Interview with Alex Kirt of the Woodbox Gang
Interview and live shots by Michael F. Coles sometime in 2007 (Although some pictures are older)
As mentioned somewhere else down below in this interview, I first heard and became familiar with The Wood Box Gang at the Yellow Moon Café in Cobden, IL back in 2001. Starting out as a 3 piece, then going to 5 members, then 6, and now back to 5, I have seen The Gang go through several line-up changes, but the core of the band has always remained the same; Alex and Hugh. Without these 2 individuals, The Wood Box Gang would not exist; with no disrespect to all others who have ever been with or are still with the band.
Although I was hoping to get back the questions I sent to Hugh at the same time as Alex so I could post this interview all together as one, as I am known to do, I lost my patience and decided to go ahead and have this posted as a "Part 1" of sorts, hoping good ol' Hugh will read this and send back his part soon enough, making his interview "Part 2." Due to Hugh being the lead vocalist and lead lyricist, his part of the interview is much longer, meaning I "picked his brain" more than I "picked" Alex's.
Besides having some of the catchiest songs ever written in any given genre, the Gang's lyrics are in my opinion their greatest attribute. But in the same breath: they do have some lyrics that I do not agree with due to my personal beliefs in the Christ-like philosophy, something they preach against on every album with at least 1 or 2 songs. And although Alex and Dean (and Pete in the past) have shared in the writing of some of the Gang's lyrics, as mentioned above, the majority of the lyrics belong to Hugh, which in my humble opinion is a lyrical genius (and has some excellent word play I might add)!! Next to Martin Walkyier from ex-Skyclad (Sell out!!), Hugh is by far my favorite lyricist.
I'm not really sure what else to say that I haven't already asked in the interview. So without further ado, if you're a Metal-head, Punk-rocker, or just a music fan in general, as I am, and you see a flyer or hear about The Wood Box Gang playing in your town (or city), I suggest you go and support this unique (to say the least!) musical outfit out; you will NOT be disappointed (unless you are closed minded!!).
The Outcast: The first thing I want to ask you is how does it feel to "sell out" in Carbondale? When you play at the Hangar 9, there is usually a line out the door and people can not go in unless someone comes out. Have you ever thought about building a bar in Carbondale just for The Gang so everyone can fit and watch the Gang without having any "issues?" What would you call this bar?
Alex: Well, it feels pretty good to be appreciated. We've put many years of hard work and sacrifice into this project, and it's an honor to be so well received. I never take it for granted because we spent so many years playing in coffee shops and dive bars for less than 10 people in the audience. I have actually thought it would be great if somebody would build a larger music venue in Carbondale, one that could hold 800 to 1000 people, with an excellent sound system and a comfortable atmosphere, ya know? Shryock is cool in it's own way, but people can't relax and have a drink in that venue. Copper Dragon is a big room, but the sound is pretty bad in there, and they mostly cater to the tribute bands. If I was a rich man, I'd buy the Varsity Theater and convert it into a state of the art music venue, and I'd book big name bands to headline shows there, with local bands supporting them. I'd probably keep the name Varsity Theater, so I wouldn't have to change the marquee sign, ha, ha! So if anybody has a million bucks or so who would like to invest in my idea, please contact me!
The Outcast: How has touring the U.S. of A. been? Now that you all have been touring for some time now, do you have any crazy stories yet? How have the crowds responded to the Wood Box Gang and how does it differ than playing back home? What cities have been the best overall, and what kind of crowds do you all seem to attract?
Alex: Touring is both rewarding and tough. It's a rewarding feeling to know that we're getting some success outside of our home region. It's tough to travel on the road for weeks and weeks locked up in a van for 8 hours a day and sleeping in one hotel room with 6 guys. It tries a man's patience, but the best thing to do is find a way to be alone for awhile whenever you can. I usually go for short walks, which gives me some exercise, stretches my "van legs," and lets me regain my composure. For the most part, we all get along pretty well these days. I think we're getting too old and lazy to argue all the time.
I've found that for the most part, the crowds respond fairly well to our music, even when they've never heard us before. There is not a typical "Wood Box fan." We get all types of folks, young and old, conservative and liberal, rural and urban, etc. We did very well in Northern California for the most part. The west coast was pretty good to us. We also seem to get good crowds in a lot of the mountain towns out west.
The Outcast: Going back to the different crowds you may attract, The Wood Box Gang is a band that in my opinion can attract almost anybody that is into other styles of music, as you have also mentioned up above, than what they are used to listening to. Being a perfect example, when I first heard you guys back in 2001 at the Yellow Moon Cafe, although I had never really been into this style of music (whatever you want to call it), the live energy, the humor, the witty lyrics, the catchiness of the songs, and the overall aura of The Gang's live performance made me want to get up and dance! I was hooked at first listen and became a "groupie" of sorts attending every show in Carbondale thereafter for the next 3 years or so. Almost every show I attended, I heard at least one person say; "I've never heard anything like this before." If someone asked you what kind of music does The Gang play, how would you describe it and what would you tell them? I've heard people call The Gang Bluegrass and even Country music, although you may have elements of both, The Gang is much more than that. Are these descriptions far from the truth?
Alex: Well, the most common question we get asked is; "What kind of music do you play?" The normal response is; "We are blending a wide variety of roots-based music to form our own sound. We mix elements of bluegrass, blues, country, & Americana, with the delivery and attitude of punk rock." And when we play at traditional bluegrass festivals, I just tell them "Bill Monroe wasn't copying off of anybody else, and Earl Scruggs wasn't either, so why should we copy off of them?" I think Earl and Bill would be proud to know that we're doing our own thing with roots music. Earl and Bill are a couple of the greatest musical innovators in the 20th century, but I don't want to be a clone, so I just get small bits of inspiration from them, but I gotta be myself, ya know?
The Outcast: Alex, you used to play in various Rock or Grunge bands back in the day. What made you want to play this style of music and how do you see your past musical voyages and tastes fit (if at all) into the music you both write now?
Alex: Well, I still love heavy rock music. I still listen to it all the time. I got started as a musician playing heavy rock, but even back then I was listening to a wide variety of music. If you listen to the Soldog music, for example, there are a lot of obvious delta blues influences in the songs. That was my input into the sound of that band. A lot of guys used to tease me about my taste for roots music when I was in high school. For instance, Josh Plemon (Josh Plemon and the Lonesome Drifters) and I were in a rock band back in high school. He used to call me "muddy" because I liked Muddy Waters' music. Then they kicked me outta the band because I wouldn't go to church with them. It's kinda funny to me now because Josh has a country band and they play a lot of secular music. Maybe I was way ahead of my time ha, ha?
The Outcast: Alex, how did you guys meet and please give me a brief history of the band. You and Hugh are the "core" of the band now that Brian is gone. Having gone through some various members from The Gang's birth, do either of you see The Gang going on if either of you decide to call it quits?
Alex: Well, Hugh and I met in 1995 at SIU. Hugh was only about 17 years old, and I was about 21 years old. Hugh graduated from high school a year early, because he's a mad tortured genius. He and I were enrolled in the music department's "Music Business" program. We had a lot of classes together, we both didn't really fit in, and we both smoked roll your own cigs. So we'd hang out on the porch of Altgeld Hall, rolling cigs and talking about music. We discovered that we liked a lot of the same stuff, so we started writing songs together. My band Soldog had just broken up, and his band Painted Cellar were about to break up, so as fate would have it, we ended up bored and band less at the same time. I think the first tune we wrote together was called "The Ballad of Merrick" which was about my childhood phobia of the Elephant Man. I saw the movie when I was a kid and it terrified me. I think I may have been the Elephant Man in my past life. If I ever get rich, I'm gonna hire some guys to break into Michael Jackson's house and steal my bones back and bury them in the earth where they belong ha, ha! Then we both dropped out of college. I moved to Florida and worked as a lifeguard on the beach in Sarasota. Hugh decided to move to Florida a few months later, and we started writing and performing together in a coffee shop on Siesta Key. That's where we first performed the tune "I Roll My Own" and "Storm Blowing Slowly" and perhaps some other tunes which became WBG standards. Then I moved to Colorado and worked in the Boulder MTN Parks and Hugh moved to Utah and worked in Bryce Canyon. We both ended up back in Southern Illinois, and in March of 2000, I called Hugh to ask him to join me in forming a "punk rock jug band", and he countered me and asked me to join the Wood Box Gang, which at the time was made up of Hugh & Brian DeNeal, and Brad Bolin. The rest is history.
I'd like to think that the Wood Box Gang could go on without me if I were to become unable to continue, but I can't say what would happen, because I just don't know. Hugh and I have been pushing this band up the big hill together from the beginning, and we've had lots of help along the way. But I think in order for the Wood Box Gang to sound like we do, it takes both Hugh and I, along with the rest of the talented musicians we've been lucky enough to recruit along the way.
The Outcast: What was it like being in and playing in the Charlie Birger documentary? Was it a learning experience at all, or just plain fun?
Alex: The Birger movie experience was a whole bunch of fun for me. If I ever quit playing music I'm gonna become a Foley Artist for sure. It was a learning experience for me as well. I learned a lot about the history of our region and the characters who helped shape this area.
The Outcast: You and Hugh both share the majority of the lyrics. One theme in particular that you both share and touch on in some of the lyrics is religion, or religious subjects. You wrote the lyrics to "Poor Jesus." Is this song about people telling you they are going to pray for you because you are a sinner?
Alex: I am not an openly religious person. I have not seen anything to make me feel strongly about religion. I wrote "Poor Jesus" because I felt annoyed by a person who kept telling me that they put me on their prayer list. I kept thinking to myself "Why in the Hell would somebody put ME on a prayer list?" I'm not sick, I'm healthy as a horse. I've got plenty to eat, and a decent place to sleep, and I'm generally pretty satisfied with most of the things in my life. Save the prayer list for those in need! Some people are goofy like that, ya know? But I'd like to thank them for inspiring me to write a song that a lot of people seem to enjoy.
The Outcast: Growing up in the "Heartland" how has that influenced you do you feel on your views on religion?
Alex: Growing up here, I just got sick of people sticking the Bible in my face and screaming about morals. God lives in the trees, man! Ha, ha, just kiddin', well, sort of... Have you ever heard the song "Hesachiah Jones" by Bob Dylan? It reminds me of my home town.
The Outcast: Were you raised in a religious home?
Alex: Not really. My parents taught me right from wrong, and there were consequences for doing wrong. But they never stooped so low as to threaten me by saying "You're gonna burn in hell!" It was just not necessary to keep me in line.
The Outcast: Do you think Satan and God are actual beings? Why or why not?
Alex: Who knows? I think people are too stupid to fully understand anything that big.
The Outcast: I've heard Hugh say on stage that The Wood Box Gang play's the devils music. What do you think about this comment? Do you feel this music is the devils music? One question I have asked most Metal bands I have interviewed is if they thought Heavy Metal was the devil's music and some say yes. Do you think the devil actually has "his own" music?
Alex: Well, I think the Wood Box Gang is MY music, and Hugh's music. The devil never wrote any of it. If the devil was real, and he did have his own music, I think his song would be "Hail to the Chief." I wish the devil would write some songs for us though, we'd sell MILLIONS!!! Just imagine...The New Wood Box Gang album, co-written by Lucifer. It would be multi platinum for sure!
The Outcast: Are there any songs you and Hugh regret writing for any reasons there may be? I know you are really fond of the Mario and Luigi song (Italian Plumber Lawsuit), speaking sarcastically of course!
Alex: I don't regret any of our songs. I like to go back and revisit some of our older material sometimes. I don't really have a favorite WBG song.
The Outcast: What regional event (Carbondale's Pig-out, Makanda's Vulture Fest, etc.) is The Gang's favorite and why?
Alex: Oh, I like 'em all I guess. I'd like to start playing earlier shows. Ideally, we'd be playing in an actual theater, with a real stage, with a big red curtain, and we'd play from 8pm to 11pm. That would be my preference.
The Outcast: In the band you play on the CD (and live) the washboard, the banjo, the acoustic guitar, the harmonica, the kazoo, the didgeridoo, and the stomp board, just to name a few. What is your favorite instrument you've ever played and is there anything you can not play?
Alex: I can't play the piano very well. I can't play a drum set very well. I can't play any horns, woodwinds, or brass. Sure, there are a whole lot of instruments I can't play. Actually, no, I CAN play them, I simply HAVE NOT YET. Anybody can play an instrument. It's not magic, it just takes some practice, that's all. My favorite instrument is singing. That's what I like to do the best. I have the most control over my voice, as opposed to an instrument that's not a part of my body.
The Outcast: What has been your favorite aspect of being in this band?
Alex: Writing, recording, and performing all original music.
The Outcast: What do you hope to find after your life has ceased?
Alex: A cool, quiet hillside, near a small lake, with lots of fish, a big ol' cane pole, a rowboat, a can of worms, and a big glass of ice tea with my wife and my dog.
The Outcast: I know you are more than capable of doing the art work for the Gang's album covers. You could have easily drawn the "Born with a Tail" cover. Are there any logical reasons why you have let others do the art work?
Alex: I'm too self critical to do album artwork myself. I'd just nit pick the shit out of it for months, and keep starting over. I am a doodler. Basically, I try to leave the real graphic design and artwork to the pros. But I can draw a kick ass pony or a unicorn, ha, ha!!
The Outcast: Thank you for the time and sorry this took so long!! This was way overdue!! Any closing words?
Alex: After over 8 years of making albums, we just made an arrangement with an indie label to distribute us. Alternative Tentacles, the label founded by Dead Kennedy's front-man Jello Biafra, will now begin selling Wood Box Gang albums. A.T. seems like a good place for WBG because the label has long been known for their support of artists who do their own thing their own way. Back in 2003, Jello was giving a spoken word presentation at Shryock Auditorium in C-dale, and afterward he came to the Hangar 9 just to have a nightcap (I met and talked to him as well at the Hangar that night and he is indeed a great man!! - Mike). By luck, WBG was playing a show that night, and Jello enjoyed what he heard. We've kept in touch with him through the last few years. During our recent tour of the west coast, WBG played a show in San Francisco. Being Jello's hometown, he stopped in for a visit. After the show, we spent a lot of time discussing the possibility of WBG and A.T. working together. It seemed like a good idea, so we did it. Be sure to visit the Alternative Tentacles website for WBG albums and many other great bands from many different genres. Being a former teenage skateboarder, one of my personal favorites is the JFA collection.