Interview: Pete David of The Payroll Union (Part 1)

By on Wednesday, 15th July 2015 at 11:00 am

When I first listened to ‘Paris of America’, the new album from Sheffield-based Americana band The Payroll Union, last month, I realised almost at once that in agreeing to write a review of the album, I had taken on a daunting task. This was always going to be a bit more complicated than an ordinary indie folk album, with its thematic material based in American history, specfically the violent “riot era” of Philadelphia in the mid-19th century. But ‘Paris of America’ was challenging in terms of its musical expression as well, experimenting with structures and instrumentation that go beyond the straightforward confines of typical Americana or folk music. As I stated in my review, I found the songs on the album to be both emotionally evocative and intellectually fascinating, and I was happy to have the opportunity to discuss them in more detail last week with The Payroll Union’s songwriter and lead singer, Pete David.

Currently comprised of five members after the addition of a new keyboard player, The Payroll Union came together as a band about six years ago, according to David’s account. “I had a couple of bands here and there,” he says, “but mainly I was doing solo stuff. And it was in 2009, so 6 years ago, well a bit before that actually, I was playing with a banjo player, and we were just doing little acoustic gigs here and there. And then in 2009, my friend who’s a drummer, Ben, came to one of our shows and said ‘I really like what you’re doing, do you want any drums on that?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’d be great’. And he brought his friend along, Paul, who played bass. So 2009 was when we started, and we were very much a country, Americana band, playing a few covers, a few standards, and a few of my songs. My songwriting was very country-influenced around the time.”

In fact, David remembers the country-folk influence on his songwriting going back a bit further. “I grew up listening to my dad’s records and my brother’s records, so within that was kind of the obvious ones, Neil Young and Dylan, and as I got older I started listening to Bruce Springsteen a lot, and then kind of in my early 20s I suppose, I listened to those Ryan Adams records that came out, ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Gold’. There were always little hints of country within some of the stuff I was listening to when I was growing up. But then I got really into it in the early noughties, listening to a lot of alt-country stuff, Hamilton Family, Wilco, and people like that.”

Once the band was formed, David says their shared love of the style led them to dig deeper into its history. “We got into listening to a lot of old American music, because we just saw it as this whole, you know, 80 years of music to explore. So we listened to a lot of bluegrass stuff from the ’30s and worked our way through, and just discovered a lot of great American country music. And so it just came out in the songwriting. We wanted to write country songs, and we wrote in a very narrative way.

“We were inspired by that type of songwriting, or certainly I was, because I had kind of got to a point where although I was still writing what you might call confessional songs, I kind of got a bit bored of it, and we were sick of just going over the same ground. So there were a few things that inspired me from that point to look at it in a narrative way. And obviously there’s a whole history of narrative songwriting. So it’s kind of developed from there.”

One of the central themes in David’s songwriting up to this point has been his interest in 19th century American history. “I’ve always had a bit of a fascination, when I was growing up I was interested in American culture generally, but certainly post-war 20th century history. That was kind of sparked by, basically the Kennedy assassination. When (the film) ‘JFK’ came out, I was 13, and I got into all the conspiracy theories, and reading books about it and was fascinated by it, so I got really interested in the ’60s and Nixon and all that kind of stuff. But it was probably, I don’t know, maybe 10 years ago, when I read a one-volume history of America and I got stuck on 19th century America or particularly the antebellum period, that just kind of struck me in a significant way.

“I got interested in the Revolutionary War stuff, but I was more interested in the tension that ran up to the Civil War. The country was kind of finding itself, you know, becoming industrialised and figuring itself out politically and socially. That was just a fascinating thing for me, so ever since I’ve been interested in 19th century America and haven’t really strayed far from that. I wrote a song not that long ago called ‘Chappaquiddick’ which is about the Chappaquiddick incident with Ted Kennedy (in the late 1960s), so every now and again I kind of stray, but generally I’m interested in 19th century America.”

I had imagined that David’s interest in Americana style music and his interest in American history were related, but the songs on ‘Paris of America’ are clearly written in an early 21st century postmodern folk style rather than in a musical style that might have been heard in mid-19th century America. Layers of guitars and percussion generate the overarching dramatic tension of the songs, and while they aren’t authentic to the time period, they do create the desired effect. “We wanted to do something very dark and unpleasant, that’s just kind of the way we were going musically. You know, it was great fun for Tom in the studio, our guitar player, we just let him loose on it really. He was probably the most active on the album in a lot of ways because he’s just playing with loads of different things and putting loads of guitars on there.”

When I asked David about the connection, or lack thereof, between the album’s more modern musical style and his thematic material, he was emphatic. “That’s just coincidental, me being interested in American history, they’re not related. I mean people do ask me, [if I’m] trying to re-create, you know, old 19th century folk melodies. No, I think that would be the worst thing to do. I’m obviously retelling an old story, but I want it to resonate now.”

That contemporary resonance is one of the main goals of The Payroll Union’s album, ‘Paris of America’, but also of the larger collaborative project ‘Faith and Fear in Philadelphia’, of which the album was a part. David related the band’s connection with the project, which was funded through the Arts Enterprise at the University of Sheffield: “I became friends with a lecturer at Sheffield (Dr. Andrew Heath) just before we released our first album. [He had] heard from a friend that this band were playing songs that were inspired by 19th century American history. He was interested in what that was all about, and he came down to the gig, and we got chatting and got on really well. And he said, ‘you know there’s this fund we can apply for, where we can maybe get some money to do something, would you maybe be interested in doing something together?” And obviously I said ‘yeah, that’d be great’. And we met a few times and chatted about what we could do.”

At the time, David had already been thinking of writing an album focused on a specific place and time period. “[I was] very focused on that because the previous album was kind of flitting around, you know, across different times. I was actually really interested in doing something on, like more of a religious thing, because I had touched on the Second Great Awakening, [and] the writers of charismatic evangelism in the Twenties. So I was interested in Rochester, in New York, that was the place where a particular preacher called Charles Grandison Finney was very successful, and it was one of those boomtowns on the Erie Canal, and I just thought it would be a great thing to do.”

But the ‘Faith and Fear’ project’s research was based in Philadelphia, and after some discussion with Heath, David was convinced that he could write something equally immersive about that city’s so-called “riot era” of the 1830s and ’40s. He describes the project as “very experimental” in terms of its scope. “We thought ‘let’s just work with lots of different people and see how we can look at history in a different way’, through music, but also through film and through illustrators, and there were lots of other strands that didn’t really work out. We wanted to do so much, but we just couldn’t do everything.” The ambitious project is still “in an ongoing way” according to David, who along with Heath gives a fuller explanation in the following video clip from the ‘Faith and Fear in Philadelphia’ Web site.


Pete David’s chat with Carrie continues on TGTF this same time tomorrow.

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