Returning to Memphis’s Sam Phillips Studio, the crucible of 2020’s postulating Rust Belt heartacher Die Midwestern, Arlo McKinley’s This Mess We’re In picks up where his Oh Boy Records debut left off, punching for all he’s worth with eleven lifters that fill in the gaps of the pandemic years, marry the broken edges that nevertheless endeavor to fit, and offer such comfort as one man managing his own pain can. The Ohio native was nursed on a family record collection of hillbilly country, working man’s soul, and earnest songwriting but cut his teeth in the Cincinnati punk scene before segueing, like friend and former bandmate Jeremy Pinnell, from DIY cathartic-ism into a twang-flavored realm of confessional yet still visceral Americana. As with his previous effort, McKinley populates This Mess We’re In with urban desperados battling baser instincts and yearning for escape while filtering his own frustrations through a second-record intimacy developed alongside the returning crew of producer Matt Ross-Spang, Ken Coomer, Will Sexton, Jessie Munson, Dave Smith, Rick Steff, and Reba Russell. Arlo dials back the twang but not the paradigm, excelling through an instinctual connection that favors Dylan and The Band and evolves McKinley’s already considerable songwriting.
AI- On your social media, you said– and you contributed the quote to Jody Whelan– “What a time to be alive…” What are you– 40 now? Just a little over 40?
AM- I’ll be 43 this year, actually.
I just turned 45, and of course, you don’t notice these things so much when you’re young, but I can’t ever remember existing in such an extraordinary time. Even if there weren’t outside forces, you’ve had plenty to write about since Die Midwestern!
Oh, yeah! I have this record now, This Mess We’re In, and I’m already, I’d say over halfway through on writing what’ll come next. I’m not constantly writing, but I’m always looking for inspiration to write– especially when we’re out on the road. You just observe conversations, you do a lot o’ people watchin’, and you run into people from all kindsa different walks o’ life. My mother passed away shortly before Die Midwestern came out, lost quite a few friends to drug addiction and them giving up on that fight, and it’s just been a rough few years. It’s kept me creative– and that sounds weird to say, but…
I don’t think it does.
That’s the kind o’ stuff that I write about, the human condition, I think. It’s definitely kept me busy, whether it’s just tryin’ to figure out how to navigate through all this pandemic stuff or goin’ overseas while there’s wars going on.
On Die Midwestern, I think you had some songs for that record that had been around but hadn’t been committed in a way that you were comfortable with for an album. On This Mess We’re In, if I understand it right, these are all brand new songs specifically written during this time and for this record. Was that different for you going into the studio having extremely fresh material?
Yeah, for sure. This whole experience was night and day compared to Die Midwestern. I think I revisited maybe one song that I had written prior, but everything else on there is strictly what I’ve been going through since Die Midwestern was recorded. I say often that’s kinda the way I make records. I think each record of mine will be just another chapter in my life. It’ll be a little time capsule of a couple years. I think I live for a couple years then I look back on it and write along the way. Goin’ down there this time with brand new songs, and with Matt Ross-Spang, him and I had spoken about wantin’ to make an album completely different from Die Midwestern, and I think we succeeded very much.
I remember “To Die For”, I literally finished that the day before I went down to Sam Phillips, and Matt hadn’t heard it. For Die Midwestern, it was different because he had demos that we had recorded in a studio here, and this time, he had maybe a few recordings of me just playin’ on an acoustic guitar. I know that the band– it’s the same band from Die Midwestern— had never heard these songs until they were being played there for them, and I was there for that. With Die Western, they already kinda knew the songs. I thought it was cool watchin’ these songs come to life in a way that I wouldn’t be able to do without Matt. And we had more time on this one to get it right. I think we recorded Die Midwestern in six days, seven days. On this one, we did like fourteen days maybe. This record is where I’ve been ever since you heard from me last!”
Since you brought up “To Die For”, I’ll go ahead and jump on that. Whatever your original intention for it was, that song has 2022 written all over it! And there’s also a smattering, I think, of “Decoration Day” about it. Who’s tellin’ the story, and who are they talkin’ too?
I’d say it’s me or someone like me, a musician. The more that I would see someone– like the business aspect of things– in music, there’s a lotta things that kinda push the artist out of the way that comes along with even just a little bit of success. A lot o’ people start comin’ around thinkin’ they know what’s best for you, and there’s definitely some lines in that song where it’s just about how much places like Nashville have changed. Now, it’s almost like the Times Square of Tennessee, and [it’s about] just how much authenticity is really down there in those bars. I think, basically, it comes down, to bein’ a song about musicians who are doin’ it just to make art, who don’t really wanna get caught up in all the other stuff. I’ve heard other people give me their explanations, which is always kinda interesting. Which I love to hear! I love that these songs can mean something completely different to other people.
I think that there was a time where I was worried about every move I made bein’ watched by the label or bein’ watched by someone in the industry and realizin’ that maybe I should keep my eye out on them as much as they’re keepin’ it out on me! Because anytime the business starts gettin’ involved… You know, there’s some things that I call gross about the music industry. I’ve gotten pretty lucky to have the label behind me that I have and a good management team and I do feel that we’re on the same page, but the bigger things get, people wanna have a story and wanna have their time spent with ya’, and there’s always someone who knows what you should be doin’.
I grew up in punk scenes and metal scenes where we did everything ourselves. We put on our own shows, we booked our own shows outta town, so we never really had to deal with that kind of stuff. And now, bein’ 40 years old– 43 (laughs)– things can be a little weird. Originally [“To Die For”] was a message to some o’ the seedier parts of the music industry.
I love Memphis, Tennessee, I’ve never spent as much time there as I’ve wanted to, and I’ve never visited Sam Phillips [Studio]. I’ve read some stuff you’ve said about workin’ there, and you’re not the first person to comment on that place being suspended in time. The weight of the past of that room combined with the emotional weight of this album, I can only imagine how you felt. Tell me about the process and bein’ back with Matt and the same crew.
This time goin’ down, I thought I’d maybe be a little more used to it knowin’ what I’m expecting, but you can’t walk through those front doors and not feel like you’re somewhere special. It’s one of those things where they really haven’t touched anything– you know, they’ve done some upgrades, but they a have a third floor that you’re not even allowed to take pictures on (laughs) just because it’s Sam Phillips’ office and never been changed! And then, you just kinda sit there and think, “Okay, I’m standin’ here doin’ vocals, and Jerry Lee Lewis stood in the same spot! Johnny Cash!”
Roland Janes set this microphone up!
Yeah! That list goes on! There’s so many cool things like that, so it’s overwhelming every time but in a good way! And at least for me– and this isn’t a negative– it puts a pressure on me where I don’t want to go in there and make a bad record (laughs)! You’re recordin’ in one o’ the best places probably in the world to record, and I don’t wanna come out o’ there with somethin’ that’s not worthy of bein’ recorded there. Meeting Jerry Phillips, Sam’s brother, he stopped by when he found out I was comin’ back through… It’s one place where the music’s all that still matters. Everyone’s hangin’ out, it kinda has a little clubhouse feel to it where everyone’s doin’ their thing.
Takin’ these songs in there was good. Die Midwestern, I was super nervous. I had never made an album with a real producer before or in a real studio like that. I think Die Midwestern was me gettin’ my feet wet, and This Mess We’re In is me embracing all of it and jumping in and focusing on the positives. And how I said earlier, the way those songs came together, Matt literally would pull out the phone, let everyone hear it, and then we’d go in the room and record it live. Just to see how it came together there, I don’t know if it’s the place, if it’s the players, or what it is, but I don’t think this album could’ve been recorded anywhere else and turned out how it did. I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve ever done than this album.
Every single song on this record could be the grand finale. There is an ultimate sense to every track, and I wondered were you aware of that?
No, not at the time. And I do get what you’re saying. No, I wasn’t aware of that. I knew that I wanted “Here’s To The Dying” to be the final song on it– just because it’s a big, kinda Memphis gospel-type song– but I get what you’re saying. It wasn’t a planned thing– I had no idea how these songs were gonna sound until we ran through ’em a couple times. This album’s just a lot bigger than the last one. I think the last album was more a straight country album in some ways and on this record, I just went in a few different directions with a lot of indie stuff on there. And then I was even influenced by film, like Wes Anderson movies. Just stuff like that– music that can paint a picture in your mind while you’re listening to it. I think I was aware of that pretty quickly, but this record could’ve been in any order, and I would’ve been fine with it. I was listenin’ to a lot of Nick Cave and Nick Drake at the time, so I think there’s definitely a lot of Nick Drake-sounding things throughout this album, especially musically with Jessie Munson playin’ violin and Rick Steff from Lucero on the keyboard and organ– I mean, I couldn’t do it without him or her! That whole studio band just gets what I’m tryin’ to do for whatever reason (laughs)!
The title of the album, I feel like you don’t get the positivity, necessarily, of the song in the title. But the song itself is about love amidst the pandemic. Tell me about that.
That’s exactly what that song is! During the pandemic, I found myself meeting my partner that I’m with now, and it started off as bein’, “Here we go, we’re gonna try this relationship! Relationships are messy!” (Laughs) It was more of just a personal thing between her and I of “this mess we’re in.” And then, I’d written the song but didn’t know I was gonna name the album that until I started thinkin’ about it. That title can translate to a lotta people in different ways, especially for these past couple years because I think everyone is in some kind of mess– or was. I think people are maybe getting out of things now a little bit, but you know, it’s still there. And even not with just the pandemic. It’s everything.
The couple years we’ve experienced have been almost unreal, whether it’s politics stuff or whether it’s problems with police in the community or whatever it is. I’m not sayin’ any of this is my issues, this is stuff that we’ve been fed every day for the past two years on the news and TV, and it just seems like we’ve been hearing nothing but negative things. There hasn’t been a whole lot of positive out in the world. I looked at it that way and thought it was a good name for the record, but it is strange because “This Mess We’re In” is probably the most lighthearted song on there (laughs)! It started off as a relationship comment and then ended up meanin’ a lot more than that.