On a relatively quiet Sunday night, John Curry and I perch up at the base of the vacated Lee Circle, New Orleans stretching out below us in several directions, each part of town an easy ten minute bike ride away. Quite fitting, as Curry has made a name for himself in all parts of the city, in all manner of media, from the Bywater to Mid-City to Uptown and beyond. Just at our feet, of course, is the Circle Bar, our beloved dive bar that represents a dying breed of decadent New Orleans decay, seeming more and more out of place as Blade-Runner-NOLA-2.0 rises all around it. Nevertheless, Curry has called the Circle Bar’s glorified living room performance space home for over a decade.
Landing in the city in 2004 from North Carolina, young John Curry was quick to ingratiate himself to the dish stations and stock rooms of several well-known Uptown haunts. It didn’t take long for him to fall in with a couple of like-minded service industry dogs who also happened to be wicked musicians in their own right. Curry joined up with drummer Adem Vant Hull and keys man Thomas Furtado to form Felix, a punk rock bar band that put their loud and loose, yet lovable personalities on full display. Despite their short reign, Felix managed to share bills with such disparate acts as Eyehategod and Magnolia Shorty (Rest in Peace).
From the ashes of Felix rose Blind Texas Marlin, Curry’s raw folk troubadour persona—part Bob Dylan, part Ol’ Dirty Bastard, part Dr. Seuss. What started as a one-man band quickly ballooned to a rotating orchestra of rapscallions and ne’er-do-wells who could play everything from a mean set of spoons to celestial lap-steel. Several live recordings exist, most notably the recently-released Until the Light Takes Us, which captures an inspired Bacchus Sunday set at the infamous Pearl Lounge in 2017. Breaking from form, Blind Texas Marlin will also be releasing a solo studio album (Hardly Alone) as well as a book of poetry (FETCH) this month.
Over the din of nighttime New Orleans and a few drinks, we talk about his early days in the city, his vast collection of VHS tapes (and other pop culture ephemera populating an overcrowded brain), my interview with Felix 12 years ago, and how John Curry gets by with a little help from his friends.
Tell me about your upbringing. In our interview 12 years ago, you said you were an Army brat?
I’m a Marine’s kid.
What’s that like?
Um, you know, it’s pretty intense at times. I mean, military anywise is probably difficult but like, Marines are pretty hard with their shit.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up a lot in North Carolina ‘cause that’s where Camp Lejeune is, which was where my dad was stationed for a lot of it. Camp Lejeune’s one of the largest military installations in the world. So I went to high school kind of outside of there, and then I lived in Europe for a while before that for four or five years.
Where at, exactly?
I lived in a village called Vreeswijk in the Netherlands. When we moved there my folks didn’t want to have us go live in a foreign country and then just live on a U.S. plot of land, so they opted to go live in a neighborhood and me and my brother went to Dutch schools and did all that shit.
Yeah, it was super sick. And then we moved back to North Carolina after that, and then sometime after high school I moved here.
And that was in 2004? What brought you down here?
2004. My good friend moved down here. Well, his mom sent him down here ‘cause a bunch of my kid friends were doing fucking dumb shit. My [other] friend got busted for a bunch of heroin… So in order for the group of friends not to get in trouble, I guess, [his] mom sent him down here and then three months later I moved down here.
What did you get into when you got down here?
Well, the first place I ever walked into in New Orleans was Hobnobber’s on Carondelet and Common. Like, before I ever walked into anything, I walked into that bar. That was the first place I played when I moved here. There was the old Dunkin’ Donuts over there, and there used to be that bookstore right there across the street. I lived above that. The Marlin was right there, and then Sally Beauty Supply and the original Nacho Mama’s in the CBD right there. And all that went away when The Marlin burned down.
That is such an odd place to live. That block has like a little mini New York vibe to it.
I know, I moved to the city and it was like, I’m in a big city! And then I moved to Mid-City and it was like, not a big city anymore. But yeah at first—that’s the mouth of Bourbon Street essentially. So most of my first year here, I spent most of my time in the Quarter doing weird shit, goofy juvenile stuff just ‘cause it was super romantic then.
And then how did you fall in with Adem and Thomas and that whole Uptown gang?
After Katrina when I started working Uptown, I was working at Nacho Mama’s. Adem was working at The Bulldog, and our mutual friend knew that both of us were big Dylan fans, which is kind of silly. “You guys both like Bob Dylan, I bet you’re gonna be friends!” It’s just, I’ve met a lot of people that like Bob Dylan that… we’ll never be friends.
That’s a pretty big group of people.
I know! So it was bizarre to me that he decided that that was gonna be it, ‘cause there was probably plenty of other things he could’ve said about Adem that I would’ve been like, “Oh, this kid sounds tight.” We met each other and that was when Adem was underage and I would get him into Alexander’s [now Tracey’s] to play the open mic there. The first open mic we played at Alexander’s together, we both decided to sit facing opposite each other with chairs on top of the tables and just fought each other with songs.
Yeah, it was a boxing match. Adem and I would play there every Tuesday, and we would get drunk the whole time. The idea was that we’d flip a coin at the beginning to see who went first and the one that could play the last song won that night. While we were doing that shit, Thomas was working at the Balcony Bar and we all started hanging out together. Music talk came up and we are all getting along and Felix started as a joke band, where it was legitimately supposed to be a band to make fun of every other band, like: ugh, look at you fucking lames!
When did Blind Texas Marlin come into existence?
That’s what I adopted after Katrina. When I moved here, I performed under the name L.F. Donovan, The Aquatic Gerbil, which was a storyline that I’d written about this weird detective thing (‘cause I was really reading a lot of Burroughs).
What’s the significance of the name?
I wanted to name myself something that was sort of ambiguous but had a direction, so to speak, but like maybe a misleading one. And then the reference to Blind Willie Johnson… Blind Willie Johnson recorded his last recording session; and the day after that session, on paper for Columbia Records there’s a man—or a person, I don’t know what the fuck it was—Blind Texas Marlin. But those recordings don’t exist, at all. Like, nobody knows what that is. But it’s speculated that it was Blind Willie Johnson because he was a blind musician from Marlin, Texas. But he was a gospel musician and gospel musicians would perform blues under different names for different record labels just to make extra cash. But Blind Willie Johnson would have adamantly told you that he was a gospel musician and had nothing to do with blues ‘cause that’s devil shit. And so it’s like, the weird gray area of all of that idea, I kinda liked it and it just stuck. At a point, I didn’t feel like renaming myself.
Is there a big distinction between Blind Texas Marlin and John Curry? Is that some kind of persona or is it just sort of a convenient moniker for a band/music situation?
At a time, it was like a different persona. It was just a different way to put myself into the world but remain by myself. Some of that stuff feels like it’s not all me necessarily all the time when I write. I don’t always know what I’m talking about right away. I always figure it out. Like, there’s plenty of times during sets where I’ll be singing and all of a sudden I’ll go, holy fuck! I understand exactly what I was talking about but it’s a message that came from somewhere else.
Yeah, your lyrics have that effect. They kind of make sense on a primordial level but not maybe an immediately intellectual level.
Well, maybe not in a linear narrative sense, but as a surrealist painting they make tons of sense to me. Would you say a Salvador Dalí painting or a Marcel Duchamp sculpture doesn’t make sense? It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, it’s just inquisitive in a weird way. It allows itself to wander.
Blind Texas Marlin started as a solo project but you’ve slowly grown a band around it. Was that intentional?
Well, it started as me being solo, just me doing it here at the Circle Bar. And then over time it kind of became a band. It wasn’t a planned thing; it was just friends like Kris Wesling. He was like, “Do you ever like pedal steel?” Or just like, “Would you ever like some melodica?” These are the strangest instruments for anybody to bring up to me.
So you didn’t recruit people.
I mean they were there. Sneaky Pete [Orr] was playing with Mike [Lentz] at the time and he just started playing with me, because he picked up on it. Wexler just started playing. I was always trying to get Thomas in the band from the beginning because I just like playing music with Thomas. That’s, like, important to me.
I want to do a rundown because your band is like Uptown’s finest—the Circle Bar’s finest—a murderers’ row of really great musicians that are maybe a little bit unsung in this city.
To quote Benny Hare, “Best in the business!” OK, I’ll do it in the order that they started in the band. So technically, Mike Lentz of White Colla Crimes fame (or maybe Dee Dee Queso and the Violators fame, depending on who you talk to). [laughs] Mike played spoons with me back at Alexander’s before Felix was around. And then after the band gained a few members, Mike just started coming all the time and playing… Pete Orr started playing with me because he was playing with Micah [McKee]. He was playing banjo and mandolin. And that was super tight because before Katrina I used to go watch Pete play with Mike West, which was really, really sick. Mike West was one of my favorite people in the city at the time and was one of the few people doing things in a way that interested me. Like he didn’t just write plain songs and refrains; he was a storyteller. And it also baffled the shit out of me eventually one day when he got kind of comfortable with me, I guess, and his Australian accent came out. He’s from Australia and I never knew that. And then one day he just started talking to me like a normal person. I used to go see them at The Kerry all the time. So it was really sick when Pete started playing with me. But Pete had some other shit to do (he started writing books), so Pete stopped playing. Josh Wexler came after that; he played melodica.
What’s up with that dude?
Who knows? He’s out there being opinionated about something. [laughs] Wexler would show up sometimes and not want to play the gig. He would show up still but with a box full of fried chicken or whatever and he would just sit there and eat food and watch the band play. It also pissed me off one time ‘cause he was watching a baseball game on his phone during the set. [laughs]
But then that’s what you sign up for, right?
I mean, that’s who Josh Wexler is, you know? But Josh also was another person that just kind of decided not to play anymore. I mean, at one point the band got to be 12 people, so it was really ridiculous. But after Wexler, Mark LaMaire, I think. Which, I knew Mark LaMaire before Katrina. We met at Hobnobber’s ‘cause that was the first place I played. And we would play every Saturday there… [Kris Wesling] was working at the Rue when we were all working at the Balcony. Me and Adem used to play in front of the wine shop, Sip, next to the Rue… Kris started playing lap steel and just, you know, [offered], “Hey, you want a lap steel player or pedal steel player? I’ll come do it.” And it was another thing where it was like, yeah, super tight.
Lap steel’s like, instant gooey goodness, right?
Yeah, it’s a choir of angels… And I guess there were some other people like Persis [Randolph] who played with us for a while. Jay Steigner, who was also the drummer for White Colla Crimes, played percussion with us for a while. That all happened when I did the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre show [in 2014]. It was a Valentine’s Day murder ballad show, and that’s when the band got to be 12 people ‘cause I put strings and shit in it. Then Thomas was the last person to join the band again… For the longest time he said he didn’t know what he was gonna play in the band, ‘cause pianos weren’t readily available for us at shows. And then he started playing melodica in the band when Wexler got out. And then we were playing a show in Oakland at Hecko’s, and we had to clean the venue. Hecko’s is like The Pearl but in Oakland, and it was a fucking wreck when we showed up. So we had to clean it; but while cleaning the venue to play our show, we found a concert marimba, and Hecko told me it was totally fine for us to use it. And when Thomas played the marimba it made complete sense. And then Thomas bought a marimba for the next tour and we picked it up on the second date or whatever. It came from Texas and we had to go pick it up and it made me happy because Captain Beefheart had a marimba. So did Martin Denny, and both of those cats are the shit.
You just came out with this live album a couple of months ago, which was recorded at The Pearl. For anyone who doesn’t know what The Pearl is, can you explain that place?
The Pearl is MC Trachiotomy’s house—J Poggi, however you know him. It’s a home, it’s a speakeasy, it’s a library. It’s the Goonies attic, you know?
And didn’t you you live in The Pearl forever?
As a sequence of saying I did things for ten years, I lived in The Pearl for ten years. At Balcony Bar ten years, Circle Bar ten years, Pearl ten years.
Did you do any embellishment on the live recording?
No, there was nothing done. That was an impromptu thing; it was during a Mardi Gras party. That party’s been happening at the house for at least 20 years and it was just suggested, like, “Hey, we’re gonna set up and record it.” I was like, “Alright, fine. This is gonna not be a thing.” And then Mark LaMaire was the one that was hanging out with Steve Richardson, who recorded it, and he heard it and Mark [thought] we should put it out.
What was the setup?
Steve went all out with that shit, man. Everything was mic’ed and they were running a board into the office. It went a lot harder than I knew was going. It was a Mardi Gras party and I wasn’t paying a lot of attention. [laughs]
I really love the set list of that show. What made you want to do that Devo cover of “Gut Feeling”?
‘Cause that song’s fucking amazing! It started when we were in Felix. It just made a ton of sense, with Thomas playing the Rhodes and the organ. But that was towards the end of Felix and it never really got its real love. And then when Thomas started playing the marimba, I realized we could still have that piano line, you know, that walk, and it fit. It’s just a really sick song. And it’s a fun juxtaposition to what else we were doing, like to be a semi old-timey band. But I used to cover Ol’ Dirty Bastard songs during my acoustic sets when I was a kid just to like… I ain’t no folk singer, you know what I mean?
I want to get into that, but let me ask you first about the “Baseball Song.” Where did that come from?
I’ve been told it’s a Peter, Paul and Mary thing that they did at one point in time, but I know it from a Pizza Hut commercial that was at the very beginning of the very first Ninja Turtles movie. I still have my copy of that tape from when I was a kid, and I’ve listened to that song [and] seen that movie probably well over 200 times.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie from the ‘90s?
From 1990, and I’m the same age as the Ninja Turtles. We were both born in 1984.
Is there any one Ninja Turtle that you identify with especially?
You couldn’t, you know?
That makes sense because what they are makes no fucking sense at all, so it’s very surreal in that classic way you were talking about earlier. So now it makes sense that you would be into that.
It’s so rad! It’s the coolest shit! To this day I watch the Ninja Turtles. I buy every copy of that movie I find on VHS.
You have quite the VHS library, right?
Yeah, I have over 1500 VHS tapes and there’s a VCR in almost every room in my house.
Is there a reason for that? That’s some weird shit.
I mean, I’m fond of it. It’s part of my growing up and childhood stuff, and that’s the way I saw a lot of movies growing up. And I like the trailers and the previews. I also like to be able to stop a movie and start watching something else and go back to it. I can have multiple things going in multiple rooms. It’s also, I don’t have the internet, and you know how cheap tapes are these days?
Right, you could be scooping up entire VHS libraries for nothing right now.
Yeah, not too long ago me and my friend David Zatarain, we [went] out to Mississippi. You can buy like a hundred tapes in a day and spend 30 bucks.
And you said you don’t have the internet? That’s wild.
No, there’s not an internet my house. It’s not on purpose or anything. It’s not a statement. I’m poor.
I know the Bob Dylan reference comes up a lot for you.
I mean, often enough. It’s an easy comparison, I suppose with the acoustic guitar and the harp rack thing. And at least his early work stuff is surrealist.
Yeah, but I also get a heavy Roger Miller vibe from you. Are you a fan?
Yeah, I like Roger Miller. The whole band covers Roger Miller: “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died.” And I want to play this song “Six Foot Down” [“Pardon This Coffin”]. There’s a B side, which is super dark. But he’s also probably the best whistler ever to hit the business.
Yeah, and you’ve got some of that going.
I whistle damn good, but I can’t do that warble whistle that he does… Roger Miller had a thing with me at the same time because of the Robin Hood movie when I was growing up. Roger Miller was the rooster and the narrator for the Disney Robin Hood. And he wrote the score for that, you know, that aripa-deer-dipa-deer-dipa-deer… aripa-deer-dip-doot-doot-do! [whistles, then sings] “Robin Hood and Little John are runnin’ through the forest, jumpin’ fences and tryin’ to get away…”
Do you feel like you were born in the wrong era, like some people do?
No, not at all. I mean, I like stuff from the past but if I was born in 1965, I would’ve never heard Wu-Tang. And that would piss me off, if I got to a point where it was like, what? I didn’t get to hear that shit? ‘Cause that shit changed my life, the way [Ol’ Dirty Bastard] would trip his rhymes. He called it singin’-rappin’. The way that dude wrote and his approach to shit had a really big effect on me. He was like Captain Beefheart in rap music.
One thing I love about your work is, a lot of people who play the kind of music that you play, to me it’s like they’re just dressing up, you know? It’s like they all worship at the altar of Woody Guthrie—
Oh, no it’s not even that; half of them are dressing up like Tom Waits but ain’t got nothing behind it. Does everybody gotta mention boots and fucking whiskey? I ain’t a gunslinger, you know? And I ain’t gonna try to pretend I am.
So you put out this live album a couple months ago and now you’re just wrapping up a solo album that you did in the studio, is that right?
I recorded the solo record at The Pearl as well. The solo record is more of a studio thing, ‘cause I did more takes, and the band is recording a new record now, which is gonna be the first one that we’ve done where it’s tracking.
How do you feel about that?
I like it a lot. Actually I didn’t like it in the past, [laughs] Felix couldn’t work that way. It was almost impossible. We did one thing like that and it sucked.
Right. In the Felix interview 12 years ago, you guys just shit-talked the whole recording situation entirely.
Well, we were a live band, like, almost implicitly. That band only made sense like that… We were pretty ornery about the way we were at that time. But I feel good about Blind Texas Marlin doing it, because the band has got so much dynamic with the instrumentation. It helps a lot and to record it that way it can really fulfill the tropical country thing that I want it to be. Like if Hank Williams could sit somewhere in between Martin Denny and Captain Beefheart, that’s where I want it.
Let’s talk about being a weekly musician, because you’re not touring right?
No, I haven’t been on tour in a while. Everybody’s super busy.
But in a way you are touring because you’re just playing the same shit every week.
I mean I play at least once a week, if not more. But I think that’s more of a New Orleans thing. I meet musicians from other places where the idea of a weekly kind of blows some of those cats’ minds. But is somebody gonna go walk up to Rebirth and ask them about what it’s like to play weekly? New Orleans bands play weeklies.
It’s not the weirdest thing in the world, but it is a different mindset. Are you switching it up a lot? What’s the difference between sets from one week to the next?
Well, solo sets are different all the time, because I can play whatever I want. And even with songs that the band normally plays, I don’t have to play them the way we play them as a band. I can change the tempo or an arrangement. I can add verses. I can do whatever I want. And I mean, that’s the beautiful part about that. With the whole band, it’s not always the same unless we have to play for two hours.
Do y’all write a setlist?
Never. [laughs] I think I wrote one setlist one time. Or, I’ve written two but we only did one… I don’t know, it’s always different and only like two of us play the same thing every time. Mark LaMaire probably doesn’t play the same bass line, ever. Kris Wesling doesn’t play the same pedal steel part ever.
And when you’re doing a solo thing here, you just show up and you don’t know what you’re going to do, necessarily?
Sometimes I think about some stuff. I always like to play new things ‘cause on Sundays it’s easy because sometimes nobody’s even fucking paying attention, and I can just see how it’s different to sing a song in your kitchen than it is with a microphone and [being] plugged in. ‘Cause you project differently.
I feel like it comes with the territory that you’re kind of background music to people coming to the bar to hang out. They’re not necessarily there to see you. So what’s your head space like when you’re just there and you know nobody’s paying attention and you’re just doing your thing?
Well, I mean some of the times it’s people that are there that are your friends and they’ve already heard you fucking sing and they’re there just to support you, but they haven’t seen their friend in a minute, so they need to have a conversation. And sometimes people listen quite attentively. But in the end, I can’t ask for anybody to pay attention to what I’m doing in a public space, especially when they didn’t pay to get in, you know? And there’s a lot of words in my songs and so that’s not always the easiest thing to pay attention to when you’re half in a conversation and wanting to pay attention, or [thinking], “Wow, is there really like a sixth verse to this fucking thing?”
It’s a hit to the ego but it is what you sign up for.
Yeah, but if you’ve ever been on tour, you’ve played for nobody. You’re playing for a bartender, you’re playing for somebody, but I’m just there to play songs and work something out for myself at the same time. I gotta do it.
I revisited our interview from 12 years ago. And if you recall, you and Thomas and Adem were very headstrong—mostly in a good way. You guys had that typical thing of I’m 23 and on top of the world! And when I asked you where you were from, you were like, “My butt!”
Yeah, well, that was a different time. I was really headstrong about other things. Everything seemed kinda boring to us at the time.
If you could go back and give yourself advice, what would you tell yourself?
Work harder. Pay more attention. Don’t fuck up.
That’s pretty good.
I would still probably pick all the same fights or do whatever I did back then. I don’t want to change any of that. I’m friends with a bunch of the people that I had silly pretend beef with then. Or those people are gone and they don’t even occur to me anymore. I don’t have any interest in headbutting with anyone anymore about anything like that.
I’m glad you brought that up. “Silly, pretend beef” is exactly how I would describe a lot of things from that age. At the time it seems so important and now it’s like, that was stupid.
But that was important for me. I probably wouldn’t know what I know now if I had not behaved that way then.
Because you’re a singer-songwriter, does your acoustic have any significance?
Oh, I mean, to some degree. The guitar I’m playing right now is the guitar I’ve wanted for a long time. It’s a Yamaha whatever thing [FS800].
You played a steel guitar for a long time.
I used to play a Fender steel guitar which was given to me by my childhood friend before I moved to New Orleans. I played most of my shows on that thing for a long time, but I wore all the frets out on it, and I didn’t have any money to repair it. But I still have it; it still has a “Who the fuck are The Beatles” sticker on it. The guitar I play now, I got on the 20th of the 7th month of this year. My friend David Zatarain financed it for me while we were in Lafayette going to buy guitar cases for him and VHS tapes for me. And I found this Yamaha, which, Kris Wesling has the same guitar but his is an older model. And I played Kris’ guitar on at least two or three tours. It’s one of my favorite instruments, and I always wanted that guitar. I bought a shitty version of it, about a handful of years back that just crumbled on me. The tension on it was real terrible. And they also have that same guitar at The Pearl. And I just like it ‘cause I always wanted this slim-waisted acoustic.
And you’ve been playing your whole life?
I’ve been playing since I was in the 7th grade.
Did you ever do the school band thing?
Yeah. I played saxophone in the school band when I signed up, ‘cause they ask you, “What instrument might you be interested in playing?” I signed up for all three saxophones because of Lisa Simpson.
Perfect. Anything else?
I love you Dan Fox.
I love you John Curry.
Blind Texas Marlin plays every Sunday at the Circle Bar with Micah McKee and friends, and will release a solo album (Hardly Alone) and poetry book (FETCH) on December 9 at One Eyed Jacks, as well as perform solo on December 24 at Banks Street Bar. For the live album Until the Light Takes Us and more info, check out blindtexasmarlin.bandcamp.com.
Photos by Adrienne Battistella
Top photo: Blind Texas Marlin at NOLA Brewing Company, 2013. Left to Right:Thomas Furtado, Josh Wexler, Mark LaMaire, John Curry, Mike Lentz, Jay Steigner, Kris Wesling
Transcription by Michelle Pierce