The Mill — Tue., Mar. 15 at 8 p.m.
Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin have been collaborating, writing and performing for over 30 years as Freakwater. Often saddled by media with the distinction of having pre-dated the insurgence of alternative country in the late ’80s and early ’90s, they will sarcastically attribute that to being almost determinedly out-of-step with music trends. The ten albums Freakwater has released since 1989 (when bass player Dave Gay joined the band) have been anchored in the country and bluegrass tradition, with folk and rock seasoning to taste. In February, Freakwater came back after an almost 10 year gap in their recordings with a new album called Scheherazade on their new label, Chicago-based Bloodshot Records. My interview with them took place a week before they kicked off the tour in support of the album, which will stop at The Mill on Mar. 15 (with Jaye Jayle and Morgan Geer’s Drunken Prayer; tickets are $15). Bean and Irwin are lively and engaging, with a kind of gallows humor about the career they’ve shared. It’s clear that they are proud of and very excited about the new record, and are anxious to share it on tour.
Little Village: How did we get here? It’s a big gap between Thinking of You and Scheherazade.
Janet Beveridge Bean: We went out [in 2012] for some shows to sort of celebrate the 20th anniversary of Feels Like the Third Time. “Celebrate” might be the wrong word—maybe “mark the occasion.” We did that with Jim Elkington—he came along. And we had such a good time and the songs were sounding really great. Jim is like the devil—he just insinuates himself in a band and then it’s really hard to imagine it without him after that. Then he goes to another band. He kept saying, “You guys sound really great—you need to make another record!” So, we were always thinking about it and planning on it, but he got us more motivated to do it. We thought he was going to join us to do it, but he got the good fortune to join Tweedy and some other things. So, we’re like: “We’ve got to find another way to do this—we’re going to ask some folks from Louisville to play because we’ve never done it that way. Try to put together a solid band, and not worry about whether they can go on tour with us.”
Catherine Irwin: It wasn’t that we were never NOT playing shows, and it wasn’t that we were never not trying to figure out when we were going to make another record. I think that Janet made at least four records in that time.
Bean: And Catherine made a really great solo record and toured for that. So, we were busy doing stuff.
Irwin: Yeah. We had been playing Freakwater shows. We didn’t want to hog the spotlight. We just wanted to let other people make records during that time.
Bean: (laughs) We’d come to realize that there are just SO many records being made, it was probably easier on everyone if Freakwater didn’t make a record!
Is the touring band the band that is on the album?
Bean: By and large, yeah. There are a couple of people who aren’t—the keyboard player is not, the cellist Sara [Balliet] is not, she’s on two songs. Warren [Ellis, of Dirty Three]’s not—he played on two songs, but everybody else, pretty much.
Bean: Jim played on some of it, and he’s not going to be with us.
Irwin: Our Moog player [Jonathan Glen Wood] isn’t, but pretty much the core band from the record is with us, so it’s pretty great.
Bean: Since we made the record last year, we tried to play at least once a month at different things up until about a month or so ago just so we could solidify the band. So, I really feel like we have a pretty solid band. It doesn’t feel like we went straight from the studio to playing these shows and figure out how to be a band. We’ve played enough shows now that it feels like a band.
I can’t wait to hear “Down Will Come Baby” live—it has that two-chord extended bridge section.
Bean: That will be interesting, we haven’t played that one yet. That was one of those things that kind of came together in the studio but people felt pretty confident that it wasn’t going to be on the record. The jam section of the song was really long and we had to trim it down. It grew on us.
Irwin: I think the final mixing of it really made the difference. [Scheherazade studio engineer] Kevin Ratterman did an excellent job on that.
Bean: He got our shit together—
Irwin: His triumphal moment was wrangling that song.
Bean: We added the rhythm after we had the guitars—so it was kind of backwards. So, it was kind of confounding to the person trying to play the drums and then there was the kind of free time section in the middle. All of this was happening kind of simultaneously because I had never played the song and sung it at the same time. I wanted this Isley Brothers-meets-Deliverance kind of sound and Kevin did a great banjo part and Evan [Patterson] with his Wah-Wah … To me it was everything I had hoped it would be and more.
Irwin: I think it was Jonathan who said, “Make that section longer,” when he was doing his Moog part when we were practicing at Dreamland [in Lexington, Ky.]. I think it all came together pretty amazing sounding.
Bean: So we’ll see how we can pull this off live.
Irwin: I think we can—as long as it’s not a coffeehouse, as long as there is alcohol.
Bean: As long as it is dark and they are serving alcohol.
Mike Roeder will be the shine in your Japan, the sparkle in your China. When he’s not closely examining the deadwax of vinyl copies of LZ II for “RL,” he’s blogging at www.playbsides.com. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 194.