One Eleven Heavy :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

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On its debut album, Everything’s Better, rock & roll combo One Eleven Heavy weave together various threads of choogling psychedelia —some Dead here, some Neil Young there, more than a little NRBQ and Little Feat — into a thoroughly joyful statement. A transatlantic affair, the group features songwriters James Toth (Wooden Wand) and Nick Mitchell Maiato (Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura), along with bassist Dan Brown (Royal Trux), drummer Ryan Jewell (Solar Motel Band), and pianist Hans Chew (Steve Gunn, Hiss Golden Messenger).

Transcending pastiche is no easy feat, but the key here is abundant heart. Mitchell Maiato, Toth, and crew are fully in the zone here, guided by “the ghosts of our histories, coming home to roost,” as they harmonize on “Valley Fever Blues.” Everything’s Better is a pure blast to listen to, its boogie contains multitudes.

We recently caught up with Mitchell Maiato, who also hosts the essential monthly program the Cosmic Principle on NTS Radio, to discuss the band’s unlikely genesis and the tricky matter of authenticity in rock & roll.

Aquarium Drunkard: You and James Toth met about a decade ago. What did you guys bond over, initially? Did the idea “we oughta start a band” pop into your head pretty quickly?

Nick Mitchell Maiato: Yeah, it was in Manchester, over a beer, before a Wooden Wand show I’d booked. Leah [Toth, occasional AD contributor] was there, too. I think we first bonded over a shared kind of chirpy, enthusiastic but world-wearied, tongue-in-cheek skepticism about the whole underground scene, if I’m being totally honest. [Laughs] What a curmudgeonly opening. No, but we just hit it off, all three of us. We got to talking pretty quickly in terms of a polemic for a new approach to representations of folkloric aesthetics. About the precarious position of underground artist who takes a sort of romantic approach to hearing music – putting the primordial beauty of the aural above the political in terms of validating what enters our own sound worlds. And how there should be room for everything, within reason.

So, like, at that point, for instance, the underground hadn’t yet wholesale re-embraced the Grateful Dead, with obvious exceptions like Matt Valentine and a few other East Coast heads we knew. So I remember we were talking about how their marginalization as a result of shifting signifiers was kind of a bummer as you would always have to defend your position as someone who liked the Dead to people on the underground scene (especially in England) for whom their more folkloric or country tropes (not to mention their popularity in the ‘80s) had come to signify a hoky, populist establishmentarianism, which was weird and ironic because their reputation had started out as anything but that. To us (me and the Toths), that was what was so appealing about them (though I remember Leah and I were still in the ascendency of our love for Bobby). That very marginalization within the underground made exploration of their music all the more appealing as, even though it explored some of the most glorious zones – many of them very “outer”- it was contrary to received ideas about what was “allowed” insofar as contemporary antiestablishmentarianism was concerned. It’s like, “Fuck it, I like the Dead; does that mean I’m kicked out of the club?” [Laughs]

I guess we picked up the dialog the next time Toth was over. I remember he came down to my rehearsal space/art studio and sat around while me and Pascal Nichols had this disastrous duo jam but, for some reason, he still wanted to make music with me when I asked him [laughs]. I don’t think it hurt that we both had connections to Neil Hagerty. We were both very serious about our love for Royal Trux and I’d done a couple of Howling Hex records on my label. We each ended up playing with Neil at various points later on, but at that point it was just a point of bonding and, I think, pretty instrumental in helping us understand that we’d make good musical partners. We both counted Trux, Neil Young, the Tower Recordings and the Dead amongst our favorite music – it just felt right. Though I think any aural comparisons between One Eleven Heavy and Trux are spurious and founded out of coincidence rather than any discernible similarity in sound.

AD: What is it like being a band that’s situated in two different countries?

Nick Mitchell Maiato: It’s terrible, man! If you like the constant dissatisfaction of not being able to jam, you should totally do it. Otherwise, consider it very carefully before you get into it. The thing is, here in the UK, it’s very hard to put together a band like this. If you don’t wanna make music of a strictly post-punk style (and by that, I mean “after punk” – dramatically affected aurally by punk – not the “post-punk” genre), but you do wanna play guitar, then you’re looking, for the most part, to a kind of contemporary cod-Americana played by people who’ve turned it into this weird, reflexive, warped mirror image of what looks like rock music but just doesn’t sit right for whatever reason. There are some exceptions… Tom Settle, Trembling Bells The Family Elan, The Doozer… but on the whole, it’s an arid landscape for people who like music with overtly discernible folkloric rock roots, so I’m stuck with having to save all my money and holiday allowance to fly to the US two or three times a year. Not that I don’t love the country. (My wife and I got married in upstate NY, surrounded by our best friends.) But yeah, it would definitely work a lot better if I was there permanently. We haven’t played a single show yet and won’t until November! Having said that, it’s taught us to be hyper fucking organized. We rehearsed for two days before we made the record (Ryan Jewell showed up on the second day so only one day with a drummer) and just got it nailed fast and then recorded the album in five days with me playing a full nine guitar solos on the last day. [Laughs] The index finger on my left hand now has a weird knuckle nodule that isn’t going anywhere as a result of that hectic day. And now we’re just starting to write for the second record, which means recording demos, emailing them to each other with chord charts and lyrics and giving each other feedback on them.

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AD: One Eleven Heavy’s record is joyful and unabashed. Where does that joy come from on the record?

Nick Mitchell Maiato: Wow, thank you. That means a lot. It definitely was a hugely joyful experience to make it. I guess because this is the music that’s been inside all of us through osmosis since we were children. We’re churning out what’s just there inside us as a result of our joyful experience of it. Personally, I got to make a record with some of my favorite living musicians, too, so I was pretty “up” for the whole session, if not a little intimidated. It was a beautiful week of hard work in Richmond, Virginia, with the amazing John Morand at the controls, who just exudes mellow, positive energy. And I’m fortunate that everyone in the band is a respectful, entertaining, positive, warm-hearted music lover – it was amazing to spend time with those guys making this thing. It feels like an incredible dream I had, looking at it now. Almost an unreal experience.

There was definitely a serious intent at least on my part to make a happy record, though, prior to the recording. Toth totally re-approached his own songwriting for the record after I sent him my opening gambit, too, actually. I threw out all these major key shuffles cause I just wanted to make a real, timeless, “classic” rock record for once – I guess I had Sticky Fingers, Wake Of The Flood and American Stars ‘n’ Bars in my head. Initially, I think Toth thought this was gonna be a Les Rallizes Denudes style band or something, just cause he’d heard what I did on early DSDV and Chalaque stuff. So he had a crop of downer stuff half-written (all brilliant, of course) and when I sent him, “Old Hope Chest,” he was like, “Right, back to the drawing board,” and two days later, he parried with a demo of “Crosses,” which just blew me away and then it rolled out with those two songs as our vibe benchmarks. I was a little scared of doing anything as overtly country as, “Zygo Grip,” but I’d been listening to American Stars ‘n’ Bars and Rusty Kershaw’s Rusty… Cajun in the Blues Country LPs, both of which were openly indebted to external folkloric influence, non-stop during that period and it was just a case of throwing paranoia to the wind and playing what I honestly wanted to play. I think we all felt the same way. Just like, “Who cares if it’s unhip – go for it!”

And there’s not really enough joy in the world right now in terms of the way contemporary life is represented within the meta-confines of social media, right? We wake up confronted with CNN, BBC, Guardian, HuffPost stories of global misery and official corruption and hegemonic neo-fascism and the death of democracy on our phones and we’re all scrolling through it, drooling into our bed sheets, not even out of bed yet, and it’s like, “Okay, just hold on a sec, I could use a little joy right now.” [Laughs]. And I think that, as long as the world keeps heading in that direction, that’s an avenue more and more musicians will likely want to pursue. Put it this way: I haven’t listened to Cabaret Voltaire for about a year but I’ve listened to Sturgill Simpson twice today.

AD: The term “Cosmic American Music” has come up a lot in regards to the record. How does that term sit with you in general? Does this music “sound” like a kind of version of America you might imagine from the UK?

Nick Mitchell Maiato: Tricky question to engage with if I don’t just wholesale reject that term, because America is such a patriotic country (often mindlessly, as its president and his supporters demonstrate daily) and it’d lay me open to accusations of inauthenticity from certain people whose patriotism may overshadow their consideration of what I actually say to accept it as a plausible definition. But let me give it a shot…

Rock music is universal. I’m not the first British guy to play music influenced by American rock music that was, in turn, influenced by “British Invasion” music that was, itself, influenced by American folk music that was, ultimately, influenced by European and Scandinavian and African folk musics. All non-“classical” music is “low music” as a musicologist would define it. Music of and for the people, wherever on the planet they may be. And there is arguably no such thing as geographical or cultural authenticity once that music has been recorded and disseminated globally. It is, by its very means of dissemination, of and for the world. Only if it is performed/played back exclusively within a defined geographical locale can we say that it truly has cultural or geographical inauthenticity when performed elsewhere or by a defined “other.” Like, when MV&EE play, “ragas,” do we have the right to question their authenticity? Hasn’t the global dissemination of Indian ragas via recorded media given them to the world as a cultural product? I would argue that MV&EE are no less authentic than Ali Akbar Khan when they play ragas but certain western people might like to consider that they are because they yet cling to their ideas of cultural formalism (ethnicity, performative methods, etc.) as signifiers of quality. It’s the allure of the “other,” ‘ya know?

However, the rock generations, more than any that came before, blew those ideas of rigid, formal, geographical authenticity out the water. They said, “fuck exoticism and patriotism, too.” Who cares that Mick Jagger sounds like a caricature of an American southerner from a British TV comedy show when he sings, “Girl With Far Away Eyes?” It’s fucking magic. Ditto the Remains and the Bachs and all those American garage bands who sang so triumphantly in fake British accents. I think One Eleven Heavy’s music is part of a rock tradition that long ago did away with borders and, yet, I still have a fondness for the term, “Cosmic American Music,” purely because it was Gram Parsons who coined it. I don’t think there’s any other term that feels more appropriate. Country rock was always a media term that didn’t allow any stylistic wiggle room. Classic rock is something entirely different. And then there’s fucking Americana, which makes a safe little circus sideshow of the entire thing and strips it of its power to effect socio-cultural change by enforcing a reflexivity onto it. Americana is to rock what “Porgy & Bess” was to blues: a safe representation created for an audience who doesn’t listen beyond the archetypes.

The America in Cosmic American Music, to me, at least, is not about the 50 states nor any sense of American identity. It just happens to be a rock style that first really gelled in America at a time when it was exciting to incorporate and accept all those external influences and coalesce them into a warm version of psychedelic music, like when Flying Burrito Brothers sang, “Wild Horses,” a song written by two middle class, British kids. words/j woodbury