Catching Up With... Doug Burr
This April, Doug Burr released O Ye Devastator, his fourth proper solo album. It’s also the sixth or seventh collection overall the 37-year-old Denton, Tex. singer-songwriter has recorded since he started making music professionally 12 years ago, but he’s not exactly keeping score. “If anybody found anything or produced any copy of anything I’d written before the age of 27, I would disown it and call you a liar,” he says. “It took me a long time to get where there’s stuff I’m proud of and still would be and still claim.” Recorded at Ramble Creek Studios in Austin, Devastator is the handiwork of a musician steeped in the old-time tradition of songs about love, life, death, ghosts, and nature. Burr recently sat down with Paste to talk making the new record, the trouble with technology and his long-delayed fall tour.
Paste: You’ve been referred to as a troubadour. Do you consider yourself one?
Doug Burr: I think so. To me, a troubadour means there’s a sense of a story. I do think there is a sense of that in my songs, at least in this era. They haven’t always been that much that way, but that’s definitely what I’ve been up to the past few years, and in that sense, yeah, that seems to fit the description of “troubadour.” I’d be proud to wear that moniker.
Paste: “Red, Red” could have been written in during the Dust Bowl. The imagery is powerful and evocative and harkens back to early purely American folk music and hymns.
Burr: I plugged deeply into [Smithsonian Folkways’ Anthology of American Folk Music and really a lot of [my previous album] On Promenade came from that too. … Promenade also came from a lot of ruminations on Mystery Train [by Greil Marcus], so there’s some of that still lingering on in everything I’m doing, because that music is just so powerful, and I grew up in the South, so you have that whole Christ-haunted South business, and I grew up in church too, and all those things very much live inside my head, and country music too. So when I heard that kinda stuff, it just has an immediate resonance, and so, yeah, that song is very much me wanting to write a very old-sounding folk songs. It’s a ghost song slash country death ballad essentially.
Paste: Where do you draw from, lyrically?
Burr: Lyrically, I don’t know. I guess what I try not to do is give people my sentiment about something, but what I want to do is talk about something, something that anyone can identify with, something that everybody’s felt, y’know? Like, I don’t wanna talk about some specific experience to me. Nobody cares. I don’t even care. But I wanna talk about something that everybody’s felt. Let’s just talk about fear. Let’s just talk about love. Maybe it’s the general specific. I’m probably gonna do it in a specific form, but, hopefully, it applies in a very general sense.
Paste: Why do you think that’s where you’re coming from?
Burr: That’s because that’s what I like. That’s what gets under my skin typically, and I think that’s what art does when it’s working really well, because it reminds you of things, maybe helps you deal with things, or just kinda connects you with your humanity, connects you with the world. … I like to try to make people feel something. One of my rules of thumb that I always go to—I don’t ever want to tell anyone anything in a song. I want to make them feel, because I hear plenty of songs on the radio that are telling somebody something, and I just immediately can’t stand that. I immediately dismiss it. It’s boring, and, to me, it has no power. But if I can make somebody feel something, and when a song does that to me, it’s powerful, and it’ll live on and on and on.
Paste: A sense of dread pervades the entire album. “The black stream” from the title track—“If you get too close, it’ll sweep you inside”—and the roads from “Topeka” that are “muddy and run backwards” and the snow in the valley that “keeps fallin’” from “High Blood and Long Evening Dress” and nearly all of “A Black Wave is Comin’.” Are you a doomsayer?
Burr: I don’t know. I do kind of struggle with having a dark outlook. I’m a believer in Christ, but, y’know, there’s a lot of darkness out there. There’s a lot of darkness to come. I say that knowing that one day I get to live in paradise, so there’s a lot of reason for hope and redemption through Christ, so in one sense it’s a very joyful existence, and there are my circumstances. I’ve got [four] young children at home. I’m a happy guy. But I don’t know. I guess I’ve always had a bit of a dark outlook, and so a lot of that comes out there. At the same time, there’s a lot of darkness in the Bible. I guess you look at the world around you, and it’s kind of a scary time, and a lot of this record is very future-oriented.
Paste: You mean post-apocalyptic?
Burr: In some ways. Kind of. Personally, I feel like the end times are drawing near. I feel the technologies are in place to make a lot of things that we read in Revelation really possible in our lifetimes. I don’t know if that means it’s going to happen in our lifetimes, but a couple of decades ago, the technology wasn’t even there. But now it is, and not to get all weird on anybody, but there is a darkness to the album, and that just comes from the dark outlook that I think I have mixed with yet a reason to hope.
Paste: The instrumentation on O Ye Devastator is particularly sparse—just guitar, drums, and occasional flourishes of piano, strings, and banjo. Why do you think you’ve gravitated toward such a Spartan sonority?
Burr: Out of necessity. Honestly, I’ve been doing this for ten-plus years, more like 12 years, playing out and trying to raise a family, holding down a day job and all that, and [it] is cheaper. I play a lot of solo stuff, and I play a lot of stuff as a duo, and it’s cheaper. My sideman Glen [Farris] and I try to play as big as we can, but more than big—interesting. We try to be interesting and put on an interesting show with two people. You can go further, faster. So it’s kind of been necessity: How do you stay in this business for a long time and juggle everything that you have to juggle. … One of the things I revere about that early music—those guys didn’t have amps at the time, the early stuff, and they didn’t much have bands either, because it’s expensive and hard. … It was sparse, but at the same time it was super-musical. If you’re good at what you do, you only need a couple of banjos, so it’s just like this ongoing challenge. I don’t have to have bass and drums, though I do like to use a rhythm section from time to time, and that’s fun in a whole different way. But there’s this challenge in my mind—how can you put on an interesting show for any size group of people in a room with just a couple of guys, a couple of instruments?
Paste: In “Chief of Police in Chicago,” the main character, the police chief, is talking to a woman, referred to as “Ma’am,” who may or may not be the mother of a young murderer. Though seemingly set in the here and now the song has a decidedly sepia-toned feel. The piano, the strings, your plaintive voice, and the myriad associations that we make with the city of broad shoulders make for a very transportive listen. How do you hear the song?
Burr: I think it was more necessity. I wanted to do more strings on this record. … If I could have just done this record with a big budget, I would have brought in multiple string players on each song. … We just used what we had. [Farris] plays keys, banjo, and guitar. Todd [Pertil] plays pedal steel, guitar, banjo, and accordion. We got a bass player, a drummer. I play guitar, and that’s about all I play very well, and there you have it. We used what we had, and it just so turns out that those are your roots instruments, your roots-sounding instruments, so the instrumentation sounds kind of old, and we didn’t do anything to try to offset that. We didn’t add any electronic stuff. It didn’t seem to fit the record. The song, lyrically, is very futuristic, but the instrumentation sounds rather old.
Paste: Why Chicago?
Burr: It’s a big city, for one, [for the theme of] genetic screening. [The son], essentially, after birth is told he’s going to be on a government watch list or a police watch list for the rest of his life. It needed to be in a big city, and I like Chicago, and I like how it rolls off the tongue, I guess. So that kinda plays into that darkness, that outlook. Technology, as awesome as it is, is frightening. I don’t know if it’s frightening to everybody, but it is to me. … There’s this huge negative side effect with all of this, and as these huge databases evolve, everything seems to get compiled into databases. That’s my day-job. I work on databases and people’s information, but the same time I hate it. At what point, once genetic screening gets bigger, are they not going to start looking at these things and say, “Well, this guy’s predisposed to that” and “That guy’s predisposed to this,” y’know? So the idea of the song, they say, “Hey, y’know, we’ve figured out that people who become serial murders all have this gene in common, so any baby who’s born with this gene, we’re going to watch.” The idea of just technology encroaching further and further in so we can make less and less choices. In that story particularly, that guy gets convicted before he even made the choice to commit a crime.
Paste: Sounds a lot like Minority Report?
Burr: It’s a lot along those lines. But it’s like a Waylon Jennings song, or maybe it was Merle Haggard—I can’t remember, but there’s a line about a mother looking into the eyes of a newborn killer. It’s like a jail-time, hard-time song about one of those guys, and it just struck me, because we’ve been having babies at our house over the last few years, and it’s true—everybody starts with a clean slate, and every baby is beautiful and innocent, and some people become totally horrible, creepy people, and [that song] kind of came from that idea. There’s a line in that song, “All these killers have to learn to crawl.” … It’s choice. The song is about “when does a killer become a killer?” and tied in with the creepy idea of tracking too much information with databases these days and how much worse is that going to get. Is it going to better our lives, or is it going to get worse? I don’t know. Hopefully, people start becoming more appreciative of human interaction—kind of like how there’s been a resurgence in vinyl recently. After digital has gotten so big, people are now getting into vinyl. So I hope there’s a backlash against technology.
Paste: “At the Public Dance” is scary beautiful. It’s basically one chord on a ragged electric guitar and a vocal melody that, in its roller-coastering shape, is a little Middle Eastern. But the song, a rather traditional yarn about a boy and a girl, thickens in the middle to epic proportions and seems to whip you into a frenzy.
Burr: It’s pretty fun, and I’m proud of that song, because I think it’s one and a half chords. But it’s all about the build, the dynamic, and we struggled. We had a couple versions of that song that we ditched because they seemed too orchestrated, and they weren’t raw enough, so we went back and we recorded that one very live. There’s a little stomp going, and that’s the same set up that I use in live shows. I have this little pink plastic old cassette-carrier case that I put a microphone on it and stomp on it. With some of the tracks on this record, there’s a stomp that we actually sampled and put back in with the computer. But this one, I’m playing live, so it’s not perfectly synced up. [Farris] and I are playing, facing each other with two guitars, and I’m stomping, and I’m singing at the same time, so that’s probably the live-est song on the record, and we did just maybe a couple takes, and take two had a really good energy, and that was the one we used.
Paste: Love is one of the album’s most powerful themes. What is so important about love?
Burr: It’s just a captivating thing. It’s just great. It’s so magical. So there’s a lot of that and recurring imagery of the bride and falling in love and that newness. A couple of reviewers have mentioned “Wedding Bells” as a naive song, and that’s the whole idea. We don’t really even comprehend [love]. It’s so simple and so foolish, but there’s also a bigger love—of redemption and eternity and something I don’t even like to think about because it’s too frightening. I can’t comprehend it, but yet I can’t help but be in love with it. So to me, “Wedding Bells” is that—the calling early on, even in grade school, like having a crush on a girl, and throughout your life, it takes on more meaning and gets deeper until it’s not just a romantic thing. It’s bigger. … To me, the idea of romantic love is almost proof that God loves me. It’s like, man, when I get scared, I think about those kinds of things. I have a beer, and I think about pretty girls, and I think, “Man, God is good, he’s out there, and he’s a good God, and it’s all going to be OK.”
Paste: Do you ever feel like you’re in a competition?
Burr: Yes. More and more, because of my age, there’s this clock ticking. My ultimate goal is to die with as large as a body of artwork as possible and as powerful a body of artwork as possible. That’s my bottom line. Anything else is just gravy or luxury. But at the same time, we’re kind of in this year that’s hopefully a transitional year, but it’s a very uncomfortable spot. I’m trying to keep plates spinning. I’m getting spread very thin lately, but it’s a good problem. So we’re in this spot. It’s a bit crazy. But I want to see this thing through, and I want to get over that hump, because I want to do one job well instead of just staggering through two jobs. So because I’m in that transitional spot, I’m definitely thinking more about competition than I ever have, and it’s, like, if this thing fails on me, and I can’t ever do [music] full time, I don’t ever want it to be because I was not excellent enough at my craft. I don’t want it to be because I wasn’t working hard enough or I wasn’t working as hard as that person over there. I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to make a living doing this, but I don’t want that to be my fault. I want to make sure that I do my part and put out the level of music that is worthy to earn a full-time living, and if it still doesn’t, then I can live with that.
Paste: Do you plan on touring?
Burr: I probably should have toured behind Promenade, but there was no way I could afford it. But at this point—my wife and I discussed it—and we feel like there’s no way we could afford not to tour. I’ve played a few dates out of state here and there over the years, but this is kind of like our first legitimate out-of-state, full-on tour. It’s just a week long, but we’re going to go through the Midwest in October, so I’m very excited to do that. Hopefully that goes pretty good, and then we’re going to try to do further and more frequently after that. I’m not sure how we’re going to juggle all that, but my wife and I just decided that it’s like either we throw away the last 10 years of sacrifice, or we start touring. We’re committed to finding a way to keep me doing this—going out this October, and keep me going out as often as I can. It probably won’t be as often as I like, but it’s going to be some as opposed to none.
Paste: Do you think you have something to say that hasn’t been said?
Burr: I don’t think it’s saying anything that’s not been said, and that’s one of the things I learned from plugging into the early folk music. It’s all saying the same things. I mean those guys were talking about love and death, essentially. When you boil it down, it’s mostly that. What I like about that music is it’s very simple. With modern music, it’s a lot more complex. I like simple. Most rock songs are probably talking about love on some level, although probably more rarely about death, unless you’re into heavy metal. Hopefully, I’m saying very old things, because those are the human things, that all of us have in common. Whether we be Buddhist or Christian or Islamic, we’ve all lost something. We’ve all lost a loved one. Those are the things that move me, so those are the things that I care to talk about, and I’m pretty sure that anybody who’s breathing cares to think about.