|set free from expectations
Ryan Henriquez - December 3, 2009
Langhorne Slim sings Pavement songs in the shower. I learned
this while drinking Yuengling with him at a Holiday Inn Express a few hours
before his sold-out show at The Bell House in Brooklyn.
Slim has been living out of a suitcase since the October release
of his third full-length LP Be Set Free on Brooklyn imprint Kemado Records,
home of O’Death, Dungen, and TK Webb & The Visions. Be Set Free is
Slim’s second critically-acclaimed release for Kemado, which he has supported
through incessant touring, including noteworthy appearances at the nation’s
premiere rock and folk festivals, two genres he’s been straddling his
near decade-long career. A Letterman appearance and song placements in acclaimed
indie films and a national commercial have only helped to lift his profile,
which should carry well into 2010 and beyond. After a quick European jaunt this
month, he’ll close out the year playing a few shows with kindred spirits
the Avett Brothers.
While Slim’s albums have shown steady growth and nuance
both in terms of songwriting and musicianship, his live show has never been
anything short of epic. The style, swagger, and stomp Slim brings to the stage
are electro-magnetically entrancing. While the songs themselves are stirring
and timeless (which doesn’t hurt), on stage Slim is something of a throwback.
He melds the panache of a vaudevillian travelling showman with the grit of a
rail-riding dust bowl folk balladeer, all filtered through the “everyman”
aesthetic of a 70’s-era Bruce Springsteen. But what lends Tom Waits-like
magic and authenticity to the whole affair is the beading sweat – the
old-fashioned, back-breaking work ethic that ensures Slim is going to connect
every time with each and every last person in the room – not just the
fans, but the band members, bar backs, and bathroom attendants to boot.
Like The Boss before him, Slim emigrated from the Northeast
suburbs to downtown Manhattan just as soon as he could. Leaving behind the small
town of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, Slim found his footing in the same East Village
open mic singer/songwriter scene that launched the careers of Nellie McKay,
Jaymay, and Jeffrey Lewis. Slim was eventually lured to the seedier side of
café culture, migrating a few blocks west to the risqué performance
art scene centered about the Bowery Poetry Club and its merry band of art star
revelers. Lean and scrappy, Slim found his honest, soulful lyrics and folk strum
resonating in the ears of both these disparate audiences, and soon anyone else
who stumbled upon him.
For Be Set Free, Slim and his band the War Eagles (bassist
Jeffrey Ratner and drummer Malachi DeLorenzo) swapped the bustle of New York
City for the more idyllic environs of the Pacific Northwest, and tapped Chris
Funk of Portland lit-rock stalwarts the Decemberists to produce. Slim in fact
hopes one day to call Portland “home,” if he can ever find it in
him to settle down, which may prove quixotic for a vagabond like Slim. Whether
he’s steamrolling you with his boot-stomping barroom brawlers, or leaving
you lump-throated pining for your true love with a heart-wrenching ballad, the
stage is where Slim belongs -- prancing across the floor, climbing the bass
drum guitar aloft, porkpie hat flying off every third song or so. Reeling you
When The Deli caught up with Slim in his hotel room last month,
he’d just stepped out of the shower, somehow looking no cleaner than when
he’d stepped in.
Recycling some socks?
So here we are at the Holiday Inn….
It’s good! Clean, dependable. It’s got a TV which
is nice. Oooh, the Phillies game is on.
Speaking of which, you sang “God Bless America”
this past summer during the 7th inning stretch of a Phillies game at Citizens
Bank Park. How did that come about?
We’d been asked to play the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
I’d been a volunteer there when I was 14 or 15 years old. One of my favorite
radio stations, WXPN, was involved with the Festival, and I got a call from
their program director: ‘Hey, would you be at all interested in singing
“God Bless America” at the Phillies game?’ I thought it was
prank. And when I realized it wasn’t, I got really scared. But then I
thought to myself, I might have children and grandchildren someday, and I would
like to take them to a Phillies game in some far off time and tell them, ‘Ya
know Grandpa sang at a Phillies game 150 years ago.’
Were you nervous?
I get nervous for my own shows, but this is a different thing.
We’d played Lollapalooza the night before, and I was nervous for that,
but this I was almost physically sick about. When you write your own music and
you’re performing it, you have a different handle on it. But this is singing
fuckin’ “God Bless America!” Wait a minute. That’s not
good. I really shouldn’t say “fuckin’ God Bless America.”
Oh well. So anyway, I get to the ballpark. My whole family is there, and I am
just a nervous wreck.
…and the nerves are getting worse with each passing
Well, but this is how it goes for me. It gets worse and worse
until the time I need to go on, and then for some reason I’m okay. If
only I could come to grips with this fact, then for the rest of my life I think
I would be a calmer individual. But so what happens on this particular sunny
day in Philadelphia is that the Phillies just start getting massacred. To make
matters worse, the home plate umpire ejects Shane Victorino, one of our best
players, who was playing centerfield when he got tossed. It was a completely
bizarre play, and the fans start going bananas. Screaming ‘WHAT THE FUCK?!’
and ‘YOU’RE A FUCKING IDIOT!’ at the home plate umpire.
That can’t be helping the nerves.
I’m pacing back-and-forth terrified. People are losing
their minds. And now it’s my time to go out there and sing. I hear ‘Ladies
and Gentlemen, WXPN presents Langhorne Slim!’ and the crowd just starts
in. ‘YOU FUCKIN’ SUCK! FUCK YOU ASSHOLE!’ And I’m thinking,
‘What can I do to calm these good people down?’ So I say, ‘EVERYBODY!”
– and I meant it with love – ‘IT’S GONNA BE OKAY.’
Oh, that’s a mistake. You’re not winning
them over with that.
What an idiot I am. In that moment, it was the stupidest thing
I could have said. I think people thought I was condescending, and people were,
well, you can call it ‘heckling,’ but it was something much, much
worse. It shook me, man. I watched it once on YouTube,
and I thought, ‘Wow, I don’t need THIS in my life. I don’t
EVER need to revisit this.’ [laughter]
Save that for the grandkids. Let them watch it.
Don’t get me wrong. It was great to sing it. Not that
I sang it great but I didn’t do it a disservice like Roseanne Barr. I
gave it what I could. But the Phillies fans were just in no mood for a song.
Well, Phillies fan famously booed Santa Claus too.
My grandparents called me the next day: “Oh you made
the newspaper! It says ‘Folk singer Langhorne Slim joins the joins the
ranks of Santa Claus and an injured Michael Irvin’….
I recently heard your song “Worries” in
a national commercial
for Travelers Insurance. With as hard as it’s become for a recording
artist to make a living, do you laugh off notions of “selling out”?
[Licensing] is not something I ever thought about growing
up just wanting to play music. When this opportunity came about, at first I
told the nice people that I work with I’m not interested. It made me feel
weird initially. But ultimately I liked the way they used the song and the way
they presented it – it felt a bit more artistic – and the commercial
sort of looks like a cool music video.
When I interviewed Billy McCarthy from the band Pela,
he said, ‘Whenever you hear one of your favorite bands get a song in a
commercial, rejoice, because that’s the sound of food in their refrigerator.’
It’s become easier for bands that are “cool”
to maintain their street cred and not be considered “sell outs.”
But it’s still surreal to be watching a Yankees game and all of a sudden
I hear my song. I don’t know how to describe the way I feel about it.
It’s definitely putting food in the refrigerator, that is for sure, but
it’s something that I never expected or wished for.
Was there a different thought process behind licensing
your song “Electric Love Letter” to the indie film Waitress in 2007?
Well, I didn’t license anything to Waitress. An old label
[Narnack Records] I used to work with did, without mentioning anything to me.
However, I’m very happy it is in the movie. My mom went to a film festival
in Philly and called me and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you have
a song in this movie?’ And I said ‘What are you talking about, Mom?!’
So that’s how I found out about it. But hey there are way nuttier things
out there. If that’s the worst thing that happens to me, then I’m
It’s also a way to get your music into new ear
More than I realized. I didn’t think people would see
a film or a commercial and then look online to find out who it is, but it seems
that some folks do just that.
Nick Drake experienced a renaissance after “Pink
Moon” was in that Volkswagen spot.
I hope he’s enjoyin’ it somewhere.
Yeah his is a sad story. What a talent.
From what I’ve read he was a little confused as to why
he didn’t catch on a little bit more.
You lived in NYC for many years, and got your start
in the Sidewalk Café open mic scene. What was that like?
It was great for my confidence. The first night I got up there,
thankfully it went well, and that was a real shot in the arm for me. So I started
going all the time, and through Sidewalk I met the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow
Players who took me out on my first national tour and overseas to England. Then
I sort of switched over to Bowery [Poetry Club]. I wanted to be “the songwriter”
guy at the avant garde performance art place. Don’t get me wrong –
I loved Sidewalk, but it was a lot of singer/songwriters getting up there with
their acoustic guitar, doing what I do. I guess I wanted to be with, you know,
The Art Stars crew?
Yeah, and the O’Debra Twins and Collective: Unconscious.
It was some far out shit. Tina Trachtenburg [of the Family Slideshow Players]
introduced me to that scene. When I walked in and saw some of the crazy stuff
going on, I thought, ‘OK, now I’m gonna get up there and play my
little love song?! No way.’ But the reception was good. When I was coming
up, even when I was still in school [at SUNY-Purchase], I was always playing
shows with hip-hop artists and heavier rock n’ roll bands. I’ve
always been an “across-the-board” kinda guy. To this day, I think
it’s a shame the way shows are booked. ‘This is an acoustic thing’
(gestures left) ‘this is a louder thing’ (gestures right), and
God forbid you mix it up. It’s ok! Our brains can handle these things!
So the new record, Be Set Free. I think you’ve
got a real classic on your hands.
You tapped Chris Funk of the Decemberists to produce.
How did that come about?
Over the last two years I’ve become really fond of Portland,
Oregon. I thought at this point I’d be living there, but that hasn’t
quite happened yet. I just feel good out there. I don’t know a better
way of puttin’ it. So for whatever reason I got into my brain that it
would be a good idea to make a record out there. I was talking to my friend
and booking agent [Kevin French of Paradigm] who also books the Decemberists.
He recommended Chris, got us together for drinks, and after meeting him I just
thought ‘Ok this is the dude.’ Of course Chris’s primary gig
is with the Decemberists, but I think [producing] is going to become a big thing
in his life.
Your last record was produced by Sam Kassirer, correct?
Yeah, Sam produced our last [self-titled, Kemado 2008] album
in his studio, and our first album [When The Sun’s Gone Down, Narnack
2005] was produced by Malachi [DeLorenzo] who is our drummer. Both Sam and Malachi
were in the recording sessions [for Be Set Free] and it was interesting to have
three producers in there at once. It’s amazing, but it can get a little
A lot of cooks in the kitchen?
A lot of cooks in the kitchen, but they’re all really
I think your vocals matured a lot on Be Set Free.
That was a big thing for me. I’ve often thought that
my voice is just stronger for some reason performing in front of an audience
– maybe it’s the crowd’s energy. But in the studio I’d
listen back to the tracks and think ‘Ya know, I’m a better singer
than this!’ A few people have said I’m not the greater singer on
this one either, but they’re wrong. I’m alright. [laughter] Might
not be the greatest, but I’m alright. But no, I felt like I sang on this
record, and that was important to me.
With the way you perform, are you ever worried about
your voice, in terms of protecting it?
I’m only worried about it when it’s bothering me.
I was read an interview recently with Journey’s
lead singer, Steve Perry. He pointed out that, while all the other musicians
in a band improve their skill the more the play – they develop calluses
and a better handle on their instruments – it’s the complete opposite
for the singer. For the singer, the more you use your instrument, the more you…
Well, now after this conversation, I’ve very worried,
Sorry, I was just curious if things like smoking cigarettes
Well, I’ve just quit smoking. I’ve been off the
smokes for almost two months. It’s my first time trying to quit.
How’s it going?
I’d love a cigarette right now. But I’m not going
to have one. So quitting helped, but also I’m not a trained vocalist,
and I’m sure the way I sing is probably not the right way of singing.
I’ve taught myself some techniques that work for me – I’m
sure somebody else could teach me a million more – but the nature of how
I sing, it’s been rough on my voice. I will lose my voice maybe once a
tour, and that’s not a lot of fun.
Was the finished product of Be Set Free what you set
out to make?
It doesn’t work like that for me. The ambition is just
to make a great record. I just try to write good songs and then hope for the
best. I thought I was going to make a more upbeat, “dance-ier” record,
but it just wasn’t what I was writing at the time. And [producer Chris]
Funk was great with that. He said, ‘Man, that [dance-ier] stuff -- it’s
not the shit that you’re writing. These are good songs let’s work
with these.’ But every time I’ve made a record, there is at least
one moment where I think to myself, ‘Is this the biggest piece of poop
ever?’ And it takes a little while, and then you realize ‘No, it’s
not the biggest piece. Hopefully it’s not even a small piece.’ [laughter]
The album feels a more textured and experimental than
your earlier releases.
Sometimes people who like your first record or your second
record won’t be that excited about you taking a departure on your third.
I hope people understand that these are natural changes. People who draw pictures,
or sculpt, or cook, or make music – you need to keep moving, or else you
You wrote a lot of Be Set Free in Northern California,
and then recorded it in Portland. Do you think these geographic locations found
their way onto the album?
No, but I’m sure that they did. I can’t tell. People
will often ask me about the “Pennsylvania influence” in my music,
and I just have no idea what that means. I’m just writing music. I happen
to live in the place. In New York I’d often hear, ‘This isn’t
very “New York” music.’ ‘Well, fuck you! I’m living
in New York. I’m writing this music. This is New York music!’ For
the songs on this record, I was living in a little house in Napa Valley, with
coyotes and shit in the back. It was a much-needed move and a drastic environmental
shift from New York City. I had time on my hands to write and a beautiful place
to do it in. But there were still days that I would come out onto the porch
and look at this amazing scenery – like Monet or one of those guys who’d
move to the French Alps to be inspired – and just think, ‘Well,
I’m depressed today. This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever
seen, and I can’t come up with anything on this guitar.’ [laughter]
So I’m sure it did influence or inspire something, but it wasn’t
tangible for me. I can’t tell.
You’d signed to the major label V2 Records [in
2006], and then that label went belly up shortly before they released your album.
What went down?
We were fortunate. We’d been on a label called Narnack
Records. And then we signed to V2, and that was a big step up. I mean, I don’t
mean….but yeah it was a big step. It felt good. And they put out an EP,
and about a month before the release of the album we got a phone call saying,
‘The label is no more. Here are the masters. Good luck.’
Wow. They just gave you the masters?
Oh yeah. So we were fortunate man. Some other bands -- their
records came out shortly before they found out [V2 was folding], and then those
records were lost, you know? It was a little tough for us because we weren’t
very well known. It wasn’t easy to find another home. It took time. But
you meet and trade stories with other bands, and you realize everyone’s
got such shit stories that ours doesn’t even compare. It’s hard
to stay calm and stay grounded and just do your thing and try to be happy. But
[with V2] it was ultimately a blessing in disguise. At the time it sucked and
it was scary, but then we got a really supportive label [Kemado] interested
that now puts out our records.
I would guess a smaller label like Kemado gives you
a bit more creative control?
That’s a bit of a misconception. We were only on V2 for
about 16 seconds, but in those 16 seconds, they weren’t saying ‘Wear
this,’ and ‘Play your music like that.’ It was certainly by
far the biggest “team” of people that I’ve ever been around
-- Narnack was 4 or 5 people Kemado is small too. When I first got signed to
V2, I remember sitting around a conference table full of people discussing what
my expectations were for the [album] release. I’d certainly never done
anything like that before. But it never got to the point where I felt ‘controlled.’
OK, so it’s time for the cliché desert
island questions. You’re on a desert island, and you can only bring with
you one album, one book, one movie, and one delivery menu for the restaurant
that’s going to feed you for the rest of your life. Go.
No woman. Nothing. So break it down for me. Start with
And you just want me to come up with these things?
Off the top of your head.
There’s nothing on the top of my head. The top of my
head is empty. It’s the lower part of my head that’s got all the
ideas. Alright. Album. We’ll do a double-disc Nina Simone Anthology.
That’s a lot of tunes at least.
Maybe I can meet some pirate or something that could burn me
some of his…I don’t know. I guess not. Okay, so what’s next?
Well, Malachi [DeLorenzo] has been reading this, and I’ve
started reading it and have been loving it, so I’ll say the Sammy Davis,
Jr. autobiography. It’s called Yes I Can. We’ll work with that on
That’s a lot of time with the Candy Man.
Yeah, well, that’s good!
Alright, so a movie.
Maybe The Godfather? Army of Darkness? It’s so easy to
second guess this shit.
And finally, delivery menu --from the restaurant that’s
going to feed you for the rest of your days.
Well, House of Vegetarian on Mott Street is one of my favorite
places, but I don’t think they deliver. If we can start getting them to
deliver, I’ll do that.
Are you a vegetarian?
Yep, for over fifteen years now.
Thanks for taking the time, Langhorne.
Thank YOU, man.