BLURT’S BEST KEPT SECRET #14: Drunken Prayer

Portland-powered Americana with a dark,
soulful and – dare we say it – intoxicating twist on the genre.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

Drunken Prayer, the latest pick in our long-running Blurt/Sonicbids “Best Kept Secret” series, is the brainchild of Morgan Christopher Geer, who
first pinged the national radar while woodshedding on the fertile musical scene
of Asheville.
During the first half of the previous decade his group The Unholy Trio
(featuring members of Freakwater and future members of Reigning Sound)
terrorized club stages on a regular basis and that band also earned a degree of
notoriety after appearing on Bloodshot Records’ 5th Year Anniversary
compilation with a twisted cover of Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise.”
Definitely ‘tweren’t your mama’s brand of Americana,
that’s for sure.

 

Geer subsequently relocated to the Northwest (following a temporary
sojourn to Cali), where he started putting together a new combo, and by 2007
he’d released the Drunken Prayer album on the Deer Lodge label, followed in 2009 with the Drunken Prayer… with Sam Henry live EP (Early Grave). He performs under
that moniker both solo and with a full band, having collaborated at various
points with musicians having a collective resume that includes the Breeders,
She & Him, the Wipers, Beck, Eels, John Lee Hooker and Elliot Smith – and
his live appearances are by all account raucously anarchic displays of primal
roots-rocking (with no shortage of punk-sired aplomb).

 

In fact, when Drunken Prayer initially came to the attention of yours
truly, I was smitten enough by the band’s self-titled debut to wax enthusiastically
for Harp magazine:

 

Straight outta
Portland, Ore., by way of purgatory and a few county jails is Morgan Geer, who
with his lapsed Baptist cohorts fully lives up to the bandname. Geer gets right
down to the genuflecting with “I’m Gonna Lay Down in Front of My Lord,” a
stately, horns-and-slide-guitar number that’s one part the Band, one part
Tonight’s
The Night and several parts sinner’s
remorse. Later, in the woozy, Bad Seeds-in-New Orleans noir waltz “What Made Me
Kill,” Geer tries to blame his misdeeds on the booze ‘n’ pills, and his
flophouse braying almost makes you want to take pity on him. Almost. Because by
the time the band plows into a twang-glam-punk, positively murderous, version
of Leadbelly staple “Take This Hammer,” you start to get the sense that Geer
likes his sinnin’ – a lot. Upright citizens, drop to your knees and utter a few
prayers of your own if the band comes to town. This Geer boy, he’s bad news.

 

So I was doubly excited to get the good news that Geer has been hard
at work on a full-length, tentatively titled Into the Missionfield, that he plans to have out sometime this year
– about time, considering the massive potential he’s demonstrated thus far. As
you’ll read in the interview below, he’s injecting his new material with a dose
of upbeat soul – his arrangement for the oft-covered traditional number “Ain’t
No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down,” for example, is markedly different from most
versions that people are familiar with – in a clear quest to broaden and
elaborate upon his core sound. Of the new tunes he played for me, a lot of
stylistic ground gets covered, with standouts including “Ain’t No Grave,” the
Latin-flavored/accordion-powered “Never Tends to Forget,” the riotous, Nuggets-worthy garage-rocker  “A Neat and Tidy Grave” and a sassy, almost
poppy (!) number called “You Walk as if You Have Somewhere to Go.”

 

Keep your eyes peeled, then, for new Drunken Prayer, and meanwhile, check
out his official website as well as his MySpace page and Facebook page for
additional details, tour dates and song samples. (There’s also a YouTube clip
below, following the interview, featuring Geer and the band doing “Ain’t No
Grave.”) He’s one of the good ‘uns,
trust us.

 

***

BLURT: What were
some of your early formative experiences and influences, from records to
concerts to… ?

MORGAN GEER: My mom taught me how to play
guitar. I used to listen to The Beatles Live
at The Hollywood Bowl
, The Stones’ Get
Your Ya-Ya’s Out
and 50,000,000
Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong
constantly
and wanted to learn how to play for myself. I really wanted to play bass, but a
guitar is what we had. Then I got a simple 4-track recorder and started
experimenting. I was a latch-key kid, so the 4-track was my chief companion for
a while. I’ve remained insulated ever since.

       
Later I would play drums at our house which was directly across from the
student center. Guys would hear me practicing while they were outside hanging
out, and I was eventually recruited to play in a few of the college bands.
There were quite a few students from Athens,
GA at the time when that scene was
really getting interesting. Much of that vibe rubbed off on my high school
self. I got to see some amazing underground, avant-garde rock and roll and performance
art in a lot of dingy basements. That had an enormous effect on me.

 

Tell us a little
about the pre-Drunken Prayer era.

The first serious group I joined was The
Merle. We were loud and listened to a lot Black Sabbath, Butthole Surfers and
all the Sub-Pop bands. We recorded a decent demo but never put anything down
that matched our live show which could be pretty outrageous.

    
After that, I met bassist David Wayne Gay during a stint in a country
group out of Asheville, NC, called White Heat. He in turn introduced
me to drummer Lance Wille. The three of us formed a band called The Gold Coats.
We were later dubbed “The Unholy Trio” by a local writer and that name stuck.
Through Dave’s band Freakwater, Bloodshot Records got a hold of a cover of
Public Enemy’s Bring the Noise we did
and put it on a compilation. The song was a result of having a few leftover
studio minutes to burn, I never expected anyone to hear it. We toured with
Freakwater down to SXSW for a Bloodshot showcase on the back of the song. An Austin filmmaker put it in a hilariously creepy video.
Dave and Lance are now the rhythm section for The Reigning Sound.

      
I play some of the songs from this period as Drunken Prayer too.

 

You started
putting Drunken Prayer in California in 2006,
right? How and when did you make the move to Portland?

After I moved out of Asheville,
I started re-evaluating. Up till then, I’d been fairly passive artistically.
Drunken Prayer is closer to my own voice.

       
I knew Northern California wasn’t where I
wanted to be. In the meantime a friend, another southern expat, from Athens, GA, invited me to
come up and visit him in Portland. He thought
I’d like it and I did and stayed. That weekend was the last time Mt St Helens
erupted. I took that as a sign. Portland is a
lot like Asheville so it’s not really that much
of a stretch. After I got here it wasn’t that hard to then find musicians who
were sympathetic to the sound. I fell in with crowd at The Deer Lodge recording
studio.  

 

How about the Drunken Prayer album in 2007? What went
into that, and how was it received?

Within about a year I had the first CD
done. I was listening to Amazing Grace by Spiritualized, Tom Waits’ Mule
Variations
and Saturday Night, Sunday
Morning
, an album of duets with Ralph Stanley. Pearls and Swine” was the first song I wrote when I moved to Portland. “Take This Hammer” was fun. I adapted the lyrics
from the Leadbelly song to this heavy, galloping song I had. We did the same
thing with “Ain’t No Grave” on this new record.

      
One Contemporary Country leaning blog described my lyrics as “challenging”
but I took that as a compliment so I can’t really complain. I’m glad to have any
kind of impact at all.

 

Then you released
a live EP in 2009 with Sam Henry [drums] and Miss Audra [keyboards] – thoughts
on that?

Audra and Sam Henry are two of the most
gifted natural musicians I’ve worked with. They really raise the bar. The EP’s
a field recording of a show the three of us did in the parking lot of Centaur
Guitars here in Portland. I’m not sure we knew the show was being recorded.
Rich Peterson at Peregrine Sound does great remote recording and we played
really well that day so we decided to put the thing out.  We made the packaging ourselves, individually
assembling woodblock covers that our friend Mike Lund did on recycled
cardboard.

 

I understand that
your live lineup can take very different forms with different musicians, and
you also do solo shows under the Drunken Prayer name?

In the past few years I’ve gotten deeper
into Eels, Will Oldham, Magnetic Fields, Mugison and others that are pretty
unbound by traditional structural norms. You never know what you’re going to
get and as a fan that’s pretty exciting. The folks who play in Drunken Prayer
are collaborators. Whether it’s just me and the pedal steel or a big six piece
band it’s still Drunken Prayer music.

 

What are your
thoughts on Portland in general? It’s got a reputation for having a highly
competitive music scene – can a musician make a living there without having to
take a day job?

Drunken Prayer doesn’t fall neatly into
any specific genres so we’re able to play in a lot of different situations and
circles. I think we stand out for that reason, at least amongst the musicians
we do.

        If you play
bass or drums you can get a lot of work in Portland but that’s probably true of
most places. It’d be pretty tough to make a living just playing music here but
there are a lot of close-nit neighborhoods and most have their own couple of
music clubs, so you could make the rounds. It’s really easy to get around in Portland without a car. The public
transit system is exceptional and the town is beyond bike and pedestrian
friendly. I think that adds to a healthy live music scene. You don’t have to
worry about driving. 

 

What’s next,
then? You’ve got a new album in the works…

The new album features some crazy talent.
There’s more of a focus on rhythm on this album. I have three of my favorite
drummers playing on it: Jose Medeles from The Breeders and Scott McPherson on
loan from She & Him (they also jointly own Revival Drums in Portland), and
the great all-around drummer Anders Bergstrom. They all mesh so well, it’s hard
to tell who’s who if you don’t already know which of them is on which track.

       
It’s shaping up to be more of an upbeat soul record compared to the
sound on the first one, which is ironic, 2010 wasn’t the happiest year of my
life. I’m the worst person to describe my own music but expect horns and
fiddles and UFOs. I’m excited to get this one finished to start on the next.
I’m going through kind of a prolific period.

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