David Serby was a punk kid in Orange County and then an insurance adjuster in L.A. and took a long time and a lot of lumps to become the country singer he is now. He performs monthly at dark bars with old photos on the walls and he has just released his third album Honky Tonk And Vine. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
If you wrote a song called ‘Blues For An Insurance Adjuster,’ what would it be like?
Oh good Lord. That would pretty much be if I wrote a musical for the movie Office Space. When I was doing insurance I had the back of my cubicle backed up to a big window and I went to my boss and said, ‘Can I take this back thing off because its got this big beautiful window here?’ He said no, so a friend of mine who was next to me brought his little Leatherman tool kit in and hung around ‘til everybody was gone and we took it off and put the back of the cubicle in the storage facility bin back behind a big crate and nobody ever said anything. I don’t think they ever noticed.
What was the most productive creative work you ever got out of those experiences?
I think that you figure out who you are by figuring out who you’re not. You put these clothes on and go, ‘This doesn’t feel right on me.’ When I started working there, my life was completely upside down and that job was really the only thing I had to hold on to. I was probably about six months into that job and my friend who I met there was quitting to go to graduate school back in New York—he said, ‘You hate this job—why don’t you just quit right now and we’ll take three months off and we’ll drive around the country? You can bring a guitar.’ I said, ‘I can’t do it—my life has been a mess for so long. I can’t.’ I was still hanging on to that cliff—I hung on to that cliff for another six years before I actually let go.
Are you more of a risk taker now?
Definitely. It’s a completely different world. I let go of that cliff and I just said, ‘You know what? The game is rigged.’ I don’t want to turn into an anarchist or anything but this whole capitalist system is not really set up to encourage freedom of thought and art. And if that’s what you want to do, as soon as you realize that the system is not set up to really help you or encourage you and that you’re going to have to figure out your own path and make your own rules—as soon as you accept those things, life becomes a hell of a lot easier.
Are these the same sentiments you were talking about in your old punk band?
Kind of. The things I was railing against then—being a cog in a machine and all those teenage things you’re pissed about, like having a number on a social security card and all that bullshit. But you do come full circle. You rail against it and then you graduate from high school—I remember feeling instantly ancient. Just old. And thinking, ‘How did this happen?’ And then it was another 10 or 15 years of realizing that just because I was older doesn’t mean I had to be older. I went to high school in Orange County so that was like in ‘78 and in ‘82 I graduated—there was a lot of great punk rock going on in Orange County at that time. I used to see Mike Ness hanging around. I saw Agent Orange more times than I can count! And the Adolescents and TSOL and all those bands—I saw them in high school gyms, I saw them in Elks Clubs, I saw them at the Lodge in Fullerton—I saw them everywhere. There was a lot of great art happening down there and all of that stuff was cool. But my family had country records and I remember I would play the Johnny Cash Live From San Quentin record all the time and I would listen to a band like X—I remember getting that first X record. I got the first X record and the first Blasters record on the same day and I went to my friend’s house and I put it on her record player and listened to it and just stared at the artwork and was completely blown away by that stuff. That stuff is completely folk music. It’s folk music like it’s people talking about what’s going on in their life and on the street. They’re talking about people who are making it day to day. They’re kind of like historians—especially a band like X, they were just brilliant historians. I love that band.
Guy Clark says you have to leave a space in the song for the guy who’s listening to be like, ‘Hey that’s me…’ Is that something you try to do?
One of the things that I love most about country music is that people identify with it. It’s very common language—a very conversational art form and I think people connect with it because they do see themselves in those songs. If you’ve done that and somebody can listen to a song and recognize themselves in it, then I think you’ve really managed to do something special. That is kind of what I try to do. The thing with country music is that people make fun of it because country music talks about ‘my girlfriend left me, my wife left me, my dog died, my pick-up truck’s broken down…’ But you know what? That shit happens to people! It sounds simple, but it’s not simple—it’s not easy to do that. I remember reading an interview with either Jakob Dylan or Tom Petty—a reviewer wrote about how the songs were all three chords and they were all conversational and how the songs were too simple and he said, ‘Look, if being simple were easy everyone would do it.’ Except for the ones about being in prison—although I’ve been in plenty of metaphorical prisons—I don’t think I’ve ever heard a country song that I haven’t identified with. That’s the brilliance about it.
What’s hard about writing a simple song for you?
You have to pick out the little things. My friend said, ‘My husband is always on the street—he’s always working on his car and he should be in the house working on other stuff, if you know what I mean.’ And I thought, ‘That’s like a universal man-woman experience.’ And I came home and wrote this song ‘Better With My Hands’ about a couple that is falling apart—which I know something about—and a guy who doesn’t know how to talk about what he’s feeling—which I know something about. The fact that I was talking to this woman and she was saying the same thing was happening to her—well, you know, there’s something that I haven’t written about and if it’s happening to me and it’s happening to her then it’s happening to millions of people all over the world. The key is to try and tell it in a fresh original way—it’s tough to be simple when you’re trying to be different.
Harlan Howard would do the same thing—just listen to people talking in a bar.
There’s a song on the record called ‘I Only Smoke When I’m Drinking’ and twice in a week somebody tried to bum a cigarette off of me and both times I said I only smoke when I’m drinking. And the song ‘Permanent Position’—I was talking to my friend at the Cinema Bar about how great it would be if Rod—the guy who owns the Cinema Bar—would pay us to drink beer because that’s pretty much one of our favorite things to do. I’m not the only one who wants to sit in a bar and get paid to drink beer, I’m sure.
What’s the big story you want to tell? What’s on your mind that you want in a song?
That’s a good question. I’m in a good place in my own personal life so I’m kind of looking outward more. The first record had its own story, but for the last two records I kind of moved away from that—what I really want to do is look at other people and their lives. The world needs good art right now—it needs good stories.
What makes you say that?
Well, I don’t know—this place is a wreck. The middle class is disappearing and people are so hypnotized by pop culture that they don’t see it. I look at my sister and her husband who have gone through tough times. I watch people struggle and it seems that it’s people who shouldn’t be struggling. It’s people whose families that for generations, their lot in life has improved—and now this generation, everything has gone backwards for them. There’s a movie called The Interpreter with Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman and there’s a line in that movie—‘There are no more countries, only corporations.’ And it’s that. The corporations don’t give a rat’s ass about the people in this country. It’s the death of the middle class, the Wal-Mart economic model—it’s all that stuff and it’s the effect that stuff is having in people’s lives. That’s what’s interesting to me.
What do you think about that strange kind of split in country? That part of it is so stand-up-for-the-little-guy and yet it’s used to market Wal-Mart and expensive trucks?
I know—I agree with that and I don’t think that it even registers with people. I really don’t and I think it’s the hypnotic effect of pop culture. I went off to Stagecoach a couple weeks ago and there was the Palomino stage and it had some big acts that drew some people over from the main area—the bands had a more independent aesthetic and were more country-based like Dale Watson and Jim Lauderdale. And there were sadly not big crowds for them. I spent almost the whole weekend in front of that stage. Late on Sunday night, the wind kicked up and it was kind of cool and I walked back through the main stage area in the middle of Kid Rock’s set and he was playing a Queen song—I think it was either ‘We Are the Champions’ or ‘We Will Rock You’ and there was supposed to have been 50,000 people in attendance but there wasn’t more than 250 people over at the Palomino stage. At that time I think it was Jim Lauderdale and Dale Watson headlining, who I think are just brilliant contemporary country song writers and the other 49,999 people were over in front of that main stage and it was like a drunken spring break over there. I’m not making a value judgement but it’s completely different from old school country and how that art form was historically approached. It’s more like arena rock and pop music and those two fan bases don’t really cross-pollinate.
Is ‘Get It In Gear’ really about helping a girl get naked photos of herself back from a drug dealer? What happened?
I have no idea what happened to that girl. I knew her many years ago and kinda had a thing for her—kind of like the moth to the flame thing. I met her in junior college. You see those things happening and the signs are not good, but there’s a fascination there and you get to a certain point where you either jump off the cliff or walk back to your car right away.
What’s something you walked away from that you’re glad you left behind?
There was a whole bunch like ten years ago. I chose to go a different way professionally—I chose to go a different way in my relationships and I chose not to wallow in self-pity and depression and to try and use that. There is a tendency to kind of wallow in your bad luck—I think as an artist you probably should do a little of that because that’s how you connect with things, but the key is not getting so destroyed that you can’t do anything. I read an interview with Oliver Stone and he talks about going through a period in his life when he was having substance abuse problems—he said even when he was his drunkest or his most drugged-out or whatever, he got up every day and he wrote. There is a real saving grace in creating art. If you can force yourself to do it when you’re down, it will lead you to the light at the end of the tunnel.
Whenever Harlan Howard went into a bar, he’d always take the barstool closest to the front door—what is your preferred barstool and why?
I would take the farthest barstool from the door—but the one that had the view. I like my bars as dark as possible but I also like to be able to see people come and go. I like to watch people when they don’t know they’re being watched—you get an honest read on what people are doing and how they’re reacting to folks. I love to do that. I told somebody recently that I love to sit in airports when the flight is delayed. I just like to watch people. I might sit by the door but then you gotta turn around—if you’re over there in the back of the bar where you can see the whole deal, that would be my place.
DAVID SERBY ON THUR., JUN. 18, AT THE PIKE, 1836 E. 4TH ST., LONG BEACH. 9 PM / FREE / 21+. PIKELONGBEACH.COM.DAVID SERBY’S HONKY TONK AND VINE IS OUT NOW ON HARBOR GROVE. VISIT DAVID SERBY AT DAVIDSERBY.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/DAVIDSERBY.