|This is the full transcript of an interview with Django Haskins conducted by Grant Britt for the Raleigh-Durham Spectator in March, 2002.
GRANT BRITT (SPECTATOR): Critics insist on comparing your music to Tom Petty and Elvis Costello. That leaves a lot of room to move around in. How do you react to those comparisons?
DH: I like the fact that it leaves room to move around in. I think the comparisons are fair, though not completely accurate. I've listened to my fair share of both of these guys, and in terms of being a songwriter with a band (as opposed to a three-musketeers all-for-one-one-for-all U2 type band) they serve as a reasonable model (plus Tom and I are both from Gainesville, FL). The fact is, though, it's more accurate to say that I share Tom Petty's and Elvis Costello's musical influences - Dylan, Beatles, Beach Boys, The Band, Neil Young, Randy Newman, Motown, etc. - so our understanding of pop songs grows out of the same tradition. There's a real tendency in rock and roll to want to pretend like you made it all up, that there has never been anything like you and your band before, but I see it more like a literary tradition: you read the Great Masters - Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Joyce, etc. and then you create your own thing from a broad understanding of what came before you. I'm not a traditionalist by any means, but I think it's important to acknowledge your roots - the worst music I hear out there today is the stuff that sounds like they don't own any records. If you don't really love listening to music, then why are you making it? The thing I really do love about Elvis C. is the way he refuses to limit himself to the "new wave/post-punk" label that he started out with. He obviously has a real appreciation for all kinds of music - old jazz, country, r&b/soul, and even classical. Sure, he loses some of his audience along the way, but those that are open enough to hang with him are grateful to him for being so brave. I have a side project called the Sleepwalkers where we do old country-gospel Louvin Brothers type stuff (which we write) and I write songs for my friends The Lascivious Biddies, an all-girl jazz combo in NYC, so I can relate to not wanting to be fenced in musically.
GB: Others have said you sound like a pop version of Whiskeytown. How accurate is that comparison?
DH: I know where it comes from: my friend Mike Daly from Whiskeytown co-produced a lot of my last record. But it's pretty off the mark in the sense that I had honestly never heard a Whiskeytown record until about two months ago. On the other hand, I've listened to my fair share of Gram Parsons, Dylan, Replacements, Big Star, The Band, and Bruce Springsteen, so Ryan and I probably share some influences.
GB: You rock pretty hard on a lot of your stuff, yet those same critics slap a "jangle pop" label on your music. Would you let your music be defined like that if you had your say?
DH: Ah, the genre game. One review said the "jangle pop" thing, and for lack of a more convenient label (or probably out of laziness), a lot of other critics jumped on the bandwagon. I don't really care, to be honest, because they're all as undescriptive as the rest. What the hell is "jangle pop"? It sounds like a Byrds cover band. It's probably because I play a tele on a lot of stuff and that triggers critics' "jangle" bone.
GB: Here's your chance to be a critic. How would you describe your music?
DH: As broadly as possible. I don't do one thing - if you see me with my band you'd call it rock. A solo acoustic show would be somewhere in between because I get to play more of my quieter stuff. I write songs, period. Whatever genre they happen to be in, well, that's what they are. I usually mention a few of my influences and let people go from there.
GB: Seems incomprehensible to me that any of the above comments could be applied to your music if any of those critics had taken to time to listen to "Dumbed Down." Great song, by the way. Did you have any particular artist in mind when you wrote it that you can talk about without fear of retribution?
DH: Thank you. "Dumbed Down" is probably where a lot of the Joe Jackson/Elvis Costello comparisons come from - it's got a real literate-punk vibe and a sneering kind of attitude that is comparable to their early stuff. It's a song about what's taken as normal in our culture and how people actually congratulate themselves on their lack of creativity. The chorus is (a very sarcastic) "Baby baby baby/Oh baby/baby baby/Oh yeah" and believe it or not, I've heard online reviews where people took it completely at face value! They criticized the chorus for being "cliched". I kid you not. If i ever needed proof for that song, there it is, folks.
GB: You grew up in a family of musicians. With a name like Django, you had to have had somebody's musical expectations laid on you. Who encouraged you, and how?
DH: My family has always been really supportive of me and my music. We grew up with rock and roll, jazz standards, folk music, and jazz around the house at all times, so it was a great environment for me, and one I'd like to replicate with my own kids someday, wherever they may be. Just kidding.
GB: How did you end up teaching English in Mainland China?
DH: Turned left at Alaska. No, I got really fascinated by Chinese language and literature at school, so after I graduated, I set off for China. It was a very intense experience living as a foreigner in China. The good part is that it makes NYC seem spacious, polite and clean.
GB: You said that playing to an audience who doesn't understand what you're talking about is a great learning experience for a songwriter, and boils down the experience to rhythm, melody and feel. What sort of material worked best with that audience? How were you able to determine what would work, or was it all just trial and error?
DH: Trial and error. To give you an idea, when I was living in China in 1995 the biggest hits for college kids were "Moon River" and "Yesterday Once More" by the Carpenters. It's a whole different world over there musically. Mostly, I think I figured out how to write memorable melodies and the importance of the sound of the words as much as the words themselves. I love to listen to music in different languages because it strips the words of their literal meaning but still gets the emotional impact across. That's the great thing about music, not to be too cliched, but it's so universal.
GB: What's your musical background-early bands, when did you start playing, etc?
DH: I started my first band when I was about thirteen, and it was called the Music Butchers. Nuff said. We played mostly 50's and 60's tunes, "My Girl" and "I Heard it Through the Grapevine."
GB: Those labelers have been at work again, this time trying to get a folk rock label to stick to you. But I don't see you as the type of individual to sit barefoot on the front porch and write touchy-feely rainbow/sunshine songs. How do you feel about the folkie label?
DH: Labels again. Honestly, I think anytime most people hear an acoustic guitar and vocal they automatically think "folk". The thing that bugs me about the folk label is that I personally dislike James Taylor's music, and if every copy of his albums were burned in a gigantic fire tomorrow, I'd be there with the hot dogs. That said, I think there's great music in every genre, and folk is no exception. Woody Guthrie was pretty badass, and I suppose you could even call Nick Drake "folk".
GB: Some of your music, like the song "Sooner" has a decidedly country edge to it. Did classic country ever fall across your path at any point?
DH: I love lots of country music - Cash, Willie Nelson, Louvin Brothers, Emmylou Harris, the old Lomax field recordings. Again, it's all about roots - without the Grand Old Opry, there'd be no Elvis Presley (much less the second Elvis). The great thing about old country music (not the Kmart shit most people think of now) is that it all boiled down to the song.
GB: Although you have two things that might hinder you from being labeled a punk- you can sing and play guitar, your stuff has a punk edge to it. Have you ever considered that market?
DH: I definitely have some punk leanings. My dream would be to be in the kind of position that Tom Waits is in - to do what I do without regard to people's labels, and have it be accepted by both pop and punk audiences (Waits' newest record was put out by the punk label Epitaph). It's about the attitude more than the sound itself. In my opinion, Johnny Cash is pretty damn punk.
GB: What's next? Projects, songs, album plans, tours?
DH: We're working on a new record now with Andy Hollander and Robert Smith, who recorded Keith Richards, Stevie Wonder, you name it. It's sounding really great - it's a more varied record than our last one, in terms of the type of songs we chose. You know, people always say that they love the White Album or Revolver but then they go into the studio and chicken out of making a truly diverse record (assuming that they have a bunch of different styles of tunes in the first place), so we're really trying to go ahead and make a record like that. The thing that holds it together is the songs, not some kind of genre-label. And that's what it's all about.