Published Jul 31, 2012The news that the Maritimes' best outlaw country band were making their third record a concept album initially caused a little apprehension. Would these no-nonsense shit-kickers somehow succumb to pretension and overblown ambition? Happily, no. There's a unifying theme to all these songs and together they tell the tale of a restless man seeking to find himself out on the road. The record is laid out in chapters, tied together by the authoritative narration of kindred spirit Tim Hus and the evocative artwork. The odd lapse into cliché aside, frontman Alex Madsen acquits himself well in expressing hard-won wisdom earned from his many miles logged on the road. This is a solid effort from a band that merit greater recognition.
How did the idea of a concept album emerge?
Singer/guitarist/lyricist Alex Madsen: We were going to release a series of EPs. Purely by accident, when we were deciding which songs go together, we found a concept in there. Rather than avoid that, we embraced it. We fleshed it out, Turtle [Denis Arsenault] wrote a narrative for it and between us the embryo of Four Chapters began to emerge. We started to see some ideas graphically ― symbols and imagery ― and it became something where we went, "we can actually do this." The minute we knew we could, we just went for it, full on. We knew it would be way too much fun and way too satisfying to not do it. I think that kept it honest and not pretentious, because we just really wanted to do something fun in the studio.
Congratulations on the visual look of the album.
You're the first person to remark on that. That is something I'm personally very proud of. I had always wanted to make a record like that, visually. I always loved those great, sprawling album jackets from the '70s, and I never saw that in the CD form. I thought, "if we are going to do this album ourselves, I'd really like to be able to do that." To me, it is a throwback to being a young guy listening to Led Zeppelin 4 or Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson, and sitting there looking at the album the whole time. That was an awesome experience and I think people are missing that now.
Hoping to release a vinyl version?
That's the goal. Right now to produce a vinyl version of what we have is really expensive, but I've thought about it just as something to have. Even if we just sell enough to cover the cost, I'd love to do it.
Was Red Headed Stranger an inspiration for this album?
Definitely. This was an accidental concept album. Here's the background: when we decided to make a third record, I had a catalogue of songs to choose from. What happens in the Divorcees is that we go through quite a few songs and it's a refining process that can take between one or two years to determine which ones we want to use. As we were refining these songs, our bassist, Denis Arsenault, saw a concept emerge and he basically said, "I think we can do something really cool here." We were originally going to release the album in mini-parts ― in chunks. They turned into four chapters, and that became a concept. Once it got into that vicinity, I jumped all over it. My favourite albums are concept albums, like Honky Tonk Heroes, the tribute to Billy Joe Shaver that Waylon did. Or Red Headed Stranger, my all-time favourite. Like that one, Four Chapters is a concept record, but there is still some room to have your own interpretation. It was a very organic process, for us.
I was going to ask if you had the concept first, then wrote the songs to fit or had the songs and then saw a concept?
In our case, we never once questioned it once we started leaning towards the idea of a concept album. Once we were looking at the material and decided to release it as one album, we still liked the chapter idea. We thought we could really have fun with this. I remember having a conversation with Turtle about it, saying, "can you imagine me and you, in the studio, making this happen?" The minute we went there, we just had to do it. The predominant thing with us is that we have always made albums we'd enjoy listening to at the end. That's completely selfish!
No second-guessing the reaction of critics or fans?
Well, it's funny, but a cornerstone of outlaw country is, believe it or not, the concept album. Marty Robbins did a lot about gunslingers and there are a lot of those kinds of records. And if they're not a concept album, in terms of telling a story, often these artists will have special themes to an album: miners, truckers, gunslingers or the road to redemption. So, for us, while we were not expecting to do one, we didn't question it too much, as we saw it in all these albums we love. We thought, "If they can do it, so can we." In all honesty, we were pretty thrilled with the way it unfolded in front of us through a series of events. The fact we were in our studio and producing it ourselves meant we could do this. There was no-one looking over our shoulder saying this wasn't a good idea. We could be truly outlaw about this and just do what we want. We have had great experiences with producers in the past, but this time there was no safety net. Turtle did the lion's share, so we credited him as the producer on this record. It was a very intensive process.
Did you use your own studio?
It's a friend of ours. We did all the demoing for our other records there. Like a lot of New Brunswick bands, we were told, "you have to go to this big studio in Halifax or wherever." We had always loved our demos and thought our most honest and truest sound was done in New Brunswick. The only thing that is not New Brunswick on this record is the narration by Tim Hus. He is an honorary New Brunswicker, being Stompin Tom's protégé. This was a completely DIY album at Pumpk'n Patch Studios by Danny Bourgeois. He had engineered all our demos and we really wanted to work with him on a full record.
Do you handle all the lyrics?
Yes, I'm the primary lyricist. I bring the song in on acoustic guitar when it's in a very basic form ― no complicated rhythm lines, I don't map it all out. We flesh it out, add more melodies, harmonies, and take it from there.
Did you road test the songs before recording them?
Sometimes we will, sometimes we won't. Some are born in the studio and some don't match dynamically. With us, there are songs we play live and some that are just on the album. It can depend on where we're playing. If it's a rowdy roadhouse, we tend to stay full-tilt, but if it's a folk festival, we can play some songs that may be a bit more subtle or textured.
With this being a concept album, did you place a greater emphasis on the lyrics?
Lyrically, I'm really happy with this record. It's a progression from the first album. I've always tried to be lyrically conscious with everything the Divorcees have done, even if it's a of hookier, traditional country song. I've always tried not to depend on clichés, but to put a twist on everything I can. On the second record, I got further into Americana and Texas territory, and on this third album, I was able to go further, digging into darker imagery, like on "The Crows," and some dystopian imagery. Outlaw country is awash in great poetry ― great writing that can easily be overlooked. If you look at true outlaw, you'll find some of the best writing you'll read.
Read a review of Four Chapters here.