Rhubarb Whiskey are San Francisco's murder-ballad mavens. Recently I took my life in my hands by interviewing Emchy and Sizzle from this hard drinkin, hard livin outfit... here's the results...
Sepiachord: For the un-initiated, what is Rhubarb Whiskey like?
Emchy: Sad cowboy songs with jumpin basslines, tunes you can drink to in your favorite dive bar that make you laugh and cry at once, there's something full of longing, sadness, as well as rowdy and untethered joy - and that might just be in one song. I recently heard us called gothabilly, punky tonk and the country Dresden Dolls. Personally to me I think we're that soundtrack to that amazing night you had with your best friends where you wake up bruised in the morning and you're not sure what happened, but you know it was damn good.
SC: How does the band differ from other "alt country" groups?
Emchy: Well I think for all of our murder ballads and heartbreak songs we still have a huge sense of humor. For a while we had a joke that on every recording somewhere had to be this goofy drunken laugh that I get, and honestly our outtakes still crack me up. We take the music seriously but we have a lot of fun. I don't know if that makes us different, but it's what keeps us going.
SC: Is it hard to get gigs in San Francisco?
Emchy: It's not too hard. We love to play and we love to record so we just try to strike a balance. I think the best way to get shows is to connect with other musicians and create a community of people you like to play with. Well that and playing your music for people. Our first two gigs came just from playing a song for a couple of friends and a week later we got some calls.
SC: When did you put the group together and what lead you to the murder-ballad americana route?
Emchy: We formed the band on April 22, 2008. Boylamayka and I were watching Rio Bravo on one of our regular drinkin nights and we decided to try and both play around with the old americana tune 'Rye Whiskey' and to record a song that he had been working on. We'd been musical pals for a while and I loved what he had done for songs with his punk band Subincision, so I was pretty excited. The tune he wrote was super hoppin' and seemed like one of those classic drinkin' songs right away. I was an immediate fan but suggested we try it in minor, Sorrows Drowned was born that night, though the neighbors weren't too happy that it took us until 3am to get it right.
SC: When did the current version of Rhubarb Whiskey coalesce?
Emchy: we've had pretty few changes since we started. The biggest one being adding Sizzle La Fey to the line up. He came on in the summer of 2010 to guest on a few tracks that thought needed fiddle for the new full length album and as soon as we three played together that was it. Chemistry boom. We kept on getting to know each other for a few months to be sure and then initiated him officially into the band with a top secret hazing ritual.
SC: Your background is in the spoken word scene, what comes first for you: the lyrics or the tune?
Emchy: I guess that one's for me. In truth, more often than not the words come first. I have a pile of lyrics waiting for melodic homes that may or may not ever become something. The convenient part of that is when we have a tune that feels like it's going somewhere I'm always shuffling papers and yelling eureka or other various expletives. It's pretty great when all of a sudden we're all jamming during practice and a great tune is born and we can just shuffle through the word archives to see if one fits.
SC: When did you start playing accordion?
Emchy: I started playing accordion in the fall of 2008 after seeing Yankee Sheila (an offshoot of the Dandelion Junk Queens), Mark Growden, and Jason Webley perform, all within about two week of each other. I was officially inspired and so I got an accordion and just decided to see what would happen. The other cool thing for me is that I've learned to play some upright bass while in Rhubarb Whiskey - I didn't make it onto the record, but knowing how the instrument feels to play helps when we're putting together the songs.
SC: Author Poppy Z Brite proved lyrics to the tune "Bears in the Lot" that appears on your new CD, "Cautionary Tales". How did you hook up with him?
Emchy: Poppy and I have known each other for a while in an online context. Right when we were recording the album and I was blogging about it a fair bit, he posted lyrics to a hypothetical country ballad that he had written on a lark. I asked if we could have permission to give it a go for real and put it on the album if it worked out. Everyone involved is pretty happy with how it turned out.
SC: How was recording "Cautionary Tales" different than tackling your previous EP?
Emchy: There was more whiskey, more good microphones, and more broken glasses by far. We also worked a lot longer on it. The EP was a quick and dirty experiment done on a couple of Sundays and a few more late Wednesday nights. We started recording Cautionary Tales in July of 2010 and finished the recording and mixing in May of 2011. We really let ourselves have time to play around with arrangements, adding instruments, trying alternate takes, and just experimenting with what might happen.
Sizzle: Well I also dabble in recording, so we were able to use my set up for this album. We had a few more channels to play with, so we could layer additional tracks to spice it up with percussion or other things. The core tracks are all a live group recording, though, because we didn't want to lose the organic feel of the EP.
SC: Would your music be as good with out being alcohol fueled?
Emchy: Yes, I think the music would be as good, and (god forbid) any of us get sober I'm sure we'll keep making music together. That said, I don't think any of us are really interested in testing that out anytime soon.
SC: Besides high-octane hard-liquor, what inspires you?
Emchy: Friendships, love, the ocean, coffee, anything that shifts how you see the world. Just yesterday I wrote a song about a sasquatch based on a text message from Boylamayka about a reality tv show - so it could be anything. You just have to be willing to let inspiration hit.
SC: What keeps you up late at night?
Emchy: Coffee, friends, train whistles, New Orleans, and planning for tours.
SC: Where do you think Rhubarb Whiskey is headed?
Emchy: Towards the gutter or the stars, I'm never quite sure.
SC: Any words of advice for young people?
Emchy: Just fucking go for it. You're never as good or as bad as you think, so why not just try. You're the only one who can actually stop you from getting your dreams. Lots of people will tell you no, so you have to always tell yourself yes, often you'll get away with it.
Sizzle: Go into investment banking, stay there for 12 years or until you have 30 million. Then retire and start a band.