Posted November 30, 2008


US twisted blues duo Black Diamond Heavies sure had an impact around these parts. Their first album, "Every Damn Time", landed with an impact like a baby elephant falllng through the roof, and moved us to pen the following words:

This one's greasier than the Graceland chef’s skillet after Elvis hosted a week-long fried peanut butter sandwich party for the Memphis Mafia. If you can reconcile basslines as thick as The King’s personal physician’s prescription pad with don’t-fuck-with-me drumming and a bullfrog vocal that sounds like a septuagenarian Delta bluesman with balls the size of a buffalo, you’ll have a good idea where Black Diamond Heavies are coming from.

A year or two later and the follow-up "Somebody Else's Class" was just as mind-blowing, with occasional horns augmentation but the same sense of crazed blues with a soul streak. Drummer Van Campbell continues to lay down a massive bedrock while keyboardist John Wesley Myers cranks out the organ sounds and applies his impossibly big vocal like a deadly weapon. As their Australian distributor Dave laing from Shock says, they come across like "Ray Charles trying to impress The Stooges".

Myers is the song of a Baptist preacher, Campbell a member of a bourbon whiskey distilling family who has a unievrsity degree in Mandarin. That's a couple of colourful backgrounds. But it's all about the music. Part of the mighty Alive Records roster and working with the light production hand of The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach in the background, BDHs work in a familiar soundscape but push it to the fringes to come up with something special. And there's not a guitar within earshot.

Now, in late 2008 comes the news that BDHs are heading to Australia for a select run of dates. THE BARMAN decided to beat a path to their respective doors via email. Here's the interview that resulted.

So how's life in Nashville these days and how do the Black Diamond Heavies fit into that city's local music scene, if at all? I imagine it's pretty mainstream C & W, apart from Keith Urban's occasional forays in and out of detox.

VAN: We don't live in Nashville anymore but it actually seems pretty good lately....there are aspects of it we like and ones we hate as well....

Like for instance we were just there at a honky-tonk bar where they were running a "recession special" which consisted of a fried bologna sandwich, a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and a MoonPie - all for $5!

A MoonPie is a uniquely American treat...kinda gross but so wrong it's right...I'm sure there is an equivalent in Australia and I can't wait to find out what it is.

Anyway, so we're sitting there drinking beer and we realize that the dude playing bass (and passing the hat for tips) is Dave Roe, who played with Johnny Cash for years and plays the upright bass
like he's grinding there you go...if anyone ever gets the chance to go to Nashville they should go to Robert's Western World on Lower Broadway. It's horribly touristy yet completely authentic at the same time!

Nashville also has its fair share of badass bands as well that are completely removed from the corporate-country thing....silver Lions 20/20, Alcohol Stunt Band, The Clutters, Cheap Time, and Hands Down Eugene, just to name a few.

How did you guys get together and where's the most musical common ground, apart from the obvious blues grounding?

JOHN: We met in Nashville a few years ago. at the time the Black Diamond Heavies were myself and a slide guitar/harmonica player named Mark Holder. He and I moved to Nashville from Chattanooga, TN, in an effort to find a drummer and get our asses on the road. Van had just moved to Nashville from London, UK to find some cats to play with. Within a week we had met and were gettin' it together. A year or so later, Mark left the band for health reasons and we decided to on as a two piece.

The most common ground musically would have to be rock and roll of the classic variety. We both dig the rock.

Q I heard your work ethic was pretty good and you spend most of your waking hours on the road. How many nights do you play a year and what's the most bizarre place you've gigged at?

VAN: I think we do about 200 shows a year, at least that's the way its been the last few years. It doesn't sound like much but its relentless and anyone who has done that for more than a
year will tell you the same.

It's been the best way we have found to get through to people. The most bizarre place? Probably Bath, UK... We were both on LSD and the night devolved into a kaeleidoscopic brown soup in the middle of Rome circa 100 AD....the night ended with our roadie U.S. Justin being firmly reminded that "there is no home".

JOHN: Most bizarre gig is prolly this festival we played in France. they set us up on a flatbed trailer and pulled us through the streets of this little town with a old-ass tractor. Every few blocks or so the tractor would pull over and we'd rock for whoever was standin around on that corner. That was a new one on us.

Q I was wondering if Captain Beefheart got much of a look-in in either of your music collections, especially considering John's vocal stylings.

JOHN: Yeah man Beefhearts the shit. I also prolly borrowed from Howlin Wolf and Screamin Jay Hawkins a bit. Really though, it all comes down to too many cigarettes and too much whiskey.

Van hard at work behind the traps.

VAN: Yes, more recently he has.....but I wouldn't say he was an original influence for both of us.

Q Nina Simone's an eclectic choice to cover when you're working the turf you do, so I was wondering what's the most unusual thing you've covered?

VAN: We love Nina Simone. John is especially a huge fan. She has a way of combining humor and sadness that is unique. She was a complete badass and a classically trained pianist. She became kind of a poster-girl for the civil rights movement in the USA which I don't think she was ever so comfortable with. We went to her hometown and they didn't even have a statue or anything! We couldn't believe it.

JOHN: I'm a Nina Simone almost everything she's done. We do a Van Halen tune sometimes...without the guitar though...hehe.

VAN: We do all kinds of fucked-up covers...Van Halen, ACDC, T Model Ford, R L Burnside....just whatever we are into and we can pull off with relatively little practice

Q How's Dan from The Black Keys to work with and how does he find the time to do so much A & R and production work for Alive when playing with his own band?

VAN: Dan was great to work with..He is very professional and was nice enough to let us stay in his home while we recorded at his studio. I think the Black Keys have hit their stride where they can do a relatively small number of shows per year, and have a lot of time on the side to do whatever it is they are interested in....must be nice!

Seriously though, both Dan and Pat are doing cool shit with their time. I know Dan has a solo project happening next year.

JOHN: Dan was/is great to work with. He's got a great ear for tone...all around nice guy.

Q I suppose it goes without saying that were already big Black Keys fans before you started working with him?

JOHN: Yeah, man.

VAN: Somewhat. My favorite is their "Chulahoma" tribute to Junior Kimbrough. They really nailed that one. There's even a phone message from Junior's wife on the album that confirms they nailed it! They know how to get REALLY good sounds on a record, and that's why we wanted to record with Dan.

Q How much of a kinship is there between bands on Alive? There seems to be a bit of a geographic spread among the acts but do you cross paths on the road?

JOHN: You know we cross paths on the road sometimes...a few of the Alive bands we have toured with and gotten close too...Left Lane Cruiser, Buffalo Killers...prolly others i'm forgettin'.

VAN: Alive Records has the highest quality roster around..there is a real sense of comeraderie and mutual respect between bands.
Patrick (label president) has a keen eye and ear for picking out cool bands. We are all spread out but we are always running into one another here and there.

John takes a break, dream of MoonPies.

Q Wesley your middle name? If so, have you considered adopting Harding as a surname?

JOHN: Wesley is my middle name, though my parents called me JohnWesley most of the time...especially when they was pissed at me....they called me JohnWesley most of the time. They named me after John Wesley Harding....'cuz his dad named him after the Methodist minister hopin he'd be a preacher. of course it backfired on'm. So my father, a Baptist minister, named me after Harding thinkin' maybe it worked the other way and I'd be a preacher. Backfired on his ass too.

Q What do you gargle to sound like Tom Waits with a Brahman bull's balls? Do you find it hard to keep your voice in shape when on the road?

JOHN: There again....whiskey and cigarettes.

Q What's the hardest thing about keeping your Hammond B3 in working order when you're bouncing around the place in a tour van?

JOHN: We actually only use a B3 on the records. I'm a Fender Rhodes man...thats all i use live, well and a bass keyboard......but now carryin' a Rhodes around ain't no joke neither. Fortunately i've learned how to fix most problems that occur with the Rhodes...usually on stage while the crowd is waitin'...hehe. Playin vintage gear comes with a price.

Q Your bio says you're the song of a preacher man. What's the old man got to say about you playing the Devil's music and should you care?

He ain't never seen us play, and I don't believe he's ever heard it even. He knows what I do, but I reckon he rathers it was somethin' else.

Q Van...what's your family distillery's label of bourbon whiskey and how can I get my hands on a case?

VAN: Old Rip VanWinkle Bourbon, VanWinkle Family Reserve, and Pappy VanWinkle are all from my fam. It usually comes out in September and its gone by November unless you get it by the drink at a bar at a huge markup. It ain't cheap, hell its the best!
So....the best way is to come to Kentucky in September and get in line bro!

My Uncle Julian VanWinkle is a smart man. They only do 6,000 cases a year! That makes it taste that much better, got it?

Q OK, while I'm at it, what's bourbon drunk best with? Ice or nothing at all, I'd say, but your view might differ.

VAN: I like a little bit of ice, or crushed ice. When I was a kid my dad would give me his bourbon ice. To me it's still the best part sometimes...Just don't mix it with driving, or politics. I learned that pretty young.

Q You may be aware that, like you, our Prime Minister in Australia is a fluent Mandarin speaker. Are you planning on looking him up? If you, what would you discuss?

VAN: I would probably want to discuss something like spinal cord injuries, or postmodernistic Albanian Architecture, in Chinese of course.

Honestly my Chinese is not so hot lately, but that's ok! I still got The foundation, like my Mamma said.

Q OK, questions for both of you... Fat Las Vegas Elvis or Black Leather Elvis?

JOHN: Damn. Both have their merits. I'm gonna have to say fat Las Vegas Elvis.

VAN: Chuck Berry.

Q Stax or Motown?

JOHN: Come on now...nobody should have to choose one of these over the other.

VAN: Motown.

Q Fried, Scrambled or Easy Over?

JOHN: Fried of course.

VAN: Thrown.

Q If you had your choice out of anyone in the world, living or dead, to support, who would it be or why?

JOHN: We just did a couple shows with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds...that was f'ckn amazing. I'd like to do some shows with AC/DC, The Stooges, Led Zepplin....I gots big dreams.

VAN: Probably Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin, or maybe Franz Liszt! He apparently was a real stormer live, seriously he would destroy pianos!

Q We're in a bar here guys, so what are you drinking?

JOHN: I'm drakin' and sweet....its 9am to at least TRY and keep it together.

VAN: It's morning so I be drinking coffee like it's going out of style. Actually I think it is going out of style.

Thursday 11 December
The Zoo, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane
with The Datsuns (NZ) +The Blackwater Fever  
$39.50 (+ bf)–$59.95 (incl CD)

Friday 12 December
Manning Bar, Sydney University, Camperdown
with The Datsuns (NZ) +Dead Farmers  
$38 (+ bf)–$40 (at door) 

14 December (arvo)
Meredith Music Festival, Meredith, VIC
Tickets sold out

14 December (night)
The Corner Hotel, Richmond, VIC
with The Datsuns (NZ)  
$36 (+ bf)