On his 13th album, after a decade-plus of excellent but often underappreciated self-released efforts, Tyler Keith once again finds himself with a new release on a record label.
The upstart Memphis label Black & Wyatt Records recently has put out the longtime Oxford, Mississippi, rock-n-roller’s The Last Drag, an outstanding solo work that came about after a recording session with the band he’s best known for – the Neckbones – fell through at the last minute. Check out my review of The Last Drag for The Big Takeover.
I have frequently played Keith solo and his bands – the Neckbones, the Preacher’s Kids, the Apostles and Teardrop City – on my radio show, Zero Hour, and I’m most definitely a big fan. It was a great pleasure to see him perform in July 2017 at Circle A in Milwaukee (see photo below) and meet Tyler in person.
He graciously agreed to chat with Quixotronic for the Q&A below in which he talks candidly about his music career, love of photography, and how he’s never met a “Stagger Lee” song he didn’t like:
After putting out several music projects on your own, what brought you to Black & Wyatt to release The Last Drag? What are the advantages to working with a label? I’ve tried to get my records out on other labels. It’s kind of a grueling and humiliating experience. I’ve sent all of my other records to other labels, but I’ve usually gotten no response, or a response something like “we don’t have any money right now.” Then the same labels would put out records by bands I know or something. I guess I wasn’t what they were looking for. I could never understand it. The only thing I could come up with is that they didn’t like the albums enough to want to put them out, or they didn’t think I was cool or hip enough to sell any records. Eventually, I just stopped sending them to any labels and just put them out myself. I looked at as creating an artifact that would remain.
When I saw the records that Black & Wyatt Records were putting out (Jack O, Toy Trucks, and others) I was very excited about the music. I felt that the music I had recorded (that would become The Last Drag) fit perfectly with their output. I sent them the record fully expecting to get the usual response, but it turned out that they loved the album and were eager to put it out. We had some beer and pizza and talked about it and listened to the record and everything felt great! The owners of the label, Dennis Black and Robert Jethro Wyatt are serious music fans. Hopefully, they’ll want to do more in the future! I love having a label that is straight up about what they’re doing and you can work together to sell a few records and make your money back then put out more. Most of the time, in the past with labels, it kind of felt like they just wanted to collect your album and save it. I don’t like doing everything myself but I’m not afraid to if I must. I don’t like sitting around on something that much. The process takes so long from recording to manufacturing to getting up the money to put it out you have to just try and get it out there and move on. At this point, I’m banking on my anthology anyway!
I love the videos you have done for The Last Drag (especially your great demise in “Shame, Lies & Cruelty”!). What inspired you to do a series of videos for this release? I’m currently finishing my MFA in Documentary Expression at the University of Mississippi, and I’m making a film about Hill Country Gospel and Blues. During the pandemic, I was given a subscription to Premier Pro video editing software. After the first few weeks of the lockdown, I wanted to search North Mississippi for abandoned drag strips. Then I decided to bring my old Rebel T4i and shoot some footage for a video at this abandoned drag strip in Blue Mountain MS. It was kind of a last-minute thing. It was so fun! And we didn’t really need a crew. And, in fact, it fit the record to just do it with just me in the videos since I didn’t really have a band. So I took the footage and quickly edited with the Premier Pro stuff and it was done in a day! I’ve always been so poor that I’ve never been able to get a video made! Even my friends who made them charged something! I would never ask them to do it free! The first one was so fun and got such a great response that we decided to make more. I’ve been doing documentary work and films for quite a while, and there was nothing else to do! I like to be creating something. I’ve also traveled around taking a lot of photos during the lockdown. I haven’t found it musically inspiring that much, but I haven’t tried to make it so either.
I understand recording for The Last Drag at Dial Back Studios in Water Valley, Mississippi, kind of came out the blue when another band cancelled at the last minute. Did you have all the songs written already at that point? Did you plan for this to be a solo album? Who else was involved in the recording? The studio time was actually for the Neckbones, but the dates got confused or something. I’m not sure what happened, but the date was booked and I just went in there by myself. For the past 25 years, I’ve made a lot of home recordings on 4 track or whatever so I’ve always had a lot of songs. Before I finish one project, I always start thinking about the next thing so by the time the other project is put together with the artwork and pressing or whatever I have some songs for another. It’s some kind of neurosis or something. Haha. Also, boredom.
The difference in this solo project is that when making an album with a band I always let people play what they want and we trust each other to play stuff. But with this album I could play the exact thing that I heard on guitar or organ or bass and I just chose the songs I liked that I had and it didn’t think about how they fit with a particular band or whatever. I really love the process of creating in the home 4 track studio situation. The immediacy of it. I wanted the same kind of thing with this recording. I love to build a song up from nothing. I’ve never been one for doing all the basic tracks for a song and coming back in four months or whenever you can get the money and recording vocals and maracas. I like to build a song from nothing in one night with a few takes and a few beers. I like surprises and I like to create something out of nothing. You gotta go with your first mind on things. So we had Bronson kind of running the session but playing drums and then someone running the board who could push play. It was done during studio downtime and I didn’t tell anybody I was doing it or invite friends to hang out. It was wild and fun.
You have a new podcast, Rip it Up, through the Southwest Review based in Dallas. How did that come about and what are your plans for the podcast? The podcast came about because in the MFA program for my assistantship I was working on a few podcasts involving different departments of campus, and I got the hang of it really quickly and just thought that I should do my own since I had access to the stuff and knew how to do it! I’m friends with the great novelist William Boyle and he had a new book coming out, City of Margins, (which is amazing! Check it out) and I just got him in the booth and campus and cut it! I’m also friends with the folks at the Southwest Review, specifically Bobby Rae. So I approached them about putting it out and it turned out that they were interested in it. And then the pandemic hit! I hope to do more in the future.
Your photography is featured in the latest volume of byNWR.com with the aforementioned William Boyle’s short story, “Cruising the El Nora.” What was that experience like? Did you read his story before taking the photographs? What do you like about photography? What are you looking for when you take a photo? The project with William Boyle came about just being friends and hanging out. He liked a lot of my photography and told me about this project byNWR, an amazing project involving the amazing film director Nicolas Winding Refn involving restoring old forgotten films. Instead of using the standard film criticism format with boring article about the cultural significance or whatever, Refn gets different people to curate a response with whatever happens to be in their head (podcast, short pieces, interviews, whatever). Refn got Bill to curate the noir version. I helped him record some interviews and recorded him reading some stories that he wrote specifically for the project. I played some music for some of it and he interviewed me as well. For the web content, he needed some photography. I have a lot stuff from my travels with work and other things, and I happened to have a lot stuff from Tulsa and that area of the country that fit perfectly with this project. I was lucky to be a part of it.
I love photography because, at this stage, it’s an immediate art form. You can decide to go out on the street with your camera at any moment and take some pictures. You can ramble around. And when I’m traveling it makes me stop and look at things. You get out of your car or you turn down a random street and you find something. That something can lead to something else, something unexpected. It’s an adventurous art form. It’s not something made in your bedroom, although the final part can be done in your bedroom. What I look for in a photograph is the beginning of a story. Something that sparks my imagination. If you ever do any thrift store hunting, sometimes you can find a throw away photograph of a girl standing next to a house and something about it will create the illusion of a story. I like things on the outskirts of town, too. The things everybody’s left behind. I like the unexpected in the mundane.
Do you plan to do any touring for The Last Drag once circumstances allow you to again? I want to do some shows for The Last Drag, but I didn’t have any real plans and I don’t now. I was trying to figure what band or who would travel with me. I was planning some to tour around with just me and my electric guitar and do some stuff but nothing solid. Teardrop City was working on stuff for a new record when the pandemic broke out. We’ve taken a break since but hope to make a record later this year. Meanwhile, we’ve completely sold out of the It’s Later Than You Think album and will be releasing that later this year as well, with some extras, I hope. We’ve gotten some stuff going in Europe. I hope to make it to Milwaukee sometime this year! Probably alone but who knows.
Finally, two questions based on songs from The Last Drag:
Have you ever gone insane? (“Have You Ever Gone Insane”): I’ve had a few breakdowns in my day. Yes. Nothing that’s gotten me locked up or anything, but I’ve had moments of complete breakdown. It’s an odd feeling. A very bad feeling of time standing still and personality disappearance. Oddly similar to playing live sometimes. Losing yourself. Ha. I think at a certain time in my life I sought out these moments possibly subconsciously.
Do you have a favorite Stagger Lee song? (“Down By The …”): My favorite versions of “Stagger Lee” are by Wilson Pickett, Mississippi John Hurt, Dave Van Rock “Stakerlee”, Nick Cave, and many others. I like all of them!