13ghosts: Alabama Gothic

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In an immediately endearing sing-song Southern accent, Bradley Armstrong apologizes for being late for our interview and offers a reason so unexpected it can’t be an excuse. “I was just installing a door and was trying to get the gap right when you called,” he says. This wasn’t his own door, but a customer’s. Armstrong runs a construction business in Birmingham, Ala., which is a strangely everyday job for the man who is now the chief songwriter for the intensely Southern gothic band 13ghosts. For 13 years now, the group has been documenting the lives of roustabouts, drunkards, good ol’ boys and other existentially unmoored men rambling around a terrain that is half real, half mythic.

13ghosts formed in Birmingham in 1998, and its early records—Your Window Is Burning in 2002 and Cicada in 2005—are rambling albums that play up the songwriting and vocal chemistry of Armstrong and co-singer/co-songwriter Buzz Russell (who has since left the band). The name is a reference not to the William Castle movie from 1960 or to the horrible 2001 remake, but to a collection of haunting tales by Alabama folklorist Kathryn Tucker Windham. “She had this book called 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey, which we all read when we were in elementary school,” Armstrong explains. “It’s almost like required reading for kids who grow up here. The name has a sense of place and spoke to the music we were writing at the time.”

The music they were writing was skewed Southern rock, although 13ghosts chafed at the conventions of that genre. They may be descended from Lynyrd Skynyrd and .38 Special, but they take many liberties with that brand of riff rock, specializing in fragmented song structures, falling-apart grooves, and lyrics that lean heavily on imagery straight out of Faulkner and the Book of Revelations. The band has not only kept its rough edges intact, but pushed them to the forefront and created a viable creative identity. Cicada deconstructed rock music and rebuilt it as a teetering tower of kudzu and chicken wire; their follow-up, 2008’s The Strangest Colored Lights, rethought their music as space rock and the South as an alien terrain.

Armstrong’s songwriting is more literary than lyrical. “I grew up on Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner and Harry Crews and Padgett Powell and Barry Hannah,” he says. “I really liked the romanticism and the machismo of Southern work. Southern writers have a great sense of language and lilt to their words. It’s probably not as present in other parts of the country. If you look at the New York style of writing or wherever, someone like Salinger—for lack of a better example—there’s a brokenness to his writing. It’s clever and it reads well and it’s very character-oriented, but to me the music is in the South.”

As a teenager and later as a graduate student at Syracuse University, Armstrong was drawn to the pervading fatalism of Southern literature. “It’s this feeling that you’re spitting into the wind,” he says. “You’re writing into the void and you know it and you don’t care because you’re not doing it for the same reason other people are doing it.”

He’s aware of the parallels with the Birmingham scene, which has a handful of excellent bands but doesn’t register with audiences beyond the city limits. And yet, he says, that’s what makes local artists like Vulture Whale and Through the Sparks and Delicate Cutters so special: “We’ve reconciled ourselves to the fact that nobody else gives a shit about it. But that makes it pure and good in a way, because we’re doing it for good reasons. It’s either romanticize it or give up in tears and quit. That’s my philosophy. So I’m going to romanticize the scene here.”

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Construction, Armstrong says, helps to bankroll the band’s studio time and touring, and from 13ghosts’ output, business is good. In the span of just a few months, they released a pair of studio albums: the sprawling Garland of Bottles Flies (Skybucket Records) and the snarling Liars Melody (This Is American Music). Armstrong’s poetic lyrics, raspy vocals, and brazen guitar playing color both releases, but each represents new ways of conceiving, writing and recording for the band.

Garland sounds more like their previous albums, fraught with unsettled conflicts and sundered relationships. Halfway through the long recording process, which stretched over several years, founding member Buzz Russell left 13ghosts, and his absence left them temporarily adrift. “He never really enjoyed playing live,” Armstrong explains, insisting the split was amicable. “He really wanted to be in the studio. I, on the other hand, really wanted to be on the stage. I was always pushing the band to get on the road and play shows, and he just wasn’t enjoying that very much.”

It was a difficult transition, and 13ghosts almost became a ghost itself. Garland of Bottle Flies was nearly scrapped. For nearly two years, Armstrong toured with the Tuscaloosa group the Dexateens, which he describes as a “trashy, louder-than-God Southern rock band, all about whiskey and throwing shit.” Eventually he returned to 13ghosts and their unfinished record, realizing “I had to write the rest of it, which I’d never really done before. I had to do what I could to get the upbeat pop sensibility that Buzz had provided, because nobody wants to hear 13 dirges.”

The fruit of his perseverance is an album that sounds both enthrallingly messy and meticulously constructed, setting up camp in a bleak landscape where few other Southern rock bands will even set foot. “Dr. Bill” turns a man’s doctor visit into an alarmingly resigned consideration of mortality, while “While You Were Bathing” channels the wild lust of David’s obsession with Bethsheba. Best of all is “Billy Dee,” a thundering, horn-punctuated short story set to music, relating a pregnancy scare, an altercation at a Motörhead show and a fistfight on the courthouse steps.

These songs thrum with dark energies, but Armstrong is already sick of them. Spending so much time with them—getting every detail just so—wore him down; “I must have mixed ‘Dr. Bill’ 90 times,” he admits. By contrast, he’s still excited about the songs on 13ghosts’ other album, Liars Melody, primarily because he purposefully gave himself a short amount of time to write, record, mix and release the album—everything in two months.

“It was New Year’s Eve, 2010,” he explains, “when I told the guys at This Is American Music, I’m going to deliver you guys a finished record by March 1. I pulled out these scraps of songs that I had lying around and tried to finish them as much as I could. Then we went into the studio and recorded them in two sessions, and then I mixed them in two sessions.” It’s a small miracle he made his deadline: On the first day of recording, Armstrong put a drill through his hand. He could barely play guitar, but managed to drop in solos when his fingers healed.

The injury didn’t slow him down much: Liars Melody is the hardest, crunchiest, most aggressive album 13ghosts have ever made, one that reflects Armstrong’s tenure in the Dexateens even if it loses much of the otherworldliness of Garland. “I think it’s neat that they came out at the same time, because they’re really different,” he says. “I don’t know if they sound different necessarily. They may not. But they felt really different.” They do sound different, like opposite sides of the same coin, but they both portray a band that is weathering a great upheaval gracefully. Armstrong has no illusions about 13ghosts’ commercial prospects, but even more than a dozen years into the band’s life, he’s still finding new possibilities in the project. Primarily, he says, “I really love not hating a record when we finish it.”

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