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speaking: A Flipside conversation with Stace England
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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