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Mixtape: D. Charles Speer & the Helix

by Luke Carr

In the latest edition of Bomb’s mixtape series, D. Charles Speer and the Helix’s David Shuford lets us in on some of his favorite Youtube cuts, with artists ranging from ’60s Honky Tonk pop gold to postmodern experimental sound art. Shuford also answers questions about his youth, creative process and the New (now kind of old) Weird America.

The Helix in a lighter mood. Photo by David J. Cavallo.

In the latest edition of Bomb’s Mixtape series, D. Charles Speer and the Helix’s David Shuford lets us in on some of his favorite Youtube cuts, with artists ranging from ’60s Honky Tonk pop gold to postmodern experimental sound art. Helix is the current, fleshed out project from Shuford, who writes and records independently under the D. Charles Speer moniker. Aside from a decade’s worth of home recordings, Shuford has album releases under his belt with the No-Neck Blues Band and three previous D. Charles Speer & the Helix records, (one culled from sessions with the late American folk drone legend Jack Rose). Shuford (as D. Charles Speer) also has new a solo record of droning Greek folk freakouts entitled Arghiledes out now on Thrill Jockey. Leaving the Commonwealth (Thrill Jockey, 2011), the Helix’s latest effort, hones in on their twangy, sonic cacophony while Shuford spins a lyrically dense web of longer, narrative works and researched “history” songs. Before sharing his mix, Shuford answers questions about his youth, his creative process and the New Weird America.

Luke Carr What was growing up in Atlanta like? Would you say that geography is a profound factor sonically? Or is composition ultimately more innate than that?

Dave Shuford Atlanta was a great place for a kid to grow up, the endless trees and hills made for plenty of self reliant outdoor entertainment. I had a pretty typical middle class upbringing, I was fortunate to go to some excellent public schools. Those schools were very diverse and I was thankful to have been exposed to kids from a wide range of backgrounds. I got way into rap (before it was hip-hop) like UTFO, Grandmaster Flash, Roxanne Shante, Whodini, Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick when I was in elementary school. But that was not my destiny creatively. Whereas my old school mate from middle school Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000) did pretty well in that realm. I remember playing some Black Flag on my headphones for him in a student council meeting. He was into it. I feel that family and friends more than geography shape the inner ear at first and then intellectual curiosity then takes over.

LC Can you trace your artistic roots (in D. Charles Speer as well as your other projects) to any early musical memories?

DS I definitely recall being into the Waylon and Willie records that were around the house, the Urban Cowboy boom really pushed that type of music to popular attention about the time that my first memories were being formed. But my granddad and my dad liked all sorts of music, from Ray Price, Bill Monroe, Otis Redding, Blind Faith & Irma Thomas to Rachmaninoff, Grieg, Jessye Norman & Pavarotti. On my mom’s side of the family, Greek music of the ’50s and ’60s—like Kazantzidis, Bithikotsis, and Poly Panou—was a constant at all holiday events. However I think the first LP I bought was ZZ Top’s Eliminator.

LC Can you describe your creative process? When composing, is there a formula you return to or do consciously emulate, or chase maybe, a certain sound?

DS Every song is a bit different, sometimes the lyrics come first, or a lick or a chord progression emerges initially. I will take the approach of wanting to write about a specific thing/place/person occasionally, but other times involve a more free associative process that will hopefully take on a coherence over time. Late night hours when the world seems still are often fruitful for lyrics. I tried to give more attention on this record with the Helix to the arrangement of the songs, utilizing acoustic instrument layering a bit more and applying unique voices like the baritone guitar and mandolin to create a rich sonic field.

LC What kind of gear and equipment do you use in the recording studio? What is your live setup like?

DS I stick with pretty much ’70s era technology in the studio and live, namely tube amps and all-analog effects pedals. I’ll use smaller single-ended amps for recording and bigger ones live for headroom and projection. For one group I play with called Rhyton, I use two amps to take advantage of stereo effects. I tend to have a predilection for uncommon stringed instruments like electric mandolin and bouzouki, but with the Helix I have mainly been playing a Telecaster of late.

LC What constitutes an ideal performance for you? The Helix is a “good-time” band for sure. How do your standards differ from your work with No-Neck? (for sure one of the most interesting live bands I’ve ever seen, though not for the usual reasons)

DS A good show usually involves an engaged audience, a cool setting and a fine performance. A solid payday then can rocket a good show into a great one. No Neck engages with the space at hand more, whereas the Speer band is more conventional in its presentation. What makes a killer show for the Speer is when people dance. We like couples dancing going down not the hippy hippy shake.

LC The new album is more lyrically dense than past releases, what prompted this?

DS I think the other records had some fine lyrics as well, just a little more abstract or fragmentary. The new record definitely has a number of long narrative works and some research based “history” songs. But the same themes are there, the inevitable hand of death, the transformational power of art/music and the fleeting refuge of love in a world of strife.

LC You’re on tour through the south right now, any highlights so far? Is there a date you’re particularly excited about?

DS The gigs have all been great musically, the show at the Nightlight in Chapel Hill being particularly hot. Pigeons really had the freak waves happening. We had a crazy night in Hattiesburg, MS last night, had a blowout and missed our scheduled gig in Florida. So we rolled into town with no gig and no clue really, but Bennie at the Boom Boom Room set us up big time. Got super lucky as a band cancelled and we got both our acts on and got free drinks all night with a very healthy cut of the door.

I think the Buccaneer Lounge show in Memphis with legendary ranter/weirdo Ross Johnson is sure to please, plus the ribs there—ah yes!

LC What are your thoughts on the current state of alternative folk and country music in the United States? Do you see your work as a part of or apart from that genre?

DS I try to check out new stuff but I tend to get a bit bogged down in the retrospective view. I love Michael Hurley’s continued work. Ralph White I only got into the last few years but he is a true champion in the field, love his playing on banjo, accordion, and kalimba. Doug Paisley has a cool thing happening. I wish Terry Allen would make a new album, supposed to be one soon. I don’t feel much kinship with the nightmare overproduced pablum coming out of the Nashville Industry that’s for sure.

LC What’s next for D. Charles Speer & the Helix and for Dave Shuford in general? Any other upcoming projects?

DS We’ve got 2 weeks of tour in May to support “Leaving the Commonwealth” with our buddy Zachary Cale and his band. Then I want to do some work on the Key Demo project I do with my fiancée Margot; we’ve got most of an LP recorded already, just need to flesh it out more. Also need to find a home for some recordings by Rhyton, a largely instrumental trio with more of a heavy eastern tinged psych sound.

LC What records are you listening to these days?

DS Been wearing out my only Vernon Oxford record, need to get more from him. Fingerprince by the Residents and a James Carr reissue were spun a lot right before we left for tour.

Dave Shuford’s Mixtape: April 2011

Magic Sam, “All Your Love” and “Sam’s Boogie” (1957)

The legendary Sam Maghett from a northern european tour in the late ’60s, seen here playing the also incredible Earl Hooker’s guitar. Sadly taken from us by a heart attack at the age of 32. The guitar tone on the “Sam’s Boogie” section is ear nirvana.

Quicksilver Messenger Service, “Mona” (1969)

My favorite of the ’60s era S.F. bands, these cats had two fantastic lead players with John Cippolina and Gary Duncan. Wish I could run Gary’s black beauty into John’s stereo panning rig he used famously on Happy Trails. Even the Dino Valente’s presence here doesn’t sabotage the hyperreal rock in effect.

Nathan Abshire, Various Songs (1975)

Some great interview footage of Cajun musical star Nathan Abshire near the end of his life. His original recordings are all powerhouses of verve. Full video available at Media Burn.

Dixie Hummingbirds, “I’ve Got So Much to Shout About”

Ira Tucker and the Hummingbirds going off and getting happy. No one has mic technique like this anymore. William Bobo the bass singer sounds like he could knock houses over with his diaphragm.

George Jones & Johnny Paycheck, “Love Bug” (1966)

Two giants of honky tonk on a central Oklahoma television program from the ’60s. The former Donny Young on bass and Possum on lead vocal. George’s voice is in full flower and Paycheck displays the manic intensity that helped make him one of country music’s most renowned wild men. The guitar break is picked basically on top of the bridge for maximum twang.

Iannis Xenakis, “Bohor” (1962)

Electro-acoustic music from polymath architect/composer Iannis Xenakis. Created almost 50 years ago, this work has aged beautifully, a real sonic marvel. No antiseptic academic exercise, the meticulous recording and processing of a Laotian mouth organ and a group of small bracelets and bangles create a monolithic but highly detailed wave.

Kousokuya (Jutok Kaneko), Live at Osaka (2001)

Heavy trails. Jutok Kaneko. That is all.

Marko Melon, “Alemserian Ekinim Harmanim Yok”"

YouTube is great to use as an instant jukebox. Say you want to hear some of the Armenian oud player Marko Melkon? Search away and you are listening in seconds, transported to the sound world of NYC 1950s middle eastern cafe culture.

Joan Jonas, “Vertical Roll” (1972)

Early work by pioneering video artist Joan Jonas. Not recommended for hungover viewers.

James Whitney, “Yantra” (1957)

Fantastic piece of visionary art from James Whitney, entirely handmade by means of grids of pinhole punched cards. Really should be viewed on film but opportunities to catch a screening are few and far between

D. Charles Speer & the Helix’s Leaving the Commonwealth is available now from Thrill Jockey Records. The band is on tour now.

Luke Carr is a writer from New York State now rooted in Bushwick, Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, The L Magazine and The Submission. He is also a member of the band Ellis Island. Material, including photography and video, can be found at lukecarr.net