Harlan T. Bobo feels like pure Memphis to a lot music fans. His shows this week feel like a homecoming for many, including Harlan himself, though he's not from Memphis, and he's spent the past six years living in Perpignan, France, raising his son as his marriage gradually fell apart. Perhaps Memphis feels like home because this is where his voice was born, that wry perspective on love and self-sabotage that his first three albums convey so well.
His new LP on Goner Records, A History of Violence, is somewhat of a departure. What strikes the listener first is the band, now rocking harder, with a more sinister edge. His singing, while still seemingly perched on one's ear in a confessional tone, is now addressing a world swirling around him more than the romantic entanglements of his earlier work. I sat down with him recently to try to understand these changes.
Memphis Flyer: It's a pretty bleak bunch of songs. But I also sense an empathy there for down-on-their-luck characters. Which was almost a relief after seeing the cover.
Harlan T. Bobo: The cover picture's of a woman in a band I travel with now and then, from Bordeaux. I thought the picture was so arresting. For me it captured the feel of the record really well. It was one of those old glass plate photographs, and the glass had broken. Nobody did that, the cracks were already there. I actually asked my ex-wife's permission to use it. I said, "People are gonna think this is you." People will automatically assume that it's about her, but it's not. Sure, a lot of the aggression and the frustration that was happening during the breakup is in there. But I only sing about her specifically twice.
The fact is, the record has very little to do my marriage. A couple songs are about that, but the rest of it is addressing something that's disturbed me since childhood, and it's that aggression wins, you know? It wins out on top of consideration for people, diplomacy, because all those things are very boring compared to the visceral excitation of aggression and violence. Even as a little kid, I just could not figure out why it is. And the place I live in now, it's not violent like anything in America, but it's very aggressive. and the way people raise their children and treat each other is really disturbing to me.
I can see how those questions have taken on a new urgency, raising your son and thinking about how aggression flows through generations.
Yeah, there's a lot about raising children and passing this thing on. And it can be a sort of battle, between how much a kid's gonna take from an aggressive side of the family, that's addictive and exciting, and how much he's gonna take from a parent talking to him, and the boring things.
This album's less about you. You're casting your eye out to other characters.
I think it's just that I made enough records about my personal life. And maybe it's just being a parent, it directs your attention outside yourself. That's something I didn't consciously do, but I did notice it after everything was coming together. I was like, "Oh, you're not so freaking self absorbed on this one." There's actually social commentary on this one. So that's progress, I think.
It's hard to imagine replicating the sound of the band you use on the record (including players familiar to most Memphians, Jeff "Bunny" Dutton, Jeffery Bouck, Steve Selvidge, and Brendan Spengler), if you were to tour Europe.
Yeah. I don't know what the difference is between rock-and-roll players in France compared to here, but it's entirely different. You know, there are French bands that I like, and I've tried to play with these guys, but whatever I do has a very American feel to it. Like swing. I've noticed how loose some of these songs are. They sort of whip around. Those guys in France play a straight beat and it's maddening. It loses its power.
With these Memphis guys, we only had two rehearsals before recording that record. But we've all played together in various other bands. It's sort of my dream band. I actually tried recording this album in France. I had a band, we played together for a couple years. And they were fine replicating the older stuff. That's kinda why I met them. But I knew what I wanted and I was not getting anywhere close with them. So I just eventually had to ditch it. They're sending me emails now that they see the record's out. [laughs]
Harlan T. Bobo and the Psychotic Lovers play Friday, June 15, at Bar DKDC, and Sunday, June 17, at the Levitt Shell.