Interview: Austin Lucas

Indiana-born, much-travelled singer-songwriter Austin Lucas places enough spark into the Americana scene to ignite an atom bomb! Son of bluegrass songwriter – producer Bob Lucas (his songs have been covered by Alison Krauss no less) is no stranger to Europe. He lived in the Czech Republic from 2003 to 2008. The same goes regards his association with punk music. He was in a number of bands as a teenager, and a while after that.  

Lucas sings and writes from the heart. He is a genuine throwback to times when music contained soul. Today if you take this stand you are likely to suffer rejection, and will struggle to provide for your family. Lucas’ latest album Between The Moon And The Midwest (At The Helm records) follows in the footsteps of the likewise brilliant Stay Reckless (New West) that he released in 2013, and there have also been others worthy of detailed inspection. A good place to start would be the song that opens his current album Unbroken Hearts. It is here that he speaks of how he’s been told to walk away nearly every time he makes an album, and how everyone in Nashville is deaf. And of how sad songs are a thing of the past!

What music did you enjoy most growing up in Indiana?

There was the Beatles, X, REM, the Beach Boys and John Mellencamp. I was also into a lot of bluegrass and old time, traditional music that my father was involved playing.

What are your fondest memories?

My fondest memories are being part of the hardcore punk scene in the late 1990s. That was a time in my life when I really had a lot of fire, and felt like I was the centre of something incredibly important, and beautiful. I miss that community and the idealism that fuelled me in my late teens and early twenties.

Did you go to many festivals with your father?

I did. I spent quite a bit of time on the music festival and art fair circuits with both my parents growing up. My mom being a visual artist meant a great number of weekends were spent travelling around helping my mom sell her wares.

Who are your greatest heroes?

My mother was single for most of my childhood, and really had to hustle to make sure I had all the things I needed. My dad, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dorn plus Joe Doe, Bernie Sanders, Chuck D and Willie Nelson. My step-dad, Lee is a great personal hero of mine. He works his ass off, and gives an incredible amount of himself to the community. I would like to be more like him. I am also a really big fan of Dave Chappelle. Not only is he hilarious but also when he was at the height of his fame he up and walked away from it all, because his father was ill. A lot of people don’t know that, because a popular narrative was that he went insane. It is an unfortunate truth that people in white America like to paint the picture of a crazy black man. Truth is, he refused to compromise himself or his family. I really respect that.

“The fact that we’ve allowed such hate into the Whitehouse has incredibly frightening ramifications at home.”

When did you first pick up a guitar?

Who knows? There were too many around the house to not have picked one up at some point. What I do know is that I didn’t really start leaning how to play until I was 12 years old. Even now, I don’t know how to play in a traditional sense. When I’m playing it’s all muscle memory and a wing and a prayer hoping that I can keep it together (under selling himself).

Do you play any other instruments on a regular basis?

I sing. I reckon that’s my most powerful instrument. There was a time when I regularly played bass in bands, but it has been a long time since I even picked up a bass!

With your father from the bluegrass world did this influence you when it came to listening to bluegrass music?

Of course, he and my brother are the sole reason I got into bluegrass and country music.

Were there any other family members who played or sang?

Pretty much every one of my family members is a musician of some variety. I always joke about how you aren’t one of us unless you make art or are a social worker of some variety. Obviously, we have several cherished members of our family who work a myriad of other occupations. It’s only that the arts and social work seem to be common threads among my kinfolk.

How old were you when you decided you were going to make music your life?

I guess that depends on what your meaning is. I never really ‘decided’ music was my life. Point of fact it was always my life! I was never happier than when I was working on musical endeavours. I never got much praise aside from when I was singing. As far as when it really became my life consciously that must have been my pre-teens. It would be when I discovered punk and other alternative music communities and started to flourish. That was when I began to think my whole life was revolving around music.

Regards songwriting, did your father give you any advice or was it just a case of your thoughts rushing out?

Not really, he taught me a great many things about the business of music but he wasn’t a great teacher to me when it came to songwriting or guitar playing. He has certainly given me hurtful (pause) I mean helpful criticism. He also set a worthy example to follow in. His, is a legacy to admire and a work ethic to emulate. He has also been a tremendous collaborator, though he has not been a teacher in the traditional sense.

People who have given you the best advice?

Hmmmmmm, lots of people have given me great advice. I think I have heeded virtually none of it.

Have you any advice to give to budding musicians?

Yes. Only make a career of this if you absolutely have to. If you are going to do it then try to control as many aspects of your output as you can. Be ready to work extremely hard to make your dreams come true, because nobody cares about your dreams as much as you do. Also, rarely is anybody going to hand you anything without your having put the work in. That being said, if or when you are helped by anyone, with anything NEVER take that for granted! If someone helps you up and you are able to make a life in music consider yourself lucky. Also, you should never forget those helping hands, because without those helping hands you wouldn’t have made it to where are. It is likewise important to help others and to be conscientious and kind, and to never believe the hype. You may think you are awesome but you’re never going to be as good as you could if you start to think you are the best already.

Could you tell me a little about your early bands?

Yes, they are numerous and they are very loud and often extremely fast!

Do you see America changing now that you have a new president?

Honestly, I am afraid about the future.  I see hate groups emboldened and minorities increasingly concerned about their safety. I don’t know where things are going exactly, but I am sure our new president will not be a positive force in our country’s future. You only merely look at his appointments so far. They are predominately people who have either strong ties or endorsements with white supremacist groups. The fact that we’ve allowed such hate into the Whitehouse has incredibly frightening ramifications at home. Let alone what this all means to the world as a whole. Obviously, these people may not succeed in what they want to do but they certainly have all the tools they need to give it the old college try. Fingers crossed that they encounter tremendous resistance at every turn. I sure know I intend to be very active at that end.

What attracts you to mainland Europe?

I like the people and its architecture. I love gothic stuff and it is incredibly abundant in Europe. I also love kind hearted and genuine human beings. I find those all over the mainland as well as the UK.

“Honestly, integrity, generosity and genuineness were the most coveted attributes that a person could have in the scene I came up in. So that is how I conduct myself onstage and off.”

Why did you move over here when you did?

My brother opened a bar in Prague, and I wanted to come and help him out. I was also working bars at the time back home. It made sense to go over there and help family do the thing I was already doing.

On the flip side, what made you return to the States?

I was homesick and I had a deep desire to pursue a career in American roots music.

How different is it playing there compared to the states?

The differences are probably too numerous to mention here.

After your terrific album Stay Reckless how did you approach bettering it?

I didn’t think of it as bettering the album. I’m generally only interested in growing as a writer. I am constantly writing and then doing the best that I can with the songs that I have for any particular record. This particular project was different in the way that I was trying to tell a specific story throughout the album. This was not something I had ever attempted to accomplish before, so the approach was unconventional by my own standards. However, I wasn’t necessarily trying to top anything. I merely wanted to make another album that was different from my last albums, and good in its own unique way.

Where does the title come from for your latest album Between The Moon And The Mid-West?

It comes from the line in “Unbroken Hearts”. In my mind, I saw these characters as existing somewhere between the reality of their oft times bleak surroundings and their elevated hopes and dreams. I wanted to evoke the image of being both earthbound, and trying to break free of gravity’s pull. A metaphor for hope and futility at once, and sounds pretty corny the way I am describing it right now.

How did Lydia Loveless come to duet with you; are you a fan of her music?

I have known her for a while. I just asked her and she said yes! Am I a fan of her music? The answer is also yes. I am a massive fan of her music. I think her voice and her songs are both extremely powerful.

I love the strength of your voice and bruising fashion of your music. Is it a conscious thing for you to make something that’s gritty and honest and blue collar steeped?

What I do isn’t premeditated. Though it is in the way that I do the only thing I know how, and that is be myself. I come from a world where it was encouraged to wear your heart on your sleeve. Honestly, integrity, generosity and genuineness were the most coveted attributes that a person could have in the scene I came up in. So that is how I conduct myself onstage and off. Although that probably isn’t what people are interested in anymore. I still try my best to retain my values. I have noticed how there’s more pressure as an artist to become a product, even in the underground music scenes. Having corporate sponsorship is much more widely accepted that it was when I was coming up. In fact, back then that was totally unacceptable, so that sort of stuff still sits oddly with me. I’m possibly a throwback to another era in that way because those things seem gross in my estimation. Not that I hold it against anyone for taking whatever opportunities are placed before him or her. I will be the first one to admit that it’s easy not to sell out when nobody is buying.

Do you associate yourself with the workingman?

I certainly associate myself more with blue collar than with white. I come from a poor family. My parents have made good and mostly come out of poverty at different points in their life, but neither parents had any money. Growing up, I probably wouldn’t have had nearly as happy a life without food stamps and other social program. So yes, I unquestionably identify with the poor and working class.

How would you best describe your music?

Original.

Favourite show you have ever attended? 

Neurosis and Eyehategod in 1997 at the Emerson Theatre in Indianapolis. It was so loud and heavy and I had a wretched fever. I just held on to the stage and became drenched in sweat, two hours later, the gig ended and I felt entirely cured.

What do you do to relax?

I punch and kick things a lot. I’m into Thai boxing so I train as much as possible when I’m home. I also go on hikes and watch many movies.

Travel: do you enjoy being on the road?

I enjoy it greatly most times. There are also a lot of things about it that can be trying and demoralizing. The travel can be inspiring and thrilling but on average it’s sort of boring while you are in transit. I sometimes joke that I’m a Zen master because I hold up very well with it. Luckily I’m pretty well made for this type of lifestyle.

What is the hardest thing about touring?

Being away from my family and friends. As I have grown older my people have only become more and more important to me. Being apart from them is something that’s become more and more difficult.

Could you tell me a little about the members of your band?

Certainly! My guitarist Ricky Izzo-White is actually from Scotland, and used to play in a quite famous Edinburgh punk band called Oi Polloi. He currently resides in Indiana where he works for the Secretly Group, a record label group that has Secretly Canadian, Jaqjaquwar and Dead Oceans and other labels under its umbrella.

My bassist is Alex Mann who is from Indiana, and works for the community kitchen in Bloomington. Which is non-profit, and provides free meals in Monroe County.

Mark Wayne Minnick is my current drummer. He’s sort of THE guy in southern Indiana if you need a drummer who can hang with all style of country music. He plays in more bands that I can count, and he is a contractor during the day.

What has been the greatest thrill / proudest achievement to date regards your musical career?

The fact that I have not quit, despite all the pain and heartache I’m still here. If I make it another year, and another year after that I will be even more proud!

Author: Maurice Hope

Work for CEF, live in Hexham, Northumberland. Americana, country, folk and bluegrass Journalist since 1988 and currently write for Americana-UK.com, Flyinshoes and live reviews for Northern Echo and Jumpin' Hot Club. Enjoy photography, walking, natural history, travel, reading and writing poetry.

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