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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ralph Carney Gets (Moderately) Serious with The Serious Jass Project

Posted By on Wed, Sep 21, 2011 at 8:26 AM

click to enlarge serious_band.jpg

If any rock performer can double as a character in a James

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

contemporaries got.

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

selecting material?

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.


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