By Dennis Cook

Backyard Tire Fire by Dan Fischer
For some folks, music is the greatest thing in the universe. It moves us in ways no church, politician, or even most personal relationships ever have. It is the most direct, consistent access to things poetic, universal, joyous, and enlightening. It’s what sustains us when we feel too weak to go on, and it makes a good day a great one. Concert halls and record stores are holy ground, and we genuflect with reverence every time we enter. A few minutes with Ed Anderson, leader of sublimely perfect rock trio Backyard Tire Fire, and it’s clear he’s one of these folks, a servant to sound armed with a battered guitar, a broad grin, and the kind of songs that make life worth living.

“I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like music. Even people who suck, cultureless idiots, will shake their ass to something that sounds good to them. Music is universal,” says Anderson. “I’ve been brought to tears seeing music. And, maybe it was too many beers or something, but on a couple of occasions been brought to tears while I was playing. It can be intense. I’ve gotten so lost while playing I’ve fuckin’ drooled all over myself. [Recently] at B.B. King’s, I split my pointer finger open. It was like I dipped my whole right hand in a bucket of red paint. There was blood everywhere – all over the guitar, the pick-ups, my hand. People were walking up to the stage to take pictures of it. My blood is still on that stage. All of us in Backyard Tire Fire are like that.”

Classic Feel

Backyard Tire Fire
(Tim Kramp, Matt & Ed Anderson ) by Dave Vann
Just a few years old, Backyard Tire Fire has the feel of a genuine classic. They have the dusty abandon of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Guess Who’s knack for beefy pop, XTC’s craftsmanship, and the universal bonhomie of Tom Petty. They swing gracefully between widescreen guitar workouts and intimate ballads, infusing everything with the kind of soul you can’t fake. Based in Chicago, Anderson, his brother Matt (bass), and Tim Kramp (drums) make records that transcend time. You can imagine their tunes sharing a jukebox with Buddy Holly, R.E.M., and The Raconteurs AND sounding natural next to all three.

“My earliest musical memories are being in the basement listening to 8-tracks by people like Linda Ronstadt, Seals & Crofts, Steve Martin, and KISS, and, of course, vinyl and AM-radio. My mom drove a Pacer – the Wayne’s World car – and anytime the Beatles came on it was turned up loud,” recalls Anderson. “Think about what was played on radio! People like Neil Young ruled radio in the early ’70s. Harvest and After The Gold Rush were bonafide hits. When I scroll to the back of Rolling Stone now and see what’s charting I’m perplexed. Who’s buying these records?”

“All of our songs don’t sound the same, and our records sound different than we do live. I like writing slow waltzes on piano just as much as power chord rock tunes. It’s hard for people to say we sound like one thing because we dip into a lot of stuff,” offers Anderson. “We have a MySpace page, and I hadn’t really thought about who our friends were so I looked and it was Alejandro Escovedo, Townes Van Zandt, Lucero, Mother Hips – all bands with really good songs. We’re into a lot of stuff but I think there’s a unity in that we’re all about good tunes.”

When I scroll to the back of Rolling Stone now and see what’s charting I’m perplexed. Who’s buying these records?

-Ed Anderson

Photo by Eric Schwab

Sounds Better In A Song

Most popular music today won’t last longer than a Happy Meal in the hands of a toddler. Few will listen back fondly to Fergie’s “London Bridge” or Sisqó’s “Thong Song” in a few years time. On the other hand, BTF makes music for the long haul. Their studio debut, Bar Room Semantics, played like a great mix tape that showcased their stylistic range and considerable chops. The brand new follow-up, Vagabonds and Hooligans, is a career maker – a confident, shining example of songcraft at its finest akin to Randy Newman’s 12 Songs, Drive-By Trucker’s Decoration Day, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s Damn The Torpedoes. Played again and again, Vagabonds and Hooligans only grows in depth and charm.

“It’s hard to know what’s worth developing and what’s rubbish,” muses Anderson. “If I’m trying to come up with something and I can’t get it out of my head then I usually feel it’s worth developing. You can sense when you have a melody you need to run with. If I’m waking up with it in my head the middle of the night then it’s a keeper.”

Ed Anderson & Luther Dickinson by
“I’m real picky with the songs, obsessing and serious about it, but you don’t need a fuckin’ degree in jazz to play these tunes! We’re all Zappa fanatics, who we appreciate as much as Son House. There’s something to be said for both. Son House played out-of-tune, jumping time all over the place, but the basic unifying theme for these two is it’s coming from a place that’s true. You can tell. It’s like soul radar. It’s coming from somewhere that’s real. It’s not poseur bullshit.”

On his lyrics, Anderson says, “I’ve been trying to get less literal, leave things more open to interpretation. Some people think it’s strange and ask me what they mean but when I hear that I feel like I’ve succeeded [laughs]. It’s whatever you think it is. That’s what it is. They can be way off from what I was thinking but that’s cool.”

Knob Twiddling
“We’re definitely studio junkies,” comments Anderson. You can hear their growing production savvy most clearly on Vagabonds‘ one-two punch of “Corinne” – a soaring distillation of crystalline moments on par with vintage Neil & Crazy Horse – into “A Long Time,” a barroom weepie that sounds like it was cut in the same ’50s record store recording booth where Elvis sang to his mama. Sonically, the two cuts are worlds apart yet both hum with haunting creativity.

Ed Anderson by Adam George
“[‘Corinne’] is the opus or anthem of this record. The guitar solo is the resolution, the triumph of overcoming. It’s this release from the blue balls we’ve built up,” Anderson remarks. “It ended in the same key that ‘Been A Long Time’ started in. It was only the second or third time I’d played it. [The producer] put up just one mic above the piano that also picked up my vocals, which is why it sounds like a room recording. It was just a take to get it down and it ended up on the record. It was a real old piano, slightly out of tune. We used this old marching band drum to do the hits. We tuned it so loose that when you barely touched it with a mallet you got this low rumble out of it.”

This obvious pleasure in studio experimentation is present on their debut, too. Anderson says, “With Bar Room Semantics, on the song ‘White On My Walls’ Matt was playing a mallet on a couch pillow and I was playing an old rusted brake drum with a drill bit. We played for four straight minutes and then laid the song on top. The idea was we wanted a percussion bed with no actual instruments. We love doing stuff like that – singing through hoses or running a guitar through a Lesley cabinet.”

Anderson cites the Beatles’ studio explorations as a major influence, adding, “They had such good songs and those harmonies! What I know about harmonies, making two voices into one, I learned from the Beatles. Everybody played what they were supposed to. Ringo is probably the most underrated drummer of all time. There’s tons of great things about the Beatles but the way they approached arrangements really served the songs.”

I’ve been brought to tears seeing music. And, maybe it was too many beers or something, but on a couple of occasions been brought to tears while I was playing. It can be intense. I’ve gotten so lost while playing I’ve fuckin’ drooled all over myself.

-Ed Anderson

Photo by Adam George

Touring Life
“You got three guys who aren’t out on the road trying to get laid. We aren’t trying to be on MTV. We really enjoy playing music together and would like to be able to do that for as long as we can. There’s nothing else to it,” says Anderson. With contemporary radio the corporate-controlled sham it is, BTF’s primary exposure has been through constant touring, both as a growing club headliner and opening for national acts.

Ed Anderson at HSMF ’06 by Dave Vann
He says performing is often “an intense, almost meditative thing.” Watching them wrap their music around crowds at last year’s High Sierra Music Festival, it was immediately obvious that they were born to rock it live. Sweaty, dark-eyed, and muscular, BTF plays balls out every second of their set. It’s a role they’ve grown into through getting out there and bruising their knees in front of audiences.

“We’re a lot more comfortable on stage lately than we’ve ever been. Having that kind of presence is infectious. People can sense when someone is having fun. They dig the energy,” says Anderson. “We’re not statues. It’s so much more fun to see people get into it. Like My Morning Jacket, those guys are fuckin’ rock stars – running around, hair all over the place. I love that shit!”

Besides MMJ, Anderson mentions Lucero as another together live band. He says, “When Ben Nichols is singing he’s believable. Those guys look like honest degenerates! Guys like John Mayer aren’t my bag. He looks good though [laughs].”

“It’s a lengthy process. I don’t think it happens for anybody overnight, at least not a band like us. You just have to get out there and win people over by putting on good shows every fucking night and making interesting records. That’s what we try to do.”

The Name

Backyard Tire Fire by Eric Schwab
Backyard Tire Fire is a pretty evocative moniker, full of elemental hillbilly charm. Wearily, Anderson explains, “We’ve told the story so many times we decided that in the future we’d say it came to us all in a dream [laughs]. In reality, it’s a redneck nod to the Simpsons‘ Springfield Tire Fire. We were living down in North Carolina and it seemed an appropriate name for a rock ‘n’ roll band. Naming a band is not an easy thing to do. It’s an important thing and we did it over several bottles of whatever and a big fire in my yard that we couldn’t get started. The next morning, I came out to find everything burned. There must have been 50-foot flames out there at five in the morning. That next day is when we settled on the name.”

Tom Petty And The Sacred
Besides a passing resemblance to him musically, BTF has penned a bang-up tribute to Tom Petty that appears on Vagabonds. Long a concert staple, it has the right on chug of The Replacements’ immortal nod to Big Star founder “Alex Chilton” and the star-eyed wonder of The Byrds’ “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.”

Backyard Tire Fire by
“The whole thing is tongue-in-cheek,” comments Anderson. “Who wouldn’t want to be Tom Petty? The man is a brilliant songwriter that continues to write fantastic songs that will last forever. I was driving home after a solo gig and heard a live Petty thing. He was playing ‘Learning To Fly,’ and the band was laying out, so it was him and the crowd, who were louder than him. The whole audience was wrapped around his finger, and I was thinking, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this.’ It’s the dream of going to L.A. and making it. He did it, man. He came from nowhere, this small town redneck from Gainesville, and he rules L.A.”

“He’s one of those guys – like Neil Young and Bob Dylan – who’ve been able to put out quality music and tour in a business where it’s hard for anybody to maintain longevity. If they do, generally it’s living off of past successes and not creating anything new that’s worth a shit. Those guys have continued to make good, honest, interesting material. Those are the cats we have the most respect for.”

Anderson concludes, “Television sucks. We all know that. Music to me is so pure, or it should be. Television was always based on advertising. Music can be a business where you sell it but it should be more sacred than TV. I hate seeing Steve Earle sell ‘The Revolution Starts Now’ to Ford Trucks. That doesn’t sit right with me. He sold his political platform to Ford. We’re not likely to do that.”

02/08/07 Hangar 9 Carbondale, IL
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