GOTHIC GUMBO: ROD MELANCON SERVES UP A SONIC STEW OF STARK TALES ON SOUTHERN GOTHIC
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Southern Louisiana born and now Los Angeles-based musician Rod Melancon has a lot to say – and sing about. The ten tracks on his sophomore set Southern Gothic (due June 16) are punctuated at times with drum stabs that sound like shotgun blasts and stories that would have Stephen King shaking in his boots with fear. But unlike King’s tales of terror, the stories Melancon tells are true and ripped from the pages of his own life.
Whereas Bruce Springsteen invokes devils and dust and John Mellencamp recalls Jack and Diane, Melancon tells real-life stories of friends and family members he grew up with in the swamps and bayous of Louisiana. His lyrics in “Dwayne and Me” put the listener right next to him on the levee, the porch and the bus of which he sings. “Different Man” introduces us to a real man battling the unintended consequences of war with a soundtrack in which you can feel the fury of warfare exploding from the guitar. Meanwhile, “Red Head” paints the portrait of a gorgeous girl spotted in the house of God and the internal struggle of lust in the presence of the Lord.
Merriam-Webster defines “gothic” as “characterized by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious, or violent incidents.” Toss the words dirge, death, despair and darkness into Rod Melancon’s recipe for Southern Gothic and you’ll start to taste the full flavor of a well-rounded record.
Hey, Jim, I’m good. How’s it going, man?
Thanks for your time today. I’ve got a lot to chat with you about this record. I could talk to you for an hour…
Well, you go on as long as you’d like, cuz I don’t mind talking about it.
Excellent! Well, first and foremost, congratulations. Your second full-length album Southern Gothic is set for a June 16 release. Let me just say from the outset that I think if Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was a pleasant yet surprise Grammy Album of the Year nominee, I’m gonna go way out on a limb here and say that a Southern Gothic nomination would be a no-brainer.
Man, thanks a lot! That’s super nice. I appreciate that.
Pick your poison – your sonic poison, I guess – you’ve got it all covered here. Was it a conscious decision on your part to blur musical genres on this record, or was it just you being you?
That’s an interesting question, man. I think in a sense when (producer) Brian (Whelan) and me would talk about the songs we’d talk about the different sounds we had in mind for the songs and what sounds would complement what the characters were going through. So, I think that’s kinda how that took place. I think that was in some ways a conscious decision, but I’m glad that is what took place because I feel like the listener will never really get bored. They’ll kinda be surprised and taken aback by the different things that are taking place. I like that that’s the case.
Absolutely! I think that, depending on the track, the listener will hints of everything from Johnny Cash to flashes of Rob Zombie (laughs).
(Laughs) That’s cool, man! I have no problem with either one of those.
Good, I’m glad. I was gonna say that I hope you didn’t have a problem with that…
So, in these conversations I don’t normally go track-by-track, and I’m not gonna do that here, but there’s a lot to digest. And I think my opening statement will tell you that I like a lot of what I heard.
Yeah, I really appreciate that, man. That’s a very nice thing to say.
Tell me about the opening track, “With the Devil,” which to me opens with something that sounds like screams from hell (laughs). Talk a little about this one.
Well, basically that sound was what I kind of imagined the inside of the guy’s brain sounds like. I’m really into movie scores, I’m really into soundtracks and on (1980 film) The Shining soundtrack, the opening track that plays over the credits, there’s this really kind of strange, almost Indian chant, or yelping thing that kept taking place and I thought that would be interesting to somehow include that in “With the Devil” because we’re dealing with this kind of killer who has these sounds in his head. He hears these voices in the swamps, which is already terrifying enough. And as far as the story goes, when I was a kid there was this serial killer named Derrick Todd Lee that was active in southern Louisiana, and he was hiding bodies under this bridge, and that always kind of creeped me out as a kid. For some reason, I decided I was gonna write from that mindset. I don’t know, there’s so many murder ballads around, so I figured why not up the stakes and do a serial murder ballad, right?
There you go. At a certain point in the song these drum stabs come at you like shotgun blasts, which added an intense feel and vibe to the song. So, you mentioned the word “characters.” Your songs paint a real vivid picture of so many interesting characters. Introduce us to some of these characters, starting with the main character in the song “Perry.”
Perry was a cousin I never met. He died in 1986 or 87. He was only 28-years-old. My dad brought me to his grave when I was a kid, and on his headstone, it said, “Still doing time.” So, I had to find out what this is about. He got bad off into drugs, bad off into heroin, ended up in prison and that’s where he died. So, he was just one of those characters I’d hear so much about as a kid that they kind of became engraved in my head.
Well, now we know the backstory…
And also, that songs is kind of a warning, a reminder to me. I had my issues, my wild times and what not. I haven’t had a drink of alcohol in almost two years. I feel like I wrote that song as almost like a warning to myself. I know what’s in my bloodline. Alcoholism and wildness and fights and prison. It’s a reminder of what happens if I ever try to let those things tempt me into that road. It’s a dead-end street. Literally.
What about Dwayne in “Dwayne and Me?”
So, “Dwayne and Me” was just about this idea I had about these two cousins. The older one is kinda this Cool Hand Luke character, kinda the cooler (one), and the younger looks up to him – he’s kind of the wild man. And he gets drafted, and he never sees him again. He gets killed in the Vietnam War. So, this is my way that songs or films get a message across. You don’t yell that this is an anti-war song at the top of your lungs. You’re just telling a story. Like, this is what took place.
It’s interesting because when I was listening to the record I wrote down in my notes that the lyrics put us right on that levee, right on that porch, standing outside the bus right there with you, waiting for Dwayne to get off. They’re very descriptive.
That’s all you can really hope to do as a songwriter. That’s what my heroes did. That’s what Bruce (Springsteen) did. That’s what all those guys did. That’s what I wanna do. I wanna create the setting. It’s more effective if they (the listener) can visualize it.
Yeah, well, mission accomplished.
And a little bit more on Mr. Springsteen in a second here, but let me quote a line, and correct me if I get anything wrong here. This line jumped out at me: “She got me sweatin’ in church, speaking in tongues/I’ll owe a thousand Hail Marys by the time I’m done” (laughs).
Of course, man. That’s a young boy growing up in the Catholic religion, and it still lingers in the back of your mind.
Yeah, well, I’m a member of that club. I went to Catholic school.
Oh, yeah, man. I got my confirmation. I spent my time in church and you know who else is at church on Sundays – a lot of very cute girls you went to school with, some of which were not always Christian-based (laughs).
I was just gonna say – who hasn’t seen a girl like that in church, right? (Laughs)
Of course, man, I mean, you know, what else do you end up thinking about as a 14-year-old boy in a church setting (laughs).
Yeah, let’s not get started on priests not being able to marry, and all that ridiculousness, in my humble opinion.
Oh, mine, too.
So, moving on to “Different Man.” You can almost feel the fury of warfare coming through the guitar.
Sure. Well, that was the first time I ever recorded directly onto analog tape. That is a completely live recording. That was recorded directly onto analog tape and I don’t think I’ll ever go back. My next record I’m gonna record the whole thing on analog tape. But, that was just a story about – when I was younger – there was this middle-aged man. My dad had a crawfish pond and we’d drive to the crawfish pond, and we’d take these backroads, and there’ was always this man who would be walking up and down in his front yard in his pajamas. One day I worked up the courage to ask my dad what this was about, and he was like, “Oh, that guy was in the Vietnam War.” So, as a young kid it got me thinking, like, jeez, what is war about? What happens? What are these folks seeing? What takes place? Then as a young dude I started reading up about the Vietnam War, and I had this fascination with it. Some of the imagery, like the parade imagery, spawns from Born on the Fourth of July, which is a film that I like a lot. So, there’s a lot of different things happening (in the song), but for the most part it takes inspiration from different things. Of course, I had a lot of buddies go off to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan after high school, and seeing them leave and then coming back, and there was something slightly off about them. It affected me. It broke my heart to see these guys like that.
I’ve always said – and I think it’s obvious – that you can’t have an experience like that and come back the same person.
You can’t, man. I mean I’ve witnessed terrible car accidents that still creep up on me some nights.
Yeah. Well, before we move forward let me take you back for a second here, Rod. Looking back now, was there a song that came on the radio, or an album you had, or a concert that you went to, where after that you said to yourself, yeah, I wanna do that?
Yeah. Basically, I saw Elvis Presley’s photo in a Cracker Barrel gift shop when I was about ten years old. I didn’t know who he was, or what he did, I just thought he was the coolest looking dude I’d ever seen. My mom let me buy this framed photo and I took it home and all I did was just obsess over Elvis. And you see I didn’t start playing music until I was 18 or 19. I got a guitar by the time I’d already moved out to Los Angeles, and I started foolin’ around with it. But I think the songs and the music had always been lingering deep inside of me. It just took a time for me to act upon it and for it to come out. But I definitely remember the first time I heard “Jailhouse Rock.”
Very cool. So, “Promises” seems like a sonic second cousin to the guy you mentioned earlier, Springsteen’s “Darlington County”…
…Oh, I love that song, man!
…and also, John Mellencamp’s “Small Town.”
Lyrically, I think it’s equally descriptive as both of those great songs.
Well, thanks, man. Yeah, that song spawns from something my dad said to me awhile back. You know, I had quit smoking cigarettes, and my dad doesn’t talk to me much about his early 20s. He still thinks he has to set a good example even though I’m 28 at this point. Which leads me to wonder what he was up to back then., but he was like, “Man, I just remember I would wake up in bed, and I’d have my cigarettes on the counter, and I would just light it up right there and lie in bed.” I thought that was a cool, interesting image, so I kind of built off of that. And then I just took inspiration from folks in my hometown, and the glory days and how important it all seems at the moment. It’s kind of a tribute to my town of Kaplan, LA, where I went to school. They gave me the key to the city at the end of last year.
Oh, nice. Cool, congrats.
So, that’s kind of a nice little tribute to those people.
Interesting that you mentioned the glory days – of course another great Springsteen track.
So, I wanna ask you about “Praying for Light,” but first let me set it up by asking you this: are you generally a glass half empty or half full kind of guy?
I don’t know, man. That’s a good question. I think I’m a glass half full man. I think that’s where I stand. I think I have to be in this business. I gotta stay positive. I gotta keep my head on straight or I’ll go nuts. Even when I wanna get negative, I have to stay positive. One second I’m playing to a bunch of Georgia frat boys, and then the next day I’m playing to a biker gang called the South Carolina Red Devils. It’s a confusing thing, man.
So, tell me about “Praying for Light.”
I wrote that song a long time ago. I witnessed so many hurricanes growing up in south Louisiana. I witnessed people lose so much from these natural disasters, but I’ll be damned if they don’t always pick up, clean up, and just go back to it again. They rebuild every single time. Those people deserve more than a song, I’d say. Right?
Oh, hell yeah. Lots more. So, to me, “Mary Lou” is a Buddy Holly’s “Hello Mary Lou” and Bob Dylan’s “I Want You” mashup.
(Laughs) Yeah, of course! It is exactly that.
By design or osmosis?
That was by design. (Producer) Brian likes both of those recordings and he just took it as a chance to kinda combine them, I think. As far as the story goes, it’s just me just kinda loosening up a bit and killing anyone in a song. I thought it was time to lower the death rate and just write a sweet little love song.
Yeah, it’s a nice little pick me up towards the end of the record.
Yeah, sometimes you gotta let the listener come up for air.
Right. The record ends with “Outskirts of You,” and I think this track would make George Jones and Chris Stapleton proud.
Well, thanks, I appreciate that.
Lemme give you a lyric and ask you to comment: “I let my faults and liquor get the best of me.”
Yeah, well that’s just me talking about my history with alcohol abuse and the things that it kinda left in its wake. You can apologize as much as you want but it doesn’t always make things good again, or things the way they used to be. So, that’s just me coming to terms with that, because there was a time where I was not taking the best care of myself, and sadly, others had to deal with me. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you let someone down. Especially me. My parents raised me well, I’m a respectful person, but alcohol can take the things you like about yourself and toss them in the trash can.
Well, I would just add that I don’t think there’s a better outlet for turning things around and sharing your life than music.
Yeah, I agree 100 percent!
Alright, Rod, well, is there anything else that you wanna discuss that we haven’t covered?
No, I think that’s about it, man. This is a great interview. The questions are great. I really actually enjoyed it. I’m feeling good.
Well, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you, and congratulations on this record. I don’t say anything about music that I don’t really mean, and I really, really loved this record. It’s all over the place, in the very best sense of the phrase.
Thanks, Jim. Thanks so much, I appreciate that.
Hopefully, somewhere down the road we’ll get a chance to say hello face-to-face.
Oh, I’m sure we will, man. I’m always out here, and I got a feeling I’ll be out here for a long time.
Alright. I’m Looking forward to it. Take care.
Alright, man. Later.