It's impossible to predict which songs my 5-year-old son will take a liking to. For a good while, a tune from country-music revivalists BR549 was on constant replay in the car, following two-week stands from the likes of Bruce Springsteen and the Waco Brothers. Recently it's been "Hand to Mouth," a cut off the 1998 debut from a guy with the rather unlikely (but real) name Django Haskins. "I'm a general of an army of clowns/We don't march in line, we just kind of run around/Our only weapon is our own ineptitude/But it seems to do," shares the second verse. I like the song because it has wit. My son likes it because, well, it has clowns. Plus, one shouldn't underestimate the importance of the yodeling chorus.
It's also impossible to predict which artists will be embraced by the record-buying/song-downloading public and soar to platinum heights, and which are destined to cruise below the radar. Take, for instance, Haskins. On that '98 album, Folding Stars, and its follow-up three years later, Laying Low and Inbetween (credited to Django and the Regulars), he repeatedly demonstrated the ability to write and deliver smart, catchy pop/rock songs. That may not look like much on paper--blame a lot of it on the laziness and genericness of the "smart, catchy pop/rock songs" description--but it's a skill that more than one platinum-seller has never bothered to develop.
I'm quite honestly amazed that I hadn't heard Haskins' music or at least read about him long before I caught a performance at Go! Studio's Room 4 this past December. With the World Wide Web and the 100 or so music mags out there, word spreads incredibly fast these days, yet I completely missed the boat. Could it be that there's just too much music out there now, to the point where some great stuff gets lost in the shuffle? And how do artists deal with that saturation and get themselves heard among the throng?
"Well, if you've been looking for my stuff and haven't found it, then yes, there is too much," offers Haskins with a laugh. But as he continues, it's apparent that he's pondered these questions before. "Sometimes it does seem like there is too much music out there, in the sense that the Internet made it very easy for anyone to post their music online, and it's hard at first to differentiate the good from the bad. But I think that things tend to happen via word of mouth and through persistence over a long period of time, and that narrows it down quite a bit."
Haskins--raised in Gainesville, Fla., and now based in Carrboro, with stops in China and New York City along the way--has been going at it for the required long period of time. Growing up in a musical family, he cut his teeth on jazz standards and '50s rock 'n' roll among other styles, and he even crossed paths with a local guy who lent his name to a beat. "I remember meeting Bo Diddley when I was about 12 and was just starting to play guitar," recounts Haskins. "He signed my album, writing down his number and saying, 'You give me a call and come out to the house sometime, young man.' By the time I finally got the courage to call, he had completely forgotten who I was. Opportunity has a limited shelf life."
A decade or so later, Haskins did take advantage of a chance to live in China for a year and teach English. But other than the Tom Waits and Replacements CDs that he brought with him and a pirated copy of Morrissey's Vauxhall and I that he scored later, Haskins was cut off from the music he was accustomed to. "The domestic pop music was pretty awful," he recalls. "It was still heavily influenced by Cultural Revolution-era patriotic marches, mixed in with the syrupy production of Hong Kong power ballads, all reverb and fake strings and flag-waving. So being there took me completely out of what was happening over here." It was a circumstance that Haskins decided to embrace as a learning experience. "I performed regularly in a couple of pubs over there, and the fact that most of the audience didn't speak English meant that the songs succeeded or failed pretty much on their rhythmic and melodic merit. That was a great lesson for me."
A lesson well-applied, as even a cursory listen to Folding Stars or Laying Low reveals. The latter's "Dumbed Down" careens and accosts like angry young Joe Jackson, and throughout both there are moments that bring to mind the craftsman's craftsman, Elvis Costello. Yeah, whenever a music writer hears any artist who creates intelligent, hooky, finely detailed songs, said writer is required to name-drop Elvis Costello.
"That's true, isn't it?" says Haskins when informed of this rule. "It's like a chart: smart lyrics equals Elvis Costello. Melodic equals Beatlesque. Falsetto equals Jeff Buckley. Vintage synth equals Weezer." But Haskins has indeed listened to his fair share of Costello and Jackson, although he's quick to add, "More than that, I really love the '60s soul, jazz standards, and Dylan, Kinks and Beatles records that were the building blocks of those late '70s overeducated 'post-punk' guys." He also makes a point of adding to the inspiration list Johnny Cash, '70s Stevie Wonder, Tonight's the Night-era Neil Young, Paul Westerberg, Springsteen's Nebraska, Argentinian tango master Astor Piazzolla, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and the Louvin Brothers. (You have to ask yourself, How did this guy last a year in China without his records?)
That breadth is reflected in Haskins' brand new overeasysmokemachine, an adventurous album that carves out its own space between Folding Stars' relative calm and Laying Low's jangle 'n' roll. (On March 26, Haskins returns to Room 4 for a solo show to celebrate the release of overeasysmokemachine.)
"The new one is kind of a mongrel," he explains. "There are still some rocking tracks and a few solo acoustic ones. Overall, I'd say it's a more atmospheric record than the previous ones, in the sense that we went out on a limb a bit more, musically. We tried not to be afraid to make a more diverse record. I mean, we all love Revolver and The White Album, and it doesn't get much more varied than that."
Note to self: Play "And Your Bird Can Sing" in the car tomorrow.