Ringwear Rock: An Interview with Jeffrey Alexander of The Heavy Lidders

If you’ve been a fan of modern underground psychedelic music within the last 20 or so years, chances are you’ve come across at least one band or project Jeffrey Alexander had a hand in. Whether it be the kosmische jams of Dire Wolves Just Exactly Perfect Sisters Band, or the elemental freak folk of Black Forest/Black Sea or the obscure experimentations of Jackie-o-Motherfucker, Alexander never seems to run out of creative steam. He’s always expanding his sonic palette and finding new musical directions to explore.

His latest band, Jeffrey Alexander and The Heavy Lidders, is a wildly exciting new avenue to for the prolific musician, with members of Elkhorn, Sunwatchers and Kohoutek helping to guide the ship. We recently spoke to Alexander about the new band, their upcoming stellar release on Arrowhawk Records (due to come out on August 6th) and the story behind what might just be this writer’s new favorite Grateful Dead cover. Check it out:

RCU: What’s the history of The Heavy Lidders? How did the band initially form?

JA: It sort of started as an offhand text thread that I had with Jesse Shepherd, from Elkhorn, while I was living in the Mission in San Francisco. I was walking to work, and he was texting me. I mentioned that I was going to be relocating to Philadelphia, and he was like, “Oh, well, you know we should get something going.” And I was like, okay.He was all in. he even was just like, “whatever you want to do, I’ll be there.” I was like, okay. I was in California for many years, but I moved back East for family reasons. It was only meant to be for a short time, but then, I got settled in here a little bit and then obviously COVID happened. It was like, everything’s different, and I think I’m going to be here for a while. So when we started, I started playing with these guys and at first it was just Jessie [Sheppard] and Scott [Verrastro] on bass and drums, respectively. Then we were adding different people, just sort of randomly, like we played one show in New York with Jeff Tobias from Sunwatchers on sax.

Then we played one show with Drew [Gardner], also from Elkhorn on second guitar. That really changed things for me. It opened things up a lot because I love not being the only one on guitar. . . . to be able to like, not play all the time and to be much looser and freer. That’s when I really started singing, because I can’t, you know, I can’t sing and play guitar at the same time. Who can do that? Also around the same time, I got into singing again and you know, I’m not a singer by any means. I think the album will attest to that, but I was inspired to get back into singing from Taralie Peterson of Spires That in the Sunset Rise.

I just liked that outlet and I haven’t toyed with singing [much] since like 20 years ago, but I never really pursued it. I did one or two songs on my first Feeding Tube LP a couple of years ago that I sang on. So then this band was initially meant to perform music from that record live. Then as we played, we developed more songs and I wrote more songs and then we just put this whole record together. I mean, it was initially just meant to be like a project thing, but I think it’s a band now. It definitely is,

RCU: So I know the band is still so new for you, but how do you differentiate them in your mind? When you come up with a song or a guitar lick, is there anything in your mind that tells you, “Okay, this is great for The Heavy Lidders,” or “This would be great for Dire Wolves?”

JA: Well, that’s, that’s an easy one, because Dire Wolves is almost entirely spontaneous. You know, there might be like a riff, not usually from me, but Brian might have like a bass riff or maybe we’ll talk about something and Sheila might say like, “Oh, let’s play something that sounds like we’re like walking along a cliff at night and we dive in or something, you know what I mean?” Like we’ll just describe a sort of a feeling and then we’ll just make stuff up. Granted, once we have a recording, we might return to it and that’s how you get a song because it’s like, oh, this was on a record. We could approximate how we got to that. We’ll play it live, but it might have similar qualities or a similar riff to something that we’ve done before, but it’s never going to land in the same place. Most of the time we’re calling it a spontaneous composition, like it was just free music, like free jazz, but in a rock context. The Heavy Lidders is definitely song-oriented. I mean, this album that’s coming out on Arrowhawk is is entirely songs. It’s all singing. Then there’s even a couple of songs that don’t even have guitar solos. There are songs on this record that are like verse-chorus-verse and that’s it. There’s no vamping. Jesse, especially,made fun of me. He’s like, “Hey, I didn’t know when we were going to play together that you were going to, like, have me learn stuff.” [Laughs] It’s a totally different outlet for me.

RCU: That’s cool. So is that refreshing for you then, or perhaps a creative challenge? How do you view that?

JA: It’s something that I used to do years and years ago. I’ve been in bands that played songs. It’s really nice now because I wasn’t really comfortable with my guitar playing or my songs for years and years. So moving into more improvisational stuff and free music over the last, 10 or 15 years has made me more confident. I feel like I’m not a great musician, but I have a sound. I have my own sound and I love it. If a lot of people dig it, or if a lot of people don’t dig it, that’s cool too, but I’m in a zone that I’m really comfortable with. Now that I can take that kind of understanding and everything that I can appreciate about that comfortable zone, and then apply it back to writing songs. It’s really fun because I never used to have so much fun when I wrote songs. I mean, I used to be in a folk band that played like traditional stuff and it was always cool for sure, but it was always. . . the takeaway for me was that it was very rigid.

RCU: So that rolls right into the next question. So do you approach your playing at all differently while you’re playing in the Lidders, or is it still just all the same in your head? You have your own sound, but are you trying to branch out into a slightly different sound on this record?

JA: I think it’s the same sound. I mean, it’s kind of the same way that I used to play when I was in Black Forest/Black Sea or Dire Wolves, but I feel like after all these years, the way I play is the way I play. I’ve always played this way. I’m at the point now where I don’t wanna have to think about it, which is great. I don’t have to think like, oh, where am I going to put my hands? I just go. I just go with a feeling and I love to play with my eyes closed because I just want to get lost in the music.

RCU: I think I read that you pretty much let every other member of the band just sort of do their own things. Did you allow them total creative freedom and did they improvise a lot throughout the record, or was it sort of more planned out and with a lot of different takes, etc.?

JA: We did a few takes of each song. Not a lot. I don’t want to belabor a song when we’re in the studio. We did a couple takes of a few songs just to really nail something, but I like the sloppiness. I mean, that’s part of the sound for me. There’s just this sort of lazy, hazy kind of vibe. Like if the first take has a good feeling, then I’m going to go with it. Even if there are mistakes, it doesn’t matter. Like I said, we redid a few songs, but not a lot of them. We just let go.

Within the framework of the chord changes, I want it to be kind of tight on those because, you know, it’s a song. So I wanted to make sure that we’re hitting the changes in the same chord. But aside from that, it was pretty free. Obviously there’s a fair bit of Drew soloing on the album and he’s obviously making those up. It was just really cool. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to get some more people to add some stuff because we recorded the basic tracks directly before things got locked down last year. It was actually Leap Day. It was February 29th that we went into the studio. So obviously all of the overdubs and all of the mixing had to be done remotely, which was tough, and that’s another reason that Jeff Tobias isn’t on the record. He was going to be, you know, we planned on a couple of tracks, but once the pandemic took hold everything changed, obviously. 

To answer your initial question the direction was very loose. I’d be like, okay, here’s a song we’re going to do, with a couple verses, here’s the chords for that, a couple of courses, here’s the chords for that. And then, you know, one, two, three go. Jesse is obviously very well known for being a 12-string acoustic guitarist, but years ago he was primarily a bass player. He has a lot of experience and you can give even the most skeletal chord changes, and then he’ll come up with some pretty sweet baselines on the fly, which is great. Drew is also obviously really well known in Elkhorn for being an amazing electric guitarist, but years ago, he was primarily a jazz drummer and a vibraphonist. He can just knock that shit out. He did a lot of vibraphone on the record and it’s great.

RCU: The band is a total supergroup, especially with all the guest appearances. How did you know exactly who to invite into the recordings and what sort of qualities were you searching for when you chose members/collaborators?

JA: So the core group is Jesse, Drew, Scott and myself and that remains true. The Heavy Lidders is basically that four piece, but with all of these guest spots like Rosali [Middleman], Pat [Gubler], Ryan [Jewell} and Marissa [Nadler]. Those were all done remotely. So it was a little odd, you know, just like sending them files and then having them sending back files. I chose them specifically for their qualities. It was song by song. It’s what I felt the song needed. Like with Pat, I was like, this song needs something, something that sounds like a Hammond organ that’s got this kind of Blonde On Blonde, kind of an Al Kooper type vibe. Who do we know that can do that? I just emailed Pat and he was like, “hm yeah, I can do that.” It was very loose. 

Then with Marissa Nadler, we’ve been friends for. . . I don’t even know 20 years, 25 years? We’ve always talked about collaborating, but we never have. I just wrote her and I was like, I’m working on this thing,and this one song, it’s a Dead cover, but it could really use a ghostly second vocal. It’s something really, really beautiful and really, really on pitch because my singing is not like that. Marissa, I mean, she’s a pro. She is a shit-hot singer. Then she wrote me back and she was like, “I would love to do it.” Then she’s like, “Oh, it’s a Dead cover. Great. I would love to.” She was then like, “But I don’t want to sing all the time. I just want to sing whenever I feel like it.” And I’m like, that’s great! So she just did that. She sent me a few takes and I sort of mixed a little bit. I think it was just beautiful. My voice is. . . I mean, it’s not on point, but it’s charming. I have a charming quality, I would say, but then mixing it with a singer like Marissa or with Rosali, it just ties it together. It makes things work in the bigger picture, which I really appreciate.

RCU: Every guest musician on this record is perfect. They nailed their part completely. It really feels like each artist was very carefully chosen, like you knew their strengths and they brought their A game.

Photo by Jesse Sheppard

JA: My wife, Miriam, who was also my partner in Black Forest/Black Sea, she produced this record with me. So throughout the mixing process with Jeff Zeigler remotely. . . We would every couple of days get an email dump of new mixes or whatever, and then Miriam and I would listen to them together, and then she would take notes. Her ear is absolutely spectacular. She would be like, “You know, this song needs this, this song needs that.” I’d be like, I totally agree. 

So they are all of our friends, but we also picked people that we knew could do certain things. You nailed it exactly. We wanted to fit the song. In fact, Miriam, when she first heard, “Audubon Trooper,” and it has this really raunchy guitar solo that I play throughout the entire song. It’s long, and it’s probably like the most Dire Wolves-ish thing on the record. When she first heard it, she was like, “Jeffrey, this is awesome. I didn’t know you had this in you.” But then, she was like, “You know what? This mix has a conga-sized hole in it.” And I’m like, what? She’s like, “You need congas.” Then I’m like, I don’t know anybody who plays congas. And, and then I thought about it. So then I called up Ryan Jewell. And he’s like, “I don’t have congas. I’ve been meaning to buy them, but I don’t have them right now, but you know what I do have, I have some hand drums and some tablas I could make this work.” Yeah, basically he was filling the conga-sized hole in the mix. Because I had no idea what to think about that. Right? She was going for this like kind of Santana vibe, you know,

RCU: Yeah I can hear that.

JA: I don’t know. It was cool. I mean, when he emailed me back a few days later and he’s like, “Let me know what you think of this. I’m not sure.” We put it in and I didn’t tell Miriam. I just played the new mix while she was in the room and she’s like, “Oh, you did it.”

RCU: So did anything in particular help to inspire the particular sound or vibe on this album?

JA: I wanted it to sound like a classic folk rock album. When we did all the basic tracks with Jeff Zeigler in Philadelphia in his studio, and, that was all done electric. I also had the opportunity to like, play like a bunch of great guitars that he has there in the studio. So one song has me on a 12-string electric that he has to give it this Byrds-y kind of REM-type jangle sound. When I got back home, I realized that I would have to be doing remote overdubs, because that was never the plan, we were supposed to go back to the studio, this was only one day in the studio. There was supposed to be another one. But anyway, for the first song, for example, I completely removed my guitar part and replaced it with an acoustic. I just strummed an acoustic guitar at home in its place. I just wanted to give it that kind of brown corduroy kind of, rusty nails on the wall kind of sound. I think we got there. I mean, there are some songs on the album that are like, just basically pop songs, you know. Like indie pop, which is odd because I was in an indie rock band in the nineties, but I have not gone back there since.

RCU: That’s a good point. It does kind of have that vibe mixed into like a private press, seventies folk rock vibe, which I love.

JA: Yeah, oh, perfect. Thank you.

RCU: Yeah. I could practically visualize the dust and the ringwear on the album sleeve before even seeing it in person.

JA: Oh I love that, I love it!

RCU: It was like, yep. That’s the vibe. Ringwear Rock.

JA: [laughs] Yes, let’s call it Ringwear Rock. That’s what I want. That’s good.

RCU: Okay. Perfect. Feel free to use that! That’s awesome. So the track “Herb of Grace” first appeared as an acoustic track on the “For a Better Tomorrow” compilation from Garden Portal. What made you want to pull it back out and put a full band behind it?

JA: Actually, it was the other way around. I didn’t pull it back out. For this Heavy Lidders album, I just made a very off the cuff demo tape, literally on a cassette. On a Walkman cassette on my dining room table. It was just rough and ready. Then, when Michael [Potter] of Garden Portal asked me to do something on his comp, I didn’t have anything, but I wanted to participate, so I asked him for some more time and he didn’t really have time, which I get. Then he was like, “Do you have any demos?” I said, “Well, I have this thing that I just recorded for my band to learn the chords. It’s literally on a Dictaphone cassette and it’s not great. There’s tempo issues and it’s just demo.” Then he was like, “Perfect. I love it. Let’s do it!” So the only reason I did it was because I wanted to be a part of his compilation because I think it was a really beautiful collection and for a great cause. The album version is more of the definitive thing.

RCU: So back to the Dead cover, “Black Peter,” which I have to say, this might be my favorite Dead cover right now. It’s kind of a deep cut in a way, and the sheer amount of soul that you put into the recording, one gets the feeling that this song really means a lot to you. So I was just curious, what is your connection to this “Black Peter?” What does it mean to you?

JA: Well, I mean, the easy answer is, first and foremost, I’m a huge Deadhead. That was an enormous part of my upbringing. I followed them around for years and I was able to see Jerry play, I don’t even know, more than a hundred times live. That was always one of my favorite songs as a touring Deadhead. So that’s the short answer. I was just always really connected with it. I guess the other thing is, to be quite honest and brutally honest, I’m an old guy now. I just turned 53, I have two kids who are collectively aged under 10. There’s been a lot of feelings of mortality and an understanding that they’re going to have a lot of life after me, hopefully. So, you know, a deathbed ballad on the album doesn’t seem too out of place to me.

RCU: So what’s next for the Lidders and what else do you have planned in the next few months on your own or in other various projects?

JA: So The Heavy Lidders has this album coming out in August on Arrowhawk, which I’m really, really pleased about. Like I said, it’s our song album and we’re doing a follow-up album in November on Centripetal Force in the U S and Cardinal Fuzz in the UK. That is more of a jam record. It’ll be four long pieces, and only one has vocals. 

Then for Dire Wolves. We have not announced it yet, but we are going to play the Milwaukee Psych Fest. This will be our first show since Copenhagen, Denmark in 2019. I mean, I haven’t even seen those guys since Copenhagen. One other project I should mention is that also during COVID, especially last year when we were still like washing our groceries and not going anywhere, I started a long-distance recording project with Ashley Paul. She’s an experimental composer, and works with electronics and jazz. She’s American, but she’s been in England for more than a decade, but we used to live in a house together in Providence many years ago. So we reconnected and we recorded a bunch of stuff back and forth as a duo. So we have a record coming out. It’s simply called Ashley Paul and Jeffrey Alexander. That’s going to be at the end of this year on the Astral Spirits label.

RCU: That’s awesome. Awesome. Great to hear the full plate for the rest of the year.

Big thanks to Jeffrey for taking the time to speak with us. The debut full-length Heavy Lidders album can be preordered here ahead of its August 6th release.

*Top photo by Eugene Alexander.

-KH


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Published by Record Crates United

Keith Hadad, the creator and manager of RCU, has been a contributing writer to Elmore Magazine and Thewaster.com and maintains a regular column, “Keith Hadad’s Choice,” in Blicker magazine. His writing has also appeared in the Smithsonian Folkways' Guest Blog and the Optical Sounds Fanzine. Also, please check out the blog's super-active Instagram account, @recordcratesunited for daily blurb-styled music reviews.

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