Dax Riggs has spent a lifetime carving a deep and distinct path for himself in the landscape of American music. It began most notably near New Orleans in 1991, with his morbidly melodic and ahead-of its-time metal of Acid Bath; later, he provided the mad genius behind the swampy rock of Agents of Oblivion and Deadboy & the Elephantmen. These days, he’s making music under his own name, trailing through folk to blues to punk into the spiritual crevices of everything else. On Aug. 3, Fat Possum Records will release Say Goodnight to the World, his third solo album. In May, as the LP sat quietly completed and Riggs and his band set up shop in clubs all over Texas, Paste sat down with the frontman (who now calls Austin home) at The Cavern in Dallas to talk about the new record, the gulf oil spill and having an animal head.
Paste: Your songs seem to go through these different transmutations. Do they ever feel complete, or do you view them more as living, breathing things?
Dax Riggs: I think for the most par, most songs, if you keep playing them, they do change and live and grow, and become a living thing versus this snapshot in time that you made—that’s one thing. But then the song goes on and has a life of its own for as long as you want to play it. I basically feel like recording something and hearing it is different than playing it in a bar, or in a situation like this where— you need more of an iron fist, versus a velvet glove stroking your brain, which you could have on the record, but then here, in reality, it’s more violent.
Paste: What did you start off wanting the new album to be?
Riggs: Just free, experimental. In the end I feel like it maybe doesn’t seem so experimental, but at the same time … it became its own thing, you know? And I mean, on the record it is probably more experimental instrumentation-wise than anything I’ve ever done before. That is kind of what I was shooting for—just, more like Brian Eno, or an early record by him, doing something that’s a little beyond just guitars and drums, although that’s what we are.
Paste: You can hear another element there though.
Riggs: Yeah, I think so. It’s weird, I wanted to get away from it being too guitar rock, and now I’m embracing it. It’s like the changing of the weather. It’s day-to-day. We’re working on an acoustic set also … to be able to play another hour acoustically, but in like a real swampy, resonator, minimal drums kind of a way.
Paste: I read in an interview you did in late 2009 that the music you were working on at the time reminded you of field recordings. Now that it’s done, do you still feel that way?
Riggs: No. Basically, I think at that point, if we had any drums it was like a floor tom, a djembe—it was very tribal. It was very Tyrannosaurus Rex-ish, you know—like bass, acoustic guitar, and a tribal kind of percussion. So I think that’s probably what I was talking about at the time. And it seemed like that’s what we were going to do. And then as it progressed, it was just like, “Well, we can still keep that vibe, but we can be more powerful.” And now it’s turned into something where … I think it’s a mixture of things. It started with that, but I wouldn’t say that’s the way it turned out. Somehow The Stooges pushed their way into the thing. And I mean, we did lots of different versions of all these songs. “Sleeping With The Witch” we originally did like a kind of Everly Brothers, hyped up, acoustic, Beach Boys sounding kind of thing—early Beach Boys. And then it turned into this more droning, kind of slower thing. And you know, I don’t feel tied to any recording or anything. If tomorrow we fucked around with something and played it differently, and we enjoyed it, we’d play it like that—that night.
Paste: Is playing live part of the songwriting process?
Riggs: When we play [a song] live, it just takes on a different personality—a little bit more of a sometimes angry, drunk kind of vibe. (Laughs) I guess the songs just kind of lead us. I think they just have a mind of their own. And wherever they lead, we follow. They change, and certain things about them will change when we play them live. But they’re already kind of written—the basis of them, the structure.
Paste: Has the songwriting process changed from album to album?
Riggs: It’s kind of like, I get these things together. And then I just see how it feels with people, and what direction it seems to want to go in, and how it works and doesn’t work. The original lyrical, chord [idea] is a solitary kind of thing. Almost like a weird—I wouldn’t say trance-y, but definitely a different feeling than being present and talking to people, or even thinking really. It’s kind of just like trying to erase all thoughts and all words, and just seeing what happens. But I do definitely start with some kind of lyrical idea. That’s how any song usually starts with me—some inspiration from somewhere, in a lyrical sense. And then I build a house around it, to house that little idea.
Paste: Which reminds me, the song “Let Me Be Your Cigarette”—I remember reading a blog post on your website awhile back where you mentioned looking out at the Gulf of Mexico and thinking, “Let me be your cigarette.” What came first, the line or the song?
Riggs: I think I had just come back from a fishing camp where I had been playing the song over and over and over to J.T. Van Zandt and A.A. Bondy. We were out there, just passing the guitar around. And that was my new song. I was just playing the fuck out of it, over and over. ... It was J.T. Van Zandt’s fishing camp, down in Texas, on the coast. A.A. Bondy came with us, and we just drank and ate, and went to the fair there, and did a lot of playing. Not really together so much. It was just kind of like, singer-songwriters passing the guitar around. “You play a song, I play a song”—that kind of thing. ... But that’s what that was pertaining to. I had just gotten back from there, and I had just recently, a couple days before that written the song. So it was in my thoughts.
Paste: I’m curious what your thoughts are on the events in the Gulf now—the oil spill and all that—especially with you being from the area. It hasn’t been treated well.
Riggs: No. We’re being fucked over and all the cards are stacked against us. And I mean, they’re criminals. If I walked down the street right now and spit in someone’s face they’d drag me away to jail—in a fucking heartbeat. Kill the fucking ocean? And you’re never going to see a day in jail. Nothing’s ever going to happen to these people. The law is not justice. They are not the same thing. I think those people are guilty. And I really believe the only thing that would make it—nothing will ever make it okay. But if they at least paid, with their—with their lives, it might bring a little comfort to the people who are going to be dying from these chemicals over the next 10 or 20 years. And the animals. We’re not the only thing with feelings. We’re not the only thing that matters, you know?
Paste: What was the difference between the songwriting process on Say Goodnight to the World as opposed to We Sing Of Only Blood Or Love? Or was there a difference?
Riggs: There really wasn’t a difference other than just wanting it to be different, wanting it to be more soulful, more—I guess in the end wanting it to be a little more punk, a little more proto-metal. And really also wanting to stretch out in areas with like a transcendental, droning kind of vibe on some songs. And more of a baritone, crooning voice on a lot of it, instead of always singing really hard—which I kind of always do live just because I, just kind of lose my mind. But at home, when we’re recording, I can pull it off. So, I think that’s what’s different about it. And I’m definitely—I’m in a different spiritual state of mind writing this record than I was the previous one. The previous one I was really in a bad place mentally. And now I feel like I’ve come to some understanding of God, in the way of it being the universe, and us being God, us being the conscious extension of the universe. We are pieces of the universe. We are the universe standing up and looking at ourselves, and saying, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” And it’s like the universe consciously looking at itself—that is us. And so, to me the only thing that matters is love. We’re all the same thing. And, I kind of, I had an epiphany. I had a spiritual revelation, and that’s how I feel now. So, I think a little of that might be in the music, but I don’t know, it might not. (Laughs)
Paste: I think it is. I really think it’s the most organic, flowing and at ease that you’ve sounded. None of it feels forced—it just really, really has this steady flow to it. And it feels like you’re coming from a place of enlightenment almost. And what you just told me kind of reinforces that. And I think it comes across on the album.
Riggs: Wow! That’s…that’s all I’m hoping for.
Paste: Yeah. I think all of your albums have a very mystical quality to them. Not in the same way, but in a similar way as some of the early Van Morrison records. Is a certain level of mysticism something you try to achieve with an album?
Riggs: It’s something I admire, very much so. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like the mojo of Van Morrison, or the voodoo rock of Dr. John’s early stuff—like “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya”—that was highly listened to while we were recording. It was like, “I want do do stuff like this. I want it to be like a religious experience.” It’s that kind of idea coupled with The Stooges’ kind of rock, so it’s a weird mixture. But, definitely, mystical music is basically all I’m interested in—things that almost seem to have a magical property, and just change reality. Sounds change how we feel. They actually change reality. Just like thoughts. Everything in the world was a thought first—that chair didn’t exist until it was in your mind first. So, these things really are very, very powerful. And they really can change … everything. Sound—you put on a record and it does change reality. That’s my school—music with magical properties.
Paste: How important do you think some kind of suffering or struggle is to creating art?
Riggs: I think—for me in particular, I think it’s important. Anytime something [like that] happens, that’s usually when I’m shaken to write something. I’m constantly moved and appalled by the world around me. I do think it’s—it is great moments of panic and despair that seem to really create something. That’s when it kind of hits you—something, your bad luck or whatever. And you turn it into this song. “Sleeping With The Witch” is an example of that. It’s kind of just a song about bad luck in general. And a lot of it is just me feeling locked into a bad feeling and wanting to escape it, and feel good, and feel okay, and be happy. A lot of my stuff I think has this theme of escaping into something bodiless, or something sorrow-less. I think your mind and tears must be twisted, in the service of sorrow, in this thing that we’re doing. I think that’s where the movements happen. I’m not talking about radio or pop. I’m talking about the movements of the heart—the real mechanism of your spirit, moving, and twisting, and hurting, and wanting to say something to yourself to make it better. It’s kind of just like whispering to your own heart, that there’s an answer, there’s something that will redeem all this shit and blood, you know what I mean?
Paste: Let’s talk a little bit about your lyrics. They often seem to come from a dark place, but they’re ultimately carried through, and made into something fucking beautiful. Or, you start somewhere in between and just kind of ride it out, but in a positive way. And there’s this kind of notion of internal conflict. The line I keep going back to on the new album, from “Like Moonlight,” is, “I’ve got spiritual hands / I’ve got an animal’s head.” That line just—it means a million different things to me.
Riggs: Yeah! For me, those lyrics are very cut and dry. It’s almost like a boast, that I have spirituality to some degree. But, at the end of the day my brain is still kind of caught in the base level of human lust and all of that—just the base level animal things that we all have. I’m still that, but I’m also reaching for some spirit in the atmosphere, you know?
Paste: I definitely hear that, but I also hear that struggle of wanting to create something that is good in this world. And just really wanting that, wanting to do that so bad that it causes you your own torture, or like, your own mental torment.
Riggs: Sure! Right! You know, sometimes it’s like pushing a boulder up a hill in hell. (Laughs) It’s like Greek mythology or something—I’m tied to the wheel and this fucking witch or this snake or whatever is spitting poison into my eye for eternity. (Laughs) But, I think a lot of it is just banging your fucking head against the wall—kind of killing yourself to find something that means something, that moves you. I live my life like a cat, or like a dog. I sniff and I get a vibe. I’m not a mathematician, I’m not a musician, I’m just—I’m an animal. (Laughs) ... I listen to music with my…just spiritually. If it moves me, it’s like, “I love this. I fucking…I gotta have it. I love it. I need to listen to this every night when I go to bed. I need to take drugs to this. I need to make love to this. I need to…” It’s a constant habit that keeps you uplifted. And keeps your head in the clouds. Constantly devouring sound and loving it.