song ‘Lay-Away Plan’ opens with the words “Last Christmas I spent in a boarding house with a six pack and a bottle of scotch.” Zane calls ‘Lay-Away Plan’ his alcoholic Christmas song, but it’s also a drunkard’s prayer and Dear Mother love letter. I discovered some of the other songs going through a handful of CD-Rs labeled “Zoloft Sessions.” They were full of songs Zane originally recorded alone on a cassette boombox and then forgot about. I transcribed the lyrics and had him relearn them.
I was making the decisions on instrumentation, songs, etc. because Zane basically wanted nothing to do with it.
It was partly out of disinterest and partly because his compulsion to constantly experiment (and sometimes innovate) had marred his earlier attempts at albums and soured him on the recording process (save one punk album produced by Tommy Ramone that for other reasons was never released). Over the years other producers in New York and Nashville had tried to produce Zane in any number of ways, with him as a willing participant, but what no one had tried was to pare everything down and make something minimalist and somewhat traditional.
Baltimore is the ideal setting for the album. You have this forlorn figure—completely inside of his head—walking through a desolate landscape amongst the living dead, almost like a hillbilly Edgar Allan Poe. There’s this ever-present feeling of the past in the quality of his voice, and an acceptance of being alone and forsaken in his mindset. The idea of trying for a moody and somewhat grim atmosphere also influenced the selection of musicians, brought from almost all of Baltimore’s wildly overlapping scenes, I hired to play on the recording, including Susan Alcorn on pedal steel, Anna Roberts-Gevalt on fiddle, and Walker Terret on bass, piano, and a bit of mandolin, with Chris Freeland recording.
We would only use a click track on one song because it features bagpipes and is nearly seven minutes long. That song, ‘Bringing The Boys Home,’ is about Zane’s brother Lon, a mortician, bringing the dead bodies of American soldiers back from Vietnam to their families. Zane’s delivery is a mix of talking blues and recitation over a heavy dirge.
So, here we are in Baltimore with this amazingly crazy band. Zane, who, when we first met, was happy playing a monthly three-hour gig within walking distance from his Cecil County home, is sitting down in front of a music stand—singing lyrics from his song books—within arm’s reach of a large roll of paper towels and a half-gallon of iced coffee. The only things missing from home were a large paint splattered metal pot filled with grey murky water beside him, various sizes and colors of brushes and tubes strewn about, and the television on full blast.
“What next?” Zane asks.
“How about ‘Fess Up’?” I say.
“Which one is that?” Susan asks.
“That one in E,” someone else answers.
And they’re off with one of the strangest country songs I’ve ever heard. It sounds something like a hillbilly band picking near a moonshine still inside Tarkovsky’s Zone—the house in the center of some post-apocalyptic space where your deepest, truest desire comes maddeningly true.
The Big Music Issue:
- "Do Everything and Do It Yourself": Puja Patel on TT The Artist opting to build community instead of buzz.
- "Negative Theology": Bret McCabe on Locrian's Terence Hannum plumbing the depths of nothingness on a new solo record.
- "Brain Power": Shannon Gormley on Wet Brain fighting dickhead misogyny with powerful punk.
- "50 Local Releases You Should Hear": Brandon Soderberg's breezy reviews of 50 local albums, EPs, mixtapes, mixes, and more from 2014.