Have you pre-ordered The Kernal’s new album? No? You can do it right HERE. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
Got it? Good!
Listen To The Blood has been hinted at, danced around, teased, postponed, kept secret, discussed, and anticipated for years at this point, and no one has been more anxious than Joe Garner, Ol’ Kern himself. We’d first begun the waltz back in February ’20, just a month before the end of the world would land us both at home– me, relegated to my basement in Macon posting COVID-19 updates amid the odd review, and Joe in Jackson, TN where he and Cotton Clifton entertained weekly with a streaming living room show as the finale of his three-album arc collected pandemic dust. What began gestating nearly a decade ago with Farewellhello and opened its red-rimmed eyes on 2017’s Light Country will emerge with adult teeth when Single Lock Records releases Listen To The Blood into a brave new world on January 14th. If anyone questions whether the wait has been worth it, let me assure you (and reassure Joe) that it indeed has.
The Kernal & Co. ambiently ease into a funky discourse on broken jaws and respect on “U Do U” before finally committing to a full-band studio version of mental health manifesto and long-time favorite “Pistol in the Pistol”. Chicken pickin’ and black humor ooze into gnarly, siren-laden redneck rock n’ roll that’s cool as the breeze and slick as axle grease on “Green, Green Sky”, and Garner stretches his storytelling legs with the epic left gone right “Wrong Turn to Tupelo”.
On “The Limit”, questions abound over man’s estrangement from nature and the degeneration of more esoteric skills (“If I had I rod I couldn’t bait it, and I prob’ly couldn’t even crank a chainsaw”), but the Kernal briefly shunts his country pedigree (his pop Charlie Garner was a fixture at the Grand Ole Opry for 28 years) aside to machine-gun through the perfectly punkish “Long Cool Finger”.
It’s couples’ skate territory on “The Fight Song”, a duet with Caitlin Rose that explores the angst of marriage in too-real tones while “She’s Seeing Somebody” is a breed of golden country music that emanates best from a jukebox with a glass of beer in front of you, wondering where it all went wrong. If there are definitive answers left to any of life’s other pressing questions, Listen To The Blood offers one last glance into one of infinite futures with “Super (Marijuana) Walmart”, a keen commentary on small towns and corporate absurdity.
As I’ve said before, I’m not in the business of guarantees, but if you spend money on music (and you dang sure should be), Listen To The Blood is worth it. I can’t wait to get my copy on the turntable.
AI- Man, I have been listening to Listen To The Blood since your manager sent me the link. I had high expectations. You have met every single one of them, so I’ve really been lookin’ forward to finally bein’ able to dig into the album. I love Light Country, it stays in rotation on the turntable at home. I haven’t spent as much time with Farewellhello, but I think I can safely claim that Listen To The Blood is your opus. I know it’s completing this three-album arc that you started with Farewellhello, and I remember the last time you were here in the studio and we were talkin’, you still had a lot of frustration about the album taking so long to get out there. How are you feelin’ right this minute?
K- Man, I feel good! It feels so good to actually have some stuff comin’ out because when I was with you the last time, it’d been over two years since I’ve effectively been done with the record. It’s one thing if you have that in mind when you’re doin’ it, but we were gonna roll this thing out a long time ago, and I was prepared for that. And then just like anything, when you prepare for one outcome and you have to push it back and push it back, it takes the wind outta your sails a little bit. But it feels really good to have some stuff finally comin’ out. You make this stuff so people can hear it, and I’m just glad that people are finally gettin’ to hear it. It’s a good feelin’. It really is. And it’s helpin’ me figure out what I wanna do next ’cause it’s put a little bit of a halt on my creative process in some ways, you know, having things sitting around like that. So it feels good on all fronts, man, and I appreciate the kind words about the record. I’m glad you like it!
I’m glad you brought that part up about puttin’ your creative process on hold ’cause in previous conversations that we’ve had, you’ve talked about how, at some point in time you were gonna move past The Kernal, but whether it was going into somethin’ completely different or just a move to the side from it. I had wondered did the time between making Listen To The Blood and when it’s gonna come out made you press pause on a shift in character or just in dynamic?
Much like everybody else, there’s a lot of pause buttons that have been pushed in the last couple years with everything goin’ on. But yeah, the way the flow normally works is you’re doin’ shows and you’re kinda pepperin’ in new songs, and then at some point, you go, “Wait a minute, we have enough new songs here, just lookin’ at this that maybe we can put another record together,” and you start thinkin’ about a record. You go out and you play ’em a little more, you get ’em tight, and you say, “Well, we’re ready for the studio now.” You get in the studio– and it normally takes a year or whatever anyway, just hammering it out! It’s a long process to get a record complete and into people’s hands.
When I started the project, I wanted to do three [albums] and just let it be that. It gave me a good mile marker to work toward. I enjoy workin’ in that way and just givin’ myself a long period of time to let things unfold. But now I’m at that crossroads where I’m like, “Hey, these three records are done– now, what am I gonna do?” I’m just kind of in a reassessing phase in figurin’ out what to do next. A lot of it just has to do honestly, Aaron, with just seein’ what’s out there and what I’m gonna be able to do and what the market’s like for me and where I can potentially fit into touring and doin’ all that. We’re startin’ to plan tours for the spring now, so we’re just gonna roll this record out and tour a bit and see what happens on the backside. But I’m kinda ready for anything (laughs)!
I was pleased to see “Pistol In The Pillow” making its full album debut. You’ve had the version with just you and Cotton [Clifton] floatin’ around for a while, and then I believe on Kern Live! you perform it as well. That one took quite a while to get its full-band treatment.
(Laughs) Yeah! As they do! “The Fight Song” is another one. I probably wrote that song four years ago? Four or five years ago? For somethin’ to make it to a record, it has to go through several little criteria to make the cut. “Pistol” was one was one of those too. I was like, “I know I wanna cut this on the next record.” That’s one of the older ones as well, and sometimes it takes a minute to get those things worked in, but I’m glad we have an album version of it too. It’s fun to be in the studio and flesh everything out with all the bells and whistles.
Well, since you brought up “The Fight Song”, let’s talk about that one. You’re joined by Caitlin Rose, someone who you’ve been on the road with, playing bass with if I recall correctly. That song is almost anachronistic with that ’70s country style, and then you just drop in the casual Instagram jealousy! It almost threw me off for just a second, but the song just flows so well and it makes this painful sense. I love the way you end the video (laughs) with the car bein’ made off with! Somebody stealin’ the car! Was there any other choice besides Caitlin Rose for the duet on that song? Or was it even considered to be a duet in the beginning?
Yes, it was. I demoed that myself– that second part– and was like, “This is a pretty high part,” and it’s also a relationship song. From the beginning, I did want it to be a duet, and at the time when I had first written the song and had it around for a bit and demoed it, I just sent it to Caitlin and said, “Hey, would you ever want to wanna do this?” She liked the song, and yeah, I had never thought of anyone else. She’s somebody that I really respect a lot as a songwriter, and she’s just got such a broad knowledge of a lot of different things like film, and of course, music and literature. She’s just a really interesting person, so I’ve always enjoyed rappin’ with her, and her music obviously is something I’ve been a huge fan of for a long time. So, no, I didn’t think of anyone else. I thought maybe there was an off chance she’d say no, and I kinda had some backups, but thankfully she said yeah!
The car and the video, that’s all Joshua Shoemaker! We did that thing just in a couple of hours and didn’t have a lot of planning. We met up and he said, “Well, what about this? And what about that? And why don’t you throw the keys down? And this guy walks by,” his name’s Albert, “He walks by and then the car gets stolen ’cause you guys are too focused on arguin’ to figure out what’s goin’ on around you.” (Laughs) I was like, “This is perfect!” Yeah, that’s all Shoemaker, man. He’s brilliant!
Did you listen to a lot of duets when you were writing that one? Tryin’ to figure out how you wanted to break it up or set it apart?
No, not really. A lot of my songs aren’t necessarily songs that I try to exorcise my own demons with, but that one was. That was a pretty personal tune, so it was pretty natural in some ways. I was tryin’ to give voice to my side of things and tried to be honest about it and then tried to give voice to my partner’s side of things. So many people do find themselves in a situation where they can’t get along and 9 times outta 10, there’s a lot of work that you can do on yourself that would really help the situation, but you spend so much of the time pointin’ your fingers at somebody else. So that and a song like “Try Again” is another one that’s in a similar vein. They just popped out pretty quick as those kind of songs tend to do. But I don’t write a lot of songs like that– that I show people (laughs)!
“She’s Seeing Somebody”, I think in many ways is the most country song that you have ever written. It seems like that could have been recorded by Gary Stewart in 1975. It’s just beautiful and gut-wrenching. You’ve got some of the Kernal flare in there towards the end, but overall it’s got that ’70s I’m-cryin’-in-my-beer jukebox flavor to it.
That’s exactly what I was goin’ for with that one. I was listenin’ to a lot of those Kristofferson deep cuts and things like that. I wanted to try to write something like that, and you never know what it’s gonna be like when you actually get it done and get in the studio. But we had Jordan Lehning do some string arrangements on that song. That part at the end, he just really made it beautiful. It was fun collaborating with him on somethin’ ’cause I wanted to work with him for a long time. He’s done a lot of work producing and engineering with Caitlin and Andrew Combs and a lot of people in Nashville. It was great to finally get to do something with him.
I don’t have the liner notes, so I don’t know everyone that’s on the record. I know that Cotton’s on there and Ben Tanner, of course. Who else is on the record with you this time? Is it some usual suspects or you got some new folks with you?
Well, with each record, whoever I’m on the road with and playin’ with is who I want to record with just ’cause the songs are meant to be performed live. I would feel weird with a pickup band on the road and then comin’ in and tryin’ to hire some other people to play on it. So it’s Dominic Billet on drums– he can play everything and plays a lot of percussion on there– and then Jerry Bernhardt. The two of those guys along with a guy, Dan Knobler, who didn’t work on my record, but the three of those guys made Erin Rae’s record “Putting On Airs”, which is a fantastic record. Jerry played bass and some guitar and keys. Both those guys play everything, they’re just brilliant! But those guys and Cheyenne Medders, who has worked on all three of my records. I vowed that I won’t make a recording without him because he’s a Swiss army knife in the studio and he’s brilliant! That’s the core of it. There were a couple other folks here and there that were on there, but for the most part, it was a pretty small crew.
Well, if I say that “She’s Seeing Somebody” is the most country song you’ve ever recorded, I also have to bring up the fact that this has got some of the most rock n’ roll that you have ever recorded as The Kernal. “Green, Green Sky”— Cotton really gets to work out his Lynyrd Skynyrd muscles on that one, and I absolutely love “Long Cool Finger”, man. It’s got that punk, southern rock thing all over it and it’s just cool as hell! Where did all that come?
With a song like “Long Cool Finger”, I’d had it more as maybe a traditional 4-piece rock n’ roll, country, southern rock kind of thing. We were like, “Alright, we’re ready for this one,” and we were sittin’ around tryin’ to figure it out, and Cheyenne tuned his guitar… This is the kinda brilliant, interesting mind that Cheyenne has, he tuned his guitar all to G or somethin’ like where it was just an open tuning. Not the kind of open tuning that you normally see. He just did it and ran it through all these pedals and stuff and started playin’ it. We were like, “Man, this is nasty!”
Same thing with Cotton. You don’t have to twist Cotton’s arm to make something a little raunchy and loud, you know? The two of those guys started messin’ around with that, and we were just like, “You know what? Let’s just do this! It’s different!” We did it fast, and it wasn’t what I was planning to do at all, but that’s what’s fun about bein’ in the studio is you have a plan, but the fun part sometimes is breaking that plan and departing from it when something else comes along that in the moment feels synergetic. That was definitely an example of like, “Let’s just do this! Who cares? There’s not a big label over us sayin’, ‘Well, we really need this for that market and this and that…’ We can do whatever we want, so let’s just do that!” And it felt good! I definitely have never sung anywhere near that hard on a recording before! Jerry Bernhardt was in the studio with me when I was cuttin’ the vocals for that. We got done and he was just lookin’ at me like he was kinda scared (laughs)! He was like, “I’ve never heard you do that. Are you okay?”
That’s got to be exciting at this point in time when you’re branchin’ out and doin’ things that even your pals are goin’, “Man, I ain’t never heard you do that before!” That’s got to be an extremely cool thing with this new record?
Well, yeah! And when you surround yourself with people that you respect and, and all that, it brings those things out of you. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the Get Back Beatles thing, but I was drooling watchin’ that this past weekend. Man, just sittin’ there watchin’ those guys collaborate on music was so fascinating to see that much footage of that collaborative process. No matter what was goin’ on personally with them, so much of that footage is them just jammin’ and havin’ a great time and takin’ each other to new heights. It was a fantastic thing to watch, but that’s the great thing about playin’ music really. Flannery O’Connor had a short story called “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, and I think about that line a lot. If everyone’s individually letting whatever’s in them rise with other people in the room– and it’s like that with any collaborative effort, I think– but you end up reaching something collaboratively that you wouldn’t have gotten on your own and that you wouldn’t have even thought. That’s the great joy of collaborating, especially when you’re holding guitars.
You bring up short stories. I listened to the podcast that you did with Rhett Miller talkin’ about writin’ short fiction. It put me in the mind of “Wrong Turn To Tupelo”. Fantastic song, by the way. It reminded me a lot of Tom T. Hall in the detail. I could see the cracks on the pavement and the goldenrod on the side of the road was makin’ my eyes water just listenin’ to that song! Tell me about branchin’ out into the short fiction. Is that something you’re extending from your songwriting or do you see your songwriting getting more from your short fiction?
It’s not really anything I’m tryin’ to exercise in terms of output or tryin’ to even release anything. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were comin’ off the road and some of the other side work that I had, it kinda dried up and I found myself for a few months in this holding pattern. I didn’t really need extra money at the time, so I just thought, “Maybe I’ll spend a few months and just pour myself into this every day and get up and see what comes out.” I think typically with any kind of creative effort, if you’re not doing it every day, you’re not really gonna see your full potential. If you wanna paint, if you’re not getting in the room and painting every day and creating that long-term relationship with the medium, I don’t know that you can really say that you’re getting everything outta yourself. So it was more of a few months’ time that I said I wanted to complete a couple things and send it off and get my rejection letter. I haven’t even gone back to look at the stories that I’ve written (laughs)! I think I sent them to my mom and maybe one other person! But it was a very fun thing for me to sit down and try to get a different kind of angle on the creative process.
When you’re writing songs, you’re really tryin’ to condense. There’s a lot of material in your mind, but you have to condense it down in a certain manner to get it to squeeze into 3 minutes and 10 seconds or whatever. But with a short story, you can just let yourself go and see what you can find. That was a lot of fun for me and maybe it’s somethin’ I’ll return back to and take more seriously in the future. When I was in school, I did some of that stuff for class and so I hadn’t done it in a long time– but who knows? I don’t think I was particularly blown away reading back over what I had written (laughs)! One story was just about two old ladies, they’re like next-door neighbors and they see a dog fight in the rain outside. They never talk to each other, but they both see this dog get beaten up in the road and they both kinda eke outta their homes to go check on this dog. I don’t know, maybe I should go back and read it. Maybe there’s some good parts in there (laughs)!
I imagine that attention to detail in there is the same kind of attention to detail you’re puttin’ in these songs you’re writin’. You do the same thing with “The Limit”, which is hilarious and cool all at the same time. With that song, is that personal or is that just observational? Did you grow up in the middle of nowhere? And do you feel like your skills have rusted to a degree?
(Laughs) Yeah, that one actually has got some personal elements to it. I mention in there that I “set my headin’s on hackin’ up the heavens in the Air Force,” but I’d actually tried to go into the Army outta high school and I failed my physical because I had a separated shoulder. So that part’s true. I started writin’ song about the city limits, so I was sayin’ I’ve been livin’ in the city too long. Eventually, I was like, “I like this idea of the city limits and the idea of the limiting. What does the city limit in people?” Having grown up in a very rural environment and remembering what it’s like to just out of necessity be connected to nature and how living in a city environment kind of cuts you off from nature in certain ways, that’s what that song’s about. The city’s puttin’ a damper on who I am in some ways.
My mom always says– and she brings this up a lot now ’cause she grew up on a farm where they grew their own food and slaughtered their own food– her theory, her philosophy is that the further away we get from raising and slaughtering our own food is directly contributing to the fall of civilization.
One hundred percent! Absolutely! I mean, some things outta sight, outta mind, no big deal, but you can just go to Kroger and get a pork chop. There’s that new David Attenborough documentary [A Life on Our Planet] that he calls his witness statement, but he talks about throughout the documentary how much of the world was wilderness and he brings you up to the present moment. It used to be all wilderness and now it’s like 28% wilderness and we’re basically just pouring concrete on the earth. Eventually, he’s sayin’ we’re not even gonna have any wilderness left– and what does that look like? We need a find creative ways to remind ourselves of those things ’cause we don’t collectively think about that kind of thing enough.
Which is an excellent segue into “Super (Marijuana) Walmart”, the idea that something wrong or something is considered wrong or bad until the corporations figure out how to properly package and exploit it. I saw on social media where you acknowledged the Last Prisoner Project, a group that actively advocates against the criminalization of marijuana. Do you feel like you’re flirting with politics when you say stuff like that?
Not really. I typically try to stay away from those well-worn paths of politics so that I can have my own voice with these things. I probably don’t say enough about some of those kind of things perhaps, but to me, it’s just an example of the way the world works in a negative way. I think I’d heard about that organization through Aaron Lee Tasjan, actually.
Well, that’s not a surprise at all!
Some of the statistics on that stuff… We can glorify everybody smokin’ Willie’s weed and look how cool this is and you go out on the West Coast and everybody’s walking around– and yet you have people who were locked up for 30 years for havin’ two little joints or somethin’, you know? It’s a crazy thing when you snap out of it and realize what the world’s based on time to time. To me, yeah, it’s a way to talk about that, but in a silly way. I based [the song] on this small town in Illinois that I went through one time, and I just love the idea of a bunch of old people goin’ like, “Hey, we got a new Walmart! It looks different. What is that? Whoa, everything’s made of marijuana! What is this! The world’s goin’ to hell in a handbasket!”