The pride of Bloomington get their working-class groove
BY ANDY TENNILLE
pretty damn painful.”
sighs deeply, his grimace palpable over the thousands of miles of telephone line
separating me from his home in Bloomington,
Illinois. It’s the dog days of
summer, and the 35-year-old frontman for Backyard Tire Fire is lamenting
last night’s stinging loss by the Chicago Cubs at the hands of the St. Louis
Cardinals, the North Sider’s archrivals and perennial nemesis.
“Man, they just
took a beating,” Anderson
says with the familiar disappointment of a life-long fan of baseball’s loveable
losers. “It was one of those days where the Cubs had nothing going, so I decided
I was gonna drink as many Budweisers as I could.”
Anderson is a Bud man, the very personification
the folks that famed broadcaster Harry Caray sang about in his 1985 “Cub Fan
Bud Man” television commercials: beer-drinking, working-class
Midwesterners whose blue-collar work ethic is exceeded only by their
religious-like devotion to their local sports franchises.
salt-of-the-earth persona is prevalent throughout the 10 songs Anderson penned for The Places We Lived, Backyard Tire Fire’s new album on Hyena
Records and by far their most ambitious effort to date. Whether it’s the rollicking rocker “How In The
Hell Did You Get Back Here?” or the menacing, guitar-buzzing “Welcome To The
Factory,” Backyard Tire Fire has retained much of the stripped-down, dive-bar
charm that fans have come to appreciate from the group’s four previous studio
releases, but The Places We Lived also
represents a marked evolution into more melodic pop structures driven by
Anderson’s simple piano playing. Tunes like “The Places We Lived” and “Shoulda’
Shut It” seep with the pop sensibilities of the best of the Beatles, early Wilco
and classic REM whereas slower songs like “Rainy Day Don’t Go Away,”
“Everybody’s Down” and “Time With You” fit comfortably alongside Randy Newman’s 12 Songs, Paul McCartney’s 1970 solo debut or John Hiatt’s Bring the Family.
Beyond their own
headlining shows supporting the release of The
Places We Lived, Backyard Tire Fire will hit the road this fall with the
likes of Avett Brothers, Ha Ha Tonka, Rose
Hill Drive, Los Lobos and Squirrel Nut Zippers
before joining up with Reverend Horton Heat and Nashville Pussy for a few dates
in December. For all things Backyard Tire Fire, visit www.backyardtirefire.com.
BLURT: Let’s talk about this album. I’ve
really enjoyed spending time with it the last couple weeks and wanted to start
out by saying that it sounds like it’s your most expansive and ambitious album
to date. Would you agree?
EA: Well, I
always think that your latest records are your best. You can’t help but believe
that your newest work is the best that you’ve done, ‘cause that’s the idea: you
want to get better as you go along and learn more about yourself, about writing
and about working in the studio. I think it’s most representative of where
we’re at right now.
BLURT: Set the stage for me about this
record a little bit.
EA: That record
was made outside of a contract. The band financed it, and then we shopped it
around for a while before getting hooked up with Hyena Records. It took several months to get through that
process. I think we recorded it like a year and a half ago, so it’s funny to do
interviews now about the album. I’m trying to put my head back in the space
where it was when we recorded it, ‘cause I’ve probably written two more albums since
this one was recorded.
BLURT: Is that difficult to do: putting
yourself back in the mind frame of an album you did so long ago?
EA: Yeah, it is tough
‘cause I do like to work fast. I record a lot of demos in my basement studio at
home. Most everything that’s on this new record was demoed there. I’ll demo the
stuff as it’s coming, which is cool, ‘cause I like to get it down while it’s
BLURT: This new album seems more
ambitious than your past records for the simple fact that you guys sound more
comfortable in the studio now and open to experimenting a bit more now. I was
listening to the album last night and noticed the vocals on “One Wrong Turn”
and the loop on “Welcome to the Factory” are pretty out there. Are you guys are
getting more comfortable behind the knobs, playing with different sounds?
EA: For sure.
You can’t help but learn every time you’re in there, and we’re really lucky
enough to work with a good friend named Tony Sanfilippo who runs an analog
studio here in town called Oxide Lounge
Studios. I think this is our fourth full length record that we’ve made in
that studio and we’ve done a couple EP’s in there, too, so we’ve got a
comfortable feeling there that allows us to stretch it out and experiment. Like
that loop on “Welcome to the Factory,” the idea for that was to take random,
non-musical objects and make music with them. If you listen to it, it’s like a
drill bit on a brake drum, an empty reel of tape scraped against a goose-necked
mic stand and a few other really weird sounds. We ended up coming up with this
really hypnotic, mechanical kind of feel.
I also like to
take things from the lyrics of a song and try and match the sounds to the words
or themes. On “The Places We Live,” I wanted to use the chimes ‘cause I felt
like they sounded like an old-time doorbell. That went thematically with the
whole subject matter of the song and really with the whole record for that
For the vocals
on “One Wrong Turn,” I sang through a table leg. It’s hollow and long and I got
a mic set at one end of it and a mic set by where I was singing into it. Between
the two mics, we got this isolated feeling, which is what the song’s all about.
We did the vocals on “Rainy Day Don’t Go Away” on a $10, piece-of-shit Radio
Shack microphone. We tried a bunch of different mics, but this was the one that
I liked ‘cause it gave the song a weirder, Tom Waits-y feel to it.
BLURT: It’s interesting that this album
is your most experimental to date, because I’d also say it’s the – and I don’t
want this to carry a negative connotation – but it’s also the poppiest of your
catalogue. It’s certainly the most Beatle-esque album that you guys have ever
EA: I don’t
think “pop” is a bad word. I love pop music. I love Cheap Trick, I love Big
Star, and I love the Beatles. There’s definitely a pop element on this record,
and I don’t know if that was by design or anything like that. For the most
part, the songs just come out and they are what they are. This one just happens
to have more piano-driven songs, probably because I just happened to be sitting
at the piano more at that time when I was writing it. This album is more about
the words and the hooks and the tunes than it is about getting your face ripped
off with a guitar solo.
BLURT: It’s interesting too, ‘cause this
is a peak moment for you guys as a band as far as signing with Hyena, getting
out on the road, and growing your fanbase, but ironically the themes that run
through the album deal a lot with the idea of home.
EA: Well, it’s
hard not to think about home when you’re gone. You leave for six weeks or
something like that, and you can’t stop thinking about home sometimes. It’s not
that we don’t love the road, ‘cause we do. We’re road dogs, and I’ve done 200
nights a year for nearly a decade. I’m certainly not afraid of going out there
and traveling and playing and having a good time. I love that stuff, but at the
same time you can’t forget about those people who are waiting for you to come
The song “Time
With You” on the record is written from my wife’s perspective and it was based
on a conversation we’d had after I’d been out on the road for six weeks. I was
in Burlington, VT – couldn’t be any farther away from home – and we’re having
this conversation and she’s like, “I just want to spend some time with you, is
that so wrong?” The song just kind of flowed out of that. There’s a very
chaotic section in the middle of the song where I just start hitting really
strange piano notes and play some dissident stuff, which was very
representative of the way I was feeling inside after that conversation. I was
just torn up.
Life as a
touring musician is a great thing, but it’ll also beat the living shit out of
you. And it will throw your personal life for a loop as well. We long to be
home when we’re on the road and then when we’re home we want to get back out on
the road. It’s a very strange dichotomy. I don’t really understand it, but it’s
the easiest thing to write about a lot of times ‘cause that’s what we do. I
haven’t written my last road song, I can promise you that.
BLURT: In an
interview on Chicago NPR a couple years back, you said that your
songwriting was evolving from autobiographical to a more fictional,
storytelling approach, but a lot of the songs on this record are very intimate
and personal. Can you talk to me a little bit about that evolution and your
feelings towards wanting to write less autobiographically and more fictionally?
EA: It’s natural
to write about what’s going on in your life and what you’re going through, but I
think it’s good to take yourself out of your comfort zone as a songwriter.
Writing about something other than you accomplishes that. You can do anything
you want, ‘cause it’s completely fictional. It’s an open canvas. You can have
these characters do or say whatever you want. They don’t have to adhere to your
life or what you’re going through. If you’re able to write about people who
don’t even exist, then it’s limitless: you can do that forever. You can only
write so many songs about how much you love your wife, or how much you miss
being at home or out on the road. I think it’s a good thing for me to do as I
tend to be an introspective songwriter, like the classic tortured artist,
always tormenting himself. So it’s good for me to take a break and try to write
outside of my comfort zone.
guys recorded some tunes at Sun Studios recently. Tell me about that.
EA: Man, what an
experience that was. I’m telling you, man. That was like a religious kind of
thing, you know? I’m not a religious person, but that felt like church, it was
just…I had goosebumps. They fed us a bunch of Budweisers, and we were supposed
to do five songs but ended up doing 14. We were there until 2:00 in the
morning. We were supposed to be out of there by 11:00, and they had to throw us
out at 2:00. They loved us, and we loved them. It was amazing. The engineer was
totally cool and it was just…I can’t even describe it. It was an amazing
experience. You think about all the people that played there: Howlin’ Wolf, Ike
Turner, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. You just stand in that room, and you can
feel it. It’s there.
BLURT: In the video, you can see Roy
Orbison’s picture over your shoulder. Did you pull any covers out or was it just
all your material?
EA: Yeah, we
did. They told us going in that one of the five songs we were going to do had
to be a cover of a song that was originally recorded at Sun Studio. So we did “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”
by Carl Perkins. Later in the night, we covered “Lawyers Guns and Money.” I’m
glad I can say I covered “Lawyers, Guns and Money” at Sun Studio. (Laughs)
part about that was that they fed us all these beers, and we’re having the time
of our lives. It wasn’t like they were shoving beers down our throat, but we
drank a lot of beer that night. After we were done recording, we were on cloud
nine, all buzzed and happy. Then they sit us down to do the interviews about
the songs we just recorded. If you see that interview, I’m slurring my words,
my brother’s just staring down at the floor and we’re joking with each other in
between questions. We’re drunk off our asses and just slap happy. It was like
the greatest night of our lives and one of the coolest musical experiences that
I’ve ever had. We’ve played a lot of shows in a lot of places, in pretty much
every state in the lower 48, through Canada, and on cruises, but that
night was something that I will absolutely never, ever forget. It was like a
We did 14 songs total,
and they’re all good. I’ve got the mixes. It should surface at some point,
‘cause it was all shot on nice digital video cameras and the audio was all
recorded in the control room. The images look sharp, the audio sounds great, so
at some point, more of that stuff will surface. I don’t know when, but it will.
BLURT: With your songwriting, typically
do words come first, does the music come first? How does it work for you?
EA: It could go
either way. Mostly, I’ll either come up with some progression on the acoustic
guitar or at the piano, and then I’ll kind of piece together a structure to a
song. A lot of times, the progression or the music that I’m coming up with will
make me feel a certain way. I’ll start humming a melody and then maybe like one
line will come – could be in the verse, could be in the chorus – and at that point
it’s off to the races. One line generally sparks the rest of it, but generally
it’s music first for me. But there’s no real right or wrong way to do it.
That’s one of the things I like about my job: I have very few rules that I need
to adhere to. I don’t take orders from anybody. I can write whatever I want to
write whenever I want to write it. It’s pretty cool. My wife will go to work
and come home for lunch and there will be something that’s created that wasn’t
there when she left.
BLURT: Your new album comes out on vinyl,
which has seen a bit of resurgence of late. Are you a vinylphile?
EA: Honestly, I
don’t even fucking buy CDs anymore. Does anybody?
BLURT: I don’t. It’s either vinyl or
EA: Yeah, I
don’t even have a CD player here in the house anymore. It’s just a record
player, and I think one of the channels is blown on the receiver so I have to
listen to really old records that are in mono. (Laughs) I can’t wait until I get my copy of the new one on vinyl
though. I’ve never been able to drop the needle on one of my own records
before, so that’ll be really cool: twist up a fatty and listen to my own record
on the turntable. But I’ll only be able to hear half of the album, ‘cause one
of the channels is blown on the receiver. Some of the cool parts are gonna be
gone. Shit, I guess it’s time to get a new receiver. (Laughs)
BLURT: You guys have expanded from a trio
into a quartet recently. Tell me about your next guitarist and how that
transition has been.
EA: His name is
Fish Carpenter, and he played on Barroom
Semantics, which was our second record. He’s an old friend of ours who runs
the sound at one of the local clubs and plays in a band with the guy that
co-produces all of our stuff and owns the studio. I feel a little bit bad ‘cause
we kind of stole him away from that band. We got their blessings and everything,
but I felt a little bad about stealing him away.
He’s a real good
guy and easy to get along with, which is almost as important as being a good
musician, because if you can’t get along with people, I don’t want you involved
in this. We like to play as a trio, but the live show has really evolved with
him and it’s kicking ass. These last couple months, we’ve been rehearsing with
him, playing some gigs and festivals here and there, and watched this trio turn
into a four piece. It’s really sounding good. We wanted to bring him in early
so when the record came out, we had him in place so we can play these songs
more like they are on the record. I’m playing a lot more keys live, because
we’ve got that guitar there and Fish sings good. It’s been fun to watch it
develop. Every gig feels a little more and more natural.
BLURT: The change makes sense because the
music that you were writing for this record feels more suited to a quartet than
a trio. Will the songs that you’re writing now require another guitarist or is
it back to the old trio format?
EA: No, I think
we’re evolving and heading into the direction of having someone else in the
band. I can feel that, ‘cause I’m writing stuff now with Fish in mind: I’m
actually thinking that a guitar part would be really cool working off this
other guitar part. It’s exciting for me as a songwriter because it means I have
another element to work with and write for. So that’s been really fun.
BLURT: Your records have always been…and
the word isn’t dense…but multi-layered, I guess. It’s not to say that the live
show didn’t deliver on what was represented on the records themselves, but
there was always that dichotomy with you guys as far as very lush sounding
recordings versus more stripped- down, live rock sets.
EA: Yeah, a real
loud, raw trio sound with dirty tones was what we’ve been known for as a live
band, but I never felt like we weren’t doing the songs justice. We were just
doing them in a different way: the only way that we could do them, honestly, as
In the past,
we’ve been a band that did really cool studio stuff and then just adapted it to
the trio in the live setting. Something that maybe wasn’t a big guitar rocker on
an album would turn into one live cause we were a trio and that’s just how it
works. There has always been that division in the past with us. Now, the two
are kind of becoming one, and I think it’s a good thing. There’s an evolution
that’s happening right now with us that’s exciting. The live sound and the
studio sound are getting closer, and I feel a lot more relaxed. I don’t feel
like I have to play as much; I can actually take my hands off the guitar in
certain places and let Fish go for it. I’ve never had that luxury, so it’s