Backyard Tire Fire: Never Came Easy

By Team JamBase Aug 28, 2008 4:44 pm PDT

By: Dennis Cook

Backyard Tire Fire by Eric Schwab
Working rock ‘n’ roll bands are the salt of the earth. It’s the largely unknown folks that stuff themselves and their battered gear into near-death vans and wobbly trailers to run with the sputtering torch lit by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and the other snot-nosed pioneers in what became rock. These bands might not be on TV or cutting sponsorship deals with energy drinks but you can be damn sure Buddy Holly, Joey Ramone and Ronnie Lane are looking down on them with ear-to-ear grins. It ain’t a pretty or secure life but for the ones that kneel at this roughshod church it’s the only life.

“We’ve been out in that van for YEARS! We’re always happy to just get out there in front of people, maybe win a few new fans for the next time through, sell a few records. We’re not gonna stop and just hope there’s a few more folks with us each year,” says Ed Anderson, singer-songwriter-guitarist-bandleader of Backyard Tire Fire, who are very much a torchbearer for the good stuff. “There’s a lot of people playing music that haven’t gone back to see who influenced their influences. All of us are deeply rooted in the history of rock ‘n’ roll and where it’s come from. Tim is really educated in old blues, and we’ve all done our homework. I’ve learned how to make records from a few people personally but also from the records I love, reading about how those records were made and incorporating that into our albums. I love reading studio diaries!”

“There is a lot of shitty music out there labeled ‘rock & roll’ [laughs]. There are people that have a real fuckin’ idea of what this music should sound like, should feel like, where it came from, but they often get fuckin’ ignored,” bluntly states drummer Tim Kramp, highlighting BTF’s genuine appreciation for what’s come before them. While it’s great to be a total innovator there’s something to be said for inspired traditionalists. Tire Fire straddles these two worlds, tweaking their rootsy tunes with real subtlety but perhaps inching a bit more into the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s in their sensibilities than many peers in 2008. Their new album, The Places We Lived (released August 26 on Hyena Records), polishes up their virtues on the tightest, most instantly likeable collection yet from these Bloomington, Illinois rock stalwarts.

Backyard Tire Fire by
Steadily releasing great music since 2002, BTF touched down in indie meccas Asheville, NC and Athens, GA before settling outside Chicago, and it’s not surprising to pick up echoes of R.E.M., Gov’t Mule, Drive-By Truckers and other meat ‘n’ taters groups from those parts in their sound occasionally. What the new album reveals is their core. While they can stretch out Neil Young fuzz guitar style, especially in concert, Places condenses their many charms into carefully honed bursts. While every cut here hums with live potential, there’s a lot of small touches that show the band’s growing maturity in every aspect of their craft.

“There’s some rockin’, dirty, gritty nasty stuff, and there’s some light, fun stuff. It does kinda run the gamut, but it’s not fragmented. I’m proud of the mixes, sounds and tones we pulled together. We love being in the studio and just making sounds happen. There’s a lot of little things on this record that you have to really listen for to see how deeply we got into this record,” offers Anderson. “On ‘Welcome To The Factory’ there’s a loop that we created from a drill bit being tapped on a brake drum, a gooseneck mic stand being scraped up against an empty reel of tape and more random, non-musical objects we put together to make a loop that made you feel like you were on an assembly line. It’s used throughout the song but it breaks out in the sections where the drums go away. We just really get deep into the production and enjoy making analog records, doing it the old fashioned way. This was done, not unlike our earlier stuff, with old school amps, old school mics, old school tape machines – no computer trickery, no auto-tune, no cutting and pasting. We try to remain true to the art form of recording – recording an event of people actually playing music together in a room. We really try to keep it organic, try to get a good take with all of us playing at the same time. We just thoroughly enjoy it.”

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I’m really proud of what we do. I hear somebody say, ‘When people talk shit about my band it doesn’t bother me.’ Well, it bothers me a LOT. It’s like saying something bad about your family. What drew me to this band in the first place was I was looking for someone who wrote great songs and sang real well, and Ed definitely fits the bill. I listen to the words and I fuckin’ believe in them. That’s why I’m in the band.

Tim Kramp

Photo by Eric Schwab

“I always think, ‘This is the one. This is the recording everyone is gonna latch onto.’ I’ve thought it about every new thing we’ve ever put out. I think you almost have to think that, to think that someone will fuckin’ hear this and it’ll get us out into the national and international eye. When you stop thinking like that you’re fucked,” continues Anderson, tapping into the absolutely necessary intestinal fortitude to lay your guts out on vinyl or a stage. And guts Backyard Tire Fire possesses in abundance. “You have to have some of that [pauses looking for the right word], well, spark to get the job done.”

Backyard Tire Fire by Eric Schwab
Beyond all the circling and theories, Tire Fire is simply a great rock ‘n’ roll band in a time with too few of them.

“I’m really proud of what we do. I hear somebody say, ‘When people talk shit about my band it doesn’t bother me.’ Well, it bothers me a LOT. It’s like saying something bad about your family,” says Kramp. “What drew me to this band in the first place was I was looking for someone who wrote great songs and sang real well, and Ed definitely fits the bill. I listen to the words and I fuckin’ believe in them. That’s why I’m in the band.”

BTF is ripe for wider discovery, perhaps the next in line behind other recently anointed working artists like The Hold Steady, Alejandro Escovedo, the Truckers and My Morning Jacket. The music is all there on Places, and a great trail of tunes lays behind it. Listening to “Everybody’s Down” or the title cut, one wonders why they aren’t packed in like sardines at every BTF gig, why these guys aren’t opening for Petty or Dylan. If talent, sheer appeal and quality meant a damn in the record and radio industries at large, well, Backyard Tire Fire would already be big.

“There’s some smart guys who want to see this band succeed and are doing everything they can to make that happen. It’s just a matter of it clicking in. Luck probably has a lot to do with it,” sighs Anderson. “There’s a lot of good pieces of the puzzle in place, a lot more than five years ago when I was booking this band and Matt [Anderson, bass, Ed’s younger brother] was working at the DuPage Airport and Tim and I were delivering pizzas during the week.”

Places has a timely subtext of simmering discontent, folks fed up with how things are going in their lives and all around them, people a little less patient with assholes than they used to be, a little closer to desperate than even a few years ago, but all of them trying to keep their hand from curling into a fist or their lips to snarl into an unkind word. Anderson’s songs jump between bubbling frustration and the happy surprise of daily pleasures, time clock watching consternation and the simple sweetness of a lil’ time with the one you love. His songs understand how hard it is to keep your temper tied down or live day after day with a delayed dream, and as such provide soundtracks of Springsteen proportion for have-nots working their fingers to the bone and imagining a time when they won’t be cleaning up after the haves.

“I’ve never been one to write happy songs [laughs]. There’s stuff that’s tongue-in-cheek and bouncier but I find I’m a lot better at writing about the things that bother me,” says Anderson. “I’m not saying I don’t want to write happy stuff; I just write whatever the hell comes out. I never try to write anything. As soon as you try to write something you force it and you get that cheese factor. Our songs aren’t cheesy. They’re real from the gut, and I like to think that’s accessible to people in a way they can identify with. Believe me, I’ve thought, ‘Oh, here’s another downer [laughs].’ Maybe it’s alright to be like this.”

A choice example of Anderson’s writing prowess on the new one is “Rainy Day,” which has the mood of a nice afternoon bummer until you realize he’s celebrating being indoors watching the sky cry.

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We can play a waltz with brushes and piano, and we can also drop a bomb in open-G on you that’s gonna split your head open.

Ed Anderson

Photo by

Ed Anderson
“It’s fun to take on well-worn phrases and make them your own. That one is kind of sardonic. I think that one catches people off guard because it comes after the most rocking song on the record [‘How In The Hell Did You Get Back Here?’] into this waltz. It’s my tip of the cap to Tom Waits. I’d been listening to Nighthawks at the Diner probably 24-hours-a-day for a couple weeks when I wrote that song,” recalls Anderson. “It’s funny but the good ones don’t seem to take much effort. With this one, I’d been talking to my mom and I’d been playing this waltz before she called. It was raining and I told her, ‘I think I’m gonna write a song about this rainy day and how I like it.’ I was just being lazy and sitting around and the song just flew. The best ones just seem to drop out of the sky. I like it because it shows the diversity of this band. We can play a waltz with brushes and piano, and we can also drop a bomb in open-G on you that’s gonna split your head open.”

To wit, the Rust Never Sleeps worthy “Welcome To The Factory,” which feels dangerous, as if some part of it – the snarling vocal, feisty low end or cantankerous guitar – could slip off the rails at any moment and kill someone. You want something with a touch of menace if you’re going to wander into Neil’s territory, a place full of bodies by the river and powder burns on children’s hands.

“I have worked on an assembly line and it really is like, ‘Welcome to the fucking job, dude. Get ready to be bored off your ass while you stare at the clock under shitty high school style lights.’ Everybody just stands around with that blank look on their face until they get that fifteen minutes to go smoke a cig,” laughs Anderson knowingly, a songwriter capable of drawing out the essence of shitty experiences and finding some flotsam wisdom within. “The greats – Petty and Dylan and Neil Young – they’ve always been able to do that. When you listen to Petty how can you NOT identify with what this guy is talking about? He knows how to appeal to and identify with anybody. He writes a song like ‘American Girl’ and every fucking girl in America thinks that song is about HER. That’s why that song was played at the Super Bowl thirty years after it was first written. Everybody still loves it! I don’t feel like I try to do anything except be totally honest in my songwriting. You hope that people identify with it, that the song says something about them.”

Backyard Tire Fire by Eric Schwab
Time is a ghost that floats behind much of Places, ruminations on the experience of hours passing and minutes passed, the way we survive long stretches in our personal prisons and where we’ve left behind a chunk of days.

“I think I write about time more than I recognize,” says Anderson. “The older I get I think the concept of time just freaks me out more. The more people you love and lose, well, it’s hard to not think about time when I sit down to write.”

Rock as religion isn’t a new thing, but like the Catholics, there’s less and less folks willing to endure the rigors and sacrifices demanded of them. Fame and cash are easier, more socially acceptable pursuits but they won’t get you into rock ‘n’ roll heaven. Eyes turned towards the sky, Backyard Tire Fire are unmistakably acolytes of the purest kind. They’ll be traveling around with their new album and a bunch of good songs they’ve written since they completed Places. The van waits outside and the starter seems like it’ll turn over for one more autumn. See if you can’t get to a show and throw a little something in their collection plate. Trust me, you’ll walk away feelin’ sanctified.

“A guy like Ed can’t get to this age in life and this level of success without really believing in it. You can only keep doing it and doing it and doing it and doing it if you HAVE to write songs and go and play them in front of a bunch of rowdy motherfuckers. Unless you really believe in it you’re going to get real sick and tired of it fast,” observes Kramp. “Sure, we look forward to having things like health insurance but we could do that in a week in a regular job at Starbucks or something. But it’s never gonna replace the feeling of making music that makes people feel good when they light one up and put your record on.”

Here’s an acoustic version of “Shoulda Shut It,” a track from their new album.

The boys take us down to “Crack Alley” in this 2006 performance at Schubas in Chicago.

Finally, BTF play “Jimmy & Bob & Jack” at the legendary Sun Studios.

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