After spending enough time with Daughn Gibson's 2012 debut album, the stunning, Lynchian country dirge All Hell, you'd be forgiven for considering a cross-country drive in search of some existentially bleak lowlifes, on the lam from an arrest warrant issued a few states over, taking refuge in a dive bar, drinking whiskeys at 1:00pm on a Wednesday. All Hell was 2012's left-field gem, written and produced by Gibson alone with the aid of some Ableton recording software, lending a discomforting intimacy to his work. Its songs are littered with the tragic trials of the eternally down-on-their-luck, like the old man crying into his drink in "A Young Girl's World," or the girl who keeps seeing her father's arrest on old Cops re-runs in "Tiffany Lou", or the maniacal preacher screaming about a baby poisoned by Satan in "All Hell." Gibson's thick basso profundo, which shares more than a little lineage with Johnny Cash, is thunderous but intoxicating, rapturously relaying one haunting spell after the next in front of laptop-produced tracks that mutate rockabilly, country, and old-fashioned rock and roll into smoky storms brimming with portent and doomed consequences.
And while Gibson's earlier gig as drummer in the Nazareth, PA blues-metal band Pearls and Brass never really pointed to his future as a dusty troubadour, his professional life outside of his music aligned with his working-class romanticism. He worked odd jobs around his home town of Carlisle, PA (right outside of the state's capital of Harrisburg) including a stint as a truck driver delivering paper, using the rural weirdness of small town life in central Pennsylvania to fill out the edges of his work. Now, Gibson returns with his panoramic sophomore album Me Moan, full of dark homespun tales of death, regret, and passion that are blown up like technicolor movie strips of sensationalized pulp. The production this time around is busier and more polished, showing off his growing studio acumen and compositional mastery on tracks like the beautiful slow burn of "Mad Ocean" (check the recurring bagpipe fugue that appears throughout), the deep-fried honky-tonk of "Kissin' on the Blacktop," and the sinister criminal churn of lead single "The Sound of Law." We linked up with Gibson -- appropriately, while he was on the road -- to talk about his new album, the moving beauty of a Kenny Chesney ballad, and why country music makes him emotional.
There was a quieter, home-spun vibe to your first album All Hell, which seemed to really suit the material. It seems like with Me Moan you had a chance to stretch your legs in a studio a little bit. Were you worried you were going to lose the intimate spark of the first record by embracing a larger, studio-influenced sound with more collaborators?
I wasn't really worried about it. I didn't know the recording process would be that way until I was done. I mean, the whole process was virtually the same as All Hell -- I think I got better at what I was doing. I got better at selecting, and better at mixing. I wasn't sitting down collaborating with anyone. It was very much like I was sampling live humans and then taking it back to my little cave and stitching it together.
It sounds like the dive bar darkness still remains, but there are a slew of different textures and moods on this album, and maybe some brightness and optimism. What were you listening to/inspired by when you were making this record?
I wasn't listening to anything in particular that was special. It's largely a product of television and books. I was reading books by Donald Ray Pollock and Bonnie Jo Campbell, Midwestern writers who write about their hometowns more or less. I was watching a lot more TV, too, and I was trying to empathize with characters a little more, trying to make them more detailed and make them a little more rich, than just, you know, a melody and an 808. I was trying to nail what I thought a person would be going through and what that would sound like in their own head.
A lot of your songs are written from the first-person perspective. Do you approach writing each song like writing a short story? There appear to be passages on this album that are very novelistic and literary -- is that how you think about your music?
I definitely do though if I was to attempt to write a book of short stories, I wouldn't write the whole book in my perspective. I was just trying to take on a moment in one particular character's life. "You Don't Fade" is about someone who is left with a kid. "Sound of Law" is basically about a ne'er do well ready to fully embrace a criminal life. These aren't aspects of me, necessarily -- they might be fantasies of mine, in a weird way, but they aren't in any way, shape, or form, totally personal.
Thinking about a song from your last record, "Tiffany Lou," you used third-person perspective a little but then later switched to first-person perspective. With every songwriter there's always the question about the real life-truths hiding behind their work, but from what you've just said, it sounds you see these stories that are outside of you but write through your own perspective.
Yeah, and especially with a song like All Hell's "Tiffany Lou" and another song on this record called "The Pisgee Nest," those [are written from the perspective] of witnesses at the scene who are seeing something transpire and telling the story on their own. I'm attempting to try and get into their voice.
You still call Carlisle, PA home, right?
I do, but I'm spending so much time in Chicago I might have to do double-duty.
Why are you traveling so much to Chicago?
My band is there so I come out here and we practice usually a week before tour.
Is there a desire to move to a bigger city or a bigger scene, like Chicago, or do you prefer calling a smaller town like Carlisle your home base?
I love coming home to Carlisle. That's kind of the one distinction I can make. No one completely loves where they live, but traveling a lot, I love coming home here. So that's why I stay.
Almost every interview/article on you focuses on the truck driving/nomadic job aspect of your past and that connection with country music/David Lynch bedroom vibes. Was it exhausting to always be linked to this sort of romantic notion of a troubled working man troubadour with a certain set of signifiers, or did you embrace that perception?
I guess I haven't thought about it too much. I have wondered that if I played in a regular indie rock band if anyone would give a shit about where I worked. But since my working past links up with country music and working-class lifestyles, it's an appropriate fit. I mean, everybody works, everybody has a job, so it's kind of weird but cool.
Moving back a little bit, when you were a drummer for Pearls and Brass, were you writing songs or thinking about the music you're making today?
We shared the same scene and practice space/warehouse space with this band Pissed Jeans, who was also from Allentown, PA like our band, and I remember one time at practice saying to Matt [Korvette of Pissed Jeans], "Let's just start a fucking country band." Matt and I both bonded a lot on listening to new Millennium, bullshit country music. And, like, Pissed Jeans would cover Toby Keith songs occasionally. It was totally fleeting because it was a matter of chops because I don't play any instruments and no one wants to play country music! I'd really dreamed about [making music as Daughn Gibson] for about ten years, just saying to myself "How do I do this?" I kind of started to mess with [high-end home recording software] Ableton, trying to emulate and mimic the stuff I liked and I fell into this. I did a song that was dusty enough that when I got up to the mic, I just belched it out, and I was like "Oh, okay. Well...let's do another one." And then ended up doing a song a day from there on out.
As a self-proclaimed country music fan, is there anything going on in country today that you find interesting or valuable?
[Laughs] I mean, at this point, my love of country is such a personal thing to me; I don't share that listening experience with anybody. As a result, I have a hard time waxing about what is important in country music because really all I'm paying attention to is different songs and how they make me feel, and it's a very natural, visceral feeling. I either like it or I don't, or I laugh, or I think it's absurd. Some of the new batch, while I'm sure they are all great people, are just writing about parties and sexual euphemisms, saying [in a country accent], "Let's just have a good time! Get the keg out!" And that seems to be the trend right now. And, I mean, I dig it. That's cool. Everybody likes to party. Artistically, it's utterly ridiculous. So there's nothing influential or special or creative about it at all, which makes me admire it a little more!
Well, to provide a little guidance for the uninitiated, what's one of your favorite recent country songs of the past twenty-odd years?
Well, I mean...there is a Kenny Chesney song that...dude you gotta go listen to it. Everybody I play it for, I say "Just take a minute, and just listen to these lyrics, and get over all the stuff you think about country and just listen to the song." And everyone I play it for is in tears by the end. The song is called [singing in a twangy baritone] "Oh I...I've done a lot of things." "A Lot of Things Different" is the name of it. That's a song that punched me in the face and blew me away emotionally and, I'll be honest, I don't get that from any other genre of music. I'm not moved to utter sadness by rock music or rap, or electronic. I feel emotional when I listen to country, and I could even be laughing -- laughing is an emotion, too, and an essential one. And if something is inherently hilarious, whether I'm laughing with or at someone, it's still moving me more than anything else.
Me Moan is out now via Sub Pop
Photograph courtesy of Sub Pop