KEXP Q&A: Lonesome Shack

photo by Trevor Crump

Ben Todd of Lonesome Shack is one of the slickest guitar players in the town. The man has been shedding his instrument for years now and the work continues to pay off. Recently Lonesome Shack released the album More Primitive on the record label that discovered The Black Keys. Not bad. KEXP caught up with Ben to talk about the band’s recent tour, how he learned guitar and what it was like living in, yes, a lonesome shack.

You have such precise movement to your hands when you’re playing guitar. I assume this took hours, years of practice. Can you innumerate some of the pivotal moments when you felt you were actually making progress? 

I started out playing bass guitar in the early 90s and I was pretty quickly able to learn and write songs. I practiced a lot and soon I was playing live shows with a band.

At some point I fell into a rut with the music I was playing and it wasn’t until I picked up 5 string banjo (around 2000) that I was inspired again. Banjo showed me a lot of rhythmic technique that I still use in my guitar playing. It was around 2002 that I was focusing almost all my practice time on guitar.

Within a couple years I felt like I was good enough to perform with guitar but I’ve definitely improved since then. I may not be technically better than I was ten years ago but I’m able to write more interesting songs and my playing is more effective.

Your band is called Lonesome Shack – named after the shack you built yourself in the Southwest and lived in for a number of years. Can you tell me what that was like from construction to departure?

After living in Albuquerque for a few years me and my girlfriend at the time wanted to try living in the country. I talked to my friend Steven Conrad who owns unoccupied land near the Gila Wilderness and he was happy to let us live there and keep an eye on the place. I bought a 16-foot travel trailer, gutted it and refinished the inside and pulled it down to his land. The trailer was too small so I built a shack off the side of and called it The Lonesome Shack, getting the name from a Memphis Minnie song. The first shack became infested with termites so I rebuilt it with a better design and proper lumber.

I lived there for four years and that’s where I developed my guitar style. It’s a quiet, beautiful place to dig into yourself and create your own reality. The first Lonesome Shack cassette was made in the shack in 2003. I spent most my days doing chores like hauling water, gardening, and chopping firewood and learning blues and gospel songs from old recordings. I also had a job making adobe bricks and another job doing river restoration on the San Francisco River.

After awhile it was too isolated for me. There were very few places to perform music and I never connected with many Catron County locals. I travelled around the southwest for a while and tried to make a living playing shows. That didn’t pan out money-wise so I went to Luthier School in Phoenix.  From there I got a job in Seattle fixing guitars in 2007.

You work at Trading Musician now as a luthier. How does this job inform your music, inform your community?

Trading has given me access to a lot of cool gear so it has been a tonal influence. I’ve met a lot of musicians through my work and feel a sense of community there and in the neighborhood with Cafe Racer next door. My job is not very social though since I repair mostly store owned instruments in the back shop.

Let’s talk about your latest album, More Primitive. What does the title mean to you? What sort of sound were you aiming for?

That title comes from the song “More Primitive”.  The song is about wanting to simplify life, abandon thought and form in exchange for instinct and physical work. I imagine myself twenty years ago angsty about this, but now and then that desire returns. The first line of the song, “All I want to do is hammer and swing”, is from the title of an art piece I made in ’99.

I didn’t have a sound planned out before recording the album. It was the first time we’d been recorded by someone other than ourselves so it was sweet to focus on playing and not worry about mics and playback. I think we just wanted to capture our live sound with more clarity than before. Johnny Goss recorded the album at his home studio Dandelion Gold in West Seattle. We did a couple takes of every song and chose the best. We did one overdub of slide guitar on “Die Alone”, everything else is live. We recorded and mixed the album in three days and Johnny did an awesome job getting all the sounds right.

There is one song on the record, “Trying to Forget”, that we recorded on site with a Zoom portable recorder at the Lonesome Shack near Alma, NM.

And you guys were recently on tour. Do you have a favorite story or happening from being on the road?

We’re back from tour now. We toured two and a half weeks down the west coast and southwest. Wad some fun nights camping along the way. One night we couldn’t find a place to stay in Colorado and we were thinking about sleeping in a field when a cop came by to see what we were up to. He directed us to the nearest Walmart where they have an RV-friendly parking lot. Kristian and Luke slept in the van and I slept on the grass underneath a big sign that said “Ranch Highlands”. I had sprinkler paranoia all night and woke up to barking prairie dogs.

Somewhere along the way Luke picked up a cane with Uncle Sam’s skull on the end of it. This became a mascot for the trip. We used Sam to warn highway texters to keep their eyes on the road. We gave Sam a raspy voice and he swore a lot like Chucky.

Lonesome Shack will embark on a tour this month, with select dates around the country, including a performance and the newly remodeled Sunset Tavern in Seattle on October 10th. Find out more on their Facebook page.

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