Q&A with Hardy Morris of Dead Confederate
As a band, Georgia's Dead Confederate -- the subject of a November 20 Westword profile -- is very much alive. Singer/guitarist Hardy Morris and his mates were plucked from obscurity by former Capitol Records president Gary Gersh, who made the band the first recruit for his new TAO imprint. Better yet, the fruit of this union -- a new recording called Wrecking Ball -- has been lauded in the pages of Rolling Stone and Spin. Still, Morris hardly comes across as a buzzy hypster in the following Q&A.
Morris shares details about his upbringing in Augusta, Georgia, home of the Master's golf tournament, which wasn't the most nurturing environment for someone more interested in kicking up a racket than in making birdies -- although he and his cousin figured out a ticketing scam that helped them turn the kindness of elderly links fans into musical gear. After that, he talks about the creative influence of his mother, an artist and musician; his interest in mellow music despite the aggressiveness of many Dead Confederate tunes; his introduction to his future bandmates, which took place in high school; the post-college decision to get more serious about a musical career; the differences between the scenes in Atlanta and Athens, with the latter receiving his thumbs-up; the combo's meeting with Gersh and the freedom they were given during the Wrecking Ball recording process; and his vow to keep plugging away at rock and roll even if the current attention doesn't translate to fame and fortune.
In other words, he'll be a Dead Confederate even if he's dead broke.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Where are you from originally?
Hardy Morris: We all grew up in Augusta, Georgia. Are you familiar with Augusta?
WW: I am – but how would you describe it to people who aren’t familiar with it?
HM: Well – golf (laughs). There’s not a whole lot beyond that, especially music scene-wise. But it’s where we were, and that’s where we grew up.
WW: Did you ever caddy at the Masters or anything like that?
HM: No, never did anything like that. I used to scalp tickets. Bought a guitar amp one time for scalping them.
WW: How much could you get when traffic was good?
HM: This is so irrelevant – but have you ever been to the National or the Masters?
WW: I haven’t.
HM: Well, if you go on practice days – I think they’re different now, but they used to just give you stickers. So we would stand out front wearing preppy clothes and as older folks would come out, we’d be like, “I’ve never been to the Masters. I really want to see it.” And they’d go, “Here you go. We’re done for the day.” And they’d let us have their stickers. Because older people would be out there by eight in the morning…
WW: And they’d be worn out a couple of ours later?
HM: Yeah, they’d be done by lunchtime. So they’d give us our stickers, and we’d stick them on our stomach or whatever. We’d get six or eight of them and then turn around and sell them for thirty or forty bucks apiece – sometimes more late in the day. That’s when we were teenagers. Me and my cousin did that one day, and there was a music store down the road. And we went down there, and I bought an amp and he bought a guitar.
WW: Is that amp still around? Do you still use it to this day?
HM: Nah, it was horrible. It was a piece of crap. I didn’t know what I was doing. But it was better than watching golf, I guess.
WW: Do you have brothers and sisters?
HM: I have one brother who’s our manager.
WW: Is he an older brother or a younger brother?
HM: He’s my older brother.
WW: Does he keep you in line? Or does he let you get out of line whenever you’d like?
HM: It’s a little bit of both. We all keep each other in line – or get each other in trouble, and then out of trouble.
WW: So you’re all on the same wavelength?
HM: Yeah. We’re all connected together, I guess.
WW: What did your parents do for a living? And how would you describe them?
HM: My dad’s a lifetime educator: a teacher and a principal, and he wound up as a superintendent in Columbia County, where we’re from. He never called himself a teacher; he always called himself an educator. He’s a pretty sharp guy. And my mom is an artist, a musician. She has an art gallery and plays Celtic music and bluegrass. She’s a true-to-the-core artist. She’s either painting or playing at all points, at all times. She travels around, plays her violin – and when she’s at home, she’s consistently painting. I think a lot of me came from her. But there’s a lot of my dad in there, too, I guess.
WW: Are her paintings abstract? Realistic?
HM: She does all kinds of stuff. She does a lot of abstract stuff, but she does everything, in all mediums. She started out doing a lot of water color, but now she does everything: pastels, oils, water color. And… you know, when she cuts out paper and…
HM: Collages. I couldn’t think of the word. I’m sorry, but we had a really late night last night. We’re in Austin, Texas.
WW: How was the show last night?
HM: We didn’t play. We played the night before.
WW: Oh – so you had an extracurricular late night…
HM: Exactly. We had the night off and our friends the Black Angels played. We watched them and then we hung out until way too late…
WW: Well, I know you’ve talked about what a big influence your mom has been on you musically – and also what an influence the Neil Young album Harvest had on you.
HM: Oh yeah.
WW: How old were you when you heard the album? And was there a particular song that had the biggest impact?
HM: My mom taught me how to play “Heart of Gold.” I guess I was probably eleven or twelve. And she gave me the record. We had it on vinyl. I listened to it that way, and then I think they gave me a tape of it for my birthday or something. I don’t know: I couldn’t stop listening to it.
WW: That’s one of the gentler Neil Young albums. It doesn’t seem to have as much in common with your music as some of his more aggressive albums.
HM: That’s true.
WW: So was Harvest kind of like a gateway drug – it led you into Neil Young’s stronger stuff?
HM: Actually, I’ve been into a lot more mellow stuff, and I write a lot of mellow stuff. It just doesn’t always end up being Dead Confederate material. But driving around in our van, we listen to a lot of mellow stuff. Have you heard the new Department of Eagles album?
WW: I have.
HM: We’ve been listening to a lot of that – and Grizzly Bear and Elliott Smith and Neil Young. I like a lot of lighter stuff. It doesn’t necessarily translate onto our album. Although I guess at the end of our album, there’s some stuff like that.
WW: “Wrecking Ball” certainly starts out gently…
HM: Yeah. I don’t know: I definitely have a big affinity for that kind of stuff.
WW: How did you meet Brantley and Walker and Jason and John? Was it right at the beginning of your high school years?
HM: Walker and I started playing together in high school. We both played guitar and kind of bonded over Pink Floyd and guitar effects – delay and reverb, noisy stuff. And Brantley and Jason played together in a band in Augusta. They did covers and stuff, and a little bit of original material. You know, high school bands. We opened up for their bands a couple of times, Walker and I did, and we started doing open-mic nights and whatever. And a couple of years later, I guess, their band had broken up and we needed a bass player, obviously, because we had two guitarists – and obviously we needed a drummer, too. And Augusta doesn’t have too much of a music scene. Nobody who played music was too far away. And John was in bands. He joined up with us much later, but he was in a band around town. He has an amazing ear. He’s one of the keys of the band. He was in a band and he was really good, a friend of ours, and then his band broke up and we kind of snagged him.
WW: So did the five of you ever play together as a single band in high school? Or was it after high school?
HM: No, no, no, it was well after high school. We were kind of loosely together through college. We would go home to Augusta and play on holidays, and from time to time. Through college, everybody was definitely more focused on school and just kind of doing their own thing musically. We would just play when we could.
WW: So you guys didn’t all go to the same college…
HM: No, we were in three different towns for the college years. We still kept in touch and played from time to time, but Brantley and I were in Athens and Walker was in Atlanta and John and Jason were in Augusta.
WW: What colleges?
HM: Walker went to Georgia Tech in Atlanta and Brantley and I went to UGA in Athens.
WW: What did you major in at UGA? And were you serious about your studies? Or was college just something to do until you were able to start your music career in earnest?
HM: It was a little bit of both. I was an English major and it was really easy for me, because I like to read a lot. It was kind of a given for me to major in that. It was like, “I already know English. Might as well major in that.”
WW: Did you ever think about what you’d do with your degree after you graduated?
HM: I figured I always had the band in my back pocket. I figured I’d pursue it first, but if anything happened, my dad was a teacher. So I always figured I’d teach if I didn’t do this.
WW: But you wanted to take a shot at a music career first.
HM: Of course. I’ve wanted to do that since I first picked up a guitar. It’s always been what I wanted to do.
WW: With you guys having known each other for so long, are there times when you get sick of each other and just want some time apart? Or are you so compatible that those kinds of conflicts don’t ever come up?
HM: Of course there’s small bickerings, but we’ve been around each other so long that it’s pretty much second nature. We all know how everyone is. We put up with each other pretty well. You can tell when a real problem arises, and we always address that. But the little nit-picky things, you just let that stuff slide.
WW: It’s pretty rare for high-school friends to stay that close for so long. You guys have known each other for well over a decade, right?
HM: Easily. I mean, Brantley and I were going to the swimming pool together when we were four. We’ve known each other forever. It’s a unique situation. My parents are more impressed by that – that we still get along – than anything else we’ve done. They’re like, “That’s more impressive than anything.”
WW: At what point did the Redbelly Band start? Was that the high school band?
HM: Yeah, that was the loose collective that we kept through college. It was cool, because it’s what kept us together. And as soon as we were done with college, we decided to take the band more seriously. We all moved to Atlanta. We now live in Athens, but we lived in Atlanta for a couple of years, and that’s where Dead Confederate started. We kind of hunkered down in this little house and decided to take it seriously. We had a handful of songs and we felt like we needed a stronger moniker. Before then, we were just kind of playing. We weren’t really writing.
WW: Before then, were a lot of your sets filled with covers?
HM: We did some covers, and we had some skeletons of songs just to kind of jam on and riff on. We were just playing. We got drunk and high and we played jammy shit. Not long true songs that we poured ourselves into. Once we started doing that, we were like, “Wow, this is what it’s all about.” And that’s where Dead Confederate arose.
WW: How would you describe the differences between the scene in Atlanta and the scene in Athens?
HM: The difference to me is, if you look at bands that have succeeded out of Atlanta, almost all of them are from Atlanta. They grew up there. It’s a huge city and it’s hard to come in there from the outside and make any kind of an impact.
WW: Are people who try to do that looked upon as carpetbaggers?
HM: People don’t need you. They already have their friends. They have the bands they go see and they honestly don’t need you. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but they just don’t need you. It’s a huge city and people have their ways. And in Athens, it’s a place where people are drawn to – people come there to stand bands or whatever. They’re finding themselves artistically or they’re a student or whatever. Most bands you meet around Athens, nobody’s from there. They’re drawn there.
WW: And as a result, are they more welcoming to outsiders?
HM: Exactly. When a new band comes to town in Atlanta, it’s like, “Who the hell are these guys?” In Athens, when a new band comes to town, the first thing everybody is going to do is go see them. They want to find out what it’s all about. In my mind, it’s just more welcoming and supportive. I don’t have anything against Atlanta. I met a ton of great people while we were living there and had a ton of fun. But we’re small-town boys in the end, I guess. And Athens is a little more conducive to what we do, and a little more supportive. There’s more competition in Atlanta.
WW: Before you guys got signed, how would you describe your level of success? Were you doing pretty well financially? Or was it more a subsistence kind of thing?
HM: We were weekend warriors. We were all working during the week and then we’d play on the weekends around the southeast. A lot of trips to Birmingham and Chattanooga and places like that.
WW: Was there ever a time where you said, “If haven’t made it by this date, we need to hang it up”? Or was everyone always dedicated to sticking it out until you got noticed?
HM: We’ve always had this kind of blind ambition. It’s really weird. I don’t feel any different than I did when I was thirteen and playing with my next-door neighbors in this little trailer we used to play in. I’ve always just wanted to write songs and play them… I don’t think any of us had any other thoughts. We continued to get together and play because it’s what we did. There was never a goal to reach. It’s just what we did.
WW: How did you meet Gary Gersh?
HM: We’d played over in Birmingham. We’d go over to Birmingham and play this place called the Nick. It’s this little hole in the wall. It’s been around forever – since, like, the ‘70s. And there’s a radio DJ over there named Scott Register. He plays independent rock and folkie stuff and singer-songwriter stuff. He came to one of our shows and we met him, and unbeknownst to us, he was scouting for Gary Gersh’s new label, TAO. Eventually, we went out to eat with him and he told us about his relationship with Gary. And Gary came to see us in Nashville a couple of months later. That was the first time we met him.
WW: Did you know about Gary Gersh’s track record before Scott told you about him?
HM: Oh yeah. We knew about him, for sure.
WW: Was there any trepidation on your part about being the first band on a new label? Or was that a positive, because it meant you’d have hands-on attention?
HM: A little bit of both. It was exciting and scary at the same time. But we’ve been able to do what we wanted to do.
WW: How about the idea that you’re sort of semi-officially part of Razor & Tie, a label that makes most of its money from those horrible Kidz Bop records?
HM: (Laughs.) Well, that’s just the pockets, I guess.
WW: So Kidz Bop is a good thing, because it gives you guys some breathing room?
WW: In a lot of ways, the music you make, which can be very dark and expressionistic, isn’t very trendy right now. Has that ever been a concern of yours?
HM: Not really. It’s just what we sound like. I don’t know that there’s really a pro or con to it. It is what it is. It’s not like we could sound like anything else.
WW: Of course, a lot of bands do set out to sound like what’s popular at a given time. But that’s not something you can do?
HM: Nah. I never think about things that way.
WW: When you went into the studio to record Wrecking Ball, was there any pressure on you to tighten up the songs? After all, “Flesh Colored Canvas” is twelve minutes long…
HM: Not at all. That was one of Gary’s favorite songs and one of Mike [McCarthy] the producer’s favorite songs.
WW: So you were able to go wherever you wanted to from a creative standpoint?
WW: Has the way the album’s been received surprised you at all?
HM: It’s gotten a lot of good response and a lot of response that’s been all over the board. It’s not a record for everyone, obviously. I guess a lot of critics expect you to make something that everyone’s going to love. Sometimes I don’t understand why people even write about us. If you like us, let people know and write about us. If you don’t, what’s the point? So I don’t know. It’s gotten some good response, some bad response, whatever.
WW: How about all the comparisons between your voice and Kurt Cobain’s? If you hear that one more time, are you going to kill yourself?
HM: (Laughs.) Nah. It’s just the nature of the music and what we do, I guess… It’s kind of dwelled on. But I think there’s a whole lot going on with the record. There’s a lot more than just that.
WW: Do you think those kinds of comparisons will fade over time as people get more of a sense of who you are as a band?
HM: Yeah. I think the next record is definitely going to go some different places than Wrecking Ball. It was kind of our raw rock record. I think the next one is going to have more layers. We have to approach it differently just because we’re on the road all the time. The songs on Wrecking Ball, we’d written and had toured on for over a year. We had the songs very well defined and done. We just had to go in and record them. Whereas this next record, we’re on the road a lot, so our approach is going to have to be different – because we won’t have the time to have these songs seasoned and already marinated (laughs).
WW: Is that exciting? The idea of making something fresh as opposed to living with the songs for a year or two first?
HM: Totally. It’ll be interesting to see where it’ll wind up. You don’t want to do the same thing twice.
WW: When bands are signed, fans have this perception that everyone’s lives change immediately, and that’s not usually the case. What have the differences been for you?
HM: We’re just on the road more. Everything else is still there.
WW: And no matter how this record or subsequent records do, you still expect to be playing music in one form or another ten or twenty years from now?
HM: Yeah, I’m sure of that. There’s no other options.