Interview: Road Dogs Great Peacock talk Tom Petty and existential songwriting

Great Peacock are a perfect example of a group of Southern musicians making music they love in the current challenging times in America. They are well respected on the touring circuit and are classic Road Dogs. However, COVID has put a stop to all that but they have a new album out ‘Forever Worse Better’ which is a set of largely personal songs written mainly by their frontman guitarist Andrew Nelson.  In a moment of free thinking, Andrew Nelson also reflects on a possible existential theme to some of the album. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Andrew Neil and bassist Frank Keith IV to discuss the new album, the music of Tom Petty and what it is like to be a true working Southern band. They also give a glimpse of how musicians from their circuit can ultimately work with americana stars such as Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson. We in the UK may have an idealised view about the South, but Andrew Neil explains what it was like growing up in a conservative Christian household where even country music was considered too morally corrupting. Whatever their challenges, the group are ultimately full of optimism and demonstrate a great camaraderie that comes through in their music.

How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?
AN
I had this friend who is a really fit guy in his early 30s, Dan Fernandez,  he got it. He is a runner, really fit, and he told me that thing nearly killed him. I was surprised, because everyone thinks it is largely an older age group thing and I didn’t think it could but someone like him down like that. He said it was the worst thing he had had to deal with in his entire life.

There are quite polarised views on  COVID in America aren’t there?
AN
Oh yeah. I have thought about leaving. I need some British healthcare please.
FK Me too. We are trapped now, we can’t go anywhere or get out.
AN I was talking to my girlfriend and she was telling me about this art installation in Time Square, New York, on climate change. I am telling her that down South where we are, we are already seeing more hurricanes and fires in California. It is not an issue of more press, we are really seeing it. I told her, we need to make our plan of where we are going to live.
FK I will see you in Iowa.

You are Road Dogs. What do you do when there is no road?
AN & FK
We don’t know, that is a very good question.
FK We have been doing the remote recording but it is not a sufficient replacement, not even close to a sufficient replacement, but Andrew you seem to be writing a little bit more which has taken these lemons and made some kind of lemonade.
AN Lemonade sounds really good at the moment, I haven’t had a drink yet. This has been a really weird year for me. I started dating somebody on New Year’s Eve, and it has honestly turned into the love of my life. I have been in love many times before but nothing like this, and it is just so weird because as tough as this year has been I have had this dream world that I have been in. I have my gripes and my complaints like everyone else, I wish Great Peacock were really famous and I didn’t need a day job but I have had this little cocoon of happiness. I don’t know how I am coping, love can make everything seem a little bit brighter.

How did you self- fund ‘Forever Worse Better’ and what are the benefits and downside of self-funding?
The album is truly self-funded, the thing on the backend has been funded by a record label, a very private record label, a gracious donor if you will, who gives us carte blanche as far as who to hire, what to do as far as advertising and video promotion and all that goes. The album was definitely self-funded, we haven’t paid ourselves for something like four years. You are at a certain level where all you really do is music, period, but we haven’t reached there yet. It is a very hard decision to make, do you tour all the time and just give up on the day job, or do you try and have a symbiotic relationship of both and that is what we decided. It is better to play the shows that enhance your career rather than shows that just have 5 people in a random city on some rainy Monday night. It also allows us to put money in the bank. When we have been touring, we have typically toured Thursday through Saturday at least three weekends a month. So we just didn’t pay ourselves it was that simple. We are actually in debt as part of the recording expenses ended up on the credit cards. Where are you from?

About twenty miles up the coast from Liverpool.
AN
Frank did you talk football while you were waiting for me to join the interview?
FK I didn’t even bring it up, man. I am a twenty years plus supporter of the red team on Merseyside. I had an advisor in high school who got me into supporting football. I was kind of who do I support, I have no attachment at all, and he was like Liverpool Football Club. I then just converted Andrew and Blount in the last few months.
AN He sold it to me that they are one of the only clubs not owned by a Saudi war-lord or Russian Oligarch or something.

This is the year they won the Premier League so I suppose it was an easy choice.
AN
It almost sounds like he is calling you a bandwagon fan Frank.
FK I really jumped in supporting them in 2006 so I just missed the last great year.
AN I’m sorry I derailed the conversation with football. Are they your club Martin?

I’m afraid not. As much as I am a football fan, it would have to be blue, Everton the other Liverpool club. Friendly rivalry in Liverpool, even within families.
FK We could do with some friendly rivalry here in the States.

You had some interesting people on the album. How did that come about?
AN
Well we broke some knees man. I called my Italian Uncle and he sorted it. Look at me, I have no Italian in me. Seriously, they are just friends, you know. Sadler Varden (slide-guitar and member of Jason Isbell’s band) was just a phone call and we went over to his house and did it, it was a fun experience. I have known him since before he was playing with Jason. There are a lot of weird connections there to because he played for a band called  Drivin ‘N Cryin’, who were really big in America in the ‘90s and they have continued. It is funny, you know, they have actually put out more material I like in their later years, but he played with that band. I don’t know the football term for what we call in baseball Farm League, it is like minor league baseball, so Drivin’N Cryin’ is like this Farm League band for amazing guitar players. Little Joe, who actually plays with them now, was with Sturgill Simpson and a lot of the Sturgill sound was really Little Joe. They had had some really great guitar players who have gone on to other things like Aaron Lee Tasjan. Who else did we have?
FK Well Steve Daley played on the album and his dad, Mike, has been Hank Williams Jnr’s pedal steel player for years.

I think I heard that you lost a drummer or so something. What was going on there?
FK
Spinal Tap.
AN He got tired of being poor basically. He figured out this great way of like leaving the band, but then getting us to pay him. Because he is not in the band, if we want him to play with us then we have to hire him. It is just a way he figured out so that he got paid. He is obviously smarter than the rest of us. Little does he know that when this band becomes famous he has no equity.

Who are your main musical influences? Who made you want to play music?
AN
For me an early one was Lynyrd Skynyrd. I grew up in a very conservative Christian household where secular music wasn’t allowed. I didn’t have any idea. In America, we have an oldies format for channels that play music from the ‘50s and ‘60s and definitely no rock’n’roll, apart from the original stuff and that was OK as far as my parents were concerned. I heard Freebird’, it is like a weird made-up story, on a rainy night and I couldn’t go outside and play, I was 15 years old and our TV was in the repair shop, and I was flipping channels on the radio and it was like wow, I hadn’t heard anything like that and I immediately thought I’m going to have to learn how to play guitar. And that is what I did. It was the same thing for me as when I hear my idols talking about hearing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. From then on, what really got me into more like writing songs was Ryan Adams at the age of 18. Again a weird story, I was leaving my fathers funeral, we were in South Mississippi and I was driving back to Atlanta, and my sister put on ‘When The Stars Go Blue’ and I had never heard anything like it. After Lynyrd Skynyrd, I listened to more southern rock but I hadn’t heard country or folk-rock. I said can we listen to the whole album, and she said yes.  So we listened to all that album, ‘Gold’, on the way back to Atlanta. I was then obsessed with that, it lead me to old country which I had never listened to because, in my family, country was worse than rock’n’roll to my parents. They were like, rock’n’roll is like a lifestyle of sin, but country music is actually singing about sin. They are actually singing about getting drunk, having affairs, and my parents are like no-no that is not allowed. I grew up in the South and never heard any country music growing up at all. It is funny though, because when I heard country music, I was like I can feel that and it was almost in my blood, a DNA thing. The people before my parents, who probably listened to that music, I could hear that in me. My parents tried so hard, they were not interested in any of that stuff. My songwriting influence, hands down no one can top Tom Petty. I love you Bruce, but you ain’t Tom Petty. Then Dylan and Hank Williams Snr. That is my three.
FK I don’t know if I could top that. It is a very similar story, though I didn’t grow up in a conservative household. I didn’t really dive in deep until some friends showed me a band called My Morning Jacket, towards the end of my high school years. ‘It Still Moves’, which came out in 2003, I had never heard reverb or guitars like that and suddenly I was hearing it everywhere. I was then like  I want to chase this sound which led me to Ryan Adams and all that kind of stuff. Of the big names, I am exactly on track with Andrew, which is why I think we work well together. Tom Petty and all that, of course it is a given, but there is a reason it is a given.

Petty seems to be getting bigger now he has died. I remember when he started he was branded as new wave. He now seems to embody americana.
FK
To me he is like a Beatle.
AN He has more great songs than most people have, I love that about him. I will take pride in one thing about Great Peacock and that is I think you can put on any Great Peacock record and none of the songs sound the same. That is what I got from listening to Tom Petty, he has his own sound, but I don’t know any of his big hits that sound alike. He gives every song its own thing and that is what I want to do more than anything. I take pride in that, I know we are not famous but that makes me feel good.

You are not famous yet.
AN
Thanks, you can help us make it in the UK, and then we can come over. I hear all the racists and conservatives going on about the immigrants to the US and I feel like saying you don’t really want to come to America at the moment, trust me. You should go on a boat and go to Europe which is much better organised.

Are you the main songwriter Andrew or is it shared?
AN
It has evolved over time. When Blount Floyd and I formed the band it was always together. He has a way of sort of polishing what I do. I will take it to him and he can hear things that I couldn’t. He will say you should change that melody just a little bit right here and stuff like that. It has been different with every album. With ‘Forever Worse Better’ it ended up being a much more personal album to me. I wrote eight of the ten songs and Blount co-wrote the other two with me. This album was different, it is a weird question because I don’t want to exclude him in any way because he has been so principal to everything this band is. This album was largely written by me while I was driving for a shitty day job I don’t want.

Frank, do you write?
FK
I actually don’t from a pure songwriting perspective. Andrew and Blount will bring the core to us with an idea of where it could go, and then I will try this on bass, someone will try something else on drums. Pure writing is Andrew and Blount and then I ice the cake.
AN Most of our songs come fully formed. It is more about getting particulars. I personally have a lot of songwriting ideas, I’m not saying that as an arrogant thing,  it is just what I do and it is like a game to me. It is like a really fun puzzle to solve. It is always on my mind, and it is trying to write the next best song. I have a lot of songs, and when I like one to finish it has to be like this thing that spills out of the air, like a gift. Trust me, if I try to write a song, just sit down and try, it is going to sound like dog shit. A song is like a light bulb moment in daily life. That is why there are ten songs on this album because I had ten of those moments in the last two years. Every time I try to write a song I know the shape and the formula for writing music but for me it is not interesting if it doesn’t have some sort of genuine magic that makes it unique. All of music is so similar, why does jazz sound different to classical music, why does blues sound different to country? When you have a discerning musical ear you can actually hear the similarity but why do they sound so different? It is that little bit of magic from the perspective of the people playing or writing it. That is my weird take on songwriting. I could talk about it all day, it is like acting, why are there so many different views around acting, from it  just being behaving like a little kid and playing around to actually living the part. Songwriting is more like being a little kid and playing, I just let it happen and get out of the way.

Did you produce the album, Andrew?
AN
I did. I would have to say I have to give Blount co-producing credit. I was the primary producer but he definitely still had a say, he also stepped out of the way and let me handle a lot of things. He engineered a lot of the album. We had other fantastic engineers, true pros, but I have to give Blount credit for a great engineering job on all the over-dubs and all the vocals. Yes, I did produce it, and it was weird because we had had producers on our other albums and I knew what it was like working with them. I’m used to butting heads with them and telling them what I want so I thought well why don’t I try it. I found out it is a little harder than you might think. I thought it would be conceptually like thinking about music, man, but I didn’t realise you have got to organise everything and work people’s schedules. I am not the most organised person when it comes to that kind of stuff. Frank is organised, but I am not. It was weird having to hire the right musicians and saying can you be here on this date, oh shit we have to change it because they can’t be here then. The musical part was great, but that was also harder than I thought. I realised I had been so dependent on these other producers sound and telling them what I wanted and them getting it for me. Now, it was  me having to get it. I learnt a lot, Frank will probably empathise because I made him re-record bass lines a few times. I was like,  four months after we cut the bass, can we do this on this song. It had nothing to do with the playing it was only that I didn’t like the tone.

How different was it Frank with Andrew producing compared to the other producers?
FK
In other bands I have been in it always was self-produced, so this just seemed super normal for me. When there is a producer it is like there is an extra brain in the room. I understand the value of a separate producer to help you find what you are looking for in the end product but self-production is the way I have always done it. It simplifies the workflow, it is one less cook in the kitchen, and it is a guy you know who you trust to make the right decisions.

You have your album, you are pleased with it, how are you going to get it to your audience now the road is no longer an option?
AN
I was hoping Americana UK would help with that. It is going to be particularly tough this time because we are in a weird situation. I think we are getting more listeners and more ears leading up to the album release because of COVID. I think more people are actually maybe a little less busy and therefore they can listen to us and we are not competing with much bigger artists. There are a lot of big artists who have pushed back their releases as well. I think we got lucky because the weekend our album comes out we are not competing with anyone big. But at the same time, we are putting out our album in an election year, during the election season in what is the most heated election of my entire life as an American. I have noticed just things we have put on the social media accounts are maybe getting less attention, and my theory is that everyone is just so focused on the election that it is hard for anything else to get through, particularly with our current President because there is always something today, tomorrow and the next day. Everything with him is a scandal every day so he owns the media, he rules the media. Yesterday was a prime example, his tax records based on public information from the IRS come out, then after that news, his former campaign advisor goes into custody for saying he is going to kill himself. I’m not trying to put down mental health issues for people who commit suicide because my father committed suicide, but just the timing of the whole thing seems weird, it seems like they have this whole thing figured out. I’m then going check our album out and it is like you are focused on this crazy, crazy guy and putting an album out now is kind of like trying to air a TV show the same night Game Of Thrones is on. Look, it is not gonna work very well.

How would you describe Great Peacock’s music? What genre do you think you are or doesn’t it matter?
AN
I don’t know whether it matters. That could be the conversation, we could talk about that all day. To me we just play rock’n’roll, I don’t see it any other way. What is rock’n’roll anyway? It is a more electrified energetic mix of blues and country and you can get away with throwing some jazz in there every now and then, and R&B, which to me is poppy blues. I may be wrong and I will get sacrificed for saying that. It is just a mix, a weird mix of stuff and that is what Great Peacock is. Some people would call us southern rock, I would embrace that. One thing I don’t like about southern rock is when people assume if you are southern rock you are a flag-waving….
FK Stars and Bars…..
AN …redneck. We certainly aren’t that. We do not support Donald Trump OK.
FK Hear, Hear.
AN To me it is rock’n’roll, you could also call moments of it folk-rock, other moments southern rock. Rock’n’roll is such a weird thing to try and define what it is and is not. I know one thing, I do love the downbeat, I love the two and the four. Someone who does that best is Max Weinburg of the E Street Band. I’d like to think that we play that kind of music.

Do you agree Frank?
FK
Absolutely, one hundred percent.

America is experiencing troubled times at the moment. How much did that influence your current songwriting, or was it much more personal?
AN
It was all personal. However, there are songs on the album that are influenced by being poor and the album’s ultimate message is about ambition, and I think people only think about ambition in terms of other careers, but ambition for me is also related to romance, money, career, but also an existential acceptance, sort of an ambition to be OK with the knowledge you are going to die one day and you don’t know what is going to happen to you at the end of the day. You can’t change that, but the ambition is to enjoy every second you have before that happens. That is what the album is about. I hope that doesn’t make me sound stupid. I suppose some of that is influenced by the lack of opportunities that exist in this country and the unaffordability to live in America right now. By the way, I live with family, I don’t own where I live and I am 37 years old because that is America.

That is a part of America that is not always understood in Europe. To most people, America is still the land of opportunity.
AN
It is still really awesome in a lot of ways. Nobody makes many movies about people that live in government housing, they make movies about people who live in upscale developments. They don’t make movies about people who have to work three jobs to make ends meet. I was talking to my girlfriend yesterday as we were driving in some rural areas of Alabama and I saw some manufacturing plants that were closed, and one of our songs ‘High Wind’ and the lyrics to the chorus are “I ain’t afraid of dyin’ and I want to ride that highway and I am afraid of newer being alive” and I was thinking this would make a good music video as we were walking around old shut-down and abandoned manufacturing plant. Nobody sees the song from that perspective, so it is interesting that you asked about American politics because I thought it is an interesting way to look at that song that I didn’t think about it that way before. I’m just rambling now, I haven’t even had coffee yet.
FK I love that, keep rambling, man.

At AUK, we like to share new music with our readers, so can you share who is currently on your top three playlist?
FK
It is brand new, that old-time fiddle album by Taylor Schilder has just put out, I was really surprised how much I enjoyed it.  I still have the new Jason Isbell album ‘Reunions’ on heavy rotation, and I want to investigate Billy Strings who I am reading an awful lot about. I’ve been listening to a lot of live tapes as well during the lockdown.
AN I’ve just cheated. I have pulled up my Spotify. So very recently, the new Fleet Foxes’ album ‘Shore’ which is really very good. There are a couple of songs in particular that are worth listening to. I couldn’t get into their previous album but this one is good. I particularly like the recording quality and the mix. The new Killers album, ‘Imploding The Mirage’, I really liked that, particularly the sound of the single. They took Bruce Springsteen and War On Drugs and topped it with a synth sound that I have never heard. There is a guy in Birmingham, Alabama, called Will Stewart who I am obsessed with. His music is the majority of what I listen too, he is definitely worth checking out.
FK I fully endorse this.
AN He is very influenced by The Grateful Dead but he has this Neil Young kind of thing with Ryan Adams. It is this cool mix of fender twin with reverb on. It is a very Southern guitar sound, and the lyrics have this Southern feel but between a hippy rock thing. I can’t stop listening to him, and I am friends with him which is weird because you normally don’t listen to your friend’s music.
FK He has been covered on the Americana UK website.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?
AN
Just check us out. Don’t sleep on us.
FK Hopefully we will get over to play live soon.

Great Peacock’s ‘Forever Worse Better’ is out now on Peacock Records

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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