We recently journeyed to the breathtaking high desert of Joshua Tree, CA for Desert & Denim - a raucous annual trade show of renegade brands and independent makers. Nativen Sounds was granted exclusive access to the musicians who had come to play the trade show's magical evening events, and we sat down with 3 exceptional artists for in-depth conversations. This is the second of three interviews in our new series.
I met Bart Budwig over glasses of whiskey before his raucous set at Pappy & Harriet’s, the storied roadside honky tonk in the California desert. A skilled sound engineer by trade and a tireless road dog at heart, he was perfectly at home sleeping out back in a tent that night and rolling out with his band at 5am the next morning, chasing the sun to his next gig. For Bart, the road is not an escape from his life in tiny Enterprise, Oregon, but a vehicle to dredge the reaches of his own psyche - the act of playing his songs night after night is catharsis through performance. He is running head-long into an exploration of humanity, loss, religion, and how to find humor in the things we struggle to talk about.
His new concept album (his 5th full-length record) Paint By Numbers Jesus is a meditation on Jesus as a cultural figure, and a walk through the mind of someone who is processing their place on the faith spectrum. It was inspired, partly, by Willie Nelson’s Redheaded Stranger, a group of cover songs, strung together tightly by Nelson originals, all coalescing on a theme. Budwig’s PBNJ showcases his arranging skills on Bobby Bare’s silly-yet-earnest “Dropkick me Jesus” turning it into a ska-tinged party. And he amps up Tom Waits’ irreverent “Chocolate Jesus” bringing it to a swamp-funky climax. His own writing poignantly holds the pieces together to form a whole - specifically Nebraska 2, on which his clear, affect-less voice rings through like a church bell at the top of the record.
PBNJ was recorded at the OK Theater, Budwig’s home-base and music laboratory. He manages the live sound for the venue, and records and mixes an array of other musicians in the lofty space. He mixed 12 albums there last year, one of them - John Craigie’s No Rain, No Rose - is currently topping the Americana charts.
Budwig has an extensive web of friends and collaborators across the Northwest, so when it came time to record this album he was ready to call on the best.
Kat: Walk me through the recording process for this new record
Bart: This album was completely intuitive. It was recorded live, on the stage, without an audience. I brought the musicians together, we hadn't ever played the songs together. I'd show them a song, and then we'd practice it and record it, and then we'd move on to the next song. We recorded the whole album in 14 hours. It was recorded, mixed, and mastered in three weeks.
I kept all my vocals from the live takes. It captured something different. All the microphones bleed into each other, and the room sounds really good at the OK Theatre. That's a huge benefit of the room. It sounds amazing in there.
Recording live is good [when] you're in a great space. It just feels different. It feels more like an older record. I don't believe there's a wrong way to record. People make great music recording all different ways, but I think recording live is the most fun. That's honestly why I do it. And I had a new musician. I had a guitar player from Seattle come down that nobody in my band had ever played with (Simon Kornelis). I knew he was really groovy, and this record is more groovy than my other records. Having someone fresh in the room makes you think and see people differently.
Kat: That's fun, it keeps you right on the edge
Bart: Everybody was really attentive, just trying to grasp all the ideas at once. People were really open to learning. I told them what I wanted, groove wise and feel wise, but it was more like a feeling. Not a part. Everyone was trying to create something.
Kat: So you’re not composing all the parts ahead of time…
Bart: No. I'm more of a songwriter/ideas person. I do the other stuff. I do love recording and live sound. I love working in the technical side of music, and I love writing, and I love playing music. But playing music is my favorite. I work with lots of really good musicians. They know way more than me.
Kat: You bring in the best people, and you just set them free.
Bart: Bringing the right people together is huge. I have a core group of musicians but I get to play with a lot of musicians in the Northwest. There’s a lot of great music coming out of the Northwest like Spokane, Moscow, Enterprise, Irking… I have a lot of good music friends around really just from running live sound for so long.
Kat: What’s your song writing process like? Do you have a ritual surrounding it?
Bart: I’m not very much of a pattern-based person, which makes sense why I would enjoy being on the road and playing music because you can’t create a schedule. If creating a schedule that you have to stick to is important, being on the road is going to be difficult because nothing goes as planned.
I’m more of an absorbent personality. I feel my brain is thinking about all these things, and then once I start writing, the thing s start fitting together like a puzzle almost and that’s normally when I get a song done. It can’t be something I know or is completely planned because then it won’t be interesting to me.
Kat: What’s an example of a song like that?
Bart: “Nebraska 2.” I was thinking about being young and all the shit that went on in a particular relationship. A lot of the song talks about shame and guilt, and growing up, and feeling like sex is wrong, and trying to make sense of all that. And I was listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen. So there’s processing [the relationship] in my head and then combining it with Bruce Springsteen, the [song] location ended up being, “Nebraska,” because he has his album called Nebraska, and then I say “Played to the boss” because it’s like a pun between God and Bruce Springsteen, the Boss being his nickname.
And then that’s where the line “The Chicken Man” comes from in [Springsteen’s song] “Atlantic City.” I like that combination. Of words and the imagery and after the fact though, after writing it, I was like, “I think that’s about me being a coward actually,” (laughs) but when I wrote it, I was literally just thinking about Bruce Springsteen.
And so instead of me writing, “Here’s the story about my life,” it’s like, “Here’s the story, but then I can make some puns and word play about things I’m really enjoying.” And that’s what makes it so that I want to play a song because it’s fun to me, because the chicken man came from someone else, so it can mean more than one thing to me, and the Boss can mean more than one thing.
I wanted the song to be interesting and fun for me because then I want to play it for people. That’s an omen of a bad song: I’ll write it and then I play it for people, and I get bored with it because it’s not interesting.
Kat: So the way you like to perform is now having an effect on the way you write
Bart: Yes that’s affected my newer songs, I have much more of those small, little tidbits that maybe only I will know what they are. But when I’m on stage, I can be thinking about these different things, and that makes it fun, and if I’m having fun and if I’m confident in the songs, then people will enjoy them.
Kat: You’re giving a gift to your future self
Kat: Talk to me about the concept for your new album Paint By Numbers Jesus, and how your relationship with religion plays into the record. Did you grow up in the church?
Bart: Yes, and I definitely would still consider myself a religious person. People who identify as Christian would probably say I’m agnostic and people who were atheist or agnostic probably would say I was a Christian. I’m just trying to make sense of lots of stuff. The paint-by-numbers Jesus concept - there are different colors. It doesn’t matter if you believe or don’t believe in Jesus. He’s a really strong image. He provokes powerful emotions whether it’s negative or positive, for most people.
And I had that paint-by-numbers Jesus up in my apartment because a friend gave it to me. He got it at a yard sale, and I just thought it was sweet. But lots of people ask me questions about it. A lot of people feel uncomfortable too. They’ll ask me, “Why do you have that?” The songs present that, just all different sorts of colors and variations of this character that’s meaningful to a lot of people, and definitely to me.
The album is me processing where I’m at through other people’s songs, and then also writing my own songs. But a lot of the songs I picked are because I think they’re fun and silly. I wasn’t trying to take it too seriously, but I also wanted people to be a little uncomfortable with it.
Kat: Religion is a funny thing. It does take itself really seriously.
Bart: I think what I wanted is to step into the middle ground. I have a lot of really close friends and family that are conservative. I feel really weird and vulnerable with this record, but I have to do it. It’s me processing things. And then there are friends that aren’t religious, they’re like, “Why are you making your record about Jesus?” and it’s like, “Well, I guess it’s … I’m just trying to figure things out but also have fun, and then… [record] Drop Kick me Jesus and Chocolate Jesus.” (laughs)
And the thing is though with those songs, I think they’re great whether or not you think certain things are true or not. Those are great satires. If you are a Christian, you should be able to listen to those songs and laugh. They shouldn’t offend you. I don’t think so.
Kat: Religion in the modern age is so interesting. The intersection of modern knowledge and pure faith makes religion such a conscious choice for people now.
Bart: Faith is a very important thing, or hope, humanity. By singing songs about prayer or the age of reason, I’m able to present them to people and play them with band members and sing them… I think that’s a big part of why I play music. It helps me process stuff through the act of playing, and that’s probably a big part of making this record. I’m a little uncomfortable with it because then I feel really vulnerable even though it probably isn’t that big of a deal.
Kat: It’s really brave though. This public process. It’s like putting out a memoire and knowing that you’re going to air dirty laundry about your ex or piss off the town busybody
Bart: I feel that very strongly.
Kat: Have you had any reactions yet, positive or negative?
Bart: I’ve already had so many conversations with these songs. I beat that insecurity by talking about the album and playing the songs. I end up having really good conversations with people. It’s just like when you’re feeling pain or you’re struggling with something, when you talk to people, people just get it. You really can connect.
Kat: What’s your tour schedule like these days?
Bart: I’m touring a lot. In April, I’m doing a Europe tour - Central Europe, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Croatia.
Kat: They’ll really respect that beard.
Bart: Guess what I just learned? Bart, B-A-R-T is German for beard, no shit. My marketability has to be so high in Germany (laughing).
Kat: You’ve got to get some Lederhosen and just really lean in the whole Beard Budwig persona.
Kat: What’s your relationship like with other people’s music? What kids of things are you drawn to?
Bart: My favorite thing is songs that are produced really well and that doesn’t mean high production necessarily, just songs that I identify with how they sound. Or songs that are really shitty, like they sound bad. It sounds like they just plugged in an acoustic guitar like everything is offensive to me, but it’s a great song.
Kat: Is that a hindrance to you like, “Oh, that’s a great song but I can’t listen to it because it hurts my ears. The production is so bad”
Bart: Well, I think that’s what’s inspiring for me though. I like looking for songs that I want to change how they sound, but I love when the song is so good that it sounds so bad and I still love it.
Kat: What are you listening to right now?
Bart: I’ve been mixing the Shook Twins new album, so I’m listening to that a lot, but my main answer is I’ve honestly just been practicing four hours a day with the band, so I’ve been doing more resting my ears more than actually listening.
When you’re being blasted with noise constantly, you have to have a break for your ears. And a lot of times, if you don’t give yourself a break, you don’t ever write new songs. That’s the scary thing. Creating space is important. Though we did listen to Jim Croce on the way over. He’s one of my favorites, my dad listened to him when I was kid.
Kat: What else did your parents listen to?
Bart: Jim Croce, Simon and Garfunkel and James Taylor. Those are the three that they listened to that I still will go back to today. I absolutely love Jim Croce.
Kat: Are your parents still back at home living in the same spot?
Bart: My dad is in Boise. My mom passed away when I was 12. She was hit and killed. I didn’t write songs till after my first girlfriend was hit and killed as well when I was 22… and that brokenness, that humanness really, in a lot of ways… You know when things crush you… they take shape once you’re able to actually work through it hopefully when you’re not depressed [anymore]. If you can work through it, it’s like … I don’t think I could write songs [without these experiences].
It’s not because I’m writing directly about those things, but I think that those losses really affected my ability to observe and be sensitive. Knowing the elements of what it is to be human inside… I don’t think I would have had that without those losses honestly. I’m pretty strong-willed. So I think they helped soften me and round me out. I think in songs, people see that. If you’re being honest and real and if you can observe some things about what it is to be human, people know.
This new record has way more bass and drums [than previous albums] and it’s like, there are way more songs that make you want to just dance and smile and maybe drink. I want the lightness of the feel of the record to be a big part of it as well. I want it to be thought-provoking but that fun element is really most important to me now. All of my older records are all way more serious. I’m not a serious guy but I don’t think my sarcastic, lighter, funner side has ever really come out.
Kat: Anyone who names an album Jalapeno Business, you can tell there’s a bit of a sense of humor shining through.
Bart: I’m working on that side, the fun side.
Interview by: Kat Parker
Photos by: Jac Potorke
This interview has been condensed & edited
Paint By Numbers Jesus will be released April 1 and available on itunes, bandcamp, and spotify
All images copyright of Nativen and Jac Potorke