At home in Pennsylvania's wilderness with the 6'5" outsider hero re-igniting country music
After years of experimentation and error, Daughn Gibson has finally discovered the perfect blend of bitterness, subtlety and roughage. Sitting on his back porch in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, with a home-blended purple juice in the shade of the midday sun, the 6’5”, 200lb singer contemplates the slow-burn acclaim of his debut album All Hell (White Denim, 2012). “I mean, I always thought this was country music,” he smiles, speaking in a warm east-coast accent with a flicker of elongated midwest vowels. “But there’s this new batch of party country which is all like, ‘Back that truck into my dock, girl!’ That’s bullshit. You know that’s not how Hank Williams did it and you know that’s not how Willie did it.” A little “crispy” from last night’s beers and dressed in plaid with a beanie and his favourite busted black boots, Gibson has all the makings of a classic lone ranger. The only difference is that his wife Amber knitted his hat.
As country enjoys crossover success not seen since Shania and Faith’s dominance in the late 90s, Gibson’s music continues the darkly insidious undercurrent that’s been brewing within the genre over the past couple of decades. Snarling Texan Josh T Pearson has spent much of the past ten years touring his conflicted Christian epics to Hull and back, while third-generation country outlaw Hank Williams III has been mixing punk, country and metal for years in projects like Assjack and the late Superjoint Ritual (with Phil Anselmo of Pantera) and with his friend Joe Buck Yourself. As Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart gets increasingly populated by keg-fuelled kissin’-and-a-huggin’ and the likes of Kid Rock sampling “Sweet Home Alabama”, this new host of banjo wielders is the dirt on the sole of ABC TV show Nashville’s rhine-stone cowboy boot.
It’s a good time to be Daughn Gibson. When we meet, the 32-year-old, now signed to Sub Pop, is about to embark on his first European tour as a solo artist to promote his remarkable second album, Me Moan. His perversely catchy tunes are as singular as they are downright peculiar, with imagistic lyrics delivered in a baritone that hits you like an 18-wheeler, over the dank kick of beats inspired by Burial, Demdike Stare and Andy Stott. One track from the new record is driven by the elegiac strains of, erm, bagpipes. “He is truly an individual that hasn’t been affected by outside influence,” says Ira Wolf Tuton of Yeasayer, who were supported by Gibson on ten dates of their 2012 North American tour. “That is a harder and harder thing to achieve in the current media environment.” As other artists’ ideas of sample innovation extend to repackaging what we already know, in the shape of Destiny’s Child songs stuck on the wrong speed, Gibson cuts up thrifted Christian family LPs and weird Turkish records to lend a hymnal dis-ease to his gravelly bars. It makes for a wild listening experience. “His records couldn’t have been made at any other time,” adds Richard Laing, the Seattle-based Sub Pop A&R who signed Gibson to the veteran imprint last year. “I think Daughn could be to country what James Blake is to R&B – bringing it into the electronic age, while simultaneously being so damn good that no one can argue with it.” Me Moan stands a good chance of being one of those records that you hear all summer long in cafes from Shoreditch to Silverlake, and it makes you wonder: would Johnny Cash have sounded something like this, armed with GarageBand?
This isn’t Gibson’s first rodeo. He’s worked as a trucker, barman and roadie, as well as “jizz-mopper” for a truckstop porn-store, where his then-girlfriend helped “clean the jerk-off booths with Q-tips – she would get into the screens and scrub the floors.” His lyrics are culled from a life spent listening to those he met along the way, featuring anti-heroes who are wretched, introspective, lonely or simply bored. “Beneath the veneer of a good Facebook lifestyle is a pit,” Gibson says, taking a strong drag on his American Spirit cigarette. “A deep pit, for a lot of people. I don’t want to glorify the pain, but shed light on it because we all have it and it fascinates me. Over the years I made notes on my cellphone about stories I heard if I talked to a waitress or somebody at a bar. For ‘Tiffany Lou’ (from All Hell), I heard, ‘she saw her father on television again’ in passing, and then just elaborated on it. Like, why would you? What show was he on?”
Later that day, Drake, Slim Thug and Kendrick blare from Gibson’s car speakers as we drive to a private shooting range just north of Carlisle, cruising windows-down with the misty mountains of Perry County to our left. For a guy whose stock-in-trade is the bleakest recesses of human misery, he’s incredibly fun to be around. “It’s not like I have an arsenal of guns!” Gibson protests. “I’ve got a 9mm and a shotgun, but it fucks my shoulder up.” In a beautiful open meadow, off-road and through a locked gate, we meet Gibson’s buddy Wes (“second amendment all the way”), a sturdy dude with a trunkful of weaponry, including a Russian AK-47 and an AR-15 (the AK-47’s brutal all-American success-or) worth about $3,000.
You have to pound it, lock it, slide it, fire it,” he informs me. As I gingerly handle the weapon, Gibson warns about the effects of “hot-dog weed”, a cheap and hallu-cinogenic local delicacy. “Man, last time I smoked that I ended up in the bathtub covered in barf,” grins Gibson.
Gibson cocks the 9mm and fires off a round. “You have to pound it, lock it, slide it, fire it,” he informs me. As I gingerly handle the weapon, Gibson warns about the effects of “hot-dog weed”, a cheap and hallu-cinogenic local delicacy. “Man, last time I smoked that I ended up in the bathtub covered in barf,” grins Gibson. “You ghostfaced!” laughs Wes. After about an hour of firing at roughly humanoid cardboard targets, which does actually feel amazing, we begin packing up and Gibson goes to collect the weapons from the firing station. Suddenly there’s an ear-splitting bang. Swivelling around, Gibson is standing in the open air quivering like jelly, mouth agape with a look of shock and fright on his face. His boots are skewed awkwardly and a shotgun dangles from his limp hand pointing at a perfectly formed saucer-sized crater that grazes his left foot. “I reckon you get one moment like that in your life,” says Gibson into the terrified silence. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
Gibson grew up in Nazareth (pop. 5,758), a perpetually grey town northeast of Carlisle, but as a young man preferred to spend his time in nearby Allentown at Jeff the Pigeon, a legendary early-00s punk warehouse that housed a scene fostered by Matt Korvette, now the vocalist in Pissed Jeans. At the time, Gibson was the drummer in stoner-rock outfit Pearls and Brass. “The first time we had band practice a guy that lived there pulled out a box, and inside was a bible, serial-killer trading cards, The Anarchist Cookbook and about ten copies of a magazine called FUCK by a guy named Dr Randall Phillip. It was like torture rape porn, cover to cover. The most twisted, disgusting, sadist piece of shit. People were getting down with Whitehouse and Peter Sotos and power electronics, which created this kind of fascinating, terrifying, taboo place to make music. I was always waiting for someone to write about this scene or say, ‘Yo, what the hell is going on in this terrible town?’”
After Pearls and Brass split, Gibson took to writing solo material “with a big coffee and a joint, my headphones on,” relishing the self-sufficiency and freedom afforded by Ableton. But it’s unclear whether it would have found a wider audience without the encouragement of those closest to him. “He’s not one to promote himself,” smiles Amber over her knitting when I visit the couple’s well-kept house, which has a powder-blue exterior and a rough wreath of dried foliage on the door. “He was very secretive with his music for a long time,” she says, “but I was a little bit blown away when I heard it. It was not like anything I’d heard previously – and I’ve listened to a lot of weird stuff over the years.” Gibson agrees: “I think because me and Amber both come from liking dark stuff we don’t have a darkness threshold any more.” The couple got married on September 9, 2009, in a ceremony by a junkyard on the outskirts of Carlisle. A friend did the ordaining and the reception included an open-fire hog roast, horseshoe throwing and a local bluegrass band. The couple’s first dance was to “Indian Love Call” by 50s cowboy yodeller Slim Whitman.
Tonight a local funk musician called Mike, who Gibson occasionally practices with, is having a house party. As we arrive at his first-floor apartment – where there’s a huge coffee-table heaped with beer bottles, bongs and Baggies – Gibson is greeted with, “What’s up, Josh?” and “Yo Josh!” It initially seems like a nickname or local inflection, but after a couple of hours I’m unsure. “Every musician changes their name!” Gibson says, laughing. “Why can’t I? My real name sounds like a crooner or some-thing – it’s ‘Josh Martin’.” Further enquiry reveals that the “Gibson” comes from the guitar brand, but “Daughn” has a more idiosyncratic provenance. “It was a running joke that I had with my friend Jay,” smiles Amber. “Jay” is outré fashion designer (and winner of reality show Project Runway in 2005) Jay McCarroll, who photographed the moody, chest-baring portrait of Gibson that graces the cover of All Hell. “We would get into this specific redneck voice,” she continues. “Jay was ‘Don’ and I was ‘Dawn’, and we would have a whole conversation on the phone in only these characters. One day we were driving in the car with Josh and we were like, ‘Well, there has to be another spelling!’ So we became, like, Don, Dawn and Daughn. Maybe it’s weird. It was just scripts and roles.”
Back at the house party, a buddy declares that there’s a bluegrass festival happening in the mountains of Perry County, a 40-minute drive away. “What would you rather get paid in, dollars or Saturday-night bluegrass festivals?” roars Gibson. “We need to listen to that H-town shit in the car.” After a hit of a bong and with the remnants of a crate in our arms, we’re soon rattling up the hairpin turns of a foggy mountain road to the second annual Spring Pickin’ Bluegrass Festival. It may sound all daisy chains and “Kumbaya”, but it’s more like a twangier Gathering of the Juggalos. Amid flashing rave lights in a barren field, local four-piece the Rumpke Mountain Boys are playing their self-styled “trashgrass” – all mandolin-shredding and falsetto harmonies – to the delight of girls dancing in Baja hemp hoodies and ruddy-cheeked hippies swaying merrily with spliffs. “Hey, they’re playing at like, 150bpm!” Gibson yells in awe. “It’s like techno or some shit!”
A hot guy is talking to Gibson at the front of the stage – stubble, dark features, plaid – who I might have noticed first had I not been sampling a stranger’s box of red wine, the womb-like bag removed from its cardboard and held aloft like a hospital drip. Gibson grabs my shoulder and marches me outside. “Did you see that dude I was talking to?” he asks breathlessly. “He starts dancing real close, and then he’s like, ‘Are you into gay stuff? Cause I am, and my buddies are too.’” Gibson is wide-eyed and jabbering. “Dude, they were DTF!” He didn’t stick around to see what would happen if he refused. “If you’re like, ‘No, man,’ they could just turn around and point at you like, ‘Faggot!’ – and then everyone turns on you and you’re fucked. You know, it’s my word against three good ol’ boys.”
Hanging out with Daughn Gibson is a ride. As we struggle to piece the night together over coffee the following day, he gifts me a lurid Christian paperback that I’d spotted on his shelf as I peeked through works by Cormac McCarthy and Carson McCullers (writers who, he says, “take a Q-tip to those small moments”). Entitled Please Make Me Cry!, the autobiographical book’s yellowing cover depicts a downcast female protagonist who finds “something she wanted even more than heroin.” It’s quite a contrast from the other books on the shelf – I know Please Make Me Cry! is trash, but it feels as precious as a rare first edition.
In the same way, Gibson affords the “redneck”, “white trash” characters of his songs the voice that they can’t or won’t publicly give themselves. His rootin’, tootin’ new song “Kissin’ on the Blacktop” was inspired by local drinking hole The Cave, where the clientele line-dance to Soulja Boy. “I remember people being there at noon and peddling drugs or getting fucked up on whiskey,” says Gibson. “We assume that if you don’t have a job and you’re not contributing you’re up to no good. I feel bad about that situation – but for the person themselves? I feel as happy as fuck for them.” Every generation has its own way of telling a story, and Daughn Gibson may have carved out a brand new niche at the intersection of beats and blues. Don’t be surprised if those three good ol’ boys show up in one of his songs soon.
Me Moan is out on Sub Pop on July 8. Watch the behind-the-scenes film with Daughn Gibson above.