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Riding the Worms to Judgment Day
“Just take a look around. Take a good look. I don’t see how you could be writing ‘Don’t Worry be Happy.’”
“I really have decided that I don’t like working with producer-type people.”
“I feel that it takes a band of people who spend time together to really figure out what you’re gonna do musically. That’s why I feel that the last record was kind of all over the place, and this one is much more cohesive.”
When individuals desire to learn more about themselves, they frequently escape to less populated areas so they can meditate, think and focus on their inner being. Dax Riggs is currently traversing the barren wastelands of Montana; only this is a different kind of pilgrimage. He is traveling from Seattle to Minneapolis, more than 1,500 miles, en route to another gig in support of his new album, Say Goodnight to the World.
Twenty-four hours in a van full of musicians is a less-than-ideal setting for introspection, but the singer believes that his current period of inward exploration has helped open his eyes to a burgeoning musical career. “William Blake said ‘know thyself.’ That’s what I’m into right now. If you don’t know yourself and you don’t know what you come from and what you are, then you don’t know anything.”
This state of self-reflection has not come easy for Dax. His vocal vocation began more than 15 years ago as frontman for the Louisiana swamp-metal outfit Acid Bath, who would have gone down as just another band from the bayou if not for Dax’s addition of spooky, melodic croons, mixed with fits of sadistic screams. Despite his unique performances and disturbing lyrics, Acid Bath’s two albums, When the Kite String Pops and Paegan Terrorism Tactics, both released through the independent label Rotten Records, were largely overshadowed by the Billboard-charting metal albums released during the mid 1990s. The group disbanded on the most somber of notes, following the death of their bass player in a tragic car accident.
Fast-forward to the present, and Dax Riggs has done a relative 180 from where his career began. Equal parts Misfits-style punk and ’50s era rock & roll, filtered through a heaping helping of barroom blues, Say Goodnight to the World is emblematic of where Dax wants to be musically. “That’s always what I’ve been interested in. I’ve always wanted to superimpose doomy, kinda punk-metal with real songs. More of a traditional kind of song structure, but with more phantasmagoric-type lyrics.” With numbers like “I Hear Satan,” “You Were Born To Be My Gallows,” and the album’s title track, it appears that Dax has realized his vision.
Throughout his various musical ventures, from Acid Bath to Agents of Oblivion, Deadboy and the Elephantmen, and his current self-titled project, Dax has always focused on the mystical and macabre. This pessimistic outlook has become as central to his songs as his droning vibrato. He explains that his bleak point of view gestates from, “Just living in this world. Just take a look around. Take a good look. I don’t see how you could be writing down ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy.’”
Dax’s first solo album, 2007’s We Sing of Only Blood or Love, was a mishmash of musical aspirations that didn’t quite coalesce as he had hoped. “I feel that it takes a band of people who spend time together to really figure out what you’re gonna do musically. That’s why I feel that [Blood or Love] was kind of all over the place, and this one is much more cohesive. I think there’s some more original musical ideas happening on the new one.”
Recently relocated from his home state of Louisiana, Dax has started fresh in Austin – the city officially known as “The Live Music Capital of the World.” There he hunkered down in his new home with bandmates Charley Siess (drums), Kevin Fitzsimmons (bass), and multi-instrumentalist Robbie Lee, who also co-produced the effort. For two weeks they tinkered with Dax’s songs, morphing them into the versions that ultimately appear on Say Goodnight to the World. “Basically I write [the songs] kind of solitarily and then we get together and we figure out how it wants to be put out there. Some songs were really doomy, and after we worked them up on the record they were more like a punk propulsion kind of song, more forward moving. We just had fun experimenting with them in the recording process.” Having the freedom to work out a song the way the band sees fit is precisely how Dax wants to write and record, “I really have decided that I don’t like working with producer-type people, who feel like they know what you need to do, but they don’t really understand how to do it originally.”
Although Say Goodnight to the World is officially his second release, you can find another album carrying the Dax Riggs moniker. Fat Possum Records, his current label, re-released If This is Hell, Then I’m Lucky in 2008, an album originally recorded and released in 2002 by Dax’s previous band, Deadboy and the Elephantmen. Dax doesn’t want fans to be confused. “They did that against my wishes. It was supposed to be Deadboy and the Elephantmen, and they sent it to my house and it said Dax Riggs on it. And I was not happy about that, because I thought that it was disrespectful to that band and to the people that played in that band.” He confesses, “It was basically some maneuvering to get out of a former legal mess that I really can’t get too much into. That was a ‘rotten’ situation – hint, hint.”
Whether performing with his band or playing a solo acoustic set, Dax knows how to inject a haunting element into each tune, especially cover songs. “I wouldn’t touch a song unless I could make it my own. I try to cop some of their vibes and put my own spin on it. I guess I look at learning those cover songs as schooling myself in songwriting.” He has put his “spin” on such classics as “I’m Your Man” by Leonard Cohen and “Yesterday” by The Beatles, each time creating a creepy aura absent in the originals.
On Say Goodnight, Dax and Co. take on The King, covering one of Elvis’ most well known hits, “Heartbreak Hotel.” By slowing the tempo to a crawl and lowering the melody an octave, Dax makes sure you’ll never want to walk down to the end of that lonely street. But he isn’t concerning himself with how Graceland diehards will react to his interpretation, “I couldn’t fucking care less. I know that sounds kind of rude, but I mean, I really do this for myself. I just played the song and enjoyed it.”
As he drives for an entire day through some of the largest, desolate landscapes in the country, Dax ponders the next step: “I’d like to play quite a bit around the United States. And then I’d like to make a new record as soon as possible.” He has survived untimely deaths, numerous musicians, and industry backstabbing, but still Riggs remains optimistic. “It’s actually totally opened up my mind to the future of what I want to do. Now I can see all the doors opening to me and all the different paths that I can take.” On the refrain for “Sleeping with the Witch,” Dax sings, “I dug myself out of the grave, and rode the worms to judgment day.” The fact that witches often make the best bedfellows is a lesson not lost on Dax Riggs.