Edward Burch is everywhere in Chicago. If you’ve been out to a show that’s remotely related to the “alternative country” movement, you have seen him. Maybe singing backup with the Handsome Family. Maybe doing a solo acoustic thing in the front room at the Hideout on Monday nights. You’ve seen him.
His most high-profile gig has been his partnership with former Wilco multi-tasking wizard, Jay Bennett. The 2002 Bennett-Burch album, The Palace at 4am (Part I), got lots of press for a lot of reasons: some of them music-related, some of them due to the fact that Palace was released on the same day as Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Since then, Bennett and Burch released a limited pressing of an odd collection of demo versions, alternate takes, and acoustic versions of all the songs from Palace (in order!), plus two John Cale covers. In addition to his work with Jay Bennett, Burch is involved with the Kennett Brothers, the Viper & His Famous Orchestra, and a duo with Wilco’s LeRoy Bach. Despite his busy schedule, Edward took the time to participate in an email interview with Glorious Noise…
GLONO: I’ve seen you play with Jay Bennett, with Leroy Bach, with the Handsome Family, and solo. I’ve even heard a bootleg of you singing with Wilco. Do you know everybody?
Edward Burch: I’ve played music for so long I don’t know that I know how to do anything else. Actually that’s an exaggeration if not a downright lie. There are lots of other things I like to do. As for being everywhere, I think I was in love (and perhaps still am) with the rock and roll world. Being around the Uncle Tupelo and then the Wilco scene was a function of my then neighbor, once roommate and now musical partner, Jay Bennett. He was playing in bands that I liked and I would go see them. Here, this is a funny story. I ran into Ken Coomer the other night in Chicago and he said, “Edward I love you but I have to be honest with ya. Back in the old days, you were the most obnoxious person backstage.” Bob Andrews [late Tupelo/early Wilco road manager, current Bennett-Burch Manager and Undertow label-head] then chimed in, “Yeah, it was like, ‘Who IS this guy? Who is he with?'” I soon learned the ropes and dropped the sycophantic fan nonsense and started behaving like a normal, adjusted human being (or as close to that as I am capable of).
The Handsome Family are some of the sweetest folks I’ve ever met. I love when I get to sit in with them because I’m literally in the middle of their shit. I act as the buffer for their on-stage “bickering.” But really, it’s all about the love. They write such fantastic songs so it is always an honor to join them. If only I could write something that moving and sad. My goal is to someday write a song which completely moves me the way their songs, or the songs of others that I admire, do. Basically I want to write a song that will make me cry every time I hear it. It could be tears of joy, grief, sadness, recognition, anything. I don’t think that I have yet written a song which moves me significantly on an emotional level the way other peoples’ songs do. I don’t even know if it’s possible, but I’m gonna keep trying.
GLONO: Like who? What other artists move you like that?
Burch: It could be anything. Late period Phil Ochs comes to mind. The new Autumn Defense record that John Stirratt and Pat Sansone just finished is very moving, to me anyway. Chris Bell’s “album” I Am the Cosmos. Brown album Jesus Christ Superstar, the best thing Andrew Lloyd Webber ever did, so much so that it is an aberration.
GLONO: Is there anyone you’d like to work with who you haven’t yet?
Burch: Folks I would like to work with include this amazing pop songwriter from Philadelphia named Jim Boggia. We’re looking to get him involved somehow on the next record. I’ve always wanted to join my friend John Peacock’s band (The John Peacock Pop Quintet). He’s one of the Kennett Brothers. Great song writer, especially a great melodicist.
Playing with LeRoy is a blast, and of course with Jay. It might be a while before we see those two on the same stage together again, but it would be nice. Maybe for my birthday, I can get them both to join me on a song at the Hideout. We’ll see…
GLONO: Well, since you brought it up… How weird are things between those guys? Or is the tension a product of media manipulation and journalistic assumption? And how comfortable are you with your role of “Sweden” staying neutral in the whole situation?
Burch: Well, I don’t know. LeRoy’s “our friendship had run its course” comment in the film [I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, a documentary on Wilco] was taken drastically out of context. And he and Jay talked on the phone a couple months back and the conversation seemed to go well. As far as what the relationship is like between those two, you’d really have to ask them. I can only speculate. I do OK with having to separate things and compartmentalize. It hasn’t affected my individual interactions with either of them, really.
GLONO: When can we expect Palace Part II? Are you happy with how Palace Part I and Palace 1919 turned out?
Burch: I hope that we can finish Palace II sometime this summer. I am very happy with Palace I, which is to say that I can still listen to it. I am very proud of the work we did on that record. Palace 1919 (which a friend in Japan pointed out is pronounced “Paris 1919” over there…conflation of Rs and Ls, y’know) isn’t an album, so it’s the type of thing which you would assess differently. 1919 is like looking at someone’s sketchbook, it’s about ideas and processes. People have told me that they like it. To be honest it is not something I can sit down and listen to. In fact, I’ve never been able to sit and listen to it start to finish, and not just because the fuckin’ thing clocks in longer than our first record. There are moments that I like on it and there are moments that make me cringe. Why we didn’t just put out a 7-inch of the John Cale covers and call it a day is beyond me. I mean, it’s pretty arrogant to put out an album’s worth of demos and alternate takes right after your first album, in the same order. Maybe we’ll gather up some of our used cigarette butts and auction them on eBay.
GLONO: Ha ha. So that was a Jay decision, I take it? Do you think he was feeling the criticism that Palace Part I was overproduced, as some critics said?
Burch: No, it actually was a mutual decision. With the benefit of hindsight, I just don’t know if it was worth the trouble. Releasing those versions was certainly not a response to criticisms of overproduction, because if it was, we would have taken greater care to make that collection (note, I don’t refer to it as “album”) sound as amazing, if not moreso, than Palace I. The versions on Palace 1919 are, like I said, sketches, and you look at them once or twice and say “Oh, that’s kinda interesting” and then you put it away.
GLONO: I know that Palace Part I is built up from a hodgepodge of various demos and miscellaneous recording sessions over a period of several years. Will your next album be assembled the same way, or are you planning on recording all new stuff?
Burch: On the one hand, some of these songs might be old material to us, but it’s brand new to almost everyone else. We will be combing over what we have. There may be old recordings that we keep. We might start the whole recording process from scratch. Basically our motto is “serve the song.” Whatever the song needs. New key? Different tempo? Re-write? Throw it in the trash? Fine just as it is?
GLONO: Yeah, but don’t you think the the listener can sense that something wasn’t recorded as an album? Not that it necessarily HAS to be, but there’s a big difference between an ALBUM and a COLLECTION of songs. I know you know what I’m talking about—you’re a record nerd too, right?
Burch: Maybe. Some reviews I read of Palace I found an internal logic or thematic consistency with that album, and that certainly wasn’t intended. We sequenced the album before we finished recording it (because we had an artwork deadline, and we’d already blown a couple of the music deadlines). As long as I’m happy with how the songs turn out, I’m not too worried about the finished product.
GLONO: Any chance of recording with a band?
Burch: We definitely want to get Will and Scott and the Centro-matic kids involved because we love working with them, so there will likely be some live-in-the-studio band takes used. And like I said earlier, I want to get Jim Boggia on board, because he’s great. I heard his record after our first time through Philly, and called him up and said “Are you tryin’ to blow my mind?” Seriously, he is an amazing talent and I would be honored to do anything with him.
GLONO: That’s cool. So that will give Jay a chance to play some lead guitar?
Burch: He did play some lead guitar on Palace I, y’know. In fact, ALL of the lead guitar (because that’s not my bag).
GLONO: I’m not an Yngwie fan, but I enjoy the occasional solo, especially Jay’s solos. Are you guys going to ROCK? Not all the time, but once in a while? Please…
Burch: If we’re going to “rock” then we better write some new songs, because the bulk of the material we’re thinking of for Palace II at the moment is mid-tempo at best, if not downright slow. That doesn’t mean that something can’t be heavy and rockin’ (especially if we have some Centro-matic in the house).
GLONO: I get the feeling that Jay is a big fan of incorporating the sounds of all of his “new toys” into his recordings, and I hear that he’ll tinker with recordings forever, at least right up until he has to turn over the masters to the label. Are there times when you’ve felt like saying, “Dude, that’s enough. This song does not need a glockenspeil!” Or do you enjoy that kind of thing too? It must be a blast to have access to a real Mellotron, and all that crazy stuff he collects.
Burch: I could be wrong about this, but I think Jay has a hard time letting go of things—creatively that is. And I completely understand the feeling of “it’s never done” and worrying that there was some other thing you should have tweaked, some other sound or texture which should have been added or subtracted, some other lyric that should have been changed. But the whole experimenting with what sorts of fun sounds we can create in the studio, I share some of that obsession. I, however, am often the one trying to be the voice of reason suggesting that “maybe 20 vocal takes is enough and you can comp something wonderful from what’s there.” Jay’s perfectionist drive can certainly be irksome, especially when deadlines are approaching and missed and rescheduled and missed and so on. He does know how to make great sounding records, though.
GLONO: Would you be willing to do a track-by-track breakdown of Palace Part I, and say when the base of each song was initially recorded, who played what on it, and what overdubs were done? I realize this would be a huge undertaking, but I know I was disappointed in the liner notes to the album, and I assume others were too. Other than the fact that it would probably required a 50-page cd insert, are there any other reasons this info wasn’t included?
Burch: That is an extremely daunting request. One of the reasons that specific info wasn’t laid out is that on very early sessions, we had trouble remembering exactly who played what. The track sheets are somewhere in the studio which give some indication. Often no dates.
“Dime” (1919) “Darlin'” and “Forgiven” were all first session late 94 early 95. “Dime” on Palace I was newly recorded in the final days of the Palace I sessions. The Woody songs were from Mermaid I era. “Whispers” and “Photograph” are basically Courtesy Move [Jay Bennett, John Stirratt and Ken Coomer] songs with me overdubbed into the mix. “California” is from the CM period (1997-98), but this is our version (CM version was officially released on a 7-inch). “Talk To Me” was demoed much slower as a CM song—then I went at it in the final months of finishing Palace I. “Sugar” and “Venus” date from the first YHF sessions in 1999. “Puzzle” happens around CM working with Sherry Rich, as does “It Hurts” I think. Many overdubs on Palace I happen in the final weeks, including most of the drums (“Hey man, turn that click track down, it’s throwing my time off”), strings, horns, backing vocals, orchestra bells.
GLONO: I’ve heard of the Kennett Brothers, but I haven’t heard you. Who’s in the band? How far along is your album? Are you recording it at Jay’s studio?
Burch: Edward Burch – Vocal, Guitar
John Peacock – Vocal, Keyboards, Guitar, Bass
Andy Leach – Vocal, Guitar, Pedal Steel
Kip Rainey – Mandolin, Bass
Ryan Rapsys – Drums
The album is moving along. We hope to have one of our albums done and out by summer’s end. Undertow will be putting it out. John and I just wrote a new song (and our first collaboration) so I am very excited about finally finishing this project. The first album will be our more pop leaning material and we want to issue a collection of our much older (and different line-up) country related stuff.
GLONO: I love the whole Monday night at the Hideout thing. I’ve only been to it a couple of times, but it really feels like how experiencing music is meant to be. You know what I mean? Just a bunch of people hanging out, drinking beers, playing guitars, listening to music, having fun. Plus the Hideout has the vibe of your weird uncle’s basement from the 70s. They ought to put orange shag carpet in there. Don’t you think?
Burch: I would be all in favor of orange shag carpeting at the Hideout, given that orange is possibly my favorite color. I just wrote a song called “I like Orange Things” based on a song from the Song-Poem Anthology called “I Like Yellow Things.” I’ve been very obsessed lately with the whole Song-Poem industry. I’ve been covering song-poems and, with my day job as Music Editor at The Paper in Champaign, I am writing an article on Song-Poems right now.
But the Hideout, yeah I love that place. Hands down my favorite place to be in Chicago. All the folks who work there and the owners and the patrons, they’re fantastic people.
GLONO: Wow. The only song-poem I’ve heard is the one about Stevie Wonder’s penis.
Burch: I just learned, in fact, that the Stevie Wonder line was excised and changed to “A Blind Man’s Penis” ’cause they didn’t want to get into any trouble.
GLONO: Is the “Jimmy Carter Says Yes” song that you and LeRoy do a song-poem?
Burch: Yes it is, although LeRoy and I have yet to do that song together. I’ve mainly done it with Steve and Diane.
GLONO: Is that whole anthology good? I hate the “it’s so bad it’s good” thing with music. If it’s good, it’s good. Ironic hipsterism is bullshit.
Burch: I think the anthology is great. It might take a little while for it to reveal its inner message(s) to you, but there are some great songs on there. especially the Rodd Keith stuff. This guy was amazingly talented, and songs like “Little Rug Bug” and “How Can a Man Overcome His Heartbroken Pain?” are really fantastic. There are times with these things that the lyrics might be of questionable merit, but these were professional musicians cranking out songs at the rate of, like, 12 an hour. And they managed at times to create something brilliant. The bulk of the time they were nothing to write home about, but the ones that have been anthologized thus far have something to them.
For me, these songs are not a case of, what did you call it, “ironic hipsterism.” The folks who sent these lyrics in are, for the most part, very genuine. They’re not trying to put you on. It’s a refreshing change from the posturing and image manipulation that goes on so often these days in all aspects of the music industry, indie rock especially.
I heard from the folks at Sub-Pop that they are planning to release one for the holidays of Christmas Song-Poems. I know what I’m hoping for in my stocking.
GLONO: Do you think most people think you’re just goofing on this stuff when you cover it?
Burch: I’m sure there are many times that people must think, “What the fuck is he doing up there?” when I pull out these weird songs, or hell, probably when I’m singing my own songs for that matter. But whether with critical or popular assessment, you can’t base what you do on what people are thinking or how they might take it. One characteristic that I think I even share with Jay is that I don’t have “guilty pleasure” songs, per se. I like a song or I don’t, and if I like it I’m likely to play it.
GLONO: Your live show with just the two of you is so stripped down and different from the disc. Much more playful. You guys are like the Smothers Brothers up there. Do you ever think, “Nobody’s going to take us seriously if we can’t make it through this song without breaking into another funny story?”
Burch: I love the Smothers Brothers (I guess that’s no surprise) and I love goofing around with Jay and with an audience. The only way in which I want people to take me seriously is for them to “seriously” have a good time when they come out to see me, whether it’s with Jay or LeRoy or anybody I play with. I’m sure that sounds ridiculous (“Have a good time, ALL the time!”). I mean, it’s only rock’n’roll, it’s only pop music or whatever. It’s hard to take it seriously, except I guess in terms of what music makes you feel. And that varies widely from person to person and song to song and you don’t have any control over that.
GLONO: How do you feel about the way the Internet has changed the way musicians and fans interact with each other? I see you post to the Undertow message boards—do you enjoy that “direct” communication with fans? Ever feel like people cross the line and get too weird and personal?
Burch: I guess the weird thing is that the Internet has developed a very conversational style of writing, but it is still the written word which commands some level of authority, simply by virtue of it being written. So there can be times when such conversations CAN seem weird or personal or crossing the line even if they weren’t meant to be. And there are some folks who are very cool in their online interactions. And then of course there are some folks out there who are complete fucking freaks (not in the good sense of the term), and you should avoid them at all costs. I post and respond to folks on our website because, well, I can think of no reason not to. They’re curious about what we’re doing and when I get a moment I’ll chat. It’s simple common courtesy…a courtesy move, if you will. My mama taught me manners.
GLONO: You guys have released unreleased material as mp3s on your site. How do you feel about that?
Burch: I guess it isn’t “unreleased” anymore, now is it?
GLONO: How do you feel about the whole mp3 debate? Personally, I download a lot of stuff, but I buy more CDs than ever.
Burch: I have no problem with it. I would post some others as well. Although I’ve had a few people tell me, “Hey man, I really liked your album. I downloaded it from your site.” or “I had a friend burn it for me” and I can’t help but think “Then why didn’t you buy one?” We are a fairly tiny operation and there are plenty of other small operations that need support. If you’re gonna steal, do it from OmniMegaCorp. ‘Cause you know with that recent FCC further deregulation last week (the legal equivalent of pulling the few remaining teeth from a defenseless, aging, invalid), you can be certain that media consolidation will become even further concentrated. FCC chair Michael Powell (Colin’s son, y’know?) and the corporate media get in bed but it’s the public and democracy and the free flow of information that is getting screwed. So my advice is, take all of the free music you want from those fuckers, at least until they significantly change their uber-greedy ways. And support the little guys as much as you can. I believe in redistributing the resources.
GLONO: That’s funny, because that is totally my philosophy on making copies of music for friends. I make mixes with lots of everything on it, but I won’t copy whole cds of indie label stuff because I realize that these people need my support. I’ve got no ethical problem with copying major-label releases for friends. Except with big deal, “important” releases where I consider buying it to be like voting. Like I bought the Wilco album the day it came out and even though it’s on a major, I bought one for my brother-in-law too rather than just copy it for him, because I wanted those numbers to show up in SoundScan. To me, it feels like it makes as much of a difference as casting my vote for President. Downloading or copying major-label releases for friends is sort of like voting for the Libertarian or Green candidate.
Burch: It’s kinda sad isn’t it when we have more voting power as “consumers” than we do as “citizens.” That’s obviously why the FCC decision went the way it did, to serve the needs of business and corporations over and even to the exclusion of the general public. Electoral politics has become the same way, bought and sold to the highest bidder. Not that it’s anything new, it’s just become more blatant and shameful in the past 15-20 years.
GLONO: Do you think the major labels will ever change their ways?
Burch: Corporations, whether we are talking about the Big 5 that control the media, or any of the rest of them will never change their ways until they are forced to do so. One good starting point might be to revoke the corporate charters of companies that do not behave in the public interest.
GLONO: Will they ever be willing to invest in an unpopular artist and try to show the world that he’s actually really good? Or are those days over?
Burch: Record companies and Clear Channel and the like have the power to make things popular. I think they are afraid of diversity, they are afraid of things they haven’t done before which don’t follow the script of a tried and true formula. Notice how many sequel movies you see hitting the multiplexes these days? Those days you speak of are over unless we do something about it. If the interests of corporate radio stations and major labels is to deliver us to advertisers and clutter the airwaves with crap, then we respond by not comsuming their products, and pressuring these companies and our “legislators” to act in the public interest.
GLONO: I mean, with all the consolidation, what incentive do these corporation have to make art when they can sell hundreds of thousands of copies of shit? I am not optimistic to ever hear good music on commercial radio for the rest of my life. The Man tells us what’s cool, then manufactures it and sells it to us. What could possibly make them stop their uber-greedy ways?
Burch: I’m in favor of what is referred to as a “maximum wage” where companies and CEOs could only make so much money, and anything in excess is taxed. That tax revenue would then be put to use to fund, say in this case, authentic community programming, real “non-commercial” programming (as oposed to PBS/NPR who call their commercials “underwriting”) that would play more diverse music, give wider spectrum of news and opinion. If an oil company made too much money, the taxes would go for environmental cleanup, research into renewable, cleaner energy sources, etc. Of course, this means changing the tax laws so that corporations actually pay their taxes, but that’s another story. Well, actually it’s not, it’s all part of the same story. You should get Mark Eitzel and I in the same room talking politics. We’d be starting the revolution tomorrow.
[Updated formatting: January 29, 2014. -ed.]