|(Picture credit: Tim Furnish)|
Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin are the real deal. The ladies of Freakwater are absolutely fantastic interviews. Speaking with the women of Freakwater, they have this infectious energy of the sort that you only get from friendship, that kind of ball-busting, inside-but-not-really inside joke thing that makes you feel like you just want to hang out. Of course, that is tempered by years of collaboration, which has resulted in a number of incredible releases including their most recent Scheherazade. You can listen to The Asp and the Albatross below and catch them performing tomorrow night at Zanzabar. We caught up with them to ask about punk rock, Mid-City Mall, and swimming pools.
Never Nervous: What got you into music initially? Was there a lot of music in your house growing up?
Janet Beveridge Bean: My mother sang while doing housework and gardening and when young she was lead soloist for the choir in South Wilmington, Illinois. She told me once that she was the soloist for the big welcome home parade for veterans returning home from WWII. My father has no musical ability, but he did love it when I played David Bowie’s Low record. The one thing Catherine and I have in common is both of our parents had a love of the Royal Scot Dragoon. It was used as punishment in my home. 8 am on Saturdays those bagpipes would be blasted to get us out of bed.
Catherine Irwin: Yes, the Royal Scots Dragoon. That is our common musical heritage. I love that both our fathers used bagpipes as a form of punishment. My mother always made me and my brother listen to The Magic Flute while we were doing chores. Bagpipes and Opera both have rather negative associations for me.
NN: How did you gravitate towards outsider music like punk or indie?
JBB: I saw it more as insider music. Van Halen just wasn’t doing it for me anymore, although I do have a soft soft spot for David Lee. Actually. for me it wasn’t so much that I didn’t like AOR radio or top 40 as much as it was the people that listened to it primarily bored me.
CI: Yeah, it wasn’t just that Van Halen people bored me — they also kinda wanted to beat me up. There was a very low tolerance for freaks in the culture at large. Punk rock seemed to be the opposite of all that conformist, homo-phobic shit. My brother and I started playing music in high school. We got the Dead Boys record and our little brains kinda exploded.
NN: What was the transition like between your earlier bands and Freakwater? What’s the connection between punk and indie and country?
JBB: Freakwater is my early band. I guess I was in Skull of Glee for a while and then the Zoo Directors before Freakwater, but it all happened in the course of a year or two. The main connection was the people. We were all friends desperate to create our own fun. As far as the connections between the genres go you could say they all use the 12 tone scale. Punk and Country often address issues of culture. They were both born out of external pressures or isolation. They are in many ways political platforms more so than, say, Rush.
CI: I agree. Rush is more about a timeless philosophy. The ephemera of world politics are not their business.
I always really just wanted to be in The Incredible String Band, but their songs were way too complicated for me to figure out. Punk rock saved the day. I don’t really see the dividing lines between all these types of music that clearly — other than in a historical sense. Songs about love and death and self-destruction — three chords, two-and-a-half minutes long.
Could be Hank Williams, or The Ramones.
NN: Thematically, what if anything is Freakwater about? Is there any one central MO that remains from the start?
JBB: I guess the futility of hope would be one theme. We each write about ourselves for the most part, sometimes that’s in context to larger issues, sometimes in context to a bad nights sleep.
CI: Yeah. The futility of hope is definitely a major theme. And we are definitely not playing any more weddings.
NN: How do you all organize band practice? Do you still live in different cities?
JBB: Yes, we are spread about. I am in Chicago, Catherine, Anna and Neal are in Louisville and Dave and Morgan are in North Carolina. We use smoke signals and spirit animals interfaced with our google calendar.
CI: It’s in the contract that we can’t even be in contiguous states. Janet has been spending a lot of time in northern Indiana recently. That means that I have to to go to Tennessee, and Dave has to go to South Carolina.
NN: You’ve played a lot of amazing shows throughout the years. What would you say was one of the most memorable? What about the lamest? What makes for a good show and why?
JBB: Probably the more ridiculous or humiliating shows are the most memorable for me. Perhaps this is another theme to Freakwater; how the worst is the most memorable. For me a couple of them are crashing into a series of cars with our tour van in the parking lot of a small village’s music venue in Germany. I think I said something to the effect of “I just smashed your fucking cars.” They looked at each other and said “what did she just say?” It devolved from there.
Then there was the time I was feeling low, mortified, and possibly out of my mind on port wine and suggested to an audience in some small Ohio back water club/spaghetti factory pit of misery something to the effect of “you can’t know my humiliation up here playing for people shoveling noodles into their face” followed by “oh yes you can you have to live here.” Ah the good old days when I could be a royal piss ant!! I used to find the whole experience pretty humiliating.
That’s not so true anymore. Now it’s a sad case of being pleasant, old, grateful and boring. As far as what makes a good show, I would say when the sound is how you dream it should sound and the crowd is right there with you. They get why you’re doing what you’re doing. They get the words you’re singing and the long ramblings in between songs. I guess that boils down to good sound on stage and that you feel a connection with the audience
CI: Both of the shows Janet mentioned are pretty legendary. We have played several extremely humiliating shows already this year — Two meat themed festivals in Chicago. We don’t play shows where people are eating spaghetti anymore. Any food has to be served on a stick.
The most soul-crushing show I can remember is when we had to play under a giant inflatable pig head. We were on the Piggly-Wiggly stage at some festival in Minnesota — alternating sets with Those Darn Accordions. They were on roller skates. I’m doing what I can to remain a bitter, hateful jackass.
What it sounds like on the stage is really what determines a good show from a shitty one. It’s pretty common that we think we sucked really bad, then someone comes up afterwards and says it was the best Freakwater show ever.
NN: What can you tell us about your newest album? How does it compare to your earlier Freakwater releases?
JBB: Remarkably it’s pretty consistent with what we’ve been doing for 30 years. The sound is a bit more expansive and we’ve got Jonathan Wood and Anna singing some parts, which may be a Freakwater first, but it’s consistent with what we’ve done in the past. We are not a band looking to reinvent ourselves, although I guess in some small way I imagine we are doing that on each record only to find we’ve reinvented the same thing. I don’t think that’s bad, or musically stuck in a rut. What we do has a timeless quality and it resonates for certain people despite what is popular at the time. With that said I think Freakwater should definitely try our hands at EDM.
CI: I don’t mind reinventing the wheel. The wheel is a useful thing. After enough cycles of reinvention it might turn into a gangsta whitewall with chrome spokes. I don’t think the new record is a big departure from the past for us. Janet wrote a lot more songs for Scheherazade than for our last record. That adds adds so much to the overall sound. Recording Scheherazade was the best, and longest time we’ve ever had in the studio.. I’ve also been thinking about Dance music a lot. We need to get with Jonathan Wood for that. He’s gonna play with us at the Louisville show.
NN: If someone asked you what Freakwater sounds like, how do you describe it? I mean to people that may otherwise have no basis for comparison.
JBB: When someone asks me “what type of music do you play” I usually answer “the unpopular kind.” I don’t mean to be glib or snippy or anything, but it’s just remarkably hard for me to describe it. I don’t mean it’s indescribable, rather I’m too close to it.
CI: I agree. It’s hard to describe what it is we do. I kinda like “Doom Country.”
NN: What constitutes success for Freakwater?
JBB: When we have our own showplace in Branson I’ll know we made it. Only then can I rest more than I already do.
CI: Branson is setting the bar pretty high, but I think if we just keep doing doing what we do we will eventually be doing it with Kenny Rogers.
NN: What is next? Should we expect new music or collaborations? More touring?
JBB: Yes, yes and yes. We will be leaving for a 5 week European tour in September. Then we get back and start building our Branson dream.
CI: We are gonna start working on the Freakons record, hopefully when we get back from Europe. That’s a thing we are doing with The Mekons. It’s gonna be fucking stellar.
NN: Relative to that, what are the stresses inherent to touring? How do you deal with it?
JBB: I handle most of the tour organizing and business end of stuff, so I have to stay pretty clear headed on tour. So, sadly my tried and true way of drinking it all away is no longer an option. Now a days I’m always trying to find a pool. Swimming is the best mind calming solo activity ever.
CI: Janet is the mastermind of the organization. My job is much more complicated. I have to drink margaritas and figure out how to work the hotel TV.
NN: To get a little meta, I can imagine that you’ve done a lot of interviews. What are your favorite and least favorite types of questions and why?
JBB: My favorite interviews are when Catherine and I do them together. It doesn’t matter what the question is because we go so far off track and the poor interviewer can barely get a word in. We just devolve into nonsense that I personally find infinitely amusing.
CI: Three-way phone interview are normally pretty hilarious. I think we have one of those tomorrow actually.
NN: Having spent plenty of time in the Highlands, how do you feel about the recent changes to the neighborhood?
JBB: I haven’t lived in Louisville since 1983, but the one thing I can always count on when I visit is the out of time quality of the Mid-City Mall. Thinking about it now, Freakwater is kind of like the musical version of the Mid-City Mall. A timeless, yet always out of time, minimally popular destination, primarily inhabited by characters that appear to have just walked out of a Diane Arbus photo. We both have a magical staying power that belies our outward appearance.
CI: Ha! Most excellent! We should make a video in the Mid-City-Mall. Maybe a historical re-enactment of the traumatic Zayre shoplifting incident.
NN: Has there ever been a worse governor than Matt Bevin?
JBB: Well, Illinois has Rauner. He may not be the crazy evangelical shithole that Bevin is, but he is a crazy, elitist, union busting shithole. At least Bevin can’t be quoted as saying “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Wallace holds that special place. There are so many to chose from!
CI: It hurts my brain to conjure up a worse Governor than Matt Bevin. If you didn’t vote, fuck you! Obviously, fuck you if you voted for Bevin. I think that Louisiana just accepted the Medicaid expansion. Let’s all move to New Orleans when we lose our health insurance. So fucking sad.
NN: Have you ever been in a fist fight? If so, why? Did you win?
JBB: Nope. No real physical fights that I can recall. Although when I was about 7 and living in Florida a rather corpulent boy by the name of Bruce sat on me while I kicked and screamed until I agreed he had won the battle. That was traumatic. That, and he used to threaten me with his 2 pet dobermans Jack and Jill.
CI: No, not really. When I was twelve I called my brother a poet. He went insane and started beating my head against the wall. That was the only time we ever had a fight. I’m not sure who won.
NN: What non-musical things have you excited lately? Have you read, watched, eaten, or drank anything that’s gotten you riled up?
JBB: There is no shortage of things to get me riled up. There is an endless supply of horrifying things that make my mind explode daily: Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile, the Orlando Shooting, the bombings in Turkey, Iraq, Belgium, Trump, the rise of fascism, the progression toward a complete global corporate oligarchy, honor killings, the stoning of women. The list never fucking ends.
CI: I don’t really want to add anything to that list — except maybe that Pimm’s Blackberry & Elderflower cocktail we had in New Orleans. That was awesome. I will be having those everyday when I move down there for the health insurance.
NN: Last, but never least, what have you been listening to the most lately and why?
JBB: Honestly I don’t listen to music all that much. I am too busy pulling my hair out listening to the news, but last weekend I did listen to a whole lot of Karen Dalton. It’s her voice, yeah…her voice.