Desert heat over London
Instrumental Desert-Rock band, Karma to Burn is still going strong after twenty years. With the sixth studio album – Arch Stanton – cutting a trail through Europe, founding member William Mecum sat down for a cold beer with HMA to discuss stolen music, missed opportunities, and being a hobo…
HMA: How’s the tour going – seems like you’ve played a lot of dates recently?
Karma To Burn: Yeah, even before we started the UK we did some dates in Spain, and some dates in Belgium and a couple of shows in Italy. This is like my weekend warrior thing. Like we’d go off and do a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then like the home base is back in Switzerland so it’s been a lot of back and forth. For the time being there’s a lot of travelling.
HMA: I saw that you’ve got five more dates here in the UK. You seem to have a lot of gigs back-to-back.
KTB: Ya know what, this is I think number 15 out of 18 and then we travel off to Ireland tonight straight after the show, to Belfast. It kinda stinks because people have arranged an aftershow party for us and we can’t go. So… The party starts now (raises beer).
HMA: Have you ever been so drunk that you couldn’t play?
KTB: Yes. There’s been a couple of nights where I’ve been quite embarrassed on how my performance was. But on this tour, because it’s so long, I’ve pretty much maintained an only beer thing. No hard stuff. No vodka, no whiskey, no nothing. I just drink beer and make sure I get the job done. So yeah I just stick to beer.
HMA: Obviously most people assume the lifestyle of a “Rockstar” is quite interesting, with all the travelling you get to do, all the countries you get to see. But actually I’m guessing the most you see really is the club that you’re playing in?
KTB: We’re looking at it, yeah. I go back home and everyone’s like ‘Oh, you’re the glamorous rock star, like where have you been? What did you see?’ Well, I could tell you where the backstage is! I can tell you where the club is.
HMA: So when you’re not then touring, and you’re not recording, and you’re on a break, do you then travel?
KTB: No I mean I’m usually like when the tour ends I try to maintain one spot at one time and like just relax.
HMA: I hear you’re from West Virginia originally. Do you still live there?
KTB: I stay in West Virginia occasionally, in Pittsburgh occasionally; I stay in Holland occasionally. At the end of this tour actually, I might come back to the UK for a couple of weeks. Yeah, I don’t have a residence. Basically, I’m homeless. I mean, I maintain ‘Hobo’ status. I’m not a ‘bum’; I’m a hobo. It gets a little taxing after a while. But as long as these (beers) keep coming….
Being really busy doing what I do it makes no sense to pay for a place that I’m never at. And I don’t make enough money to do that. So when I go back to the US I’m lucky enough to have friends that put me up. I basically freeload off my friends and they put me up when I’m not on tour.
HMA: But then they get to come to your gigs and get some good nights out…
KTB: But they don’t because we’ve been playing in Europe so much… My American friends haven’t seen the band in like three years. The last leg has been about five years. It’ll kill me eventually!
HMA: So do you prefer being in the studio or on the road? As a musician what’s your thing – is it the actual music or the recording?
KTB: Well they’re both enjoyable. Writing new songs is a lot of fun. It’s a lot of work but a lot of fun. It’s gratifying once you actually get finished with the songs and then you can play them live. It’s almost like symbiotic right; you get done with the new stuff, you get the record out, and then it’s like oh boy, you get to play the new stuff. I mean it’s basically given and take. The Studio is great and I get to write new songs and record them, but then going on the road and playing them – that’s fun as well; like actually introducing new material to the audience… that’s basically what this tour is all about. New record. New songs. Get em out there. And for me, it makes the setlist a lot more interesting because you get to play the new stuff. I’ve been playing some of these songs for twenty years and it gets a little old. We’re not Black Sabbath. We haven’t been playing Iron Man!
HMA: Could you play Iron Man for twenty years? I know I might get bored. But fans won’t necessarily have bought an album yet so won’t know the new songs. So does that change how it feels when you’re on stage? cos obviously the feedback….
KTB: There are some songs on the setlist that some of the fans want to hear and I understand that so I put them on the list and when they come around it’s like ‘Really? How many times do I have to play this goddam song?’ But when the new ones come up its like ‘Oo, yes; good’!
When you play the new songs you have to project the confidence you have in them. I’ve watched bands that have new records out and they’re like ‘THIS IS THE NEW ONE’ and everyone’s just ‘Uhhhh’ (zombie moan) in the crowd. So I mean when you play a new song like I said you have to project the confidence of the new song and that feeds onto the audience.
HMA: It must be quite tough to have fans that are just stood there when you play new material…?
KTB: Yeah I mean well it hasn’t happened to us.
HMA: What’s the difference in the crowds that you get in different countries?
KTB: It depends wherever you go. We did a lot of shows in Germany. And sometimes the crowds are like ape-shit crazy. And sometimes the crowds are just like standing still and nodding their heads… And that’s fine; I don’t care. As long as you’re standing there listening, that’s fine. I don’t care what you do. But sometimes ya know people start up like a fucking pit, sometimes they just stand there and listen and watch. I don’t care what you do as long as you’re paying attention to the band.
HMA: Obviously this band is probably one of the more unusual ones out there in terms of the alternative genres, still being pretty much an instrumental band. How did the decision come about to work without a vocalist?
KTB: When I started up the band I just wrote some songs and like basically what happened was, I didn’t really feel like singing, our bass player didn’t feel like singing, so we just wrote the songs. We originally had like six songs and somebody invited us to a party to play: ‘Oh like you have a new band? You need to play our party’ and like we played the party and it was like a house party and people came up to us and were like ‘You don’t need a singer – fuck that.’ We were still on the fence, and believe me, we’ve tried with different singers, but it’s never worked.
HMA: I know there’s been a lot of interaction between you and Year Long Disaster… Does it work for you using their vocalist?
KTB: That’s mostly our ex-bass player. I’ve played with them live and it’s boring as shit. I’ve worked with those guys before and I’ve written some songs for them. On the last record, we had Daniel sing a couple of songs and he did a great job. It’s just, it was weird because I wrote the songs instrumentally and then I had to change things just to put a vocal on it. It’s just, it’s not my style ya know? Don’t get me wrong, I love Daniel and he’s a great guy and I thought he did a great job. But I think if you give us a chance we can win you over.
HMA: Have you ever thought about writing an entire album with a vocalist in mind?
KTB: Me personally, no. Ex-members, yes.
HMA: Ah, is that why they’re ex-members?
KTB: That’s why they’re ex-members.
HMA: How did you end up with Evan and Rob?
KTB: Evan is a resident of my home town, Morgantown; he got recommended to me by a soundman that I know and basically our last drummer quit, he just had enough but I won’t go into details. I got together with Evan and he learned about 4 or 5 songs and I jammed with him, and the first time I was like’ya want the job?’ and he was like ‘Yeaaah!’
HMA: How much of the writing process is just you, and how much is the others?
KTB: On the last record Evan and I pretty much collaborated on everything. I did play the bass and guitar on the record but the writing process was with Evan. Rob and I met at a festival, I don’t know four years ago or something, and we kept in touch, maintained emails and stuff like that and just became friends. Our last bass player, well, he wasn’t cutting the mustard, put it that way. Yeah, I’m not getting into that either.
HMA: Have you just had a lot of bad luck with band members?
KTB: Recently yeah, I mean I really don’t want to get into it but it’s been difficult the last few years. There are so many opportunities to just say like ‘fuck this; I’m not doing this anymore’ but then there are also so many opportunities where people are like ‘You can’t stop this; you can’t stop it’, so yeah ok!!!
HMA: Have you ever wanted to do anything else?
KTB: Yeah like, be a nanny or something.
HMA: Well I tell you what If I should ever have any kids I’ll look you up
HMA: Tell me, and you must get asked this a million times, why do you use numbers for the tracks?
KTB: Its simple – chronological order.
HMA: I have enough trouble remembering track names, let alone numbers…
KTB: Oh I can’t remember anybody’s phone number.
HMA: But you can remember the numbers for the songs?
KTB: Oh of course. For most people, it’s really confusing but for us, it’s really easy. Even with the new guys, both of them say ‘I can’t remember song titles but I can remember the numbers through’. It’s really a lot easier than you think.
HMA: The reason I ask because of track 57, that’s one I wanted to ask about. The drum opening on that, as soon as I heard it I instantly had in my head…
KTB: ‘Heinz 57’.
HMA: No, strangely not! It was Adam Ant: Kings of the Wild Frontier. There were three or four tracks that had a heavy drum opening on them and, though it’s not the same, 57 was reminiscent of that. Obviously, it wasn’t intentional but it really had me listening because of the drumming.
KTB: It’s not an insult, I like Adam Ant… and our drummer’s pretty damned good I tell you that. He beats those things like they owe him money!
When we’re tracking the record, we confuse people even more because numbers are not like sequential but it was unanimous that 57 should start the record.
HMA: The name of the album: Arch Stanton. An obvious reference to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly… Why?
KTB: Well, two reasons: Our artist that we usually use, he’s from Hamburg – Alex; he asked me a while ago, ‘so what do you want for your next album cover?’ He loves our NASCAR. And I said well, have a go at the civil war period: fuck the south, fuck the north, and just plough through. Just go right through all of them. (Alexander von Wieding. http://www.zeichentier.com/)
So he did this artwork with the gun, and the sword, and it was like, it was brilliant. I saw the artwork and was like, that’s it. And then, what’s the title? So ok, the civil war period. I was thinking about like all the missed opportunities of finding gold ya know. And in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Clint Eastwood tells Tuco that the gold is buried in Arch Stanton’s grave, but Clint knows better. It’s in the grave next to Arch Stanton. So when you go to Arch Stanton’s grave you’re only going to find the bones: no gold. So it’s kinda like a play on searching for the gold. And of course, we used a small sample from the Good the Bad and the Ugly – that’s on track 59.
It’s funny because calling the album Arch Stanton, there’s been a lot of recent reviews and people having to fucking Google it, what is this Arch Stanton thing? It’s cool that people are discovering what it is. I think Clint Eastwood would be flattered… I thought it, when I was naming the record, I thought it would be a bit cryptic, but people have caught on to it and are really appreciative of it.
HMA: Do you feel then that maybe you’ve had missed opportunities in your music career?
KTB: Yeah I mean this is, I’ve always said there’s the high road, there’s the low road, and there’s the road that you need a machete to cut everything down with. We picked that road.
HMA: Alex is obviously a very talented artist… Are there any artists, painters, sculptors, that you particularly like?
KTB: I know it’s kinda cliché but I do like Picasso.
HMA: Any standout album cover artwork?
KTB: The album where they’re all pissing on the monolith (Who’s Next). I always enjoyed when I was a teenager all the Black Flag record covers. Kinda weird, bizarre, cartoony stuff. Sonic Youth. I kinda like that stuff – it reminds me of my teenage years. I like Dressed to Kill by Kiss, that’s a great album cover, where they’re dressed all in suits. Aw, also Love Gun. Ah man, when I was ten years old I used to stare at that thing all the time.
HMA: Any particular bands you’re into?
KTB: There’s a band from Vicenza in Italy called Noon that I’m really into. Like as far as recent stuff. Lately, we’ve been listening to a lot of Peggy Lee, Robin Trower and the King! baby… lately, I’ve been turned on to a lot of stuff I don’t know. My iPod was stolen in Barcelona so all my music’s fucking gone, so my tour manager and driver have been playing their iPods. It’s cool to hear the stuff that they like. Our driver’s into old punk rock, and old Discord (record label) and (Washington) DC stuff, and the same with our tour manager. So it’s like when they play music in the van it’s like a trip back to the early nineties. I feel like I’m 21 again.
HMA: I’m so glad I’m not 21 again!!
Interview by Sable – Copyright 2014 © Heavy Music Artwork. All rights reserved.