Interview with Slim Cessna of Slim Cessna’s Auto Club
Slim Cessna’s Auto Club from left to right: Todd “The Peeler” Moore (standing), Dwight Pentecost (standing), Rebecca Vera, Slim Cessna, Munly Munly, Ian O’Dougherty
Interview by Harry Kaplan
I had the great fortune of sitting down with Slim Cessna, who is one of the front men for Slim Cessna’s Auto Club (SCAC). They have been together for going on 25 years now. The Commandments According To SCAC is their 10th studio album. One thing they pride themselves on is that none of their studio albums sound like the others. Also, they pride themselves on their live performances. After seeing them for the first time, I can see why. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was part concert, part performance art, and part Broadway musical. I have never seen a person use a violin bow on a pedal steel or see someone get feedback out of a banjo. I saw both for the first time that night. It was an enlightening experience seeing SCAC live. It was also enlightening speaking to the man the band is named after, Slim Cessna.
SC = Slim Cessna, TW = Twangri-La
TL: Congratulations on your latest album, The Commandments According To Slim Cessna’s Auto Club (SCAC). Who came up with the vision for the album?
SC: That was Munly’s (Munly Munly’s) idea. He is the other front guy. He wrote all the songs and he had this idea in mind and we all just rolled with it. One thing we have learned to do is rely on our strengths. Munly is such an amazing song writer and different, it has set us apart from anything else. It works great for us.
TL: I have heard your music described as gospel country or gothic country. How do you categorize your music?
SC: I guess those things would apply if you have to have genres to describe it. We try not to think of things in those terms. I know it is impossible to completely not think of things that way. Even I say that gospel music is my favorite music in the world. But, what we try to do is let the songs speak for themselves. What we are presented with. Munly brings a song, we allow it to breathe and become its own independent personality without worrying about what genre it fits in. We never say, let’s make it more country or whatever. The foundation of our music would be American folk music, that’s the root of it. And anything goes from there. We can do whatever we want so we are not grounded into being anything specifically.
TL: That’s great! Complete musical and artistic freedom.
SC: It is great (chuckles)! But we are really just a rock band. And proud of that. I worship rock and roll.
TL: So you are Denver based, but you were living in Pittsburgh for a while.
SC: I was. But I have been back in Denver for 2 and a half years now. It’s been great. I lived away from the band for 15 years, but we still managed to do things and accomplish things using the internet and modern communication. But it’s been so much better business wise for me to be home. It was time to go home. I mean we were able to create a record label and we can actually get together as a band a whole lot easier when we are all living in the same locale. Even if we don’t do that, it is just easier since I am right down the street.
TL: So your daughter went to school in Pittsburgh, correct?
SC: Yeah she went to Carnegie Melon. She is out now and living in Pittsburgh. And my son lives here in Baltimore. His band is opening for us tonight. His band is called Snakes and they are fantastic. He is better than all of us (laughter).
TL: That’s good because I have never heard of them. I am always interested in good local talent. Do they play country music?
SC: Yes, their version of country. I raised him properly (laughter). He loves all of it.
TL: So how many shows do you guys play a year now?
SC: It varies. Gosh, we’ve been playing almost constantly since September and I never even counted the shows. I would say 80 to 90 shows a year.
TL: I read an estimate of 75. So in that ballpark. That’s a good number of shows. Enough so you are on the road, but still enough time to be at home. So you are a touring band?
SC: It’s probably the most important thing we do. We treat our shows differently than our records. It’s a different experience live. The songs are given even more freedom in a live setting. And we are known as a great live band. That is something we take a lot of pride in and we worked really hard to be. We also have experience to be that. We’ve been doing this forever, and have gotten really good at it, I think (laughter). And that is my greatest joy. All I ever wanted to do was put on a show since I was a kid.
TL: What do you think the key or keys to having a good live band? Do you think chemistry and trust play a role in that?
SC: Finding people you can live in a van with for weeks (laughter). And people whose greatest joy is to do this. Put on a live show in front of an audience.
TL: How do you meet the challenges of being in a band and touring a lot and raising a family?
SC: It’s hard, man. And it was probably helpful in breaking up my marriage in the long run.
TL: Hey I am so sorry, I didn’t know.
SC: No, it’s totally fine. The kids were already out of the house when that happened. Honestly, for years we didn’t play as many shows, but it was still hard. It was still not the best life for my ex-wife. Understandably so because I have been pretty stubborn in having to do this. At the same, when I was home, I made sure I was home. I went to PTA meetings, I drove the kids to school.
TL: I think it’s tough but there is a certain breed of people that have to be on the road. Like Hank Williams, he was a rambling man and rambling men have to travel.
SC: I just have to do this (points to the band). We all do.
TL: So if you can put it into words, how would you describe a live Slim Cessna Auto Club Show?
SC: For us, it is a mix between spontaneity and routine. Routine only because we know we have to have some kind of fluidness and cohesiveness to get through. At the same time, allowing ourselves to do whatever the hell we want. I think our show is different and unique from anything else I have ever seen. Every show is different, even if we play the same set list every night. Munly and I have actually turned things that we did spontaneously into routine and that can change from one tour to the next. It is really fun to come up with different things and ideas during a performance. We like to explode.
TL: It looks like you cut your teeth in the punk rock era of the 80s. Do you still carry that DIY punk attitude with you?
SC: Absolutely. Everyone always ends up being drawn to the music as they were maturing into teenagers. At least everyone I know. I liked Gun Club and it’s just a huge part of who I am. The music I loved then I still love. Also, the music I grew up with before that still influences me. Old country music. My father liked Johnny Cash. I was raised in the church and gospel music is a huge part of my life and part of what has shaped me into who I am. I am not even talking about religion, purely the music.
TL: So you mentioned Johnny Cash. Anyone else?
SC: Oh wow. I love so much, but The Carter Family, Dead Kennedys, and Leadbelly. I am a Gun Club fanatic and probably always will be.
TL: You mentioned the Dead Kennedys. You were on Jello’s (Biafra) label for a while, Alternative Tentacles.
SC: Yeah, that was great.
TL: Even the Dead Kennedys back then were doing some country songs like Viva Las Vegas, Rawhide, and Take This Job And Shove It.
SC: They were one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all times. Actually, me and the people I hung around with didn’t refer to ourselves as punks, we just liked what everyone called weird music (laughter). I wasn’t a punk rocker, I just liked music that was different and had a lot of energy. Like Mike Watt, I am missing Mike Watt right now. I think he is playing in Denver tonight. He is my hero. People like that. I still get star struck. Like Kid Congo Powers And The Pink Monkey Birds, They are opening for us in Denver on New Year’s Eve. That is one of the advantages of sharing the same booking agent. It was an easy question to ask, but we never thought he would say yes (chuckles). And he said yes! Pretty awesome! We have played a few times with him and I get all tongue tied and stumble around.
TL: That’s what I like about alt-country or even punk, the artists are accessible. They are not 10,000 miles away. They are regular people who happen to be incredible musicians. They are doing what they love. Certainly most of the people aren’t doing it to get rich.
SC: (laughter) No! We aren’t doing it to seek any kind of comfort. That’s for sure (more laughter). It would be nice though.
SC: Yes Dwight shot it and put it together. So it was Dwight, Munly, and I.
TL: It’s kind of scary.
SC: Good! (laughter). We just like how it turned out. We literally spent about 45 minutes on it. That’s how videos are supposed to be. To hell with a budget, just use an IPhone and make a video. We used a Mac and did some editing, but it reminds me of how videos were made in the early 80s. Like the Residents.
TL: Do you do any songwriting as well or it mainly Munly?
SC: It’s mainly Munly, I do write one every once in a while. I wrote a song for our prior album. I can do it and it is something that I enjoy and will always do it. But it takes me a lot more time. George and I, my son who is in Snakes tonight, have been working on something together. When he was in high school in Pittsburgh, we had a band together. I still do stuff, I still write. It just isn’t one of my strongest points, honestly. I am a performer. I consider myself a performer. Munly is family to me so I will sing his songs any day.
TL: When Munly comes to the group with the songs, is there a process? Or, do you play the songs as is?
SC: Generally, we try to stick to the same map that he brings in. There is a lot of freedom for everybody within that map. As long as all of the words are there, he is happy with whatever we do.
TL: That’s great, no ego.
SC: No, there’s not really any ego in the band at all.
TL: That’ probably why you have been together for so long.
SC: That is why. Dwight, Munly, and I have been together almost 18 years. Doing this together. We really work great together. It’s family.
TL: You mentioned a little bit about other projects you have. So what are the future plans for Slim Cessna’s Auto Club?
SC: Honestly, just to keep moving. It’s hard for us to make long range plans. We spend a lot of time planning what the next tour will be. So we are already planning our next tour to Europe in May. We definitely want to make another album. Sooner than four years, which is the time span between the last two albums. And that is what we normally do (laughter). At the same time, maybe it will be four years. We want it to be perfect and we don’t want it to be forced. And we don’t want to do something because we are supposed to do it. So I think every record we have made is an accomplishment in that. Every one of them is important and documents the place we are in at that moment. Each one is different than the others. We try new things on each album. Sometimes it just takes a while. Like this record, it just came out and we are just playing shows now. Hoping more people come to the shows than the last time. That’s our only goal right now.
TL: Truthfully, as I get older four years doesn’t seem like that long of a time any more.
SC: I know.
TL: So where can people buy your stuff?
SC: We are everywhere: Amazon, Itunes….You can also buy it directly from us on our website. We sell vinyl as well you can also download mp3s from our store.
Thanks Slim and the rest of the band for a great interview and a truly memorable performance.