The Texas Tapes
Like Ireland's mythical Commitments, Gasgow's country/blues/pop band Texas have taken the American roots music they grew up with, made it their own and sold it in large quantities to its country of origin.
The band was formed in 1986 and named after the cult movie Paris Texas, when founders Sharleen Spiteri and Johnny McElhone were deeply moved by the moody and evocative atmosphere of Ry Cooder's soundtrack.
Featuring the signature slide style of guitarist Ally McErlaine and the superb voice of lead singer Sharleen Spiteri, the band's first single, 'I Don't Want A Lover', surprised everyone (including the band) by becoming a major worldwide hit. Years of non-stop touring resulted in personnel changes and a succession of producers, and the new line-up Texas released a second album, Mothers Heaven, which sold only a million or so copies and kept them touring for a further three years. Another welcome surprise came with the unexpected success of an interim single, a cover of Al Green's 'Tired Of Being Alone'.
On the eve of their Australian tour, Texas have just released their third album, Rick's Road. It was named after a dirt track in Woodstock, NY, which led to the studio where it was recorded - surrounded by echoes of all the band's heroes who had recorded there in the 1970s : Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, The Band... The results are a warm and richly varied album which has already gone gold in several major markets.
Chris Simons talked to Texas lead singer/frontperson, the highly lucid, utterly frank and totally gorgeous Sharleen Spiteri, about life on the road, keeping your feet on the ground and sticking to your guns. Well, that's the way the girls are in Texas !
SWITCHED ON : Your latest album, Rick's Road, has only just been released in Australia. Are you happy with it, and what's been the reaction around the world so far ?
SHARLEEN : We're very, very, very happy with the album. It's gone gold in Japan, Spain and Switzerland so far, and it's done really well in Britain. All four singles off the album have been Top 10, and the album's in the Top 20 in Britain.
When are you bringing the Rick's Road tour to Australia ?
At the moment it looks like June or July. We've come out to Australia with both previous albums, but only for press and promotional appearances - never to do gigs, which is a bit of a bummer. It was a bit annoying coming all that distance and not playing. But this time it looks like it's on and we're looking forward to playing somewhere new. We've been on the road for a couple of months on this European tour and we're going straight into an American tour, so we'll work out details of the Australian tour further down the line.
Is it just the five of you on stage or do you have extra backup singers or sidemen ?
No, it's just the five of us. Eddie [Campbell] and Rick [Hynd] do backup vocals, tightening their trousers for the falsetto bits. And I have to sing quite deep sometimes to work around them.
What are your favourite songs from Rick's Road to perform live ?
I specially love doing 'So In Love With You' and 'Fade Away'. 'Fade Away' shows some of our earliest influences - Led Zeppelin, Sly and the Family Stone... I grew up with Led Zeppelin as a kid and The Stones and The Clash made a huge impact on my life and music. My parents were always playing Stones, Beatles, Delanie and Bonnie, Dylan and the Band, Derek and the Dominos, Traffic, Cream, Blind Faith... That was the kind of music I loved at school, along with the Clash. Joe Strummer was my hero and I just adored Keith Richard. The Clapton, Zeppelin and Stones stuff was very R&B orientated and that's where we got our early blues education. Those guys went back to the roots - Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson... So after hearing the Stones and the rest, we delved into their sources and found all this fantastic blues music.
When did you take up guitar ?
I started playing at about 14. My father played and he helped me get started. I wanted to be Joe Strummer so I was highly motivated to start bashing away. Ally [McErlaine] has taught me bits and pieces here and there. But I feel that when you know too much about something, you can get too safe. A mistake can be a great find sometimes. When Johnny and I started playing slide guitar together, nobody showed us how to play. We played the only way we knew how - guessing at how it was done. There's always creativity in naivety.
How did you start writing songs with Johnny ?
Well, the first song we wrote together was 'I Don't Want A Lover', and I guess you could say it worked ! You can be lucky sometimes but we definitely had a good chemistry going.
What were the musical influences and inspirations behind 'I Don't Want A Lover' ?
The biggest influence on that song was Ry Cooder, whom we heard through his playing on lots of Stones albums. He was someone we looked up to and when Paris Texas came out, we loved the sparse, atmospheric sound and took Texas for our name. At the time 'I Don't Want A Lover' came out, the charts were full of really overblown stuff, heavy on the synthesisers and drum machines with little bits and pieces just tacked on. Our approach was completely opposite.
As a woman and the band's frontperson, you've taken care as to how your image has been presented ?
Yes, that's just me. I want to be perceived in a certain way and I've worked hard and stuck to my guns at it, not only as a musician but as a woman. Music can say a lot but sometimes it goes past people and they can't see anything but the image.
The latest album has a lot of lines like "hear me now", "listen to me..." Is this a reaction to being surrounded by self-obsessed males ?
Could well be ! There's a lot of irony and sarcasm on this album. Mothers Heaven was a lot more questioning : "Why believe in me ?"... But this one's more of a positive statement : "Listen to me". Songs like 'So-Called Friend' are deeply sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek. 'You Owe It All To Me' is about a situation where you're close to someone and you try to guide them into how to do something you've been through. And they take it and use it completely the wrong way.
'So-Called Friend' came out of overhearing a complete stranger say they were one of my best friends. It's about people wanting you only if you're a success. It's quite a funny song when you look into it.
You and Johnny write together ?
Yes, Johnny does the music and I do the words.
What comes first ?
Normally a good hot cup of tea or a bottle of wine.
So these horror stories of rampant substance abuse on the road are all true ?!
Aye, now you know the shocking truth !
Did the experience of recording in the Bearsville studio at Woodstock play a big part in the feel of Rick's Road ?
We loved it and the whole band felt very comfortable there. We knew that we didn't want to make another record in the UK. It didn't have to be America for us, just somewhere new. Our producer on the album, Paul Fox, had worked there with 10,000 Maniacs and he knew the studio. We knew of the studio through the records that had been made up there by Dylan, The Band, REM... We knew Paul's work with 10,000 Maniacs, The Wallflowers, XTC and The Sugarcubes, and we liked the fact that he didn't have any big producer's "stamp" on his work. He just brought the best out in his bands.
Are you heavily involved in the production side of things ?
We're very involved in production. When we went to Paul, we said, "We want to make a very warm-sounding record". And Bearsville provided that for us. It hasn't changed since the 1970s, and the gear that we use is all from that era so it suited us well. We recorded Rick's Road live as a band with only the strings, backing vocals and the odd guitar riff overdubbed later. It was the first time that I had recorded playing guitar and singing at the same time.So even the recorded ambiences are natural ?
Yes, it was a wonderful geat barn of a studio.
Your sound owes little to 1990s technology...
Some of the technology today is unbelievable, and for certain people it's the right thing. But for us, all the gear we've got - amplifiers and guitars and so on - are from the 1950s and 1960s. We want that kind of old, warm, grungy sound. They can fiddle about tryingto get that with modern technology, but they never get it right. It's cold and clinical, and for Texas, it's not the right sound. Maybe we'll go on to become more involved with technology in the future, I don't know.
Your albums feature an unfashionable amount of variety in ideas, sounds and moods. Has this been a commercial millstone ?
After Southside, people expected us to give them 12 'I Don't Want A Lover's on the basis that, if this is what people want, this is what we'll give 'em. But we decided to give them something completely different. It comes back to the Glaswegian attitude, "Who cares ? We're going to do what we want". But the problem became "What do we want ?" The success of Southside gave us a lot of freedom, so we were faced with the difficulty of deciding. Touring the Mothers Heaven album we really clicked, discovered where we were going and really found our feet.
How did the real Texas match up with your Glasgow dreams ?
It's funny because we never had any fantasies about Texas. The name is just a name and it came from the movie Paris Texas, not the state. But when we finally got there we went down very well. They kind of took us to their hearts - "Hey man, these guys are Scottish, woooh !".
Did you get to meet Ry Cooder ?
Yes, in London of all places. He's a very, very nice man. He took time to come up and speak to us. We also got to meet Harry Dean Stanton [star of the movie Paris Texas]. He came to see us in L.A. and took us out partying afterwards.
Well, I hope someone takes you out partying in Australia.
I hope so. We always have a great time in Australia. Last time we did the whole sightseeing thing in Sydney and went down to check out Melbourne. I'm hoping they're going to book us somewhere in far north Queensland. I'm dying to see some of the wild. Australia's a wonderful place and we can't wait to get back there.
Interview by Chris Simons.
Taken from "Switched On", the Australian Home Entertainment Magazine, Autumn 1994.