Charlie Starr Interview: Blackberry Smoke Singer Talks New Live Project, Upcoming Studio Album
Blackberry Smoke may be the biggest band you’ve never heard — that is, if all you do is listen to country radio.
The Georgia-based soulful country rock band have earned a fanatically loyal fan base over the course of the last dozen-plus years, largely by word of mouth from their incendiary live shows. They’ve released three studio albums on three labels over the course of that time, but had never captured the energy of their live shows in an audio format until last month’s release of ‘Leave A Scar: Live North Carolina,’ a CD and DVD package.
In a rousing show of support for the fan-favorite group, readers of The Boot overwhelmingly voted the new project our Album of the Month for July 2014.
The Boot caught up with lead singer Charlie Starr to discuss the new live package, the difficulties of the music business, the group’s upcoming new studio album and more in the following interview.
Your band is renowned for its live shows, but it’s taken a long while to get a live album out. What made this the right time?
I don’t know. It seemed like the right thing to do, I guess. You know, over the course of over 13 years, we’ll get excited about a project, and go in and record it, as far as studio albums go. And the music business has forced us to wait long periods of time to get things released. It’s never been any one person’s fault, it’s always just been luck of the draw.
That sort of turned us into a full-time touring band — that didn’t necessarily make us that; we’d already started to tour. But that’s our living, is touring. So that’s just a little bit of back story on the frustrations that we would have with the business, and then after we released ‘The Whippoorwhill’ we toured for a year or so, and we were really wanting to go in and make another record, and things started to look kinda funny again. You know, it’s the nature of the business, I guess. And we thought, ‘Well, one thing that we definitely can control is recording a live show.’
"Unlike a studio project, it’s done pretty quickly. You hope you have a good night, because the record button is on."
The first live DVD that we released was ‘Live at the Georgia Theatre,’ that came out about a year before ‘The Whippoorwhill’ did, and it was a DVD only. People bought it, and they had it on Palladia, and that’s great, but some fans said, “You know what, it sure would be cool to just listen to it, to put it in the car.” Which, obviously you can’t necessarily do that with a DVD. And we even had some fans who are maybe old men like us, who were like, “This thing won’t play in my car — what the hell’s wrong with it?” [Laughs].
So Brit and I were talking, there was a show coming up in North Carolina, and we had been taking about recording a live album this tour, because everything feels good, the band feels like we’re really firing on all cylinders, and we should record a show properly. So we did. We called up an engineer friend of ours, and he brought out the gear, and as we got that in the planning stages of recording the audio, that’s when we met Blake Judd, who is the director of the DVD portion of the ‘Live: Leave a Scar.’
We had seen a DVD documentary that he put together on Charlie Louvin, and it’s brilliant, and so we contacted him and asked if he would like to put together the DVD part of it, and he said he would.
What’s the work process like for a live album?
Unlike a studio project, it’s done pretty quickly. You hope you have a good night, because the record button is on. We recorded the entire show, I think 23 songs, and the DVD does not have the entire show on it, because we wouldn’t have been able to fit all of the documentary footage and bonus footage. So we thought, ‘Let’s try to focus on songs that weren’t on the first DVD, and then we’ll put the entire show on the audio.’
Do you get nervous being recorded in a live environment?
It’s on your mind, that’s for sure. It’s lingering in there. There’s no do-over here, really. We could, really — we could have said, ‘That show was kinda crap, so let’s record another show.’ And no band is perfect, really, but it just felt good. There are warts on there. I hear them here and there. I think I even botched a lyric or two. But at the end of the night, the people that were there were in such a good mood that it was a no-brainer. I think we were all pretty pleased with it.
Is it an unretouched live performance, or did you go back and dub anything in there?
No dubs, man. The only thing, I think the order may have changed a little bit to be a little closer to the DVD. When we filmed the first one, ‘Live at the Georgia Theatre,’ we had all kinds of equipment failure, so that had to be edited heavily, because that wound up being a three-plus-hour night. That really wasn’t the case with this one. It’s great to work with people that know how to do it.
Touring as much as you do has to have some impact on your home life. How do you keep that integrated?
For most of us, it’s kinda always been that way, for the marriages that came after the fact, after we formed the band. It’s just coming and going, coming and going. When things are good, it’s good. It’s always hard to be away from family, especially children. Especially new children. But it would be no different if we were in the military, being sent in and around this country different places. I had an uncle who was a captain in the Navy, and they lived everywhere, and he was always gone. Or if we sold encyclopedias, you know. [Laughs].
You mentioned the ups and downs of the recording side of the music business The one thing about making your primary living from playing live is that it’s something that can’t be stolen from you, as far as people downloading music illegally and that sort of thing.
Yeah. It’s a funny thing, too, the other side of that coin is tapers, which we have never been a band that would shun somebody taping our show. I actually was having this conversation with a friend the other day, and he said, “If people come and record your show and then they offer it on a sharing site, if it sounds like crap, then you don’t want that.” But it’s been my opinion that if people listen to a show like that, if the sound quality is bad, they kinda call out the dude that taped it, not the band. The show sounds like sh–, but it’s not Blackberry Smoke’s fault. [Laughs].
And a lot of those people really care. You know, they really care about their gear, and that’s sort of their art form, trying to capture the energy that’s in a room. And those guys, I’m kinda like, ‘Yeah, man, tape it and pass it around, and let anybody who is interested in hearing it hear it. Just don’t sell it.’ But most of those guys are purists, and they’ll keep it that way.
I think we’ve always been on the fence as far as what you’re talking about otherwise — the guys who are really stealing your music, your recorded, copyrighted material. It’s a tough call, man. It’s obviously not right, but who hasn’t done it? It’s sort of like a guy that’ll swear to God that he’s never looked at porn on his computer. [Laughs].
"It’s always hard to be away from family, especially children. But it would be no different if we were in the military … or if we sold encyclopedias, you know. "
Does that play any kind of a role in how you space your albums, in terms of making it less important to go record an album because the profit is not always there because of theft?
In my mind, that’s never even part of the equation. The big problem — if you can call it that, ’cause it’s not like our career has been a skyrocket. There’s been no burning need for us to make one album a year. We’re on the snowball that’s rolling really slowly over the last 12 years. But obviously we’ve wanted to make more studio records. It just seems like every time we’ve come to a point where it’s time to go do that, something will happen with the label we’re involved with.
Most of that happened pre-Kickstarter, and we’ve even had people that would get on our website or Facebook and say, “What are you waiting for? Get on Kickstarter and go make a record!” [Laughs]. You know, it’s real easy to type that.
We’re just about to finish a new studio album now, and that’s four full-length studio albums and one pretty long EP that we’ve made in our career, and I’m happy with that. I would rather have a handful of good ones than 20 not-so-good ones.
Are you going to be with the same label this time around, or is it going to be another switch?
It’s gonna be another switch. Unfortunately, no fault of Zac Brown‘s, but Southern Ground Artists just sort of dissolved. It just happens. I won’t speak for Zac, but I’d imagine that he’s disappointed — not in himself, but you know, the marketplace is tough, and he had a very pure vision as far as the bands that he signed. It’s just tough. That’s a hard row to hoe, right there.
We’re gonna put our record out on Rounder. I would hope — it’ll either be right before the end of the year, or right at the first of next year, but it won’t be too awful long.
You worked with Brendan O’Brien this time around. What’s that like?
Man, he’s a legend. Without even mentioning Pearl Jam, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen or Rage Against the Machine, he still made our favorite records with the Black Crowes, Dan Baird, Raging Slab. He’s one of the best guitar players you’ve ever heard, so as a guitar nerd, I’ve been in heaven working with him. He just makes great, great records. It’s been a whirlwind, working with him. He’s an artist.
What does he bring out of the band that you might not have brought out of yourselves, or with another producer?
It’s hard to say. We went into this project with the new songs that we were ready to record. Working with a producer will really make you put your songs under the microscope. It’s like brushing your teeth really good before you go to the dentist. We really, before even going in to record the first note with him — we didn’t scrutinize them so badly, because our songs are pretty simple. There’s not a 12-minute opus in the bunch, that we would have to say, ‘How are we going to fit all of these guitar solos?’
I think he appreciated that, that he didn’t have to worry about trimming a whole lot of fat. The songs are pretty economical. But he was right there with us. There was very little work to do, as far as that went. He wanted the rockers to really rock, and the laid-back stuff to be really cool and laid back. Like I said before, he’s such a great musician, he will really bring out the player in you. You’re really on your toes as a player. You don’t want to half-ass anything.
"The guys who are really stealing your music, your recorded, copyrighted material … It’s obviously not right, but who hasn’t done it? It’s sort of like a guy that’ll swear to God that he’s never looked at porn on his computer."
You mentioned Kickstarter a minute ago. I had no idea how extremely, extremely devoted and active your fan base is until we put your live album in our Album of the Month voting, and it won hand-down. [Laughs]. Since you have such an engaged audience, could you ever envision a time when you would go it alone, form your own label and rely on the direct support of those fans?
I don’t know. Even as dire as things can look like they’re getting as far as the music business, it’s a tough thing to think about. Everybody has the power to do that now; as you say, social media is such a powerful outlet, all of the social media outlets are so powerful, and it’s a network that’s available to everybody, whereas maybe it wasn’t at one time. But that’s a hard question to answer. There are so many fingers on the hand, as far as distribution, publishing, marketing … we’ve never been a band that worried about radio so much, because radio’s never been too worried about us. At least that’s one thing we don’t have to worry about. [Laughs].
That’s an expensive thing not to have to worry about.
It is. My mind is completely boggled by the amount of money that’s spent to get music played, and for not all the right reasons. I don’t really need to stand on my soapbox to bitch about that, but people will get on their soapbox and say how bad it is, and you know what, a part of me says it’s always been bad, really. That’s always been a thorn for lots and lots of artists — if an artist is outside the box in any shape or form, there are not always people lined up to champion them.
Is there anything else you want to say about the live album, the new album you’ve got coming out or anything else?
Just that we’re tickled. We’re proud of the live album. It’s a great snapshot of a working band from that night. We might have sounded different the very next night. It really is — not to sound cliche — but it really can be on organic thing, especially with the amount of energy the audience can be giving back on any given night. So we’re really proud of that, and hope people pick it up and enjoy it. And the new record should be coming everyone’s way soon.