This is another “One Song” interview, in which I talk to a songwriter about just one song, of his or her choice, in depth. In this installment I talk about the song “Sodom and Gomorrah,” both with David Childers, the songwriter, and Neal MF Harper, who arranged and produced it.
Serpents of Reformation, the new album by renowned North Carolina songwriter David Childers, is a different kind of record. It explores the concepts of faith, sin and redemption, but that’s not the different part; David’s written about this journey before. The new ground covered is the sound of the music. It’s not so much an evolution of his previous work, but a quantum leap, setting the songs, half of which are originals and the other half reimagined traditional tunes, against a backdrop of electronic rhythms, industrial clamor and sampled percussion and environmental sounds. Producers Neal MF Harper and Robert Childers (David’s son and the drummer on the album) interpret the songs through the lens of their own creativity and studio skills and the result of this meeting of musical minds is a record that feels more than just successful. It feels epic.
David doesn’t leave his country, folk and blues roots behind. It’s the juxtaposition and melding of the acoustic sound we’ve grown to expect with the atmospheric textures that make the record so arresting and, at times, disturbing.
No song evokes more uneasiness than Sodom and Gomorrah, which tells the biblical story from the perspective of a person observing the destruction of the two cities from a distance.
There are two parts to the story of this song. David wrote it and has performed it live for some time. Then Neal MF Harper transformed it into an apocalyptic, droning dirge, creating a soundscape that brings out the terror of the lyrics.
David played a stripped-down version of the song for me before we talked about it. Make sure to also listen to the album version, at the end of this article.
I confess to him that I find the song, especially on the album, disturbing.
He doesn’t try to convince me otherwise. “Like everything else in the Old Testament. Very disturbing. Like turning on the news, it’s very disturbing. It’s still going on.”
When I ask what he means, he says, “Well, America’s obsessed with violence. The obsession people have with guns is just sick. I mean, I’ve got weapons here, I’ve got some things you could do some damage with, but, shit, I don’t want to sport ‘em around, and I’m not really proud that I’m that afraid. But I think people have this gun obsession because they’re afraid. I mean, we’ve got to be the most chicken-afraid bunch of people in the world. Always got to pack heat.
“There’s corruption in our country and the way we’re governed. We have a non-functioning Congress; it’s totally because of money. Because these congressmen for the most part are all bought, sold and owned by rich people. And they can’t do anything that will displease them. So that’s how I relate it. You know, we’re headed for a bad place. We’ve sinned as a nation in a lot of ways. And there’s a price we’re gonna pay for it.”
“So you were thinking of modern times when you wrote this song?” I ask.
“Everything that I do relates to now. What I’m concerned with is now. It’s always a point to connect what was to what is now. Cause that’s how it works. History is just an ongoing flow; it’s a river of events. We keep making the same mistakes. And we keep doing the same beautiful, soulful things. It’s such a mixed bag. I don’t say all these things because I hate humanity or because I hate America. I love people and I love my country. It’s just, this is the only country I can have a say in.”
The creation of this record was unusual because David gave creative control to the producers, Robert Childers and Neal MF Harper. He had an idea of what he wanted.
“I said, I want to make a record that’s not an Americana record. I want to break away from that cliché. I took as a role model R.L. Burnside to start with, who in his later days had some extremely interesting rhythm and effects going on in his songs.”
David’s role in the process was primarily that of a songwriter. He doesn’t even sing lead on all the songs. Other vocalists on the album include Jim Avett, Daniel Smith, Travis Philips, Robert Childers and Abe Reid. On “Sodom and Gomorrah” David doesn’t sing at all. The eerie voice is that of Andy the Doorbum.
David explains the decision to relinquish the role of lead singer. “We like to use other people. You’re making a sound. You’re making a piece of noise. And you use different instruments. To me, people’s voices are just like a different guitar or a different horn, you know? The way Miles Davis, for example, or any band leader, brings in different sounds. Why should voices not be a part of that too? I had done another song called ‘Altar of Greed’ with Overmountain Men, on the first of two albums we did, ‘Glorious Day.’ He (Andy the Doorbum) did ‘Altar of Greed.’”
Andy recorded some additional vocal tracks, falsetto and bass parts, which Neal blended in.
One of the many effects in the song is what sounds like a hammer clanging against metal. It happens on a strange part of the beat, which creates an unsettling feeling.
David says, “It’s interesting how you pointed out about the beat because it is staggered. Not staggered, but it’s uncertain. Like the speaker in that song. This guy is freaked out. He saw these places, he hears, like so many in the bible, what God’s thinking, and he imparts that to us. Yeah there’s no way it can be a happy thing. There’s nothing happy about it there.”
Neal describes the process of adding that sound. “I combed through my library of sampled instruments looking for something with an industrial/mechanical feel for the percussion and ‘clangs.’ I envisioned it as a kind of factory sound from a damned city dragging alongside the narrator.”
I also ask Neal about the effects around the lyrics “When we felt the thunder and felt the whole world shake.” First we hear thunder and then what sounds like a helicopter actually moving. When I listen with headphones I hear the helicopter moving from left to right.
“The intention of the track was to be stripped down and solemn,” Neal says, “so when working through the production of the track it called out to me for the subtle ‘theatrical’ sounds to help break it up and get the listener more invested in the story. I was torn if it was overboard at first in the overall theme of the album, but once reviewing with Andy and getting his thumbs up we locked in all that bizarre ad lib. I like that some people hear a helicopter and others jackhammers or tanks, all leaving the taste of ‘mechanical man’ we wanted to leave on the listeners palette.”
In the last chorus, most of the instrumentation drops out and the dominant sound along with the vocals is that of cicadas. I ask Neal about that.
“The cicadas will likely remain singing once mankind has starved itself with greed and war. All that mechanical rigidity fades away to the songs of nature once again, just as the track starts with a howling wind. To be specific, those are Matthews Proper cicadas captured and engineered by Charles Lybrand, who also played baritone (trumpet) on a few tracks. I was unsuccessful at directing the Tank Town cicadas around my house into sounding respectable enough to make the album.”
When I listen to this song I hear a sense of loneliness and dread from the speaker.
“Even when I just wrote it before Andy got it, that’s what I envisioned in my head,” David says. “Here’s this one city here and here’s another one, and he’s going down this road between them and it’s a desert or a real barren landscape by our standards. It’s not green. And then he’s somewhere…I guess in my mind I envision he’s in some little inn or camp somewhere with some nomads, and they hear all the rumbling going on. And they’re like ‘Damn. That’s some bad shit happening.’”
When this album was being recorded David’s role in the studio was limited. On most songs he just went in to record his vocal track and then Robert and Neal, along with the other musicians, would handle the rest.
“I’d go in there and do something and it would sound kind of mundane. ‘Is that what you want?’ ‘Yeah, we got it.’ And the next day there’d be this amazing stuff.”
I ask Neal if he remembers David’s reaction to the “Sodom and Gomorrah” track, on which David had no studio involvement.
“I knew Robert would love it, and that’s who was going to sell David on it, if he didn’t like it,” Neal says.
I ask David what he thought when he first heard it.
“I loved the whole thing,” he says. “If this is the last record I ever make, well, that’s a good one to go out on. I’m very proud of this record. It’s actually the favorite thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know if people are really going to get it but that’s never really mattered to me before. Cause I like what happened, I believe in it. So I’m actually pretty thrilled by it.”
This album was a true collaborative effort, and the collaboration went beyond the studio walls.
“I’m thrilled that Dolph Ramseur would get behind it and put it on his label and promote it. That there are people outside of our little group who believe in what we’re doing. Just as artists. You know, most record labels nowadays, I think the way it works is you’ve got to be selling a lot of records on your own, drawing huge crowds, and of course you know, we don’t do a lot of either. We’re pretty much just a fringe, niche thing.
“Dolph Ramseur has always believed in me as an artist first off. He stuck with me up to this point despite me probably being a pretty difficult person to deal with from time to time. Two guys like Neal and Robert put their backs into it and then along comes Dolph and puts his prestige and reputation and everything that he’s built up over the years into a record like this. Not many people have that kind of association where the label just wants you to make records because they love you as an artist. I don’t have to prove nothing to him. Except that I can still do it. I’m gonna keep trying to do it.”