A little bit country, a little bit punk rock, Rocky Votolato's roots are based in rural Texas and in his early band, Waxwing (which also included his brother Cody Votolato, now of Blood Brothers and Rudy Gajadhar of Gastby's American Dream). Performing solo since 1999, Rocky has honed his alt-country storytelling abilities, made apparent on his latest album, Makers, a thoughtful, sorrowful release filled with stories of love, loss, and drinks. His upcoming full-length, The Brag and Cuss, is set for a June release this year on Barsuk. Currently headlining a tour, Rocky sat down with me before his San Diego show to discuss among other things: influences, storytelling, and ditch digging.
What sorts of things did you listen to when you were growing up?
I listened to all kinds of stuff that I was exposed in the rural South. There wasn't a lot of culture really, a lot of country music honestly. But, you know a lot of outlaw country, a lot of what my dad listened to. Steve Earle, Johnny Cash, Leonard Skynard, Willy Nelson, early Bob Dylan stuff -- all the big singer-songwriter types that most kids were exposed to. But there wasn't a lot of independent music until later.
Often people say that there is this one album that they remember... do you have something like that?
I think when I was really young, if I had to pick one...
There is not one particular one that stands out as, like, that was the record. I didn't think about music a lot until I was older. It just kind of was like seeping in, influences from my parents, then when I moved up to Seattle, when I was in high school, I was about 15 years old, got really involved in the punk rock scene. That was the teenage years; I was into bands like Jawbreaker, Drive Like Jehu, who are from here, San Diego. They were a huge influence for me at that point in my life. Fugazi was another one, pretty much all of their records were influential; their first 4 or 5 records were really important to me, and I think that was when I got sort of the ethics of how I work and how I run things musically. That pretty much came from watching Fugazi, sticking to independent music and doing things more DIY oriented. Kind of handling everything myself, booking my own tours and doing all that stuff, and so I got involved by going to punk shows. I was pretty involved in that whole world for a good decade, being in different punk bands, touring, going to punk shows. As I got a little older, I got interested in the styles of music that I grew up around. A lot of the county stuff.
That was one of my questions, the progression from Waxwing to the solo stuff...
Yeah, I think a lot of people do that these days, teenage kids want to rebel against what their parents listened to. I think punk rock is like a really good learning ground for people, in terms of just having a band; so now I am just making music that is more interesting to me, and it's strange it seems to be more the early influences that are coming out.
What sort of things do you listen to now?
I listen to a lot of music from the early '60s, '70s -- a lot of old country and newer artist that I am excited about. I think Neko Case is really good. I like a lot of bands that my friends are in. I think Lucero is great. Langhorne Slim -- I just heard. Really cool. William Elliot Whitmore is badass. I just did an eight-week tour with him. He was amazing; he plays banjo and sings, and that tour was incredible. I really had a good time traveling with Lucero. My brothers' bands, I really enjoy listening to them: Blood Brothers and my older brother has a band in Seattle called Slender Means that are really good.
Did you have a musical background growing up, did you guys all learn instruments?
Not at all. We didn't get involved in music until I was living in Houston for a couple years, right before I moved up to Seattle. And that was when I got my first guitar. I think I was 13 years old; I got a guitar in a pawn shop for $200. It was an old beat up acoustic guitar, and so I learned to play on that. My older brother got into music around then too and he started playing guitar.
Makers start to finish is super strong; it's emotional and it's a storytelling album. How much of your own truths go into your storytelling?
I think a lot; for me, it's really trying to find a balance of being authentic and then also an element of fiction. If you're not in the song, it's going to be really hard for you to convey what you are feeling or what you are trying to communicate. I think it's the only way to, really. Most good writers write about what they know. I have been writing songs for twenty years. I have been interested in trying to find a way to get away from just a straight confessional, which I think a lot of people do nowadays. I'm just tired of it. I think it's interesting to try to look at it more from an artistic perspective, including fiction and something real and not coming off -- cheesy or like heart-on-your-sleeve.
What was the last book you read?
I am not done with the book I am reading, but it's really exciting. It's a book by Hermann Hesse, and it's called Narcissus and Goldmund. It's philosophical-existentialism.
What are your worst habits?
Mine, in terms of music or life?
I don't have any.
Alright, what sorts of habits do you dislike in other people?
Selfishness and egotism. When people are mostly egotistical or have selfish behavior, it really bugs the shit out of me.
If you weren't a musician, what do you think you would be doing?
I think... I don't know. At this point in my life, it's the only thing that I really enjoy doing. I have had tons of jobs -- you name it, I've done it. I was most excited about landscaping; I worked on a wetlands restoration project for a long time. That was really fun, being able to be outside all day, working with my hands.
That's pretty rewarding.
Yeah, it was great, the pay was shit...
That's the problem with a lot of stuff.
Now I am making more money singing, so I will do that. It beats digging ditches. I've done that too. That fucking sucked.
If you were stuck in an elevator or the trunk of a car, and there was one song that was playing over and over, what song would it be that you could somewhat tolerate in that horrible situation?
Let's see, probably “You Never Even Call Me By My Name” by David Allen Coe. I love that song.
Do you have songs of yours that are your personal favorites?
I think off of Makers my favorites were “White Daisy Passing,” “Portland is Leaving,” “Tinfoil Hats,” and “Makers.”
If you were making a mix tape for the road, what song would you put first and what song would you put last?
Right now I would probably put “Old 55” by Tom Waits first and then “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band last.