Catching up with Joe Rut on Recording Live, Copyright Battles & More

by | Jun 19, 2012 | Interviews and Features

Joe Rut Live captures the iconoclastic “psychedelamericana” songwriter at his wryly-humorous best, in front of a sold-out crowd at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall.  Backed by a shit-hot 7-piece band, plus numerous special guests, including pedal steel great Joe Goldmark, Rut lays down old fan favorites and brand new songs alike in front of a hometown crowd.  There is a twang at the music’s core but an eclectic shimmer usually twisting away from anything that could be called “country.” Lyrically, Rut takes alternately ironic and earnest stances, often blurring the distinction between the two as in “Lift With Your Knees,” a silly song full of advice, seemingly inspired by his grandfather’s hernia, which somehow finds its way to poignancy with the couplet “two can lift it easier, it’s clear/I think that might be why we’re here.”

Musically, Rut has never had a better band than he did on this night, and highlights abound.  Danny Allen’s echo-drenched slide solo on “Monkey Boy” oozes and crackles like a brick of firecrackers stuck in molasses, and Lucio Menegon’s reverby Telecaster excursion on the touching “Hole in Space” perfectly carves that hole before the band slams back into the almost Pink Floydian bridge, “I like now/now is enough/now is the only time we have to love.”  The only quibble I had was with the opening track “The Song That Is Not Plastic Jesus,” which didn’t totally make sense at first, but after interviewing Rut and finding out the story behind it…well, read the interview.  If I could grow another hand I’d give this three thumbs up.

I sat down with Joe recently to talk about Joe Rut Live:

Joe Quirk: OK, I was at this show, so I have a frame of reference when I say that this album really seems to capture the energy of the performance.  Sonically, it seems to have more depth than your studio albums.  How did you record it?

Joe Rut: Magic elves!! [laughs] No seriously, it was a team effort.  The live recording was spearheaded by Stephen Jarvis [Stephen Jarvis Audio].  He dug deep into his vintage microphone collection and mic’d up everything on stage through amazing GML mic preamps, into Pro Tools at 96 kHz.  Dave Lichtenstein [25th Street Recording, Oakland] mixed the album and we really took our time to get it right.  By far the best sounds on any of my albums to date!

JQ: You’ve been other people’s lead guitar player [Loretta Lynch, 86, the Spikedrivers], but you seem to play more of the singer/rhythm role on this album, letting your band stretch out.

JR: I think I take my share of solos on the album, but with Danny Allen [guitar], Jason Kleinberg [fiddle], Joe Goldmark [pedal steel], Lucio Menegon [guitar], Jeff Hobbs [saxophone] and Steve Lucky [piano, organ], on the stage, I felt pretty comfortable focusing more on singing and letting the band do its thing.  When I record in the studio, I’m often doing all the parts…drums, bass, keys, harmony vocals, lead and rhythm guitars, but with such great players surrounding me this seemed more fun and natural. I wanted the night to feature my musical friends. Dave Jess and John Hanes are as great a rhythm section as one could dream of and I could sing with Val [Esway] and Heather [Davison] till my throat gives up.

JQ: The addition of the front-and-center piano stands out as a departure from your recent guitar-centric output. How did that come about?

JR: That came about from being a huge fan of Steve Lucky and asking him to play in the band for that show!  I’d play with him more, but he’s on tour a lot with his own band [The Rhumba Bums].  If I could bottle his sound I’d just spray essence of Steve Lucky over every show!  Man, you could make a fortune selling Steve Lucky piano spray!

JQ: With a few exceptions, the song selection on Joe Rut Live seems to focus more on your up-tempo, funny, rootsy, material.

JR: We just chose the best 13 performances from the 23 tunes we played that night.  No other considerations were made. As It happens, they fit together pretty well as an album.

JQ: “My MySpace Friends Don’t Love Me In The Real World” is really funny, but already seems pretty dated.  Is there an inherent danger in writing songs about the Internet?

JR: [Laughs].  Oh, don’t get me started!  Yeah, I wrote that right when MySpace was still the big deal.  Facebook was just taking off.  The song was already a few years old and obsolete when I played it.  Who knew it would take two years to get the album released?   Now the song is a period piece!

JQ: It would still work as “My Facebook Friends…”

JR: Onward Ho.  Lesson learned.

JQ: There’s a hilarious verse about Neil Young in that song. You are obviously a fan.  You seem, like him, to be constantly dancing away from and returning to a rootsy, Americana sound.  You’ve worn the hats of the earnest singer-songwriter, the satirist/humorist, the straight country guy, the electronic soundscape artist, the alt-rock obscurest. Is one of these sounds the “real” Joe Rut?

JR: Technically, isn’t Neil Young “Canadiana?” I think they are all real, as much as none of them are real.  If I learned anything from Neil Young it’s “do what you want.”  I’m not playing to a marketing niche.  I’m doing what keeps me interested.  Sometimes I want to sing vocal harmonies with a country band and sometimes I want to paint a wall of feedback with blips and bloops.  Neil Young had “Trans” and “Arc.”  I have “Lumper-Splitter.”  I think the idea of “purity” in music, like pure bluegrass or something, in 2012 is nothing more than marketing.  Am I supposed to just play country and pretend I’ve never heard techno or taken mushrooms?  I didn’t grow up in a cultural isolation chamber.  I grew up with country, blues, rock, folk, disco, punk, whatever.  Fuck marketing.  Play music.  When I recorded my first album [Genuine Wood Grained Finish] the feedback I got from the industry was that it was too erratic, which is a totally valid criticism from a marketing standpoint.  I was approaching from a musical standpoint

JQ: Why did it take so long to get the new album out?

JR: Three reasons.  The first was that Dave [Lichtenstein] and I really labored over the mixing.  We didn’t stop till we were happy with it. That part was fun. Dave really did a great job on the mix.  The second reason: poverty.  Eventually, I ended up doing a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to release the album.  Thank you Kickstarter friends!  You DO love me in the real world!  The third and, really “ugghhhy” reason was copyright hassles and attorneys.

JQ: Can you elaborate?

JR: [sigh]  My own naivety running headfirst into corporate greed.

JQ: You look like you’d rather not get into it.

JR: No, I’m just trying to think how to phrase it….  It all had to do with my version of “Plastic Jesus.” In the long folk tradition of that song, I added my own verses to it.  Not being a copyright attorney, I naively thought I just had to pay “mechanical royalties” to the authors for releasing this “cover” of their song.

JQ: What was the problem?

JR: Well, it turns out if you change the lyrics it’s no longer a “cover.”  It’s now what is called a “derivative work.” Mechanical royalties no longer apply, and permission to release the song is no longer automatic.  You now need their permission, for which they can charge whatever they feel. That’s once you even get them to return a call or email, which took months.

JQ: So what happened?

JR: The song is now owned by EMI Publishing, not the original authors.  For the right to produce 1,000 CDs containing that song, they wanted $1,500 up front and wanted me to sign over to them 100% of rights to the song, even for the parts I wrote, and to call it a “work-for-hire”…which is a beautifully Orwellian term considering I’m paying THEM.  And that didn’t include the “synchronization rights,” which I would need if I wanted to synch the audio to video for YouTube or my website or whatever.  I’d have to pay extra for that.  Normal mechanical royalties on 1,000 CDs would be about $90 vs. the $1,500 they wanted up front.

JQ: Wouldn’t it have just been easier to release the CD under the radar and not even tell them?

JR: I was trying to honor the original authors.  I loved the song.  I didn’t want to steal from another artist. The album has a straight cover of Commander Cody’s “Seeds and Stems,” and we’re paying him royalties for it, fair and square. What I ended up doing for “Plastic Jesus” was going into the studio, pulling the copyrighted verses out, and dubbing in two new verses commenting on EMI’s attorneys and the original authors, thereby turning the song into a parody, making it protected under the “fair use doctrine.”  I retitled it “The Song That Is Not Plastic Jesus,” and now EMI gets nothing, my “live” album is only 99% live, and the song makes a lot less sense.  But it still makes me laugh.

JQ: Why comment on the original authors if it’s just EMI you have a problem with?

JR: Well, in researching the origins of the song, it turns out that one of the original “authors,” Ed Rush, has stated that he and George Cromarty didn’t even really write the song.  According to him, the lyrics were written by a “co-ed” with whom they went to school, and the music was adapted from an “African-American camp meeting song” called “Leaning in the Arms of My Sweet Jesus.”  So I was dealing with a corporation who owns a copyright of a song they didn’t write, bought from two guys who didn’t write it either.

JQ: You recorded this live album at the release show for your last studio album.  Are you going to make an album of the release show for this album?  Where does it end?

JR: [laughs]  Oh, that hurts my head.!  We’re just gonna enjoy this one!

JQ: Any special surprises?

JR: Well if I told you, they wouldn’t be surprises, would they?  OK.  Chatbot 1984 is coming out of robo-rehab for his WD-40 addiction and if he can hold his shit together he’s gonna rejoin the band.  Rumor has it that Andy Davis, who played banjo in the Spikedrivers and 86 with me, will be flying out from Pennsylvania for the show.  With Jason Kleinberg playing fiddle with me, and the Murach Brothers opening the show [the Low Rollers], that’s all of 86 in one room at one time for the first time in many years.  Who knows?


Joe Rut
w/ special guests The Low Rollers
July 14, 2012
The Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell Street, San Francisco
Celebrating the release of Joe Rut Live
Doors 8:00, Show 9:00