Band To Watch: Red Collar

by Jack Diablo
A while back I was invited to a show in Orlando featuring a band from Durham, NC called Red Collar. After being told their sound was a combination of Fugazi, Bruce Springsteen and The Replacements, I was sold. Unfortunately I missed the show since the band played much earlier than most bands ever start here in Jacksonville, but I did receive a copy of their new album, Pilgrim, produced by the acclaimed Brian Paulson who has previously worked with groups like Wilco and Superchunk. It is a fantastic first album and has already caught the attention of Seattle’s KEXP being featured as Song of the Day. It is pure rock and roll brimming over with that blue collar/DIY ethic. Even though I missed the performance, I was so impressed that I had to do something. Fortunately I was able to catch up with guitarist/vocalist Mike Jackson for an interview.
EU: On your MySpace blog, you talk about what you consider to be a decent crowd. Specifically you say, “Ten is great. Ten is Madison Square Garden.” For a band that is just getting out there and touring new venues, even new states, what advice do you have as far as expectations on the road?
Mike Jackson: Obviously we would rather be playing a sold out Madison Square Garden show, but you have to start somewhere and 10 people in a town in the midwest that we have never been to is a good place to start. A lot of people would probably look at that number and balk, but you can build from that…. building from zero (which is the case when you don’t play that town) is impossible. I think bands that are out there touring for the first time (or the first 5 times) should think of touring as a process and not as an end unto itself. Go out and find the cool clubs, promoters, bands, fans etc. and make those connections. You just can’t do that via the web. You have to go do it. And above all else keep it in perspective, know what you are working towards and remember why you love playing music in the first place, because if you don’t absolutely love the music, and performing, in and of itself, then you might as well stay at home. Be relentless.
EU: I’m told that you have all quit your jobs and sold your stuff to finance your touring. Is this a last ditch effort or will you continue on regardless of the tour’s success?
MJ: It’s funny how this storyline has grown. We have rearranged our lives in pretty dramatic ways, but it’s a little more nuanced than that. As I am writing this Jon and Beth are at work, Jason is at home working on his house (which is also work) and I just finished work. That being said Jon is at the same job he had, but now he is a “temp” employee, this gives him flexibility, but a lot less money and no health insurance. Jason did leave his job, but like I said his house has become his new job. Beth has a really cool set up where she can do a lot of work from the road (especially in the summer), but it also means busting her ass when she gets home. I happen to work at a restaurant where most of the employees are, or have been musicians, so they help cover my shifts when I am gone, which is great, but also means I have to bust my ass when I am at home to make up for the shifts I lost on the road. It’s not a last ditch effort, but it has meant a lot of sacrifice on everyone’s part. We have taken big risks, but we have also tried to be smart about it. Finding a balance is tricky.
EU: How much has your hometown of Durham played a role in your sound?
MJ: It’s hard to say. There certainly isn’t a Durham “sound,” but there are a lot of great, passionate and supportive bands here and that helps. More than anything I think the bands, no matter how diverse the “sound,” share an earnestness that I personally find really refreshing. There is none of that hipster ironic posturing bullshit. People are very real. It’s also very small, so there is no separation between genre’s– no metal kids over here, punk kids here, folk kids here– everyone is connected, part of the same thing. I also think it allows ideas to cross-pollinate in a way that might not happen in other place. We might be totally blown away by a Megafaun song that might really influence us, but because we are so different sonically, the way that that comes out on the other end might be unrecognizable– it’s just going to get processed in a completely different way. That may not happen if we’re all doing really similar things.
EU: Explain how you came up with the name Red Collar and the meaning behind the title track of the album Pilgrim.
MJ: (Disclaimer: Jason named the band and wrote the lyrics to Pilgrim, so what follows is my personal perspective, though I doubt it differs much from what he would tell you. I just get nervous about commenting on the “meaning” of things that I didn’t actually write.)
It was originally called The Red Collar Company and after I joined the band we changed it to Red Collar. Basically, Jason had written a bunch of songs that were, for lack of a better term, “reflections” on the working experience in America. The working position that I think a lot of people from our generation find themselves in – college degree in hand, shuffling paper at a desk, essentially going through the motions of “working,” but without being white collar professionals and a long way from the steel mill, or the fields, or the mechanic shop of the blue collar worker. So why not call it something else? Red Collar. I also think it just “works” as a band name. It has some interesting imagery associated with, it’s kind of mysterious and it’s still vague enough to have some flexibility. The newer songs we are writing aren’t about the “working” experience, but I think the name still works.
As for Pilgrim, I think it ended up being the title of the album because it almost gives a name to the “character” that keeps showing up in the other songs on the album. Now I am using the word “character” very loosely and I want to be clear that this isn’t a concept record, but there is common theme throughout and “Pilgrim” really seemed to capture that. Sure the songs are about working in America, but inside of that, you aren’t really talking about the day to day of the actual job (though sometimes we are) but, I think more importantly, getting at the heart of some universal themes– hope, dreams, regret, failure, growing old, the search for meaning, for value and the sometimes crushing weight of the modern world– the kind of themes that we all wrestle with and more and more people are doing that in their cubbies. All that being said, I think if you listen carefully, Pilgrim is an optimistic record. Despite all of those things you can still find beauty and love and if you fight hard a path that allows you not to be defined by what you do, but who you are. I know that kind of sounds like bullshit but isn’t that what most people are trying to do??
EU: Even though your new album is self-released you worked with Brian Paulson to produce it. What prompted the decision to bring in someone like him and what was the experience like?
MJ: It was simple. He’s Brian Paulson and lives in Chapel Hill, which is only a few minutes down the road, and he was willing to do our record, so it was a no brainer.
The process itself took a lot longer than we expected. Brian is a busy guy, so we would work in little chunks of time. There were times when that was frustrating, but in the end I think it worked for the best, because we got to live with things for a while and think about them and come back and make little changes that we wouldn’t have done if we rushed through the whole thing in a week.
EU: What are your future plans and ambitions?
MJ: Tour. Play our hearts out. Make a new record. Repeat.
Ambitions? We would love not have to go to work the morning after driving all night back from tour. And um, we’ll take Madison Square Garden too, but we don’t need any of that. Our ambition is to write and play great music if that pays us back in some material way– cool– if not we still get to do what we love.