LEADOFF HITTERS: THE WALCOTTS TOUCH ALL BASES ON DEBUT LET THE DEVIL WIN
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
FEATURE PHOTO: MAX KNIGHT
The Walcotts swing for the musical fences and hit for a sonic cycle on their first audible at-bat Let the Devil Win, the unit’s debut album, available September 16. The 12-track collection was recorded at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL – arguably the Yankee Stadium of recording studios – and Fonogenic Studios in Los Angeles.
Led by player-manager Tom Cusimano (vocals/guitar), the Los Angeles-based Walcotts’ music is rich with influences that span a wide soundscape, both traditional and contemporary. Evidence of the group’s all-inclusive approach to the music they record and perform live can be found in the fact that they’ve shared stages with artists as diverse as Chris Stapleton and Men at Work’s Colin Hay, and gleaned their moniker from the song “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” off The Band’s 1970 album Stage Fright.
I recently had the pleasure of sharing my second in-depth conversation with Cusimano, in which we discussed the making of Let the Devil Win, the birth of his son, the brilliance of Van Morrison and the band’s upcoming West Coast tour, which gets underway August 7 in Hermosa Beach, CA. For more details on the tour, visit thewalcottsmusic.com. And now it’s time for the first pitch. Play ball!
Tom, it’s good to talk to you again. In prepping for this conversation I went back to my notes from our previous conversation back in January and noticed that I began the conversation by asking you about the baseball team-sized band you share the stage with. Since we’re speaking on the night of the MLB All-Star Game (July 12) I thought I’d continue the baseball theme here for a minute and ask you about The Walcotts’ all-star starting lineup. Is it still the same?
(Laughs) Yes, The Walcotts’ starting lineup is still the same. It’s still the core four, which is myself, Jim Olson who plays drums, Laura Marion who shares vocals and Devin Shea who plays violin. And we do have a bit of a revolving door of a few musicians that we work with otherwise. It’s fun. At the core four we’re pretty enthusiastic right now, having not put out a record with this band ever. We’ve only trickled out a couple songs here and there over the past three years and just made some things available at shows, but that’s really it.
Let’s switch gears and talk about this new album: the debut full-length album Let the Devil Win. It comes out September 16. So what can longtime fans of the band and newcomers to the band expect to hear, overall?
It’s a little different from the album preview that you had before (earlier this year). We pulled off three songs and we put on three different one, two of which were recorded in late fall of last year at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. We literally had nothing written…but there’s something about FAME and Muscle Shoals; it’s true, there’s something in the water down there. We walked in there with absolutely nothing prepared and walked out with two completely written and recorded songs which are now on the record. Those songs are “Good To See You, Got To Go” and “Curious and Kind.” “Curious and Kind” is the first song we wrote when we got in there. The whole lead up to this (song) is that I have a very young son who’s 16-months old now, but at the time was just seven-months-old. I just started thinking about my kid. People always ask – when you’re pregnant – ‘What do you want, a boy or a girl?’ And you just inherently say I want ‘I want it to be happy and healthy.’ (After he was born) my wife started saying, ‘I just want him to be curious and kind.’ For some reason that came into my head when we were in there. So I think for new listeners, they’ve never heard that. We’ve never done “Good To See You, Got To Go” live. So I think it’s a nice fun little journey into what The Walcotts have been and are becoming.”
“Curious and Kind” is an absolutely brilliant song. More on that later. So you also did some recording at the cleverly-named Fonogenic Studios in L.A., owned by Rami Jaffee of The Wallflowers and Foo Fighters fame. You’ve said Fonogenic is sort of your home-away-from-home. How would you say working and recording in the heart of Hollywood differs than at FAME?
Well I think we approached it quite differently than we do at Fonogenic because at Fonogenic we’ll walk in and the songs will be written. But with FAME we literally walked in with a blank sheet of paper and walked out with two songs completely done. So it was this totally different approach to the studio.
The overall sound of the band is steeped in roots music – R&B, soul, country, blues – in other words, rock and roll, right?
That’s where it all ends up. All of that comes through right at the start with the opening track “Should’ve Been Me.” What goes into picking a tune that’s going to open the album? That’s going to introduce people to the record?
“Should’ve Been Me” was really an introduction to the band for everybody. It was literally the first song we ever recorded. I think it’s an excellent introduction into who we are. It showcases a lot of different instruments in a short period of time. I don’t know, I try not to think about it too much, as in, ‘Okay, what’s the one that’s gonna grab everybody.” That song was really what started everything for us.
I think from the outside looking in, it is a perfect opening salvo for newcomers who haven’t seen you play live because it encapsulates everything I saw the first time I saw you live, opening for Chris Stapleton (last November). That song is a good kickstarter. Now we talked about “Curious and Kind.” I was going to ask you about the inspiration for it, but you gave that to us already, but I do want to comment a little further about it. I think it’s a great bookend to the album. To me it’s Bruce Springsteen-meets-Van Morrison. It’s a wonderful, wonderful song and the first song that popped into my head after hearing it for the very first time was my all-time favorite Van Morrison song, the titles track to Hard Nose the Highway.
I’m a huge Van Morrison fan. Hold on, I’m bringing this up right now. (Note: At this point in the conversation, Tom pulled “Hard Nose the Highway” up on his computer) Yeah, yeah, that’s a cool track. I can totally see that!
It popped into my head the first time I heard it and it was still in my head after the 10th time I heard “Curious and Kind.”
Wow, I appreciate you listening to it that much.
I love that song! Let me ask you about “Hanging Tree,” which I think comes off the Tom Petty musical family tree. Tell me about that one.
I wrote that one by myself. As you may remember I’m a big fan of The Band and the song “Long Black Veil.” Johnny Cash did the song as well. It’s such a cool song. I love the picture that song paints, and I’d been listening to that song a lot, but also I’d been listening to a lot of straight blues like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. I’m a big blues geek. So I just picked up the guitar and started noodling and then just started singing and I don’t know where it really came from, but once I started singing the hanging tree and then I made it kind of like a broken-hearted love song, like someone just went out of their way for this woman and she just hung him out to dry and just dropped him. So there’s a bit of imagery from “Long Black Veil” which was a heavy influence on that. As far as Tom Petty, I think Tom Petty kind of influences most of what I do, as does Bruce Springsteen (laughs). I think the bridge especially is very much a Tom Petty change.
The other one I wanna ask you about is “By the Morning.” Is this a hittin’ the highway without her tale? A sort of, I’m outta here, kind of thing?
(Laughs) Yeah, pretty much. It’s like, I’m over this, it ain’t working. Yeah, exactly!
Interestingly it features the (male-female) duet vocal.
Yeah, I like the contrast of the duel vocal in songs that aren’t necessarily about being a couple. It allows the song to take on a bit of a third meaning where it could be sung by either party.
Speaking of hittin’ the highway without her, I could hear the Blues Brothers doing a version of “Good to See You, Got to Go.”
I’m okay with that!
Tell me more about “Good to See You, Got to Go.”
“Good to See You, Got to Go” was the other song we did at FAME. We were just talking and we thought let’s just do something short and sweet. You know, like those old singles were like two, three minutes. You know, a “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” kind of thing and let’s make it pop – let’s make it like a Wilson Pickett song. So obviously Wilson Pickett and the history of FAME was seeping into my brain at that point. I’ve never done an homage to anything, (but) I feel like this one is as much on-the-nose as I’ve ever gotten a song to be, stylistically. It came out awesome.
Interesting you bring up the Wilson Pickett thing, because that’s where I got the Blues Brothers vibe. So, the last couple of songs we’ve talked about – “By the Morning,” “Good to See You, Got to Go” – we’ve talked about hittin’ the highway in the context of both of these songs. I have a serious question for you: you have a baby at home now, so how taxing on family life is it making your living being on the road?
Well, I live a bit of a duel life. I have a full-time job, so I don’t make my living on the road just yet, but when I’m gone it sucks! I’ve been gone for like three weeks at a time and it’s hard. It’s really taxing on my wife because she’s taking care of our kid. We’re very fortunate we have family not too far away, so we get a little extra help from them. We talk a lot. She knows it’s my passion and I’d been making music since before we knew each other and she totally supports me; I don’t think I could do this or be as excited about this if she wasn’t. It makes a big, big difference. It doesn’t come without its issues or logistical problems, but all-in-all it’s a support thing. You only live once, so why not pack it full of all of the things you love. For me I love my wife and my son, and in a different way I love music and writing and performing and so I balance as much as I can. I work in music, which is nice, so sometimes my worlds cross paths. Someone might know me as an artist, someone might know me from my day job, and sometimes both of them benefit from that.
I think the keyword you used in your answer is “balance,” which is maybe my favorite word in the English dictionary. In anything you do, you got to get the balance right.
If you want to you can figure it out. You can balance it. You’re gonna have to make compromises in everything you do.
Tom, it’s been a pleasure again. Thank you. Congratulations on this great record.
Thanks so much, man. I really appreciate it. Talk to you soon.