Dougie Poole :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Dougie Poole’s got a clear-eyed view of our modern moment and a country songwriter’s ability to sum it up in a perfect line. The songs on his 2020 album The Freelancer’s Blues concerned themselves with the ennui and indignity of urban 21st century work, life, and work-life – dead-end gig economy jobs, cross-country moves from one coast to another, and the yearning for a “Natural Touch” while cycling through futile first dates. Poole’s new album The Rainbow Wheel Of Death, out February 24th on Wharf Cat Records, finds him doomscrolling even further, and just as before, he finds “troubles stacked like dishes / in a crooked pile.” 

The title track references both the familiar spinning wheel of a frozen Mac and the much-larger wheel of death that we all inhabit. Songs about messages from an ex lost in the digital depths of server farms (“Must Be In Here Somewhere”) and the big tech “eye in the sky” detecting a relationship’s demise before it happens (“Worried Man Blues 2”) would be novelties with the shelf life of a trending TikTok dance in the hands of a lesser songwriter, but Poole never stares up from the screen long enough to give us a knowing wink.

The wry, weary fatalism will sound familiar to anyone who has spent much time listening to Merle Haggard, and the band assembled for The Rainbow Wheel Of Death wouldn’t have sounded out of place backing Merle, either. The songs work because they remain grounded in the themes that populated country music long before we all started spending most of our waking hours online – “work and love and loss and death and those things,” as Poole put it when we talked recently. | w furgeson

Aquarium Drunkard:  I was looking back through the liner notes to The Freelancer’s Blues and it was recorded over what, like three years?  Did you start working on these songs immediately after that one?

Dougie Poole: So, The Freelancer’s Blues came out at the beginning of the pandemic. And basically when the pandemic started, I just took a full time job and did that for a year and a half, I don’t even know, the time kind of disappears. I would take like little breaks from the job to try to write and every once in a while I got into nice little rhythms of waking up every morning and writing for a little bit, but the majority of it I did about a year ago, in the winter of 2021. I took some time off from work. Over a couple of months I just wrote every day and tried to knock it all out. And then we went and recorded it. I probably had like six or seven songs done. And then before we went to record I pulled a couple of songs out of the old demo pile and I came in with a couple of half-baked ones that turned into songs when the band got together. But it was it was much less involved. With the last album, I was really obsessive, I was micromanaging, writing and rewriting every line. I wrote basically all the parts from the bass to the drum beats and everything because I was doing so much of that work on the computer. But with this one I basically just wrote the songs on guitar and then kind of handed them over to the band and so I think you get that feel of a band and musicians playing more on this one than on the last one.

AD: Absolutely. When I was listening to this one I was impressed by how tight the band sounded. How did you end up with this with this group of folks?

Dougie Poole: Well, I guess the one person who’s the same across both of them is Mike Etten and he plays guitar with me. He’s just really easy to work with. Great player, has a really soft touch. But then I decided I wanted to work with new engineers and I had the inkling that I didn’t really want to go into a studio for it. So I met Katie [Von Schleicher]and Nate [Mendelsohn]and recorded a Christmas song with them before we got into the studio. But the chemistry felt great, it was really great working with them. Katie’s a singer so I felt really comfortable singing with her. They both had a lot of fun ideas and they were both really open to the idea of not doing it in the studio. We basically split the recording time up. Some at Katie’s childhood home in Maryland, which is where we did a bunch of the live tracking with the band. We brought a bunch of gear down there with all the players, most of whom are people I met through her, like Shawn Mullins and Brian Bettencourt. Then did some overdubs at their house which is like two blocks from where I was living and then did a bunch of overdubs at my house too. So I met a lot of those players through them, with the exception of Jack McLaughlin, who played steel, he was in my live band before he came in and recorded any overdubs. Dan Iead who played a bit of steel on the on The Freelancer’s Blues, came in and did some steel on this one too. But the rhythm section and the main core of the band is new folks.

AD: Do you feel more comfortable in a studio, or in this case like a home recording type setting, or do you prefer touring?

Dougie Poole: I really like performing and I like being out on the road. And the cool thing about doing what we did where we all went to this house together for like a week, is that it sort of captures one of the things that I really like about touring without some of the things that I really don’t like about touring. Everybody’s together for a prolonged period of time, you’re eating your meals together, you’re staying together, you’re doing your downtime together, you’re playing a lot of music together, so everybody gets really keyed into the vibe and can get into how other everybody else plays. So that’s the best part about touring. It’s so good for the music. You know, the long car rides and the sleeping like five to a hotel room, that I can do without. But I do really like how touring makes the makes the music locked in.

And so that’s why it was nice because even when you’re when you’re commuting, it’s different. If we had done it in New York at a studio, you know, everyone goes home at the end of the day to their life. But if you if you take everybody out and put them in the suburbs of Baltimore, you take them out of their daily routines. It felt really special.

AD: Do you find that that it’s hard for you to do much writing when you’re just in your everyday 9-5? Did you find it necessary to get that block of time where you could fully dive in creatively?

Dougie Poole: Yeah, I keep a notebook and stuff. I get little nuggets. The work I do, I don’t want to dignify it by calling it like really creative work, but you know, I’m a coder and it requires like a certain kind of creativity and by the end of the day I’m usually pretty tapped out. I have trouble dipping in and out of a mindset, it kinda takes me like a few days to get to get into the groove. It’s like the wavelengths are longer.

AD: That makes sense.

Dougie Poole: I certainly envy people who appear to be able to gracefully slip in and out of their creative practice. I can’t do that quite as much.

AD: The thing that struck me with The Freelancer’s Blues and continued on this album is your ability to write very current songs that don’t feel dated. They aren’t gonna sound like, oh man, that was definitely written in 2020 or whenever it is. Do you find yourself drawing on particular inspirations when you’re writing and seeking out those sounds? Just an example, I was listening to “Beth David Cemetery,” and thematically, it’s like an old country spiritual. Did you sit down and say, okay, I’m gonna write an old-time country gospel song?

Dougie Poole: No, not that deliberate. I think I just try to make them personal, you know, I think that’s my main focus. And I like country music. There’s not a ton of my experience about traditional country themes. Well, I mean, I would dial that back and say I think a lot of what people think about as traditional country themes. Like the real actual themes in country music are not so much, like horses and trains or, you know, whatever, it’s like that’s sort of what the stereotype is. But really what country songs are about, work and love and loss and death and those things – I mean, I guess that’s sort of what everything is about.

AD: I think people perceive country music, like you said, to be about country things but throughout the history of country music, a lot of it is people looking back on country ways of living or simpler ways of living with the nostalgia of somebody who’s not actually living that existence anymore.

Dougie Poole: Totally.

AD: And I think the one thing that struck me about this record is that this is sort of the 21st century version of that, where you are living a life that’s very social media/computer/phone-oriented. And I think in a way, perhaps pining for the late 20th century comforts of, you know, just standing right in front of somebody and talking to them versus trying to have this whole relationship happen via social media. So to me this is very much country music, this is somebody looking at their experience and perhaps being nostalgic, whether deservedly or undeservedly, for earlier times when things seemed a little more simple.

Dougie Poole: I know what you’re saying. I feel generally pretty accepting of [social media], like I don’t personally feel like I have a very toxic…like, people get really stressed out about their relationship with social media. I feel pretty comfortable with social media. I think it’s kind of a nice way to communicate with people. I’m always happy to see what people are doing, happy to chat with people online who I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to chat with. Happy to just have a diary where I can vomit little creative thoughts that I would never do anything else with, you know? But I know what you mean. I feel like I didn’t have to think about it this time around. I feel like with The Freelancer’s Blues I got all heady with concepts and thinking about how do I make this work. I did so much thinking about that stuff that now it’s just kinda automatic. Sort of what brought me to country music in the first place and I think what brings a lot of people to it is just trying to find a way to get at the root of what you want to say and what the music in your bones is. Just trying to get out of my own way as much as possible.

AD: I noticed on your Instagram that you moved to Maine. I have friends who’ve moved out of state or moved to less-urban environments since COVID and it seems like sometimes they end up being on social media more because they’re trying harder to keep up with friends. How’s your adjustment been to your non-Brooklyn life?

Dougie Poole: It’s been pretty good. I work remote. I kind of thrive in solitude a little bit. I think it would feel different if I didn’t have regular excuses to travel. I’ve been there like five or six months and usually about once a month I’m back in New York. I have reasons to go to bigger cities and see people so when I’m back I can settle into the solitude pretty well. I like it a lot. I like being around nature. I find it easier to take good care of myself there. Like I’ve gotten obsessed with swimming. And I like cooking my own meals. In New York there’s so much good food everywhere that it’s hard to want to cook.

AD: Are you still in New York? I noticed that you were you were doing some shows at Union Pool last week?

Dougie Poole: Yeah I did a couple of nights at Union Pool, it was great to play with my band. I’m here right now. But it’s not that far – I’m like five, five and a half hours away. I’ve got family down in Connecticut and New York. So I’m back and forth a bit. But I’m going back tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to it. Just gonna swim, fill up the bird feeders, get back in my cycle a little bit.

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