Scott H. Biram: One on one with the One-Man-Band

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Scott H. Biram

The term “one-man-band,” for me, conjures up a cartoon, tuba-playing monkey, seated on a bass drum and bouncing spasmodically. Scott H. Biram is certainly not that, although he has been touring as a “one-man-band” for more than a decade, playing rootsy originals as well as traditional tunes with a huge, punk-rock intensity that puts any other “one-man-band” to shame.

When I first heard his Lo-Fi Mojo a few years back, it sort of bridged a gap for me — after hearing the energy with which Biram could deliver an old Leadbelly or Willie Dixon tune, I began to hear the attitude that was always there in the older music, buried under noise and seemingly antiquated performances. The world of early blues and folk recordings sort of opened up for me in a new way, and I’ve never stopped exploring it. With that in mind, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to ask the band himself a few questions the other day in anticipation of his new album, Nothin’ But Blood, out February 4 on Bloodshot Records. I even got to tell him a joke.

So I’ve been listening to Nothin’ But Blood — sounds great, by the way — and I’m wondering what records were you listening to as you were writing and recording this one?

Well uhm. [Laughs] I don’t know man. I guess I’m probably on the road so much that I normally listen just to XM radio, to the country and the classic rock, stuff like that. I have been listening to a lot of Waylon Jennings in the past couple years. But I’m all over the place in what I’m listening to.

One thing I noticed is that this record has some real heavy moments — I mean you’ve always been a heavy guitarist, but particularly “Church Point Girls” and “Alcohol Blues” and “Around The Bend” get pretty brutal with the vocals, this almost death metal-ish growl that comes out of left field. Did anything inspire that?

I’ve been doing heavy metal and hard rock and punk rock for years, my first bands were punk rock and heavy metal bands. I’ve put a little bit of that on almost all my Bloodshot records. I don’t know, it’s a way to get shit off my chest. [Laughs]

I also have to ask about “Nam Weed;” What’s the story behind that tune?

A lot of people might think that’s about coming home from the war and being all screwed up and everything, but honestly the idea for that song came from a couple different things — 20 years ago I was in a punk band and we cut up a “Don’t Mess With Texas” sticker and made it say something else, and “Nam Weed” was what I wrote with it. But really it’s more based on the first scene in Jacob’s Ladder, the movie, the scene where they’re smoking a joint in Vietnam, and then later they end up killing each other. That’s kind of what inspired the song. I’ve had that song for about 14 years, 13 years… I just decided it was about time to get it down on tape.

So “Slow And Easy” debuted on Esquire the other day. The song is a pretty interesting collage of different memories — the most striking one is a time when you found some porno magazines in the woods as a kid. What’s the story with that?

Uhm, it’s funny, that song seems like it’s gonna be the main go-to song on the album for everybody. I guess because it’s the first song on the record and it’s pretty well produced. When I wrote that song, I actually struggled with writing that song a lot, a lot of my songs come to me really quick, in like five minutes. Some of the best songs I’ve written have come to me really really fast like that. But that song in particular was kind of difficult and I took a long time writing it. The story in that one verse was just when I was a kid I was over at my grandmother’s house walking around in the woods, and I found this torn up old porno magazine under a bush. It’s an old memory that’s just kind of stuck with me, it’s not an important memory or anything, I just wrote a little verse about it.

Do you remember the pictures? Were you into it or were you like “ew I’m five?”

What was that?

Were you into what you saw or were you like, “gross?” I mean, you remember it still…

I guess I was probably into it. Even the line in the verse says “wonder why it stayed with me so long…” I’m perplexed by it, it’s stayed with me for 30 years or something like that.

So beyond the originals on the album, you have your interpretations of some old Americana—“Jack of Diamonds,” “Backdoor Man,” “I’m Troubled.” How do you go about choosing these older tunes to reinterpret?

Well I have so many songs, so many old songs like that. I’ve got almost five hundred songs that I’ve played over the years. I know so many Doc Watson songs, so many Leadbelly songs, so many Lightnin’ Hopkins songs, and so on, Muddy Waters…

Those just happened to be some of the ones I’ve been playing lately. I’ve got them kind of worked up so it’s a good time to record them. Generally when I make a record I try to record the newer songs that I’ve been writing, and I also try to record any of the songs I’ve been playing a lot that I haven’t recorded yet. Also, my previous records have had a lot less covers on them, and this one has several cover songs on it. I’m on the road so much I don’t have time to sit and write songs as much as I’d like to.

I first heard your music around 2007 or '08, and for me some of your covers were sort of a gateway into that body of earlier Americana. You know, seeing that you were playing Leadbelly tunes made me look into Leadbelly, and the whole thing kind of opened out from there, this giant family tree with all this mythology. Did you grow up on this stuff, or was there a point when you kind of woke up to this tradition of American music?

I very definitely grew up listening to it, my dad is a big music connoisseur. He had a bunch of vinyls when I was a kid, unfortunately they all got destroyed in a fire a few years ago. That was pretty much the only thing that I was looking forward to inheriting someday [laughs], but they all got destroyed. But my dad used to listen to a lot of Leadbelly when I was a kid, a lot of Lightnin’ Hopkins, and I remember going to a record store when I was a little kid, like three years old or something, I remember my dad buying a Lightnin’ Hopkins record. And then he took me to see Doc Watson when I was six years old in 1980, at the Armadillo World Headquarters here in Austin, this famous old venue that all the greats played at. They tore it down in 1981 or something.

So my dad had a lot to do with turning me on to that older music, and then shortly after college my friend turned me on to some blues, because he was into the blues too, and he made me tapes of Son House and Fred McDowell and Big Joe Williams, musicians like that. And then I was in bluegrass bands for like four or five years, touring all over, got into a lot of Bill Monroe and Stanley Brothers. And growing up in Texas I heard a lot of country growing up.

So you used to play in punk bands — was there a solid punk community where you grew up?

Oh yeah, I grew up mostly in San Marcos, Texas, about 30 miles south of Austin, and we used to spend a lot of time in Austin. There was definitely plenty of punk in both of those towns, and we were punk kids ourselves, having basement parties, playing wherever we could play, putting the keg right in front of the bands so they’d have to stand in front of us…

Yeah, I read you had a band called The Thangs, tried to find some of that stuff but…

Yeah you won’t find The Thangs on the internet. And anybody that has copies of it I’ve told them not to put it anywhere. I have hours and hours of cassette tapes recorded on four-tracks of The Thangs, maybe someday we’ll put out a CD or something. I think I need to get a little more established for what I’m doing now before I put out any music that could give me a bad rap.

Was there any particular moment of transition, from the punk rock to the bluegrass?

I was doing it all at the same time, playing punk and metal and psychedelic all through high school, got into Doc Watson again when I was 20 or so, and that got me into mountain music and Appalachian music, and I started playing in bluegrass bands, but my punk band was still together at the time. And then slowly those bands broke up and I came out of that with my solo stuff, and I wanted to still play in rock clubs so I had to turn it up, add more to it than just being a guy on a stool.

So that was how you transitioned into the one-man-band thing you’re doing?

Yeah like I said, my bands broke up and I just went head first into booking tours, I wanted to still be on the road. So I started booking tours, taking any gig I could, that was the only way I had to pay my bills because I quit my last job in 2001. I wanted to play in the rock clubs, so I had to compete with the rock bands — I wasn’t inspired by any other one man band, it was more I needed to pay my rent and be playing. Also, back then I was booking my own tours, managing myself. I’ve come a long way since then. Been on a record label for nine or 10 years now, got nine records out, working on my tenth already… I’m mixing down a live record now.

Have you ever thought about getting a band together, or doing something more collaborative again?

I wrestle with that in my mind all the time, you know, and I always have a couple people play on my records. As far as putting a band together, I’d like for that to happen someday but dealing with keeping a band together, and egos, and setting up practices, making sure everyone can go on tour, drummers quitting and everything, it’s a pain in the ass. I seem to be doing pretty well by myself, and if I put together a band it means we split the money, and that’s less practical…

So I read somewhere you live near Willie Nelson… you guys ever cross paths?

[Laughs] No man, that article came out yesterday, I think she just mistook me. I was driving on the highway past the turnoff where Willie’s ranch is, when I was doing that interview the other day, and I think she thought I lived down the street from him or something. I’m friends with a couple of his daughters, and his ex-wife. But I’ve never met Willie.

Have you heard the Willie Nelson joke?

I don’t think so…

What’s the worst thing Willie Nelson can say when he’s giving you a handjob?

I have heard this but I forgot the answer.

“I’m not actually Willie Nelson.”

That’s pretty good. There’s some guy called Almost Willie around here, and he signs autographs and he looks just like Willie Nelson. He signs “Almost Willie.”

So one last question. A close friend of mine peed on the couch after getting a little too silly at The Mercury Lounge last time you were here… Do you have any chiding words for him?

Yeah, tell him “Keep up the good work.”