Words by David C. Obenour
Don Howland has been lurking in dirty, lofi blues long before it captured headlines at the turn of the century, and has stayed true to that sound after those same headlines moved on to the next genre to celebrate and then discard. Whether as The Bassholes, Gibson Bros., A Burning Bus or as himself, the blues-cum-punk has always served as a fitting channel for his angst and unrest – feeling every bit as alive as raw and aggressive.
His latest pair of releases, as a band for A Burning Bus self-titled and on his own for Endgame, are set to be his last. It’s not the first time he’s threatened to hang it up, but as the traumas of modern western living continue to build up, it might be the real end.
But it also can’t help feeling like the sort of promise a flea market wrestler would make. It’s a well deserved retirement, and maybe he feels his youth and vigor slipping away, but for those of us still on the edge of our folding chairs – we’ll be holding out hope for a comeback.
Off Shelf: I’ve been starting out all of my interviews with this, but how are you holding up these days? Are you still based out of North Carolina?
Don Howland: First of all, thank you for listening to my music, and thank you for caring enough to do an interview. To answer your first question, I am not well. I don’t see how anyone could say he or she is doing well if he or she is paying attention. Things are unremittingly grim. Globally, the devastation of the natural world can only be willfully ignored at this point. Not just the natural disasters, but the pollution and the mass extinction and the idea that it is too expensive to clean the environment, which, when you take a step back from it, is completely insane. Money is not even real! We passed the tipping point generations ago, but it is still something that we can address in a thoughtful and significant way, instead of just disaster response. One meaningful way would be to move people away from areas that will be flooded. No suggestion that’s such action is possible, however. U.S.-wise, I don’t want to give Trumpf too much credit. He is a criminal and ridiculously vile, no doubt. But it’s what his ascendancy to the presidency represents. Trumpf is what’s there when the mask is pulled off, when all pretense is dropped. I am ashamed of humanity, and I am particularly ashamed of the U.S. I grew up with the U.S. Carpet-bombing Vietnam, My Lai and the assassinations of the country’s last good men, in MLK, RFK and Fred Hampton. Now the U.S. has a president with an 80 IQ who roots on neo-nazis. It seems like a genuine reckoning on race is as far away as ever. As is a reckoning on environmental issues, or on the toxic aspects of capitalism. We are doomed.
OS: The cover painting for Endgame by Jon Witsky is really striking, I keep finding myself staring at it. What made you choose it? Can you talk a little more about what it means to you in relation to the songs?
DH: It was an immediately striking image for me, too. Within a minute of I seeing Jon’s post of the painting on facebook, I sent him a message asking if I could use it for a record cover. That was back in 2016, wen we didn’t know how evil Facebook was. I beat someone in another band to the punch by a few minutes, as I recall. It’s painting of a tunnel, with oncoming headlights, but it also looks to me like a cartoon ghost with sort of a garland of lights. It seems to be an exact pictorial representation of how I regard the music. Jon is an excellent painter. The technique, the way he set the image in the square, I just like to look at it. Other paintings I’ve seen of his are similarly excellent. I’ve saved a bunch in folders on my computer. I don’t go on facebook anymore, so I have lost touch. I should add that I was not aware then of Jon’s having been in el Jesus de Magico. I have lived in North Carolina for 22 years and never saw them. But I had all of the records they did on Columbus Discount, and I think they are excellent. So it was also nice to have the Columbus connection.
OS: You also have a new LP out from A Burning Bus. I feel like I’d heard of it from a few years back, has that been kicking around for awhile? Can you talk about that album a little and how it came together? You recorded it all mostly in Columbus, yeah?
DH: Four tracks were recorded at Columbus Discount on the weekend back in 2010 when the Gibsons did a 25th anniversary show in Columbus. The Burning Bus band was from Asheville. We got together to play a Gonerfest in 2004 or 5. Then we got together to do another one a few years later. Two of the tracks on the album were from the first Gonerfest, live. The other two songs were recorded here in Asheville. Two Gonerfests and the one weekend in Columbus, that was for A Burning Bus. It wasn’t really a band, although the drummer and I did Wooden Tit together, and that was a real band. I like the Burning Bus record a lot now. It reflects a love for early ’70s Midwestern rock and roll, the Stooges and the MC5, Alice Cooper. I sort of wish I’d been in a band like that all along. I’d like to play with a Burning Bus again in 2021 if Larry really does do an In The Red 30th anniversary party like he says. Los Angeles may be incinerated by next summer, though. One way or other.
OS: Listening to both records, I hear a sort of cynicism and real anger that’s been consistent and has me concerned with each release you’ll finally be fed up and it’ll be your last. Is that a thing? What keeps you at music if it is something you struggle with?
DH: Well, I am done. Endgame was called Endgame for that reason. I have not picked up a guitar since January 2017. Each of the three solo albums was intended as a farewell statement. But the third time’s the charm!
It is weird that I kept going for such a long time. In retrospect, I am sort of awed by the effort it entailed and the drive that I possessed. I can barely muster the wherewithal to go to the grocery store these days, even when there is literally no food in the house. Whatever anyone may think about them, I did a lot of records, especially for someone who has no idea how to play an instrument. With a couple exceptions, like comps and live records, each of those records was a lot of work, even if it might not sound like it. I’ve reached the point where I am looking back and wondering how in the hell was I able to do all of that? While teaching school and being a pretty decent dad to two kids at the same time.
A couple things kept me going over the 35 years between the first Gibson Bros album and the last solo album. On the “light” side, I have to say my love of actual punk rock was a major impetus. The first Ramones album was a like a supernatural being speaking to me, as was “Anarchy in the U.K” and Spiral Scratch. I love ’76/’77 punk rock as much today as I did then. It was magic, liberating, energizing. I always just set out to make music that I like to listen to, and what I love above all else is two and a half minute blasts of punk rock.
Also, music was my social life. I had a lot of fun and met most of the coolest people I know, and I got to see Europe and the cool parts of the United States. I am super grateful for those experiences, and I shudder to think what my life would have been without music. Generally speaking, I am a social retard. I can not “hang out” with most people, and I hate parties. But I love working on projects with cool people and love the social scene around underground music. Teaching and being a parent made life worth living, but music was a huge bonus.
On the “dark” side, anger – along with deep and lifelong depression – was also a prime driver. Punk rock was exuberant but there was also palpable darkness underlying it all – at least in the music I was drawn to. Watching the world implode from my thoroughly detached perspective obviously made and makes me angry all the time. You are correct in hearing the anger and cynicism as real, and I think that is one reason people never really dissed the Bassholes. It is 100% pure, pitch black anger and suicidal depression. And frustration, which is related. What I am most proud of, when all is said and done, is that I made music that has helped a few people – a very few – deal with the depression and darkness in their own lives. I know this because they have told me so.
OS: What appeals to you about the blues and sort of garage rock as a way to express yourself musically? You’ve been performing for awhile and you’ve developed a unique and individual sound – but as a way to channel your emotions and creativity – have you ever thought about why it takes the form it has?
DH: Punk rock in ’76 and then Delta blues were the two genres of music that completely knocked me out from the first blast out of the speakers. I can recall, vividly, the moment I heard the first Ramones album and the moment I heard my first Hound Dog Taylor record. I can remember where I was, the room, the time of day, the weather, the season. Both of those records were like doors into new worlds. They brought a sort of order to my life at times when I needed that. The Ramones LP came out my senior year in high school, when I had no idea what I was going to do with my life or how to even live life. Ramones saved my life, really. Hearing the Hound Dog Taylor record in 1980 was a similar jolt. Except for the B-52s, white music was shit again. I didn’t like hardcore at all. It seemed like football. There were no women around. “New Wave” was saccharine, just vile, sort of like Fabian or Pat Boone. Blues music, especially the 1930s and ’40s acoustic country blues but also the amplified country blues of Howlin’ Wolf and Elmore James and Hound Dog Taylor, was like a parallel universe where I could explore and be consistently rewarded for it. The song structures and the lyrics were unlike anything I’d encountered. The music of Skip James, Charley Patton, and Robert Wilkins from the acoustic particularly. Not long after that, the Gun Club and X emerged and suggested how punk and blues could inform one another. I would have to give those bands, along with the Cramps and Panther Burns, enormous props.
OS: In addition to your own music, I found out about and listened back to a few of episodes of Don’s Party. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it came about?
DH: I have had a chance to sub for freeform rock shows at the radio station where I do a weekly modern-era classical music show, and wish I could do a freeform show of my own. I still love rock music, of course, and soul and hip hop and jungle, a lot of darker dance music, darker pop, and so Don’s Party is a pretend radio show where I can play that stuff and don’t have to worry about cuss words. I can also talk about politics in a way that makes sense to me. I don’t hear or read my line of thought on political matters much at all, outside of Chris Hedges’s writing. I wish I could do a Don’s Party show every week but I am too depressed to function much of the time these days.
OS: I was fortunate enough to interview Todd Tobias about his work with Robert Pollard for the Circus Devils and a thing he said that really struck me was how most of us only come to music for pleasant feelings. How we don’t like to listen to music that makes us feel on edge, or weird, or afraid, but those emotions can be as rewarding if we sit with them. Listening to your music and some of what you play on Don’s Party – I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that.
DH: I have always liked feeling weird, and scared, and confused. Off balance. So I totally agree that it is rewarding and constructive to go to those places. Without music I might have been super warped, in a non-healthy way. The “normal world” is really fucking dreary. I love music that says, “Fuck this shit.” The Bassholes music, the best of it anyway, is sort of like dreamscapes, murderscapes, sexscapes where subliminal forces drive the action. The music I play on Don’s Party, the majority of it, comes from the same place – if not a nightmare world, at least an appreciably bent one.
OS: Without trying to sound overly analytical, what about lofi production appeals to you? There’s definitely grit to your albums, but that also seems to serve just as much of a part as an instrument would.
DH: That probably comes from listening to lots and lots of country blues in the years immediately before joining the the Gibson Brothers. The surviving Skip James stuff, especially, forced me to listen music differently. The hiss and crackle of the 78s was, like you said, a presence. Sometimes the noise was louder than the guitar or vocals. It was like a ghost in the room. And it gave a sort of field recording vibe to the music, which was what I wanted with The Bassholes. The first In The Red lp and the record we did for Matador, the low-fi made those records work, I think. They would’ve sucked or sucked worse if they were recorded in a studio. Those are my favorite Bassholes records, for sure.
There was also the fact that Rich, the first Bassholes drummer, had a 4-track and that was the setup from the get-go. The first album was recorded in an operating funeral home, and the 4-track allowed us to record there. It was a field recording.
OS: I feel like discussing the abysmal state of national politics won’t get us very far, but I did want to ask your opinion on the national responses following the murder of George Floyd. Do you think it reflects any sort of real desire we have to come to a reckoning on race in this country?
DH: There seem to be a lot of well-intentioned people wanting a reckoning with racism. It seems we’ve had a couple such moments in the nation’s history, like in the 1960s, and the 1860s. But nothing ever changes. I don’t understand racism at all. I was lucky to grow up curious, and things outside my bland-ass orbit – white, middle class – were things I wanted to check out. I think people of my generation – the late “Boomers” – take it for granted, but the pop music that imprinted our psyches was completely integrated, in a way that it never was before or, I’d argue, since. I loved the Beatles and the Supremes and the Who and Otis Redding, Creedence and Sly and the Family Stone. Radio stations had no color line in the ’60s, at least not in central Ohio. I don’t remember the term “black music” ever uttered then.
I suppose that had a huge impact on me.
On a biological level, it has always seemed common sense to me that everybody getting to know and have sex with people of other cultures was humanity’s only chance of survival. What makes people racist? Is it insecurity? I’m not sure what racists even want. Do they want everyone to be as miserable as they are? There are very approximately 140 million non-white people living in the United States today. So what’s the goal? Are they supposed to leave?
I think most people are not inherently racist. They have to be coached into it. So long as there are people wanting to coach it, it will remain.
OS: Do you have any new music that you’ve been working on? I’d be interested to hear what would come from you after these last four years, and then this last half year.
DH: No, I think I am definitely done. Trumpf’s election was sort of like a blunt trauma that sent me into a brief, and metaphorical, coma. Like an Oliver Sacks book, when I woke up I was drastically altered. I can’t see ever picking up a guitar again, and I can’t remember how I ever did it in the first place. It seems ridiculous to me that I made so many records.
I started listening to classical music from the 20th century, the stuff you never hear on the radio, stuff by composers who lived through nightmares of history. I think I will just keep on listening to and presenting, in my utterly insignificant way, that music via my radio show and my Mixcloud page. It’s pointless, but I always think of the apocryphal tale of the kid on a beach full of suffocating starfish, tens of thousands of them, and he is throwing as many as he can back into the sea. A man sees him and says, “Why bother? Your effort is not making any real difference,” and the kid says, “Tell it to this starfish.” All you can do is try.