Named after the Alabama cemetery where the band used to practice, the Haints’ uncanny specialty is a punk rock retrofit of the “dead” traditional music of the South and West. Unlike goofball ironists like BR-549 or wiggy transcendentalists the Parson Red Heads, this outfit embraced trad American music for its raw simplicity and Faulknerian sense of a spectral past. Their latest To Win or To Lose has much the same eerie high-lonesome feel as Gram Parsons or the Flatlanders, but with enough added macabre touches for an old-timey Dixie traveling circus, complete with hucksters on buckboards and freaks in formaldehyde. Here, guitarist-vocalist-fiddler Jaime Barrier muses on a vanishing America, punky get-up-and-go and the difficulties involved in mic-ing a musical saw. This interview by Ron Garmon.
What is meant by the term ‘Alabama ghost music?’
Jaime Barrier (guitar/fiddle/vocals): I guess to create a certain mindset—a certain mood and a certain local sound.
It sounds like you’re evoking an all-but-dead America.
Exactly. I’m not real into innovation and keeping up and the newest sound or whatever. That was the original concept—playing dead sounds—but after a while I realized it didn’t sound anything like the Carter family!
Like Mick Jagger’s attempt to sound like a Chicago blues shouter leading to the hybrid that became the Rolling Stones.
That’s a good example.
I once read a review of some 1970s Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album that termed them ‘Pink Floyd for hillbillies.’ This fits Pine Hill Haints perfectly. Is there a conscious psychedelic vibe going on?
It’s psychedelic in the way dub reggae in the 1970s went from regular jazz to ska then got into dub and into psych. I guess that’s kind of a similar path we’re taking—real percussion-based with psychedelic melody on top of it.
Doesn’t all popular music, even the stuff that’s moving product now, live under the threat of erasure, making it all, inevitably, ‘dead’ music? Aren’t you being ahead of your time by being so retro?
Man, I don’t even know if I can fully understand that one! That’s some deep stuff. I’m the new wave of the future in today’s country? That’s awesome!
There’s a tradition of Christian fatalism in country music, but there’s also a populist hell-raising spirit. Do you guys straddle both?
We try to walk that fine line in the middle and embrace ‘em both. We all come from pretty deep religious backgrounds, but there’s a wild streak in us, like everyone else. I don’t run from the Christian thing. There’s a lot more to Johnny Cash than the Folsom Prison record. It’s easier to live out here but harder to get your face on the cover of the Rolling Stone. I been in a million bands and even if we’re playing to a few people with no amps and no P.A., it’s just a fun band to make music with.
Tell us about the connection between Southern culture and the macabre, as witnessed by ‘Bordello Blackwidow’ and ‘Halloween All the Time.’
I can’t speak for other parts of the country, but where we’re at—as a kid you grow up with these incredible stories and whatnot on the back of the school bus. Or some of the absolute freaks and characters that live out there. It’s not like that anymore or all the way, but there’s that Mark Twain quote where he says all Southerners speak poetry—just that charm and that wit you know. But ‘Blackwidow’ was a song that Matt wrote. He writes a lot of plays and sketch comedy and whatnot. The song was meant just to be played punk rock opera style. They had a warehouse and write their own plays and present them. That was the end of that song, but he keeps playing it with the Haints. That’s kinda that ‘dead’ thing. A lot of covers we do are from punk bands that broke up, so we keep ‘em alive. Everybody’s got a lot of influences and that Dixieland style is one of ours. The show changes every night.
What’s your hometown like?
When I’m not on the road, I go play music with old people in my hometown. Every night of the week just about, I have somewhere I go play. That has a lot to do with the sound. I try to learn a lot of the traditional songs—native songs and native styles of holding the bow. That mixed with a lot of the punk rock sound—the punk rock way of doing things. I might have trailed off your question. Does that make any sense?
What’s your hometown?
Florence, Alabama. Better known as Muscle Shoals. Technically, I live in Tennessee, about thirty miles north of there.
Have you ever toured Europe?
We’ve been over there seven times, but mostly to England and Ireland. You know, whatever the top is, I feel like we could get there a hell of a lot quicker, but we’re trying to approach it honestly and artistically. There a lot of nights in England where the people who show up want pitchforks and bales of hay—throw a rebel flag up and ‘Yee-haw!’ They’re disappointed but we’ve found our audience just the same. It’s tempting to take the ‘dumb’ route.
My advice is to ignore any industry suit who uses the word ‘novelty act.’
Exactly. It doesn’t cost much to live out here. Being in Alabama, you’re in kind of a weird off-the-map bubble anyway so I don’t know how much I’m giving up. In a sense, we’re not getting anywhere, but in another sense, we’ve been able to do something and improve on it while getting to do something original. You can live on nothing where we’re at, but if we were in Baltimore, or L.A. or Minneapolis, we might have to worry about such things as jobs.
Are there any special troubles mic-ing a saw or a bucket bass for a performance?
A bucket bass is a little easier, but there are troubles with the saw. Sometimes you can’t get it and one good swipe of the bow, it’s too loud. We used to have a guy in the band who played saw on every song. Now we only use it when it’s needed, but back then we were like, ‘A saw! Cool!’ So every song, there it was. Probably a little over-the-top and too much. His name was Rymodee—he was also in This Bike is a Pipe Bomb, which was a great band.
A man who regularly knows trouble from incautiously placed band stickers, from what I hear tell.
You’re right! I forget how many times they made the national news. The more popular that band got, the less he was able to tour with it. He even wrote a little piece for the saw about all the millions of saws sold back in the 1920s and he’s like, ‘Chances are your grandparents played one.’ A lot of people played one. Now my wife does the saw on any particular song calling for it. We make bows and it’s easy to get a nice fat sound out of an inch-wide bow. Once you figure out where you want it, it’s set for the night, unless the soundman starts manipulating knobs or something.
I like the H.P. Lovecraft reference of your label, Arkam Records. You put out a lot of punkish and quasi-punk stuff, which brings up a question—what’s the connection between traditional music and the punk ethos? One sees much overlap here in L.A.
There’s a million things, but, for me, it was stripping it down to the honest approach. For example, I always thought fiddle playing was supposed to be this flowery happy thing—like ‘I went to the store today/dee-dee-deedly-dee-da-dee-dum-dum.’ A punk way for me would be the opposite of that—a raw, honest, emotional type thing.
You make it sound groaning and mournful.
Either that attitude or straight happy. No junk added to it. No junk.
THE PINE HILL HAINTS WITH THE GUILTY HEARTS AND ALMIGHTY DO ME A FAVOR ON THU., AUG. 6, AT THE REDWOOD, 316 W. 2ND AVE., DOWNTOWN. 10PM / FREE / 21+. THEREDWOODBAR.COM. THE PINE HILL HAINTS’ TO WIN OR TO LOSE IS OUT NOW ON K. VISIT THE PINE HILL HAINTS AT MYSPACE.COM/PINEHILLHAINTS.