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METAMERICANA: Outlaw Country Goes Psychedelic: An Interview with Sturgill Simpson on His Music Videos

Outlaw Country Goes Psychedelic: An Interview with Sturgill Simpson on His Music Videos

If any album of 2014 can be said to have received
“universal acclaim,” it’s Metamodern
Sounds in Country Music
, released in May by country artist Sturgill
Simpson. A mesmerizing and sometimes bewildering mix of traditional country
sounds, contemporary philosophy, and psychedelic recording-studio wizardry, the
album’s appeal appears to cross all boundaries of age and genre. Pitchfork called it “a
surprisingly tender….vehicle for big, unwieldy ideas about human
consciousness and the nature of life”, while no less an old-media stalwart than
The New York Times called it “a triumph of exhaustion, one of the most jolting
country albums in recent memory.” NPR wrote that Simpson had “perfected the trick of distilling
classic country from many eras and moving away from it at the same time . . . [a]
trick that takes skill and affection for the history of the genre, as well as a
willingness to stand alone”; meanwhile, a television channel built to capture
the hearts of the Heartland, Country Music Television, credits Simpson with “a voice that recalls Merle Haggard,
and guitar licks that bring Buck Owens to mind.”

Other glowing reviews of Metamodern Sounds by Rolling
(“equal parts haunted, tender, and trippy”), The Austin Chronicle (“the rising rural talent….uses the genre’s classic
narratives to obscure right and wrong in the search for higher truths
”), and Record Collector (“Simpson truly scores in the ease with which he
ponders life’s bigger questions while couching them in familiar country
language and sounds
”) have helped seal the album’s reputation as one of the
year’s most acclaimed releases. And now the album has earned its author an Emerging
Act of the Year nomination from The Americana Honors & Awards, and popular
Americana blog Twang Nation calls Metamodern Sounds a “dark horse
” to win a Grammy Award for Americana Album of the
Year—a claim that’s now been echoed on the personal websites of countless fans
of Americana.

The music charts love Simpson, too. Metamodern Sounds has thus far spent
nine weeks in the Billboard Top 200, peaking at #59, and just
as long on the Country Music chart, peaking just outside the top ten. And to
top it off, Simpson just appeared on The Late
Show with David Letterman

What hasn’t yet been much discussed are the three
oddball music videos Simpson has thus far released: the first two, “Turtles All
the Way Down” and “The Promise,” from  Metamodern Sounds, and the third, “Railroad
of Sin,” from his 2013 debut album High
Top Mountain.
Simpson has been interviewed countless times this year—by
everyone from Rolling Stone to The Wall
Street Journal
, National
Public Radio
to Billboard—but
never once asked to discuss in detail the multimedia rollout that accompanied
the release of Metamodern Sounds (let
alone the sole video release from Simpson’s first album, which is every bit as
strangely juxtapositive as his videos for Metamodern
). This oversight may be attributable to the fact that the lyrics and
music of Metamodern Sounds require so
much careful attention and discussion; or, it may be that even the media
outlets now praising Simpson underestimate the scope and ambition of his
project. Certainly, on the evidence below—the videos themselves—it seems clear
that the visuals accompanying Metamodern
are as critical to the project as are the album’s ten songs.

Last week I caught up with Simpson to ask him some
pointed questions about these three videos, as well as the artistic vision
behind them. Below are links to each of the three, followed by Simpson’s
discussion of them with Press Play.

All the Way Down,” Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014)

Promise,” Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (2014)

of Sin,” High Top Mountain (2013)

Press Play (PP): In filming videos for a country album that’s in
many ways unconventional, what are your influences? Any favorite videos by
musicians in other genres?

Sturgill Simpson (SS): I’m a movie buff/indie film whore. Lots of
foreign [films]…lots of 60’s westerns. I someday hope to find the time and coin
to invest more of my creative energy towards the visual media side of releasing
music. I’d love to make short film videos pushing the conventional standards of
what a country music video can be.

PP: The video for “Turtles All the Way Down” features
psychedelic CGI and gorgeously styled shots of the band, but it also gives
viewers a first-person look at a virtual wormhole during the lyrics’
denouement. Do you see this idea of a short-cut between two far-flung positions
as being important to the work you’re doing on Metamodern Sounds in
Country Music
? If so, what’s on either end of the wormhole?

SS: More than anything, I believe the themes, content, and sonic palette
of the album created the wormholes and sort of formed the juxtaposition on
their own. I’m not sure how much of it was intentional, looking back now. Even
with most finite planning you never know what the final result will reveal
itself to be until it’s staring back at you. I think the album just really
shows where my head was at that moment in time.

PP: The videos for
“Turtles All the Way Down” and “The Promise” juxtapose an almost DIY ethic
(e.g., close-up tracking shots of you and other members of the band)
and a real commitment to using technology (e.g., computer-generated visual
effects) to mesmerize. Can you talk about the process of filming these videos?
How much of the concepts were drawn from your own sense of Metamodern
Sounds in Country Music
, and how much was a multimedia collaboration with
other artists?

SS: Well that’s another story in itself. My buddy Graham Uhelski directed
and edited everything. I gave him a mental outline of what I was after and
wanted to see on both songs and he filtered that through his interpretation to
get what you see. For “The Promise” we decided a single simple tracking shot
filmed inside a bleeding heart was all it needed. I knew the video for “Turtles”
had to employ inter-dimensional/thematic elements. Really I just wanted to
make it look like a live performance at the Omega Point. Our budget was next to
nothing. We put together a small team of highly talented, dedicated players and
turned an empty warehouse into a soundstage. I was introduced to a generative
software artist in New York named Scott (Spot) Draves through Dr. Rick
Strassman and his colleague Andrew Stone. Scott created an interface
A.I./synthetic consciousness software called Electric Sheep. I sent him the
album and explained the message I was trying to get across with the project. He
was sympathetic to the cause and my budget and very graciously offered his

PP: The video for “Turtles”
definitely achieved that “inter-dimensional” ambition—it’s a wild mix of
religious lighting, pharmaceutical-friendly animation, “infinite regress”
cosmological theory, and lyrics that run the gamut from Jesus to Buddha, fairy
tales to aliens. How concerned were you about trying to tie everything together

SS: That was the challenge and for me, simultaneously the source of the
excitement in tackling it.

PP: It’d be impossible
to watch these three videos without thinking about the use of color in each;
not many live-action videos are more spectacularly colored than these are, and
in each case the use of color feels not just aesthetic but rhetorical. Was
featuring transformative, blurred, and technicolor displays a particular
emphasis in putting together these videos, and if so, how do you see that
emphasis interacting with Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (and/or
earlier work from High Top Mountain) lyrically and thematically?

SS: Everybody is on drugs . . . just give ’em what they want.

PP: In addition to the
references to various drugs in “Turtles,” a lot of people have homed in on your
album’s use of the word “metamodern.” Do you think of these as metamodern music

SS: Now that’s a question I’d really much rather hear your thoughts on.

PP: The second release
from Metamodern Sounds, “The
Promise,” uses vignetting to leave us with the uncanny feeling we’re literally looking through someone’s
heart. It’s a song with a clear narrative bent, so I wondered if you could talk
about the role (if any) of narrative in that video. Did you and your team
imagine the moment you’ve captured on film as a contextualized one, or was the
concept primarily aesthetic?

SS: Nailed it. We wanted it to look like you were staring directly into a
bleeding heart or a very vulnerable love light.

PP: “Promise” also
superimposes black-and-white film-reel visual effects over a static,
“real-world” shot of you sitting on a stool; the reel effects are later
replaced by an over-saturated color palette and the same “ink” effect we
briefly saw in “Turtles All the Way Down.” Is foregrounding the different ways
reality can be framed—music, writing, cinema, photography, et cetera—important
to your “metamodern” approach to songwriting, and if so, how do you see it
playing out in the work?

SS: I believe framing reality is one of the only ways we can ever be
sure it actually exists. In that regard, I feel as though I’m still learning
who I am as an artist.

PP: Switching to the
2013 video for “Railroad of Sin”—it makes Tokyo subways and business districts
the setting for a classic rockabilly sound. It’s not a combination many would
come to organically, but it really works, so I wanted to ask you how you conceived
of it? And also the video’s epigraph—“a single dream is more powerful than a
thousand realities”—feels critical to what you’re up to. What can you tell us
about that video?

SS: I lived in Japan when I was younger for about two years. I spent my
time equally between religiously studying Aikido in Shinjuku by day and hard
partying in Shibuya and Roppongi by night. On more than a few nights, those
subways were my own personal stage coach to hell. I thought it would be fun to
return and work with some friends to capture the techno advanced world of Tokyo
against the backdrop of a high octane country song about a reckless life of
abandonment and personal disregard represented as a speeding train.

PP: A side note about
all three of these videos: the distribution channels for music videos today are
obviously a world apart from what they were in the 1980s, when you and I were
more or less coming online culturally; did the new potential for “virality”—a
strange word—play any role in the design and execution of these videos?

SS: Of course. As you pointed out, there was no such thing as “viral”
in the 80’s and 90’s video world. I knew before making these videos the only
place people would ever see them would be on YouTube. With that said, CMT
actually picked up the “Turtles” video for rotation, so go figure. That in and
of itself is a win in my book.

PP: Looking ahead, are
there plans for any additional videos for Metamodern Sounds in Country
? If so, any details?

SS: Yes. Eventually, I want to have a video or visual representation for
every song on the album so you can watch the album in order of its track
listing. This may take a year or more.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

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