Laser Lasers Birmingham returns with a set of twangers tackling the political and literal sickness of the last year, and like his excellent 2019 full-length debut, Warning, these new cuts sparkle with ’70s rhinestone rhetoric and weird country goodness. For Alex Owen, the alter ego of LLB, “Makin’ A Scene” bucks the “shut up and sing” mentality that often dominates other varieties of country music. It’s a chance to add his voice to the chorus of frustration that’s surrounded the search for truth and social harmony, and while it endures, a refusal to simply pull a Stetson down over his eyes and ignore the struggle. “Can You Believe My Luck” injects a dose of honky tonk humor into the pandemic landscape with an end of days love story that resonates with telecasters and bravado courtesy of producer and Bakersfield Sound enthusiast Elijah Ocean. Once again, Lasers Lasers Birmingham and a savvy crew of desperados uniquely capture the grit and haze of the Los Angeles country music scene in all its weird and wild glory.
AI- I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to speak to a lot of different artists through all stages of the quarantine and the pandemic– and while all of the major political stuff has been going on– and I would say that for the overwhelming majority of folks, it’s really been a shell shock kind of situation. It’s like you ask, “Are you writin’ about this? Is this somethin’ that’s entering into your work?” And most folks are telling me, “No, it’s not.” You just released this brand new song, “Makin’ A Scene”. “Change begins in the mind.” I’m completely with you. I believe the real revolution has to take place individually and internally.
LLB- Yeah, definitely. It took me a while to get to the point where I could write about it because I think shell shocked, indeed, was exactly how I felt. It [takes] a while to process the information and the emotions before you can really make a song out of it. There, for a while, I was pretty bummed about all the touring being canceled. We were playin’ Stagecoach last spring and I was so excited– and to have that not happened was such a bummer. So for the beginning of the pandemic, I was just bummed. But then as things got crazier and crazier, I was like, “No, wait a minute! I have some stuff I want to get off my chest.” That’s how these two songs were born, especially with “Makin’ A Scene”.
To see the political and cultural shifts and unrest in this country going on it’s, it’s heartbreaking and frustrating and you want to go out and do something and try to affect change in a positive manner. But a lot of times that isn’t possible. I think a lot of stuff we saw in 2020– tryin’ to go out and do something makes it worse (laughs)! And that’s just what these songs were born into. When I look back at this weird time, I don’t want to have not put out some art and made some comment because this is a situation that demands a response in some way or form. This was my response.
Did it takes you out of your comfort zone in any way to consider and then to write a song like that? I mean, what you do, you’ve always been very open that it’s skirting the fringe anyway, but when you legitimately do make a statement, did that take you out of your comfort zone as a writer?
Absolutely! It was way out of my comfort zone because I have these feelings and these reactions, and there’s a lot of people that don’t share my perspective. And I need to get this stuff off my chest! I need to be able to speak how I feel. I don’t want to alienate anyone else, but I had to! There’s so many insane issues to be dealt with in 2021, that on either side of the issue, you could have similar feelings to “Makin’ A Scene”. The opening line is like, “Only the young and the old are free to say what’s really on their mind,” and I think that’s true of where you fall anywhere on the political, social, cultural pinwheel.
You told me that with Warning, in many ways, it was about those characters and sometimes the Lasers Lasers Birmingham character losing control. What about now? What about with this new music that you’ve been makin’? What seems to be the theme running with the characters in these songs?
With “Makin’ A Scene”, it’s just that frustration and that anger about seein’ a situation that you don’t agree with and you think is bad and not being able to do anything about it. One of the only things you really can do, you can always make your voice heard in some way. You can go protest or you can write a Facebook post, or you can write an outlaw country song. I can’t cure COVID and I can’t stop riots, but I can make my voice heard. The way I feel, I don’t think I’m radically different than most folks. And if I feel that way, there’s probably a lot of other people that feel that way too. That’s one great benefit of music is that you can be a mouthpiece for the way a lot of people feel, and when they hear some commonality coming out of the radio, it makes them feel better. I’ve been on both sides of that experience.
It’s tough, though– and especially in any kind of country music– when you get hit with that “shut up and sing” mentality.
Yeah. That’s tough. I couldn’t disagree more with “shut up and sing.” That’s the whole point! The artists and the musicians that you love, part of what you love about them is their perspective! If you remove perspective from the writing process, I’m not sure what would be left, you know? I’m always fascinated! There’s so many musicians and artists– obviously, I love their music– but I’m always fascinated to find out a little bit more about them. It gives the music more context and I can enjoy it more when I know a little bit of a backstory or a story about it.
I mentioned in our correspondence that it sounded like you’ve been listenin’ to your Buck Owens records and that really shines on “Can You Believe My Luck”. Last time we spoke, you expressed your admiration for Elijah Ocean, who back in 2019, I believe, had just released “Bring Back That Bakersfield Sound”. He was at the helm for these sessions– and I’d say the Bakersfield sound was more than apparent! Is there more of that on the way outside of these two tracks that you just released?
I think so! Workin’ with Elijah’s great. I’ve even played in Bakersfield quite a few times, and there’s definitely some great country players and great country bands out there, but when you play a Buck or a Merle song or Dwight song, people freak out! They’re like, “People don’t play that in Bakersfield!” And I was like, “Well, it is a little bit on the nose, but I wanna do it anyway!”
The Bakersfield Sound, I just love it, and Elijah definitely helped me really craft that very specific sound that is the Bakersfield Sound. I came to him with the tune and we worked on it together. He co-wrote both songs and produced it and played and sang on it. We really had to work together to put my weird ideas into the Bakersfield Sound box– but I think that we were successful in that, certainly. And man, just Buck! He’s just such an interesting guy…
Oh, no kiddin’ (laughs)!
Not only an incredible guitar player and writer, but an awesome businessman and he owned all these radio stations… I have some friends that play country music in Bakersfield and they play at the Crystal Palace. That place is so much fun! Yeah, I love anything and all Buck Owens!
On Warning, we talked at length about the great players that you had on that record. And you told me how lucky you were with the timing of having everyone in town at those necessary moments. How ’bout this new stuff? First off, who’s on this record? And what’s it been like recording during the pandemic?
This was a totally new way of working for me. I didn’t have the same cast of folks– not necessarily for like availability ’cause they were around, but because we needed to record something remotely and not everyone has an adequate home studio. On this record, I tracked all the vocals at Elijah’s place. Elijah played bass and Telecaster and sang backups. And then we have Jeremy Long, who has played with Sam Outlaw and a million other people. He plays in Elijah’s band as well, tremendous player. He played Telecaster, pedal steel, and keyboards. He’s incredible! And then we also had Aaron Goodrich behind the kit. He’s played with Nikki Lane and Colter Wall. He’s an awesome drummer and super fun to hang out with! He was in Nashville, Jeremy was in North Carolina, and Elijah and I were in LA.
Usually, with recording, there’s always overdubs, but there’s a vibe of the people in the room and the camaraderie and the ideas that come out when you’re like drinkin’ beer in the parking lot of the studio. It’s a different experience. I don’t think either one is better or worse, it’s just different– and different things come out as a result. Things that probably wouldn’t have come out if we were all together would come out working remotely. So it was definitely a little different, but the result seems to be okay (laughs)!
Let’s go another direction here. You were one of the very first people I thought of when I got the news that Jerry Jeff Walker had passed away.
Like so many people, I was devastated. I can only imagine what you did when you found out.
I saw it online, and I had to call my mom and dad and let ’em know. It was really like telling them that a family member had passed! It was tough! His music was such a soundtrack for my childhood. My parents and I, we moved around a lot for my dad’s job and whenever I heard Jerry Jeff Walker, I knew it was either time to pack the moving van or clean the house. Because my dad would always put on Jerry Jeff Walker when he was like sweepin’ or something. Actually, I have a really awesome Jerry Jeff Walker story.
By all means!
My parents were living in Austin, Texas. I was there too, but I think I musta been four or five. My dad’s company was goin’ out of business and he was gonna lose his job. My mom and dad went to a bar to try to have a drink and figure out what the next step is. And I love that like their first, go-to move is like, “Well, we should go get a drink!” So they’re at just this regular neighborhood bar in Austin– and Jerry Jeff is at the bar! And he’s had a few and they’ve had a few and so they start explaining their situation like, “Oh, we don’t know what we’re gonna do…” He’s like, “Well, I’ll put you on the list for this Gruene Hall show I have comin’ up next week and maybe that’ll make ya’ll feel better.” They were like, “Oh, that’s so nice! That’s incredible!”
The next morning, they were like, “You know, he probably isn’t gonna remember that he put us on the list, but he is playing’ and we do love him. We’re gonna go to Gruene Hall and check it out, get a babysitter– and if he puts us on the list, so be it! If he doesn’t, we’ll just buy tickets.” And sure enough, he remembered them! They were on the list! And they’ve been talkin’ about it ever since! When I was a little kid, I was always like, “Now, wait a minute– what side of the family is Jerry Jeff on?” Yeah, that was a tough one in a year of a lot of tough things.
Yeah. And then a week later, Billy Joe [Shaver]!
That one was particularly devastating for me, ’cause I just loved that old man! He was just this sweet, crazy… You didn’t know what he was gonna do at any given point in time, but whatever it was, it was probably gonna be awesome! That aspect of this year, of the pandemic, of all of that goin’ down, there’s lots of things that it’s done, but I think for me, one particular thing is that it’s shown just how many cracks and outright legitimate holes there are in everything. For musicians and for the music industry, that effect– apocalyptic is what it is. If there was a normal before for the music industry, do you think that we’re gonna be able to go back to it? And I’ll also say, do you think we should?
It’s hard to say. People are hungry to go to shows. I know I am! But I think it’s gonna return in a different way. I hope that it returns with smaller, more intimate shows that are really curated and really, really focused on the experience of going to a show and reminds people of the value that a live show holds and the value of music. In our society, how often do you go places where there’s silence? You go to the grocery store, there’s music. You’re in an elevator, there’s music. Everywhere you go, there’s music. I think people have been disconnected from the value of music in everyday life– and especially live music.
I hope that when things open back up that this helps people feel that value. You never know what you got until it’s gone (laughs)! I went from either playing a show or going to a show probably four or five nights a week to zero. So I certainly feel the value in seeing my friends play, seeing my friends succeed on tours, checking out a new band, finding a new favorite band, all those little things. There’s tremendous value in that and music’s kind of a commodity. I just hope that as a society, we’ll see a little bit more value recognized in what musicians do.
Tell me what the plan goin’ forward is. You’ve got these two new songs out. You say that you hope that there’s going to be more to come. Do you intend to continue releasing tracks like this? Or do you see a larger project, like an album, coming down the road?
I think that the idea of an album is so romantic. The way I have consumed music in the past is someone puts out a new album, you sit down, turn off the TV, I’m just gonna spend time with this album. And it’s such a romantic thing to listen to someone’s new album or to create an album, knowing that that’s how it’s going to be consumed. But I’m not sure if people consume music like that very often? The playlist is a much more powerful vehicle for people’s songs and to put out singles, it makes perhaps better business sense. But I think I’m gonna make an album next.
I don’t know when or how that’s gonna happen, but I’ve been thinking, “What’s the next thing to do?” I’ve got some ideas, no spoiler alerts, but I think an album is probably in the works for me next. Hopefully, the timing will coincide with the time that I can get out on the road and push it and promote it with tours. So much of it’s just up in the air. We’ll see. But these two songs, I’m really proud of ’em. It’s the most straightforward country stuff I’ve ever done. Workin’ with Elijah was great. It was good to get these ideas off my chest, but in a way that it’s kind of a comforting sound. Everyone knows what outlaw feels like, knows what the Bakersfield Sound feels– but with a more topical commentary.
And don’t forget the weird country twist!
Always a weird country twist! A post-apocalyptic love song ala Buck Owens? I thought that was pretty weird!