For the Record: ‘Adversary’ by The Blood Feud Family Singers

blood feud family singers coverby Carly Schorman

I’m rather partial to the Noir Americana of The Blood Feud Family Singers. Maybe it’s because I lean toward pensive and melancholy by my very nature. Or maybe it’s because life’s handed me a shit run of luck once or twice so I’ve definitely had a good look at the underside over other people’s shoes. Or maybe it’s just because The Blood Feud Family Singers features some of the finest songwriting I’ve heard this side of the Rio Grande. Adversary, the new album from the BFFS, is so good you don’t really need to justify the fandom. You just have to hit play.

The album kicks off with “Tall” which sets an appropriately doleful tone for Adversary. Then “I Didn’t Come Here for Your Honesty (Lie to Me)” aggressively comes in with its regretful look back. Daryl Scherrer (vocals, guitars, keys) proclaims, “That’s all the wisdom I’ve acquired,” during this track, but there are eleven tracks remaining so it’s safe to assume the songwriter once again underestimates himself.

“No Heaven for i Pagliacci” reshapes the road song narrative and leaves listeners with the lingering smell of gasoline before “A Little Off the Top” offers a subtle critique on Capitalism. On “Cry for Me”, the songwriter flexes that Western flair that marks The Blood Feud Family Singers with that unmistakable desert sensibility. Devils dressed in white and angels dressed in black. Mourning doves and lots of crying. This song has the desolation that is The West all over it.

The murder ballad, “From Grace to Ground”, is yet another personal favorite from Adversary and not just because I love me a good murder ballad. The lyrics strike a personal note when drawing out the character of its narrator. That’s part of the magic of Scherrer’s songwriting; he can craft a narrative that is intimately personal to everyone who hears it. I’m sorta’ glad he opted for songwriting over becoming a novelist, but I wouldn’t want him in the competition.

“Just Before Hate” starts off somewhere between a religious joke and a theological discussion with the line, “Sappho, Casanova and the Marquis de Sade drove up the hill to call a conference with God,” and, let me just say, you can spend the whole day thinking about God’s answer to their question. Try not to cry. Remember, while The Blood Feud Family Singers might bring up some interesting thoughts to ponder, they don’t actually speak for God. At least, I think it’s highly unlikely.

“Devil Like Me” provides a blustering anthem for the Southwest and an opportunity for gang vocals from the band before “Sunday Night Gorgeous” breaks your heart again in true BFFS style. That lovelorn feeling is going to stick around through “I Named You for a Song” until “Emma Goldman’s Arrest” sets your pulse racing with a revolutionary fervor. Adversary was released on the anniversary of the execution of the Haymarket activists (11/11). Coincidence? I think not.

The ponderous “Already Over” closes out the album with an almost six minute conversation between a mother and son.

Listening to Adversary makes me want to buy the world a warm sweater or watch it burn down around me. It can be very confusing, but emotions are like that and The Blood Feud Family Singers hit on most of them in the thirteen tracks on their new album.

And, in keeping with the For the Record tradition, I asked BFFS songwriter, Daryl Scherrer, some questions about the making of Adversary, not writing songs, Capitalism, and many other things. Make sure to keep scrolling for our interview with Daryl as you give Adversary from The Blood Feud Family Singers a listen.

Maybe we could start by talking about Ex Nihilo Audio. Is that a home studio space? If so, what’s your set-up like and did you record the whole album there?

Daryl Scherrer: Yeah, Ex Nihilo Audio is my home “studio”, such as it is. My setup is extremely bare-bones: just a cheap two-channel interface, a couple of cheap mics, my computer, and free software. That’s it. I don’t even have a sound-proof space. I just record in my living room, and turn off the air conditioner when I’m tracking. I often have to shut my cat in the bedroom, because, being part Siamese, he’s really talkative, really needy and really loud. If I’m recording one of the other band members I’ll often hold the cat against my chest, like you would a baby, because that seems to keep him happy and quiet. Anyway, that’s why I call it “Ex Nihilo”; because it’s as close to making a record out of nothing as you can get.

And yes, I recorded both of the Blood Feud Family Singers’ albums there. In the first place, I’m a working-class dad, so I don’t have a lot of money for recording. In the second place, I’m a cheapskate anyway, so I wouldn’t want to shell out for a real studio. And in the third place, I have a very DIY temperament, so it gives me a lot more satisfaction to record the albums myself, even if it doesn’t sound as good as it might at a professional studio. There’s also a principle in it for me: I want to show that anyone, of any income-level, can make a decent-sounding record.

When you performed in our Songs from the Listening Room series, we asked you a few questions about your songwriting process and you mentioned you had taken a break from writing songs and The Blood Feud Family Singers pulled most of their performance material from your back catalogue. Is that true for this new album? Are these songs that have been sitting on a shelf waiting or did you return to writing songs?

I still haven’t really returned to writing songs. Not like I used to, anyway. Luckily, I’ve already written literally hundreds of them. And luckily, my entire so-called career has been carried out in more-or-less total obscurity, so no matter how old one of my songs might be, it’s still as-if new, because almost nobody’s ever heard it. I’m not really sure why the songwriting ebbed. Sure, part of it was that I started writing a novel (which, by the way, takes even more time than you think it does). But there was also some sort of soul-shift around that same time, some change in my inner environment.

For one thing, my feelings just kind of stopped being all that interesting to me, whereas previously I used to luxuriate in them until I was practically drowning. Granted, the feelings themselves used to be much more operatic: dense, dark, swampy depressions; lofty, soaring flights of ambition; rainy, sumptuous melancholies. There was a grandeur to them that seemed to demand my complete devotion, and writing songs was my devotional act: hymns grappling with the gods that my feelings were.

In short, my native personality style was very much that of a poet. I’m not sure what changed. Possibly psychotherapy had something to do with it, or else the psychotherapeutic process just burned me out on obsessing over myself. In any case, nowadays I’m much more interested in what I’m doing than what I’m feeling. Granted, I have to be passionate about what I’m doing, or why bother. Such is my temperament. But now it’s much more a case of my feelings serving the life I’m living, rather than the other way around.

Since I didn’t die young, like a proper poet, the poet temperament simply died instead. And good riddance, since that guy was completely inept at living my life. The temperament that took his place, while still that of a writer, has harder edges and is much more of a pragmatist, much more interested in getting things done. You could say that my personality has become much more that of a novelist. I sometimes miss the wild flights of inspiration, those sacred spaces, the religion that my feelings were. But mostly it just makes me roll my eyes. I don’t respect it. I’ve come to respect effort, application, discipline. Passion for me has come to mean something more enduring and more difficult, a question of what I’m willing to commit myself to, regardless of how I might feel any given week.

Also, the overwhelming preponderance of my songs are about love, about the agony and the impossibility of desire. (Not surprising, since the biggest, most consuming feelings I used to have were all the various moments in the trajectory of erotic agony… Christ, I was such a poet.) But eventually, after you’ve said something a million different ways, there’s just nothing left to say about it. I don’t feel like I have any more to say about eros, not on a full-time basis, anyway. Of course, the next Blood Feud Family Singers albums will appear to belie that statement, since they’ll continue to draw heavily from my existing catalog of work.

I have, however, recently begun working on a couple of new songs (casually – certainly not with the urgency and compulsiveness that I used to). They’re political in nature. And it wouldn’t surprise me if politics (in a very broad sense of the word) provided a lot of the source material for future songs, since it’s an arena that’s very ripe for invective. My best friend once dubbed the genre of my existing work as “the protest love song”, since they’re all basically songs written against love. And indeed, I feel most inspired when I have something to write against. I enjoy inveighing, decrying, throwing verbal bricks. Whatever sufficiently annoys or offends me will be what any future songs are about.

How are things coming with the novel? I would imagine the songwriting process is much different from writing long format, even for a songwriter like yourself that has such a strong sense of narrative. Can you speak to how writing in these two modes differs for you?

I’m happy, and somewhat amazed, to report that I recently finished writing my first novel. As I mentioned, it took a rather long time. There are maybe a couple of small, cosmetic edits I still want to make. But otherwise, I’m ready to enter into the next phase of the process: getting it rejected by literary agents. Really, I have no idea if it’s publishable, whatever that even means. I wrote it the way it needed to be written and I’m proud of it. Whether there’s a market for it or not is out of my hands.

Not that I’m indifferent to it, mind you. Being published sounds very gratifying. I just know that I don’t have it in me to make any major changes to my book. One, because there’s something precious to me about this one, warts and all, it being my first, and all the discovery and weird, electric fits of vision that went into it. And two, because whatever energy and agony I would put into fixing this book I would rather just pour into writing my next one. I already have a few other novel ideas going, two of which already have promising first chapters.

Writing fiction is profoundly different from writing songs. For me, they emerge from entirely different regions of myself, entirely different modes. As I mentioned, my songs were mostly all written from a very personal, very emotionally indulgent space – which is proper for the lyrical mode, since the lyric (whether song or poem) is inherently indulgent: the savoring of these specific words, these specific images, these specific moods. (Hell, Rilke writes an entire poem about one headless statue.)

By contrast, novel-writing is about building a whole world. There are plenty of opportunities to lyricize and poeticize and philosophize along the way, but mostly it’s a process of pure expansion, claiming ever more terrain for your world. There’s a peculiar kind of objectivity and empiricism to it, even though the objects being observed present themselves in your imagination.

It’s not dispassionate; the world and the characters that you’re elaborating have to fascinate you, have to feel meaningful and real and worthwhile. But the point is you have to tend to them, which means turning your attention outside yourself, even though you’re focusing it upon a world that’s “inside” your mind. (The writing process, I’ve found, has a way of collapsing certain of our more cherished dichotomies: inner-versus-outer, subjective-versus-objective, active-versus-passive, et cetera.)

Furthermore, the sheer scale of the project (my novel is about seventy-six thousand words) just requires a much more disciplined, nose-to-the-grindstone mentality. You don’t get to be the beautiful soul with your beautiful feelings. You have to be willing to be a regular working stiff.

There is, however, one major way in which writing fiction is similar to writing songs: I find myself composing even the most mundane of passages with an ear to the rhythm of the sentences, the rhythm of the paragraph, the rhythm of the scene. That part reminds me a lot of songwriting. Granted, in prose the rhythms are much more fluid than in a song; maybe more like a trumpet solo than a country lyric.

Quite the cast of players you’ve assembled for your family of singers. How did The Blood Feud Family Singers come together?

It was originally just Marc Oxborrow and I. And I forget which of us suggested it to the other. We’d played together a few times, when the Haymarket Squares backed me up for a couple of shows. He liked my songs and I liked his musicianship. And even more than that, I just liked him. (I liked his songs too, by the way. But at this point he already had the Squares as a platform for his material, so this new band was mostly imagined as a vehicle for my stuff.)

So we started the Blood Feud Family Singers as a duo, and we played a few shows together like that. Then it came time to make our first record and we wanted drums on it, so we invited Douglas Berry (who was at that time playing in the Riveras), to drum on the record, and it turned out he liked the music enough to want to do it full-time. So we played as a trio for a while.

Now, I’d also played with Mark Allred before, since he also plays in the Squares, and I know I’d had the idea to invite him to be our guitarist for quite a while before we actually asked him. It seems to me that we’d assumed he was already too busy with other projects. Eventually though, we worked up the nerve and asked him and he said yes. And thank god for that, because honestly, there are not many guitarists whose styles I can even stand, let alone enjoy. He was a perfect fit. The first show we played with Mark in the band, I remember thinking: This… all along, this was the sound I had in mind.

I’m extremely lucky to have the personnel I have. In addition to being skillful players, they are all, every one of them, reliable and dependable people (something of a rarity among musicians), and it’s refreshing to have everything just be easy for once. Mostly though, they are all kind, goodhearted guys, who I’m very happy to have as my friends. All the various shows we play, the thing I look forward to most is just getting to hang out with my bandmates.

There’s a world-weariness that pervades the album (and a subtly Guthrie-esque anti-Capitalist slant) so I’m almost afraid to ask, but do you hold out any hopes for Modernity? Or, for that matter, humanity?

A friend of mine recently told me that I’m the “oldest” person she knows. I took her to mean this same world-weary thing you’re talking about. Similarly, another friend of mine, an Episcopalian pastor, once told me that I struck him as a soul who didn’t particularly want to incarnate in the world. (He admitted, by the way, that this was an unorthodox premise, as Episcopalians don’t generally believe in the preexistence of souls.)

Point being, it’s not just something I do in my songs. There’s something about the world (by which I might mean the very fact of it – worldness per se) that I seem to find offensive, or at least disappointing. I think a lot of writers, especially fiction writers, share this disposition. Why else put in such a staggering amount of hours to create an alternative world? (There was even a period when I was explicitly indulging my anticosmism by studying the Gnostic creation myths, wherein the world is an error, an abortion that sprang from Wisdom when she conceived without a consort; or wherein the world is the creation of a half-malevolent, half-inept Demiurge.)

Stated more positively, you could say my world-weariness comes from having an essentially “religious” disposition. The problem is, I don’t have faith that there actually is something more than this, some realm of ultimate satisfaction. I just have faith that there ought to be.

It all might have something to do with how I see the structure of desire; namely, that it’s doomed. I sometimes amuse myself by singing a certain Rolling Stones song, only I change the lyrics to say, “You can’t ever get what you want,” and then I finish the chorus by singing, “Because as soon as it’s yours / You don’t want it no more.” And while I sing it to be funny, I also think it’s true.

The moment we get the object of our desire, desire simply shifts onto another object. Whatever big spiritual payoff we thought we were going to get never actually materializes; and then we say, “Oh, my mistake, it’s actually over there.” Or else, as is so often the case in erotic desire, we get the object of our desire – the girl, the boy, or whomever – only to find that we somehow still didn’t actually get them. Our lover is there, but the actual object of our desire eludes us, always remains somehow just on the other side of them. And no matter what we do – no matter how sincere a declaration of love we get from them, no matter how elaborate and cerebral the sex becomes – we never actually get whatever it is we were after.

Now, since I’m already agreeing with Lacan, I might as well also go on to agree with him that living well means staying “true to one’s desire,” that we go on desiring, pursuing certain things that we desire, and so forth. After all, you have to do something with your time. But you can also see how, insofar as the world is the arena of our desiring (and existentially speaking, that’s exactly what the world is), to realize that desire is doomed, that you can’t ever get what you want, makes for a rather world-weary outlook.

But the fact that I take pleasure in conveying this world-weariness in my songs is another matter. Stated simply: I enjoy being contentious and I enjoy pissing on people’s campfires. Stated more loftily: I enjoy challenging and subverting the values of my culture. I get annoyed at the arrogance and naivety of all the standard liberal assumptions: that history is progress, that technological advancement is inherently good, that speed and efficiency are virtues, that science is the gold-standard for truth, that education will cure humanity of evil, that things are getting better, that feeling unhappy is a diagnosable condition that can and ought to be cured, and so forth. A society as manic as ours needs a healthy dose of depression.

As far as Modernity goes, I can’t say whether I have any hope for it. I know I don’t have any taste for it. When I see all of us with our gadgets, our streaming services, our social media identities, our virtual selves, every sector of our lives becoming technologized, an app for literally everything, novelty and distraction having been canonized, speed and efficiency having become our world religion, everything faster, faster, faster, amen… When I see such a world, I think: how cheap. But I seem to be alone in this. By and large people seem pretty well signed-on to the technological mindset, to having life be one big video game. So no, I hold out no hope of it becoming otherwise. Maybe once the fossil fuels run out and we’re all reading by candlelight.

I am indeed anti-capitalist, though I don’t strongly identify with any of the opposing “-isms”. I suppose libertarian socialism or anarcho-syndicalism is the standard by which I navigate most political questions, but I don’t find it useful to “be” an anarchist in any puritanical sense. I don’t foresee us abolishing capitalism any time soon, and in the meantime I believe in whatever makes life better for working people. If voting for such-and-such a person will get us health care, then we should do it. If direct action will raise wages, then we should do that.

Same goes for political violence, assuming it’s employed strategically, and with full acceptance of its moral weight. I’m not an “accelerationist”. I don’t believe in throwing this generation under the bus for the sake of a revolution that might not even materialize. You could just as likely be “accelerating” the rise of fascism. (Maybe more likely, judging from today’s political landscape.) And anyway, how crassly abstract. I believe in the real lives of real people. That’s who the revolution is for. We, us, the actually existing working class, need to pursue whatever gains we can get, and then keep pursuing more.

You mentioned in a previous interview that mixing music was a favorite part of the music-making process for you. Why is that?

It might be truer to say that mixing is the part I can most obsess over. It’s similar to writing, in that you get to fuss and fret over it in private, taking whatever time you need, and only once you’ve got it how you want it do you present it to the world. Being a fairly guarded personality, I gravitate toward activities with that kind of structure. And, unlike in writing, there’s never a “mixer’s block”. There’s always something to do to it, something to tweak, some new idea to try. It’s not as satisfying as writing, because you’re not generating brand new material, but it’s also therefore nowhere near as difficult. There’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of new discoveries and breakthroughs. It’s very immersive and engrossing. I’ve spent entire days mixing, forgetting to eat, neglecting basic hygiene.

Weirdly enough, a friend of mine recently hired me to record his album. (I say weirdly because, as I detailed, my “studio” is minimalist in the extreme, and he surely has the same equipment that I do… He certainly couldn’t have any less.) And I gotta say, it’s been strange, mixing someone else’s record. Like I say, my process involves a lot of trial and error, and letting another person be privy to the errors is a form of vulnerability that I’m not especially comfortable with – a queasy muddling of private and public realms.

But I’ve also discovered about myself that I’m every bit as obsessive and meticulous and over-invested when mixing someone else’s music. I put in long hours. I miss sleep. I listen to it at work and get restless because I want to get back home and fix whatever’s bugging me about the mix. When I’m not happy about the way it sounds, I feel humiliated and resentful and wish I’d never agreed to do the stupid project. And when I get it sounding right, I start liking myself again and feel lucky to be alive and glad to be the guy who’s working on it. In that regard you could definitely say that I have a passion for the work, given that the original sense of the word is suffering.

And, per usual, we’d love to know what you’re working on next now that you’ve just released an album. More performances with The Blood Feud Family Singers? More songs tucked away to flesh out with the band? Taking a break for music to work on the Great American Novel? Inquiring minds want to know.

The Blood Feud Family Singers never seems to have a shortage of gigs, so yeah, we’ll be out there. We already have in our repertoire another half-an-album’s worth of material. (And I certainly have no shortage of songs for the other half.) But I need a break from recording. It’s been devouring my life for too long now and I’m eager to get back to writing. Writing (whether novels or songs) is the thing I find most rewarding, the thing I’m proudest of, the thing that comes closest to resolving the dilemma of what to do with my life.

~

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