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an interview with Anders Parker by Martin Williams / pictures by Christopher Gorman
"I'm schizophrenic and reactionary to my own self," says Anders Parker. We're sat in the bar of the Mercury Lounge and he's talking about what might be said to be a dichotomy within the music he puts out under the name Varnaline.
"I guess in that I'm interested in all different types of songs, and styles of music. I think that comes out in my songwriting."
Don't get him wrong, he's not gearing up to offload an EP of garage remixes any time soon. The truth behind his hyperbole is best illustrated with his latest album, 'Songs in a Northern Key', which goes part way to uniting the two strands of Varnaline, as encapsulated by the acoustic folk of 1997's 'A Shot and a Beer' on the one hand, and the strapping guitar rock of 1998's 'Sweet Life' on the other.
"I guess so," he concurs, evidently humouring my hypothesis.
"I think the production on 'Sweet Life' is larger, it's got a lot more space in it whereas I think with 'Shot and a Beer' and the new one it's a little tighter, more drawn in, more present. I guess that would be a fair assessment, I never thought about it in that way. I feel like the new record is kind of a departure from all the previous four records, to me it's all one piece. 'Sweet Life' was just a collection of songs, this to me kind of flows all together. I also did that on the record as far as the songs bleeding into each other consciously because I wanted to have that feel of not knowing when things were ending and beginning. If I write two or three heavy songs, almost as a reaction I'll go to the other extreme, to do something that's really quiet, just to keep myself interested."
This self-assessment is played out perfectly on 'Songs in a Northern Key', as the placid guitar and rolling mandolins of Still Dream blur with birdsong into the fuzzed guitar of Song and the album evolves through the subtle variations of Anders' classic songwriting, right up to the music box ending of murder ballad Murder Crow. It's a tightly wrought collection that clutches at a host of flavours in its fifty minutes, without sacrificing its identity as an intimate, song-centred record. It's clear that for Anders, songwriting is the principal focus. Over the course of our chat he repeatedly talks in terms of his respect for songwriting as a craft. When I ask about his decision to sign to Steve Earle's E-Squared label he affirms,
"Steve's a songwriter, he's into songs."
In the three years between the release of 'Sweet Life' and 'Songs in a Northern Key', you'd be forgiven for thinking that Varnaline had given up the ghost. Before then the release schedule had been in overdrive, with three albums, an EP and three singles released in the two years before 1998, not counting Anders' extra-curricular activity as part of the band Space Needle.
"Part of that was that we were just raring to go," he explains.
"And Zero Hour just basically said, 'if you guys want to put records out, let's do it.' It seems like nowadays the normal cycle is every two years, or three years for larger acts. I actually recorded a whole other middle record between 'Sweet Life' and 'Songs in a Northern Key', another 25 or 30 songs. For a time I entertained the thought of doing a double record, but that got thrown by the wayside."
Although he had flown off the radar, Varnaline was still very much a going concern, both in the studio and on stage.
"Well, we toured for about a year off and on. Then the contract with Zero Hour ended, and they also folded. I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do. I moved a couple of times-I was living in Brooklyn before I moved down to Raleigh. I'm always playing and writing. I did an acoustic tour last year  when there was nothing happening, just to do a tour. It seems like the record industry gets slower and slower as time goes on. So I just kept on recording and it just took that much time to get contractual stuff sorted out and figure out who was going to put the thing out. It's been over a year since Steve and I had actually spoken and said 'is this going to happen?' It took that long to get things rolling. Then I went and remixed the record with Steve's partner Ray [Kennedy], that took some time and then mastering and figuring out when the record is going to come out."
When 'Songs in a Northern Key' was issued in July last year it came accompanied by an open letter penned by Steve Earle (whom Anders calls "the original hillbilly philosopher"), declaring that when Earle decided to start a record label he 'had three ambitions. I wanted to make my own records without outside interference and I wanted to sign Buddy and Julie Miller and Varnaline.' The country aspect of Earle's 'Twangtrust' is not entirely to Anders' taste (
"I mean I like country music but I don't feel like we have anything to do with it. I appreciate it on a songwriting level, but we're not a country band"), so how did his association with Steve Earle originate?
"A woman he ended up seeing was a friend of mine," he says.
"She worked at MCA. Before 'Man of Sin' [Varnaline's 1996 debut album] even came out she contacted me and said, 'hey, I really like it.' And we talked briefly about doing something on MCA, which I decided not to do, but we stayed friends and she and Steve started to go out and so I met Steve through her. He would come to see shows, or I went to see him in Nashville when he was recording one of the more recent records and he was like, 'When are we going to do something, I wish we could get you out of the Zero Hour contract.' And I didn't want to do that because I felt comfortable at Zero Hour. And then after [Zero Hour folded] I saw him in Chicago and he said, 'let's get something going.' And it went from there. I wasn't sure how I would fit on E-Squared, because it is more of a twangier thing, that's where they're at, but it seemed to make the most sense quite honestly. And it's worked so far."
Of Steve Earle himself, Anders simply adds,
"I like him and respect him, he's a force of nature, he's an interesting guy."
Most of the album was played and recorded by Anders on his own (elsewhere with help from Jud Ehrbar, John Parker, Dean Jones and Kendall Meade.) In the past Varnaline has existed as a band unit, a set-up he's recreating for the benefit of his current tour. Anders himself seems occasionally unsure of what constitutes Varnaline, alternating between talking in terms of 'I' and 'we'.
"It's a very difficult thing," he says on the subject of being part of a band.
"There are very few really good bands that write together, because it's not a democratic process as far as I'm concerned. I think there's a few instances, a band like U2 or REM, if you believe the story, apparently those bands are units and they write together. For a while when I was younger I thought that was the thing, I wanted to be in a band, be an equal member where everybody contributes, but in my experience it's very difficult. To a certain extent Space Needle was like that in that we kind of wrote together which could be really great or could be really weird. But at this point the way I approach it is that these are songs that stand on their own, so most of them I write on guitar or piano. They're realised to me. Whoever you play with adds certain things, their own personality, how they play or interpret what you're doing. So I guess I if I ever had any desire for that it's gone. For now anyway, who knows-I like to play, I like playing with different people. Playing acoustic in a bar can be kind of a pain in the ass. If the world was a perfect place and I could afford to take the band out all the time I would do that. It costs money to take a band out on tour."
Whether as lone songwriter or full band, tranquil strummer or something with a few more powerchords-and most points inbetween-Varnaline is in a better position now than ever, not that that is something Anders is particularly concerned with.
"It's a gut level thing," he says about his musical points of reference.
"I think if anything, I've been reluctant to consider how I'm perceived. I've met musicians or writers or whatever who say things like, 'well this is what my audience wants,' or whatever, and it's always struck me as odd. In some ways there's a certain practicality about it because they know what they want to do on that level. I think there's an art in that in itself. Someone like Elvis, he wasn't a writer, but he was an artist, he was an amazing singer, he was an entertainer, that's what he did." A pause.
"But that's not me."
CWAS #10 - Spring 2002