The Sideshow Tragedy’s Nathan Singleton talks with Pollstar about his blues roots, the group’s new album and why it’s more “skeletal” than past efforts.
Straight out of Austin, Texas, The Sideshow Tragedy wasn’t always a guitar/drums combo. It took three albums and a few personnel changes before the group downsized to just guitarist Singleton and drummer Jeremy Harrell. But as The Sideshow Tragedy’s size grew smaller, the band’s sound grew louder and edgier.
Produced by The Johnny Society’s Kenny Siegal and recorded at Old Soul Studios in Catskill, N.Y., The Sideshow Tragedy’s fifth album – Capital – shows off a sound that’s been honed over countless club gigs in Texas and across the country.
“These guys are a rockin’ bad ass two-piece band from hell,” Siegal said of The Sideshow Tragedy. “Nathan’s a great singer and a thoughtful songwriter that’s got a lot of heart and a healthy dose of punk attitude. And Jeremy plays the drums as if he has been locked in a freakin’ cave all of his life! This record is the heaviest stuff to come out of Old Soul in a while. I was psyched to be involved.”
During a recent phone conversation in Knoxville, Tenn., before the band traveled to New York for a gig with Johnny Society, Singleton told Pollstar about the band’s history, saying he was never interested in guitar/drum combo bands until he found himself in one.
(left to right) Nathan Singleton, Jeremy Harrell.
From acoustic performances to a fat electric guitar sound, Sideshow Tragedy covers a lot of ground. Is there anything you and Jeremy cannot do?
It would probably be difficult to pull off reggae or something that’s very dependent on a throbbing bass line. We try to compensate for it as much as we can. I kind of hybrid pick on the guitar and I tune it very low and play through a bass amp. I try to keep a bass line going. It’s sort of based on country blues guitar playing or some ragtime picking, and stuff like that. I grew up on old blues [that] my dad listened to. … They were solo guitarists, so they would keep a rhythm going with their thumb and pick melodies with their fingers, slide guitar and stuff. I use a flat pick and put finger picks on my fingers, so it’s a little bit different. … A guitar player named Chris Whitley, who’s a huge influence on me, that’s how he did it and I sort of borrowed from his bag of tricks.
The concept behind [being] a two-piece band – I never was interested in doing that. [It was] totally a practical thing for us. We didn’t have a bass player and we wanted one. We got the guy we wanted and then he quit and we decided not to replace him. But … this is not a rock trio minus the bass player. It’s just solo guitars and drums. A lot of the old blues stuff, like Muddy Waters, it would just be him. … You just kind of make do with whatever you got. That’s the idea. Try to make that sound like Led Zeppelin 2 or Led Zeppelin 3. You do the best you can.
It’s simple. If I feel like I’m going to have lofty pop ambitions or something, I can’t really get away with that. The setup of a two-piece keeps you in line and keeps you doing what you know and like. It keeps the machine oiled for its purpose … you gotta keep it simple.
Do you and Jeremy improvise or switch direction whenever the mood strikes?
We’re both completely unschooled musicians. Neither of us have taken lessons or anything. Kind of punk rock, DIY esthetic, just bash it out, figure it out. As you get older, you play more. We listen to a lot of jazz and stuff. We don’t play jazz but that spirit of collective improvisation, especially if we have time, we’ll stretch out and do things like that. Stuff like early ’60s John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman – we’re really drawn to that kind of thing, without the chops.
How long have you known Jeremy?
About 12 years. We started a band together and that band dissolved when he and I joined another band. Then, when that band dissolved, we started The Sideshow Tragedy.
Are the two of you in sync with each other and each one of you knows what the other is thinking?
Yeah. If it’s a musical relationship, it clicks. I kind of feel that’s inevitable at some point. At this point, someone like Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, it’s probably easy for either of them to figure out where the other guy is going to go. I’ve always admired bands like that that play so much together that it almost becomes one instrument.
Several guitar/drum combos have come about ranging from White Stripes to The Black Keys to The Ting Tings. Do you wish you had gone with that setup sooner?
No. I never was attracted to the guitar/drums duo. I didn’t dislike it … but in the mid-2000s there seemed to be a lot of those kinds of bands. … It was the tools we had to work with and we felt we could pull something incredible off with it. … If anyone makes positive comparisons to bands like that, that’s great, but I don’t necessarily relate to it.
Your lyrics reference a lot of social and current issues. What’s going on in the world today that might end up in a Sideshow Tragedy song?
I don’t plan out what I’m going to write about. It’s just what’s on my mind, what I’m seeing and paying attention to. The songs are written over the past couple of years. Once I had several written that were … I don’t really see them as topical but I do see them as some sort of commentary, I guess. It’s sort of like that Leonard Cohen song “The Future.” … I think [my songs] are deeper than politics. I think a lot of what motivates these centers of power. … There’s something deeper at work and I think only art and poetry can point at that. It’s not literal and it’s not necessarily rational. What pisses me off? Greed, but that’s human impulse. Unchecked greed, maybe or systems that allow or encourage inhumane behavior. Or perhaps a system that puts a profit motive above human rights or welfare, things like that. I don’t feel that’s political. It’s this grand problem for humanity on the planet.
I’ve got like, a handful, half an album’s worth of new songs and none of them are remotely about that stuff. Just what I was thinking about at the time.
Are you the kind of writer that can watch a national newscast and come away from it with several new song ideas?
I cannot watch a national newscast. … The way television news works, regardless of its party bias or whatever, it’s too shrill and it’s too … entertainment or editorial-oriented. I’d rather read a newspaper.
I think [song ideas] come from reading history or philosophy. There are bits in the new record that obviously come from headlines. Just a few things here and there. But most of the stuff is about stuff that’s been going on for hundreds of years.
Also, as a songwriter, I read a lot, I like poets. You find out about poets through Lou Reed. I got into Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zandt, Nick Cave, guys like that. Where the lyrics weren’t sort of accompaniment to a driving song. It was a little bit deeper than that. That’s the stuff that still inspires me.
Do you see yourself expressing yourself in other areas, such as poetry or novels?
When I’m feeling particularly ambitious, sometimes I think about that. Working on songwriting is quite an endeavor itself. I feel comfortable expressing [myself]. It’s not just indulgent. I feel that it’s worthwhile. I’ve been working on songwriting for some 20-odd years. Maybe much later, but I’m going to stick to songs right now.
How are new Sideshow Tragedy songs created?
Typically [starts with] a guitar part. I’ll be playing guitar and think, “Well, that’s kind of interesting.” I’ll try to flush it out, maybe record it. Later I’ll come back to it and start to get some kind of vocal melody or something over it and I’ll start to write lyrics. Then I’ll take it to Jeremy and we’ll just jam on it.
It can happen in different ways. Sometimes we’ll jam together, something out of improvising or a soundcheck, and I’ll recorded that, write lyrics later. Usually music comes first. For me, it seems forced and difficult to set music to words that are already written. That’s why lyrics are different from poetry because they are set to rhythm and melody. They have to fit. Keith Richards says you got to get the vowels right when you’re writing a song. I think that’s important. … It still has to be a good rock song.
Are you and Jeremy completely involved with the business of The Sideshow Tragedy?
We’re starting to have people. The team is getting a little bigger. We’ve been doing it ourselves for a very long time. We’ve booked tours and stuff like that. We have a great publicist now. Things are starting to pick up, a little label support. We definitely came out of the punk rock thing of doing it yourself.
For instance, you’re driving to New York for tomorrow night’s gig. Is it just you and Jeremy?
We have a friend of ours from Belgium helping out. … and shouldering a little bit of the burden of touring. Lots of times it’s just us two.
What did Kenny Siegal bring to the table that didn’t exist on past albums?
Aside from being an absolute genius and to have that person to bounce ideas off of? I do have a tendency to play too much guitar in the studio. … You want to flex a little bit and maybe that’s not what the sound needs, [such as] loads of guitar overdubs or solos. He really, really fine-tuned the songs. All of the songs on this record are very groove-oriented songs. He was like, “You got to keep this thing groovy. Let’s keep the drum parts really hypnotic, the guitar parts real hypnotic. Don’t be too flashy.” Compared to our [previous album], Capital is a little more spare, skeletal, sort of just like an ambient groove for the vocals to be on top of. He also made sure that we rocked. He got really good performances out of us. It was a relaxed affair. The studio was great, it was very comfortable. … The best recording space in my life so far.
How did you end working with Siegal?
I’ve loved Johnny Society. I saw them open for Chris Whitley. They toured with him. I was interested in him because of that. I met him when I was 21. Shook his hand, bought a CD. He produced Chris’ Reiter In. Jeremy and I liked the way the record sounded, particularly the way the drums sounded. We had shown that record to several engineers on past projects. … At one point I was like, “Why don’t we contact Kenny and see if he has time to work with us.” So I did. I said, “Do you want to work with us?” and he said, “Hell, yeah. I dig what you guys were doing.”
Did he know about The Sideshow Project before you contacted him?
I don’t think so. I sent him a thing, saying, “This is what we do. Here are some videos, our resume, some of our records,” that kind of stuff.” I did tell him the story about meeting him 10 years ago.
After hearing that big rock sound on your records, are people seeing the band for the very first time surprised that it’s just the two of you?
We’ve had more than few people tell us that they’re very surprised that all the sound comes out of two people. I take it as a compliment. We worked on that. It was very trial and error. … Very much has to do with the way Jeremy plays drums and the way I play guitar, in addition to electronic tricks, like certain pedals, amplifiers, how low I tune my guitars and the way I pick. If there are only two people in the band, you don’t have an extra guitar player, keyboard player or violin that will kick a chorus up. So you have to be really conscious of dynamics because dynamics are all you have.
A lot of times I will not play and it will just be drums. Just sort of imply the key or mood and just let it ring out and maybe I’ll just sing over that. When I actually start playing guitar, it sounds like a band kicking in. It’s a small, limiting space to work within, but we enjoy that challenge.
What are your favorite tracks on the new album?
I like the title track. I like the lyrical imagery in it. I especially like the songs … where the drums are kind of like a hook … a hooky drum groove. I feel if I heard that track, I would be sold on it before anything else happens because I like the drums so much. The songs where Jeremy’s drums are really bouncing and hypnotic – that’s my favorite kind of stuff in any rock music. A great drum intro.
For someone who has never heard The Sideshow Tragedy, is Capital the best introduction?
I would say Capital is the best introduction but I’m going to say that because it’s the newest thing. I feel that it’s our most accomplished [album]. It’s not a concept record. It’s definitely lyrically thematic but the last one was as well. … I wouldn’t want anyone to think that [our music] is relentlessly downbeat, some sort of depressing world [theme] or anything like that. We also have songs about girls (laughs).
But if Capital is a new fan’s introduction and they want to hear more, which album would you send them too?
Persona, the last one. I feel that we defined what the band was with that record, in terms of how we sound and what it’s all about. Records before that, there are things on them I still like, but it was very much poking around in the dark and trying to figure out what works. … Some of it I like, some of it I don’t think worked very well. A lot of it has nothing to do with what we do now. At least, on the surface. In a lot of ways I feel Persona is The Sideshow Tragedy’s first record.
Your lyrics are very visual. Is there an effort to place your songs in films and/or TV shows?
There is. It’s not something we’ve explored as deeply as we would like to. Several people are working on that. It is something we are interested in doing. I like music that has that cinematic quality and I hope some of our stuff fits in that.
Is there anything you’ve wanted to tell the world about The Sideshow Tragedy but haven’t yet had the chance?
Well … I dunno. I write songs. I need to do it and I’m glad there are people out there that it resonates with. Make records and hope people dig them and come to the shows – it’s really that simple for me.
“We’ve had more than few people tell us that they’re very surprised that all the sound comes out of two people. I take it as a compliment. We worked on that.”
Upcoming shows for The Sideshow Tragedy:
May 27 – Birmingham, Ala., The Nick
May 29 – Starkville, Miss., Dave’s Dark Horse Tavern
May 30 – Ocean Springs, Miss., Government St. Grocery
June 2 – Austin, Texas, Blackheart Bar
June 9 – Austin, Texas, Blackheart Bar
June 12 – Houston, Texas, The Continental Club
June 13 – Fort Worth, Texas, Magnolia Motor Lounge
June 16 – Austin, Texas, Blackheart Bar
June 23 – Austin, Texas, Blackheart Bar
June 26 – Dallas, Texas, Double Wide
June 27 – San Angelo, Texas, Dead Horse Saloon
June 30 – Austin, Texas, Blackheart Bar
July 7 – Austin, Texas, Blackheart Bar
July 14 – Austin, Texas, Blackheart Bar
July 17 – Las Vegas, Nev., Bunkhouse
July 18 – Las Vegas, Nev., Container Park
July 20 – West Hollywood, Calif., Viper Room
July 21 – Los Angeles, Calif., The Mint
July 24 – Eugene, Ore., Old Nick’s Pub
July 26 – Seattle, Wash., High Dive
July 27 – Boise, Idaho, Liquid Lounge
July 28 – Salt Lake City, Utah, Piper Down
July 30 – Denver, Colo., Meadowlark Bar
July 31 – Marfa, Texas, Padre’s
For more information about The Sideshow Tragedy, please visit the band’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed and Instagram HQ.