November 10, 2012
On Saturday, Nov. 17, The Cairo Gang and the Josh Abrams Natural Society will play an indoor show to 50 people at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur. I spoke with Emmett Kelly—the man behind the Gang—last week. He's in the midst of finishing a six-track EP, which he describes as "really rocking and completely different from anything I've done before," which will be released early next year. Kelly says there's not a single six-string guitar on the album—it's all electric 12-string, baby. Here's some more of my conversation with the singer-songwriter:
The Corner Man is your first LP in more than 5 years. You always seem to be collaborating and backing other musicians, which doesn’t give you much time to focus on your own stuff. How did you come to be so musically generous? A lot of times it’s not about generosity. Music is multi-dimensional: Sometimes I play music by myself but mostly I play with other people. I think it’s less generous and more inclusive.
You’ve collaborated several times with Will Oldham (Bonnie “Prince” Billy). How did you guys initially hook up? We just met and something seemed to be in line with the way we were interacting. The idea of us playing together felt good and then when we played together, it worked out really well so it’s just going to continue.
I read somewhere that you wrote all the music and Will wrote all the lyrics on 2010’s The Wonder Show of the World. How does that process work? This project was done where the lyrics had already been written and I set it to music. With collaborations it’s not about a singular vision; it’s about a collective vision. When someone offers to collaborate, they believe that your ideas are good. One of things that works out so well with Will and me is there’s never any rules as far as approach. Subverting is an M.O. for a lot of artists. [Oldham] comes to me with his stuff then I come back to him with my stuff and it’s always a work in progress until the thing is cut. It’s both of our records. We both poured ourselves entirely into it.
Was it hard to get into a non-collaborative frame of mind when you made The Corner Man? For anyone who’s creative in any way, there’s this aspect of a solitary creative process that they experience. It presents itself differently to everyone. One of the things I always try to do is distinguish the stuff I do on my own from the stuff I do with other people because it’s a different voice. I’ve always been a guitar player for other people and I love playing guitar but it’s only recently that I’ve been able to stomach the idea of a guitar solo even though that’s something I do all the time. I used to really love Richard Thompson as an electric guitar player because he would never full indulge in a solo. I approach songwriting in one way and playing other people’s songs in another way. When you accompany somebody else, you present an angle they may have never thought of. On some of the songs on The Corner Man, the lead guitar is played by a friend of mine and he has a distinctly odd approach to guitar playing, which I really enjoy. Since the last Cairo Gang album, my perspective on performance and song and recording has completely changed. Things are about the moment. Performance is a snapshot of something bigger. Music doesn’t have boundaries or a right or wrong way to be played. My process involves chiseling away at something till it becomes good. I’m a drummer and a bass player and a lot of times I’ll come up with something when I’m randomly playing bass. “Teach Me to Bury You” from The Wonder Show of the World, was written on bass and there’s barely any bass on it, if there is any at all. Sometimes I write songs on the drums. One of the joys on understanding a song is figuring out how the bass and drums go.
The Cairo Gang and Josh Abrams Natural Society perform at 7:40pm Saturday, Nov. 17, at Henry Miller Library (indoors), a quarter mile south of Nepenthe Restaurant on Highway 1, Big Sur. $10. 667-2574. http://www.henrymiller.org/