Musician Carl Simmons recorded the album Honeysuckle Tendrals 11 years ago, and it has just been released by Sacred Bones Records. From the Sacred Bones website: “Think Peter Grudzien reading mother goose, The Cheshire Cat conducting the Langley School Music Project, or Bob Dylan singing unknown lullabies with a head full of helium.”
Luke Degnan: Honeysuckle Tendrals was recorded in 1999. Why release that album now?
Carl Simmons: A friend of mine, Keegan, who works with Sacred Bones, was finally in the position to release something of mine. We’ve been talking about it for years while he was living in New Bedford. Then he moved to Brooklyn and got involved with Sacred Bones. He was in the position to release the album. It was a ten year anniversary which motivated us to get it done by the end of 2009.
LD: What about the other recordings you have? What led you to choose Honeysuckle Tendrals over any of the others?
CS: We were talking about releasing Anthology Folkaltone Music. That was more of the focus. Then I sent Keegan Honeysuckle Tendrals, and he really liked that. The vision for the release for Folkaltone is really elaborate, involving really elaborate packaging. So, It was more of a testing the water kind of release. It was a smaller pressing than a normal pressing, four hundred copies of the vinyl and two hundred of the CD. We just wanted to see if there was any kind of audience for this stuff.
LD: And there is right?
CS: I hope so. I think there is. They’re talking about releasing Folkaltone so…
LD: When do you think that would come out?
CS: I don’t know. There isn’t really a date.
LD: When did you first start recording music?
CS: Really when I met Gabe Sullivan and Shannon Purcell. They were doing it. I was never a musician or anything in high school. I was a poet. I met Shannon who was a poet in college. I met Gabe who was…(laughs)…they opened up a world of home recording for me. They were the first people I knew that were making music that I wanted to make. Then I got a four track and started recording at home. I was in my early twenties.
LD: On the website for Sacred Bones, the label that reissued Honeysuckle Tendrals, the recording is described as follows: “Honeysuckle Tendrals is a lost recording. It resides within a canon of musical output by a singer/songwriter no one has heard of, from a place that the world has almost entirely written off.” Do you think of yourself as an outsider musician?
CS: I don’t really think of myself in any way, you know? I don’t mind that is what has been said or being grouped with other outsider musicians because those have been the most important recordings that I have heard, The Shaggs, Syd Barrett things like that. Those things have changed my life. I found music through looking for outsider music. If someone found my music that way that would be great.
LD: One of your albums is titled New Bedford Renascence. You have since moved from New Bedford to Providence. When you were working on this album did you consider New Bedford a place that is capable of having a renaissance?
CS: At that time not really. It was a long shot. It’s changed since then. There’s stuff going on there, kinda. It’s odd to see, and it’s great. At the time, no, not really. The titling of the album that way was to give form to a phrase that was being thrown around so much. Naming the album that was giving that name something to hold onto.
LD: Why did you misspell the word “renaissance”?
CS: I think that’s another spelling in a dictionary I had. It was spelling number three or something like that. It has the same meaning. I’m into the idea of of words that are pretty common that have another spelling. I could be wrong. I misspelled “tendrils”. My spelling isn’t stellar by any means.
LD: I have always thought of New Bedford Renascence as the soundtrack to a history film I would have watched in eighth grade. Okay, maybe a trippy history film, but I sense that American history, especially the history of New England informed your process. Can you elaborate on this a bit?
CS: That’s definitely true. I was reading Thoreau and Emerson. I had just read Walden when I started recording that. I got into the Transcendentalists through the music of Charles Ives. I found the connection of Thoreau and Emerson and their relation to New Bedford was something that interested me. They spent some time there. It was close to home, right next door actually. The Daniel Ricketson estate, which is now Brooklawn Park, is next door to my parents house. Ricketson had a little cabin on the property where he entertained guests; Henry David Thoreau visited him there. Emerson had preached across the street for about six months at the Unitarian church which I could see from the window of the studio where I recorded the album. There’s definitely New England pride in that recording.
LD: You mentioned Charles Ives, I definitely see the influence on the album especially in the song “Hands Fall In Graves.” Let’s listen to it.
HANDS FALL IN GRAVES disabled seven miners chewing on a lead-paint windowpane Thomas Edison tree: hit on the head with an ironing board waltzin on the ends of leaves: it’s amazing what a boy believes before he perceives heaven and nothing can erase the promise of relatives and celebrities if he believes he’s goin there he’s gotta be crazy there’s so much more to make-a-believe stand up and use your imagination if he believes he’s going there it’s gonna be sorry baby you had to find out sooner or later; there’s no such place besides your imagination
LD: Can you talk about this song?
CS: It was my attempt on a Carl Wilson impersonation. I don’t know if it’s totally successful. That is a good example of failure in my music that I’ve grown to love. I tried to make a little pocket symphony with many parts. I had a Smile obsession in those days. What comes out when you listen to the tape later is surprising. Yeah, definitely an Ives influence maybe a little more Van Dyke Parks’s Song Cycle and Randy Newman’s first album.
LD: Where was the failure in the song?
CS: The failure, to me, is trying to make a Beach Boys beautiful object and I’m not sure that’s what happens. It is probably maybe my favorite on the album. Striving for something unattainable with my limited talent is kinda how I make music.
LD: In your interview in Stereo Sanctity you said, “There are old recordings that my family made in the early 70’s that I used as backing tracks.” You said you used these on Honeysuckle Tendrals. Which tracks include these family jams?
CS: Those were on Corporation Sunday and Inside Your Living Room. They have one session that my family did on a Christmas Eve which is a big holiday in my family. I think it was in 1974 which was before I was born. My brother was three years old or so. It’s just my family hanging out with a guitar. There’s some music, but more like sporadic bits. There’s a fake interview going on between my uncle and my dad about Woodstock. Also Tennessee Walking Waltz that track has an old New Year’s Eve, and at the same time, there’s a New Year’s Eve that I recorded in 1996 going on in another track. Once I saw that my dad and my uncle had made recordings, it kind of made it okay to do it too in a way. I wanted to contribute to that legacy. My family had these things, I cherished them, and I wanted to make some of my own for the future family.
LD: Let’s take a listen to “Kaspar Hauser,” a song from Honeysuckle Tendrals.
Never seen so many rays of sun or cobblestone the open jars of barnes and nobles and cascius clay has gone away but he’ll be back without his daughters lollipops and maple drops carmel sticks to mountaintops while carrie-anne’s inebriated by austin power’s gilded cages never seen so many happy hands the captains stands for norwegians without their lawyers waiting for the third world war with all their hard hats and chemistry sets carrying an orange lighter carpo-tunnel syndrome cider can you see my hidden virtues underneath my hippo’s portrait / changing into lanes the princess starts the games russian rollercoaster relay is all she has to say / never seen so many shoobeedoos with eyes like you I never thought I’d see you through this a calendar of porno stars without their mustache security bars cabin essence can oasis keep up with the changing paces kerouac brought marijuana opened up your premadonna / giving into change the colonel pulls up the reigns no one ever the replay but someone said it wasn’t the same / kaspar hauser oh kaspar hauser kaspar hauser / look into your eyes i see your empty eyes inside mine cinematic skies / my garrett dutton disguise / when i was an athesist i followed round the physicists i think it was an alchemist who stuck his fist inside my wrist and / look into my eyes i see your empty eyes inside mine cinematic skies my g-love disguise
LD: Can you talk about the song?
CS: It’s sort of a wide open anthem. The Kaspar Hauser character, historic figure, more of a character from the Herzog film was the inspiration. Discovering the world for the first time maybe. I think was some sort of joke, like an Oasis song. Maybe a joke for Gabe. He likes to sing in an Oasis accent sometimes. We make each other laugh. I always like playing that one a lot. You like that one?
LD: Oh yeah that one’s awesome. Let’s listen to “I Am A Bullet.” This would be on Folkaltone if it was re-released right?
I AM A BULLET trade my ties for clothes when my best friend my neighbor stops by to say hello he don’t know trade while we’re talking this all my neighbor watch never notices nothing never notices what he don’t want hollowey eyes in the hollowey eyes in the hollowey eyes we all know / when my sister was married spent her honeymoon eating minces and quinces with a rumcible spoon light of the moon seven years older she serves a table of five tater soup getting colder hope the crop there is high please don’t die hollowey eyes in the hollowey eyes in the hollowey eyes we all know / when I get feeling restless build a ship to sail call myself Preston Sturges call my captain Will of Piedmont Hill sail through the mountains where the peacock he grows swim around the urchins where Elijah goes I will go hollowey eyes in the hollowey eyes in the hollowey eyes we all know / before I enter the fortress turn back for one last look calico cat walking by a babbling brook carrying books I wave up my lantern this for the kitty to see when in the strangest transition I’m in the Gulfport stream kitty and me hollowey eyes in the hollowey eyes in the hollowey eyes we all know
LD: “I Am A Bullet” was probably the first song that I heard from you that I was blown away by. It’s one of my favorite songs of yours. It really captures the high weirdness and silliness with this deep melancholy. Those things run throughout all of your music. It’s a weird combination.
CS: It surprises me to hear the melancholy part, but I think it’s true. Listening to the song reminds me how much it’s about the film, The Grapes of Wrath, which inspired it. The scene when he goes back to the farm and everybody’s gone and that character actor, I can’t remember his name, lurking in the shadows, it’s a tremendously sad moment. I had heard the Anthology of American Folk Music, and that was the biggest influence on this album, but it’s also kind of the Hollywood version of the Great Depression. Sullivan’s Travels comes to mind too, the Preston Sturges version.
LD: I had a cassette tape which had one of the songs on your Myspace page. It was Rock Paper Child. That was on the tape. I remember driving around Western Massachusetts in the fall with that tape in my car, driving around endlessly without anywhere to go, just listening to that tape.
CS: That’s a great place to just drive around and listen to music.
Visit Carl Simmons’s Myspace page at www.myspace.com/thehumanorchids