Perfect Sound Forever

Ralph Carney

Tin Huey today: Stuart Austin, Harvey Gold (giving headlock), Michael Aylward (finger in his ear), Chris Butler (in back, chin up),
Mark Price (in front, eating tape), Bob Ethington, Ralph Carney (displaying all his fingers)

by Andy Beta (August 2003)

Blame it on the Smothers Brothers. Were it not for that subversive show slipping in dashes of John Hartford claw-hammering back in '68, the world might never have slurped the goofy cacophony of one Ralph Carney, as he appears in so many wondrous forms these days. Whether its through the recent reappraisal of his first new wave group, Tin Huey (whose album, Contents Dislodged During Shipment, was recently brought into the digital age), or else through his singular, Roland Kirk-squirts on the weirdo work of Tom Waits’ albums like Rain Dogs, Frank’s Wild Years, or Mule Variations, or on his multiple-personality one-man band new solo album, This Is! Ralph Carney, Carney is enjoying a renaissance of some curious sort. But it all starts with the banjo, as seen on TV.

"I became obsessed with bluegrass," he admitted over blaring Cake’s take on karaoke favorite "I Will Survive" as we sit and slurp brewskis before Tin Huey’s triumphant return to Tonic earlier this year. "This was before Deliverance... That was my frist obsession with music. In my roots, my mother was from Appalachia, and I don’t know if it had anything to do with it, but it was in my blood... I remember when I started playing, I went down to my grandmother’s in Honaker, Virginia, down there by Tennessee. There was this next-door neighbor with some fingers missing, these glasses all skewed up. I brought the banjo then, and they’re saying, (in backwood Viriginian acent) 'Awww, you play dat dang thang. You play dat purdy good.’ That was pretty cool. Then this one guy says, 'Wunna taste some squirrel meat?’"

Revealing a pattern of musical leap-frogging, Carney stayed with bluegrass for about a year before falling in love all over again, this time with the blues. "Started with a roots thing, really, first of all, The Onions, Rutabaga... And then I got into harmonica players, Sonny Boy Williamson. The thing that was good about that is I met other guys. One of them was Alan Meyers, the drummer of Devo. It’s much easier to play with people doing blues instead of bluegrass. Harmonica kinda got me into saxophone, which was weird. I’m still that way. I hear a thing and go, 'I wanna play that!’ I wanted to play free jazz. My mom, she loved it when I was into bluegrass, country, but she hated it when I got into saxophone. 'Stop that shit, that racket down there.’ I was down there, playing along with Ascension. The first thing I learned how to play was "My Three Sons Theme," and then something from Traffic. I would get together with Alan at their house and pretend we were playing Weather Report, Miles Davis."

Holding down that enviable position of record store clerk, Carney got exposed to lots of music, although his tastes still ran towards jazz, blues, country, etc. Head-butting with yet another know-it-all record snob, future bandmate Harvey Gold, led Ralph to the Krauter spaces of Can and Faust, the jazz-rock of Soft Machine, and skewed pop of Sparks and Roxy Music. He often found himself at the Tin Huey house, just hanging out and listening to records all day. Before he knew it, Ralph was sucked up into the Tin Huey band, electrifying his sax a là Andy McKay or Gong’s Didier Malherbe.

Playing out in Akron held little hope and the band was content to noodle away in their basement, going so far as to get an EP out. But as his old drumming buddy’s band, DEVO, began devolving them over at crucial CBGB’s and Max’s shows, more attention began to focus on the city and its 'scene.’ English gents from Stiff Records began sniffing around, checking out the Bizarros and country singer Rachel Sweet. Following close behind was the Dean himself, Robert Christgau, who caught a few shows with new bass player Chris Butler, which gave Tin Huey a bit of an R&B base to temper their more harebrained tendencies. Christgau got behind the group, chatting them up to New York folks. "Before we know it, we got offered a record deal with Warner Brothers. Of course we said, YES. It was a very exciting couple of months. Me and my first wife were floating! I got to quite my part-time jobs at the record store and as a caddy." The resulting recording, Contents Dislodged During Shipment, put the group out on tour, but in the same way that Warners didn’t know what to do with the release, much less the band itself, their booking led to disastrous gigs in front of fans for bands like Angel and Good Rats, or worse still, Steve Martin impersonators.

Dropped six months later, Carney dropped out of Tin Huey (coming back for occasional gigs in Ohio) and moved upstate while Chris Butler went onto one-hit wonderdom with "I Know What Boys Like" with the Waitresses. Carney ultimately made his way down into Brooklyn in the early eighties, doing gigs here and there with Swollen Monkeys (including Mars Williams and Kramer) and becoming close friends with record producer and scenester, Hal Willner. Willner gave Ralph his biggest break, introducing him to Tom Waits in a SoHo studio, who had just cut his froggy piano balladry for the more Weillian bootstomp on Swordfishtrombones, and was curious to hear some of Ralph’s new instrumental pursuits, such as the bass saxophone. "I remember him driving a big old Cadillac over to my place near the Pratt Institute; he brought over a portable pump organ and we practiced a song "It’s More than Rain." This was when Tom was trying to get Frank’s Wild Years off the ground as a musical/play working with Robert Wilson."

When Rain Dogs was being recorded, Ralph was brought in for a few solos and a subsequent tour with a band consisting of Marc Ribot, Greg Cohen and Steve Hodges. He would subsequently record and tour on Frank’s Wild Years (when it was finally realized), Big Time, The Black Rider, and Mule Variations.

Not that Waits took up all of Ralph’s time. When Willner was producing for MTV Unplugged, he called upon Ralph to play with, of all people, Hole. "It was Zeena Parkins on harp, a cellist named Eric Friedlander, and myself... it was a trip!! She was pretty toasted the "hole" time. I did shake her hand the first day, but after that, we were pretty much ignored. Except for when we were rehearsing a tune... I was trying the 'slide clarinet’. She turned around and said, 'I don’t know what that was, but I’m not a fan of wacky’. I just kinda played it straight from there on. At least twice during the rehearsals, different band members walked out, pissed off at her."

A more successful gig led Ralph to try and make music in the vein of some of his idols, cartoon composers Raymond Scott and Carl Stalling. Living in San Francisco during the dot-com boom, Carney was asked to score a series of flash animation cartoons as well as some Cartoon Network features. Wacky and able to jump in and out of genres as he was, he admitted to being a bit intimidated in the same field as these cartoon giants, as "their stuff was written out and played by great musicians. When I got the gig, I just had to do it all myself in my own way. I learned I could do it though!" That practice of layering and playing off of himself informs his third solo record. The leaps between songs or inside of them is twisted indeed. "Jug Gland Music" is Carney as an entire jug band, playing banjo, jug, sax, clarinet, washboard, and spoons, cooking down the Hot Sevens and Fives of Louis Armstrong while "Get Yur Bargain" has Carney incarnated as barking carny and used car salesman at a Hawaiian flea market. "Swamp House" swaps chanting with cowpoke, and it all winds up with a curious take on the Duke Ellington standard, "Solitude."

Many of these new songs were played that night at Tonic. Mixing in with some Chris Butler songs, and excavations of old Tin Huey tunes, the group showed they still had it, even giving the Robert Wyatt classic ("Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road") an exciting run through for the encore, Ralph doing an excellent take on Mongezi Feza’s triumphant horn line. I ask him what he thinks of being able to play again with the Tin Huey guys, his first band. "Somehow the time ghost was on our side, and somehow it all came together and... it’s strange, but it feels more 'right’ now than in our heyday." And somehow Ralph Carney has arrived.

Also see the Ralph Carney homepage and the Tin Huey homepage

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