Seattle blues trio Lonesome Shack was just about finished with their newest album when a troubling thought occurred to songwriter/guitarist Ben Todd: it didn’t feel right.
“It just felt a little bit too clean,” Todd says, describing as initial sessions for the group’s latest album, The Switcher. So he made the pretty intense decision to scrap the sessions and start over from scratch.
Even a cursory listen to the completed work proves his instincts right. Like the band’s previous album, 2014’s More Primitive, it’s built on a foundation of Hill Country blues, drawing on the wiry, lean grooves of Junior Kimbrough or R.L. Burnside and the sound of Texans like Lighting Hopkins and Blind Lemon Jefferson. But the new album finds Todd boiling down his stylistic influences even further, droning on country blues riffs, but finding ways to connect the threads between Southern blues and the desert blues traditions of Malian groups like Tinariwen and Ali Farka Touré.
“The big common ground is the drone element, the repetitive trance,” Todd says. “It often seems that the placement of the beat, the swing of the song is what is different between the styles, but there’s very similar riffs a lot of the times.”
Scrapping the polished sessions, Todd and drummer Kristian Garrad decamped to Dandelion Gold studio in Seattle to track the songs of The Switcher live (bassist Luke Bergman cut his parts later, in the same room, listening to the recordings and playing along as he would in a live setting). The sessions were loose and open, reflective of the sound Todd and co. get up to in concert.
“That just comes across better for us, and it’s very convenient too: to record and album in a day or two rather than doing a lot of tracking and overdubs,” Todd says. “I don’t think it would help us to approach recording in that way. There’s always an element with this band of unplanned things popping up, which makes it exciting.”
While that particular studio approach doesn’t necessarily produce the cleanest results—check the unshackled boogie of “Sugar Farm” or the shaking “Mushin Dog” for reference—it fits Lonesome Shack’s vibe, which Todd honed in the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico before decamping to Phoenix, Arizona, where he studied guitar at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, before finding his way to Seattle.
“That style of recording certainly does loosen up the approach. You’re not trying to get every little thing perfect,” Todd says. “There’s mistakes and wrong notes, but I don’t really mind that. It just seems honest. We’re not a perfect band live, and I’d rather recognize the moment of recording and have it be a snap shot of how we sound at the time.”
Lyrically, Todd focuses on mind-alteration and medication, on songs like “Chemicals” and “Mind Regulator.” In a sense, the blues has always been about mind regulation—the excising of demons and the act of banishing woes through ecstatic celebration—but Todd often observes that process in a literal sense, detailing, “I think the meds are kicking in,” Todd sings on “Chemicals,” repeating, “and it ain’t no sin, and I feel alright now” like a blissful mantra. “I feel good now.” Todd doesn’t attribute the feeling to miracles or the divine—it’s chemicals fueling his ease.
“I don’t consciously think about themes within a group of songs…but the songs on this record are…held together thematically by where I was at in my life at the time. The past few years I’ve had health issues that have caused me to take medication, and my whole life I’ve been interested in self-medication and how we can affect our emotional state with medication of our own administering.”
But Todd’s not opposed to exploring the dark side of that process. The title track came from “an idea from before we even talked about including the song on the album,” about a “Switcher,” someone “who goes to the dark side or becomes a different person under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“You know the kind of person? You just see them change,” Todd says, reflecting on “The Switcher,” originally included on the band’s live album, City Man, recorded at Cafe Racer in Seattle in 2012.
“Keep your eyes on a switcher, see them turn around,” Todd sings over a serpentine guitar line, fife and drum blues drums, clattering in funky unison. “That’s a term I use a lot when you experience someone suddenly going to the dark side and you wonder, what caused that?” Todd says. It’s not a personal reflection, like much of The Switcher, but it’s just as empathic and thoughtful.
“It’s a baffling experience,” Todd laughs, as apt and genuine a summation of the blues as any ever offered.