Joyce novel, it's Ralph Carney. A multi-instrumentalist best known as reedman
for Tom Waits and a host of others, the S.F.-based Carney plays the way he talks: expansive,
eccentric, and endlessly discursive. As a member of Tin Huey, he was part of the
flashpan Akron art-rock scene that flickered for a few months in the bright
light of Devo-mania. His bop-punk way with his axe got crowned "King of the New
Wave Horn" by his peers. His Serious
Jass Project shows Ralph in a historically minded mood, laying
down meticulously cheery versions of Depression-era tunes from the varied likes
of Duke Ellington, Charlie Barnet, and Coleman Hawkins. Ralph and the Project
play BeatBox on Friday, Sept. 30 before heading off to put the word in the
palmy L.A. streets.
You're from Akron, yet
managed to get hooked on oldtimey country blues. When did you learn to play the
My mom was from Tennessee and we used to go there. It was
poor and very exotic, kind of like going to Cambodia.
Yeah, I'm from
Appalachian Virginia and know what you're talking about.
When I first started playing music I was 13-14 and had a five-string banjo when everyone else was trying to play Led Zeppelin.
There was a lotta that (country) stuff happening at the time, like my brother
had a copy of The Byrds' Sweetheart of
the Rodeo. I saw John Hartford playing banjo at about that time and I was
like "Oh, yeah! I wanna do that!" That's where I started playing
How did this lead to
getting in on the ground floor of the art rock scene in northern Ohio that
eventually mutated into punk?
I started wanting to play that kinda stuff and said, "I don't
know if I wanna play bluegrass. Now, blues is almost the same word, so I'll try
that." I started playing harmonica, electric harp, and listening to Paul
Butterfield's Blues Band record before getting into everyone -- Little
Walter, Muddy Waters. You can find older guys to jam with playing stuff like
that. Then I switched to saxophone and I worked in a record store for a coupla
years and met Harvey Gold, who was the leader of Tin Huey, then got into jazz,
Can, and all that German stuff. They asked me to play with them, and they were
all four or five years older than me. We'd rehearse three nights a week, even
though we had no gigs. This was like '76.
Tin Huey's Contents Dislodged During Shipment was released on Warners in 1979. Getting a
major label to put out your debut album was better than many of your
Yeah! We were thought we were gonna be rock stars, man. We
weren't (laughs). Talk about a high!
I was floating on the air for a year and then reality kicked in. Once the record
came out, we saw they really weren't gonna do anything for us. We got money,
but it's all a big lesson of "Guys, don't take the advance." I guess it depends
on the label and the deal, but you think you're gonna be rich because of all
that money, but then comes recoupment on anything else you make. We got dropped
and they paid us not to make another record! We had a two-record deal and the industry
was on the verge of collapse because of the oil situation. Jerry Wexler, of all
people, signed us. The label's New York office was kinda edgy and got us, but
the L.A. people didn't. It was a great experience when you're 22 years
old. Devo and the buzz about Akron made for a great few months, I can tell ya.
You've since become
the Junior Walker of your generation, playing on records with Tom Waits, Grant
Lee Buffalo, and Allen Ginsberg. How did this ongoing session man cacophony
prepare you for such a focused study as the Jass Project?
I had a cool band, so I decided to try to combine all that
oldtime stuff I like. I wanted to record something under my own name that
wasn't all overdubs and me accompanying myself. Then I did a second one and
actually got Smog Veil to put it out and on vinyl! I was really happy with the
Tin Huey release they'd done. That was all unreleased tracks and live stuff. I
just listened to the new Jass Project record on a 1950s hi-fi Magnavox and I
was like Oh, yeah!
How do you go about
A lot of it is just taken from rare CDs with great stuff on
them that never gets played. You always hear "Take the 'A' Train" and other big
band stuff. I do covers of Johnny Hodges and Rex Stewart and don't try to do
note-for-note. The rhythm section is more Fifties than Thirties -- kind of like
the oldtime guys from that era who recorded into the Fifties.
It's pretty straight
and not so much Beefheartian mishigas.
Well, I couldn't resist putting the free-form thing in at
the end just to confuse the swing dancers! Other people will say "That's more
the Ralph I know." "Echoes of Chole" is more like Coltrane and Rahsaan Roland
Kirk. I just got an English horn and I play it on that.
Like the first-wave
psychedelic albums of the Sixties, which typically had some kind of free-form
freakazoid trip-out at the end.
It must've seeped into my bones. I can't help it. I can't do a straight record! Sorry. (laughs) It's a field day for me to play
stuff like this.