Good, Bad and Sideways with Chris Acker

If you’re unaware of who Chris Acker is, you might mistake him for another friendly face in the corner store’s sticky beer aisle, or maybe you recognize him as St. Roch Tavern‘s bingo night co-host. But when he’s not running games of chance, he’s the frontman and songwriter for a country-folk get-up whose new album Odd, Ordinary, and Otherwise is out now on Gar Hole Records. At the beginning of the lockdown, when days stretched endlessly like laundry on the line, Acker and his roommate Nikolai Shveitser began to record the album in their shotgun home, spending days and nights writing and recording the material on a borrowed Panasonic tape recorder. The third full-length by Acker weaves stories from busking alcohol-stained streets to janitorial work at a famous Bourbon Street strip club, molding an album that is both a love letter and a mirror to the city he now calls home. Acker’s country-steeped songwriting is tirelessly likened to John Prine or even Guy Clark, two legendary folk songsmiths who mine the heart of humanity through storytelling. While Acker does meander in life’s unrefined pockets, his nasal drawl and contemporary vantage point are one in their own. At its best, a Chris Acker song folds around you like the familiar legs of a lover (“Styrofoam“). At its worst, it rips through your heart like a corkscrew (“Nick and Joe“). Yet, no matter which it makes you feel—good, bad, or sideways—Acker reminds you that it’s OK, if not tolerable. I recently spoke with Acker about his early days playing sax, his affinity for obituaries, and what’s ahead for him in this unpredictable landscape.

So who makes up your backing band, the Growing Boys?

The Growing Boys, a somewhat regrettable name that started as a joke when we’d busk (and the band would accumulate members throughout the day), is at its core Zach Thomas (bass) and Nikolai Shveitser (pedal steel). They’ve been in every incarnation of a band that has seen many drummers, guitarists, and fiddlers. We had the most consistent lineup for this album, with Sam Gelband (drums) and Dave Hammer (electric guitar) having been in the band for a while before COVID and playing our monthly at St. Roch. It is certainly the tightest and my favorite version of the Growing Boys. We have had some great incarnations, though, lots of friends just filling in for random gigs or tours. I’d like to think the Growing Boys have seen about 15 members.

This album came out of a period of self-isolation. What did this time teach you about your creativity or view of music? It’s kind of like a messed up Walden of sorts, eh?

Haha, exactly. It’s hard to say what I learned, but I think the ultimate creative achievement for a lot of people is finding joy in the process. Lockdown made it so all you had was doing it for the sake of doing it, and there was a window of time where I found myself really in love with making up songs, and I was more thankful than ever for the ability to entertain myself. But it only lasted so long. So I learned to love the process, but not in any sort of sustained way. I guess that’s what I gotta learn next.

What was the process of recording to tape with your roommate Nikolai like, compared to how you constructed your previous albums?

The album itself was recorded 90% live and 100% digitally, but me and Nikolai cut demos of the songs on a little Panasonic tape recorder (shout out to Marlow for letting me borrow), recording over a tape of Neil Young’s Weld. Sorry, Neil. That was a really fun way to develop the songs. It was like a lockdown project and motivated me to finish a lot of stuff I’d only kind of started. Nikolai and I first started playing music together in 2015, so aside from his insane abilities as a musician, I feel really comfortable with him. We were able to get really silly and make these songs happen somewhat naturally, just tweaking and arranging things here and there. Zach also started coming over in the summer, and we’d work them out, so it began as a very original Growing Boys thing. And then in the fall, Dave and Sam brought their perspective to it, and they really brought it to life.

What band, movies, or art got you through quarantine? Any intense phases? I had a big, unapologetic Liz Phair phase a few months into it.

That’s amazing, I actually had no idea about Liz Phair until quarantine when a close friend of mine also had a Liz phase. She rules! This might be terribly uninteresting, but I had a huge White Album phase. I found a tape of it in a free box, and when me and Zach were doing food distribution twice a week in June and July of 2020, we would just listen to it on loop, and I just became obsessed with how unhinged they are on that record—it had never really occurred to me. Like the most famous band in the world just goofing so stupidly while also putting in the most solid songs of their career. I’m always really inspired by bands that aren’t afraid to get dumb, and stuff like the song “Birthday” is so, so, so dumb. I think it contributed to me writing a song like “Caviar.” I also read Moby-Dick, which I’d consider long enough to be a phase.

You joke around about the Southern affectation on your first record (Re-Runs) compared to your voice now. What has the transition throughout growing into your sound been like to now, your third record?

Yeah, there are just moments like when I say “baby” in the first few seconds of that album that I have trouble forgiving myself for. That’s largely because I still like those songs, and I wish I could have given a more self-aware performance for them. I’m from Seattle—there was no reason for me to be singing like that. But at the same time, I was 23, impressionable, and obsessed with music from Texas and Louisiana. I don’t think I had enough confidence to sing like myself so I sang like things I liked, however comically inaccurate it was at times. Over time I’ve become more comfortable with my songwriting voice and less concerned with traditional elements, and I think that has led to finding my own singing voice. There are songs on Re-Runs like “Dallas Does Debbie” where it doesn’t bother me, and I can kind of hear myself finding myself already.

What about storytelling makes it an integral part of your music?

I wish obituaries were just one really good story about someone—cut the facts—because often a story speaks to the whole of a person more than facts about them can. They highlight what makes a person extraordinary. And that’s kind of the motivation with a story or observational song.

John Prine told Paul Zollo in an interview for Bluerailroad, “You can write about anything. Anything at all. As a matter of fact, the less familiar, the better.” I sense a similar sentiment to your writing. So what is constructing a song for you like? Do you have a philosophy behind it, or is it just spontaneous?

For me songs typically come about in various drafts. It’s a lot of writing getting sized down to something digestible. And sizing down is an effort to find the most concise way to say what I want to say, and to discover what that actually is. I think Prine is right, because when you’re writing about something less familiar you’re making an effort to understand it, and for me that makes the sizing down process way more interesting and I can really find a unique perspective. I don’t really subscribe to the idea that you have to live something to sing it, you just have to listen to understand it. And Prine was the best at that, understanding. The little unrefined moments and corners of our lives are often the neglected ones, but if a song can be an effort to understand them you can get something special sometimes.

At the Broadside in June (photo by Benjamin Davis1The print edition incorrectly attributed this photo to Danielle Dietze. ANTIGRAVITY regrets the error)

Do you remember the first song you wrote? When you started writing those songs, was your intention to become a professional musician?

It was the final assignment in a creative writing class in high school. Whether or not you played an instrument you had to write a song, which was rather unfair. But luckily I’d been playing guitar for two months and wrote a song that I couldn’t tell you one thing about; but I know that my teacher filmed it, so it’s somewhere. I remember feeling like I liked doing it—like a lot—but I don’t think I admitted I wanted to be a songwriter as a life for another five years. But I am pretty sure I was down from the get. Me and Sam Gelband had a high school band and started writing songs together. Then around 18 we each started writing stuff independently. It should be mentioned I still have yet to make a living off of it so still not professional, but getting there.

I heard you played saxophone in the high school marching band. Was that your first encounter playing music? Are you a big jazz guy?

I did play in the high school marching band my freshman year. We’d march on the football field at halftime and make a big R for “Roosevelt,” and play “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire. I guess that was my first musical endeavor and began a long tradition of underwhelming performances in my life. I wanted to play sax when I heard Sonny Rollins, but I never got to the point of playing Sonny Rollins. I spent a lot of time with the first 10 seconds of the Pink Panther theme, though. I’m a shedding jazz cat from way back.

What were some of the records you remember picking up from your local record store in high school, and how did that influence your sound?

It was Mossy Bottom Records in the U District of Seattle. It’s an apartment building now. I remember going in and being like, “I like John Prine and Woody Guthrie, can you show me what the blues are?” and being given records for free just because the owner Nick was so excited. Jesse Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues” album. He also turned me on to Guy and Townes ​​[Van Zandt], I remember picking up Old No. 1 very vividly. I used to play shows there with Sam Gelband and get paid in records. We got so much music that I still listen to today, really timeless folk and country and blues. Sam got really into ‘60s British psych-folk stuff like Pentangle and Bert Jansch. It ruled. Totally changed our lives.

We all have our reasons to linger around this gluttonous, sticky place. So what about New Orleans drew you in, and what’s keeping you around?

I remember the first time I went to this now-deceased house venue on St. Claude. There was a string band playing, people were climbing on chain link fences between trees in the backyard, there was a guy doing backflips naked, and people playing chicken shit bingo. That was kind of what drew me in, just stuff that seemed too wild, stuff I’d never seen before. I was scared. But then what kept me here is (cheese alert) my friends. Most of my adult life has been here, and I just have all these sweet people in my life that I can’t quit. Oh, I like the music as well. Yes, the music. That too.

If there’s one thing we’ve all been slapped in the face with this year, it’s uncertainty. So with that, what do you have in store for the future? And how has this uncertainty changed what you might’ve held onto for the future?

I wish I could say my future, truly, but I guess I’ll be trying to keep making music until I can tour again. But in this time of uncertainty, I have learned that that shit is cool, and I do want to do it again but never count on one thing to bring you joy, ‘cause you’ll be toast on that odd day it doesn’t. I used to put so much weight on being a musician. But also, “So what?” Focus on my friends, make jokes, and forgive. Grow stuff in cinder block beds and put things on a charcoal grill. Watch football, get a dog, put canned oranges in a salad.

Chris Acker’s new album, Odd, Ordinary, and Otherwise, is out now via Gar Hole Records (cover art by Sasha Pearl). For more info go to Top photo by Matthew Seltzer.

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