BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN: Q&A W/ Greg Sowders Of Alt-Country Pioneers The Long Ryders

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BY BARRY GUTMAN During the 1980s, The Long Ryders – along with The Dream Syndicate, The Bangles, The Three O’Clock and The Rain Parade – were card-carrying members of Los Angeles’ “Paisley Underground” scene. While all of those bands channeled the ‘60s to some extent, none carried on in the folk- and country-rock vein of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Flying Burrito Bros. so prominently and perfectly. “Ivory Tower”, for example, from their first LP, Native Sons, would have fit perfectly on either of The Byrds’ first two albums – so perfectly, in fact, that that band’s master songwriter (and first to fly the coop), Gene Clark, added harmonies.  But the band turbo-charged the sounds of their ancestors with some punk-rock spirit and rock ‘n roll grace.

The Long Ryders took their name from a cool Western film directed by Walter Hill (they “y” was another obvious tribute to The Byrds). The band started with guitarist/singer/songwriter/leader Sid Griffin, drummer Greg Sowders and guitarist Steve Wynn, who soon left to devote himself to his own band, The Dream Syndicate. Stephen McCarthy took over on lead and steel guitars, adding terrific, country-flavored songs and vocals.  After the band’s great debut EP, 10-5-60, Tom Stevens took over the bass slot, added more great songs and vocals, and the band really soared – musically, anyway.

Actually, they found a pretty solid audience in the UK and Europe, but the U.S. was largely indifferent. So  after their final album, 1987’s Two-Fisted Tales, and tour, McCarthy went back to Virginia and sat in with some other bands, Stevens returned to Indiana and found a career in computer science, and Griffin moved to London, where he had a long-running bluegrass band, The Coal Porters, wrote books about Dylan, and supervised Gene Clark and Byrds reissues. As for Sowders, the band’s only native Angelino, he stayed put and found a career in music publishing.

Not that The Long Ryders totally went away. They eventually regrouped for occasional UK and European tours. American dates, however, were still few and far between.  Until now. They’re finally coming to town – at The Locks in Manyunk this Thursday, September 19th. The gig is part of their first full-fledged U.S. tour in more than 30 years, in support of their first all-new studio album, Psychedelic Country Soul (Omnivore). It’s a great record that, like Two-Fisted Tales, is produced by Ed Stasium, so it’s like they never left.

Of course, they’ve already toured abroad in support of the new album. But as Greg Sowders acknowledges at the start of the following interview, when it comes to great American roots acts, ain’t that always the way!

PHAWKER: Greg, your Sept. 19th gig at The Locks will mark The Long Ryders’ first time in Philly in over 30 years. You’ve played in the UK and Europe – including some reunion tours since you got off your original album/tour grind in ’87 – far more often than you have in the U.S. Why do you think the band has always been more popular over there?

GREG SOWDERS:  That’s a really good and fair question. L.A. was our hometown and, by the way, never easy – a lot of times, New York was better for us over here, and some of the southern cities.  But England’s where we got our first big break. We first went over there in 1983 or ‘84. We had an independent record, and we went over there ‘cause it was really hard to get things moving in the U.S., and for some reason, the Brits fell in love with us and then the rest of the continent. Things really moved quick – we got a record deal, the press was kind to us and it was really a lot of fun. Our leader, Sid Griffin, moved to London maybe 25 years ago, and lives in London, in Camden – he really embraced being a part of that musical community and vice versa. So he was always able to keep the flag flying [while we were inactive]. He also had a bluegrass band for years over there called the Coal Porters.

As a music freak, I’ve noticed that the old jazz guys from the U.S. and then all of the old rock ‘n roll guys like Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers, they always had an especially big fan base over there. There’s something about the UK and Europe that loves classic organic American roots music. And I think we kind of took our place in that line.

PHAWKER: Yeah, you absolutely did. You know, I visited a friend in Paris once and he told me that the late Tony Joe White, when he was still alive, experienced the same situation. He would go over there. be treated, like a hero and play in much larger venues to many more people than he did over here in the last 20 years of his life.

GREG SOWDERS: So true! We played a festival with him some years ago and it was the coolest thing ever. We were honored to play with him.  And it was the same thing for us — people used to stop us on the street over there, and it was really great; it’s still great, as a matter of fact.

But we are an American rock n’ roll band, and it’s important for us to check in [over here]. We did split up in ’87, and didn’t do anything for, gosh, probably at least 10 years, if not longer. And then we just started to put our toe in the water. Sid issued some Long Ryders live albums records. And finally , when we couldn’t even remember why we didn’t want to play together, we started doing some shows down in Georgia, in Athens and Atlanta, and then we started doing some festivals in Europe, and it just picked up momentum again. And then, last year, we finally decided it was time to make a new record.

PHAWKER: And that’s really fantastic! As a fan since the beginning, Greg, I can honestly tell you that Psychedelic Country Soul is every bit as good as any record you’ve ever made. You guys didn’t miss a beat after all this time between studio albums. I imagine the fact that you stayed friends and did various reunion tours from time to time kept you well-oiled. But I didn’t know if you were still writing songs and if you ever even wanted to make another record. So it came as such a great surprise when I found out late last year that you were going to put one out in February.

GREG SOWDERS: Well, Barry, first of all, thanks for being a longtime fan. We’ve always tried to have a good relationship. Our fans tend to be like you. We’re all music aficionados, people that are a little bit more dialed in, people that are very loyal. And so we kind of felt a debt of gratitude to our fans. We felt like we kind of left things unfinished. And not to be cheesy, but this album’s kind of a love letter to each other, because you know, we’re getting older for sure. And you look around every day, and we lose people that we care about and musical heroes that we love – even our peers now.

It started with Stephen [McCarthy] and I doing a little recording in Richmond, Virginia, where he lives, at a place called Montrose recording. Then, Sid and Tom [Stevens] sent in some demos and we learned them over email – that’s what everybody else does. “OK, let’s see what these crazy kids are up to,” is how we all felt about things. So we sent email files back and forth and it was cool. We got a song called “Bear in the Woods” that we put up online maybe a year and a half ago and it was fun.

And then we said, ‘Well, look, cool, but we should make a record together in the same room really as just a gesture of affection for each other.’ And everybody showed up! The three other guys are our main writers, and they all came up with what we thought were pretty great songs. And then our old pal Ed Stasium came and produced them.

PHAWKER: Ed did the last studio record that you guys did together, Two Fisted Tales. So, again, you were picking up right from where you left off. He did such a fine job blending the rock and country elements — he really understands you guys. You obviously have a great relationship with him.

GREG SOWDERS: You’re right. We really admire Ed, and when we made Two Fisted Tales with him [in 1987], he taught us a lot about singing and playing and showed me a lot of tricks on the drums. He’s about 10 years older than us. He made so many amazing records, with artists like The Ramones, Talking Heads, Marshall Crenshaw and The Smithereens. His first big break, he told us, was mixing Gladys Knight and the Pips’  “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which is pretty cool.

PHAWKER: It’s cool that you work with somebody that appreciates different kinds of music and is able to coax some different licks and things out of you that you might not have naturally gravitated to on your own.

GREG SOWDERS: That’s also true and he really pushed us. And a lot of it was just the emotion of creating music together again as The Long Ryders. We really are like brothers, and brothers love each other and we also fight, and that creates a little bit of tension, which is generally true of “gray rock and rollers.” I mean, if you look at The Rolling Stones, who really are the elder statesmen for all of us, they’re best friends and sometimes mortal enemies. So I think it just helps create that thing that’s art.

I have a day job as a senior A&R guy for a music publishing company — I’ve done that for almost 30 years. I’ve worked for songwriters and artists for my entire career, really, either backing them up on drums or coaxing songs out of them as a publisher. And it’s really a unique experience dealing with all the wacky stuff that bounces around in their heads.

PHAWKER: That’s such a cool job! And it’s ironic because you’re not as much of a writer in The Long Ryders as the other guys are, and yet you are working with other writers and helping them get their work out there. I imagine that being a working musician yourself has helped you establish rapport and trust with the artists you work with.

GREG SOWDERS: It’s really been helpful. I always say that all good things that have happened in my professional career lead back to The Long Ryders forming as young boys, playing music together and being on the road and making the records and, really, running a little cottage business for so many years. We met a lot of people. You learn a lot riding around in the back of a van or on a bus and sharing a stage about how to get along with people. You learn how to cut through all the crap, get right to the good stuff, and how to be patient and wait for that magic moment. That doesn’t always come easy for creative people. So when I got into music publishing, it was really natural. And, you know, the guys put my name on a few songs, but like you said, I’m not really a writer. But that gives me a unique perspective, because as a drummer, I’m trying in the studio to get the best performance out of the band, to listen as objectively as I can. You know, not this take or that take, but that one in the middle – that’s the take!

And working at my day job, for Warner Chapel Music, which is an old, very renowned music publishing company, and we work with so many amazing writers and artists. I can always listen subjectively to one our writers or artists and not think inside, “Oh gee, I could have written that better, let me just put my hand on it here.’ That doesn’t serve the writer. I need to be as objective as I can, you know?

PHAWKER: Are there any unsung writers that we should be looking and listening out for?

GREG SOWDERS: Absolutely – I mean, if you could say winning an Academy Award qualifies as being “unsung.” One young fellow that I’ve worked with for is mostly his whole career, but I think hasn’t had his fair due is a guy named Ryan Bingham. I think Ryan’s one of the better singer-songwriters around right now.

PHAWKER: Oh, man. yeah, I agree with you. I saw Ryan a few years ago. It was a dream summer show here in Philadelphia. Ryan opened and was followed by My Morning Jacket and then Wilco and then Bob Dylan and he kicked off the show brilliantly.

GREG SOWDERS: He won an Academy Award for writing “The Weary Kind” for Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges; he won many accolades, so it’s sort glib to say he’s unsung, but, again, I just think he’s one of the better songwriters we produced at the time.

Also, you mentioned My Morning Jacket. There’s a young two-piece rock ‘n roll band from a small town outside of Richmond, Virginia, and they’re called Illiterate Light. It’s kind of an odd name. The singer is a cousin of the drummer for the Black Crows. If The White Stripes and My Morning Jacket tried to write a song together, it might sound like these kids. I think they’re something you and your readers would enjoy.

PHAWKER: We’ll check ‘em out. Speaking of putting sounds together, I love the title of your new album, Psychedelic Country Soul, it sort of sums up The Long Ryders. I can hear all of those musical styles in the title song, weaved together so well. And you guys always deliver with an energy that brings to mind punk-rock, even though you guys definitely aren’t punks.

Anyway, back in the early/mid ‘80s when you guys were first getting some attention, a lot of people heard you as The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Flying Burrito Brothers reborn. Sid sometimes played a 12-string Rickenbacker, Gene Clark sang a little on your first album, Native Sons, the cover photograph of which was modeled on that of the Springfield’s unreleased Stampede album.  But as I listened more, I realized that there was a whole bunch more to your sound that folk-rock, country-rock and psychedelia.  I also heard pure folk, blues and pure rock ‘n roll energy. Did it frustrate you guys at the time that so much was made of the whole folk-rock and country-rock side of your style, at the expense of the rest?

GREG SOWDERS: Well, your observations are spot on. The four of us all brought something different to the band, really. Sid had a deep appreciation for the Byrds, Gram Parsons and the Burritos, Dylan and Buffalo Springfield — that was a big part of his musical DNA. Stephen, who came to us from Richmond, Virginia, had deep, deep traditional country and western roots; he came to California kind of connecting the dots from Nashville and Texas to the Bakersfield scene, so he loved Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard. As for me, growing up in Los Angeles, I was the baby in the group, so I loved The Ramones, Patti Smith, The Stooges, The Dictators and West Coast bands like The Blasters and X.

So whenever Stephen or Sid taught me a country song or a Gram Parsons song, I just played it faster, with less shuffle and, and more energy, and then we let Stephen twang as much as we wanted while Sid and I laid down the rhythm. Tom joined us later from Indiana, and none of knew late ‘60s and early ‘70s pop like Tom did. So suddenly, that goes in there and it’s an interesting mix. And young bands try to play just like your heroes, but you can’t, so it comes out its own way and turns into its own unique sound.  So our sound started having its own thing

PHAWKER: Yeah. I saw Stephen by himself in May opening for Dream Syndicate and he was so good. He and Sid get a lot accolades, deservedly, but I’ve often thought that Tom is somewhat underrated as a singer-songwriter, especially after hearing a fine solo album of his from 2007 called Home. So you’ve got three great singer-songwriters in one band, and it raises the question of whether there’s ever any wrestling for space between the three of them. And do you ever have to act as referee, especially knowing what you know about publishing and how lucrative that can be?

GREG SOWDERS: Yes. First of all, we all agree about Tom, and as older, more seasoned musicians, we’ve all realized how great Tom Stevens is. Sid was the first one to say Tom’s “Bells of August” is his favorite song on the album.

And Tom’s “Let It Fly” is a really pretty song.

[As bass player], Tom’s the other half of the band’s “engine room” with me. He’s the quiet one in the band. But he’ll sit there, think of an idea to make a song more musical. And now that we’ve all grown to be, decent musicians, we can handle his ideas. I think early on we weren’t ready for some of those ideas. As a publisher, I was kind of asked by the other guys to A&R the new record, which really meant just kind of refereeing and reminding everybody, “Best song wins.” And the guys were very kind because they really did appreciate my experience, I reminded them, “We are trying to put together a cohesive album, the songs that we really care about.” And I think we did a pretty good job.

PHAWKER: You absolutely did. And there are some nice songwriting collaborations on the album too, like “Molly Somebody”.

GREG SOWDERS: That’s one of Sid’s best songs. He co-wrote that with a guy named Steve Barton from the ‘80s band “Translator.” ”All Aboard,” which has a great Sid lyric about touring, with music by Tom, is, again, kind of a love letter to the rest of us. They don’t collaborate very often.

So I think that one of our solutions to having too many songs to choose from was to come up with some different pairings of the guys writing together. And it was really fun.

PHAWKER: That’s great. And by the way, Stephen’s song “Greenville” is a perfect country-rocker song and album opener. It’s the classic Long Ryders’ sound that sucks old fans right in — it’s such an earworm of a song.

GREG SOWDERS: Thank you, man. We all love that song too. You know, it’s got a little bit of that Stones, blues rock ‘n roll feel, which, you know, I love blues. We finally had a chance to inject some of that in in the groove, in the rhythm, and the lyric is cool, and it’s got a catchy chorus. So, yeah, “Greenville” is a favorite of all of ours.

PHAWKER: I also have to compliment you, Greg, on choosing to cover “Walls.” It doesn’t surprise me at all that you guys are Tom Petty fans. Did you and Tom know each other?

GREG SOWDERS: Yes. Tom started a little bit before us, in Florida, but really found his way in Los Angeles and he created that rock ‘n roll gumbo that we really admired. So we were big Tom Petty fans. We did spend some time with him, and he was really supportive. He came to our shows, and we made one of our albums just down the hall from where he was making one of his – maybe Southern Accents? It’s hard to remember. So we got to be together for quite a few weeks recording, and he was really kind to us. And with his extremely untimely death, we were all heartbroken, pardon the bad pun, but it hit us hard. So we wanted to pick out a song of his, a lesser-known song. There’s s a Glen Campbell cover which is pretty cool. So I suggested “Walls” to the boys, it just felt right and it came out pretty good. I think that might be our next single, we’re just talking about that right now, to put it out because of radio channels like Sirius Outlaw.

The lyric has really set a mental image for us of course, because of Tom and of another dear friend we lost maybe six months ago, Gary Stewart, who worked for Rhino for years.  He was absolutely beloved by many, was a great record guy and was really the guy that got me in The Long Ryders. He introduced me to Sid and said I should go play drums for him. And then a couple of years later, he brought Tom (Stevens) to the band. So Gary has DNA in The Long Ryders. And he unfortunately died a very untimely death as well. So “Walls,” there’s something about that song that reminds us of Gary, Tom and other people that aren’t here any longer that we love a lot. It’s an important song to us.

PHAWKER: When Tom released “Walls” originally, it was just part of a soundtrack to an Ed Byrnes movie called She’s The One. There were several good songs on that album, which fell between the cracks because the movie didn’t do boffo box office and because the record was packaged and marketed as a movie soundtrack rather than as a Tom Petty album. So I’m glad Glen Campbell and now you guys are bringing that particular song to people’s attention.

GREG SOWDERS: Yeah, you’re right. I love that album too. And I think your take on it is spot on, Barry. Listen, Tom Petty doesn’t need us to play his songs, but we are grateful and proud to just talk to you about his legacy and play one, you know?

PHAWKER: Yeah. So now, looking backward, we’ve talked about your influences, and we’ve mentioned some of your favorite artists. But looking forward, there are a lot of bands that it could be said owe The Long Ryders a debt of gratitude. You know, the whole No Depression scene of the late ‘80ss and 90s, — Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt, The Jayhawks – who I know Stephen McCarthy has played with – and so on.  It’s like you were too late for the 60s and too early for the 90s. Does it ever feel a little bit like some of those bands should pay you a royalty?

GREG SOWDERS: Well, Jeff Tweedy, I met him, he interviewed us once before he formed a band, and has always said kind things about us. Mark Olsen of The Jayhawks actually auditioned to be in The Long Ryders in L.A. but it didn’t work out. He went back to Minnesota and founded one of the great bands of that scene. Chris Robinson was always kind in acknowledging The Long Ryders as an early influence before The Black Crowes discovered Humble Pie.

The British guys, sometimes, ironically, are more generous in tipping their hat. I know the guys in Blur and Oasis both have called The Long Ryders an early influence.  As far as the rest of it goes, who knows? I’m just grateful that people remember. It feels good to have a musician tell you, “Hey, I liked your music and you’re one of the reasons we write songs or we play.”

PHAWKER: Yeah, that’s gotta be, one of the greatest compliments you could get, Greg, that, you know,   30 years later, there are people that still know and love your records. Are you particularly excited and maybe even a little anxious to be going out now on your first major American tour in a number of years?

GREG SOWDERS: Sure. I mean, you always get the butterflies in your stomach, you want people to show up, you want them to like the show, but we’re also realistic. Some of the stuff we do is in a very stylized genre of music that isn’t really for everyone. We understand it becomes a cult-y kind of thing. And if people show up, they’ll get a great show and whether it’s 10 people or you know, 300 people, whatever it is, I think it’ll be a lot of fun. And whether it’s somebody like you who’s been waiting a long time to see us again or maybe somebody younger who hasn’t seen us, I think they’re going to have a good time.

PHAWKER: I’m sure you guys are really sick of talking about about, but I want to ask you about how you feel about being identified as part of the whole Paisley Underground scene. And the reason I do is that lately, there’s been a kind of Paisley Underground revival. The Dream Syndicate has put out a couple of new albums and toured, The Bangles never really went away, and around the same time Omnivore Recordings released Psychedelic Country Soul, Yep Roc put out 3 x 4, on which The Bangles, Dream Syndicate, The Three O’Clock and Rain Parade cover one anothers’ songs. You were all friends, right? And it was kind of a scene wasn’t it?  You all supported each other.

GREG SOWDERS: We were friends and also friendly competitors. If somebody had a new record out, the rest of us would think, “I hope we can do something just as good or better.” We all had a different sound and a different way of making music. But in those days, some of the Bangles and I lived in the same neighborhood for a while. Steve Wynn was briefly a member of The Long Ryders before he got The Dream Syndicate going. As for “The Paisley Underground,” I really don’t even know who came up with it. It might’ve been Michael Quercio of The Three O’Clock.

But you know, we’re always been happy to be associated with that kind of music.  We were fiercely proud of having formed in Los Angeles but we felt as connected to those bands as we did to Los Lobos and The Blasters and we were kind of double agents ‘cause we had that sort of a ’60s kind of thing. Everybody was walking around with velvet bell bottoms on, but The Long Ryders also had a deep love for American roots music and that was a little different for our part of the show.