You can probably count on a hand the number of original honky-tonk bands in Richmond. That's OK with the Hotdamns. The group is cool sharing stages with punk rockers or the occasional circus performer. Its spirited live shows are more rock 'n' roll than country anyway, fueled by enthusiastic audiences and shots of tequila. For the first full-length album, “Heads Down Bottoms Up,” the Hotdamns took the do-it-yourself route and recorded it themselves.
Style Weekly: This is your first full-length CD. What took so long?
Jay Lindsey: We've had the recording done for a long time now, but getting the money together to put out a CD is a lot of work.
Dani Ahart: Three of us are in school. We haven't been able to play very much.
Jeff Lay: Yeah, so we haven't been making a whole lot of dough.
Lindsey: I actually recorded it. Some of it we recorded at Kelsey's mom's house, because it's a geodesic dome. It's wild, man.
Kelsey Miller: It's about twenty-eight feet long.
Lindsey: It's a pre-fab house. They put it all together on site. Literally, you go there and the first floor looks kind of normal. It's dome-y. Then you go inside and it's two rooms, like a giant efficiency apartment on one half and the whole bedroom-bathroom on the other side.
Miller: She bought it from the original owners and the wife had allergy problems, so it was all sealed off for her sake. My mom's always been interested in geodesic domes.
Lindsey: So, yeah, we recorded it and we did all the overdubs at my house. We had a couple of guests in, and I did the mixing, then we had it mastered down at The Kitchen in North Carolina. Jonathan Vassar [of The Speckled Bird] played accordion and Taylor Burton [of Coald Toast] played cello on it. Also, the lovely Sarah Moore and the lovely Chris Ahart did background vocals. For this record, we decided not to do the crazy layers of overdub vocals like we did on the two EPs (Vanquished and And Justice for Y'all). So nobody sang harmonies on their own tracks. If David sings lead, he doesn't do any harmonies. Getting Sarah and Chris in there and also Kelsey makes it sound a little more live and less over the top.
Have you already been playing these songs live?
Lindsey: Some of them are our oldest songs. In fact, our oldest song is on there. Whenever we went to record (in the past), we had new songs we were excited about and the older ones got moved back for whatever reason. We improved them over time through playing them live.
David Hughes: We ended up with a backlog of all these songs that were staples of our set, ones we played at every show. Every time we went in the studio, we had just written three or four songs and we said, "Let's do those."
Lindsey: It's always been hard for us, because money-wise all you can really afford to do in a major studio is an EP. So, at Sound of Music we'd have to pick four to six songs, which is a pain in the ass because you always have to cut a song. We like them all or we wouldn't have them, so that's a torturous thing. A full-length was really cool for us because we finally didn't have to decide what not to record for once. If I had to say from an outside perspective, I would say this sounds more like us live than the other two CDs. The other two CDs are great, but we spent a lot of time polishing them and this one we wanted to be more like what we're like at a show. It was a blast recording ourselves.
Ahart: We had more autonomy. We could control how it all came out, which was nice and refreshing.
Lindsey: If you're at a studio and you realize you didn't quite get what you wanted or didn't like the way you played, there's a time limit. Here, we got to take risks and be wrong and it didn't cost us any money.
Tell us about that one song...
Ahart: "No Hell in Heaven" is the opening song on the new CD.
Lindsey: We open with it because it has a cool acapella part, which is fun for an opening. The song is a play on "No Depression in Heaven," the whole Uncle Tupelo and Carter Family thread. We're kind of into making titles out of other people's titles... like Metallica's And Justice for All.
Hughes: Everything good has already been taken. We may as well.
Lindsey: It's a pretty atheistic, or at least agnostic, outlook in the lyrics, but from that Southern Baptist perspective. It's the same hillbilly gospel style as a Carter Family song, but reflecting my views. At the time, I had been hanging out on back porches with friends all Summer long. For me, when I thought of what heaven would be like, it was a back porch, in Richmond or wherever. So the song says it wouldn't be that bad to die, if you no longer have to go through all of the hassle that we all go through all of the time. But, I'm perfectly happy with everything...
Hughes: It was Jay's cry for help. (everyone laughs)
Lindsey: It's also the only song that we play that features David on the mandobird, which is like a Thunderbird guitar, but a mandolin. There's no mandobird solos, though.
Hughes: I'm what you call a "piss-poor mandolin player."
Lindsey: We end up not playing "No Hell in Heaven" at a lot of shows, because David will ask if he should pack the mandobird and we're like, "No, fuck it, don't bring the mandobird." Then we'll get there and I'll say, "Dude, let's play 'No Hell' tonight." "Dude, you told me NOT to bring the mando!"
Jay, you started a Facebook group called "Richmond's New Noise Ordinance is Completely Insane" and were interviewed by Channel 12 News. How did you interpret the ordinance?
Lindsey: I was reading it and the way it was written, you could literally get in trouble for playing a banjo on your back porch or blasting your record player inside your house, during the day. Like we all do. So I put up the Facebook group and I figured a couple of people would see it and call city hall, but a bunch of people apparently did.
Hughes: I live in a place with a motorcycle shop on either side of me. If my neighbor's pissed off, he can call the cops on me for playing my guitar, but I get woken up every day [by motorcycles].
Lay: We live across the street from a bar in the Fan and every night starting at 7pm, it rocks our house. The bass resonates off of the glass windows. It's insane, but it's okay [according to the city].
Lindsey: I live by Benedictine and every day they're doing their ROTC drills and church bells are ringing. Or, they'll be having an assembly with a loudspeaker and their windows wide open. That's what it comes down to. The city says that kind of noise is okay. The noises that I would make are not okay. But, I'm a citizen and I should be represented, too. Everyone has the right to make noise in the city to some extent. People have been saying, "If you don't like the noise of a city, then why do you live in the city?" You can't move near a slaughterhouse and then complain about the smell. You're a dumbass for moving near a slaughterhouse and not liking smells. (everyone laughs)
Ahart. That's a good metaphor, Jay.
Lindsey: And people will look at you like a freak if you try and reach out to them. You think, "Okay, I'll go over and say 'hey' to the new neighbor," and they will be like, "Uhhh, okay." The flipside of this is your psycho ex-boyfriend is hanging around outside your house and your neighbors don't know you OR them. By the time you disappear, there's nothing (your neighbors) can do. Being friends with your neighbors is one of the ways people stay safe in a city.
There's been a trend lately of punk rockers playing folk music, but why aren't there more punks playing old-school country?
Lindsey: Based on what I know about the neo-folk stuff, it's like a back to basics thing. The whole idea is that you can do it by yourself with your banjo. It's also like hobo music, so it has the mystique of being simple and primitive. Whereas, to do honky-tonk, you have to have people that can harmonize, you have to have a piano player, a drummer, a bassist. It's a slicker form of music than neo-folk.
Hughes: Also, you have to look at what comes with it. You look at the old folk music, a lot of that was revolution in song. A lot of the punk rock community doesn't like what you hear about country music. People can namedrop Johnny Cash all day long, but in general, what comes to mind is Toby Keith, flag-waving, fuck people that don't look like us sort of shit. That's not going to appeal to [punks].
Lindsey: I think it hits too close to home. You can listen to somebody that sounds like Woody Guthrie and nobody will pass judgment, but if you're listening to us, it's one step closer to big balls, rock-country. Even though that's not what we're about, I can see where it's a little closer to home and not quite as safe and ironic of a thing to listen to.
What the weirdest band you've ever played with?
Ahart: It wouldn't be the bands, it would be the circuses.
Lindsey: It's more venues for us. We've played on a tractor at a wedding. We played at the race track.
Hughes: We've played with vaudeville groups.
Ahart: We've played with tons of naked chicks. But, we've also played with lots of punk rock bands. Which is weird, because people will say, "No, it will totally fit." It really doesn't, but it's acceptable because of the scene we live in here in Richmond, which is pretty radical. We don't get shoved into any sort of box.
Lindsey: Like we talked about before, there's not a lot of honky-tonk bands out there, so we end up on the show with the mimes.
What would be your most embarrassing moment as a band?
Ahart: At The Triple about six months ago. I didn't know where David went, but he was missing for a long while. I said, "Where's David?" and he comes back and I was just watching him across the bar. It was only 10:30 and we weren't going to play until 12:30. I was looking at him and I finally walked up to Kelsey and asked, "What is wrong with him?" Kelsey said, "He went back to his house and I think they had a bottle of tequila there." I went, "Ohhh." By the time we got up on stage, he wasn't even singing words. We were playing and he was mumbling and humming the lyrics to all of the songs. I think we got through six songs.
Hughes: It was the day we found out that Jay had gotten engaged. So, we went back to my house and Jay had a shot. And I had the rest.
Lindsey: I got engaged, but I was still sober enough to stand.
Ahart: We handled it with aplomb.
Hughes: I was going to say Cortland, New York.
Lindsey: Which was also tequila and David.
Hughes: It was a five minute span of four shots of tequila put in front of me. The fourth one did not stay down.
Lay: At least we'd already played.
Hughes: Then, Kelsey got on top of our van. Well, we were all kind of hanging out up there. Just the phrase "koala bear" is enough to get Kelsey hanging from a tree next to the van, as a police truck drives up.
Lay: He tried to scramble out of the tree and he fell and landed right on his face and shoulder.
Ahart: I think he bounced twice.
Hughes: He spent some time in the back of the truck. It's the last night of our tour and we're like, "We're not getting back for work tomorrow because Kelsey's going to be in jail and we have to figure out how to get him out with our broke-asses."
Miller: Meanwhile, the police told me that they were more worried about my friends getting out of control.
Lay: We went back inside, and eventually he was released.
Kelsey: And my face eventually healed.
The Hotdamns host a CD release party on May 28th at Mojo's, also featuring Sorry OK from Minneapolis, Minnesota and Cannery Row. Doors are at 10pm and the cover is $5.