REAFFIRMATION ROCK Backyard Tire Fire

With their Steve
Berlin-produced album doing gangbusters, the Bloomington band’s definitely on the right
path.

 

BY ANDY TENNILLE

 

Ed Anderson is on a roll.

 

The affable frontman for Backyard Tire Fire is chattering
excitedly about Good To Be, the
band’s fifth album and debut on their own label, Kelsey Street Records – best record yet, most accessible, WXRT in
Chicago is already spinning it
– when I suddenly interrupt to ask how he’d
categorize the music he’s made with drummer Tim Kramp and bassist and brother
Matt Anderson and for the better part of the past decade.

 

“We’re a fuckin’ rock ‘n roll band, man,” Ed says
definitively. “This isn’t a hippie band. We don’t have that word-of-mouth
granola factor. We’re certainly not a bunch of ringers that are gonna wow you
with our fuckin’ chops. And we’re not some flavor-of-the-month indie hipster
band with tight jeans, thick-rimmed glasses and whiney voices that gets on the
right blog and blows up overnight. We don’t really fit into any of these
categories, or whatever, which is kinda like Lobos. Maybe Steve saw that in
us.”

 

“Steve” is Steve Berlin, long-time sax and keys man for Los
Lobos. An acclaimed multi-instrumentalist and producer who’s worked on records
with Sheryl Crow, REM and The Replacements, Berlin
first heard Backyard Tire Fire through a dressing room wall when they opened
for the legendary Los Angeles Chicano rockers in October 2008 in their hometown
of Bloomington, IL.

 

“They sounded familiar instantly to me,” Berlin recounts. “I ran out and caught the
second half of their set, and it was love at first sight.”

 

According to Anderson,
the feeling was mutual even before the two met.

 

“One of the things that I’ve always respected about Lobos
before we even met Steve or played with them was that they’ve always done what
they’ve wanted to do,” he says. “Their sound is amazingly diverse with a lot of
different kinds of influences. They’re not ashamed of that, and they don’t shy
away from it. It makes them hard maybe to label. If they would have stuck to
doing one thing, they might have been bigger and more famous, but they didn’t.
They do what they want to do, and I respect that tremendously.

 

“Getting a chance to play with them was one of those rare
instances when you meet one of your heroes and they live up to expectation,” he
adds. “We’ve certainly played gigs in the past where people got off their bus,
walked onstage, played their set and then got back on the bus and left without
saying a word to you. That’s happened before, but hanging with Lobos was the
exact opposite of that. It was a blast.”

 

A week or so after the gig, as the band was beginning to
consider its options for producers for Good
To Be
, Berlin
reached out.

 

“It kinda fell in our lap,” Ed admits. “We knew we wanted to
work with someone with more experience than me, so when Steve called and asked
who was producing our next record, we were like, ‘Are you kidding? You are if you want to!'”

 

The band decamped to Type Foundry Studio in Berlin’s hometown of Portland, Oregon,
and quickly settled into a former brothel-turned-bunk house above the town’s
oldest watering hole, the White Eagle Saloon.

 

“We all crammed into this one-room shoebox for 12 days,” Ed
says. “The first night we came back after working all day in the studio and
drank a case of Rainier, so they ordered ten more cases after that night. Every
night, the three of us would go back, drink a case of beer and listen to what
we recorded that day on the bar’s PA after everyone had cleared out. By the
time we left, the folks who ran that place were like family.”

 

As familial as the cozy confines of the White Eagle were,
Anderson says the decision to leave Bloomington to record for the first time
was an effort to “stir things up a little bit.”

 

“It took us out of our element,” Ed explains. “There weren’t
any distractions or friends wanting to stop by, so we really focused on the
music. And as comfortable as Steve can make you feel on a personal level,
musically he was always pushing us and challenging us. He made me re-write one
song totally and was constantly suggesting ways to make other songs better. You
had to be on your toes at all times ‘cause you never knew what he was going to
throw at you.

 

“The way I figured it, working with someone new in a new
place was the one thing we could do differently that was within our control.
There are a lot of things that are out of hands – we can’t make people come to
the shows, play the records on the radio and buy them at a record store, but we
could choose to go to Portland
and work with Steve and see what happens.”

 

While its predecessor – 2008’s The Places We Lived – was a melodic, pop-oriented album written
largely at the piano, Good To Be marks a return to the guitar-based songwriting of past Backyard Tire Fire
albums like 2005’s Bar Room Semantics,
the result of a pawnshop find by Anderson.

 

“I got this cheap nylon-stringed Esteban guitar at a
pawnshop for sixty bucks,” he recalls. “I bought it mainly because it had these
thick strings that wouldn’t tear my hands up when I played, but I ended up
going on a tear with it and writing a few dozen tunes over a couple months.”

 

Though not necessarily a concept album, the songs on Good To Be hang together with a common
theme of the journey Anderson and company have taken over the past nine years,
slogging it out on the road while playing their brand of heartland rock at
every beer-soaked subterranean shitbox that would have them. They could easily
be a bunch of road-worn, jaded assholes, but the songs on Good To Be sound more like a band reborn than a band rebuffed. Some
might say it’s a testament to their Midwestern roots, but Anderson is quick to deflect credit.

 

“I write this stuff because it helps me get through life. I
almost feel like I have to do it,” he says. “But in the end, Steve chose the
songs for the record. Believe me, there were a bunch of depressing songs that I
sent him. There was a song called ‘I Know You’re Crying’ that was a real big
fuckin’ downer that he didn’t put on there. Steve picked the ones he wanted from
what I gave him. He arranged them how he wanted them, got the performances that
he wanted and put them in the order that he wanted them in. In a way, this
record is as much Steve as it is us. When you get somebody that you respect
like that and you realize that he’s interested and into what you’re doing, it
just reaffirms that you’re on the right path.”

 

[Photo Credit: Brad Hodge]

 

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