One-Man Band Series, #5: Phillip Roebuck

One-Man Band Series, #5: Phillip Roebuck

American singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Phillip Roebuck has long been an outsider of the music world. Even in the one-man band community where Roebuck is well known and admired, he stands apart from the rest, just he and the old five-string banjo he built from various scraps and a curious, if not slightly ingenious drum apparatus he also made himself.

- James G. Carlson
Photo by Marisa Redburn

posted June 24, 2010

For singular intensity of feverish vision, the undiluted nature of the solo performance can't be beat.
-Andrew Goldfarb (The Slow Poisoner)

American singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Phillip Roebuck has long been an outsider of the music world. Even in the one-man band community where Roebuck is well known and admired, he stands apart from the rest, just he and the old five-string banjo he built from various scraps and a curious, if not slightly ingenious drum apparatus he also made himself. Instead he exists on a level somewhere between the far underground and the surface crust of obscure music, the great crossroads, at the dusty center of which he continuously defies musical tradition and the standards by which such things are typically weighed and measured. That is not to suggest that he hasn't any respect for traditional music. It's quite to the contrary, actually, as he pays homage to it and its brilliant progenitors with his unique style, for which he has obviously dug deep into the sounds of old, such as Delta blues and Appalachian folk. But Phillip Roebuck exists in the present, after all, where he has somehow added the energy of punk rock and the wildly experimental edge of alternative music to his old-timey roots foundation. An original style, to be sure, this unlikely marriage of old and new world music, which, let's be honest, makes for a rather unusual structure of sound, more like a rickety shotgun shack in the sweltering, insect-bitten deep south than a post-modern highrise in any take-your-pick downtown of any gray metropolis.

Though the music style he has created is decidedly more organic than mechanical, Roebuck pulls off a sound that is both rustic and urban, existing at both ends of the worldly spectrum simultaneously, kind of like Roebuck himself. He was born in rural Virginia, where his musical interests began, only to later head north, where he ended up busking on the streets of New York City. Over the years his sound has evolved to the point where he now feels just as "at home" playing the smoky dive bars and rowdy punk venues as, say, bluegrass and folk festivals, house parties, and the bustling platforms of the New York City subway. When all is said and done, however, one can only say that Phillip Roebuck is a down home whiteboy who got hung-up on the blues early on, but came up during the mad age of punk and alternative music, who realized himself and his calling, dedicated himself to it, and emerged with a gritty sound that was all heart and guts, a style steeped in roots revival, complete with a jigsaw banjo, a wacky drum setup, and the ferocity of underground music.  

Indeed, witnessing the spectacle that is Roebuck's performance is second only to experiencing the sound he has so painstakingly constructed...a sound that seems to rest just as much on his ingenuity as on his abundance of talent. You see, the spectacle of which I speak is Roebuck wearing his drum rig slung over his shoulders much like one would an oversized rucksack. It has hinged levers on either side, one acting as a plain mallet, while the other acts as a secondary hitter with built-in cymbals, both attached to wires that extend to hooks on the backs of Roebuck's shoes. Quite simply, its workings rely entirely on stomp percussion, the Depression-era drum apparatus's purpose being to make a bigger sound of it. His banjo playing can also be rather percussive at times. Then again, his banjo playing can be a lot of things, since he is capable of going from picking and plucking to strumming and shredding, working the neck with nimble fingers and a bottleneck slide. With all of these moving parts, Roebuck still has the ability to wail forth his strong vocals over the rhythm and crafty string-play.

When I sent Phillip word regarding my one-man band series, he replied by sending me a copy of his most recent full-length album on Manual Records, "Fever Pitch." A collection of ten songs, "Fever Pitch" reveals Roebuck's evolution as a musician and singer/songwriter, far from the Virginia of his youth, and a little down the road from busking nickels and dimes as a starving artist in the New York City subway. "Monkey Fist," the album's first song, begins with frantic strumming and slide-work on his banjo, which is soon answered by the equally frantic pounding of his drum contraption and throat-splitting vocals. Next up, the song "Movement" shows us a slower-paced Roebuck, hitting on very specific notes to create a pattern to which he can sing, only to move forward to an equally slow but fuller verse with strumming and repeating lyrics. "Jackass Blues," the third song on the album, which also appeared on Rock N Roll Purgatory's "Attack of the One-Man Bands" compilation, is another energetic offering, much like "Monkey Fist," with a catchy as hell body of music that, to me, feels like going down a sliding board and hitting the ground running. Of the songs on "Fever Pitch," "Little Bo Peep" is probably the best example of Roebuck's skill, since it touches on so many areas of it, especially towards the end where he goes into an intricate instrumental segment that no doubt leaves both listeners and spectators wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Later, he plays "Can I Keep You," which is a beautiful country-esque piece of music with plaintive vocals. "Fever Pitch" finishes with the song "Travel Light," in which he states that he'd travel light if it weren't for someone or something, perhaps his drum contraption, or maybe a person he tends to travel with. In the end, "Fever Pitch" is one of those albums that you can listen to all the way through, only to start over from the first track again, appreciating it just as much, if not more, the second time around. And you keep listening to it, invariably amazed by it every time.

Recently I had the chance to interview Phillip Roebuck, me putting forth questions and he coming back with some rather well thought out and revealing answers. What follows is the material from that interview.

Over the years it has become customary for me to begin these interviews with an introductory opening. In other words, I would like to ask: Who is Phillip Roebuck, not just as a musician and singer/songwriter but as an individual, as a human being of this vast and crazy world in which we live?

I'm lucky. And spoiled. I get to listen to some of the best music and meet some of the best people on the planet every single day. I'm the father of two of those people (by far the coolest thing that's happened to me in this life). My main objective is to not only create and contribute beautiful things to this world, but more importantly to recognize and celebrate the beautiful things that are already here. I'm a proud member of the Rebel Alliance. I love women but have never been able to keep one by my side. I don't like "good" music; I like music that's played as if the musician's life depends on it. The technical skill of the player means nothing to me. Some days I ignore my banjo and play the fiddle, guitar, piano, or trombone instead...whatever feels the best in my hands that day. I started playing music and writing songs when I was eleven. I live in Virginia and New York, but spend most of my time on the road. It's a lonely, but magical life.

In a time when originality and creativity are not dead but certainly lacking in a lot of artistic mediums, especially music, it begs the question: How did you come to the decision that you wanted to play bottleneck slide on the banjo, with the one-man band drum rig on your back?

"Preachin' Blues" by Robert Johnson single-handedly influenced and shaped my banjo style into what it is now. Of course, there has been a lot of music that has changed the way I played over the years, mostly early field recordings, but that song was definitely the beginning of a new musical world for me. I also wanted to redefine the banjo as I knew it, and certainly as most people knew it. I believe it to be a much more versatile and engaging instrument than the genres it is relegated to...bluegrass, country, hillbilly, etc.  I've played the banjo with a flat pick, violin bow and drumsticks, so a slide doesn't feel like much of a stretch to me. It seems completely natural, like everyone does it. As far as the drum rig goes, that developed over time by chance. I didn't just decide one day to go out and do that. I started playing banjo in the subway in New York, and the concrete didn't have the same feel when I stomped my foot as the wood floor in my apartment. So I brought a cigar box to stomp on for a while, until I crushed it. Then I used a suitcase and kicked it with a bass drum pedal. That worked really well, so I used it for about two years, after adding a tambourine for the other foot. I picked up a surprisingly small bass drum when I was in Barcelona in 2002 and decided to use it for the backpack-style rig that I had seen many versions of in Depression-era photos. That was it! I played that rig for eight years and only just now built a new one. It wasn't long after I had the first rig that I realized I was actually a one-man band. It just sort of happened. I try to keep the rig as minimal as possible to avoid the stereotype of the one-man bands with all the "bells and whistles," who offer more of a spectacle than an engaging music performance. I try to put out as much sound as possible with the least amount of instruments.

Recent years have seen a notable rise in independent and underground bands and singer/songwriters bringing back the old sounds of, say, Delta blues, ragtime, early roots, primitive rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, and so on. Your sound obviously blends together healthy portions of blues, rock 'n' roll, and Appalachian folk, or so it seems. What are your thoughts on modern artists embracing these older styles of music? And, to make this a two-part question, what elements did you consciously put into your own sound, or did it happen purely by accident, like a natural occurrence from your songwriting efforts?

It's hard for me to listen to anything contemporary and not hear the roots in it. So, I like the fact that other musicians recognize that too and want to honor it. A lot of bands, rather than be influenced by something, imitate what they've heard and actually strive to be a throwback. I work hard to avoid that pitfall. I'm much more interested in blurring the lines of genre and style, both with my songwriting and unorthodox banjo technique. I tend to listen to the music that influenced the bands I like more than I listen to the bands themselves. That's where Robert Johnson, R.L. Burnside, and early field recordings come in.  Literally ALL of the banjo players I listen to for inspiration are dead - Uncle Dave Macon, Dock Boggs, Hobart Smith, Nathan Frazier, Murph Gribble, etc.

You have known both independent/underground success and mainstream success alike, perhaps not in equal measures, mind you, but both all the same, or so it seems, with releases on big labels such as Atlantic and A&M, and then more recently on smaller, more independent labels such as Manual and Rock N Roll Purgatory, as well as a few DIY releases. Which way do you prefer to operate, independently or with a bit more mainstream assistance? I mean, being a one-man band, the answer seems evident, but still...

It's always nice to work with other people. That's what I miss most about being in a band. I don't enjoy doing every single thing myself, it gets tiresome, and it's difficult to make decisions at times. But it's simple, and that I like. The perpetual confusion and downright mayhem of working with a major label is not something I'm prepared to take on anytime soon. I've worked too hard to reclaim my independence from all that, and it took years. I do like working with indie labels, though. That's been great. I have sort of secretly hoped to find a manager, but it has to be just the right person, and that hasn't happened yet.

Steve Albini produced your latest full-length recording, "Fever Pitch." As a figure who has vehemently advocated the solidarity of the independent music community, artist freedoms, recorded albums for numerous bands and singer/songwriters, and has had a hand in Touch & Go Records, even those with the most basic knowledge of the music world know his name. What was it like working with him?   

I love working with Steve!  I've done two albums with him now, and it's always a real good time. I completely trust his ear, and he trusts my instincts...it's a great dynamic. I also respect Steve tremendously as a person; he's one of the most honest people I've ever met. He's booked me a few times to play with his band Shellac in Chicago and at All Tomorrow's Parties in the UK. He's probably my favorite person to work with in that capacity too.

Apparently you favor the more organic method of writing and playing music over the highly mechanical methods of this modern age of ours. Have you always been interested in roots music?

I grew up in a big family of musicians in Virginia, always singing hymns, blues and folk songs. But, like a lot of American teens, I wandered off into the world of punk rock once I discovered the Ramones and The Replacements. Those bands influenced me greatly, and it wasn't until my early 20's, when my uncle taught me Robert Johnson's tuning, that I started the journey back to the music of my upbringing, only now there was an intensity and immediacy that I brought with me from what I loved most about punk...the spirit. I suppose that's why I'm often billed as punk/roots or punk/folk.

As far as banjo playing, which I am admittedly somewhat ignorant to, there are various styles of playing - frailing, for example, and clawhammer technique, for another - and I would like to know which you employ, if not both, or more than both?

I use a five-string open-back banjo. The actual instrument is no particular brand because I fashioned it from scrap parts. The pot (drum) is about a hundred years old, while the rest of it is probably about thirty years old. I put it together about ten years ago for a grand total of twenty-two bucks.

I play all the common styles of banjo...clawhammer, three-finger, frailing, etc. Early on I used mostly three-finger, but the past few years I've started playing more and more in a style I developed...a combination of slapping and finger picking, which is both percussive and melodic. It's my favorite way to play at the moment.

Who have been some of your major influences over the years, musically speaking? If I were to guess, I would list names such as Dock Boggs, Abner Jay, etc. But I would also venture a guess that it's a much more diverse list than that. I mean, what artists' albums revisit your CD player, record player, cassette deck, etc over and over again, and then over and over again?

This is what's been in my playlist the past two months and hasn't changed: tons of the Alan Lomax recordings. Lots of friends' music. And Mount Righteous, Zeke Healy, TV on the Radio, Morgan O'kane, Nina Nastasia, Shellac, Boo Hanks, Kristy Kruger, R.L. Burnside, Philip Glass, Bob Marley, Gillian Welch, Louis Armstrong, Sonny Terry, Robert Johnson, The Black Keys, Cheb I Sabbah, Coco Rosie, Duke Ellington, Iron & Wine, Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

The one-man band movement seems to be in high gear these days, gaining steady momentum the world over, though especially in Europe. Over the course of the past few years I have happened upon a good number of worthwhile one-man band artists, such as yourself, of course, and The Dad Horse Experience, Reverent Beat-Man, Bloodshot Bill, Urban Junior, King Automatic, Pete Yorko, Bog Log III, etc. As a part of this phenomenon, what are your thoughts on the direction in which the one-man band movement is currently heading?

I don't know where it's going, but I love the fact that it's definitely going somewhere.  For a while there were lots of guys, still are actually, with sequencers and drum machines that called themselves one-man bands, but to me that's more of an audio tech/engineer than a performing musician. I reserve the term "one-man band" for the guys who sweat it out and work for the sound, actually playing the music you're hearing, so I'm happy to see a healthy amount of us on the scene...Scott H. Biram, Jawbone, and John Schooley, to name a few. All in all, though, I prefer to be included in the music scene on equal footing, not separated because I play solo. I want the music to hold up on its own, and not be dependent on the novelty of how it's played. There have been a few instances where fans had been listening to my stuff for a long time before they found out I wasn't a "band," that it was just me. That's exactly what I'm after!

Since a few of the questions in this interview were two-parters, I will spare you any further questions. I will, however, tell you that if I have failed to cover anything, or if there's anything you want to express or talk about, etc, please feel free at this point. The floor is all yours, Phillip.

Thank you.