Comment on this story | Read comments

Historically speaking: A Flipside conversation with Stace England

By Brent Stewart, The Southern

Stace England and the Salt Kings CD release show with the Woodbox Gang. Americana. 10 p.m. Friday. Hangar 9, 511 S. Illinois Ave., Carbondale. $5 cover.

The last couple of years have been quite interesting for Stace England.

In 2005, he released "Greetings From Cairo, Illinois," a group of songs chronicling the turbulent history of the racially charged town.

The album became something of a hit as far as the genre of "historical rock" is concerned, earning England critical acclaim worldwide, including being chosen by legendary music historian Greil Marcus as one of his top ten CDs of that year in The Village Voice.

In live shows, England put together a multimedia presentation of visuals from the region that added a dramatic component to the songs.

He was featured on National Public Radio and played the Crossing Borders Festival at The Hague's cultural center in the Netherlands, as well as several other shows in Europe. Back in the states, he played a showcase at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, this year, as well as scoring an opening slot at Jason and the Scorchers reunion show in Nashville.

Recently, England was back in Cairo to film a segment for Wales-based Green Bay Media's "Rivers of Life" series, focusing on the Mississippi River.

As attention on the "Cairo" album finally began to taper off, England went back into the studio last fall with his band, which includes guitarist Charlie Tabing, drummer Dane Spalt and bassist Ron Johnson. The subject this time was "Hickory Hill," better known as the old slave house in Equality, not too far from Harrisburg.

The resulting album, "Salt Sex Slaves" is another slice of bizarre U.S. history, weaving together the stories and mythology of brutal salt production, slave breeding and racism in what was supposed to be a free state in pre-Civil War times.

Though the official release date of the record is Oct. 13, this Friday there will be a release party at Hangar 9, where England and his band, "The Salt Kings," will be joined by the Woodbox Gang.

Flipside sat down with England for a conversation to catch up what has happened in the last two years and to talk about the new album.

You had a lot of stuff happening in the two years since "Cairo" came out.

The record had a lot more legs than the typical sales cycle. Usually, about a year or two in and you're done. This thing just keeps going along. Overseas, we played some good shows, got a lot of good reviews from people I really respect like Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau.

It found a little niche market for us, this historical thing that Sufjan Stevens (is doing.) He really helped our record too. I realized that there's a market for this.

It also helps our confidence that we did something that resonated with people.

Were you surprised at the response?

I was. I was floored. At the end of that record, we didn't know if we had anything or if it was just a mish-mash of ridiculous stuff. We really didn't know.

It seemed that multiple demographics of audiences could get it and Europeans could get it and rock critics got it. We realized that once the ball got rolling that we had something.

It was also something where you could very easily add a multimedia component to it, because it's a very visual thing.

I've always wanted to do that. We're toying around with ideas like that for this record, too. We have this 'let's put on a show mentality, let's up the ante.'

The multimedia stuff was fun to put together, the story telling as we were playing.

The subject matter is all pretty heavy. How difficult is it to present that to an audience?

The people that seek this stuff out, like "Cairo," want to hear something besides a bunch of love songs. And I love those records; I'm not casting aspersions, but there's a certain audience that's going to say, 'I want to hear a story about a neighborhood getting bulldozed down to build Dodgers Stadium,' like Ry Cooder's record.

Sufjan is a lot more of places as touchstones for emotional experiences, but people that seek (albums like "Cairo") out are ready to hear something like that.

I think we take it head on, the racism questions. It becomes a challenge to present something that awful in a way people can understand that it was an important story, and listen to it musically, and come away learning something.

It's a challenge.

There are two ways to look at it. First of all, you have to present it onstage. You have to present these dark, heavy topics to an audience who has to sit and listen to it. But then at the same time, when you're crafting the material, you have to craft it in a way that is respectful of the topic. How much conscious thought do you put into those things when you're writing the songs?

A lot, but the thought process for my stuff comes a little bit downstream. I hear a lot of music in my head the whole time. The melody's kind of there, and then you have to figure out how to pair that up with a song people can receive.

You want a good rock song or pop song that's going to draw people in with the melody, and then the message begins to sort of burrow into their subconscious if their music is there to allow a platform for that to be received. The song should take shape and be received by a listener in a way that is both pleasing aesthetically and also appropriate.

Your albums have been so different, not only in subject, but in tone, instrumentally. "Lovey Dovey All the Time," (England's 2003 release) was kind of an electric brit-pop album, "Cairo" had more of a folk-americana feel and the new one has a Rolling Stones feel to it. Do you think the more alt-country type feel that you've used lately is more of an appropriate background to these types of songs?

The short answer is yes, that's probably true. When you're telling an American story like "Cairo" or about the slave house, I wouldn't be play 'avant-garde Berlin trance music.' It doesn't lend itself to the subject.

I'm really restless as a performer and writer. The great thing about Carbondale is that if I hear a sound in my head, I find somebody who can create that sound; they're out there. If I want an Emmylou Harris singer, Wil Maring is there. It just makes me cry to hear her voice. I'm really restless and this area lends itself to that restlessness.

That's a good point; in your last two records you can really hear the influence of Carbondale: The Woodbox Gang, Shady Mix and Jackhead, for example.

This isn't sort of a 'charming place, I live here, so I'm going to talk positively about the music scene here.' This is a nexus that is extremely special. I finally kind of grasped that about a decade ago. We've got the real guys here. We've got the straight-up bluegrass pickers. They're not just guys picking up a mandolin because they got bored with something.

The other thing we're seeing here that is really special is the bands that are sticking around. Carbondale, when I was back in college and even in years past, just when a band would get their sea legs and start to gel, everybody would pack up and leave.

Now you've got the Copyrights, Woodbox, Bourbon Knights, and these people that have really kept at their craft and really done some special stuff.

How did the subject matter for the new album get into your head?

Cairo was in my system for about a decade, just sort of wafting around back in the subconscious. The slave house, it's such a fascinating thing that this had gone on.

Most people don't know about the fact that the house was there that slavery existed in this border region that's kind of off the charts from laws and statutes.

It was always kind of there. I had this idea to listen to nothing but 'Exile on Main Street' for a year. I just wanted to see what came out. That experiment lasted about three weeks, but I think it pulled the record in that direction.

Was it difficult to get all the stories to fall into place as songs?

The problem with a place like Cairo or the slave house is that there's a lot to choose from. With Cairo I tried to be really pristine in regards to historical accuracy. The slave house is a little bit different because the mythology is just as compelling as the story. So, we tried to kind of embrace the entire mythology and that presented a lot of different stories to choose from.

Then the question was 'what are the most important stories. I'm not sure that I got all that right, but these were kind of the touchstones that hit me.

Some people think it's the most haunted place in the United States. They bring their paranormal gear out and they've seen ghosts and heard chains rattling. I don't even believe in ghosts, but I'm intrigued by the people that go to such extremes.

Did you want to spend the night at Hickory Hill?

I would if I could have. When I got into the house, after doing some lobbying with the state to be able to have access, even walking up in the attic, there's a little kernel of suggestion of 'hey, there might be a ghost up here.'

I'm fascinated by that. I think it's all the power of suggestion, of course, but even a non-believer's curiosity was peaked a little by that.



Published on: Thursday, September 20, 2007 12:22 PM CDT