Step Right Up: The DeSoto Caucus
“And you meet some very real people there to whom your craft is making a difference, not just to their current mood or something, but to their sanity and survival! You get to travel and go places you never would have found on your own or with your school or whatever. And you’re being celebrated for being yourself, doing exactly what YOU do.”
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Frontman Anders Pedersen sings “I take on the foreseen / and I dream of rolling streams” beneath the reverb-drenched electric guitar tones of “Fire Sale” on The Desoto Caucus’s latest piece de resistance, entitled “Offramp Rodeo”, evoking the spirit of Townes Van Zandt and the American West. The brooding folk opus is closer to a road trip or soul journey as the song’s trajectory maps the heart of americana where traditional and contemporary sounds are effortlessly interwoven. Pedersen’s baritone melts wonderfully beneath the soothing rhythms of Dombernowsky’s drums and the seductive bass groove of Thøger T. Lund. “Fire Sale” conveys the bold spirit of “Offramp Rodeo” as the Danish quartet unleash a formidable collection of indispensable, dust-filled explorations. As the year comes to a close, the Danish foursome’s latest record is most certainly one of those overlooked albums of the year.
The DeSoto Caucus are Anders Pedersen (lead vocals, guitars), Peter Dombernowsky (drums, percussion), Nikolas Heyman (vocals, guitar, bass, keys), Thøger T. Lund (vocals, upright bass, clarinet & piano) and Henrik Poulsen on bass. The gifted musicians are better known as the more recent incarnation of Howe Gelb’s awe-inspiring Giant Sand – exploring the American musical heritage these past ten years – following in the wings of previous Giant Sand rhythm section of Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino. The seeds were sewn during the Spring of 2003 when Gelb visited the Danish city of Aarhus and remained there to record his solo record “The Listener”. Lund, Dombernowsky and Pederson, among a bunch of other local musicians were invited to take part in the recording sessions for “The Listener”. A string of compelling releases later, the Danish musicians would prove to be a trusted sonic canvas for Gelb’s visionary masterworks, akin to The Band’s Robertson, Helm and Danko serving Bob Dylan’s beguiling artistic creations.
The DeSoto Caucus’s debut record “Elite Continental Custom Club”, released in 2008, was recorded in the legendary Aarhus studio Feedback Recording. The recording sessions took place in the interim of Gelb’s gospel opus “’Sno Angel Like You”. Having time on their hands (for once), The DeoSoto Caucus was born. This album is full of intriguing arrangements and the instrumentation of horns, keys, violin, vibes creates a gypsy infused jazz odyssey that is reminiscent of The Friends Of Dean Martinez – the timeless sound of Tucson, Arizona, it seems, is never far away.
For the eagerly awaited follow-up, the band wanted to make everything count. It is clear upon listening to the Danish troupe’s sophomore record that each song is the sound of a band at the peak of their powers. The recording sessions took place during the down-time of Giant Sand’s “Tucson” tour, recorded primarily in Heyman’s Stablesounds in the Northern Danish countryside. The spark of spontaneity and masterful songcraft radiates throughout “Offramp Rodeo” encompassing the sounds of M. Ward, Granddaddy, Sparklehorse and Howe Gelb. Much in the same way as Giant Sand, the record’s shimmering quality lies in the aesthetics thus created. Happenstance, in a word.
“All alone in a dense fog when the rain starts” is the opening lyric to “Here’s One” – an endearing lo-fi pop gem – that casts the ideal backdrop for Pederson and co.’s unique blend of absorbing, bitter-sweet tales.
Interview with Anders Pedersen, The DeSoto Caucus.
Congratulations on the new album, “Offramp Rodeo”. I love the lo-fi feel to it, the melodies remind me of Grandaddy and M. Ward. The arrangements are immaculate, I love how there are so many intricate layers embedded in the detail of every song. Please discuss the space and time this album blossomed from?
AP: The album was done over a year or so in Nikolaj’s studio Stable Sounds in the Northeastern corner of the country. When you walk the hills there you overlook Skagerrak. It’s a pretty remote place, and the studio is basically heated by fireplaces and tube amps. When we set off to start the album, the first thing we did was to eat well, have drinks handy, and then talk about the reasons for even recording music when there is so much out there….discussing how albums should make a difference, and obviously, discussing what that meant and what albums we thought did make a difference. PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake” had just come out, and knowing John Parish it was obvious how those guys must have been aware not to waste anyones time with un-necessary sounds and songs without significance. We decided to go ahead and make the record, but make everything count. And not settle with any “that works alright”.
When it comes to the guys you mention, Matt Ward is a friend of ours that we were all fans of before we got to know and play with him, and his aesthetics are related to ours, I guess. Same with Jason Lyttle and Grandaddy. But it’s funny to think of where melodies come from, and how guys that grow up under different circumstances in different parts of the world come up with familiar melodies. My best guess is we’re all third generation US popular culture, all grew up with the same records, comics, and movies. Even our parents did. For the arrangements we didn’t want an over-produced smooth album, and ended up treading very carefully because we liked the raw feel of the basic takes and the cue vocal, which is also what you hear on most of the tracks. Some songs we would add a lot of stuff to, just to peel it off again during the final mixes. We also found it very inspirational to lay down basic tracks with say, just an African drum and vocal, adding organ and guitar, before adding the bass last and leaving it at that. Trying not to fall into too much automation of how things are usually done. And of course eating and drinking well was a big part of the work routine. Like keeping the fire going.
Album closer “Firesale” is my current favourite. The many verses on the song transports me to Dylan’s “Desolation Row” or “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”. Please talk me through this song and its construction? How quick did the words appear to you?
AP: Nikolaj had the melody line, but felt it needed something, maybe a chorus or something to take it out of its loop, but driving to the studio one day by myself when the others were already there, I started to enjoy that loopiness, almost like a meditation or something. A had a tape of Nikolaj humming the melody that I kept rewinding, and at some point during that drive it was as if I started hearing single words and names in there. Santa Fe was one of them, and driving as I was, I decided it should be a road movie with a lot of verses, like some of the trippier Dylan or Townes Van Zandt songs. We like to think of ourselves as European explorers in the American musical heritage, hence the DeSoto name, so I thought this road movie should be like a modern-day “DeSoto trail”, the route Hernando de Soto travelled upon discovering the south-eastern states in the early 1500’s. My favorite road movies tend to deal with soul journeys of some sort, so to me it became a story about a guy running from something, surrendering to greater powers, maybe the nature, experiencing something that clarifies matters, before he finally tries to reconcile with what ever he’s running from. I got really in to the plot and I guess it was a bit like writing a novel or a script. At least that’s how I felt as I was doing “research”, googling places I imagined the narrator visiting, and stumbling on amazing locations like the Devil’s Inkwell, for instance.
The four members of The DeSoto Caucus (before DeSoto Caucus was born!) and a bunch of other local musicians in Aarhus, Denmark were invited to take part in the recording of Howe Gelb’s “The Listener” record. This was ten years ago. Please take me back to this time and working with Howe for the first time? It must have been a fulfilling experience. I think this particular record is one of the strongest of Howe Gelb’s solo records—I love the European feel that radiates throughout.
AP: When the word started going round that Howe Gelb was in town, some of us got pretty excited….both Thøger (GS bass player, sings and plays all sorts in the DC) my girlfriend (Danish singer and songwriter Marie Frank) and myself had been fans of Giant Sand since the early/mid ‘90s, and had all been to shows that had left strong impressions on us. Howe’s slightly anarchistic approach, more like that of the improvisational jazz player than of your classic front guy in a rock band, was a bit of a revelation. When people now talk of how incredible it is that you can follow Howe’s every move and whim on stage and in the studio, I believe it’s also a matter of his always insisting on not arranging much….you know, we never had a setlist before the Giant Giant Sand started happening and we’re so many people on stage playing that guidelines became significant. And even now there’s always an element of improvisation that’s very important. And for us younger, disciplined, Danish musicians the aesthetics of happenstance have become a way of life almost.
Meeting Howe, taken on the road, and being trusted with some of the best songs I can imagine definitely changed the course of our professional life. Tapping in to such a rich source of wordplay and going on stage night after night with a guy who seriously challenges the nature of rock is incredibly inspirational and educational. You grow up loving music so much you wanna be with it all the time and learn that you must practise and study in order to do that. You slide in to a system of highly trained, rule abiding, correct musicianship, and then one day a guy appears at the back door and introduce you to a different world behind the building, in the alleyways and backyards and basements. And you meet some very real people there to whom your craft is making a difference, not just to their current mood or something, but to their sanity and survival! You get to travel and go places you never would have found on your own or with your school or whatever. And you’re being celebrated for being yourself, doing exactly what YOU do.And in terms of Howe hooking up with us Danes, I guess we do go about the traditional American music tradition in a slightly different way, all though we all grew up on Hazelwood, Dylan, The Band, Billie Holiday, old blues records, Hollywood and Donald Duck and so on.
I am very interested to gain an insight into the inspiration that you draw from the places of Arizona and Aarhus? It feels that the spirit of both Europe and the desert heat and vast plains of Arizona are deeply rooted in your music.
AP: I guess the nature and folk music of the place you grow up is something you’re not always aware of, but something that will show up in any artistic expression. I will say that I at least feel an influence from nature…the light, the long dark winters are significant to all Northerners. Arizona, and Tucson in particular has become a second home for us, Thøger even moved there and has a family there now. Needless to say the country has left a huge impression on us…as has the culture, maybe more significantly so because of our Scandinavian upbringing…the USA basically still baffles us. At the same time we all love the free-flowing feel of it as a contrast to the very well-ordered Danish society.
When did the members of The DeSoto Caucus first meet? What were the records you all shared a common affinity with?
AP: Thøger and I had a short-lived trio with my girlfriend playing Gram Parsons songs. Nikolaj and Peter went to the music academy together and had a band called Western Stars that is worth checking out. They did two great albums. Peter and I played in a local band together where he was the percussionist…..actually that’s what he really is…also teaches percussion at the academy now. But it was in Giant Sand we all got together. And at some point Howe started asking about our plans…we had none. playing with him was the best we could think of. But he insisted that we had to get something going because he wouldn’t always be around to provide songs and shows. That seemed pretty fatalistic to guys in their twenties, but it got me started on writing in English (I used to write for a band I had that played some sort of Danish folk-beat).When we started playing there was a shared affinity for some older Danish stuff, and then “Lee & Nancy” by Hazelwood and Sinatra, Lambchop, Mark Ribot’s stuff, Buena Vista Social Club, and the record Ry Cooder did with Manuel Galban called “Sinuendo”, anything Gillian Welch was part of, also dug Lucinda Williams (who turned out to be an old friend of Howe’s) and then Bob Marley’s “Survival” record was and is very dear to us!
As members of Giant Sand — and more recently, Giant Giant Sand — you have been at the forefront of traditional and contemporary American music. What are your favourite recording sessions you have had with Giant Sand? Is there one particular album you feel most proud of?
AP: The Listener is an album with a great atmosphere oozing from it, reflecting a dwelling on hot climate and possibly inspired somewhat by the aftermath of Buena Vista Social Club that we all enjoyed and heard a lot at the time.
All Over The Map has incredible songs, but as we recorded it right after touring a lot with “The Listener” the band was taken by surprise when Howe announced that it was going to be a punk-rock record (the lineup was percussion, upright bass, acoustic guitar/piano and mandolin/lapsteel). Being in the studio with John Parish was very inspirational, and I think the album will stand out further in hindsight.
The album that captures the “Danish” Giant Sand best I guess is “Blurry Blue Mountain”. Recorded live in the studio, pretty much, all the arrangements are based on the live format and some even on jams.
Describe for me please Wavelab Studios in Tucson? What is it about the place that makes for such a special sound?
AP: Well…..first off people make the main difference. Climate matters too. Then Wavelab is one big room, the engineer sits in the same room every one else does, that matters a lot.
Will there be a European tour for The DeSoto Caucus?
AP: We play the Orange blossom Special festival in Beverungen, Germany on Sunday May 19th and start European tour October 23rd in Berlin. No UK dates as of now, but we’ll be there soon, I hope!
What albums are you listening to most these days?
AP: “Total Dust” by Dusted, Bombino’s “Nomad” record that Dan Auerbach produced, Nick Cave’s recent Bad Seeds record.